The Playgoer: "An Almost Unanimous Round of Criticism" (Muhammad Axed III)

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

"An Almost Unanimous Round of Criticism" (Muhammad Axed III)

So says the NY Times' Mark Landler, who's really been zeroing in on the Deutsche Oper/Idomoneo controversy.

(You can listen to him give a digest of all this on a interview.)

Landler's follow up article in the paper today tells of a special meeting the Interior Minister called with German Muslim leaders to smooth over any possible conflict:

Amid all the issues that divide Germany’s Muslims and non-Muslims — from women’s rights to the teaching of Islam in schools — there was one point on which the 30 participants in a landmark conference held here on Wednesday could agree, according to its organizer.

They would like to see the Deutsche Oper of Berlin reinstate the Mozart opera it canceled earlier this week after receiving an anonymous threat that the production — which features a scene with the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad — could put the opera house at risk.

The 30 representatives, drawn equally from the German government and Germany’s Muslim population, could even go see the opera together, said Wolfgang Schäuble, the interior minister, who organized...

This strikes me as really smart cultural politics, by the way. Acting switftly and transparently to achieve not only dialogue but consensus over what could become an even worse political football.

The basic headline out of today seems to be that Duetsche Oper will probably reverse and let the show go on, even if it takes a while. The artistic director who made the call has said she's open to discussions about it, and also kind of blames the police for issuing the warning without clearer guidance. Landler also claims she's getting sympathy for being new to Berlin and perhaps overreacting to any hint of urban terrorism and violence by ethnic minorities.

So this seems to be resolving for the good. Again, it's encouraging what good can come about when so many feel comfortable standing up for free expression even in the face of something deliberately provocative.

On the Landler interview, by the way, I must say, I'm struck by how, well, foreign the whole idea of revisionist/postmodern directing is treated. The interviewer asks: "I'm very curious about the tradition in Germany, in the history of revising of classical operas. Why do they do it?"

Landler's response: "I'm told it's an extremely common tradition, that it's now decades old, and that it is part of a German tradition of trying to be very avant garde, trying to find a very current relevance to clasical work...It also gives people who have strong political views an outlet to make political statements of one kind or another or religious statements." Okay, I shouldn't expect more theatrical sophistication from a man who's no doubt an excellent Frankurt bureau chief and probably a layman when it comes to the arts. And the explanation is basically right. But, while we all joke about how "Sprockets" and avant-garde those wacky German directors are, I'd like to see this kind of approach to staging classics (in both opera and theatre) acknowledged as something a little more common and widespread. You would never know from this conversation, for example, that Peter Sellars is an American director. That Shakespeare productions at such well known institutions as the Public routinely update and offer revisionist stagings of classics. That's because theatre is so marginalized in American intellectural culture that anything theatrically original is assumed to be happening only in Europe.

Still, I'm glad Landler addresses it at all, since understanding the nature of the modern director's role is essential to understanding how the Deutsche Oper didn't just decide to piss off Muslims one day.

A few last points:

1) still no thorough grounding of the "severed head of Muhammad" in the full context of the opera itself. For instance, Times readers will still not get a sense of the synopsis from reading the article.

2) This same Idomoneo premiered two years ago at the same theatre, with no public protests, from Christians, Muslims, nobody. Landler's reporting suggests it's only the German Pope's recent criticisms (made in Germany) about Islam that have motivated activists to stir up trouble--I mean, publicity--and make their idle threats

3) I'm well aware of the defense that management has a responsibility to protect its patrons from any danger like a bomb threat, and that it would be awful if they ignored the warning and then people died. But I think we do have to consider the consequences of cancelling performances at any hint of a "security risk." (Just think, for example, of the proverbial kid who knows he can get out of any exam by calling in that he'll blow up the school.) What's the solution? Hard to say, admittedly. Tempting to joke about future "caution" signs we'll see in our programs and above the stalls entrance: "This performance contains cigarette smoke, adult language, partial nudity, and the slight chance of suicide bombing."

But if we all take the risk of getting on the subway and going to the airport each day, is it fair to say we can risk going to a controversial piece of theatre? As long as I trusted the theatre would pay for extra security, for instance, I think I'm comfortable taking the chance. If not, I'll stay home.

I'm reminded of Ben Brantley's famous lede in his Corpus Christi review, by the way: "The excitement ends after the metal detectors." (Or words to that effect.)

Lastly: Yes, we live in an age of terrorism--but we also live in an age of activist politics where advocacy groups--of all fanatical religious persuasions--will stop at nothing in the name of getting media coverage. We should be on guard against both.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm told it's an extremely common tradition, that it's now decades old, and that it is part of a German tradition of trying to be very avant garde, trying to find a very current relevance to clasical work...

This seems to be true from my experience. I have to say that I don't like this approach very much, though. I've yet to understand why it should help me as an audience to understand Hamlet better when he drinks Coke, listens to Grunge music and cites either slogans from TV commercials or from the latest newspaper. I often have the impression that the modern aspects German directors incorporate in their productions are totally random. But perhaps I just misunderstand them. I've seen a few classic plays in Britain, and they were much more true to the texts. Therefore I'm wondering what it's like in the USA.

This same Idomoneo premiered two years ago at the same theatre, with no public protests, from Christians, Muslims, nobody.

As far as I know there were protests, but they were of a general nature. People disliked the violence and severed heads on the stage and thought them to be tasteless - no matter whose heads.

It's a bit funny to see Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble acting as the mediator between Christians and Muslims now. Normally he's a very conservative and tough guy, very law and order, who has very strict ideas when it comes to preventing terrorism.