Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Double Dutch

I am not what you would call a purist. In the last two years, I have seen Siegmund pull Notung from between Sieglinde's legs; Siegfried on a skateboard wearing a cowboy hat; and a "Flying Dutchman" which seemed not to have an actual Dutchman in it. All of these productions earned at least a qualified "bravo!" from me. They made sense dramatically; they were theatrically interesting; and they explored ideas which are certainly present in the operas which they were responding to.

The Welsh National Opera's current staging of the "Flying Dutchman" is directed by someone called David Pountney. His programme notes explain that Space represents to the twenty-first century imagination very much what Sea did to that of the nineteenth: "the ultimate lonely, desolate place where someone might be condemned to wander aimlessly." Well, yes, which is why sci-fi appropriates sea-stories so shamelessly. There are probably half-a-dozen updatings of the "Dutchman" story in "Star Trek" alone. It's not hard to imagine a science-fictionalized staging of the opera. The helmsman falling asleep on an empty bridge as an ancient black starship appears on the viewscreen; the cursed Captain emerging from cryogenic storage and beaming aboard; holograms of his long-dead crew terrifying the living during their shore-leave; the final moment where Senta hurls herself out of an air-lock and the black ship dissolves into an Industrial Light and Magic explosion (followed by a brief hologram of the lovers against the stars.) Yes, Wagner's music is explicitly and un-subtly about the sea; but science fiction frequently appropriates nautical music, so there wouldn't be too much of a culture clash.

Instead, Mr Pountney offers us a Cube. A very nice Cube, certainly. Some critics thought it was an allusion to "2001: A Space Odyssey" which smacks of desperation. On to this Cube, all kinds of video-imagery is projected: it's that kind of production. The first thing we see may be the radar receiver on a submarine; although it could possibly have been a rotating sofa. (It's that kind of production.) We keep seeing film of what appear to be factories and industrial sites. The notes inform us that some of these are "the Soviet space training center in Kazakhastan" because "in its crumbling bureaucratic Soviet way it has something of the lonely, isolated world of the Flying Dutchman." Well, obviously.

Daland and the Steersman are discovered above the Cube, on metal scaffolding. In the Dress Circle, we had to crane our heads to actually see the singers, but we did have an excellent view of the Cube. (We had no chance of seeing the surtitles, though I doubt they would have helped very much.) The Steersman descends to stage level to sing his ballad. He is upstaged by the Cube. It turns out that the Cube is made of four separate panels. They are capable of sliding around the stage independently, and do so incessantly. Memo to producer: If you insist on using sliding panels; and if your stage machinery is apt to make scraping noises, then for goodness sake don't slide the panels during the quiet passage in the score. The Steersman falls asleep rather dramatically: if you didn't know, you'd have thought he was having a heart attack. (The programme notes claim "Solaris" as an influence. This would make sense if it was the kind of production where the Steersman is dreaming the whole thing. But nothing further seems to come of this.) As the music becomes sinister, we see huge, close up video images of someone's Eye. The sliding panels eventually part to reveal Bryn Terfel, initially in shadow. During the Dutchman's great monologue, we encounter Production Idea #2: a huge, black and white close up video of Bryn's face is projected on the Cube. (Not, however, live footage of him singing, because this would have been too "Brechtian.") The panels move around him while he sings.

When he was Wotan at Covent Garden, Bryn was required to share a stage with actual pyrotechnics. One wonders whether having to sing against Silly Production Ideas had anything to do with his decision to take a break from opera and spend more time with his recording contract?

Interestingly, Daland, the Steersman and the Dutchman have come dressed for a perfectly sane performance in generic gray trench coats and indistinct semi-period sailor's gear. Daland and the Dutchman act out their meeting in a perfectly naturalistic manner, as if no-one had told them about the production going on around them. The video imagery on the panels remains at crossed-purposes to the action. When the Dutchman explains to Daland that his ship is loaded with treasure we are given videos of a room full of telephones. Have we perhaps wandered into "A Night at the Opera" by mistake?

The Spinning Song is performed by a group of women who are, I guess, meant to be Soviet factory workers, with Mary as a matriarchal overseer. They are doing some sort of work on big, luminous tubes which dangle from the ceiling; these could possibly have been fiber optic cables? If so, does this mean that the Dutchman and his telephones represent an obsolete form of telecommunications? Instead of mooning over a painting of the Dutchman, Senta is obsessively drawing a gigantic eye which Mary keeps erasing.

The duet between Senta and the Dutchman is the only point where the production achieved any kind of coherence. The singers walk between the moving panels as if through a maze; the panels at all times separating the two lovers from each other. The singer's faces are again projected on them. Senta stands on the stage by herself, singing to an image of the Dutchman; then the Dutchman sings to an image of Senta. As the duet proceeds, they get closer together: at one point, they are on either side of panel, touching each other through it. Only at the end of the duet do they come face to face, and Daland binds their hands together. This makes an obvious, sub-Freudian kind of sense: Senta has been obsessed by a painting of the Dutchman; and the Dutchman has spent centuries dreaming of a woman like Senta. They are both in love with an image of the other. I'm far from sure that the music says that they experience disillusionment or transfer their love from the erotic ideal to the real person, but it worked okay as a stage-idea.

The climactic choral section was completely doo-lally. In the text, Daland's sailors and their women jocularly invite the Dutchman's ghost-sailors to join their party; when the ghosts awake, they are terrified, and there follows a sort of musical battle in which the sailor's jolly tune tries to drown out the ghost's spooky one. Here, there is no differentiation between the ghosts and the sailors (both parts seem to be sung by one chorus). As the ghost's dark music starts, the sailors, er, gang-rape the women. One tries in vain to make sense of this: the Dutchman is a force which possesses mortals and drives them crazy? There's not much moral difference between Daland's sale of his daughter and an actual rape? I give up.

And so we end with Senta's redemptive suicide, which is represented on the stage by the panels sliding back together into a cube, and video images of an astronaut, followed by images of a desolate landscape, possibly the Challenger pictures of Mars, but equally possible a desert where a cosmonaut might land. Representing the lovers coming back to earth and being redeemed; or going off to Mars and being redeemed, or something.

Producers seems to only be capable of having two ideas about Wagner.

#1: "Despite the mythological setting, this is really a very human drama about ordinary people, who quarrel, fall in love, steal, screw their sisters and commit suicide just like we all do every day. I will therefore make the cast wear boiler-suits".

#2 "Despite the mythological setting, this is really a study of Freudian psychology in which the characters act out various unconscious and spiritual journeys. I will therefore make the cast perform in front of black curtain."

Pountney's production seems to involve both ideas. His programme notes tell us that "the horror is the least convincing aspect" and "the whole redemption theme is not an important part of the whole piece", which seems rather close to saying that he decided to omit the plot of the "Flying Dutchman". On the other hand (referring to the scene two duet) he explains "All we are describing here is the difference between the materialistic and the spiritual view of the world. You can find both of these in Kensington -- you don't need to go to sea."

There is no obligation on a producer to follow the composer's stage directions. There is not even any obligation on a producer to follow the composer's general intentions: in the theater, and in music theater, anything goes. The producer is, however, obliged to be intelligible to the audience -- preferably, intelligible to an audience whose only previous knowledge of the work is the programme synopsis -- and, above all, he is obliged to be interesting. This staging failed on all accounts: it had nothing to say about the opera; it was opaque; it was dull. One really felt that one was watching a brilliantly sung concert performance, with some rather uninteresting but irrelevant special effects as a distraction.

According to the programme, Pountney's previous production used a an open-air stage which floated on a lake. It was, apparently, socio-political. Erik lived on an island inhabited by ducks and Senta saw a grand piano coming up out of the water. "The one thing that it was impossible to do on a lake was have anything to do with boats."

I guess we got off lightly.

Synopsis

Monday, March 20, 2006

It's the 'Daily Express' Gone Mad, I Tell You

On March 7th and 8th, the 'Daily Express' dedicated two front pages, two leading articles, two inside pages and some space in the letter column to a Very Important Story. It seems that children in a nursery school in Oxfordshire have been made to sing 'Baa-Baa, rainbow Sheep' rather than 'Baa-baa, black sheep', because the traditional version of the rhyme might offend minority groups.

The March 7th front page managed to include the two most important 'P.C Brigade' cliches in a single headline.

Political correctness goes mad at the nursery: NOW IT'S BAA BAA RAINBOW SHEEP

As we've seen, 'Now' is an important 'Daily Express' code word, translating as "It's even worse than you thought". And of course the words 'Political Correctness' can only be used in conjunction with the words 'gone mad'.

The first paragraph tells us various people's opinions, without troubling us with anything as old fashioned as an actual news story.

A nursery school was last night accused of 'ridiculous' political correctness after removing the word 'black' from a nursery rhyme. Teachers at the government-backed school were ordered to change the lyrics of the classic Baa-Baa Black Sheep.

"Was accused of..." Well, the article does contain quotes from a local councilor and an un-named parent, both of whom use the word 'ridiculous', so I suppose that this is literally true. We don't have a factual news item followed by a comment: the fact that someone has made a comment is the news item.

"Last night...." The accusation happened at particular point, sometime on Monday March 6th. The story would be quite different if the accusation had happened in the afternoon. We are being asked to imagine someone rushing into the office late last night, shouting "Hold the front page! We've just heard that a mother in Oxford thinks that her kids kindergarten teacher has done something silly!"

"Were ordered to...." We never quite find out who or what did the ordering.

"Removed" -- An active act of censorship. Positive action taken against the offending monosyllable. Someone with a blue pen going through the Official Text of children's rhymes and 'removing' the B-word.

The core of the story is a quote from a 'mother' who 'did not want to be named for fear of jeopardizing her daughter's place (at the school)'.

" 'Baa baa black sheep' has been one of the most well-known nursery rhymes for generations. For people to come along and fiddle with it is ridiculous. What on earth is a a rainbow sheep anyway?"

Note that Mrs. Anonymous does not tell us anything about what has or hasn't been happening at the school, or how she heard about it. She merely says that she thinks that changing the rhyme is ridiculous. We then get an attributed quote from the 'manager' of the school.

"Basically, we have taken the equal opportunities approach to everything we do. This is fairly standard across nurseries. We are following stringent equal opportunities rules. Not one should feel point out because of their race, gender or anything else."

But wait a minute – Mr Chamberlain has also failed to refer to any actual incident; indeed, to make any reference to sheep, black or otherwise. He's just made some general comments about the school's race policy. And why does he twice use the phrase 'equal opportunities' rather than, say, 'racially inclusive language'. (Surely, 'equal opportunities' refers to which teachers you employ and what kids you admit, not what books and poems you use?) The 'Express' says that the school censored the rhyme in order to 'avoid offending children', but nothing in the quote from Mr. Chamberlain implies this.

There is no news story here. No-one has published a book of censored poems; no-one has issued a press release or a diktat, and (presumably) no 'Daily Excess' hack has been inside the school to report on what goes on. Maybe the toddlers have been singing about rainbow sheep, and maybe they haven't, but there is no hint in the paper about how we know, who reported it, how the story came to light. All we have is a couple of quotes in which people react to having been informed (by whom?) that the words of the poem have been changed.

We have to wait to Day 2 of the story for an actual piece of information to make itself heard.

The 'Daily Express' revealed yesterday how the Sure Start Center in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, had changed the words of the nursery rhyme. Center manager Stuart Chamberlain had said equal opportunities justified that extraordinary decision.... At the center itself yesterday the staff were still trying in vain to justify their actions. Felicity Dick the nursery's project coordinator, said; "What is ridiculous is that we were actually singing black sheep, white sheep and occasionally rainbow sheep. But afterwards we had a useful discussion about it all. We haven't often sung rainbow sheep as that is not their actual colour of course. And I will say that the children hear have made both black sheep and white sheep to put on the wall.'"

So: we now have an actual fact. At this school, the line 'Baa-baa Rainbow Sheep' has been sung, at least once, in addition to, but not instead of, the line 'baa-baa black sheep'.

But hang on. Isn't that what you do when you are playing with very small children -- make up silly words to well-known songs? Aren't the popular children's jingles precisely the ones where Mummy or Teacher can make up an infinite number of equally irritating verses? After the wheels on the bus have gone round and round a few dozen times, the wipers on the bus can go swish swish swish and the farmer can think up a large number of equally unlikely things to do in his den. If your toddlers have an appetite for yet another round of songs about sheep, then you can just imagine Miss Dick looking up from her piano and saying 'What colour sheep are they this time, children.... Baa-baa-blue-sheep'. The original story, that an un-named Big Brother figure has 'ordered' the school to 'ban' the word 'black' is in ruins.

Very fascinatingly, Day 2 contains a quote from two more parents without names:

One couple whose daughter attends the group felt the nursery's stance had been 'absolutely laughable'. The father said yesterday: 'I think most of us only heard about it today, but it's absolutely ridiculous. But after all the publicity an once we made our views known, I am pleased to say today that they are again singing black sheep.'

"After all the publicity": Mr and Mrs Anonymous have found out about what goes on at school, not from their child or from the teachers, but by reading about it in the 'Daily Express'. We are reading a parent's reaction to a news item which itself consisted of nothing but other people's reactions to a supposed event.

I don't think it is too hard to imagine the way in which these kinds of stories are created.

1: Some school children sing 'Baa baa rainbow sheep' because some teacher thinks it is funny at the time.

2: One child repeats this to his mother.

3: His mother telephone the 'Daily Express', using the 'Do you have a story' number prominently displayed every day on page two, and tells them that she thinks that it is 'ridiculous.'

4: The 'Express' phones round for quotes. The head of the nursery, knowing nothing about what songs Miss Dick may or may not have been singing yesterday, makes a general comment about the school's equal opportunities policy. They ask various people 'What do you think about nurseries singing about amazingly technicolour dream-sheep' and the politicians says 'We think it is rather silly'

5: They publish an article almost entirely made up of comments from people who say it is very silly.

6: Other parents with children about the school, who knew nothing about it read the comments, and also say that it is very silly.

7: The nursery issues a partial rebuttal, saying, yes, we did sing the song with variant words, but no, we didn't have any kind of policy against the use of the word 'black'

8: The 'Express' prints a front page headline implying that this rebuttal represents a change of policy ('Daily Express' halts the rainbow sheep PC nonsense' 'Ewe turn' 'The big climbdown').

A non-news story is follow by a non-event represented as a huge victory. There is no World War II bomber on the moon after all.

All of which would be very funny, were it not being used as a pretext to talk about race issues in general. The Oxfordshire local politician who thinks that rainbow sheep are ridiculous informs the readers of the worlds-greatest-newspaper-and-proud-of-it that "this kind of thing is happening all the time", and we seamlessly segue into a story about a toy-shop owner who was asked to remove three gollywogs from his window. When he got a phone call from a police officer "'I assumed there had been a break in. It's political correctness gone mad." (Twice in one article.)

Now, it would indeed be ridiculous to prohibit the word 'black sheep', which is why no-one has ever done so, but selling dolls which are grotesque caricatures of Negroes -- particularly when the word 'wog' is commonly used as a racial slur – is a much less clear cut issue. And then the co-founder of the sinister sounding 'Campaign Against Political Correctness' asserts that "There are missives coming down from Government bodies about equal opportunities, so schools get into trouble like this." We are no longer talking about a single schools hyper-correct editing of a particular poem: the whole idea of 'equal opportunities' is the problem.

The March 8th article concludes, in a complete non-sequitur, by re-cycling a story about positive discrimination in the police force. A constabulary "caused outrage" by launching "a recruitment drive aimed at gays, lesbians, trans-sexuals and people from ethnic backgrounds" which apparently meant that applications from 'white, heterosexual men" were "torn up". The question of how you deal with the under-representation of minorities is a real one and this kind of affirmative action (if true) is in my opinion rather a blunt instrument for dealing with it. But the 'Daily Express' wants us to draw a connection between the two issues. Banning black sheep and gollywogs and thinking that there should be more black policemen are both examples of the thing called 'political correctness'. Political Correctness is shorthand for the belief that it's Us, white people, not Them, blacks and hoh moh sexuals who are subject to prejudice. Our traditional nursery rhymes are taken away and our job applications are torn up.

England prevails.

Thursday, March 09, 2006