Düsseldorf's Nazi-themed production of Tannhäuser may have prompted mass walkouts, but it's certainly not the first opera to cause outrage. From Rusalka in a brothel to Don Giovanni on drugs, we look back at 10 infamous productions
The only opera performance ever to have sparked a political revolution. A duet about patriotism triggered demonstrations in the Théâtre de la Monnaie that spread across the city, ending in the revolution that established Belgian independence.
The combination of Richard Strauss's violent music, based on Oscar Wilde's play, in a production by the 24-year-old Peter Brook, with designs by Salvador Dalí, caused outrage among critics and audiences in London. Brook was banished from Covent Garden.
The production that changed the staging of opera. Wieland Wagner, the composer's grandson, swept all the clutter and associations of his grandfather's operas off the stage. Traditionalists loathed it.
David Alden's gruesome blood-soaked low-budget production, known from that day to this as "the chainsaw Mazeppa" opened the door to a new era of innovative in-your-face opera stagings in the UK.
John Adams's opera about the murder of a Jewish tourist by Palestinian hijackers was dropped for a decade after protests following the premiere.
What, booing at Glyndebourne? Yes, it really happened when traditionalist patrons reacted against Deborah Warner's feminist restaging in a brutalist set of Mozart's classic opera.
Calixto Bieito's critically panned take on Mozart's opera featured drink, drugs, yob culture and urinating on stage. Audiences booed but kept on buying tickets for all Bieito's shows.
Bayreuth, Wagner's hymn to German art, got the interventionist treatment from his great-granddaughter, Katharina Wagner, in her debut production at the Wagner festival in Bavaria. The Bayreuth booing made her famous – though the name also helped.
Unlike Europeans, American audiences, normally fed on traditional productions, rarely boo. But they got the habit when Mary Zimmerman moved Bellini's opera from the Alps to New York.
Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito set Dvorák's fairytale in a brothel and had the Covent Garden audience erupting in protest.
Upshaw/Tapiola Chamber Choir/Finnish Radio SO/Salonen(Ondine)
Kaija Saariaho's La Passion de Simone was premiered in Vienna in 2006 in a staging by Peter Sellars, which was widely believed to be the principal reason for its cool reception when it transferred to the Barbican a year later. Now that we have it on disc, however, it's readily apparent that the work itself is seriously flawed. It's a meditation, for soprano, chorus and orchestra, on the life of Simone Weil, the leftwing, French-Jewish philosopher and theologian, who went on a fatal hunger strike in London in 1943 in protest at the Nazis' treatment of her compatriots in occupied France. There are some fine orchestral effects, but all in all, this is an undramatic work that presents an unaccountably bland portrait of a rebellious, if self-lacerating intellectual, much admired by Camus and Trotsky, among others. Conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the recording was made in tandem with a revival in Helsinki last year. Dawn Upshaw sounds tired in her big solos. The playing is formidable.
Le Concert Spirituel/Niquet(Glossa)
Hervé Niquet and his Concert Spirituel recently brought their extraordinary programme of 17th-century French church music for male voices to London's Wigmore Hall. This album is effectively its female counterpart. The main work is the 1663 Mass Macula Non Est in Te for women's voices by Louis Le Prince, choirmaster at Lisieux Cathedral. The title – "There is no stain in thee" – refers to the immaculate conception, and its movements are interwoven with motets devoted to the Virgin Mary by Charpentier and Lully. Le Prince's polyphony is closely wrought and rather severe. Charpentier and Lully are less formal and more overtly sensuous. The performances are, as one might expect, ravishing, but both sentiments and soundworld are more conventional here than in its masculine equivalent: the latter, recorded in 2010, is also available on Glossa.
"The most tragic work I know," is how cellist Leonard Elschenbroich describes Shostakovich's Viola Sonata, his harrowing last composition, completed in 1975. The piece was originally planned, however, as a cello sonata for Mstislav Rostropovich, then exiled from the USSR; just before his death, Shostakovich asked cellist Daniil Shafran to prepare a version for the lower instrument. It's Shafran's version that Elschenbroich gives us here in a performance of tremendous assurance and power. You could argue that the cello's warmth adds a touch of lyricism that detracts from the sparseness of the original. But there's no mistaking the intensity and commitment that Elschenbroich and pianist Alexei Grynyuk bring to it, and the closing pages, which look unflinchingly towards extinction, are unnerving in the extreme. Its companion piece, radically different, is Rachmaninov's Cello Sonata, in which Grynyuk's energy and Elschenbroich's sense of poetry are joyously to the fore. Exceptional.
Ipata/Auser Musici (Hyperion)
This is the second instalment of Carlo Ipata's retrospective of flute concertos written in mid-18th-century Naples, when the city had claims to being one of the major musical capitals of Europe, and the so-called Neapolitan style, rooted in melody rather than counterpoint, was proving immensely influential. Written for performance at aristocratic gatherings, this is music of considerable charm, but no great depth. The most substantial work is Davide Perez's four-movement Concerto in G Major, with its two austere slow sections; the best is Antonio Palella's Concerto in the same key, which has a sinuous chromaticism that takes us into more profound territory than the rest of Ipata's material. His virtuosity is, as always, exceptional, and there's fine playing from his own period band, Auser Musici. The close recording captures Ipata's occasionally heavy breathing and the sound of his fingers tapping his flute.
Some in audience taken to hospital after lurid scenes of gas chambers and rapes in production of Tannhäuser
It was conceived in the 1840s as a romantic opera set in the middle ages. So its shift to 1940s Nazi Germany with depictions of mass murder in gas chambers, rape and execution at the hands of SS henchmen was at the very least jarring.
But Düsseldorf opera house's take on Wagner's Tannhäuser proved to be so traumatic for some audience members that they had to be taken to hospital. Others slammed doors and booed as they stormed out of the theatre mid-performance.
The production, by director Burkhard Kosminski has now been unceremoniously pulled, with the theatre admitting it had been too much of a "psychological and physical strain" for many opera goers. For "artistic reasons", Kosminski steadfastly refused to change the most offensive scenes after an initial barrage of complaints following the opening night on Saturday.
The director's Nazi theme – including scenes of people dying in gas chambers, being shot and raped, and of members of a family having their heads shaved ahead of their execution – had been feted as one of the highlights of celebrations for the bicentenary of Wagner's birth this month.
The director of Rheinoper, Christoph Meyer, insisted that his company had not meant to offend, and that its purpose had been to "mourn, not mock" victims of the Holocaust.
But operagoers said the production had unrelentingly bombarded the audience with shocking Holocaust imagery from the start.
The opening scene depicted singers inside glass containers dropping to the floor as they were enveloped in a white fog – a clear allusion to the gas chambers that killed millions in Nazi death camps. Another scene that caused some in the audience to gasp and cover their faces showed an entire family having their heads shaved before being shot dead by the SS.
Michael Szentei-Heise, the head of Düsseldorf's Jewish community, reported that members of the audience had "booed and banged doors" as they left the performance before the end.
James Kennaway, an Oxford University historian, said that while it was certainly unusual in modern times, Wagner operas had in the past been held responsible for causing operagoers to seek medical help. "This is not the first time that doctors have been called in," he told the Guardian. "[Wagner's] operas have often produced extreme reactions and the list of singers, conductors and patrons who have keeled over dead after attending one and suffered a 'Wagnerian delirium' is amazing."
The Düsseldorf production had taken a "rather crude approach" to Wagner, often said to be Hitler's favourite composer, and his notorious antisemitic rages.
"This production rather hit the audience over the head with its message. It recalls the scenes in Ken Russell's film Lisztomania, in which Wagner emerges from a Nazi grave at a Nuremberg-style rally and shoots everyone with a machine-gun-cum-electric guitar. While Wagner has questions to answer in relation to the Third Reich, a degree of subtlety would help," Kennaway said.
In a statement, the managers of Rheinoper said they had been aware that the production would be controversial but admitted they had underestimated the huge psychological and physical impact it would have on some of the audience. "It's with great regret that we now respond to the fact that some scenes, in particular the very realistically portrayed shooting scene, caused such strong psychological and physical reactions in some visitors that some of them had to be taken into medical care," it said.
Kominski, 51, said he had interlaced the opera with "Nazi motifs" as a way of analysing the themes of guilt and atonement to explore the question as to "how one deals with the question of perpetrators and victims, and constitute a new order out of a world of terror". From now on the production will only be performed by Rheinoper as a concert.
Szentei-Heise told German media that the production had strayed so far from Wagner's original intentions that it was implausible. "This opera has nothing to do with the Holocaust. But I think that the audience has made this very clear to the opera house and the director."
The members of the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste – the world's only all-black orchestra – are self-taught and started out playing homemade instruments. Now the band's founder is to be given a major international accolade
Nathalie is a single mum who struggles to clothe her little boy and pay the rent. She plays the flute and the sax. Josephine gets up at 4.30am every day to sell omelettes at the market. She is in the chorus. Papy is a part-time mechanic who also runs his own pharmacy. He plays the tuba. Josef is a freelance electrician, a kind of African version of the Robert De Niro character in the film Brazil. He also runs his own hair salon and plays the viola.
Nathalie, Josephine, Papy and Josef are adepts of the Congolese art of débrouillardise, a French word that means "making ends meet" or "surviving". For most of the day, they do whatever they must to hustle their daily bread in the Congolese capital Kinshasa, one of the biggest, noisiest and most dysfunctional cities on earth. In the early evening, they set out on a journey that often takes several hours to rehearse with the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste de Kinshasa (OSK), the only all-black symphony orchestra in the world. There they find release from their daily cares. "When I sing Beethoven's ninth Symphony, it takes me far away," says one of the other singers in the choir.
"They come because they're passionate about music," says Armand Diangienda, the man who founded the OSK almost 20 years ago. "It gives them something more in terms of confidence, of feeling capable and of being able to contribute to a collective endeavour."
If the musicians in the OSK are masters of individual survival, the orchestra itself is an epic example of débrouillardise, of thinking the impossible and then just doing it. Diangienda lost his job as a pilot when the Fokker F-27 he used to fly across the Congo crashed into the hills above the town of Goma in 1992, killing all those on board. Luckily – for him – he was on holiday at the time. Finding himself unemployed, he rallied followers of his father's church, the hugely popular Kimbanguiste church, and created a symphony orchestra, a strange endeavour for a confirmed reggae fan who had only a passing interest in European classical music at the time.
"We told ourselves that creating a symphony orchestra would be great because the church already had a brass band, a flute orchestra, a guitar ensemble and a number of different choirs," Armand tells me over the phone from Kinshasa. "I couldn't read music, but driven by my passion, and with help from my friends, I gradually learned."
In the early days, instruments had to be borrowed or made from scratch by reverse engineering. Violin strings were concocted from bicycle brake wire. Hundreds of scores were copied out by hand, individual parts had to be deciphered by listening to the works on CD, over and over again. Music stands were cobbled together from old pieces of wood.
Despite attracting huge interest locally, the orchestra remained the city's secret until two German film-makers, Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer, made the 2010 documentary Kinshasa Symphony, one of the most beautiful and honest portrayals of the power of music and the human spirit that I have seen in ages.
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Last year, the orchestra travelled outside Africa for the first time, performing at the TED conference in California, and later in Monaco. CBS devoted an hour's coverage to them and Peter Gabriel joined them for a gala soiree to raise funds for a music school in Kinshasa.
But that's not all. Diangienda is now on his way to London to become an honorary member of the Royal Philharmonic Society, an accolade previously granted to the likes of Mendelssohn, Rossini, Wagner, Brahms and Stravinsky. "The day I was told, I had tears in my eyes," he says.
The fact that many Congolese regard Diangienda as something of a living god has no doubt helped him to achieve the seemingly impossible. His grandfather, Simon Kimbangu, was a healer and preacher whose sermons instilled pride and self-belief in ordinary Congolese people and fear in their Belgian colonial masters. He died in 1951 after spending 30 years in prison. One of his most incendiary statements was: "The black man will become white and the white man will become black."
For Diangienda, however, performing western classical music on the banks of the Congo river has nothing to do with turning his back on his own African culture. "Everything we're learning by playing classical music will allow us to enrich our own music as well and immortalise it by writing it down," he says. Diangienda, and the orchestra's first violinist Heritier Malumbi and bassoonist Balongi, have already composed several symphonic works full of rich Congolese flavours.
"My grandfather claimed that to sing was to pray twice," Diangienda says. "Music is already a form of spiritual wealth to us, the Kimbanguistes. But what inspires me even more is that my grandfather's message was a universal one; a message of peace, of love, of reaching out for others and bringing people together."
It was also a message about work, perseverance and self-respect. The stirring finale of Kinshasa Symphony sees the orchestra performing Orff's Carmina Burana on a large piece of wasteground in front of an ecstatic local crowd. The beauty, pride and common purpose that oozes from the performance make mincemeat of the cliches of chaos and hopelessness that burden the Congo. A small but growing group of cognoscenti already know that Kinshasa is one of the most culturally dynamic and creative cities on earth. The OSK only reinforces that conviction.
• The international RPS honorary memberships are given in association with the British Council and in partnership with The Guardian, and will be presented at the RPS Music Awards on 14 May. More about all five new members including videos, interviews and pictures, at guardian.co.uk/classical
* Rosemary Nalden, Buskaid* Aaron P Dworkin, Sphinx Organisation* Ricardo Castro, NEOJIBA* Dr Ahmad Sarmat, Afghanistan National Institute of Music
Four middle-aged men, dressed in boring suits with matching red waistcoats, sit facing the audience in what appears to be an old-fashioned railway station waiting room. It's not the most exciting way to start a theatrical journey, but Giles Havergal's sly adaptation of Graham Greene's comic novel turns stylistic economy into a stylish statement as it tells of the odyssey of a very dull retired bank manager. Protagonist Henry Pulling swaps suburban Southwood for South America, and tending dahlias for pot-smoking, currency-smuggling and shielding former war criminals.
In this story of innocence and experience, Henry's tutor is his 75-year-old aunt, Augusta, a woman of rapacious sexual appetites and casual disregard for money or conventional morality. The Pooterish Henry must be coaxed out of the prison of suburbia to find freedom.
It's sprightly and genial, but hardly earth-shattering stuff, and it's quaintly dated, not just in its portrait of a disappeared world, but also in Greene's view of it. As in shows such as the long-running stage adaption of The 39 Steps, though, much of the pleasure of Christopher Luscombe's staging lies in watching a top-notch cast of four as they virtuosically share the role of Aunt Augusta and the narration, tackling more than 20 characters between them.
This all-male team is led by Jonathan Hyde, who takes the lion's share of the role of Aunt Augusta, and does so with campy swagger. David Bamber has fun playing a series of simpering teenagers and women, and Iain Mitchell brings a mix of mischief and wistfulness to Aunt Augusta's abandoned black lover, Wordsworth. Last but not least is Gregory Gudgeon, who plays a series of railway officials and an Irish wolfhound with appealing gusto.
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Ilan Volkov is bringing his Icelandic festival of eclectic, experimental music to Glasgow. Kate Molleson went to Reykjavik to preview what's in store
Raucous noises clatter around the vast lobby of Reykjavik's waterfront concert hall, Harpa. Upstairs on the landing an amateur choir is rehearsing: they're clanging pots and pans and chanting the zany, angular lines of Christian Wolff's anarchic Wobbly Music. A willowy septuagenarian looks on with a quiet smile. A scruffy thirty-something yells instructions to the singers and bangs out melodies on a synthesizer.
The older chap is Wolff himself, veteran American radical and featured composer at this year's Tectonics festival in Reykjavik. The younger guy in t-shirt and jeans is Ilan Volkov, director of the festival, principal conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, principal guest conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Together they wind up the rehearsal and head downstairs for a beer.
Volkov founded Tectonics Reykjavik last year and launches an inaugural Glasgow edition this weekend. Broadly speaking, it's a roaming festival of eclectic, experimental new music. It's hosted by an orchestra – the ISO in Reykjavik, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow. As befits the name, its underlying ethos is seismic, to do with re-evaluating the roles and responsibilities of a symphony orchestra within the wider arts community. And that doesn't just mean commissioning innovative orchestral works (though there is that, too); it means inviting non-classical musicians, composers and audiences into the spaces and resources usually only available to an established orchestra.
At Tectonics Reykjavik the space itself is a major player in the look and feel of the festival. The glassy, jaggedy Harpa has been the ISO's glamorous home since it opened two years ago, built on public money at the height of Iceland's bankruptcy. Although the building is generally loved by those who play or listen to music there, its sheer glossy massiveness stands as a stark reminder of the bygone banking boom. With its high-tech foyers and performance spaces it's perfectly geared up for sonic experimenting, and Volkov intends to make use of every nook and cranny during Tectonics.
I wander around a couple of days before the festival and come across rehearsals for Morton Feldman songs in one room, a brass band perambulating the main lobby, preparations for a Pauline Oliveros open-air happening in the abandoned hotel plot next door. Handmade percussion sculptures dangle in the rear windows overlooking the bay and the snowcapped mountains beyond; these have been constructed by local school kids and a composers' collective called SLATUR, which I'm told means something like "haggis".
In the main concert space the Iceland Symphony is grappling with the first-ever orchestral piece by Huldur Gudnadottir, a Berlin-based Icelandic composer/cellist whose score bravely plunges the auditorium - and orchestra - into total darkness.
Tectonics Glasgow is similar but different. As one of the world's finest contemporary music orchestras the BBCSSO is already au fait with playing to click-tracks and bizarre graphic notation. But Volkov, who has been working with the orchestra since 2003, says he doesn't feel half as connected with Glasgow's non-classical musicians after 10 years here as he does with Reykjavik's after just two. Partly that's a size thing: in a country of only 300,000, Iceland's music scenes are inevitably close-knit. But it's an attitude, too. "If you're arrogant in Reykjavik the whole city knows about it in five minutes," he says, "so nobody takes themselves too seriously. And that means everyone is willing to take risks."
Either way, for Tectonics Glasgow he's teamed up with local producer Alasdair Campbell to recruit musicians from outside of the classical realm: the likes of Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat, Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite, Anglo-Finnish vocalist Hanna Tuulikki and the intriguingly-named Asparagus Piss Raindrop, a self-described "crypto-conceptual science-fiction anti-band". On the orchestral front there's new work from David Fennessy, Frank Denyer, Iancu Dumitrescu, Martin Suckling, John De Simone, Chiyoko Szlavnics and the festival's featured composer Alvin Lucier, who'll be on stage for the world premiere of Criss-Cross for two electric guitars and pure wave oscillators. It's a bold and motley lineup, and should produce some decent surprises.
The Tectonics festival, Glasgow is 11-12 May.
Production of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser leaves some in audience so traumatised they have to seek medical help
A controversial Nazi-themed production of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser has been cancelled after it caused some audience members to seek medical help and prompted others to walk out in anger.
The Rheinoper in Düsseldorf said it was in a state of shock after being deluged with complaints by members of the public who called the opera tasteless and unnecessarily provocative.
The production, which opened last Saturday and was expected to be one of the highlights of the celebrations for the bicentenary of Wagner's birth later this month, has a Nazi storyline, and includes scenes of people dying in gas chambers, being shot and raped, and of members of a family having their heads shaved before their execution.
The leader of the west German city's Jewish community, Michael Szentei-Heise, said members of the audience had booed and banged the doors, leaving the performance before the end. The theatre confirmed there had been "much booing and shocked audience members".
Some opera goers were said to be so traumatised they had to receive medical assistance. The director of the opera house, Christoph Meyer, said his company had not meant to offend, and its purpose had been to "mourn, not mock" victims of the Holocaust. The production, by director Burkhard C Kosminski, is said to have bombarded the audience with shocking Holocaust imagery from the start.
The opening scene depicts singers inside glass containers dropping to the floor as they are enveloped in a white fog – a clear allusion to the gas chambers that killed millions in Nazi death camps.
Another scene that caused some in the audience to gasp and cover their faces was one in which an entire family had their heads shaved before being shot dead.
In a statement, Rheinoper's managers acknowledged that they had always accepted that the production would be controversial, "but it's with great regret that we now react to the fact that some scenes, in particular the very realistically portrayed shooting scene, caused such strong psychological and physical reactions in some visitors that some of them had to be taken into medical care".
Szentei-Heise told German media that the production had strayed so far from the original intentions of Wagner, who wrote it as a romantic opera in the 1840s and set it in the Middle Ages, that it was implausible.
"This opera has nothing to do with the Holocaust," he said. "But I think that the audience has made this very clear to the opera house and the director." From now on, the production will only be performed by Rheinoper as a concert.
"I am very happy with the ease and versatility with which I can share my content with my audience, clients and business partners alike."