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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bad Opera

Read of the troubles facing a new production of Dvorak's Rusalka, posted recently on an opera Listserv, at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. The, er, singular notions of the production director are a microcosm of opera in general in twenty-first century Europe.
"They'd been miming it up to the dress rehearsal, but on that occasion, he showed up with a real deer corpse and said he expected the singers, soloists and chorus, to skin the animal on stage and cut it up - he also wanted everybody involved in this spotted with authentic animal blood. Oh, it gets worse. Several people complained about the smell, and he made some kind of comment to the effect they had better get used to it, because he had ordered a fresh deer corpse for each of 12 scheduled performances, and besides, that stench is what the world really smells like and he hopes it wafts into the auditorium. He also had a fish tank containing both the soprano and real fish, which explodes at the end, dumping her and the fish into a watery grave, but the aroma of the dying fish was so acrid they switched to rubber fish, over his furious protestations. In any event, somebody in the company "ratted" on him to the press, and there was a front-page headline in the Abendzeitung including a fairly graphic description of what has been going on, and what was being planned. That brought a whole bunch of government officials and animal protection advocates into the discussion, to which the response was "the dead animals have already been ordered from the butcher." When some serious reservations were raised from both sides of the political aisle, to which the theatre director fumed: "It's just a cheap excuse for the yellow press to distract its readers from the significant issue of artistic freedom, and besides, in 'Rusalka', deer hunting figures significantly in the plot". Hello? In any event, the "yellow press" and the politicians won, and, although they admitted there is no specific law prohibiting the use of dead animals in theatrical performances (by law, however they must be thrown away and under no circumstances be made available as food.) The deer will be plastic - they are also hanging all over the stage. My friend in the chorus said: "With every new director, the theatre dips just a little deeper into the toilet." I'm waiting for the reviews when some pseudo-intellectual nerd of a critic discusses the revolutionary vision of a visionary producer hamstrung by the advocates of the cheap and trivial. Somebody has already used the expression "Bambi-Hugger" in reference to the animal protection people."
One of the favorite deep-sighing laments of the left in this country is our meager public funding of the arts in comparison with that of the enlightened Europeans; but for the chronic financial worries of our cultural institutions a thousand flowers would bloom. In Germany the opera is a ward of the state; no companies need concern themselves unduly over funding. The result is outrageously high ticket prices (when you don't have worry about revenue from the sale of tickets, you don't have to worry about what you charge for them) and megalomaniacal directors who are indulged, at public expense, whatever perverted fantasies they please themselves to see enacted on the stage by others. The result of this toxic combination, not surprisingly, is row upon row of empty seats.

It is ironic but true the moment cultural institutions stick their snouts in the public trough, they no longer are accountable to the public. They don't care. They don't have to.

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