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ECON 4400

Lecture 7 Clements 1 School of Arts and Letters, Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies Summer 2009 AK/HUMA 1780 6.0A Stories in Diverse Media Wilde Pictures and Sounds: More Representations of the Femme Fatale Salome, the Opera by Richard Strauss (1864-1949) So here it is, the moment you've been dreading … opera. Yes, you'll need to listen to/watch the excerpt specified, but it should be relatively painless as it will only be 5-10 minutes of your life. So far, I've been focusing on the two larger concepts that are implied by the title of this course: stories (narrative) and different media, using the term adaptation. Just to clarify, by media, which is the plural form of medium (please remember this come essay time), I'm referring to the material through which a story is conveyed, not to the media, as in the national enquirer, the paparazzi, or the news. Opera is not only one of the art forms through which we can discuss one of our designated stories, but it is also one that combines various media. Like film, opera unites several of the arts when it is performed. It is a significant precursor to a couple of art forms with which you are very familiar: movies, of course, together with their music, as well as multimedia forms of representation, such as computers. Opera combined media more than most other art forms long before the concept of multimedia became popular in the early 1990s with computers. In many ways, opera was the nineteenth century version of today's hip media, such as film and video games. Importantly, opera also involved technological innovation and was known for its ability to produce a spectacle—two more elements that the film industry developed. Opera viewers went to the theater to be awed, not only by the singing, but also by the Lecture 7 Clements 2 visual spectacle of elaborate costumes, lighting wizardry, and inventive and technologically advanced set design. Opera goers went to the theatre to partake in the illusion of being carried away to another place, to lose themselves in another moment in time and space. Sounds like a night out at the movies, does it not? One of the people who dominated opera in the nineteenth century was Richard Wagner (1813-1883) (See Lecture Summary Slide 2). There are a few things you need to know about Wagner to help make more sense out of what you will hear/see. Wagner was responsible for transforming the art of opera in the nineteenth century into what he called the total work of art, or in German, Gesamtkunstwerk. He theorized that opera would be the perfect medium through which to combine many, if not all, of the art forms within the framework of drama. Hearkening back to ancient Greek drama, Wagner suggested this ancient stuff had it right because it combined the elements of dance, music, and poetry. The separation of those elements, the theory goes, had diminished their expressive force and only in the total work of art could they regain their initial dignity, according to Wagner. The three arts of dancing, music, and poetry, then, would combine in the actor of the future. We call that a "triple threat" in show biz—someone who can dance, sing, and act … you know, like Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, and Britney. (Yes, I'm joking.) You can see from these examples, however, that it's actually quite difficult to possess such a variety of talents, giving us a bit of a clue as to the abilities needed to portray Strauss's multi-talented character of Salome. Such a part necessitates an opera singer who can sing for just under 2 hours over a huge, ear-splitting orchestra, as well as dance and act. Typically, with such a difficult role, one of the arts seems to suffer (in this case, it's often the dancing). Opera singers train their voices extensively and also work on Lecture 7 Clements 3 their acting, but they usually leave the dancing to the dancers as there are few roles that require it. Wagner is also responsible for changing the structure of the art form. With his idea of the total work of art he theorized that the recitative (sung speech) and the arias (think of them as songs, set pieces in which the singer emotes about life, death, or love, etc.) should no longer be separate. In the past, these two types of singing were separate in opera, particularly during W. A. Mozart's time. But Wagner wanted to change this. He thought opera should be through-composed, meaning there should be no break or difference between the sung speech (recitative) that tells you what is happening in terms of the plot, and the songs (arias) that slow down the action but accentuate the music and the virtuosity of the vocal performer. Again, this was to emulate Greek drama. So an opera, according to Wagner, and, subsequently, Strauss, should not alternate back and forth between the moments where you learn about the plot, the events or action, and the moments when a heightened emotional state is communicated within an aria. You will notice this when you listen to the example, whether or not you're aware of it, because it's what makes it feel like the opera is so slow. They repeat things over and over, and you are told about an upcoming event several times before it actually happens. Salome says, oh, five, six, ten times that she is going to kiss John's mouth, gosh darn it, but only does so after singing for another ten minutes. The effect of this slower event sequence is to accentuate the music, of course. So, this brings us to Richard Strauss, the composer of the opera based on Wilde's play. Strauss was the leading figure in German opera for the first half of the twentieth century and he was largely a follower of Wagner's compositional philosophies. At the Lecture 7 Clements 4 beginning of the twentieth century, Strauss was just starting to make a name for himself. He had had some success with his first two operas but he was still looking to make a big splash on the musical scene. Right at this time, Wilde's "Salomé" was doing quite well in Germany, although not so well in Paris or England. But in 1902 a new German translation was staged with spectacular success. A young Viennese poet thought that this play might make quite a cultural spectacle so he sent Strauss a copy of the play proposing to adapt a libretto from it. Although Strauss did not take this poor chap up on it, the idea of the play did peak his interest and after seeing it in 1903 he decided to set the Hedwig Lachmann translation of the text as it stood (although with healthy cuts to the original). Strauss's operatic version only uses 1/3 of Wilde's text, which is short to begin with as far as plays go. Remember Wilde's "Salomé" is only one act, as opposed to a Shakespearean play, for example, which is typically five acts, as is Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion that you will read for next day. As I mentioned in the last lecture, Wilde's play is an example of a borrowed adaptation. He borrowed his material from historical and biblical texts that only supplied him with the bare essentials to craft a story. He then added several important things to the mix including: minor characters (the Young Syrian, the page of Herodias); development of the main characters (not only Salomé, but John, Herod, and Herodias); the motivations behind these characters' actions; some aspects of the setting, most notably John the Baptist's cistern, which is a creation of Wilde's; the death of Salomé at the end of his play; and lastly, some important and historically pertinent themes for the end of the nineteenth century, such as artistic decadence, obsession, love, and death. As I've argued, Wilde was less concerned with making religious proclamations or documenting historical Lecture 7 Clements 5 facts than he was with espousing and performing artistic principles through his characters. Strauss's opera takes its primary subject matter and text from Wilde's play, and, therefore, would be considered an adaptation that attempts to be faithful to its source text. Strauss's opera, then, is an example of the "fidelity" effect. Several of Wilde's narrative elements—plot, character development, setting, themes−carry over from his source text to Strauss's adapted text. Nevertheless, there are still significant differences between the two. I’ve included the final words to the last aria Lecture Summary Slide 3 (these words begin at about 5:40) as well as two sound files in the Lecture folder—the dance of the seven veils and the final aria. Please watch the final scene in a video version (9:52 minutes) on Youtube and listen to the dance before reading on (you can also watch the dance if you like, but be forewarned, this is an opera singer dancing, rarely a good idea!): The Final Aria: The Dance: Of course, the most significant, even intrusive, difference between Wilde's and Strauss's versions is the addition of the music. So, what exactly does that mean? And how
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