Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Shakespearean total immersion

On the weekend I saw an uncut performance of Shakspeare's Hamlet. The play is (in)famous for (potentially) being too long and almost all stage or film versions make quite substantial cuts. This version - at the Burgtheater in Vienna and directed by Andrea Breth - played every last line and lasted almost six hours. It started at 5.00 and finished at 11.00 pm!

Many people complain that cultural life is forced to take a back seat in a world dominated by the economy. Six hours of theatre is the perfect opportunity to reverse the relationship. Such an expansive performance creates a cultural total immersion. As the lights go down (and in this case they go out in a dramatic flash) you think to yourself, forget the rest of the world, this is now your home for the foreseeable future, give yourself over to it, allow yourself to become part of Elsinore and the narrative. What happens to Hamet, Gertrude, Claudius and the rest, is also happening to you. 

Six hours is too long to think about where you might go after the show, to worry about the business meeting you have first thing the next morning, to think about checking your emails. Yet performances that last more than about two hours seem untenable today. Even those who want culture to have greater importance don't want it to eat into their time too much. There are a few exceptions, but in general our attention span has shortened and our willingness to give ourselves over to a performance for a large chunk of our day is limited. What a pity that is. A complete Hamet is certainly one that puts culture where it belongs: at the centre of life!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Jonny too many

Jonny spielt auf is a curiously heterogenous opera. Ernst Krenek was only in his late twenties when he wrote it and you sense that an older composer might have realised that the libretto had the seeds of two or three different operas. But Krenek was no early bloomer and must have been desperate to make a splash as he crammed everything he had into this ambitious project. As it was, fortuna smiled on his opera and it made him a star overnight with hundreds of performances within a year of its premiere, only for Jonny and violin to disappear from the repertoire after Nazis banned it.

The curtain rises on a strong dose of glacier romanticism that probably makes rings true to Austrian or Swiss alpine mystics but for the rest of us now calls up unwittingly kitsch associations with Julie Andrews singing The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Music. The alps are to this opera something like what the sea is to Peter Grimes. But the sea is more tightly integrated into the narrative of Grimes. In Jonny the glacier dominates two scenes, both of which are important for Max, a composer who has autobiographical elements from Krenek (who wrote his own libretto). On its second appearance the glacier gets a voice and rejects a lovesick Max, telling him his role is amongst humanity in a scene that is vaguely reminiscent of themes in Richard Strauss' opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (1915). The rest of Jonny spielt auf plays in Max's home, a hotel lobby and a railway station. The contrast between nature worship and the decadent hectic of modern life is thoroughly intentional but the mountain scenes are too isolated for this to be the central theme of the opera's narrative. Krenek was clearly enamored of the mod-cons of the 1920s. Automobiles, trains, a radio and telephone all play important roles in the drama but have lost any threateningly modernist qualities they may still have had in the 1920s.

Instead, a "battle of the musics" also runs through the libretto in parallel to the theme of mountain and nature vs urban decadence. The four main roles are archetypal portrayals of different musicians or genres. Max is a neurotic opera composer. He falls in love with Anita, a beautiful but sexually capricious diva who sings in one of Max' operas. Daniello is a virtuoso violinist with a priceless Amati instrument without which he is a nobody. And Jonny is a black American jazz celebrity who flirts with a chamber maid but whose real passion is to possess Daniello's violin, which he steals to give the opera a traditional unifying theme. Again, this constellation might call to mind Richard Strauss' later opera Capriccio (1942), which also puts a composer on stage and as an historical aside, the role of the diva Anita is loosely modeled on Anna Mahler, daughter of Gustav, who was briefly Krenek's wife. This quartet of musical stereotypes make up something like a commedia dell'arte - or maybe that should be a "commedia della musica". But here, too, Krenek, does not fully exploit the theme's potential. The tension between the four characters remains superficial and is based around the theft of the violin rather than an artistic differences that might have been teased out of 1920s European attitudes to musical tradition and modernism.

Jonny features a white maid falling in love with a black American Jazz musician and the score is rich in pseudo-Jazz elements and numbers that alternate with modernist music reminiscent of Franz Schreker, Krenek's teacher or of Richard Strauss, the most important opera composer of the day. All of this made it an obvious target for Nazi cultural policy and in 1933 it was banned in Germany, along with the rest of Krenek's music. The opera was perhaps the most prominent contemporary stage work to be banned as "degenerate music" and the infamous poster for the resulting exhibition is derived from the character of Jonny. 

So what is the rightful place of Jonny spielt auf? Is it a modern masterpiece that deserves a more prominent place in the operatic repertoire or is it a work of youthful daring that never quite delivers on its potential? Its cultural and political history as one of the most popular stage works of the interwar period that was then banned in the Third Reich certainly makes it a fascinating historical document. But stripped of its historical context and baggage, Jonny is too heterogenous to deserve a place among the mature operatic masterworks of the twentieth century. Pared back to one central theme, it might come over as more cogent and dramatically powerful. As it is, the opera makes for an enjoyable entertainment and a fun night night at the opera: something that also has a place in the repertoire of more opera houses.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Bad Ischl: backdrop to a monumental miscalculation

This afternoon I passed through Bad Ischl, a town in Upper Austria. A century ago the town hosted the summer residence of the Austrian Emperor, Franz Josef I. His villa is still there and is pictured above.

As in so many places, the fabric of the villa and of the town does not match the weighty historical decisions that were made here. Bad Ischl is pleasantly unassuming and breathes an air of civilised rusticality. But it was here that Franz Josef was spending the summer of 1914 as he mulled over the best response to the assassination in Sarajevo of his nephew and presumed successor, Archduke Franz-Ferdinand. 

In those days and secluded in this rural idyll, Franz Josef could never have fully envisaged the repercussions that would come from his decision to unleash his army against Serbia. His decision set off a chain reaction that became World War I. In turn, that war killed millions of people and brought an end to 600 years of Habsburg family rule as well as unseating almost all of Europe's major monarchies. 

Few miscalculations have been as momentous and as far reaching as those made in rustic Bad Ischl almost one hundred years ago. But at the same time how would our world be if not for those incredibly far-reaching decisions? World War I swept away a system of undemocratic regimes. I doubt Europe's ruling royal families would ever have relinquished power without some sort of violent upheaval, be it a world war or a revolution. As it was, it took two world wars to finally secure the path to democracy in much of Europe and this achievement was certainly not in the mind of Franz Josef. But while unleashing the "Great" War he unwittingly tolled the death knell of a corrupt and inherently exploitative political system that oppressed the vast majority of Europe's people.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Operatic anniversaries

This year (2013) was a big year for operatic anniversaries. Both Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi were honoured with 200th birthday celebrations while Benjamin Britten's birthday rolled around for the hundredth time. Naturally enough, these milestones provided ample opportunity for the programming of celebratory operatic productions the world over. Melbourne could not have imagined a better year in which to mount its first ever production of Wagner's
Ring of the Nibelungen
and most opera houses around the world have performed at least one opera by the big three.

But last week I saw a wonderful new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) by Richard Strauss at the Bavarian National Theatre in Munich, an opera that has a different set of historical associations for the city. Many of Europe's great nineteenth-century opera houses were badly damaged during World War II, with those of Munich, Vienna and Berlin being high on the list. In the postwar years they were gradually reconstructed. In each case, the reopening celebration was an important event for the respective cities and the operas chosen to mark such occasions make an interesting little case study of other operatic celebrations. 

Vienna's State Opera reopened in 1955 and the opera chosen to be the first performed in the reopened building was Beethoven's Fidelio. In Berlin things were more complicated. The reconstructed Berlin State Opera was reopened in 1955 with a performance of Richard Wagner's Mastersingers of Nuremberg but by then the theatre found itself in a East Berlin. And in Munich the National Theatre remained a construction zone until 1963, when the first sounds thought most suitable to its reawakening were those of Strauss' Frau ohne Schatten. 

It is an interesting challenge: from the entire operatic repertoire, choose one work that best encapsulates the feelings of rebirth, hope, recovery and closure that must have come to each of these cities as they reconsecrated their opera houses. Fidelio was perhaps an obvious choice for Vienna. Its composer had adopted the city as his home. Its story recounts a release from darkness and captivity through the love of a woman. Wagner's Mastersingers presumably made for a safe choice in the East Berlin of 1955 (still six years before the building of the infamous wall). Die Frau ohne Schatten was a fine choice for Munich. Richard Strauss was one of the city's favourite musical sons and this is surely his ultimate operatic masterpiece. Like Fidelio, its plot deals with themes of triumph through self-sacrifice, of birth and of the emergence into light. 

To cap off the operatic anniversary celebrations, lovers of the operas of Richard Strauss will have plenty to look forward to in 2014, the composer's 150th birthday.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Opera and reproductive politics

IDie Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow), the librettist, Hugo von Hoffmannstahl, created a drama that a century later resonates with contemporary concerns like few other operas in the repertoire. We are used to relationship dramas on our stages, screens and the pages of our novels. Today, they affect us, if at all, on a fairly superficial level. We are blasé about portrayals of infidelity, affairs, people struggling to relate with eachother. These are all the stock-in-trade of playwrights and screenwriters just as much they are of soap opera scriptwriters. 

Hofmannstahl's Frau ohne Schatten libretto is, however, about much more than just two couples in dysfunctional or unrealized relationships. It is also about one of the last great challenges that still causes searing pain to many modern couples: the frustrated desire for children and parenthood.  

At one point in the first act, the Dyer's wife plaintively sings of how she has had to suppress her desires for motherhood and as how her husband must now also put aside the desires he once cherished. The whole passage will be painfully familiar for many contemporary couples and is worth quoting in full:

"A year and a half
Have I been your wife,
And you have won
No fruit from me
You have not
Made me a mother.
Those desires
I have had to expunge
From my soul:
Now you, too,
Must expunge desires,
That you hold dear."

In the next scene the Dyer's wife trades her hopes and potential of motherhood - her shadow - for the promise of life as a princess complete with silk robes, servants, youthfulness and a young man to make her wildest dreams come true. It is a Faustian bargain of the sort that many women (and men) of child-bearing age will recognize. Financial security, professional success and status, home ownership and social standing can all seem incompatible with parenthood and the trade-off between these desires and that for parenthood appears clear, if harsh. In Hofmannstahl's libretto, the second couple is desperate to have a child. Failure will lead to the petrifaction of the husband, and the woman concerned, known as the Princess, is initially prepared to take the shadow of the Dyer's wife. Like Madonna in an African village, she travels down from her mythical world to the "filth" of common humanity, determined to leave again as a mother. It is only through her decision to renounce this desire that the drama reaches its denouement and both couples find their respective paths to parenthood. 

Hofmannstahl may not have anticipated the complex, painful and often taboo subject of contemporary reproductive politics, but if he wanted to drop a dramatic bomb into the debate, he could hardly have done better than with the libretto of his powerfully relevant opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Protecting broadcasting diversity

Tomorrow the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party will be asked to adopt a policy of privatiding Australia's public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS. It should refuse to do so.  Diversity is the hallmark of a healthy media landscape and with it a healthy democracy. But a cursory glance at the existing broadcast media in Australia and most similar countries shows that the only real diversity exists between the commercial and public sectors. The diversity between the commercial broadcasters is cosmetic. With the ABC and SBS in private hands Australian television viewers and radio listeners would be denied programming diversity, serious investigative journalism, independent news reporting, much locally produced content and many niche programs.

The desire to sell off the public broadcasters does not reflect community priorities or interests. Public opinion polls regularly list the ABC as one of the most trusted institutions in Australian public life. It, along with the SBS, is the only source of news that is not controlled by corporate interests such as the Murdoch and Packer families. 

Some advocates of privatization will claim it is necessary to reduce government debt. The is disingenuous. If that was the aim, it would be possible to introduce a license fee of the type collected in many other countries. This would free government from having to fund public broadcasting while maintaining the parliamentary charters that commit public broadcasters to objectivity and national service standards. Commercial broadcasters are not subject to such public interest charters and that cursory surf through the commercial TV stations quickly shows how little value they place on independence or objectivity. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Culture wars of the deluded

Mark Latham in his article on the culture wars has not worked out that the best response to the attack of a cultural warrior is not to fire back but to demonstrate the shallowness, ignorance and simple lack of connection to reality inherent in the idea of a culture war. Latham's response to Nick Cater's The Lucky Culture and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class is no more considered than the initial provocation he senses on reading the book. Cater kicked a lousy, deflated ball to Latham and he just kicked it back. Latham should have refused to play the game. 

Instead he opines that "most footy fans would rather cut off their fingers than swap their jerseys for a seat at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra." This simply bears no connection to reality. In February this year a crowd estimated to number over a quarter of a million crowded into downtown Melbourne to be part of White Night, an all-night arts festival. In a city with a population of four million that is every sixteenth person. Mark Latham wants to tell us that none of these people manage to combine a love of the arts and sport; that, as in the delusional world of the cultural warriors, people see things in neat and clearly divided boxes. If only it were so simple. It ain't. The culture wars exist only in the heads of cultural warriors like Latham and Cater. The average person on the street is far better at navigating the complexities, apparent contradictions and diversity of the real world than the simpletons amongst the ranks of our cultural warriors ever will be.

Anything new under the sun?

Exactly one hundred years ago opera lovers in London and Paris were abuzz with the news that on 21 May 1913 those present at London's Electrophone Salon (in Gerrard Street) would be able to listen to the performance at the Paris Opera live via a telephone "connexion". As it turned out only "brief snatches of Faust were to be heard" but the link between new technology and the performing arts was established.

A century later web-based distribution of concerts, operas, dance and ballet also promise new and exciting opportunities. The quality and reliability has certainly improved but the story from 1913 should remind us that the communication revolution goes a lot further back than the invention of the internet.     

See: "Royal Opera" The Times, 22 May 1913

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A film I saw last week (German Sons) illustrated well where memory in contemporary Western society has arrived. It presented the recollections of two men whose fathers were on different sides during World War II. One was a German soldier, the other a Jewish resistance fighter. A friendship has now developed between the two sons and their shared exploring of the past is at the heart of the film. This has become a well-tested formula over the last twenty years or so but it contains dangers for our understanding of the twentieth century.

This kind of highly personalised memory has developed unprecedented validity. As I sat watching this film I wondered what motivates audiences to watch such films. I had a disquieting feel that it is somehow voyeuristic, something like memory-porn. In such films history and memory have become the subject of the voyeuristic gaze that lies at the heart of the pornographic. World history is reduced to the microcosmic individual and we watch people doing remembering as cinematic entertainment.

The West's understanding of the conflicts that dominated the first half of the twentieth century has reached a post-memory stage. The number of people who were older than children during the two world wars is now so small that our social knowledge of these momentous and world-shaping events is almost entirely mediated. Hardly any of us were there. What we know we learned from books, films, TV, museums or recollections of individuals. This makes the role of storyteller or in this case documentary-maker that much more freighted with responsibility.

But filmmakers are generally not trained historians. In the case of German Sons the two subjects were insignificant figures in the global conflict. The film was a loose pastiche of platitudes with the historical accuracy and authority of a home-movie. That seems to be where historical narrative has arrived. Our preference for anecdote over analysis, our postmodern inability to see the wood for the trees and our desire to reduce the complexities of the world to individual personal narratives leaves us ill-equipped to grasp and comprehend the really large forces that have shaped our world.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Burning intolerance

Eighty years ago today saw the first great book burning in Nazi Germany. On 10 May 1933 university students across the newly proclaimed Third Reich listed books they deemed "un-German". They then collected the books they had remove from raided libraries across the country, took the offending books and burned them in great ritual bon-fires in public squares and on street corners. The works of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Erich Maria Remarque - of All Quite on the Western Front fame - and Kurt Tucholsky were amongst the writing that went up in smoke. The burning continued over the following week. The whole sorry event was organised by Germany's national student union. 

A similar event held in 1817 prompted Heinrich Heine's warning "Where books are burned, in the end people will be burned too." How terribly prophetic his words were to become!

In a much less dramatic way we are today witnessing similar developments. The factionalisation of the news media combined with the internet's ability to tailor the world we experience to our existing political preferences means that an increasing number of people lead a blinkered mental life of the type that led Nazi students to torch the books of people with whom they did not see eye-to-eye.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Franco-German cultural kerfuffle

An exhibition of German art between 1800 and 1939 at the Louvre in Paris is causing ripples between the two neighbours. A series of articles, responses and letters in the German weekly Die Zeit offer an interesting case study in cultural diplomacy. 

The controversy began when German journalists felt that the Paris exhibition was seeking to reheat arguments and historiography that portray German nineteenth-century culture as proto-fascist and as the seed-bed of Nazism. The French side has denied this and emphasized the co-operative nature of the exhibition planning process. 

The whole debate shows just how delicate international cultural sensibilities remain. The economics and politics of the Euro crisis seems to have given German cultural diplomacy an added challenge just as, since the end of the Cold War in 1989, Germany had begun to enjoy a more "normal" standing in the international community. Europe is beginning to fear German hegemony in ways that it did not while the country was divided. 

As the Euro crisis has gradually brought many of Germany's European Union partners to their economic knees, Europe's biggest economy has remained comparatively strong. This has brought Angela Merkel's government increasing power and this is breeding resentment across Europe. 

Nineteenth-century Germany made great contributions to European and Western culture but their interpretation remains controversial especially at times when culture, politics and opinion are so closely interwoven.