Friday, September 8, 2017

“It’s still the same old story …”

Last night San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the first Insight Panel for its 2017–18 repertory season. The topic was Richard Strauss’ one-act opera “Elektra,” which will be given its first performance tomorrow night. The production is being shared with the National Theatre in Prague and the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe, and the staging by Keith Warner was given its world premiere in Prague about a year ago.

Personally, I found that the most interesting part of last night’s discussion arose from the contribution by Anja Kühnhold, who is responsible for bringing Warner’s staging to San Francisco. After apologizing in advance for any problems with her English, she did an excellent job of accounting for the revisionist qualities of Warner’s concept. This included both shifting the context of the narrative to a museum and extensive use of video to supplement the action on the stage.

All this led to a generous amount of informative discussion on questions of dramatic interpretation, particularly when the drama is as intense has Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s play of the same name, which was based substantially on Sophocles’ drama, also of the same name. This discussion continued into the Q&A session with the audience, when a gentleman who had attended the final dress rehearsal (one of the benefits of SFO membership) made note of his difficulty in following the synopsis. (The audience for open rehearsals is given a single sheet with cast information on one side and a synopsis of the plot on the other. English supertitles are displayed during the rehearsal.)

This observation left me surprised and a bit perplexed. The dark fate of the House of Atreus had been part of the “core curriculum” for the first semester of my freshman year. We did not read Sophocles, but we did read all three of the Oresteia plays by Aeschylus. For that matter, we also read the Odyssey. I remember how, after Odysseus killed all of Penelope’s would-be Suitors, their souls all made a mass entrance into the underworld. As they come pouring in, Agamemnon is sitting off to the side, musing the the virtues of having a faithful wife!

The fact is that the story of Agamemnon’s children avenging his murder by his wife is a very old one. (That brief moment in the Odyssey strongly suggests that bards were singing about it long before Aeschylus turned it into a play.) Its inclusion as “core curriculum content” suggests that the story is not only very old but also very enduring (as enduring as, for example, the murder of Abel by Cain). Why should a synopsis of Strauss’ opera (which would basically be a synopsis of Sophocles’ play) be difficult to follow?

These circumstances strongly tempt me to get back on my hobby-horse about how the Internet has created a society that is not only ignorant of history but also proud of that ignorance. However, I may be looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The issue is not so much a neglect of the past as it is a focus on the immediate present that is so intense that there is no room for anything else. For better or worse, there is a prevailing mindset that cannot seem to deal with any past more distant than the latest text message or tweet; and anything that is retained in memory only lasts long enough to spur a reaction. After that is is “out of sight, out of mind.”

In that context I find myself looking forward to seeing just what Warner and Kühnhold have done with the idea of creating a staging based on a museum. After all, museums serve as vessels for memories, just as writing does. As vessels, they bring the distant past into the immediate present, simply by virtue of our inhabiting the space that they occupy.

We used to benefit from those vessels for their ability to fend off ignorance of history. When Hofmannsthal wrote his play, he was, in many respects, building a “German museum” for an ancient Greek narrative, so ancient that it predated the writing of the first dramas. Strauss reconceived that “museum concept” through the music of his opera. Why should not the staging of that opera take that “museum concept” to yet another level? If we cannot turn the prevailing tide of ignorance of history, perhaps we can at least revive a bit of interest in the nature of memory.

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