The Operaen, seen here through a chain fence on an approach bridge, is one of the most expensive and well-equipped facilities of its kind in the world. Opera has always seemed inaccessible to me. This week is Opera Week.
Stages and soundsets are erected at sundry major city intersections and gathering places. One is at the Torverhallerne, an outdoor/indoor/warehouse-style collection of dozens of boutique specialist micro-vendors: an olive vendor from Greece, a kimchi-sandwich specialist, a Paleo-friendly bakery, a wine pub, three different charcuteries, two fresh fish vendors directly across from one another. Yes, a juice bar. Duh. Picnic tables, sunbrellas, bistro tables and recycling bins, just above the metro stop.
I don’t know the operas. I don’t know the language of most of them, nor even the plot. I know them on a mythological, Campbell-esque level of ISMs and basic human empathy, but I can’t place a song within a piece. The barrier has been cost, more than anything.
So I tell myself. I’ve met ballerinas – one a prima from Azerbaijan, who quit because she is too tall for most men to dance with her (she is also perhaps the most well-read person I have ever met) – who don’t make enough money in their craft to afford tickets to their own shows. But they do.
So has the barrier been monetary?
There is free opera on the street, for anyone to consume. This shining examplar of design sensibility (I mean Danish design): it is everywhere, in every curve on a shipping container to the shape of the LED street lamps to the three self-evident circles on the public washroom sink tap. The island next to the Operaen is the Papirøen: a kind of permanent food-truck island. The entire structure is old shipping containers, and the inside is reminiscent of a Singapore food market. It is cheap, fresh, vibrant, and has an art space currently showing Yoko Ono’s Wishing Trees.
Not far beyond the Papirøen is Noma: twice (or more) the greatest restaurant in the world, culmination of Chef Rene Redzepi’s gastronomic manifesto, housed in an abandoned whaling butchery. Not far beyond Noma, in a squatted military base, is the Freetown of Christiania, a kind of social experiment since 1971 when the local homeless tore down a fence to make a playground for their kids. (They ask you do not take photos, and they have signs banning Pokemon Go collectors, but I snapped a pic of this statue before knowing the no-photo rule.)
Finally, overlooking Freetown rises the spiral tower of Vor Frelsers Kirke (“Church of Our Savior”). The classic Scandinavian baroque project of King Christian IV (who drove Tycho Brahe to Prague) stands out with an external winding helical staircase that climbs nearly 300 feet into the otherwise low skyline of the city. People wait more than an hour to ascend, step by step in a line. At the top, there is no grand viewing platform: you simply turn around and go back. It wasn’t built for the general public, nor for a tourist market. It was for the King or the Bishop to view, to ponder, to consider.
Is it the money? When art is comercially and financially successful, when the trappings of moneyed culture glom onto it, has the art changed? Or just us? It costs me nothing to look at the statues in Christiania. Does that make their art more authentic than the musical showing at the Operaen this week (which happens to be “Dirty Dancing”…), on a stage with a rotating outer ring and an inner hydraulic collapsible fence, with hi-res cameras projecting onto movable screens, with world-class musicians in the pit? (Did they sell out to sell out?)
I saw an opera student singing outside Torverhallerne who pulled off her bracelets, her earrings, her scarf, her rings, and pulled down her “f*ck me red” panties and threw them into the crowd while laughing falsetto. (While I drank a 25cl Odense Classic.) I saw Yoko Ono’s re-hash of a scene at every 神道 shrine I’ve ever visited in 日本 labelled as an installation exhibit.
We bring class/division/categoricals into our Art. We find it there, because that’s how our minds work. We layer platitudes like, “All Art is political.” To me, that’s as genuine as saying “All Art is made by humans.”
Audre Lorde, self-identified: “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” in her essay “Poetry is not a Luxury” writes: “If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is a luxury, then we have given up the core – the fountain – of our power, our womanness; we have given up the future of our worlds.”
So who makes opera luxurious? All art for that matter? A public or private delineator, a cost barrier, an expectation, a purpose.
Chef Redzepi of Noma, in his New Nordic Cuisine [PDF], defines the French terroir as “the combined conditions offered by nature – soil and sun, wind and rain – that endow food with its unique identity.”
Redzepi speaks of nature, Lorde speaks of experience. The Copenhagen Design Museum looks at production. Papirøen is an urban design experiment. Yoko Ono is an installation/importation. Christiania is a social experiment. Vor Frelsers spire is responsibility. Opera Week is ambush art. Some of us are pasting over all of this with thoughts of, “Yes, but homogeneity…” Homogeneity is quite loaded, and will take some time to unravel, to unwind. For now, I’m thinking about Homo Ludens and how it can distort perception.
Johan Huizinga in Playing Man (“Homo Ludens”) is quoted by Joseph Campbell:
“[Japanese language] still preserves this conception in the asobase-kotoba (literally, play-language) or polite speech, the mode of address used in conversation with persons of higher rank… the revered person is imagined as living in an elevated sphere where only pleasure or condescension moves to action.”
However… in her text “Women’s Language, Men’s Language,” linguist Ide Sachiko writes:
“Asobase kotoba (exaggerated politeness) is a specialized form of honorific or polite speech used only by women wishing to emphasize or draw attention to their femininity…. The form was commonly used by women of the upper classes and high-ranking courtesans. By adding the verg asobasu to action verbs in the second and third person, the user may feel that she is elevating the referee’s status – even if only marginally – in the specific context of the immediate conversation by implying an association with a social elite, past or present.”
Two rather different takes on the terroir of language use.
Opera is graffiti across the public spaces, across the terroir, of Copenhagen. How we watch, smell, listen, taste, participate – where we do so – how we do so: it is for the Lordes and Huizingas, the Campbells and Redzepis, the Ides and Onos. I’m just here, seeing the same thing in different ways.