Monday, January 19, 2015

Dr. King

In the swirl of time, those events seem to have occurred just yesterday, but sadly they happened nearly fifty years ago.   I remember the late afternoon that I lost my friend.  I worked for him as a volunteer for several years.  We were not close acquaintances, but we were certainly brothers in a cause. In all my time following him, he probably said fewer than fifty words to me, but I remember them all clearly--they echo in my ears today.

When we talk about sacrifice, we have only to mention his name.  His is the picture that comes with the dictionary definition of the word. I love him now even more than I admired him then. The new generation cannot begin to understand who he was or what he did.  His detractors make fools of themselves. His admirers know only half the story. History has a way of clouding the truth--highlighting  and diminishing without real purpose.

We forget that his stance for civil rights went far beyond racial issues.  He stood up for all of the poor and he stood firm against the Vietnam War. He never took the easy road, but instead sought out the road that would lead to positive change. He chose not the stick, but the voice--a voice so skilled that his words resound today.  Those who have not read "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" recently should celebrate his day today by revisiting that work.  The genius of the man shines through as well as his compassion, skill, and philosophy. Caritas is not the answer to everything, but everything that is good results from Caritas. His compassion knew no bounds.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Wagnerian Pattern

Even though "artistic truths are eternal," and most great artists seek to break down the barriers that their culture imposes upon them; the ideas, philosophies, and ideologies of the milieu infiltrate and impregnate their works with meaning. Thus, the works will transcend their era, but the era will inhabit the works. To transfer the setting of the work in time immediately deletes an essential part of the work itself--the milieu in which it is set by the composer, author, or playwright.

As a nineteenth-century artist, Wagner inherited a working set of cultural norms that were essentially endemic to the time.  First of all, the era was paternalistic, although an undercurrent of gradual change was already evident--change that waited until the twentieth century to become a torrent that is only now becoming a dominant feature of society.  On the other hand, compared to what had come before, the paternalism of the nineteenth century, though unpleasant to modern senses, was very different when compared to earlier times--times when women and children (despite the Roman comedies of the nagging wife and the Greek plays of Lysistrata and Antigone) were on the footing of slaves if the displeased master of the house chose to eliminate them as property. Second, by the middle of the nineteenth century, women, though patronized, had become a symbol of sacrifice and the true heroes of this age. Coventry Patmore introduced the concept of the "Angel in the House," the perfect Biedermeir wife as Mario Praz called her in The Hero in Eclipse in Victorian Fiction (1956).  While Praz was bemoaning the bourgeois loss of classic heroism, he missed the fact that the new hero was the Schopenhauerian individual, who out of love takes a leap of faith, and sacrifices his or her (usually her) ego for the good of others through selfless love. While Wagner creates heroes such as Siegfried and Siegmund, their efforts go nowhere--instead, the sacrifice of Brunhilde saves the world, just as Senta would save the Ductchman and Elizabeth would redeem Tannhauser.  Third, what we in American Literature call the transcendental movement with its love for nature (particularly the forest), which comes from Schopenhauer's and Kant's phenomenal and noumenal worlds--a gateway beyond time and space where all things are one, united by some kind of "will" or life force, mesmerized the nineteenth-century artists--from the paintings of W.C. Friedrich through the operas of Wagner to the architecture of Gaudi and F.L. Wright. The tree becomes a connection with its roots in the ground and its branches in heaven, so not surprisingly in Parsifal the trees of the Grail Forest transform into the pillars of the Grail temple and no wonder that in Gaudi's Sagrada Familia the pillars of the cathedral are giant trees.

With those precepts in mind, a certain pattern in the Wagner operas is easily detectable.  If we consider Siegfried and Parsifal, we observe themes and variations that interplay between the two operas.

Siegfried is the larger than life epic hero, but Wagner makes him a forest creature more at home with the trees, birds, and animals than with Mime.  Ingenuous to a fault, Siegfried ponders what his mother was like.  In Act II, he responds to the natural world, bonds with it as he tries to talk with the forest bird, and takes Mother Nature for his maternal parent; later, in Act III he awakens and bonds with Mother Nature's daughter. To get to her, he must break the lance upon which the laws of the world are written. As his kiss awakens her, he calls out to his mother for her remembrance, but he awakens the one who saved him and who now brings him enlightenment. The patterns here are evident.  The innocent protagonist, the connections with nature, the kiss that brings knowledge, the longing for his mother who sacrificed herself for him.

The patterns are there in Parsifal also. Here is the ingenuous hero who wanders the forest in search of knowledge; his thoughtless act connects him with the swan, which becomes the symbol of his to be noble house. His close connection to the natural world is begun. As he accompanies Gurnemanz to the Grail temple, he transcends space and time connecting to the universe as Siegfried did in the Forest Murmers. Just before this, he learns of the death of his mother, whom he has deserted in his quest, but upon whose memory Kundry plays as she attempts to seduce the young man.  A variation of the pattern occurs as she does so, since she seductively kisses the pure fool. Unlike Siegfried's kiss awakening the sleeping princess,  Kundry's is the kiss that awakens the "sleeping prince," but not to love but to knowledge and enlightenment.  His quest now begins as the holy lance becomes his to protect, not break, and his ten years of wandering and sacrifice begin as he attempts to overcome Kundry's curse and return to the Grail Realm.  Gurnemanz connects Parsifal closely to the natural world by explaining the magic of Good Friday. He is now ready to redeem Kundry, Amfortas, the knights, and the realm, just as the awakened one in Siegfried would redeem the world.

An understanding of the cultural norms of the nineteenth century illustrates the patterns into which Wagner placed his works. By using variations on the patterns he was able to provide a wider perspective of his milieu.  To take these patterns out of the works, especially the natural world pattern, denies the works of much of their essential meaning.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Wagner and Characterization

I read a recent review in which a comment was made regarding Wagner's difficulties with characterization.  If one were to compare Wagner's operas with those of almost any other composer's, he or she would see that the opera world seldom gets beyond flat, static characters. Many characters are cardboard cutouts who sing.  Don Giovanni is a fascinating personage, but he dies unrepentant when the Commandatore comes for him. On the other hand, Count Almaviva learns his lesson and modifies his behavior in The Marriage of Figaro.  While not quite an epiphany, the Count's discovery does prompt change.  He becomes a more rounded, dynamic character.  In Tosca, Puccini presents us with a melodrama in which shades of grey are missing--again, fascinating characters whose traits change hardly at all.

Why, then, considering the medium in which he worked, should we expect any more from Wagner. The answer is simple--Wagner's operas are about change, about reformation, about salvation. Consider Tannhauser: We see a character constantly split in two by his own internal waffling--traits that Wagner personified in the characters of Venus and Elizabeth. When we teach students to analyze character, the word that seems to best help them in the process is "complex."  Complexity may result from character change or from the character traits being multi-faceted like a fine gem, which reveals something different when light shifts and is reflected from another angle. Tannhauser  presents us with both of these--multi-facets and change. We see him divided by the diverse desires to delineate the proper course in life as he struggles with lust and love, desire and virtue, paganism and faith, experience and innocence.  These represent the multi-facets that make the character complex, but it is the final scene in which he faces his demons, rebukes Venus' enticements, and wins redemption that reveals the change of character traits.

Parsifal, too, reveals those complex traits of a round, dynamic character. In fact, the prophesy upon which the opera hinges demands Parsifal experience the epiphany of what his role is to be. It is the epiphany he experiences in the arms of Kundry when he cries out, "Amfortas, die wunde!" that announces his enlightenment, his role, his purpose, and his change from ingenuousness to erloser.

Nor is Amfortas a simple, one-dimensional character. We learn of his ego and pride that drove him to take arms against Klingsor--ego and pride that led to his defeat and misery. We watch his suffering, but more importantly, we see how he is torn between doing the right thing--revealing the Grail and conducting the love feast--avoiding continued suffering that continued life as a sinner in the Grail realm causes him.  Finally, when Parsifal redeems him, we see his acquiescence to his role as a follower--no longer the king--as he gives way to Parsifal.  He is a changed man.

Perhaps Wagner's finest job of characterization occurs in The Ring.  Brunhilde begins the Walkure as a high-spirited, willful goddess. She is obedient to her father, but sensitive enough to be touched and changed by the valor and love of Siegmund. When this change leads to Wotan's ire, we watch her change from proud warrior-maiden to repentant daughter. In Siegfried, when we see her awakened by the hero (by the boy become man), we watch as her character changes from Walkure to earthly woman fighting against herself until she yields to the child whom she saved. This is, of course, Wagner's use of the fairy tale theme of the handsome prince's kiss awakening the sleeping beauty after winning his way to her; but Wagner's sleeping beauty is awakened to much more than one would expect. She awakens to the realization of what has happened to her--no longer a goddess, she is subject to the gamut of human emotions, strengths, and weaknesses. She waivers between delight, fear, reluctance, and acceptance. Finally, she makes a leap of faith and commits to Siegfried's passion. How ironic, that the next change she makes extends her humanity to jealousy as she plots to kill the one she saved and loved.  Finally, she makes the decision to save the world by destroying it and by doing what Wotan should have done at the very beginning--returning the gold to the Rhinemaidens. Her mother's character--Erda, the Earth Mother--influences her to redeem her father's error.

However, if complexity is the measure of characterization, then Wotan is the chief example. The Ring is his story. A god with high ideals attempts to civilize the world only to fall victim to his own desires.  The minute he puts Alberich's ring on is finger, Wotan and the world he hoped to create is doomed. He gets the first hint of this as he watches one giant beat the other to death. Erda warns him. Wotan has betrayed his own laws, so the staff upon which they are carved has been weakened.  Desperate, he schemes to save himself and his ideals, but Alberich's curse seems to block him.  He creates heroes, but each one missteps. Each succeeding opera shows changes to Wotan's character from the blocked blusterer of Walkure to the still hopeful Wanderer of Siegfried, Wotan changes before our eyes until he has become white Alberich in contrast to the dwarf schwarz Alberich. The final realization occurs when Siegfried breaks the weakened staff--the old gives way to the new.  In Gotterdamerung Waltraute tells Brunhilde of the broken Wotan who sits on his throne in Walhalla surrounded by the warriors the Walkures have brought as he awaits the legions of Alberich and the end of his sin.
This is the only mention of him in the final opera, yet it is the key to the complexity and change that makes Wotan such a unique character and certainly demonstrates Wagner's unique skill in developing character.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Season's Greetings.

Both a happy and difficult time for many torn between happy and distressing memories, this time of year still has an aura of joy about it.

You have only a one out of three hundred sixty-five and one third chance of this day being your birthday, but you can still enjoy the gift that Richard gave Cosima 150 years ago today.
Season's Greetings and best wishes for the New Year.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

An Interesting Wagnerian Trend

While working for Marshall McLuhan in Toronto many, many years ago, I was told that I could never be considered an intellectual because I was from Nebraska.  Stung, but realistic enough to know that the medium is the message, I accepted the insult. After all, everyone in this country knows that the big "N" on the state university's football players' helmets stands for Nowledge.  The image of the intellectual and culture desert that is the American central plains is a well-known stereotype.   However, one trend that began in the 1960s suggests that even a desert can produce a bumper crop of genius.

Since the early 1950s, Wagnerians everywhere have bemoaned the dearth of heldentenors with the fading of Melchior and Lorenz. Very good voices such as the young Hans Hopf, the amazing Ludwig Suthaus (how sad he never got the chance to really shine), and the deep-timbred Ramon Vinay were only "serviceable," because they just were not Melchior.

Today, the amazing Dane has faded from the younger generation's memory, but the heldentenor problem has returned.  Jonas Kaufmann, despite my feelings about him, has triumphed as Parsifal, Lohengrin, and Siegmund. But looking at his schedule for 2015 as posted on his official website shows no Wagner performances from January through June. Johan Botha's voice is now the voice of the Metropolitan, but his Walter is not shiny or vibrant.  Only Stuart Skelton presents a violable alternative and deserves to be more widely heard.

However, between the past and the present, a germination of talent blossomed in that cultural desert of the Great Plains.  I remember being in a "tourist trap" fondue dinner theater with a group of students in Lucerne in what I recall to be 2004 or 2005. We watched the family members play alpine horns, play the musical saw, and dance a "traditional" Swiss dance. At that point a young, stunning blonde young woman appeared on stage to sing a Swiss mountain folk song.  From the very first note I was enthralled as the heroic Wagnerian soprano voice burst forth, hitting the high notes flawlessly. The comparison to a young Gundula Janowitz and her mellow, flawless, effortless high notes came to mind--even when they led to yodeling.  Enthralled, but not surprised; after all, this was the geographic area that should produce such a voice--the clear, cool mountain air, a touch of arctic chill that northern Europe and Scandinavia endure.  No mountains on the Great Plains, just grass as far as one can see.  

Yet, from this flat land in the middle of the 1950s a trend began that produced not only serviceable heldentenors, but perhaps the best heldentenors spanning the years between Melchior and Kaufmann. Jon Vickers was born and grew up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.  From 1957 to 1960 he captured the ears of listeners in London and New York. For many Wagnerians of my generation, he was the Siegmund that gave us hope. 
Almost at the same time Jess Thomas was born and grew up in Hot Springs, South Dakota.  He studied psychology at the University of Nebraska, then went to the West Coast to work on his M.A. He auditioned for a role in Falstaff in a Stanford University production, and after landing a part, he decided to switch professions at the age of 27. Four years later he was the Bayreuth Parsifal.  His career continued for 20 years, and he was still ready to perform until his farewell performance  in 1982.
Born at almost the same time, but a later bloomer, James King was born in Dodge City, Kansas.  After winning the role of Siegmund in the Solit/Culshaw Ring, King became the heldentenor of choice in the 1960s and early 1970s. All of these years later, he is still a great favorite for many of us.
Twenty-five years after the birth of the first three, Gary Lakes was borne in 1950 in Woodward, Oklahoma. He grew up in Irving, Texas. His star blazed quickly and by 1986 he was the Met's heldentenor when it could not get Jerusalem or Domingo.  He sang a wide variety of Wagner roles internationally, holding his own against the powerful voices of Jessye Norman and Gwyneth Jones.  But as with many others, too many roles in too short a time took an early toll on his voice. A great potential talent burned out before it should have.
Thirteen years later Jay Hunter Morris was born in Paris-no not that one- Paris, Texas. Thanks to the Seattle Opera, Morris came to the world's attention as a Wagnerian.  With Gary Lehman's disappearance from the opera world, Morris had the role of the Met's Siegfried fall into his lap. Since Skelton will not sing Siegfried, Morris was probably the best choice. His future is yet to be seen.
Sorry, there is no video, but that lets this voice speak for itself.

So the desert has blossomed bringing to the world the heldentenors that kept the Wagner operas resounding in our ears.  Anyone with a map of North America needs to draw line from Galveston on the Gulf of Mexico north through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, into eastern Saskatchewan.  This line connects the origins of these great voices who gave many of us great joy.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Wagner and the Producer's Role.

Those familiar with Bob Hicok's marvelously interwoven and associative poem "Spam Leaves an Aftertaste" will understand the apprehension, trepidation, and hesitation with which I open my email account first thing in the morning. However, I am occasionally rewarded in this process with the discovery of a nugget of great value, something that brings mental rewards instead of the promised instant wealth from helping a Nigerian General hide his money in my bank account.

I have been pleasantly surprised twice in the last two weeks with just such nuggets--two reviews by the Boulezian. No critic currently writes with such erudite, academic prose, musicological insight, and intellectual rigor as Dr. Berry.  I do, however, tremble when he chooses to write about opera.  Still, that is a matter of prejudice--both his and mine.  I suspect his prejudices about opera performances are totally wrong, and I know that my prejudices are totally right.  Therefore, when I see that he is reviewing a new opera production, I am always ready to be disgusted, irritated, and frustrated.  Imagine my pleasant surprise to see that for once he has joined the ranks of the just as he took Christof Loy to task for the director's incredibly dysfunctional production of Tristan und Isolde.

Tears of joy actually ran down my cheeks as I read, "...obviously what matters is a director's inability or unwillingness to understand the work; that, after all, is what he is paid for....[I'll bet the Boulezian's tongue must still be smarting from placed so deeply in his cheek]...It does not seem that he (Loy) necessarily wished to traduce the work, then, but he has certainly misunderstood it."  As good as this is, the opening line of the review is priceless--thank you Boulezian--"Christof Loy has established rather a nice line in taking on works he admits he dislikes, or worse, and ignoring them whilst claiming to direct them." From my point of view, this is the attitude of all of the Regietheater directors who must so despise the directions, effort, and philosophy of the creators of the original works that they must impose their own convoluted ideas onto the works, essentially creating performance art based on the tunes and words of the original.  As a result, what was fine art becomes pop culture. While the Boulezian would not totally agree with me, I suggest that the opera director should occupy a role similar to that of the performers, who use the notes and the words of the composer and librettist to give the best performance possible; the director should do the same--he or she is not to "remanufacture" the work of art.

The second pleasant surprise was a review of Handel Messiah's.  In it, the Boulezian defends the use of modern instruments in performances of old music and requests that the performance of Baroque music occur more often.  Over 150 years ago, the Victorian novelist Samuel Butler argued with passion that Handel's music was the most sublime of all compositions.  With a vaster perspective granted me by time, I would not agree with Butler, but I certainly enjoy Handel almost as much as I do Bach--especially when I listen to the Messiah performed by the late Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra.
The argument about period instruments, while hotly debated in some circles, carries little weight for me.  I ask that the readers forgive this tortured "conceit," but I enjoy taking rides along historic, scenic routes, and while riding in a model T might cause me to attract the attention of observers on the roadside, I would much prefer to enjoy the scenery from the comfort of a modern Lexus, which I know will get me to the end without accident.  Having heard a performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos given by a group whose period instruments included a valveless trumpet, I can speak to discomfort and innumerable accidents during the ride. It almost made me wish that Maurice Andre had been the trumpeter--oh my God, all those ear-numbing Nonesuch recordings by Andre.  The music is the music no matter how the notes are produced.  Sometimes, the music's beauty and meaning becomes clearer when produced by another source, i.e, Wendy Carlos' Switched on Bach or the jazzy renditions of Bach by the Swingle Singers.

Tomorrow I will return to my email account with renewed dread; after all, one cannot be lucky every day.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Happy Days Are Here Again

I sat in my hospital bed last Tuesday night reviewing nearly 80 years of life and the pain in my chest. My body hurt from the cardiac catheter that discovered nothing, while the afib went on.  I thought of the Ebola devastation in parts of the world, of the insanity that is reigniting the cold war, of the reactionary period into which the United States is about to enwrap itself for at least the next two years, of a world of high stakes testing done for the sake of testing, of the dilemma that race still presents my country, which I had hoped had been resolved fifty years ago, and saw nothing on the horizon to lift my spirits or hopes.

The textual studies to which I have dedicated my life seems to be submerged in gender studies, women's studies, and deconstruction.  Worse yet, the latter movement--deconstruction--has led to the near destruction of one of the realms I most enjoy.  Composers, librettists, and writers give us clear instructions on how to stage their productions, but deconstruction has given producers the inflated egos to rewrite the original works and to turn them into their own frivolous visions of what the work might mean or might not mean. Consider Bizet's Carmen. Just because the word car appears in the title is no excuse for Bieito to litter the stage with automobiles.

The travesties of recent Bayreuth productions hit an all-time low this summer with the Frank Castorf Ring. Goodness gracious, even my "friend" the Boulezian had the good sense to castigate this production.  In the back of my mind, I knew that Castorf's protege Meese, a performance artist--not a performing artist--was scheduled to stage Parsifal at Bayreuth.
My nightmares have been filled with visions like these:

I woke up Wednesday to the news that Bayreuth had terminated Meese's contract and that someone else would be producing the new Parsifal. Whatever Uwe Eric Laufenberg gives us, it has to be superior to what Meese would have aborted into our laps.  You see, happy days are here again.