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Chapter 10

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 WUNDERSCHOEN 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 begin 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.

Mark Twain