Just wrapped up performing Melani’s L’Europa with a wonderful team of artists and visionaries at the Potsdam Musikfestspiele. It was an intense and fast three weeks crafting a rather unusual and thought-provoking piece of musical theater. This was an operatic retelling of the story of Europa from Ovid’s Metamorphosis as set by early baroque composer Alessandro Melani. Given this 17th century courtly Viennese entertainment only lasts about 40 minutes, the team wished to expand it and add music and text to both extend the performance length and draw parallels from the story to today’s world for modern audiences, and to give it a relevant meaning for its retelling. It was combined with a pastiche of baroque works and a newly composed poetic text to connect the story of Europa with that of the plight of refugees today seeking a better life in Europe. This was done with absolute respect for the text and story, and done with great care by the wonderful team of Deda Cristina Colonna, Michael Hell, Thomas Höft, and Alfred Peter, with the support of the festival intendantin Andrea Palent. Wonderful forward-thinking and daring theatrical programming deserves immense kudos, and I’m so glad I could be a part of it to help create their vision!
The greater themes that emerged from our work on the piece were sex trafficking, rape, #metoo and rape, refugee crisis, materiality, and hyper capitalism. So…heavy subject matter, but so important to bring to light. The clincher scene for those disgruntled audience members was the rape of Europa by Giove, graphically, but artistically recreated in this brilliant staging by Deda Cristina Colonna and enacted so magnificently and frighteningly by my colleagues Roberta Mameli, Renato Dolcini, and Michael Ihnow (as a witness to the atrocity). The intensity of this scene caused many to uncomfortably squirm or avert their eyes, and even caused some spectators to up and leave. This was even more intense given that the room we performed in was a very intimate and ornate palace chamber (The Ovidgallerie, fittingly) in the Neue Kammern at Sanssouci. Audiences sat in the midst of the action and were right up close to the events unfolding before their eyes without respite or hope of escape. To leave meant you would have to walk across the stage. Most cases people would be mortified to have to do that or would just wait. But this piece sparked such intense reactions that some people did just that – they up and left in the middle of the performance. This was incredible to me, and a first in all my performing years. But I am so glad we were part of something that caused such deeply impassioned reactions. I think there is a serious importance in creating art that sometimes upsets people and forces them to think. Reviews were as expected mixed, with some questioning why art needs to be ugly in an increasingly ugly world (though I don’t think the world is any more or less ugly than it was in Ovid’s day), nor is it any less important today that we shed light on these matters than it has been throughout human history. This has always been one of the functions of art.
But others got what we were trying to do. And I’m very much glad it sparked such debate. In response to this unique experience, I decided to pen (“type”) my thoughts regarding the role of art and people’s reactions to it.
An open epistle to those who walked out of our show, or who wish art were always one way:
Art can be beautiful by accident,
or it can be ugly on purpose.
It can be instructive,
or it can be frivolous.
It can take an eon to understand it,
or jolt you into immediate reaction.
It is often simple and complex,
depending from which angle you catch its eye.
It is assuredly subjective,
though objectively the majority may admire it.
It can be vainglorious, persistently perhaps…
or it could be so meek as to be lost to perpetuity.
Who knows how many countless artistic embryos lie unborn in dusty oblivion,
perhaps wedged between pages of a forgotten book in a library buried by time
or forever shut within the confines of a mind
unwilling to commit them to life.
Art could be as fleeting and quickly forgotten as a troubadour’s song to the wind…
or it can be repressed, revised, reshaped, retold, rehashed, reheated, and recounted till it’s baked in to our DNA, sewn into the lining of our hearts and minds with iron stitching, irreversibly linked to our very own sense of self, without us even knowing where it came from.
Art is extrinsically absent of self, though born of a human-self’s ruminations.
It has its own universe and its own timezone. We created it, but we can’t live there, try as we might. We are forever subjects to its world without any/many of the rights of citizenship. But we do so willingly.
It often holds a mirror to us, to our realities.
In doing so, it can anger us. And that’s ok.
It can literally up-set us, or set us apart.
We may avert our gaze or remove our person from its presence. That’s ok. But ask yourself why?
Art may love you.
It may embrace you.
It may spark a contagious wildfire of laughter.
It may plead for joyful tears to drop from the corners of your perception.
It may envelop you with warmth and memories.
It may inspire you to feel emotions forgotten or previously unknown.
It may make you feel praised.
It may give you solace.
It may tickle your ears with its paint strokes or pique your tastebuds with its melody.
It may make you feel heard, wanted, seen, desired.
Art may hate you.
It may strangle the life out of you.
It may call in to question everything you believe in.
It may force you to feel.
It may rape your very understanding of the world.
It may insist on something, which you didn’t bargain for.
It can leave you empty, utterly wrecked.
It can run your mind into a deathly darkness.
It may ridicule you, and waste your last breath, last bead of sweat, last drop of blood.
It has the power to petrify you, to render you inactive and unable to feel anything but what it commands.
This Art can, wants, and will do. It is all these things, and assuredly more.
The one thing Art can never be is controlled.
It is definitionally forcing its audience to lose control in small and subtle ways or in largely disturbing waves.
Therefore, do not ask why Art must be a certain way or why it can’t be another way. Ask yourself, why do you wish Art was something it isn’t?