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Blood Flows on Berlin Stage

DW staff (kjb)April 23, 2007

Naked senior citizens, countless liters of stage blood, a homosexual couple and US soldiers at Abu Ghraib: It sounds more like the script for an art house film than an 18th century opera.

Barrie Kosky explores the cross-cultural idea of sacrificeImage: PA/dpa

"We're going to use less blood in the beginning so the actors don't slip," producer Barrie Kosky said in an interview with Berliner Zeitung before Sunday's premiere. The opera isn't recommended for viewers under 16.

Whether despite or because of the blood, murder and nudity, Sunday's crowd at Berlin's Komische Oper cheered the modern version of the ancient tale, and culture magazine Cicero called it "a great evening of humanity."

Sacrifice at Abu Ghraib

Iphigenie auf Tauris
Geraldine McGreevy plays the priestess IphigeniaImage: PA/dpa

Iphigenia, the title character, is a priestess and prisoner of King Thoas on the island of Tauris. The king, who heard in an oracle that he was going to be killed at the hands of a foreigner, orders Iphigenia to kill anyone who makes it onto the island in a sacrifice to goddess Diana.

The opera opens with the priestess doing her job. Iphigenia drags a lifeless body across the stage to the rhythm of the music, slits its necks and collects the dripping blood.

Soldiers in US fatigues bring Iphigenia more victims and before the executions, the soldiers pose for pictures with the corpses, whose heads are wrapped in plastic bags.

"It wasn't the naked seniors that hurt, but the over-naturalism of the beginning, where Thoas' prisoners were humiliated by their myrmidon charges a la Abu Ghraib," Cicero wrote, referring to the disrobed actors who appear in the background.

"The issue is still too close, as if one could ignore the fact that each reference also has to do with living people, who maybe don't want to become just threads in the fabric of the world's collective images," the magazine continued.

For Kosky, sacrifice is the most interesting part of the opera.

"The idea of sacrifice runs through so many cultures," he said, mentioning the story of Abraham and Isaac, which is significant to Christian, Jews and Muslims.

A subtle love story

Iphigenie auf Tauris
The love story plays out between Pylades (right) and OrestesImage: PA/dpa

Like Abraham, Iphigenia stops her knife in mid-air during one of the many sacrifices. She recognized her brother Orestes, who had come to the island with his boyfriend, Pylades, after having killed his mother. Her brother's appearance forces the priestess to choose between her heart and duty. Her heart wins out and she lets her brother live.

Throughout the opera, the audience is left wondering about Orestes' sexuality.

"Somebody once told me there was no love story in Iphigenia," Kosky told the Berliner Zeitung. "But I think there is one, and it happens between two men. But this is no gay pride production. The audience members have to decide for themselves what happened between the two of them."

Christoph Willibald Gluck, one of Germany’s great opera composers and a reformer of the genre, set the Greek mythological tale of priestess Iphigenia in 1779. Even then, it was rewarded with great success.