The latest production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (William Tell) at the Royal Opera House met with boos as a scene involving a female character getting sexually attacked unfolded. Such was the audience reaction that Kasper Holten, director of opera issued a statement: ‘The production includes a scene which puts the spotlight on the brutal reality of women being abused during war time, and sexual violence being a tragic fact of war,’ Holten said. ‘The production intends to make it an uncomfortable scene, just as there are several upsetting and violent scenes in Rossini’s score. We are sorry if some people have found this distressing.’ This statement raises a few questions about the position in our culture of art in general and the Royal Opera House in particular.
This paternalistic and possibly arrogant attitude really appropriate with regards to art? The audience bought tickets for a night of entertainment. They got an eyeful, and also got preached at. Had they wanted to be upset, made uncomfortable and informed about the violence society imposes on its more vulnerable members, they could have curled up with a cup of tea and a report on female genital mutilation. They didn’t. They bought opera tickets. They went for entertainment. Therefore, they’d surely be within their rights to claim a refund under the Trade Descriptions Act.
Presumably art establishments want people to pay to come and see their wares rather than rely on government funding? The basic rule of business is that you need to give customers what they want. Naturally if they want a rape scene, they’re probably not the best kind of customers. The customers in question didn’t want it though. It was imposed on them by a company which thought it knew what their customers should have wanted. As soon as a company adopts this faulty attitude, it will either go bust, or be bailed out by the government. If it gets bailed out by the government, it just becomes a ministry for propaganda. We’re now in a situation where the audience wants entertainment and the company wants to educate them. That’s never going to work. (However, I do agree that the public has got exactly what it asked for with regards to television, which is another matter entirely.)
There is a certain insecurity in art circles with some who seem unable to bear the thought that art is beauty, and entertainment. It doesn’t save lives. It’s not essential to existence – it’s just a really, really good thing to have. They feel the need to use art as an opportunity to preach something or other. It’s OK that art is entertainment. Really it is. It’s good to be entertained. Unfortunately for the past 80 years or so, there’s been a definite movement to make things ugly. It’s got to the point where we can’t enjoy the vivid, melodic, and downright rollicking score of Rossini’s without having to have the rape thing as well. Why can’t things just be nice? We have enough trouble in the world already, why do we have to have it shoved down our throats when we’re trying to relax and get away from it for a bit?
Sensationalising instead of highlighting. There are lot of things about war that are rubbish – the pain, the death, the mutilation, the broken families, the lives forever changed. Loads of stuff. There is also a lot of boredom interspersed with moments of life-threatening action. Interestingly the production concentrated on the less common sexual abuse than the rather more common boredom. I wonder why that is?
I suspect anyone who has suffered sexual abuse, or knows anyone who has, recognises that involving such thing in an evening of entertainment is tasteless at best.
It’s just not cricket.
And here’s the thing. This production is not about raising the awareness of the plight of women. It’s purely to get publicity. Had the company honestly been concerned about a related aspect of the opera, a more effective thing (that wouldn’t have cost a bean) would have been to partner with an organisation that is involved in relieving the suffering of such victims, invite them to submit an article for print in their programme, and to invite donations from the punters. That would have been caring, sensitive, and productive. As it is, they got the publicity they wanted – and all publicity is apparently a good thing, so I suspect there are going to be more ticket sales for this production in that sector of our society that enjoys watching a jolly good rape. I’ll not be there.
Want your art back the way it should be? Too right.