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For Christmas, Mrs. D and I had tickets for the Royal Danish Opera, and we chose to watch Richard Strauss' The Woman without a Shadow (Die Frau ohne Schatten). I found it to be a modern opera because of the way it was set up. Certain themes seemed pretty conservative, but because of the music, it was mostly a thrilling experience.

The Opera

The story isn't like that of most opera in that it focuses on women and their problems. There are three very prominent soprano parts, and all the roles are all crucial to the story--these women aren't just there to put complications in the way of male heroes or kings.  

In short, a demi-godly empress has fled to the human world to marry the emperor, and her father has given her a year to find her shadow--become human and get pregnant--or else he'll recall her and turn her lover to stone. The woman's nurse takes the empress to the young dyer's wife, who doesn't want children, and makes the dyer's wife an offer to buy her shadow--along with her unborn children. But the dyer's greatest wish is to have children, and so the empress has to make a choice: Take the children for herself and save her lover, or save the love and marriage of the dyer. In the end she chooses not to take the shadow--and through her noble choice her stern father sets her and the dyer's wife free.

That is by no means an easy choice, especially as the opera shows us the dyer's marriage with a great deal of depth. The dyer is a proud provider for his family, but in his work he forgets his wife. The wife, alone, dreams of a lost love and keeps her current love at a distance. Given that kind of relationship, she's the ideal candidate to sell her shadow, but she's also swayed by the prayers of her unborn children. Her choice is a hard one for a young woman's: live on in a dream of a young lover, or step into adulthood.

You can say that all this talk of children makes the opera less than modern--childbearing is the definition of adulthood here, and I'd like to think there are other ways of being grown-up nowadays, and indeed the ending struck me as a wet dream for anti-abortionist fanatics... Still, stepping out of your parents' shadow and into your own life, with or without children, is a central choice in most lives, and in that way the opera tackles a universal theme from a woman's point of view.

Richard Strauss has been a great inspiration for composers of film music, and I seem to recall hearing 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' a couple of times in film history. From this opera, it was obvious why: The music was complex and challenging, and yet surprisingly easy to follow and greatly underlined the feelings and words in the libretto. It ranged from quiet flute and cello solos to spectacular and dramatic crescendos that heightened the tension in the story. I was especially taken by the musical intermezzo describing the travel the empress takes from her demi-godess palace world to the sordid world of men. (The latter is exemplified by the dyer's stained undershirt. Incidentally, the man singing that part looked very much like Charles Stross...).

The lighting, the use of projectors, the appearance of musicians and choir singers in the uppermost balconies, and the way the singers used the stage room worked spectacularly as well, and all in all it was a splendid setup.

The Surroundings - Big Money and National Grandeur

This leads me to the opera house itself and the not quite so thrilling story of what happens when you mix art, money, and politics. Because grand as the opera was, it would be impossible to produce something of this size without the opera house and a truckload of money.

The Opera House opened 2005 as a gift to the Danish state by the A.P. Møller and Chastine Mc-Kinney Møller Foundation--the foundation behind Maersk Line lead by Mærsk McKinney Møller. If you're into architecture you'll see many references to ships in the layout and interior of the house. The cost was 2.3 billion Danish Kroner, or about 420 million US$--all of which was tax deductible btw., which means the state paid about 25 % of the building... and all the costs of maintaining it (felt now during the current crisis).

The location is on Holmen, an island in the Copenhagen harbor that used to be part of the city's defenses. The fleet still uses Holmen for mooring, so the view from the opera gives naval spotters a place of vantage, reminding us all of the nations' great powers and history. Denmark is mostly an island nation, and before the Napoleonic wars we had the second-largest fleet in Europe after Great Britain.  

More importantly, there's a direct view to the central axis going through Amalienborg, the main residence of the Royal family, and directly to Marmorkirken (the Marble Church). This also includes a view of the great equestrian statue of King Frederik V, who founded Amalienborg. As the sponsor of national symbol, Mærsk couldn't have asked for a better location.

Mærsk McKinney Møller--for a caricature, think Mr. Burns from Simpsons--is one of this country's fiercest conservatives. His corporation has made a lot of money through sound business practice--but also from the oil in the Danish underground, sweatshops in East Asia, and questionable business practices in the US.

The Opera House stands as a reminder of what wealth can do for the arts. Without big business I wouldn't have seen such a splendid opera Saturday--world class opera, the producers call it, and I think they're right.

But it's also a reminder who artists work for. The Royal Danish Opera is hardly incriminated in the same way as the various US singers who happily performed for Colonel Gadaffi's (and his money). But the location of the opera house and the very splendor of the show will also reinforce the illusion that Denmark is a great country, that we can do world-class stuff all by ourselves, and that we have a sweeping history.

I think that's a pretty dangerous illusion to hold up to a country of 5.6 million people, who depends on education and innovative thinking for their wealth and livelihood.

Which is exactly the reason we need independent art. Great productions (Hollywood, anyone?) are all well and good--I take my movies with a lot of industrial effects, thank you. But the truly innovative projects are rare, and like the ol' opera house they're more likely to reinforce a concervative world view than to challenge it.

I guess that's one of the reasons I like science fiction so much. Even with all the tropes and clichés of a well-defined genre, there are a lot of writers out there willing to challenge traditional ways of thinking and showing alternative ways to better societies.

All right, my rambling's done for now. Please feel free to add your own opinions and observations in the comments.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 12th, 2012 12:54 pm (UTC)
"...the ending struck me as a wet dream for anti-abortionist fanatics..."

I found myself thinking the same thing. I've never heard of this opera before, and I've seen quite a few. Cool. I'll have to keep my eyes open for it.
Mar. 12th, 2012 03:11 pm (UTC)
The ending is supposed to show the Emperess' catharsis and her choice to become fully human, as well as her choice/dream of having babies. And it's loooong compared to modern storytelling, where it's mostly 'happily ever after-the end'.

In Strauss' defense, he wrote the opera during WWI, and back then women's liberation wasn't a big issue yet. To even focus on their choices was a step forward at a time. It also saw its first showing after WWI, where new life could easily be contrasted to the lives lost during the war.

What bothers me is the way the opera showed this choice on the scene. Stylized pictures of babies in wombs, and a cartoonish take on Michelangelo's 'Adam springs to life from God's finger', accompanied by close to 20 minutes of libretto about happiness and the unborn... Too much. They probably couldn't cut the opera down, and the dramatic music certainly deserved drama on the stage... But it was still too much.

But treat yourself to the music and the first two acts -- it really is wonderful :-)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


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