Sunday, 13 July 2014

A day (and a night) at the Opera

I like to think of myself as a reasonably cultured individual. I've read Kafka and Camus (and, on more than one occasion, the first 16 pages of James Joyce's Ulysses). I'm not averse to watching films with subtitles, and I usually avoid newspapers with red tops as if my very life depended on it.

Musically though I'm a bit of a heathen. I've never been to a ballet and the only classical music I know is the kind that turns up in tunes like 'Lady Lynda' by The Beach Boys or the magnificent Pet Shop Boys' modern classic 'Love is a Bourgeois Construct'. Until last weekend I'd never been to 'The Opera' either, so when I was offered the opportunity to do so I jumped at the chance, blissfully unaware that I'd volunteered for a marathon experience. In German.

As the day approached I started to harbour a number of serious concerns. What should I wear? (images of capes and monocles flooded my overactive imagination). Was it obligatory to take a little pair of binoculars? Would I manage to stay awake throughout Opera North's epic performance of Richard Wagner's 'Götterdämmerung ', beginning with an introductory talk at 2.30pm and concluding at 10.15pm and, crucially for an opera performed entirely in German, would I be able to locate the ubiquitous umlaut in Microsoft Word?

The pre-show talk turned out to be hugely informative. I learned that 'Götterdämmerung ' means 'Twilight of the Gods', although when the time came for questions, even the translation of the title was called into question by one audience member. I also learned about diminished fifths and the need to be particularly alert to hear the three steerhorns making a brief appearance during Act two. I did notice that the man sitting next to me fell soundly asleep in the middle of the talk and wondered how we would all fare during the actual performance.

The show itself (is it acceptable to refer to it as a 'show' I wonder) opens with three women, apparently known collectively as 'The Norns' banging on for 20 minutes about a rope that snaps. It must have been a fairly important rope as they all seem to become quite upset about it.

Once we hit Act one the pace picks up and the whole affair really rocks along. Considering it's in German it's fairly easy to follow, with the aid of helpful surtitle translations into English. Surtitles are like subtitles on screens above the stage, apparently.

The Orchestra sound magnificent (six harps!) and, with all the marks of a good film soundtrack, are barely noticeable for much of the time. Even though it doesn't particularly sound like it, I mean that as a huge compliment. The whole opera singing bit was impressive too. I can never see it replacing Teenage Fanclub in my musical affections, but in the context of an opera the opera singing was pretty much perfect.   First and foremeost this particular opera was an impressively elaborate way to tell a wonderfully engrossing tale. If you're unfamiliar with the story contained in Götterdämmerung it goes something like this (spoiler alert!). A boy, Siegfried, gives a girl, inevitably glorying in the name of Brunnhilde, a magic ring that he acquired when he slew a dragon. The boy, encouraged by the girl, embarks on a quest but is tricked into drinking a potion of forgetfulness by two half-brothers so that their sister can marry the boy and one of the half-brothers can marry the girl. The boy then disguises himself as one of the half-brothers using a magic helmet so that Brunnhilde will marry the half-brother and Siegfried will marry the half-brothers' sister. Actually I haven't been entirely clear there because the half-brothers' sister is actually only a sister to one of the half-brothers and a half-sister to the other one.

Did I mention that Brunnhilde is a Valkyrie?

Act two opens with the extremely loud and prolonged rustling of a carrier bag. Presumably this is a later addition not present in the original performance from 1876. And so continues a tragic tale of love, disguise, betrayal and revenge that ultimately results in the demise of the entire aforementioned plus Brunnhilde's winged horse, Grane, and, eventually, all of the gods, hence the title.

It may sound like a cliché, but the hours did genuinely roll by and I really was in awe at the level of respect shown by an attentive and knowledgeable audience. Needless to say, nobody felt the unfathomable urge to sing along and not a single person was tempted to film one single little part of the performance on their mobile phone.

I came away feeling just a little bit more cultured, but more importantly privileged to have spent a few hours in the presence of supremely talented musicians and performers, and a wonderful, polite, respectful audience.

Article originally published on the NE:MM website and reproduced here with permission.

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