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Reflections on a repellent week

It's always a relief when a show opens to popular and critical acclaim, especially when it is the first show in the season. This year, there were added pressures; it was our first show as an independent company, Investec had  just put pen to paper on a new three year sponsorship and we were opening with a rarity. Such operas are our staple of course, but Iris is the piece that put us on that road in the first place. Oh, and four members of the Mascagni family were in the house which is bound to elevate the anxiety a little.

What has been fascinating is  the depth of the reaction to Iris. I won't rehearse the arguments on the merits of the work - and its motivations - that I have been having with many people about it, but one thing is for sure, Iris has had a dramatic effect on most who have seen it: both good and bad (mostly bad, but in a good way.)

When we have talked about the opera in the office in recent months, the discussion has often centred on the current obsession with how operas are directed and the resultant controversies. Sex, violence, nudity, rape..... The interesting thing about Iris is that there are no overt acts of violence or sexual assault for a director to amplify or go over the top on – no unseen or seen murders, for example.  Iris is a child who is exploited, for sure, but even then, Osaka does not get his way with her. So it would be interesting, we thought, to see what reaction there would be to an opera and a production that merely followed the libretto, ripe with cruelty at its heart,  to the letter, with no embellishments. True to say that Olivia Fuchs has ensured we are under no illusion as to what Iris is going through, but you take my point. 

We now know that critics were deeply affected by the production, some in a negative way, and reviews have been full of powerful language to describe the graphic realities of the opera. If you read some of them, you would be forgiven for thinking that the production is full of sex, murder and debauchery (it is, but only in threat). Indeed, one patron wrote to us and said he wanted a refund because he understood from reviews that it was "very graphic" and was concerned for his wife's sensibilities on what would be a birthday treat. The email was headed "Birthday disaster". When I wrote back and explained there would be no nudity, no rape, no murder or blood, but that it was an uncomfortable and difficult subject, he was becalmed. "Oh, OK, she can handle difficult subjects."

All of which raises interesting  thoughts about audience outrage at recent operas, the debate about modern productions and the disgust with directors who some audiences feel are doing a disservice to the work. It is often pointed out that the operas they believe are so sacrosanct are chock full of hideous acts, but it would seem some audiences just don't  want it threaped down their throats. Perhaps the issue is merely "offence"? Maybe (and this is not an opinion, just a genuine question) they are being less puritanical than we sometimes believe them to be?


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