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.