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"Porgy and Bess," a co-production by the Edinburgh International Festival and Opera Lyon, 2010.
Workshopping Edinburgh
By Minou Arjomand


The theme of the Edinburgh International Festival this year was "Oceans Apart": an exploration of relationships between the Old World and the New. I travelled to Edinburgh as the New World's sole delegate at a workshop program held parallel with the festival. This workshop was part of the Deutsche Bank Foundation's "Akademie Musiktheater Heute," a two-year series of workshops for young professionals in opera (composers, directors, conductors, dramaturgs, set designers, and--as the Germans call them--Kulturmanagers). An American, I was there as a dramaturg. All of the other fellows lived in German-speaking European countries; most were born in Germany.

Shuttling back and forth to various workshops over the past few years, it has struck me that the salient differences across the Atlantic weren't so much in the theater itself, but in how people talk about and evaluate theater. One difference was brilliantly articulated by the conductor Pinchas Steinberg during a workshop at the Teatro Real in Madrid this June. Referring to musicians, Steinberg said that in his 40 years of experience there had been one major difference between American and European orchestras. When American instrumentalists encounter a passage they have difficulty playing, they always play softer. When Europeans do, they play as loudly as they can. The observation runs counter to the stereotype of American brashness and volume, yet it was borne out for me in all of our workshop sessions.

During many of our discussions, the level of vitriol and frequency of interruptions were on par with Tea Party town halls, even though the stakes of the arguments often seemed petty. This hostility may have come in part from the rigidly hierarchical structures of German opera houses, perhaps in part from the doom that tended to hover over our conversations about the future of opera with German directors. When I applied to the program, I was asked to write an essay about how to save opera from its current "crisis" (the nature of the crisis was unspecified). After we saw his production of Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman's opera Neither, Peter Mussbach told us: "I really don't know what your generation is going to be able to do that hasn't already been done: in a sense, I think that my production of Neither really shows that we have come to the end of new possibilities for theater."

On our first full day in Edinburgh we met with Jonathan Mills, current director of the Edinburgh International Festival. Mills immediately launched into a well-rehearsed presentation of his interests in risk-taking and creative innovation. Along the way he mentioned that his current thinking about the social role of art was influenced by reading a book about neuroscience. At this, a round-faced German dramaturg wearing a lavender and green striped tie and a violet v-neck sweater interrupted him mid-sentence: "You say that you are interested in taking risks. Yet now you mention that you have been reading a book about neuroscience."

The dramaturg, paused, scoffed, and paused again as though to drive his jibe home, "And yeah, this sort of positivist thinking, and especially neuroscience is very trendy right now. But obviously we can all agree that it represents a reactionary position, and not a very risky one. So, my question would be that I'd like to hear more about your programming choices and how they reflect risk."

He leaned back in his chair, manifestly pleased with himself. Although Mills seemed as mystified about the substance of the dramaturg's complaint as the rest of us, the timbre of the comment left no doubt that it was intended as a crippling insult. A quick hair sweep to the right, and Jonathan Mills countered that programming a John Adams opera as the festival's opening number was very risky indeed, and began to talk about the project.

The dramaturg interrupted again: "Oh yeah, the Christmas Oratorio, right?" Smirk.

"No." To be fair to the dramaturg, it was, in fact, a Christmas Oratorio: El Niño, billed in the program as giving "new life" to "the miracle of the nativity." I was stunned when later that day, the same dramaturg remarked to me that he was impressed by Mills and found his presentation pretty convincing, on the whole. I couldn't imagine how the dramaturg would address someone he didn't respect.


In Ill Fares the Land, Tony Judt argues that we have forgotten how to ask questions. In the political arena we no longer ask whether our actions are just, we ask for the capital risk involved; we don't ask what a good society entails, we ask about profit margins.

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today … We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.

During our workshops, I grew discouraged about our ability to ask questions about theater as well. Rather than asking if the theater makes us and our societies better, we Deutsche Bank fellows would ask: Is it new? Is it radical? Does it look like it was produced without the intention of being a commercial success? To his credit, Jonathan Mills did begin our workshop by throwing out some of the right questions for a festival director: What is a festival? How does it relate to its social context? What does it mean to the community of audience-members? But he raised all of these questions rhetorically. And once he brought up risk, he had a difficult time trying to turn the conversation away from risk as the sine qua non of respectable programming.

Part of the reason that questions about social good were almost entirely absent from our hours of discussion about contemporary theater may be that it was taken for granted. State sponsorship of art has never been seriously questioned in the countries where most of the fellows study and work. While the public support of art in Germany would be a dream to many of us in the States, it may also lead to a certain complacency on the part of young artists who are not called upon to justify their work in social terms. At the same time, it is hard to speculate about what a parallel program with American fellows would be like: avant-garde opera practice is hardly among the priorities of government spending or corporate philanthropy in the United States.

In some ways, the twin theater festivals in Edinburgh represent the funding models from each side of the Atlantic. The Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival were both born in 1947, when the homes of Europe's other major festivals--Munich, Salzburg, Bayreuth--fallowed in moral as well as physical decay. These former sites of European artistic pilgrimage had spent a decade as vehicles for Nazi propaganda. Half a century after the cities were rebuilt, the festivals haven't recovered from their pasts. Hans Neuenfels's famous production of Die Fledermaus at Salzburg sent its 200 euro-a-seat paying audience into a tizzy by portraying them on stage as cocaine-snorting Nazis. In the 2007 Bayreuth festival, Wagner's great-granddaughter Katharine Wagner staged Hitler's favorite, Die Meistersinger. The only coherent remarks most reviewers found to make were that it was trying to say something about Hitler, and that it got a lot of boos. Since assuming leadership of the Bayreuth Festival, Katharine Wagner has asked academics to investigate Bayreuth's ties to the Nazis, in particular the rumor that her grandmother was Hitler's lover.

Free from this sort of compromised history, Edinburgh offers a reprieve from the naval-gazing of much Teutonic Regietheater. The International Festival in Scotland's city on a hill was created to promote peace through a celebration of culture. It was the first major transnational institution in postwar Europe designed specifically to forge a collective European identity. At the same time, the International Festival was hardly designed as a democratic institution: it was traditionally led by a single director who saw himself as the arbiter of European taste.

In contrast to the International Festival, the Fringe is organized on the model of free-market anarchy. The Fringe began when several theater companies arrived at the first International Festival uninvited, and produced their shows simultaneously with the official program. In the following years, more groups followed their example, and in 1959 they created the Festival Fringe Society. This Society has never instituted a selection process. Any group who can pay for its transportation to the festival, accommodations, production costs, the 250-pound registration fee, and rent its own venue in Edinburgh, is welcome.

The International Festival is sometimes accused of snobbery and importing experimental high budget productions that have little to do with Scottish culture; the Fringe Festival is sometimes accused of rabid commercialism and too much standup comedy. Not that the International Festival isn't a commercial venture itself: like other summer festivals around Europe it was in part designed to increase tourism, and its role became increasingly important as Scotland shifted from an industrial to a tourist-driven economy in the late 20th century. Its success led to a proliferation of Edinburgh festivals during the month of August, including the Book Festival, Jazz Festival, Military Tattoo Festival, International Television Festival, and the Festival of Politics.


Based on the shows that I saw during my week in Edinburgh, it seems that the difference between the two festivals is mostly one of scale. On our first night, we fellows attended Porgy and Bess, co-produced by the Edinburgh Festival and the Opera Lyon. Under William Eddins' leadership, the orchestra sounded wonderful: he managed to keep Gershwin's harmonic fineries from drowning in the brass section. The staging departed from the usual period productions of this opera and introduced dancers and a large video screen. The dancers, video, and staged actions were often redundant. In the storm scene (from top down), the screen showed a video of crashing waves, singers braced themselves and sang about the crashing waves, dancers emulated waves. Often the video used a green screen to simultaneously project exactly what was happening on stage above the stage, except that the projection included some close-ups and period details of Catfish Row.

"Porgy and Bess," a co-production by the Edinburgh International Festival and Opera Lyon, 2010.After his death, Gershwin's estate stipulated that Porgy and Bess could only be performed by an all-black cast. Gershwin had been offered a commission by the Metropolitan Opera but turned it down in order to write Porgy and Bess (it wasn't until 1955, twenty years after its premiere, that a black singer first appeared at the Met). While the opera did support the careers of the first generation of African-American opera singers, Porgy's folksy depiction of a rural black community is rife with racial stereotypes. Most productions of it are far more conservative than standard productions of Mozart or Verdi. The assumption remains that only black opera singers can portray the happy, simple people of Catfish Row.

The choreographers who staged this production--José Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu--seemed obsessed with visual authenticity. They managed to throw in every possible visual marker of blackness: costumes and choreography from Kris Kross music videos; brightly colored graffiti tags on wooden fishing shanties from South Carolina c. 1915; video clips of Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights marches, and a burning car. Despite this preoccupation with signifying blackness visually, though, the directors failed to convey Gershwin's most obvious nod to historical and racial specificity: the dialect. Aside from the few Americans in the cast, the accents were very poorly done, as though the directors just assumed that being black (whether French, British, or American) were enough to be able to convincingly speak in the antiquated dialect of Gershwin's libretto. No one else in the all-white audience seemed to notice the incongruity. The location, era, and political message were jumbled, but one thing was clear: these were black people. Porgy and Bess was the biggest commercial success of the International Festival.

Do we look like Refugees? by Beyond Borders Productions Ltd. at the Fringe explored themes similar to those of Porgy and Bess: how communities cope with adversity, and what images, dialects, and intonations of voice can convey individual experience across cultures. Director Alecky Blythe recorded a series of interviews with refugees who lost their homes in the 2008 Russian-Georgian War. Rather than transcribe the interviews, Blythe gave each actor an audio recording. The actors learned their lines by listening to the recordings, imitating not only the words but the inflections of the voices (one of the pleasures of this production was hearing Georgian … thankfully with supertitles). The interviews themselves were well edited and compiled, and had some amazing lines.

When you leave a house empty for more than two years it goes cold. There is a Georgian curse, we say: "May your house go cold." It becomes like an orphan child with sad ears.

The gallows humor of the play made it a pleasure to watch. One woman tells the interviewer that in the refugee camps there are always weddings and new babies: "Even couples who couldn't get pregnant before are having children. "Do We Look Like Refugees?" by Beyond Borders Ltd., 2010.It seems that God is regulating the demographic situation." Blythe's decision to have her actors not only learn from the headphones but also use them on stage created the tension between source material and performance, artifice and authenticity that was missing from Porgy and Bess. Despite the closeness of speech to the original interviews, the headphones emphasized the Brechtian distance between the actors and the people they were portraying.

While Do We Look Like Refugees? included a great deal of cultural specificity, it did not claim to portray the souls of the people. In one episode, the interviewee briefly speaks in mundane terms about her work. Then she asks the interviewer what the interview is for, finds out that it is for a theater piece that will play for international audiences, and begins to pontificate on the beauty of Georgia and cite national poets in elevated terms. At the same time as Blythe and her actors explore Georgian identity, they also show how contingent this identity is on political ambitions and circumstances.


Organizing each year's programming around a theme has been one of Mills's innovations to the festival, and it is linked to his desire to broaden the Festival's traditional focus on European theater. In an interview with Simon Thompson for Musicweb International, Mills explained:

While I have attempted to argue that this Festival need not be so Eurocentric, I haven't attempted to do so in a nationalistic way by saying, for example, "This year we're focusing on China, next year on Iceland or Romania." Instead I've tried to construct a more multi-faceted approach to the theme underpinning each festival journey. This year I've said that I'm interested in looking at a particular region, not a single country, and an idea of how that relationship between worlds might express itself from both positions.

This position is compelling--I only found myself wishing that the theme were more clearly articulated: had Mills not told us about the theme during our discussion, I wouldn't have realized there was one.

There was no headline about the theme in the festival program. Instead, it appeared in 12-point font in Mills's brief introductory text. He wrote that the motto "Oceans Apart" conjured "images of the harsh physical journeys across huge expanses of sea, taken at great peril by European explorers from the 14th century, in search of new worlds. They also suggest the often brutal suppression wrought by colonial invasion. But most of all, I hope that they suggest an expansive imaginative territory between places of extraordinary cultural diversity which this programme seeks to explore and even to bridge." This text throws a sentence of victimhood to both the oppressors and oppressed, but trumps any historical or political specificity with a blanket celebration of hybridity. I was a bit thrown off when during our workshop Mills told us that "as a former colonial himself " he felt comfortable confronting issues that perhaps his British counterparts might avoid. If the Festival Director didn't recognize the difference between a contemporary white Australian and the victims of 14th-century colonialism, it boded poorly for the Festival. None of the descriptions of individual productions in the program referenced the overarching theme, and the criteria for the selections seemed to be simply that the artists came from a historically colonized and/or colonizing country. In other words, the theme of the Edinburgh International Festival was simply that it was international.

I do think that the program was a good-faith attempt on the part of Mills to promote conversation about social and political issues among audience members. The Festival did include a short series of panels and lectures, some of which were about colonialism. But these events weren't free for people who had seen the performances (they cost £6.50--more than most Fringe shows), so audience members had to buy tickets to two separate events to get both the art and the social dialogue. One could certainly sympathize with the difficulty of combining a narrowly defined theme with high-quality programming in such a large festival. At the same time, claiming to the media (and indeed, to workshop participants skeptical of your subversive cred) that the festival tackled a political theme like colonialism when it actually presented an apolitical mix of multicultural fare was irresponsible.

"Montezuma" by Carl Heinrich Graun, dir. Claudia Valdes Kuri, Edinburgh, 2010.Of the productions, one of the few explicitly about colonialism was the 18th-century opera Montezuma composed by Carl Heinrich Graun to a libretto by his benefactor, Friedrich II of Prussia. The Enlightened monarch felt sympathy for the Aztecs--or at least antipathy toward the conquistadors--and began his libretto with expositions of Montezuma's justice and enlightenment. Montezuma is too trusting, though; he is tricked by Cortés and dies in the final act.

Director Claudio Valdés Kuri staged the first half of the opera as an ironic presentation of how the West viewed the Aztecs: before the opera began, vendors with tourist trinkets advertized their wares to the audience. During the opera, the Aztecs dressed savage-kitsch. Montezuma sang half naked throughout, though at one point--for no discernable reason--put on a tourist T-shirt, removing it several minutes later. It was unclear whether the technical problems with the staging were also meant ironically. I think not. When the first conquistador, Captain Narvès, appeared on stage, he brought with him a German Sheppard, who barked whenever Narvès sang to show the captain's ferocity. Rather than barking at Montezuma, though, the dog stared down into the pit (from my angle, at the crotch of an extremely uncomfortable-looking bassist), where a stage hand was obviously waving something to make him bark. During one scene, the natives had built up pyramids with jenga blocks. To symbolize the destruction of the civilization, Narvès threw a plastic Coca-cola bottle at the fragile pyramids. The bottle fell just short, hit the ground, and bounced over the pyramids leaving them unscathed. Montezuma sang the last act on top of a column with a very obvious safety harness around him. When he flung himself from the top, the whirring of the harness as it gently deposited him on the ground out-hummed the music.

Even when there weren't technical problems, the opera was difficult to watch. Narvès appeared in the second half with a sack full of Coke bottles. As the Aztecs ambled in a circle with water bottles between their legs, the conquistador assaulted them one by one and replaced the water bottles with Coke as the natives mimed castration. As in Porgy and Bess, overdetermination was the name of the game. Towards the end, there was one compelling moment, when the music stopped and the conductor Gabriel Garrido handed out new music to the singers, connecting the missionary work of imperial Spain with the Western classical tradition. This reprieve from the general tastelessness of the production, however, couldn't do much to redeem it. During the curtain call the German dramaturg fellow, who was now wearing a dark purple tie with a light purple sweater, turned to me: "Now that was Eurotrash."

"Montezuma" by Carl Heinrich Graun, dir. Claudio Valdes Kuri, Edinburgh, 2010.If the political shallowness of the staging was irritating, the treatment of the female lead was infuriating. During Lourdes Ambriz's first aria as Eupoforice, she was stripped and left in a ridiculous bodysuit with uneven pom-poms over her nipples and a blindfold over her eyes. As she sang, she shakily made her way along a narrow catwalk between the orchestra and audience in 5-inch heels (a symbol of Western oppression). She sang a later aria lying upside down on a staircase, slowly moving up the steps as she sang. This was far from the first production I've seen where the director exploits women on stage under the pretense of showing the audience how women are exploited in society; Catalonian director Calixto Bieito has made a career of it. While singers often have no choice but to follow their directors or risk their careers, it is unfortunate that festivals and opera houses condone this sort of misogyny and even think of it as edgy and politically progressive.

Although I have never seen an effective ironic staging of an opera (I have seen many attempted), I can understand why the director decided on a tongue-in-cheek production of Montezuma. I sympathize that we can't represent the Aztecs on an opera stage without borrowing colonialist clichés, as well as with the decision to prevent the audience from feeling comfortable in their position as spectators. Comfort and knowing condescension can certainly go hand in hand in productions hyped for their multiculturalism. But there are better ways to confront audiences than tacky costumes and a countertenor flapping his penis around the stage.

Tempest: Without a Body was not an opera, but it was far more effective in its negotiation between colonial assumptions and indigenous tradition. Choreographer Lemi Ponifasio named his company Mau after the Samoan independence movement, and has designed it as a transnational institution bringing together the performance practices and political activism of Pacific peoples. The group has toured extensively and its production Requiem was performed at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2008. Tempest presents elements of Shakespeare's play alongside the biography of Maori activist Tame Iti, who appears in the production."Tempest: Without a Body" choreographed by Lemi Ponifasio, Edinburgh, 2010. Tempest's reference points are diffuse and often abstract: Maori struggles, post-9/11 insecurity and attacks on civil rights, as well as Giogio Agamben's notion of homo sacre (an individual expelled from social life) and Paul Klee's angelus novus, all within a stark postlapsarian landscape. The production began without warning--the noise of an explosion, incredibly loud, while the lights were still on. A woman with tattered clothing and small, inadequate, wings walked to edge of the stage and screamed. It didn't sound like a stage scream. She repeated the scream. The sound design through many parts was painfully loud. I can't remember the last time a piece of theater hit me with visceral fear: probably an elementary school trip to Madison "Scare" Garden. Many of the other workshop participants concurred, and one added, "I felt like I was present at something, that I wasn't actually allowed to see."

The production was divided up into episodes, and the woman returned several times, always screaming. There were two other homo sacre figures: a dancer pacing on all fours, and a naked, embryonic man. These individuals were juxtaposed with rigid monk-like dancers who would always appear as a ceremonially choreographed group. In contrast to the homo sacre figures, Tame Iti appeared twice as a figure of strength. He was incredibly commanding, with tribal tattoos across his chest and face.

When we fellows discussed this production as a group, the purple dramaturg began a well-rehearsed complaint: "This was nothing more than cold, calculated, producer's theater, designed to turn a profit on the international festival circuit with some indigenous references and the freak show appeal of a guy with a tattooed face." A set designer asked the dramaturg to tell us more about the company and how he knew that it had been solely designed for the international market. He hesitated, "well, no, I don't really know anything about the company. But it's just so obvious."


After finishing my undergraduate degree in New York, I ran off to Berlin to join the theater. I got a nose ring, took up smoking, and adopted a cat, whom I named after a Wagner heroine. I was an expatriate, see. Hemingway would have had something to say about me:

You've lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see. You hang around cafés.

So perhaps it is partly out of personal nostalgia that I found the high point of the Edinburgh International Festival to be Elevator Repair Service's The Sun Also Rises (The Select). Short of arguing that Paris in the 1920s was a colony of ex-pat Americans, or that Elevator Repair Service comes from the former colony of New Amsterdam, it's hard to see how The Sun Also Rises fit the theme of colonialism. But it did resonate with my experience of "oceans apart," and the production was so rich in imagination and humor that for once I was glad the festival directors didn't take their theme more seriously.

"The Sun Also Rises" by Elevator Repair Service, 2010.The Sun Also Rises is Elevator Repair Service's third production based on American literature of the 1920s. It is not so much a dramatization of the novela as a staging of it. Mike Iveson plays Jake Barnes, the narrator of Hemingway's novel. He begins the play with a long expository passage taken verbatim from chapter one. Throughout the staging, director John Collins plays with Barnes' simultaneous roles of narrator and character. At one point, Barnes shouts, "Why did you do that?!" then immediately drops his voice: "… I started to say but held back."

Elevator Repair Service has a remarkable ability to introduce slapstick elements that become funnier through repetition. While the set appeared to be a realistic French brasserie, the bar top was actually a sound board on which actors controlled the production's sound design (a running joke of sound effects that don't completely correlate to staged action). The furniture of the brasserie was used to enact every episode of the novel; the tables became trout in one scene, bulls in another.

About two-thirds of the other fellows left the theater at this show's intermission. When we discussed the production the following day, I was the only native English speaker in the room. Of the handful of Germans with varying levels of English proficiency who condemned the play, not one was willing to admit that his or her feelings might have something to do with an inability to understand the nuances of the language. They agreed that there was simply too much text, rather than that there was too much text for them to understand. On the one hand, this easy dismissal of "too much text" speaks to the expectations we have developed on both sides of the Atlantic that close adherence to a text is a sign of conservatism and lack of imagination. On the other hand, this also says a certain amount about general German condescension vis-à-vis American theater. Among many of the other fellows, Germany was the only possible reference point for innovative theater. One German director (who had just finished assisting Hans Neuenfels in his lab rat production of Lohengrin in Bayreuth) suggested that Elevator Repair Service was trying to emulate German Regietheater, but doing it badly. Another director proclaimed that she wasn't surprised at the play's mediocrity because "I was in New York twice and I can tell you there is nothing happening in theater there. I mean, seriously, 0.0 theater." Another chimed in: "I went there once too, and she's right--there's really nothing!"

Flying westward that evening, I was relieved to be returning to my little island without theater. If there was anything that spending ten long weekends with a roving group of German critics was good for, it was psychological repatriation.


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