• Opera
  • Season 23/24

Getting reality into art

The power that comes from opera and the challenges that await the age-old genre

by Milo Rau, Mon, May 15, 2023

M5 A0353

'Working on La clemenza di Tito made me fall in love with opera. The fast and rational process that forces you as a creator to reflect in advance appeals to me immensely.'

Milo Rau

When I became artistic director of NTGent in 2018, I wrote a manifesto with ten rules that the city theatre of the future should uphold. The manifesto offers a summary of how I see the role of art in society and can serve as a basis for transforming the apparatus of a large city theatre like NTGent so as to bear out that vision. By doing away with the permanent ensemble, we have noticed that we can include more different, unheard voices in our programming. We consciously choose to give non-professional players space on stage, because professionalism is linked to training that not everyone has access to. We are committed to multilingualism. We limit the literal adaptation of classics on stage to a minimum. Through these interventions we have been able to break free from the predictability and self-evidence of what comes onto our stage. The impact of the new voices on the house is leading to a cross-pollination that continues to reverberate. But we are not there yet: the next step is to diversify the structure in the house itself, as well as the audience.

In many ways it seems difficult to reconcile the manifesto with the opera genre. Historically, opera composers have often been the lackeys of the ruling class and their work creates safe spaces for the cultural elite. The genre is inextricably linked to the professional qualities of singers and musicians. The complexity of the medium and the compelling music leave little scope for adapting a work. The strongly embedded traditions surrounding the standard repertoire entail the risk that classics will be re-enacted indiscriminately and new voices will be difficult to introduce. Opera is seen as the ultimate bourgeois art form, while my aim through the manifesto is to get rid of artistic gentility. The genre suffers from a negative image in that regard. Admittedly, that idea stems from the many prejudices surrounding opera, including my own. When I was asked by the Geneva Opera to direct Mozart's La clemenza di Tito, I knew that a confrontation with my artistic vision would be inevitable.

The making of Mozart

Although I almost always start from a blank page for a new production, the reverse logic in which I had to work with existing material really appealed to me. Working with the existing opera material makes you think as a maker. Two years after the French Revolution, why does Mozart write a "coronation opera" about the enlightened and forgiving Roman emperor Titus, in honour of the investiture of the king of Bohemia? Why does La clemenza di Tito take as its theme the tolerance of power? What does that say about us today? What is there to expose that is still true today? The opera genre invites us to work in an interpretative and deconstructive way, which I find very interesting. I decided to expose 'the making of' of Mozart's last opera by disassembling the work. This is consistent with the manifesto I wrote for NTGent: I wanted to take the work out of its operatic utopia and make it real again, to get reality back into art. That is the task of the artist, that is how art can change the world.

GTG Clemence Titus2021 Carole Parodi 5141

'I wanted to take the work out of its operatic utopia and make it real again, to get reality back into art. That is the task of the artist, that is how art can change the world.'

Milo Rau

Artists tend to dramatize and aestheticize violent reality in their work, so that the authenticity of that reality is weakened and kept at bay. In La clemenza di Tito the same thing happens: the opera tells the story of power games among the elite that can lead to coups d'état, while the citizens of Rome suffer under the violence and their city burns. Translate that to Mozart's time and you get a story that, through the tolerance of the enlightened Titus, domesticates and aestheticizes the violent French Revolution. In my staging I investigate how this phenomenon occurs today and add a meta-critical layer by connecting the utopian and the real world. On the one hand, you see a museum on stage, the utopian and aestheticized space of the ruling elite. On the other hand, I show the real space of the subject in the form of a refugee camp. Not actors, but people who are stranded in the real world around the opera house in search of a better future, populate the place.

The addition of that actual space destroys the safe space of Titus and his elite friends. In this way, La clemenza di Tito becomes a form of self-criticism by the engaged artist: As a maker, am I not a bit of a Titus myself, a blowhard who depicts the cold world in a comfortable space, aestheticizes it and also lives off it? I therefore regard my version of Mozart's opera as a manifesto. I see the deconstructive thought process I have gone through as the way to go for dealing with operas and creating space for polyphony. We must rise to the challenge of connecting opera – the art form par excellence for utopian lies – with reality. By making cuts in the music and adjusting the text, for example. Or by giving non-professionals, in this case refugees, a place alongside professional singers and musicians. The manifesto I drew up for NTGent seems to fit in better with the opera genre than I originally thought, but that has drastic consequences for the final product: my Clemenza is anything but in keeping with the operatic tradition as we know it.


In puncturing the opera utopia and disassembling Mozart's work, many opera connoisseurs and critics experience my La clemenza di Tito as destructive. They regard my staging as the end of the opera, a post-opera that disrespectfully transgresses the rules of the genre. However, compared to what I do in the theatre, I have held back out of respect for the music, the singers and the musicians. During the rehearsal process, they made me discover a new logic behind training and professionalism in the performing arts. Just as top football players rise from the favelas, the daughter of a cleaning lady can emerge as a top singer, due to the great attention for talent within the opera world. On and around an opera stage, there springs up a collection of people with talent and passion, who took years to develop their expertise, a fresh form of collectivity that is simply a prerequisite to arrive at an end product and one which I can only admire. For example, I can't read music at all, but there are plenty of others present who are happy to respectfully help me there.

The openness to everyone's talent touched me and led to a reconciliation with the gentility of professionalism, the opera audience and the genre itself. Working on La clemenza di Tito made me fall in love with opera. The rapid and systematic method of working that forces you as a maker to reflect in advance, appeals to me enormously. The collectivity around an opera production is heartwarming. I regard the factory of people working on a performance with great humility. I am intrigued by the convergence of different facets, the parallelism of music and action, and the tension that arises when you present old works in a new way. I have learned to approach the manifesto I wrote for NTGent in a different, more nuanced way. There is a future in opera, provided we dare to disassemble classics and place them alongside new work. Thus, opera can be polyphonic and tell stories that are less self-evident. In this way we can work on other forms of representation, change the visual politics of what can be seen on stage and integrate the real world into the arts. That is the essence of my artistic vision and practice, the spirit of my manifesto.


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