Brokeback Mountain: The Opera

If I could be anywhere on January 28 it would be in Madrid at the Teatro Real, for the premiere of Brokeback Mountain, the new opera composed by Charles Wuorinen to a libretto by the author of the original short story, Annie Proulx. I interviewed Wuorinen for Opera News and was happy that he willingly delved into his compositional ideas (composers, frustrated and irritated by journalists, usually talk in cliches and generalities).

It isn’t an obvious idea, to take a story about inarticulate gay cowboys and transpose it into an old and complex musical medium. But Wuorinen found precedent in the history of opera for exactly the musical materials he needed to express the inarticulateness of his characters, especially poor Ennis, who is the more conflicted and closeted of the two men. The composer turned to Arnold Schoenberg:

As Wuorinen developed musical characterization for his cowboys, he turned to Schoenberg’s experimental half-sung, half-spoken Sprechstimme for inspiration. In Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Moses laments his “awkward tongue,” his inability to put complex thought into comprehensible words: “Meine Zunge ist ungelenk, ich kann denken, aber nicht reden” [My tongue is awkward, I can think but not speak]. In Brokeback Mountain, says Wuorinen, Ennis “can’t acknowledge who he is, what he is, until too late, when he has lost the one thing he valued.” And so, like Moses, Ennis expresses himself first with a kind of pitched speech, only developing into sung lines in the second of the opera’s two acts. The evolution parallels his capacity for self-expression, though as in Proulx’s original story, this dim awareness becomes explicit to himself only in a final, excruciating, primal realization of loss.

The two central characters are associated with different pitches, B-natural and C-sharp, a whole step apart, yet divided by a third tonal area associated with the mountain itself, based on a low C. “The note between, C-natural, I regard as the note of death,” says Wuorinen, recalling its role at the end of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and a long history of powerful but now vestigial associations between tones and ideas. This “foundation note for the mountain,” he says, “betokens power and often a certain freedom and peace, and also it is menace.” The two characters, musically close but eternally separated, “converge on this disaster.” The musical presence of the mountain, introduced in the opera’s prelude, distinguishes the stage work from the film, where the setting, while starkly beautiful, was a neutral presence. In the opera, Proulx and Wuorinen develop an almost magical power to the mountain, as if it instigated the love that tortures the two men.

For a taste of how Schoenberg used the voice, listen to this.

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A Nod from WQXR

Happy to see my August essay about the challenges faced by orchestras, written for the August 29 issue of The New Republic, was included in the top six essays of the year, as selected by the New York classical radio station, WQXR. Here is the full list:

1. “Pitch Battles,” by Colin Dickey, The Believer, January 2013

2. “In Search of Van Cliburn” by Prudence MacKintosh, Texas Monthly, February 28.

3. “Othello’s Daughter” by Alex Ross The New Yorker, July 29.

4. “America’s Orchestras Are in Crisis” by Philip Kennicott, The New Republic, August 29.

5. “The Battle of Britten” by Leo Carey, New York Review of Books, August 15.

Heat in a Mild Climate” by James Wood, London Review of Books, December 19, 2013

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Fernand Leger in Philadelphia

RMN18428I went up to Philalelphia a few weeks ago to take in the Philadelphia Art Museum’s “Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis.” It’s a large show with ambition, locating Leger’s work as a nodal point for many different competing definitions of how art should relate to the modern world. The only problem is the actual art of Leger, which is well made but leaves me rather cold.

The exciting thing about Léger is how closely he tracks with very contemporary definitions of what artists do. He made easel paintings, to be sure, but he also worked as a teacher, as a theorist, he contributed to journals, designed sets and costumes for the theater and played an instrumental role in assembling one of the most important and radical film experiments of the century, “Ballet Mecanique” from 1923-24. He sought inspiration and collaborated with architects, including Le Corbusier (whose paintings always look like second-rate Légers) and the Dutch De Stijl group (which helped inspire him to conceive of art as fully integrated into everyday life). He also worked with poets and writers to create images that far surpass mere illustration, books and prints that integrate text and imagery in novel ways. His creative energies were seemingly moving in all directions at once, his idea of a “career” as unorthodox as the career of most artists today.

The weakness, unfortunately, in any exhibition of Léger is the art of Léger. When you encounter his paintings in a gallery of 20th-century art, near the work of cubists, surrealists, expressionists and other contemporaneous styles, Léger’s paintings often feel like a pleasant respite from all the rest. They are orderly, well-made and have a pleasing sheen to them. They are agreeable, like rectangular relief valves, allowing an occasional respite from the aggression in other work. They are almost like windows opening on a cartoon version of the city, without the angst and anguish of other more trenchant artists’ visions. Nothing bad ever seems to happen in Leger’s city.

Image: Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Les Disques, 1918. Fernand Léger, Musée d’Art Modern de la Ville de Paris.

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Mies Julie at the Shakespeare Theatre

                Yael Farber’s Mies Julie is a hard but worthwhile night in the theater. Based on Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Farber’s rewrite tracks the original fairly closely, diverging in two fundamental ways: It is set in South Africa nearly two decades after the end of apartheid, and the character of Jean (or “John” in Farber’s adaptation) is more of a victim than a trickster and thus more sympathetic than the manipulative servant in Strindberg’s play. The update is often brutal and difficult to watch, but it honors its inspiration by refreshing the social context in which the thwarted love affair between the privileged Julie and the socially ambitious Jean takes place. And yet at times history overwhelms the basic trajectory of the earlier play: The violence and dead-end cultural dysfunction of contemporary South Africa becomes the subject of the drama, more than the interaction of the two characters. John and Julie are reduced to puppets in a larger narrative of hopelessness and despair.

                    Translating the drama into South African terms also makes it difficult for Farber to negotiate the occasional lyrical interludes in the Strindberg text. At the end, with everything having turned horribly bloody and sad, Julie tries to jump to the lyric plane. The effect is operatic, in a bad way. Poetry can’t be woven into this world, which is too harsh and too honest accommodate a final aria.

                And yet it’s powerful drama, and it makes one take the Strindberg more seriously. Few productions of Miss Julie will hit you as hard as Mies Julie.

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Omniscient Mussel

musselI know of only one opera with an omniscient seashell in it, the all-knowing mussel that serves up a prophetic prompt at the beginning of Richard Strauss’s 1928 Die ägyptische Helena. One couldn’t help but think of the all-wise sea creature when reading that the world’s most venerable morsel of animal life, a 507-year-old clam known as Ming, has given its life to science. In one of those news stories one feels rather ashamed to spend any time with at all, we learned that in an effort to date Ming, his/her shell was pried open so as to properly date him/her. One giant leap for science, and one enormous vault into eternity for poor Ming.

It seems that Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the librettist for Strauss’s opera, had a thing for mussels, in a literary sense. Almost 30 years before he included a Pythian mussel in Die ägyptische Helena  he wrote a little bit of free verse called “Tide Creature: Mussel Poem:”

We are alone in the dark, you up top have lips, curled leaves intertwined hands with rosy blood and bluish veins we are alone and cannot touch each other. We live hard, our fate is to resist the surges and we will, and triumph and suffering color us the reflection of autumn and the sun color the surface of the waves.

The confusion in the pronoun “we,” and the ambiguities created by the unorthodox punctuation (or lack of it), invite the reader to assume the mussel is including humans in his address, that we live in the dark and resist the surges, as much as the benighted bivalve comnmunities of the deep. But it also feels as if the mussel is encountering us across an unbridgeable divide, perhaps seeing us wrong (“curled leaves intertwined…”), or with the confusion of looking through an unfamiliar medium (through air, if you’re a mussel, through water if you’re human). Problems of communication, and the impossibility of conveying true meaningful experience, especially ecstatic moments, are always close to Hofmannsthal’s heart.

Strauss, on the other hand, has no problems at all with ecstatic moments. I looked for a clip of the Omniscient Mussel on Youtube and couldn’t find anything. But I don’t think Ming is dishonored by this fine bit of singing, from the same opera, courtesy Leontyne Price.

Image: Joris Hoefnagel, illuminator (Flemish / Hungarian, 1542 – 1600)
and Georg Bocskay, scribe (Hungarian, died 1575) Maltese Cross, Mussel, and Ladybird, 1561 – 1562; illumination added 1591 – 1596, Watercolors, gold and silver paint, and ink on parchment

Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

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Vernacular Urbanism?

     Vernacular, in an academic or art-speak context, is a word worthy of healthy suspicion. It is used to designate populist styles, to suggest a common language that bubbles up from below rather than a discourse dictated from on high. It’s generally freighted with ideas about authenticity: vernacular styles are authentically of the people, while hierarchical or received styles are illegitimate impositions from cultural authorities. A vernacular urban design is way cool, kind of anarchic, funky, eclectic and free; as opposed to older ideas that are associated with disreputable forms of cultural or social authority. Here’s a classic usage in the catalog to a great new show (originally from the Getty in Los Angeles) at the National Building Museum:

 [Reyner] Banham upended this old-world notion of what defined true urbanity, arguing for Los Angeles’s inclusion within the canon of great cities by virtue of its democratic brand of urbanism, which rejected orthodox urban hierarchies in favor of a sprawling vernacular landscape that upheld the values of an affluent consumer society…”

 It’s worth stopping every time you see the word and asking yourself: Is the thing that is supposedly vernacular really functioning like a language? Is there a real give and take of communication? I tried to do that in my review of the fascinating and ambitious “Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future 1940-1990” exhibition. Thus:

 Calling the sprawl of cheap suburban cookie-cutter houses and trashy commercial signage a “new vernacular” misuses the term vernacular, suggesting that this was a language involving genuine back-and-forth communication. It wasn’t a language at all, or even an architectural style; rather, it was a jumble of commercially dictated architectural styles aimed at gaining and holding consumer attention. Mostly people adapted to it. If they now embrace it, it’s because it feels familiar and they have few other options.

That’s no reason not to see the show. But better to give L.A. it’s due as a great city despite its failures of urbanism, rather than attempt to elevate sprawl to something like an admirable, democratic vernacular. Ugly is ugly, and environmentally unsound, too.

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Damage Control at the Hirshhorn

Not easy to find this review today, but it did run. The show is excellent and both a lot of fun and rather disturbing. I spend much of my review on the morality and the ethics of embracing destruction as actual artistic praxis, but there’s a lot more to the show than that. This YouTube clip shows an installation view (from another exhibition) of Pipilotti Rist’s deliciously subversive video, “Ever is Over All.” Fast forward to the 45-second mark to get a sense of the video as you’ll see it at the Hirshhorn. In a way, this work undermines much of what I say in my piece, showing destruction without moral significance, just pure fun and sexy, as if the Nike of Samothrace went out for a walk on the wild side–and who would dare to stop her? Not any old policewoman.

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