Presenting Historical Works of Art in the #MeToo Era

Posted by Jessica Stern, Ms. Danielle Iwata, Jun 13, 2018 0 comments

Recently, we made trips to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, where we saw two separate performances. Both productions were classic, standard repertoire performances; but with each show, we walked away with vastly different reactions. In case of the former, we were overwhelmed by the lavish set, glorious singing, and glitter falling from the rafters—it was an extraordinary spectacle that left us wanting more. In the latter, we literally walked out during intermission. It’s this second piece on which we’d like to reflect.

The second performance was the classic Mozart opera Cosi Fan Tutti, restaged and mounted with a new production set in the 1950s. The story itself could have been set at any point in human history, which is generally a strength of many classic operas. It was a tale of lovers, an “opéra bouffe” during which two men, in an attempt to win a bet with a friend, try to trick their fiancées into infidelity by disguising themselves as other suitors. When sneaking into the women’s rooms and pressuring them for kisses fails, they attempt to guilt the women through feigned self-harm. While we didn’t stay for the end, we know the story concludes with the women having to beg forgiveness for their “transgressions” once the men in disguise reveal themselves as the real fiancés. The plot doesn’t involve any repercussions for the men’s atrocious behavior.

Ben Bliss as Ferrando, Amanda Majeski as Fiordiligi, Serena Malfi as Dorabella, and Adam Plachetka as Guglielmo in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte,” 2018. Photo by Marty Sohl.

While we understand that works like this were written in a different era for a different audience, the fact that this piece was set in a modern era made the scenes of sexual harassment seem very real and, unfortunately, very familiar. In the program, the director stated it was restaged so that it would be “[easier] to buy into the conceit” of the show. It was so real, in fact, that it was easy to draw comparisons to every man who has ever persistently ignored a woman’s denial and blamed rejection on the woman. So real, that when the women are literally saying they are frightened and terrified of the unwanted men sneaking into their rooms, it was easy to think of the hundreds of thousands of women who said #MeToo. We were ultimately unable to laugh it off and enjoy the show, because it sent us down a path of our own #MeToo experiences, and that wasn’t what we bought our tickets to do.

Today, there is more accountability—or so we hope. We are living in a time when more and more, people are standing up and speaking out. As such, we began questioning the role of cultural institutions, particularly large and leading organizations to which others look for inspiration or leadership. What is their responsibility in reconciling classic works in modern times?

The art world lives in a unique position where it can influence society. With over 10,000 visitors each week, large cultural institutions have immeasurable soft power. What, then, is their responsibility to not perpetuate stereotypes and unacceptable comportment? Did the comedic spectacle of harassment on one of the world’s largest stages condone such behavior? We wonder how many people walk away from arts experiences oblivious to, or in agreement with, the discomfort that we felt. Should organizations include a disclaimer or commentary in the program or artist talks that acknowledge current events? When mounting these productions, should they use them for more than the preservation of classic works? Should they say something? If a piece is restaged to modern times, does this mean we can impose modern sensibilities upon it?

How can arts organizations, particularly those that celebrate these forms of Western art, preserve and sustain the art form while responding to current events? Is there a way to be reactive when production schedules are years in the making? What is the role of funders in demanding or even acknowledging that social issues be considered (or not) when supporting works of art—and how accountable to those funders are artistic directors?

Furthermore, what’s the responsibility of the artistic director to the audience, if any? Art has always been a platform for interpretation and dialogue. Was the production designed to push buttons? Or was it woefully unaware of the types of conversation it would raise? At what point should institutions spell things out to audiences, or leave them open to individual reaction? Would we really want the answers spelled out for us as audience members?

We don’t have answers to these questions, nor are we sure what arts institutions should do about this. But we hope that collectively we can find the will to confront these questions, and seek answers and solutions, so that we can find a way to preserve the historical works we have, sustain them, celebrate them, and be present and inclusive in today’s world.

Americans for the Arts will continue this conversation at our upcoming Annual Convention in Denver, Colorado June 14-17, 2018, during the session “The Arts Community in the Time of the Women’s March and #MeToo.”

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