“. . . Fourteen angels watch do keep . . . “

Fourteen angels? Just add wings.

Fourteen angels? Just add wings.

I learned all the readily singable melodies (arias, I suppose they are) from Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in elementary school. I don’t remember what year it was—perhaps as early as kindergarten (I’ll write about that amazing school someday).

If Sarah Caldwell had had the foresight to mount her production of the opera every Christmas time the way dance companies (mostly amateur, but some professional) mount their productions of the silliness of Nutcracker every Christmas time, the Boston Opera might still be in business. Crowds would have fought over tickets, and she could have made enough money with a week of performances of her production to subsidize her company for the rest of the year.

Not many of the opera productions I’ve seen over the years live in Technicolor (or any other way) in my memory. You’d think anyone who will spend the money I do for opera tickets would pay closer attention (or develop enough memory power to relish productions later). I remember the first time I heard Beverly Sills (before she became reigning diva) in her opera, Ballad of Baby Doe (Los Angeles, New York City Opera touring company, 1973). I remember the third time I saw the Ring—and was finally moved to the core of my being (Seattle, 2004). I remember the Dallas production of Moby Dick. And I remember a score or so productions I have been a part of (yes, even a real role standing on the stage and singing—me!).  I remember seeing “he’s a hunk” at the Met in Lohengrin in about 1980 (but it’s the hunk I remember, not the production). I’m sure I’ve blogged about Peter Hoffmann in the past, but I can’t find it. “He’s a hunk” was the cover headline on Opera News the week he made his Met debut—I’m not the only one who saw that Lohengrin for not the purest of motives.

Angels and Shepherds, Govaert Teuniszoon Flinck, 1639

Angels and Shepherds, Govaert Teuniszoon Flinck, 1639

I can’t name the singers I heard in Carmen a month ago. It was one of those must-see productions with “the” new Carmen debuting in Dallas. She was splendid (whoever she is), but the best part of the production was Micaela’s aria Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante, sung by a soprano whose name I should certainly remember, but don’t. I know this aria because I accompanied it on the piano for a graduate student in recital at the opera theater at the University of Iowa in about 1975. In most productions, a soprano is chosen for Micaela who cannot possibly outsing Carmen. Not so Dallas six weeks ago. I should look her name up so you opera fans will know. You can do it yourself.

See? I have a different approach than most opera queens. I don’t wallow in the details so I can talk about them at cocktail parties. I go to the opera to hear the music and see the production, not to remember the stars. That’s pretty much the way I attend any musical production. I’ve learned some pretty awesome music sitting through dreadful performances.

So back to Sarah Caldwell. One of the greatest theatrical geniuses of all time. And a nonpareil megalomaniac. No one could do anything as well as she—including destroy the company she built. If only she had dragged out her Hansel and Gretel every Christmas.

It’s not a Christmas story, of course. Except for the gingerbread house. But that production! That witch getting what she deserved was to die for. And the simplicity of the staging was elegant beyond words.

But the angels. Oh, my. During Gretel’s little two-minute aria, which everyone knows but few know it’s an opera aria, suddenly for no apparent reason a grand circular staircase appeared on the stage. And in two minutes, fourteen angels dressed in costumes any 1956 prom queen would have given her trousseau for descended the staircase. Each a different pastel color, and all with enormous gossamer wings and a star-scepter. To die for. Now that’s opera! Make a two-minute sort of dippy little sentimental aria (now go back and listen to it at the hyperlink in the first sentence) into something that everyone who ever saw it remembers as the essence of Christmas (even though it is totally unrelated).

Sandman is here!
    Let us first say our evening prayer!
When at night I go to sleep,
Fourteen angels watch do keep:
    Two my head are guarding,
    Two my feet are guiding,
    Two are on my right hand,
    Two are on my left hand,
    Two who warmly cover,
    Two who o’er me hover,
Two to whom ‘tis given to guide my steps to heaven.

I don’t know about angels, but I know theater. I don’t know voices, but I know opera.

I don’t know much, but this is, I believe, worth thinking about.

Art is nothing tangible. We cannot call a painting ‘art’ as the words ‘artifact’ and ‘artificial’ imply. The thing made is a work of art made by art, but not itself art. The art remains in the artist and is the knowledge by which things are made (Ananda Coomaraswamy. The Dance of Shiva).

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.
Gloria, in excelsis Deo! Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
Which inspire your heavenly song?

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