- Regietheater in Transition:An Introduction to Barbara Beyer's "Interviews with Contemporary Opera Directors"
The following "Notes from the Stage" article is a translation of extracts from interviews with some of the most influential opera directors currently working in German-speaking countries. The interviews were conducted and published in 2005 by Barbara Beyer, in a book with the provocative title Warum Oper? ("Why Opera?").1 A musicologist by training, Beyer is intimately acquainted with the world of operatic production, both as a dramaturg (at the Staatstheater Darmstadt, 1990-95) and as a director (at several opera houses, including Basel, Bonn, and Hannover). She also taught opera directing at the Universität der Künste and the Musikhochschule Hanns Eisler in Berlin for several years before being appointed, in 2009, as professor of music theater and scenic interpretation at the Kunstuniversität Graz. Warum Oper? appeared at a time when the so-called Regietheater (often translated as "director's theater") had become virtually ubiquitous on German-language stages and had also begun to garner increasing interest elsewhere (if sometimes under the derogatory nickname "Eurotrash"). Amid this proliferation of Regietheater in opera, Beyer became interested in questioning some of its basic premises. In the book, she wonders, for instance, why the same old operas are being produced over and over again and whether new approaches could still be developed for this museum-like repertoire. In particular, she addresses the status of the operatic "material" (what David J. Levin has termed the "opera text," that is, above all, the libretto and score)2 and its treatment on contemporary stages. Since this treatment appears to veer between interpretation and deconstruction, she also raises questions regarding the authorship of stage productions.
Despite its (now) international presence, the phenomenon of Regietheater has remained notoriously difficult to define and demarcate, even for German critics. Although it can be traced back to the rise of independent Regie, or direction, in German theaters in the nineteenth century—as well as to avant-garde trends on early twentieth-century stages and to the clean-swept (entrümpelt) abstraction of the so-called "New Bayreuth" during the early postwar years—there is a widespread tendency to date its beginnings to the 1970s.3 Thus, Regietheater is often associated with the growing presence of film and theater directors working on [End Page 303] German stages, as well as with the influence of East German "Musiktheater" as practiced by Walter Felsenstein and others (on this approach to operatic production, see the analysis in the previous "Auditions" rubric, "Musiktheater—Towards a Definition," in this issue). In the most general terms, it might be said that practitioners of Regietheater seek to question, reexamine, or recontextualize the seemingly obvious layers of meaning of an opera as conveyed by the libretto, the full score, and other documents concerning the work's genesis and performance history. Challenges to the inherited ideas of an opera's aesthetic, performative, and interpretive identity may include, for instance, close psychological or sociopolitical readings, as well as updated or otherwise historically localized or concretized settings. At the same time, Regietheater usually leaves the opera's musical dramaturgy intact. In other words, it treats the music and sung texts as sacrosanct, but it takes interpretive freedom on the level of direction. Rejecting this latter tendency, some critics and directors have continued to demand Werktreue, or fidelity to the work, on all levels of production, including direction; thus they suggest that each work carries at least a minimum sense of how it should generate meaning and what it should look like in production, and that this sense should be adhered to.
More recently, though, several opera productions on German-language stages have appeared to be tentatively moving in a different direction. These productions are attempting to overcome the potential calcification of not only the ever-same repertory but also the Regietheater approaches themselves. Some directors, for instance, have started to cautiously take apart or reassemble the musical texts or to show them in a fresh light by combining them with different musical or textual materials. This practice has been standard in spoken theater for quite some time and can also...