18 December 2006

Radames Rashomon

One morning last week I was lying in bed listening to NPR, which is what I do when I don’t jump up and go to the gym in the morning, which I don’t do when I am going to or coming from the theater, because I just can’t stay up that late otherwise, when I heard a teaser about a tenor walking offstage during a performance. I thought, “La Scala, Aida, Alagna” and went back to wondering how late I could show up to work and still be within the range of the acceptable. I didn’t think much more of it but needless to say I ended up hearing a lot more about it.

Brouhahas of this sort don’t really engage me deeply; I feel dramatics should be left in the hands of trained professionals, as in playwrights and composers, not tenors with possible low blood sugar and resentful Day of the Locust types in the balconies. I don’t have strong feelings either way about Alagna or his wife, though I understand Radames was maybe more than he should have taken on. And a Zeffirelli production? No thank you; I already have a Christmas tree, loaded down with shiny bright golden baubles. And though I can’t really approve of abandoning one’s colleagues practically mid-aria, I initially was sympathetic to Alagna. Booed at his first (notoriously difficult) aria? If you’ve read any of my other entries it’s pretty clear what I think of audiences generally, and I especially dislike “passionate” (for which read: loud, obnoxious, limited) self-appointed judges. Booing someone for a botched note in his first aria indicates to me a very technically based, athletic-competition view of performance (you catch the ball or you drop it; not a lot of nuance usually, even if the play is under review) which is completely alien to viewing opera as a coherent dramatic work.

I was thinking of a passage in one of my favorite novels, Clarissa, in which Lovelace criticizes the individuals (or claques) that disrupt performances with loud booing (for though he is a rake, he is also a gentleman). And I thought of passages in Galina Vishnevskaya’s autobiography in which she discusses similar problems for both herself and others at La Scala (if you’re curious, go to her index and look up Italy and Karajan; better yet, read the whole fascinating book, which is worthwhile even for people with no interest in opera – my favorite moment was her description of hunting through every florist shop in Moscow looking for a flower to put on the grave of Prokofiev, who had the misfortune to die on the same day as Stalin; even in death the tyrant was fearful enough to suck every flower in the city onto his grave). The major comparison, of course, has been to the travails of Maria Callas, which reminds me of Karl Marx’s witty epigram that history repeats itself: the first time is tragedy and the second farce. Karl was the Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker of fulminating proletariat-centered economists.

Within hours everything I thought I knew about the incident had been turned upside down and inside out, so that it was no longer clear what had happened or why or who had said or mistranslated what. The understudy rushing onstage in civvies? And it turns out there was another one already in costume? The booing might not have been for Alagna, but for suborned audience members, possibly hired by him? Was he really jealous of the ballet dancer’s ass, or was that a mistranslation of what the dancer said? Were there threatening gestures in the audience and low blood sugar in the singer? Singing on the steps at the Thursday performance (which made me think of Terrell Owens doing sit-ups in his driveway after being suspended from whatever football team was fool enough to hire him last year)? Eventually the insanity takes over and it’s not even worthwhile summarizing the details. Soon I’m sure a standard narrative will emerge, with agreed-on heroes, villains, and lessons to be learned, but who knows what relation it will bear to anything that actually happened.

The only thing that really mystifies me is the people who claim that this will “be good for opera” and “get people talking about opera.” That’s like the local cineaste claiming that the audience that goes on-line to read Lindsey Lohan’s latest drug-fueled blackberried manifesto of insanity will, through an inevitable progression, end up debating the finer points of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s oeuvre. The audience that really cares deeply about anything – not just opera, but pop music, and baseball and football games, and literature, and religion and politics – is fairly small though probably constant in size through generations. Everyone else is just looking in to see what the noise is about, before getting distracted by something else.


And a very happy 43rd birthday to Mr. Brad Pitt, a shining beacon of hope to men in their 40s everywhere.

05 December 2006

More Shocking Christmas Confessions

This is really more in the nature of a tirade than a shameful confession. In fact, I will denounce with pride, and this is something of an annual ritual (just as beloved -- yes, my phrasing is ironic -- by those who know me as my annual careful explanation that the twelve days of Christmas do not end, but rather start, on Christmas Day, and actually end on Epiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings, which is why it’s also known as Twelfth Night). If you know me you know what’s coming: brace yourself for the Rudolph rant.

I hate, hate, hate and despise Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Let’s review the song, shall we?

1) Reindeer R. is different from the others and therefore openly mocked and ostracized on the playground and everywhere else.

2) Big Daddy Authority Figure Santa realizes he can exploit the freak for his corporate benefit.

3) The formerly hostile reindeer now realize it’s to their benefit to accept the outsider and they pretend nothing ever happened.

4) Most shameful of all: the craven accepts it! Instead of scorning all of them, possibly to stalk off and join some alternative solstice celebration that embraces individuality in a nurturing non-judgmental setting, the pathetic R. is now pleased that he can be exploited by authority and outwardly accepted by hypocrites.

Grow a pair, Rudolph. Die in the tundra. Wait for a Christmas Eve that isn’t foggy and see what happens.

Um, I’m going to my happy place to concentrate on breathing in and out, maybe have some fruitcake to calm down. Alcohol-soaked fruitcake.

04 December 2006

Shocking True Christmas Confessions

I really like "The Little Drummer Boy." And I choke up at "I am a poor boy too." There, I've said it. Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum.


Or maybe it's just that I need to get out more. . . .

From the Entertainment Weekly, November 10 2006, cover story on Heroes, p 34:

" 'The only thing I needed to hear was that Tim wanted to keep my character very complicated,' says Ali Larter (Final Destination), whose Niki is complexity incarnate: She's a webcam stripper with an alternate personality. (That would be Jessica, who has superhuman strength and homicidal tendencies). 'This is the first real woman that I've played.' "

24 November 2006

We Gather Together

Thanksgiving is a lovely idea for a holiday, but it seems more and more crushed between Halloween, the increasingly prominent freak-out party night (buy candy! buy costumes! buy extra insurance!), and the Christmas juggernaut, when we celebrate the birth of our economic savior, consumer capitalism. Thanksgiving itself presents fewer marketing opportunities, unless you're Ocean Spray cranberries, Butterball turkeys, or the always-powerful candied yam interests. (Not that I'm condemning consumer capitalism out of hand: once I read that the American wedding industry is worth billions but has a stagnant market, there being by nature only so many people of the right age and inclination for their services, I realized that eventually same-sex marriage would be legal and encouraged -- the benevolent golden hand would thereby "grow the market" in the only way possible.) But the byways distant from the commercial engines that drive our culture can be where the fruitful stuff happens, so I'm going to give thanks for that obscurity among other things.

These are my cultural consumer thanks, so I won't be mentioning family and friends, nor obvious blessings like good health and a place to live. Nor will I rhapsodize over the lemons, figs, and tomatoes I've eaten from my own backyard, nor give thanks that I'm not a farmer dependent on Nature for food and money (due to wet, cold springs the last two years have given me about three apricots from my three trees). I won't be mentioning the encouraging election just past, or even simple gratitude that once again I didn't have to put up with the Yankees in the World Series.

Instead I give thanks for:

Mark Morris;

Elliott Carter, still composing beautifully in his 90s;

Getting to hear Nathan Gunn's indelible Billy Budd again, this spring in Pittsburgh (twice, and first-rowish; these are anticipatory thanks);

Getting to hear live performances by the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as often as I did, including some pretty obscure performances -- does anyone else besides Robert Aldridge remember the workshop of scenes from his Elmer Gantry?

Being able to read Shakespeare in his and my native language, which is good considering my laziness at learning foreign languages;

Getting to Bayreuth and hearing the Ring in the theater built for it;

Marston Records: the past recaptured and time regained (plus they give subscribers free stuff! www.marstonrecords.com);

The Internet, our electronic cornocupia and Aladdin's cave (and, to be honest, our on-line crack house);

Living in an age and area of such electronic and cultural abundance that I can get bored with masterpieces and forget to mention the hundreds of other riches I should be grateful for;

And, finally, for everyone who stops by here to read -- many thanks.

17 November 2006

All-Singing, All-Dancing, All-Talking (in the Audience) Motion Pictures!

I’ve just heard that the much-ballyhooed Met at the movies thing for the Bay Area will be happening in that hotbed of the musical-dramatic arts, Dublin (and not near the BART station either, I’m sure). I wish them well but I’m a little puzzled by the whole concept, which to me has the disadvantages of theater-going without the compensating advantages. And the Met must know that any audience member conversant with the Higher Technology is going to be there with a camcorder – why not eliminate the middleperson and just release DVDs? I’d gladly pay for a DVD of Gunn as Papageno or Netrebko in I Puritani, which I could then watch at my leisure as often as I wanted. Even figuring the audiences for this are going to be better behaved than regular movie audiences, that’s not saying much, and it’s not enough to make me trek out to Dublin and pay prices even higher than for regular movie tickets (I hear the prices are around $20, which is roughly what you'd pay for a DVD). I’m guessing San Francisco movie theaters are too booked up with moneymakers at this award-season time of year (and those movies are probably drawing from the same audience pool) but it does seem as if the Met is choosing out-of-the-way theaters (maybe opera houses have official territories the way baseball teams do, and Gockley got an injunction against any San Francisco performances?). No doubt there are opera fans in Dublin who don’t want to schlep into San Francisco, but wouldn’t you have a better chance of reaching enough people to make this profitable (other than the already converted) if you showed the operas on PBS? Of course, that would require public broadcasting to do what it was actually created to do in the first place, which is to provide an outlet for non-mainstream shows, instead of their current programming, which is mostly faded Baby Boomer pop groups and inspirational speakers assuring middle-class white people that their potential is unlimited.
I'm hoping for the best, but I’d love to know what the thinking, or the market research, is here. I can't help feeling they're setting themselves up for a failure that will be taken to mean there's just no market out there for this stuff. Meanwhile I’ll just hope for an eventual DVD release – and by the way I’m still waiting for the Met’s Ariadne with Voigt (and Gunn as Harlekin), which I understand was filmed several years ago.

16 November 2006

Another day, another pre-order

Amazon is reporting that Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson's recording of her husband's Neruda Songs (Boston Symphony performance) is being released on December 19. (That's my parents' wedding anniversary -- and I can remember that because it's the day 25 years ago when I saw the RSC's production of Nicholas Nickleby on Broadway.) I may even go to a brick-and-mortar store to pick this up right away, assuming I can find one that's still in business.

15 November 2006

Doubt truth to be a liar. . . .

When I started blogging, I vowed I would never apologize for any delays in posting, since there’s no end to that sort of thing. Every evening I’m out is another event to discuss and another delay in getting to my computer (and I’ve been out about half the nights since my return from Germany). And it’s not as if I’m talking about previews of Cats; most of what I go to either has a limited run or is a one-off, so by the time my vast audience hears my recommendations the performances have already drifted over to the dreamland memory book where no-longer live performances live. But when I told an actor friend I was going to see Cherry Jones in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt last Friday, he told me he wanted to hear my thoughts without waiting the two months it takes me to post in my blog. So like Beadle Bamford I’m glad as always to oblige my friends and neighbors: Arby, this is for you. (There are probably spoilers in here, but that’s what you get.)

I remember Cherry Jones from ART days, when I lived in Boston and she had such roles as Regina (the maid) in Ghosts and the Courtesan in Boys from Syracuse. Years later it occurred to me that if I still had vivid memories of Regina and the Courtesan when the rest of the show had mostly slipped away then the actress was probably pretty special, so I made my plans to see Doubt. What the play brought back to me, though, was not so much my days in Boston as my days in a Catholic school when the old style was giving way under the social pressures of the 1960s/70s and the institutional pressures of Vatican II. I had to endure my share of nutjob nuns (Sister Anna Maria, I’m talking to you, bitch) and groovy priests. For much of its running time, Doubt is more about conflicting philosophies of teaching (and power) than about what is usually given as its subject, which is a nun accusing a priest of molesting an altar boy. Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones) is an old-school strict nun who accuses the unconventional but charming Father Flynn (Chris McGarry) of molesting a 12-year-old boy (the school’s “only Negro student” and, it turns out, probably one of their gay ones) based on very thin evidence she prompts out of the naïve Sister James (Lisa Joyce, who reminded me exactly of the idealistic young nuns of the time). The student never appears but Sr. Aloysius has a talk with his mother (Adriane Lenox). Four excellent actors, a first-rate production, and in ninety nonstop minutes a world created and subverted – I’m not sure you can ask for more, but I still had a few reservations about the play itself, specifically about the role (not the performance) of Sister Aloysius.

I would have preferred it if the priest’s guilt had been a little more ambiguous, so that the viewer was left (as in The Turn of the Screw) to ponder whether we really had a child-molesting man or a vindictive, sexually troubled woman. And Shanley walks that tightrope right up to the end, when Sr. Aloysius traps Fr Flynn with a lie (claiming she’s contacted a nun at his former parish who said he had “inappropriate contact” with altar boys there too). He leaves, but this is only a partial victory for her since he is moved to another parish where presumably he can fool a new set of people. Although the priest is genuinely warm-hearted and caring, we’re set up (given the recent scandals over the Catholic Church’s disgraceful, though typical of the time, protection of child molesters) to see him as The Bad Guy (though there are hints, appropriate for the time of the play but shocking these days, that even if the priest has “inappropriate contact” with the boy it might not be a completely bad thing). And it sets up Sister Aloysius, who could legitimately be seen as a narrow, unimaginative woman threatened by nonconformity (she considers art and music a waste of time and she seems particularly troubled by the length of the priest’s fingernails – her last line to him is an order to cut his nails; the audience greeted this exit zinger with much applause the night I was there) as a gruff but loveable Protector of the Innocent. The comedy in the play, and there are a lot of funny lines, also serves to smooth out her rougher old-school edges. When Sister James says to her about her trap for the priest “I can’t believe you lied” the audience chuckled again, as if Aloysius had been quite the scamp, though in fact it is genuinely shocking for such a by-the-book nun to break the rules (and to put it in Catholic terms, to commit such a sin) and it raises the question of how far she would have gone to destroy this priest. Suppose he had called her bluff? But the clear implication is that he was guilty and she was right all along. And her very last lines express her intense inner doubts, a revelation which undercuts the possibility that she is an Inspector Javert intent on destroying those who rebel against her rules.

Shanley had a nice note in the program (“This play is dedicated to the many orders of Catholic nuns who devoted their lives to serving others in hospitals, schools, and retirement homes. Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?”) but even without joining the simple-minded mockery of nuns he could have made a strong drama stronger by keeping Sister Aloysius a more troubling figure. She is clearly a woman of forceful character and great power and it’s sentimental to assume that great power always comes with great wisdom and great kindness. And it’s all too easy to do, especially when talking about women (much is made of the patriarchal structure of the Church and again, we’re predisposed to admire a lone woman fighting for justice against clueless or evil men). It’s especially easy to do when one is no longer directly subject to their power and can look back with a nostalgic glow. Sister Aloysius clearly has power and knows how to use it to get what she wants; as so often happens, the real power does not lie with the official hierarchy. (Look at any Latin family and tell me who really knows what’s going on and who really has power.)

At one key moment in their final confrontation Father Flynn is screaming at Sister Aloysius that she is insubordinate and is violating the Church’s rules; she is crouched down in her chair under this onslaught; a lesser actress than Jones would probably have had her boldly standing up to him. But the real meaning of the scene is the opposite of what we see, since under stress both are behaving completely out of character, and the actors express this: Father Flynn has abandoned his unconventional ways, his ministry of compassion, and his usual warm and witty (even seductive) manner and is resorting to brute volume and the rules of the institution. Sister Aloysius, far from submitting, is merely protecting herself as from a vast storm and is more determined than ever to destroy the priest. This is probably the scene that will stay with me even as the rest of the play drifts off.

14 November 2006

. . . spent with Schopenhauer. . . .

(jumping the queue to discuss the San Francisco Tristan. . . . )

There’s quite a difference in going to Tristan after a full week of work and devoting a day to it in Bayreuth. For one thing, I spent all of the next day with a Tristan hangover (dizziness, disorientation, discontent). I wouldn’t put the performance on the same level as Bayreuth, though I very much liked Christine Brewer (which is good since I’m also hearing her as Isolde in LA this spring) and Jane Irwin as Brangane. Thomas Moser, unfortunately, I thought was only adequate, and by Act 3 he was swigging water so regularly from his bottle that I was hoping his supply would last longer than his voice. I’ve heard some suggest that the house is too big for his voice; maybe so. Kristinn Sigmundsson was an elderly but eloquent and moving King Mark.

And I had to put up with my left-hand neighbor, one of those short people who take up huge amounts of room, and who constantly snorted and sniffed and breathed louder than anyone I’ve ever heard. He also made comments about Ms. Brewer’s size. Swine. I was surprised when he returned for the second act and pleased when he didn’t for the third, though that, being a Tristan-heavy act, was the weakest of the three. Before the opera started, he read the summary and announced, “Well, they left a lot out [as compared to the recent movie, which he and his wife had just been praising]. I don’t see how this is going to take four hours.” This may be one of my favorite audience remarks ever, though the pickings are pretty slim there. And it takes five hours.

The real surprise for me was the effectiveness of the David Hockney sets. I had seen pictures of them when they were new, back in the 1980s, and despite their beauty as pictures they looked inappropriately bright to me. He said at the time that the colors were those of medieval illuminations of the story, which is true, but the music is not medieval in sound and considering the importance of darkness and night in the opera all those vivid yellows and reds just felt wrong to me. Maybe they’ve darkened over the years, but I thought they worked beautifully, though I understand the increasingly steep raking of the stage act by act was a problem for the singers.

For some reason most of my opera subscription this season has been for final performances, which is a switch from the previous fourteen or so years I’ve had this series. Sometimes this is an advantage (Ballo, I’m getting to you) and sometimes it’s not, since if I want to see something again I don’t have the chance. For instance, this Tristan, being less dependent on subtle acting, would have been a good candidate for a cheaper seat in the balcony so I could hear the always effective music again. But no such luck. I went to the Wagner Society’s excellent Tristan Symposium and was privately shamed to discover I was the only person there who hadn’t already been once, twice, even four times. I think even the guy who asked at the end of the afternoon, “What is the Tristan chord and where can I hear it?” had already been more than once. It’s tough to keep up.

10 November 2006

my nights were sour. . . .

Ah, Tristan, the opera that ruined my life. . . . (“Do you want to go out for coffee?” “Well . . . is this going to end in an ecstatic love-death that will annihilate space and time? Because otherwise, I kinda have some stuff I need to get done. . . . those dishes aren’t going to wash themselves. . . .”). If I were limited to two operas, I think I would take Tristan und Isolde and Le Nozze di Figaro: between them you pretty much have the universe, with the ecstasy and sorrow of the former’s inward-looking lovers balanced by the latter’s earthy joys amid a complex, shifting social structure. I wonder if Tristan isn’t one of those works like King Lear that is almost too mighty for people to act out on stage, leaving every performance both deeply moving and inadequate.

Bayreuth had a wonderful cast for Tristan; it was everything else that came up short. Beforehand I was hearing raves about Nina Stemme’s Isolde, and she did have amazing power but, I felt, started to run out of gas during the liebestod, which is when you least want that to happen. The one who really impressed me was Robert Dean Smith, who sang a Tristan of brave sweetness and anguish. Our Kurwenal, John Wegner, was much steadier than the man who did the broadcast performance (that’s the paradox of opera reviewing – even if the performers had been the same, you’d get a different performance from evening to evening, and sometimes from act to act).

The production was baffling. The pictures that I saw beforehand made me think it would have a contemporary setting, which could be an interesting way of examining the mythic and heroic within the everyday. But the actual staging starts out looking like a 1930s luxury liner, as if everyone is going to break into “Anything Goes” and start tapdancing; the Cole Porter connotations have a way of reducing gestures that should be majestic to the Margaret-Dumontish. But when V (who has a keener fashion awareness than I do) saw pictures of the costumes she asked why it was set in the 1960s. I responded that I would have guessed the 1970s, based on the fake wood paneling and mustard yellow décor of the finale. Updating a work to contemporary times is one thing, but I'm not sure updating something to forty years ago has much point.

The costume designer certainly didn’t do anyone in the cast any favors. I had seen Stemme in SF Opera’s Flying Dutchman, and knew she could look better, but it wasn’t until Robert Dean Smith stepped into Siegmund’s furs for Act II of Walkure that I realized he could look like a big guy rather than an inflated boy, and Kwangchul Youn’s sensitively sung and moving King Mark looked distractingly like Kim Jong Il.

Tristan is like other operas turned inside out; instead of reflective moments amid action it has moments of action amid hours of soliloquy. This can certainly lead to staging problems, but the Bayreuth production dealt with most of them by simply having people stand facing the wood paneling when they weren’t singing, as if they were in time-out. This is not staging but surrender. The wounding of Tristan, which he clearly did to himself, was effective, but everything else just didn’t happen, so that you didn't get a sense of the bustle and pointless violence of the outside world breaking in on the two lovers.

Speaking of bustle and pointlessness intruding on one’s inner universe. . . this was the night I had to accept that Bayreuth audiences are really not much better than any others, rumors to the contrary. Why did the man behind me need to reach into his rustly crinkly plastic bag during all the quiet moments? Another mystery of opera-going. . . .

09 November 2006

The Evil That Men Do Lives After Them

I’ve been out greeting as liberators the Democratic Party. Please, take more flowers and candy from a grateful nation!

Well, that’s assuming the Democratic Party has also regained its spine. I wish I felt more overjoyed by the election. Sure, I get that tingly feeling when I read of worldwide rejoicing that the American electorate has slowly roused itself enough to realize that maybe they shouldn’t be endorsing the American Taliban and our pro-torture President just because they’ve cut taxes for oil company CEOs. But I can’t help thinking . . . what took you so long? (That’s a rhetorical you – I doubt anyone reading this is going to disagree with me.) And I can’t help feeling that it wasn’t illegal and immoral war, endless corruption, disregard for common decency or blind arrogance and willful stupidity that did them in; it was some horndog Congressman sending naughty IMs to barely legal page boys.

I can’t even take much consolation in Rumsfeld’s hasty yet overdue departure. Here’s what I e-mailed the friend who first told me the news:

Too little too late. He's going off to some cushy job in a think-tank or some corporation and he's taking his pension with him and he's not going to have to worry about money or employment or health insurance for the rest of his life. The consequences of his idiocy and arrogance will be suffered by others while he goes golfing. His good reputation, insofar as he had one at all, will in a few years be sunk anyway in the general filth of this corrupt administration.

The Republicans should be grateful that Bush’s war is creating the next generation of terrorists. They have nothing else to offer to anyone who isn’t already wealthy. Just when the Communists were fading into irrelevance, we have a new stick with which to beat anyone who thinks there might be solutions that don’t involve massive expenditures to defense contractors.
Cavafy was right.

31 October 2006

Tale from the Crypt

Happy Halloween. I see the disadvantages of the holiday; as my oldest sister once said, “Why don’t we have a day when people don’t dress up like freaks and make noise?” but when I moved into my house about eight years ago I enjoyed handing out sweets; any other day of the year handing candy to stray children would get you arrested, but on this day this random act of kindness is beloved tradition. Or it was until the last few years. I had fewer and fewer trick-or-treaters, until one year I was calling the Dads up from the sidewalk and giving them candy and dumping bags into the hands of teenagers who weren’t even wearing costumes. I decided to give it up after that, so today I will simply post a tale of terror:

I read Campbell Vertesi’s recent entry on awkward uses of opera arias (link to the right, people!), which also refers back to an entry by the upstanding young men of Wellsung about an awkward experience with a chorus performing Salome and real-life fifteen-year-old dancers.

This put me in mind of a similarly scarring experience I had, though it doesn’t involve opera but rather opera’s stepchild, the musical (and not even opera’s stepchild: opera’s stepchild’s bastard offspring, sitting vacant-eyed and snapping gum on the steps of the trailer while waiting for Uncle Pa to bring home some road-kill squirrel for supper: yes, the rock musical). This was back in the 1970s, when many Catholic churches were making an ill-advised attempt to ignite interest among the young people (who were all the rage back in the day) by using pop songs as hymns.

Do you remember Godspell? Do you remember “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” (“Him” being Jesus), which includes such lines as “and I’ve had so many men before / in very many ways, He’s just one more”? Well, you would never forget them if you heard them sung during mass by a chubby pubescent girl, awkwardly swaying in front of statues of the holy family.

I’ve been trying to think of something to add, but the renewed moment is searing my brain pan. Let me just say: Palestrina or silence, please.

Addendum: I've just been informed that "I Don't Know How to Love Him" is from Jesus Christ Superstar, not Godspell. Same difference, but I do like to be accurate.

30 October 2006

Dutch Treat

My favorite production as a production at the Bayreuth festival was oddly enough the opera I was least excited about seeing, Der Fliegende Hollander. I really like it, but I wouldn't travel halfway around the world to see it on its own, and I would have been thrilled to hear Tannhauser or Lohengrin in its place (not Meistersinger -- I wobble a lot on that one). But this production (directed by Claus Guth) was sharp, imaginative, and suggestive. The setting was an Escher-like living room, divided in half by a huge staircase sweeping up the left side of the stage, with the upper portion of the room the mirror image of the bottom. The Dutchman (John Tomlinson) and Daland (Jaakko Ryhanen) were also mirror images of each other. The spinning maidens were a choreographed chorus of almost-identical platinum blondes with bright red lipstick and the same dark dresses; they looked like shopgirls from a 1930s film. I can't even describe how effective they were on stage, almost bringing down the house as they sang beautifully and moved in unison. They looked both normal and slightly menacing and off-putting, as the somewhat awkward brunette Senta (Adrienne Dugger) moved spacily among them. You could see that she never fit in; no wonder she was drawn to the romantic image of the doomed wanderer. The sailor chorus had the same effect of looking both conventional and grotesque; some of them were in painted half-masks so that at first glance you couldn't quite tell where the grotesquerie was coming from, until you realized the unnaturally puffed-out roundness of the upper half of their faces was due to the mask. They looked like marionettes, with their herky-jerky movements. The chorus is not a huge feature of most of the operas in the festival, but they did themselves proud when they did appear.

The resemblance between the Dutchman and Senta's father was used to suggest a psychosexual disturbance as the cause of Senta's obsession. Afterwards I heard some of the audience object to this, sometimes from sheer boredom at the inevitability of such an interpretation these days, and I respect the groans at yet another molestation motivation being slapped on a work, but I thought it was handled delicately enough so that it was suggestive rather than reductive: you could read it as a case of molestation if you were so inclined (I wasn't, particularly), or you could just see it as an indication of Senta's troubled relationship with the most important male in her life up to then, her father (who, as a sea captain, would also have been something of a wanderer), being projected onto another wandering seaman. A contemporary audience probably needs such an understandable motivation, instead of simply being presented with these odd events. Perhaps our post-Freudian insistence on theories of motivation has made us less subtle and realistic than the Romantics: instead of labelling and reducing the inner life into an acceptable because categorized form, they presented the rich and strange phenomena of life, open to poetic interpretation.

blogroll logroll

I have actually managed to figure out how to post links. Yes, I know most people set those up the first day. Minimalist or moron? Luddite or lame-ass? These are really more koans than questions. To distract yourself while you try to figure out the sound of one hand clapping, mosey on over to the right side of the page to check out the following:

A long-overdue link to The Standing Room (Singing and Parking in San Francisco). What with the singing, the parking, and the standing, three activities in which my skills are well below the acceptable, I am dazzled and can only tip my Red Sox cap in that direction.

And another Shakespeare-named blog, Lisa Hirsch’s The Iron Tongue of Midnight; muchas gracias for the linkage. You can also find Lisa at sfcv.org, the San Francisco Classical Voice.

And a shout-out to basso profundo Campbell Vertesi, who stumbled onto my blog and sent me a nice note this weekend. Someone out here please hire this guy so I can hear him sing. Also, it looks as if Campbell is getting married soon, so best wishes for a long and happy life together to Campbell and Bryn.

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regie theater

I try to avoid posting in language that would, as they used to say, bring a blush to the cheek of modesty, but I realized this morning that yesterday's entry used the words "fucking," "shit," and "blow job." But these words arose organically from the subject, because I was talking about . . . Parsifal. . . .

29 October 2006

Swan Dive

This is going to be long, but I find that so suitable for Parsifal. . . .

Digression One: Mein lieber Schwan!
My first viewing of Parsifal was in the form of the Hans-Jurgen Syberberg film, at Boston's long-gone Exeter Street Theater (a handsome romanesque revival building that was first turned into a furniture store -- sort of a proto-Ikea -- and then a Waterstone's bookstore, which is what it might still be for all I know). I had heard the music but didn't know the story in any detail. I nodded off briefly. (This had nothing to do with boredom; my body will sleep when it's tired no matter how interested I am in what I'm doing.) When I came to, Gurnemanz was berating Parsifal at length for shooting a swan. And I thought: what's the deal with the swan? Was it a very special swan? Why are they so upset?

Once VCRs arrived, I rented Syberberg's film again (the sweet beauty of VCRs: if I fell asleep, I could just stop or rewind the film). This time I was there for the whole swan incident, but I still didn't really understand the intensity of the reaction from Gurnemanz and company.

Several years later, I had spent a mostly sleepless night once again, tormented by the mechanical thumping of numerous stereo systems (I was living way too close to several colleges, among them Berklee). I was preparing to go for an early-morning run along the Charles River, hoping exercise would at least reduce my disgust with everything around me. Across from my apartment I saw a flock of pigeons pecking snacks from the trash left in the gutter. A group of little boys was walking down the sidewalk, spotted the pigeons, and immediately ran towards them yelling, just to frighten them away. Why? Why not leave the birds in peace? Why not enjoy their iridescent neck feathers and just go your own way? The children saw something smaller and weaker and had to disrupt it, just because they could. My disgusted mood only deepened.

I won't claim I made the connection right away, but eventually I realized that's why Gurnemanz is so angry when Parsifal kills the swan: he didn't need to. He saw something flying along and shot it for the joy of killing. I hadn't missed something special about the swan. It was a sentient being, and it needed no more sacredness to make killing it a sin. When Parsifal breaks his bow after the rebuke, the wrathful Gurnemanz doesn't pay much attention, but it's a major step in the holy fool's moral development.

This is the way the meanings of Parsifal have come to me, slowly, in irregular bursts. Parsifal has always fascinated me, but I won't claim even now that I, or anyone, can completely understand it as it vibrates deeply in our hearts.

Nonetheless (on to Schlingensief's notorious interpretation, my first opera at Bayreuth), I feel free to say that this production got it all completely wrong. Much as I love to sneer at overly conservative opera audiences, I have to give them this one. I hardly know where to start. I'm tempted to say Parsifal is all about sex and the production isn't sexy, and leave it at that, but there's so much more.

The setting was sort of a cargo cult/Heart of Darkness/junkyard mishmash that rotated around, though each section looked roughly the same, so Monsalvat and the Grail Hall and Klingsor's garden and the flowery meadow for the Good Friday music all looked pretty much the same. There was no development in the characters either. Parsifal and Kundry both have doppelgangers who (respectively) baptize or wash feet or whatever long before the character has reached that stage. Gurnemanz, not Parsifal, breaks the swan-killing bow, thereby completely missing that Parsifal has made a leap forward in understanding another creature's suffering.

And then there are the bunnies, eviscerated, decaying, or just hopping around in projections. The day after the performance I was speaking to a woman at the hotel breakfast who was with the southern California Wagner Society. They had gone to hear a lecture about the production (I believe from the director, but the only participant I know for sure is the Klingsor, John Wegner). The bunnies were discussed. Apparently bunnies have many cultural connotations throughout the world, particularly in India. Unfortunately the performance was not happening in India. Here are my associations with bunny rabbits: mindless fucking, Easter candy (hollow except for the ears), Bugs and Elmer Fudd (you see a bunny at Bayreuth, I defy you not to hear "Kill the WAB - bit! Kill the WAB - bit!"), my oldest sister's childhood pet that defecated little round balls of shit and did little else before dying, the song "Don't Be the Bunny" from Urinetown the Musical, and Matt Groening's Life in Hell bunnies (when they brought out life-size blank dolls shaped exactly like the Life in Hell rabbits with big red marks over the genital region, all I could think of was "Could you please show us on the doll where the heil'gen Speer touched you inappropriately? And would you confirm that this caused you a never-easing wound?"). I suppose you could wrap your mind around those associations as an aid to seeing into Parsifal, but you could do that with almost anything (such is the power and also the ambiguity of this myth). The problem with counting on cultural associations that are not native to your audience is that most people are not going to get it, and those who do will do so only because they've been told what to think. They're reacting from specific and not general information: instead of being open to the poetic images and reverberations of the stage pictures, they are slotting them into the previously assigned categories and feeling smug because they are people in the know, people with insider information that is not available to just anyone. A performance should be accessible to anyone who is willing to open up to it and think about it, not just those who have been given their secret decoder rings.

There were lots of projections. I think some of them might have been of the syphilis spyrochete (either I read this somewhere or I guessed: I don't think most audience members, excepting any doctors, would recognize those little squiggly things). I've read that Wagner once confided to someone that Amfortas had venereal disease. But a remark like that must be from the trickster in him: no one could possibly listen to that music and think that ache could be cured with a few shots of penicillin. It's an absurdly literal interpretation in a production that barely pays attention to literal meanings in any other point (even the spear is actually a shepherd's crook; the only standard stage picture was one they probably should have changed, which was dressing Parsifal in the conventional Jesus/Apollo long white robes and shoulder-length blond locks, not a look many men can pull off).

The Grail ceremony was a blood sacrifice enacted by participants from all the major belief systems, from Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish (because Wagner's art is more comprehensive than his tormented mind) traditions. I could see what they were getting at, and it had a certain power, but if the most sacred ceremony involves killing an animal and splashing its blood around, then what difference does it make if an ordinary swan is killed? It makes their reaction in that opening scene as overdone as I first thought it was long ago.

The Klingsor was an obvious case of ignoring the words and actions of the drama. Perhaps Wagner was to blame here for not composing the role for some nineteenth century David Daniels, but even a cursory reading of the libretto will tell you that Klingsor castrated himself (to cure the wound that will not heal) and was cast out from the Grail knights for this destructive evasion of that mighty force; hence his attempt to destroy the rest of the knights with the seductions of the Flower Maidens (showing perhaps that there is no resistance except through his method of self-mutilation). So does it make any sense at all for Klingsor to be not just powerful in a magicky kind of way but obviously the most virile man around? Why would the director have Kundry give him a blow job? I'm not really up on the mechanics of this, but is that even possibly when the man has been castrated? Klingsor (and I should say John Wegner gave an excellent performance) wore little but a loincloth for most of his performance, displaying his forceful, muscular physique, and like the dedicated performer of Othello in Nicholas Nickleby, he had blacked his whole body to play the part. Yes, Klingsor for some reason was portrayed as a black man, while Parsifal, Gurnemanz, Kundry, Amfortas, Titurel, and the Grail Knights were all white. What exactly was the message there, making the evil character black? To my American eyes the only thing genuinely shocking about this supposedly shocking performance was the minstrel-show make-up on a couple of the attendants (complete with the white outline around their mouths). There was a disturbing objectification of black bodies throughout: there was a large black woman who was required to walk around naked except for a little skirt (Kundry's doppelganger mentioned above was a midget, another example of objectifying the different, though all I could think of when I saw her was the outraged outburst of Peter Dinklage's character in Living in Oblivion, who was furious that once again he had to play in a dream sequence because he's a dwarf: "Does anybody even really have dreams about dwarves?").

Digression Two: More Fallout
I'm going to go on several tangents here, starting with Dr. Atomic: I still feel that it is one of the few operas where you can't do color-blind casting, because in a work claiming to deal with the moral problems of that time and place, you can't just pretend that there was no deep moral problem caused by segregation. But I will also admit that part of my discomfort was that the only black singer was cast as a buffoonish general. At least they partially avoided the temptation of making the darker-skinned characters wiser, more truthful and moral; they shoved that silly simplification onto their portrayal of the women. (I say they partially avoided the temptation because there was the American Indian nanny.) Maybe I would have had a different reaction to the black general if there had been another black person on stage, say, Audra McDonald as Mrs. Oppenheimer, a role I believe she going to sing in New York (and I'm going to go all Laurence Sterne and go off on another digression: I heard McDonald at Symphony Hall last spring, and she introduced The Glamorous Life by saying, "I'm going to sing a song from A Little Night Music: no, I ain't gonna sing The Miller's Son" and I realized how rarefied the air was in which it was not even within the realm of possibility that the hackneyed song no one wanted to hear from that musical would be Send in the Clowns; I was giddy on the esoteric heights. . . .). Of course, the whole problem of color-blind casting in Dr. Atomic would be solved if they revised it to be more of a meditative oratorio rather than an attempt to portray the actual events leading up to the A-bomb test, a revision they should undertake anyway.

Back to Klingsor. He not only returns in Act Three, he even regains the spear. According to my informant who heard the lecture, Wegner, who was very committed to the production, said this was to show that Klingsor has also been redeemed, though how and where and by whom is completely unclear; certainly the audience members I heard afterward were completely baffled, possibly because it's the opposite of what Wagner actually wrote. You can make a case for the sympathetic qualities of Alberich -- I personally find him very sympathetic -- but you really can't with Klingsor. If it's so easy to redeem everyone, why does it take so long?

My informant also told me that the naked black woman was cast because she had the exact build of the Venus of Willendorf. I told her I had noticed that (she was duly impressed) but I still found the display of her body exploitative, more like the Hottentot Venus than the Venus of Willendorf. She also told me that the many Arabic verses written all over were new this year; I, having painfully learned that everything is ruled by fashions, told her I had guessed that (she was doubly duly impressed). But there you have this production: there was no way into much of what they did unless you were in the privileged position of hearing personally from those behind the scenes. The performance was undoubtedly sincere and serious in its intention , but ended up looking trendy and wrong-headed. While watching it (from my excellent third row seat, the best I had for the festival) I was increasingly irritated, but as days went by most of the staging was so irrelevant it sort of slid off my memory and I was left with the very fine musical performance. Not a gesamkuntswerk, but not a total loss by any means.

20 October 2006

Apres le deluge, moi (Munich roundup)

I enjoyed my three and a half days (too brief) in Munich though I didn't see it at its best (nor, I suppose, did it see me at my best) -- I was already worn out from Bayreuth and the record-breaking cold and incessant rain didn't help. I like to walk around in strange cities, but not so much in the rain and wind. My last afternoon there it finally cleared up. It's amazing how much more you can see when an umbrella isn't blocking your view. And by then I had figured out roughly where all the circular streets were going, and had adjusted to the difference between small-town Bayreuth, where it's easier to strike up a conversation because everyone has a ready subject in the Wagner festival, and big-city Munich, where the usual indifference, semi-friendly or not, prevails. I had also learned to avoid the outside of the sidewalks, which are given over to bicyclists, who are marginally more considerate than their American cousins but still hazardous to pedestrians.

My first full day in Munich I spent at the Alte Pinakothek, which has art from the middle ages through the eighteenth century. Though much smaller than I thought it would be (I was expecting something along the lines of the Metropolitan or the National Gallery) it's chockful of rich chocolatey Old Master goodness. They have two Grunewalds, which I believe is one more than in the entire United States. They have a plenitude of Rubens; my favorite was the martyrdom of St. Lawrence, in which he gives the saint Judas's traditional red hair, the better to show off fabulous orange, yellow, and reddish lights and highlights from the fire under the grill (Lawrence is the one who was barbecued to his glorious death). Even the subtleties of 21st century color printing can't quite reproduce the light he captured. I teeter-totter between buying inadequate copies of such works or just relying on memory. Another favorite of mine, Memling's Seven Joys of the Virgin, was only available in tiny forms that shrank the crowded delightful canvas down into illegibility. Most of the stuff I like in museums is not what is featured in their gift shops in poster, postcard, or mug form: instead we get yet more versions of whatever Impressionists they happen to own (the Impressionists are the Boheme of the museum world: yes, I suppose it's all lovely, but enough already). In fact I bought a lot of postcards but not much else in Munich; I thought there would be World Cup merchandise all over, but if there was it was hidden from me with tasteful discretion. And at the airport I was unable to find a suitable addition to my collection of Inappropriate Shotglasses: Hummel, you let me down.

My second day there I spent at the Neue Pinakothek, which takes up where the Alte leaves off and goes up to the post-Impressionists. For this museum I used the audio guide, which turned out to be surprisingly informative. (I especially love it when museums get in little digs about their superiority: "Although X painted several versions of the sunflowers/Madonna and Child/mountain scene, the version in [our city] is generally considered [I love that they don't say by whom] to be the original/from the master's own hand/better than the others.") This museum featured more local heroes than the Alte, what with all the German classicists and the Nazarenes. Hans von Marees, who came later in the century, painted shadowy symbolist canvases that were new and very appealing to me.

My third day I decided to forego the contemporary art museum, third in the triumvirate, since there is a certain international flavor to all modern art museums, with their Twomblys and their Keifers and their Warhols, and go for the Munich-specific Residenz, which was the royal residence of the rulers of Bavaria from medieval times down to, as they note with no further explanation, 1918. Walking through the Residenz is like walking through a survey of the major European artistic styles from the classics-venerating, grotteschi-decorated Renaissance to austere but sumptuous neo-classicism. There is an outdoor grotto dating from Shakespeare's time with mermaids and sea creatures formed of pebbles and sea shells, and a royal suite of rooms charmingly decorated with scenes from contemporary (18th century contemporary) German poets, leading to a throne room whose walls are covered with gold leaf (I took a close look and you can see the sheets delicately overlapping each other -- I wish the sun had been out when I was in that room).

By the time I left the Residenz the sun had finally come out and I noticed it glinting on golden highlights throughout the city: jewelry in the shop windows, clocks in the towers, crosses on the churches. I never even made it to the English Garden but the city was still beautifully green with trees and red and pink with geraniums and begonias. It's a remarkably clean city -- it may smell like an ashtray, but it doesn't look like one; I don't know where all the butts and wrappers were going, but they weren't being tossed in the street as in American cities. I walked around the formal garden behind the Residenz and in the round temple of Diana in the middle of the former royal gardens I came across another klezmer band, as I had on my first full day in Bayreuth. The walls inside the temple are decorated with dolphins made out of shells (as in the grotto inside the Residenz) shooting water into the small, shell-shaped fonts beneath them. Several old couples were dancing to the klezmer band, including two old women wearing bright red sweatshirts with Austria! in yellow script across the front. Little children and big dogs were running in and out of Diana's Temple. The leader of the band, a small violinist with permanently bugging eyes and thin short hair, tossed his scarf over his shoulders and kept the band playing until the sun started to get low in the sky, and then he packed up and went home.

19 October 2006

one-point perspective (journeys)

In the crush and rush to leave after the previous evening's Gotterdammerung, I ended up leaving Bayreuth on the 10:00 a.m. to Nuremburg, transferring to Munich. I had intended to take the 11:00 but the ticket seller saw no point to that and put me on the 10:00, which was leaving about two minutes after I got to the train station. (I had shared a taxi with another traveler who had been waiting impatiently for his ride for about half an hour; I figured I'd better take one while I could.) I had to stand through several stops, doing my best to minimize the inconvenience to the snack vendor, the ticket checker, and assorted regular passengers caused by my big suitcases as well as my body in the narrow aisle of the train. People were even-tempered and gracious about the crowded train. I entertained myself by reading the write-up for an Australian Wagner society being composed on his laptop by the man seated on my right; when he paused for the mot juste I turned to the left and watched the three little girls and their youngish mother watching the American in the aisle. I was actually OK with standing, despite my motto "Never stand if you can sit and never sit if you can lie down," since I was interested in the Australian write-up, but when the mother pointed out to me a seat that opened up a few rows up the car I said Danke and went to sit down. It was one of the booth-type seats; opposite me was a young woman and her very young son. About ten minutes away from Nuremburg she asked me (first in German and then English) if I could watch her son for a moment while she used the WC. I said of course and pondered the utter impossibility of any woman anywhere in America ever asking a stranger, a man (a man with facial hair at that -- in the comics that's an inevitable sign of villainy), or a foreigner (much less a three-in-one like me) to watch her child. It's not as if there weren't plenty of people who could keep an eye on me while I kept an eye on him, but I just could not imagine an American woman ever making the request. The little boy of course started crying almost immediately after his mother left. I did my best to comfort him with my little German, and mostly ended up saying "Mama -- ein minute! ein minute!" in cheering tones, once I realized I knew how to say "stay back" but not "come back." We were getting closer to the station and I started to wonder what I would do if she didn't return in time -- I didn't want to miss my stop and connecting train, but I didn't feel I could just leave the boy there. I started to think of the movie possibilities -- sort of a combination of The Lady Vanishes (it's a freaky world out there! normal folk have a hidden darkness!) and The Kid (those adorable, incorrigible antics! followed by hugs, learning), but she returned in plenty of time, we parted graciously, and I went out into the pouring rain to wait for the Munich train.

After days of rain and record-breaking cold, the day I left Munich was gorgeously sunny and clear, with that autumnal crispness in the air. I took a taxi to the train station and saw a bus that went to the airport, so I figured that was a better bet than trying to figure out the trains. As I sat on the bus waiting for it to leave, I listened to the driver's radio, which was playing American pop -- here it would have been called an oldies station. I don't know where it fit on the spectrum over there. "California Dreaming" by the Mamas and the Papas came on. It seemed like such an incredibly obvious choice that I probably would have rejected it for a soundtrack on those grounds.

The line at the Munich Airport was almost as long as the one at SFO that I erroneously stood in (the United agent assured me I was in the right line, and then after an hour I discovered I had to go to a Lufthansa line). But this line only took about twenty minutes, since Lufthansa is fully staffed with people who know what they're doing. United, being an American corporation, is severely understaffed by overworked, undertrained people who can't keep up with the demands on them, the excuse for that being that United has "empowered" us with self-check-in machines, which no one can figure out how to work, so passengers mill around until one of the two employees can come over and help, so that they fall even farther behind in tagging the luggage, which apparently we are not "empowered" to do. But this cost-cutting pays off, because it means the CEO can add an extra million or two to his salary and perqs, which he can use to buy a second vacation house in Aspen, not that he ever uses it, because we're all just too important not to be at the office every day, until the company downsizes and dumps us. Plus they have national health insurance! I was feeling very unpatriotic when I reached the very helpful agent, who immediately told me that he loved San Francisco since "it's not boring like here." I almost said, "But you have the Alte Pinakothek!" but knew that wouldn't count for much. It's all perspective. He very nicely put me into a vacant seat in the emergency exit row. Unfortunately there was a squirmy child kicking the seat behind me, but his mother did the best job she could trying to control him. There was a child across the aisle crying, but though some things drive me crazy (noise-leak from headphones, mostly) I really don't mind crying children too much. That's what children do. I was a weeper myself, and would sob and scream on most flights still if I thought I could get away with it.

Dulles was a nightmare of torrential rain and lumbering vans, which was the only way to get from terminal to terminal, once you actually managed to figure out which terminal you were supposed to be in. I hadn't realized I would need to retrieve and re-check my luggage to go through customs, and after that you're dumped into the concourse without a departure/arrival board in sight. I barely made my flight -- they literally opened the plane door for me (only because they had just that moment shut it). I think that was the only flight I've been on in the past three years that's left anywhere near on time. Of course. I just couldn't stand the thought of being delayed further. I should have been more philosophical, I suppose. I had Paradise Lost to entertain me. I made it back late at night and took the hour-long BART ride unencumbered by my luggage, which didn't arrive until the next day.

17 October 2006

even more pre-order excitement

On November 14, the Peter Sellars production of Giulio Cesare is finally being released on DVD. The cast includes his usual troupe at the time, including Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I haven't seen the film version, but the live version was one of the most indelible opera productions I've ever seen. I think this was the performance that made me realize Lorraine Hunt (as she was then) was not just one of a number of excellent performers but rare and outstanding even in that company.
Sellars's productions were often referred to in a high-concept way (Orlando in Cape Canaveral! Don Giovanni -- in Spanish Harlem!) but it was usually the quiet, reflective moments that stayed in my memory for years: Hunt as Sesto cutting herself while vowing revenge, or Jeffrey Gall as Caesar holding the cask containing Pompey's head and standing in a pool of light backstage mourning the chances and misfortunes of human life.
The Sellars Mozart productions got most of the attention, but his Orlando (at ART in Cambridge) and his Cesare were just as good or better.
My last pre-order note involved a forthcoming Hunt Lieberson disc; at the time I didn't even know what the pieces were except that Harbison was the composer. It turns out it was a setting of Elizabeth Bishop, who wrote the book I referred to as the year's earlier pre-order cause of excitement. And the second disc was by Audra McDonald, who might be singing Kitty Oppenheimer, a role Hunt Lieberson was originally meant to sing. This is the sort of "small world" chain of happenstance and coincidence that gives conspiracy theorists hope.

Amazon has recently changed its listing of forthcoming DVDs in irritating ways: I saw the picture with Susan Larsen descending for her first entrance but it was weeks before I could get any more information, even a price. I saw a three-disc set listed called "Incredible Creatures that Defy Evolution." I thought this might be an interesting examination of the byways and curlicue paths of biology. Or just three hours of lung fish doing whatever it is they do (not much). Or just three hours of Republican party members and Kansas school boards and suchlike creatures. To my disappointment, I think it's closer to the latter: it's some guy going on about creatures that supposedly disprove evolution by their very existence. Ugh. No thanks. If I want to see science mocked, I'll just rent an action movie and watch the hero outrun a fireball.

Elective Affinities 2

Recently I added to my Amazon wishlist the forthcoming DVD of Hamlet (Russian version, with translation by Pasternak and music by Shostakovich). Amazon's follow-up recommendation? The forthcoming DVD of Flower Drum Song.
Duh. Obviously.
Cue up "I Enjoy Being a Girl/or a Sexually Troubled Melancholic Danish Prince out for Revenge."

28 September 2006

Tres Tristan

My season of three Tristans:

Bayreuth, 21 August 2006

San Francisco Opera, 27 October 2006

Los Angeles Philharmonic, 24 April 2007

povera Butterfly

After several recent conversations about SF Opera and then after reading the blogosphere reviews of the Met's opening production, I guess I need to revise what I said earlier about nobody really minding Madama Butterfly's many appearances on opera stages everywhere: it looks as if quite a few people feel about Cio-Cio San the way I feel about Mimi. I should have learned from my experience recommending one of my all-time favorite films, The Story of Adele H.: not everyone shares my taste for obsessive tales of unrequited love.

Is it also possible that not everyone is crazy about German expressionism?

19 September 2006

pre-order excitement

A week from today (that would be September 26) two CDs are being released of particular interest. I haven't been this hyped up about pre-orders since Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box in March.

1) Naxos is releasing John Harbison's Chamber Music, with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I haven't been able to find out much more information about this, from Amazon or the Naxos website (I'm not even sure if "Chamber Music" is the title of the piece or a generic title for the album), but I really don't need anything other than the singer.

2) Audra McDonald has a new album -- Build a Bridge. The product description quoted on Amazon says, "she combines material from precious [I assume they mean precocious but what a funny error] young songwriters like Rufus Wai[n]wright, Nellie McKay and even John Mayer with the work of frequent collaborator and Broadway innovator Adam Guettel, Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach, Laura Nyro, and Randy Newman." Again, it's the singer (no offense to the song) that is really selling this one to me.

It is, it is, a glorious thing. . . .

Ahoy, mates -- for any lubbers who know not this be Talk Like a Pirate Day, here be the link:


The name generators are particularly good -- one of them didn't even ask me any questions, it just rechristened me Diego the Bitter, which is so great I may switch to that year-round.

26 August 2006

Bayreuth 19

I walked around most of this afternoon. I went through the nearby mall. As with many things here it looks similar to such things in America, and then little differences start to make it look very different. For instance, though there is no smoking in the mall all the food vendors allow smoking, so the smell permeates there too. And in the middle of everything is a butchershop, filled with glistening pink porkstuffs.
All the clocks on churches and public buildings not only run, they keep correct time. And the church bells ring out the time punctually.
I saw the Japanese woman who wears subdued kimonos to each performance. She and her Japanese tour group were entering the neue schloss. She was in western clothing, though she still had her cane and carried a parasol. I wonder where some of the other regulars are today, like the woman who looks like a permanently startled partridge because she draws in her eyebrows so darkly and steeply that they look as if a boldfaced V has landed on the bridge of her nose. Does she do that every day, or only when she dresses up? I imagine a lot of people went on road trips or just relaxed. There is a sense of winding down. Gotterdammerung is tomorrow, and after that there is only one more performance on Monday, which I am not going to, another Tristan, so that the last notes to fill the hall at this year's festival will be the liebestod. By then I will be in Munich, where I hope I can find an internet cafe to continue updates. Many thanks to the Arvena Congress Hotel for its courteous service, its delicious bacon, and its lobby computer!
Already one of the bookstores downtown has removed all its Wagner items from the window, though there are still plenty to be had inside. The tea shop on the Maximilianstrasse is still offering teas called Siegfried's Dragonblood or Tristan, but I assume they do that year round. I imagine most outsiders who come to Bayreuth are drawn here by Wagner even if the festival is not in progress, just as during Boston winters I used to point out Fenway Park to wandering Red Sox fans who would stop and ask.
The apples are ripening red in the gardens I passed, and the overripe purple summer plums are falling on the pavement.

Bayreuth 18

The protocol for curtain calls seems to be that if you want to boo the production, you do so as soon as the dark (green or charcoal gray? it's hard to tell) velvet curtain falls, but then switch to cheering once the singers step out, to indicate that they did their valiant best despite the production (of course, sometimes the singers will get booed, as with our unfortunate first Siegmund; then they boo the singer when he or she steps out). The applause is long and vociferous. People stamp their feet, which creates an amazing pounding drumming on the wooden floorboards. The only production to receive a huge round of boos was Parsifal. Otherwise there is just the occasional boo, as I mentioned earlier with the Rheingold. Even after the houselights have gone up and half the auditorium has left there are still those who applaud and stamp their feet until the cast and conductor come out again. The loudest cheers have been for the Ring conductor, Christian Thieleman, who comes out in his black pants and black tunic each night looking exhausted and slightly red-faced from his labors.
It rained pretty heavily and steadily this morning, so I read and slept. I shouldn't complain about a morning like that; some of my favorite winter weekends are when it rains and I lie in bed listening to the drops splashing through the large lemon tree outside my bedroom window. I slept longer and more deeply than I thought I would, until the buzzing of a hornet woke me up (I usually leave the window open when I'm there, since there is no air conditioning or heating) and I saw that the rain had stopped long enough for the pavement to dry off. So now I'll go walk around.

Bayreuth 17

Today is an off day before Gotterdammerung.
Just as I know that before any trip I'll spend weeks wondering why I thought it was a good idea, why I'm bothering, why I thought I could afford it, and then when I arrive I love it, so I know that during any trip there are the days when everything sags except the pressure not to waste a day in a new place. Yesterday was one of those days. Siegfried often does seem to take place on those days. I realize it's blasphemy to say this, but for me in the theater the final duet just lasts too long. The other scens of the Ring fly by for me, but during that one I think, OK. Got it. Recordings are different since you have a different physical relation to recordings. I don't know quite what it is, since the music is beautiful. It may just be the inevitable dip in one's relationship to a very long work. I've only seen live Siegfrieds in the context of an entire Ring, so I don't know if I would have the same reaction if it were a single evening instead of part of a week.
And as I said I'll talk about the productions later, but about last night just let me say: Worst. Dragon. Ever. Sorry, maybe it's childish, but at some point after the Schopenhauer and the World Sorrow and the wisdom of the mothers you just want to see the guy fight the dragon. I've had problems warming up to Idomeneo because they keep teasing us with talk of a sea monster and then it only appears offstage. What can I say? I like a good monster.
Most of the talk around the Festspielhaus concerns either the productions or the disaster of the Act 1 Siegmund during Walküre. The poor guy was Eric in Höllander and was fine, but apparently there had been some press criticism of his Siegmunds in the first two cycles (I've been avoiding all write-ups until after I've seen the productions). And it seems the singer is engaged to the Wagner daughter who is the heir apparent, which makes his position trickier. I heard from someone who talked with one of the singers that it was just a last minute stroke of good luck that Robert Dean Smith could take over and they were worried that the original singer (sorry, I don't have his name at hand), whom they like personally, might have his whole career affected by the press discussion and the booing. As I said, a singer's life is a difficult one. It's like being an athlete in one of those sports people only pay attention to during the Olympics, and then after four years of training the day arrives and you have a head cold or an allergy attack and that's enough to put you off your game.
The weather continues cloudy cool and rainy; I'm deeply appreciative of the coolness but by now I'm sick of the rain. I should just give in to it, in the spirit in which Wotan wills the inevitable, but isn't that just another way of saying he's going to pretend to see and accept the point of whatever is going to happen anyway?
Instead of taking another day trip I'm just going to wander around, continue reading Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal, and relax in the way most people do on their vacations.
I'll also be rereading the Gotterdammerung libretto, of course. . . .

25 August 2006


for Anna Clementina on her 85th birthday:
wish I could be there with you today
long may your travels continue

Bayreuth 16

The other day I was asked if I were South African, which is a new one on me. The gentleman who asked thought he had seen me in his group or at a lecture. It turns out he now lives in Princeton and has two children who live in California, so he actually knew where San Leandro is, which is more than I can say for many Bay Area residents. The woman singing Fricka is, according to him, the first South African to sing at Bayreuth so there was great national pride among the South African Wagnerians.
Usually I'm mistaken for Spanish or Italian, though once in Italy I was asked if I were German. Go figure. I think I usually look and act very American, but I couldn't tell you why.
The weather continues cool and showery, but I'm still glad I cut all my hair off. I went out walking, mostly to go to the Geldautomat (ATM), though I probably have enough money. But it's hard to get into them on weekends because my card can withdraw money but not unlock the vestibule, and I leave here Monday to go to Munich. I've had to keep reminding myself that coins can be substantial amounts here: it's as if the smallest paper bill was for $5, and dollars and two dollars only came in coins.

Bayreuth 15

Near the train station there is a store that posts in its windows photographs of the Festival crowd. They are taken from the balcony where the fanfares are played and are similar to the shots of marathoners crossing the finish line, except the people are dressed in evening finery instead of sweaty shorts and singlets and pretty much just strolling around instead of thrusting their arms upward in victory. There's a different set for each night and each photo is numbered so that you can order a copy if you spot yourself. Anytime you walk by the shop you see people gathered in front, poring over the pictures. (It would be helpful in this case to wear very bright, distinctive colors, which is easier for the women than the men, though I did see one fellow the other night whose purple velvet suit, bright green shirt, antic expression, and silver hair standing straight up screamed, "I am a German artist of an annoyingly playful disposition!" -- again, I'm sure there's a single word in German that can express this.) I glance at the photographs, but if I appear in any of them I haven't had the patience to spot myself. There's a certain Where's Waldo? quality to the search that I just find exasperating. I can't help him with that. Waldo needs to find himself.

24 August 2006

Nuremburg 4

As I wander around cities I can almost always be drawn towards spires or fountains. Though the old part of Nuremburg is fairly compact there were three Gothic churches for me to explore. Perhaps I should say Gothic-style, since it turns out that they were mostly destroyed by bombing during the war and what we see now are careful reconstructions from the mid-twentieth century, which explains why sometimes the blocky, earnest sculptural forms of the 1950s jut out from the elaborately lacey filigree of the German Gothic.
There are several attractive fountains as well, including one modern-looking one that, if I understood it correctly, and I may not have, was in celebration of beer.
The oddest fountain is right outside of St. Lorenz. On the top stands blindfolded Justice, her sword uplifted and scales swaying in the breeze. The layer below features cherubs, with water shooting in thin streams from their trumpets (though only one or two cherubs were working right and a few were obviously missing their musical instruments). The third and bottom layer features female saints (and possibly one Virtue; she looked like Caritas). I identified Agnes and Perpetua (could Felicity be far behind?) and possibly Veronica and Margaret. There were a couple more that completely eluded me. All were bare-breasted and the water shot in thin streams from their nipples, or more precisely from little jets right below their sculpted nipples, giving them a double-nippled look. St. Perpetua's nipples were blocked, but all the rest were flowing freely. I've never seen saints depicted this way. I'm sure there's some sort of allegory of grace and abundance intended.
The fountain was quite the backdrop for photos, so I kept moving out of the way. This might be a coincidence but almost all those being photographed there were women. One wife did take a picture of her husband and then refused his request that she pose with a slightly disgusted grimace that made me think they had been married quite a while.

Nuremburg 3

On the way to the old city from the bahnhof I passed by a sex-toy and video shop. I mention this only to record my intense disappointment that it is not named Meister Swinger's.

These oddities crop up in these old-looking cities. Right down the slope from Dürer's house is the Cafe Tarantino, with posters in English from his movies in the window. And a store was selling dreamcatchers, which might be the lingering effects of Karl May's popularity.

And right after I saw a teenager wearing a baseball cap -- not just a baseball cap, but a Red Sox cap! -- I saw a store selling baseball caps (with American teams) and NBA jerseys. Then I realized that it was a hiphop store, and the caps and jerseys were for rap fans and not sports fans. So it's probably just as well that at the last minute I left my Red Sox cap at home. Who knows what false passport to age-inappropriate cool I would have been traveling under if I had worn it around Bayreuth.

This computer is starting to act up so I hope it doesn't die on me. . . . and someone is waiting again so I need to go.

Nuremburg 2

I'd like to confirm that our Tristan/Act 2 Siegmund was Robert Dean Smith. I should apologize if any typos or misspellings are slipping past me; I had a chance to go back and catch a few but I have to write these quickly and when I can since this is a public terminal and I think it would be rude to keep people waiting too long.
I couldn't go to Nuremburg without going to Dürer's house, but I'm glad I didn't have very high expectations. It's interesting but at this point any real evidence of his being there is gone so what you get is a walk through an old-style Nuremburg house (of which there are fewer than I had assumed there would be; I thought the whole old town would look like a Meistersinger stage set). There's an audio tour which they didn't offer me and I didn't ask about; it's narrated by someone pretending to be his wife, as are the docent-led tours by an actress in costume, and I didn't think any illumination I could get from that set-up would be worth the time.
So I'll talk about the food! I continue to have good luck with ice cream; my passionfruit cone had the same intense flavor as my cherry cone the other day. Towards the end of my time I decided I would try the Nuremburg sausages that all the guidebooks tell me I must try while there; I guess my earlier complaint about German sausage meant I just hadn't met the right sausage yet. These are small; three fit into a hard roll the size of my palm and they were so good I went back and got another one. The owner of the stand replied to my attempts at complimenting him in German by saying "You're welcome" in English, which I thought was gracious. The sun had come out again by then and though I'd been wondering whether the sidetrip to Nuremburg had really been worth the bother I decided then that it was. Nothing like sausage and sunshine to set you up.
Christmas is a big thing there and is present year round. In the open-air market I bought a bag of handmade lebkuchen, their Christmas cookies. They're nice; I'd say they're nothing to write home about but that's pretty much what I'm doing. . . . They have that soft moist texture and clovey taste that all Christmas cookies end up having, regardless of recipe. I assume most of these recipes in America are of German origin.


I took advantage of the day off to go to Nuremburg. Though it was enjoyable I might have been better off hanging around and resting; I'm starting to feel unpleasantly congested, probably due to second-hand smoke, and I can feel the bags under my eyes growing larger by the hour, though this does give me a look both dissolute and otherworldly so suitable to Wagner's music.
I had already seen the landscape on the way here, when I had to change trains at Nuremburg for the second time. There are some fields of corn, a few wooded patches, and lots of little towns that at first glance look similar to little towns in America until you notice how very steeply pitched the roofs are or see the black red and gold stripes of the German flag fluttering over the backyard patio or barbecue. The rest of the landscape is the sort that looks incomplete without cows, though only once did I think I glimpsed some through some trees.
The problem for me with day trips is that though I enjoy being in different places I don't usually enjoy getting there, so it's a question of whether the pleasures of the place will outweigh the vexations of the journey. If you've been before it helps, but faced with a large train station I always have to remember that things like that have to work on a system so all I have to do is figure out enough of the system to get where I want to go. It helps a lot here that -- do I even need to say it? -- the trains run on time. If the departure time is 12:51, the train leaves at 12:51. This is an adjustment though a pleasant one to someone used to BART.
Today contradicted a number of my experiences so far:
First, I had my first encounter with someone who was unpleasant about my lack of German: a thin dark-haired young man behind a counter who glared at me and shouted in German and then ignored me. I could figure out about a third of what he was saying and it turned out I was in the wrong line anyway.
Second, I did use French as a fall-back language: a kindly hunchbacked old woman working the shop at St. Sebald's tried to explain to me that the CD I was buying was out of stock and I tried to explain that another one would be OK since I just wanted one because the music was performed on that church's organ. We built that language bridge from French stone with the mortar of an occasional German word.
Third, I was caught in a downpour just as I stepped out of Durer's house. Fortunately I managed to slip back into a church, my version of Hunding's hut, soon enough to avoid getting my only shoes and non-opera pants soaked.

Bayreuth 14

Every night outside the Festspielhaus a middle-aged Chinese woman with wire-rim glasses has been handing out leaflets and otherwise protesting something. I wasn't sure what until I declined a leaflet by saying "sorry" and she exclaimed "English!" and handed me the English version of her pamphlet. It turns out she's from Falun Gong, protesting organ harvesting by the Chinese government. I have no idea why she chose the Bayreuth Festspielhaus as her protest site, unless she figures a lot of the audience is looking for replacement organs, which is possible. Otherwise I haven't seen any other protests.
The Japanese lady was back last night in another beautiful but subdued kimono, this one very pale skyblue with faint pink petals and leaves on it. That obi is a stroke of genius. But the seats aren't bothering me as much, possibly because the Ring operas tend to fly by for me. Really.
I did try the ice cream vendor during Tristan, since that seemed less inappropriate than during Parsifal. I had kirsche, which was excellent and had a very deep cherry flavor. Yesterday beforehand I had malaga. Sometimes I'll order things just to find out what they are. It turned out to be rum raisin, and very good.
I'm turning into Homer Simpson at breakfast. I eat piles of bacon and then go back for more. The bacon is very bacony. Hmmmmm . . . . bacony. . . .

23 August 2006

Bayreuth 13

I was hoping to get a poster for the Ring Cycle to go with the ones I have from Seattle and San Francisco, but they don't seem to have those here. In fact the merchandising is quite restrained. There is a small stand to one side of the Festspielhaus, separate but close enough so that I assume it's official, that offers the usual postcards, some black T-shirts with quotations from Gotterdammerung in white on the chest, and some books, DVDs, and CDs. The books are scholarly rather than popular. I've ended up buying a number of CDs because there are performances not available in the US that are released here. But the plethora of shirts, mugs, stuffed animals, comic books, and so forth that I've seen elsewhere make no appearance here.
There is the official festival program book, a handsome white-covered trilingual volume with many color pictures and essays on the productions. I am holding off on reading them until after I've seen the productions. The book comes in a blue and white Festspiel tote bag made not of the usual canvas but of some odd material I can't identify. The blue strap is quite long and the only way to carry the bag conveniently is the sling it over one shoulder so that it crosses your chest. You see people all over with these, carrying programs and books and opera glasses and obviously not enough lozenges, looking like some sort of odd messenger service.
Tomorrow is our first day off, so I'm planning to take the train to Nuremburg, which for some reason I keep calling Niebelheim. I'll assume I'm just tired.

Lend Me a Tenor

Singers have rough lives. They work and study and struggle and sometimes when they get to sing Siegmund on the stage of Bayreuth itself they fall sick. There were discreet notices up saying our scheduled singer was indisposed and kindly asked our indulgence, etc., at least I assume the German had words to that effect. He just lost it in the first act and due to the discretion of the signs they had been overlooked by quite a few in the audience, who booed him vociferously. For the second act our wonderful Tristan, Robert Dean Smith (I'll have to doublecheck the name later) stepped in and saved the day. Den hehrsten Helden der Welt! He kept his poise and gave a powerful performance even though Notung broke prematurely, which has got to be one of the more awkward stage mishaps.
Even if I hadn't seen the notices I would have figured something was wrong with our man. All the voices are so clear and carry so well that there had to be something seriously wrong with him. He couldn't have been hired if his voice always sounded like that.
I was in the second row from the back before the boxes tonight, right in the center. The sound is different there. Oddly enough, I could hear many individual wind instruments (chiefly the oboe, I'm guessing) with remarkable clarity, almost as if they were playing a concerto with the ensemble.
I've grown to recognize quite a few of the crowd by now. Many are staying at the Arvena Congress with me. There's the man with a neck brace who always has an obnoxious pipe clenched between his teeth, and the short, balding old French woman who always fills her breakfast plate with sausages and belches audibly. Tonight I also saw the wart-nosed woman again, in the same brocaded top, and this time saw that she only had one leg.
There's an attendant in the men's room who stands there night after night. He's dressed informally in jeans and a short sleeve shirt even though he's official. I'm not sure what he does, besides be quietly polite and check occasionally to make sure the towel rollers are working, but there is a table for his tips. I tip on the grounds that tipping is always good karma. But what a way to spend summer: I stood in the men's room in Bayreuth and said danke shoen.
There's a line forming for the computer and some smokers have arrived so I'll continue later.

Bayreuth 12

I went to the Neue Schloss today, a sizeable and appealing rococo building, a distant cousin of the Versailles family, near Wahnfried. I had the schloss to myself most of the morning, which is always nice. There's not a lot inside, which is OK since there's only so many 18th century portraits and velvet-seated chairs I want to look at. The walls and the ceilings are the big show, and as I wandered through several times I would see new details, like a stucco cupid melting away like a cloud on the ceiling or a chandelier covered with enamel pink roses and carnations. There's a room decorated with Ovidian tapestries in beautiful deep colors, and a dining room lined with golden-leaved palm trees. One ceiling is covered with golden swirls interspersed with clusters of green seaweed, dark red coral, and sea shells in black, rust, and ash gray. Many of the rooms feature chinoiserie or japonoiserie (not sure I'm spelling that right or even have the right word). One celadon Japanese room featured gold and dark bronze birds and flowers, including what looked to me like a very southwestern cactus, though it was not accompanied by a rococo Kokopelli. One wonderful room had mirrors of various sizes and shapes embedded on the ceiling among a fantastical melange of lions, palm trees, dragons, and whatnot and a Chinese man offering a scroll with gilded phoenixes to a Chinese woman. He was slightly less dressed than she was. The room is small and the walls are filled with pictures. Two are of respectable countesses, one with a very low cut dress. The others are of Lucretia stabbing herself in her naked breasts, Cleopatra applying the asp to her naked breast, and that woman in Genesis who saved her father (father-in-law? Lot? Noah? -- I'd look it up but though my room does have a Gideon Bible it only contains the New Testament, something in which I'm trying not to find any significance) by baring her breasts so he could drink her milk and live. It was the Salon of Hot Babes Who Bare Their Breasts in the Presence of Death, a concept which I'm sure can be expressed in German in a single weighty word of a line or two's length that sounds both musical and profound.
The lobby music just now was Taking a Chance on Love, with the Walkure theme underneath from another room. There must be a steady series of lectures around town. There is not a whole lot else to do, but I'd still rather wander around and read up before traveling.

Bayreuth 11

Now that I know I can get downtown through the park behind the hotel, I always go that way. Right as I cross the bridge into downtown there is a cineplex, which is showing one or two German films but mostly the latest Hollywood releases. The largest banners are for the summer's big hit, Fluch der Karibik 2 with Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom, and Superman Returns, whose title is given in English.
I'm seeing lots of English around. Occasionally I feel the urge to try communicating in French, the European language I am least bad at, but then realize I'm better off with English. I see a lot of T-shirts with English on them, often just one word like Love or Intensity, but sometimes phrases. Today I saw a girl who clearly had read too much about Paris Hilton wearing a shirt that said I'm Hot You're Not in silvery letters. A lot of the teenagers here look like Americans, but the older people almost never do. And the other day I saw a young mother pushing a baby stroller wearing a shirt that said Scream When You Want Be Free. Though her baby wasn't crying at the time, I wondered how long it would be before she thought more about both the literal and metaphorical meaning of the shirt and put it away for good. I, being immersed in the intensity and extremity of Wagner's librettos, thought "Only the freest of babies can redeem the World's Sorrow!"

22 August 2006

Bayreuth 10

The Ring ticket exchange last night went off smoothly, which is great, because that's the kind of thing that freaks me out. It helped that earlier I had met some of the people I was to be looking for. I think my seats for the next two are in the very back of the house, or at least close to it. That's still fairly close, but not as close as I'd like. I was in row 8 for Rheingold, but in the first seat on the left side of the house so that I couldn't see a few things staged on the far left. I did get to stick my left foot out into the aisle, which gave me some more room. There was also a noticeable effect on the sound when the singers were on the far left. My best seat was my first, for Parsifal, in the third row, so that spoiled me.
All over town are statues of Wagner's dog Russe. Most of them are black but I've seen a few painted gold and they show up all over, in windows and parks and driveways. Russe is buried right by Cosima and Richard behind Wahnfried. Flowers have been left at his grave as well as theirs. I was walking around that park yesterday and a short squat German woman started saying something that I soon realized was meant for her dog, not me. I think she was calling him. He ignored her completely and kept trotting ahead. He looked like a dachschaund only covered with longish black fur.
Another thing I've noticed a lot of around town: psychologists's offices. I guess that figures.
(Note for V: it's Wednesday, so I hope you have something fun to do instead, like eat my heirloom tomatoes. Enjoy the costume descriptions!)

Bayreuth 9

No one has yet come up for the computer, unusually enough, so I'll go on a bit more. Tonight I took special notice of the colors of the Festspielhaus lobby: the bottom half of the walls is a dull plum that in some lights looks like a worn chocolatey brown; then come some alternating stripes of differing thickness in cream and very light turquoise; and the top part of the wall is a warm ochre. It all looks very harmonious and very much of its late nineteenth century time.

the bling of the Nibelung

The opening of Das Rheingold might be my favorite of any opera; even the really amazing amount of coughing during it tonight couldn't spoil the excitement of hearing the beautiful swells in the building built to hold them. Perhaps the cool weather has prompted a rash of colds; usually I'm semi-understanding about coughing (it's better than talking, for which there is no conceivable excuse) but I can't help noting the auditorium was pretty much cough-free until the lights went down.
The cool weather may have affected local respiratory systems but not the local wasps or hornets. As I strolled around today I passed a bakery and stopped since I am as easily distracted by baked goods as by bright shiny objects. Then I noticed about a dozen of the wasps (or hornets) buzzing over and landing on the seeded rolls and sticky buns. I kept on walking. It helps restore circulation, anyway. Sorry to go on about my ass, a subject no one but myself has ever been much interested in, but I think I'm developing Bayreuth butt. The thing about the hard seats is that as the days go by recovery is slower and slower, even though I've finally found a use for my jacket by using it as a seat pad (there is only a piece of brown corduroy over the wooden seat). And Rheingold is two and a half hours with no intermission, but the time actually speeds by for me. Of course there are no surtitles, but I am of the last generation of opera goers to attend performances before they become mandatory, so it's not a new experience for me, though I have to say I find them invaluable. But I re-read each of the librettos beforehand and am familiar enough with the works anyway so that I know what's going on, even if I can't always repeat exactly what is being said.
Language is not really a problem here anyway. Many people speak English well enough to have a conversation of the sort that's necessary in tourist life (certainly their English is better than my German) and even when they don't it's usually pretty clear that they're saying Would you like a bag or You need to enter on the other side of the theater. Reading the librettos and street signs it's easy to pick out certain recurring words and parse meaning through similarities to English, so that it's very easy to end up thinking you speak more German than you actually do.
Earlier I said that it would be odd to hang out at the Festspielhaus if you weren't attending the opera; I think I was wrong. The people-watching would be a plentiful source of entertainment. I don't know what cable TV costs in a small Bavarian town, but this has got to be just as good. I was mesmerized yesterday by the hunched old woman in front of me, who had a wart on the side of her nose almost as big as her nostril. Straight out of the Brothers Grimm. She wore an elaborate brocaded top but when I glanced at her all I saw was her nose. Tonight I saw a Japanese woman elegantly dressed in a traditional kimono of subdued color and design; this was practical as well as elegant, since the obi would provide some much-needed back support. Many of the other women go for bright even gaudy colors; for some reason Tristan brought out changeable taffeta in abundance.
The house is full for every performance, though ticket-seekers still gather in front with pleading signs. I don't know exactly how many of them get in, but I noticed one clean-cut young man nicely dressed in a suit and tie tonight whose sign identified him hopefully as a student seeking a ticket (I can't remember the German); the appeal to possible scholarly patrons must have worked since I saw him in the lobby after the performance, so at least some seekers are successful. One man literally started dancing around yesterday after receiving a ticket for Act III from a woman who I guess already knew how it ended. I was glad he could get in after waiting in the showery summer evening through the first two acts (that's four hours including the intermission between the first two acts).
I'll talk about the productions later, as I mentioned earlier, but I will say that at least one gentleman was sweet enough to boo loudly at the curtain call; I call this sweet since no new production of the Ring can be considered a success without some scandal. As it is the audiences still have to fuss over the warmed-over scandal of the Parsifal staging, which is now two or three years old.

Bayreuth 8

I continue to have remarkable luck in evading the sometimes heavy rainshowers. Today I was in the old baroque opera house, at a fascinating exhibit of all the Ring stage sets since 1876, and then generally admiring the interior, which is lavishly decorated in high Baroque style. It's pretty fabulous but I can see why Wagner though it inappropriate for his world-myths. Oddly enough most of the postcards around town are of the baroque theater and not the Festspielhaus, undoubtedly because it's more picturesque. There seem to be only a limited number of postcards available of the town, since you see the same ones everyplace: lots of the baroque theater, a few of the Festspielhaus, then Ludwig II and the Wagners in various combos, and then sort of kitschy cartoons of Ring scenes. I should have brought a camera.
In some ways the rain is a good thing, since it keeps the temperatures in the Festspielhaus comfortable. The lack of armrests isn't a problem either; I thought I would be squeezed between gelatinous Germans but in fact I am less cramped side-to-side than in most American opera houses. (In any event my seatmates turned out to be other members of the Wagner Society and not some of the absurdly dressed women with trains and scarves and whatnot that would spread out too much. While I'm on costume: I don't understand why men would go to the trouble of wearing formal evening dress only to have the scooping necklines of their undershirts clearly visible through their thin shirts. As usual I'm left wondering what people are thinking, though I'm sure some are wondering what I'm doing. I don't see that many colored or striped shirts. Another thing I've noticed here: walking the streets you see almost no one wearing hats, and by hats I mean baseball-style caps. It wasn't until today that I saw a couple, and those were on very young boys.) Back to the Festspielhaus (which is what we do here, go back to the Festspielhaus): except for the painfully hard seats, it's actually quite comfortable, which I realize is a lucky chance due to the poor weather.
Once again I'm getting this wonderful Charles Ives effect here in the lobby, with the Pilgrim's chorus from Tannhauser playing against a cocktail-bar version of Take the A Train. Fortunately no one is currently smoking in the lobby: I think that maybe the Germans don't smoke that much more than Americans, they just have even fewer rules about where it's prohibited. It's very odd, as if it's America 40 years ago. They seem more advanced than us in many ways (national health care, heavily subsidized arts --well, I hear that's being cut back, vacations that start at a month long, national leaders who are not buffoons and international war criminals) that it seems surprising they're so far behind in this regard.
By the time I figure out this keyboard (the z/y switch continues to plague me) I'll be leaving and messed up for my American keyboards. Travel is very broadening!