Essays Music history

Some of Opera’s Little Inside Jokes

61Fkw5KeniL._AA160_Some of Opera’s Little Inside Jokes

The things we miss that a first-night audience caught immediately! I have always suspected an inside gag when Polonius tells Hamlet that he once played Brutus. Could it be that he really did? By which I mean, did the same actor who played Brutus in “Julius Caesar” possibly play Polonius in “Hamlet,” which seems to have been written soon after?

51vXsWzszeL._AA160_In the final scene (before the epilogue) of “Don Giovanni,” the Don has an on-stage ensemble playing tunes from three popular operas of Mozart’s time, the last of which is the “Non piu andrai” from “Le Nozze di Figaro.” The servant Leporello complains “I’ve had too much of that one!” While most current audiences spot the joke of Mozart using his own tune from his last opera, the really funny point is lost to them. The singer playing Leporello was indeed the very one who sang Figaro and therefore might very well be tired of that song.

Another self-reference comes in the third act of “La Belle Helene,” when Agamemnon, Menelaus and Calchus are decrying the lack of morals in Greece (=Paris). When they mention how even the quality of the music has decayed, the orchestra strikes up a slightly disguised version of a tune from Offenbach’s own “Orphee aux enfers” to underscore their complaint.

This video has some bad cuts but it does have Vincent Price!

But of all the comic operas, the one that might need the most footnotes for our enjoyment of the work today is Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Ruddigore.” Based on an earlier play written for private performance, “Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse” tells the tale of Robin Oakapple, a village youth, who is in reality Sir Ruthven (pronounced Rivven) Murgatroyd. Thinking Ruthven dead, the younger brother, Sir Despard, has inherited the family curse, put upon them long ago by a witch, which obliges him to commit one crime a day or die in horrible agony at the hands of the pictures of all of his ancestors who step out of their frames to accomplish this. Er, yes, that is Gilbert having a lot of fun with the Gothic plot that even by his day had been greatly outdated, plots that in the 1960s were revived in all those Vincent Price films. (Note: Price himself plays Sir Despard in the BBC version of “Ruddigore” and is a non-singing delight.)

All but the most patriotic British vampires would fear this

One of the production numbers in the Act I finale is a salute to the four seasons that is followed by a lovely dance, a combination which might become your favorite choral piece from all of the “Savoy” operas. Later in Act II, there is a funny bit in which Robin, now a wicked baronet, threatens a young maiden and her sailor fiance but is thwarted when the sailor holds aloft a Union Jack, before which Robin cringes. There is only audio recording of this work with all the dialogue (Ohio Light Opera on the Albany label) and I hold it among my favorites, mainly because it is so seldom done.

So witness my amazement when a baritone I once knew asked us to see him in a production of an obscure opera called “The Vampyre” in an English translation at some church in mid-Manhattan. Composed at the height of the German Romantic period, this opera tells the tale of a Vampyre named–hold on–Ruthven and…!

Suddenly the Union Jack sight gag made sense to me. What is the obvious feature of a Union Jack? A cross! Anathema to any good vampire and how the original “Ruddigore” audience must have laughed since “The Vampyre” was probably well known to many of them. No, I have no record of performances of this work in Gilbert’s day, but it is obvious that he was familiar with it and one can assume so was his audience.

Sorcerer + incantation + teacup = spoof of “Der Freischutz”

But wait. In Act II of the German work, some characters step forward and sing a song celebrating the seasons. Of course, here it is a drinking song, something that Gilbert uses only in “The Sorcerer” (in which case the drink is tea) and in “The Grand Duke” (in which it is only a recollection of some Pommery 74 at a past affair). For those of you familiar with the “Ruddigore” lyrics, here is a prose translation of the first verse from “The Vampyre”: “In winter, one must drink; the blood of the grape warms us and thereby wine tastes so good.” In “Ruddigore” we have: “In the spring-time seed is sown/In the winter grass is mown/In the autumn you may reap/Winter is the time for sleep.” A different point of view but still too much for coincidence, I must say.

Yet another joking reference is in the “Incantation” scene from “The Sorcerer,” in which the music and offstage chorus is very similar to that in the Von Weber opera “Der Freischutz” in which the magic bullets are cast. It is only the situation that make the Gilbert scene funny, while Sullivan’s music is magnificently serious.

Now this is but one slightly extended example of how digging into the background of a work can enhance our appreciation of that work enormously. Can you imagine how that would do for a complex work like Wagner’s Ring Cycle? Worth a short series of essays, perhaps? We shall see.

Concepts of music Essays

Memorable Musical Movie Moments

61HS58R7HAL._AA160_Memorable Musical Movie Moments

With Naxos and many other labels carrying so many CDs dedicated to film music, my mind has wandered over all those memorable musical sequences in movies that so affect me no matter how many times I see them—or simply hear them on recordings.

21JMRDQY3TL._AA160_One of the great weddings of the music on the soundtrack  and the dramatic event on the screen comes at about the middle of “Viva Zapata.” The title character (Brando) is arrested at a home in the village and tethered to a horse so that he is forced to keep pace with the rider. One man, Anthony Quinn, picks up two stones and begins to strike them with a steady beat. By some form of mental telepathy, the rest of the village gets the idea and does the same.

As the steady beat of the stones is the only sound heard, the music begins to creep up very slowly, building to a climax as more and more peasants begin to follow the cortege. Just as with Ravel’s “Bolero,” the steady crescendo portrays perfectly the growing number of people surrounding the police—until at the climax (I believe the music ends on an unresolved chord), the rider, for once an intelligent Mexican law enforcer, simply lets Zapata go to save his own skin and that of his men. The composer, Alex North.

51CMk4ahTnL._AA160_The use of a crescendo is used to stunning effect in the Agincourt sequence of Olivier’s “Henry V” with its score by William Walton. We see from the side the French knights lowering their lances and beginning to advance at a very slow pace. Olivier had decided not to use any sound effects, so the music reproduces the sound of the hooves with a BOOM-pum, BOOM-pum bass ground. Only after several bars do the rest of the instruments make their statement. Even if one just listens to the CD recordings of this sequence, one can hear the heaviness of the French armor and the acceleration of the steeds as they hurtle towards their destruction in the shower of arrows that comes just at the climax of the music.

Of course, having said that, I must mention the scene and indeed the music that inspired the Henry V sequence: the Battle on the Ice in “Alexander Nevsky” with its Prokofiev score. In fact, one should play any of its many recordings and then hear the Walton music, which is too good to be called mere imitation.

41GQKD05RTL._AA160_Someone once commented on some television documentary long ago how absurd yet how convincing is the music to the sacrifice sequence in the original “King Kong.” Of course, first all that is heard is drums. Then slowly, an entire symphony orchestra is introduced very carefully; and those used to film music think not a whit about any discrepancy.

61whmdcOsXL._AA160_One of my favorite film composers is Miklos Rozsa, who gave us the scores to “The Jungle Book,” “The Thief of Bagdad,” “Quo Vadis,” “El Cid,” and even Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (with that haunting theme melody). To me, some of the most thrilling music in all films is in “The Thief of Bagdad” when Rozsa depicts the Genie with Sabu clinging to his hair flying through the sky to “the roof of the world” so the little thief can steal the All-Seeing Eye. (Shots of the Grand Canyon below help enormously, but even the musical alone in this sequence is breathtaking.)

51bU5LPCcHL._AA160_If I was pressed to choose a “desert island” CD of film music, I would not hesitate to choose the Georges Auric score to “La Belle et le Bete.” Never has a realistic telling of an old supernatural tale (those who know the film will understand the paradox) been so well supported by a score that matches its magic and grandeur so perfectly. I can only urge those not familiar with it to see the film (now available on an expensive Criterion DVD) and hear the score alone on a Naxos budget-priced CD.

I would very much appreciate if any readers would let me know their favorite musical moments from original film scores (not those that draw from the music of the past, a topic I want to deal with separately).

Drama Shakespeare

“Henry IV” at the Globe

IMG_20150625_0001“Henry IV” at the Globe

   Performances of plays from Shakespeare’s Globe continue to appear on Kultur DVDs, with mixed results. The production of “Henry IV, Parts I and II” (in two separate jewel cases of two discs each) is extremely well done, except for moments of shtick designed to make Falstaff (Roger Allam) “funnier.” Falstaff is funny but never absurd. Here the director goes for cheap laughs from an audience that is assumed not to understand anything subtle.

For example, it is fitting that the prostitute Doll Tearsheet (Jade Williams) should vomit. It is not that she should vomit again, this time over a member of the audience. But to spend a full minute of Falstaff’s (simulated) urinating into a small pot is more distasteful than funny. And the entire episode of Ancient Pistol (Sam Crane) disrupting the inn is so loud and slapstick that little of the shouted dialogue is understandable.

Roger Allam out of makeup

Oliver Cotton brings little characterization to Henry IV. When Falstaff reports that the king’s beard has turned white at some bad news, one has already seen his beard to be already white. Didn’t anyone in the make-up department catch this? In fact, Shakespeare uses old age as a theme in Part II, and most of the characters refer to themselves as considerably older than they were in Part I. In this production, no one seems to have aged.

Hal and Falstaff at Quickly’s inn

The story is that Shakespeare really did not wish to bring Falstaff into another play, but the public demanded it. And to tell the truth, that character begins to grow tedious as Part II goes on. Shakespeare is merely recycling the comic material from Part I by extending it. The director does not help by having Falstaff imitate a rock guitarist when playing a lute, and the pelvic thrusts grow tiresome. Since the costumes and setting are all Elizabethan, such anachronisms defeat the purpose of the enterprise at Shakespeare’s Globe.

On the other hand, Allam is an intelligent actor; and for the most part, his Falstaff is quite good. I blame only the director for the faults in his characterization.

Played by Jamie Parker, Prince Hal is forever barnstorming his lines, so that his lowlife Hal and his serious Prince Henry are hard to tell apart. Perhaps some of this is caused by the necessity to speak at full volume so the entire 180 degrees of audience can hear the lines if not see all of the action.

Thanks to a good supporting cast, this is a very satisfactory production of “Henry IV,” with Part I done better than Part II.

The text is fairly complete, which makes for some very long speeches. The actors, especially Oliver Cotton, should be drilled in breaking these speeches into beats, rather than pushing on through them and losing the strings of thoughts so carefully developed by the author.

Much is made of interpolated songs, mostly to cover scenery changes (which are done efficiently by the cast) and sometimes to set a mood. But the dances at the end use modern moves, which again destroys the illusion of “Shakespeare as it once was.”

Note: Try to read “Richard II,” at least the last two acts, or a good synopsis. Most viewers will understand little of the background of these plays without doing so.

The running time of Part I is 167 minutes, that of Part II is 171. The picture is in 16:9 widescreen and there are no subtitles (which are badly needed).

Instrumental and orchestral Music

Mercury Living Presence Recordings are Now All on CDs!

A-Mercury 3

Mercury Living Presence Recordings are Now All on CDs!

In the glory days of the long playing record, certain labels with catch phrases shone bright: London FFRR, RCA Living Stereo, and Mercury Living Presence are three that graced my collection. From the 150 or so of the Mercury LPs, almost all were reintroduced on single CDs. And now that the third volume of the “Mercury Living Presence, The Collector’s Edition” is out (as the press release puts it), “almost every single album ever made and released under the Mercury Living Presence label is now available.”

For starters, there are 53 discs in this cubic boxed set (some are albums of two CDs), each in its own cardboard sleeve with the original artwork on the front and the tracking list on the back. A 130-page booklet gives the complete timings and technical information about each recording. I have counted only four discs that are in mono; and they are part of the 10 MLP vinyls that appear on CD for the first time here.

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Antal Dorati

The major conductors represented are Antal Dorati, Frederick Fennell, Howard Hanson, Charles Mackerras, and Paul Paray. Among the symphonies are those of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Mendelssohn. To balance the “warhorses” of the symphonic genre are selections by Hindemith and Stravinsky.

61useXV274L._AA160_Among the more rarely heard orchestral pieces are the four Suites by Tchaikovsky and Ernest Bloch’s “Concerto Grosso 1, 2.” Although it is in mono, the “1812 Overture,” with original scoring, brass band, bronze cannon, and Yale University bells, will blow your socks off

The lighter side, pop music if you will, is found on programs devoted to the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Victor Herbert (in 1960s arrangements that might or might not please all). There are the “best of” type discs with shorter works by the same composer: Rimsky-Korsakov, Richard Strauss, and Richard Wagner.

Original LP cover for the Respighi disc

And there are “genre” collections such as “Kaleidoscope” (fast paced music), “Wienerwalzer” (waltzes from Vienna), and “World of Flamenco.” Among my favorite tone poems are those of Ottorino Respighi; and two of them, “Church Windows” and “Roman Festivals,” are found in this collection, the exact recording I heard so many times on my LP player!

When sound boards were still primitive…at least, smaller

But what was the fuss all about when these recordings were first released? Some critic, hearing the vinyl discs, used the expression “living presence”; and the Mercury publicists were not slow in picking it up. The microphones and tapes used are discussed in the program notes for those interested. But I remember how good they sounded, even with my not-quite-state-of-the-art equipment.

And if you want an incredible introduction for someone to classical music, it would be hard to beat this as a very generous gift.

Drama TV series Uncategorized

The Best “Miss Marple” Series Now is Complete in HD

The Best “Miss Marple” Series Now isA-Miss Marple 2 Complete in HD 

At last, BBC has completed on DVDs the restoration of the original “Miss Marple” series. Yes, these are the ones in which Joan Hickson gives the definitive characterization of the seemingly dipsy but razor-sharp village busybody, Jane Marple. With the arrival of Vol. 3, viewers can now enjoy these mysteries that have been not only remastered in high definition but supplied with subtitles. The latter are, however, often incomplete or paraphrases of what is actually spoken. Why?

Hickson is by far the best of the Marples. Margaret Rutherford’s portrayal had Agatha Christie fuming. Helen Hayes in two television versions was characterless, while Geraldine McEwan’s Marple was pure Jessica Fletcher and best forgotten—especially since the original plots were considerably altered. Julia McKenzie was at least sincere but lacked that goofy façade that Hickson so beautifully managed.

The dust over of the first British edition in 1930

Volume 1 of this enhanced BBC series contains “The Murder at the Vicarage,” “The Moving Finger,” “The Body in the Library,” and “A Murder is Announced.” In Volume 2 are “They Do It with Mirrors,” “A Pocketful of Rye,” “4:50 from Paddington,” and “The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side.” And now the last volume rounds it all off with “A Caribbean Mystery,” “At Bertram’s Hotel,” “Nemesis,” and “Sleeping Murder.”

Among the many familiar stars spotted along the way are Jean Simmons, Claire Bloom, Timothy West, Tom Wilkinson, Joss Ackland, Paul Eddington, and a very young Samantha Bond.

Agatha Christie, the mind behind the mind of Marple

One can see where Christie had tongue firmly in cheek. You can spot the twinkle in her eye when she names a story after a nursery rhyme, so in “A Pocket Full of Rye,” having two serious murders, is amusing to follow the hints in the song’s lyrics. The author confessed that she also had a lot of fun with “The Body in the Library,” the very title of which, like “The Murder at the Vicarage,” sounds deliberately old fashioned.

My favorite episode? “A Murder is Announced” for its complexity and “A Murder at the Vicarage” for the performances of Paul Eddington and Cheryl Campbell. My favorite character? Top honors to David Horovitch as Chief Inspector Slack, whose dislike of Miss Marple is matched only by his admiration for her astuteness.

Lucy Worsely

Add to this a delightful set of bonus features at the end of each of the three BBC sets, “A Very British Murder.” Here narrator Lucy Worsely, with a charming weak “r,” discusses with dozens of old prints and photographs, mysteries—real and fictional—and personalities behind them that captured the British imagination from the mid-1880s and through the next 100 years.

Grab all 3 sets right quick. And happy viewing.


Wagner Stars in Vintage Broadcasts from the Met

A-OP-Wagner at MetWagner Stars in Vintage Broadcasts from the Met

  I recall when those who wanted to have radio transcriptions of Metropolitan Opera Saturday broadcasts had to be Met Guild members and well off enough to pay the price of the LP sets. That is all the more reason to welcome a box set of 25 CDs from Sony Classical, titled “Wagner at the Met.”

There are nine operas included and I had best list them with broadcast dates and the leading singers. “Der fliegende Hollander” (12-30-50) has Hans Hotter (Dutchman), Astrid Varnay (Senta) and Set Svanholm (Erik). Fritz Reiner conducts. “Tannhauser” (1-9-54) stars Ramon Vinay (Tannhauser), Margaret Sarshaw (Elisabeth), George London (Wolfram), and Jerome Hines (Landgrave). Heard in the tiny role of Shepherd is Roberta Peters. George Szell conducts.

Lauritz Melchior

“Lohengrin” (1-2-43) gives us Lauritz Melchior (Lohengrin) and Astrid Varnay as Elsa. The conductor is Erich Leinsdorf. The lovers in “Tristan und Isolde” (4-16-38) are Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad—an unbeatable team—with Karin Branzell as Brangane. Arthur Bodanzky conducts. The more human “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” (1-10-53) has Hans Hopf (Walther), Paul Schoffler (Hans Sachs) and Victoria de los Angeles (Eva). Fritz Reiner wields the baton.

I pause here to point out that opera lovers who originally heard some or all of these broadcasts must have recognized  many of the artists I have listed up to now. So beyond any historical value of these discs is a nostalgic value that is a strong one. Now back to the set.

Kirsten Flagstad

This wouldn’t be much of a salute to Wagner at the Met without the entire Ring Cycle. “Das Rheingold” (1-27-51) features Lawrence Davidson (Alberich), Margaret Harshaw (Fricka), Hans Hotter (Wotan), and Set Svenholm (Loge). Fritz Stiedry conducts. “Die Walkure” (2-17-40) pairs Melchior (Siegmund) with Flagstad (Brunnhilde) and Marjorie Lawrence (Sieglinde). Julius Huehn (Wotan), Karin Branzell (Fricka) and Emanuel List (Hunding) share the spotlight, while Leinsdorf conducts.

“Siegfried” (1-30-37) is like the scherzo movement to this Ring-symphony, and Melchior (Siegfried) and Brunnhilde (Flagstad) finally get to meet. The Wanderer, Wotan in disguise, is sung by Friedrich Schorr, the evil Mime by Karl Laufkotter, and the equally nasty Alberich by Eduard Habich.

Marjorie Lawrence

The titanic “Gotterdammerung” (1-11-36) has Marjorie Lawrence as Brunnhilde, now wedded to her Siegfried (Melchior) and thwarted by the machinations of Gunther (Friedrich Schorr), Hagen (Ludwig Hofmann) and to a lesser degree by Gutrune (Dorothea Manski).

I apologize for the long listings, but I feel my readers might be encouraged to hear these discs by knowing some of the casts. Yes, the sound is not studio-perfect; but many low-fi radios sounded like these transcriptions back then.  Now and then, as at the actual opera house, the orchestra drowns out the singers, an example being Hagen’s call to the Vassals, the only traditional chorus in the Ring cycle. But it is the best that 1936 technology had to offer.

Each opera is in a cardboard folder with the cast and track listings. Unhappily, the CDs are in sleeves and so tightly in those sleeves that one fears harming the discs when removing them. Is that the best that 2013 technology can offer? Just be careful handling them.

A 128-page booklet repeats the cast and track listings (the latter with timings), synopses and notes about each work.

Drama Other than Shakespeare

ANZAC Nurses of WW 1

A-ANZAC GirlsSuperior Miniseries Salutes the ANZAC Nurses of WW 1

A 2014 miniseries from Australia and New Zealand is one of the best “based on true events” productions I have seen. It is a salute to the ANZAC Girls, from which it takes its title, the gallant women from Australia and New Zealand who acted as nurses in World War I. ANZAC is the acronym for Australian New Zealand Army Corps, while “girls” was acceptable back then.

It is told from the point of view of Sister Ross-King (Georgia Flood), who began by serving across the water from Gallipoli where so many young men were being killed and maimed by the Turks. In the fourth of the six 1-hour episodes, her team is sent to France, where they are even closer to the battlefront and risk their own lives to save those of their patients.

Note: I will use “nurse” instead of “Sister” in this report.

Nurses at the Gallipoli campaign

Although a disclaimer at the start of the series says some facts have been changed for dramatic purposes, everything here is absolutely believable There are the inevitable marriages in which bride and groom are soon parted by the war, the first attractions between nurse and soldier, the proposals of marriage to a nurse who refuses to believe her man is dead.

And there is the inevitable scene in which an officer, Sydney Cook (Todd Lasance), whose father is influential in the government gets him a leave and the wife refuses to leave her post just so she can be shown off to those back home. However, most of the male characters are shown in a positive light, such as Harry Moffitt (Dustin Clare) and Pat Dooley (Brandon McClelland).

The characters of the nurses are nicely differentiated: Grace Wilson (Caroline Craig), Elsie Cook (Laura Brent), Olive Haynes (Anna McGahan), and Hilda Steele (Antonia Prebble).

Some are strong as steel, others simply cannot stand the pressure but do their best. Ross-King becomes a problem to the others and to herself by obsessing over the fate of her man; but who can blame her for that? And if the doctors performing surgery are discussing the menu for that day’s meal, the actual doctors probably did the same. (Recall the surgery scenes in “M.A.S.H”?)

Of course, there are many gory close-ups of various wounds and gushing blood. But those who created this series had no intention (it would seem) to show what a glorious thing war is supposed to be. And the viewer cannot miss the irony of the speeches in the script proclaiming the peaceful world that would result from the “War to End All Wars.”

The photos of the actual nurses at the end are charming; and the bonus interviews with several of the actresses are interesting. The subtitles are most welcome.


Drama Shakespeare

“Playing Shakespere”

IMG_20150623_0001“Playing Shakespeare”: an Indispensable Tool for Actors

Since 1984, English and Theatre Departments have been swapping original and dubbed tapes of a series called “Playing Shakespeare” that was shown on British and then American television. Well, they can all relax, because it has been for some time now available in a boxed set of 4 Athena DVDs—and what a joy it is.

For starters, just as a pop singer cannot take on a role in opera without a good deal of training in a new style of singing, not just any actor can take on a role in Shakespeare without the same kind of reorientation.

John Barton, head of Playing Shakespeare workshop

“Playing Shakespeare” is a filmed record of nine master classes conducted by Royal Shakespeare Company director John Barton before a small studio audience. The topics discussed are “The Two Traditions,” “Using the Verse,” “Language and Character,” “Exploring a Character,” “Set Speeches and Soliloquies,” “Irony and Ambiguity,” “Passion and Coolness,” “Rehearsing the Text,” and “Poetry and Hidden Poetry.”

The students are a cross section of British acting talent from stage, television, and film. Among them are Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, Peggy Ashcroft, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, and others who will be instantly recognized as “Oh-where-did-we-see-him/her-before?” personalities.

David Suchet, not as Poirot, who swaps Shylock with Patrick Stewart

One of the gems among the tasks Barton sets out for his cast concerns Stewart and Suchet alternating as Shylock and Tubal in the scene in which Shylock learns about his runaway daughter’s squandering the money she has stolen from him. It is remarkable how utterly different approaches can both seem exactly right.

Another exercise that stands out in my mind is having one of the actors play the dying Hotspur, first with all sorts of realistic sounds of pain (which overwhelm the meaning of the lines) and then with only a suggestion of pain while the lines are perfectly comprehensible. Many of our modern actors should learn this skill, once they learn to enunciate their words from the start!

Peggy Ashcroft

The most touching moment comes when Ms. Ashcroft hears on old recording and does not recognize her own voice!

There is also a small booklet with extra information of some use to serious students and teachers. The subtitles are a great help.

One does not have to be a theatre major to enjoy established stage artists honing their skills to endow Shakespearean performances with that extra more-than-life aura that the plays demand. This set is a winner from every point of view.

Our local Shakespeare groups should find this set most helpful–if not essential.

Essays Production values

Comic Characters on the Musical Stage


220px-Lehar_Lustige-Witwe_KlA-01“Comic” Characters on the Musical Stage Are Nothing to Laugh At

Well, it happened again. Many of you might have caught on PBS television a production of “The Merry Widow” from San Francisco some years ago. In it is the ancient subplot of three husbands (it is usually only one) being cuckolded by their pretty wives, all the while bragging how faithful their spouses are compared with those of other men. Not that adultery is supposed to be funny per se–and after all, in the Lehar operetta the women only flirt (as far we can tell). But the husbands are such pompous asses that we are supposed to say “Good for you” and laugh at their expense.

The problem is that the actor/singers are invariably directed to give a cartoon performance that destroys any social point the librettist had in mind. The plots of most “Merry Widow”-type operettas are flimsy enough without taking the humanity out of the cast of characters and leaving us with nothing really to laugh at. And being less than human, there is no social point they can make.

downloadFor example, Laurel and Hardy were bumbling fools. But their hearts were pure, their intentions always good. It was their human failings that always got in their way. In a classic short, “Towed in a Hole,” they are trying to improve their “fresh fish” business by fixing up an old boat to cut out the middleman. The fact that Stan can do nothing right and that Ollie thinks he himself can do everything right–failings that come from their basic characters–is what leads to a string of disasters ending in the total demolition of the boat.

A comic but heroic character in a nature film

But the husbands in “The Merry Widow” have nothing but failings. There is nothing funny about that because they are not believable. Consider the following. In the nature film “Microcosmos,” there is a sequence in which a dung beetle gets his huge ball of dung stuck on a twig. Not having the intelligence to see why he is making no progress, he simply keeps pushing and pushing until the ball rolls over the twig. The audience cheered! And this for a dung beetle! It won the audience’s sympathy because its persistence, although part of its genetic code, was understandable and laudable. The three husbands, then, come out in most productions several sympathetic notches below the little hero of the nature sequence.

Ko-Ko in a 1926 costume

In too many versions of “The Mikado,” Ko-Ko is played as an idiot, unable even to carry his large ax when he enters (although Gilbert wanted a sword). I do not know how George Grossmith, the original Ko-Ko, played the role, but Martyn Green certainly established once and for all the feebleminded Lord High Executioner. However, when one production updated and replaced the action to an English seaside resort hotel lobby during the 1920s and cast Eric Idle of the Monty Python group to play the role, he pranced on with a tennis racket, addressed the people through a loudspeaker, feedback and all, and dismissed Nanki-Poo with what is usually a throwaway line, “Take him away,” in a very no-nonsense, dangerous way. Finally, a Ko-Ko to be reckoned with!

An early souvenir program illustration showing Sir Joseph lording it over the Captain of the Pinafore

Worse still is having Sir Joseph Porter in “HMS Pinafore” played like a clown. (I must admit, I saw it done only once and that was in a rehearsal, after which most of the business was dropped.) Sir Joseph is all dignity, a dignity that does not come natural to him since his greatest accomplishment was to polish up the handle of the big front door and the only ship he had ever seen was a partnership before he was elevated to the rank he now holds and does not in the least deserve. The point Gilbert (who also directed his own works) is making is that Porter LOOKS and ACTS like “the ruler of the Queen’s nahvee” despite the hollowness below the glitter, and is therefore treated with respect his rank (if not the man) deserves in the British social scale.

The same must be said for the character of Dr. Bartolo in “The Barber of Seville.” If he is played as a total fool, then all the machinations devised by Rosina, Figaro and Almaviva are wasted effort. Now and then, a good actor/singer plays him as an intelligent person and the opera seems to make sense. He fails because of his ego, not because he is stupid. But then again, so many productions of “Barber” are played strictly for laughs that believable characterization is at a premium.

Papageno as he appeared in a 1816 production

Even the richly comic Papageno in “The Magic Flute” might be played as childish, but always very very human. After all, opera is drama and drama is about human beings. Even farces are based on human failings, but in this area the rules are somewhat relaxed since farce is based on types (“humors” as Ben Jonson put it) and complexity of character is actually detrimental in this case.

This essay is, if anything, a caveat for local groups, both amateur and semi-professional, that might consider some of my comments while planning their next productions. Cheap laughs are easy to achieve, as Gilbert once commented, if all you do is to sit on a pork pie. Real life, however, needs real people up on that stage–even if they do live in a world where an orchestra is always playing.

Concepts of music Essays

The Garden is Full of Musical Weeds

Hogarth’s view of noise pollution in the London of his time

The Garden is Full of Musical Weeds

Too much of a good thing?  When does wonderful music become too much music? Become noise? There are at least three ways.

First, I often think so when I look at my walls lined with audio CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes. When I was young, I would go running to any theater that happened to be showing either the opera “Faust” or the two films dealing with Faust legend. I cannot say how much money I spent on movie tickets, when they were anywhere from $.11 and $.75 (that is not a typo), to see one of those films. Now I have five different recordings of the Gounod opera alone on CDs and one one video tape, not to mention one of those films on tape too!–and I cannot remember playing any of them more than once or twice since the purchase. (I pass over the eight versions of “La Boheme” that sit side by side on my shelves.) Is it that the thrill of the search is gone and that all the fun was in the RARE viewing of the work?

But this is not really a matter of weeds, unless all those recordings I never play fit that category.

Here is the second way. In reading books about Mozart’s Vienna, I find that the populace was so starved for music that should a single player strike up a piece on any street corner, a large crowd would gather around him and revel in the unexpected treat. Today, you enter any shopping area and you can’t escape from the constant bombardment of music coming out of speakers in all directions and often at levels that are nerve shattering. And you can hear it even more clearly in the otherwise quiet of the rest rooms.

The anti-digestive item not listed on the diner’s menu

Where it bothers me most is in restaurants. Stopping at a New Hampshire hotel, we decided to eat on the premises and were treated to a radio station. The music was tolerable, but the news reports and commercials were scarcely designed for dining pleasure. (We asked them to turn it off.) I will not even comment on the insult of booming jukeboxes in some pizza parlors, but many restaurants like those here in Keene, NH, who pretend to some “class” (at least in their prices) still have recordings of orgasmic vocalizing that simply do not go well with the low lighting and fancy arrangements of the food on the very large plates.

On my second visit to one of those places, I brought my own CD of Baroque Italian music (it was, after all, an Italian restaurant) and asked that they play it. They smiled tolerantly but complied. It seems that many such establishments purchase a service whereby they are given several hours of music that will be played in some order; and should you arrive at the rowdier portion and do not feel that the contents are appropriate, that is your hard luck. (Yes, they can switch to the next sequence, if you insist, which I feel more of us should do.)

More specifically, I do not feel that any vocal music is appropriate to begin with in a dining atmosphere, because the vocal calls itself to your attention and does detract from any conversation, compelling or trivial as the case might be, that is competing with the recordings. And even the most pleasant Jerome Kern, Vivaldi, or Louis Armstrong  played at high volume is just as bad, which is the third focal point of my little thesis.

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Unwelcome wedding guests

I thank goodness that all the young cousins and their children in my family have been confirmed or married by now and I will never have to sit at some catering place with the band playing amplified music in a room far too small to require such volume–and often music that does not require any volume at all. How many times have you had to shout to persons at your table simply to be heard? No one likes it or demands it; but the hired bands or DJs somehow feel required to reach the threshold of our pain from the start to finish of the event. (We will ignore concerts at which volume is equated with good playing. My cousin once answered my “How was the rock concert?” with “Great. My ears still hurt.”)

Most will agree that the most beautiful flower, growing where it is unwanted, is a weed. So is it with music.

Will I, then, give up any of the eight or nine Aida’s in my collection. No, no, not one (as the female chorus sings in an operetta.) Why not? Er, well, some day in the next thirty years, I might want to hear it again. Will I continue to campaign for quiet dining music? You bet.

How do YOU feel about it?