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Summertime Musical Musings III: Sheep and Opera

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Summer is over, so it is time to get serous and talk about sheep and opera.

In Euro-spheric opera, nudity is in, sado-masochism the norm, fidelity to the libretto out, opposition to any bourgeois norms de rigueur, and allegiance to the new-age sense of irony always present, if expressed laconically. Everyone and everything is "iconic", or at the very least, "a little masterpiece". In a Post-Cagian world, every little sound -even the tiniest passing of wind, if listened to "correctly"-is music or art.

I digress, but, only a little. So back to sheep. Or first let us talk of elephants and horses. Opera has always included at least a little spectacle, or a lot. It historically included dance, that physical art which combines grace and athleticism. Sometimes the athleticism verged on the realm of spectacle with gymnastics of a kind included as well. But dance was always supported by music, hopefully of a high quality. Horses and elephants, or even baboons for that matter, only add visual spectacle, an icing on the musical cake as it were (but hopefully the cake is a tasty one). The participation of said animals is always to create a sense of heightened realism, and any sounds the animals make, or additions they make to the stage scenery, either by their presence or droppings, adds nothing to the overall event. In fact they are to be avoided.

(Many years ago I saw a parade in Seattle, part of its Mardi Gras-like week that took place every summer. There were many horse groups participating and each had a poop-picker-upper behind to clean the street. The first walked, the second was on a bike, the third on a scooter, and the fourth---drove a very cool yellow Lamborghini!)

Which brings us back to sheep; in fact, many sheep. It was reported in a NY Times article of March 25, 2016 that " The scene-stealers in question are the 100 sheep that appear in an eerie, endearing section near the end of Heiner Goebbels's dreamlike staging of Louis Andriessen's "De Materie," a Dutch avant-garde work from 1988..." To which there is a report from a Times critic that "their occasional bleating lent a lovely natural touch to the score". For some reason I can't help but think of the beans around the campfire scene in Blazing Saddles, as that is natural too, but just a tad outside of the realm of high art (not to be confused with High Anxiety, let alone The Age thereof).

But no matter, now sheep bleatings are artistic statements. Can they really be the subject of critical response? Does one sheep bleat better than another? Is there a basso profundo among the herd, or a coloratura, of stellar quality?

The article then discusses finding a farmer with sheep who wishes to have them in an opera (what if one sheep decides she wants an agent, God forbid!), how to house and feed them, and other sundry items. Then comes a fun find.

"There is no indication of sheep in Mr. Andriessen's score, which was first staged by Robert Wilson in 1989. The Armory production, which originated at the Ruhrtriennale in Germany in 2014, is directed by Mr. Goebbels, who said that he had decided to use the sheep as part of his effort to "build a space onstage in which the imagination of the audience can take place." "I'm not interested in circus, and taming, and animals doing things that they were not meant to do," he said, describing his first meeting with the original woolly interpreters at a rehearsal in Germany as one of the most beautiful moments in his life as a director. "I just wanted animals to do what they do. It's very poetic, and unpredictable. You never know what they're doing next."

Ah, it is "poetic" and one just doesn't know what the critters are "doing next". How do sheep make a space for the listener's imagination better than an empty stage? Art usually comprises a little skill and craft, let alone a real idea. All of these are in absentia in Mr. Goebbels thinking. Or are we back to Happenings in the Armory, an idea that I would suggest, or hope, we have now outgrown. Like Duchamp's urinal, once encountered, on the second time around it is a trifle dull, not to say just a bit stupid.

By the way, what are the financial and legal implications of having sheep on stage? Do they get choristers' wages, or are they paid by the bleat? Are they unionized? Has OSHA approved their waiting-pen? Might not a sheep fall off the stage? Are they sufficiently diverse, as there don't appear to be any sheep of color in the picture of the flock?

As summer is now over let's get back to serious matters. Time is short and there is much to be done. Halloween is just around the corner and thus it is almost time to bring out those wool sweaters for the cool nights. Damn, I knew those sheep would come in handy somehow!

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