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The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Eric Owens as the Flying Dutchman

Dear friends and readers,

Are you someone tired of over-produced plays, movies, operas? This opera has one set, a proscenium arched rectangle which serves as backdrop for ships, the port, houses, places for dancing, and ghostly sequences. Are you tired of scenes where you are continually distracted from the characters’ personality, situation, engagement with other characters? This production leaves you to experience for lengths of time the central psychological state of each character alone and as they are in contact with others all aria long, framed by occasional eruptions of the male and female choruses. You are given a chance to savor the characters’ and the music.

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Christiane Libor as Senta

OTOH, if you are tired of symbolism, of 21st century interpretations of older material, this production will not serve as a relief. For me the quiet use of costume, prop, and pictures (set designer Giles Cadle), not to omit the racial composition of the cast to suggest that the Dutchman is not just some Gothic Wanderer, male outcast wandering amid seas, but a cynosure of the black slave of last century and the exploited and destroyed and angry and brooding black man of today made the production more meaningful.

Owens’s performance a few years ago as Alberic the dwarf in a kraken rage intended to evoke black men’s rage was repeated here — only he is not in a rage so much as as profoundly melancholy and in need. The use of red (=blood) ropes to entangle him was part of this. The drawing that Christiane Libor as Senta is so taken by reminded me of so many depictions of black men in the 19th century either as slaves or sharecroppers or stage minstrels:

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With Oscar Wilde (“contradiction is the bugbear of little minds” said he or something like that), I don’t mind contradiction. So somewhat startlingly to me who have endured so many outrageously masculinist (not to use a worse word) Wagnerian operas, as we neared the ending where Christian Libor as Senta dressed in fire-engine red is about to board the ghost ship, to follow her dutchman about for life, out came a row of whorish (from their make-up and centuries of stereotypical wigs, outfits, leering expressions, exposed breasts) frightening-looking women. They reminded me of the women imprisoned forever in Bluebeard’s Castle in the recent HD Met production of of Iolanthe & Bluebeard’s Castle. Instead of being asked to condemn Senta for her sudden withdrawal from the Dutchman, we were asked to identify with her justifiable fear. The words in the surtitles of her change-of-heart aria to Erik, whom she had been engaged to before her father was seduced by the Dutchman’s gold and had deserted, referred to her long knowledge of Erik and how much affection they had known:

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Jay Hunter Morris as Erik dressed as white southern gentleman (might have been a slave-trader from his costume)

I heard someone remark on how Senta’s father (Daland, sung by Peter Volpe) would have seemed to someone in the later 19th century acceptable and understandable, and how we saw him today as absurd, naive, over-bearing, a fool to give his daughter away like this; as with the HD Met opera, this one production attempted to address this shift in values on behalf of a women’s autonomy, and in a similar spirit. Only this heroine was strong and would not become a hag accused endlessly of infidelity. This did not quite work as the feminist interpretation of Iothanthe and Bluebeard’s Castle did not work because neither are true to the opera’s libretto or music.

This opera is about a deep longing for death, for surcease; this is Tennyson’s poetry longing for rest from too many of the world’s demands and imprisonment. The Dutchman longs to die again and again and is death he says. At the close of the opera, dressed all in white, Senta flings herself into the waters to drown. She is so distraught at the Dutchman’s fate she wants to join him in death itself now too. I cannot find any photos of this scene so will refer to the reader to expressionist drawings of this final moment of the opera:

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A couple of people around me agreed the opera was “well-sung.” There was no intermission so no let-off in build-up. A woman nearby declared it “perfect in every way.” No more detail than that. It was directed by Stephen Lawless and there are two different conductors listed. For myself I admit I thought some of phases of the male and female choruses dull (as obvious as Oklahoma in early versions): too much simpering sentiment over women cooking and sewing and admirable manly males.

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A typical choral scene of men

The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Women with spinning wheel in front

It required patience somehow for me to sit through some of it.

Nonetheless I felt good I had gone when I read in my playbill that this production was modeled upon or similar to the one done at Glimmerglass in summer 2013. I went because Jim had bought tickets for he and I to see a Flying Dutchman at Glimmerglass during the later part of the second week of August 2013. He had bought for a concert as well as Camelot. He also got two lovely rooms for us in a boarding house by a lake. We never went. By that time the cancer had metatasized into his liver for over a week and he could hardly walk from one room into another. He knew by the last week of July he would not make it but did not know why. I can’t replicate what we would have known, nor bring him back to enjoy what he would have been engaged by. But I went partly on his behalf, in his place even if I am now half a person.

I suspect he might not have liked this production that much. When we went to a recital by Owens, he said Owens could not let himself go enough, not allow himself the inherent variety that was in him because of his black identity and memories. Had to remain noble. It was probably the symbolic direction because in Porgy and Bess Owens was remarkably many-sided and brilliant.

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I recommend going if you live nearby or if the production moves to where you live, or if it’s aired, turning on the TV or your computer to watch.

Ellen

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Parallelbathroom
Anna Netrebko as Iolanta and Piotr Beczala as Count Vaudemont (Tchaikovsky); Nadja Michael as Judith and Mikhail Petrenko as Bluebeard (Bartok)

Dear friends and readers,

If you needed confirmation, in the filmed interview conducted by Peter Gelb between the two one-act operas of the singer/actors for Bluebeard’s Castle with the production designer of both, Mariusz Trelinski (a iconoclastic courageous film director, like Netrebkvo, a Russian separatist), Trelinski made the brilliancy of the coupling of the two operas plain: these are two phases in the life of one woman, not a particular psychological person, but an archetype.

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Trelinksi tries to transform the Tchaikovksy’s opera: Tchaikovsky meant us to see the utterly submissive Iolanthe, as a blind (disabled) mythic figure, whose loving father, King Rene (Ilya Bannik) mistakenly shields her from understanding she is blind, to prevent her rich suitor, the Duke of Burgundy (Aleksei Markov) from knowing about this by imprisoning her, allowing her to come into contact only with a nurse, her husband, a huntsman, and two (sneering) maids. Trelinski juxtaposes this material with Bartok’s legend of Bluebeard, the story of Judith inexplicably (she is given no past, except she has escaped her bethrothed) continually pleading with this cruel, sardonic, and murderous male to allow her deeper into his castle from door to door until she reaches a wood where she finds herself surrounded by haunted, wounded, and dead women and must remain forever herself.

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We are supposed to see Iolanta has changed one supposed benign tyrant for another as Judith has exchanged one openly fearful one for another.
Trelinski’s production reveals Tchaikovky’s supposed sentimental romantic piece is a transparently cruel story of a young woman kept helpless and obedient to a tyrannical obsessive father, King Rene (Ilya Bannik).

That Trelinkski meant the pair to be read as feminist mirrors of women’s oppression was obvious: though he was not willing explicitly to say anything concrete, even Rupert Christiansen of the Telegraph saw this. As Iolanthe began the stage was turned into a movie-screen as a black universe, with stars, flowers and figures that suggested fragility, at the bottom of which was a lovely faun, which reappeared on the screen until Iolanthe’s father murdered it and it seemed a real fleshy body bleeding to death hunt up upon a nail. There is a long tradition of equating fauns with women (e.g., Marvell’s “Nymph complaining of the death of her faun”).

As Bluebeard opened a similar film screen took over the stage, similarly blackened with fragile petals, stars, small woodland creatures, only instead of a pastoral wood with a what looked like a square shoe box as dwelling, it kept turning into fearful images of elevators, tunnels, prisons, tables where hospital like operations could be performed (Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein used the same medical imagery):

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At one point the same shoe box like square appeared but this time tiled like a bathroom (or the NYC subway), with Judith crawling on the ground, kneeling, clutching at the wall, a strong version of Iolanthe’s stumbling about. Netrebko’s outfits, a white slip, and a garish blue day dress were counterparts of Michael’s white slip and acqua blue gown.

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Both women had the same white round flowers handed to them by men. Both operas had walls covered with stuffed deer heads. So this is what all those 19th century fairy tales were covering up. At the close of Bluebeard’s Castle, Bluebeard is having sex with a mannequin half-buried in a grave in a landscape that seemed something left over from bombing in a war

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I would have liked to conclude the pairing was feminist but alas both operas resisted this imposition strongly. Had the Met opera had the nerve to end Iolanthe before the hero count persuades Iolanthe’s father to yield her up to the doctor, it might have worked for the first opera. But the second half of this play was dedicated to the still popular idea that if you believe yourself into health, have the will say not to be blind, you will be cured. This because a wonderful God has done this to you to show you just how good he is. In return, you of course must worship him abjectly.

"Iolanta"

As staged, the opera ends in this ludicrous Busby Berkeley spectacle of rays of green light like the spokes of a crown as everyone thanks God profusely — before of an unexpected and added on entry of the Trelinski’s father tyrant in a silent dumb show (so not part of the original script or singing): King Rene comes out and instead of smiling rejoicingly because his daughter’s eyesight has been restored after the hero persuaded her she wanted to see him and has been united to him, and throws out grim looks of anger and resentment.

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This shot is from earlier in the opera but it shows how the King is presented — against the grain

Bartok’s opera makes more sense if you see it as misogynistic. Judith is endlessly masochistic; she just cannot get enough intense pain; she begs for more keys to open more doors apparently so she can submit and suffer and writhe some more. Bluebeard is her God, teaching her how to experience things physically:

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Never mind that study after study has shown that the mashochistic woman who just loves abuse is a myth. The women at the close are just as hauntedly submissive as Judith; Bluebeard who is dressed (appropriate to his music) as an pleasure-loving (he smokes cigarettes, drinks wine) sardonic Citizen Kane type, more insouciantly rakish than murderous.

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During the regulation hyped interview (by Joyce DiDonato) Netrebko said she felt for her character, stumbling about helpless and indeed she was poignant; Beczala is less of a phony than many of the singers and he refused to pretend to have psychoanalyzed his part and said what was hard about it was all the high Cs. In the filmed interview with Gelb, Michael seemed aware of the contradiction of claiming a perpetually longing- punishment type as an icon for feminism as she volunteered the interpretation that Judith wanted to see within herself, and what the “the world” is for real behind doors. Gelb (like the Telegraph) seemed a bit nervous at this open explicitness of what the opera might be about, for he immediately cautioned her “not to give away the story.” It was a rare good instance of how spoiler warnings function to stop bringing meanings of story into the openly discussable.

Very unusually for the movie-house audience I have now observed for four years there was little applause at the end of either opera or after some remarkably sung arias, especially those (in my view) of the unfortunate Michael whose acting was stunning; she had to have been exhausted.

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I applauded for her but no one else did. The people around me were silent altogether. Were they embarrassed? The audience at the Met applauded now and again for some spectacular singing (it seemed to me) but did not stand up as has become the custom (the audience nowadays seems to do this to congratulate themselves for coming).

I decided to go out of curiosity. When the New York City Metropolitan opera chooses to do this kind of pairing, how they do it is significant. Izzy and I had been complaining all season of how conventional what we saw was, well, here was another instance after The Death of Klinghoffer (however in reality tame the opera is) of courage. It would be easy to make fun. Iolanta just needed to be mainstreamed and all would have been well. Bluebeard needed to stop imitating gangsters from movies and Judith their faux-glamorous beat-up molls. I prefer to take seriously what took itself seriously: these are two productions saturated with unexamined assumptions about disease and women, the first exposing teleological absurdities, the second genuinely mirroring a deep sickness in the images we are surrounded by in popular and high art. Torture came to mind; they were torturous, so appropriate to our political landscape today? I was relieved to escape when they were over.

I wonder what Jim would have thought of it. Had he and Izzy come with me (she didn’t come either) they’d have discussed the music and perhaps the singing. I found nothing thrilling about the 19th century opera and do not wonder it has rarely been performed since it was first paired (and then dropped from) the Nutcracker Suite. As for Bartok’s music, it seemed to me harsh and dissonant. I can’t say I enjoyed anything, perhaps the images of fawns at the opening of the first opera were touching; I was genuinely horrified when what made to seem an apparently real faun was knifed to death and hung and when Bluebeard was having sex with the mannequin.

Ellen

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One of Renee Fleming’s stand-up numbers: it’s of a magical child who has left the singer: “how could you leave me alone” the refrain – stop and click and listen ….

Dear friends and readers,

When today while Yvette and I were watching the HD opera broadcast of the latest new HD production, Lehar’s The Merry Widow, starring Fleming as Hanna, I recalled to mind one night years ago. Jim and I were in a live audience somewhere and had been listening to a live act on stage of male rock-n-roll well-known singers; they ceased, and Pavarotti came on stage and began to sing. It was startling, just felt like he was knocking you off your seat. Jim began to laugh aloud so superior were they to all this noise, microphones and all. We were in the first row, and I may have imagined it but I thought he caught Pavarotti’s eye for a moment.

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Fleming early in the first act — in the later scenes her many changes of costumes included no widow’s weeds

So too after I don’t know how many minutes of trivial supposed funny dialogue (some of which thudded badly or was not pointed enough, especially between Sir Thomas Allen as the count, and Mark Schowalter as the winking perhaps gay servant, Njegus), and Fleming was brought on. Kelli O’Hara (playing the count’s perhaps unfaithful wife) was just pathetic in comparison, her voice one reedy stream, until towards the middle of the third act she came out with a can-can costume amid the chorus of Broadway dancers and did a powerful effective wry playfully sexy number

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What depth of feeling was pulled out of this production (and there was some) was mostly the result of Fleming’s songs, Fleming’s singing when she intones “The Merry Widow Waltz” and “Off to Maxim’s” her voice vibrates with alluring trembling trills. She just outdistanced them all. I fell to crying three times, real crying, the yearning for romance, and the lied refrain “how could you leave me alone” just entered into me.

Somehow the love story between the two aging principals, Nathan Gunn as Danilo and Fleming does start to move us gradually — alas Fleming’s face and neck are starting to show her age and she is uncomfortably stiff when dancing just a little or being pulled back to be kissed; Gunn is none to lithe. The waltz music helped — on the way home Yvette began to hum or sing the musical line; how lovely her voice sounded.


A finer rendition than anything in this production: Placido Domingo (he sings with delicacy) and Ricio Martinez, Rio, 2014

Towards the end of the second act the rousing dance numbers begin, some by the men in a kind of mock chorus: what is it that makes women so strange — and yes, not to be trusted (that stereotype duly trotted out). Gary Halvorson, the director for live cinema (never mentioned in any of the increasingly hyped interviews), took all the right shots. It was fun to watch the stage change from a garden to Maxim’s while the curtains remained open — through keeping our attention on the dancers as all around them the props and settings moved.

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Susan Stroman, whose origins as a Broadway choreographer were repeated too often (as well as her and everyone else’s endless awards), nonetheless deserved credit for the risqué nature of the dancing which was suggestive as well as exhilarating.

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The production’s hard-working dancing grisettes — in 19th century France grisettes were also hard-working women, sometimes milliners, or seamstresses who made ends meet by quiet prostitution on the side (it paid for your lodging)

At its best moments this operetta is a slightly heavy-handed but effective comedy with occasional brushes with romance that can still, just, reach us.

So, mark another highly conventional opera done traditionally for HD (“embalmed” said one critic). I remarked to Yvette that we were told before the broadcast began 37 school districts from around the US were watching. Before the intermission, the lack of any actuating believable emotion made for tedium. But after well-timed performances and “mistakes of the night” kind of humor also kept things going. Perhaps they could have used a bit more stylization. It’s too much to hope for re-thinking and making it contemporary (which they might have done in a European house — who knows?)

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I also thought (once again) of Downton Abbey. Was this not the same kind of pastiche, pastoral of upper class life, where hardly anyone can be seen doing anything transgressive for real, though they are all running about as if they are about to; where we are told the characters need huge sums of money because their “country” is threatened by bankruptcy, but far from deprivation, all there is in sight is luxury. In the house on camera shots, Yvette spotted the dress circle seats she and I had occupied while we saw the Death of Klinghoffer — at considerable more expense and effort.

It is grating how each time a hostess begins her major spiel for money to an HD audience, she emphasizes that no matter how wonderful the experience of this broadcast, it is nothing, NOTHING, to being in the house. The obtuse tastelessness and dishonesty (for the movie experience is in some ways far better and interesting, except for the irritating false upbeat pseudo-depth talk in most of the interviews) of this is matched by the reality of opera as an elite entertainment; if occasionally it crossed your mind (as it did mine in this production) to wonder about the parallels between street life in Austro-Hungarian cities in 1905 to street life today in New York or other cities across the US, it became harder to push the thought away. Capitalist bourgeoisie at play. Satieted rhythms in the songs.

When I cry at these movies for real, I find the people near me get uncomfortable quickly. People can bear very little reality. I could go on about the falseness of this stereotype of the merry widow. But Lehar was not a fool, and the story concerns a very young woman, a farmer’s daughter, poor, married off to a very old man who died on the honeymoon. If she marries, her fortune reverts to her husband. And in life in the 19th century widows often could not control who would inherit their money. So no possibility of grief? and yet these haunting lyrical lines recur starting at the end of the first act.

I’ll be teaching the Poldark novels and film adaptations (now we’ve got two!) this coming March at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University, and browsing the catalogue discovered a course in the Met opera seasons (apparently given regularly) where the practice is to watch those Met operas available on DVD not made into HD broadcasts (this year The Death of Klinghoffer, called “controversial”). Discussion then includes HD broadcasts as a comparison plus local operas (complete with a few guest speakers). An effort is made to discuss those operas not broadcast: I hope it is not on behalf of the idea that we must see the opera live to experience it most wonderfully as after all they are going to be using DVDs but rather to look into the choices and the different kinds of presentations HD-broadcast leads to.

Inrehearsal
Kelli O’Hara and the dancers during rehearsal — seen in a previous HD-opera as part of an intermission

Ellen

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Anothercast
Michael Volle as Hans Sachs (with a different soprano in the role of Eva than the production we saw today)

Dear friends and readers,

I thought I’d record that Yvette and I spent 6 long hours watching Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (to give Wagner’s opera its full title) today at our local HD movie-theater. Neither of us hardly ever drowsed off — I observed a number of people half-dozing at times. Two people in our row left after the second act. It was an utterly unimaginative production not quite rescued by the intelligent acting and realism and singing of Michael Volle.

OperaMichael Volle

Speaking for myself I found the second act charmed me by the touching and human psychological interactions of the principle characters, especially the Volle as the older intelligent witty passionate complex character of a cobbler Hans Sachs genuinely in love with Eva (Anne Dasch in the production we saw), the daughter of his friend) who herself seems torn between Sachs and the lifeless stiltedly acted and (it mattered) unattractive Johan Botha as a supposed dazzling Knight-poet Walther von Stolzino.

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The scene is a street in a picturesque fairy tale German-like town, Hans is making shoes for the coming wedding of Eva and whoever wins her as a prize in a coming singing contest, and along comes a master-singer, Johannes Martin Kranzle as an emasculated over-sensitive and therefore mocked suitor-contestant Sixtus Beckmasser intending to serenade Eva at a window. Some of the wall of music in this and the third act swooningly as well as some of the comic singing and hammering away by Volle appealed to me, was amusing. Also the overt theme of how valuable original poetry which does not follow rules or conventions is (Wagner thinking of himself) appealed to me as well as some of the romantic lyrics (a leider-like song attributed to and sung by the Knight-Poet Walther).

Renee Fleming’s interview of Volle showed him to be a deep feeling singer who had given a lot of thought to his role as a man in love with a much younger woman who gives her up (as he foresees he will be a Mark to her Isolde). The interview of the production design person who talked of this 1990s pre-computer set, watching it put up, and then a rehearsal of the dancing (Kelli O’Hara as lead, Deborah Voight interviewer):

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and an interview with a costume designer for the coming new production of The Merry Widow starring Fleming were entertaining.

Had Jim been alive he’d have certainly been there; I remember half-sleeping through a Meistersinger next to him where he stayed up for all of it I’m not sure where. He would have understood and listened to the music as Yvette seemed to.

Jim joined the Wagner Society of Washington DC here in DC shortly after he retired and envisaged us going to its lectures and concerts and yearly full weekend get-aways; and was bitterly hurt when after a second year of going to all its events, supporting it with money, we were clearly at the last moment excluded from their weekend (they held onto his check for it, some $500 until a week before when he said they must have at last had enough people for this event so they need not include us). He had thought here was a semi-popular cultural group we could attend, pretend to belong to. What was wrong with us I’ll never know — I did talk a lot on the one weekend we attended to a hired photographer-historian who shared my political outlook; maybe this was frowned upon. Maybe we weren’t important enough in any way. The snobbery of this society and the way the leaders behaved sycophantically to the supposed civic or political or cultural leaders of this or that place was without awareness. I was aware of how the fascism of Wagner, his anti-feminism (by the women there) was just ignored in all the talks about Wagner operas. I bring this experience up to expose this Wagner Society of Washington DC for doing that to him, and also show how much he was willing to endure to participate in the music of Wagner with the occasional person who knew something about it.

I’d like to think he might have agreed this production was hopelessly dull; the first act of the masters arguing over the coming contest was without drama — even Renee Fleming, the hostess could find nothing beyond vague hype about how “special” and “wonderful” this Wagnerian production was as she talked to the dull Kranzle and at least honest Dasch (she admitted the part was small, the psychology simple). In his filmed interview Levine kept going using the same contentless words. The third act went on for an interminable 2 hours: each of the major characters visits Sachs before the contest begins and while the interaction leads to the climax, each phase not only went on repetitively, but predicted the over-long heavy-handed climax with its gestures of gaiety, priggish self-righteousness at someone not wanting to join something, scorn of weakness and then insistence of how important it was to respect even conventional guilds and Germanness.

For me the HD film close-ups and surtitles made this another first time to see and understand an opera I’ve watched before and really gotten little out of. I was surprised to discover that Yvette didn’t like the second act: she thought it could have been a lot funnier. Very “uninventive.” She too felt it could have been half as long.

Not that anyone who matters in making new productions of this opera will pay attention to this blog, but I’ll still make the suggestion it needs not only to be wholly re-designed using modern symbolic staging but someone needs to take seriously its riveting interest is the erotic relationship between Eva and Hans. Wagner’s words do not call for Hans to act avuncular; and she asks him to marry her more than once and seems to prefer him to this suitor of hers in the third. Almost the whole of the first act could be eliminated, whole sections of the third, and if it cannot be cut, at least the mockery of Beckmesser could be cut down, made less snarky (he’s a kind of Mr Moseley character for anyone who watched Downton Abbey). There was no undercutting of the intense patriarchy of the male roles, but Karen Cargill, an Irish soprano as Magdalene, sister to Eva, showed some comic gifts:

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Yvette and I caught sight of the dress circle we sat in when we were at the Met in mid-November, and she said she liked that she could now imagine where the various places filmed were in relation to what we had walked through.

I wonder when these opera companies who broadcast through HD will admit that filming for audiences makes them change how these operas are directed. The one person never interviewed in any of these productions is the person called “the live HD director,” this time Matthew Diamond. It is egregiously obvious that blocking and entrances and exits and choreography is done with movie needs as well as in-house stage limitations and sets in mind.

Ellen

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Twomen
Omar and Klinghoffer (from the National English Opera production)

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Protests at the Metropolitan Opera house on opening night

Dear friends and readers,

It’s hard to know how to treat this opera since as a result of intense pressure from Jewish, particularly those supporting the present and previous right-wing Israeli organizations put sufficient relentless financial and social pressure on the Met as to cause them to not air it on the HD network (thus depriving thousands of people around the globe to see the opera for themselves) and to bring an halt to productions at the Met itself. (It has played in many others, from England to Scotland to Prague, and doubtless will continue to do so all the more.) At any rate Yvette and I saw the last big production in the US for some time to come, this past Saturday afternoon, November 15th.

What I have to tell those who come to this blog is that far from being a provocative, anti-semite inciting viscerally dramatic opera, The Death of Klinghoffer bends over backwards not to be overtly empathetic towards any group of people or individuals aboard ship. It’s a choral piece, much in the tradition of Copeland’s The Tender Land and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, only there is even less dramatic action and creation of individual personalities. Only 4 characters are made individual: Klinghoffer, his wife, Marilyn (Micheala Martens), a woman now famous for having hidden out in her cabin the whole time (Theodora Hanslowe?); a British dancer (Kate Miller-Heidke) by happenstance one of Omar’s prisoners who is eager for “ciggies” from him.

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The Palestinians remain archetypes and are presented as teaching killing (while Jewish armies are forgotten). Death of Klinghoffer is a mild, indeed in some ways tame meditative and lyric opera: its center is the captain (Paul Szot) as neutral narrator (he has a podium he sings from) and the story and action, such as it is (beautiful filmed waters on three sides of the stage, graffiti filled walls, light and dawn and evening shows) is punctuated continually by the beautiful music and singing of the Palestinian chorus of exiled people, and the Jewish one of people come to Israel after horrific misery in Europe during WW2.

The actual history behind the incident is well-known, easy of access: 4 young Palestinian men in 1985 hijacked a ship and 400 passengers and threatened to kill everyone unless Israel exchanged these captives with his brother and other male relatives. In the event they killed but one man, but the elderly helplessly crippled one: all else emerged unharmed. The opera takes into account the English-sidekick to US role: the Palestinians threaten UK as well as US and Jewish people. Three of the Palestinian men were later arrested and tried and allowed to go to their homeland (relatively free). Adams presents so little about the Palestinian case (so we learn very little about what was at stake in the negotiating bargain) — for every Palestinian chorus there is a Jewish one.

I immediately asked myself, why this incident when there are so many others of thousands and thousands killed and murdered Palestinians and “other Arab people”: 250 at one blow (on Reagan’s “watch”) is more like it. Why nothing of Jewish conscription and the constrained lives of Jews in this “fortress” state? In lieu of a continuous storyline, the three walls of the stage had a light show taking us through announced years (sometimes just the year showed, as in 1967), graffiti on walls, the waters of the sea rising and falling, night and then dawn. There was a chorus of male dancers representing writhing Palestinian young men; the four hijackers were archetypal presences (Aubrey Allicock as Mahmoud sung of his bonding with migrating birds). The concentration though was on Klinghoffer and his wife, ever focused on by light and given the individuating startling and moving arias.

A scene from The Death Of Klinghoffer by English National Opera and Metropolitan Opera

Though the poignant figure etched in the visual memory is of the Jewish man who dies facing the sky in his chair (providing the advertisement poster) and in sound memory his wife’s two arias.

Yet I have not been so sincerely moved by an opera in years. It was a bold courageous move not to offer us a mythic metaphor of a story, but at least give us the outlines of a story that really happened. Thus the realities of rich middle class people, here a number of Jews and British who can afford to go on an expensive cruise (ship fuelled by oil, the natural resource the the elite powerful of the US and other NATO countries have been destroying all social and democratic movements to keep control of) is simply part of the givens. Each of the characters spoke as individuals; I was rendered riveted by Mrs Klinghofer’s final widow grieving aria, especially lines, “I live in him” and “I wanted to die,” and thought I heard the voice of Adams in her words about the medical establishment’s indifference to his suffering — all everyone cared for was their payment, their profit, with a sudden interjection about profit centered research (as such a woman would put it.)! I understood why the Palestinians picked on Klinghoffer: Klinghoffer’s scolding is that of the ignorant man: he inveighs against the hijackers as simply killers, thugs; he denies they have any justification, that their houses were worth anything. Adams had the courage to show the man to have been obnoxious against the Palestinians harassing and terrifying the hostages with threats of death, blindfolds, guns held to their heads and the like.

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The opening Palestinian chorus a stunner protesting the originating incidents in 1948 a stunner. No as powerful as the Jews fleeing Europe and the death camps with a few thing or none to the promise of the desert where they would irrigate and make a new world. The Palestinians were treated as equal human beings — there was a remarkably beautiful aria by two singers who represented Palestinian women, one whose house had been destroyed in 1948 and the other the mother of Omar, one of the highjackers (an angry one, urging him to kill if needed in order to get the demands taken seriously).

OmarMotherKlinghoffer
From the opera: Omar Jesse Kovarsky), his mother (Maya Lahyani), and Klinghoffer (Alan Opie) seen in the picturesque distance

Omar has a sort of friendship with one of the British dancers who sings — there were 6 British dancers on board. The dancing of Omar was wrenching; the music beautiful and light and water and film effective, melancholy.

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A matching Jewish chorus: remembering the holocaust

We had come to NYC for Yvette to experience the real opera house, and since The Death of Klinghoffer was removed from HD operas broadcast (and the mediocrity of a Rossini concoction substituted) we chose this weekend. We were in dress circle seats an experience in itself: it was hard to get to them, and we were in an overhang on the third tier so we saw both stage and (if this were still done) the opera house itself beautifully. We were cut off from the left side of the stage (partial view). Yvette’s blog-review worth reading in this regard (her experience from her spot). There was a kind of strangeness and stiltedness as if Adams was continually pulling his punches lest he offend someone important somewhere. It was a kind of staged masque:

THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER

How to account for the tameness of this piece? fear of reprisal if too truthful and searing? I object to the lack of hard violence by both sides and the situating of the Jewish chorus too early so later realities and cruelties beyond shame (in Gaza and the West Bank) omitted. Such an opera if people would watch would be useful: yet I am told there are Americans who Foxnews and the like have taught to looks upon Palestinian people as “cockroaches.” Operas are supposed to reveal grief, teach compassion, sing out the vulnerability of its characters (and occasionally even composers), though they rarely set their action in the here and now and an actual incident.

It was stimulating to really be there; Yvette said the voices sounded better and she seemed to enjoy being there: I dislike the elitism one comes up against as part of each experience from eating (each cafe callibrated to a specific income group), to lingering on the balcony; you can’t just go into the central cafe but must reserve and have tickets for that day; the shop was a replica of the Kennedy Center in its commercialism. It did seem to have far more CDs and DVDs. More: the way this incident was hyped up in the program notes unreal. Phrases like “horrible barbaric” and others suggesting some catastrophe of immeasurable proportions when it was a case of 400 people all of whom but one survived unharmed. No talk whatsoever about atrocities for real. Instead the program notes had a story about Stalin’s repression of Verdi’s Don Carlos as if to deflect attention. None of this Adams’s doing. He came on stage that afternoon Yvette and I were there. I hope the opera was filmed and eventually can come out on DVD and thus be shown to a much wider segment of the US population.

Adams

It is a disgrace that the Met did not broadcast this opera as an HD presentation, and has shut down further performances — the direct result of the relentless political powers and economic realities (no one dares to buck anyone connected into the 1% of US media and money today). I foolishly became a member of the Met this year. I thought to be sure and get tickets to HD operas this way, but there is no need and I won’t do so again. I understand the Met’s economic difficulties but they demanded their tech people take cuts in salaries and benefits while the stars were politely asked if they would …

I can’t deny it was something to be there literally though the misery of young Palestinian man forced to shoot (reminding me of Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad) and the cries of the cancerous woman (Mrs Klinghoffer is dying of cancer) whose crippled suffering husband could have been so easily taken out would have been more accessible (oddly) had we seen it in a plain movie-house, though then again we would have had to endure the hype in the form of interviews in the intermissions.

Confiteor

I heard something out by the gate
and went to look.
Dead of night; new snow, the larch woods
filling slowly, stars beneath the stars.

A single cry it was, or so it seemed,
though nothing I had recognised as native;
and when it came again, I knew for sure.
No badger there. No gathering of deer.

Forgive me, if! choose not to believe
the snow would fall like this, were I not here
to see it.
There might be snow, of course, but not like this,

no hush between the fence line and the trees,
no sense of something other close at hand,
my dwindling torch-beam flickering between
a passing indigo and lux aetema.

I stood a while to listen; nothing moved
– and then I turned and walked back to the house,
the porch light spilling gold for yards around,
snow at the open door and then, again,

that far cry in the dark
behind my back
and deep in the well of my throat
as I live and breathe.
— John Burnside

Read Alice Goodman Reflections on her libretto.

Ellen

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PorgyandBess
The San Francisco Opera production, with Eric Owens as Porgy and Lester Lynch as Crown

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Metropolitan Opera production of Le Nozze, with (most notable performance) Peter Mattei as the Count

Dear friends and readers,

The other night I was saying to Yvette as we sat down to our supper together and she channeled onto her ipad a station playing beautiful opera music (it happened to be Wagner’s Die Meistersinger for which we did buy HD-tickets), we have not heard or watched a full opera in ever so long — that is, if you exclude last week’s Great Performance on PBS of a splendid Sweeney Todd with (most notable performance) Emma Thompson. Well, we made up for this a little this weekend.

Friday night we watched a truly superb rendition of Gerswin’s 1930’s lyrical opera, Porgy and Bess. You have five more days to watch it here (start now if you can, or come back soon):

http://video.pbs.org/video/2365348853/

The meditative feel of the music reminded me of an Aaron Copeland opera Jim and I saw years ago, The Tender Land (1954), also an ensemble piece. The opera has flaws: stereotyping of black people in a condescending way, a couple seen writ much larger in the appalling Amos ‘n Andy TV show; Gershwin with the help of (mostly) Suzan Lori-Parks as librettist, assumes that women have no agency at all when it comes to choosing a sexual partner: Bess (Laquita Mitchell — not her fault) is depicted as helpless against her attraction to a mean Crown (Lester Lynch), only able to defy him because he is so violent and awful in comparison with the generous disabled Porgy (Eric Owens) who is driven to murder Crown:

deathscene

Porgy risks all (because the white men in this world as as viciously in charge of an unjust criminal system then as now); but while he is away she is unable to resist the temptation of drugs offered by Sporting Life (played wittily, vibrantly by Chauncey Paker — who has a resonant individual voice):

SPORTING-LIFE

Despite this it’s a serious opera, meaning to be genuinely reflective and respectful towards working class black people’s lives down south in the 1930s, genuinely critical of the white establishment. The music is often gorgeous, haunting. I was moved to discover there is a widow’s long lament for a husband unjust cut off:

widowslament

Especially strong (no surprise there) was Eric Owens who gave his disabled character a real living presence: he is not simply or not a saint. Much of his heroism is quiet. The story takes a while to become prominent and drama take over, but when it does, Owens endows his character with strength, manly dignity (for lack of a better term) and when at the close of the opera, he finally gets the people around him to tell him where Bessy has gone (New York City, envisaged as this dangerous large place) he sets off walking on his crutch to rescue Bessy from herself, I felt very moved.

This morning reading about tragedy in the opening two essays in the recent PMLA (actually readable and relevant, even provocative) brought home to me how the depiction of the working poor in Porgy and Bess reminded me of Daniel Auteil’s recent stunningly beautiful film adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s 1930s Marius (about fisherman in the Marseilles area): again the work depends on a group of peasant stereotypes, working class people all fundamentally finally good, and there is an idealization of the life of fisher people in the Marseilles area but this does not begin to give the feel of the story — wrenching manipulation and suspense is part of it too. It endows these characters with archetypal dignity and their conflicts and troubles capture our own memories and feelings. Maybe this descendent from Italian verismo books and operas was part of the 1930s socialist movements.

Auteil and Zambello’s direction is daring, the characters are allowed to feel fully, to have tender subtleties and witty nuances as in the characters of Jake (Eric Green) and Clara (Angel Blue) and their baby: he goes out fishing in bad weather and she seeing he is at risk, rushes out to stop and to save him, and both drown. “Summertime” is Clara’s song.

I wish I could say the same for this new production of Le Nozze di Figaro. It struck me that one response of the Metropolitan film people (including the man who directs the films for the cinema and is never interviewed, Gary Halverson) to having their operas beamed across the world is to play whatever is the material utterly safe. The bye-word: never offend anyone if you can possibly help it, and the way to do this is, especially when you have a “warhorse” opera which comes with a baggage of expectations, stick with a broadly traditional rendition, to the point of blandness. I love this opera, and have seen many performances with Jim — I have in the house a full thick yellow book of the script and musical score he would read to himself. One stands out in my memory aired on PBS around Christmas time at least 15 years ago, also a live staged opera performance filmed. it was very funny, but it was also warm, emotional, with the characters complex while corresponding to satiric and opera types.

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A typical stiff screen shot of the group

In this production, you could be forgiven if you took the first half to have been rewritten by Rossini. It was not quite all dense farce, because you cannot omit the Countess’s melancholy aria, but one wondered where that came from. The singer, Amanda Majeski as the Countess, had a frozen face throughout the opera with her mouth held just so to make the notes exquisitely right, but as to any expression of emotion on her face, forget it. I didn’t blame her as Isabel Leonard playing Cherubino had a similarly frozen expression on her face: salacious wit had she none. Jim used to say his favorite character in the opera was Cherubino: this performance allowed no ambiguities because it had no complexities: she was simply scared or “in love” with Barbarina (Ying Fang). There was not a single scene which suggested intimacy with the countess. I usually dislike saying an actress-singer is too old for the part, but the way Marlis Peterson as Susannah was directed, she really came across as a stiff vexed tired servant:

SusannaCherubino
Leonard referred to “my” countess, but there was little intimacy between Cherubino and the countess; rather the pair were Susannah and Cherubino somehow working at something

As Susannah she was glad of a rest once in a while (as if she were Anna Smith Bate in Downton Abbey) when with the countess or her protective Figaro, played as broadly as Majeski and Leonard did theirs by Ildar Abdrazakov. I saw him last year as the Ivor in Prince Borodin and know he can do better. The only performer to escape this Rossini farce vise was Mattei and I had to wonder was if the result was to vindicate the proud amoral count Beaumarchais’s play and Mozart’s opera were meant to expose and ridicule.

Peter-Mattei
Peter Mattei during his opera — most of the time he was directed to look like a 1930s kind of lout

The second act was much better. Both leading men had arias with depths of emotion as they expressed their versions of manliness under travail (Mattei especially good at indignation and anger), and with this music still lingering, Majeski’s aria alone and then writing the letter with Peterson as Susanna (exquisitely lovely music) had resonance. The pace ironically was slower as if the director worried if they moved too fast we, a presumed dim audience, would not understand who and what was being mixed up in the night. The roundabout stage was moved back and forth as a kind of underlining as the characters worked to make it clear who had the wrong costume and veil on.

The putting the characters in 1930s outfits changed nothing of the meaning of the opera — as the use of Frank Sinatra and his crew’s stereotypes similarly changed nothing of Rigoletto last year: even deliberately lost some of the bite as the disabled condition of the hunchback was underplayed. In the San Francisco production Porgy is a cripple and for better and worse treated as such.

The most genuine moments in this HD film came in the intermission. When Renee Fleming had hyped and flattered to the point of embarrassment, Abradazkov suddenly said the experience of playing together in practice had been boring. This was turned around to be an ironic joke — of course he didn’t mean that. But it did stop Fleming in her tracks of adulation. There was a film of James Levine interviewed by Gelb in a chair built to enable Levine to sit up: Levine’s shook slightly as he talked and he noticed, this so began to hold them firm to stop their wandering. He tried to discuss this group of performers and production in plain language, all the while looking like a man who been through death, and lives with it daily and nightly.

Audiences matter in a live performance. The Met audience was the usual New York City crowd. There were no outbursts of ravishment during the production and the applause at the end while strong (after all tickets cost), had nothing to suggest anything special had happened. It hadn’t. Inside our movie-house theater, people weren’t applauding all that much, many were getting up to leave.

In the San Franciso audience though I did see something to remark: it was troubling to me to see that I could not spot one African-American or black person in the theater. Yvette offered the explanation that we rarely see black people at the opera; and perhaps it was too expensive, maybe less black people live in San Francisco than we realize. But in my experience when a work has only a few black cast members who are central this will attract black people to become part of their audience. Owens said in his candid way in his interview on-line he has become so used to performing with all white casts, he begins to forget everyone around him is white and now to perform with an all-black cast brought home to him his forgetting. (I’d use the word unconscious self-alienation: when I lived in the UK for a couple of years, similarly American accents began to sound funny to me, yet I still had an American accent, if it was gradually being changed by Yorkshire rhythms and vowels. And would have more had I stayed.) I know young black people will have read Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin so white art can become part of their classics. Does Porgy and Bess not speak to black Americans? the way it was directed and performed every effort was made to transcend the stereotypes and produce something fresh.

Ellen

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cover

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been in the habit of treating the presentations I’ve heard over the last months at the Washington Area Print Group (a subdivision of the Sharp society) in rooms in the Library of Congress on my Sylvia blog (e.g., a talk on Writing with Scissors) as part of a diary, but thought the topic of this talk sufficiently germane to the terrain of this blog as it’s developed (see The Way We Watch TV Now) to warrant summary and commentary here.

Prof Metcalf developed an aspect of his book, the relationship of technology and economics with the kind of narrative that appears on TV. so the burden of his song was: Changes in technology and economics within TV have changed the way TV is made and how we experience it. He delivered his talk entertainingly — accompanied by many many stills.

He began with what TV was and had shots of older TVs in their wooden furniture. In the 1950s TV represented a central threat to the film industry, whose first ploys were teen films, big spectacles and 3-D movies. TV sold its product as one safe for a family in its private living room; the language was that the program was invited into this sanctuary. TV was radio with pictures and sought to reinforce culutral values of the family. In the US its purpose was to provide eyes and ears to watch and to see commercials.

A central writer for US TV at the time was Paul S. Newman who understood the particular format of TV programs meant characters couldn’t undergo transformation over a season as this would be disruptive and defeat the repeated expectation of sameness. He was superb at writing a structure not easy to do: you must produce a segment which moves to a peak at its end, yet at the same time be self-enclosed; you must avoid lulls because at any time the person can switch using the remote. Admittedly this structure does not necessarily make for great art (an understatement).

The BBC developed differently. It was paid for by millions of individuals who had licenses to watch TV, so it was commercial free. Its aims were education, elevation and entertainment. Traditional theater could appear on British TV much more easily; its purse was to question. There developed a tradition of challenging the audience. Programs were not meant to be re-used, re-run. In the US each program was developed with the idea of endless re-use. Total contrast.

The first long-form TV came from PBS and Masterpiece theater, which Metcalf thought unfortunate. He called British costume drama boring for most people, staid. He never mentioned any specifically after that. It was a commercial channel which offered a model others could follow: Hill Street Blues. Male soap operas. (
For myself I love the PBS costume drama format and disagree fundamentally with Metcalf: these have been influential for good art. What is the problem is Metcalf speaks for the male viewer without awareness of this.)

Hill_Street_Blues_Cast
The cast of Hill Street Blues, all men but two and these women dressed to look like men

People (he should have said “men”) were invited to watch the suffering of men. A typical episode would have the on-going A story (over the arc of the season), within the episode a story which concludes, and 3 other shorter on-going stories (B, C, and D, generally taking 3 episodes). He named a series of male-centered programs — like so many film critics I’ve encountered (many of them men), most of what he then cited was masculinist, not to say (not admitted) misogynist stuff. He also cited Wise Guy, The Fugitive. You need the mythos (the ongoing myth) and free standing episodes within that. Like others he then credited Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective (Michael Gambon) as quietly influential ever after. It used the situation comedy of the hospital ward as developed in British TV. He mentioned The Sopranos. These are versions of instalment publication (began in Victorian era). I suggested that Breaking Bad had departed from this in having one long story with two parallel heroes for 42 episodes. That’s part of what made it powerful and great art.

He also talked of the influence of the “concept album,” where all the music centered on coherent themes. At the same time itunes and downloading enable viewers to select a segment or episode or single song to listen to. We’ve moved back from the album concept to the single. What happened in the CD world (especially MTV) influenced what happened in the mini-series TV and DVD worlds.

What changed this situation? First, the cable companies who offered good and recent movies (“premium”), and in the 1980s in both Hollywood and the UK films were transformed by new ideals, technologies, independence. Prof Metcalf thought the advent of remote control devices next pushed writers into writing segmented TV: the point is to allow switching back and forth. (Which I dislike; once I sit down to watch a program I mean to watch that program until it’s done.) Then the VCR player ($1389) which allowed people to tape say the HBO movie. But this cannot compete with the DVD — which allows the film-makers to market their product divided up into serving sizes. You can curate your own TV. Many people now have a movie screen on their wall for their TV watching so they are imitating a movie experience.

The talk became more original when he began to talk of what the DVD has done to movies. For example, what is the authoritative version of a movie? You can buy Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad in a huge box with the hour-long episodes with commentary on, with deleted scenes, with features showing how an episode was made, what were the aims of the film-makers, and an alternative ending. I mentioned that I had bought Michael Winterbottom’s 6 part Trip to Italy to discover that the film-maker had gathered all the deleted scenes and then arranged them thematically to provide another half-hour of programming. A DVD in effect can be seen as providing manuscripts of the programs as well as later polished versions. They are packaged to look like books, to sit on shelves in a bookcase. Prof Metcalf suggested that the DVD which provides the largest amount of programming is what is seen as authoritative. We are paying more attention to screenplays as these are published and we can gather the precise lay out and emotional structure, study dialogue and description, montage. Very gradually both US and UK TV began the practice of hiring stars to shore up long-form stories.

The way we watch TV changed the TV we watch. The mini-series are now manufactured with DVDs and DVD watching in mind.

To some extent the talk degenerated at this point because he and the audience began to talk of favorite mini-series, which (again) were mostly masculinist, most of them produced for commercial TV. This reminded me of how in other places I’ve been women are unwilling to criticize the violence and misogyny of computer games, will let the men take over discussing football — for there were as many women in the audience as men. Implicitly the BBC and PBS took a beating, which brought home to me how many of these sorts of programs are aimed at women or at least have the female audience at least as much in mind. Many of the series were clearly highly violent. Three aggressive looking males on the covers of the DVDs.

But as he talked the BBC and British programming emerged as centrally providing quality to imitate and modify to an American model. He differentiated between mini-series that had a single person controlling the vision, and that still happens in British TV where a single author or at most 3 authors will write the scripts and the script writer become the organizing linchpin of what is done) and one that was the result of a fluid team of people. He also talked of how now that the soap operas has become a province for male suffering, comedy is a place for women to vent and expose issues of concern to them (Sex and the City, Nurse Betty).

Sarah_Jessica_Parker_in_Sex_and_the_City-_The_Movie_Wallpaper_11_800
This promotional shot justifies Laura Mulvey’s famous paper about how film caters to the male gaze

American TV stopped in the 1950s but British TV continues to present live performances from the theater. The acerbic British TV sitcom may be regarded as dropped into melodrama to produce modern versions of say Sherlock Holmes. Someone mentioned how the rape story in the Downton Abbey fourth season outraged people; Metcalf was interested in how such an incident often covers but 3 episodes.

Some series especially praised and discussed: The Wire, for women and men, The Gilmore Girls (this appears to be a blend of screwball comedy and melodramatic romance, reminding me of Austen films). Clive Owens in Knick, a Steve Sodenberg product: Sodenberg did everything but write the screenplay and act in the series. Metcalf noted that again and again if you watch an individual episode it may seem funny, light, but when you watch the arc of the season, the series comes out as more serious, at times implicitly tragic (or explicitly as Breaking Bad). The good do win or if they go down to defeat we feel for them and there is sensitivity to beauty. These citations did bring out how often a Network or producer will cancel a mini-series that seems to be doing so well, getting so much praise. Why? the audience demographics are too old: they will not buy the products. The show is there for the commercials. The corporations making these are not content with modest or high profits; they want huge ones. (This is the sort of thinking that did in the rentals of books-on-tape and the choices of middle-brow excellent books not best-sellers nor high prestige old classics.) Lost leaders are programs which are made to attract people knowing they will make less money, but gather an audience who will remain loyal to the station for a while.

I enjoyed the talk though recognized the skewed nature of the presentation (of the examples). Afterward when a group of us went over to a restaurant to have dinner together the talk really did stay on the topic, on the TV people watch and how they watch. In this group many watched TV on their computers, as part of Netflix or streaming deals. When it did get down to what people really watched among this group, it was late night viewing (after all work was done and the person could do no more) of less avante garde popular shows. Metcalf said he watches all his viewing on his computer on some special channel where he can reach programs and movies made in a variety of countries across the decades.

What am I watching late at night just now? Ken Taylor’s Jewel in the Crown out of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, directed and produced by Christopher Morahan.

Therapedheroine
Susan Woolridge as Daphne Manners the raped heroine

theherotreatedunjustly
Art Malik as Hari Kumar, the deeply betrayed unjustly treated hero – it made his career

CharlesDanceGeraldineJames
Charles Dance and Geraldine James as our traditional white couple

These brilliant 1970s series didn’t make it into Prof Metcalf’s narrative …. This would include the 74 Pallisers (a Simon Raven product) and Poldark (written by several people and it departs a lot in sexual detail and the ending from the books, but directed and produced by the same men) — both ran on US TV in the same year. The book of essays coming out on BBC costume historical drama which includes mine on Andrew Davies’s two adaptations of Trollope novels credits the 1967 Forsyte Saga and its popularity with starting the long decades of making such films, recently fallen off here in the US because of lack of money — so one gets thrillers instead. Downton Abbey has not been enough to re-start the engine for making mini-series from classic books. It is itself not an adaptation after all. The Singing Detective actually belongs to this narrative too.

But it was nonetheless instructive to listen to (Prof Metcalf knows a lot about TV) and I wish I could afford the book.

Ellen

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