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  • Opera in Performance:"Regietheater" and the Performative Turn
  • Clemens Risi (bio)
    Translated by Jake Fraser

The opera stage must challenge spectators in such a way that they are drawn to the very edge of their seats, wide awake, and are each compelled to risk a private debate with what they see and hear, with every aria, every fugue, and movement.1

This remark was made by opera director Hans Neuenfels to Der Spiegel in 1982 following the scandalous production of Aida in Frankfurt with which he laid the foundation for what is now referred to as "Regietheater" in opera. It is the dialogue between stage and audience invoked in this remark that interests me: the active relationship between performers and spectators/listeners, and what plays out between the participants in a performance. And by participants, I mean the musicians and singers as well as the listeners and spectators. In what follows, I would like to present a few fundamental considerations from my research on "opera in performance," which has attempted to forge an interdisciplinary approach suitable for the analysis of opera stagings from the last fifteen to twenty years.2 This approach draws to a large extent upon theater studies—and, more specifically, upon performance theory—but is also complemented by elements borrowed from musicology.3 My reflections are concerned primarily with those opera stagings that could be described as "Regietheater," or as what the AngloAmerican press refer to with evident pleasure as "Eurotrash"; that is to say, stagings from (to give a few examples) Hans Neuenfels, Peter Konwitschny, Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito, or Calixto Bieito. These are often stagings of so-called repertory classics—works by Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, etc.—i.e., those operas that form the core of what's performed in our opera houses and which are presented in ever-new interpretations. The question becomes: What aspect or aspects of this phenomenon can be better described and formulated by means of an analysis that focuses on the performative? [End Page 7]


At present, opera performance praxis seems to be moving in three directions. First, there is a tendency to deconstruct texts and recombine them, to produce new frictions through juxtaposition with material that in fact does not belong to the original work. This tendency has been at work in the theater for quite some time, but also has a tradition in the opera itself (one thinks of the pasticcio praxis of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with its inserted arias, abbreviations, rearrangements, etc.). Second, on the side of reception and production, one can observe something that we might think we have overcome, namely a kind of dogged clinging to demands for fidelity to the text and work ("Werktreue"). Finally, moving between these two extremes, and particularly popular in Germany and other European countries, is the performance praxis frequently described as "Regietheater"—a term that remains contentious.4 In the course of the several decades that this praxis has existed, however, a number of characteristics have proven typical: as a rule, performances are announced as stagings of traditional works and function in particular through the idea and practice of repertoire theater. That is to say, these are in general well-known "works"—the works of the classical operatic canon5—that regulate the question of authorship through the two poles of composer and director, while producing a horizon of expectation located between recognition and surprise through divergence. (New musical compositions and "rediscoveries" are generally not the focal point of this performance praxis.) The production of such stagings directs attention in particular to the relationship between auditory and visual elements, and to the question of how the musical plane interacts with the scenic one. An attentiveness to the interplay of hearing and seeing holds especially for the singers: bodily existence is given the same significance as the voice, both on the side of the production and in the audience's perception. The ways in which the actual performance diverges from what one expects from a canonical work often produces a confusion about whether the staging one has seen can even be classified as an interpretation of a well-known work, or if it is instead something entirely different...


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