Where will it happen next? Which production will prompt the audience to scream “Shame on you!” and run out of the theater with doors slamming?
Opera scandals are among the most dramatic of cultural dustups. But increasingly, productions seem constrained by public opinion to the extent that it raises speculation about censorship.
Last March, for example, the Orthodox Church had a theater director in Novosibirsk, Russia, thrown out because his interpretation of Richard Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” had the lead role dressed as Jesus, which clergy members said offended Christians.
Naturally, testing contemporary taboos on the opera stage doesn’t always stir up heated public discourse. But in some cases, the public hasn’t even had the chance to see a production before it is deemed too risky.
In our times music and politics don’t seem to mix well on the opera stage.
This summer, Austrian opera director Martin Kusej was urged to change a scene in his production of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” at a festival in France. Initially, a character was set to drop four bloody heads at the feet of the ruler as an offering. But after an actual beheading and terrorist attack in Lyon by an alleged Islamist, the scene was rewritten.
The risk of scandal may have been too great, as was also the case nine years ago in Berlin. Director Hans Neuenfels had planned a scene with the severed heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed in his interpretation of Mozart’s “Idomeneo.” But after city officials said there were “security concerns,” the production was pulled from the Deutsche Oper – a move that critics deemed cowardly.
New York’s Metropolitan Opera saw protests just last season, too. This time it was about John Adams’ opera “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which tells the story of a Jewish-American traveler who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists on a cruise ship in 1985. Never before have protests against anti-Semitism in an opera been so heated, both inside and outside the theater. In response, the Met reduced the number of performances and canceled a live simulcast of the opera to movie theaters worldwide.
In the past, there have been similar controversies, but performances continued. Some that were first met with shouts of outrage went on to become wildly popular. During World War I, a scene in Peter Konwitschny’s opera “Die Csárdásfürstin,” in which a headless soldier danced across the stage with the female protagonist, was removed following public outcry. The director insisted that his opera be shown as he originally created it, and a compromise was reached in which both versions were played regularly to enthusiastic audiences. But given current levels of anxiety about politics, religion, war and violence, would such a compromise now be possible?
Perhaps the public expects harmony and happy endings from the symbol-rich genre in times of turmoil, but that’s not the trajectory of most opera plots. And controversy hasn’t always prevented their performance.
Take Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” the story of a revolutionary barber. Though the opera was obviously critical of nobility, it was allowed to run, and just three years ahead of the French Revolution, when class tensions were high and plays with similar content had previously been deemed too political. After it premiered in Vienna in 1786, local newspaper Realzeitung wrote: “What is not allowed to be spoken in our times will be sung.”
By contrast, in our times music and politics don’t seem to mix well on the opera stage. But perhaps it is still possible to have a work of music which resonates widely with audiences, even one that puts Red Army Faction terrorist Gudrun Ensslin in the protagonist’s role. When Helmut Lachenmann’s “The Little Match Girl,” premiered in Hamburg in 1997, a number of audience members walked out, slamming doors behind them.
But it has since been performed in cities across Europe, most recently in Frankfurt last month. The situation shows what is urgently required both inside and outside the opera theater: the art of differentiation.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org