At a tandoori restaurant in Tel Aviv, an Israeli politician chastises a quixotic Norwegian diplomat: “When people talk to you, Terje, you should pay attention to what they actually say, and not just listen for what you want to hear.”
The scene is from “Oslo,” which began as a 2016 play and last weekend resurfaced as a film for HBO. Both versions were written by J. T. Rogers and directed by Bartlett Sher, who developed the work together after a dinner with Terje Rød-Larsen (that same quixotic diplomat) and his wife and fellow diplomat Mona Juul—both friends of Sher’s. It wasn’t at a Tel Aviv tandoori restaurant, but rather at Lincoln Center watering hole P.J. Clarke’s that Larsen and Juul shared stories of their involvement with the Oslo Accords, stories that had previously been confined to the secret backchannels of the 1993 peace talks. Many were familiar with the freeze-frame finale to these talks: Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands at the White House, Bill Clinton presiding over them like a wedding officiant. Few knew about the hand that Larsen and Juul had in setting the talks into motion.
Opening off-Broadway in the throes of a contentious US election year, “Oslo” was a critical and popular darling. When it transferred to Broadway the following year, it won the Tony Award for Best Play. Ben Brantley, the acerbically exacting theater critic for The New York Times, praised it as “a vivid, thoughtful, and astonishingly lucid account of a byzantine chapter in international politics.” Steven Spielberg soon signed on to co-produce the film adaptation.
Watching the film, which exposes many of the inherent flaws of the piece that had been more easily covered up in live theater, I wonder if Steve or Ben paid attention to what was actually being said in the script and not just listening for what they wanted to hear. It’s forgivable that “Oslo” fictionalizes many of the particulars of history, but it’s downright irresponsible that such fictionalizations lead to both hackneyed stereotypes and a varsity-league game of bothsidesism. This isn’t mere collateral damage of not letting the truth get in the way of a good story (see: “Amadeus,” “Don Carlo,” “Jojo Rabbit”), it’s by design. As Sher explained to luxury magazine Town & Country: “The point of Oslo is not how well it went or ultimately worked out; it’s about the process. If there is a lesson in it right now, it’s not just for the Palestinians and the Israelis—it’s about the United States.”
Sher is prone to making historical connections between a work’s setting and the era in which it was written, often with a surface-level success similar to that of “Oslo.” His Broadway revival of “South Pacific,” which he described as “a mirror of who we are as Americans [in the age of the Iraq War]” in an extensive New York Times profile, won him a 2008 Tony Award for Best Director. His 2012 staging of “L’elisir d’amore” for the Metropolitan Opera, his first production to open the company’s season, linked Donizetti’s romantic comedy to the rising sentiment of Italian unification and sovereignty. It was a connection, Sher argued, that would have been apparent to anyone at the opera’s 1832 premiere—the failed revolts of 1831 still fresh in collective memory. Times music critic Tommasini declared the production “fascinating.”
I was less enthralled. In this case, the history that fed the production may have been entirely true and without embellishment. But as much as Sher stretches this concept, it’s like trying to make a fitted sheet without the requisite pocket depth sit snugly on all four corners of a mattress. Eventually he gives up, leaving the damn thing to pop off at the slightest toss or turn in the middle of the night. Some of what Sher describes as “the teeth and the reality” of Donizetti’s Risorgimento-era Italy shines through in the performances—the soldier Belcore in this production isn’t a simple G.I. Giovanni who goes through women the way one might go through Kleenex, but an imperialist Austrian sergeant who eyes the heroine Adina much in the same way Napoleon had once ogled the Russian front.
But, even with the deepest of readings, it seems that Sher stops midway through his thesis statement. Other key plot points read less clearly through this lens, though not irredeemably so. Yet instead of taking the time to work through such logical fallacies, Sher paints over the affected actions and motivations hurriedly, leaving streak marks and holidays. Despite Belcore’s menacing hints of manifest-destiny, he still becomes neutered by a literal read of the libretto at the end when Adina breaks off their engagement, amiably shrugging it off as her loss and that there are plenty of fish in the sea. Not that this line can’t be read ironically; not that the idea of a Risorgimento staging, one that infuses this sun-baked comedy with the sense that another shoe is about to drop, is impossible to pull off. Sher just appears to abdicate in the eleventh hour. It’s rare that history colors a human experience without applying a layer—even a thin layer—to the whole surface.
Rewatching “Elisir” after the film adaptation of “Oslo,” I see the former as a warm-up for the latter. “Oslo” seems as invested in the complex implications that its historical context would have on its individual characters as “Elisir” was in its own. But a white American director abdicating responsibility to the ramifications of the (long-concluded) Italian Risorgimento has a far less potent half-life than that same director abdicating a similar responsibility to the ramifications of the (ongoing, and newly vital) failed peace treaty between Israel and Palestine. The consequences of someone walking away from Sher’s “Elisir” believing it to be a “Nabucco”-like parable of Italian independence baked into a comedy are far less dire than those of someone walking away from “Oslo” believing that the only reason a room full of screaming, sexually-conflicted Israelis and Palestinian stereotypes came close to peace was the existence of two Norwegians armed with waffles and monologues. (According to those in the secret meetings, there was very little screaming. No word about the waffles.)
This disconnect is particularly glaring in comments like the one Sher made to Town & Country, his suggestion that something can be learned from “Oslo” by Israelis and Palestinians. As an Arab-Jew myself, I’m afraid to ask Sher what that lesson might be, especially when he goes on to add that the sexual tension built around the character of Mona is because Israelis and Palestinians are “complicated about women.”
Edward Said, a vocal critic of the actual Oslo Accords, described the agreement as a “foolish gamble that has already done far more harm than good,” a repackaging of the status quo. “Oslo” the play veers into the same territory, ensuring that every grievance aired by a member of the PLO or Israeli government is met in short order with a counter-grievance by the opposite side. (“You are on our side,” a member of the PLO tells Mona in an early scene. “And on theirs,” she clarifies.) The main characters of the play are Juul and Larsen, who are also the only two people involved with the accords that Rogers interviewed. All other characters were, through memoirs and interview footage, “scrupulously researched [and] meticulously written” (source: Rogers himself). This was, according to Sher, also deliberate: None of the people who were in Oslo in 1993, including Larsen and Juul, saw the script while it was in development. Some—including a few of the play’s main Israeli and Palestinian characters—were entirely unaware that the play was being written. “We were going to tell the story we wanted to tell,“ said Sher.
Seeing “Oslo” both onstage and (in a much different incarnation) on film, I wonder if Sher actually knew what story he wanted to tell. At times, the stories beyond the basic sequence of events, blatantly and bafflingly contradict one another. The stage version of “Oslo” ends with a compelling question mark: After the famous White House handshake between Rabin and Arafat, the ensemble tells the audience how everything fell spectacularly apart in the months and years that followed. Terje grows frantically impatient with these facts. Spinning out, he begs Mona: “Tell them: Without the Oslo Channel, there would be no Palestinian Authority. We—all of us, together—we made the eventuality of a Palestinian State accepted by the world. We helped the Israelis safeguard their future.”
After nearly three hours of Norwegian stoicism, Mona halts the play’s nonstop gallop of a pace in one exhausted, desperate outburst: “Terje, I am trying! But even now, I am struggling. To know if what we did—how we did—was good.”
Undeterred, Terje launches into a final Sermon on the Mount. But it’s a mount whose foundation seems as though it may crumble at any minute. His idealism stalls; his certainty misfires. For me, this was the most toothsome moment of the drama and its direction, reminding us that even impartial diplomats and humanitarians can be unreliable narrators, can lose faith in their mission, can question how much of what they did was good. This may not have been a true story, but it was at the very least truthful.
But “Oslo” the film has, like Sher’s opera stagings, little room for uncertainty, reassessment, or the questioning of truth. It wears the impenetrable sheen of prestige television, editorializing score and manipulative camera angles and all. All of the tweaks and adjustments from stage to screen culminate in the scrapping of the play’s redeeming finale in favor of something more middle-road and milquetoast: A monologue from Mona as she returns to her office following the Rose Garden ceremony, intercut with disaster-porn documentary footage:
“The Oslo Channel began with the hopes of creating a dialogue between adversaries. Already, this process has succeeded beyond anything we imagined.… Whatever mistakes were made, whatever unintended events have been unleashed, I still believe this channel was worth doing. For if we do not sit across from our enemies, and hear them, and see them as human beings, what will become of us?”
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Having seen most of Sher’s Metropolitan Opera career, which began in 2006 with Rossini’s “Il barbiere di Siviglia,” and will continue in the 2021-22 season with a new staging of “Rigoletto,” I’ve spent a lot of time wondering whether what he’s done is good. On first glance, his productions tend to have the pleasant patina of a Thomas Kinkade painting. If they’re uninteresting, they’re at least inoffensive. Even the political undertones of “Elisir” couldn’t compete with its “Under the Tuscan Sun” color story or the stage-animal ferocity of Anna Netrebko as Adina.
Even before a shutdown that has lasted for over a year, arts institutions—especially those in the United States where government funding is light—have been risk-averse as a survival mechanism, allowing the inoffensive to fail upwards. This appeal, especially as it applies to Sher’s productions, also lends itself well to both shelf-stability and portability: Before his staging of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” landed at the Met for its 2016 New Year’s Eve gala, it had debuted in 2008 at the Salzburg Festival and played in Milan and Chicago in between. He test-drove his new “Rigoletto” for the Met at the Berlin Staatsoper in 2019.
For my part, I was initially okay with a handful of the Met’s repertoire coasting down the middle of the road. Perhaps every season just needs a certain number of productions that are flaccid, but fine enough.
But then someone gave Sher the keys to “Otello.”
Long before the Met’s new production of “Otello” opened the 2015-16 season, it was the subject of debate and discourse when the company announced that it would, for the first time in history, not use blackface for the title role. Despite offering a production that was by all other accounts pure tradition (I’d forgotten what it was like to watch arias performed by singers standing immobile onstage, save for a raised arm here or bari-claw there), this change was too much for some fans. And, for others, it was a bumper sticker of progress was nowhere near enough.
“I’d prefer to regard the Met’s abandonment of blackface as an earnest step toward enlightenment, not just a tactical response,” Alison Kinney wrote for Hyperallergic in the weeks leading up to opening night. “But the celebration of a white man not putting on blackface shouldn’t dominate the story.”
“Otello” opened the Met’s season mere months after a white supremacist murdered nine people in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It opened in a year that saw the killings of Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland. The season announcement, packaged in that awkward photo of Aleksandrs Antoņenko as Otello, shared newspaper ink with reports of the out-of-court settlement that the NYPD had reached with the family of Eric Garner. Yet Sher’s production seemed to rely solely on “It’s ‘Otello’ but he’s not in blackface” as a concept.
The production was pretty in its paint-by-numbers way, but it was nevertheless bloodless. Verdi opens the opera with a storm that sets the pitching pace of the drama and foreshadows Otello’s own life capsizing, all while revisiting the cataclysmic choral lines of his earlier Requiem. Such palpable drama is catnip for a director with vision. Sher made the squall more teacup than tempest, arranging the chorus, clad in shades of black and deep charcoal, along the stage as if in line at the DMV. Only Desdemona stands out in her silvery white dress, in case any of us forgot that she’s the innocent victim of this whole drama. I was reminded of this moment in the opening shots of “Oslo,” which feature Mona Juul in a canary-yellow coat making her way through a crowd of fellow Osloers, who seemed to coordinate their all-black outfits that morning. Both moments have all the subtlety of an ACME anvil hurtling towards Wile E. Coyote.
Said, who was known to criticize opera with the same precision as his criticisms of politics, hit the nail on the head when he wrote of another Met production: “This is an environment inhospitable to ideas or aesthetic conceptions.” Diving into the opera’s themes of prejudice, isolationism, and orientalism would have been more useful than previous iterations of the work, but they were ultimately cast aside like silica gel packets. Sher’s concept collapsed one of the most avant-garde works of the 19th century into caricature. His “Otello” eschewed enlightenment in favor of repackaging the status quo.
Given this track record, it would be easy to write all of this off as Sher being one of those directors who is content to make pretty stage pictures without dwelling on the deeper why. Such productions tend to do well with the more conservative donors and ticket-buyers. And, by all accounts, Sher is a genuinely nice guy whom singers trust and enjoy working with. Such affability can go far, especially in an age where tyrannical genius is becoming a liability. As Juan Diego Flórez told the Times in 2006, “the vibe is so good” in the rehearsal room. When, in 2016, Anna Netrebko received the Opera News Award, Sher was the one selected to present her with the honor at a Plaza Hotel gala.
But if that was the whole story, I wouldn’t be writing this. And it’s these irreconcilable contradictions that I find the question of Bartlett Sher’s pathological neutrality truly fascinating.
Born in San Francisco in 1959, Sher’s tumultuous childhood (a philandering father with a second family, a drawn-out divorce, a secret Jewish heritage) played out against the backdrop of California’s counterculture, collective consciousness, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. It led to a university career at Massachusetts’s College of the Holy Cross that involved the Grateful Dead, edgy satirical plays, and attempts to get arrested at anti-nuclear demonstrations. During subsequent studies in Leeds, he became obsessed with Polish experimentalist Tadeusz Kantor, who became the subject of his thesis, as well as the political folk-parables of Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka.
Sher experimented. In a Seattle Weekly profile from 2006, he recalled picking a random issue of People magazine and staging it as a theatrical text, finding common themes along the way. Out of this exercise, “some terrifying reality about American culture emerged.” He didn’t land at Lincoln Center out of nowhere, manufactured in a lab out of American songbook records and Franco Zeffirelli’s prop closet. Sher went through a real apprenticeship, assisting iconoclasts like Mark Lamos and Peter Sellars before going on to create his own works that sound compelling for their wholehearted interrogation and exploration of the classical theater canon.
Perhaps, then, his pivot to opera was just a case of bad timing, like a boy soprano hitting puberty or Bob Dylan going through his Christian phase. He was 47 when he made his Met debut, a long way from the firebrand trying to get locked up at protests. Or perhaps it isn’t even as complicated as all that. Sher’s admiration for Kantor and the director’s ability to “create a world of objects that would take on their own autonomous life, which then can lift off into poetry,” as he put it to the New York Times, doesn’t necessarily equal the ability or even compulsion to, as Michal Kobialka wrote of Kantor, “penetrate the prevailing political, ideological, and cultural systems of power by exposing the optics by which it is viewed and the place from which one, bewitched by the invisible powers of the Other, speaks of representation.” Sometimes a major director with a minor style is just a major director with a minor style.
Despite the why and wherefore, out of this artistic nonpartisanship emerges another “terrifying reality about American culture”: In an effort to cross an increasingly wide ideological chasm, we have come to mistake bothsidesing as a load-bearing bridge, accepting the delusion that the best thing to do is give each party the same amount of power and blame, never mind that one side may have started with a surplus of one resource and the other at a deficit, and assume that they will all end up with equal results. Such dichotomy flies in the face of equity, but it can still be essential scaffolding for an institution’s bottom line. Especially if the namesake of your theater’s Grand Tier also bankrolls politicians who equate Black Lives Matter with the Capitol insurrectionists and use their legislative power to target critics of the Israeli state. Sher is not the lone voice in the wilderness when it comes to this act, either: Plenty of directors working today create the illusion of taking bold steps toward penetrating systems of power, while in reality they collapse all that holy, rough, and immediate potential into caricature.
In opera, we can be forgiving of bad direction: “Just close your eyes and enjoy the music.” We’re even more willing to give bland direction a hall pass, especially if it doesn’t attempt to conflate “Rigoletto” with “The Planet of the Apes,” place the “Ring” cycle on a malfunctioning set of hydraulics, or slipping a supernumerary dressed as a thorn-crowned Jesus riding a stationary exercise bicycle into the party scene of “Don Giovanni” (your guess is as good as mine on that last one). But after more than a year without seeing live opera, I would rather come back to productions that fail in a spectacularly epic fashion than to those that conceal their faults through a smokescreen of politesse. In an industry where there are so few opportunities for women, people of color, and other marginalized identities to tell the stories they want to tell, I’m no longer content to settle for the offensively inoffensive. ¶