Bieito gained perhaps his greatest notoriety with his production of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera for the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona in 2001. He set the first scene of the opera on a split-level set; on the top half, the primary action of the scene (involving the king and his loyal subjects) played out. The conspirators were ranged along the bottom half of the stage, sitting on toilets with their pants around their ankles. Bieito also offered a controversial take on the character of Oscar. In the opening scene, the old judge appears in a wheelchair; Oscar promptly sits on his lap and begins making suggestive movements. And in the great quintet that closes Act III, scene I, Renato and his co-conspirators attempt to drown Oscar in the bathtub.
This production caused a scandal, not only in Barcelona but in London, when it was performed by ENO. Yet Bieito has continued, undaunted. When designing Die Fledermaus for Welsh National Opera, he stated that he felt the piece to be about prostitution; champagne, a recurring theme in the operetta, was the hard drug of choice for the characters, and ought to be treated as such. More recently, Bieito's production of Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio, designed for the Komische Oper in Berlin, caused a big stir. Here is an excerpt from the Financial Times review of the opera:
"Bassa Selim is lord of a brothel, rather than a harem, and keeps Konstanza on a leash in a cage. Bieito has decided Mozart's opera is about prostitution and the slave trade, and he has hired real hookers to prove it. The opera opens with Osmin using one. He sings his first aria naked in the shower, giving his genitals a good scrub. Later he urinates in a glass and forces Blonde to drink it. Then, while Konstanza sings "Martern aller Arten", he hacks up a whore with a knife, finally offering the soprano a pair of bloodied, severed nipples. No wonder she shoots herself at the end."
Another commentator added his own scathing critique. "Instead of desecrating the human form, we should learn again to revere it. For there is absolutely nothing to gain from the insults hurled at beauty by those—like Calixto Bieito—who cannot bear to look it in the face. Yes, we can neutralize the high ideals of Mozart by pushing his music into the background so that it becomes the mere accompaniment to an inhuman carnival of sex and death. But what do we learn from this? What do we gain, in terms of emotional, spiritual, intellectual, or moral development? Nothing, save anxiety. We should take a lesson from this kind of desecration: in attempting to show us that our human ideals are worthless, it shows itself to be worthless. And when something shows itself to be worthless, it is time to throw it away."
Recently, Bieito presented a new interpretation of Ibsen's Peer Gynt, a coproduction with the Bergen International Festival in Norway in May 2006 to critical acclaim. The production starred Joel Joan and was presented in Catalan with translation by Joan Sellent and Anne-Lise Cloetta. He adapted Wozzeck, by Alban Berg, played at Barcelona's Liceu Theatre in late 2006 and at Madrid's Teatro Real in early 2007, changing the scenography from a mid-1800 German town to a factory, replacing the soldiers of the story by workers and the drum major by a rocker superstar.
In 2008 he returned to Bergen International Festival with a production of Ibsen's Brand.
In spite (or because) of the controversy that his productions generally meet with, Bieito continues to be in demand across Europe and to sell out opera houses.
In January 2010, he was appointed as the new Guest Director of the International Arts Festival of Castilla y León for the next two years.
- Roger Scruton, "Beauty and Desecration," City Journal, Spring 2009
- Calixto Bieito becomes Guest Director of Castilla y León's International Arts Festival