Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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Category archive: Theatre
It went on for a really long time, though. The show kicked off at 4.30pm, and only ended at 10pm. There were two intervals, each of just over half and hour. I was careful to drink very sparingly beforehand.
During the overture, before the curtain went up, I also fretted that there might not be titles in English of what was about to be sung, which would mean me spending the best part of an entire working day of time trapped in a seat and bored out of my skull, with nothing to do except listen to not-my-favourite Wagner, with constant interruptions from singers, of a sort that I typically don’t much like the sound of. And I further fretted that if there were such titles then we might not be able to read them, what with us being stuck right next to the roof about a quarter of a mile away from the action. But all was well. There were titles, and they were clearly readable.
A distressing effect of us sitting up at the back and the top, was that, what with the house being pretty much full and spring having got properly started during the last day or two, it became very hot for us. I heard one middle aged lady complaining vehemently about the heat to some hapless programme girl during the second interval, and from then on it just got hotter and hotter.
Another drawback of sitting at the top and at the back, for me and my faltering eyesight, was that I couldn’t see properly who was who on the stage. It was just too far away. The titles told me the meaning of what was being sung, but omitted the rather crucial detail of which character was actually singing it. In part one this was a real problem, because the stage was mostly full of similarly dressed and similar sounding bassy-baritony blokes of a certain age, the Mastersingers of the title. It helped that, as the night wore on, there tended to be fewer people on the stage, and I thus found it easier to deduce who was singing than it had been in part one
But oh boy, Wagner certainly takes his time with this one. It’s supposed to be a comedy, and occasionally it was. But one of Wagner’s favourite jokes is that he signals that something is about to happen, but then whichever dithering bass-baritone is supposed to be getting on with it then takes another five minutes actually to do it, or to sing it, or whatever he is supposed to do. This device peaked in the final act, when Mastersinger Sixtus Beckmesser takes an age to start his butchered version of the prize song, which he has stolen from the tenor.
Leading the caste was the noted (Sir) Bryn Terfel, as Hans Sachs - philosopher, poet, Mastersinger and cobbler. I was disappointed by him. Terfel’s voice in no way stood out during part one, with all its other bass-baritones, and one of the other bass-baritones, Mastersinger Pogner I think it was, sounded much better to me. This was, I believe, this guy.
The tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, regularly complimented throughout the show on his beauty, was a fat middle-aged bloke who made a point of dressing down, rather than overdressing in the properly pompous Mastersinger style, at any rate in this production. He looked, from my distant vantage point, more like a nightclub bouncer than a romantic lead. But, and this is the only thing that really matters in opera, he sang brilliantly. His voice was amazingly secure. “Secure” sounds like damning with faint praise, but what I mean is that his voice combined the best qualities of a voice and a really well played musical instrument. In this respect if in few others, yesterday was exactly like my earlier ROH experience, when tenor Joseph Calleja was also by far the best thing to be heard. Hughes Jones’s performance of the prize song, right at the end, after Beckmesser’s mangling of it, was, as it should be, the musical highlight of the evening.
As with that earlier Verdi show, everyone else in this Meistersinger cast (apart from Pogner) made the usual operatic singing noises in the usual operatic ways, these usual operatic ways being the basic reason I mostly prefer classical music without singing, and as a rule avoid opera houses. It isn’t just the crippling cost of the tickets.
There are two ways to sing opera badly. You can sing with quite nice tone, but with far too much and far too slow and wobbly vibrato, to the point where neither pitch nor meaning are clear, even if you know the language. Or, you can have less vibrato but a tone that sounds more like an industrial sawing process than a nice voice. Last night, the singing wasn’t ever bad enough to be seriously off-putting to me, but there was more than a whiff of both styles on offer. As often happens, the women were the worst wobblers. And Bryn Terfel was the worst offender, to my ear, in the industrial sawing department, although perhaps the effect was made worse by me having been hoping for something better from him. He did seem to get better as the evening wore on, although that could just be because both the music and the drama got better. It got better very slowly, but it got better.
Die Meistersinger is a kind of pilgrimage, from old geezer fustiness to youthful brilliance as exemplified by the prize song, from light opera to heavy opera, from dreary pre-Wagnerian operatic frivolity, which Wagner could do only moderately well, to full-on Wagner, at which Wagner was, as you would expect, the supreme master.
This production, especially in part one, was a bit off. It was supposed to start in a church, but instead we were in a posh gentleman’s club, containing Mastersingers who looked more like affluent Victorian eccentrics than the real late-Middle-Ages deal. Also, the ending was a bit un-Wagnerian, in that the lead soprano, Eva, wasn’t happy about the way the tenor was persuaded to join the Mastersingers, the way she surely was in Wagner’s mind when he wrote it. But it was never freakishly stupid, like a Samuel Beckett play, and on the whole it didn’t just sound reasonably good, it looked very fine too. Although Wagner takes an age to tell his story, there is at least a story to the thing that you care about. Well, I did. By the end.
Time to bust open the DVD of this opera that I have long possessed, having bought it for a tenner about a decade ago. The early staging already looks much more convincing.
But, crucially, the tenor doesn’t sound, to me, nearly as good as the one I heard yesterday. He really was something.
Yet more evidence of how digital photography has encouraged temporary art, by making it digitally preservable. What we see is videoing, I think. But we can be sure that a straight up still photo of the final result will be included in the photography process.
Note the silver paint, on top of what was there before. If the previous occupant of this spot (in the Leake Street Graffiti Tunnel) didn’t have what he had done photoed, he has only himself to blame.
Don’t ask me what the graffiti means.
Just heard an announcer on London Live TV pronounce Persephone as “Percy Phone”. It should be Per Seffany, in case you also are not sure. Y(oung) P(eople) T(hese) D(ays). They just don’t have the Classics.
I’ve been photoing the Pavlova Statue outside Victoria Station for a long time. On the left here is how she was looking, on a particularly sunny day ten years ago:
But look at the state of her now, as shown on the right. I got quite a shock, I can tell you, when I came upon her about a fortnight ago, looking like this.
The Victoria Palace Theatre is being refurbished.
Or should that be smart batphone?:
He is also holding a weapon, a knifey thingy. somewhat like this.
Photoed by me in Trafalgar Square last Friday.
Keeping things nice and face-recognition-hostile.
I’ve spent all my blogging time today trying to write a couple of things for Samizdata, so once again it’s quota photo time, this time in the form of a photo of Tom Cruise that I photoed recently, just a few minutes before I took this footbridge photo. To be more exact, it is a photo of a photo, of Tom Cruise:
That photo that you see in my photo is to be seen outside the Duchess Theatre in the West End, where the play being shown Goes Wrong, every night, without, although this may not be quite the way to describe things, fail.
I assume that you can only exhibit a picture of Tom Cruise like that if Tom Cruise gives his permission. If that’s right, Tom Cruise proves himself to be a good sport. Or, perhaps, a greedy bastard. But for now, I’m going with good sport, if only because if he got greedy, they couldn’t afford it.
Is there another such in London?:
Well, probably yes, quite a few such. But, there is definitely that one. It’s the top of the restored guess version of the Globe Theatre.
As seen, of course, from the top of the Tate Modern Extension. It’s right next to Tate Modern (the thing on the left of the picture), and you need to get right to the back of the viewing gallery, or you don’t see it.
I reckon it’s already starting to look a bit threadbare.
The Park in question is Finsbury, the Park Theatre being near to Finsbury Park, and more to the point from my point of view, Finsbury Park tube station. I was there last night to see a friend perform at the Park Theatre, which she did very well.
That LIFE sign thing is just outside the smaller theatre space, where my friend was performing, at the top of the rest of the theatre. I do not know why it is there. Could it be that they hope that people will photo it, and then mention the Park Theatre on the internet?
I suppose the creator of this sign could also have been thinking of that old Blur tune. But that, I believe, concerns a different park.
So, daily-blog-read-for-me David Thompson linked to a posting at ArtBlog, about the rights and wrongs of arts subsidies. I read that posting, and read through the comments too, just as David Thompson did. I find myself wanting to comment. But, can I be bothered?
And then, in comment number 16, courtesy of the Maitre D of ArtBlog, Franklin Einspruch, I discover that I have commented, thus:
The greatest art seems to happen when high art and low art combine, in the form of something that is superficially entertaining and stirring and popular, and also as profound as profundity seekers might want it to be. Arts subsidies harm art by dividing it into less good entertainment art, paid for by punters, and less good high art, paid for with subsidies. Arts subsidies in Britain are now being cut somewhat. The result will be somewhat better art.
Which Franklin found in this Samizdata posting and copied into his comment thread. How about that?!
The two arts that best illustrate this opinion of mine are probably Elizabethan and post-Elizabethan theatre (i.e. Shakespeare and all that), and classical music in the days of its glory, from about the late 1700s until around 1900 (i.e. Mozart, Beethoven and all that).
Shakespeare’s plays are now considered just about as profound as Art with a capital A can ever get, but at the time, his stuff was considered rather middle-brow. Too commercial, too appealing to the rabble. About half of Shakespeare’s mere plays - the very word suggests something not to be taken truly seriously, doesn’t it? - were nearly lost to us:
Of the 36 plays in the First Folio, 17 were printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime in various good and bad quarto editions, one was printed after his death and 18 had not yet been printed at all. It is this fact that makes the First Folio so important; without it, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays, including Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Tempest, might never have survived.
What will posterity, in its various and many successive iterations, consider to be the Great Art of our time? And how much of it will be lost, on account of it not now being considered artistic enough?
It’s been a long day. It’s been a long day partly because I spent a lot of it out and about, taking photos, of which the above is just one. But it was still a long day.
I hear a lot of complaints from my fellow Londoners, to the effect that the Shard is all very nice and tall and pointy and everything, but that it doesn’t look finished. That weird top. It ought to be a smooth, single point. Instead, well, look at it. It looks like someone shot the original top off of it with a giant catapult.
But although this strange and “unfinished” top may make the Shard look less conventionally pretty, it does make that top very recognisable. You only need to see the very top of that weird top peaking out above something else nearer, and you know at once what you are looking at. And I more and more find myself believing, about architecture in London, recognisable trumps pretty. (I more and more feel this way about the entirety of the Walkie-Talkie.)
I am in the habit of denouncing the notion that science is a precondition for technology (and therefore needs to be paid for by the government). The tendency is for technological gadgetry to lead science, and often to correct science, by defying it and proving with its success that the relevant science needs to be redone.
But there is another even more direct way in which technology leads science. Here is yet another excerpt from Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air (pp. 73-77). Click on the illustration, which I found here and which is the illustration in the book at that point in the text, to get it properly visible:
The study of air itself had only begun to blossom as a science in the past century, with Robert Boyle’s work on the compression and expansion of air in the late 1600s, and Black’s more recent work on carbon dioxide. Before Boyle and Black, there was little reason to think there was anything to investigate: the world was filled with stuff – people, animals, planets, sprigs of mint – and then there was the nothingness between all the stuff. Why would you study nothingness when there was such a vast supply of stuff to explain? There wasn’t a problem in the nothingness that needed explaining. A cycle of negative reinforcement arose: the lack of a clear problem kept the questions at bay, and the lack of questions left the problems as invisible as the air itself. As Priestley once wrote of Newton, “[he] had very little knowledge of air, so he had few doubts concerning it.”
So the question is: Where did the doubts come from? Why did the problem of air become visible at that specific point in time? Why were Priestley, Boyle, and Black able to see the question clearly enough to begin trying to answer it? There were 800 million human beings on the planet in 1770, every single one of them utterly dependent on air. Why Priestley, Boyle, and Black over everyone else?
One way to answer that question is through the lens of technological history. They were able to explore the problem because they had new tools. The air pumps designed by Otto von Guericke and Boyle (the latter in collaboration with his assistant, Robert Hooke, in the mid-1600s) were as essential to Priestley’s lab in Leeds as the electrical machines had been to his Warrington investigations. It was almost impossible to do experiments without being able to move air around in a controlled manner, just as it was impossible to explore electricity without a reliable means of generating it.
In a way, the air pump had enabled the entire field of pneumatic chemistry in the seventeenth century by showing, indirectly, that there was something to study in the first place. If air was simply the empty space between things, what was there to investigate? But the air pump allowed you to remove all the air from a confined space, and thus create a vacuum, which behaved markedly differently from common air, even though air and absence of air were visually indistinguishable. Bells wouldn’t ring in a vacuum, and candles were extinguished. Von Guericke discovered that a metal sphere composed of two parts would seal tightly shut if you evacuated the air between them. Thus the air pump not only helped justify the study of air itself, but also enabled one of the great spectacles of early Enlightenment science.
The following engraving shows the legendary demonstration of the Magdeburg Sphere, which von Guericke presented before Ferdinand III to much amazement: two eight-horse teams attempt – and, spectacularly, fail – to separate the two hemispheres that have been sealed together by the force of a vacuum.
When we think of technological advances powering scientific discovery, the image that conventionally comes to mind is a specifically visual one: tools that expand the range of our vision, that let us literally see the object of study with new clarity, or peer into new levels of the very distant, the very small. Think of the impact that the telescope had on early physics, or the microscope on bacteriology. But new ways of seeing are not always crucial to discovery. The air pump didn’t allow you to see the vacuum, because of course there was nothing to see; but it did allow you to see it indirectly in the force that held the Magdeburg Sphere together despite all that horsepower. Priestley was two centuries too early to see the molecules bouncing off one another in his beer glasses. But he had another, equally important, technological breakthrough at his disposal: he could measure those molecules, or at least the gas they collectively formed. He had thermometers that could register changes in temperature (plus, crucially, a standard unit for describing those changes). And he had scales for measuring changes in weight that were a thousand times more accurate than the scales da Vinci built three centuries earlier.
This is a standard pattern in the history of science: when tools for measuring increase their precision by orders of magnitude, new paradigms often emerge, because the newfound accuracy reveals anomalies that had gone undetected. One of the crucial benefits of increasing the accuracy of scales is that it suddenly became possible to measure things that had almost no weight. Black’s discovery of fixed air, and its perplexing mixture with common air, would have been impossible without the state-of-the-art scales he employed in his experiments. The whole inquiry had begun when Black heated a quantity of “magnesia alba,” and discovered that it lost a minuscule amount of weight in the process - a difference that would have been imperceptible using older scales. The shift in weight suggested that something was escaping from the magnesia into the air. By then running comparable experiments, heating a wide array of substances, Black was able to accurately determine the weight of carbon dioxide, and consequently prove the existence of the gas. It weighs, therefore it is.
Do you want your clothes theatrically drycleaned? Here is the enterprise you’ve been looking for:
Throughout our 50 years’ experience within the dry cleaning industry we have gained a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the effects that various solvents on different types of fabrics, paints, stage bloods, beading, sequins and trimmings allowing us the achieve the very best results for our wardrobe departments.
Van photoed by me in Tottenham Court Road last September, just minutes before I photoed this old American car. I am becoming increasingly interested in photoing vehicles. It’s not just taxis, and the vans don’t even have to be white.
As you can perhaps tell, today, it is nearly tomorrow. I have been doing a lot less of that lately, but today I did.
It is already hours into tomorrow, so to speak, and I am tired, but with a daily posting run to keep going. Which means shoving up any old damn thing before I go to bed.
Here we go:
Once again, my trusty I Just Like It! directory has come to my rescue. Although, it does need replenishing somewhat.
This photo was taken nine years ago, almost to the day, on the South Bank, in the vicinity of the Wheel, where characters of this sort are constantly to be seen posing for photos and hoping for cash.
So, what were these particular two characters saying to each other? You decide, if you care. I doubt anyone will, but maybe someone will not only think of something but actually add a comment to that effect.
I think the tall guy in black is saying: How much for your shoes?
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.