Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Die Walküre at the San Francisco Opera :: Reflections on Roots

I was generously given a pass to last Sunday's open rehearsal of the SF Opera's Die Walküre, directed by Francesca Zambello, stage design by Michael Yeargan, and conducted by the Berlin-moonlighting maestro himself, Donald Runnicles.   Surprisingly, five hours went by quickly with this very entertaining production where the legend of Valhalla meets Banana Republic aviator chic.  Betrayal, murder, incest, and a freeway overpass... who could ask for more.

Coming from Berlin, where the average resident is notoriously under-paid and over-cultured, I have to say that significant tidbits of quality at the SF Opera were a great relief to my eyes and ears.  The orchestra was polished:  warm, well-rehearsed, and together, which is sometimes too much to ask at the house on Bismarkstraße.  And, as a friend to many a female opera singer on the European market today where "thin-is-in" rules the audition panel ever more, it was a joy to see normal-sized opera singers cast on the stage at the War Memorial.  More importantly, one must be reminded that this musical goliath is carried out on stage almost in its entirety by a mere six singers who belt out scenes upwards of one hour long. The audience was smitten by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek's Sieglinde, with her soaring phrases on the mountain top in the third act.  Mark Delavan's clearly experienced delivery of Wotan was so full of conviction that it certainly exceeded any expectations for an open dress rehearsal, which Sunday was.

I could single out every singer for their admirable performances.  But to bring this posting to the subject of gravity, besides belonging to Wagner's cornerstone of "heavy" music, I want to talk about my personal impression of the production design, and roots.  To date I haven't been disappointed by any stagings at the SF Opera, even during Pamela Rosenberg's experimental period, even in John Adams/Peter Sellers collaboration Doctor Atomic.  Perhaps it is better stated that I have never been "shocked" or "challenged."   However I can't say the same of the track record in various German opera houses, where the public is left sometimes asking if the Inszenierung even qualified as art, or if they had just witnessed the sad results of budget cuts or a backstage political compromise that created a neither-nor decision.  What can be said in defense of the avant garde on stage is the proverbial "But it made you think!" rationale.  Fine, I'm thinking, and I'm blogging. 

Indeed, it is known that American opera audiences are more conservative than the European, as seen by the uproar triggered by the Met's Swiss-designed Tosca last year.  Extrapolating this to my general experience of American life, it could be theorized that the American audience, in its yearning for a sorely missing tradition, seeks exactly that sense of past in something as rooted in convention as opera.  In other words, the US has enough of "new."  With the constant deluge of innovation, we are the testing grounds for all things invented yesterday – be it online bill-paying, automated voice-recognition customer service, or "simply" a "Caramel Macchiato made with nonfat milk and sugar-free vanilla syrup" with unknown health repercussions.  Then, to compensate for this inadvertent fast-lane existence, America thus is susceptible to cling to commercial semblances of tradition, as seen by concerns founded in 1997 or 1992 that strive to exude the image of antique. 

The flip side of the coin is what I gleaned from my experience of Germany, working with war survivors, and German apartment hunting.  Bear with me, I will tie this together shortly.  When we think of Europe, undoubtedly it conjures up for even the most ignorant of us some image of classic beauty.  But my belief that this appreciation for the old was universal was dismantled ten years ago during the time of my favorite Gründezeit apartment from the 1870s in Hannover, Germany.  I was so proud of the 1,200 square foot pad with the parquet floor and fifteen-foot ceilings.  Until my German mother-in-law said one day of her generation, "Well, if you ask me, it's a nice apartment but old is not really our thing.  After the war, we just wanted new.  We wanted to move on."  And she as a child of the war was not alone.  Thousands of 19th-century apartments were modernized, the plaster moldings knocked out, the hardwood floors carpeted, the walls covered with wood paneling, and those high ceilings lowered to save heat and make the the living units more "cozy."  Post-war real estate reflected the same, where newly-built houses and buildings commanded higher prices.  They'd had enough of the old, as anyone would after losing a war on your own land.  "Contemporary" in Germany, and elsewhere in Europe as I have come to see it, became an etude in moving on, for better or for worse.

Yet it is also a healthy impulse to be searching for roots, even creating some where none may exist.  And coming back to the opera house in San Francisco, precisely the element which sometimes irritates me about America, namely the penchant for over-romanticizing tradition, even in its modern, was a welcoming sensation in the Opera's Walküre.  Because, for its minimalist, industrial design, there were touches in the costumes and set (riding boots, stuffed deer heads) that grounded the experience in something recognizable and expected.  The music is enough food for thought, and the last thing one would need is to get lost while the main roles instant-message each other next to a male choir dressed up as honey bees in yellow pantyhose.

So, a concluding thought is not necessarily a criticism nor praise, but rather an observation of the swinging pendulum of our roots, with currents so strong that it can literally be seen at the level of the Weltbühne.

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