Monday, January 31, 2011

Lunch this Wednesday with John Adams, Nixon & Mao!

I hope many of you will join me for an informal lunch-time discussion on the "modern classic" opera, Nixon in China. John Adams is the most celebrated opera composer alive. This Met premiere of Nixon (Adams' first opera, from 1987) is directed by Peter Sellars. The "maverick director" created the original production for Houston Grand Opera and has been called by Opera News the most "passionate advocate for classical music in the world today."

Adams music is vibrant and colorful, as contemporary as his subjects, yet firmly rooted in the operatic tradition. His stage works frequently elicit comparisons to Mozart, Verdi and Wagner. In the composer's own words, all of his operas "have dealt on deep psychological levels with our American mythology."

I will briefly discuss Adams and his music, and offer selections from some of the composer's operas, including Nixon in China. The informal lunch hour will conclude with a "Q & A" generated discussion.

Virginia Western hosts this week's discussion, and is the new home of exclusive Roanoke presentations of the Metropolitan Opera "Live in HD" broadcasts. More details on this "impromptu" presentation are below; I'll follow up with another piece on Nixon in China next week, in anticipation of the Met premiere of this great contemporary musical drama, LIVE in HD, Feb 12.

Location & other details:
Virginia Western Community College
Natural Science Center
February 2nd
12:00 noon-1 pm
(Bring a lunch; drinks will be provided)

Directions: On Colonial Avenue, turn onto Winding Way beside the Community Arboretum. At the top of the hill, turn left into the parking lot and the Natural Science Center is the first brick building on your left.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Opera Weekend: Jan 22-23

This weekend music lovers around Roanoke can experience back-to-back treats of the operatic variety. Saturday at 1 pm the next Met "Live in HD" broadcast will play at Va Western Community College
(go to or for more info & tickets).

It is my single favorite Puccini opera, La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West). It was premiered 100 years ago at the Met conducted by the eminent Italian maestro, Arturo Toscanini and starring the great tenor Enrico Caruso.

It is arguably Puccini's greatest score and that is one of the primary reasons it
is a favorite among musicians, critics and opera buffs. When we talk about
"the score" we are referring literally to the entirety of the written music.
(We conduct from the score; the orchestra musicians play from individual parts; the singers use a piano/vocal score that contains their sung roles and a reduction of the orchestral music into a piano part. For those inquiring minds...)

So the score of Fanciulla is one of Puccini's greatest creations. He was struck by the innovations in harmony and orchestration by composers like Debussy (the style of musical impressionism) and incorporated these stylistic advances into his score. You'll hear music that evokes the wind and winter weather seamlessly interwoven with Puccini's signature sweeping melodies. Unlike La Boheme, from which arias are often excerpted, Fanciulla's arias are so integrated into the score they are rarely featured apart from their musical "home."

Like Puccini's most popular opera, Madama Butterfly (coming live in 3D to Roanoke March 18 & 20!), Fanciulla strives for the verisimilitude of "local color" by incorporating bits of folk music indigenous to its setting. Puccini studied Japanese music when composing his tragic masterpiece, and he used American tunes when composing this opera mirroring the American dream (one with a happy ending).

And speaking of the American aspect, its heroine is a gun-toting, Sunday-school-teaching bar owner named Minnie, beloved by a bad-guy-type Sheriff. The love triangle is completed by the lovable outlaw-bandit (tenor), whose life is saved by our heroine. Clint Eastwood, eat your heart out. The original "spaghetti western" is a gourmet delight of an opera, and "the good, the bad and the ugly" never had music so glorious.

If you think you've never heard any of the music of La Fanciulla del West, think again. Unless you've been asleep like Rip Van Winkle for the last 20 years, you have heard the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera one way or another. Its most famous ballads are "borrowed" directly from Puccini's evocative score. Fanciulla opens with "hello" and ends with "good-bye" and the two hours of music in between is some of the most compelling in the repertoire.

But please don't stop with Fanciulla because one of the rising stars of the Met will be here for one day only on Sunday, Jan 23 at 2:30 pm. Soprano Leah Partridge is establishing herself as one of the world's leading young singers, and you can see and hear why this weekend. Leah will be sharing a program of American songs from her soon-to-be released debut CD. Prominent on her program is the music of Ricky Ian Gordon. Ricky's music is the centerpiece of our season finale concert, Mother's Day Serenade, starring Elizabeth Futral. And Ms Partridge is poised to follow in the footsteps of eminent artists like Ms Futral.

This recital promises to be an engaging and inspiring afternoon of great music written by some of our country's most compelling voices. If you like Leonard Bernstein's music for the stage, then you'll love the likes of Ricky Ian Gordon and Jake Heggie. Their songs have been embraced by not only the likes of Elizabeth and Leah, but by other exceptional artists like Renee Fleming, Audra MacDonald and Frederica von Stade.

I hope you all will make it a weekend of opera in Roanoke.

I am away performing Carmina Burana with the Virginia Symphony and JoAnn Falletta this weekend and hate to miss these festivities. In my stead Sunday afternoon, WDBJ's Robin Reed will be your host for Leah Partridge's "Stars in the Star City" recital. I know you'll want to welcome both of them to the Shaftman Performance Hall stage.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Faust: Myth and Music

Below is an outline and listening guide for a presentation I gave this afternoon to Roanoke's Shakespeare Book Club. It was inspired by Opera Roanoke's October presentation of "Faust and Furious: A Ride with the Devil." It is intended as a journey through the symbols of the Faust legend, the archetypes resonant with it, with parallel applications inspired by one of our great stories.

Faust: Myth and Music

“I am the anti-Faust! Wretched was he who, having acquired the supreme science of old age, sold his soul to un-wrinkle his brow & recapture the unconscious youth of his flesh! Let the labyrinth of wrinkles be furrowed in my brow with the red-hot iron of my own life, let my hair whiten & my step become vacillating, on condition that I can save the intelligence of my soul” [Salvador Dali]

“Faust embodies (Goethe’s contemporary) Lessing’s famous aphorism that if god had two hands, one representing the truth, the other the search for truth, one must choose the latter” [from Theological writings; quoted in Hollis]

“Faust represents the renaissance appetite to know everything” [Borges: "The Enigma of Shakespeare"]

“A classic [American] tale of reinvention, self-delusion and broken dreams” [a tagline for a theatrical adaptation of The great Gatsby]

“I don’t believe in answers; I believe in vibrant questions…
… the unfinished aspect, the searching, the existential longing…”
[American baritone Thomas Hampson, on playing Busoni’s Dr Faustus]

And the questions Faust raises are as legion as the variations the legend has inspired: “the deal with the devil;” the morality play; an alchemical & metaphysical mystery, a love story, adventure and thriller, the hero/anti-hero epic…

Faust: theme & variations—parallel literature
Blake: The Four Zoas [Urizen=Meph; Marriage of Heaven & Hell]
Dostoyevsky: Demons/Possessed [political allegory on nihilism]
Brothers Grimm: The Devil’s Sooty Brother
[parallels the source for Stravinsky's A Soldier’s Tale]
Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus (Faustian composer & allegory of Germany in the Nazi era; see also Death in Venice for the Doppelgänger/Shadow allegory)
Istvan Szabo’s 1981 film, Mephisto (another Nazi/political allegory)

Other Films:
Humoresque (Joan Crawford as a Mephistophelean soul stealer)
Bergman’s The Seventh Seal;
The Devil and Daniel Webster; Mephisto Waltz;
The Devil's Advocate (Al Pacino) Angel Heart (DeNiro=Louis Cyphre)
Wall Street (Gordon Gekko=Doppelgänger of Faust/Mephisto)

Broadway Musical: Damn Yankees
Pop culture honorable mention: "The Devil went down to Georgia" (Charlie Daniels Band)

“Marlowe’s take on Faust, an archetypal encounter between good and evil and the imperiled human soul, was more greek than Christian." James Hollis points us in the direction of mythology. And continues:

"The function of myth is to initiate the individual &/or the culture into the mysteries of the gods, the world, society & oneself.”

Myth & Tragedy: Hamartia=the tragic flaw or “Wounded vision”
(and the source of hubris)
Ambition/Over-reaching: Phaeton—“your lot is mortal/but what you ask beyond the lot of mortals” (warned by his father Eos/Helios: heaven’s charioteer)
Icarus & Daedalus, the architect of the Cretan Labyrinth who “turned his thinking/toward unknown arts, changing the laws of nature” (from Ovid's Metamorphoses; a nod in the direction of Faustian alchemy...)

"Faust is the first modern, full of yearning, which in its excesses becomes ‘faustian.’ Stepping free of metaphysical supports or constraints, he becomes responsible for his soul’s meaning."
[Hollis: Tracking the Gods, The Place of Myth in Modern Life]

In “stepping free” he most closely resembles the bad-boy Titan of mythology, Prometheus: bestower of the divine gifts of fire and the arts (whose “shadow” or symbolic “sister” is Pandora…)

Faust is the promethean man; Prometheus the faustian titan;
The adjectives ascribed to their names are interchangeable…

As myth then, the Faust legend embodies classic archetypes;
identifying them enables us to amplify these types as symbols;
one of the primary means through which our experience with these stories resonates with meaning…

Faust=Prometheus; tragic hero; Renaissance man
(and "Everyman?" good question...)

Mephisto=Lucifer (fallen angel); the shadow; “dark side;” the great "negator:"
“The spirit of evil is fear, negation” (Carl Jung)

Helen/MargueriteGretchen=Anima/Soul; The virgin; Guardian Angel

Martin Bidney’s study Blake and Goethe posits “Authentic life consists of creative tension between contraries” and it is in the 19th century Romantic period where the Faust legend proliferates; this tension is amplified by writers like Blake & Goethe. “The spirit of Negation can be transcended, transformed by the spirit of imaginative mediation.” Whether that mediator is Helen of Troy or God, these romantic “modern books of Job” continue the dialectic tension in the quest for proverbial meaning & authenticity.

The Faustian Pact is its own archetype and its energy still animates ancient stories and the modern imagination—whether a bargain with god or a "deal with the devil," the Pact informs Biblical stories and myths:
The sacrificial pact with God: Jephthah, Idomoneo (an early Mozart masterpiece); Admetus & Alcestis (an opera by Glück)

The mythological (“heroic”) quest is tripartite: Departure/Initiation/Return

From Homer and Virgil to Dante the mythopoeic journey charts a singular course—with countless variations. Joseph Campbell describes a “call to adventure,” a departure, an embarkation…

This is followed by a series of episodes, trials & adventures that initiate, challenge & change the protagonist, and like Ulysses’ Odyssey, each chapter is a tale all its own…

The return finds the Hero changed--bringing back the “boon” of a golden fleece, an awakened princess, a treasure, a pearl of great price-- to the betterment of society. And just as a “hero” can refuse the call (or like Rip Van Winkle, slumber away the years) the return can end in failure, tragedy or death…

Faust: A musical journey
Tartini: Devil’s Trill sonata
(one of the earliest examples of the "devil in music")
Liszt: Mephisto Waltz (a classic example of the "dance with the devil")
Schumann: Scenes from Goethe’s Faust
Stravinsky: A Soldier’s tale; The Rake’s Progress
Britten: Death in Venice
(the baritone portrays multiple manifestations of the "shadow" figure)
Extra Credit: Wagner’s entire life & work IS Faust incarnate…

Campbell likens myth to dream (echoing, mirroring, amplifying Jung):
“The dreamer is a distinguished operatic artist…”

Ferruccio Busoni would agree. His Doktor Faustus opens with a spoken prologue by the poet, evoking the “magic mirror” of the stage:

“Such plays of unreality require
the help of Music, for she stands remote
from all that’s common; she can wake desire
that’s bodiless; in air her voices float…”

Busoni’s dark, dense opera (unfinished at his death in 1924) is closer to Marlowe in spirit (though Busoni based the libretto on Goethe; Gretchen/Marg. does not appear but Helen of Troy does, as the Duchess of Parma…)

Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele opens with a "Prologue in Heaven" that parallels the celestial conversation between God and Satan in the book of Job and evokes the music of the spheres...

Franz Schubert set poems from Goethe’s Faust,
but the Goethe setting for today’s journey is his titanic song, Prometheus
(and if a qualifier were appended to this song, it would be Prometheus Defiant)

The Pact: Stravinsky wastes no time in introducing his devil and sealing the deal in The Rake’s Progress. Like Gounod's Faust this opera cuts to the chase...

Initiation/Adventure: or “A Date with the Devil!” &/or ‘Eros & Thanatos’

“O thou art fairer than the evening air
clad in the beauty of a thousand stars” [among Marlowe's most ravishing couplets...]

Witches Sabbath/Walpurgis Night/Ride with the Devil/To Hell & Back...
Berlioz's "Ride to the Abyss" is frighteningly evocative...

Apparition/Vision/Dream: Busoni’s "Traum der jugend" (Faust's paradox: “unknowable/unattainable/unfulfilled…”)

The return: Redemption/Damnation (Gounod: Meph: "Jugée!" Angels: "Sauvée!")

*Gounod’s final trio & apotheosis; (AND Liszt & mahler: Faust II)
*Stravinsky’s “hero” Tom Rakewell, after being cursed by the hellbound villain Nick Shadow, calls for Venus (and Achilles, Persephone and co, from the Asylum)
*Britten evokes Faust’s death in a humanist elegy after WWII based on Edith Sitwell's haunting poetry
[Canticle III: Still falls the Rain:
..."O I'll leape up to my God/who pulls me doune/see, see where Christ's blood/streams in the firmament...]
*Busoni’s curtain falls with Mephisto (the tenor) as the Night-watchman who "finds" Faust’s body and flatly declares
“this man has met with some misfortune.”

Busoni gives the last word to the poet in his Epilogue to Doktor Faustus:
So many metals cast into the fire
does my alloy contain sufficient gold?
if so, then seek it out for your own hoard;
the poet’s travail is his sole reward.
still unexhausted all the symbols wait
that in this work are hidden and concealed…
let each take what he finds appropriate;
the seed is sown, others may reap the field.
So rising on the shoulders of the past,
the soul of man shall reach his heaven at last.

The penultimate line recalls the end of Gatsby:
"we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past."
And the last line is aspirational as the end of Goethe's Faust II, where
“the eternal feminine/leads us onward."

With the ravishing apotheosis of Mahler's 8th, the "Symphony of a Thousand" the journey is accomplished.

For reference:
Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno (trans. R. Pinsky, FSG, 1996).
Bidney, Martin. Blake and Goethe: Psychology, Ontology, Imagination
(Univ. of Missouri, 1988).
Borges, Jorge Luis. Selected Non-Fictions (Penguin, 1999).
Boyle, Nicolas. Goethe: The Poet and His Age, Vol. 1 (Oxford, 1992).
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Bollingen, 1949).
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths (Penguin, 1955, 1960)
Hollis, James. Tracking the Gods:
The place of myth in Modern life
(Inner city, 1995)
Homer. The Odyssey (Trans. R. Fagles, Viking, 1996).
Kerenyi, C. The gods of The Greeks (Thames & Hudson, 1951).
Mann, Thomas. Doctor Faustus (Everyman, Knopf, 1947, 1992).
Ovid. Metamorphoses (Trans. R. Humphries, Indiana, 1955).

Faust on CD/DVD
Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust (LSO Live, Colin Davis).
Boito: Mefistofele (Decca, De Fabritis; DVD: Kultur, Ramey).
Busoni: Doktor Faustus (DG, Leitner; DVD: Arthaus, Hampson)
Gouno: Faust (EMI, Pretre; DVD: DG, Binder)

Other Faustian scores:
Britten: Canticles (CD: Naxos, Langridge; Decca, Pears)
Death in Venice (CD: Chandos; DVD: Kultur, Tear)
Liszt: Faust Symphony (CD: DG, Bernstein; Decca, Solti)
Mahler: Symphony no. 8 (CD: Decca, Solti; DVD: DG, Bernstein)
Schubert: Prometheus (CD: BBC, Britten/Fischer-Dieskau)
Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress (CD: Decca, Chailly; Met, Levine)