Friday 10 May 2013

Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein

I wish I could begin to understand the hysterical cries from people who, though not having seen a staging of an opera or indeed of anything else, consider it so offensive that they demand - in this case, successfully - that it be withdrawn. Like them, I am in no position to offer any sort of criticism of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein's production of Tannhäuser; I have not seen it and now it looks as though I never shall. What little information has come my way from reports is insufficent to enable any of us meaningfully to engage with the staging, though what I have heard concerning the director's Konzept strikes me as far from intrinsically absurd. I spend a silly amount of my time and energy fighting lazy, ignorant connections being posted between Wagner and National Socialism, but to inform a staging of one of his dramas with themes drawn from later - for that matter, contemporary or earlier - German history - does not seem to me questionable or even controversial.

Of course the Third Reich and the Holocaust are, rightly, sensitive topics. Yet, bizarrely, there often seems to be far greater controversy when they are interrogated than when - sickly, to my mind - they are treated as material for mere 'entertainment'. There was often particularly shrill criticism of a fascinating staging I saw at the Edinburgh Festival from the Cologne Opera of Strauss's Capriccio; I found it especially thought-provoking, but doubtless it enraged those only wished to see 'pretty' frocks, rather than to ask about the compromises Strauss and German culture engaged with, let alone to interrograte themselves. Again, I do not know into which category - interrogative, entertainment, or perhaps some other - Burkhard C Korminski's production fell, thoigh so far as I can discern from reports, there appears at least to be an element of the former. It may well have turned out to be needlessly 'controversial', unmusical, or all manner of other bad things; only those who have seen and thought about it are in any position to know, and they of course may have their minds clouded too. Nevertheless much of the public laps up with quasi-pornographic relish endless documentaries, films, popular histories about the Third Reich and Hitler in particular as if there were no tomorrow. Moreover, arrogantly uninformed productions - 'I could have approached The Damnation of Faust by reading a great deal about Berlioz but I avoided that' -such as Terry Gilliam's Damnation of Faust treat the Third Reich as little more than fodder for theatrical spectacle and are lauded for it. I thought Gilliam's production truly dreadful, indeed offensive, but it never occurred to me to agitate for the English National Opera to shut it down; nor, so far as I am aware, did it occur to anyone else to do so. Likewise, the exit of Elisabeth into a gas chamber in Sebastian Baumgartner's Bayreuth Tannhäuser struck me and many others as offensive, largely on account of its gratuity; it seemed quite unmotivated in what was in any case a highly arbitrary, indeed quite incoherent, production. People have every justification, every right, to discuss any staging, though it helps of course if one has actually seen it, but to seek to silence those with opposing standpoints?

So what was different on this occasion? That genuinely puzzles me. Part of the answer may lie, not in the circumstances of this production, but in an increasingly noisy, though, it would seem, for the most part numerically insignificant, faction amongst opera audiences and, still more, amongst people who - yes, I have to plead guilty here! - spend too much time talking about opera and music on the Internet. Their enemy is something they call either Regietheater or, still worse, 'Eurotrash'. (The latter seems to be originally an American term, though it is no longer confined to the other side of the Atlantic, and exhibits a curious, some might say imperialist. claim to 'ownership', or at least to 'protection', of an artistic phenomenon from another culture.) Lazy phrases such as 'the composer's intentions' - some peddlers seem even to be unaware that Wagner was highly unusual in writing his own poems, and that the librettist might actually deserve some consideration - or Werktreue are angrily chanted with all the self-reinforcing fervour of a self-selecting single-issue lobby, or even a quasi-religious sect. Drama goes for little, or nothing, in this world; instead, its heralds not only desire but demand a series of set and costume designs that monumentalise the worst taste of the 1950s. There were wonderful productions during the 1950s, so far as we can tell, just as there have been terrible productions, 'traditional' and 'radical', during the early twenty-first century. Yet the success of a production goes far beyond its designs; one can tell very little from a photograph or two, which is all most protestors have had to go on, and indeed one may be entirely misled by a decontextualised image.

I may be entirely wrong about this, and hope that I am, but it seems that the present debacle has more to do with an opportunistic attempt to berate a German theatre - German opera houses tend, for various reasons, to be more open to experiment than their British, let alone American, counterparts -through exploitation of the very historical phenomena about which the protestors claim to protest. It may not have been consciously designed as such, for fanatical fervour tends not to operate in that way; 'the cause', however incoherent, becomes internalised. One of the functions, indeed imperatives, of great art is to try to liberate us from such a Nietzschean 'herd mentality'. Yet uninformed insistence that 'unwholesome', 'degenerate', art must be eradicated, in order to 'protect' that which is 'good' and 'true': have we not heard such claims somewhere before?