Last year, Hungary made the international news because of a controversial decision to pull a production of Billy Elliot. Billy Elliot musical branded gay propaganda in Hungary and cancellations follow, said the New York Times. Billy Elliot musical axes dates in Hungary amid claims it could ‘turn children gay’, decried The Guardian. Hungarian State Opera axes Billy Elliot shows after homophobic campaign, noted The Telegraph.
I wasn’t at all impressed at this insanity and wondered at how little the thought police had to do if their sole focus was on a story about a kid who liked ballet.
More recently, the State Opera made the news again, this time when it went up against the estate of the Gershwin brothers who said that only black performers could appear in their work, Porgy and Bess. Hungarian cast of Porgy And Bess asked to self-identify as African American, said The Independent. The story is a convoluted one of who said what, with the move being touted as ‘merely a harmless form of “satirical disobedience” on General Director Szilveszter Ókovács’ part’. We could argue till the geese leave the village about whether it’s right, fair, reasonable, or just, to dictate an all-black cast. Given the Christmas controversy around the words in Fairy Tale of New York and other Christmas songs and whether they are offensive in this day and age, there seems to be a massive rewrite going on. But that’s not what upset me in this case. It was the fact that people were coerced into signing a declaration that they self-identified as African America and feared for their jobs and livelihoods if they didn’t. Grow a backbone, you might say. All well and good if you’re single and independent and take a decision that affects no one but yourself, but if you have mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay, principles don’t come cheap.
Anyway, I was reminded this weekend of all this palaver and the readiness by certain thought-policing individuals to weigh in and decide what’s right and wrong instead of leaving it to the public to reflect the perceived correctness in ticket sales. I went to the opera because I was invited by a visiting friend. I wouldn’t have given Ókovács a forint of my money but couldn’t see the ticket go to waste either. We went to Erkel Szinház to see two, one-act performances, the first of which was Parasztbecsület [Italian: Cavalleria Rusticana; English: Rustic Chivalry] by Italian Pietro Mascagni.
Before the action takes place, the young villager Turiddu had returned from military service to find that his fiancée Lola had married the carter Alfio while Turiddu was away. In revenge, Turiddu had seduced Santuzza, a young woman in the village. As the opera begins, Lola, overcome by her jealousy of Santuzza, has begun an adulterous affair with Turiddu.
Pretty run-of-the-mill stuff for 1890s Italian opera. And had the opera not been translated, I’d have been better able to manage my blood pressure. It was sung in Italian with both English and Hungary surtitles (which differed substantially at times). I was outraged to hear Santuzza sing the words:
Beat me. Abuse me. Stay with me. Don’t abandon me.
To which the bould Turiddu replied:
Don’t anger me.
Seriously? Where was the picket line? Where was the outrage? Where were the protesting moralists who were so concerned at what Billy Elliot might do to young boys in Hungary? What about Parasztbecsület and how it might give the impression that women ask to be beaten and abused if they anger their men? Or worse again, that women should put up with just about any sort of behaviour for fear that their menfolk might abandon them. I was incensed.
Whoa, I hear you say. It was just an opera. And from the late 1800s at that. But Billy Elliot was just a musical. Where do we draw the line?
At the intermission, no one else seemed at all bothered. A quick scan of the bar didn’t show any obviously elevated blood pressure levels. Mine seemed to be a solitary seethe.
The second opera was Bakazzók [Italian: Pagliacci; English: Clowns] by another Italian, Ruggero Leoncavallo.
A dramatic tale of love and betrayal, Pagliacci revolves around a commedia del arte troupe. Canio and Nedda are married, and the leads in the troupe along with Tonio and Beppe, however Nedda is secretly having an affair with Silvio. Fearing Canio’s anger, Nedda continues to hide the affair, and even goes as far to attempt to break it off with Silvio. Silvio and Nedda’s love is strong, however, and they plan to run away together. Tonio, also in love with Nedda, confesses his love for her, but she turns him away, shaming him. In an act of revenge, Tonio tells Canio that Nedda is having an affair like he suspected. During a performance, Canio confronts Nedda, and stabs her. Silvio attempts to save Nedda, running up on stage, but gets stabbed by Canio as well. The audience, not realizing it was real, claps until Canio screams at them, “the comedy is ended.”
Surprisingly, this one did nothing to upset my blood pressure. Cheating adults are a dime a dozen. Adultery, unrequited love, revenge, all are ingredients of life that span centuries. So what set me off was the very idea that spousal/domestic abuse could be in any way condoned as acceptable or normal. And that the only person seemingly remotely bothered by it all was me.
I’m strangely grateful that I got so upset about this. I worry at times that I’ve become inured to most of life’s atrocities but I’m relieved to know that I can still rant and rave with the best of them, that I can still find the energy to be upset at what I see to be plain wrong. A strange thing to be grateful for, but there you have it.