I previously cited my neighbor, who plays second violin in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, as an inspiration for much of my musical thinking. Where our points of view seem to be most different is over the question of taking a revisionist approach to the staging of an opera. To choose an example that is not from the current season here, she really had a hard time with the Hansel and Gretel production that was shared with the Welsh National Opera. (I choose this example because some readers may have seen the Welsh version when it was broadcast on the now-defunct Ovation channel.) She wanted to know why this production was as "ugly" as it was, particularly by ending with all the children, having been released from the witch's spell, sitting down with Hansel, Gretel, and their parents to feast on the witch (whom, you will recall, Gretel had shoved into the oven). I have to admit that this was a pretty unnerving sight; but, given that just about every fairy tale has a pretty substantial dark side, I simply accepted this as putting an ironic twist on that dark side. Nevertheless, I do not think that my attempt to put a positive spin on this single example made for a particularly convincing argument.
Then I realized that what I had written at the beginning of this month about "Postmodern Politics" might be equally applicable to how many directors now think about the operas they stage. The source I cited in that post tried to make the case that postmodernism was all about resistance and how resistance different from opposition. Whereas opposition was an instrument for revealing truth by subjecting every assertion to dialectical challenge, resistance involved "questioning the possibility of attaining truth with the view that the 'possibility of attaining truth' is itself an idea, which results from an historical event where 'truth or falsity' became a dominant style of thinking." Resistance suspects an assertion, rather than challenging it, advocating only that acceptance be deferred in the face of the questionability of that "possibility of attaining truth."
What does this have to do with staging an opera? Traditionally, staging has been a matter of accepting a libretto as a "dramatic ground truth," which is warranted by the structure and performance of the music. To continue my ongoing thoughts about the medieval trivium, that "ground truth" is the logic of the opera, which must then be conveyed to the audience through the rhetoric of the staging. However, by questioning the very nature of the "possibility of attaining truth," postmodernism also questions the need for both identifying and rendering that logic; and, as an alternative, the libretto becomes viewed as a point of departure for suspicion.
This is nothing new in drama. To a great extent this is the position that Berthold Brecht took in his efforts to achieve his "epic theater." The Welsh Hansel and Gretel exhibits a debt to Brecht without actually following any of Brecht's paths. Indeed, the very notion of an integrated vision is made suspect by giving each of the three acts an independent perspective. The first act sets the context of poverty in a setting that could be taking right out of D. H. Lawrence. The second act concentrates on the dream sequence and envisages it as an encounter between Max Ernst's Semaine de Bonté and Maurice Sendak's Night Kitchen. Finally, the third act sets the trajectory of the concluding feast by presenting the witch in the image of Julia Child; so, as the meal is served up to the final chorus, we can almost hear, in the background, her distinctive voice chiming in, "Bon appétit!"
Let me now make clear that I offer this argument as explanation, rather than advocacy. When it comes to my own audience experience, I find postmodernism a tricky business. As Merce Cunningham liked to say, "Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't." Hansel and Gretel "worked" for me. In a similar vein I would say that the current production of Tannhäuser "works" most of the time (but definitely not in the choreography). Appomattox, on the other hand, is very much about dialectical opposition, rather than postmodern resistance and succeeds, in large part, because of its commitment to delivering its particular "ground truth" about the Civil War.
I am not sure there are any guidelines as to when a postmodern approach is likely to "work." I think, to a great extent, postmodernism works best when it obliges us to rethink old thoughts that we practically take for granted, such as the fairy tales we remember from childhood or, for that matter, Jonathan Miller's decision to set Rigoletto in the Chicago of Al Capone. The risk, however, is always that a postmodern stance is reduced to little more than novelty for novelty's sake; and this serves neither the spirit of resistance or the particular work being "resisted." As is always the case, we all have to make up our own minds and should do so after the final curtain has fallen, rather than before we enter the opera house!