Should opera have ratings?

Should opera have ratings?


norman lebrecht

January 13, 2015

Letter from a reader:
Dear Sir,

In order to ensure good tickets for an opera I have to book well in advance. How can I tell, prior to reviews, whether the production is a traditional one or one set in a modern setting?

He has a point. Opera houses should consider marking productions (T) for traditional or (R) for radical.

What do you think?

bayreuth lohengin rats 
pictured: Bayreuth’s Lohengrin, with rats


  • DLowe says:

    Agree. Good point.

    The only other way of doing things is to book in advance and then return the ticket once you’ve heard more about it.

    Is there a point where a radical production becomes a traditional production though? Traditional as in as the composer would have seen it, or traditional as in this former radical production has been around for twenty years.

  • Bill Worley says:

    I totally agree. With a rating system I would have not bothered with many productions at Covent Garden and spared myself from enduring “Idomeneo” or what Covent Garden had the temeritory to call “Idomeneo”

  • Dave says:

    Wagner really doesn’t work without a crashed aeroplane in the middle of the stage.

    • Prewartreasure says:

      I, too, saw that dreadful production at the ROH (Dave) Probably the worst Siegfried ever, whereas Bayreuth’s “ratty” Lohengrin was pure bliss.

  • Halldor says:

    Hard one to define. My father considered the New York Met’s creaky old Schenk “Rheingold” to be unacceptably radical because “Valhalla looked nothing like a castle”. He was appalled at Jonathan Miller’s ENO “Mikado”.

    Then there are all those Mozart and Handel opera seria productions which take dramas set in ancient Rome and perform them in 18th century breeches and periwigs – yanking the drama centuries out of the context the composer and librettist specified. Startlingly radical modernisations…and yet I’ve seen such things praised to the rafters on Facebook by the good but presumably deeply confused folk of “Against Modern Opera Productions”.

    It’s a right old can of worms. Perhaps “L” for Living Artform, “P” for Pretty Frocks, Expensive Scenery and Applause Every Time the Big Star Walks on Stage.

  • Simon S. says:

    Not that easy. This is not a black or white issue, but one with many levels of grey.

  • Daphne Badger says:

    Of course not. That was lies the stagnation of a living artform. You should go with a willingness to be intellectually challenged and have your artistic experience widened. If you only see productions you know in advance you will like then how will you be able to judge quality in the future when all those productions are retired? Even the least enjoyable production has interest and merits, and you there’s no correlation between the ‘traditional aesthetic’ of a staging and the orchestral and vocal standards displayed. It is possible to be entertained and frustrated at the same time.

    • stanley cohen says:

      You need go no further if you seek intellectually challenged than the Brussels performance of Trovatore set in one room some 50 years after the action originally occurred. A finer example of the Emperor’s New Lunacy I have yet to set foot on.

  • Fred Obelisk says:

    In grandpa’s time, you went to whatever show rolled into town that month, and experienced a range of art forms.
    Nowadays, go online and filter, filter, filter,
    and experience only the art form, genre, style or artist that you want to.
    Which generation experienced the greatest artistic growth?

    • CDH says:

      I agree with the sentiment of this response. When circumstances meant I was obliged to spend a few months in Glasgow that I had not anticipated, I immediately went over to Theatre Royal and booked tickets for every opera that would be put on while I was there. I was happy to start with Aida — Edwardian setting — and then the Abduction was pretty “traditional.” The third and last I would make while there was Berg’s Lulu. No fan of the play, no great devotee of the Berg music I had heard, I went with the complete attitude that if I hated it I would leave at the interval. I did not adore it, and I would not buy a recording of it, though I would not rule out going again. I am not familiar enough with the score to really assess if it was well done, but I have to think so, judging by the response of the knowledgeable Glasgow audience, and by my own absolute captivation by it.

      As when I was at a Zukerman concert where he played the Berg Violin Concerto — not a piece I would have chosen to go to, but I had accepted an invitation, without examining the content of the programme. Unenthusiastic when he appeared, I was utterly transported by his playing, so much so that I responded to some extent to another piece of music I would be unlikely to listen to in the home. But that night, that man, that piece, combined to make an exceptional musical memory that will live with me much longer than, say, that of Dudamel’s Fifth (though that was also rather good). That is what going to the theatre, or the opera or concert hall, is all about.

      What happened to the will to try things? If I was put off by an opera production I would just shut my eyes and listen to the music.

  • Sasha Valeri Millwood says:

    A dichotomous rating system would be a windfall for the lawyers and apparatchiks on all sides. However, it would be ruinous to the art-form: directors would be faced with either concocting wholly risk-free pastiche (for fear of any original interpretation being construed as “radical”) or concocting a potpourri of “radical” style over substance (for fear of any substance being construed as “traditional”). The greatest art is a synthesis of both tradition and original, radical thinking — these two facets cannot and should not be separated into their own cosy pigeonholes to assuage the irksome demands of those audience-members who fail to appreciate that art is not entertainment.

    On a personal note, as a composer, I have grown weary of hearing the specious rhetoric that presents “tradition” and “innovation” as necessarily mutually exclusive. Even the most cursory study of the great composers of the past shows that, time and time again, the most “radical” works engage with “tradition” in some shape or form.

  • Helen says:

    Welsh National Opera already flag certain productions as ‘period-set’.

  • Sixtus says:

    How about a P rating. For pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, politically over-laden, musically ignorant bullshit.

  • Pirkko says:

    Objecting modern opera productions is like objecting the world around oneself.

  • Duane says:

    Because of the widely varied types of listeners and directors and productions, it would make sense to have some form of ratings ( such as traditional, modern setting, untraditional production, futuristic, semi-traditional, updated etc. Some opera goers get disappointed when a production doesn’t meet their expectations! Having a rating system might alleviate some of the problems associated with extreme variances we sometimes see in opera productions!

  • Stefan says:

    I also would suggest installing a rating system for bad singing, bad conducting and bad orchestral performance!!!
    This really ruins the art of opera and would rather keep me from booking tickets!

  • Dennis Marks says:

    Why not just go with an open mind? Ignore the critics and previewers and the posse of PR. You might surprise yourself.

  • William Safford says:

    This could be amusing. If one defines “traditional” as being in alignment with the composer’s and librettist’s wishes and the prevailing milieu, then it could be fun to rate “traditional” operas such as Stockhausen’s Licht (and its Helikopter-Streichquartett).

    • SVM says:

      An interesting point, which raises the bigger issues of:

      *should we be striving to be “in alignment with the composer’s and librettist’s wishes”?

      *how do you define “being in alignment with the composer’s and librettist’s wishes”?

      And what about issues of performance practice? Would a performance of a Handel opera on modern instruments be /ipso facto/ considered “radical”? What about improvised cadenzas mid-aria (which, in some operas, would have been the standard performance practice of the day, and may well have been desired by the composer or librettist)?

      Surely, it is far better to accept that, as a living art-form, it is better not to attempt to straightjacket opera performance practice into pigeonholed consumer categories, and that, unlike when buying a CD, you cannot be sure exactly what you are going to get at the opera. I suspect that Safford is making a similar point by exemplifying that “traditional” would not always denote the sort of sentimental easy viewing that some audience-members appear to expect.

      • Halldor says:

        Indeed, Mozart rewrote arias for each individual cast and production of his operas (“tailored like a well-cut suit” was his term). He happily provided insertion arias for other composer’s operas, too. Few pre-19th century composers would consider the modern practice of simply reproducing the original score, unaltered, in performance as anything other than deeply unmusical and perverse.

        To say nothing of Handel’s wish for numerous of his leading roles to be sung by castrati. Anything else is neither “traditional” nor “authentic”. So come on, “Against Modern Opera Productions”…who’s first for the big snip?