Monday, October 21, 2013

Weekly Interlude 20: Staatsoper Shenanigans

Augarten Park
It's officially Fall in Vienna, complete with fiery orange leaves and cool, crisp air. It reminds me of Fall in New England, a nice dose of home. Last weekend, I went to the Augarten, a large park two U-Bahn stops away from my apartment. Imagine: late afternoon, clear blue skies and the golden slant of sun, families laughing, couples jogging, kids playing kickball, a white, fluffy dog running on the grass, tree-lined pathways, wooden benches, two men playing accordions a hundred feet away. I sat under a square-cut tree for a few hours, reading and occasionally glancing up to breathe in the life all around me.

So much green in the middle of Wien!
This week has been full of music. I had three voice lessons -- hooray! -- and I can feel the progress I'm making. A lot of what I'm working on involves changing the way I think about the most basic musical concepts -- pitch, for example. As a rather visual learner, I tend to treat pitches as discrete and distinct units, specific places of high, middle, and low as represented on the grand staff. While it's true that pitch needs to be specific (in order to sing in tune), treating pitches as "high" and "low" can give you a lot of trouble when you sing. For me, thinking about singing "high" results in my larynx (voice box) popping up and tensing (when it should, in fact, be low and calm). Now I'm working on mentally conceptualizing a different form of musical notation: basically, I'm shifting from treating pitch as a staircase (rigid) to pitch as a rubber band (flexible). Confused? Well, who ever said singing was easy? It takes a LOT of mental energy; learning to sing is often more about mental discipline than anything else. Coordination, observation, instruction, flexibility.
Tree-lined paths at Augarten

But the result of all this is that I sustained a "high" note on Saturday -- I wouldn't have been able to do it even a few weeks ago! It was so exciting; I went in with my plan, and then I executed it. I got out of my own way, and BAM. High note. Singing is so fun :)

I'm a day or two late in writing this blog entry, but in my defense, I spent well over half of yesterday at the Staatsoper, or State Opera House. Renée Fleming was singing the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier (a comic opera by Richard Strauss), which is one of my favorite operas. Now, in Vienna, true opera lovers don't waste hundreds of euros on prime seats; they go for standing room, which only costs 3-4 euros. There are three sections: Parterrestehplatz (standing room on the floor; literally the best "seats" in the house), Balkonstehplatz (skip it; you can't see anything), and Galleriestehplatz (the sound is best way up here). This year, I've been going for the Gallerie because you don't have to line up so early, but Eliza and I decided to spring for Parterre yesterday.

The entrance to Augarten Park
For the six o'clock opera, we lined up at 2:10 p.m. Talk about hard core! And we weren't anywhere close to being the first ones in line! Three hours before the start of every opera, the man who operates the standing room line lets everybody wait inside. Yesterday, with ten minutes to spare before the door was due to open, I ran to a nearby bakery to get sandwiches for dinner later; when I returned, the man had let everybody inside early. And because I had left the line, he wouldn't allow me to take my same place, as per standing room line rules, so I was sent to the back. I'm usually so careful about timing everything because it's so frustrating to get into line four hours in advance and then lose your spot. (If he hadn't let the line in early...) Anyway, it turned out alright because Eliza sneakily saved me a spot -- which you're not technically allowed to do, but I'm a tiny person, so it worked.

Through the trees at Augarten
Standing room line, so cut-throat every time, was only the beginning of a bizarre (though lovely) evening. The man standing next to Eliza switched her subtitles prompter from English into German during the first intermission. When the rather rotund baritone playing Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau made his grand entrance in Act II -- adorned in a mustard-colored velvet dress coat and complementary red fez -- somebody wolf-whistled. Between Acts II and III, a man came on stage to announce that the woman playing the role of Sophie had to see a doctor and wouldn't be able to finish the production. Enter the cover (understudy, who was wonderful). I've never had such a strange standing-room experience.

Der Rosenkavalier runs just shy of four-and-a-half hours. It's an investment. In 2012, I saw this production with Nina Stemme and Elina Garanca, who were so unbelievably brilliant. (I've never seen a performer like Garanca before; she's unparalleled.) While the singers/actors were incredible in that production, I think I preferred last night's performance overall. I found myself laughing out loud, literally, at many points, whereas the 2012 version seemed, somehow, more tender than comic. I think one of the reasons I love this opera so much is that it strikes a balance between comedy and more solemn issues (aging, letting go, etc.). Renée Fleming, of course, was lovely. She's one of the most elegant people I've ever seen on stage. I'd love to see Garanca and Fleming in the same production, but if that ever happens, I'll have to stake out the standing room line 24 hours before the show starts!

Welcome, Fall!
The final trio (and emotional climax) in Der Rosenkavalier (starting at 4:00 in this link) makes the entire four-and-a-half hours worth it. To summarize: Octavian, a 17-year-old boy (played by a mezzo-soprano), hesitates between the Marschallin, with whom he had an affair (that ended in Act I), and Sophie, the young woman he loves and met after the Marschallin. The Marschallin, still in love with the young Octavian, gracefully encourages the boy to follow his heart and choose Sophie. The first time I heard it, it didn't even occur to me to read the subtitles; no translation necessary because the music speaks for itself. This trio marked one of my first truly transcendent musical experiences, and this time was no different. The music fills me from the inside out. It's like watching sunshine stream in through a stained glass window, the light branching off into hundreds of different colors and patterns. It crescendos, unfolding layer upon layer of magic. Whenever I hear it, I feel suspended, as though my breathing is controlled by the music itself. Last night, the orchestra played incomparably, rising up to meet the singers and surpassing them when it all became too much for three single voices to carry. Music like this comes from within, making you aware of all the invisible parts of you -- all the thoughts and feelings you didn't know you could have.

And on that note (pun semi-intended), it's time to begin the week.

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