Popehat Goes To The Opera: Tannhauser

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71 Responses

  1. JLA Girl says:

    Thanks, Ken! This was all kinds of awesome.

  2. David says:

    Outstanfording, Ken!

    For further opera synopses, gentle readers, consult Robert Benchley on die Meistergenossenschaft, il Minnestrone, and Lucy de Lima

  3. GP says:

    Nice to see another opera fan. I always get laughs when I tell people I like it.

    However, I prefer the Italian repertoire; I find Wagner a bit tedious compared to the enthusiasm of, say, Il Trovatore.

  4. James Pollock says:

    Wait a minute. I've listened to "A Night at the Opera" quite a few times, and the rhapsody is about putting a gun to some guy's head, pulled the trigger, now he's dead. You left that part out.

  5. sorrykb says:

    Note: I have not used umlauts, because Hitler.

    Preemptive invocation of Godwin's Law. A bold choice.

  6. James Pollock says:

    "Preemptive invocation of Godwin's Law. A bold choice."
    Godwin just said it would happen eventually. Might as well get it over with. You know, they say if you had an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters, the smell in the room would be UNBELIEVABLE. No, seriously, you can wait for the monkeys, or just ask Shakespeare to write the works of Shakespeare, you know?


  7. David says:

    "Tannhauser asks for her intercession with God, and dies of opera."


  8. jb says:

    I thought A Night At The Opera was the one where Otis P. Driftwood and a dozen other people wound up crammed in a cruise ship stateroom.

  9. AlanF says:

    A sick idea: the Prenda saga as an opera.

  10. jdh says:

    Thank you!

  11. stamford says:

    First: Thanks!
    Second: I am listening to the overture and a theme came through which I surely recognized. But from where? I haven't listened to this Opera before. It must have been …. bugs. Man I learned a lot about music from Chuck Jones et al. Do kids today have anything like that?

  12. Bill Sides says:

    I've always felt the best part of the 3 hour+ Opera shows on NPR was the 5-minute explanation of the libretto. This was even better that those, and now I don't have to see the Opera!

  13. Susan says:

    Recently saw the movie "Phantom of the Opera" and now understand why there are ballet dancers. :)

  14. Bill says:

    For another case of German operatic debauchery, see Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, which opens with a soprano and a mezzo-soprano in bed with each other.

    (the soprano is portraying a noblewoman, while the mezzo is playing her teenaged boy toy Octavian. see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breeches_role ; later on in the opera, Octavian disguises himself as "Mariandel", a chambermaid, so we have a woman, playing a teenage boy, playing a woman..)

  15. stamford says:

    Sorry for my last comment — I'm not so good at tagging (spray paint too). I was trying to link to:

  16. Hal 10000 says:

    I studied the Wagner operas back in college but I think this may be the clearest explanation of Tannhauser I've read.

  17. TheOtherMatt says:

    Wagner < Gillbert & Sullivan, actually all opera sucks compared to G&S

  18. Rob R. says:

    You must see the Anna Russell videos on youtube. My Music History Professor had this on a record that he would play for the class. GO to Youtube and put this in the search box: "anna russell ring cycle"

    Funny, when my wife asked me what I thought of the Jodi Arias trial I told her "cosi fan tutti"

  19. David W says:

    "Wolfram, praying for Tannhauser, sings a very nice appreciation of the evening star." And *then* Venus shows up, hmm? Methinks Wolfram had a little sabotage in mind.

  20. sorrykb says:

    @stamford: Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!

  21. Wagner could have just said "enter the entire Monster Manual, which humps.

    I just about fell out of my chair laughing at that.

    Great stuff, and actually about an opera I bought on iTunes on a whim. Now I must go listen to it again.

    Looking forward to the next outing of PGTTO.

  22. En Passant says:

    Worthy of a standing ovulation!

    You've miraculously expanded my musical vistas to the sublime delights of Wagnerian sects and violins.

    I am forever grateful.

  23. Quiet Lurcker says:

    @sorrykb –

    I don't have my spear and magic helmet!

    @ken –

    Some of your commentary is nearly on a par with Anna Russell. Kudos for your humor.

    Sadly, I respectfully disagree with your praise for Wagner, for technical reasons. My qualifications: I've been a student by osmosis and direct study of music history and theory for close on 2/3 of my entire life since birth, and I am a musician, have been for well-nigh that same 2/3 of my life. Herr Wagner was overly long, and generally speaking his writing was no more competent, complex, or adventurous than that of a music-theory student after his/her first semester in school.

    -Quiet Lurcker

  24. Wayne Borean says:

    Personally my favorite is Rabbit of Seville.


  25. Dwight Brown says:

    "Herr Wagner was overly long, and generally speaking his writing was no more competent, complex, or adventurous than that of a music-theory student after his/her first semester in school."

    And yet, his music has survived, while that of many of his contemporaries has been eaten by a grue. Why do you suppose that is?

  26. Clark says:

    @JLA Girl

    Thanks, Ken! This was all kinds of awesome.

    True. It was.

    …but there weren't any time signature changes, theramins, or themes about space travel.


  27. Clark says:

    @Dwight Brown:

    And yet, his music has survived, while that of many of his contemporaries has been eaten by a grue. Why do you suppose that is?

    Wagner lit a lantern?

  28. sorrykb says:

    So… are you taking suggestions for the next Popehat Goes to the Opera? I think you could have some fun with Gounod's Faust.

  29. Ms. Cats Meow says:

    As I read this it suddenly occurred to me that opera and porn are alike in that no one watches either for the plot. :)

    Excellent and amusing write up, Ken. My mom is a big aficionado so I grew up listening to it though I never developed quite the same degree of interest I do enjoy it.

    Back when I was in high school, which I am very disheartened to say was many decades ago, Mom and I had season tickets to the opera at the Kennedy Center. With two exceptions, I don't remember specifically which operas we saw that season, but I did enjoy them.

    One of the two exceptions was a funny opera, La Belle Helene, which made us laugh. The other was an opera called Werther or Young Werther in which the entire first act seemed to consist of the main character walking up to an inn and say hi. Everyone at the inn said Hi back. That was it. The music for the scene was every bit as diverse and exciting as the action. It's the only time my mom, die hard opera lover since childhood, actually walked out of performance.

    The opera I would love to see performed someday is Lakshmi. Who doesn't love the Flower Duet or the Bell Song? I've heard smatterings of the rest of it and would love to hear it in its entirety.

  30. Malovox says:

    After reading this I emailed my buddies from my youth who,tied desperately to get me interested in this, and I mocked them. My email was an apology for not seeing what was in front of me the entire time. Thanks for re-opening a door that has been long ignored, Ken! Spear and magic helmet indeed – kill the wabbit! Long live German opera, anyone who can include a cannon in the orchestral lineup is OK with me! Vive strum und drang!

  31. Ash says:

    My favorite Wagner is Parsifal. The plot makes no sense and it ruins the experience to try and follow it, but the music is beautiful.

  32. Roscoe says:

    I seem to recall that A Night at the Opera was a lot funnier than you describe.

  33. carson63000 says:

    After reading this, I think you deserve to be a Sir or an Earl like those guys that wrote those books. Excellent work!

  34. One opera I would just love to see is Aniara, the one and only "space opera" that is actually an opera set in space. You don't see something like that every day.

  35. Love the Forman book! I found my copy in a used book store in Tel Aviv on a visit to the Holy Land in '96 (British edition, entitled "The Good Opera Guide"). Introduced me to calling Die Frau ohne Schatten as The Constipated Lady

  36. Chris Berez says:

    Thanks for starting this feature, Ken. I'm a big opera fan as well and the times you've written about opera I've loved it. I think it was about a year ago you mentioned possibly making this a regular feature at Popehat and I've been waiting ever since. Excellent first piece. I can't wait to read more. Wagner is my favorite composer, so I was excited to see you start with him.

    Also, for the record, I don't have any musical training either. I got into opera because I'd heard some of the more famous stuff (I grew up listening to a lot of classical). I took a course on opera in college but it was because I was already in love with it and wanted to learn even more.

    Around 10 years ago I think it was, my mom got me the greatest Christmas gift ever: she took me to a performance of Parsifal at the Kennedy Center (my parents knew how much I love Wagner). My mom loved it too, which is kind of impressive given she'd never heard any Wagner operas before. I would have thought diving right into Parsifal might be a little overwhelming for someone that has no idea what to expect. But nope, she was blown away. I have an awesome mom.

  37. Basil Forthrightly says:

    And to think I had a hard time explaining Die Fledermaus with a straight face.

  38. Chris says:

    When I saw the title of this post I thought of Blade Runner rather than Wagner. Marks me as uncultured I suppose. I can't listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger either.

  39. Deadly Laigrek says:

    For the record, Ken, the law coverage you post here qualifies to me as a contribution to geek culture. I get video games from my roommate, film from a few of my friends, and art/music from my girlfriend. But here is where I scratch the itch of the law geek in me. I always find your commentary to be insightful and enlightening. Opera's not really my cup of tea, as it were.
    Also, this is where I go when I want to laugh at spammers. And that's a contribution to humanity at large.

  40. bynra says:

    Best summary of an opera ever. I have been giggling incessantly.


    Juilliard alumnus

    ….BLOW ALL THE HORNS!!!! Heh…try sitting in the orchestra.

  41. Matt says:

    Thank you for this. It's too late to actually listen to the clips, but this is definitely the clearest explanation I've read and the most honest attempt at Wagner for the non-opera-fan I've read.

    I think Wagner has survived precisely because he was so bold, innovative and absolutely dedicated. He was not the best, but his vision and single-minded ness is enviable. The Ring is still one of my favorite pieces to hear, the man can put a tune in your ear like a champ.

  42. Breccia says:

    Thank you for starting this series! I'm a huge opera fan, and have been for many years. I discovered my love for opera when I was in high school. The first one I saw live was Wagner's Lohengrin, when I was 15 or so.

    I'm happily anticipating your descriptions, in the lovely dry humour I've come to love. I expect them to rival my favourite way to get people willing to see an opera with me: a short film called "All the Great Operas in 10 Minutes." I'll link it here because you made me think of it, and I suspect you'll be amused by it. (not the best resolution on the film, but passable.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5vNReqUGtsc

  43. David Tagliaferri says:

    If you are goign to go see 1 opera in your life, make sure it is in Verona (Italy). I am not that much of an Opera fan but I have seen Aida and Carmen in Verona. Why I like it? You don't have to get dressed up and act snooty. Show up in a t-shirt and jean cutoffs in the nosebleed section and you will fit in. Bring your kids and a back pack full of cheap snacks, no problem. Plus , the opera in ins a nearly 2000 year old Roman arena. Here it is as much about putting on a good show as teh music. Both the theatrics adn teh music are incredible.

    And while you are in Verona don't forget to massage the breast of a statue of a 14 year old girl for good luck! ( hey, when in Rome!)

  44. TerryTowels says:

    My cats woke up to enjoy the overture.

  45. J says:

    Funny, I think this is the first time I'm siding with Clark. I'll just listen to The Human Equation instead. That plot is only slightly more coherent than this ;)

  46. TerryTowels says:

    I had a friend in high school who was passionate for opera. I used to go with him, cause they had huge discounts for students, and hey, he was cute. I really hated it.

    Then, I saw the movie Amadeus. Oh my. I'm now hooked on Mozart, Vivaldi, Verde. Still find Wagner really tedious.

    But thanks for reminding me of the wonders of the net. I'm now listening to Cosi Fan Tutti.

  47. Joe Blow says:

    Awesome, thanks. I hope you do more of this. I love opera but don't have the time to sit and absorb it properly right now, which is whole work-by-whole work, and it's nice to get a critique of what is happening other than a gloss of the brief libretto, or the proper critic's "Enid Flacidbottom's mezzo-soprano was a bit tepid, while Thor Hoogenhacker's Basso Profundo was neither bass, nor profound…" I had a subscription to the Kennedy Center for a few years, pre-kids. Great eclectic buffet. Made me fall in love with the two V's, Verdi and Vagner, which is kind of like being really, really gay, and being Fred Phelps at the same time. Seems impossible but hey, maybe it's not contradictory…

    Most Italian opera is like drinking the lightest, fizziest champagne on a warm summer day. Dee-lightful. Most German/Austrian opera is like drinking half day old coffee on ice, tremendous if you've developed a taste for it. Wagner, on the other other hand, is like dropping acid in a dark room with a handful of lava lamps and a drum circle, a bit hard to get into but this oddly hypnotic and fully engaging experience. How'd I miss all the humping in Tannhaeuser before though? See, this is what you get when you simply enjoy opera and don't approach it as a textualist. (Your textualist approach, BTW, is akin to reading Juggs for the articles. Just sayin'.)

  48. jeremy7600 says:

    My favorite opera is the Nutcracker.

  49. Dan says:

    The only opera I have seen is The Abduction from the Seraglio. Sadly I found it unbearable. Not sure if opera is for me.

    Ballet, on the other hand, totally kicks ass. I've seen a number of ballets and I'm always on the edge of my seat.

  50. Ken White says:

    So… are you taking suggestions for the next Popehat Goes to the Opera?

    The next opera is already picked, as presaged in the penultimate sentence.

  51. Ken White says:


    The only opera I have seen is The Abduction from the Seraglio. Sadly I found it unbearable. Not sure if opera is for me.

    Very early Mozart is closer to the tradition of opera as virtuoso concerts with costumes, as opposed to dramas. Abduction has a lot of early-career flourishes, but some nice bits, like when Osmin and Blonde quarrel.

  52. David says:

    I saw Marilyn Horne in the title role of Tancredi at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1989. She was a bit hooty by then, but hey– Marilyn Horne!

    I also attended a production of Cosi Fan Tutte in LA around that time, but I no longer recall the details.

    That's my complete exposure to live opera, unless I've forgotten something.

  53. Quiet Lurcker says:

    @Dwight Brown –

    I suppose I should have separated result from process. The process was less than ideal, whereas the result was on balance more good than not.

    As for why Wagner survived, when his contemporaries didn't, well, all I can say is, I don't know.

  54. En Passant says:

    Ken White wrote Jul 18, 2013 @8:42 am:

    The next opera is already picked, as presaged in the penultimate sentence.

    And magnet therapy. Please don't forget the magnet therapy. But those fake Albanians are soooo 18th century.

    I've got to admit I'm partial to a murderous fake snake slut and a lesbian countess, with a good dose of stock market speculation, blackmailing acrobats, Jack the Ripper, and an aspiring women's rights lawyer, all wrapped in a palindrome by a real Alban.

  55. nlp says:

    I can't wait to read your summary of The Magic Flute.

  56. SarahW says:

    I was expecting contracts with sanity clauses and Margaret Dumont for some reason. Real opera talk almost never happens.

  57. Andrew Ward says:

    >>Thank you for bringing it up, but coining "snort my taint" is not a >>cultural achievement.

    I pity the shallow and stunted culture that rejects such art.

  58. Davey says:

    My mother was a music teacher and she took me to all sorts of events when I was a kid. Even she didn't drag me to opera though.
    Everything I know about Wagner, I learned from Elmer Fudd singing, "Kill da Wabbit…"

  59. Pine Baroness says:

    Thanks,you have helped me understand the underlying theme of the film Meeting Venus. Always wondered why they performed in trench coats with miner's helmets.

  60. James D. says:

    Ken, have you ever read "Wagner Without Fear" by William Berger? He takes on the works of Wagner in a similar spirit to this post…fun read.

  61. eddie says:

    Everything I know about opera I learned from Frasier.

  62. andrews says:

    I'm surprised no one has at lest offered the standard defense of Wagner: "his music is better than it sounds".

    Of course that is not a very high bar.

  63. GaryM says:

    Considering the style of the review, you should have added umlauts, not removed them.

  64. Fasolt says:

    Tripped over this opera blog http://operatic-vengeance.blogspot.com/ during the course of my Internet meanderings. Love the tagline there: "Because everything hurts more with high notes." It's a fun read.

    Example quote from a review:

    "To paraphrase Charlie Brooker, I'm not saying that Achim Freyer is an agent of Satan, you understand. I'm just saying that you could easily cast him as one."

  65. Ancel De Lambert says:

    I just about have Figaro's aria memorized, which is pointless as I am a tenor.

  66. Sasha says:

    Wonderful post, Ken. Did you know that Tannhauser was Mark Twain's favorite opera too?

  67. Honi Soit says:

    Although almost every discussion of Meistersinger will bring up the historical Hans Sachs, for some reason nobody ever seems to mention that Tannhauser, too was an actual person. You can look at one of his songs (or at least, a song that is rather shakily attributed to him) here.

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    […] Ken White, Popehat Goes to the Opera: Tannhauser […]

  2. July 17, 2013

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