Thoughts on Berg's Lulu

Thoughts on my little Lulu

Didn’t I just say Lulu isn’t easy to love? But I actually love her. Or do I?

I love the complexity of the whole thing. Berg’s opera, I mean. My relationship with Lulu is on stage, audio/visual, ergo totally platonic, to the extent that it’s even possible with her or with Lulu itself. I don’t have fantasies. Actually I don’t want her near me, near my wife or my family. But might I get to know her?

Lulu and its protagonist are projective tests right there in front of us for an evening. How we understand the abundant ambiguities of her character, her motives, her reactions are shaped as much by our models of how the world is (or how it should be) (or how it emphatically should not be) as it is by how Berg himself conceived her, and, of course, how the director conceives her and how the singing actress plays her on stage. Our needs get in the way too.

But can we love her? Would you love her? Ask yourself: how well do you tolerate serialism in music? To what degree do you need characters in opera to make sense? No, really. In general how well do you deal with ambiguity or non-sequiturs in a text…or on a date? A challenge, am I right? Are you under 35, single, alienated and lonely?

Marliss Petersen as Berg's Lulu at the Met, November 2015

Marliss Petersen as Berg's Lulu at the Met, November 2015

Thoughts here are about what we’re dealing with on stage, what Berg chose to create for us, not what he could have shown us. By his own reckoning, Berg trimmed his sources for Lulu, the two Wedekind plays, down to one fifth their original length into a workable libretto for an opera clocking just under three hours. Had he not, the confounding thing would rival the Ring in running time. Imagine that! Life is too short.

In the opera Lulu’s origins and upbringing are clouded in contradictions. Take Schigolch, the old man who wheezes into her new life with the Painter in Scene Two of Act I. Dr. Schön calls him her ‘father.’ But is he? Possibly. The Painter tags him as a beggar, but note that Lulu is not remotely surprised to see him, as if his visits have been routine in the past, like before she was hitched to the Painter. She almost seems to have expected him, he knows where she lives, although it’s possible this particular occasion is his first visit to her new digs. Note too that Schigolch calls her meine kleine Lulu, which pleases her, not Nelly, Eva, or Mignon, the names her other men use for her. He replies Hab ich dich jemals anders genannt? (Have I ever named you anything else?). There is history here.

But then in Act II, as Schigolch is trading pleasantries with the Acrobat and the Schoolboy, he says, matter of factly about Lulu "who hasn't wanted to marry her?" "Wait, she's not your child?" they ask. "No way," Schigolch replies, "she never had a father."

Okay, I'm confused. Pausing to think about it, it’s not so much that the others call her whatever they wish, it’s that they don’t seem to care, even when corrected, that she has had other possibly different identities with other persons. Are we saying to name someone is to exert control?

Or are we saying Lulu, who has no father, is also all names, the ‘everywoman,’ das ewige Weibliche who will Zieht uns hinan, scribed by Goethe (and praised to the skies by Gustav Mahler in the grand finale of his Symphony of a Thousand, soloists, chorus and orchestra intoning the text of Faust, Part Two)? Or should we think of her as Die Erdegeist, not an angel, but a low spirit of the Earth? It’s Franz Wedekind’s title for his play, which comprises approximately the first half of Berg’s libretto. She could be Venus, though somehow 'Flytrap' comes quickly to mind. She could be an incarnation of Lilith, the first and sometimes contrary wife of Adam, rib story be damned. But Lilith also sometimes could become a beast or a demon, like when she left the Garden of Eden and fornicated with someone...Sam somebody. Who cares at this point.

Yes, Schigolch needs money in Act I, but he had money once: he refers to better times in the past. We gather that he, regardless of who he really is, is never absent too long from her life. In Act II, Lulu tells Alwa that Schigolch is an old friend of Dr. Schön, that they were in the war together. But were they?

At the first curtain Lulu is and has been the mistress of the powerful newspaper man Dr. Ludwig Schön. But she is married to a rich old fossil called Herr Medizinalrat, soon to be extinct before the end of the scene. Though sex obviously enters into their long relationship, Schön has known Lulu since she was twelve: the little gamin in the streets selling flowers outside a café. She tried to steal his watch. Schön took her in. She fulfilled his every need after his wife died, perhaps even before, but it’s more than just for pleasure that Lulu feels bound to him. He has given her kindness and protection, if at the price of his soul. Watching, listening to her early in the opera, it seems that Lulu is rather like a stray cat taken in to one’s home, now here to stay. Indeed she calls herself an animal. Is this love?

But more recently, and here comes the big snag, Dr. Schön wishes to end their relationship, marry another, and return to a life a bit more normal, respectable, and public. He has tried in the past to free himself from her: not only has Schön brokered two advantageous marriages for Lulu, first to the Doctor, the above mentioned Medizinalrat, and then, after the former’s sudden death in Scene One, to the Painter. In addition, Schön has connived to have the latter’s paintings of her sold at a pretty price and has advanced her career as a dancer, with the not-so-hidden motive of attracting new suitors for her. He has made Lulu a self-supporting woman in many ways.

Still Lulu will not leave him. Unlike Nabokov’s Lolita, Lulu wants to stay with Humbert H. Schön. The stray cat hangs around. By the end of Act I, Lulu forces Schön to break his engagement to the society woman who is only a year younger than she. Lulu knows that au fond Schön is too weak to escape her. The music accompanying her protestation of their unbreakable relationship is indeed troubling.

But Alwa, Schön’s son, revolves in a similar orbit. In the Wedekind plays, Alwa is a playwright; in the opera he is a composer. We soon know who he is: when in Scene Three of Act I he wonders about the possibilities of making an opera about Lulu’s husbands, his thoughts are introduced by a quote from Berg’s Wozzeck. Alwa is Berg himself. In the Met’s new William Kentridge production, a sketch of Berg’s face is projected behind Alwa before he muses.

Why is it important to know that Alwa is Alban Berg’s on-stage persona? Well for one thing, Berg was allegedly thinking of his mistress, his soul mate in a passionate relationship crafted before and on-going all through the composition of Lulu. This passion fuels the only true love scene (such as it is) in the opera.

The links are interesting. Berg’s mistress was one Hanna Werfel Fuchs, sister to Franz Werfel, the writer who ultimately bedded, then later married Alma Schindler Mahler, whom he called a “sorceress.” Alma became his after the collapse of her affair with and marriage to the architect Walter Gropius and, more importantly, after the death of her first husband, the great Gustav Mahler, whom the entire Western musical world knows and loves.

For the record, a young Alma was pursued by Alexander Zemlinsky and even dallied with the artists Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka. They, like her proud, strong father, were artists of genius.

Anyway, Hanna Werfel was married to a Herbert Fuchs Robettin, a somebody who today is, to most of us, just a name.

Through Alma’s arrangements, Berg lodged with the Fuchs family in May of 1925 so that he could be in town to oversee the Prague premiere of his Three Fragments from [his only opera at this point] Wozzeck, conducted by the august and aforementioned Zemlinsky, who also taught music to and championed the works of Berg, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton von Webern, soon to be the giants of 20th century serialism.

For the record, digressing here, Zemlinsky wrote a number of quite interesting operas, especially Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) and Eine floritinische Tragödie (A Florintine Tragedy), both based on works by Oscar Wilde, both perversions of a hearth and home style love. He also authored respectable symphonies, song cycles, and chamber pieces.

Deeply taken with her, Berg wrote an epic musical love letter to Hanna: his 2nd string quartet, the Lyric Suite (premiered January, 1927). He used the notes (German notation) A, B (Alban Berg) and H, F (Hanna Fuchs) and their special numbers 10 and 23 as structural elements throughout the six movements, with a musical quote of the verse Du bist mein Eigen, mein Eigen (You are my one and only, my one and only) from the Third Movement of Zemlinsky’s Lyrische Symphonie (hence the title of Berg’s Suite) and a quote from the prelude of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in the final minutes. The Lyric Suite is one of Berg’s most frequently performed compositions. He dedicated the piece to Zemlinsky, but Berg, as a secret gift to Hanna, annotated all of the musical references in a special miniature score of the Lyric Suite in multicolored inks; the score was not revealed until after Hanna died in 1964.

A little aside on recording media: the back cover notes for my old Vox Stereo LP of Berg’s Lyric Suite (paired with Schonberg’s Verklärte Nacht, both elegantly recorded by the Ramor Quartet, 1963) is all about the music in the abstract. There are warnings to the buyer, but they don’t mention any subtext of the Suite addressing an immoral extramarital love affair, which, had ratings existed back then, would make it PG-13, but no, they warn that, among other things, “Your stylus should be frequently checked under a microscope; a worn out needle will ruin your entire collection; no stylus is permanent”…nor is your entire vinyl collection apparently. Neither is your mind or your body. But I've digressed again.

Alwa admits to total awe the first time he met Lulu, there, as his dear mother lay dying. He even insists, after his mother passes, that his father should marry Lulu or else fight a duel with him. Strong sentiments!

Alwa remembers when he and Lulu were youngsters together, like brother and sister, he says. How much did he know about her real place in the family? Significant that when Alwa later admits his adult love for her, he will call her Mignon.

But Lulu feels safe with him, adding that he is the only man who protects her without trying to destroy her.

By the first third of Act II, Alwa is becoming totally smitten with Lulu, as much as she is becoming selbst gesmitten with herself. Ja gewiss, she muses, ich bin ein Wunderkind (Yes certainly I am a wonderchild (in one translation, a 'miracle' in another, a 'prodigy' in yet another). To this she adds quickly Als ich mich im Spiegel sah, hätte ich ein Mann sein wollen…mein Mann (When I see myself in the mirror, I wish I were a man…my own husband). Lulu's butterfly of narcissism has broken free from its cocoon.

As Alwa begins his descent into the slavery of love he caresses her hand, her arm, saying Mignon, ich liebe dich, to which Lulu casually replies that she poisoned his mother.

Dr. Schön, now quite mad due to all the random visitors who stray in and out of his house, wants to end their relationship by forcing Lulu to shoot herself. But animals naturally are survivors: Lulu shoots him instead. Not once, five times! His dying father warns him ‘you’ll be next,’ but it doesn’t stop Alwa from taking the plunge.

So Lulu goes to prison. But she escapes through a clever but risky plan hatched by the Countess Geschwitz; Schigolch (here he is again) will bring her back to us.

Apropos to the ‘love scene’ in Lulu, Alwa (Berg) likens the movements of a chamber composition to Lulu’s anatomy (in Berg’s fantasy Hanna’s) as he explores her body: her ankles a grazioso, her knees a misterioso, and so on.

Lulu almost kills the mood by reminding Alwa that she shot his father to death, but she isn’t alone with mood killing one liners: Alwa matter of factly observes Wenn deine beiden grossen Kinderaugen nicht wären, müsste ich dich die abgefeimteste Dirne halten, die je einen Mann ins Verderben gestürzt (Were it not for your two big childlike eyes, I should say you were the most designing of whores who ever brought a man down to his doom). Thrust!

Parry! Lulu replies Wollte Gott, ich wäre das! (I wish to God I were that!).

Yet as their passions rise, Lulu chills the mood with Ist das noch der Diwan - auf dem sich - dein Vater - verblutet hat? (Is this not the divan on which your father bled?).

Why would she say that, given that Alwa is obviously so in love and aroused?

As I said in OperaMetro’s preview of the HD season, bottom of the page Metropolitan Opera ReviewsLulu is not exactly a date opera!

Lulu meets Jack the Ripper

Lulu meets Jack the Ripper

Bottom line, as she lays it out to us: she’s just an animal. At the opera's very beginning, according to the stage directions, she is carried in by the Animal Trainer's assistant August. The trainer calls her a snake.

But more than this, she says, in her aria titled the Lied von Lulu, Ich habe nie in der Welt etwas anderes scheinen wollen, als wofur man mich genommen hat; und man hat mich nie in der Welt für etwas anderes genommen, als was ich bin. (essentially “I’ve never in the world pretended to be anything I am not; no one has ever taken me for anything but what I am.”)

Popeye, somewhat less complex than Lulu, says this too: “I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam.”

And therein begins her decline. Alwa cannot support her. Lulu is still evading the police as an escaped murderess, constantly threatened with exposure. Alwa, Schigolch, and the Countess Geschwitz stick with her, but many are wiped out by a stock market crash. Cash is scarce.

In the end, in the slums of London, she is reduced to prostitution to pay the rent. Her abasement is hastened by encounters with three men of the night, counterparts to the three destroyed in her rise to the 'top.' Trying to protect her, Alwa is killed by the African Prince; Jack the Ripper, Dr. Schön’s darker persona, finally ends her Lulu's life; he also stabs Geschwitz, as if an afterthought. Schigolch, meanwhile, is downstairs in the pub.

So are we saying that Lulu can thrive only as long as Dr. Schön is alive? That she and those left behind with her were relatively powerless to take care of her? Hardly a Wunderkind. Can the Eternal Feminine be so helpless and dependent? Or that she doesn't fit in a male dominated society. Hmm. Or is it the case that the Eternal Feminine is eternally misunderstood and therefore destroyed by the eternal masculine. If you think of Lulu's arc in the opera, she becomes practically mythic, no parents, miracle, prodigy, narcissistic, but only to the extent that Alwa can love her. But then she takes the fatal misstep of shooting his father; the laws of civilization take her down. What's an archetype to do? 

Preceding Lulu there were a spate of irresistible bad girls on stage, perhaps more lovable, but some not. Following Violetta, we have Manon Lescaut, sweet but still bad news for Des Grieux; Mimi and Musetta seem to have no problem getting around without their men; Carmen is a hardened professional; Tigrana, in Puccini’s Edgar, torments and kills.

Interesting aside: to capture a more aggressive and sexual woman, as he had done in Edgar, Giacomo Puccini was urged by his publisher Ricordi to compose an opera based on La Femme et le Pantin (The Woman and the Puppet), a novel by the turn of the century French author Pierre Louÿs. It’s the tale of Conchita Perez, who arouses her man's desires to an aching peak but then torments him by refusing to allow him near her. (I won’t tell you how it ends.) Puccini waxed and waned, but he later dropped it, observing “there are no nice people in this opera.” He called her the “Spanish Slut.” Riccardo Zandonai, of Francesca da Rimini fame, later composed Conchita; it achieved a decent level of success.

When you stop to think of it, there are no nice people in Berg’s Lulu either. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to love it.

Still there were a lot of strange goings-on in those years, still speaking operatically. I mentioned Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie and Der Zwerg above, but don’t forget Strauss’s Salome (also based on Oscar Wilde). Korngold’s Violanta is hot, Schreker’s Grette in Der ferne Klang and Carlotta in Die Gezeichneten are corrupted sexually by heartless men, Brecht/Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny have their share of tarts. The turn of the century is also the time of Arthur Schnitzler’s plays and his Traumnovelle (Dream Story), the source of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). And then there is Freud.

Translations are cobbled from various libretti.

Met photos of Lulu are by Ken Howard, new production, 2015.

Karen Monson, in her 1970 biography of Alban Berg, suggests that Klimt's Judith I is nearer to the essence of Berg's Lulu. The image posted here is one of six Klimt coasters from Vienna.

Just rambling. Enjoy Lulu in HD.

Phenomenal points of entry

On the phenomenal points of entry in opera…

When? Often. Should be often, will be more often if you’re open to them. Especially if you seek them.

Where? Everywhere. Open your soul! Mindfully so.

To sleep…not an option. Per chance to dream…close.

Delimited by my title, the discourse here is on the phenomenal experience of opera and their entry points*

A phenomenal point of entry is the moment in an opera in which you and the performance connect emotionally, psychologically, perhaps even spiritually. The music, the voices, the drama, the performers, the sets and costumes, some mix of these, whatever, come together, maybe even all at once. The moment coalesces into a true Maslovian peak experience. You're now in the 'zone.'

Before a point of entry opens for you, the last act was ‘nice,’ at least that, one hopes, but now, as the lights go down for the next act, maybe you’re thinking about something you forgot to say to your friend during the intermission and actually a little peeved that you’ll have to hold that thought until some 40 minutes later. But if you’re thinking about this matter and how you're going to phrase it, and about your friend's reactions you’re not in the moment of the lights going down in front of you and the next act about to begin. The lights down should be a cue to get into the zone again, but only if you've been there before.

Then comes the ‘point.’ You can feel it. The point of entry is when the very portals of your aesthetic soul open. You are now receptive, exposed, emotionally raw, ‘at one’ with the moment. Everything is ‘on,’ everything tingles and glows. The voices, the singers' interactions on stage, the phrases in the orchestra, the body language of the conductor, the sets, the colors, even the shadows on the sets seem very charged. It’s electric. You shudder; you weep.

Hopefully you are not alone: you sense the sudden silence of those around you, as if no one is breathing. You can feel it. They, too, have become a part of your experience, as you have become a part of theirs. It is transpersonal. And the performers can sense it as well, a total communion, a perfect emotional/aesthetic storm.

Wagner wrote extensively about the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk and also about the practice of the art of transition from one receptive emotional state to the next. Suddenly you find yourself on the same page and experience what he’s talkin’ about, what he strove to create. Heinz Werner called the level of involvement syncretic, where one’s powers of rational abstraction go under, sort of like the daylight photoreceptors in your eye go under as the level of light dims to make way for the night receptors. These process neither sharp images nor color, hence at night things are more diffuse and shades of gray. The libretto for Tristan und Isolde is actually a psychological textbook for this sort of stuff. Names, individuality, honor and glory are all abstractions; the boundaries of the individual become diffuse in the Liebesnacht..

Once you've experienced a receptive zone it's easier to re-enter one during other performances. You can almost sense when the whole thing comes together. It's why people become fans of the opera. Sure reading about it, listening to it with half an ear while driving or while your kids are running around in and out can be pleasant, better than television, but the core of loving the art form is that it makes us crazy.

Not just opera of course: phenomenal points of entry, changes in receptivity for all sorts of experiences, are everywhere. Be open, remember.

It’s the point at which the novelist, the poet, a character in a film or in Shakespeare speaks directly to you and moves you deeply. Could be the best known parts, “To be or not to be,” but could be just a phrase or a gesture. It was always there in performance the other times, but it hits you hard this time in a way you hadn’t expected.

The snow at night in the dead of winter when your senses come alive

The snow at night in the dead of winter when your senses come alive

 It’s the fine cognac or single malt Scotch, or an elegant wine by the fireside that competes with the blowing snow outside. Friends dear to you enhance the moment with their stories of your collective pasts. And, during a pause, there and then you realize that Mahler's Fourth Symphony is all about Christmas and family.

It’s the point where you realize that you actually love the person who has been inching closer to you all evening, more than just ‘like’ her only as a good friend, a fellow student or a pleasant co-worker. or a regular at the coffee shop. It’s postural, it’s facial, it’s intonation, and so it’s not just ‘Hey, I really enjoyed chatting with you, perhaps we can see each other again maybe?’ But, without getting completely carried away, like saying the stuff Tristan and Isolde sing on and on about in Act II, which, digressing off the subject here, you’ll find when you read it, is quite different from the first three quarters of Act I when she’s so pissed off at him and he, the poor Held, is doing everything he can to keep his rational “Hey, I’m just the courier here” thing together. Nice try, Tris. Their meeting of eyes in Ireland, he lying there wounded, she, sword in hand, raised, about to finish him off, was their first point of entry. It must have been intense! It's why she's so mad in Act I.

It’s waking up on the muddy hillside at Woodstock looking out over the sea of people, to the morning maniac music of Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane as we greet the dawn together.

It’s making love in the sand dunes on a warm summer night while the stars are shooting over your…ocean. Or it’s the view across the bay at cocktails, the squawking of gulls silhouetted against the orange glow of the setting sun, the warm breeze, it’s all as much a part of the moment as the electricity of her presence, her fragrance, her smile and the promise of tomorrow. The sunset babe. Perfect.

As I said...perfect!

As I said...perfect!

It’s your wedding day, the middle of your honeymoon, the birth of your children, and their childhood. It's having cats to nap with. It is the surreal depth of emotion at the passing of your elders and their forever absence. All the music associated with them returns you to those moments together. It’s being in Italy with those you love. It's dancing at your daughter's wedding.

It's winning eleven National Championships in Women's NCAA Basketball.

It’s the taste of the salmon caught straight out of the loch for your dinner after the long drive through the chilly mists of Scotland.

Or it’s when the experience of les petites madeleines with warm tea ushers back memories of your childhood. (Actually it's his childhood: Marcel Proust, le grand Introspector General, says it all. It’s a long read to be sure, but worth almost every single page, at least a high percentage...Take the plunge!)

More than that, perfect storm again: your first opera of the new season is enhanced as much by the excitement of it all, the buzz, as by the warmth of the evening sun in your face as you walk across the Plaza in early fall, before the onset of the cruel New York winter when the same path feels similar to what one imagines Siberia to be like even on a nice day in January.

And so on.  And the moments compound across time into grand emotional schema which in turn color the present with anticipation.

Writing about the above or the below is nowhere near as magical or as profound as the experiences themselves. The act of writing with words about something that is experiential is the abstraction that pulls one from the moment.

Everything must have a beginning. Before a phenomenal point of entry opens, the opera, the symphony, the novel, the person standing near you may seem opaque, just sound, words, a stranger. Think about it. I’ll bet you, dear reader (I sound like Henry Fielding here) can remember back when an opera was just noise or, if your parents were watching one on TV or playing one loudly on the stereo, so loud you could hear it even outside and you’d be embarrassed to invite your friends to come back to the house that afternoon.

After all, what is opera anyway? Just a lot of older heavy folks in wigs and clunky costumes pretending to be teenagers on stage yelling at each other. Right? “It’s sort of nice, Mom, but I really don’t see the point…why do they have to scream like that?”

My count is easily over 150, but for each of the operas I deeply love I remember clearly the experiential path from when it seemed more or less like an opaque wall of sound to the point of entry, when, either accidentally or purposefully through study and preparation by sheer effort of will, the door of perception opened, leading eventually, though not always immediately, to a state of togetherness, depth of feeling and, yes, bliss (I sound like Joseph Campbell here). I should add that my friends think I'm just easily entertained. Some truth to that I suppose.

For me as a kid the path most often started with the first time I heard some of an opera on the radio, perhaps the Saturday matinee broadcast from the Met, though I was not usually at home on a Saturday afternoon, or, more likely, the Sunday afternoon broadcast of new opera recordings on WQXR or, once a year, the Bayreuth broadcasts on WBAI. Those really were the days my friends! Of course recordings were important. But always it was just sound at first, not yet the storm, and I didn’t understand the languages yet.

I quickly discovered that my aural perception was heightened by sound in the dark, without distraction, without competition from my other senses. Still today I sometimes close my eyes so as hear better, especially if I've seen the same cast and production earlier in the season.

It was just sound when, visiting friends, I heard for the first times the Immolation Scene, one with Eileen Farrell and the other with a ‘mature’ Kirsten Flagstad on a complete Götterdämmerung on LP (from Olso, as I recall). Okay. Loud but okay.

However nothing really could have prepared me for the impact of Siegfried’s Funeral March, leading to Birgit Nilsson’s Immolation Scene in performance at the Met in December of 1963. Shattering, overwhelming. It was my third opera in the house and though I’d heard Meistersinger only a few weeks earlier that season, the impact of the ultimate Ring score played and sung live hit me very hard. I think I was trembling for two full days afterward. My teenage nervous system was never the same; the cathexis had begun.

I, too, believe that some operas are easier to connect with than others. For the record, I’d NEVER recommend Götterdämmerung as a good ‘first time’ live opera. A so-called beginner’s opera is more ‘accessible’ and, think about it, therefore likely to be performed more frequently by virtue of the fact that neophytes and tourists will take up the remaining seats on any given evening.

But even a beginner’s opera like Aïda, La Bohème or Carmen (often referred to as the ABCs of Opera), each attractive at first hearing for different reasons, has its entry points for deeper levels of involvement beyond “that’s nice, let's chat at the next intermission.”

I always enjoyed, but never particularly cared too deeply at first for any of them. Oh sure, Luciano Pavarotti singing Rodolfo at the Met in 1977 was thrilling, you’d have to be made of stone not to respond to him, as was a young José Carreras, who sang in later performances that same season. But true love worked its magic with my point of entry, our point I should say, because my soon-to- be wife was with me: it was the experience of the new Franco Zeffirelli La Bohème with Teresa Stratas, Carreras, conducted by James Levine in January of 1982. I, she, they, all together and the snow gently falling outside through the intermission before the final act imprinted the evening forever. We went twice, saw the telecast twice. A few years later, January of 1988, same production, Pavarotti, Mirella Freni and Carlos Kleiber would recreate the magic for us. We and my mother-in-law wept. It snowed that night too, as I recall. None of us has been the same since.

When the doors of experience open wide, where it all comes together and we are ready, the performances, more satisfying aesthetically and emotionally, rank among the more memorable in a lifetime of seasons.

On the other hand, there is nothing more frustrating in terms of time, energy, and money, therefore nothing more 'expensive' than a performance that, for any number of reasons, not only denies aesthetic and emotional satisfaction but also insults our intelligence as seasoned, reasoned passionate opera lovers.

Some producers today don’t actually hear the music. Or they're colorblind. Or they haven’t read the text, or if they have, they don’t particularly care or think we care. Some don’t understand their characters or how real humans interact. Some modern producers seem to think that an ironic distance, even if it risks a disconnection through laughter, is the deconstructively correct response to a scene which, when directed by someone else who actually understands the music/text/psychology of it all, would normally evoke a deeper emotion. They seem to overlook the more likely truth that the majority in the audience is there for the experience the composer and librettist intended.

Updating or reconceiving the drama in opera can and has worked. I’m not drawing a line in the sand with my saber. But it is to say that if an opera company expects its paying customers to be mindful, intelligent, and emotionally responsive patrons, AND come back to see the production again and again, one should be mindful of these parameters.

Wagner’s exposition of the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk suggests that he knew exactly what he wanted as he created the great Ring Cycle, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal. How sad today we often get Gesamtschmutzwerk instead.

Enjoy. JRS

* The content limits I set for this posting are only fair. My in site., I mean. Otherwise it could as well be called or, either of which, I suppose, could work, but then, implicitly, there’d be too many paths of conscious experience to cover and, truth is, time and space matter in my world, as most likely they do in yours. One can’t do everything… though as I’d often point out to my dear old buddy Niki: a cat might try.

'In site' is intentional.