by RIP RENSE
IAN JUDGE RESPONDS! SEE BELOW
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
E-MAIL FROM IAN JUDGE, AND RENSE RESPONSE:
From: Ian Judge [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
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
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 [mailto:email@example.com]
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
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
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