How serious is my Strauss addiction? Well, I recently celebrated a birthday (one that ends in zero) by going to hear his groundbreaking 1905 opera Salome at both the Met and LA Opera in the same season. My CD collection boasts over 50 recordings of Strauss operas, and my detailed reviews of each have earned me the coveted “Classical Enthusiast” title on Amazon.com.
So you might naturally think I’m biased when I say the production of Elektra currently at SF Opera is one of the not-to-be-missed events of the season. Fair point, especially considering I’ve been a teaching artist with the company for going on a decade. (This bearded hipster knows where his gluten-free bread is buttered). But aside from my personal zeal for Strauss and the fact that over a hundred years after its composition his score still sounds fresh and modern, there are plenty of other reasons to catch this particular Elektra production before it closes at the end of September.
For one, there’s what millennials call FOMO—fear of missing out. This is an opera that hasn’t been heard on the SF Opera stage in twenty years. At that rate, we’re likely to witness the next total solar eclipse in the U.S. before you have another chance to hear Elektra in San Francisco.
Add to that the fact the show requires not one but three dramatic voices: two dramatic sopranos and a dramatic mezzo. (The dramatic classifications are not only the largest, loudest, and arguably most thrilling voice types, they are also among the rarest). To find three singers who can handle the vocal demands of the score is truly remarkable. Elektra herself is on stage for the entire opera. Let me say that again. Not only does she have to sing constantly over a nearly 100-piece orchestra, she never even leaves the stage.
Lastly—and I’m not ashamed to admit it—it’s short. In one act and with no intermission, Elektra clocks in at just over an hour and a half. I think being a life long anxiety sufferer is one of the reasons I went from being a professional singer to now working primarily as a conductor. I just couldn’t sit still through a three hour rehearsal, and now I find it much more bearable when I get to stand up, talk whenever I want to, and wave a stick around a bunch. And as much as I’m looking forward to seeing my first Ring later this season (the longest of Wagner’s four opera cycle is over five hours), you might see me making a mad dash for the champagne at the first intermission. But with Elektra, even someone who can barely make it through a two hour movie can take in some classical music and still be home in time to catch up on Game of Thrones.
Still, with over a dozen recordings of Elektra on my shelf, you might wonder why I bother going to hear live opera at all. Couldn’t I just as easily stay in, order delivery from Postmates, plug in my over-ear Sennheiser studio monitor headphones, and listen to Georg Solti’s classic recording with Birgit Nilsson in stunning Decca sound any time I want? For me, what makes this production essential is it gets to the root of something that has been troubling me for some time as artistic director of the choral music organization Lacuna Arts, and that is “How do I as a classical musician become involved in the act of creation?”
With few exceptions (like that rare breed, the composer-performer), classical musicians are primarily concerned with re-creating other people’s works. And let’s face it—for the most part that means dead white guys. Am I creating art when I conduct Mendelssohn? Just this past July, I presented a workshop at the Lincoln Center Education Summer Forum on “Adeptness with the Creative Process,” and to be honest, sometimes I don’t even know if what I’m doing with my own art counts as “creative.”
Well, without giving away any spoilers, I will tell you that original director Keith Warner’s production of Elektra has succeeded in creating something entirely new. For someone like me who’s heard the opera about sixty times, that’s a compelling reason to go. This feat is accomplished mostly by means of a new scenario, which isn’t the one Strauss had intended when he revised the libretto. The new concept is almost like a play within a play. You know, like when the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream act out a scene from Pyramus and Thisbe—except not like that at all.
Our heroine (I don’t think we ever learn her name) is a woman who stays behind inside a museum after it’s closed so she can become fully immersed in the Elektra exhibition. Like Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo which seems to reach across time and space to tell the viewer “Du musst dein Leben ändern” (“You must change your life”), the artifacts come to life as our protagonist relives her own traumatic past in a series of flashbacks.
This Elektra is a psychological thriller something more akin to David Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive than to Der Rosenkavalier. The result is a powerful commentary on the ability of art to provide us with a cathartic experience. It got me thinking about the work we do with school kids in the SF Opera Education department. We want to make the arts come alive for students by helping them to make meaningful connections. Aesthetic philosopher and education advocate Maxine Greene has spoken of this potential, saying “appreciative, reflective, cultural, participatory engagements with the arts,” allow learners—like our heroine in Elektra—to “lend works of art their lives.”
I encourage you to lend this work of art your life—or at least 100 minutes of it—while you have the chance.
Sven Edward Olbash is a multidisciplinary performing artist and is artistic director of Lacuna Arts, mentor for the middle school vocal training program ArtSmart, and a teaching artist with San Francisco Opera Education.