Joseph: Because the Very Best Native American is a Very
This past Friday I saw an opera that was amaaaaaaaazing. By amazing, I mean mind-boggling, bizarre and kind of offensive if you look at it the wrong (or right?) way. Chief Joseph by Hans Zender is a new opera performed for the first time at Berlin's Staatsoper. Now, I'm not sure how many "new" operas are being performed around the globe each year. There's kind of a special excitement to see something that hasn't been seen before....because in the back of your mind, you're wondering if this is going to be the next big "thing." Somehow, I feel new operas have a bit of a struggle...because so much "classic" opera is being regurgitated over and over again. In many respects, opera performances are a testament to the past, making it hella-strange when you hear about a new opera. Maybe there're highly successful new operas coming out all the time, and I just don't hear about them. Or not. Anyway, I do know strange when I see it. Which brings us to:
Chief Joseph is an opera about the Indian chief of the same name. Now, I'm going to be calling Native Americans Indians in this piece, mainly because that was the term used in piece. Actually, to be fair, the Indians referred to themselves as "Reds" a few times in the piece, which will make the politically-correct American in you wince. The story of Chief Joseph is about said chief and how he was wise and peaceful against the stupid aggressive white man. There's a bit more to it, but that sort of summarizes the opera's plot. An alternate summary: Ghost Joseph appears to a Red-neck trucker which triggers a long series of flashbacks. The main problem with the "plot" is that not a lot happens. Unlike most operas, no one dies, falls in love, has to wear women's clothing or a mask to fool someone. Looking at the libretto ("script" for the opera-stupid) you realize that there's a fairly simple structure to the whole piece: Make comment about how terrible the white man is, make comment about how great the Indian's culture is, talk about killing Whitey, offer the Indians money and threats. Rinse and repeat and repeat and repeat. There's also a scene thrown in where a Nazi General and a man dressed as Bigfoot bomb Japan, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
An interesting side note is that the entire cast of "Indians" is very, very white. In fact, the one guy who had the right coloring because he's actually a Mexican (Alfredo Daza), played Ghost Joseph, so he's painted to be the whitest of them all, like a zombie. While the costumes are creative, there's absolutely no attempt to make most of the Indians' skin look like, well, Indians. So it's White people complaining about White People.
There are several incarnations of Chief Joseph. One of them, who was particularly difficult to discern as an Indian, was the "teen" Joseph (played by Meik Schwalm) who came out dressed as a cowboy all in purple, 10-gallon hat included. I'm serious. Now, Meik is a typical German-looking guy, and there was no make-up to make him look otherwise. The whitest White Man you've ever seen comes out and starts bitching about the white man. There's probably a symbolic meaning there, but I'll address that later. You can dig that someone's supposed to be an Indian if he's in a more authentic costume (you know, feathers and, um, beads?), but when he's dressed as a gay pride cowboy, you just don't know what to think. Then again, I didn't know what to think during a lot of Chief Joseph.
Chief Joseph is also unlike most operas by not having any songs in it. Sure there's singing, and yes, there's music, but the whole thing comes across as a bit of atonal performance art. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but I'm not saying it's a good thing, either. There are no memorable arias ("songs" to the opera illiterate) in Chief Joseph. In fact, the opera feels like an instrumental piece....mainly because when the orchestra plays it takes over like a rebel army so you can't hear what the singers are trying to belt out. That's not me complaining that I couldn't hear them (I was in the 4th row this time), but it is me simply stating I couldn't hear the singers over the sound of a cat with a tambourine tied to it's tail being chased around the orchestra pit with a nail gun while on fire. Modern art. You've got to love it, just like the Emperor's new clothes, otherwise you're just not intelligent enough to "get" it. On a related note, the composer of this piece was booed by the audience on opening night when he took his bow. (Neither the director or the composer came out for a bow during the show that I saw. The director was there, but he wouldn't come out. I'm not saying that means anything, but hell, there it is.)
It's kind of difficult to share all the weirdness in Chief Joseph, so I'm going to try to walk you through the opera step-by-step.
The opening scene is a bunch of Americans busily running around a "corporate center." By corporate center, I mean the stage (which doesn't change much during the show) is a bunch of scaffolding, a revolving door, and a dumpster. Brilliant set design. Here we see the supers ("extras" to the opera illiterate) running around (and get used to them....they're on stage, not speaking, silently reacting to whatever is happening on stage for almost the next two hours straight). The best extra was the Strip-o-Gram Cop. I mean, who else would wear leather pants and have a ponytail while on duty?
Anyway, there's no music yet as we watch them scurry about for what feels like an eternity...until two police officers start beating the crap out of someone's bike. Two cops start using police brutality on someone's ten-speed thus signaling the entire cast of extras to drop what they're doing and start beating on poles and banging on pipes. It's like Stomp, only, well, less musical and more about noise. The extras completely freak out until advertisements for Becks and Marlboro cigarettes descend from the sky. Apparently, advertising placates the wild capitalist in everyone. You have to wonder how much Beck's and Marlboro paid to have their products on stage for the first hour and a half of the opera. Anyway, the extras wander around in a marketing-induced stupor until one woman, dressed as a secretary (or debutante, depending on your fetish), decides to start stripping. She gets on her knees and takes off her blouse slowly and offers her high heels up to the sky. Apparently, the ghost of Chief Joseph has a thing for half-naked white women and he lets a feather fall from the sky (a la Forest Gump) that blows across the stage. That's right. It takes breasts to summon an Indian's Ghost. A red-neck trucker sees this and declares that this site must be the location of Chief Joseph's grave. A fat German man declares that the White race is the best race of all. A bit of their dialogue:
Redneck (tourist 1): "[Chief Joseph] was a great man, seeking peace with those who practiced such injustice against his people."
Fat German (tourist 2:) "Injustice! I laugh! Struggle of life! Darwin's stuff! We were the fittest!"
Now, I'm aware that most of the cast of this show were German, but only two characters had obviously intentional German accents (the opera was, for the most part, sung in English): the Fat tourist who talks about how the white race is the Master Race (without using the term) and the Nazi General. Sure, he's supposed to be an American general, but since he's dressed as a Nazi (sans swastika) and has the biggest German accent of them all, Nazi General just seemed the most apt name. (My secret contact tells me that NO ONE in this opera was supposed to have a German accent and the performers, most being German, just happened to have the accent. I stand by my goofy assessment.) You may notice the subtle connection between these two characters. God knows, it's hard to miss. Let's skirt around the sensitive Nazi issue for the moment and get back to the weirdness.
Chief Joseph appears to the tourists in zombie make-up and covered in Christmas lights. Seriously. He comes in like Liberace with a string of Xmas lights wrapped around his headdress and Indian designs etched in chrome on his clothing. It comes across as a bad Mardi Gras thing, and you keep expecting Chief Joseph to start throwing beads at the stripper. Then, Mogli (from the Jungle Book) climbs out of the dumpster. It's supposed to be "Young" Joseph, and all the extras try to offer him food and clothing. One of my favorite parts of the opera is here, where Mogli makes it clear that he will not accept the White Man's offering of Gummi Bears.
Then, another Indian comes out and Mogli asks him to perform the "Black Bear" dance. Come on, kids! Don't YOU want to do the Black Bear dance? Take a look to the right. If someone asks you to do the "Black Bear Dance," make sure you say no. The embarrassing dance, which is done by hopping around like a gorilla, causes the drunk red-neck trucker to put on bull horns and do his own "I'm having a Seizure" dance across the stage. Do I really need to point out that the non-narrative structure of this opera makes it feel like a fever dream? I really could go on and on, but let me just give you some stuff from the later parts of Chief Joseph:
1. A dumpster is used as a weapon to kill white people. Interestingly enough, people are also climbing in and out of this dumpster over the course of the whole opera. In fact, at the end of the opera, for no reason whatsoever, a scary old couple peers out of the dumpster staring at you. It's like that scene from Mulholland Drive. It'll haunt you. Forever.
2. Toolhoolhoolsuite, Joseph's friend, is the Indian of war. He's wearing a bear-skin rug, which, when he's first seen, makes him look a hell of a lot like a sasquatch sneaking onto the stage. The costume's actually the coolest thing in the show (and I mean that) because when Toohoooolhoooohosweet (whatever) bends over, he looks like this monstrous rat. (I know it's a bear suit, but a bear without ears and a pointy nose looks like a big rat to me. It's still a killer costume.) You also get a couple of William Shatner-esque fight scenes with this guy, which, considering how a lot of nothing happens in this piece, you enjoy more than you should. Also, any character who's second line in the opera is "Kill Them!" can't be that bad.
3. The other Indians are dressed as butlers with feathers in their hair. This makes sense because later:
4. This has got to be the only opera where you see 4 butler-Indians and a man dressed as a bear (or Bigfoot, depending) sing in a barbershop quartet. The song they churn out has an interesting effect...as it releases a contagion upon the extras on the stage making them pass out and die on stage.
5. The fat German traps the Redneck in the dumpster, screaming, "Mercedes-Benz!" at him. (It's a symbolic thing, but doesn't excuse the fact that you're watching an obese tourist trapping a Redneck trucker.)
There's an interesting observation to be made concerning the two tourists. Towards the middle of the piece, we get this bit of dialogue:
Fat German: "The show is quite eccentric. But I don't like the intention of the entertainer, to give a bad conscience to the spectator."
Redneck: "For me it's not entertainment, not at all, but a help to discern clearly our old sins. We destroyed nature and a noble culture."
I really hate it when a play or whatever tries to escape criticism by simply out-and-out saying what it's trying to do. The two "Tourists" play the roles of spectators in this opera, and here we have tourist 2 making a statement that most Americans might make if they saw this. I mean, when the guy wrote these lines, he obviously wanted to "break the 4th wall" by addressing his own intentions and how the audience might not get them. Gah. It's so very 7th grade. I mean, it's kind-of like this:
Now, if you call my comic stupid or terrible, you're actually endorsing my creative goal. In reference to Chief Joseph, saying you didn't like "the writer's goal of making you feel guilty" just doesn't fly anymore, because the author himself has written said comment into his piece. But I'm rambling...and bitter. Let's move on.
6. A Nazi General (pictured below) fits into this piece somehow. Towards the end (after he's done threatening the Indians with his baton) he drops an atomic Bomb on Japan. He's asked why he didn't drop a nuke on Germany as well, and he informs "Mission Control" that it was because Germany surrendered before the bomb was ready (by screaming into a walkie-talkie that's broadcast across the theater's loudspeakers).
Unfunny Tangent: Chief Joseph is obviously about guilt. While Bigfoot/Bear Indian rants about how the Indians should have revenge against the white man, Ghost Joseph walks to the edge of the stage and starts making eye contact with everyone he can see. It's very, very accusatory and guilt-inspiring. This brings us to the sensitive and scary possible meaning behind Chief Joseph. The opera was written by a German, written IN German, then he translated it himself into English (It's not very good English at all, but that's neither here nor there...after all, this is ART). A LARGE chunk of evidence seems to point to the possibility that Chief Joseph isn't really about Native Americans. The Fat German tourist who talks about progress and the Master Race, and the Nazi General (who makes reference to World War 2), both help encourage the theory that this piece is at least in some part dealing with the heavy weight of German guilt concerning World War 2. If you don't believe me, German kids in the 8th grade are taken to a historic "death camp," where they are taken into the ovens or the showers and told in vivid detail what horrible things happened there. That's the equivalent of American kids being shoved into boxes to know what the slaves felt like when they were shipped across the sea. I'm not saying that Germans should still feel guilty about WW2, I'm just saying that some of them do. It's a common theme here in Berlin.
Anyway, the opera's a very serious production that's very hard to take seriously, due to the sheer randomness of the sets and staging. My secret informants tell me that they asked one of the people in charge "Why is the staging so weird?" and they got a funny-as-hell response. The answer, essentially: "Well, since the words and the music tell the story, we're free to do what we want with the staging." Well, if that's true, you could get away with anything. I mean, why not have a giant Twinkie fall from the sky and eat a naked woman? Or a woman dressed as a cow shaking her Udder? I mean, the music and the words tell the story, so we might as well try to entertain the audience with random symbolic strangeness. Gah.
Chief Joseph is a bizarre new opera that I'm not expecting to spread like wildfire or even herpes. I don't know if this is because of the simplicity of it's structure or the fact that it needed to have a Nazi General wrestling with a man in a bear suit while Xmas-light Chief Joseph watches out for more devoted strippers. I really enjoyed the show, but then again, I'm so the entertainment masochist. Thank you German opera, for hurting me oh-so-good.
copyright 2005 Jared von Hindman, particularly the pictures. Jared does not think Germans should feel bad about WW2 because all the people who were involved are either dead now or wearing diapers, which is pretty bad anyway.