What are we saying when we say that the integrity of works of art transcends humanitarian concerns?… Are we not saying that artists and art lovers are entitled to moral indifference–and worse, that the greater the artist the greater the entitlement?… Are we not debased and degraded, both as artists and as human beings, by such a commitment to “abstract musical worth”? And for a final thought, has that commitment nothing to do with the tremendous decline that the prestige of classical music–and of high art in general–has suffered in our time?
-Richard Taruskin, “Stalin Lives on in the Concert Hall, But Why?” collected in On Russian Music, page 280.
Taruskin’s immediate topic is music written for Stalin. But the point could apply to anything. Music is not inherently good, or always morally neutral. It cannot be completely divorced from the circumstances that produced it and the causes it has served and promoted. And to grant it absolution based on its greatness is to ignore its rhetorical power. Opera, laden with librettos, is filled with these issues right on the surface–issues of gender, of race, of power, of imperialism. They aren’t always as cataclysmic as Stalinism, but they often cut closer to our daily life. Yet opera doesn’t come to life until you put it on stage, and so it also has a unique tool at its disposal.
Any work of art is a product of its time, for better or worse. Opera in particular, due to the expense involved in its production, is often beholden to popular or powerful taste. And many operas have baggage, whatever its source. Read Susan McClary’s classic Carmen analysis from her book Feminine Endings and Taruskin’s essay on Prince Igor for an idea of the issues here.
But does every telling of Carmen, Madama Butterfly, or Prince Igor reinforce these narratives? I would argue that they can. Even if you’re a savvy modern person who thinks you know better, what you see onstage still can shape your view of the world, particularly when delivered in the seductive guise of great music. (And if you don’t think that a more than negligible percentage of operas have problems, some small, others big blackface-type problems, but problems, you may not be paying enough attention to what you are absorbing.) Music has power, and how long until excusal becomes agreement?
Taruskin is so damn quotable. He says in the Igor piece, linked to above, “[The implication is] that great music sanitizes everything it touches, including us. Is that so? Is music sanitary? Or is music persuasive, an engulfing force that lessens resistance to whatever words or images it carries to our minds and hearts?” He obviously thinks the latter, and I agree. I’m not saying that we should stop performing or seeing these works, but to be decent citizens we need to do so in a clear-headed way and talk about this stuff once in a while. And if opera wants to be anything more than a problematic curio cabinet, it has to be willing to confront the implications of its own texts.
That’s why I love it when an enterprising director decides to stage an opera in a way that takes the problem bits head-on and challenges them. This kind of revisionist Regietheater is loathed by traditionalists. “But we must respect the work! This dishonors the composer! It’s ugly!” But why we should respect something’s sexist or racist elements, and why does a 150-year old text that was never intended for such a long life deserve such sacred status at all? Revisionist productions are difficult to pull off and many misfire. But even the failures make you think about what you are seeing in a way a conventional production usually doesn’t. The next time you see a traditional production of that opera–and you probably will, they’re still the vast majority–you will be more aware.
Here is a mild example: Madama Butterfly. Puccini made a respectable-for-his-time attempt to learn about Japanese culture, but the opera is still filled with exoticized characters, cliché exotic music (just about everybody east of Bulgaria has an inordinate fondness for pentatonic scales, according to Opera), and a problematic woman victim figure. In his ENO/Met production, Anthony Minghella tried to present not another Westerner’s Orientalist image of Japan but, since we enjoy much closer connections with Japan than Puccini did, include more authentic Japanese design and steer away from some of the more cliched traditional images associated with this opera. Most importantly, actual Japanese performing arts were incorporated with a Bunraku puppet as Trouble. No one on the production team was Japanese, so issues of appropriation could still be fairly raised, but I think we can consider it an improvement in some areas at least.
I don’t think anyone seriously objected to this production. It was beautiful and left the story as we are used to seeing it. More radical rethinkings are harder to pull off and more likely to anger people. La Cieca at Parterre recently wrote a wonderful piece analyzing Calixto Bieito’s complex production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which sparked just such a discussion; it’s well worth reading.
Another ambitious example is Martin Kušej’s production of Rusalka (pictured at the top of this post). The story is familiar: a beautiful, fragile, innocent spirit has to gives up her voice (!), family, and entire world to get a man. The Prince is only a little bothered by her muteness, but her place is still stolen by the conniving, worldly Foreign Princess (virgin/whore dichotomy, anyone?). She returns a disgraced outcast. You see the problems? (Danish feminists even decapitated a Little Mermaid statue once.)
Kušej reinvented all of this. In a take on the Natascha Kampusch case, Rusalka and her sisters were imprisoned in her father’s (the Water Goblin’s) basement, but once Rusalka escaped–at great cost–she was too damaged to survive the outside world. Instead of a beautiful, otherworldly, sacrificing nymph, we had a real woman who had been beaten into that fragile condition. Her otherwordliness was no longer romantic, her treatment by her oppressor, by the Prince, and even by Jezibaba incredibly cruel. There is an implicit critique of a society that finds such stories so beautiful without wondering why.
Not everything has to be a guilt trip, but just because the music is great doesn’t mean we can pledge blind allegiance–in fact, we should be particularly careful around the greatest music. Revisionist productions often seem depressing, but I think they can actually be the most inspiring of all, because they give voice to people who had been silenced.
Rusalka photo copyright Bayerische Staatsoper
Butterfly photo copyright Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera