Posted by Susannah Snider
If you're the kind of Wagnerite who believes that Wagner's "Ring" is an untouchable example of Gesamtkunstwerk, a transcendental Obra Maestra inspired by the heavens and secure on its pedestal, then "Das Barbecü" is NOT for you.
If, however, you like your serious opera with a dash of irreverence and a country-western twist, then you'll take a cotton to this bizarre little musical.
"Das Barbecü" is a two-hour retelling of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, specifically the fourth opera, Götterdammerüng. It sets the action smack dab in the middle of Texas, complete with a "singin' cowboy" named Seigfried, a honky tonk bar called Hagen's Hideaway and a gaudy Verailles-style palace named Valhalla Ranch.
The audience was warned Monday night-when the Musical Theatre Guild's Broadway in Concert Series presented "Das Barbecü" at Alex Theater in Burbank-that the show would be a "participation musical." Indeed, the audience members decked out in cowboy boots and ten gallon hats were quick to sing along. While my training as a courteous classical music attendee kept me silent, I couldn't help but let out some loud Texan guffaws, especially during the number "Hog-Tie Your Man" in which the Norn Triplets (one of them played by Siegfried in drag) explained how to maintain a loving relationship.
The updated plot-with its infidelities, seedy bars and scores of illegitimate children-seems more like a Texan "Desperate Housewives" than Wagner's take on Norse mythology and the rockin' soundtrack rings closer to "Annie Get Your Gun" than Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah." Still, there are a few straight-faced country ballads and romantic scenes to elevate the silliness.
The musical requires five extremely energetic actors to portray 30 characters. You heard me-30 characters, with lightning fast costume changes, increasingly broad Texas accents and one very silly bridal outfit. Wotan (Gordon Goodman) is a wealthy rancher with an eye patch and overalls. Fricka (Pamela Hamill) is a nagging southern housewife. "Oh dear, has the plot thickened?" she teases Wotan unsympathetically as his plans go awry. Gutrune (Melissa Fahn) and Brunhilde (Shauna Markey) are Southern belles with an appetite for love, Siegfried (Stuart Ambrose) and pulled pork.
Seattle Opera's General Director Speight Jenkins commissioned "Das Barbecü" in 1991 to counteract the heaviness of the "Ring." He reportedly asked librettist Jim Luigs and composer Scott Warrender not to mock the conventions of opera. But to me, the musical does nothing but play with the stereotypes of a Wagner's works.
For example, the constant costume changes require a great deal of energy and athleticism. The running around contrasts with the Wagnerian stereotype of the portly soprano who plants her feet on stage and belts out her arias.
In addition, the five actors playing 30 roles draws attention the incest in Wagner's "Ring." The taboo pairing (Brunnhilde and Siegfried are aunt and nephew) seems strange to modern-day audiences. But in "Das Barbecü," when the same actor plays Wotan and Gunther, the usual ickiness of the incest grows. Is Brunhilde engaged to her father and her nephew? Yeek!
So, don't go to "Das Barbecü" expecting a life-altering musical experience. Or if you find Wagner's work untouchable. Or if you hate country-western musicals. "Das Barbecü" is just a fun, tongue-in-cheek look at one of the most famous opera events in classical music history. Nothing more and nothing less. And I would definitely brush up on the "Ring" plot before you go. That way, you'll get the inside jokes.
The show is scheduled to travel all over Southern California until August.
Posted by Susannah Snider
Yesterday a theater-load of people, including myself, sacrificed a sunny Los Angeles beach day for a darkened auditorium.
And it was completely worth it.
In fact, I would have surrendered a year of sunbathing to see the panel of experts--opera director Peter Sellars, visual artist Bill Viola and director of the USC Brain and Creativity Institute Antonio Damasio--discuss myth as it relates to Wagner's Ring" cycle.
The three men graced REDCAT Theater's stage for an afternoon of what Damasio called "monologues, dialogues and tri-alogues."
The discussion began with Damasio's scientific explanations of myth-making as a purely human activity, something that even chimpanzees, our closest cousins, don't do. Myth is so crucial to us, he explained, that it may even predate spoken language.
The panelists had a magnetic chemistry. Viola and Sellars listened raptly to Damasio's lecture, soaking in the scientist's take on storytelling. The two artists connected as well, revealing that they share books and philosophies.
Viola described myth as a structural part of our culture, comparing it to the lines on the informational paperwork you fill out at the DMV--it organizes and categorizes our essential information. He argued that myth has taken on a disparaging meaning, standing for "untruth," when it actually has an essential place in the architecture of our society.
Sellars--who was characteristically decked out in a loud shirt, his hair spiked up six inches above his head--described myths as horrifying tales, devices to help humans prepare for the worst. The "Ring" creates a world where love is impossible, he explained, inaction (via suicide) is the only form of redemption and every effort the characters make yields horrid results. "If you thought you were f**cked up, then these myths are really f**cked up," he said to the audience while Viola exclaimed, "Don't scare them!"
As the lectures wound down, Viola screened his installation piece, "Three Women," a supremely affecting work in which three female figures emerge from a grainy black and white film into vivid color, then disappear again.
Possibly the best part of the afternoon was Sellars' decision to bring the "Ring" myth up to speed with the current economic situation. He spoke on how Capitalism had failed us, arguing that the youngest generation (my generation...yeek) will fare worse than our parents'. Sellars sees the "Ring" as an economic treatise that "[speaks] to the last 18 months of American life."
"All those Goldman Sachs palaces will have to end in the giant blaze of Valhalla," he said.
Two hours later, the crowd emerged from the dark theater (pitch-black because the lights had gone out during the last few minutes of discussion) into the LA sunshine. There was a good hour of beach weather left in the afternoon and a lot to think about.
Posted by Susannah Snider
The first thing you notice about the Descanso Garden self-guided "Trees of Norse Myth" walk is that it smells really good .
That scent does not come from the trees. It is the aroma of the roses, which are in full bloom right now.
One day, I will throw an elaborate wedding under Descanso's rose-covered canopy. And you are alllll invited! But I digress...
It doesn't take a Ringhead to recognize the important role trees play in Wagner's "Ring" cycle, from Nothung's lodging spot in the tree to Wotan's spear, fashioned from an ash branch. Descanso Garden's "Ring Walk" (included with regular admission) invites you to bask in the majesty of the massive Quercus agrifolia (oak trees) and contemplate deep "Ring"-related questions (Where do we come from? How can this tree be so old? Why do I feel so old?)
I was accompanied by my friend (and partner in crime), Katie, who energetically strolled through the gardens with me and vowed to stick to a diet of "pure oak oxygen" after breathing in their wonderful scents.
The gardens occupy 150 acres of land in La Cañada Flintridge, where publisher E. Manchester Boddy built his mansion in the 1930s. Each of the six oak trees featured on the walk predate Boddy's time. They are all at least 100 years old and possibly provided sustenance and shade to the Gabrielino Indians who originally inhabited the area.
Today the oaks' intertwined branches provide a shady bit of respite on a sunny day to horticulture enthusiasts, tourists, and the occasional blogger.
We began at the main entrance, where a huge oak tree welcomed us right off the bat. We wandered through the International Rosarium while I chatted happily about the parties I would one day host there. Next, we worked our way around the perimeter of the garden to the main lawn, stopping to take photos of the oaks. We missed the last oak tree in West Camellia Forest because a film crew began setting up near it. The workers eyed me suspiciously as I snapped photos of their equipment and prayed that Orlando Bloom was somehow involved. He wasn't.
Our visit was cut short by an impending doctor's appointment in Beverly Hills but I'm thrilled that I took an afternoon to stop and smell the roses. Pun. Intended.
The self-guided tour is available until June 30 and visitors can download maps from the Descanso Gardens site .
Posted by Susannah Snider
What reactions have you heard from the film?
People can't believe what they are being told. I think the questions [during the post-screening discussion] were very gentle today. The big problem with Wagner is that the music is extraordinary and the opera is extraordinary and it was written by this awful little man.
What draws you to Wagner?
I think he's fascinating. Most of my films are about people. That's what gets me excited.
You plan to take "The Wagner Family" to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. How did that happen?
We were asked by Cinematheque in Tel Aviv. I was very surprised. We showed the big Wagner film [Palmer's 1983 "Wagner"] in Jerusalem in 1985. They expected trouble. There were armed guards at the door. But we were fine.
You have said that you live at the most Western point of England. How does that work? I live by Land's End...in the last house. My email address is isolde@ etc... I have that email because I live right opposite the ruins of King Marke's castle. He was the king who asked Isolde to marry him.
Finish this sentence. The Wagner family is...
A modern soap opera, which unlike most soap operas is a) true and b) endlessly fascinating.
The Wagner Family (Soap) Opera
Tony Palmer's documentary "The Wagner Family" sometimes echoes Richard Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelungen." It has the same power-hungry patriarchs, rebellious offspring and layers of myth.
"The Wagner Family" unflinchingly details the history of the Wagner clan, from its involvement with Adolf Hitler (Richard Wagner's daughter-in-law Winifred was a card-carrying member of the Nazi party) to recent squabbles over leadership of Bayreuth (with bickering half-sisters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier currently at the helm).
Of all Wagner's operas, his family's (soap) opera is perhaps the most dramatic, with family archives buried in the garden, a hallowed wooden festspielhaus to protect, a legacy of transcendental art and familial hatred boiling underneath the surface.
And you thought your family's Thanksgivings were tense!
For a taste of the drama, look at Winifred Wagner, an English orphan, thrust into the arms of distant German relatives as a child, according to her biographer Brigitte Hamann, who Palmer interviews. As a teenager, she married Richard Wagner's only son, Siegfried, who was middle-aged and gay (awk-ward). The couple was not a German "Will & Grace." Winifred's job was to provide a Wagner heir, which she did.
Despite Winifred's unusual marriage, her relationship with Adolf Hitler is what keeps scholars fascinated. Maybe Winifred fancied Hitler, a charming man, closer to her age than her husband. Maybe, as she claimed, Hitler wanted to marry her daughter Verena. When he was jailed after the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, Winifred sent him the paper upon which he supposedly penned Mein Kampf (super awk-ward). The matriarch never apologized for her relationship with Hitler, continuing to celebrate his birthday long after the fall of the Third Reich.
Or take the newest leaders of Bayreuth, the half-sisters, Katharina, daughter of Wolfgang and Gudrun Wagner and nicknamed the "Bayreuth Barbie," and Eva, 34 years her senior, more serious and down-to-earth. Palmer includes wonderful footage of Eva in the 1970s earnestly elaborating on her plans to run Bayreuth. She could never have guessed the conditions under which she would lead it today. When asked by an audience member how the half-sisters get along, Palmer answered simply, "They fight."
With all the feuding, affairs and power struggles, it's no wonder some Wagners have lost faith in the concept of family all together. Wolfgang, the former director of Bayreuth, whose battles with family members have left him looking defeated, sighs during an interview: "Family is just a random collection of people who share the same name."
Forty-eight minutes was simply not long enough to appreciate the decades of Wagner family drama. When the two-hour version of "The Wagner Family" hits stores, I highly recommend checking it out. Go with an open mind and get ready to see what a bizarre "collection of people" make up the Wagner family. Just don't watch it at a family Thanksgiving. That would be awk-ward.