As just about all know by now, Konzept Regietheater (aka Eurotrash) is very big on metaphor the rationale and justification most frequently given being that it's desirable, even necessary, in order to make whatever non-contemporary operatic masterpiece is targeted more "relevant" to our 21st-century Zeitgeist and sensibilities. In that same spirit we herewith offer our metaphor for Konzept Regietheater itself. After all, turnabout is fair play.
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 2:34 AM Eastern on 31 Jul. See below.]
The 2011 Bayreuther Festspiele opened yesterday with a new production of Tannhäuser by Brechtian Regie Sebastian Baumgarten.
And what was the Konzept underlying this Regietheater Tannhäuser? Why, ecology, of course. Got to make this fussy old German Romantic opera "relevant", y'know. And what did this "relevant" Tannhäuser look like? Here's Bloomberg's Catherine Hickley:
[Baumgarten's] staging transposes Wartburg castle to an organic waste recycling plant and features a pregnant Venus living in a cage with giant tadpoles and furry, ape-like nymphs. The recycling-plant set, designed by Joep van Lieshout, remains largely unchanged through the opera’s three acts. It comprises a big green tank of nutrition (we’re told it’s a celery product), a blue tank of biogas (made from human excrement) and a long red storage cylinder of alcohol (distilled celery juice.) The program notes contain a detailed diagram explaining how this represents the full energy cycle from food and alcohol, through digestion and waste back to gas and energy.
Sounds like the proper setting for Eurotrash.
Update (2:34 AM Eastern on 31 Jul): The three-act set (yes, the graphics are part of the set):
Katharina Wagner, co-director of the Bayreuther Festspiele, confirmed her choice of director for the Festspiele's 2013 bicentennial production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen today, 2013 being the bicentennial of Wagner's birth.
And who might that director be? Frank Castorf. And who might Frank Castorf be? A German theater director who, since the early '90s, is also the artistic director of Berlin's Volksbühne theater, Germany's second largest state-owned theater, that's who. And just what sort of director might Herr Castorf be? This from The New York Times, c. 2007:
Under his direction, actors ignored huge portions of the classical texts they performed, stripped naked, screamed their lines for the duration of five-hour productions, got drunk onstage, dropped out of character, conducted private fights, tossed paint at their public, saw a third of the audience walk out as they spoke two lines at an excruciatingly slow pace, may or may not have induced a theatergoer to drink urine, threw potato salad, immersed themselves in water, recited newspaper reports of Hitler’s last peacetime birthday party, told bad jokes, called the audience East German sellouts and appeared to but did not kill a mouse [onstage].
Yes indeed. Herr Castorf sounds just about right as Katharina's choice.
And the beat goes on and the hits just keep on comin'.
In an article for the Metropolitan Opera Guild publication Opera News titled, "Coda: Lost Horizons", senior editor Louise T. Guinther writes:
For many of us who came to love opera before Regietheater took hold, current notions of effective dramaturgy boggle the mind. When did the directors and impresarios decide that an opera was a random collection of notes, independent of its dramatic and visual elements — a mere musical shell, to be filled up with and bent out of shape by whatever modern hang-ups seem most likely to catch the public off guard? When did wild controversy, booing and academic apologias in the press replace straightforward storytelling as signs of theatrical prowess? When did "making people think" become the top priority in an art form once clearly intended to make them feel?
Nothing in the above linked article will come as news to regular readers of S&F (and we thank one of those readers for pointing us to this article as absent that heads-up we would not have known about it as we don't ordinarily read Opera News), but it does contain a key thought we don't recall ever articulating explicitly before; viz., that opera is an artform intended principally to make audiences feel, not think. That, in fact, is what opera — what music — is all about. Prior to our modern age, there's not a composer of opera (or of music generally, for that matter) who ever lived who thought otherwise. Whence, then, this perverse, noxious, and ass-backwards impulse to make opera audiences think first, feel after?
We're not really sure, but that it's in some fundamental way bound intimately to our present-day scientific and technological modes of thought concerning all things — cosmic or terrestrial, sacred or profane, mystical or quotidian — is a certainty.
Is that a step forward for art and for us as a species; a development to be applauded and welcomed rather than savaged and rejected? We confess we don’t really know the answer to that question, either. What we do know, however, is that in matters of art, and in matters of music most particularly, whenever the intellectual trumps the emotional — whenever the emotional is in some fundamental way conditional upon the intellectual — impoverishment is the ineluctable consequence.
That, too, is a certainty.
This sort of behavior by professionals of this sort is all but unheard of — in this country, at any rate.
That's right. What you're looking at here are actual performing professional musicians. Actual performing Top Ten symphony orchestra musicians actually smiling, actually laughing, even, actually enjoying their professional music-making.
Deary-dear. What is this world coming to?
Shocking, just shocking, we say.
(Our thanks to the Los Angeles Times for the photo.)
Ordinarily, we'd simply let this pass with a mere shake of the head, but it's bloody sweltering out there and we're in a really pissy mood.
In order to make some point or other, Drew McManus of the blog Adaptistrationquotes jazz musician Charles Mingus thus:
Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.
On which Mr. McManus comments approvingly, "Really get’s gears turning, doesn’t it?"
Yes indeed. It certainly does.
Bach simple(!)? And which Bach might that be? Offenbach?
We get what Mr. Mingus was trying to say (and agree with it), but he ought to have been ashamed of himself (as ought Mr. McManus for his comment). Mozart would fit nicely as the referenced composer in that quote, but Bach?
Lord preserve us all!
Below is a video which is part of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition of the work of the late Brit fashion designer and couturier Alexander McQueen (1969-2010). Before today we had no idea who or what Alexander McQueen is or was, and now that we do know, couldn't care less. What caught our attention was the sheer beauty of this video the haunting music for which is from the John Williams score for the film, Schindler's List. We trust it will serve to help start off your week in the best way possible.
We've been to Bayreuth only once (a guest of one of our father's business associates): in the late '50s where we saw part of the Wieland Ring (his original staging). We really couldn't appreciate what we were seeing then as at that time in our life we thought Wagner a vulgarian, his operas (that's what we called all his stageworks at that time making no distinction between his operas and his music-dramas) even more contemptible than Italian opera. From that experience we can attest to the following by Mark Twain (c. 1891), perhaps the most perfect, the most poetic description we've ever read of the experience of the "old" Bayreuth (i.e., "old" as opposed to the Bayreuth of the 21st century):
All the lights were turned low, so low that the congregation sat in a deep and solemn gloom. The funereal rustling of dresses and the low buzz of conversation began to die swiftly down, and presently not the ghost of a sound was left. This profound and increasingly impressive stillness endured for some time — the best preparation for music, spectacle, or speech conceivable.
Finally, out of darkness and distance and mystery soft rich notes rose upon the stillness, and from his grave the dead magician began to weave his spells about his disciples and steep their souls in his enchantments. There was something strangely impressive in the fancy which kept intruding itself that the composer was conscious in his grave of what was going on here, and that these divine sounds were the clothing of thoughts which were at this moment passing through his brain, and not recognized and familiar ones which had issued from it at some former time.
Yesterday the opera was "Tristan and Isolde." I have seen all sorts of audiences — at theaters, operas, concerts, lectures, sermons, funerals — but none which was twin to the Wagner audience of Bayreuth for fixed and reverential attention, absolute attention and petrified retention to the end of an act of the attitude assumed at the beginning of it. You detect no movement in the solid mass of heads and shoulders. You seem to sit with the dead in the gloom of a tomb. You know that they are being stirred to their profoundest depths; that there are times when they want to rise and wave handkerchiefs and shout their approbation, and times when tears are running down their faces, and it would be a relief to free their pent emotions in sobs or screams; yet you hear not one utterance till the curtain swings together and the closing strains have slowly faded out and died; then the dead rise with one impulse and shake the building with their applause. Every seat is full in the first act; there is not a vacant one in the last. If a man would be conspicuous, let him come here and retire from the house in the midst of an act. It would make him celebrated.
This opera of "Tristan and Isolde" last night broke the hearts of all witnesses who were of the faith, and I know of some who have heard of many who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away. I feel strongly out of place here. Sometimes I feel like the sane person in a community of the mad; sometimes I feel like the one blind man where all others see; the one groping savage in the college of the learned, and always, during service, I feel like a heretic in heaven. But by no means do I ever overlook or minify the fact that this is one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I have never seen anything like this before. I have never seen anything so great and fine and real as this devotion.
Since forever, the bare-bones seats of the Bayreuther Festspielhaus have been both a source of perverse pride and a test of audience endurance. It needn't be either. Time for a rethink and a redoing.
Bayreuth, take note.
A genuinely virtuosic chamber group, both musically and technically, is a rare thing indeed and an all but extinct species these days, or so it seems. To find such a group made up of young players is rarer still, but find one we did thanks to an an article by cellist Josephine Vains written for the chamber music blog of Limelight magazine. The American, NYC-based group, a classical piano trio, calls itself simply the Sima Trio (note, please, the absence of an idiot neo-rock-band-type name which today is practically de rigueur) and its playing is truly breathtaking.
In an online opera forum in which we frequently participate and in which an extended discussion ensued concerning our thoughts on and suggested cuts to the Met's new production of Don Carlo, a member opined:
I am amazed at all the hubbub concerning Don Carlo. Have we not all seen and heard this opera many times? What is there left of the story that we don’t already know. If we were to go see this opera again, don’t we go for the music and the singing? We all seem to agree that the music is glorious, then why would we want any of it cut? When I listen or see an opera I want all the music. These productions that make cuts, what are they accomplishing? Do you go to the opera not to listen to the music?
To which our response is...
If listening to the music were really what sophisticated operagoers go to the opera for, then composers of opera since its beginnings have squandered much of their time composing operas, and producers of opera much of theirs staging those operas. Composers of opera should instead have spent their time writing, say, symphonies with vocal parts like, for instance, Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, and producers of opera should have spent theirs...well, looking for other work.
The truth of the matter is that opera — genuine opera; opera as dramma per musica — is NOT about the music, nor is it about the singers (and we here exclude bel canto opera as that genre of opera is, by and large, not genuine opera at all but merely an elaborate showcase for singers). In the minds of opera composers, opera producers, and sophisticated operagoers, opera is first and foremost about the drama — or more correctly, about the music-drama; about dramma per musica; drama where the drama is made sensible or articulated through music supported by the armature of the text which armature provides those narrative and concrete details that music alone is incapable of providing, the whole or gestalt made visible by its acting out onstage. Wagner may have made all of that explicit both in his theoretical writings and in his stageworks the mature examples of which are a veritable apotheosis of opera as dramma per musica, but it is not his invention. Dramma per musica has been the ideal and the goal of opera from opera's very beginnings as a distinct artform in the late-16th, early-17th century the first fully developed example of which is usually attributed to Monteverdi and his L'Orfeo of 1607. That that ideal became corrupted early on and seemingly forever by 17th-century Italian theater owners and producers who, in their commercial greed, wantonly pandered to the sensibilities and appetites of the opera-going groundlings who couldn't have cared less about opera as dramma per musica and which opera-going groundlings, then as now, are always in the vast majority, doesn't alter the ideal one whit.
And that's why "want[ing] all the music" is rarely the first consideration. Sometimes, when the dramma per musica has gone off-track by becoming bloated or obscured for reasons having little to do with the realization of the dramma per musica per se (we omit here those cases where the creator's own dramatic sense is defective or wanting as that's another discussion entirely), judicious cuts become necessary to free the work to be realized as its creator envisioned it in its ideal form absent all commercial or other compromise. Needless to say, the aesthetic judgment and operatic knowledge of the cutter is here paramount when the creator of the opera is no longer available for consultation or to do the work himself. Too often cuts are made for reasons commercial or practical which are compromises just as pernicious as the compromises which resulted in the dramma per musica going off-track by becoming bloated or obscured in the first place, and in such cases artistic disaster is almost certain to result, not to speak of a betrayal of the creator of the opera and of his creation.
And so to sum up in brief: When practiced responsibly, "what [is] accomplish[ed] [or attempted to be accomplished] by productions that make cuts" is the freeing of the dramma per musica of its commercial or other compromises that have, in one way or another, hampered or prevented the work from being realized in its ideal form as its creator envisioned it. It's actually quite a noble task when done responsibly, circumspectly, and knowledgeably.
We're not much of a fan of culture and drama critic Terry Teachout whose blog, About Last Night, we long ago removed from our S&F Culture Blogs listing as we found it mostly devoid of any real content its entries almost exclusively (and totally shamelessly) of the advertisements-for-myself sort and therefore useless as meaningful contributions to the cultural blogosphere not to mention genuinely annoying in themselves.
Mr. Teachout, as we suspect most of you know, is principally the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic for Commentary magazine. As we have only passing interest in the theater we don't often read his WSJ columns, and as his writings for Commentary have largely to do with music about which we find him something less than perceptive and enlightening when the subject is classical music, we don't often have occasion to read his writings for that journal either except when they're linked by a source we follow regularly and whose judgment we trust. Such a link was posted today by the still indispensible Arts & Letters Daily to a fairly lengthy Teachout piece in Commentary not on music but on playwright Tony Kushner which piece shows what a first-rate, perceptive, and enlightening writer Teachout can be when writing on matters about which he's truly knowledgeable and about which he has something of genuine value to say. Following, an excerpt.
Part of the reason why Kushner is so admired by elite opinion makers is that he is, as Newsweek pointed out, the living embodiment of their unanimously held views on a wide range of political and social issues.
The supremely high esteem in which Kushner is held in bien-pensant circles was demonstrated in May when the board of trustees of the City University of New York voted to deny him an honorary degree, citing his belief that Israel was “founded in a program that, if you really want to be blunt about it, was ethnic cleansing. . . . I have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state. It would have been better if it never happened.” The response of the cultural establishment to the board’s decision was so reflexively and overwhelmingly negative that CUNY’s executive board voted a few days later to overrule it and confer the degree.
As it happens, the uproar at CUNY took place at the end of a theater season during which Kushner was omnipresent. In October, the Signature Theatre Company mounted the first New York revival of Angels in America, which played to full houses throughout its long run. Seven months later, the Public Theater gave the New York premiere of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, Kushner’s first new full-length play in a decade. But unlike the Angels revival, which was greeted with the usual lockstep praise, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide received unexpectedly mixed notices — albeit mostly of the cautious kind in which the reviewer takes care to make clear his otherwise extravagant admiration of the author. Even so, it was evident from the reviews that Kushner’s new play was felt to have fallen well short of Angels.
In fact, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide and Angels are of a piece. Like Kushner’s other plays, they are the work of a flawed artist ill served by the indiscriminate esteem in which his work is held — and whose problematic style may at last have reached the point of diminishing critical returns.
After savaging the Met's Don Carlo as dramma per musica in our last entry, it bothered us no end that a master craftsman and box-office-savvy composer such as Verdi would find it acceptable to squander such splendid music on an opera whose dramaturgy was so deeply flawed. What was it about this opera, or at least the Met production of this opera, we wondered, that made it seem so dramatically discursive and interminable, and could whatever it was be fixed or were the opera's dramatic flaws so intrinsic a part of the work that no amount of doctoring could save it?
And so, pen and pad in hand, we sat down to view the Met's Don Carlo again from beginning to end to find out, and to our utter surprise what we found was that remarkably little had to be done to transform this dramatically discursive, interminable opera into a relatively fleet-footed, dramatically coherent, effective and affecting melodrama of the Italian opera sort.
And of what did that remarkably little consist? Namely this (the acts, scenes, and episodes referred to are those of the Met production):
No change. This act (the so-called "Fontainebleau Act") is essential as setup for and to make believable (that is, believable in the Italian opera way) all that follows.
Monk's opening aria — OUT!
Choral setup for "Veil" episode and "Veil" episode proper — OUT!
Elisabeth's "Farewell" aria to her lady-in-waiting — OUT!
The entire second episode (i.e., Scene 2, the so-called "Auto-da-fé Scene" which, surprisingly, is the opera's biggest drama-stopper of all) — OUT!
Eboli's recitative and aria after her confession — OUT!
No change except for a restoration of the final moments of the ending along the lines of Verdi's original final moments to replace the lame substitute invented by this production's Regie.
And that's it. And every one of those above OUTs is out for the very same reason: the material is deadeningly drama-stopping, totally unnecessary, and/or more or less silly.
The above cuts may not save hugely in clock time but they save an eternity in dramatic time and free Don Carlo with its splendid music to play out the way one expects a Verdi opera to play out; viz., coherently, economically, engagingly, and movingly — that is, of course, engagingly and movingly for those who find Italian opera to their tastes. We, as all regular readers of S&F are aware, are not among that number.
We've just finished watching our tape of the Met's HD film of Don Carlo which was telecast by PBS this past Thursday. Over the years, we've heard this opera twice before in this five-act version — or, rather, attempted to hear it. We never managed to make it through the entire opera either time. This time we were determined to hear the whole thing through from beginning to end, no matter what. And so we did.
At bottom, Don Carlo is your basic Italian soap opera, bloated (or perhaps padded would be a better term) to intolerable proportions in order to give every songbird some aria or something to sing and/or in order to mount some pointless display of spectacle for spectacle's sake as is, for most egregious instance, the entire so-called "Auto-da-fé Scene" of Act III which episode fulfills no legitimate dramatic purpose whatsoever and in fact stops dead in its tracks what little drama the opera had going for it up to that point. This opera is not merely long. It's bloody interminable. Dramatically, it's a discursive train wreck, abounding with effects without cause (or without sufficient cause), and about as plausible dramatically as a Three Stooges epic.
The sets in this production were execrable, and the stage direction, nonexistent, or if existent, the work of a hack. The production had the saving grace of some fine voices and a fine orchestra (Verdi's orchestra in this work adumbrates faintly the orchestra of Aida), the orchestra led competently but without distinction by that French-Canadian guy whose name we can never spell or pronounce. Neither voices nor orchestra, not even Verdi's mostly splendid music, however, could save this work from being the colossal (on both counts) bore it most surely is. Why Verdi squandered such splendid music on this failed dramma per musica wannabe is a mystery.
No wonder we never made it through the first two times.
[NOTE: This entry has been edited as of 6:57 PM Eastern on 7 Jul to correct a transposed phrase.]
You might think a mutilated dead bunny onstage in a theater a new thing but you'd be wrong. The notorious Regie Christoph Schlingensief (1960-2010) been there, done that in his 2004 staging of Wagner's Parsifal for the Bayreuther Festspiele (yes, you read that right: Parsifal) albeit his mutilated dead bunny was shown in images rather than onstage live — er, dead.
Well, actually you won't be able to see that mutilated dead bunny onstage after all if you attend the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of As You Like It in New York as New York bunny-lovers have risen in outraged protest against just the very idea, and so the producers have decided to, um, cut the mutilated dead bunny completely for the New York run of the play even though the mutilated dead bunny played without incident in the company's production of the play in London some two years ago.
New York's loss, bunny's gain.
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 8:27 PM Eastern on 7 Jul. See below.]
When in May of this year New York City Opera announced its intention to leave the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, its home since 1965, and instead give its performances in several undisclosed locations around the city, it struck us as, well, a not-very-bright decision on the part of General Manager and Artistic Director George Steel and the NYCO board. But what do we know.
We later read a June New York Times Op-Ed piece by Julius Rudel, the general director and principal conductor of NYCO from 1957 to 1979, saying essentially that he, too, thought it a not-very-bright decision. Well, actually, what he in essence said was that he thought the decision catastrophic.
Today, we read a report by The New York Times's Daniel J. Wakin, published in advance of NYCO's formal announcement which announcement is scheduled for next Tuesday, giving some of the details of the opera company's planned 2011-2012 season after reading which we now know for all but certain that the company's decision was indeed not-very-bright, and could very well turn out to be catastrophic.
It's perhaps somewhat precipitous to sing a requiem just yet, but it seems to us that the beginning of rehearsals would not be out of place.
Update (8:27 PM Eastern on 7 Jul): And now comes this as reported by Daniel J. Wakin in The New York Times:
In a rising tide of protest, opera-world stars are denouncing New York City Opera’s planned move from Lincoln Center and calling into question the company’s stewardship.
Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, Carlisle Floyd, Sherrill Milnes, Samuel Ramey, Hal Prince and Frederica von Stade were among more than 120 singers, directors, composers and others who have agreed to have their names attached to an open letter criticizing the move, said Catherine Malfitano, the soprano and a former City Opera performer, who took the lead in writing it.
The letter, which was released to The New York Times on Thursday, calls on the company’s board and management to reconsider the move from its longtime home at the David H. Koch Theater (formerly the New York State Theater). “To lose City Opera as a vital part of the Lincoln Center family would be felt as a personal loss to each and every one of us as well as to this great city,” the letter says, “and we find it unnecessary and unacceptable.”
[NOTE: This entry has been updated (1) as of 1:16 PM Eastern on 5 Jul. See below.]
Here is Glenn Gould playing the Sarabande from Bach's French Suite No. 1. We post it here simply because it's beautiful and as an excuse to display our new MP3 player, an adaptation of an elegant WordPress plug-in designed by Martin Laine.
Update (1:16 PM Eastern on 5 Jul): If you thought you saw a green stripe crawling from left to right across our new MP3 player when you opened it earlier you weren't hallucinating. We were experimenting with colors for what's called the "tracker" and at one point tried green with the thought that perhaps a splash of color might add a nice touch to our otherwise grayscale color scheme but decided ultimately that all it managed to do was tart-up the player's elegant design and so abandoned the idea and re-coded our player template — then promptly forgot to re-code the player actually embedded in our above entry(!).
It seems that our Senior Moments are becoming more frequent with each passing month.
Advice to the young: never get old. It sucks.