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This week's featured recording:

Selections from "Sports and Diversions"
by Erik Satie

This weekend is Labor Day weekend in the United States, affectionately known as the end of summer. Before plunging into the Autumnal season, here are musically represented several summer activities, courtesy of Mr. Satie. In several small doses (often no more than 30 seconds) here are a few of his 20 odd (and we do mean odd) selections:

La Peche (fishing)
Le Yachting
Le Bain de mer (sea bathing)

Le Golf
Le Picque-nique (in America, ants must have made off with all those extra letters)
Le Water-chute (weeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!)
Le Tennis
"Classic" Blog (week of Sept. 1)
The blogger is on Summer vacation. Here are
some articles from the early days of the blog:

from The Listening room -- Monday 1/28/13
some assembly required
I get all my piano sonatas at IKEA

from the Teaching studio -- Wednesday 1/30/13
before you can't get that song out of your head you have to put it in there

from the Visible Organist Friday 2/1/13
Easter, out of season  
musical cheer as a salve for melancholy

A Night at the (concept) Opera
first posted February 1, 2011

Kristen and I have been to the opera twice recently, once in Vienna and once in New York. Both of these stagings, one by a small company and one by the Mighty Metropolitan, have been what we'll call 'updates' of venerable old classics. What I mean is that they left the music alone, but the sets and costumes, and therefore the place of the story, were quite removed from anything that would have been part of the original production.


This isn't anything new. Updated Shakespeare--Hamlet on a motorcycle, Macbeth as part of a street gang in 1950s New York, anything to relieve the tedium of presenting the same works exactly the same way every time--has become quite the fashion for opera and theater companies for as far back as I remember (which is only a couple of decades, by the way!). Sometimes the production is simply moved, lock, stock, and barrel (to borrow a phrase from the distant past) into a new century and a new place. In other productions, the whole idea of time and place seems completely obliterated and fantastical and experimental elements take over the set, and the people who inhabit them. Once, a few years ago, Kristen was watching a very 'avant-garde' staging of Parsifal in Germany. She fell asleep at some point and when she woke up there were electric sheep on the stage! I don't know Parsifal very well, but I feel pretty certain that Wagner did not include any parts for electric sheep. (besides, the tenors wouldn't like the competition)


People weigh in all over the spectrum on the wisdom of such a thing, naturally, and my guess would be that most of them don't like it. The average opera-goer being much more conservative than your average creative artist. Particularly if they are in attendance for an opera that is a celebrated standard, known and liked by the multitude, hallowed by time, and sanctified by tradition, which means it is seasoned by the personas of those who have sung its major roles before.

But the production heads do it anyway, because they were born to be creative talents rather than slavish robots, and because they feel they have something to say. This usually means things are going to seem new.


Now I mentioned two productions. The first was properly termed an update, with a bit of license. The opera was by Haydn, not a recognizable classic, and a little creaky of plot. Meaning, a girl sang about the pain of unrequited love, her lover returned, she was reunited with him and oh by the way her younger sister got a go at the other fella and all ended happily, two couples veering off into the operatic sunset.


If you think that seems a bit saccharine for the 21st century you might have enjoyed this production. Any time a savvy, reality-bound person might have pointed at his or her open mouth and made gagging noises, the production was there to agree. This was done without changing a note of the music or altering the libretto (as far as I could make out.) At the end, when the big sis tried to hook up her little sis with the one available male on stage to provide the expected happy happy Baroque opera ending, things seemed a trifle forced, and the staging made that clear. It also looked as though her guy, none too happy about things (I believe there was gunpoint involved), was probably going to dump her five minutes after the curtain fell. You just can't force a mindlessly happy ending on singers these days!


Meanwhile, the heroine had sung most of her arias in her pajamas, in the shockingly unBaroque bedroom which we would never see in a period production, while her little sister played with stuffed animals. Message: these girls are too young to be messing around with love. They are pretty naive, even for opera characters. They need to get out and see the world a bit, like their romantic ideals, two World War One flyboys who kept dropping in on ropes.

The second production is likely to get more criticism. It has been in full view of a New York audience for a month now, and it takes the idea of time and place much farther afield than simply setting it a couple of centuries hence. Ironically, Verdi had hoped to have "La Traviata" set in his own time and place, to make the situation in the opera seem not so remote, but the censors of his day wouldn't allow it. Back then, the fashion in opera staging was to put everything at a two century remove.


Poor art! It is criticized for having nothing to do with real life, and then, whenever it tries to show itself relevant, it is pushed back down in the box and the lid clamped on!


Verdi may have gotten his wish this month, though I doubt he could have imagined this production. It features a mostly bare stage, a large curvaceous bench around the edges, and an enormous clock, to remind us of the time the heroine has left to live, not because of unrequited love, but from a terminal illness. "This opera" writes the head of the production, "is about death." And so, a minor character who is barely noticeable in the original but is Violeta's doctor, becomes a personification of death, silent, but continually showing up in the midst of revelry to remind her that she is running out of time. He is on the stage alone when the house opens, and he participates in the pantomime during the overture. Both productions, by the way, featured choreographed visual presentations during the overture, a piece of music that was once simply for listening and preparation of the opera to come. Now it is usually part of a multi-media presentation, a concession to the idea that we will no longer tolerate having only some of our senses stimulated at once.


Those senses certainly were. Convinced that "all eyes must be on" the star, the heroine was presented in a red cocktail dress, surrounded by a chorus in black tuxedos--as if people who had seen previous productions were ever guilty of looking elsewhere! And the minimal set pieces--a few couches--continue the trend of a few bold, simple strokes. The fellow in charge of this new production is convinced that he is not 'tampering' with the opera, but allowing it to reveal itself, its message. And he is good with the rhetoric. Audiences, he says, can tell the difference between allowing the opera to shine and using it as a vehicle to show off one's own ideas, and the mark of their appreciation is a guarantor of an authentic approach.


I'll disagree with him a bit here, but I found myself liking the production. And the Haydn as well. The curiously "Romantic" philosophy behind these new stagings--claiming to only reveal while heavily interpreting the contents--has been with us for a while and it isn't going away.  It is a philosophy in which analysis speaks loudly. But at least it is interesting. And I think Verdi, and Haydn will live. Operas this old and composers this respected  have works which are separate in our consciousness from any individual staging. The public can easily say, "well, I like the Verdi, but I did/did not like this particular version of it." In other words, no zealous interpreter can doom the opera by making it mean something it was never meant to mean. Next time it will bounce back--or at least in another direction.


This won't prevent some members of the audience from complaining that they didn't like it. Lusty boos and loss of ticket sales accompanied one such Metropolitan update last year. It is one of the things that give drama to the life of an artist. And it reminds us all to stay in shape. The New York audiences have been pretty civil, but you never really know when you may have to escape out of a window!


9/1 (2/1/11)