The biggest part of the problem is the Great Man myth that still permeates classical music and which has also found its way into the new music claiming its lineage from that tradition. Until we rid ourselves of the notion that the best music of all time was created by a handful of men who lived an ocean away from us and who all died more than a century before any of us were born, we will never have programming that truly reflects the vast array of musical creativity all around us. It’s the same myth that locks American repertoire out of most programming at opera houses and symphony orchestras as well as music by anyone from anywhere who is currently alive. When a work by someone who is alive, American, or female (or a combination of those attributes) is played, it’s inevitably a single work wedged in between the obligatory performances of works by Great Men. Heaven forbid a major opera company or symphony orchestra would most [sic] a season that included a broad range of works that were not penned by Great Men!If "the biggest part of the problem" is truly the Great Man Myth (and we don't for an instant imagine that it truly is) which has it that "the best music of all time was created by a handful of men who lived an ocean away from us and who all died more than a century before any of us were born," then we've news for Mr. Oteri: the "problem" is indissoluble and will remain so for even the most remotely foreseeable future. For the "Great Man Myth" as above defined (except for the "more than a century" part which more accurately should have read "more than a half-century or so") is in large part no myth but a demonstrable truth that no amount of wishful, PC, or delusional thinking can make disappear or cease to exist. It's time living composers (and incidentally, their champions and cheerleaders as well) accepted and got over that demonstrable truth and their destructive "anxiety of influence" response to it, to borrow Harold Bloom's neatly and aptly named formulation, and instead got on with the business of composing new music as best their native gift will allow without the need to attempt to demythologize or pooh-pooh a purported myth that's no myth at all and never was. Yes, we understand your pain. But instead of railing at us for the above as you may be wont to do, you would do better to consider it our sincere if modest contribution to the furtherance of new music worldwide.
I confess it's beyond me how anyone who admits to "wearing [his] Wagnerian badge on [his] sleeve" could have any good words to say for the staging of the new Opera Australia Melbourne _Ring_. That staging is clearly and unmistakably out-and-out Eurotrash and should be condemned as ought all Eurotrash stagings of any canonical opera whatsoever. Such stagings are an especially pernicious malignancy no matter how well-designed and -executed they may be. Any directorial hack can come up with a Eurotrash staging of a canonical opera. There's no trick to doing that. The trick is to come up with a new, fresh, and revelatory staging of a canonical opera that's faithful to the full spirit and sense of the concept and vision of the opera's original creator (called in German, _Werktreue_). And the trick there is that such a staging requires an opera director with a deep understanding of the opera in question as well as a genuine creative gift, a rare commodity always. On the evidence of this Melbourne _Ring_, Neil Armfield is clearly no such opera director.As always, the above reprinted here for the purpose of making a record of it on S&F.
But I do think that the [English National Opera] management has expended too much energy trying to please the critics and a metropolitan coterie of mavens and diehards with shows that are "ground-breakingly original" or "radically challenging" while failing to give enough thought and attention to presenting day-in day-out, bread-and-butter opera that offers less sophisticated or exigent audiences an enjoyable and modestly priced evening out....So, pander to the tastes and sensibilities of opera-going proles in order to bring more cash into the ENO box office. Wow! Now there's a new and novel idea. Incredible. That's been the money-making solution since Day One of public opera houses, and for opera as an artform it's always the wrong solution. Some people never learn.
I have an opinion that is much simpler, lol. We're dealing largely with the world of myth. How does one "realistically" portray a world of mythical or fantastical creatures onstage? - Ancient gods with human behaviors, dwarves, giants, sea maidens, fates, magical birds and dragons, etc. Though the experiences and triumphs and foibles and emotions of these characters are of course meant to be universal, many of the characters themselves are not rooted in our everyday human reality. They are creatures of our imaginations, who live in imaginary worlds. How does one "definitively" or "realistically" portray this onstage, in a basic sense, let alone all the various "coups de theatre" events that take place? [...] [W]ith the Ring ... we're dealing with a much more intangible world of imaginary settings and characters. There is no definitive world here.To which we responded:
Oh, but there is. Does any sane, honest (as opposed to self-serving, self-involved) opera director/stage designer (or anyone at all, actually) imagine that Wagner's setting the _Ring_ in mythological time and space was done willy-nilly or because it was expedient? Of course not. Accordingly, in staging the world of the _Ring_, there are three fundamental, "definitive" requirements that must be met: 1: The overarching physical context of that world must be a recognizable (as opposed to metaphoric or symbolic) representation — abstract or literal — of raw Nature at whatever scale is called for in the score.Once again, the above for the purpose of making it part of the S&F record.
2: There must be NOTHING in that world that fixes the time of the action to any specific, identifiable real-world era or period — past, present, or future — beyond the action taking place at some time deep in mankind's prehistoric (literally pre-historic) past.
3: There must be NOTHING in that world that fixes the location of the action to any specific, identifiable real-world place beyond the action taking place somewhere along the length of the pre-historic Rhine River Valley. Beyond staging the _Ring_ so that that staging first satisfies those three fundamental, "definitive" requirements, one is perfectly free to do pretty much whatever it is one's little heart desires provided it's at all points consonant with the full sense and spirit of Wagner's original vision and concept as made manifest in the score (music, text, and stage directions).
Wagner's dream of using advanced stage technology to depict convincing dragons, dwarves, rainbow bridges, flying horses etc. has been shattered. It's up to those who have grown up in the post-realistic era of the theater to pick up the shards of Wagner's vision and forge new conceptions of theatrical reality, ones not willed or even foreseen by him, in their attempts to redeem his works for each successive generation.To which we responded:
Wagner's mature stageworks (i.e., his music-dramas) are hardly in need of "redemption" for this or for any foreseeable future generation. They are, however, as are all stageworks, perpetually in need of fresh, thoughtful, and faithful rethinking (i.e., faithful to the full sense and spirit of Wagner's original concept and vision as made manifest in the scores — music, text, and stage directions) in terms of their staging. I addressed this problem generally in a lengthy S&F entry of 2005 titled "Staging Wagner's Music-Dramas" (http://tinyurl.com/78jl72m) using the _Ring_ as the example case. Below is an extended excerpt from that 2005 entry.As always, the above for the purpose of making it part of the S&F record.In approaching the immense problem of staging the _Ring_, one must at the very outset admit to oneself that as colossal a dramatic and musical genius as Wagner was, his genius did not extend to solving, or even dealing with, the manifold problems — even impossibilities — inherent in accomplishing a physical realization of his idealized vision on the stage, the copious and explicit stage directions in the scores of the four works notwithstanding. This is made painfully clear (although never so stated) in the diaries of Richard Fricke, Wagner's devoted and hugely capable assistant stage manager (Wagner himself was the stage manager) for the first complete cycle of the _Ring_ presented at the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876 (Fricke was officially the "ballet master" even though nothing resembling a ballet plays any part in the tetralogy), in which diaries Wagner can be seen to be a man almost beside himself with indecision and dismay about just how things ought to go, or could even be made to go, in transforming his idealized vision of the _Ring_ into the cold, hard reality of an actual stage presentation, and in consequence driving just about everyone involved with the production to near distraction, not to mention resulting in the mise en scène of that first _Ring_ being, for the most part, an illusion-shattering and drama-distracting failure even down to the costumes the final design of which baldly disregarded Wagner's explicit instructions to Carl E. Doepler, the costume designer, to make the costumes "a creation wholly of your own imagination," and "from a cultural period that is remote from any experience or reference to an experience." The principal problem in staging any of Wagner's music-dramas is directly and intimately bound up with their very nature. Since in Wagnerian music-drama the music, and in particular the orchestral music, incorporeal as it is, contains and is the expressive transmitter of the very interior core of the drama itself as opposed to merely providing mood-setting or -enhancing accompaniment for a drama whose interior core is contained in and transmitted by other means as with, say, a stage play, movie, or the typical Italian opera, any attempt to echo that incorporeal dramatic interior core by concrete visual representation will serve only to blunt that core's expressive power by unavoidably competing with that core's main transmitter: the music. Such concrete visual representation can, at its most dramatically successful, be no better than superfluous, and at worst, distracting or even confusing. In the matter of concrete visual representation of the drama in Wagner's music-dramas, the texts, as sung and mimed by the singer-actors, provide all the concrete dramatic representation necessary as those sung and mimed texts are the narrative- and fact-explicit armature about which the entire drama is constructed. But as that drama is made for presentation on the stage, it requires a mise en scène within which to play itself out. As with any stagework, the mise en scène of a Wagner music-drama is comprised of two principal elements: the human (and, on occasion, animal) actors, and the representation of the physical context in and through which they operate and move. In the _Ring_ , Nature itself at its largest scale is the central and overarching physical context, and therein lies the fundamental staging difficulty presented by the tetralogy. The problem, even today, but especially in Wagner's time, of accomplishing a convincing naturalistic realization of that central physical context within the bounded physical space of the stage, no matter how large it may be and no matter how sophisticated the stage machinery, should have been immediately apparent to Wagner, and the solution to the problem reflected in his stage directions. Wagner, however, seems to have taken no notice of the problem much less its solution. In the heat of creation, oblivious to the reality of the problems engendered by such mechanical matters, he instead wrote those stage directions as if he expected that by the sheer force of his genius a way would be found to make convincing their naturalistic realization when the time came for actually mounting the work on the specially built stage he always envisioned for it. As noted above, however, no such way presented itself, and Wagner found himself ultimately in much the same near-impossible position as do producers and directors of the _Ring_ today and with far more crude and far fewer technical resources available to him with which to deal with it. In short, what Wagner had done when writing the _Ring_ was to visualize the work cinematically decades before such a thing was even imagined rather than in terms of what was physically possible naturalistically within the circumscribed space of a theatrical stage and its limited technical and mechanical means. Interestingly enough, even had that as yet unknown medium been available to Wagner in all its 21st-century glory, he would have quickly found that it presents constraining problems of its own, at least one of which is every bit as difficult, even as insurmountable, as the most difficult problem he faced in mounting his magnum opus on the theatrical stage of his day: make convincing within the relentlessly realistic medium of film, actors singing their dialogue. So, what's to be done today in presenting the _Ring_ ... on stage? In my long-considered opinion there's but one wholly adequate way to handle the thing, and it can be expressed in but a single idea: suggestion by way of abstraction. Easy to say, hugely difficult to accomplish dramatically and aesthetically convincingly. I'm firsthand familiar with the work of but one director who actually managed to accomplish that: the brilliant director and stage designer Wieland Wagner in his first post-war staging of the _Ring_ which staging I witnessed at Bayreuth in 1958 (Die Walküre). It was Wieland's genius to come up with what was essentially Regietheater at its very best and set a new standard for Wagner productions worldwide, showing what could be done by the use of inspired modern stagecraft in the service of Wagner's own idealized dramatic vision, that last being the key to this production's great artistic success. With Wieland taking his (unacknowledged) cue from the groundbreaking work of the brilliant Swiss theater theoretician Adolphe Appia (1862-1928), the production's almost total absence of stage furniture, its use of non-period-or-place-committal costumes, and the creative use of lighting to model and shape space and the characters who inhabit it, Wieland — taking his grandfather at his word when in 1853 he declared that the yet unwritten music of the _Ring_ "shall sound in a way that people shall hear what they cannot see" — created a neutral "frame" or "matrix" for the tetralogy, so to speak, that permitted the music itself, working in tandem with the text and the audience's own imagination, to fill in all the missing stage furniture as if it all were right in front of the audience's eyes. It was a brilliant stroke, a stroke of genius even, as it made manifest to the audience in the most intimate way imaginable Richard Wagner's deepest interior vision of the _Ring_ while rendering Wieland's properly transparent. As even given today's formidable stage technology a convincing, non-distracting, and dramatically non-enervating naturalistic realization of the _Ring_'s central and overarching physical context is a clear impossibility within the bounded space of a theatrical stage with its relatively limited mechanical and technical means (as compared to cinema), and, further, that the result of any attempt at doing so will ultimately compete with the carrier and main transmitter of the drama, the music, one is, as consequence, ineluctably driven to adopt the solution of realizing that central physical context by way of suggestion, which is to say, abstractly. That, in turn, dictates that the realization of every detail of the physical context of the entire work, costumes very much included — the work's entire mise en scène, right down to the stage and costume decorations (which decoration should be used only when telling dramatically and in every case kept to an absolute minimum) — be similarly handled, the style of abstraction a task for the director in collaborative effort with the producer, stage designer, and music director to ensure that not only is the result aesthetically expressive and resonant dramatically but that it works to produce a heightened and more revelatory realization of the deeper layers of meaning embodied in the music rather than fight against or compete with the music's dramatic centrality, and that it works to maintain at all points a consonance with the full spirit and sense of Wagner's original idealized theatrical vision and concept as made manifest in the scores (music, text, and stage directions).
[The language of the music of ancient Greece] is a uniquely simple language but one that can find endless possibilities of development. It easily accepts external influences - a new color, a new combination of intervals, a rhythmic pattern - and it has the capacity of continually renewing itself. Those composers who bought into the theory that this ever-evolving system was dead at the beginning of the 20th century were enthusiastic and passionate adolescents, almost all of whom later recanted and got back to writing music, having passed through their tantrum phase. Hindemith, Weill, Copland, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Bartok, Shostakovich - they all ended up in a very different place from their bang-on-a-can, yell-in-your-face entrance onto the international stage. We don't teach that version of history [today], mind you. We are meant to believe that classical music just got more and more complex and experimental — and continues to. But the only way to accept that idea is to eliminate the data, since this explanation of the 20th century describes a fraction of the music actually composed and listened to. If you were a physicist, and proposed a theory of the Universe that simply ignored 99% of perceivable information, you would be laughed out of the Academy.Yes indeed. Indeed you would. Read the whole article here.
The current plan, as revealed in the NYT, is to revive the Lepage Ring in the 2018-2019 season. [...] I can't say the Lepage production's return is anything other than a disappointment. [...] ...bad news for anyone hoping to see traditional Wagner stagings at the Met.To which we responded:
Also bad news for anyone wanting to see a thoughtful and genuinely imaginative new staging of the _Ring_ faithful to the full sense and spirit of Wagner's original concept and vision without in any way being a so-called "traditional" staging. Today, one has to be reminded that such a staging is more than merely possible but that it would require a director/designer of significant and authentic creative gift. Generally speaking, there are never many of those around at any one point in time. With my limited experience of the work of today's practicing directors/designers, my vote would be for Julie Taymor who, provided she had real enthusiasm for such a project, would fit the bill perfectly. As to the revival of the Lepage abortion, Gelb really has little choice in the matter. He's simply *forced* to attempt to amortize the obscene cost of that failed experiment over at least one revival.As always, the above merely for the purpose of making it part of the S&F record.
Impossible? Believe.In response to which we say, Why impossible? But of course we believe. It sounds perfectly logical and spot-on apposite to us.
I carry no torch for Fidelio: it’s not an opera I love, and I certainly wouldn’t want to direct it because I’m not sure it works. But that’s the issue. If you don’t believe in a piece you shouldn’t do it. Calixto Bieito clearly doesn’t believe in this opera, and it would be better if he’d left it alone.To which we dutifully responded:
But what Michael White wrote of Calixto Bieito in his article for _The Telegraph_ is true of almost every Eurotrash (_Konzept_) Regietheater Regie. It's practically what defines a Eurotrash Regie. Eurotrash Regies have zero interest in what the original opera's creator intended, and even less interest in the music. They care only about what the original opera's *story* (i.e., the story as set forth in the libretto) *suggests* to them for a story of their own invention that they want (or would want) to tell. As far as the music and all that singing goes, it's for them merely an intrusive annoyance they have to put up with because part and parcel of, and unavoidable in, fraudulently misrepresenting their resulting new stageworks as "new interpretations" — or, worse, "new stagings" — of existing, mostly canonical operas. And, no, I'm not being in the least hyperbolic or rhetorical in any of the above.As always in such cases, we reprint the above merely to make a record of it here on S&F.
⚫ Act I finished. Bravissimo!, @NicoMuhly. Riveting, deeply affecting, and darkly beautiful. I need a full score — and a DVD!While we readily if somewhat embarrassingly confess that our two "Bravissimo!" were more than a smidge over the top, we put that down to a momentary instant access of enthusiasm brought on as much by what we heard as it was by its being measured against what we'd expected to hear and those über-superlatives were, after all, part of two instantly written and posted tweets as opposed to soberly thought out, well-considered critical commentary and as such were, to some degree at least, forgivable on that count alone. The next day, we began reading the MSM reviews of the work and were disbelievingly astonished. Almost all were largely (but, except for Martin Bernheimer's jaw-dropping, parallel-universe review, not entirely) negative (see this Ionarts post for a sampling). Searching our mind for some possible explanation for this wholly unexpected (and, to our mind, wholly unwarranted) critical response, the best we could come up with was a lame, "There must be something seriously distorting about the staging that somehow managed to insidiously overwhelm both music and text." We need to hear this work again (better, several agains) — this time with at least a beforehand look at the vocal score and a hearing with vocal score in hand. When so many experienced professional ears hear that which is in opposition to what one's own ears have heard, one has no choice but to revisit the work in question before again placing full trust in one's own initial judgment.
⚫ Act II over. Commedia finita est. A deeply affecting, soul-deep journey that works. Once again, @nicomuhly: Bravissimo!
And last, the more contentious singer/opera matter.Mr. Douglas: How about if we change T____'s sentence just a little bit - like - Great voices can make the opera libretti less distasteful than might otherwise be the case. For many people, myself very emphatically included, great music making trumps all other facets of the operatic experience.For all opera (i.e., for all _dramma per musica_) — from the most slight French or bel canto confection to the most profound Wagner music-drama — the music and its performance are the work's _sine qua non_ and central dramatic element. There can be no argument concerning that point. But the libretto is of utmost importance as well, as, again, from the most slight French or bel canto confection to the most profound Wagner music-drama, the libretto acts as armature of the drama providing as it does those critical narrative and concrete details music alone is incapable of expressing. Great voices can make a weak and/or clumsy libretto more convincing and lend it more weight than it otherwise would have, but if a libretto is truly distasteful then distasteful it will remain no matter how great the voices singing it or the music accompanying it — that is, if one is actually paying attention to what the libretto is saying. And if one is not, such a one is missing a critical part of what the opera is about no matter how superb the music and no matter how deep one's enchantment and involvement with that music might be. The synergistic dramatic coupling of text and music — a genuine organic unity in a Wagner music-drama (as opposed to his operas); something less, sometimes even much less, in ordinary conventional opera — is principally what makes opera the unique dramatic artform it has grown to be.
It is elsewhere that we find singers who sing today, enjoying their prerogatives as complete and unencumbered artists, but never in the opera world. To hear singers sing the way Patti did, with sovereign command and the complete control of what they want to do and without the barest hint of interference, one has to go to the world of pop, to rock, and to country western....And that's precisely where such anarchic, individualistic performance practices belong. They have NO place in opera. Ever since the first public opera houses opened in the mid-17th century in Italy where pimping theater owners/managers understood that pandering to the tastes and sensibilities of opera-going groundlings was the way to make the most money, singers became the dictators of what appeared onstage in those houses because they and the pimps understood what the groundlings valued in opera: spectacular voices singing spectacular songs amidst spectacular sets and stage effects. About opera as a new and unique dramatic artform the groundlings couldn't have cared a rat's ass worth and so opera as _dramma per musica_ all but died almost at its very birthing a mere half-century before. It's been a long, hard, bumpy ride from that time to this, but finally today, with the help of a few extraordinary geniuses, opera has managed to reestablish itself as the unique dramatic artform it was intended to be by its late-16th-, early-17th-century innovators, and singers now understand their proper place in the artform: as another part of the musico-dramatic machinery whose every effort must be focused on achieving the most vivid and compelling realization of the opera creator's concept and vision as made manifest in the score (music, text, and stage directions) under the direction of first-rate conductors and stage directors devoted to achieving that end.
A stranger asks me to write an Aesthetic Statement. He demands my notion of the ideal poem, so he’ll know the secret of my love of some poems and my distaste for others. I feel his pain. Perhaps he wants to prosecute me should I praise a poet who deviates from my Platonic ideal. An aesthetic statement is of little use to a critic unless he’s a lover of manifestos, a maker of quarrels, or a host who treats his guests like Procrustes. Aesthetics is a rational profession for the philosopher, but for the working critic it’s a mug’s game. To write about your aesthetics is no better than revealing your secrets if you’re a magician, or returning a mark’s stolen wallet if you’re a pickpocket.This is must-read stuff — for MSM professionals as well as for us mere blogger amateurs.
If Wagner had a flaw as a librettist, it's that he was not ruthless enough about trimming interesting "color" details he had unearthed in his research. There are places in MEISTERSINGER and PARSIFAL where it is difficult to get a clear emotional through-line because there is so much talk about minutiae of the Mastersingers' tablatur [sic] or the complicated relationship between the Grail and the Liturgy, for example.Bypassing our, um, corrective response to the former commenter, we responded to the latter:
While I never had a problem dramatically with the setting forth of the minutiae of "the complicated relationship between the Grail and the Liturgy" in _Parsifal_ as its dramatic pace fit well with the dramatic pace of the rest of the music-drama, I for years had a problem feeling the same way about the lengthy, detailed, dramatically disproportionate explanation of the technical requirements a song must meet in order to be considered a song worthy of a Mastersinger not to even speak of a song worthy of a prize. But little by little I came to realize that without that lengthy, detailed explanation the audience would never really feel or get a real sense of just what Walther was up against in creating a new song for the competition much less a song worthy of a prize from the Mastersingers — in this case, THE prize. Once I understood that, the lengthy, detailed explanation of the technical requirements a song must meet in order to be considered a song worthy of a Mastersinger and a prize seemed just the right thing dramatically, its disproportionateness a purposeful (if dramatically risky) creative act on Wagner's part. Lesson learned: never second-guess a transcendent creative genius. If you imagine there's something amiss with a work of his (or hers) you will invariably find in the end that the fault was with your understanding, not the work.We await the static our above closing graf is almost certain to bring.
Ah, does Mr. Douglas even suspect the implications of his last paragraph? One wonders...To which we responded:
Mr. Douglas is indeed aware of "the implications" of said paragraph. But then, it very much depends on who one considers to be a member of that very exclusive Transcendent Creative Genius club. In the domain of opera, one may, for instance, consider, say, Verdi to be among their number. But with all due respect to Verdi's great creative gift, I do not. In the domain of opera, I consider but two composers to be members of that very exclusive club: Mozart and Wagner, and so in this case my referenced paragraph applies to them exclusively.We expect more. Or perhaps not, given our above quoted response.
[There was] a lot that made me feel stupid, but a lesson in how much we've come to depend on directors for clear answers, even if provocative ones.Mr. Woolfe seems to have lost sight of the fact that in a Wagner music-drama (i.e., those stageworks subsequent to Lohengrin) the music, built upon the narrative armature of the text, provides an attentive audience all it needs for "clear answers" to any questions it might have; that in fact that very thing is at the very heart of Wagner's unique genius. Mr. Woolfe, it would seem, is in urgent need of some curative or rehabilitative therapy to restore his critical judgment and understanding of such matters.