Waiting for Thanos

“We’re allowed to play but we’ve got to be careful about the Coronavirus. It started in somewhere called China. A boy ate a bat and got ill. One time at school I vomited in the classroom.”

The playground in Tooting Gardens is currently teeming with 5-year-old epidemiologists. It’s a sunny mid-March afternoon, I’ve just had news of another two contract cancellations, and I’m babysitting. I watch M. as she chattily gathers new friends in her habitual carefree manner, at the same time keeping half an eye on my phone as the latest daily updates on the impending COVID-19 catastrophe filter through.

Sitting there, it feels eerily like the dream sequence in Terminator 2, where Sarah Connor imagines herself screaming a warning at a similarly frivolous playground, unheeded and too late as a nuclear attack arrives and obliterates them all.

On closer examination, that’s not quite what this is. A history-changing devastation is about to hit us, seemingly inevitably claiming millions of lives worldwide. Round here they’ve dubbed it the Thanos Virus. And yet, as far as we can see up to now at least, SARS-CoV-2 has a far less egalitarian approach to the souls it chooses to snap away. Whatever the latest measure of the overall mortality rate, it is clearly heavily skewed towards older people, leaving the under-19s almost entirely unscathed. An Angel of Death which passes over the children.

All lives are valuable, of course they are. In the UK the debate rages about the logic of keeping open or closing schools. The received wisdom in other countries seems to be to shut them now, and deal with the consequences as we go along. Every argument in favour of that has validity, as far as I can see.

But this whole thing is a hideous, planetary-wide Kobyashi Maru test. There is no right answer, no winning outcome. Merely a card deck of atrocities to be dealt out. A population must consent to be governed, as any teacher who has stood in front of a class of Year 10s knows better than anyone. Telling 7 million teenagers to stay indoors for 4 months sounds a lovely, straightforward idea in theory. The practice, I suspect, would be rather different.

And really, who could blame them? For years these same kids have been begging those with wealth and power to act on their behalf, to secure their futures and the future of humanity itself, most obviously on climate change, but also on social inequality, job security, house prices, quality of healthcare, and so on – to be told that they don’t understand the real world, it’s not possible, how could we afford it, calm down and stop being hysterical. Now that their own lives are on the line, those very same adults are making, in an instant and at any cost, many of those previously-impossible changes, and demanding immense sacrifices of every member of society, as usual disproportionately for their own benefit.

Sending a child to their room for a couple of hours is a punishment. At other times, get outdoors we tell them, you need to live a full and healthy childhood. Now they’re being asked to put that childhood on hold, for weeks, months, who knows how long. It’s not an insignificant sacrifice. Before we feel shocked at any apparent teenage nonchalance about what they’ve tagged the “Boomer Remover”, we might pause to take a broader view while standing in their shoes.

For those of us who are slightly less invincible than the average teenager, an antidote to the incomprehensible stress of all this can be found during an hour or two being lectured by some 5-year-olds.

“Do we need to be scared of the Coronavirus?”

I reply to M. and her new friends that they need to take care and wash their hands properly, but that as children they’re very safe and they don’t need to worry. Just for once, it’s nice to be able to say that without it being a white lie.

Posted in Cinema, Coronavirus, Politics, Science | Tagged | Leave a comment

Trigger’s Missing Brooms

What’s it like being a singer? A lot of it is impossible to explain. If you happen to be reading this on crowded public transport, in a state of mild paranoia about contracting COVID-19, bear in mind that this is how it feels for us all the time. And you wondered why we’re all a bit loopy.

Two weeks ago, back in the days when Coronavirus was still a distant problem on the other side of the world, two of my bags were stolen in London – one where I keep my laptop and most of my other electronic equipment, and another where I keep the day’s music, usually including my iPad, which is I assume what caught this thief’s eye.

The remarkable thing about modern electronics is how instantly replaceable they all are, the cost being almost purely financial. When I spilled an entire cup of steaming hot coffee over my previous laptop, the swift migration of its brain to its replacement (the memory chips having by some miracle survived the 100% Arabica deluge) was so comprehensive that, when I switched it on, its first question was: Your last session was interrupted. Would you like to continue where you left off? (Nice of it to leave out “you clumsy oaf”.) Even more seamlessly, my new iPad only required me to place my iPhone beside it to get up and running as if it had been a family member for years. 21st Century computers are Ships of Theseus (or, according to taste, Brooms of Trigger), but even more so, being replaceable in their entirety at one stroke and yet within moments becoming indistinguishable from their instantly-unlamented predecessors.

That’s less the case with some other things. A couple of items (including the music bag itself) were gifts from dear friends. And the three vocal scores… perhaps only a singer can really understand what they contained: not so much the printed content, but what had been painstakingly added to them. A Rake’s Progress with notes from the first outing of the David McVicar production. Stephen McNeff’s The Burning Boy, with personal contributions from the composer ahead of its world premiere. And most painfully of all, my bog-standard, dog-eared Schirmer economy edition Rheingold. Notes from when I first dabbled in some casual Donner over a decade ago, through to some far-more-serious Wotanning over the last couple of years. Insights and anecdotes from John Tomlinson and Willard White. Tempi and dynamics from Tony Pappano and Anthony Negus. Thoughts and interpretations from Keith Warner and Julia Burbach. Language notes, performance advice, stylistic tips, advice, input, support from hundreds of hours of rehearsals and coaching sessions with world-class colleagues, many of them among the greatest living experts on this repertoire. Worthless to pretty much anyone else; priceless to me.

It makes me wish my burglars had been smarter, realised this and contacted me with a ransom note. I can’t even imagine what my bottom line would be, but it’s almost certainly more than they got for the iPad at least. Only a few months ago I’d had my four Ring scores hardbound, with the idea that they should last me another twenty years at least. As I relinquished them, the bookbinder noticed me getting slightly dewy-eyed, and she said “Don’t worry – we’ll look after them. We understand better than anyone how much they must mean to you.”

I suppose that if the Ring cycle teaches us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t get too attached to things: however precious an object might seem to us, when our time with it is done, we need to let it go. When I was still training as a singer, a director once challenged me about the fact that I don’t take notes in rehearsal. I replied that, since I can’t take a notebook out on stage with me, if I can’t remember a note then it’s no use to me, and if I can remember it there’s no point writing it down. (I often miss that younger version of me, with his much more elastic brain, not to mention his largely unfounded overconfidence.) And having now performed the role of Rheingold Wotan, the important, the useful stuff is in my head, and anything I’ve forgotten, by implication, wasn’t worth retaining. If it had been my score of Walküre, which I start rehearsing for the first time in a full production just over a month from now, I’d have been in much deeper trouble. And I’m physically unharmed and healthy, I still have a roof over my head and a dry floor under my feet. There are people with far worse problems, coping with losses infinitely greater than mine.

A further silver lining came in the shape of a Rheingold score from a second-hand bookshop. The advertised description bore so many uncanny similarities to mine that I thought and hoped it might turn out to be the same one. In fact, it’s a distinctly superior version: a beautiful vintage Schott edition, bound in an almost identical way to mine, with unmarked, pristine pages. (It seems originally to have been the property of James W Marshall, organist of St Cuthbert’s Church in Darlington and founder of Darlington Choral Society. But rather intriguingly the edition was first published in 1899, three years after his death.) I’m very happy to have made its acquaintance, and at a bargain price. 

There’s also an argument that leaving some (literal and figurative) baggage behind isn’t an entirely negative process, especially with a character who gets under your skin and inside your head as insidiously as this one inevitably does. At the end of Scene 2 of Rheingold, Wotan (the way I play it at least) comes to realise that he didn’t need Freia’s apples after all – his strength and energy come from elsewhere, from within. Sometimes it’s only by losing something that we learn how much we can do on our own.

But having said all that, I would love that old score back. Here’s a picture of it, at the bottom of the now-lopsided pile of four. If you could keep an eye out for it in charity shops and second-hand bookstores while you’re out and about, I’d be very grateful. And if you could remember to sneeze into a hanky and wash your hands regularly while you’re at it, that would be even better.

Posted in Books, Music, Opera, Travel, Wagner | Leave a comment

Why Tosca Dies

When opera gets criticised, as it often does these days, for killing its sopranos, Tosca is almost always at the top of the list. A virtuous, beautiful, talented, charismatic heroine, manipulated and tormented through no fault of her own, and forced by her scriptwriters to end it all every night of the week in a fatal leap from the top of a Roman landmark. Why? What’s the point being made here?

As I’ve written before, we need to take care when addressing this soprano-killing question. To recap: the death of a character is not the same as the death of the singer playing the character – in fact, death scenes are some of the most rewarding to act, and dying on stage should come at no personal risk to the actors involved; and the climactic death of a character very often greatly increases her importance to the narrative – contrast Tosca’s death with that of Cavaradossi, or even more so, with poor old Angelotti’s.

Having said that, Tosca’s death does seem particularly brutal and unjustified. One could end the show after Act 2 and have a very different, and perfectly satisfactory, story, with a different moral to be drawn. Act 3 arguably seems to subvert the idea of a moral entirely – it feels like a bleakly amoral story, with an almost nihilistically hopeless conclusion.

In fact, even the far-from-faint-hearted Puccini balked at Tosca’s death. His preference was for an extended mad scene, Cavaradossi’s execution pushing her over the edge mentally rather than architecturally. It was Sardou, author of the play on which the opera is based, who dug his heels in and insisted that only a suicidal denouement would do the job as intended.

Tosca is essentially a story about the clash of the contrasting world-views of its three main characters. Cavaradossi: a Voltairian, anti-religion, anti-authority, free-spirited, liberal. (In Dungeons & Dragons we’d have labelled him Chaotic-Good.) Scarpia: brutal, authoritarian, willing to turn the machinery of State and Church to his own ends of maintaining order and increasing his own personal power. (D&D: Lawful-Evil.) And caught between them, Tosca herself: pious, law-abiding, altruistic. (D&D: Lawful-Good.)

I’ve just arrived in beautiful Inverness, where we’re touring Anthony Besch’s classic 1980 production of the piece, which updates the action to the summer of 1943. Scarpia and his henchmen are black-shirted, jackbooted fascists, in case anyone was in any doubt whose side we’re supposed to be on. The updating was innovative and not without controversy when Besch and his designer Peter Rice first deployed it; by now it seems a familiar idea. But having said that, this time around (this being the third revival I’ve been involved in since I started my professional career here with Scottish Opera in 2004) there seems to be a certain added energy and edge to the concept, and to the audience reactions. At first we wondered why that was; I suspect at least part of the answer might be found by opening any current newspaper.

One of the many remarkable things about this piece is the tautness of its construction – Act 2 in particular hangs together with the undeviating tension of a piano string. Scarpia and Tosca initially meet in the Roman church of Sant Andrea della Valle, where in this production Rice made sure that the mural of St Andrew being crucified in saltire formation is unmissably upstage centre. A canny piece of subliminal wooing of his Scottish audience, perhaps. From that first moment, Scarpia zeroes in on two aspects of Tosca’s personality – her piousness and her jealousy – to manipulate her into unwittingly leading him to the hiding place of the escaped political prisoner Angelotti. Given that he is being concealed by Cavaradossi, Scarpia also concocts a plan to use the latter’s legal predicament to blackmail Tosca into granting him sexual favours.

This plan is essentially watertight – during Act 2, Scarpia even gives Tosca a tour of the various strands of his spider’s web, demonstrating to her that she is comprehensively snared. He fails to identify her one viable escape route – the one she eventually uses – because he assumes that, being a devout and orthodox Catholic, she won’t murder him (even if he believes her physically capable of such an act in the first place), since in her mind it would undoubtedly condemn her to Hell. He thinks nothing of abusing her piety against her, but fails to appreciate that her relationship with God is far more direct than the average Roman’s, and that she feels He might be willing to bend the rules in her case. In fact, the clues are there in Act 1, when Scarpia chides her for swearing in church, and she replies that God will make an exception for her. For Scarpia it’s a fatal and uncharacteristic oversight, but presumably his mind is on other things at this point. Either way, he underestimates her.

If we’re to get to the bottom of this story, it’s crucial to recognise the nature of Scarpia’s power. He is not superhuman, is not physically stronger nor necessarily more intelligent than his opponents. What he does have is the entire machinery of State and Church at his disposal, and an absolute lack of any moral or ethical restraint in using them to satisfy his own desires. On an individual level, Tosca does find the physical and moral resources to defeat him, and if we ended the opera after Act 2 we’d go home thinking this was all that was required. But the moral of the story, if we choose to look for one, is this: it’s not enough to depose, imprison or even kill a tyrant. It’s the system that gets you, and an individual can’t fight an entire tyrannical system and win.

And so, as we face a generational struggle with the question of authoritarian tyranny and how to oppose it, Tosca tells us that while it’s tempting to focus on the individuals at the top of their authoritarian trees – that, after all, is what their egos demand of us – if we are truly to defeat them, we need to take care to restrain, reform or even dismantle the systems which put them there, and which they would use to keep us under their tyranny.

Let’s not allow her nightly deaths to be in vain.

Posted in acting, Art, Music, Opera, Politics, Religion, singing, Theatre | Leave a comment

Summer opera? Pray for rain.

It’s summer in the UK, which means lots of black-tie picnics in muddy fields. The British attitude to rain is summed up by the fact that we buy more roofless convertible cars than any other country in Europe, despite, logically speaking, having the least cause to do so.

Stiff upper lip aside, there’s another reason why you shouldn’t get too downhearted if the weather is gloomy on the day of your opera-going, and that’s that you might well end up getting better singing as a result. Here are three reasons why.

Sound travels further in cold air

Although sound actually travels slightly faster through warmer air, the effect is so slight that it would normally be imperceptible to most human ears. On the other hand, in cold weather refraction will often cause sound to travel further – good news for those of you with the cheap tickets at the back.

Moisture keeps the voices lubricated

The typical human body is around 60% water, and singers will spend a lot of time pre-show making sure they’re fully hydrated. It’s not my specialist subject, but I’d hazard a guess that anything more than 60% air humidity should help singers stay hydrated during a show, assuming that it’s not coupled with high enough temperatures to make dehydration from sweating an issue. Furthermore, sound travels faster in moist air, so you should get a bit more ping when it’s a bit damp out there.

Rain keeps pollen levels under control

Air pollution and especially pollen levels are a problem which, anecdotally speaking, is proving increasingly irksome to many singers. A spell of wet, cold weather with fairly low wind levels will help minimise the risk of mid-show vocal conk-outs, and of course in an outdoor arena the lack of wind will help the acoustics too.

Screen Shot 2019-06-12 at 12.22.22

Local honey – an important ally in the battle against air pollen

So there you go – the ideal summer singing conditions are probably a coldish, damp, wind-free evening. Reasons to be cheerful as you wrap yourself in a blanket, crack open your Thermos and enjoy the season’s offerings.

Posted in Music, Opera, singing, Theatre, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Home Truths

There’s a moment in Mike Volpe’s stunning documentary Hip Hop to Opera where his group of teenage schoolkids from south London get treated to an aria by Simon Shibambu – the first time that most of them have heard an opera singer live. (Six minutes in if you click on the link, but take the time to watch the whole thing if you haven’t seen it already.) They’re asked for their reaction, and once the initial shock has settled down, the first thing they want to know is, how did he end up standing there in front of them as a professional opera singer at the Royal Opera?

Down the road at English National Opera, their new chief executive Stuart Murphy has been giving the industry a public self-flagellation on its lack of diversity in casting, promising to redress the balance via some positive discrimination. For some reason he appears only to apply this principle to the company’s singers, no mention being made of a similar policy being applied to the orchestra, technical staff or administrational team – perhaps his offer of resigning in favour of a BAME chief executive went unreported – but I’m sure he didn’t intend to give the impression that the important thing is that the company is seen to be diverse, rather than actually being so at every level.

Unfair of me to pick on Mr Murphy – at least he’s been brave enough to raise the issue. So let’s be just as courageous and bite the bullet: is the UK opera industry racist?

First things first. If you’d stood here in 2015 and told me that British society in general had reached a hermetic state of benign enlightenment, then if you’d happened to catch me in an optimistic mood I might well have been tempted to believe you. After the ongoing events of the last three years, maybe less so now. And it would be a brave soul who claimed that the opera business is somehow immune from the malaises of society as a whole.

That broader topic is for another time though. Apart from society’s prejudices, and those of individuals in positions of power within it, what is it about the opera industry in particular which places barriers in the path of Black, Asian and other non-white Minority Ethic (BAME*) singers?

Talking to British BAME colleagues, those barriers very often seem to point back to something else, which tallies with my own experience of the business: class.

In that scene from Hip Hop to Opera, Simon Shibambu answers by saying that he started singing at 8 years old at home in South Africa, with choirs as a boy soprano. He says there were challenges – that in South Africa classical music is not something many families would want their child to start singing. “Same here” replies one of the south London lads.

“Same here.”

The thing is this. Now more than ever, with the current state of the education system in this country, I find it easier to envisage a black South African 8-year-old ending up twenty years later as a professional opera singer than I do an innately talented 8-year-old at a typical British state school. That’s not directly to do with ethnicity – although I’m taking the liberty of assuming that if I put on a production of Dido & Aeneas with an entirely BAME cast, and it turned out all of them had wealthy parents and had studied at expensive private schools and St John’s Cambridge, you wouldn’t be congratulating me on solving our problem.

At the same time as demanding more young people from less privileged backgrounds climb the long, steep ladder which leads to a professional opera career, we’re hacking away at the bottom rungs of that same ladder by cutting back, and often cutting altogether, the provision for music education in state schools. Anyone who is serious about tackling this issue as anything more than superficial virtue-signalling will surely be looking at that end of the process first and foremost, and, given that developing opera singers properly takes at least 20 years, will be setting goals for diversity which are long-term – that is, a process over decades rather than months.

That’s not to say that more immediate steps can’t be taken, and if UK companies are minded to back the many excellent British BAME singers they already have available to them then that can only be a positive thing. In terms of providing inspiring role models to future generations, if that’s what we’re after, a home-grown singer surely carries a lot more weight than one who grew up abroad, since their answers to the question “How did you end up here?” have far more chance of being directly relevant and applicable. Opera companies the world over are notorious for being inclined to import solutions to their casting challenges, but there are rewards in the short and long-term for those notable exceptions who strike a balance by investing in local artists too.

Last week I raised the need for UK companies to back home talent in general, especially given the current perfect storm of uncertainty facing UK artists hoping to work anywhere abroad in the near future (not to mention the need to minimise carbon footprints). The hackles of some non-UK singers were immediately raised. There’s an instant assumption that more work for UK singers means less for others. Need that be the case? Must we always be a bunch of bald men fighting over the last comb? Backing home-grown singers could mean devising new, additional projects, perhaps addressing Britain’s cultural relationship with the rest of the modern world – Lord knows, we could do with examining that somehow. I recently workshopped Guto Puw’s new piece for Music Theatre Wales, written in Welsh for two singers and a 12-piece orchestra – hardly prohibitive in budget allocation, therefore – and it’s one of the few times where I’ve felt part of an artform embedded in my own culture, that the concept of ‘Welsh opera’ meant something significant and tangible, in the way that Italian, German, French, Russian singers must presumably feel every day.

“Same here.”

There’s something fundamentally important in this process of producing new works in the overcoming of the cultural barrier which stands between British state school kids and traditional opera. Singing ability is, to some large extent, transferable between genres – is it legitimate to insist that, for instance, a talented young black vocalist sings music written by dead white male foreigners, rather than something with a far more direct connection to her own life experience? New music has a critical role to play in bridging that gap – or could have, if we assume that we’re interested in producing new pieces that are genuinely useful to contemporary society.

Let’s raise another factor, which is that training as an opera singer continues to become ever more eye-wateringly expensive, even compared to other forms of higher education, while the potential financial rewards of the career at the end of it decrease in both size and stability. My sincere advice to anyone thinking of pursuing it as a career, unless they are of independent financial means and/or have a passport from another EU country is: think again, much harder. We’re turning what was the most working-class field in classical music into a rich kid’s pastime, and no-one seems to be lifting a finger to change that.

A word of warning too for young singers who have managed to make it through to the professional world. The opera business is a machine which is more than capable of chewing singers up, spitting them out, and forgetting about them. And the time to be most on your guard is when the industry decides that it needs you. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take advantage when it does – we’re the ones who sail the boats, and assuming they’re seaworthy we’d be foolish not to launch them whenever we find that the tide is in our favour. If, in the interests of ‘authenticity’, the machine were suddenly to decide that Mr Gedge the vicar had to be played by a middle-aged Welshman, I’d have my diary open before you could say “but you’ve always hated Albert Herring”.

In actual fact what you should be saying is “are you sure that’s the right role for you vocally?”, because these days it certainly isn’t. Experienced colleagues won’t need me to tell them this, since they’re best-placed to make the call themselves, but younger singers should be wary: don’t assume that because you’re offered a role, you must be capable of singing it right now – in practice, it’s not a casting director’s job to be the impartial judge of what’s in your long-term interests.  The industry has suddenly decided that it needs non-white faces on stage – that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean you’re obliged to damage your long-term career and vocal health by pushing your voice into things it shouldn’t be doing. Look after yourself, take care, and good advice from a handful of people you trust. You don’t owe the machine anything.

Let’s leave Mr Gedge to one side for now and consider the role of Otello. Ever since Shakespeare’s version of the character became largely – and quite correctly – the preserve of black actors, there’s been a clamour from the industry and outside for the same principle to be applied to Verdi’s.

The problem isn’t that the role that Verdi wrote isn’t singable by a black tenor – it’s that it isn’t really singable by a mortal human being: it’s a notorious voice-wrecker, and if a tenor can avoid singing it they probably should. But the machine is desperate for a black Otello, and so any young black tenor immediately has this burden of expectation thrust upon him as soon as he sets foot on stage with a degree of promise – even when he might well be a more suitable Cassio or Roderigo in the same piece. Being a tenor is hard enough as it is, or so they tell me, persistently and loudly.

For the time being the machine has, it seems, decided to solve the problem by casting non-ethnically-specific Otellos, without any hint of “blackface” make-up. Since Verdi’s opera is really far more about jealousy than race – much of the subtlety of Shakespeare’s treatment of the latter subject is lost in the inevitable contraction that happens when a long play is adapted as an opera libretto – it’s probably a legitimate solution of sorts. That only leaves us needing to find answers to the issues presented by Aida, Butterfly, Turandot, Carmen… Perhaps we’re going to need a bigger boat.

A colleague recently recounted to me that, when about to appear as Wotan for the first time, he’d received some pretty intimidating correspondence objecting to the idea of a black man portraying a character based heavily on Odin. (Who was, it seems, unambiguously Aryan. I suppose man creates all sorts of gods in his own image.) Humanity being what it is, we need to take care about well-intentioned initiatives – it rarely takes much for less benign souls to pick them up and use them as a stick with which to beat their customary targets.

Diversity on British stages. Let me return to two questions, both of which boil down to equality of outcome versus equality of opportunity.

If, as a quick fix to diverse casting, the non-white singers on stage are all imported, does that solve our problem? In the context of British opera, how inspiring is a cast of – for example – Americans, Chinese, and Oxbridge choral scholars in terms of laying the foundations for future generations? Ethnicity is a factor in relatability, sure – but if the message we’re sending is that BAME singers can make it in opera, as long as they’re not born in Britain, then are we any further along a road which leads anywhere useful?

Even more importantly: any competent casting department could quite easily put together an ethnically diverse team from current British talent for most standard operas. That might well inspire a new generation of youngsters to pursue training in classical music. But if we then send them back to schools where we are at the very same time removing most, and in many cases all, of the already inadequate training in that very field, is it not just another example of us asking young people why they aren’t climbing a ladder which we’ve already chopped up for firewood?


* – I’m using this term for want of a better one, while being aware that its use is not without its controversies.

Posted in Music, Opera, Politics, singing, Theatre, Wales | Leave a comment

Death of the Hero

A year ago I was here at Covent Garden watching Strauss’ Salome for the first time. A few minutes from the end I realised I had no idea how the opera finishes. After doing this job for twenty years you just assume you’ve seen everything somewhere before, and this is the story of John the Baptist after all – what surprises could it possibly hold? But then it struck me that I wasn’t familiar with Strauss’ (nor Oscar Wilde’s) version, and so the ending – I won’t spoil it for you in case you’re in the same boat as I was – came as a genuine shock.

You see, I hadn’t done my homework.

That’s what they tell us, the opera people, isn’t it? “Of course it’s accessible to everyone, you just need to do your homework beforehand.” Because naturally if the audience can’t follow what’s going on then it must be their fault.

Elsewhere in the dramatic arts, committed fans are increasingly obsessed with avoiding spoilers, in this age of inescapable social media. In other words, they are doing all they can to avoid “doing their homework”. By contrast, in the opera business we actively encourage our followers to seek out the spoilers, not for the first time swimming directly against the tide of the rest of modern existence.

Also around this time last year, a load of middle-aged men were up in arms at the revelation in Star Wars: The Last Jedi that Rey, the new trilogy’s protagonist, was nobody in particular at all – a girl from nowhere, as opposed to the heiress or even reincarnation of a major character from the previous trilogies, as the pre-release betting would have had us believe. (When they’re not going to great lengths to avoid spoilers, movie fans spend a lot of time speculating about what surprises forthcoming releases might contain, and then being disappointed when they turn out to be wrong.) In fairness, the trailer for The Force Awakens had told us this very thing: “Who are you?” a voice asks; “I’m no-one”, Rey answers.

In fact a lot of Star Wars’ most ardent fans found a lot more than that with which to take issue in The Last Jedi. What was the point, they asked, of long sections of the movie where our heroes set off an a quest which didn’t end up in a plucky triumph achieved by a combination of shooting things and the absence of detailed planning?

We’re not used to stories about failure, and they’re hard for us to understand.

A commentator recently described the effect of the Trump presidency on the US political system as being akin to releasing a horse in a hospital. The same analogy could be used to describe Siegfried’s impact on the Gibichung household in Götterdämmerung. He is, quite literally, a character from a different opera, and his very existence radically alters the balance of power in this time and place, just as can be said of the Ring itself during the events of Das Rheingold.

But Siegfried in the real world of politics, power and intrigue is a man way out of his depth. In Siegfried, Wagner sets up the eponymous hero as an essentially infallible protagonist, untroubled by setbacks or fear. He sweeps all before him. In the sequel he is as hapless and error-strewn as he was flawless before. “How is this man a hero”, many quite reasonably ask, “when he behaves so badly – bigamy, treachery, arrogance, rape, deceit?” His fall from grace is hard, fast and goes right down to the bottom.

If we approach Götterdämmerung with the open mind which Wagner requested of his audience, surely the answer is clear: his heroism evaporates almost instantaneously upon contact with the real world. Or to put it another way, the value of a monomythical hero, even one as all-conquering and indestructible as Siegfried, to us as real humans is precisely zero.

The Ring is a story of failures – Siegfried, Siegmund, Sieglinde, Mime, Alberich, Fasolt, Fafner, Fricka, Erda, Loge, the Woodbird, Sintolt and Wittig, even – and especially – Wotan himself: failures every single one. Siegfried dies alone in a forest, and his funeral march is not so much for him as for what we had hoped he might have been.

And Brünnhilde? Well, she succeeds in reclaiming the Ring, returning it to the Rhinemaidens, and wiping the slate clean. But she leaves us with little to go on as to what happens after that.

Keith Warner’s current production of Götterdämmerung ends with a figure standing on a giant metal ring, similar in style to the coils we have seen entwined around the set at various points over the course of the cycle, but now reforged into a clean, unsullied circle. Who is this figure? It looks like no-one we’ve met in any of the four operas.

The Ring is far more about questions than answers, and one big question overrides all others at the end, the question which all theatre as art should leave us with: what next?

Since everyone in the Ring, be they human or immortal, a god or a hero, has failed, who is going to come and save us, to solve all our problems and clean up our mess? Warner’s answer seems to be the same one we find in The Last Jedi: No-one.

And quite possibly Wagner’s too. Bear in mind that the Ring began in conception as a single opera about Siegfried’s death, and so everything before Götterdämmerung might well be viewed as the set-up for the pay-off – not so much about the death of a hero, but the death, the total demolition beyond any possible hope of a rematch, of the idea of the hero at all.

No-one’s coming to fix this for us, not at this stage of the game. Not at five minutes to midnight. Not at the end of the third act of Götterdämmerung. We asked for free will, to be masters of our own destiny, and we got it.

And the upshot of that is that either we learn that we’re going to have to solve our problems ourselves, or we’re done for.

Posted in Cinema, Music, Opera, Politics, Religion, Theatre, Wagner | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Wotan Wants

“Weißt du, was Wotan will?” – Siegfried Act 3 Scene 1

Wagner wrote the vast majority of the text for the Ring between 1848 and 1852, and the music from 1853 to 1876. Around this time physicists (as we would now label them) were putting the finishing touches to the achievements of classical Newtonian physics – the laws of thermodynamics, Maxwell’s Equations, kinetic theory and statistical mechanics, and so on – all of which could have persuaded a perfectly rational person to agree with Laplace’s sentiments of a few decades earlier, “that if at one time, we knew the positions and speeds of all the particles in the Universe, then we could calculate their behaviour at any other time, in the past or future” (to borrow Stephen Hawking’s paraphrased translation).

In other words, the events of the future are entirely determined by those of the past and the present, and if we could somehow know everything about the state of the Universe at this very instant, we could predict every event of the future with the utmost accuracy.

So much for the 1800s. The 20th Century arrived and with it Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein and company, who stumbled upon a load of stuff which meant that the future couldn’t be predicted – or, more accurately, that everything about the present couldn’t possibly be known in unlimited detail, and therefore there would always inevitably be a degree of uncertainty about the future.

And so the Norns’ rope snapped forever.

Having said that, the more he thought about it, the more Einstein had grave doubts about the idea that the nature of the Universe was fundamentally non-deterministic: “It seems hard to sneak a look at God’s cards. But that He plays dice… is something that I cannot believe for a single moment.”

In his 1936 book An Actor Prepares, Stanislavski invites us to identify a “super-objective” for our characters, meaning the ultimate goal of the character’s actions over the course of the events of the story. This can then be broken down into a series of objectives in individual scenes, each of which usually brings the character closer to his super-objective.

Most singers portraying Wotan in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre will find identifying his super-objective to be a reasonably straightforward task: after all, he pretty much lays it bare at the start of his monologue: “Als junger Liebe Lust mir verblich, verlangte nach Macht mein Muth”. Assuming we take him at face value, a super-objective of Power seems pretty unarguable. (Although perhaps Control, as a more active and tangible idea, is potentially a more fertile choice for the actor in practice.)

So far, so good. But over the course of Die Walküre, Wotan’s shattering realisation is that this all-consuming pursuit of power has come at the most appalling personal cost, and by the end he is a broken man, trudging away from Brünnhilde’s fiery mountain top on a long self-flagellating quest for…

Well, for what? That is the question once Wotan has become The Wanderer.

Mime: “Wer ist’s, der im wilden Walde mich sucht?”

Alberich: “Wer naht dort schimmernd im Schatten?”

Erda: “Wer scheucht den Schlummer mir?”

Wotan spends half his time in this opera being asked who he is, which is always a significant question in Wagner’s works. Even more significantly, he seems distinctly undecided as to the correct answer, to the extent that Wagner has even given him a nom de voix in the dramatis personae – and this for a character who has up till now shown a marked predilection for name-dropping himself at the slightest opportunity. There’s a clear implication that he is undergoing a severe crisis of identity.

The entire Ring cycle is much more concerned with setting us questions than giving us answers – a quality which leads to frustration among its detractors, and often scorn of Wagner’s abilities as a dramatist, but which surely goes a long way to explaining the enduring nature of its appeal. In the same spirit, I’ll attempt to highlight some – hopefully to some extent enlightening – questions which face the singer as he approaches this third instalment as Wotan.

Early in Das Rheingold, her husband assures Fricka that “Wandel und Wechsel liebt wer lebt; das Spiel drum kann ich nicht sparen!” Yet by Act 2 of Siegfried, his tune has changed: “Zu schauen kam ich, nicht zu schaffen” he tells Alberich, having seemingly learned the lesson of the confrontation with his wife during Die Walküre – that his involvement, however indirect, with the affairs of men can only end in their ruin.

And yet. If he’s truly not getting involved, why does he show up at Mime’s home – what’s his Stanislavskian objective – and why now? What is he hoping to achieve? And what is this business of the riddles all about?

Stanislavski talks of drama as starting with The Magic If. But at times it’s just as useful an exercise to ask, “what if not?” In our example, what happens if Wotan doesn’t turn up at Mime’s right now? It’s pretty clear from Act 1 Scene 1 that Mime and Siegfried’s relationship is near breaking point, and that the boy intends clearing out the moment the dwarf has managed to forge a half-decent sword for him. It’s equally clear that this task is beyond Mime, and likely that this fact will occur to Siegfried at any moment – in which case I think we can speculate with a fair degree of confidence that Siegfried would then dispatch or dispense with Mime, or both. Which would presumably mean no Nothung and no slaying of Fafner.

The implication of this is that Wotan’s objective in this scene is to ensure that Nothung is reforged and that Siegfried is united with it. And so it’s clear that Wotan wants Siegfried to slay Fafner and claim the Ring. Is it?

Let’s move forward with that in mind. Wotan’s next move is to head for Neidhöle itself – a place he has been conspicuously shunning since Fafner set up his distinctly unwelcoming shop there. Why? And why now?

He finds Alberich has beaten him to it, which seems to come as a surprise, and his conversation with Mime’s brother leads a winding dance, and ends with Wotan leaving having done nothing other than provoke Fafner, seemingly purely as a wind-up, and tell Alberich to be more like him and chill out.

So again – what if not? What if Alberich hadn’t been there? Was Wotan really planning just to be a spectator at Siegfried vs Fafner? To step in if needed? Or to make sure Siegfried didn’t fall victim afterwards to Mime’s skullduggery? But if that was his plan, what occurs during his conversation with Alberich to make him change it?

Perhaps there’s a clue in the name by which he greets his old adversary: “Schwarz-Alberich” – suggesting there’s a direct thread in his mind to the man he has just recently recognised as “Licht-Alberich”: himself. Is his decision to leave them to it, rather than stay and thus lead himself into the temptation to interfere, an effort to avoid taking further steps down the path to this dark spot in which Alberich finds himself? Bear in mind that at this point they’re still the only two people to have had the Ring and lost it, united in their uniquely shared knowledge of the curse’s burden. Wotan decides to step back: “Wen ich liebe, laß ich für sich gewähren: er steh oder fall, sein Herr ist er” and even “Alles ist nach seiner Art: an ihr wirst du nichts ändern.” He has truly, it seems, learned his lesson.

And yet.

Without Wotan’s interference, freely, of his own volition, and wielding a weapon forged only by his own ingenuity and need, Siegfried conquers Fafner, gains the Ring, and avoids Mime’s traps. Which is what Wotan wanted, right? So the next time we see him, he is at peace and triumphant, right?

If that is our hypothesis – and it is an entirely reasonable one – the opening of Act 3 will come as a shock to our system. Its thematic material is familiar, and yet it is quite unlike anything we’ve heard up to now in the Ring. And it is a world away from depicting a man in contented repose, facing a blissful retirement with benign resignation.

Wotan is summoning Erda for what will be their third and final encounter. His objective this time is clear – he has a question to ask her: “Wie zu hemmen ein rollendes Rad?”

But what wheel? Rolling towards where? At this point in the story, surely he can only mean one thing: the wheel is Siegfried and he is rolling, seemingly unstoppably, towards Brünnhilde. Perhaps Wotan is merely enquiring casually as to whether he truly is unstoppable, just making sure it’ll all turn out okay. But the turmoil of the music suggests otherwise – that he really does want to know if there’s a way of preventing all this, of turning the tide and restoring the old order rather than let it be swept away.

His turmoil continues into the next scene, where again his behaviour displays no logical consistency – does he really change his entire universal gameplan merely as a result of Siegfried pissing him off a bit? Or is the issue with our unreasonable expectation that people should only ever act in accordance with their own stated goals, never against their own interests? “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” – Walt Whitman

Let’s go back to those riddles in Act 1. Why not just turn up and tell Mime that he needs to let Siegfried forge the sword? Well, surely because that would be direct intervention – the consequences of which were demonstrated so brutally in Walküre. So Wotan needs to find a way to intervene which would stand up as having nothing to do with his will. And so he arrives at Mime’s home, not directly, but having first spent many years wandering the entire world (“Die Welt durchzog ich, wanderete viel” – Act 3 Sc 1) – this is almost the very last place he visits. And as a bedraggled, saddle-sore wanderer, he is sure to be offered, however reluctantly, the hospitality which custom dictates is afforded to weary travellers.

(We’ve seen this before, remember – when Hunding, also reluctantly, offers the same to Siegmund. Hunding is the champion of Fricka of course, and this sort of moral obligation is very much her realm rather than that of Wotan’s contractual law, all of which would no doubt stand Wotan in good stead if challenged once again by his wife or those loyal to her.)

We might conclude therefore that Wotan’s objective in this scene is to help Mime without exerting his own will – in other words, to somehow set things up so that Mime asks for his help, in circumstances under which Wotan is morally obliged to give it. The scene would last a couple of minutes at most, were it not for Mime’s compulsive biting of the hand with which Wotan is attempting to feed him.

(If those objectives and obstacles are clearly established in the performers’ minds then there’s a chance of bringing out the genuine situational comedy in the scene, as well as  making sense of the fact that it lasts a lot longer than it might at first seem to need to.)

Back to the mountain. Why does Wotan feel the need to meet Siegfried in person at all? It would appear that the Woodbird is doing a perfectly good job of leading him in the right direction, and only abandons him because of Wotan’s unsociable ravens. Left alone, surely the wheel would just keep on rolling right to its inevitable destination?

“Wer sagt’ es dir, den Fels zu suchen? Wer, nach der Frau dich zu sehnen?”

“Wer reizte dich, den starken Wurm zu besteh’n?”

“Wer schuf das Schwert so scharf und hart, daß der stärkste Feind ihm fiel?”

“Doch, wer schuf die starken Stücken, daraus das Schwert du dir geschweißt?”

This time it’s Wotan’s turn to ask, who? And the final answer is, of course, himself. However…

Siegfried: “Was weiß ich davon?” 

The grandson genuinely doesn’t recognise his (paternal and maternal) grandfather. The first part of the test is complete – he truly is the free agent that Siegmund could, tragically, never be.

From now on, though, the conversation gets testier. Perhaps Wotan sinks deeper into the realisation of how different this version is from his beloved Siegmund. Perhaps he rapidly foresees how dismally Siegfried will fare the instant he encounters a world of human politics and intrigue such as the hall of the Gibichungs.

But consider also the information he manages to impart to Siegfried as the encounter becomes more confrontational.

“heut nicht wecke mir Neid: er vernichtete dich und mich!”

“Den Weg, den es zeigte, sollst du nicht ziehn!”

“Fürchte des Felsens Hüter!”

“wer sie erweckte, wer sie gewänne, machtlos macht’ er mir ewig.”

And so on, followed by a detailed description of what the final stages of the path will look like and the obstacles he will encounter. Sure, he’s telling Siegfried what not to do, rather than telling him to do it – but what better way is there of getting a recalcitrant youth to do what you want? Consciously or otherwise, Wotan has hit upon an inspired piece of reverse psychology.

More than that, he could stand up in court and testify that he has done everything but help Siegfried: in Act 1 he has aided Mime’s scheming, in Act 2 (however ineffectively) he has lent a hand to Alberich, as well as warning Fafner and giving him details of the approaching threat, and in Act 3 he has asked the all-knowing Erda how to stop Siegfried himself, having first exhausted every other source of knowledge in the world, and then confronted him in person and done all in his power to halt his progress, up to and including physical violence. “Wie schüf’ ich den Freien, den nie ich schirmte, der im eig’nen Trotze der trauteste mir?” At this second attempt he has cracked it.

The character’s super-objective my well be unclear, his Stanislavskian through-line hardly a straight one – it is contorted, twisting, and at many points hard to follow at all. It is the path of a man keen to cover his tracks, to set up the probability of a freely-willed outcome, rather than insisting on absolute control over fate and destiny.

It is the behaviour, in other words, of a god who plays dice.

Posted in acting, Art, Music, Opera, Politics, Religion, singing, Theatre, Wagner | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment