Integration, immigration and inter-cultural sensitivity

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The European Cultural Parliament met in Batumi, Georgia at the start of the month to discuss European values, Brexit´s effect on culture and intercultural sensitivities. So, tough debates ensued, fierce with passionate statements, raised voices and, in some cases, delivered with heavy hearts.
I was asked to talk about the intercultural sensitivity question – so the topic turned to opera, of course……

Here´s what I said:

I’d like to speak today about cultural integration and sensitivity as it applies to the performing arts – my specific area of work. Performing arts may perhaps seem a small arena given the appalingness of the current horror around the refugee crisis and the massive difficulties encountered by those trying to find a settled and safe home and a life with some kind of value. But I am concerned by how the arts and those of us who lead culture organisations are responding to this in the way we programme. I lead an opera company, and it´s there I would like to start.

In the last three months I have seen a large number of operas in various European cities. Of these, five have have attempted to reflect diversity and current affairs in the way that the director has interpreted the work. Well-meaning, I suppose, sensationalist maybe, but in my view a bit misguided.

All of them – all the five operas – centred on scenes of white European men (from various centuries) raping or torturing, or generally abusing Muslim women. Oddly enough, four of these five productions were Mozart. So we have the extreme beauty of the music in our ears, alongside the ultimate ugliness on stage.

We all know that without significant growth in understanding between the Islamic and the western/Christian world, without us reaching out or responding as humans whether or not we are politicians, aid workers, bureaucrats or indeed artists, we potentially allow the world community to end in disaster.

So how, in the arts world, do we behave respectfully and acknowledge that a mish-mash showing of global cultural differences does nothing to illuminate the true depth of local culture? We, as I say, – we in general, I suppose, are the kind of people who attend opera, theatre, whatever – and also know that awful violence proliferates. We read about it, talk about it, agonise over it. So why do the arts choose to portray diverse cultures this way. And why are opera directors perhaps the worst offenders?

I ask because if we are going to use art as something which has the capacity to truly bring people together across boundaries – and which surely can be a vital tool in how we approach living together across cultures – in our performing arts there must be more sensitivity and intelligence in how cultures are portrayed. An endless debate rumbles about diverse cultures and their artistic expression in general. Should artists keep their national or local distinctiveness, diversity and distance, or should they follow the lead of so-called global cookery and aim to combine flavours in search of what might be a richer or more tasteful emulsion?

How do we find a clarity of expression which respects diverse roots, holds onto originality and integrity while finding some sort of language which still speaks to an international audience. A national or regional culture is surely how it presents itself in its own particular environment. Once that special individual expression adapts to the outsiders view of what that culture should be, it becomes homogenised into something which is merely bland and pleasantly acceptable. That emulsion, then, has little to offer as a basis for a meaningful engagement with other cultures.

To return to the issue of Islam – and Mozart – there is the question of Islam´s political and social beliefs and behaviours and how those extend to arts and culture. Are those traditional roots so deep that they prohibit any adventure which might lead to a unique modernism in artistic expression? Is Islam´s own sense of its artistic culture strong enough to allow it to develop its own ’Islamic’ style of contemporary performing art, rather than being universalised.

It is hard to see a nation or culture or region retaining a genuine identity without it hanging on fiercely to its own artistic definitions – while also feeling able to innovate and experiment within those distinct traditions. Surely being ’modern’ shouldn´t lead to the surrendering of local knowledge and expression to a kind of global commercial sense of entertainment.

So to return to what this panel has as its title: Integration, immigration and inter-cultural sensitivity, I´d make a plea for equality – for individual cultures to express their art as they wish, to evolve as they wish and to chose their own path with whom they wish. The world needs – God willing peacefully – to keep diversity of thought and expression and culture as a rich mix. Culture and ideas, sensibilities and aesthetics need to keep their variety without the pressure to become diluted and globally digestible.

The wonderful Sir John Tusa, head of the BBC World Service, then inspirational leader of London´s Barbican Centre – a place where every day a diversity of culture jostles, flourishes and confronts – said ”We never know which lessons from which culture may be the lesson we need to assist human survival”.

I’d urge not just opera directors but all of us who have the privilege of working with artists to listen to his words carefully.

Thank you.

The European Cultural Parliament meets in Pristina: politics, art, equality, strong coffee and opera

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Arriving in Pristina for the annual European Cultural Parliament meeting, we gather in the gleaming new airport foyer, all glass and marble, and so squeaky clean that one daren´t finger a surface. The airline magazine has already pointed out two unmissable Kosovan experiences: Pristina´s exciting nightlife and excellent morning coffee. These may, we feel, be related.

Driving into the city, a less upbeat scene is immediately apparent. Around the new airport are grim reminders of the old war airbase. Concrete bunkers and half demolished walls squat under barbed wire. Derelict vehicles lurk in lurching doorways. But the countryside is beautiful. Gentle hills, greenery, red roofs, verdant fields of vegetables. On into the city – we wave in passing at the cheery statue of Bill Clinton (Kosovo still loves the US for its unflinching support for its independence) – then pull up at the sumptuous Swiss Diamond Hotel where a flurry of flunkeys rushes to assist. ”Why is it, in these damnable conflicted Balkan countries, that there are always these ridiculous hostelries funded by the Swiss” mutters an elderly Austrian philosopher.

The coffee is indeed excellent. We walk past a half-built Roman Catholic church which looks untouched for several years, past the bizarre national library which appears to have been designed to replicate some strange tangled triffid, past innumerable posters of (Albanian) Mother Theresa, to the national museum filled with a mix of vibrant contemporary art and installations. A posse of disturbingly handsome political minders slide into the room, flanking the minister of culture Memli Krasniqi who talks passionately about culture and quality, and how fundamental both are to the growth of an emerging nation. Krasniqi will remain part of proceedings all weekend, an impressive and articulate contributor.

Dinner, then vague talk about the unmissable Pristina nightlife. All at our table are too tired. An early start tomorrow demands clear heads to listen to Kosovo´s prime minister, debate issues around new nation branding, the rise of neo-popularism, and to explore the peculiarities of artists´ knowledge which can bring insight to the business world.

So next morning, we arrive under the stares of even more sultry-eyed minders attending the arrival of the prime minister, culture minister and deputy foreign minister. The PM Hashim Thaci is formidable – the man credited above all others with the liberation of his country; there are probably about 17 different Kosovan/Albanian/Serbian versions of this story, which we will hear over the next three days – but his speech is formulaic and low on charm. Deputy PM Petrit Selimi is another matter entirely. Selimi studied in Oslo thanks to Thorvald Stoltenberg, who heard Selimi speak as a teenager at an international seminar. His speech is fast, tricky, funny and super-bright to point of being slightly dangerous. The PM´s body language, on hearing this torrent of virtuosity, is telling. That the European Cultural Parliament is in Pristina at all means a great deal; it´s a solid affirmation of Kosovo´s European aspirations. So Thaci clearly wants us to be impressed – but his squirming shoulders perhaps recognises that this young protégé needs ’supervision’.

The minders and the minded leave, and we listen to some bureaucratic noise about new nations and Europe, then some formidable interventions from various boisterous Central European members. The culture minister talks to me about how he wants to develop Kosovan opera – certainly they have the singers – two terrific tenors already are ’hot’ globally, Saimir Pirgu and Rame Lahaj – a good young orchestra and a choir of 50. But no venue. We talk about site specific work – the pros and cons. I say ’just do it’.

The day proceeds. So many ideas, so much talking. So much misery over new populism: Farage in the UK, Le Pen in France, Islamophobia in Denmark. At the National Library, we are to explore the artistic psyche: the session is called ’What artists know that others don’t’. We hear propositions from Ireland and Sweden before a mad intervention by Slovenian violinist Miha Pogavich who plays Bach while scribbling on a flip-chart (this is to explain the building and release of emotional tension). Pogavich sits next to me on the bus en route to dinner. It turns out that he knows Bergen, is a friend of Steiner School´s music director Magne Skrede with whom he shared a project some decades ago in Africa. He insists on borrowing my phone to call him, and I listen, incredulous, as Magne – ever gentlemanly – attempts not to sound bewildered at this sudden, untimely late night ear-bash.

So, shall we explore the exciting Pristina night-life? Um, no. But some report next morning that they did find a bar with local raki – but no sign of gleeful Kosovan revellers.

As well perhaps, for Ambassador Pär Stenbäck now leads a formidable session on the Ukrainian situation and its implications for Europe, shared with the Ukranian academic, Kateryna Botanova. It is intense, with several interventions from Russian ECP members asking that ordinary Russian citizens not be demonised. The brutality of the conflict is not glossed over: feelings are acute and solutions few.

Then, I have the inappropriately timed task of leading a debate on The Role of Culture in Gender Inequality. My French feminist colleague, Blandine Pélissier, who I know has prepared a vituperative paper on mispractice in theatre, shrugs and says ’after such a politically sensitive session, this issue is suddenly not important’.

We try to keep the discussion within a men/women frame – despite some vociferous interruption from gay activist singer/festival director Emilio Pons. We argue that GLBT are not victims of discrimination working in the artistic milieu. Quoting Gina Krogh´s 1875 speech, I urge concentration on the different qualities that both sexes can offer. Eliza Hoxha, Kosovan architect and singer, talks brilliantly. Lunch. Pristina-strength coffee. Heads are spinning. More about Kosovo´s opera aspirations from the culture minister. Maybe we send a Bergen task force?

Three of us absent ourselves from the afternoon session to explore a unique local monastery from the 14thC where we battle with an elderly whiskery nun for permission to enter; then a visit to the charming ethnology museum. Terrific dinner with spicy Balkan food. No-one reports exciting local night-life except for a few hardy Belgian raki raiders who turn up late next morning.

On Sunday we write resolutions for the EU on behalf of the Parliament, and start to trickle back to the airport. At the departure gate cafe, a young girl with pale shadows below her eyes and slightly shaking hands serves us odd sloppy cake and fine coffee – perhaps at last we´ve found an expert in Pristina´s exciting nightlife. It just doesn´t seem the moment to ask…

Mary Miller

13 October 2014