Culture House Daily

Opera takes on Islam

24 February 2014

You know how it is. You’re finishing off Friday prayers, wondering what to do with your evening. You notice some women in a cattle truck and decide to engage in a spot of ritual humiliation, bunging the women into burkas and forcing them to distribute petals in front of your feet. Critiques of Islam don’t get much more savage than the one delivered by a new French production of Rameau’s 18th century opéra-ballet Les Indes galantes. The third act assault on Iran’s patriarchy drew gasps from the audience – and even a protest at the Toulouse premiere.

The idea of casting Islam as an oppressor is a concept almost completely unknown to the art world. In Britain, the only fictional role open to Muslims is that of harassed victim. That Les Indes galantes arrives at the Barbican Hall on 6 March in a concert performance (burka-less) is, then, no surprise

The arts have diligently avoided taking part in this cultural battle. When works specifically invoke Islam, the reaction is sweaty-browed. Out comes the airbrush. Film and TV are notably nervy. Producers aren’t foolish enough to completely avoid the dramatic scenarios that Islamist terror throws up but most are still extremely keen to avoid the root cause. Surreal contortions result: Czech despots, Micronesian suicide bombers, Inuit terrorists.

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Novellists are braver but the conversation is often subtler and more inward and, inevitably, has less consequence. And those writers who street brawl like Michel Houellebecq are ostracised.

Contemporary art avoids the subject altogether; there’s too much sponsorship money tied up in the Gulf. So, the most significant attack on the freedom of the Western artistic hand for two centuries – the prohibition on the depiction of Mohammed – is met with Trappist silence from the establishment.

Theatre is too left-wing. Pop occasionally finds itself on the receiving end of Imam wrath but few within it have the intellectual stamina to follow up their accidental provocations. Remember Rihanna’s photoshoot in the Abu Dhabi mosque? That was an interesting no-no. But I doubt it was an intentional feminist riposte to institutional misogyny. I could be wrong.

So, it’s left to opera. It may well be the best art form to have a friendly word with the religion. It’s used to tackling civilisational clashes, and has traditionally had a reasonable relationship with Islam. An obsession from its earliest days with Tasso’s crusader poem La Gerusalemme liberata has forced it to engage with the Middle East from the beginning. And while there’s a tendency to associate Muslims with sorcery, slavery and sexual depravity, recurring Islamic characters like Clorinda, Ermione and Armida are often characterised with sympathy and complexity.

The bias that opera has to its past means that it has had to revisit the East-West relationship far more than any other art form. And though opera directors can be as lily-livered as the rest, most are forced to develop a slightly stronger stomach for taking on the issues surrounding Islam. But you’ll have to get on the Eurostar to see the most radical stuff.

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Show comments
  • grammarschoolman

    Point of Information: the Barbican performance is on 6 March, not 8 March. Follow your own link!

  • crosscop

    It is laughable how Hollywood avoids any mention of Muslims when making films about terrorism. We’ve had Germans (Die Hard), Serbs (Diplomatic Siege,The Peacemaker, Ride Along), Russians ( Air Force One, Jack Ryan : Shadow Recruit).
    “Shadow Recruit” was obviously first written with Muslim terrorists in mind as the terrorists are based in Dearborn, Michigan which is full of Muslims but somebody changed the script. Incredibly, the terrorists have been turned into Christians and are based not in a mosque but in a Russian Orthodox church. Oh, and they don’t shout “Allahu Akhbar!” either. They shout “Slava Bogu!” which is Russian for “Praise God!”

  • NedMissingTeeth

    Don’t expect this on the BBC anytime soon.

    • mahatmacoatmabag

      unless they can turn it into a tribute to Arafat & Mandela

  • zanzamander

    Reminds me of Mozart’s opera “Die Entfuhrung aus Dem Serail” which was rewritten when it played here where the Muslim sexual enslaver of a European woman became a Russian oligarch.

    Seeing the recent anti-Putin vitriol in the West perhaps a similar theme could be arranged to demonise the Russian leader and at the same time placate any possibility of Islamic ire?

    Simply replace “Islamophobia” with Putiophobia and everybody is happy.

  • Donafugata

    Fortress Barbican would seem a suitable venue for a Londonistan staging of anything critical of Islam.

    Perhaps the same thing could be done with a couple of Mozart’s opi, The Goose of Cairo and The Abduction from the Seraglio may offer opportunities to offend the hypersensitive.

  • James Allen

    Hurrah! About time other artists displayed the same ‘guts’ (as Mark Steyn explains).

  • bubbles ☀️

    Wow !
    I do so hope they don’t buckle under the inevitable protests.
    It only occurred to me yesterday when watching the Sochi closing ceremony that the beautiful ballet [ for instance] would not be allowed in a strict muslim community.

    • Shazza

      While watching it, I was made aware of how rich Russian culture is together with our evolved Greek/Roman/Judean/Christianity heritage. The music, literature, art, dancing – what has islam achieved? So called contributions include being able to translate ancient Greek and thus preserve Euclid, etc. Never forget how they destroyed the great library of Alexandria.
      No wonder in the face of the beauty and civilisation we have created, they have such a chip on their shoulders and want to destroy our achievements.

      • Richard James

        The muslim arabs didn’t translate Euclid from greek, Shazza – christian
        syrian scholars like Hunayn ibn Ishaq translated greek works for them.

        Arab Muslims saved nothing, christian, jewish, and zoroastian
        translators already had the greek and syraic originals, and translated
        them into arabic, in effect saving them from muslim destruction by
        translating them into arabic. Arab muslims were then responsible for the
        loss of the non-arabic versions in the lands they had attacked and occupied. Islam in this as in everything was a
        curse upon the world:

        • Shazza

          Correction accepted! That is the sort of information that should be widely spread.
          Totally agree with your opinion on the RoP.

    • chesters

      yes I hope too that they don’t buckle. The visual arts have run scared of taking on anything critical of the religion of peace: at least Grayson Perry was honest when he said he’s take on any religion except Islam, because he dreaded the consequences

      • MikeF

        If it is possible to be an honest hypocrite then I suppose he is one.

        • Fergus Pickering

          His behaviour is surely prudent, rather than hypocritical.

          • MikeF

            As chesters’ post pointed out Perry has said he will criticise other religions – though I suspect that really means just Christianity – so there is no consistency of principle there. So hypocrisy – even if openly admitted – seems an appropriate description with a dash of cowardice as well.

            • Fergus Pickering

              One man’s cowardice is another man’s prudence.

  • phantomsby

    Let’s make this The Year of Laughing at Religion of Peace-Nutters!

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