Safe and sorry

By James Jorden

It may have been Robert A. Heinlein or Napoleon Bonaparte who first crafted that variation on Occam’s Razor “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” But whoever said it, in whatever century and in whatever language, it certainly seems to apply to the fiasco that is the Deutsche Oper am Rhein’s Tannhäuser.  

Not that we’re talking about the production per se here; no one really knows much about what really transpired onstage besides the first-night audience who actually saw seen it, minus that subset who slammed the doors on the way out of the theater and those mysteriously delicate Düsseldorfers whose exposure to imagery from the recent past landed them in the ER.

No, since the DO have taken the virtually unprecedented step of canceling the production after the first night, the vast majority of opera-watchers in the world have no way of gaining first-hand knowledge of what the production is like, and vanishingly little of second-hand. There’s no complete video, not even a trailer, and the company has released only a dozen or so fairly innocuous still photos. A TV news report offers a few seconds of dress rehearsal footage.

And the production will apparently never be revived.

Not that this lack of information has hampered armchair experts half a continent away from framing and expounding detailed exegeses of the production. For example, the cocktail of Wagner, the Holocaust and Regie proved irresistible catnip for Norman Lebrecht, who has spent the best part of the past week cheerleading for the banning of a production he has never laid eyes on.

But even serious journalists are running around with their hair on fire. In The Guardian, Kate Connolly placidly parrots the claim made by the DO’s press department that “some scenes, in particular the very realistically portrayed shooting scene, caused such strong psychological and physical reactions in some visitors that some of them had to be taken into medical care,” without bothering to ask how many “visitors” were so taken with vapors, or, more to the point, why exactly an opera company is receiving medical updates from members of the audience.

Unfazed by having no facts to go on, Connolly does what any crack British journalist does under the circumstances, which is to interview an Oxford academic who not only knows nothing about the particulars of the case but seems shaky on musical history as well:

This production rather hit the audience over the head with its message. It recalls the scenes in Ken Russell’s film Lisztomania, in which Wagner emerges from a Nazi grave at a Nuremberg-style rally and shoots everyone with a machine-gun-cum-electric guitar. While Wagner has questions to answer in relation to the Third Reich, a degree of subtlety would help.

Yes, subtlety is nice, but so is honesty. Did this James Kennaway see the production, and, if as it seems, he did not, what is he doing commenting on it?

So, since I know as little as everyone else, what follows is almost pure guesswork, with a few provisional conclusions based on the assumption that at least some of the hearsay floating around is correct.

This is Burkhard Kosminski’s first attempt at directing opera. He has a rather long resumé in straight theater, about 40 productions since 2000. Here, for example, is a trailer for his staging of August: Osage County.

The reviews for the opera, meanwhile, are most negative:

“Es ist eine schlechte, weil unsensible und unwürdige Inszenierung. Und das ist schade, weil das gesamte Ensemble eine überzeugende Leistung abliefert, die so nicht ausreichend gewürdigt wird.”

“Es ist ein Abend, dessen Wirkung man sich nicht entziehen kann – und der gleichzeitig, alsTannhäuser-Produktion betrachtet, ein szenisches Desaster und musikalisch über weite Strecken enttäuschend oder gar ärgerlich ist.”

And so far as I can make out from descriptions of the production, Kosminski’s big ideas mostly involve the first 45 minutes of the opera and the finale: during the overture, there is a graphic depiction of execution by lethal gas, and then, at a pause in the scene between Venus and Tannhäuser, the “hero,” apparently a passive stooge for the Nazis, shoots dead a husband, wife and child. Later, Elisabeth, who by the third act has taken the veil as a nun, is raped by Wolfram and then self-immolates, leaving a refugee child to hand an olive branch to the dying sinner.

Yes, it does sound rather heavy-handed and something of a mess. But, even stipulating that, should the staging have been canceled after the first night?

As a purely practical matter, perhaps. Taking so bold and unusual a step makes the management of the DO seem decisive and responsive to their audience, and it relieves them of the responsibility of having to defend a production that (for all we know) may indeed be a heavy-handed mess.

But the responsibility of a theater’s management is not solely to the public; it also needs to support its artists. Even artists who have failed–or, really, especially artists who have failed–need to be assured that the theater values them: you’re not evil, you’re not stupid; you just didn’t get it right this time around.

And the violation between intendant and artist  is what really bothers me about the abrupt decision to cancel this Tannhäuser. The message the action sends is, “When the going gets tough, don’t count on us to stand by our artists. We will rather listen to whoever howls loudest among the mob.”

Ass-covering belongs in no art manifesto, in an opera house or anywhere else.

Photos: Hans Jörg Michel

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9 Responses to “Safe and sorry”

  1. Damian Says:

    Very well said. Thank you for such a reasoned and measured comment on this fracas.

  2. Lotta Says:

    Let’s see. Who pays for these prouctions? In Germany, I believe the state does.

  3. Rob Says:

    Thank you for the most sensible discussion of this situation I have read so far. Thanks too for pointing out what should be obvious, but got lost in the (slipped disc) hysteria: How can we really judge this production when virtually no one (at least none of the hysterical ones) has seen it?

    This could, in fact, be the absolute worst production of Tannhauser since the beginning of time. But we’ll never really know now that it’s been closed down. Perhaps DO did what they had to do. And I know that whether or not that was artistically or morally the right thing to do can be argued eleventy-one different ways.

    But I find it exasperating that so many have had so much to say about this production, while knowing so little about it.

    Thanks again for your ongoing clear-headedness regarding 21st century opera production!

  4. Opera Muse Says:

    Most people outside of Germany don’t know German theatre, where all manner of wet and hoary interpretations are perpetrated on the classics at full volume, some far more extreme than than what has been described here in the Tannhäuser.

    I make no judgement against German theatre. On the contrary, I think there is a case to be made for shocking people, even in an opera house, if the concept is cohesive and makes it necessary. What so many people not in-the-know call Eurotrash, is often a serious dramaturgical attempt to make people think anew about a work, in terms of their own history. And if a few people fainted in Dusseldorf, that’s a more positive reaction than doing nothing or looking away, as many Germans did when the events depicted actually happened.

  5. opera muse Says:

    Most people outside of Germany don’t know German theatre, where all manner of wet and hoary interpretations are perpetrated on the classics at full volume, some far more extreme than than what has been described here in the Tannhäuser.

    I make no judgement against German theatre. On the contrary, I think there is a case to be made for shocking people, even in an opera house, if the concept is cohesive and makes it necessary. What so many people not in-the-know call Eurotrash, is often a serious dramaturgical attempt to make people think anew about a work, in terms of their own history. And if a few people fainted in Dusseldorf, that’s a more positive reaction than doing nothing or looking away, as many Germans did when the events depicted actually took place.

  6. tombear Says:

    This production was greeted as a “shock! horror!” one. It sounded interesting, and while normally I would not rush to see Tannhaüser, this sounded worth treking to Düsseldorf to see.

    i was very surprised that it was taken off! A much worse offender, in my book, is the current Norma in Bonn. This is a production which begins with an abbreviated Casta Diva, and then the opera presented is chopped and changed to suit the producer’s “concept” – which is a backstage love affair between the singer portraying Norma and a Flavio Briatore type who is playing Pollione. Excruciating!!! Ugly!! And VERY POORLY sung. Awful reviews. People booing regularly and walking out. The production is still on though!

    In Germany it’s the Nazi allusions that get people going!! Not awful productions per se.

  7. Kai Says:

    Thanks also from Germany, also to the New York Times for their article linked here. I must say that on Thursday I had to stop following the discussion on UK websites/media.

    Some additions to the points raised here. First: Almost every online report about this matter is illustrated with the very photo that appears on the top of this article, too.

    In regard to the Slipped Disc articles it is remarkable how it was this blog that first reported a possible cancellation. This must have been leaked out of Deutsche Oper am Rhein only to, as you put it, half a continent away, since I saw no mentions of this rumour in German or, more general, German-language places. This may say something about Deutsche Oper am Rhein or rather certain people working there, about the state of culture journalism in Germany or about both.

    It is also worth to mention that a local newspaper (Rheinische Post) run a full-blown campaign which turned out to be a success. Some statements that got also quoted in English-language publications have been made when these gentleman have been asked by the newspaper for a comment.

    Concerning the “strong psychological and physical reactions” being given as reason for the cancellation: Many here in Germany think that such concerns could be considered in other ways. Audiences could have been advised about the explicit depictions of violence and be offered to return their tickets. I would not play down such concerns, already having decided to refrain from attending the Calixto Bieito production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail after reading how much violence it contains. But this is no reason to trash a production altogether.

    That pause is reported as several minutes long, so was essentially a break in the musical performance, and the killing scene itself is described as essentially silent until emerging in screams. That was the point at which the fracas in the audience erupted, in which those who booed and yelled got themselves yelled at as low-brows etc.etc. So the audience was not united in protest.

    Yes, the reviews were rather negative, judging the production as pretty clumsy and far-fetched. But hardly anyone, besides the critic of Rheinische Post, considered it a scandal in itself. Anything else is no longer relevant, nobody cancels already scheduled performances of a production because it got bad reviews.

    No: The published opinion in Germany does not appreciate the management of Deutsche Oper am Rhein and here inavoidably director Christoph Meyer in person as decisive and responsive to their audience. Very much on the contrary: Just all commentaries I saw so far consider Christoph Meyer as weak and only creating the real scandal now, with his decision.

    Also raised in this discussion is the circumstance that management first accepted the concept offered by Burkhard Kosminski and also did not intervene at any point. They could have stopped the production during the rehearsals, during which some staff members raised concerns if that rumour can be trusted.

    But management apparently wanted the scandal, got it, could not stand it and thus now did the worst they could do at all. It appears to be a pretty widespread opinion that Christoph Meyer should resign and the production dramaturg as well as the head of dramaturgy leave the company, too. They all are responsible for this disaster.

    Prior to the second Tannhäuser performance on Thursday (May 9), which now was a mere concert, Christoph Meyer showed up and has been perceived as being under considerable pressure from a situation asking too much of him. Reportedly he essentially read out the press release, then continued in a somewhat confuse matter, talking about the “digital guillotine” of online discussions where he got attacked by people who never saw the production.

    That’s what could be said about all this for now.

  8. James Kennaway Says:

    This James Kennaway never pretended to have seen the production. I didn’t call for the production to be cancelled. I was asked by a newspaper for my opinion and I gave it. That isn’t all that unreasonable, nor is it dishonest. I assume the people commenting here probably didn’t see it either. Indeed, the author of this post suggests that the production “sounds rather heavy-handed and a bit of a mess.” That is very close to what I said to the journalist.
    As it happens I am a fan of German Regietheater and have no problem with Nazi themes. This production does seem to been rather crudely didactic. Journalists cut out many of the “it seems” and “from what I’ve heard” from what interviewees say because it makes bad copy.

  9. Alex Says:

    I haven’t seen this production to begin with. I was amused when I read about it in the L. A. Times because all I remember of the Dusseldorf audience from my experience there in the 90′s is exactly what all articles prove. Whenever a production is not suitable, people tend to leave the house with a lot of protest. Even John Dew’s tame production of “Faust” was handled that way when it premiered. Dusseldorf created a scandal not by a production but by the way it was dealt with, be it the viewers and the management board. Even though I don’t see the connection between Tannhäuser and the 3rd Reich, I would love to be given the chance to see if and how tax payer’s money has been wasted here. The decision to drop the production is not acceptable at all