The singer’s tale: ‘I was sobbing and shaking in William Tell’
June 30, 2015 by norman lebrecht
Catharine Rogers, a London opera singer, went to the dress rehearsal last Friday of Damiano Michieletto’s Covent Garden production of Rossini’s William Tell.
In the extended rape scene, she was profoundly upset. Knowing that it was bad form to discuss a production before opening night, she stayed quiet while others booed. Then she wrote to the ROH artistic director Kasper Holten.
Here’s Catharine’s account of her experience (full story here).
On Friday afternoon I was in a bit of a quandary. It didn’t occur to me that I was capable of reacting so violently to an opera performance, but there I was, sobbing (thankfully silently) and shaking and unable to look away from a scene in Act 3 of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera House. I did not boo. It was however the first time I had ever heard booing and shouting at a dress rehearsal, and not at the curtain calls, DURING THE PERFORMANCE. This from an audience of opera professionals and supporters of the art. Afterwards I discussed with the women either side of me how unnecessary it felt, but I felt relatively calm. I spoke to my boyfriend on the phone straight afterwards and said how upsetting it had been. I briefly met one of the chorus who was not enjoying being part of it. I went home…
It was still getting to me. I am under a lot of stress at the moment, and feeling vulnerable, but I have never been the victim of sexual violence, I didn’t think I could feel so disturbed by something I knew was staged. The next day I spoke briefly about it to my flatmate, not sure what I should do, but aware I should do something. I burst into tears again (I have cried more tears in the last four days or so than I can ever remember doing). I decided to write to the ROH.
We asked Catharine what, exactly, upset her in the scene. She replied: ‘It was incredibly realistic with at one point the girl screaming in English, not in French, I felt paralysed and unable to help her….’ She felt the rape went on far too long and the production should have been preceded by a warning.
Then something unexpected happened: I switched my phone on between rehearsals to find an email from Kasper Holten. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. At first I thought it must be a marketing email – after all, I was *somehow* on a Labour mailing list that resulted in some of the most irritating promotional emails in history in the run up to the General Election purporting to be from Ed Milliband. Or his wife. Or anyone else in the Labour party you care to name. I digress. The Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House had indeed sent me an email. I hope he will forgive me, I thought about paraphrasing him at this point, but I think it would be wrong in case I change any of his meaning. This is what he wrote:
Dear Ms Rogers,
Thank you for your email, and for taking the time to write to me. I am
glad you enjoyed many aspects of the Guillaume Tell dress rehearsal.
I am sorry that you found the scene in act 3 so disturbing. The director
wanted to show the reality of war and oppression, which is of course the
themes Rossini’s opera deals with. And sadly, what we show on stage in act
3 is of course only very mild compared to what happens in countries
occupied by aggressors around the world, and compared to what women must
endure in times of war and occupation. It is important for the director to
show this in order to exactly put the spotlight on how women are made
victims and to remind us how damaging and horrible sexual violence towards
women is. So he and you totally agree on what a terrible thing rape is
(the scene on stage never amounts to actual rape, even though I agree it
is very violent and humiliating).
Rossini chose the subject of war and oppression for his opera because he
wanted to make statements about these issues, and it is important that we
do not only allow his opera to become harmless entertainment today. The
story of the opera also includes multiple murders, which surely is as bad
as rape? It is, however, always a discussion how much one needs to show on
the stage, of course.
Following your reaction, we are reviewing the scene with the director and
some changes will be made before opening night, although the scene will
still be included.
We already have a warning on our homepage stating that ³The production
features a scene involving an adult theme and brief nudity², but we will
consider whether the warning needs to be stronger and more visible.
Thank you for taking the time to write to me with your feedback. I assure
you we take it very seriously and are considering it carefully.
But nothing happened. The rape went ahead without warning.
Kasper Holten has let me down. Whilst I had no expectation that the scene would change, I did think there would be a proper warning. HALF of all women in the UK have been the victim of sexual or physical violence. HALF. I thought it was 1 in 4 until today.
Frankly, if it were me, I would have walked out onto the stage before the downbeat and announced that “there would be a disturbing scene of a sexual and violent nature in Act 3. We have thought long and hard about it’s inclusion. We feel it is artistically relevant, but that it would be wrong to let it pass without warning.”
Her conclusion: ‘This scene is meant to shock, and it’s meant to shock CHEAPLY. Without protecting the very people who’s plight it is designed to highlight.’
Read Catharine’s full account here.
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