More to come later on this subject, but if you want a preview picture of why right wing politics is antithetical to the arts google this woman - she exemplifies ignorant backwards thinking which fosters, at best, remediation in the arts. Read the whole bundle of self-indulgent garbage here.
When I wrote the above title earlier today, I must admit I assumed that upon rereading her article for the unscrupulous City Journal, I would reconsider the strength of the title I have appropriated to her. In reality I now find it to be a quite polite description of this woman who clearly has little artistic sensitivity, journalistic integrity, understanding of the past, or vision for the future.
Why am I so incensed by her dribble? This is a good question. I could stomach the neo-con creation of a war based on lies and the absolutely ludicrous assertion that a) America's brand of "democracy" is possible in the near future in Iraq and that b) that "democracy" would magically spread throughout the middle-east. I could stomach the neo-con's ignorant claims that abstinence only programs reduce sex and that not offering protection for STDs would reduce the number of said diseases. I could stomach the neo-con's defense of liberty out of one side of the mouth and invasion of privacy out of the other. I have even narrowly stomached the neo-con abuse of civil rights for political gains, economic relief only for those that don't need it (haven't we proven Reganomics doesn't work), and their blatant bigotry for the urban poor, non-subserviant women, gays, Blacks, Hispanics (that aren't rich Cubans who can swing Florida), and basically anyone that doesn't fit their WASPy little universe. I suppose all of this stomaching was a result of the insulation that is art. However, Ms. Mac Donald's blatantly neo-con approach to the arts is far beyond stomachings. It is an uninformed sermon against art which isn't polite by someone who clearly exudes everything that antithetical to art in the United States today. It has a thin veneer of scholarship which reveals her purely superficial understanding of the subject. It is as if Fox News has gotten into the opera business.
(I realize I'm not being as diplomatic as some of my more prudent colleagues. Luckily for me I have youth on my side, and that gives me the courage to say to Ms. Mac Donald what needs to be said: "you would do well to keep your small-minded conservative bigotry on your side of the fence and in a realm that you somewhat understand".)
Ms. Mac Donald's thesis takes as self-evident a flawed principle. Believe it or not, Mozart is dead. There is no obligation to Mozart or Verdi or Puccini or Strauss or their poetic compatriots. No such obligation exists. Her persistence and consequent assumption, that the reader take this as fact, that one must align one's self with the original artistic or aesthetic intentions of the composer, is ridiculous. Directors need not be afraid, and her assertion that directors wishing to substitute or suggest additional meanings in a work should write their own opera is pure idiocy. The director should be a creative artist.
Her defense of Stephen Wadsworth, one of the least interesting or memorable (and yes, a traditional director can still be interesting and memorable, and even compelling) directors working today, a questionable level of discretion in her taste. Her appreciation for Wadsworth’s curatorial approach to directing reveals her limited understanding of the subject. Opera is not stagnate as Ms. Mac Donald would suggest. She pines for the Enlightenment, but not enlightenment itself. For her it is merely a historical happening, an annotation in a history book. A truly enlightened thinker of today would know that all art should be a living organic experience. Opera is not meant to be hung on a wall and looked at on one's way to the museum cafe. Clearly Ms. Mac Donald is the type of audience member that goes to the opera to be seen at the opera or to say "I went to the opera", but she is also the type of audience member that will never really get opera.
The director has no obligation to the composer, and though he is wise to consider the music, his dance goes both in and out of synch with the composer's notes and even with the text itself – what is literal, what is metaphorical, what is ironic, what is sincere. Neo-con’s don’t see this degree of subtlety in their black and white world. The director isn't creating Mozart's "La Nozze di Figaro", he is creating his "La Nozze di Figaro" and there is nothing wrong with that, on the contrary that is art moving forward just as humanity does. Ms. Mac Donald longs for productions which say nothing, but rather are still inoffensive memories of another time. That is fine, there is a place for that. That isn't art. The singing will no doubt be artful, as will the designs hopefully. That sort of directing, however, is superfluous.
I have not been fortunate enough to see all the productions to which Ms. Mac Donald alludes, nor I suspect has she. That said, I would caution the reader of her article to not form judgments based on her descriptions. She has cleverly left out the contexts of many of the examples she sites, not offering their true functional role in the operas. Like many neo-cons she comes dangerously close to mischaracterization in her tirade. For example, her jealous distaste for Peter Sellars results in an unfair portrayal of his work to her reader. While she states the no regietheater proponent can bare a happy ending, she conveniently fails to mention that the final of Sellar's "Figaro" is filled with joy in a dance choreographed by Mark Morris, in fact the whole opera is playful and witty. Mark Morris is quite the regietheater director himself. Ms. Mac Donald, in her seemingly divine (because it certainly isn’t logical) judgment of the Met's offerings, states that nothing in Gelb's first season suggests he will tarnish the geriatric house's reputation for producing thoroughly uninteresting work to audiences that don't know better. She must have decided the Morris/Gluck "Orfeo" wasn't offensive enough to qualify (or, as I suspect, she was too busy to take the work in).
This gets at the biggest untruth in the article. She fails to mention that director led productions do not always contain violence or drugs or even sex. No, Ms. Mac Donald has conveniently decided that regietheater means simply offensive opera. This is born out of her myopic approach to the topic and neo-con steeped tradition of spinning everything. She doesn't mention directors like Robert Carson or Laurent Pelly or David McVicars, directors that are most certainly the driving force behind their continental productions, but who do not fill their production with gratuity or the negativity and aversion to charming wit that Ms. Mac Donald coyly associates with all director driven opera (audience in Chicago can witness this first hand when Mc Vicar’s “Giulio Cesare” comes this season). She also allows the reader to have the impression that all Sellar’s productions are full of violence and sex, not mentioning the wildly popular Sellar’s productions of “Giulio Cesare”, “Nixon in China”, or “El Nino”, not to mention Sellar’s “Theodora” which is profoundly and absolutely loyal to Handel’s narrative. It does depict some violence, but should we be afraid of ever depicting the violence we find all around us on the stage? Should opera only be idyllic depictions of an imagined past on only superficial violence?
She also spins her story to read as if audiences are fleeing from European houses. This is not true. Opera in Europe is more popular than ever and houses are filled with young people. They no longer see an antiquated art form, a stodgy museum piece, they see breathing art that speaks to them. She even goes so far as the paint a picture of audiences coerced into finally enjoying these productions, as if the German houses refused to stop remounting the production until audiences were brainwashed - as if it is inconceivable that audiences needed time to grow into the work. This isn't unlike the premier of "Le Sacre du Printemps" or many a Mahler symphony. Would Ms. Mac Donald suggest the Stravinsky's popularity or public affection for Mahler 8 is somehow compelled against their will? In fact, it is opera in the United States that suffers. Sure the Met is full because it is so popular to be seen at the Met or to say "I went to the Met", but companies around the country struggle with interesting audiences with their dated and only-sleep-worthy productions. Ms. Mac Donald rails against the San Francisco Opera which is one of the few companies selling seats and doing important work (take their production of the Messian "St. Francois" for instance).
Ms. Mac Donald also rails against the appointment of Gerard Mortier as General Director of New York City Opera. This is born out of her clear aversion to anything Continental (large C intentional). Though Mortier is Belgian, Ms. Mac Donald certainly would throw him out with the freedom fries. In fact, Mortier's appointment is one of the few promising things that has happened in opera in the United States in a long time. Finally someone that understands opera is about more than the park-and-bark style for which Mac Donald pines. Finally someone that understands opera isn't about the music or the text or the sets or the lights or even the direction. It is about production. Ms. Mac Donald ignorantly enlists Wagner (Richard or course) into her camp. What she doesn't get is that the type of work Mortier does is what really exemplifies Wagner's ideal situation of a complete production in every respect under one unifying concept. Finally there is someone that can challenge the Met, with its vast resources, to create work which is beautiful and not just pretty.
Even Ms. Mac Donald’s "fears" for the coming season at the Met are ludicrous. Her terror of what Patrice Chereau might bring to the Met is laughable. His Bayreuth production is widely considered the Ring masterpiece of the 20th century and he is revered by audiences and critics alike. That she would prefer the Met's old Schenk production is telling in and of itself, the only thing more laughable than that production being Ms. Mac Donald’s presumed defense of it. She thinks that Luc Bondy throws up red flags, a director who’s "Hercules" at BAM was considered not compelling enough. Ms. Mac Donald only seems to have reverence for polite opera that doesn't get in the way either to move or provoke (God please not another Zambella productions...how many times can we chew Zeffirelli's cud?).
What is far more distasteful than the productions that Ms. Mac Donald rails against is her own thinly veiled bigotry. Through the words of this article she clearly sneers at everyone from gays to Muslims to people that have sex (oh, those neo-cons love pass judgments on the bedroom). She balks at the idea of houses hiring prostitutes and German officials rubbing shoulders with prostitutes. I guess she would prefer prostitutes stay working in the streets where they belong and no doubt deserve to be. What is most frightening or entertaining depending on how one looks at it, is her horror at the idea of subsidized arts programs, never mind that almost all the works she refers to were the product of subsidized economic arts cultures. Perhaps subsidies do make for extreme risk taking in the arts. Maybe that is what allowed Wagner to write "Tristan" and Mozart to write "Figaro", works that from her inoculated Manhattan existence Ms. Mac Donald fails to recognize are in fact quite revolutionary and anything, but polite. And, for someone who complains of a lack of wit in these riegetheater productions, Ms. Mac Donald can't even find the wit herself in the Met's newest art acquisition. I imagine the wit of regietheater productions simply goes over her head.
Ms. Mac Donald doesn't have a true historical context for understanding these works, and she doesn't have sufficient vision, openness, or compassion to understand these productions. A lack of vision, openness, and compassion: precisely the problem with almost all neo-con positions. It is narrow minded artistic bigots like Heather Mac Donald that are in fact destroying art for the American public. History has shown us time and time again the those like Ms. Mac Donald matter little in the larger context. They will not be remembered, they will not impede progress. It has always been the pleasure of artists from Bach to Wagner to Sellars to rise above the tininess of the Mac Donald’s of the world.