Thursday, September 28, 2006


Opera is big this month. There was Toronto's own staging of the Ring, but the manjor story right now is the recent cancellation of a production of Mozart's Idomeneo at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, which was to feature the severed head of Mohammed, among other severed heads.

The cancellation has, unsurprisingly, provoked howls of outrage from many circles, and indeed, it seems as though the cancellation is entirely due to fears that mobs in middle east will rise up and protest this representation of Mohammed, or that someone will come along and blow up the opera house.

However, Alex Ross, critic for the New Yorker, while standing firmly on the side the Deutsche Oper should have carried on with the production, his makes a point that I had yet to see anywhere else - the production sucks.

I think many would agree that cancelling the production out of fears that Muslims may do something is both idiotic and patronizing, and only reinforces the stereotypes of Muslims as a characteristically violent and reactionary people. Indeed, it appears that this is precisely what the German security officials believed when they recommended the show be cancelled.

It also seems that cancelling the production has brought much more attention to its offensiveness than likely would have occurred if they had staged it - people who think opera is that woman on TV in the afternoons are now going to sit around and urge the production be saved in order to preserve the very freedoms our grandfathers fought to preserve, and stuff like that.

However, I think this misses the most important point - the production was vulgar shite. Let me draw a line in the sand. There are disturbing, thought-provoking productions that force one to look at the world in a new light. And then there's bringing a quartet of decapitated heads at the end of an opera that has no place for them dramatically.

Let's just flesh this out a bit. At the end of this cancelled production, Idomeneo, the King of Crete, comes out on stage carrying the decapitated heads of Neptune, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad. That's right folks, Idomeneo manages to kill three divinely-related humans and a deathless pagan god. It's hard to miss the subtlety here, because there is none - it's incoherent.

I'm surprised Hans Neuenfels, the director of this production, didn't ask the singer playing Idomeno to then vomit all over the heads. Or, why not have him kill his family at the end too? Or hey, why have the heads at all - why not have Idomeneo tearfully masturbate to the closing strains of the opera? Or-

You can see how easy this is. Just come up with something offensive, and drop it in there, somewhere - there's no need for context.

Some directors are better at this kind of crap than others. Canada's own beloved Atom Egoyan, in directing a production of Strauss' Salome, decided to have the Page give Narraboth, Captain of Herod's Guards, a blow job - as though Salome needed to be more controversial. Indeed, this is a common affliction amongst who I take to be the most bored artists in all of Christendom - the opera director.

So what's really depressing about the Deutsche Oper cancellation isn't just the prejudiced fears about the muslim community, but that someone didn't decapitate this production before it got to the stage. Mozart, and the people who love his art, deserve better than this.

UPDATE: If my commenter is right, then it seems that Idomeneo may be back on. He suggests that this was perhaps a publicity stunt, although that's even more horrifying.

To clarify my own point, the people out there demanding this be performed obviously have no clue as to the aesthetic merits of the production themself. In fact, it appears that no one cares about the aesthetic merits. Rather, the craptacular must go on, no matter how incoherent and silly.

This is not about freedom of expression to me. If this were an opera about the life of Mohammed, or Jesus for that matter, that would be another matter entirely. But the controversy here surrounds a bored opera director irresponsibly playing with Mozart and the audience forced to sit through this.

I hate to say it, but the more I think about it, the less concerned I am about the freedom of expression issue here, because that's just the hammer the political class has decided to use to show that muslims are violent savages (let's remember that so far, there have been no direct threats). The real issue here is whether or not this is worth people's time and effort as a performance of musical drama, if it says anything, if it has any dramatic value. This is a fantastic opportunity to discuss the state of opera directors, and instead we've got a tired, unproductive and deeply repetitive series of assertion about "artistic freedom".

That should be the central issue here, but that would mean that we have a culture actively concerned about art and aesthetics. I seems we don't.


Josh in Berlin said...

It seems that the cancellation will be revoked and this opera will be shown after all. What a clever publicity stunt the opera house made by first announcing the cancellation. Usually hardly anybody would be interested in that opera, but now it is the talk of the town.

I think I am in a very small minority in Germany who approved of the cancellation. That opera is an insult to other religions (since it shows the severed heads of Jesus and Buddha as well) and to Mozart, the composer, himself.

What benefit would we get if we had this opera? It seems the only reason to defend this stupid opera is to avoid giving the impression of appeasement to the Islamofascists. That's not enough for me. I think this opera would only strengthen Islamofasicsm since it would help their propaganda. To win the war on terrorism, we need to have moderate Muslims on our side, so that they don't support the terrorists, but give us information about them. And we want the moderate Muslims to win over their autocratic governments and fundamentalist groups in the Arab world. This opera, however, alienates the moderate Muslims and helps the fundamentalists.

Let's not forget that theater plays critical of Christians and Israel also get canceled. Earlier this year:
"A New York theatre company has put off plans to stage a play about an American activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza because of the current "political climate" - a decision the play's British director, Alan Rickman, denounced as "censorship"."

I am not a fan of Rachel Corrie. Not at all. However, if one criticizes the canellation of the Mozart opera for fear of offending Muslimes, then one should also criticize the canceling of that play for fear of offending supporters of Israel..

"On May 23, 1998, the New York Times announced that the Manhattan Theatre Club would be canceling its scheduled production of playwright Terrence McNally's newest play, Corpus Christi, due to bomb and death threats made against the theatre, its personnel, and the playwright. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights disavowed responsibility for the threats but did publicly applaud the decision, calling the play "blasphemous.""

When Corpus Christi was shown in Germany in 2000, there have been death threats and bomb threats as well:

Thus it could very well be that the threats against the "Idomeneo" opera are not only coming from Muslims, but from Christians, who don't like to see the severed head of Jesus... Having said that: The concern about attacks from Muslims is bigger.

Greetings from Berlin,
My blog: The Atlantic Review, A press digest on transatlantic affairs edited by three German Fulbright Alumni

Otto van Karajanstein said...

I agree with you that Neuenfels took care to use paint his canvas with a wide brush, so that as many people as possible could be offended by his pointless add-on.