Friday, July 1, 2016

"GET THE F&CK OFF STAGE!" Nationalism, Racism, and Sexism at the Deutsche Oper's Production of Mozart's "Abduction from the Serail"

- The Deutsche Oper, Tuesday, June 28, 2016

I (Kira) am in Berlin for the summer, pretending to do research in archives but mostly trying to write my damn book in the few hipster coffee shops that have wi-fi here. And while I'm here, I do what I always do in Berlin, which is go to the opera. It's almost like I'm a carrier pigeon. The homing device in my brain beeping towards the Deutsche Oper kicks in pretty much instantly once I land at Flughafen Tegel.

I've only seen two productions so far in the week that I've been here (Richard Strauss's Elekra and Mozart's Abduction from the Serail) but the second one (Abduction) that I saw was by far the most disturbing. And it's taken me some time to figure out why I found Tuesday's performance so traumatizing and strange. But I think I've figured it out (mostly) and I'd like to share my thoughts with you all about it.

I'd already been told that the Deutsche Oper's production was a wacky staging of Mozart's opera, The Abduction from the Serail/Die Entführung aus dem Serail. It's an exotic opera (as most of you already know), set in a palace in the Ottoman empire. It is, as critic Edward Said argued back in the late 60s/early 70s in his famous book, Orientalism, an imagining of the Orient. Europeans imagined that harems (the section of the palace where women lived separate from men) were exotic, erotic, sensual, glamorous, and forbidden. That's not what harems were actually like. But that's not the point. It's how Europeans imagined them, and we've been living with the consequences of Europe's imagination for some time now (ugh).

Anyway. A few things about the plot that are necessary to know before I explain what I experienced: Belmonte (dashing young tenor) is in love with Konstanze (despondent beautiful soprano), who has been kidnapped by the scary Pasha Selim (male speaking role). Guarding the harem is Osmin, a brutish baritone who's not the brightest crayon in the box (bless).

I've seen this production many, many, many times. I've seen different DVDs of it. I've seen it at the Staatsoper. I've seen the crazy Calixto Bieito staging that everyone hates.
Calixto Bieito's staging of Die Entfürhung aus der Serail at the Komische Oper (

But this evening, my naive opera-going self did not know what she was getting into.

Where do I even start????

With the booing. There was so much booing. Loud booing. Enraged booing. Shouting back and forth, people saying nasty things to the singers on stage (directly calling them out by name!), saying nasty things to each other. The booing started pretty much instantly and did not let up for about 20 minutes. I'm not kidding! And the shouting was so full of outrage, anger, and venom that I honestly worried I was in a Rite of Spring moment (note: people rioted at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's ballet, The Rite of Spring in 1913. Booing, fist fights, and everything. Fighting poured into the streets). It was so intense that my heart wouldn't stop beating quickly. It was so intense that a woman about ten rows behind me passed out and the ushers had to call for a doctor as she was carried out of the theater.

Why were they booing? Because the director changed all of the dialogue from German into English. This enraged a woman in the balcony so much she just wouldn't stop screaming about it. Every time a singer opened his or her mouth to say something in English, she howled. "DAS IST DIE DEUTSCHE OPER!/THIS IS THE GERMAN OPERA!" Everything should be in German!

My first thought when I started realizing that people were outraged because the singers (most of whom were American, actually) were speaking in English was of African American mezzo-soprano  Vera Little's debut as Carmen at the Deutsche Oper in 1958.
People were absolutely shocked by the audience's response to her performance. The booing was so vociferous that stories appeared about it in the news for several days after her debut. People wrote in also explaining why they had booed her. It was not (entirely) because she was black, but rather because she was foreign. And they wanted to keep The German Opera House truly German. One local opera-goer wrote,

"In reference to your 'Carmen' critique, I would like to say that the booing did not refer to the singer Vera Little herself, to her achievements, or to her being a Negress. The protesting is focused on the fact that more and more good German [male and female] singers are being laid off. Instead, foreigners are engaged who are not better, but at best just as good. I would be interested to hear how the intendant of the City Opera justifies this fact." (Not naming the source - my own private stash, and I have a book to publish!)

Another separate letter also lays this bare:

"There are only five soloists in the ensemble of the State Opera, who have world-class status and who are beloved by opera visitors: Ms. Grümmer, Ms. Trötschel, Mr. Greindl, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau, Mr. Suthaus. But how much longer before these last great talents will also leave? None of these soloists were engaged by Intendant Ebert, but rather underused. Who does he engage? Names like Parabas, Lane, Pilarczyk, Konya, Heater, Roth- Ehrang, and Neralic."  (same deal here)

What do all of those names have in common? They're all, of course, foreign names.

What's great about this Vera Little example is that it reminds us to historicize our contemporary experiences. The fear or suspicion that the Deutsche Oper is becoming a little less German was palpable on the stage that night, and it's also entered German politics. The far-right, racist, xenophobic hate group PEGIDA, for example, recently denounced avant-garde stagings that don't celebrate German values and the hiring of non-German singers as well. Hm. 

But these fears of foreignness infiltrating the German opera world aren't new. And you know what? It's pretty obvious that the "foreignness" of the Deutsche Oper hasn't made it any less "deutsch" over the years. The world hasn't collapsed. People still buy tickets. We rejoice and we will continue to rejoice over good singing, irrespective of who it was who opened his or her mouth to sing the aria we love deeply.

So in other words: the Germanness of the the Deutsche Oper has always been a sticking point amongst fans of the Deutsche Oper. They see themselves as the vanguards and gatekeepers of the best opera house in Germany (they'd say) and the one most representative of what German opera is capable of. But the irony here, of course, is that the Deutsche Oper excels because it hires the best singers from around the world. Some homegrown (Diana Damrau), some foreign (Joyce DiDonato). 


So here's to Part II of this blog post, The Production Itself, Which Was Indeed A Hot Mess.

Because I was so distracted by the booing and the shouting and the fighting in the audience, I honestly didn't have much time to think about the opera production itself until the second half, when things had calmed down a bit more.

And guys. I think I pretty much hated it. I'm not against provocative stagings of opera. I loved Barrie Kosky's staging of Rigoletto from a while back, and that one had evil clowns dancing around everywhere in it (my best friend, Connie, and my husband, Joel, still haven't forgiven me for taking them to see it):
Verdi's Rigoletto at the Komische Oper, 2010

But it was a cohesive staging that enhanced (and did not detract away from) the story of Rigoletto itself.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Deutsche Oper, 2016

Everyone in the opera - including Belmonte and Konstanze, who are supposed to be in love with each other (he travels thousands of miles to rescue her!) - were completely debased, unfaithful, and just all-around terrible human beings. The harem itself was a site of just sheer debauchery. Everyone was on drugs, making drugs, taking drugs, sleeping with each other, etc.  As Belmonte sings of his love for Konstanze in the first act, a film played in the background showing him having a threeway with two other women. True, Mozart always pokes at fidelity in his operas (I'm looking at you, Cosi Fan Tutte), but he does so with a wink-wink and a nudge-nudge. From the perspective of director Rodrigo Garcia, however, everything looks like a nail when you have a hammer. Subtlety just completely went out the window.

That didn't bother me so much as the outright sexism of the staging. All of the women in the harem (dancers mostly) were the same shape and size. Skinny. Big boobs. Flat stomach. You get the gist. 
And I don't think that the director was using them to critique how society defines beauty and womanhood. I think he honestly just thought that this was the model standard of beauty and went with it. 

My other big problem with the staging was that he hired a black woman to play the Pasha Selim, the Sultan-type character who abducted Konstanze to his palace. It's not that I'm against hiring black women in opera (obvs). But it's that he deliberately sought out a stereotype.

The casting call stated that he was looking for tall black women who could play basketball. The woman who won the part, Annabelle Mandeng, jokingly said she got it because she could dribble the best on stage. Um, what?
Annabelle Mandeng as Pasha Selim in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Deutsche Oper 2016 

Even this I was willing to look past if I thought the director was going to do something interesting with her part. But no. Again and again and again, black female sexuality stands for something deviant, titillating, strange, and debased. How do you want to make Die Entführung wacky? Make the Pasha Selim a black lesbian who leads a sex-crazed, drug-obsessed harem. You know what? I'm over it. So, so over it.

Of course, director Rodrigo Garcia and others are patting themselves on the back for their progressivism, for supporting artists of different "migration background" in their work. But we see through that, right? What kinds of roles are different artists of color being assigned? What do these roles signify? That matters just as much as the act of hiring someone who doesn't look like a traditional white German.

It was her monologue, told in a repetitive, Gertrude Stein kind of way ("I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you...") that drew the most ire from audiences. Professed in English from the body of a tall, amazonian Afro-German woman, it made the whole evening all the more strange and, because of the audience's reaction to her, disturbing. 

The singing was beautiful in this production. Gorgeous. Kathryn Lewek (Eastman alum, what whaaaaaat!) was a phenomenal Konstanze! Oh my goodness! Girlfriend can SANG. But the production and the audience's response to it just bothered the hell out of me. Opera is alive, yes! But so are racism, nationalism, and sexism. And they were all on display that evening.


  1. Wow. Just wow. So much weird and wrong here. And yet, somehow, what I got most hung up on was "strong athletic woman == lesbian."

    Love me some Mozart, but I think I am glad to have missed this one.

    1. Also, thanks for the link to the AfD/Opera story. That's an angle I hadn't heard from them yet.