It's time to introduce a new feature: Popehat Goes To the Opera.
Anything David writes about art here is not to be missed. Patrick's discussion of film is always worth a read. Many of my colleagues talk about games. But what do I contribute to art or geek culture?1
Practical reasons have hindered my contribution. I'll never be able to write about culture the way David can write about art. I'll never have a talent for relating games to politics like Derrick. And let's face it: gaming has passed me by. I barely have free time to play games, and my heart belongs to ones so primitive you could play them on a modern wristwatch.2
But I do have one geeky interest that bears exploring, Popehat-style: a somewhat esoteric taste crammed with all the history and minutiae a fanatic could want, with high barriers to entry and too few followers.
I refer to opera.
So: without further ado, the first chapter in a new series seeking to expose our readers to opera and explain why it appeals to me, one opera at a time. I start with a favorite, an opera that embodies the best (gorgeous music) and the silliest (ridiculous operatic conceits) of the genre: Richard Wagner's Tannhauser.
Two notes to start:
My qualifications: I have no qualifications other than thirty years as an opera fan. I have no musical training to speak of. I can't read music. My father and I reached an understanding in fourth grade — I would no longer abuse the violin after several months' attempt, and he would not make me join Boy Scouts. It was a win-win. I'm just an untutored fan. In other words, whatever your musical background, if I got to like opera, you can as well.
My texts: There are legions of books written about opera. I'm going to be relying on only two: the witty and infectiously devoted A Night At The Opera by Sir Dennis Forman, and the more serious but thorough New Kobbe's Complete Opera Book by the Earl of Harwood. I recognize that I am not exactly refuting opera's snooty reputation by recommending books by the nobility, but I like what I like.3
And so, on to the opera.
Tannhauser's Historical and Social Context
Richard Wagner was 30 when he wrote Tannhauser; it is an early and somewhat immature work of what is called his "romantic" period, as opposed to his later "dramatic" period, when he wrote the more famous Ring Cycle and other works characterized by the trope of healthy women in horned helmets.
At the time he was a court musician in the royal court of Dresden, then part of the Kingdom of Saxony. He stayed until his involvement in the Dresden Uprising — which ironically resulted in the destruction of the opera house — soured his prospects. Initial performances of Tannhauser were unpopular. Wagner decamped to the court of Napoleon III in Paris, where he tried to produce it again in 1860. Things went even worse, in part because the Paris Opera required all operas to be in French, and all operas were expected to have an Act II ballet.
Forman captures the culture of Paris of the time:
The young aristos of the [Jockey] Club were apt to stroll into the opera after dinner to look over the girls in the second-act ballet and then to stroll out again. They did not expect to stroll in on something like a Pilgrim's Chorus and took steps to teach the management a less by turning up in huge numbers at the point the ballet should have been and by whistling, catcalling, booing, and carrying on as high-spirited young gentlemen will do when indulging in tribal customs. There was also a conspiracy theory, namely that the whole debacle was staged to spite the politically unpopular Princess Metternick, who had persuaded Napoleon to have the opera put on. After three nights of hooliganism the opera was taken off and no doubt there was a second-act ballet in every show for the rest of the season.
(Opera, as the high art of its time, used to be absolutely rife with these sorts of shenanigans.)
Wagner went on to write far more popular, influential, and mature operas, and Napoleon III went on to lose the Franco-Prussian war and, by most reports, his taste for German opera.
Tannhauser's "Plot," For Lack of A Better Term
The core of Tannhauser is a very conventional and familiar idea that you can easily see as the plot of a mainstream movie: troubled artist looks to faith and a new love to recover from his self-destructive habits. Imagine, say, Gordon Joseph Levitt as the guitarist who relapses but eventually overcomes drug addiction with the love of, say, Emma Stone and his devotion to, I don't know, indie acoustic bullshit or something.
But this is Wagner, and Wagner is all about majestic (if somewhat imperious) music overlaying overwrought silliness. So the monkey on Tannhauser's back is a pagan god, his dilemma is his tendency to lose dark age rap battles through uncouth lyrics, and he is redeemed only in death through the more-than-a-little-off-putting love of a woman who delivers him from evil through sheer force of grimly determined purity.
Richard Wagner: when you want the libretto to leave you saying "what the fuck was that?"
I didn't start loving opera by studying it. It is not immediately accessible to the ears of those of us with no musical training. I started to love it because my parents played tapes on long car rides, and I heard some of the greatest operas over and over until the ear-worms of the melodies and harmonies and great moments became familiar. You could, too.
Fortunately Tannhauser belongs to an era of opera — now copied in modern musical theater — in which the overture previews the best tunes. Listen to the overture — the first two minutes lay out some of the critical ideas and themes of the entire work. It's sad, majestic, triumphant, and a showpiece of what Wagner can do best. In that link, listen to him take the same lead theme from melancholy to powerful starting at about the 2:40 mark, and later the overture from sad to playful to triumphant at about 6:00 to about 7:15.
The Cosmic Love Shack
We open to an orgy in a god's sex cave.
Tannhauser, a bard4 in the Germanic middle ages, is the boy-toy of Venus, eternal goddess of hot sex that you thought would be totally worth all her baggage but in the long run isn't. Remember the wisdom of the bros: even if he or she is literally an unearthly gorgeous sex god, somewhere there is someone who is sick of putting up with his or her bullshit.
Tannhauser and Venus are shacked up at Venus' place, which with typical German lyricism is called "Venusburg." Tannhauser and Venus are lounging in bed. They're watching a dance/orgy/cage match among Naiads, Sirens, the Three Graces, fauns, satyrs, nymphs, Baccchantes, and cupids. No, really. I could quote the libretto I just linked, but even the description of this is abusively long.5 Wagner could have just said "enter the entire Monster Manual, which humps."
That's the ballet. There's no dialogue, and it's not Wagner's best music, though it's not terrible. It does, however, answer the question "can an orgy be tedious?"
Eventually Tannhauser and Venus quarrel. Tannhauser has had enough, and wants out. He could just say so, but it's prudent to ease into these things when talking to a god. Tannhauser implores Venus to release him so he can go back to Earth and see nightingales and stuff. His songs echo the themes you heard in the overture. Venus is not having it. She's all, "you know you still want to get with this, here in Venusburg, watching the nymphs hatefuck the cherubs or satyrs or possibly ettins, forever and ever." But Tannhauser has had enough. Unsuccessful in provoking her into ending the relationship (you can probably find that move in the Lascaut cave paintings), he Goes There — he abjures her by invoking the name of the Virgin Mary (leadup at about 4:45). Venus vanishes, off to commiserate to Minerva and Frigga and anyone else willing to say "oh no he DINT."
The Return To Earth
The Venusburg vanishes with Venus, leaving a field and a rather lovely sequence in which a lonely shepherd's pipes and simple tune contrast with the bombast of the last scene. The shepherd encounters pilgrims, who reprise the mournful theme from the overture (at about 3:40.) Tannhauser, hearing the pilgrims, emos it up, saying that his stint with Venus has placed him beyond God's redemption. The Landgrave, out with his crew to listen to the pilgrims because what else is there in the middle ages really, spots Tannhauser and recognizes him as an old friend. The Landgrave and his pals try to persuade Tannhauser to return to court in a moving song (joined powerfully by the chorus at about :50), but Tannhauser protests that he's no longer suited for polite company. The Landgrave convinces him — in an echo of Tannhauser's invocation of Mary — by name-dropping Elizabeth, Tannhauser's old crush.The harmony at about 3:15 here is very nice as they agreee to go see her.
An Ill-Considered Party
We meet Elizabeth, who is very happy Tannhauser is back. Wagner expects a lot of range from Elizabeth, which was a problem to early productions, particularly in Dresden, where apparently the sopranos sucked. Anyway, Act Two Scene One is all her bringing out some of her themes, reaching a climax of clean-cut enthusiasm at about 3:40. Tannhauser shows up. Is it awkward running into your virtuous virginal pure crush when you're just back from being a god's sex toy? Yes. Yes it is.
Elizabeth and Tannhauser are spared the awkwardness by the arrival of the Landgrave's entire court, accompanied by the opera's big catchy number: the March, which is Wagner's MY HUMONGOUS ORCHESTRA: LET ME SHOW IT TO YOU, also known as blow ALL the horns!!!!. The March is everything a loud and mindlessly enthusiastic crowd-pleaser can be, and is justifiably famous; you've probably heard a theme or two from it. Listen to it here, for good fidelity, or here, to see how it would look if staged the day after a crafts fair for Klansmen. The parts to listen for are the horn flourish that opens it, the main idea (at about :40), the diversion (about 1:15), the really loud idea (1:45), and my personal favorite part, when the chorus forcefully joins the theme (at about 8:15).6
How do you welcome the sex-dungeon-refugee back to a deeply religious and rather prim crowd devoted to the ideal of courtly love? How about a song contest, with a prize to the best description of love! I see no possible way that could go badly.7
The Landgrave, perhaps channeling Foreigner, poses the question:
Therefore I put the question to you now:
Could you fathom the true essence of love for me?
He's a little long-winded but he's the Landgrave, so what what are you going to do? Everybody tells him it's a swell idea (5:55).
Wolfram von Eschenbach, who wears self-seriousness like a Hickey Freeman suit, goes first. His song is a bit lovely, but also a lot dull.
From it, it draws bliss, rich in grace,
through which, ineffably, it revives my heart.
And never would I sully this fount,
nor taint the spring in wanton mood:
I would practise myself in devotion, sacrificing,
gladly shed my heart's last drop of blood.
Good luck on that honeymoon, Mrs. von Eschenbach.
But the crowd likes it (5:15).
Next it's our hero Tannhauser. He's got some hang-ups on this topic. He sings, calling out Wolfram as being naive, and suggesting that love is all sweaty sheets and stuff, in as direct a way as 19th century censors allow:
That my desire may ever burn
I will ever refresh myself at the source!
The crowd is scandalized, swords are drawn, and Tannhauser is threatened. Wolfram gamely tries to sing an even more love-is-ethereal song, but Tannhauser has found his groove, and mocks Wolfram more by giving a shoutout to Venus herself, reprising the tune he previously used to beg to be released from her(1:20).
The crowd's had it now. Tannhauser is about to be stabbed or beheaded or quartered or drowned in beer or whatever Germans do when Elizabeth intercedes, saying, in effect, he's only offended you but he's messed with my head hardcore and it's for me to say what happens to him. She then diverts to a more convincing and powerful plea to show him mercy in his suffering, as Christ suffered. The Act ends in a marvelous harmony (starting about 1:00) of Elizabeth crushed but unbowed, Tannhauser miserable, and the chorus and Tannhauser's former friends appalled. They all decide Tannhauser should go to Rome to seek absolution. Everyone knows Rome is very pure.
Act Three: Wait, What?
Act Three is concerned with whether Tannhauser can be redeemed, and if so how. We hear that Tannhauser has been told that he can no more be redeemed than the Pope's staff can grow new green shoots, which seems discouraging even if it's not a euphemism.
The highlight is the beautiful Pilgrim's Chorus, suggesting the hope of redemption through a recapitulation of the opening theme of the overture (1:20). Elizabeth offers a heartfelt prayer to Mary, asking to be made an angel to intercede for Tannhauser.8 Wolfram, praying for Tannhauser, sings a very nice appreciation of the evening star.9
Tannhauser appears to mourn his fate, and is tempted by Venus, who shows up to tell him she's saved his spot in the sauna. Wolfram is there to remind him, dude, remember what you were like when you were with her?, and also God and stuff. This time Venus is dispelled not by the Virgin Mary's name, but by the name of Elizabeth (1:40) — invoked by Wolfram, echoed by Tannhauser. Speaking of Elizabeth, her funeral procession arrives — Mary accepted her offer, and she has died to save Tannhauser. The chorus of pilgrims sings majestically of redemption (2:39) echoing the overture. Tannhauser asks for her intercession with God, and dies of opera. A chorus of young pilgrims comes in to announce that someone needs to borrow hedge trimmers because the pope's staff is growing branches like crazy, signalling Tannhauser can be forgiven. The opera ends with a thunderous, majestic, utterly awesome return to the opening theme (6:35).
The Power Of Opera
Forman only gives Tannhauser a beta. No, he's not a douchebro, that's how he rates operas — alpha, etc. Perhaps I am sentimental, but I rate it higher.
I like Tannhauser because it shows what opera can do. Textually Tannhauser is extremely silly on almost every level. It's got bad dialogue, bad plotting, bad mythology, bad theology, and high-opera fatuousness. But the music works, and demonstrates that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A dark-ages bard name-dropping Mary to escape being Venus' love slave is ridiculous, but when Tannhauser ends his steadily escalating series of pleas by doing that, it's like a thunderclap followed by the soothing rain of the shepherd boy's song. Against all modern sensibilities, it words: the drama, even very silly drama, helps elevate and emphasize the music. Wagner does some things better elsewhere, and there are certainly better operas, but there are few operas that will teach you better than this one that a mixed-form art like opera can make the ridiculous sublime. You'll be humming the tunes.
Next time: girlfriend-switching by fake Albanians!
Note: I have not used umlauts, because Hitler.
- Thank you for bringing it up, but coining "snort my taint" is not a cultural achievement. ▲
- If, that is, modern people wore a wristwatch instead of just looking at their smartphones. So you see my point. ▲
- If you want to choose which version of an opera to buy out of the dozens or hundreds of recordings out there, you'll want the Penguin Guide or Gramaphone. ▲
- Wagner also wrote Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which is also about a singer-songwriter, for roughly the same reason that most of Stephen King's heroes are writers and many of Aaron Sorkin's heroes are writers or directors or media types, as well as pretentious gits. ▲
- Here is perhaps one-sixth: "The revellers embrace each other with the most ardent passion. Satyrs and Fauns emerge from the clefts in the rocks, and thrust themselves with their dance between the Bacchantes and the pairs of lovers. They increase the confusion by chasing the Nymphs; the general tumult rises to the maddest climax. At the outburst of the greatest delirium, the three Graces rise to their feet, horror-stricken. They try to restrain the furious groups and drive them off. Impotent against them, they fear that they themselves will be drawn into the whirl; they turn to the sleeping Cupids flutter upwards and in different directions like a flock of birds, and, drawn up as it were in battle array on the heights, and commanding the whole cavern, they rain down a ceaseless shower of arrows on the tumult beneath." ▲
- That clip is from La Scala. You think opera is refined? My friend, if you sing at La Scalla and half-ass it, they will fuck you up old-school. ▲
- Actually, it's so self-evidently an awful idea that I've always thought that the unstated premise is that someone is trying to undermine Tannhauser and prevent his return to the community. Who suggested the song contest? The Landgrave, Elizabeth's uncle, who is protective of her and wants to cure her of her little itch for Tannhauser? Wolfram, Tannhauser's song-opponent, who perhaps secretly loves Elizabeth and wants to eliminate a rival? Who is the Iago here? ▲
- Look: do not make any offers to God, gods, saints, demigods, or other such figures unless you can live with them being accepted. Or not live, as the case may be. ▲
- That is Herman Prey, and he is more awesome than you are. ▲
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