Friday, June 24, 2016

St John’s Day

Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, written back to back at the midpoint of the nineteenth century, represent a single, two-headed philosophy. They are based on the same philosophical principle, which Richard Wagner had read in Schopenhauer: The visible world is an expression of insatiable will, and since the world is divided against itself, there is never any satisfaction to be had by any particular instantiation of that will, whether rabbit or philosopher. Seen from another angle, an individual creature’s desires are unlimited, but its capacity to sate them is strictly limited. This means that conscious life is frustrating and disappointing by its very nature.

(This thought was not original to Schopenhauer by any means. It is the kernel of Koheleth, the Theravāda, and of the early Christians. Giacomo Leopardi, by Schopenhauer’s own admission, elaborated the frustration of human desires far more clearly than he did.)

Now, this way of thinking—infelicitously called “pessimism”—is not inherently tragic. In in Wagner’s mind, at least, it was simply the way things are; and capable of bearing both grimness and mirth. Tristan and Die Meistersinger are twin expressions of pessimism, but the former is a horrible tragedy and the latter a lighthearted comedy. Schopenhauer’s pessimism pervades both operas equally.

Tristan is a portrait of wild frustration from beginning to end. It opens with Isolde’s fierce complaint against Tristan, who killed her betrothed lover Morold. Tristan and Isolde drink the love potion and long to be dissolved into each other. But it’s not long that they find each other alone before Brangäne warns them that the dawn is coming, and with it the interrupting king. Only death can answer their passion for each other.

Tristan und Isolde is a play of desire hurling itself, ever vainly, against the walls of the world. The world isn’t even evil—King Mark is an all-right chap, after all. It’s just inconvenient. But that changes nothing: the world of sunlight and human beings is enough, just by being itself, to staunch every human desire. (Hardy: “These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown / Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.”)

Die Meistersinger has the same philosophy, but its characters come out all right. This is partly because that the dangerous love affair is consciously aborted by the prudent lovers. Schopenhauer had advised this tactic in book IV of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, counselling that ascetic denial of the will and its erotic loves was the only way out of human suffering.

But there is another opportunity that Wagner suggested for overcoming the will. He spoke through Hans Sachs. Sachs begins his famous monologue with Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn: madness, madness, everywhere madness! Men, women, children eat each other alive. The world is all askew; a goblin did it; the glowworm’s lost his mate; and there’s no staunching the train of longings that want impossible satisfaction from the physical world. These words are spoken at night. But then the sun comes up and Sachs cries:
How peacefully in her firm customs,
trusting in deed and work,
in the middle of Germany
lies my beloved Nuremberg!
It is dawn on the 24th of June, St John’s Day. The shortest, softest night of the year is over, and the sun comes up warm and benign. Men and women set about saving themselves when it shines. We see a country dance at the beginning of the opera’s finale, and the craftsmen of Nuremberg lustily boast their trades: the tailors, the bakers, the cordwainers have their part, and finally, the crown of all the craftsmen, the master-singers. Poetry and singing are chief of the crafts, because they are the hardest and the noblest.

We are shown a way out: the characters leave the night-world of Tristan und Isolde without ceasing to recognise the stifling fruitlessness of the world. They live in the daylight for a day. They take pride in their sweated work, they sing their carefully sawn songs, they scoff at the entanglements of love, they bow to their elders, and they are loosed from the lusting will.

Of course, firm roots are necessary for this: pride in one’s life and labour cannot exist under the colossal thumb of an alien city. A man cannot make a song if he has no material to build it with, any more than if he has no breath with which to bring the old materials to life. It is a grim fact that Nuremberg has been burnt into ashes, and rebuilt as a tourist’s Disneyland.

The sudden and recent strangling of tradition aside, there is still a way to vanquish the will in the daytime. Just like in Wagner’s century, there is still one night a year that is nearly vanquished, besieged on both sides by the creeping evening and dawn. A man was born that night—it can be us!—who walked free in the desert, eating honey and living with the lions. What is sweeter than honey; what is sweeter than a lion?


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Seven Veils on the Opera

The classical opera was the flower of modern Western civilisation. It was to the nineteenth century what the Gothic cathedrals were to the middle ages. And it can still reveal spiritual realities to us that correspond to nothing in our poor, ordinary lives. Where, in the slog of coffee, work, and public transportation, is the terror of Don Giovanni? or the painful sweetness of Così fan tutte? Where is Pollione’s courage, or the Countess’s wistfulness, or Nemorino’s open infatuation? Where is the ghostly sacredness of the Magic Flute?

The world of the opera is higher than our own. We are lucky enough to have some access to it. The problem, though, is that the opera’s spiritual reality must be communicated to us in some visible, human form. And this earthly clothing is almost enough to completely obscure the heavenly idea that it cloaks. Let’s peel back the veils put up between us and the inner beauty of dramatic music. There are seven.

Outermost is the smelly shawl of wealth and high society. Go to the Royal Opera or the Met, and you’ll be confronted with a sea of women in fur scarves, their ears and wrists dripping with jewels. Silk-suited men order them $15 cocktails to pick up at the start of intermission. (The crowd, of course, are stern and bored.) If you want a seat where you can see the expressions on singers’ faces, you need to pay hundreds of dollars. If you want a seat on the board, you need to pay millions. 

The association between wealth and the opera is so strong as to fix luxury as the opera’s defining trait in the public imagination. If a fictional character as moneyed and cultured—like Gavin Elster in Vertigo—he goes to the opera with his wife. This justified perception, by the way—not the opera’s ‘irrelevance’—is what alienates young people.

The second veil is woven by pretentious and lazy directors who care more about grittiness, glamor, or shock than any real beauty. This is a belabored point that needs no more belaboring. But I refer you to Against Modern Opera Productions, a Facebook page whose mission is to skewer the sophisticated dreck peddled by modern and post-modern directors. And I refer you to this searingly relevant production of Rigoletto, which grippingly engages with the modern reality of anthropomorphic eagles.
Runner-up is the Met’s current production.
The third veil is related: it is the insistence of powerful people that the opera can be made ‘relevant’ to modern politics and aesthetics. We can’t have Nabucco anymore without a suggestive commentary on 2016 refugees inserted into the program. Nor an advertisement for La Traviata that fails to describe its heroine as a ‘glamourous diva’ or something like that. All female characters become proto-feminists, and all the drama becomes a prelude to American musical theatre. But the opera is no more an attendant on our century than it is on the ninth or the twenty-third. It expresses its own aesthetic principles, except when it’s trampled on by people with no sense of history or the past’s distance from us. That happens most of the time.

Fourth is the incompetence of the singers. If nature condescends to give someone a projecting voice, she usually denies him a sweet and lyric tone. If she gives him tone, she withholds all acting ability whatsoever. If she gives him acting ability, she denies him diction. And the rare specimens that possess all of the necessary virtues usually end up sounding distractingly strange nevertheless. (Say, Juan Diego Flórez and Gregory Kunde.) There are a few really lovely singers in every generation. But the great mass are ostentatious, bad musicians. 

Fifth are the imposters that the real opera is forced to share quarters with. For every Norma there are a hundred Toscas; for every Ugo, conte di Parigi a thousand Werthers. That’s not to mention the clanging modern operas that falsely claim the title: The Death of Klinghoffer, Peter Grimes, etc. But it’s bad enough that the French grand opéra and Puccini’s sentimentalism are allowed into the opera house. These operas are so popular that they leave very little room in the repertoire for their betters. I would burn every score of Madama Butterfly in the world for the sake of a single production of Gemma de Vegy or Medea in Corinto. These operas have been virtually abandoned, just like most lovely operas that have ever been written.

The sixth veil is the ceaselessly annoying audience. They go to the opera because it’s ‘culture’. They take flash photos. They whisper in the middle of arias. They show up late. They cough and they smell weird. They hiss at their bored children. They clap for campy and pretentious singing. All these sins can be pardoned of weak and suffering people, and I don’t point them out because they are inherently evil. They are just painfully distracting, and they bind the opera fast to the stupidities of human bodies and human society.

The innermost veil is the only one that can never be stripped off. (Recordings, after all, can free us from audiences, stagings, and repertoires.) It consists of the the little uglinesses and imperfections that blight every realisation of an opera. Notes go wrong here and there, or the orchestra goes off the rails entirely. Sometimes climactic notes are just a bit flat. Or the singers are ugly: Joan Sutherland, tasked with playing blossoming maidens, was a surpassingly plain woman. (In general, everyone on stage is too old for the part.) Ugliness takes other forms as well: Anna Netrebko is an airhead and a Putinist. Beniamino Gigli was a fascist. I also include under this head the random things that go wrong during a performance. The principal has a cold, but she is so headstrong that she sings the part anyway. Or a dying hero drops a rubber prop-dagger, and it hits the ground with a thud. All of this reminds us sorrily that we’re listening to human art, not voices from heaven.

All told, opera is swaddled nearly to death in the clothes of the Opera. The idea of dramatic music is holy, but the price it pays to be expressed is defilement by the world.

Now see an analogy in human life. Life in its ideal form is gay, friendly, and elvish. Anyone with a bit of imagination is visited by dozens of youthful May-dreams. Life could be spent singing by the riverside, or murmuring with gods on the mountains, or reading with the wise by the fire. But it’s never like that except for brief minutes. We dream of striding through Norway, but more often than not we end up driving across Scarsdale, NY for the ten-thousandth time. We think that we can arrange to be in the company of wise and loving people, and find ourselves trapped with petty gossipers and cold idiots. 

Life as it could be is choked by the very conditions that make life possible. Life must inhabit matter and flesh, so it is necessarily blighted with boredom and pointless pain. And still—just like the opera, its ideal form can be just made out under its earthly shrouds.