Naively in retrospect, I came to the Deutsche Oper’s recent production of “Elektra” with an expectation that its reception would be mostly positive. The work is a staple of German opera, staged at a respected German opera house, seasonally appropriate with blood and gore in October, and featuring a world-renowned Wagnerian soprano, Catherine Foster, in the lead role. I thought it had a lot working in its favor. But then again, opera patrons are opinionated as hell.

I spoke with a fairly diverse—at least by the standards of opera—group of audience members at the house, before and after the performance, then later via email and Twitter. They offered comments as relevant and incisive as those of any critic, both glowing endorsements and scathing criticisms. Presented here as a dialogue are some of the highlights of my conversations with the audience that night.

Luise (a Berlin native and flutist): We came here on a whim. We don’t know anything about the director or the cast.

Laura: (a Berlin native and frequent visitor to the Deutsche Oper): I’m looking forward to a dramatic, gory Strauss opera.

Felicia (an opera student at the Hanns-Eisler-Hochschule für Musik): I really like Strauss and it’s my first time seeing Elektra live on stage. I lived in Munich, so I’m used to a very high production standard.

Olivia (an Australian who recently moved to Berlin): I’ve heard German opera houses are really good.

Felicia: When the first scene started I was amazed by the size of ensemble’s voices.  

Luise: I loved the performance of the singers of Elektra and Crystothemis [Allison Oakes] especially, and the orchestra’s performance too. But regarding the production, I’m slightly less enthusiastic.

Laura: [The staging] didn’t undermine the power of the music and the libretto, which meant that I was able to pay more attention to the performance of each cast member.

Felicia: Allison Oakes made these high notes sound so effortless and the penetration power of her voice was almost unbelievable. As a singing student, I especially adored the sopranos’ techniques. They both sung so healthily! It seemed as if they could sing the same two hours over and over again. There was no weak tone, no cracking or breaking—every note was perfectly supported and sung with the whole body .

Luise: I think the costumes of Elektra and Orestes were supposed to show how they complete each other, but they were boring and not aesthetically pleasing.

Felicia: I found Orestes [Tobias Kehrer] a bit disappointing. He already sang at the Met, but I still found him quite weak.

Luise: The image of Orestes drenched completely in blood—or rather, red paint—could have been more effective if there were just a few splashes of red instead of this Hellboy-esque transformation.

Laura: Elektra was psychologically and physically imprisoned in a space that was filled with her desire for vengeance—I thought that came across well. The production did a good job of illustrating the themes and atmosphere of the opera.

The title page of the “Elektra” libretto, by Lovis Corinth (1909) · CC
The title page of the “Elektra” libretto, by Lovis Corinth (1909) · CC

Felicia: The weirdest part was when Elektra sang, “Sei verflucht!” (Curses upon you!). She made that clichéd gesture with her arms without looking anywhere but at the conductor; and her sister threw herself to the floor dramatically, throwing her hands up in horror as if it were a scene from “Harry Potter.”

Luise: Sometimes I found Elektra’s acting over the top and involuntarily funny. I know it’s opera and not theater or film, but still.

Felicia: And the one part when Orestes ran in circles with that blanket—no one knew why—it was just hilarious and unfitting. Why did he shake his hands for such a long time? It just made him look like a joke and that didn’t fit the music or the story. My friends and I couldn’t decide whether it was just bad acting skills, bad staging, or maybe the fact that this “Elektra” was the seventh or eighth reopening by the Deutsche Oper. Maybe it’s just worsened over the years.

Luise: And the costumes could have done with more inventive cuts or materials, while maintaining the subdued color palette. The costume of Klytämnestra was very Disney-esque, it reminded me of Cruella de Vil. I’d have liked the costume design a little less over the top. Maybe just white hair and red coat without jewelry and makeup?

Felicia: When people say opera singers are just divas without any acting skills, or that they use cheap dramatic tricks, I always object and defend them. But if anyone saw the staging yesterday, they could say all those things and be absolutely right.

Laura: At least the staging wasn’t overcomplicated.

Bethan (an Australian cellist): The Sydney Opera tends to hire skinny, glamorous women. I appreciated that here the lead roles were sung by women who were talented rather than stereotypically beautiful.

Felicia: Catherine Foster hit me with her big and powerful voice from the very beginning. The orchestra played so loud—maybe even a little too loud—and she could sing above it so easily and with such power. But not only was her forte fantastic, she also had a lovely timbre, her pianissimo parts were sung with such tenderness, they felt so sweet and touching. I nearly cried a few times.

Olivia: Germans take opera very, very seriously.

A British man I approached as he was leaving was reluctant to talk to me and only answered one of my questions genuinely. When I first asked him his name, he ignored me, but I tried to persist. (I never got his name.) When I asked what he was doing in Germany, he said he was on an “extended holiday,” and chuckled suspiciously. I just cut straight to the chase and asked what he thought of the performance.

British Man: I’ve seen “Elektra” before at the Royal Opera House and it was a more engaging production.

Felicia: I know the Deutsche Oper as a good house with some great singers but it wasn’t the first time I left a production there with mixed feelings.

British Man: I expected to see a lot more violence for a play that has characters with so much anger inside them, but this director, I thought, was really reserved.

Catherine Foster in a 2013 production of
Catherine Foster in a 2013 production of “Elektra” in Lübeck 

Felicia: Although the music was touching, both main female characters sang beautifully, and the story could make you cry, I had to laugh a few times. And I’m afraid that wasn’t what the director wanted me to do.

Luise: In the end, I didn’t find this production very intellectually stimulating. I think I prefer an approach that adds more meaning to the pre-existing text and offers opportunity for interpretation and discussion.

Felicia: It almost seemed to be a parody of opera.

Olivia: I was watching the people around me, and they kept checking their watches. Maybe it was too progressive a production for most people?  ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.