Robert Allen Zimmerman finally gets the official nod, the recognition that he is a literary giant. The English speaking world usually takes no notice when the Nobel Prize in literature goes to some African, Chinese or Austrian author.
The Swedish Academy gets to choose the Nobel Laureate in literature. They are a competent bunch, I have visited them at their premises in Stockholm’s old town, but sometimes I do get the impression that they pride themselves in picking obscure authors. Bob Dylan is probably their most popular choice to date. He needs no introduction. What I love about this choice, and I am sure millions of real fans would agree, is that I can actually quote many of his lyrics and I already own all his best records. At the same time it is a rather odd choice in 2016 because his best lyrics are from a different era. Dylan has musically made some strong albums in the noughties but if it is poetry you are after, his best work is at least 40 years behind him. Yes, there is the autobiography, but it hardly qualifies as literature. And Bob? He clearly doesn’t care one way or another.
The selection process of the Academy is secret, but the announcement was delayed by one week, which is very unusual and a bit of a give-away. There may have been some stormy sessions at the recent meetings of ‘the Eighteen’ members (a few of them never turn up) and in the end it seems they picked a writer everybody could agree on. It could be that they have had Dylan on the substitute bench for decades, just for occasions like this when no agreement could be reached on some Cape Verdean or Kiribati candidate.
Dylan doesn’t really need more publicity or recognition. He won the Polar Music Prize (also a Swedish award) 16 years ago and has various other medals in his trophy cabinet as well. As I write this he still hasn’t reacted to the announcement. In fact he is on his Never Ending Tour at the moment and appears in Las Vegas tonight. Maybe he has something to say to the audience there (actually he didn’t mention the award!). This American tour ends (according to his website) in Fort Lauderdale on 23 November. This means that he could personally pick up the medal and the prize money as well as shake the Swedish King’s hand on December 10.
I have seen Bob in action three times and the closest I have come to his (former) inner circle was when I interviewed Robbie Robertson in the 90s. Robertson was the guitarist in the Band who accompanied him on some of his very best albums. Must dig out that interview.
While penning this I visit Dylan’s official website once more and I am reminded that it is the best website of musician that I am aware of. Check it out at bobdylan.com
This blog is not really a platform for politics, but I will make an exception.
But the consummate Israeli statesman Shimon Peres died last night and I had the honour of interviewing him quite recently.
Israeli politics is a hornet’s nest from whatever angle you approach it. Normally I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. The problem, or the challenge, is that somebody will always disagree with you, whatever you write about Israel.
But after a quick rifle through the obituaries on the internet it is clear to me that Peres, like few other Israeli politicians, garnered some respect from across the board because he tirelessly, until the very end of his life, worked for peace. The transformation from security hawk in the early days of independence, to a tolerant dove who together with Rabin and Arafat in 1994 received the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East” was total and, most observers seemed to agree, genuine. I could even trace a modicum of respect in the webpage obituary of the Quatar-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera.
In June I met the president at his Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The fact that the Center is situated in Jaffa is surely trying to make a point. Whereas Tel Aviv is overwhelmingly Jewish, its neighbour Jaffa has retained some typically Arab neighbourhoods. The Peace Center is a sort Israeli equivalent of the American presidential libraries. Peres was interested in literature, books and art, but above all he wanted the centre to be a politically independent place where he actively could continue to focus on dialogue and advancing peace in the Middle East. Peres stepped down as president in 2014 but retiring was never on his mind. In January this year there were two health scares which would have made most people half his age slow down for a while. But nothing could hold this man down and within a month after the scare, at 92, Peres was receiving people again and holding talks. I had been fishing for an interview since the autumn of 2015 and now I was told to come to Israel as soon as possible. Shimon and his son, Chemi, wanted to thank my wife’s family for her grandfather’s actions during WWII. The Australian Padre Rex Dakers saved the life of Yitzhak Persky (Shimon’s father) during the war. Yitzhak had tried to escape from a prison camp but was caught by the Nazis and was about to be executed on the spot when my wife’s grandfather, who didn’t know Yitzhak, stepped in.
Listen to Shimon Peres explaining what happened next.
There is much more and It is a fascinating story mentioned briefly by Shimon in his autobiography. I am making a radio documentary on this subject and I will post some clips when it is finished.
In June Shimon Peres took time to meet me at his office, which has wonderful views over the Mediterranean. When I entered the young security chap (who was friendly enough) positioned himself out on the balcony. Shimon’s son Chemi, who is a well-known businessman in Israel, got the ball rolling by relaying the remarkable tale about courage, p.o.w camps, multiple escapes and the fearless actions of people in the face of death.
After a while Shimon, who had been listening silently while leaning back in his armchair, became involved and took over from his son. His speech was slow and the voice even lower than I (and my microphone) was prepared for. His eyelids seemed to be drooping, but his mind was clear. This was Shimon’s friendly, hangdog face, the distinct eyebrows slightly razed when listening. An ironic smile never seemed too far away, but there was not much to laugh about. I got a sense of why he had been such a shrewd, persuasive and successful political operator for 70 years. During the 15 minutes I had alone with him he seemed to give me his full attention. That is a skill in itself, to give that impression. Here was the man who had negotiated the 1993 Oslo peace accords, who had sat in numerous cabinet meetings dealing with major conflicts and wars and who had been one of the architects of his country’s secretive nuclear programme. Here was the last surviving Israeli politician who had lived through and even shaped the birth of a nation and helped to develop it.
Shimon Peres told me about his early childhood in Vishnyeva in Poland, which is now in Belarus. At home they spoke three languages: Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian. Not Polish. Do you want to know why? Listen to the audio.
Peres came to Mandatory Palestine as an 11-year old, where his father had already two years earlier established himself. He became active within the Zionist youth movement and even founded a Kibbutz. Peres became David Ben-Gurion’s prodigy and there is ample evidence in the president’s office that he cherished the memory of Israel’s founding father. It was Ben-Gurion who nurtured his leadership and negotiating skills by making him his right-hand man. But Ben-Gurion also stopped Peres from fighting on the front line in 1948, sending him to the US to source weapons. It has been suggested that the Israeli public never forgave Peres for not serving in a miltary uniform, but he did work at the headquarters of the Haganah (which became the Israeli defence force) and was appointed secretary of the naval services. The real issue is that the voters never took to his style of politics which seemed to involve too many backroom deals and all kinds of intrigues. As a Labour leader he failed time and again to win an election. This didn’t stop him from being a member of Parliament for 48 years. He served as prime minister twice and the list of important ministerial posts that he held over the years is particularly impressive.
It is Shimon Peres’ transformation that makes him so remarkable. In the 1970s his hawkish attitude saw him encouraging very questionable Jewish settlements on the West Bank (he called them “the roots and eyes of Israel”). But over the years, as he took on ever more important roles in government and internationally, he started to understand that it was vital to negotiate with Israel’s foes, not in the least because the sympathy for Israel abroad was beginning to wane.
The Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993 when he served as foreign minister. Today they are treated like a failure by the people in power, but surely it was his willingness to compromise and taking some first steps towards a two-state solution that still counts. After the accords a Palestinian state no longer seemed a pipe dream. That is sometimes forgotten by the Palestinians. It was a small, but psychologically significant step for them despite some unfavourable terms.
Shimon Peres’ seven year long tenure as President (2007-2014) was remarkably eventful, considering that the post is meant to be mainly ceremonial. Israelis finally started to respect him as the great statesman he was and appreciated his conciliatory stance as opposed to the governing Likud party, with its surpringly parochial hard-line policies. Peres took the opportunity to act as the country’s ambassador extraordinaire. He was welcomed with open arms by many world leaders who would never have posed in public with the controversial Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman (currently the Defense minister)at the time.
Peres was also a great champion of the Israeli technology boom. To him this was another example of the innovative pioneering spirit of his country and the ability to make a success out of resources that were no more than human capital and a considerable self-belief.
Shimon Peres didn’t like to reflect too much on the past and was constantly looking towards the future. In an interview with AP he expressed it perfectly.
“I really think that one should devote his energies to make the world better and not to make the past remembered better.”
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg seen in Munich, with Jonas Kaufmann, Bayerisches Staatsorchester, conductor Kirill Petrenko
At the Festival theatre in Bayreuth, which was designed by Wagner, the orchestra and the conductor remain hidden from view. The point is that the audience should experience no visual distraction from the action taking place on stage. In the end Parsifal( 1882 ) was the only opera that Wagner composed with his new theatre in mind.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg premiered originally at the Nationaltheater in Munich (1868), which looked fairly similar to its present appearance (the opera house was destroyed and rebuilt after the war). I am pretty sure the orchestra pit used to be a fair bit lower. From my seat in the 7th row I can clearly see the back of conductor Kirill Petrenko’s head and even the hair and instruments of some of the musicians. To begin with it is a slight distraction but soon after Jonas Kaufmann’s entrance as Walher von Stoltzing I mainly have eyes for the singers and the set.
Bayerische Staatsoper is one of the best opera houses in the business and therefore they can consistently attract the most illustrious singers. It helps that Jonas Kaufmann is based in Munich and you couldn’t wish for a better chief conductor than Kirill Petrenko. Usually I don’t like to make too much fuss about the stage director because their concepts too often get in the way of the music. But David Bösch is clearly a musical sort and he has conducted many productions in Munich. He marries the action perfectly to the music. No wonder he is now in high demand all over Europe.
The plot of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg has much in common with the classic romantic film comedy. The young and handsome aristocrat von Stoltzing is in town to do business with the wealthy goldsmith Pogner. But Walther falls head over heels in love with Pogner’s daughter Eva and she is equally smitten by him. But it turns out that Eva is to be the prize of the city’s famous singing competition, which is sponsored by her father. Walther is keen to participate and win, but there are a number of other challenges he has to overcome before he can compete. The trials are to be held the next day and the young knight is not familiar with the complicated rules of the song contest. The pressure is on, but Kaufmann is a very laid back sort of Walther.
This being an opera by Wagner there are of course a number of other complications along the way. Shakespeare was a master of exploiting the confusion and farce that is associated with character and situation comedy. But even his plays can easily become tedious when they suffer a dull or particularly laboured staging. Die Meistersinger also runs the risk of becoming a drawn out affair (at 4h20m) if not handled with a good portion of humour. OK, it is not exactly LOL, but director David Bösch creates some very funny situations, particularly in the scenes with the foolish town clerk Beckmesser (Martin Gantner).
Bösch, his costume designer Meentje Nielsen and the designer Patrick Bannwart have set the action in modern times as opposed to mid 16th century Nuremberg. The look of the costumes (petticoats and suits) is ‘kind-of’ 60s and cars, a moped and other machinery have been added to the action. There is not a hint of ye-ol’-medieval half-timbered houses, instead we get a grey post-war housing estate.
Kirill Petrenko sets a fairly brisk pace in the opening prelude and the speed underlines the chatty character of the wind instruments. Petrenko is an unobtrusive conductor who never allows the orchestra to become overbearing and he has a brilliant ability to subtly underline both the thoughtful passages and the comedy. Yes, Petrenko blends the Bayerisches Staatsorchester’s sound with the singers as if he was conducting in Bayreuth.
Walther enters dressed in t-shirt and black leather jacket, carrying a guitar (case) which is enough to create a rebel image on an opera stage. Kaufmann does put a little bit of ‘devil-may-care’ attitude into his interpretation, slouches occasionally and smokes some roll-ups. ‘Am stillen Herd im Winterszeit’ gets a slightly low-key treatment and this Walther is clearly more about real life issues and experiences than ancient singing rules. Not long after that we are treated to a passion-packed ‘So rief der Lenz ’, Walther’s audition song for the Mastersinger Guild. But only Hans Sachs is impressed and despite the fact that Walther is a rival in the quest for Eva’s hand, the cobbler is prepared to help the aristocrat. Walter Koch is a steady, very straightforward Sachs. Sachs is meant to be the embodiment of poetry and Koch is maybe not exactly that but he certainly isn’t boring and his baritone can convey the tragi-sadness and enthusiasm that is required.He is truly moving in the third act’s soul searching ‘ Wahn! Wahn! Uberall Wahn!’.
Eva (Sara Jakubiak) is certainly not a hippy rock chick. In this production she is a kind of small-town 1950s girl. Eva is quite a rare breed in the Wagner canon. She is not a goddess, a Valkyrie or a saint, like Tannhäuser’s Elisabeth. No, Wagner allows Eva to be a real woman.
Jakubiak is a young American soprano who has a very good set of pipes and, based on her current form, we will soon see in all the major opera houses. Emma Bell will sing the role of Eva when the production returns in September-October. I also greatly appreciated Benjamin Bruns’ comedic turn as Sachs’ pupil David, particularly at the start of the first Act. But it is Martin Gantner as the ridiculous Beckmesser who has the most memorable scene of act two. With the help of a cherry picker (sabotaged by Walther) he attempts to serenade Eva outside her bedroom window. Eva turns out to be Magdalene in disguise and her suitor David ends up beating up Beckmesser. There is some good clowning in this scene and the crowd scenes are also handled well. The chorus is never treated like “ a theatrical machine, made to walk and sing as part of the decor..”
Beckmesser was originally a caricature of an overzealous critic that Wagner couldn’t stand. Wagner possibly also intended him to be a character that people could associate with ‘Jewish traits'(yes, die Meistersinger was Hitler’s favourite opera), but there is of course no evidence of that in this production. Beckmesser is not unlike a bad XFactor or Idols artist and Gantner dressed in a gold lame jacket misinterpreting Walther’s song as ‘Morgen ich leuchte in rosigem Schein’ is a sight to behold.
Wagner provides Walther with an easy tap-in when he then gets to sing his own composition ‘Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein’ the way it should be sung. Kaufmann of course doesn’t fail to nail this aria to perfection and, lo and behold, he wins the competition. Oh, and gets the girl, naturally.
Interestingly Walther’s Prize song was written in medieval bar form AAB, two stanzas and an Abgesang. Wagner spent much time studying the standard handbook for a Master singer called ‘Buch von der Meistersinger holdseligen Kunst’ (1697) by Johann Christoph Wagenseil. Wagner stuck to the composition rules and used the titles of real songs, lists of penalties and mistakes and authentic expressions. The rhymed doggerel texts also reflect Hans Sachs’ language. Don’t forget that Sachs was a real person. In fact Die Meistersinger is the only opera by Wagner, besides Rienzi, that uses a realistic source.
The music is not inspired by the 16th century, but to find traces of Bach you don’t have to look too hard. The brawl scene is oddly enough a fugue and the quintet ‘Selig wie die Sonne meines Glückes lacht’ (Act III, scene 4) also uses Bachian idiom. This is when everything dramatically and romantically falls into place: Walther gets Eva, David and Magdalene are also united and Sachs accepts his lot. There is complex polyphony in this scene and many similarities with the quintet of the Siegfried idyll.
Wagner originally planned Meistersinger as a kind of comic sequel to Tannhäuser. Luckily he failed in that respect, but this is a very enjoyable production with some outstanding singers and one of the best orchestras and conductors in the business.
The next performances in Munich are Friday 30 September, Monday 3 October, Saturday 8 October 2016
The very exciting bass Georg Zeppenfeld (who I recently heard in two different productions in Bayreuth) will sing the role of Pogner.
There will be a free webcast of this performance on Saturday October 8, 2016 at 4 p.m. (C.E.T.)