The Edinburgh International Festival has taken the unprecedented step of offering refunds for one of its flagship operas before it is even staged in the city due to its extreme content.
Graphic depictions of violence, racist abuse and sexual assault are all expected to feature in a hard-hitting new production of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.
But the EIF failed to fully warn buyers when the tickets went on sale on April because it had not seen the three-and-a-half-hour opera, which will be performed at the Festival Theatre at the end of August.
It has now been forced to alert thousands of people who have paid up to £95 for a ticket about the nature of its “adult scenes” and warn that it is totally unsuitable for children.
Set in an Italian colony in East Africa in the late 1930s, the production shocked audiences and was greeted with booing and jeering when it premiered at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in France last month.
The EIF has even sent a copy of a review of the production – directed by French theatre-maker and writer Christophe Honoré – to ticket-buyers in an apparent attempt to prepare them for its “stark portrayals of the sexual and racial tensions of the time”.
It describes how the opera, which follows events after two men attempt to seduce each other’s partners, features characters in “blackface” make-up who set out to arouse their “horror” and “undercurrents of taboo desire”.
The New York Times report on the updated Cosi Fan Tutte, which the EIF has circulated, discusses the “volatile, violent racism” added to the production and the “unsparing and harrowing ” unfolding of events on stage, which it describes as a “brutal, shaming experience” for white people.
Critic Zachart Woolfe said the show had “a dark, demanding staging that speaks all too clearly to our time”.
In its mailshot, the EIF urges anyone with “questions or concerns” about the show to contact its box office.
A spokeswoman said: “We don’t want to offend anyone. If somebody has bought a ticket, doesn’t think the show will be suitable for them and doesn’t want to come then we will obviously try to help them.
“We will normally provide as much information as possible about a show when tickets go on sale, but this is a brand new co-production with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence.
“The fact is we didn’t know exactly what it was like until we saw its premiere in France last month.”
Ken Walton, The Scotsman’s opera critic, said: “If you’re going to put on something controversial – which this must have been expected to be, given director Christophe Honoré’s reputation – then why not have the self-belief to see it through without apologising in advance?
“By letting the cat out of the bag, the full impact of seeing it for the first time has inevitably been diminished. That said, reviews are out there, as is a video of the production, so anyone could ‘do their homework’ and judge for themselves. I suppose the EIF is guarding itself against potential kickback from those it will inevitably offend.
“My judgement on that will be to what extent the production does anything to freshly illuminate and enhance a well-worn operatic libretto and its moral issues in the context of Mozart’s music. But it seems a bit like a panic measure.”