Sunday, September 30, 2012

I'm still alive. Quite likely to write something about something before too long. I'm sure by now you've all been to the Other Blog and read the album reviews. If all 495-730 of you went and had a look at Brian's new on-line guide to coffee it would make him very happy. In fact I'm sure he'd buy every one of you a latte the next time he sees you.

Dylan's awfully good, isn't he?

Monday, September 17, 2012

But in the meantime:

Lawrence Miles has written the best thing that has ever been written about Doctor Who, starting here. I only mildly want to kill him because it is quite close to and better than a thing I have been wanting to do for a while. It is wrong in many particulars, but criticism doesn't have to be right, only interesting.

The sad, inspiring, infuriating tale of Cerebus the Aardvark has taken so many twists and turns in the last month that I start to wonder if Dave is actually a person at all, but rather a sort of virtual construct in a meta-novel. The series of on-line interviews starting here  make fascinating depressing reading. Mostly sane, though, as if we've got Old Dave back. ("I'm a very orthodox religious person, although I wouldn't be in the eyes of most religious people". That word; you use it all the time. I don't think it means what you think it means.)

Very shortly, I will still be a game designer again. 

For all those waiting for some feedback on Doctor Who, you should be warned than an elderly American man has just released a gramophone record with some songs on it. If you are interested in finding out what I would be like if I was brief, some of my stuff is on the Sci-Fi Now website.  (I believe that you can get it on your I-Tablet-Thing if that's you thing.) 

I've been enjoying Gerard Jones book on the origins of comic books. Very perceptive on the difference between Superman and Bat-Man. And he uncovers a genuinely jaw-dropping biographical fact about Jerry Siegel. (At least, I hadn't heard it before.) 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

At risk of turning this Blog into the Tom Paxton fan site, today would be an excellent day to listen to this song again.

I think it must be one of the four or five genuinely great "authored" folk-songs of all time. (*)

There is absolutely no excuse for The Marvellous Toy.


(*) Grand Coulee Dam, Masters of War, The World Turned Upside Down, Hollow Point, maybe?

Saturday, September 01, 2012

One Man Must Choose....

Superman didn't have any humble beginnings. Superman ate fire and shit ice from the git-go.
Dave Sim

Sea lapping on the shore. A washing line. A white-washed house, with a seagull flying overhead. A fishing boat putting out to sea: emphasis on a young, bearded sea-man. A photo album; a child running around at a birthday party. Bearded chap walking along a desolate road with a backpack, hitch hiking. Sunset. A butterfly. Child by washing line playing with a red sheet. Clouds.

What kind of a film is the Man of Steel trailer promoting? What story is it telling? What would you make of it if you didn't know what it was about -- if you had never heard of Superman? (It's a film about fishing and underwear, right?) What do the images have to do with the human figure we see flying through the air like a rocket in the final seconds? Before answering that question, it's worth glancing back at the teaser trailer which promoted the original Christopher Reeve Superman movie, more thatn 30 years ago.

Swirly red clouds; a figure that we can hardly see in the sunset; a portentius voice-over and an extended cast list. It doesn't contain one single clip from the movie, and gives virtually no hints about the plot. But it does give a rather patronisng run-down of the history of the character:

"He began, not as flesh and blood, but as a simple line drawing.

His comic strip has thrilled millions around the world.

The magic of radio gave to his name a breathless signature and sound. 

Then with television came a whole new generation to idolize his exploits. 

Today at last his evolution is complete. 

Brought to life by the awseome technology of film and by an extraordinary cast of stars...

Until now his incredible adventures have been beyond the power of any known medium to realise...

He has come of age. 

Our age."

Fairly clearly, in 1978 studios were still jumpy about the whole idea of making a film about a superhero. The trailer was establishing the film's credentials and trying to give it some gravitas. This isn't a film of a comic book – this is a film about a character who happened, many years ago, to have started out in a comic book. Comics, radio and TV were just the embryonic stages which allowed this film to come into being. It pointedly shows us stills of the A list cast, but doesn't give us a good look at Christopher Reeve in his tights. The title of the film was not Superman but Superman: The Movie. Movies are very important things. Superman is a part of American folklore which the movies – sorry "the greatest creative and technical minds in the motion picture industry" are going to take very seriously indeed." 

The poster campaign betrayed a similar caution: no image of Superman, just that stylized logo, and the phrase "You'll believe a man can fly." Movie posters were doing a lot of teasing that year. All we knew of Alien was the glowy egg and the phrase "In space, no-one can hear you scream". Star Trek – sorry Star Trek Ther Motion Picture -- had some very blurry images of Kirk, Spock and a bald lady and the very jittery tag line "There is no comparison." (Between the TV series and the movie? Or between Star Trek and that new thing George Lucas had just put out?)

The full length 1978 trailer is also quite interesting. It amounts to a summary of Act I of the movie – from the destruction of Krypton to Chris Reeve's arrival at the Fortress of Solitude – which is itself simply an expansion of the one page origin of Superman from Action Comics #1 and elsewhere. "Doomed planet; desperate scientists; last hope; kindly couple" as the fellow said. A voice over – sounding this time like someone narrating a school science programme - tells us what is going on, in case it isn't clear from the pictures:

"Once there was a civilisation much like ours, but with a greater intelligence, greater powers and a greater capacity for good. 

In one tragic moment, that world was destroyed, but there was one survivor. 

Because of the wisdom and compassion of Jor-El, because he knew the human race had the capactiy for goodness, he sent us his only son. 

His name is Kal-El. 

He will call himself Clark Kent. 

But the world will know him as Superman."

This is not, in fact, very far removed from the classic intro which everybody remembers from the TV and radio versions:

"Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! 

Look! Up in the sky...It's a's a's SUPERMAN. 

Strange visitor from another planet who ho came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. 

SUPERMAN who can change the course of mighty rivers; bend steel with his bare hands and who disguised as Clark Kent, mild mannered reporter for the Daily Planet fights a never ending battle for truth and justice."

"Truth and justice" was, of course, changed to "Truth, justice and the American way" during World War II and for the TV series. Earlier, the job description had been "defender of law and order, mighty champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice". Even earlier it had been simply "champion of the weak and the oppressed."

In that 1940s opening, the point of Superman is that he is Superman – that he has fantastic powers and goes on amazing adventures. His extraterrestrial origins are mentioned almost in parenthesis, as an explanation of his powers. He's the champion of a cause: he believes in something – truth, justice, America, equality, standing up for the little guy. The best adventures of Radio Superman are indeed the ones where he defends his aggressively liberal beliefs, warning us that the real threat to America isn't the atom bomb but prejudice and intolerance: "Whenever you meet up with anyone who is trying to cause trouble between people—anyone who tries to tell you that a man can't be a good citizen because of his religious beliefs—you can be sure that troublemaker is a rotten citzen himself and an inhuman being."

In 1979 the unique selling point of Superman was that he was alien and that he was good -- and, incidentally, the he could fly. The spiel takes his tragic origin as a starting point, as if that was the most interesting thing about him. There is a very clumsy Christ allegory – we are told that Marlon Brando so loved that he sent us his only son, while the Supertoddler is holding out his arms in a cruciform pose (and, incidentally, unapologetically displaying his Willy of Steel. Would you get away with a naked child in a modern film, much less a modern trailer?) But the point is that Superman, because of his alien heritage, is gooder than us. That is his superpower. And, indeed, the film drew both humour and drama from setting Superman's morality and Clerk Kent's naivety against the worldly cynicism of Lois Lane and Perry White.

Now, the 21st century reboot involves a different kind of sell. We already know that movies can be adapted from comic books. In fact, it is sometimes hard to remember a time when movies were adapted from anything else. Journalists, granted, have not yet heard about Christopher Nolan, Tim Burton or even Frank Miller, but the rest of us know that superheroes are not necessarily for kids -- we're probably watching the trailer in the middle of a very long, very serious treatment of the fellow who lives in a cave and dresses up as a bat. (Holy Reboot!) We don't need a teaser which tells us who The Man of Steel is or convinces us that a film about him isn't a ridiculous proposition. We need one that tells us why, in a world which already has the Avengers and Thor and the X-Men and Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles and Judge Dredd and Peppa Pig we should care, particularly, about a fellow who can change the course of mighty rivers and bend steel with his bare hands.

"Show, don't tell" is a good rule, but you can take it to excess. The trailer is aimed firmly at those of us who can be relied on to draw inferences from very small hints. The 1978 trailer told us absoluely everything; this one tells us nothing and shows us very little. It's evasive tone (the camera doesn't point directly at anything) positively encourages over-interpretation. Is that washing line a sly hint that this Superman will not wear his underpants outside his tights? Are we meant to look at the seagull and think "Is it a bird?"? The trailer's only really striking image, of a small child standing with his hands on his hips with a red blanket round his shoulders only makes sense if you already know the iconography of the comic book. Which (partly as a result of the 1979 movie) pretty much everybody does.

Do the images add up to anything? Presumably the man with the beard who is hitchiking somewhere and travelling somewhere by boat is the same person as the little kid with the washing line. Maybe Beardy is remembering when he was Kid, or Kid is looking forward to being Beardy. So we can assemble a sot of narrative: "This is a story of a little boy who grew up to be a man with beard who left his home and family, went on a journey". What has that got to do with Superman?

The trailer is, I think, intended to remind us of the scene from Superman Ther Movie in which (right after his father's funeral) Clark Kent leaves Smallville and heads North, guided, so far as we can tell, by the crystal which was salvaged from his space ship. When he gets to the North Pole, the crystal grows into a Fortress of Solitude. In the comic book, the Fortess was nothing more than a secret base where Superman hangs out, does experiments and keeps souvineers of the old country. Here it has became a Kryptonian temple where Marlon Brando reveals the secrets of his origins and his destiny.

Not insignificantly, the first question Clark / Superman / Kal-El asks his father is "Who am I?"

Why has this relatively minor element in the Chrisopher Reeve movie -- which doesn't really feature in any other version of the mythos -- been singled out and presented as the whole of Man of Steel – or at any rate, the only part of Man of Steel which we are prepared to talk about at this stage? Mr Snyder has fixed on it because it is the one place where Superman goes on a journey? A sort of kind of quest in which Clark Kent finds out who he is?

Trailers can be misleading. The trailer for the Amazing Spider-Man implied that the film movie would be all about Peter Parker finding out what happened to his parents and in doing so discovering the truth about himself. In the trailer, Curt Connors asks Parker "Do you have any idea what you are?" This scene isn't in the film. In the trailer a Mysterious Figure who will turn out to be Norman Osborn asks Connor whether Spider-Man has worked out the Great Secret about his family. That scene is in the film, but only in the closing credits, as a teaser to the next film. (Is this the first time we've ever seen a post-cred in the trailer?) Hardly any of the Parents of Peter Parker stuff makes it into the movie, which is a pretty faithful conglomeration of the Ditko-Lee origin of Spider-Man, the Ditko-Lee Lizard storyline with a dollop of the Lee-Romita George Stacy storyline worked in for good measure. But someone evidently decided that the story could only be sold to us as Spider-Man's quest to discover his identity -- because that's the only story that there is. In the final scene of the movie, Peter Parker's English teacher tells him this in so many words. "We're sometimes told that there are only ten stories in the world. But there's really only one: who am I" (*) At least since Mr Keating, school teachers have had a very bad habit of offering kids homespun philosophy rather than Lit. Crit. (The fictitious Prof. Lewis in Shadowlands asks an undergraduate to comment on the proposition that "we read to find out that we are not alone", rather than, say, Anglo-Saxon vowel shifts.) We've seen how Joseph Campbell's relatively complex map of the various hero myths was reduced to Vogler's silly diagram of the One True Story. There is something positively Orwellian about seeing Vogler's diagram further reduced to the single, meaningless phrase "Who Am I?"

The Man of Steel teaser also has a voice-over, which helps us understand what the pictures mean. It's not the voice of a generic story-teller, like the 1978 trailer, nor of a cultural historian, like the '78 teaser, not of breakfast cereal salesman, like the radio version. It's a character, presumably Jonathan Kent, speaking from inside the story:

"You're not just anyone. 

One day you're going to have to make a choice. 

You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. 

Whoever that man is, good character or bad, he's going to change the world."

Now, I can be reasonably moved when Bud Collyer tells me that everyone is an American regardless of what colour their skin is or what kind of church they choose to go to. But I have to say that I find this stuff makes me want to puke. It harkens back, indirectly, to the Christopher Reeve movie, in which Superman's human father has a little heart to heart with him just before his own heart gives out. Clark wants to know why he has to keep his powers secret – why can't use them to be a great football star, for example? "One thing I do know, son" explains superdad "and that is you are here for a reason. I don't know whose reason, or what the reason is. Maybe.... But I do know one thing. It's not to score touchdowns." That in turns, points right back to Superman #1, in which the hero's character depended on the upbringing which his adoptive parents had given him. "This great strength" says his father "You've got to hide it from people, or they'll be scared of you." "But when the proper time comes you must use it to assist humanity" adds mother Mary. Their passing away "greatly grieves him", but strengthens his resolve "to turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind". That's really all that's necessary. Superman's an immigrant, but he's truly an American because he was raised with American values. Mario Puzo's allegorical Superman, who's strength is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure, is rather less interesting. Glen Ford is really just telling Christopher Reeve is that he doesn't have a choice: his path is laid out by God, Fate, Marlon Brando or the Script. It's his job to be the hero because that's what the Plot requires of him.

In fact, both Christopher Reeve movies do involve moral choices. The first film ends with him going against Jor El's instructions and using his powers to reverse time and alter history. The idea seems to be that this failure makes him in some way even more heroic than he was before: a humanist Messiah who's transcended Fate or God or Father or Plot – a true Nietzschen ubermensch. The second film has him giving up his mission to marry, or at any rate go to bed with, Lois Lane -- the oldest dilemma in the book. (Oh to be torn twixt love and duty!) But these aren't decisions about whether to be a hero: these are the kinds of decisions that you would expect a hero has to make.

Superman III and Superman IV don't count, obviously.

The Man of Steel teaser seems to be going out of its way to avoid both versions of supermorality. This Superman is not good by virtue of being Kryptonian; he's not good by virtue of having an American upbringing; and he's not characterized by his strong beliefs in justice and equality. At any rate, not yet. We are being asked to imagine that the really interesting question is whether he will decide to be a hero -- at any rate, the prospect of seeing him make that choice is supposed to get us all fired up about the movie.

"Gee. I wonder what I will do. Should I turn my titanic strength into channels that will benefit humanity? Or into channels that will harm it? Or shall I just stay home and do nothing?" It sometimes seems like Hollywood sees morality as one of those computer where you get different power ups depending on whether you choose the dark side or the light side.

There is nothing wrong with films about heroes who have to make choices. Of course there isn't. It would be a terribly boring story if there weren't some choices to be made. Han Solo is very definitely a baddie in Act I of Star Wars -- I don't know if you've ever spotted this, but he shoots Greedo before Greedo has even had a chance to go for his gun -- but in the final scene he chooses to stop being selfish and join the rebellion. Luke Skywalker hesitates before joining Ben Kenobi's journey to Aladeraan because he feels a sense of responsibility to his adoptive parents. (Oh to be torn twixt love and duty, again.) But no-one ever set up "one man must choose" as the be-all and end-all of Star Wars. It's one of the things which happens along the way. The Empire Strikes Back is widely regarded as a more sophisticated film than Star Wars because the choice which Luke Skywalker has to make is actually quite a difficult one -- between long and short term goals, between saving Han and defeating the Empire – and because he arguably makes the wrong choice, and because that wrong choice is the one that most of us would have made in his situation.

But when "one man must choose" between good and evil, or between being the hero and not being the hero, the choice is rarely very interesting and usually self-evident. Aragorn knows that the Plot says that he is going to be King but because of Heroic Self Doubt he has "turned away from that path." He hasn't really, of course: how can he have done, when we already know that the third movie is called Return of the King.The whole of the first Narnia movie turns on Peter, who knows that there is a crown and a throne with his name on it (literally) at Cair Parevel saying over and over again "I am not a hero, this is not my fight" when everyone already knows that he is and it is.

"You have but one choice" says Elrond in Jackson's Lord of the Rings. One wishes that Merry or someone could have replied "In that case, it's not a choice."

We could blame all this on Joseph Campbell. I often do. Campbell makes "refusal of the quest" one of the things which may happen in the class of stories called Hero Myths. Vogler made it an essential part of every Hero's Journey (and thought that the Hero's Journey is the only story which can ever be told.) Hollywood has progressively made it the whole road-map. We might concede that reluctant heroes are more attractive than very willing ones. We like the idea that Neil Armstrong didn't particularly want to go to the moon and didn't enjoy the adulation that he had when he came back to earth. Jim Hacker knows that he should not admit that he has ambitions to become Prime Minister, but that he went into politics to serve his country and if someone persuaded him that the best way he could serve his country was as Prime Minister , well, then of course....

What is most nauseating is the way in which the "you" of the voice-over isn't just Clark Kent, it's you. It's what every Daddy might say to every Son. We all have to decide who we are. To a lessor or greater extent, that decision has the capacity to change the world. Every story has to be about how Superman or Batman or Spider-Man or Conan or Solomon Kane or Sinbad the Sailor chose to become hereos to make the point that we can all be heroes if we want to be. We are all Superman.

Except that we're not. Really, we're not. That's why we like Superman so much. Because he is faster than a speeding bullet, and we're not. Because he can leap tall buildings in a single bound, and we can't. Because he stands up for the weak and the oppressed, and we're weak and oppressed and would quite like someone to stand up for us. (It can hardly be said too often that the whole idea of Superheroes was thought up by Jewish People in the 1930s.) Superman doesn't have to choose whether to have a good character or a bad character. What part of "superhero" don't you understand?

Yes, stories can be told about the reluctant Everyman hero. But that's not the only story, whatever Peter Parker's English teacher thinks. Superman is much more like the classic Western hero. He rides into town. He saves Everyman and Everywoman and Every Cute Red Headed Kid With Freckles and then he rides out. Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White are about the only three constants in every retelling of the Superman story. They are the Everypeople though whose eyes we see the amazing person in the red cloak.

Sam Gamgee had it right, didn't he? The heroes of stories are, by definition, the ones who made the right choices, because the ones who made the wrong choices never get stories written about them.

"Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually -- their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on -- and not all to a good end, mind you."

He might, I suppose, have added that a good storyteller might want to point out, from time to time, the moments at which the hero might have turned away from his path, or to occasionally contrast him with someone who did. (Tolkien contrasts Frodo with Fatty Bolger and the Knights of Rohan with the hillmen who weren't brave enough to ride with them to the final battle.) But it seems as if someone has decided that "the moment at which the hero decides whether to turn back or not" is all that any story can ever be about. 

And that isn't just wrong: it's boring.

(*) I believe the usual figure is actually six: rags to riches, riches to rags, boy meets girl, boy leaves girl, someone learns lesson, someone fails to learn lesson.

Thank you to Greg Gerrand for commissioning this piece.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Letter From Bavaria (5)

Dear Andrew,

I have been imagining you walking around Bayreuth – I have a pretty good picture of it in my head. I can visualise the beer, sausages and coffee having eaten and drunk many of them in various German towns.  I have had a pretty good go at imagining the first three operas – probably wholly wrongly. This last description leaves me at a loss but wishing so very much I had been there with you last night.

I first saw Parsifal when I was 14 having read the summary in the opera plots book. I couldn’t follow the words having only studied German for two terms at the time but I remember being left with the feeling I had witnessed something that mattered. Later I got a boxed set of the records – sides 3 and 10 were my favourites (the two grail ceremonies). By this time I could understand the words (courtesy of dual language librettos) but I’m not sure it took me much further. I just wanted to listen again and again. Who was it who said that poetry can communicate before it is understood?

Come to dinner tomorrow and tell me more.

Love Opera- Buddy

Dear Opera-Buddy

T.S Eliot said poetry could communicate before it is understood. I think he was just covering his back after writing the Wasteland. (Question in the Guardian Quiz today: which quotation from Our Mutual Friend was nearly used as the title of The Wasteland?) The funny thing is I do remember reading the Wasteland in the sixth form, not understanding it, but liking it very much indeed. If anything, I think I liked it less after I studied it at college and had more idea of what he was getting at. But reading something, not understanding, and liking the fact that you don't understand it may not be quite fair to the poet, who probably intended you to get it to some degree. Obviously (obviously!) the Wasteland is a kind of distant cousin of Parsifal, being vaguely about the quest for the Holy Grail, or at any rate, being vaguely based on a theory about what the quest for the Holy Grail is all about. But it occurs to me that there was something Waste Land ish -- modernist or post modernist -- about last nights Parsifal: a lot of image that were quotes and references to other things, that didn't really make sequential sense, but created an overall emotional effect. "These fragment have I sured against my ruin" as the fellow said.  (You remember A.N Wilson's "interview" with the Queen Mother? "This rather lugubrious man in a suit, and he read a poem ... I think it was called The Desert....At first the girls got the giggles and then I did and then even the King ... Such a gloomy man, looked as though he worked in a bank.")

Trust that your imagining of me walking around Bayreuth doesn't focus too heavily on me realising I don't know which turning to take 5 minutes from the hotel and walking around in circles for 20 minutes. Or being asked directions by an American tourist, admitting that I can't help him, but being congratulated on my excellent command of English. 

Yes, I particularly missed you at Parsifal because I know you liked it so much when you were younger and the production was so....special. I probably didn't describe it very well: imagine the plot of Parsifal pretty much as per the libretto, but with each scene representing a period in German history -- pre-War (Act I), First and Second World War (Act II), post-war and modern era (Act III) with the grail castle, I suppose representing German society -- getting corrupted and healed; wrapped in a prologue which suggests the whole thing is a dream. Now I've thought about it, I think that was what the wings were about: the child was dreaming that his dead mother was an angel in heaven. I was also a bit obtuse to say that the Grail was "a baby": obviously since the woman is Kundry/Parisfal's mother, the baby is Parsifal himself. So Parsifal is the Grail, so "the redeemer redeemed" is him overcoming his primal Oedipal wound. Kind of thing. 

Parsifal itself is such a complex opera -- the actual plot takes some grasping, before you even start to think about all the philosophy in the libretto. The really strange thing is that the music is so sensual, emotional -- you could almost say syruppy in places -- but that it's carrying all these heavy ideas about renunciation and lack of attachment and oblivion and stuff. (So you could reasonably say that the producer oughtn't to have been piling three more levels of symbolism on top of it.) I can't remember when I first heard the opera, but I was crazy about King Arthur and grail mythology when  I was a teenager, so I was ready for the basic plot about healing the Grail King. Not that T.H White and Malory have much to do with the German version of the story, and Wagner's version doesn't have much to do with that...but the idea of the Grail being this super mysterious ceremony, and that someone had to heal the King to heal the land was very much in my head, and music seemed and seems to capture that idea. (I was flirting with Bob Dylan a few months ago, but I am quite sure that it's the opening of Parisfal that contains the meaning of life, not Visions of Johanna after all :))

Actually, I wonder if that's a justification for these conceptual productions: it's the music that says what Wagner wants to say; and the libretto is really just a commentary on that, some of it being hard to understand and some of it being (arguably) tosh; so it's all right for a person who isn't Wagner to provide pictures which present a different commentary on the music, provided you don't change the music? 

Apart from a scary moment when the Munich ticket machine refused to talk to either of my credit cards, journey back last night was hitch free. (12 noon, leave hotel. Consume coffee on Bayreuth station, catch 1PM train to Nuremburg; 2.30 ish train from Nuremburg to Munich, consume coffee near Munich station from about 4PM to 6PM; Metro to Munich airport; much checking in off baggage and tickets at Munich airport from 7ish to 8ish, and one last cup of coffee before getting on airybuzzer around 9PM, and then caught a coach from London to Bristol. Back in Stokes croft by about 3AM.) 

Haven't been able to bring myself to listen to any other music either on planes and coaches or back home: don't want to listen to a different version of Parsifal and Tristan and don't quite want to listen to anything else either. Was almost tempted to go and listen to the man singing Buddy Holly covers in the Cat and Wheel last night as a means of re-grounding myself. 

Ah well, only three months and we can go to the Ring in London. ("Is Wagner actually a man? Is he not rather a disease?)




"He do the police in different voices"

Friday, August 17, 2012

Letter from Bavaria (4)

Dear Opera Buddy

O.K. So I have now seen Bob Dylan perform live, heard Parsifal at Bayreuth and met Tom Baker. I can therefore die happy. (For the avoidance of doubt, I am not intending to, at any rate not any time soon, but it is nice to know that if the need arose I could do so.)

I am on Munich station, or in fact in a cafe near Munich station. I am drinking the cafe's famous cappuccino although I must admit that I had never heard of it before. (It is quite like other, less famous cappucino that I have drunk, only without chocolate sprinkles.) Check out from the hotel was 12.00, and what with breakfast and having had a more than usual amount of beer in the hotel bar last night (having, obviously, observed a total fast before Parsifal, unless you count a bratwurst, a mocha, and a mango ice cream)  didn't actually do anything before catching the train. The hairybuzzer doesn't  fly away until 9.30 but allowing for 60 minutes to get to the air port and too much time to check in, I've only got a couple of hours which doesn't seem long enough to venture forth on a bus or a metro. So you have to imagine a German visitor who has come though London but not actually gone more than a hundred feet from Kings Cross station.

This has been true of the week in general: you have to remember that the operas themselves run from 4PM (doors locked, music starts) to 10.30 or so (sixteenth or seventeenth ovation), and by the time you've got changed, availed yourself of the pre-theatre buffet and stood around outside the theatre admiring everyone's clothes, "going to the opera" takes from about 2PM to 11PM – which doesn't leave much space for visiting typewriter factories.

Which reminds me: clothes. About 50% of the men are in dinner jackets, but the other 50% are in everything you can think of: ordinary jeans and teeshirts; a bright orange suit; one man in full highland dress; one man in German peasant costume, if not actually liederhosen. Women in every kind of ball gown; I don't know about fasting, but it seems to be positively immoral to go and see Parsifal displaying quite so much of one's boobies. A few people tried resolutely not to clap after act one (there were non curtain calls, mercifully) but that tradition (the tradition of not applauding Parsifal because it isn't an entertainment but a stage-consecration-festival-work) seem to have died out.

That's the big deal, of course. Parsifal is a festival play for the consecration of the Stage. The Stage being here, Bayreuth. While I think the Ring is still my favourite opera, there is something very special and unique about seeing this opera here. (Here in Bayreuth, I mean, not here in the very famous capuccino cafe on Munich station.)

I think that it is fair to say that Parsifal has created a Sensation.

Act II finishes with Kundry on a raised dias, ranting wildly; and Klingsor (in silk stockings, suspenders, and wings) declaiming from the balcony, at which point huge swastikas are rolled down from the ceiling, and a squad of men in S.S uniform march across the stage. (I mean to say; the scene last night in which Elizabeth arguably died by arguably walking into what was arguably a gas chamber was understandably regarded by some as being a little near the proverbial knuckle, but SWASTIKAS and NAZI UNIFORMS at BAYREUYTH. I didn't know that was even legal.) And then a little boy is raised up at the centre stage, on a raising and lowering dias which has probably represented the Holy Grail throughout. Parisfal has been represented, thoughout, as both a small child in a sailor suit and the adult opera singer (also mainly in a sailor suit). The boy throws the spear at Parsifal; Parsifal catches it. All though the production, there has been a mound of earth at the front of the stage, and the boy-Parsifal has been building something which could be a wall with toy bricks on it. I would totally have spotted that this was Wagner's grave if the man who bought the spare ticket hadn't pointed this out to be. So man-Parsifal, holding the spear, point in menacingly at the toy brick structure, where upon all the swastikas fall down, and the rest of the set, collapse. It was pretty strong stuff for me; I can't imagine what it must have felt like to the Germans in the audience.

In the Arvena Kongress bar, opinion seemed to be pretty evenly split -- between the ones who thought that it was sensational and beautiful and the ones who wanted something that was more recognizably Parsifal. My feeling is that these kinds of productions – conceptual productions where what is going on on the stage is suggested by the music, but isn't necessarily telling the story of the libretto – have got to be both very interesting and brilliantly done before they work. Lohengrin and Tannhäuser just basically weren't good enough to get away with their ideas. (Lohegrin was pretty but incoherent; Tannhäuser was clever, but seemed to have attached a different story to the libretto more or less arbitrarily.)

Parsifal actually stays fairly close to the story: we have two grail ceremonies; the healing of Amfortas; the spear; and the whole thing is very much about Redemption. But it turns out that the story is really about the redemption and purification of Germany in general and Wagner's family after certain bad choices they made in the 1930s. It also turns out that the story is at least mostly a dream; Parsifal is the little boy who we first see playing with a toy bow and arrow while his mother is dying, in a 19th century bedroom in what is very probably House Wahfried. It appears that the rest of the production is the boys dream; Kundry is a dream projection of his mother; Gurmenez is very probably a dream projection of his father; and Parsifal, Amfortas, Klingsor and Titurel are all (if I have read this right) dream projections of the boy. Oh, and everyone has wings. I didn't get the hang of that. But characters are definitely fluid. There is a striking moment in Act I where the boy in the sailer suit is put into Amfortas bath and comes out as a very old man. (This happens in passing, on one side of the stage.)

Presumably, at some point in the development stage, all the producers get to write a word on a piece of paper and put it into a hat, and which ever word they pick out has to feature in every production at Bayreuth. This year the word was BABY. So we had the embryo in Lohengrin (signifying rebirth) Venus' child in Tannhäuser (signifying rebirth). The Grail ceremony involved Parsifal making love to Kundry and Kundry being delivered of a baby. The elevation of the grail is the baby being passed around the grail knights (who are Victorian German ladies and gentlemen, with wings, obviously.) The baby is then circumcised (at which point Amfortas' wound starts to hurt again), a cloth is placed over him (the baby), and he is turned into eucharistic bread and wine. Which a lot of solidiers with points on their helmets consume before going off to, presumably, the first world war. I have no idea. But the stage imagery was so beautiful and striking and well staged and matching the music that understanding it would almost seem impertinent.

Act II takes us through the first and second world wars (the flower maidens are 1920s dancers out of Cabaret, the one rather obvious image in the whole evening) climaxing with Parsifal taking the magic spear and bringing down Nazism with it. I think that's three genuine coupes de theatres in two acts, actually: the dying mother in the prelude; the bizare cannibalistic grail ceremony; and the Nazi climax to Act II. But none of that really prepared us for Act III.

Just let's run through the main ideas in the last act. I am probably forgetting sixteen or seventeen of them: 

1: We're now looking at a stage within a stage; there's a mini Festspielhaus proscenium arch lying back from the front of the real stage, and its on the "model" stage that all the action now happens.

2: The set is the ruins of the building from Act II – the ruins of post War Germany.

3: Granted that it's taking place in this industrial landscape on a miniature stage the opening of Act III of Parsifal is done almost completely straight, and very powerfully: Parsifal, now old and beardy and looking much like Amfortas comes in in armour, Kundry removes his armour. The spear opens up a fountain at the center of the stage (where the grail was in Act I, I think), Kundry bathes his feet and dries them with her hair.

4: The Good Friday magic. A lot of poor people presumably refugees, walk out onto the stage (in front of the "model" theatre. The "model" theatre light up with bright footlights. The poor people are brought onto the "model" stage and given water from Parsifal's fountain. And then (there is a little jiggery pokery with house lights coming up and stage lights going down) a huge mirror rotates into the middle of the stage and, we see the crowded festspielhaus audirorium reflected back at us. Just the most fantastic image I've ever seen on the live stage; and in combination with the Good Friday music, completeley overwhelming. One imagines the producers brainstorming idea, and one of them saying "follow that".... 

5: ....So one of the does.The final grail ceremony....we're back on the "model" stage, but the ruined post-war Germany has been replaced by....a straight, realistic, modern depiction of the German Parliament, with the chorus of knights as MPs waving their order papers, and Amfortas addressing Tirturel's coffin wrapped in the German flag; Parsifal wafting the spear over the heads of the MPs, and then saying "Open the shrine..."

6: …."the shrine" is, of course, Wagner's grave which has been at the front of the stage from the beginning; and when it is open the little boy in the sailor suit emerges, to be joined by Mum and Dad in a sort of holy family tableau. A huge luminous globe is lowered from the ceiling. A dove of peace (which could just possible be the German eagle, and therefore the swan which Parsifal killed) hovers above it. The end.

There were things in the production that I didn't understand and things that I thought didn't quite work (I wasn't sure about having Parsifal in his white robes and holy spear addressing the modern German MPs) but there was a succession of quite fantastic imagery. I think that I "got" what was being said: "A child is psychologically wounded; that wound creates a nightmare which is 20th century German history; Amfortas, Tituriel, Klingsor and Parsifal are all representation in different ways of that basic wound; Parsifal's quest is the quest to heal that psychological wound and its political consequences; when that happens, the starting point – peace in the world and a happy family – is restored. Oh, and there are wings as well."

There's apparently already been a book written to elucidate the production. I would very much like to see it again (its being shown in cinemas, I think) to try to work out all of what is going on, and unlike The One With The Rats I am quite sure that it will all turn out to have hung together. 

Its now about six o clock and it properly makes sense to head to the airport. Hopefully see you tomorrow or the next day.


P.S I am now at gate number something on Munich airport and flight number something has been delayed... This is your fault, Wilbur and Orville....

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Letter From Bavaria (3)

Dear Andrew,

I always find coffee problematic in foreign parts - milchkafee should be coffee with milk but for some reason my efforts to order coffee often result in unexpected beverages. My advice is to stick to the beer.  Beer is a bit of a lottery when it comes to size.  “Ein bier”  can produce a genteel sip or a vessel that puts me in mind of the scene where hobbits discover it comes in pints.  I like both - the tiny ones mean you can indulge in an endless procession of  fresh cold beers and the big ones are, well, big. Make sure you try a dark beer tomorrow if you haven’t already and don‘t forget to have a plate of small sausages in the dining car on the train.

Will you put roses on the grave?  Do you remember last time we were deciding between a final beer and a return visit to the Wagner house to lay flowers?  We came down in favour of the house.  We didn’t have long and  I tried to buy the flowers off the table in the tea shop only to be directed by the nice owner to a nearby  florist.  The lady in the flower shop was obviously used to this as she asked me if they were “for laying”. Considering how ostentatious Wagner could be the grave is very plain.

Tristan often seems to bring on production ideas that don’t go anywhere, perhaps because it is almost purely about feelings and emotions. I remember a production in London where they spent the whole of the first Act alternating between striking stiff poses against the sides of the stage and throwing themselves around on the floor, presumably to suggest strong and confused emotions, as if the music wasn‘t already doing so rather better.  Maybe the sight of so much dialogue with no inherent activity engenders a state of panic resulting in an urge to fill the stage with action. Or maybe it is an urge to illuminate some perceived hidden meaning or just use the work to make a comment on whatever the director’s current enthusiasm happens to be.

Act three of the same production opened with Tristan and his loyal retainer together on  a bare stage, lit to suggest the sea off to the back.  They hardly moved during the whole of the “waiting” scene and when Isolde arrived, aside from a brief flurry of activity, there was very little action.  It was one of the most moving performances of anything I have sever seen.

It is midnight here so an hour later for you.  I hope you have enjoyed tonight and are even now sitting in the bar dissecting/enthusing over/ranting about tonight’s offering.

Love Opera-Buddy

P.S. have you visited the smoking materials museum yet?  

 Dear Opera-Buddy

 No, I haven't been to the smoking materials museum. Or the typewriter museum. If it stops raining, I will go and have a look at the Other Opera House, the one that wasn't grand enough for Wagner.

The inside of the Festspielhaus is less plain than I remembered it, by the way, a certain amount of gold foliage painted on the ceiling, lots of doric, or possibly ionic, columns. But still very plain and big and awesome; it really is more like watching live cinema than being in a theatre. In general the orchestra does not come out on stage in order to take the applause; that seemed to be a specific idea by the Lohengrin producer.

I have to say that Lohengrin must, at some level, have been a very good production: tonight in the bar the discussion was still running – "Tristan and Isolde...very interesting, a bit 1950s. Tannhäuser – very spectacular, not sure what it meant... Now, about those rats...")

 Producers really ought to take into account the unintentional connections which audiences are going to make with what is going on on the stage? There was a point in Lohengrin when Elsa was walking around in one of those long, floor length ball gowns (doubtless intended to be swan like) and every English person – me, at any rate – thought "it's a dalek." And obviously the rats seemed as if they were going to start singing "Here's a pin and here's a pingle" at any moment. Tonight, Elizabeth was at one point in sparkly dress, front stage, gesticulating wildly and everyone thought "Don't cry for me, Argentina."

 Had a walk round Wagner's garden yesterday. It must have been a very interesting street to live on; Lizt's house was next door, and there was also a famous artist called John-Paul Museum.

I think that, with lots off "Ifs" and "Buts" and possibly even some caveats, Tannhäuser was the best show of the week so far. It did raise lots of difficult questions, the main one being, who is this stuff aimed at? The programme notes include a long, long essay about Wagner's theory of the art of the future and gesamkunstwerk (bless you). In the olden days, when art was sacred, people worshipped it even if they didn't like it very much; and Wagner's scheme involved whole communities presenting mixed media art which would be in some sense sacred; the purpose of which would be to create and transform those communities. Which seems a rather long way of saying that if you are here with any notion that you are going to enjoy the opera, then you've missed the point.

It's a funny thing, isn't it: you have people from all over the world dressed in tuxedos drinking champagne and eating bratwurst and staying in nice hotels; and you have a producer quoting Marx and Brecht and Deirrida and coming up with productions which are, frankly, impenetrable

Mind you, I am always torn between two kinds of ambivalence at these events: on the one hand – "All these people didn't have the experience of watching the Ring on BBC 2 when we did, they probably don't really like Wagner but have just come for the sake of it" / "I'm an imposter, I can't remember who I heard singing Parsifal at Covent Garden and don't know what an unresolved chord is, among all these music reading Wagner experts." I feel the same at folk festivals.

I reckon that in fact most of us really do think of Tannhäuser as a romantic opera with a religious twinge – about a medieval knight caught up in a world of sensuous pleasure who has to go on a pilgrimage to purify himself; and I think that Wagner really did intend his operas to be serious political philosophical statements, so that those of us hoping for a pretty swan and a holy grail that looks like a holy grail are probably in the wrong. (I also think that a lot of producers have the idea that the operas are pure symphonies that work quite separately from the plot and the libretto, and that therefore you can have any old rubbish going on on the stage, which is quite simply wrong.)

 OK: so Tannhäuser appears to be happening in an oil rig. There are big tanks and cannisters on the stage, which is on three levels, with lots of balconies and beams. The curtains are already open when we arrive, and various characters are operating the machines and generally doing Stuff. (The actions carries on after each act finishes, apparently, in the second intermission, there was a full scale religious ceremony performed to a virtually empty hall.) Oh, and part of the audience is on the stage, watching the action: I assume member of the Friends of Bayreuth, but for all I know they were the German equivalent of equity members who had work-shopped fidgeting and applauding and programming waving very realistically. During the overture, a lot of x-ray pictures are projected on the back of the stage. One bit was definitely of someone drinking a glass of water. There were also quite a lot of things which I guess were sperms, but could have been sea-monkeys for all I knew. Then a big cage is raised up from the middle of the stage, with much smoke and red light, representing the Venusberg. (Can I translate that "Sex-City"?) Tannhäuser is being embraced by lots of rather bestial people of both sexes, and Venus is pregnant. Actually, I think the thing I said yesterday about the opening of Act III of Tristan is probably wrong: the first 20 minutes of Tannhäuser – overture and Venusberg scene – may be the best music Wagner ever wrote.

Is it very wicked of me to positively look forward to some poor person passing a very quiet comment to his neighbour (I am pretty sure I now know the German for "what the hell is going on"?) and getting aggressively shushed.

So, in the first interval I ordered cappuccino, which turns out to be the German for "flat white" (very small, very strong, just the way I like it) and a mango ice cream and actually read the programme. It turns out that I had been completely misunderstanding it. It was not supposed to be an oil rig: it was, and I quote:

"A vision of the transhumanist trajectory veering very near to the post human negative extreme as the societal transformation process approaches completion as per novelist Aldous Huxley's futuristic world state of the controllers or the direst predictions of the socialist philosopher Francis Fukuyama."

 Which, I must say made everything much clearer. It was supposed to be a future world where everyone is drugged, everything is regulated and everything is recycled: what we saw on the stage was supposed to be a model representing the whole of that world. The Venusberg is an experiment in producing clones animal human hybrids. The pilgrims are not going to Rome, they are going off to a social conditioning centre to be brain washed. Tannhäuser and Elizabeth are resisting this oppressive world. The song competition isn't about love, it's about the meaning of human existence. I must admit that having read this, Act II did make a lot more sense. There was certainly a lot of striking imagery in it. The lady sitting next to me couldn't understand why Tannhäuser was being chased around the set by turtles. I had to explain that they were – obviously – giant spermatozoa.

Actually this is the worst thing about these kinds of productions: you get "symbols" which mean something to the producer, but don't actually make sense even in terms of the world that he's built on the stage. Drugged underworld in which the individualist is having sex with savage human-animal hybrids; yes. Giant sperm? Giant sperm?

 In Act III, Elizabeth dies by throwing herself into one of the big chemical tanks, which is supposed to suggest that her essence is going to be recycled and absorbed by Tannhäuser, and also call to mind gas chambers and suggest that these regulated scientific societies always become awful in the end....but unfortunately, most of what was going on was obscured (from the point of view of everyone on the right of the theatre) by one of the superfluous beams. Quite a lot of text was projected on screens, as well, explaining obscurities in the production, possibly, but you couldn't actually read them either. There may be something in the idea that the production was designed to be watched by the people on the stage, and those of us in the auditorium were superfluous.

Which would be very Wagnerian, wouldn't it – "What difference do fifty or sixty more schwienhund make?"

It does seem awfully precious that Bayreuth is happy to fill the stage with screens and text, and run productions which are borderline deranged but refuses point blank to have surtitles because it would be different from Wagner's intentions. (This seems to annoy the native German speakers as well: even you have fluent German, you can't always follow the words that are being sung by an English or Korean singer.) One bit which definitely did work, by the way, was the overture to Act III, in which what we could see on the back of the stage was film of a spermatozoa impregnating an egg, and the egg splitting into multiple cells just as the music goes all triumphant. (At least I assume that was what I was looking at.) Oh, yeah, and the opera ends, not with the staff flowering, but with Venus giving birth to her child, and the baby being passed around the cast. I think the idea was that the baby is a new chance for the society to get things right, because it is so far unaffected by all the conditioning.

So, all very clear.

Literally five minutes from the hotel, my I-Phone ran out of batteries, and I realised that I didn't actually know where I was; I spent 20 minutes walking round in circles trying to spot a land mark. (I think the problem was that I was on a different plaza to the one I thought I was one, so even by going down each road systematically I wasn't going to find the right one.) In the end I walked back to the main road with the station on it and started again.

The multi-lingual Wagner debating society was still in progress in the bar when I got there. A new Canadian man was crazy about the production – "what a show! What a show!" Enthusiastic German man said that if he had to choose one way or the other, he didn't like it. The American lady (who seems to have seen absolutely everything) was quite cross; she thought (not unreasonably) that the opera ought to have at least something to do with the libretto

. …..Decided I would venture out of the hotel (not actually raining hard) and went to have a look at the Markgrafliches Opernhaus. I spent about ten minutes looking at all the angels, carvings of musicians, crowns, coats of arms, etc which is almost exactly the right amount of time to spend looking at an old building, whereupon a lady came and shut all the doors and talked to us in German for half and hour. 

....I am back in the coffee shop and the Americans have joined me, and are still talking about how angry the production made them. I think if you went to Bayreuth and weren't angry you'd probably feel short changed. The programme notes keep talking about the "Bayreuth workshop" and the "Bayreuth laboratory" as if the producer and the cast are doing an experiment and the audience is almost not there.

 Another advantage of a hat is that it keeps the rain off your head. Who knew?



Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Letter From Bavaria (2)

Dear Andrew, 

 I really did mean it when I said I wanted to hear from you. When I was learning Latin at school we read Pliny’s letters. There was one where he said he took pleasure in seeing his friends enjoying the good things in life he could no longer partake of. I thought he sounded rather sanctimonious. Now it comes to it I find I do want to know what you are doing.Anyway, I have been to Bayreuth twice without you. 

The first time was when I was 15. I had become obsessively keen on Wagner about a year before. I first saw it on television, the Chereau Ring, you saw it too. Funny to think we both watched it. I always had toast and marmite while watching, what did you have? 

 I loved Wagner in an uncomplicated way. I didn’t know the ending of the Ring and watched it like an adventure story. I remember telling someone I met at a conference part way through the Cycle that I thought Wotan would sort it out somehow. I was wholly unaware of the politics - I remember telling Granny I liked Wagner and she said she did not. I assumed because it was too loud and too long but I guess there may have been other reasons. 

 My parents were more accommodating. They took me to Bayreuth on our summer caravan holiday. We stayed on a site outside the town and there were people going to the festival. They stepped out of their caravans in evening dress. I went on a tour of the theatre and bought postcards. In the evening I sat in the caravan laying them out in a scrapbook. I found it yesterday while clearing the cellar to make way for the law books. I remember waiting outside the doors for the tour. We ate in McDonalds to save time. 

 The next time I went to Bayreuth I was inter-railing with R & J. We were somewhere on a station and I looked up and saw a train going to Bayreuth - we jumped on and arrived in the evening. There was nowhere to stay. We drank chocolate in the station hotel until past midnight. Then we went to the park at the festspielhaus and slept on the benches under Wagner’s statue. We woke up at about 5am and went back to the station to get a train to Munich. I liked the idea of not staying to see it in the day. 

 The third time was with you so you know all about that. We lay on the lawn and I told you how I had slept on the bench. 

 I have spent my day setting put my belongings in the downstairs study. I have made it look as much like my old chambers as I can. I went to chambers for a few minutes to collect what I needed to bring home. It’s funny to think of the room and chambers going on without me. It’s like hotels - you spend a week in a place on holiday experiencing it rather intensely and when you leave it all goes on without you. My flat in London is like that now - even though it is all still there. 

Right now you are sitting in the Festspielhaus. I remember it in every detail. It’s something I do - I remember buildings perfectly but cannot remember faces. I also remember the hotel, we had breakfast in the garden and drank Sekt. There was a bottle of Sekt in the hall - is there one in your hotel? If so I hope you have had some. 

 I can’t even begin to suggest what the production might have been about. Remember the program for the Dutchman where the producer said he wanted his production idea to be easy to grasp so had set it in a disused space shuttle factory in Khurgizstan? Last time we saw Lohengrin it was at the Coliseum and the knights were wearing blue knitted Chan mail and clustering round a large red cigar. Maybe I am destined never to know what Lohengrin is “about”. I am off to bed soon. Have fun and write again tomorrow. Love Opera Buddy.

Dear Opera-Buddy

I always thought Pliny was doing the Jewish mother thing: "Oh, you go an have a nice time, don't worry about me." I say "I always thought" in the spirit of one who owns a translation of Pliny's letters and can probably find the one which contains the one definite no-kidding reference to T.H.J outside of the Bible.

Yes, I thought that coming on our trip by myself was going to be like that scene in Doctor Who when Donna has been kidnapped by aliens and her family go ahead and have her wedding party without her. In fact of course I am having a quite different trip; there are things I wouldn't think of doing my myself, like going out to dinner (although there isn't really very much time, or need for that) and doing other things, like talking about rats to strangers in the bar which I wouldn't have done if I had a companion.

The barman in the hotel is totally a barman. He appeared to have my beer poured out before I arrived. When I asked for a half, he explained that I had been drinking halves (half litres) and that what I probably wanted was a baby one.

You remember the old joke about country churches always being at the top of steep hills, to ensure that customers say "" before crossing the threshold. (Possibly not, because I think I made it up.) I believe the French really did bury Napoleon at the bottom of a deep hole so that no-one could look at his mausoleum without bowing. I think that this may be the neglected secret of Wagner's design of the Festspielhaus: all those standing ovations are caused by people who've been sitting down for 90 minutes and desperately need to stretch their legs; and all that stamping is being done by people who are trying to get some circulation back in their feet before staggering to the official bratwurst stand.

QUESTION: Is "Milkcoffee" coffee which is suitable for adding milk to, or coffee which has already had milk added to it? Or possibly "milch" means decaffeinated?

Today, in addition to the pretty six seater mini bus a full sized bus came to the hotel. It claimed to cost 3.50, but no-one seemed interested in charging us. A nice Australian man thought that the rats represented a corruption in the body politic that was cured by the coming of the new generation; the enthusiastic German in the bar (let's call him "Steffan" because that's his name) thinks that they represented the masses who are going to enthusiastically follow their leaders wherever they are sent because they don't have a choice. Possibly the nice American lady was nearer to the mark when she said that the producers were just trying to be different.

NOTE TO SELF, 1: Do not use Phylida Lloyd's re imagining of Brunhilde as a suicide bomber as an example of a modern interpretation which worked well: people always reply "Oh, how awful!". I had already undermined my credentials with American Lady by remarking that I saw Parsifal at Covent Garden last year. "Oh, wonderful, who sang it?" "Er...I don't have the faintest idea." We were able to bond over Bryn Terfel, though.

Australian Man was rather put out by the new regime (in which Wagner societies no longer get an allocation of tickets). Although the Australian Wagner Society only gets a small number of tickets, there are an even smaller number of people in Australia willing to travel to Germany, so he had been able to come fairly often. Back in the same cafe drinking iced mocha. Didn't queue for Lohengrin autograph in the end because I found I hadn't brought my copy of the programme. (The programme's by the way, contain the usual rubbish you get in E.N.O programmes – quotes from Karl Marx and Brecht and what have you --- but everything is printed in three languages, there loads of photos of the production, which is what you actually want, and no advertisements for private schools.)

I must admit to finding Tristan the most challenging of Wagner's operas. This is probably because it is the most purely musical of them. I do not for one moment deny that it has some of the best music Wagner ever wrote in it, which is to say, some of the best music ever written. But there really is an awful lot of it. King Marks aria in Act II, when he finds Tristan and Isolde together ("I'm not angry. I just feel that you've let yourself down. If you find your best friend in the arms of your sweetheart, brother, that's when your heartaches begin...")...right up to the point where he says "If Tristan --- Tristan – is untrue" is one of the most dramatic things I've ever heard; but it then goes on for another twenty minutes. And when Tristan and Isolde recover from their suicide pact in Act I, and look into each others eyes and sing each others names....fantastic. But he's made us wait a long time to get there. And obviously the beginning of the duet in Act II, which is basically the dirtiest music ever written, but did we really need an hour and half of it. Chap playing Tristan (Robert Dean Smith, I have my programme with me today) did a fantastic job of the mad scenes in Act III. I'd forgotten how much I like the long prelude, in fact, with the horn (poss. Cor Anglais, but don't write in); the ranting madness in the bed, and the shepherd playing his horn to indicate that Isolde still hasn't arrived. But Wagner does it three times. (I guess that's why Sam Beckett hovers around productions....waiting for someone who doesn't come, "nothing happens, twice" and so on. And Isolde's love death (which is German for "Love-death"), of course, which is the really what the opera is there for. But for those of us who are not quite clear which is the Tristan chord and what it would mean to have resolved it, there isn't a great deal of action compared with the Ring. I seem to think that one of the baby Wagner's (Wolfgang, possibly) said in a TV interview that Tristan is the best because it is the one where Wagner abandoned all the political bull sheet.

I think the flautist outside the bookshop is trying to do a medley of themes from Tristan.

The production is the one that they showed as part of the live cinema series in the multiplex last year; people at the bar who know about these things felt that the new cast did not have quite the passion and physicality of last year. The production was far more penetrable than last night. Very brown. Act 1 is in a frumpy room, possibly meant to be the cafe on a cruise ship, full of chairs. Isolde spend a lot of the first minutes knocking them over, and then systematically knocks the last few down during her big scene with Tristan. Act two is in another big 1950s room, possibly the foyer of a hotel. (There is a life jacket outside one of the doors, so possibly we are in a port, or even still on a ship.) There are lots of light switches, all of which are turned off during the assignation, and dramatically turned on when Mark discovers the lovers together (a very nice effect, from dark to light quick enough to actually dazzle the audience.) Act three seemed to be in the same room, but a long time later – tiles taken off walls to reveal bare plaster. Tristan spent the act on an adjustable bed that tilted him to every possible angle. Isolde, after doing her big death song, simply lies one the bed (Tristan being conveniently on the floor by this point) and pulls the sheet over her face, which was very dramatic.

Everyone clapped exactly the right amount of time: footstamping for Tristan, footstamping for Isolde, rapturous footstamping for both of them together. Everyone then got up to leave, whereupon the whole company came out arm in arm and we had to go through the whole thing all over again. "The Germans are a terrible people Baldric: they have no word for "fluffy" and their operas last for several weeks." And it appears they also have no word for "leave them begging for more."

 No-one at the bar agree with me, but the more I think about it the more sure I am that the embryo in Lohengrin was meant to be the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Space Baby = Thus Sprach Zarathrustra = Nietzsche = Wagner. Makes sense to me.

 How did we ever visit foreign countries before we had I-Phones? I asked Mr Google Map to draw me a line from the hotel to Wagner's house, and here I am. I have put my waistcoat and tie in my bag, and will probably head directly to the theatre without going back to the hotel. I will, however, where my tux tomorrow (for Parsifal: I believe it is obligatory to fast before the production as well) and get some pictures taken.




 I am very sorry to say that I couldn't sell last night's spare ticket. All the others have been sold, so just imagine that the box over took them back for a 20% cover charge. There were four or five people outside the ticket office trying to buy and sell tickets – there was at least one other person with a single for Tristan, and one man with several to sell. (I did not know the German for "make me an offer", though I did resort to "Come on, I have a ticket for Wagner, I heard he was quite popular round here.") I may get "The man who couldn't give a ticket to the opera away at Bayreuth" printed on a tee shirt As a result of this, I spent both intervals being approached by people who thought I had tickets for Tannhäuser and Parsifal for sale. It probably helped that I was the mad Englishman in the waistcoat and orange tie. Considering that I am never likely to start smoking a pipe, I really wish I had bought a hat years ago. I am quite aware that it makes me look like an idiot, but it is brilliant to have something to put on and take off and even occasionally wave around, and people are so astonished by the hat that they don't notice the tie or waistcoat or the fact that I don't speak German. I think it communicates "I am the sort of fellow who cares enough about his appearance to have bought a hat, but cares so little about his appearance that he bought a hat."

If this is Bavaria, you must be the Illuminati.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Letter From Bavaria

Dear Opera-Buddy

So I said I'd give you a running commentary on what is going on in Bavaria. (I hope this is really what you want. If I had had to sell my golden tickets, I think I would have refused to even think about Wagner for a year – like the athletes who just missed out in being in "team GB" and went off to Las Vegas to pretend the Olympics weren't happening. Did you tape the closing ceremony, by the way? The German Lady in the bar last night said that the Opening Ceremony was so good she could hardly believe that the English had done it... I mentioned Paul McCartney and she said that his song was the best thing about it, so I was probably wrong about that.)

I realise that it is pathetic that I should have reached the age of very nearly 35 and still be as terrified of flying as I still am. Its not the flying bit. I entirely trust that the wings are not going to drop off the planes, but I spend the entire 24 hours worrying about things which are going to go wrong, as, will they refuse to let me on the plane wearing jeans, is my pass port out of date despite saying 2015, how on earth am I going to get to a hotel in a foreign country in the middle of the night. (I have decided to make no attempt to speak German to anyone: much safer to grin and point and, if they turn out to speak English, which lets face it they do, to complain about the awfulness of language teaching in English schools and say that it you understand that it is much improved nowadays.) Travel in fact went without a hitch: Taxi from Munich to airport hotel, shuttle from hotel back to airport, metro from airport to station. Since we were last here, German stations have become much more like English stations, with lots of different kinds of coffee and sandwiches.

(I am writing this in the breakfast buffet on Tuesday morning. It sounds as if Kundry is telling Percival that there is too much peril on the big TV in the front lobby, which is a nice touch.)

Obviously resorting to national stereotypes of any kind is very cruel, so I shall merely say that all the German people I have met are wildly eccentric, drink copious amounts of Guinness and kiss the blarney stone. Oh, and that all the trains run on time.

Any way you don't want to hear about this, you want to hear about the opera. I got to Bayreuth by about 1PM as planned, and by 2PM people in the hotel were wearing tuxes and or dinner jackets (possible even la smokings) eating very small sandwiches at the free buffet, and waiting for the shuttle to take them to the Festspeilhaus. (The shuttle was designed to look like and old fashioned vintage car, but it would have been better if it has been an ordinary minibus but bigger.) Reception set me up with a German lady who wanted to buy the spare ticket. We didn't manage much conversation. "It is beautiful, on top of the hill, yes? Very singular." "Yes, Covent Garden is really not quite the same." (There seemed, in fact, to be very few English people around: quite a large number of spectacularly over dressed Japanese people, though.) I opted for best waistcoat tie and hat rather than tux, although you will be glad to know that as a result of weightwatchers I can get into the smart suit if needs be. Probably for Parsifal. (I bought a pair of cufflinks on the station. That was quite fun: no, I do not want something with union jacks on them, or gold plated, or with diamonds. I want something costing about five pounds to keep my shirt on.)

For future reference, there is a very posh looking restaurant in situ at the festival house, but there are also kiosks selling champagne, coffee, ice cream, pretzels, official Bayreuth bratwurst etc etc etc. Each interval technically lasts an hour, although I think that means "the next act starts exactly 1 hour after the curtain goes down on the previous one". By the time you've applauded and got in and got out again, you don't seem really to have that long. (Better than insane Covent Garden 15 minute breaks half way through Mastersingers, of course. The leisurely pace of Bayreuth makes a real difference to your perception of opera, I think: it feels much more as if you are watching three short opera than that you've enlisted for a five hours of solid music. The end of act 3 in particular felt a lot like the climax of a whole long show.)
Of course, the last time we were here we saw Dutchman / Hollander so we didn't have a chance to get blasé about going in and out of the theatre I guess German fire regulations must be different from ours, or else they don't apply to Wagner. The whole of the main arena ("stalls" is to small a word) is a mass of long rows, without an aisle of gangway in site...everyone has to push past everyone else (efficiently if you are German, politely if you are English). The comfortableness of the seats has been massively exaggerated, especially by me. I almost had enough leg room. The lady in front of me seemed to glare at me because my knees were sticking into the back of her chair, but I explained in perfect English that given my height and Wagner's acoustics, this was probably unavoidable. The man behind be kept sticking is toes into my bottom.

The programme notes say that the question everyone asks about this production, to the exclusion of everything else, is "why are the chorus dressed as rats". I think that if you take a nice romantic fairy tale like Lohengrin and dress the chorus as rats (black rats, mostly, but a few white rats, and some pink rats during the love scenes) that is probably what you can expect audiences to focus on. During some of the exposition scenes, they lowered a big cine screen down from the ceiling and illustrated the action with cartoons of rats running down roads, being cut in half, and having crowns inside their heads. This didn't really help very much. They were, I must admit, very good rats: there was much action of them waving their little hands and a quite funny scene in one of the musical interludes where two of them were chased across the stage by people in green environmental suits, possibly intended to be rat exterminators. This is, apparently supposed to emphasis that Lohengrin is a very human opera about the relationships between two human beings, and not a fairy tale about a man from the land of the Grail and a magic swan at all. I mean, I like crazy productions, I like to be challenged and I don't even mind being annoyed, but I actually didn't understand what this was doing. Act one begins with Lohengrin struggling to open some doors on a blank white wall, possibly (if we agree with the programme) representing Time; but the whole of the rest of the act seemed to be set in some kind of laboratory, with the rat-chorus being poked by the exterminators. About half way through (when Lohengrin arrives and every body cheers up) they take of their rat costumes and spend the rest of the act in bright yellow pimp-suits (the rat masks and tales are suspend above the stage on wires.) This made me think of that scene in the Phylida Lloyd ring when the vassals go from being grey riot police to colourful wedding guests? But it wasn't nearly as well done. Possibly we were supposed to think of them as the Common People be experimented on? Lohengrin himself is done fairly straight, he walks on from the back bathed in light, with a swan in a boat (or possibly a bath) being carried by four of the rats. However, the music – particularly the end of the first act when everyone is singing joyfully about how Lohengrin has exonerated Elsa and is going to lead them into battle against the Hungarians (is it Hungarians? Foreigners, anyway) is quite brilliant: as everyone says the Bayreith chorus is on a different level to anything you've heard anywhere else.

(Getting the impression they'd like to me leave the breakfast room and go somewhere else. Efficiently.)

….Resuming in a coffee shop in Richardwagnerstreet. (Stratford doesn't have William Shakespeare Avenue and Measure for Measure villas, does it. I am not going to start doing that thing that people do in epistolary novels: "I am afraid that my host can barely say it.....") But I quite definitely have just ordered dark mocha. I did my usual thing of walking straight out of the hotel and finding myself in the mean back streets of Bayreuth, but eventually worked out where I wanted to be. Since Bayreuth is such a legend for us, its funny to think that for the people who live here, its just a place, with a discount supermarket and a sports centre and a disco describing itself as the Number One Partyspot. I think englishspeakingpeople should sooncopy the Germantalkingmethod of wordstogethersticking.

Coffee arrives slurp slurp.

Act Two of Lohengrin is if anything even more grotesque; we start with the baddies (can't be bothered to check spellings of names) plotting in what appears to be the wreakage of a hearse, complete with dead horse. And rats. The producer really likes that trick of moving scenery around the stage on invisible casters. Elsa spends the first half of act 2 in a room within a room, made of mirrors so she is talking to the reflection of herself, and, unfortunately and unintentionally, I assume, the reflection of the conductor. (It really is very strange and special not to be able to see the orchestra or the conductor: you wonder why, when so much else of Wagner's dramaturgy – good word – was copies and taken for granted, I don't think there's anywhere else that hides the orchestra under the floor. The stage is, I think, narrower – certainly more square – than at Covent Garden – but it seems to go back forever.) But the second half of the second act was so pretty that I couldn't really complain about it, even though still don't really follow it. The rats took their costumes off (again) and this time the men rats were in tuxes and the lady rats were in bring pastal coloured lolly pop dresses (they still had tails, though.) The act finishes with Lohengrin and Elsa walking down the aisle to be married in front of a cross. But two of the men in exterminator costumes come and take the cross apart; but Lohengrin takes the pieces and holds them in the air, so you end with Elsa kneeling in front of a cross which Lohengrin is holding.

I had an official festival Bratwurst in the interval.

The enthusiastic man in the bar tells me that Lohengrin (the singer) has been the cause of a controversial argument in the Germany, because his singing is not macho enough for the classic Wagnerian parts; but that if he is too lyrical for Sigmund he makes up for it by being such a good actor. (I didn't get if he was saying that he had actually done straight acting parts, or just that he acted far better than most opera singers too.) Certainly, he had the great otherworldly voice for the big Lohengrin arias, but was very natural and convincing in the love scenes with Elsa. (Although they both suffered from Sad-actor-disease; throwing each other across the stage and at one point Elsa curls up in a fetal ball in the way real people don't.) The chorus actually got rid of their masks altogether; they were wearing military uniforms with swan insignia.

The big question is : how did they do the scene where the swan transforms into Elas's brother? The answer in this case being, they didn't; or rather, he didn't so much transform as, er, hatch. I think everything had been so mad up to this point that all we could do with the ending was to nod and say "aha". When Lohengrin gives his answer to Elsa' question about who he is, there is a large question mark projected on to the back of the stage, which becomes an exclamation mark when he is finished. Subtle. The boat comes back, this time as a large object with a silk covering hanging on it, and a large swan embroidered on the silk. At the last moment, Lohengrin whips the cover off and underneath is, er, an egg. Lohengrin, with I have to say a completely straight face, turns the egg slowly around, and reveals a large male embryo (I take it that it was supposed to be the star-baby from 2001, but by this stage, who knows). The embryo stands up and cuts its own umbilical chord, by which point everyone else on stage, apart from Lohengrin, has dropped dead. I have absolutely no idea.

They really do milk the applause in Europe, don't they. Principles together, principles separately, chorus master, chorus master and the orchestra really perform in casual clothes, just because we can't seem them? I somehow assumed they'd be in full evening dress like BBC radio news readers.

There was definite booing from the front rows as the curtain went down, but a proper standing ovation for Lohengrin himself (a few people first off all, and then a few more people, and eventual, everyone, even the England.) I think that's a fair summary, actually, scattered booing for the production, standing ovation for Lohengrin.

The reception just called to say they have a buyer for Tannhäuser, so provided I can find someone for Tristan, you get your money back. It's worth knowing for another year: planning at trip to stay in Bayreuth and look at Ludwig's castles, but with a very good chance of buying tickets on the day. Although if it is true that the festival has loosened up about "the black market" it may be that this won't be as feasible in the future.

There is an exhibition in the grounds of the festspielhaus about Bayreuth and the Jews. Apparently, Wagner himself was quite anti-semitic, Cosima was very anti-Semitic, and Hitler was really not very nice at all. The exhibition is basically photos and biogs of Jewish singers some of whom performed in the early years but were progressively excluded by Cosima and the next generation. Which makes the point quite interestingly.

There is a large queue outside the bookshop opposite the cafe. I am going to go and see if Lohengrin will sign my programme.