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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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. 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
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,
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.
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
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
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."
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'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
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
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
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.