1 There is such a need for an aesthetics and politics of the unplugged, of letting go of the habitual forms of doing and imagining things, of dis-connecting the familiar setups and designs of everyday life, of questioning the normal and normalities, of queering.
2 Salzburg has joined the bandwagon of cities that promote themselves as queer-friendly, illustrated by a gay guide ‘for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex (LGBTQI)- community’ that I regularly get in my mail. Everything for tourism, even if the queer community visits Salzburg anyhow during its yearly music, opera and theatre festival, the Salzburger Festspiele.
3 This year I had a chance to take part, for the first time, in three operas with a female story in focus: ‘Aida’, Pamina in the ‘Magic flute’ and ‘Katja Kabanova’. Respectively in the three main festival locations: Das grosse Festspielhaus, das Haus für Mozart and die Felsenreitschule, the former summer riding school often used for more experimental adaptations. Three languages also – Italian, even if Aida plays in Africa, ‘das Singspiel’ in German to combine dialogue with singing in an often-comical form, and Czech, for Janacek to develop an own musical language and style. Three creation periods: 1870/1871 when Aida premièred in Cairo just after the Suez Canal had opened (to give passage to colonialists); 1791, the year Mozart would die and 1921, a post-World War I time and a year after the Salzburg festival was created, even if Janacek would be first programmed in the 1990s by the then Intendant Gerard Mortier, something which was then received as a provocation.
4 Most importantly, these three operas are produced by three feminist-queer inspired teams at work while a war rages through Europe and the world. Verdi’s Aida brings us to the war between the domineering Egyptians and the underdog Ethiopian people – easily to be projected on the current war. Even if the link to nowadays situation is so obvious, staging Aida is no sinecure as historically around it not only claims of racism and fascism linger but it also formed Said’s (1979) inspiration for his concept of ‘orientalism’. The direction was in the hands of the visual artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat, herself like Aida living in exile from Iran. Neshat’s visual world is one which is ritualist and symbolic, giving the staging a slow and static aura that underlines the power of the military and religious elite. Simultaneously, Neshat tells a parallel story with her poetic images that show the (old) faces of men and women that are the losers in wars and the with-ink overwritten feet of the dead which – who else? – the women must bury. Through this doubling of staging/imaging, Neshat makes us experience the opposites in which we live, such as black/white, masculine/feminine, violent/mystical, visible/veiled, and so on. Against the world of war, brutality and violence which is advocated by the belligerent religious authorities, there is the love rivalry between the Ethiopian Aida and the royal Amneris, who both long for the love of Radamès who directs the Egyptian army. While Aida and Radamès who gives up his status as war hero and chooses (to flight with) Aida, will die, it is Amneris – even if or just because she loses out on the love of Radamès, condemns the religious and political systems and curses the priests, opening up for the possibility of peace.
5 In Mozar t’s ‘Magic flute’, similar dualisms appear between darkness and light, strong and weak, masculine and feminine, realist and magic, and so on. In this staging, an almost complete female production team – with (rare as this still may be) the vivid and magistral conductor Joana Mallwitz – opts for a post-dual world and undermines the Enlightenment’s clarity and hierarchy of these dualisms. Their most radical innovation is that they tell the story from the perspective of the three children as they are read Die Zaüberflöte as a bedtime-stor y by their grandfather, and together they imagine that the whole opera is taking place in the rooms of their house and the members of their family and village turn out to be the characters of the opera. The children – together with the narrating grandpa – stay almost through the whole play on stage and increasingly take over the course of the opera, giving them the night of their life. This interpretation makes this ‘Magic Flute’ truly magical as the opera with its dragon and animals, turns ‘naturally’ into a funny fair y tale where ever ything is possible and paintings and mirrors show moving figures. However, director Lidia Steier situates the play at the time of WWI and shows that the power-play of Sarastro and his all-male crew (dressed in suits and bowler hats) does not lead to the victory of the light (as the second act is often interpreted) but to a bloody confrontation with the cruelty of war, as video-images of WWI are projected over the scenery. While men are fighting to pass the tests of their leader, women are veiled and silent while they – who else? – nurse the war’s victims. The children’s dream-like night turns increasingly into a nightmare, where it not that Pamina (a princess in the story but also their mother) increasingly questions the power-games of the dominant establishment and offers the children a new image of their mother as daring to resist, while the misogynist (and racial) tones in Mozart’s libretto are wiped out. In the program-book, the dramaturgical team refers to Virginia Woolf’s (2006/1938) essay ‘Three guineas’, her insisting plea against the war while wishing for (educational) spaces where women can develop a different kind of (learning to) living together. If Woolf asked for experimental colleges that avoid the teaching of domination and dominance, this is exactly the kind of adventurous schooling the children experience that night. The opera therefore not ends with a victorious choir, but we see the children exhausted and slightly traumatized sneak into bed, where the portrait of their (grand) mother wakes over them.
6 Pamina’s resistance to the patriarchal power can be fruitfully compared with the hear tbreaking destiny of Kát’a (‘Katja’) Kabanová, an opera by Leoš Janáček. In Katja’s case, she has not only to resist the matriarchal despotism of her heartless mother-in-law and the impotent lovelessness of her alcoholic husband, but especially the oppressive norm expectations of a religious village, which is brilliantly staged by an immense group of anonymous puppet people who stand with their back to Katja (and the audience). It is their silent and scary presence that suffocates Katja’s desires to imagine herself as a free and in-love woman that takes pleasure in her dreams. These rows of lifelike puppets on the bare 40 m-broad scene are moved between various scenes enclosing increasingly the action; later they are joined by two dozen of faceless figurants who encircle Katja in a threatening way. All her hope to re-imagine what it means to be a young female melts, and seeing no way out, Katja jumps in the Volga with its siren-like force. As her only escape was to the border of the river, Katja is staged in turmoil as she several times runs to the edge of the scene, as if she would jump in the orchestra pit. Each time, the moving singing and acting of Corinne Winters just in front of me, reminded me of the opening scene of ‘The Hours’ where Virginia Woolf is seen drowning herself. The queer director Barrie Kosky, who presented this production as he was finishing his 10 year long tenure as intendant and chief director of the ‘Komische Oper’ in Berlin, to which he was appointed by the first gay mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, underlines that this claustrophobic oppression is not outdated, but may be part today of many orthodox Christian, Islam or Jewish communities. The day I saw this performance, the news was broken that Serbia would cancel the Euro-pride as the LGBTQI-community would – dixit a Serbian bishop – ‘desacralize’ Serbia and its people. In Kosky’s view, Katja’s choice is a form of resistance, as she is abandoned by the badly damaged men, also by her lover Boris who is not able to stand up to the social and familial pressures. Such devastating abandonment is not something Aida has to experience (as Radamès follows her), even if at some point before she considers to drawn herself in the Nile.
7 Away from the old town, across the river Salzach, is the Landestheater, the state and city theatre of Salzburg that offers the whole year opera, theatre and musicals. In their programming, they pick up new possibilities where the Festspiele currently seem to ‘stop’ as the State Theatre, for instance, shows contemporary-written operas that address queer themes and characters (and not just feminist and queer interpretations). For instance, some years ago I could see their adoption of Brokeback Mountain, an opera composed by Charles Wuorinen following a libretto by Annie Proulx who also wrote the short story upon which the more famous movie by Ang Lee is known. In fact, the opera was commissioned by Gerard Mortier as he was preparing to become the director of the New York City Opera (NYCO), often called the ‘people’s opera’. Due to the financial crisis, Mortier stayed in Europe and created the opera instead in Madrid in 2014, a month before he would pass away. The intendant of the ‘Landestheater’ who was Mortier’s assistant during his term at the Festspiele in the 1990s, cooperated with the NYCO, to stage Brokeback Mountain both in Salzburg (2016) and New York (2018). They similarly co-produced the staging of the operatic version of ‘Angels in America’, composed by the Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös, who was present during one of this year’s performances in Salzburg, and counter-signaling the homophobia of the current Hungarian government. The NYCO stages these operas during pride-month in New York and made it into a trilogy by commissioning Iain Bell to compose the opera Stonewall for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which premièred during the World Pride in 2019. It is more likely that this opera might be shown at the Landestheater than at the Festspiele that notwithstanding the feminist-queer interpretations it might offer so now and then, remains an elitist event which will not so quickly unplug opera.
8 The weekend after the Festspiele have finished and when the festival tourists have left town, Salzburg holds its yearly pride-weekend. Most probably the villagers of Salzburg will not turn their back on them, as now happens in Serbia, Poland, Hungary, instigated by all those religious and political fundamentalists that install gay-free zones and education in their cities and schools. These recurring forms of oppression force LGBTQ people to flee, to closet themselves, and, like Katja or Virginia, to suicide. Therefore, artistic and activist practices of unplugging are so needed, more than ever, for tolerance, for peace as both Amneris and Pamina plea.