Posts Tagged ‘Adventure’

Mention anything about Bayreuth to someone even vaguely familiar with the opera world, and they’ll tell you that it’s impossible to get tickets to the yearly festival. The Bayreuther Festspiele, an annual celebration of all things Richard Wagner in the sleepy Bavarian town he once called home, is the Wagner buffa’s Mecca.

Wagner himself thought up the festival of his work, and the specifically-built, carefully designed Festspielehaus — Wagner was not known to be all that humble of a guy — and as such, the mystique of the place and the event and the work is built up so much that, coupled with an insanely complicated formal ticket application process, you have to wait at least a decade to break into the ranks of the Festival-regulars.

But not this intrepid young opera scholar. Using a string of elaborate and distant acquaintances — a magazine editor who knows an opera critic who knows a chorus girl at Bayreuth — I managed to snag a pass to the festival grounds during my recent weekend jaunt in the Bavarian hamlet, wandering around the fantastic theatre, talking to chorus members and staff, and sitting in on an unusually crazy staging of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” a work which I am not entirely familiar with. It should also be said that after having seen this rehearsal, I am still not really sure what was going on in the opera.

First, a little background on Wagner, the festival and the like. Richard Wagner, an absolute giant of a 19th century composer, is most known for his very specific and very elaborate ideas on opera creation as culturally expressive art form. He was kind of a political radical — pushing for a national German theatre at a time when there wasn’t a nation of Germany to have a theatre for, being really terribly anti-Semetic, running around Europe trying to get funding for his crazy operatic visions — and today most people not familiar with opera know him for being both anti-semetic and really into vikings. (You’ve read “Ride of the Valkyries,” so you know at least some of his work.)

In the music world, Wagner is also really known for his epic four-part, 15-hour monster of an operatic story arc “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” or simply, “The Ring Cycle.” The ring cycle is full of battles between Gods and mortals, dwarves and elves and vikings and everyone else, all for the sake of this one powerful ring that will control all of the Universe. Yes, J.R.R. Tolkien is often accused of stealing his major plot points from Wagner. Go figure.

But Wagner mostly just revolutionized the way people approached opera. His works were meaty and the content was heavy stuff, making the fluffier, lighter operas of some of his immediate and preceding contemporaries seem silly at best. He was very concerned with the audience’s absorption of his work, going so far as to build a whole theatre just for the specific staging of his works — the orchestra pit is hidden beneath this huge curved shell thing under the stage so you focus on the singers and not the musicians, and the brass is stuck under the stage, giving the orchestra a rich, echoing sound. Plus, the stage appears bigger than it actually is and the audience is arranged in an admittedly unusual way for an opera house; i.e. kind of outdoor stadium seating. He also was a big anti-establishment guy in the music world, shaking things up at a time when some felt music was getting kind of ho-hum.

My favorite story of Wagner being a musical bad-ass was his premiere of “Tanhäusser” in Paris in 1861. Like all good Germans, Wagner hated the French, and especially the elitist French who were opera patrons at the time. A big group of these faux-noble patrons, called the Jockey Club, were known for their late arrivals to operas, having long and luxurious dinners beforehand and then arriving just in time for a ballet in the beginning of the latter acts.

This wasn’t just a Paris thing — for a long time, opera patrons didn’t go to the opera to see the production, they went to be seen themselves (you could make this case today as well, I realize) and rather than sit through three hours of complicated plot and overwrought singing, many frequent patrons would just come for specific parts of an opera, or open their box curtain for the ballet. (For an excellent look at this and other intricacies of the opera world, as well as a great read, I strongly recommend John Berednt’s In the City of Falling Angels, a winning book about the reconstruction of Venice’s Fenice Opera House by the guy who brought you the equally excellent Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.)

Wagner really pushed the idea of opera as a complete work, so when he staged “Tanhäusser” in Paris, he put the ballet at the beginning, forcing the Jockey Club and their friends to sit through the whole opera, which they did not appreciate. There was a riot, and Wagner had to run away and cancel the production. Basically, Wagner was kind of a musically brilliant jerk.

Now, I’m not a real particular fan of Wagner — his politics kind of disturb me, to say the least, and I don’t like his music. I’m a fan of the Mozart / Verdi / Bizet school of opera, and I don’t speak German — but I couldn’t pass up the chance to stop in Bayreuth on my way from Berlin to Milan on my summer opera adventure. Even I couldn’t see an opera there, I could still see the place.

But, thanks to the above-mentioned connections, I did get to see part of a work, and the orchestra pit and the backstage and meet all sorts of interesting singers and stage workers. The Festspielehaus is absolutely beautiful and kind of the centerpiece of the entire town, and I have to admit I had exciting, nervous chills as I walked through the fragrant park up to the theatre.

Sharona, the perfectly lovely British chorus girl, had procured me a day pass, meaning I could wander around freely, talk to people, sit in on the rehearsal — which was very bizarre: as in, giant paper mâché heads of German leaders, modern costumes, rows of identically dressed choristers, a naked man lying in a pile of dirt on a table with wheels (who passed out during the rehearsal from heat stroke!) and other such lovely elements. Needless to say, I didn’t know the plot —  a singing contest in Nuremberg — but sitting through the 3 hour rehearsal didn’t teach me much about the plot, either.

Talking with the choristers, I was shocked and pleased to learn a lot about the crazy politics of the festival. The director of the production I happened to catch, Katharina Wagner, is the great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner and co-director of the festival, and apparently, her works are not well-received. Her premiere of “Meistersinger” in 2007 was loudly booed, and someone threw a seat cushion at her during curtain calls, meaning that particular patron would never return to the house again. There’s a real disconnect in the festival between old-line, traditional performers and the crazy, modern stylings of people like Katharina. One chorister told me that Bayrueuth audiences, while older and more conservative that normal opera audiences, are willing to take things up to a certain point, but it’s hard to figure out about disappointed patrons because they buy their tickets a decade in advance. He said he was worried about the future of the festival if things kept going they way of Katharina and her ilk.

But that was that. I was a very happy and very excited opera dork the entire day, and early Monday morning, I hoped on the Deutsche Bahn for my 11-hour train trip to Milano, Italy for the last leg of my opera adventure.

Today, after having traveled for more than 21 hours, I can say that I am not a big  fan of Deutsche Bahn anymore.

My train day was going fine: I caught my first train, and made my first quick connection easily, but around mid-afternoon, things started to go wrong.  We were running a little late between two of my connecting cities — Stuttgart and Augsburg — and suddenly the conductor came on to say that we were 15 minutes late. It didn’t seem like we were that far behind, but I believed the conductor, mostly because he said almost everything in German and his English and French announcements were limited to the simplest of informational pieces.

Then, pulling in Augsburg only 2 minutes later than my planned departure to Zurich, the conductor announced that “all passengers to Milano via Zurich should stay with us until Mannheim, and then connect there to Zurich and later to Milano.” Okay, I said, I believe you conductor. You have specifically signaled me out for mention, so I will follow your rules.

In Mannheim, I ran to the connecting platform, only to discover that the train to Zurich was 30 minutes behind schedule. Which became 40 minutes late. Which became 50. Which turned into more than an hour’s delay. Okay, I said, I’m already off-track. I’ll just keep going and be open to changes.

I had no real seat on the train to Zurich — thank you kind first class passengers for giving me a jump seat — and we pulled into the largest Swiss city a full hour behind schedule. (Note: It was then 9:00 pm. I was supposed to be in Milano on my original scheduled train by 10:50 pm. I ceased believing this far earlier in the day.) I wandered around the elegant central train station until I found some dinner, some internet and most importantly, some help for connections to Milano.

“Oh no,” the kind Swiss train official told me. “You’ve missed the last train to Milano today. You’ll just have to take this connecting train to the Italian border town of Chiasso, and then take a train to Milano in the morning.”

Which I did. Meaning that I took a train at 10:13 on a Monday night to Nowhere, Switzerland, where I arrived at 1:46 a.m. I then hung out around this sketchy, quiet and nearly empty train station until 5:17, when I hoped a suburban commuter train to Milano.

Time left Bayreuth: 11:11 a.m. Monday.

Time arrived in Milano: 6:23 a.m. Tuesday

Distance Between Cities: 427 miles

I could go on and on about the craziness of this epic day-long travel adventure, but I’m hungry, and I haven’t eaten anything in a long, long time. I did sleep in my hostel for a brief time, however, and it is a perfectly suitable — albeit very, very warm — place to sleep and stay during my now truncated week in Milano.

Thursday is “The Barber of Seville” at La Scala — and then I begin my westward trek homeward.

And trust me, I can’t wait.

Note: I am fortunate enough to have simple train connections from Milano to Paris and later to London. I hope.

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I admit that I have rather limited experience with the Atlantic Ocean as a destination. This is partly because I come from the Mid-West, and well, let’s face it — we don’t do oceans there. Lakes, yes; oceans, no.

But when I finally decided to make a move on my first out of class story assignment for my Writing About French Culture class, I decided to hop on a train, go somewhere I didn’t know, and write about the experience.

I chose Trouville-Deauville, a seaside resort about 2 hours from Paris proper, and the experience was absolutely lovely. It made me feel like I was back in Mackinaw City — touristy  shops, closed out-of-season hotels, kitschy food shops galore (crepes here, not fudge) and an endless expanse of water just beyond the shoreline. Except of course, this particular expanse of water was one of the world’s largest bodies of water, and not the Straits of Mackinaw.

My day began early, as I took the metro to the Gare St. Lazare, one of several large train stations in Paris allowing residents to come and go as they please to wherever they might please. After a two-hour train trek, including a quick transfer in a town whose sole existence as a stop seemed to be to allow train passengers to switch between lines, I found myself in Trouville-Deauville, a sleepy little resort town in the Basse-Normandie (Lower Normandy) departement of France.

I spent the day wandering along the beach, hiking up narrow hills, eating delicious pastries, drinking tasty coffee, writing, reading and generally being alone and pensive. It was my own, personal, one day vacation of sorts. Forget euro-tripping. I went to the ocean today. And it was splendid.

Looking across the water, it was fun to imagine that just beyond the horizon was my home in the states. I quietly said hello to all of you back there, so if you get a funny little tickling around your ears in a few days or so — that’s my voice finding you and making itself known.

I have a pretty good idea of the direction my story is going to take — the voyage out, the sea, the climate similarities, the quaint town, etc. — and I even talked with a little old man on a bench while I ate a pain au chocolat and he smoked a cigar.

“You know,” he told me, stubbing out his mini-cigar, “I will smoke this 3 times while a cigarette smoker will smoke many, many cigarettes. I am quite useful like that.”

“Ah,” I told him, “How nice.”

“You smoke?” he asked. I told him no. Soon after, he figured out — by my lack of smoking and my unusual accent — that I wasn’t French. Story of my life in France.

But this trip to the sea was the perfect end to a lovely week. I had a great dinner on Monday with two Cranbrook friends and my Outward Bound friend — odd reunions/meetings over honey-balsamic salmon, baguettes and butterscotch — and another delightful dinner on Tuesday with some SciencesPo friends — balsamic butter pasta, baguettes, and more butterscotch (!) — and a movie night.

Tuesday also saw me going to the Palais de Justice with a friend to watch a circuit court hearing for one of her SciencesPo classes. It was a strange event. The lawyers and judges in France are required to wear long, black robes and a funny little white ascot tie thing — I kid you not. The entire effect is rather odd, aside from the fact that the panel of three judges asks the questions and not the lawyers. I think maybe the robes are meant to instill confidence and authority, but for me, an outsider, they inspire laughter and silliness.

Wednesday was homework shut-in day, while Thursday was another lovely day, with me playing baby sitter for my friend Lauren from Cranbrook days, in town visiting Victoria. We wandered around the city, eating falafel and visiting a delightful store called “La Maison du Miel” which is, as it says, a house of honey.

And what honey it was (we were given a free sample of the French forest honey that Lauren bought for her parents). I didn’t buy any, but you can be sure that I will return there soon to purchase some of the delicious, tasty spreads.

Thursday night saw me taking part in perhaps the strangest night out of my young life. You see, there’s this bar close to the Place de la Bastille called “Les Caves” — roughly, “The Caves/Basements/Dungeons” — and it has the unusual and distinct theme of “medieval dance hall”.

Victoria and her French friends are real big fans — she’s been at least 6 times, including a visit on her 21st birthday in the fall — and they all have their own costumes. I did my best, and managed to look relatively pirate-esque, if not like a gallant knight of yore.

For a moderate cover charge — and an additional costume rental, if you aren’t Middle-Ages inclined — one enters Les Caves and heads downstairs to the elaborately constructed dungeon.

And it really is a dungeon. A well-lit, happy dungeon with no prisoners and a well-stocked bar, but still a dungeon. While sitting down in our booth, I had to move aside a rather large ball and chain hanging on the wall next to a lit torch.

After we all enjoyed our various medieval beverages — spiced wine, mead and other such treats, some in actual drinking horns — the band started up and we all headed over to the dancing hall, where bagpipes, flutes, drums and other musical delights awaited us.

Now, these dances aren’t any dances I knew. But somehow, there was a rather large group of what appeared to be “regulars” of Les Caves who knew all the dances and then some. The dances varied — some were simple line dances, where everyone held hands and moved back and forth around the room in a snake-like twisty pattern — and some highland jig and jumping numbers that were too fast and too complicated for us newbies to try.

But Lauren and I did manage to teach ourselves a moderately complicated partner dance, taking part in a lovely little number with box steps, jumps, spins and leaps. In another dance, I was made to pick up and cast aside alternating women on other side of me. I did not know these women, and I still do not, but I did throw them many, many times.

There was also a rather confusing dance where the patterns changed frequently, at one point consisting of the men and the women taking turns jumping up and yelling something about peas in French — at the time, we had no idea what we were supposed to be yelling, so we just made noises that sounded like the noises that everyone else was making.

Around midnight, we decided to call it a night — Lauren had a noon flight from Charles DeGaulle to Detroit, and I had my early morning train trip — but it was certainly a night of peculiar amusement.

And although I pretended to be skeptical when Victoria announced our plans, I absolutely loved it. I’ve even told some other friends about Les Caves, and I am certain that I will be back there soon.

Besides, I know a lot of the dances now, so I can pretend to be a regular. Although, if I ever go enough times to be an actual regular, we might have a problem.

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