We stride on two levels, I think. There’s the domestic life, the day-to-day, the gainings of friendships and expertise. And then there’s the moment of deep insight, a flash of a hidden facet – the pattern of a façade, a new interpretation of a famous piece of music, that makes you believe you’ve comprehended the shape of things.
On Valentine’s Day, my fiancée and I attended the first opera I’d seen in many years – Mozart’s The Magic Flute, performed by the Yale Opera. It was truly a production for our age, a thing of very high quality indeed. It managed to translate Mozart’s Enlightenment philosophies perfectly into the contemporary idiom, while flashing additional little insights from the right now. The costuming of this Singspiel spoke volumes: Pamino in burgundy, Tamina in a blue-white gown reminiscent of Snow White; male choristers in turbans, female choristers in Women’s Temperance League hats, the Three Spirits as American Revolutionaries, and Papageno and Papagena – the true scene-and-show-stealers in both panache and vocal quality – birds of a feather in 19th-century French Bohemian linens.
When you put it that way, and remember that Die Zauberflöte premiered on September 30, 1791, it’s pretty easy to gather what Mozart might have been thinking about: music as the magical, reconciling element, enlightening society and freeing it from slavery. (An excellent added touch: as Tamino and Pamina ascend to the wedding altar, the three Revolutionary Sprites are ring-bearers, and don the coats of Colonial statesmen as they bring forth the wedding rings.)
Papageno is normally interpreted as the earthy Everyman, a one-man parodic ensemble of false bravado, layabout and souse. And, most often, he’s clothed in the green, parrot-like feathers of the literal-minded fantasist. But in the YSO’s production, he was a counterculture wit, a raconteur, a Lothario, and a bon vivant too. Astride the idealized journey of the principals, he became the charismatic focus: the counterpointed comedic lament of the Young Individual who, by Fortune’s force, must unwillingly accompany Tamino on his quest.
I want to hear some pa-pa-pa. Don’t you? Here they are, in another interesting interpretation, with Papageno and Papagena finding each other late in life:
Opera is a thing of grand passions, of ideas that aspire to the universal – the willed modeling of intense emotion and great themes into something of sublime pleasure for the ear and eye. In these times – which we must describe as epic – opera is a living and vital element of the right now, even as it sings of epics past.
This is why I’m so intrigued by the orchestration of Travel Dynamics International’s Mediterranean opera cruise, which will run from September 30-October 9, 2009. (Venice, Ancona, Split, Dubrovnik, Santorini, Rhodes, Ephesus, Athens – on the Corinthian II, “the gold standard of expedition cruising,” including all meals, drinks, lectures, performances, and shore excursions, private-car transfer to the airport, free night in Athens, and a complimentary CD of an unreleased performance at Carnegie Hall, rates available here.)
A special guest for this cruise is Marilyn Horne, who has been one of America’s most beloved opera singers during her four-decade career (over 1,300 recitals). It’s an occasion in honor of Ms. Horne’s 75th birthday and the 15th anniversary of the Marilyn Horne Foundation, a nonprofit she founded to ensure that young singers in this new millennium have the same opportunities she had, and that the vocal recital remains a viable and living art form in this country.
Indeed, this cruise is itself a work of art, a fine classical performance with an outstanding ensemble cast. There’s Fred Plotkin, author of Opera 101, himself a raconteur and bon vivant who, like Papageno, loves wine and food (so much so he’s written over two dozen books on the really dolce vita of Italian food, wine, opera, classical music, and “Italy for the gourmet traveler”). He’s a renaissance man with a passion for the Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Since that’s where this cruise begins, you can expect him to be on fine form – an exuberant gourmand with an ear for music.
Also on board will be Columbia professor Alan Cameron. In 2005, Prof. Cameron was awarded the Lionel Trilling Book Award for his study Greek Mythography in the Roman World. The book describes how ancient Romans came to learn the Greek mythical structure.
“What Alan Cameron does is to follow his own curiosity,” said one of Cameron’s colleagues, instead of “worrying about what other people are working on.”
What is this cruise? It’s doing some very interesting things, isn’t it. To me, it isn’t just about food and wine and art and “the luxury experience” (whatever that means) but, literally, about the good life. Which isn’t about how much you’ve got, but what varied experiences you’ve had. And what stories you’ll enjoy telling.
It’s about translation – translating myth into music, narrative into song (and from original libretto to modern English surtitling, even) – translating music into food (“if food be the music of love, play on”) and food into life, translating Greek philosophy into Roman life, translating scholarship to the non-academic public, and translating culture from one generation to the next, from one culture to the next. (After all, every American generation is its own culture.) This is the music of travel, its unifying of arts, for the health of the culture.