July 12, 2016

Opera and golf and the talent it takes to be mediocre

Benjamin Godard
I don't play much golf any more. I never played a lot, but I enjoyed hitting a bucket of balls on the driving range, and my sister-in-law's husband took me golfing on his municipal course a few times. Well, that was years ago. My sister-in-law divorced her husband and surgery on my cervical spine makes it painful to swing a golf club. So much for active participation!


It's just as well - I wasn't very good. But I still follow the PGA and, to a lesser extent, the LPGA. One thing about golf no one can fully appreciate who has never tried to play the game: IT'S SO HARD.

The pro golf tour is made up of three basic levels: stars, journeymen and "rabbits". The rabbits are the pros who play constantly but seldom if ever win. They struggle along, just breaking even, driving high-mileage cars to the next venue instead of flying because they're running low on cash. But don't kid yourself - those rabbits could beat you like a drum, you amateur, you.

Even the worst pro golfers are really, really, really, REALLY good. Whoever is last on the PGA money-winning list (currently one Tommy Gainey) is a fabulous golfer who can make every shot in the book: booming drives, knock-em-stiff iron shots, delicate chips and amazing lag putts. You see, what a golfer goes through just to earn his PGA tour card is a gauntlet requiring nothing less than skill sets that would win your local club championship every time. Even if he never wins a pro tournament!
Tommy Gainey

And what does this have to do with opera?

A lot.

The percentage of all the operas ever written that end up in the "standard repertoire" - heck, let's expand the category to "operas performed from time to time" - is miniscule; statistically insignificant.
And certainly, there are operas that are really, truly awful, either due to weak libretto, ineffective music, or other factors, or a perfect storm of complete ineptitude.

But the reality is that it takes real talent - amazing skill-sets - to create a mediocre opera; one that is seldom if ever revived. Opera is to music composition what neuro-surgery is to medicine. It's hard. It requires comprehensive mastery.

I was reminded of all this as I took my dog Joy The Friendly Beagle on a walk a few weeks ago. Stomping along a nature trail on a mild Saturday afternoon, I put on my headphones and used a music app on my phone to tune in a Saturday afternoon opera broadcast. That day's offering from WETA FM in Washington D.C. was the opera Dante by Benjamin Godard.

Confession: I didn't know Godard wrote operas...

To me, he was the middling composer of flowery salon pieces for piano, perfumed but slight. So the revelation that he wrote operas came as a surprise. "Okay", I thought, "as an opera professional, I am curious to sample this rarity. Bring it on!" My expectations were low. Generally, there are good, solid reasons that neglected pieces are neglected. I recall having delivered a lecture in downtown Richmond, VA years ago after which a gentleman came up to chat. There are two questions employees of opera companies are asked all the time:
  1. "Why do you always do the same tired old operas? Why not branch out a little?" Or,
  2. "Why do you do weird ugly operas no one's ever heard of? Why not do the 'good ones'"?
This guy was asking #1 above. Obviously wishing to demonstrate his amazing opera knowledge, he clucked his tongue and said "I mean, why not stage Schubert's Alphonso und Estrella? It's absolutely charming!"

Uh huh. Thanks a lot, we'll get right on that, you pretentious twit...

It's not that he was wrong, of course - it's just that a regional opera company like Virginia Opera, especially in bad economic times, would be committing marketing suicide by scheduling a failed opera. See, it's different with opera than with orchestral music or instrumental solos, or even solo vocal music. We musicians can and do perform mediocre or neglected works from those categories all the time, because the investment of resources is relatively small. But opera is expensive! It costs a fortune! You have to take into account scenery, props, costumes, choreographers, electricians, crew members, transportation, airline tickets and housing for singers, ... the list goes on and on. Companies simply can't make an investment like that if the show won't be of interest. It's usually a bad investment to do an oddity, a rarity, a forgotten opera.

But Dante was produced by the Munich Opera, where state funding is more generous than in America, so Godard's shade can rest easy: his piece has survived him, however briefly.
I listened attentively for not quite half an hour, feeling at a disadvantage with neither libretto nor score with which to orient myself. It opened with a highly dramatic chorus, followed by a recitative for the tenor (the character of Dante), a tenor aria with some more chorus, a baritone aria and a duet for the two of them. The opera dates from 1890, according to the announcer.

Then I got to my car, the hike completed, and had to stop my sampling. You can't legally drive with headphones on, and I couldn't hear it over traffic noise without them.

But I'd heard enough to get the idea.

Was it bad? NO! Not at all!. It sounded a little Massenet-ish here, a little Bizet-ish there, with elements of Wagner and late Verdi sprinkled in for good measure. The choral writing was expert. The vocal writing was assured. The orchestration was fine. Many phrases for Dante and his baritone colleague rang out in an impassioned manner.

If you're not a musician, you can't appreciate the level of musicianship, talent, training and experience it takes to compose choral music, learn the craft of orchestration, and write gracefully and effectively for all ranges of male and female voices.

In case you're thinking "A-ha! A neglected masterpiece!", let me quickly assure you it's no such thing.

I don't know Dante well enough to state with authority why it has not entered the standard repertoire. I can only tell you my reaction: I never need to hear it again.

That's my litmus test for evaluating a work I've never heard before, operatic or otherwise. Do I want to hear it again, or was once enough? I recall my first introductions to many favorite works of music: Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, Boris Godunov, the "Liebestod" from Tristan, Brahms' F sharp minor piano quintet, .....so many others. With all of them, I was so gob-smacked by the compelling nature of the music that I realized I SIMPLY HAVE TO HEAR THIS AGAIN! In many cases, over and over...

Not Dante. It was fine; there was nothing particularly wrong per se with it. It just failed the litmus test. I can't really explain why. I suppose the opening chorus seemed a bit long, over-dramatic and extended for a curtain-raiser. Just by a fraction.

Sometimes, with mediocre operas, there is the sense that the composer was trying as hard as possible to make each moment of music "the ultimate opera music", as though every moment had to be climactic.

The great ones save climactic moments for, you know, climaxes. Continual climaxes pall. Maybe I sensed a bit of that in Dante; maybe a tad over-wrought.

You can listen for yourself. The same performance is available as audio on YouTube. Just enter "Godard Dante" in the search bar. I had it on while typing this post, wondering if it would strike me differently. Not so much. The end of the first scene brought weak scattered applause from the audience.

Benjamin Godard: a "rabbit" composer who could make all the shots and compose all the things. These days, he might have to drive his car to hear his opera performed instead of flying.

Final thought: this analogy of composers and pro golfers really holds up pretty well. Take the most famous of recent golfers: Tiger Woods. I could make the case that he corresponds to Richard Strauss. Both set their respective worlds on fire as young men, Woods winning the Masters by nine shots at age 22, Strauss penning his tone poem Don Juan at age 24. Yet both careers tailed off in the latter stages. Tiger went into a steep decline years ago, and Strauss sank into mediocrity as time went along.

Both fields have their "one-shot wonders", or individuals who show flashes of brilliance that never translated into long-term brilliance. You say Ruggiero Leoncavallo, whose only success was Pagliacci, I say Keegan Bradley, who won a major tournament several years ago but has won nothing at all since 2012.

Woods and Strauss: Stars.
Bradley and Leoncavallo: Journeymen.
Godard and Gainey: talented, highly skilled................... rabbits.


June 22, 2016

The spider's web of Virginia Opera's new season

C. M.von Weber, composer of... TURANDOT?
Virginia Opera has announced the 2016-2017 season with the usual ballyhoo of brochures, subscription sales and press releases. Briefly stated, it shapes up this way:

Sept/Oct: A double-bill of Kurt Weill's "ballet chanté" The Seven Deadly Sins with another treatise on sin, Leoncavallo's familiar Pagliacci.

Nov/Dec: Rossini's beloved sit-com The Barber of Seville.

Jan/Feb: Weber's masterpiece Der Freischütz

March/April: Puccini's unfinished spectacle Turandot.

Starting around September I'll resume weekly posts sharing my insights about what makes these pieces tick. For now, however, as I'm hip-deep in the process of studying them, I'm struck by a web of unlikely coincidences and interconnections linking these works, which otherwise would seem to having nothing in common.

Take Turandot, for example. Amazingly, Carl Maria von Weber wrote an overture in 1809 for a production of the Carlo Gozzi drama on which Puccini based his opera. It's an odd, idiosyncratic march-like piece trying hard to sound "Eastern" with a perkily disjointed, asymmetrical tune sounding rather jolly for such grizly goings-on. You can hear a recording of it at this link.

Another surprising mention of Turandot happens in delving into the career of the great German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose text for The Seven Deadly Sins formed his final collaboration with Weill in 1933. It happens that not only was Brecht's final play a comedic version of Turandot, but - like Puccini! - it was left unfinished at his death in 1956. Brecht began his Turandot before leaving Germany during the rise of Hitler; feeling its subject matter unfit for American audiences, he did not turn his attention to it again until his return to Germany. It's not clear why he didn't get around to completing it.

Like all of Brecht's stage works, his Turandot is a political statement; unlike his other works, however, Turandot is said to be a broad farce, using heavy satire to criticize the class of liberal intellectuals the playwright held in contempt. In this version of "ancient China", the Emperor is a weak ruler, manipulated by the intellectuals of the royal court. The traditional plot-point of riddles and decapitation of those who fail them is tweaked to offer a critique of a failed economy:

A dispute has developed between the Union of Clothesmakers and the Union of the Clothesless. To settle the matter, the Emperor orders a grand debate. The wisest men in China must offer plausible answers to the question: "Where is the cotton?" so that the people of China can understand where all the cotton has gone. The intellectual who comes up with the best answer will marry Turandot (who is quite the flirtatious sex-pot in this telling); all the rest will taste the executioner's axe

So much for Turandot as a common thread in this coming season, but I have another: the Thirty Year's War.

Lasting from 1618-1648, this bloody conflict began when Protestants rebelled against attempts by the Holy Roman Emperor (Ferdinand II of Bohemia) to stifle religious freedom. The war caused over a million casualties and redrew the map of Europe before it staggered to its conclusion.

The first link to the Thirty Years' War in our season is straightforward: Der Freischütz takes place immediately after the war's end. Arch-villain Caspar, it turns out, was a combatant. Who knows? Maybe he wasn't evil so much as suffering from PTSD, right?

Where else does the war turn up? Again, in the works of Bertolt Brecht. The play many consider his masterpiece, Mother Courage and her children, written in 1939 to protest the rise of Nazism and Fascism. Though clearly addressing contemporary times, the play takes place in Germany during the Thirty Year's War.

I haven't mentioned Pagliacci or Barber yet, you'll have noticed. Anything cooking there, link-wise? Well, sure. Uh... er... they're both Italian.

Uncanny, isn't it?

See you after Labor Day.





May 23, 2016

If Turridu married Turandot: TurTurTur

Turandot & Turridu, sittin' in a tree...
Sit back, Faithful Readers, and watch in jaw-dropping, awe-struck amazement as I CREATE right before your eyes. I'm feelin' it. The genius-juice is flowing, my people. Ready?

I have a scenario all sketched out for a new opera. Working title: Turridu and Turandot. Right away I've got you hooked, right? Two popular heavyweight opera characters, hooking up together onstage in a brand new story. The storyline is still kind of rough - not really a "libretto" per se as yet, and I'm sure I'll tweak it before the world premiere, but it goes something like this:

ACT I: Turridu and Turandot get married and move to Turin. On their honeymoon, he serenades her with the classic Irish ballad "Tura-lura-lura". Anxious to impress him with her domestic side, Turandot prepares a big tureen of turtle soup. But Turridu detests turtles and insists on a diet of turnips. Turandot philosophically replies "To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn."

ACT II: Turandot and Turridu face turbulent times when Turkey declares war on Turin. Comforting his bride, Turridu sings the consoling aria "Non ti turbare". The mayor of Turin, learning that Turridu has been spying for Turkey, confronts him: "You TURNCOAT!" Turridu admits he was turned by double agents and, revving the turbo engine of his Mercedes (this is the Eurotrash modern staging of Turridu and Turandot), escapes imprisonment.

ACT III: Alone and abandoned, Turandot ponders her fate in the scena "Men are turds".

I sense how deeply moved you all are. I feel both humble and proud.

May 8, 2016

That time I picked up Manson-clone hitchhikers

Never, NEVER pick up
hitchhikers. Serioiusly.
Look, friends, Virginia Opera's season is over. The artists have departed, the scenery has been struck, the wigs and costumes all put away. Frankly, I could use a break from the whole deal. Don't misunderstand: I love opera. I'm an opera composer, librettist, lecturer, educator, and occasional performer and coach. And when the 2016-2017 season cranks up, I'll be blogging like a crazed man, sharing insights with you Faithful Readers.

But this week, I'm sharing a story that is:
  1. completely unrelated to any aspect of opera;
  2. and yet kind of operatic in its high drama; and
  3. 100% true. The following events really happened just as I'll describe them.
In 1977, I was a newlywed, having gotten married the previous December. I also had a shiny Master's degree in piano from Indiana University in my pocket, with plans to begin a doctorate at Northwestern University in my hometown of Evanston IL.

My wife was a year behind me back at Indiana, so we would be separated for the duration of one academic year, a situation that appalled parents and friends alike. Our response: it wasn't as if we would miss each other less if we weren't married, so why not go ahead and tie the knot?

In any case, the time came when I needed to motor up to Evanston and look for an apartment for that upcoming school year. I took off by myself, zipping up Interstate 65 as I'd done many times during my years in Bloomington. I was driving an elderly Plymouth, a hand-me-down from my wife's parents.

I stopped for gas about midway. Standing in line to pay, I was suddenly approached by a couple of clean-cut looking young guys. They were well-groomed, with fresh faces and - I swear - rosy cheeks. One of them, the more talkative, had thick black hair; his quieter companion was a mousy blond. They each had a backpack strapped behind them. I guessed they were 4 or 5 years younger than me; I was 24.

"Excuse me, sir", politely asked Black Hair, "would you by any chance be going to Chicago?"

"Uh... yeah...", I answered with no enthusiasm.

"Would you possibly consider giving us a lift that far? It would really be a big help, if it'd be no trouble. Do you think you could help us out?"

Don't ask me why I didn't come up with any of the 500 answers that might have avoided all the trouble that ensued. "Sorry, I'm sick." "Sorry, my psychiatrist says I should avoid all human contact until the voices go away." Anything. But they had caught me off-guard. In one of those moments when you seem to be standing outside your own body, I heard myself say,

"Um. Sure. No problem."

"GREAT!"

So I got back on the road with two very eager and chipper passengers, Black Hair in the front seat and Mousy Blond claiming the back.

At first, during the period I now think of as the calm before the storm, things went well. Black Hair noticed that the old Plymouth lacked a radio antenna and offered to jerry-rig one out of some wire in his back-pack. I consented to pull over, and within a minute or two we were on the move again, now with a functioning radio. Black Hair scanned the dial as Chicago drew closer, looking for music while we engaged in trivial small-talk.

After a while, he came upon a station playing some cacophonous acid rock with unintelligible lyrics. Black Hair perked right up. "LISTEN TO THIS, MAN!", he gushed, "this song says it ALL, man!" He looked at me for validation.

"Right on!" I piped up companionably, though I had no clue what the artist was screaming about.

By this time, we had entered the Chicago area, heading straight for a bank of skyscrapers looming in the distance. We were on the Dan Ryan expressway; traffic had thickened, with an unusual number of 18-wheelers careening along on either side of the Plymouth, as well as blocking my path in front.

And this is when my brakes stopped working.

Due to what turned out to be an oil leak dripping onto the brake pads, the brakes' performance had been deteriorating for several miles. At first I had to tap them 2 or 3 times to get a response. But now, with tractor-trailors threatening to run roughshod over me, it had reached the point where I had to pump the brakes a dozen times or more before they would work.

In the meantime, Black Hair had launched into a rant about vaguely anarchist topics, inspired by the angry rhetoric of that song on the radio. Giving me a sidelong look, he asked me if I'd ever heard of Manson.

"Ch... Charles Manson?" I gulped. Black Hair gave what he thought was a sly grin.

We were now on the South Side, with working-class neighborhoods on either side of the highway. Black Hair's voice turned conspiratorial. He shared with me the back-story of my two passengers. They were gradually working their way North from Alabama (or maybe it was Arkansas, I'm not sure any more), financing their travel by shoplifting and other criminal acts. They had plans to end up in Montana, where some Manson-like commune awaited them.

"Hey man," he said, "you don't really have to stop in Chicago, do you? We'd kind of like to go all the way. We figured you might want to take us there."

Holy crap. What had I done, what had I done?

I don't know whether Black Hair was giving me the straight dope, or whether his tale of theft and a commune was all a fantasy, created to give me a hard time; a little prank he and his buddy could laugh about later. I can tell you I was pretty much in a state of panic. And, of course, I was negotiating the oil-slicked brakes as best I could, trying to avoid rear-ending vehicles ahead of us.

All of his former politeness and inhibitions now gone, Black Hair rolled down the window and began shouting obscenities at the cars we passed.

"Hey man," I said, trying to sound cool by speaking his lingo, "cool it. You'll get us in trouble with... the pigs; you know, with The Man."

Black Hair suddenly turned to me. "I have to pee. Take this exit." Getting off the interstate seemed a step in the right direction, so I was happy to comply. Still deep on the South Side, we pulled into a Shell gas station right at the top of the exit ramp. Black Hair jumped out. Instead of heading for a rest room, he ambled over to the side of the building, unzipped his jeans and began christening the wall.

Mousy Blond, who had been pretty quiet thus far, suddenly piped up. "I'm gonna pee too." And with that he flipped open the door and headed towards the same wall.

The car was empty. They were 15 feet away, the rear door still open. I saw my chance, and I acted. Cranking the ignition, I slammed my foot into the gas and tore rubber towards the street like a scene from a Vin Diesel movie. Behind me, Black Hair and Mousy Blond began galloping after me, waving their arms and screaming in outrage.

"Well," I thought, merging onto the little one-way side street, "they wanted a ride to Chicago and I gave them a ride to Chicago. They can't complain."

I'd only gotten a half-block down the street when I had to stop for a red light. The two guys were in hot pursuit, running for all they were worth. And then I realized what I'd done.

Their back packs were still in the car. Oops.

Desperate times do in fact call for desperate measures. Reaching to close and lock the door, I looked out for cross-traffic and ran the red light, zooming recklessly until I'd left my former passengers out of sight.

I was still concerned,  because getting back on the expressway would involve making a U-turn. This, of course, would bring me back to the gas station where they could be waiting for me.

As it turned out, I made it back on I-94 without spotting them.

I had a long, anxious ride to the North Shore and the Evanston city limits. I imagined Black Hair phoning the police and reporting my theft. They might even know my license plate! There might be an APB out for an old black Plymouth! I might be arrested!

And what about those back packs? What in God's name should I do with them. And WHAT IN GOD'S NAME WAS IN THEM???

In this stressful state, I had a strong instinct: to return to my childhood home. My parents had moved to Virginia years earlier, but home is home is home. So as evening shadows began to lengthen, I headed towards my old house on Lake Shore Boulevard. Driving down the alley behind the garage, I stopped the car and laid the back packs beside the same aluminum trash cans that were there in my high school years. I would not have opened them to inspect the contents for anything. I didn't know, and didn't want to know.

Exhausted by the dual trauma of bad brakes and giving a ride to possible Manson clones, I crept to my motel room, half-expecting a detective to knock on my door in the middle of the night.

That was the end of it. I have no clue what became of Black Hair and Mousy Blond. I suspect they were resourceful enough to figure something out. As for me, I found an apartment and began classes in September.

It seems a hundred years ago............

April 21, 2016

Flying Dutchman's lesson: don't be a Daland, be a Senta

Minna Wagner, nee Planner
Call her the "Temporary Feminine"
In a previous post about The Flying Dutchman, I compared the characters to those in the sci-fi movie The Matrix. The idea was that all the residents of the fishing village save for Senta were in a different plane of reality than she and the Dutchman. Daland, his crew and the village maidens led complacently oblivious lives; as the years rolled by, the sailors put out to sea and returned to shore in an endless cycle while the women spent their lives at their spinning wheels, a visual metaphor for ultimate futility.
But of what, specifically, were the villagers oblivious? The short answer is the true identity of the mysterious "Holländer"who sails into their midst, but there is a larger meaning; the sort of meaning that great art always provides in its function as the mirror of society.

What Senta alone perceives; indeed, what accounts for her obsession with the legendary figure of the Dutchman, is her deeply-felt empathy with his suffering. Over and over she sings of his suffering and her desire to be the agent of his relief.

Senta may "love" the Dutchman, and he may "love" her as well, but this is the least erotic love affair in all of opera. Senta doesn't want to "date" the Dutchman; she doesn't want him to kiss her or bring her flowers or whisper sweet nothings in her ear. She never sings of wanting to begin a new life with him or of bearing his children. Hers is a single-minded obsession: being the Chosen One who will, through her fidelity, bring his torment to an end.

Bottom line: what makes Senta "unplugged from the Matrix" is her sensitivity to suffering; her empathy. The Dutchman's suffering stands for all the suffering in the world. Senta is aware of it and, even more importantly, cares and takes sacrificial action to deal with it. Her father, on the other hand, regards the Dutchman solely in terms of what he himself will gain: a dowry of gold and jewels.

Suffering has always been present in the world. Obviously, there are millions who are homeless, hungry, ill or persecuted. The rest of the world has choices to make in response to suffering and adversity. Some become doctors; some join the Peace Corps; some give to the Red Cross and other charities.

But we all know there are many who get caught up in the day-to-day routines of their lives and rarely think of the afflicted among us. They don't relish others' adversities, but their attention is consumed by their jobs, raising children, walking the dog, paying bills, doing the dishes and all attendant minutiae. They allow themselves to become oblivious.

Of course, anyone who reads about Wagner's life will understand that in this opera, he was thinking, as it were, locally rather than globally. The composer generally projected himself into all his heroes, and it's certainly true of the Dutchman. Already, still in his youth, Wagner felt he was leading a life of existential misery and torment. Read his letters, especially those to his friend, champion and eventual father-in-law Franz Liszt, and phrases like this appear over and over:

"No one knows the burdens I carry."

"My art is my only refuge from my misery."

And what was his "curse"? Apparently, it boiled down to being the Greatest Genius Who Ever Lived, but not being universally recognized as such. As one example, he suffered the humiliation of offering an early version of The Flying Dutchman libretto to the Paris Opera in hopes of receiving a commission, only to have them assign the project to some nonentity named Dietsch, who produced a forgettable opus called Le vaisseau fantôme.

Ouch. Okay, he had a point; who among us wouldn't feel a little cursed if that happened to us?

Perhaps Wagner's serial womanizing (unfaithfulness to his wives, affairs with other men's wives, and so on) amounted to a search for a woman who would understand his suffering and ease his path; help him achieve his manifest destiny as that Greatest Genius. This ideal woman would, like Senta, be willing and eager to make any sacrifice necessary; indeed, to sublimate herself completely to his needs.

Of course, the trouble with women (from Wagner's point of view) is that they always turn out to have their own wants and needs. For example, during the period of Dutchman, his first wife Minna left him to take a lover, eventually returning to a marriage that would end some ten years later. The dream of finding a woman who would devote herself to him 100% and tolerate his mercurial eccentricities remained a fantasy.

So Senta (not to mention a gallery of other Wagnerian heroines) became the so-called "Eternal Feminine"; the fictional realization of the kind of woman that remained unattainable in reality.

But let's not get caught up in Wagner's narcissism and egomania. His early masterpiece manages to transcend his personal story and speak to us about ourselves and the world the we live in. The message is there: it is empathy that will save the world and it is indifference that will doom it.

April 10, 2016

The Flying Dutchman's debt to Chopin

The big soprano solo in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman is Senta's lengthy ballad in Act 2. Having expressed her disdain for the tuneful but vapid "Spinning Chorus" sung by the village maidens, Senta chooses a musical selection that will be a polar opposite in tone, launching into a fairly austere telling of the legend of the Dutchman.

F. Chopin (portrait by E. Delacroix)
Read anything about this opera, and all commentators will point out one obvious source for this ballad, namely: Emma's ballad in Der Vampyr, a largely neglected opera by Heinrich Marschner that was popular enough in its day (1828) for Wagner to have conducted performances of it early in his career as a Maestro. There is little doubt that the phrase "the pale man" used in Emma's solo to describe the vampire so appealed to Wagner that he did a cut-and-paste job, neatly transferring it to Senta's number as she describes the Dutchman.

Other than that phrase, and the concept of a ballad, however, the two ballads have little else in common. In contrast to the austerity of Senta's tale, Emma's is "dramatic" in a more conventionally operatic sense, using chains of diminished seventh chords to create tension in expressing horror at the threat of the monster. The structure is different as well.

I have another candidate as a source for Senta's ballad; one that seems to have provided concrete musical inspiration for the young Wagner both in tone and form.

I'm thinking of the Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38 by Frederic Chopin.

The date of composition supports my theory; Chopin's Ballade was written between 1836-1839. The Flying Dutchman was completed in 1843, meaning Wagner could have had ample time to become acquainted with the latest virtuoso work by one of Europe's foremost pianists.

It's interesting to compare and contrast the structure and musical materials of the Wagner and Chopin pieces. Following a few introductory "yo-ho-hoe's", Senta launches into a turbulent depiction of the Dutchman's curse. In the passage below, it incorporates some of the "storm-at-sea" material from the overture, later heard in the Dutchman's Act 1 soliloquy. The meter is 6/8.


A brief transition leads to a contrasting theme representing Senta and the redemption she is destined to offer the Dutchman. After the violence of the preceding section, this new theme is the polar opposite: calm in tone and utterly simple in texture. The meter remains 6/8.



After a second and third iteration of these two sections, (the women's chorus taking up the redemption theme in the third stanza), Senta sings a highly animated coda of frenzied energy, expressing ecstatic anticipation of ending the Dutchman's suffering.

All of these elements are found in the Chopin Ballade. Here we find the theme of artless calm and simplicity; here we find a contrasting theme of stormy virtuosity; and here we have a coda bringing the work to an animated conclusion. The difference: the order of the contrasting elements is reversed. Chopin opens with his dream-like theme, marked sotto voce. Note that the meter is identical to Senta's redemption theme:



When that section dies away on delicate repeated notes, the introduction of a stormy, turbulent theme offers the same sort of contrast as in Senta's solo; this too could be describing a hurricane at sea:



The coda, which could also be described as "frenzied" (though I grant you it's Romantic Doom and not ecstasy being expressed), offers a strong rhythmic figure in stern octaves:



Did these octaves serve as some kind of model for the famous motive of the Dutchman that first appears in the overture? It shares with the Chopin motive the same effect of ominous strength and power.


Regardless, it would appear that Richard Wagner, often cited as having written the "Music of the Future", and who definitely cast a shadow extending well into the 20th century, looked to the immediate past in creating one of his landmark works for soprano.

But wait! (As they say on late-night infomercials) There's more! I think the central section of the Dutchman's Act 1 monologue "Die Frist is um", the passage marked "Maestoso" and beginning with the words "Dich frage ich", owes a LOT to a passage in the slow movement of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21. Composed in 1830, it pre-dates Dutchman by more than a decade. A nocturne-like main theme in the opening section of the Larghetto slow movement is interrupted by a section of recitative-like utterances in jagged dotted rhythms for the piano over tense tremolos in the strings. The pertinent passage begins around 4:20 in this video performance.

In "Dich frage ich", Wagner adopts the same dotted rhythms and tremulous accompaniment; the key of A flat Minor is even the same. Both composers have the same objective in mind: the depiction in music of a Tormented Romantic Anti-hero, adapting the character of the Young Werther, Lord Byron and Manfred (among other literary creations) to musical expression. This section begins at 5:25 in this performance by George London.

Chopin and Wagner: in many respects, they might appear to be musical oil and water, each the very artistic antithesis of the other. Bear in mind, however, that Wagner greatly admired the melodies of Vincenzo Bellini, to whom Chopin is often compared. Perhaps it shouldn't really surprise us that echoes of the Polish poet of the piano reverberate in Wagner's early masterpiece.

March 23, 2016

The Flying Dutchman and Wagner's "cinematography"

A flying horse beats a sword-fight...
Start reading about Richard Wagner and some key phrases keep cropping up again and again:
  • "A genius"
  • "The most influential..."
  • "Revolutionary"
  • "20th century music would not be possible without him..."
  • "Forward-looking"
And so on. But what does all that mean? Presuming that many of you are casual opera-lovers, you may well wonder what all the commentators are talking about with such comments.

O, Faithful Reader, if you only knew.............

This post will cite one example to give you a clue. More like half a clue. More like a teensy fraction of a clue. This post won't give you the tip of the iceberg; it'll give you a snowflake on top of the tip.

But it's a good one.

The title of this post mentions cinematography. That's a film term referring to the photography of the movies we see - the visual images that fill a movie screen. How could an opera have anything to do with the sorts of images we see in cinema? Simply this: Wagner was the first opera composer to imagine cinematic scenarios.

Virginia Opera's most recent production was Gounod's Romeo and Juliet. Besides all the love duets, "R & J" features an old-fashioned "action scene": a couple of sword fights. In much of opera history (other than the so-called Venetian school of the 17th century, when libretti often called for erupting volcanoes) sword fights were the go-to device if action was desired.

Then came Wagner.

Let's look at some of the stage directions that create cinematic moments in Wagnerian opera. The first one, granted, is kind of the opposite of an "action" scene:
Die Walküre, Act 1.
Here's the set-up: Siegmund has found refuge in a crude dwelling during a storm. He learns it is the home of Sieglinde and her husband Hunding. Siegmund and Sieglinde, not yet aware they have the same father, feel a mutual and powerful attraction. While Hunding eyes the stranger with suspicion, Wagner gives us the following stage directions:

Sieglinde goes to the storeroom, fills a horn with mead and offers it to Siegmund with friendly eagerness. ...Siegmund takes a long draught while his gaze rests on her with growing warmth. Still gazing, he removes the horn from his lips and lets it sink slowly while the expression of his features expresses strong emotion. He sighs deeply and gloomily lets his eyes sink to the ground. ...He leans against the hearth; his eyes fix themselves with calm and steady sympathy on Sieglinde; she slowly raises her eyes again to his. They regard each other, during a long silence, with an expression of the deepest emotion.

Well, I warned you; a little short on action. Guy drinks a drink and stares at a girl. Not exactly "The Matrix", to cite a movie I recently discussed on this site. My point is that it really reads more like a movie screenplay than an opera.

Think about it: don't all those long, long, emotion-filled gazes just cry out for close-up camera-work? During the moments when those directions are being acted out, the orchestra is playing voiceless music that functions exactly like film underscoring, with heartfelt music mirroring all those subtle, unspoken interactions. How were these subtleties supposed to register with audience members sitting in the balcony of a typical opera house? He is thinking in cinematic terms.

Let's look at another, more familiar moment in the same opera (I'm getting to Dutchman in a moment):

Die Walküre, Act 3
Okay, rather than type out a series of stage directions, let's just describe the scene: the action takes place on the rocky summit of a rugged mountain. Eight goddesses called Valkyries, the children of chief diety Wotan, swoop and soar through the heavens on their flying horses (!), gathering up the corpses of slain Norse heroes to transport them to Valhalla. One by one, they come in for three-point equestrian landings to huddle up with Valyrie Number Nine, Brünnhilde, to help her plan how to deal with Daddy, who is pretty mad at her right now. (Long story. Don't ask.)

Now we're talking! Sword fight, schmord schmight - this is COOL! I have to wonder how Wagner thought he'd bring this off back in the 1850's when he wrote it. I hope that the first performance consisted of something other than nine sopranos standing on stage with spears, singing their brains out. But without electricity, how was all the swoopy-soary stuff suggested? Even now in 2016, stagings tend to fall a bit short of what we all envision in our minds. Harry Potter-level special effects are called for.

And as for my current object of study, The Flying Dutchman, we can see Wagner already thinking big - very big. In Act Three, scene one, the stage is given over to the chorus. Here I can once again let Wagner's own stage directions describe the scene, minus some intervening singing.

A bay with a rocky shore: Daland's house to one side in the foreground. The background is occupied by the two ships, the Norwegian's and the Dutchman's, lying fairly close together. The night is clear: the Norwegian ship is lit up; its sailors ore on deck, making merry. The appearance of the Dutch ship presents an uncanny contrast; it is enveloped in unnatural gloom and deathly quiet. (The sailors)dance on the deck. The girls arrive with baskets full of food and drink. (The sailors and women call out to the Dutchman's unseen crew, meaning to invite them to the celebration, but the only response is eerie silence.) The sailors drink up and set down the cups noisily. From here on there are stirrings of life on the Dutch ship. The sea, which everywhere else remains calm, has begun to rise in the neighborhood of the Dutch ship; a dull blue flame flares up like a watchfire. A storm wind whistles through the rigging. The crew, hitherto invisible, bestir themselves. As Daland's crew sing a sea chanty, their ship is tossed up and down by the waves; a terrible storm wind howls end whistles through the bare rigging. The air and sea elsewhere, except in the immediate neighborhood of the Dutch ship, remains calm, as before. The Norwegians try to drown the song of the Dutchman's crew with their own song. After vain efforts the raging of the sea, the roaring, howling and whistling of the unnatural storm, together with the ever wilder song of the Dutchman's crew silence them. They fall back, make the sign of the cross and quit the deck: the Dutch crew, seeing them, burst into shrill, mocking laughter. After this the former deathlike silence suddenly falls on their ship again; in a moment, air and sea become calm, as before.


This is Stephen King territory; this is Walking Dead territory; this is Pirates of the Caribbean territory. It not only presented new challenges to set designers and stage directors, it raised the bar for all future composers re-imagining operatic action scenes.

If you want to see how far Wagner's successors took his trail-blazing ideas of action, get a hold of the libretto to Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aaron and read the stage directions for the scene of the Golden Calf orgy. Whoa, Nellie! Even Wagner might have found it over the top. Or he might have loved it. But either way, he surely would have said "You have learned well from me, my son".