Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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Category archive: Theatre
The German conductor Herbert von Karajan probably did more to popularise classical music after WW2 that any other single person. His LPs and then his CDs and DVDs sold in their millions. I have many Karajan CDs myself. So, the question of whether he was any sort of Nazi and if so what sort remains a hot topic.
Playwright Ronald Harwood, author of a play about Wilhelm Furtwängler, was recently interviewed on BBC4 TV. During this, Harwood mentioned, in contemptuous passing, that Karajan was obviously a Nazi. Furtwängler was interesting because it wasn’t clear, hence that play. Karajan? Not interesting, because clearly he was. He hired a Jewish secretary after the war. What more do you need to know?
Well, I for one needed to know a bit more than only that, so I did some googling and came across this by Peter Alward, former vice-president of EMI Classics:
I first met Karajan in 1976, and we remained friends up to his death. He was one of EMI’s flagship artists in the late 70s and early 80s; most of his operatic work was for us, his symphonic work for Deutsche Grammophon. Yes, he cultivated the cult of the maestro - he was a shrewd businessman and recognised his market worth. He was not slow in coming forward and speaking his mind, but no conductor is a shrinking violet. I feel he was misunderstood. There was the glamorous image - the jet-set lifestyle - but this was all a defence. He was really very shy, a simple man with simple tastes. I vehemently oppose the theory that he was a Nazi. He was an opportunist. I’m Jewish, and if I believed otherwise, I wouldn’t have spent a minute in his company.
Opportunist sounds about right to me. Karajan, like all conductors, needed power, over an orchestra. Needing this sort of power, he had to avoid antagonising whoever the politicians were, the ones with the more regular sort of power. But he did not care about politics for its own sake, merely as a means to the end of his music making.
Trouble is, you can surely say the same for a great many other servants of the Third Reich. I bet plenty of rocket, airplane, tank, bomb and ship designers were equally opportunistic, and equally free of any positive desire to be Nazis. But whoever happened to be Germany’s politicians, these people would have served them. All they cared about was rockets, airplanes, tanks, bombs and ships. Classical music was not as important to the Nazi regime as armaments were, but it was quite important. Karajan did help.
The most interesting titbit I learned from this little burst of Karajan-googling was that apparently his second wife, Anita, whom he married in 1942, was burdened with a Jewish grandfather. But hKarajan wasn’t merely “burdened” thus. He burdened himself. Wikipedia:
On 22 October 1942, at the height of the Second World War, Karajan married Anna Maria “Anita” Sauest, born Gütermann. She was the daughter of a well-known manufacturer of yarn for sewing machines. Having had a Jewish grandfather, she was considered a Vierteljüdin (one-quarter Jewish woman).
Just marrying a quarter-Jewess, before that was dodgy, is one thing. Being a celeb and marrying a famous heiress with a famously rich and half-Jewish dad, and doing all that in 1942, is something else again. That’s more than just hiring an entirely Jewish secretary after the war.
When I read about such people and about such times, I don’t feel inclined to condemn. I merely wonder how I might have behaved, or misbehaved, had I been confronted by such pressures and such temptations.
It’s been a very bad last few days here at BMdotcom. First there was the domain name fiasco, and then last night and into this morning there was another interruption, caused by a power cut in a totally different part of London to me, which was in its turn caused by all that rain we had recently. And then the interruption was prolonged by the mishandling of this power cut by my rather creeky and out-of-date version of Expression Engine. The two events were unrelated. I think there’s a Macbeth quote that deals with this kind of thing. One of those plays about a king for whom things are starting to go badly wrong. But rest assured that there is no sign that BMdotcom is about to be dethroned permanently.
So anyway, here is one of those photo-postings made quick and easy by my “I just like them!” directory.
I just like this, taken in 2007:
And I just like this, taken a month ago:
That second one was already edited and ready to post, with its new name, but I don’t believe I ever got around to actually displaying it. If I did, well, take another look.
I do not promise more substantial stuff tomorrow, but I do hope for it.
Last month, on the 22nd (thank you my camera), a friend took me to see a show consisting, in the first half, of improvised comedy, and in the second half of pre-written sketch comedy. This was at a venue called the Proud Archivist (thank you me for photoing the sign saying that).
The core skill of the performers who were performing that night was improvisation, and it showed, part two being a rather severe disappointment after the often considerable excellence of part one. The sort of sketches they did in part two needed to be done with detached and unrealistic faithfulness to the text, Footlights/Monty Python style, almost like you are reading the lesson in church, not “realistically”, as these performers tried to do. But all it sounded like was that they had forgotten the damn words. (I heard later that they included some improvisation in some of the sketches. That was when this dire effect was at its most severe, or so I presume.)
But best of all, which as far as I was concerned made the entire expedition totally worthwhile, was the extraordinary light outside, for a few fleeting minutes during the interval, outside being where I went during the interval.
Here are two of the photos I took from just outside the Proud Archivist, next to the canal, during that interval:
Okay, what was photoed there is nothing out of the ordinary, with the second picture just being a close-up selection from the bigger picture displayed in the first. But the light! Photography is light, and that is light! Or, it was. Do you at least get a hint of what it was like actually to have been there, then? Hope so.
A friend of mine has a young daughter who is a very promising ballerina. Young and very promising ballerinas tend to find themselves being guided from time to time by quite significant ballet persons, and I have urged my friend to pass on to any significant ballet persons he meets that they ought to do a ballet based on the antics of us digital photographers.
If any significant ballet persons ask what sort of thing that might involve, I suggest they be shown pictures like these, which I took between 2006 and 2007:
Click on any of those pictures and you’ll see that what they’re all about is the big bodily contortions that digital photographers do, mostly just to get their cameras at the right height. But, there is also the matter of the fun and games the people being photoed often get up to. They do lots of more self-conscious posing.
Quite a few of these pictures have been posted on the www by me before, mostly on this blog. But the idea of this posting is to gather together a biggish collection of such pictures, all in one place, for the ballet persons to say: “Wow! Yes! We’ll do it! Pay the crazy blogger double whatever he asks to let us look through his entire photo archive!”
There’s a whole other clutch of pictures showing digital photographers and their hands and fingers. They wave their fingers about, just to keep their fingers out of the pictures. Ballet people would like that too. In the absence of more pictures here, they could just walk over Westminster Bridge and watch the photographers doing it. Because, provided they are only using small cameras, the photographers do this all the time.
Me being me, there is no category here for “dancing”. So, “sculpture” will have to do, as in humans making sculptures of themselves.
And that’s not to even mention the whole selfie thing, and the amazing human sculpture making that that can involve.
I need to get out less, and this weather is not helping.
Tomorrow, the weather will be helping very much:
This is perfect. My life today, in the last few days, and for the last few weeks, has been one mad social whirl after another, my contented solitude being having been violated seemingly every other evening and sometimes more often even than that, which is all fun and all that, but I find that an evening out puts a blight on creativity for the entire day, because what if I start something, want to finish it, but then don’t have time to, because I have a social whirl to attend and to get ready for and to find my way to and to find out about finding my way to? Last night I whirled out to watch theatrical stuff in an unfamiliar and transportationally complicated part of town with a theatrical friend. Tonight, I face another social whirl, to meet Perry II. Every time I go out I take photos, but because of all this going out I have no time to show them to you people or not with the sort of insightful commentary that I want to attach to them without which what’s the point? - They’re just pictures.
So tomorrow (a day during which I have nothing else planned), I will stay in all day, and try (although I promise nothing) to do here a mammoth day of catch-up blogging, showing you a tiny fraction of the pictures I have been taking lately, all properly explained, and anything else I’ve been meaning to put here for some time that I decide to put here tomorrow, in not one, not two, but many postings.
We shall see.
Last night I went awandering along the river, as I so often do, and outside that excellent (even though it’s fake) Globe Theatre, I saw all this:
As you can see, I concentrated on the guy with the very, very complicated camera. And I post pictures of him here, entirely recognisable ones, because, frankly, what he was doing was performing in public, just like the people he was filming or videoing or photoing or whatever it was that he was doing, “digital filming” being my preferred guess. He was smiling (1.3 - top row right). He was part of it. And there was a big crowd watching all this. He reminded me a bit of the guy who fronted this excellent TV show. But the funny thing is, because he was clearly enjoying himself so much, I can’t tell if this guy is a Real Photographer, or an amateur much like me, who has merely hired a Real Camera.
The event, according to snatches of conversation that I happened to hear, was some kind of charity do. The queue contained many rich-looking couples dressed to the nines. And the camera man was busily immortalising everything.
What go me posting all these pictures, just like old times here, was partly the sheer pleasure involved in doing something really complicated with Glorious Godot, so fast and so solid (such a contrast with wade through sewage little Judas). And partly it was picture 3.3, middle row on the right. I love that pose, like he’s crapping by the roadside when on a really awkward holiday in an awkward country, except that obviously he’s not doing that. So, what is he doing? The fact that we cannot see his camera means it all needs explaining, and I thought, well, better put in another picture to show what he was actually doing, and then I couldn’t choose, and then I thought … this will be easy with Godot and there you go.
I still have lots of catching up to do, so what shall I do tonight? I know I’ll go to a Barbecue at Chateau Samizdata. Which they invited me to. I didn’t just ring up and say I was coming round and would be using their barbecue.
I love learning about two-man teams, and in Paul Johnson’s short, excellent biography of Mozart (see also this earlier bit) I have been learning more about just such a team, although a very temporary and unequal one:
In the meantime, Mozart had met his great partner, the Abate Lorenzo Da Ponte. The letter (May 7, 1783) in which he tells his father, “I have looked through at least a hundred libretti and more, but I have hardly found a single one with which I am satisfied,” also says he has met the new fashionable poet in Vienna, Da Ponte, who “has promised ... to write a new libretto for me.” The emperor had decided to abandon singspiel in 1783 and embrace Italian opera again, and he put Da Ponte in charge of the words. Da Ponte was a converted Jew, the son of a tanner, who had embraced Christianity in 1763. He had led a bohemian life, as a teacher, a priest, a lascivious escort of married women in the Venetian fashion, a friend of Casanova, expelled from Venice for sexual depravity, and thereafter making his living as a translator and writer in the theatrical world. He had an extraordinary gift for languages, rather like Mozart himself but on a much more comprehensive scale, and seemed to think multilingually.
Da Ponte wrote the librettos for three Mozart operas, The Marriage of Figaro (K. 492, presented May 1,1786), Don Giovanni (K. 527, October 29, 1787), and Cosi fan tutte (K. 588, January 26, 1790), and the collaboration between the two men must be accounted one of the most successful in the history of opera. By almost universal agreement, Figaro and Giovanni are Mozart’s two best operas, though a small minority argues that Cosi contains the best music and superb staging and that a first-class production can make it the best evening’s entertainment.
The two men worked successfuly together for two reasons. First, they both understood that creating an opera was collaboration and that composer and librettist both had to know when to give way; sometimes words must yield and sometimes notes. The truth is, of course, that Mozart was extremely adept at words as well as music, and often he took over as librettist, Da Ponte acquiescing. This raises the second point: Both men were good tempered, used to hard knocks, nasty words, and intense arguments. They had the admirable habit, essential to success in the theater, of drawing a firm line over a disagreement, once it was resolved, and moving on quickly to the next problem. Mozart’s good nature was absolutely genuine and went to the root of his being. He was incapable of real malice or the desire to wound (the one exception was the archbishop, and there, too, hatred was expressed in words rather than deeds). Da Ponte was a much more flawed creature. He was a fearful liar, to begin with, and his various volumes of memories are not to be trusted at all. His subsequent career after he left Vienna and went to New York, becoming a trader, a bookseller, a bankrupt, a poet, and other things, shows that his commitment to the stage and to music - drama, particularly - was not total.
Moreover, it is not clear that he recognized quality in opera. He thought the best composer he worked with was Vicente Martin y Soler, and he had the most fulsome praise for Antonio Salieri. The implication was that both were Mozart’s superiors as musicians. Both were more successful commercially at the time, and their operas were performed more frequently than Mozart’s - so were those of many other composers, at least eleven by my reckoning. But both were so inferior to Mozart by any conceivable artistic criteria as to cast doubt on Da Ponte’s musical understanding. And it is a significant fact that his three Mozart operas are the only ones whose libretto he wrote that have remained in the repertoire or that anyone has heard of today.
Hence the inescapable conclusion is that Mozart was the dominant figure in the collaboration. Da Ponte understood or learned from Mozart the need to keep the drama moving by varying the musical encounters and groupings, by altering the rhythms of vocal speech, and by switching the moods. He may even have understood the great discovery in the writing of opera that we owe to Mozart - the way in which character can be created, transformed, altered, and emphasized by entirely musical means taking possession of the sense of words. But the magic touch is always provided by Mozart as music dramatist.
Goddaughter 2 is a student at the Royal College of Music, where a fellow student of hers is a certain Edward Jowle. This evening, GD2 and I both greatly enjoyed the Grosvenor Light Opera Company’s production of Ruddigore, in which Edward performed the pivotal role of Sir Despard Murgatroyd. It was great, as was Edward in it. The duets Edward did with Dauntless (Jack Roberts) and later with Mad Margaret aka Lady Murgatroyd (Laura Burgoyne) were two of the evening’s highlights. I already know Edward a bit, so I was never going to tell him afterwards that he had been anything other than terrific. But the thing is, he actually was terrific. It was a quite small stage and a quite small audience, but his total command of both were nevertheless very impressive.
I also thought that director Vicky Simon did a fine job. Not everyone in the caste sang like a present or future pro, the way Edward and Jack Roberts did, or as the lady who sang the part of Dame Hannah (Charlotte Collier) did. Not everyone seemed perfectly cast. But everyone did as well as you could imagine them doing, and every moment was entertaining and absorbing, wherever you looked.
I love Gilbert and Sullivan, but Ruddigore is one of the less famous ones and I was seeing it on a stage for the first time. Beyond sensing that a reasonably happy ending would eventually be contrived, I had little idea of what was going to happen until it did. But it is a very strange show, as well as very funny. And the contrived happy ending is indeed rather contrived. But, having been outshone for a century and more by the likes of The Mikado and The Gondoliers and The Yeomen of the Guard, perhaps Ruddigore is an opera whose time has come. Ancestral oil paintings are very old school. But when the people in them come to life and the stage is suddenly filled with zombies, you could be watching a stage musical written just a few months ago.
Sadly, tonight’s performance was the last of the very short run that this production was getting. Unless, that is, you fancy a trip to Harrogate in early August, where it will apparently be given one more outing, competing for a prize with a dozen other G&S shows.
There will surely, however, be further opportunities to see and hear the likes of Jack Roberts and Edward Jowle in dramatic action. And although there is no point in me now recommending that you see this Ruddigore, when GLOC announces its G&S show for next year I will be recommending that, sight unseen.
One of my happier fancies here at this blog has been a category of photos called: I just like it! And I just like this:
The point being that the sort of things that I write about here, and investigate, and then photograph very purposefully and self-consciously, often begin just as things that I like. When I trawl through the photo-archives, I find things that I thought I only started noticing quite recently cropping up casually, years back.
So, what do I like about the above picture? It certainly isn’t how well those leaves have come out. (Although in my opinion out-of-control light in a photo at least tells you that it was very sunny.) Do I think the RSC is GENIUS? Only a bit. No, I think what I like is the way that the advert is about as pompous as it is possible for an advert to be, yet life goes on right next to it and indifferent to it. Or maybe not. Maybe something else completely.
It’s the top of one of those open top double-decker buses, by the way. And below that, the advert is for a show called Matilda.
While half-watching the rugby yesterday I was also half-rootling-around in my photo archives, and I came across a photo of a carpet. I had put it in a special separate directory, on its own, but then forgotten about it. It had a rather interesting message to impart.
Click on this …:
… to get the bigger carpet.
But whose carpet was this? This is where the internet comes in. I googled “true hearts and warm hands” and immediately learned that this is the motto of the Worshipful Company of Glovers. Turning to images, I found no other pictures of the actual carpet, but scroll down to the “Glover’s window” here. The same graphics as on the carpet.
As for my picture, I took it on November 6th 2006, at an event organised by the Globalisation Institute, now long gone. The event was attended by, among others, the Prime Minister. Most of the pictures I took, including those I took of the Prime Minister, were very bad, because my camera was no good in poor indoor light, such as prevailed that evening, somewhere in the City of London.
Did you know that Shakespeare’s father was a glover? If you didn’t you do now.
Pride of place in David Thompson’s ephemera today, and pride of place this Friday at Bmdotcom, goes to the cat who changed her mind. She stepped out, with just the one paw. She pawsed. Paw cold cat! She pawed cold water on the original plan and retreated back into the warm.
In other cat news: Why cats like to hide in boxes. It’s because they like to hide. They’re not good at conflict resolution.
So rather than work things out, cats are more inclined to simply run away from their problems or avoid them altogether. A box, in this sense, can often represent a safe zone, a place where sources of anxiety, hostility, and unwanted attention simply disappear.
I’m not the only one doing frightful cat puns. Belfast Telegraph headline:
Why Cats is still not feline its age after thirty years in the limelight
Cats take centre stage at Perth’s first internet cat video festival
More cat news from Oz, this time transport related. Brisbane Times headline:
Uber delivers cats on demand with UberKittens
Finally, the New York Times reports on work by Professor Matthew Ehrlich on the history of media coverage of cats. From the Ehrlich’s abstract:
This article critically examines the Times’ cat tales in the context of the cultural history of journalism and the academic study of human–animal relations, also known as anthrozoology. Trends and themes in the coverage indicate that cats have been used and portrayed as commodities, heroes, villains, victims, women’s best friends, and urban symbols. The stories demonstrate how and why animal news should be taken seriously by journalism scholars. Not only does it offer insight into our evolving relationships with animals, it also provides a provocative means of thinking about where journalism has been and where it is heading.
Critically examines? He just wants to get lots of internet mentions. This is mere academic postmoggyism.
Time to stop.
Being the Godfather of Goddaughter 2, who has just started out as a student at the Royal College of Music, is a bit costly, but it most definitely also has its privileges. Yesterday I was kindly allowed to sit in on one of GD2’s one-on-one lessons, and today I got to see (at no further cost) the first dress rehearsal for the College’s production of The Magic Flute. GD2 was not performing in The Magic Flute. She merely arranged for me and various others of her acquaintance to be there, and she watched it along with us. As did many other RCM students by the look and sound of things. GD2’s singing lesson was most encouraging, and the Magic Flute was terrific, truly terrific, reflecting huge credit on all the professionals named at the other end of the above link, who between them set the tone of it.
Michael Rosewell conducted stirringly, emphasising the menace as well as the grandeur and beauty of the music. Jean-Claude Auvray directed wonderfully, with lots of pertinent comic business. Ruari Murchison’s set was dominated by a big, black, modernistic wooden box, with big sliding hinged doors at the front, with little doors in them, and with more doors at the sides and the back. This moved the action along with minimal fuss. They could shut the big doors at the front and do a scene in front of them, while inside the closed box other cast members could then set up the next scene. Since so many of the scenes in this opera are contrivances by some of the characters within the drama, them opening the doors to reveal the next scene made perfect sense. The production reminded me, in its clarity and austerity, of the best sort of Shakespeare productions that I have seen.
The costumes were modern, in a way that illuminated the characters and the various stages their lives were going through, rather than in a way that stuffed Mozart’s story into a specifically different era and made an anachronistic nonsense of it. Mark Doubleday’s lighting emphasised the brightness and lightness of the final scenes, but in the meantime it emphasised what a dark and morally ambiguous story this is, ending up as it does with the hero and heroine joining a religious cult. Tamino and Pamina started out in jeans, then found themselves clad in pantomime hero and heroine costumes, and they ended up power-dressed, City-of-London Moonie/Mormon style, in matching grey suits with, in Pamina’s case, shoulder pads.
Mozart loved being a Freemason, but a modern audience can’t be so unreservedly happy about this particular happy ending. In many ways, this is a story about the triumph of religious fundamentalism over the forces of modernity and of female emancipation. There are numerous references to how women must subordinate themselves to men, with the only Queen involved being the Queen of the Night, the leader of the eventually defeated forces of modernity, individuality, and darkness. These anti-modern references became particularly chilling when spelt out in plain English, in the illuminated surtitles at the top of the stage.
The Three Ladies were dressed to kill at a Premier or a Charity Fundraiser, but not in uniforms, rather as three individuals. The Three Boys, on the opposite side of the conflict from the Three Ladies, were all dressed identically, like Mrs Krankie, being also ladies underneath their boy costumes. All six acted and sang splendidly, individually and as teams.
As for the singing generally, only Sarastro, the leader of the ultimately triumphant cult, needed to be granted a little slack. It was absolutely not his fault that although most of his singing was fine, his voice lacked that final ounce of basso profundity required for those fearsome low notes. This was the one time when you wanted to be hearing one of the half dozen, or however many it is, aging-giant Sarastro super-specialists who roam the earth, bestowing their show-stealing low notes upon rich opera audiences everywhere. But this Sarastro acted very convincingly, especially given that he had less help from his grey suit of a costume than I presume most other Sarastros tend to get, and not much help either from his relatively short stature. Being the one black man on view, on the other hand, meant that he was instantly recognisable. (I want to hear this guy singing other things.) As for everyone else, terrific. This was the first time I have actually seen The Magic Flute on a stage, and I can’t imagine a better introduction. GD2’s mother, who has seen other non-student productions, reckoned this one to be the best. Yes, really.
The biggest round of applause came at the end for the entire cast, and quite right too. But the Queen of the Night got the second biggest ovation for her famously spectacular and difficult aria, and thoroughly earned it. Sensational. Watch out for her. Papagena also stole every scene she was in, although I didn’t get her name. (Maybe I can later add a link for her too.) Papageno handled his various musical instruments with particular aplomb.
But better than any individual excellence on show was the general air of sincerity, enthusiasm and esprit de corps. As the lady teacher said at the end of GD2’s lesson yesterday, opera has changed from the days when all you had to do was stand there and sing. You have to be able to sing and act, and often to sing in very demanding circumstances. You may have to “sing with your legs in the air” was how GD2’s teacher put it yesterday. There was nothing like that on the stage today, but the director did demand lots of acting of a less undignified sort, and got it in abundance. The show came alive from the first minute, and stayed alive throughout. These young singers are being very well prepared for the sort of careers that most of them will surely have.
I’m looking forward to more RCM dress rehearsals, and hope one day soon to be seeing GD2 in one of them. I am reluctant to enthuse too much about her prospects. Just to say that her voice sounds like a pretty fine one to me, that her teachers and fellow students seem to agree about that, and that she seems to be working hard at learning how to make the best use of it. But, as yesterday’s teacher said, there are a lot of circumstances - some of which you can surely imagine and many of which you can hardly begin to imagine unless you also know one of these singers yourself - that can derail a classical singing career. So, fingers crossed.
I am still waiting for God. But when God returns, he will be different. Major internal organs will have been exchanged for faster and better ones, or that is the idea. But, the new dispensation is taking for ever to arrive.
A new name suggests itself, for the new computer, when I finally get it and get it going.
Late this afternoon I had another go photoing the Ballerina, the idea being to do this photo again, but better.
But then I noticed what comely wenches the statues below her were, photoed them, and then picked one and photoed her with a crane behind her:
What I like about her is that she looks so relaxed and happy about what she is doing, and for that matter about what she is wearing. Pavlova, dancing up above them, looks otherworldly and untouchable. The statues look like girls next door, but really nice looking. To be more exact, they look like the kind of girls you wish had lived next door, instead of the ones who actually did.
When I click on either of the above photos, I get the big versions rotated ninety degrees. All I can say about that for now is: my apologies. It is far too late at night for me to be working out why this happens. Does it happen for you? Comments would help, as would explanations of what I am doing wrong or what is going wrong, or whatever.
Taken a few minutes after I had taken this photo.
I should take that shot again, and get those spy cameras looking like they’re looking right at her.
This, you see, is why I like photoing in London, rather than in foreign parts. In foreign parts it is inconvenient to go back and take a picture again. In London, I can do this.