The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘opera’

New Myths

September 25, 2015 | by

Sir Harrison Birtwistle and David Harsent’s operas breathe life into old stories with new perspectives.

Elizabeth Atherton and Mark Padmore in The Corridor at Aldeburgh Festival. © Aldeburgh Music. Photo by Clive Barda

Opera can sometimes be a gory feast: Strauss’s Salome kisses a severed head before being slain by Herod’s soldiers, Britten’s Peter Grimes drowns at sea after being chased by an angry mob, Tippett’s King Priam is murdered after his entire family has either abandoned him or perished, while Puccini’s Tosca leaps to her doom after her lover is shot by a firing squad. All that violence is usually the bloody result of a quest for love and liberty. Indeed, as Sir Harrison Birtwistle and David Harsent’s latest chamber opera, The Cure, demonstrates, the moments we think will be our happiest often turn into our most tragic.

In The Cure, Jason and Medea have returned to Iolcos with the golden fleece so that Jason can finally reclaim his throne. But Jason’s father, Aeson, is on the verge of dying, and so Jason asks Medea the witch for yet another favor—as though killing her own brother to help Jason escape from Colchis hadn’t been enough. “I will give you children,” he says, “Give Aeson back his youth.” Not because Jason loves his father, but because he wants the old man to celebrate his triumph and “sing and dance with us.” It doesn’t get more egotistical than that. Nobody asks the old king whether he wants to drink from the fountain of youth; they simply force it down his throat: Read More »

French Frame Frenzy, and Other News

September 24, 2015 | by

Image via J. Paul Getty Museum / Hyperallergic

  • We’re in the midst of serializing Chris Bachelder’s novel The Throwback Special—a book about middle-aged men who meet annually to reenact the 1985 NFL game in which Joe Theismann fractured his leg on live TV—whose whole gestalt I’ve tried in vain to describe to people. Fortunately, in a new interview Bachelder does my work for me: “The play is just five seconds long, but it has extraordinary density and power. It’s like some kind of astronomical event … Even if you know nothing about Lawrence Taylor or Theismann or the NFC East or the 1985 season or what quarter it was or what the score was, you still have this visceral reaction to this gruesome injury. You can still feel the terrible randomness and chaos. It opens up the awful possibility in our minds that any single play—or any single plan or design—could end up like this. All of this interests me, and the play is useful to me as a writer because it’s so contained and discrete. It’s not like trying to write about an entire game or an entire season … So the play itself is circumscribed and dramatic, but the novel is primarily concerned with it as a locus of nostalgia for these middle-aged men. There is something almost primitively spiritual about their desire to reenact this disastrous play.”
  • Real talk from across the pond: “I was the head of the Piers Gaveston Society, which is the society that David Cameron allegedly stuck his dick in a pig for. I never did that … No one, as far as I know, fucked a pig’s head. But if they had it wouldn’t have mattered (provided it was consensual). Fucking a pig’s head is not what makes David Cameron a rubbish prime minister.”
  • In LA, a new opera called Hopscotch is testing the limits of the genre—it’s set in cars, and the audience has to climb into a limousine to start: “Attendees will be told to show up at their start time at an address along one of three colored routes. Once inside the limo, they will be driven, along with a handful of musicians, for about ten minutes. Throughout this approximately ten-minute ‘scene,’ which, yes, takes place inside a car, a vocalist may sing along with a prerecorded track playing on the car’s stereo, or there could be two singers and an alto saxophone, or the car may drive by a quartet on the street and the sound will be piped into the limousine as it passes … The car will arrive at a location where the group will disembark to witness the next scene, which will take place in a public space. Once that concludes, the group will be ushered into a different limousine, inside which the next scene will unfold.”
  • Today in thoughtful remarks on largely forgotten Portuguese modernist classics about existential despair: pause to remember Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, which is “much more philosophical quandary than it is a novel, and retroactively engineered at that, where various editors and translators arranged the hundreds of fragments and diary-type entries. As a result, no two editions are truly the same in order or content (my edition by the British publisher Serpent Tail Classics was on the slender side, only 272 pages, whereas the Penguin edition is 544 pages). Throughout the course of the ‘novel,’ Soares documents his days as a bookkeeper on Rua Douradores and the heavy ontological and existential musings that weigh down his hours, particularly the disconnect between the vivid world of the mind and the monotony of a daily, work-driven existence.”
  • Art history’s all well and good, but what’s really instructive is the history of the French frame: “Louis XIII was fond of an Italian influence in his frames, while Louis XIV, being ostentatious in all corners of life, preferred the gilding and carving to be as elaborate as possible. Later Louis XV honed it down for more stately, but still very sculptural shapes, and finally Louis XVI favored an even more subdued aesthetic, although it all came crashing down with the French Revolution. Nevertheless, this frenzy for frames had an impact on the exhibition of art across the continent.”

Without Need of Makeup, and Other News

August 4, 2015 | by


An 1889 poster for Sissieretta Jones, who sang opera but gave recitals, because she was never hired by opera houses.

  • Some writers take years to finish their novels. These people are fools: writing a novel takes only seventy-five minutes, if you crowdsource it effectively. This Saturday, the sci-fi author Chris Farnell will prove it at a “Geekfest” panel in Heathrow: “the fifty or so attendees of the panel will spend about forty-five minutes collaboratively hammering out a plot, characters and structure. Then, for the next half an hour, each of them will be given one chapter to write, and the results will be collected together, lightly edited, and published as a free ebook.” The book stands little chance of being good—but the same could be said of those that take years to limp their ways to the finish line.
  • Opera has a long and vexed tradition of blackface—and the Met, this season, has finally put an end to their use of “dark makeup,” prompting a reconsideration of the role of African Americans in the opera. “Too many Black artists have devoted their lives to opera, working inside and outside the establishment, sharing their insights, pleasure, and critiques, to allow their art to be sidestepped in this way. Besides more opportunities for Black singers on stage, says Dr. Gregory Hopkins, artistic director of Harlem Opera Theater, there needs to be recognition of works in which Black artists can ‘tell our own stories, without need of makeup, where we’re not being dressed up to look like someone else.’ ”
  • Why is everyone still obsessed with the Bloomsbury Group, a century later? Because it was elitist: “Paradoxically, the idea of the Bloomsbury Group as socially, intellectually and artistically exclusive is bound up with its wider appeal. Close the door and people come knocking … Establishing an explicitly exclusive and anti-populist club is, of course, a long-established route to long-term popularity.”
  • Charles Simic interviews his brother about New York’s jazz scene in the sixties: “[Jackie McLean] told me about his first time playing at Birdland. It was 1952 or something, with Miles Davis. The very first solo he took that night, he was so nervous he stopped, turned around and went back through the curtain at the back of the stage and into the dressing room behind it and threw up. Oscar Goodstein, the Birdland manager, ran in and yelled at him, ‘Get back on stage!’ Jackie goes back out, finishes his solo and gets a big round of applause from the audience. Miles turns to him and says, ‘Man, I’ve never seen that one before!’ ”
  • Today in walking metaphors: hitchBOT, a Canadian robot attempting to hitchhike to San Francisco, was found brutally dismembered in Philadelphia. “We know that many of hitchBOT’s fans will be disappointed, but we want them to be assured that this great experiment is not over,” its creators said in a statement. “For now, we will focus on the question: ‘What can be learned from this?’ and explore future adventures for robots and humans.”

Drunk in Love

March 26, 2015 | by

Sixty-four years later, The Tales of Hoffmann continues to delight and perplex.

a Michael Powell Emeric Pressburger The Tales of Hoffmann Criterion DVD PDVD_005

A still from The Tales of Hoffmann.

Lovers of the recherché have flocked to see Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1951 Tales of Hoffmann at Film Forum, where it’s still showing for one more day. In a newly restored print, the film’s fantastical mise-en-scène and extravagant polychrome glory assault viewers head on for a hundred and thirty-three minutes. At each screening, Martin Scorsese introduces Hoffmann in a videotaped homily, during which he confesses to an “obsession” with the film, having first fallen for it, strangely enough, when it aired in black-and-white on Million Dollar Movie. Most critics rave or rant, or both, about this odd work. The amiable William Germano, the author of a smart, slim volume about the film for the British Film Institute, spoke at the screening I attended, and his was one of the more measured, sanguine appreciations: “Whatever Hoffmann was, there had never been a cinematic creation quite like this one.” Read More »

“A Noisy Cavalcade of Fraud,” and Other News

February 5, 2015 | by


“Ingenious mendacity” ... How much do you have?

  • A reminder from literature: capitalism was always a disaster, even in the days when virtue and commerce were thought to go hand in hand. “The gentlemanly capitalism we were brought up to believe in was, if not wholly mythical, a sideshow in a noisy cavalcade of fraud, theft, and what Walter Bagehot called ‘ingenious mendacity’ on all sides … We should return to the pages of Dickens and Trollope to remind ourselves that there were wrong ’uns at every level and turn of nineteenth-century commerce, from crooked agents, clerks, brokers, and jobbers to ‘lords on the take, knights on the make’—and that ‘the thieves were often difficult to distinguish from the legitimate,’ to the cost of the ill-informed and gullible investor and customer.”
  • In Donetsk, Ukraine, as artillery continues to barrage the city, the show must go on. “The persistent shelling was barely audible through the thick stone walls of the Donetsk National Academic Opera … The highly regarded opera continues a regular schedule of weekend performances, as does the neighboring dramatic theater. Performers at the popular Donetsk circus, having finished their New Year’s routines, are planning a new round of shows in February. The planetarium open every weekend. Many cinemas are operating.”
  • Akhil Sharma on Chekhov the journalist: “Sakhalin Island is the greatest work of journalism from the nineteenth century … It has the pleasure of moving through a physical, distinct world and the keenness of documentary analysis.”
  • Van Gogh, method actor: He began his professional life “in the Borinage, the former industrial and mining region to the southwest of Mons … He originally intended to be a pastor, but the sickly, impoverished mining communities were often baffled by his attempts at asceticism and his clumsy efforts to fit in by wearing rags, blackening his face and sleeping on the ground.”
  • “Many of us have at least one thing we have put our name to that we have later regretted and desperately hoped might never again resurface to embarrass us, something that is far from guaranteed in an age of social-media outrage cycles … Pat Conroy’s novel The Great Santini was such a thinly-veiled portrayal of his tyrannical military father that Conroy’s mother presented it to the judge at her divorce proceedings, saying, ‘everything you need is in there.’ ”


Political Theater

October 28, 2014 | by

The Death of Klinghoffer and grand opera’s political tradition.


The Death of Klinghoffer. Photo: Metropolitan Opera

Opera is the most pretentious art form of all time, which makes it an easy target for the Marx Brothers and for Bugs Bunny—but its pretension makes it explosive. And—surprise—even in the wake of the death of City Opera and the Met’s labor disputes, it is explosive in America, where a revival of an American opera about the death of an American against the backdrop of international geopolitics has become a scandal or a sensation, depending on who you talk to. (Whether it’s selling tickets, only Peter Gelb can tell us.)

No recent film or album or musical has caused the kind of agony that John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer has; outside the Met, hundreds of protesters have accused it of anti-Semitism. Its reception makes any real appraisal of its virtues or weaknesses impossible—the same fate that befell, say, Parsifal, Birth of a Nation, Guernica, and Cradle Will Rock, in their times.

Why has Klinghoffer faced such intense hostility? An English friend recently said to me, with enormous authority and disdain, You have no tradition of political theater in America. That statement is absurd, but the following is true: England has Shakespeare’s histories, continental Europe has opera, and America has … Shakespeare’s histories and Europe’s operas. I should note that I ran this by an extremely knowledgeable friend last night, who was distraught at this simplification; We did have a tradition, he said, And it was systematically eradicated and watered down by McCarthyism, and many of us have worked very, very hard to bring it back! He’s right, of course. That said, we do not have an ongoing, unbroken, native, above-ground tradition of accepted political theater. We have musicals, yes, but the musical has never had the direct connection to political power and patronage that the London stage, the Paris Opera, and Bayreuth do. And so we tend to be both overawed by and suspicious of these forms. They have a special status, but their political content is not ours.

Since it’s not ours, we may not understand how inextricably bound the art and the politics are. Carl Dahlhaus’s magisterial book Nineteenth-Century Music turns the usual narrative of classical music—its inevitable march toward atonality and modernism—on its head. Music, he says, was an instrument and an expression of political power, inextricably bound up in economic, class, and religious transformations, and above all in the rise of nationalism. In his panorama, chamber music, the symphony, and solo music fall away, leaving a century of choral music, operetta, and, at the dead center, opera. Read More »