Friday, August 30, 2013

Wagner Tripping - Talks on Wagner and The Ring

Well, the Ring is over and we are on the drive back home. In general, Seattle’s production was wonderful. I have my quibbles with it, but then I know there can be no such thing as a perfect Ring. Not that people aren’t looking for one; in fact, the quest to see such a thing drives Wagnerians to productions all over the world, but the quest is as illusive as chasing the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

However, as I mentioned last week, Seattle Opera has a wonderful opera education program, which greatly enriches the immersive experience of a Ring festival. While their education program in general is multi-faceted, particularly focused on youth, it is their adult education as I have experienced it at their Ring cycles that I want to highlight. I cannot imagine that any opera house in the world exceeds their standard.  So now I am going to write a bit about their educators, and then provide a contrast with less effective educators.

Speight Jenkins

Before Speight Jenkins was General Director at Seattle Opera, he was first a guest lecturer. His knowledge of and passion for Wagner so impressed the Board of Directors of the Opera house that they asked him to leave his post as the New York Post music critic to lead their company. Among many other plans to improve Seattle Opera, his vision was to create an opera education program that would inspire people to really want to go to the opera because it sounded so damn wonderful and fun (and would make some money to offset the venture at the same time). Speight provided these lectures on Wagner’s Ring early in his tenure, which were fun and folksy—his Texas twang helping that along—with captivating descriptions of the cycle. While these talks are out now of circulation and are very expensive at Amazon, if you are interested in hearing them, let me know and I can provide a copy.  This review hits the nail on the head.

Leslie took this photo of Speight at his 
"greeting spot" while I was passing by.

Speight has been at the helm of the Seattle Opera now for 30 years and has done a great job in moving Seattle from a small, regional company to one of international prominence, particularly via the most recent production of the Ring cycle. He is retiring at the end of next season, so this was his last hurrah, and he received a fitting send-off. After the last opera of the last of the three cycles was over, the cast and creative team was cheered strongly, with lots of the audience on their feet, but others, like me, remained seated, preferring to hold standing ovations for those rare and extraordinary moments when they feel compelled out of my seat. When Speight was called to the stage, it was such a moment. The entire audience erupted in a true, hearty and Wagnerian-length standing ovation to honor the job that he has done. It was a lovely tribute.1

“We must start creating and sharing Art that gives people a glimpse of God's Beauty and inspires people to live lives of Goodness and Truth!” - Perry Lorenzo from a comment within his blog

“Only Perry could make someone go from knowing nothing about opera, to not only loving opera but loving WAGNER.” - Former student of Perry's (in a eulogy)

The late, wonderful Perry Lorenzo
Speight lured Perry Lorenzo from his job as a well-regarded high school teacher to take over the educational program at the Seattle Opera in 1992, and he served as the head of the initiative—and chief lecturer—for 20 years until his sad and untimely death of cancer at age of 51 in 2009.  In this eulogy, Jenkins writes:

He took a fledgling Education program at Seattle Opera and expanded it exponentially, drawing to him a devoted core of speakers and discussing opera in many forums. He worked with students in many communities all over the state as well as in the Seattle area. At Woodinville High School, for example, he was well known as the “Opera Guy.” 

Perry was a great speaker, and seemed like a really great guy. I raptly listened to his lectures when I first arrived in 2001 and, again in 2005, when I dragged Leslie and her parents along to see him speak. The lectures were three hours per opera, so along with the 15 hours2 of actually watching the Ring, I happily spent another 12 hours listening to Perry talk about the Ring. And we each paid $100 to do so.

From all reports, he was an amazing man. Here is a typical online memorial from one student about him:

I have known Perry Lorenzo since 1990 when I became a member of the debate team he coached and later a student in his Humanities class at John F Kennedy Memorial High School in Burien. Words cannot describe his quality as a teacher and a person, but those who experienced him know how inspiring he was. He made the ordinary extraordinary and the extraordinary sublime.

And another:

Perry had coached the debate team at Kennedy and I was a competing high school debater from another Puget Sound high school. In a testament to his remarkable humanity, even as a coach of a competing team he reached out and supported me and my teammates over the years... Funny thing, I'm sure at least a thousand people felt equally loved and encouraged by Perry.

Perry Lorenzo is a legend. A man of remarkable depth: intellectual, spiritual, artistic and humane. May his memory live as a blessing and a challenge to all of us, in all of our dimensions, to strive for excellence, compassion, encouragement, love and artistic beauty.

Perry was an intellectual, and his lectures drew from a vast knowledge of art and literature. That said, there is nothing in them that is a bit snobby or pretentious. He was also a devout Catholic, and though his talks were inspired by his faith, there was nothing in them that was off-putting to me, an atheist. His belief in God’s divine presence in art was at the heart of his passion, and I found it moving in spite of my lack of such faith. He wrote this blog to explore his religious, artistic passions.

As Perry explained in his blog, the starting point for his analysis of art is: “The famous Analogy of Being sings that all Being shares four common aspects, characteristics, attributes--Unity, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.” In this post he gives an example of his process:

Take, for example, the experience of the Beauty of a poem. We could enjoy forever beholding that poem, being dazzled by its clarity, being amazed by its structure and stricture, being healed and harmonized by its balance and daring, its symmetry and sublime expression. 
But then, we might venture further---how is the Beauty of the poem Good or True? How does the poem give us a glimpse of the way things really are? How does the poem ennoble human action? Does the poem inspire us? Inspire us to what? 

And further, how does the poem draw us, almost by a kind of erotic attraction, to the Unity of things?

His lectures, then, were informed by this approach: seeking and finding the truth, goodness and beauty in Wagner, and ultimately the unity of things within in it. At the same time, he also made clear that the Ring could also be just great entertainment, a “swell time at the theater,” he liked to say. But he was drawn to the work for reasons much deeper, and he tries to pull people into his sublime experience through this more profound route.

While his blog is, ultimately, too Catholic for my taste to explore in depth, if you happen to be a Catholic who loves art, I absolutely recommend it to you. Nonetheless, I do think his methods of exploring issues of “truth, goodness and beauty” in art are profoundly right. I don’t end up with God as he does, but I do come equally to the unity of all things. And I believe the importance he placed on art in getting to Truth (writ large) is absolutely correct. While we might all differ somewhat on what the ultimate truth is, in this quest, Perry, I and Wagner are one.

A shorten version of his lectures, focusing on broad questions and themes in the Ring, can be bought here.

There is one final thing I want to say about Perry. In this obituary, the Seattle Times writes:

Paul Hearn of Seattle, Mr. Lorenzo's longtime companion, said they met when Mr. Lorenzo gave a lecture at the University of Washington 13 years ago. Though Hearn was not Catholic, their first date was to St. James, he said. Hearn said Mr. Lorenzo brought him to the Catholic Church and broadened his appreciation of opera. The two would pray together and do morning liturgies. "We were monks in love," he said.

In case that wasn’t clear:  Perry was a chaste gay man, believing his church’s teaching that homosexual sexual expression—though not homosexual love—was a sin. There is a fascinating debate among Catholics on this issue in terms of Perry on the internet. It starts here with a blog post from a well-known Catholic blogger, Mark Shea, along with the follow-up comments.  He said that he felt Perry was both a “gay man” and a “saint” led, which to a lot of fierce debate. Shea then followed-up with another post on the debate itself, here. I must note that Mark Shea absolutely is against gay marriage, gay adoption, etc. So, we are not talking about a left-leaning Catholic here, but instead a debate among more conservative Catholics on issues of being gay.

I am so far from Catholic—and very far from thinking of sex as a sin—that I find this weird on many levels. That said, his abilities as an opera speaker had everything to do with his intense passion which stemmed from his belief in God and his church. So I love it, and respect it, at the same time.

Perry Lorenzo: A great man, a great speaker, and gone much too young.

Sue Elliot was hired in 2010 to follow in Lorenzo’s huge footsteps. We once again paid to see the three-hour-a-day lecture series, trusting that Seattle would hire someone worthy of the position. I can now report that without doubt she is no Perry Lorenzo; she is completely Sue Elliot, utterly delightful and completely following her own path. A gotta tell you, of all the people I have met who work at Seattle Opera, she has catapulted to the top as my favorite. I even like her better than Myrna Mishmash, the gal who used to get money out of me for Seattle Opera.

Leslie took this photo as Sue was leaving the Opera House
Where Perry’s lectures were very organized, with broad themes and points to be made, Sue’s are down-to-earth, much more scattershot, and very interesting and fun. She spent a good amount of time on deconstruction of small sections of the Ring, to show the ways in which Wagner made his musical effects which “broke all the rules” of the time. She geared the lecture to non-musicians like myself, working on ways for us to grasp musical concepts easily, trying to find effective analogies. I am not going to explain how she worked this into the lecture:

But anyone who manages to find a logical way to include Endora in a lecture gets an A from me.  (To make her musical point, she was actually showing the clip to use Uncle Arthur for the analogy, but I am a big fan of Agnes Moorehead who played Endora.)

Sue also gave a lot of insider information about the staging. So, for instance, we learned that to train Grane—Brunnhilde’s horse; they use a real live one—they first start by blasting Wagner’s music in its stall weeks before the performance. Lucky horse! (Oh, that reminds me of something my brother Russ wanted me to mention about his alma mater, Cal Tech. This is a little loosely related trivia. Did you know that every final’s week each morning at 7 AM sharp, the "Ride of the Valkyries" is blasted through the sound system as a kind of reveille? Now you do!  You can read about that tradition here.)

Sue also touched on many other aspects of the Ring, such as its broad themes, instrumentation, Wagner’s composition history, and so forth. Like I said, a little scattershot, but very effective.

Next time they do a Ring cycle, I might not pay to go to the opera, but I would still pay to listen to her lectures. Actually “lectures” seems too regimented a term for her presentations. “Guiding thoughts for your own exploration” might be a better, if too-long, description.

Also, I gotta admit that I would be pretty shocked if Sue has a religious blog out there (not that she might not be religious, but that is a different thing), while I wasn’t at all surprised that Perry did. And though I know absolutely nothing about her private life, I would also be surprised if she is in love with someone but yet a long-term celibate. Point being: as much as I liked and respected Perry, Sue seems to be more of my kind of "normal" person.

Good hire, Speight.

Jonathan Dean

Jonathan is yet another one of Seattle Opera's talented stable, though he is no longer one of their speakers. (I did hear him speak in the past, however, and he was also outstanding.) He has another job with Seattle Opera now, but he was very involved with the Ring in that he wrote the excellent subtitles. 

So you can trust their speakers to be good, is the point I am trying to make. Yes, they charge you. Go ahead and pay for it; it’s worth it.

Leslie snapped a shot of me saying hi to Jonathan

In Contrast

Most opera houses do not make you pay for pre-opera talks, and their quality ranges greatly. My experience is that, in general, San Francisco’s opera talks are very poor. The people who do them are often academics, but not the talented ones! I go to them because they are free and I always hope for a good one, but it is pretty rare.

The Los Angeles Opera, on the other hand, has had very good speakers in their free pre-opera talks. For example, their Ring was lousy, but the conductor, the hyper James Conlon, did the talks and I really enjoyed him. On other occasions when I have been there, it has been similar. That said, they aren’t on the Seattle level, keeping the talks too brief for any deep insight.  I'd rather pay the $10 for a pre-opera talk that Seattle charges then go to the free ones that other opera houses offer.

The Great Courses - Wagner series

Even when I don’t care for the talk from an opera, I rarely get mad at the speaker. They just sometimes have dry speakers who have very little of interest to say. But now I want to move on to the the Great Courses series on Richard Wagner featuring Robert Greenberg, which was put out this year to celebrate Wagner's bicentennial. It sucks on virtually all levels.

Robert Greenberg
Before getting into the depth of its dreadfulness, I want to point out the Greenberg is the person the The Great Courses use for their musical series. I had picked up his How to Listen and Understand Great Music course for $5 at a garage sale, and it was generally fine. He makes not-very-funny jokes, but beyond that, I enjoyed them. Thus, when they put out the Wagner series for a fairly low price, I thought it would be a perfect thing to listen to while we were doing this Wagner trip to Seattle.

The problem is that Greenberg has no in-depth understanding of Wagner or his music dramas or his prose writings, and has little understanding or sympathy for the works. The whole enterprise has a first-year college level feel to it, clearly “crammed” and completely lacking in nuance; it has the feel of "cutting and pasting" from a very limited variety of second-hand sources. If you have read a lot about Wagner as I have, you soon learn that nothing written about him should be taken on face-value unless you do the homework and go to the original source. This Greenberg clearly did not do. I know far more about Wagner than he does, and I find it pathetic that the Great Courses would put out such a course given his paucity of knowledge.

You know this saying? A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure. Greenburg is a man with one watch and it looks like this:

His principal source for his biographical material and analysis is pretty much plucked whole from the one-dimensional and twisted biography, Wagner: the Man, His Mind and His Music by Robert Gutman. This is the “distorted watch” Greenberg rests his course upon. Essentially, it is “junk in, junk out.” (Read here to see the failures of Gutman’s biography.) 

Both Wagner the man,  and the works themselves, are consistently described by Greenberg in a sneering, sarcastic and mocking manner. Any musical analysis—why and how Wagner is so effective at writing music of emotional depth; his use of the orchestra, harmonics, melody, rhythm, silence, and time —is almost completely absent. His excerpt choices are often bizarre, ignoring much that is a “must hear” selection and instead using minor passages. While he repeatedly says that the music is the most important part of the music dramas—a point that is universally acknowledged, including by Wagner himself—he then spends an inordinate amount of time reading libretto text, often without any point being made.

Greenberg often repeats biographical myths or half-truths, and does so in a way that a listener who does not know the biographical material is led astray. He states as FACT (his emphasis) things that are not facts, but conjectures. He consistently exaggerates his material. His understanding of Wagner’s beliefs are often completely wrong. His libretto analysis is generally crude and often without any basis in text or music.

I would love it if there were a full course on Wagner on CD. But this is certainly not it. If you are interested in learning about Wagner, it is far more beneficial to go to one of the available Ring lectures, like Perry’s or Speight’s, as I linked above. Another excellent source is here, where you can download the excellent John Culshaw lecture series about the Ring (probably my favorite of all the Ring analyses) and also a 3-part program about the Ring from the New York Met.

If you want a more general analysis of Wagner and his musical effects on a podcast, I would like to link you again to the wonderful, incisive talk by Nicholas Spice here. (You can also download it as a podcast.) 

End Notes

1. I don’t want to give a too-rosy picture. There were people very critical of Speight’s tenure. And through my many short conversations with him over the years, he showed lots of signs that he was, perhaps, not completely a warm and fuzzy guy. Whatever. I do think he has done a great job, hired great people, and the house is in good artistic shape for the future. It, like all opera houses, has had its financial struggles. Some—like this guy—lay those problems at his feet, due to what they feel are his too-grandiose visions for a small company. Obviously, Wagnerians don’t tend to be too critical of grandiosity.

2 The time for a Ring actually can vary widely. The fastest recorded Ring is about 1 ½ hours shorter then the longest recorded Ring. I don’t have the timings of these with me on this trip, but if anyone wants to know more about this, drop me a note and I will send the information once I am home.

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