The Assault on Opera

The disappearance of the bourgeoisie has led to a crisis in the arts. How can we track down the defeated remnants of the philistine class, in order to disturb them with the proof of their irrelevance? Theatres, galleries, restaurants and public resorts all offer impeccable post-modern fare, addressed to non-judgemental people. Television has been dumbed down below the horizon of bourgeois awareness, and even the churches are rejecting family values and the marital virtues. Yet, without the bourgeoisie, the world of art is deprived of a target, condemned to repeat worn-out gestures of rebellion to an audience that long ago lost the capacity for outrage.

All is not lost, however. There is one last redoubt where the bourgeoisie can be corralled into a corner and spat upon, and that is the opera. Believers in family values and old-fashioned marriage are romantics at heart, who love to sit through those wonderful tales of intrigue, betrayal and reconciliation, in which man-woman love is exalted to a height that it can never reach in real life, and the whole presented through heart-stopping music and magical scenes that take us, for an enchanted three hours, into the world of dreams. Siegfried’s love for Brünnhilde, shot through with unconscious treachery, Butterfly’s innocent passion built on self-deception like an angel on a tomb, Grimes’s death-wish, rationalised as a longing for Ellen’s maternal love – these are dramatic ideas that could never be realised through words, but which are burned into our hearts by music. Is it surprising that our surviving bourgeoisie, surrounded as they are by a culture of flippancy and desecration, should be so drawn to opera? After a performance of Katya, Pelléas, La Traviata or Figaro, they stagger home amazed at those passions displayed on the stage, by creatures no more god-like than themselves! They will come from miles away to sit through their favourite fairy-tales, and drive home singing in the early hours. They will pay 200 dollars for a mediocre seat, in order to hear their chosen prima donna, and will learn by heart the arias which they are never satisfied to hear unless in the flesh. Take any performance of an operatic classic anywhere in the world, and you will find, sitting in close confinement, motionless and devout for the space of three hours, the assembled remnant of the bourgeoisie, innocent, expectant, and available for shock.

The temptation is irresistible. Hardly a producer now, confronted with a masterpiece that might otherwise delight and console such an audience, can control the desire to desecrate. The more exalted the music, the more demeaning the production. I have come across all of the following: Siegfried in schoolboy shorts cooking a sword on a mobile canteen; Mélisande holed up in welfare accommodation, with Pelléas sadistically tying her to the wall by her hair; Don Giovanni standing happily at ease at the end of the eponymous opera while unexplained demons enter the stage, sing a meaningless chorus and exit again; Rusalka in a wheelchair from which she stares at a football in a swimming pool, while addressing the moon; Tristan and Isolde on a ship divided by a brick wall, singing vaguely of a love that hardly concerns them since each is invisible to the other; Carmen trying in vain to be a centre of erotic attention while a near naked chorus copulates on stage; Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail set in a Berlin brothel; Verdi’s masked ball with the assembled cast squatting on toilets so as to void their bowels – not to speak of the routine Hitlerisation of any opera, from Fidelio to Tosca, that can be squeezed into Nazi uniform. Wagner is always mercilessly mutilated, lest those misguided bourgeois fall for his seductive political message; and as for Madama Butterfly, what an opportunity to get back at the Americans for that bomb dropped on Nagasaki!

The extraordinary thing is not that this mutilation occurs, but that it is paid for by the taxpayer. Opera productions are expensive, and the more facetious they are the higher the cost in the props that are needed to grab the attention of an audience lost in wonder as to the meaning of it all. The producers too are expensive. People like Peter Sellars, who have made a living out of the effort to astonish, are international stars. There is a frenzied competition among such avant-garde producers as to who can squeeze the greatest emotion – positive or negative, it hardly matters – from the reviewers. And it seems that, when it comes to claiming subsidies from city councils and arts bureaucracies, what matters is not what the critics say but how loudly they say it. An opera house, to claim the standing required for a state subsidy, must be ‘controversial’, given to ‘path-breaking’ and ‘challenging’ productions. The bureaucrats need to be persuaded that, without a subsidy, something very important to the future of the city or the nation will be jeopardised. And its importance is proved by the protests that are inspired by it.

What should be our response to this on-going assault on one of the world’s greatest art-forms? One argument that I frequently hear goes like this. Operas are expensive to put on; to charge the full price to the audience would be to price the art-form out of the market. Subsidies are therefore necessary. And subsidies are obtainable only if those who provide them can be persuaded that they are not funding old-fashioned bourgeois audiences, since such audiences have had their share of life and are soon for the chop in any case. Controversial productions are therefore necessary, since the alternative is no productions at all.

There is a measure of truth in that argument. The bourgeois audience is necessary to inspire the modern producer, since otherwise he has no one to offend. But the offence is necessary otherwise the bureaucrats will think that they are subsidising the bourgeoisie, which God forbid. The problem is that the argument is based on a false premise. Opera productions do not in fact need subsidising. For it is not productions that are expensive, but producers. They are expensive because, like Richard Jones, Peter Sellars and Pierre Audi, they have a deep psychological need to draw attention to themselves, at whatever cost to the music. This means outlandish props, lighting effects, strange gestures imposed on the singers in opposition to the natural movements inspired by the music.

I am the more persuaded of my view in this matter by small scale honest performances of the kind that come our way in rural England, or which used to be put on by the great Lorin Maazel at Castleton in Virginia. Every summer we in rural Wiltshire are visited by a small group called Opera à la Carte, under the leadership of Nicholas Heath, who brings classics from the repertoire, from Don Giovanni to Madama Butterfly, performing them on improvised stages in tents or drawing rooms, accompanying the singers with a chamber ensemble, and allowing the magic of the story to spill out over the audience, with only costumes and few unpretentious props to create the scene. At Castleton Maazel enjoyed a small theatre, and later a larger one built to his specification, together with an orchestra put together from the young musicians whom he mentored so generously. But again nothing was spoiled by over-production, the music was allowed to speak for itself, and costumes and a few stage effects were enough to create the atmosphere.

What modern producers seem to forget is that audiences are gifted with the faculty of imagination. This faculty is not extinguished by being bourgeois. Indeed, it is one of the faculties that an ordinary decent bourgeois has to exercise continuously, if only in order to respond forgivingly to the contempt of which he is the target. The obvious truth, that opera stimulates the imagination by presenting a drama as sung rather than spoken, seems to escape the attention of the new school of producers, perhaps because so many of them spend their apprenticeship in the spoken theatre. Perhaps they do not fully understand that serious music, by existing and moving in a space of its own, automatically transports us to an imaginary world. Put singers in costumes that distance them from the audience and, even without stage sets and props, they will move in a world of their own. The music itself will tell them where to turn, and with what expression on their faces. Add a prop or two and all the meaning that the composer intended is there in the room, and only the quality of the performance will affect whether the audience can grasp it.

And here is where I think the greatest disservice has been done to opera by the new style of production. In the past a production was designed to present an opera; now it is designed to interpret it, to attach a meaning to it, whether or not it is a meaning that the work can easily bear. The work is seen as a vehicle for the ideas of the producer, rather than a drama whose meaning lies in itself. Instead of allowing the music to speak the producer stands in front of it, so to say, moralizing at the assembled bourgeoisie, saying that this or that feature of the text or the music must be pinned to some allegorical or symbolic meaning, and that in any event the whole thing has to be made into a relevant commentary on the psychic traumas of the day – otherwise how can we take it seriously? In short the magic of opera, its capacity to create an enchanted world of its own, must be neutralised by an interpretation that brings it down to earth, that pins it into some sordid corner, as Peter Sellars did with Pelléas et Melisande, so that the imaginary world intended by the composer is blotted out by a screen of the producer’s usually half baked and in any case self-aggrandizing ideas.


  1. Or, on the other hand, we could wave a magic wand and return to a the past, where every afternoon at four Nanny serves us freshly-baked scones and that delicious quince jam Cook puts up every fall. Perhaps afterward, if we’re extra special good, she’ll let us crank up the gramophone and listen to the Vera Lynn disc!

    1. I think you have the general idea, despite yourself. It might not be Cook who does it for us, but putting up preserves in the Fall is increasingly popular among urbanites; we see the evidence in the number of farm-to-table restaurants who are finding a great deal of success by teaching people to do it, or by selling their own locally sourced “delicious quince jam.” Fresh, homemade breads are as delightful a thing now as they ever were. Rather than objects of scorn you have pointed out objects of love. They do, in fact, belong to the same category of things that includes opera. We don’t have to “wave a magic wand” or “return to the past” to enjoy them. Nor do we have to modernize them, repudiate them, or transform them. These things are loved as the things they are and always were, even right here and now – especially right here and now.

      1. Opera houses were once private and profitable. Barbaja was one of the entrepreneurial owners, commissioning new ballets and operas from the profits generated, yes, but the gambling salons attached to St Carlo in Napoli, to la scala etc. – an arrangement that survived in Monte Carlo (elsewhere governments closed the salons for political reasons). Stendhal s biography of Rossini has details about Rossini s contract, showing how much he got from the gambling tables. Operas could no longer be financially viable – just as movie houses today would not be if the theatres were not allowed to sell popcorn and Coke. Unfortunately opera houses came to rely since then on government handouts and charities – big mistakes.
        Without them, I do not believe that all these nonsense, thoughtless, often disgusting, Completely disconnected from the music – passing for “innovative” interpretations – would be Staged. I doubt if these directors have done any homework. Just one example: rusalka. She longs belonging to another, foreign culture. Once she gets there though, she becomes mute, she cannot communicate. An eternal story about conflicts between preserving one s culture, tribal features and giving them up. One of the questions Europe was fighting up during Dvoraks time.
        … But when government bureaucrats hand out money, you may get what they would count as “innovation” – ending up with stupidities like Rusalka on a wheelchair looking at a ball – and they would document their ability to select “innovative” performances. They would not be entirely wrong – in a way very stupid stuff is innovative too.

  2. “For it is not productions that are expensive, but producers”

    An amazing claim, presented without any evidence like the rest of this context-free essay. The labour involved in a production is at the same cost whether they’re making a scale replica of the Castel Sant’Angelo or setting the whole thing in a Whole Foods. The venue will have the same hire fees, the admin staff still draw the same salary. I guess you could shave off some rehearsal hours if you just let the music tell singers what to do (somehow, they will all agree and have the exact same interpretation of whichever version of the score they’re using). The only difference is a literal production may be easier to sell- though despite US stages hosting more literal fare than not audiences continue to decline.

    How dare something like politics, imperialism, contemporary audiences or that Butterfly is a child interfere with all the twirling parasols and cherry blossoms out the wazoo!

    And a great big cheery hello to that evergreen bete-noire of people who’d rather spend the day with a recording and posting outrage on Opera-L than darken the lobby of an actual opera house, the Bieito Ballo.

    Also, it’s Lorin. Not Lauren.

    1. IAN wrote:

      “How dare something like politics, imperialism, contemporary audiences or that Butterfly is a child interfere with all the twirling parasols and cherry blossoms out the wazoo! And a great big cheery hello to that evergreen bete-noire of people who’d rather spend the day with a recording and posting outrage on Opera-L than darken the lobby of an actual opera house, the Bieito Ballo.”

      And speaking of politics, imperialism, contemporary audiences and bêtes noires…

      The first thing one must understand about so-called Konzept opera stagings such as the Bieito _Ballo_ horror noted above (or pretty much any Bieito Konzept opera staging) is that they’re NOT undertaken to make an opera “relevant to modern audiences” although that’s the most common defense/justification in behalf of such stagings as IAN’s above remarks demonstrate. The very idea is preposterous. Konzept opera stagings are almost always undertaken for a dual purpose: to energize the jaded operagoer and to give the Regie the opportunity to establish himself (or herself as the case may be) as a unique and separate creative entity (i.e., separate from the opera’s original creator) never mind that it always involves the hijacking of the work of the opera’s original creator. And there’s also a more practical reason for undertaking a Konzept opera staging: it’s a piece of cake, creatively speaking, as opposed to coming up with a new and resonant Werktreue opera staging fully faithful in sense and spirit to the opera creator’s original intent as made manifest in the opera’s score (music, text, and stage directions). Any hack can do the former. It takes a Regie of genuine and uncommon gift to accomplish the latter. Unhappily, as Regies go, the former are legion, the latter almost as rare as unicorns.


  3. “What modern producers seem to forget is that audiences are gifted with the faculty of imagination.”
    The writing…the writing…

  4. This is one of the best articles I have read on the “modern opera world”. I have been in and seen many many awful opera productions. In 2003 I could no longer endure these productions. I gave up my secure position in an opera company and started my own opera company dedicated to what I learned from Licia Albanese, my friend and teacher.

    Bravo Roger Scruton!!!!

  5. We all have seen our share our share of dreadful modernizations, such as Macbeth at that temple, the Met itself, where the witches were transformed into a clutch of dreary elderly ladies with shopping bags. In Verona, last month, the whole cast of the Barber of Seville wore obese Ubu Roi costumes. Fortunately we have Opera Atelier in Toronto that do two period performances a year, although its aesthetic is overly gay. For some of the problems directors, set designers etc. can cause see

    1. It is an excellent piece. I think those who were upset by it would argue that they are not pitifully helpless, though. They certainly submitted some comments to the discussion here, but sadly very few of those comments were civil enough for us to publish. That they were so offensive should perhaps not be very surprising considering the offensiveness of the opera productions they defend.

  6. The production of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE to which Roger Scruton refers was presented by English National Opera a few years ago, and actually made a lot of sense……Tristan and Isolde ARE unable to connect, except in death….and in the second act ‘Love Duet’, Isolde was seen as a remote icon, and Tristan kept reading blindly out to her, never quite able to touch her.
    I too was annoyed by Bietio’s BALLO IN MASCHERA production. But he has redeemed himself by his wonderful CARMEN and FIDELIO,

    1. The wall between the protagonists in that Tristan production is a good example of producers taking things literally, while that wall only existed in terms of psychology – and untill the drinking of the potion. It is patronizing and indeed assuming that the audience has not the slightest understanding or imagination. It merely confirms Scruton’s point.

  7. In opera, what we hear is the inside of what happens on stage, which is the outside. You cannot disconnect the two. But since opera is also a symbolical art form, the staging can be realised symbolically, as Scruton already says, with a minimum of props and costumes. Overdoing the symbolical meaning of scenes, like having a wall between Tristan and Isolde, seems good as an idea, but on the stage it is too obvious and too much ‘in your face’, leaving nothing to the imagination, it is a too materialistic approach. I have seen a Bluebeard’s Castle (Bartok) on an empty stage apart from an immense brick wall which was gradually built-up in a large door opening during the piece, expressing the increasing alienation of the two protagonists, who struggled with the oversize door itself to the left and to the right, which is just silly after a couple of minutes let alone during an hour. You can imagine a stage director getting that idea behind his desk, an idea fully defensible from the plot’s psychology, but the reality demonstrated that it was nevertheless a wrong idea because the audience woud have got the message anyway without such patronizing material symbolism, and this one single idea was blocking all other stage possibilities that the piece so richly offers. (I mention this last example to demonstrate that often the ideas of stage directors are not bad in themselves, but imagined in theory and not in practice; that is where ideology comes-in, as described by Scruton.)

    Following the plot and the meaning of the work leaves enough space for the director to create meaningful and also personal realisations, as for instance in the Pelléas production at the Theater an der Wien:

    Or the Götterdämmerung in Munich: (part 1) (part 2)

    Opera music has an aura of its own and applying a staging to it which is not related to this aura, creates friction – this should be enough to decide that too strong deviations from the work in its staging are wrong, since opera has always been a synthesis of theatre and music, an organic whole. So, only this consideration should already decide against Regietheater.

    Film versions of operas can be very successful, even if they deviate here & there from the original, as in Christian Chaudet’s film version of Stravinsky’s ‘Rossignol’, which does not work well on stage but comes all into its own in an entirely surrealistic world:

    (In 5 parts)

    The accusation that critique of Regietheater in opera would mean a preference for dull, realistic 19C production styles, is absurd. It betrays the modernist fallacy of the critic, seeing any deviation from modernist ideology as an attack from ‘the bourgeois’ on modernity. Meanwhile, nothing is more ‘bourgeois’ and outdated than such attitude…

    Scruton’s article has hilarious first two sentences nailing the ideology of Regietheater to its coffin once and for all!

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