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The impact of opera on contemporary politics is fairly limited these days. Unlike the 19th century, when new operas by composers like Giuseppe Verdi would often be seen as important political statements, the contemporary lyric theater is usually the preserve of an elite that most people don't care about. But every once in a while something can happen at an opera house that makes its way onto the news pages.
Such an event happened earlier this month when a new production of Camille Saint-Saen's biblical set piece Samson et Dalila had its premiere at the Flanders Opera in Antwerp. A two-man directing team, Omri Nitzan, an Israeli, and Amir Nizar Zuabi, a Palestinian, conceived the new staging of the opera. But rather than a conventional rendition of what was written as a fairly static work for the theater, Nitzan and Zuabi decided to turn the piece on its head. In their version, the Philistines oppressing the Hebrews were portrayed as Israelis and the Hebrews as the Palestinians.
According to The New York Times this included scenes in which "Jews, in fancy dress, dance atop a shiny, black, two-tiered set, oblivious to the swarm of robed Palestinians under their feet." Elsewhere in the show, "Dalila's Jewish handmaidens, in red underpants, sprawl on their backs, legs spread in the air, helping to seduce Samson" and "Israeli soldiers clad in black humiliate blindfolded Palestinians and shoot a Palestinian child, who reappears as a kind of leitmotif during the opera." And after "Israeli soldiers dance orgiastically with their phallic rifles," the character of Samson, wearing a "dynamite-loaded vest" ends the opera with a suicide blast.
SHOCKING AS this may sound, in the world of opera today such "artistic license" is far from rare when it comes to putting on the classics. Anyone entering an opera house these days is as likely to see the works of Mozart, Verdi or Wagner set in a time and place that the composer never envisioned as they are a traditional staging. Political agendas, almost always with a left-wing slant, as well as the sort of vulgarity seen in Antwerp, are commonplace.
The rise of a generation of directors who commit vandalism rather than bringing new insights is a fact of life in contemporary opera, especially in Europe. It is a symptom of the same deconstructionist school of thought that has turned the study of literature on its head with pseudo-scholars claiming there is no such thing as objective truth and that the text of any work can be separated from its original meaning with impunity.
BUT THE ANTWERP Samson must also be understood as part of the ongoing campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel. Essential to this trend is the claim that the Jews aren't really the Jews. In order to treat Israel's right of self-defense against terrorists and states that seek to destroy it as inherently immoral - a standard no rational person would seek to impose on any other country - you have to impose a new identity on the Israelis.
The most popular way of doing so is to claim that the Jews are Nazis.
Such claims have become popular in Europe as well as throughout the Muslim world. Such juxtaposition is both offensive and an absolute falsehood, since Israel doesn't seek to exterminate the Palestinians as the Nazis did of the Jews, merely to try and stop them from committing mayhem.
But when Nazis aren't available, turning the tables on the Jews vis-Ã -vis the Palestinians will do just as nicely. Yet one of the problems that vandals such as Nitzan and Zuabi run into when they parachute their ideology into innocent operas is that the text often contradicts them. This requires their Belgium audience (which, unlike an audience in say, New York, probably understands the French language in which the piece is sung) to believe that when in the first act Samson rallies the Jews to overthrow their Philistine oppressors, "Israel romps ta chaine" - Israel break your chains - he doesn't really mean "Israel" but Palestine. This is interesting because in this oratorio-like opera, the Jews are the good guys but don't get very much interesting music to sing. By contrast, the Philistines get all the good numbers including a really stomping Bacchanale just before the Temple of Dagon comes crashing down on their heads.
This artistic atrocity aroused the ire of Antwerp's Jewish community, but when one Jew expressed his outrage and fear that the production would stir up anti-Semitism to the general director of the opera, reportedly he was told "that if the situation for Jews were really so precarious here, they should leave."
Interestingly, New York Times critic and columnist Michael Kimmelman reacted to this invitation for the Jews to leave Europe with dismay about the bad taste of the comment but not to slander against the State of Israel and supporters. "Rage," Kimmelman wrote about the incident, "is a perfectly sane response to the Israeli occupation. And all art is political in the end."
One can argue in response that had the Palestinians been even marginally interested in sharing the country and living in peace with the Jews, they might have accepted any number of peace offers over the course of the last century. Even more to the point, Gaza, the setting of the final scene of the opera, is currently occupied by Hamas, not Israel.
THE INVERSION by which the Islamist murderers of Hamas bent on annihilation of Israel become the soulful Jewish sufferers in "Samson" is more than just another play on the familiar David becoming Goliath theme that has gained traction ever since the Jews started winning wars of self-defense rather than being slaughtered en masse. Put in the context of an opera whose point is the triumph of faith over violence and sex, it is a way by which contemporary Jews can be stripped of any connection to their homeland and their heritage. The fact that one of the persons responsible for this is an Israeli Jew does not make it any less misleading. That is especially true when this sort of work gives a boost to the revival of anti-Semitism in Europe.
Kimmelman thinks this sort of a Samson could not have been produced in New York, where presumably the Jews are not ready to be told to flee. As it happens, the production of the piece performed at the Metropolitan Opera since 1998 does take the opposite point of view. That version, created by English Jew Elijah Moshinsky, has the effrontery to portray the Jews in Samson as, well, Jews. Though no uniformed Nazis are seen onstage, Moshinsky's direction evokes the Holocaust with Jews in religious garb being oppressed by an enemy whose prime characteristic is a primitive and violent paganism.
This, too, may be a case, as Kimmelman says, that proves that all art is political. The difference is that one director's vision is based on the truth and the other on a lie. The trouble is, in an intellectual milieu in which those concepts no longer exist, it is all too easy to imagine a world in which Israel and the Jews can be eliminated too.
The writer is executive editor of Commentary magazine where he contributes to the Contentions blog at www.commentarymagazine.com. [email protected]