A couple of things I did last week

Sometimes a blog is just a blog, right? And it can house a collection of fragments? And have lame post titles? Like LiveJournal?

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I got to go to the opera last week, completely unexpectedly. My boss ended up with an extra ticket to the Kirov’s production of Die Walküre at Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House. We had very good seats; my boss has a friend on the Lincoln Center board, apparently. So I rushed home in the afternoon and changed into a suit, and I’m glad I did. I can face almost anything in a suit, even a private box at Lincoln Center and five hours of Wagner.

My first great experience with opera was in Vienna in college; a friend and I got standing room tickets, as much to see the stunning opera house as to hear the opera. You really do stand, although there’s a metal bar to lean against; luckily, that night was a one-act opera, Richard Strauss’s Elektra. The performance was amazing — challenging staging, great singing, and an orchestra that sounded like it was governed by a single mind.

I was there in jeans, grubby shoes, and the only button-up shirt I’d brought on the trip. This was alright in the standing-room section, although most of the people there were dressed up a couple of notches, in shabby-European-intellectual chic. But leaving the hall we descended a broad staircase and joined the streams of opera goers from the orchestra seats and the upper tiers. At least half of them, it seemed, were in black tie or evening dresses, the rest still very dressed up. Vienna is a formal city.

Now I wear a suit or at least a blazer to the opera. In America, plenty of people don’t — you see chinos, jeans, and polo shirts, although more frequently in DC than in New York. And that’s great. But I feel like I need a suit for protective coloration. Among people who have paid hundreds of dollars for their seats, I can at least look like I have money, or at least acknowledge that I am familiar with the codes of their class. I may be broke, but I can rock this H&M suit, you hordes of graying accountants, lawyers, and ladies who lunch!

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The production was spectacular, I thought. I don’t see enough opera to really be a judge, and I’d never seen any Wagner opera all the way through (just chunks of the Ring cycle that aired on PBS when I was in high school). But the performance was generally excellent, although the woman playing Sieglinde seemed like she hadn’t really studied stage acting much — great voice, but no sense of what to do with her hands or her body. The orchestra under Valery Gergiev was superb and seemed to deal intelligently with the music.

The staging — the staging was something else. There was none of the Teutonic kitsch you expect with Wagner, the horned helmets and such. Instead, the human characters wore simple clothes of animal skin from a more distant and wilder past than the one we usually imagine as home for the familiar myths. The gods were more timeless, although the Valkyries’s costumes owed something to fetish wear, which must be an irresistible temptation for a costume designer for this particular opera.

The stage setting was dominated by four giant human-like figures made of fiberglass. They were arranged differently in each act: in the first act, they leaned against each other, headless, to suggest Hundig’s cottage in the woods; in the second, three of them had vaguely human heads and surrounded the fourth, lying on the ground to form the promontory from which Brünhilde first sings that amazing Valkerie theme; in the third, the human heads are replaced by outlandish, prehistoric-looking skulls, and the fourth figure descends from the ceiling to become the rock where Brünhilde must sleep for years to wait for a hero to rescue her.

Twilight of the Idols

These figures, especially with the strange heads and wriggling appendages in the third act, seemed to me to echo the key story arc of the Ring cycle, the fading of the power of the gods and their eventual destruction. The figures were like petrified giants or decrepit totems from past ages, fallen into neglect and only partly understood and mostly ignored by the gods and humans walking through them. Very Twilight of the Idols — an appropriate allusion, given the book’s subtitle, Götzen-Dämmerung (How to Philosophize with a Hammer), a play on the title of the last of the Ring operas.

The Nietzsche-friendly elements of the Ring are many and have received much better commentary than I can give them. In the part of the cycle I saw on Tuesday, Wotan sings, “The free man creates himself,” knowing that this free man, Siegfried, will eventually lead to the destruction of the gods. It’s a shockingly modern mythology that Wagner creates from old Norse sources. It must have been strange enough when the Christians started talking about their god who died on a cross; Yahweh would cease to be I am that I am if he ever tried that stunt. And the Christ, though he had died, had at least come back to life; and though he’d gone up to heaven, he was expected back any day now.

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On Saturday I went out to Coney Island with A White Bear and her co-blogger, the Chestnut. They’re apparently bulldozing everything that makes Coney Island great at the end of this season to make way for progress in the form of condos, hotels, and a theme park whose theme is “Coney Island” — quotation marks included, you can be sure.

And that’s a fucking shame. The Wonder Wheel opened on Memorial Day, 1920, and has been providing a perfect combination of amusement and terror ever since. It and the Cyclone (the wooden roller coaster that I was no way in hell going to ride) are treasures, but they would lose almost all of their charm outside the unpretentious, working-class context where you can buy beer in obnoxiously long plastic dumbbells at Coney Island and drink it on the boardwalk, play skeeball and give your tickets to ungrateful children, or catch little crabs from the pier using chicken for bait while listening to an impromptu jam session by some old Puerto Rican guys on congas.

Saturday happened to be the day of the Siren Festival, a free music festival sponsored by the Village Voice. That drew E. Tan out there, and he led us to a couple of fun performances, the Noisettes (sexy and energetic) and Matt & Kim (so enthusiastic! my God!). We also checked out the aquarium — they had jellyfish that swim upside-down and press themselves to the floor of the tank, among other wonders.

I tried to stay hydrated, but I ended up drinking a bottle of Gatorade and a liter of mineral water when I got home, having sweated a lot out in the sun, sea breeze, and indie-rock crowd. It was the kind of day that made you happy not to be wearing a suit.

8 responses to “A couple of things I did last week”

  1. hey dave — i’m really sad to be missing the last summer of the old run-down coney island. i hope there’s still time in sept.

    i’m going to follow your musical lead and make a plug for some upcoming shows in east coast towns. we went last night to see the comas/great northern at the middle east. this is a particularly fun bill for many TGWers because the Comas are friends of a lot of us on the East Coast and Great Northern are friends of some GWers who live in LA. Somebody got their peanut butter on my chocolate, in other words, and it tastes real yummy. This is a loud show that reminds you why you like rock and roll in the first place. I don’t think i’ve seen the Comas play a tighter set, and I developed a big crush on GN when i saw them last summer in LA and met them at a party at a friend of a friend’s.

    SO: dates for upcoming shows:

    TONIGHT @ Mercury Lounge in NY. This will be a homecoming show and soo soo soo much fun. I almost want to take the Chinatown bus down just for the show. My ears are still ringing from last night.

    Thursday @ Black Cat (backstage) in DC

    After that they head down through Richmond to NC and SC. More at their site, along with a new video for “Come My Sunshine,” which is the song I can’t get out of my head at the moment.

  2. Dave says:

    w00t for the Comas! Thanks for the reminder about their show tonight.

  3. Jeremy says:

    Dave, I love how even your “random collection of fragments” still comes out as a polished, insightful essay-type “blog” post. And of course it made me think of my (limited) experiences with opera, the most profound of which was the time I went to The Hungarian National Opera House in Budapest to see Tosca for $2, which was perfect because my wallet and all my cash, credit cards, etc., had been either lost or stolen (I never quite figured out which…thanks again, WW, for wiring me that cash, which I kept safely tucked in my shoes for the rest of the trip). If you ever get the chance, get to the Opera House. It is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever been inside. The opera was OK, too, though the architecture was the real draw for me.

    And, bw, I love the fact that your friends and our friends are touring together, which seems so randomly coincidental yet so perfectly fitting. Peanut butter in my chocolate, indeed.

  4. Beth W says:

    Dave, your post has me reminiscing on past travels. In winter 2001, I watched a ballet standing in the Vienna Opera House. It’s a beautiful, unusual building. I remember it as an oval with straight sides, no tiering, like an inverted cake.

    I went to Coney Island on the the 4th of July a couple summers ago. Looking back it was really fun, but I was rather grumpy from the heat, dehydration, hunger, noise and a sun-induced rash. Just using the restroom felt like a cultural experience, me a head or two taller than the rest of the snaking line, attendants yelling at people to hurry it up. The discomfort was thrilling.

  5. Wayne says:

    I am impressed with how the small number of GWers can generate interesting and amusing content on a daily basis.

    I enjoyed both substories today. An interesting aspect of Wagner’s mythological background is that, like the King Arthur cycle, it evolved from real events. In the case of the Ring Cycle the events occurred during the tumultuous times of the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Attila the Hun. This was a time of stress and opportunity for the migrating Germanic tribes. Soon after, the German tribes converted to Christianity, and so these legends are, in a historical sense, really set in the twilight of their pagen gods. I kind of miss them, but at least we have their names embedding in the days of the week. I suppose the non-christian values of the pagen heros appealed to Nietzsche and his friend Wagner; in the 1800s mythology was a form of rebellion against traditional religion.

    These stories inspired Tolkien as well, but I understand that Tolkien hated Wagner and did not think of himself as a rebel against established religion.

    Last summer Linda and I had a chance to visit Vienna, and really wanted to be able to fully experience the opera house, which was stunning even from the outside. Naturally there were no available tickets. However, the Vienna Philharmonic happened to be playing (they only give a handful of concerts per season). There happened to be a few very good seats owned by season ticket holders who could not attend, and who were selling them via a tourist information center for face value. Attending this amazing performance in the legendary Musikverein was one of the highlights of our summer. Tourists are usually shut out of such concerts. In fact, according to Wikipedia “Attending a VPO concert is a feat not to be undertaken lightly. While on international tour, tickets are typically, at the minimum, double what one would normally pay to hear the local orchestra. Ticket demand for the Vienna Philharmonic at their home, Musikverein, are listed on the orchestra’s website as being completely sold out. The waiting list for weekday concert subscriptions is six years and thirteen years for weekend subscriptions.”

    I was actually a season ticket holder once for a world class orchestra. In graduate school I had season tickets to the Boston Symphony (a wedding present from my brother and sister-in-law who happened to also be living in the Boston area and also had tickets). However, most of the concerts I have attended involve electric amplification with standing room only in front of the stage. Although I live in the San Diego area, the the only time I have been inside Copley Symphony Hall was for a Flaming Lips/Beck concert. This shameful neglect of the arts on my part needs to change.

    I am currently friends with no band, at least none that can make a living touring, but I will keep an eye out for GN, Comas and other shows by friends of TGW.

  6. Miller says:

    I’m totally a fan of Wayne.

  7. Adriana says:

    Dressing up is FUN. I bet you looked smokin’

    I’m so dismayed at this news about Coney Island, although if I had to lear about it somewhere at least I learned it here.

  8. Wayne says:

    1. speaking of GN..