Penguins, Pools and Ring Cycles

Hello to everyone and happy holidays etc. I’ve had quite a year of eclectic endeavours and I don’t even know where to begin…

My record, “The Spell I Was Under” was rhapsodically received in many quarters, including some lovely print reviews (check ’em out on this site, of course). I got to talk to various and sundry on the radio (Jian Gomeshi and Matt Galloway were both highly memorable) and spread the word by performing to fabulous audiences all over the place. One of my favourite shows of the year was at the Hillside festival in Guelph, Ontario, with Ken Whiteley. Love was in the air. Another highlite (of my entire life, actually) was singing with the unbelievably tremendous Campbell Brothers at Hugh’s Room last spring.

John Greyson and I got up to new mischief, including two connected video-installation projects involving the famous gay penguins of the Central Park Zoo. The first piece depicted their wedding and was presented in a wading pool. The second, much more ambitious, took over the entire Harrison Baths swimming pool in downtown Toronto as part of the fabulous “Les Nuits Blanches” city-wide arts event in September. This piece dramatized their subsequent divorce to the strains of the “Libestod” from Wagner’s Tristan Und Isolde and other pop hits. In November J and I flew to the Yukon to install a mini version of “Fig Trees” at the wonderful Yukon Arts Centre.

I had my busiest year ever in the world of film/TV soundtracks. here’s a few of the most interesting moments: I worked extensively with Elliot Halpern and the gang at YAP films, scoring two features and a documentary series and have just embarked on a new, war-history oriented series with them called “Once A Warrior”. Daniel Greaves and I continued to collaborate on a multitude of projects, and we’ve started on a feature doc about Henry Morgentaler and a drama feature about hard living in Detroit. I was especially proud and excited to be involved in four powerful short films for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, directed by the wonderfully talented Liz Marshall. Another high point of my year was scoring a fantastic, daring and super-personal doc for Simcha Jacobovici about the history of Romania…

I’m sure there’s a whole other bunch of endlessly interesting stuff for me to brag about but I can’t remember just now.
Look for me in the new year performing a whole lot more with the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band as we start gearing up for the band’s 20th (!) anniversary.

Have a splendiferous 2007!
xxooDW

Wagner, Mel Gibson and Me

Those who know me at all are probably aware that I have a love of opera that verges on the unhealthy. I’m going to start posting some of my amateurish musings on the subject here, kind of as a therapeutic outlet.

This year was Toronto’s year of Wagner and it tickled me to no end. I didn’t get to see the new Ring productions the COC used to christen their fab new house, though I saw the prototypes over the last 2 years and was suitably impressed (I saw them all except for Das Rheingold, which was frustrating).

Wagner has always been a huge fascination for me, ever since I was 8 years old and my dad played me his “highlites from the Ring” lp and I couldn’t believe it; a massive, sword-and-sorcery fantasy game that even snobby grown ups could love. 20 hours of it. Now, of course, after having consumed hundreds (thousands?) of pages on Wagner’s music and (gasp) philosophy, my fascination has changed significantly. Yes, the music is sublime and the sheer audacity of his vision and hugeness of his influence boggles the mind, but I think of RW as a glorious, violent traffic accident; I can’t tear my eyes/ears away from the carnage.

I’ve been really obsessed with “Our Friend” this year, and it’s funny/ironic that it’s coincided with an equally deep obsession with Gustav Mahler, the ultimate temporal schizoid – one foot in the 19th, one in the 20th centuries, who was crushed by his anxiety, perfectionism and alienation. Oh yes, and by his being Jewish in Austria in the early 19 hundreds. the problem is that I can love both these composers at the same time, knowing what I know now about how the worst century ever turned out and how Wagner was like a prescient, reasurring mirror for a generation of genocidal music lovers to look back on. But I keep returning to him. He’s my musical canker sore that I can’t stop playing with.

I would like to go through each of his operas gradually, starting with the Flying Dutchman, and briefly describe how they make me feel. I’ll mention my favourite recordings and how, I believe, the operas relate to a), Wagner’s ever-developing catastrophic conceptual landscape. Oh yes, and b), the music…

Die Fliegende Hollander

In many ways, (depending on my mood), this is my favorite work by Wagner. He was young, bold, and coming into his incredible musical/philosophical identity for the first time and you can hear his iconoclasm in every bar. Not to say it’s all perfectly original and ground-breaking; lots of it has the four-square, hustle-bustle of, say, mid-career Verdi or even, ha ha, Meyerbeer (listen, for example, to the duet between the Dutchman and Dalland towards the end of Act one). This is one of the reasons why it’s so great, though; when one tires of the formal experimentation and “endless melodies” of more celebrated, later Wagner, it can be refreshing to dip into the Steersman’s catchy little ditty or the “Spinning Chorus” from Dutchman. But what really slays me about this piece is it’s unremmiting darkness and deep sense of existential dread. The motifs come fast, furious and ham-fisted, but they work like crazy, maintaining an incredibly terrifying, clausterphobic atmosphere. The opening section of the whole work, which ingeniously captures the cursed, stormy whirlwind of the whole drama and then returns in its entirety as Senta’s obsessive “ballad”, is a breathtaking stroke of genius. No wonder the work didn’t catch on.

I also love the Dutchman’s relatively benign subject matter. It’s like all (or most of) the ingredients of Wagner’s twisted image-world are there, but he hasn’t quite figured out how to be a monster yet. For example, in this context, his ever-repeated “Wondering Jew” paradigm is used to fill the lead character with a real pathos; we’re supposed to identify with this Jew. Wagner hadn’t quite made the intellectual leap into deep-seated, all-encompassing, paranoid anti-semitism yet, and thus all Jews were not the same. He was still impressed by people like the poet Heinrich Heine enough to borrow liberally from his works and actually use his ideas to help formulate his own sense of “Germanness”. Most importantly, within the established (post Rienzi) Wagner cannon, this work is not only pre-radical antisemitism, but pre-hate. Like Tannhauser directly after it, but unlike Lohengrin after that and everything else he wrote, this work, amazingly, has no villains in it. There is noone to detest. All the characters are strung along by their own madnesses and/or fates and we can only stand back and feel for them, a little bit like in Verdi’s La forza Del Destino, I suppose.

I own three recordings of Dutchman and they’re all fantastic. I love the George London/Leonie Rysanek recording from 1962. It has a marvelous low-grade stereo sound that only adds to the murky, wet, other-wordliness of the drama. I usually don’t like London too much; his voice lacks warmth and steadiness, which probably aren’t problems in big houses, but on record it’s annoying (for example, his crappy romantic lead part on Solti’s Arabella recording). But his weird voice seems to work here-it’s kind of weary sounding, which is totally appropriate, of course. Rysanek is completely fierce and unhinged, a terrific casting choice in this context.

I’m a big fan of adventurous Wagner re-stagings, and the readily available Bayreuth Dutchman from the eighties starring Simon Estes is one of the best examples on DVD of using fresh, controversial ideas to energize an old operatic war-horse. The concept, which is simple and brilliantly carried off, is that all of the drama is completely in Senta’s mind. That she’s suffering from some kind of delusional mono-mania that eventually pushes her, literally, off the edge. What a fantastic way to circumvent the ridiculous, proto-Romantic, completely implausible story line. And Estes is fabulous.

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2 Responses to “Penguins, Pools and Ring Cycles”

  1. alex Says:

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  2. alex Says:

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