14 January 2012

Kennst du das Buch?

An illustration from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister:
She’s been singing while the old guy plays the harp and the young guy listens, and that’s about as much as I can tell you about the story, for now.

To say that I’m excited about Susan Graham’s recital tour (now underway and arriving at New York’s Carnegie Hall on February 1, with the heroic Malcolm Martineau at the piano) would be an understatement of a sort to which I am not prone when Susan is the subject. By far the bulk of the program is given over to material Susan hadn’t sung before opening night (in Québec), including the first number in Russian she has ever performed in public — because if there’s one thing Susan is bad at, it’s coasting.

Perhaps most intriguing is a set of five songs, by five composers, inspired by the character Mignon, from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjare (usually translated as “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship”). An appealing character, apparently, Mignon herself sings in the novel, and she inspired several 19th-century composers, notably with “Kennst du das Land?” (“Do you know the country?”), which everybody from Franz Schubert to our dear contemporary, Mark Adamo, has set. Ambroise Thomas wrote an entire opera on Wilhelm Meister, and named it after Mignon.

Suddenly it occurred to me that I’ve never read Wilhelm Meister. I daresay that Susan could sing the tax code in Chinese and still manage to connect with me on a spiritual level — but why not read the book? I had no answer to that question, and so I’ve loaded it onto my Kindle.

Susan Graham in recital, Québec, January 6, 2012

I’ll update you on my progress, and I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with Goethe, of whose work I know only two other monuments: Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther. (Those books inspired two of Susan’s most distinguished stage roles, Marguerite in Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust and Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther.)

With a view primarily to impressing the admissions officers of Harvard College, I read Faust in a dual-language edition; the stunt didn’t work, and while I remember the framework, I don’t remember the brushstrokes, as it were: neither German nor English text stuck in my head.

Werther I read in English, but at a time when an ex-girlfriend was about to marry. I was homeless at the time, sleeping on a friend’s sofa, and I dreamt — surely as Werther himself must have done, when Lotte married Albert — that I could hear the happy couple making love in the night. Let’s just say that I understand why Goethe’s novel provoked a rash of sympathetic suicides when it was first published.

Susan as Massenet’s Charlotte, with Rolando Villazón as Werther.
I was lucky enough to see them in this production
in Paris a few years ago.

Will Wilhelm Meister enhance my appreciation of Susan’s performance? There’s only one way to find out. But as I move forward, I’m reminded of something Beverly Sills said during my first-ever interview, backstage in her dressing-room in Dallas. “You have to do your homework,” she said about opera-going.

In those days, she was especially right. We had no projected titles in those days, children, and so we had to read the libretto before we went to the theater, or else risk getting hopelessly lost in the flow of foreign languages. At the very least, we had to read a plot synopsis, so that we understood that Alfredo was Violetta’s boyfriend, and not her dad or some guy she picked up on the street.

Nowadays it’s easier, and even I sometimes go to a show without having studied up on it. But in “winging it,” I’ve lost something, I know. By doing my “homework” for the opera, I wound up learning a lot — and not least that there existed a great wide world beyond the horizons I could see from where I stood.

Susan herself has spoken eloquently about listening to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts on Saturday afternoons and dreaming of that wider world. Now it’s she who points out new horizons to the people who are lucky enough to hear her. I am one among them, and I am glad of it.

Okay. Back to my homework.

Susan Graham and Malcolm Martineau

January 14, 2012:
Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall at Univesity of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA

January 18, 2012:
CSU Northridge, Valley Performing
Arts Center
, Northridge, CA

January 22, 2012:
Spivey Hall, Morrow, GA

January 28, 2012: Koerner Hall at Telus Centre, Toronto, ON

February 1, 2012: Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

February 4, 2012: Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington, DC

1 comment:

Tan said...

Nein, ich kenne es nicht :)