For my summer vacation this year, I was able to hike a significant portion of the famous John Muir Trail in the Sierra Mountains, enjoying spectacular high passes, pristine mountain lakes, striking rock formations and no internet access. As I hiked with my backpack, I thought about that very observant travel writer, Mark Twain, who journeyed extensively in the U.S. (including what is now the state of Hawaii) and across Western Europe. It is not clear whether John Muir and Mark Twain ever met, but I am quite sure it would have been a memorable meeting of two intrepid adventurers if they did.
One famous trip that Mark Twain undertook was to Bayreuth in 1891—immortalized in his essay At the Shrine of St. Wagner. Bayreuth, of course, is home to Richard Wagner’s purpose-built theater, the Festspielhaus (as described in my earlier Off the Cuff), and Mark Twain’s visit, coming just eight years after Wagner’s death in 1883, provides an important snapshot of German opera at that time. This perspective is important both for understanding audience reaction to Wagner’s music, in Germany and the U.S., and for illustrating themes about the operatic art form that are still very much alive today—more than 100 years later. In re-reading Mark Twain’s essay, I was particularly struck with these four themes:
Reverence for Wagner and his music. Writing in 1891, long before the rise of Hitler and institutionalized anti-Semitism, Mark Twain uses many quasi-religious terms to describe audience members’ reactions upon hearing Wagner’s music. Bayreuth is (and was consciously constructed to be) the “Wagner temple,” “The Shrine of St. Wagner.” Devotees, which Mark Twain preferred to classify as “pilgrims,” “came from the very ends of the earth to worship their prophet in his own Kaaba, in his own Mecca.” Subsequent historical and psychological assessments of Wagner’s life and career have revealed him to be a deeply narcissistic and repugnant personality, but his music unquestionably continues to inspire devoted audiences worldwide.
Bayreuth as a shrine to Wagner. Briefly touched on above, but it’s interesting to note that many aspects of performance practices at the Festspielhaus remain unchanged, more than a century later. Performances still begin at 4 p.m. and there are two long intervals, or intermissions, as we call them (the only change being that the first interval has been extended from 45 minutes in Mark Twain’s time to an hour today). Patrons enter and leave the theater through 18 doors in regimented fashion, and clear the theater completely at each interval. Several brass fanfares over the course of 15 minutes make it obvious to all that intermission is ending and it’s time to return to the theater. Mark Twain notes that this “bugle call is one of the pretty features here. The operas do run long—as late as 11 p.m.—and Mark Twain quips in his essay that “Seven hours at five dollars a ticket is almost too much for the money.” One aspect of the performance that has changed for the better is that patrons are no longer fined if they are late. You read that right. As Mark Twain notes, “We were warned that if we arrived after four o’clock we should be obliged to pay two dollars and a half extra by way of fine.” Fortunately, hall monitors have never been a part of the Dallas Opera experience.
Rigid and formulaic acting style. Consistent with the operatic traditions of the time, Mark Twain observed beautiful scenery combined with static, almost wooden, theatrical performances. As he noted, “there isn’t often anything in the Wagner opera that one would call by such a violent name as acting; as a rule all you would see would be a couple of silent people, one of them standing still, the other catching flies. Of course I do not really mean that he would be catching flies; I only mean that the usual operatic gestures which consist in reaching first one hand out into the air and then the other might suggest the sport I speak of if the operator attended strictly to business and uttered no sound.” This aspect of performance has, of course, changed markedly. The growth of verismo operatic style, popularized by Puccini and others, set the stage for more naturalistic acting styles. Today, as I have noted in previous editions of “Off the Cuff,” audiences have infinitely higher expectations of the acting skills of principal artists and demand that today’s singers fit the role requirements (e.g. patrons have a low tolerance for 250-pound sopranos allegedly dying of consumption).
Formality of Bayreuth compared to New York. In writing about the performance of Tristan und Isolde, Mark Twain describes the stillness of the audience: “The audience reminds me of nothing I have ever seen and nothing I have ever read about except the city in the Arabian tale where all the inhabitants have been turned to brass and the traveler finds them after centuries—mute, motionless and still retaining the attitudes that they last knew in life.” By contrast, at the Met in New York, audiences “…sit in a glare, and wear their showiest harness; they hum airs, they squeak fans, they titter, and they gabble all the time. In some of the boxes the conversation and laughter are so loud so as to divide the attention of the house with the stage. Whether Mark Twain is being fair to the good people of New York or not, he paints quite a vivid contrast!
Writing as a 21st century General Director & CEO, it is the final point that especially resonates. Fast forward 50 or 60 years from Mark Twain’s day, and the typical Metropolitan Opera audience becomes nearly as reverential as the audience in Bayreuth. While performers always deserve our unqualified respect and attention, this reverence came to be regarded as not merely formal, but haughty and stiff (think of the character Margaret Dumont played in the Marx Brothers movies)—thereby narrowing the appeal of the art form to American audiences. As I have written previously, much of the work of contemporary opera leaders is focused on broadening the appeal of this magnificent art form—through new commissions, community outreach, use of new technology, or simulcasts—in a neverending battle to combat these unfortunate stereotypes. Bayreuth will always remain a “special case,” but I for one am thrilled at the outstanding work and dynamic approaches being explored across America to ensure that opera remains a vibrant, forward-looking art form for the next 100 years. And that, aspiring to a greater goal than creating “pretty pictures” onstage, American opera will continue to ensure it has something meaningful to say and something worthwhile to share with people from every culture, race, and educational background.
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Below this photo is a list of previous columns:
- January 2012 "A Scheme of Delight"
- February 2012 "Visiting Wagner's Bayreuth"
- March 2012 "Commissioning a Successful Opera"
- April 2012 "The New Opera Audience"
- May 2012 "Rivers and Deltas of Musical Time"
- June 2012 "Operatic Blockbusters"
- July 2012 "Maximizing Dallas Opera's Community Footprint"
- August 2012 "The Santa Fe Festival Model"
- September 2012 "Postcard from Glyndebourne"
- October 2012 "Verdi's Egypt: Cracking the Code"
- November 2012 "It's Not Just Contemporary Anymore"
- December 2012 "Singing the Blues"
- January 2013 "Puccini's Golden Dozen"
- February 2013 "Opera and Popular Culture"
- March 2013 "A Dangerous Experiment"
- April 2013 "The Case of the Jealous Mezzo"
- May 2013 "Winning the Red Queen's Race"
- June 2013 "Managing the Opera Company of the Future"
- July 2013 "Raked Over the Coals"
- August 2013 "Hogarth in Reverse"