Monday, March 27, 2017



Young Person's Guide to the OPERA

Young persons today have lost sight of the fact that opera used to be the 19th century's version of “Jersey Shore.” Well, kind of. Persons in operas did all sorts of outlandish things that just were not done in polite company. Actually, this analogy doesn't play out well, because all of the shit that goes on in “Jersey Shore” pretty much goes on in real life. Never mind.

Anyway, opera was THE form of entertainment back in the days before television and iPods and all of that, so composers and librettists were hell-bent on coming up with some pretty outrageous stuff to keep the hoi-polloi amused. In Italy, Puccini ruled and he wrote some beautiful stuff. Between Puccini and Guiseppe Verdi, Italian opera was well represented.

The Germans on the other hand, had a few problems. One of them was the Kaiser. Kaiser Wilhelm was a bit odd. He, uh decided, much like Stalin did in Russia several decades later, that he would decide what was acceptable for German audiences. Never mind that the Germans had been raised on the Aesir and Ragnarok and were already of a Berserker mentality. There was a problem with his favorite composer, who later became Hitler's favorite composer. Herr Richard Strauss lived long enough to achieve this dubious distinction, but Strauss really didn't give a fig what Wilhelm, or Hitler or Göebbels thought and went on to compose operas that were, ah, indeed in questionable taste.

The other is that for sheer crazy, German opera just can't be beat. Before Richard Strauss, we had Richard Wagner, whose magnum opus is the “Ring Cycle,” 20 hours of mayhem. Incest, death, destruction, war, 20 questions with dragons, trolls, witches, stupid but good looking heroes, Brünhilde, Rheinmaidens, Välkyrie, Valhalla, topped off by Götterdammerüng. A very happy batch of operas indeed, called "Das Ringen der Nibelungen," or "The Ring Cycle." I'll let Anna Russell describe it for us.

This set the stage for Richard Strauss who thought wholesome stuff like Salome, during Kaiser Wilhelm's reign, prior to WW I - and who was a bit of a stuffed shirt about morals in public, but behind closed doors? One of his ministers would drop dead during some bacchanal or other while wearing a pink tutu - would be perfect for operatic treatment. Herr Strauss was an awesome composer, but he had not clue one about anything socio-political during his long life. He thought it was a swell idea to collaborate with Stefan Zweig as his librettist during his stint as Reichsminister of musik for the Third Reich under Josef Goebbels. Herr Zweig was Jewish and living in London. Herr Goebbels was pissed about it and Strauss was lucky not to get a one-way ticket to Dachau.

Well, during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm, who was a notorious blue-stocking, Strauss thought it would be a hella idea to do an operatic treatment of “Salome.” D'you remember this story? Antipas marries Herodias so he can get at her daughter Salome. John the Baptist is locked up in Antipas' prison under the palace. Salome gets a gander at John, as he squabbles over theology with some pharisees and goes all googly-eyed over him, but John spurns her for the harlot-in-training that she is. Antipas wants to see Salome dance, but she's all like, “Ewwww.” Herodias is rather annoyed at both Antipas and John, spiteful bitch that Herodias is, and she tells Salome to dance for Antipas, because Antipas will give her whatever Salome asks for, and she should ask for John's head.

Herodias is sick and tired of Antipas mooning over both Salome and John the Baptist. Antipas is afraid of John, as John is a man of God and keeps saying all this scary stuff from his cistern. So, Salome says, “Okay, A, I'll hip-hop for ya” and does the “Dance of the 7 Veils.”

  This is a more modern treatment, but the staging is so well-done, I chose this.

Once done, she asks for the head of John the Baptist and the evil deed is done. Next comes perhaps the most unbelievably hellish passage in music imaginable, as a huge hand rises out of the cistern bearing the head of John the Baptist. (Unfortunately, this is a bad edit, and you get part of her love/death song to Jokkanaan).

Antipas is horrified, but the nightmare is not yet ended. Salome proceeds to roll around on stage with the severed head of John the Baptist and sings the most glorious song of love that is also horrifying, but beautiful. 

So, Antipas has her put to death by the Roman guards. Curtain falls.

Great stuff! Seriously, this is music I grew up listening to and played, so even though my ears are by no means jaded, one can see why I am pretty tolerant of today's Rammstein-like groups and less than thrilled with precious music like Mozart. I love Haydn. Haydn took chances and is wonderful. Enough digression.

Strauss went ahead and debuted this opera without the Kaiser's approval. The Kaiser's favorite minister later died wearing a pink tutu at some function or another. So much for propriety; the Kaiser had a really bad year; the Archduke Ferdinand of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was assassinated shortly thereafter, and the Kaiser's year was about to get REALLY bad.

I played in Opera Tampa for 12 seasons, so I have plenty of rich material to draw from. We did mostly Italian opera. Maestro Coppola (the same family that produced Francis and Nic Cage) summed it up this way: “Anyone can play a Goddamned German opera. It's just 1, 2, 3, 4. In Italian opera there are so many rubatos and tempi changes it requires so much artistry. You are all here because you were hand-picked. Be proud.” Tyrant. I miss it. Maestro wasn't necessarily wrong, although in his waltzes, Richard Strauss affords lots of rubatos in the Viennese style. You may have picked that out in the "7 Veils." For the record, I LOVE playing Richard Strauss; supremely challenging and he pushes orchestras to the limits. In "Ein Heldenleben," (A Hero's Life" with him as the hero) during it's debut, one of the first violinists complained to him that a certain passage is unplayable. He casually looked over the score and said, "Don't worry, it's unplayable in the flutes, too." It is in the violas as well. Let's end this with one of the funniest Bugs Bunny cartoons ever.

Probably one of the best Wagner treatments I've ever seen. I played with the Warner Brothers Orchestra, after jumping ship from the Disney folks up in Detroit, many years ago. Man, did you have to play your ass off, but it was a HELL of a lot more fun! 

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