Corrupting the Heritage
INTERPRETATION, the element that give a particular flavor to music, can be the difference between a good and a bad performance. When the interpretation is distorted for whatever reason, a wholesale alteration of the composition occurs. There are built-in constraints to distortion in instrumental music, where less discretion is left to the performer. Opera, on the other hand, with its theatrical trimmings offers the imaginative performer or director a much greater opportunity to let his artistic perceptions go beyond all reasonable bounds. Tradition has usually acted as a brake on the more iconoclastic operatic productions, restricting the interpretive differences to divergent acting styles. Until recently, for instance, no one had considered changing the historical settings of classical operas. (ILLUSTRATION: Richard Wagner)
Now such scruples seem to have been all but forgotten as greater and greater liberties have been taken with the works of White composers. The practice is becoming so common that it amounts to a subtle yet effective manner of cultural dispossession.
In his writings and music Wagner openly proclaimed his Northern European heritage. Almost as a sort of musical reflex, whenever a minority director or conductor produces one of Wagner’s works, he invariably presents it in the wrong light.
The performance of an opera in the language of the nation where it is being presented is not necessarily bad per se. It makes the plot and arias more understandable to both the golden circle and the peanut gallery. But it has one great flaw. By changing the meaning of only a few words here and there, the translator can superimpose his own ideas on those of the composer.
During the 1976 season at the New York City Opera, a new version of Die Meistersinger was performed in English. The translation was by John Gutman, who took it upon himself to find English words that closely resemble the original German as to number of consonants and vowels, but may be miles apart in meaning. To take one example, the original libretto contains the German word for “vain,” for which Gutman substituted “crazy,” obviously something quite different. Although Gutman may say he has done this to make the word more singable, it raises the question of whether music can be faithfully performed in a minority-dominated cultural milieu.
Another typical perversion occurred in the Paris Opera’s recent performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Since he took over as director of the Paris Opera in 1973, Rolf Liebermann has won tremendous critical plaudits for his “imaginative” performances. By introducing radical changes into established works, he has come to represent the stereotype of the novelty-obsessed minority interpreter.
To produce Das Rheingold Liebermann chose the young avant-garde hyperleftist Peter Stein. To quote the review of Das Rheingold in High Fidelity:
Stein transformed the Rhine maidens into cackling prostitutes, the Nibelungs into squirming serfs, the giants into only slightly less lumpen working stiffs and the gods into representatives of the doomed European bourgeosie, dressed in zany evening clothes that suggested a music hall sketch of about 1914. Valhalla was a red plush salon glimpsed through an opening in the wall of a sort of boiler factory and finally reached by a very realistic, although rainbow-shaped footbridge.
Most banal of all was the final reaction of the High Fidelity critic who, after admitting that the revisions seemed to be fighting the music, said, “the whole business was admirably, if rather perversely, faithful to the libretto.”
Last year, our bicentennial year, the Eastman School of Music decided to reproduce the first American ballad opera, composed by an anonymous individual named Andrew Barton, Esq. Called “The Disappointment” and published in 1767, it was originally suppressed, the notes of an Eastman press release said, because of its “dangerously caustic political satire.” The reconstruction of the work by Jerald Graue, chairman of the Eastman Musicology Department, had twenty-two ballads, with the music arranged for a thirteen-piece instrumental ensemble by Samuel Adler, who also composed an overture.
The press release stated that “The Disappointment” contains the “first black character to appear in the history of American drama… his status in the play is one of equality with the other characters, a phenomenon which would not recur on the American stage for nearly one and one-half centuries.” This was an egregious whopper. What Graue had done was to change the character known as Raccoon, a Pennsylvania Dutch tailor in the original, to a Jamaican black. Even the published version of “The Disappointment” points this out.
A distorted Majority culture is hard to differentiate from a minority culture. Perhaps this was the conscious or subconscious intention of the producers, directors and conductors who have participated in the artistic travesties recorded above.
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Source: Instauration magazine, January 1978