A continuing scandal over a production at the Cologne Opera has theater audiences on the edge of their seats. The controversy pits a provocative director against his own singers, some of whom walked off the job.
Other productions by Knabe have been controversial, but haven't gone as far as 'Samson and Delilah'
It's not every opera production that gets a 16-and-over rating. But the Cologne Opera has warned younger viewers away from a modern interpretation of Camille Saint-Saens's "Samson and Delilah," as envisioned by "shock opera" director Tilman Knabe.
Knabe set the biblical story, which takes place in the ancient Philistine city of Gaza, in the modern-day Gaza Strip. In the last act, a bacchanalia scene turns into a horror show featuring gang rape, bombings and machine gun fire.
Just two weeks before the scheduled premiere on May 2, nearly a third of the choir and three of the five soloists walked off the set in protest. They turned in doctors' notes saying the violent staging disturbed them to the point where they could no longer do their job.
"Powerful and painful" experience
According to Astrid Schubert, a singer in the choir and their spokeswoman, the choir didn't actually need to act out the horrific scene. But they had to observe and comment on the blood-smeared extras who were brought in to do that job.
'Samson and Delilah,' performed here at the New York Met, is part of the standard opera repertoire
"It started in the first rehearsal. We weren't prepared for what we were going to experience, either acoustically or visually," Schubert explained.
"The experience was extremely powerful and so painful for many of my colleagues … I tried to alert people to the problem … but we just kept rehearsing that scene over and over."
Knabe is known for putting on operas that are modern, political and message-heavy. Critiques of his recent staging of "Salome" at the Essen Opera were peppered with words like "brutal" and "bloody." But he defends his approach against those who complain that his debauched vision is historically incorrect or potentially misleading.
Bringing "uncomfortable subjects" to the stage
"It is our job, specifically mine as the director, to express things that can otherwise only rarely be expressed in public," Knabe told a packed crowd at a directors' talk at the opera house a week before the scheduled opening.
"We have the possibility to do that in theater. We need to bring uncomfortable subjects on to the stage."
Still, it's rare for professional opera singers to boycott a production. Delia Schaechter, an Israeli mezzo-soprano who was slated to sing the title role of Delila, was among those who called in sick.
Soloist speaks of "psychic rape"
Schaechter has avoided the press since the news of the affair broke. But a Koelnische Rundschau newspaper report which cited minutes of a meeting of Cologne theater personnel quoted her as saying she was the victim of a "psychic rape."
Furthermore, she had implied that Knabe's staging decisions were based on a desire for "personal gratification" rather than artistic motifs.
Oliver Binder is the dramaturge at the Cologne Opera. He has worked closely with Knabe on interpreting the 150-year-old work, and he denies any personal motive in choosing such a provocative staging. Rather, he says, it was a case of choosing realism over romanticism:
"There are some operas where, if you read the text exactly, they talk about violence and war. So we can't look away from these facts … We want to show the world as it is, even if this is a romantic opera."
"We are seeking a Greek catharsis"
In Binder's view, the audience should come out of the theater eager to take part in political change.
"I hope people will go out of this evening saying to each other, 'No we don't want the world to be like what we have seen on the stage tonight.' We want to get people to a certain point of view, not to amuse them. We want to create a Greek catharsis."
The question remains, however, whether anyone will actually get to see the production. Indeed, when the singers first walked off, there was a question of whether or not the show would, in fact, go on.
But the Cologne Opera found eleventh-hour replacements for the choir and soloists as well. With just two weeks to go before the premiere, they cast German mezzo-soprano Ursula Hesse von den Steinen in the lead role of Delilah, even though she had not sung the part before. Her Website does not even list Saint-Saens as part of her normal repertoire.
Cologne's opera house was built in 1957
Another production snag
Moreover, director Knabe made some concessions in his staging and held talks with the angry choir. As a result, ten of the defectors returned.
Nevertheless, a day before it was slated to open, the opera pushed the premiere back a week, from May 2 to May 9. The reason: new Delilah, Hesse von den Steinen, had a severe vocal-chord infection.
Even if the delayed premiere takes place as planned, the consensus in the media is that the whole uproar is an embarrassment for Cologne's opera house.
Kai Grebert, an opera-lover who attended the directors' talk after reading about the controversy in the paper, said he thought questions about the direction of an opera "should be cleared up a year or two in advance."
"These issues should be dealt with in planning discussions," he said. "It doesn’t speak very well for the leadership at the Cologne Opera."
Meanwhile, Tilman Knabe has been telling anyone who will listen to wait until the show opens before passing judgement on his staging. And Cologne opera audiences are hoping they will get the chance to do just that.
Author: Jennifer Abramsohn
Editor: Kate Bowen