Music: The opera Belgium can’t see
29 August 2011
The opera, The Mute Girl of Portici, has been a symbol of Belgian unity since 1830. But to see it staged today, you have to go to Paris, because in Brussels it could arouse political controversy. Excerpts.
Nearly everyone in Belgium has heard of The Mute Girl of Portici, the opera that, in 1830, sparked the Belgian revolution. But few have ever seen it performed. That could change, however, because the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie is staging a new performance for the upcoming opera season. Except that it won’t be produced in Brussels but in Paris as a co-production with the Opéra Comique.
We did it knowingly, says the director of La Monnaie, Peter De Caluwe. Staging the opera now, in Brussels, would not only be an artistic act but it would also be a political manifesto and interpreted as an argument in favour of Belgian unity at a moment when the political situation is precarious. “It isn’t the right time,” says Peter De Caluwe, “because it would raise the question of whether or not we need Belgium. I want to withdraw opera from the debate.
Writer Geert Van Istendael, who had to learn excerpts of The Mute Girl of Portici by heart in primary school, agrees with Peter De Caluwe. “Staging the opera in Brussels today, in the political swamp in which we are wading would be a crushing blow,” he said. On August 16, discussions resumed over the formation of a Belgian government. Mistrust between the Flemish and the Walloons runs so high, that negotiations have been on-going for fourteen months. King Albert, one of the last symbols of unity left, last month blasted politicians for failing to find a compromise and warned against Poujadisme – an allusion to the French populist movement of the 1950s. In such a climate, staging The Mute Girl of Portici is considered dynamite on the political front.
Houses of high dignitaries attacked and burned
How did an opera from 1828 become such a sensitive subject in the Belgium of 2011? How did The Mute Girl of Portici by the French composer Daniel François Esprit Auber (1782-1871), with a mute woman in the lead role, become the symbol of unity in a country torn by linguistic quarrels?
It all began on August 25, 1830, at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, when French tenor Jean-François Lafeuillade threw out a “To Arms!” during the third act of the opera. “To Arms!” in a hall already prepared to pounce. A few instants earlier, after the galvanising air of Sacred Love of the Nation, the audience had given Lafeuillade a rousing encore. After his “To Arms!” the hall allegedly cried “Long live freedom!”, “Down with the king”, “Death to the Dutch” and perhaps, even in both languages “Vive la France! Vivat de Fransoeëze!”
That August evening, the opera was performed in honour of the 59th birthday of the King of the Netherlands, William I, who was then still King of the Belgians. The plot of The Mute Girl of Portici, a very popular opera at the time, centres around a popular insurrection in 17th Century Naples against the Spanish. The opera’s central theme, insurrection, had been hovering for some time in the streets of Brussels.
No one knows exactly what the audience shouted at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels or if it was done at the instigation of the police or because of spontaneous anger. The fact is that the opera was interrupted before the end, that the audience went out into the street and that, on that very night, the first insurrection against the Dutch government occurred in Brussels. Houses of high dignitaries were attacked and burned. Then, things moved very quickly: the insurrection spread to the rest of the country, violent combat erupted in September and, on October 4, 1830, the independence of Belgium was proclaimed.
That August 1830 evening made The Mute Girl of Portici the symbol of Belgian insurrection against Dutch domination. And, consequently, the symbol of Belgian unity. Of course the impact of the The Mute Girl of Portici on the revolution has been romanticised, admits Geert van Istendael. In the summer of 1830, other ingredients conducive to revolt were already present: empty stomachs due to crop failure and the French example where a revolution had taken place in July. “The fact is, that evening, in that theatre, a number of young gentlemen got hot-headed,” explains von Istendael.
At the Brussels Théâtre de la Monnaie, the opera was performed in 1930 to celebrate the centenary of the country’s existence. And, as of September 1944, fourteen performances were staged to mark the liberation of Brussels from the Germans. That was the last time The Mute Girl was heard. A performance in 1980, for the country’s 150th anniversary, was cancelled at the last minute due to threats by Flemish extremists to disrupt it. The unity of Belgium, that’s exactly what they don’t want.
In French-speaking Belgium, no one understands why The Mute Girl isn’t programmed for Brussels. “Scandalous censure” can be read on the Internet as well as “We should all go to the Place de la Monnaie and listen to a recording of The Mute Girl of Portici at the same time as it is staged in Paris!” These reactions raise a smile from director De Caluwe. “We want to stage a concert version next year in Brussels to celebrate the renovation of the Place de la Monnaie but the city doesn’t have financing. Very narrow-minded,” he says. Another internet user concludes that “If we pull back from performing an opera that led to the birth of our country out of fear of provoking the rage of those who want Belgium to disappear, then this country is already well and truly gone.”