Tuesday, March 06, 2007

blogging for me...

Just a warning, this post is less for wittiness and more for me to try to work something out in such a way that maybe it makes some little bit of sense. Though I'll give a tiny bit of background.

I'm taking a really neat class in adaptation in Film theater and opera. I missed the first class because I was in New York City for a week. When I came back and looked at the syllabus I freaked out...a creative project at the end having to do with adaptation! maybe I should drop it and petition to take only two classes this quarter since I'm a senior. I go to the next class; it rocks, the professor is really interesting active and articulate. The students are 2/3's graduate students so they really know what they are talking about and are able to have interesting conversation. I do the first assignment, it's totally out of my league, but I give it a shot. I do passably well on the assignment, am criticized for being too general. I am however a "big picture" learner. I freak out again about this final paper (it can now be a critical paper) I can't do it, professor thinks I can, Embly spends some time in the library.

Adaptation as parody. The first edition of the Beggar's Opera was published in in 1728 by John Gay in London. He had up to this point been a fairly unsuccessful author of plays and other verse. The Beggar's opera is the first successful example of the ballad opera. In fact this piece is credited for starting the genre. There are 69 songs in the work 28 are derived from English ballads the other 18 are drawn from Purcell, Handel, and other composers (this is taken from Grove Music Online, I'd link it but you'd need an account to get in) The name Ballad opera is a little deceiving because it is not so much an opera as a play with pieces of music in it, however 69 pieces is a bit hefty to call a musical...no?

The beggar's opera was successful because of several different factors. First off it is a parody of Opera Seria. Specifically the Italian opera of the time. The opera seria deals with "lofty" subjects kings and queens, classical subjects (Greek myths) and is generally attended by an equally lofty audience, the aristocracy, and the aristocrazy (Greek myths) . There is a lot that is contrived in l'opera seria, entrance arias, exit arias, a set number of arias for the leading couple...for the second couple, the tenor is yon love interest, the bass is yon bad guy...also lots of castrati roles, these are sometimes later delegated to women. The exit arias are the hardest, because sometimes the plot does call for an aria as someone leaves, and sometimes the librettist really has to stretch the plot. the beggar's opera deals with entirely everyday subjects. Mack the knife is a captain of a gang of thieves, Mr Peachem, is the king of the beggars (or something). Among other things I have not heard the word slut thrown around so much as I did in this opera. The piece ends happily, but only because the narrator insists that opera must end happily.

There is political satire, I am actually much less clear on this. So when we interact with government officials in this opera they are all being bribed, and are all in all not so wonderful people. Is it the power of a beggar? Is it just the show of how in decent we are as people? I am less than clear.

Berthold Brecht, re-writes the piece as the Threepenny opera. The plot remains about the same, however since it is Brecht there is a large stand against the evil of Capitalism. Also the king comes and saves Mackie Messer at the end. The music is almost all newly written by Kurt Weill. This piece too is tremendously successful. It is in fact one of those pieces that is thought to have revolutionized modern musical theater...who knows.

Here is the dilemma...where is the thesis? How can this paper not simply be, this is the form of opera seria, this is how gay diverges from it. This is the Beggar's opera, this is how Brecht diverges from it. The form of the Ballad opera is not at all like what the Opera seria was. Nor was it really an opera at all, it was performed by actors that could sing, rather than singers...the pieces are all very simple AABB pieces. This is not even the da capo structure that one would expect out of opera seria, it is however still very regular with-in itself.

So can we see the series of changes made on a genre (with in the microcosm of these works) as a deconstruction of form? Each piece can stand on its own, and each piece brings something new to the overall work of an art form, and how and what is the adaption (something that I am far less clear on defining now on this end of an adaptation course rather than before it)


Duff said...

This is the one thing I hate about such analysis papers that border on sheer description. How does one come up with a, for lack of a better word, philosophical lesson to be drawn? Particularly since often times in a class the professor isn't looking for such a lesson. But then this leads me to many of my general problems and concerns about criticism as an end unto itself: it just degenerates into description, so why not just write, go see or read it yourself. If it is to serve making a larger philosophical point, then it is not criticism unto itself. Further, I am not necessarily sure that I care about merely knowing what the author's (or what unconscious capitalist or psychological forces determined what we mistakenly personify as "author") point was unless I am engaged in a philosophical debate in which that point is germane.

Perhaps criticism is only useful for philological purpose: preservation and transmission of texts.

Campbell Vertesi said...

What's interesting about Threepenny Opera is the way Brecht alienates the audience from the characters. He makes it nearly impossible to identify with any of the characters.

He actually wrote about this, about an attempt to imitate Chinese Opera traditions... where the performer is DELIBERATELY presentational. The audience doesn't empathize with him, they WATCH him. The question of what you should feel when a character does this or that is elevated to the conscious level.

As an example - Mack the Knife is going to be hanged. He cries about it, and gets fiercely angry at the society that damns him (hooray for the political bent). But do you sympathize? You could easily be HAPPY that Mack is going to die.

This could not have been possible with a Puccini protagonist. No one cheers when Cavaradossi is shot. A good tenor will make you experience all of his grief.

Theepenny opera is written specifically so you cannot do that. It is in the emotive sense, an "anti-opera". It takes the traditions of opera, and turns them against the traditional art form.

Note this is also present in the music... it's pop-infused, jazzy, but still with set numbers... just like an old opera.

Embly said...

Campbell is right...this is what makes Brecht so intriguing. He wants an actively engaged audience, and he attempts to achieve this by making the audience think about what is happening and what they ought to be feeling rather than empathizing on a purely emotional level. Critical distance is key. I think that's why I liked watching the movie so much...I just didn't care about any of the characters, which is fascinating in contrast to what we watch in general.