Epics And Mock-Epics In Early Spring, Duluth

Sam Black

Although William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were born two dozen years later than Richard Wagner, the abundant richness of their genius came to the stage about the same time. Between 1875 and 1889 the eleven major Gilbert & Sullivan operettas were staged for London audiences. In particular, Iolanthe, or the Peer and Peri, opened at the newly remodeled Savoy Theatre in November,1882. Six years earlier, at Bayreuth, Germany - near Nuremberg - the first presentation of Wagner’s four grand operas known as The Ring of the Nibelungen, or The Ring Cycle took place in August. I have always been fascinated by this incredible irony.
Here in Duluth, on March 5, 2016, Iolanthe was being performed at The Underground on precisely the same evening as two hours of Ring Cycle music was being performed at Symphony Hall. As a curious side note, Puccini’s dark, early opera, Manon Lescaut (1893), was televised in HD live from the Metropolitan Opera just a few hours earlier. Duluth is my kind of place.

Can we EVER take politicians seriously?

Local singer/actor Jeffrey Madison chose to stage Iolanthe, perhaps, because this is an election year in the U.S., and Iolanthe contains an outrageous text, making fun of both the liberal and conserva-TIVE in British politics of that time. By the end of the musical, all the politicians have chosen to marry members of a particular band of fairies, and live happily ever after. The show ran for four nights only, but it was a delight for eye and ear. Twenty-one different characters and two musicians shared The Underground performance space, making me think it might have been the largest cast production since that space was born almost two years ago.
Zach Winkler as Strephon and Kayla Mudgett as Phyllis were musically and visibly in love for the whole show. Patrick Colvin, as Lord Chancellor got over his nightmarish headaches with a powerful patter song, and was reunited with his fairy-wife - Iolanthe (Vicki Fingalson) -  of two decades ago. Great fun, charming music, and a chance to laugh at the human foibles recurring one generation after another.

Seventeen hours of opera in seventy packed minutes of symphony

Richard Wagner is another matter.The Nibelung stories did not really exist in a cohesive narrative until Wagner assigned himself the task. He was a very gifted writer, as well as composer, conductor, and rascal. He spent nearly forty years completing this cycle of four operas, then he financed the building of a theater appropriate for their performance. Locally, Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra music director, Dirk Meyer, created a thirty minute monologue, retelling the highlights of the ancient Norse legend, according to Wagner. John Pierce dramatically shared the monologue, while Meyer led the DSSO in sharing at least thirty themes and excerpts from Wagner’s imagination.
Then it was time to work hard. Back in the 1980s, renowned conductor Lorin Maazel challenged himself to ‘compose’ a long symphony, using only musical notes created by Wagner, capturing the abbreviated story of all four Ring operas in performance order. Those who knew their Wagner, would be able to follow the musical trail of the story from the forging of the Ring to the destruction of Valhalla, with not a word being spoken. I am one of those listeners, and it was pure bliss.
This is very difficult music to play, with very little rest for the entire seventy minute performance. Four Wagner tubas were borrowed from the Minnesota Orchestra, anvils were borrowed from a Duluth blacksmith, and a shofar was added for some primitive horn sounds. All the instruments appeared in increased numbers, and the sound was glorious. From the rushing waters of the Rhine at the beginning, to the flooding, cascading Rhine at the conclusion, Symphony Hall was inundated with sound and emotion. Men and women died in confrontation, lovers engaged each other, and the Norse Gods were devoured by their greed and the ever-powerful, flowing Rhine.
The DSSO players were recognized,and applauded, in order, and they were all exhausted. Meyer offered the most amazing display of conductor wisdom and cohesion I have seen since his arrival in Duluth. The orchestra outplayed themselves from beginning to end. While there were many empty seats in my section, I hope you were in yours. This kind of Wagnerian musical experience has not been shared by the DSSO since November, 1958, and it might be awhile before it happens again. I am very glad I was present in the house.