Does opera need to be politically correct?

Does opera need to be politically correct?

October 2016:  Jewish activists are laying on the ground in front of the Metropolitan Opera, demonstrating their opposition to “The Death of Klinghoffer”, John Adams’ opera they are accusing of anti-Semitism. 

2014:  in London and Paris, African activists are actively demonstrating against “Exhibit B”, a theatrical installation by Brett Bailey based on the first genocides committed by European in Africa at the beginning of last century. A South-African artist, “white” stage-director engaged in the fight against apartheid, Bailey is accused of cultural appropriation and humiliation towards African actors in his show. A few years before, this production had been seen in Avignon, Brussels and more cities, and had been very well received by antiracist activists.

Today in the U.S., more and more opera intendants are hesitating to produce “Butterfly”, because of its colonialist background, or “Turandot”, because of the clichés of Chinese people such as Ping-Pang-Pong. 

This kind of demonstration and question about political correctness in opera almost never took place during the last century. What happened in between? I see two main reasons:

  • During the 20th century, opera has been mainly regarded as a sort of entertainment. People came for the voices, the orchestra, set and costumes, but were not really interested in the meaning of the opera, and in its dramaturgical content.
  • Second reason:  “Me too” movement, antiracism and “decolonial” movement are becoming more and more visible and efficient, activists pay more and more attention to the content of films, books, exhibitions, theater and opera productions. 

I regard these evolutions as positive: to consider opera as much more than pure entertainment is a good thing. I have sympathy for these movements that are necessary to make our world change in a more human direction. But it has also consequences: what about freedom of expression if some radical activists can impeach a production to be presented? What will be the future of our artistic heritage if it doesn’t fit with the expectations of today’s citizens?     

Those questions are more complicated than we could think, and I suggest starting my reflection with a look at the history of opera.

A persistent lack of interest in dramaturgy 

During the 20th century, opera became step by step an art form of the past: new operas became less and less frequent, and the grand repertoire from the 19th century became dominant. During those years, the interest in text, dramaturgy and staging was poor. Music lovers didn’t care about the signification of opera, and they were probably unaware of the ideological impact of many works.  

Cartoonist Hergé had done a good choice in selecting Marguerite’s aria “Ah, je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir” (Ah, I laugh to see myself so beautiful in this mirror!) as the favorite aria of La Castafiore; it was also a metaphor of the evolution of opera in the middle of the 20th century, an art form that was losing its signification and necessity, closed on itself and full of self-admiration. 

Had it been like this for centuries? Not sure: during the Renaissance, art and music played a very important role in bringing a new focus on the human being, on individual persons. During the 18th century, many composers including Gluck and Mozart played a crucial role in promoting the values that prepared the way to the French Revolution. In the 19th century, Verdi was regarded as a giant artist and as a symbol of the reunification of Italy. In Germany, Wagner’s operas were also associated with nationalism; they were used by the Nazi’s regime and associated to the catastrophe of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Yes, opera can be a support of ideology, in a conscious or unconscious way…

During the 20th century, many composers wrote operas on contemporary subjects: “Wozzeck”, “Mathis der Mahler”, “Mahagonny”, “Peter Grimes”, many works by Henze, Nono, John Adams and many more composers refer to aspirations of our time. But the audience remained globally the same; still today, the opera audience almost never represents the social and cultural diversity present in our cities. Can we then be surprised if some clashes occur between the aspirations of so many people and our operatic institutions?  

The case of Wagner

Let’s come back to Richard Wagner. I love his music, and he is surely one of the biggest geniuses of Western music, but I can’t forget that he was an active nationalist and an anti-Semite. Can we say that his opinions were his private domain and that his music is free of any nationalistic and anti-Semitic perspective? I wouldn’t say so:  “Die Meistersinger”, a true masterpiece though, ends on quite a lyrical but also aggressive ode to German culture; and several scholars have shown that there are several anti-Semitic aspects in his operas, especially in some characters of the “Ring”. Musically, “Parsifal” is an absolute masterpiece, but the character of Parsifal is problematic in many ways: the image of the pure hero appearing from nowhere to save a society from its decadence is very close to the propaganda that opened the way to fascism in quite many countries. Is this the kind of “hero” that we need today?

The fact that Wagner’s fascinating operas had been so close to the Nazi’s regime is not a problem for many Wagnerians. Well, it was a huge problem for Wagner’s grand-sons, Wieland and Wolfgang, who, after the Second World War, understood the need of cleaning Bayreuth’s Festival from all these links to the Nazi’s regime. Wieland created a new way of staging, more sober, very abstract, replacing naturalistic sets by empty stage sculpted by light: he found a way to reveal new aspects of his grand-father’s masterpieces. For the traditional Wagnerians at that time, this was a betrayal… until it became a new reference!

This shows the importance of the staging and of the interpretation: a gifted, creative stage director can reveal essential qualities of an opera, focusing on what is universal and actual, without changing one note, or one word. Then, even an opera that could be seen as “problematic” becomes a source of enrichment.

Mozart

A very contrasting figure to Wagner, Mozart seems to be the composer who was the closest to the Enlightenment spirit. His operas reveal a fundamental aspiration to freedom and announce the big social and political changes that would come soon with the French Revolution, and change radically all European societies. Le Nozze di Figaro show Susanna and Figaro in search of their liberty, they are strong and courageous enough to confront their master, the Count Almaviva, and they win! The influence of the Enlightenment on Mozart seems to grow until his last operas, Die Zauberflöte and La Clemenza di Tito. But in the Zauberflöte, Sarastro speaks to Monostatos and threats him in a way that sounds today unacceptable, almost dictatorial. Nowadays, fortunately, it is less and less frequent to see a singer singing Monostatos with black-face: something that was common in Mozart’s time is not accepted anymore in our time, but there are solutions to maintain the essence of the work without altering it. 

In spite of their enlightened character, some of Mozart’s operas might be controversial in our time: many people consider “Cosi fan tutte” as a misogynistic opera. This opinion might come from a superficial reading of the piece. It is true that Don Alfonso’s point of view is very misogynistic; but musicologist and dramaturge Lidia Bramani has shown in very detailed musical analysis how Mozart represents female and male characters through his very subtle music, avoiding any kind of misogyny. And some contemporary stage directors such as Michael Haneke or Christophe Honoré have chosen to stage the male characters in a much more critical way than Dorabella and Fiordiligi.

But even if “Cosi fan tutte” was a misogynistic opera, would that be a sufficient reason not to play it? I strongly disagree: human nature is not simply divided between good and bad people! It is the lesson of the greatest artists to show the incredible complexity of the human soul and behavior.    

Don Giovanni is another good example. Under the light of “Me too” movement, this opera might be regarded as an encouragement to domination and mistreatment of women by men, and even to rape. Of course it is not! Da Ponte and Mozart show here an archetype of a seducer, but in no way does it represent the apology of rape! You can adore this opera, and hate or love the central character, it doesn’t matter. 

In his essay “Testaments betrayed”, Milan Kundera wrote that the “novel is a territory where moral judgment is suspended”, and he added that “suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel, it is its morality”. Isn’t it exactly the same with opera?

Die Entführung aus dem Serail might become a more problematic piece. On one hand, it offers a wonderful example of tolerance between Muslims and Christians, and an incredible act of forgiveness from Pacha Selim. On the other hand, it contains a number of “clichés” about Turkish civilization or Muslim religion, especially through the text and music of Osmin. If we are happy to welcome Muslims in our opera houses, how can we avoid offending them, knowing the actual awareness about some identity issues? I don’t see here what can be recommended, other than careful thought about the piece, its interpretation, a good preparation of the audience, and some critical or historical perspective in order to let them understand that we no longer share the perspectives that were common during the 18th century.

Art & ideology

Art can certainly not be reduced to ideology, but it does contain a lot of ideological elements. Our culture, our understanding of the world, our values have been sculpted by those elements, and they are not neutral. Is this a reason not to perform anymore works that contain elements that be seen today as “problematic”?

It is therefore so important to see that the significance of an art work is a dynamic process.

The meaning of an art work is not entirely imprisoned in it! The meaning of the work will also depend on how we look at it, how we listen to it, how it resonates in ourselves. 

In the field of performing arts, performers (singers or actors, conductors, stage directors…) will add their own level of understanding or interpretation. This might lead to some dispute, but it can be a necessary and positive process. 

That process also includes the audience: we are all invited to be active participants in the beauty and the meaning of any masterpiece. French author Danielle Sallenave wrote: “Reading a book is finishing its writing”. If we take this proposal seriously, it obliges all of us, especially those who are in charge of an artistic institution, to a profound reflection about how we include the audience in any artistic process.

Today stage directors are often accused of betraying operas in their staging. But let’s not forget then that the revival of opera has been possible by the creative work of important stage directors, from Wieland Wagner, Giorgio Strehler, Klaus Michael Grüber and Patrice Chéreau to Peter Sellars, Deborah Warner, Robert Lepage, William Kentridge, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Katie Mitchell, and many others… Of course, not all new productions have been successful, but they have offered us new insights into the beauty and the meaning of the masterpieces from the past.

We also need to develop a critical attitude from the spectators. 

Opera is in danger in a world of consumerism! This is my biggest fear: will we be able to resist this dangerous evolution or not? If we want to resist, we need to develop new forms of active participation. We need to enlarge the audience, to engage the spectators in a critical attitude towards the repertoire. 

We need to start a dialogue with communities that are today much too far from the opera world. A dialogue doesn’t mean trying to convince new spectators about “our” values and convictions: it means starting a process made of listening, mutual understanding, acceptance of the cultural diversity present in our cities. 

This might create profound changes in the life of opera, and this is a positive process.

It might also create tensions and reveal contradictions between aspirations of different groups and communities: we should not be afraid of this process, as far as we can develop this dialogue with mutual respect.

If it happens that an opera is too problematic to be accepted by some communities, we should pay attention to their point of view, discuss with them and maybe accept to suspend – temporarily –to program that opera. But this should be an exception, not a rule dictated by some fundamentalists! 

During the 20th century, freedom of expression has been systemically under pressure in totalitarian regimes;  let’s avoid entering into a world where freedom of expression would be in danger, because of the dictatorship of fundamentalists and the increasing pressure coming from manipulation through social networks.

The need of profound social and cultural changes

This 21st century sees the emergence of very important liberation movements who can play an active role in the positive evolution of our societies: we need a strong and active feminist movement, we need a strong “decolonial” movement, we need to develop antiracism in many forms… We also need new cultural forms that will echo these struggles, as it was the case with new art forms at the Renaissance, or during the 18th century, or after the Second World War. Within the opera sphere, I would therefore plead strongly for more room for creations inspired by these contemporary issues.

But it would be a huge mistake to forget about the culture of the past, or to rewrite it. Let me quote Milan Kundera again: “Once all culture from the past will be completely rewritten and completely forgotten behind this rewriting”. I so much hope this will not happen! Imagine just an instant when treasures in the fields of literature, visual arts, theatre, opera… would disappear if we would give priority to moral judgments instead of artistic judgments.

In the opposite, I am convinced we will always need Shakespeare’s, Molière’s and Chekov’s plays, Monteverdi, Mozart’, Verdi’s and Wagner’s operas, to understand better human nature and to remember where we come from…

The solution is not in destroying that heritage: on the contrary, it should be in reading this heritage in a new way, in a critical way, and not forgetting that those art forms have been written in other times than ours. 

I summarize my conclusions in four points:

  • No, opera doesn’t need to be politically correct! We should not stop playing operas that can be controversial or problematic. But let’s be aware of the points of tension that exist in our societies, and let’s open broad discussions about them. If opera can feed some of those discussions, it’s even better!
  • Let’s take the operas seriously: the process of interpretation (I include here all artists who participate in the interpretation) should not stop questioning operas, addressing both the timelessness of the pieces and their historical or ideological background.
  • We need to develop radically and urgently the creative role of women and of artists coming from cultural diversity, in order to make it a truly universal art form. Let’s make a much bigger place for contemporary operas that can echo some crucial actual issues.
  • A larger audience should be invited to discover the world of opera, to love it and to develop a critical attitude. Active spectators will make the shows better. Let’s develop new forms of active participation, and let’s open a vivid dialogue with communities about the sense of opera and their own perception. By having this kind of dialogue, let’s prevent small groups of fundamentalists from imposing their views on art, and let’s resist censorship.

I’m convinced that if we work seriously on those issues, we will find a way of resisting consumerism, and be able to make opera a truly living art form that enriches our societies!

Bernard Foccroulle

6 September 2020

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