Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Magic Flute Beethoven Variations - "Only Make Believe"

For Princeton University Concerts I recently contributed some thoughts on Beethoven's variations on "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen." Special thanks to Concert Manager Marna Seltzer and her newly-instituted "Princeton Voices" portion of the concert programs for the opportunity to take a walk down my operatic memory lane and speculate about first-act love duets more generally:

As far as Mozart’s operas go, The Magic Flute was my first love. I’m not sure why I bought that particular box set my first year of college and not a Don Giovanni or Figaro. Although the cast is more than respectable—Samuel Ramey as Sarastro, Francisco Araiza as Tamino, Cheryl Studer as the Queen of the Night, with Sir Neville Marriner conducting—it’s not a necessarily legendary recording. But when you’re a newcomer you don’t quibble over particulars, and this version had more than enough to seduce me. My enchantment was no likely aided by the fact that I was studying German at the time; in retrospect, the lofty rhetoric and melodramatic gestures of the libretto must have stood in stark contrast to the everyday language skills I was seeking to acquire.

In The Magic Flute the lovers Pamina and Tamino must endure three trials to prove their love and reach their happy ending. But this doesn’t happen until after intermission. You certainly don’t want the audience to wait until the second half for a good love duet, and why let the plot hold you back? In this sense we can hear the duet between Pamina and the hapless Papageno—“Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” (“A man who’s touched by love’s emotion”)— as a classic conditional love song. Such devices never get old: just ask Jerome Kern (“Only Make Believe” from Showboat) or Rodgers and Hammerstein (“People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma!). Unlike Magnolia and Laurey, however, Pamina doesn’t get to sing with her true love; but Papageno hasn’t found his mate either, so they make do with one another, singing in aspirational terms about their yearning:

Love can lighten every sorrow.
Every creature pays her due.
Love today and love tomorrow
Keep nature’s circle turning true.

Beethoven must leave the words of the duet behind to compose for the voiceless piano and cello, but the text seems to linger in a conditional manner. And whether you’ve heard the original duet once or a hundred times, you can hear in each of Beethoven’s variations if not the actual words, an abiding sense of aspiration. Each variation is something of a pleasant trial, with each iteration getting us closer to the goal: “The greatest joy that each may own— / To live by love, by love alone.”

(Translations are by J. D. McClatchy from his excellent new collection of Seven Mozart Librettos.)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Broadway in Boulder

This weekend I'm off to Boulder, Colorado to participate in the sixth Susan Porter Memorial Symposium, this year focusing on "Classic Broadway and Those Who Built it." My talk stems from my ongoing obsession/fascination with the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" sequence in The King and I, which if you haven't seen, is really something to behold.

Like many Broadway musicals themselves, it's an odd duck, using less than ideologically pure means (minstrel-like conventions and the legacy of the Uncle Tom Show) for ostensibly politically liberal ends. A "puzzlement" indeed, as the King might put it. Especially when you consider it in the context of other, less self-consciously troubled minstrel numbers from the era, such as this killer routine from, of all places, White Christmas.

Indeed, there's something about Vermont and minstrel shows. To cite another movie musical, there's the fantastic "Get Happy" number from Summer Stock. More seriously, but hardly less strange, was Ralph Ellison's encounter with an "Uncle Tom Show" as he was beginning work on Invisible Man in rural Vermont. He famously happened upon:

…a poster announcing the performance of a “Tom Show,” that forgotten term for blackface minstrel versions of Mrs. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I had thought such entertainment a thing of the past, but there in a quiet northern village it was alive and kicking, with Eliza frantically slipping and sliding on the ice, still trying—and that during World War II!—to escape the slavering hounds.

As for the enduring legacy of minstrelsy, old habits really do die hard. I can only ask you to consider what was the first joke you ever learned to tell. For me, and I would guess many others, it was the old minstrel standard: "-Why did the chicken cross the road? -To get to the other side..." We all, it would seem, have got a bit of minstrel in us...

Friday, July 2, 2010

Glimmerglass and Historically Informed Musical Theater?

The soon-to-be rechristened Glimmerglass Festival just announced plans for its 2011 season, the first under the direction of new General and Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, who will take over as of September 1. Instead of their usual four opera productions, the Festival (notably dropping the word opera...) will henceforth present three operas and one work of American musical theater as part of its summer repertory season. This reconfiguration is interesting enough in and of itself, but they've also added an interesting twist.

It's a fact that opera in America has always operated in tandem with musical theater traditions, and kudos for Glimmerglass for helping to break down the divide between the two genres. And the choice of "Annie Get Your Gun" as their first musical theater offering is telling of their commitment. Had they gone with the more high-arty "West Side Story" or something by Sondheim (where opera companies usually go when they want to go slumming in the non-operatic) we might be more suspicious about the claim. But "Annie" is Broadway all the way...imagine Ethel Merman belting out "Doin' What Comes Nat'rally" at La Scala!

The extra twist is this: per the Glimmerglass press release, the operas and musical will be performed "as intended with full orchestra, large cast and no sound amplification." This will indeed be an interesting experiment, going against the trend of "minimalist" (i.e. less expensive to finance) Broadway productions in recent years, and also taking Broadway into the tricky territory of historically informed performance practice, until recently the province of classical performers. Perhaps the new Glimerglass marketing slogan will be something along the lines of, "Doin' What Comes Authentic'lly."

The claim to "authenticity" (implied in the understated "as intended" of the press release) is of course always dubious, since it's not self-evident that Irving Berlin, much less Georges Bizet, would have ever "intended" their score to be performed a couple of miles from the Baseball Hall of Fame. And as Helmuth Rilling famously quipped, it's great to have period performance practices, but a shame we don't have period audiences. But the claim to authenticity aside, the new profile for Glimmerglass promises to be a worthy experiment. For one we will get to hear what Broadway shows sound like without the microphones. But more important, the Festival can perhaps help chart a middle way for the future of smaller opera companies in the USA. For it's not clear whether anything opera can do, musical theater can do better...or vice versa. So they might as well take a cue from "Annie," and go on with the show, together.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Giving the nation a new syncopation...

Ragtime is back on Broadway. Run, do not walk to go see it! I will disclose a bit of personal bias: As a former Kennedy Center staffer I'm more than a bit proud to see the JFKCPA transfer one of its productions to the Great White Way. And even prouder to see DC-theater stalwarts like Tracy Lynn Olivera and Donna Migliaccio get a moment in the sun in NYC. The production has gotten even tighter since its run at the Kennedy Center earlier this year...here's hoping for a sackful of Tonys.

I won't rehearse the plot here or offer too much of an analysis of the story, because you should really see it for yourself. And to let you in on the story ahead of time would take away one of the most magical elements of the show--that despite a cast of what seems like thousands and multiple intertwining plot strands, you never get confused by what's going on. [Nothing that follows is a spoiler per se, but if you want to be extra careful you might skip to the next paragraph now.] And this is in a show that includes, among other things: a couple of trips to the Arctic, an outing to a baseball game, and appearances by erstwhile HNIC Booker T. Washington, rolling-over-in-his-grave-over-TARP J. P. Morgan, and the unstoppable labor crusader Emma Goldman. Oh, and there's also a rags-to-riches immigrant success story, a troubled romance between a young woman and a famous Ragtime pianist--complete with a love child, and some nasty Irish firefighters. And Harry Houdini! And that's leaving out a lot...

Many people read the show's conclusion in a straightforward manner, in which all of the complicated strands of the plot seem to resolve in a satisfying multicultural tableau. America has succeeded...melting pot (or salad bowl, or gumbo...) accomplished. But to take the ending at face value is to miss the larger point of the show. In fact, what's so great about Ragtime is the way it troubles the easy teleologies we get taught in American history classes. The story of this country is not the story of battles and generals and politicians...it's the story of a bunch of people from a lot of very different places ending up (many against their will) in a place that was never theirs to begin with and very messily going about, for better or worse, building an economic, political and cultural superpower.

We will never know the names of most of the people who made American history happen. In this respect, the show exerts a bit of historical payback--whereas the black and (Jewish) immigrant characters all have names, the wealthy white residents of New Rochelle float about as archetypes--Mother, Father, Younger Brother. Their attempt to hide behind some universal subjectivity appears at first charming, but ultimately kind of sad, since you quickly find out how complicated their lives are as well...they may as well have first names too, since their anonymity doesn't stop them from getting swept up in the great sweep of history along with the rest of the characters.

Ragtime does have a more or less happy ending (it's a musical through and through), but there are enough bumps along the way such that you ought to leave the theater a bit troubled. Yes you will probably be smiling, but there ought to be a few tears not completely dry. And as unemployment and foreclosure stats attest, there are still a lot of tears staining the smiling face of the USA. Ragtime could not have returned at a more opportune time.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

String of Quartets, Public Options

This evening closed out an intense week of strings for this concert-goer...almost all of it nineteenth century, and all of it gloriously Teutonic. Last Thursday the always reliable Takacs Quartet performed Beethoven's Op. 18 no. 2 and Op. 74 and Schumann's Op. 41 no. 1 at Richardson here in Princeton. On Saturday, I heard the New York Phil offer the Brahms Violin Concerto and Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande (Alan Gilbert conducing, Frank Peter Zimmerman on violin). And tonight again at Richardson the energetic Brentano Quartet played Haydn's Op. 20 No. 3 and Schubert's massive G Major quartet D. 887.

Other people more qualified than I can tell you about these pieces, all of which were wonderful in different ways. And way too much ink has been spilled about these composers for me to add anything meaningful to the conversation. So let's talk about the other stuff. Like patronage and stability, and public access to the arts even amidst the Great Recession.

The Brentano musicians were dressed casually (good for them!!), but this is one occasion when white tie and tails would have actually been appropriate, since they were truly playing for their supper as the "ensemble in residence" here at Princeton. Part of their obligations as resident ensemble is to put on a certain number of performances on campus each semester. The Takacs quartet apparently has a similar position at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It's hard to talk about the New York Phil in similar terms, but every symphony, especially those employed 52 weeks a year, is a kind of macro ensemble-in-residence when you think about it.

I can only imagine how stabilizing it must be for ensembles like the Brenato and Takacs to have a home-base such as a university, especially in a bum economy like we have now. Even if they lose a few gigs here and there due to presenters cutting back, they know they have something in the bag. Similar for orchestral musicians: grouse as you like about musicians unions, strong unions and contracts do make sure that we don't lose our orchestras when the going gets tough. Institutional support is ultimately stabilizing for both performers AND the public...instead of waiting in breadlines, we still get to go out to eat.

The Takacs performance was basically free for me (thanks to one of my student ticket vouchers) and the Brentano was free for anyone who cared to show up. And even my ticket for the New York Phil was only $25. How amazing that Kultur can survive even dismal news as a 23 percent decline in the endowment and depressingly minuscule governmental support for the arts.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Everybody's Protest Musical: Hair on Broadway

Last night at the end of Hair everyone was invited to come dance on the stage of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. The soundtrack for the festivities was the catchy "Let the Sun Shine In," known to most folks in versions by the Fifth Dimension. [N.B. The title is indeed "Sun Shine" (noun verb) and not "sunshine" (compound noun) contrary to many misspellings.]

So why did this feel-good act of audience participation turn me into the Grinch that stole the patchouli? Because it seemed to undermine the otherwise powerful ending of the show.

For those unfamiliar with the plot (such as it is), everything loosely revolves around Claude, the anglophile white guy from Flushing who tries to run with the hippies but ultimately can't bring himself to go all the way and burn his draft card. In the end, he goes to Vietnam like a good soldier, and soon after comes back dead. Why he succumbs to this pressure we never find out for sure...

Director Diane Paulus delivers a striking tableau to inform the audience of Claude's death: he appears lying atop a large American flag spread across the center of the stage, still sporting his full dress military uniform and his newly-shorn haircut. In response his friends sing "Let the Sun Shine In," with the backup instruments slowly dropping out with each chorus, leaving the company singing a cappella. They continue singing as they file off stage. Wow, I thought, it's a dirge, not a feel-good pop number. And that verb really makes all the difference: let the sun shine in. By contrast, "Let the Sunshine In" sounds like something Snow White might croon to her woodland friends.

Lights down and that's the show. BUT, with nary a second to spare the lights are back up and the band has struck up again with "Sun Shine," and following the curtain calls, the cast beckons the audience onto the stage to dance and feel the love. Claude (played by Gavin Creel) cavorts on a scaffold adjacent to the proscenium, exhorting the crowd to keep making some noise, his military cut spiked up into a rockstar 'do. (And looking a lot hotter without the greasy hippie wig, just to put that out there. I may be a Grinch but I am not made of stone.)

This is not to say I have something against curtain calls. It would be perverse to make Gilda stay in her sack at the end of Rigoletto while the men who screwed her over take their bows. The plot is over and we can let the performers take some credit. And I have nothing against breaking down the fourth wall...engaging with the audience qua audience can be quite effective.

But there's something lobotomizing about following up a purportedly tragic ending with an on-stage love-in, with the tragic hero, of all people, acting like the head cheerleader at a pep rally. It makes you, well at least me, wonder whether instead of having just seen a thoughtful revival of "The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" you actually just paid too much money for a high-end hippie drag show. As my hero Tom Frank has been saying for years, capitalism will use every opportunity to commodify your dissent, and maybe I'm expecting too much from Broadway, which is by nature a thoroughly commercial enterprise.

But how about doing something interesting? How about restaging Hair in present-day Williamsburg, awash in trustafarians hopped up on americanos, loafing in the shadows of the unfinished high-rise condos whose units no longer look like such an attractive investment opportunity to the parents back home in Houston or Atlanta. It's August 2009, and universal health care seems to be going the way of its longtime champion from Massachusetts...

Except this is where the directorial concept collapses. Because the hipsters are too engrossed in their iPh--, I mean, creativity ("Hey have you seen that new iProtest app?! So hilarious...") to put any countercultural energies to work in service of a cause. (And canvassing for Obama doesn't count, because even your mom was doing that. So last summer.)

It's banal, but not necessarily depressing, to see Broadway re-colonize the counterculture of the '60s in 2009. Musical theater has been doing that for years...from Bohème to Rent. But what is depressing is to realize that our counterculture has been so thoroughly colonized by the forces that it might undermine as to make protest almost unthinkable. Take it from Bono, the once and perhaps future King of Ireland. Is buying a Blackberry really this generation's chance to change the world? So much for the Age of Aquarius...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Champagne BBQ?

Dear Mr. Steichen,

Tomorrow I'm going to a "champagne bbq" given by a close friend and her fiance. It is for all intents and purposes an engagement party. Do I bring a gift? I'll for sure send a wedding gift, and if invited to a shower, give a gift then as well. But what does one do for a "champage bbq"??

No gift. Especially if you feel confident that the bride is not the gift-grubbing type. And it doesn't seem as though that is the case, since if she were throwing an event with gifts as the goal, she probably would have thrown a shower.

If you want to be festive or generous, you can bring some champagne to contribute to the festivities, but even then I wouldn't say you're required.