Showed Up: 'Elektra' at the Metropolitan Opera

Seth Colter Walls: Matthew, why is Elektra, currently at the Met, important? Like, The Awl basically never covers operas. Why are we doing this one?

Choire Sicha: Yeah, seriously, what the hell?

Seth: And why have you gone 3 times in the last week, weirdo?

Matthew Gallaway: Elektra is an opera written in 1909 by Richard Strauss, who is one of the most important composers of the 20th Century. In the manner of say, Picasso, he paved the way for the atonal dissonance and 12-tone scales that would come to define progressive music for the next 100 years or more. (Read Alex Ross for more accurate information!)

Seth: And regarding the music, for people who are not familiar? I’m going to drop that Steve Albini quote about punk. He says: “I like noise. I like big-ass vicious noise that makes my head spin. I wanna feel it whipping through me like a fucking jolt. We’re so dilapidated and crushed by our pathetic existence we need it like a fix.” ELEKTRA DOES THIS.

Matthew: Elektra is also psychologically nuanced and reflects the revolutionary theories of Freud/Jung. The librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal was obsessed with the past: he said something about how it’s impossible to speak without hearing 2000 years of history reverberating in your head. He was a poetic genius. His collaboration with Strauss was like the ___& ___ of rock music.

Choire: I would add that Elektra retains a lot of its original power, amazingly. This piece that really did people’s faces in when it was new still retains a lot of its blammo and kapow.

Matthew: My thoughts EXACTLY.

Choire: It’s got a real Reichsmusikkammer! (Sorry! Kidding!)

Matthew: Whenever I go to the opera, I try to put myself in the shoes of those hearing it for the first time, 100–200–300 years ago, and what it must have been like to hear something that powerful (pre-Husker Du/My Bloody Valentine/Velvet Underground/etc.). People literally went insane.

Seth: Yeah, I wish I coulda been there. Instead, I saw Courtney Love bare her breasts at Lollapalloza ’96 and then storm off stage to fight with Kathleen Hanna.

Seth: Why did you think last night was better than the time you went with Choire, and better than the dress rehearsal?

Matthew: I felt like the singers were less worried about being in the right place in the right time and ‘letting loose’ more than they had previously — I thought it had great ‘energy.’

Seth: As I think you both know, I am the young-ish, enthusiastic sort, and am willing to forgive a production lots of little things because I am grateful that they are bringing fucking Elektra to my eye-sockets and ear-holes.

Matthew: I felt very much the same way…I was interested to note today that it is actually 100 years old, i.e., it premiered in Dresden in 1909

Seth: Obviously everyone always fixates on the title role. Is the singer in question up to it, etc. But while I thought Susan Bullock was pretty good last night — all the blah blah about her lack of power had me expecting something much more enervated — I was actually surprised by how much I liked Voigt as Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis. Can we talk about her?

Matthew: Yes, I thought she also sounded great

Seth: Yall are older than me. Did you ever see her live, pre-surgery? All I have are videos. How does this compare?

Choire: I can’t remember when I last saw her in the Olden Times. She isn’t now as enormous vocally, from what little I remember? But I did think she sounded very good. Not like, “OMG WHO IS THIS CHICK HOLY CRAP” good? But very, very good.

Matthew: The thing about her voice — I probably saw her 10 years ago — is that it’s always been kind of huge — i.e., a real Met voice — and now I think it’s probably a little less ‘creamy’ than what you might have heard, but it has more of a ‘laser-beam’ quality.

Choire: Oh! That is a very good description!

Matthew: That’s a very typical evolution for a dramatic soprano.

Seth: Secretly, I think Chrysothemis has some of the most beautiful music in this opera. So I was glad that Voigt sounded so good.

Matthew: I think her music is the most traditional and lyrical, and can feel like a breath of fresh air after the much darker sections of Elektra and Klytemnestra.

Seth: For the kids at home, here’s Glenn Gould playing some of Chrysothemis’s stuff on piano (starts at 3:32 mark).

Matthew: Although my favorite part of the piece — at least in the beginning — is when Elektra is ruminating (or obsessing) about her father.

Choire: Yes! Very gorgeous.

Seth: When we had that last night, I was thinking: Let’s just stay here! No need to bring out any other characters or actors or things! Let’s just have ruminative sadness and little stabby sounds from the orchestra. Heaven!

Matthew: Exactly, and the music is almost like an homage to the Wotan/Brunnhilde scene at the end of Walkure, which is brutally sad (i.e., a father saying goodbye to his favorite daughter forever).

Seth: But my whole problem with the Ring is that its gonzo eschatology kinda gets in the way of feeling anything for those people. Like, big deal Lord Goldman Sachs, you done fucked up the world. Boo fuckin hoo. Whereas with this Greek tragedy stuff, I think it helps Strauss write music on that grand scale that actually connects, and doesn’t seem as schticky.

Matthew: I’m going to agree with you about Strauss but not Walkure!

Seth: Well, I like Wagner more when he writes for humans. Like Tristan/Isolde.

Matthew: Speaking of humans, let’s talk about Klytamnestra — did you find her sufficiently deranged?

Seth: I liked Felicity Palmer’s voice and all, as Klytamnestra. But when she gets the news that Orestes is dead? And she shakes her fists in the air to indicate her triumph like a five year old at a jungle gym? Not impressive. I think this is partly a production issue.

Choire: Oh God. Listen, for me? This was not exactly a wonder of stage acting, which is complicated by, yes, the production.

Seth: There’s something ominous and spooky about Klytemnestra when she has those sorta-masked minders standing behind her. But then the libretto takes them away from her. And then she’s just a woman in a weird getup. You’d think a better director — like, I dunno: Lepage, maybe even (gasp) Julie Taymor — might have engineered a costume for Klymee that would suggest her power even when she’s alone.


Matthew: DITTO.

Seth: OK, OK.


Seth: We’ll give the assignment to the guys who did the Glass Satyagraha a couple years back. With all the puppetry and cloaking and whatnot. That was amazing. I found myself wanting them to do a new production of Elektra for the Met.

Matthew: If I can disagree about the production a bit, I think that its restraint in a way is to its advantage: if you go back and look at some of the older productions, there’s a LOT of black eyeliner and mythological gestures, which I’m not sure is necessarily as appropriate in 2k9?

Choire: Sure. But you know, this production? I mean: wow, there is nothing there. Which is admirable? I have a question for Seth, because he brought a civilian, and I wonder what she thought of it? Was she thinking: WHY AREN’T THEY DOING ANYTHING?

Seth: No, she loved it. But mostly because I showed up in a suit. BUT SERIOUSLY. What obsessives usually forget about a piece of music like this is that a lot of the work is done by the piece just showing up and doing it to your earhole. This music is FUCKING AMAZING.

Seth: And a newcomer is mostly just knocked over by that reality. And doesn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking, why is there a gigantic horse split in two on the left side of the stage OH WOW RIGHT TROJAN WAR. (Snore.)

Choire: True… Also I think she and you were there on a firmer night than I was? And while I wasn’t underwhelmed? It became more and more like a recital than a performance, when the gusto wasn’t quite brimming. Because let’s be honest: NOTHING HAPPENS ON STAGE. Also maybe I am going a little deaf though, being old and all? Because I wasn’t getting the sheer volume. However? GAY SIDEBAR?

Matthew: Orestes looked pretty damn hot.

Choire: Correct! Okay gay sidebar over.

Seth: Okay. So. After this, Strauss went all wussy. Writing rom-com operas for Maureen Dowd to quote in her columns.

Matthew: But more than that, I think it’s important to remember that the music reflects a psychological pathos.

Choire: DO GO ON.

Matthew: The most dissonant sections of the piece occur during Klytamnestra’s aria, when she is in a state of COMPLETE DENIAL about having KILLED her husband! She’s literally begging Elektra to help, and of course, Elektra is like: ‘here’s what will help — YOU MUST DIE.’ The music completely reflects this. Carl Jung actually published a book called the ‘Elektra Complex’ not long after this opera premiered as sort of a companion/counter text to the Oedipal Complex of Freud (because Elektra is so obsessively infatuated with her father — the music also reflects this dynamic).

Seth: You are right about all of this, and I want to download your intelligence into my brain, if we could make that happen, pls? I thought Bulllock’s best ACTING + SINGING stretch last night came during the Orestes recognition music.

Matthew: Agreed — that was also very touching.

Seth: I thought that was all very well executed. And the fact that the orchestra isn’t BLARING SO MUCH during that part particularly gave her some slack, volume-wise, so that she could shade the development of the scene.

Matthew: True, of course it’s just the calm before the storm.

Seth: Yeah, the climax — in which Elektra celebrates the death and destruction and goes nuts — wasn’t so hot for me. Bullock shouldn’t try to dance to the orchestra’s beat. It doesn’t look rapturous. And it doesn’t look crazy, especially. It just looks awkward.

Matthew: I agree that’s a bit problematic, but it has been getting better.

Choire: [At this point it would be wise to disclose that Matthew has family ties to the Met, although his opinions are his own.] As for me, I felt like Bullock gathered steam steadily and then backed off right at the end. I was NOT LOVING HER at first but I grew to like her. Plus, as Matthew knows, I’m convinced she talks like Tracey Emin? All Margate?

Seth: I don’t know these names.

Choire: HERE:

Seth: Oof!

Choire: I SWEAR that’s what it sounds like backstage at the Met RIGHT NOW. Anyway! So I think we all agree that the draw here is: a great chance to hear a gorgeous piece of music.

Seth: Yeah, and how often do you get a chance to hear it live? Also: Met Orchestra is a good Strauss orchestra when it wants to be.

Choire: I feel like this year it’s that and Ariadne auf Naxos. And, of course, LULU.

Seth: Yeah, Lulu is going to kick ass. But don’t forget Gergiev doing The Nose.

Choire: I have not heard Lulu since 1987 with Catherine Malfitano! Shh, I am old.

Matthew: I thought it was interesting to think about what piece of music from 2009 will be performed in 2109. (Did I write that date correctly?)

Seth: Hm. What music, huh?

Choire: Isn’t the answer, “None”?



Matthew: Grizzly Bear? AnCo?

Choire: L. O. L.

Seth: Thomas Ades’s The Tempest sounds very nice on the EMI recording that came out this year. Will reserve final judgment till when we get to see it in NY in 2012 or whatever.


Seth: Listen, that song’s stock is gonna go down before 2019.

Choire: NO ONE LISTENS TO CASSANDRA. But the future will know I was right!

Seth: But if we’re *really* trying to answer Matt’s question, about operatic stuff?

Matthew: In 1909, there wasn’t the categorization — Strauss was a huge star.

Choire: That’s right. SCHOOL HIM, GALLAWAY.

Seth: Listen, people will still be singing this aria.

Choire: Yes, they will. It’s a beautiful song, and one of only three things in that god-forsaken thing I ever want to hear again. (To be fair: the three things in it are each fantastic.)

Matthew: But seriously, let’s say that 0.00000005 percent of people under the age of 30 have heard Doctor Atomic, in comparison to Lady Gaga? Opera in some ways has been destroyed by capitalism — it doesn’t lend itself to commodification. And it’s expensive as SHIT to produce. Nobody ever makes money on opera. Ask Oscar Hammerstein.

Seth: True.

Matthew: Another reason to go see it now: before it’s DEAD! I’m being needlessly fatalistic, of course.

Seth: Also: the electric amplification of instruments, as Alex Ross points out in Rest is Noise, sorta made a 100+ member orchestra an economically irrational enterprise.

Choire: I, like David Byrne, do sort of cringe at a $32 million budget for the Ring Cycle in L.A.

Seth: Oh, man. That David Byrne thing made me mad.

Matthew: It was always economically irresponsible. King Ludwig spent a fortune on ‘The Ring.’


Seth: This is why what George Steel is having to do at City Opera (i.e., work with tiny budgets) is a good and useful thing.

Matthew: But compared to Yankee fucking Stadium? Come on.

Choire: (Duly noted: These complaints are by a man who likes a $300-million movie, so, whatever to me.)

Matthew: We should have more public funding of the arts instead of ____.

Seth: We should have some cheaper fucking productions of a greater number of interesting works. But to LA’s credit! They will be doing the first North American staging of a Franz Schreker opera next spring. So there’s that.


Seth: I loves. Alex Ross: “Schreker was better on his best days than most great composers are on their off days, which is why canons of genius are suspect.” Also: Hitler can go fuck himself with his Wagner.

Matthew: Don’t even start.

Choire: Whoa. Whoa whoa and whoa.

Matthew: There’s no Strauss w/out Wagner.

Choire: MM HMM.

Seth: YOU GUYS, I KNOW. I’m just saying: it IS unfortunate that most of the music the Third Reich deemed “degenerate” has yet to get a full hearing as staple rep. They buried it, and it’s mostly stayed buried. Sadface.

Choire: No, sure. As The Gay, we can appreciate that sentiment.

Seth: That’s all I’m saying with the Hitler/Wagner thing. And Franz never getting produced anywheres. It’s a BALANCE thing.

Seth: To conclude? Fabio Luisi conducted the shit outta Elektra last night.

Matthew: Yes, the Met Orchestra was beautiful and dynamic. He had them on a tight leash.

Choire Sicha: Umm… something something THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID?

Matthew Gallaway and Seth Colter Walls would very much like for you to attend the opera. Choire Sicha is sort of okay if you just decide to stay home with your DVR.