Posts Tagged ‘Richard Wagner’

A night at the opera with Andy Ross – actually, four nights, because it’s Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Sunday, June 17th, 2018

“I’ll be at Das Rheingold tonight at the San Francisco Opera,” Andy Ross told us. He’s a literary agent and former proprietor of Cody’s Books in Berkeley. We’ve written about his face-off with a fatwa here, but now he’s facing another battle: the San Francisco’s Wagner fest, which continues into July (read about it here). Andy is a longtime fan of Richard Wagner’s corpus: “I discovered it in college. Most people liked the Beatles. I liked Wagner. People thought I was weird.” Now there’s no turning back.

“I’ve got my spear and horned helmet and I’m ready to go.” Let’s go with him. Here he is on the first night.

“Just got back from Das Rheingold. It was great.”

Night 2: At Die Walküre last night. My favorite Ring opera. Magnificent performances by the artists and the orchestra. It even managed to distract me from the weird post-modern staging. (Although I have to admit to a certain admiration in the third act with the Valkyries dropping onto the stage from parachutes looking like Amelia Earhart).

Walküre is the most human of all the Ring operas. The Ring is myth, and the characters sometimes become more symbolic of universal qualities than than flesh and blood human beings. Moreover, Wagner’s tendency to overlay the story with Schopenhauerian philosophical musings means that the opera doesn’t always find its way to the heart. But not so in Walküre. The first act is, in my mind, the greatest love scene in all of opera, from the glimmering recognition of Siegmund and Sieglinde to the climactic moment when Siegmund pulls Wotan’s sword from the tree as Sieglinde looks on in ecstasy. Its emotionality is amplified by the vulnerability of the characters and the knowledge of their impending doom. In the following acts, the immortals, Brunnhilde and Wotan, find their own humanity – literally for Brunnhilde, who, in the heartbreaking final scene of the opera, is banished from Valhalla, deprived of her immortality, and laid to rest by Wotan, who surrounds her with the magic fire that can only be penetrated by a hero who is without fear. Not a dry eye in the house.

Night 3: Last night, David Ross and I saw Siegfried, the third opera of Wagner’s Ring. Siegfried has always seemed to me the Ring’s problem child. I find the music and the drama in the first two acts disappointing. The biggest disappointment is the character, Siegfried. That’s a problem because he is on stage for most of the four hours of the opera. Wagner’s hero seems more like a cross between a boy scout and the lug who played JV guard in high school. Moreover, Wotan comes on stage very early on, always a sign that maybe it’s time to go out to the lobby and check your email. True to form, he goes on a long unmusical backstory exposition. The second act is just plain boring. The music is thin and unmemorable. The shimmering “forest murmurs” sound a little like mediocre Debussy. Even Fafner, the dragon, is something of a bore. I’ve always felt Wagner had simply run out of steam by Act 2 of Siegfried. He had lost his mojo.

Then the orchestra begins the prelude to Act 3, and something miraculous happens. To backtrack a little, Wagner put down the score to The Ring after composing Act 2 and didn’t go back to it for a decade. During that time, he composed his two great mature masterpieces, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. When he returned to Siegfried, you see the transformation right away. The orchestra, always Wagner’s strong suit, is fuller, richer, deeper, more complex. The music is powerful and evocative. Even Wotan, who makes his final appearance in The Ring, has compelling music. And nothing quite prepares us for the electrifying and triumphant love duet that ends the opera. Wagner composed three great love scenes: the second act duet of Tristan, Siegmund and Sieglinde’s duet in Act 1 of Walküre, and this final scene of Siegfried’s awakening of Brunnhilde. This love duet lacks the eroticism of Tristan, and the heartbreaking tragic quality of Walküre. It isn’t even particularly romantic. But it puts forth a kind of heroic, triumphant message that love will change the world. It was a thrilling end that brought the entire house to its feet. There’s really only one other ending in opera packing that kind of titanic power. We’ll be hearing it on Sunday.

David Ross and I spent the last six hours seeing the final opera of Wagner’s Ring. Götterdämmerung isn’t the most popular opera in the Ring. That would be Die Walküre with its heartfelt humanity. Götterdämmerung‘s characters do not engage the listener in the same way. The music is relentlessly dark and foreboding. But this is the opera that best expresses Wagner’s musical vision of a completely integrated work of art. If you were able to ask Wagner what his most perfect work was, I have no doubt he would say it is Götterdämmerung. More than in any of the preceding operas, the orchestra dominates the story to the point where it becomes the most prominent voice. This is best seen in the incomparably glorious final scene, Brunnhilde’s immolation.

Wagner’s place in the pantheon of great composers is permanently established. But he stands apart, not because of his greatness, but because of his flaws. One would be hard-pressed to identify a flaw in any of Mozart‘s work. They are perfect. Wagner’s works are all flawed masterpieces. But he maintains his place because of the splendor of his greatest moments. The Ring, flawed though it is, is perhaps the most monumental work in Western Art. I suppose you could include Dante‘s Divine Comedy, and maybe Michelangelo‘s Sistine Chapel with that. And after seeing the complete Ring, one must admit that the music has done what was seemingly impossible, living up to the grandiosity of Wagner’s vision. Seeing it was special. We are glad we went.

And we’re glad we went with him. Read more about the San Francisco Opera’s Wagner festival, which continues into July, here.

“This is the hardest class you will ever take,” the kids were told. And the course filled up within minutes.

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

Auden knew what he was doing.

Kids are lazy little buggers who opt for easy courses, right?


Some time ago I wrote about W.H. Auden‘s syllabus during his time at the University of Michigan in the 1940s, a copy of which had been sitting in my files for decades. I can’t remember how I found it in the archives of the Rackham Graduate School, but occasionally I would run across it again, take it out, and stare at it, as at a marvel.

The reading list for his course, “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” included: The Divine Comedy in full, four works by Shakespeare, Pascal’s Pensées, Horace’s odes, Volpone, Racine, Kierkegaard’s Fear and TremblingMoby-DickThe Brothers KaramazovFaust, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Kafka, Rilke, T.S. Eliot. Also, nine operas. (Auden loved opera – and assigned three of Wagner‘s Teutonic masterpieces.) That’s more than 6,000 pages total. For a single course.

At the University of Oklahoma, three brave men – Kyle Harper, a classicist and the university’s provost; the historian Wilfred McClay; and David Anderson, a professor of English – decided to team-teach a year-long course, modifying Auden’s syllabus a little – to include, for example, Milton.

“This is the hardest class you will ever take.”

The result, according to Mark Bauerlein writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

When enrollment opened last semester, the unexpected happened. The course filled up within minutes. Harper had already warned his students, “This is the hardest class you will ever take.” The syllabus was posted online in advance, so that students knew exactly what they were getting into. The course meets a general-education requirement at Oklahoma, but so do many other courses with half the workload. To accommodate the unexpected demand, the class was expanded from 22 to 30 students, the maximum number that the assigned classroom could hold.

I sat in on a class in October. McClay lectured on Inferno. The atmosphere was genial but focused. You can tell after five minutes whether a class has an esprit de corps — no sullen faces, no eyes drifting to windows and cellphones, even the bad jokes get a laugh. McClay slid from Augustine to Bonaventura to Jesus, Jonah, Exodus, and the prodigal son before taking up Paolo and Francesca, and then the suicides, sodomites, murderers, and frauds in Dante’s torture zones.

The historian was game.

After class, about half of the students and I headed over to the dining room at Dunham College, one of Oklahoma’s graceful new residential colleges, for lunch. There, without the professors present, I asked the key question: Why did they sign up for Western-civ boot camp?

One fellow grumbled that he had to do three times as much work as he did in his other classes. The rest nodded. But you could hear in his words the self-respect that comes from doing more work than the norm, from climbing the highest hill while your peers dog it. Another student said that the page-count of the syllabus had flattered her, that it showed the professors respected her enough to demand that she take on a heavy load of historic literature.

The English prof was game, too.

“This is what I came to college for,” another said. One more chimed in, “This class is changing my life.”

They acknowledged, too, the distinctiveness of the works they read, one student calling them a “foundation” for things they study elsewhere. They admired the professors, to be sure, but the real draw was the material. When I asked what they would change about the course, they went straight to the books: add The Iliad and some of the Bible.

Read the whole thing here.

A postscript of 4/14 from John Murphy of the University of Virginia: “On my way out the door of higher ed and toward opportunities, both teaching and otherwise, elsewhere, one of my thoughts – in line with the program described here – is one way to revive the humanities might be to make the whole enterprise an honors curriculum or honors college within larger institutions. That would allow for a recuperation of the rigorous and seriousness that has long been lost within college and university humanities courses and it would also raise the value of a humanities degree as a credential. The implicit message would be “real college for real students” and it would be mark of distinction to have taken the more difficult and selective course of study, even if you went on to purse a “practical” career after that. It would be a sign to “practical” employers that a graduate had really hit the books during college and not taken the easy way out. Young people will work very, very, very hard at things that ultimately don’t matter as much as curricular education – i.e. athletics. So maybe foregrounding the aspect of difficulty might tap some kind of competitive spirit. ‘Auden College: No Pain, No Gain.'”

“Our privileges exacerbate the horrors of others”: Junot Díaz on race, privilege, and J.R.R. Tolkien

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Junot Díaz, Pulitzer-winning author of 2008’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, always gives a scorching good show, and he did so again during a visit to Stanford earlier this month.

He did it all off the cuff:  “Guess what?  No fucking lecture,” he announced at the outset.

Díaz has a special license to mention the unmentionable – or what he says is the unmentionable.  His sensibility is divided between Dominican Republic, where he was born, and New Jersey, where he was replanted as a child.

Little of the Caribbean side was in evidence in Palo Alto: he wore preppy pullover and white collar, jeans and running shoes – and altogether more slender than he had appeared when I wrote about him in 2008.  The spellbinding author spoke about J.K. Rowlings, he spoke about H.P. Lovecraft, and he spoke most of all about J.R.R. Tolkien.  (Whether he especially favors writers who use only their initials is not known.)

“I write about race – by extension, I write about white supremacy,” he said, cutting to the chase.

He deplored the “rhetorical legerdemain” of “deforming our silences to fit in with the larger silences of society.” It’s a betrayal, especially, of the people “at the racially sharp end of the stick.”

“Our privileges exacerbate the horrors of others,” he said.

The idea of a post-racial society is a “happy delusion,” he said. “We are as hyper-racial today as we were two hundred years ago.”

He said that describing oneself as beyond race was as delusional as a man saying he isn’t sexist.  “These languages do not go away.  Heterosexual masculine privilege never goes away.”

How deep is the denial?  He recalled observing to a group of male peers that they were all dating white women or women lighter-skinned by themselves.  The predictable response:  “Oh, but it was love… we just met… it was random.”

No one ‘fessed up: “I date who I date because I was told people who are light-skinned are better.”

“Who wants to embrace that?” he asked.  Under such circumstances, “How the fuck do we bear witness to ourselves?”

“The default setting of universality” is white, he said.  Though writers of color often resist that categorization, he said he’d never encountered a writer who said, “You know what?  I don’t want to be a white writer.”

Díaz, flanked by Packer and Barry (Photo: Toni Gauthier)

People outside that default setting live in a “delusional space” of “specifying without signifying.” He referred to President Obama’s double message: “I’m not that black, but I will code some shit so you know I’m black.”

He, too, was asked to “signify without specifying” – “I ran from that as hard as I could.”  He wondered, as a writer, whether it was possible to capture in writing all the layers of denial and truth, avoiding the pitfall that would have been deadly for the writer, one in which “I’m going to blind myself so no one notices I’m not noticing.”

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was his attempt to use “all the nerd stuff” to portray “the hemispheric madness through the Dominican Republic.”

Science fiction and fantasy was an obvious source of inspiration. “Coloniality is the dark subconscious of the speculative genre,” he said.

For example, he commented on the different treatment of the ring in Wagner’s Rheingold and Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring.  In Wagner, “the ring just makes stuff go bad for you,” but in Tolkien, “the ring produces slavery” and functions racially, he said.  Tolkien was a survivor of World War I, and his Middle Earth is a post-apocalyptic world, said Díaz.  The Dark Lord Sauron is “a being that comes from outside Middle Earth,” from a race that dominates Middle Earth.

While the Harry Potter series pits “bad guys versus good guys, my power versus your power,” Tolkien’s p.o.v. offers a different take:  “Fighting power with power you lose.  Power breeds corruption,” he said.  “The more power, the more opposition.”  René Girard, of course, would add that you become the thing you oppose – which ought to be a major deterrent, but isn’t.

In the end, said Díaz, “power never destroys power.”