German stage director Michael Hampe has enjoyed a long and distinguished career. His The Crafty Art of Opera, originally published in German (Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2015) as Opernschule. Für Liebhaber, Macher, und Verächter des Musiktheater (Opera School: For Lovers, Makers, and Haters of Music Theater), aims to pass down practical theatrical wisdom in a series of short chapters on themes such as “movement,” “being [End Page 267] comic,” “Mozart,” and “discomfort and inconvenience,” each of which ends with a list of “useful rules.”
Such books are relatively common in German (similar books bear the names of Andrea Breth, Hans Neuenfels, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, and Gerard Mortier); that one should be translated is much less so. Like many of his colleagues, Hampe blends memoir, advice, and plentiful images of his productions. But compared to the so-called Regietheater directors that Anglophones might associate with German opera, Hampe is conservative; his theater as described is more or less realistic and relies exclusively on audience sympathy. (His work can be seen in action on many DVDs from institutions such as the Salzburg and Schwetzingen festivals.)
Hampe’s book begins polemically. The problem with opera, he says, is that “there is no canon of rules and techniques that must be learnt and mastered before being able to practice the art of opera” (p. 7). While there is, he asserts, a technical canon for singing, there is none for staging music. His mission in this book is to create such a canon to save opera from the “wasteland” of “arbitrary” decisions (p. 8). “I and my students . . .” he asserts, “have systematically researched, rehearsed, tested and cross-checked many different notions. . . . To our surprise we found over a hundred techniques and rules that can be taught, learnt, practised and ultimately mastered and applied” (p. 9).
Hampe urges singers and directors to become “music detectives” (p. 3) to determine “the reality behind the creation of the music that prompted the composer to write it this way and no other” (p. 4). The method for doing this is what might be called formalist. Great operas, he claims, are “an information system complete in itself. . . . It [the opera] doesn’t change” (p. 109). Hampe makes occasional references to history to justify his readings (many of which are reductive or incorrect, see for example his version of the “too many notes” anecdote on p. 99 or his description of ballet masters as stage directors on p. 37), but mostly he relies on close reading of the score in light of his operatic frame of reference.
The logical conclusion of Hampe’s argument would be that every competent music detective, able to divine the single “reality” behind the musical gesture, would thus stage every opera the same way, regardless of time, place, or audience, and therefore any divergence is to be taken as a sign of incompetence. One wonders what is gained by flattening opera out in such a fashion. Interpretive diversity is arguably one of the best ways to resist the ossification of opera’s closed canon of classic works, but such worries never surface in this book.
Hampe’s formalism conveniently lets opera off any number of ideological and political hooks. Wagner’s greatness as an artist is used as evidence to claim that “Die Meistersinger as it stands has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, let alone Nazism” (p. 112). Elsewhere, Hampe’s argument rests on stereotypes to transmit personalities such as “a wildly gesticulating Italian” or “a blasé Frenchman” (p. 47). Theater, he asserts, must make “sense” for an audience (p. 22), which for Hampe seems to mean relying on conventional wisdom, with no real acknowledgement of his own subject position. By focusing on the small scale, as he does throughout this book, Hampe avoids ever dealing with so-called “concept” stagings, whose larger interpretive interventions would be anathema to...