We ALL need to talk. Arts administrators, Directors and Conductors, Audience members, Conservatoires, teachers, Families, Friends, Singers and Press and Critics and Opera Companies… EVERYONE. All of you who have known and love Opera...and still do. All of you who know it to be the Art form that is about celebrating the human voice, the human voice at its most Olympian heights of expression. [...] [Opera] is not about lights, it is not about costumes, it’s not about sets, it’s not even about sex or stature… It is ALL about the human voice. [...] All the visual messages that a production and costume brings to an opera does not alter ( even though they can try very hard) the fact that it’s true success in moving and making an audience love the Art form lies in the voice that sails across the pit to the audience and into their ears. ... [Opera] is about and really ONLY about communication through great singing. [...] OPERA is ALL about the voice. Many of those who think they know me and may be surprised by this. But it’s not an opinion, it’s a FACT [all caps for emphasis Ms. Coote's].This sounds like a rant coming from a TOF (TOF: True Opera Fan — like a teenage movie fan only worse; much worse), not an opera professional. So, opera is all about the voice, is it? Well, in certain limited cases we suppose that's true, and most particularly true of those operas belonging to the so-called bel canto opera era. They are indeed "all about the voice" by design as, after all, there's precious little else there all the rest being nothing more than platform and pretext for the showcasing of voices and singing. But Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier is no such opera. It's a genuine dramma per musica — a genuine music-drama — as are all Wagner's mature works and even several of his earlier operas (Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin) as well as all Mozart's mature works (the so-called Da Ponte operas and even his Singspiel, Die Zauberflöte). None of these stageworks are "all about the voice". They're all about the (music-)drama the singers and singing being just one part of the performance apparatus which exist solely to serve the central (music-)drama. And since when has it been improper and in bad taste to comment on the physical appropriateness of the (singer-)actors in a fully staged presentation of a (music-)drama? Answer: never. It's all fair game for, and in fact a professional obligation of, the professional opera critic to make such comment and has been since Day One. The problem in this particular case was not a fault of the critics but of the inexperience of Ms. Erraught and the advice of her advisors (not to even speak of the production's director) who should have known better than to allow her to accept the role of Octavian in a fully staged version of this opera even though she is more than up to the role vocally and acting-wise.
“Life is a bitter, painful fight” – the words, coming from the cavernous bass voice on the platform, reverberate round the tent until [director Graham] Vick interrupts to explain the emphases he wants. The temperature may be chilly but the mood is collaborative, and the atmosphere starts to heat up when another operatic bass starts to declaim simultaneously from an opposing platform. The scene also involves two stagehands, who hold placards emblazoned with the slogans “Homosexuality is a sickness” and “Our simple freedom is the right to carry a gun”. Vick, pointing to the first singer, interrupts again: "Don’t sing to him – sing to the world." It is doubtful that the 19th-century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky envisioned such a scenario when he wrote Khovanshchina, his epic tale of social and political conflict – but it encapsulates much of what Vick’s work is about. A long-time Russophile, he wants to draw parallels between the society portrayed by Mussorgsky, riven by political and ethno-religious strife, and the world we live in today. The opera, which Mussorgsky left incomplete, is being sung in English under a new title, Khovanskygate: A National Enquiry.Read the whole thing here.
When it comes to classical music and American culture, the fat lady hasn’t just sung. Brünnhilde has packed her bags and moved to Boca Raton. Classical music has been circling the drain for years, of course. There’s little doubt as to the causes: the fingernail grip of old music in a culture that venerates the new; new classical music that, in the words of Kingsley Amis, has about as much chance of public acceptance as pedophilia; formats like opera that are extraordinarily expensive to stage; and an audience that remains overwhelmingly old and white in an America that’s increasingly neither. Don’t forget the attacks on arts education, the Internet-driven democratization of cultural opinion, and the classical trappings—fancy clothes, incomprehensible program notes, an omerta-caliber code of audience silence — that never sit quite right in the homeland of popular culture.Clearly, this is not claiming that classical music is dead in contemporary mainstream American culture but a suggestion that it finds itself in serious trouble; viz., as the rest of the article makes clear, relegated to the culture's deepest hinterlands, its outermost margins. (Although the article negligently does not make note of it, this silent, insidious process had its beginnings in the mid-1960s and became more pressing with each passing year since and has today reached a degree that's perhaps the most extreme it's been since America became a fully developed nation sometime in the mid- to late-19th century.) And following those lede grafs, that is what the balance of this article is all about; the thesis it attempts to support and prove using statistical evidence of the inarguable migration. And that's it. No requiem, no funeral. The article's author even hopes classical music in American culture is due a comeback (see the article's closing graf). The above commentary published here in an attempt to inject a modest measure of clear-eyed sanity into the presiding hysteria.
I hate to see this, but Martin Bernheimer has grown OLD. He has forgotten the magic a fairy tale can evoke, he has forgotten the power a naive imagination can wield in the theatre, he has forgotten that all of us are, essentially, inner children using the beauty and magic of art as tools in our lifelong search for our outer adult. NO ONE has read "Alice in Wonderland" once too often; NO ONE has listened to the "Nutcracker Suite" once too often; NO ONE has seen "Fantasia" once too often. But lots of people have talked themselves into believing that they have. They blame their own jaded eyes and ears on "familiarity," instead of placing the blame squarely where it belongs: on their own paucity of imagination.We find ourself in sympathy with this but mostly (although not entirely) disagree with the reasons given for Mr. Bernheimer's response. Rather, it is, we think, something more base. And that is that today it's not considered a "smart" critical response to praise any opera staging that hasn't been "relevantly" deconstructed socially and/or politically and/or psychologically and realized onstage in modern dress and with "kitchen-sink" realism. That such a staging is an absolute kiss of death for an opera such as Rusalka (or Frau or the Ring operas, etc.) seems to cause these "smart" critical types not so much as a moment's pause. But then, it's the 21st century and postmodern lunacy still reigns supreme and, unhappily, there's nothing for it but to attempt to ignore it until the inmates no longer control the asylum and the postmodern ethos dies of its own demented imbecility.
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) that 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 and 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 phantom 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.
In 1977, after two decades of ardent and involved devotion to the cinema, I attended a screening of the original Star Wars movie drawn there against all my best instincts by the phenomena of the huge adult crowds lining up at the box office to see this putative kiddie flick, and by the largely positive reviews from certain film reviewers who ordinarily would dismiss such a movie almost out of hand. An hour after it began, I left the movie theater mid-show, dismayed and angered, and with but two exceptions (Schindler's List, and the showing of a print of the newly restored Lawrence of Arabia), haven't entered a movie theater since.And with the single and singular exception of the aforementioned 2005 experience, so has it remained to this day. There is today an ancillary experience: We cannot today find so much as a single movie reviewer (forget about critic), online or in print, in whose writings we can place any aesthetic trust, or who writes with the panache, eloquence, grace, and intelligence of film reviewers and critics of days past. Gone are the likes of Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, Bosley Crowther, and John Simon. (Mr. Simon is still alive but no longer regularly reviews movies in print. He does, however, have an online blog — Uncensored John Simon — but which blog is, unhappily, not devoted to reviewing anything.) Much of the blame for the debased quality of today's critical writing on movies can be laid squarely at the feet of TV's Dynamic Duo, the late Gene Siskel and his late partner in crime Roger Ebert, the modern-day originators of the thumbs-up-thumbs-down school of movie reviewing. One can readily understand the appeal of such reviews both for reviewers and their audiences. They're relatively easy and quick to write, and for their audiences, infinitely easier to assimilate and understand than are the deeper-thought-out, more deeply examined and researched criticism of the best movie reviewers and critics of yesteryear. But that's hardly a justification of the practice. Merely an attempt at a partial explanation, superficial and true though it may be. Oh!, where have all today's true movie reviewers and critics gone? Are they all hibernating, awaiting a more propitious cultural time to make their reappearance? Or is it the case that the species has simply outlived its appeal and usefulness and consequently gone irretrievably extinct? O tempora! O mores!
December the second was the 90th birthday of poor Maria Callas. The encomiums of hysterics appear on the opera lists. Isn’t that a bore? Let’s forget that most of the people on those lists are idiots; let’s also forget that most of our American Musical Journalists are idiots too. Even when one trips in the dark that is arts commentary in Fecund America Today (as Emerson put it) and finds somebody with half a brain, it’s still a bore. Like the elderly tenorino, Placido Domingo, who lately cracked on a high note while trying to sing the Verdi baritone role of The Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, Callas has become an over sold, tired commodity, a testimony to the empty existence of opera lovers, and the pointlessness of opera in today’s world. Oh yes, Domingo in a disgusting display of “Let’s help the hype” told the ridiculous Anna Netrebko that she was “like Callas”. So Callas has become a decorative robe for whichever nonentity the whore house of the music business is pimping out. In all the Internet commentary that followed the crack and the comparison, few mentioned that Domingo is awful in general. He’s not a baritone, not even in the limited way he was a tenor. He’s just a puppet of media, a tenor preposterously compared to the very good he could never match and even to the greatest tenors, beside whom he sounded like a singer of bit parts. Now he’s an elderly footnote with too much ego to retire and spend hours on his knobby knees thanking Mammon for being able to fool so many people for so long. On Netrebko’s recent ghastly CD devoted to destroying Verdi arias, she committed musical atrocities that Callas could hardly have conceived of, let alone have been willing to put on something as durable as a CD. So the only real world use of poor Maria is to puff up every fraud that dances along the yellow brick road to sell out the enormous Metropolitan Opera. Even a fake baritone who was a second string talent like Domingo can use Maria as a bandwagon. And everybody’s happy, except maybe the ghost of Maria Callas.That is to say, the above should have caused us neither surprise nor repulsion had it appeared on an independent blog. But it didn't. It appeared in a blog post on a blog sponsored and published by no less than the venerable and widely read music journal Musical America; a blog and blog post written by one Albert Innaurato, the dependably bitter, angry, and foulmouthed Rumpelstiltskin of the opera world's yakking class. How Musical America could permit these near-libelous comments in a blog they sponsor and publish is beyond our understanding. That Mr. Innaurato is more than occasionally an idiot, his seeming encyclopedic knowledge of non-Wagnerian opera and the non-Wagnerian opera world notwithstanding, is well known. Musical America sponsoring and publishing Mr. Innaurato's "Musical America Blog" containing this sort of clearly inappropriate, over-the-top content makes us wonder whether Musical America is occasionally given to the idiotic as well.
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).