Are opera directors the new divas?

Are opera directors the new divas?


norman lebrecht

January 22, 2016

Elisabeth Braw has an original take on the shift of power backstage at the opera houses.

These tensions are not surprising. Conductors often want to remain true to the composers’ work, whilst stage directors want to distinguish their productions from those of competitors. Popular operas are produced by multiple houses—“La Traviata”, for example, was performed 749 times during the 2013/2014 season—and so directors feel compelled to add unorthodox elements. Damiano Michieletto, an Italian stage director, was hit by heavy criticism after inserting a graphic rape scene into Verdi’s “Guillaume Tell” at the Royal Opera House in London.

What is to be done about opera’s new divas?…


william tell

Read Elisabeth’s suggestions in The Economist here.


  • Ellingtonia says:

    Shoot the bloody lot of the self centred narcissists, I don’t want some historical opera transposed to Little Wopping and infested with would be gangsters. I mean, how many opera singers would make a convincing gangster?

    • Guus Mostart says:

      You probably never saw the Jonathan Miller production of Rigoletto at ENO. Very successful and internationally acclaimed!

      • Natus says:

        Are you joking? Any crap on a stage can be “successful” and “internationally acclaimed.” Doesn’t mean it’s good.

        As I director, I’m trying to think of my favorite Miller production. And, sadly, the answer is “none of them.”

  • Federico says:

    So it seems. They want to occupy a more important place to the composer. God save us!

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    Time for a comic opera about a back stage spat between a director and a conductor, I’d say. Now, if we only could find the team capable of working together to put it onstage…;-)

  • Emil Archambault says:

    Of course, conductors want to distinguish their interpretation from others as well. Don’t think we’ve gotten those exceedingly fast tempi, those exaggerated accents and those excessive rubato (rubati) by accident.

  • Adam Stern says:

    My conducting teacher once told a story about a preliminary meeting with the stage director of an opera on which they were to collaborate. The director said that he wanted my teacher at virtually all of the staging rehearsals. My teacher said that that wouldn’t be necessary; he would get to know the staging when the musical rehearsals began. The director was surprised and asked, “But how else will you learn my tempi?”

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      There’s another issue here: that of conductors who only show up at the last minute, having left the music staff to play and conduct the rehearsals as well as coach the singers while head honcho is off earning big money elsewhere. The conductor should be there the whole time; not to learn the director’s tempi (love it, by the way) but – duh – to be the music director of that production.

  • Nick says:

    “NEW divas”? Haven’t they been around for a few decades now? And isn’t it time many of them (not all) were placed back in their little boring Pandora’s box?

  • Adam Stern says:

    “…the trend with which we are still living today – the “producer’s (or “stage director’s” or “régisseur’s”) opera”…[has] led to other excesses, principal of which was the restless search for novel dramatic interpretation. This all too often deprives our present-day productions of the sense and meaning intended by the composer, and leaves the producer open to the suspicion of being insufficiently prepared, insufficiently familiar with the material with which he is working, and – most important of all – insufficiently sensitive to the one essential component of music drama, namely the music. Artificial originality smells worse than stinking fish.”
    – Antal Doráti

    • Gerhard says:

      Very good quote, thank you. Could you please give us the source?

      • Adam Stern says:

        Delighted! It’s an extract from Doráti’s autobiography, “Notes of Seven Decades”, my favorite musician’s memoir. You may have to do a little searching to find a copy, but it’s well worth the effort.

  • Nigel says:

    Verdi’s Guillaume Tell??

  • jack furness says:

    I read the article – what an extraordinary lack of nuance!

  • John Borstlap says:

    Directors can have their best opportunities with works that are operatic in some way but were not written as opera. Recently the Netherlands Opera staged Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder to great effect, turning this cantata into a fantastic surrealist dream.

    • Eddie Mars says:

      Yet that isn’t distorting the composer’s work?

      • John Borstlap says:

        The director kept to the original score and the ‘plot’ which is not an opera libretto of course. It seems to me that indeed such an undertaking is not distorting the composer’s work: when the music is supposed to invoke a story line, dramatic events, striking situations, in the mind of the listener, and a stage director realizes a version of this, there is not necessarily a clash between the work and such presentation. Also, ballet choreography based upon music which was not meant for either opera or ballet, can result in interesting and good productions, as it can be disastrous as well. If the Netherlands Opera had translated Gurrelieder in a sterile factory with TV screens, some rape scenes, and a projection of an orka hunt, yes maybe it would not have been very good. But when a work is specially written for the opera stage, the plot and its representation is part of the author’s or authors’ original vision and sould not be tampered with. In case of Gurrelieder, the composer’s responsibility stops at the music.

        • Gonout Backson says:

          Claus Guth’s Messiah is much funnier than the complete ten seasons of Friends. A riot. My favourite moment comes in the “How beautiful are the feet” aria, when the Hero and his Girl (if memory serves – I’ve seen it once, you know) lie on a hotel bed admiring their respective feet.