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Twenty-first century readers face an enduring dilemma when addressing the works of long-dead (and occasionally not-so-long-dead) authors. We are affronted by the racism of, say, Rudyard Kipling, and we are discomfited by the pervasive sexism of Ian Fleming. We are embarrassed by the absence of the working classes in Evelyn Waugh, and we are angry at the anti-Semitism of Ezra Pound. (These are arbitrary examples: for each offence, I could call on a hundred other names.) But what, when we have identified these offences, should we do with the offenders? Must they be consigned, like poor, rotting Rudyard, to an unreadable heap in the corner? Should we, as Milan Kundera warns us not to, reduce “the defendant’s biography to criminography”, forgetting “everything not a crime”?
Alternatively, we could scour the pages of history for examples which counter these offences, clinging to Hath not a Jew eyes?-like moments for vindication. It is a problem that it is impossible not to confront, whatever your cause, whatever your offence. It is a problem that asks us, in clear terms, what we are willing to tolerate from our writers, and what we are not.
The clarity of this is heightened in the world of performance. Here, it is not simply a question of picking up a book from the shelf, or deciding to leave it there, unread. Here, there are considerable investments of time and money and moral justification to be accounted for. The jingoistic music-hall entertainments of the late nineteenth century are long forgotten, and the more patriotic of Noel Coward’s revues have been quietly consigned to history as a result of these investments. Even Shakespeare – so entrenched in our national imagination as to avoid criticism of this kind – is affected in not-insignificant ways. Resourceful directors find new approaches to his plays: swapping gender roles (just think of Maxine Peake’s recent Hamlet), employing all-women casts (as Phyllida Lloyd did with Julius Caesar), or inverting the characters’ race (so, for instance, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “photo negative” version of Othello, with Patrick Stewart in the title role).
But what does all of this have to do with Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, revived in a touring production by the innovative Pop-Up Opera Company? Well, the fact that we so rarely see this opera performed (it has not enjoyed the widespread popularity of Le Nozze di Figaro, say) may have something to do with its central – and stereotyped – portrayal of the characters of Pasha Selim and Osmin. Our protagonist Konstanze is held in a seraglio by Pasha Selim (the sexual submission characteristic to such seraglios is described with varying degrees of vagueness in many modern synopses of this work). Osmin – a thuggish, unyielding servant to the Pasha – is painted in unambiguously orientalist colours: the moments of rage in his song are often given Turkish inflections. Osmin’s buffoonery reeks of caricature, and pitted against this is Pasha Selim’s relative flatness, a result of his non-singing role. He is the more enlightened of the two characters, showing compassion in offering the lovers their freedom at the close of the opera, and yet he is denied the depth of the others in not being given insight through song.
In terms of its music, this opera (or – more correctly – Singspiel, or “sung play”) is stunning. The technical dexterity demanded of the performers, the range of emotions conveyed in the music and its interesting Turkish influences set Die Entführung apart. Yet, it would not be unreasonable, I think, to suggest that the discomfiting stereotypes within this opera might go some way to blinding us to the beauty of the music. Pop-Up Opera attempts to tackle this in playing down its offending features. The seraglio, or harem, becomes a health spa. Pasha Selim is faceless, a Big Brother-like camera. Osmin’s “Turkishness” is dismantled; he is nothing more than the spa’s caretaker. The point of interest here is no longer the distant East, but the hinterland of the internet: on a screen above the performance, in the place of surtitles, Facebook statuses crop up, computer game-like levels must be completed, text messages are sent. The German words are glibly mistranslated; “I miss my online boyfriend,” Konstanze sings.
Does this work? I’m not too sure. The imposition of unconnected, internet-themed morals on to an eighteenth-century opera seems a stretch. Rather, I’d say that the flexibility of the production – its use of the space (this time, Rotherhithe’s Thames Tunnel Shaft) in which it had “popped up”, as it were – is the thing that really distinguishes it. The confinement of Konstanze and her “PA” Blonda is echoed neatly in the eerie, underground claustrophobia of the tunnel – accessed only by a rickety scaffold. There is something undeniably fun about watching a performance in unusual surroundings; hence the ever-growing success of Pop-Up Opera, who have taken their productions to strange and seemingly inhospitable sites all over England. It helps, too, that their singers give such enjoyable performances (a mention should be made of Eleanor Ross‘s assured rendition of Konstanze’s torturous “Tortures of All Kinds” aria).
Elsewhere, the perceived racism of operas and operettas such as Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado has caused a stir in recent years. Last year, Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of The Mikado was met with demonstrations from the Japanese American Citizens League, who accused the actors of donning “yellowface”. The problems of modern-day productions indulging in such racial stereotypes are clear, for the nuances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s context appear to have been lost in the intervening century. As G. K. Chesterton observed when the operetta was originally performed in the late nineteenth century: “I doubt if there is a single joke in the whole play that fits the Japanese. But all the jokes in the play fit the English.” That is, in seemingly mocking the Japanese, the operetta is in effect serving to criticize its home context.
This was not a new approach. Montesquieu’s Persian Letters – which is believed to have fed into Die Entführung – demonstrates, by way of the East, the perceived corruption in the court of Louis XIV. Indeed, this decision to criticize one’s home through descriptions of distant lands is exemplified in the fictional wanderings of Swift’s Gulliver; published only five years after Persian Letters.
It seems important, therefore, that in reading or performing a piece of work with potentially barbed themes the social context of its creation should not be forgotten. Thus: Gilbert and Sullivan’s criticism of their own government. Or Mozart’s (and librettist Christoph Friedrich Bretzner’s) developing curiosity for the unknown”‘Orient”. Those performances that dismiss the potentially orientalist elements outright risk imposing on the work themes that do not quite fit. On the other hand, maintaining original intentions poses the far greater risk of offending audiences with bigoted stereotypes.
This is a dilemma that has demanded (and will continue to demand) decades of deliberation, and will by no means find resolution here. Instead, I leave the two alternatives to be considered, and wait, with interest, to see how the divisive, albeit beautiful Die Entführung will be treated by director David McVicar in its Glyndebourne revival this summer.
Pop-Up Opera’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail continues its tour around the UK at several more venues in Cumbria, Essex and East Sussex.