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.