Forcing the Issue: Opera's Brutal Mission
In This Art Form, Destruction & Terror Have Recurring Roles 

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2001; Page G05 

They managed what artists can only fantasize about. They reached through the television screen, grabbed hundreds of millions of people by the lapels, and commanded attention -- rapt, horrified, absorbed, can't-tear-the-eyes-away attention -- for weeks, going on months. For as long as artists have been arguing with supposedly complacent audiences -- an argument that's been going on since 19th-century "genius" felt confronted by a world of philistines -- this fantasy has persisted: to incite, reform, remake or revolt the audience.

Shock has been the primary tool, so much so that we now append the word "value" to shock as if the value of shock were self-evident. The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen may or may not have been going for shock value when he compared artists to the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center a few weeks ago. The Sept. 11 perpetrators, he said, "rehearse like mad for 10 years -- totally fanatically -- for a concert and then die. That's the greatest work of art there is in the entire cosmos." Stockhausen later qualified the remark to mean "the greatest work of art there is in the entire cosmos . . . by Lucifer." This odd and not entirely illuminating mention of Lucifer is actually a reference to a character that recurs throughout Stockhausen's work as an opera composer -- Lucifer, the principle of anarchy. But while he made it clear that he deplored terrorism, it was hard not to hear a touch of artistic envy in his comments; in any case, the damage was already done to his reputation.

The remark was particularly outrageous for having been made so close to the tragedy of the World Trade Center. But it merely sums up two longstanding fetishes in the history of art since the Enlightenment: that an artist is a kind of sacred warrior and art an "attack" on societies that need to be refashioned. This idea has flourished at various times in our society and has a strong enough hold on the imagination that great works of high shock value, like Stravinsky's 1913 "Rite of Spring," have survived being overtaken by history, even by cataclysmic events like the First World War.

Real shock has not, in general, diminished shock value. Stockhausen is primarily an opera composer, though the term "opera" has to be used loosely to describe the cycle of seven massive theatrical spectacles he has dubbed "Licht," a Captain Ahab project that has absorbed him for almost a quarter-century. Opera, as an art form, has a particularly strong and ongoing romance with the aesthetic of destruction and terror. It is, perhaps, an art form too close to the Establishment -- too dependent on the patronage of the very wealthy -- to have anything but a tortured Oedipal relation to power.

The cover on a new recording of Anthony Davis's opera "Tania" feels accidentally and embarrassingly pre-Sept. 11: Against a lurid yellow background, a woman is holding a machine gun at the ready. It's also just accidental bad luck that the opera -- which includes a parental advisory warning on the label -- features an aria, sung in this recording by Avery Brooks, that opens: "I'm the smoke in your jumbo jet, I'm the bomb at your Super Bowl."

"Tania" isn't about al Qaeda but rather our homegrown and significantly less effectual Symbionese Liberation Army, the last of whose foot soldiers are still working their way through the U.S. justice system. In a busily refracted, edgy, cool-jazz-meets-Steve Reich style, the opera spins out a dizzying, non-narrative fantasy of Patty Hearst, aka Tania, her SLA nom de guerre. The most interesting moments of the libretto, by Michael John LaChiusa, feature a Patty Hearst figure in bed, munching crackers, watching television with toxic boredom.

"That commercial sucks," she and her operatic husband sing. In one briefly sketched little scene, we get the larger point: America's eyes are glazing over from our own decadence, nothing seems real, how about a revolution? Two months ago, sitting on the sofa with the earphones nestled comfortably on your head, you might have said, "Why not?"

The opera house has always offered a safe and comfortable seat for people to watch death and destruction multiplied. Next year the Kirov Opera will bring to the Kennedy Center its production of Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina," an opera that ends with the immolation of hundreds of Russian religious martyrs. More recently, John Adams's "The Death of Klinghoffer" has dealt with the mutual and self-perpetuating cycle of martyrdom that has fueled the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The opera, which takes the events of the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro as its subject, elicited a storm of controversy for its sympathetic portrayal of Palestinian characters. For humanizing them, Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman were called anti-Semites. 

What links these works is not so much their topicality or the oddity of their political subject matter -- in fact, politics has been an ongoing subject for opera. Rather, there is the composers' belief that opera is a viable form in which to treat difficult political subjects, and the conscious sense that shock can be used, even manipulated, to underscore political messages. 

Shock is a powerful and ancient tool that works best when one doesn't sense the hand holding it. It's odd listening to Avery Brooks sing the role of the SLA revolutionary Cinque on the Davis recording, especially with the memory of his Oedipus still fresh in the mind from the Shakespeare Theatre's recent production of the Sophocles cycle. Sophocles deals in shock, horrible, mesmerizing shock, and the best thing in this production -- and the genius of Greek tragedy -- was the power it gave the audience in relation to the actor. Oedipus gets the news slowly, unwittingly, painfully; we see it coming. Power remains in our hands even as fate destroys a powerful man. 

In the Davis opera, shock reverses the power relationship. It's all too palpably obvious that the composer and librettist are using shock intentionally, that the characters, like Brooks's Cinque, are merely their agents, and we, the audience, the victims. 

Audiences will, in general, allow things to happen onstage and cede narrative control to fictional entities, like fate, the hand of God or bad luck. The one figure they leastwant to be in absolute control is the one who most needs control: the artist. When the composer or playwright or filmmaker is too willfully present, directing things with too heavy a hand, there is resistance. The problem with "Tania," besides music that needs both editing and a higher level of inspiration, lies in the sense of the puppeteers behind the proscenium. Not surprisingly, people who don't like the music of Stockhausen also make a point of reminding you that he is an absolute megalomaniac.

When composers deal with politics they will go to great lengths to avoid this charge. The creators of "Dead Man Walking," an opera about the manipulative political subject par excellence (the death penalty) that opened in San Francisco last year, insisted that they had no political agenda when they took up Sister Helen Prejean's story of ministering to young men on death row. Of course it was political, but denying the fact has become part of the etiquette of dealing with politics in the opera house; it's a kind of modesty to be seen as merely putting the story out there, without making any overt points. 

This is impossible, because opera by its very nature has too much manipulative power for it ever to be used entirely neutrally.Opera makes language seductive. It argues for its text at a level that resists rational rejoinders. And its power of polyphony, to set multiple and potentially conflicting ideas in motion at the same time, gives it the sense of an all-encompassing embrace of different ideologies and worldviews. Every time a political talk show comes to the end of a segment with four people struggling to be heard over one another and the host wisely uttering the usual platitude -- "Well, folks, it's a complex issue and it's not going away . . ." -- you've heard a very pale version of what an act-ending operatic quintet can do brilliantly. 

For now the future of shock value lies in the grace with which composers use shock. Adams's "Klinghoffer" has been undergoing a slow critical reassessment since it was pilloried by interest groups after its 1991 premiere. The term "neo-sensualism" has been cooked up to describe its music; the prefix "neo" is simply pretentious, but "sensual" is perfectly apt. Adams uses the power of musical characterization to explain motive and deepen our sympathies even for violent characters. Yet it is done with grace. The anger directed at Adams after the opening, the anger that has kept the opera from the revivals its deserves, was doubly deep because Adams was so good at disappearing behind his music. The shock of "Klinghoffer" was not that John Adams, the composer, put terrorists onstage; it was that Adams's music made them human. 

As Wagner proved, artists can control everything but the reception of their art. They can build their own theaters, write their own manifestoes, hire their own interpreters, even dictate to posterity how their work will be preserved. But after the work is presented to an audience, they lose control. 

Artists, of course, are not terrorists, but Stockhausen was right to notice the affinity between their hard work, their discipline, their commitment to a message, even their sometimes macabre imagination. What he missed, besides the obvious fact that artists create and terrorists destroy -- and this is as fundamental as good and evil -- is that terrorists insist you get the message. Great artists have more grace.

2001 The Washington Post Company