Wass ist das? cries bewildered opera critic

Wass ist das? cries bewildered opera critic


norman lebrecht

May 26, 2022

Jonas Kaufmann wowed Australia as Lohengrin, but no-one could make head or tail of the set.

Peter Tregear writes:

…. The opera is directed by Frenchman Olivier Py, in a co-production with the national opera of Belgium, the Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie in Brussels….

In Cy’s rendering, however, we are presented with an apocalyptic post-World War II landscape where death reigns. Graffiti daubed on walls quotes from Paul Celan’s poem Todesfuge (1945). Other scenic interpolations are drawn from esoteric Nazi iconography – such the Celtic Cross and the Black Sun (Schwarze Sonne).

This is not unusual. Over the past 80 years or so, operas have increasingly been reframed to provide a vehicle for commentary: either on the composer and society that created them, or on our own times. The original plot and setting is something to be riffed off, rather than revered or reproduced.

In Europe, useful background and context for these interpretative overlays is usually provided to the audience through accompanying program essays.

In Australia, we seem to be missing out on such outreach….


Read on here.


  • Kein Wein says:

    Yes, “accompanying program essays” are provided in Europe, but we should not have to read them.

  • Angela says:

    The critic doesn’t seem to be the least bit bewildered. But he is spot on in lamenting the lack of useful commentary in Opera Australia programmes.

    Instead of the thoughtful articles on the music and notes supporting the director’s vision they once published, nowadays they run superficial “cheat sheets” and “conversation starters”.

    While the underlying aim of trying to make newcomers feel at ease and adopting a friendly tone of voice is to be applauded, it’s completely undermined by the content itself, which is often inaccurate or misleading or simply misses the point, omitting information that might actually increase appreciation and understanding of the production. Pretty much any of the smaller opera companies in Australia is publishing superior programme content at the moment.

    • guest says:

      I agree with ‘Kein Wein’ above. If the staging needs commentary in order to be understood, there is something wrong with the staging. Do you need commentary to explain the music to you? If you do, perhaps you shouldn’t attend opera, but I don’t think you need commentary. I don’t know anybody who needs commentary to understand the music. If you need commentary to understand the staging, it’s because the staging isn’t supporting the music and libretto. (I am using ‘you’ in the impersonal.) Such stagings should be simply discarded and the director not invited again. Discussing them is wrong, this is exactly what the director wants, and why they create such obvious messes, to generate headlines about his person. Who can, creates a work of art and people will talk about it. Who can’t create, defecates in public and hopes for a reaction. There’s no need to waste our time with a mess, live is short, and there’s no reason to finance somebody’s mess either, budgets are even shorter.

  • Bloom says:

    Some of those who attended and paid for the very expensive tickets came, I guess, for the big star only and felt very pleased &entertained because the star was, cheers! , present , but weren t ready to make a supplementary effort – that means paying attention to what was being played/sung there and especially to Py’s staging concept . ( In fact, I ve read that the hall was not even suited for this production and despite the obscene price of the tickets, there were people who complained about not being able to see/hear the coveted star as they should from their place.)

  • Bloom says:

    In fact, Olivier Py s exploration of German Romanticism whose philosophical idea(l)s and aesthetics strangely inspired both the greatest music &poetry and the Nazi ideology is very interesting in this production . The same questions can be asked today about Russian art. Can art lead to collective murder? Does exquisite poetry&music protect us from barbarity? Well, it doesn t.

    • Clem says:

      His exploration of German Romanticism? ROTFL. Exploration how exactly? By displaying a bunch of heads? By writing a Celan quote on the wall? Or is a row of buckets filled with glass shards a quintessential romantic image that has escaped me all this time?

  • Clem says:

    I saw Py’s production in Brussels. It was a disgrace – and I say this as a Regietheater fan. He actually traveled to Brussels from Paris for each performance, to give us a lecture before we were allowed to see his work. In this insuffarably pompous speech, he actually claimed that the question how Germany descended into Nazism is the most urgent question Europe faces today, and that his production would be looking for an answer.

    Nobody apparently pointed out to the great directorial genius that his production put Lohengrin in the period immediately AFTER World War II, thus completely contradicting his own pompous claim.

    Of course, his production never yielded any insight into anything. He just kep juggling with runes, nazi symbols and nazi iconography. Dramatically it was a disaster as well: the huge set restricted the movement of the actors / singers, and even more the choir which basically had to stand still for the duration, half hidden by the scenery.

  • Bloom says:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAKY9Ul_mWs Olivier Py s explanations. ( Thank God “Lohengrin refuse la couronne”.)

  • bermsherm says:

    I especially like the vehemence of these comments. Agree or disagree, a discussion of a specific opera or staging still gets the blood up. Good on everyone who raised a voice.

  • Kathleen E King says:

    Why can we not simply have Lohengrin as it was designed and composed? It is a great work, and the story is perfectly comprehensible. Want to write a post WWII interpretation? Fine, do it, but leave Lohengrin alone.

  • V.Lind says:

    Since when is the Celtic Cross “Nazi iconography”? I treasure mine from my childhood in Scotland — where they are a huge symbol of early Christian iconography.

  • Byrwec Ellison says:

    Asking the director to explain the concept is like asking the comedian to explain the joke. I’d rather puzzle over the meaning of it — or whether there’s any meaning at all — for the following week than have it all laid out so that I’m spared the chore of having to think.

  • Bloom says:

    https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/the-stage-show/wagner-lohengrin-olivier-py-stanislavski-the-method-isaac-butler/13858232 One of the rare attempts, if not the only one, from the Australian media, to understand Oliver Py s concept ( apart from the inept glorification of the guest star tenor.)

  • MPMcGrath says:

    In Europe there are, SOMETIMES, explanatory essays in the program. But, to put it as bluntly as some tax-payer-subsidized opera Regisseure do: BS (like this Lohengrin, for example) on the stage remains BS even after the Regisseur attempts to explain his wet dream in essay form.

    Funny how Kaufmann seems to attract eccentric staging. Remember Jones’ Lohengrin with Kaufmann at the Nationaltheater in Munich?