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The singer’s tale: ‘I was sobbing and shaking in William Tell’

June 30, 2015 by norman lebrecht

38 comments.


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).

william tell2

 

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.

Catharine continues:

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.

Best wishes
Kasper Holten

But nothing happened. The rape went ahead without warning.

Catharine writes:

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.

 


Comments (38)

  1. DLowe says:

    Thank you for posting this. It’s good to have the insight of a professional singer. One can feel only pity for the actual performers of this travesty.

  2. Angela Rodion says:

    Powerful and frightening. My deepest sympathies. Holten’s gratuitous reply needs to be addressed by the board at the Royal Opera House. Heads do need to roll over this whole business starting with Holten’s, because he does not seem to be taking his position at the Royal Opera House remotely seriously.

    1. DESR says:

      Could not agree more. ‘I am so sorry if you are so feeble-minded as to be offended by our little show…’ Etc etc.

      Needs a kick up the backside by the board.

  3. John Borstlap says:

    Contemporary stage directors don’t seem to understandntyat opera is an art form, i.e. things are stylized, i.e. removed from reality to show the inside of reality in terms of artistic expecience. When we can enjoy quite some exciting reality on the TV news nowadays, opera should provide an antidote, not a mere repetition of the same. In fact, all that offensive stuff is extremely, abyssmally, disgustingly oldfashioned – and it is about time stage directors retire and grow vegetables or some other more civilized occupation.

    1. Petros LInardos says:

      Well said. As for my young children, I am relieved that many good old productions have been preserved on DVD, like the MET’s Otto Schenk Ring or Munich’s Everding Magic Flute (miraculously still performed there, one of few productions worth seeing in Munich).

    2. Tweettweet says:

      I think art should not be binded by some ‘rules’ or opinions from the audience. Let art be independent!

  4. Brian b says:

    A mundane consideration, I know, but, of course, nobody watching this unfortunate directorial choice is paying the slightest bit of attention to Rossini’s music.

  5. La Donna del Largo says:

    So it’s the Royal Opera House’s fault you were having a lousy day? Maybe you shouldn’t go to see violent melodramas about political occupation and oppression when you’re feeling out of sorts. Stay home and watch a rom-com on DVD instead of trying to tell Kaspar Holten how to do his job.

    1. Gonout Backson says:

      Reasonable, moderate answer : since the bill announces, and the tickets are sold for “Gioacchino Rossini – Guillaume Tell”, could you inform us, please, where, in Mr Rossini’s huge score, there is a musical passage describing the scene as produced by Mr Michielletto.

      Visceral answer (more in your style and spirit) : dear Donna, go jump in the Lago.

  6. CDH says:

    Ms. Rogers’ reaction — tears, shock, fear — are exactly what the production people presumably are aiming for. Yes, it is difficult, and the figure — which I had not heard before or elsewhere — that half the women in the UK have been subjected to sexual assault means that statistically there must be some at every performance at Covent Garden (and elsewhere). Not doubt such scenes are very distressing for them.

    So I agree with Ms. Rogers that a very clear warning needs to be issued as to the content — television, films, even records give such warnings so people can CHOOSE if they wish to see something. Not having seen the production, I do not know if it was done with strong ethical and aesthetic values, and the reviews have been more concerned with the audience than the production, which is very annoying. But I do not automatically condemn the scene (again, sight unseen). I know too many people who abjure excellent films — about things like Serbia — because “there’s enough violence on the TV news.” In fact there isn’t: TV news is very sanitised, and what a film can do, sometimes with difficult passages, is humanise the experience, bring it home, perhaps raising some empathy from those who would rather not have to think about these things.

    It is a matter of taste. I saw The Passion of the Christ, and was cold and removed about it because I thought it was a typical Mel Gibson slasher film, which I had not been expecting — I had expected to be moved. I know many devout Catholics, not particularly cinema-goers, who were. I am both Catholic and a cinemaphile, and the latter trumped the former because the aesthetics and choices of the director were so brutally wrong, in my opinion. It would seem that many in the Guillaume Tell audience felt that way about this director’s staging. Having been a drama student, I am well aware that less is often more, and what is implied can often be more effective than brutal realism (my finding with Gibson’s film was that by excess and literal brutality he distanced the actual pain, the agony, the passion of the suffering he was trying to depict). But I don’t think the knowledge that the director had injected a rape scene would automatically make me rule out seeing the production — which also sounds well worth hearing.

  7. Mahlerfan says:

    I wonder if tickets sales will rise now of all this publicity? More bums on seats could result in louder booing.

  8. Emil says:

    “it is important that we do not only allow his opera to become harmless entertainment today.” Exactly. The most moving and memorable productions I have seen are those which do not remain superficial – Dead Man Walking, for instance, which includes a violent rape, murder, and execution on stage.

    Besides, Holten’s email states clearly that they will “review the scene,” not remove it. Where did he let anyone down? He said clearly that the scene would be included – and it is, as promised.

    I actually applaud a Director of Opera who takes the time to answer emails personally, and who doesn’t hide behind a press office.

    1. Stephen Owades says:

      I’m inclined to sympathize with those who find this scene, as described, to be gratuitous and offensive. But I do wonder whether it might have been even worse in the rehearsal than in the performance; in other words, it is possible that this writer’s letter to the ROH had some effect even though the scene was still present, and offensive, on opening night.

  9. Emil says:

    Of course, also, as the ROH reaction page shows, there are also many who are defending the production. It is not as one-sided as this blog suggests.

  10. nimra says:

    We must not great carried away. I haven’t seen the production, so I am not entitled to an opinion. But it is quite clear to me that some of the media criticism has been nasty indeed. For instance, it seems rather ironic that the theatre critic of a tabloid newspaper – which boosts its circulation with hypocrisy shockers, far-right propaganda and voyeurism – trembles with indignation, demanding that “heads should roll” …
    Again, I have not seen this production, but ROH’s recent programming has been forward-looking and interesting, including productions by such innovative international directors as Kusej, Guth and Herheim and fine new operas by Benjamin and Bedford. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater!

    1. pooroperaman says:

      ‘I haven’t seen the production, so I am not entitled to an opinion.’

      Yes indeed.

      ‘But it is quite clear to me that some of the media criticism has been nasty indeed.’

      But then you give one anyway. You can’t comment on the reviews if you haven’t seen the production. Simple as that. I was there last night, and the reviews are, if anything, kind and restrained.

  11. Nicolas Mansfield says:

    My guess is that Mr Michieletto will be thinking: mission accomplished.

    1. DESR says:

      Er, yes: not gonna be asked back in a hurry! Cav & Pag already booked, but needs to make it good otherwise bye bye.

      1. Cynical Observer says:

        If nothing else his production will be sure to elicit a vociferous response from those who will not see William Tell but will bring with them preformed prejudices based on the furore surrounding it.

  12. Theodore McGuiver says:

    It’s awful. No-one should have to go through that. Not even if they weren’t really from Ed Milliband.

  13. marguerite foxon says:

    Thx for the heads up. I’ll skip seeing the HD when it comes to Sydney. Pity as I love Rossini and haven’t seen this one, but I have no interest in watching a realistically staged violent rape on stage.

  14. David Boxwell says:

    The tip o’ the iceberg, now made apparent to London audiences. Regie opera productions throughout Europe have been, by and large, cesspools of pseudointellectual, disrespectful, ahistorical filth for more than two decades. Audiences in New York are just getting their first taste of it, as well. Ironically, singers have greater acting chops than ever before, yet they are forced to channel those talents in productions that shame, humiliate, and flagrantly abuse them and their bodies. Audiences are pushing back, and that’s good.

    (Most recently seen: Tcherniakov’s cheap and vulgar “Lulu” in Munich).

    1. nimra says:

      That’s a crass generalization. For sure, there exist appalling and utterly stupid Regietheater productions but there also exist wonderful ones. “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. You lament about audiences in New York having a first taste of “ahistorical filth” (as you put it) – what do you mean by this? A production that caused huge indignation in NY was Luc Bondy’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca at the Met – but that indignation was nothing else but an example of the intellectual laziness much too common among (certain) operagoers. Luc Bondy is a great opera and theatre director and it was about time that they dispensed with the 25-year old and utterly fusty production of that “second assistant of Visconti”. As for Tcherniakov (who, by the way, is certainly not the typical Regietheater director) I have seen a fantastic Khovanschina and it’s rather difficult to believe that his Lulu would have been vulgar and cheap.

    2. ohglorioso says:

      And that Lulu one can watch on Medici – with the next MD of the Berlin Philharmonic conducting.

  15. MegS says:

    Horrific human behavior is often the whole point in grand opera, even when beautiful music and period settings enable denial.

    As a kid, I didn’t understand why Dame Sutherland couldn’t marry the guy. She had pretty gowns , good furniture, nice manners. When our kids were ready to see La Traviata, we made sure they understood the subject.

    Guillaume Tell is about war, oppression and murder. The inciting incident is an attack on a young female by the occupying force.

    Lulu is “vulgar” at the very least. It’s an unvarnished catalog of lust, adultery, degradation, murder, suicide. In real-life, a single scene would bring down most people for good. But by all means, do not let us see the cheapness of life.

    “Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art. – Pablo Picasso

    To prepare, maybe read the Bible.

  16. Nick says:

    The saddest point about this issue is that few genuine opera lovers will have seen any production of William Tell and around the world many will have been eagerly looking forward to it. I am against the realistic portrayal of rape onstage. In this case, It certainly appears to have been gratuitous. Like Catherine Rodgers, many women – and no doubt also some men – will be badly affected by such action.

    For Kaspar Holten to suggest that a warning on the ROH homepage is sufficient advance notice is nonsense! Most patrons will have bought their tickets many months in advance to see a rarely performed masterpiece. And that is likely to have been before any warning appeared. What will now happen to those tens of thousands who will similarly have purchased tickets for the showings in cinemas? Are there warnings at each cinema? If so, why should patrons disgusted by such a portrayal be denied the chance to see this masterpiece because of a cheap director’s gimmick?

    A major opera house has a duty to the public at large which contributes mightily to its ability to operate. Offending a vast section of that public with a highly visual piece of gratuitous violence is stupid and downright idiotic! The operatic repertoire is filled with rape scenes delicately handled by composers (Don Giovanni). There is absolutely no need for directors to resort to near real simulations. The music will do that for us! Holten and his superiors should definitely be called to account!

  17. Kasper Holten says:

    Dear all,

    let me first of all emphasise that of course the reaction of Catherine and of many others make a strong impression on me and us, and it is not something I or we take lightly. I reflect very seriously, also with my colleagues, about what has happened and what is the right course of action.

    I want to make sure to underline that I have apologised for us not issuing a strong and clear enough warning. Of course, audiences should be able to make an informed choice about what they want to see or not, and if an audience member does not want to be exposed to sexual violence, it should be their choice. The scene was meant to be upsetting, of course, but we have intention to disturb people in the way Catherine describes.

    Some modifications were indeed made to the scene between the general and the first night, but it remains a very brutal and uncomfortable scene.

    I want to assure everybody – in case anyone is in doubt – that we have not intended the scene to be used for cheap shock value, to provoke or to be, as someone suggested, entertaining. The scene is an attempt by the director to remind us about what tragically is the reality of war fare, and rape is discussed in the libretto of the opera. In the first act we hear that a young woman was attempted raped by the oppressors, and in act 3 the libretto says the officers force the local women to dance with them against their will. Of course the scene in the opera is much more graphic, but it fundamentally tries to draw out what is being discussed in the opera as well, and tries to put the spotlight on sexual crimes.

    I will underline again that I take the reactions very seriously and that we reflect on this. It is important that we discuss what the role of art is, what we should and need to show, and whether there are other ways to achieve what we are trying to do. I think it is important that we discuss this, and I don’t think there are easy answers.

    We will make sure that everyone who has booked for Tell is properly warned about the content of this scene, and I apologise again to Catherine that we had not warned her.

    Some people in this thread want to discuss my aesthetic and my choice of directors and productions in a more general way. That is, of course, also a very relevant and important discussion, but a very different one, which I am happy to have but urge us not to confuse with the issue being raised by Catherine.

    Let me assure you that we wanted to put the spotlight on rape as a horrible and terrifying crime and that our intention in doing this was to remind us all how this weapon is being used in warfare around the world. Whether this is the right way to do it, is a relevant and important discussion, but I want to make sure the intention is understood correctly. Anyone speculating in us doing this for the shock value to achieve publicity, I can assure you that I would really rather have been without this kind of publicity and be able to focus on the work itself and the important issues in the work and production.

    So, please let us discuss method. And let us make sure we warn people so they can make a choice, just as we should always try to be honest in our advance marketing about a production. I apologise for not making that warning clear and direct enough. But it is important for me to state that our intention was to express disgust at rape and make the scene upsetting to put the spotlight on rape as a war crime.

    Best wishes
    Kasper

    1. Nick says:

      A warning is all very well when it is made prior to tickets being purchased. In this case, given the requirement to purchase tickets well in advance, I cannot see that one can have been made at that time. If not, and the warning comes just as one is about to attend the performance of an acknowledged and rarely performed operatic masterpiece after many months of keen anticipation, then it is an insult to ticket buyers who may well be offended and decide not to go. I remain amazed that neither Holten, Pappano nor Beard appreciated this issue before permitting the director carte blanche with this scene.

  18. Craig says:

    *WARNING: this comment contains offensive opinions. Those quick to anger should look away while you still can.*

    I’ll just paraphrase what Kasper has said:

    You all need to get over yourselves. Seriously.

    Those of you who expect opera to be nice and pretty and oh so inoffensive need to realise that opera is like any other art form, in that it can portray and express challenging viewpoints and difficult subjects. The traditionalists are stamping their feet all over this under the guise of morality. Nobody objected during Wozzeck last season when the drum major bends Marie over her bed and does her from behind for a good minute with her son staring them down. A very uncomfortable scene, yes, but intentionally so. Opera is moving into the 21st Century, catching up with the rest of the arts, and this is a necessary part of the process…whether the production is any good or not is another question. The opera house is not a safe haven of Victorian morality and bad sexual innuendo.

    Also, the idea being bandied around that somehow the director hates women purely because he portrays rape is frankly moronic.

    1. Gonout Backson says:

      Opera is certainly “moving into the 21st Century” – in pieces written in the 21st Century. In all the other pieces, written before, it obeys to the codes of its time. Changing these codes, showing things the composer didn’t intend to show and didn’t write music to, is rape – to stay on the subject.

      Some simple minds consider the only way to make things FELT is to SHOW them. Some think – there are other, subtler and more effective ways.

      1. Craig says:

        So would you experience the same revulsion with Baz Luhrmann for Romeo and Juliet, or with Peter Sellars for his staged Matthew Passion for instance? And don’t say it isn’t the same thing, because it is!

        1. Gonout Backson says:

          What is “the same thing”? A kitschy adaptation of a theatre play and a self-serving “staging” of a work never meant to be staged?

          1. Craig says:

            I mean they are reimaginings of historical works, so your answer is ‘yes’, meaning you’re a traditionalist. That’s fine, but you’ve been all over these boards pretending like you speak for everyone and that opera is dying because of stuff like this. Truth is that crap and egotistical productions happen, then you laugh at them and move on, knowing that Rossini/Mozart/whoever will live to fight another day and will see better, more imaginative settings. We have bigger things to be worried about, like opera’s genuine image problem…

    2. Max says:

      Thanks Craig, for the most sensible words in this whole farrago of hysterical and self-righteous breastbeating.
      Nobody has complained or been morally outraged about the fact that an elderly, innocent patriot was gratuitously shot dead at the end of the first act – perhaps because there was not a comparable amount of screaming onstage – yet gun crime is every bit as savage and ghastly as sexual assault. Or did I miss the sensational front-page articles in the tabloids?

      This is a fantastic production and should not be missed.

  19. MP says:

    People like you, without any kind of moral compass, are the problem. Your comment shows ignorance and complete lack of dignity. If you want to see something which appears real, go to see a film. There are plenty of films about war. Opera is a different form of entertainment.

  20. Flossie says:

    What if I were to suggest that having seen and enjoyed the General, immensely, I feel that there has been a huge and baffling over-reaction to this scene? Also, when people claim to have been so incredibly upset that they cried for three days after the experience they have to be very careful that they are not seen working with colleagues the next day, appearing quite happy and as normal. Colleagues have hinted that this debacle was triggered by an example of quite wilful, untruthful, attention-seeking behaviour. If this is wholly reliable evidence, it hints at despicable behaviour. Kasper Holten and the staff of the Royal Opera House are beginning to emerge from this with dignity, integrity and sensitivity.

  21. Flossie says:

    What if I were to suggest that having seen and enjoyed the General, immensely, I feel that there has been a huge and baffling over-reaction to this scene? Also, when people claim to have been so incredibly upset that they cried for three days after the experience they have to be very careful that they are not seen working with colleagues the next day, appearing quite happy and as normal. Colleagues have hinted that this debacle was triggered by an example of quite wilful, untruthful, attention-seeking behaviour. If this is wholly reliable evidence, it hints at despicable behaviour. Kasper Holten and the staff of the Royal Opera House are beginning to emerge from this with the most dignity, integrity and sensitivity.

  22. Flossie says:

    What if I were to suggest that having seen and enjoyed the General, immensely, I feel that there has been a huge and baffling over-reaction to this scene? Also, when people claim to have been so incredibly upset that they cried for three days after the experience they have to be very careful that they are not seen working with colleagues the next day, appearing quite happy and as normal. Colleagues have hinted that this debacle was triggered by an example of quite wilful, untruthful, attention-seeking behaviour and not genuine upset. If this is wholly reliable evidence, it hints at despicable behaviour. Kasper Holten and the staff of the Royal Opera House are beginning to emerge from this with the most dignity, integrity and sensitivity.


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