Theater Director Mooning

New York Times / andante - 12 November 2003

Opera director Gerald Thomas will face criminal charges of public indecency for his all-too-candid response to audience members who booed his revisionist production of Tristan und Isolde in Rio de Janeiro, The New York Times reports. Thomas's staging, which was presented at Rio's Teatro Municipal in August of this year, was evidently provocative even by the standards of Regieoper: according to the report, there was a fashion show onstage, a chorus of Hasidic Jews and a cocaine-snorting Sigmund Freud; during the Prelude, a woman masturbated on a sofa. When Thomas appeared at the opening-night curtain call, the audience greeted him with furious booing and shouting — and he responded by lowering his pants and, as the appalled cast looked on, defiantly displaying what one eyewitness described on Opera-L as "his pasty white ass." (The Times report includes a photograph of the incident.)

A furor ensued, Rio's chief of police filed a complaint and prosecutors charged Thomas with public indecency. A judge was to decide at a hearing yesterday whether or not the case would proceed, but prosecutors had the hearing postponed until 17 February because a key witness failed to appear, according to a report from The Associated Press. If Thomas is ultimately convicted, he could face a fine or three months to one year in prison.

The 49-year-old director, described by the Times as "the eternal enfant terrible of Brazilian theater," has offered several defenses for his behavior. In the course of offering a public apology on television the Monday after the incident, he said that he was provoked by audience members who called him a "filthy little Jew" who should "go back to the camps." Thomas subsequently argued that the insults were an organized action by the International Richard Wagner Forum, though eyewitnesses to the incident, both in the audience and on the opera's production team, insist that no one there shouted any anti-Semitic slurs at all. Thomas now claims that his prosecution is politically motivated, because he was frequently critical of the Rio de Janeiro state governor in a column he wrote for a local daily newspaper.

A segment of Brazil's arts community has rallied to Thomas's defense, according to the Times, with a number of prominent performers and writers publicly circulating a petition calling for the charges to be dropped. American composer Philip Glass, who has worked with Thomas, also defended him, telling the newspaper that "This is totally a free-speech issue ... The act itself was not obscene. What they are objecting to is an artist replying to his critics, and knowing Gerald's work, he would of course choose a theatrical response."

The Times report observes that it seems incongruous for authorities in famously licentious Rio de Janeiro to pursue Thomas for a mere mooning when revelers during Carnival regularly parade in the streets nearly naked. Prosecutor Gisela Brandão told the newspaper that the legal action is not politically motivated, as "the law is the same for all," though when asked about that incongruity, she said, "I'm not going to make any comments about the merits of [Thomas's] case." Rio de Janeiro State secretary for culture Helena Severo, who is also artistic director of the Teatro Municipal and thus hired Thomas for the production, told the Times that "I've urged him not to make this worse by making dramatic declarations meant to turn this situation into a public scandal, but he won't listen... This thing has already been overblown, and now I don't know where it is going to end."