Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Back from Bayreuth – The Experience of a Lifetime (Part 3)

So now we come to the final episode of our Bayreuth adventure (see Part 1 and Part 2) – more to share with you and some final thoughts. 



As I’ve already said, it was more of a pilgrimage than a vacation and, like all good pilgrimages, it had its highs and lows.  Artists are not the only ones who suffer for their art.  Wagnerites are sometimes asked to do the same. 

If you’ve been following the last two episodes where I make frequent mention of the heat in the festspielhaus, you’re probably wondering just how hot it was. 




So, How the Heck Hot Was it in the Opera House???

Frankly, halfway through the second night and the second Act of Die Walküre I thought to myself, “I’ll never survive this,” and we weren’t even halfway through the whole “Ring Cycle.”  Somehow, I made it to intermission, but it was almost as hot outside as in the opera house.  Intermissions at the festspielhaus last a full hour, during which I saw people eating huge bratwurst sandwiches dripping with mustard while downing enormous tankards of beer.  The thought of sitting through the next act in that oppressive heat with a belly full of undigested bratwurst and beer was not, shall we say, on the menu, at least not on MY menu. 

So, Dan and I opted for two big bottles of mineral water and shared a pretzel as big as my face.  Eat your heart out, Texas, everything is bigger in Bayreuth.  Suddenly, I started to feel a little better and then I saw her.  Near the entrance to the restaurant there was a woman selling fans.  For a moment, I thought I was seeing a misty mirage in the middle of the Sahara, except that it was real.  That little red fan that cost a mere 10 Euros saved my life.  It literally got me through the rest of the “Ring Cycle.” 

And here’s the proof of how hot it was in the opera house…..






When we got back to the hotel restaurant for a very late dinner, Dan took off his bow tie.  Do you see those black marks on his shirt?  The bow tie was so sopping wet that the dye had run all over the neck of the shirt and under the collar.  And THAT’s how hot it was in the opera house!! 


You Meet the Nicest People in Bayreuth

Since Dan had extra shirts but hadn’t thought to bring an extra bow tie, we needed to buy one before the next performance that evening.  The lovely people at the hotel sent us to Becker & Exner, the oldest haberdashery in Bayreuth, where we met Stefan. 






What a charming fellow he was.  After making apologies for his English, which was totally unnecessary, we explained what happened to Dan’s tie, and he didn’t seem the least bit surprised.  “It happens a lot,” he told us.  He also told us that the King and Queen of Sweden had been to the festival the week before and stayed at our hotel.  His Majesty had stopped in to Becker & Exner for a bowtie and to check out a line of Swedish men’s wear they carry called Cavaliere.  Stefan proudly showed me Cavaliere’s Look Book.  I was very impressed.  But, I couldn’t help wondering how the King and Queen of chilly Sweden had survived the heat of the festspielhaus. 






We met this beautiful parisienne with her husband at the opera.  He was having trouble figuring out how to take her picture with her phone, when I offered my help in French, of course.  It turned out that they had lived in the US and he had worked in Philadelphia, my home town – small world.  They were HUGE Wagner fans, and, like us, this was a dream come true.  We saw them at every opera and, frankly, I should have taken her picture at each of them, since she always looked stunning, but, instead, we spent so much time chatting, that I not only didn’t get her picture, I didn’t even get their names.  I did, however, get her permission to use this picture, so, hopefully, she’ll see it and contact me.  In any case, she was lovely and terribly chic.   




Note Wagner Conducting in the Background -- He Was Everywhere in Bayreuth!!
Dan and I fell in love with this German couple from Dusseldorf who were staying at our hotel for the festival.  After the first night’s opera, we were all piled into the tiny elevator.  Ludwig pushed the wrong button twice and he came in for some good-natured ribbing in English and German.  We got out at our floor and went to the room to change my shoes (Hours of sitting and walking on cobblestones in high heels wreak havoc on your feet!).  When we got back into the elevator, there was Ludwig.  “Have you been riding up and down all this time trying to find your floor?” I teased.  Ludwig found that very funny.  When we got to the lobby, he introduced us to his girlfriend Elisabeth.  Of all the couples we met, Elisabeth and Ludwig were our favorite.  They had been friends for many years, and following the death of their spouses their friendship had blossomed.  Just being in the company of 80-year-old Ludwig and Elisabeth (“I’m much, much younger,” she told me tactfully), made us feel young at heart.   She had a wicked sense of humor and he simply radiated joie de vivre – a perfect pairing. 

Another small world moment – Ludwig’s daughter was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia. 

There were so many more wonderful, brief encounters with lovely people too numerous to mention – the passerby who saw us looking at a map, stopped to help and gave us some wonderful restaurant tips; the young African-American student who served us at a fast food counter who was enrolled in a Masters program working towards her dream of becoming an art curator; the handsome Argentinean gentleman who switched seats with my husband so that we could sit together (even though his was a superior seat); the French couple from Montpellier we met at Wahnfried (Wagner’s home) whose five-year old daughter zeroed in on my kitty cat blouse and insisted on talking to me.  We not only shared a love of kitty cats, but maman and papa were also HUGE Wagner fans. I could go on and on. 
 

So, How Was Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring Cycle”)? 

To answer that question I need to address the 1,000-pound elephant in the room, the opera production itself, or should I say the crocodiles in the room.  You’ll see what I mean. 

First, a little background.  I started noticing a change in opera productions in the 1970’s when the artistic world decided it was time to épatez les bourgeois (shock the middle class).  Operas were taken out of the time period indicated by the composer and moved to contemporary settings (sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t), minimalism became all the rage with lots of monochromatic colors, mostly black, white and touches of red (sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t).  We got used to gratuitous nudity, gender bending, pot shots at capitalism (ho hum) and all manner of anachronistic nonsense. 

When a growing group of nihilistic, narcissistic production directors began to realize that instead of shocking us they were simply boring us, they decided it was time to annoy, insult and disgust us.  Things have gone downhill from there.  The brilliant pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim is said to have coined the phrase eurodreck.  If you speak German or Yiddish, you’ll know what the word dreck means – excrement.  It’s a perfect word for the muck being served up to us in European opera houses today.  Americans have sanitized the term a bit by calling it eurotrash, and, with a few minor exceptions, the Metropolitan Opera has been mercifully free of the worst of it.  But, whatever you call it, the current Bayreuth “Ring” is the worst (or should I say best?) example of eurodreck that I have ever seen. 






The Director of this production, whose name I cannot even bring myself to type, did everything he could to destroy, demean and denigrate the characters and the relationships between them.  Only Brünnhilde, the magnificent woman at the heart of the drama, escaped relatively, but not completely, unscathed. 

Here is just a small, but no less egregious, example.....







At the end of Siegfried when our hero Siegfried has discovered and awakened the sleeping Brünnhilde with a kiss, they fall instantly and passionately in love.  They sing of that nascent love to some of the most sweeping, romantic and thrilling music you’ll ever hear.  But that didn’t cut it for our soi-disant brilliant director.  He decided that while singing about their love for each other, Brünnhilde and Siegfried should be punching crocodiles that had inexplicably wandered onto the stage.  And don’t even get me started about the cheap motel setting that substituted for the mountain top surrounded by a ring of fire that protects our sleeping heroine from all but the bravest man willing to fight his way through that ring of fire to get to her.   

In 48 years of attending operas with some 15 complete Ring Cycles under my belt, I can say that this was the worst production I have ever seen of anything.  The good news was, however, that no matter how hard the director, whose name I dare not type, tried to ruin Wagner’s magnificent story about these fascinating but flawed characters, he could not succeed in destroying Wagner’s music.  Hearing that glorious music played by 110 superb musicians in the acoustically perfect house that Wagner built and listening to some of the greatest Wagnerian singers in the world today made it all worth it.  When the production team came out at the end of the fourth and final opera to take a bow, the whole opera house erupted in loud and prolonged boos and hisses.  That was definitely worth it.    


I’ll close by quoting an opera-loving friend of a friend living in Europe.  “I’m so lucky to be blind.  I can just sit back and enjoy the music and the voices.”  There were times when I did close my eyes and just let the music and the voices wash over me.  Suddenly, the hideous dreck on stage disappeared and I knew why I was there – I was there for Wagner and his magnificent music.  And, yes, it was worth it.  It was the experience of a lifetime. 


21 comments:

  1. I am proud of you M-T, for telling it like it is. I only wish the Director could read this and that you'd have millions of comments to support your position. I thought it was me and that I longed to hear music in the traditional sense and see a story unfold, one where there would be elaborate sets and costumes on a grand scale. Just this morning as I looked at the upcoming series for LA Opera I could only choose 2. There was so much contemporary garbage that I thought- what the hell is this? I don't need to be shocked. If I wanted trash I'd go to a seedy part of town. Today's current culture values the low life, which I don't understand. The only way to avoid is to be extremely selective and let your voice and dissatisfaction be heard. Bravo!

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    1. My dear Linda, dear friend,

      You have no idea how I agonized over whether or not to end on such a negative note, but I simply had to, as you put it, let my voice be heard. Of course, in Europe, with funding coming mostly from the government, the poor opera lover is forced to put up with these abominations, and to add insult to injury, they're footing the bill with their tax money.

      A number of years ago, we saw that the LA Opera was putting together a "Ring Cycle," which delighted us. As you know, Dan and I will go anywhere in the world for a "Ring." Due to the complexity of mounting an entire "Ring" in one season, most opera companies do one a year for four years until they have everything in place and can put them all together. It's a monumental undertaking for any opera house. So, we flew out to LA to see "das Rheingold" w/high expectations and, if we liked what we saw, we were prepared to fly back for the entire Cycle once it was put together. The "Rheingold" was so awful that we never returned. The reviews of the whole "Cycle" confirmed our worst fears.

      The worst part of the story is that the production director of that horrible "Ring" production will be doing an upcoming "Lohengrin" at Bayreuth. What depths of degradation have we sunk to????

      You can still see wonderful productions at the Met in NYC. Perhaps you and your husband might think about a trip east for something other than Americanized "eurodreck." Give it some thought.

      As always, your comments are so wonderfully insightful and well written.

      Cheers, my dear friend,

      M-T

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  2. Marie-Thérèse,

    Can you imagine Americans being the good sports that Europeans seem to be with the lack of air conditioning? Am I wrong in thinking, there'd be more of an uproar in America, including a demand for refunds, etc.? I think Lincoln Center would be dragged into small claims court for the price of the ticket; and I can't imagine what else, if someone fainted and ended up being taken to a hospital due to oppressive heat at a venue.

    Another difference: I go to the ballet several times during a season and see people dressed so casually. I tend to go coordinated, perhaps in my "Sunday best," but I would feel so overdressed if I did much more. It's fun to dress up when everyone else does.

    I am happy you! At the end of the day, sounds like a great trip!

    Debbie

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    1. If you are lucky enough to get tickets to the festspiele, you know going in that you will be facing August heat in an unair-conditioned opera house. I knew what I was getting into, but I was surprised by the intensity of the heat up there in the Balcony section with its low ceilings and packed in bodies. Still, my little fan got me through it, along with lots of water during intermissions.

      Funny you should mention fainting. I thought for sure I'd see someone get ill from the heat, but everyone seemed to handle it quite well, perhaps because we met mostly Europeans who are well used to un-airconditioned venues in the summer. Actually, I didn't meet any Americans. The only English I heard was from Germans who spoke excellent English and a group of Brits.

      Yes, Debra, at the end of the day, it was a wonderful experience.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Cheers, M-T

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  3. You have opened MY eyes. I didn't know. Were it I...I could not bear to go as the dreck would be so pervasive I would have to leave...bitterly disappointed.

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    1. Dearest Katie Isabella,

      I was bitterly disappointed by the production, but the compensations were the music and the singing.

      I keep hoping the pendulum will swing back the other way. I'm still waiting.

      Thanks, my furry friend, for stopping by.

      Cheers, M-T

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  4. Thank you for that wonderful review of the Ring. I have two great fears in my life, one is European heat in Summer, and the other are these disgusting and insulting versions of wonderful opera. It is not only an insult to the audience, it is a great disrespect to the singers. We once went to the glorious Tosca, an opera that always moves me, only to be bewildered by a setting not in the church but a basement where they were selling lottery tickets. There, Scarpia was masturbating with a statue of The Madonna, and people were coming in and out of a glass door that they kept leaving open to reflect the stage lights right back at the Premium ticket seats. We had characters perched on top of wardrobes, scenes that were confusing because everyone was on stage and I found myself so distracted by trying to follow it all that I paid little attention to the singing! Why do they do this? It gets to the point that you hesitate to buy tickets, especially at almost $1000 for two.
    I now wish that we had gone to the Ring in Melbourne, Australia last year, our local Opera house. I believe that it was a decent production.
    We are heading to NY this fall and have booked to see Turandot. They did a fabulous La Fanciulla del West a few years ago so I think that we are in safe hands with the Met Opera.
    I am glad that you felt this pilgrimage was over all worth while, but I think we might wait until the current fad of excruciating directors is over and we are back to glorious productions that enhance the music. Hopefully by then they will have put in air-conditioning!

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    1. That Tosca sounds horrible and disgusting. The only other thing that seems to come in for as much ridicule and bashing as "capitalism" is religion. Everyone likes to take shots at religion and those of us who are religious. It's absolute de rigueur these days.

      The Met ditched a perfectly glorious Zeffirelli production of Tosca for something almost as bad as what you saw. Everyone I know hated it. Seems they have now replaced it with something else. I shudder to think.....!!! Every time I hear the words "new production," I get a chill down my spine. What are we in for???

      You have absolutely made the perfect choice in Turandot. It is a spectacular production (Zeffirelli) and we will be seeing it, ourselves, in the spring. If you don't mind, I'd love to have your email address so we can communicate off blog about the opera. You can contact me through frenchtouchimage@gmail.com

      As to air-conditioning at the festspielhaus, I wouldn't hold my breath. It's probably too expensive to retrofit a new system into an old building. No matter how bad it is in the audience, just think about those poor singers in heavy costumes under those lights running around singing Wagner. If they can take it, so can we.

      Cheers, M-T

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  5. Dearest Marie-Thérèse,
    Well, you both had quite an experience in Bayreuth; good and less good...
    Of course you meant to write Nibelungen, instead of Nibeungen.
    The word Eurodreck is a good one. It is always written with a capital because it is a noun. But the meaning is absolutely not excrement! Dreck means mud, filth or whatever 'dirty' but not excrement, so the Americans did translate it well into Eurotrash.
    But what an ordeal with Dan's bowtie! We could write some funny stories about our tuxedo events!
    One trip to the UK for a Mushroom Conference, we of course had to dress formal for the banquet. I've always made it a game as soon as we were in the air, trying to strain my brain for coming up with a forgotten item. Suddenly I holler at Pieter, oh my gosh, your tuxedo shirt is still hanging on the side of our French oak armoir... WHAT now?!
    Pieter did wear his tuxedo, with bowtie and cummerbund on a cheap short-sleeved white shirt that we bought hastily one trip. Even worse, we got invited to sit with the chair at their table. Pieter sat across from me at a huge round table and he started to signal with his tuxedo jacket that he was getting hot (it was sweltering hot!) and he mimicked to take his jacket off! Can you imagine that sight with short sleeve shirt being revealed! I gave him some stern looks back as saying don't you DARE to think about it.
    But life always goes on and you can laugh out loud about it.
    You indeed did meet some very nice and interesting people. That only adds to the total success.
    Like you, I would have closed my eyes and look beyond the ugliness. WHY would they put it together like that? Thank goodness for great acoustics as that would have been worse.
    So glad you made it through and have some stories to share!
    Hugs and wishing you a happy weekend.
    Mariette

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    1. Ma chère Mariette,

      Thanks for catching the typo on Nibelungen, which I have fixed. As to the definition of "Eurodreck," it's funny you should mention that, since, not speaking German or Yiddish, I ran it by several friends who do to get an exact definition. One did use the word "filth" but said it meant a "particular type of filth that you wouldn't want to step in." I got her meaning. The rest were a bit more blunt using a word starting with "s," which I chose not to use, so I settled for the word "excrement." Whatever the meaning, it's definitely not something you want to come into contact with, especially at the opera house.

      Still, as you said, there was much to enjoy in the music, the singing and the marvelous acoustics. And we did meet some lovely people. All worth the effort.

      Love your funny bowtie story.

      Big hugs to you and Pieter. My thoughts and prayers are w/the people of Texas right now.

      Bisous M-T

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    2. Dearest Marie-Thérèse,
      Had to share your stories with Pieter, so he sat next to me and read all of it...
      We can laugh about all this but it is no picnic as they often say, for traveling abroad with formal wear in your suitcase and wearing it for excruciating long hours in a humid and hot environment. Wondering when the Europeans ever will change that?!
      Sending you hugs and indeed, so many people in Texas need our prayers right now and more than that. It makes formal wear problems vanish...
      Hugs,
      Mariette

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  7. I am so sorry about the production. I am not a fan of our "new" production at the Met AT ALL. I find it so boring to look at...and I miss the old production terribly. Evidently others agree with me since for the first time in the history of the Met, free tickets are always available to employees for the new production. And we have our choice of seats. I once took 6 of the free tickets (ORCHESTRA SEATS) and brought friends. We could have sat anywhere...there was no one around us. For the Otto Schenk production, we had to join a lottery to BUY standing passes and we all hoped we would win, just so we could stand to watch and listen to that amazing production. And the production was sold out as SOON as it went on sale. Now they can't even give the tickets away. This makes me angry, and so sad. Whether you like the production or not, the proof is in the pudding when they can't even give the tickets away.

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    1. Oh my, dear Rebecca, just the thought of that glorious Otto Schenk production brings tears of joy to my eyes. How we loved it!! We jumped on those tickets every time they did it. People came from all over the world to see that fabulous production. I had friends fly in from Europe for it. I even managed to get a ticket to "Die Walkure" at the last moment for a stewardess friend from Air France who arrived unexpectedly in NY and had never seen an opera. She was sobbing uncontrollably at the end. She still talks about how wonderful it was. You would be amazed at how many Germans and French we met at Bayreuth who not only adored that production but owned the DVD of it.

      As to the new Met production, I have to say I'm rather lukewarm about it. It has its moments, but there aren't nearly enough of them. Seattle Opera did a wonderful Ring a few years ago. We enjoyed it very much (see my blog post about it).

      I, too, have noticed empty seats at the Met and we often wonder how much longer we will be able to enjoy going. We've been subscribers for more than 35 years, but lately when I hear the words "new production," it sends a shiver down my spine.

      Would love to have a good chat w/you about all of this some day. We will be coming up for the Norma on Oct. 7th. Will you be singing in it? How is the new production? Would love an insider's view.

      Warmest regards to my favorite new reader,

      Cheers, M-T

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  8. I know just how you feel. The Schenk production was sheer MAGIC. I was so honored to even have had the smallest role in it. How lucky we are to have recordings of it. And I have heard really good things about the Seattle production, thank goodness.

    For the first time, Norma is a full chorus opera, so we are all in it. We had our first staging last week (we've been in daily rehearsals since the first week of August, but just musical rehearsals) down on C-Level, so we only see a basic mock up of the stage, not the real thing. But from what I can tell from the photos I have seen, it is dark, dark, dark. BUT!! What I love the most about working with McVicar is the amount of historical information he gives us during stagings..the man knows his stuff! During stagings of Stuarda, he had us all in tears when we staged the beheading scene. And I am a huge fan of both Sandra Radvanovsky and Joyce DiDonato, and I know they will give superb performances.

    The new Tosca looks beautiful...I have seen the set on the stage and it is spectacular, and I had my costume fitting...and lo and behold, I'm not a nun! Lovely.

    I am so sorry to hear your reaction to the words "new production" and that you are wondering how much longer you can continue. I am so sorry that the "new" administration has disappointed so many of us. You are not alone, but our leadership is looking everywhere but in the mirror to find the problem with attendance, and now I fear that it is too late to fix. Thank you for your support over the years.

    Nonetheless, when all else fails, we have the music and the wonderful artists who give their all at every performance, and in preparation behind the scenes. I cannot say enough good things about all the artists I have worked with during my 22 years, both musical and stage craft. I still pinch myself when I enter the stage door.

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    1. Dare I say this is music to my ears? I LOVE Radvanovsky, too, and can't wait to hear her in the role. I remember when she had to have surgery on her vocal chords and we were all worried about the result, but she's back and better than ever. We sit in the Grand Tier (Row E), so I will have my opera glasses trained on the stage. Will I be able to find you?

      I, too, cried at the beheading scene in Stuarda. I had a British grandmum who was steeped in Tudor/Stuart history, so this was right up my alley.

      I'm so relieved to hear that the new Tosca looks beautiful. The last one was dreadful. And, as we say in French, "la plus belle de l'affaire" (the best part) is that you're not a nun. That must get old after a while.

      Don't worry, it would take something horrifically monumentally horrible (many somethings, in fact) to make us abandon the Met. It's been our home for so long that I can't imagine living without it.

      I just hope and pray that someone (Peter Gelb???) will come to his senses and realize the harm they have done to a world class artistic institution. It is quite simply the best and the chorus is quite simply without peer. There is no chorus like the Met chorus, and we all know it. I've lost count of how many times my husband has said, "Aren't they just the best?"

      Warmest regards,

      M-T

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  10. I think I would have sat with my eyes closed through the whole production! However your sojourn sounds like a magnificent experience. Bisous.

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    1. Trust me, Elizabeth, my eyes were closed through a great deal of it, only to open occasionally in horror at what I was seeing. But what I was hearing was glorious.

      Bisous to you, too,

      M-T

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