Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mozart's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Moment

Last July I gave National Security Advisor James L. Jones a Chutzpah of the Week award. It was not only that he was taking a tough stand against military brass who were trying every available method to bring more troops to Afghanistan but also that he could invoke military rhetoric to make it clear just how tough that stand was. What did the trick for me was when he told that brass that, if Barack Obama was presented with a request for additional troops, he would have "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment." Everyone in the room got the message; but Bob Woodward still felt it necessary to provide an explanation to Washington Post readers (which can be found on the other side of the above hyperlink). Since that time I have come to realize that "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" is as much a part of today's military language as "SNAFU" was during the Second World War; and, just as "SNAFU" found its way into our general vocabulary, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" will probably do the same, particularly since the texting community may have started the whole thing with their use of "WTF."

All this was on my mind on Monday night when I attended the San Francisco Opera Insight Panel for the new production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, nicely summarized by Cindy Warner for Examiner.com. Since that sentence may prompt a few Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments of its own, I had better explain. It involves what I feel is a major challenge to any director staging the opera and concerns what happens in the quartet at the end of the second act. For those unfamiliar with the opera, the basic plot is about a noblewoman (Konstanze) being held captive (along with her maid, Blonde) by a Turkish Pasha. Her beloved Belmonte comes to Turkey to rescue her with the aid of his servant, Pedrillo, who was captured along with Konstanze and Blonde. This quartet is the first moment at which all four of these characters are united; and Belmonte and Pedrillo have devised "a cunning plan" to spring the ladies from their captivity. In the midst of all this planning, Belmonte gets tongue-tied. Something is bothering him, and finally he blurts out to Konstanze that he needs to know if she has been faithful to him. This, for me, was the perfect example of a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment; and Konstanze makes no bones about letting Belmonte know it! However, even though Konstanze sticks to her guns, I worry about whether or not most directors feel this is just Mozart indulging in the sexist humor of the time.

Thinking more about this as a staging challenge, I realized that any production of an opera that is not contemporary has to deal with two readings. There is the interpretation that is most consistent with the thinking of the librettist and composer (which is why a company will often hire a dramaturge to help figure out what that interpretation ought to be). In Entführung this is the interpretation that is grounded in a comedic view of love as a behavior that makes fools of all touched by it (as in, for example, A Midsummer Night's Dream). The second interpretation is the director's own reading that takes the contemporary audience into account and may accept or reject as much or as little of the first interpretation as his/her personal judgment thinks is appropriate.

In the Insight Panel director Chas Rader-Shieber talked about trying to work with a design that makes the transition from the world of artifact to the world of human values. (I saw a production of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos in Paris that pulled off this trick beautifully, and I shall never forget it!) The world of human values has many virtues; but it is not necessarily a world in which the protagonists "live happily every after." In this quartet there is at least a faint suggestion that Konstanze's life with Belmonte will not be that all different from her life under the Pasha. How will she react when she discovers that? Her indignation indicates that she can be a take-charge woman, more like Despina's character in Cosi fan Tutte than that of the ditzy sisters who are that opera's protagonists. The curtain may fall on Konstanze's freedom from the Pasha (owing more to the Pasha's sense of mercy than to the success of that "cunning plan"); but the story continues. There is nothing wrong with our leaving the opera house thinking about that continuation, particularly if the director is trying to get beyond the stereotypes of low comedy in search of something higher!

1 comment:

Dan said...

I frequently have these kinds of moments in reaction to Broadway musicals. It never happened until I started to play lengthy runs of them, so had time to ruminate from the obscurity of the orchestra pit about what was really going on, instead of the surface conceit. Here are a few of the fantasy spoilers:

Carousel: a paean to wife-abusers. The bully Billy Bigelow is for some reason given chance after chance to redeem himself, and even in the very last chance, well after his death, he doesn't perform all that well.

Brigadoon: Where do I start? A village of cowards. A contrived limitation on the "miracle" that locks all the villagers into the village, even if there is nothing there for them (Harry Beeton.) I do enjoy thinking about the villagers going to sleep one night in 1887 in their bucolic setting, only to awaken the "next morning" under a freeway ramp in suburban Edinburgh. And there's even a puzzling messianic figure -- Mr. Forsythe, the agent of the village miracle, had to sacrifice himself by remaining in the real (sane?) world in some sort of karmic payment for the whole schmear. Beautiful music, though.

West Side Story: I find myself wanting to shout from the pit: "Don't you remember last night? She's not really . . . " All that unnecessary angst gets old after a while. Relevant side comment: Did you ever see the YouTube about how older movies would have been changed if cell phones had been introduced sooner? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yH2B9F-GPm0

Oklahoma: Jud Fry. Poor guy. Not clear we've found any palliatives for this particular malady to this day, although it could just be clinical depression, I guess.

Phantom: Where was Child Services 20 years ago?

Les Miserables: Get a life, Javert! Talk about OCD.

Dan Swinehart