Andras Schiff: What the hell’s wrong with modern opera houses?

Andras Schiff: What the hell’s wrong with modern opera houses?


norman lebrecht

December 28, 2014

The pianist has published a blistering attack on the dominance of directors in German theatre and opera houses, published by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Two  months in Berlin, he writes, is enough to make anyone give up going to the opera.

What is it with directors? he demands. ‘Why is it that most directors find it so hard to fade into the background and stand in the shadow of the work? Where did they acquire this addiction for self-expression, pomposity and disrespect? Why there no humilityor modesty? Why this panic fear of boredom?’

Read the full article here (auf Deutsch).


h/t: Basia Jaworski


UPDATE: And read further comments here from the countertenor Andreas Scholl and others.



  • Mark says:

    I’m a huge fan of directors coming to opera and shaking things up – if I had to see only tired old productions that place everything in the same period as the original production, I would give up on opera.

    We go to the theatre to have our consciousness challenged – opera at its core is theatre. The millennial generation will come to opera because of its edge and the way it challenges them, not because its comfortable.

    • JJC says:

      And I am exactly the opposite of you.

    • Max Grimm says:

      Agreed. While I don’t mind having my consciousness challenged, I do take offense when that challenge consist of self-indulgent, self-masturbatory rubbish stagings that have no relation to the piece itself or are devoid of meaning. And also directors who think they know it better than the composer, conductor and musicians.

    • Gonout Backson says:

      “I’m a huge fan of conductors coming to operas and symphonies and shaking things up – if I had to hear only tired old interpretations that place every note at the same place as the original score, I would give up on opera and symphony”.

      “I’m a huge fan of pianists coming to sonatas and shaking things up… etc”.


      There is only one question none of the fans of the neo-directors has ever answered: why should Mr Dmitri Cherniakov, the director, have more rights dealing with Verdi’s Traviata, than Mr Daniele Gatti, the conductor?

      Maybe it should be so. Just, please, tell me why.

      • Gonout Backson says:

        You forget the pianists – with their added octaves and stuff….

        You’re talking “quantity”, I’m talking “quality”. Even with added saxophones and marimbas (if anyone should ever try – or maybe did, for all I know), Beethoven Fifth is still identifiable as Beethoven Fifth. Maybe it’s a travesty, but there’s no mistake – of what exactły.

        Opera isn’t just music, it’s a story told with music, music composed for this, particular story. Your current Regietheater production modifies characters, their relations, the situations, the whole intrigue, wallowing in contradictions between what you hear and what you see.

        Let me add that the comparison between Richard Wagner “correcting” Beethoven (or Mozart correcting Handel, for that matter) – and a musical analphabet tampering with Richard Wagner, is amusing in its own right.

        I’m not asking for a “slavish veneration” of anything in an opera production. All I’m asking for is for them to respect the work’s basic data, for a “no-nonsense” and “no-contradiction” attitude. There is more than one way to tell a story without turning it upside down. Serious, professional artists don’t have problems with that. Only egomaniacs do.

    • Rudolf Dankwort says:

      Thank you for supporting the bastrardization of opera. I’m glad i’m old enough that I was able to see opera as the libretti directed, not some egotistic idiot director. I just feel terrible for the younger generations that will seemingly forever be denied authentic opera productions.

  • Marc says:

    Bravo András Shiff! Hopefully things are changing slowly….

  • Gary Carpenter says:

    I’ve seen first rate re-imaginings (Cologne Ring, WNO Turandot for example) and lamentable failures (Graz Fledermaus, Berlin Staatsoper Rheingold [the rest wasn’t too bad!]). I think Schiff makes too broad a generalisation. Nevertheless, I’ve always suspected that Regietheater would not have flourished were there a German equivalent of the English ‘wanker’!

  • Roberto says:

    I totally agree with Schiff.

    If I’ve lived in Germany and I wouldn’t have any idea of what Tosca, Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, Carmen, Parsifal, etc… are about.

    What they are doing to the opera is criminal.

    • Rudolf Dankwort says:

      Yes, and it isn’t just in Germany. Even the last stand for authentic opera productions, the New York Metropolitan Opera, have succumbed to the idiocies of Regietheater to a large extent, witness their new (from Lyon Opera) Parsifal and now a “modernized” Tristan.

  • Christy says:

    Thank you, Mr. Schiff.

  • john says:

    I also agree with Schiff – directors who place their worth above that of the opera/play provide little but a monumental distraction; an arrogance which informs us as that they are not prepared to trust the author/composer and have to resort to cheap gimmicks in order to prove their worth. Sure, we want creative and imaginative productions which challenge convention but not ones which gratuitously offend.

  • Gonout Backson says:

    Just as we speak, they play in Lyons the old (Bruxelles 2010, then Graz, Dresden…) production of Russalka by Mr Stefan Herheim, where Russalka is a street whore, and Vodnik – her pimp.

    With music by Antonin Dvorak.

    • Gonout Backson says:

      I have indeed seen this production. Under many different titles, signed by many different directors. They’re all more or less the same, using the same concepts and the same costumes round and round – in the name of originality.

      You say : “The whole basis of Herheim’s conception of the work is that Rusalka has no objective existence; she is rather a projection of male desires”. This I have heard so many times I’d like to have a dollar for every one of them. In Traviata, Carmen, Manon, Makropoulos, the list coułd go on forever.

      But only one question is valid and legitimate here : did Dvorak write this piece with, in his mind, a Russalka who “has no objective existence”? Or did he take infinite pains to give her such an existence, hand in hand with Kvapil’s words?

      Because, you know, it’s still Dvorak’s “Russalka” on the bill, not Mr Herheim’s.

      And, just between us : I’m sure a master of theatre can perfectly translate all these ideas you describe without touching one scale on Russalka’s skin. Others prefer shortcuts, straight to the trivial, litteral meaning.

      • Gonout Backson says:

        You have probably noticed the scope of my arguments went beyond this one production. But, obviously, you are free not to answer them.

        The many photographs of this particular Russalka I have seen don’t tell me anything about the quality of the performance, but they are enough to prove that Mr Herheim’s production has nothing to do with Dvorak’s libretto and, therefore, Dvorak’s music. It may be a wonderful show (just as his Parsifal was), but it’s not the work it pretends to be (just as his Parsifal wasn’t – I have seen that one).

        And this is the only point here.

      • Gonout Backson says:

        You’re still avoiding the fundamental question. I might be wrong about many things, but not about the fact these photos make pretty obvious. This is not Dvorak’s Russalka. This is Mr Herheim’s show signed with Dvorak’s name and the title of his opera.

      • Gonout Backson says:

        Dear Margaret, let me straighten some things up :

        Of course, it’s “Dvorak’s libretto” because it has been given to him and he wrote his music according to it. Piave’s texts are “Verdi’s librettos”, and not only because he worked on them (Dvorak accepted Kvapil’s as it was).

        “Herheim’s production is a sort of meditation on the basis and meaning of the Rusalka myth.” Thank you, exactly my point. Unfortunately, the name and the title on the bill aren’t “Stefan Herheim – Meditation on the Rusalka myth”, but “Antonin Dvorak – Rusalka”. Herheim hadn’t been invited and paid to “meditate on the Rusalka myth” as such, but to stage someone else’s “meditation”. This begins by telling the story as it is told by the author. The photos prove Herheim didn’t, and you have just confirmed it wasn’t his purpose. Great, humble artists can and do. Herheim is obviously an extremely gifted artist, I’m sure he’ll come round to it and I hope to be there, to watch and enjoy.

        Your analogy is inadequate. An opera production is not a “piece of music”, because the producer is not the composer, the author of the piece. He’s serving someone else’s work and should remain faithful and loyal to it. It can be done a thousand ways, just as the score of Rusalka can be played a thousand ways.

        As I have stressed previously and more than once, I’m not judging the quality of Mr Herheim’s work, but his faithfulness and loyalty to Dvorak’s and Kvapil’s work, and find him wanting. You can judge an interpretation of Beethoven Fifth by its first two measures. If it’s not even close to “pa-pa-pa-paaaam”, it may be a beautiful work, but it’s not the one announced.

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    Same old song coming up over and over again. Since the invention of opera probably. Yes, there are some over the top productions. But imagine seeing Wagner or Verdi opera’s with the aesthetics and technique with which they were performed in their time of originating. Moreover Wagner was a promotor of the Total Work of Art, which meant integrating all arts. Nowadays visual arts and theatre are radically different from a century ago. Moreover the adagium of a personal interpretation has always prevailed in music interpretation too. While probably Schiff in the time he was relevant would say that he served the composers he excelled in, Debussy, Mozart and many others, he also put a personal mark on his interpretations. That principle has always prevailed in music interpretation, so there is no rule that states that opera stagings should be ‘neutral’ whatever that is; probably ‘neutral’ means visionless and boring. By the way the Ring-productions by the Chereau-Boulez team in Bayreuth were controversial in their time and are now are benchmark. Things evolve, including taste and perceptions.

    • Nardo Poy says:

      The point Mr. Schiff is making is not that there should be fresh ideas in opera productions, but that the productions should at least represent the values of the librettist and composer. If you can’t recognize the story or its context, the only thing that had triumphed is the self-indulgent ego of the producer and/or director. That’s not great art. That travesty.

    • Rudolf Dankwort says:

      Yes, things evolve, principally the dumbing-down of society in general and opera in particular.

      The libretto was created for a reason. Follow it. This imperative does not preclude the many wonderful innovations modern technology makes available. In Wagner’s day the didn’t even have electricity. So don’t smokescreen your arguments by claiming that it’s either opera as in 1865 or the depredations of Regietheater we are currently subjected to.

  • Brian says:

    Amen. And Schiff isn’t talking about “traditional” vs. avant garde Regie. Willy Decker’s Traviata is a fine example of a production that serves the work, not the producer’s ego.

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    The solution to the problems of Regietheater should be as simple as it is radical: cut government subsidies. Get the theater and other performed ng arts organizations up to speed in raising their own funds. If a production is trash and does not recover its costs, cancel it and leave it on the trash heap where it belongs. If a production is successful, government could give some award money, though the bulk of the budget would still have to come from donations and ticket sales. In this way, the worst Regietheater excesses could be eliminated and cut.

    • william osborne says:

      Germany has 83 state owned opera houses and they sale about 80% of their tickets. The USA with 4 times the population and private funding has about 6 genuinely functional houses. On average they sell fewer of their tickets. The august Met is not even selling 70%.

      German houses aim for about 80% in order to find a balance between innovation and popularity.

  • Anon says:

    The answer to “why” is easy. Most directors do not love opera and music. They have been raised and educated in a theatre environment. They do opera, because they can make MUCH more money there than in theater. And they have to overcompensate their insecurity and incompetence with the opera genre by questioning the status quo. This answers most of the questions, why “Regietheater” is so getting out of hand.

  • Gonout Backson says:

    I’m sorry, but the “old song” will “come up over and over again”, as long as you will “come up” with the same old and tired arguments which have been answered to death just as many times.

    To be brief : “to put a personal mark” on someone else’s work is something quite different than to rewrite it, changing words (or turning them into nonsense, where what you see contradicts what you hear), characters and situations.

    Mr Schiff has played every note of every composer he’s ever touched to the best of his capacities and understanding. The Regietheater bunch never stage the pieces as they are. They consider them as abstract, musical scores with no inherent meaning – they can freely provide themselves. This covers the best, the medium and the worst efforts of the kind.

    And, God, not Chéreau/Boulez again! But apparently it’s the only example (38 years old…) your party can find.

    So, die alte Weise all over again: after months of hard work with Boulez, Chéreau has staged EXACTLY the story Wagner wrote. The images are different (although many of them are absolutely litteral: giants, dragon…), but the characters and the situations are strictly Wagner’s. To use this as an excuse for Regietheater’s delirium – is absurd.

    • J. says:

      Exactly. Great comments by András Schiff. I despise regietheater. No, I’m not saying to stage only ultrarrealistic Zeffirelli stuff. There’s a lot of “modern” productions who respect the composer’s original ideas without being literal. Boulez/Chéreau’s Ring is the main example. But some others: Chéreau’s Tristan and From the House of the Dead, Decker’s Traviata, a lot of things by David McVicar (specially Die Meistersinger, Nozze, Les Troyens and Zauberflöte), Carsen’s Onegin, Dialogues des Carmelites and Katia Kabanova, Girard’s Parsifal,

      • Neil van der Linden says:

        I can only agree with these examples. Which are ALL regiethater, with a stage director with a strong and coherent vision leaving a mark. Of course there are failures and mistakes, if not outright hoaxes. But all these examples come from the Europen, mostly German or German-influenced (Chereau) regietheater. if it had been for either Winifred Wagner or (with all my respect) Franco Zeffirelli these directions would not have happened. And yes art needs a lot of trial and error. Maybe some directors only make errors. But in the case of for instance Bielto one knows what one will get. Is Bielto a reason to categorically denounce regietheater? By the way I love Schiff’s recordings of for instance Debussy, they are benchmarks.

        • Neil van der Linden says:

          About McVicar: I love to add his direction of Salome. Which takes place in the kitchen of a contemporary large mansion, apparently in between dishes of a supper. That is not what Stauss or Wilde write about. But it works. Partly thanks to Nadia Michel. But substantially thanks to the greater concept of McVicar. Nadia Michel can been seen in less convincing Salome stagings.
          In Chereau’s Tristan a lot can be seen that is not in the score, like the spontaneous bleeding on the forehead of Isolde, which means she dies as something like a Christian saint. Now where is that written? But it works. Greatly.
          How can the score of Tristan be taken literally?
          Or Turandot. What does a ‘natural’ Turandot look like?
          Deckers stagings of Don Carlos and Boris Godunov for the Dutch National Opera
          were highly un-‘neutral’. But highly conceptual and highly convincing.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            Nothing in Chéreau’s Tristan contradicts the words and the music. No one objects to a “stage director with a strong and coherent vision”, as long as this vision comes from the piece. This is not the subject of Schiff’s article. He speaks of people – the list could be extremely long – who do not stage other people’s works, but who use them to stage their own, while keeping the name and the title of the original author, and therefore abusing the public.

            “One knows what one will get”? I’m sorry, but the public needs to know only one thing : the name and the title of the piece. The singers and the conductor give them just that. Why should Mr Bieito (or anyone of his kind) have the right to give them something else entirely, and keep the title?

  • Halldor says:

    Disappointing to see such a fine musician taking such a reactionary line. And ironic, too, from an artist who regularly plays 18th century music on an ultra-modern concert grand.

    • Gonout Backson says:

      Bravo! Nothing on the matter at hand, just one lethal adjective (“reactionary”), and one smooth insult. That’s the Regietheater-Party’s method of discussion.

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    I will copy my remark in the main timeline.. I can only agree with these examples. Which are ALL regiethater, with a stage director with a strong and coherent vision leaving a mark. Of course there are failures and mistakes, if not outright hoaxes. But all these examples come from the Europen, mostly German or German-influenced (Chereau) regietheater. if it had been for either Winifred Wagner or (with all my respect) Franco Zeffirelli these directions would not have happened. And yes art needs a lot of trial and error. Maybe some directors only make errors. But in the case of for instance Bielto one knows what one will get. Is Bielto a reason to categorically denounce regietheater? By the way I love Schiff’s recordings of for instance Debussy, they are benchmarks.

  • harold braun says:

    Spot on,Mr.Schiff!!!

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    In fact Wieland Wagner always diverted from what was literally in the score. No ships, no waterfalls, no horses.
    It is a pity that Andras Schiff does not mention examples. His remarks now have a lot of the gratuitous.

    • Gonout Backson says:

      There are “literal” ships, waterfalls and horses in the scores? How did he write them down?

      But, of course, you’re just being clever, trying to insinuate that the criticism against Regietheater comes from people celebrating “literal” representation of the scores and/or didascalia.

      It’s not. They don’t.

  • Gary Carpenter says:

    and eschews the use of the pedal…

  • SC says:

    Call me an old fusspot but can it really be that muso types exist in an ignorant bubble with no sense of the wider cultural world? I loath some (most?) of these Regietheater shows along with the best of you but some of the comments suggest people don’t actually know where this movement comes from, nor that – for good or bad – it is perfectly consistent with its own values, rather than some kind of madness.

    All postmodern production derives directly from the attempt to take the New Criticism seriously and apply it rigorously, particularly (bear with me) the Intentional Fallacy and the Affective Fallacy. These highly influential, in their way, features of cultural theory are mercilessly debated in a wonderful essay by David Foster Wallace, which is mostly about a biography of Dostoevsky but see for example his footnote 7 for the relevant summaries of the key ideas:-

    New Criticism may be old hat (discredited? compare perhaps George Steiner “Real Presences”) now but to discuss contemporary opera production without appearing to be aware of the context runs the risk of giving comfort to a sneering elite who grew up with all this and believe themselves to be doing “the right thing”.

    • Gonout Backson says:

      I would suspect these theories are frequently used to justify the productions ex post, providing them with some sort of moral-intellectual foundation. It’s handy : since the author’s intentions are nothing, the result can be “read” and “interpreted” as we damn please.

      But the productions themselves rarely involve any “reading”, let alone interpretation, since many of these people don’t read music and don’t speak the languages of the libretti. They don’t care. Some of them don’t even hide their deep contempt for opera as such and/or their ignorance of it.

      • SC says:

        Thank you but you seem to have this backwards. Apologies if I was unclear. As I tried to illustrate by quoting from the entertaining essay by Wallace, the error lies in assuming such productions start from the same point as you (ie that the author’s intentions matter and that one’s emotional/intellectual response matters).

        The Intentional Fallacy denies the centrality of the author’s intentions and the Affective Fallacy denies one’s own responses. A production must therefore not be an “interpretation” but a new work, in and of itself.

        Don’t get me wrong, I am not in agreement with this, simply trying to summarise a once “modern” school of thought which has led to the current miserable – and mostly now at least as rigidly cliched as the D’Oyly Carte – state of affairs.

        By the way I think the (later) comment by John Borstlap is right on the money.

        • Gonout Backson says:

          Sorry, I should have begun by stating clearly how much I agree with you and how much I enjoyed your link…

          There’s just one, somewhat ironic nuance on my side: the theory, as it usually happens with these things (especially after half a century), has become an invisible gas all these people have breathed for so long they probably wouldn’t tell it from fresh air. They don’t give it another thought, it’s a reflex now. I suspect there’s not much solid theory going into these productions, probably because I have heard/read some of them speak of their endeavours and their “discourse” (or should I say “narration”?) is usually disarming. But, since they’ve been taught they can do whatever they want and still call it “Mozart : Don Giovanni”, who wouldn’t?

          All I meant is that the theorists come afterwards to take care of the mess, giving these productions the moral-intellectual alibi Wallace so beautifully describes. But they’re inseparable, of course: the doers and the tellers.

          As for John Borstlap’s statement, I could sign every word.

          • SC says:

            Very good, thank you! This exchange has got me thinking about what I was really trying to say (type first, think later, shall be the watchword of the blog commentator, apologies). At the risk of flogging a tired old pony, and indeed boring the folks, might I try and spell it out?

            i) I wanted to define terms (i.e. lay out some basics of postmodern critical theory)

            ii) Specifically in order to focus attention on comments like “But this production goes against what Mozart/Verdi/Wagner meant” or “But I really didn’t like it, it was rubbish”

            iii) This because anyone who criticises Regietheater in only these ways unwittingly plays into the hands of their enemies (the Intentional Fallacy having supposedly disposed of the first kind of comment, and the Affective Fallacy the second)

            iv) As most people discussing this issue here (and elsewhere) seem eager to usher in a new era (no more Regiettheater, etc) perhaps, given the problem just outlined above, it would be sensible to present arguments which can’t simply be dismissed/ignored by those we are seeking to influence (e.g. cultural bureaucrats, many of whom will have absorbed the ideas I have highlighted while doing their undergraduate studies).

            So perhaps I have finally worked my way to my actual point: what might be a better (i.e. more effective) language for attacking the productions we don’t like, more effective than the allegedly fallacious “Puccini wouldn’t like it” or “neither do I”? Not sure where to turn, but hope to provoke some ideas.

            Here are two possible signposts: Josef Ratzinger was (I think) the first to point out that a culture of relativism leads ultimately to a contradiction in terms (to caricature: if all is relative, so must relativism be). The current dominant ideology may be philosophically flawed below the waterline.

            And, second, there might still be something in the (ancient) notion that truth and beauty are somehow linked.

            My suspicion is that ordinary folk whose gorge rises at yet another clumsy piece of postmodernism (and for the purposes of this argument I include Schiff as “ordinary”) are instinctly aware of what is nonsensical, and what is untruthful because ugly. Most of the job is in fact already done. All that is needed is a politically better targetted form of critique.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            Dear SC : a very Happy New Year, to you, to Our Host and to every participant here.

            You ask for “arguments which can’t simply be dismissed/ignored by those we are seeking to influence”. Aren’t you a little optimistic (it’s a good time to be)? My long experience in this debate, and some others, here and elsewhere, proves that there is no argument in the world that cannot be dismissed/ignored if “those we are seeking to influence” put their minds to it.

            You’re absolutely right about the two useless types. “I like/dislike” can always be dismissed as subjective, and “the authors intentions” are swampy ground, since there is a lot of explaining what you mean by “intentions” – and time passes, and the readers’ patience fades away.

            There is one simple argument, though, I have used for years, for no avail. It’s the “nonsense/contradiction” check, otherwise known as “what you hear is what you see, and if it isn’t, someone is cheating”. Never got a sensible answer to it, not even a rebuke. Must be the one.

            All the best!

    • António Lopes says:

      Just to be quick, I am an aesthetician, and you have misinterpreted Beardsley and Wimsatt on the intentional fallacy. The thesis is that the authorial intentions are irrelevant to the interpretation and evaluation of an artwork IF THEY HAVE NOT BEEN SUCCESSFULLY MATERIALISED IN THE WORK ITSELF. Stage directions in libretti etc. are an integral part of an opera, so you don’t have an argument there.

  • Michael Endres says:

    Regietheater at its best.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Yes! And how many regietheater directors will recognize the parts that constitute this delightful motley? Probably many of them will need a translator, just as many of us need one to understand what on earth their stagings have to do with the librettos.

  • Sanda Schuldmann says:

    Bravo Mr. Schiff. It is same here. I absolutely think that these people have forgotten what should come first. I just had the misfortune of seeing Fidelio at the Santa Fe Opera last summer stage in a concentration camp. this is nothing short of pathetic.
    Going to the opera or any concert for that matter should be an uplifting and memorable musical and emotional experience. The shock effect has nothing to do with artistic quality or merit.
    It is sickening what is happening. And for that matter the stupid machine for the Ring at the Met, just as pathetic an effort and a waste of money.

  • Daniel Farber says:

    As usual, the outspoken, talented, intelligent Andras Schiff is absolutely correct. The current cult of the director, which Peter Gelb is hell-bent on inflicting at the Metropolitan Opera, is perverse and totally antithetical to why people love to attend serious opera. The director’s duty is like the doctor’s: DO NO HARM and stay out the way. You’d be surprised at how many musically and dramatically important arias and ensembles are these days blocked UPstage, so that they cannot be heard or felt. Most of these conception-driven directors are wholly illiterate!

  • William Safford says:

    I have little use for regietheater.

    I would much rather that such directors devote their efforts to creating new operas. Then I’ll enjoy them — or not — on their merits.

  • william osborne says:

    Schiff’s comparison of Beckett’s plays to opera librettos demonstrates the superficiality of his thought. Beckett’s reliance on precisely written stage directions are unique in the field. He even wrote entire works for pantomimes that are nothing but stage directions, such as “Act Without Words I” and Act Without Words II.” Beckett was a big fan of Buster Keanton’s silent films, and even wrote a wordless screenplay for Keaton called “Film.” The first several pages of Beckett’s “Happy Days” contain more stage directions than spoken text. The movements described ARE the play. In all of his works, Beckett also formulated very precise, single stage images, and each play evolves from that single image.

    It is thus absurd to compare Beckett’s work to the sloppiness, inconsistencies, and banality of the vast majority of opera librettos.

    The way forward is to create new music theater works using Beckett’s precision, not to religiously follow old opera librettos that are often ridiculous in their banality.

    • Gonout Backson says:

      Another old, tired, fallacious argument, used by the Regietheater-Party to justify the injustifiable.

      To get it over with : what’s the logic in your last phrase? “The way forward is to write new music, not to religiously follow old scores”? Does the one exclude the other?

      Opera librettos are nonsense, so we’re entitled to ignore and/or rewrite them? First of all, the absurdity of these librettos is a legend. Some of them are nonsense, some bad, some good, some fantastic. Regietheater massacres all of them, no distinction.

      Otherwise let’s remember that opera is words and music, and that the music has been composed to these words, sometimes chosen with great care and followed with extreme precision. You cannot have the one without the other, and trying to do so – is just as absurd and scandalous, as the manipulations inflicted on Beckett. A Mozart piece isn’t any less maniacally precise than a Beckett “score”. Beckmesser’s “silent” scene in act III is all about stage directions – written in music, as it often happens.

      There is nothing superficial in Schiff’s thought.

      • william osborne says:

        So Beckett’s work, which includes some of the best English-language plays since Shakespeare, and which is entirely unique in its use of stage directions, is to be compared with opera librettos. Ah, what would the world do without the wit and wisdom of SD’s anonymous commentators and pianists pontificating on stage production…

        • Gonout Backson says:

          Who on earth is comparing Beckett’s masterpieces to operatic librettos? But I do think it’s legitimate to put Endgame along, for instance, Don Giovanni AS A WHOLE, libretto with all its notorious flaws, and music of genius written in spite of these flaws.

          And how does the value of an argument depend on the signature it bears (or doesn’t)? Not what is said, but who says it? Tsk, tsk.

  • william osborne says:

    Wanna see Tosca in a front row seat for 28 Euros in a 500 seat, full time, fully professional house in a city of 118,000? Go here:

    Schiff might also speak about the privilege he has of living in a city with three major opera houses.

  • william osborne says:

    The Stuttgart Opera is currently doing an Ariadne auf Naxos production that thematizes the neo-liberal attacks on Europe’s systems of public arts funding. Before each performance there is a public lecture and discussion series called Denkraum Ariadne led by a series of arts administrators and artists to address these problems. See:

  • John Borstlap says:

    People who go to the theatre ‘to be shaken’, ‘waken-up from their bourgeois slumber’, experience some ‘edge’, to be ‘confronted by the conflicts of today’ etc. etc. etc. must really be in deep, lethargic mental coma…. they reveal themselves indeed to be the bourgeois dumbheads the directors of Regietheater assume them to be.

    In the last century, the longing to be finally liberated from a culture and civilization that produced two world wars and imperialist suppression (and a host of other ills), resulted in protest movements among which postmodern ‘thought’ which suffered from the delusion that a work of art is merely a ‘text’ to be ‘interpreted’, i.e. presenting a play or an opera is the actual creative deed, not the writing of it. There ‘is no intention’ by an author: ‘There is nothing behind the text’ (Derrida). Regietheater results from a misunderstanding of the past and its culture, and primitivism disguised as ‘discourse’. In fact, Regietheater expresses cultural self-hatred (‘away with us’), wanting to deconstruct Western culture, but without giving anything in its place.

    Opera can be presented with respect for its identity and without the imperfections of theatrical presentation of the past. Respect for the authors does not mean reproducing ‘authentic’ presentation as it was done in the past.

  • Tony Kaye says:

    Wonderful to read so many comments dealing with interpretations of productions. As the operatic general manager of the late Ken Russell, I remember a similar arguement following his Boheme in Rome, his Butterfly in Houston and his Mefistofele in Genoa.

    Perhaps the point to be made is, “Did the stage director further enhance our understanding of the opera by what he did on stage?” We all know that directors can do anything which ranges from traditional to extreme and from boring to exciting. For example when Jonathan Miller updated Rigoletto to the 1930’s and set it in a New York mob bar with Rigoletto as a jocular bartender it was brilliant. Moreover, a modern day public could relate and the enhancements were very exciting (at that time). Still it had its detractors as one might expect.

    Also there are times when production gets in the way of the story and the eye is forced away from the central drama. Now if this was the case in the opera in question which I haven’t seen, then maybe Andras has a point. Believe me when I tell you all that there is no artistic endeavour which does not cause comment and perhaps the stronger the comments the more the artistic endeavour has succeeded.

    I remember a story once told to me by Andras when he was practicing for three days in advance of two concerts he gave in New Orleans of the Bach 48 Preludes and Fugues. The only place they had available for him to practice was a jazz club which was closed during the day and was devoid of people except the janitor who was cleaning up from the night before. On the third day he said to Andras, “How much longer to I have to listen to this shit…?”

    You just can’t win”em all ….

  • Stefan says:

    This kind of discussion can go on forever because we all have opinions that are anywhere from polar opposites to some place in between. Seldom do we simply respect the other person’s opinion and just agree to disagree. Instead we try to prove the other person is wrong.

    So let me add my belated “2 cents worth.” Whether it is called conservative, regietheater, eurotrash or something else, I want to be challenged when I go into the opera house. Operas should not be treated as museum pieces. Unfortunately that happens too little in the US and so I frequent Europe, mostly Germany, to see something that is thought provoking. I may love it (Parsifal in Stuttgart/Maria Stuarda at Berlin’s Staatsoper) or I may hate it (Eugene Onegin in Munich/Trovatore in Dresden). I’ve seen many in both categories, but at least I won’t be bored. If only wanted the music and singing, I would buy CDs or listen to “live” streams.

  • Gonout Backson says:

    Dear Stefan – if this discussion can, indeed, go on forever, it’s because it’s rarely a discussion.

    Every real discussion is about proving the other person is wrong. Otherwise it’s a nice “exchange of views” between nice people who don’t want to hurt anyone by… proving them wrong. It can be very nice, indeed – but it doesn’t bring us closer to the truth.

    To bring us closer to the truth (as science does, in a neverending discussion) I have to listen to the arguments of my opponent and answer as honestly as I can. I must be ready to admit I was wrong and that these arguments have convinced me, or, at least, moved the lines of my thinking.

    Unfortunately, it’s rarely the case here.

    As to your point: what’s wrong about “museum pieces” ? We live in a museum. Concert halls, opera theatres, libraries are museums, just as… museums are. We do not complain to hear the same symphony for an umpteenth time, because it’s never the same. Why should theatre be any different? There are as many ways to stage Eugene Onegin (without making it look like a poor man’s Brokeback Mountain), as there are to play it.

    All the best in a Happy New Year!

  • Marshall says:

    Great that Schiff took the time to point out the destructive course of these directors. As well as being a great pianist, I find him a thoughtful and courageous person. (his stand on Hungary, e.g.) Also, great that there was such a response to it-and so overwhelmingly in support of his perspective.

    I don’t know that much about the German theater productions today (didn’t know it was also taking that direction), but am sadly familiar with the ongoing destruction of opera. It is referred to as Regietheatre, “Eurotrash”, but really should be called gimmick opera. There is usually one premise, shocking idea, or gimmick which gets all the attention, but rarely is the actual direction very interesting, or insightful. There is this shallow and pretentious notion that it is somehow profound, daring, and making a moribund art form relevant. But it is alarmingly lacking in substance-and delusional in its belief that something deep is going on.

    The idea that opera will not survive without it, and all traditional productions are kitsch and without value-has those who support it thinking it is the salvation of opera. That is just not happening (as we see the average age of attendance, the rapid closing opera companies in the unsubsidized world) Maybe nothing can save this art form, but this certainly is not doing it.

    There is a distorted, intolerant, ideologically driven core behind it all- fittingly another intolerant ideology of European origin. Some of its pretensions would only draw laughter, if it were not for the fact that its grip on the opera world is so suffocating.

    For example, why would one take an opera set in a specific historical time-even about actual historical figures (such as Boris, or Meistersinger, Don Carlo, Troyens etc) replete with specific references, and set it in another era, is beyond comprehension? (Of course for years now, when titles are involved they’ve actually changed the translations and left out names-very strange when in the original language other words are being sung) Are opera goers in general so stupid that only if a work is presented in a modern setting can it have relevance to them? So Boris must be Stalin, Wotan must ride a motorcycle, the Duke in Rigoletto must be Frank Sinatra, Macbeth cannot wear kilts, we can’t grasp TB unless a large clock reminds us, Scarpia runs a brothel, and on and on, and on. (I’m sure we all have other examples) Is this like reality for most people today can not be certified as real unless it comes through an electronic device? There is a connection to be developed here. (And Schiff is also right on the mark about the loss of attention span-as we hear people endlessly talking about how long Meistersinger or Troyens etc. are-as if they are making some discovery, and not talking about the performance)

    The worst misguided premise of it all is that opera, or any art must have one specific interpretation-which is spoon fed to you-and any divergence is not tolerated. What a shallow view of art, what a misunderstanding of its purpose, what frightened rigid minds at work.

  • Marcel Lockhart says:

    Andras Schiff? A musician now known for political opinions and populistic journalism. In other words a Norman Lebrecht with decent skills on the piano. Yes decent, haven’t heared him actually play anything a cheaper pianist couldn’t have done as good or better in years now. Guess he is desperately looking to keep himself in play by pleasing the boring audience which also wants opera visists to be comparable to the one’s to museums.

    • Daniel Farber says:

      How do you spell “r-e-s-t h-o-m-e”?

    • Peter Sallis says:

      Absolutely true. Totally overhyped pianist ,who regularly shows an enormous ego rather than outstanding pianism.
      His piece on why he didn’t like Ravel in the Gramophone once was typical:
      “I cannot forgive Ravel his Bolero.”
      Big blow for Ravel of course….

    • Gonout Backson says:

      The case for Regietheater cannot be very strong if the only way you found to defend it is to insult its adversaries…

      • Marshall says:

        Right to the point.

        So these people don’t care for Schiff or his playing (as if their opinion matters) but where is the discussion of the issues Schiff raised? Forget about the message, discredit the messenger! Whenever I try to have a discussion about opera productions, I get the same level exhibited here. You’re old fashioned, you don’t care about the future of opera, opera is drama, don’t you see how daring that is, etc. or go to a museum. You know I go to them all the time-nothing wrong with them. But never an open discussion-just ideological screaming

        • Gonout Backson says:

          Same here. For years have I been trying to have this kind of – serious – discussion, in private and in public, in more than one language. It seems impossible.

          The key word in what you say is “ideological”. They don’t discuss, they preach and excommunicate.

          You know : “you cannot reason anyone out of something…”.

          All the best in 2015!

  • Gaetan Le Divelec says:

    Dear Norman

    We are writing as Sir Andras Schiff’s management. Sir Andras is concerned that the title you have chosen to use for your post will lead those of your readers who do not have the benefit of being able to read the original article in German (or who do not have the time to do so) to misunderstand the views he is expressing in his piece for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

    The argument of his piece is clearly focussed on German (drama) theatre – indeed the original title of the article should read in English as “What the hell is wrong with German theatre?”. There is a passing reference to opera, but it is incidental in relation to the main thrust of the article.

    For this reason he has asked me to convey to your readers the following statement:

    “My article is about German theatre (drama) based on three productions that I’ve seen in Berlin, by Büchner, Schiller and Dürrenmatt. It is not about English theatre. Although I briefly write about opera, that is marginal. My main point is fidelity to the written text. Directors in German theatre cut the text drastically, leaving out whole scenes, changing their order, substituting modern words for old ones. When you read a play and then see it on stage there is no resemblance to the original.”

    Everyone is of course entitled to their views – but he was keen to ensure that those of your readers who are reacting to his views are doing so on the basis of the correct information.

    All good wishes,

    Gaetan Le Divelec
    Askonas Holt Ltd

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Dear Gaetan

      We are aware that the thrust of his article is German theatre, which is not the concern of most Slipped Disc readers. His anti-Regietheater arguments apply, however, in equal measure to opera houses; hence the headline. We conveyed this to Andras Schiff’s secretary and received a reply that he was happy for the headline to remain, thereby assuring a wide dissemination of his views. If he has now changed his mind, that is entirely his right and we respect it.
      best wishes
      Norman Lebrecht