Mesocosm

"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

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The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones

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Conrad Aiken’s beautiful and haunting little book of poems uses E. A. Wallis Budge’s translation of the Egyptian Book of Going Forth by Day, popularly known as the Book of the Dead, as a framework for exploring that which is eternal in the light of individual, transitory experience.

While the Book of the Dead instructs souls journeying to the afterlife on the visions they will see and the trials they must pass, Aiken makes an afterlife of this very world, giving voice to chairs, rooms, mirrors, and various other objects and allowing them to bear witness to the life of its titular character. They speak from a perspective strangely outside of time, giving an impression something like hieratic Egyptian figure drawings.

It is a stage of ether, without space, —
a space of limbo without time, —
a faceless clock that never strikes;

and it is bloodstream at its priestlike task,–
the indeterminate and determined heart,
that beats, and beats, and does not know it beats.

Or take this bit from “Mr. Jones Addresses a Looking-Glass,” possibly an echo of the classic Egyptian text “Dialog between Self and Soul”:

Mr Jones

how can you know what here goes on
behind this flesh-bright frontal bone?
here are the world and god, become
for all their depth a simple Sum.

The mirror

well, keep the change, then, Mr. Jones,
and, if you can, keep brains and bones,
but as for me I’d rather be
unconscious, except when I see.

Voices speak with a curious lack of interiority, and the effect is one of depersonalization, and of dawning awareness of a more transcendent movement passing through life.

and it is life, but it is also death,
it is the whisper of the always lost
but always known, it is the first and last
of heaven’s light, the end and the beginning,
follows the moving memory like a shadow,
and only rests, at last, when that too comes to rest.

A fascinating read, but sadly, rather difficult to find.

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Written by Mesocosm

June 5, 2014 at 5:29 pm

Posted in Reviews, Uncategorized

The shamanic heart still beats in Europe

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CAPTION

Pelzmärtle, by Charles Fréger

The April 2013 issue of National Geographic contains a stunning article by Rachel Hartingan Shea called “Europe’s Wild Men.” It describes a project by photographer Charles Fréger, who spent two winters traveling around Europe to document a spectacular array of winter festival costumes. Collected in his book Wilder Mann, these images reveal the dark vitality of ancient, pre-Christian mythic rites that live on in European celebrations, year after year.

This fellow to the right, for example, is the German character Pelzmärtle (or Pelzmärtel), who appears at your door with the Christ Child on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day in the village of Bad Herrenalb, “to scold naughty children and wrap them with a stick.” The elaborate straw costume is sewed onto its wearer. Then Pelzmärtle makes his way through the town, traveling from travels from door to door and ringing the bell with hoots and hollers.

Compare this tradition to the Hopi Powamu Bean Planting Ceremony, described Erna Fergusson in her book Dancing Gods. This elaborate eight-day festival celebrates the return of the Kachina gods to the pueblo with a series of dances and precessions of figures in magnificent costumes (we looked at a related Zuni festival in this earlier post). Fergusson describes the action as follows:

Late on the fifth night Hahawuaqi, “mother of the terrifying monsters,” appears upon the kiva roof and announces in her weird falsetto call that she has arrived and wishes to see the children. An answering voice responds that the children have all gone to bed and urges her to postpone her visit until morning. Thus are the children warned of the presence of the horrible and thrilling beings who bring gifts for good children and punishment for naughty ones. It must fill with trepidation many a little brown Hopi snuggled into blankets and fearfully eager for the coming day.

Yet the monsters and their mother do not emerge until late afternoon, when they appear in procession. The mother, a man, leading, wears the black dress and a white mantle and leggings. Her mask is a flat black face, with hair in pigtails such as the women wear, feathers raying from the crown, and a fox-skin ruff. She carries a long Juniper whip, a whitened dipper, and a flat tray covered with gifts for the children: ears of corn, seeds, and bundles of sticks for little girls, and tiny snares of yucca fiber for little boys. The other woman figure, Soyokmana, is such a terrifying old witch as every people in the world seems to have invented to scare children into virtue. She is dressed like the “mother,” but her hair is straggling, her clothes are old and dirty, and she carries a crook in one hand and a knife in the other. The others (Natacka) usually appear in Navajo velvet shirts, belted around slim waists with heavy silver belts, and with white buckskin mantles over the shoulders. They all wear terrifying masks: great snouts, bulging eyes, and horns. Each carries a bow and arrows in his left hand, leaving the right hand free to receive gifts, for this is a begging expedition.

There are three such groups, one for each village. They visit every house in their own village, and every house in the other two villages into which one of their men has married. For in Hopiland the custom still lingers of a man’s going to his wife’s people. So one meets them everywhere, hooting as they pass along the crooked streets and as the “mother” calls at every door or at the top of every ladder. Her queer cry always brings out women with food or children to be admonished. Children cling to their mothers or to each other, bright black eyes peering bravely over blanket folds, or they stand sturdily to face the fearful being, determinedly not afraid. (1)

It is impossible not to be forcefully reminded of such traditions looking at the array of unnerving costumes so marvelously captured by Fréger.

The full photo gallery is viewable here.

 
References
1) Fergusson E. Dancing Gods; Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. The University of New Mexico Press. 1931. pp.127-8.

Written by Mesocosm

April 28, 2013 at 10:54 am

Bill Viola and the Seventy Veils

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Viola with his Memoria
(click to enlarge)

Unlike things and their reflection in the mirror and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark. – Eihei Dogen

Last night, at a fundraiser for the San Francisco Zen Center, artist Bill Viola described his childhood preoccupation with perceiving reality from different angles and perspectives. He would stare at reflections of objects in the water, or lie on his side with his head on the ground for a long time, and things would take on a different aspect. Even giving close attention to the reflective fringe on a piece of fabric can open the door to another world.

He sensed that in those moments of perspectival shift, something real was disclosed. Perhaps he was seeing something more true than the ordinary world that we usually experience.

This sense of discovery and insight, in the midst of time-dilated experiences, characterizes a great deal of his video and installation art. There is a sense of mystery as blurry images gradually become clear, remote images move slowly toward the viewer, or the camera angle slowly shifts until we finally realize what it is that we’re seeing. There are continual images of transit and transformation, metamorphosis and epiphany.

Art historian John Walsh, who curated a Viola show at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, recalled hearing the artist reflect on the Sufi doctrine of the seventy veils that lie between human beings and God. As described by the great Sufi master Ibn al-‘Arabi:

The Prophet said, “God has seventy veils of light and darkness; were he to remove them, the glories of His Face would burn away everything perceived by the sight of His creatures.” Look how subtle these veils are, and how hidden, for God says, “We are nearer to him than the jugular vein” (50:15), while those veils exist, preventing us from seeing Him in this mighty nearness…. (1)

In ordinary life, when we’re constantly distracted by the intellect and its strategic concerns, there is a continual bewildered engagement with the various energies and images that direct our attention, but periods of stillness or of deep human experience hold the possibility of real awareness, of standing in relationship to a God who almost seems to break through the threshold.

During the brief Q and A following the lecture, I wanted to know about the possibility of openness that seems to absorb him as an artist – the sense of discovery that his art creates for audiences by preparing the viewer for peripatetic shifts in which everything suddenly resolves.

What is that open space, I asked, and is it possible to peer beyond the veil? Or are there only more veils?

I can only paraphrase his thoughtful and detailed reply, in which he talked about the different kinds of veiling and disclosure that can occur throughout life. Each experience has its own sense of discovery, and carries its own particular meaning. For example, as you age, things gradually come into focus, or things that were once clear can become unclear.

Some doors never open, he observed, and this is not a bad thing. There are doors that turn you away, and that turning away sustains the mystery that people need in order to live. Some doors remained closed because what they conceal would destroy you.

But there are also moments that convey something that is real, something that is known not with the mind but with the the heart and the body, and the totality of one’s being, something beyond words.

I think it is those moments of value that Viola tries to evoke in works like “The Passing,” a video work that juxtaposes unflinching images of the death of his mother with images of birth. The point of the work is immediately obvious, but the effect is profound, for the piece is not explanatory but visionary. It does not evoke a new intellectual understanding, but a reorientation of perspective and value.

Of the artists I’ve come across in my life, Viola has been the most effective at consistently bringing such moments forth for me. When I first came upon a huge retrospective of his work at the Art Institute of Chicago by chance in 1999, the effect of it was life-changing. At the time I was living in Charlottesville, studying Indo-Tibetan Buddhism at the University of Virginia, but when I saw his work, I realized that there was a whole world going on out there, and I wanted to be part of it. I knew I wouldn’t find it if I remained cloistered away in intensive study for ten years. As a consequence of that discovery, I left school and moved to San Francisco.

Viola spoke with generosity, reflecting on the many kindnesses that were necessary for the process of creativity, and equally necessary for life itself. He encouraged everyone to embrace the creative force that not only forms the essence of art, but is the creative power that sustains the whole world.

Think of all of the things that were necessary to bring you forth and to prepare you for life, he counseled, all the teachers and parents who gave you what you need in order to live. Your past has been held by a lattice of inconceivable supports that you could never have hoped to ask for. And trust, as you move forward into the unknown, that your future will be, too.

References
1) Chittick WC The Sufi Path of Knowledge; Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination. State University of New York Press. 1989. p 364.

Written by Mesocosm

November 10, 2012 at 11:55 am

Child-Sized Mythology: The Brothers Grimm

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This morning I chanced upon Joan Acocella’s article on the Brothers Grimm, “The Lure of the Fairy Tale,” in The New Yorker. It will surprise no reader of this blog to hear that I’m a huge fan of the Brothers Grimm – you can see a translation I did of “Mary’s Child” here. I was interested to read Acocella’s piece and think through some of the questions that she raises.

She lays out a brief biographical and historical sketch of the folklorists and their work, and puzzles through some of the interpretive dilemmas posed by the fairy tales. They are childish in their brevity and narrative simplicity, but often include gruesome acts of violence, with starving parents abandoning children to die in the woods with startling frequency.

Acocella singles out “The Juniper Tree” as an especially shocking tale. I’ll give the gist of the story, but interested readers can read the whole thing here (in English) or here (auf Deutsch).

Once upon a time, the story begins, a young bride prayed and prayed for a child, but to no avail.

One fine winter’s day, while peeling an apple beneath the juniper tree in the courtyard, she cut her hand, and when she saw the drops of blood on the snow, she sighed, “If only I had a child as red as blood and as white as snow.”

Well, time went by and the snows began to fade, and the world returned to flower, and as it did, the woman also became fruitful, and when the new growth of the woods came to surround them, she became great with child. And when the juniper tree bore fruit, she ate of it ravenously, and becomes sickened.

In the ninth month following her wistful prayer, she bore a beautiful little boy, and told her husband that when she dies, she is to be buried beneath the tree. And so she did pass away, brought to her death by the life-giving tree.

Time passed, and the boy grew with lips as red as blood, and skin as white as snow. His father took a new wife, and had with her a daughter, called Marlene.

Unfortunately, his new wife hated the beautiful little boy, and one day, moved by the spirit of evil, she invited him to take an apple from the bin. When he reached inside, she clapped it shut and knocked his head clean off!

The evil stepmother then covered the boy’s head with a white scarf and fastened it back to his body. Marlene found him an uncooperative playmate, though, and complained to her mother that the boy would not speak. The stepmother told her “Then go box his ears!”

The daughter soon did, and immediately raced back in terror, crying “His head has come off!”

The evil stepmother told her they must keep it a secret. To dispose of the body, she said, she will cook the boy into a stew. She served it to his father to eat, and he found it so delicious that he insisted he should eat it all, as he was filled with the sense that it was somehow intended just for him.

Well, the daughter was horrified by all this, naturally, and she gathered her half-brother’s bones in her silk scarf and buried them beneath the juniper tree. It was only once they were interred that her anguish subsided.

Then the juniper tree began to move. The branches moved apart, then moved together again, just as if someone were rejoicing and clapping his hands. At the same time a mist seemed to rise from the tree, and in the center of this mist it burned like a fire, and a beautiful bird flew out of the fire singing magnificently, and it flew high into the air, and when it was gone, the juniper tree was just as it had been before, and the cloth with the bones was no longer there. Marlene, however, was as happy and contented as if her brother were still alive.

And so the boy was reborn as a glorious bird with a beautiful song, and he set about making matters right.

Kinder- und Hausmärchen, First Edition

It’s really quite a spectacular story – I highly recommend having a look at the whole thing. But what is significant for our purposes here is that Acocella found it to be very disturbing, saying “Parents should simply not read it to children. If they give the child the book, they should get an X-Acto knife and slice the story out first.”

So we have a dilemma, posed by the co-occurrence of a childish narrative style with dark and shocking material. To make sense of this problem, Acocella reviews several scholarly interpretations of fairy tales, ranging from the Freudian readings of Bruno Bettelheim to the comparative approach of Jack Zipes.

Unfortunately, she neglects to consult the author who represents, in my opinion, the strongest interpretation of the Grimm Brothers stories, Joseph Campbell. His approach makes short work of the apparent dilemma.

Campbell articulated his general approach to the Grimm Brothers’ stories in his magisterial essay “The Works of the Brothers Grimm,” written as an introduction to a translation of the tales, and also published in his book Flight of the Wild Gander. In this essay, Campbell interprets many fairy tales as reductions or remnants of very old myths. They contain the same content and quality as the great narratives of the world’s religions. Time and wear, for a variety of reasons, have pared the stories down to their bare bones, and as such, they appear child-like at a glance.

If we evaluate “The Juniper Tree” not as a didactic fable for children but as a myth, we immediately recognize all of the principle elements of the story: the miraculous birth, the association of death and rebirth with a tree or evergreen, the murder of an innocent, and the ritual consumption of the body. This is a myth of immense geographical distribution, as we’ve known since Frazer first published The Golden Bough.

It amuses me greatly to see Acocella recoil from this story, since every one of its basic elements can be found in the Gospels.

We can also see a link between the apple and the pains of childbirth, which echoes the story of the Fall. And there exists, of course, a very old allegorical tradition that links the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden to the Tree of Eternal Life, i.e., the cross. The former is seen as the beginning of history, and the latter is seen as its completion.

We are not dealing with a pedagogical morality tale here, we have a myth – a story which renders an image of basic facts of life. We have a narrative image of the cycle of life and death in which we all must participate, and to which, ultimately, we must all surrender ourselves, for the cycle of killing and being eaten in turn both gives life and brings us back to the root. And the fairy tale, like the myth, presents this problem without judgment or advice.

People preserve these stories for millennia because they disclose something that the audience recognizes to be true. The best place to start, then, is to ask what that might be.

Written by Mesocosm

July 17, 2012 at 11:49 am

Creative Misinterpretations: SF Opera’s Ring Cycle

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The San Francisco Opera production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen gets many things right, and a few things very wrong.

Note: This post contains spoilers.

It is perhaps a quixotic gesture at this late date to criticize non-traditional productions of Wagner’s mighty Ring, but the San Francisco Opera’s current production illustrates the pitfalls of such an approach. The production is superb in many aspects. Under the commanding baton of Donald Runnicles the orchestra offers a dynamic and bracing interpretation, and a dazzling collection of vocal and acting talents includes not one but two superb Siegfrieds in Jay Hunter Morris and Ian Storey, as well as audience-favorite Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, and David Cangelosi in a surprisingly engaging turn as Mime, a character I never thought I could love.

So with all due respect, and much is due, let us turn to the staging.

Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez caused a scandal when they set the opening of Das Rheingold at a hydroelectric dam in their 1976 Bayreuth production. Today the action of The Ring is transposed to different times and places so often, it has become the norm. The LA Opera recently offered an abstract version with design elements suggesting a “Star Wars” influence (video here), and the New York Met is currently staging a version set around a large contraption of moving planks (video here). Seattle remains a holdout of traditional stagings and costumes.

Director Francesca Zambello has set the San Francisco Opera’s current production in a landscape evoking urban decay and ecological catastrophe. The corrupting influence of this Ring is measured by anthropogenic contamination that chokes the land with pollution, steadily worsening over the course of the four operas.

Das Rheingold sets the wheels in motion in the Industrial Revolution. Signs of trouble are clearly visible on the horizon when Walküre shows plutocratic gods in a corporate boardroom Valhalla. By the time Siegfried opens the world has been overrun. We find our hero living with Mime in a trailer parked in a squalid urban waste land strewn with rubbish. One wonders if Siegfried purloined his bear from a nearby zoo. By Act III of Götterdämmerung, the weary, land-bound Daughters of the Rhine heap bags of trash into piles.

The Industrial Revolution was well underway in Germany when The Ring was written, so it goes without saying that if Wagner had wished to tell a story about pollution and decay, he would have done so. Indeed, many of the core themes of Wagner’s musical drama are strikingly contemporary in resonance, such as his criticism of the exploitation of labor.

The interpolation of the environmental theme, then, is without question an addition to Wagner’s work. To get a sense of why The Ring is uniquely unsuited to the superimposition of extraneous themes, let us briefly review what Wagner had in mind when he wrote the work.

Wagner’s Theory of The Ring

Richard WagnerWagner wrote the music and the libretto for The Ring over a period of some twenty-six years, and no other work in the standard repertoire has been so thoroughly documented by its composer. Wagner left copious writings behind in which he clearly set out his compositional theory. One of the great miracles of The Ring is the degree to which he succeeded in reaching his stated goals.

Wagner’s central conception was to present an experience of music and drama united into a coherent statement that operates simultaneously on the levels of story, imagery, and music, with each level interacting with the others. In the service of this vision, he employed the leitmotif for which the work is famous — a device that he did not invent; but developed far beyond all precedent.

A leitmotif is a musical theme that is paired with a corresponding image, action, or idea. Wagner used leitmotifs to organizes and bind the musical structure of this colossal composition, and to constantly translate the the language of the libretto into the emotional and intuitive register of music. This interaction creates a synergy between the dramatic meaning of the opera and its expressive musical themes. The aggregate effect over the course of this long work is so powerful that certain motives become drenched with meaning, sometimes to such an extent that it seems impossible to remember a time when the motives did not clearly signify their particular resonance. They become as ingrained as the melody of “Happy Birthday.”

Wagner described The Ring as a unified art work, or Gasamtkunstwerk. He probably did not invent this concept, but raised it from a state of obscurity to a term in universal parlance by the success of The Ring.

In his influential essay “The Artwork of the Future” Wagner describes his conception of a unified art work:

Just as the joinery of my individual scenes excluded every alien and unnecessary detail, and led all interest to the dominant chief mood, so did the whole building of my drama join itself into one organic unity, whose easily surveyed members were made out by those fewer scenes and situations which set the passing mood: no mood could be permitted to be struck in any one of these scenes that did not stand in a weighty relation to the moods of all the other scenes, so that the development of the moods of all the other scenes, the constant obviousness of this development, should establish the unity of the drama in its very mode of expression. (1)

Wagner laboriously composed The Ring to produce a specific effect, based on the meticulously-designed concord of all of its various elements. We need not speculate, then, on how he would have felt about the interpolation of a foreign layer of symbolism on his work. Any extraneous element or theme a director adds to The Ring not only introduces new elements into a work that is already extremely dense with musical and dramatic ideas, but disrupts its carefully conceived unity.

This has a direct and predictable dramatic effect. Throughout the San Francisco production I found that when the scenes were set in a traditional vein, I was completely absorbed in what I was experiencing. When foreign design elements were at play, the spell was broken, and I was put into a intellectual relationship with the material. I would think about what was being shown and why, instead of feeling like a part of the world.

Image Confusion

Ring PosterLet us consider the San Francisco Opera’s program cover (pictured left). We have an image of a Valkyrie, possibly Brünnhilde, in silhouette, holding a spear. Around the base of the spear coils a sinewy vine, suggestive of the Ash Tree.

This image is an amalgamation of some of the important symbols in the drama, apparently chosen at random and assembled into an incoherent form. The spear belongs to Wotan; Brünnhilde does not wield it, nor can she be coherently associated with its many meanings. The spear, carved as it is from the wood of the cosmic Ash Tree, symbolizes the process by which spontaneous natural forms are perverted when harnessed, such as when the Rhine Gold is forged into a ring. That makes it an ill fit with the new growth suggested by the seedling, about which I’ll have more to say later.

These points are not important in themselves, but they are typical of the production. The creative team sometimes seems to either not know or not care what the images mean and how they function. But The Ring was designed as a unified work of art organized by ideas and meanings, so the symbols are integral to the structure.

Perhaps the most disturbing dissonance in the production is the contradiction that sometimes separates the lyrics from what we are seeing. When Siegfried travels through the forest, he sings about the forest setting, but those references are stricken from the supertitles. Likewise, when we we meet the Norns in the prelude to Götterdämmerung, they are laying cables instead of weaving threads. The lyrics describe weaving while the supertitle translations refer to “laying cable,” which is a jarring dissonance. Presenting the audience with a contradiction pushes them out of the scene, and arbitrarily falsifying the translation of the libretto strikes me as a cheap tactic.

But something deeper than dramatic effect is at stake. Wagner has something to say about the relationship between the human spirit and nature. In his Siegfried, we get to know a hero who is a spontaneous man of action, unburdened by the corrupting influences of political entanglements or social bonds. His qualities of character are rooted in his love of the forests in which he dwells. We travel with him through that landscape and pause together to hear beautiful motives that have been described by musicologists as the “song of the birds” and “forest murmurs.”

Das Rheingold - Seattle OperaIn Götterdämmerung Siegfried at last wakens from the dark spell that has made him forget who he is and has turned him into a monster. He returns to his true self when he returns to the woods, and remembers the song of the bird. It is a song to which he had ceased to listen, and a song that closely resembles that of the Rhine Daughters, the charming agents of uncorrupted nature. His memory of what the bird taught him reminds him of his own identify, his love, his passion, and his commitments, which had been displaced by the bargains and deceits of the Gibichung court.

This beautiful relationship between Siegfried’s character and nature is all but destroyed when he is moved to a junkyard, and when his references to the natural world are blocked from his dialog. Ironically, this is apparently in the service of an environmental message. Which environmental message will resonate more deeply with audience members: Wagner’s carefully interwoven themes of nature developed throughout The Ring in mutually-reinforcing dialog, music, character, and action, or Zambello’s image of the Rhine Daughters heaving sacks of rubbish?

Spoiler alert!

Zambello’s final revision in the last moments of The Ring is the great interpretive blunder of the cycle, one that shows her to be tone deaf to Wagner’s work and to tragedy as a whole. The apocalyptic image of the world-ending fire — a fire lit by the funeral pyre of the two principle characters — sets up a tepid scene of a child bearing a new sapling onto stage and planting a new World Tree as the drama’s final gesture.

Surely if there is one thing that any director of tragedy must know, it is Aristotle’s concept of catharsis. Tragedy functions by inviting the audience members to participate in the action on the stage through their identification with the the characters, and to undergo thereby a symbolic death of tremendous psychological power. Zambello’s sapling is a facile gesture that disrupts the climax of Wagner’s towering tragedy and robs the audience of catharsis.

In Wagner’s conception, a legendary love has led to dreadful death, and the feeling of these events is of such magnitude that it is mirrored in the destruction of the heavens. The world itself breaks apart under the strain of its own contradictions. All things are consumed in fire and are washed back into the great primordial waters of the overflowing Rhine, from which all things arose in the very beginning of Das Rheingold. We have a classical depiction of the human heart exploding past the bounds of limit, rupturing the very power of form to bind the world into shape. This puts us squarely in a line with Aeschylus and Aristotle, by way of Schopenhauer.

The cute little girl with the tree could not be more counter to that effect, and by capping the gargantuan climax with that moment, its force is compromised and its message rejected. It disrupts the catharsis of The Ring and robs the audience of the payoff to which the entire opera has built, replacing it with a gesture of that is merely sentimental.

The fact that re-interpretations of The Ring have become commonplace does not give directors license to use them without care. Directors should ask themselves if their changes will add more than they subtract, and with a work as carefully composed as The Ring, they rarely will.

References

1. Wagner, Richard. ed. by Goldman, Albert and Evert Sprinchorn. On Music and Drama. Da Capo Press. 1964. pp. 227-8.

Written by Mesocosm

June 6, 2011 at 10:20 pm