In Bayreuth, Richard Wagner's grandson Wieland turned physical necessity into artistic advantage. He knew that bear-skinned Heldentenors and breast-plated sopranos emoting wildly in front of tattered, literal scenery could no longer be taken seriously. He also knew that funds for elaborate alternatives were not at hand.
Therefore, he created what amounted to a new style. He stressed understatement, symbols and abstractions, used lights to convey moods, and designed a new sort of barren, open set. He made his actors stand still and reduced their gestures to stark essentials.
At first, the traditionalists felt betrayed. By the time of his untimely death in 1967, Wieland was revered as an operatic saint, or at least an unreasonable facsimile thereof.
He also was much imitated. Less inspired and less inventive directors tried to preach variations on the same daring gospel everywhere. Unfortunately, their compromises weren't daring and their sermons weren't convincing.
Before long, alternative schools emerged. Goetz Friedrich, a disciple of the legendary Walter Felsenstein, explored the possibilities of heightened realism and social commentary. Patrice Chereau and Harry Kupfer introduced special political and psychological insights, blithely playing loose, if necessary, with customary definitions of time and space.
Meanwhile, in Italy, Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli and, after his own masterly fashion, Giorgio Strehler went their own picturesque way. They placed great stress on stylish sets and on cinematic credibility. They tried to banish cliches and played instead for elegance.
In recent seasons, Zeffirelli's increasingly lavish, increasingly vulgar concoctions have all but smothered the singers and snuffed out the music. His "Turandot" at the Metropolitan Opera looked like a shamelessly gaudy, Gargantuan birthday cake with a tiny musico-theatrical pageant mired somewhere in the frosting. His overwrought "Otello" film managed to offend anyone who respects either Verdi or Shakespeare. But, his work wasn't always like that.
The mass audience in America, especially in New York, has not been terribly receptive to operatic innovation. Fun City still applauds the scenery. The music be damned, or at least obliterated. The Met public is especially pleased if a house on the stage really looks like a house. The same crowd applauds any frightened horse or dog that may add color to a crowd scene. New York still likes opera to look fancy and old-fashioned.
Perceptions and attitudes can be different, however, out of town. The operatic mirage in Santa Fe has long welcomed experimental concepts. San Francisco encouraged the reasonably progressive ideas and ideals of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle before he became a household name even in Munich. Two summers ago, Seattle abandoned its quaint-antique "Ring" in favor of a bizarre, often contradictory flight of post-mod quasi-Brechtian fancy, staged by Francois Rochaix and designed by Robert Israel.
While Los Angeles foundered in decades of operatic misfortune--or, worse, in no operatic fortune at all--the dauntless little Long Beach Opera ventured futuristic variations on familiar works as envisioned by Christopher Alden and his twin brother, David. The first season of Music Center Opera proved more conservative, but it still reflected serious theatrical attitudes. The new era began with Goetz Friedrich's somewhat inconsistent "Otello," a disappointing prelude to Sir Peter Hall's decadent-\o7 Jugendstil\f7 "Salome" and Corsaro's brashly stylized "Alcina."
The most effective modern stagings, of course, are those that reveal a vital dramatic perspective without going against the musical grain. A good director must be a sensitive musician. He must understand the expressive dynamics of the work at hand, not just the basic plot outlines. He must not ignore the score when searching for a novel subtext.
West Berlin has an "Orfeo ed Euridice" production in which the noble mythological hero is a sad, white-faced clown who wears oversize tennis shoes. One German city used to have a comic-book "Don Giovanni" in which the protagonist actually impersonated Superman. The same house also got a lot of mileage out of a revved-up "Walkuere" in which the lusty warrior maidens became leather-clad lesbians on motorcycles.
Such conceits may be amusing, in their sweetly outrageous ways. But they force one to ask whether they shed new light on the works in question or merely obfuscate. Gluck, after all, did not write buffoon music for his Orfeo. Mozart's delineation of Don Giovanni is much too subtle, much too aristocratic to accommodate a cartoon. Wagner's heroic ride conjures up visions of lofty wings, not grimy wheels.
One must be careful. The line separating the boredom of old rituals and the excitement of new discoveries is a treacherous one. Ideally, opera should unite strong singers \o7 and\f7 a strong conductor \o7 and\f7 a strong director, all devoted to a common vision.
Genuine collaborations between great artists are as rare as snowballs in Arabia. But when they happen, the world remembers. Milan is still talking about \o7 the\f7 "Traviata" of our time--the one that took place at La Scala more than three decades ago, in May, 1955.
Significantly, the legendary event wasn't Callas' "Traviata" or Giulini's "Traviata" or even Visconti's "Traviata." It was \o7 Verdi's\f7 "Traviata."
Some day, perhaps, we will revert to the age of the composer.