Wagner Society of Northern California

James Conlon at WSNC

* Notes *
James Conlon, the Music Director of Los Angeles Opera, and Dr. Katherine Syer gave talks at the Wagner Society of Northern California today in San Francisco. Conlon spoke on how he came to love classical music and Wagner, and how he decided to become a conductor a young age. We heard that the two conditions of accepting the position in LA was contingent upon being able to conduct both music by Wagner and composers suppressed by the Nazis. He also assured the audience that unless the Dorothy Chandler falls apart, the Ring Cycle will take place in Los Angeles. Much of his talk emphasized the primacy of music in opera, and how the ascendancy of the stage director can put this in jeopardy.

Syer spoke on the many Ring Cycles that have been put on in the last decade. She discussed the use of masks and puppets, then turned our attention to uses of advanced technology, such as live camera feeds and the like. She showed clips of a production staged in Mexico City, in which almost all the singers wore masks. The performance took place behind a scrim, which had the image of a ring on it to frame the action. The other production that was focused on came from Vlaamse Opera, which uses video cameras and many television screens.

* Tattling *
James Conlon has sense of humor, he was amused by the introduction he was given, and denied that he likes oreos, as the Wikipedia article on him has claimed. He had a rather difficult time leaving, as many people stopped to talk to him on his way to the door.

The people giggled at a particular staging shown and described to us by Dr. Syer. She jokingly admonished that it was "a very serious moment," and someone in the audience muttered that she was "going to become a Verdi fan."

The WSNC seems rife with bloggers, no less than three were spotted in the audience. It was rather sad to not be harrassed by Ruth Jacobs at the door. I had finally convinced her that I was, in fact, a member of the Wagner Society when we shared a box for Simon Boccanegra last September.

Conrad Susa at WSNC

Composer Conrad Susa gave an amusing talk entitled "In Wagner’s Musical Forge: Das Rheingold" on Saturday afternoon. The focus was very much on the music itself, as evidenced by the beginning of the score taped to the wall. Susa played recordings of Bach's F Major Toccata and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, and demonstrated how Wagner stole from these composers. He also extolled the virtues of Pythagoras, having proved music mathematically and elevating music to a sublime and divine art. Entertainingly enough, Susa called atonal music inhuman and political.

Gold Rush - Forging The American Ring Symposium

The Wagner Society of Northern California held a Das Rheingold symposium on June 14, 2008, which was declared Wagner Society of Northern California Day at San Francisco Opera. The first talk, entitled "From Iceland to Valhalla: What do the medieval Icelandic sources of Das Rheingold really say?," was from Dr. John Lindow of UC Berkeley. His first slide was of Sir William Jones and he went on to show how the Indo-European languages are related, and why the 80-85% of Wagner's sources for the Ring are from Iceland. He admited that Wagner was the reason he became interested in Scandinavian studies. Das Nibelungenlied was discussed, as were the Poetic and Prose Eddas, along with the Völsunga Saga. Of particular interest was a comparison of Old Norse gods with the characters of Das Rheingold. Lindow associated Frigg/Fricka with Venus and Friday, rather than Freyja/Freia, as the former's name is cognate with Old Saxon fri "beloved lady" and Icelandic frjá "to love." Freyja/Freia comes from the word for "lady," but since she is fertility goddess, she is also tied to love.

The second talk, Dr. Thomas Grey's "Leitmotive, from Ring to film and Back," focused on the Wagner's Ring compared to the Lord of the Rings films. Grey is not convinced that Howard Shore's music is much like Wagner's, but is rather more like the score for Gone with the Wind. He also found Tolkien's motivation for writing his work rather different than Wagner's. But certainly there are commonalities, as both Wagner and Tolkien used the Völsunga Saga as a source.

The third talk was the most awaited, as it came from the New York City Opera dramaturg, Cori Ellison. Her "Valhalla, the American Dream" discussed the reasons behind the "American Ring." Her claim that North Americans do not know Norse myth certainly rang true. She went on to describe the current production at SF Opera and the themes the production team were focused on, these being nature, love, and women. It seems that the team were interested in making the Ring a cautionary tale. Ellison went on to talk about Fricka, how she is considered an unsympathetic character, and how Wagner's relationship with his first wife Minna informed the goddess' portrayal. Much of what she said can be read in Rudolph Sabor's Richard Wagner Der Ring des Nibelungen: A Companion, specfically pages 25, 88-89, and 93-94. Unfortunately, I missed some of Ellison's talk as I had two coughing fits, and did not want to subject people to the noise, so left the room. Ironically the coughing was due to having a cough drop (I was worried I would cough) but I happened to be allergic to the one that was offered by the Wagner Society.

"Das Rheingold: Wagner, Shakespeare and Tragicomedy" was an entertaining talk by Dr. Simon Williams of UC Santa Barbara. Williams described a 2001 Robert Carsen production of Das Rheingold at Köln Opera, particularly noting how Loge stole golden apples, and latter gave them to Wotan so he could go to Nibelheim without any trouble. This production revealed the tragicomedic nature of Das Rheingold to Williams, and he believes it is the only successful one in the 19th century as far as opera is concerned.

Redeemer Reborn Talk at WSNC

Notes *
Yesterday afternoon Paul Schofield gave a talk on his book The Redeemer Reborn: Parsifal as the Fifth Opera of Wagner's Ring Cycle at the Wagner Society of Northern California
. It was the second time he had talked on this subject at WSNC, so his talk was slightly incoherent for someone who had not heard the previous one. Schofield spent most of the time going into the history of the grail legends, emphasizing they are not "fairy tales," as he put it, slightly scornfully. Strong attention was paid to the similarity of such stories across Indo-European cultures, though the same could be said of many folk tales as well.

Schofield compared the protagonists of Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal convincingly, but the parallels between Siegfried, Tannhäuser, der Holländer, Tristan, and Parsifal are all clear. I am not sure that it was proved Parsifal was part of the Ring anymore than Tristan und Isolde is. Perhaps I must simply read the book, as one can hardly expect someone to condense a 324 page book into a 90 minute talk.

* Tattling *
This WSNC event was the most crowded one I have attended, more chairs had to be brought in, and every chair was taken. Quite entertainingly, during the Q&A the speaker called the libretto for Turandot absurd, and mocked the opera as having "some nice music." Note this opera is based on an Indo-European fairy tale. Is it not interesting that Wagnerians are not satisfied with their composer being so great and glorious, but must also make humiliating remarks about other composers whenever possible?

Meeting Venus Talk at WSNC

Encuentroconvenus* Notes *
Last weekend the Wagner Society of Northern California had its first meeting of the year, featuring a talk by Professor Heather Hadlock based on a paper entitled
"From 'beloved hall' to Evening Star: The televisual apotheosis of the diva in István Szabó's film Meeting Venus (1991)." Dr. Hadlock presented the paper last year at Columbia University's "Technologies of the Diva" conference. The darkly comic film involves a production of Tannhäuser at the fictional Opera Europa in Paris that is to be televised in a simulcast. Szabó in fact directed Tannhäuser for Opera de Paris in 1982, apparently it did not go well.

In her talk, Hadlock differentiated the prima donna from the diva and discussed the progression of the diva in this particular film from self-absorbed egotist to self-sacrificing savior. While Hadlock clearly finds Meeting Venus fascinating, she also noted that it is an artistic failure, as there are too many story lines that become somewhat incoherent. Since the film deals with a telecast, she also spoke about the Met Opera - Live in HD simulcasts, and how the general audience seems more interested in the behind the scenes parts than the actual operas themselves.

* Tattling *
It is the first WSNC event I have attended since the Tristan und Isolde symposium in 2006, so the board members spoke to me a good deal as a welcoming gesture. I was asked if I was a singer and if I liked Wagner, it was quite charming.

Dr. Thomas Grey was to discuss the music of Tannhäuser, the differences between the Dresden and Paris versions, and Wagner’s external artistic influences. Unfortunately, he could not make it, but will speak at the symposium on Das Rheingold in June.

Wie, hör' ich das Licht?

Isolde_1* Notes *
Wagner Society of Northern California held a symposium on Tristan und Isolde last Saturday, October 21, 2006. There were seven speakers whose topics ranged from the day-to-day administration of Tristan at San Francisco Opera to a Jungian analysis of Wagner. The turn out was good, about a hundred people.

The highlight of the day was the round table with Christine Brewer and Jane Irwin, both were charming. Kip Cranna, who interviewed them, always speaks well. I also very much enjoyed Evan Baker's talk on Tristan und Isolde in Vienna, not least because of his amusing slides. Particularly interesting were Hoffmann's watercolors of the original sets for Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, which Baker photoshopped into an engraving of the Nationaltheater München's stage. This doesn't seem to have much to with the talk, subtitled "The Iconoclastic Mahler/Roller Production of Tristan und Isolde," but it did show how this Viennese production was a departure. He went on to speak about Adolphe Appia, the Wiener Werkstätte, and the Secessionists, all with plenty of visuals.

* Tattling *
The main purpose of this Wagner society is to wrangle tickets to the Richard-Wagner-Festspiele in Bayreuth. Sandra Molyneaux signed me up for a membership and later checked up on me to see how the day was going. She asked if I was interested in going to Bayreuth, and I must admit it is tempting. The last time I was there was in 1998 for a semester abroad, and naturally I did not have tickets to the Festspiele. It was interesting to see Bayreuth go from the quiet university town that it is most of the year to Wagnerstadt in the summer.