Cambridge University's opera society is currently at the center of a storm of controversy as it faces criticism and public backlash for its recent decision to cancel the scheduled performances of George Frideric Handel's opera, "Saul." The decision, attributed to perceived parallels between the opera and ongoing events in the Middle East, has sparked a vigorous debate about artistic freedom, political sensitivity, and historical context.
The opera, composed by Handel in 1738, chronicles the complex relationship between Saul, the first King of Israel, and his eventual successor, David. The critical juncture that has drawn attention is the dramatic scene in which David, the biblical hero, defeats Goliath, a formidable giant from the Philistine people.
Critics of the opera's cancellation argue that it represents an extreme manifestation of "cancel culture," stifling artistic expression based on a subjective interpretation of historical connections.
It is important to note that neither statement issued by the opera's leadership specifically mentioned Hamas, a proscribed terrorist organization responsible for an attack on Israel in early October.
Many experts in the field of Biblical archaeology argue that the historical Philistines were more likely to have been Mycenaean Greeks than modern Palestinians. The name "Syria-Palestina" was given to the land of Israel by the Romans when they destroyed the second Jewish Temple almost 2000 years ago.
Gordon Hudson tweeted on October 29, "Cambridge University Opera Society cancels a performance of Handel's oratorio Saul, because it opens with David slaying Goliath, and Goliath came from the area we now call Gaza. This is a bit tenuous surely? It's a Bible story." Ben Shapiro, a prominent commentator, also questioned the wisdom of canceling a biblical opera, adding his voice to the ongoing discussion.
The cancellation of Handel's "Saul" by the Cambridge University Opera Society underscores the challenges of balancing artistic freedom with contemporary sensitivities and historical context. The decision has ignited a robust conversation on the role of art in addressing sensitive political issues and its potential impact on historical narratives.