I would have left well enough alone with yesterday's little snipe at the Deutsche Oper's cancellation of its muddle-headed production of Idomeneo, but the story has caught the fancy of the world press to a far greater extent than I would have expected. In fact, the story made it all the way to the front page of today's Los Angeles Times.
The LAT story provides another, much larger and clearer, photo from the original 2003 version of this production, albeit a photo in which the various religious figures still have their heads on. The New York Times includes both "before" and "after" versions.
- To discuss among yourselves: Why are so many photos of the "beheaded Mohammad" scene from the Deutsche Oper Idomeneo being published in the same newspapers that have previously, in an ostentatious show of propriety, refused to reproduce any of the infamous Danish cartoons? The claimed offensiveness of the images is the same, so why is opera treated with less circumspection than caricature? It's a mystery.
Yesterday, I suggested that the production is not so much offensive as it is self-importantly wrongheaded about the opera. The additional photos and the more detailed descriptions of the controversial scene provided in the newest articles only reinforce that judgment. For example, the group shot (accompanying today's story in the eastern and western Times) of the opera's characters with the various religious figures shows that the director has clad these ancient Cretans and Trojans, both men and women, in modern black business suits and leather jackets -- almost always a bad sign in a production of Mozart, and a contemporary directorial cliché to boot.
The Los Angeles Times describes the function of the crucial scene in director Hans Neuenfels' production:
'Idomeneo' is the ancient story of the king of Crete's pact with the Greek god Poseidon to sacrifice his son. [Not quite correct: see my prior synopsis.] The production by Neuenfels, known for his controversial interpretations, is a meditation on enlightenment that shows the king lifting the severed heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad to suggest that overreliance on religion can endanger the human spirit.
The New York Times adds:
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 [sic, she's a Trojan actually] princess Ilia. [Get it? Ilia, from Ilium. She's a Trojan, I tell you.]
The severed heads of the religious figures, Mr. Raue [Neuenfels' lawyer(!)] 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.'
André 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.'
Neuenfels' ostensible points here are perfectly permissible to be made in an artistic production. If you can't "blaspheme" in art, where can you? ("You can't" is not a correct answer.) Those points are not particularly new or cutting-edge -- Thomas Paine made them at length and with brio in The Age of Reason (1795), and he was hardly the first -- but that's no argument against trying to make them. The real problem lies in trying to make them with this particular opera.
Yes, Poseidon/Neptune is cruel in Idomeneo, but he is cruel in the traditional way of the Greek gods: an idea comes to him and he cares not a whit how it may affect these poor silly humans. Neptune is not actively malicious, he just behaves like a god and has no concern for human priorities. That lack of concern is simply a given, and not the point of the plot.
The plot resolves itself as a "love's sacrifice conquers all" story: Idomeneo's son Idamante eventually agrees to be sacrificed to honor his father's pact with Neptune, Idamante's beloved Ilia leaps in to offer herself in his place, Neptune relents, Idomeneo is ordered off the throne of Crete and Idamante and Ilia assume it. All and sundry sing a chorus in praise of the gods, particularly the gods of love and marriage. Curtain.
However Herr direktor Neuenfels may wish to twist it, Idomeneo -- the librettist of which was himself a cleric, the court chaplain to the Elector of Bavaria -- simply will not bear a broadly anti-religious construction. It is foolishness indeed to be canceling the production, but the production itself is built upon a fair dollop of conceptual foolishness.
There are in fact no references to Islam in Idomeneo as written, and yet this production has been canceled to avoid offense. What does this suggest about those operas in which explicitly Islamic characters actually appear?
Opera is full of Turks, Moors, pashas, beys, harems, and the like. Mozart has them in The Abduction from the Seraglio. Rossini bounces them back and forth across the Mediterranean in The Italian Girl in Algiers and The Turk in Italy. Verdi, by way of Shakespeare, builds an opera around the tragic Moor, Otello. With the exception of the last -- in which the Moor comes to a bad end -- the Islamic characters in these operas tend to be figures of fun and the objects of mockery. All of them involve the questionable frisson of dark-skinned foreigners' desire for pale European girls. Must they for that reason be stricken from the accepted repertoire?
Heavens, one surely hopes not.
ELSEWHERE [Update 1051 PDT]: On Reason's Hit and Run weblog, Tim Cavanaugh makes many of the same points as I have. He sums up pithily:
The squares never did like performances like this; but the problem isn't the offense to high art any more than the offense to Muslims. It's that it's all just so over.