Regietheater (German for director's theater) is the modern (mainly post-World War II) practice of allowing a director freedom in devising the way a given opera or play is staged so that the creator's original, specific intentions or stage directions (where supplied) can be changed, together with major elements of geographical location, chronological situation, casting and plot. Typically such changes may be made to point a particular political point or modern parallels which may be remote from traditional interpretations.
Examples found in Regietheater productions may include some or all of the following:
- Relocating the story from the original location to a more modern period (including setting in a totalitarian regime)
- Modifications to the story from the original script
- Interpretative elements stressing the role of race/gender/class-based oppression are emphasised. In his 1976 staging of the Ring Cycle at the Bayreuth Festival, Patrice Chéreau used an updated 19th century setting that followed the interpretation of George Bernard Shaw who saw the Ring as a social commentary on the exploitation of the working class by wealthy 19th century capitalists.
- Abstraction in the set design
- An emphasis on sexuality
- Costumes that frequently mix eras and locales. Examples include the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis's 2010 production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and its 2011 Don Giovanni which portray some characters in 18th century attire and others in mid-20th century clothing.
It can be argued that Regietheater began with the work of Wieland Wagner (1917–1966), who in the years after World War II responded to the profound problematisation of the work of his grandfather, Richard Wagner, resulting from its earlier appropriation by the Nazis, by designing and producing minimalist and heavily symbolic stagings of Wagner operas in Bayreuth and elsewhere. Guided by the theories of Adolphe Appia, Wieland Wagner's productions allegedly sought to emphasise the epic and universal aspects of the Wagner dramas, and were justified as being attempts to explore the texts from the viewpoint of (often Jungian) depth psychology. In practice this would mean, for example, that the opening act of Die Walküre (the second work of the Ring Cycle), specifically described as set in Hunding's forest hut, was presented on a stage shaped as a large, sloping disc: no hut was either seen or implied, and the composer's many detailed instructions relating to the actions of Wehwalt, Sieglinde and Hunding within the hut were disregarded because it was said that the details of the scoring meant that they were already illustrated musically.
- In 1976 the Patrice Chéreau production of the centenary Bayreuth Ring that sought to make manifest an anti-capitalist and Marxian sub-text recognized to be present in the work given the time of its original creation: following this conception, Wagner's mischievous Rhinemaidens became three ragged whores plying their trade near a hydro-electric dam, the gods are a late-19th century industrialist family, and Siegfried used an industrial steam-hammer to forge his sword.
- The rise of deconstructionism gave a new lease of life to Regietheater in Europe and elsewhere. Prominent American deconstructionists include Peter Sellars and David Alden. Other directors often associated with Regietheater include Walter Felsenstein and Christopher Alden: Alden states: "Opera is a lot like the Catholic Church in terms of the way people are devoted to it and how to a lot of people it's as holy, as sacrosanct and as untouchable as religion," he says. "In that way I think it’s still necessary to keep smashing those idols and keep trying to get beyond that idolatry — so that you can get at things that are maybe closer to the bone, and more human.". Calixto Bieito, Harry Kupfer, David Pountney, and Claus Guth, have also applied such principles to a wide range of operas from the classical and romantic periods.
Supporters of Regietheater will insist that works from earlier centuries not only permit but even demand to be re-invented in ways that not only fit contemporary intellectual fashion but even strive to connect them with situations and locations of which the original composers and librettists could not have conceived, thus setting the story into a context the contemporary audience can relate to.
In recent years, the appointment of "celebrity" directors (often from film or other branches of theatre), who do not appear to have learned the specific requirements of opera direction including, in some cases, those who have flaunted their inability to read music, and who seem to be unable to psychologically direct singers behind unreflected Regietheater clichés (often involving gratuitous shock elements), has led to a general misapprehension of the Regietheater term by both theatres and critics.
Opponents will accuse such producers of shallowness, crudity, sensationalism, lack of real creativity, insensitivity to the richness of the original setting, neglect of the role played by the music, and of pandering to the appetites of ephemeral journalism. More and more, however, critics distinguish between "proper" application of Regietheater principles, and the gratuitous use of misunderstood Regietheater stereotypes.
- Neil Fisher, The Times (London), 12 May 2006 (Subscription required): "Take his Tosca for Opera North, where every single act took place in a dingy church basement and Scarpia was a Berlusconi stooge in a dirty mac. Or the colourful Spanish dances of de Falla's La vida breve, hauntingly reimagined by Alden for the same company as a ritual suicide in a sweatshop. Or his now classic adaptation of Turandot for Welsh National Opera and English National Opera, which put the murderous Chinese princess in killer heels and a Maggie Thatcher power suit.
- Stephen Moss, "Twin Powers", The Guardian (London), 26 May 2006: "Christopher's production of Rigoletto for the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2000 was dismissed by some influential backers as "trashy" and never revived. That production, which he set in a Victorian gentlemen's club and turned into an examination of sexual morality, seems to have tarnished his reputation among operatic managements anxious not to offend their audiences in these financially and artistically straitened times. 'My American career is now pretty well over,' he says. 'It takes a few years before you find that no one dares to hire you.'"
- Bernard Shaw, The Perfect Wagnerite (1883) on www.marxists.org Regarding Wagner's Socialist leanings (which forced him into exile in Swtizerland and France), Shaw writes: "...we have reached the point at which some foolish person is sure to interrupt us by declaring that The Rhine Gold is what they call 'a work of art' pure and simple, and that Wagner never dreamt of shareholders, tall hats, whitelead factories, and industrial and political questions looked at from the socialistic and humanitarian points of view." Later, in summing up The Ring: "there is a considerable portion of The Ring, especially the portraiture of our capitalistic industrial system from the socialist's point of new in the slavery of the Niblungs and the tyranny of Alberic, which is unmistakable, as it dramatizes that portion of human activity which lies well within the territory covered by our intellectual consciousness ... Its meaning was as clear to Wagner as it is to us."
- Lisa Hirsch: "Two brilliant stars overcome bizarre and muddled staging in San Francisco Opera's Capuleti", 30 September 2012, theclassicalreview.com: "The two (DiDonato and Cabell) made a splendid romantic couple. They would have been even more successful had the staging been more sympathetic and character-focused. Instead, director Vincent Broussard, set designer Vincent Lemaire, and costumer designer Christian Lacroix, all in their San Francisco Opera debuts, have put together a muddled and static Regie Lite production that neither entertained nor cast the kind of illumination on (Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi) that a thoughtful production by a more gifted director might have rendered. The very first scene tells just about everything you might need to know about the production. The set is a shallow box with abstract patterns projected on the walls."
- Fisher notes: "You'll never catch Christopher Alden drowning an opera with the cocktail of sex, drugs and violence applied over and over again by Calixto Bieito."
- Ring in a day: Review of DVD recordings of The Ring, BBC Radio 3, April 2006, retrieved 28 June 2013.
- In Fisher, The Times, 12 May 2006
- "What Are the Limits of Stage Direction?" by Speight Jenkins, OperaSleuth, 14 July 2014
- A review on a Philadelphia production of Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette.