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Seen and Heard Editorial


Opera meets Tarantino: violence and obscenity in opera


David Parry, the conductor of ENO’s revival of Calixto Bieito’s Don Giovanni, recently said that opera critics were "weird… Prissy, in a way – they don’t see beyond the surface." A more honest assessment of opera critics would be harder to come by.


The truth of the matter is that opera critics are the last of a once-venerable profession of music, theatre, art or film critics to enter the 21st century. Opera houses must surely despair that the reinvention of opera is being written down for posterity by a group of middle-aged (or older) Anglo-Saxon, white, invariably male, Protestant reactionaries; their blessing is surely that by-lines are being ignored by the people who count – the ticket buying public. If ENO’s revived Don Giovanni is anything to go by tickets are selling well for the production, and the opera house has 12 performances to flesh out with a public eager for something radically different.


The controversial Catalan director Calixto Bieitos is by no means the first director to cause the blood to boil beneath the stiff collars of today’s critics (Patrice Chereau once caused similar ripples), but he is the most prominent of today’s directors to challenge preconceptions of opera. Don Giovanni is a tale of amorality, after all, so why should lashings of booze, sex and drugs distort something that would have been perfectly identifiable even in Mozart’s time, and is clearly there in the libretto? One senses at times that opera critics see themselves as the last bastion of morality, educating a less-knowing public into the belief that somehow High Art is the road to salvation – or to perdition.


Yet, even Bieito’s Don Giovanni seems tame next to his sex-and-splatter version of Mozart's Entführung aus dem Serail, an opera that caused Mozart a number of problems when he wrote it because of its depiction of the Turkish in an Austrian empire which held the country to be little more than fodder for slavery. Bieito turns the Seraglio into a whorehouse where pimps force prostitutes to drink piss then slice off their nipples. Scenes of copulation, fellatio, rape, torture and mutilation bedevil almost every scene. And yet, is such operatic art any different from the more overt depictions of violence in the revenge tragedies of Seneca or Shakespeare or Kidd? Entführung lacks, of course, a sustainable drama throughout its libretto, and it is often considered one of Mozart’s most difficult operas to stage successfully, but even Bieito’s conception – a completely viable one - cannot rob the opera of its music, which still has a wonderful freshness and invention even by today’s standards. Similar virtues underscore Bieito’s vision of another demotic opera – Verdi’s Trovatore. Again, there is something of the Senecan in his depiction of violence – multiple shootings and electrification by jump-leads attached to nipples - both of which are descriptive not only of the opera’s own scenes of execution and power but of a much wider inhumanity that opera can – and should – reflect. As Azucena is forced to watch Manrico’s execution aren’t we all being taken into a 21st Century of 24 hour television that makes us all witnesses to a world’s unfolding atrocities? Bieitos’s vision of Verdi is no less viable because of that, and Verdi’s own characterization of his protagonists in this opera – the dispossessed, the outcast, the non-conformist, the rebel – are all reflected in a staging that equals this sense of human alienation. Scenes of anal rape, buggery, wanking and shit smearing enrich the characterization as surely as Verdi’s own music does – from the juxtaposition of high art music, such as the ‘Misere’, to the low art music given over to Azucena and Manrico.


Bieito’s achievement – as Chereau’s was for his infamous (though now lauded) Bayreuth Ring Cycle – is to make opera relevant to contemporary society and push back the boundaries of art. There is nothing overtly shocking about either director’s interpretation of the libretto; but what makes these productions controversial is the critics’ and audiences’ feeling of discomfort that such visible acts of decay – and depravity - bring from the private domain into the public arena. What is acceptable in the bedroom, the private club or a back room is it seems something that we do not wish to see in the opera house. It is much less about the radicalism of opera and more about asserting moral arguments. That has no place in opera criticism.


Reviews, at least those which damagingly deconstruct a contemporary vision of an opera, such as the productions mentioned above, reflect more the writer’s own sexual and societal hang-ups than they do universal truths. One person’s view of what is obscene in art is not necessarily the bulwark by which we should all judge obscenity. When Bild – a popular German tabloid newspaper - described Bieito’s Entführung on its front page as "vomit art" it was arguing only that the debasement of Mozart was being done at the tax-payer’s expense; it was evidently unqualified to report on the production values of the opera itself, however. Similar arguments have bedevilled all art forms – whether it be Mapplethorpe exhibitions displaying images of Sado-Masochism, or of one man pissing into the mouth of another, or of films such as Chereau’s Intimacy, one of the first mainstream films in the UK to show undisguised penetrative sex - the argument has constantly been about whether public funding should support what critics themselves deem deviant junk. A critic’s responsibility – in all art – is to argue without pre-conceived prejudice, and without politicising the issue of whether a public subsidy means an opera house must disregard the new and the creative. It rarely happens that reviews reflect this logic (and this is irrespective of a newspaper’s political bias.) Opera reviews reflect the desire for the safe and the comfortable at the expense of any reinterpretation that will broaden its appeal. After all, skinheads in Wagner and whores in Mozart might just upset the careful balance between opera as high art and the audience and critics who want to keep it as an elite – and expensive – form of artistic exclusivity.


The truth is, opera still lags someway behind other art in its ability to challenge historically ill-defined preconceptions of the narrowness of high –or low - art. Bieito and others - such as Jurgen Flimm, Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito, David Alden, Ulrich Shwab, Thomas Langhoff, Christoph Schlingensief and Phylida Lloyd – are attempting to reinterpret Mozart, Verdi and Wagner in a new light, often, but not always, with startlingly refreshing results. Lloyd’s current ENO Ring Cycle is much greater interpretively than opera critics would allow you to believe (it is, in fact, the dearth of good singing in it that makes it less than the sum of its whole.) Siegfried, which premieres in November, will no doubt be the subject of yet more abject reviews, disseminating the usual disinformation that the director has little concept of what Wagner is about. Believe not a word of what you read.


Lloyd’s is by no means the most controversial staging of a Wagner opera around but she will have succeeded if she gets the reviews this editor is already anticipating. Just as Michael Powell’s 1960’s film Peeping Tom was regarded in its early lifetime as a corrupt and abhorrent work of art, only later to be realised as the masterpiece that it is (and provoking the distinguished film critic Dyllis Powell to publicly contract her initial review of the film), so within time will the opera productions of Bieito and others like him become understandable to a later generation of both critics and audiences alike. The challenge for opera directors is to keep breaking down the boundaries as is being done elsewhere. Underground American cinema is as good an example of any art form where the distinctions between celluloid fantasy and the disturbing reality of modern day existence collide unavoidably and inseparably, blurring once clear boundaries into an indistinct artistic creation that makes art life itself. The films of Eric Stanze (Scrapbook in particular) and Fred Vogel’s deeply disturbing August Underground Mordum are groundbreaking examples. Opera librettos contain a wealth of human life and emotions that demand a similar treatment. It may take a film director to bring that vision to the opera stage (and in this respect Anthony Minghella’s Madama Butterfly for ENO in November 2005 might prove more of a blistering vision than the beauty of his films suggest) but at the same time opera reviewers must start living in the modern world. Nothing short of a radical change in perceptions is needed if both opera and opera criticism is to survive this century.


Marc Bridle

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