An English Aida mourns the founder of Regietheater

An English Aida mourns the founder of Regietheater


norman lebrecht

February 09, 2022

From Rolsanind Plowright, OBE:

I was saddened to read of the passing of one of the most forward thinking stage directors, the great Hans Neuenfels.

Slipped Disc mentioned his controversial and illuminating production of Aida in which I had the pleasure of singing the title role over four seasons and in more than 50 performances. I loved it. It wasn’t just the insight he brought to the characters and the story but the way he challenged every conceivable idea that opera and indeed theatre in general were taking for granted. Frankfurt led the way in advancing modernism in opera and his Aida led the way in Frankfurt.

That is not to say Aida didn’t meet with its critics. It did, both inside and outside the house. I recall one evening during the Judgement scene. Amneris, dressed in a long silk nightdress, standing in mud pit, wearing fogged spectacles and surrounded by three cardinals in their red robes, all flagellating her with whips. An audience member yelled out, “This is a disgrace to the Catholic Church” bringing the reply, “If you don’t enjoy this you can leave,” followed by several other audience participants have a very vocal row.

On the days that booking opened for each season, the queues for tickets went around the building and within one hour the “Ausverkauft” lights came on for every part of the Städtische Bühne. Neuenfels challenged his singers and his audience creating art at its most intense.

I have always believed that the job of art, any art, is to take people on a journey away from themselves and into another world and bring them safely back again at the end. The greater the experience of that journey, the greater the art. Hans Neuenfels gave us all massive journeys throughout his extraordinary life and I, for one, mourn his passing as a great loss to the world of theatre and opera while counting myself so very lucky to have been at its centre for a few short years. RIP dear Hans.


  • guest says:

    Copypasting here my reply to Rosalind Plowright’s comment in the original SD post:

    I am surprised at the implication that only stagings contradicting the librettist’s and composer’s indications, and featuring gratuitous shock value just for the sake of “challenging (read contradict) every conceivable idea”, are able “to take people on a journey away from themselves and into another world and bring them safely back again at the end.” One wonders how was it possible for past audiences of the 19th and first half of the 20th century to be taken on a journey into another world, without the “benefit” of seeing Amneris in a mud pit? One wonders how it was possible for listeners of audio recordings to be transported into another world, without the “benefit” of seeing anything at all, least of all the aforementioned mud pit and flagellation? If I misread Rosalind Plowright’s comment I apologize, but this is how I understand it.

    As to people queuing for tickets, there is is always a certain percentage of the population who is attracted by ANY shock value and the scandal attached to it, particularly if it involves a woman being humiliated and physically mistreated. It doesn’t follow they understand opera. It doesn’t follow they understand what Amneris is singing, which explains why they don’t protest. Germans don’t understand Italian, nor do they understand French or Russian. Funny, isn’t it, that they so insist opera has to be sung in original language?

    • A.L. says:

      Well said. However, many Germans are also fluent in French and/or Italian.

    • HugoPreuß says:

      I am German, and I don’t speak Italian, French or Russian. But I am able to read, and before I go to the opera, I have listened to it on CD and read the libretto. Not to mention that nowadays there are surtitles. To assume that you have to be fluent in the respective languages to understand what is going on on stage is just ludicrous.

      • guest says:

        @Hugo I was according the benefit of doubt to German audiences. If they *understand* the text but nevertheless applaud Amneris in a mud pit being flagellated by three male figures in red robes, ouch.

  • Alviano says:

    Happy to read Plowright after reading all the sourpusses on this site.

  • IP says:

    Aida in Frankfurt? Staged by Neuenfels? As if there were not enough suffering in the world already. . .

  • David Alden says:

    Thank you Rosalind Plowright for writing so intelligently from an artist’s perspective about the amazing Neuenfels. His production of Aida in Frankfurt was indeed a game changer, a revelation to many and an outrage to others. I was lucky enough to see a performance just after it opened in the early ’80’s — it was a shock and an inspiration and one of the most extraordinary nights at the opera I have ever spent.
    The audience that night erupted as well in a storm of boos and invective countered by similar shouts of “if you don’t like it leave!”. The staging of the Triumphal Scene was particularly provocative — indeed I won’t describe what happened as it was a vicious and grotesque satire of a racist society. Today no one would dare, or be allowed, to stage anything like this.
    For more than a decade after this Aida the Frankfurt Opera, under the leadership of Klaus Zehelein and Michael Gielen, continued to present radical stagings by Neuenfels, Ruth Berghaus and other pioneering directors with extraordinary daring and success. The company was at the very centre of the revolution in opera production which emanated out of Germany, shook things up everywhere, and brought new life to the art form. Neuenfels may not be the father of regietheater (the movement started well before him) but his Aida, and indeed his whole career, were vitally challenging and important.

  • V.Lind says:

    Rolsanind? Does nobody copy-edit these posts, even to the point of making sure of someone’s name? It is the most basic of courtesies to get a name right.

    • Maurice says:

      Agreed. I’m continually drawing attention to the sloppy editing here on (just to get the website name into my comment!). It’s now 22 January 2023 and this still hasn’t been corrected.