Pass that peace pipe!

All right, class. Take a careful look at the costume sketch below. It’s for a major character in a standard repertory opera. (In other words, nobody is doing Natoma.) Look carefully at the sketch, and when you think you know who the character is, scroll down to find out the answer.

Think you know who this character is? All right then, scroll down the page….

keep scrolling….

scroll yet some more…

and once again…

The character depicted is . . . Erda in Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Yes, that right, the Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner. It’s a new production of the tetralogy for Washington National Opera, directed by Francesca Zambello. According to a press release from the WNO, this is to be an “American Ring,” a concept explicated by Zambello thus: “the designers and I are using American history, mythology, iconography, and landscape to set the operas. We are creating a world in some ways familiar to our audience but also one that will feel very mythic as we look to our country’s rich imagery.”

Wotan (Robert Hale) is depicted in another of designer Michael Yeargan‘s sketches in a dapper frock coat, a la Horace Tabor. And so, you are surely asking yourself, how do the Niblelungs fit into this scheme. La Cieca is glad you asked.

OH NO THEY DIDN’T! Das Rheingold opens in March, and we’ll see how this goes from there.


36 Responses to “Pass that peace pipe!”

  1. Il Tenore di Coloratura Superba Says:

    I think I prefer Anna Russell’s description of Erda…”A green torso…at least we think she’s a torso…that’s all anyone’s ever seen of her!”

    God LOVE Anna Russell – if you’ve never heard her synopsis of Der Ring, I tell you it is sheer brilliance! And even though I myself don’t care for G&S, her lecture on “How to write your own G&S Operetta” is one of the funniest and most accurate things I have ever heard – I literally laughed my ass off – esp when she mentions the Alto! HAHAH

  2. The Tenth Valkyrie Says:


    If that goes on stage, I do not ever want to hear the word “Eurotrash” again.

  3. I’m generally NOT a fan of “updating” operas to place them in times or settings different from those envisioned by the composer and/or librettist. I don’t even like it when producers change the lyrics in the “Mikado” to make it more modern — I’m sure you know the song of which I write. The most egregious example of this has to be the Martina Franca production of “Huguenots” a few years ago that reset the action between Nazis and Jews – repulsive on SO many levels! About the furthest I’d be willing to go with this concept (if at all) would move “Tosca” to Fascist Italy, although how one would work Cavaradossi’s enthusiasm for Napoleon’s triumph into the storyline is a stumper.

  4. BelleDVedremo Says:

    I give this the benefit of the doubt and actually this strikes me as pretty interesting. It’s nice to put unusual costumes on people, but it’s up to the director to make the concept make sense. This could be brilliant. Time will tell.

  5. Il Tenore di Coloratura Superba Says:

    Discussion may ensue regarding changing the settings in operas by other composers…but with a composer like Wagner, one really is crossing what should be an uncrossable line. Wagner, and his philosophy of gesamtkunskwerke (I think I spelled that right) means that he himself went into so many details with his operas – in so far as to make costume and staging decisions. In a way, all of the theatrical particulars of his operas are an inherent part of the composition and should be considered as permanent as the notes and words are on the page. Obviously, there is always room for creativity with something like the Ring cycle and tho Wagner may well have had a coronary, I think he actually would have respected anyone who produced his operas in such a way that stayed in line with his greater vision, so although directors and producers may feel compelled to make ‘updated’ versions of his music…I personally think that is is best to keep Wagner’s opera’s as traditional as possible. That is the test of a really good director…one who can take the traditional and find ways to freshen it and liven the production to put his/her own personal thumbprint on it without interfering with Wagner’s vision or the necessary storyline.

  6. rysanekfreak Says:

    I once saw a “Zauberflote” that was set in the American Southwest in the 1700s. Everyone was an Indian in gorgeous “Santa Fe outfits” except for Monostatos, who was a captured Conquistador.

    The concept did not work. Because the Indians believed in FOUR as the magic number versus THREE…we got four ladies, four little boys. The extra ones didn’t sing. They just mouthed along. (or so the program notes told us)

    And the singers had to do word-picture gestures while they sang. Poor Beverly Hoch as The Queen of the Night literally had to dance and twirl and hop around and “sign” as the tossed off those high notes. “Sign more than you sing?”

    It was a pretty production to look at, but it really didn’t work.

    Of course, it was quite memorable. I’ve seen quite a few “Zauberflote”s in my life, but this is the one I remember in vivid detail simply because it was so different. (not necessarily GOOD, just different)

    So this “Ring” will be praised for its fabulous costumes and people will not write much about the singing.

  7. ilbarbiere Says:

    You think that’s bad, wait until it moves to a real A house, the one that is co-producing it with them.

    I can’t wait to see the SF Opera Board’s reaction to this Ring when they haven’t had one in over twenty years.

  8. In the current Royal Opera Production Erda is got up like Queen Victoria – each country to its own cultural icons!
    Wotan leaps onto her onto her at the very end of Rheingold to get on with the business of siring those 9 daughters. I think Jane Henschel is roubust enough to withstand the impact of Bryn Terfel.
    What should an earth goddess wear in the 2001st century?

  9. Twenty years ago Francesca Zambello and Stephen Wadsworth were Artistic Directors of the Skylight Comic Opera in Milwaukee. Who would have thought that they would someday each have Ring cycles on either end of the country? “Cesca” has always been a force to be reckoned with. Never cared much for her productions in Milwaukee; however we saw her Cyrano last spring and it was over all a success. No one has commented on the second drawing. I think that one is going to cause trouble.

  10. See, it’s the second drawing I’m wondering about. The Nibelungs are an enslaved race, that much makes sense. But they are enslaved by Alberich, who, presumably in this concept must also be of African descent. So either it must be that Alberich is not of the same race as the Nibelungs, or else we are talking about a bizarre alternate-universe American myth in which Africans enslaved other Africans.

    But if you play Alberich as black, how in this PC world can Wotan refer to him as “Schwarz-Alberich?”

    As I said, this will be interesting.

  11. Il Tenore di Grazia Says:

    Well, this opera fan doesn’t care whether it’s Wagner or Monteverdi or whoever. The fact is that all opera companies in the country are begging for money. I suspect that hiring directors to come up with these so-called “updates” costs more than producing the same operas as intended by the composer. Even if in a simplified manner, as most likely required by some of Wagner’s works and others. Also “standard” versions last a lot longer. And those who go to the opera for its beautiful music are very unlikely to object to “traditional” stagings.

    Thus, these “updated” productions means spending money that the companies don’t have in a manner that is not necessary.

    Old fashioned painted canvases are plenty for me if the singing is good. And if the singing is not good, then I don’t care to be there regardless of what the production looks like.

    But, as Dame Edna herself would say, just call me old fashioned.

  12. il lacerato spirito Says:

    this “updating” gives me the pip. Has anyone seen the Tosca done in the 30’s or the Boheme that uses light bulbs rather than candles. I have had it with this sort of stuff. It makes no sense within the concept of the operas and it ends up being boring infinitely

  13. While I do love my good ol’ fashioned productions, there have been many updated productions that I have truly enjoyed and gained a new perspective on the piece itself.

    In my opinion, operas can become reduced to “museum pieces” when one has traditional productions over and over again…which is why I guess we have updated productions. Opera and music are living, breathing things that are recreated each time they are performed…why not have a new view of them through updated productions?

    I love opera for the singing, but I realize that opera is a complete art form, borrowing from music, theatre, dance, and design. As we change as a society, is it fair that we should want our music and theatre to be stuck and not change with us?

    This is a heated debate in the opera world, and I guess will always be!

  14. The Tenth Valkyrie Says:

    I think one has to differentiate between updates that work and updates that don’t work. So I’ll put what I said above into perspective: given the choice between the Götterdämmerung in which Luana de Vol chops up tomatoes in a badly wallpapered kitchen while Waltraute is trying to sing some sense into her and the Levine/Schenk Ring, I’ll take the Regietheater any time, thanks.

    Updating can go terribly wrong, but palatable, conservative stageings that take no risks are, in my opinion, no more exciting than any old mainstream musical.

  15. Il Tenore di Coloratura Superba Says:

    A young soprano who sings at the Met told me of a production of Carmen in Europe that she attended (in Germany I believe) where the director had decided to base his production on the BOOK rather than the LIBRETTO. In the book, Don Jose is the main character and Carmen herself has very little to do. In short (as her telling of the production was legnthy and I myself never saw it so I don’t want to make up details), the Carmen was set in an office where Carmen was a plain, frumpy secretary who made real photocopies on a real photocopier during the Habanera which she was made to sing upstage. Whenever possible, the director stuck her in the backgroud and did everything he could to make Don Jose the focal point of the opera. I guess they had Zuniga, the boss, murdered, and then all the ‘secretaries’ – i.e. gypsies – got into drug dealing and the ‘office’ became an anarchial state. Escamillio was a janitor who was dreaming of becoming a big executive during the Toreador song (This based on her description seemed to really work and would have been fun to watch).

    At any rate, the girl who saw this agreed that overall there were some very interesting concepts and some informative new perspectives taken on the plot and character developments. But it was apparent that there was too much of a conflict of interest between the book and the libretto and between the opera’s setting and the director’s setting. Bizet wrote his opera about the female protagonist, not the male…even if the opposite was the case with the book…Bizet’s creation musically doesn’t allow such an idea to make sense. Shoving her into a grey pencil skirt with a white blouse in an ocean of grey and white doesn’t exactly make a lot of sense…then one stares and says “who’s singing!?” Also, the libretto and music of Carmen make such strong references to not only the action, but to the period and setting. I can’t imagine how the director set the last act outside the bullring…is the crowd part of the janitor’s imagination too?

    At any rate, ‘updating’ an operatic scenario really should be something carefully thoughtout rather than arbitrarily thrown together for the mere purpose of doing something different as many of these ‘updates’ seem to be.

  16. Il Tenore di Grazia Says:

    Not agains updates here if the company can afford them. I just don’t believe in going into debt to repaint the walls at home.

    I saw a Dutchman in Paris a few years ago (Voigt was the Senta) in a single very modern/abstract setting that gave the work a rather new twist. It was wonderful. And I can’t think of the opera now in any other terms.

    That Dutchman, however, went with the music, not against it. Carmen’s music is 19th Century French imitation Spanish. It calls for a vision that goes along.

  17. Indiana Loiterer III Says:

    I suspect that hiring directors to come up with these so-called “updates” costs more than producing the same operas as intended by the composer.

    Actually, I suspect updated productions cost less than period productions. The main difference is in the costumes; you’re going to get built sets these days whether the production is period or contemporary. And creating elaborate period costumes which generally can’t be reused seems more expensive than using contemporary clothing, which genrally doesn’t require so many petticoats & furbelows & stuff. Especially if the contemporary clothing is much the same as was used in the last modern-dress production (all those damn black trenchcoats)!
    Anyway, it’s that second drawing that bothers me. It’s not just the racial issues, it’s the economic ones; surely the Nibelungs are in manufacturing rather than agriculture?

    But if Zambello is really going to use “American mythology” as a basis for her Ring, does that mean that Nothung becomes a Colt Peacemaker or a Winchester repeating rifle?

    (My opinion as to updated productions in general is too complicated to go into here. But I can’t help wishing that Zambello had chosen to do a science-fiction-inspired Ring instead. I mean, we’ve had frockcoated Wotans as least as far back as the Chereau Ring…)

  18. Where did you get those pictures? This is not the production concept in the Washington Opera’s promotional materials circulated to season subscribers, although very little is shown any way. I thought it was going to be more leather-and-Wagner, after the Walkure of a couple of seasons ago. In the promotional art for this Rheingold, you can see that Wotan is wearing a black leather jacket. Zambello’s Porgy and Bess here was very nice, and the update was practically transparent to me. This American Heritage Wagner, however, does not look good at first glance. Whatever, I’m looking forward to hearing conductor Heinz Fricke and the WNO orchestra.

  19. Michael Farris Says:

    Re: The second picture, the color on my monitor is skewed (probably not long before it gives up the ghost altogether).

    Anyway, my first impression wasn’t that the Nibelungen were black but Chinese coolies. That would make some sense (don’t ask me quite how, but I think it could work) in a wild wild west version of the ring (the Amerindian Erda and description of Wotan as Horace Tabor may have thrown me off).

    I assume the Valkyries will be Minnie-esque cowgirls and Sielginde will be a long suffering pioneer wife (Sigmund will be a loner cowboy a la Shane). The Gibichungen would be gold rush prospectors …

  20. The only thing I hate more than failed ‘updated’ or ’emphasized’ productions are those that didn’t even try. I am looking forward to Z.’s work (I like it sometimes – at other times it infuriates me) and pray that she comes up with NEW and BETTER ideas than she presented in a highly mediocre Walkuere two years ago. Last time the costume designer (who should have been taken down for the awful Walkuere-leather costumes that were neither novel nor good looking nor ‘sexy’ as claimed) betrayed her unfathomable basic ignorance about Wagner in some comments for the Washington Post (i.e. she seemingly thought the heros that the Walkuere’s picked up were still alive) that I nearly cried.

    Still, I’d rather have Wotan move into a glorified Tepee than see an “authentic” production without acting and drama. (For all his ingenious inspirations, Wagner hardly had his product finished or tweaked to maximum impact at the time… nevermind the technical limitations.)


  21. A.C. Douglas Says:

    As odd as it might sound coming from me, this Konzept … er, Concept might actually work. This one seems to be one of those rare Concepts that really can’t be prejudged out of hand. I mean, it’s not a prima facie idiot outrage such as, say, the Chéreau Ring. Have to see how the director / producer / et al. handle the thing, especially as it concerns its correspondence with the music.


  22. rysanekfreak Says:

    I want to stage my own Ring update.

    The Ring set in Hollywood.

    The gold they are fighting over is the Oscar. Wotan is the head of Valhalla Studios. They all drive through the gates of the new studio in big limos at the end of “Rheingold.”

    The Rhine becomes a Beverly Hills swimming pool. The Rhinemaidens are bikini’d starlets tossing around a gold beachball. Alberich looks like Danny di Vito.

    Siegmund looks like James Dean.
    Sieglinde looks like a young Liz Taylor.
    Brunhilde looks like Bette Davis.
    Siegfried looks like a young Bogart.

    Well, you get the picture…

  23. Il Tenore di Coloratura Superba Says:

    rysanekfreak, you might really have something there!

    jfl, Wagner may not have been able to ‘tweak’ everything to be perfect, but his ideas and concepts of his own mucis-dramas were extremely carefully thought out. It was really amazing, for his time, how advanced his designs for his sets were as compared to other operas and theatrical pieces. Even the whole swan-boat in Lohengrin must have been an amazing site for audiences who would have attended the premiere. Granted, Wagner had a crazy king who was willing to spend every single one of his and his subjects money to fufill Wagner’s megaolmaniac appetite. But what I was stating earlier is that a really good and creative and hard working director can take Wagner’s pre-set ideas and information utilize them to make a truly interesting, physically and musically lively (yes, Der Ring doesn’t HAVE to be 20 hours of boredeom!) performance.

    As one who primarily advocates performing a piece of music as though the composer himself were present (which means ALOT of research and study and reading on the part of the performer to try and understand the performance practices of the time, the tastes of the composer and his audiences, the methods of his contemporary performers, and his compositional techniques – I’ve written about this at length several months ago in some entries in some wonderful discussions with other contributors). Seeing that Wagner, unlike so many composers before the 20th century, was his own librettist and director and set/costume designer, one really should approach producing one of his masterpieces with a complete respect of all facets of his genius and hardwork. Of course, we can’t change the notes on the page or the words attached to them, but even though we can alter the visual and physical elements of the works, I think it’s important for any director who plans to do Wagner to take the time and study what he has already given us for the purpose of finding inspiration, understanding, knowledge, and most of all, to put forth new, creative ideas in performances of his work that are always founded on respect for his mastery of his art.

    jfl, I am most certainly not attacking your views, I am very interested in your opinions and ideas – you seem to be a well-read and intelligent person.

    I also highly recommend to anyone who is a Wagnerite/Rossinian to read the famous conversation that took place between the two great men in 1860 in Paris. There is alot of incredible information there, especially how Wagner sells his concepts and art to the Ottocento master.

  24. “As one who primarily advocates performing a piece of music as though the composer himself were present (which means ALOT of research and study and reading on the part of the performer to try and understand the performance practices of the time, the tastes of the composer and his audiences, the methods of his contemporary performers, and his compositional techniques – I’ve written about this at length several months ago in some entries in some wonderful discussions with other contributors).”

    As such one… what? Just like you don’t mean to attack me, I don’t mean to, either. But this statement “As one who primarily advocates performing a piece of music as though the composer himself were present” is the end of the argument for me… or rather: The beginning of a NEW argument. Not one about operatic performance (because we disagree) but about morality.

    To put it bluntly (and in very distilled form): I think your attitude is a Sin. Not “sin” as in casual fashion sin… but as in a a moral misdemeanour. That’s a bit grave, perhaps… but what I mean by it is that it is counter to truth. It is a lie to ourselves to think it possible (both phsyically and psychologically) and a lie to the audience.

    Two identical statements separated by 100 years do not have the same meaning, do not contain the same information. To pretend otherwise is to make a grave blunder or is willfully deceiving. [Interestingly: Those who have above claims of Wagnerian ‘authenticity’ are often {I don’t know about you, though} the first to demand that Bach and Handel be played like Klemperer, Scherchen, Solti, Beecham would have… rather than Suzuki, Junghanel or McCreesh. Only sometimes do they allow for Gardiner/Pinnick/Rilling.]

    “I think it’s important for any director who plans to do Wagner to take the time and study what he has already given us for the purpose of finding inspiration, understanding, knowledge, and most of all, to put forth new, creative ideas in performances of his work that are always founded on respect for his mastery of his art.”

    Here, of course, you are absolutely correct. And I don’t know anyone (not Chereau, not von Trier, not Wagner Grandsons, not Boulez) who did not just do that. That’s in part why their productions (well… none from Trier for now) or results were (though not necessarily) excellent. The continuous trashing of the Chereau-Ring (has ACD even seen the production? I doubt it, to be honest), to pick on one example, is utter nonsense. Chereau and Boulez both have forgotten more about Wagner than any of us will ever get to know… and not only is the Chereau Ring dramatically compelling like no opera I have ever seen, it is at the same time the one that is most strictly tied to the word in its action. To bad for those who don’t speak and read German beyond some impressive quotes on their blogs – but watching it with German subtitles and hearing it sung is baffling. Almost every move is rooted in the text – and just when you want to say: “Oh… puh-leeez, Mr. Chereau”, he actually just underlined in action that which the singers are singing. Anyway… I digress.

    I don’t ask you to believe me or change your mind… but this is the gist of how I feel about it and I shall be forthcoming with a longer article about it where I explain it in more detail. (Eventually, I guess, that will appear on

    very best,


  25. A.C. Douglas Says:

    JFL wrote: Chereau and Boulez both have forgotten more about Wagner than any of us will ever get to know… and not only is the Chereau Ring dramatically compelling like no opera I have ever seen, it is at the same time the one that is most strictly tied to the word in its action.

    A more ignorant set of statements is hard to imagine.

    Chereau, at the time he was given the commission for his idiot production, not only had NOT “forgotten more about Wagner than any of us will ever get to know,” but was, by his own admission, a total Wagner ignoramus (he actually bragged about it, the moron!). For most pertinent instance, Chereau imagined that the Ring was a single opera, and had not so much as a clue as to what it was about, and had to go scurrying about to find out, settling finally on G. B. Shaw’s witty but nonsensical and tendentious socialist tract, The Perfect Wagnerite, to use as his instruction manual for his production.

    And as to your appallingly ignorant statement that “the Chereau Ring … [is] the one that is most strictly tied to the word in its action,” that’s utter rubbish except in the most mechanical sense of the thing. The Chereau Ring‘s failure – its abject failure – to correspond in spirit, context, and sense with Wagner’s text and — more tellingly, and more egregiously — with Wagner’s music, is precisely what makes it the grotesque piece of Eurotrash it unquestionably is.


  26. A.C. Douglas Says:



    “…settling finally on G. B. Shaw’s witty but nonsensical and tendentious socialist tract, The Perfect Wagnerite…,”

    should have read,

    “…settling finally on G. B. Shaw’s witty but silly and tendentious socialist tract, The Perfect Wagnerite….”


  27. …settling finally on G. B. Shaw’s witty but silly and tendentious socialist tract, The Perfect Wagnerite…

    it’s actually based on a ring production from leipzig (GDR) from the 70s which in turn was (loosely) based on shaw’s writing – but such minor details should not concern anyone who claims that Chereau’s (or any other European’s “Konzept…”) production is “prima facie absurd” or “prima facie idiot outrage”. nor should the fact that Chereau may have started out without knowledge about Wagner (unlike someone I know who was born with so much knowledge about Wagner and how he should be performed that it entitles her/him to ‘ex cathedra’ statements everywhere) but apparently gained more insight into its essence (even if he got the capitalism aspect completely upside down and backwards forwards): namely that it is, for all the gods and fish-women and midgets and whatnot, a human drama and if you cannot see at least that aspect done supremely well in Chereau – even if you disagree violently, “prima facie” even, with the general direction – then you are blind for all your supposed love for Wagner’s work.

  28. A.C. Douglas Says:

    That Chéreau “gained … insight,” as you put it, into the fact that the Ring is essentially “a human drama” despite “all the gods and fish-women and midgets and whatnot,” also as you put it, is hardly an accomplishment. Only a simpleton could be deaf and blind to that fact. But Chéreau — being the Eurotrash vandal that he is — instead of doing his utmost to realize on stage in the most effective and resonant manner possible that essence as Wagner envisioned it, chose instead to put his own impoverished vision by way of Shaw on display in its stead, thereby fixing in the most concrete manner possible this one particular — and particularly trivial — way of reading the drama, and by so doing robbed Wagner’s masterpiece of the very thing that’s central to its genius: its capacity to resonate simultaneously in multifarious ways, and at multiple layers of meaning, for an audience, the contemptible result being that in place of Wagner’s resonant cosmic drama, audiences had inflicted upon them a banal and squalid quasi-Marxist morality tale, as I’ve elsewhere characterized it, worthy only of a postmodern literary theorist.

    In short, Chéreau, like all his Eurotrash brethren, is nothing more or other than a self-important, self-involved, self-serving vandal; a parasite who feeds on the work of his betters and superiors, and in the process destroys utterly that on which he feeds.


  29. hmmm. maybe. however, his work has ‘resonated with me simultaneously’ and ‘in multifarious ways’ – with me. so he must have succeeded in something, after all. and then of course he somehow tricked every single attendendee to his ring (during its last run, at least) into an 80 minute standing ovation and 100+ curtain calls, a bayreuth record. but I am sure there is a sheet of ‘talking points’ to counter that, too. (perhaps germans just don’t know how to do or even appreciate wagner.)

  30. A.C. Douglas Says:

    …and then of course he [Chéreau] somehow tricked every single attendendee to his ring (during its last [Bayreuth] run, at least) into an 80 minute standing ovation and 100+ curtain calls….

    By the time the Chéreau Ring reached the end of its four-year Bayreuth run (1980) it was considered by the “in” crowd of the snobbish Wagnerian world — especially the German Wagnerian world — to be hopelessly “counter-progressive” (whatever that was supposed to mean), even reactionary, to not greet the Chéreau Ring with an ovation. Do you imagine herd mentality and lemming behavior is confined to such as the proles in attendance at sporting events and political rallies?

    Think again.


  31. A.C. Douglas Says:



    “…the ‘in’ crowd of the snobbish Wagnerian world….”

    should have read:

    “…the ‘in’ crowd of the snobbish and fashionable Wagnerian world….”


  32. oh, how i hate them, those counter-progressive bayreuthian lemming-snobs!

    cheers, acd, to wagner keeping us on edge.

  33. A.C. Douglas Says:

    I join you in your toast to Herr Wagner.



  34. Il Tenore di Coloratura Superba Says:

    I’ve been very entertained by this discussion (battle, perhaps?) between jfl and acd. I love hearing what other people have to share. I would like to respond to jfl’s response to my last entry.

    I will firstly admit that I do not know the Chereau production of Der Ring. I know very little about productions (other than the ones at the Met) in general. As a singer, I guess my primary concern has always been with the composer and the ‘interpretation’ of his music by other musicians rather than the interpretation of the story and visual designs – unless, of course, I’m in the production – then I have to pay attention!!

    I don’t lack interest in this field, but find that my time is better spent studying the music rather than directors and producers – for me personally – I’m not saying that other people’s times would be better spent in the same way – I think it’s wonderful that there are so many people who DO give a rat’s ass about other facets of the opera industry other than just what they see and hear.

    At any rate, what I said before about performing a piece of music as though the composer was present…every composer, obviously, had his own personality and his own musical personality. Each composer grew up in a different world than the next and was taught music differently, at different ages, by different people who had different approaches and tastes.

    For example, to truly understand how Mozart viewed the performance of music – one must familiarize themselves with his OWN writings on the subject – on other people’s music and on his own as well as his thoughts about conductors and singers and instrumentalists! One must also become aquainted with his fathers book on Violin playing – a very valuable book of mid-18th century performance practices…to understand the philosophies of Quantz and Padre Martini and J.C. Bach and Haydn who all had big influences on him and his musical education. Then one must explore the musical tastes and trends that developed through his compositional career – either started by him, or trends that he incorporated into his music (Mannheim, Paris, Milan, Vienna). THEN one has a greater understanding of how to successfully study and perform a work of his. As a vocalist, it is important for me to take the time to understand the proper way to read his ornamentations and discover ways to tasteful ornament his music in varitions and cadenze and nachschlagen.

    Another example, if one is to learn Schubert, one MUST be well aquainted with Beethoven as Schubert modeled so much of himself after his idol.

    The most functional and practical reason for taking the time to study these sorts of things is to know HOW to READ the little ink blots on the page set down by the composer (and of course, to use an honorable and well-constructed edition where the editor hasn’t changed or added things to his own liking!). a Marcato accent in Stravinsky is VERY different from one in Strauss…and Puccini’s “sostenuto” means something very different in Verdi; and “ritenuto” and “calando” mean very different things to different styles and different time periods and different composers; and descending eigth-notes in Brahms are actually meant to be ‘swung’ instead of being exactly in time…but most people don’t KNOW that because most people (yes, even the “GREAT” conductors of the 20th century) rarely have taken the time to learn and understand it.

    How does all of this relate to Wagner and producing one of his operas? Well, like I mentioned earlier, a valuable source of information is in the conversation he had with Rossini in 1860. Moreover, Wagner released many publications throughout his life and kept very detailed diaries that often had alot to do with music as they did with his personal life and his political life. Understanding the other components of his life outside of his music help define the man and sometimes help us to understand what he was feeling when he was writing a given passage. It is astonishing, particularly, in Beethoven when one looks at his musical output from a political and personal point of view – his inspirations for the Eroica and the 5th symphonies, for example. Also, there is a great legacy of documentation provided by various musicians and individuals who all encountered and worked with Wagner throughout his life and they have some astonishing pieces of knowledge to share about his genius, the way he worked, the way he ran his operas and his life!! Plenty of composers who were his contemporaries left memoirs describing the impacts his music made on them – Tchaikovsky had great respect for him, but hated his operatic subjects and hated the endlessness of his harmonic writing – “everlasting cadences that never resolve!” – also, Tchaikovsy attended the premiere of the complete Ring Cycle. His words on the subject are very intruiging.

    I’m going on about this because I think these are very important things for musical people (yes, including intelligent, interested listeners) to know and understand – perhaps non-musician’s can gain a greater appreciation for their favorite pieces and composers by investigating these types of resources.

    Max Rudolf, whom I have always greatly admired and I am a descendant of his teachings…he claimed that the composers were giants and we are but dwarves who must serve them and respect them, for without them, we would have nothing for our careers as performers, conductors, or audience members. That is why I think it is imperative for anyone, a musician or a director or other to take a more invested interest in studying these great men and finding ways to present their masterpieces in such ways as though, were they to be standing present, they would be smiling and enjoying the performance – not rolling over in their graves!!

    A last example (since it just came to me) of how ‘interpretation’ differs between composers…Tchaikovsky was a very indecisive composer, he would write and make notations, but he was never (until late in his life) in much of a position to give directions to other people exactly how he heard his own music in his head – he was deathly afraid of conducting and would have such violent nervous attacks all through his life everytime he stepped in front of an orchestra. But Tchaikovsky was also such an emotional and passive person, he was able to appreciate musicians who would ‘bring new meaning into his music’ through their individuality. He commented to Hans von Bulow at a performance of his piano concerto “You have brought things out in my music that I never knew existed!”

    But were a performer to do something of that nature in front of Beethoven or Strauss…you’d be chastized and thrown out of his presence!! Beethoven, for all his deafness, knew when a person wasn’t playing his music the way he INTENDED it to be played. The man was SO specific in his notational details (much like Wagner and Mahler and Strauss) that to disobey them is a sin against God who gave this man a gift far greater than most – to create the most passionate, worldly, intense, intimate music and never be able to hear a note of it!!! Yes, that was a bit much, but it really is THAT serious! at least, it is, if one even cares.

    There is a famous story about Strauss while conducting the rehearsals for the premiere of “Ein Heldenleben.” The opening passage is extremely difficult for all horn players – and the principle horn stood up and said “Maestro Strauss, you may be able to play this passage perfectly on the piano, but it is impossible to play on the horn!” and Strauss calmly turned to him and said “No, you’re wrong. I can’t play it on the piano.”

    So, to bring this ALL back to Wagner and producing his operas…we know from various resources, Wagner was his own librettist, composer, designer, director. To want to direct and produce one of his operas in the theatre and to NOT take him and his legacy and his testaments seriously, with respect, and with love – I think it’s sinful and cowardly. But, that’s my take on it. Like I said, a truly creative and inventive director will take the tools that Wagner has left us and use them in a way to heighten and praise his work, not demolish it.

    As for Chereau, I don’t know if he built upon Wagner’s foundation or if he destroyed it – I have not seen the production and no nothing more about it than what has been discussed of it in this forum – what I do know is that taken the Nibelungen mythology out of the Nibelungen cycle is a travesty and it says to me, that the person who is making it (and I mean them no disrespect) obviously doesn’t have much of an interest in Wagner and is intent only on doing something to expand their name, make publicity for themselves and the opera company and singers in the production, to do something out of the ordinary just for the sake of doing something that isn’t ‘traditonal’ and perhaps (I can’t say for sure because I don’t know the person and I don’t know what kind of work is going into the production), the individual might just be too lazy to worry about conveying to audiences around the world Wagner’s message and Wagner’s genius.

    My last thought…Jfl, even though you may disagree with much of what I have just said…I do find your passion for the Chereau production refreshing and I have alot of respect for you having alot of knowledge to support yourself. May I ask, is that a photo of you?

  35. il tenore:

    thanks for those (many) words. i agree that if we know every detail about a composer, his ideas and his predecessor’s ideas, it can only add… especially if that knowledge liberates rather than confines.

    in opera, i understand that singers may think of the music as the most important element – but as a critic i just think complete mastery of the music to be the sine qua non. in the end i demand both. otherwise a concert-opera would do… costumes and sets don’t make up for lack of acting.

    if you want to understand why i am passionate about the chereau ring (despite fundamental economic misgivings – fortunately that part of the message does not much come through now, in 2005: this ring has gotten much better with age, not worse), just watch RHEINGOLD. borrow it, buy it, steal it. forget the controversy about it all and see if you can enjoy it. it would be difficult for me to understand that someone could not be impressed beyond believe by heinz zednik’s loge, for starters.

    yes, i disagree with your idea that the (or certain ones) composer is necessarily sacrosant and i disagree with the idea that those who try to do new and radical things in opera do so “obviously” out of lack of respect, knowledge, or interest in their subject but instead only out of an interest in their own propagation. there are some black sheep, i am sure… but i don’t think there are even that many (you simply can’t stay in that business if that’s all you do/can); and i am sure there are some that are too focused on visual elements etc. – but most of them are extremely concerned with their subject, very knowledgable about it and want to make the work communicate anew or in better ways or in ways that we can perceive or have not thought of before. i’ll be the first one to admit that that often fails. in fact, i think if one out of three such performances succeeds, it is worth sitting through the rest. that is, in part, because i think that not trying to tease opera into our 21st ct. lifes (i.e. showing a Tosca as originally staged – the only thing added being the absence of any fresh idea in 100 years) is necessary failure.

    yes, that is a picture of me… although it dates back to the last millenium.


  36. WNO Rheingold reviewed and found to be a solid, enjoyable affair with plenty promise. Welcome out West here on our East coast, the City of Satan: Washington.

    Preview of WNO’s Rheinold

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