Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Death of Klinghoffer in Simulcast

Yesterday, the Metropolitan Opera announced their decision not to air John Adams' Death of Klinghoffer next season in simulcast.  Ostensibly, the reason was that the Met does not want to provoke anti-Semitic reactions throughout the world, even though Peter Gelb (the Met's general manager) stated that he did not feel that Klinghoffer was an anti-Semitic work.  His decision was reportedly made after talks with the Anti-Defamation League.  The work itself will still be performed, but its impact will not extend beyond the walls of the Met, at least in the words of Gelb.

The Met better start canceling quite a few simulcasts for next season, then.  Let's start with Wagner, whose Meistersinger is scheduled for December 13.  This music drama not only ends with a grand paean to the great German state, but was heard eagerly by Nazi audiences and has a character who--if not explicitly Jewish--displays a disconcerting number of traits that Wagner viewed as inherent to Jews.  Beckmesser cannot assimilate into society, cannot learn its art, and even has problems speaking the language correctly (this is not my argument alone; Barry Millington has done work on this topic)--all reasons that Wagner gave in his anti-Semitic essay, 'Das Judenthum in der Musik,' that they should not feel themselves as belonging to the German nation.  Whether Beckmesser is a Jew or not is a point that can be debated, but what cannot--or more importantly should not--be ignored are the implications that Wagner puts on this character.  At the end, having lost the song contest, Beckmesser is denied a wife due to his inability to learn a society's art.  His rival Walther, on the other hand, takes to the form naturally, even if his interpretation of the song rules is revolutionary.  Walther, then, belongs inherently to Nuremburg's society.  Beckmesser is tolerated, but does not (and cannot) truly belong--and with him, his bloodline will die.  So Peter Gelb, you better take this one off the simulcast too.

Other works that are being broadcast next year include Carmen and Tales of Hoffmann.  The character of Carmen may be a Jew, which was a common nineteenth-century understanding of the tale (again, not my take on it, Sander Gilman has written on this). Hoffmann features a prominent Jewish character in the third act named Peter Schlemiel, who has lost his shadow (in some versions of this story, he sold it to the Devil for an endless bag of gold).  So I guess the Met with either omit Act 3 in its entirety, which would be a shame without the barcarolle, or not do the simulcast.  The term 'Schlemiel' was taken from a Yiddish expression.  One could argue, I suppose, that Offenbach would not likely portray a character in an anti-Semitic way, since he was Jewish and was often the target of anti-Semitism--particularly that of Wagner.  But this completely oversimplifies the situation. 

And that is precisely what the Met is doing by omitting Klinghoffer from its simulcast program.  Adams' operas seek to document recent history, but Klinghoffer is the only one to date that remains controversial.  Nixon in China is a series of character studies from a significant moment in history.  It is a great opera, but not a very controversial work because it did not focus on politics and instead looked at individuals.  Doctor Atomic was a fine opera, but eschewed controversy because we all came to the same conclusion as our protagonist, Oppenheimer, at the end: nuclear weapons are bad (and won't somebody think of the children?).  Klinghoffer, on the other hand, engages in issues that continue to stir controversy today: the place of Palestine in the world; the function of terrorism; how the Middle East co-exists (or fails to co-exist).  It seems more cowardly to me for the Met to continue staging and broadcasting works that feature characters who could be seen as anti-Semitic, but openly concealing them by pretending that such issues are absent.  Perhaps it is time to take a look at the bigger picture of opera repertoire here and question why Klinghoffer is (in Gelb's words) too much for audiences 'at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe,' but that actual anti-Semitism is okay.  Klinghoffer is a work that questions the concept of heroes and villains (and their victims). Because it garners controversy, it demonstrates its power.  If anything, this work demonstrates that opera can still have a vital role in this world, while the 'museum pieces' such as Meistersinger and Tales of Hoffmann show just how out of touch we have become with the social issues that inform many of the works that remain in the repertoire.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Long Shadow of Versailles

If you could speak what tales your tongues could tell,
   You voiceless mirrors of the storied past!
Do you remember when the curtain fell
   On him who learned he was not God at last?
Edward van Zile, reprinted in The Story of Versailles by Francis Loring Paine
Hall of Mirrors

There is perhaps no palace as famous in the world as Versailles; in fact, I would hazard a guess that it might be the only palace name that comes automatically to mind for most people.*  In part, this continued familiarity is a testament to Louis XIV, who sought to create the most splendid palace of his day, and in fact was so successful that it remains the most well-known palace three centuries later.  But the reason that it has remained so pertinent has changed over time, and with two (relatively) recent (and prominent) Versailles references, I wanted to revisit it as a historic--and sometimes not so historic--site.

Last week, I rewatched the documentary 'The Queen of Versailles,' which documents the Siegel family and their attempt to build America's largest home just outside of Orlando, FL--a home that they named, without any trace of irony, Versailles.  One of the reasons that they chose the site was that they could see another faux palace nearby, with the nightly Disneyworld fireworks visible from their home.  Adding to the irony was David Siegel's primary source of income, which was derived from timeshares.  One of his most prominent properties was in Las Vegas, another place that takes the re-creation of faux palaces and historic sites seriously.  Regardless, the financial crash of 2007-08 brought work on Siegel-Versailles to a halt since the time-share industry--along with any other industry based on mortgages--fell apart.  The trailer gives you a good sense of them:

If you're curious, yes, they do have such gaudy knick-knacks all over the home.  The trailer missed out on some of the many paintings that re-create famous paintings, only with the Siegels in them.

The Siegel Versailles is remarkably similar to the original in a sense.  Louis XIV also wanted to make a palace that he could fill with amazing items to show off to his guests, all of French provenance.  In fact, he commissioned many of the works and even bestowed a patent of nobility on Gobelin, the maker of tapestries.  My favorite new fact about Versailles is that they hired and repatriated Venetian mirror makers to create the Hall of Mirrors, but that Venice then tried to assassinate them to keep the mirror-making business in Venice.  The Siegel Versailles is more global in its scope, bringing the 'best of' goods from around the world to adorn their home.  However, the outcome is, presumably, the same: to project a sense of awe to their guests.  If their current home is any indication, that sense of awe will likely be tempered with a sense of gaudy--that is, if they even manage to complete their dream home.

Construction stopped in 2010 because of a lack of funds and the Siegels put it on the market.  With no takers, they maintained possession of it, and still hope to complete it.  This, too, is a bit like Versailles, which was constantly being renovated and changed.  They have not yet come up with the idea to throw a pageant and raise money, as Louis XIV did in the early stages of construction, but I'm sure they'll figure it out eventually. 2016 update: still not done

The second recent Versailles reference is, of course, Kimye, who purportedly wanted to get married there but were purportedly denied by the French government.  Fortunately, a suitable replacement palace was found in Italy (Fort Belvedere) and the ceremony took place there instead, much to the chagrin of local royalty Prince Ottaviano de Medici.  While I am simply dying to cut this post short and research what the Medicis are up to these days, for now, let's get back to Kimye and their wedding celebration.  As you undoubtedly guessed, the wedding and its pre-game celebrations were completely over-the-top, particularly as documented by André Leon Talley, who was a guest.  His account of the brunch at Valentino's chateau the day before the wedding reads like something out a historical document in its attention to detail and excessive....well, excess.  We are not too far off from Louis XIV here.

Is the semi-sepia meant to convey a sense of history here?

As an aside, I am thrilled to report that Kanye seems to have located a giant marble table--so giant, in fact, that it was hauled into Fort Belvedere by crane.  Now he can finally host those conferences that he was so excited about back in August 2010.

Since Versailles has long been the palace of excess, why deny Kimye the opportunity to marry there?  Undoubtedly, this denial is in part to fend off the inevitable slew of social media mogul/hip hop luminary weddings that would follow (or, more realistically, the nouveau 1%).  But it also suggests that Versailles is now, in the eyes of French authorities, officially a museum piece, a place that should be celebrated for its history but not put to use in the present.  The understanding of what Versailles should be has also morphed over the years as the palace has served as a home to royalty, soldiers' hospital (in Napoleon's time), art museum, and crucial site of diplomacy.  After all, it was in Versailles that Germany was created, when Kaiser Wilhelm crowned himself there in 1871, and it was in Versailles that Germany was humiliated after the First World War.

This is the coronation, not the humiliating defeat

But in hosting such pivotal events, Versailles remained living.  Now it is more of a shadow, despite its vivid appearance, a place where re-creations of royal furniture and furnishings gives the impression of a long-ago time.  The wedding of Kimye might be little more than a paean to excess, but surely this is precisely what Versailles has accommodated for much of its history.

Lastly, a fun piece on The Daily Beast by Kevin Fallen that asks which wedding was more ridiculous: Wedding #2 (Humphries) or #3 (Kimye)--we have already eliminated Wedding #1, making this a Monty Hall Problem.  His summary of the Versailles caper:

The rehearsal dinner? That took place at Versailles. Versailles. Did you read that? I remember going to a rehearsal dinner that had lobster tail on the buffet and thinking that was decadent. Theirs was at a flipping palace. Guests were greeted at the palace gates with glasses of champagne and chauffeured in horse-drawn carriages to be met for their private tours of the palace grounds. Then came the actual dinner party, which included a performance by Lana Del Rey. The grand finale was a fireworks display outside palace. Good lord.

I think this makes Lana Del Rey the modern Lully.  There is some food for thought.   Someone warn her about large conducting staffs.

*I'm cool with viewing Neuschwanstein as most recognizable since it was the model for the Disney castles, but I suspect that far fewer people know its name.

Monday, June 2, 2014

National Anthems: Should Players Be Forced to Sing Them?

The world cup is coming up soon, and there's already tons of drama surrounding the event. What I'd like to focus on for this post, however, is the role of music in international sporting events.  Zoe and I have written pretty extensively on here about the importance of analyzing performances in history, and the usefulness of historical knowledge in hearing/seeing performances. Music, as plenty of scholars have written about, as *we've* blogged about, is essential to identity formation. Period. Schluss. Punkt. The end.

So it's really fascinating to have the interior minister of Germany, then, come out and say something to this effect. Thomas de Maiziere, interior minister, close friend of Angela Merkel, and descendent of a prominent family of French Huguenots that settled in Germany in the 17th century, recently stated that he found it upsetting that some members of Germany's national soccer team don't sing the national anthem before each match. "I would be pleased," he said, "if they would profess the anthem of their homeland." His comments have already led to articles popping up in national newspapers and magazines in Germany.

Why were his comments controversial, you might wonder. I think, in part, that his comments stem from larger national anxieties about multiculturalism in Germany. (For an excellent and recent piece of scholarship on multiculturalism, soccer, and the World Cup in Germany, see Beverly Weber and Maria Stehle's article). How should we handle the fact that there are many different races/ethnicities living in Germany today, some (white, Christian) Germans have been asking. Unfortunately, it seems that the answer to this question is "not well." Questions that ask who gets to call him or herself "German" and who qualifies for citizenship have received a variety of unfavorable, weak, and often hostile responses throughout the twentieth century, obviously, and are still resonant today.

I should also point out that the usual framing of this question - how do we handle different races/ethnicities living in Germany today - is also problematic because it supposes that German multiculturalism is a new (post-1945) phenomenon. Like Germany's never had different ethnicities or faiths living there before claiming German identity. Huh.

The CDU (the Christian Democratic Union) political party in particular has been adamant in its tackling of what it sees as the "crisis of multiculturalism" that immigrants (usually meant to mean those from Turkey, the Middle East, parts of Africa, Asia, and so on) integrate into a "Leitkultur" or "common culture" that is truly, proudly German. Of course, as a German cultural historian, I then cackle with glee as I watch people hotly debate what German culture really is, knowing that they're never really going to reach a consensus on the matter.

What's fascinating here is how music has (inevitably) become a part of this debate on multiculturalism and national identity in Germany. I think some people might be tempted to dismiss de Maiziere's comments as frivolous or silly, but in doing so they're underestimating the power of music as a community builder. And they're forgetting how important national anthems have been to historical processes of identity formation. Singing an anthem in a stadium of thousands is a powerful ritual that creates emotional ties to the nation. You and thousands of others are all temporarily speaking a secret language together at the same time.

For a case study of the national anthem as identity-maker, let's take look at communist East Germany. In her work on state symbols in the German Democratic Republic, historian Margarete Feinstein notes that within months of officially becoming an independent state, the GDR went about commissioning the composition of a national anthem. It was no mere coincidence that East German citizens had a national anthem before they had an official flag. Because GDR officials believed that musical performance was a powerful way to unify communities, creating an accessible, melodic, and memorable anthem was of utmost importance to them. This song had the potential to consecrate the foundation of their newly-formed state. East German officials behind the commissioning of the national anthem understood that the song would be sung in schools, at soccer matches, at official government ceremonies, and in youth camps.

As much as I might be uncomfortable with de Maziere's belief that we should *force* members of The Mannschaft to sing the national anthem, as a German historian who tends to shout from the rooftops that musical performances have shaped German identities in countless ways, I'm secretly pleased to see someone taking the relationship between music and identity so seriously in German politics.

Members of Germany's national soccer team in many ways represent the ever-changing national makeup of Germany today. Lukas Podolski is the son of Polish immigrants:

 Jerome Boateng is Afro-German (his mother's German, his father's Ghanaian):

 Mesut Özil is a third generation Turkish-German.

Sami Khedara is Tunisian-German:

Many members of The Mannschaft have really interesting backgrounds and stories that reflect Germany's multiracial/multiethnic/multicultural makeup. They are what Germany looks like today. Having such visible symbols of German multiculturalism sing the national anthem might indeed send a message of German unity and acceptance.

Here's where I remain skeptical, though, given Germany's rather poor history of accepting different ethnicities into the national fold: even if these players sing the national anthem loudly and by heart, will politicians like de Maziere believe them?