The Playgoer: Muhammad Axed II

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Muhammad Axed II




"We must take care that we do not retreat out of a fear of potentially violent radicals...Self-censorship out of fear is not tolerable.''
-Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany.

I think that's a pretty impressive statement for a head of state to make. Especially when you consider she's defending the right for a state-financed institution, the Deutsche Oper, to depict an onstage act being protested by a religious group. I'm more used to politicians either just running away and avoiding comment at all, or exploiting the moment in the cheapest possible way to score points for defending "values."

Of course, Merkel is a conservative. Reminding us that conservatives (small-c) used to believe in absolute individual liberties. And something the Rachel Corrie fracas revealed to us this year is how free speech has almost as much to fear from well-intentioned liberals afraid to offend.

So what about this latest Muhammad standoff?

The Times follows up to today with some more thorough reporting. I find it fascinating on so many levels. Not only are we faced with the "cartoons" question all over again. But the inflammatory act this time happens to be a piece of avant-garde directorial staging. "Eurotrash" directors have enough enemies as it is without having to throw in the Islamist death threats, right? You can imagine old-guard critics throwing in their lot with the supposedly would-be bombers, finding common ground in the realm of bad taste and wacky concepts.

But any theatre person should be very concerned about how this bit of "concept" is being appropriated as a political football. For starters: what is Idomeneo about and what's the overall approach in which the director has introduced not just Muhammad, but also Jesus, Buddha, and what seems the entire pantheon of world religions. (See photos) Not an irrelevant point in describing the concept accurately. (The Times article does refer to protests from Christian groups as well at the production's premiere. Wonder if they'll reemerge. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if James Dobson and Jerry Falwell find a way to piggyback onto this from across the ocean.)

At first glance, I imagine many today are saying: "What the hell is this crazy director sticking a beheaded Muhammad in the middle of a Mozart opera about ancient Greece anyway? Serves him right." Well, maybe director Hans Neuenfels is indulging in a bit of a stretch, but it's worth finding out more about both him and the production. For one thing, he's no, if you'll allow, Young Turk, but a 65-year-old veteran. Second, an understanding of the plot of Idomoneo is essential in understanding this controversy. Perhaps I should say "should be essential" since obviously no one will bother to look into that, because who cares about the actual art here, right?

I'll be honest and admit I had heard of but didn't know the opera (it ain't exactly Marriage of Figaro) so I looked it up and read the synopsis. The romantic plot is convoluted, but the main conflict is clear: What does man do when god asks him to kill? Here's it's Neptune commanding King Idomoneo of Crete. But call it Abraham and Isaac, call it the Crusades, call it Jihad. Where Neuenfels got into trouble--that is, tried to interpret this from a modern day perspective--is in the final "sacrifice" scene, where Idomoneo is about to chop off his own son's head in the public square, before the prince's beloved throws herself under the axe instead. Luckily he doesn't have to kill her because Neptune declares "Love has triumphed.' Or, in other words, just kidding. (Again, think Abraham and Isaac.)

Now I still haven't seen anyone describe how exactly Neuenfels staged this moment to moment, and where he introduces these Christian, Muslim and other gods to, it seems, stand in for Neptune. It would be helpful to know, for instance, if there even is a separate "Neptune" or whether these deities are basically substituted for him. (Specifically whether these actor/singers are singing the role(s) of Neptune's oracle and high priest(s). Also not clear is how he justifies cutting off their heads instead of the princess'. In the Times all we get is: "the king of Crete, Idomeneo, carries the heads of Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon on to the stage, placing each on a stool." But I sense there's more internal logic built up than that.

More revealing is Neuenfels official defense:

The scene devised by Mr. Neuenfels puts a sanguinary ending on an opera that, in the way Mozart wrote it, ends with King Idomeneo giving up his throne to appease the god of the sea, and blessing the romantic union of his son Idamante with the Greek princess Ilia.

The severed heads of the religious figures, Mr. Raue said, was meant by Mr. Neuenfels to make a point that "all the founders of religions were figures that didn't bring peace to the world."

I believe, by the way, that's the first time a director has had to use a lawyer to pitch his artistic concept... The point seems clear to me, though. Neuenfels intervenes into this text from another time to answer with what we have since thought about "angry gods", in the wake of world wars, the holocaust, and, yes, terrorism. It also brings something out already inherent, it seems, in the opera itself and whatever its classical source material was. Namely, a vision of religion and god worship as the cause of strife, not the solution. And so if it seems Neuenfels has his mortal hero turn some of the violence back on the gods that they encouraged him to unleash on his own kin, well good for him!

Hey, don't expect the pious to go for it. But last I checked the church doesn't run the theatre anymore. Or, to put it another way:

Andre Kraft, spokesman for Komische Oper, a more adventurous opera house where Mr. Neuenfels is engaged in another Mozart production, described the 65-year-old director as "a secularist who does not believe religion solves the problems of the world."
Another factor here seems to be that the new Deutsche Oper chief, Kirsten Harms, is new and this was so not the kind of problems she wanted to have on her first opening night. It's interesting how much she and the article quote the police authorities to confirm the threats and to endorse the decision to cancel--because that's just what Manhattan Theatre Club did when they initially ditched Corpus Christi. But do you think police are ever going to greenlight something that seems like maybe it might be dangerous? Who wants that responsibility. By delegating an artistic decision to the police, where does that lead us? If not a police state, then a culture policed by fear.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

At first glance, I imagine many today are saying: "What the hell is this crazy director sticking a beheaded Muhammad in the middle of a Mozart opera about ancient Greece anyway? Serves him right."

Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with the production, but actually it's a common occurrence on German stages that the directors don't rely on the original text alone and trust that their audience will understand why and in how far it is still relevant today. Instead, they use a lot of modern props and costumes and also incorporate current topics (e.g. via textual additions, video clips) to make sure that the audience will see the relevance. Therefore, it's not exactly astonishing to see the heads of Muhammad, Jesus and Buddha along with that of Poseidon.

Another factor here seems to be that the new Deutsche Oper chief, Kirsten Harms, is new and this was so not the kind of problems she wanted to have on her first opening night.

She took over the Deutsche Oper two years ago, and before that she had been the artistic director of another opera house for nine years. She's not exactly a 'newbie'.

But do you think police are ever going to greenlight something that seems like maybe it might be dangerous?

Well, they did. They gave out a warning, which apparently was based on nothing at all, but they never said not to show the opera.

veradee

The Playgoer said...

Thanks for these clarifications, Veradee. I must have misread something in the article about Harms' status there, becuase I thought it referred to her "first" production coming up this fall. I just assumed she could have been named for the job a while ago, but only officially started.

As for the police, indeed the more reporting coming out on this, it seems the "security threat" seems ever more nebulous.