Conference Report, OBERTO 2018: Opera and Violence
The 2018 OBERTO conference brought together an international field of speakers from the UK, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and the United States and was attended by a good crowd of academics, performers, directors and opera lovers. Fifteen papers explored the topic of “Opera and Violence” in its many facets, particularly debates surrounding “gratuitous violence” in modern stage productions, and works that are central to the repertoire yet replete with brutal and/or psychologically abusive plotlines.
The morning started with a session on Exoticism – Colonialism. Francesco Bracci (University of Bern) investigated resistance to colonial rule by supposedly “wild” or “irrational” peoples in grand operas from Spontini’s Fernand Cortez to Delibes’s Lakmé. Richard Langham Smith (Royal College of Music) debunked the myth that Georges Bizet had actually toned down the violence of Prosper Merimée’s novella, and demonstrated how Bizet and his librettists use acts of violence as focal points for each act. Trivia: the libretto features an astonishing array of different types of knives and firearms!
The second session focused on violence in contemporary stage works. George Haggett (Royal Holloway) tried “hearing the sounds of the 13th-century body in George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s Written on Skin”; Nadine Scharfetter (University of Music and Performing Arts Graz) compared Olga Neuwirth’s American Lulu, which is set during the American civil rights movement, with Alban Berg’s original; and Annalise Smith (Memorial University) argued that Kamala Sankaram’s decision to stop the music during a rape scene in her opera Thumbprint was a more responsible approach to violence against women than smothering the upsetting event in beautiful music, as is – she said – customary in 19th-century operas. This started a lively discussion about the appropriate musical realisation of scenes of violence, with musicologist Suzanne Aspden pointing out that violence was invisible on the 18th-century stage, so even cautious depictions were quite radical in the 19th century, while composer Toby Young challenged Sankaram’s decision on aesthetic grounds. Conversations continued over the lunch break, which many delegates used to enjoy the grounds of Headington Hill Hall.
A parallel session took place in the nearby Music Room on abusive relationships between operatic characters. Emma Kavanagh (Linacre College, University of Oxford) explored the complex dynamics of love, jealousy and violence in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. She looked at the opera’s plot, libretto and music through the lens of Symbolist aesthetics, thus reaching interesting conclusions in terms of the invisible, yet established connections between violence, consent and the unseen/unheard. Robert Rawson (Canterbury Christ Church University) gave an engaging paper about the abusive traditional society/community as found in Janáček’s Jenůfa and Kat’a Kabanova. He thoroughly analysed the characters of both operas. as well as the influence of the local petty tyranny on their relationships and vicissitudes, with particular attention to the character’s violent or non-violent responses to the oppressive regime. Finally, Sid Wolters-Tiedge (University of Bayreuth) commented on the violent and slapstick components of Harrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy, connecting them to both the it’s roots in popular theatre and commenting on recent stagings in Berlin and Vienna. He thoroughly took apart the complex connections between irony/humour and violent acts, as well as their interplay with issues of representation in music and on stage.
After lunch the parallel sessions continued with the themes Dis/ability and violence in the Music Room, and Reception and (post-)Fascism in the Green Room of beautiful Headington Hill Hall. Christina Guillaumier (Royal College of Music) explored Prokofiev’s last opera, The Story of a Real Man, which glorifies the transformation of a wounded fighter pilot to Soviet superman. Charlotte Armstrong (University of York) admirably disentangled “Disability and degeneracy in Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten” in a recent interpretation by opera director Calixto Bieito, where the already complex story of a hunchbacked anti-hero is further complicated by making the protagonist a paedophile, giving his moral degeneracy a contemporary edge.
The parallel session focused on issues of violence, propaganda and political re-education through opera in fascist and post-fascist contexts. First, Georg Burgstaller (RILM New York) talked about the performances of Peter Grimes within the Grazer Festwochen organized by the occupying British forces in Austria in 1947 and analysed the interplay between the work’s ‘Britishness’, its use within a regime of military occupation, and the Austrian reception. Nicolò Palazetti (University of Birmingham) explored the complex political, cultural and ideological agendas at play behind the performance of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in 1938. After exploring the tight political links between Hungary and Italy and their consequences on cultural/musical patronage, Dr Palazzetti interpreted the opera’s plot, atmosphere and characters within the context of anti-Semitic propaganda, including the figures of Bartók and his librettist Balázs and their problematic relationship with the current regime.
The final session of the day brought together all delegates under the heading “Mozart and violence in contemporary stagings” and was one of the highlights of the conference. Since it is unlikely that war-horses of the repertoire will disappear from the world’s stages any time soon, even if their content might seem sensitive today, academics and practitioners alike grapple with how to represent storylines that are underpinned by arguably misogynist or racist world views. First Margaret Cormier (McGill University) compared two very different stagings of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The first, again by Calixto Bieito (Berlin 2004), escalated the violence against women implicit in the original plot by setting the opera in a contemporary brothel. Wajdi Mouawad (Lyon 2016) took a diametrically opposed approach: in an attempt to subdue the orientalist stereotypes, he neutralised the violence against Constanze and Blonde by interpreting the opera as a flashback on the part of the women, who realise that their newly gained “freedom” is not so different from their previous captivity.
Two opera directors gave a direct insight into their work by explaining how they deal with the violent aspects of Don Giovanni – not just the physical violence against Donna Anna and the Commendatore but also the psychological abuse of Donna Elvira or Don Giovanni’s treatment of socially inferior characters like his servant Leporello and the peasant girl Zerlina. Alessandro Talevi’s 2012 production for Opera North embraced the challenge of the comedic elements by using puppetry reminiscent of a Punch and Judy show for some scenes. Laura Attridge, in contrast, faced the discomfort caused by Don Giovanni head on in her 2018 production for Waterperry Opera by interpreting the main protagonist as a contemporary upper-class bully who deservedly meets his downfall. The script of part of her talk can be seen on the Schmopera site.
Maria Thomas’s (University of Hertfordshire) personal reflection on the 2015 Royal Opera House production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, where director Michieletto replaced the ballet with a now notorious rape scene, led into a lively general discussion that developed many of the themes that had been sounded throughout the day. While the preceding sessions had focussed on composers, librettists and directors, now the expectations and reactions of opera audiences took centre stage. Are modern audiences so naïve that they just enjoy their favourite operas without giving a thought to the potentially problematic aspects of their plots? Do they need to be shaken out of their comfort zone by edgy, violent stagings, or is there such a thing as gore fatigue? Are opera houses patronising punters with trigger warnings, or is that a legitimate strategy to spare distress? The discussion was ably chaired by Mark Berry (Royal Holloway), and while it became very lively and intense, the participants felt comfortable to voice thought-provoking or controversial ideas and listened attentively to each other’s arguments, which demonstrated once more how our OBERTO conferences have become a forum for genuine debate amongst practitioners, opera lovers and academics. Several delegates also tweeted during the day using the hashtag #OBERTO2018, which gives a good idea of the day as it unfolded.