The Victoria Philharmonic Choir delivered a spirited, rich and lush performance of Simon Capet's provocative interpretation of Handel's Samson Thursday night, and the evening concluded with a hearty and well-deserved standing ovation. The orchestra acquitted itself splendidly. Lead tenor Ken Lavigne, in the role of Samson, was spellbinding. Everything went off without a hitch.
The only evidence that there had been anything unusual about the event was the Victoria Police squad car that had been parked in front of the McPherson Theatre when the doors opened. And later, when the audience filtered back out onto Pandora Street, there was a local television news crew on hand.
Still, in the comfortable, ornate, and almost antique setting of the McPherson Playhouse, just three blocks from the oldest synagogue in Canada, in the middle of Passover, there were some of us in the audience who could not help but notice that what we were watching onstage was something more than just vaguely obscene.
You have to hand it to Capet, the Victoria Philharmonic's new artistic director. He's managed to do something with the story of the mythical Hebrew superman that nobody has ever attempted.
Samson has shown up in 1960s-era Italian muscleman movies, in Grateful Dead lyrics, in Christian bedtime stories, and in Marvel comic books. Peter Paul Rubens painted him. Michelangelo sculpted him. And since September 11, 2001, there has also been a great deal of highbrow hand-wringing in literary-criticism circles about how the Samson story must now be read, in light of everything that has happened.
But until Capet, nobody had figured out a way to use the Samson story to so completely turn things upside down as to reconstruct an important work of art to portray a Jew as a suicide bomber.
Grabbing onto Handel
You'd think it would require quite some talent to create something that does this, but the way Capet carries it off is actually quite subtle. The Samson libretto is almost exactly as Handel wrote it, but instead of keeping it set in the days of the Israelites' ancient oppression under the Philistines, the costumes and the minimalist stage props are meant to suggest Gaza, circa 1946. The Philistine guards wear British army uniforms.
In the old story, Samson, after a series of astonishing adventures, ends up blinded by his Philistine tormentors, and he uses his superhuman strength to bring down the roof of the Philistine temple where he is kept in chains. In so doing he kills not only his captors but himself.
In Capet's version, Samson's mother, Micah, slowly and carefully peels Samson's shirt from his body, and while the choir's voices ring out in a glorious chorus she unclasps her coat, retrieves a concealed explosives belt, gently girdles it around Samson's naked lash-scarred torso, and then helps him put his shirt on again. A few moments later, after Samson has been led away, a loud explosion and a bright light bursts from just offstage.
More than 100 suicide bombings have been carried out in Israel over the past 15 years. Suicide bombers have slaughtered hundreds of ordinary Israelis, almost all of them Jews. More than 7,000 Israelis have been injured in the attacks. The latest was carried out on Jan. 29 of this year when a suicide bomber detonated himself and incinerated three workers in a bakery in the southern city of Eilat.
Suicide-bomb victims commonly include bus passengers, taxi drivers, schoolchildren and pensioners, and patrons of pizzerias, nightclubs, and grocery stores. The main groups carrying out the attacks have been Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Since the ill-advised, tragically-executed, American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, suicide-bombing has emerged as the barbarism of choice among so-called Iraqi "insurgent" groups, most prominently Ansar al-Sunna, the Iraqi al-Qaida organization and the Islamic Army in Iraq. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka also employ suicide bombings, but they are an anomaly -- they choose mainly military targets, and they don't use the righteous cloak of Islam as cover. Here again, though, notice the Tamils are not Jews.
When news of Capet's intentions started making the rounds a few days ago, it might well have been put down as a case of just another earnest artist trying to make a classic text more relevant to current affairs. There would have been the obligatory spasm of tongue-clucking and eye-rolling and that would have been it.
But from the outset, it was clear that something a bit more shabby was involved.
It started when the National Post picked up a thoughtful article Sarah Petrescu had written for the Victoria Times-Colonist, in which Capet declared his intent to challenge contemporary conceptions of terrorism. Capet asked: "Is there any difference between pulling down a pillar or blowing a bomb?"
Capet told CBC News that he was struck by the persistence of this kind of violent act through history, and the Samson story cried out for a treatment that would make it relevant to contemporary events in the Middle East. "Samson could be any 'freedom fighter,'" Capet said. "Some say I'm brave, some say I'm anti-Israel or whatever, but that is OK. The point is to get discussion going."
He got discussion going alright, but not so much in the direction he wanted. It didn't help that the philosophy professor Shadia Drury weighed in. Drury had previously compared Samson to the 9-11 bomber Mohammed Atta. She called Capet heroic.
Capet also equated Samson's pillar-pulling escapade with the Zionist Irgun organization's 1946 bombing of the British headquarters in Palestine, at the King David Hotel. Capet pointed out that Irgun leader Menachem Begin went on to serve as Israel's prime minister and win the Nobel Peace Prize. So there you go: A terrorist can be a freedom fighter. It depends wholly on your perspective.
Suddenly, the Victoria Philharmonic was a newsmaker as far away as New York and Israel. The story was also showing up throughout the English-speaking blogosphere, thanks mainly to Little Green Footballs, one of the most widely-read conservative weblogs in the United States.
The Victoria Philharmonic's website "audience feedback" page immediately filled up with angry reaction, some of which was downright vile, and most of which was quickly removed. The Philharmonic's executive director Anne Mullens found herself subjected to grossly abusive e-mail messages that don't require description here.
Capet then followed up with an interview on CBC's As It Happens, counseling an approach to terrorism based on "empathy" and "understanding," lest we leave ourselves with "no chance to reach across and make a conversation with these people." Then two Jewish choir members issued a statement about the rumpus declaring that "every hero is someone's terrorist as well as someone's child."
'More harm than good'
The Canadian Jewish Congress was having none of it. In its own statement, the CJC took Capet to task for insulting the Jewish community for the sake of being seen as edgy and progressive: "Artists have the right to their interpretations, and Mr. Capet is no exception. But using suicide bombings as the setting for his vision makes a mockery of the story of Samson by turning it on its head, and paints a picture of moral relativism that does much more harm than good."
Then Capet issued a statement expressing distress about "the violence and hatred that runs so palpably strong" in some of the responses he'd provoked, and he complained that some people "simply cannot discuss this Handel production without resorting to revenge and hate-fueled language that in some cases has even counseled violence against us."
This didn't exactly help elucidate the point that Capet said he wanted to make. After all, if suicide bombers are owed our "empathy" and "understanding," why aren't writers of vulgar e-mails?
And it just got worse when Capet endorsed a response from Eric Nagler, a 1960s-era American draft dodger, "actor, entertainer, speaker, writer, and relationship counselor," who wrote, in part: "If intimacy means into-me-you-see, then it doesn't mean into-me-you'd-better-see-the-problem-as-I-see-it. When I'm invested in changing my terrorist's beliefs I drift from intimacy into issue. The scariness of intimacy is me just being me and him just being him."
It goes on and on like that. I can't figure it out.
King David hotel attack
For Mark Weintraub, the chair of the Canadian Jewish Congress' Pacific region, the big question the whole controversy had raised was a simple but daunting one: Where does one begin? Weintraub said one of the most perplexing aspects of Capet's avante-garde experiment is the weird moral and historic continuity he attempts to draw between an ancient Hebrew culture-hero and the Zionists of the 1940s. It doesn't exactly make any obvious sense.
Samson is a mere "historic footnote" in the ancient Hebrew narrative. It's not as though Samson's actions are held up as some kind of moral standard by contemporary Jews. And the King David Hotel attack wasn't a suicide bombing. Dozens of innocents died, but to be accurate about it, Irgun issued several warning calls and made other attempts to clear the premises, and the action was condemned by the Jewish National Council.
Say what you like about it, the action was in a different category altogether from the act of walking into a disco with an explosive belt under your coat and blowing yourself up in the explicit hope of incinerating as many innocents as possible. If Capet really wanted to draw some analogy between the ancient Samson story and contemporary events in Israel, why stop the clock back at 1946?
Weintraub, having actually taken the trouble to pay attention to the rise of terrorism and suicide bombing in recent years, was reduced to pointing out the painfully obvious: "There is a culture that embraces death as a glorious thing that has been imposed upon a section of the Arab population -- where is Capet's projection there?" he asked. "There is something very deadly, very treacherous about this."
Weintraub also notices something else: "Art, historically, has never been free of politics, and artists have to be prepared to defend the politics of their art and engage in a dialogue about the politics of their art."
Conversing with Capet
After several unreturned telephone calls, I managed to catch up to Capet in the hours before Samson's Thursday night opening. He seemed genuinely surprised by the rumpus he'd set off. Capet comes from a long line of classical musicians and he's a product of Britain's Royal Academy of Music, so he's blessed with one of those posh "cut glass" accents, and he's charming and articulate. We spoke at some length.
No, he said, he honestly hadn't considered portraying Samson as, say, a member of Hamas, or Islamic Jihad. It never even occurred to him, he said.
Probably just as well, I thought. Rather than angry emails, the result may well have been Canadian embassies in flames from Jakarta to Beirut, given what happened in the Danish "Mohammed cartoons" affair. But Capet said the idea never entered the discussion, and the only logical choice was to cast Samson as a Zionist suicide bomber because Samson was an ancient Hebrew, and today's Jews owe their origins to the ancient Hebrews.
It was a strange conversation. On the one hand, Capet would stake out fairly clear positions, proposing "understanding" and "empathy" as the proper approach to take on the question of suicide bombing. But he'd just as quickly dodge the questions raised by this kind of thinking, insisting that the point of his experiment is just to provoke thoughtful debate.
It would go like this: "We're afraid of the peaceful solution because everybody's afraid of letting their guard down.... We should try to see things from their point of view and why they think they're right.... The previous ways of responding to terrorism have not worked, and maybe this is a better way."
But when he was pressed to elaborate, he'd happily abandon his positions: "I'm not saying my position is right.... I'm not going to stand by one point of view only on this."
And that's what it is about these controversies that tend to make people flip out just a tiny bit. There really are real-world consequences that arise from the politics we adopt, and it's embarrassing to have to answer Capet's original question by pointing out that, yes, there really is a difference between a character pulling down a pillar in a fable and a madman blowing up a bomb in a crowded bookstore.
But that's just how far removed Capet's Samson is from the real world. Remember, what we're dealing with here is actually Capet's version of George Frideric Handel's version of John Milton's take on a Bible story about the exploits of somebody named Samson who, for all we know, may not be even remotely connected to persons or events that occurred in the real world.
More specifically, this is a British-raised musical director's contemporary reinterpretation of a version of the Samson story that was derived by a prolific, German-born English Protestant composer from a poem written by a delicate 17th century English low-church Protestant republican poet, whose version in turn comes from an Old Testament rendition of an ancient Israelite fable.
Forget the "political correctness gone mad" judgments Capet's version has invited. You could just as well call it a case of cultural appropriation gone mad for all that would help. But however you look at it, it's pretty hard not to notice that there really is a kind of madness about the entire escapade. It can't be avoided, no matter how painfully fair you try to be. And this madness actually is situated in the real world.
On Thursday evening, at the point in the oratorio when there's the loud explosion and the bright light flashes just offstage, several members of the audience were nearly jolted from their seats. I didn't notice how Mira Oreck reacted. She was sitting only a few rows back from the stage, in the middle. But we went out for a drink afterwards to talk about the performance.
Oreck works with Mark Weintraub at the Canadian Jewish Congress. She's the CJC's Pacific region director. She's worked on New Democratic Party election campaigns, and she came to the CJC after working with the Rainforest Solutions Project and other environmental and social-justice initiatives. She's not exactly the comic-book image of a dreary, conservative Zionist.
Oreck is a confident and cheery sort of person, but she freely admits that she can't walk down a street in Vancouver and see an unattended backpack without feeling a split-second shock of fear that it might be a bomb, or without thinking about her sister, a teacher who lives in Israel.
In the late 1990s, Oreck was attending Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a beacon of peace in the Middle East. It's a place where Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists, Arabs, Russians, South Americans and just about everyone in between learn together and live together and study the affairs of the world in common and in peace.
One of Oreck's chums at Hebrew University was a 24-year-old student from the University of California at Berkeley. "Her name was Marla Bennett. She was so great. A total peacenik," Oreck said. "That was such a tragedy."
On July 31, 2002, a suicide bomber walked into the student cafeteria and detonated himself. Marla Bennett was one of seven people killed.
Oreck said she thought the Victoria choir was splendid, and it would have been an altogether delightful evening had it not been tainted by the fatuous narrative Capet decided to impose upon Handel's masterpiece.
'Murk or madness'
This leads us to the reason why there is nothing cutting-edge or nuanced or refreshing about the contribution Capet makes to the "debate" about current events in the ancient land of the Israelites and the Philistines.
It's utterly conventional, unimaginative, and sadly commonplace. It's actually a textbook case of the "wishful thinking" described by the progressive American essayist Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism.
Capet's Samson is just another eruption of that fatally naïve misconception among a certain class of artist and intellectual -- and most pathetically, among the much of the left -- that Berman calls "a faith in the rationalism of all things."
Its real-world consequence has been a crippling incapacity to recognize the mass pathology at work in the phenomenon of suicide bombings. It's the failure to see it for what it is: a death cult. It's an irrationalist, anti-modern savagery that has rather noticeably singled out Jews for the construction of its corpse-heaps, just as it singles out Palestinian children for the work of executing its grisly business.
We'd all like to think that we can reason with suicide bombers. In the real world, we can't, and we simply cannot go on "expecting the world to act in sensible ways," as Berman writes, "without mystery, self-contradiction, murk or madness."
Suicide bombers aren't asking for our empathy, they don't particularly care if we understand them, and they don't want to be reasoned with. They want to kill the Jews. They want to kill Simon Capet. They'd be pleased to kill pretty well any of us.
But good for Capet, and good for the Victoria Philharmonic Choir, for providing an opportunity to point this out, and for demonstrating that there is a sound that's louder than the most angelic oratorio on earth.
It goes boom.