Beautiful Music is Spiritual and Prophetic

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Welcome to forty odd pages of Superb and Supreme Music

John ADAMS and the Opera

A retrospective of all operas

Composed and produced

By John Adams

Both on stage or on screen.

Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU

He is also typical of someone who grew in the Western world, mixing Christian and Jewish traditions but vastly opening his interest onto other ways of behaving in the world and seeing that world. First of all, the Hindu tradition, then the Inca tradition and finally Islam. Let’s note the Islamic approach in The Death of Klinghoffer is clear in the opera but messed up in the film adapted from that opera. I regret it.

The last element I want to say is that John Adams finds it easy to integrate what has always been seen as apocryphal if not heretic within the Christian context and his defense of the point of view of the third Mary at the foot of the cross, Mary Magdalene, the Mary Jesus loved in his own way but as a love partner and not only a soul to be saved, is exemplary. That brings us back to so deep roots in our culture that I would need pages to explain her position and role. Let’s say she was present in the Catholic faith up to the 9th or 10th centuries, as I have been able to record in old Romanesque churches in Auvergne, France.

She was also identified as a Christian Demeter, hence the Christian triple goddess (and she is the “third” Mary at the foot of the cross). And that makes things very difficult after the 11th century. In my village, there is, in an old church, an undated stone with a wolf, or rather a female wolf, a wolf-bitch, if you are not offended by this word, and the inscription refers to DRIMIDRI, in other words, a ternary DIMIDRI or DEMETER, the triple goddess par excellence. That stone must go back to very old times since the church started being built on an old sacred site (Roman and Celtic) around the 9th century. These Celtic and Gallo-Roman layers in the village have been attested in many ways.

In Pignols in Livradois there is a very old castle chapel that has not been destroyed, burnt or damaged by the French Revolution and that has what we can consider its original decoration going back to the 9th century, waiting for some restoration work that might eventually come. This Church is dedicated to the place where it stands, Pignols, meaning the place where pine cones grow and pine cones are the symbol of Demeter, the triple goddess again. Inside, the whole dedication is to light, and of course Mary Magdalene who is identified as the light giver. This light is represented with all sorts of images and symbols, particularly flowers and a surprising swastika, the Indian type, not the Nazi type. And this symbol shows how open this country, this old Christianity was to influences from the East, the Far East, the distant East.

But the most surprising element is the Christ sitting in glory in his mandorla on the ceiling of the apse of the church. For him to represent light, LUX in Latin, his image has been slightly transformed. He holds the book in his right hand and he blesses with his left arm and what is thought at first to be a left hand and, after close examination, is a right hand grafted on his left arm. And here is the symbol. His right arm is holding the book in a square L. Then his left arm and elbow are pointing up to be able to bless with a right hand grafted on the left arm and that makes the letter V or U that are the same letter in Latin. Finally, the book and the blessing hand have been crossed from left to right and from right to left and here is the final X.

That’s the kind of spirituality you find in John Adams, a spirituality that does not desecrate what people believe in but that looks for a limit in order to bring people beyond that limit not as a transgression but as an opening, an extension, as mental widening. Then be patient with humanity and enter this world of mental experience that is at the heart of our human destiny.

Table of Contents

1- Monday, August 25, 2014, You must be a fool to believe you are making history

JOHN ADAMS — ELLIE CAULKINS OPERA HOUSE — DENVER, COLORADO — MARIN ALSOP — COLORADO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA — COLORADO OPERA CHORUS — 2008 — NIXON IN CHINA — 1987

2- Friday, August 29, 2014, It’s a shame Mao is depicted as an invalid sex-obsessed old ranter and raver

JOHN ADAMS — ALICE GOODMAN — PETER SELLARS — THE METROPOLITAN OPERA ORCHESTRA, CHORUS, AND BALLET — JOHN ADAMS conducting — FEBRUARY 12, 2011 live capture — 2012 DVD BLU-RAY DISC — ISBN 075597960884

3- Saturday, September 06, 2014, Chinese Communism has deep roots in rural class struggle

XIE JIN — THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN — 1961

4- Saturday, September 06, 2014, This ballet was quite ahead of its time and has become a Chinese classic

Wangchun ShiHongwei Dai — THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN — 1970

5- Wednesday, September 24, 2014, Neither anti-Semitic nor pro-Palestinian

JOHN ADAMS — THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER — ORCHESTRA OF THE OPÉRA DE LYON — 1991 — ELEKTRA NONESUCH — 1992

6- Friday, September 26, 2014, This film betrays the opera with the benediction of the composer

JOHN ADAMS — THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER — LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA — CONDUCTED BY JOHN ADAMS — DIRECTED BY PENNY WOOLCOCK — 2003 — DVD

7- Thursday, August 28, 2014, A video opera that tells us a quite famous story: Jesus is being reborn

JOHN ADAMS — KENT NAGANO — PETER SELLARS– DEUTSCHES SYMPHONIE-ORCHESTER BERLIN — EL NINO — THÉÂTRE MUSICAL DE PARIS-CHÂTELET — PREMIERED DECEMBER 2000 — DVD 2001

8- Friday, August 22, 2014, 9/11 will always be subliminally engraved in our memories, as long as the video of the event can be seen

JOHN ADAMS — NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC — LORIN MAAZEL, CONDUCTOR — ON THE TRANSMIGRATION OF SOULS — 2002

9- Thursday, August 21, 2014, A miracle of religious and cultural mixing

JOHN ADAMS — A FLOWERING TREE — LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA — SCHOLA CANTORUM VENEZUELA — 2006

10- Friday, September 05, 2014, Most symbolical and pessimistic tale about war and no peace

JOHN ADAMS — DOCTOR ATOMIC — SAN FRANCISCO — OCTOBER 1st 2005 — DE NEDERLANDSE OPERA — 2007

11- Tuesday, August 05, 2014, This Passion is talking to us in the modern world

JOHN ADAMS — THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE OTHER MARY — 2012 — GUSTAVO DUDAMEL — LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC & LOS ANGELES CHORALE — 2014

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Nixon In China

Monday, August 25, 2014

You must be a fool to believe you are making history

JOHN ADAMS — ELLIE CAULKINS OPERA HOUSE — DENVER, COLORADO — MARIN ALSOP — COLORADO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA — COLORADO OPERA CHORUS — 2008 — NIXON IN CHINA — 1987

As for historical events, we can think of “Egmont” by Goethe then brought to the operatic stage by Beethoven. It deals with the independence war of the Netherlands against the Spanish King and Germanic Emperor that was successful for the Netherlands and failed for Flanders. In the same line, we can think of the Spanish Civil War depicted by Brecht in “Señora Carrar’s Rifles.” We can also think of Jean Genet’s “Four Hours in Shatila” about the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

But it is quite common that operas may deal with wider social or political questions like the end of feudalism in France, before what was to happen some years later with the French revolution, in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”

It is true it was and still is common in communist regimes like in the USSR or China to use historical events or ideological questions as central arguments in plays, operas, films. It is true the theatrical stage and the movies deal with the historical situation a lot, and television with documentaries can deal with very recent political or historical situations. In the West, we seem to think that opera is supposed to remain detached from direct political events. We can note it has become a fad in the West today to present all composition by Shostakovich, or other Russian composers, with a more or less long litany on Stalin’s dictatorship, which is frankly out of place because it has no value whatsoever on the quality of the music.

So you can imagine the reactions in the West when this opera came out and it could even have been considered as typically American with their exacerbated nationalism and patriotism. And yet, as we are going to see, this opera is a lot more complex and rich than just that praising the wisdom of American leaders in the present world. Some say it is a masterpiece of American music and opera. We might get to a more complex vision and assessment at the end of this review.

THE MUSIC

The music is first of all striking by what some call its minimalism. It is based on short sequences of notes that are repeated over and over again and are the very basis of the composition. The opera, for instance, starts with an eight beat tempo over seven notes and one silent beat and this musical phrase is just hammered into us hundreds of times, with variations up and down the scale and from one instrument to another. This is only one example. There are hundreds of such tempos in the opera and yet to reduce the music to that would be faulty because these rhythmic sequences of notes that vary from two or three up to seven or eight beats are used in two different ways.

First of all, the opening eight beat seven note sequence little by little goes into the background of a more melodious music that develops in the foreground to the point, for this rhythmic sequence, of being merged into this melodious façade. The second treatment of such rhythmic repetitive phrases is that several different phrases can occur in the same scene and they overlap, superimpose themselves over one another, create some at times chaotic polyrhythmic construction that expresses or supports a chaotic political situation in the concerned scene. It is true though these very overpowering sequences are constantly present, in a way or another, and they have a mesmerizing effect that becomes subliminal after a while. We do not listen to them anymore but we hear them and our understanding of the plot is literally mastered — and formatted — by these sequences.

MINIMALISM AND HUMAN EXPERIENCE

But I would like to insist on another aspect of this minimalist technique and music. It corresponds to an experience of modern life in modern society. We are constantly swallowed up by various rhythms in us and around us, in every single of our activities or actions, and these rhythms are multiple, constantly crisscrossing one another, totally overpowering and unconscious and yet formatting us entirely into what we are: polyrhythmic beings that could not survive one minute if these tempos and rhythmic patterns disappeared. The matrix of them has to do with our being Homo Sapiens, the bipedal fast running long distance species we are and that implies we have to constantly coordinate several physiological rhythms of ours: the heart, the breathing, the legs, the arms, and the whole body. It is when these different rhythms are brought together and coordinated that we experience the highest level of satisfaction, fulfillment, and pleasure. The basic activity that is constructed around such a rare moment of absolute coordination is human sex, which by the way is basically animal in nature, though human in mental power.

Minimalist music had antecedents in the first thirty years of the 20th century with Stravinsky, Prokofiev and many others, and not all Russian. It corresponds to the emergence of industrial suburban life in big cities. Ballet dancing is in itself such an elaboration with dancers coordinating their own movements, each dancer their various limb movements for example, and the various dancers with pas-de-deux for one example. Ballet dancing could also work on the opposition of such rhythmic construction and the lack of coordination between two or more dancers could become significant and signifying. And that comes from very far in human history since dancing is a very old human activity, even if it mostly worked on coordination (like in the old minuet) but did not ban confrontation.

MESMERIZING RHYTHM

We know this aspect of our modern life was marvelously depicted by Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” showing how industrial gestures and rhythms could become obsessive compulsive and thus overpowering, though yet and always significant and signifying in any situation, including the sexual innuendo of the scene when Charlie Chaplin performs his screwing gesture with a woman in the street.

Just as this rhythmic opportunistic and circumstantial composition is constantly present in our daily life, including with music nowadays and the constant sonorous presence of musical rhythms and compositions in our environment, both personal and social, it is also mesmerizing, hypnotic, unconscious and subliminal. We all know we have some musical rhythms and phrases that come back in our consciousness without knowing where they come from. This type of subliminal formatting is constantly used by advertising, both on the radio and on television. This opera is absolutely typical of our age and the rhythmic minimalism is fundamental, but we do not capture it after a while, though our unconscious mind captures without counting the binary, ternary, quaternary and so on patterns. The traditional symbolism of these rhythmic patterns is lost in our modern world though in the Christian tradition every single one had a meaning and our Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals or churches were built on such numerical symbolism.

We are thus manipulated in real life by such rhythmic patterns that have some deep unconscious meaning that we do not control anymore, if ever. In this opera we let ourselves be transported by this subliminal rhythmic background but it informs our understanding of the opera itself.

THE LANGUAGE

That’s where the language can be brought in because the use of the language in this opera is often going that rhythmic way and creates patterns that are no longer symbolic but that have a deep resonance in us: these patterns reverberates in us without us knowing it. Let’s take some examples. In Act I Scene three Chou sings:

“From vision to inheritance

From vision to inheritance

From vision

From vision

From vision to inheritance”

We can see the patterns that can be rendered with “from vision” = A and “to inheritance” = B as being AB — AB — A — A — AB. It is essential because Chou speaks of the vision of the past revolution and then the present inheritance that kills the revolution. In his vision, there is little future except the managing and processing of this inheritance. That’s a particularly pessimistic vision emphasized by the singing pattern.

Nixon actually answers Chou with another pattern:

“We must seize the hour

We must seize the hour

We must seize the hour

We must seize the hour

And seize the day”

In the same way, we have a pattern that can be rendered if “we must” = A, “seize” = B, “the hour” = C and “the day” = D as follows: ABC — ABC — ABC — and BD. The value is purely opportunistic and circumstantial on Nixon’s side. No vision, no inheritance, just an opportunity that must not be missed because it “makes history” as he says. He has some sense of the future but without any vision at all, without any project, just the future for the future’s sake.

This use of language is extremely present in the whole opera.

THE BALLET IN THE OPERA

We could take another example which is a lot vaster since it concerns the whole Scene two of Act II, the “Red Detachment of Women” ballet which is provided with a text to be sung on an original music by John Adams, not the original Chinese music of the ballet by Huang Zhun. The text is mostly long sequences of iambic dimeters with variations on the iambic pattern that turns trochaic here and there, at times slightly more complex. The singing and the music emphasize this linguistic pattern or linguistic patterns. Let’s give one example: the first Chorus:

“How thin you are!

If every scar

On this poor back

Could only speak

These walls would crack

This thick-walled heart

Cast in the dirt

Would raise the cry

Hate tyranny!”

We can note how the opening trochee of the seventh line emphasizes the meaning: the downtrodden Ching-Hua. In the same way, the final line with the unorthodox rhythm of two stressed syllables and two unstressed syllables stands out as a slogan, a motto, like in a demonstration.

Those are only examples of how the language is formerly made significant beyond the words themselves.

We can now turn to the characters and the “political” meaning of the opera.

CHIANG CH’ING

The first act starts with the chorus singing some simple mottos taken directly from the Little Red Book of the Quotations of Chairman Mao Tse Tung (today’s Mao Zedong) you can check it at http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/works/red-book/. Nixon on arrival sounds confused in his political vision when he says: “We live in an unsettled time. Who are our enemies?” and then he turns paranoid when he adds: “The rats begin to chew the sheets. . . Nobody is a friend of ours.” Then he meets Mao. Mao then stands as a philosopher when he says: “My business is philosophy” and when he greets Kissinger as “the philosopher.” But at the same time, he says “I back the man who’s on the right” meaning on the right and not in the right as Kissinger suggests. And he clearly explains: “The line we take now is a paradox. Among the followers of Marx, the extreme left, the doctrinaire, tend to be fascist.” This sounds more like John Adams’ opinion, but it is amplified by a heavily repeated sentence that expresses Mao’s total disillusionment at the end of his life, placid and (maybe) cynical contemplation of events: “Founders come first, then profiteers.” We are just after the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing, present later on is over-powerful if not all-powerful.

This Chiang Ch’ing (today’s Jiang Qing) is called “that tasty little starlet” by Mao. She came in 1938 in his life and survived him. She was sentenced to death, a sentence that was commuted to life imprisonment in 1983 and she committed suicide in 1991. She was Mao’s fourth wife and a typical manipulator till the end. The opera more or less presents her as an orthodox sectarian fundamentalist of Mao’s thinking with her presentation herself at the end of Act II as follows:

“I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung

Who raised the weak above the strong

When I appear the people hang

Upon my words, and for his sake

Whose wreaths are heavy round my neck

I speak according to the book”

John Adams includes his own meaning here with the line cut after “hang” and the double meaning it has then which is emphasized by the “wreaths” three lines later. The last line is repeated ad nauseam. The whole set of six lines is repeated a few lines later and the Chorus will close the act with a final repetition of this last sentence. The “book” is the Little Red Book of course and at the same time, you can hear all fundamentalists in any religion or philosophy in this stance, the book being either the Bible, or the Quran, or the Book of Mormon, or Das Kapital, or Scientology: The Fundamentals of Thought. And she will go even further in the present when in the last scene she repeats “The revolution must not end.”

Mao is just the puppet at the end of the strings of this woman. In Act III he explains his recollection of the revolution under the influence, if not the guidance, of his wife when he says twice “Revolution is a boys’ game.” Is it really? Or is it child’s play?

CHOU EN LAI

Chou (today’s Zhou Enlai) is the realist in the situation: he knows Mao’s wife’s adventures (the Cultural Revolution for example) leads to a lot of victims and let us know about it when he says:

“We saw our parents’ nakedness;

Rivers of blood will be required

To cover them. Rivers of blood.”

And near the end he summarizes his own life as follows:

“I have no offspring. In my dreams

The peasants with their hundred names,

Unnamed children and nameless wives

Deaden my footsteps like dead leaves.”

He appears as a complete ghost in this situation, a ghost that more or less represents the peasants who have so many names that they have none, their children who have received no names and their wives who have no names. Note the progression from too many names to no received names and to no names at all. And this Danse Macabre of ghosts brings death in the picture with the pair “deaden. . . dead. . .“ And Chou will close the opera with the following question and his answer:

“How much of what we did was good?

Everything seems to move beyond

Our remedy. Come heal this wound.”

You cannot have a more pessimistic balance sheet from someone who led, in the second position for sure, the Chinese revolution from the beginning till his own death in 1976. And yet the opera closes with a phenomenal contradictory and frightening poetical metaphor that contains all the hope we can grasp in our everyday experience:

“Just before dawn the birds begin,

The warblers who prefer the dark,

The cage-birds answering. To work!

Outside this room the chill of grace

Lies heavy on the morning grass.”

We can see the alliance of the free birds who sing in the night and the caged birds, the slaves who answer the free ones. A metaphor of the revolutionary underground forces who call the slaves and advise them to rebel, to stand up and break the cage. You can feel and sense the “chill of grace,” that chilling tragic moment when history changes, moves forward, transforms itself into the most graceful event that requires “rivers of blood” to be fulfilled.

THE THREE AMERICANS

Then in front of these three characters who are the three American representatives. Kissinger is also playing the landlord’s factotum in the ballet, Lao Szu. He is just a cynical diplomat who tries to get his will through by all means. In the ballet, he is the one who will give the order: “Whip her to death!” He is the one who is negotiating the end of the Vietnam War in Paris, as he is reminded of by Mao, while the war itself is becoming more or more brutal in its last years (three more years to go).

Pat Nixon appears as the total fool who only sees the surface of things. Practically inexistent in Act I, she is central in Act II since she occupies the first half with her three “cultural” visits. She only sees details like a glass elephant that she likes. And she has a long soliloquy which is inconsistent.

“This is prophetic! I foresee

A time will come when luxury

Dissolves into the atmosphere

Like a perfume. . .

. . . Why regret

Life which is so much like a dream,

Let the eternal plan resume. . .”

And seventeen more “let” will follow and all the humdrum clichés of the American society seen as a naturally growing organism with references to “bedroom communities,” “the band,” “the stand-up comedian,” “Gipsy Rose,” “businessmen,” “routine,” “days,” “the sun,” “lovely drivers,” “the farmer,” “passersby,” “them,” “the Statue of Liberty,” “her,” “the Unknown Soldier,” “him,” “The Prodigal,” “the eagle,” “bride and groom,” and the concluding line “let it remain inviolate.” In other words, LET IT, this perfect American cliché or accumulation of clichés, be eternal, never change. Who is she to give that instruction? Of course, no one. She is simply asking some kind of anonymous god to do it. Note the “perfume” that has to be an allusion to the “beauty parlor” she was supposed to visit quite often and where she revealed the secret of the Oval Office she had gathered on the pillow from her husband, the President.

In the ballet she is such a fool that she believes the actress who is “whipped to death” is really “whipped to death” and she drags her husband onto the stage to come to the rescue of the actress. She is like a child who wants to grasp the character or the candy he/she sees on the TV screen.

She is thus a believer who works by the book, the book of the American Dream, of what Chou alluded to in his toast in Act I:

“The virtuous American

And the Chinese make manifest

Their destinies in time. We toast

That endless province whose frontier

We occupy from hour to hour,

Holding in perpetuity

The ground our people won today

From vision to inheritance.

All patriots were brothers once. . .”

RICHARD NIXON

The frontier of the Far West, and China is that Far West beyond the sea. The manifest destiny of Monroe’s doctrine. The American Dream of a world dominated by the USA. And Chou is trying to share it with Nixon who does not pick the metaphor and answers with another dream:

Telecommunication has

Broadcast your message into space.

Yet soon our words won’t be recalled

While what we do can change the world. . .

But let us, in these next five days

Start a long march on new highways,

In different lanes, but parallel

And heading for a single goal.

. . . We

Must seize the hour and seize the day.”

Apart from an allusion if Mao’s Long March, the metaphor is that of the Information Highway that drowns the allusion to Mao’s Long March in some opportunistic stance in front of a media-oriented circumstantial challenge, which has little to do with Saul Bellow’s fourth novel published in 1956. But the original meaning in Horace (Odes 1:11) has to be kept in mind: “While we speak, envious time will have {already} fled: seize the day, put very little trust in the future.” That belittles Nixon’s opportunistic Carpe Diem reference.

So, in the last act and in the last scene of this last act we are not surprised that Pat leads Nixon into speaking of WW2 and his involvement in the Pacific campaign. But it is all reduced to nothing at all, no fighting, no real danger, just let them live and enjoy the adventure. In the very closing scene, Nixon and Pat reminisce how Nixon had organized some typical American food stand in the war. While Chiang Ch’ing is repeating “the revolution must not end” and before Chou’s pessimistic and realistic conclusion on the impotence of human beings in front of history, Nixon is serving “a free burger and a beer” to his military mates? Between the two “the revolution must not end” we have this profound remark from Nixon:

“They called it “Nick’s Snack Shack.” I found

The smell of burgers on the grill

Made strong men cry.”

I thought that real men did not cry, but I must have been mistaken, though to cry for the smell of a hamburger is as trite as trite can be. And his last words will come just before Chou’s pessimistic and realistic conclusion on the impotence of human beings in front of history. Nixon concludes this historical event with:

“Done to a turn;

Rare, medium, well-done, anything

You say. The Customer is King.

Sorry, we’re low on relish. Drinks?

This is my way of saying thanks.”

Welcome consumer’s society! Then what can we conclude?

CONCLUSION

A historical event indeed but history is not in the hands of the men who took part in this event. History has its own logic. Mao is a dreamer manipulated by a fundamentalist wife who speaks by the book, acts by the book, and will end very badly after having caused rivers of blood to be shed while Chou is mopping around this blood to keep it within the river beds. On the other side Kissinger is a cynical diplomatic tyrant while Pat Nixon is a fool attached to superficial illusions and Richard Nixon is an opportunistic self-centered paranoid person reminiscing the past with or for pleasure and “seizing the day” without even knowing what it will bring, manipulated as he is by a modernistic metaphor of the media information highway.

All that developed on this mesmerizing hypnotic minimal rhythmic music engulfing and supporting all melodious moments and linguistic meaning. We are subluminally intimated the overwhelming signification that life is life, time is time, history is history, but we are nothing in that stream of historical unconsciousness. Luckily biologists and physiologists start telling us the human species has reached its maximum natural lifespan. We just have to become mechanized robots to finally go beyond history in the metal scrap yard of tomorrow’s singularity.

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Chinese ballet

Friday, August 29, 2014

It’s a shame Mao is depicted as an invalid sex-obsessed old ranter and raver

JOHN ADAMS — ALICE GOODMAN — PETER SELLARS — THE METROPOLITAN OPERA ORCHESTRA, CHORUS, AND BALLET — JOHN ADAMS conducting — FEBRUARY 12, 2011 live capture — 2012 DVD BLU-RAY DISC — ISBN 075597960884

The first element is that we have here the live capture of the opera on one particular performance, February 12, 2011, as produced by one particular team. The intermissions are used for various interviews and supplementary resources. I must say these short interview of the singers impersonating Richard Nixon, Patricia Nixon, Chou En Lai and Henry Kissinger are not that interesting. Too short and too personal within the performance, so too deeply involved at the time. The singer impersonating Richard Nixon is the one who actually created the role in the very first production of this opera. And he apparently has held this part over and over again.

The short interview with Peter Sellars and John Adams are absolutely useless and do not bring much. The interview of the ex-US-Ambassador to Beijing at the time of Nixon’s visit only tells us this particular production has been enriched with the notes he took at the time and so we learn that some official toasts and conversations are nearly verbatim. The interview of the set-designer Adrianne Lobel pushes aside the idea that the setting was inspired by real pictures of the real event. She does say she remained at a certain distance of these resources.

The very repetitive music of the overture, seven notes, and eight beats, turns the first part of the opening chorus into a prayer mill reciting some mottoes from Mao’s Little Red Book up to the sentence “The people are the heroes now. Behemoth pulls the peasant’s plow.” At this moment the music changes, becomes more melodious and this sentence is repeated over and over again. It is a mantra in a way but not implied by the music this time but by the very repetition of the two sentences.

Richard Nixon is not particularly flattered by this production; When he disembarks from the plane he starts stuttering, stammering and repeating in the most ungraceful and displaced way, words and sentences as if he were a debutante in the political game, as if he were overwhelmed by the situation. This image of a man who is not really in touch with reality is going to be kept all along. When he meets Mao he tries to say a few things to a man who is far beyond any possible contact. Nixon then sounds like improvising some remarks that fall flat on their own faces most of the time, except once when Mao picks Nixon’s expression, “History is our mother,” and distorts it with his retort into “History is a dirty sow.” Later on in the ballet, Nixon is dragged into the action by his wife but even so, he remains on the side of what his wife is doing, which is by the way integrated into the ballet by the stage director and ballet master. His last scene in the third act and his various interventions then are reminiscences from World War II in the Pacific and they are also very pathetic: he is on the verge of crying, he is mollified by the recollections and the story itself is miserable: he transformed a war station into a hamburger joint. At this moment he looks completely corrugated (like the roof of the shanty where he is stationed), inundated with the storm of the rain outside then and of his own memory.

Pat Nixon is just what she is. An innocuous person who has no personal project, who is entirely representative of the standard little middle-class American housewife who finds herself in the position of First Lady and does not seem to be able to cope in any creative and committed way. She makes most of the time off the point remarks like about the glass elephant, which is green ceramic or China actually, that she sees as the symbol of the Republican Party, which is sort of off the point in China and for the Chinese. She imagines it is a unique piece and when she is given the lie about it by the workers who presented the elephant she does not even know what to say. The second mention of the elephant later on when a “real” one, at least by its size, is presented to her is a typical Walt Disney reference to Jumbo, which is an echo of the cartoon character Dumbo. We know what Jumbo was going to become when he got into the jet generation. The worst part for her is when she intervenes in the ballet believing the dancer is really dead. Apparently the stage director was nice and saved her dumbness by integrating her to the ballet and making her the one who presents the glass of some fictional red beverage to the “dead girl” for her to be resuscitated. Her part in the third act is meaningless since she is here only to repeat many times to her husband that he has already told her the story. She is a typical Republican First Lady who has no project of her own and is only the president’s companion trotting behind him. Only Democrat First Ladies actually had something to say and do, at least since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Chou en Lai is shown without any real change in his allure and style. He is the realist pragmatist in the “revolutionary” team, the one who comes behind and mops the rivers of blood. At the end of the second act, after Mrs. Mao has created havoc on the stage by transforming the ballet into a real revolutionary act, he is standing tall in front and over Mrs. Mao, unmoved by her violence, or shouldn’t I say viral virulence, she, holding up in the air the Little Red Book, and he, looking down at her sternly. He is the dam that managed to keep China together and most Chinese alive. But in the last act, Chou En Lai is really changed. He is shown from the start suffering from his pancreatic cancer and, since the stage is only furnished with six beds for Nixon, Pat, Chou, Kissinger (who will excuse himself to the toilet for nearly the whole act), Mao and Mrs. Mao, the six main characters (in this order from left to right), he is shown dying on the bed with a whole set of white lilies being brought and deposited around the foot of his bed, and him lying down, dead, covered up with a red Chinese flag till the last concluding solo when he will come back to life. This death is artificial, is a metaphor, and at the same time is dictated by the future of the event described here. In 1972 he was not yet dead, and this does not add anything to the opera since at this moment if he dies (and Mao is also put to death in the same way) then Mrs. Mao is the only one who survives and there we are creating a tremendous hiatus with history. Does the artistic team want to tell us a story about what happened several years later? Why then is Nixon not shown out of the way too and the Vietnam war concluded with a full defeat? At this moment a strange ideological discourse prevails and seems to show that modern China has fallen in the hands of Mrs. Mao and her supporters. In other words, it completely distorts history since Mrs. Mao will commit suicide after many years in prison due to her death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, since the Maoists will be nicely pushed aside by Deng Xiaoping, and China will start growing at a record speed. This production has not yet digested that Nixon opened up the door, the gate actually, that was going to lead China to what it is today, the second economic power in the world and the leading force of the BRICS and the alliance around the BRICS, the first economic power in the world.

Mao is by far over-presented as a senile quasi-impotent-cum-invalid old man who is ranting and raving, repeating ad nauseam some old mottoes of his transformed into mantras, like “Founders come first, then profiteers,” “Revolution is a boys’ game,” “The revolution must go on,” and a few others. He is even presented as an old dirty sex obsessed lubricious freak who uses his secretaries (three, mind you) as sex toys for his own masturbation. His recollection of Mrs. Mao when she was a young actress who got into his life in 1938 leads to a sex scene on the beds in the third act. Does this add anything to the character? It sure makes him look like a dirty boar echoing the dirty sow that history is according to one of his mantras. But is this sexual innuendo and real reference a motivation for Mao in this historical period and event? It only more or less blurs the real motivations and the fact that history is not made by human beings. This production loses this meaning: only fools can believe they are making history. The over-emphasis of the sexual obsession of Mao in the third act makes us lose the philosophical under-meaning or at times front-meaning of what Mao may say. The end of the opera then becomes absolutely messy and meaningless, in spite of the last intervention of Chou En Lai who concludes the opera on a both poetical and realist note. In fact, this last soliloquy by Chou is the real meaning of the opera: it is the alliance of the free birds who sing at dawn, still in the dark, underground, and the caged birds, the prisoners, the slaves that will bring the future, maybe. And yet this metaphor of the future brings up a “chill of grace.” Grace comes from the fact that human beings are part of the history they do not control but that carries them through time or rather duration. The chill comes from the fact that realistically Chou knows history will be able to come only if many rivers of blood are abundantly provided to wash away the horror and the suffering of the victims of exploitation and liberation. The sexual meaning added to Mao’s presence in this third act is wiping away the meaning that a good revolutionary leader needs to lean on some volunteers who have no pangs of no conscience and on some realists who will try to keep these volunteers within some acceptable limits, though it will not mean no bloodshed along the way.

Mrs. Mao is a vain, superficial fundamentalist that sees revolution and change as havoc, necessarily and compulsorily. It is not change if it is not havoc and what’s more a good old bloody havoc at that. There the opera is more than clear, and this production pushes that havoc at the end of the second act, after the ballet, at the end of the ballet, to some extreme form more or less justified at this moment. Unluckily the third act goes on with this vision by introducing the dancing couple of the male soldier and the resuscitated female victim, dressed in red mind you, behind the six beds at first and then in front. This is a link to the second act and Mrs. Mao is thus bringing sexual havoc in Mao himself by literally encouraging him to get one of his secretary to sexually satisfy him, in front of her, Mrs. Mao, and then by entering the same sexual game with him directly. This is not a case of literary creative freedom as some insisted in the interviews, but it is a case of diluting the deeper meaning into a superficial meaning that cuts off all depth in Chou En Lai’s concluding soliloquy. In front of such havoc caused by the anarchistic fundamentalists with no possible restraint, there is only one possible vision: history itself and the cosmos with it are out of joint. It is not something rotten in the kingdom of Denmark but it is something rotten in the cosmic order that controls us entirely.

It is true that Nixon then in his final hamburger enterprise in the US armed forces in WWII appears like and as a victory. The Customer is really the king of the show, capitalism is really the victor of the comedy, ego-centered selfishness is really the master of our human tragedy that is thus turned into a melodramatic weeping and crying dereliction.

A great production but slightly — only slightly, you say? — warped out of shape. The hope that event brought to us in 1972 and the new energy it provided us with to force the defeat in Vietnam and to support Angela Davis in her trial and the Black Panthers, in general, is wiped out with a rag engorged with blood and sperm. I regret that lack of historical seriousness, if not depth. Is modern Homo Sapiens regressing to the state of not-yet-development of Neanderthals? I am afraid so. The customer of the opera in the west is the king of the performance: the creator does not create but satisfies the needs and desires of the critics and the audience (not the people since only a very narrow minority of the people go to the opera, even within the DVD revolution that widens the audience but does not make it a majority of the people).

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The Other, alter ego, doppelganger of Nixon

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Chinese Communism has deep roots in rural class struggle

XIE JIN — THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN — 1961

The story is interesting in two ways.

First, the position of women in the revolutionary army and in the Communist Party of China is in many ways ahead of its time in the 1930s and in China in the 1960s. It is a highly pro-women discourse that does not simply integrate women in the revolutionary army but integrates them with their own battalions and army, the Women Army, as the subtitles say. They are thus separate and equal. We would criticize this today but in older times that was the recognition of the singularity of women, of their special needs and their special potential.

On that point, the film goes as far as having a wedding in this revolutionary army and a subsequent birth. The baby is the baby of the Women Army as a whole. Women are thus celebrated as life givers. At the same time, they play a crucial role in the final defeat of the landowners and the Kuomintang armed forces by moving in at the right moment to prevent the flight of the main landowner who is accused of exploiting people and putting them in slavery.

The second interest is quite different since it is the main orientation of the Communist Party at the time. It is the simple division of the world, of society between landowners on one hand and peasants and workers on the other. A volunteer who wants to join the revolutionary army and a person who wants to join the Communist Party had to fulfill one condition first and foremost: they could not be in any way the owner of some land. Landowners are thus treated as a social class, as the antagonistic social class of the working class, both peasants, and workers.

This explains the total nationalization of land in China. Note that is the Soviet model but China pushed it as far as stating that the land is the property of the people, hence of the state whereas the Soviet model considered the land to be the property of the Kolkhoz, the cooperative body of farm workers who took control of the land in a village or a district. They also had Sovkhozes in which the land was the property of the Soviet state, but these were only a small minority of farming units. The cooperative model was extended to all communist countries except Poland. In China, they went slightly farther since the land was by definition the collective property of the people and hence controlled by the state.

This led to some extreme practices. During the Cultural Revolution, all those who were considered as deviant were sent to some detention terms in distant rural communities to be re-educated by working in the fields as plain farm workers. Intellectuals were the privileged target of this practice. These re-education prisons or centers have just been closed in China. This led to the extreme practice of the Red Khmers in Cambodia and to the deportation of all urban inhabitants to the countryside and at the same time to the tremendous genocidal killing of millions of people.

In China this state control of the land that has no private owner has been reformed by introducing at first individual permits to individual people for them to till a certain section of land and the accompanying right to be able to choose the crops they wanted to grow and to sell their crops in a way or another for their own profit. At first, these permits could not be given or sold: they were absolutely attached to one person, and his family. The authorities recently changed the system and authorized the possibility to sell these permits other people who already had one such permit to enable, among other things, people to move to the cities and to industrial, administrative and commercial activities, and to permit the development of bigger farm units to promote mechanization and hence increase productivity and boost the production itself. The new problem is that some people working on these bigger units will necessarily be farm workers working for a farm owner, a person who owns the farm producing unit but does not own the land on which his farm unit works.

Modern China is thus the result of these old fights and struggles against landowners who were real tyrants and practiced slavery, or at least feudalism by reducing farm workers to the status of serfs.

The ballet derived from this historical episode will be made world famous because Nixon will go to one performance when he visited China and John Adams made it a central episode of his opera “Nixon in China.”

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The future stands in women

Saturday, September 06, 2014

This ballet was quite ahead of its time and has become a Chinese classic

Wangchun ShiHongwei Dai — THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN — 1970

First, it is an old story that was brought to the cinema in 1960 by Xie Jin. It refers to an episode of the Communist struggle in China in the 1930s. It clearly identifies landowners as the class enemy and the Kuomintang as their political and military allies. On the other hand, it is the alliance of the proletarian farm workers and industrial workers that is led to victory by the Chinese Communist Party. The second element here is that two composers are attached to this ballet, Wangchun Shi and Hongwei Dai, though it is not asserted by everyone and some sources closer to the Maoist tradition seem to consider there was no composer per se.

Then we have to speak of the music. The instruments are all European instruments and not traditional Chinese instruments. This ballet moves ballet music from traditional Chinese music to more European or western canons: harmony, melody, the scale and most other composing elements are just in that European style. We can even here and there hear some discreet echoes of some western tunes, and of course, the International that is played twice. This is the main trait of this music: it could very easily be played in the West because the really Chinese elements are rare, except the chorus around the 65th minute which really sounds Chinese. I must admit though the music is often slightly overbearing and pompous. Even the very sentimental scenes of the films have been cut off and the more sentimental music along with them, for instance, the birth of the baby or the wedding.

The ballet is itself very original, and this time including for the west. The costumes of the women and men are no longer revolutionary because the tutus are today very obsolete in modern compositions and they are even getting obsolete for modern productions of traditional western ballets. More and more dancers are wearing costumes that represent their parts and hence are becoming meaningful about the story itself. It is maybe true that in 1964 the loss of the tutu was far from being won, and it is true it is still overused in ballet classes, for girls. We could also speak of ballet slippers, and there this ballet does not innovate that much, especially for women.

It innovates a lot on the style, on the choreography. There is plenty of traditional classical dancing, even if men are not carrying women and if women are strong enough to carry light-weight wooden guns. But this classical dancing is associated quite often with some more modern or contemporary dancing that avoids the classical steps and is more “improvised” or natural as for the steps and the allures. But there is another aspect that is very important. The body and facial language is extremely widely and constantly used and it is very expressive. In fact, it is inspired by the conventions and expressive styles developed by the greatest silent cinema directors and actors. They speak with their hands, arms, legs and a lot more than just a raised fist, and their faces are constantly expressing sentiments and emotions, crying even, and it is not only the way the head is set, postured, erected but also the eyes and the mouth are speaking to us. This body and facial language is part of the ballet and that is of course extremely new in 1964. Rare were the dancers who did it and rare were the choreographers who would have insisted on such elements as being central in the show.

My last remark is about special effects, particularly to have full-blown battles on a stage. Instead of having a full mess and melee the mass of dancers is limited to a very decent number on each side and the choreography remains extremely neat and very fast these confrontations are reduced to groups of six, five or less keeping thus the confrontation to a very well organized construction. The special effects then are necessary with all kinds of shooting and explosions, often not happening on stage but watched from the stage down in the countryside or the valley. The execution of Hong Changqing, the Communist Party Branch secretary, climbing himself on the pyre while the International is being played and then the fire that burns him to death is simple and a lot more impressive than any other treatment of such an event because it remains dignified, and it is transformed into some kind of sanctification at the end, after the victory, with a red light on the tree where Hong Changqing was burnt to death and while once again the International is being played all the soldiers, male and female, are assembled in proper order standing at attention facing the tree and turning their backs on the audience. It has some kind of mystic or mythic dimension.

This high level of dramatic action realistically brought up by all visual means available was very modernistic for its time, though today it has aged a little. Angelin Preljokaj produces a great lot of such ballet choreography, and he is not the only one.

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A Tremendous opera on crossing Islamic and Jewish visions

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Neither anti-Semitic nor pro-Palestinian

JOHN ADAMS — THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER — ORCHESTRA OF THE OPÉRA DE LYON — 1991 — ELEKTRA NONESUCH — 1992

“Well, it for sure didn’t strike some people as neutral. You know The Death of Klinghoffer was picketed by the Jewish Information League when it was done in San Francisco and I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the reviews that came out like the one in the Wall Street Journal.”

I won’t go further and I won’t even discuss John Adams’s assertion then that it was neutral on the antagonism between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Twenty years later it does not seem to be that neutral but it does not seem to be anti-Semitic either, nor very pro-Palestinian. The question is very hot today and we cannot be neutral on the subject and I would say that the presentation of the conflict is rather balanced though leaning rather towards the Palestinian side without really being anti-Semitic, not pro-Palestinian. The remarks I am going to make are explaining that seemingly ambiguous position, though I could accept the fact that other people might see things differently.

Let’s look at the Prologue and at the various Choruses. The Prologue is composed of two choruses: “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” and “Chorus of Exiled Jews.” Then the “Ocean Chorus” at the end of Act I Scene 1; the “Night Chorus” at the end of Act I Scene 2; the “Hagar Chorus” at the beginning of Act II; the “Desert Chorus” at the end of Act II Scene 1; the “Day Chorus” at the end of Act II Scene 2. Note the absence of a chorus at the end of the opera (Act II Scene 3).

Many people say these choruses go by pairs: the first two, then the crossed pairs of ocean-desert and night-day. With the “Hagar Chorus” at the center of these latter four choruses. We can also notice that they are antagonistic pairs, except the “Hagar Chorus” that does not have his doppelganger. But this is only on the surface.

The first chorus is about the forced exile of Palestinians who are expelled from Palestine, or part of Palestine by Israelis, in fact only Jews at that moment, arriving at what was to become Israel. Palestinians had a home and a motherland and they were expelled, made refugees by the new arrivals. On the other hand, Jews arriving from Europe had just been deprived of a lot during the previous ten or fifteen years and they took possession of what was not theirs in the name of Zion and the fact that they would be the descendants of this Zion. In other words, the land they had been forced to leave at the beginning of the Christian Era by the Romans after various riots after the death of James, the brother of Jesus, in 62 BCE and then later on at the beginning of the second century, riots which led to the destruction of the temple first and then later on the destruction of the walls of the city of Jerusalem and the banishment of all Jews, this land is considered by them as theirs. For nineteen centuries the land which was theirs up to their banishment would have been kept and taken care of by the non-Jews who were not banished but who had been the servants and the serfs and even the slaves of the Jews before. So the Jews after the Second World War arrived with little, grabbed the land and prospered. The antagonism is historical, global and very old. It is just reenacted by the Zionist decision to call the Jews back “home.”

But they are brothers, these Israelis and these Palestinians who speak various Semitic languages. True enough, but they are brothers like with Abraham’s two sons, one from his Jewish wife and the other from his Arab slave, or servant if you prefer. But she is banished with her newborn and she nearly dies of thirst, and her son too, in the desert. This version of Hagar’s banishment by Abraham makes the whole opera lean towards the Palestinians as if being banished by the Jews happened after WWII a second time in history, and what’s more the first time happened in Biblical scriptures. And this duality was God’s decision:

“Of this child too I will make a nation.”

And this banishment was a manumission. Hagar was liberated with her son with the only fate of dying in the desert, probably to prevent God’s decision to become a reality. But there is always an angel when it is needed by all mythologies, and there was one here too with Ishmael like there was one with Isaac. That’s where I say John Adams is not neutral at all since he states the conflict and competition and hostility between the two peoples God himself decided to establish is of divine nature and very old, and the two peoples are not equal, or as equal as Abel and Cain in God’s eyes. Then we are justified in wondering if the composer leans to one side.

And he does.

Ishmael does not have his doppelganger Isaac in the opera. Palestinians were banished twice by Jews, in the prologue and at the beginning of the second act. Obviously, Jews were not banished from the Levant by Palestinians but by Romans and Roman Legions. We could wonder if we could consider the Final Solution, or Shoah, as a second banishment concluding a twenty-century long segregation and even cyclical partial extermination. But Palestinians are in no way responsible for that. The opera clearly states in these choruses that the Palestinian lot is not at all symmetrical to the Jewish lot. The scales tip to one side quite obviously.

The next question to ask is now concerned by the present time situation. And that is another story.

The “Ocean Chorus” brings the tale back to the primeval expanse of water under eternal night from which Adam and Eve are going to be brought up by God himself. The origin is unique and the same for everyone. Told like that the rivalry between the descendants of Ishmael and the descendants of Isaac is not explained, is unexplainable.

The “Night Chorus that follows is a movement back to that distant past but this time after the two peoples had parted because we are in the days of 1 Kings, a long time after Abraham and on the Jewish side, and the opera brings there more or less under the belief of Jews (which sounds strange) a trinity that is very suspicious.

“Elijah will return, the Jews believe, the Antichrist condemn, the Messiah judge; . . .”

We can note the chronology of the three characters: Elijah, Antichrist, Messiah. How can the Antichrist come before Christ himself who is the Messiah, though we could consider the Messiah is the Jewish Messiah and not Jesus Christ, but then who is the Antichrist? The trinity is suspicious too because it is Christian and not Jewish. Then comes the Last Judgment, Judgment Day, Doomsday which is in our mind more connected with John’s Book of Revelation, than with the Old Testament (in spite of Ezekiel and Isaiah). At this moment in the opera, we are in the night for sure because all references to Judaism and to Christianity get mixed and bringing that debate into the picture is leading to the conclusion of this chorus: salvation for anyone after the end of this world is going to be arbitrary and God’s decision only. And that leads to another trinity that is frightening in itself:

“I am afraid for myself, for myself, for myself”

The trinity of fear has little to do with Judaism since a Jew accepts God’s decisions no matter what they may be, a Muslim accepts, in the same way, God’s decision though one can hasten this decision by fighting for God’s glory and dying for God, but a Christian does not have any trinity of fear because they believe they will be judged on what they have done in life, and only on that. What’s more, it does not fit the Christian vision to individualize that much the future after death and after Doomsday: the congregation, the ekklesia of the faithful. At this moment I consider the opera has lost its references to the ethnic, religious and historical situation we are dealing with. All the more because after this chorus and after the intermission the second act is going to start with the “Hagar Chorus” that brings us to the initial banishment of the Palestinians, or Arabs as they were called at the time, by the Jews. I must say the final declaration of Hagar is particularly powerful:

“My son will die as a free man on his own land.”

She is manumitted but the land is her own and she wants to die on that land of hers.

The next chorus, the “Desert Chorus,” amplifies the desert in which Hagar and her son were bound to die if the angel had not intervened. In this chorus the desert itself structures and formats life, thinking and behavior.

“Is not their desert the garden of the Lord?

. . . The hunters shall go hungry tonight . . .

As if it [the earth, or even stars-moon-sky-earth] had turned itself away from the world

To leap like a fountain in the mind of God.”

The desert is everything and the fountain in the mind of God becomes the dream, the expectation, the promise to find one day in that desert the Persian rose, yellow and red, the rose from Iran, a Shia Muslim country for sure (though Shia is the minority reference in Islam as opposed to Sunni) but from another culture since they speak an Indo-European language and not a Semitic language. Once again here the vision is that of Islam but with mixed references and we must keep in mind the Palestinians have three religions, Shia and Sunni Islam and Christianity (as a generic reference to various affiliations). The Jewish religion has only been brought back there over the last century.

And we come to the “Day Chorus” that brings the ship and her passengers back to Egypt. It is the most confused and maelstrom-like vision of a country that is well taken care of and cultivated but yet a woman was there and she was wearing a dark veil and then she was pushed underground and there with a voice coming from deep in the ground “broken cement and sand slide into the hole” and it is going to drown this underground voice coming from that woman they like and have banned underground. Once again we see here the fate of those who are pushed away or under by the Israelis who are cultivating the land.

When you see these choruses in a sequential approach, you then can consider the real story of what the real event is. The real event is the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro. The events and even the words of the Captain or his mate are directly taken from the Memoir the Captain of the ship actually wrote after the event and John Adams said in 1995 in the above-quoted interview that they had a photocopy of that Memoir available all the time in some kind of English translation:

“David Beverly: Do you know if Alice Goodman used Gerardo De Rosa’s . . .

John Adams: Memoirs? Absolutely. Is that book available now?

David Beverly: In Italian.

John Adams: No, there is somebody who did an English version of it because I remember having that while I was composing. Somebody had translated it and we had a Xeroxed typescript of it. Now I don’t know if it ever got published or not, but that whole Captain’s monologue [from the opening of Act I, scene 1.] is largely taken from his memoirs. It’s amazing how Alice took his words and then put it into beautiful poetry.

This hijacking is a political action with military force that we call today a terrorist act. The political motivations of such acts do not change the qualification of the act. The Palestinians appear to be “cool” at the beginning but very fast things change when they start sorting out the passengers and extracting Americans, British citizens and Jews. They want some kind of political benefit from this action that has to be negotiated with Syria and the second in Command of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Mahmoud Abbas (the present Chairman of the PLO), but this fails and they understand very fast that killing the passengers one by one every fifteen minutes will not make anyone move. So they come back to Egypt, disembark and disappear leaving the passengers and the crew behind. They had killed one Jewish man, a crippled person who was in a wheelchair and the opera closes on a long lamentation of his wife. And those concluding words are sinister in meaning particularly applied to humanity:

“Suffering is certain.

The remembered man

Rising from my heart

Into the world to come,

It is he whom

The Lord will redeem

When I am dead.

I should have died.

If a hundred

People were murdered

And their blood

Flowed in the wake

Of this ship like

Oil, only then

Would the world intervene.

They should have killed me.

I wanted to die.

I wanted to die.”

We note the husband will not be redeemed as long as his wife is not dead. That’s a Jewish superstition I guess. And out of love for him, his wife wants to be dead but she cannot kill herself and she regrets she has not been killed like him. And the world can only be moved if the blood poured in the ocean becomes oil. Oil is the only incentive resource that will make the world react to anything. This is of course not gratuitous and it is political.

So I think all elements show the opera is balanced but not neutral. It is in fact extremely pessimistic about Palestine in particular but also about humanity in general. But the Biblical roots of the problem make this problem unsolvable. Thus the opera is pessimistic about the future of humanity if humanity has a future, and that’s probably why it was so successful, so influential even. Over the last thirty years or so, maybe some more, definitely since the first oil crisis of 1973 the Middle East has become the geopolitical center of practically all serious problems, especially after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. In the West, there is a morbid fascination for unsolvable problems provided they remain limited in space. As for time it does not matter. The civil war in Sri Lanka lasted 30 years or so and very few people cared till Sri Lanka was discovered as being the perfect hub for maritime commerce in the Indian Ocean by China.

The West is always speaking of human rights of course, but in the rest of the world of course, because the fact that young black males are shot dead, armed or unarmed, week after week, by white cops, or at times black cops in the US is not a human right problem. The song has changed a little bit after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, but has the music changed at all? It still has the sound of bullets being shot.

Speaking of music this opera is fascinating. John Adams is becoming a very rich composer who can shift from extremely hard hammering short sequences of notes repeated for minutes and minutes, to very melodious at time sweet and nearly romantic music, or to some fluid aerial light nearly psychedelic sequences. The singing can vary from “Sprechgesang and Sprechstimme” to melodious singing and to extremely rapid and rhythmic utterances that become even difficult to follow. The use of repetitions is extremely important to emphasize some words, phrases, and passages. Personally, I do not like the German words I just used, since that kind of musical diction between speaking and singing was vastly used by Bach and many others as recitative. We seem to forget it is Mozart and Handel who made these recitatives musically equal to the arias and duets, getting the opera out of the quasi-operas of Purcell in which the operatic parts were only operatic episodes between the acts and scenes of a play. On the French soil, Molière used that structure with Charpentier for His “Le Malade Imaginaire” whereas Thomas Corneille used his brother Pierre Corneille’s tragedy Médée to produce an opera in which there are long sections of recitative in the style of Bach’s Passions.

Nevertheless, John Adams uses this recitative tone or technique (note it has always been present in jazz and it is the root of rap and hip-hop oratorical styles) a lot and can change the dramatic color vastly from one piece to the next, even to the point of having a quasi-crazy tarantella with the British Dancing Girl. She is on the fast and even very fast trance rhythm of the polyrhythmic music of the African Americans who have kept their African traditions. Have you ever danced on that fast rhythm you find in all African American soul music? You should try one day and you will see that you can reach a trace without any rum. The British dancing girl should be Jamaican.

One major opera of this century, or the end of the previous one, by one composer who is ahead of his time because he can plunge his roots into the oldest traditions and associate them to subjects that are immediately in the news of this modern world of ours. He probably reaches some kind of perennial inspiration that transcends borders and decades.

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The film is a mutilation of the opera

Friday, September 26, 2014

This film betrays the opera with the benediction of the composer

JOHN ADAMS — THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER — LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA — CONDUCTED BY JOHN ADAMS — DIRECTED BY PENNY WOOLCOCK — 2003 — DVD

This is not a filmed opera production but a film shot and constructed on the basis of the opera by John Adams. You will be disappointed because the music is not kept entirely the way it should be. Some passages are cut off, like the Ocean and the Desert Choruses, and the Hagar Chorus has been replaced by some TV presentation that is not in the line of the original opera since it introduces Isaac in a chorus — which is not a chorus anymore — that was exclusively centered on Hagar and Ishmael. This does not balance the tale. This betrays the tale as we are going to see. The worst adaptation/distortion is the use of plain-spoken words and sentences instead of the sung equivalent. These sections that are no longer sung are just not in the line of the opera which was sung from beginning to end, even if with some sections sounding more like a dirge with a recitative feel, but it was entirely sung.

The second remark is that to add pictures to the music, pictures that are not the direct stage work of the singers makes the film very difficult to understand. A film of that type is visual first of all and since we are visual dominant we see these added images first and they dominate the rest, the music, the words and the real setting. The film is thus overloaded with newsreels about the Shoah, the deportation, and extermination of Jews by the Nazis; with visions of the Jews arriving in Palestine and hunting the Palestinians out and banishing them brutally out of their villages and houses that are taken over by the thousands of arriving Jews in their mass exodus to the Israel of the old times, and in such scene of appropriation of what is not theirs, of homes that belonged to other families the sex sequence in the bed of those expelled Palestinians of a survivor of a Nazi death camp identified by his number on his arm and the whipping scars on his back is a real mental crime against the Palestinians and against the Jews, a desecration of this bed and house. The Jews were captured by the Nazis, extracted from their homes that were looted by anyone who wanted to and by the SS and Gestapo for the enrichment of the Reich, and then they were deported to camps where they were supposed to die and it is clearly shown to us in the film. And here we have the vision of exactly the same thing done to the Palestinians by people who had suffered the Nazi persecutions. It looks like a compensation for the evil they had suffered. This is strongly accusatory towards these Zionist Jews. I was stolen my purse yesterday by a punk. So today I steal the purse of the first person I meet in the street. An eye for an eye, but on a third party collateral victim.

The text contains clear mentions of such facts, particularly in the prologue, but the images multiply the impact of, these words, and what’s more these images do not intervene only then but do intervene in other places in the opera, hence repetitively. The director of the film knows perfectly well that repetition is subliminal.

In the same way the very graphic images of the expulsion of the Palestinians, of the colonial control and exploitation of the Palestinians, of the horrific life and also death of the Palestinians in the various refugee camps that we can imagine are Sabra and Shatila give the other side of this arrival of the Jews in Palestine based on the Balfour declaration that suggested the parting of Palestine to give a section of this region to the Jews to create a state of their own. The worst part of this image accompaniment of the text is that the images are often in contradiction with the text. When the Jewish lot is evoked by the text it is illustrated with graphic images of the Palestinian fate and vice versa. This gives to the Jewish suffering before, in Europe, in the hands of the Europeans, a weight and value that is a lot more important than what it was in the original opera. At the same time, the similar providing of graphic images of the suffering of the Palestinians at the hands of the Jews in Palestine emphasizes this suffering that had been kept under control in the libretto. It then becomes completely wild and, particularly at the end the imagined meeting of the “terrorists” in Gaza in 2003, one in a chauffeured car and two reduced to practically disjointed and ineffective retarded people, does not show much except that their future can be good or bad but always locked up in a surrounding misery that makes this fate totally surreal. In other words, we are far from the original opera.

But I want to insist on the cutting of the two choruses: The Ocean Chorus and the Desert Chorus. The first one was going back to the very genesis of humanity in the primeval water expanse in total darkness before creation, the creation of Adam and Eve, of one source for humanity that is then constantly shown in the opera as divided in two as a decision of God himself who seems to have wanted a dual or bipolar world that is easier to control. Originally the whole humanity was one and that was the vision of the opera modulated later by the Hagar Chorus into two and yet centered only on one: Hagar and the Arabs. Yet thanks to the Hagar Chorus and its being replaced by a news report or news commentary on some TV set on the ship in front of the passengers and the hijackers explaining the two sons and the fate of Hagar and her son banished as soon as Abraham’s wife was able to bear a child in her old age, the whole shebang is purely flown into smoke. They even go as far as recalling the fact that the slave Hagar was given to Abraham by his wife because she could not bear children. And the two sons are only presented as the founders of two religions. The original opera only insists on Hagar, on God’s project concerning her son, to create another religion, and the cruel decision of Abraham banishing her and her child, just like the arriving Jews banished the Palestinians from Palestine. In the film, the Hagar distorted tale is there to call for love between the two communities in the name of the fact they are cousins. The meaning of the Hagar Chorus has thus been changed completely and that is a shame.

The absence of the Desert Chorus is also regrettable. It explained how the Palestinians lived in the desert, from the desert, entirely formatted and constructed by, for and from the desert with an enormous contrast then with the Day Chorus when the country is showed as cultivated from the top of the mountain to the bank of the river and how a veiled woman has been pushed underground and is going to be drowned into cement and other debris. The veiled woman is the Palestinians and the presently cultivated wasteland of old is Israel. The original opera is showing how Israel has buried the Palestinians under their rich agriculture. We have lost that, that vision of a rich country built and constructed on the banished and hidden previous occupying people that haunts the land. The film preferred graphic images of the 2003 present which has nothing to do with the original opera and is totally anachronistic and — that is the worst part — it changes the ideological and political meaning of the opera.

We could multiply examples like the opening scene with Mrs. Klinghoffer confronted to the four arrested hijackers and spitting in the face of one of them is vain, narrow-minded and it shows the extreme hatred that Jewish woman can nourish in her heart if she has a heart. This opening scene is going to be amplified by the closing scene when she is officially announced the death of her husband by the captain and her first reaction is a destructive rage nearly including the captain in itself. Her pain is thus translated into hatred and violence against objects and people who have nothing to do with her own fate in spite of her accusation that the Captain had been on the side of the hijackers, which was not the case as we have seen all along. They were hostages just as much as anyone else. Then she cools down a little bit and she comes to that strange concluding image that she is pregnant with her dead husband who will not be redeemed by God as long as she is alive. In other words, she takes her husband hostage for the rest of her life. Instead of having the Jewish understanding that the dead husband cannot be redeemed by God as long as he is not reunited with his wife to whom he is eternally committed, we have a mean woman getting even with fate by taking her husband hostage against God’s redemption. How much does she hate him at this moment!

To remain on these two, before dying Mr. Klinghoffer is able to meet his wife, or his wife is authorized to rejoin her husband for the second part of his soliloquy during which she has nothing to say since originally she did not join him then. What is for him in the original opera a soothing recollection of the past becomes then by being addressed to the wife present in the film a sort of solace for the wife and no longer for the husband. He is trying to make it easier for her to survive instead of making it easier for himself to die.

Such transformation makes the film very messy and even fuzzy on the ideological meaning. It is in 2003 literally embedded in the War on Terror raging at the time and John Adams is conducting, which means he accepted such a drift from the original and a lot more cautious and discreet opera, which made it a lot more humane.

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All in all in one child

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A video opera that tells us a quite famous story: Jesus is being reborn

JOHN ADAMS — KENT NAGANO — PETER SELLARS — DEUTSCHES SYMPHONIE-ORCHESTER BERLIN — THÉÂTRE MUSICAL DE PARIS-CHÂTELET — PREMIERED DECEMBER 2000 — DVD 2001

What is most surprising is that it was premiered in Paris for Christmas 2000. Surprising because Paris is not exactly the capital city of American culture nor of the Catholic Church — or faith — or other Christian affiliations.

You might be surprised by a few twists in the standard story and first of all the fact that the three wise men, the Magi, are sent by Herod to find out about the newborn baby who has been announced as the King of Jews, and the objective is clearly to have him killed. The Magi will betray Herod and worship the baby and apparently not give up his location so that Herod will have all children in Bethlehem killed but too late because in the meantime Jesus and his parents will have gone to Egypt.

Of course, the miraculous supernatural events are clearly reported: the impregnation of Mary by the Holy Spirit. Mary is stated to be 16 which is wrong since she was of age for impregnation and that meant 13 at the time (legal age for a girl to get married up to the 18th century in England when it was reasserted by law at the beginning of this very 18th century). The author forgets to tell us she had been given to the Temple as a child by her mother Ann in order for her to weave the Temple’s veil. Mary is said to be married to Joseph before impregnation which is a slight twist on reality since Joseph is a widower who accepts to marry Mary in spite of her state. Joseph here is of course seized by a jealousy fit pacified by a dream.

At the end, we have the episode of Jesus ordering the dragons to be peaceful and then the palm tree to bend to provide everyone with refreshing fruit, on the way of the family to Egypt. Jesus asserts, of course, he is a full-grown man then though still swaddled up in his diapers. These supernatural episodes are part of the story, so we can live with them since after all, it is a story.

This opera is great for various other reasons. I am going to give a few.

First of all, it is bringing together the stage work of singers (two choruses, three soloists, a soprano, a mezzo-soprano and a baritone, and a set of three countertenors); the stage work of dancers (a set of three, two women and a man); the use of a vast screen over the stage that is being used constantly for the projection of various filmed scenes and sequences. This screen enables the stage to be absolutely empty. The stage production as such has no setting whatsoever. The stage setting is replaced by the film production.

This film production is essential for very many reasons. First of all, it enables the opera to have a real setting, I mean to have its action projected into a real-life situation. This projecting is all the more effective because the actors and dancers can be filmed in the said situation. Thus they force our eyes and attention to concentrate on the filmed situation and to project the opera into it. Most actors though in the filmed sequences are different from those on the stage. The filmed situations thus introduce desert scenes with enormous rock formations; sea scenes with a beach and even a harbor; city scenes in various places and clearly American with US flags and street fixtures and furniture of various types; a lot of road scenes and particularly the inside of a car with Mary and the infant for example travelling to Egypt. These filmed sequences are identified as a location film and they have eight actors and two musicians of their own. The film thus widens the stage production.

But it also provides the old story with a modern setting: car, a self-service laundry, a kitchen, cops, portable telephones, taking off planes, etc. We are not surprised to find Joseph, Mary and Jesus sitting around some open fire in an urban wasteland area. This is the modern shape of a stable. That also enables the opera to contain a real baby who would not be possible on the stage itself.

The dancing is very important too because it is the way chosen by the stage director to materialize the difficult scenes, particularly the impregnation and the birth. The impregnation is shown essentially by a mixed couple on the screen actually performing, though fully dressed, the sexual act necessary for the event: the fact that it is on the screen makes the illusion of a non-sexual intercourse possible (along with the fully dressed actors who are thus going beyond simple modesty) though obviously shown as an episode of very close and carnal sexual intercourse. The screen dematerializes the sexual dimension of the scene whereas on the stage Mary is singing and more or less contorting herself and twisting on the ground alone. This sequence is heavily loaded with sexual depth but dematerialized as such. Gabriel is a dancer dressed in white on the stage and he is going to be the newborn Jesus on the stage. The two singers who impersonate Mary, the soprano, and the mezzo-soprano, join their arms in a big circle, one woman standing on the left and the other on the right and Gabriel impersonating Jesus will be born through this circle. Once again the real event is shown though dematerialized this time in a symbolic way.

The Baritone identified at first as Joseph is going to be used for God, or some kind of surrogate voice for God, and other male characters, among other the narrator, the Evangelist as J.S. Bach would call him in his Passions. The best initiative as for the singers is the triad of countertenors, called Theatre of Voices. They are most of the time used as a small chorus but they may be used individually. They represent either a ternary group that stands for the simple trinity of the Christian mythology and as such do not have individual identities, but they also identify the three wise men later on in the tale and then they will sing separately, one after the other in the name of the three Magi, Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar delivering their goods to Jesus, respectively frankincense, myrrh, and gold.

One use of the dancers, of one dancer, is the identification of the star, called the Christmas star, as being carried by a girl who is on fire. The dancer is that girl and her dance is he burning up with the light and fire of the star that the Magi are going to follow. What’s more she is going to be both on stage and on the screen.

The film is not the only modernizing element. The use of Spanish is a direct allusion to California and the USA, but in the second part of the opera, the slaughtering of the new-born children ordered by Herod is identified to the Massacre of Tlatelolco that took place on October 2, 1968 in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, Plaza de las Tres Culturas, ten days before the opening of the Mexico Olympic Games, when 30 to 300 students and civilians were killed. That is a very distinctive trait of John Adams productions: his attempt to connect his music with recent events. This is in the line of Nixon in China (1987). This allusion to this particular event is also bringing back to our minds the essential event of the Olympic Games in Mexico, the famous scene of the three Black American athletes saluting on the podium their National Anthem with their raised right fists in the famous Black Panther Party salute. The fact that Joseph is a Black originally Jamaican baritone can help us recall that particular event to our mind.

Some say this was a Christmas Oratorio. We can think it is because of the premiere a few days before Christmas 2000, the first Christmas of the 21st century, but in fact we can also see it as a Nativity Oratorio more in the tradition of European Nativities and less in the tradition of the commercial red-dressed Father Christmas, even if the dominant color is red: the main chorus is dressed in red, the main color of Mary is red and the color red is often used in some scene lighting. The title itself is clearly centered on the child, the boy, the new-born, Jesus and not some pagan Irish or whatever winter solstice celebration.

The last remark has to do with the music. Once again John Adams surprises us since the music is definitely very harmonious and melodious with the singing developing musical sentences that have some length and some rich composition; The rhythmic minimalist hammering we can find in some of his works is not completely absent here but very dramatically used and very fast merged into the main music. That gives to this opera, or oratorio, a very agreeable and light-flowing musical sound that is perfect for some festive celebration of a happy event, even if the massacre of all new-born is included in the celebration. In conclusion, I will say it is a real opera because of the video dimension of it and not a simple oratorio that should not show any kind of setting, or dancing, at all in a common concert production.

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Under the smoke, the fire, beyond the smoke, hope

Friday, August 22, 2014

9/11 will always be subliminally engraved in our memories, as long as the video of the event can be seen

JOHN ADAMS — NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC — LORIN MAAZEL, CONDUCTOR — ON THE TRANSMIGRATION OF SOULS — 2002

The music is a long list of names repeated in the most neutral way, and then some utterances from people who witnessed the event or survived it starting with that “missing” repeated so many times you cannot count them anymore, and the names one at a time and yet several times each one, and then more small utterances in still very neutral voices and tones, boys, girls, men, women, the whole humanity at one with the event, the drama, the tragedy. And in your deep meditation, in your self-hypnosis by the event, by the music now, by the voices that start chanting, shouting, yelling some dirge that loses the quality of words or names and only become sounds, raucous sounds, suffering sounds that hurt the throat of the speakers, you feel that pain and some percussion, some drum can then bang in your vision and trouble it, change it, make it fuzzy till you manage to refocus it on the music that can become soft, small, and a woman’s voice says a few words, reads some names, and the whole video starts all over again.

And the voices come from all around, all distinct and isolated. They surround you, they make you turn your ears in the proper direction but you never know where the voices are going to come from, and some come from so far behind your head, from the deepest caves of your brain and the music flows long notes sustained and modulated without ever stopping, just turning into another one without any transition. You are in the rubbles, you are coming down, pouring down, falling down to the ground zero that will be after the attack and you imagine that fall, slow, slow, slower than slow, you are that fall, you imagine the mind behind it. The minds of the victims for sure who are falling down along with you, all those minds that cry and shout, shocked and unbelieving that the end is near, the end is at the tip of their mental fingers. Some think of God, some think of the apocalypse, some think of the beast and the dragon, of the pregnant woman running away, of Babylon rutilant in its black gold of their oily desertic vomit.

And I concentrate on this man there who was my brother, so he says, so he goes to sleep, so he slips away, and I feel his empathy caressing me, I feel his love forever brought to an end, handed to me in the urn of his soul, and I receive this soul and I love the entrusting gesture of a vanishing being, vanishing by the decision of some crude cruddy mind somewhere in some oil-producing desert to protest against the existence of the fortune they are making on that oil by selling it to people who refuse to believe like them, to behave like them, to be part of their homogenized mental world. They take their money, the oil kings, princes and terrorists, but they want more, they want their customers on their knees, they want them begging for pity and solace in front of the sacrifice of thousands of them who refuse to change, or who are just there on the trajectory of the twisted minds of those who sent the planes against the towers.

“What about the music?” a bell rings in my ears. Yes, what about the music? The music is the echoing reverberation of the event and you cannot listen to it in any particular way because there cannot be one way of receiving it. You have to let that music hypnotize you and you then hear the music the way you can see the event in your mind’s eye. There cannot be two people receiving it the same way and that’s why it is so powerful. This music is building a subliminal mesmerized tale in each one of us, and that tale comes from our deepest fears and impulses, from our darkest empathy and fright. “Eye Color Hazel Hair Brown” and you see one person, maybe two. They have names in your memory and you see them in the towers, you see them in the rubbles on the ground and you can feel them coming down from the top floor in the sky to the ground into that pile. The music then can yell, screech, scream, you cannot get out of your self-subliminal-hypnosis. You have become a Post-Traumatic-Stressed inward-oriented self-losing phantom of a being that cannot even imagine this circular reverberation will ever come to an end.

And there cannot be a conclusion because there is no end. Just get that music and listen to it over and over again to maybe bring into existence a world where all the ISIS of the universe will just dissolve out of existence. Oh! How much we all wish it, and we all know it is not possible. We will have to get rid of one ISIS and tomorrow another of the same type will emerge again from the depth of the human ocean. Leviathan will always survive and give birth to another of her monstrous children. And do not think these children cannot emerge in the midst of your own communities. One boy, one girl, one man, one woman, one teenager, one adult, one grown up, one child, one old pensioner, one day, rises with the desire, the urge to kill and they will kill, they will kill, they will kill because they do not see anything else but that urge and they believe they will be liberated from it only when they accomplish it like a miracle drug, a miraculous prayer, and liberated they will be for sure because one legal bullet will come and kill them. But how many cadavers, how many bodies, how many corpses will be lying around the fallen beast? And how many more beasts will sooner or later emerge from this wasteland?

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Enter the spirituality of flowers and trees

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A miracle of religious and cultural mixing

JOHN ADAMS — A FLOWERING TREE — LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA — SCHOLA CANTORUM VENEZUELA — 2006

Then a triple pattern is present everywhere: the mother and her two daughters, the Prince and his two sisters, the Prince, the elder daughter of the poor woman, Kumudha, and his elder sister. We can note the Prince and his elder sister do not have names. Only Kumudha has a name. Kumudha, the object of the love of the prince and of the hatred of his sister is the center of the tale, the character around which the whole tale revolves. And Kumudha is the one who invokes Shiva in his male identity:

Kumudha’s prayer

“Shiva, you have no mercy.

Shiva, you have no heart.

Why did you bring me to birth,

Wretch in this world, exile from the other?

Tell me, Lord,

Don’t you have one more

Little Tree

Made just for me?”

This cannot be understood if you do not accept the principle of transmigration of the soul of an individual from one item to another, and these items can range from an inert object to a human being, and even to some devil, good deity or final salvation. The Book of the Dead of the Tibetan Buddhists, the Bardo Thodol, is the best illustration I know of this transmigration since after death the soul has some free rein to select the next life it wants. But that’s the Buddhist version of it, in the Tibetan tradition, in which the individual has a great freedom of choice about his future according to his merit (kamma or karma) and according to the help he can get from his Buddhist training, and his Buddhist friends and relatives he left behind.

Here it is clearly said Kumudha had no choice. Yet she retains the power to transmigrate in this life into a flowering tree. And that’s the dramatic element. This transmigration can be seen as a curse or a great happy power. It can also be seen as hope for the mother and her two daughters since the two sisters are able to merchandise, as we would say today, the tree by selling its flowers. The hope to get out of misery and poverty. It also becomes the way she, accidentally, seduces the Prince who nosily follows the girls and sees the transmigration. The curiosity will kill neither the cat nor the pussycat but it will make them suffer tremendously. So it is not hope anymore but it is the challenge and the ordeal each one in the couple has to face and suffer through. That’s damnation more than hope.

But a gift from God can turn sour only if some evil being and evil intent interfere with it. And that’s the jealousy of the Prince’s sister, her jealousy and her hatred. She takes advantage of the absence of the Prince to force Kumudha to transmigrate for her pleasure and her friends’ enjoyment. She knows about it because of her curiosity that had led her to hide in her brother’s chamber to see what happened during the night when they made love. This is more than plain jealousy. That’s intended malice, a desire to hurt, a death wish against her sister in law, Thanatos in all its ugly reality, planning the evil act and waiting for the proper opportunity to do it.

That’s where another stage in the drama takes place. That sister of the Prince is not only evil against her sister in law but she is evil against or is it with, Shiva, against a gift of the Gods, and she negates the gift of the Maker of all things, of Brahma the Creator and Vishnu the Preserver, and realizes the negative side of the Gods, Shiva the Destroyer. We can see here the tale cannot work if you do not see the Gods in their triple dimension of Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer. The fate of all human beings is the result of these three Gods, of these three dimensions. This is a very wide if not universal dimension, from the Semitic dimension of the trilogy in Old Egyptian religion, Isis, Osiris and Horus, to the Greek trilogy of the Erinyes, Alecto (“unceasing”), Megaera (“grudging”), and Tisiphone (“vengeful destruction”), or the Furies, and the Roman equivalent of the Dirae in the Indo-European tradition. It is the Triple Goddess of many traditions in the Indo-European field but also in other mythologies. The most famous personification is Hecate, Selene, and Demeter (the goddess of the underworld, the goddess of the Moon and the night, and the goddess of the day and life, often also called Diana). We could also include the most debated three Beten of Germanic tradition Einbeth, Wilbeth und Worbeth.

And the evil intention of the Prince’s sister and her friends just spoil and try to destroy Kumudha in the form of the flowering tree. And yet she is preserved in her life proper and she survives as a stump, legless and armless but yet still able to sing.

The Prince, when he discovers the disappearance of his wife and love decides to become an ascetic, to undergo parivraja and become a parivrajaka, in the Hindu tradition and he will end up sheltered by his own evil sister but she is powerless in front of the total annihilation his decision has brought onto his body and her evil act has brought into his mind. It is by accident that some maid will find Kumudha in the market and will bring her to the Prince to entertain him with her singing. And Kumudha, like Isis for Osiris, revives the Prince who will in his turn go through the ritual of the water brought to Kumudha to regenerate her as a flowering tree because this ritual has the power of recreating Kumudha, of repairing the damage caused to her. At this moment too we can see the triple divinity behind since Vishnu the Preserver can repair the damage caused by Shiva the Destroyer.

Is there any hope then in this story? Hope is limited in the Hindu tradition since it is only the freewheeling will of the Gods that decides and the evil impulses of human beings who create havoc. Is there any hope in love? Love can maybe bring solace to the ailing lover deprived of his or her loved one, love can maybe bring communion in the deprivation the evil damage may have caused, but can it really bring back life and fullness? The opera leaves this eventuality as a potential but it is not realized on stage and within the limits of the opera itself, as a promise then if the Prince is swift enough to bring the transmigration again and to repair the damage caused to the tree by his own sister. Note there is no justice since the sister is not punished. She can go free and unhampered in spite of her crime. This is probably more important than the hope attached to the final transmigration. No punishment for the evil ones. Suffering only for the good ones; A world of total injustice.

But there is a lot more to say about the music.

The first remark is about the extremely good idea to have a choir singing in another tradition, in another language, Spanish, and Venezuela. This gives to the tale a vaster meaning and value, a quasi-universal value.

The second remark is the presence of a storyteller and only two other singers, Kumudha and the Prince. That has two consequences. The Storyteller is going back to the tradition of the Evangelist of J.S. Bach’s Passions. The singing is thus a recitative, simple and very clear. In the same way, most of the time the Prince and Kumudha are singing to a rather simple music and melody. Then the other characters, the Old Mother, the Daughters, the King and the Beggar Minstrels are personated by the Choir itself, apart from its own interventions.

This has also a consequence on the music: the richest moments are definitely these Choir’s performances. Very rich in architecture, melody, and rhythm. Otherwise, the music is very often more an accompaniment than a full-fledged operatic both instrumental and vocal music. Yet the music is extremely varied and rich and far from the minimalist tradition John Adams is too often associated to. There are great moments of melody and harmony, contrasting instruments and tempos in a music that is both very traditional and quite modern. The singing being most of the time of the recitative or story-telling type, it is the expressivity of the text and the intonations that are essential and cardinal in the opera: it shows the way the story evolves and the feelings of the characters directly.

There is in this opera the regeneration and rejuvenation of the opera form by referring to other cultures and experimenting with other forms of singing and architecture. Then the show itself brings up a tremendous amount of signification with the costumes and the acting which is a lot more theatrical than just operatic since there are very few characters but many actors on the stage who are supposed to play their parts and not only sing. Unluckily this opera is not available on DVD. So we are reduced to a few pictures.

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Oppenheimer and the Bomb

Friday, September 05, 2014

Most symbolical and pessimistic tale about war and no peace

JOHN ADAMS — DOCTOR ATOMIC — SAN FRANCISCO — OCTOBER 1st 2005 — DE NEDERLANDSE OPERA — 2007

Even so, this opera is strongly anti-military and anti-atomic from the purely scientific point of view. Ethics are here and there alluded to, especially by second zone scientists, not the top ones, but it is only anecdotes more than real facts and actions. The opera’s libretto is supposed to have been written from authentic documents, and it contains a lot of literary quotations. This implies the positions defended by the two top scientists and the top general, in this case, are supposed to be authentic, in spite of the numerous and long literary quotations that are set in Oppenheimer’s mouth. The anti-war and anti-atomic meaning of the opera is not really expressed as such but can be derived from what is being said, because it may freeze our blood in our own veins.

First of all, the chorus opening the opera is scientifically fundamental.

“Matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form.” . . . “Energy can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form. But now we know that matter may become energy and thus be altered in form.”

It was known before since Einstein had proposed it as a theory. But the atomic research, today known as nuclear research, proved it. All is energy and energy is material by essence. It is the volatile and flexible form of matter and matter is nothing but an assemblage of energy. This is frightening because it states there was no creation, hence no possible god or other event that would have brought the world into existence from nothing. This is frightening because everything in the world being matter and energy and the former being only a particular form of the latter we are nothing but an assemblage of energy particles. That brings up the fundamental principle of Buddhism: we are part of cosmic energy and our material existence is nothing but a transient condensation of this energy in our evanescent body and being. No divine soul, nothing stable and long-lasting in us, nothing but unstable energy that can be released or can release itself eventually. Life is not our essence, death is and life is nothing but a short suspension of that death thanks to the condensation of a certain amount of energy into our likeness we call our body or our mind, and death is only the point when and where the energy that composes our body is restructured, naturally altered in form. Religion is totally side-tracked and even science is marginalized. The scientist is a sorcerer’s apprentice playing with some natural criteria and parameters that we cannot control. At best, maybe, we can manage them so that we do not get burnt up or destroyed by our tinkering about.

We are not then surprised by what Oppenheimer says about the soul:

“The soul is a thing so impalpable, so often useless, and sometimes so embarrassing that at this loss [the loss of human conscience due to the work on this humanity-negating nuclear energy] I felt only a little more emotion than if, during a walk, I had lost my visiting card.”

We are beyond the negation of God. We have reached here the reduction of the divine soul to some kind of ethical essence that is anyway nothing at all and practically rejected by Oppenheimer. To do what he or they is or are doing he or they must have no soul whatsoever. When the scientist who is second in command says that they should speak up and try to influence the politicians who are making the decisions how to use this atomic power he is rebutted by Oppenheimer in the most condescending way possible:

“The nation’s fate should be left in the hands of the best men in Washington.”

Who says they are the best men? And the principles of the use of this atomic power in Japan are simple:

“. . . Psychological factors in selecting the targets are of great importance. . . We cannot give the Japanese any warning. . . Doctor Conant suggests a vital war plant is the most desirable target, employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by worker’s houses. . . Several strikes would be feasible. . . The more decisive a weapon is the more surely it will be used, and no agreement will help. Would we have started the atomic age with clean hands?”

Then everything has been said and the only words that can be used here are cynicism, hypocrisy, unconsciousness, vanity and of course thirst and hunger for power and prestige, even if criminal. The attitude of the General is typical: he wants to command the weather, order nature to do what he wants and abide by his law, or diktat. And this libretto is nearly nice on the subject because it does not speak of the time when the bomb must be dropped, which is early enough in the morning to catch the workers going to work and the children going to school to make sure the casualties are essentially innocent and totally nonmilitary by definition, even if they work in some military factories, though children do not. Civilian victims are not even collateral. They are the target. We are dealing here with a crime against humanity and it necessarily feeds the thirst and hunger for authority in many men.

Then the wrapping it up in Oppenheimer’s wife’s pangs of conscience is useless since she has no say in what is happening. Her husband neither by the way. The attitude of some disagreeing scientists like Wilson in the opera is just vain and useless, if not hypocritical since they know security would stop their petition before it even entered the oval office or penetrate the White House. And we have nothing to say about Oppenheimer himself and his near nervous breakdown during the countdown for the test. Do not even mention the cynical Teller, second in command in the scientific team, who is just up-handedly brandishing some negative arguments as his taste for black humor allows him to make fun of everything. Cynicism and foolishness are the main two characters of these people. Note the fact that humanity will always do what it can do, no matter how criminal or dangerous it may be, is not really questioned and anyway if Americans did not do it, Germans would do it, or the Japanese, or Russians. There is in this opera a fatality in history: always will human beings invent new weapons that will always have to be more and more destructive.

The conclusion comes from Oppenheimer who does not speak in his own words but quote a sonnet by John Donne. He addresses a plea to “three-person’d God” to take him and imprison him because by becoming the prisoner of God he could be freed from God’s enemy who he is “betroth’d to.” This is a vision of absolute dependence, total and final subservience, immense and yet divided obedience.

The only challenge then comes from Oppenheimer’s Navajo nurse and maid, Pasqualita, who brings in that bleak picture a more “natural” approach. First, a lullaby from her culture to put the baby to sleep: The Cloud-Flower Lullaby, one of the Songs of the Tewa translated by Herbert Joseph Spinden and published in 1933. The Tewa are Pueblo Indians, who live on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona.

“In the north the cloud-flower blossoms,

And now the lightning flashes,

And now the thunder clashes,

And now the rain comes down!

A-a-aha, a-a-aha, my little one.”

It will be repeated four times. The full stanza for the west, next the south, and finally the east, but in this last case Pasqualita will be interrupted after two lines.

Then Pasqualita will quote part of the eighth elegy, from the 1949 volume “Elegies” by Muriel Rukeyser, which is an evocation of the dead during the WWII, and their possible return that will never happen (being sung by Pasqualita we could think it means the Indians who were killed during the Indian wars and the Indian genocide):

“Then word came from a runner, a stranger:

“They are dancing to bring the dead back, in the mountains.”

We danced at an autumn fire, we danced the old hate and change,

The coming again of our leaders. But they did not come.

The winter dawned, but the dead did not come back.

News came on the frost, “The dead are on the march!”

We danced in prison to a winter music,

Many we loved began to dream of the dead.

They made no promises, we never dreamed a threat.

And the dreams spread.

In the summer dreaming was common to all of us,

The drumbeat hope, the bursting heart of wish,

Music to bind us as the visions streamed

And midnight brightened to belief.

In the morning we told our dreams.

They all were the same dream.”

This is, of course, the evocation of World War II and the fifty million casualties, and in particular, since Muriel Rukeyser is Jewish, the fate of the Jews in the Shoah. They were gone and they did not come back. They were taken beyond the gate of light that casts no shade and they never came back.

The only solace or support Oppenheimer can find in his situation is an evocation of Vishnu, the Preserver in the Hindu trinity, who is brought forward by the chorus in a translation that seems personal. We have to keep in mind Oppenheimer studied Sanskrit in 1933, and the “Baghavad Gītā” in particular. He declared to Christian Century Magazine in 1963:

“The general notions about human understanding… which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of or new. Even in our own culture, they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find [in modern physics] is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom.”

But the quotation the “Baghavad Gītā” sounds like a very poor solace and a deep anguish if not fear in front of the imminent first explosion of this bomb:

“At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous,

Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies,

Terrible with fangs, O master,

All the worlds are fear-struck, even just as I am.

When I see you, Vishnu, omnipresent,

Shouldering the sky, in hues of rainbow,

With your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring —

All my peace is gone; my heart is troubled.”

(“Baghavad Gītā” Chapter 11, verses 23 & 24)

The end of the opera is situated in the text two minutes before the test. But the opera in this stage production is slightly different.

We can now shift to the music and the stage production.

The opera divides the stage into three spaces: in the foreground Oppenheimer’s home with one night-scene with his wife in bed first: a scene that was supposed to be sentimental if not erotic and that turns into some very distantly metaphorical evocation of sensuous pleasures centered on perfumes, the perfumes he finds in his wife’s hair and that evoke fruit, foliage, and human skin. But he was working on some document at the beginning, he stopped for a short while and he interrupted this sentimental drift to go back to his bomb. Then that private space will be occupied by Kitty Oppenheimer, her infant daughter in a cradle, the Navajo nurse and later three helpers for that nurse. Two short incursions of Peter Oppenheimer, their son can be noted. This private space is centered on the baby and the five women are only there to take care of her.

In a middle stripe on the stage we have the labs and the bomb with two types of personnel, the scientists on one side and then the military people who are managing the first test of this bomb with the scientists, and also trying to manage the weather and the scientists.

Further back, hence in the background of the stage, we have an open space where dancers intervene very often, most of the time six dancing on a circle, and once four dancing on parallel lines running from left to right. Personally, I do not see what these dancers are bringing to the opera, except that they are dancing in circles like the scientists and the soldiers who are activating themselves, running in circles mostly after their own tails like Chopin’s Little Dog Waltz.

Then the back of the stage is most of the time cut in two layers, a top layer that is black and a layer between that top layer and the back line of the stage that is used for light. It is often white but can be blue or red according to the scenes.

Thus the stage is visually putting one on top of the other five layers from the foreground to the top of the backdrop. This is very interesting for the DVD because cameras can shift from one layer to the next and concentrate or zoom in onto one section of these layers, on one face, one character. We practically never have a full vision of the stage, which is kind of frustrating.

The music is essentially some accompanying music behind the singing. The singing itself having to be clearly understood because of the pregnancy of the text is more chanted than sung. There are very few instances when the singing has any kind of musical complication. At times it is even slightly humdrum. But then the music behind and in-between two sentences can be rich and impressive but always of the accompanying type used to amplify the meaning of the words.

The singing emphasizes some words or phrases by repeating them and such repetitions are never gratuitous and are most of the time triple repetition or a triple simple repetition with a fourth one that is one word longer, or one word shorter. This pattern of four being clearly three plus one is an echo to John Donne’s “three-personed God” and this Christian reference is important because then the extension to four is necessarily the extension to the crucifixion. This is a direct allusion to these scientists who are probably very religious in their common life (saying graces at every meal, going to church every Sunday, etc.) and yet their very activity is making them the agent of the devil, “your enemy” in Donne’s words. Donne’s richness is not entirely used. For example, the last five lines of the sonnet are very rich in this symbolical way:

“But am betroth’d to your enemy (A),

Divorce me (1), untie (2), or break that knot again (3),

Take me to you (4), imprison me (5), for I

Except (B) you enthrall me (6), never shall be free ©,

Nor ever chaste (D), except (E) you ravish me (7).”

The enemy is A-B-C-D-E, hence a pentacle, the devil of course. God is asked to do seven things hence the holy week that ends we must keep in mind on the crucifixion and the resurrection. The crucifixion is carried by the four negatives B-C-D-E- within the pentacle of the devil. And the seven requests to God plus the five attachments to the devil make twelve and there we are whole again since it is the number of the Last Supper’s participants, once Judas, the supposed traitor is gone.

In fact, in the first scene of the second act Kitty in a long poem by Muriel Rukeyser introduces Jesus:

“. . . This earth-long day

Between blood and resurrection where we wait

Remembering sun, seed, fire; remembering

That fierce Judaean Innocent who risked

Every immortal meaning on one life.”

Jesus, the Judaean Innocent is captured in our memories between blood and resurrection, the crucifixion on the Friday afternoon (death at the ninth hour) and the resurrection on the Sunday morning.

The music thus puts up this drama. We could say a lot more.

A last remark. The opera starts with black and white images of war scenes, desolation, dead people, bombings, and it ends with the color vision of all the actors and singers lying on their stomach on the ground while the soundtracks gives us some Japanese remarks from people after a bombing looking for help of for relatives, and these Japanese sentences are duly translated into English for us to see the meaning, at least on the DVD. Before we had simple bombings and after the test shown on the stage, it will be the next generation of bombings, the atomic generation and the desolation of survivors. War is a cycle from one battle to the next and it never stops.

This opera is not a call for peace. It is a pessimistic call for the end of that ever going war process that is human by essence and we know it will never end.

And it may live for generations in our modern universe because of the Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome it may build in the survivors and the descendants of the survivors, be it only in the morbid celebrations of the “victories” that were never that glorious, due to the horror committed by the victors during the war, and these horrors were often just as horrible as those committed by the defeated ones. Is Coventry in any way worse than Dresden, Pearl Harbor than Hiroshima?

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Beyond the light of the bomb, the night of horror

Amazon.com & Amazon.co.uk

May 24, 2010

Superbly Sinister

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There is hope in this third Mary, in this Triple Goddess

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

This Passion is talking to us in the modern world

JOHN ADAMS — THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE OTHER MARY — 2012 — GUSTAVO DUDAMEL — LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC & LOS ANGELES CHORALE — 2014

First Dorothy Day opens the libretto and intervenes all along. “Intrigued by the Catholic faith for years, Dorothy Day converted in 1927. In 1933, she co-founded The Catholic Worker, a newspaper promoting Catholic teachings that became very successful and spawned the Catholic Worker Movement, which tackled issues of social justice guided by its religious principles. Day also helped establish special homes to help those in need. . . In addition to her writing for The Catholic Worker, Day also penned several autobiographical works. She explained her religious conversion in 1938’s From Union Square to Rome, writing the book as a letter to her brother, an ardent communist. In 1952, Day released her second autobiography, The Long Loneliness.” (Dorothy Day © 2014. The Biography.com website. Available from: http://www.biography.com/people/dorothy-day-9268575, Accessed 05 Aug 2014).

Three interventions of Rosario Castellanos. She was born on May 25, 1925, in Mexico City, Mexico and died on August 7, 1974, in Tel Aviv, Israel. She was a novelist, a short-story writer, a poet, an essayist and a diplomat, probably the most important Mexican woman writer of the 20th century. Her 1950 master’s thesis, Sobre cultura femenina (“On Feminine Culture”), became an inspiration for modern Mexican women writers, a strong summon for self-awareness.

Two excerpts from June Jordan. She was born in 1936 and she died in 2002. She was “one of the most widely-published and highly-acclaimed African American writers of her generation, poet, playwright, and essayist. June Jordan was also known for her fierce commitment to human rights and progressive political agenda. Over a career that produced twenty-seven volumes of poems, essays, libretti, and work for children, Jordan engaged the fundamental struggles of her era: over civil rights, women’s rights, and sexual freedom.” (© 2014 Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/june-jordan, accessed August 5, 2014).

Louise Erdrich is quoted four times. “Louise Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota in 1954. As the daughter of a Chippewa Indian mother and a German-American father, Erdrich explores Native-American themes in her works, with major characters representing both sides of her heritage. In an award-winning series of related novels and short stories, Erdrich has visited and re-visited the North Dakota lands where her ancestors met and mingled, representing Chippewa experience in the Anglo-American literary tradition.” (© 2014 Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/june-jordan, accessed August 5, 2014).

Primo Levi appears once. “He was born in Turin, Italy, in 1919, and he was trained as a chemist. He was arrested during the Second World War as a member of the anti-Fascist resistance and deported to Auschwitz in 1944. His experience in the death camp and his subsequent travels through Eastern Europe were the subject of powerful memoirs, fiction, and poetry. Levi died in Turin in April 1987.” (http://www.inch.com/~ari/levi1.html, accessed August 5, 2014).

Finally, Ruben Dario is quoted once. Ruben Dario was the pen name of Félix Rubén García Sarmiento who was born on January 18, 1867, in Metapa, Nicaragua and died on February 6, 1916, in León. He was an influential Nicaraguan poet, journalist, and diplomat. He was a leader of the Spanish American literary movement known as Modernismo, a movement that developed at the end of the 19th century. He revitalized and updated poetry in Spanish on both sides of the Atlantic with his experiments in rhythm, meter, and imagery. He developed a highly original poetic style that started a tradition.

There is also one Latin chorus that is borrowed from Hildegard von Bingen from quite a different period. And all together these borrowings express what Americans call diversity, mostly women, South American, Mexican, Native American, African American, Caucasian women, one Jewish man and one Italian man.

Apart from these authors, the libretto quotes the Old Testament (Isaiah) and the four Gospels with maybe a predilection for John’s. He starts this Passion with the death of Lazarus, the brother of Mary Magdalene and Martha who call for Jesus to look into the situation. Jesus comes and resurrects Lazarus. Jesus is invited to supper two weeks later and Mary Magdalene washes his feet and dries them with her hair and perfumes them with an ointment. We then jump with Martha and Lazarus to the Passover and the Last Supper. The second act is the passion itself from the arrest to the resurrection. John’s Gospel is essential since he mentions the presence of Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross. We have to be careful with the quotations that may be shortened and taken out of their precise context. I will take one example.

“Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus, therefore, saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son!” (John 19:25–26, King James Version)

This excerpt becomes:

“Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, he saith, Mother, behold thy son!”

In the original the son Jesus’ mother is supposed to behold is “the disciple standing by, whom he loved” and thus Jesus entrusts him to his own mother. In John Adams’ version he asks his own mother to behold her own son, that is to say, himself in the pitiful position he is in.

In the same way, the last verse used at the very end of the opera is cut short, but it does not change the meaning and it enables Jesus, in spite of Mary Magdalene, to have the last word and that last word is “Mary.” This last word enables us to imagine or understand the deep love that existed between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, whereas the last word of the verse is normally uttered by Mary Magdalene and it is “Rabboni, which is to say, Master” (John, 20:16, King James Version) which would imply a relation from Master to disciple, a relation of awe, and not a love relation.

At this level of scrutiny, we can see the Passion is changed. It is nothing but an arbitrary act against a man who menaces the established order of life and death since he can resuscitate the dead. He also accepts the service of Mary Magdalene who washes his feet (a woman was not supposed to do that) and uses an expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet, which is criticized. The fact that Lazarus’ resurrection is set at the very start of the passion and not the Passover and the last Supper changes the dimension of Jesus who is, in fact, a man bringing change to a society that was strongly conservative under the pressure of the Roman Empire. But Jesus’ action with Lazarus is only dictated by his love for Lazarus, a love that is shared. This is also a change from the standard version. Lazarus is the brother of the Mary Magdalene who loves Jesus and whom Jesus loves, just as much as he loves Lazarus her brother. The centering of the crucifixion and resurrection on Mary Magdalene sets Jesus’ love for Mary Magdalene in the limelight of the action, of the Passion. This does not negate the supernatural powers of Jesus who brings Lazarus back from the dead or who himself resurrects on the Sunday morning after his crucifixion on the previous Friday. It just makes Jesus a lot more human than traditionally depicted.

The opera opens with Dorothy Day and her evocation of the prison in which women are thrown and how they were treated in the most humiliating way revealing the highest level of suffering for women she finds in a drug addict next to her and we may be surprised by words like “self-inflicted [torture],” “madness,” “perverseness,” “seeking of pleasure,” and her impossibility to understand.

The chorus taken from Isaiah is in the same tone since the vision of this Prophet is supposed to bring pain and suffering to the children of Israel who are living in sin. The merging of Mary and the Chorus into a duo between one woman and a group represent the prison situation, the situation of a sinner in front of the congregation of his church.

That’s when we have a surprise because the transition is assumed by a group of three (male) countertenors who quote Luke’s Gospel to introduce Martha. The role of these three countertenors is important in the opera and yet they are used in such a way that we may wonder who and what they represent in the opera. They are the voice that is telling the story, giving the facts. They are not necessarily the only one to do this, but they never express any emotion. They thus only sing passages of the Gospels giving the story, the factual timeline in a way. And yet they are countertenors and are set apart from all other voices. We may think they are the voice of the Gospels itself, hence the voice that speaks to us from twenty-one centuries ago, the voice that comes up from the deepest past imaginable. And by coming from so far away they are out of time, timeless, eternal in a way just as these voices are set apart from all other voices and are thus from another dimension of life.

Mary and Martha sing in these opening scenes excerpts from Dorothy Day’s Autobiography and that gives the social context of the story that is introduced by the three countertenors. At the same time, Martha is the voice of reason whereas Mary here is expressing her conversion to the faith that makes her fall on her knees and pray. And it is when Rosario Castellanos is quoted in Spanish expressing the suffering of a bird crucified in its flight while she is in perpetual awe and silence in a world of cyclical movement that brings nothing, no change and yet this could be “eternal ecstasy near the sea” as if she were mesmerized by this ebbing and flowing of the waves. The music is at this moment dubitative, leading us to some kind of wondering about the reality of this life, about the vanity of this ecstasy.

And the countertenors can now introduce Lazarus in John’s words, and Jesus’ love for Lazarus who is sick, and yet Jesus does not go for two days till Lazarus actually dies. The death is depicted by an instrumental moment. We are going down into dark layers that are menacing in their pulsating swelling and deflating movements that sound so arrhythmic by following several crisscrossing lines, several overlapping tempos that bring Martha’s accusation in the words of Psalm 10 and then June Jordan and the death of Lazarus. Then the countertenors in John’s words bring Jesus to the scene. Mary expresses her feelings with June Jordan’s words and oxymora like “my own quietly explosive here” and others bringing the unknown suffering of her nascent love to the surface. She is disoriented and the music supports this disorientation. And finds some direction again when Martha arrives and reproaches Jesus with his absence on a rather firm if not angry tone and she calls Mary. For Martha Jesus is the Master and nothing else. He can ask anything from God and he will get it.

Mary expresses her suffering with Rosario Castellanos’ words. The countertenors take over to express Mary’s accusation. The music amplifies that accusation by having a trumpet giving a somber echo of the tune of the main sentence: “my brother had not died.” It expresses both the depth of Mary’s suffering, the gravity of her accusation and the reverberation it may carry in Jesus himself. They take him to the tomb repeating “come and see” three times with a musical echo following like a fourth repetition. And the conclusion comes with the expression of Jesus’ empathy, “Jesus wept,” repeated twice with a half a tone modulation between the two words. It is when Mary expresses her love with the words of Rosario Castellanos, starting with and repeating at the end the same line: “I love you to my farthest limits” after the last line of the stanza was repeated three times “my heart expands to hold your realm.” This play on numerical elements in this music that is rather simple and in this text that is very tragic would be in line with old Romanesque traditions since the last sentence repeated three times plus the first one and its being repeated at the end make five, the very symbol of evil and yet the whole stanza has six lines and this is Solomon’s wisdom, this is the Song of Songs of Solomon and a reference to love, absolute human love. But that might be too Romanesque to be in the conscious mind of John Adams, but in his unconscious mind, everything is possible.

And yet John’s words sung by the three countertenors are repeated three times: “Jesus said, Take ye away the stone.” And still, in John’s words, the three countertenors will sing three times Jesus’ command to Lazarus “Lazarus, come forth.” And the final sentence of this resurrection scene is Jesus’ words reported by John repeated only twice: “Loose him and let him go.” Then the Chorus can bring Isaiah’s prophecy to the people that they have to believe and to yield in awe to God’s will and power. A sort of canon that amplifies the singing into a crowd effect, many people all singing each one their own way and yet together.

Then we jump to the supper with Lazarus two weeks later and six days before the Passover. Lazarus is very powerful in his singing the praise of God and amplifying with Isaiah’s words the power of the message calling for faith and submission which can sound like a call against the establishment of the temple. The music itself becomes very pressing and directive. And that promise is disruptive because he wants to bring the believers in the “House of the Lord” which is the Temple. He thus wants to dislodge the priests and high priests and take over the Temple for the Truth of the Lord. The musical conclusion is a powerful and unified rhythmical symphony. The change comes then with a lighter music to the next challenge to the Temple: Mary Magdalene gets into her famous washing ceremony of Jesus’ feet and the use of an ointment on them.

Mary then in Louise Erdrich’s words describes what she is doing and definitely associates her action with a sexual contact and she goes as far as expressing the desire of girls to get even with their fathers for crimes that are not explicated and the only way girls have to do this is by “wreck[ing] their bodies on other men.” The chorus borrowed from Hildegard von Bingen justifies Mary’s action as being the proper way to resurrect in the Holy Spirit. Louise Erdrich gives to Hildegard von Bingen and her ecstasy in the Holy Spirit since nuns are the brides of Jesus, an absolutely carnal meaning, or at least an erotic one. And we can then see how disturbing that Mary Magdalene is becoming, how perturbing this Jesus is growing.

Protest is expressed against using that ointment, but Jesus rebuffs it by saying that Mary did well. You can always have the poor but she could have me, Jesus, only this one time and she “anoint[ed] my body for the burying.”

Then Martha with Dorothy Day’s words can develop the idea of having to help the poor. And that long evocation of the poor and their misery leads to the last Supper and the Passover, from John’s words to Primo Levi’s poem that expresses above all the fact that it celebrates the passing from evil to good, from the rule to the disrespect of rules in order to reinvent good and rules they could respect, because it is the night of differences and not uniformity. It is best expressed in one oxymoron: “crossed the sea with dry feet.

Powerful opening of the second act with Louise Erdrich’s evocation of Jesus coming down to Beirut and Damascus in the very wake or heritage of his own cross, of his ordeal.

Then the arrest scene, from the Gospels, is quick, swift and Lazarus’ tenor voice is extremely powerful. Power thus appears not to be on the police’s side but on Jesus’ side who is able to repair the cut off the ear of the servant. Isaiah provides then the lament and the promise of the victory of the Lord and his truth to go back to Luke’s gospel that brings the final touch to the cut ear.

Then another violent spell of music to introduce the arrest of women in Dorothy Day’s words when picketing in support for farm workers in the vineyards. The music gets very violent to evoke this event, the arrest, and the charges. But then they are in prison and they prepare for a night of prayer in the prison, a prayer that is borrowed from Ruben Dario, the music giving menacing intermittent sounds in the background like the menace of justice hanging over their heads. It leads to the crucifixion itself and that enables us to merge modern time victimizing and this death on the cross, Jesus, and today’s suffering. Continuation, repetition, or simply never-ending always-the-same torture. And we can hear the mounting sound of the crowd that is going to lead the way to the Golgotha along with and behind the music. We feel the danger, the mob surging up.

Martha evokes in Luke’s words what Jesus said to the women on the way to Golgotha, to those he called “Daughters of Jerusalem” and it all ends with “blessed are the barren” and then “and the wombs that never bare.” The first sentence is cut in two and “blessed” is repeated alone seven times and then three times the whole line “blessed are the barren”, then the second sentence once “and the wombs that never bare,” and again three times “blessed are the barren” and the final line again “and the wombs that never bare.” In this stanza two other instances of triple repetitions were used before this concluding couplet: “Weep not for me” and then “For, behold, the day is coming,” “the day is coming,” “for behold, the day is coming.” This is probably laden with some Christian symbolical meaning that has become difficult to understand for a modern audience, but the repetitions have a tremendous dramatic effect to insist on the future for women not to have children not to suffer through them. Luke was thus expressing something very modern indeed, or he could be read in quite a modern way by us. Note the last verse (Luke, 23:29) was reduced from: “For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.” He thus did not use the ternary structure of the original verse (in King James Version) but heavily used his own musical ternary constructions.

A women’s chorus repeats the beginning of what Jesus said and it is literally swallowed up in the sound of an enormous rioting or rebellious crowd that leads to a very dark, menacing, dangerous and even at times shrill music, that is supposed to take us to John’s gospel and Jesus on the cross. The music becomes little by little like a set of bells tolling for the coming death and we shift to the people at the foot of the cross, the three women, the three Mary’s. Note John, the young disciple whom he loved, has been taken out. And the meaning of what Jesus says to his mother can change and become some kind of call for empathy and pity. Jesus normally was thinking of the future and what was to come next in the official version, and here he only thinks of the present and his own predicament. It is better centered on Jesus but an important loss of meaning setting suffering first.

We shift to the night with Louise Erdrich. Jesus has just spoken to his mother, as we have said, and here the son, the man, is broken in the clouds of suffering and he comes to the following conclusion carried by a music that is so light behind that the accusation it contains is made all the more enormous: “he opened his eyes and stared at his mother. As his father, who had made the sacrifice, stood motionless in heaven.” It sounds, and the music strengthens this feeling like the father had his son “sacrificed” to punish him for his desire for his mother, as if it were an Oedipal vengeance on the side of the father. And Lazarus comes in to sing what the son says to his father up there standing in the heaven.

The son rejects the father, refuses his shelter and concludes his curse, because it is a curse, with: “Ash to ash, you say, but I know different. I will not stop burning.” In our culture that eternal burning is necessarily attached to hell, hence Jesus, the son, is doomed for eternity. We must understand that we could take it as a metaphor of the Eucharist but Louise Erdrich seems to be more complex and the construction in this opera after the erasing of John, the young disciple, out of the scene at the foot of the cross, is very clear: it reduces it to a conflict between the father and the son whose stake was the mother. The son is dead and there is no future for the mother since she can only love her son, her real son, the one on the cross. The message is becoming extremely dark indeed. An Oedipal vengeance of the father, I said.

The three countertenors tell us about the burial in John’s and Luke’s words. Then we have a long musical transition, slow, rather soft but lugubrious shifting slowly to peace and quiet, that represents the three days that went by till Mary wakes up on the Sunday morning and goes to the tomb. Louise Erdrich lends us her words for the awakening of Mary on that Sunday morning in Spring. The chorus sings Spring and is light, dancing in the sunshine, joyful, happy even, just like a beautiful day after the tempest, the tempest of the crucifixion, and it ends up on a broken disc repetitive trick. Mary then can wake up and bring a less joyful tone though she sings the same awakening of the earth in Spring. And the chorus comes back with its repetitive mantra.

We can go to the final earthquake representing the resurrection. The music is, of course, violent and based on a lot of percussions. It is disordered into some rhythmic cycles that intertwine with one another in some kind of unordered mess. Matthew’s gospel is used to explain the rolling of the stone away from the sepulcher as the result of an earthquake. Let’s be logical after all. And the corpse can rise and walk out. This section is slightly weak in a way because the earthquake explains nothing. It is a dramatic gadget. The music then changes for Luke to gives us the last scene with Mary, the recognition. Mary is telling the discovery of the angels in the empty sepulcher, such a peaceful, maybe slightly awesome situation. And the countertenors evoke Mary’s crying. And Mary can answer and accuse a generic “they” of having taken away her Lord. The countertenors and a male chorus tell us about the meeting of Mary and Jesus. Lazarus is required to tell about Mary’s mistake and Mary sounds so doubtful, lost in her question to the “gardener”. And the three countertenors tell us the final line, and of course, the final word repeated three times: “Mary.” The miracle of the recognition of her love, her lover maybe, after that long absence is total. We can end up with some nice and harmonious music, though there is some rumbling behind it like a storm coming up. Or maybe passing away.

Written by

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, PhD in Germanic Linguistics (University Lille III) and ESP Teaching (University Bordeaux II) has been teaching all types of ESP

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