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Brecht at the Opera$

Joy H. Calico

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780520254824

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520254824.001.0001

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Brecht's Legacy for Opera

Brecht's Legacy for Opera

Estrangement and the Canon

(p.140) 5 Brecht's Legacy for Opera
Brecht at the Opera

Joy H. Calico

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

Opera is indebted to Bertolt Brecht. The evidence lies not in librettos and scores but in production, stagecraft, direction, and mise-en-scène and in their effect on the spectating audience member. A stage director, whose work has been informed by Brecht's audience theory, shapes the experience of attending an opera performance in present times. In this context estrangement is an instrument of Brecht's minor pedagogy, a means of empowering the audience in its engagement with conventional bourgeois theater repertoire. Major pedagogy transforms the spectator into a spect-actor, a subject with agency that extends well beyond the theater, and this is the agenda most often associated with Brecht. It is not necessarily applicable in all theater contexts, however, and the comparatively modest mission of minor pedagogy via estrangement is custom-made for canonical opera.

Keywords:   Brecht, pedagogy, spectator, theater, canon

Having devoted the entire volume thus far to the argument that Brecht's theories and dramatic texts are indebted to opera, I now propose its inverse: Opera is indebted to Brecht. The evidence lies not in librettos and scores but in production, stagecraft, direction, and mise-en-scène and in their effect on the spectating audience member. The experience of attending an opera performance today is frequently shaped by a stage director whose work has in turn been informed by Brecht's audience theory, arguably his most influential bequest.1 Ever mindful of the danger inherent in sweeping generalizations, I maintain that this is the common denominator among nonliteral productions of canonical operas, regardless of their political or artistic agendas: The staging aims to create the experience of estrangement for the spectating audience member. That experience is a two-step process—“disillusion (Verfremdung) constitutes a return from alienation (Entfremdung) to understanding”2—and it is one of the great pleasures of attending opera as Regietheater (director's theater).

The mandate is to take a familiar and, in all likelihood, much-beloved opera and render it unfamiliar.3 The resulting disorientation, confusion, or outrage is not the endgame of estrangement, however; once expectations have been thwarted, the new perspective triggers cognition, or recognition. Defamiliarization reconfigures the relationship of the audience member to that opera and, more ambitiously, even the relationship of the audience member to the act of operagoing. The efficacy of estrangement depends on two things: the spectator's prior knowledge of and experience with the particular opera in question; and the spectator's expectations and prior experience of operagoing in general. This amounts to estrangement from opera (lowercase “o,” meaning the individual piece, such as La forza del destino) and estrangement from Opera (uppercase “o,” as in the concept, institution, (p.141) and social practice).4 Estrangement from opera pertains to the work in live performance, what Sauter calls the theatrical event, “in which the meaning of a performance is created by the performers and the spectators together, in a joint act of understanding.”5 Canonical opera is defamiliarized via the unexpected, be it some sort of anachronism, reflexivity, or intertextuality. Estrangement from Opera permits critique of the social infrastructure in which both opera and operagoing participate and is often achieved by implicating the audience in the work of the production. This can be quite literal, as when Hans Neuenfels staged the audience in his 1981 Frankfurt production of Aida or Paul Shortt used onstage mirrors to reflect the audience's gaze back upon itself in his 1997 production of La traviata for Opera Company of Philadelphia.6 In the United States, such tactics are likely to be endorsed by marketing departments in hopes of “attracting new audiences by updating old pieces” or “making opera relevant.” In Europe, particularly in Germany, these productions provide a director with the opportunity to put her unique stamp on a standard text and to make provocative political, philosophical, and aesthetic statements in the process.7

Gundula Kreuzer describes the phenomenon of director's opera as “that much-cited yet little-defined ‘radical’ mode of production that cares little about original stage directions or ‘authentic settings.’ Instead, it aims to uncover psychological, political or social threads that tie the work in with topical concerns, thus bestowing the entire operatic enterprise with contemporary relevance.”8 Estrangement via this enterprise is not always or necessarily effective (nor, it should be noted, is the enterprise itself), but it can be a very powerful experience for an operagoer. Those with nominal attachment to a particular realization of an opera in performance may find it effective, as may those who know a given opera so well that their engagement with the present radical production is in constant dialogue with normative versions they have stored in their memories.9 I argue that estrangement has its roots in Brecht's own operagoing experience, and, in that sense, it has come home to roost in opera productions.

In this context estrangement is an instrument of Brecht's minor pedagogy, a means of empowering the audience in its engagement with conventional bourgeois theater repertoire. This is distinct from major pedagogy, the instigation of literal political activism via the theater event to which Louis Althusser's notion of spectatorship is indebted, as is Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed project working in tandem with Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed in Brazil.10 Major pedagogy transforms the spectator into a spectactor, a subject with agency that extends well beyond the theater,11 and this is the agenda most often associated with Brecht. It is not necessarily (p.142) applicable in all theater contexts, however, and the comparatively modest mission of minor pedagogy via estrangement is custom-made for canonical opera.

My analysis follows the distinction between live performance and production proposed by Erika Fischer-Lichte. She posits four criteria for a theory of live performance: it is a singular, unique event that arises from the interaction between those onstage and those in the audience; it is ephemeral, as it occurs in the moment and cannot be replicated, and therefore no two are identical; it does not transmit extant meanings but brings forth meanings that emerge from this interaction; and it is characterized by its “eventness,” meaning that it facilitates a particular mode of boundary-crossing experience.12 A production, on the other hand, is the concept that informs the stage half of the relationship in performance.

I feel compelled to issue two caveats before pursuing the argument that an aesthetic of estrangement in nonliteral productions of canonical texts is the Brechtian legacy for opera. First, the experience of estrangement, also known as the V-effect (Verfremdung), is not inherently nihilist (and, perhaps it must be said, neither is the phenomenon of director's opera). To minimize the prejudicial effect of the standard grammatical construction (estrangement from the opera), and to accommodate the possibility that the engagement might be productive, “estrangement with the opera” or “estrangement and the opera” may be used to emphasize the second phase of the process as a rapprochement of sorts. Second, despite the negative connotations attached to that term in its various English translations and entrenched conventional wisdom to the contrary,13 estrangement is not part of a vast Brechtian conspiracy to prohibit pleasure in the theater. Quite the contrary: Its purpose is to facilitate agency in the subjective experience of the spectating audience member,14 and such moments of defamiliarization and recognition can be highly pleasurable. Pleasure in this context is not the hedonistic, intoxicated Genuß Brecht derided in his Mahagonny notes but the Vergnügen to which he refers when he declared that “there is such a thing as pleasurable learning.”15

In nonliteral stagings of canonical texts the pleasurable experience of estrangement is elicited generally through the disruption of expectation and the subsequent realization thereof, often in the rupture between what is seen and what is heard. In this chapter I theorize the experience of estrangement as both intellectual and physical16 by interpreting Brecht's ideal “smoking-and-watching” audience through the lens of somatic modes of attention posited by cultural anthropologist Thomas J. Csórdas. Finally, I will reflect on moments and means of estrangement experienced while (p.143) attending a performance of a nonliteral production by Stefan Herheim (Verdi's La forza del destino at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 2005).

What is Brechtian?

First, however, the term “Brechtian” cannot pass unchallenged. The nature, and even the existence, of Brecht's influence on theater as an important, enduring legacy has been variously asserted and refuted by disciples and detractors alike. His plays and theoretical writings are cited often enough, but repertoire and acting style suggest that this amounts to little more than lip service, the canonization of a historical master, rather than the use of a generative, living method that manifests itself in the arts of writing plays and performing them. Michael Patterson sums up the predicament as follows: “Can one claim that Brecht's legacy is anything more than a matter of employing a more or less fashionable label to enhance theatre work ranging from performance art to agitprop?”17 This is due in no small part to what may be the most enduring and dubious remnant of the entire epic theater project: the term “Brechtian.” An indefinite adjective so broadly and casually applied as to be rendered virtually meaningless, it is equally effective as honorific or epithet depending on the speaker and context. Attempts to articulate its meaning frequently devolve into a parody of the definition of obscenity proffered by U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart in 1964 (“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced … but I know it when I see it”).18 Both the term “Brechtian” and its mutability are integral to the legacy and invite interrogation.

A host of prominent Brecht scholars have made this observation in one way or another, and I invoke their assessments to establish patterns of usage. Patterson notes that “‘Brechtian’ can legitimize; it can also limit; it can certainly distort”; and “in a world where all progressive forms of theatre are ‘Brechtian,’ none is.”19 According to Eric Bentley, “‘Brechtian’ is often not so much a literary or theatrical term as an exercise in public relations.”20 Marc Silberman describes the indiscriminate application of the term to connote everything from incongruous to naturalistic as the “epistemological decentering” of what is designated as Brechtian in the theater,21 and Andrzej Wirth has famously decried this as a state of “Brecht reception without Brecht.”22 Similarly, Maarten van Dijk attributes the failure of self-conscious efforts to be Brechtian to “the overwhelming tendency to see Brecht's theory and practice as a style rather than as a method.”23

“Brechtian,” then, appears to be a general term encompassing all manner of anti-Romantic, antibourgeois theatrical characteristics that have “become (p.144) so much a part of standard stage practice that it is difficult to determine whether they actually result from his influence.”24 The term operates on two levels. At the superficial level of style, “Brechtian” most commonly refers to the requisite sparsely appointed stage, the exposed apparatus, actors who address the audience directly, and various other means of eliminating the fourth wall, all originally designed in opposition to the extravagance of fin de siècle Wagnerian theatricality. Leaving aside the matter of whether these traits originated with Brecht, it is clear that they have come to be associated with him; his “overpowering authority” has long meant that “his work was the central reference point in considering new theatre aesthetics” in the twentieth century.25 The surface quality of that style is easily appropriated without its attendant method and is now so prevalent as to have virtually become the hegemonic authority against which it once rebelled. Replicating superficial traits without acknowledging that they may no longer generate the desired effect—style without method—is akin to what David Levin describes as a model of reiteration as repetition, rather than reiteration as reinflection.26

Silberman's equally valid albeit apparently contradictory observation that “Brechtian” is applied to everything from incongruity to naturalism, however, suggests that the term also operates on a second level related to audience experience. Both meanings may pertain simultaneously or only one may be appropriate in any given instance.27 Whether invoked to support a positive or negative assessment, the adjective used in this sense consistently implies thwarted expectation—a performance or production that does not comply with one's anticipation of a particular genre, text, or playwright. Over time, canonical texts accrue standard performance practices that affect production design as well as audience experience. (Other expectations come into play where a new text is concerned, but for the purposes of this argument as it pertains to opera, I will concentrate on the canon.) An audience member's perception will be determined by her awareness of this particular text's intertextuality—that is, the ways in which this production engages with others of the same opera, by the same director, or in the same house or of other operas by the same composer; the director's decisions are informed by the same data.28 When a performance of any canonical opera—by which is meant the generally understood popular, standard repertoire spanning the period from Handel to Puccini—does not fit preconceived notions, the audience member's experience of it is described frequently as Brechtian, regardless of whether the experience was pleasurable or frustrating (or both). This usage does not connote discrete elements of staging or performance practice, as the first one does, but rather their effect. It indicates (p.145) an audience experience of estrangement, the defamiliarization of an opera the spectating audience member believes she knows and may even love.

Transmission of Production Tradition in Theater and Opera

It is this second usage of “Brechtian,” that which connotes estrangement, which is particularly apt when considering nonliteral productions of canonical opera, those which Levin calls reiteration as reinflection.29 Opera is distinct from spoken theater in this regard in at least two important ways. The first has to do with tradition, and the second with the work of the audience in a performance. As Levin and others have noted, it has long been standard practice to stage the most canonical of plays, such as those of Shakespeare, in nonliteral ways. Within the context of that performance practice tradition, a literal staging of the play Macbeth would be interpreted as conveying some additional meaning: perhaps a deliberate rejection of or gloss upon the phenomenon skeptics describe as “interventionist” production or a self-conscious attempt to reclaim some version of authenticity. The tradition of staging canonical opera in nonliteral ways, however, is comparatively recent. Where Wagner's operas are concerned, its roots are in the work of Adolphe Appia and most conspicuously in the Wieland Wagner era at Bayreuth;30 as applied to opera in general, it is typically traced to the emergence of director's opera in the 1970s. (Adorno complained about the German penchant for updating opera via contemporary costumes and settings in 1969.)31 In other words, there are considerably fewer production texts with which an opera staging can be intertextualized.

Critics of director's opera frequently note that (some generally agreed upon version of) the musical score and libretto are revered as the sacrosanct, essential material of the text, while stage directions, however copious or reliably attributed to the librettist, composer, or both, are treated as ancillary and optional.32 Regardless of the origins of this viewpoint or its legitimacy, there is no denying its staying power, not only in the popular imagination but also in the scholarly one. Of course it is possible to follow “the printed stage directions as if they had exactly the same kind of authority as the notes prescribed in the musical score,”33 but even those meticulously attentive to matters of “authenticity” must concede that such directions do not account for every moment of every operatic performance in the same way a score does.34 The score is the template for the acoustic in performance, and that sonic component is virtually continual. The lyrics are not omnipresent; there are always instrumental passages that are unsung. Stage directions, (p.146) however explicit, cannot specify the details of the visual for every second of the performance as it occurs in time to nearly the extent the score determines its simultaneous aural complement. Stage directions are not granted the authority of the score because they are unable to convey a comparable degree of specificity for the duration of the piece. This is not to deny that all manner of interpretive performing decisions must be made with regard to realizing the score as well, but it is a matter of degree.

Acknowledgment of this condition gave rise to the livre de mise-en-scène, or production book, first associated with Parisian grand opera in the early nineteenth century. These were typically published in conjunction with the score and sold to opera houses in the provinces, where directors were thought to need guidance realizing the extravagant new expectations of stagecraft and spectacle associated with the emerging grand opera genre. Verdi's experience with the French livre is said to have been the impetus for the series of disposizioni sceniche (production books) Ricordi published for at least eight of his operas beginning in 1855. Wagner's painstaking attention to stage description and direction in his scores reflects a similar desire to communicate details of appropriate productions as he attempted to impose some element of quality control and interpretive consistency. Unlike the standard procedure in spoken theater, in which Regiebücher (director's books, or production notes) were typically kept on file and used in-house in manuscript form, the opera production guides described above were produced for the express purpose of publication and widespread distribution. They were clearly meant to serve as models for productions in far-flung opera houses.35

Brecht's contribution to the genre of the production book more closely resembled the tradition of the opera than that of the spoken theater. He was at least obliquely familiar with the operatic version because Weill and Neher had compiled one for Mahagonny, although Brecht did not contribute to it. After he returned to Europe from American exile he embarked upon a project of creating so-called model books for publication and widespread distribution rather than just in-house use. The Swiss Antigone was the subject of the first one, distinguished by its extraordinary detail and extensive visual documentation in photographs by Ruth Berlau. Despite cautionary disclaimers that the model books should be used as “provisional texts available for fresh inscription in a changed set of circumstances,”36 the decades following Brecht's death saw the utter ossification of his models, perhaps nowhere more egregiously than in his own theater, the Berliner Ensemble.37 In other words, the model books were received and followed as if they were opera production books. Verdi's disposizioni sceniche were not intended as suggestions or as stimuli to prime the creative pump; rather, they were (p.147) “binding instructions.” According to these original documents, “The task of the stage director is to insure—by instructing and bullying the performers and technical staff—that the work be staged precisely as described therein.”38 Brecht's disciples treated his model books with the same deference for authority, even though he—the authority—had forbidden it.

Regardless of the degree to which Verdi's production books are followed literally today, it is apparent that they were so explicit in the first place because the most likely point of intervention in the network of texts that are handed down and said to comprise the opera is at the level of the visual—costumes, mise-en-scène, and action. For those who would experiment with canonical opera, radical treatment of the visual component is not perceived as endangering the opera's essential identity as that opera. Technological advances in generating the visual (stage machinery, lighting, filmic techniques, and special effects) have far outpaced those pertaining to the fundamental means of generating the music (the human voice and standard orchestral instruments) and rendered the possibilities all the more enticing. This is one of the myriad issues pertaining to authority, competing authorities in a collaborative text for performance, and a work concept that has tended to privilege the score (and, to a lesser extent, the libretto) as the essential locus of the opera's identity. Roger Parker takes aim at this most sacred of musical cows when he argues that musical revisions may be in order if the beloved opera canon is to offer new pleasures to contemporary audiences. However, the furor that surrounded two of his case studies in particular (Cecilia Bartoli's use of two arias Mozart wrote for a 1789 revival of Le nozze di Figaro rather than the “original” arias and Luciano Berio's recompletion of Puccini's Turandot) indicates that opera lovers remain far more resistant to radical treatment of the sound of opera than to the reenvisioning of its appearance.39

The Work of the Spectating Audience

The second crucial distinction between opera and spoken theater for my purposes concerns the activities in which the spectating audience member is engaged at each event. Consider the etymology of the word “audience.” The Middle French and Middle English versions are derived from the Latin “audientia,” meaning “a hearing or listening,” which is in turn derived from “audiens,” the present participle of “audire” (to hear). The root of the word is “hearing,” and the first definition given in the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary is “the act or state of hearing.” Yet studies of theater audience perception and reception traditionally privilege the act of seeing, (p.148) and theorizing about audience experience in live theater is overwhelmingly predicated upon the gaze.40 The term “spectator” is frequently used interchangeably with “audience,” as if the two were synonymous.

Because the experience of opera is so significantly auditory, Carolyn Abbate and others advocate recuperating the sonic component, particularly the voice, in the materiality of performance.41 Of course this is not to say that attending spoken theater does not involve listening. One listens to dialogue, sound effects, and some music and judges an actor's delivery, pacing, word stress, volume, accent, and voice timbre. Sauter has shown that an audience member's “evaluation of the performance as such always correlates with the appreciation of the acting, even if other aspects of the show (the drama, the directing, the set, the costumes, etc.) were estimated lower,”42 and the voice is an integral part of an actor's performance. But the way one judges the voice as part of an actor's performance is not identical to the way in which one judges and attends to the singing voice at the opera, not to mention the other fundamental acoustic material of opera (melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation).43

That one listens differently to a live performance of an opera than one listens to a live performance of a play is particularly pertinent for canonical operas, as these are the texts treated in nonliteral stagings. Generally speaking, the music in these operas is diatonic. Even nonmusicians and novice operagoers come equipped with a basic framework for diatonic functions based on exposure to popular music and song forms, if nothing else: the expectation of harmonic progression and chromatic resolution and a sense of repetition and contrast in aria forms. In other words, even if one does not know the opera in question, one nonetheless has general, reasonable expectations of how its music will behave, even if those assumptions remain largely unarticulated. Because spectating and hearing are experienced simultaneously at a live opera performance, the expectation of consistency one brings to the aural experience is easily transferred to expectations for the spectating experience.

The transfer of expectation from one mode of sensory perception to another can extend to an expectation, likely unarticulated, that the visual and the aural should be consistent not only unto themselves but also to one another in a kind of synchronized synesthesia: If it sounds eighteenth century, it will look eighteenth century. When diatonic operatic music, which is predictable within certain broad parameters, is synchronized with a nonliteral staging, which is almost by definition conceived as a counterpoint to that soundscape, tension is created between the simultaneous stimuli. Human electrophysiology indicates that “information stemming from (p.149) multiple senses is not likely to be processed in isolation but will tend to be integrated into a multisensory percept under various circumstances.”44 Further-more, studies by cognitive psychologists suggest that the integration of auditory and visual stimulus “is a process that occurs largely without conscious effort,” while behavioral studies hypothesize that “integrating visual and auditory stimuli serves the purpose of enhancing perceptual clarity.”45 The brain's inclination is to integrate simultaneous visual and auditory stimuli, but if those stimuli seem incongruous, the rupture between what one sees and what one hears can produce estrangement. Because both the music and the mise-en-scène provide well-nigh continuous stimuli, nonliteral productions of canonical opera create ideal conditions for a Brechtian experience.

While that particular incongruence between what is seen and what is heard in nonliteral productions of canonical opera today does not precisely replicate Brecht's operagoing experience, it can reproduce the distancing he describes. The mechanism by which the distance is created is different, but the result is similar. From the distanced perspective the opera looks and sounds different; the opera is defamiliarized, and Opera's apparently natural position in the social hierarchy is demystified. Therefore Brecht was able to reconceptualize opera as a theatrical genre and challenge conventional wisdom about its function. He remained in close physical proximity to the performance, which allowed him to experience and participate in the event to the extent he so desired, but the psychological distance enabled a more deliberate response to the auditory and visual stimuli. He experienced this disillusion not as disappointment but as a moment of clarity and agency, which is quite the opposite of falling prey to the spell of operatic music and theatricality. The state of being estranged allows individual spectating audience members to exercise agency over their subjective experiences. Although Brecht's documented moments of estrangement in operagoing frequently resulted in negative assessments of opera and of Opera, it does not necessarily follow that the experience of estrangement is negative. Estrangement is an instrument of minor pedagogy, a means of empowering spectating audience members to engage with opera without unconditional surrender to the siren song of its theatricality.

Somatic Modes of Attention: Smoking-and-Watching

Brecht emphasized critical thought and objectivity in his discussions of estrangement because he proposed it as an alternative mode of experience to (p.150) the normative expectation that audiences be overwhelmed in live performance—be victimized by it, in a sense.46 His rhetoric served a particular purpose at the time but has since been decontextualized to legitimize a notion of estrangement that locates the experience entirely in the intellect. No doubt this has contributed to its reception as an edict against pleasure. It is significant, then, that his “Notes to Threepenny Opera” describes the preconditions that would produce the ideal spectating audience experience in terms of two physical activities: smoking and watching. This is generally and, I believe, too narrowly construed as endorsing simple skeptical nonchalance. It is more than that. The two strategies for enabling the audience member to experience operagoing differently originate in her body: She should smoke while engaged in “an exercise in complex seeing.”47

Brecht was fascinated by the smoking-and-watching spectators at sporting events. His rallying cry for smoking in the theater (and in the opera house) was a symbolic act of resistance against coerced modes of behavior and response. “In a Shakespearean production one man in the stalls with a cigar could bring about the downfall of Western art. He might as well light a bomb as light his cigar.”48 Likewise he invoked smoking in his “Notes” to Mahagonny when he calls for a new spectating audience attitude in the opera house: “Can we persuade them to get out their cigars?”49 Brecht also endorsed the benefits for actors who play before a house of spectating audience members who smoke, as “it is quite impossible for the actor to play unnatural, cramped and old-fashioned theater to a man smoking in the stalls.”50 The smoker will not surrender mindlessly to events onstage because he is “pretty well occupied with himself.”51

The model of the smoking person is routinely cited as evidence that a spectating audience member should maintain an intellectualized distance. The flaw in this conventional wisdom, however, is that it removes the smoking person's body from the equation, as if the audience experience were somehow that of a disembodied smoker. The argument that Brecht invoked the smoking person as the ideal audience member only because she is self-engaged and detached is not consistent with his other expectations of audience engagement. The act of smoking might be described more usefully as an aid to attending rather than as an aid to detachment.52 Smoking requires some level of consciousness of physical sensation and response; one must attend to it to a certain degree, particularly in a confined, indoor space (tilt my head so I don't get smoke in my eyes, squint if I do, flick the ash so it doesn't fall on my clothes, put out the cigarette before it burns my fingers, remove the shred of tobacco from my tongue, take care not to burn the patron next to me). This is all quite apart from the chemical pleasure of (p.151) ingesting nicotine and the psychological pleasure of partaking of a familiar ritual.

Propagation of the purely cerebral model of the estrangement experience has certainly contributed to a sense among his detractors that Brecht was a theorist whose abstract ideas were not meant for practical application, if not an out-and-out killjoy. Because his supporters would counter with much evidence that he was actually very much a man of the living, breathing theater, it stands to reason that something has gotten skewed in transmission. Really, who among us attends live opera performances to have a strictly intellectual experience? Who would want to? It is easy to imagine circumstances under which some audience members want to experience some performances that way, but for the vast majority of operagoers, the vast majority of the time, this is not the case. And it is not just because this type of continuous intellectual engagement requires a great deal of concentration and energy. The model of estrangement as an exclusively cerebral experience neglects the fact that one does not pay attention only with one's mind. The body beyond the eye and ear is involved, and necessarily so.

Some confusion surely stems from the contradictory nature of Brecht's writings on the importance of the corporeal audience in live performance. Kruger attributes the inconsistency to Brecht's dual role as director on the one hand, who “appears to embrace the appetite and physicality of theatre,” and as the theorizer of audience on the other, who shared with Hegel a preference for the “discerning audience with the desireless eye of judgment.”53 Even so, beginning in 1926 Brecht returned intermittently to the smoking-and-watching audience model, and I interpret this as acknowledgment of what cultural anthropologist Thomas J. Csórdas calls “somatic modes of attention.”54 Csórdas's theory invokes the work of phenomenological social scientist Alfred Schutz. “If, as Schutz says, attention is a conscious turning toward an object, this ‘turning toward’ would seem to imply more bodily and multisensory engagement than we usually allow for in psychological definitions of attention.” He defines somatic modes of attention as “culturally elaborated ways of attending to and with one's body in surroundings that include the embodied presence of others.”In sum, “one is paying attention with one's body.”55

Then it is not just a matter of paying attention with one's mind and experiencing the body only as a conduit for sensations of sight and sound; it is a matter of attending with one's body, as well.56 Most operagoers, if pressed, would probably concede this point, although physical experiences are often described in emotional terms. Spectating audience members are more likely to recount sadness, outrage, relief, pleasure, surprise, or (p.152) boredom than to specify their physical manifestations (changes in heart rate, posture, position, breathing, facial expression, and muscle tension or relaxation). Those physical experiences are part of the satisfaction of attending, and attending to, live opera, and any model that privileges the cerebral at their expense will find little resonance among audiences. Brecht's idea of the smoking person suggests that tapping into a somatic mode of attentiveness via a minor physical act can make one receptive to the state of estrangement, facilitating attention and deliberate perception. Cognitive psychologists have shown that attention affects multisensory integration processes. “When attention is directed to both modalities simultaneously, auditory and visual stimuli are integrated very early in the sensory flow of processing. Attention appears to play a crucial role in initiating such an early integration of auditory and visual processes.”57

Smoking and Watching—and Reading

Not surprisingly, given Brecht's preoccupation with the spectator and the art of spectating, the second physical action in which the audience member should be involved concerns visual perception. The use of titles and screens for the “literarization” of the theater engaged the spectating audience member in what Brecht described as an “exercise in complex seeing,” meaning watching (perceiving action on the stage and the mise-en-scène) and reading (comprehending the literal text written on placards, for example, or projected on a screen) in quick alternation or simultaneously. According to Csórdas, “We less often conceptualize visual attention as a ‘turning toward’ than as a disembodied beam-like ‘gaze.’”58 Brecht's distinction between watching and reading rejects the laser-beam gaze in favor of something more akin to “turning toward.” Both watching and reading transmit information to the brain via the optic nerve, but they constitute two different modes of processing visual stimuli.

While opera houses still prohibit smoking in the theater, most offer audiences the opportunity to engage in an “exercise of complex seeing” via projected supertitles. In 1982 the director of operations at the Canadian Opera Company (COC), John Leberg, developed a system for projecting a libretto translation above the stage. It debuted in a COC production of Elektra in 1983, and the rest of the opera world quickly followed suit.59 Some companies, such as the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Santa Fe Opera, and the Vienna Staatsoper, provide translated texts via individual viewfinders on the back of the seat ahead or on small adjustable screens that protrude from the stage-side wall in the boxes. The primary difference between the two (p.153) media comes down to choice. The individual texts can be rendered in the language of the viewer's choice (within a range of standard options), and the texts are optional; they can be deactivated if an individual does not wish to see them, and they are often marketed as unobtrusive to others sitting in the vicinity. The far more prevalent phenomenon of supertitles projected above the proscenium, on the other hand, is restricted to a single language at a time and cannot be deactivated by the individual spectating audience member. (Whether the supertitles can be ignored is a matter of some debate.) Either way, the activity of the operagoer is now routinely compounded to include listening, spectating, and reading (if not smoking).60

Brecht's notion of complex seeing is not unfounded. The cognitive acts of reading and watching action on the stage amount to two kinds of pattern recognition, and the amount of attention required to note a particular type of pattern depends on whether one is a novice or an expert. While literate adults read almost automatically, there is a degree of attention competition at work if the spectating audience member is a novice. The projected text and the simultaneous action on the stage are in different locations, and they present different spatial and temporal patterns that require recognition and perception. A novice may find the attention competition between watching, reading, and listening to be a distraction, but the titles may also help her to notice things she would not otherwise have seen.61 It is a tradeoff, and it is highly subjective. Naturally the quality of the titles affects perception; titlists must consider timing, congruence, accuracy of translation, and line length. Some titlists have expressed concern that the projected titles above the proscenium are an intrusion into the illusion of the stage, a by-product Brecht certainly would have applauded.62

Brecht's audience experienced multimedia stimuli almost exclusively within the context of live performance and cinema, and he could not have imagined the contemporary audience member who is conditioned to read, look, and listen at a very sophisticated, integrated level, thanks to near constant interaction with technology. My students have never experienced opera without some kind of text projected on to the visual field, mostly via subtitles on DVD and television. (The omission of titles from the worrisome lyrics of “Batti, batti” in an otherwise subtitled production of Don Giovanni on DVD elicited virulent negative commentary.) Cognitive scientists confirm that human beings are ever more experienced and therefore adept at integrating such stimuli, but for the nonexpert spectating audience member at a nonliteral staging of a canonical opera, the cognitive premise of complex seeing still stands.

Of course, neither could Brecht have anticipated that today's spectating (p.154) audiences would be unaccustomed to engagement in any language other than their native tongue or in English, the lingua franca of technology. Paradoxically, under these conditions it would seem that to be truly estranged from the opera and to perceive it as defamiliarized one would have to experience it in an unknown language, as most North Americans did before the mid-1980s, and supertitles are actually designed to have the opposite effect. In 1997 Levin anticipated that projected translations of the libretto would result in “a forced redistribution of aesthetic wealth,” meaning any spectating audience member would now have access to details previously known to only a select few (those fluent in the frequently foreign language of the opera or intimately familiar with its text).63 Now spectating audience members can follow the recitative closely enough to get clever jokes and wordplay and to understand complex details of notoriously circuitous plots, assuming supertitles are done well. Levin has argued persuasively that supertitles can liberate the production from its tautological obligation to clarify and explain the literary text, thus facilitating the proliferation of nonliteral productions of canonical opera.64

Another distinction is that Brecht's use of projected titles and placards did not provide continuous translation of ongoing events. They were used intermittently and sparingly, as an addition to the visual field, but they did not translate one aspect of the production text into another medium (from aural-oral to visual). Written text onstage provided subtext, additional text, or commentary, not the literal text being uttered by the performers. But in a strange, perhaps even insidious way, this may be what happens with opera titles as well. A complete translation of the libretto is rarely what one reads above the stage. A libretto contains far too much text to be presented in either literal or poetic translation, so the titlist renders an interpretation in short lines that can be projected two at a time. Titles are a translated adaptation, cut and edited for this format. The often-anonymous titlist, then, is an additional authorial presence, one whose authority is frequently conflated with that of the librettist, but her effect on the operagoer's experience at any given performance today may well outweigh that of the librettist. One has only to think of the titles in Peter Sellars's Mozart-DaPonte trilogy to recognize their significance. Because he hewed closely to the score and libretto, the auditory stimuli (eighteenth-century music and Italian language) were utterly faithful to the traditional work concept, while the anachronistic visual stimuli (contemporary staging and titles in English slang) provided their counterpoint.

As Brecht himself recognized as early as 1931, however, “It is to be feared that titles and permission to smoke are not of themselves enough to lead the (p.155) audience to a more fruitful use of the theatre.”65 We may never know, as one is not likely to have the experience of simultaneously watching and smoking, reading and listening in an indoor opera house today, and contemporary spectating audiences are considerably more adept at sensory integration than their predecessors. But the point is the efficacy of the method, not of the style. With that I turn to twenty-first-century means (productions) and moments (experiences) of estrangement in specific performances of nonliteral stagings of canonical opera.66

Means and Moments of Estrangement with Opera

Late September 2005 was a moment of operatic excess in Berlin. Each of the three opera houses planned a premiere for the weekend of 23–25 September: The Deutsche Oper unveiled the German premiere of Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice; the Staatsoper presented a new production of Verdi's La forza del destino by Stefan Herheim; and the Komische Oper pinned its hopes on Calixto Bieito's new staging of Puccini's Madame Butterfly. The last two were often paired in the press, as they represented new treatments of beloved masterpieces by directors whose credentials carried more than a whiff of scandal. The Norwegian Herheim is a wunderkind whose controversial Entführung aus dem Serail opened the Salzburg Festival in 2003 and, thanks in part to the lucrative allure of notoriety, was revived the following year. Spanish theater director Bieito was better known, having burst on the opera scene with his much-ballyhooed Un ballo in maschera in Barcelona in 2001. In 2004 he forged a partnership with the Komische Oper in Berlin that has delivered two of its most profitable and, not coincidentally, controversial shows: an Entführung in 2004 and Butterfly in 2005. Indignant critics and patrons accused the intendants at both houses of scandal mongering and pandering. Yet the buzz surrounding the two productions generated revenue for their respective houses, elevated Herheim's profile considerably, and cemented Bieito's reputation as a lightning rod for publicity.

Of course, one person's revelatory exegesis is another person's clichéd Eurotrash. Personal taste and experience inevitably shape perception. Nor are shock tactics, and their attendant reception as scandal, necessarily synonymous with estrangement. Estrangement is not just experiencing the unexpected; its defining quality is that it yields perspicacity. Shock is one means of initiating estrangement but it is not the only means, and its overuse has precisely the opposite effect. Prudently administered, shock can evoke a delightful frisson; excessively deployed, it either becomes monotonous or scandalizes the audience to such a degree that communication (p.156) ceases.67 The public relations campaign preceding that weekend in September 2005 titillated potential audiences with the prospect of shock and scandal based on the directors' reputations, and comparisons were inevitable. Only a few days separated my attendance at Herheim's La forza from my attendance at Bieito's Butterfly.I had followed the media hype before the premieres and was aware that their respective openings had occasioned some controversy but deliberately eschewed reviews and conversations with eyewitnesses until I saw the productions in person. Nor did I read the program notes, lest I be persuaded to accept a directorial concept I might otherwise have found incomprehensible. I like both of these operas, but they are not personal favorites; I am neither a Verdi nor a Puccini specialist. I did not consider myself particularly invested in preconceived notions of their work concepts. I had a handful of prior live performances in my memory, each pleasant enough but none transcendent.

I approached the two performances with the intention of attending to the means and moments of estrangement in each context. The Komische Oper performs all operas in German and without supertitles, and I had anticipated some disorientation from hearing the quintessentially Italianate Butterfly sung in German, but that was not the case. The contemporary setting, in which Pinkerton takes a sex tour of the Orient, is already latent in the libretto in which U.S. Navy personnel stationed in Japan exploit exotic local women. Bieito endowed the ubiquitous and coveted blue American passport with symbolic significance that worked well throughout the production, but the perpetual graphic sex, misogyny, and garish colors, while initially quite provocative, became monochromatic. Certainly the finale, in which Butterfly killed Suzuki and the child instead of herself, was shocking, but the jolt was not followed by understanding. Perhaps Puccini's music has something to do with this. It is already so overripe with Romantic, chromatic longing and sorrow that Bieito's excessive staging can only be tautological. My experience with his production of Mozart's Entführung, on the other hand, featured many of the same visual tropes in counterpoint to Mozart's classical music and was rife with moments of estrangement.68

La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny) was far more susceptible to the estrangement of a nonliteral production, and the comparative restraint of Verdi's music facilitated that success. The discrete moments and means of estrangement I experienced while attending Herheim's production of La forza were hardly earth-shattering epiphanies. They were small flashes of surprise or disorientation followed by recognition, experienced psychologically and physically. Such moments are among the greatest pleasures of attending, and attending to, nonliteral productions of canonical opera in live (p.157) performance. The accumulation of these moments defines the experience of such events, but their specificity is frequently omitted from analyses of performances. There are noteworthy exceptions, of course. In his work on the uses of rhythm in nonliteral productions of Mozart operas by Bieito and Thomas Bischoff, Clemens Risi isolates discrete moments of estrangement and analyzes their efficacy.69 Similarly, Abbate's accounts of individual voices in specific performances frequently have the quality of estrangement, as she describes the unexpected awareness of a singer's physicality through extremes of virtuosity or vocal distress.70 More often, however, the operagoing experience is summarized with the benefit of hindsight. Individual moments of estrangement and their attendant pleasures are flattened out in favor of a final, assimilated response that was possible only after one had witnessed the entire performance.

The problem, of course, is that live performance is not experienced “generally”; it is experienced specifically and temporally. Information is gathered over the course of an evening, from one discrete moment to the next. Taken in the aggregate these moments determine the totality of our experience, but they tend to be sublimated to an overall impression in retelling after the fact. The purpose is to illustrate the kinds of attention that may yield opportunities for the pleasures of estrangement in nonliteral productions of canonical opera. It is an admittedly subjective account because the experience of estrangement is itself highly individualistic. I anticipate that some of my responses may correspond to those of others who were in attendance that evening, but ultimately the capacity for estrangement and the decision to avail oneself of it are unique to each spectating audience member.

Estrangement with Stefan Herheim's ‘La forza del destino’

I experienced my first moment of estrangement almost as soon as maestro Michael Gielen took up his baton.71 I anticipated the much-beloved overture as a sonic and psychological transitional space in which to immerse myself in the opera. The brass and their insistent, resounding E will herald the arrival of the telltale “fate” motif in the strings, I thought, followed by a medley as harbinger of the many great tunes to come. Instead, the stage action began immediately. Sure enough, there was the E in the familiar rhythm—but it was pianissimo and played by flutes and clarinets. The next thing I knew the Marquis of Calatrava bid his daughter Leonora good night and we were off. Would there be no overture? Deprived of the standard transitional phase and the opportunity to relish a favorite piece, I was suddenly aware of expectations I had not known I had until they were thwarted. Unbeknownst to me and, apparently, to many of my fellow (p.158) ence members, this was the 1862 version of Verdi's opera, which does not have an overture (it was added in 1869, when Verdi revised the work for La Scala). In this case, estrangement was not the result of directorial intervention but of an unexpected encounter with a perfectly legitimate if less familiar version of the opera.72 Perhaps I was more invested in the work concept than I had realized.

The set was dominated by an enormous four-poster bed, a predictable if outsized fixture for a daughter's bedroom. There were two red-haired women onstage, one wearing a white dressing gown with black robe and the other a black dressing gown with white robe. Which one was Leonora? The inverse similarity of their appearances was too striking to be an accident, but in what interpretation, I wondered, would Curra, a servant and comprimario role, be equal to her mistress, the prima donna? I looked to the supertitles for clarification, and by the end of the act had decided that the actress singing the role of Curra was, more importantly, playing the role of Leonora's alter ego; to what end, I did not know. Leonora clutched a stuffed toy Pegasus, and a giant statue of the mythical creature appeared upstage. Perhaps it was a symbol of youthful innocence or an avatar that would rescue these ill-fated characters from themselves. When the act ended, I was sitting upright and forward in my seat and had been intently scanning the stage and supertitles for clues. I was in a state of rapt attention.

I discerned the significance of Curra's character as Leonora's alter ego in the second act, when Leonora sought refuge at a monastery. The role of Padre Guardiano was performed by the same bass who had sung the Marquis in the first act, and he wore a similar costume. The moment he appeared onstage I experienced another moment of estrangement: confusion. He looks and sounds like the Marquis, but isn't the father dead? This confusion was followed by a flash of illumination: The roles of the biological father and the Catholic father (whose name literally means “guard”) were conflated to represent the ubiquitous power of the male authority figure in a patriarchal society. The symbolism of the combined father figure illuminated the doubled female lead. Suddenly I remembered a moment in act 1 that I had discarded as incomprehensible at the time: The Marquis having sex with Curra the alter ego on the bed while Leonora and Alvaro stood nearby. This cast considerable doubt on the protection the priest offered in the hermitage, as he appeared to be in collusion with the incestuous Marquis. Perhaps Curra would shadow Leonora throughout, alternately acting out Leonora's inappropriate fantasies and falling victim to those of the other characters. The singer playing Curra also sang the role of Preziosilla in the third act, which meant that character could also be interpreted as (p.159) Leonora's double. Both are mezzo-soprano roles and therefore easily combined from a vocal perspective. More important, the timbral contrast to Leonora's clarion soprano convinced me that the combined character was the embodiment of the heroine's darker side.

The finale of act 2 is a religious ceremony in which the priest-father instructs the assembled monks that Leonora is a hermit who is to be left undisturbed in a cave. In Herheim's staging this ritual included communion, and one by one the supplicants processed to partake of the elements of the Eucharist. The body that had been sacrificed, however, was that of the Pegasus, and it had not undergone the requisite transubstantiation. When its enormous, butchered body appeared on the altar it elicited expressions of dismay in the audience, as several sitting nearby whispered to their neighbors, squirmed in their seats, or clicked their tongues. As the chorus intoned the hymn that closes the act, each communicant in turn dipped his hands into the Pegasus's body and then withdrew them dripping with blood. My mind raced with possible interpretations: a commentary on organized religion as myth? a gloss on the destruction of innocence under patriarchal oppression? Then the chorus members stepped to the front of the stage and raised their bloodied hands at us, still singing the final chorus. The houselights came up before the end of the act, exposing the audience as the chorus confronted us with blood on their hands and, if their aggressive stance toward us was any indication, on ours as well.

Given the plot, the lush, four-part Romantic harmony and sacred text were to be expected, and staging religious ritual typically suggests rote predictability. Against those expectations Herheim's interpretation of the scene was first illuminating (the symbolism of the doubled father having elucidated the doubling of Leonora), then repulsive (the bloody body of the poor Pegasus as the host), and finally confrontational (the surprising elimination of the fourth wall). The scene that should have provided Leonora and, by extension, the audience with a safe haven of amnesty was instead revealed to be a site of judgment and accusation.

The third act continued to implicate the audience with an extraordinary staging of us for ourselves. We reentered the house to find the stage transformed into the facade of the Staatsoper on Unter den Linden, where patrons congregate at intermission in all but the most inclement of weather conditions—in fact, where we had just been standing. I was immediately put in mind of photographs I had seen of the famous Neuenfels production of Aida. My companions and I laughed when we identified the pretzel salesman from whom we had bought our snacks, a fixture of intermissions at houses in Berlin. Dressed in contemporary street clothes, the chorus (they? (p.160) we?) milled about at ground level, on the steps, and on the second level that functions rather like a balcony, glasses of Sekt and programs in hand. When the bell rang, they reentered the house and the doors closed behind them, just as they had closed behind us only moments before. We were amused and, it must be said, flattered to have been incorporated into the production. Perhaps the end of act 2 had been a bit heavy-handed, but now Herheim ingratiated himself to us with a delightful acknowledgment of our presence.

After the encounter between Alvaro and Carlo, which was also staged in front of the house, the chorus-audience poured back out of the Staatsoper onto the stage for intermission, singing the soldiers' battle song. Clearly the operagoing public was not going to war, but they sang lustily of its glory. Leonora's double sang from the upper level while the chorus-audience adored her as a diva. A ragtag band of new recruits entered, begging for food, and the chorus-audience chased them off to war. As Leonora's double led them in the merry “Rataplan” song, a series of giant banners unfurled on the upper level, replicas of those the Staatsoper flies to advertise the operas being performed. The first dropped to her left: “Schicksal” (destiny). Moments later the second descended to her right: “Macht” (power). Aha—the opera's title in German, just as it had been advertised outside. Then a third banner was unfurled in the center: “Frei” (free). There was an audible gasp in the house, as the allusion to “Arbeit macht frei,” the slogan that marked the entrances of Nazi concentration camps, resonated throughout the house. The second word was not a noun at all; it was a verb.

I struggled with that concept as the chorus-audience grew ever more frenzied. Their fanatic adulation mutated into murderous rage; they descended upon Leonora's double, ripped her limb from limb, and ate her alive. I desperately attempted to impose meaning on the scene and came up with nothing more than the observation that this act of cannibalism paralleled the Pegasus Eucharist at the end of the previous act. A children's chorus made its way to the catwalk that separates the orchestra pit from the audience. Stripped to their underwear they revealed the words “Krieg” and “Kunst” (war, art) scrawled on their torsos in black paint. I stared uncomprehending at the chaos on the stage and read the words inscribed there over and over again: fate, power, free, war, art.

It was with a jolt that I realized that Herheim had implicated the spectating audience—me—in a host of sins and crimes against humanity: solipsism, warmongering, conspicuous consumption, exploitation. Despite the warning at the end of act 2, I had become an eager accomplice after the flattery of the opening scene in act 3.73 The third act became opera about Opera—operagoing and operagoers. I immediately thought of Mahagonny, (p.161) the opera which took “opera” as its subject, the culinary opera, in which the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Rapacious aficionados who devour the divas they worship were the same bloodthirsty spectators who sang the glories of conquering war heroes in “Rataplan.”74 Craving war for the vicarious thrill of absolute power, they eventually carried out their murderous fantasies themselves. The mise-en-scène was in stark contrast to the ringing C-major vivacity of the music itself, which treated war like child's play in its obsessive repetition of the nonsensical onomatopoeia “Rataplan,” French for the tattoo of drums, gunfire, and galloping hooves of battle. Under Herheim's direction, the war moved from colorful background plot device to clear and present danger. They—we—were also the patrons, supporting cultural institutions yet turning a blind eye to the social ills around them—us—and consuming art in lieu of engaging with reality.

I was anxious for act 4 to begin so that I could replace the grisly image in my mind with something—anything—else. The stage remained dark, and the orchestra played on. Funny, I did not remember a lengthy prelude to the final act, yet the music was reassuringly familiar. It was the beloved 1869 overture we had not heard at the beginning of the evening! Inserted into the opera rather than introducing the work, its meaning was radically transformed. The fate motif was particularly ominous; the anticipation of Leonora's final duet with Alvaro was far more bittersweet now that the end was imminent rather than three hours away; the appearance of Leonora's second act aria was reminiscent rather than foreshadowing; the melody from her duet with the priest-father was an uncomfortable emblem of patriarchal betrayal.

The unforeseen emergence of the overture at this point was utterly disorienting. To follow such a powerful moment of defamiliarization with the most familiar music of the entire opera felt like comfort, but displaced. Listening to the overture before a darkened stage I also experienced a strange sense of déjà vu, as if we were once more at the very beginning of the work, although, of course, the overture was precisely how the opera had not begun. In the final act I relished the lyrical perfection of “Pace, pace, mio Dio” and the exquisite beauty of Norma Fantini's pianissimo high notes. The priest-father consummated his desire for Leonora's double, the three lead characters died, the resurrected and reconstituted Pegasus returned for the apotheosis, and the audience cheered and jeered in more or less equal proportions.75 Afterward, my companions and I compared notes and impressions.76 I should note that there were dozens of other memorable moments, and some of those may have been more significant to Herheim's concept, but these are the experiences that made the greatest impression at the time.

(p.162) I read dramaturge Alex Meier-Dörzenbach's essay in the program and discovered the multivalent significance of the Pegasus. (Historically, the image of the flying horse has embodied two divergent qualities: powerful warrior strength and artistic creativity. In this production, and in keeping with the heterogeneous nature of Verdi's opera, Herheim exploited the various facets of the Pegasus as an all-purpose and thus unifying symbol of sexuality, dreams, power, and creativity.)77

The next day I read the reviews I had been avoiding and began assembling my overall impressions of the performance. Some critics complained that the production was overloaded and accused Herheim of using every gimmick ever associated with director's opera. (A legitimate point, but I reasoned that his choices reflected the hodgepodge nature of La forza itself.) Others compared it to previous interpretations I had not seen, such as the iconic Neuenfels production scheduled for revival at the Deutsche Oper just a few weeks later and a 1965 staging by Herheim's mentor Götz Friedrich. I read what I could about those stagings and went on to attend the Neunfels revival, savoring the rare opportunity to see the two in such close proximity. This provided an additional layer of vocal and visual intertextuality when Frank Porretta, the tenor who had sung Alvaro in the Herheim production at the Staatsoper, reprised the role in the Neuenfels production at the Deutsche Oper a month later.

All the information I gathered in the weeks following the first performance gradually became integrated into my assessment. When a student asked me to describe it some months later, I recounted the distinctive highlights: the doubled roles, the Pegasus, the staging of the audience, the displaced overture, Fantini's divine pianissimo. Only when she reframed her question to ask if I had enjoyed the performance—did I take pleasure in it—did I realize that, in an effort to demonstrate mastery of the opera's production, I had also revised and mastered my experience, effectively neutralizing the disconcerting and illuminating moments of estrangement that had defined the performance and been the source of pleasure in the moment. Her innocent query prompted me to recover the discrete moments of surprise and comprehension and proved to be a means of defamiliarization in its own right.

The fact that estrangement has become the predominant aesthetic of director's opera—and a preferred mode of experience for many spectating audience members in live performance—suggests that Brecht's relationship with opera has finally reached a state of symbiosis, albeit in the afterlife. In fact, the entire epic theater project—the audience contract, the theories of gestus and estrangement—comes full circle in these productions, (p.163) back to its operatic roots. This reconciliation of the apparently incompatible, and the two dozen or so opera projects that form the nearly continuous backdrop to Brecht's creative activity, comprise the basis for my claim that his engagement with opera was not just influential but essential to his theoretical and dramatic oeuvres. (p.164)


(1.) Susan Bennett, Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 1997).

(2.) Loren Kruger, Post-Imperial Brecht: Politics and Performance, East and South, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 43. She cites BFA 22:211–212, 401–402. References to English equivalents are to BoT, unless otherwise specified.

(3.) Of course, the defamiliarization of a canonical opera presupposes a certain universal operagoing experience with which a spectating audience member is already familiar. Those who bring that experience to a nonliteral staging of a canonical text such as Herheim's 2005 production of La forza del destino at the Staatsoper will engage with that event much differently than operagoers who have never seen that opera before or who have minimal exposure to opera in (p.225) general. This is not to say that the seasoned operagoer will necessarily like Herheim's production—in fact, quite the contrary is often the case—but it does mean that the experience is qualitatively different.

(4.) Opera with a capital “O” is borrowed from Lawrence Kramer, Opera and Modern Culture: Wagner and Strauss (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 2–3.

(5.) Willmar Sauter, The Theatrical Event: Dynamics of Performance and Perception (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000), 2.

(6.) With regard to implicating and including the audience in an opera production, see Clemens Risi, “Shedding Light on the Audience: Hans Neuenfels and Peter Konwitschny Stage Verdi (and Verdians),” Cambridge Opera Journal (2002): 201–210.

(7.) Directors in German opera houses showed an early proclivity for nonliteral stagings of canonical works that continues to this day, but now the phenomenon can be experienced on stages throughout Europe and North America as well. It has only recently begun to attract serious scholarly attention in addition to the usual media furor. The standard-bearer in such research will surely turn out to be David Levin, Unsettling Opera: Staging Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Zemlinsky (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). Manuel Brug's sweeping Opernregisseure heute (Leipzig: Henschel, 2006) surveys the work of opera directors and provides a useful reference guide. See also the collection of interviews with fifteen (in) famous opera directors in Warum Oper? Gespräche mit Opernregisseuren, 2nd ed., ed. Barbara Beyer (Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2007).

(8.) Gundula Kreuzer, “Voices from Beyond: Don Carlos and the Modern Stage,” Cambridge Opera Journal 18, no. 2 (2006): 151.

(9.) In a lively discussion about Christoph Schlingensief's controversial production of Parsifal at Bayreuth in 2007, Steven Reale described the experience as that of watching two films simultaneously; one film was a traditional staging stored in his memory, and the other was the live performance unfolding before him. Schlingensief's liberal use of film in this production may have contributed to this formulation, but the analogy is apt nonetheless. I am aware that nonliteral stagings of canonical operas and the phenomenon of director's opera in general do not serve the needs of all operagoers. James Hepokoski speculates, “What most spectators hope for, I suspect, is simply another encounter with a work they love—a rich encounter with conventionalized spectacle, sumptuously and brilliantly performed.” My argument pertains to those who are stimulated by the estrangement experience of a nonliteralstaging. Hepokoski, “Operating Stagings: Positions and Paradoxes. A Reply to David J. Levin,” in Verdi 2001: Atti del Convegno Internationale—Proceedings of the International Conference. Parma-New York-New Haven, ed. Fabrizio Della Seta, Roberta Montemorra Marvin, and Marco Marica (Florence: Olschki, 2003), 482.

(10.) Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. B. R. Brewster (New York: Verso, 1996), 129–152.

(11.) The term “spectactor” is borrowed from the videogame industry and (p.226) gaming theory. The Microsoft system that allows people to join online games as spectators for Xbox 360 titles is advertised as “generat[ing] a spectactor experience in real time from a game or event, such as highlights, instant replays, and unique views of action within the game” (http://news.punchjump.com/article.php?id=2113). Brecht's theories of audience engagement have found some currency in videogame research. See Gonzalo Frasca, “Videogames of the Oppressed: Critical Thinking, Education, Tolerance, and Other Trivial Issues,” in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, ed. Pat Harrington and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 85–94; and “Rethinking Agency and Immersion: Playing with Videogame Characters,” in Proceedings of SIGGRAPH 2001, Art Gallery, Art and Culture Papers, 12–17 August 2001, Los Angeles. See www.siggraph.org/artdesign/gallery/S01/essays/0378.pdf (accessed 22 May 2006).

(12.) Erika Fischer-Lichte, “Einleitende Thesen zum Aufführungsbegriff,” in Kunst der Aufführung—Aufführung der Kunst, ed. Erika Fischer-Lichte, Clemens Risi, and Jens Roselt (Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2004), 11–26.

(13.) Many scholars have noted that John Willett's unfortunate mistranslation of the word “Verfremdung” as “alienation” has drastically and negatively affected the reception of Brecht's work in the English-speaking world. Some have proposed the rather awkward “distanciation” as a more accurate substitute. Based on the first English translation of Brecht's first usage of the term, Loren Kruger suggests “disillusion.”While acknowledging the legitimacy of that word in its most literal sense, its connotations of disappointment are counterproductive in much the same way as the negative implications of alienation. Therefore I use the more standard alternative “estrangement” and hope to demonstrate distanciation and disillusion in my analysis. Kruger, “Making Sense of Sensation: Enlightenment, Embodiment, and the End(s) of Modern Drama,” Modern Drama 43, no. 4 (2000): 562 n. 5.

(14.) Regarding agency for the opera audience, see Kevin Amidon, “‘Oh show us …’: Opera and/as Spectatorship in Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny,” Brecht Yearbook/Brecht-Jahrbuch 29 (2004): 223–236.

(15.) Regarding Brecht's use of Genuß, see BoT 36, BFA 22:77, and regarding Vergnügen, see BoT 73, BFA 22:112. In the original German he also uses “lustvoll” and “fröhlich,” neither of which carry the negative connotations of “Genuß.” Fredric Jameson argues persuasively in favor of the utility of Brecht's method for pleasure in Brecht and Method (London: Verso, 1998). In this context see especially “Estrangements of the Estrangement-Effect,” 35–42.

(16.) Clemens Risi describes something similar in his theory of audience experience, but not specifically as it pertains to estrangement: “Perception as it happens in performance (especially in opera) is always an oscillation or alternation between the intellectual/semiotic and the sensorial/performative dimension” (Risi, personal email, 22 May 2006).

(17.) Michael Patterson, “Brecht's Legacy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, ed. Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 276.

(18.) Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964).

(19.) Patterson, “Brecht's Legacy,” 273 and 282, respectively.

(20.) Eric Bentley, “The Influence of Brecht,” in Re-interpreting Brecht: His Influence on Contemporary Drama and Film, ed. Pia Kleber and Colin Visser (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 186.

(21.) Marc Silberman, “A Postmodernized Brecht?” Theatre Journal 45, no. 1 (1993): 2.

(22.) Andrzej Wirth, “Vom Dialog zum Diskurs: Versuch einer Synthese der nachbrechtschen Theaterkonzepte,” Theater heute 1 (January 1980): 16.

(23.) Maarten van Dijk, “Blocking Brecht,” in Re-interpreting Brecht, 121 and 204 n. 14, quoted in Patterson, “Brecht's Legacy,” 285.

(24.) Patterson, “Brecht's Legacy,” 280.

(25.) Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre, trans. Karen Jürs-Munby (London: Routledge, 2006), 29. Lehmann readily acknowledges the significance of Brecht's work but argues against the standard interpretation advanced by Peter Szondi, which maintained that epic theater was a new dramatic form that broke with tradition. Lehmann argues that “the theory of epic theatre constituted a renewal and completion of classical dramaturgy” because Brecht was still committed to “a highly traditionalist thesis: the fable (story) remained the sine qua non for him.” In fact, Lehmann asserts, “Postdramatic theatre is a post-Brechtian theatre” (emphases in original, 33). The Peter Szondi reference is to his Theory of Modern Drama, ed. and trans. M. Hays (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

(26.) David Levin, “‘Va, pensiero’? Verdi and Theatrical Provocation,” in Verdi 2001, 470. Levin's paper and responses to it by Hepokoski, Pierluigi Petrobelli, and Risi are published in the same volume and comprise a valuable complex of ideas about opera production, performance, perception, and reception. A revised version of Levin's essay appears as Chapter 5 in Levin, Unsettling Opera.

(27.) For example, reviews of John Doyle's 2005 Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd invoked the adjective “Brechtian” to describe the stark, sparsely appointed stage and the experience of attending a performance in which the actors also carried around and played instruments throughout. It is perhaps no surprise, then, to find that Doyle and two of the actors from that show (Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald) were engaged by Los Angeles Opera for a new production of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in 2007.

(28.) “Performances are in dialogue with each other along a changing continuum, rather than just consenting to or denying one particular style”; and “The audience's prior experience is a crucial element in what Nattiez would call the ‘esthetic’ sphere of the ‘total musical fact.’” James Treadwell, “Reading and Staging Again,” Cambridge Opera Journal 10, no. 2 (1998): 218 and 219, respectively. Treadwell's essay is a response to David Levin's “Reading a Staging/ - Staging a Reading,” Cambridge Opera Journal 9, no. 1 (1997): 47–71. A revised version of this essay appears as Chapter 2 in Levin, Unsettling Opera. In this important early exchange on the subject, the distinction between production and performance has not yet been established, but it is clear from context that Tread- (p.228) well's first reference pertains to a production rather than to a performance. Levin's observation that literal productions of canonical opera tended to dominate in the United States while nonliteral productions were primarily the purview of European opera houses is still true, if to a lesser degree than it was in the mid-1990s. A change may be at hand, however. The Metropolitan Opera in New York is under new leadership in the form of general manager Peter Gelb, and Gérard Mortier will take the helm at the neighboring New York City Opera when his contract expires with the Paris National Opera in 2009. Gelb has implemented an ambitious plan to engage theater directors in a series of new stagings, and Mortier brings a reputation for iconoclasm and daring stagecraft. If they succeed in reinventing their respective companies, it will represent a major sea change in the opera culture of the United States.

(29.) Levin, “‘Va, pensiero’?” 470, and Unsettling Opera, 165–167.

(30.) Levin discusses the fact that Wagner's operas have been vehicles for the most vociferous proponents of both schools of thought on directorial interpretation, one literal and one critical, in “Reading a Staging,” 47–61, and Unsettling Opera, 37–58. For more on that history see Patrick Carnegy, Wagner and the Art of the Theatre (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006).

(31.) “If instead one sweeps away all the costuming and has the participants, copying the practices of contemporary dance, dressed in sweat suits or even timeless outfits, one cannot avoid asking, what's the point? Why even bother doing it on stage? One wants to spare Mozart from this.” Theodor W. Adorno, “Opera and the Long-Playing Record,” in Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert, trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 284. The essay first appeared in Der Spiegel in 1969.

(32.) See for example James Hepokoski, “Operating Stagings,” 480.

(33.) Treadwell, “Reading and Staging Again,” 208.

(34.) I am overstating the case for the sake of argument. Obviously the scores of canonical operas do not indicate, for example, how long the conductor should wait for applause to subside after a favorite aria, nor do they dictate the precise duration of the silence that often follows significant cadences, fermatas, and so forth. These unscripted interruptions and silences are part of the aural ephemera essential to the experience of live performance but are absent from the inherited texts that form the basis of that performance.

(35.) I am indebted to John A. McCarthy, Roger Bechtel, and Marvin Carlson for guidance with regard to the tradition of Regiebücher in nonoperatic German theater and to David Rosen and Evan Baker for counsel regarding the tradition of the production book that is specific to opera.

(36.) Peter Brooker, “Key Words in Brecht's Theory and Practice of Theater,” in The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, 2nd ed., ed. Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 211.

(37.) For example, see Marna King, “The Model and Its Mutations in FRG Brecht Productions,” Gestus—the Electronic Journal of Brechtian Studies 2, no. 3 (1986): 187–197.

(38.) David Rosen, “The Staging of Verdi's Operas: An Introduction to the Ricordi Disposizioni Sceniche,” in Report of the Twelfth Congress of the Inter-national Musicological Society 1977, ed. Daniel Heartz and Bonnie Wade (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1981), 446–447.

(39.) Roger Parker, Remaking the Song: Operatic Visions and Revisions from Handel to Berio (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

(40.) In his assessment of Susan Bennett's Theatre Audiences, Neil Blackadder describes her work as “one of the most thorough examinations of the spectators' role … drawing on reception theory and other studies of reading and viewing.” His primary point is that her work assumes a “passive, well-disposed audience” but does not account for “spectators who fail, or decline to play the role assigned to them in Bennett's model,” as he does. Note the emphasis on audience members as spectators and not as listeners. Blackadder, Performing Opposition: Modern Theater and the Scandalized Audience (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), xiii-xiv. Another important aspect of spectatorship that I do not address in this chapter is gender; see Viv Gardner, “The Invisible Spectactrice: Gender, Geography, and Theatrical Space,” in Women, Theatre, and Performance: New Histories, New Historiographies, ed. Maggie B. Gale and Gardner (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2000), 25–45.

(41.) Recuperating the sonic component in theoretical discussions of opera is central to Abbate's entire project and can be traced as a thread running throughout her work. Most recently see “Music—Drastic or Gnostic?” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 505–536. For critiques of Abbate see Karol Berger, “Musicology According to Don Giovanni; or, Should We Get Drastic?” Journal of Musicology 22, no. 3 (2005): 490–501; and Michelle Duncan, “The Operatic Scandal of the Singing Body: Voice, Presence, Performativity,” Cambridge Opera Journal 16, no. 3 (2004): 283–306. Duncan notes that other disciplines are generating models for this that address “the discrepancy between the ‘metaphorisation of the voice’ and ‘its material articulation and audibility,’ especially as media theory has granted agency to forms of media other than the scriptural and the techno-logical” (284).

(42.) Sauter, Theatrical Event, 3.

(43.) Brecht recognized this, too. As discussed in chapter 1, he declared the continuous music of Wagner's music drama to be the source of its irrationality because the music could overpower an audience. When he eventually ceded the location of gestus to music he was confronted with the fact that sung music gives rise to the voice-object (chapter 2), and it is capable of displacing the primacy of the literary text in performance. And despite his repeated advocacy of music in the theater, Brecht's theoretical writings about the optimal audience experience privilege the visual to an extraordinary extent; consider the term Zuschaukunst (art of spectating), which he coined for the project of the audience. In fact, he wrote very little about the desired audience response to sound or music. (He also wrote remarkably little about hostile audience response, (p.230) despite his considerable experience with it as audience member, director, and playwright.) Blackadder, Performing Opposition, 175.

(44.) Durk Talsma, Tracy J. Doty, and Mary G. Woldorff, “Selective Attention and Audiovisual Integration: Is Attending to Both Modalities a Prerequisite for Early Integration?” Cerebral Cortex 17, no. 3 (2007): 679.

(46.) In his review of Making Sense of Aristotle: Essays in Poetics (London: Duckworth, 2001), edited by Oivind Andersen and Jon Haarberg, Andrew Ford observes the following about M. S. Silk's contribution to that volume: “[Silk] then turns to Brecht, appropriately seeing in his diametrically anti-Aristotelian views a conspicuous bearer of the Poetics into the twentieth century. Brecht's ‘estrangement’ was antithetical to neoclassical and romantic notions of catharsis.” Silk, “Aristotle, Rapin, Brecht,” 173–196. Ford, review of Making Sense of Aristotle: Essays in Poetics, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 20, 12 December 2002, crop_001_9780520254824.rtf(accessed 1 April 2006).

(47.) BoT 44, BFA 24:59.

(48.) BoT 8, BFA 21:134.

(49.) BoT 39, BFA 24:81.

(50.) BoT 9, BFA 21:135.

(51.) BoT 44, BFA 24:59.

(52.) Carolin Duttlinger has written that “various cultural anxieties first crys-tallized in what was perceived to be a widespread crisis of attention” during the Weimar Republic. She traces the themes of distraction (Zerstreuung) and attention (Aufmerksamkeit) in Benjamin's work and situates them within this larger context of anxiety. Duttlinger, “Between Contemplation and Distraction: Configurations of Attention in Walter Benjamin,” German Studies Review 30, no.1 (2007): 33.

(53.) Kruger, “Making Sense,” 549.

(54.) Thomas J. Csórdas, “Somatic Modes of Attention,” Cultural Anthropology 8, no. 2 (1993): 135–156 (cited in Fischer-Lichte, “Einleitende,” 23).

(55.) Csórdas, “Somatic Modes,” 138.

(56.) Cognitive psychologist Durk Talsma of the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam sees this theory as loosely related to the premotor theory of attention. Attention theories have focused on the moment in time at which selection takes place, some advocating early selection and others late selection. Both forms are probably involved. One theory explaining how and why we choose what we will attend to is the premotor theory of attention, which states that attention shifts to those objects to which we want it to shift. Personal correspondence with author, 28 May 2006.

(57.) Talsma, Doty, and Woldorff, “Selective Attention,” 689.

(58.) Csórdas, “Somatic Modes,” 138.

(59.) Robert Jordan, “Visual Aids,” Opera Canada 42, no. 2 (2001): 20–22.

(60.) The Cambridge Opera Journal exchange between Levin and Treadwell regarding whether an operagoer “reads” an opera staging remains a fascinating (p.231) one. The rapprochement between semiotics and phenomenology suggests that one can do both—that is, read the signs analytically and watch the production for aesthetic purposes. Neither Levin nor Treadwell considers the act of literally reading (at) the opera, as is the case with supertitles.

(61.) Personal correspondence with Joe Lappin, emeritus professor of psychology, Vanderbilt Vision Research Center, 25 May 2006.

(62.) This insight is from Nancy Goldsmith, who generously shared information about her work as a titlist.

(63.) Levin, “Reading a Staging,” 58, and Unsettling Opera, 52.

(66.) BoT 44, BFA 24:59.

(66.) David Levin's most valuable contribution to research on nonliteral productions of canonical opera lies in the area of dramaturgical analysis. His project includes the development of a “variegated vocabulary with which to assess [opera] productions, be they of familiar works or unknown ones … be they experimental … or conventional” (Unsettling Opera, xvii). It is hoped that my theory about the work of individual spectating audience members engaged with opera can act as a complement to Levin's analysis.

(67.) As a last resort, a sufficiently scandalized audience will exercise its agency by refusing to participate in the performance according to any of the culturally defined “available behaviors.” James H. Johnson, Listening in Paris (cited in Blackadder, Performing Opposition, xvi). “A vituperative reaction to a radical staging is then at least always in part an attempt by the spectator to reassert his domination over the things of the world” (Duncan, “Operatic Scandal,” 301).

(68.) See Levin's account of Bieito's Entführung in Unsettling Opera, xii-xiv. Mary Hunter has noted Mozart's susceptibility to alienation in an essay she wrote with Wye Jamison Allanbrook and Gretchen A. Wheelock entitled “Staging Mozart's Women,” in Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera, ed. Mary Ann Smart (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 59.

(69.) Clemens Risi, “Rhythm, Sense, and Sensibility: Performance Rhythms” (paper presented to the Music Theater Working Group of the International Federation for Theater Research, Saint Petersburg, July 2004). Published in German as “Am Puls der Sinne. Der Rhythmus einer Opernaufführung zwischen Repräsentation und Präsenz—zu Mozart-Inszenierungen von Calixto Bieito und Thomas Bischoff,” in Theorie Theater Praxis, ed. Hajo Kurzenberger and Annemarie Matzke (Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2004), 117–127.

(70.) See for example Abbate's response to Ben Heppner's struggles in a particular performance of Meistersinger in “Drastic or Gnostic?” 535. Duncan cites Ruth Berghaus's Pelléas et Mélisande in her sophisticated theorization of performativity, but that account is generalized rather than specific (Duncan, “Operatic Scandal,” 305–306).

(71.) A brief synopsis of the notoriously convoluted 1862 plot of La forza del destino may be of use. Leonora and her Peruvian lover Alvaro are poised to elope when they are discovered by her father. In the ensuing mayhem Alvaro (p.232) accidentally kills the father, and the lovers go on the lam. Eighteen months pass, during which time they get separated in flight; Leonora's brother Carlo pursues them in search of revenge. Leonora finds shelter with a community of monks and lives as an ascetic. Meanwhile Alvaro saves Carlo from would-be assassins and, unaware of one another's true identity, they pledge eternal brotherhood. Once they learn the truth, Carlo renews his oath for revenge. Alvaro, loath to kill yet another member of Leonora's family, takes refuge in the monastery. Eventually the two men duel. Carlo is mortally wounded and when Leonora approaches, he stabs his sister. She dies in Alvaro's arms, and then he kills himself.

(72.) This case, in which the later, revised version of the opera has become the standard, is rather the opposite of the crisis occasioned by Cecilia Bartoli's decision to substitute arias in Le nozze di Figaro at the Met. Parker, Remaking the Song, 42–66.

(73.) My sense that the staging of the audience for itself is a provocative if not outright aggressive maneuver was confirmed in August 2007, when I attended a performance of Katharina Wagner's production of Der Meistersinger at Bayreuth. Numerous reviewers criticized her staging for the ways in which it drew attention to the particularly problematic connection between the festival, Meistersinger, and the Third Reich, but I wondered if the ferocity of the resistance was exacerbated by her unflattering staging of the Bayreuth audience for itself in the finale.

(74.) Regarding the blood sport of diva worship in which singers are alternately adored and destroyed by the public see Ethan Mordden's Demented: The World of the Opera Diva (New York: Franklin Watts, 1984). Susan McClary refers to this in her foreword to Catherine Clément's Opera; or, The Undoing of Women, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), xvi.

(75.) Naturally, such nonliteral stagings of canonical operas are not universally admired. Detractors decry the hubris of directors who pursue their own ideas to the detriment of the score, libretto, or both, and even the most ardent admirer will concede that some nonliteral productions are ill considered.

(76.) Because I was inclined to reinterpret some of those moments after I gathered additional information in the weeks that followed, the descriptions above are based on notes I took that evening. Those initial responses are far less cogent than the layers of interpretation that followed, but they are as close to the performance experience as ekphrasis can be.

(77.) Alex Meier-Dörzenbach was extremely generous in his willingness to respond to email queries about the production. He also facilitated contact with Jörn Weisbrodt, head of Artistic Production Special Projects at the Staatsoper, who kindly provided me with the La forza Premierenspiegel packet from their press office.