The third act of Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream embodies the cliché "from the sublime to the ridiculous." The act opens in a fairy-land evoked by shimmering violins in three-part divisi playing in their upper register. It is among the most beautiful music its composer wrote.
The Fairy King, Oberon undoes the spell he cast on the Fairy Queen, Tytania. She awakens to a recapitulation of the violins' theme that swells in sensual crescendo with the entire orchestra, complemented by cascading harp glissandi. It's a wonderful moment in an act of musical theater that is full of felicities and surprises.
Upon waking her first lines are:
My Oberon! what visions have I seen!
Methought I was enamor'd of an ass.
By my troth, thou wast! For Oberon hath played a trick on the fair Fairy Queen (with the timeless theatrical device of the love potion) which made Tytania fall for the first thing she laid eyes upon. To her shame and the audience's delight, she espied the lovably boorish weaver, Bottom. They would qualify for opera's most unlikely couple were Bottom NOT turned by fairy-magic into the form of a donkey. But an ass he is. Or was.
Britten has been rightly praised for the ingenious ways he evokes the differing worlds of Shakespeare's fairy tale (for kids of all ages). The Fairy land is differentiated from the lyrical but earth-bound music for the pairs of Athenian lovers (themselves victims of love potions and spells). The human realm of the Athenian nobles is marked from the world of the simple "mechanicals," the rustic men who form a rankly amateur theater troupe in their off hours. It is appropriate that Shakespeare's prototypes for the dry, slapstick brand of British humour (en vogue through Monty Python) should be given music that parodies parallel operatic stereotypes.
But when I saw the engaging and thoroughly entertaining production of Britten's opera recently in Chicago, I was surrounded by opera loving philistines who neither responded to the double entendre of puns like Tytania's or the ridiculousness of the rustics "play within the play." There were a small handful of subscribers in the upper balcony who laughed out loud--a good production of the play AND the opera IS laugh-out-loud funny. But more people either walked out or audibly voiced their incomprehension at the slapstick antics and raw wit.
To cite one ridiculously funny instance among many, the play "Pyramus and Thisby" features the classical amateur "ham" actor (Bottom) as the hero Pyramus. His beloved Thisby is played by the awkward young man, Flute in drag. They meet on either side of a wall (which is played to hilarious effect by a fellow rustic, Snout) and try to kiss through a chink in said wall. The kiss does not go well and "Thisby" cries in "her" strained tenor "I kiss the wall's hole/not your lips at all!" That's funny. And funnier in a good production. Which this was.
The humorlessness of hardened, "serious" music lovers did not diminish my enjoyment. But it is a reminder of how difficult communication can be and how vital it is for the human channels to stay open. As others have corroborated, a culture that loses its sense of wonder, mystery OR its sense of humor is in trouble.
I think we are even more uncomfortable with raw, in-your-face emotion than we are with bawdy humor. "We" being polite, educated, middle class (mostly white) "culture." Consumers of "serious" music and "high" art.
In one of Alex Ross's recent New Yorker reviews he writes penetratingly about the reception of Leonard Bernstein's "serious" music. He quotes Bernstein's description of Britten's music as "gears that are grinding and not quite meshing." Ross says Bernstein "might better have been describing his own work."
I think both men--who had an interesting, episodic relationship from Bernstein's conducting of Britten's first opera, Peter Grimes in 1946 through Britten's death in 1976--have been misunderstood. Ross goes on to describe the musical language of Bernstein's opera, A Quiet Place. Before noting that at its premiere it was "criticized as a hodgepodge--nearly every Bernstein score was criticized as a hodgepodge," Ross makes one of those observations that reminds me why he's one of my favorite critics.
"It's as if he [Bernstein] were healing the twentieth century's stylistic divides, with Romanticism as the meeting ground; at several crucial points, the orchestra enters a beautifully ominous space that might be described as Cold War Mahler."
That "hodgepodge" style and the bridging of stylistic distances was something Lenny and Benjie both did quite well, even if they were much criticized for it. Their music is unfashionably conservative from the avant-garde's perspective. The "grinding gears" (which now amount to very mild dissonance--film scores can be much more grating) have been wrongly associated with "ugly" modernism. This still puts off many listeners (those for whom "I know what I like" usually translates to "I like what I know"). I think both factors contribute to the checkered reception history of both composers' works. But I think something else is in play. Their music is emotional and romantic and direct. And such openness makes all kinds of (western) people uncomfortable.
I couldn't choose which evocative world of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream I like best. The metaphysical realm of the fairies is wonderful (and has more of Britten's infectiously charming music for children). I love the bel canto opera parodies in the finale's play within the play (they were a wink in the direction of La Stupenda, Joan Sutherland, who'd recently sung Britten's Gloriana to great acclaim). And the music the Athenian lovers sing upon waking from their dream (which gives this rambling ditty its title) is ravishingly beautiful.
In a recent dream I had I looked up at the night sky and the stars lit up like night-lights, like bright white dots in a pointillistic Seurat canvas, shown in relief against a background of pitch. I have no idea what that image represents, but it was cool.
I'm reading a wonderful book of art criticism, Caspar David Friedrich: And the Subject of Landscape (Joseph Leo Kerner. Reaktion, 1990, 2009). Kerner takes some time to connect the threads of early 19th- century German culture, the birthplace of the "Romantic." I was reminded of a recent post below on "fragments and hedgehogs" (which may well become the title of the book I want to turn this all into) as I read quotes from the visionary romantic poet, Novalis:
"The world must become Romanticized. That way one finds again the original meaning. Romanticizing is nothing but a qualitative potentializing."
Jawohl! Restoring some of the balance our rational, goal-oriented, technology-driven western world has misplaced would involve realizing more of our affective (and metaphysical) potential and might just restore some of the lost "original meaning."
Kerner hasn't referred (yet) to Jung or John Dewey, and his book predates Iain McGilchrist's efforts to give the right brain its due (all referenced in posts below) but the "meaningful coincidence" of synchronicity is there when we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
And like beholding more of the stars, even this reception requires effort. Just a couple of pages after the Bernstein review in the same (Nov 15) New Yorker, John Lahr reviews a new production of Tony Kushner's groundbreaking epic, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on American Themes. He quotes a note Kushner had written the cast of the opening night run in LA in 1992:
"And how else should an angel land on earth but with utmost difficulty? If we are to be visited by angels we will have to call them down with sweat and strain...and the efforts we expend to draw the heavens to an earthly place may well leave us too exhausted to appreciate the fruits of our labors: an angel, even with torn robes, and ruffled feathers, is in our midst."
Yes it is, baby. I love Tony Kushner. I love his bold, audacious vision, his passion and the range of raw emotions his characters evoke and the all-too-human states they embody. He is a modern-day prophet and poet and the scope of his imagination lives up to such titles. In another supreme example of critical excellence, Lahr writes about "one of the most thrilling of Kushner's verbal arabesques--[in which] Harper has a vision of repair for the ozone layer, whose hole has obsessed her doom-filled days:"
Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.
What souls! "What visions have I seen!" I feel like Walt Whitman yawping an open-throated affirmation of life itself. Or like brother Lenny: "And it was good, brother, and it was goddam good!"**
As the Athenian lovers wake up from their disturbed visions, they sing in chorus,
Why then we are awake; let's go,
And by the way let us recount our dreams.
Let us wake up and connect the dots of our lives into lyrical canvasses that mend the tears by recounting dreams. Why shouldn't we?
(**The quotation comes from Bernstein's Mass, another theater work involving parody & satire, not to be confused with blasphemy &/or gratuitous profanity)