THIS IS THE 12th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with the New York–born opera director Christopher Alden, who works regularly with the most distinguished companies. Alden’s English National Opera production of Handel’s Partenope was awarded the Olivier Award for Best UK opera production of 2008/09 as well as Australia’s Helpmann Award for Best Opera in 2011. His production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre in Moscow) won the Golden Mask Award for best Russian opera production in 2012.
BRAD EVANS: We live in an age when the arts are facing considerable financial and intellectual pressures. If we were to come at this negatively, we could say that part of the issue the arts face is to present themselves as having political and social relevance beyond mere cultural pastime. And yet the arts have always been a site for social commentary and imaginative resistance. What are your thoughts on this given the current political climate?
CHRISTOPHER ALDEN: Art is often at its most vibrant in times of political crisis, when the people at the top tend to exhibit a kind of nervousness about the arts as a result. Sometimes art needs to jab up against something in order for its relevance to become apparent. I have always felt that the visual arts, music, and theater are by nature intensely political. Maybe this is because I grew up as part of the 1960s generation. The flowering of protest witnessed during that time certainly revealed the importance of the arts in developing social and political consciousness, and we are starting to see similar developments in the fraught times in which we are currently living.
Being from the United States, I have a strong feel for the edgy relationship between arts and politics, particularly when it comes to the issue of supporting the arts. In Europe, there is a solid tradition of public funding of the arts. In countries like Germany, the arts are heavily supported by public money, which frees artists up to create more openly provocative and confrontational work since they are not constrained by the fear of offending donors. I hope this does not change too much as Europe drifts to the right.
In the United States, however, there has always been an absurdly small level of government funding for the arts, and now there is the serious possibility of even that being diminished by the current administration’s threat to abolish the NEA and other publicly funded arts organizations like PBS. Consequently, artists in the United States have always been more dependent on support from private donors and corporations. Fortunately, in the current moment, it is clear that wealthy donors on the left are becoming more aware than ever that the arts are vitally important in maintaining a viable critique. The traumatic wake-up call that the Trump administration has precipitated isn’t entirely a negative thing as it is galvanizing not only liberal-thinking artists but donors and corporate sponsors as well.
When we think about violence theoretically and conceptually, we are often drawn to theatrical questions such as its staging, the performativity, and the issue of forced witnessing. What do you think opera brings to this discussion?
Opera has always been a provocative, confrontational art form that asks difficult questions about the relationship between the individual and society, and it has always struggled to find the right balance between pushing the envelope and not going so far that it is rejected by the status quo.
When opera as we know it was first born in 17th-century Italy, new pieces would be commissioned by the aristocracy and staged in the palaces of princes as private and socially exclusive events. Since then, the reputation of opera as an expensive and privileged kind of entertainment has clung to the art form. However, from its beginnings, there has always been another side to opera, which was created by musicians and poets who wanted to recapture the power of Greek theater to tell deeply meaningful stories through music. As with the Greek tragedies, whose performances were intensely communal events exerting a powerful influence on the politics of their era, such attempts continually blur the lines between art and politics and bring them together in novel ways. This is the subversive side to opera that seeks to challenge established ideas, norms, and assumptions.
There is something about opera that sets it apart from the other arts. The way in which it sings its stories can affect us in such a uniquely visceral way through the magical alchemy of its combination of text and music. It has the ability to take us on a journey into the darkest and deepest recesses of human experience. The power of music and the non-rational layers it evokes work on the spectator in ways which spoken theater cannot always achieve. Consequently, opera inspires a fanatical response from its devotees, many of whom have a strong sense of ownership of the great works from the past that they revere. This segment of the operatic public sometimes resents directors like myself who are intent on interpreting these pieces from a modern perspective and stripping away the detritus of tradition to reveal the timeless truths, not always pretty, which these pieces sing about and which resonate down through time to our own moment.
As an operatic director whose work has been notably singled out for its engagement with violence, what ethical challenges (if any) do you think directors face or need to acknowledge when dealing with performances of violence?
This mad art form has a particular advantage when it comes to touching people. It taps into the raw energy of human emotion, which of course is also central in our attempts to understand violence and the pain and suffering of others. And what is ethics, especially when it comes to violence, if not the ability to feel some form of empathy, compassion, and connection with suffering?
How one depicts violence on stage is always a tricky question. In my work, I have usually tried to rob violence of its glamour by stressing its ugliness and brutality, unlike the more romantic theatrical/operatic tradition that was content to profit, uncritically, from the entertainment potential of violent acts portrayed on stage, often in a softened and prettied-up manner. I feel that my grittier approach has generally been successful in exposing dark layers in the music of operas, layers that had previously lain dormant in more soft-edged traditional stagings. I have to admit that, occasionally, the overtly nasty depiction of violence in my productions may have jutted up too abrasively against the music, preventing the opera in question from working its usual magic. There is always a delicate balancing act involved in bringing a modern sensibility into play when dealing with works of art from the past, and sometimes I may have crossed over the line.
One of the hallmarks of contemporary life is the speeding up of all social interactions. A notable casualty of this is the much-needed time for critical reflection. But arguably this is where opera truly has a critical advantage, as there is often a much-slower temporality to the violence, which takes place in a more concentrated fashion. What lessons might we take from this?
The main reason I’ve been drawn to opera, a dream-like, non-naturalistic art form with greater similarities to ritualistic Asian theater than to the Western kitchen sink realism tradition, has been because of its poetic nature. It avoids presenting reality from a straight-on, literal point of view. Like non-representational 20th-century visual art styles, it attempts to get at the elusive nature of existence through more fragmented, abstract means. A prime example of this aspect of opera can be found in the works of Handel, one of the greatest music theater composers of any era. I am currently pleased to be working on a few different productions of Handel operas, both in the United Kingdom and the United States, and Handel’s genius in utilizing highly formalized 18th-century musical structures to bring to vivid life the full range of human experience never ceases to amaze and inspire me. His works are filled with exquisitely drawn out arias where a singer will sing about a situation, a thought, or an emotion for an extended time, frozen in one moment as time stands still. The audience is invited to take the time to focus on that moment from many different angles, rather like the experience of looking at an abstract painting which depicts a bowl of fruit from multiple perspectives simultaneously. This contemplative Kabuki theater–ish approach creates an atmosphere in which to dissect and ruminate on not only positive and creative human drives like love, empathy, and connection, but also the darker and, yes, more violent sides of human nature.
A potent example of this is my recent production of an early piece by Handel, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, presented at the performance space in Brooklyn called National Sawdust, which transformed the mythical tale of the Cyclops in love with the sea nymph into a modern Trumpian pussy-grabbing parable of the sexual entitlement of powerful males. Set in a rich man’s bathroom, the sea nymph Galatea and her lover Acis were portrayed as two servants bathing their master (the Cyclops), whose threatening sexual harassment leads to the eventual suicide of one and the murder of the other. The timeless theme of bullying was reinforced by the fact that the Cyclops seemed to be driven as much by the thrill of humiliating Galatea in her lover’s presence as by her actual seduction. Because of Handel’s extraordinary ability to psychologize his characters through his music, the piece packs quite a punch and it did not take all that much tweaking to uncover strong parallels between this mythological tale and our current era defined by power, class, and the brutality of thwarted desire.
Returning to the question of sexual violence. Another criticism of opera is the way in which it can often beautify the death of its heroines. How are we to make sense of this politically? And does this perhaps tell us something more about the audience itself and what it desires when it comes to witnessing violence?
Opera’s problematic relationship to women has been widely acknowledged for some time, especially in our current era which is becoming increasingly more sensitized to feminist and gender issues. It began in the 19th century when the female soprano became the star of the show and replaced the dominance once afforded to the male castrato. The new focus on the plight of female heroines signaled a shift in the politics of opera. The great majority of operas that premiered in the 19th century were written by male composers and librettists for the delectation of audiences sitting in opulent opera houses, watching stories often focused on beautiful, passive women suffering and dying for love.
Looking beneath the surface of these male-generated fantasies of female victimization reveals a fascinating side of opera that speaks disturbingly about patriarchal societal structures. Men’s complicated and conflicted feelings about women, ranging from idolatry to desire to fear to hatred, are taken extravagant advantage of in the eroticization of female disempowerment played out in an endless succession of scenes of operatic madness and suicide. The pornographic kick of opera as a kind of singing snuff film says a lot about the male need to take violent control of the power women exert over them, first celebrating it by putting it on a pedestal and worshipping it and then feeling dominant and victorious over it when the heroine is punished with madness and/or death.
Let’s take the example of an early 20th-century piece, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which tells the upsetting tale of a Japanese geisha who makes the mistake of falling in love with an American naval officer who considers her to be no more than his temporary concubine. After abandoning her and their child when his ship sails back home, he returns a couple of years later with his American wife, intending to take the child away. This leads directly to the suicide of the traumatized geisha. Puccini’s opera is, clearly, a deeply political piece addressing head-on the dark side of imperialism, focused on a foreigner who buys into the American dream and is subsequently duped and victimized by it. But it is told through music of such seductive beauty and, traditionally, presented in picture-postcard productions that sugarcoat the story to make it palatable to bourgeois opera audiences who have probably come to hear the latest star soprano and tenor rather than to experience a harrowing evening in the theater. However, when the comforting layers of tradition are stripped away, the sadistic betrayal at the core of this story is revealed with devastating force and, as in a Lars von Trier film, the audience is witness to the disillusioned heroine’s painful downhill slide.
There is a terrible episode in Puccini’s personal life involving his wife’s hysterical jealousy of a servant who worked in their household. Knowing her husband’s womanizing proclivities, she assumed the worst and hounded the servant relentlessly with her accusations of adultery to the point where the poor girl committed suicide. The subsequent post-mortem revealed the dead girl to be a virgin and, after being put on trial, Puccini’s wife was sent to prison. This episode, which sounds a lot like the plot of a Puccini opera, illustrates the fact that Puccini can hardly be called a feminist, nevertheless he betrayed a certain ambivalent sensitivity to feminist issues by his choice to set to music a number of other stories, like Butterfly’s, focused on woman’s tenuous position in a patriarchal world. Of course, as in a von Trier film, there is a very fine line in Puccini’s operas between empathy for the victimized heroine and sadistic pleasure in witnessing her traumatic demise.
Turning to your adaptation of La vida breve, the final scene featuring the savage cutting and suicide of the seemingly fated gypsy girl Salud is powerful and compelling. I was particularly drawn to the sacrificial element and its notable Catholic iconography, which resurrects images of the suffering of the cross. Do you think there is something about such theological traces, which still resonates with audiences when coming to terms with violence?
The operatic art form, with its focus on humanity’s suffering and mortality, is often only a few steps away from the rituals of the Catholic Church. An excellent case in point is Manuel de Falla’s La vida breve, yet another disturbing opera about the betrayal and eventual death of a credulous female, which takes place in the picturesque city of Granada and features gorgeous outpourings of folkloristic Spanish music. In my production for Opera North in the United Kingdom, I set the piece in the stark environment of a dress factory where the heroine, Salud, is one of many women sitting at rows of sewing machines. I made this choice in order to stress the class conflict at the heart of the piece, as the plot is focused on Salud’s relationship with a wealthy young man from the other side of the tracks who seduces and abandons the gypsy girl then marries his well-to-do fiancée. The libretto never makes clear what Salud actually dies from after she learns of the betrayal and, in traditional productions of the piece, she dies a rather generic operatic death, presumably of a broken heart. I replaced this sanitized death with an extremely upsetting, drawn-out scene where Salud takes a pair of scissors from her worktable and cuts her arms and face before fatally stabbing herself, as her fellow workers egg her on. The final scene was played as a frozen religious tableau, with Salud held aloft by her fellow workers, worshiping her as a kind of saint crucified on the cross of their powerlessness and disenfranchisement in a society that tacitly condones the entitled male’s abandonment of the lower-class female. The darkly fatalistic Spanish Catholic imagery that dominates the libretto and the sensuous brutality of de Falla’s passionate music inspired me to remove the piece from its naturalistic setting and, instead, play it out as a kind of religious passion play in which the shockingly violent act of Salud’s self-martyrdom was the central and defining event.
To conclude, it seems that there is still a long way to go in any attempt to see opera as a political form of intervention on its own terms. How might critical thinkers resource opera better?
It is clearly problematic for plenty of people (among them, no doubt, some critical thinkers!) to look beyond opera’s reputation, in some quarters, as an elitist art form with its well-coiffed head in the clouds, divorced from the problems of the real world and extremely expensive to produce. But as somebody who has derived so much pleasure and inspiration from this challenging but rewarding art form, I hope that at least a segment of future generations will continue to be struck by opera’s ability to communicate on so many different levels about the human experience. It is certainly encouraging that, during the past couple of decades, there has been a gratifying burst of interest, particularly in the United States, in new works being produced by opera companies across the country. Audiences are connecting more and more with these pieces of musical theater created by composers and writers from our current moment, and this, more than anything else, points the way to the future of opera as a vital part of our cultural life.
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.