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message 1: by Tentatively, (new)

Tentatively, Convenience (tentativelyaconvenience) | 128 comments Mod
Dear Diary,

[mutters to self, un-self-consciously pulls snot from nose & sticks on forehead:]

Hence begins my 1st entry on OPERA. Obviously a reference to the probability that few, or NO, people read these posts. NONETHELESS, I forge onward! Do any of you imaginary playmates have any interest in opera? Critical or otherwise?

I've hated opera most of my life - partially b/c of the singing, partially b/c of its classist base, etc.. But, gradually, various operas have encroached into my research & I've become more & more fascinated by them - including a fascination w/ aspects that I wd've found too ridiculous & annoying in the past.

Take, eg, Puccini's 1910 "La Fanciulla del West". I find the debasement of the 2 Native American characters to be extremely offensive & that alone makes it difficult for me to witness the opera w/o wanting to make some sort of political intervention - wch I may very well do in yet-another one of my movies where I take pre-existing material & edit it together w/ text to make historical & media analysis. (My most recent movie along these lines is called "Purple Prose, Whitewashing, & Yellow Journalism" - an older one is called "Capitalism is an Ism" - that can be seen online @:

Putting the politics aside for the moment, here's a bit about "La Fanciulla..": IT'S A 'WESTERN', A SPAGHETTI WESTERN to be exact, A HORSE OPERA!! (Although, strictly speaking, there aren't any horses in it) It cd be the very FIRST 'Spaghetti Western' - ie: an Italian work about the American West. & it's a fucking opera! Weird.

The version of it that I just witnessed is a VHS tape of the app. 1991 version performed at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan under the direction of Lorin Maazel. 1st, what a theater this appears to be! I didn't count the tiers of balconies when they show but there must be at least 10 stories!! This appears to be a truly incredible bldg!! &, sure, I'm impressed - but, at the same time, just like w/ cathedrals, I think something like: WHERE DID THE MONEY COME FROM TO MAKE THIS PLACE & WHAT'S ITS SOCIAL AGENDA?!

It makes me think of the stone head that falls from the sky in the movie "Zardoz". The head dispenses weapons to the 'barbarians'. Funny though this might seem, I think there's a similar social force at work in opera houses & cathedrals - wow the rubes w/ the power of the powers-that-be.

I'm also reminded of an interview I read or heard w/ anarchist 20th century composer John Cage. One of his Europeras was scheduled to premier in an opera house in Europe. Then someone burned it down. I don't know how extreme the fire was or the intention of the supposedly lone arsonist. At any rate, it caused a postponement of the premier.

Cage remarked something to the effect of: "That poor man [the arsonist:] - he doesn't understand that you can't end opera by burning down the opera houses!" As I understand Cage's Europeras, they ARE meant to signal some sort of end to opera. I think they have victrolas on stage playing 78s of old opera recordings - probably while carefully choreographed lights play over the stage. I'd probably find it very interesting.

HOWEVER, I'm not so sure I agree w/ Cage otherwise. Wch strategy wd be most effective in "ending opera"? Cage's intellectual repurposing? Or the arsonist's attack on the physical infrastructure?

When so-called World War II ended, the art school bldg in Berlin that the nazi's used for torturing people was razed. Only the basement was left - so that people cd look into it & see the ceramics studios where the tortures 'conveniently' took place (they were easy for cleaning the blood away) - as a memorial. Will there ever come a time when the Teatro alla Scala will be razed as a warning memorial to the ideologies enshrined?

It's hilarious the way the different elements of opera conflict w/ each other & this one exemplifies this (unintentional) hilarity. There are 3 acts: the 1st is in a saloon that's for gold miners. There's eating, boozing, lusting after the ONLY woman, gambling, letters, etc.. The set is HUGE, the ceiling is UNNATURALLY HIGH - b/c of the tech needs of the opera stage. I like the set but this scale exaggeration contributes to the overall absurdity.

The 2nd act is in Minnie's 'shack' (yes, she's the ONLY woman seen - another woman's referenced). The outlaw, Dick Johnson, is hiding out there & the sheriff is looking for him. As soon as the sheriff leaves, Dick & Minnie resume their interrupted conversation. Since they're opera singers & have to project in this HUGE theater, they're, of course, BELLOWING. Now, again, the unnaturalness of this is ridiculous, dramatically speaking. If they were actually trying to prevent the sheriff from knowing that Dick's there they'd be whispering. Instead, they're being as loud as they can.

Now, opera singers are often fat - maybe it helps them sing that way - but the plots of operas aren't usually about fat people. SO, once again, there's this ridiculous absence of realism. The sheriff's, well, OBESE - & most of the characters are overweight for their portrayed professions.

It might be a future project of mine to d compose an opera in wch the characters ARE obese - a fat cat opera - maybe about the assassination of President McKinley. He was so fat the doctors cdn't find the bullet in him.

We're talking major suspension of disbelief here. Basically, there's an extreme conflict between this particular opera plot (& I think this might be the case in many or most operas) & the form in wch it's presented. Grungy gold miners in the West singing opera style w/ a full orchestra?! &, of course, that's exactly what I find so interesting - at the same time that I find it somewhat difficult to endure or even enjoy.

The theme of an opera is important - whether it's Wagner's German Nationalist Myth (the Ring Cycle) or Berg's Realism of the People (Wozzeck) or whatever - there's an implied or outward social philosophy, a moral, a message, a social imperative aimed at the enormous audience of thousands. But, usually, this message seems oversimplified to the point of stupidity.

What do we have in "La Fanciulla.."? Aside from the apparently unexamined racial stereotyping, there seems to be mainly the 'high drama' of the struggling gold miners, the virgin woman, & the 'redemption' of the bandit by his love of the virgin. Are we REALLY SUPPOSED TO BE CAUGHT UP IN THIS ENUF TO BE RELIEVED WHEN THE OUTLAW DOESN'T GET HANGED IN THE END B/C MINNIE INTERVENES ON HIS BEHALF?! You've got to be kidding me! The psychology of this is so debased & oversimplified that it's hard to take seriously.. &, yet, THERE'S BIG, BIG MONEY GOING INTO THIS PRODUCTION & I reckon tens of thousands of people in the audience.

Yes, this is spectacle, 19th century-style - lingering on in the 20th (& 21st). &, of course, I mean "spectacle" in the Situationist sense. Earlier, I ask "Will there ever come a time when the Teatro alla Scala will be razed as a warning memorial to the ideologies enshrined?" Honestly, I sortof hope not - alas, I respect the work that's gone into the bldg's creation (& maintenance) too much. But if I were the poor person whose ragged clothing, dirt, & lack of money were used as an excuse to bar my entrance (as, in fact, I usually am), I'd probably be much more inclined to feel differently.

message 2: by Michael (new)

Michael (popegrutch) | 3 comments I always have problems when people apply the term "spectacle" to pre-20th century concepts and claim it to be "Situationist." The Situationists clearly intended their critique to apply to post-industrial capitalism, and trying to revise it backward just doesn't work. Just because a thing is spectacular doesn't make it part of the spectacle.

At any rate, I do like the idea of an opera about the McKinley assassination. Leon Czolgosz is a perfect operatic hero. Your idea about emphasizing fatness reminds me of the mst3k sketch on Doughy Guys.

I believe it was Tom Baker who referred to the original Doctor Who series as an "operatic" interpretation of sci fi. I've always felt that works as a description, and it's part of what made me feel ok about liking opera.

message 3: by Tentatively, (new)

Tentatively, Convenience (tentativelyaconvenience) | 128 comments Mod
Well.. I see yr point but I'm not sure I agree w/ it. I am, however, delighted that anyone other than me has written here!

But back to the issue of the Situationist notion of the spectacle in reference to this particular case: Actually, I'm not that attached to using spectacle in a Situationist sense here.. I shd point out, though, that the opera is 20th century (1910) & the performance is 1991 (or thereabouts) & I don't really think we're in "post-industrial capitalism" (regardless of whether the Situationists thought so or not).

Nonetheless, whether this is rigorous Situationist usage or not, I just meant that opera, like any other large-scale entertainment, can be MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING - a smoke & mirrors distraction.

As for Doctor Who (wch I've yet to check out) & "operatic": as you probably also know, there's the term "space opera" too. There's even at least one compilation w/ that title edited by Brian W. Aldiss.

Do you have any favorite operas? If this thread continues I'll probably go into a few of mine - there're probably at least 10 that I've found to be pretty interesting.

THANKS AGAIN FOR WRITING! It's been pretty deserted here in Cognitive Dissidents land!

message 4: by Tentatively, (last edited Feb 21, 2011 05:49PM) (new)

Tentatively, Convenience (tentativelyaconvenience) | 128 comments Mod
Hhmm.. Since no-one else listed any favorite operas my suspicions seem to be confirmed that there's "the probability that few, or NO, people read these posts." Nonetheless, stubborn cuss that I am, I'll list a few of my favorite operas in chronological order:

"Bluebeard's Castle" (1911) - Béla Bartók
"Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" (1930) - Kurt Weill
"The Mother" (1930) - Alois Haba
"Moses und Aron" (1932) - Arnold Schoenberg
"Trouble in Tahiti" (1952) - Leonard Bernstein
"Aniara - An Epic of Space Flight in A. D. 2038" (1959) - Karl-Birger Blomdahl
"Die Soldaten" (1964) - Bernd Alois Zimmermann
"Die Teufel von Loudon" (1969) - Krzysztof Penderecki
"Licht" (1972-2007) - Karlheiz Stockhausen
"Improvement" (1992) - Robert Ashley
"Apocalypse" (1993) - Alice Shields
"The Cave" (1993) - Steve Reich & Beryl Korot
"Harvey Milk" (1995) - Stewart Wallace & Michael Korie
"Last Man on Earth" (2006) - tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE
"Backward Masking in Rocks" (2008) - tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE

This list somewhat represents a progression in wch electronics & projections take the place of human performers more & more. Bernstein's 1952 "Trouble in Tahiti" was made for tv or some such. Blomdahl's 1959 "Aniara" is a science fiction allegory & has electronics. Stockhausen, of course, is a major figure in electronic music. Ashley's "Improvement" wd've been staged w/ just a few people & projections. Same goes w/ the Reich. Shield's "Apocalypse" is "An Electronic Opera".

My 2 "melocomedic operas" consist entirely of projection of a movie made by me + me playing electronics & 1 or 2 other people (in the case of "Backwards.." only). But don't take my inclusion too seriously!

Essentially, composers w/o easy access to full-scale orchestras (even Stockhausen had trouble w/ "Licht") & giant opera houses make do w/ what they/we DO have access to: projection equipment & sophisticated sound-production equipment that can be controlled by ONE person: the composer.

I'm not arguing here for the 'end of opera' as we 'know' it - I'm just glad that a broader variety of content can now be explored in (quasi-)operatic form by people w/o having to navigate the complex socio-political machinery of the established operatic world. For people like myself who live in small US cities where no adventurous opera is ever likely to be staged in the traditional venue, this is a blessing.

message 5: by Brian (new)

Brian | 16 comments Sorry, I know next to nothing about opera...

message 6: by Tentatively, (new)

Tentatively, Convenience (tentativelyaconvenience) | 128 comments Mod
I didn't have any particular interest in opera &, in fact, rather strongly disliked it until I decided that it was an area in music I shd know more about just b/c it was an area I knew so little about. Basically, I've strongly disliked operatic singing technique (& the overuse of vibrato in classical music in general - esp in bowed string playing) & the 'upper classness' of opera. But, almost inevitably, the more I studied it, the more I found things I liked - including political things. Speaking of wch, I'd add Hans Werner Henze's "Das Floss der Medusa" ("The Raft of the Frigate "Medusa"")(1968; revised 1990) to the preceding list. I'd also delete Robert Ashley's "Improvement" (1992) b/c I listened to it again & found it somewhat unbearably monotonous.

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