Watch Wagner’s Ring Cycle: A Complete 15-Hour Performance Is Now Free Online Thanks to the BBC

The word “Wagnerian” as a synonym for operatic bombast may have fallen out of favor in recent years, as has the reputation of German composer Richard Wagner. He has been regarded as "the most repugnant of musical nationalists,” writes David P. Goldman at Tablet---a sentiment widely shared given Wagner’s permanent association with Nazism. His music has long been banned in Israel, though “every so often a prominent musician makes a point of sneaking Wagner into a public concert.” And just as philosophy departments across the world have struggled with Martin Heidegger’s Nazism, so the classical music and opera worlds have wrestled with Wagner.

What’s odd, however, in this case, is that Wagner died in 1883. He towered over 19th-century German culture, a contemporary of Nietzsche rather than Hitler, who claimed him after the composer’s death.

Yet those who know the story of Wagner's turbulent friendship with Nietzsche know that the philosopher violently rejected his former idol and father figure in part because, as Robert Holub argues, Nietzsche “was unequivocally antagonistic toward what he understood as anti-Semitism and anti-Semites.” Nietzsche saw the writing on the wall in views Wagner expressed in essays like 1850’s “Judaism in Music.”

Wagner---musicologists and historians would say---also saw the future, and helped design it through his unwitting posthumous influence on Hitler. The composer's famed theory and practice of what he called Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art,” anticipate the massive spectacles of 20th century totalitarian aesthetics and the mythological dimensions of 20th century fascism. Wagner called his work the “Music of the Future,” happily appropriating a term critics used to deride his Romantic nationalism. But Wagner’s cultural influence is much, much broader than its most damning association, including his formative influence on Nietzsche.

Wagner’s greatest achievement, Der Ring des Nibelungen—referred to as the Ring Cycle—inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and scored the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene in Apocalypse Now. Loony Tunes’ “Kill the Wabbit” spoofed the Ring Cycle, and became an entire generation’s “first, and often only exposure to opera,” as Ayun Halliday noted here recently. The Ring Cycle’s overwhelming demonstration of the Gesamtkunstwerk is a thing to behold, and you can see it here performed in full, all four parts, “15 hours of epic opera” courtesy of BBC Arts and The Space. The film here, by Opera North, comes from live performances in Leeds in 2016. At the top, see Das Rheingold, below it Die Walküre, just above Siegfried, and below Götterdämmerung ("Twilight of the Gods").

So what should we make of Wagner’s music, given its unavoidable relationship to wars of domination (against even “Wabbits”)? If we are to heed some of his critics, we might think of him as a 19th century Michael Bay. Mark Twain is rumored to have called Wagner’s music “better than it sounds”—though it turns out the quote actually comes from humorist Edgar Wilson. Twain did write that he enjoyed “the first act of everything Wagner created,” but “after two acts I have gone away physically exhausted.” Samuel Beckett, in a gem of a paragraph, called Wagner’s work “clouds on wheels.” But Wagner is also incredibly powerful and often sublime, and his music does inspire the kind of awe that Tolkien and Francis Ford Coppola drew on for their own awe-inspiring work.

< Appreciating Wagner may indeed be an endurance exercise. His booming tales of dwarfs and giants, gods and river-maidens, heroes and, yes, Valkyries, can seem to rumble along several miles above us. The exercise is not for the faint of heart. However, the technology of streaming video can save us from Twain’s fate—you can return here, or to the BBC’s site—as many times as you like without having to take in the massive Der Ring des Nibelungen all in one sitting. And as is always helpful in opera of any length, you can peruse summaries—like this one—when you feel a bit lost in the clouds. Or, for a truly surreal condensed Wagnerian experience, watch the video above of “four and a half hours of opera in one minute.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Alan Turing Gets Channeled in a New Opera: Hear Audio from The Life And Death(S) Of Alan Turing

Creative Commons image by Steve Parker

It can seem like a cruel irony that some of the most celebrated people of our day didn't receive the same acclaim during their sometimes troubled lives. Van Gogh may have been on the cusp of fame when he died despairing and broke, but few could have imagined then that he would be the universally beloved and admired artist he became in the following decades. (A recent Doctor Who episode poignantly imagined Van Gogh traveling to our time to witness his legacy.) In a more recent example in the sciences, the book---now film---Hidden Figures celebrates three previously unsung African-American women: mathematicians, or “human computers,” whose calculations were instrumental to NASA’s success but whose accomplishments were obscured by prejudice.

The same could not quite be said for Alan Turing, another genius recently celebrated in a multiple-award-winning Hollywood film, award-winning documentary, and spate of articles, essays, and books. Turing was viciously persecuted for his homosexuality by the state, and he has often been unfairly characterized in many portrayals since.

In 1952, he was convicted of “gross indecency” for a relationship with another man and given the choice between prison and chemical castration. The brilliant English mathematician, codebreaker, and father of modern computing and artificial intelligence chose the latter, and the physical and psychological effects were so demoralizing that he took his own life two years later—perhaps grimly inspiring the Apple logo as he enacted his favorite scene from Snow White (a matter in some dispute, it should be noted).

Turing “left behind a lasting legacy,” note the makers of the docu-drama Codebreakers, “and lingering questions about what else he might have accomplished if society had embraced his unique genius instead of rejecting it.” It's not fair to say that society rejected his genius—perhaps even more tragically, it rejected his full humanity. Turing’s genius, though cut short at 41, received its due, inspiring, since 1966, the highest award in computer science. His famed “Turing test” became the standard by which nearly all attempts at artificial intelligence have been measured. In addition to those films, books, and essays, Turing has been much lauded in musical productions, namely the Pet Shop Boys “orchestral pop biography” A Man From the Future and a 30-minute oratorio by Adam Gopnik and composer Nico Muhly called Sentences.

And now, a new two-act opera, The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, was presented to the public for the first time, in its entirety, on January 12th at New York’s American Lyric Theater (ALT). Commissioned in 2012, and written by composer Justine Chen with a libretto by David Simpatico, the opera is “a historic-fantasia on Turing’s life” that does not obscure the man as it acknowledges his genius. Many critics felt that 2014’s The Imitation Game “obfuscated his sexuality and desexualized him in an attempt to make the story more mainstream,” remarks Shawn Milnes at The Daily Beast. “He was not a sexual creature in this movie,” agrees Simpatico. “He was in the closet." That impression of Turing's personal life has almost become commonplace. And yet the truth "couldn't be more opposite," Simpatico argues.

He was completely out. He was out upon meeting people. He would say, ‘How are you doing? I'm a homosexual. Will you have a problem with that? No.’ He was out to everybody. The movie makes it feel like he had something to hide.

Fully acknowledging all of the dimensions of Turing’s life allows the opera--The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing-- to draw deeply moving arias from his biography like “Cave of Wonders,” above, in which Turing expresses “his grief over the loss of his first love,” Christopher Morcom, a fellow grade school student who died young in 1930. Turing was “openly devastated” by the event, writes L.V. Anderson at Slate, “and he subsequently developed a relationship with Morcom’s family, going on vacations with them and maintaining a correspondence with Morcom’s mother for years. In The Imitation Game, by contrast, he “denies having known Christopher very well” in a flashback scene.

The music of the opera’s Prologue, above, owes a debt to composers like Steve Reich and John Adams, with its pulsing piano and cacophony of voices, simulating, perhaps, the rush of thought in Turing’s brilliant mind. At the ALT site, you can hear a further excerpt from the opera, “The Social Contract,” which dramatizes the pressure Turing’s mother put on him to marry, and his subsequent consideration of a marriage of convenience to his colleague in cryptoanalysis, Joan Clarke. In the opera, writes Milnes, Simpatico had the idea of “fusing sex and intellect on stage” in order to balance Turing’s portrayal and “see who the person was,” as he puts it. As Simpatico says, the tragically persecuted genius “had no division between his sexual, sensual, physical carnal self and his intellectual, cerebral, interior self.” Only people who couldn’t take them both together seemed to have found it necessary to separate the two, and thus do terrible damage to the man as a whole.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Kill the Wabbit!: How the 1957 Bugs Bunny Cartoon, “What’s Opera, Doc?,” Inspired Today’s Opera Singers to First Get Into Opera

It comes as no surprise that many American children’s first, and often only exposure to opera comes compliments of Bugs Bunny. One of the rascally rabbit's most enduring turns is as Brünnhilde opposite Elmer Fudd’s Siegfried in “What’s Opera, Doc?,” a 1957 cartoon spoofing Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Other well known names, including Marilyn Horne and Placido Domingo have assayed these parts over the years, but thanks to the miracle of syndication, Bugs and Elmer are the ones who truly own them, as a celebrated part of their repertoire for six decades and counting.

The law of averages dictates that a percentage---a very small percentage---of their billions of child viewers would grow up to become opera professionals.

The Wall Street Journal recently confirmed that for several prominent Wagnerians, including the executive director of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, “What’s Opera, Doc?" and an earlier work, 1949’s “Rabbit of Seville,” had a profound impact.

And no disrespect to director Francis Ford Coppola, who deployed Ride of the Valkyries so memorably in Apocalypse Now, but no one will ever use it to greater effect than the cartoon’s writer, Michael Maltese, author of the immortal lyrics:

Kiww the wabbit! Kiww the wabbit!

It’s a phrase even the least opera-inclined child can remember and sing, well into adulthood.

Read the complete Wall Street Journal article here.

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Hear VALIS, an Opera Based on Philip K. Dick’s Metaphysical Novel


Image by Pete Wesch, via Wikimedia Commons

Philip K. Dick died in 1982. His distinctive, some say visionary brand of psychological sci-fi literature, however, has lived on, proving its endurance in part by taking new forms. Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's hugely influential adaptation of Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, premiered just three months after the author's departure. More films followed over the years, including Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (an adaptation of "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"), Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, and many others.

Dick's work has also provided the basis for radio dramas, television shows (most recently Netflix's The Man in the High Castle, with an ambitious anthology series coming to Channel 4 this spring), and stage productions. Typically, these adaptations use the stories and novels in which Dick wrote the setting, plot, and characters with relative straightforwardness. Other, later works found him plunging as deep into philosophy and autobiography as into science fiction. The change happened around the time he saw a mysterious pink light and met God in 1974, or claimed to, and it produced a final set of novels known as the VALIS trilogy.

The fractured tale of an authorial alter-ego named Horselover Fat, VALIS (short for "Vast Active Living Intelligence System"), the first book in the trilogy, involves an alien space probe, Watergate, the Messiah, lasers, and a range of references to religions like Christianity, Gnosticism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, and the Red Cross Brotherhood; philosophy from the ancient Greeks to Plato, Pascal, and Schopenhauer; and cultural figures like Handel, Wagner, Goethe, and Frank Zappa. It would take an ambitious mind indeed to adapt such a thing: specifically, it took the mind of Tod Machover, composer and director of MIT's Media Lab, who turned it into an opera in 1987.

"We live in a world that is becoming in fact more and more fragmented, more and more complex," says Machover on the relevance of VALIS at an interview at the Philip K. Dick Fan Site. "You don’t have to have a pink light experience to realize that there is too much information to not only be aware of but to make any kind of sense out of." He describes this "incredible feeling of the world being not only too complex for any one person to make sense out of but also dangerously complex, to the point where people will not only not understand each other but end up hating each other and being absolutely crushed under the burden of just trying to make sense with how much there is to know."

In his VALIS opera, which premiered at Paris' Centre Georges Pompidou with installations created by video artist Catherine Ikam, Machover tried to get that feeling artistically across, and you can hear it free on Spotify. (If you don't have Spotify's software, you can download it here. There's a Youtube version right above.) Back then in the 80s, he says, it "seemed like through our media and communications there’d be a kind of facile way of connecting people, a sort of passivity and turning on your cable TV and seeing what’s going on today in Tokyo or in Europe and you sort of feel like you can take all this stuff in. But in fact I think what we’re seeing now is exactly what Dick predicted, which is that it ain’t that easy." And it sure hasn't got any easier.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Stephen King’s The Shining Is Now an Opera, and The Tickets Are All Sold Out

As a story, The Shining certainly passes the test of adaptability: we've featured not just the annotated copy of Stephen King's original novel that Stanley Kubrick used to make his well-known film adaptation, but its Simpsons parody, its reimagined feel-good Hollywood trailer, its remake in miniature as a long-form Aesop Rock music video, and even a board game based on the book. Now The Shining has taken its latest form live on stage as a production of the Minnesota Opera, whose digital program you can read above.

"I can’t recall an opera in which the villain is a building," writes Ron Hubbard in a review for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, "but that’s the case with The Shining, an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a haunted hotel and a family that winters within it. While ghosts play a prominent role in many operas, the spirits occupying the remote Rocky Mountain hotel in The Shining are servants to one powerful, malevolent master: the building itself." Hubbard highlights the elaborate design that recreates the forbidding Overlook Hotel with a "stately set," "swirling, spooky projections," and building elements that "roll in and out behind screens swirling with patterns, creating an unsettling, kaleidoscopic effect."

As every opera enthusiast soon finds out, no production can survive by design alone. But The Shining, according to Hubbard, earns full marks in other areas as well, including but not limited to its "score full of discomfiting themes that clash and collide to strongly sung and disarmingly believable portrayals of characters alive and otherwise." He also emphasizes that the source material comes not from Kubrick's film, but King's novel: "Stanley Kubrick took great liberties with the story, going so far as to change how the conflict plays out and resolves. I actually found this operatic version considerably creepier, in large part because we get to know the ghosts better."

"The novel and the movie are vastly different," says librettist Mark Campbell in the video above, though they and they opera all tell "the story of Jack Torrance, who, because of economic reasons, accepts a job as the winter caretaker for a hotel in remote western Colorado." And before long, as we know whether we've read the book or seen the movie, Jack "submits to a number of his demons" before the eyes of his terrified and increasingly endangered family. But it remains, Campbell says, "the story of a man who wants to do good — he just didn't choose the right job, and ended up in a situation that did everything it could to tear him apart."

The Shining the opera comes commissioned by Minnesota Opera's New Works Initiative, "designed to invigorate the operatic art form with an infusion of contemporary works." Given its completely sold-out success in St. Paul, where it premiered, we can safely say that this production has accomplished the mission of drawing vigor from a perhaps unexpected source, and even that it stands a chance of bringing its chilling artistry (not to mention its promisingly warned-about "strong language, gunshots, simulated nudity, theatrical haze, and strobe lighting") to a city near you, preferably in the dead of winter to best suit the story — a time that, in Minnesota, already counts as forbidding enough.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Free: Download 500+ Rare Music Manuscripts by Mozart, Bach, Chopin & Other Composers from the Morgan Library

mozart 1

When my son first started playing the piano, I lost several evenings chasing the holy grail of free online sheet music. Sadly, most of what we were interested in downloading wasn’t really free… just the first page.

It's hard to rationalize dropping five bucks on one song, when the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is a short subway ride away. The problem is, I’m not much of a musician, and while there are scores and scores of scores upon their shelves, I rarely understood what it was I was checking out. Often I’d come home with the sought after piece, only to realize that I’d inadvertently checked out a vocal selection, or the chord-rich equivalent of a cocktail pianist’s fake book.

With the Morgan Library’s Music Manuscripts Online project, there's no guarantee my son or I will be able to play it, but I do know exactly what I’m getting.

The handwritten manuscript of Mozart’s comic singspiel, Der Schauspieldirektor,  above, for instance, autographed by the composer himself. 84 pages worth, not counting covers and endpapers, all free for the downloading!

Put that on your iPad, Mr. Salieri!

The collection currently offers digitized versions of upwards of 500 musical manuscripts, with more to come as the reviewing process continues.

It’s searchable by composer, and big names abound.

bach 2

Perhaps you’d like to warm up the Wurltizer with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue for Organ, BWV 538, in D minor


Or let all your opera singing, ballet dancing friends know you’re available to accompany them with Puccini’s autographed manuscript for Le Villi


Or circumnavigate the scribbled out boo boos, while attempting Chopin’s Polonaises, Piano, Op. 26. Chopin's John Hancock is the reward.

The hits just keep coming: Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Fauré, Haydn, Liszt, Mahler, Massenet, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann…


Not surprisingly, female composers are grossly underrepresented, but there are a few gems, such as Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny Hensel’s autographed manuscript of the song Selmar und Selma, decorated with a pretty pencil and wash drawing by her husband

The Morgan has plans to add essays about the manuscripts by leading scholars. In the meantime, pick a piece and start practicing.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Watch Classic Performances from Maria Callas’ Wondrous and Tragically-Short Opera Career

"Histrionic" is not a word we often hear used as a compliment, describing as it does overwrought, theatrical, melodramatic behavior we tend to frown on in everyday life. In the opera world, however, one can rightly praise a diva like the late Maria Callas for her "histrionic power." Jason Victor Serinus uses the phrase in an article on Callas for San Francisco Classical Voice, and also writes of Callas' "coloratura agility," "stylistic authenticity," "mesmerizing stage presence" and "increasingly scandalous behavior."

That last description refers in part to a break in Callas' life and career in 1959 when she left her husband and manager Giovanni Battista Meneghini and took up with Aristotle Onassis. That relationship ended in heartbreak, and after several attempts to reclaim her former glory in the seventies, Callas' own heart finally gave out: in 1977, she died of what may have been a drug-induced heart attack in Paris, her last years, writes Serinus, "a real tragedy of operatic proportions."

We also, of course, think of another break in Callas' life—with opera itself, which she left behind as her widely-praised vocal ability diminished rather dramatically in her 40s, an effect, perhaps, of rapid weight loss early in her career or---as critic and voice teacher Conrad Osborne speculates in an NPR profile---of a "lack of proper technique to sustain her ambitious repertoire." And yet, writes NPR, it was Callas' "imperfections" that "set her apart," along with "her ability to find the emotional meaning in a role." But as much as Callas has been lauded for her "sensational voice," she has as often been derided in proportionately unflattering terms.

Critic Terry Teachout describes Callas' voice as one of "ugly beauty," taking a phrase from Thelonious Monk. The contrast expresses the range of opinions critics and audiences have held about Callas. While "much of what is written about her," Teachout observes, "is the work of adoring fans whose worshipful prose is apt to make cooler heads a bit queasy," those cooler heads have always found subtle and not so subtle ways of insulting her distinctive voice or striking looks. ("She contrived through sheer force of will to persuade audiences that she was a great beauty," sneers Teachout, "with an even greater voice.") Callas, in other words, inspires devotion and vituperation—but no one sees her perform and remains unmoved.

Was Maria Callas' rise to fame a "con job," as Teachout provocatively alleges? Isn't all great performance something of a con? In any case, I doubt anyone could fool so many devoted opera fans into believing in characters as wholeheartedly as millions have believed in Callas' Rosina from Rossini's Barber of Seville (top from 1958), or in her Norma from Bellini's challenging bel canto opera (below it, from the same year). Were audiences unable to see through the range of her stunning performances in the two Hamburg concerts from 1959 and 1962 (further down)? Could no one discern how flawed her Covent Garden performance, above, or her bravura turn in the title role of Bizet's Carmen, below, both from 1962?

Of course they heard the flaws. They were part of her appeal. NPR quotes University of Southern California professor Tim Page, who points to Callas' "ferocity" and "intensity" in the role of Carmen. Before Callas, singers "would concentrate only on nice melodies, prettily sung. Callas' Carmen was not necessarily very pretty, but it was thrilling." At the height of her powers, Callas brought a robust strength and personality to the opera that had been missing from the form, and recovered, writes Serinus, "a host of bel canto rarities that had ceded from the stage because of a decline in vocal technique among then-living singers."

Though Callas' own technique comes in for much critique---deservedly or not, I can't say---no one can ever accuse her of timidity or conservatism in an arena that demands courage and flamboyance, that demands, in a word, "histrionics." The history of 20th century opera, Serinus writes, can rightly be divided "with the terms B.C. and A.C.—Before Callas and After Callas…. [Her] ascendance put an end to the era of birdsong coloraturas who chirped their way through florid mad-scenes with little regard for their emotional import." If a certain rough bravado and self-conscious self-fashioning is what it took to restore to so many roles their depth and gravity, so be it. Callas paid a price for her outsized voice and life, and you can hear it in her weakened farewell performance, above, from 1973. But her adoring fans will forever be grateful to her for it.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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