Category Archives: Reflections on Art

Why do we LOVE the Ring Cyle?

Recently, the “Green Ring” version of the Ring Cycle just finished up its second run (out of three this year) in Seattle. My broke self couldn’t afford to trek up to the Emerald City to see it, so I’ve been reading the reviews and pining away.

seattle opera performance of die walkure

Ach, my loins!

As a fan and an unofficial critic (I have a blog, but I’m not paid to write on it), I am dying to see the Ring Cycle live. At least once in my life, if not twice. You know, to compare performances.

But as a result of having to miss “Ring Season,” I’ve started thinking a lot about what makes the Ring Cycle such a desirable event to attend. I definitely what to hear YOUR answers to this question, readers (all four of you). Especially from those of you who have seen the Ring more than once. What makes someone so willing to sit down for hours on end, seeing an opera with so many characters you need a flowchart to understand them all.

A briefer for people who aren’t familiar with the Ring cycle: It a collection of four operas, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. The main arch of the story centers around the ring of the Niebelungen, a dwarf-like species. It is an object of power, that grants “measureless might” upon anyone who has it. But don’t pull on your hobbit feet yet—this story of a powerful ring includes the Norse Gods, mighty heroes rescuing maidens, and a million other legendary figures Westerners have probably never heard of. Oh, and there’s a freaking dragon.

Siegfried and Fafner the dragon in the ring cycle

And lots of FIRE.

Wotan imprisoning Brunnhilde in fire in diewalkure

And that’s just two of the operas!

People go nuts over the Ring Cycle. As in Woodstock crazy. It’s the kind of event that young opera lovers like me dream of attending. It is an initiation into opera craziness like nothing else. But why? Why do people like it so much?

I started thinking about the aspects of the Ring Cycle that make it so appealing. And strangely enough, the first thing that came to mind was the multitude of characters within the four operas. It’s a rare quality for an opera to have many compelling characters. In addition, to have so many different compelling characters. Wanting to watch Wotan the god-king fight with his daughter Brunnhilde is not more noble than wanting to watch the fall of Fafner the giant (who uses the Ring to turn into a freaking dragon). The emotional states of Fricka, goddess-queen and wife to the roving Wotan, has been fodder for critics for years. Even Mime, the villainous dwarf often viewed as a symbol of the Jewish people (Wagner was unabashedly anti-Semitic) is an intriguing character. There are no simpering, one-dimensional Italian lovers here. The Ring cycle has transcending appeal because there are so many different kinds of people to like.

Alberich the dwarf in Das Rheingold

Including river maidens who look like Japanese pop stars.

The transcending appeal of the Ring Cycle can definitely be compared to that of the The Lord of the Rings books. A big reason why the latter became more than “just fantasy” in the public imagination was because of the beautiful film adaptations that came out in the early 2000s. They were made by someone  who loved the books. He spared no detail in making the movies, and almost by default they were amazing. It was a big story, and he wanted to do it right.

Similarly, the Ring cycle is an incredibly demanding show. To start, it’s four operas long. That’s an entire season for some opera houses. That’s not excluding the intricate settings of some of the operas, ranging from Valhalla itself to the Rhine river. It takes time and effort to put this thing together. You can’t just throw up a house set with a barber’s pole and call it a day. The cycle in Seattle this year is reportedly inspired by the Pacific Northwest itself, using trees and moss to create a forest wonderland for its gods to romp around in. For opera, the amount of money being sunk into production details can be a correlation to the quality of the production. This is an art form that is regularly afraid of dying for lack of money. If you’re going whole hog on a production, people will get excited. Cast included.

Valkyries in Die Walkure in the Ring cycle

Including some kicka*s Valkyries.

Finally, one of the biggest draws of the Ring Cycle is the fact that it doesn’t worship love. Opera has a serious love problem. So many view it as what makes life worth living, or a blatant lie. Either way, love is the star. But in the Ring Cycle, as the the Jungian psychologist Laurie Layton Shapira says in the brilliant Radiolab special on the cycle, the Ring is about the clashing human desires for love and fire. You have to forsake love forever to have the ring of power. But in a world of gods and dragons, what does having power really entail?

Siegfried in the opera Siegfried in the Ring Cycle

So that’s a short write-up on why opera freaks love the Ring. If you want to be a “true” opera fan, it pays to at least check it out. Which leaves folks like myself and the Opera Teen who haven’t yet seen it in a weird spot. But that craving for the Ring Cycle lingers within us. We want to see it and experience it with a desire uncommon to most works of art. Speaking for myself, my friends and family are often surprised upon learning that the Ring Cycle is a series of operas. It sounds closer to a film series, or maybe a book series on the level of Harry Potter. Ring fandom is difficult to comprehend because the Ring is so far removed from all negative stereotypes associated with opera. But that is what makes it so great.

Rhine maidens in the Ring cycle

Why is it that you love the Ring Cycle? Or do you no like it at all? What do YOU think is the big draw to this four-opera series? Tell me in the comments below!

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and random video game sites that feature Sasquatch. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

Advertisements

No review today :(

So sorry! The week just got away, especially with more intense work with my book. A review of an opera (read: motherf**king Faust!!!!) will be up as soon as possible.

In the meantime, have an operatic cow. Click the delightful picture to enjoy.

animated cow singing opera

The Billy Connolly Problem (or, Why Opera Is Boring)

Okay, I don’t really believe opera is boring. I’m not an opera traitor, even though I write like one sometimes. I serve the art, not the artists themselves.

Game of thrones eunich quotes

Anyway, one big thing about opera that I know weighs on a lot of fans too is the idea that operas are boring. That’s the reason people give for not going to see operas with us. And he reason why opera lovers are sometimes viewed as stuffy and pedantic. Well, that and the fact that most opera guild members are somewhere between Retired and Decomposing.

Fact is, though, opera can be boring. Every person who has ever seen more than one opera has a Boring Opera Story. It doesn’t matter how much of a fan they are. If they say they’ve never gone to an opera and had a boring experience, they are lying. That’s like saying that even if you’ve spent 20 years going to the movies, you have never watched a movie that bored you. It’s a preposterous notion.

Snow White and the Huntsman

“Oh yeah. Never happened.”

There is certainly a denial of the idea that opera performances can be boring. But that’s not the subject of this piece. I’ve spent quite a long time thinking on the subject of why opera is often considered boring. It is an old art, full of stock characters and classic storylines. But there are tons of modern works, featuring characters as familiar as Mao Zedong. If someone wanted to find a non-Italian, non-stock-character-filled, surprise-ending-containing opera, they would be able to find one. Opera’s unpopularity can no longer be blamed on Mozart. There is now an entire opera based on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. You can

Many are put off by the length of an individual opera performances. Three hours is such a long time to spend just sitting and watching something! But this is completely irrelevant regarding other forms of media. Many classic films are three hours long, sometimes even longer. Many people find it impossible not to watch just twenty minutes of Gone With the Wind or The Fellowship of the Ring and walk away. People read long books all the time, visit extensive museum exhibits, and listen to album collections with dozens of songs. Video games, as always, are a prime example of length not curtailing public interest in an art. A game costing $60 can get you 10 (sometimes 60!) hours of interaction with an art form. So length is clearly not the problem when it comes to enjoying art.

Perhaps it is what exactly what an art production does within its time length that makes it interesting or not. This has nothing to do with the actual content of the thing. It’s more about pacing, the exact rhythm of whatever the feck’s going on on the stage. It’s about engaging with the audience in spite of the long, slightly pedantic phrases. As a gamer, I don’t care about a cyborg making his patrols in silence. But I will watch that cyborg use their wordlessness to convey anguish. As an audience member at the opera, I may  get bored if some prat in an opera is whining onstage about how many women his master’s slept with. But if he’s emphasizing the repetition with his body, using the language as an acting tool and not just a script to sing out, entertainment is achieved.

Boba Fett demotivational poster

Of course, operas aren’t always to blame for long, pedantic librettos. Or tedious and repetitive scores either, for that matter. A company can be brilliant but be forced to do an opera not suited for them because some tighta*s donor wanted it. It happens. But operas always have a choice between making the text fun and exciting in some way, or for falling into what I have dubbed the Billy Connolly Problem.

Billy Connolly picking his nose

Not this. You are always allowed to do this at the opera.

The Billy Connolly Problem is not an insult to Mr. Connolly himself. It directly refers to a monologue about opera that he performed as part of his Live in New York tour in 2005. In it, he describes his annoyance that operas are so long. He goes on to parody a traveling type of song, which made me immediately think of that one song from Faust. But as Connolly goes on, it slowly becomes evident that it’s not the length of the song itself that’s annoying. It’s the sheer repetition of the scene, and the actors only emphasizing the repetition. Wordpress won’t let me upload the video itself, so come have a look for yourself here.

Every opera production has the potential to fall into the Billy Connolly Problem. You can have the grandest sets, the most glorious singers in all Creation, and still fall into it. It’s just what comes with the canon texts of your craft being long, and written in a time much earlier than your own. Add a community that generally looks down on shortening works, and you’re looking at a dangerous trap of boredom. It’s not innately the fault of opera itself. It’s the time we’re living in, and the current state of affairs. For now, all we can do is encourage those who bring purposeful direction t the stage. And pray that opera singers learn how to move their hands in an engaging manner during arias.

funny opera cat

Have you ever had a boring time at the opera? Tell us what you think caused it! If you’re an opera singer, talk about your experience working to make operas engaging to the audience. What does it take? Tell us in the comments!

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and random video game sites that feature Sasquatch. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

How do you REALLY write about opera?

critic cartoon

Recently, a huge figure in the other niche industry I write about (video games) suffered a huge loss. Ryan Davis was a huge figure in the video game industry, not just because he was amazingly funny but also because he seriously worked to define what video game journalism should be. It was (and is) an incredibly ambiguous field to work in, and he tried to cover the industry in a refined, intelligent, and personal way. It will be a great loss to the field to lose him.

Reflecting on his legacy caused me to wonder about opera, because at their hearts opera and video games are rather quite similar. They fall into the “arts and entertainment” umbrella, but are mostly regarded as niche areas of journalism that no one quite knows what to do with. Video games has a slightly easier time of it, because in addition to video games there’s an entire financial side of the business one could write about. You can write about company upheavals, stocks going up and down, and even about the technology behind the newest games coming out this year. But what is the right way to write about opera?

Mimi and Eunice cartoon

For a long time, reviews were the only way to go about writing about opera. There were a few lovely articles about the inner workings of the biz, like the lovely Adventures of a Supernumerary written by Tom Jokinen. But overall, it was mostly all reviews and history articles. A few have tweaked with this formula, such as the Opera Novice series at the Telegraph. I’ve been impressed with it so far, because it combines review with historical background surrounding whatever opera the reviewer is currently reviewing. It’s the same reason why I love the San Francisco Opera Podcast, even though the host regularly talks like a drag queen. Which makes me love it even more.

But review-only opera coverage opens the door to a lot of ambiguous coverage, both in terms of worth to the readers and to the image of opera itself. The most recent example that comes to mind is the coverage of the crazy drama surrounding the breakup of a certain famous soprano and her apparently abusive tenor husband. In no way do I want to downplay the horrific nature of abuse. What this woman alleges happened to her is absolutely horrific. But why is this tabloid-esque story next to performance reviews and stories of leadership shuffle within opera houses? The article I linked to earlier in this article is a very classy take on the incident, using it as a jumping-off point to discuss why we as an opera society  are fascinated with divas. But most articles I have seen treat it as a quick-thrill tabloid story, and not for no reason.

Once Upon A Time show gif

I would love to have access to the analytics of sites that cover opera. Are people reading the tabloid news more than anything else, and that is what compels this coverage? That’s a bloody rotten way to write about art. The most popular post on this blog as of July 8th is the review of Falstaff. From my training in SEO I can definitively tell you that multiple factors played into its popularity. I was lucky enough to find great images. It was the longest review up to that date. It was a review of a production by an opera with a recognizable name. The very fact that the title contained a name from a play by Shakespeare play may have helped it earn views. But these statistics don’t mean that I only intend to review live opera performances, or that I won’t stop writing reflection pieces. This blog is for what I believe is best for talking to people about opera right now. People get bored of just reading reviews.

30 Rock gif

We’re still figuring out how to cover opera in a way that helps everyone, and it will probably take a very long time. Opera News ended its more-than-slightly-murky relationship with the Met last month over bad reviews from critics. The AP recently stopped most of its opera coverage. For now, it’s much safer for me and the Opera Teen and all of our comrades to just keep doing our thing. Maybe we’ll get hired by one of these newspapers to write about opera, but I doubt it. Newspapers are bleeding money, and it’s safe to say that most of their opera reviewers are the same people who review dance and film. But not music, that’s for the hipster interns.

Things are still being sorted out, and it will take a while. As a fan, I have to accept that. But I just have one request for opera magazines and news outlets: Please let your interns run the Twitter feeds. Let them do it, not you. Tweets like this are not helping your image whatsoever.

Opera news tweet

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and random video game sites that feature Sasquatch. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

Opera Performances in English: Genius or Blasphemy?

Every opera house I know of, save huge houses like the Met, is struggling. There is very little money to be made in opera right now, and the little that is there is vastly dwindling. The main audience for opera is still mostly older white people, and goodness knows that’s not a sustainable audience.

My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle

Not that I’d EVER complain about seeing an opera with Eliza Doolittle.

One of the most controversial moves by opera houses to get more people through the door is putting on productions of different works translated into English. This isn’t to say that the operas have English subtitles projected above the screen — these are guts-out, fully translated works from the original Italian, German, or whatever. These translations also usually imply a modern English interpretation of the original text. “Cankerblossom” becomes “slut,” and “jest” becomes “joke.” But surprisingly, I’ve never seen an English translation version of an opera also have a modern setting. In my own experience, they’ve tended to have the most by-the-book settings and costumes, more often than not.

Who are these performances for? They’re often touted as “starter” operas, i.e. more popular and timeless operas often used to introduce people to the traditions and tropes of opera. The idea is that by removing the language barrier, going to the opera will be less intimidating for people who have never done so. The elitism sometimes associated with speaking multiple languages (warranted or not) can be bypassed, and you have a whole new crowd coming through the doors.

prom, prom dresses, people leaving for prom

Yeah, we’re heading to “La Traviata.” And totally sneaking flasks past the security guards.

Naturally, opera purists can get very upset about translations of the original libretto. Something is slightly unsettling about translation in general, because the original feelings and ideas that went into the writing of the text are filtered to a certain degree. It’s not like backwards compatibility in video games, where exact duplications of the original work are displayed in new ways. The end result is not as in-your-face as the original, because there’s a silent emissary between you and the author. The most sacred principle of fine art, Original Intent, is sacrificed for the sake of accessibility.

I would feel like a traitor though, if I condemned English translations completely. My inaugural opera was an English translation of The Barber of Seville, translated so much that it even used contemporary slang (i.e. “My love, we’re toast). It makes me cringe now, but it definitely fascinated me as a middle schooler looking for a beacon of culture in her small town. That’s the tricky thing — when it comes to attracting new opera fans, should we really be complaining about anything that draws them in? There is a clear and respectful argument (sometimes said very eloquently) for presenting operas in the native language of the audience at hand. And with luck, people drawn in by what they hear in an English translation of an opera will stay for the non-English productions.

Twilight, Twilight fans, fans waiting, waiting in line for a movie

If there were “Team Siegfried” and “Team Wotan” shirts being printed and purchased somewhere, opera’s problems would be over.

But then again, maybe they won’t. By introducing English translations into the ethos, the temptation to dumb operas down for common consumption grows ever stronger. This isn’t the same as modern-day stagings of classic operas — those are wonderful treasures that (with luck) appease both opera purists and people looking for something more fresh and exciting than what they watched with their grandma on PBS back in the day. When you translate an opera into another language, you’re creating a completely different product. And people may not like the original after they’ve had the second version.

I understand the urge to produce translated operatic works. Opera houses hardly have any money, and it’s perfect incentive to try and fight the most troublesome stereotypes opera has accumulated over the years. When you’re in a pinch, it helps to repent your sins. But is overcorrecting a true solution? Probably not. As someone who owes her interest in opera to an English translation, I can say with confidence that the art form can do better than that. We can do awesome new takes on opera, making them visually appealing for people who aren’t accustomed to seeing a classical performance in an opera house. If directors insist on producing something in English, there are plenty of wonderful operas originally written in English. People can (and will) come to the opera house if there are splendid productions to see. Whether or not it is in their naive language may not be as important as once thought.

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and even the odd eBook. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

What Happens When Opera Is Bad (Because, Frankly, It Can Be)

I talk about opera a lot with my friends, and even more with my romantic partner (he of all people deserves to know why I spend so many hours cooped up in my office watching DVDs of musical fairy tales).

For the most part, we all have excellent discussions about opera and the arts in general. But there’s one big problem: We can’t agree on what exactly constitutes a bad opera performance.

Before we discuss this, let us establish that bad opera performances indeed exist. A bad version of anything can exist. We’ve all met people who love something so badly, they believe that no version or tackle on it has the ability to be bad. My first thought is that of Sonic the Hedgehog fans, but the same could also be said of fans of Quentin Tarantino films or DIY blogs. To these people, everything is sacred. And as a result, mediocrity is tolerated for far too long.

Screen shot from Super Mario 3D World

WHAT? You know of what I speak.

Here’s an anecdote about the worst opera performance I’ve ever seen. It was Don Giovanni, performed by an opera house that will remain anonymous for the sake of the careers of everyone involved. Because honestly, the singing was fine. It was. What bothered me more was the fact that the performers were stiff as all hell, running around the stage during their numbers as if they didn’t know what to do with themselves. Not that that was even their fault — the staging was outrageously avant-garde, far past pretentious. As in there was no curtain, and most everyone was on stage most of the time (except for maybe during the final death scene. But goodness knows there was probably someone under the dinner table). That may have all been fine, but the actors were so stiff that the whole production suffered. And after a while, it felt like the director was ardently trying (and failing) to reach “those dang artsy Portlandia kids.”

Cast of Portlandia

You know, the ones who will pay to see Robert Downey, Jr. mock Wotan while wearing a metal suit.

This is absolutely not to mock avant garde opera productions. I firmly believe that s**t should happen way more often than it does. That’s how we keep opera fresh, and that’s how we reign in new fans of the genre (that and Final Fantasy opera concerts). But this production was overreaching to the point of lunacy. And perhaps most damning of all, the opera felt like it was three hours in length. If you’re checking your watch every forty minutes, something went horribly wrong somewhere.

That company went on to impress me with other productions, but I feel it is my sworn duty as an opera fan to talk about horrible opera performances I’ve attended. That gives people who are less experience with opera the freedom to say they don’t like something, and for everyone to have the opportunity to not attend something they don’t want to attend. Imagine, attending opera because you think it really looks entertaining! And not having to lie about it afterward, without fear of looking unsophisticated!

But that performance of Don Giovanni was bad in a way that a bad performance of Gianni Schicchi may not ever be. And anyone who’s ever seen a Monty Python movie knows that you don’t have to be pretentious to be bad entertainment. It’s some untraceable thing that somehow makes a performance un-fun, that causes you to check your watch every forty minutes.

Which is why i’m opening this question up to the public: What, in your opinion, makes an opera performance un-fun? If you’re resistant to seeing opera, what makes it not fun for you? Let’s talk about this and re-hash it again in the future. All future opera depends on it!

L.A. Opera and Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries

As well as the fate of lightsabers being used in non-“Star Wars” entertainment.

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and even the odd eBook. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

Why I Don’t Care About Opera Singers

Very sorry about not reviewing an opera like this week — work and video games unfortunately got in the way. But I definitely have a few lined up, so some reviews will be on the way soon!

But this week has forced me to think more and more about opera as a medium. And I’ve come to this conclusion: It’s a really really weird medium. Sets have gotten more and more extravagant, partly due to the fact that opera has moved onscreen. People know less and less how to handle classic operas, because they’re afraid (legitimately so) of scaring off younger potential patrons by showing stuffy works. Operas written in the last ten years are either extremely classical or would make Puccini shake his head in bewilderment.

Einstein on the Beach

These are all signs of opera in transition, and are in no way bad things. I’m actually very excited to have stated writing about opera during this time, because a lot of really cool stuff is happening. But there’s one characteristic of modern opera that has ripened in recent years that I absolutely cannot stand: The worship of individual opera singers.

Luciano Pavarotti

Yes, yes, I know he’s a legend. He should still put his f**king arms down.

All the weirdness that comes with working as an singer, from having your own website to selling CDs of yourself with awkward cover art, has not only leaked into opera culture but has created a heinously awkward culture of singer worship. And I say awkward because nothing else in the arts really resembles it. For the most part, I don’t see people deciding whether or not they should attend a local play solely based on who’s in it. If they are, it’s because it’s their family. And you can count on those tickets even if the play sucks.

That’s the problem with modern opera: No one’s willing to say anything sucks. It’s always “fabulous,” “astounding,” or that a performance is a f**king “masterpiece.” Such a culture breeds complacency, and eventually no one other than the compliment distributors attending shows. And once those people die, what are you left with? Art that has lived in a bubble, and diva singers to match.

Prima Donna song from Phantom of the Opera

Don’t get me wrong, if Plácido Domingo was starring a production of something up in Portland, I’d totally go up to see it. But if he was no good, I wouldn’t make any bones about it. And I would hope to Wotan that the show was well cast and well produced enough that it would be a quality show without his star power. For a while, that’s all that was keeping opera afloat and attracting new people to shows. The very audaciousness of an opera singer being something of a rock star was new again. And it drew a bunch of new people into the scene.

But no art should depend on stars to be successful. That is a wholly unwise business model, and it sets up artists for an existence with no real feedback from the public. Companies should instead focus on the shows themselves, erecting beautiful sets and ensuring everyone in the company can work together. And that begins with not making one person a god.

 

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and even the odd eBook. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.