Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Gadjo’s Night At The Opera

Following Gyppo Byard’s initiative and further posts by him and No Good Boyo I hereby present my favourite operas. Now, I’m not a massive opera fan: in the realm of classical music I tend to prefer oratorios, lieder and chamber music - or simply banging my head against a wall and shouting “why, why, why!!” in counterpoint - but I do have my favourites. Opera has the reputation of being a most bourgeois and respectable of art forms, so here we go: one by a bloke with a girl’s name, another by a bloke who fancied underage boys, one with a libretto by a gay brother, and one about somebody who shags his mum.

Bluebeard’s Castle (Béla Bartók, 1911)

You must ignore me when I say silly and rude things about Hungarians, for the truth is that I love their music. Bartok does it for me, and I reckon he was a genius. We saw Bluebeard’s Castle in the Hungarian Opera house here – £2 for front row seats, beat that you Covent-Garden-going suckaaas!! – and I was in ecstasy. It only lasts an hour, has only 2 characters, and is rather short on romance. My wife speaks “hospital Hungarian” and could understand a bit, and we’ve had great fun since intoning the “give me the keys” schtick every time we arrive at our front door. Bartok also collected lots of great folk music in the area where I now live and even learned to speak Romanian - so, respect.

Peter Grimes (Benjamin Britten, 1945)

I’m glad that Boyo didn’t pick this one as his Britten opera as it’s my flyaway favourite. Most of Benny’s stories seem to be about little-boys-lost who need protection, but I suppose you’ve got to write about what you know. It has the astringency that I crave and yet gallons of “real music” at the same time. It’s also got the salty tang of the sea, especially in evidence in the interludes. Peter Pears is pretty camp in this clip but it’s a good television version of the opera. I saw it in another wonderful staging by the ENO at London’s Colosseum.

Street Scene (Kurt Weill, 1947)

I greatly enjoy the music of Weill and Hans Eisler (with lyrics often by Bertolt Brecht, of course). I know much of it in recordings by singers such as Dagmar Krause, Ute Lemper, Robyn Archer, etc, but this is the only one of their operatic works – apart from a very poor production of The Threepenny Opera - that I’ve seen on the stage. As Street Scene is from Weill's American period it's perhaps atypical, but it's a very pleasing and unassuming piece, not posing or puffed up like many operas that turn me against the genre, but telling stories with poignancy and some excellent jazz-influenced classical music.

Œdipe (George Enescu, 1931)

You’ll think that I chose this because it’s by a Romanian. Welllll... that fact that I’ve heard it is because it’s by a Romanian, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not any good. On the contrary, it’s excellent. Enescu was a real all-rounder: brilliant musician, renowned teacher (of Yehudi Menuhin, famously) and an interesting composer with a very varied range. Œdipe has been described variously as “a forgotten masterpiece”, “the finest musical interpretation of the Oedipus myth” and “of course is good, is by a Romanian!


Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

I spotted Leontyne Price once in Salzburg during the festival, parading in town in an opera cape and cane, with a posse of bad black muthas from the 'Hood. THAT, my friends, is class.

Gyppo Byard said...

Fascinating choices, Gadjo! I've played violin in the pit for Bluebread's Castle, oddly enough.
I shudder instinctively at the thought of "hospital Hungarian", for some reason; though presumaby it isn't quite as painful as "prison Turkish".

Can Bass 1 said...

Incidentally, the opera (if one can call it that) Paul Bunyan does not take pre-pubsecent boys as it's subject. Then again, it isn't Britten's best (although I do have a soft spot for it). Interestingly, the words are by Auden...

Kevin Musgrove said...

A bit close to the bone juxtaposing Peter Pears and 'salty tang.'

Interesting choices. Was completely turned off Bartok by grammar school music lessons, unfortunately. Intellectually I can see how I could enjoy his music but the memories linger on. (Half the class was barred from taking examination because we had a bet on who could include the most references to King Farouk in the mock examinations. I well remember the headmaster telling one boy that he was being caned for 'the insolence that Holst's Planets were written specifically so that King Farouk would have something he could play on the ukelele.')

And thanks for the introduction to Œdipe!

Gadjo Dilo said...

Daffers, she's a bitchin' ho' gettin' jiggy wid it.

Gyppo, you've played violin profesionally as well?? Is there no limit, etc?! I certainly don't have your encyclopedic knowledge of opera, but as my Max Bygraves Sing-a-Long grandfather used to say, "at least I know what I like".

Can Bass 1, I do have an affection for Britten, and understand that he was a rather nice old bloke who didn't "follow through" with his affections. Never seen Paul Bunyan.

Kevin, maybe one always reacts against what one is subjected to in childhood: in our skool "wind orchestra" we played Tijuana Taxi so badly and so often that I'm sure I'd go on a killing spree if I heard it again. I'm sorry the metaphorical symbolism of your King Farouk references wasn't appreciated!

Gadjo Dilo said...

p.s. Gyppo: “Hospital Hungarian”?* Well, in my wife’s hospital some patients are elderly monoglot Magyars, and as she’s an anaesthetics nurse she’s the last person they see before they go under and the first when they come round again, so she needs to be very reassuring in whatever language a patient speaks. She has to say phrases (in Hungarian) like “Believe me, you won’t feel a thing”, “Don’t worry, he’s an excellent surgeon”, and “Oi, Zsa Zsa Gabor, you remember 4th June 1920? Treaty of Trianon, Romania 1 – Austro-Hungarian Empire 0 ....WHOOMP!, back of the net, Queen Marie scores the winning goal and it’s goodnight Vienna! Well, unless you tell me that you’ve no hard feelings about that whatsoever, while you’re under the anaesthetic I’ll let Dr. Ţepeş here borrow some of your vital organs for an experiement he’s going.”

* There now follows A Joke. Please, my wife and I have many Hungarian friends of whom we are very fond; this in no way represents our attitudes or indeed those of my wife’s employers. And in fairness I promise I make sure that I anger Romanians next time.

Kevin Musgrove said...

What a coincidence: I had to explain who Marie of Romania was yesterday at work. My own fault for explaining where "a medley of extemporanea" came from.

Gyppo Byard said...

Darn you Gadjo - your Treaty of Trianon pleasantry just resulted in a coffee-splattered keyboard...

I never said I played professionally; this was a student production. I've played for a quite a number of student and amateur shows over the years; at some point I may recount the tale of the only fully-staged performance of Purcell's 'The Indian Queen' in 300 years. After what we did to it it'll be another 300 before the thing is dusted off again.

Kevin - that refers to the punchline of a Dorothy Parker poem. Can I have £5 for knowing that? Gosh what a cultured lot we are, or at least a group of 40-something blokes who know so little about football we have to pretend to be cultured as a compensation...

Cab Bass 1 - so are the words of 'A Hymn to St Cecilia', the tenor solo of which invariably gets altered in rehearsal to "O stick a pink carnation up your noooooose; up your nooose; upyournoseupyournose'.

Kevin Musgrove said...

I like to imagine that I'm still in my mid-twenties and that I've just gone prematurely grey and pot-bound.

No Good Boyo said...

Ta for the Œdipe too. I bet it's rarely performed as typesetters can't be arsed to deal with the cut-and-shunt firt letter.

Hospital Hungarian, like Whorehouse Farsi and Gay Sign Language, ought to be an official UN langwidge.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Ah yes, the Dorothy Parker poem, of course. (It's synchronicity, Kevin, and Mrs Pouncer probably orchestrated it) .

Sorry about your keyboard, Gyppo, but I'll gratefully grasp it as a compliment. Please recount the tale of Purcell's Indian Queen, it sounds ripe for sending up!

Œdipe is in French, so that's yer actual Frenchy spelling of the name; I suppose if he'd been a total bastard he'd have given us (and typesetters everywhere) an opera called Ţepeş :-)

willow said...

Yes, very interesting choices. My daughter saw Peter Grimes at the Met last year and really enjoyed it. She is an up and coming young opera singer, btw.

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I thoroughly enjoyed yours and am adding you to my blogroll.

Willow x

Gadjo Dilo said...

Thanks Willow, nice to have met you - and maybe I can propagate further the "who would one be played by in the story of one's life" game!

I don't understand what the "meme" thing is all about, by the way, so any explanation on your blog would be welcome :-)