Possible positive consequences of the Corona crisis on opera directing in general and the Wagner reception in particular - June 2020

Klaus Billand

Klaus Billand


The impact of the corona crisis on the opera business – and I would like to focus on it here – led to an extremely painful cultural abstention, the length of which, in fact, is not yet fully foreseeable and which has almost hit all performances for over two months and particularly the summer 2020 opera festivals. After that we will know better, or only after a long time, how important culture is for our Western society and its expression in classical music. Maybe, that was overdue for once – in my opinion it was overdue. Positive lessons and developments from the corona crisis for opera directing in general and the reception of Richard Wagner's oeuvre could also be obtained.

The freelance singers and their financial commitments and claims

First of all to the freelance singers, i.e. people, individuals like you and me, who have always stood by and should be there when you have to order your season or festival tickets a year in advance, because the demand for certain performances is so large etc. Has anyone ever thought that a performance would be canceled because one or more singers simply would not appear, for whatever reason ?! It would almost always be a scandal for the stars, although they are least affected by the corona crisis. The lack of freelancers would make many festival performances impossible, because important parts have not always been covered for cost reasons – a game with full confidence in the absolute disposition of the artists without a net and a second floor!

From the point of view of the freelance singers, however, it is exactly the opposite: After they were contractually promised to perform often a long time before, for which they often prepared themselves with a lot of effort, especially with the rehearsal of new roles, they are now left standing in the rain, because a pandemic – which was emerging much earlier than now admitted – is coming, which nobody expected or wants to have expected. Unfortunately, as could be seen in the past few weeks, these artists do not have the right to request payment of their caches and expenses due to pandemic-based cancellations. If they got and still get something, it is thanks to the kindness of the respective theater management. There is no legal basis, such as the reimbursement of the ticket price to visitors in the event of a cancellation of the performance. Yes, politicians in Germany and Austria have not taken care of this important but relatively defenseless group of workers for a long time, because they are, profanely formulated, workers as well. For a long time, it seemed to me that the so important freelancers, without whom no festival can run – simply because festivals do not have a fixed ensemble – are left alone in the legal space. In principle, they still do!

Not least under pressure from the interested public and those interested in culture, this group of artists has recently started to receive certain financial compensations, which, however, by no means cover the damage they have suffered from the cancellation of their performances due to Covid-19, and will continue to do so, with all the resulting consequences for them. As far as Austria is concerned, the overdue reappointment of the Secretary of State for Culture seems to be a first reaction to this situation. In Germany, too, people have come to realize how important culture is for the country, among other things, after some brave and well-known opera singers have articulated their situation nationally and continue to look for combatants.

As laudable as this is, it can only be the first step in formulating a legal basis for default and compensation payments if such a case occurs, using exactly the same argument as the opera visitors concerned will use, i.e. to have their tickets already paid refunded. One issue has to be considered here: Only a legal basis would give a non-star singer the security for a payment in the event of a cancellation not caused by him or her, simply because a personal confrontation with the theater – with or without success – could jeopardize renewed engagement and she or he would quickly become known as a problem maker in the scene, with potentially fatal professional consequences.

—> The first positive consequence of the Corona crisis should be that such a legal basis be formulated and adopted. We should finally realize that there is no opera without a singer and that they are the heart of this art form!

Festival Theatre Bayreuth

Festival Theatre Bayreuth

The artistic aspects

a) Funding and role of the agencies

But now to the artistic aspects. After the Corona crisis, the opera scene will certainly have to adjust to reduced public budgets and probably also sponsorship money for new productions. Everyone will have less money and, unfortunately, culture will once again run the risk of ending up in the last place of political priorities in the face of other needs that are considered more important and therefore more relevant to the vote. The opera scene can do something out of it – grosso modo – if it only wants so. Because a closer look at what has been happening so far has given the impression that the efforts, even in view of secure funding from the public sector and private support, and especially at festivals, are not always high. Ticket prices continue to increase (more than significantly recently in Bayreuth) and do often no more “apply to art”, as Richard Wagner demands in his “Mastersingers of Nuremberg”. Wagner once said that the ticket prices should be designed in such a way that everyone is able to experience his tetralogy “The Ring of the Nibelung” once in his lifetime in Bayreuth.

Instead, all too often material interests of powerful agencies and sometimes stage directors seem to be in the foreground who, with the provision of one or more first-class singers or their stage direction almost completely single-handedly manage the casting of a new production and thereby bring singers without always having the necessary technical expertise or musical competence. All too often, much better singers, less well-connected and / or represented by less powerful agencies, are left out.

—> In this context, in order to enable cost reductions and a wider range in the selection of medium and smaller roles as well as a greater independence of the directors in their casting policy, a certain competition between the agencies as well as a contract-related separation between the directors and possibly binding suggestions of singers on their part could be an option.

b) The role of the artistic directors and staging styles

Here too, on the side of opera management, there seem to be remarkable deficits about the priority achievement of the greatest possible artistic result under the given conditions. There are examples in the recent past where personal and political demands and desires were placed before the effort for artistic achievement.

In times of lower funds in the post-Corona period, it is desirable that the resources would be used more result-oriented and more effectively in order to achieve the maximum possible artistic result.

The situation is similar with a not insignificant number of general and/or artistic directors who, in a well-established power system within their area of responsibility, can assign stage directors in a quasi-landlord manner and do not seem to care that their houses are becoming increasingly empty and, increasingly, subscriptions be returned. This affects above all the medium-sized houses, the B and C class houses, by far the most in Europe. The emergence of a very active private citizens' initiative in Hanover is just one example of the reaction of an opera audience that no longer feels addressed by productions that are usually characterized by an over-the-top and thus incomprehensible director's theater style.

—> One way to achieve consistent or even improved quality of productions in times of scarcer funds after Corona could be a kind of competition (bidding) among several stage directors, deliberately also younger ones, whereby suggestions by a flying specialist team may be available to advise the general or artistic director.

c) Director's theater and expertise

In principle, there is nothing to be said against the emphasis placed on stage directing and interpreting works over their music and singing. In my opinion, the opera with its universal works of art also must take up current issues, and it can do so – a museumization would certainly be fatal. The conception of the so-called Wagnerian director's theater in the 1970s with pioneering productions of the “Ring of the Nibelung” by Joachim Herz in Leipzig, Ulrich Melchinger in Kassel and finally Patrice Chéreau with his so-called “Century Ring” in 1976 in Bayreuth – and from the artistic point of view it actually became a “Century Ring” – were epoch-making in this sense. However, good and in the best sense of the term “waterproof” director's theater is very demanding and challenging and it requires a profound knowledge of the opera craft, the pieces and the corresponding music, which does not necessarily mean reading the score. The Swiss stage designer and director Roland Aeschlimann said in an interview that I did with him in Chamonix in 2008: Today everything is packed in bags. The chicken have no heads, no feet, the fish no heads, and mostly no fins. But the slogan must be: Back to the craft!

—> In the future, greater attention should be paid to the professional suitability and staging experience of stage directors or those to become a professional stage director, in order to avoid operational losses due to a premature withdrawal of the corresponding production from the theater programme that may become necessary later due to a lack of demand by the audience.

First Night Reception after "Parsifal" in Strassbourg, January 2020

First Night Reception after "Parsifal" in Strassbourg, January 2020

d) The role of the public – and thus also the taxpayer

The stage director should also understand a piece of the so-called musical theater as a musical-theatrical work and not as dramatic theater according to his or her – often too arbitrary – individual taste, with musical background. Then he or she could do dramatic theater straight away … But the opera audience will be lost. In some German opera houses, the top tier is no longer opened at all, because the “normal” subscribers, from whom the opera lives, do no longer understand the pieces, they cannot properly interpret what they are seeing, especially when they come into contact with the piece for the first time. Thus, they lose their interest.
Sometimes it is not enough if a previously unknown stage director is engaged for a festival, which is then justified as “exciting” and the piece must be removed from the schedule ahead of time – combined with correspondingly higher costs. Roland Aeschlimann once again: The audience must have free space – that is crucial. The opera itself is surrealistic – people speak to each other singing. This is not exactly natural, but it opens new and interesting artistic perspectives. Opera work must always be done in such a way that it reaches the audience. Audience must understand what they see and hear, and light design plays a very important role in this context.

A justification for such a loss of audience can in no way be justified by the lack of understanding of the audience for the programme and the way in which it is carried out. This is primarily where public funds come into play; as part of a wider cultural policy in countries with a great opera tradition such as Germany and Austria, the companies have the task of attracting as many interested people as possible to their houses. With such a wide-ranging failure to meet the public's interest, the educational policy mandate of the companies comes into question, not least based on which public funding takes place. Of all the directorial theater productions that are often so spectacular and supposedly exciting are exactly the ones that are particularly expensive. In this context, we should not overlook the fact that the German opera world lost significant visitors in the 2017/18 season and was therefore at the same level as seven years ago then. The audience response in Germany is clearly decreasing. The rapid increase in the importance of social media is hardly a reason, especially for young people, to go to the opera more often. And the opera will need them in the long run. A central problem in this context are the supposed cultural elites (both among the culture makers and the critics), who are, to a certain extent, complacent and who do not care about the general public. At least that works well in Germany because the cultural sector is publicly subsidized to a particularly high degree compared to abroad. These opinion leaders often braise more in their own juice rather than in the service of the opera and the public.

—> It is to be hoped that in the coming times of increasing scarcity of resources, those responsible will begin to reflect, in particular the general and artistic directors, which stage directors to appoint and what they want to achieve with their interpretation in the best sense of opera art, not eyesight of the respective audience. The post-Corona period could now offer a good occasion for this.

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

Some thoughts on a more moderate Wagner reception

Especially in the reception of Richard Wagner's oeuvre, the staging style, which is now also known as Wagner's director's theater (Wagnersches Regietheater), has developed extensively, although in many cases, such as with regard to the recent “Ring” in Nuremberg, but also the penultimate “Tannhäuser” in Bayreuth, one cannot always speak of development but rather of undesirable development. The other day, a friend of mine who is an admirer of Wagner’s oeuvre, commented to me the same way about my review of the current Viennese “Parsifal”, as follows. We now have two productions of Wagner operas in Vienna that play at a psychiatric facility, and thus two too many. After the Nazi uniforms, business suits and briefcases, it is now the old hospital beds and medical staff including medical equipment, etc. that dominate the stage. All of this is put over the work, not just Wagner's, like a hood, and you have a new production – and a very expensive one on top. The relationship of the figures on stage to each other is not so important, one would have to put in a lot of effort with a sophisticated and music-oriented personal direction with an appealing knowledge of the piece. And it doesn't matter what the music is. In this sense, Vienna's “Parsifal” stage set by Alvis Hermanis is impressive enough!

These and similar issues can be experienced more and more in German-speaking countries when it comes to Wagner. Whether this ultimately pleases the audience and is piece-related and comprehensibly thought out seems secondary. This could become more difficult in the future with scarcer funds for new productions as a result of the Corona crisis.

Now there is a dazzling example in the Wagner reception, where, in the face of a shortage of resources, a completely new staging style was born, which is still seen by many as t h e reference style for the Wagner theater – the so-called Neu-Bayreuth style by Wieland Wagner in 1951 and later also by his brother Wolfgang. At the restart of that festival after World War II, there was simply no money for big stage sets and the importance and possibilities of light and reduced movement in the ancient Greek style came to mind.

Alberich at "Rhinegold" in Goeteborg 2019

Alberich at "Rhinegold" in Goeteborg 2019

Perhaps the light with its much more diverse possibilities today could become an essential dramaturgical element in the future Wagner reception. You can admire this, for example, at the new “Ring” at the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki. Alberich's gold claim in the “Rheingold” is phenomenal: on his hand, through a technical trick, glaring golden rays meet precisely like half a star – the gold has virtually found its way over his curse for love! In the third scene, too, an extremely impressive cipher-like gold projection is seen. Most of the pictures, especially those in the interludes, are vaguely alienated by the Finnish lighting designer Mikki Kunttu, allowing interesting associations but never making them too narrow. An impressive video and light designer! Perhaps a hint to a future, in which a little more reverence for the oeuvre of the composer Wagner is approached for the interpretation of his musical dramas, while using the technical means available today, but principally guided by his artistic and substantial message. Perhaps, yes, I believe it, we will see more sold-out opera houses again, and the Corona crisis would also have had a positive effect on Richard Wagner's interpretation in artistic-aesthetic terms.

Photos: K. Billand 1-3; Photo 4: Internet; Photo 5: Ralph Larmann

Klaus Billand