Monday, 15 February 2016

How an Eagle's death broke this Wagnerian's heart

A few days after the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, I met a friend for tea in  the Crypt Café on Trafalgar Square. He looked furtively around that vast cellar full of people coming from galleries or headed to theatres and whispered:  “This Bowie business. What is wrong with people? Getting all bent out of shape about someone they had never met.” I nodded sagely. What was wrong with people? I muttered something about us living in an age of cheap sentimentality and we stirred our tea and changed the subject.

Two days later Glenn Frey of the  Eagles died and I went into emotional free fall.  Never in my life have I been so devastated by the death of someone I did not know. When the news of his death was announced I sat down and looked at old Eagle’s clips on Youtube and it broke my heart. A few bars of  “New Kid in Town” or “Hotel California” and I’d be reduced to floods of tears. For an Eagle?? 

Yes, I’d loved the Eagles back in the 70s when I’d run off to California from the UK. But that was the past; I thought I’d  moved on to higher things. Alec Baldwin recently said on BBC Radio 3 that somewhere in the mid-80s, contemporary music ceased to feed him and he turned to the great composers of the past. I had done  the same and turned my attention to writing a  novel about a Wagnerian singer. These days I attended Verdi operas at La Scala or queued  for tickets at Covent Garden. I’d left the  Eagles out on that  “dark desert highway.” Or so I thought.

There is a famous photo of Glenn onstage back in the 70s. Wearing blue-jeans and a beige  shirt open at the neck to reveal a tanned, hairy chest, he’s playing his guitar, the sunlight and the audience behind him. Snake-hipped, with hooded eyes, droopy moustache and shoulder-length hair he was the  dangerous boyfriend you longed for but didn’t dare have. Looking back at him from an era where we shave every body part we can reach and a lot we can’t, he seems raw and wild and very raunchy.

The droopy moustache would later become the object of 70s jokes but not on Glenn. This is the beautiful young male animal in its prime - full of drive and sexual energy and wild romance. I saw that photo last week and raged, irrationaly and absurdly. How can he be cold and still? But, of course, Frey had not been that young man for decades any more than I had been the young woman who’d been in love with him from a  safe distance. He probably didn’t think about being an Eagle when he got up in the morning any more than I’d thought of them.

A comment under one of the Eagles Youtube videos says: "Watching the old concert footage makes one just despise the concept of  time”. 
So, yes I was raging  against time. 

In earlier centuries, a cameo or a portrait was all we could keep of a dead loved one. Perhaps that made them fade into the mist that much more completely. Now we can watch them walk, talk, sing, dance and look young and lovely. This must be quite confusing to our primitive psyches. Thanks to Youtube, I can keep clicking that mouse and move from that unbearably sexy young man on stage in the 70s to the comfortable golfer with a paunch that he became. I can survey a stranger’s whole life - that doesn’t seem fair somehow - or kind.

We tend to forget that before the internet age, we didn’t keep up with everyone and everything all the time. We couldn’t just stare at a screen and find anybody. When I left The Eagles for Verdi and Wagner back in the 80s, I lost track of them, assumed they were still out on that “desert highway” and that I could check back in with them any time I wanted. But they had got old and sick and now one of them has died.

When I looked at those Youtube clips, the past hit me like a tsunami. And my 20 year old-self washed in on that tidal wave of memory. I needed her to help me “despise the concept of time”  a little less. After all everyone  in that sunlit audience is old now.  The  future has seeped into that particular  present and made it the past. One day a man decides not to wear a hat and then another man and soon we are looking at old films and saying,  “Funny all men wore hats then.” We are doomed to live our lives perched on the edge of a well, watching our present fall endlessly into it.

But for a brief moment this past week, the Eagles and I were in our 20s again. I could reach out and hold them and hear them,  young and  overflowing with energy and confidence before they tumble away down that well forever.

When I ran off to California, the Eagles were there to narrate my experience. For this 20 year old girl from Twickenham, they had a sheen and a gleam - a promise of American adventure, health and invulnerability. Perfect teeth smiled out from behind those moustaches. Glenn Frey may have been from Detroit and Don Henley from Texas but  when they introduced themselves on stage, they said they were the Eagles from California. And they carried that tang of California sun, sea and desert dust with them.

“I want to sleep with you in the desert tonight with a billion stars all around,” sang Glenn in “Peaceful, Easy, Feeling.”  His voice was the most tender of the group. Drummer and co-founder Don Henley could break your heart with his husky, slightly raspy rendition of their exquisite  “Desperado” but Glenn had a mellowness and gentleness in songs like  “New Kid in Town”,  “Lyin’ Eyes”and  “Tequila Sunrise”  that was at odds with that virile, foxy man on that sunlit stage.

The promise of sex was always there. Listen to Frey’s favourite Eagles track  “One of these Nights”. Hear Don Henley’s intake of breath  “One of these dreams, ooh, we’re gonna find one that really screams” .You don’t need to Google the countless stories of the band’s sexual adventures to know how utterly horny this  “soft rock”  really was. And yet so tender.

Tenderness and testosterone, romance and raunch, the mix made a 20 year-old girl ache with longing. But, behind the stories of drugs, booze and women, there was a shrewd, some would say ruthless, business-minded perfectionist. 

“Write every day,” said Glenn. He made the Eagles do at least 30 takes of the opening of  “Lying Eyes” just to get the word  “City” right. He was a voracious reader and his love of narrative came through in his and Henley’s songs. 

My favourite was  “Desperado”. I think it grew bigger than its writers’ intentions. What starts as a song to a lonely cowboy character talks to us all with lines like “Freedom, well that’s just some people talking. Your prison is walking through this world all alone.” In the even lonelier world of the 21st century that song reaches out  to us over the decades and ends hopefully but with some sage advice that both Henley and Frey took in their later years: “It may be raining but there’s a rainbow above you. You’d better let somebody love you before it’s too late.”

In his later years, Frey liked golf  more than performing and planned the very occasional tour around the nearest golf links. Sunningdale Golf Club in the Midsommer Murders-esque  English countryside flew their flag at half-mast for golfer Glenn after his death. 

So many of us have said that his was the soundtrack to our youth. But his music made that youth bigger, more colourful, more romantic than it probably was in reality.

His music made me dance, made me absurdly happy and made me cry. It made me sing out loud for hours  on American highways in my old Chevy Impala; it filled me with desire and made me believe that I could be young and free forever. But I couldn’t and he couldn’t. And that’s the  unbearable truth of our passage on this earth.

In another comment on Youtube (and yes, I took to reading them all obsessively) the writer said how much she struggled with his being refered to as  “the late Glenn Frey.” 

I was having a similar struggle with all those RIP notices. Glenn Frey was not ready for resting - certainly not of the eternal kind. But I didn’t know him - couldn’t know of the health struggles, of the ongoing physical pain of rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis. I want to hold him forever, young and handsome, lusty and wildly alive on that stage, guitar in hand, shirt-front open with the sunlight behind him. 

For him the amazing and glorious race that his life has been was over.  But I still wish it wasn’t. I want to know that he is still walking this earth somewhere like the rest of us. Like thousands of others, I had loved him from a distance. And it turns out, that my 20-year old self was still alive and had gone on loving him  for all these years.

I am glad that his years of pain are over but I hate that he is gone.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Canadian Opera surpasses itself - with the ugliest Walküre I've ever seen

Oh dear, oh dear - some poor benighted stage-hand apparently forgot to turn off a light at the back of the stage in Canadian Opera's Die Walküre last night in Toronto. There we all were, back for Act 2 after a rather gloomy, galumphing but beautifully sung Act 1 and there was this lighted area at the back of the stage. The  front of the stage was a sorry sight: Wagner's gods had, apparently chosen to gather around the tree in a sandpit on a pile of rubble that had stood in for Hunding's hut in the dark and dreary 1st act. But now we got to see all the guts of a stage production: scaffolding, arc lights and ladders - the stuff that makes the magic but usually has the good grace to stay out of the magic.

Here, in what I assume was a stab at some 'nudge, nudge, wink, wink' post-modern deconstruction, here it all was - big, irrelevant and ugly as sin. And all lit up by this glaring light at the back of the stage that, as I said above, a stage hand must have forgotten to switch off. At first I thought something marvellous was about to happen back there. Perhaps a backdrop hinting at Valhalla or even a humble old everyday mountain - you know the ones the gods are supposed to be hanging out on. But when nothing happened and the light just shone and shone on what looked like a backstage rehearsal area, well, I started to worry that a stage-hand had forgotten to throw a switch and that perhaps I should tell someone because it was mightily distracting.

That said, there was not that much to be distracted from. The truly wonderful singers struggled through the limpest direction of singing-actors I've ever encountered. I did wonder, since producer Atom Egoyan is such a revered name in his home country's cinema, if perhaps he'd been a bit busy on a film-set somewhere and just phoned in his directions - what there was of them. Extraordinary artists like Christina Goerke as Brunnhilde were left to do the minimum of interacting with their fellow singers.

Act 2, to be honest, is tough for even a director like  Harry Kupfer, who can ignite his singers into almost too much action or the late Patrice Chereau who could make actors out of the most immobile singer. Act 2 is long and repetitive and requires Wotan to spend most of the time giving us a "Previously on the Ring" monologue that lasts for about an hour. There is some extraordinarily beautiful music in that act but if the dramatic action does not feed into it, even that music sags and lags. Here in addition to all the tired design cliches mentioned above, all  Egoyan gave us was Wotan digging Siegmund's grave or perhaps it was his own grave or the  grave of his freedom or some equally tedious symbolism. Oh who cares? He just looked plain daft wielding his shovel. But this production did not on the whole even dare to be daft, it was just dull beyond belief.

I still held out some hope for Act 3. After all the Ride of the Valkyries and all that follows is rattling good theatre and Wotan's Farewell is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. But producers rarely miss an opportunity to muck it up. There are exceptions. Seattle's Stephen Wadsworth actually had the temerity to TRUST Wagner and his stage directions and gave us a moment of great beauty and nobility. As did the much-maligned "traditional" Otto Schenk production at the Met. But 2 minutes into the "Ride" (and yes, it was the same hideous set and that light was still on) and  I knew all was lost. It was time to beat a retreat before, yet again, that glorious, redemptive music was brought down to the level of a producer who can just about  haul himself up to  Wagner's big toe in terms of talent.  I have never, ever missed the third act and I have sat through  good, bad and atrocious Ring Cycles in Munich, London, Bayreuth, New York,  Seattle and Vienna. Those last twenty minutes make me glad to be alive but tonight I knew they would be an unbearable travesty.

I love Canada and Canadians. I wanted to believe that a land whose culture is so enmeshed with the natural world, the climate and the elements would give us a Ring that reflected all that. But it was Seattle who managed that. Canada, instead, could claim the prize for "Ugliest Wagner Production Ever" and believe me I've seen some doozies.

As I left the theatre in search of a comforting cocktail, I was feeling sorry for all concerned. Sorry for those poor, wonderful singers who work so hard and bring such  shining talent to the  dimmest of productions. I was sorry for the orchestra, tucked away beneath the stage doing wonderful work and having it cancelled out by what was going on above them. I was sorry for the audience - all those wolfed-down dinners for the Wagnerian early-start, all those pretty dresses dry-cleaned and smart suits pressed, all those furrowed brows as the more generous, open-hearted among them struggled to show how open their minds were too as they gazed at the mess onstage. I was sorry for Wagner who gave us such beauty but that very beauty seems to drive people entrusted with his dramas to balance it with extreme ugliness. WHY????

But most of all I was sorry for me because as far as I know, I only get one life and well over half of it has gone by and still the rubbish Wagner productions keep coming. What I know for sure, as Oprah would say, is that this music has made my life better, bigger and more beautiful. And I've had a humble hope that I would be able to share that beauty in a theatre where the musical beauty would be matched onstage. But Atom Egoyan, Richard Jones and company, have other ideas. They have had  those ideas for far too long. Back in the 1990s, the great British essayist, Bernard Levin, wrote an open letter in "The Times" asking Wagner singers, John Tomlinson and Deborah Polaski in the atrocious Richard Jones "Ring" why they did not just refuse to sing in such tripe. He did not get an answer. Twenty five years on and still the tripe keeps getting shovelled our way.

Oh and if I have made a horrible mistake and a stage hand really did leave that light on, well, I'm sorry for him or her too because, even in a country with strong unions and lenient employment laws, that must surely be a sackable offence.