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On Friday I had dinner at the Elephant House Café, located near the Royal Museum of Scotland on George IV Bridge in Old Town. Famous for being “the birthplace of Harry Potter”, J.K. Rowling used to visit to nurse a cup of coffee and her child while writing the first Harry Potter novel on a meagre government arts grant. It’s right between the university campus and the Royal Mile and my dinner with salad and bread cost only seven pounds. It’s scruffy and lovely.
After dinner I went up the street to the Hub, the Edinburgh International Festival’s offices on the Royal Mile. Wolpe! was held in the main hall, upstairs above the ticketing centre. As the seating was unreserved, when I arrived at half past seven there was already a queue all the way to the front door of the building. The performance wasn’t due to start until eight. I decided not to join the masses and moved outside to enjoy the late sunlight, where a scalper offered to sell me a ticket. Twice.
All the buzz at the Hub raised my expectations somewhat for what was described in the program as a staged concert. It was produced by Muziektheater Transparant from Brussels – a “company that shifts the boundaries between opera and music-theatre, blending the old and the new.”
The concert was of Stefan Wolpe’s music, but it wasn’t quite a concert. It wasn’t quite theatre either. I got the impression it was more like a guy playing the piano, a guy singing and a woman talking about how much she admired the composer. And what she thought about life and Marxism too. As described in the program:
Wolpe! is not a pedantic lecture on Stefan Wolpe’s work but an attempt to find out his attitude towards the era in which he lived. An artist who creates is on a journey, following a path whose outcome he does not know.
While I enjoyed the music and found the experience interesting, I clearly wasn’t getting as much out of it as the gentleman sitting next to me who shook the whole row of plastic connecting seats with his barely repressed chuckles throughout the entire performance. Understanding German might have been of assistance here.
The majority of music in Wolpe! was agitprop songs written by Wolpe between 1929 and 1933.
For example, ‘Fantasy and the Day After Tomorrow”:
And when the war broke out again,
the women said no!
and locked up brother, husband and son
in their homes.
Then in every country they went
right up to the leader’s house
and held sticks in their hands
and dragged that high-ranking scum outside.
And thus they laid over their knees
all those who had ordered the war:
the bosses of banks and industry,
the minister and the general.
They broke many sticks in two.
And many big mouths fell silent.
Crying was heard in every part,
but nowhere was there war.
The women then returned back home,
to their brother, son and husband,
and said the war is over!
The men stared out through the window
and did not look at the women…
These songs were performed in German, but the anecdotes and philosophical posturing was all in English. Some of the later was quite irritating – like the final comments:
“If you spend time reflecting, you run the risk of having a new thought.”
There is nothing quite as annoying as performers giving audiences moral lectures through arty platitudes. You have to either be quite dull in the head or very desperate to agree with the author to enjoy that sort of thing. But the audience seemed to like it. And the story of Wolpe’s life does fit in very well with the overarching ‘artists without borders’ theme of the festival.
Wolpe’s music is apparently very difficult to perform, and he was continually frustrated during his life by poor attempts from his students to play his pieces (and during his life he lacked the recognition necessary to have much of his music performed professionally). His daughter – who herself became a very successful concert pianist – was interviewed recently and said that her father would be “bouncing in his grave with delight” and the thought of his work being performed at the Edinburgh Festival.
I am glad that it is possible to find a crowd of three hundred people in Scotland to watch a weird concert-play fusion of Wolpe’s music, anecdotes from his life, Marx quotes, bible quotes and sung agitprop. I’d be happy to hear more of Wolpe’s music in the future. I just hope I never have to go and see this again.
Wandering can be dangerous:
On Tuesday morning I made a quick visit to the Edinburgh Writers’ Museum on the Royal mile to learn more about Robert Louis Stevenson, one of Edinburgh’s best loved sons. A Edinburgh university graduate and passionate writer, Stevenson makes quite a good mascot for my Scottish adventures.
He was also quite fond of a good wander, making his way through the Pacific to Kiribati, Western Samoa and finally Australia:
“…youth is the time to go flashing from one end of the world to the other, both in mind and body; to try the manners of different nations.”
Stevenson’s days as a young man in Edinburgh seem from all accounts to have been dominated by excessive drinking and philandering with local prostitutes. He apparently fell in love with two such women, but wasn’t permitted by his father to marry either of them.
While Stevenson doesn’t seem to have been particularly focused on his academic work during his time at Edinburgh, he did pursue his writing career with single-minded focus. Forced by his father to study engineering, he sat through classes writing stories in his ‘Book of Original Nonsense’ and founded the University of Edinburgh’s student newspaper, The Student.
On Tuesday evening I went back to Festival Theatre to see Rodion Shchedrin’s The Enchanted Wanderer. The opera was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 2002, specifically composed for concert stage performance rather than dramatic staging.
I’ve been living 53 years now – been dying my whole life:
but I just can’t seem to die…
The story is about a monk called Ivan that falls in deep platonic love with a gypsy, who in turn falls in deep passionate love with Ivan’s patron, the prince. When the prince marries another woman, the gypsy (in typical operatic gypsy fashion) tricks Ivan into killing her, so she is not forced by her jealousy to kill the prince and his new wife.
You alone loved me,
sweet friend of my heart.
The prince grew sick of me,
wearied with me.
He loved me, and then threw me away…
Prove your love to me now.
Do what I ask of you.
Effective opera gives you real emotion through unbelievably dramatic stories and transcendent music. The Enchanted Wanderer is really about the sacrifices that true friendship demands, and the overpowering nature of love. It’s hard not to like anything that features frenzied gypsy passion so predominantly.
Musically, parts of the score sounded very modern and while the choral sections were more traditional, the two styles merged successfully into one cohesive sound. The program notes classify Shchedrin as a neo-romantic composer. I’d like to hear more of his work to figure out exactly what that means.
The theme for the Edinburgh International Festival this year is ‘artists without borders’; immigration, war, cultural convergence, geopolitics. But The Enchanted Wanderer isn’t really about that. It’s about an inner struggle and journey, a reconciliation of a troubled mind. It’s the sort of journey that art takes you on.
Which is something Robert Louis Stevenson also understood:
“When I suffer in mind, stories are my refuge, I take them like opium; and consider one who writes them as a sort of doctor of the mind.”
The Enchanted Wanderer
Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra
Festival Theatre Edinburgh