Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Bring Me the Head of the Director

Newspapers around the world are reporting that the Deutsche-Oper Berlin has canceled a scheduled production of Mozart's Idomeneo for fear of offending Muslims.

Idomeneo is the story of the King of Crete who, upon returning home from the Trojan War, is shipwrecked. He vows to Neptune that if he survives, he will sacrifice the first living thing he encounters in gratitude. When he washes up on the shore, the first creature he sees is his own son, Idamante. The plot concerns his attempts to wrangle out of the pledge and the catastrophes that ensue, along with a love triangle between Idamante and Ilia, a captured Trojan princess, and Electra, well-known refugee of the House of Atreus. As Crete lies under siege by a terrible sea monster, the king confesses that he himself is to blame for the disaster, and the only solution is to sacrifice the prince. Idamante bravely submits to his fate, but in the final moments Neptune grants a reprieve, on the condition that Idomeneo step down in favor of Idamante's succession and marriage to Ilia. All ends happily (except for Electra, who goes spectacularly insane).

The opera is a masterpiece; long neglected as boring old-fashioned opera seria, it entered the standard repertory after the Metropolitan Opera first performed it in the 1980s with Luciano Pavarotti in the title role. Composed when Mozart was in his early 20s, it contains some of his very best music for the stage, including a showy Handelian da capo aria for the tenor ("Fuor del mar"), brilliant and unusual ensembles (especially "Vedro, rammingo e solo"), spectacular choral writing, and the thrilling mad scene for Electra ("O smania...D'Oreste, d'Ajace").

You can see why this is so offensive to Muslims, right?

No? Well, the concern arose because this particular production had a scene involving the severed head of the Prophet Mohammed.

The director, Hans Neuenfels, ought to be ashamed of himself. Seriously. This is a Trojan War story, taking place somewhere around 1200 BC. Mohammed lived from 570 to 632 CE. What possible relevance could Mohammed have to an episode from Greek mythology? But it's not just Mohammed: the production also features the severed heads of Jesus Christ (4 BCE - 30 CE), the Buddha (563 BCE to 483 BCE), and a few other religious figures.

You know, it's okay for art to be provocative, but there should be a valid artistic reason for it. If you want to do a provocative opera, there's many out there. If you don't like the ones that exist, find yourself a composer and make a new one that says what you want it to say. But don't desecrate a great masterpiece by dragging in irrelevant, anachronistic sacrilege, especially of a variety that will serve only to further inflame current tensions while adding absolutely nothing at all to the performance experience.

The opera house has overreacted by canceling the production. How central to the concept could the severed heads have been, given that none of these people are ever mentioned in the text or stage directions? Revise the production. If it requires a severed head, I say start with Hans Neuenfels.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

I study religion...

There shall be no representations made of the Prophet. They don't have one, and noone else better try to make one or show one. It would ruin the sensibilities of the extreme musilm and the religion as a whole.

Like you can't say the "N" word, because it is politically incorrect to use it in open company.

Let's not incite any more anger into the world. She made the right call.

that's just my opinion.

Jeremy

Andy said...

I think maybe you misunderstand the difference between a "production" of the opera and the opera itself. A "production" of the opera could very well be set in a diner in Winnemucca in a post-apocalyptic world (and it's probably been done). Some operas "update" well; Idomeneo could probably be done very nicely in modern dress with sets that aren't kitschy recreations of "Ancient Greece." But if you do stuff like that, it has to be inspired by what's actually IN the opera. You can't just go imposing your own issues onto someone else's work of art, it's a recipe for disaster. I've been in Idomeneo and have seen it several times. There are no severed heads called for by the score, certainly not Mohammed's. Therefore, it was unnecessary to cancel the entire production.

The problem is idiot, no-talent hack directors struggling to find ways to make opera "relevant" to modern audiences. BAH. That's stupid.

Idomeneo is about a group of people struggling to do what they have to do, instead of what they want to do. I think everyone can relate to that on some level. The fact that it is set in the ancient world and involves, literally, a deus ex machina, should not be a problem for any audience member capable of thinking outside the smallest of literal boxes. Modern opera directors frequently insult their audiences by presuming they have no capacity to fully connect with a story that exists outside of their immediate life experience. And, because the directors themselves clearly have so little imagination, their productions suffer accordingly.

Gino said...

please notice the reaction of the media when madonna does the jesus thing vs when something may be done to offend islam.

why is that?
because islam has a built-in element of violence, where christianity does not.

christians fear muslim rage.
muslims feed on it.

Future Geek said...

because islam has a built-in element of violence, where christianity does not.

Right.

Burning witches isn't violent at all. Exterminating indigenous people around the world, that's not either.

Andy said...

FG, you left out bombing doctors' offices. And it wasn't Muslims who killed six million jews just sixty years ago.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

There are different Islamic traditions, just as there are different Christian traditions or Hindu or Jewish or whatever.

Some Islamic traditions do have images of their Profet, in other traditions no representation of any human figure is allowed.

Different.

The poor idiot could have used a couple of modern day talking heads instead...

Seriously, "Homer" lived befor any of the "heads" in question were even born.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Trickish Knave said...

I love reading greek mythologies and the tragedies. This opera sound strikingly similar to the Abraham/Isaac story.

It sounds like the name of the opera should be "No-talent Assclown Presents Idomeneo. With 'presents' in the title the hack can then substitute Matrix style fight scenes on the shores of Crete and call it artistic subjectivity.

It sounds like this guy is just trying to stir the proverbial poop pile.

Jere said...

What I'm wondering is, since there's no reference to these religious figures in the text, how is the audience to even know whom the severed heads are supposed to be? I suppose there might be some visual clues (a crown of thorns for Jesus, for example), but would audiences in the fourth or fifth tier even be able to make something like that out?

This sounds like a detail that the majority of the crowd wouldn't even have noticed had not this great hue and cry broken out.

Anonymous said...

The arts are struggling in this country because directors and performers refuse to make these works relevant to today's society. It's called artistic liberty and interpretation for a reason. Just because you don't agree with it doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. The "purists" will be the death of the Western canon of music.

Andy said...

Jere: no, I saw a photo of a previous "incarnation," if you will, of this production elsewhere in Germany. It's very clear who the actors are supposed to be.

Musicguy: See, I categorically disagree. If you think the work you are performing has no "relevance," or your audience is incapable of understanding it, then you are not the person to be directing it. If you have to try to "make" it relevant, you have no business putting your interpretation on it, because it's clearly not going to be an organic one. I don't need every production to be kitschy and "traditional," and I don't need to agree with every idea or interpretation. I think the arts are dying not because they aren't relevant, but because people don't know they're relevant. That has partly to do with woefully inadequate or nonexistent arts education in America, and also bullshit productions like this, which render themselves irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

As a teacher in "woefully inadequate" arts education, I'm telling you that the Western Canon of music, average age 250 years old, is no longer relevant to most of today's society. What people fail to realize is that the canon was written during a specific histical period, for a specific audience. Today's world and audiences are drastically different, and if you don't make an effort to connect these works to 2006, the arts are going to slump farther into disregard.

But hey, I'll defer to your judgement. I'm sure you've taught for many years, have done graduate work in education, research in arts education, and totally know how to relate Mozart to high school juniors.

I'll just keep on doing my woefully inadequate job and continue to render the arts irrelevant.

Andy said...

Okay, now you're being petulant and deliberately missing my completely valid point while snarkily trying to insist I don't know what I'm talking about. I have two degrees in music, I have seen roughly 300 opera performances, and I have performed several of them. I feel fully confident that I have the sufficient expertise to discuss these issues. I've even been in Idomeneo, thank you.

Now, I said that arts education in America is either woefully inadequate or nonexistent. Would you characterize it differently? Honestly? That's not to say that people like you are doing a bad job; not at all. But would you say that that arts education in America is in good shape or even sufficient? Probably not, and that has nothing to do with your efforts or abilities.

What is it about Idomeneo that is irrelevant? I mean, the story, as I pointed out in the blog, dates from 1200BC -- but then, we still read Homer in high school, don't we? Is Homer "irrelevant"? And, the opera was written in 1780: are you telling me that 1780 was so much closer to the Trojan War that Idomeneo would resonate for them in a way that it can't a mere 226 years later?

Of course, sometimes we have to have a sufficient amount of knowledge in order to appreciate something. The first time I heard Wozzeck, I was like, turn it off! But now I know enough about it that, even though I wouldn't put it on during a romantic dinner, I can listen to it and really, really enjoy it. But to insist that the problem lies with the work itself -- that over time it has become irrelevant -- is to simply not have the capacity to understand and appreciate what is there.

Again, I'm not saying every production has to be a picture-postcard kitschy costume parade. There's more than one way to stage Idomeneo, for sure.

But are you prepared to defend the inclusion of severed heads of various world religious figures as a means of making the opera "relevant" to a modern audience, when it has NO RELEVANCE TO THE OPERA????

Anonymous said...

The "great classics" are not the least bit relevant to today's youth. Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. Just because adults and academia hold them in high esteem does not mean that high school/college students are going to give a damn.

It's interesting that you mention Homer. There was a study done a few years ago regarding Homer in college classrooms. Those teachers who made an effort to relate the material to the present day and to the lives of the students had tremendous results. On the other hand, those teachers who taught the material as "a great work" without bringing into the 20th century found students bored to tears, disinterested, and felt that their academic time was being wasted.

What I'm defending is the right of a director or a teacher or a professor to try to reach an audience in a different way. These "great works" cannot stand on their own in 2006. If a severed head is what it will take to get more people interested in opera, bring on the severed heard. If performing an opera in English is going to bring in the under 30 crowd, perform it in English! (We forget that when people when to see these operas, they UNDERSTOOD THE LANGUAGE!)

And you're right, the severed heads may not have a damned thing to do with the opera. However, I met that there are quite a few people who have NEVER seen an opera who would have gone just to see what it was all about. Some of those people may have even liked it and would see another.

Audiences are dying off and not being replaced by younger people. The "status quo" is not going to bring them in.

Andy said...

Actually, as far as opera is concerned, the audiences are not dying off. Opera is more popular now than at any time in American history. In the 1950s -- often thought of as a "golden age," where stars like Mario del Monaco, Renata Tebaldi, Jussi Bjoerling, Zinka Milanov and Maria Callas graced the stage -- America had only two major opera houses: San Francisco and the Met in New York. The New York City Opera was founded in the mid 1940s, and the Chicago Lyric opened in, I believe, 1953. The Santa Fe Opera opened in 1956.

Now there is an opera company in pretty much every American city -- even some small ones. In addition to the houses listed above, there are major companies with top stars in Washington D.C., Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Seattle and Los Angeles; but there's also Boston, Lake George, Chautauqua, Wolf Trap, Florida Grand, Virginia Opera, Sarasota Opera, Central City, Des Moines, Omaha, Denver, San Antonio, Boise, Anchorage, San Diego...and on and on and on. All of that is GROWTH.

Santa Fe was the first opera to have an apprentice program. Now pretty much every company in America has an apprentice program, and most of them are turning people away. Santa Fe receives 1,000 audition applications annually for 30-35 slots.

The Metropolitan Opera produces around 20-25 operas annually, with an average 90% capacity -- in a 4,000 seat house with seven performances a week over nine months.

Yes, the average age of the audience is mature. But go back and look at photos from the Metropolitan Opera in the 1950s...the 1920s...the 1880s. The audience is filled with OLD PEOPLE. Are they the same old people?

No. Opera is something that people tend to find as they get older. Now, you can find young people at the opera, certainly. But it seems to appeal to an older crowd. That's just the way it is, there's nothing wrong with that.

Opera audiences are growing, growing, growing. Plus, opera just isn't for everybody. It's not.

Doing whacked out productions just for the sake of doing something "different" does not meet my idea of artistic integrity. I saw a production of Bellini's "Beatrice di Tenda" that took place ON THE SURFACE OF THE MOON. It didn't clear anything up for me, didn't make it more relevant. It made it stupid.

Anonymous said...

The arts in America are in trouble. Audiences are are the DECLINE across the country.

If audiences were on the rise, the new manager wouldn't be shaking things up quite so much at the met.

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/11/arts/music/11met.html?ei=5088&en=d427a144e5631224&ex=1297314000&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&pagewanted=all

Here's another group of stories that would disagree. Yes, it's a blog post, but he uses reputable news articles to back up his opinions:

http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2006/08/what_the_numbers_say.html

I can find plenty more, but I have more important things to do. There's a problem here. Please don't be part of it by burying your head in the sand.

Anonymous said...

http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2006/08/what_the_numbers_say.html

whoops! that's the complete second link.

Andy said...

Gelb is shaking things up because Volpe's ideas were seriously stagnating. I mean, he replaced a Zeffirelli Traviata with...a Zeffirelli Traviata.

I think people are misreading the tea leaves. If audiences are shrinking, most likely it's because in the current economy (the median wage has dropped 0.5% since 2001) fewer people have the discretionary income necessary for more high-cost entertainment like opera. And, thanks to Bush's tax cuts, there are far fewer incentives for philanthropy, so arts organizations are definitely struggling.

Orchestra concerts are a hard sell these days, I'll give you that. But do you make people come to hear Beethoven's 6th by making it "more relevant" or by educating them about what they're listening to?

Opera is a different matter altogether. The overall trend of the last half-century is one of exponential growth. And no one ever addresses my point that opera audiences are ALWAYS old. Seriously, look at the photoraphic evidence.

I think we're talking past each other. I think you think I think (got that?) that the only right way to present opera is in a traditional, no-risk production. Not at all.

But this word "relevance" scares me. In my experience, an opera's "irrelevance" is usually discussed only by people who have failed to understand it.

Anonymous said...

Let's look at the scary word.

Relevance: When teachers plan activities that are applicable to the world in which students live, the lesson can be said to have relevance.

is how pertinent, connected, or applicable some information is to a given matter.

The problem right now is that many people do not feel the arts are the least bit relative to THEIR DAILY lives. Is that the case?? Not at all.

The only way to really educate someone about Beethoven 9 is to teach the RELEVANCE of that piece is music. You and I use educate and... "relevate" the same way: Why is this piece important, what are the characteristics that make it uniquely Beethoven, what are yada yada?

Now, we can choose to do this using strictly musical language which will go right over the head of Joe Shmoe, or we can relate it to the here and now using terms, instances, and music of the present. Can't be done?? It's called Critical Pedagogy. Westminster Choir College is leading the way in this newer educational approach.

So let's go back to those damned severed heads. The question becomes what in the hell was the director's reason(s) for incorporating bloody heads?

"Neuenfels has insisted his staging not be altered, saying the scene where the king presents the severed heads represents his protest against "any form of organized religion or its founders.""

Considering that organized religions were the death of the Greek gods, I don't think his addition is completely IRRELEVANT.

The next question is, what was Mozart's intent in writing the music for this opera. If it was strictly money, then what was Varesco's intent? A pretty story with gods and kings, or was it similar to Neuenfels reasons for incorporating the heads in the first place???????

These guys (all of the masters for that matter) chose their content for a specific reason, for a specific historical period, for a specific audience. It's not just pretty music to pass away the hours!

Obviously, I'm being superficial here because I don't know all the detailed reasons Neuenfels thought of/about before he placed heads on platters.

In any case, the heads certainly bring the religious strife of today's world (felt directly by many people) into direct relevance. It starts conversations about the place of religion in politics, religious intolerance throughout the world, and what life might be like had the founders never graced us with their heads (severed or otherwise).

It's time for ice cream, which is very relevant to me :-)