Friday, 23 May 2014

Prelude to a night at the opera

After another day housebound by weather and the miserable effects of sinusitis, we ventured out this evening to the Millennium Centre, for supper at Ffresh, the stylish in-house restaurant, where we were greeted by a Welsh speaking Maitre d', and served by a French speaking Quebecois. 

Afterwards we attended a talk given by David Pountney, librettist and opera producer, about composer Arnold Schoenberg's life and his operatic masterpiece 'Moses und Aron'. His special guest was theologian and broadcaster Mona Siddiqui, one of Britain's top islamic theologians and inter faith dialogue specialists. They had done the same double act this morning at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, and seemed glad to have another go at it on home turf. It's one of a series of events under the banner 'One World, Many Faiths', mounted to accompany the summer 'Faith' season of operas, well just two of them actually, the other being Nabucco. We have bookings for both in the coming month.

I didn't know anything about Schoenberg apart from his name being associated with use of the twelve tone musical scale. Despite its length, David Pountney's biography of Schoenberg's life and work was informative and interesting. and Mona Siddiqui's valuable comments and reflections left me wanting to hear more from her. The theme of their conversation was that of identity in relation to religious faith.

Schoenberg was born into a non-practising Jewish family. His search for spiritual meaning led first to conversion to Christianity. Then, well before the rise of Nazism, he encountered and was subject to the social germanic anti-semitism of the era, and reacted against it by reverting to Judaism. His consciousness awakened to the profound evil of racism and the need to campaign actively against it, which he did with prophetic discernment and fervour in the political sphere, finally joining other German exiles in the USA during the time of Nazi supremacy.

As a man of Jewish ethnicity disposessed of its ritual and community life, Schoenberg strived to engage with the religious and spiritual meaning of Jewish scriptural foundation texts, discovered in the context of modern secular liberal values and his pride in German artistic cultural heritage. His opera 'Moses and Aron' centres around the relationship between the Moses the inarticulate man who walked and talked with God, and Aaron his brother and divinely appointed spokesperson to the children of Israel. Its setting is the story of the Exodus from Egypt and sojourn in the wilderness up to the fabrication and destruction of the Golden Calf and death of Aaron.

Schoenberg wrote both libretto and music, but only completed the first two acts. These were performed in concert for the first time just before his death in 1951 and premiered as an opera on stage six years later. His use of the twelve tone scale, in which each musical tone and semitone is equal to the other, was intended as a revolutionary innovation heralding a new era of artistic musical consciousness. It's more than coincidental that in Schoenberg's latter years, Swing was evolving into Bebop taking Jazz in a new and revolutionary direction. Black Jazz musicians, were also struggling with questions of identity post-slavery, in an 'emancipated' society that was nevertheless riddled with racism. 

Schoenberg's engagement with the Torah as an outsider to Jewish religious tradition led to a realisation that the first two Commandments required an uncompromising moral and spiritual austerity hardly congenial to human beings. This may be what having faith in God demands in the wilderness, in times of crisis, but what happens in the promised land? Or is there no promised land, in a world so ridden with injustice and tyranny?

The evening's conversation was a stimulating prelude to a night at the opera still to come, and touched upon many more issues than it pursued. It was the beginning of an interesting dialogue about what it means to come to the sources of faith, if not faith itself, out of a society that has lost touch with its identity and roots in religious culture and spirituality. It's an issue that has resonance for all kinds of believers eager to share their faith. Remarkably, it occurred in a precinct of highest artistic endeavour, rather than in seminary, cathedral, mosque or temple. I'm sure there are historical precedents for this. It was just good to be there.

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