Sondheim, Wagner Etc

Tonight I saw Sondheim's Assassins for the first time. In the discussion on the way home (an 80 minute drive) many different musical examples came up including various scenes from opera, and I realized how tenuous are the various genre lines that so many people feel a need to draw. In the end, the foundation is simply theatre; after that there are variations. There is Sophicles and Shakespeare and Brecht; and there is Mozart and Verdi and Gershwin and Sondheim. If singing furthers the drama, then you sing, and it doesn't matter what style you sing in, or what percentage of time you sing. Porgy and Bess or Nixon in China or The Magic Flute are simply examples of good theatre with music.

The exception here is the greatest cultural fraud in the history of humankind -- Richard Wagner and the so-called "music drama." Actually Wagner's music is at least as good as John Williams Star Wars (though nowhere close to Ennio Morricone). But Wagner has absolutely no feel for drama per se. Speeches, even when they are contradicted by subsequent speeches, do not constitute drama. I could imagine a stage production of Plato's Republic or David Hume's Dialogues on Natural Religion having more dramatic flare than The Ring Cycle. Now to be sure, the entire twenty hours/four plays of the Ring could be pared down to ninety minutes. If Wagner had only done that, then today we could be comparing his work to other great dramas like Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings.
Uncleleo Uncleleo
56-60, M
3 Responses May 6, 2012

i think tchakovsky was a genius. ;) i am not a huge wagner fan, just as i am not a shaw fan, nor do i love strauss, etc. but i respect what he did in his time. one can say michael faraday was a product of his time -- victorian parlor tricks and games, etc. -- yet he advanced chemistry despite his showmanship. in a sense, uncleleo, it's like you are doing penance for having swallowed the whole stone all at once, and now need to not only regurgitate it, but figure out why you did such a thing. ;) just teasing!<br />
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when i start people on operas, there are only two choices: gluck's orfeo et eurydice (short, pretty, known story) and mozart's le nozze di figaro, in a more traditional stage production. wagner is advanced stuff -- you have to be kind of full of your own convictions to embrace the tedium .... but that doesn't mean he wasn't a genius, nor that he wasn't an *******. <br />
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come to think of it, i find mishima's writings to be like being forced to trudge through paint drying without leaving footprints -- masturbatory and pointless, yet interesting in it's pointlessness.

Touche. I think you are exactly correct about my need for penance. I did get drawn into what I think was one of the precursers of Nazi-ism, and I do feel a little bad about that.
Do you know the story of how Gluck died? He conducted, not with a baton, but kept the tempo by banging a large cudgel on the floor. One day he banged his big toe, it got infected, and he died from the resulting complications.

i thought that was lully (who was a dancer, too)? i get my baroques mixed up, admittedly. he refused amputation, which might have saved his life; however, given the state of understanding of germs, it's unlikely. it does indicate how unclean they were! ;)

i know many jews who will not listen to any wagner, yet one should know one's enemies. also, that "deutscheland uber alles" was spontaneously sung at the end of "meistersingers" as the germans were losing their wars has more to say about them in their context than it does about wagner. perhaps it's german nature, and not specific to one man -- who happened to enchant kind ludwig, and thus get a greater airing of his particular ideas and views, while others did not? just the story of hans sachs is peculiarly german, no?

I too confuse my baroques -- you are correct, it was Lully. I did not know the dancer part, but it makes perfect sense. I guess we've all heard stories about dancers losing their toes. Far a while I drove a cab in San Francisco, and once I had Dame Margot Fonteyn as a passanger. She was probably retired by then, but I still had this sudden fear of getting into an accident that would cause her to lose a toe. Fortunately I delivered her safely.

I'm going to pass on the topic of the German national character, because I would have too much to say. I'll give the final word to Woody Allen: When I listen to Wagner, I get an urge to invade Poland.

uncleleo, that gives wagner way too much credit. ;) thank you for not severing dame margot's toe! then she'd be an ancillary character in "the big lubowsky" or some such. lully was the second director (i think) of what became the paris opera, and (again, i think!) it was his influence that put ballets in the midst of operas (thus degas was later able to paint all those delightful portraits of paris opera ballet girls).

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Granted, I used the W-word first, but you bought it, and thus asked for a response: here is the whole, terrible story.<br />
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I went into the Navy out of high school. I served on a troop transport taking GI's back and forth to Japan and Okinawa (when it was still a US protectorate). I met a Marine from Baltimore ("Lance Corporal Tully" is the only name I remember); we talked books, and he recommended that I should read H. L. Mencken.<br />
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Mencken became my first intellectual mentor. And Mencken was a Germanophile, so I became a Germanophile. Mencken loved Nietzsche and Wagner, so I loved Nietzsche and Wagner. As a student in San Francisco, every year I attended their one Wagnerian production. Only later did I become an opera fan. At this point I eschewed any composer that W said was a philistine. In short, I was trying to be what Bernard Shaw mockingly called "The Perfect Wagnerite." While my friends fantasized about girls, I fantasized about making the pilgrimage to Beyreuth.<br />
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My first college English term paper was an analysis of the political suppositions of Wagner's world view (sadly that paper appears to be lost, for I would love to read it now years later). But then, as I learned other perspectives, my views changed.<br />
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One can only go so far apologizing for Wagner's latent Nazism, and eventually I gave up that fight. And then I saw my first Verdi, and I realized that opera did not have to be like church (long, tedious sections, followed by an occasional moment of interest); opera (all musical theatre) can be fun throughout, by moving from scene to scene; <br />
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And then I discovered Mozart. OMG (My first wife was a humanities major from Germany, and we lived there half a year, visiting his house in Salzburg, etc.)<br />
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When you compare Wagner’s music “dramas” (the drama of drying paint) with real musical theatre, his terrible pretentions are exposed. For example, I love the sailors’ chorus from Dutchman. But that was the last chorus W ever wrote: why? Because, he argued, in “real life” people don’t sing in choruses. (Guess what, nimrod? In real life people don’t sing to each other!)<br />
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Of course, the music can be great (but qua composer he is no more a genius than, say, Tchaikovsky is a genius); I have a two disc cd of the orchestral music that I play regularly (And the Ride of the Valkyrie scene from Apocalypse Now is one of the greatest scenes in the history of American cinema.) But there is no aesthetic excuse for the tedium as he preaches his neo-pagan fantasies.<br />
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So what I’m saying girl is that I think that I have served my dues, and when I declare Wagner to be a gigantic cultural fraud, it is a relatively informed judgment.

P.S. I disliked the Peter Jackson films also.

oh dear ... well, you did ask my opinions, so i'll give it to you (you have only yourself to blame! ;) ). <br />
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simon keenlyside once explained that many ring cycles were seen as dull and stupid by english and american audiences (and others, probably). he pointed out that perhaps it would help if you understood german, that it would be very clear what the productions were doing. frankly, i hadi never enjoyed the ring cycle until i'd been to the metropolitan opera and their simultaneous translations in real time. and perhaps you had not see the ring cycle with truly great singer-actors or the types of settings that were designed to heighten drama. i agree with you that wagner was full of himself, but i finally understand that he was a genius with a vision and was multiply talented. he also lived his talk, so to speak, and broke from much of opera tradition to create a world where expansion and envelope pushing is possible. <br />
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the problem with the way most wagner operas are staged is that they tend to be "park and barks" where the singer stands in one place and sings, with nothing else happening. in great storytelling tradition (and even stand-up comedy), when the performer is tapped into the audience, simply telling the story can be powerful, compelling, and effective. <br />
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do you feel the same about engelbert humperdinck's "hansel and gretel"? he was considered one of a line of wagnerians. and then there is the wagner voice, restricted by the composer's hand, challenged by the growling orchestrations and volume of sound. when someone like bryn terfel sings wotan, or eric owens become alberich, or jonas kaufmann depicts siegmund -- they become the characters, telling the stories as they lived them. it makes all the difference.<br />
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note i said singer-actors ... not just singers. the distinction is very important for me toward enjoyment of any opera these days. yeah, it's primarily about the voice, but ... you know.<br />
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the robert lepage ring cycle is coming up on the met opera's HD -- nothing beats seeing that production and those actors live, but the HD will make the 15+ hourse more comfortable, and perhaps you might enjoy it better -- otherwise, it's just a bunch of singers w hining about one thing or another (especially siegfried!). and the documentary "wagner's dream" will also be presented by the met, which outlines and presents the process toward the making of this production. being able to get into a director's head and concepts is refreshing and wonderful in such context.<br />
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okay, sorry for my overly long dissertation. and by the way, i disliked peter jackson's lord of the rings. ;)