« Helen Thomas: A woman after my own heart | Main | The Myth of Competence »

A life of power, between walls of steel and crystal!

By Michael J. Smith on Tuesday June 8, 2010 08:05 PM

I'm so sick of Israel, so sick of reading about it and writing about it and thinking about it, that I'm going to go clean off the rails and talk about music here -- assuming that opera falls into the category of music, admittedly a thesis open to question.

The Metropolitan Opera here in Gotham is putting together a new production of the Ring. The set -- apparently the one and only set -- is shown above. It consists of a row of Brobdingnagian teeter-totters, actuated by mighty hydraulic cylinders.

In order to support this Gargantuan busy-box, the Met's stage has had to be reinforced. The New York Times, which is to the written word what the Met is to music, smacks its institutional lips:

Wagner’s “Ring” cycle concludes with the flaming destruction of Valhalla, the hall of the gods, a scene that will play out when the Metropolitan Opera mounts a new production of the cycle’s four operas over the next two seasons.

Structural collapse is definitely not the fate you want for your actual theater. But at the Met, that was a distinct possibility. Engineers determined that the set, conceived by Robert Lepage, the Canadian director who is creating this production, would be so heavy — roughly 45 tons — that the floor under the stage might not hold.

So that reality doesn’t imitate art, the Met had a steel company install three 65-foot girders under the stage, a feat of delicate engineering involving thousands of pounds of steel that counts as a permanent structural change to the opera house, the most extensive work yet to prepare for a new production there.

"Structural collapse is definitely not the fate you want for your actual theater." I'm not so sure about that. Now that the World Trade Center is no more, the Metropolitan Opera is arguably the ugliest building in New York, and certainly the ugliest on the West Side. If the whole gaudy gawky cheap bright-and-shiny Brummagem affair folded in on itself during the last scene of Gotterdammerung -- well, wouldn't that be poetic justice? A shoddy overblown building brought down by shoddy overblown music? Now that's the real opera! -- to paraphrase the immortal Oscar Jaffe. Boffo!

But leaving my childish apocalyptic longings aside: isn't it amazing how much support Wagner seems to need -- not just financial support, but actual non-metaphorical steel I-beams? Something there is, in Wagner, that calls for bloat: bloated sopranos, bloated conductors, bloated sets, bloated rhetoric. It's a good thing the B Minor Mass doesn't require this kind of infrastructure, or it would never have lasted as long as it has.

Baby Huey's new Lincoln Center playground falls, I suppose, into the category of "Expressionist" productions. There was a famous one years ago that starred a big ominous hole in the stage, if memory serves, like the Great Red Spot on Jupiter. Slightly more recent productions have been a bit more historicist, featuring genuine Bayreuth-style cement trees and what one critic memorably called "a man in a bear suit." But the pendulum -- or teeter-totter -- appears to have swung back.

What exactly are the semiotics of sets like this? Are they supposed to tell us how "modern" -- or even, Wotan help us, "universal" -- Wagner is?

If so, that's a laugh. There's nothing more period than Wagner -- no composer more firmly situated in the ideas and tastes of a specific time and place. The Tristan chord no longer startles us -- and without the startling, it's just schmaltz. It's like of of those no-longer-funny jokes: You had to be there.

Institutions like the Met really seem to have painted -- or I-beamed -- themselves into a corner, mounting ever more dropsical and ever less interesting readings of an ever more sclerotic repertoire. That's practically the definition of decadence: increasing investment, diminishing returns. More I-beams! Goddammit, keep those I-beams coming!

By contrast, my own Early Music world seems like the picture of health. Oh, we're a niche market, all right; but we don't spend more and more bucks for less and less bang. The same old shabby folk in tweed jackets (with chic leather elbow patches) show up every time, with just enough fresh young faces to make one feel it's not totally hopeless. But we don't do the same two dozen over-familiar items year after year. In fact, we usually do stuff you've never heard before.

For example: A little group I'm part of did Clerambault's Te Deum -- the big one, not the little one -- a couple of weeks ago. Now our singers aren't so large, either physically or in their own self-regard, that they have to be wheeled on stage; and they can't shatter a punchbowl at fifty paces. But they sounded pretty good, as did the fiddlers and the amazing chap who played the cornetto.

More to the point: we did it on a shoestring -- no I-beams required -- and it was something striking and new. It wasn't over-familiar, so it didn't have to be tarted up with some Leni Riefenstahl spectacle to stimulate the jaded tastes of boxholders too rich for their own, or anybody else's good.

He who has ears -- let him hear.

Comments (16)


If that cornetto was made from the tusk of an elephant, then, well, I guess you'd wanna back off on your Wagnerphobia just a touch there, fella.

RW's never been a central composer for me, but the influence he had on some of my favorite 'Spätromantik' composers resulted in a number of scores that I wouldn't want to be without ... not after having heard them.

www.medici.tv is offering free access to Mahler's symphonies now and into the autumn if anyone is interested. I listened/watched the 8th symphony today and would say that the last 30 minutes of it will give almost anybody a cathartic shiver or three.


I have to admit that like almost every American, my introduction to Richard Wagner came through the helicopter attack scene in Apocolypse Now.

I saw a double feature at my local Presbyterian church a few weeks ago, Xian Xinghai's Yellow River Cantata and Beethoven's Ninth.

I'm surpised at how well Xian Xinghai held up next to Beethoven. I wonder how much more Communist high culture exists out there that I've never heard of.

Fuck all you, I'm gonna go sit cross-legged on the floor of some warehouse and listen to Terry Riley noodle for days and days and days.


No, fuck ALL of you. I'm sitting here with Burial listening to a crackling lock groove as it rains outside.


Listen to anything you want, except opera.

Well, Mozart, maybe... Handel....


Done and done. I recently had to listen to Purcell's Dido & Aeneas repeatedly for about 2 weeks. I think I'm good on opera for the next two decades or so.

When it comes to large singers, the fat Wagnerian soprano is a stereotype dating from the age when Elmer Fudd was running about in a Valkyrie's helmet singing "Kill da w-a-a-a-bit!" It does not describe most operatic productions, even most Wagnerian productions. Besides, such fat singers as exist come from all over the repertoire, e.g. David Daniels has porked up considerably (witness this clip from LAO's The Coronation of Poppea) and he sings almost exclusively in the early music repertoire.

Furthermore, this kind of set (as you can also see from the clip) is not limited to just Wagner, but is becoming more prevalent in all opera and theatre. Even musicals are getting this treatment (just witness George Tsypin's designs for the Bregenz Festival West Side Story). Truth be told, this new stage for the Ring is a bit of a look backwards. It reminds me of the stage designs of Adolphe Appia.

Wagner, far from being rooted in his time, was the man who more than anyone else set the trajectory for 20th century music in Europe. If you want examples of music that was tied down to its time, look at the verismo composers (Puccini, Leoncavallo, Mascagni and others). Their range of influence pretty much extends to that musical about AIDS and dozens of identical mob movie soundtracks.

Since I got into classical music through the 20th century's art music, I have a bit of a soft spot for Wagner. Plus, I've got to like anyone who (as Shaw argued) bases his operatic hero Siegfried on Mikhail Bakunin.

Listen to anything you want, except opera.

Well, Mozart, maybe... Handel....

How about John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer? That's one work that I wish our major (or even minor) opera companies had the guts to do.

Plus there are the lefty operas of people like Hans Werner Henze (We Go to the River, El Cimarrón, The English Cat, etc.), Luigi Nono (Intolleranza 1960), and Alan Bush (Wat Tyler, Men of Blackmoor, The Sugar Reapers, and Joe Hill: The Man Who Never Died).

Sadly, Alan Bush's music was deliberately downplayed by the British musical establishment, but some recordings of his operas are still floating around, having been premiered and recorded primarily in East Germany.

One other observation. I may be making a lot, but this post hits several interests of mine.

You mention the "sclerotic repertoire", but the Met has actually been expanding its repertoire for a while. Like many things about this post, it's a few decades behind the times. The real era of Met conservatism was when Rudolf Bing held sway (he is also the one responsible for relocating the Met to the building it presently occupies). Ever since then, the Met has been trying to work its way out from his legacy, commissioning new works and reviving modernist works (like Janacek's From the House of the Dead, Shostakovich's The Nose, and Berg's Lulu with Marlis Petersen, which ended this last season).

In my opinion, most operatic companies you could name aren't doing enough for modern music, but these behemoths are slowly orienting themselves in the right direction. The problem with most of them is that the people who run them don't like modern music, but feel obligated to commission revivals and new productions anyway just to establish their relevance. Thus their selections are not based on enthusiasm for the work, but based on what other large institutions are commissioning. Thus we get tedious, insipid shit like Richard Danielpour's Margaret Garner, Deborah Drattell's Nicholas and Alexandra, any of the operas of Jake Heggie, etc.

Genuinely interesting and talented composers see their works given maybe six or seven performances, then when the newness of it fades, it is dropped never to be revived again. This has been the fate of Poul Ruders' The Handmaid's Tale; Kaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin and Adriana Mater; Philippe Boesmans' Reigen, Wintermärchen, and Julie; and Meredith Monk's Atlas. Then there are the ones who never get major American companies producing their work because they're too European and weirdly experimental (Wolfgang Rihm's Die Eroberung von Mexico and Die Hamletmaschine) or Americans whose politics are confrontational and whose aesthetic doesn't match the New Insipidity (Anthony Davis' X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X).

So there is much to be done, but still there have been strides made in the right direction. It also seems strange to be knocking modern staging in one paragraph and then decrying the traditionalist rep on the other. Modern stagings and modern operas tend to go together, unless you're dealing with Menotti.

The problem with most of them is that the people who run them don't like modern music
Well, I'm with 'em on that. "Serious" modern music (as opposed to contemporary popular music) seems to be one tedious dead end after another, as far as I can tell. (Of course there's lots of stuff I haven't heard, and no doubt this mossback perspective is not very well-informed.)

Anyway, my objection to the "standard" operatic repertoire is not that it's too old; it's that it's too narrow, and secondarily, that the heart of the canon contains a lot of very second-rate music (along with some very good stuff too, of course).

My dislike of the larger business of opera has another component as well; its Speer-like, gigantesque, extravagant scale. Particularly when the material is so slight, the religious solemnity and ponderosity of the presentation is intensely off-putting.

I'd probably like Puccini if it were produced in a high school gymnasium with a pickup band.

I always liked City Opera better than the Met for just this reason: the stuff had a likable slapped-together feel, and you sensed that the rather youthful singers were having a lot of fun. Very appealing, even with the real old over-roasted chestnuts of the repertoire.

And yeah, I'm too hard on the Met. The dear old dowager occasionally kicks up her heels and goes slumming uptown or downtown, in the 18th or the 20th century. She's not very light on her edematous feet, but you've gotta give the old girl credit for pluck.


what called forth this fur ball ???

israel ???
as if that hellspot didn't already have
too much to account for


Got me in one, Owen. I'm convinced that opera is a Zionist plot. Poor Wagner -- talk about a false-flag operation!


From the Wikipedia entry for Fromental Halévy:
La Juive is one of the grandest of grand operas, with major choruses, a spectacular procession in Act I, and impressive celebrations in Act III. It culminates with the heroine plunging into a vat of boiling water in Act V. Mahler admired it greatly, stating: "I am absolutely overwhelmed by this wonderful, majestic work. I regard it as one of the greatest operas ever created". Other admirers included Wagner who wrote an enthusiastic review of its premiere for the German press. (Wagner never showed towards Halévy the anti-Jewish animus that was so notorious a feature of his writings on Meyerbeer and, to a lesser extent, on Mendelssohn).

Wow, sounds like they're trying to out-do that production of Miss Saigon which featured an actual helicopter doing a simulated landing on the stage.

Dun duh dun daaaahhhhh dah,
Dun duh dun daaaahhhhh dah,

Kill da waaaaaabit,
Kill da waaaaaabit...


ethan writes:
Fuck all you, I'm gonna go sit cross-legged on the floor of some warehouse and listen to Terry Riley noodle for days and days and days.

FB writes:
No, fuck ALL of you. I'm sitting here with Burial listening to a crackling lock groove as it rains outside.

No, fuck all y'all... I'm going to be marking the occasion of the Grateful Dead's best show ever at RFK Stadium -- June 10, 1973 -- by listening to my crystal-pure soundboard bootleg of that date, ripped at 320k from the original quarter-inch reels, from start to finish, including the 26-minute Dark Star jam. Top that, Wagner.

Nicholas Hart:

I don't know if it's touring, but if you ever get a chance, go see "Das Barbecü," a hilarious down-home version of the Ring cycle.


Post a comment

Note also that comments with three or more links may be held for "moderation" -- a strange term to apply to the ghost in this blog's machine. Seems to be a hard-coded limitation of the blog software, unfortunately.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on Tuesday June 8, 2010 08:05 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Helen Thomas: A woman after my own heart.

The next post in this blog is The Myth of Competence.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Creative Commons License

This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered by
Movable Type 3.31