By Sam Brown

A popular discussion topic which brought views from a range of participants including theatre makers, audience members, critics, opera fans, staff of opera companies, staff of theatre companies and many others.

We discussed the concept of “Regietheater” - what it means. Some people had heard the word ‘Eurotrash’ also applied to this type of opera production which seemed to provoke some strong reactions.

On one side we had comments that described a feeling of distraction or dislocation from the story and/or music of the opera - the work of the director (and designer) served to obstruct the relationship between opera and audience member, and many people articulated an experience of being told by the director that this work wasn't for them, that they shouldn't be watching.

On the other we had views that presented “regietheater” as the interpretative work of the director and creative team, which of course could fail or succeed, and which has emerged in the opera (as opposed to the dramatic theatre) partly as a result of the canonical nature of the repertoire, i.e. the same titles produced by the different companies again and again, with the only dramatic theatre correlative being the Royal Shakespeare Company, and partly as a result of the internationalism (especially Europeanism) of opera as compared with dramatic theatre which has had a huge impact. The British dramatic theatre remains quite isolationist, with a central focus on the priority of the writer. Whereas opera has been impregnated with the influence of continental Europe, especially the German speaking world, which since WW2 reacted against a naturalistic, sentimentalised presentation of theatre and especially music theatre, and a view of culture which was questioned by the generation of directors and designers that emerged after the war.

“When I go to the opera, sometimes I close my eyes and want to listen to the music without being distracted by the staging!”

“In the 1970s and 1980s, the ENO was presenting a truly radical programme of work by new directors where I felt I could follow the story and really be drawn into opera for the first time.”

These two statements, from the same person, illustrated an important phenomenon: today's audience member who remembers fondly what he/she saw before, and now reacts angrily to what he/she perceives as over-the-top designs and ‘regietheater’ which he/she cannot understand and feels detracts from the opera, was once an audience which championed the new against the regressive conservatism of the past.

John Fulljames (ROH) made the important point that the audience is not a homogenous group, and that opera companies must try to create a situation where the audience can communicate their shared experience to one another. Clearly this has to do with the question of marketing: some audience members would like to be ‘warned’ that a production might be modern or “offensive” in style.

Many participants had anecdotes to share:

Lohengrin with a chorus of lab rats Hippolyte with a huge fridge Idomeneo with storm troopers Giulio Cesare with a polar bear Fidelio on a space ship

There were two problems mainly outlined:

1. The ‘concept’ of the production could not be comprehended by the audience

2. The production was bad, notwithstanding the conceptualisation.

The fact that opera can provoke strong reactions was considered to be a strength, and artists want to be able to feel FREE to create. Why should opera productions not be considered in the same light as, for example, a work of modern art, in which the artist or artists have freedom of expression?

There was also much discussion of funding. Irina Brown described Thomas Ostermeier's comparison of funding for the arts in the UK and German - the annual budget for the arts in Berlin is equal to the entire UK Arts Council budget per year.

What about ticket prices? Tickets are expensive here, and audiences feel betrayed if they see a production that they feel disrespects the material. Some audiences now even look first at WHO is directing, before the title, singers etc., in deciding whether to book. Audience member Vivian describes the season launch by Kasper Holten at the ROH in which offerings from modern directors were contrasted with the more traditional productions (mostly revivals), in an attempt to show that there is something for everyone at the ROH. I described my experience of receiving email marketing for the last run of the current La Boheme, advertised in terms such as “one last chance to savour the majestic beauty of our traditional production”, implicitly setting up a contrast with the new production to come in the following season by Richard Jones, a director known for adventurous productions. Can this division of audience between those who want the old and those who want the new really be the answer to the problem of dissatisfaction with “regietheater”? Isn't this at best reductive and at worst cultural apartheid?

There is surely more work to be done on HOW opera is advertised to its audience, to ensure that audience members “know what they're buying”, and there is an interesting conversation to be had about the role of the director and creative team. Is the director's primary role to communicate the opera as composed and written? Or is the director an interpreter? One participant made the interesting comment: “Directors in their quest for novelty should worry less about WHERE or HOW to set their production, and more about what the opera is ABOUT.”

But what IS the aesthetic manifestation of opera? Max Hoehn described two different experiences of seeing Khovanschina by Mussorgsky: one in Birmingham with a contemporary local setting, featuring a community chorus, actors dressed as policeman, multi-ethnic casting etc., and one highly ‘traditional’ production, on tour from the Mariinsky in St Petersburg and dating from the Stalinist period - dry and dead. Ed Dick asks: should we be thinking about good or bad directing, modern or traditional stagings, or should we, in fact, be asking this very question: is the production alive or dead?