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The Quotable Ms. Kael on Opera

Here is an unexpected zinger from the late great Pauline Kael on the subject of the day: opera, particularly Mozartean opera.

[I]t is one of the glories of eclectic arts like opera and movies that they include so many possibile kinds and combinations of pleasure.  One may be enthralled by Leontyne Price in La Forza del Destino even if one hasn't boned up on the libretto, or entranced by The Magic Flute even if one has boned up on the libretto . . . .

From the classic (if overlong) "Trash, Art and the Movies" (1969), reprinted in American Movie Critics.

Wrong in So Many Ways

My alma mater, Cal/Berkeley, comes in for a scolding from the Sacramento Bee's Daniel Weintraub here.  Yes, it's another story on how college student don't know much about history.  The statistics seem to show that students actually grow less knowledgeable over the course of four years.

The post is replete with the usual sorry examples of ignorance -- of the "53% believe Oprah Winfrey discovered radium" variety -- the last being a real headshaker:

Even with their country at war in Iraq, fewer than half of seniors, 45.2 percent, could identify the Baath party as the main source of Saddam Hussein's political support.  In fact, 12.2 percent believed that Saddam Hussein found his most reliable supporters in the Communist Party.  Almost 5.7 percent chose Israel.

Words fail me.

Less Opera Per Capita?

I would have left well enough alone with yesterday's little snipe at the Deutsche Oper's cancellation of its muddle-headed production of Idomeneo, but the story has caught the fancy of the world press to a far greater extent than I would have expected.  In fact, the story made it all the way to the front page of today's Los Angeles Times

The LAT story provides another, much larger and clearer, photo from the original 2003 version of this production, albeit a photo in which the various religious figures still have their heads on.  The New York Times includes both "before" and "after" versions.

  • To discuss among yourselves: Why are so many photos of the "beheaded Mohammad" scene from the Deutsche Oper Idomeneo being published in the same newspapers that have previously, in an ostentatious show of propriety, refused to reproduce any of the infamous Danish cartoons?  The claimed offensiveness of the images is the same, so why is opera treated with less circumspection than caricature?  It's a mystery.

Yesterday, I suggested that the production is not so much offensive as it is self-importantly wrongheaded about the opera.  The additional photos and the more detailed descriptions of the controversial scene provided in the newest articles only reinforce that judgment.  For example, the group shot (accompanying today's story in the eastern and western Times) of the opera's characters with the various religious figures shows that the director has clad these ancient Cretans and Trojans, both men and women, in modern black business suits and leather jackets -- almost always a bad sign in a production of Mozart, and a contemporary directorial cliché to boot.

The Los Angeles Times describes the function of the crucial scene in director Hans Neuenfels' production:

'Idomeneo' is the ancient story of the king of Crete's pact with the Greek god Poseidon to sacrifice his son.  [Not quite correct: see my prior synopsis.]  The production by Neuenfels, known for his controversial interpretations, is a meditation on enlightenment that shows the king lifting the severed heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad to suggest that overreliance on religion can endanger the human spirit.

The New York Times adds:

The scene devised by Mr. Neuenfels puts a sanguinary ending on an opera that, in the way Mozart wrote it, ends with King Idomeneo giving up his throne to appease the god of the sea, and blessing the romantic union of his son Idamante with the Greek [sic, she's a Trojan actually] princess Ilia.  [Get it?  Ilia, from Ilium.  She's a Trojan, I tell you.]

The severed heads of the religious figures, Mr. Raue [Neuenfels' lawyer(!)] said, was meant by Mr. Neuenfels to make a point that 'all the founders of religions were figures that didn’t bring peace to the world.'

André Kraft, spokesman for Komische Oper, a more adventurous opera house where Mr. Neuenfels is engaged in another Mozart production, described the 65-year-old director as 'a secularist who does not believe religion solves the problems of the world.'

Neuenfels' ostensible points here are perfectly permissible to be made in an artistic production.  If you can't "blaspheme" in art, where can you?  ("You can't" is not a correct answer.)  Those points are not particularly new or cutting-edge -- Thomas Paine made them at length and with brio in The Age of Reason  (1795), and he was hardly the first -- but that's no argument against trying to make them.  The real problem lies in trying to make them with this particular opera. 

Yes, Poseidon/Neptune is cruel in Idomeneo, but he is cruel in the traditional way of the Greek gods: an idea comes to him and he cares not a whit how it may affect these poor silly humans.  Neptune is not actively malicious, he just behaves like a god and has no concern for human priorities.  That lack of concern is simply a given, and not the point of the plot. 

The plot resolves itself as a "love's sacrifice conquers all" story: Idomeneo's son Idamante eventually agrees to be sacrificed to honor his father's pact with Neptune, Idamante's beloved Ilia leaps in to offer herself in his place, Neptune relents, Idomeneo is ordered off the throne of Crete and Idamante and Ilia assume it.  All and sundry sing a chorus in praise of the gods, particularly the gods of love and marriage.  Curtain. 

However Herr direktor Neuenfels may wish to twist it, Idomeneo -- the librettist of which was himself a cleric, the court chaplain to the Elector of Bavaria -- simply will not bear a broadly anti-religious construction.  It is foolishness indeed to be canceling the production, but the production itself is built upon a fair dollop of conceptual foolishness.


There are in fact no references to Islam in Idomeneo as written, and yet this production has been canceled to avoid offense.  What does this suggest about those operas in which explicitly Islamic characters actually appear? 

Opera is full of Turks, Moors, pashas, beys, harems, and the like.  Mozart has them in The Abduction from the Seraglio.  Rossini bounces them back and forth across the Mediterranean in The Italian Girl in Algiers and The Turk in Italy.  Verdi, by way of Shakespeare, builds an opera around the tragic Moor, Otello.  With the exception of the last -- in which the Moor comes to a bad end -- the Islamic characters in these operas tend to be figures of fun and the objects of mockery.  All of them involve the questionable frisson of dark-skinned foreigners' desire for pale European girls.  Must they for that reason be stricken from the accepted repertoire?

Heavens, one surely hopes not.


ELSEWHERE [Update 1051 PDT]: On Reason's Hit and Run weblog, Tim Cavanaugh makes many of the same points as I have.   He sums up pithily:

The squares never did like performances like this; but the problem isn't the offense to high art any more than the offense to Muslims.   It's that it's all just so over.


Never Bet the Deutsche Oper Your Head

"Will you forget the head slicing thing?!?"
Philoctetes [Danny De Vito] in Disney's Hercules (1997).

From the Unintended Beneficial Consequences file:

Thanks to fear of terrorist violence, the citizens of Berlin have been saved from exposure to what sounds like deeply misguided production of Mozart's Idomeneo.  Reuters reports:

The Deutsche Oper in west Berlin announced on Monday it was replacing four performances of 'Idomeneo' scheduled for November with 'The Marriage of Figaro' and 'La Traviata.'

The decision was taken after Berlin security officials warned that putting on the opera as planned would present an 'incalculable security risk' for the establishment.

In the production, directed by Hans Neuenfels, King Idomeneo is shown staggering on stage next to the severed heads of Buddha, Jesus, Poseidon and the Prophet Mohammad, which sit on chairs.

For the benefit of the morbidly curious, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung boldly provides a photo of the most controversial head in question, from the production's 2003 debut.  In a non-idiomatic Google-generated English translation, the accompanying article characterizes the Deutsche Oper as "overanxious."   

[UPDATE 1422 PDT: The photo referred to above has seemingly disappeared from the story.  Der Spiegel, however, has a similar but larger photo, with a guest appearance by the golden head of Buddha.]

While it is genuinely troubling that a musical or theatrical institution should face threats of violent repercussions over its artistic choices, Berliners should look on the bright side: this was probably a Very Bad Production of Mozart's opera seria.  The one scene that is described, the cause of the fuss, is enough to suggest that the director has hijacked (if you will) or misdirected Mozart's work for the benefit of his own "personal vision" or konzept.  This sort of thing happens all the time, particularly in Europe, and is a constant source of aggravation in some quarters

As any summary of the plot will tell you, the controversial scene poses at least two fundamental practical problems:

  • First, you simply cannot decapitate Poseidon, aka Neptune, in a production of Idomeneo given that the entire premise of the opera is that the title character, Idomeneo, king of Crete, has struck a terrible bargain just before the curtain rises with that very sea god in which the king has agreed to kill and sacrifice the first human being he meets upon returning home.  Of course, that first human being proves to be his own child.  Oh, the irony!  How cruel the gods!  But hardly a problem if the god in question has been decapitated, eh?  The bargain expires with its maker.  Even the Greeks presumably adhered to the rule that When Heads Are Off, All Bets Are Off.
  • Poseidon/Neptune's voice also assists in the essentially happy resolution of the plot in Act III.  Highly impractical, even for a god, if one's head is missing.
  • Second, and of particular relevance to the scene that has produced the kerfuffle in Berlin, the action of the opera is set upon the return of Idomeneo from fighting in the Trojan War.  Ergo, at least two victims of decapitation -- Jesus and Mohammad -- are yet to be born, which poses something of an obstacle to their being beheaded.

Whatever one thinks of Regietheater (or, as it is known to its detractors, "Eurotrash"), it is clear that the real problem with the Deutsche Oper production is that it simply makes no sense.  It transforms Mozart's opera seria into an opera dummia.  So, troubling as it is to think that "the terrorists have won," in this instance it is possible to think that the audience is a winner, too -- except perhaps for those who are stuck with yet another production of tired ol' Traviata.

Tiki'd to Ride,
or, "Look on My Works, ye Mai Tai . . ."

In the tiki tiki tiki tiki tiki room , , , ,

Earlier this year, I noted the sad news concerning the impending closure of the Trader Vic's restaurant in the Beverly Hilton Hotel.  The redevelopment process moves on, with the slow but steady pace typical of Los Angeles-area projects.  A discussion thread in the forums at Tiki Central is following the story.

Via Arts & Letters Daily comes a link to a fine overview article by Wayne Curtis in the current American Heritage magazine on the wonderful world of all things Tiki.  In particular, the article covers the fons et origo of Tiki culture in the twinned figures of Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, aka Donn Beach, aka "Don the Beachcomber," and Victor Bergeron, aka "Trader Vic."  Here is an excerpt covering Donn Beach's happy postwar ensconcement in Waikiki:

His restaurant became an instant landmark, more Hawaiian than most of Hawaii itself.  Beach amplified the faux-tropical theme with palms and thatch and a sweeping shingled roof, part space age, part ceremonial Polynesian meetinghouse.  The popular arranger and composer Martin Denny played at the restaurant’s Bora-Bora lounge for nine months straight.  Beach was often at the bar, a genial host wearing a gardenia lei that, he was quick to reveal, was for sale in the restaurant’s gift alcove.  A myna bird presided over the premises, trained to blurt out, “Give me a beer, stupid!”  In the boozy intimacy of late evenings, a gentle rain would often begin to patter on the corrugated metal roof over the bar — thanks to a garden hose Beach had installed.  (Always the businessman, he had observed that late-night drinkers tended to linger for another round if they thought it was raining outside.)

Why all that Caribbean rum in supposed "South Seas" drinks?  The practicality of Donn Beach supplies the answer:

He approached his drink menu the same way he approached his décor: with an eye toward frugality. Rum was the least expensive of the spirits, and Gantt had sampled a variety in his travels.

Just who invented the Mai Tai -- Beach or Bergeron -- remains a matter of dispute.  (Quoth Trader Vic:  “I originated the mai tai. Anybody who says I didn’t create this drink is a stinker.”)  A good recipe for same is included with the article.  Read it all to appreciate yet again the glory that was Vic and the splendor that was Don.

And now, Music  . . . . 

This is not a Tiki song, or even remotely Polynesian, but it is a bit of permanent no-smudge sunshine that fits here as well as it will anywhere else.   

Craig Bonnell of the songs:illinois weblog maintains that the semi-Swedish band Herman Dune has produced "the best song of the year" with "I Wish That I Could See You Soon" from their upcoming album, Giant.   I don't know that I will go that far, but they have certainly produced a confection that deserves a place in the permanent pop pantheon.   The tune has all the charm, and I would hope it will earn the permanence, of Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl."  I t seems totally dispensable at first, but if you are hearing it on the radio (where it surely belongs) in forty years, it will still make you smile for hours afterward.   

Here is the video version, seemingly set in an alterate-world Sesame Street.   You can't argue with the angels, now can you?

[Tiki photo by booshe (Brett Mathews), via stock.xchng.]

Apropos of Nothing

Out of the blue, poet/translator/scholar and fancier of Monk and Coltrane Jonathan Mayhew suddenly mentions, of all things, insurance:

Would anyone expect the 'Best American Insurance Co.' to really have the best insurance?  That would be a mighty big coincidence.

That it would.

I suspect the remark is an allusion to the annual Best American Poetry anthologies.  Or perhaps he knows that the leader in the business of rating the financial soundness of insurance companies is (oh, the irony) the A.M. Best Company.

For further reading:

This is as good an occasion as any to refer you to Professor Mayhew's September 6 spleen-infused catalogue of "rare and noteworthy events" of which he wishes to be kept apprised.  Among other benefits, reading it will save you the trouble of ever having to look at another cartoon in the New Yorker.

What Oft Was Thought But Ne'er So Well Expressed (Empurpled Prose Edition)

Would you look at that weeks-long gap in posts, now.  Tsk, tsk, tsk.  Shameful.  And this one almost won't count, since it will be devoted largely to a decades-old quotation from someone else.

Post-war Italian neorealism is one of the glaring gaps in my personal cinematic experience, but that takes nothing away from the opening paragraph of James Agee's October 1947 review of Vittorio De Sica's Shoeshine.  If you incline to the view that we humans from Earth now find ourselves in the thick of somehting resembling a clash of civilizations -- I waver on this characterization myself, depending on the evidence of the day -- then this is a fairly fine statement of what the side of Good stands for, or should:

The elementary beginning of true reason, that is, of reason which involves not merely the forebrain but the entire being, resides, I should think, in the ability to recognize oneself, and others, primarily as human beings, and to recognize the ultimate absoluteness of responsibility for each human being. . . .  I am none too sure of my vocabulary, but would suppose this can be called the humanistic attitude.  It is still held, no doubt, by scattered individuals all over the world, is still nominally the germinal force of Western civilization, and must still sleep as a potential among almost unimaginably large numbers and varieties of people; but no attitude is more generally subject to disadvantage, dishonor, and misuse today, and no other is so nearly guaranteed extinction.  Even among those who preserve a living devotion to it, moreover, few seem to have come by it naturally, as a physical and sensuous fact, as well as a philosophical one; and fewer still give any evidence of enjoying or applying it with any of the enormous primordial energy which, one would suppose, the living fact would inevitably liberate in a living being.  I realize that I must be exaggerating when I think of it as hardly existing in a pure and vigorous form anywhere in contemporary art or living, but I doubt that I am exaggerating much: I know, in any case, that Shoeshine, because it furnishes really abundant evidence of the vitality of this attitude, seems to stand alone in the world, to be as restoring and jubilant a piece of news as if one had learned that a great hero whom one had thought to be murdered or exiled or corrupted still lives in all his valor.

[Found while reading the Library of America's American Movie Critics anthology at bedtime.  Shoeshine itself is apparently not available on DVD; other notable De Sica films, neorealist and otherwise, are.]

Suite: Billy Pilgrim

I am going to be flying off on Friday for a multi-day jaunt -- to attend the 2006 Annual Meeting & Seminars of the CPCU Society -- to Music City USA, Nashville, Tennessee.   To be honest, the Music that is Nashville's is generally not the Music that is Mine, but Music Hath Power, etc., etc., so my plan is to post for the occasion, and for the occasion of our reaching the three-quarter mark of the year, a survey of the 7.5 recordings that have most struck my fancy in 2006.   That way, I avoid the cliché of the "year-end top 10" or the "mid-year top 10" and adopt a fresh cliché of my very own.

One item that I know will make that list is Sweet Billy Pilgrim's ineffably splendid we just did what happened and no one came, which I praised here back in April.   ("Sounds are placed . . . as if they fell out of an interesting cupboard, or else with the deliberation of a rock garden in Xanadu.")

I am no closer than I was then to articulating just why I find Sweet Billy Pilgrim's music so compelling, but I do know that this is excellent news:

Heart, meet sleeve SBP has issued a new 3-song EP and it is available as a high quality MP3 download absolutely free under the auspices of SVC [Spoilt Victorian Child] Records.   

That link will lead you directly to the downloads, individually and as a collective ZIP file.  The announcement on the Spoilt Victorian Child weblog is here and the announcement on the SBP weblog, Pilgrim's Progress, is here.

My first impression is highly favorable.  The two previously unreleased songs -- "Brugada" and "Meantime" -- would, Tim Elsenburg's protestations notwithstanding, have fit in well on we just did what happened . . .  The third track on the EP is a remix of "Experience," a song over which I enthused way back in May 2005, and a worthy companion to the original.

This is very fine current music, not the least bit brainless.  To have it available for free is a windfall not to be missed.  Miss it not.