“Rape” At The Royal Opera House

There has been a lot of controversy in old and new media over a scene in a new production of Guillaume Tell at the ROH; cf. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/jun/30/william-tell-nudity-and-scene-greeted-with-boos-at-royal-opera-house

Two preliminaries:.  One: I was there at the first night, in seat W14 at the back of the Orchestra Stalls.  If you weren’t, then you will have to take my word for it in terms of what actually happened.  Two: I am a philosophical psychologist (cf. http://www.psypress.com/authors/i9043-tim-short) so if you would like to respond, do so to exactly what I write below and not to something in the vicinity of what I say which annoys you.  If you want to be formal about it, I suppose the proposition for which I am arguing is “the scene was appropriate.”

I will start by outlining the events I saw and then show that all of the objections aiming to show that the scene was inappropriate fail.

A foreign army is occupying Switzerland.  At the point in the libretto of interest, we are told that some soldiers force the local women to dance with them.  One woman is offered champagne, somewhat against her will.  She acquiesces nervously.  She is then doused in champagne.  The leader of the occupying forces, Gesler, molests her by placing a pistol between her legs at around mid-thigh level.  She moves on to the dining table, upon which is placed a large table-cloth.  She disappears behind a group of perhaps 10-15 soldiers.  Shortly afterwards, she reappears naked.  The duration of the nudity was something like half a second.  She partly wraps the table-cloth around her and moves away from the table.  The hero, Tell, appears and ensures that she is fully covered.

That’s it for the stage action. There ensued enormous amounts of booing which interrupted the action.  One man shouted out “one step too fucking far mate” and another shouted “Holten out”.  (Kaspar Holten is Director of Opera at the ROH.)  There were a number of noisy walkouts.

The objections I have seen are as below.

The scene was too long

I don’t really see how this objection works.  People have spoken of a ” five-minute gang rape”.  I do not think you can get to five minutes even if you include all of the events I outline above in your duration.  I would put it at two minutes; perhaps three at the outside.  In any case, the nudity was momentary.  This means at the outset we have to decide what constitutes a depiction of rape.  That is a difficult question.  Naturally, there was no sex or simulated sex on stage by anyone, so a fortiori there was no sex or simulated sex involving multiple men and the woman. However, it was clearly the intention of the director to depict rape in some sense and that intention we may assume was realized, because of the intense audience reaction.  I think that this intense negative reaction meant that the “rape” that was perceived by the audience was too long simply because any duration was too long to be comfortable.  But if we are purely talking about seconds on the clock, then it could not have been shorter and remained what it was.  (You may wish to challenge me here by noting that the scene has now been cut and shortened.  Is it still what it was?)  You will also need to deal with the question as to how fictional objects get their properties; see my Sherlock piece: http://www.opticon1826.com/articles/10.5334/opt.bs/

The scene was gratuitous

This objection cannot succeed; it gains its initial plausibility by appearing to be the nearby objection “the scene had a negative effect”.  To make out the claim that the scene was gratuitous, you have to show that the scene had no effect.  In other words, the aesthetic impact of the piece would have been identical if the scene had been eliminated.  This is transparently false since the audience reaction to the scene and the reaction of others who were not there was immense.  You may well feel that the aesthetic effect of the scene was undesirable, but that is not consistent with saying that its inclusion was gratuitous.

The scene was unnecessary

I can again respond similarly to what I said to counter the previous objection.  In addition, I can observe that nothing is necessary.  Even claims like “everything is identical to itself” are questionable under certain circumstances.

I do not expect to see that at the opera

Why not?  I will defer to others, notably the Director of Opera, to make a number of valid points in response to this.  The scene is fully justified by the libretto (cf. http://www.roh.org.uk/news/guillaume-tell-a-response-to-recent-debate-and-discussion); perhaps also the purpose of art is to shock, sometimes.  Bear in mind that this is about war, not the marriage of Figaro.  Also, why are we holding opera to a much different standard to those we permit on the theatrical stage, or film (cf. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0290673/reviews), let alone what one can see on the internet.

We need to protect victims of rape from depictions of rape

Was this a depiction of rape?  Do we also need to protect people who have had a family member murdered from depictions of murder?  There were several of those in this piece; they aroused no comment.

The inclusion of the scene condones rape

I don’t understand this objection, so if you share it, you will have to explain it to me.  One question is whether or not it matters that the perpretators of the “rape” were the villains of the piece.  If this is an alleviating factor, then it would have been an aggravating one to have had the hero Tell perpetrate it.  Perhaps that would have been the provocative directorial choice.

The scene was “the last straw”

This is one of the more common objections.  It seems to run approximately as follows: `this was a terrible production full of infantile symbolism, each scene was more offensive and unimaginative than the last, the “rape” scene was one step too far’.  I happened to think that the production was brave and innovative, but that is not actually relevant to the argument.  The problem with this objection is that it seems to entail the following: `this rape scene would have been appropriate in a more traditional production, or a production I liked more.’  That seems unmotivated and hard to argue for.  It seems to be caused by the phenomenon of “moral licensing,” which is not a way to stand up an objection.


I conclude that all of the objections fail and the scene was appropriate.  It is therefore unfortunate that the scene has now been modified by weakening it and shortening it.  We may at least note that the Director of Opera did not insist on this; in fact he apologized for the offense that seemed to have been caused and explicitly did not apologize for the production.  This is right and proper; I do not want what I can see at the Royal Opera House controlled by reactionary prudes who can only stomach totally traditional productions.  The changes were made by the Director; so our regret should be that a courageous and ground-breaking production team have been forced to weaken the impact of their vision.

For me, the most dismaying part of the experience was seeing the change in the countenance of Malin Bystrom, who was superb.  She was quite clearly delighted by the richly deserved approbation she received in her curtain call, but was still there for the booing of the production crew.  This is what I call gratuitous.  In fact, I can’t see any occasion on which booing is appropriate.  Walk out silently if you must, but otherwise why not just stay at home.  The ROH is generally sold out; we can do without your ticket money if you think you are going to decide what is appropriate in a production.


2 Responses to “Rape” At The Royal Opera House

  1. Flossie says:

    I was at the Dress Rehearsal where the female actor ended the scene naked – so what? There was only one “boo” after this scene in this performance. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance which made total dramatic musical sense to me. I am baffled by the complete over-reaction to this section as was described to me from the opening night and even more perplexed by the opinions of people who have not seen this in either of it’s versions. Three things were changed for the second show in the run – there was no nudity, no gun near the thigh gesture and no screams from the excellent female actor. It was even mentioned on “Thought for the Day today – but, again, erroneously described as a “gang rape” – believe me there is NO RAPE, GANG or otherwise. All is implied. I am in total agreement with this writer. At last, some common sense amid the hysteria. The person who claimed to have been so upset in the Dress Rehearsal that they wrote to Kasper Holten – so disturbed that they cried for 4 days, this person (I have to avoid references to gender) was reportedly observed to have appeared quite happy, working with colleagues the very next day. I have no doubt that this person is thrilled with the furore that their attention-seeking response has triggered. A storm in a teacup. Appalling. The theme of “Thought for the Day” was truth. Let’s stick to the facts.

  2. timlshort says:

    Thanks; I agree with everything you say. What continues to concern me is that now the hysteria has abated, we are still left with a scenario in which directors and the Director of Opera will be imposing self-censorship on future productions. We can’t blame them for that but we can regret it.

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