Opera porn, Regie, and Bieito’s Entführung

June 30, 2010 at 3:28 pm (Music) (, , , , , )

I don’t write reviews on this blog, but I wanted to share my reaction to seeing Calixto Bieito’s Entführung aus dem Serail at the Komische Oper Berlin last month, webbing into the controversial topics of Regie/Eurotrash productions and opera porn.

So, I didn’t go to see as much opera in Berlin as you’d expect, with me being an opera singer and there being three really good opera houses there.  I was living a block away from the Deutsche Oper Berlin, but they just didn’t have anything I wanted to see while I was there.  I tried to see Figaro at Unter den Linden, but the only affordable tickets left were the really really cheap ones, and the man at the counter told me you couldn’t really see the stage from there, it was really just for listening.  And I love to listen to opera, but damn Figaro is a really long opera to sit through if you can’t see anything and don’t have a beer.  But I noticed that the Komische Oper was doing Entführung aus dem Serail on a night that I happened to be free.

Entführung, besides being a mouthful for those who don’t speak German (you can get away in most circles with calling it “Abduction,” as the full translation is “Abduction from the Seraglio” but nobody really uses the word Seraglio in common English yet tradition has decided on that as being closer to the German rather than Harem), is among those operas that I know up-and-down without ever having actually physically seen it live.  I’ve studied it, translated the entire thing, listened to it many times, seen it on DVD, sung Durch Zärtlichkeit a billion freaking times since early college (as I’ve mentioned before, not my favorite aria but I think I’d like it more if I’d done the role in a full production), even memorized some of the dialogue for an audition once.  But just never happened across a live production of it that was convenient to my schedule or budget.  So when I saw that the Komische Oper was performing it on a night I had free, I jumped on the opportunity.

I had no idea what I was getting into.  I hadn’t ever heard (to my memory) specifically about this production of Die Entführung, which premiered in 2004 (explanation for non-opera buffs: although for most operas in the standard repertory, the words and music were written many many many years ago, the production- which is like, the staging, the sets, the costumes, the direction- is something that is always changing; a big company will usually have its own production that it uses again and again over the years, or sometimes companies share productions and the materials and “concept” travel from one theater to another), although I did have a very clear idea on how “Regietheater,” sometimes known as “Eurotrash productions” because they are bigger in Europe (especially Germany) than here, liked to be innovative and often shocking.  I guess the scope of explaining that to the uninitiated is beyond the scope of this blog post, but, you know- they get REALLY WEIRD.

What I didn’t know I was getting into was an EXTREMELY INFAMOUSLY SHOCKING SCANDALOUS production that was literally forbidden to audience members under 18.  That’s right: X-rated opera.

Instead of me trying to recap everything that was insane about this production, I really really really want you to read this fabulous article about it by Lydia Steier, from the 2004 premier.  Seriously, it’s a thorough and wonderfully-written article and I know it’s long, but if anything I’d rather you read this than the rest of this blog entry.

You can also watch this trailer, but I don’t think it captures the entirety of the thing quite as well: (maybe a little NSFW, even though it’s YouTube)

It’s funny, because the overture to the opera opens with a trapeze act.  As you know, I am an amateur aerialist, so I’m always happy to see that stuff.  And I do see a lot of aerial work in opera.  So I’m all like, oh look trapeze, maybe this will be a cool production after all!  And then the rest of the opera had like NOTHING to do with that at all.

Let’s see, where to start.  Well, once I read that article and found out that a lot of the dirtier deeds in the opera had been done by specially-hired adult entertainers, I was actually MUCH less offended, because I’d been thinking all along that it they had been forcing chorus girls to do all that stuff.  But I guess I’m getting ahead of myself.

Things that offended me most in the opera:

1. Pasha fingering Konstanze during her high notes (not actually fingering her, but realistically enough)

2. Osmin, pulling Blonde’s panties off during Durch Zärtlichkeit (she still had a skirt on so you couldn’t see anything but still it was gross)

3. Topless hookers

4. Pasha’s monologue about fucking a pig and smelling its dying fart

5. Simulated sex in one of the hooker booths

6. When they just shot up all the hookers at the end (maybe that was less offensive and more just… STUPID)

(I was less offended than the rest of the audience when Osmin slaughtered the hooker, but I was also sitting in the back and thus did not get such a graphic view; in fact I wasn’t even sure what was going on.)

Things in the opera that I actually thought were really cool ideas:

1. The Pasha was obviously coked up, justifying his schizophrenic “You are so beautiful I love you tenderly I KEEL YOU!!!!!!” dialogues

2. Blonde was a pill-head, which explains why she’s so happy and peppy all the time despite her situation as a kidnapped sex slave

3. The general concept of updating a Harem to a brothel is not so far-fetched at all.

So, like I said, I was less offended when I realized they’d hired professional adult entertainers to be in the production.  Because the main thing that offends me is less that gross things are happening, more that opera singers (and especially chorus members as they always seem to get the worst of it) are expected to do them.  Like, classical music is something that’s supposed to be sort of pure and good, even when it’s badass and modern.  Like, opera has always had adult themes, in fact opera is pretty much all about sex and violence all the time, but it’s always been tasteful and/or artistic, not shock-value porn.  Of course you have to account for different cultures and time periods, but things were very censored once upon a time, and even then censorship was more about politics than anything else.

So what I’m getting at is, like, parents make their little 5-year-old kids study classical music, we sing classical music in church, nobody is going into it with the expectation of ending up in low-paid porn.  (I feel just as bad for the orchestra members who had to be a part of this production, who were apparently incensed, as I do for the singers acting it out.)  And when I’m watching this stuff, what’s really going through my mind is, “I would be fired for refusing to do that… and that… oh and I’d be fired again right there…”  And I think it’s really not fair for the amazingly talented artists who have made it this far in the field of opera, which requires an insane amount of talent and hard work and sacrifice and (usually) intelligence, to potentially lose their jobs or not get hired because they have slightly more traditional moral values (or self esteem or backbone) than those who are willing to cross those lines.

The magazine I write for, Classical Singer Magazine, dedicated an entire issue to this topic this year.  If you are a subscriber, you can read it here. And I highly recommend it- some of the stories are shocking, but its also interesting to see the varied points of view on this.

As for Regietheater in general, I guess I feel the way a lot of people do- I’m not outright against it if it works with the original story and hopefully adds something.  There are some more “creative” productions that I’ve really loved.  But most of them are just plain silly and/or stupid.  I do not want to go to the opera to be shocked, nor do I want to go to the opera to help digest my dinner, as some avant garde directors claim.  I go to the opera because I love opera and I want to hear and see something amazing, maybe even be blown away.  And I love to see a fabulously well-done traditional production.  Yeah, I like the Zeffirelli shows.  Not exclusively, but I do like them a lot.  So, you know.  Moderation I guess.  Stop trying to shock us just to make us “feel” something.  It’s not that hard to make people feel something.  I live in NYC, if somebody looks at you the wrong way you’re gonna feel something- pissed off, threatened, aggressive- hell, you’ll probably feel a lot of things.  You don’t win a medal for making people feel uncomfortable.

Honestly I have always thought this sort of opera production was sort of a phase opera was going through.  But I thought we’d be past this stage of it by now.  I mean, really, we’re such a visual society that it makes perfect sense that the production would be the focus right now.  And I figure we won’t really get past it until we have the next really, really, amazingly huge superstar in one of the other facets- conducting, composing, singing, even the choir.  But I’m talking Pavarotti-famous, not Juan Diego Florez-famous (love him though!!!!!).

In the meantime, I’m happy doing what I’m doing- I’ve been fortunate to be in a lot of productions that, while updated or modernized, have always been sensible and entertaining- and if somebody told us to do something that I thought was dirty, I was just like “Yeah no we’re not doing that” and it was never an issue.  I would like to start getting some work in Europe though, and then we’ll see how that pans out.  Maybe directors will have calmed the fuck down by then.  I keep telling myself that…

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