Popehat Goes To The Opera: Tannhauser

It's time to introduce a new feature: Popehat Goes To the Opera.

Anything David writes about art here is not to be missed. Patrick's discussion of film is always worth a read. Many of my colleagues talk about games. But what do I contribute to art or geek culture?1

Practical reasons have hindered my contribution. I'll never be able to write about culture the way David can write about art. I'll never have a talent for relating games to politics like Derrick. And let's face it: gaming has passed me by. I barely have free time to play games, and my heart belongs to ones so primitive you could play them on a modern wristwatch.2

But I do have one geeky interest that bears exploring, Popehat-style: a somewhat esoteric taste crammed with all the history and minutiae a fanatic could want, with high barriers to entry and too few followers.

I refer to opera.

So: without further ado, the first chapter in a new series seeking to expose our readers to opera and explain why it appeals to me, one opera at a time. I start with a favorite, an opera that embodies the best (gorgeous music) and the silliest (ridiculous operatic conceits) of the genre: Richard Wagner's Tannhauser.

Two notes to start:

My qualifications: I have no qualifications other than thirty years as an opera fan. I have no musical training to speak of. I can't read music. My father and I reached an understanding in fourth grade — I would no longer abuse the violin after several months' attempt, and he would not make me join Boy Scouts. It was a win-win. I'm just an untutored fan. In other words, whatever your musical background, if I got to like opera, you can as well.

My texts: There are legions of books written about opera. I'm going to be relying on only two: the witty and infectiously devoted A Night At The Opera by Sir Dennis Forman, and the more serious but thorough New Kobbe's Complete Opera Book by the Earl of Harwood. I recognize that I am not exactly refuting opera's snooty reputation by recommending books by the nobility, but I like what I like.3

And so, on to the opera.

Tannhauser's Historical and Social Context

Richard Wagner was 30 when he wrote Tannhauser; it is an early and somewhat immature work of what is called his "romantic" period, as opposed to his later "dramatic" period, when he wrote the more famous Ring Cycle and other works characterized by the trope of healthy women in horned helmets.

At the time he was a court musician in the royal court of Dresden, then part of the Kingdom of Saxony. He stayed until his involvement in the Dresden Uprising — which ironically resulted in the destruction of the opera house — soured his prospects. Initial performances of Tannhauser were unpopular. Wagner decamped to the court of Napoleon III in Paris, where he tried to produce it again in 1860. Things went even worse, in part because the Paris Opera required all operas to be in French, and all operas were expected to have an Act II ballet.

Forman captures the culture of Paris of the time:

The young aristos of the [Jockey] Club were apt to stroll into the opera after dinner to look over the girls in the second-act ballet and then to stroll out again. They did not expect to stroll in on something like a Pilgrim's Chorus and took steps to teach the management a less by turning up in huge numbers at the point the ballet should have been and by whistling, catcalling, booing, and carrying on as high-spirited young gentlemen will do when indulging in tribal customs. There was also a conspiracy theory, namely that the whole debacle was staged to spite the politically unpopular Princess Metternick, who had persuaded Napoleon to have the opera put on. After three nights of hooliganism the opera was taken off and no doubt there was a second-act ballet in every show for the rest of the season.

(Opera, as the high art of its time, used to be absolutely rife with these sorts of shenanigans.)

Wagner went on to write far more popular, influential, and mature operas, and Napoleon III went on to lose the Franco-Prussian war and, by most reports, his taste for German opera.

Tannhauser's "Plot," For Lack of A Better Term

The core of Tannhauser is a very conventional and familiar idea that you can easily see as the plot of a mainstream movie: troubled artist looks to faith and a new love to recover from his self-destructive habits. Imagine, say, Gordon Joseph Levitt as the guitarist who relapses but eventually overcomes drug addiction with the love of, say, Emma Stone and his devotion to, I don't know, indie acoustic bullshit or something.

But this is Wagner, and Wagner is all about majestic (if somewhat imperious) music overlaying overwrought silliness. So the monkey on Tannhauser's back is a pagan god, his dilemma is his tendency to lose dark age rap battles through uncouth lyrics, and he is redeemed only in death through the more-than-a-little-off-putting love of a woman who delivers him from evil through sheer force of grimly determined purity.

Richard Wagner: when you want the libretto to leave you saying "what the fuck was that?"

The Overture

I didn't start loving opera by studying it. It is not immediately accessible to the ears of those of us with no musical training. I started to love it because my parents played tapes on long car rides, and I heard some of the greatest operas over and over until the ear-worms of the melodies and harmonies and great moments became familiar. You could, too.

Fortunately Tannhauser belongs to an era of opera — now copied in modern musical theater — in which the overture previews the best tunes. Listen to the overture — the first two minutes lay out some of the critical ideas and themes of the entire work. It's sad, majestic, triumphant, and a showpiece of what Wagner can do best. In that link, listen to him take the same lead theme from melancholy to powerful starting at about the 2:40 mark, and later the overture from sad to playful to triumphant at about 6:00 to about 7:15.

The Cosmic Love Shack

We open to an orgy in a god's sex cave.

No. Really.

Tannhauser, a bard4 in the Germanic middle ages, is the boy-toy of Venus, eternal goddess of hot sex that you thought would be totally worth all her baggage but in the long run isn't. Remember the wisdom of the bros: even if he or she is literally an unearthly gorgeous sex god, somewhere there is someone who is sick of putting up with his or her bullshit.

Tannhauser and Venus are shacked up at Venus' place, which with typical German lyricism is called "Venusburg." Tannhauser and Venus are lounging in bed. They're watching a dance/orgy/cage match among Naiads, Sirens, the Three Graces, fauns, satyrs, nymphs, Baccchantes, and cupids. No, really. I could quote the libretto I just linked, but even the description of this is abusively long.5 Wagner could have just said "enter the entire Monster Manual, which humps."

That's the ballet. There's no dialogue, and it's not Wagner's best music, though it's not terrible. It does, however, answer the question "can an orgy be tedious?"

Eventually Tannhauser and Venus quarrel. Tannhauser has had enough, and wants out. He could just say so, but it's prudent to ease into these things when talking to a god. Tannhauser implores Venus to release him so he can go back to Earth and see nightingales and stuff. His songs echo the themes you heard in the overture. Venus is not having it. She's all, "you know you still want to get with this, here in Venusburg, watching the nymphs hatefuck the cherubs or satyrs or possibly ettins, forever and ever." But Tannhauser has had enough. Unsuccessful in provoking her into ending the relationship (you can probably find that move in the Lascaut cave paintings), he Goes There — he abjures her by invoking the name of the Virgin Mary (leadup at about 4:45). Venus vanishes, off to commiserate to Minerva and Frigga and anyone else willing to say "oh no he DINT."

The Return To Earth

The Venusburg vanishes with Venus, leaving a field and a rather lovely sequence in which a lonely shepherd's pipes and simple tune contrast with the bombast of the last scene. The shepherd encounters pilgrims, who reprise the mournful theme from the overture (at about 3:40.) Tannhauser, hearing the pilgrims, emos it up, saying that his stint with Venus has placed him beyond God's redemption. The Landgrave, out with his crew to listen to the pilgrims because what else is there in the middle ages really, spots Tannhauser and recognizes him as an old friend. The Landgrave and his pals try to persuade Tannhauser to return to court in a moving song (joined powerfully by the chorus at about :50), but Tannhauser protests that he's no longer suited for polite company. The Landgrave convinces him — in an echo of Tannhauser's invocation of Mary — by name-dropping Elizabeth, Tannhauser's old crush.The harmony at about 3:15 here is very nice as they agreee to go see her.

An Ill-Considered Party

We meet Elizabeth, who is very happy Tannhauser is back. Wagner expects a lot of range from Elizabeth, which was a problem to early productions, particularly in Dresden, where apparently the sopranos sucked. Anyway, Act Two Scene One is all her bringing out some of her themes, reaching a climax of clean-cut enthusiasm at about 3:40. Tannhauser shows up. Is it awkward running into your virtuous virginal pure crush when you're just back from being a god's sex toy? Yes. Yes it is.

Elizabeth and Tannhauser are spared the awkwardness by the arrival of the Landgrave's entire court, accompanied by the opera's big catchy number: the March, which is Wagner's MY HUMONGOUS ORCHESTRA: LET ME SHOW IT TO YOU, also known as blow ALL the horns!!!!. The March is everything a loud and mindlessly enthusiastic crowd-pleaser can be, and is justifiably famous; you've probably heard a theme or two from it. Listen to it here, for good fidelity, or here, to see how it would look if staged the day after a crafts fair for Klansmen. The parts to listen for are the horn flourish that opens it, the main idea (at about :40), the diversion (about 1:15), the really loud idea (1:45), and my personal favorite part, when the chorus forcefully joins the theme (at about 8:15).6

How do you welcome the sex-dungeon-refugee back to a deeply religious and rather prim crowd devoted to the ideal of courtly love? How about a song contest, with a prize to the best description of love! I see no possible way that could go badly.7

The Landgrave, perhaps channeling Foreigner, poses the question:

Therefore I put the question to you now:
Could you fathom the true essence of love for me?

He's a little long-winded but he's the Landgrave, so what what are you going to do? Everybody tells him it's a swell idea (5:55).

Wolfram von Eschenbach, who wears self-seriousness like a Hickey Freeman suit, goes first. His song is a bit lovely, but also a lot dull.

From it, it draws bliss, rich in grace,
through which, ineffably, it revives my heart.
And never would I sully this fount,
nor taint the spring in wanton mood:
I would practise myself in devotion, sacrificing,
gladly shed my heart's last drop of blood.

Good luck on that honeymoon, Mrs. von Eschenbach.

But the crowd likes it (5:15).

Next it's our hero Tannhauser. He's got some hang-ups on this topic. He sings, calling out Wolfram as being naive, and suggesting that love is all sweaty sheets and stuff, in as direct a way as 19th century censors allow:

That my desire may ever burn
I will ever refresh myself at the source!

The crowd is scandalized, swords are drawn, and Tannhauser is threatened. Wolfram gamely tries to sing an even more love-is-ethereal song, but Tannhauser has found his groove, and mocks Wolfram more by giving a shoutout to Venus herself, reprising the tune he previously used to beg to be released from her(1:20).

The crowd's had it now. Tannhauser is about to be stabbed or beheaded or quartered or drowned in beer or whatever Germans do when Elizabeth intercedes, saying, in effect, he's only offended you but he's messed with my head hardcore and it's for me to say what happens to him. She then diverts to a more convincing and powerful plea to show him mercy in his suffering, as Christ suffered. The Act ends in a marvelous harmony (starting about 1:00) of Elizabeth crushed but unbowed, Tannhauser miserable, and the chorus and Tannhauser's former friends appalled. They all decide Tannhauser should go to Rome to seek absolution. Everyone knows Rome is very pure.

Act Three: Wait, What?

Act Three is concerned with whether Tannhauser can be redeemed, and if so how. We hear that Tannhauser has been told that he can no more be redeemed than the Pope's staff can grow new green shoots, which seems discouraging even if it's not a euphemism.

The highlight is the beautiful Pilgrim's Chorus, suggesting the hope of redemption through a recapitulation of the opening theme of the overture (1:20). Elizabeth offers a heartfelt prayer to Mary, asking to be made an angel to intercede for Tannhauser.8 Wolfram, praying for Tannhauser, sings a very nice appreciation of the evening star.9

Tannhauser appears to mourn his fate, and is tempted by Venus, who shows up to tell him she's saved his spot in the sauna. Wolfram is there to remind him, dude, remember what you were like when you were with her?, and also God and stuff. This time Venus is dispelled not by the Virgin Mary's name, but by the name of Elizabeth (1:40) — invoked by Wolfram, echoed by Tannhauser. Speaking of Elizabeth, her funeral procession arrives — Mary accepted her offer, and she has died to save Tannhauser. The chorus of pilgrims sings majestically of redemption (2:39) echoing the overture. Tannhauser asks for her intercession with God, and dies of opera. A chorus of young pilgrims comes in to announce that someone needs to borrow hedge trimmers because the pope's staff is growing branches like crazy, signalling Tannhauser can be forgiven. The opera ends with a thunderous, majestic, utterly awesome return to the opening theme (6:35).

The Power Of Opera

Forman only gives Tannhauser a beta. No, he's not a douchebro, that's how he rates operas — alpha, etc. Perhaps I am sentimental, but I rate it higher.

I like Tannhauser because it shows what opera can do. Textually Tannhauser is extremely silly on almost every level. It's got bad dialogue, bad plotting, bad mythology, bad theology, and high-opera fatuousness. But the music works, and demonstrates that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A dark-ages bard name-dropping Mary to escape being Venus' love slave is ridiculous, but when Tannhauser ends his steadily escalating series of pleas by doing that, it's like a thunderclap followed by the soothing rain of the shepherd boy's song. Against all modern sensibilities, it words: the drama, even very silly drama, helps elevate and emphasize the music. Wagner does some things better elsewhere, and there are certainly better operas, but there are few operas that will teach you better than this one that a mixed-form art like opera can make the ridiculous sublime. You'll be humming the tunes.

Next time: girlfriend-switching by fake Albanians!

Note: I have not used umlauts, because Hitler.

  1. Thank you for bringing it up, but coining "snort my taint" is not a cultural achievement.  
  2. If, that is, modern people wore a wristwatch instead of just looking at their smartphones. So you see my point.  
  3. If you want to choose which version of an opera to buy out of the dozens or hundreds of recordings out there, you'll want the Penguin Guide or Gramaphone.  
  4. Wagner also wrote Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which is also about a singer-songwriter, for roughly the same reason that most of Stephen King's heroes are writers and many of Aaron Sorkin's heroes are writers or directors or media types, as well as pretentious gits.  
  5. Here is perhaps one-sixth: "The revellers embrace each other with the most ardent passion. Satyrs and Fauns emerge from the clefts in the rocks, and thrust themselves with their dance between the Bacchantes and the pairs of lovers. They increase the confusion by chasing the Nymphs; the general tumult rises to the maddest climax. At the outburst of the greatest delirium, the three Graces rise to their feet, horror-stricken. They try to restrain the furious groups and drive them off. Impotent against them, they fear that they themselves will be drawn into the whirl; they turn to the sleeping Cupids flutter upwards and in different directions like a flock of birds, and, drawn up as it were in battle array on the heights, and commanding the whole cavern, they rain down a ceaseless shower of arrows on the tumult beneath."  
  6. That clip is from La Scala. You think opera is refined? My friend, if you sing at La Scalla and half-ass it, they will fuck you up old-school.  
  7. Actually, it's so self-evidently an awful idea that I've always thought that the unstated premise is that someone is trying to undermine Tannhauser and prevent his return to the community. Who suggested the song contest? The Landgrave, Elizabeth's uncle, who is protective of her and wants to cure her of her little itch for Tannhauser? Wolfram, Tannhauser's song-opponent, who perhaps secretly loves Elizabeth and wants to eliminate a rival? Who is the Iago here?  
  8. Look: do not make any offers to God, gods, saints, demigods, or other such figures unless you can live with them being accepted. Or not live, as the case may be.  
  9. That is Herman Prey, and he is more awesome than you are.  

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. sorrykb says

    Note: I have not used umlauts, because Hitler.

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

  4. 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?


  5. 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.

  6. 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?

  7. 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!

  8. Susan says

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

  9. 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..)

  10. 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"

  11. 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.

  12. says

    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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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

  15. 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?

  16. 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.


  17. 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?

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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!

  21. 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.

  22. says

    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.

  23. says

    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

  24. 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.

  25. Basil Forthrightly says

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

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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

  31. 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!)

  32. 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 ;)

  33. 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.

  34. 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'.)

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. SarahW says

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

  42. 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.

  43. 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…"

  44. 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.

  45. 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.

  46. 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.

  47. 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."

  48. Ancel De Lambert says

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

  49. 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.