- Opera and/as Theatricality:Notes from Across the Aisle
My thoughts about operatic "ontologies" involve a detour: I'm focused not on an opera per se, but a relatively unproblematic non-opera that, performed a certain way, may tell us something about the ecosystem of operatic performance in the twentyfirst century.
The site of this performance was the Synod House of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine near Columbia University in Manhattan: not the large and imposing church itself, where Elton John has birthday parties, but a smaller, homier space next door. As we entered, or tried to enter, the audience was required to relinquish all bags, all cell phones, and all shoes. The logistics of this confiscation were complicated by the building itself, which was designed more for community church functions than an elaborate door policy, but eventually everyone was in and settled, shoeless, on the floor. On the program: the Brahms Requiem, with piano four-hand accompaniment, and sung by the Berlin Rundfunkchor, who it turned out were scattered among the public sitting on the floor.
As staged by the choreographer Sasha Waltz and her dramaturg husband Jochen Sandig in a performance entitled "Human Requiem," this emergence of the singers from among the spectators was invested with a fair amount of import. It was carefully choreographed, with the choristers making all sorts of meaningful eye contact or gentle touches on the shoulder with the audience, many of whom seemed delighted, moved, or impressed by the temporarily acousmatic subterfuge. (This "surprise" was mentioned positively in many reviews as well.) Later on the chorus offered us pillows to sit on, and wordlessly encouraged us to move throughout the space continually for the entirety of the work.
A kind of immersive theater, a kind of ritualized oratorio performance, and also a kind of highly representational piece of literalized movement—the second movement's funeral march was staged as … a funeral march—this Requiem performance was hardly a standard offering of Brahms's work, and as such, and specifically as such in the stiflingly conventional offerings of New York City, it served as one of the highlights of Lincoln Center's "White Lights" Festival that fall of 2016. (And for the Berlin-centric among us it also served as an opportunity to see [End Page 143] something that has been perpetually sold out since its initial performances at the Radialsystem in Berlin.)
If my description of the performance thus far hints at a puncturing to come, I can confirm those suspicions now with a couple lances. One: the claims of seamless identity between performers and audience. There's obviously a long history of this ideal within operatic, theatrical, and art historical contexts, as well as skeptical scholarship to match (such as Claire Bishop's work on participatory art1), but one thing that was impossible to ignore solely within the context of a performance in New York City in 2016 were its racial politics. I doubt anyone was surprised that my Latino partner, for instance—or any other people of color in the room—was not actually part of the all-white German chorus; any claim that performer and spectator were indistinguishable is a claim underwritten first and foremost by the whitewashing of both American and German racial identity. And while that's a criticism that applies to any number of artists or artworks, it would seem especially relevant to the claim being made about this "Human Requiem," which pointedly was not referred to with Brahms's own title, Ein deutsches Requiem. Indeed, I'd recommend that anyone feeling insufficiently skeptical about the ability of scholars to shape public discourse might consider the case of Brahms's work and the absolute erasure by artists and journalists—despite overwhelming and undisputed scholarly evidence to the contrary—of its nationalist project and its continuing nationalist overtones, even its very name.2 And while I can't say I was especially surprised that a New York Times critic would unproblematically endorse the canard that Brahms's actual title is meaningless, in the context of this performance the stakes of that erasure seemed even more pernicious, covertly replacing Brahms's nationalism with...