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Art should shock us out of our torpor

By Oliver Mears

Published 02/10/2015

Cardboard boxes and workers’ blue overalls give a contemporary twist to the version of Turandot at the Grand Opera House
Cardboard boxes and workers’ blue overalls give a contemporary twist to the version of Turandot at the Grand Opera House
Richard Strauss’ Salome
Rossini’s William Tell, which was booed for a war scene in which a woman was molested

NI Opera's production of Richard Strauss' Salome sparked controversy with its nude scenes and gruesome depictions of beheading. Will its forthcoming staging of Puccini's Turandot be equally scandalous? Artistic director Oliver Mears says good art should be shocking.

Should art shock? With every scandal, with or without accompanying demonstration, the question insists on an answer. Our own production of Salome at the Grand Opera House roused a minor media storm in February over the late inclusion of a brief nude scene.

A recent production of Rossini's William Tell at the Royal Opera House made international news for being roundly booed during a war scene featuring the extended molestation of a woman victim.

Calixto Bieito, who directs our new production of Turandot at the Grand Opera House this month, is also no stranger to controversy, his opera productions provoking extreme reactions across the world for their refusal to shy away from sex, violence and depictions of drug use.

The question of shock leads on to another, more pressing, one: what is art for? There is obviously no definitive answer here. But if art is, at bottom, an attempt to turn a mirror up to nature, as Shakespeare argued, is it plausible to suppose that the mirror always returns to us a beautiful face?

In fact, does not the compelling evidence of the news and of our own senses, the real dysfunction of our times, argue for the fact that human nature can be very ugly indeed?

All the greatest artists have understood that the spectrum of human behaviour runs from sublimity to depravity. To portray one without the other is a distortion. To make beauty a fetish risks idealising life, or escaping from it - and if one goes to art for escape, with truly great art one should not be surprised if one's expectations are dashed.

Who would call King Lear an escape, or a painting by Van Gogh? Few serious artists would claim that they made their work as escapism.

Take Puccini's opera Turandot. The story is based on a Chinese fairy tale: the aloof Princess Turandot is wooed by a succession of men who vie for her hand by attempting to answer a riddle. Those who are unsuccessful are publicly beheaded, their heads displayed on spikes.

Finally, a prince in disguise - the Calaf - manages to crack the riddle and, after an intense struggle, he finally finds his way to Turandot's heart. Along the way a servant girl who is in love with Calaf stabs herself. So far, so opera: there are few other art forms that so persistently return to the themes of obsessive love and violent death.

These themes alone might argue against interpretations that are pretty and escapist. And in Turandot one is also confronted by the disturbing realities of unrestrained power and corruption: where human life is cheap, and human feelings of love and compassion are worthless.

This is an opera not only about erotic desire, but politics and power. Yet traditional productions of this opera ignore all this. We become lost in an orientalist fantasy China that never existed, complete with ropey costumes, creaky sets and borderline racist stereotypes.

Anaesthetised by cloth finery and alienated by routine cut-out pagodas, the audience sees no relationship between its own world and that of the opera. The piece is sanitised and stripped of its essence in a quixotic attempt to reach the utterly unknowable ("what the composer would have wanted").

Naturally, the audience respond accordingly: soporifically half-engaged by a faux reality, stirring from their torpor only for the hit tune Nessun Dorma.

Our production instead resites the production to a reality we are all aware of, the fairy tale Chinese Empire replaced by a contemporary sweat-shop of endless cardboard boxes and blue overalls. Here is enacted a familiar power dynamic: dehumanised labour on subsistence wages, enslaved by the globalised hunger for cheap goods.

Here rights are trampled on, human feeling is subsumed to productivity, and if lives are caught up and destroyed in the machine, then so be it.

Nothing, not even human life and certainly not human dignity, can thwart the contemporary insistence that goods must be cheap, and that the boss/corporation's word is king.

In this context Calaf's determination to single-handedly challenge the narrative, to demand that - on the contrary - love has its own primacy, is futile but doubly invested with nobility: finally, this is a predicament that we can appreciate in all its bleak modernity.

However, not everyone appreciates so contemporary an approach. Some prefer the soothing escape of period costumes, an escape which abrogates the responsibility to engage with life as it is, not as we would like it to be.

The sheer rage and hate that is inspired by opera directors' "tampering" with their operas is startling. Manifested in the violent hostility of booing (for the first time in the UK that I know of during the performance of William Tell), the sense of outrage is profound.

Perhaps inevitably, given the opera audience's demographic (often those with a strong vested interest in the status quo), a section of it prefers their art to be uncontroversial and unchallenging.

Of course, all progressive art and music - from Beethoven and Stravinsky to Manet and Picasso - has provoked precisely the same reaction, from precisely the same kind of people, using precisely the same arguments, and claiming precisely the same ownership over a notional idea of "beauty".

In some cases these notions have even been enshrined in law by totalitarian regimes, punishable by imprisonment, exile, or death.

Of course, not all controversial productions are good productions, or good simply because they are controversial. Productions that are crass or cynical, that show poor technique and cliched ideas, are simply bad - whether they provoke us or not.

In the same way some pieces have themes that don't lend themselves to provocative treatment in any case, which instead need to realise our yearning for sheer fantasy.

But artists must be allowed to interpret by their own lights and, most especially, according to the world as it is. To return to the original question: art must shock - if that is what the theme requires.

In Calixto's production of Turandot it's no accident that this has resulted in a production thrilling in its intensity and its fidelity to Puccini's ultimate concerns, which (in combination with the opera's soaring melodies and desperate passion) has made for a production that is on its own terms a very great and urgent work of art.

  • Oliver Mears is artistic director of NI Opera

The UK and  Ireland premiere of  Turandot by Giacomo Puccini  is an international co-production,  directed by Calixto Bieito. Sung in English, it is suitable for ages 16-plus, but contains scenes that younger audiences may find disturbing. Performances are Friday, October 30,  Saturday, October 31 and Sunday, November 1 at the Grand Opera House.  All performances are 7.30pm. Tickets are £18-£46 (a limited number of £10 student  tickets are also available. Other concessions available). Box office 028 9024 1919, or book online at  www.goh.co.uk/turandot

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