…who messes with art, said Melbourne. The Deutsche Oper Berlin has cancelled performances of Mozart’s Idomeneo because the production featured an added ending scene (to what music, one wonders) in which the severed heads of Christ, Mohammed, the Buddha, and Poseidon are placed on stools to show, um, something about how the founders of all religions have caused wars and bloodshed. Apparently the company received threats from Moslems.
It should, of course, have received threats of ridicule and not buying tickets, from activist cells of sane people whose sense of the ridiculous is intact. I actually think restaging and experimenting with opera is a duty we owe the past and ourselves; performing arts are supposed to be performed, and performance is not rolling a video, it’s an active experimental process. But artists (in this case, Hans Neufels, the director) are also liable to be held accountable for pointless acts of self-indulgence and plain stupidity. How pasting a simple-minded political poster on the end of this opera connects with anything in it escapes me completely: Idomeneo has even less to do with religion than Die Entführung aus dem Serail! The war that sets it up wasn’t a religious war, it was a squabble of guys over a girl, aided and abetted by meddling gods with their own personal spats under way. Mozart’s Poseidon is a comic-book character with magic powers, not a source of moral guidance or an object of theological concern. And anyway, he’s not a prophet, like the other three; this is like ending The Nutcracker with a cautionary little dance of people dying from too much coffee, tea, chocolate and sugar plums, and sneezing from flower allergies: ignorant and ludicrous.
Before we get bent out of shape protecting the political rights of artists to express themselves in a case like this, it might be good for everyone to treat them like grownups and not just indulge childish behavior and artistic fecklessness.
Extension of remarks: Josh points out something I hadn’t noticed. It’s quite interesting that 2003 protests of the production, apparently from various groups with no particular Islamic tilt, have morphed into a “risk” taken by all commentators to be mostly Islamic, without any details on specific threats or sources. Josh is right: all the German participants in the debate seem to have implicitly taken this as an “Islamic thing” but there doesn’t seem to be a fact link to that perception.
Author: Michael O'Hare
Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training.
He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.
Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at UniversitÃ Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs.
At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4Ã—5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.
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7 thoughts on “God help the minister…”
"Before we get bent out of shape protecting the political rights of artists to express themselves in a case like this, it might be good for everyone to treat them like grownups and not just indulge childish behavior and artistic fecklessness."
I agree, but must note amazement at the way this sentiment has changed in the past few years. It doesn't seem very long ago that throwing dung on the Virgin Mary or submerging a crucifix in urine was defended as great art. And as heated as the row over Chris Ofili got, as far as I remember his shows weren't stopped under any serious threat of violence. Childish behaviour and fecklessness is one thing. What to do about it is another.
One hesitates to say this, but…
The only overt public religious blow-back came from representatives of Islam. I do notprofess to know what this means–that Christians, Buddhists, and worshippers of Greek gods are less assiduous in their religious practices, maybe.
"Apparently the company received threats from Moslems."
Threats, plural? The article you linked to makes reference to a single, anonymous threat. It also makes no reference to the religion of the person who made the threat.
This does sound like a stupid production, but my impression was that it was not outside the norm for German opera productions of the past decade, that there was a cult of directorial originality (to some extent the same is true in the US), and that it was common for directors to put in images that have no particular connection with the music or the story just to demonstrate one's original thinking.
I'm sure someone who's more sympathetic to avant garde German productions could spin this differently, but the basic question: am I wrong about the general norm? Is this sort of thing really unusual by the standards of contemporary German opera?
Just for the record, Ofili was not "throwing dung on the Virgin Mary." Elephant dung, an African symbol of universal fecundity and nurturance, was an integral part of Ofili's magnificent painting/collage. Far from being a sign of disrespect, it was intended as a reverent tribute to Mary's status as Divine Mother who nourishes the universe.
Sorry for the nitpick, but this ignorant view of the painting is a pet peeve of mine.
"Far from being a sign of disrespect, it was intended as a reverent tribute to Mary's status as Divine Mother who nourishes the universe."
That quite frankly is (ahem) crap.
He knew precisely how it would be received by those who saw it.
"Mozart's Poseidon is a comic-book character with magic powers, not a source of moral guidance"
Unlike other deities? Exactly what moral guidance has the god of the christian right been a source of in the past five years, or especially in the past five days.
Of course these twits were threatened. There is no difference between poseidon and their favorite superheroes.
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