Magazine article The New Yorker

Nausea; Musical Events

Magazine article The New Yorker

Nausea; Musical Events

Article excerpt

"A ray of light: the Grail is fully radiant. A dove floats down from the dome above." These are Richard Wagner's stage directions for the maximally transcendent final moments of "Parsifal," his last opera. Christoph Schlingensief's production at the Bayreuth Festival last week gave us instead two dead rabbits, their rotting bodies intertwined, their images projected on a screen above the stage. We then saw a sped-up film of one rabbit decomposing, its body frothing as the maggots did their work. I've seen a lot of stupid, repulsive, irritating, befuddling, and boring things on opera stages over the years, but Schlingensief's dead-rabbit climax was something new: for the first time, I left a theatre feeling, like, ready to hurl.

The trouble with this sort of provocation is that if you criticize it, even with an involuntary emetic reflex, you end up playing a role that the instigator has written for you. You are cast as the reactionary, the sentimentalist, the sort of person who requires a kitschy white dove, as if white doves and rotting rabbits were the only options. You are suspected of harboring Fascist tendencies. When Endrik Wottrich, the tenor who sang Parsifal, disavowed Schlingensief's attempt to transplant the action to Namibia, the director accused him of having uttered racist slurs. No matter that the staging was full of hackneyed "darkest Africa" imagery, with several singers done up in inky blackface; the provocateur will always have the upper hand against the provoked. "If my enemies shout 'boo' at the premiere, then all is in order," Schlingensief told Stern. Indeed, when the curtain fell, the audience responded with the loudest, lustiest boos I've heard outside of Yankee Stadium. Less than a third of the audience applauded when Schlingensief took his bow. In other words, a triumph.

A curious charade played out in the press afterward: everyone denied that anything untoward had happened. The bigwigs who had walked down the red carpet at the gala "Parsifal" premiere said nothing negative when a reporter from the Nordbayerischer Kurier canvassed their opinions. Edmund Stoiber, the Minister-President of Bavaria, claimed that the production had suited him "because it presented an entirely new point of view." Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, found it only logical that "Parsifal" had been transplanted from Germany to Africa. (The opera is set in Spain, but never mind.) Who, then, had made all that noise? Perhaps ordinary opera lovers who had paid for their tickets? When I read the reviews two days later, I was amazed to discover that there hadn't been any scandal at all--only a few boos, perhaps. A new reality was agreed upon that had little to do with what had happened in the theatre.

It's all politics, of course. Because German opera houses are heavily supported by state and local governments, the audience's opinion is relatively immaterial; productions are bought and sold in a marketplace of intellectual publicity. Whenever I attend this kind of opera-esque event, I feel as though I were being called upon to judge some intricate sport I don't understand, like synchronized swimming. Still, opera it nominally remained, and, as opera, it was god-awful.

Schlingensief is what the Germans call an Aktionskunstler, or "action artist," meaning that his theatre pieces take the form not of conventional performances but of happenings, demonstrations, media pranks, talk shows, even B movies. He is the head of something called the Church of Fear, one of whose slogans is "Don't expect too much from the end of the world!" He is notorious for taunting politicians; in 1997, he was arrested for displaying signs that said, "Kill Helmut Kohl." In 2002, he targeted Jurgen Mollemann, of the Free Democratic Party, who had allegedly made anti-Semitic slurs. Schlingensief staged mock neo-Nazi rallies with banners modelled on the F.D.P. colors. "Kill Mollemann," he reportedly said. A year later, Mollemann committed suicide by cutting loose his parachute while skydiving. …

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