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Posts Tagged ‘Long Distance Travel’

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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So, I am here. In Paris. Finally.

I am really rather tired, and I must apologize if this post seems a little tangential and ever-so-slightly off. I couldn’t really sleep on the plane — the very French, very prepared man seated next me built a little sleeping fort out of his coat and made it rather hard to find a comfortable position on my aisle side — and once I landed, I had to do some quick navigating to find my way to the apartment of the UNC alum with whom I am currently staying.

And I must say, it is rather comforting — and confusing — to look out the window of this room, covered in UNC basketball posters and memorabilia, and see the graceful 19th century architecture of Baron Haussmann. It’s a collision of two very different worlds, all within my frame of vision.

My voyage here was fine, despite the lack of sleep. A quick hop from Detroit to Philadelphia, and then a delayed but rather empty flight from Philadelphia to Paris-Charles DeGualle, a bus ride on the “Car AirFrance”, a walk of several blocks with my luggage and an awkward conversation in French with the landlord of this building convincing him to let me in — apparently my hosts neglected to tell him I was coming — ended with me here, typing away as Karl, the French-speaking housekeeper, does whatever it is he is doing in the next room over.

I had to apologize to Karl. While my responses to his questions and helpful suggestions may only be simple affirmatives like “yes,” “thank you” and “perfect”, I really can understand everything he is saying. I told him this in my fractured French, and he smiled. It’s interesting how we automatically assume that lack of verbal ability means lack of understanding. I hope both of these skills improve while I am here — kind of the reason for me being here, after all. I could have stayed at Carroll if I wanted to just learn about journalism. What I want is to be fluent in French. A little journalism is also fine. But mostly French.

If the two combine, I have no complaints.

The most startling thing about being in another country, I’m realizing, is discovering all the simple little changes that differentiate that country from yours. Sure, there are big changes — language, architecture, cultural attitudes, etc. — but there are subtle changes, too.

The way people carry themselves on the street. The way the children’s play area is designed in the airport lobby. The way signs are written, and public announcements explained. Even the symbol to cross the street   — which, as a warning note, is tricky here in Paris. There isn’t a warning countdown, or blinking red hand. The symbol switches from boldly striding green man to cautious and immobile red man in a matter of seconds. The cars soon follow. You have been warned — all these things are slightly off from what I am used to. It’s truly a symbol of how far away from home I am.

But I’ve noticed other odd things about France. As I walked down Rue de la Pompe (yes, that is the name of the street), I composed a short list of things that the French, or rather, Parisians, seem to really care about, as well as an accompanying list of things about which they don’t really give a shit.

(A note: this is based on one exhausted-American’s walk from Porte Maillot to Place Victor Hugo in Paris in January. It is not meant as a universal description; rather, it is a list of things noticed.)

Parisians Like:

1.Scarves

2. Boots

3. A combination of the above that results in looking remarkably, painfully stylish.

Parisians Don’t Really Seem to Like:

1. Immigration Formalities (I spent a month on my visa application, but that didn’t matter to the stamp-happy customs guy)

2. Customs (I have a bag full of insulin and tiny little needles. No one seems to be concerned about this)

3. Wide traffic lanes (The bus ride here was rather scary)

The lists might get longer.

I might even have a post towards the end of the term made of solely of the likes and dislikes of modern Parisians, based on my keen observations. Get hyped.

For now, I am going to probably eat a little something and then take a much-needed nap. It’s 1:30 — or rather, 13:30 — here, and not 7:00 am, so I should be asleep anyway, according to my internal clock.

I might go running later. Or I might sleep. Or eat. Or wander around the city. I just have so many options.

I think sleeping, with its lovely friend eating, is winning out.

But I’m here.

Et tout va bien.

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