Yesterday I alluded to my plan to go over to the San Francisco Conservatory to observe a Master Class conducted by Kiri Te Kanawa. This was a donor's event held in conjunction with the annual Conservatory Gala, which meant, among other things, that I did not approach it as an Examiner.com event. Furthermore, since I am limited to observing the practice of music, rather than practicing it in any serious way, I approach occasions like these in terms of taking what I can get out of them. Thus, at the beginning of this season, I used a similar event, at which the "master teacher" was pianist Leon Fleisher, as a point of departure for raising a couple of questions about Fleisher's pedagogical approach. Needless to say, I never got any answers from Fleisher; but the questions "seeded" a couple of trains of thought that I subsequently followed.
This time around I had no questions to raise regarding Dame Te Kanawa's approach. As I have observed with other vocal master classes, she is particularly attentive to the need for the vocalist to treat the whole body as the "instrument;" and much of her guidance homed in on how to honor "the music itself" through proper physical management of that "instrument." Nevertheless, the context I ended up bringing with me to this class triggered a fascinating free association during one of the performances; and, because it is so often the case that we cannot control our contexts, I wanted to share this particular impression.
The trigger was provided by Kittinant Chinsamran, a bass-baritone who recently received a Post Graduate Diploma in vocal performance from the Conservatory and is now artist-in-residence at the San Francisco School of the Arts. He chose to perform the air "Revenge, revenge, Timotheus cries" from George Frideric Handel's oratorio Alexander's Feast. This is the opening air of Part Two, Part One having ended with Alexander (the Great) getting a bit drowsy (and melancholy) from all the wine being served at his victory feast. Thus, the air is preceded by a tenor accompagnato to the text:
Now strike the golden lyre again,
A louder yet — and yet a louder strain!
Break his bands of sleep asunder,
And rouse him, like a rattling peal of thunder.
This is pretty much what the "Revenge" air does, invoking the memory of Alexander's soldiers:
… that in battle were slain,
And unbury'd, remain
Inglorious on the plain.
Timotheus invokes these spirits as:
… a ghastly band,
Each a torch in his hand!
Under most circumstances I would have simply accepted this as the sort of rhetoric one could expect in 1736 England; but it happened that, on the night before this event, my wife and I happened to see the Cinemax broadcast (saved on the VTR) of Hellboy II: The Golden Army. As a result I found myself thinking about how the visual imagination of Guillermo del Toro could be applied to Newburgh Hamilton's text (hardly a monument of English literature). This led to further thoughts about the decided Baroque element in del Toro's visual conceptions; and, if del Toro could capture imagery suitable for the rather mundane setting of a victory feast, what might he do with those Baroque operas in which the supernatural plays a much greater role?
The lesson from this experience seems to be that, while there is no doubt that "opera lives," that life draws as much from the context of our contemporary influences as it does from the merits of the "opera text" itself.