Arts of intelligence

This year, the Cairo Opera House joined an international network of theatres broadcasting live from the Metropolitan Opera – an unprecedented experience whose first session, Wagner’s Das Rheinngold, filled the Small Hall last Sunday.

Published on 21 October 2010 in Al Ahram Weekly

Since it was founded by a handful of New York millionaires, back in 1880, the Metropolitan Opera (Met) had been among the world’s most ambitious. In its first season 1883/1884 — tickets cost $5 — it lost almost half a million dollars, but determined, in the next season 1884-1885 they accepted a support proposal from Leopold Damrosch to turn the opera German; many Italian and French operas were performed in German, as well as Wagner’s cycle The Ring, a jewel among operas. In the late 1880s there were clashes due to the management’s preference for Romance languages over German; the Puck, America’s first humour magazine, published a cartoon in which Wagnerian Gods are in combat with French and Italian opera characters.

A fire lead to the cancellation of season 1892/1893, but under Maurice Grau and Heinrich Conried, in 1892-1903, the Met had its first golden age with the repertoire sung in its original languages. It hosted the Polish tenor Jean de Reszke, the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso as well as Beniamino Gigli, Frida Leider, Ezio Pinza and many others. It also installed Mapleson Cylinders which recorded performances for the first time; in 1910 the Met was the first opera to have live radio broadcasts, and its appearance on television dates back to 1948. Over 100 vibrant years the Met has presented over 1,000 performers with some of the best known singers and conductors in the world: Artur Toscanini and Gustav Mahler were among the regulars. Costume designers and scenographs and the most advanced technology all contributed to success of the performances, which were often on tour. In Met Opera launched a ticket sale on the internet, joining pioneers of this practice worldwide, and today the online Met Player offers access to hundreds of operatic excerpts. High definition practice was launched in December 2006 and the first broadcast of a matinee live production was Mozart’s The Magic Flute. HD transmission became an instant success with almost one million attendees worldwide in its second season, boosting Met revenues. Season 2010/2011 is the fifth.

Upcoming performances include Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (23 Oct), Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (13 Nov), Verdi’s Don Carlo (11 Dec), and Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (8 Jan 8) , followed by Adams’s Nixon in China, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, Strauss’s Capriccio and Verdi’s Il Trovatore. The season will end on 14 May, 2011 with Wagner’s Die Walkère. These 12 broadcasts are a continuation of a long history of Metropolitan productions presented to worldwide audiences. Previous seasons did not lack great operas such as Verdi’s Aida, Macbeth, Simon Boccanegra, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, Il Trittico, Turandot, Tosca, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and dozensof other works by Donizetti, Bellini, Massenet, Gounod, Britten, Gluck among many other composers. Each evening is a treat.

***

For Egyptian audiences raised on operas by Verdi, Mozart, Puccini and Donizetti, the repertoire of Richard Wagner is not an easy one. Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) is the first of the four operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), which talks about the fate of gods whose desire for authority leads to a disaster. None of the heroes can help the gods to avoid their predestined and irreversible end, yet the same end anticipates a new life in which people will be free from vice and the need for authority. Wagner’s music was unjustly linked to the glorification of Germanic ethos due to the Nazis’s interest in it.

Wagner’s aesthetic values had a major effect on turn-of-the- century art. The execution of his operas — mise-en-scene, scenography, sound requirements etc. — often entails complicated sets and technologies, along with the singers’ specific voice requirements and a big orchestra. For those reasons Wagner’s works are not on the regular repertoires of many operas. No wonder Bayreuth Festspielhaus (Bayreuth Festival Theatre), funded by Ludwig II of Bavaria, was built in the late 1870s specifically for Wagnerian operas. Wagner wanted to create an “Art of the Future” and in order to achieve this he linked the most expressive art forms, reaching a perfect combination of music and drama. As such, Wagner was not only a composer; he was also a dramaturge and a poet.

Today, Wagner is still compelling with his monumental sound and vocabulary. His world is filled with Germanic gods, heroes fighting with dragons using their magic swords and helmets, characters who speak the language of nature. Yet in fact the composer sends strong messages which are valid and understood by generations of listeners living in changing realities about a challenge to history and the power; they make the listener re-evaluate the world and life.

Das Rheingold gave the Egyptian audience a chance to meet the composer through one of his most captivating works as presented by the world’s leaders in the genre. Overwhelming scenography is based on a set of connected vertical panels covering the whole stage and through their movement, a variety of stage depths and dimensions is revealed to the audience. New movement technologies are used to benefit from this ambitious set in four Wagner operas. In addition, set movements are activated by the singers’ own voices. The beauty and competence of all the singers lead by Bryn Terfel in the role Wotan crowned the work.

We are sometimes skeptical about the impact of new technologies on how we think about music. Technology has undermined the social aspect of concerts. Yet technology makes music instantly and constantly available to a wide audience all over the world. And this is the lesson of high definition concerts. The Cairo Opera House’s initiative of Met opera transmissions is among the most important steps. Let us hope it will be met with the appreciation it deserves.

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