He was a genius, as if I've ever been able to define this word, which I haven't. Nevertheless, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was an authentic phenomenom—a tiny child who played a large and complex piano without any instruction, an older child who understood, pictured in his mind, and wrote a symphony. An even older child (the creature, "teenager," was not yet invented) who became a performing pop-star throughout unwashed and odor-laden 18th century Europe, long before de Sade and Ben Franklin. As a young man and an older man-child, he poured out, copied from his head some of the most magnificent Western music ever created. He elevated Opera, a cabaret of its time, into both a folk-art form and an elite form of art—da Vinci would have loved him, and probably did. Were these two unusual beings truly part of Darwinian history? I think not.
So now, 215 years after they tossed Amadeus into a dusty pit and covered him with lime, his music, in public domain, prevails, adored throughout the world. And now, one of his less popular operatic works, Idomeneo, revamped and restaged, has caught fire in our incendiary times and threatens to singe a forest of sensibility. In Germany of all places! Of course, I don't know what to make of Germany anyhow. I'm still trying to piece together the Weimar republic, the goose-stepping war years, the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, and the retrenching of East and West Germany after the fall of the wall. I don't know about Germany—it must be the food.
The recent brouhaha or umpapa exploded from the devilish mind of the current production's director, Hans Neuenfels. He added a moment in which the severed heads of revered religious figures are displayed on stage: Jesus, Buddha, Poseidon (yes, he is revered) and... shhh... Mohammed. If you haven't been noticing, you can easily begin to notice the blog-choked stream of information about this ohmygod event, along with the Pope's gaffe, and the giggling cartoonists in Copenhagen, and... well, read about it, or podcast it or something. This is not where I'm going.
It's the public domain aspect that draws my attention. I strongly believe in copyright protection, and I agree with those who criticize its current bloat and inflation (most recently Sr. Bettencourt, I believe). Once an artist is gone, royalties and fees should continue to flow to the artist's immediate family. After that, they should be abrogated, unless perpetual royalties are dedicated exclusively, without exception, to the preservation of the artist's works. I agree with all of that. What I don't believe in is public domain. Eminent domain is rather intoxicating, but the domain of the public is a herd-driven obsession that colors the chicken-little sky of "community." What are the community's rights? To snatch and grab an artist's works as soon as he no longer has a voice, or a mind for that matter? Public domain is a de facto execution of an artist's persona. He's dead, so let us now kill him.
No, I don't believe that the community, or an individual, or a Japanese millionaire has the right to screw with a work of art that he, she or it did not create. Adapt it, base a new work on it? That's good. Update it, change it, transfigure it into something different, no. That's not only wrong, in my not so humble opinion, it's ugly and self-defeating.
I'm thinking of the American poet, Robinson Jeffers, who created a play, Medea, and significantly and honestly subtitled it as "loosely based on the play by Euripides." That was good. I'm thinking of the two marvelous film adaptations of Shakespeare's Hamlet: Olivier's drastically altered version which he simply titled: Hamlet—that was good. And Branagh's version, touted as the complete original work (though not quite true), which he titled William Shakespeare's Hamlet—not quite right. It was an adaptation and it was "based on." And I'm thinking of that monstrosity created by buzz Baz Luhrmann, which he called: William Shakespeare's Romeo+Juliet. Not only did he ignore the writer's work, he glaringly re-emphasized the fact that great dialogue in the mangled mouths of second-rate actors is a theft of intellectual property and strong support to add to the law of Moses (which I do believe is in public domain).
When it finally enters the domain of the public, will he or she or they have the right to take O'Neill's Moon For The Misbegotten, reset it to the suburbs of Sydney and add dialogue about Australian country-life and "barbie" culture? Does the fact that Charlie Chaplin's films are publicly domained mean that you or they have the right to re-edit or colorize or change his work? If he could, the anonymous collector, who paid $31 million for a Modigliani painting, might just change a few things for his personal pleasure. The marketing paranoia of the world's art bazaar restrains him. But then again, in the future, some googled -yahoo might just do that. After all, he "owns" it!
No. Don't change a word, a note, a brush stroke. The artist lives in his work and his life should be preserved. Experience his work as he conceived it, and if the community wants to exercise its rights, let them support the artists who are still breathing and are inspired by the existing works of those who preceded them.
Which brings me back to sweet Wolfgang and his opus. If Herr Neuenfels had been bound by respect and restraint when staging Idomeneo, this entire scandal in a tea cup would have never happened. The absurdity of it is that the furor erupted before the production ever opened, in frenzied anticipation of nightmarish responses by...shhh...fanatic Islamists. Well, hey, they have a hyper-extended view of public domain. They say that all the world's a stage and they...shhh...the fanatic Islamists are the only producers, directors, and critics. Now go copyright that.