Kasper Holten concluded 5 1/2 years as director of opera at Covent Garden with a shocker: Instead of a happy ending to Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg," Eva runs offstage in tears, horrified that her beloved Walther has accepted the male-dominated society of her father.
Holten shook up The Royal Opera with several controversial stagings, and the last of his tenure was among the more memorable. Rather than set "Meistersinger" in medieval Nuremberg, he transported it to a contemporary London men's club, where women are mostly trophy wives. Eva, to be awarded by her father to the song-contest winner, is even perched on a large chair shaped like a trophy.
"It's a piece that addresses populism versus the elite or the establishment, certainly subjects that we talk a lot about today," Holten said ahead of the opening. "I think London must be one of the last places on Earth where there are many clubs where women are not allowed, at least in the Western world, I don't think that's quite something you could imagine in Scandinavia or probably not even in America."
The 43-year-old became artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera at age 27 and after 11 years in that role succeeded Elaine Padmore as Covent Garden's director of opera in 2011. He leaves this month to return to Copenhagen as his oldest daughter, 4-year-old Anna, approaches school age. Holten will be replaced by Oliver Mears, who announces his first season in charge on April 5.
Holten's most infamous programming was Damiano Michieletto's staging of Rossini's "Guillaume Tell" two years ago, which included a naked woman molested by the military. That caused booing and a statement from Holten apologizing if some were distressed; Holten now calls the production "one of the best things I've seen in my whole life."
"Kasper always defended the production and protected the production," Michieletto said. "Personally, I was, yes, a bit surprised for the reaction."
Holten personally directed Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," Mozart's "Don Giovanni," Cavalli's "L'Ormindo" and Karol Szymanowski's "Krol Roger (King Roger)."
"He opened the theater up to new directors and new works and successfully launched numerous co-productions with the other leading opera houses," Met general manager Peter Gelb said. "I believe that the best directorial work in opera and theater easily transfers from one country to another, regardless of the continent of origin — although audiences in New York and London might be less masochistic than audiences in some European cities."
"Meistersinger," which opened March 11 and runs through March 31, included a punkish Walther von Stolzing in a T-shirt, jeans and tailcoat, townspeople in contemporary dress and Meistersingers in traditional garb topped by huge square hats with feathers. Magdalene was an event planner with a headset and clipboard during the Midsummer's Day festival.
Townspeople typed on their phones during Beckmesser's prize song, and the disgraced town clerk was stripped of his robe and forced to watch in his underwear as his clothes were presented to Walther. Hans Sachs, sung with memorable nuance by Bryn Terfel in his first role since being knighted, maintained the traditions — content to remain in the past as society marched forward.
There was a smattering of boos momentarily when Sunday's performance ended with Eva crying in outrage rather than joy.
"I do think there is a chasm between N.Y./London and parts of Europe in terms of what audiences are expecting from new productions," said mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who sang Elvira in Holten's "Don Giovanni." ''I have seen all degrees of extremes and I think the most successful houses will be the ones who know how to take the most effective elements of 'regie theater' without abandoning the more traditional aspects, which risks losing the core audience of patrons."
Freed of administrative duties, Holten can concentrate on his own work. He is directing Bizet's "Carmen" on the floating stage of the Bregenz Festival in Austria in July and the Danish premiere of the Broadway hit "Book of Mormon" next January.
"When you try to do something new, you will sometimes fail. You will sometimes do things that are not appreciated or understood. You will sometimes miss the mark," he said. "The difference in a way between art and entertainment for me is that art must have a great element of risk."