In our time, a unique jargon has developed for talking about internet memes. This jargon correlates with certain pop cultural tendencies; it expresses emotions people have felt before, but have never been able to convey as concisely as they can now with a new set of colloquialisms. Probably the most affective and distinctive emotion is the hyper-unease denoted by the word “cringe.”

Like a kind of uncanny valley for online humor, cringe is when a video or text-based meme—any product displayed online—sincerely endeavors to the comedic, but, counter to what the creator intended, misses the mark. Although he was writing about the CGI-rendered humans in the 2001 box office bomb “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw offhandedly characterized the essence of cringe-worthy memes (which started to become popular around a decade after his film review first published), writing how they’re “shriekingly phoney, precisely because they’re almost there but not quite.” A cringe meme tries so hard and gets so far; in the end it discomfits the viewer and provokes mass mockery. Sincere intention is nulled by subpar execution.

The Facebook page Against Modern Opera Productions derives rage from cringe. At just over 45,000 likes, the “community” castigates productions that put contemporary twists, in the practice of Regietheater, on classic operas, and aims to lampoon them in the form of cringe-worthy memes shared with a niche audience.

The page recently mocked a production of Handel’s “Ariodante” performed at this year’s Salzburg Whitsun Festival, in which Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli played the titular bearded warrior. In a dress and prosthetic facial hair, Bartoli’s portrayal of Ariodante, the page interpreted, involved too obvious an allusion. Written in their post’s caption: “Take a well-known singer with well-known fanatic crowd of fans who cheer even the least audible note their idol produces, put all that into a stupid Regietheater mix of ‘traditional’ and disgusting elements and add some ‘current’ quotation, in this case Conchita Wurst.”

Unlike memes, operas are serious, high-class stuff. Though audience reactions are virtually the same once either gets perceived as cringe-worthy: the Ariodante post’s comments section is full of barfing emojis. Thanks to social media, operas become memes on Against Modern Opera Productions.

Although Bartoli as Ariodante is a demonstration of gender fluidity that could easily incite transphobia and sexism from a bona fide conservative, the page castigates it, from what I saw in their post, simply because it’s an artistic device—the timeliness of which, they believe, is contingent on Conchita Wurst—for updating a classic. Scrolling through other recent posts, it appeared that the page is just as disgusted when productions flaunt modern technology, like cars and cruise ships, or when humongous toilets are part of the stage setup. Posting about a production of Rameu’s “Platee”: “Well, in a nutshell (or should we better say: in a toiletbowl) this is everything you need to know about Regietheater.”

The practice of Regietheater can indicate—yet isn’t limited to—political expression, so I didn’t find it sound to presume the page’s political beliefs on this alone. Aside from how they particularly target operas popular among the critics, their contempt for Regietheater and its myriad applications reads as unconditional—on the surface.

The page initially didn’t respond to specific interview questions and numerous follow-ups I sent to them over Facebook messenger. I did speak to Mark Berry, a Senior Lecturer in Royal Holloway, University of London’s music department (and a contributor to VAN), who is also a known adversary of Against Modern Opera Productions.

Upon discovering their presence online a few years ago, Berry perceived AMOP as a forum for community dialogues on opera, in spite of their negational title. Later he heard through a peer that their purpose was preordained insular, far less open to diverging perspectives than he first presumed, telling me over email “that they did not want discussion; i.e., that they wanted to organise/mobilise rather than have any sort of dialogue.”

A friend of his had received abusive messages over Facebook messenger, including a death threat, from one of the admins after inquiring, just as Berry had, about the general crux of the page. (Marco disputes this. “Sorry but our page has never ever sen[t] death threats to anybody. This is a complete lie. And the opposite was true. We got millions of threats and insults for our opinion,” he said.) While Berry has never had an interaction with AMOP to that level of severity, he’s been on the receiving end of paltry torments. “The group then started acting rather obsessively towards me; if I posted a review, there would often be a reposting of that along with something abusive, etc. At that point I had really had enough and said so, and was soon blocked.”

What Berry recounted makes my own back-and-forths pale in comparison; whichever admin I’d been talking to over private messenger always responded apologetically to my intermittent follow-ups about the interview questions I’d sent. But the worst of their behavior has more dangerous implications.

Beyond sending verbal attacks totally unrelated to the realm of opera over private messenger, AMOP houses an audience whose motives are possibly broader than conservatism singularly towards art. Berry found, after hearing talk and then doing some self-investigating into Gegen Regietheater in der Oper, AMOP’s exclusively German language-based account, that there was membership crossover with PEGIDA—or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West. “There is definitely a conservative-cum-radical-right political tinge to a lot of their writing and comments: casual, or not so casual, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and many other bigotries recur frequently,” he said. Such prejudiced aggression gives their impetus to organize and mobilize an almost militant air.

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On the day we were scheduled to publish, AMOP finally responded to my questions. Regarding possible connections with PEGIDA, Marco, AMOP’s head admin, claimed them false. “It is a lie that tries to put wrong rumors about people who oppose the Regietheater. AMOP and Gegen Regietheater are NOT connected in any way to PEGIDA or any right-wing political movements. Both pages are unpolitical.” He thinks politicizing the page diminishes the art, telling me that “The longer these things go on, the less people will understand opera and its music.”

“I first got familiar with RT in 1999 seeing Homoki’s production of ‘Idomeneo’ in Munich,” Marco said. “I was shocked and did not understand anything anymore. I was 13 at this time.” Marco still kept up with opera in the following years, at one point balancing an education in medicine. “AMOP was created in April 2011, it started to grow about one year later. This was a point when I started to see more operas outside Munich my hometown, seeing how powerful an opera can be—if it is staged according to the composer and how wrong and incoherent 99 per cent of the modernized productions are.”

I asked if he agreed whether the operas he was posting about qualified as “cringe-worthy.” “Yes definitely. I showed with my page that the Regietheater is sometimes so ridiculous that it needs no further words after posting a pic. Regietheater is its own greatest enemy. A simple guess [is] the opera says it all and the great number of funny or sarcastic comments is the best way to deal with [it].”

On the other hand, the AMOP membership, Berry claims, has applauded the “hopelessly outdated, genuinely racist” applications of blackface and yellowface in an opera like “Turandot.” Regietheater has attempted to update historically bigoted operas by removing their stereotypes for the sake of contemporary productions. Regietheater functions as a far more rational practice than the silly and unnecessary one AMOP makes it out to be.  

As far as AMOP’s “cringe” goes, Berry thinks it’s sadomasochistic, since “they spend an inordinate amount of time seeking out pictures—it is only ever designs, not the essence of a production itself—that ‘offend’ them.” The page covets what they collectively define as disgusting in order to disparage their curations of disgust.

Though Berry doesn’t like the term Regietheater (he’s not sure what new term should replace it), his experience with AMOP has only bolstered his support for the practice. “Contact with fascism, in its various forms, tends to push one further to the Left, I think.” Whereas opera for Berry, who obviously bears a more liberal threshold, is allowed to reinterpret traditional elements (namely stage design), according to AMOP opera is an impervious realm in which productions mustn’t compromise the composer’s original intention in the slightest. “Basically it should stay as it is but that does not mean you need to leave opera as it was shown in the 19th century,” said Marco. “People change, stage technology becomes more modern which allows us to get even closer to the composer’s intention than ever before.”

But though their established purpose is negational—in being against what they see as a certain variation of opera—and a known faction of their membership is bigoted, AMOP might even be productive for dialogues in opera as a sort of learning curve in the matter. The antithesis to their conservatism promotes other lenses for engaging with opera: as an art form that overlaps with drama and theater, as something that can be regarded as much for its literary as for its musical significance.

The mannerisms of “bizarrely dogged opponents,” in Berry’s words, like AMOP have brought out the latent aggression in a particular faction of opera enthusiasts. Conversely, enthusiasts who’ve registered the page’s repugnant nature have veered straight to the side of the adversary: another Facebook page called Against ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’ now exists as well. In this alternative online community, where Berry plays an essential role, there are actual dialogues that seem to be viable. ¶

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Article updated 8/10/2017 to include Marco’s comments about the alleged death threat.

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