Saturday, October 31, 2015

Wozzeck, again

From "Wozzeck," photo courtesy of the Lyric Opera

     Are you tired of the Saturday fun activity? I am, sort of. Okay, a lot. Plus I'm running out of halfway enigmatic photos, not that you guys ever are stumped. 
    So let's take a breather, at least for today. If this is a rend in the fabric of your universe, let me know, and I'll continue it next week. If you heave a sigh of relief, let me know that too, so I can be confident I judged correctly.
     For today, I've unearthed this chestnut, in honor of Wozzeck, the Berg opera that opens at the Lyric Sunday. This 1998 column is one of the first I wrote that mentions opera, and is significant for several reasons. 
    First, it mentions Wozzeck, which I had seen as an entry-level subscriber when the Lyric last presented it in 1992. My central memory is of screeching, and a woman on a swing, and wanting to get out of there with a passion that could not have been greater had the place been on fire.
     Second, while there are many criticisms that can be leveled at the atonal, jarring piece, I manage to malign it falsely in two ways, by alluding to its length—at 100 minutes long, it's one of the shortest operas—and an intermission, of which there are usually none because of the aforementioned brevity. 
     Third, after this column appeared, I received a scorching letter from Magda Krance, then and now the proud spokesperson for the opera. The letter ended up a crumpled ball hurled across the newsroom—just can't do that with email, alas. So I can't check what was in it, but I remember her saying that I had become Bob Greene, a low insult for any writer, but particularly barbed because Magda and I had collaborated on the takedown of Greene that had appeared in Spy magazine in the late 1980s.
    What I remember most about this episode was sitting at my typewriter, pounding out a reply, a number of replies, actually one after the other. I would write a letter in a hot fury, seal it up, stomp over to the mail basket, put it in, stomp back to my desk, fume, then leap up, stomp back, pluck the letter out, tear it up, return to my desk and write a new one.  I did this at least three times. 
    A luxury lost in our digital, send-it-and-regret-it age. 
    The letter I finally sent began, "Ignoring your letter..." and suggested that a publicist doing her job would have taken me up on my offer of donating some proper light plates for the lobby of the Lyric, which has grand marble and brass and these sad industrial electric outlets. 
    It is a tribute to the plasticity of the human condition, and our respective professionalism that Magda and I managed to get past that little speed bump in our relationship, and have worked together lo these many years and become bosom buddies as I went from being a subscriber, sitting in the uppermost balcony, to a frequent commentator with a better seat. 
     I'll be attending Wozzeck later this week, and am keen to discover if my tastes have changed in nearly a quarter century. 
    In the meantime, let us return to the years of Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, a scandal whose annoyingness our young columnist tried to express by way of operatic metaphor. It's not a very good column, but then I was new to the job.

      If you've ever sat through a really terrible opera, one of those
four-hour jobbies, always modern — say "Wozzeck" by Berg — that the
Lyric Opera seems to feel compelled to inflict upon its audience,
periodically, perhaps as penance for the joys of Mozart and Verdi,
then you might have already struck upon my technique of escape
     It is the second act. Having spent the intermission begging my
wife to leave and salvage what remains of the evening (she refuses,
out of the charmed notion that the performers, 100 yards and two
balconies away, will feel badly if we do), I slump down in my red
plush seat. The opera unfolds, hideously.
     So I leave, not in reality, but in imagination. I narrow my eyes
and go through the process: getting up, murmuring apologies, sliding
down the row, trying not to grind my butt in the faces of seated
     Quick-step up the aisle. Pass through the door into the light.
The relief of the unmobbed coat check desk. The giddy reunion between
man and coat. The rush down the stairs. The careful noting of the
crooked beige plastic electric wall socket plates in the lobby, an
amazing lapse amid the glorious marble and brass (I'm going to dip my
toe into philanthropy some day and raise the money to buy the Lyric a
half dozen real brass socket covers for its lobby — the Neil
Steinberg Memorial Wall Plates). The final release into the
revivifying night air.
     I found myself engaging in a similar escape last week, when
struck by the tsunami of the Lewinsky; Tripp tapes, followed hard by
the typhoon of the impeachment hearings. (We never have thought of a
proper name for this nightmare, have we? Maybe we should take a cue
from Conrad, and just call it the Horror).
     How will this end? When will the face of the general public —
turned away in relief since the elections, now roughly grabbed and
shoved, like a naughty dog, back into the noisome mess — once again
be permitted to turn skyward and view the stars?
     My personal moment of squirming despair came Thursday. I was in
a cab, on Lake Shore Drive. Of course, the radio was turned to Ken
Starr (all radios and televisions were; you could keep up with the
farce by just walking down the street, like with the Cubs in a
playoff game).
     Cab radios only have two volumes, tantalizingly soft and
eardrum-piercing loud. Straining to hear Starr's pious palaver, I
asked the cabbie to turn the radio up. As punishment, I was forced to
endure Starr's voice sawing full volume through my head for the rest
of the trip.
     When will this be over and what will that be like? Can we
conjure up a scenario that, like a fantasy tiptoe out of the opera
house, can give us a bit of balm against the nightmare grinding out
before our eyes? Since relief tarries, might we not at least imagine
     My first impulse would be to say: No, it's not possible. Steven
Calabresi, a professor of constitutional law at Northwestern
University, floated a scenario in which the Senate would still be
arguing this issue in January, 2001. And that was his short version.
He also suggested the Senate could hold some sort of hearing hounding
Clinton after he leaves office (after? after!) to legally bar him
from holding future office.
     With all due respect to Calabresi, he's out of his mind, showing
the sort of oblivious wish-fulfillment that has led the Republican
Party to the precipice and is now inspiring them to leap over into
the abyss.
     If this nonsense is still being debated into 2001, there won't
be a Republican in Congress to vote on the matter. Bank on it.
     As with all moralists who periodically grab the reins of the
nation and drive us toward a cliff, they don't get the idea of a gray
region. The moderate mass of America doesn't think in absolutes —
we're trying to get through the day, which often requires compromise,
a concept lost on zealots. Abortion is bad, but banning it is worse,
so the rights of the fetus, such as they are, are trumped by the
rights of the mother. Smut on the Internet is a problem, but
appointing a committee of bluenoses to try to sweep it clean is
worse. Clinton lied under oath, but he lied under oath about his sex
life in a proceeding that grew out of a garbage lawsuit mounted by
his enemies who hated him prior to all his supposed crimes and only
hate him more now.
     But it will end, right? I bring you good news. It will. The
inquiry will grind on, the Republicans trying to expand it,
desperately. But society, which cares little now, will begin to care
less. The hearings will continue, but we won't notice them anymore.
New developments will get pushed to the back pages, to the last
segment before the weather. Newspapers will run a small box, back by
the astrology tables: "Today is the 147th day of the impeachment
hearings. Rep. Hyde said . . ."
      This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.
    —Originally published in the Sun-Times Nov. 22, 1998


  1. I'm OK with "Where IS This?" taking a breather. Maybe you could do one periodically, when you feel that you've taken a picture that will (really) stump The Hive Mind?

  2. I agree with the first comment. Run 'Where is This?' periodically

  3. I'll post one vote for continuing "Where IS This?" It's only once a week. That's "periodically", right?

  4. Once a month might be good.

  5. I'm pretty sure your impression of Berg hasn't changed over the years. Either you're a fan of the 12 tone series structure (thanks bloody crazy Schoenberg) or not. I find it an absolute nightmare to play, accidentals everywhere and it's like the composer just wants to use everything learned in theory class on one page. Atonal piece, tolerable. Atonal opera, yikes. Will you let us know of your experience this time?
    Saturday contest is a lot of fun, but your blog, your whims. Do it when you feel like it.

  6. I thought you might like to know that David Portillo who will be performing in Wozzeck will be giving a half hour concert tomorrow Sunday at 11:30 am at North Shore Unitarian Church at 2100 Half Day Rd in Deerfield. It's after church. You can revisit the site of Ross's Bar Mitzvah!

    1. Ross's bar mitzvah was held at a Unitarian Church!? How cool.


    2. Margi: Are you sure about the concert Sunday? That would mean he would finish in Deerfield at 12 noon and be onstage at the Lyric at 2 p.m., curtain time for tomorrow's show. That seems cutting it close.

    3. I am glad you made me check again. It's next Sunday the 8th. Our music director, Wayland Rogers is retiring this year (unhappy for us) and he will be scheduling more of these mini concerts for the future as well. The concert is free.

  7. Where is this never again might be nice

  8. And here I thought I was getting a real bargain..... The Lyric gave subscribers an opportunity to buy main floor seats for "Wozzeck" for $49 plus tax. I jumped on it, having a 4-opera subscription in the nosebleed upper balcony (first row though), thinking to myself how entitled I must be to have received such an offer. Now I'm wondering what I got myself into (atonal opera?). Perhaps that's why it's less than two hours long. And I suspect there's no intermission because too many patrons would be slithering out of their seats, escaping into the great wide open outside :)

    1. What I tell people is that not liking particular operas is part of liking opera. It's like a bad baseball game. Plenty of bad games, as you know Sandy, and no fan cites them as a reason not to watch. The only difference is, with opera, you sometimes know ahead of time what will be bad (which I guess you sometimes know in baseball too, when some schlub is on the mound...)

    2. That's certainly true, NS. If there were no "bad" operas we wouldn't appreciate the good ones as much. Now I'm actually looking forward to it -- because my expectations are lowered, maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised. If not, it will still be a fun experience.

    3. " sometimes know ahead of time what will be bad..."

      That's a huge difference. I keep attempting to be an opera fan, with less-than-encouraging results. And I'm a recovering sports fan, in a world and city awash in sports mania. It's often occurred to me what a crap-shoot paying big bucks for a choice sports event is, compared with buying tickets to arts or music events. Especially for the casual fan of either. Springsteen or Renee Fleming (or Nikki, for that matter) may have what they themselves consider to be an "off" night, now and then, but I'm not likely to be able to tell the difference. I'll get what I paid for. But if you buy tickets for the big game and your team gives up 6 runs in the first inning and ends up not scoring at all, that's just not going to be worth having paid a lot for it, IMHO. (Superfans or "students of the game" may disagree with this, but I'm not talking about them.) If a baseball fan were only going to go to a handful of games in a year, they wouldn't be likely to purposely select a "bad" game as one of them, if they knew ahead of time how they were all going to turn out. For whatever that's worth. (While I still hope you have a swell time at Wozzeck, Sandy, and enjoy it however you can. Though, from what I've read here, if it were Neil's yearly "opera contest" choice, I wouldn't even bother entering the contest.) ; )

      I like the "Saturday Fun" fine. But, though you're a full-service blogger, no doubt, the point of the blog is for you to do what you want to do, no? : )

    4. Jakash, you reminded me of the one bonus of performing this type of music, if you mess up a few notes, nobody can tell except for the composer, and in this case he's dead so no worries! ;)

    5. I saw the dress rehearsal and can report that the Lyric production features some very clever staging and a superb cast. If you go to the opera for the pretty tunes you might give it a pass, but I wouldn't be put off by the "atonal" bit. The lush orchestration compensates for the dissonance. The soprano, Angela Denoke, only screeches when called for by the text.

      The story is grimmer than the music -- like those famous German movies from the 1920's described in Krakaur's "From Caligari to Hitler.". A portrait of a common soldier who is cheated on by his mistress and abused by, but sometimes confounds, his superiors. It put me in mind of a quote from a 19th Century U. S. Army officer's training manual: "Enlisted men are not intelligent but they can be very cunning, and you must never let them get the upper hand." As I recall, the 1992 production was pre-subtitles. They help a lot.

      In sum, it's not a "bad" opera, but a musically and dramatically challenging one that is worthy of a hearing from time to time.

      Tom Evans

    6. As for the subtitles at Lyric... They're invaluable to a boob such as myself. But, if they're trying to enlist more attendance from boobs such as myself, and as long as they're going to have the subtitles available, it might behoove them to include a lot more, IMHO. I realize that aficionados such as you folks know the goings-on of a blockbuster like "The Marriage of Figaro" backward and forward, but there were extended periods where I had no idea what they were singing to each other, and would have liked to. Just sayin'!

    7. I'm looking forward to seeing "Wozzeck" now. It's a night out, downtown, bright lights, big city, gorgeous aesthetic, etc. So no worries. (I enjoyed "The Passenger" last year, so I do appreciate the occasional somber opera. As far as the subtitles, Jackash, no need to have every word shown on the screen, that would distract too much. You can certainly ascertain what's going on without knowing every word that's sung or spoken. And I'm still a novice at opera-going, so if I can do without too many subtitles, than I know you can as well. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the show :)

    8. Okay, Sandy, I guess we'll agree to disagree about that. If you're content with the quality of the subtitles, I certainly can't argue that you shouldn't be, and I imagine a big majority of regular opera-goers agree with you. Speaking for a subset of the philistines, I didn't suggest that they put up every word, but many more than they do. One doesn't have to look at them if they don't want to, after all. How much focus does one need to watch two people stand on a stage singing to each other for five minutes at a time, anyway? Do you enjoy lots of Italian pop music as well, or do you prefer understanding the lyrics of the more current songs you listen to? ; ) (Sorry if this seems more obnoxious than I intend -- I'm sure your argument will continue to carry the day, regardless.)

    9. Jakash, No, I totally understand your point. In fact, right after I typed my 8:48 response I regretted the way it was worded. Fact is, I would be completely lost without the subtitles and agree with you that there are lapses in some operas when none are shown. I guess I've gotten used to that, so I just try to go along with it as best I can. There have also been times when I'm so busy following the subtitles that I miss subtle gestures or actions going on in the opera, and that's what I meant by them sometimes being distracting.

      Yes, I certainly do prefer understanding song lyrics when listening to any music :)

    10. Thanks for the friendly reply, Sandy. I agree that keeping track of the subtitles and what's happening onstage can be tricky, but I find it easier at the opera than I do while watching a foreign film. : )

  9. In re where-quiz: I have enjoyed it immensely, because I learn about things & places I'd never discover on my own. Village Creamery is now a routine visit when I'm in that area; as a mobility-impaired senior no longer driving, however, I can only salivate at your other eating establishments & marvel at the architectural, sculptural, installational art works. I understand your frustration at trying to locate & photograph "halfway enigmatic photos" for the purpose of stumping. Can you at least please carry on regularly just displaying interesting things you encounter (such as buckets of gloves posing as calla lilies), even if only on occasion making it a contest?

    1. Will do. Let's consider this a pause. I also had a bunch of stuff I wanted to post -- this, though it hardly merits a second look, tomorrow's Sinatra piece, and I had a column in the paper last week I haven't even got up here yet. I guess I could have done them in addition to the contest, but the bottom line is I didn't have a good photo handy.

    2. You have enough on your plate, don't need extra duties. And it seems it's the same people winning it and more for those who live right in the city.

  10. Whenever I think of Ken Starr now, the image that invariably comes to mind is Elmer Fudd.

    "Ooooh, dat wascally pwesident twicked me again!"


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