The Way We Sing Now

Even opera is politicized in 2006.

THE WAY WE SING NOW Opera often explores universal human concerns —love, death, honor, revenge—but has traditionally been less concerned with up-to-the-minute historical issues. Yet a recent planned German production of Mozart's opera Idomeneo has yanked the art form into the headlines. This staging would have depicted, among other deities and religious figures, Muhammad—specifically, his severed head—and warnings from police about possible protests led those in charge of the production to choose cancellation over compromise. But what happens when an opera itself, rather than a directorial staging decision, actually does depict Muslims in what could be considered an unfavorable light? Seattle Opera's next production, opening Saturday, raises this question: In Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers, the title character outwits a buffoonish, amorously predatory bey. Seattle Opera's general director, Speight Jenkins, is well aware of the German controversy—"Certainly, I read the Idomeneo stuff. . . . It's crossed my mind because it's my job to have everything like this cross your mind"—but he's unconcerned about The Italian Girl's potential for anti-Islamic offense: "It is a silly comedy in 1813. . . . Rossini knew no more about Algiers or people running harems than he did about Native Americans. He knew nothing about it and didn't care . . . he could have set it anywhere." This production presents the bey farcically rather than villainously: "Rossini treats him absurdly. . . . He gets his comeuppance in the end, but in the best tradition of comic opera, he accepts everything and is happy with it all." Jenkins mentions some misogynistic statements by a character in Mozart's The Magic Flute as an example of something that could upset contemporary sensibilities, but he's adamant about taking these operas as they are: "You just can't go around changing 19th-century works to suit whatever is popular today. . . . We go right along and treat it just as we would always treat it, and I think that's the only way to do it. "I don't want to get heavy on this subject, because it's a very amusing story, and I think we play it for a lot of humor. But if we as Americans begin to get so spooky that we can't say anything about anybody . . . My real feeling is if we have to do something like this, then the terrorists have won cold." GAVIN BORCHERT ROYAL PREROGATIVE Seattle can expect a little trickle-down controversy from the upcoming release of the movie Death of a President—and indeed, it's already starting. Regal Cinemas, which operates about a dozen movie theaters in and around King County, announced recently that it would not show the movie. Originally commissioned for British TV, the film depicts the assassination of George W. Bush and its aftermath, raising questions about national security and the war on terror. It opens Oct. 27 at a theater near you—just not at the Meridian 16, the Crossroads 8, or any other Regal Cinema. LYNN JACOBSON

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