Headmaster’s Thoughts – March 2011

Last term, we took the senior class to the Metropolitan Opera to watch a dress rehearsal of the first act of Così fan tutte by Mozart.

Così fan tutte has an easy yet ludicrous story line and great music. The story is about two men who test their lovers’ fidelity by dressing up as other men and then trying to seduce their betrothed. Their disguises (beards and the like) are so pathetic that even my four grandchildren, none of whom is older than five, could immediately figure out who was behind the padding and extra hair if they knew the protagonist well at all. If I had been in a similar disguise, they would have laughed, pulled my beard, and said in an indulgent manner, as they usually do when they see me, “Silly Papa!”

Mozart, however, has the ladies totally fooled. They fall for the charms of these new bearded and padded foreigners and betray the lovers to whom they have sworn their faithful hearts. The men then reveal who they really are and forgive the girls. True nonsense, campy fun, and therefore ideal for the 12th grade. They, and the teachers and parents who came along, enjoyed the dress rehearsal so much that we thought we should repeat the experience with a different opera for the 11th grade.

So we called the nice people at the Met and they said they could accommodate us for the dress rehearsal of the first act ofDie Walküre, the second of the operas in Wagner’s Ring Cycle (or, as a friend of mine calls it, “The Rinse Cycle”).

Pleased by this response, we began to make plans to take the grade. Dr. Robert Reese, our opera expert, thought that Die Walküre was perhaps a tad heavy because virtually nothing actually happens in the first act, and the music is an acquired taste (unlike the light and frothy stuff Wolfgang Amadeus threw out).

I remembered then that I have sat through two complete Rinses, I mean Ring Cycles: one conducted by Sir Georg Solti when I was an undergraduate, and the other with Jayme a few years ago at the Met when it was conducted by James Levine. Both, I recall, were very long and occasionally (I know, I am a Philistine) boring. Each cycle is about 19 hours of opera played out over four days. The good news is that you sit next to the same people and get to know them; the bad news is that there are intervals of five hours of music when you cannot go to the restroom. I will repeat that line because some of you may decide to go to the next full performance: there are times when you cannot go to the restroom for five hours. You have to pace yourself and not drink liquids for two days.

Jayme and I sat next to a Japanese couple who went around the world listening to the Ring Cycle. I do not know if that is a good job if you can get it, but they seemed very enthusiastic, and the lady wore a Brünnhilde Viking hat with horns. On the other side of us were an ambassador from an African country and his wife, and his snoring at times drowned out parts of the arias of Brünnhilde on the stage.

In fact, one has to have some sympathy for Brunnhilde because there is a large orchestra for Wagner’s operas—at least one hundred powerful men and women—sweating away to drown out the single lady who attempts to sing over their full roar. There are four different themes played at the same time by people with loud instruments. There are the banging of drums and the blare of the brass section, not to mention the strings and woodwinds who are endeavoring to make you hear their own particular theme. And the poor lady literally has to shriek above this din, standing there, her whole body convulsing with effort, until she succeeds for a short time and then collapses in a faint after the effort. It all seems so unfair!

Maybe this will be too much, I thought on reflection, for the eleventh grade. If this is to be their first operatic experience, maybe it will turn them off opera altogether. Wagner, not the nicest of men to say the least, used to say that grand opera—he called it the music drama—included all the other arts, and therefore there was no need for any other arts. I think he had different tastes from mine. I like The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain and dragged Jayme to a concert they recently held at Carnegie Hall. She enjoyed it, but I doubt that Wagner would have. They actually did a creditable version of the “Ride of the Valkyries” theme on their ukuleles. I think that shows my plebian artistic side.

Wagner thought that acting and music were combined in his grand operas, but I beg to differ. The acting has always been a little overdone. The lady is going to declare her love. She leaves her lover upstage and comes downstage to sing about how much she loves him. Then it is his turn. He puts the lady back up stage and comes down to face the audience and tells them his side of the story. Overcome with joy, the two meet in the middle of the stage and both turn to the audience (thus avoiding each other’s possible bad breath) and together declare that they are happier than anyone else in the theater. If this is acting, then our school productions are worthy of Tony awards because our students actually look at each other when they talk.

Besides, most Brünnhildes are not the smallest of ladies, while the men tend to be somewhat heavy too. This causes problems in the fight scenes. The men have to stop and sing while fighting to the death with bloodthirsty killers. Stopping in the middle of battle and singing loudly, while a large-sized lady is hanging around your neck, is not my idea of great acting. I mean, he could wait, fight, and then sing. But no, Wagner wants him to sing first—always, of course, with the woman upstage of him until she sings, at which point he, somehow magically, swaps places with her. The killer very kindly waits while this nonsense is going on.

I will agree that the sets are good. There is usually a full moon at some time, the weather is generally predictable, and the ships rock and the clouds move. Castles and hills come and go, and, through it all, people stand around like statues. There is, I think, a Wagnerian rule that, as soon as someone starts to sing, whatever other people on the stage are doing—killing, running, crying, or the like—they must stop and assume the statue pose. Of course, when the chorus gets to sing, they sing in perfect unison, which is great for opera but again strains one’s credulity as far as the natural acting bit is concerned.

Like Wagnerian operas, I could go on. The costumes would be next on my list, but I fear I am already boring you. If the first act of Die Walküre had great music, then all of these comments could be ignored. It does not. We will, therefore, wait for another more melodic opera (La Bohème or Madame Butterfly spring to mind) and spare the 11th grade.

Finally, I suspect that some of you may still be thinking of that bit about not going to the restroom for five hours. You are right; one can get obsessed by it.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster

E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org

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