In my brief review of the telecast of the Met's production of Die Meistersinger, I wrote — parenthetically without giving it a second thought, and merely as a matter of fact — that, "the Met is today perhaps the only major opera house in the world where one can still see Wagner's operas and music-dramas realized as Wagner envisaged them."¹ Reflecting later on that matter of fact, the full implication of the thing struck me with unwonted force. What, I asked myself, does that mean for those who've no prior experience of these timeless, universal, and deathless works of art in their original form, and who today have almost no opportunity of ever seeing them realized as their creator intended them to be realized, and therefore lack any proper point of reference?² It's quite as serious a problem as would be, say, having the plays of Shakespeare available to the general public only in versions utilizing modern settings and with dialogue in modern English, the opportunity of reading and/or seeing them performed in their original form nowhere to be had except within the confines of a single institution. When viewed in that light, the true magnitude of the gravity of the situation today vis-à-vis Wagner's operas and music-dramas makes itself instantly manifest.
It might be thought I rhetorically overstate the case in making the above comparison. Nothing could be farther from the facts of the case. Today's postmodern realizations of Wagner's operas and music-dramas (the so-called Konzept productions of Regietheater (Director's Theater), more commonly — and justifiably — referred to as Eurotrash) so distort the originals as to make them wholly unrecognizable as Wagner's creations were it not for the music itself being so well known. Even at that, one could almost be forgiven for imagining that some enterprising producers cum opera composers manqué have concocted musical stageworks of their own invention, but incompetent to write the libretti and music for them, simply hijacked Wagner's.
For Wagnerians such as myself (i.e., those devoted to Wagner's stageworks rather than to Wagner himself, as opposed to Wagnerites who, cult-like, practically worship Wagner the man, and regard his stageworks primarily as the outward manifestation of his personal character and ideas), perhaps the most galling thing of all is recognition of the fact that the genesis of those grotesque Eurotrash productions has its roots not in some underground, avant-garde byway, but within the walls of the Bayreuther Festspiele itself, the birthplace of the first full performances of Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal, both under Wagner's own direction.
Long before Wagner first codified his ideas on opera in two major theoretical works of his Swiss exile (The Art-work Of The Future, 1849; and Opera and Drama, 1851), he considered drama to be opera's central concern, with all opera's elements existing solely to be put in the service of the drama's realization. That's one of the reasons (but by no means the only one) Wagner insisted on writing all his own libretti rather than set to music libretti written by others. And so it was no surprise that when he finally achieved his dream of having his own opera house built from the ground up to his own specifications in a location of his own choosing, and dedicated to presenting his own works exclusively where he would have total control of all aspects of production, he gave primacy to realizing to perfection the drama at the core of those works.
Thus, from its very beginnings, the Bayreuther Festspiele gave pride of place not to the music-makers (until the 1930s, for instance, the conductor's name was not even listed on the playbill nor in the program book, and he had no say whatsoever in the shaping of the productions in which he took part), but to the producer, stage manager, and director; all three roles filled originally by Wagner himself.
Is it any wonder, then, that Regietheater would ultimately find a natural home within the Bayreuther Festspiele?
And who was the very first there to break totally with Bayreuth tradition and Wagner's original stagings of his works, and replace them entirely with his own? None other than Wagner's grandson, the hugely gifted producer, stage designer, and director, Wieland Wagner.³
Part of Wieland's impetus for this staging change was to attempt to cleanse Wagner's works and Bayreuth generally of their shameful association with Hitler and the Third Reich. But an at least equal part of that impetus was Wieland's embracing of Modernist sensibilities and aesthetics and his embarrassment at his grandfather's hyper-Romanticism, Romanticism being, of course, Modernism's very antithesis. That embracing of anti-Romantic, Modernist sensibilities and aesthetics in the arts was shared by most artists of Wieland's generation and anti-Romanticism in the arts continues to this very day where "Romantic" is regularly hurled at both artworks and artists as a pejorative of the most damning sort. In fact, one has to look not much beyond that to explain the present-day license to butcher and the proliferation of the butchering of pre-20th-century opera and particularly opera of the 19th century by today's Konzept (i.e., Eurotrash) Regietheater opera directors.
Wieland's so-called New Bayreuth production of the Ring — first presented in 1951 and subsequently each succeeding year thereafter through 1958 (and about which I here write as firsthand witness, Wieland's staging of Die Walküre still being for me the most perfect staging of that work of my experience) — was Regietheater at its best and set a new standard for Wagner productions worldwide, showing what could be done by the use of inspired modern stagecraft in the service of Wagner's own idealized dramatic vision, that last being the key to this production's great artistic success.
With Wieland taking his (unacknowledged) cue from the groundbreaking work of the brilliant Swiss stage designer Adolphe Appia (1862-1928), the production's almost total absence of stage furniture, its use of non-period-or-place-committal costumes and settings, and the creative use of lighting to model and shape space and the characters who inhabit it, Wieland — taking his grandfather at his word when in 1853 he declared that the yet unwritten music of the Ring "shall sound in a way that people shall hear what they cannot see" — created a neutral "frame" or "matrix" for the tetralogy, so to speak, that permitted the music itself, working in tandem with the text and the audience's own imagination, to fill in all the missing stage furniture as if it all were right in front of the audience's eyes. It was a masterstroke, a stroke of genius even, as it made manifest to the audience in the most intimate, Werktreue way imaginable Richard Wagner's deepest interior vision of the Ring while rendering Wieland's properly transparent.
Unhappily, this wasn't to last. Along with Wagner's physiognomy, Wieland inherited as well Wagner's monstrous ego, and it wasn't long before he began not only to replace Wagner's original stagings with his own, but Wagner's original idealized vision as well, and thus did Regietheater as Eurotrash first begin to insinuate itself within the Bayreuther Festspiele where it still reigns supreme to this very day influencing Wagner productions everywhere.
Subsequent to Wieland's premature death in 1966, his brother Wolfgang, up until then the business side of the partnership (although he did mount several uninspired productions of his own in the period spanning 1951-1966), attempted to step into Wieland's shoes, and prove himself his brother's equal or better; something he truly imagined himself to be. In fairly short order, however, he was forced by the critical response to his work to accept the clear fact that not only was he not his brother's equal or better, but his vast inferior, and so, for the sake of keeping the Bayreuther Festspiele afloat, he came up with the fatal notion of inviting directors from outside the domain of opera to create new "heterodox" realizations of his grandfather's works for presentation at the Festspiele.
First came the disastrous and idiot Marxist Tannhäuser of East German avant-gardist Götz Friedrich in 1972 that so distorted Wagner's original that were it not being presented at the Festspielehaus with Wagner's music and with copious program notes in the house's program book, the opera would have been impossible to comprehend, not to speak of impossible to recognize as Wagner's opera.
But the real watershed moment in the Festspiele's permanent descent into the malodorous mire of Regietheater as Eurotrash came with Wolfgang's engagement of the Wagner-ignorant, avant-garde Frenchman Patrice Chéreau whose visually arresting, Shavian-socialist Konzept of the Ring set its opening work (Das Rheingold) in late-19th-, early-20th-century industrial Europe (England?), with Wotan and the gods as exploitative capitalist captains of industry, Alberich and the Nibelungs as a put-upon and exploited proletariat, and the Rheintöchtern as beguiling street tarts. That imbecile production and the following three — all just as imbecile but each set in a different historical period — opened the floodgates to all manner of postmodern idiocies in the realization of Wagner's stageworks, and since then the productions of the Bayreuther Festspiele have been among the most grotesque — often the most grotesque — of the manifold Konzept productions of Wagner's great stageworks worldwide.²
Thus has been the fate of the institution that Wagner established for the express purpose of providing the world model performances of his stageworks as he originally envisaged them. That institution, dedicated as it is exclusively to the works of Richard Wagner, should have been the one place in the world where audiences could experience Wagner's works realized as Wagner intended them to be realized (see Footnote 2 below). Instead, it's today left to the Met to fulfill that role among the world's major opera houses, and as that institution is anything but dedicated exclusively to Wagner's stageworks, it won't be long before commercial pressures and institutional vanity force it to join the ranks of the rest of the world's opera houses where those stageworks are concerned, and capitulate to the rage for Regietheater as Eurotrash. What's to be done then?
Much as I wish it were otherwise, I've no viable answer to that question nor any realistic solution to the central problem and can only mourn the circumstance of those who will never have the opportunity to experience Wagner's great stageworks realized as they were meant to be realized by their creator, and mourn as well the worlds of opera and the arts that will be immeasurably impoverished by the lack.
¹ I'm told the Seattle Opera is another major opera venue where one can still see Wagner's operas and music-dramas realized as Wagner envisaged them, but I've insufficient knowledge of those productions, and so can make no comment regarding them.
² By this I do not intend to even suggest that Wagner's stageworks ought to be realized by slavish adherence to his 19th-century ideas of mise en scène. What I am suggesting is that those stageworks ought to be realized by adhering assiduously to the dramatic spirit and sense of Wagner's original idealized vision as made manifest in the music and text to create and shape the mise en scène. One can, for instance, at one extreme, as did Wieland Wagner in his brilliant 1951 Bayreuth production of Das Rheingold, choose to represent the seabed of the great primal body of water that opens the Ring by displaying onstage a totally abstract "frame" or "matrix" that lets the music in tandem with the text fill in the details for the audience's imagination, or, at the other extreme, display onstage through the magic of modern optical trickery a vast body of real water within which the Rheintöchtern and Alberich do their cavorting as did Peter Hall in his 1983 Bayreuth production. What one cannot do and still be true to the dramatic spirit and sense of Wagner's original idealized vision as made manifest in the music and text is to display onstage a simulacrum of a man-made 20th-century reservoir and hydroelectric dam to represent that great primal body of water as did Patrice Chéreau in his 1976 Bayreuth production of Das Rheingold. I trust the difference will be immediately clear to the reader.
³ Before Wieland there had been scattered non-Bayreuth-traditional productions of Wagner's music-dramas and operas outside Bayreuth since the turn of the 20th century — most notably the Mahler-Roller Vienna Tristan of 1903 which is marked by some as the birth of Regietheater in opera, and the Klemperer-Dülberg Krolloper (Berlin) Holländer of 1929. But their influence wasn't widespread, and was taken studied notice of mostly within theater's and opera's professional circles.