carmen smoking

My previous post was about the recent musical protest at the St. Louis Symphony performance of the Brahms Requiem. I’ve been thinking about other ways that protest and music intersect a lot since I first heard about that incident – this post will address two very different examples.

There was another concert that same week which got some attention – a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall which included the American premiere of a work by Georg Friedrich Haas.

The following is from Anthony Tommasini’s review in the New York Times: “Mr. Haas received a warm ovation, though some lusty boos were mixed amid the bravos. In my experience, new pieces are not often booed. I hope Mr. Haas feels that he was doing something right to arouse such a reaction.”

Mr. Tommasini is right – new pieces are not generally booed nowadays. The sign of disapproval most audiences give now is by walking out during a piece, or by not clapping much when it’s over. But music used to provoke all kinds of extreme reactions – the riot at the premiere of The Rite of Spring (depicted in the caricature above) is the most famous example, but there have been many others – some of them are listed here.

At both the St. Louis and Carnegie Hall concerts, the normally passive concert audience was transformed, however briefly, into active participants, something that is so rare nowadays that it made the papers.

Many people feel the concert hall should be a place of refuge, free from (you should excuse the expression) discord. I disagree completely – great art must challenge us in some way. I think the folks who booed at Carnegie Hall were fully engaged with what they heard, and felt compelled to say, forcefully, that they didn’t like it. Good for them – at least they cared.

These are examples of disturbances in the concert hall which made news outside of it – here’s another kind – the controversy surrounding tonight’s Metropolitan Opera premiere of John Adams’s “The Death of Kinghoffer,” an opera set on the Achille Lauro, a cruise ship hijacked by Palestinian terrorists in 1985.

Since the work’s debut, there has been controversy over Adams’s portrayal of the hijackers  – many feel that he grants them too much sympathy. Some of the current protestors have vowed to continue “until the set is burned to the ground,” and have called the performers “fascists.” You can read an excellent article in Sunday’s New York Times by Zachary Woolfe about the current debate over Klinghoffer, and the long history of the problem of mixing art and current events.

If you think I’m wading into this debate, you’re out of your mind. Like most people (including many of those either protesting or championing it), I haven’t seen the opera, and my only point in bringing it up is to give a current example of a piece of music being controversial – something that used to be much more common. Some more examples from the opera world: Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Strauss’s Salome, Berg’s Lulu, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (please add your own examples in the comments).

On a lighter note, there was another recent opera-related controversy last week, regarding a production of Carmen in Australia, which was briefly canceled (and then reinstated) over concerns that it glamorized smoking, which seemed to me an odd thing to be agitated about, given all the of the other bad behavior in that opera. But I digress.

The protests in St. Louis and at the Met are very different in tone, purpose and execution from one another, but very similar in one important way – they depend (and draw) on the great power of music.

The protest in St. Louis was designed to relate closely to the performance at which it took place, and was planned to be only disruptive enough to add context to it (whether you think that was appropriate or achieved is another matter). Had the protestors been outside the concert hall, the impact of their efforts would have been far smaller, I’m sure.

The protestors outside the Met, by contrast, are hoping to be as disruptive as possible – their goal is to get the production canceled entirely. What’s notable is how important the protestors feel the symbolic power of the opera is – to produce it, in their view, is to give something they object to far greater significance than it would otherwise have.

The St. Louis and Met protestors (and the Carnegie Hall ones too, for that matter) understand the great power of what happens in a performance, and for that fact alone, at least, I’m glad. However you feel about any of these protests, if you worry about the demise of classical music, the fact that it still means this much to some people keeps me hopeful for the future. I hope you are one of those who care that much – please post your comments!


Share This