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! 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


I'm still trying to catch my equilibrium and get back into a semblance of my previous routine, prior to our whirlwind tour of Japan, and this is one of the problems with being so damnably hard-wired. Once out-of-whack, it takes a while to get everything back in order. It didn't help that my phone never made it out of Florida, or at least out of the United States, and it got lost, along with my mind, I fear.

This is apparently how they like to land in Japan, like a freakin' dart, head-first! We had some interesting flights and as both of my parents were pilots, I had a pretty good idea if we were in good hands or not. We were, but we did have some interesting take-offs and landings in the 7 flights we took during the tour!

I spent a couple of weeks playing catch-up with doctors and practicing and for the first time in many a year, I was thrown for a loop with a piece of music I had *gasp!* never heard before, although I know the composer fairly well. The composer is Gustav Holst and the piece is called “Bela Mire” or something equally nondescript. I'm too lazy to go look at the thing in the next room as I pound this out on my computer, but it IS a delightful piece! The first movement is a sort of Chabrier “Espana” type of affair, with that Spanish flair to it.

We haven't played the second movement yet, and the third movement is apparently inspired by some goat herder that ol' Gustav heard from miles away, as he sat on the hillside, playing his goat-skin bagpipe, with hollowed-out goat horns for drones. According to Holst, he heard this “melody” for two-and-a-half hours and it stuck with him. And boy, howdy, will it stick with you after you've heard this bastard. It starts out kind of slow and very drone-y and mysterious in the violas, on our two lowest strings and the movement of the melody is in 4ths and 5ths, lending an open, very eerie quality to the sound. We start out so softly, you have to strain to hear us.

Meet "Wolf", my viola. He's an Italian snob, and gets his own seat whenever we fly. The gentleman next to him is Alex, who plays trombone. It was a great tour!

As the sound builds, it becomes a bit more robust, but really isn't any happier, and then all of a sudden, the oboe and winds burst forth with the upper strings (along with us) and we play this hell-bent, 20-minute (or so it seems) very closely-intervaled snake-charmer type-thing that changes meters every so often just to keep it interesting! Twenty minutes (not really) of this is really pretty mesmerizing and I can understand why Holst was taken with it, but I sure as HELL would NOT want to play this version of “Bangalore's Greatest Hits” for two-and-a-half hours. We're also playing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and I actually taught it to a student years ago.

My friend, Dana Tollan, a violinist from Rumania and I in front of Yokohama Harbor. This was about as warm as it got. From here we went to Sapporo which was 305 miles from Siberia as the crow flies. Gorgeous, ancient Sapporo, which we thoroughly enjoyed!

Even though I'm a violist, I taught violin and I had this advanced student who wanted to learn it. I thought, “Great, time for the woodshed.” I stayed just about two weeks ahead of her as we plowed through this thing. My current stand partner had done a similar thing with a student of his, so of course, we were “air-playing” the solo part in the back of the section, when the violas were resting. Never grow up. That's my motto.

Sapporo, home of Shoguns and Japanese Macaque monkeys that live in the hot springs pools.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to continuing my “Nebraska Avenue” series this year for the #A-to-Z Challenge 2017 and FINISHING it this year. I will have no commitments, or few to keep me, and will not be going on any vacation until the summer, when I hope to join my better 2/3s in the Badlands for a bit; ridin' horses and ropin' steers. Baloney. He's gonna play bass, and I'm going to SEDATELY ride whatever nag is assigned to me. . . maybe. Anyway, I've not written much lately and need to get back to it. I miss the creativity and the fun. How is your #IWSG?