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Operamaniac: 5 things we take for granted (or why Wagner spoiled all the fun)

Fri Aug 8 2014

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Wagner and dragon

We tend to take a wide range of things for granted and immutable, as we never saw them being done on another way. However, things change. Who could imagine that in the 21st century we would be flying and using the internet? Ok, maybe Bartolomeu de Gusmao with his “Passarola” but he was a bit alone on that. Therefore, let me share with you five things that have changed with time, be it by a matter of taste or practicality.

1. Conductor’s batons are very recent inventions. They started to become popular during the middle of the 19th century. Apparently Mendelssohn is claimed to be the first conductor to ever use a wooden baton.  Before that conductors used to mark the rhythm with a staff. A heavy and long staff, Gandalf-like.  So heavy it could perforate your feet and, well, kill you. Ask Lully, the famous French baroque composer, who was so into the music that while conducting a Te Deum and banging his staff he struck his toe creating an abscess. He contracted gangrene which eventually killed him. Lesson learnt, baton it is.

2. When we go to an Opera, musical, or a play, we like to watch it in the dark. It captures our attention and allows those who had a knackering day of work to have a ‘power nap’. Well, in the past that was not the norm. Opera used to be sung in full light, as it was very important to be seen out and about at society events: “to see and be seen”. The music and performers were superfluous. Audiences would chat, walk around and even play games, all this fuss being stopped only when a famous aria was being sung.  All this changed when Wagner turned up and decided to dim the lights so that the audience would focus on what was on stage and praise his masterpieces.

Editors note: our Night Shift series invites the audience to behave in ‘period style’, and to drink, chat and move around during the show. Interestingly (aside from drinking) they rarely do, as they’re (presumably) quite enjoying the music…

3. Nowadays the stalls are some of the most expensive seats in a theatre or an opera house; this has dramatically changed with time. You see, in the past, like at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, there were no seats in the stalls area these were where soldiers and the poor would stand while the rich would sit in their boxes or balconies, mingling, partying, and doing only god knows what.

4. The tradition in French Opera of having a long ballet sequence in the third act comes from the fact that most patrons used to have long dinners before going to Opera, arriving only for the second half of it, just in time to watch their protégées dancing and showing their ankles (ooh la la). Until Wagner came along (why is this guy always spoiling all the fun?!) and decided to put his ballet scene on the first act of Tannhauser. No wonder it was a failure in Paris. On the evening of its premiere, when the young rich donors’ arrived at the Opera and saw that their dancers had already danced, they made such a fuss that the opera was almost cancelled. Wagner, however, did not give in to pressure, saying that it made no sense for the plot to move the ballet scene from the first act to the third just to satisfy these young men

5. La Traviata is a world success. Everybody loves it, everybody knows its most famous duet Libiamo, but most of us have no idea it was a total failure when it premiered. Why? Just because the singer was too large to be believed as being a hot prostitute who was suffering from tuberculosis. In the third act when the doctor announced that Violetta’s illness had worsened and she had only hours to live, the first-night audience is said to have burst out laughing, with one member of the public shouting: “I see no consumption, only dropsy!”

Editors note (again): more than a passing resemblance to ‘critic gate’ at Glyndebourne this year…

6. Apparently Wagner was a grouchy man. This is the only thing to have remained the same.

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