CHAPTER X. How Wagner Operas Bang Along
Three or four hours. That is a long time to sit in one place, whether one be conspicuous or not, yet some of Wagner's operas bang along for six whole hours on a stretch! But the people sit there and enjoy it all, and wish it would last longer. A German lady in Munich told me that a person could not like Wagner's music at first, but must go through the deliberate process of learning to like it--then he would have his sure reward; for when he had learned to like it he would hunger for it and never be able to get enough of it. She said that six hours of Wagner was by no means too much. She said that this composer had made a complete revolution in music and was burying the old masters one by one. And she said that Wagner's operas differed from all others in one notable respect, and that was that they were not merely spotted with music here and there, but were ALL music, from the first strain to the last. This surprised me. I said I had attended one of his insurrections, and found hardly ANY music in it except the Wedding Chorus. She said "Lohengrin" was noisier than Wagner's other operas, but that if I would keep on going to see it I would find by and by that it was all music, and therefore would then enjoy it. I COULD have said, "But would you advise a person to deliberately practice having a toothache in the pit of his stomach for a couple of years in order that he might then come to enjoy it?" But I reserved that remark.
This lady was full of the praises of the head-tenor who had performed in a Wagner opera the night before, and went on to enlarge upon his old and prodigious fame, and how many honors had been lavished upon him by the princely houses of Germany. Here was another surprise. I had attended that very opera, in the person of my agent, and had made close and accurate observations. So I said:
"Why, madam, MY experience warrants me in stating that that tenor's voice is not a voice at all, but only a shriek--the shriek of a hyena."
"That is very true," she said; "he cannot sing now; it is already many years that he has lost his voice, but in other times he sang, yes, divinely! So whenever he comes now, you shall see, yes, that the theater will not hold the people. JAWOHL BEI GOTT! his voice is WUNDERSCHO"N in that past time."
I said she was discovering to me a kindly trait in the Germans which was worth emulating. I said that over the water we were not quite so generous; that with us, when a singer had lost his voice and a jumper had lost his legs, these parties ceased to draw. I said I had been to the opera in Hanover, once, and in Mannheim once, and in Munich (through my authorized agent) once, and this large experience had nearly persuaded me that the Germans PREFERRED singers who couldn't sing. This was not such a very extravagant speech, either, for that burly Mannheim tenor's praises had been the talk of all Heidelberg for a week before his performance took place--yet his voice was like the distressing noise which a nail makes when you screech it across a window-pane. I said so to Heidelberg friends the next day, and they said, in the calmest and simplest way, that that was very true, but that in earlier times his voice HAD been wonderfully fine. And the tenor in Hanover was just another example of this sort. The English-speaking German gentleman who went with me to the opera there was brimming with enthusiasm over that tenor. He said:
"ACH GOTT! a great man! You shall see him. He is so celebrate in all Germany--and he has a pension, yes, from the government. He not obliged to sing now, only twice every year; but if he not sing twice each year they take him his pension away."
Very well, we went. When the renowned old tenor appeared, I got a nudge and an excited whisper:
"Now you see him!"
But the "celebrate" was an astonishing disappointment to me. If he had been behind a screen I should have supposed they were performing a surgical operation on him. I looked at my friend--to my great surprise he seemed intoxicated with pleasure, his eyes were dancing with eager delight. When the curtain at last fell, he burst into the stormiest applause, and kept it up--as did the whole house--until the afflictive tenor had come three times before the curtain to make his bow. While the glowing enthusiast was swabbing the perspiration from his face, I said:
"I don't mean the least harm, but really, now, do you think he can sing?"
"Him? NO! GOTT IM HIMMEL, ABER, how he has been able to sing twenty-five years ago?" [Then pensively.] "ACH, no, NOW he not sing any more, he only cry. When he think he sing, now, he not sing at all, no, he only make like a cat which is unwell."
Where and how did we get the idea that the Germans are a stolid, phlegmatic race? In truth, they are widely removed from that. They are warm-hearted, emotional, impulsive, enthusiastic, their tears come at the mildest touch, and it is not hard to move them to laughter. They are the very children of impulse. We are cold and self-contained, compared to the Germans. They hug and kiss and cry and shout and dance and sing; and where we use one loving, petting expressions they pour out a score. Their language is full of endearing diminutives; nothing that they love escapes the application of a petting diminutive--neither the house, nor the dog, nor the horse, nor the grandmother, nor any other creature, animate or inanimate.
In the theaters at Hanover, Hamburg, and Mannheim, they had a wise custom. The moment the curtain went up, the light in the body of the house went down. The audience sat in the cool gloom of a deep twilight, which greatly enhanced the glowing splendors of the stage. It saved gas, too, and people were not sweated to death.
When I saw "King Lear" played, nobody was allowed to see a scene shifted; if there was nothing to be done but slide a forest out of the way and expose a temple beyond, one did not see that forest split itself in the middle and go shrieking away, with the accompanying disenchanting spectacle of the hands and heels of the impelling impulse--no, the curtain was always dropped for an instant--one heard not the least movement behind it--but when it went up, the next instant, the forest was gone. Even when the stage was being entirely reset, one heard no noise. During the whole time that "King Lear" was playing the curtain was never down two minutes at any one time. The orchestra played until the curtain was ready to go up for the first time, then they departed for the evening. Where the stage waits never each two minutes there is no occasion for music. I had never seen this two-minute business between acts but once before, and that was when the "Shaughraun" was played at Wallack's.
I was at a concert in Munich one night, the people were streaming in, the clock-hand pointed to seven, the music struck up, and instantly all movement in the body of the house ceased--nobody was standing, or walking up the aisles, or fumbling with a seat, the stream of incomers had suddenly dried up at its source. I listened undisturbed to a piece of music that was fifteen minutes long--always expecting some tardy ticket-holders to come crowding past my knees, and being continuously and pleasantly disappointed--but when the last note was struck, here came the stream again. You see, they had made those late comers wait in the comfortable waiting-parlor from the time the music had begin until it was ended.
It was the first time I had ever seen this sort of criminals denied the privilege of destroying the comfort of a house full of their betters. Some of these were pretty fine birds, but no matter, they had to tarry outside in the long parlor under the inspection of a double rank of liveried footmen and waiting-maids who supported the two walls with their backs and held the wraps and traps of their masters and mistresses on their arms.
We had no footmen to hold our things, and it was not permissible to take them into the concert-room; but there were some men and women to take charge of them for us. They gave us checks for them and charged a fixed price, payable in advance--five cents.
In Germany they always hear one thing at an opera which has never yet been heard in America, perhaps--I mean the closing strain of a fine solo or duet. We always smash into it with an earthquake of applause. The result is that we rob ourselves of the sweetest part of the treat; we get the whiskey, but we don't get the sugar in the bottom of the glass.
Our way of scattering applause along through an act seems to me to be better than the Mannheim way of saving it all up till the act is ended. I do not see how an actor can forget himself and portray hot passion before a cold still audience. I should think he would feel foolish. It is a pain to me to this day, to remember how that old German Lear raged and wept and howled around the stage, with never a response from that hushed house, never a single outburst till the act was ended. To me there was something unspeakably uncomfortable in the solemn dead silences that always followed this old person's tremendous outpourings of his feelings. I could not help putting myself in his place--I thought I knew how sick and flat he felt during those silences, because I remembered a case which came under my observation once, and which--but I will tell the incident:
One evening on board a Mississippi steamboat, a boy of ten years lay asleep in a berth--a long, slim-legged boy, he was, encased in quite a short shirt; it was the first time he had ever made a trip on a steamboat, and so he was troubled, and scared, and had gone to bed with his head filled with impending snaggings, and explosions, and conflagrations, and sudden death. About ten o'clock some twenty ladies were sitting around about the ladies' saloon, quietly reading, sewing, embroidering, and so on, and among them sat a sweet, benignant old dame with round spectacles on her nose and her busy knitting-needles in her hands. Now all of a sudden, into the midst of this peaceful scene burst that slim-shanked boy in the brief shirt, wild-eyed, erect-haired, and shouting, "Fire, fire! JUMP AND RUN, THE BOAT'S AFIRE AND THERE AIN'T A MINUTE TO LOSE!" All those ladies looked sweetly up and smiled, nobody stirred, the old lady pulled her spectacles down, looked over them, and said, gently:
"But you mustn't catch cold, child. Run and put on your breastpin, and then come and tell us all about it."
It was a cruel chill to give to a poor little devil's gushing vehemence. He was expecting to be a sort of hero--the creator of a wild panic--and here everybody sat and smiled a mocking smile, and an old woman made fun of his bugbear. I turned and crept away--for I was that boy--and never even cared to discover whether I had dreamed the fire or actually seen it.
I am told that in a German concert or opera, they hardly ever encore a song; that though they may be dying to hear it again, their good breeding usually preserves them against requiring the repetition.
Kings may encore; that is quite another matter; it delights everybody to see that the King is pleased; and as to the actor encored, his pride and gratification are simply boundless. Still, there are circumstances in which even a royal encore--
But it is better to illustrate. The King of Bavaria is a poet, and has a poet's eccentricities--with the advantage over all other poets of being able to gratify them, no matter what form they may take. He is fond of opera, but not fond of sitting in the presence of an audience; therefore, it has sometimes occurred, in Munich, that when an opera has been concluded and the players were getting off their paint and finery, a command has come to them to get their paint and finery on again. Presently the King would arrive, solitary and alone, and the players would being at the beginning and do the entire opera over again with only that one individual in the vast solemn theater for audience. Once he took an odd freak into his head. High up and out of sight, over the prodigious stage of the court theater is a maze of interlacing water-pipes, so pierced that in case of fire, innumerable little thread-like streams of water can be caused to descend; and in case of need, this discharge can be augmented to a pouring flood. American managers might want to make a note of that. The King was sole audience. The opera proceeded, it was a piece with a storm in it; the mimic thunder began to mutter, the mimic wind began to wail and sough, and the mimic rain to patter. The King's interest rose higher and higher; it developed into enthusiasm. He cried out:
"It is very, very good, indeed! But I will have real rain! Turn on the water!"
The manager pleaded for a reversal of the command; said it would ruin the costly scenery and the splendid costumes, but the King cried:
"No matter, no matter, I will have real rain! Turn on the water!"
So the real rain was turned on and began to descend in gossamer lances to the mimic flower-beds and gravel walks of the stage. The richly dressed actresses and actors tripped about singing bravely and pretending not to mind it. The King was delighted--his enthusiasm grew higher. He cried out:
"Bravo, bravo! More thunder! more lightning! turn on more rain!"
The thunder boomed, the lightning glared, the storm-winds raged, the deluge poured down. The mimic royalty on the stage, with their soaked satins clinging to their bodies, slopped about ankle-deep in water, warbling their sweetest and best, the fiddlers under the eaves of the state sawed away for dear life, with the cold overflow spouting down the backs of their necks, and the dry and happy King sat in his lofty box and wore his gloves to ribbons applauding.
"More yet!" cried the King; "more yet--let loose all the thunder, turn on all the water! I will hang the man that raises an umbrella!"
When this most tremendous and effective storm that had ever been produced in any theater was at last over, the King's approbation was measureless. He cried:
"Magnificent, magnificent! ENCORE! Do it again!"
But the manager succeeded in persuading him to recall the encore, and said the company would feel sufficiently rewarded and complimented in the mere fact that the encore was desired by his Majesty, without fatiguing him with a repetition to gratify their own vanity.
During the remainder of the act the lucky performers were those whose parts required changes of dress; the others were a soaked, bedraggled, and uncomfortable lot, but in the last degree picturesque. The stage scenery was ruined, trap-doors were so swollen that they wouldn't work for a week afterward, the fine costumes were spoiled, and no end of minor damages were done by that remarkable storm.
It was royal idea--that storm--and royally carried out. But observe the moderation of the King; he did not insist upon his encore. If he had been a gladsome, unreflecting American opera-audience, he probably would have had his storm repeated and repeated until he drowned all those people.