“Concepts” and Where They’ve Gotten Us

Jonathan Bellman

Phil’s posting on Day 2 of the Toronto Ring Cycle is apposite in more than one way. At precisely the time Berlin’s Deutsche Oper is in paroxysms over whether or not to stage a 2004 production of Mozart’s Idomeneo that features, at one point, the severed head of the prophet Mohammed (along with those of Jesus, Buddha, and Poseidon), Phil presents the most pitiless, laser-accurate assessment of a self-indulgent, hubristic director’s “concept” I think I have ever read. Dirt as “commodity,” but more importantly avant-garde as safe, tired cliché. Bravissimo!

I cannot speak about the Berlin Idomeneo with any authority because I’ve not seen it. The situation in Berlin, though, leaves the opera company the almost laughable–were it not so surreal and truly disturbing–choice between knuckling under to a terrorist intimidation (it is not clear if this is generalized intimidation or a clear and present danger) or risking unspecified mayhem and injury, all for a director’s “concept” (i.e. the offense is not in either the music or the text, just the staging), one which is intentionally confrontational.

Confrontation again. Can we finally call confrontation another tired cliché, like radicalism? Is not there something ultimately very familiar and safe–and comforting, to a certain temperament and aesthetic–about being “confronted,” usually with some kind of wholesale insult to authority figures or institutions, or flamboyant, performance-art flouting of a taboo? (I’m not sure what taboos there are in theater anymore.) Golly, that’s how you know it’s really good–someone (the government, or religion, or people richer than you are) is being confronted! They deserve it for their smugness!

I have a hard time considering such a dramatic presentation risky or dangerous (or, frankly, even confrontational) if the state funds it. Surely the Deutsche Oper receives most of its funding from the state, so the situation is somewhere between ironic and truly dangerous. The state funds the opera, the opera might spark a disaster; so, should the opera be cancelled, which would mean the state gives in to terrorists? Is it worth the risk for this Director’s all-important concept, which confronts religion and societal trust in it? (Now, there is a ground-breaking idea.) Have those making the threats, on the other hand, backed the opera into a corner where they will absolutely HAVE to stage the thing so as to stand their ground? Or, if they give in, do we really think that the–uh–power and influence of Islamic non-citizen guest workers will continue to rise in, say, Germany without a violent backlash of some kind? Then distant countries will adorn their stamps with images of the “martyrs,” and the rivers of blood will continue to flow amid competing claims of righteousness. Nothing new there, I guess.

An obvious point of comparison here is Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ; I find myself thinking of Philip Pullman’s distasteful–to me–but also completely predictable images of the Almighty as senile vegetable and the Archangel Metatron as (essentially) Lord of the Nazgul in the His Dark Materialstrilogy. (Perhaps that’s different, being a literary rather than visual representation.) Ultimately, this kind of thing is no more shocking or “confrontational” than an agitated monkey flinging poop, and I marvel that artists continue to be so impressed with themselves for doing it.

I wonder how Mozart would have responded to the severed head of Jesus. Nothing is more sickening to me than self-righteous religious bullying, which is found in all religions in some measure (including mine), but I would have to stare long and hard in the mirror before I put real live humans (parents, children, siblings, spouses, lovers, friends) at risk in order to put Mohammed’s severed head next to Poseidon’s.

Will the Director be present at all performances, or will he be unavoidably absent? Otherwise engaged? In Switzerland, or South America? Perhaps the bold confrontation can be done by others.

It is really difficult to discern progress sometimes.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
This entry was posted in Avant-Garde, Opera, Politics, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Concepts” and Where They’ve Gotten Us

  1. Matthew says:

    I think Serrano did “Piss Christ.” And I seem to have missed Phil’s mention of it. But as long it’s come up (it also came up month in a Weekly Standard review of Tyler Cowen’s new book, so it’s been on my mind), can I take a moment to say how good I think it is? No contrarian joke here—it’s one of the reasons I try to give “shocking” art the benefit of the doubt. First off: if you saw the piece without knowing what it “really” was, you’d have to admit that it’s beautiful. A lot of people still have the impression that the work itself is a crucifix in a jar of urine; it’s actually a photo of the same, framed tightly enough to conceal the context of it’s physical construction. What you see is a slightly blurred cross surrounded by an unearthly glow that has to be a shout-out to the gold-leaf accents of medieval and renaissance religious art. But of course there’s the title, so you can figure out the literal nature of the subject. And that’s what’s so cool about it. One of the things you’re supposed to believe, if you believe in that sort of thing, is that Jesus gave up his divinity and took human form when he came to earth. In other words, he wasn’t a God who threw on human clothes, he was an actual, fragile, fallible person, with human weaknesses, temptations, and, presumably, kidneys. So Serrano is putting that tenet of the faith front and center, reminding you of just how far down into the muck of this world Jesus descended in order to redeem it.I don’t necessarily buy the severity of Serrano’s point—one of the problems I have with a lot of religious thought is the short shrift given to the wonders of the earthly plane of existence—but I give him full credit for coming up with a piece of art that startles you into thinking about it. (Odd that the Christian right has spent so much energy pillorying a work that, deep down, is quite theologically conservative.) It always bugs me that Serrano has become the straw man for criticism of this kind of thing. I mean, this “Idomeneo”, if I’ve understood it correctly, is shock layered over another work like graffiti, with a fairly shallow point of view. But Serrano’s work, admittedly shocking, I’ve always regarded as deeply felt and vital…. OK, I’m done ranting. Back to making fun of “Idomeneo.” Aren’t you glad the director didn’t get his hands on “Dialogues of the Carmelites”?

  2. Charles Freeman says:

    Indeed, WWMD? (What would Mozart do?) Or how ’bout the poor, mostly anonymous librettist, Gianbattista Varesco (a cleric, no less), whose wordy but ultimately grace-ful libretto is now being twisted into a club to bash him and others of his belief? Or do we believe that an artist no longer gets to speak through his/her work once they make the foolish mistake of dying? Can someone, someone who might know this “concept” production perhaps, explain to me why this is any less intellectually and creatively bankrupt than drawing a Groucho mustache and glasses on the Mona Lisa?
    OK, enough with the rant…I’m way too young to have to be this curmudgeonly…

Comments are closed.