Thursday 29 September 2011

Operatic polemic

Manifest Destiny 2011, King’s Head Theatre, London

The King’s Head Theatre is a fantastically intimate venue, and one with a stellar reputation since its success with OperaUpClose’s production of La Bohème, which ran sold-out for six months in 2009-10. It is laudable that OperaUpClose are building on this success by taking a bold risk on a contemporary work: Manifest Destiny 2011, a reworking of a 2003 piece by Keith Burstein and Dic Edwards timed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of 9/11, concerns suicide bombing and the Israel-Palestine conflict, and is clearly out to cause a stir.

Manifest Destiny is the story of Leila, a Palestinian living in London with her Jewish partner Daniel, who decides to seek out her destiny by becoming a suicide bomber back in Palestine. She, and also her friend and fellow suicide bomber Mohammed, are captured by the CIA. Both of them re-evaluate their political views, especially as they get to know the CIA director, who is portrayed as sinister and ignorant. Also, the president of the USA is a ditzy woman who has presumably been ‘Palinised’ a bit since the prior 2003-5 production. The opera ends, when Mohammed visits Daniel in London, with ‘an act of reconciliation between a Palestinian and a Jew’. The composer made this last comment himself, just in case we had managed to miss the symbolism, in the Guardian in 2004.

It is perhaps worth questioning, on an extremely basic level, whether an Islamist adequately zealous to train as a suicide bomber would really ever have been bunking up with a Jew in London. And the morality of the piece is also perplexing generally. We are asked to sympathise with the plight of Leila’s homeland (she sings this strange verse over and over again: ‘There is a tree in my mother’s garden, / For many a hundred year, / Green and rich in foliage. / Now sandstone has stripped it of its bark, and stripped it of its life’. The CIA director joins in too) – but we are not shown how this plight might lead to a justification for becoming a suicide bomber. The suicide bombers, in fact, are only humanised because the question of why they became suicide bombers is never properly examined (and also because neither of them actually go through with the act). In short, the plot of this opera is quite odd and far less constructively polemical than it intends.

Burstein’s music is also questionable in concept: he is an exponent of what he himself has billed ‘Super Tonality’. This ‘revolution’ is Burstein’s solution to a purported crisis in modern music: that of ‘atonalism, which nobody likes, except the critics, and which, however interesting once, is no longer new, radical or valid and which has no significant audience’. To tackle this, Burstein writes extremely benign music with lots of major and minor chords. Much like the opera’s politics, this idea misses the mark in terms of polemic: ‘atonalism’ could benefit from a more precise definition than Burstein gives it, and besides, by normal standards, there are plenty of contemporary composers who make heavy and inventive use of tonality. And while Burstein’s music remains extreme for just how diatonic it is, this unfortunately doesn’t make it interesting or original. I made a point of listening to some Birtwistle on my iPod on the way home. Essentially, this is not an opera which I would have taken particularly seriously, were it not for how incredibly seriously it takes itself – and how sensationally good a job OperaUpClose did of realising it.

This was, after all, a delivery of real conviction from all of the extremely young cast and production team. Emma Pettermerides was a headstrong Leila who was commanding as both a singer and an actress. David Menezes made the predictable musical lines of Daniel sound beautiful. Apart from a brief moment when he focused a video camera onto his own crotch, Dario Dugandzic was extremely strong as Mohammed. It was directed by Valentina Ceschi with inventiveness, using video cameras and projection to great effect in the first act, and exploiting the small size of the venue by having the cast engage directly with the audience on several occasions. OperaUpClose continue to be dynamic innovators whom it will be worth following in coming years.

On the subject of polemic in opera, it’s worth noting that English National Opera’s new production of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Auschwitz opera The Passenger (reviewed on Culture Wars by Sarah Boyes) is currently generating much critical debate: Rupert Christiansen has expressed the opinion that ‘Auschwitz is no place for opera’, while Norman Lebrecht considers the work ‘something close to a masterpiece’. And ENO is also putting on John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer next year. This is a work with a particularly intriguing history: Boston Symphony Orchestra’s decision to pull performances of extracts from this piece several months after the 9/11 attacks provoked much discussion of the role of political polemic in opera, which was absorbingly summarised by musicologist Richard Taruskin. Where both The Passenger and Klinghoffer differ from Manifest Destiny, however, is in their sensitivity and technical accomplishment, and perhaps the key issue which the production raises is precisely when it is actually worth engaging with controversy.

That it must remain a duty of the arts to engage with and to challenge politics is clear enough. Before the 2003 première of Manifest Destiny, the director Peter Sellars asked on Newsnight about the work: ‘If opera does not tackle such issues, then what?’ This is certainly a question. Nevertheless, it is another question whether it is particularly constructive – or indeed sensitive – to tackle issues as meaty as suicide bombing if you’re not going to say anything useful about them. That said, the commitment of Burstein and Edwards to their piece is never in doubt, and good for them. Furthermore, the creators’ zealousness has attracted the support of a hugely talented young theatre company. It’s just a pity that this company’s faith hasn’t been better rewarded.

Booking till 2 October 2011


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