Long live the politically incorrect masterworks of the past!
From a commentary posted over the weekend at that stalwart bastion of British anti-wokism, Spiked Online:
Until August 2020, Dona Vaughn had been the longtime artistic director of opera at the Manhattan School of Music. Her experience included singing, acting and directing on and off Broadway and on opera stages. The Manhattan School of Music’s 2019 production of Saverio Mercadante’s little-known opera buffa, I due Figaro, showed her influence in stunningly charismatic and witty student performances.
[…] On 17 June 2020, Vaughn was teaching a class via Zoom on musical theatre. An unidentified participant, whose name and image were blacked out, asked her, out of the blue, how she could justify having produced Franz Lehár’s allegedly racist operetta, Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles), several years earlier. (The racial sin, in this case, was allegedly against Asians.) Vaughn cut the questioner off for raising an issue irrelevant to the current discussion.
The fuse was lit. A Manhattan School of Music student petition was immediately forthcoming. Vaughn must be fired because she is a ‘danger to the arts community’, it thundered. The petition resurrected a meme from the time of the Lehár production: that Vaughn had cast a black singer as a butler, thus supposedly proving her racism. For good measure, the petition threw in unspecified ‘reports’ of ‘homophobic aggression and body shaming’. The petition quickly garnered 1,800 signatures. Phoney Instagram accounts under Vaughn’s name suddenly appeared on the web, containing fake inflammatory material
Vaughn’s colleagues, cowering from the mob, let her twist in the wind. Almost none came to her defence. Vaughn was fired and replaced by a black male.
(Heather MacDonald: V“The cancellation of classical music”, Spiked Online, 20 May 2023)
This reminds one of some of the excesses of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which were attempts to “cancel” those vestiges of traditional Chinese society considered feudal and reactionary. As unfortunate as those episodes may have been, we also know from long-time China watchers such as(“Mao's Five Revolutions”) and Ramin Mazihieri (“A necessary revolution in discussing China’s Cultural Revolution: an 8-part series”) among others that important achievements were nonetheless made in rural development in China during that (for a few) tumultuous time. The picture is, as always, never black and white. In subsequent decades, desecrated temples were rebuilt, old Confucian texts resurrected and taken to heart again, various figures apologized to and rehabilitated. At this point it’s up to the Chinese people to decide with historical hindsight what the final reckoning is. As Ramin Mazhieri wrote in one of his many blog posts on the topic, revolutionary spirit in society ebbs and flows.
As for our wretched cultural revolutions, I for one however cannot think of a single redeeming aspect of what are essentially reactionary projects disguised with the very thinnest veneers of progressivism. The current dismal wave will eventually run its course, as did previous iterations, such as the fervent anti-communist McCarthyism of the 1950s, but one can only wonder: how much of our collective cultural heritage will be permanently lost, how many lives and careers ruined? I shudder to think.
Thankfully, all is not (yet?) lost. On Saturday evening I attended a live satellite broadcast from New York’s Metropolitan Opera of Don Giovanni. Ya know, that tawdry spectacle glorifying a serial sexual predator composed by vulgar class-reductionist Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It was a stunning production, thankfully free of manifestations of #metoo or other encrustations of political correctness, unencumbered by strenuous efforts to make the work “hip” and “relevant”. Some of our cultural institutions seem better able to resist the onslaughts of self-destructive fads better than others; the Met is one of them. Although the ultra-woke mania originated in the US, it has permeated European cultural life, so much so that I find so many European opera productions unwatchable, including, alas, those at the Netherlands Opera and and Ballet here in Amsterdam. The irony is that whereas our cultural institutions are heavily state-subsidized, the Met, I believe, relies on wealthy private patrons, and it would seem these old money types writing the checks don’t have much patience for transitory fads amounting to little more than cultural vandalism. During the Met broadcast on Saturday, there was the usual chatter during the intermission with cast members, and some discussion of the theatrical director, Ivo van Hove (from Belgium), and his “concept” of the work. Whatever it may have been, at least he didn't interfere too much with Mozart; he had a light touch.
As those of you familiar with the work will know, Don Giovanni is a study in the fatal charms of sexual attraction, the contradictions and perils of romantic attachment to the “wrong” type of person. One character, passionate and love-sick Donna Elvira, spends the entire opera excoriating the errant nobleman for seducing and casting her aside, at the same time begging him to repent and return to her. Here as elsewhere in life, ambivalence, contradiction, irony abound — inescapably messy things that don’t have a place in the humorless, fundamentalist worldview of those self-righteous, censorious guardians of morality, our indefatigable social justice warriors.
Reflecting the ever fertile and felicitous cross-currents of cultural exchange which have not — and one prays — will not be destroyed, the Zerlina in this production was the Chinese soprano Ying Fang, who turns out to be a wonderful singing actress; this was her second production on the Met. I leave you with a photo of her I found on the site Opera Online: