Thursday, September 15, 2005

What I did on my summer holiday (2)

Saturday, 10 AM
"I shall need a dinner jacket," thought Andrew to himself.

"I shall hop on a Bus to glamorous Macclesfield, purchase one in Burtons, and be back in time for lunch" he decided.

Sunday :8PM:
Andrew returned home, the proud possessor of a dinner jacket.

Mr Burton had never heard of dinner jackets. Nor had Mr Marks and Mr Spencer. So Andrew decided he had better go to Stockport, which is even more glamorous than Macclesfield.

Mr. Branson had put a big notice outside his railway station, saying that there were no trains to Stockport. Or Manchester. Until October. (He was kind enough to drive everyone to Stockport on a Very Slow Bus, and to allow them to pay the full fare so they wouldn't feel bad about it.) In Stockport, they had heard of dinner jackets, but said that only very, very thin people were allowed to wear them. So on Sunday Andrew allowed Mr Branson to drive him all the way to Manchester on the Very Slow Bus.

Manchester is more glamorous than Macclesfield and Stockport put together. It has an art gallery, and a cinema, and a tram, and a theater and a Great Big Shopping Mall which will sell dinner jackets even to fat people.

Andrew left Manchester with a dinner jacket, and a funny shirt and a red bow tie to go round his neck, and a red cummerbund to go round his tummy. (48 hours later, he would discover that he did not own a pair of cuff-links.)

Funnily enough, "Own a cummerbund" had never featured on any of Andrew's lists of "30 things I expect to do before I die"

Note for Americans
Dinner Jackets" are "Tuxedos". Side-walks are "Y-fronts".

Friday (morn)
I fly just rarely enough that I still find it exciting. It amuses me that if you go up high enough on a rainy day, you can find a sunny one above it. It intrigues me that from a sufficiently high vantage point, the ground looks like a map -- and yet they had maps before they had areoplanes. However much money I may have paid for the ticket, the in-flight wine and sandwiches still feel like "free stuff". I even like airports. In the terrestrial world, I only go to a shopping malls as a last resort, when I need to do something desperate like buy a dinner jacket. I get out again as quickly as possible, hoping not to have been corrupted by the experience. But when I am flying, it feels wonderfully naughty to spend an hour in an area where there is nothing to do but look at silk ties and buy croissants from Cafe Nero.

Oh, and I discovered that I'm a racist. There was some small delay while queuing up to have our passports checked, and I found myself thinking "That's typical, that is: the security guy is obviously giving that woman a hard time because she's wearing a hajib". When it was my turn to go through I discovered that the woman in the hajib was, er, the passport officer.

Speaking of stereotypes: every single train we caught in Germany left and arrived on time. But who on earth had the idea of laying out railway timetables by time rather than by destination -- so you can find out what trains leave at 18:00, but not the time of the next train to Nuremberg?

Friday: Eve
The first thing I actually saw outside the station was a piece of public art (or possibly an advertisement for the local sushi bar) consisting of giant plastic multi-colored frogs climbing the side of a building.

I thought: "I'm here. I'm actually here."

Actually, that's a lie. I really thought "Where's the taxi rank?" and "How can I be thinking about something so mundane as taxis" and "Are all these other people fellow pilgrims?" and "We shouldn't look too excited, or they'll think we're mad English tourists?" (I guess foreigners arriving in Stratford expect the shop staff to wear ruffs and the policemen to speak in iambic pentameters.)

Bayreuth is not, in fact, a Wagner theme park. The chemist shops all appeared to have operatic names ("Parsifal Apotheke") and the bookshops all have musical tomes prominently on display but its probably easier to avoid Wagner on Bayreuth high-street than to avoid, say, Godiva in Coventry or Shakespeare in Stratford.

Louise had visited the town once before. She pointed out that if I crossed the road and looked to my left, you could see the festspielhaus at the top of the hill. So, frogs notwithstanding, we had come to the right place. It was 4PM. People would have been sitting down for Act 1 of Tristan at that very moment. Bastards.

I don't speak any German. I can follow the text of a libretto and work out that walvater sounds better than Father of Battles, but Louise had to brief me for ten minutes so that I could say "Guten Tag" to her German friends without sounding like a complete idiot. (I didn't wish to look too much like an ignorant Englishman in front of the person who had performed The Miracle of the Tickets.) Over lunch I expressed an opinion about Gotterdammerung, and evidently gave the impression that I was referring to something called the Twilight of the Dogs.

Three hours before curtain, I started to become twitchy, like an alcoholic who needs to know where all the liquor is before the party starts. Could I actually have a look at the tickets, please? I need to see the words "Flying Dutchman, Curtain 6PM" or I won't be able to relax. I think we should definitely have our pre-theater snack at the festspielhaus rather than at the hotel, and I think we should get there two hours early, in case it turns out that 6PM is 4 o'clock in Euros.

So we had tea and cakes in the the big posh expensive restaurant in the park near the theatre. We decided that chocolate fondue would be dangerous to my dinner jacket, and the confection described as Cup Tristan and Isolde would just be dangerous. We watched people arriving. Men in Dinner Jackets, presumably not purchased in Macclesfield. Women in a range of styles, from the mildly formal to the most outrageous ball-gowns. The doors don't open until shortly before curtain; Wagner's grand vision of total theater evidently didn't include front-of-house amenities, so people assemble on the courtyard in front of the theater. They admire everyone else's clothes, and drink champagne and think "How did they get their tickets?" A man appeared on the balcony and snapped photos of the assembled Wagnerians. For some reason, there was a large alsation dog running lose among the opera goers. "Is it Uncle Wolf?" asked someone.

There is nothing so mundane as a bell. The brass section of the orchestra comes onto the balcony and blows a fanfare.

Then we are inside; inside the theater Wagner built with his own hands, or at any rate, his own money, or at any rate, Prince Ludwig's money. The only theater suitable to perform his works. Parsifal is sub-titled "a festival play for the consecration of the stage". This festival. This stage.

And if you are relatively sane, there's no way of explaining it to you. Louise phoned me on my 40th birthday to tell me we had the tickets. (I think they were returns; it seems likely that in the wake of July 7th, someone had decided that Bavaria was too close to London for comfort.) I spent the next 48 hours telling all my friends that I had tickets for Bayreuth. I could tell they were impressed by the way they said "What's a Bayreuth?" I referred extensively to the seven year waiting list to try to get my point across. "Oh I see" said one of my colleagues, "It's a bit like getting front row seats for Last Night of the Proms." Flash ended up with " what you are saying is that you are going to Germany to hear a German opera sung in German by Germans." Louise explained it to her friends in these terms: "Remember the pop group you fell in love with when you were imagine that you never fell out of love with it, and imagine that they have just reformed, and that you have a ticket. It's like that." Like me, her first brush with Wagner were the TV broadcasts of a Bayreuth Ring on BBC2 in the 80s. Like me, she spent her teenage evenings obsessively playing the Goodall Rings and Parsifals on vinyl, when she should have been listening to Duran Duran and taking drugs. Occasionally one of would say "Of course, our name's on the waiting list. One day we'll go to Bayreuth." Neither of us really believed that one day we'd be inside Wagner's own theater listening to an opera.

"At some point" said Nietzsche, "We will all be sitting together in Bayreuth, unable to imagine how anyone could stand being anywhere else." (1)

Nothing that I had read, or imagined, or dreamed could possibly have prepared me for how uncomfortable the seats would be.

You might think that here, at the epicenter of his cult, at a festival still largely controlled by his grandchildren Wagner's intentions would be followed pretty slavishly. You'd be wrong. There is as much experimentation here as there is anywhere else. This is a Good Thing: Bayreuth is a living theater festival, not a mummified pastiche of productions from 1878. This years Parsifal apparently interprets the Holy Grail as a dead woman's vagina. We got off relatively lightly by comparison. A production of the Flying Dutchman which, er, didn't have the Flying Dutchman in it.

(My synopsis of the opera can be found here, if you think that might help.)

The very first stage image gave us a pretty good idea of what we were in for. Wagner's stage direction is "A steep cliff....a wide expanse of sea. Daland's ship has just cast anchor close to the shore." This was represented by a modern house interior: wallpaper, an armchair, a radiator. A big flight of stairs divides the stage in two -- the wall behind the stairs is hidden by a red curtain. Something which is recognizably the first scene of the Flying Dutchman is going on in the little flat: a man in a naval officer's uniform is telling his sailors that they aren't going any further tonight, and they might as well have some rest. On the stairs, a little girl (silent, not in the libretto) is playing with a toy ship; moving it slowly along the banisters. There's a framed picture of a ship on a wall, lit by a small light: next to it, there is a blank, discolored space, where another painting has obviously been removed. The girls also plays intermittently with a marionette in a sailor's uniform, like her father.

"Aha!" I thought "So, the conceit is going to be that the story is going on in the little-girl's imagination."

After the steersman has fallen asleep, the Dutchman arrives, and sings his great opening aria: "The term is up. Once more the seven years have run their appointed course." (2) He delivers the soliloquy on the stairs. He's dressed as a modern naval officer, the same as Daland. The two characters are made up to look completely indistinguishable. During the monologue, the Little Girl and Daland are in the main room. The girl is sitting on Daland's knee. Daland is reading her a story. The story of the Dutchman, perhaps? The red curtain at the back of the stage is slowly raised, revealing that the space behind the stairs is exactly the same as the space in front of it. Except – hang on, why is there a radiator hanging from the ceiling? Realisation dawns: what has been revealed behind the curtain is an upside-down reproduction of the same room. We are looking at two identical rooms, one a mirror image of the other, bisected by the flight of stairs. While Daland reads to the girl in the main room; the Dutchman sings his aria in the reflection of it. In fact., the person singing isn't "the Dutchman" at all, but some kind of double or doppelganger for Daland. When Daland and the Dutchman meet and strike their bargain (the Dutchman's treasure in return for the hand of Daland's daughter in marriage) the two singers strike identical poses; make identical gestures: at one point, the two of them stand in front of each other. Just as we have two reflected images of the same space, so we have two reflected images of the same person. My old man's a Dutchman.

In scene 2, we meet Daland's daughter Senta; who is dressed exactly the same as the little girl. Unexpectedly, Mary (Daland's housekeeper) is a third copy of the little girl. She's wearing dark glasses – apparently blind. The picture of the ship has been removed from the wall: both Senta, and the little girl -- or, as we are clearly supposed to say, both the young Senta and the grown-up Senta – reach out obsessively for the blank space.

No-one does any spinning during the spinning song: the other girls circle Senta threateningly.

At one point, slides of the two rooms are projected onto the stage and rotate, giving a powerful kaleidoscopic impression -- reflections of reflections. In another sequence, a slide of the red curtain is projected onto both halves of the stage.

When grown-up Senta meets the Dutchman, they sing their great duet on the stairs (in the mirror image room); but while the song is going on, Young Senta is again being read stories by her father. Before he reads to her, the little girl hitches up her dress and makes a few dance steps in front of her father – possibly hinting that there is something un-usually close in their relationship?

When the curtain opened on scene 1, I thought "This is rather interesting and clever"; but by the time we had got to the end of scene 2, and the various permutations of Little Girl interacting with Daddy Daland and big girl interacting with Daddy Dutchman had been worked through, I was starting to feel "Yes, I've got the message, and I am not convinced that it's a very interesting one".

But when we get to scene 3, the production becomes so visually playful that I stopped worrying about interpretation. The one thing everybody agrees on is that the Bayreuth chorus is fabulous. The climax of the opera comes when Daland's crew try to wake up the sailors on the Dutchman's ship. They are terrified when the crew of ghosts appears. Unusually for Wagner, this is a big, tuneful choral number. Although the Flying Dutchman is a reasonably short piece of work, Wagner still managed to make it an endurance test for the audience by insisting on its being performed in one long act. And when you hear the end of the Senta/Dutchman duet in "act II" segue directly into "Steersman leave your watch" in "act" III you realise that he was absolutely right. It's an overwhelming moment which would have been ruined, musically and dramatically, by sticking an interval in between. So, as ever, it may very well be that the music was so wonderful at this point that it made everything else in the production seem wonderful as well.

Young Senta – the silent girl – is playing with her sailor marionette. The chorus of sailors are all dressed like the puppet, and engaging in Pinnochio style dancing. They are obviously marionettes too. But Senta also has another puppet: a skeletal deaths-head dressed in the more dressy uniform of her father and the Dutchman. When the puppet sailors are joined by the ghosts, the Dutchman's crew turn out to all be dressed like the Dutchman: which is to say, Senta's toy sailors are terrified by a whole ship full of copies of her father. And at the climax a gigantic figure the Daland/Dutchman/Death puppet is lowered, upside down onto the stage; and lifts up the grown-up Senta and carries her away. Obviously, one remains absolutely silent during a production at Bayreuth – I believe you still aren't allowed to applaud Parsifal – but I certainly felt like cheering at this point. Even though I didn't have the faintest idea what it meant.

At the end of the opera, when Senta proclaims her life-long faithfulness to the Dutchman by committing suicide, we see grown up Senta advancing up the stairs towards the Dutchman, who recoils from her, rather like a movie vampire being repelled by the Cross. He eventually disappears at the top of the stairs...but Senta finds that all the doors in the reflected house are closed off, and she can't leave. She's left trying to find an exit: Mary (old, blind Senta, we assume) is still looking at the empty space left by the picture of the boat.

What to say? Clearly, this has more to do with Sigmund Freud than Sigmund the Walsung. I thought that the idea was that the Daland character had sexually molested his daughter; and that Daland and the Dutchman were a series of reflections of "good father" and "bad father". The blank space left by the painting of the ship represents Senta's repressed memories of her abuse – I think Freud may actually uses the metaphor of an empty picture frame to describe his concept of a "screen memory", a single image which "stands in" for something which is too painful to face. The ghostly Dutchman are the monstrous memories of what her father did to her, which she's both frightened of and obsessively attracted to. Marrying the Dutchman represents recovering the memories of abuse, which would cure her. Louise, on the other hand, thought that Daland was not an abuser but merely an absent father; a father who was away at sea or who had died when the girl was very young -- hence the death's-head. The Dutchman is a dream father who she has created to compensate for the absence of the real one. These memories means that she can't "move on" and grow up: she'd sooner go with the dream lover than stay with real-life Erik.

Well, the libretto of the Dutchman certainly contains lots of imagery about dreams, fantasies, and fathers. Almost the first thing which Daland says is "to trust a wind is to trust the devil"; and within five minutes, the Steersman is falling asleep at his post, singing "Oh gentle south wind, do not fail". Immediately, the Dutchman appears and tells his story about cursing the wind and being cursed to wonder the earth until judgment day. It is not too much of a stretch to say that the Dutchman has to some extent being invoked or called by Daland and the Steersman's words – as Freud might have said, that he is a projection of their fears. When Daland discovers that the Dutchman is fabulously rich and looking for a wife, he says "Could all this be a marvelous dream?" Senta, of course, has been looking at a picture of the legendary sailor and singing ballads about him just before the real thing turns up on her doorstep: again, it is not too unreasonable to think that he could be an externalisation of her erotic fantasies. Before the Dutchman turned up, Erik says that he had a dream of Senta's father giving her away to a mysterious sailor – making the Dutchman a projection of his fears that Senta will leave him. The Dutchman himself says that he has dreamed of Senta ("for in my dreams of yearning long unnumbered this was the face that I would see"); Senta wonders if the Dutchman is only a dream. And the big musical climax is Daland's crew trying to wake the Dutchman's crew up. So at some level, you could read the story as a complicated nest of dreams in which everybody is everybody else's fantasy . The idea that the Dutchman is Senta's memory of her father is perfectly valid, but (as ever) less interesting than the complex web of dream and reflection that is going on in the actual opera. (3)

So I don't really have a problem with the interpretation that this production places on the work. My problem is that it is really asking you to follow two different stories in parallel: the mythical story about the ghost sailor and his lover which is in the libretto; and the psycho-realist drama about the girls memories of her absent Father that's being acted out on the stage. The words tell one story, but have little to do with the actions. The action tells a different story, but don't match the words. The music expresses both. The producer assumes that you know what "really happened" and are playing it out in your head, watching "his" version as a sort of critical negation of it. That's a lot to hold in your head: it makes Wagner's romantic melodrama seem quite intellectual.

It also means that there is an awful lot going on on the stage. While Senta and the Dutchman are falling in love, your eyes are being drawn away from them to look at Daland (arguably) falling in love with his daughter. While Erik is protesting his love for Senta, you are thinking "why have they lowered the red curtain at the top of the stage again." A production which you have to solve like a puzzle probably not doing its job very well. And this really did feel like a puzzle. When we were getting onto the plane home on Tuesday morning Louise suddenly said "Oh, I get it: the second blank picture frame was the where the picture of the Dutchman himself should have been."

Some mad people -- okay, Germain Greer – claim to like Wagner despite the storyline and despite the libretto. They think that Parsifal is as a symphonic tone poem; whose psychological impact comes wholly from the music; the story and the libretto is more or less dispersible. If you think this way, you might say of the Flying Dutchman: "This music invokes love, fear, horror, father-daughter relationships and dreams But the libretto is only a crap ghost story that makes no sense; so I am justified in making a completely new story that largely ignores the libretto, and treats the opera as abstract sounds." You'd be wrong, but I think this kind of production may be a symptom of this kind of thinking.

But it was done brilliantly well and the opening of the third act in particular was as stunning a piece of theater as I've ever seen. The singing, particularly the chorus, was head and shoulders above anything I've ever heard before.

The other main musical shrine in the town is the Markgrafiches Opernhaus, which I hadn't heard of before I arrived. In Wagner's time it was one of the largest opera houses in Bavaria; and it was what drew him to the town to begin with. Of course, when he saw it he realised that it was quite unsuitable for his music-dramas. One pictures a man arriving in London and taking one look at Covent Garden: "Very nice, but not big enough. I shall my own – over there."

Seeing the Margravial certainly helped me understand what was so radical about Wagner's festspielhaus. It's a gloriously vulgar baroque knickerbocker glory of a building, with with gilded cherubs holding a coat of arms above the proscenium arch, and neo-classical painting of Apollo on the ceiling. The royal box is totally out-of-control: it's in the center of the balcony, and has a gigantic crown floating about it. And get this: the auditorium is horse-shoe shaped so that the audience face towards each other, and towards the occupant of the royal box, rather than towards the stage. By comparison, the festspielhaus is relatively austere: its almost un-adorned, apart from a few Greek columns, and the seats may be uncomfortable, but you can see the stage from anywhere in the auditorium. Wagner even completely hid the orchestra – they are underneath a wooden platform which apparently does wonderful things to the acoustics (4) – and for the first time, turned the house lights out. You go to Bayreuth to see the stage, not the theater and certainly not the audience.

And thence to Haus Wahnfried, Wagner's home in Bayreuth. "The house of freedom from illusion," apparently: well, there was no chance that he would have called Accacia Terrace. Due to a bit of unpleasantness that broke out in the 1930s, it's actually something of a reconstruction of his house: it was badly bombed but restored in the 1970s. The hall and drawing rooms are apparently quite close to the way Wagner left them: the rest of the house is a museum. Rather an old fashioned museum, it must be said; with glass cases containing hand written musical scores and yellowing programmers; effigies of Senta and the Dutchman, used in an early production to give the effect of them floating up to heaven; rooms and rooms full of photos from all the Bayreuth productions; the Holy Grail from the opening nigh of Parsifal; and other holy relics: Wagner's hat, his death-mask, the chair he died in, and the piano on which he composed Siegfried, Gotterdamerung and Parsifal.

The drawing room (where you can sit and listen to recording of his music) is lined with Wagner's own book collection. I don't know if this has been arranged by the custodians of the museum or whether it is based on on his own bookcases, and I don't particularly care. We saw copes of Wolfram's Parzifal alongside the Nieblung saga and a copy of Beowulf.

"Do you know" said Louise "I do believe that's the same wallpaper that was on the set of the Dutchman." I think she was probably quite right.

The balcony of the house overlooks the garden where Wagner and Cosima are buried.

So on Sunday evening, after our German friends had departed, we ended up in a pub drinking German beer. We had a white beer in tall curved glasses, and when the waitress came back, we said "We liked that very much, but we want to try another beer. Bring us any nice German beer of your choice." She brought us a sweet hoppy beer in an earthenware beer mug. Also drinking and eating were people in dinner jackets who obviously been to that nights Lohengrin. Bastards.

We had a last wander round the town. We found the shop where the man on from the balcony was selling his pictures, and ordered a number. I bought some chocolates with Wagner's face on them for my mother, and plaster bust of Wagner for me.

"There's time for another beer before we catch the train", said Louise. "Unless you want to go and have another look at Wagner's house."

"We ought to go back to the house", said I.

"Are we going to put a flower on the grave?", said Louise.

"We should", said I.

"OK", said Louise. "I am going to go into that coffee shop there and offer them two Euros for the rose sitting in the vase on their table."

"That's an excellent idea", I said. "While you do that, I am just going into this green grocers to see if the ground opens up and swallows me."

Moments later, Louise returned.

"I think they would have sold me the flower", said Louise, "But they asked me whether I wouldn't rather go into that florists shop two doors down."

So we went into the florist shop two doors down, and Louise, though a combination of German and bluff, gave them to understand that we wished to purchase a small bunch of roses. The florist lady said something along the lines of "Ah! Vor der putten-onnen-Rikard-Wagner-houze-grave" followed by something which may have been "Das Inglish are krazy but in buzziness keepen uz"

So we went back to the house, which we actually know is not much more than a copy of the house, and there were some cyclists sitting on a bench having a rest, and they could see we had a bunch of flowers, and we got back to the big grave mound, where there were fading floral displays from the New York Wagner Society and the South African Wagner Society, and I had to stretch to get the flowers on the slab, and I said that photographing someone by a grave was inappropriate, but we took a picture of our roses on Wagner's grave, and then we went on a train and a plane and another train and on Tuesday we we were standing in Louise's kitchen in London and while she was making a cup of tea and toasting a crumpet she said "It's funny to think that our flowers are still in Bayreuth, isn't it?"

"We badly need," said C.S Lewis, "a word which means 'the exact opposite of disappointed'. 'Appointed' won't do."

(1) I know this because I have it printed in German on a teeshirt.

(2) The bookstall was selling postcards with a cartoon version of the Dutchman on the festspielhaus stage. "The seven years have run their appointed course. Perhaps this year I will get a ticket."

(3) And anyway, everyone knows that the sea is a symbol for the spirit and the unconscious. Doesn't Jim Hawkins dream about John Silver before he ever meets him, and carry on dreaming about him once the real John Silver is dead. Come to think of it, he sets out to Bristol to find the one-legged sailor whose been haunting his nightmares just after his father dies.

(4) The reason why they won't put modern seating is, apparently, that soft cushons could mess up the acoustics.