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28.6.04

That Salacious Mozart

From this article (A Violent, Drug-Addled, Hooker-Filled Opera Angers Sponsors, June 24) by Jane Paulick for Deutsche Welle, in English, I read about a new opera production in Berlin. Spanish director Calixto Bieito's production of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio; see the libretto) has got audiences pretty hot under the collar and maybe hot in other places, too.

When Calixto Bieito premiered his dystopic version of Abduction from the Seraglio at the acclaimed Komische Oper in Berlin last Sunday, angry punters walked out in their droves while others applauded a brave adaptation of Mozart's classic opera. The media was equally polarized. While the tabloid Bild ran the headline "Is this what taxpayers money is spent on?" the daily Die Welt dubbed it "the most important production of the year."
I am relieved, and simultaneously horrified, to learn that this moralistic anxiety about the "taxpayers' money" is not limited to the United States. (And why is it that Anglicisms like "punters" and "walked out in their droves" are so terribly funny in the mouth of a foreign British speaker of English, at least to these American ears? [see comments])
The Catalan director has relocated Mozart's 18th-century comic opera set in the Ottoman Turkish Empire to a destitute modern world of forced prostitution, drug abuse, and senseless violence. One particularly bloodthirsty scene involves the character Osmin, played by baritone Jens Larsen [not to be confused with Ionarts contributor Jens Laurson], appearing to slice off a woman's nipple. In another scene, he urges a peroxide-blonde prostitute to drink a glass of his urine. Opera lovers expecting wholesome family entertainment were not amused.

They're not the only ones. An indignant Matthias Kleinert, sponsoring adviser to Daimler Chrysler CEO Jürgen Schrempp and one of seven curators with the Friends of the Komische Oper, told several Berlin newspapers that the company was consequently considering withdrawing its annual funding of €20,000. "I found the excessive sex and violence absolutely unacceptable," he said in an interview with Bild.
Whoa, OK, maybe taxpayers should be concerned. As has been discussed here (most recently, on May 22 and May 24, and also on August 14, 2003) and many other places before, artists of all kinds have the right to deal with controversial subject matter but not the right to expect people to pay for it, either governments or private companies. Patronage is about the aesthetic choices of a patron, whether that be Lorenzo de' Medici or the citizens of an entire country.
Compared to other European countries and the United States, Berlin's opera houses receive relatively little private funding. As Homoki told public radio broadcaster Deutschlandradio, "the problem with sponsoring is that the companies involved like to use the arts they're funding as an image booster." But, he insists, "the German theater system is an expression of a free society in which uncomfortable art occupies a necessary place."
The phrase "art as an image booster" pretty much hits the nail on the head as far as why corporate patronage is so tricky for artists. The fact is that Rockefeller can say yes or no to what Diego Rivera wants to paint in a mural for Rockefeller Center. It's his buck. Sadly, Rockefeller ends up looking like a nincompoop more worried about his "image" than really interested in art, and I now have to go all the way to Mexico City, instead of Manhattan, to see Rivera's Communist-themed mural.

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