The European Cultural Parliament met in Batumi, Georgia at the start of the month to discuss European values, Brexit´s effect on culture and intercultural sensitivities. So, tough debates ensued, fierce with passionate statements, raised voices and, in some cases, delivered with heavy hearts.
I was asked to talk about the intercultural sensitivity question – so the topic turned to opera, of course……
Here´s what I said:
I’d like to speak today about cultural integration and sensitivity as it applies to the performing arts – my specific area of work. Performing arts may perhaps seem a small arena given the appalingness of the current horror around the refugee crisis and the massive difficulties encountered by those trying to find a settled and safe home and a life with some kind of value. But I am concerned by how the arts and those of us who lead culture organisations are responding to this in the way we programme. I lead an opera company, and it´s there I would like to start.
In the last three months I have seen a large number of operas in various European cities. Of these, five have have attempted to reflect diversity and current affairs in the way that the director has interpreted the work. Well-meaning, I suppose, sensationalist maybe, but in my view a bit misguided.
All of them – all the five operas – centred on scenes of white European men (from various centuries) raping or torturing, or generally abusing Muslim women. Oddly enough, four of these five productions were Mozart. So we have the extreme beauty of the music in our ears, alongside the ultimate ugliness on stage.
We all know that without significant growth in understanding between the Islamic and the western/Christian world, without us reaching out or responding as humans whether or not we are politicians, aid workers, bureaucrats or indeed artists, we potentially allow the world community to end in disaster.
So how, in the arts world, do we behave respectfully and acknowledge that a mish-mash showing of global cultural differences does nothing to illuminate the true depth of local culture? We, as I say, – we in general, I suppose, are the kind of people who attend opera, theatre, whatever – and also know that awful violence proliferates. We read about it, talk about it, agonise over it. So why do the arts choose to portray diverse cultures this way. And why are opera directors perhaps the worst offenders?
I ask because if we are going to use art as something which has the capacity to truly bring people together across boundaries – and which surely can be a vital tool in how we approach living together across cultures – in our performing arts there must be more sensitivity and intelligence in how cultures are portrayed. An endless debate rumbles about diverse cultures and their artistic expression in general. Should artists keep their national or local distinctiveness, diversity and distance, or should they follow the lead of so-called global cookery and aim to combine flavours in search of what might be a richer or more tasteful emulsion?
How do we find a clarity of expression which respects diverse roots, holds onto originality and integrity while finding some sort of language which still speaks to an international audience. A national or regional culture is surely how it presents itself in its own particular environment. Once that special individual expression adapts to the outsiders view of what that culture should be, it becomes homogenised into something which is merely bland and pleasantly acceptable. That emulsion, then, has little to offer as a basis for a meaningful engagement with other cultures.
To return to the issue of Islam – and Mozart – there is the question of Islam´s political and social beliefs and behaviours and how those extend to arts and culture. Are those traditional roots so deep that they prohibit any adventure which might lead to a unique modernism in artistic expression? Is Islam´s own sense of its artistic culture strong enough to allow it to develop its own ’Islamic’ style of contemporary performing art, rather than being universalised.
It is hard to see a nation or culture or region retaining a genuine identity without it hanging on fiercely to its own artistic definitions – while also feeling able to innovate and experiment within those distinct traditions. Surely being ’modern’ shouldn´t lead to the surrendering of local knowledge and expression to a kind of global commercial sense of entertainment.
So to return to what this panel has as its title: Integration, immigration and inter-cultural sensitivity, I´d make a plea for equality – for individual cultures to express their art as they wish, to evolve as they wish and to chose their own path with whom they wish. The world needs – God willing peacefully – to keep diversity of thought and expression and culture as a rich mix. Culture and ideas, sensibilities and aesthetics need to keep their variety without the pressure to become diluted and globally digestible.
The wonderful Sir John Tusa, head of the BBC World Service, then inspirational leader of London´s Barbican Centre – a place where every day a diversity of culture jostles, flourishes and confronts – said ”We never know which lessons from which culture may be the lesson we need to assist human survival”.
I’d urge not just opera directors but all of us who have the privilege of working with artists to listen to his words carefully.