Opera of Postmodernism and New Challenges of Opera Critiсism

Irina Yaskevitch*

This article focuses on the period starting from the 1970s, when opera theatre changed its aesthetics and entered the postmodernism stage. At the same time, the concept of so-called “director’s opera” started to spread. The director’s theatre was considered a new socio-cultural phenomenon and the next stage in the evolution of opera. New stages in artistic development lead to new aesthetics, and critics and commentators should be ready to face the new challenges that the operatic theatre has prepared for them. This article’s conclusions are based upon considerations of opera productions over the last 40 years.
Keywords: director’s opera, Regietheater, chronotope, transculture, postmodern

In the current cultural context, interpretation, rather than the libretto and the score themselves, are of foremost importance to the opera audience. Opera has become an interpretational art form in which each stage of the artistic process, including the final (performative) one, is essential to the actualization of meaning. Taking a radical stance, we can conclude that no opera score is complete unless it has been performed on stage.

In this new situation, the director takes precedence, not only in the stage presentation of the operatic score, but also in the development of opera as an art form and, finally, in the communication with the audience. In the modern opera house, the audience can be terrified, outraged or delighted by new productions, but they cannot be indifferent to the work on the stage.

This new operatic era began in the last quarter of the twentieth century. It is associated with the so-called opera boom in the West and a sharp increase of interest in opera among both audiences and major directors. To define the new approach to the matter in German-speaking criticism, Wiland Wagner’s term Regietheater (or Regieoper) began to be used. In the European cultural context, it is quite often used in a negative sense, accentuating the undesirable radicalism of the new generation of directors, the provocative nature of the work and the perceived looseness in their treatment of classical heritage, which often fail to meet the expectations of the conservative part of the public.

Regietheater, in its literal translation, was borrowed by the Russian language, but, for Russian critics, “director’s opera” (режиссерский оперный театр) at first had no negative connotations. On the contrary, new stage interpretations of classical operas were perceived by many as a breath of fresh air, overcoming the stagnation that was so apparent in all areas of life in that late USSR.

Today, in Russian art criticism, the term “director’s opera” is often used neutrally, meaning simply the presence of an original staging concept and a prioritization by the director of stage interpretation over an evaluation of the music. In the last decade, the term has, at times, begun to be used negatively, reflecting a certain fatigue among critics and spectators of overly speculative stage interpretations, which are seen as a radical departure from the canon.

Significantly, the concept of director’s opera implies a certain historical gap. Although serious directing came to the opera more than 100 years ago (for example, in the productions of Vsevolod Meyerhold at St. Petersburg Mariinsky theatre at the beginning of the twentieth century), the modern phase in the development of opera directing began less than 50 years ago. It can be suggested with confidence that the new situation in the opera is closely related to the global direction in the humanities that was dubbed “postmodernism” and that will be discussed later in this paper.

Serious directing was introduced in the opera more than 100 years ago; for example, in the productions of Vsevolod Meyerhold (featured above) at St. Petersburg Mariinsky theatre. Photo: Wikipedia

Journalistic arts critics—who are the vanguard of any arts criticism—were the first to see the need to analyze and evaluate the “revolution” in opera and to figure out why, in the classical opera, instead of heroes in feathered helmets and antique togas, characters appeared with tousled hair and shabby jeans. These critics were, for the most part, musicians and musicologists who knew the operatic scores and the styles of orchestral and vocal performance well. They were able to compare conductors’ musical interpretations, but they did not always pay attention to the directors’ theatrical revisions and looked upon the acting talents of vocalists condescendingly.

Until that time, musicologists who covered opera did not need special knowledge that went far beyond musicology. It was enough to know a few theatre words (“backstage,” “backdrop,” “footlight,” “spotlight,” etc.), to have an attentive eye and an ability to describe an operatic performance.

It is important to note, however, that even if an opera critic focuses only on the musical side of the production, s/he finds her/himself in a situation different from that of a music critic. The latter generally evaluates what s/he heard in a particular programme, considering the concert as a specific phenomenon, and writes with confidence in the fact that what he heard in any given moment was unique.

The opera critic works under different conditions. The life of the production is not limited to the premiere; it continues in time, because, after the premiere, the production may be included in a repertoire, season or series. It may be performed with a certain regularity, with different casts and conductors. In this regard, the musical performance and, accordingly, the entire interpretation can vary quite significantly from one evening’s show to another, while at the same time, they should not contradict the original plan. The difficult skill of comparative analysis of musical interpretations, at the level of subtle nuances and finest details, is one of the main professional qualities for an opera critic.

However, in recent decades the situation for opera critics and journalists has become even more complicated. Today, they cannot limit themselves only to the analysis of musical interpretations because that would overlook a significant element of the audiences’ experience and provide the reader with only a partial picture of the production. A musicologist who is actively involved in opera criticism must go beyond the limits of his profession. S/he should master the techniques and tools of theatre analysis, be aware of the main trends of modern theatre directing and contemporary aesthetics and acquire extensive experience in viewing productions, including drama.

Modern opera productions represent a wide and diverse field of interpretations. To fully understand and evaluate the productions of this new opera, the operagoer and the critic must have additional knowledge, a general understanding of the wider theatre context and theatrical sign-decoding skills.

In today’s opera, the role of the stage designer becomes more important, as does that of the lighting artist. Stage design is created with the help of high technology and modern materials and is becoming ever more complex. In this regard, the critic’s horizon must also inevitably expand. It is useful for her/him to understand the contemporary trends of fine arts and design, to know and to be able to describe the features and capabilities of modern stage equipment and technologies deployed.

Therefore, we can see that contemporary opera practice entails a change in the way it is seen, as well as an enrichment of the content of critical works dedicated to it. An opera production invites the application of knowledge and experience, not only of a musicologist, but also of a theatre expert—ideally one and the same person.

It should be recognized that, at the end of the twentieth century, the corps of opera critics was not properly prepared to reflect on the new situation in opera directing. They typically failed to see any signs of postmodernism, thus evaluating the new opera theatre as modernist or avant-garde. This is understandable, as the departure from the tradition was evident, yet the external signs of the arts of modernism and postmodernism (subversion of the canon and the conventions, rejection of mimesis and linear narrative, baring the device, collaged presentation, etc.) are often deceptively similar.

It is obvious now that the fundamental divide between the two interrelated, but essentially different, art movements of the twentieth century must be sought not in artistic strategies, but in their ideology and world outlook. The ideological, moral and psychological foundations of postmodernism include: persistent skepticism about so-called traditional values (that is, the values of the modern time, including modernism); a belief in the crisis of authority and, consequently, epistemic uncertainty; the destruction of hierarchical systems and the rejection of the notion of the artist as a demiurge; an eschatological mood and sense of corrective irony; and a decentralized world model. All of which allows us to talk about postmodernism in terms of a separate period in the development of philosophy and culture, and as an independent art movement.

Following other types of art, opera begins to transmit a new ideology in the 1970s (in the Soviet Union, a little later, at the beginning of the 1980s). It does so primarily by reinterpretation of classical opera works. This is the reason for highlighting the stage interpretation of the opera score and, accordingly, the figure of the director, since it is the latter who is responsible for the production as an artistic whole. Therefore, we can say with confidence that director’s opera is brought about by the phenomenon of postmodernism.

Video 1
Orpheus and Eurydice by Christoph Willibald Gluck. Berlin, Komische Opera, 1988

Today, we have accumulated vast experience in critical analysis and evaluation of postmodern theatre productions (including sharply subversive ones, which came to be dubbed, somewhat histrionically, as “Eurotrash”). That is why it is not particularly difficult to find their common features: the transfer of the time and place of the action or refusal to specify them (the phenomenon of transculture, a new postmodern chronotope); stylistic eclecticism with a mixture of types and genres of theatrical performance; ironic attitude towards the original source, its plot and characters; the widespread use of grotesque, clowning, caricature and buffoonery; the combination of performative classicism with elements of mass culture; increased attention to “low” subjects such as sex, crime, marginal lifestyles and deviant behaviours (especially among the young); putting the production together with collage or film editing techniques; coexistence of traditional sets with the achievements of high technology; minimalism, extreme selectivity and laconicism in both linguistic expression and conventions of stage action; displacement of curtains and backstage area by enclosed pavilions; the huge role of video projections and technical devices in general.

Opera critics and commentators had to not only expand their knowledge of theatre, but also change the way of looking at its performative content, decode new meanings, study new interpretive techniques. In the 1980s and 1990s, positively critics—Russian critics in particular—supported the most radical, free interpretations of classical musical scores and the experiments of directors with the stage chronotope. The new methods were seen as an attempt to modernize traditional plots, which had become obscured by stereotypes, and to bring them closer to today’s viewer or to reveal their timeless essence. In fact, these critics offered habitual ideological support for the new productions.

However, it is now clear that in most of the best, most successful examples of postmodern directing such an intention can be detected only at a superficial glance. In fact, theatrical interpretation deliberately comes into conflict with the classical score. The essence of this artistic gesture is to deny the possibility of the existence of the plot, the hero, the relationships and, ultimately, the art that existed before. This is a manifestation of the most important signs of the postmodern worldviewsuch as epistemic uncertainty and doubt about the true value of the achievements of modern European culture.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Stage director: Dmitry Cherniakov. Festival in Aix-en-Provence, 2010. Don Giovanni (Bo Skovhus), Donba Elvira (Kristine Opolais), Leporello (Kyle Ketelsen. Photo: Pascale Victor

Consider, for example, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, directed by Russian director Dmitry Chernyakov (co-production of the Aix-en-Provence Festival and the Bolshoi Theatre of Russia, 2010). Chernyakov transferred the opera action to a modern European bourgeois household. In particular, Donna Elvira becomes the wife of Don Juan; Donna Anna becomes her sister; Commendatore becomes the father of both women and the head of the clan; Zerlina becomes Anna’s daughter from her first marriage; Leporello becomes a family friend; only the fiancés, Don Ottavio and Masetto, remain who they were. Relations within the family are by no means idyllic—in fact, they are completely fake—and Don Juan, who cannot bear hypocrisy and lies, looks like a black sheep. The relatives are afraid of revelations, and, therefore, it is they, and not the statue of the Commendatore, who kill the protagonist. They do this with the help of a masterfully accomplished act of trickery.

The director sought to demonstrate the collapse of the traditional bourgeois family, of course; but there is another important component in his innovations. The idea of this production, as in most other examples of postmodern opera, is grounded in the post-humanistic view of Man which rejects the idea of the human as the crown of creation and intentionally directs attention to peripheral, marginal, paradoxical, vulgar and generally deviant characters.

In the same vein: Harry Kupfer’s Orpheus becomes a rock musician far from high art (Orpheus and Eurydice by Gluck, Berlin, Komische Opera, 1988); in a Peter Sellars production (New Summer Festival University of York, 1990), Don Giovanni and his servant Leporello are black friends who live in the criminal ghetto of New York; Violetta in Yuri Alexandrov’s La Traviata transforms from a courtesan into a streetwalker who keeps company with the dregs of the city (СанктъПетербургъ Опера/Saint Petersburg Opera, St. Petersburg, 2005).

In addition, motifs expressing heroes’ homosexual relations appear in many classical operas; for example, in Eugene Onegin directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski (Bavarian National Opera, 2007).

Video 2
Patrice Chereau, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Act 2. Bayreuth, 1976, recorded 1980. Manfred Jung as Siegfried, Fritz Hübner as Hagen. Conducted by Pierre Boulez

Returning to the chronotope, it should be noted that in the aesthetics of postmodernism, the phenomenon of transculture, especially as it pertains to postmodern time-space, appears. In it, all cultural-historical forms are mixed, history loses its linearity and takes the form of a tightly compressed spiral whose rings are easy to cross from one epoch to another. In addition, the essence of the artistic strategy of postmodernism is the creation of an artificial model of reality in the form of symbolic hyperreality. Patrice Chereau was one of the first, if not the first, who created such a transcultural and transtemporal world, staging Der Ring des Nibelungen in Bayreuth in 1976.

Another striking work, in terms of manifesting such directorial intentions, was Don Giovanni, directed by Luke Bondi at the Vienna Opera in 1990, in which the protagonist seemed to go through different eras and cultures, compressing historical time.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin. Stage director: Stephan Herheim. Amsterdam Opera, 2011. Photo: Forster

A specifically postmodern chronotope can be observed in Stefan Herheim’s Eugene Onegin (Amsterdam Opera, 2011), in which all the Russian classes of the nineteenth century, the Red Guards of the first years of the Revolution and the pride of the Soviet period (athletes, cosmonauts, classical ballet dancers) are mixed in the scene of the high society ball.

Signs of the emergence of a postmodern, transcultural world can be observed in the early works of the already mentioned Dmitry Chernyakov (for example, A Life for the Tsar, St. Petersburg, Mariinsky Theatre, 2004). In later productions, this director, in contradiction to his earlier idiom, seeks to scrupulously recreate on stage the aesthetics and everyday atmosphere of a certain historical and cultural time (in the aforementioned Don Giovanni, The Tsar’s Bride at the Berlin State Opera in 2013 and many others). In these productions, we encounter hyperreality, the idea of the world as a text and culture as a system of signs.

In many examples of postmodern opera theatre, the symbolic connotations of the work, their isolation from the plot and from the score are obvious. The symbolism, inherent in postmodern productions, differs significantly from the symbolism of the early twentieth century, in which the subject of artistic research is the relation of some ideal substance in the real world. The symbols of postmodern theatre are irrational; they exist autonomously and appeal to intuitive perception. They admit multiple interpretations and often cannot be decoded within the framework of a logical conceptual system.

In director’s opera, the commitment to blurring the distinction between the sublime and the base, and between elite and mass culture is clear. It should be noted that classical opera, in the minds of the modern spectator-listener, is an elitist phenomenon. Therefore, any attempt to combine it with mass culture may be considered a manifestation of postmodernist pluralism, a tendency to destroy binary oppositions. Thus, in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, directed by Philip Stölzl (Salzburg Festival, 2007), the Pope appears as a pop idol with a pink limousine and a retinue of fans. This irony, seen here in a parody of the popemobile, is a game in which the sacred and the profane are mixed. This juxtaposition of a religious cult and a famous rock star, a religious icon and an icon of style, is typical of postmodern art.

Video 3
La Traviata, staged by Simon Stone. Paris National Opera, 2019

One of the latest examples of introducing signs of mass culture into a classical opera is La Traviata, staged by Simon Stone (Paris National Opera, 2019). In this production, the director presents the central conflict as an opposition of, on the one hand, the modern Parisian multicultural environment, the glamorous beauty industry, in which Violetta is an employee, and, on the other, the conservative, traditionalist French province, represented by Germont Senior. However, in this production, there is an absence of irony, play, semantic ambiguity and shocking images. Created in the late-2010s, the show emerged at a time when the artistic strategies of postmodernism in opera had already changed.

In the first decade of the new millennium, philosophers, cultural researchers and sociologists began to write about the end of postmodernism and the onset of a new situation, generally defined as post-postmodernism, metamodernism, digital modernism, automodernism or pseudo-modernism. Indeed, it is impossible not to notice that the foundations of postmodernism are shaken: irony is being replaced by a sympathetic attitude; the authors engage, again, with serious problems (the range of which has been substantially renewed and expanded over the past half-century). At the centre of new concepts of culture today are the problems of bioethics, virtual reality, digitalization of life, the formation of the so-called “economy of impressions,” multiculturalism, ecology and its effect on politics.

The latter, for example, is reflected in the production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov by director Alexander Titel at the Ekaterinburg Opera and Ballet Theatre (Russia, 2013). The political theme, undoubtedly laid down in the primary source, indicates a topical turn.

Modest Petrovich Musorgsky, Boris  Godunov. Stage director: Aleksander Titel. Ekaterinburg Opera, 2013. Photo: Aleksey Kunilov

The characters of the opera are feral representatives of the once-strong civilization that has gone through wars as well as environmental and technological disasters. Having miraculously survived, they are now trying to reinstate an organized society. The authority here is accidental and illegitimate. It rests only on violence and suppression: gunmen in the same impersonal grey uniforms are present almost all the time and are not much better off than the people. The latter still wants to regain its former wealth and greatness by every possible means. Therefore, the weak-willed, spineless ruler (Tsar Boris) is put forward by the emerging social elite almost randomly; he is a hollow symbol of authority, a pawn and, at any moment, can be replaced by another one. At the time of the death of the Tsar, abandoned by everyone the boyars, in grey, ill-fitting suits, decide hurriedly who they will present to the people as the new sovereign so as not to lose the initiative in the bloody struggle for resources.

Despite the ambiguity of assessments of the current stage in the development of  opera, one cannot help but notice that new readings of famous operas reveal unexpected meanings, reflect the thinking of contemporary people and attract the interest and attention of the general public.

Director’s theatre has made everyone talk about it as a new socio-cultural phenomenon, as the next phase in the evolution of opera. It is possible that new themes will lead to new aesthetics, and critics and opera reviewers probably need to prepare for the new challenges that opera will have in store for them in the coming years. 


*Irina Yaskevitch is a musicologist and theatre critic. Currently, she serves as Vice-Rector and Associate Professor in the Novosibirsk State Theatre Institute. She is author of the monograph New Russian Opera in the Context of Postmodernism and of approximately 200 scientific and critical articles on the problems of modern opera and musical theatre. She has been a member of the jury of the National Russian theatre award “Golden Mask” on a few occasions.

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