The Said-est Music in the World


Composer and Britten biographer David Matthews comments today for the Times Literary Supplement on two new classical music books. 

First up, Music at the Limits, a collection of essays by the late Edward Said, most drawn from his work as music critic for The Nation.  Here is Matthews on Said on Wagner, incorporating a valuable public relations tip:

In a review of Michael Tanner’s book on Wagner, Said will not allow Tanner to dismiss the most unpleasant elements of Wagner’s personality as irrelevant to the appreciation of his music, though he does take to task those who claim that Wagner’s anti-Semitism seeped into his operas.  (We might think better of Wagner if only he hadn’t insisted on putting all his prejudices into print, or telling them to Cosima who devotedly wrote them all down; Chopin’s anti-Semitism was equally virulent, but he is rarely criticized for it, probably because he didn’t publicize it so actively.)

Of more local interest, Matthews also notes Making Music in Los Angeles: Transforming the Popular by Catherine Parsons Smith, focusing on the period from the founding of the City of Angels through the early 1940's.  Here we learn that, notwithstanding its Alice in Lotus Land reputation, Los Angeles historically has been rather the opposite of a cultural backwater:

[Parsons' book] reminds us of a time when classical music had more obvious significance in general culture – when, indeed, it was seen as a vital and active element in the growth of Los Angeles from a town of 11,000 in 1880 to a city of more than a million in 1930.  Opera companies were quick to make visits: the US premiere of La Bohème was given in Los Angeles in 1897, the year a symphony orchestra was established; by 1910, there was a higher proportion of musicians and music teachers in Los Angeles than in any other American city.

That highlighted Fun Fact, I suppose, goes a long way toward explaining why even today Los Angeles operagoers are compelled to put up with so darned much stinkin' Puccini in their repertoire.


Photo: Members of the Albertina Rasch Ballet on the grounds of the Hollywood Bowl, 1930, via the Hollywood Bowl Museum.

"Theatre makes strange bedfellows,
and not just after the opening night party."

George Hunka makes a persuasive case for connecting the dots between Wagner and Beckett, with particular reference to the Met's recent production of Tristan und Isolde.

Here, the unexpected bond between Waiting for Godot and the endless Act II love duet in Tristan

As in either act of Godot, there is little more than talk for nearly an hour, but in Wagner this talk is filled with sublimely beautiful music, and in Beckett, devastatingly lyrical speech.  Over a century of Tristan performances and half-a-century of Godot performances have demonstrated the profound power of such a theatrical essentialism.

The entire piece is worth reading if you fancy either Tristan or Godot or, as in my case, both.


For further reading:  No Beckett content included, but the related topic of how Time operates in Wagner came up just yesterday on Sounds & Fury.

A slightly shorter version of George Hunka's post also appeared on April 1 in the Guardian.  No joke.

A Long Afternoon's Journey Into a Knight at the Opera

"It's a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you'll be amused by its presumption."

I spent this past drizzly Sunday afternoon -- four and a half hours, not counting the pre-performance lecture/conversation -- with Los Angeles Opera's revival of its 1987 production of Tristan und Isolde, designed by David Hockney.  Hockney, conductor James Conlon and the orchestra -- and of course Tristan und Isolde itself -- combined for a performance in which the excellent ultimately outweighed the ordinary, which was plenty good enough for me.  There is one performance remaining (this Sunday, Feb. 10 at 1:00), after which I hope we don't have to wait another decade before Los Angeles sees this production -- any production of Tristan, for that matter -- again.

Generally, when writing up an opera performance, it is expected that you will write about the singers, but I have little to say on that score.  All of the principals were adequate to their tasks, none embarrassed themselves or us, but no one stood out as exceptional.  John Treleaven's Tristan sounded fine, but seemed a bit of a lunk.  It's an approach that will probably work well in two years when Treleaven returns to sing Siegfried in the LAO Ring, since Siegfried really is a bit of a lunk, but Tristan should be something more.  Linda Watson, pictured above, was not scheduled to sing Isolde on Sunday.  Instead, the role was covered for this performance by Susan Foster - her premiere in the part - who was strongest where it counts, in Acts II and III.  Kristinn Sigmundsson was very very sad as King Marke, who always has ample reason to be very very sad.

This is a production that succeeds because the audience actually can leave the theater "humming the scenery."  David Hockney's sets, and particularly the exquisitely fluid lighting of those sets implemented by Duane Schuler, work stunningly well as extensions of Wagner's sound world.  Hockney does not have any agenda of his own to impose atop Wagner's, and his designs are intended to tell Wagner's story straight.  Wagner wants the deck of a sailing ship?  He gets the deck of a sailing ship.  A castle and forest?  Done.  High atop a Breton cliff?  You are there.  No post-modern nudge nudge, no politico-theoretical conceptualist flapdoodle.  Hockney asserts his own identity in the details: the bright lustrous colors, the sweeping arcs of sails or tree tops, the interpolation of Celtic knot patterns in unexpected places.  It is all a delight to behold, a pleasure in itself without distracting or detracting from the musical business at hand.

You can see the designs here, at the official Hockney Pictures site, which provides access to the full range of Hockney's work, including his operatic and theater projects.  I recommend clicking the "Slide Show" link at the upper right of the Tristan page, to get something of the full flavor of these designs as they appear in the shifting light that is so central to Hockney's schema.  It is unfortunate that, as mentioned in this January 13 LA Times profile, hearing impairment has compelled Hockney to give up on designing new opera productions.

The loudest cheers at the conclusion of Sunday's performance were reserved for James Conlon and the Los Angeles Opera orchestra, with good cause.  The principal obstacle to optimal performance of this incomparable music came not from the players but from the venue.  The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's acoustics, while not authentically bad, are unavoidably clunky, especially with the orchestra submerged in the pit as it is during Opera performances, and the excellence of the playing on this occasion called attention to the hall's limitations.  (The LA Philharmonic, for which the hall was originally built, at least had the advantage of sitting on the stage.  The Philharmonic has since moved across the street to the acoustically astonishing Disney Hall where last April, you will recall, its Tristan Project reduced this fool to quivering aesthetic jelly.)


ELSEWHERE, more or less on topic:

  • There appears to be a consensus in reviews of this production that the casting is . . . somewhat second-tier.  Brian of Out West Arts basically agrees, but he wonders whether such complaints are ultimately either fair or relevant.  Noting (correctly) that "mediocre Wagner is still better than excellent Puccini any day", he writes in defense of mediocrity:

My reaction to Tristan got me thinking a lot about how people, including myself, tend to write about opera performance.  I mean what is so wrong with Linda Watson or John Treleaven.  Sure, they aren't the best in the world and they are far from the best ever.  But both deliver mostly competent performances.  People seem to dismiss them simply because they aren't "inspiring" or transcendent in some way.  Sure it's great to hear the best in the world, but isn't there room for artists who can perform difficult material in a competent way? . . .

    * * *

I think that Opera is a living thing meant to be performed and experienced live.  Too often critics, both professional and otherwise, tend to forget this.  And while I love to hear a standard setting performance in the flesh as much as the next person, I think there is much more to loving opera. Since opera, by its very nature, needs to be performed in order to be enjoyed, that often means working with the performers you have on hand even if they aren't ideal.  Baroque composers such as Handel didn't seem to have any trouble getting their heads around this, so what's our problem?

  • Christian Chensvold of FineArtsLA chatted up John Treleaven at the start this Tristan run.  (That post comes with video! and French subtitles!)
  • TIME's Richard Lacayo interviewed Hockney at about the same time the LA Times did, and the artist took the opportunity to repeat a pointed observation that the Times ultimately edited out of its piece:

LACAYO. How's your one man campaign for smokers' rights going?

HOCKNEY. I did an interview recently with the LA Times and said 'I have noticed here in California that 25% of the advertisements on American television are for prescription drugs. That's what's replacing tobacco.'  People smoke to calm down, but now in this country you take drugs to do that.  I'm a lone voice but I keep on it.  I'm not giving up.  Tobacco is America's greatest gift to the world!

The photos accompanying Lacayo's post serve to remind how attuned Hockney is to the combined verticality and sweep of trees, as is very evident in his Act II and III Tristan sets.

  • The next big Wagner item on the Los Angeles Opera horizon is the premiere over the next two years of a complete Ring cycle, to be conducted by James Conlon and designed/directed by Achim Freyer.  I praised Freyer's production of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust back in '03.  His take on the Ring could be very good or or could be deeply odd -- quite possibly both.  An elite crew of Opera insiders are privy to it, but very little concerning the conception or look of this production has escaped to the public so far.  Although they look distinctly Freyerische, it is uncertain whether the illustrations accompanying the company's announcements of Rheingold and Walküre provide any hints of what to expect.

In preparation for next season, or on general principles, one can do far worse than to turn to Threepenny Review and Wendy Lesser's eloquent and cogent recent essay on the Ring, written on the occasion of her seeing the Kirov/Valery Gergiev production that has been roaming the continent this past year.

It is ironic, to say the least, that the emblem of opera in the popular imagination is a fat, blonde-haired woman wearing a two-horned helmet. The image comes, by way of cartoons and parodies, from Wagner's Ring, but Wagner himself would have been the last person to view his great work as the essence of opera. He thought what he was building in this eighteen-hour, four-evening piece was precisely not opera, but a rebellion against opera as he knew it—a fresh form that required a new name (something along the lines of "music drama") and that could not be performed in a standard opera house, but needed its own special festival setting. That Bayreuth in particular and Wagnerism in general have hardened into the strictest of operatic traditions is an irony which would not have been lost on the composer, for the oppressive and finally triumphant power of rules, even or especially in the face of the deepest individual desire to break them, is one of the Ring cycle's central themes.

Yet the Ring does succeed in breaking the rules, remaking the form, time after time, and differently every time.  For if a ring or a cycle by definition suggests the endlessness and eternity of a circle, this Ring and this cycle make their mark by coming, each time, to a distinct conclusion.  And while the cycle will inevitably start up again — at another time and elsewhere, or perhaps even in the same place — the specific performance you have witnessed will in every case be unique and unrepeatable.

(Threepenny link via 3quarksdaily.)

Los Angeles Opera photo by Robert Millard.  Photo caption shamelessly borrowed from James Thurber.

Transfigured Knight [Updated at Last]

Oh goodness gracious sweet merciful Muses.

Tristan_photo_3 That a man might experience a full performance of Tristan und Isolde for the first time and emerge with his sense of life unaltered is possible, but I cannot imagine it to be common.  As with Wallace Stevens' blue guitar or certain massive bodies in space, things as they are are changed by being near to it, and when the performance is as fully realized as that of the Los Angeles Philharmonic last night words may be altogether inadequate to the task of expressing just what has happened -- appropriately enough for a work in which words tell us almost nothing and the music tells almost everything.

Duties of my practice preclude a full report at this moment, so this post will grow over the next few days as I add bits,pieces, clods and dollops to it.  To sum it up in advance: Last night's Tristan und Isolde, as conceived and performed under the rubric of The Tristan Project, was without a doubt the most all encompassing and exhilarating evening I ever expect to spend in a concert hall.

Oh goodness gracious sweet merciful Muses.


Director Peter Sellars and video artist Bill Viola have been giving pre-concert talks throughout this run of performances, and they are marvels of passionate intelligence.  Peter Sellars in particular, in his summaries of what and how and why each act is as it is is riveting, with ideas and passions and connections flying in from all directions and all told so compellingly that the listeners are held as by a story round the campfire.  [He holds one idea about Tristan that is, to my mind, completely wrong, but as it did not manifest itself in any external way in performance, we'll let it pass.]  The sessions from the three nights in which one act of the drama was coupled with a work of Debussy have been made available for listening or download from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's UpBeat Live page.  (Scroll down to April 12, 13, and 14 for Acts 1, 2, and 3, respectively.)  For convenience sake, I have also uploaded them at the links below:

UPDATE [050207 1423 PDT]:

The Tristan Project will make its New York debut this evening.  For the occasion, I have finally got round to updating this post with a more extensive overview of the experience here in Los Angeles.  Given that the additions have proven to be very long, and given that they will be of interest only to a very few, I have exiled them to the continuation of this post.  Those who care to can click on through:

Continue reading "Transfigured Knight [Updated at Last]" »