Ironically for a festival of all of Wagner’s works, no production in Leipzig featured a Wagner Curtain. Three types of front curtain were used: a traverse curtain (parting in the middle and pulled along a track to the sides of the stage, first revealing the center of the stage set), a drop curtain (pulled upward as a whole and first revealing the bottom of the stage set), and a solid wall that was formed by closing the fire curtain separating the backstage area from the house.
One of the many stagecraft innovations created by Wagner for his theatre in Bayreuth, the Wagner Curtain is an effort to avoid the audience’s seeing only part of the stage picture at first rise – the ankles of the actors in the case of the drop curtain and the center of the set in the case of the traverse curtain. By use of cords sewn into each curtain panel at a slight curve, the lower corner of each panel could be pulled both upward and outward, revealing the stage much as the iris movement of a camera. Many of the world’s leading opera houses use the Wagner Curtain, including Covent Garden and the Met (which we are told is the largest in the world).
My sister loves attending opera and viscerally hates other people who do the same thing. It’s impossible to conduct any conversation with her during intermission, and address any topic other than the people sitting near her. And she is amusingly profane: “The a**hole next to me brought a hoagie and unwrapped it ten minutes after the curtain went up. I mean, who brings a f***ing hoagie to the opera?”
I experienced the same amazement in Leipzig at the end of Tristan. During the Liebestod, a woman sitting in the row in front of me began fiddling with her bag and eventually extracted her cell phone. By the climax of the piece she had powered it on and was fooling around with the apps. When the solo trumpet sounded and the last chord settled in, a very bright light came on as she tested her camera.
Why does someone who paid good money to attend Tristan behave that way? And even if she does, does she think she’s the only person in the theatre?
Among the many “peripheral” events of the festival was a recital of piano music by and about Wagner. In the course of the recital, Moderator Ugo D’Orazio performed three “Improvisations” by Russian-born composer Eduard Schütt (1856-1933): One on “O du mein holder Abendstern” from Tannhäuser; one on the Pilgrim’s Chorus from the same work; and the third on themes from Der fliegende Holländer. These were wonderfully entertaining, much more to my taste than the transcriptions made by Liszt from Wagner themes. I have searched online for recordings of these and other Wagner-inspired works by Schütt and can find nothing. I do wish these pieces were available for repeated listening.
This composer was well known to Cosima, who offered him the musical leadership of Bayreuth in 1887. But he turned it down.
I took part in a backstage tour of the Leipzig opera house, rebuilt by East Germany in 1960 after destruction in the firestorm resulting from the December 3, 1943, Allied bombardment.
It is a massive operation and the tour guide took us to lighting storage spaces, costume storage, backstage itself (where the set for Rheingold was assembled), rehearsal rooms, and elsewhere. It provided yet another source of admiration for this organization and its ambition. In an orderly chaos, one could see what it takes to present 13 productions in the course of 22 days. Who decides what scenery wagons should be stored stage left, stage right, backstage, in the alleyway behind the stage, in the scenery dock, or off site? And the fly space – what is hung and what is taken down? The wagons of props, the lines and lines of chorus costumes, the dressing rooms occupied for 24 hours or even less by internationally renowned stars. When will the stage itself be used for lighting rehearsals? For dress rehearsals? For set take-down and build-up? What we are watching from the front is a mere shadow of the labor that is going on.
Napoleon conquered most of Europe by force. Stalin conquered a good piece of it by coercion. America has conquered it by Mickey Mouse and Burger King.
The prevalence of American culture in German cities is arresting. T-shirts naming cities don’t announce Paris or Beijing or Rome; they say New York or Los Angeles or Chicago. Most pervasive are the caps. It may be that one out of seven males, aged between 12 and 20, walking through Leipzig or Berlin or Dresden, wore baseball caps. And a good quarter of those caps had the emblem of the New York Yankees. I can’t conceive that these folks were baseball enthusiasts. Rather, they wanted to sport the letters “NY.”
I had a serious chat with a young lawyer friend in Helsinki just before the Leipzig Festival, and we discussed reputational uncertainties among America’s international allies. I kept fishing for more concern on his part but it just didn’t come. “When you think about it as a Finnish person,” he said, “if I did not live in my own home, of all the places in the world I would like to live, it is of course New York. And so many of us feel that way.”