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  I went to an L.A. Opera production the other day. I could tell it was an opera, because they were singing and there was an orchestra. But those were the strongest clues.
          Now, if you don’t go to operas, or like opera, that’s okay. You’ll still understand what I’m writing about here. I’m no highbrow, and neither is the director of the version of Wagner’s “Tannhauser” (that’s TAHN-hoiser, fellow yokels), one Ian Judge. Though I‘m sure he imagines otherwise.
          As I said, you’ll understand my hifalutin hoity-toity musicological insights. Let’s start with this one: big naked breasts distract from music. For that matter, they distract from pretty much anything.
          Yet Judge misjudged this. He thought that big flopping, flapping breasts, and pert, pointy breasts, and fried-egg sized nipples, and little pencil eraserhead nipples, enhance music. As well as various buttocks, from taut elevated muscular male rumdadums to female, zaftig, curvy, how-do-they-walk-with-those-things budonkadonks.
          And he really thought that when lots of people with ballet-cut limbs and torsos lasciviously strip under a red light (ooooo, get the passionate symbolism!), then perform every sex act that does not require a dog or Bill Clinton, this also makes the music much more meaningful and wonderful. Think: allegro ma non sexo, coitus intermezzo, sex and inversion, singspielingus, big tuttis, lots of fuguing, fluttertonguing, and let’s not forget the sackbut.
          I mean, there I was at the opera, watching several males buggering, kneeling females fellating, leggy ladies licking, hills of humans humping, and a partridge in somebody’s pear tree. Stimul---er, simulated, of course. But simulated buck-nekkid, except for jaunty crimson his-and-hers jock straps. Total nudity, apparently, was just too hairy a controversy to venture. But my, those ladies were expressive. I haven’t seen legs spread that wide since I was born.
          I can only guess that The Judge knows something I don’t, because after all, he has directed many operas, and musicals, and even Shakespeare. The only thing I’ve ever directed is a stream of urine. Which, frankly, would have been well aimed at the L.A. Opera’s “Tannhauser.” Metaphorically speaking.
          And at lots and lots of other operas, too.
          Perhaps humans are just given to self-deception and “overthinking.” Maybe it’s always been this way, but it sure seems to me that phonies and poseurs and montebanks have gotten a lock on operatic productions around the world. Wotan forbid that any Wagner Ring Cycle, for instance, be literal (outside of Seattle, where, thankfully, Seattle Opera’s Speight Jenkins has a taste for actual forests and skies and fires and rivers.) No, the Valkyries in Die Walkure tend to be heroin addict whores, punk biker bitches, tattooed transvestites, or all three. I’ll never forget an L.A. Opera production of “Lohengrin” where the medieval knights were half concentration camp survivors, and half post-apocalyptic ogres straight out of “Mad Max.” Ooooo, the profundity! Then there was the “Parsifal” staged by the Grand Clothesless Emperor, Robert Wilson, in which the principals were wrapped in Japanese futons and sang in protracted poses that would make a chiropractor salivate.
          It’s hardly (Judge/Tannhauser-appropriate adverb!) confined to Wagner. There was also Wilson’s “Butterfly,” a “minimalist” (read: minimal) Kabuki-esque treatment that had all the zest and life of Dennis Kucinich, and complemented Puccini’s soaring score like an undertaker in a circus. I recall a Verdi opera  (L.A., again) where much of the action was reduced to a bunch of men in formal suits sitting in chairs. But I barely recall it---including the name---as I walked out after the first act. Local critics, not surprisingly, found it chocked full of gripping psychological complexity. I found it full of, well, you know.
          It all reminds me---as many things do these days---of the scene in Albert Brooks’ film, “Defending Your Life” where Brooks goes to heaven and finds that one can dine endlessly on pancakes, ice cream, etc., without getting fat. Along comes Rip Torn (no relation), scarfing down a plate of what, by all appearances, might have contained the leavings of a diarrhetic Great Dane. Brooks asks him what he’s eating, and Torn explains that after eons of pancakes, one’s tastes become more arcane.
          I think this is what has happened with opera. The intellectuals tired of those damned delicious pancakes, and convinced themselves that Rip Torn cuisine is ambrosia.
          Which brings us back to our opera in the buff, Tannhauser. Here’s a Plot Summary For Dummies:
          Tannhauser is a great knight who wound up in a garden of fleshly delight---actually a hollow mountain---called Venusberg, where he fornicates endlessly with the namesake of this den of inflagrante delicto. He gets a bit bored with the old jiggerypoke after awhile, and heads back to earth in order to enjoy some nice breezes and meadows and babbling brooks. Runs into his old flame, Elisabeth, and former roustabout knight cronies, and well, things get kind of dicey when ‘Hauser indulges a bit of his old um, Venusberg tendencies. They all banish him to Rome to get gooba-gobba’ed by the Pope, but the Pope says he will bless the Tann Man on the day that his wooden staff (as opposed to the one he was using in Venusberg) sprouts leaves again. In other words: in a pig’s eye! This being an opera, people then begin to prostrate themselves and die of grief: first Elisabeth, then T. Haus, after he finds her turned into an angel. Poetic/symbolic/philosophical/ Biblical/(maybe even sexual) justice follows when the wooden staff. . .sprouts leaves. Curtain.
          Got it? Can’t you just picture the Arthurian mythiness of it all? The eerie mists, the imaginary wonderlands, the pastoral tableaus, the vast, formidable mead-stained marble castle halls? Can’t you just feel the clanging, scabby knightliness? The incandescent irresistibility of Venus? The aching allure of her little corner of the ethers? The unimpeachable heart and sanguine goodness of Elisabeth?
          Well, you can, yes, but opera directors can’t. They will complain of such “traditional” approaches being hoary and irrelevant, and yet. . .avant-garde has become so traditional these days that traditional is practically avant-garde. Take Judge, who traded hoary for whore-y. He apparently decided to try Tannhauser on charges of staleness and hokum, and found him guilty on both counts. The sentence: first, the bacchanal sequence in cathouse-red (yawn) Venusberg, as described above. I challenge anyone to enjoy music, let alone organically feel how it informs scene and action, when you have a live sex show going on. Unless, perhaps, the music is K.C. and the Sunshine Band singing “That’s the Way (Uh-huh, Uh-huh) I Like It.”
          Then we come to the T-Man and the knights. When, pray tell, is the last time you saw a knight in white tie? Looks to me as if these were the Knights of the Round Corporate Table. They looked fresh from a party for the Carlyle Group, or Trilateral Commission, waiting for cigars and brandy. Not a lance in the lot. And the white-draped Pilgrim chorus could have passed for a flock of portly Sikhs.
          The setting? Most of the story takes place in a castle called Wartburg---an apt name, giving the L.A. depiction of it. Warts-and-all? This burg was all warts. No, I don’t mind a little license---I liked David Hockney’s abstract, swirly expressionist “Tristan und Isolde,” for instance---but gee, the Wartburg walls were just black. So were the walls. And oh, yes, the walls were, too. There was also a floor and ceiling, but wouldn’t you know it? Black again! At least there were a lot of doors in the walls, for some reason. Great, nonsensical rows of doors. Walls, walls, walls. Doors, doors, doors. (Yes, they, too, were black.)
          No explanation for any of this appeared in the program notes, of course. The designer’s intended meaning was as opaque as the sets. Poor Tannhauser looked like he was wandering around. . .backstage. Really. Like he was lost among chunks of stored sets. To be fair, this was the doing of set/costume man Gottfried Pilz, but mein Gottfried! Have pity on those who crave a little design in their set design.
          What Judge, Pilz, and most of the opera oligarchs of today seem to have forgotten is one trifling little truth that used to be quite apparent, at least in the 19th century: that symbolism is built into the story, and emotional and/or psychological complexity is illustrated in the music! Of course, this realization denies the fun of injecting nudie shows and dressing mythical heroes like stockbrokers.
          I know you get my point, but there is a little more that is just too good to leave out. The Tannhauser set was controlled by two great big Lazy Susans that revolved periodically to reveal different assortments of characters, whether naked or in white tie, you never knew. It was suspenseful, trying to guess whether you’d get a peep show or a Dick Cheney fund-raiser. Still, you could always count on those walls, and the eternal doors. I would have gone wall-eyed, if there had not been doors. The Pilgrims went in and out of the doors, and the knights, and sometimes the Venusberg orgy participants, and, one eventually wished, the Marx Brothers.
          Who could have done a much more entertaining job at desecrating this opera than Ian Judge.

From: Ian Judge []
Sent: Thursday, March 22, 2007 5:54 AM
To: Rip Rense
Subject: Re: "Tannhauser" article
Thank you for your suggestion to read your article. I must say I enjoyed it - hilarious!

RENSE: Glad to have given you some laughs. Next time, please lose the jock straps, though, and have some integrity to that nudity. Why not penetration?

THERE'S MORE! Rense responds in the text of Mr. Judge's follow-up e-mail:

From: Ian Judge []
Sent: Thursday, March 22, 2007 6:20 AM
To: Rip Rense
Subject: Re: "Tannhauser" article

The trouble with dangly bits is that not everything stops when the music does!

RENSE: What, you’ve never heard of duct tape? Take a cue from the Miss America pageant. And I think that there was plenty of dangling on female upper torsos, anyhow.

As for penetration - that was achieved back at my place.

RENSE: Of course it was, but the artistic value to “Tannhauser” was moot, seeing as the operagoing audience did not witness it.


NOTE: Mr. Judge simply returned my second response to me, in a wonderfully imperious flourish. Naturally, I sent it back to him. ---RR

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