Richard Wagner

What would “Die Meistersinger” sound like on a cruise ship?

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Hei-Kyung Hong, James Morris, and Johan Botha in Wagner's "Die Meistersinger"
Hei-Kyung Hong, James Morris, and Johan Botha in Wagner's "Die Meistersinger"

Tanglewood, Saturday, July 11, 8:30 p.m. Music Shed

Richard Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Act III
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra

James Levine, conductor

James Morris, bass-baritone – Hans Sachs
Johan Botha, tenor – Walter von Stolzing
Hei-Kyung Hong, soprano – Eva
Maria Zifchak, mezzo-soprano – Magdalene
Matthew Polenzani, tenor – David
Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, baritone – Sixtus Beckmesser
Julien Robbins, bass-baritone – Veit Pogner
Vocal Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center – Mastersingers
Tanglewood Festival Chorus,

John Oliver, conductor

This performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, Act III, was truly a shameful travesty of Tanglewood and all it stands for, not to mention Richard Wagner and all the musicians and singers who participated in it with the best of intentions. It was painful to sit through it, and in some ways I regret that I did not walk out as soon as I realized that this was not a real performance but an exercise in accommodating James Levine’s convenience through electronic enhancement, which does not belong in any first rate, or even third-rate concert hall, and certainly not in the Music Shed, which has excellent acoustics by any standard, and truly admirable acoustics for a semi-open structure of its enormous size. Instead of leaving I let out an unseemly string of expletives, which would have been perfectly at home in Wagner’s model, Aristophanes, but not during a performance in the Music Shed, and for this I apologise.

Less than half of what I heard, sitting in my usual, very good place in the shed, actually came from the singer’s mouths, the rest was spread over three sources, the loudspeakers hung over the stage. The sound of the individual voices shifted constantly—and most annoyingly—from a point vaguely associable with their positions on the stage to this three-point spread, with ambient sound and reverberation mixed in. Phantom pockets of out-0f-phase and aberrantly reverberant sound floated in and out like mischievous will-o’-the wisps. As a result none of these justly renowned and familiar voices sounded quite like themselves, and certainly not like themselves at their best—quite a feat with such sturdy voices as Matthew Polenzani and Johan Botha, although Hei-Kyung Hong and James Morris fared the worst. The great quintet was flattened out and muddy, with no sense of space around the individual singers or a clear sense of their location. We heard all too little of the precious interaction of humanly produced sound and a real acoustic, and the sung lines lacked integrity, since the amplification exaggerated their top notes. The deliberate introduction of churchy reverb to reenforce Beckmesser’s version of the Preislied was cheap and vulgar—and totally unnecessary. This performance was above all a shameful disservice to these singers, who have regularly performed under Levine at the Met for years, as well as at Tanglewood. They should all talk to their agents and reconsider agreeing to sing under these circumstances again.

What were these circumstances? Why should world-class singers, who can project at the Metropolitan Opera House of all places, be heard through loudspeakers? For some years, perhaps from his beginning at the BSO, Levine has insisted—along with many other amenities—on placing vocal soloists at the back of the orchestra, just in front of the chorus. If I remember correctly, this is to provide better sight-lines between himself and the singers, who would, in the traditional arrangement, be at his sides. (Also, it makes it easier for the conductor to hear the soloists in relation to the orchestra and chorus.) Of course the traditional arrangement has worked effectively for many years. The position behind the orchestra puts an unreasonable burden on the singers. I have heard quite a few people in professional circles questioning or complaining about this practice, but it has not persuaded me entirely, until I heard this disgraceful mess. Two years ago I heard Stephanie Blythe’s magnificent—and Brobdingnagian—voice mauled by the Music Shed speakers. I thought she was having a bad night and needed help, which I have since learned is highly unlikely. I defended the practice in Les Troyens, which has a much lighter orchestration than anything of Wagner’s, but this horror has persuaded me that it must stop immediately.

This evening’s macello was fraught with ironies, above all, the fact that I attended a performance at the Met on March 10, 2007 under Levine with exactly the same lead singers in one of the most marvelous, funny, and moving performances I have ever heard. Everything came together as close to perfection as can be. I’ve heard most of Levine’s other Met performances of Die Meistersinger over the past 15-20 years and have been delighted with them. In fact there was nothing particularly wrong with his conducting of the Tanglewood performance. I especially look forward to these Shed performances with the TMC Orchestra, because their playing is so committed and fresh. It was fascinating to hear the orchestral parts of Verdi’s Don Carlo played with this youthful intensity, and Sir Andrew Davis achieved equally exciting results in Eugene Onegin last summer—with the singers standing sensibly between the podium and the orchestra, so that Sir Andrew could make the most of traditional sight-lines. The energetic, bright, clean playing of the TMC Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus were the best things about the performance, as well as Levine’s fluent and expressive interpretation of the score. Many wonderful details in the inner voices came through, thanks to the TMC Orchestra’s thinner textures.

Another irony emerges from Levine’s particular relation to soloists, singers, above all. He derives particular inspiration from brilliant soloists he favors, especially female singers. Without this stimulus he can sometimes be musically rather boring (although not often: remember the great Sacre last week!). It amounts almost to a dependence, and it’s curious to note the difference in his attitude towards the soloists in, say, a Mahler Symphony or the Brahms German Requiem and a complete cast in Don Carlo or Die Meistersinger, which he contains in a line in front of a chorus. In this quintessentially dramatic work, in which the singers interact and make often sarcastic witticisms, they were reduced to a bland ensemble.

Levine’s basic reading of the score itself was limited mostly by the circumstances of a concert performance. He has made a point of performing many, many operas in concert both at Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood with mixed approval. The idea, I imagine, is to enrich the BSO’s repertory and to enjoy the luxury of conducting a work through, without pausing for scene changes or adjusting tempo for stage action. Verdi in particular becomes fragmented in this way, not that Tanglewood performances aren’t broken up by constant applause—which did not happen, thankfully, yesterday evening. It is important and interesting to note that Die Meistersinger fares ill in this approach. I have heard powerful concert performances of works from the Ring in concert, but Wagner’s instincts as a man of the theatre are no more apparent than in Die Meistersinger, in which Wagner did not attempt to transcend the nineteenth century stage. The music of Die Meistersinger may be as great as any ever written, but, without action, something important is missing. We need to see Beckmesser sneaking into Sachs’ workshop and poking around. We need to see him exit, and we need to see all the entrances and exits of Eva, Walter, and the others, not to mention the great spectacle in the second scene. No, this is not the best opera to perform in concert, and it’s not a good idea to separate the third act from the first two. Actually, I thought of this beforehand, and I saw going to this performance as something of a duty, but this confirmed me in the belief that Die Meistersinger should never be performed in concert, and never as individual acts. Wagner created it as theatre, and it can be nothing else.

It was severely painful for me not to be able to listen through the desecrated vocal lines to the luminous playing of the orchestral parts with more enjoyment. Amplification would not have been needed, if the singers were up in front where they belong. The audience paid to hear these famous singers, but they may as well have listened on their car radio, if that was what they wanted to hear. As it was, it was an insult to everyone, above all, the audience, who loved it, and shouted and clapped at length. I repeat: this must never happen again at Tanglewood, but of course it will. I know of at least one person who hoped to open a friend’s mind to Wagner, but I doubt it worked on this occasion. One woman described it as “just a bunch of men singing the praises of their Big Guy.” Indeed the sight of a host of uniformly clad men and women, looking skywards in inspiration, singing the praises of a great leader, brought up all the unpleasant associations which Wagner’s comic masterpiece does not deserve today.

8 thoughts on “What would “Die Meistersinger” sound like on a cruise ship?

  1. Fascinating–and I suppose not surprising, given the heaviness of Wagner’s orchestration, generally–that basic logistical decisions can have such ramifications for the artistic result.

    In the 19th c., choral/orch. works had the soloists _and the chorus_ in front of the orchestra. Sometimes the chorus was to the front and sides of the orch. But not generally behind it, for all the acoustical reasons that you just experienced regarding the soloists in _Meistersinger_.

    The conductor and musicologist Donna M. Di Grazia (Pomona College) has written a fascinating and richly documented article on this: “Rejected Traditions: Ensemble Placement in Nineteenth-Century Paris,” Nineteenth-Century Music, 22, Fall 1998, 190-209.

  2. Very strong, well done! So many insights — a very complex and
    thoughtful reaction.

    I had a complex reaction, as well.

    Some mollifying and concurring thoughts:

    Since the acoustic setup was rigged to appease the worse seats (like
    mine) and the absent lawn-boys, I was not affected by the interference
    of real/amplified modes. I *only* heard the amplified. Also, I fear,
    much of the show was also aimed at the video accompaniment. The
    mugging of the singers; Botha (seated) in reverie as Morris sings;
    some of the kids — one girl in particular — in ecstasy (genuine, I
    think) with all was a delightful distraction; the Bavarian tankards
    for water. None of this could have been easily witnessed without the
    video projection. I would have been driven crazy hearing both sources
    of output as you did. A travesty, yes. That’s what you get by paying
    for a good seat.

    Your insights about Meistersinger’s essential dependence on real
    staging are very acute, and I concur. But, you know, I grew up knowing
    this work only from the Kubelik recording — well before I had ever
    actually seen it. In part, the complexity of the counterpoint, the
    delicacy and intricacy of the coloring, and the leitmotifs (subtler
    than in the Ring, I think), all created a theatre of the mind in its
    evocation. When I was very young, I had old recordings of Peter & the
    Wolf, and some Disney stories without having seen any actual
    realizations. I still remember the images they evoked. “My”
    Meistersinger existed as an animation long before I finally got to see
    it. For example, the finale of Act I, the trial song, with the
    apprentices dance (that 2 against 3 thing) conjured a cherished visual
    for me that, for me, exists only in some Platonic way.

    You’re absolutely right about the placement of the singers. It was a
    puzzle to me, until you revealed the strategy of line of sight. Even
    with the amplification, the singers were drowned by the orchestra.
    The imbalance was a huge distraction for me as well. I suspect, as
    you do, that the singers had no clue as to how badly the results were.

    I’m accustomed to the Levine-Tanglewood experiment as a listener on
    the lawn. Walkure Act I and Gotterdammerung Act III; Strauss Elektra;
    Mozart Don Giovanni and Berlioz Damnation. I am willing to see some
    grand pieces sitting on the grass, being utterly distracted by kids,
    clinking glasses, and chatter. Why? Certainly, I know these works
    intimately, perhaps in an excess to my neighbors there. But, I’ve
    taken a less sanguine view of the Shed’s acoustics as you do. Thirty
    years ago, when I would have great seats, it was wonderful. But, I
    really believe the majority of seats have no line of sight (poor
    raking), and are inferior for sound. Over the years, as prices
    escalated, cheapskate me began to buy into the lawn, and, hence
    “reduced expectations.”

    It really all is about reduced expectations, sometimes.

    I suspect that Tanglewood is preparing to market mostly to “les
    enfants du paradis” and the casual inclinations of lawn listeners,
    many of whom care little about the music. So, indeed, it is an insult
    to those, like you, who pay for those really good seats and really
    care about the music. The motive may be that by upping the lawn price
    to $16-$17 (five times what it used to be), they make more money with
    picnickers. So, when Tanglewood goes HD broadcast, the best seats in
    the house will be in the tap room of the Red Lion Inn.

    It’s sad, but I think it’s the case. The cellular mentality; reduced
    attention spans —

    You were right in pointing out how well the TMC played, and how
    dedicated it all was. I can’t say that any soloist performed badly
    either. Morris, it may be argued, sings with reserve since he’s
    brilliant at understanding how not to kill his voice.

    Your objections to the wholesale relegation of the listening
    experience to the flat, lifeless video and surround sound, is very
    well taken. The almost impossibility of an adequate concert
    performance of Meistersinger is also spot on. Only for those, like
    me, who have the whole thing in one’s head beforehand, can there be
    any chance of idealizing the experience.

    However, there’s an “excuse” for focusing on Act III. It really has many
    “set” numbers. After all, Walther’s song appears three times
    (transformed, at the end), a quintet (based, again, on Walther’s
    song), a pantomime (Beckmesser – how it anticipates Dukas!), St.
    John’s day, and Beckmesser’s Folly. Who was it who said, “Wagner has
    many great moments, and many boring quarter-hours?” Levine might be
    pandering to those who really believe this. I would have loved the
    other acts, but, there are at least 13 simultaneous independent vocal
    solos at the ends of Act I and II.

    However, behind me were two rows of Tanglewood students with scores, and making
    copious notes (in the dark!). They had started jotting things down
    before the concert. I asked why, and they said they had to write a
    reaction to what they heard. They were all geared up with research,
    lectures, videos, etc. They were so insouciant, and they reacted to
    all the humorous spots with glee. Hearing them, and seeing the screen
    image of that teenager in the fourth desk of 2nd violins, in such
    rapture, in such delight with this music, brought tears to my eyes.
    Hope for continuance of this great music in the hearts of these kids? Levine, to his great credit, is responsible for this with his concentration on Wagner.

    No tears for a travesty of acoustic and video pandering. No.

    If I sat where you were, I’d be every bit as insulted as you were.

    Should Levine be allowed to continue this practice and insult those
    who revere this music as you do? Good question!

  3. Wow! Nice to read some passion. Two of us were sitting a good bit closer to the stage than you and had a different experience. I saw those big speakers and the microphones in front of the soloists and wondered what was going on. But we weren’t really aware of amplification — I wonder if it was aimed somewhat beyond us. Anyhow, I think you are more sonically astute than we.

    I have always been bothered by Levine’s placement of soloists behind the orchestra – one wants to hear them better, but more important, look them in the face and feel that they are the main thing going on, at least in a highly dramatic opera such as Meistersinger. Too bad if amplification is the way to cope with Levine’s placement preferences. From our perspective Saturday, Botha as Walther rang out beautifully, Morris as Sachs seemed lacking in full voice and a bit detached from the role, Ketelsen as Beckmesser very effective, Hong as Eva a bit unsteady in pitch but really good when she had to sing out and hit high notes, Polenzani fine as David. But everybody seemed a bit far away. And the acoustics in the shed are basically fine – I’ve heard the Missa Solemnis from the back row, Levine’s Goetterdaemerung a few years ago from an awful seat way over on the side, and all sounded fine without amplification (of course in the latter case soloists were behind the orchestra, but they were people with exceptionally big voices).

    I think you’re right that Meistersinger is not the best piece for concert performance, it’s SO wonderful in the theater. Still, my companion hadn’t heard it before, and the gloriousness of it all came through to both of us – Botha’s prize song, Morris in passages, the Beckmesser and the incredibly imaginative music for him which the orchestra rendered so wonderfully, the start of the final scene with all the choruses and trumpets… It’s great to see Beckmesser poking around the stage, as you say, but just hearing his music I woke up again to its amazing highly inventive, almost futuristic quality. And I was about to explode (in a good sense) with the build-up of the final scene.

    Well, let’s see what develops at Tanglewood with future performances. And let’s not go the way of the cruise ship without letting it be said that somebody cares.

  4. Our editor has a right to go gale force on the issue of amplification if he hated it that much. I wasn’t at this Meistersinger, but at the Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere of Golijov’s Ainadamar, I noticed that the voices were being amplified. No one around me seemed to, however, even when I pointed out that Dawn Upshaw was unlikely to be louder than a full brasss section. One season subscriber hotly denied that such a practice could ever take place.

    Frankly, I had a back seat in the Music Shed for Britten’s War Requiem a few seasons back, and any means of making the soloists audible would have been welcome. In the terrible acoustics of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, amplification turned out to be the only viable remedy. The Met’s huge gilded barn could use it, too. After all, the millions now watching on simulcast around the country hear the singers through microphones.

    Michael Miller has Wagner on his side, of course, with the covered orchestra at Bayreuth to underscore who comes first — the singers. In the end, as voices grow smaller and smaller, especially in Baroque operas, the singers may tacitly agree to be amplified, not as a regrettable recourse to technology but as a means of making sure they reach the listeners who paid to hear them.

  5. Bravo to Michael Miller for his righteous indignation. I had precisely the same experience with a Barenboim Tristan several years ago at Ravinia, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony. The distorted amplification so disfigured the music that I have never gone back to the venue, which in any event has put increasing emphasis on popular music. An orchestra member told me that the conductor couldn’t hear how bad the sound was from the stage; if he had I can’t believe someone as fastidious as Barenboim would have permitted it.

    Many years ago I was at the opening concert of the then new Ravinia Pavilion and remember thinking how excellent the acoustics were. Concert operas were done there and the singers could be heard perfectly well. But the audience expectation for loudness is now so great we will only get more and more of this kind of thing. Thank goodness there is a gem of a small theater at Ravinia where chamber music and song recitals are done. I look forward later this month to a week of unamplified Matthias Goerne, who will sing all three Schubert cycles with Christoph Eschenbach.

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