Opera versus theatre

24/01/2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve got another post at MostlyFilm today – a collaboration between me and Lissy Lovett. She’s a theatre buff and I’m an opera fan and we’ve written a dialogue about the differences between the two theatrical experiences:

Josephine: Yes – the music has to do a lot in opera. And it often succeeds amazingly well. The final act of Tristan and Isolde, for example, is practically devoid of action. Tristan and his friend Kurwenal basically just sit around staring at the sea waiting for Isolde to arrive. Without the music you’d just be thinking ‘for Pete’s sake will someone please DO something now!’ but when you see and hear it performed it seems totally gripping, full of longing and tension. Although with Wagner, you know, opinions differ…

Actually Wagner’s quite an interesting person to mention with reference to your point about music, plot, acting & visuals all forming a coherent whole. His idea about opera was that it ought to be a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ – a total or universal work of art – which would unite opera, drama and visual arts into something which had universal relevance and was a peak of culture. I’m not sure he succeeded in that! but I do find that opera generally and Wagner in particular is much more understandable and gripping when you see it live than when you just listen on the radio.

Lissy: ‘for Pete’s sake will someone please DO something now!’ was very much my internal monologue whilst watching the recent-ish Waiting for Godot revival at the Haymarket Theatre Royal.  The whole thing would have been enlivened no end with a bit of singing.

I’m not sure I’m ready for Wagner!  Maybe another couple of entry level operas before going on to the hard stuff…  Did/do Wagner’s operas have fixed set designs and costumes then?  Or did he want them to & to have a hand in that?  OR did the just think that the greatest visual artists of the day should be designing them?  I love the big-headedness of thinking you can make ultimate art.

I really enjoyed the process of writing as a dialogue – it all seemed to come much easier than working on something alone.

Birdsong

20/01/2012 § Leave a comment

Today I have a post at MostlyFilm previewing the forthcoming BBC adaptation of Birdsong. I’m not actually mad about the novel, but I think there’s scope in it for a more interesting adaptation than this one:

[Philip] Martin and [Abi] Morgan have spoken about their intention to get away from highly politicised interpretations of the First World War such as Richard Attenborough’s film of Joan Littlewood’s revue Oh! What a Lovely War. Setting aside the question of whether it’s even possible to ‘depoliticise’ a historical disaster in which over 35 million people died, there’s certainly space for a more nuanced take on the conflict than Oh! What a Lovely War – which is, let us not forget, a Brechtian musical satire rather than a realistic depiction of war – but Morgan and Martin’s Birdsong is not it. In depoliticising the war, in trying to avoid the clichés of beautiful and doomed youth, lions led by donkeys, Birdsong adopts other clichés: the one about the Edenic pre-1914 world, lost forever in the horror of the trenches; another of the highly strung officer, muscle twitching in his jaw, unable to bear the horrors that rougher men take for granted. Even the relationship between Isabelle and René is crashingly unsubtle: he is the strike-breaking capitalist whose impotence makes him beat his wife; she’s the angelic innocent who secretly takes bread to his striking workers.

La Traviata

10/01/2012 § 2 Comments

Ermonela Jaho as Violetta in the current ROH production

New Year’s treat: a trip to the ROH’s Traviata on the 2nd January.This was the first opera I ever saw live (a very sweet friend took me for my eighteenth birthday) and seeing it again was wonderful. It contains what’s surely a strong contender for my favourite scene in all of opera: the scene where Alfredo’s father visits Violetta and asks her to renounce his son, and she pleads with him to let her have just a few months more as she is dying of consumption in any case.

It’s this scene that lifts the opera above melodrama. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Les parapluies de Cherbourg, about how the poignancy of that film stems from the fact that no character in it is acting in bad faith. In La Traviata it’s similar: Germont (Alfredo’s father) may enter the scene as the epitome of bourgeois morality, top hat, beard, cane and all, but although he represents a religious morality (count how many times in that scene he refers to God, heaven, blessings or angels) he’s not a cruel or hypocritical man. He doesn’t believe Violetta when she tells him she is dying, but he recognises the enormity of the sacrifice she is making and her sadness at agreeing to part from Alfredo. What obliges him to demand the sacrifice from her nonetheless is his belief that because Violetta and Alfredo aren’t married, their relationship has no future. What makes Violetta accede to his request is her sympathy for Alfredo’s sister, who is ‘si bella e pura’ (so beautiful and so pure) and her feelings of shame at not being similarly pure; it’s heartbreaking, but so human.

The music is the perfect expression of the struggle between them: Germont’s measured phrases contrasting with Violetta’s anguish until both of them lift their voices together. You can watch the whole scene here:

What Verdi is saying about social morality is still brilliant and important: that it’s not force (violence or law) which constrains people to conform to social pressure, but the way they internalise those pressures. Your own feelings of shame about your way of life are more repressive than any external preaching could possibly be. It’s this humanity that makes Verdi’s operas so gripping. The story about the courtesan who falls in love and then loses her lover could be superficial and utterly melodramatic, but in Verdi’s hands it’s full of subtle and complex emotions.

Photo above from the Royal Opera House flickr.

Simone de Beauvoir

09/01/2012 § Leave a comment

Simone de Beauvoir, 9th January 1908-14th April 1986

More photos at the wonderful Beauvoiriana tumblr.

Simone de Beauvoir

09/01/2012 § Leave a comment

La dispute durera tant que les hommes et les femmes ne se reconnaîtront pas comme des semblables, c’est-à-dire tant que se perpétuera la féminité en tant que telle; des uns et des autres qui est le plus acharné à la maintenir ? la femme qui s’en affranchit veut néanmoins en conserver les prérogatives ; et l’homme réclame qu’alors elle en assume les limitations. «Il est plus facile d’accuser un sexe que d’en excuser l’autre» dit Montaigne. Distribuer des blâmes et des satisfecit est vain. En vérité, si le cercle vicieux est ici si difficile à briser, c’est que les deux sexes sont chacun victimes à la fois de l’autre et de soi; entre deux adversaires s’affrontant dans leur pure liberté, un accord pourrait aisément s’établir: d’autant que cette guerre ne profite à personne; mais la complexité de toute cette affaire provient de ce que chaque camp est complice de son ennemi; la femme poursuit son rêve de démission, l’homme son rêve d’aliénation; l’inauthenticité ne paie pas: chacun s’en prend à l’autre du malheur qu’ils s’est attiré en cédant aux tentations de la facilité; ce que l’homme et le femme haïssent l’un chez l’autre, c’est l’échec éclatant de sa propre mauvaise foi et de sa propre lâcheté.

The quarrel will go on as long as men and women fail to recognise each other as equals; that is to say, as long as femininity is perpetuated as such. Which sex is the more eager to maintain it? Woman, who is being emancipated from it, wishes none the less to retain its privileges; and man, in that case, wants her to assume its limitations. ‘It is easier to accuse one sex than to excuse the other,’ says Montaigne. It is vain to apportion praise and blame. The truth is that if the vicious circle is so hard to break, it is because the two sexes are each the victim at once of the other and of itself. Between two adversaries confronting each other in their pure liberty, an agreement could be easily reached: the more so as the war profits neither. But the complexity of the whole affair derives from the fact that each camp is giving aid and comfort to the enemy; woman is pursuing a dream of submission, man a dream of identification. Want of authenticity does not pay: each blames the other for the unhappiness he or she has incurred in yielding to the temptations of the easy way; what man and woman loathe in each other is the shattering frustration of each one’s own bad faith and baseness.

From the conclusion of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, 9th January 1908-14th April 1986. Trans. H.M. Parshley.

The little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work

03/01/2012 § Leave a comment

‘Sometimes the things that look the hardest have the simplest answers,’ Nina Power writes towards the end of her chapbook, One Dimensional Woman. She then hands over to Toni Morrison speaking to Time magazine in 1989. On single-parent households: ‘Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community … The little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging onto it I don’t know.’ On ‘unwed teenage pregnancies’: ‘Nature wants it done then, when the body can handle it, not after 40, when the income can … The question is not morality, the question is money. That’s what we’re upset about.’ On how to break the ‘cycle of poverty’, given that ‘you can’t just hand out money’: ‘Why not? Everybody [else] gets everything handed to them … I mean what people take for granted among the middle and upper classes, which is nepotism, the old-boy network. That’s the shared bounty of class.’

And this, surely, is only the start. It’s obvious – now Power-Morrison has said it – that any politics worth having has to start with the nuclear family: its impossibility, its wastefulness, its historical contingency. Children are the messages a family, a society, a culture, a civilisation, sends into the future, and yet every day there comes more evidence that child-rearing as currently practised among the people with all the choices doesn’t seem to be working out. They overeat, our little messages, they starve themselves, they adore themselves when they’re not indulging in self-harm. They don’t want to study medicine or train as teachers when they can just be ‘in the media’. And this obviousness starts little fires sparking backwards across the decades. There’s Selma James and the strange marginalisation of her ideas, not to mention the way the whole family-in-a-house imago goes unchallenged, even by feminists, lesbian and gay couples, and single-parent campaigners, let alone in government, advertising, the popular media etc.

This has not always been the case. A critique of the tight-knit nuclear family as a breeding-ground of consumerism, neurosis, misery in general, was central to feminism in the 1970s. This is Adrienne Rich on ‘the institution of motherhood’ in Of Woman Born (1976): ‘It creates the dangerous schism between “public” and “private” life; it calcifies human choices and potentialities. It has alienated women from our bodies by incarcerating us in them.’ ‘There is much to suggest,’ she wrote, ‘that the male mind has always been haunted by the force of the idea of dependence on a woman for life itself, the son’s constant effort to assimilate, compensate for, or deny the fact.’

Jenny Turner in the LRB. Read it; it’s one of the best pieces on feminism I’ve read in some time.

2011

02/01/2012 § 1 Comment

My sister on the March 26th trade union demo

Good things

1. There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in. I was born the day before Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. I grew up left-wing in a period which possibly saw the worst defeat and demoralisation of the left in the twentieth century. I don’t want to seem too optimistic about what will happen in the next few years, but for the first time in my life it feels like anything might happen, which is in a lot of ways better than the feeling that nothing will change.

2. The Arab spring. None of the things I’m listing here are unambiguously good and the some of the political and military repression following the Arab spring has been (and continues to be) truly horrific. But the civil resistance across the Middle East and North Africa has been an astonishing, almost unbelievable development, and the courage of the protestors is unimaginable.

3. UK popular opposition. My twitter bio reads: ‘Forthe broad democratic alliance!’ which is a joke about something my dad always says. But one thing that seems heartening to me this year is the way that opposition to the coalition’s austerity measures has forged links between different groups and generations. Trade unionists visiting the Occupy movement; UKUncut activists developing links with unions; broad-based, coordinated strike action; even poor beleaguered Ed Miliband seems to be starting to understand how mainstream opposition to austerity is, despite the best attempts of the Blairite dinosaurs of his party. (They’re relics of the pre-2008 age, Ed, don’t listen to them!)

4. The Murdoch crisis. Horrific details, yes. Appalling corruption of our media and politics, yes. But you can’t tell me you didn’t enjoy it! (Fingers crossed that 2012 sees the crisis spread to the Mail.)

Bad things

1. The Eurocrisis. It’s astonishing to have confirmed for you what you’ve always secretly suspected: that no one who has any power, knowledge or influence combines ‘knowing what to do’ with ‘being able to do it’. Here’s Paul Krugman’s Eurovenn, a visual guide to the ongoing situation: 

2. Climate change. As though the Eurocrisis hadn’t proved the total lack of any vision or courage among the politicians of the world.

3.  The coalition government. I don’t need to expand on this.

4. Technocrats and the threat to democracy. The technocratic governments in Europe are a pretty chilling development. The installation of leaders whose task is to push through changes that the population wouldn’t agree to democratically seems one of the most sinister effects of the Eurocrisis and one which has forced me to reassess my attitude to quite a lot of things – not least, to the far right and the threat they pose, not necessarily because they could directly take political power, but because the kind of disorder they can create could be used as a reason to impose an undemocratic régime.

5. The end of the Iraq war. Not, of course, that I’m sorry that it’s ended. But it hasn’t really ended, has it? The pointlessness of eight years (and counting) of slaughter and destruction is unutterably sad and terrible.

I Stood on a Tower

01/01/2012 § Leave a comment

I stood on a tower in the wet,
And New Year and Old Year met,
And winds were roaring and blowing;
And I said, ‘O years, that meet in tears,
Have you all that is worth the knowing?
Science enough and exploring,
Wanderers coming and going,
Matter enough for deploring,
But aught that is worth the knowing?’
Seas at my feet were flowing,
Waves on the shingle pouring,
Old year roaring and blowing,
And New Year blowing and roaring.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Where Am I?

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