Boo Guillaume Tell for being bad art, not for being offensive

The opening night of Damiano Michieletto’s version of Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera House was marred by an unusual and unfortunate event: audience booing. Although booing is common at pantomimes, courtesy usually dictates that the audience remains silent while an opera is being performed. However, audience members decided to forgo this courtesy when confronted by a five-minute-long rape scene.

The scene depicted the sexual assault of a female by several men, with a bit of nudity thrown in for good measure. ROH director Kasper Holten said this graphic scene was supposed to upset the audience. The cast backed Holten, with tenor John Osborn arguing that the rape scene reflected a historical reality. And, more importantly, he said that it served a dramatic purpose, too: ‘[The rape scene] is an element you can use to show just how horrible these people were.’

Reviewers, like the booing audience, did not feel the same way, however. The Stage gave Guillaume Tell one star, describing it as a ‘dire evening’ featuring a ‘gratuitous gang-rape’.

Does the fact that the Guillaume Tell rape scene prompted such a reaction suggest it shouldn’t have been included? Not really. Art has always made and followed its own rules. And, in doing so, it sometimes challenges and pushes the audience. Examples of historically challenging art abound, from DH Lawrence’s sex-saturated Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Elvis Presley’s hip-gyrating provocations. Both are considered inoffensive today, but, in their respective eras, they were seen as beyond the pale.

Michieletto’s Guillaume Tell could well be similar. From the boundary-pushing perspective, it could even be considered a triumph that the scene was booed. Art that challenges needs to be defended, not silenced. As Osborn put it, ‘If you don’t feel the brutality, the suffering these people have had to face, if you want to hide it, it becomes soft, it becomes for children’.

Guy Pierce is a writer and researcher based in London.

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