I hate The Ride of the Valkyries, can I just say? It's the hugest cliche in opera and the only thing everybody knows of this one, to the obliteration of all else -- all the really cool, inexplicable-to- mass-cultured-outsiders things -- causing the entirety of the Ring Cycle, and possibly the Wagner canon as a whole, to disappear under its weight. This annoys me no end. So while Brünnhilde and her sisters are doing their thing, collecting and trading war-dead like so many Magic: The Gathering cards, I'm reading the obituary for Hazel Dickens in the NYT. If you don't know her, she sang the graveside hymn in Matewan, the John Sayles film about the West Virginia coal field wars. That kind of singing was the tradition she grew up in, but she went on to become, as her old record label dubbed her, one of the Pioneering Women of Bluegrass. I read in her obituary that Alison Krauss, as a member of that younger generation of women Hazel influenced as performer, songwriter and trailblazer, was chosen to preside at her induction into the Bluegrass Hall of Honor (they like that better than Fame, because they're realists).
Anne Sofie von Otter is an Alison Krauss fan. I read that somewhere in an interview, back in the days of her Elvis Costello project.
But actually I hit upon Hazel's obituary while looking for the words to The Famous Flower of Serving Men, which is one of those traditional ballads about women cross-dressing to exact revenge, or get out of dodge, or just to have something of a life. And this because there was recently a really fine article in The Guardian about Martin Carthy on the eve of his 70th birthday, who put that skewed and excellent tune to those words.
"I remember...playing to fourth-form kids...and it didn't work at all; then we played to the sixth form and they were agog, hanging on to the narrative... Carthy recalls "another time, in Manchester, these kids came up and said: 'You're Martin Carthy, aren't you?' I said yeah and they said: 'You must sing Famous Flower of Serving Men...And there they were, sitting right in front of me on the floor, listening. It amazed some of the older people there, but the song galvanised them, and they certainly galvanised me."
Opera is not the only medium to be cursed with an aging audience. Like all what might be termed cultural special-interests, it faces down enormous market forces arrayed against it -- or rather, completely indifferent to its presence. But the internet has proven to be a marvelous leveler in many ways, and among these is the dissolution of cultural pigeon-holes designed by the marketing departments of once-powerful major labels for maximum cash extraction. So kids can show up at Martin's shows with special requests and attention spans intact. Or kids can show up at the Met HDcasts, and I can point them to the Shrek line, and they can politely but enthusiastically show me the error of my assumptions (as happened once and I hope will happen again).
Opera is also not the only medium that relies on words and music to tell a story -- but perhaps the ballad tradition long ago solved the problem of later today by not being bound by either the music or the words, but only by the gist of the narrative. There was a lady in the north / west / east..., but it depends on whom you ask.
What has this to do with Wagner, you might be wondering, if you're still reading this. That's yet a longer story, though perhaps it's also a review in itself of last night's fun. In any case, the Republic is going to see it in the house, so will save its review for then. (But hey, Met sound people, the sound last night was flatter than usual.)