A day or two ago, the German novelist Daniel Kehlmann delivered a speech for the opening of the Salzburg Festival, where he is this year's poet in residence and director of the literature program. He decided, in an unusually personal way, to talk about contemporary theatre, in particular the established "director's theatre." The talk was personal because Kehlmann spoke of his father, the late director Michael Kehlmann, who he describes as "a man who, before all else, saw in the director a servant of the author," yet whose career ebbed from early successes in the face of a theatre world that increasingly expected the director to place his or her ever-larger own imprint upon productions. Kehlmann Sr. became "old fashioned" and had frustratingly fewer opportunities to do his work. (Kehlmann describes his own decision to keep a distance from the theatre and write novels as a choice for a career field in which no one could keep him from his work). Kelhmann's critique of the Regietheatre is rhetorically powerful because of the combination of this personal tone, especially when coming from an author who is not a reactionary, with the fact that he never explicitly names his target. But, all the same: Bullseye.
Classical music has been under its own form of direction since sometime in the 19th century. There was conducting beforehand — we all know about Lully's fatal beat-pounding — but it was a modest and constrained task in which keeping measure was frequently shared between the primarius and the continuo players or any soloists. But in the 19th century, the profession of the conductor quickly moved from keeping a beat to directing more complext traffic patterns, cheering forces on, scolding, swearing, swooning, through something called interpretation, and now into the odd combination of tourism and administration. Technique for conducting has never been standardized in the way that technique for an instrument has been, and success as a conductor depends uniquely upon psychological factors, impossible to measure objectively (save, perhaps in box-office draw) and often up as "charisma". For almost any work of music requiring more than two handfuls of players, a director is now assumed to be required. The conductor, to the best of my knowledge, was a development unique to the West (unique at least until the advent of the pop music producer who plays a similar role in repertoire that exists primarily in recorded form). While there are indeed ensemble leaders in other musical traditions — for example the dance masters in numerous ensemble musics — they tend to make noises themselves rather than mime before their players, thus being more fully integrated into the ensemble as players themselves.
Increasingly the conductor became a recognized professional, someone who led musical proceedings and intervened in all parameters between the composer's instructions and the ensemble of players. The institution of the professional conductor happens, and not coincidentally, to date fairly exactly with the invention of what we now identify as the classical canon, and while conductors were and continue to be gatekeepers on the admission of new works to that repertoire, their prime responsibility has always been to the interpretation of canonical works. One now compares the performances of works under the batons of various conductors with the zeal of baseball fans comparing pitching records; heck, there are even some performances out there (take Carlos Kleiber's Fifth and Seventh, for example) for which one is tempted to retire the score altogether.
Closure of a canon — whether that of German theatre (in which a very limited number of "classical" works have now dominated the serious stage programs for generations), of "Classical Music," or literature (of which the most familiar examples, the holy writings of the three major monotheistic religions, have been closed to a frequently tragic effect), is inevitably a moment in which creative energies — those which would have otherwise gone into the synthesis of new works — are now chanelled into interpretation. I believe that the problem underlying the Director's Theatre is the same which classical (and, increasingly, pop) music have suffered: not interpretation, in and of itself, but the canonical closure which requires interpretation to impress a contemporary identity on either the plays or the music.
My own response, as a composer, to the directorial culture has been akin to Kehlman's decision not to write for the theatre: by and large, I avoid writing for orchestra. There are some aesthetic reasons for this (I like a certain amount of detail that smaller ensembles can do better) and the practical (orchestal commissions, when costs of engraving and part extraction are added in, rarely pay off if the performance is only a one-off). But I don't want to give up on the attractions of the orchestra altogether. Some of my best musical experiences and certainly many of my dreams require the services of an orchestra. I have had some good experiences with the other obvious alternative: specifying orchestra without conductor, but that is often a hard sell for ensembles with limited rehearsal time and often for those in which the conductor is, her- or himself, deciding on repertoire and is uninterested in programming works in which she or he is visibly superfluous.
Fortunately, there continues to be a species of conductor for whom making music, and new music in particular, is a larger cause than their own ego, among them: Jonathan Nott, Roland Kluttig, Peter Rundel, David Robertson, Sian Edwards, Lucas Vis, and Peter Eötvös. Conductors of this quality have the ability to be faithful to the composer's text, yet coax orchestras in interpretations which bring out more than the sum of the score's qualities, surpress its weaknesses (yes, composers are fallable), and perhaps add something complementary of their own to the mix without the work losing its identity. We are under direction, but not yet lost to it.