This evening, FAUST [working title] will premiere at the Dutch National Opera. In echoing the dialogical process of the creation of the work, I wrote my article for the programme booklet as an epistle to the Artistic Team. In time for tonight’s premiere, I share with you the English version of my letter. You can read the Dutch version here.
You stand at a threshold. Amidst all that has happened in 2020 thus far, you are given the task of reimagining how do we re-open the National Opera’s theatre season? What music theatre piece will resonate with the questions we have reflected on the last few months of quarantine? And perhaps more importantly, how should the creation process of opera reflect the social reform that the social isolation has made us reimagine?
In mid-July, the entire artistic team of FAUST gathered for the first time together in one place. You have been busy thinking and imagining a new music theatre production since May. DNO’s season opener, Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, was canceled. While the coronavirus threatens the older members of our society and those with pre-existing conditions, the same virus also imperils the performing arts and its struggle for survival. The aging institution of opera faces up to its prevailing existential challenges. The role to keep the opera season’s heart beating was thrust into your hands.
We spoke of how a new music theatre piece can be a stethoscope through which we may listen to the ills and exorcise the devils of the reemergence of misogyny and racism in neo-liberalizing Europe. The midsummer air was abuzz with excitement. We were emerging from an abruptly implemented national lockdown, bewildered by three months of existential contemplations of how this new decade has begun.
2020 started ablaze with the announcement of Australia’s third state of emergency with New South Wales’s continued bushfire—underscoring the gravity of the global climate crisis. At the end of January, the UK officially ceased to be part of the EU, making us rethink the possibility of trans- and post-national cooperation with the resurgence of tribal nationalism and reinstituted national borders. On the other hand, the #metoo movement resonated with the US justice system’s sentencing of Harvey Weinstein in February.
In March, WHO declared the global spread of CoVid19 as a pandemic. Nations and economies were locked down. We found ourselves sequestered in our homes, confronted by the fragility of this neoliberal capitalist system at the hands of a virus. In filmmaker Rodrigo García’s opinion on the New York Times—written as an epistle to his late father, poet Pablo Neruda—one wonders which insatiable virus he is referring to:
It’s a creature that evolved over an incalculable time through natural selection into the voracious little monster that it now is. […] It actually bears no particular ill will toward us. It takes and takes, because it can. Surely, we can relate. It’s nothing personal.
CoVid19, some argue, is a great equalizer. We found optimism in the pandemic’s potential to reset the broken system. But, like the microscope through which we examine the virus, the pandemic magnified our view to make visible the inequalities that persist to afflict our society. This pandemic has also revealed who are the most disenfranchised by our current global political, economic, and social system, in how they are most likely to die of lack of access to health care.
In this momentary hush of capitalist grind, did we finally have the empathetic space to listen to the racialized voices speaking through the din of colonial history? In spring, the Black Lives Matter movement rallied support across the world. Manoj, we stood at the BLM rally in Amsterdam in June. In different imperial centers, we witnessed the taking down of colonial monuments. We understand that rebooting from this system shutdown meant also doing away from the signs and symbols of older oppressive regimes.
Lisenka, you confront patriarchy and misogyny in the operatic canons with your work as a director. You take from your Dutch-Peruvian heritage in developing theatre-creation processes that prioritize intercultural conversations.
Manoj, you traverse multiple sonic idioms, and you think from the multiple consciousnesses of your multiculturality. You draw from your Dutch-Sri Lankan background in reinterpreting the classical concert and operatic repertoire with queer and cross-cultural perspectives.
It is an honor to serve as the dramaturgical consultant of your new work. Like both of you, my research and practice are situated at the intersection of my postmigrant identity as a Filipino-born Dutch scholar-artist. And it is within this framework that I proffer some dramaturgical questions and artistic provocations.
The national opera is tasked with being the repository of the intellectual and artistic corpus of human history. Etymologically, the word archive refers to “a public building” and a place where records are kept and organized. In this role, how should the national opera choose, organize, and present its body of knowledge? Which repertoire and whose cultural archive should we perform?
On another level, the cultural practices spanning centuries of artistic creation and reiteration constitutes what postcolonial scholars Edward Said and Gloria Wekker call the cultural archive. Wekker explains the cultural archive as being “located in many things, in the way we think, do things, and look at the world, in what we find (sexually) attractive, in how our affective and rational economies are organized and intertwined. Most important, it is between our ears and in our hearts and souls.”
She further explains that the cultural archive is “a repository of memory,” in the heads and hearts of people in the metropole, but its content is also silently cemented in policies, in organizational rules, in popular and sexual cultures, and in commonsense, everyday knowledge, and all of this is based on four hundred years of imperial rule.”
In making legible and audible the occluded cultural archives outside imperial hegemonies, we go further in thinking their embodiment and performativity in what performance scholar Diana Taylor calls the ‘repertoire.’ This repertoire constitutes the multiple forms of embodied acts made always present in their constant state of againness. Taylor explains that “[t]hey reconstitute themselves, transmitting communal memories, histories, and values from one group/generation to the next.”
Enmeshed in this framework are also the spectators communally defining the notion of aesthetics—implicating everyone in the discourse of ethics and politics. What the pandemic acutely made us aware of is that our mere physical presence and proximity, even in our presumed passive spectatorship and cultural consumption, implicates us all in our social responsibility of looking after each other’s wellbeing.
How do we then engage the operatic repertoire and its entanglement with the cultural and social archive and repertoire? How will the new ways of opera making reimagine and perform a more democratic, feminist, post- and de-colonial society? Is inclusion and diversification of repertoire and artists enough? How can we avoid the replication of World Fairs in the colonial exhibition of non-European bodies and culture onstage? Bodies of color and colonized contexts are not just ornamentations or motives. Nor are we just informants or objects of cultural industry. Real decolonization lies in a working philosophy that cross-cultural dialogue engages each other as collaborators in the creation, performance, and analysis of new aesthetics.
In further thinking about the artistic labor behind the creation process, I invite us to look back to the seventeenth century and revisit the Baroque theatres that enabled us to imagine the spectacular worlds that opera allowed us to see and hear. These theatres embodied the aesthetics of the “Age of Discovery” and the “Age of Empire.” We are presented with a fantastic mise en scène engined by theatrical machineries and stagehands, hidden outside the proscenium frame.
Through time, our appetite for spectacles grew proportionally with our ability to conceal the, often, cheap labor that enables for us these lavish entertainments. We inherited and carried these magic tricks over to today. We enjoy luxurious fashion, exotic delicacies, and spectacular mobile phones for our amusement—while keeping the cheap and precarious laborers who made them. The disenfranchised laborers are hidden away from the proscenium arches of our neo-liberal capitalist media and behind the walls of xenophobic immigration policies that block former colonies from entering the extravagant imperial metropolises.
Today, hierarchies of labor and compensation remains a pertinent issue in all industries and disciplines, including the arts and culture. Implicit racial assumptions still govern the question of access to certain privileged work. The artworld is still lacking in diversity. Artistic programming in Western Europe, for example, is still predominantly white and European. We, therefore, have the two challenges of dealing with the decolonization of systemic and institutionalized racism both at the discourse level, but also in how we translate this to the equal opportunities for artistic labor.
As I write this, you are in the right in the middle of the creation process. From the bewildering conversations we had, you would have to prune the garden of dramaturgical ideas to make a cohesive musical and theatrical piece.
During our conversation in June, we confronted the questions: How can you interrogate the ostensible universalism of Enlightenment knowledge that Faust seeks. How can you refocus the attention on the different bodily archives from the different cultures of your collaborating artists—your interlocutors in this production?
Your stage is a palimpsest of writings and rewritings of the DNO’s repertoire. Onstage, fragements of set pieces from previous productions of Wozzeck, Parsifal, Caruso I Cuba, Jeptha, Lulu, Norma, Pelléas Et Mélisande, Gianni Scicci and Oedipe, are reassembled. Images and histories overwrite each other. Boito’s compositions are reworked with and within different sound cultures. The collaborating artists also draw from their own ‘cultural archives and repertoires’ in interpreting the pieces. Arias and songs from the operatic canons and non-European repertoire, together with newly commissioned pieces and sound compositions interweave together in a multilayered soundscape.
The twentieth century was characterized by the shifts in thinking prefixed with “post.” It was the conscious marking of the end, and moving beyond the age of modernity, of colonialism, and of migration into postmodernity, postcolonialism, and postmigration; Intellectual turns built on polemics against earlier social systems. How should we then rethink the twenty-first century?
How do we constitute an understanding of the world beyond the morally-superior Self and the exotic Other knowing that they are but the same? How do we confront the Orient and the Occident, the colonizer and the colonized, the feminine and the masculine, that are all within us, latently waiting to be activated when opportunism for power and privilege presents itself?
Photo Credit: © Michel Schnater | Dutch National Opera | 2020
You can read the Dutch version here.