Viswa Subbaraman

Opera and Orchestra Conductor

Art Takes Risk

The Royal Opera “scandal” is interesting to me. First, let me preface a few things. I have not seen the Covent Garden production of William Tell. It’s is telling (pun intended) to me that a professional opera singer had such a virulent reaction to it. As such, my guess is that it’s not a production that I would ever put up. Second, I don’t “outlaw” nudity in opera or on the stage. (We did Hair at the Skylight, for example). I do, however, disagree with gratuitous nudity, sex, or violence on stage. Shock value simply to shock isn’t my bag. Third, art truly takes risk, and I am quite glad that someone took a risk in staging an opera. It may not have been my thing, and I may hate it when I see it, but artists have every right to try to find a way to talk about the issues we face as people.

As a music director, I truly believe that the music drives opera. It has always been the case in the art form. As an artistic director, I understand my role in producing these productions is to entertain, soothe, provoke, and at times find an artistic way to discuss our world – my hope is that it gives us the courage to confront difficult issues in society. I think artists have always thought this way. Of course, opera and theater should entertain, but every show in a season can’t simply be easy entertainment. Art exists for such a great variety of reasons. Entertainment is but one of those very valuable reasons. Art has been created as protest, as a halcyon for difficult times, as pure entertainment, but fundamentally, the artist chooses how to approach their art at the time of creation (or in the case of staging an opera – at the time of re-creation).

We went through a necessary phase of literalism as musicians. Gunther Schuller’s Compleat Conductor called us out for our over indulgences in the way we stretched composers’ music to the point of it losing the essence of what the composer put on the page. He was right to do so, and it’s a valid lesson. That being said, at what point do we become so literal and so straight-laced that we no longer care about actually moving people and pushing people to confront the world we live in? There are so many easy forms of entertainment. I’m sure there’s another comic book blockbuster around the corner.

To truly create art, one must push the envelope and take a risk in what we are trying to say. Perhaps, ROH’s way of adding a nude rape scene was the “easily shocking” way to create a discussion around their work. Sandra Bernhard taught me in her staging of Powder Her Face that sometimes leaving it to the imagination can be much more brutal. Kaspar Holten himself said, "The scene is an attempt by the director to remind us about what tragically is the reality of war fare, and rape is discussed in the libretto of the opera. In the first act we hear that a young woman was attempted raped by the oppressors, and in act 3 the libretto says the officers force the local women to dance with them against their will. Of course the scene in the opera is much more graphic, but it fundamentally tries to draw out what is being discussed in the opera as well, and tries to put the spotlight on sexual crimes." At least ROH took a beautiful work of art and asked their audience to think about something that we as people should deal with. We should be talking about the brutality of war, the brutality of rape, how to protect women from violence.

We aren’t a perfect society yet, but the beauty of humanity is that we can constantly improve. We’re slowly ridding the world of slavery. Women are starting to reach a more equal status, but we have a long way to go. Perhaps that is the discussion we are meant to take from ROH’s William Tell. I may not like the way they said it, but perhaps it’s the conversation we should have. They took an artistic risk, and for that I’m thankful.