Wagner isn’t as bad as he sounds

Anyone even faintly interested in opera will have noticed the recent discussion about addressing the racist and sexist elements in grand opera.

There is nothing surprising in this. Opera and theatre companies worldwide don’t just keep rehashing the same productions, but relentlessly re-jig them. This is done for several reasons. They hope to find find new lessons in, and possibly new audiences for, the classics. For this to occur, productions have to be recast for modern tastes. It is easy to sneer at the search for relevance, but modern audiences don’t want to come along and see a museum piece on the stage. They want the works of famous composers and dramatists, and new ones, to speak to them about their lives now.

Grand opera has come under the spotlight recently for several reasons. First, just thinking of a few core repertoire operas — Carmen, Die Walküre, La Traviata, Madame Butterfly, and Tosca — the heroine gets it in the neck every time. Or, as Lindy Hume puts it, ” … opera narratives of rape, murder and abuse, or stereotypes – from Carmen’s “bad girl” to Cinderella’s “good girl” – go unquestioned by creative teams” (Limelight In Depth: Shifting the Opera Gaze). The Conversation article “Opera is stuck in a racist, sexist past” and one in the SMH “Opera’s tragic heroines should remain centre stage” give further perspectives to this discussion. Butterfly has also copped some stick for the “ethnic exoticism” of its Japanese elements and characters, which is being portrayed as cultural appropriation.

Being a Wagner person rather than an opera person, I have no real argument with any of this. Where I do get a bit tetchy is when the old Aunt Sally of Wagner and anti-Semitism gets dragged into the discussion. This happens in The Conversation article, which takes a passing pot shot at “the lightly-veiled anti-Semitism in Wagner’s Ring Cycle”.

Yes, Wagner was an awful anti-Semite — no argument there. One could be forgiven for thinking that these views were unique to Wagner. In fact, of course, anti-Semitism had a huge number of enthusiastic adherents around that time. In nineteenth-century Europe, many nationalists were also anti-Semitic. This isn’t to excuse his views; it is just to suggest that one needs to see them in the context of the time. 

Pointing to Hitler and the Third Reich is the next thing that Wagner antagonists do. Yes, Hitler was Wagner’s number one fan, and made several trips to Bayreuth. (He dragged along many other top Nazis as well, although most of them were bored rigid by the experience.) This all happened in the 1930s, long after The Master fell off the twig. So it seems a bit unsporting to lay this at Wagner’s feet. (And is the fact that someone liked a composer a valid reason for not liking him yourself?)

The other problem for people who blame Wagner for causing the Second World War is that, if he had not written his essay “Judaism in music”, we would not have known that he held these repulsive views. Why do I say this? The fact is that there are no Jewish characters in his operas. There is no discussion of Judaism in his operas. None. It just doesn’t happen.

Ah, the critics say, look at the unsympathetic characters in the operas; Alberich, Mime, Hagen, and Beckmesser. They supposedly display Jewish characteristics. In this argument, Wagner’s anti-Semitism is in his operas, if you only just know where to look. Well, excuse the hell out of me, but what, exactly, are Jewish characteristics? And how, exactly, do those characters display them? I have seen all the last seven operas either live or in the cinema, including two live Ring cycles, and I can’t see that any of the characters is in any way, shape, or form Jewish. (Bryan Magee, author of the fascinating book Wagner and philosophy, dismisses all these covert-racism claims for lack of evidence.) 

Wagner isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; I would never criticise someone for not liking him, any more than if they disliked Delius, or Percy Grainger, or Tchaikovsky. It’s still a free country! Is it asking too much, though, to expect this opinion to be based on the music? Get a Wagner opera out of your local library, grab a libretto (freely available on the web), and pay him the compliment of listening to his music with an open mind. If you still think it isn’t good music, fair enough. But I’m betting you’ll find a lot to like.

Small victories

I am now on my second laptop. They have both been Lenovos. I bought the first one while employed at RMIT. This meant I was able to salary sacrifice it, giving me a discount equivalent to my marginal tax rate, about 30%. This old one was much heavier than the present one, and was generally very reliable. (The technician who transferred the data from it to a USB stick said it was built like a tank.) Unfortunately, a couple of years ago, the fan decided to stop working. Because it was about 5 or 6 years old by then, it wasn’t possible to replace this part, and a new laptop was therefore indicated.

I got another Lenovo. Because I was, by then, a gentleman of leisure, this one was entirely on my own dime. All went well for a time, except that, a while ago, I noticed that the battery could only be charged to about 60% capacity. This didn’t matter so much because I kept it plugged in (more on this later). Then the new one stopped working altogether. While on the tram one day, I noticed a computer repair place just up the road. When I got home, I gave them a call.

They first informed me of their charges; $95, I think, for an initial diagnosis. This was rebatable if I got them to work on the machine. They had a look, and called me back. The hard drive was cactus. There were three options for replacing it, in ascending order of cost and desirability:

  1. the same kind of HDD, a mechanical one (the most old-fashioned type);
  2. a less expensive solid state drive; and
  3. a bigger and more expensive, Samsung SSD.

The last two options would have certain advantages, being much faster and more reliable. All options included installation of the drive and Windows 10, and recovery of whatever data was recoverable from the old HDD. (There wasn’t much to recover, as almost all files I create are stored in web-based applications.) I chose the middle option.

I am very happy with that choice. Now, at bootup, I don’t have to enter my password; I just have to click on the Sign in button. The machine starts a lot faster than before. Of course, I perform backups on a regular basis (yeah, right). Actually, I have OneDrive switched on, which allegedly uploads all modified files to a mysterious place in the cloud. (I accidentally wrote “in the clouds”. Is this place Valhalla? Nirvana? Atman? Is the cloud really just an expression of the collective unconscious? Time for another coffee.) 

The really good thing is that I have accidentally fixed the battery. All that was required was to use the laptop unplugged, to the point where the battery saver came on. Then plug it in until fully charged. Repeat the first measure. Now it is back to 100% capacity after charge. This is good because, in this model, a) the battery isn’t removable, so I can’t just buy another one, and b) I forgot to mention it to the technician when getting the HDD replaced.

I have the laptop now sitting on top of a wooden box about the size of a shoebox. I keep the mouse, USB light (for illuminating the keyboard), and memory stick in the box. The laptop sits on top regardless of whether it is being charged or not. The power board that it plugs into is just behind the box. I can reach everything from my chair in the study. These are small things, but it is surprisingly satisfying to have them sorted.

I also now have my power amplifier back from its second visit to the repair shop. This one was entirely my fault. I was baking some bread about a fortnight ago, and needed to raise the yeast mixture. This requires it being exposed to gentle heat for about 15 minutes. The amp gets pretty warm, so I put the bowl of yeast mix on top.  It was on a plate, and covered with glad wrap. However, I reckoned without the fact that, because that I was making two loaves at once, I was using double the quantity. It therefore expanded more, over the top of the bowl and the plate, forced its way through the glad wrap, and some dripped down onto the vacuum tubes. Some unscheduled noises alerted me that all was not right.

Several hundred dollars later, everything is fixed. It actually sounds better than before; I have also solved a minor but annoying issue with the stereo. It was making some intermittent kind of rustling, tinselly sounds through the left channel. I checked all the connections and tried unplugging various bits to see if they were causing interference. Among the bits I unplugged was the antenna — this has a little signal amplifier in it to improve the reception. None of these measures fixed the problem.

When I got the power amp back, I took the opportunity to re-site the transformer, and plug everything into a new power board. I plugged the antenna back in, and used it as intended to boost the signal from the tuner. Now the rustly-tinselly sounds have gone away. I’m not sure exactly what I did to solve the problem, but so far, so good.

Last weekend I went to the 3MBS book and record fair. Fortunately I had decided to leave the car up on Studley Park Road and walk the rest of the way to the Abbotsford Convent, where the station is located. This meant carrying a shoulder bag in which to bring back what I bought. By this means I both got my steps up, and inhibited my purchasing — knowing that whatever I bought, I would have to carry back up the hill.

I got

  • on vinyl:
    • a complete Hansel & Gretel, with Anna Moffo, Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Arleen Auger, and Lucia Popp — what a cast!
    • Verdi Requiem
    • Bruckner 7 and Wagner Götterdämmerung suite;
  • on CD:
    • the complete Beethoven symphonies with Harnoncourt,
    • Songs of the Auvergne with Jill Gomez
    • Shostakovich 13 & 15 with Solti, and
    • the complete Debussy orchestral music with Boulez,

all for about $40! The vinyl is in much better condition than LPs from the op shop, some of which are very scratched. So I think I will be restricting my purchases of that format from the fair.

Round and round we go

After some agonising, comparing, and general research, I took the plunge and got a new turntable — see below.

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Audio Technica LP120 USB

This is actually the fourth turntable I have owned. The first was a Dual. That was a rim drive (a technology I am not sure is still used), and had a fair bit of rumble. That was followed by a Sony direct drive. The Sony was incredibly reliable, as their products tend to be. It had some quite good features like a strobe band around the edge of the platter, so one could see whether the record was spinning at the correct speed or not. The platter itself was carbon fibre, supposedly, with funny little rubber mushrooms to support the record. That deck went through a house fire which buckled its dust cover so severely I had to take it off and throw it away. To my surprise, the deck still worked. It was still working when I reluctantly put it out on the nature strip over forty years later. So why did I get rid of it? I had no room in the stereo cabinet for a turntable.

It was succeeded by a much smaller Akai belt drive deck. This was a modest machine, sourced from Cash Converters for not very much money. I intended to use it just for ripping recordings from my few remaining LPs. I recently liberated the stereo from its cabinet and re-housed it in a new console, where I could now get at the back of it. I also got some LPs from the op shop, and a record cleaning machine. The limitations of the Akai were becoming more obvious as the quality of the vinyl improved. So when I saw the Audio Technica on sale online, I realised it would be a major improvement.

The major feature of this deck is the capacity to record vinyl records directly to a USB stick. However, I bought it for its other features:

  • direct drive (no messing about with drive belts)
  • S shaped tone arm (supposedly better for tracking toward the LP label)
  • prefitted cartridge
  • universal headshell, giving the capability to upgrade the cartridge
  • capacity to use
    • the deck’s inbuilt preamplifier, or
    • an external phono stage, or
    • the one in your amplifier. (The Luxman has a good phono stage with switchable impedance, and it seemed a shame not to use this.)
  • hydraulically damped lift control for the tonearm (although you need to lift the arm at the end of the record).

It even has a dinky little pop-up light so you see where to put the needle at the start of the disc. And, for members of the Illuminati (and the tinfoil hat brigade), one can actually play discs backwards. Yes, subliminal messages encoded onto The Beatles, David Bowie, and other such seemingly inoffensive artists, can be — ah — outed? Revealed? Whatevs.

The handful of Melodiya discs I picked up in a junk shop in St Kilda plays beautifully. I remember asking the assistant what the story was with these. Apparently no-one had picked them up from the dock after they cleared customs. Melodiya is the number one Russian record label; the discs I have date from the Soviet Union era. Material includes the Shostakovich symphony no. 5 (conducted by Maxim Shostakovich), four of the Sibelius symphonies with Rozhdestvensky, the Schumann piano concerto, and Schubert impromptus. The Russian orchestral sound is unique, particularly the brass playing — where else can you hear horns played with vibrato?

Other op shop finds, not all played on the new deck yet, include

  • Brahms: Alto Rhapsody, Wagner Wesendonck Lieder; Strauss orchestral songs, with Janet Baker
  • a Nielsen symphony
  • Debussy: La Mer; Ravel: Daphnis & Chloe suite no. 2, Pavane, with Szell and the Cleveland (extremely well played)
  • Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherezade with Leinsdorf (pristine condition, very good performance, and a great recording — the trifecta)
  • Beethoven: Pastoral symphony with Charles Groves (pretty good, as I recall)
  • Verdi: Don Carlo with Karajan (mono, from Salzburg Festival)
  • Schubert: Unfinished symphony and Rosamunde excerpts, with Paul Kletzki and the Philharmonia Orchestra (from the 1950s, the glory days for that band — how could you go wrong?)
  • Marschner: Hans Heiling and Der Vampyr (a gift from a mate — a terrific discovery of a composer I hadn’t heard of, let alone heard. Private recording.)

Some of the best of this bunch are World Record Club pressings. There is a story worth telling here — if only the business records from this enterprising outfit are still around. I had quite a few of their records in the 70s and 80s. Only two of these old-timers survive; a volume in the complete Haydn string quartets, with the Fine Arts Quartet, and the Sibelius Violin Concerto with a Russian soloist, Tossy Spivakovsky, and the London Symphony Orchestra. The latter is one I liberated from the music department at North Sydney Technical Boys High School. (I would return it, but the school closed down in the late 60s or early 70s.) This was the recording through which I got to know this work. I always liked Spivakovsky’s performance; it made me think of a soul wailing in frozen wastes. After a wash, the disc (although pretty worn) doesn’t sound at all bad on the new deck. I can hear now, however, that the soloist is balanced extremely close. Some things just ain’t the same forty years on!

What’s been and what’s to come

Before the main part of the post, there is a small addition to the Resources page in the form of the NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms .

We are now just a few weeks from Christmas. Those who know me will know this is my favourite time of year! (Not.) Still, it brings us to a sort-of review time for 2018.

The last twelve months has been one of numerous changes, and some milestones. I bought a new car, and we replaced some big-ticket things like the ducted cooling and the bed. The Blu-Ray recorder, and some electrical equipment, was also replaced. For the first time ever, my beloved moved to part-time employment. Most importantly, we are to celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary at the end of this year.

It has also been a huge twelve months or so health-wise. My treatment summary from November 2017 to now is the story of my cancer:

  • radical open prostatectomy
  • subsequent treatment with a physiologist specialising in continence
  • referred to a radiation oncologist, with whom I
    • had radiation therapy, with moderate success
  • then referred to a medical oncologist, with whom I
    • had androgen deprivation treatment and chemotherapy.

Of course the last of these is ongoing. However, being in remission is a great result for the treatments I have received under the care of Dr Parente and the staff of the oncology ward in Epworth Eastern. My GP has been terrific as well — someone I have been seeing for many years. Modern cancer treatment of course relies on adjunct modalities, and I feel my exercise physiologist (a recent referral) will become someone else I rely on.

My progress through these treatments has been one from specific to general, i.e. from treatments focusing on individual mets, to ones that are treating the whole body. This has been driven by the failure of the specific treatments to keep pace with the growth in the tumours.  I believe the progression in the treatments is also from ones with lower potential side effects to those with more potential side effects, but more efficacy. (Time, as ever, will tell.)

The chemotherapy  has been less of a big deal than I expected. I have dropped some social engagements in order to lessen the risk of opportunistic infection — something my immune system is less able to handle than usual. However, I haven’t wanted to become a recluse. So new year resolutions include doing a better job of keeping up with people, both individually and through groups like the local Cancer Survivors.

The chemotherapy is adjunct with androgen deprivation therapy. Their combination gives apparently an increase in efficacy of 10% in absolute terms, over either treatment singly. I started with the ADT some weeks before the beginning of the chemo, and I will continue with that as long as I remain in remission.

(On the subject of keeping up with people, we have been having a lovely time just recently having an old friend to stay for a couple of nights. She came down from Sydney for Die Meistersinger at the opera, which we all saw last night. Amazing! The second act was quite the most spectacular I have ever seen live. The orchestra played every bit as well as the Gewandhaus, whom we heard in the Leipzig Ring, and everyone acquitted themselves extremely well in the principal roles, especially Michael Kupfer-Radecky, the third singer to be engaged as Hans Sachs. And Warwick Fyfe as Beckmesser! Is there a better anywhere? Anyway, I hope that 2019 includes more Wagner as well as more socialising. Wagner’s beautiful libretto also gave me the latest candidate for my memoir title: How spring has to be.)

I need to do more to keep the remaining grey matter active next year, too. I think 2018 was the year of Karl Ove Knausgaard. (I have the final volume of his autobiographical novel sequence to finish off.) I feel that enrolling in a course would keep me at something better than if I were just doing it under my own steam. Some candidates include a couple of online masters programs in creative writing. Doing the internet course Modern Poetry over the last few weeks was great as well; it is very well-supported. Hearing the beautiful German in the Wagner last night, however, and even understanding bits of it, put this further up the batting order as something I could re-engage with.

I would also like to read through In Search of Lost Time again, with a group. Ever thought about it? Or even just wanted to see what the fuss is about? (For example, Maugham regarding it the greatest novel of the twentieth century.) I will do it via Skype, if required. So come on, all you wavering Proustians! Carpe the diem, grasp the literary nettle, and let’s get down to it. I can issue a portentous promise — your lives won’t be the same.

Geek central

I have been enjoying listening to the Naxos Music Library. (Some of this post originally appeared in an email message to my sister.) If one joins the sheet music library IMSLP, at a cost of about $20 for a year, one gets access to the Naxos Music Library! This is quite vast, over a million tracks. They are not all Naxos recordings, either; NML seems to have licensing agreements with a lot of other labels. There are only two drawbacks that I have found:

  1. it doesn’t support gapless playback – only an issue with a composer like Wagner or Puccini, where one section segues into another. (I had a free trial of Deezer for three months, and that doesn’t do gapless either; at least for Android.)
  2. it doesn’t have Chromecast capability. However Apple households are in the wrong ecosystem to use Chromecast.

I can play it back through my all-analogue valve stereo through a slightly Heath Robinson arrangement, which I describe below. (A modern stereo could probably use Bluetooth.)

I first tried casting a Chrome tab to my Chromecast. This worked fine, but the sound was a bit harsh. Enter a bit of slightly old-hat magic called MHL. This is something I only stumbled on when looking through the user manual for my Cambridge Audio disc player. MHL is an audio standard; I had never heard of it until a few weeks ago. It answers the present purpose, however, in allowing me to connect my old Samsung tablet to the disc player. Why do I want to put a digital audio stream through the disc player? The latter has a good digital-to-analog converter, which removes the hardness from a digital audio stream.

To use MHL one needs stereo equipment and a device (phone or tablet) that are both compatible. Look under “Home theatre” and “Mobile” on this list to see if you have the magic double. A HDMI cable and a special connector is also required to link everything up. The latter is el cheapo; I just got this from eBay, for about $12.

It is a bit of a fiddle to hook it all up, but not difficult:

  • plug one end of the HDMI cable into one end of the connector, and the other into the disc player
  • connect the mini HDMI cable from the connector into the tablet or phone
  • scroll through the HDMI inputs on the disc player until it is looking at the correct one
  • on the tablet or phone, connect to the IMSLP web site
  • navigate to Naxos Music Library and follow that link
  • in NML, select a piece of music and play it.

IMSLP membership only entitles you to the lower sound quality from NML. However, I think the sound is very good. Streaming music eats up a lot of battery on the old tablet; I just start with it fully charged.