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“Leicht muß man sein” October 3, 2007

Posted by Jeff in German, Opera, Theater.

This past summer marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of a significant event in my life: my first attendance at an opera performance as an adult.

I haven’t found an online video that comes even remotely close to imparting that experience … except this:

At the age of twelve my dad took me to see Leonard Bernstein conduct Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Metropolitan Opera, with Leonie Rysanek and Jon Vickers. I wish I could remember more of the performance — if I had seen it later in my life I’m sure that amazing combination of talents would have burned brighter in my memory.

I loved classical music then as I do now, but to me it was an evening of incomprehensible posturing in a foreign language (thirty years before supertitles). My strongest memories were of the chandeliers rising in the auditorium, and of wondering when Chico and Harpo would appear to play baseball in the orchestra pit a la Night at the Opera. In short, I didn’t know what opera was.

Nine years later I was living in Manhattan. With nothing better to do one evening, I took the #1 train from Sheridan Square to 66th Street, with no idea of what, if anything of interest, would be playing at Lincoln Center.

What was playing was Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, with Christa Ludwig, Brigitte Fassbaender, Judith Blegen and Manfred Jungwirth, conducted by Karl Böhm.

Lotte LehmannAt the top of this post is the only surviving filmed record of the Marschallin as performed by Lotte Lehmann (1888-1976), who sang in the premieres of a number of Richard Strauss’s operas. Lehmann, whose name appears on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame as “Lottie Lehmann”, had retired from performing ten years earlier, and was giving masterclasses at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, which Lehmann co-founded (and whose current director is Marilyn Horne).

Richard Strauss cast his last opera, Capriccio, as a meditation on the question: Which is more important in opera, words or music? As we watch Lehmann at the age of seventy-three, with barely any singing voice, speak clearly of her fears of age and the fickleness of men in a language that I still don’t understand very well, I am reminded of what I first learned that summer night in Manhattan, the night I realized what opera was.

Opera is theater.

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