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-Saens’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 … 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 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 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, far from seeking to exterminate the Palestinians as the Nazis did the Jews, are merely trying to stop them from committing mayhem.
But when Nazis aren’t available, turning the tables on the Jews vis-à-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.