AIRossini: Opera as Critical Entertainment

 

The dismantling of conventional opera house etiquette
and the participation of the audience
in an urgent contemporary political discourse, remains controversial

Anna Papaeti & Áine Sheil

 

The death of opera has been pronounced and debated almost since the inception of the art form. Often criticized as a dated and costly medium, monopolizing the majority of state funding for the arts, it appears to be addressed to a small, upper middle-class, elitist and, in most cases, ageing audience. This critique is one of the most serious ones faced by opera houses internationally. Despite their many (often imaginative) efforts to attract a wider public through education departments, outreach programmes and technological dissemination (for example, New York’s Metropolitan Opera’s High Definition cinema broadcasts or the Royal Opera House Covent Garden’s Big Screens in public spaces), opera audiences do not appear to be changing significantly in profile.1

Except in cases where opera houses are heavily subsidized by taxpayers, operatic repertory is essentially focused on popular composers of the canon such as Puccini, Verdi, Mozart and Rossini; Wagner remains for the most part the reserve of larger, better-resourced companies. Although the rise of so-called director’s opera, inspired by Regietheater, has led to more complex and critical opera stagings in continental Europe and to a lesser degree in the UK, many companies shy away from overtly political productions, perhaps for fear of alienating patrons and harming box office returns. The Metropolitan Opera’s recent staging of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is telling. Employing an impressive array of new staging technologies, its director, the renowned Robert Lepage, disappointingly chose to convey Wagner’s story in a literal, one-dimensional fashion, minimizing the multi-layered political, social and historical aspects of the work. In effect, this production became part of the culinary culture with which Bertolt Brecht famously associated opera in his essay ‘The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre’, written in 1930. 

For Brecht, opera as an ‘apparatus’ of entertainment establishes an attitude in the spectator that is uncritical and ill-suited to reflection on social and political issues of the day. Its ‘culinary’ aspect leads to an enjoyable intoxication, mainly aimed at pleasure, entertainment and illusion – a criticism he mounted in particular against Wagner’s music drama and the fusion of the arts (Gesamtkunstwerk).2

A recent Greek-German collaboration between The Beggars’ Operas, Athens, and Neuköllner Oper, Berlin, brings back to the fore the question of opera’s relevance as a forum for critique, political intervention and debate. Although perhaps not strictly Brechtian, the two productions that have stemmed from this fruitful collaboration have put contemporary politics on stage, clearly taking on board Brecht’s critique of opera. Politics are not staged in the usual manner of a shallow reading of a work, highlighting obvious (often historical) political dimensions. On the contrary, urgent contemporary politics pervade the very core of the two productions undertaken so far, namely Yasou Aida! (2012) and  AIRossini (2013). In both cases, Alexandros Efklidis (director), Kharálampos Goyós (composer) and Dimitris Dimopoulos (writer) have used certain core elements of old works, on which they have built a new contemporary story. Musically the works are adjusted for a small stage and a very small orchestra.  

In the case of Yasou Aida!, the music of Verdi’s Aida was used along with the opera’s colonial discourse to form the basis of a contemporary story about the economic neocolonializing policies in Europe and the crude national stereotypes stemming from the Greek economic crisis in the era of austerity. It received both box-office and critical acclaim. Glowing media responses were not restricted to cultural columns and were not solely published and broadcast in Germany and Greece (where it was staged), but also appeared in the international media (e.g. BBC News).

Coming so soon after Yasou Aida!, AIRossini (subtitled Opéra oligarchique zu einer Flughafeneröffnung, oligarchic opera for an airport opening)had high expectations to fulfill. Inspired by the Occupy movement and the discourse of the 99%, the opera consists of a number of ironic episodes about the troubles of the ‘elite’ 1%, trapped in a new German airport named after the postwar Social Democrat chancellor Willy Brandt. Here, the creative team of AIRossini draws on reality: Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airportis indeed under construction, but its opening has been delayed many times due to poor planning and management, and the date of its inauguration is still unknown. The opera is therefore set in the future, on the opening day of the airport, but its allusions to the fiasco of the real construction process are clear and abundant: chaos reigns, much to the chagrin of the six characters, who assemble in a malfunctioning VIP lounge. 

The ‘fellowship of the elite’ consists of a Swiss banker, a Chinese software dealer, an Arab Prince, a pop star, a former computer hacker, now turned internet security consultant, and a Greek shipping heiress. The criticism by the Greek heiress of the shoddy Berlin airport is highly ironic, given stereotypes about the Greeks in German media in recent years: ‘Shitty state! It’s all mere chaos. How about the new airport? Laughable! It’s not even worth my spit.’ She and the other characters plan to fly to a meeting that decides the fates of the 99%, but they are trapped in the lounge, at first due to a series of farcical operational problems, and later by the occupation of the airport by demonstrators.  Although their flight never takes off, the meeting is not cancelled or postponed, but is conducted online – perhaps an indication of the systemic resilience of neoliberalism despite the challenges posed by global financial crises and the Occupy and indignado movements they have provoked. 

AIRossini is based on Rossini’s one-act scenic cantata Il viaggio a Reims, composed to mark the coronation of the French king Charles X in 1825. It takes place in a spa hotel at Plombières, where an international group of aristocrats and high officials of different nationalities (including a Greek girl) are getting ready to attend the coronation at Reims. The work was therefore topical not only in its celebration of the coronation, but also in its references to the state of current affairs in Europe, including the ongoing Greek revolution. The types of characters presented in Viaggio are recognizable stereotypes, ripe for comic action. Despite their grand intentions to attend the coronation, they remain stranded in Plombières, waiting in vain for coaches to transport them to Reims. There are no horses to be had, and the journey never takes place. Instead the frivolities and vanities of the characters are revealed, one by one, as the frustration of waiting takes its toll. In the end, the characters plan to join the King’s post-coronation celebrations in Paris, and their disappointment at not getting to Reims is quickly set aside. Viaggio finishes with the characters singing in their own national styles in praise of Charles X.

Written as a circumstantial piece – Rossini withdrew the opera after just four performances, and raided the best of its musical content for another opera – Viaggio disappeared into obscurity until the late 20th century, and will probably never occupy a particularly prominent place in the operatic repertory. It is, however, highly regarded for its deft musical writing and the technical sophistication of its ensembles involving up to 14 soloists at a time. Musically, then, the opera exudes the type of extravagance well suited to its celebration of France’s Restoration monarchy: indeed, the musicologist Benjamin Walton has argued that Viaggio provided ‘the soundtrack for the Restoration’, lending itself to the myth-making that Charles X so badly needed in a country and period lacking in royalist feeling.3

In his programme note for AIRossini, composer Kharálampos Goyós sees another quality in the music of Viaggio, namely its ‘shameless genericity’. According to Goyós, Rossini’s musical building blocks ‘endlessly rearrang[e] themselves into new configurations without ever essentially transforming themselves and totally oblivious to the niceties of situation and character’. In this, the self-driving music reflects an essential aspect of the economic logic that forms AIRossini’s contemporary context: that is, the self-expanding character of capital accumulation.  Marx famously described capital as ‘self-valorizing value’ that overruns all limits and controls to become a viciously expanding ‘automatic subject’. What we call ‘capitalism’ is the sum effect of countless individuals acting within a pressurized structure of economic rivalry and competition; it is the relentless and indifferent logic of valorization that is really in control. Similarly, Rossini’s music sets up a generative logic, from which a system of effects rigorously unfolds with scant regard for the desires and subject positions of the characters.

Quite apart from Goyós’ use of the Viaggio score as a basis for AIRossini’s music, the points of connection between two works are clear: a group of elites is thwarted in its travel plans, and while it waits, impatiently grounded, the members of the group reveal their stereotypical traits to varying degrees of comic effect. The nature and purpose of that comedy is, however, starkly different. Whereas Viaggio engages in gentle, ultimately conformist farce, AIRossini is highly critical in nature, taking unmistakable aim at a list of issues including the euro crisis, the continued power of markets despite recent financial meltdown, celebrity culture, consumerism, reality TV, Chinese state capitalism and the control of the Internet and its rapidly diminishing potential as a free space. 

The use of the American national anthem in connection with this last issue is highly ironic and timely, given the extent of US Internet surveillance recently revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Like AIRossini’s characters, Snowden is currently stuck in the no-man’s land of an international airport, but the reality of his situation is far from comic. AIRossini also references the Occupy movement, Wikileaks and Anonymous/hactivism, resulting in a contemporaneity at once reflective of today’s chaotic abundance of rebellious discontent, and too rich for some Berlin opera critics.

While the satire directed at the mismanagement of Berlin Brandenburg Airport was generally well received, the larger social and economic issues referenced in the production went down less well in the press: in Der Tagesspiepel, Udo Badelt complained that the references added nothing but self-defeating name-dropping, while in the online magazine Der Opernfreund, Ingrid Wanja lamented the fact that there was a second half: Act I struck her as excellent cabaret-type music theatre, but she dismissed Act II as ‘more Agitprop than Rossini could take’.Wanja’s comment reveals the discomfort of the seasoned opera-goer at having to confront overt political critique at the opera, even in a country (Germany) and city (Berlin) noted for politically nuanced opera stagings. The comment also brings to mind Viaggio’s largely aristocratic audience at the Théâtre Italien, Paris, in 1825. As Benjamin Walton notes, Viaggio’s ‘gentle aristocratic farce’ allowed the audience ‘to laugh with recognition in the safety of their own theatre’.In other words, the opera’s characters were created for an audience of similar social standing, and the plot merely poked fun at aristocratic foibles rather than questioning an entire social structure. 

In the case of AIRossini, the farce surrounding Berlin’s airport may have seemed like safe and recognizable satire, but its wider critique highlighted the disjunction between the opera’s fictional characters and the real audience at Berlin’s Neuköllner Oper. From the outset, the AIRossini characters deliberately break the ‘fourth wall’ in order to cast the audience in the role of the expendable 99%. ‘You are all replaceable’, the characters sing, pointing directly at the audience. This division between elites and non-elites will come back to haunt the characters later: in Act II, the audience joins in the action as chanting, placard-wielding demonstrators, and is only silenced with some difficulty by the elites on stage. This dismantling of conventional opera house etiquette – the open pitting of audience against opera characters – undoubtedly contributes to AIRossini’s particular (and some might say uncomfortable) mode of critique. An audience interpolated into the action only to be openly insulted by the characters in front of them may well resent the characters’ position of privilege within the unfolding plot. In theory this should rule out the kind of comfortable complicity between audience and fictitious characters that appears to have been a feature of Viaggio at the Théâtre Italien in 1825. By becoming what Brecht would call ‘active participants’, audience members gain awareness of their actual position in an urgent contemporary political discourse. Does this, however, manage to bring forth their passage to political action in real life? Can opera, and especially comic opera, cease to be mere entertainment, even when armed with the sharpness of critique? This question, which was theorized extensively and pursued by Brecht, remains unsettled and controversial to this day.

 

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  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 04 (08.2013)