Operetta Research Center
6 February, 2020
At the end of March 2020, the Nationaltheater Weimar will host an international conference entitled “Musiktheater und Kolonialismus,” i.e. musical theater and colonialism. It’s a cooperation with the musicology departments of Mainz and Weimar-Jena. Talks on two days will illuminate the question how “the subjugation of faraway cultures” is mirrored in the opera repertoire. And: “Which role does opera as an art form play in the cultural usurpation of other peoples?”
There will also be a talk on operetta and colonialism, entitled “Inspired by the East: How the Islamic world influenced Western operetta(s)”. Yes, that’s a reference to the recent exhibition at The British Museum.
The focus will be on Orientalism in operetta, and the discussion will cover Franz von Suppé’s Afrikareise, Frederic Norton’s Chu Chin Chow, and Leo Fall’s Die Rose von Stambul. With Desert Song leading to Broadway and a discussion of Kismet and Aladdin, pieces that have been received very differently throughout the years and accused of “racism” and “othering,” not to mention Islamophobia. “The Aladdin story, not just the Disney film, has always been associated with depicting Arabs and Muslims as barbaric, uncivilized ‘others,’ following a long pattern of anti-Muslim attitudes in Hollywood,” stated The Council on American-Islamic Relations in 2019.
Since I am the person giving that operetta talk in Weimar, and since colonialism is closely related to questions of power structures and racism and orientalism and othering, I have started searching for background information and reading up on the various shows. Fall’s Rose von Stambul has always been a personal favorite of mine, the story of young women from Istanbul who want to throw off conventions about marriage and wearing veils, to become modern and emancipated “Western” girls who do and chose as they please. Obviously such a story has extra poignancy if you are a gay man and have to navigate your way through many Catholic relatives asking you, year after year, when you’ll marry and start a family and do all the things that are supposedly part of God’s larger scheme of things.
And then there’s the overwhelming Leo Fall music with some of the greatest tenor solos in operetta history, immortalized by Fritz Wunderlich and others.
When I heard from a (gay) director some time ago that he wanted stage Rose von Stambul, I got very excited. Every time I bumped into him since, I asked about his project and how it was progressing. First he confessed that the intendant of a big West-German theater didn’t want to put the piece on because he thought it was “racist.” Then, I heard the staging might go ahead anyway. And when I saw the director, who we might call “Chris,” last week he said the plan was off again, because the diversity consultant of the big West-German theater had told him it was “not his story to tell”: to stage Rose von Stambul he would “have to be a woman” and/or a “Muslima.”
Of course the question “Whose story is it?” and “Who is allowed to tell which stories?” is a big one, hotly debated right now. You may recall the controversy about the Open Casket painting by Dana Schutz at the Whitney Biennale: it shows the 14-year old black boy Emmett Till who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955.
A black artist living in Berlin called Hannah Black posted an outraged comment on Facebook claiming that the white British artist was not entitled to make money from the suffering of a lynched black boy. It was not her story. She had no right to use it. And win a prize with it. Even though Dana Schutz stated that she wanted to make a strong an emotional comment against racism. Now, she herself was labeled racist. And there was not much she could do against it in the tornado of a debate. Hannah Black demanded that the work should be destroyed!
The Whitney actually took the painting out of the exhibition, The New York Times reported on the controversy. The US-American artist Kerry James Marshall stated during a guest lecture at the American Academy in Berlin: if you paint such a picture you have to be able to endure the reactions. And: It’s legitimate to demand the destruction of a painting.
An example from the more recent past is the debate surrounding Jeanine Cummins novel American Dirt. The jist of it is that a white US-American author like Cummins should not write about the suffering of Mexican immigrants. The hashtag campaign #dignidadliteraria protests against this form of “cultural appropriation.” Oprah Winfrey, who had praised the book on tv, publicly apologized later for enthusiastically recommending the title. And a recent newspaper article in Die Zeit asked “Darf sie das?”, i.e. “Is She Allowed To Do This?,” referring to Cummins.
The article sums up the position of many cultural appropriation opponents like this: “I may only depict what is ‘mine.’ If I depict something that is not my own living/lived experience with regard to race, gender, and language, then I automatically depict it wrongly. Because I cannot know how it feels like to be something which I am not.” (“Ich darf nur darstellen, was “meins” ist. Stelle ich hingegen etwas dar, was nicht meinen gelebten Erfahrungen im Hinblick auf Ethnie, Geschlecht, Sexualität, Sprache entspricht, repräsentiere ich es zwangsläufig falsch, denn ich kann ja nicht wissen, wie es sich anfühlt, zu sein, was ich nicht bin.“)
The Story of Hatun Sürücü
While I was still processing the information about Rose von Stambul and what the diversity consultant had said – pondering how he/she gets to decide such things on with legal grounds? Is there a law that says white men may not stage Leo Fall operettas set in Turkey, showing women casting off their veils? You could ask the same question with regard to Open Casket – I watched a much-discussed movie on German national television, entitled Nur eine Frau.
It’s a documentary on the “honor killing” of Hatun Sürücü, a Kurdish-Turkish girl from Berlin who was shot by her brother because of her “Western” behavior, one of the aspects was that she did not stay with the husband her family had selected for her, that she stopped wearing a hijab, and began an affair with a non-Muslim man.
As I watched this gripping and emotionally stirring movie, I wondered: who directed it? As it turned out, the film director is a white woman called Sherry Hormann, the script was written by a white man called Florian Oeller, and the producer is a white woman called Sandra Maischberger. None of them Muslims nor Turkish-Kurdish, as far as I can make out. So how did they get away with telling such a tale of suffering – as an important contribution to the ongoing debate in Germany about “foreigners” and “integration” and “cultural values”?
Are Hormann/Maischberger “allowed” to tell that story because they are women? Would Chris-the-operetta-director not be allowed to do so, even though the story of Hatun Sürücü also involves many male characters who are vital? Does the tv station ARD not have a diversity representative? Is a tv documentary the same as a 1916 operetta, in principal at least? And how does either relate to Open Casket? Or American Dirt?
One could say many things about Nur eine Frau, and also about Die Rose von Stambul. But to shove the Leo Fall operetta into a closet and not play it at all because it’s supposedly politically not correct cannot be the answer to how to deal with Western European history in Western Europe. And Rose von Stambul is an important part of that history, about “our” relationship with Turkey and about how the authors saw social change happening there during WW1. (Does it matter that they were Jewish? Does that make things more or less complicated?)
The fact that Rose von Stambul deals with so many aspects that are still relevant and fiercly debated should be an extra reason to perform the show and allow audiences to argue about it. And have audiences with a Turkish background discuss it too, as critically as they like. Maybe even re-tell the story in their own alternative way, putting different accents here and there that a (gay) white stage director might put elsewhere.
And who knows: maybe members of the Turkish community would laugh about it all and celebrate the stereotypes as hillariously funny, just like a German audience can laugh at the Germanic stereotypes they find in the character of Hamburg merchant Müller Senior, who is the father of Fridolin in Rose von Stambul, who in turn in in love with the Turkish girl Midili Hanum. Here is a very “simplified” recording from the 1960s of the Midili/Fridolin duett.
Yes, maybe there will be protestors outside a theater where Rose von Stambul is performed, who demand Turkish women should have the right to wear their hijabs. Tumultuous scenes recently occurred in Frankfurt during a talk on Muslim women and fashion – which is probably what the diversity consultant in that big West-German theater is terrified of. Because it means you have to get up and take a stand and demand a balanced debate and the right for others to also voice their opinions.
But, please, stop this advance self-censorship in which groups of people are being told they cannot “use” certain stories because they are not “theirs.” Would Shakespeare be allowed to write The Merchant of Venice or Romeo and Juliette today? Or Mozart Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Verdi Aida? Or Wolfgang Rihm Die Eroberung von Mexico? All of them: white men. And still they produced great works of art, just like Fall and his librettists Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald did.
Considering that German theater people and music/art critics love to claim that ideal productions are “bold” and “provocative,” “subversive” and “edgy” it’s surprising how they all shriek away from anything that might really cause a controversy. The bold operetta on post 9/11 terrorism, The Beastly Bombing, hasn’t been put on in Germany because of that fear, and a theater director told me recently he couldn’t play the musical The Boy Who Danced on Air because it promoted Islamophobia and homophobia with its depiction of sexual child abuse in the name of Islam and “tradition” in Afghanistan. (It was no problem for the same theater director to present the theme of child abuse and of trans sex workers in the context of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann at his house.)
There is never just one side to things. And for a balanced discussion – and a balanced relevant repertoire of musical theater – “controversial” shows (by today’s standards) such as Rose von Stambul should not be erased from memory. They should be performed. And if a female Muslim director wants to stage it: wonderful. But if in the meantime or additionally “Chris” wants to do it, then let him. We need multiple perspectives as a basis for an valuable debate.
Or is the idea to also eliminate all Wunderlich and Schock and Gedda recordings from YouTube – because they are all white men serenading the glory of Turkish women as “exotic” objects of desire? And may I not say any of this because I’m a white man?
You can join the debate on March 21 and 22 in Weimar. For more information, click here.