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Israel-Hamas War Inspires Cancellation of Handel Oratorio at Cambridge

By Sara Schabas on October 30, 2023

Cambridge University has cancelled performances of Handel’s Saul due to its similarities to the situation in the Middle East.

What’s Up?: The Cambridge University Opera Company has cancelled performances of Handel’s 1738 oratorio, Saul. Director Max Mason cited the oratorio’s “striking synchronicity” with the current events in the Middle East as their reason for canceling. “Our production was not the place to fully confront [these] issues,” he explained.

Refresher: Saul, composed by G.F. Handel in 1738, is based on the Book of Samuel with a libretto by Charles Jennens. It tells of the jealous relationship between David and Saul, two Kings of Israel, after David has slain Goliath from the Philistines. The Philistines lived in what is now the modern-day Gaza Strip and inspired the name Palestine.

Going Deeper: Critics of the opera company have called the decision an extreme example of cancel culture. David Abulafia, a professor emeritus of history at Cambridge, explained that the Philistines were probably more closely related to Mycenaean Greeks than Palestinians upon hearing of the cancellation. Meanwhile, in New York City, the New York Philharmonic went ahead with another Handel oratorio that parallels today’s events: Israel in Egypt.

Sara Schabas
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