‘Seduction, sacrifice and side-splitting satire. 2015 has it all, buy your subscription now…’ says the promotional email for Opera Australia 2015. Save your money, I say. Lately, you don’t actually have to go to the opera to enjoy the side-splitting satire. Everyone’s sides are being split fit to burst at the satire being played out for real by Western Australian Opera, which wanted to cancel Carmen because the cigarette girls, who indeed work in a cigarette factory, are portrayed committing that vilest of modern sins, smoking.
Bloggers and newspaper letter writers have had a great time over this. What next? A PC Traviata with no champagne, or Don Giovanni with Leporello giving out the condoms? There is just so much ‘inappropriate behavior’ from which to shield the innocent opera goer: attempted rape in Tosca, negative stereotyping of mental health sufferers in Lucia di Lammermor, and don’t get me started on Romeo and Juliet; child abuse, sneaky priests, underage sex and teen suicide. But not to worry, the opera company has taken it upon itself to try to shield West Australians from any of these nasties.
In the case of Carmen, never mind the un-ladylike eye-gouging catfights, drinking in sleazy bars with smugglers, knifings and so on: Carmen herself is not exactly a role model for the young ladies of today, being a promiscuous, crazy, superstitious, death-fixated gypsy. Apologies to the gypsies.
Just to top off the litany of no-no’s, the last scene takes place during a bullfight. In July I saw a thrilling Zeferelli production of Carmen at the arena in Verona that looked as if an entire Spanish village had been imported, including two donkey teams and six riders on horse back – one of whom galloped at speed onto the stage, knocking over a bit of the set, and almost fell into the pit. Don’t ask me if any animals were hurt during that production – although a traumatized donkey pooed on stage. Despite all this Spanish sturm und drang, the danger that mature citizens of Perth might succumb to temptation and run out at interval and have a few drags on a ciggie was just too great.
However, it should be remembered that this crazy decision – before WA Deputy Premier Kim Hames reversed it – was a preemptive response prompted by the sensitivities not of patrons, an apparently unique breed (even careless of man-eating sharks) but by the sensitivities of a major sponsor, a sort of informal Health police, a government funded statutory body called Healthway. Healthway is a supposedly ‘independent’ West Australian government body that is charged with discouraging smoking, alcohol consumption and gambling. It sponsors a growing number of sporting organisations and arts groups, including the West Australian Ballet and West Australian Symphony Orchestra. West Australian Opera managing director Carolyn Chard was reported as saying that she would need to check with Healthway if the body planned to stage any other productions that depicted unhealthy activities, including consuming alcohol, during the two-year sponsorship deal. She also said she would have to be careful to be ‘in step with their values.’
‘Their values’ sounds scary, and it is. Healthway’s sponsorship of the opera, and other arts organizations, is really just a dressed up form of government funding. The nanny state censoring the opera and kowtowing to the new values of the health police and bland brigade. No wonder Premier Barnett is spitting chips.
But the perception of sheer censorship didn’t stop Rosanna Capalingua, the head of Healthways, from exuding smug satisfaction at the original decision; praising WA Opera for ‘being a model of healthy promotion for the two years they are under (our) sponsorship…’ Sounds ominous. Which brings me to another much weirder and insidious aspect of political correctness that has already crept under the radar onto opera stages here and elsewhere. The portrayal of race.
Not too long ago I went to see the Australian Opera’s production of Aida in Sydney, and bewilderingly, all the Ethiopian captives were white. They came on stage in the grand march carting enormous amounts of African ‘booty’, giant elephant tusks, masks etc, but were in no way discernibly African. No black make up, wigs or anything. In fact all the cast were white, even though they are Ethiopians and Egyptians. Why? I expressed my puzzlement to the man beside me, who replied ‘Oh no they don’t do that any more!’ Do what? Get dressed up in costume? This is a story about Ethiopians and Egyptians; for heaven’s sake, the opera actually premiered in Cairo.
And it isn’t just in Australia that we have succumbed to imagined racial ‘sensitivities’. This year in Venice at the Fenice, one of the world’s most hallowed opera theatres, I saw the great Amarilli Nizza in a new production of Madama Butterfly. Nizza is famously blonde and blue eyed. And she stayed that way. Madam Butterfly as a blonde just doesn’t really do it. The theatre is realistic, yet make believe. Such details can really wreck a production, and make nonsense of the libretto.
There is a line in the second half of Butterfly where she presents her child, her triumphal trump card, and her insurance that Pinkerton will return. The American consul asks suspiciously ‘how do we know it is really his child?’, to which she replies: ‘Have you ever seen a Japanese child with blue eyes?’ Well that one really brought the house down. Welcome to Madama Butterfly The Comedy. Puccini would turn in his grave. But seriously, there is a troubling tendency for producers and companies to cave into the ridiculous demands of the new ideological philistines, obsessed with their boringly sanitized view of the world where no one ever smokes, drinks, or does anything crazy and, apparently, where we are all the same skin colour.
Of course, it has all happened before. The Marriage of Figaro was banned because it was about class, and was too close to the French revolution for comfort. The Austrians didn’t like Nabucco with its fabulous slave chorus which still is an expression of Italian nationalism – and caused a riot. Strauss’ Salome was a scandal because of the diminishing veils – and Poppea, well she has an unsanitary bath in asses milk. I bet that packed them in back in 1643. Opera has always courted controversy because it is, well, operatic. That is why people flocked to see it in the past, and still do. So don’t leave out the good stuff!
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10