2007: Year of the Albino Squirrel

Hello and happy new year. The problem, of course, with these darn websites is the whole having-to-update-em thingy. I’m just not good at this, but a whole year of neglect is verging on pathological, so…

2007 was absolutely off the scale for me in terms of number of projects and eclectic pursuits. The part of me that was sadly neglected was my career as a singer, but that was more than made up for by all the other insanity. My family and i moved into a fabulous new home complete with a fully equipped recording facility on the first floor (seems like no one else wanted it!) I can’t overstate the sweetness of being able to work at home in comfort, though the potential for endless procrastination has exponentially increased.

In the world of film and television I got to provide music for a wide range of inspiring stuff. here’s a few hilites; Andrew Munger’s fascinating doc about Walmart, “Walmart Nation”; Jamie Kastner’s provocative and funny piece about jewish identity, “Kike Like Me”; an exciting interactive drama produced by the Canadian Film Centre, “Late Fragments”; Matt Gallagher’s hilarious and poignant character study/ode to Windsor, “The Rise and Fall of the Grumpy Burger”; YAP films’ revealing miniseries about great canadian battles, “Bloodlines”…

Oh yes, then there’s the squirrels. John Greyson and I finally got down to filming the feature version of our experimental opera project, Fig Trees. All I’m going to say about it is that it’s currently being edited and that the narrator is played by a 12-year-old genius in an albino squirrel suit. There’s also a scene where I’m singing a duet while being teased and stroked by three naked men. All in all another typical piece of mainstream canadian cinema. John and I also got to tour the video installation version a bit this year. We hauled our monstrosity to such far flung destinations as the Yukon and the Vancouver New Music Festival.

The future looks bright and scary as we slip into 2008. In the near future I’ll be working with Kenton Vaughan and the folks at 90th Parallel on an intriguing 2-part doc about Daniel Liebeskind’s expansion of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. I’m also busy scoring a sweet series about women trying to change their lives, called “Stuck”, produced by David York for The Women’s Network and a fascinating, politically charged 13-parter called “Extreme Clergy” for Creative Anarchy and Vision TV. In the summer I’ll be scoring another season of “Finding The Fallen”, YAP’s compelling World War I/forensic archeology series. I’m getting back into some singing as well, thank goodness. The Flying Bulgars are celebrating our 20th (!) anniversary this year which will include shows in Toronto, Vancouver and elsewhere. We’re also busy recording an album of (mostly) English songs with Dave Neufeld (Broken Social Scene, Super Furry Animals) at the helm as producer. Pretty weird, if you ask me! In March I’ll be traveling to New York and San Francisco with Frank London of the Klezmatics (etc.) to perform songs from a musical he composed, “A Night in the Old Marketplace”. His librettist, Glen Berger, is actually in the middle of writing the book for a big broadway musical called “Spiderman”, starring Bono! (I’m not joking this time!)

That’s enough blabbering on about me and how clever and sexy I am. Please flip through some of the pages of my sadly neglected site and make it feel wanted. I feel like a deadbeat dad.

I’ll take Venus, you can have the Halle

And now, part two of my continuing discussion of Wagner’s operas…

Tannhäuser (und der Sängerkrieg auf der Wartburg)

Just about every composer has his or her favorite, misunderstood little masterpiece that no one seems to appreciate or love enough. The artist swears that if people would only give it a proper chance, they’d see just how wonderful and special this misshapen opus really is. Refusing to let go, he or she keeps massaging and refining it forever, often till it’s virtually unrecognizable. For some reason, the 19th century had a lot of these unappreciated gems, perhaps because of the grandiose ambition placed on art by Romanticism. Beethoven had his Fidelio, Berlioz his Les Troyens, Verdi his Simon Boccanegra, Brahms his first symphony in all it’s incarnations. The classic 20th century example is Prokofiev’s amazing, histrionic opera, The Fiery Angel, a work he tinkered away at for decades. But certainly the ultimate example of this is Wagner’s strangest work, Tannhäuser, which he returned to again and again over a forty year span without ever achieving the kind of artistic satisfaction he was used to.

By the time Tannhäuser reached the Paris Opera in 1861 it had already been in circulation for 16 years. During that time, it had undergone a plethora of changes, including an awkward translation into French. Wagner had also inserted a completely incongruous ballet into the first act, composed in his Tristan-chromatic-modern style. This transition, from his 1840’s, Meyerbeer-inspired palette to the wild and wacky psychadelia of Wagner’s late work, creates a sensation similar to discovering an extra in the background of some Hollywood Roman epic wearing a wristwatch. Complete temporal nausea sets in, as if the time machine is out of whack. The performance that night in Paris was one of the biggest fiascos in operatic history. There had been 164 rehearsals.

What is it about Wagner’s fifth opera that makes it so weird and problematic? Tannhäuser truly is his strangest work. More than any other of his mature operas, it straddles the line between old and new; big catchy set-pieces are sandwiched between long passages of peculiar, even vague, anti-melodic declamation. It’s especially telling that the big contest in act two, the centerpiece of the whole show, is made up of settings of meandering prose rather than beautiful strophic songs (the latter would be wonderfully realized in Wagner’s great comedic Tannhäuser “remake”, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg). In an almost Brechtian way, the composer felt an aversion to simple beauty, fearing it might lull his audience into a sensual stupor and distract from the deep and serious conceptual world of the opera.

But what does it all mean? In many ways, Tannhäuser is a re-telling of Wagner’s own Flying Dutchman. A morally compromised, brooding outsider is “saved” by a naïve, chaste beauty through an act of mystical/suicidal sacrifice. In the earlier opera this archetypical story is told in the context of nautical folklore. In Tannhäuser it is inserted into a rich stew of medieval/teutonic fables. The central conflict becomes the protagonist’s struggle to negate his leanings toward a pagan sensuality and embrace Christianity, especially its anti-sensual, ascetic aspects. In the end he is unable to vanquish his lustful self and is able to find religious grace only in a typical Wagnerian moment of inexplicable, spiritually entwined death.

Tannhäuser has classically been perceived as a failed pro-Christian work. The major failing has usually been characterized as Wagner’s inability to tip the musical balance in favor of his Christian characters. In fact, Venus, our knight’s pagan love goddess, comes off as much more attractive, well-rounded and memorable than her well-meaning but ponderous counterpart, the sweet and chaste Elizabeth. If Wagner meant to write off pre-Christian free love as immoral, he sure did a bad job. He would have been doing so as a raging hypocrite, of course, because his sexual adventuring and penchant for expensive luxuries of all kinds was legend. I would argue that he meant to express something very different. He wanted to show the virtues of sensuality and it’s compatibility with an ethic of holistic rather than religiously framed “goodness”.

It is significant that there are no villains in the opera. Tannhäuser is seen as a deeply conflicted, hyper-sensitive artist with a super-charged libido (hmmm, sounds like our composer). He also seems to be genuinely in love with Elizabeth, not in a philandering sense, but as a fully engaged husband-to-be. It is this apparent contradiction in his character that forms the core of the drama. Venus is portrayed as amoral rather than immoral, her unquenchable lust seen as an essential aspect of Womanhood, much like Elizabeth’s self-sacrificing, pure nature. Maybe Wagner envisioned the ultimate Woman as an amalgamation of these two opposites. Tannhäuser can be read, perhaps, as a philosophical testing ground for that greatest of all explorations into moral polarity; the Ring cycle. It can also be seen as a maniacally ambitious rationalization for some very questionable treatment of the women in our featured artist’s life. Is Tannhäuser just a fancy portrayal of the whore/angel cliche in Wagner’s twisted sexual fantasy world?

There are, of course, musical “highlights” galore in the opera. The over-played but magnificent prelude, surely one of the most grandiose and essentially teutonic works of German Romanticism; Tannhäuser’s equivocal ode to Venus at the opera’s beginning; Elizabeth’s big aria, “Dich Teure Halle”, probably opera’s most famous love song to a piece of architecture; The big march in act 2 as the competition begins; Wolfram’s beautiful “O Du, Mein Holder Abendstern”, a brilliant portrayal of a medieval Catholic’s inability to express actual romantic love (it has to be done through an astronomical metaphor); Tannhäuser’s big 3rd act Rome monologue, a precursor to Wagner’s monumental Ring cycle soliloquies; finally, the big ending. It’s massive and strange in the best ways.

I love all the recordings I have of Tannhäuser. On CD the best all round document is Solti’s early seventies rendering of the final incarnation (Wagner re-Germanized the Paris version at the end of his life). Rene Kollo, surprisingly, does a fantastic job as the knight, without a hint of that obnoxious nasal tone. Christa Ludwig is the perfect Venus. The only problem is all the Paris amendments, which I find disconcerting, but it’s a matter of taste. On DVD I quite enjoy the Zurich Opera production with Peter Seiffert, a world-class Tannhäuser. Franz Welser-Most, one of the 21st century’s great conducting hopefuls, does a good job bringing out as much lyricism as possible from this often stingy score. The Dresden, 1860 version is used.

To better understand Wagner and opera in general, please go to the following link:


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