Whether Wagner or Smetana, Don't Feed The Bears

Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - 08:49 PM

In my recent post about Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Opera I mentioned that this play has a bear who appears briefly, if prominently, to kill and eat a character, and then exits. While this might seem tragic for the character, it is often a humorous bit of stagecraft in the play. It made me think of operas that have bears in them (apart, one presumes, from opera versions of The Winter’s Tale). I immediately thought of two and asked if readers could name them and perhaps come up with others. I promised that I would provide answers in a later post.

Reader MAK correctly pointed out that Siegfried, in the eponymous opera, captures a bear and then plays with it before sending it offstage. At least that is what happens in the Met’s late 1980s production of the “Ring” Cycle by Otto Schenk. I am looking forward to the premiere of the new production of Siegfried at the Met on October 27 to see how this scene is staged.

The second opera I had in mind is Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, which had a marvelous production at the Juilliard School last spring directed by Stephen Wadsworth and conducted by James Levine. A fuller version of this staging is coming to the Met in a future season and I can’t wait. In the last scene, a wonderful extended festival with circus performers and all kinds of native Bohemian melodies, a circus bear gets loose and causes merry mayhem before being tamed. No one gets hurt.

As you know, I have been writing a series about Shakespeare and Opera. I found that Sir William Walton, composer of Troilus and Cressida, also wrote an opera called The Bear (1967) based on a story by Chekhov. The story’s title has also been translated as “The Boor,” which seems closer to the plot of a widow who receives news from a creditor that her late husband had been unfaithful. She and the creditor draw guns and stare deeply at one another, lowering their guns when they realize they have fallen in love. But I don’t think a bear makes an appearance.

The late, great Ardis Krainik, who was general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago for much of the 1980s and 1990s, was a genius at cross-branding for the benefit of both parties. She knew that the Lyric Opera would give sports teams some class and in return the Bulls and Bears would give the Opera some popular appeal. I don’t know if Ardis worked with the Cubs too, but they could have used her help. I recall that she did a print ad with Michael Jordan and seem to remember one in which she wore a Bears jersey and someone, perhaps Mike Ditka, wore Valkyrie horns. The Lyric Opera/Chicago Bears link is still strong, as evidenced by this recent video

Reader Rex mentioned The Frolic of the Bears from Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha (1911), which I had forgotten about. The music for that begins at 6:30 on this amateur video. I had not thought of this one and thank him. It is a four-minute waltz segment in which humans have left the forest to do evil things and bears come onstage to enjoy an unsullied dance in nature. It is interrupted when sounds of humans return. Thanks Rex for the good catch!

I have discovered that there are now opera-singing bears for that special bear lover in your life: Named Violetta and Escamillo, you need only pull their cords for them to perform selections from favorite operas. How long will it be, do you think, before some cash-strapped opera company or no-talent stage director with a “concept” will cast these dolls as the next great soprano and bearitone?

Vesa Siren, my excellent colleague who writes about opera and classical music for the Helsingin Sanomat in Helsinki, reminded me that Aulis Sallinen’s The Red Line, an opera I saw in 1983 at the Metropolitan Opera House during the visit of the Finnish National Opera, has a bear that is both metaphorical and real. The New York Times critic Donal Henahan called this “the best new opera I have heard in many a year.”

The red line is a metaphor for many things, including socialism and the blood of Finland. The lead character, Topi, is a farmer who struggles with all of the issues in the story as well as the presence of a bear at the edge of his farm. This was a metaphor for the large, threatening Soviet Union which bordered Finland. The bear kills Topi’s cattle and his family descends into poverty. His children starve to death and Topi, furious, leaves to kill the bear. Instead, he is killed and blood flows from his throat in a red line. In the cast was Anita Välkki in a very late-career return to the Met stage.

If you have not been to this blog page since reading the original article, you might not have seen the comments by Graham Sanders, who sang Polixenes in the German premiere of Philippe Boesman’s The Winter’s Tale. It is not often that one can read the personal experiences of a singer taking on a role in a new opera. Here they are:

“Hi Fred, I was the Polixenes for the German premiere of A Winter's Tale by Boesman in Braunschweig. I remember receiving the vocal score via post and opening it at my kitchen table. I was horrified to see that the score was hand written. Come on guys, we have computers now!! Well, of course the orchestral parts were computer generated, but we poor non-musician singers had to decipher the notes. The piano reduction does not do justice to the piece at all. The orchestral colors are so important to the piece, the piano score makes you think ‘not another atonal piece of crap’. Well how wrong could I be? A universe of wrong, as it turned out. Boesman produced a score, which in my mind, was one of the most enjoyable and musically satisfying experiences I had during my career. Fortunately, we had a good conductor, Jonas Alber and stage director, Uwe Schwarz. Uwe managed to find humor in the piece.

“From the vocal stand point, the piece was very well written for the voice. I had one phrase, which I felt would be better for my voice, if the first note was the tonic of the chord. I asked Boesman about this, and he said yes it did make sense, please change it.

“The piece was a great success for Braunschweig. I can only hope that it remains in the repertoire, because without new music, opera will become a Museum of Lyrical Arts.”   --Graham Sanders

I only have one more question for Graham Sanders: Was there a bear in this production?

Note: No bears were harmed in the writing of this post.

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Comments [9]


A delightful column!

A somewhat related story:

My husband accompanied me and my colleagues in the orchestra on the MET Tour to Europe in 2002 and surprised me with the purchase of a special edition Steiff Papageno bear while we were in Salzburg. While I am not a collector, I still treasure this little bear with "feathers", a little pan pipe, and a blue bird on his shoulder. A music box inside plays the melody“ Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”. Here's a photo of one of these little guys:

Aug. 13 2011 12:35 PM
David from Flushing

One bear that did not make it into opera appears in the play Macbeth.

What man dare, I dare.
Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,
The armed rhinoceros, or th' Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble.

The Verdi opera mentions the tiger, but alas, not the bear. Grrrrrrrrr.

Aug. 12 2011 06:22 PM
Fred Plotkin from Bear Mountain, NY

Yes, Scott. the bearskin rug is in Act One of Die Walkure. In the 1986 Met staging it was not on the floor but was the primary decorative feature in Sieglinde and Hunding's house with a tree in it. The pelt was pinned to the wall on stage right. I guess it WAS a bear so would count in this ever-expanding list. Readers: Francesco Cilluffo is an outstanding young composer-conductor whose opera Il Caso Mortara had its world premiere in New York (Da Capo Opera, if I recall) in 2010. It was the first Italian-language opera to premiere here since La Fanciulla del West in 1910. If he writes a bear opera, it should be in the key of Ursa Major, don't you think? Finally, I wonder if one of those exotic operas set in South Asia, such as Les Pecheurs de Perles, Esclarmonde or Le Roi de Lahore has a Yogi?

Aug. 12 2011 01:20 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

According to the stage directions in Wagner's score for Die Walkure, as Siegfried's father Siegmund enters Hunding's hut, he collapses in exhaustion onto a bearskin throw. Is it mere coincidence that Siegmund's and Siegfried's entrances each involve a bear in some way?

Aug. 12 2011 12:58 PM
michael from usa

the recent netherlands' production of eugene onegin featured a bear (symbolic of russia?) which was really quite endearing.

Aug. 12 2011 12:38 PM
Francesco Cilluffo from Milano

Beautiful article, Fred! May I also add that at the end of the first act of Cavalli's La Calisto there is an instrumental dance called 'Ballo de' orsi' in which no less than six bears are called for in the stage direction (libretto courtesy of Giovanni Faustini). Some Finale primo indeed!
And anyway, who knows about the future? we can always do an all-bear versione of my opera 'Il caso Mortara'. 'Il caso Orsettara'?

Aug. 12 2011 11:50 AM
Lucy from Bronx

And then there is the bear who makes a posthumous appearance as Minnie's sleeping bag in "Fanciulla del West!"

Aug. 12 2011 11:16 AM
Joanne from CT

Thanks, Fred. An interesting and topical subject for me, as I have bears on my mind (whether from a bear market or because younger son will be hiking in Wyoming next week). The advice given is to never run from a bear as it can trigger the chase/attack instinct and a bear is much, much faster than you, despite its lumbering, teddy-bear looks. But everyone's instinct IS to run from a bear, which is surely what Antigones did, leading to that greatest of stage directions.

Your post lead me to look up bears in Shakespeare's time, and re-acquaint myself with bear-baiting, a hideous sport enjoyed by Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I, who overruled Parliament's ban on bear-baiting on Sundays.

Aug. 12 2011 10:48 AM

You forgot to mention Bruinnhilde.

Aug. 12 2011 08:57 AM

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