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Delany to Hitchcock to Wagner (oh my)

The past week has been quite a dose of culture. Last Tuesday Samuel R. Delany gave a reading at the downtown Seattle Public Library as part of this summer's Clarion West festivities. Delany is a terrific reader, and he was in fine form for this. He read from his latest novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, and he also read from Phallos -- a novella that has recently been rereleased in an expanded version. (All of Chip's work is seemingly constantly under revision.) He introduced himself as our favorite dirty old man (the house was packed with enthusiastic folks), and both readings were blatantly sexual, although part of the joke in Phallos is that it's about a pornographic novel of uncertain provenance in which the sex has been censored to make it safe for the internet.

In many ways the Q&A session after the reading was even more entertaining. Somebody asked a question about "Aye, and Gomorrah," which won a Nebula Award in 1967. I can't even remember what the question was, but Delany called the politics of the story "trogdolytic" in its portrayal of queerness as something tragic and lugubrious, in short nothing like the life he was actually living in those pre-Stonewall days. He launched into a wonderful story about how he'd made his first trip to Paris in 1966 with two straight friends and had immediately run into a man masturbating in the Tuileries Garden and went home with him. This man was a medical student from Senegal, and the next day he and his friends (all of them gay Africans) invited Chip and his friends over for dinner. Well, it was all very much like a scene out of one of Chip's later stories, and it was completely delightful.

I confess that Chip's sex-drenched and socially-expansive stories left me feeling very wistful that evening. I've been in a mild funk since Westercon due to a new confrontation with my own sexual and social disabilities. Nothing very profound, just some ancient frustrations and confusions that I've long lived with. My life as an anxious introvert, I guess. I envy Chip the carefree attitude he projects in public.

Anyway, on Friday I went to SIFF Cinema Uptown to see the silent version of Hitchcock's 1929 film, Blackmail. (It was simultaneously filmed as his first sound film.) This was part of a traveling show called the Hitchcock 9, which features the nine surviving silent films by Hitchcock, all of which have been restored by the British Film Institute. Blackmail looked absolutely amazing. Hitchcock was already an accomplished visual stylist by this point (the influence of Murnau and Lang is plain to see), and this print (or digital file) was taken directly from the negatives, looking very sharp and pristine. The story was prime Hitchcock material: a Scotland Yard detective's girlfriend (played by Anny Ondra, who reminded me of Fay Wray in her mannerisms) goes out on a date with another man behind her boyfriend's back. The man tries to rape her, and she kills him. Another man knows she did it and tries to blackmail her. The layers of guilt are properly convoluted, but the story sags a bit in the middle when Hitchcock doesn't seem to know what to do with the characters except have them brood and leer at each other. Still, it was gorgeous to look at, and if it comes out on DVD I'll pick it up. I also enjoyed the minimalist, almost ambient accompaniment by the Diminished Men at this showing.

My plan coming into the weekend had been to catch another of the Hitchcock 9 on both Saturday and Sunday, but then another option presented itself to me. My neighbor's boss offered her a pass to the dress rehearsals for the Wagner Ring Cycle that the Seattle Opera is about to put on. My neighbor couldn't use it, so she offered it to me. I've always wanted to see the Ring, but never strongly enough to actually, you know, go. Here it was, handed to me on a platter. After examining the schedule, however, I wasn't sure I really wanted to devote that much time to it. The first opera in the cycle, Das Rheingold, is two and half hours long, but the other three are all over four hours apiece.

Well, I decided I'd go to Das Rheingold on Saturday at the very least, and so I did. I also went to Die Walküre on Sunday, and am now leaning heavily toward seeing the other two as well. Suffice it to say that I'm enjoying it so far, although not without some reservations. But there's something very thrilling and epic about it that cannot be denied. As a production, it is absolutely spectacular, with amazing sets and special effects and costumes. It also feels like a blast of our culture. It connects to so many different things, from the modern heroic fantasy genre to Star Wars to the music of Mahler and Schoenberg that I've been listening to in large doses lately. Listening to the music I can hear the echoes in so many things I've heard before. Last night at Die Walküre I was hearing the music from the 1939 Wizard of Oz, for example.

I liked Die Walküre better than Das Rheingold, although there was plenty of music in Das Rheingold that I really, really liked. There was singing in both of them that I didn't care for very much. (I think I like the singing in Italianate operas better than Germanic ones in general.) As much as I liked Die Walküre, I didn't care for the third act very much. My biggest problem with these operas so far is probably that there's too much declaiming of exposition, as the characters explain things to each other at great length. This leads to some strange staging as secondary characters move around aimlessly and strike poses just to try to make it seem like something is happening when nothing is really happening except exposition.

But then a magical moment will arise: Brünnhilde appearing to Siegmund in the moonlight, or Loge and Wotan tricking Alberich into turning into a frog in the dark gold mines. I can't begin to describe how splendid the sets and the production are. They've created the most beautiful forest sets! In the opening scene in Das Rheingold the Rhine maidens are "swimming" in the air -- essentially wirework in realtime, swooping up and down and floating across the stage and doing somersaults in midair. Simply amazing.

I could go on and on about things I've liked (much of the music, although not all) and haven't liked (some of the more emphatic, thumping music, for example), but I also want to talk about how much fun it has been going to the opera house. I wore my suit on Saturday, only to reacquaint myself with the fact that the slacks need to be taken in. So on Sunday I wore a shirt and tie with jeans. I've been admiring the women in their finery. It's like going to a costume ball. Because the tickets are first come first serve, you're advised to show up an hour and a half early. That has given me time to sit in the bistro and drink wine and people watch and read a book (Banks' Surface Tension, which coincidentally opens on an opera stage). The crowd is very enthusiastic. There's a lot of excitement in the air. People wonder aloud if Tolkien based Lord of the Rings on the Ring Cycle. (I refrained from telling them that Tolkien was influenced by the original mythology and actually detested Wagner.) And I hadn't been to McCaw Hall since it was remodeled, and it is quite a beautiful building itself. It's all a great deal of fun just as an event.

Meanwhile, on top of this epic flood of culture I'm also painting the backside of the house. I have been a very, very busy boy, I tell you. The weather has been brilliant, and I'm sure I've been flooded with Vitamin D as well as with culture. The physical activity has left me feeling energetic. To hell with mild funks and old frustrations. I'm having a ball!


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 29th, 2013 07:39 pm (UTC)
"there's too much declaiming of exposition, as the characters explain things to each other at great length."

That is exactly what you're going to get more of if you see the remaining two operas in the Ring, so be prepared. There are those magic moments, though, but since in that regard I consider Act 3 the best part of Walküre, and you found that the least interesting, I'm not sure how to advise you. Maybe you got tired out. If logistics permitted, I'd recommend Otto Friedrich's suggestion for seeing inexpensive productions of Wagner (and they'd have to be inexpensive): buy tickets for two successive nights; see the first half on the first night and go out for a late dinner; then the next night, have an early dinner and come to the theater for the second half.

Tolkien and Wagner is actually a complicated subject. Tolkien's view of Wagner was like his view of Shakespeare, what he called "cordial dislike," in the old sense of "cordial": heartfelt. They'd done something really important, but they hadn't gotten it quite right, which irritated him.

These days the woods are full of Tolkienists trying to claim that Tolkien got it all from Wagner and not just from the Volsunga Saga and the Eddas, mostly on the basis of a few matters, like the Ring, which they see Tolkien's treatment of as closer to Wagner's than to the sources'. I think that's still not very close, and I'm drifting into the position of a die-hard cranky opponent of all this.
Jul. 29th, 2013 07:50 pm (UTC)
I've already heard that Siefried can be pretty dire, so maybe I'll give up after that (if I even make it to that one).

I was actually far more tired for Das Rheingold than I was for Die Walküre, so I don't think that was the problem for act three of the latter. The basic problem I had was that after the exciting opening in which we get to see all the Valkyries scurrying around doing their Valkyrie cries, it turns into a long conversation between Wotan and Brünnhilde. Now, I actually thought Wagner did a great job of exploring the philosophical and emotional conflict between them in a smart, dialectical way. But for me it was too much of the less interesting kind of singing, and too much of one character sitting around brooding while the other one declaimed. That said, the ring of fire Wotan created around Brünnhilde in the end was another spectacular moment.
Jul. 29th, 2013 07:56 pm (UTC)
Yes, Act 3 has a great beginning and a great ending, but while the part in between is tremendously boring, I don't find it any more boring than the rest.

On that account you might well like Götterdämmerung better than Siegfried - it has more highlights - but by the same token you may find that it has more let downs, but though it's longer than Walküre I don't find it quite so tedious, though the opening can generate a deep sinking feeling about that.
Jul. 29th, 2013 08:15 pm (UTC)
I'm finding these things fascinating as spectacle, if nothing else (and there's plenty else), so Siegfried seems necessary just to see how they do the dragon. One thing that helped with Die Walküre was getting two intermissions.
Jul. 29th, 2013 10:11 pm (UTC)
Of course, I didn't mean to suggest you skip S. to see G. I meant that, if you find S. relatively disappointing, don't give up on G. on that account.
Jul. 30th, 2013 12:03 am (UTC)
I'm going to strongly encourage you to see the other two. Doug Faunt stayed at our house in Wallingford when he came up for the series in ... 2003 or 4 or whenever. He raved about it every night.

I mean, here you have free tickets to the dress rehearsal. Tickets for the performance will start above $100 and go up from there. Other Bay Area fans have considered it worth the trip: Lisa Hirsch, Janet Lafler, Matt Austern.

Sounds like a great weekend.
Jul. 30th, 2013 12:43 am (UTC)
Yep, I think I'm in. Well, we'll see how I feel after Siegfried tomorrow.
Jul. 30th, 2013 05:16 pm (UTC)
I've wanted to see the Ring cycle ever since I was about fifteen. I participated in this church-related thing called The Bible Bowl, where our youth group was running scores back and forth and doing other support work. I don't know why I did it -- I think I pictured something more exciting, somehow, but it was deathly dull. Anyway, it took place somewhere in the Seattle Center, which involved us being able to cut through the Seattle Opera stage, with its incredibly elaborate sets for the Ring already up. The sets were the coolest thing I'd ever seen. They were almost worth the experience, right there.
Jul. 30th, 2013 05:22 pm (UTC)
I would love to be able to go backstage and look at the sets. I can't imagine how they pack them all in and are able to substitute one huge, intricate set for another within minutes. You can hear them rumble as they move around behind the curtain, and then presto, a tangled forest appears.
Jul. 30th, 2013 05:44 pm (UTC)
I've always promised myself that one day I will watch/listen to the entire ring cycle. I'm listening to the BBC radio 3 Proms performance of Die Walkure at the moment and am blown away the sheer epic feel of the piece. I'm drinking a gin martini, eating poppadums with raita and listening to Wagner. My senses are assaulted by wonderfulness.
Jul. 30th, 2013 05:48 pm (UTC)
Is that a live broadcast? I seem to recall reading that the Proms are going on right now.

The music is pretty epic in scale too, as you say. Big, big sound. I've really been enjoying the orchestra's performance, but also for the subtle moments where it's just an oboe under a solo voice. Gorgeous stuff.

Also, I've noticed that gin martinis are a favorite pre-opera beverage at the opera house! Maybe I'll have to have one this evening.
Jul. 30th, 2013 05:55 pm (UTC)
An incredibly wide variation for the soprano - must be damned hard work.
The proms Wagner Ring Cycle has now finished. Gotterdamerung was last Sunday. I don't know if you can get them there but all performances are available on BBC Iplayer.
Jul. 30th, 2013 05:59 pm (UTC)
Another thing that has impressed me is how physically demanding some of the roles are. There's quite a bit of running around the stage, Alberich was leaping and tumbling all over the place in Das Rheingold, and of the course the Rhine maidens had to mimic swimming the whole time they were in the air. All while singing this very demanding music. The training must be intense!
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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