Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Staging Opera


What follows is a guest post by Andrew Huddleston. Andrew is Michael Cohen Career Development Fellow in Philosophy at Exeter College, Oxford. He works primarily in 19th Century European philosophy (especially Nietzsche) and in ethics and social philosophy in addition to aesthetics. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in the Journal of the History of Philosophy, the British Journal of Aesthetics, the Philosophical QuarterlyPhilosophical Studies, and several OUP volumes.

I am going to use my platform here to try out a brief venture in applied aesthetics, with a dash of polemicism and cultural criticism. I’d like to think about opera staging, in particular the phenomenon of avant-garde productions, of the sort that are common in Germany especially. These are the kind that present the opera in non-traditional ways, not just by altering its costuming and setting (a fairly tame and widespread practice), but by diverging far more drastically from what the text, stage directions, and past performance practice would lead one to expect. 

When it comes to the more extreme examples of this, its denigrators will call it “Eurotrash.” It’s proponents, or those who are more neutral about it, will call it “Regieoper,” or Director’s opera. 

Just to get an idea of the sort of thing the detractors are complaining about, take a particularly notorious production of Wagner’s Parsifal at Bayreuth, the festival Wagner founded for the presentation of his own works. This production’s director, the late Christoph Schlingensief, had little experience in opera and was better known in the artworld for various provocative performance pieces. His production of Parisfal is the sort of thing that opponents of Regieoper will point to as emblematic of its excesses. The New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross described it as follows: 

“Despite jaw-dropping lapses of taste throughout, the general impression was of dull chaos. Schlingensief made heavy use of a rotating stage, which became a lazy Susan conveying assorted art-world and pop-culture artifacts, including Andy Warhol soup cans, David Lynch freaks, graffiti and placards, muscleboys, ‘Flintstones’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ costumes.” 

Stage production of Parsifal

As you might expect, the stage directions of Parsifal don’t call for this. But nor do they call for much of what we see in the average performance either. Wagner’s stage directions are toward the more explicit end of the spectrum (as such directions go), and even they leave considerable scope when it comes to how they are to be realized in a performance. Much is left open to interpretation.

For example, Act III of Parsifal, according to the text, takes place in a meadow with blooming flowers. The Metropolitan Opera takes this literally, and we get a kitschy astroturf field with gaudy plastic flowers, all looking rather like the edible fields of candy in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. That is a way of following the stage directions, to be sure. But I can’t help but find it comical. Why not bathe the bare stage in tasteful green light instead? Or do something else that gestures at the flowering meadow without showing it? Indeed, why should directors be constrained by that particular stage direction at all? Must it be set in a meadow, as opposed to elsewhere? 

Promotion poster for Parsifal.

How far, though, can this sort of thing go? When, we might thus want to ask, has a production gone too far and “betrayed” the piece it is supposed to be presenting, whether in ignoring the stage directions or in supplementing them? At a more fundamental level, we might also ask: Is it always better that the production be faithful to the work (whatever that tricky and problematic notion amounts to)? Are there ways of not being faithful that are, in many cases, highly artistically significant and interesting—and thereby worth doing? 

It seems to me that there are. Yet as with so many things, there are no firm principles here. Nor is Regieoper the sort of topic on which one could sensibly render a general verdict. There are good examples of it and bad examples. There indeed is a serious problem, I think, of some directors misusing their creative license, and the results to which their audiences are subjected can be self-indulgent, unilluminating and stupid. But some of the most conventional productions have corresponding flaws of their own. Regieoper is not the only offender when it comes to bad opera production, nor by any means is Regieoper always an offender. 

A frequent complaint that one hears about Regieoper is that the opera has been “hijacked” by the director. But when is an intervention a “hijacking”? At the end of Parsifal, according to the text and the stage directions, Amfortas is supposed to be healed, and Kundry is supposed to “sink lifelessly” to the ground. In Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s wonderful production (the best Parsifal I have seen), it is, on the contrary, Amfortas who sinks lifelessly to the ground. After sweeping Amfortas’s eyes closed, Parsifal renounces the kingship of the Grail Order and places his crown on Titurel’s corpse. Kundry and Parsifal walk out toward a light in the distance, and a few of the knights gradually begin to follow them out of the sick, hermetic world of the Grail Order. This is not faithful to the stage directions at all. But this (along with various other directorial decisions) helpfully draws our attention to salient aspects of the piece and encourages us to see it differently. Even if it is, in some sense, “unfaithful” to the piece, it might be interestingly so, and it might shed useful light on it. And many unconventional readings do just that. 

An equally common charge is that Regieoper productions run roughshod over the composer’s intentions. This indignant intentionalist would thus have us ask as our guide about what to do: Would Wagner have wanted this? But as a matter of setting what our performance policy should be, composer’s intention should not be a decisive consideration. To take an extreme case: There were explicit instructions by Wagner that Parsifal be performed only in Bayreuth. That was (and is) routinely flouted— it seems to me with very good reason. (The ban was lifted, but well after Wagner’s death.) Just because Wagner would have wanted something, that doesn’t make it a binding rule we must follow in deciding how to perform the piece. 

Now, as I’ve said, Regieoper is not a unified phenomenon, so one can’t usefully render a verdict on it as a whole. But I would like to do a bit of diagnostics, and mention some ways in which Regieoper goes wrong when it does. With some of the more galling of these productions, they make a great show of being morally and politically serious, but they are really just trafficking in sententious banalities, largely irrelevant to the piece at issue. Others are dramaturgically incompetent, because they are produced by people who move mainly in art or theater circles and who know little or nothing about opera production. And others are just downright boring. As for further diagnostics, we might also note the following:

1. Operas that are produced ultimately need to work as performances. That means that the interpretation, whatever its textual merits, needs to come through in a performance. Many directors in the Regie mold are just too undisciplined in this regard. They can’t confine themselves to exploring a central animating idea or a few key themes. There is a particular brand of director who feels he or she needs to stage the full multiplicity of resonances to be found in the piece, and the result leaves us covered in their bewildering spew of imagery. 

2. Another way that Regieoper goes wrong, when it does, is putting a great premium on shock effects, at the expense of offering a careful and nuanced reading. It is easy to be sensationalistic and attention-grabbing (people the stage with naked people and/or Nazis, to no apparent end); subtlety is much harder to manage, and it is laudable achievement when productions (whether traditional or Regie or somewhere in between) manage it. 

3.  A presupposition of Regieoper is that operas should not be primarily for entertainment and delectation, but should be serious intellectual events. In principle, this is something to be applauded. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think that many of the works in the operatic canon actually repay serious intellectual scrutiny focused on their plot and their philosophical and cultural themes. They are just too thin for anything substantial to be drawn out of them. (Of course, they can still great fun to watch.) Yet I have seen many productions of Regieoper that try to squeeze something out of these works, and the results can seem pathetic and pointless. One thinks: Why bother? 

4. Many directors seem to find it necessary to provide unmusical audiences with constant stimulation, and therefore to have something going on onstage at all times. They are apparently suspicious of the idea that people might just listen to and think about the music. (The prelude and the da capo aria are frequent victims of meddling here.) Sometimes the director’s interventions work beautifully. But sometimes they just distract from the music, and the piece as a whole, instead of enhancing it. 

5. The most irritating failing of all (rarer, but not unknown) is what we might think of as Ressentiment-regie. Wagner seems to provoke this more than anyone else. When faced with the work of a great artist, some of the more middling artistic talents who go into operatic direction are driven toward of combination of denigration of Wagner’s work and unwarranted aggrandizement of themselves and their own pitifully vapid ideas. 

Now those are just a few recurring flaws that come to mind. Much of Regieoper is blissfully free of them and sparklingly intelligent and successful. Much of it has other flaws that I haven’t mentioned. And many more traditional performances, particularly the bloated fare that the Met routinely pulls out of storage, has a variety a different faults, along with delightful charms of its own. 

We shouldn’t be slaves to tradition, or make mindless appeals to “fidelity,” either to the piece or to composer’s intention. But there is a competing danger, I am suggesting, of being cowed into submission and applauding whatever shallow piece of directorial pseudery comes down the pike, for fear of being thought reactionary and anti-intellectual. We should not be afraid to call out regieidiocy, as I now call it, when we see it. Regieoper can be a blessing, but it can also be a blight on the opera world. 

If what we want is some kind of general principles by which to indict bad Regie productions, I don’t think they are going to be forthcoming, and I’ve not tried to give them here. We must take productions as they come. I think what we ultimately need to ask is what we want (or better: should want) out of opera productions. Questions about the artistic appropriateness of various production styles and choice ultimately come back to this. And these are difficult questions about which there will be little agreement, in large part because there is disagreement about why opera, and performances of it, matter in the first place. 


  1. Andrew, what are your thoughts on the following:

    1) The principal aim/task/goal of operatic direction (for any operatic work O) ought to be the production of excellent performances (of that O).

    2) Whether or not an operatic work is itself an artwork, being an excellent performance of that work is not itself sufficient for being an artwork.

    3) So, operatic direction ceteris paribus ought not aim at the production of artworks—(e.g., operatic direction being so aimed ceteris paribus frustrates or precludes the production of (maximally/minimally) excellent performances).

    The idea here is that assuming an appropriately compelling case can be made for 2), the phenomena to which you refer might be largely explained by a shift in what contemporary operatic directors taken their principal and primary task to be, such that, the more folks see operatic direction as principally an artistic role (i.e., as principally in service to the production of an artwork related to but distinct from that of the operatic work being performed) the less they will see operatic direction as principally governed by that operatic work (i.e., as principally in service to the virtuous instancing/performance thereof). From there, one could secure a pro tanto normative force for 3) via the plausible claim that the extent to which an operatic director takes herself as such to be an artist (i.e., to be tasked with the production of an artwork for which she is the author) will ceteris paribus be the extent to which she prescribes or directly engages in production activities irrelevant or counter to the production of (max/min) excellent performances (of that operatic work).

  2. Christy,

    Thanks for the reply.

    This is an interesting argument, but I don’t think I would want to accept it.

    There seemed to be a hidden premise in the argument, mentioned parenthetically in (3) in explanation of why the conclusion should follow. It is:

    (2.5) Operatic performances of operatic work O that seek to be artworks in their own right thereby ceteris paribus undermine their ability to be excellent performances of O.

    I think this is sometimes true. Yet it needn’t be. A given performance of O can be an artwork in its own right (because, e.g., it instantiates such a unique, ingenious, and intelligently-realized and staged reading of O) and also (for that reason) be an excellent performance of O.

    I’m not very well-read in the literature on theatrical performance, but I gather from a paper I recently commented on that there is a view along similar lines: that because theatrical performances are artworks in their own right, they are therefore not performances of some other work. I don’t think that jump follows. And I would also want to resist the more modest cousin of this view, implicit in (2.5), that because performances can be artworks in their own right, it follows that, when they are, they are ceteris paribus less excellent as performances of some other work.

    I think a better conclusion to the argument you set out would instead be: Operatic direction ought to aim at the production of artworks, only insofar as that is compatible with the principal directorial aim of producing an excellent performance of the work O.

    I think I agree with that conclusion. But I think there’s legitimate space for doing something other than operatic direction proper—using a operatic work in the canon as a creative springboard for a work of performance art. Here the standards would get changed. There is a question about what sort of place this artistic activity should have in opera houses as cultural institutions, and interesting debate could be had about that.

    In any event, I think the problem is less that Regie directors aim to produce artworks in the performance itself, but that, to the extent that they do, they don’t produce artworks that are very good or interesting in their own right (at least compared to the works of the composers whose works they are dealing with). The result is that one ends up with something that is neither a good work of art in its own right, nor an excellent performance of the work in question.

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