A friend of mine who teaches at a Canadian university asked me to suggest a good text to explain Leitmotifs.
I was stopped short, because it’s a tricky subject. While Wagner’s mature operas are regularly spoken of using the word in one spelling or another (such as “Leitmotiv”), the concept bandied about as though it were central to the composer’s thinking: in fact it was not his word. He was aware of the word but had other words that he used, such as Grundthema or Hauptmotiv; they never caught on among musicologists. We’ll leave aside the parenthetical observation that this anomaly might be a signal that critical thinking is off track.
And so, accepting this notion of the Leitmotif or Leitmotiv, something that can’t really be found explicated anywhere in Wagner’s voluminous writings (yes he wrote a lot! And there’s been an astonishing amount written about him since), how does one teach it?
I suggested satirist Anna Russell in her famous introduction to the Ring Cycle. No I wasn’t trying to be difficult although I think my friend may have wondered if I was entirely serious. But I opined that her famous talk –a send-up of the more pretentious and scholarly talks that people sometimes encounter in the vicinity of opera and classical music—represented the ideal entry into the topic.
Before telling him this I re-listened to it, and was surprised at just how much it seemed to spark. This is the classic one that I recall from my own childhood, a live performance from the 1950s. I realize now, hearing it again, that it’s had a huge influence on my thinking.
By coincidence I’ve just started teaching “The Most Popular Operas” again, with a first class that begins with none other than Bugs Bunny in his “Rabbit of Seville” cartoon.
Where Russell is gently parodying the studious introduction of a scholar, Bugs –that is Chuck Jones et al—is performing a kind of parody. In fact the cartoon was a useful illustration of a point we came to in class, when we talked about Handel and his biggest rival in London, namely ballad opera beginning with Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Just as Gay took pre-existing music (for instance, the popular song “Greensleeves”) and then put new words to the tune, parodying opera, so too with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, singing new words to the tune of Rossini’s overture to The Barber of Seville.
I’ll set aside all the things one can study in a parody (and I am not pretending we studied them). Bugs Bunny and Anna Russell are perhaps the two key influences on my teaching philosophy. They’re unpretentious, they interrogate the worst tendencies of opera & classical music, and above all, they seek to entertain. They make fun of the big words that some people insist on, and put you at ease with your misgivings about high culture.
Maybe I need to revise my published statement of teaching philosophy, to acknowledge my two most important influences & mentors. And while there are lots of other influences out there, I can’t help thinking, whenever I observe current producers & directors of opera seeming to throw off the burden of all that heaviness while embracing something newer & edgier, that maybe I’m not the only one.