Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The German Opera Project: Go Big Or Go Home

As a child, I saw the classic Looney Tunes animated short “What’s Opera, Doc?” It was my first introduction to high culture, albeit via popular culture, as “Ride of the Valkyries” played throughout the short. In it, Bugs Bunny runs from Elmer Fudd by dressing as a fetching Nordic soprano with a horned Viking helmet and breastplate. (As I was informed at the time that the helmet was German or Norse, I assumed for years that everyone in Germany or Scandinavia wore them not only as a national costume, but also in daily life. That is another story.) The most telling line in the short was when Bugs “died” at the end and is carried off to Valhalla by Elmer. In the very last frame, while Elmer weeps, Bugs comes to life, turns to the camera and says, “Well what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”

It was not until I got to high school that I learned the proper reference to the opera. It was Wagner’s mammoth Ring Cycle, a piece that plays anywhere from 15 to 20 hours over four evenings and is considered a towering icon of Teutonic culture. Since I could not stomach the idea of even 1.5 to 2.0 minutes of solid opera, I could not fathom how people would willingly subject themselves and sacrifice their evenings to an event that was 100 times the size. It also did not help that for a long time, having lived overseas, my concept of opera was limited to Chinese opera, which consists of hysterical high-pitched caterwauling (to the untrained ear) punctuated randomly by a gong, and only then after interminable stretches. (Curiously, the cross-dressing by Bugs in the short and the convention of men assuming female roles in opera did not make me blink.)

In the summer, when the cultural vacuum expands like a Hindenburg that somehow never crashes but always threatens to do so, I yearn for high culture. The ingestion of the occasional glucose-laden confection from certain large-scale drink-consumption behemoths may have freezing effects but it hardly freezes a stimulated mind craving substantive entertainment not content to eating, praying, loving at the gargantuan divided pillbox collection known as a multiplex. So it was, one day, when my iPod happened upon “Ride of the Valkyries” that I decided to go for the whole hog and dedicate myself to studying Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Here are my reasons for doing so:

1. The “go-big-or-go-home” approach. The Cycle, when Wagner wrote it, was conceived as a smaller poem but quickly expanded into three separate operas and a satyr-play modeled on ancient Greek tragedy. He felt that need to give ample scope to tell his story. Ambitious scale is a rarefied commodity in culture, as “bigger” seems to entail more pyrotechnics than actual ideas. Today, we want it all, and we want it now. So it’s refreshing to see something that truly takes it time. 
2. The absurdity of the drama. Given that the narrative is based on classical mythology, and much interaction between gods and mortals, it is akin to palace intrigue and is always good for giddy smut. The gods are every bit as petty, overemotional, malicious and given to lust as are most mortals. And given that gods are supposed to embody morality and our greatest human virtues, it’s comic to see them come undone over money, love and real estate, just like everyone else.
3. The language. German opera, like Chinese opera, is an acquired taste and arguably less accessible than French or Italian. This is due to the heavier sound of the German language, lending it less of a sing-song quality and purports to give greater dramatic weight. Plus, I want to know what 15 to 20 hours’ worth of variations on “mein leibling” would sound like, out of pure curiosity.
4. Theme of power and control. This is a play where a single ring was designed to give power to those who wear it. Although fashioned out of gold, it’s natural to infer the concept of “grabbing the brass ring” from the idea of having one ring to rule the world. Everyone wants to be master of their universe or feel the need to control their reality. In the modern concept, grabbing a brass ring brings with it not only prestige, power and money, but also a need to maintain such a high social level and an accompanying paranoia against those who may threaten your status. Which brings us to …
5. The Lord of the Rings. Did # 4 sound familiar to any J.R.R. Tolkien fans? Or is it the other way around? Regardless, having read the Tolkien novels and seeing the films too many times, it was only natural that I would go to a work that drew heavily from the same source (the argument over whether Tolkien “stole” his idea from Wagner is another discussion).
6. The Bayreuth Festival. Wagner commissioned a theatre expressly for the performance of this piece in Bavaria, as the venue would house the production and was specially designed so that the singers would not have to strain their voices during the long performances. The Festival and tickets to The Ring are so in-demand that the waiting list is five to ten years (for those of you counting, that’s almost as long as the Hermes Birkin bag).
7. Anna Russell. This great lady was a virtuoso soprano who made a career out of being a comedienne. She did her stand-up routine with a piano and parodied all the absurdities of classical music and opera, including its dramatic gestures, absurd plotting, and the diva antics of its stars. She famously condensed all of the events of the Ring into 20 minutes. You may view the clip here or find her summary as an MP3 at the iTunes store. The best part of her discussion is when she stops at points when the audience laughs at the absurdity of the plot she relates, and she says, “I’m not making this up, you know!” (which is also, coincidentally, the title of her autobiography).

Despite all of the above, the most compelling reason for me to study the opera is to answer this question: why are people so drawn to this? Why is such a cumbersome and expensive work consistently performed? The opera world considers it a major achievement for a theatre to mount such a production. The
spring 2010 production in Los Angeles was controversial due to the elaborate costumes that made the production look like Cirque du Soleil by way of Julie Taymor, the production demands, and the extraordinary cost (the $31 million production reportedly lost $6 million). Mostly I wanted to know: why do people even bother with this?

For my study, I will be watching the centennial
1976 Bayreuth production, directed by French auteur Patrice Chereau, which was filmed in 1980 and is now readily available on DVD. This is considered the seminal and definitive production, where the action was brought up from ancient mythological times to the 19th century industrial revolution. Perhaps this was a stylistic and artistic decision made to highlight the work’s allusion to that era? Is it a critique on capitalism, if not mass consumption?

Let’s hope that my venture ends more happily than Bugs Bunny said it does in opera.