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But the time has come to confront the Wagner phenomenon; to acknowledge, and critically evaluate, his influence on the culture of our age. To do this properly would itself require a book, and one I am not equipped to write.
(Bryan Magee, Aspects of Wagner)
More than any musician of his time, Wagner placed his own characteristic stamp on every established form of music, though he is usually thought of as the man who re-created opera by giving it hitherto unknown power and beauty.
Wagner was born at Leipzig, Germany. His musical ambition was fired by the works of Beethoven and Weber. His first production, an overture, was performed when he was only 17, at Leipzig, and astonished the audience by the continuous use of the drum, or banging machine.
For the next few years Wagner filled musical positions and singers in various cities. In 1839 he went to Paris, hoping to produce his opera “Rienzi”, but was disappointed. Three years later it was most successfully produced in Dresden, and resulted in Wagner’s appointment as musical director of the Dresden theatre.
His operas “Der fliegende Holländer”and “Tannhäuser” were produced at Dresden amid mingled criticism and praise. The stories were real dramas, and Wagner made his music for both voices and instruments closely follow the meaning of the text. Thus his operas lacked the constant pretty melodies and pleasant harmonies of the popular opera, and whilst a few masters, among them Liszt and Schumann, saw in them the beginning of a new art, the public found them balls-achingly tedious and eccentric. Wagner’s next opera “Lohengrin” was written in 1848, but it was not until 1861 that the composer himself heard this sublime work.
Wagner’s revolutionary ideas were not confined to music. He took part in the political movements of 1848-9, and was obliged to leave Germany. He found refuge in Switzerland, and remained in exile for about ten years.
In 1864 the barking mad King of Bavaria invited Wagner, who by now didn’t have a pot to piss in, to come to Munich and continue his musical work. His operas from this period onwards are known as music-dramas, for in them he worked out his theory that a combination of all arts is necessary to produce a really good night out at the theatre (Gesamtkunstwerk). Thus literature, music, and action have equal part, and great attention was also given to scenic accessories.
But for such stupendous spectaculars the opera house of Munich proved inadequate, so Wagner conceived the idea of a festival theatre constructed from his own designs. The King, by now completely off his head, heartily approved, and the outcome was the famous Wagner theatre at Bayreuth, in Bavaria. The first Wagnerian festival was held in this theatre in 1876, and since that time almost every year has seen a series of performances attended by music-lovers from all parts of the world. After his death in Venice, where he had gone for a rest, his body was brought to Bayreuth for burial.
Wagner’s music-dramas, especially those based on tales from the Song of the Nibelungs, are amongst his most noted productions. These include “Das Rheingold”, “Die Walküre”, “Siegfried”, and “Götterdämmerung”. “Tristan und Isolde” is founded on a Celtic legend, as is also “Parsifal”. “Die Meistersinger”, allegedly a comedy, is a story founded on the character of Hans Sachs, the 16th-century shoemaker-poet, of Nuremberg. Wagner wrote the text of these masterpieces as well as the music, thus proving himself a man of letters as well as a musician.
After more than a century of bitter controversy over his theories and innovations – especially over the startling harmonic effects he introduced – Wagner stands out as the commanding musical genius of the 19th century.
Whether Wagnerian or anti-Wagnerian, no musician of the 20th century has been able to escape the master’s influence and write as if he had not lived, for he impressed everyone, and not the least of all, his antagonists.
I only hope that the furious booing with which it was greeted at the curtain call means that it will be returned to sender at the earliest opportunity.
Yet another shit let’s shock production of a very dull opera …
Before you read this, please bear in mind that I have drink taken.
I’ve never made a secret of disliking vibrato, or excessive amounts of it, in the human voice as an art form. One of the reasons Pavarotti was so esteemed was because his voice and high C’s were clear and direct, little warbling (if any) in most cases.
In the female soprano, or mezzo, it amazes me how many warblers there are. My point is, I would like to hear sopranos or mezzos with more of a crystal clear and direct timbre, a kind of sky blue clear Nordic sound, rather than flaunt the limitations and imperfections of their considerable throats.
However, I do find that with French opera I do like more vibrato than I do with other nationalities (of opera). Odd that, but then they did have some different traditions with regard to vibrato. But the use of vibrato is still somewhat controversial anyway. I would prefer less myself, though good singing is good singing.
The problem is worsened when some sopranos age too, so that whilst they may have been tolerable when young, their voice creates a beat or worse when they get older.
I know some blame often gets laid on Wagner’s doorstep, too, for writing parts that only one-in-a-million singers, like Birgit Nilsson or Kirsten Flagstad, can pull off without injuring the audience’s eardrums. I’m no singer or vocal coach, but that whole modern operatic method of vocal production (sort of like fluidly bellowing in key) strikes me as so unnatural that I’m amazed when singers do nail it.
(Interestingly, it’s been adopted rather successfully by some rock singers, like Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, who ironically have no need to project like that since they’re amplified.)
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Mike Figgis is about to make his debut as an opera director at English National Opera. But his production of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia is hardly the fulfilment of a dream for the 62-year-old Oscar-nominated director.
“I only went to my first opera three or four years ago, when my girlfriend took me to the Met in New York.”
What does Figgis remember of that first opera he saw in New York? “It was Verdi, the one where she’s dying. Actually, that could be any opera, couldn’t it?”
Fucking hell. Mike Figgis has a girlfriend? Poor bitch.
Quite recently I heard Callas singing some Mozart and was shocked – I expected something dreadfully exaggerated but what I got was really lovely and very much ahead of its time – no fireworks, a very plain, modest way of singing, it really showed how thoughtful a singer she was and how much style she had.
Norma is a good example of what she did. She sang it more than she sang any other role. It is often referred to as a killer role; it is simply very hard on the voice. It is difficult to explain properly without you listening to her. Also, if you don’t know the music at all, then hearing her sing Norma you may well feel, well, so what!
With that piece she moved it from being usually done as almost an oratorio, severely classical in feel, to a red in tooth and claw drama. However, in doing this she really used the music rather than damaged it and her phrasing is extremely intelligent and above all musical. She had the skill of making you think it was all coming fresh out of her mouth, rather than learned by rote and coloured here and there.
She inhabited such roles rather than taking them on. Of course there were great singers before her and if you were to hear Claudia Muzio you would be surprised to hear so much of the Callas colouring … but pre-Callas. Her career was short and that was possibly in part because of the risks she took in pushing her voice, but then, if she had played safe, she would be forgotten now.
It has often been stated that Callas’s fame rested on her undoubted stage presence and dramatic gifts, and though this is no doubt partly true, it doesn’t explain her continuing popularity, or why her recordings should sell in such huge numbers. There have been plenty of other great singers/actors, whose recorded legacy is relatively slight. I can think of Teresa Stratas and Josephine Barstow, both of whom are tremendous on stage, but whose voices convey very little of that presence on record. This is where Callas is different. Her presence and personality fairly burst through the speakers. She creates drama for the mind’s theatre, as surely as if she were standing there before us. With Callas, I no longer listen to the singer, but to the story and character she is unfolding. An example of the differences would be to listen to her performance of, say, O patria mia, from Aïda, alongside Montserrat Caballé’s. Now this is an aria which never worked well for Callas. Caballé here is divine, the top C spun out in a pure pianissimo, which is literally breathtaking. I am astonished and captivated, but I am no longer listening to the opera, I am listening to Montserrat Caballé. In the Callas version, the note is somewhat earthbound and effortful to say the least, but it becomes as nothing, so wistfully has she longed for her homeland in the previous music. Indeed I can’t hear the words O cieli azzurri, without hearing Callas’s peculiarly yearning tone. Someone once said of Callas to John Steane, “Of course you had to see her”, to which he replied “Ah, but I can, and I do!”
In a Medea performance that didn’t go too well, there were murmurs and even catcalls. At one crucial plot line, where she is supposed to address Giasone, she turned to the audience and uttered Medea’s desperate plea “Ho datto tutto a te” (I gave you everything I have).
In a performance of Bellini’s Il Pirata, at the time where the Meneghinis were constantly clashing with La Scala’s superintendent Ghiringelli, Callas-Imogene ostentatiously pointed at the superintendent’s theatre box and sang “La! Vedete, il palco funesto” (“There – look: the dreadful scaffold”). In the opera, the word palco refers to the scaffold where her lover will be hanged. But this Italian word can also be used to designate a theatre box. Although Ghiringelli was not in his box that night, the anecdote was widely circulated across Italy. She made news as no other opera star has ever done before or since.
Another such incident that has passed into operatic folk lore now, is Callas’s first performance in Italy after the scandal of her walking out half way through a performance of Norma, before the President of Italy, due to illness. It was at a revival of Anna Bolena at La Scala. Such was the bad feeling that the Italian press had whipped up against her, that La Scala, fearing an incident, had positioned plain clothed police all over the theatre, and riot police surrounded the theatre outside. Visconti re-directed some of the scenes so as to give Callas a certain amount of protection on stage in case of flying missiles from the audience. Throughout the first act the audience had reacted to her with icy coldness, loudly applauding her colleagues. By the finale of the first act, Callas had had just about as much as she could stomach. This is the scene where Henry VIII finds her in compromising circumstances and tells the guards to take her to prison. Anna, utterly outraged, launches the exciting stretta to the finale with the words Giudice! Ad Anna! Giudice! (Judges! for Anna!). At this point, Callas pushed aside the guards, marched down to the footlights, and hurled the words into the audience, as much as to say “how dare you judge me”, singing the rest of the scene with a scorching brilliance, incredible even for her. The audience was completely won over and from then to the end of the opera, she had them in the palm of her hands. Word of her success apparently reached the crowds of people waiting outside the theatre, and when she appeared at the stage door after the performance, the police found themselves having to restrain not an angry mob, but hordes of fans trying to besiege her with floral tributes. Unfortunately when she returned home that night, exhausted from her triumph, it was to find the gates of the Meneghini villa daubed with dog shit and the walls covered in insulting graffiti. And we wonder why her career was so short!
As an adjunct, it should be noted that Callas actually sued the Rome Opera for not having an understudy available on the night of that walk out, and for not fulfilling their subsequent contractual obligations. The case dragged on for years, and eventually was settled totally in her favour. But it was too late. By then she was no longer singing, though the damage done to her personally and her career was immense and irrevocable.
I suppose the reason for the multifarious theories as to why her voice declined so rapidly, is testament to the fact that nobody really knows and nobody ever will. Both Renée Fleming and Deborah Voight (sopranos themselves) touch on similar theories, which is interesting. Personally, I have always felt that it was not the actual weight loss, but the diet that might have been the problem. Singers need an enormous amount of stamina to support their voices throughout an opera, and you only get stamina with proper nutrition, that is eating the right foods to give you energy, without piling on the pounds. In those days less was known about nutrition and it is quite possible that Callas’s diet deprived her of some of the necessary nutrients. That, and the punishing schedule she found herself following. A typical example is the summer of 1957. On 4 July, she embarked on two performances of La Sonnambula, in which she is in admirably secure voice, as can be heard on the recording preserved from the performances, and now available on EMI. Five days later she is in Milan to record Turandot, a role that was no longer in her repertoire and which she really ought not to have been singing. That she acquits herself as well as she does, is cause for surprise, though she does show elements of strain. However three days after the Turandot sessions are over, she is back to record Manon Lescaut, and it is here that the effects of the previous days can be heard. She sounds utterly exhausted. Indeed some of the climactic high notes are as bad as they were to become in the mid-1960s, and this is probably why its release was delayed until 1959.
Tom Service talks to Alexander Goehr about his last opera, based on King Lear, currently in rehearsal:
At 78, Alexander “Sandy” Goehr is one of the linchpins of the British musical establishment. He was professor of music at Cambridge University for nearly a quarter of a century; as a student, he was one of the Manchester School of composers, along with Harrison Birtwistle (“Harry”) and Peter Maxwell Davies (“Max”). Not that he thanks me for reminding him of his establishment credentials. “It’s all bullshit,” he says with a wry smile, somehow managing to make a cuss word sound cultured with his deep, resonant tones. “Nobody understood that I was a complete outsider at Cambridge. I haven’t even got a degree, let alone a doctorate – and I only got the job back in 1976 because the place was so clapped out they had to appoint a sort of academic doctor to sort it out.”
Promised End is at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, London, on 9, 11, 14 and 16 October (box office: 020-7304 4000), then tours until 26 November.
How did a groundbreaking production of Tristan und Isolde make it to the stage? With help from kneepads, booze, painkillers and video artist Bill Viola, reveals company manager Henrietta Bredin in her tour diary:
Back in 2004, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, director Peter Sellars and artist Bill Viola created the all-enveloping, sensurround Tristan Project. Their hugely ambitious version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde mixed Viola’s video art with Sellars’ choreography and direction against a semi-staging of the immense opera. The piece played in New York, Los Angeles and Paris, and Salonen began planning to bring it to London. Six years later, reimagined and retitled, Tristan und Isolde has been performed in Switzerland and Germany and is about to go to Birmingham, before finishing up in London’s Royal Festival Hall on Sunday. This new take brings the musicians out of the orchestra pit and on to the stage. Over their heads is a vast screen – 11m x 6.6m – on which Viola’s images, of fire and water, faces and reflections, moonlight and waves, are projected. The screen is in a horizontal position for the first two acts and then pivots on its own axis to a vertical position. The entire thing weighs 1,740kg, as much as a car, and has to be transported to and erected in each venue. At various points during the performance, singers and solo instrumentalists perform from different places within the concert hall, which produces an extraordinary three-dimensional effect, immersing the audience in Wagner’s music. I was brought in as company manager by the London-based Philharmonia, where Salonen is principal conductor, to put together a mini opera production team of technical director and stage managers, and then to look after the singers and keep things on track while the show went on the road. We started with rehearsals in London …
For me the entire piece pivots around Tatiana’s letter writing scene; if that is no good the whole show is off. Of course for Tchaikovsky this scene was the first building block of the opera, and it is somehow mind boggling to think that the composer took events from his own life and projected them brilliantly on Pushkin’s great novella.
(The woman he was briefly married to had written him unsolicited love letters, and it’s as if his empathic talent made him powerless to reject her advances: he identified with Tatiana, and married a woman he could not stand to hear talking.)
Perhaps it’s just me but I find it incredibly moving to see Tatiana sit down at her little writing desk and pour her soul onto the paper. An aria about writing a letter! And her first line “I am writing to you, what more need I say?” is even more moving.
She could have left it that and kept the letter, and everybody would have been happy ever after.
The beauty is there is a terrible irony in this scene. She is really writing to herself, saying “I am a woman of great passions”. In some ways Tatiana is not pouring her soul onto the paper. Everything she writes is a figment of her fantasy, if not an outright cliché. She wants to be in love, like the women she’s read about in her romantic novels. In that way Tatiana is Madame Bovary’s aunt.
There are people who think that Eugene Onegin is an opera about Tchaikovsky’s own homosexuality. He seduces Olga only to prevent her marrying Lenski. Then he leaves her, because Lenski is his true love. Later, when he returns and declares again his love for Tatiana, she is already married and out of reach.
I don’t know if this interpretation is the most correct. But I always had the feeling that Onegin doesn’t really love Tatiana. She’s wetter than a haddock’s bathing costume, but that’s what she’s supposed to be.
Anyone who loves this opera really needs the Bolshoi/Boris Khaikin recording of 1955. This is a mono recording, though rather better than many of the Melodiya recordings of the day, but has, in the young Galina Vishnevskaya, the most believable Tatiana on record. Her letter scene, superbly backed by Khaikin’s conducting, catches to perfection the conflicting feelings of the young Tatiana. The great Sergei Lemeshev is by this time somewhat mature for Lenski, but nevertheless sings with consummate artistry, and Yevgeny Belov, though maybe not as imaginative as some, is a manly Onegin. Ivan Petrov, a little over indulgent in his aria, is a sympathetic Gremin. I’m not sure if it’s available any more.
Bored by Barber, Bernstein, Britten, Tippett and Tchaikovsky? Try Claude Vivier! Never heard of him? Neither had I, but when I saw the announcement of a DVD from De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam my curiosity was aroused and I ordered it. Those Dutch are producing the most astonishing array of new opera productions. And I always saw them as a dull and unimaginative tribe. Pierre Audi, the artistic director of De Nederlandse Opera, has become one of my favourite directors since I saw his Ring, now my favourite Ring video, shoving the Harry Kupfer/Daniel Barenboim off its pedestal, at least in the video category.
I can’t possible give you a blow-by-blow report of the opera Kopernikus I watched yesterday. It is not called an opera, but a “ritual opera of death”. I never heard any of the singers, nor the conductor, who, surprisingly, took his applause in a protestant minister’s outfit, his real occupational garb. The performance took place in a cavernous old building, former warehouse or factory or something with a stage-like rectangle covered by a deep layer of sand, matching the general lighting throughout! Same with the costumes; very thick sheets of heavy felt. It might be moulded foam, I couldn’t tell, which the singers use skilfully to wrap themselves in, or their fellow actors. The “furniture” sets are wooden crates.
All this is mostly the background, my eyes were busy following the action. No orchestra, but musicians, in costume and make-up, are on stage, acting while playing their instruments. One brilliant slide trombonist doing a duo with the bass actor-singer, even while flat on his back. The female violinist moved all over the sand, wearing a billowy grey outfit with a very long train, and of course no stand for her notes. It is almost an hour of music she has to memorise. A few woodwind players, percussionists and a solo piano complete the “orchestra”. The music is not as strange as I had expected from a student of Ligeti and Stockhausen; of course I won’t walk around humming it.
Watching the singers gave my eyes more to do. Singing with the open hand occasionally tapping the lips to vibrate the sound created something new, not unpleasant to hear. A soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass, plus the narrator completed the cast. I have to include the musicians in the cast, because they were just as skilful actors as the singers. The language is “invented” but a running translation in English helps tremendously to let me know what is going on.
I think I shall watch Götterdämmerung tomorrow, give myself a day of respite from Claude Vivier, and then maybe his Marco Polo during the weekend.
Anybody seriously interested in new music, new composers, new ways to be a spectator and listener of an exciting experience, do try this DVD. Also it would be great to see a gay composer getting more recognition for a change.
All I need to add is that even Stockhausen thought this guy was weird.