26 August 2006

Bayreuth 19

I walked around most of this afternoon. I went through the nearby mall. As with many things here it looks similar to such things in America, and then little differences start to make it look very different. For instance, though there is no smoking in the mall all the food vendors allow smoking, so the smell permeates there too. And in the middle of everything is a butchershop, filled with glistening pink porkstuffs.
All the clocks on churches and public buildings not only run, they keep correct time. And the church bells ring out the time punctually.
I saw the Japanese woman who wears subdued kimonos to each performance. She and her Japanese tour group were entering the neue schloss. She was in western clothing, though she still had her cane and carried a parasol. I wonder where some of the other regulars are today, like the woman who looks like a permanently startled partridge because she draws in her eyebrows so darkly and steeply that they look as if a boldfaced V has landed on the bridge of her nose. Does she do that every day, or only when she dresses up? I imagine a lot of people went on road trips or just relaxed. There is a sense of winding down. Gotterdammerung is tomorrow, and after that there is only one more performance on Monday, which I am not going to, another Tristan, so that the last notes to fill the hall at this year's festival will be the liebestod. By then I will be in Munich, where I hope I can find an internet cafe to continue updates. Many thanks to the Arvena Congress Hotel for its courteous service, its delicious bacon, and its lobby computer!
Already one of the bookstores downtown has removed all its Wagner items from the window, though there are still plenty to be had inside. The tea shop on the Maximilianstrasse is still offering teas called Siegfried's Dragonblood or Tristan, but I assume they do that year round. I imagine most outsiders who come to Bayreuth are drawn here by Wagner even if the festival is not in progress, just as during Boston winters I used to point out Fenway Park to wandering Red Sox fans who would stop and ask.
The apples are ripening red in the gardens I passed, and the overripe purple summer plums are falling on the pavement.

Bayreuth 18

The protocol for curtain calls seems to be that if you want to boo the production, you do so as soon as the dark (green or charcoal gray? it's hard to tell) velvet curtain falls, but then switch to cheering once the singers step out, to indicate that they did their valiant best despite the production (of course, sometimes the singers will get booed, as with our unfortunate first Siegmund; then they boo the singer when he or she steps out). The applause is long and vociferous. People stamp their feet, which creates an amazing pounding drumming on the wooden floorboards. The only production to receive a huge round of boos was Parsifal. Otherwise there is just the occasional boo, as I mentioned earlier with the Rheingold. Even after the houselights have gone up and half the auditorium has left there are still those who applaud and stamp their feet until the cast and conductor come out again. The loudest cheers have been for the Ring conductor, Christian Thieleman, who comes out in his black pants and black tunic each night looking exhausted and slightly red-faced from his labors.
It rained pretty heavily and steadily this morning, so I read and slept. I shouldn't complain about a morning like that; some of my favorite winter weekends are when it rains and I lie in bed listening to the drops splashing through the large lemon tree outside my bedroom window. I slept longer and more deeply than I thought I would, until the buzzing of a hornet woke me up (I usually leave the window open when I'm there, since there is no air conditioning or heating) and I saw that the rain had stopped long enough for the pavement to dry off. So now I'll go walk around.

Bayreuth 17

Today is an off day before Gotterdammerung.
Just as I know that before any trip I'll spend weeks wondering why I thought it was a good idea, why I'm bothering, why I thought I could afford it, and then when I arrive I love it, so I know that during any trip there are the days when everything sags except the pressure not to waste a day in a new place. Yesterday was one of those days. Siegfried often does seem to take place on those days. I realize it's blasphemy to say this, but for me in the theater the final duet just lasts too long. The other scens of the Ring fly by for me, but during that one I think, OK. Got it. Recordings are different since you have a different physical relation to recordings. I don't know quite what it is, since the music is beautiful. It may just be the inevitable dip in one's relationship to a very long work. I've only seen live Siegfrieds in the context of an entire Ring, so I don't know if I would have the same reaction if it were a single evening instead of part of a week.
And as I said I'll talk about the productions later, but about last night just let me say: Worst. Dragon. Ever. Sorry, maybe it's childish, but at some point after the Schopenhauer and the World Sorrow and the wisdom of the mothers you just want to see the guy fight the dragon. I've had problems warming up to Idomeneo because they keep teasing us with talk of a sea monster and then it only appears offstage. What can I say? I like a good monster.
Most of the talk around the Festspielhaus concerns either the productions or the disaster of the Act 1 Siegmund during Walküre. The poor guy was Eric in Höllander and was fine, but apparently there had been some press criticism of his Siegmunds in the first two cycles (I've been avoiding all write-ups until after I've seen the productions). And it seems the singer is engaged to the Wagner daughter who is the heir apparent, which makes his position trickier. I heard from someone who talked with one of the singers that it was just a last minute stroke of good luck that Robert Dean Smith could take over and they were worried that the original singer (sorry, I don't have his name at hand), whom they like personally, might have his whole career affected by the press discussion and the booing. As I said, a singer's life is a difficult one. It's like being an athlete in one of those sports people only pay attention to during the Olympics, and then after four years of training the day arrives and you have a head cold or an allergy attack and that's enough to put you off your game.
The weather continues cloudy cool and rainy; I'm deeply appreciative of the coolness but by now I'm sick of the rain. I should just give in to it, in the spirit in which Wotan wills the inevitable, but isn't that just another way of saying he's going to pretend to see and accept the point of whatever is going to happen anyway?
Instead of taking another day trip I'm just going to wander around, continue reading Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal, and relax in the way most people do on their vacations.
I'll also be rereading the Gotterdammerung libretto, of course. . . .

25 August 2006


for Anna Clementina on her 85th birthday:
wish I could be there with you today
long may your travels continue

Bayreuth 16

The other day I was asked if I were South African, which is a new one on me. The gentleman who asked thought he had seen me in his group or at a lecture. It turns out he now lives in Princeton and has two children who live in California, so he actually knew where San Leandro is, which is more than I can say for many Bay Area residents. The woman singing Fricka is, according to him, the first South African to sing at Bayreuth so there was great national pride among the South African Wagnerians.
Usually I'm mistaken for Spanish or Italian, though once in Italy I was asked if I were German. Go figure. I think I usually look and act very American, but I couldn't tell you why.
The weather continues cool and showery, but I'm still glad I cut all my hair off. I went out walking, mostly to go to the Geldautomat (ATM), though I probably have enough money. But it's hard to get into them on weekends because my card can withdraw money but not unlock the vestibule, and I leave here Monday to go to Munich. I've had to keep reminding myself that coins can be substantial amounts here: it's as if the smallest paper bill was for $5, and dollars and two dollars only came in coins.

Bayreuth 15

Near the train station there is a store that posts in its windows photographs of the Festival crowd. They are taken from the balcony where the fanfares are played and are similar to the shots of marathoners crossing the finish line, except the people are dressed in evening finery instead of sweaty shorts and singlets and pretty much just strolling around instead of thrusting their arms upward in victory. There's a different set for each night and each photo is numbered so that you can order a copy if you spot yourself. Anytime you walk by the shop you see people gathered in front, poring over the pictures. (It would be helpful in this case to wear very bright, distinctive colors, which is easier for the women than the men, though I did see one fellow the other night whose purple velvet suit, bright green shirt, antic expression, and silver hair standing straight up screamed, "I am a German artist of an annoyingly playful disposition!" -- again, I'm sure there's a single word in German that can express this.) I glance at the photographs, but if I appear in any of them I haven't had the patience to spot myself. There's a certain Where's Waldo? quality to the search that I just find exasperating. I can't help him with that. Waldo needs to find himself.

24 August 2006

Nuremburg 4

As I wander around cities I can almost always be drawn towards spires or fountains. Though the old part of Nuremburg is fairly compact there were three Gothic churches for me to explore. Perhaps I should say Gothic-style, since it turns out that they were mostly destroyed by bombing during the war and what we see now are careful reconstructions from the mid-twentieth century, which explains why sometimes the blocky, earnest sculptural forms of the 1950s jut out from the elaborately lacey filigree of the German Gothic.
There are several attractive fountains as well, including one modern-looking one that, if I understood it correctly, and I may not have, was in celebration of beer.
The oddest fountain is right outside of St. Lorenz. On the top stands blindfolded Justice, her sword uplifted and scales swaying in the breeze. The layer below features cherubs, with water shooting in thin streams from their trumpets (though only one or two cherubs were working right and a few were obviously missing their musical instruments). The third and bottom layer features female saints (and possibly one Virtue; she looked like Caritas). I identified Agnes and Perpetua (could Felicity be far behind?) and possibly Veronica and Margaret. There were a couple more that completely eluded me. All were bare-breasted and the water shot in thin streams from their nipples, or more precisely from little jets right below their sculpted nipples, giving them a double-nippled look. St. Perpetua's nipples were blocked, but all the rest were flowing freely. I've never seen saints depicted this way. I'm sure there's some sort of allegory of grace and abundance intended.
The fountain was quite the backdrop for photos, so I kept moving out of the way. This might be a coincidence but almost all those being photographed there were women. One wife did take a picture of her husband and then refused his request that she pose with a slightly disgusted grimace that made me think they had been married quite a while.

Nuremburg 3

On the way to the old city from the bahnhof I passed by a sex-toy and video shop. I mention this only to record my intense disappointment that it is not named Meister Swinger's.

These oddities crop up in these old-looking cities. Right down the slope from Dürer's house is the Cafe Tarantino, with posters in English from his movies in the window. And a store was selling dreamcatchers, which might be the lingering effects of Karl May's popularity.

And right after I saw a teenager wearing a baseball cap -- not just a baseball cap, but a Red Sox cap! -- I saw a store selling baseball caps (with American teams) and NBA jerseys. Then I realized that it was a hiphop store, and the caps and jerseys were for rap fans and not sports fans. So it's probably just as well that at the last minute I left my Red Sox cap at home. Who knows what false passport to age-inappropriate cool I would have been traveling under if I had worn it around Bayreuth.

This computer is starting to act up so I hope it doesn't die on me. . . . and someone is waiting again so I need to go.

Nuremburg 2

I'd like to confirm that our Tristan/Act 2 Siegmund was Robert Dean Smith. I should apologize if any typos or misspellings are slipping past me; I had a chance to go back and catch a few but I have to write these quickly and when I can since this is a public terminal and I think it would be rude to keep people waiting too long.
I couldn't go to Nuremburg without going to Dürer's house, but I'm glad I didn't have very high expectations. It's interesting but at this point any real evidence of his being there is gone so what you get is a walk through an old-style Nuremburg house (of which there are fewer than I had assumed there would be; I thought the whole old town would look like a Meistersinger stage set). There's an audio tour which they didn't offer me and I didn't ask about; it's narrated by someone pretending to be his wife, as are the docent-led tours by an actress in costume, and I didn't think any illumination I could get from that set-up would be worth the time.
So I'll talk about the food! I continue to have good luck with ice cream; my passionfruit cone had the same intense flavor as my cherry cone the other day. Towards the end of my time I decided I would try the Nuremburg sausages that all the guidebooks tell me I must try while there; I guess my earlier complaint about German sausage meant I just hadn't met the right sausage yet. These are small; three fit into a hard roll the size of my palm and they were so good I went back and got another one. The owner of the stand replied to my attempts at complimenting him in German by saying "You're welcome" in English, which I thought was gracious. The sun had come out again by then and though I'd been wondering whether the sidetrip to Nuremburg had really been worth the bother I decided then that it was. Nothing like sausage and sunshine to set you up.
Christmas is a big thing there and is present year round. In the open-air market I bought a bag of handmade lebkuchen, their Christmas cookies. They're nice; I'd say they're nothing to write home about but that's pretty much what I'm doing. . . . They have that soft moist texture and clovey taste that all Christmas cookies end up having, regardless of recipe. I assume most of these recipes in America are of German origin.


I took advantage of the day off to go to Nuremburg. Though it was enjoyable I might have been better off hanging around and resting; I'm starting to feel unpleasantly congested, probably due to second-hand smoke, and I can feel the bags under my eyes growing larger by the hour, though this does give me a look both dissolute and otherworldly so suitable to Wagner's music.
I had already seen the landscape on the way here, when I had to change trains at Nuremburg for the second time. There are some fields of corn, a few wooded patches, and lots of little towns that at first glance look similar to little towns in America until you notice how very steeply pitched the roofs are or see the black red and gold stripes of the German flag fluttering over the backyard patio or barbecue. The rest of the landscape is the sort that looks incomplete without cows, though only once did I think I glimpsed some through some trees.
The problem for me with day trips is that though I enjoy being in different places I don't usually enjoy getting there, so it's a question of whether the pleasures of the place will outweigh the vexations of the journey. If you've been before it helps, but faced with a large train station I always have to remember that things like that have to work on a system so all I have to do is figure out enough of the system to get where I want to go. It helps a lot here that -- do I even need to say it? -- the trains run on time. If the departure time is 12:51, the train leaves at 12:51. This is an adjustment though a pleasant one to someone used to BART.
Today contradicted a number of my experiences so far:
First, I had my first encounter with someone who was unpleasant about my lack of German: a thin dark-haired young man behind a counter who glared at me and shouted in German and then ignored me. I could figure out about a third of what he was saying and it turned out I was in the wrong line anyway.
Second, I did use French as a fall-back language: a kindly hunchbacked old woman working the shop at St. Sebald's tried to explain to me that the CD I was buying was out of stock and I tried to explain that another one would be OK since I just wanted one because the music was performed on that church's organ. We built that language bridge from French stone with the mortar of an occasional German word.
Third, I was caught in a downpour just as I stepped out of Durer's house. Fortunately I managed to slip back into a church, my version of Hunding's hut, soon enough to avoid getting my only shoes and non-opera pants soaked.

Bayreuth 14

Every night outside the Festspielhaus a middle-aged Chinese woman with wire-rim glasses has been handing out leaflets and otherwise protesting something. I wasn't sure what until I declined a leaflet by saying "sorry" and she exclaimed "English!" and handed me the English version of her pamphlet. It turns out she's from Falun Gong, protesting organ harvesting by the Chinese government. I have no idea why she chose the Bayreuth Festspielhaus as her protest site, unless she figures a lot of the audience is looking for replacement organs, which is possible. Otherwise I haven't seen any other protests.
The Japanese lady was back last night in another beautiful but subdued kimono, this one very pale skyblue with faint pink petals and leaves on it. That obi is a stroke of genius. But the seats aren't bothering me as much, possibly because the Ring operas tend to fly by for me. Really.
I did try the ice cream vendor during Tristan, since that seemed less inappropriate than during Parsifal. I had kirsche, which was excellent and had a very deep cherry flavor. Yesterday beforehand I had malaga. Sometimes I'll order things just to find out what they are. It turned out to be rum raisin, and very good.
I'm turning into Homer Simpson at breakfast. I eat piles of bacon and then go back for more. The bacon is very bacony. Hmmmmm . . . . bacony. . . .

23 August 2006

Bayreuth 13

I was hoping to get a poster for the Ring Cycle to go with the ones I have from Seattle and San Francisco, but they don't seem to have those here. In fact the merchandising is quite restrained. There is a small stand to one side of the Festspielhaus, separate but close enough so that I assume it's official, that offers the usual postcards, some black T-shirts with quotations from Gotterdammerung in white on the chest, and some books, DVDs, and CDs. The books are scholarly rather than popular. I've ended up buying a number of CDs because there are performances not available in the US that are released here. But the plethora of shirts, mugs, stuffed animals, comic books, and so forth that I've seen elsewhere make no appearance here.
There is the official festival program book, a handsome white-covered trilingual volume with many color pictures and essays on the productions. I am holding off on reading them until after I've seen the productions. The book comes in a blue and white Festspiel tote bag made not of the usual canvas but of some odd material I can't identify. The blue strap is quite long and the only way to carry the bag conveniently is the sling it over one shoulder so that it crosses your chest. You see people all over with these, carrying programs and books and opera glasses and obviously not enough lozenges, looking like some sort of odd messenger service.
Tomorrow is our first day off, so I'm planning to take the train to Nuremburg, which for some reason I keep calling Niebelheim. I'll assume I'm just tired.

Lend Me a Tenor

Singers have rough lives. They work and study and struggle and sometimes when they get to sing Siegmund on the stage of Bayreuth itself they fall sick. There were discreet notices up saying our scheduled singer was indisposed and kindly asked our indulgence, etc., at least I assume the German had words to that effect. He just lost it in the first act and due to the discretion of the signs they had been overlooked by quite a few in the audience, who booed him vociferously. For the second act our wonderful Tristan, Robert Dean Smith (I'll have to doublecheck the name later) stepped in and saved the day. Den hehrsten Helden der Welt! He kept his poise and gave a powerful performance even though Notung broke prematurely, which has got to be one of the more awkward stage mishaps.
Even if I hadn't seen the notices I would have figured something was wrong with our man. All the voices are so clear and carry so well that there had to be something seriously wrong with him. He couldn't have been hired if his voice always sounded like that.
I was in the second row from the back before the boxes tonight, right in the center. The sound is different there. Oddly enough, I could hear many individual wind instruments (chiefly the oboe, I'm guessing) with remarkable clarity, almost as if they were playing a concerto with the ensemble.
I've grown to recognize quite a few of the crowd by now. Many are staying at the Arvena Congress with me. There's the man with a neck brace who always has an obnoxious pipe clenched between his teeth, and the short, balding old French woman who always fills her breakfast plate with sausages and belches audibly. Tonight I also saw the wart-nosed woman again, in the same brocaded top, and this time saw that she only had one leg.
There's an attendant in the men's room who stands there night after night. He's dressed informally in jeans and a short sleeve shirt even though he's official. I'm not sure what he does, besides be quietly polite and check occasionally to make sure the towel rollers are working, but there is a table for his tips. I tip on the grounds that tipping is always good karma. But what a way to spend summer: I stood in the men's room in Bayreuth and said danke shoen.
There's a line forming for the computer and some smokers have arrived so I'll continue later.

Bayreuth 12

I went to the Neue Schloss today, a sizeable and appealing rococo building, a distant cousin of the Versailles family, near Wahnfried. I had the schloss to myself most of the morning, which is always nice. There's not a lot inside, which is OK since there's only so many 18th century portraits and velvet-seated chairs I want to look at. The walls and the ceilings are the big show, and as I wandered through several times I would see new details, like a stucco cupid melting away like a cloud on the ceiling or a chandelier covered with enamel pink roses and carnations. There's a room decorated with Ovidian tapestries in beautiful deep colors, and a dining room lined with golden-leaved palm trees. One ceiling is covered with golden swirls interspersed with clusters of green seaweed, dark red coral, and sea shells in black, rust, and ash gray. Many of the rooms feature chinoiserie or japonoiserie (not sure I'm spelling that right or even have the right word). One celadon Japanese room featured gold and dark bronze birds and flowers, including what looked to me like a very southwestern cactus, though it was not accompanied by a rococo Kokopelli. One wonderful room had mirrors of various sizes and shapes embedded on the ceiling among a fantastical melange of lions, palm trees, dragons, and whatnot and a Chinese man offering a scroll with gilded phoenixes to a Chinese woman. He was slightly less dressed than she was. The room is small and the walls are filled with pictures. Two are of respectable countesses, one with a very low cut dress. The others are of Lucretia stabbing herself in her naked breasts, Cleopatra applying the asp to her naked breast, and that woman in Genesis who saved her father (father-in-law? Lot? Noah? -- I'd look it up but though my room does have a Gideon Bible it only contains the New Testament, something in which I'm trying not to find any significance) by baring her breasts so he could drink her milk and live. It was the Salon of Hot Babes Who Bare Their Breasts in the Presence of Death, a concept which I'm sure can be expressed in German in a single weighty word of a line or two's length that sounds both musical and profound.
The lobby music just now was Taking a Chance on Love, with the Walkure theme underneath from another room. There must be a steady series of lectures around town. There is not a whole lot else to do, but I'd still rather wander around and read up before traveling.

Bayreuth 11

Now that I know I can get downtown through the park behind the hotel, I always go that way. Right as I cross the bridge into downtown there is a cineplex, which is showing one or two German films but mostly the latest Hollywood releases. The largest banners are for the summer's big hit, Fluch der Karibik 2 with Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom, and Superman Returns, whose title is given in English.
I'm seeing lots of English around. Occasionally I feel the urge to try communicating in French, the European language I am least bad at, but then realize I'm better off with English. I see a lot of T-shirts with English on them, often just one word like Love or Intensity, but sometimes phrases. Today I saw a girl who clearly had read too much about Paris Hilton wearing a shirt that said I'm Hot You're Not in silvery letters. A lot of the teenagers here look like Americans, but the older people almost never do. And the other day I saw a young mother pushing a baby stroller wearing a shirt that said Scream When You Want Be Free. Though her baby wasn't crying at the time, I wondered how long it would be before she thought more about both the literal and metaphorical meaning of the shirt and put it away for good. I, being immersed in the intensity and extremity of Wagner's librettos, thought "Only the freest of babies can redeem the World's Sorrow!"

22 August 2006

Bayreuth 10

The Ring ticket exchange last night went off smoothly, which is great, because that's the kind of thing that freaks me out. It helped that earlier I had met some of the people I was to be looking for. I think my seats for the next two are in the very back of the house, or at least close to it. That's still fairly close, but not as close as I'd like. I was in row 8 for Rheingold, but in the first seat on the left side of the house so that I couldn't see a few things staged on the far left. I did get to stick my left foot out into the aisle, which gave me some more room. There was also a noticeable effect on the sound when the singers were on the far left. My best seat was my first, for Parsifal, in the third row, so that spoiled me.
All over town are statues of Wagner's dog Russe. Most of them are black but I've seen a few painted gold and they show up all over, in windows and parks and driveways. Russe is buried right by Cosima and Richard behind Wahnfried. Flowers have been left at his grave as well as theirs. I was walking around that park yesterday and a short squat German woman started saying something that I soon realized was meant for her dog, not me. I think she was calling him. He ignored her completely and kept trotting ahead. He looked like a dachschaund only covered with longish black fur.
Another thing I've noticed a lot of around town: psychologists's offices. I guess that figures.
(Note for V: it's Wednesday, so I hope you have something fun to do instead, like eat my heirloom tomatoes. Enjoy the costume descriptions!)

Bayreuth 9

No one has yet come up for the computer, unusually enough, so I'll go on a bit more. Tonight I took special notice of the colors of the Festspielhaus lobby: the bottom half of the walls is a dull plum that in some lights looks like a worn chocolatey brown; then come some alternating stripes of differing thickness in cream and very light turquoise; and the top part of the wall is a warm ochre. It all looks very harmonious and very much of its late nineteenth century time.

the bling of the Nibelung

The opening of Das Rheingold might be my favorite of any opera; even the really amazing amount of coughing during it tonight couldn't spoil the excitement of hearing the beautiful swells in the building built to hold them. Perhaps the cool weather has prompted a rash of colds; usually I'm semi-understanding about coughing (it's better than talking, for which there is no conceivable excuse) but I can't help noting the auditorium was pretty much cough-free until the lights went down.
The cool weather may have affected local respiratory systems but not the local wasps or hornets. As I strolled around today I passed a bakery and stopped since I am as easily distracted by baked goods as by bright shiny objects. Then I noticed about a dozen of the wasps (or hornets) buzzing over and landing on the seeded rolls and sticky buns. I kept on walking. It helps restore circulation, anyway. Sorry to go on about my ass, a subject no one but myself has ever been much interested in, but I think I'm developing Bayreuth butt. The thing about the hard seats is that as the days go by recovery is slower and slower, even though I've finally found a use for my jacket by using it as a seat pad (there is only a piece of brown corduroy over the wooden seat). And Rheingold is two and a half hours with no intermission, but the time actually speeds by for me. Of course there are no surtitles, but I am of the last generation of opera goers to attend performances before they become mandatory, so it's not a new experience for me, though I have to say I find them invaluable. But I re-read each of the librettos beforehand and am familiar enough with the works anyway so that I know what's going on, even if I can't always repeat exactly what is being said.
Language is not really a problem here anyway. Many people speak English well enough to have a conversation of the sort that's necessary in tourist life (certainly their English is better than my German) and even when they don't it's usually pretty clear that they're saying Would you like a bag or You need to enter on the other side of the theater. Reading the librettos and street signs it's easy to pick out certain recurring words and parse meaning through similarities to English, so that it's very easy to end up thinking you speak more German than you actually do.
Earlier I said that it would be odd to hang out at the Festspielhaus if you weren't attending the opera; I think I was wrong. The people-watching would be a plentiful source of entertainment. I don't know what cable TV costs in a small Bavarian town, but this has got to be just as good. I was mesmerized yesterday by the hunched old woman in front of me, who had a wart on the side of her nose almost as big as her nostril. Straight out of the Brothers Grimm. She wore an elaborate brocaded top but when I glanced at her all I saw was her nose. Tonight I saw a Japanese woman elegantly dressed in a traditional kimono of subdued color and design; this was practical as well as elegant, since the obi would provide some much-needed back support. Many of the other women go for bright even gaudy colors; for some reason Tristan brought out changeable taffeta in abundance.
The house is full for every performance, though ticket-seekers still gather in front with pleading signs. I don't know exactly how many of them get in, but I noticed one clean-cut young man nicely dressed in a suit and tie tonight whose sign identified him hopefully as a student seeking a ticket (I can't remember the German); the appeal to possible scholarly patrons must have worked since I saw him in the lobby after the performance, so at least some seekers are successful. One man literally started dancing around yesterday after receiving a ticket for Act III from a woman who I guess already knew how it ended. I was glad he could get in after waiting in the showery summer evening through the first two acts (that's four hours including the intermission between the first two acts).
I'll talk about the productions later, as I mentioned earlier, but I will say that at least one gentleman was sweet enough to boo loudly at the curtain call; I call this sweet since no new production of the Ring can be considered a success without some scandal. As it is the audiences still have to fuss over the warmed-over scandal of the Parsifal staging, which is now two or three years old.

Bayreuth 8

I continue to have remarkable luck in evading the sometimes heavy rainshowers. Today I was in the old baroque opera house, at a fascinating exhibit of all the Ring stage sets since 1876, and then generally admiring the interior, which is lavishly decorated in high Baroque style. It's pretty fabulous but I can see why Wagner though it inappropriate for his world-myths. Oddly enough most of the postcards around town are of the baroque theater and not the Festspielhaus, undoubtedly because it's more picturesque. There seem to be only a limited number of postcards available of the town, since you see the same ones everyplace: lots of the baroque theater, a few of the Festspielhaus, then Ludwig II and the Wagners in various combos, and then sort of kitschy cartoons of Ring scenes. I should have brought a camera.
In some ways the rain is a good thing, since it keeps the temperatures in the Festspielhaus comfortable. The lack of armrests isn't a problem either; I thought I would be squeezed between gelatinous Germans but in fact I am less cramped side-to-side than in most American opera houses. (In any event my seatmates turned out to be other members of the Wagner Society and not some of the absurdly dressed women with trains and scarves and whatnot that would spread out too much. While I'm on costume: I don't understand why men would go to the trouble of wearing formal evening dress only to have the scooping necklines of their undershirts clearly visible through their thin shirts. As usual I'm left wondering what people are thinking, though I'm sure some are wondering what I'm doing. I don't see that many colored or striped shirts. Another thing I've noticed here: walking the streets you see almost no one wearing hats, and by hats I mean baseball-style caps. It wasn't until today that I saw a couple, and those were on very young boys.) Back to the Festspielhaus (which is what we do here, go back to the Festspielhaus): except for the painfully hard seats, it's actually quite comfortable, which I realize is a lucky chance due to the poor weather.
Once again I'm getting this wonderful Charles Ives effect here in the lobby, with the Pilgrim's chorus from Tannhauser playing against a cocktail-bar version of Take the A Train. Fortunately no one is currently smoking in the lobby: I think that maybe the Germans don't smoke that much more than Americans, they just have even fewer rules about where it's prohibited. It's very odd, as if it's America 40 years ago. They seem more advanced than us in many ways (national health care, heavily subsidized arts --well, I hear that's being cut back, vacations that start at a month long, national leaders who are not buffoons and international war criminals) that it seems surprising they're so far behind in this regard.
By the time I figure out this keyboard (the z/y switch continues to plague me) I'll be leaving and messed up for my American keyboards. Travel is very broadening!

21 August 2006

Bayreuth 7

In some ways Wagner is quite the presence in town, being their main industry, though the presence isn't quite as overwhelming as I thought it might be. Most of the streets are named after characters, real or fictional, involved in his works, and you see the occasional store or restaurant named after characters. For some reason, perhaps in tribute to the many potions, love and otherwise, featured in Wagner, drugstores seem especially fond of doing this, and I've seen ones named for Parsifal and Tannhauser (though not Hagen). The Festspielhaus is a brief walk from my hotel, and I walk up Meisetersingerstrasse and Nibelungenstrasse to get there.
The acoustics of the theater really are amazing. I've never been in any opera house where the voices sounded so clear and projected so well and powerfully. The orchestra stops warming up when the audience starts entering, and they and the conductor are completely hidden in the pit, so first the lights go out and then the music starts welling up as if from nowhere or anywhere. It's an amazing effect and I can't wait to hear how the opening bars of Rheingold sound tonight.

Bayreuth 6

The Maximilianstrasse is the main street, so the city appears to have banned all vehicles but buses. There are three fountains, topped with baroque statues of Neptune, Hercules, and an angel respectively, from 1708 if the angel's banner is to be believed. The water comes from long thin pipes on their pedestals and shoots out through a swan's head. Very delightful. There is also an enormous statue of a rearing brontosaurus, which must be modern and has no apparent reason for being except that it too is very delightful.

höchste Lust

Tristan Night.
It's an odd thing to do, traveling halfway around the world to attend Wagner's music dramas, since Wagner is about transcendence and ecstasy and travel is about the mundane: where is the train? What time is it? Where can I eat? Where can I find a toilet? Theater can be like that too: when is the curtain? Will this seat do me in before the end of the act, beautiful though it is? Why is the man behind me wrinkling a plastic bag during all the quiet scenes? Your body says one thing but the ecstatic voices on stage say another. As in Marianne Moore's definition of poetry, treating it with perfect contempt one can find perhaps a place for the genuine.

Bayreuth 5

As I left the piano music started up again. After a moment I realized it was the Liebestod. Now they're playing the Girl from Impanema, and from a conference room comes the ride of the Walkures.
Someone just came up to use the computer, so I'll go take a walk and try to wake up more.

Bayreuth 4

I've just eaten another huge breakfast and then gone out for a walk so the maids could clean my room, not that that takes long. There's an attractive park and stream right behind the hotel and I just discovered that it leads fairly directly to downtown.
Jaunty piano-bar music is playing in the lobby -- something by Gershwin. The music I had running in my head my first days here: Rigoletto, 4 Saints, and Strauss's orchestral songs. But I woke up this morning with the Grail music in my head, and it's all Wagner from here on out. (Underneath the cocktail tunes I just heard, from another room, a blast of Brunnhilde.) The music I hear from passing cars or coming from apartments: the same crap pop you hear everywhere. And some of the very elaborate graffiti I've seen touts old school hiphop. A lot of the tagging (and I'm sort of surprised by the amounts I've seen) is in English.
I realized this morning that I've been gone almost five days. I have no idea what's happening anywhere, since I'm not even opening AOL because I have such limited access (I'm curious to see how many emails pile up in my absence and how many I can delete without even bothering to open them). All I know is that something has happened with Gunter Grass, something connected, of course, to the war. Even over half a century later it is still an overwhelming presence, at least to me. One tag I saw looked like a swastika until I realized it was a swirly "z" with a slash through it. The local beer, Meissel's Weisse, has a logo that looks like a star of David, so I see those all over town. (The breakfast room here has a statue of King David in it, which is one of the oddly medieval touches that crop up in what otherwise look like American buildings.)
The piano music has stopped, but I can hear snatches of Wagner -- there must be a lecture in one of the conference rooms. I'm off to read the libretto of Tristan, which I'm hearing tonight.

20 August 2006

Bayreuth 3

(By the way because of the limited availability of the terminal I'm going to discuss the performances when I return and keep these posts for travel stuff.)
Days here are built around the music dramas, which is as the Master intended. The long operas start at 4:00 in the afternoon (but they use military time here, so I should say 16:00) and the shorter intermissionless works start at 18:00. As I mentioned earlier people start showing up well in advance, sometimes over an hour, though the house doesn't actually open until fifteen minutes before the hour, when the famous fanfares blare forth. The leitmotive the band plays is different not only for each opera (excuse me, music drama) but for each act. It's amazing how quickly 1,900 people can get settled in an amphitheater that has no inner aisles.
So there's not much dinnertime, unless you count snacks during intermission. I tend not to eat a lot so far during the breaks. So as the nutritionists recommend, breakfast is the large meal of the day. My knowledge of Bavarian cuisine is still limited to the very generous breakfast spread the Arvena Congress Hotel puts out. There are no pancakes or waffles, as there would be in an American hotel, but they seem to have everything else, including a section that's like tapas (stuffed olives, cheeses, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, and so forth). There's lots of watermelon, which I always though was pretty much American. And of course there are pork products. I have to say it: so far I don't much care for the sausage. It's soft and bland in a way I don't much like. I've had little bratwursts and something called I think Nuremburg sausage. The bacon's good, though, even if it sometimes seems a little underdone to me. And so far no beer. I'm a little wary of chugging down before or during a performance. There's a lot of redemption to get through and I want to be able to appreciate it. But definitely in Munich if not before.
Today at the performance I met up with some other Wagner Society members. It's good to know who they are because we have to exchange tickets after each Ring opera. The seats are in different locations at different costs, and since there's only one ticket per cycle, we have to meet up and switch off. I had assumed the single ticket was to make a point that the Ring is a unified work of art, but a Society member explained to me that the real reason is to make it more difficult to scalp tickets to the individual operas. Once again I assumed a high-minded aesthetic reason only to hear that money was behind it all.

Bayreuth 2

I just returned from Hollander and this is the first time today the terminal has been free.
Last night at Parsifal there was an English gentleman behind me who looked and sounded like C. Aubrey Smith (I wasn't kidding about the gentleman part) and I heard him say, "They're the most harmonious couple I know: I've never heard them agree on anything." The rest of the audience is not at that epigrammatic level, unfortunately. And do not believe the rumors that no one coughs at Bayreuth. There are even a few whisperers. But on the whole people are attentive and interested and outlandishly dressed. There are many plunging necklines and bare arms that common sense or a mirror would tell the owners should be covered. I saw one woman in a brown and gold top with swirling designs and a big hot pink dollar sign over her breasts. It struck me as an odd thing to wear to Parsifal. I can't even quite get people eating ice cream cones and sausage during the hour-long intermission. It seems like eating popcorn during Mass. One elegant woman in a long black evening gown had dribbled ice cream on her chin. I saw from the back a woman in a rose-pink silk dress that had silk roses in the gathers. I was amused and charmed by this since Wagner had a rose-pink silk fetish. It looked like something the heroine of a 19th century novel would wear, so I walked around to see the girl. It would be harsh to say she might actually have been from the 19th century, but let's say the time had gone by.
I'm wearing shirt-and-tie and carrying my jacket, so I'm somewhere in the middle of the dress spectrum. Of course my shirts are a bit wrinkled since the hotel rooms have neither ironing boards nor irons, something I was assuming they would have. I see some in jeans, though that seems in context like more of a statement than is worth bothering with. A lot of people enjoy the dress up aspect. Many of them are taking pictures of themselves against the Festspielhaus or the plaque inside commemorating the world premiere of the Ring. I've been asked to take a few of these pictures for people. Happy to oblige! Although there are signs prohibiting cell phones and cameras in the theater, many carry them in and take photos during the curtain calls. The ushers, all of whom are pretty young blonde German girls before the constant smoking ruins their looks, smile and politely ask the offenders not to take photographs; the offenders smile and politely put away their contraband cameras, but only after snapping their pictures.
There is the occasional man in shorts in the crowd, in realistic acknowledgment of the heat, and I assume they were going inside, since the plaza in front of the Festspielhaus seems like an odd place to hang out. They were not among those with the "ein carte bitte" signs. I've seen several people walking around the Festspeilhaus before the performance with their dogs. I don't know where they keep them during the show, but perhaps in honor of Wagner's beloved pet there are facilities. It is usual to arrive at least an hour before the performance. For once I'm not the first to arrive at a theater. The seats are just as, or even more uncomfortable than, advertised. I figured that I sit on those plastic seats at baseball games for hours at a time so this wouldn't be a problem. Damn was I wrong. I guess wood is harder than plastic. Note to Bayreuthers: bring a cushion. I may try sitting on my jacket, which is otherwise of no use to me. When I wrote my first entry I almost commented on how perfect the weather was. Since then it has turned muggy and it poured intermittently today. Fortunately I missed getting caught in any downpours. It would be especially irritating considering how limited a traveler's wardrobe is.
The theater itself is a handsome building and the acoustics are indeed astonishing. It is smaller than any American opera house I've been in. As with Symphony Hall in Boston, a lack of funds and the resulting inability to slather excessively dainty ornamentation all over resulted in an appealingly rough-hewn building that has an understated elegance.
I went to Wahnfried today. As I signed the guest book I noticed that right ahead of mine was the signature of a Leona (if I read the name correctly) Vaz from Lisbon! An unknown relative, here at Bayreuth with me. Small world.
I slept poorly last night, which means either that I'm very jet-lagged still or that I'm back to normal. It's hard to tell.

19 August 2006

blogging from Bayreuth

The hotel has a single public computer in its lobby, so I'll be brief. I'm here after a lengthy trip, made worse by wasting an hour in the wrong line at SFO. Every flight out of there is like the last plane out of Saigon anyway. I also didn't realize that it took three trains and five and a half hours to get from Munich to Bayreuth. I walked around when I arrived. Bayreuth is a pretty, quiet town. Parts look just like America and other parts are very different (for instance, the keyboards are different and the y is where the z should be, which makes typing difficult). I came across a klezmer band on the Maximilianstrasse this morning; they were playing If I Were a Rich Man, which is a nice irony on several levels.
The hotel is nice and is modern (which means it has kind of an early 80s look) so the quaintness factor is limited but the breakfast buffet more than makes up for it. There was a sign on the hall window asking guests to keep it closed during the night because of bats. I wondered briefly if the fledermaus reference was some sort of warning against the insidious world of operetta, but I think they mean it literally.
I'm still pretty tired, so I'm not being as clever and insightful as I hoped, and this keyboard is driving me nuts, so I'll go rest up before the first opera: Parsifal, this afternoon.

15 August 2006

Frisch weht der Wind der Heimat zu: Mein Irisch Kind, wo weilest du?

So I'm off to the Green Hill, for the first time. I will blog from Bayreuth if I can find an Internet cafe and, more to the point, can figure out how they work, which might be a stretch. I figure the endless, waterless flight will be stress enough without adding unnecessary burdens. In my family I'm considered something of a tech whiz kid because I know how to order stuff from Amazon, so you can see where I'm coming from. This may explain why I've always been drawn to sciencey types: they complete me. . . .
I'm selfishly glad that the latest airport uproar happened last week and not this week, so at least I can make sure to have no contraband pudding or suspicious contact lens cases on me if I get pulled aside, which seems probable, since I am an angry-looking bearded man with a suspicious-sounding surname. In preparation for what I've heard of the temperatures in the Festspielhaus I have cut off all my hair, so now I'm wondering if I looked crazier with my hair falling below my shoulders or with my head shaved the way it is now. Time and eventually this blog will tell.

10 August 2006

on the ever-lasting need for narrative

From the Iliad, in Alexander Pope's translation (Book 6, lines 181-188):

Like leaves on trees the race of man is found,
Now green in youth, now with'ring on the ground,
Another race the following spring supplies,
They fall successive, and successive rise;
So generations in their course decay,
So flourish these, when those are past away.
But if thou still persist to search my birth,
Then hear a tale that fills the spacious earth.

Coming home to roost

In May I heard the Oakland Opera Theater's performance of Anthony Davis's X. Their performance space turns out to be just a short walk from BART, always a key consideration. I had never been to Oakland Opera Theater before, which is my loss, since it turns out they've done quite a few favorites of mine (4 Saints in 3 Acts, Rake's Progress -- and there was a Gertrude Stein evening and I was not informed?). I've had the CDs of X since they were released about 20 years ago, so I couldn't pass up a chance to attend the only post-premiere live performance I've ever heard of.
The previous week A and I had gone to the Cutting Ball Theater's production of Suzan-Lori Parks's The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, which was wonderful -- Cutting Ball productions always are -- kind of like a staged version of a long lyric poem, like an African-American version of the Wasteland. So she joined me again for some more Fighting of the Power. (Interestingly enough, what she heard about Malcolm X as a black girl growing up in Louisiana was not that different from what I heard about him growing up as a white boy in California -- he was a crazy radical/reverse racist/the bad guy to Dr King's good guy. But the more I hear of what he said, the more sense he makes, especially in the context of his times, which is where we're all trapped anyway.)
Being unsure where the theater was, I arrived even more insanely early than usual, and since they were late opening the doors (like 40 minutes late) I ended up standing around for about 90 minutes, which is why I always travel with a book. The company management was sweeping and finishing up the set after the previous night's poetry slam. The crowd was starting to get restless. One woman who arrived shortly after I did turned out to be the grandmother of Jason Jackson, who sang Malcolm's brother. Someone once told me as a rule of life "never criticize a black woman's hair" (though I would never criticize anyone's hair in the first place, and all the black women I know do amazing sculptural things with their hair anyway, though A cuts it very short and dyes it gold) and to that rule we can add "never make a black woman wait to see her grandson." The growing crowd was now getting extremely restless. I was not looking forward to grabbing a seat (I hate open seating) and then figuring out where the men's room was, when it was already almost starting time for the opera. I was beginning to wonder if I should write off Oakland Opera Theater but the performance changed my mind. Amazingly enough it started on time and was of outstanding quality, despite the limitations of the space (which included sauna-like heat that day).
I'm happy to report that Jackson's grandmother was justifiably proud, and Joseph Wright was superb as Malcolm. The whole cast was excellent (though I felt Darron Flagg as Elijah Muhammad was straining) and the staging was remarkably effective, given that the stage area was smaller than most high school theaters.
The opera itself is tableau-like, with perhaps a bit too much repetition from line to line, and it helps to follow it if you've seen the movie. But it's quite effective on stage and the Oakland Opera Theater, despite its discombobulation beforehand, was sharp and professional where it counted. I can only hope that someday X will provide a vehicle for black performers who are tired of a steady diet of Porgy & Bess.
Anthony Davis himself turned out to be at this performance. I almost went up to him but I always feel awkward about approaching artists, even without the additional awkwardness of the whole white-boy angle. So afterwards we slipped out where the air was much cooler, hoping our applause was sufficient thanks, though it probably isn't.

the Creatures of Prometheus

I had to go hear HK Gruber's Frankenstein!! when I saw it on the Symphony schedule. I enjoyed myself though there's always a certain tension when the mainstream outfits present their mainstream patrons with anything new. Edwin Outwater conducted and though I'm sure he's a charming fellow I'd just as soon he didn't prove it with a talk before he'll start the music. The first half was Debussy's Danses sacree et profane, Thomas Ades's Living Toys, and Bizet's Petite Suite from Jeux d'enfants -- very well chosen game-like pieces, with varying degrees of menace and childhood charm. The Debussy was radiant, as he always is. The Ades I enjoyed; it's fairly dense and though it didn't grab me right away, it might after a few hearings. Apparently even this fairly short piece was too agonizingly modern for the people around me: at its end, the woman behind me moaned in longing, "Where is Beethoven?" I was both amused and thrown that of all the familiar composers, she called upon the radical, the daring, the revolutionary Beethoven, the man whose later works were considered for decades unplayable -- and she must have known these things, as a fan of Beethoven. So I assume that as usual she was calling for the comforts of the familiar, something with the reputation of the revolutionary but no longer the nasty edges. I'm sure Living Toys will never quite have the reputation of the Fifth Symphony, but you'd think a Beethoven fan of all people would have given it a respectful hearing. The Bizet was a little too conventionally pretty for me, which means the audience loved it. I've noticed that when people talk about "the beautiful" they usually mean "the pretty."
Gruber's little cabaret was much more warmly received, possibly because it was antic enough so that people knew where to place it. It reminded me of other works that bring out the menace below those childhood charms, like Shock-headed Peter or the works of Edward Gorey -- that's very high praise, and a wonderful quality in an artist, to eliminate the sentimental memories of childhood and bring back its strangeness and its terrors and its intimations of otherness.

04 August 2006


Have a slice of birthday cake for Witold Gombrowicz (August 4 1904 to July 24 1969), the author of Ferdydurke, the only really realistic novel ever published. Hail the mug! Hail the pupa! And hail to Everlasting Form!