Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/16/2010

Virginia Woolf, George W. Bush, and Another Self

Then she called hesitatingly, as if the person she wanted might not be there, “Orlando?” For if there are (at a venture) seventy-six different times all ticking in the mind at once, how many different people are there not—Heaven help us—all having lodgment at one time or another in the human spirit? Some say two thousand and fifty-two. So that is the most usual thing in the world for a person to say, directly they are alone, Orlando? (if that is one’s name) meaning by that, Come, come! I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another. (1)



I saw the Dallas Opera production of Don Giovanni November 5. The Dallas Opera production of Don Giovanni was an atrocity.

It made Don Giovanni a rapist instead of a seducer. Any jerk can be a rapist. It takes a really evil man to seduce, to convince everyone (not only women) that he is the summum bonum of mankind (Mozart understood this). The one woman in the opera (Donna Elvira) who refuses Don Giovanni’s attentions was played in Dallas not as his equal but as a victim. And the ghost of her murdered father played pretty much as a clown. Yuck!

By the way, I missed the performance of Anna Bolena the next weekend. I’ve heard it was superb. I can tell you whose singing I missed—Denyce Graves. I was heartsick.  Her heroism (both operatic and in real life) is now legendary.

I’m not an opera purist—I don’t know enough to be a purist—but I do (somewhat, I’ll claim) understand both the music and the drama of the operas I know and love, and I hate to see them trashed.

When I was a sophomore in college, the University of Redlands School of Music required music majors to attend a more-or-less pathetic weekly event call “Tuesday Recital.” When students thought they were ready to perform a work they had been learning, they crawled up on the stage and showed us their stuff. Most Tuesdays it was an atrocity.

I knew the difference between real performance and going through the motions (sometimes even the motions were problematic). I complained to L. Pratt Spelman, my organ teacher, that Tuesday Recital was not only a waste of time but also offensive. Dr. Spelman said, “I’ve learned more great music listening to horrible performances than you may ever know.” Overnight my attitude changed. Even I, arrogant and socially inept as I was, knew wisdom when I heard it. You couldn’t ignore Dr. Spelman. He was NOT arrogant or socially inept.

For nearly fifty years I have attended musical events (almost all classical except for an Arrowsmith concert, a Janis Joplin concert, and a couple others) and paid little attention to problematic performances. (What’s more problematic, of course, is that I’ve participated in more of those than I want anyone to know about.)

I listened to the music of Don Giovanni on November 5—except for a few moments when the ridiculous production got in the way. I’ve heard more great music in horrible performance than some people will ever hear. Mozart is Mozart—sometimes even performed badly (believe it or not, the greater the music the more horrible the performance it can withstand).

Graves, heroism

Graves, heroism

I learned opera the old fashioned way—I performed. Not as a singer except twice, but as an orchestra member, a chorus member, a couple of times as conductor, several times as a prompter. And I studied with people who loved opera, not the trappings of opera. Let’s think about the music, not the production, not the musicology. I wouldn’t be able to tell you the names of the singers in Don Giovanni even if I’d loved the performance. Maybe I have no memory. Maybe I don’t pay attention. Maybe I’m there for other reasons.

In the four operas of the Ring cyle, Wagner presents a world in crisis and undergoing change but a coherent rule-governed world nonetheless. Using as his raw material the medieval sago of the Nibelungenlied, Wagner works up a presentation of a world in which the central character, Wotan, ruler of this world [the head honcho god], attempts to carry out a plan and is unsuccessful in doing so. (2)

A friend of mine was recently on business in New York and attended the Metropolitan Opera for the first time—to see one of the Ring operas—Siegfried, I think. It doesn’t matter. I don’t think it mattered to my friend. The email report I received said that the Tenor wasn’t quite up to the task (what tenor is?), and that some of the technical aspects of the production—the screen projections on the backdrop in particular, as I recall—were less than stellar.

My experience of Siegfried is as part of the enormous spectacle in which Wotan’s attempt to rule the world in his way is unsuccessful. It has nothing to do with tenors who can’t manage the High C’s or backdrop projections that don’t work. Granted, I’m not a singing coach, and I’m not a technical theater person (I understand why such a person would be most interested in projections in sets—honest, I do!).

The last time I saw Siegfried was in its rightful place in the Ring cycle, the third evening in row of a total of 18-20 hours of opera in Seattle. The tenor was a sub, and he was not very good. But I heard all of the music—perhaps except for the High C’s. It did not matter, because what I heard was the continuation of the story of Wotan’s plan not working—first because he banishes his favorite daughter to sleep on a rock surrounded by fire (presumably forever) because she crosses him.

The most amazing thing about that Seattle Opera performance was, when Wotan and Brünnhilde had their long musical conversation, I cried—no, wept, blubbered the way I do at a good tear-jerker movie. This happens in the opera cycle the night before Siegfried, so it didn’t matter if the tenor hit the High C’s because we were (I was at any rate) already on the way. Sort of like a trip down the white rapids of the Colorado River without a paddle.

Orlando is “sick to death of this particular self. [He/she] want[s] another.” I get it. That’s why I go to the opera (or read a novel, or go to a movie, or watch “Two and a Half Men” on TV). I get sick to death of the particular self I’m in at any given moment. I want another. Going to the opera to find it may not work for you—but something does. Like Orlando, I’m not escaping from myself but finding another, better self.



I need to say why I missed Dynece Graves’ performance. I was participating in “The People’s Response,” a series of events in Dallas the few days before and after the dangerously adulatory and self-congratulatory ground-breaking ceremonies for the Georg W. Bush Library. At the time I was supposed to be at the opera I was helping lead a Service of Lamentation and Hope—lamentation for the events of the past ten years, hope for the future.  Sometimes all this time, all these selves ticking inside one must look for another self, a better self.
(1) Woolf, Virginia. Orlando, A Biography.  New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1928 (308).
(2) Poster, Mark. “What does Wotan want? Ambivalent feminism in Wagner’s Ring.” New German Critique 53 (1991): 131.


  1. I have only been to one opera and it was a local production starring one of my daughters teachers.


  2. The opera here is only a way to get at the point.



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