THE LAST DAYS OF THE OPERA interview with Denise Wendel Poray

The Last Days of the Opera - interview with Denise Wendel-Poray

THE LAST DAYS OF THE OPERA, edited by Denise Wendel-Poray, Gert Korentschnig, Christian Kircher, is the major anthology on opera edited by leading specialists in the field.

It was a great pleasure meeting Denise Wendel Poray, writer, critic and former opera singer, and talking with her about this book.

Q: Opera is a very old form of art. It has been developed throughout the centuries. It has its own language and rules and a very particular and enthusiastic public. But now we are in the 21st century, and it’s time to change the rules and dismantle the structure and blow some fresh air into opera. In this way, we can succeed in creating a complete work of art.” (Marina Abramovic) How would you say that opera has evolved from the past?


Denise Wendel-Poray: That quote from Marina Abramovic already signals an important change in opera, namely that outsiders, stars from other artistic spheres, are getting involved in opera and doing just that: blowing new air into opera. Painters, sculptors, and architects have been making stage décor for opera for the last 200 years, but the intervention of someone like Marina Abramovic is much more radical and questions the very foundations of the genre. Her opera “Seven Deaths of Maria Callas” shines a light into the corners of the personality cult intrinsic to opera and questions the violent death of women in opera and literature.


Richard Peduzzi, Untitled, 2004 Watercolor on paper, 21.5 × 26 cm Design for Georg Friedrich Händel, Hercules, Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2004. Direction: Luc Bondy Courtesy of the artist © Richard Peduzzi

Q: How do you think the opera art form should be “updated” to better fit the present time?

Denise Wendel-Poray: I don’t feel that opera should be systematically “updated” in the sense of setting it in modern times. Sometimes setting a classic work in the modern day works well and makes its content more understandable for modern audiences, but not always. First and foremost, a production must have a concept, the dramaturgy must be well-researched, there must be a rigorous aesthetic approach, whether this involves updating is not the problem. The casting of singers, forming a viable conductor/ director collaboration, these are elements that will determine the success of a production and whether the audience is drawn in— updating it is not enough.

Q: In your opinion, how is the artistic context in which opera takes place changing? 


Denise Wendel-Poray: As for the workplace, the opera house itself, the hundreds of people working there: builders, technicians, costume and prop builders, the orchestra, all those who are part of the permanent organization responsible for realizing opera, there have been a lot of changes. There is more awareness of how important every aspect of putting on an opera is, that the person organizing the props is as essential as the singers and that without the lighting technician, there would be no show. (See essay by lighting designer Urs Schönebaum) There is a greater sense of equality. The top-level artistic direction has also changed a great deal, they are more respectful, and the whole way of working is more democratic. This is the general tendency, and many authors discuss this in “The Last Days of the Opera.” Alexander Neef, director of the Paris Opera, refers to the opera house as a village, where each artisan, vocal coach, and scene painter right up to the Prima Donna is essential for the show to go on. So, this is the ideal that people are striving for. However, some are lagging behind, and abuse of power and harassment still occur. (See essays by Katie Mitchell and Andrea Breth)


Q: Do you perceive any evolution in the audience’s tastes related to opera? 

Denise Wendel-Poray: Audiences’ tastes are difficult to evaluate, this changes so much from country to country. I don’t want to generalize, but one could say that Italian audiences are attached to a more traditional form of opera, whereas in Germany, there is a lot more experimentation, but there are certainly examples that contradict that. Recently, in the United States, there has been a lot of interest in new works, contemporary operas that evoke contemporary America. I’m thinking of works like “Fire Shut up in my Bones” and “Champion” by Terence Blanchard, which have been audience favorites.


Q: Where did the inspiration behind “The Last Days of the Opera” come from? 


Denise Wendel-Poray: The idea for the book came from Christian Kircher. As CEO of all the state theaters in Austria, he felt it was essential to organize a major survey on the future of opera.

He brought the opera critic and political journalist Gert Korentschnig on board for his many connections in the opera world, and then me for the visual arts angle. The title is inspired by the epic drama “The Last Days of Mankind” by Karl Kraus, published in full in 1922. The idea was to point out the parallels between the 1920s and 2020s, and there are many— some extremely worrying: war, the rise of fascism— and others, from the artistic standpoint, very avant-garde and progressive, like in the 1920s. So, even though the goal of the anthology is to consider the relevance of opera in today’s world, the essays often broach larger subjects that concern humanity in general.


Q: How does this book connect with your previous publication titled “Painting the Stage?”


Denise Wendel-Poray: “Painting the Stage: Artists as Stage Designers” looks at how visual artists have enriched the operatic genre through their stage designs, so there is a continuity into this book where some of the same artists are involved. For example, William Kentridge, Marina Abramovic, Robert Wilson, Georg Baselitz, and Hermann Nitsch all figure in my first book and in “The Last Days of the Opera.” The difference is that in the first book, I was observing and writing about their works; here, the artists are writing and voicing their ideas for the future of opera, and these are precious viewpoints.

Richard Peduzzi, Untitled, 1992 Watercolor and pastel on paper, 23 × 32.5 cm Design for Wozzeck, Alban Berg, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 1992. Director: Patrice Chéreau Courtesy of the artist © Richard Peduzzi (Photo © Pénélope Chauvelot)
Book launch event in Berlin ©PeterAdamik
Book launch event in Berlin ©PeterAdamik
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