French 1, 2


I have had a one-two punch of French culture this weekend--actually, the number 1 and number 2 most popular operas at the Paris Opera.  Faust and Samson and Delilah.  Whew!

Faust is an opera I know well and love.  It was in Palo Alto, at West Bay Opera, a gem of a company started 45 years ago by an Austrian couple who fled Hitler.  They produce full scale operas, staged, costumed, and with orchestra, in a small hall (about 450 people).  I almost don't have words for how much pleasure this gave me.

I actually performed in the chorus of a performance of Faust, so I know the music quite well.  It is one of those works of art where the more you listen to it, the better it gets.  What impresses me is that there is so much heart in it.

There is such a different quality between Italian, French, and German opera (the operas in English I know are all so very different I can't fit them into this typology).  The Italian operas are "petal to the metal" emotionally--it seems like every character has to have at least one major different emotion every minute or so throughout the opera.  There is hardly a single Verdi opera that doesn't have at least one curse, and passionate vows of revenge (Vendetta!).  I resisted Italian opera until well into my 30's--I now think it had a lot to do with my being so uncomfortable with my own emotional life.  Being raised by scientists, one emotion a week was more like what I was used to.

But this response was nothing compared to French music.  As a child, I literally had to leave the room when my father played Afternoon of a Faun on the record player--it made me feel squirmy.  Two years of college French didn't give me a lot of appreciation for the culture, and I also had the traditional experience of spending several days in Paris as a student and being treated like dirt, which didn't help either.  The trite cliché is that French music is all about melody.  There is certainly a lot of melody, but I think that the quality that made me squirmy as a kid was just sheer heart.  There is plenty of emotionality in French opera, but it is more inner.  Instead of being blasted all over the stage, one is invited to enter the hearts of the singers.  For one who had his own heart walled off, a room in my house that I didn't use, so I didn't bother to heat it, this was indeed squirmy.

As a kid, I lived in a neighborhood with quite a few Catholics.  One day, when I was about 6, one of my Catholic friends came running over to my house to get me.  "Come quick!" he said, "There's a program on the radio you have to hear!  It's about a man that sold his soul to the devil!"  I can still hear the tone in my friend's voice--something I would later associate with snickery locker-room discussions about sex.  "Why would he want to do that?" I asked.  My friend looked a little puzzled.  "I don't know--he just did!"  While God didn't play much of a role in my life as a kid, this had the advantage that the Devil didn't either.  I had no interest in the commercial transactions of adults.  "Let's swing on the swings!"  I said, and we did.

As an adult, I've learned that there are indeed many ways to sell your soul to the devil.  The transaction doesn't seem to be quite as eternal as tradition would have it--I know some recovered alcoholics and drug users who seem to have opted out the transaction, battered but wiser.  The devil is a shoddy merchant, and his goods don't last.  And  this is, indeed, the theme of Faust.

Samson was at the San Francisco opera.  Huge hall, amazing sets.  The temple fell down in the last act with such realism that you wondered about the safety of the actors.  Falling buildings are a pretty powerful image right now.  Is that what Bin Laden sees himself as?  Samson pulling the temple down after being betrayed.

On an emotional plane, the interesting thing to me is just how evil Delilah is made out to be.  At one point, she sings that "Love is the poison that will bring me my revenge."  That's a very hard thought for me to hold in mind.  And her father (brilliantly costumed to look like a cockroach from the back) urges her into Samson's bed.  At the same time, of course, Delilah is supposed to be sexy as can be.  There was a wonderful lecture an hour before the show, pointing out how similar the Israelites' music is to the Bach passions, and how the oboe is used to invoke alien-ness. And how motifs are used in Samson's music, a la Wagner.  It was wonderful spectacle, but nowhere near as satisfying as the intimate Faust.

Speaking of Wagner, I'm into San Francisco on Tues. to see Die Meistersinger, all 5 hours of it.  German music I took to almost from birth.  I loved Bach in my teens.  The only opera I had ever heard until age 35 was Wagner.  My father played a lot of Wagner--only the orchestral excerpts.  I did a paper on the Ring operas in 8th grade, without ever having heard them (I daringly used the word 'rape' at one point, wondering whether I would get points off for using a dirty word).  Those less annularly challenged than me might be surprised to know that very few operas were available on recordings until the 60's.  Even the LP records were hard pressed to hold 1/2 hour of music on a side, so even a single opera would be three or four records, and the Ring, recorded with great fanfare in the 60's, was about 20 records.  And very pricy.  The 78 RPM records that I played as a teen could not even hold an entire symphony movement on a side--it was years before I could listen to Beethoven's fifth symphony without being aware of where we used to have to change the records.

Anyhow, German music is head music, indeed, and as such was much more acceptable to me.  The emotions are definitely there, especially if you translate the words (one Bach aria begins: "Buckets of salty tears I cry for you...")  There is also structure and complexity--it keeps your mind busy, so the emotions can sneak up and clobber you.  It was all I had in my early life, and I'm still blown away by how wonderful it can be.  Meistersinger, in particular, has a wonderful plot, some memorable characters, and ravishingly beautiful music.  I'm looking forward to it.

As I think about it, though, the music I love the very best is always a mixture of styles.  Bach spent those years in Italy, and additional years copying Vivaldi.  Faust is, after all, a German play, set by a Frenchman.  Der Rosenkavalier, probably my favorite opera, is German, but with a lot of Italian and French influence.

But enough musicology.  The day calls (I'm finishing this on Mon. the 15th).  Time to see whether the weekend's decisiveness will be reflected back to me by the universe...

Thank you for reading.

Copyright © 2001 Pete Stevens. All rights reserved.