L'incorinazione di Poppea and censorship

This week, the Lincoln Public Schools decided not to send students to see the University’s opera production because it was deemed too controversial. Of course, some people are up in arms about censorship etc. Normally, I’m opposed to censorship, but I’m not sure that this is a case of undue infringement of rights.

In case you are wondering, the controversial opera is the 1642 masterpiece by Claudio Monteverdi L’incorinazione di Poppea. It covers Poppea’s rise to the position of Empress, the divorce and banishment of Ottavia, and Nero’s philandering. (The part where Nero eventually kicks her in the stomach and kills her is conveniently left out.) To be sure, the opera is very graphic. Perhaps one of the most explicit scenes occurs when Nero and the poet Lucan sing about a very specific sexual act with references to le petite mort accompanied by very descriptive music and Nero reaching a climax while Lucan is carrying on about Poppea’s mouth drawing pearls out of the Arabian sea. The scene is as shocking today as it was almost 400 years ago.

Now, the 16th and 17th centuries were no strangers to ribald humor and explicit material in both popular music and in art music. You do have to know the “code” to understand some of it, but once you do, seemingly innocent songs can become transformed into surprisingly bawdy depictions of intimacy. In many ways, it makes me think that we are much more prudish in contemporary society than they were back then. I’ve often pondered how many high schools sing sexually explicit madrigals without understanding the real meaning. I’ve wondered why they allow Shakespeare and come to the conclusion that most of the references are lost on younger children. To think that I read this in 9th grade at a Christian school!

SAMPSON
True; and therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall: therefore I will push Montague's men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall.
GREGORY
The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.
SAMPSON
'Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the maids, and cut off their heads.
GREGORY
The heads of the maids?
SAMPSON
Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads, take it in what sense thou wilt.

Then again, we have plenty of sexually explicit lyrics in our popular music today. So, it’s hard to argue that we are more prudish. The difference is, I can’t see 50 cent performing “Candy Shop” in front of President Obama at the White House in the same way that I can imagine John Dowland playing his lute and singing “Come again” in front of Royalty.

As in most cases like this, it is probably true that nothing in the opera is covering subject material with which the average high school student is more thoroughly familiar than his/her parents wish to acknowledge. The question here is about having a deep respect for the relationship between a parent and a child. If we are going to expose children to explicit sexual material, their parents probably have a right to know before the fact. While all of it is done on a level of sophistication that so far beyond 50 Cent’s crude analogy, to pretend that it is not sexually explicit and powerful seems to me to deny the power of music, opera, and live theatre.

Another way to say it is: Opera is for grown-ups. It deals with all the real and terrible truths of the human experience. That parents should be allowed some say so in when their children are exposed to some of those issues does not seem to be that big of an issue to me – if only for the sake of their own deluded conscience.

Perhaps, a better solution would be to tell the parents before hand that the opera very graphically depicts sexual acts musically. If you want to opt out, you should feel free. If you feel that your child is mature enough to handle one of the great masterpieces of Western Civilization, let them go. In any case, we shouldn’t pretend that great art doesn’t have real power and doesn’t deal with real grown-up issues and problems.

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