Friday, September 21, 2012

Top Ten Things we love about The Flying Dutchman

September 21 is not only Gustav Holst's birthday but it is also opening night for Opera Roanoke's 37th season and our premiere Wagner production. Holst was one of dozens of composers influenced by Wagner. Though he forged his own style, Wagner's imprint continues to ripple across the universe of classical music. This promises to be an exciting weekend for culture lovers in Roanoke!

Here's a preview of my "opera insights" talk an hour before each of our 2 performances (tonight & Sunday afternoon).

Top Ten Things We Love about The Flying Dutchman

1. Overture: though still a mélange of tunes and themes from across the score mashed up together, Wagner’s 10’ curtain raiser is a tone poem distillation of the entire opera, an early clue to the intertwining of the two main themes & the first of three key appearances of the so-called “redemption” motive (listen for the cadence that sounds like a traditional "Amen...")

2. Dutchman’s opening Monologue (Die Frist ist um…Wie oft in Meeres tiefsten Schlund… Dich frage ich, gepriesner Engel Gottes… Nur eine Hoffnung…)
Shakespearean torrent of experience, passion & longing = King Richard (II or III)

3. Senta’s Ballad: perfect union of form & content – the Ballad is the story of TFD and uses his music – Senta’s mirror image motif unites them… And both of their motiven mirror the open 5th with which Beethoven launches his great 9th Symphony...

[Her rejection of the women's chorus “dumb singing” is Wagner thumbing his nose at traditional opera – an example of bourgeois banality starkly contrasted with the truly artistic and poetic soul…]

4. Erik’s Dream: Auf hohem Felsen leg ich träumend…the Epitome of Romantic poet, dreamer, wanderer and lover of nature & beauty...

[Senta’s comment on “the other one” with her Father in Erik's oneiric vision –
der düstre Blick – his melancholy look… they are all romantics here!]

5. a. The Dutchman’s materializing before Senta’s eyes – a visual and musical poem – one of the highlights of our production & one of its most compelling images…

b. Dutchman’s and Senta’s Duet (and the sensually beautiful impressionist strains that punctuate the silence before they sing a note together – a magical sequence and the embodiment of the idea or state of being we call “spellbound…”

6. The Transition from II to III – Wagner ideally wanted TFD done complete with no breaks between numbers, scenes or acts (and wrote versions accordingly to allow for an unbroken performance – as we will do b/w II & III – or to allow for a break and an intermission – which we will take at the end of Act I). The themes are undergirded & punctuated with a churning rhythmic motif that could be a nervous heart beating or the endless rolling of the sea… The stage picture as the cast enters, crosses and literally transforms the set from the house back to the ship is fantastic…

7. The unexpected entrance of the Ghost Chorus (on tape – thanks to the Jeff Center's Music Lab) interrupting the Norwegian revelry at the top of Act III and literally spooking everyone away!

8. Erik’s Aria: The romantic poet’s impassioned – and ultimately futile – entreaty to Senta. Often perceived as a “weak” character, our Erik is a convincing true-to-life – and per opera’s M.O. – larger than life – character – passionate, faithful & genuine…

9. The Dutchman’s dramatically revealing exit – I get chills just thinking about the moment, punctuated by another eerie entrance from the ghost chorus...

10. Senta’s Liebestod (Love-death) and the opera’s resolution – a masterstroke from the revolutionary composer soon after The Flying Dutchman to be known as “the Master”

(Mahler anecdote: GM running around Vienna distraught upon hearing the news of Wagner's death - a close friend thought Mahler's father must have died from observing the young Wagnerian's behavior...)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Debunking a few operatic myths 'ere the ghost ship sails...

Let's debunk a few of the false myths about opera in general and Wagner in particular.

1. Opera is:
a. elitist; b. incomprehensible; c. boring; d. all of the above

Pray tell me thou didst not select d. Opera has always been an entertaining form of live music. It is the original "musical theater." The melodramatic plots of soap operas and the ridiculous wit of sit-coms can both be traced back to operatic stages. Film as a medium is indebted to Wagner above all artists and soundtracks would not exist were it not for opera. As I have said before, it may be an "acquired taste" for some, but don't knock it till you try it.

Please don't say you "don't like opera" if you've never been to a great production of one. And having a bad experience with anything - a sport, a type of cuisine, an ex - can adversely effect one's inclinations. I've met more folks who've had a positive experience at the opera, orchestra or theater (and are thus inclined to appreciate the live arts) than those whose negative experiences (poor performance | production | setting | etc...) have prevented them from enjoying the magic of live "classical" art.

I just talked to a friend who informed me her first experience of an opera was none other than The Flying Dutchman. Wagner's first masterpiece remains her favorite opera, and I know she will love our production of it at the Jefferson Center this weekend.

2. Operatic plots are ridiculous.

Come on! Are not most of our forms of entertainment variations on the theme of the "willing suspension of disbelief" necessary to enjoy any work of fiction? The Flying Dutchman has been a familiar legend in our collective imagination for over 200 years. Along with the other gothic romantic legends of vampires, monsters and ghosts, The Flying Dutchman is a familiar story with familiar music (see Bugs Bunny: What's Opera Doc? You can find it and a myth-debunking commercial for Opera Roanoke's production on YouTube). Opera amateurs and professionals have not helped the cause by subscribing to the misconception that operatic plots are ridiculous, nonsensical and implausible. We apologize with "but the music's great!" and do ourselves a disservice. Homer and Dante and Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe and Lewis Caroll and Tim Burton are also "ridiculous." That's why we love them.

Most of opera's plots are timeless myths, legends, adventures and historically-based epics, fantasies or dramas. Opera is no more ridiculous than any other form of entertainment. It just happens to be among the most powerful, immediate and original genres of art the human imagination has been inspired to create. Come "hear the drama" and "see the music" to believe how true it is...

3. Wagner is too
a. heavy; b. long; c. difficult d. etc, etc...

The Lord of the Rings as fiction or film is not everyone's cup of tea but it has been beloved by scores of people from all over the world for generations. The same can be said of Wagner's epic Ring of the Nibelungs. After The Flying Dutchman, Wagner's music dramas were 4-hour affairs whose riches reveal themselves to those interested in spending so much time at the theatre or at home listening or watching a recording. But Dutchman is in three swift acts just over 2 hours long. It is no longer than Disney's recent Pirates of the Caribbean movies (who cribbed its plot and characters).

As the conductor Robert Shaw used to say, falling in love requires three things: being in the right place at the right time for long enough time. If we don't spend time with Wagner how do we know whether or not we love his music. The personality and the opinions of Wagner the man are another matter. As another great conductor, Daniel Barenboim has said: no composer more than Wagner presents a greater gulf between the genius of the work and the odiousness of its creator's personality. We can both appreciate how Wagner's life and work intersect and we should be able to separate how independent they are.

Judge The Flying Dutchman on the merits of the music and the quality of the production. If you come to Opera Roanoke's newly christened ghost ship production Friday or Sunday, we think you'll be as excited about this musical drama as we are.

Come to the opera this weekend. Carla and Mini Wagner want you to.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Approaching the Dutchman: Wagner's motives & mythology

Wagner was the first among the great composers of romantic opera to write his own libretti. Starting with The Flying Dutchman, he referred to his operatic scripts as poems. Newcomers to Wagner might find his deep interest in mythology a familiar portal through which to enter his unique world.

He called the Flying Dutchman a "mythical poem." His title character represents "a primeval trait of man's essential nature." This figure is the restless and ambitious wanderer - familiar across mythologies and legends from Homer's Ulysses to the "Wandering Jew" Ahasuerus (a medieval Christian legend about a man who cursed Jesus and was cursed in return to wander the earth until the "Second Coming" of Christ. The Wagnerian scholar Isolde Vetter refers to the Dutchman as "The Ahasuerus of the Oceans"). According to Wagner, this complex archetypal character possesses "heart-enthralling power." The music he composed for the Dutchman is among his most gripping; it is heart-stopping in the sheer force of declamation required of the baritone who sings him to life.

The Flying Dutchman - cursed to sail the seas forever unless he can find true love on his one day ashore every seven years - is the first of Wagner's "rootless wanderers." Like Ulysses, he is a familiar figure across human dramas as the exile, the loner, the rebel (with or without a cause) and/or the outcast. Wagner's greatest bass-baritone role is Wotan (similar to Odin in Norse Mythology and recently recreated by the actor Anthony Hopkins in the film version of the Marvel Comics story of Thor). Other great Wagnerian wanderers include Siegmund and Parsifal.

Like the Vampire, the Dutchman desires a woman who is enthralled by "the dark side." Wagner's first "redeeming woman" is Senta. Like Mina with Dracula, the operatic heroine is haunted by visions and dreams of this mysterious and darkly elegant nobleman, a figure from a brooding chiaroscuro portrait believed to be imaginary...

Wagner is known for developing a complex system of motives called leitmotiven (leading motives) that characterize both his singing actors and their conflicting emotions, states of being and fates. The Flying Dutchman is the first of his mature music dramas to explore the possibilities of a system he developed further than any previous composer.

The two most famous vocal scenes in the opera are the Dutchman's Monologue in Act I and Senta's Ballad in Act II. The Dutchman's "aria" is Shakespearean in scope, range and depth as he tells his story and pours out his haunted soul. Wagner called Senta's "aria" a "poetically condensed image of the whole drama." The Flying Dutchman was the first in a series of dramas where the composer attempted to dispense with the "tiresome operatic accessories" of the Italian and French styles. Remnants of those more traditional - and to 19th century audiences, familiar - forms remain. Both solos resemble the romantic operatic tradition of the scena: recitative, aria and cabaletta. As Verdi would later do (following Wagner's lead), the traditional "numbers" become integrated as seamlessly as possible into the entire fabric of the musical drama. Wagner preferred his three acts to be performed without a break, with one scene literally flowing like water into the next.

The secondary duo of principal characters (so frequently overshadowed by the Dutchman and Senta) are rounded and compelling creations. Senta's father, the Norwegian captain Daland resembles an operatic type found in Beethoven's Rocco (from Fidelio, performed in Roanoke in the 2007-2008 season). Daland's music has a conventionality that is purposeful - this opportunistic petit bourgeois businessman is in sharp relief with his spellbound bad-boy-loving daughter. Senta's terrestrial boyfriend, the "hot-blooded" young hunter, Erik is among the first of Wagner's poetic and romantic tenors. I see Erik as a complex "other" compared to the Dutchman and not as the disgruntled cipher he is sometimes assumed to be. His first "aria" is the recounting of a disturbing dream about Senta and the mysterious ghost pirate by whom she is enchanted. The dream proves to be prophetic and even Erik's impassioned serenade in the final act cannot dissuade Senta from following what she believes to be her destiny. She will save the Dutchman from his curse, and join him as either a "Bride of Death" or a "Saving Angel" whose sacrificial love redeems the "fallen one."

Our outstanding cast will engage and enthrall (and even entertain!) our audiences this weekend. I can't wait to be a part of it. Even non-musicians and operatic neophytes will recognize the familiarity of this music. Both the Dutchman's and Senta's individual motives are dramatically intertwined. Wagner brilliantly links the two characters musically, reinforcing their mutual attraction and connection by joining their motives and combining their themes at pivotal moments across the drama. This connection is reinforced by our fantastic young stage director, Crystal Manich. I shall not divulge the moving "coup de theatre" with which our new production concludes; inquiring minds shall have to see the drama and hear the music in person this weekend at the Jefferson Center...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Production week of The Flying Dutchman

I cannot believe our premiere Wagner production launches next weekend! We believe Wagner will nod approval from whatever realm his own ghost happens to be wandering...

Here's what his statue looks like in Venice, the city where "the master" died.

My faithful companion, Mini-Richard accompanied me to another screening of the classic film version of The Flying Dutchman at the Taubman Museum. Like his operatic nephew, Billy Budd he's playing the part of a proud foretopman atop our newly arrived TFD t-shirts (designed my stepdaughter, Jessica Davis).

In a case of Opera Roanoke trivia and / or "meaningful coincidence," Billy Budd is Britten's opus 50. Our principal guest conductor, Steven White celebrates his 50th birthday next Sunday, the day of our matinee (and final) performance of The Flying Dutchman. Billy Budd was Steven's most recent conducting assignment at the Metropolitan Opera (I wrote about a performance of it I attended with Steven backstage last May as he and I continued our work on OR's Wagner production. Inquiring minds can see the posts below from a wonderful week in NYC at the Met as their 2011-12 season came to a grand conclusion).

Here is one of the Taubman museum's great landscape paintings in its American Galleries permanent collection. This is William Bradford's 1875 nautical canvas, The Voyage of the Polaris. The arctic setting makes it a perfect companion for the Northern European sea setting of the ships in The Flying Dutchman.

Our set is being loaded into Shaftman Performance Hall at the Jefferson Center as I write this. Here is a sketch of the main deck of our Norwegian schooner, courtesy of our design team, Jimmy Ray and Laurie Powell Ward.

Our first rehearsal on stage is tomorrow evening, September 16. I'm slated to be a guest on the WDBJ7 Morning Show Monday (from 5 - 7 am) where we'll unveil the set as a teaser before next Friday's opening night. Don't miss this fabulous operatic ship before it sails away!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Ships ahoy at the Taubman!

Over the course of its two-hour screening, over 60 visitors to the Taubman Museum of Art stopped in to catch some of The Flying Dutchman. As many children attended as adults, but many more of the Kinder danced to Wagner's exciting score than did their Ältern.

We did have assistance from an impromptu "Tanzmeister" (Dance master) who led some of the kids in some wavy moves in the auditorium while the sailors sang on screen.

Along with the viewing of the expressive and beautifully stylized 1975 film of Wagner's opera, the Roanoke Library led craft making events in the Taubman's Art Venture space. Here several of my new friends proudly display their Dutchman-inspired art.

Always a child at heart, I joined in the fun, with a little help from Mini Wagner.

And when no one else was looking, Mini Richard cheered his first great masterpiece.

Though I didn't snap a picture of it, the image of two young boys, ages 4 & 7, watching in rapt silence as the Dutchman bid farewell to Senta is emblazoned in my memory. It made for a memorable final scene, in which several children were fixed to the screen as their parents watched them being enchanted by the special magic of opera. If Mastercard were around to shoot one of its commercials, the script might read:

"Cost of materials to make Art Venture crafts: $50;
Cost of the DVD of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman: $30;
The sight of your children completely entranced by their first opera:

Come hear the drama and see the music and believe Opera Roanoke is the place to experience it. And come to the Taubman Museum next Saturday, Sept 15, at 11:30 to see the film and make your own Flying Dutchman art.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Opera at the Taubman Museum: The Magic of Mythology

Tomorrow (Saturday, Sept 8 at 11:30 am) I will be introducing the first film version of Wagner's romantic opera, The Flying Dutchman. More information on this free "Spectacular Saturday" event at the Taubman Museum of Art is in the flyer below.

A variety of posts below this one discuss Opera Roanoke's upcoming premiere production of Wagner's exciting musical drama. As early as last May I began to write about the origins of the Flying Dutchman legend and Wagner's interest in mythology and the "gothic craze" that accompanied the 19th century tide of literary and artistic romanticism across Europe and the US.

The opera takes place on and around a pair of ships, one of which is the infamous Ghost Ship captained by the Flying Dutchman himself. Below are a couple of photos from our first staging rehearsal with our sailors' chorus. Here they are at work on deck (in the rehearsal hall of the Jefferson Center, using a combination of real props and some stand-ins).

And here we have the Norwegian captain Daland's Helmsman (yours truly) steering an unwieldy music stand (we'll have quite a nice wheel on our imposing set, which I will preview in an upcoming entry).

In addition to the screening of the Flying Dutchman film tomorrow at 11:30 at the Taubman, our new group of friends Bravo!
(Blue Ridge Advocates for the Valley's Opera)
will be hosting a cocktail party at the Penny Deux lounge in the Patrick Henry Hotel in Downtown Roanoke tomorrow evening starting at 6 pm.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Production notebook: launching Dutchman rehearsals

There is a palpable energy present whenever creative artists share the same space and collaborate. It is the energy that makes a concerto such an exciting form of concert music. It is present in the intimate varieties of chamber music. It is the essence of what a "dynamic duo" is and it's there whenever two great actors, singers or performers share a duet or a scene.

When you have an entire ensemble generating this creative energy it is thrilling. We experience this literal buzz anew every time we assemble an opera cast and kick off rehearsals with a musical "read" of the score.

Here's a picture of that first music rehearsal for The Flying Dutchman 48 hours ago at Steven White's house in Copper Hill. Matthew Curran, Ryan Kinsella and Julia Rolwing (Daland, the Norwegian captain; The Dutchman; and Senta, Daland's daughter, respectively) are singing through a scene, while Taylor Baldwin plays a piano that formerly belonged to the Metropolitan opera. Our stage director, Crystal Manich is seated on the couch, with score and notebook open as she hears her cast sing through this wonderful score for the first time.

Steven joked that the music read is where we "audition for one another" and "prove to each other that we know what we're doing." It is an excellent opportunity to dive right into the work that is the lifeblood of the performer's life. As much as we all love the stage and the performances, a poll of almost any group of performing artists would find the rehearsal process is as beloved as any aspect of the art.

I feel a literal volt of electricity at the start of each rehearsal process, whether I'm singing, conducting or simply observing from the sidelines. The amazing depth of what musicians produce with sound never ceases to be astonishing. This is especially true when one's body is one's instrument. Opera singers - the true "American Idols" who "got talent" in spades - embody this dynamic of musical energy in an individual way. I feel privileged to work alongside such incredibly talented colleagues.

I can't wait for our audience to hear this fantastic cast of young singers - all singing their respective Wagner roles for the very first time (and a couple of our singers are debuting not only their roles but are singing Wagner's one-of-a-kind music for the first time). This makes for an even more vibrant and electric energy.

Here is a photo from our first staging rehearsal in the Jefferson Center yesterday afternoon. Rebecca from the Roanoke Times is shooting our title character, played by Ryan Kinsella, as he and Crystal and Steven discuss his Shakespearean monologue of an opening aria, Die Frist ist um.

I'll return with more production images and thoughts both on The Flying Dutchman in general and our exciting new production as we literally bring it to life over the next couple of weeks.

There are plenty of opportunities to connect with Opera Roanoke between now and opening night, September 21st. We hope to see you at the Opera soon!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Dutchman reading list: We, The Drowned

We, The Drowned | by Carsten Jensen | Mariner Books | 2012

During our summer trip to Maine this past June, we picked up a handful of sea-faring books to help us "get into character" for our upcoming production of Wagner's ghost-ship drama, The Flying Dutchman. The Danish author Carsten Jensen's acclaimed new novel, We, The Drowned was just the ticket. Below are quotes from the Mariner paperback edition that either connect to our nautical opera directly or pique our imagination to make the relevant associative leaps.

"How often have we sat in the fo’c’sle, listening to tales of the klabautermann, the grim reaper who hangs in the mizzen shroud, with his white face and his dripping oilskins? Or of the Flying Dutchman, or the ship’s dog that howls in the night, searching for its lost ship?" (p. 240)

See posts below this one for the origins of the Flying Dutchman legend. The following quote is one of many highly musical examples in Jensen's lyrical prose.

"Over a hundred ships were docked in Marstal, and a howling concerto rose over the town from the many riggings raked by the northeasterly wind. There was the slapping and slamming of ropes against wood, and the sound of hulls bashing against each other and the wharf as they waited to be remoored by the crews. The water level continued to rise and the ships rose higher and higher, their menacing twilight shadows looming in the snowfall, like a fleet of Flying Dutchman come to announce the destruction of the town." (245)

This epic novel is full of passages that remind us shore-bound citizens how mysterious is the proverbial call of the sea...

"It was as if the sea had turned itself inside out and was disgorging all the thousands of people it had swallowed across the centuries. Crossing it, they felt a fellowship with them." (665)

"The noise was deafening. Two oil tanks on the north side of the Thames had caught fire, and a frustrated roar sounded from the sea of flames, like the great mythic wolf of Ragnarök staining on its chain at the end of time, howling to be unleashed on the whole world." (568)

The mythical references and the novel's severe northern geography connect directly to Wagner's world and the Flying Dutchman.

"Probably the [battle]ship’s greatest value lay in simply being a symbol… she lay chained there like the great wolf of myth, threatening a Ragnarök that never came. But now that Ragnarök was imminent: the wolf at the end of the world was going to snap its chain at last and grab the bait." (605)

Having recently seen the Met's outstanding production of Britten's Melville-inspired nautical opera, Billy Budd (for which our friend Steven White was the associate conductor), the sea chanteys and the ritualistic aspects of singing on board echo...

"They sang, as generations had done before them, the old hymn dedicated to the sailing profession…a hymn about their own fragility, and that of a ship’s timbers, and the strength of God:

The cruel sea shall be our grave | Be thou not by our side.
Mid raging wind and crashing wave | And lightning’s flashing sword,
Your word can calm the surging tide. | Be with us now on board!" (468)

"Somewhere in the sea of people, a sailor started up a chantey. The others joined in, and soon they were all singing, swaying rhythmically to the old working song that had rung across the sea for centuries… It made no difference what language it was sung in; the message was in the rhythm, not the words. It didn’t preach; it traveled to men’s hearts via their muscles, reminding them what they were capable of, so that forgetting their exhaustion, they’d toil in unison." (231-2)

"One started singing, and others joined him until soon they were all singing a song that seemed to use the Pacific as a metronome rising and falling with the slow dignity that matched the immense swelling rhythm of the waves." (139)

The book's main port is Marstal, one of the maritime centers of Northern Europe. Jensen's novel is the result of careful research and if not a work of "historical fact," it is still invaluably informative for its portraits of sea-faring life in dangerous waters...

"… but he’d overlooked one essential thing about the art of steering a ship. You don’t just keep your eye on the compass; you also check the rigging, you read the clouds, you observe the direction of the wind and the color of the current and the sea, and you look out for the sudden surf that warns of a rock ahead…that’s how it is on a sailing ship, and in this respect its journey parallels that of life: simply knowing where you want to go isn’t enough, because life is a windblown voyage, consisting mainly of the detours imposed by alternating calm and storm." (429)

"When one of us was once asked why, when his ship was floundering in a storm, he’d refused to give up even though death seemed like a certainty, he’d given an answer that would seem strange to anyone but a Marstaller…”What made you keep going?” we asked… he gave us something completely different: an intelligent answer to a stupid question. 'I kept going because I wanted to be buried in the new cemetery.'

…On a ship, one man’s negligence could have fatal consequences for everyone. A sailor was quick to see that. The minister called it morality. Albert called it honor. In the church you were accountable to God. On a ship you were accountable to everyone. That made a ship a better place to learn...

Life had taught him about something far more complicated than justice. Its name was balance." (222-228)

The Italian poet and director Pasolini, who cast Maria Callas as Medea in one of her most striking non-operatic roles, called myth "a thriller of intelligibility." The "shadow of a menace" Jensen's describes applies to Wagner, The Flying Dutchman and tragedies from ancient Greece and Shakespeare to grand opera and epic war films.

"He felt the shadow of a menace that went beyond the fury of the wind and the pounding of the waves: a foreboding of looming disasters from which even the unyielding boulders of the breakwater couldn’t protect Marstal. The sensation was so vague and dreamlike that he thought he must have briefly nodded off…" (229)

"Every sailor knows the bitter feeling: the coast is near, but you’ll never reach it. Is there anything more heartbreaking than drowning in sight of land? Is there a single one of us who hasn’t at least once felt haunted by the fear of slipping away with sight of a safe haven?" (174)

We never cease to be fascinated and amazed by natural landscapes. And the severe landscapes of desert and polar regions are especially enthralling. Experiencing them vicariously - and vividly - through art may be the closest thing to living the danger and risk the explorers themselves took...

"Winter arrived, and with it the frost. The boats were laid up in the harbor, the harbor froze over, and an ice pack formed on the beach. Island and sea became one; we inhabited a white continent whose infinity both beckoned and terrified us…It looked so wild, windswept and deserted...

This new landscape even forced its way into our streets, where a blizzard of snowflakes whirled and danced on the heavy drifts, then leapt back into the air to obliterate the world once more." (75)

"Just then, the church bells started tolling a long-drawn-out farewell; a funeral procession was coming down… Death was a certainty for all of us, but whether the bells of Marstal would ever toll for us, there was no knowing. If we drowned at sea, there’d be only silence." (58)