Thoughts on Lera Auerbach’s Opera “The Blind” Upcoming at American Opera Project’s Summer Festival at Lincoln Center

 

 

Note: After I posted my dismay about Lera Auerbach’s operatic revival of Maeterlinck’s  1890 play “The Blind” on Facebook, her publisher Sikorski removed the following description from its website: 

 

“At a lonely clearing in a wood, a group of blind people await the return of a priest who led them there in order to enable them to enjoy the last rays of the sun before the beginning of winter. Only the sound of the nearby sea can be heard. The longer they wait, the more restless the blind people become; in their desperation they realise that they are helpless and cannot move from their place. Their fear escalates to naked terror when they discover the corpse of the priest. The blind people form a circle round the dead man and begin to pray for forgiveness and salvation. Steps become perceptible during the prayer. The presence of something mysterious makes the blind people panic; they pray ever more fervently. In his mother’s arms, the small child, the only person in the group who can see, breaks out sobbing. What does the child see? Is it rescue, the rescue so ardently hoped for, or is it death?”

 

**

 

Here is Maeterlinck’s mise en scene, and the play’s opening dialogue:

 

 

A very ancient northern forest eternal of aspect, beneath a sky profoundly starred. In the midst, and towards the depths of night, a very old priest is seated wrapped in a wide black cloak. His head and the upper part of his body, slightly thrown back and mortally still, are leaning against the bole of an oak tree, huge and cavernous. His face is fearfully pale and of an inalterable waxen lividity ; his violet lips are parted. His eyes, dumb and fixed, no longer gaze at the visible side of eternity, and seem bleeding beneath a multitude of immemorial sorrows and of tears. His hair, of a most solemn white, falls in stiff and scanty locks upon a face more illumined and more weary than all else that surrounds it in the intent silence of the gloomy forest. His hands, extremely lean, are rigidly clasped on his lap. To the right, six old blind men are seated upon stones, the stumps of trees, and dead leaves. To the left, separated from them by an uprooted tree and fragments of rock, six women, blind also, are seated facing the old men. Three of them are praying and wailing in hollow voice and without pause. Another is extremely old. The fifth, in an attitude of mute insanity^ holds on her knees a little child asleep. The sixth is strangely young, and her hair inundates her whole being. The women, as well as the old men, are clothed in ample garments, sombre and uniform. Most of them sit waiting with their elbows on their knees and their faces between their hands; and all seem to have lost the habit of useless gesture, and no longer turn their heads at the stifled and restless noises of the island. Great funereal trees, yews, weeping willows, cypresses, enwrap them in their faithful shadows. Not far from the priest, a cluster of long and sickly daffodils blossoms in the night. It is extraordinarily dark in spite of the moonlight that here and there strives to dispel for a while the gloom of the foliage. 

 

 

FIRST BLIND MAN. 

Is he not coming yet? 

 

SECOND BLIND MAN. 

You have waked me! 

 

FIRST BLIND MAN. 

 

I was asleep too. 

 

THIRD BLIND MAN. 

I was asleep too. 

 

FIRST BLIND MAN. 

Is he not coming yet? 

 

SECOND BLIND MAN. 

I hear nothing coming. 

 

THIRD BLIND MAN. 

 

It must be about time to go back to the 

asylum. 

 

FIRST BLIND MAN. 

We want to know where we arc! 

 

SECOND BLIND MAN. 

It has grown cold since he left 

 

FIRST BLIND MAN. 

We want to know where we are! 

 

THE OLDEST BLIND MAN. 

Does any one know where we are? 

 

 

**

 

I was alerted to the upcoming performance of Auerbach’s opera by someone wishing to enlist me as a post-production panelist. I won’t name names, nor do I want to spoil the tenor of an idea–given the offensive and ableist representation of blindness at the center of Maeterlinck’s play, and with no evidence of irony from Auerbach herself, a panel of disability studies scholars to follow the July performance at Lincoln Center may be a good idea. I use conditional language because I’ve been trying (without success) to find a sufficiently tasteless analogy for this revival. A colleague who is a disability studies scholar likens it to staging “Triumph of the Will” or “Birth of a Nation” but I don’t think these will “do” for we fought wars against the “isms” in those examples and last I looked we haven’t broadly resisted pejorative and disenfranchising metaphors of disability in the arts or our politics.  

 

No, my analogy for Auerbach’s re-dedication of Maeterlinck is Amos ‘n Andy the American radio show from the Great Depression (later a series of movies and a TV sitcom) where two white men in black face (Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll) pretended to be aimless and shambling “negroes”.   

 

Lest you think I’m being too hard on Auerbach, here is what she says about the enterprise:

 

“I love Maeterlinck. When I read ‘The Blind’ I thought to myself – this story is a perfect opera. Or anti-opera. And it needs to be done a-cappella. Since some of the characters are continuously praying or chanting – this provides a perfect structure for a chamber-music approach to balancing of the voices where some of the voices provide a constant harmonic base, while the others play more prominent voices.”

 

**

 

Once oppression is reduced to aesthetics you can say whatever you like. Amos ‘n Andy can be reconstituted as an ironic paean to oppression–two white men who had to make their terrible living by lampooning black men in the age of lynchings, You see, its man’s inhumanity to man! 

 

Blindness lends itself to paltry and derisory metaphors–psychic imminence, vaticism, despair, death, compensatory talent, and of course utter hopelessness. These things have no genuine connection with blindness save that figurative influence holds a strong place in the public imagination. One wonders if Ms. Auerbach knows that 70 % of the blind remain unemployed in the United States despite having degrees from Princeton and Swarthmore. One wonders if Ms. Auerbach will stage this production with blind opera singers–though I already know the answer to that. 

 

I was asked to say nothing about the upcoming performance or the effort to create a post-performance panel, as apparently Lincoln Center hasn’t decided whether this disability studies  panel is a good idea. But they’ve apparently decided it will be lovely to have the audience experience blindness by means of artificial darkness and there will be atomizers with evocative scents and controlled temperature shifts for the credulous. I’m thinking odor of wormwood and gall might be nice. A few stinks from the illud tempus of superstitious ideas.   

 

Back to Amos ‘n Andy. Would someone from Lincoln Center call up Al Sharpton and tell him “we’re staging an operatic revival of an old classic–it’s probably a good idea to have a panel, and we’d like you to be on it, but don’t say anything for the time being. 

 

I’m an American poet, memoirist, translator, essayist, professor, public policy advisor, and disability rights activist. As a result I’m suspicious of aesthetes. I’m also chary of neo-liberalism and hipsterism. Don’t tell me to shut up. Here’s what I wrote on Facebook:

 

The description of the opera on Lera Auerbach’s website left me speechless, inasmuch as it employs nearly every conceivable “ableist” cliche about blindness one can employ–blindness is embedded in her précis with more cliches than any one person may creditably imagine. In fact the synopsis is so offensive I’m left with a dislocated mandible which I hope is a temporary condition as I’m at the MacDowell Colony for the Arts and there are no local dentists. How could Ms. Auerbach imagine that in 2013 blindness can still be used as a metaphor for lack of knowing or knowledgeability; powerlessness, spiritual failure, immobility, or worse, stand as a metonymic reduction for death itself?

 

 

It’s interesting to me that of the several disability studies scholars I’ve written to about this, only two have answered–one to say he likes Maeterlinck and while the premise is offensive, a nice panel should do just the trick. Another wrote to congratulate me for standing up for blind people. Most have avoided saying anything–I suspect they want to be on the panel. I know how politics works. 

 

Now Sikorski has taken down the description. Good for them. But the conceit of the production lives on: blind people, aleotoric, driven by cosmological forces beyond our ken, people asleep or in terror. It’s really hard to believe. But then again it’s easy to believe. They don’t teach disability studies at Juilliard.  

 

I know what’s coming: I’m going to be accused of extremism by disability studies scholars who want to be empaneled. But I talk daily to real blind people and they’re suffering, not because they lack education or technology or ambition but because he public still lives in Maeterlinck-land. 

 

The blind are less powerful than the organized deaf, less apparent than wheelchair racers, and since blindness is a low incidence disability its easy to talk about us without hearing an informed response. 

 

Meanwhile I’m going to write an opera in which the blind, like dragonfly larva, crawl over a murky lakebottom singing in indeterminate tones the Mosaic Standard from Ur.




See “Bad Cripple” for a related piece. 

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