Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Prioress's Tale, Musical Version

Can the Prioress's Tale bring Jews and Christians together? Exactly that counterintuitive goal belongs to Delvyn Case, creator of "The Prioress's Tale: A Chamber Opera in One Act":
My librettist and I, writer Christopher Hood, have transformed this potentially divisive tale into a parable whose primary message is that peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness are possible when each of us validates the our common humanity with others. Our opera is a musical and dramatic portrait of two characters – one Jewish, one Christian – who overcome their fear and hatred of each other by rediscovering their own capacity for forgiveness. By humanizing characters who in Chaucer’s tale are mere stereotypes, we hope to encourage the audience to consider the cost of bias and misunderstanding on the personal level.
Further information -- and further utopian thoughts on the unifying power of melody -- here.
h/t Jonathan Hsy


Eileen Joy said...

No, this opera cannot accomplish its counterintuitive goal, and I am so angry after reading the "further utopian thoughts" in the "artist's statement" that I almost don't know where to begin. After reading through the extended plot summary, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The whole idea is so anachronistically and Hollywood-y stupid I can't stand it, and I think everyone knows I am all for "inter-temporal" hi-jinks, but this is just too much. But with all due respect for the artists involved, while I understand their deeply-felt sentiments about religious tolerance and therefore their good intentions, it is not the purpose of art to make politically correct versions of stories like Chaucer's "Prioress's Tale" with fake happy endings that falsely ameliorate deep historical divisions and violences. Art can heal [I do believe this], but not in this way--not by covering over with wildly contrived plot devices a story that is already deeply complex and that already calls productively critical attention to anti-Semitism in a medieval Christian context. The composer begins his statement by identifying himself as a Christian and with all due respect [again], that just severely undercuts how seriously I can take his intentions. I guess I'm being overly cranky about this, but I can't help it.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Oh I do not think you are being overly cranky. Though I posted it without comment -- mainly because I was in a hurry, but also because I sometimes feel like I am the blog's designated Old Crank -- the chamber opera seems to me as well a misguided enterprise. I feel sorry for the Jewish Old Man (the only thing that would have been worse would have been giving him a name, because I'm certain it would have been Abraham). Think of the pedagogical burden he must bear, living on in even in death to teach Christians how to be better Christians. Need I say that a medieval logic about Christianity's relation to Judaism is being repeated here?

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

Why does the author's identity as a Christian severely undercut how seriously you can take his intentions? Is it your understanding that Christians are ipso facto anti-Semetic?

Delvyn Case said...

Modern composers tend to be marginalized figures - no one usually cares about what we do. So I am deeply grateful that a few people on this blog have been interested enough in my opera to make comments about it.

The opera project was designed to encourage discussion not only about anti-Semitism (and a response to it), but also about issues of artistic interpretation and even the possible political dimension of classical music. For those of you who are critical of the idea (as manifested in the plot summary and artistic statement), please reserve judgment on the project until you can experience it fully; I will be posting video excerpts shortly. Remember that it's an opera - a combination of music, acting, costumes, sets - and needs to be evaluated as such. You are free to disagree with the original idea, but the success of the final piece must be evaluated partially by its success in expressing that original concept through art.

By the way, I am happy to report that over 400 people attended the performances and panel discussions, and that since then I have received dozens of positive emails and calls from Jews (rabbis and laypeople), Christians (clergy and laypeople), medieval scholars, non-religious folks, opera lovers, opera haters, and others. The event did in fact bring together Christians and Jews in dialogue about these tough issues.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Delvyn Case: thanks for taking the time to post here. You are right, of course: it is unfair to judge a work of art without having truly experienced that work. I've outlined what troubles me from the materials I have read via the web. It would be my pleasure to be proven wrong should the chance present itself to view the opera. Here's my promise: should your work ever come to DC, I will most certainly attend.

And please don't get me wrong: I do not doubt your intentions, which appear to me to be noble. I do get weary of Jewish figures who exist within Christian stories to teach Christians about how to be proper Christians (that's the pedagogical burden I mentioned), and it did seem to me from the materials I read that the Jewish Old Man was an individual rather than a Type ... but again, I would very much like to learn more.

Eileen Joy said...

Richard: my initial problem with the composer of an opera such as this one identifying himself as Christian is more phenomenological than an assumption that he is anti-Semitic: clearly, from his notes on the opera he is the exact opposite of that, and I don't want to get into a bruising theological argument, but if one identifies oneself as a Christian, there has to be *some* acknowledgment, I think, that being Christian entails certain beliefs, however modified to personal values, such as: heaven is for Christians, and the like. You cannot lump all Christians together--I'm not stupid--but at what point can one say that he or she is a Christian and then beg off the question of what that means vis-a-vis the population of heaven after the end of the world, the issue of conversion, who God loves versus who he condemns, etc. You can make your own Christianity groovy and all-loving, but then you have to depart a certain distance from the administration of any church to which you might belong, OR, you have to practice your Christianity all by yourself in a space that YOU, and not necessarily Christ or any Church figure, circumscribes, and then, I have to ask, why be a Christian at all? What does it mean to take that label upon oneself, and in whose name/face/body do your practice your faith, your religion, etc.? I just can't see past the fact that to call oneself Christian at the outset of describing a project about the reinvention/adaptation of an anti-Semitic story about the murder of a Christian child doesn't, on some level, set up a kind of phenomenological divide, *at the outset*, between Christian and Jew.

But Delvyn: I will, of course, reserve judgment on your opera and would love love love to see any portions (or all) of it that you can share with us.