“Death and the maiden” at Malmö Opera (or how your liberal politics fails us all)

So I went and saw the this opera interpretation of death and the maiden at Malmö opera. Now Im putting my headphones on, put some Victor Jara and tell you what I think about this thing I experienced!

First of all, not too many people showed up so they had to squeeze the hall to smaller size. Move us closer and still there was too many empty seats around for some reason, considering the execution marvel that this opera interpretation was. The audience was mainly older Swedish, the usual audience when i go watch something in Malmö opera (there are a few exceptions, but i always play the game of spot the racialized people and it never fails to disappoint), and it made me wonder how a Chilean story doesn’t attract much Chillean audience. I thought it might be that this night is special, I don’t know…

Everything in the set design was beautiful just gorgeous. I want my flat to rotate like this and want this beautiful toilet in my life. Who ever did this design, did an amazing job. The orchestra did an outstading job too. and the singers were fucking amazing! great job through and through. Perfect execution!!! but that is where all my positive feedback ends!

Some synopsis of what happens!

This story is about justice, about truth and about power! its about a woman -Paulina- whose husband is going to be the head of a commission to investigate the deaths during the Junta regime in Chille! We meet Paulina sleeping on the couch waiting for her husband (Gerardo, a lawyer) to come home. Just before Gerardo came in she heard in the radio that the commission has been formed and it will not investigate the cases of people who are alive and they have to just suck it up and move one, so the “healing” can happen! Paulina hears someone come in and grabs a gun from the drawer next to the bed and waits alerted until she hears his voice. Gerardo comes in the room and announces that his car broken down and no one gave him a lift until this doctor came by and helped him. And because it’s late he has offered the wonderful doctor to stay at their place over night.

She then asks Gerardo if he has accepted the role of the head of the commission and he says that he has not, and as per their agreement he wouldn’t until he talked to her! he is lying of course. He has accepted the role. He justifies his lie by explaining how this would bring this “healing” that everyone needs. they make out, and sing, no more lies… no more lies… but the lies continue… The doctor comes in, Paulina goes to bed and the other two get drunk and pas out. Hearing the doctors voice from the other room, Paulina becomes distressed but keeps quite and listens on. once Gerardo passes out, she goes and searches the car, grabs a cassette, comes in and ties the doctor to a chair and waits till morning where they both wake up! At this point we know that she is convinced that the doctor is her torturer and rapist during the time she was in jail.

Gerardo woken up in the morning by Paulina, shocked by seeing a tied up doctor in the room and Paulina holding a gun, pleads Paulina to let the doctor go. He is worried about this situation hurting his position in the commission. And from now on Paulina has to fight two men! But you know, the towing truck has come and Gerardo has to go get his god damn car in the middle of this. I can not emphasize how insane this is for a person would leave their partner with their alleged torturer/rapist to go tow the car! It doesn’t matter how important this car is in your life. you just don’t do it! But this will allow Paulina to be alone with the doctor where she will have her monologue. Going through her pain after the jail and how her trauma is connected to Schubert’s quartet.

Gerardo comes back, they remove the doctors gag, he denies all of Paulina’s accusations. the couple go back and forth about how to deal with this and she finally agrees to let the doctor go if he confess to everything. From here on, Gerardo goes on this insanely quick transformation to the doctors lawyer. He asks Paulina to tell him what happened to her (which seems that it was unimportant to him till this point in their marriage), to later on be relayed to the doctor to help him make a confession (this conspiracy is made when Paulina is outside smoking a cigarette. With Gerardo inherent agreement that the doctor is innocent) that fits Paulina’s telling of the events. He tells her that if he hears this from the doctors mouth he would die! another lie thrown in her face. Paulina opens up to him and tells him everything!

The doctor will confess in a written format and Gerardo happy that this situation is over, asks Paulina to let him go. She sends him to fetch the car since she has a few things to handle with the doctor. Gerardo asks her to promise not to kill him and she does so. After Gerardo is gone, she confronts the doctor that he is not genuine in his confession. The doctor says that because he is innocent and that Gerardo has told her everything so he can sign it and go free. She then explains to him that she changed some details because she knew that Gerardo is going to try to get him out (and she tells herself that Gerardo’s love for humanity is what she loves about him). but the doctor had fixed the details to how it really happened. Now she is sure and she claims that she actually going to kill him. The doctor -with an irony that was lost on him- tells her that this will just perpetuate the cycle of violence. That his child will find her and kill her and so on!

Paulina demands him to explain why should it always be the victims, the women who have to sacrifice… how is this fair? and says that this time it’s gonna be different, she is going to do it. They wouldn’t miss one less of his kind. But Paulina walks away just seconds after getting so close to pull the trigger on the doctor, and in this moment he crawls out like a coward. In the next scene you will meet Paulina in peace, listening to the Schubert quartet in the concert with a glass in her hand and smoking a cigarette.

Calling on the ghosts…

There are many many scenes where the ghosts of the dead appear on the scene. They demand to be found… They come in the apartment and leave their portraits around… And all this is used to justify a liberal politics of forgiving and moving on. The problem my dears is the binary of this or that. either we can dig up the dead and bring peace to their loved ones or Paulina can kill the doctor. The dead themselves whose ghosts are summoned will not get anything out of this! Gerardo will! heading this historical case. While Paulina is right there, alive and is sitting there with her pain. There is never a discussion of what healing really means… how can you have healing if victims are not in control? there is the word “objectivity” that is thrown around a few times… Gerardo has to be objective… Paulina of course can not!

But what if this binary choice is full of shit?

In a scene Paulina tells Gerardo how they tried to get his name out of her but she never betrayed him. And that might be a reason that Gerardo is alive. Because she protected him. She reminds him how she found another woman in his home when she came back from the jail. We also see over and over that Gerardo choses himself over her. His bloody commission, peace for the nation, the healing… all the lies… He effectively becomes the doctor’s lawyer…

No justice no peace!

So they have changed the ending. In the original play, when the argument between Paulina and the doctor reaches its peak, the lights go off, and that is the end of the scene. We will not see what did Paulina chose to do. In the next scene, Paulina and Gerardo are at a concert hall, listening to the “death and the maiden” and Paulina notices the doctor sitting on the other side of the room, in a phantasmagoric light. We are not sure if its her imagination or not.

Victims of brutal regimes are not a monolith! I get that… but I have crossed path with some people in my own family and some outside who have had experience of torture and brutalization! maybe not to the extent of Paulina, but in some close proximity. People go to therapy for years and the ghosts of the past will not leave them. Sometimes it hurts less, sometimes the ghosts just sit in a corner and look at you. I doubt there is true healing about these things, maybe there is peace. But certainly there is no peace in the absence of justice. I refer you the amazing documentary called “The Silence of Others” that amplifies the voice of people in the post Franco Spain dealing with the exact same themes of injustice! its illuminating…

Whats with your politics man?

I don’t know how much Ariel Dorfman was involved in this project. How much control did he had… and what is his politics. It’s just such such a shame that this story is so so full of opportunities. From the inspection of role of masculinity in the misogynistic banter of the doctor with Gerardo, his argument (with Gerardo) in the kitchen over how Gerardo is a faggot (which made me wonder what have we done to be brought into this…) because he didn’t just simply kill his wife’s alleged rapist. To the existence of marginalized people in these super structures of power. To imagine how real justice could look like for victims who are alive and live with their trauma… and how there are more options than either pulling the trigger, or just pull a “non-violence” nonsense and completely heal your traumas…

I came out of there angry and uncomfortable… i kept thinking if they changed the ending just because the target audience are older upper-middle class Swedish people who’s boomer politics is ranging from liberal to out and out far-right that they had to water it down? What do these people see in this ending? what do they talk about? What goes through their heads? is it just art for the sake of art? Why do i keep going to see these things?