Good night, 4-D Regie

This is an extension of the conversation earlier this week.  Yes I get that the title is unintelligible, but even if I presented it fully –Good night, Four dimensional Regietheater—it’s pretty cryptic without some explanations.

Let me simply start with the basic premise that a consensus changes over time, resulting in a shift in meaning over time.  The business with time is related to the space-time continuum, where time is the fourth dimension; I’ll expand on that later.

Let’s talk about opera, first.  I point –for example –to the two different views of Wagner’s Lohengrin addressed in the comments following my previous post (a review of the La Scala opening of that opera), each one centred in a different era.  I spoke of Lohengrin as a religious allegory, while La Cieca spoke of the deep structure, calling it a “Jungian coming of age story”.

When I spoke of Lohengrin as religious allegory, I was really addressing the work as written, which I think needs to be the chief departure point when accusations of “Regietheater” (an often pejorative word) are being hurled.  If someone thinks a director is imposing meaning upon a work, what’s the actual surface that is being defaced, and is that so bad?

I am really speaking of how I understand Lohengrin at the time Wagner created it rather than how it’s understood now.  While we can understand the opera as a tale concerning a girl and her love for a knight, I believe Elsa stands for all humanity, while Lohengrin represents a redemptive agent such as Jesus Christ.  If the church is understood as the bride of Christ, what happens if we try to tell the tale of such a marriage?  I think that’s precisely what we see in this opera.  Ortrud tempts Elsa, dropping all pretense in the last scene where she shows her loyalty to earlier pagan gods, who have been ignored in the new Christian culture.

La Cieca gave a deeper and more contemporary reading of the opera (his comment after the post) citing Bettelheim.

When one looks at a page of playtext or operatic score one’s four-dimensional perception is distorted.  The printed icons of permanence –words and/.or music on the page—are illusory.  When brought into the theatre where they are performed they are subject to fourth dimensional reality: the ravages of time.

Where the choral set-pieces in Lohengrin were at one time celebrations of German national pride, unapologetic declarations of militarism, they simply can’t exist that way without irony or commentary.  Opera directors do not normally ignore such powerful issues, but instead will somehow modify or even deconstruct what is placed before us.

And so, instead of Lohengrin stepping forward as an invincible knight, the Guth production asks Jonas Kaufmann to behave more like Kaspar Hauser, a problematic figure whose behaviour offers a workable parallel to the actions of Wagner’s grail knight.  While the director gave this historical figure (and Grimm) as his chief subtextual influences, he did not mention his counter-discursive demons, nor did he have to do so.  When a director presents one of the key operatic topics such as religion or war, one can expect something to be inscribed over top of the dated score.  That’s an effect of the four-dimensional nature of culture.

We can’t turn back the clock, although there are countries that seem to defy progress in their confident embrace of values anathemic to western mores. (for instance those that criminalize homosexuality or where women who are raped are blamed)  Our own extended cultural conversation across many generations makes a four dimensional text intelligible.  The disconnect between the original –such as Lohengrin—understood in a more literal or conservative way, and more recent readings that reflect a different understanding is reconciled in allowing for the changes in the human heart., a four-dimensional understanding of what it is to be “human”.

It may not be scientific but my intuition sees a kind of linear development of audience sophistication, of a gradual accrual of signifiers and images in the public consciousness whereby directors use tropes of surprising complexity.  The tropes I spoke of in the review –the use of child-doubles, the displacement of historic era, and self-reflexive images—all require a willingness to engage with the text far beyond its first original sense.  Those resisting complex imagery seem literal-minded and backward to me.  That complexity is embraced in Europe and resisted in America speaks volumes.

And while we speak of such things, i must add that I resist calling anything “Regietheater” because that’s pejorative (even if it’s better than epithets such as “Eurotrash”).

I keep waiting.  Is it time to put Regie to bed?  Regietheater is a word that is as weak as “terrorist” or “hippie”, and tells you more about the speaker’s attitude than about what they’re really trying to say.  Sure, there are productions that are more extreme than others. All the more reason to be specific.  In the world of spoken word theatre, where the textual discrepancies are a normal part of life, one doesn’t call attention to the gap between the book and performance any more than one points at tall buildings or cars: because we’ve seen those before too.

Good night, Regie.

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8 Responses to Good night, 4-D Regie

  1. It may not be scientific but my intuition sees a kind of linear development of audience sophistication, of a gradual accrual of signifiers and images in the public consciousness whereby directors use tropes of surprising complexity.

    I really like this idea and it rings true. I don’t think one springs from the womb fully equipped to appreciate operatic music and some types take a bit more effort to “get” than others. You and I love Berg but a well known Canadian author and librettist was utterly dismissive. I think it’s the same with dramaturgy. It takes effort to learn to appreciate the visual and symbolic language of some directors but, as with Berg, it’s well worth the effort. To puff up one’s feathers and mutter meaningless epithets when confronted with it is as childish as writing off “all music since Puccini”.

    Your penultimate paragraph should be required reading for opera critics everywhere.

  2. Pingback: Notable today | operaramblings

  3. Regie, or Not Regie? says:

    John’s operaramblings post today led me to your blog. Having a blog called Regie, or Not Regie, I am always pleased to find others who appreciate a director’s attempt to bring (or add) new meaning to opera performances. I really don’t have time for those who rant about “the composer’s intention,” and bristle at the criticisms and name-calling. My curiosity with new opera productions is discovering whether someone has simply updated the staging, or actually added a new layer of thought or intention. Is it just more modern looking, or is the director really trying to get us to think about the opera and hear it in a new way?

    I use the word Regie, because I cannot bring myself to utter or even type that other word, the one used by closed-minded people to dismiss that which they cannot or will not understand. But as I read and agree with your post here (and John’s comments, and other like-minded writings), I am beginning to see that Regie is slightly more polite, yet still a negative way to pigeonhole a work. I’m thinking that maybe I need to come up with a new name for my blog.

    Thank you for your blog. I am so glad I found you!

    • barczablog says:

      My apologies. I am all about inclusiveness, and i think i may have been a bit clumsy; as soon as i saw the name of your blog i was thinking: that’s a good way to put it from an audience perspective. It’s an implicit way of understanding the director’s choices, although i don’t think directors have a dilemma. A director’s work is integral to who they are.

      Clearly you use the word with care & respect, others weaponize it without worrying about whose feelings they bruise.

      Thanks for your enthusiastic remarks… i’ll have to check out what you’ve written.

  4. J.H. Yim says:

    I stumbled upon this wonderful blog through googling and I thank you for your thoughtful interpretation. Yes, I always regarded Lohengrin as an allegory on the question of christian faith, too. Easy, comfortable, but true. Before 20th century the western culture revolved around religion and Wagner was a religious man. But there’s greek myth of Psyche and Eros, and whole identification/faith themed stories in other mythical area. So even before the birth of modern religion, the humans had intrinsic idea on faith?

    • barczablog says:

      Interesting question you ask: “But there’s greek myth of Psyche and Eros, and whole identification/faith themed stories in other mythical area. So even before the birth of modern religion, the humans had intrinsic idea on faith?”

      It may have been called something else, i am not sure. I think Wagner worked with what he was given. Had he lived longer he might have ventured further outside western culture. I think people are drawn to Wagner because his stories make such an easy template to find additional meanings.

  5. Pingback: Adès contra Parsifal | barczablog

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