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Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter X

A Tramp Abroad

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.

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