Ever since “Jerry Springer the Opera” breathed life into that much-derided art form, the musical, producers have been eager to cash in on the fashion for social commentary with songs.
At this Festival we’ve had “Lee Harvey Oswald, the Musical”. “Apocalypse, the Musical”, “Terrorist the Musical”, “Yeehad, the Musical” as well as more serious operatic works like Keith Burstein’s “Manifest Destiny”, an elegy for a suicide bomber, and of course the controversial John Adams opera, “Death of Klinghoffer”, which has been attacked for being anti-semitic.
The one show we haven’t been able to see, however, is “Jerry Springer” itself. This is because the show is, to use the current euphemism, “no longer commercially viable”. Theatres across the country are refusing to stage it fearful that cast and producers could become targets of a kind of Christian fatwa. BBC executives had death threats after it was shown on TV.
The Evangelical Alliance tried to prosecute “Springer” for blasphemy because of its depiction of Christ as gay. The law suit was thrown out by the courts on the grounds that this isn’t 1508. But the God squad won in the end. “Springer” is no more.
But the resourceful director, Richard Thomas and his co-writer, the comedian Stewart Lee, have turned the tale into a show about a show. “How to write an opera” (Assembly) is more a tongue-in-cheek seminar with piano and songs, taking us from the shows impro origins in the Battersea Arts Centre, through the Fringe, National Theatre in London and finally the BBC. It was rags to riches. They thought they had it made. But then it all went wrong..
The director, Richard Thomas, told me ruefully that the collapse of the show has lost him well over a million pounds. However, he and Lee have steadfastly rejected potentially lucrative invitations to bowdlerise “Springer” by cutting the swear words and deodorising the religious content. Fortunately, their integrity has been financially viable even if the show isn’t. The controversy has made their names and they’ve been commissioned for six half hour operas for the BBC.
However, the episode carries a start warning about the state of artistic freedom in Britain. “Springer” was, after all, a morality tale; a condemnation of the commercialisation of human grief and a critique of the medium which preys on it. Yet religious zealots, most of whom never saw the opera, have been allowed effectively to censor an important work.
It’s not the first time. Last year, Sikh protesters forced Birmingham Repertory to close the play “Bezhti” and of course Muslim groups issued a fatwa against the novelist, Salman Rushdie for his “Satanic Verses”. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Blair government is getting in on the censorship act, with its proposed laws on incitement to religious hatred, which could gag works critical of Islam.
The government has also promised laws against “justifying or glorifying terrorism here or abroad”, which could land the producers of “Manifest Destiny” (Assembly St George’s West) in trouble. In this scintillating if flawed opera - with a witty and surprisingly melodic neo-classical score by Keith Burstein - a young Palestinian, Leila, living in “leafy Balham”, decide to avenge her dead father by joining the suicide campaign against the hated Israelis.
Leila (played with mesmeric intensity by Bernadette Lord) is presented as a highly moral and dignified soldier “giving her life for truth”. She regards her own death as a kind of poem. We see her donning her explosive waistcoat almost as an act of religious sacrament. Betrayed by a fellow suicide bomber, Mohammed, who falls in love with her, Leila is tortured by the Americans in Guantanamo Bay and meets her own private calvary.
The politics are sometimes risible, as in the scene where the future President of the USA (Hillary Clinton) is forced by the director of the CIA to order the death of all Arabs “so that we can fill the Middle East with our friends the Israelis”. This is a kind of Wahhabinist view of the politics. The ultimate message, that love can triumph over religion and bring Jew and Muslim together, is trite and unconvincing.
Nevertheless, Manifest Destiny is a considerable piece of work, dealing with important contemporary themes, which demands to be heard. But it won’t be if the thought police get hold of it. For this opera undoubtedly justifies and arguably glorifies terrorism. Nor will the Evangelical Alliance appreciate Christ being equated with a female terrorist (complete with feet-washing).
At the very least, it will incur the wrath of Jewish lobbyists, as did John Adams “The Death of Klinghoffer” (EIF Festival Theatre). This post-minimalist opera about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985 by the Palestine Liberation Front and the murder of the eponymous Jewish passenger, was premiered to great controversy in Brussels in 1991. It was condemned by a prominent American musicologist for “romanticising terrorism” and labelled “anti-semitic” because it portrayed terrorists as human beings. Its inaugural performance in Los Angeles in 1992 was picketed by Jewish groups and, like “Jerry Springer” the full opera has never been shown in America since.
Scottish Opera’s inventive production is highly-charged, complete with audience participation and startling effects. The performances, on the whole, do justice to a work which has been compared to one of Johan Sebastian Bach’s sacred oratorios. And it doesn’t flinch from the politics either, back-projecting the words of the Palestinian chorus lamenting their expulsion from their homeland by the Israelis in 1948.
However, by no means could this reasonably be called anti-semitic - the dispossessed Jews get their own choral lamentations in too. Nor is it an apology for terrorism. There is no attempt to sanitise the brutal, senseless murder of the wheelchair bound Klinghoffer, the only passenger brave enough (ironically) to take a stand against fanaticism. Klinghoffer’s fate is rather a metaphor for the ultimate futility of the Arab-Israeli conflict and all attempts to resolve political disputes by violence.
The message is even more potent now that terrorism has reached the streets of London. Brian McMaster’s decision to revive Klinghoffer at this Festival was inspired, if only for its timing. This is what art, and Festivals, should be about. However, the way things are going, we may be seeing a lot less of it in future.