Coda: The Performance I Can't Forget
Michal Shamir, Sanford Sylvan and Charles Hen in Act I of The Valkyrie, 2004
© Richard Termine 2013
You may call them "revelations" or "epiphanies," but I call them my "water/name" moments, referencing the dramatic climax of William Gibson's classic play The Miracle Worker, in which Helen Keller discovers, with the help of her teacher, Annie Sullivan, that water gushing out of a pump has a name, and that name has a meaning. "Water. It has a name!" Annie exclaims, and Helen's dark world is suddenly showered with light.
In 2004, the Eos Orchestra, under the aegis of Jonathan Sheffer, presented Wagner's second installment of the Ring cycle, The Valkyrie, at the newly opened Skirball Center in NYC. Sheffer and director Christopher Alden had presented The Rhinegold earlier in 2002; their goal was to produce the entire Ring cycle as orchestrated by Jonathan Dove for a smaller orchestra and cast. (This orchestration was originally conceived for the Birmingham Touring Opera in 1990, under Graham Vick's direction.) No eighteen anvils, or six harps; multiple casting for most roles; a contemporary, minimal set; a text sung in English — this version was chamber, in the truest and best sense of the word.
I was a huge fan of the Eos Orchestra, and Jonathan Sheffer is an artistic visionary. I loved his eclectically programmed concerts featuring the little-known work of Paul Bowles, or a celebration of Bernard Herrmann's masterpieces. Eos defined what a modern orchestra could be: Sheffer's approach to American classical music, a natural descendant of Leonard Bernstein's approach, directly communicated with the audience by creating a personal relationship between player and listener. He challenged the status quo by exploring overlooked classics and looking to new and interesting venues in which to perform, other than the traditional symphony hall.
Sheffer and Alden's conceptualized and contemporary approach was a gambit, and with Rhinegold it paid off. Alden is our country's most innovative director of opera, both classical and modern, and Rhinegold shone with his trademark humor and pathos, style and clarity of storytelling. It's always been the most intimate of the Ring's components; Dove's orchestration and Alden's simple, smart direction made for a good match. But what of the other larger, longer and darker chapters?
I'd seen Die Walküre at the Met (in the lumbering Otto Schenk–Günther Schneider-Siemssen version). I was familiar with several recordings under various conductors. I'd even committed the "Ride of the Valkyries" to memory to use when playing silent films, whenever a comic chase scene was called for. I'd learned that Walküre was considered the most humane of all the Ring operas; its central story of a daughter's relationship with her father was, indeed, compelling to me. But the shock-and-awe majesty of the music, if not the music-making itself, held me at arm's length. I knew I was meant to feel something, but I wasn't sure what. I was in the dark as to what my role as a listener to the music and story should be and, frankly, was embarrassed by my ignorance.
The Eos Valkyrie was played out in two acts, on a single set, a kitchen — a stove, a refrigerator, a kitchen table with four chairs. Wotan and his heavenly daughters (no platoon of Valkyries in this version — only three, including Wotan's favorite, Brünnhilde) resided there, along with his two earthly children, the twins Sieglinde and Siegmund. From the outset, I could feel the traditionalists panic and titter around me. But I was riveted. For the first time, it was clear to me how much the twins were to be pitied; they were no different from any other struggling, desperate lower-class family in America. The unjust divide between those who have (the gods) and those who don't (the humans) was made poignantly clear in the most beautiful and minimalistic of ways. There could be no questioning why Brünnhilde would feel as she did, siding with her half-siblings, thus causing the rift with her father. And Wotan's selfish and tyrannical outbursts seemed as naturally sorrowful and conflicted as Willy Loman's in Death of a Salesman.
Most heartbreaking of all, his farewell to his beloved daughter lacked any sort of sentimentality. This "god" is no hero: there is nothing heroic in what he has convinced himself (tragically) to do. Conscientious editing zeroed in on each character's complexities, providing dramatic focus. Dove's exquisite orchestrations evoked all the sweeping power of Wagner's originals. It is wrong to call them "slimmed down" or "adaptations"; they conjure up the majesty of the score and do not diminish it. Voices weren't pushed to Wagnerian limits to sing over the orchestra; again, this did not compromise the author's original vision and intent; it enhanced them. As a result, I didn't feel as though I were being held at arm's length; I felt embraced by the music for the first time. This was opera–theater for the here and now, demanding that I not sit back and admire it but participate in the experience. I cried at the end, hurting for Brünnhilde, sad for Wotan, anxious for the gods and for us humans. But I smiled, too: a true work of art now had meaning for me. All I needed were these artists to help me connect to it.
I couldn't wait for the next installments, of Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods, but they weren't to be. Orchestras, opera and ballet and theater companies, all arts organizations are fragile living things. A lack of funds, poor management, dwindling patronage, a clumsily written review, even trivial internal disputes can bring the curtain down. Whatever its reasons, the Eos Orchestra disbanded, and its Ring was never completed. But I'll always cherish that "water/name" moment and the artists who offered it to me.
MICHAEL JOHN LACHIUSA is a composer, lyricist and librettist whose work includes Giant, The Wild Party, Marie Christine and Hello Again. He resides in New York City.
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