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Culture

A Violent, Drug-Addled, Hooker-Filled Opera Angers Sponsors

Berlin's theatre-goers are notoriously hard to shock. But Spanish director Calixto Bieito's production of Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio" has got audiences pretty hot under the collar.

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Sexually explicit scenes in Calixto Bietito's production have divided audience and critics

When Calixto Bieito premiered his dystopic version of Abduction from the Seraglio at the acclaimed Komische Oper in Berlin last Sunday, angry punters walked out in their droves while others applauded a brave adaptation of Mozart's classic opera.

The media was equally polarized. While the tabloid Bild ran the headline "Is this what taxpayers money is spent on?" the daily Die Welt dubbed it "the most important production of the year."

Sexing up Seraglio

The Catalan director has relocated Mozart's 18th century comic opera set in the Ottoman Turkish Empire to a destitute modern world of forced prostitution, drug abuse and senseless violence.

Mozart Oper Die Entführung aus dem Serail in Berlin

One particularly blood-thirsty scene involves the character Osmin, played by baritone Jens Larsen, appearing to slice off a woman's nipple. In another scene, he urges a peroxide-blonde prostitute to drink a glass of his urine. Opera lovers expecting wholesome family entertainment were not amused.

They're not the only ones. An indignant Matthias Kleinert, sponsoring adviser to Daimler Chrysler CEO Jürgen Schrempp and one of seven curators with the Friends of the Komische Oper, told several Berlin newspapers that the company was consequently considering withdrawing its annual funding of €20,000. "I found the excessive sex and violence absolutely unacceptable", he said in an interview with Bild.

"Poor Mozart!"

A contemporary version of Abduction from the Seraglio was bound to anger the purists. But 40-year-old Bieito is no stranger to controversy, and the Komische Oper was well-aware it was hiring a renowned enfant terrible of the theater world. Last year, an unprecedented number of opera buffs cancelled their season tickets in response to his steamy treatment of Verdi's Il Trovatore at the Hanover Opera House.

There was no shortage of hecklers on Sunday either, with the performance punctuated by cries of "Fire the director!" and "Poor Mozart!" from the more conservative members of the audience. Nonetheless, others present described it as "sensational!"

Berlin's senator for culture, Thomas Flierl, also defended Bieito's production in an interview with Bild, arguing that "the depiction of blood, sex and violence is a true reflection of social phenomena."

Keeping the patrons happy

Komische Oper Director Andreas Homoki has shrugged off the complaints, telling the paper Berliner Morgenpost that he felt it was "legitimate and upfront of a member (of Friends of the Komische Oper) to withdraw if he no longer identifies with the theater."

The opera house receives an total of €250,000 in sponsorship from Friends of the Komische Oper every year. Keeping the patrons happy isn't always easy, and the possibility that they might want to exercise censorship is a risk theaters and opera houses know they have to take.

Compared to other European countries and the United States, Berlin's opera houses receive relatively little private funding. As Homoki told public radio broadcaster Deutschlandradio, "the problem with sponsoring is that the companies involved like to use the arts they're funding as an image booster." But, he insists, "the German theater system is an expression of a free society in which uncomfortable art occupies a necessary place."

Passionate discussion

It's no doubt some comfort to Homoki that there's no such thing as bad publicity -- at least when it comes to ticket sales. The Komische Oper might even find the controversial performance proves to be an excellent crowd-puller. After an otherwise unremarkable season, the theater noted a conspicuous rise in ticket sales after raunchy photographs of rehearsals were published in advance of the premiere.

Homoki pointed out on Deutschlandradio that, at the very least, Sunday's premiere didn't go unnoticed.

"I think it's the first time in history that Bild devoted an entire front page to a theatre premiere," he observed. "The Komische Oper has always been dedicated to showing realistic musical theater and that's what we've done here, " he added. "It's up for discussion and I'm glad to see it's being discussed so passionately."

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