Friday, September 7, 2012

Mythical thrillers, parable art & serious entertainment...

I have been writing about Wagner and The Flying Dutchman on my opera blog. This is a more philosophical essay about serious music, referencing Wagner and his "parable art" music dramas rich in mythological content and meaning.

A mythical tale is a thriller of intelligibility. – Pier Paolo Pasolini

A general misconception about Romanticism is that it is about feelings of romance… It is a radical state of being at odds with the world. – V. Jurowski

Mortuos plango, vivos voco [I lament the dead, I call the living]. – J. Harvey

There must always be two kinds of art: escape-art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep, and parable-art, that art which shall teach man to unlearn hatred and learn love. – W.H. Auden

Auden’s 1935 assessment of the needs for our cultural diet has become more potent with the passing of the subsequent seven decades. A poet, librettist, critic, philosopher, Anglican and activist, Auden was one of the 20th century’s most important voices. A “Renaissance man” polymath, Auden could be breezy and profound, witty and serious at once. A deep thinker and engaged citizen, he maintained a lyrical style that was against the grain of the modernist avant-garde. Impossible to pigeonhole, he was an iconoclast and independent working from within the “ivory tower” of academia. As a member of the academy he was well positioned to challenge its propensity towards myopia. A near-sighted interest in self-preservation prevents individuals and organizations from opening to their full potentials. The infamous seven deadly words – “we’ve never done it that way before” epitomizes a close-mindedness that will always struggle in the quicksand of fear. This anxiety about the unfamiliar is a wall as high as Rapunzel’s tower. It keeps many a system or institution closed. And it prevents a broader audience from experiencing many a genius and great work.

Great art – serious art – parable art – “high” or “classical” art is always at some level against the grain. It challenges an establishment that usually prefers escape to depth and chooses “easy listening” over anything that hints of the difficult. This is why “deep” poets like Rilke remind us – not without a sense of urgency and passionate intensity - “that we must hold to what is difficult.” When he writes, “You must change your life,” the poet is naming a place where meaning is found. Growth does not occur without “growing pains.” Challenges, obstacles, problems, conflicts and tensions contain the seeds of possibility and newness. Why does our so-called “culture” run the other way to distraction, diversion, “safety” and the bland anesthesia of the comfortable and familiar? And why do we passionate romantics get so worked up about it?

We shall try to cease the Sunday sermonizing and take up the theme of that “thriller of intelligibility” Pasolini found in myth. This leitmotif is one serious artists have translated in various media across the ages. We believe opera is the most complete medium in which to find this engaging – and entertaining – depth. Opera has nurtured an intimate connection with myth and “parable art” across its 400+ years of existence. We have recently quoted on more than one occasion from the poet & librettist Dana Gioia’s excellent essay “Sotto Voce” (an epilogue in the Graywolf Press edition of his libretto for the contemporary gothic opera, Nosferatu). Gioia summarizes opera’s unique power. Opera lovers who have not thought analytically about why they respond so viscerally to their beloved art form smile, nod and verbalize affirmation after hearing Gioia’s insights.

Opera demands intense lyric compression… What opera excels at is presenting peak moments of human emotion… Better perhaps than any other art form, it can represent the full emotional intensity of a specific moment… (p. 72)

This compression – like any concentrated form of energy – packs a punch. And that “emotional intensity” triggers a response from the receptive participant. I started to write “listener,” but the totality that is opera – music and poetry, story and stagecraft and more – makes it unique. Wagner wanted to create “music dramas” in the mold he saw as the ultimate and essential form, the Gesamtkunstwerk – the “total work of art.” One of Opera Roanoke’s current tag lines is: Hear the Drama. See the Music. The other is Opera: Life with a melody. Both capture these essential qualities of opera’s totalizing and “larger than life” power that is at once “over the top.”

As the poet William Meredith rhetorically asks,
Isn’t this how we’ve always longed to talk?
Words as they fall are monotone and bloodless
But they yearn to take the risk these noises take.
(from About Opera)

Back to Gioia: Opera tends to explore the extremes of human experience, especially the limits of suffering. Tragic opera remains the only theatrical form still unabashedly committed to Aristotle’s notion of emotional catharsis through pity and terror (p. 73).

Wagner’s operas are the epitome of this ideal. Indeed, he is the only non-Italian in the list of 19th century “romantic” greats Gioia names as the operatic equivalents of “Sophocles’ Athens or Shakespeare’s London.” Again, I find Gioia’s pronouncements right on target. One of the highest compliments we pay an opera is to call a role and / or performance “Shakespearean.” The two composers most often awarded such acclaim are Verdi and Wagner. Through that “special lyric intensity” and by exploring those “extremes of human experience” opera is both “larger than life” and true to it. The artist’s ability to represent or recreate, to translate or “express” a particularly human state of mind, heart or being is what makes art the highest form of human creativity (this recognition might give us pause to consider the place of the artist in society, but that is another book).

Wagner’s successor in German opera was Richard Strauss. Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal created some of the 20th century’s greatest music dramas of timeless myth with Salome, Elektra and Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow). Writing of Hofmannsthal, Gioia cites the poet’s task…was to create ‘the myth of our time.’ Opera in particular fascinated him with its expressive power and ritualized action.

I am no longer surprised when I learn that a prospective patron who claims to not like opera has never attended one. Many liken opera to an “acquired taste” – which, like coffee, “ethnic” cuisine or certain sports may be just that (for some). I was struck as if by a lightning bolt the first time I heard an “opera singer” live and up close. It affected me immediately and has not relaxed its grip on my imagination. Nor has it ceased to touch my heart, and with its magical charms it continues to penetrate the very core of my being. I have always responded to the grand dramas and lyric tragedies of every type of stage. Comedy is escape art which I enjoy as an occasional break from my preferred diet of meaning and substance, poetry, philosophy and the melancholy beauty of antiquity, the Renaissance, the Romantics and their modern day bards and translators.

Like Gioia, I believe “music can make fantasy and myth, symbolism and expressionism credible.” And not only “accessible” but palpably real and immediately appealing. The “thriller of intelligibility” that great myths, tales, fables and legends are drives opera and gives this most original of “mash up” art forms staying power. But if it were “only” this ability to make symbols and archetypes intelligible – as “period” dramas and “epic” films also attempt – the genre’s appeal would be more limited. I believe all music has a spiritual value. The creative act itself is an affirmation of life and the human spirit. Even the darkest of tragedies arises from this affirmative source of creativity.

One of music’s primary themes is the cycle of renewal. So many musical forms – from theme & variation to sonata form, song or “bar” form to the rondo – enact this very cycle of regeneration. Whether interpreted as rebirth or a symbol of resurrection, this eternally returning cycle is at the heart of epic trilogies and tragedies. It enlivens the symphonic repertoire and has always been a leitmotif of grand opera. And no composer enacted this cycle of life, death and rebirth – or curse and redemption – more so than Richard Wagner.

Wagner recast the sacrificial death of the martyr – most familiar to Western audiences in the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus – as the Liebestod or love-death. As we have noted in other essays about Wagner, the Liebestod most famously occurs in Tristan und Isolde and in Brünnhilde’s immolation in Götterdämmerung, the final chapter in Wagner’s epic Ring of the Nibelungs, one of the crowning achievements of Western civilization. The road to Wagner’s Ring begins in earnest with Der Fliegende Holländer. The Dutchman’s & Senta’s love is a doomed one; they meet in death as Senta throws herself into the same waves the ghost ship and her captain have entered. We do not see this dark love’s consummation on stage, but we hear their belated union in the music as the opera’s themes meet and resolve in radiant harmony. This is romantic opera at its most gripping, a thriller of intelligibility and a myth for all time.

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