Saturday, September 01, 2007

1st September
Some years ago I happened to see Richard Strauss' opera, SALOME.
And happened to loathe it.
To my immense surprise, I found it repulsive and even immoral.
I wanted to shout abuse at the complacent burghers of the Edinburgh festival, applauding themselves for having seen what they'd been told was a masterpiece:
"You're applauding your own destruction!" was what i wanted to yell at them.
But didn't dare. So I silently fumed instead.
Reminded all this watching tonight's Prom concert, which included an amazing American soprano performing the incredibly powerful last scene.
Salome taunts and caresses the severed head of John the Baptist and cries out in the end in poignant triumph:
"I have kissed the lips of Jokanaan!"
And this time I wanted to applaud. I'm not sure why.

That first experience of total repulsion has coloured all my subsequent encounters with his music.
Another of his operas I've always particularly disapproved of is CAPRICCIO.
It was his last opera; it was performed under, and approved by, the Nazi regime.
It's set in the drawing room of an 18th century aristocrat and seems solely preoccupied with which should prevail in opera: words or music?

Solely preoccupied with its own arse, I always assumed, and particularly disatefully in that it also pandered to the Nazis' musical taste.

And I was completely wrong.
I saw it this week in the Festival Theatre, and found myself profoundly moved by it.

The Nazis are an especially convenient embodiment of evil. We can look at them and guiltlessly loathe them in the apparent knowledge that we are so much better.

In my blacker moments I often wonder if there is really that much difference between deliberately setting out to exterminate members of a certain race and deliberately maintaining and living off the proceeds of a profoundly unjust economic system that condemns the majority of the human race to grinding poverty and an early death.

We certainly have no right to judge the Nazis; and no right to condemn them either.
And, as far as I can tell, what Strauss was doing under their regime was exactly what I would have done under the circumstances. Exactly what I am doing now, in fact: trying to survive as an artist. Trying not to be silenced.

It was particularly hard for him because members of his family were Jewish and the Nazis used them, very deliberately, to put pressure on him.
One of his elderly relatives was incarcerated in Terezin: and he drove to the gates and demanded to see her.
The guards laughed at him and turned him away.

A man like that would not write an opera set in Rococo France simply as an act of escapism: but because he needed to escape censorship.
And succeeded quite brilliantly in writing the most utterly moving piece in praise of the liberating and humanising force of art that could be imagined.
And also in praise of kindness.

It was lovely my eat was in the front row because it meant that at the end I could lean over the barrier and applaud the orchestra; and catch one of the cellists' eye and be able to thank him.

I came away grateful to be alive.


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