February 9, 2010
Right before your very eyes. Not just the first guest-blog on RogerEvansOnline, but — much more important — the first virtual launch of an opera season. Kim Witman of the Wolf Trap Opera Company is celebrating today’s announcement of the WTOC 2010 season by doing guest blog-posts and interviews in a few places across the blogosphere. Simply go to Kim’s blog for links to all the other blogs participating in this launch of what promises to be a terrific season. Lively opera productions (and imaginative media ideas) live at the Grammy-nominated Wolf Trap Opera Company!
Twenty-four years ago, I was involved in a production of Mozart’s Impresario in which Zaide’s aria “Ruhe saft” was interpolated. Ever since then I’ve been looking for a way to get my hands on this exotic and problematic piece.
It’s sort of crazy that we split Mozart’s operas into “mature” and “juvenilia,” and that the dividing line seems to hover around the time the composer was 23 or 24 years old. The fact that the operas Mozart wrote while he was a teenager are still performed today is mind-boggling in itself. That spate of early works draws to a close around 1775 (when he was 19), and there’s a bit of a stall between then and 1780 (with Idomeneo, often cited as the beginning of the mature works).
During that five-year period, Mozart grew increasingly dissatisfied with his options in his hometown of Salzburg, and he spent a few years traveling across Europe in a futile attempt to find work elsewhere. He wanted to continue writing opera but had no prospects. He landed back home in 1779, and he teamed up with a trumpeter colleague (Schachtner, the librettist for Zaide) to write a Singspiel (an opera with dialogue, or a play with music, depending on your perspective … what in our time would be called musical theatre). He had no commission — that is, no one was paying him to write.
Musicologists who dabble in psychology believe that the kernel of this piece is autobiographical. It’s certain that Mozart felt captive in Salzburg, and the yearning for freedom that is expressed by the main characters in Zaide is visceral. Whether or not the hero’s name (Gomatz) is a near-anagram of the composer’s name, and no matter if the heroine (Zaide herself) is a representation of the ideal of German opera; the music in this opera is personal in ways that elude the Italian operas that predated it.
It’s in German, of course, written to be immediately understood by the intended audience. In addition to the predictably sung operatic material, there is spoken dialogue and melodrama (spoken text with music underscore). This presents our company with a distinct challenge: what language to use?
The argument for German: One of the core missions of our young artist program is opera in the original language. It’s not that we believe that singing opera in translation isn’t effective or defensible. It’s just that one of the things we do for our artists is provide language coaching (from native speakers, music staff and conductors) that prepares them to attack the challenges of singing in Italian, French, and German once they leave us. For although opera in English has a wonderful place on many stages, the vast majority of our singers’ careers will be spent singing in these other languages.
The argument for English: One of the primary tenets of Mozart’s approach to this piece is that he wanted his audience to understand it. Text in the vernacular is core to the Singspiel style. In addition, the spoken text is more difficult than sung lyrics for an American audience to truly track via supertitles (due to pacing and sheer quantity.)
So, to perform in German or English? Yes.
We shall sing in German, giving our artists a chance to refine their approach to the language, and giving Mozart’s melodic lines a chance to be heard exactly the way they were written. We shall speak in English, allowing the finer details of the plot to emerge for the audience, and honoring the composer’s intent to minimize linguistic barriers.
Is the polyglot approach a bit schizoid? Well, not at all or somewhat, depending on your perspective. But I’ve always found that the thinking about it is more jarring than the actual experience. It’s a compromise, to be sure, but one about whose assets we are confident.
Mozart didn’t finish this opera. He received an actual commission to write an Italian opera for Munich (Idomeneo), and soon thereafter he got his wish to write a Singspiel (The Abduction from the Seraglio) for Vienna. Life and opportunity intervened, and Zaide was shelved.
As always, we were led to this piece by the singers we heard in last fall’s audition tour. Zaide has been on the “short list” of operas we’d like to produce for at least 20 years. This June at The Barns, we get our chance.
February 8, 2010
February 7, 2010
There is a story of an 18th-century English gentleman who was showing off his newly redesigned garden in the fashionable style of Capability Brown (a landscape artist who leaves many tracks in literature, from Jane Austen to Tom Stoppard).
“And here, Sir, we come to my Ha-Ha. We call it that because the surprise of suddenly coming upon it causes the stroller to cry, ‘Ha ha.'”
To which his visitor asked: “But what, Sir, do you call it the second time you encounter it?”
If we derive pleasure from anticipating potential connections – and especially being surprised by thwarted expectations – then it becomes difficult to explain why we would want to listen to a piece more than once: the novelty factor wears off, the uncertainty factor becomes less pronounced. In principle, the piece should get less interesting each time we hear it. Experience, however, shows that this is not the case: we greatly enjoy re-hearing familiar pieces. The whole recording industry makes a lot of money on the basis of this phenomenon.
Which leads Lehrer to ask, among other things:
This, of course, raises the larger question of why certain pieces of music don’t go stale. Why are we still listening to Bach’s fugues, or Beethoven’s symphonies, or Kind of Blue? What is it about these particular soundwaves that allows them to evade the corticofugal boredom?
Today is the Super Bowl. While most viewers of it are all caught up in the excitment and suspense that mostly hinges on the outcome, a higher level of appreciators of the game are much more involved in the process. The highest level of connoisseurs of football may watch the game, or certain plays, for weeks, months, or years, with pleasure and understanding.
I think a Bach fugue enjoys much of this quality — besides many others, of course. The person who is musically equipped to do so — or just curious and perceptive or focused (or just lucky) — will be so interested in the process that, as may be the case with a few tennis matches in history, it is a source of unending pleasure. Surprise becomes the least of it.
February 6, 2010
News to me — but fascinating news — how a trilogy of novels went from page to film to Broadway musical to cult restaurant. How an evocative work of art can inspire a diversity of other ventures in excellence.
February 4, 2010
Once Samuel Goldwyn tried to get George Bernard Shaw to sell him the movie rights to some of his work. After much discussion, they never came to an agreement: “The trouble is, Mr. Goldwyn,” declared Shaw, “you are interested only in art and I am interested only in money.”
In a week in which the Grammies have been awarded and the Oscar nominations announced, I have come upon this account of a dramatic rejection of a finished film score by John Corigliano (who has had a nice haul of both awards). It’s a pleasure to see him adopt exactly the right attitude about having had his work replaced for the new Mel Gibson thriller The Edge of Darkness. He seems to have kept art and commerce in perfect balance. Now can we hope for the release of a CD presenting Corigliano’s score, which had already been recorded under Leonard Slatkin?
February 2, 2010
Yes, it’s Groundhog Day, but it’s also forty days after Christmas. That’s when Mary was required by Mosaic law to go to the Temple and be “purified” of the taint of childbirth. (And we think our lives are complicated.) This is a major feast in all the ancient churches and used to be a great folk celebration as well.
Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall.
— Robert Herrick (1591–1674), “Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve”
It used to serve as the end to the Christmas celebration. In the old days, feasts tended to have long tails, whereas now we prefer long anticipations — as in Christmas decorations right after Halloween.
But the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple (which has gone by many other names as well) has always struck me as a day that we ought to use to highlight the value of old people. It was the aged priest Simeon and the venerable prophetess Anna who really knew what a world-shaking thing was going on in the Temple that day — which it certainly was for history, whatever one’s religious beliefs — and their faithfulness and patience reach a climax in Simeon’s great song that is now sung all round the world every night of the year at Compline:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace :
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen :
Which thou hast prepared :
before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles :
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
— Luke 2: 29-32 in the translation of the Book of Common Prayer
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son :
and to the Holy Ghost;
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be :
world without end. Amen.
Many will remember the entry of that text into modern popular culture with the theme music of the television dramatization of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in which a lovely paradox had a young boy singing the words of old Simeon:
Which brings full circle the irony of the Alleluia Verse at Mass on the feast:
Senex puerum portabat: puer autem senem regebat.
The old man carried the child, though the child was his ruler.
And here are many other musical takes on the Nunc dimittis of Simeon.