Histories of Violence: Operatic Violence

I have to admit that, occasionally, the overtly nasty depiction of violence in my productions may have jutted up too abrasively against the music, preventing the opera in question from working its usual magic. ¤
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. It is certainly encouraging that, during the past couple of decades, there has been a gratifying burst of interest, particularly in the United States, in new works being produced by opera companies across the country. What are your thoughts on this given the current political climate? Men’s complicated and conflicted feelings about women, ranging from idolatry to desire to fear to hatred, are taken extravagant advantage of in the eroticization of female disempowerment played out in an endless succession of scenes of operatic madness and suicide. Sometimes art needs to jab up against something in order for its relevance to become apparent. Looking beneath the surface of these male-generated fantasies of female victimization reveals a fascinating side of opera that speaks disturbingly about patriarchal societal structures. I was particularly drawn to the sacrificial element and its notable Catholic iconography, which resurrects images of the suffering of the cross. The way in which it sings its stories can affect us in such a uniquely visceral way through the magical alchemy of its combination of text and music. After abandoning her and their child when his ship sails back home, he returns a couple of years later with his American wife, intending to take the child away. And does this perhaps tell us something more about the audience itself and what it desires when it comes to witnessing violence? I have always felt that the visual arts, music, and theater are by nature intensely political. It taps into the raw energy of human emotion, which of course is also central in our attempts to understand violence and the pain and suffering of others. One of the hallmarks of contemporary life is the speeding up of all social interactions. The subsequent post-mortem revealed the dead girl to be a virgin and, after being put on trial, Puccini’s wife was sent to prison. And yet the arts have always been a site for social commentary and imaginative resistance. I hope this does not change too much as Europe drifts to the right. When we think about violence theoretically and conceptually, we are often drawn to theatrical questions such as its staging, the performativity, and the issue of forced witnessing. But as somebody who has derived so much pleasure and inspiration from this challenging but rewarding art form, I hope that at least a segment of future generations will continue to be struck by opera’s ability to communicate on so many different levels about the human experience. There is something about opera that sets it apart from the other arts. Fortunately, in the current moment, it is clear that wealthy donors on the left are becoming more aware than ever that the arts are vitally important in maintaining a viable critique. I replaced this sanitized death with an extremely upsetting, drawn-out scene where Salud takes a pair of scissors from her worktable and cuts her arms and face before fatally stabbing herself, as her fellow workers egg her on. A potent example of this is my recent production of an early piece by Handel, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, presented at the performance space in Brooklyn called National Sawdust, which transformed the mythical tale of the Cyclops in love with the sea nymph into a modern Trumpian pussy-grabbing parable of the sexual entitlement of powerful males. What do you think opera brings to this discussion? What lessons might we take from this? When opera as we know it was first born in 17th-century Italy, new pieces would be commissioned by the aristocracy and staged in the palaces of princes as private and socially exclusive events. Opera’s problematic relationship to women has been widely acknowledged for some time, especially in our current era which is becoming increasingly more sensitized to feminist and gender issues. The great majority of operas that premiered in the 19th century were written by male composers and librettists for the delectation of audiences sitting in opulent opera houses, watching stories often focused on beautiful, passive women suffering and dying for love. This conversation is with the New York–born opera director Christopher Alden, who works regularly with the most distinguished companies. It avoids presenting reality from a straight-on, literal point of view. In countries like Germany, the arts are heavily supported by public money, which frees artists up to create more openly provocative and confrontational work since they are not constrained by the fear of offending donors. How one depicts violence on stage is always a tricky question. Let’s take the example of an early 20th-century piece, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which tells the upsetting tale of a Japanese geisha who makes the mistake of falling in love with an American naval officer who considers her to be no more than his temporary concubine. His production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre in Moscow) won the Golden Mask Award for best Russian opera production in 2012. He is the founder/director of the   Histories of Violence   project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries. It began in the 19th century when the female soprano became the star of the show and replaced the dominance once afforded to the male castrato. There is always a delicate balancing act involved in bringing a modern sensibility into play when dealing with works of art from the past, and sometimes I may have crossed over the line. In Europe, there is a solid tradition of public funding of the arts. Opera has always been a provocative, confrontational art form that asks difficult questions about the relationship between the individual and society, and it has always struggled to find the right balance between pushing the envelope and not going so far that it is rejected by the status quo. But arguably this is where opera truly has a critical advantage, as there is often a much-slower temporality to the violence, which takes place in a more concentrated fashion. Being from the United States, I have a strong feel for the edgy relationship between arts and politics, particularly when it comes to the issue of supporting the arts. As with the Greek tragedies, whose performances were intensely communal events exerting a powerful influence on the politics of their era, such attempts continually blur the lines between art and politics and bring them together in novel ways. This leads directly to the suicide of the traumatized geisha. Another criticism of opera is the way in which it can often beautify the death of its heroines. The final scene was played as a frozen religious tableau, with Salud held aloft by her fellow workers, worshiping her as a kind of saint crucified on the cross of their powerlessness and disenfranchisement in a society that tacitly condones the entitled male’s abandonment of the lower-class female. But it is told through music of such seductive beauty and, traditionally, presented in picture-postcard productions that sugarcoat the story to make it palatable to bourgeois opera audiences who have probably come to hear the latest star soprano and tenor rather than to experience a harrowing evening in the theater. Knowing her husband’s womanizing proclivities, she assumed the worst and hounded the servant relentlessly with her accusations of adultery to the point where the poor girl committed suicide. And what is ethics, especially when it comes to violence, if not the ability to feel some form of empathy, compassion, and connection with suffering? This mad art form has a particular advantage when it comes to touching people. Alden’s English National Opera production of Handel’s Partenope was awarded the Olivier Award for Best UK opera production of 2008/09 as well as Australia’s Helpmann Award for Best Opera in 2011. An excellent case in point is Manuel de Falla’s La vida breve, yet another disturbing opera about the betrayal and eventual death of a credulous female, which takes place in the picturesque city of Granada and features gorgeous outpourings of folkloristic Spanish music. Audiences are connecting more and more with these pieces of musical theater created by composers and writers from our current moment, and this, more than anything else, points the way to the future of opera as a vital part of our cultural life. This segment of the operatic public sometimes resents directors like myself who are intent on interpreting these pieces from a modern perspective and stripping away the detritus of tradition to reveal the timeless truths, not always pretty, which these pieces sing about and which resonate down through time to our own moment. A notable casualty of this is the much-needed time for critical reflection. To conclude, it seems that there is still a long way to go in any attempt to see opera as a political form of intervention on its own terms. In the United States, however, there has always been an absurdly small level of government funding for the arts, and now there is the serious possibility of even that being diminished by the current administration’s threat to abolish the NEA and other publicly funded arts organizations like PBS. The pornographic kick of opera as a kind of singing snuff film says a lot about the male need to take violent control of the power women exert over them, first celebrating it by putting it on a pedestal and worshipping it and then feeling dominant and victorious over it when the heroine is punished with madness and/or death. I am currently pleased to be working on a few different productions of Handel operas, both in the United Kingdom and the United States, and Handel’s genius in utilizing highly formalized 18th-century musical structures to bring to vivid life the full range of human experience never ceases to amaze and inspire me. I made this choice in order to stress the class conflict at the heart of the piece, as the plot is focused on Salud’s relationship with a wealthy young man from the other side of the tracks who seduces and abandons the gypsy girl then marries his well-to-do fiancée. In my work, I have usually tried to rob violence of its glamour by stressing its ugliness and brutality, unlike the more romantic theatrical/operatic tradition that was content to profit, uncritically, from the entertainment potential of violent acts portrayed on stage, often in a softened and prettied-up manner. A prime example of this aspect of opera can be found in the works of Handel, one of the greatest music theater composers of any era. Since then, the reputation of opera as an expensive and privileged kind of entertainment has clung to the art form. Like non-representational 20th-century visual art styles, it attempts to get at the elusive nature of existence through more fragmented, abstract means. The timeless theme of bullying was reinforced by the fact that the Cyclops seemed to be driven as much by the thrill of humiliating Galatea in her lover’s presence as by her actual seduction. However, from its beginnings, there has always been another side to opera, which was created by musicians and poets who wanted to recapture the power of Greek theater to tell deeply meaningful stories through music. The flowering of protest witnessed during that time certainly revealed the importance of the arts in developing social and political consciousness, and we are starting to see similar developments in the fraught times in which we are currently living. The main reason I’ve been drawn to opera, a dream-like, non-naturalistic art form with greater similarities to ritualistic Asian theater than to the Western kitchen sink realism tradition, has been because of its poetic nature. There is a terrible episode in Puccini’s personal life involving his wife’s hysterical jealousy of a servant who worked in their household. Turning to your adaptation of La vida breve, the final scene featuring the savage cutting and suicide of the seemingly fated gypsy girl Salud is powerful and compelling. The new focus on the plight of female heroines signaled a shift in the politics of opera. Puccini’s opera is, clearly, a deeply political piece addressing head-on the dark side of imperialism, focused on a foreigner who buys into the American dream and is subsequently duped and victimized by it. His works are filled with exquisitely drawn out arias where a singer will sing about a situation, a thought, or an emotion for an extended time, frozen in one moment as time stands still. The audience is invited to take the time to focus on that moment from many different angles, rather like the experience of looking at an abstract painting which depicts a bowl of fruit from multiple perspectives simultaneously. Returning to the question of sexual violence. The libretto never makes clear what Salud actually dies from after she learns of the betrayal and, in traditional productions of the piece, she dies a rather generic operatic death, presumably of a broken heart. CHRISTOPHER ALDEN: Art is often at its most vibrant in times of political crisis, when the people at the top tend to exhibit a kind of nervousness about the arts as a result. Consequently, opera inspires a fanatical response from its devotees, many of whom have a strong sense of ownership of the great works from the past that they revere. This contemplative Kabuki theater–ish approach creates an atmosphere in which to dissect and ruminate on not only positive and creative human drives like love, empathy, and connection, but also the darker and, yes, more violent sides of human nature. As an operatic director whose work has been notably singled out for its engagement with violence, what ethical challenges (if any) do you think directors face or need to acknowledge when dealing with performances of violence? Because of Handel’s extraordinary ability to psychologize his characters through his music, the piece packs quite a punch and it did not take all that much tweaking to uncover strong parallels between this mythological tale and our current era defined by power, class, and the brutality of thwarted desire. It has the ability to take us on a journey into the darkest and deepest recesses of human experience. I feel that my grittier approach has generally been successful in exposing dark layers in the music of operas, layers that had previously lain dormant in more soft-edged traditional stagings. The operatic art form, with its focus on humanity’s   suffering and mortality, is often only a few steps away from the rituals of the Catholic Church. This is the subversive side to opera that seeks to challenge established ideas, norms, and assumptions. Of course, as in a von Trier film, there is a very fine line in Puccini’s operas between empathy for the victimized heroine and sadistic pleasure in witnessing her traumatic demise. ¤
BRAD EVANS: We live in an age when the arts are facing considerable financial and intellectual pressures. In my production for Opera North in the United Kingdom, I set the piece in the stark environment of a dress factory where the heroine, Salud, is one of many women sitting at rows of sewing machines. How might critical thinkers resource opera better? If we were to come at this negatively, we could say that part of the issue the arts face is to present themselves as having political and social relevance beyond mere cultural pastime. How are we to make sense of this politically? This episode, which sounds a lot like the plot of a Puccini opera, illustrates the fact that Puccini can hardly be called a feminist, nevertheless he betrayed a certain ambivalent sensitivity to feminist issues by his choice to set to music a number of other stories, like Butterfly’s, focused on woman’s tenuous position in a patriarchal world. Do you think there is something about such theological traces, which still resonates with audiences when coming to terms with violence? SEPTEMBER 11, 2017

THIS IS THE 12th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. It is clearly problematic for plenty of people (among them, no doubt, some critical thinkers!) to look beyond opera’s reputation, in some quarters, as an elitist art form with its well-coiffed head in the clouds, divorced from the problems of the real world and extremely expensive to produce. Consequently, artists in the United States have always been more dependent on support from private donors and corporations. Set in a rich man’s bathroom, the sea nymph Galatea and her lover Acis were portrayed as two servants bathing their master (the Cyclops), whose threatening sexual harassment leads to the eventual suicide of one and the murder of the other. Maybe this is because I grew up as part of the 1960s generation. However, when the comforting layers of tradition are stripped away, the sadistic betrayal at the core of this story is revealed with devastating force and, as in a Lars von Trier film, the audience is witness to the disillusioned heroine’s painful downhill slide. The darkly fatalistic Spanish Catholic imagery that dominates the libretto and the sensuous brutality of de Falla’s passionate music inspired me to remove the piece from its naturalistic setting and, instead, play it out as a kind of religious passion play in which the shockingly violent act of Salud’s self-martyrdom was the central and defining event. The power of music and the non-rational layers it evokes work on the spectator in ways which spoken theater cannot always achieve. The traumatic wake-up call that the Trump administration has precipitated isn’t entirely a negative thing as it is galvanizing not only liberal-thinking artists but donors and corporate sponsors as well.