Painted girls in hot pants and stilettos. A giant tomcat copulating with a pill-popping mermaid. A seduction chamber decked with a neon cross. Scenes from outré pornography? No, they're vignettes from a production of Dvorak opera Rusalka, which debuted at London's Royal Opera House last month and relocated the classic fairytale The Little Mermaid to a garish brothel complete with molestation, pederasty and bestiality.
The first performance of the opera drew boos from the audience. It didn't please many critics either. The next day's papers denounced it as hideous, vulgar and in the words of one particularly incensed reviewer an "incomprehensible travesty." While neither the singing nor the orchestra offended, the modern production was, according to Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Telegraph, "all quite nasty."
That controversial new productions still shock is, well, shocking. Reinterpretation known often pejoratively in Europe as Regietheater (director's theater) is now the norm, if not downright ubiquitous. Opera Australia, for example, is currently showing a new production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro set in a gated mansion where Figaro is a security guard. Last season, Berlin's Komische Oper revived radical director Calixto Bieito's controversial 2004 production of Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio, in which a character severs a prostitute's nipples and forces another to drink his urine. Even a conservative outfit like New York's Metropolitan Opera is lining up a futuristic new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen for the 2011-2012 season and in 2012-2013 will stage a new 1960s Rigoletto, set in what general manager Peter Gelb described as "the misogynist rat-pack world of Las Vegas."
Why are even the most conservative companies succumbing to the avant garde? For one thing, it's the challenge of keeping things fresh when the audience has limited appetite for new works. "Opera is a museum art form houses are parading all the classic old works," says Nicholas Hill, professor of Opera and Music Theatre at the University of Sussex. "What opera have to do is find ways of re-presenting the old repertory in ways that make it new and exciting." Regietheater isn't just about shocking opera-goers, but about mocking them a bit too, some say. "[The directors] take great pleasure in throwing mud at the audience," says the Daily Telegraph's opera critic Christiansen, who locates the trend's roots in Bertolt Brecht's pioneering modernist approach to theatre in the 1920s. "They regard the audience as the middle class establishment who think they've come along for a nice evening's entertainment. Well these directors, like the ones who did this Rusalka, are determined that they should stay awake." And now, keeping audiences awake means pushing the envelope even further. Peter Sellars' 1990 film of Mozart's Don Giovanni depicted the protagonist as a drug-dealing thug in the Harlem ghetto, an interpretation denounced as an "act of artistic vandalism" by Opera News, the publication of the Metropolitan Opera Guild. Since then, however, directors have thrown in everything from gang rape to a scene where the rake furiously masturbates before a statue of the Virgin Mary.
The Regietheater crowd may be keeping audiences' attention. But is there anything more meaningful beneath the madness? "If you have people prancing around in tights and doublets you lose any sense of why that work might still have an edge," says Till. Of Sellars, he points out: "That's a director who believes that a work like Don Giovanni ... continues to be a genuinely provocative, morally-challenging work." The same goes for Rusalka, he says, which was written at a time when Freudian theories were in the air and was meant to portray a young girl awakening to her sexuality and the accompanying fear a subtext lost on today's audience.
Regietheater may be all about new ideas but the concept itself is under increasing attack for being dated. It was first attempted in 1951 by Richard Wagner's grandson Wieland Wagner who sought to reclaim his grandfather's legacy from the Nazis with a minimal production of Parsifal that replaced medieval knights and the Grail temple with an abstract set and Grecian robing. Traditional Wagnerians were naturally incensed and Wieland had created an exciting new trend. More recently however, when news broke that the Met had commissioned a new Verdi production from director David Alden who made his mark by incorporating a chainsaw massacre into a 1984 English National Opera production of the Tchaikovsky opera Mazeppa one online music buff groaned sarcastically: "Finally, an edgy 'Euro-trash' director at the Met!"
But the arguments over endless reinterpretations may be misplaced. Some opera critics say the debate shouldn't really be about how an opera is presented, but about how good it is overall. "In the end, it's either done very well, or it's done badly," says Christiansen. "Just as a very conventional period production can be full of insight and sensitivity, it can also be as dull as ditch water."