The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: Benjamin Bagby to perform epic “Beowulf” at the Madison Early Music Festival this Friday night

July 15, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall – with a free pre-concert lecture in Mills Hall at 6:30 p.m. Benjamin Bagby (below, in a photo by Stephanie Berger), who teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris, will play a six-string period harp as he performs excerpts from the Anglo-Saxon epic poem “Beowulf” as part of the Madison Early Music Festival. This year, the festival is exploring early English music from the 11th through the 16th centuries.

Tickets at the door are $17, $14 for seniors over 62 and students.

Then on this Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, Bagby will take part of a FREE and PUBLIC roundtable discussion about Beowulf. Other participants include Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland and UW-Madison professor John D. Niles.

The Ear spoke to Bagby via e-mail asked him about his 20 years of doing his critically acclaimed performance around the. Bagby referred readers to his website, which has information including background, reviews, interviews and a video-audio excerpt. Here is a link:

However, Bagby also answered some questions.

How did you get started doing this dramatic recitation? How many appearances/shows do you do in a typical year and where around the world have you performed Beowulf?

Here is a similar question from the New York Times with my answer:

Q: Why do you think this is happening? Your involvement is obviously a long and scholarly one, but what is contributing both to that and to this general fascination with and different revivals? Are there political factors? Even religious ones?  Is there something about the period(s) in history “Beowulf” represents, are there other phenomena in popular and high culture that have led people back to it? And what do the different approaches being taken say about the appeal of the subject?

A: Beowulf’, an archaic oral tale transmitted — possibly for centuries — by bardic performers, was finally written down at some point about one thousand years ago and has since entered into the calmer textual realms of ‘literature’ and ‘poetry.’ And yet, it never lost its terrifying archaic core, the nostalgia of the early medieval English kingdoms for their tough germanic ancestors, the bizarre intermingling of pagan and Christian views of life and fate, a warrior’s world of weapons and golden rewards dispensed by the clan chieftain while hearing sung war-stories in the mead-hall.

One of the driving forces in this world is fear: not so much fear of the mortal enemy living nearby as fear of the unknown evils of the darkness, in the case of Grendel and his mother monstrous beings who are only vaguely like humans, who eat human flesh, and who cannot be easily touched by traditional human weapons. It is only Beowulf who can defeat the monster Grendel, by leaving aside his weapons and vowing to fight with bare hands. It defies logic.

Maybe this has something to do with Beowulf’s wide appeal and the many different interpretations which have been based on the story: it is by definition archaic, shifting, not based on reason or logic or any other ‘modern’ mindset. Scholars will debate endlessly whether or not the story is Christian, but there is no real solution. The foamy-necked Beowulf boat has room for many modern passengers.

Finally this: Unlike tales of knights in shining armor and deeds of chivalry, Beowulf is from the far reaches of European history, a world of tribes and blood vengeance; it was already ‘medieval’ in the 11th century, already ancient, terrifying, and able to hold listeners spellbound. And of course it goes without saying that part of its huge appeal today rests simply in the fact that it is made up of such beautifully crafted images and sounds.

In brief, what is the historical significance of Beowulf? How do you describe what you do? A historical recreation of how the original poem was read aloud?

“Beowulf” is the only surviving epic text in English. It was copied into a manuscript (below) in ca. 1000 but is probably based on a much older orally transmitted tale. We still possess the manuscript and it is the sole source.

What I do is a performance, presenting the story in much the same way it would have been heard by listeners more than 1,000 years ago.

The text was never “read aloud” since by the time of the manuscript production it was already a historical document. It was “performed,” using all the arts of the storyteller: voice (singing and speaking and everything in-between), instrumental accompaniment on the 6-string harp (below), and physical movement (limited due to the instrument).

How has your performance changed over the years?

Since 2000 it has changed only in small ways that I would notice.

How do your audiences typically react to your reading and playing? What have they said you about it?

I like to think they react positively, but then I’m the wrong person to ask. Try the Press rubric on my website for some opinions. With few exceptions, the people who speak to me about my performance have expressed a positive point of view. Please note that my performance is not a ‘reading’.

What does “music” add to the text and what does the text illuminate the music?

We know that oral poets performed such texts musically, with harp accompaniment. It’s even mentioned in the Beowulf story. The text is formally structured and suits musical realization, but nothing I do is composed or written down.

I am using the text and the instrument to re-enter the realm of oral poetry performance in early medieval England. Please see the program notes on my website for more information about text and also about the instrument.

What should people listen for in a language they cannot understand and in a music that is far back in time?

Translated into modern English, the text gains in comprehension but loses its identity. Text is music; if you translate it, then it’s a different music and that’s not what would interest me.

Is there a modern translation of  “Beowulf” you recommend such as Seamus Heaney’s, which was a bestseller a few years ago?

Again, I’m the wrong person to ask since I only work with the original. Seamus Heaney’s translation is beautiful and thoughtfully done, a fine poem in itself.

Here is a sample of Bagby’s “Beowulf” from YouTube:

If you go to hear Bagby and “Beowulf,” what did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

Classical music preview: Ninth annual Opera in the Park this Saturday will incorporate texting donations for the first time as part of the fun

July 15, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

If Opera in Park (below) isn’t the single biggest and most ambitious live classical music event that takes place in Madison, it is hard to think of what is.

The ninth annual event – which will take place this Saturday at 8 p.m. in Garner Park on Madison’s far west side – will probably draw more than 13,000 people, depending on the weather and the program’s appeal. (The rain date is Sunday.)

As usual, the event -– put on by the Madison Opera -– will feature Madison Opera artistic director John DeMain conducting instrumentalists from the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera Chorus and four guests soloists who will be featured in the Madison Opera’s three shows during the upcoming season.

The repertoire  (use the link below) is also drawn from the Madison Opera’s new season, which offers Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” Kurt Weill’s “The Three-Penny Opera” and Verdi’s “La Traviata.”

In addition, the concert will celebrate the 80th birthday of Broadway titan Stephen Sondheim’s – whose credits include “West Side Story” – and the 50th anniversary of “The Sound of Music.” It will also feature a Donizetti aria that made Luciano Pavarotti famous for its 9 high C’s, plus Dvorak’s lovely “Song to the Moon” as well as selections from “Phantom of the Opera.”

For more information about the event, including parking, soloist biographies, history and repertoire, visit:

And here is an account from someone– a Madison Opera staff member — who works on the event:

Allan Naplan (below), the general director of the Madison Opera and the person in charge of Opera in the Park, recently spoke to The Ear about the event:

This is your sixth Opera in the Park. Is it still fun for you, John and the musicians?

Oh yeah. It’s very fun. This event is a tremendous experience from the planning and execution to the outcome, which has been such a big success. In a given season we get to choose three pieces for the season but for Opera in the Park, we have such a vast array of the entire repertoire to offer.

We get to show the full spectrum of opera and its evolution, including operetta and musical theater and Broadway. We really both experience the occasion as a chance to offer a full range of musical experience. If we can show that connection, that’s important.

I can’t speak for the orchestra musicians, but the principal singers are amazed every time they step out into the park and see 13,000 fans. It’s amazing and unheard of in most of their careers. There are a few opera companies that do concerts out-of-doors, but on a per-capita basis Madison is the biggest and has the highest percentage of attendance.

What about overall costs and logistics? Can you give readers some idea of the complexity of the event?

It costs more than $200,000 to put on. There is no ticket revenue so it is also balanced through contributions and extraordinary foundations and corporate supporters, which love to touch such a wide public.

It’s very complex to set up. We’re basically creating an actual theater in Garner Park. We have to bring in all the power, the lighting — for the safety of the audience, we use massive house floodlights as well as the stage lighting – and we have to bring in all the infrastructure, including the porta-potties, which increase every year. We are creating a theater park from scratch.

We usually get upwards of 13,000 people. To be able to sustain this number is wonderful, and I think we basically are doing that. With the remarkable retention, it is constantly growing. We’re filling the park right now and that is something we want to achieve. It’s like filling Overture Hall – there is a spirit that comes from performing for a capacity crowd.

Are there new things you have added?

The repertoire, of course, is new because it will reflect the new season. Other than that, the event is pretty well established by now.

Aside from repertoire, this year we will have donations by texting. You can text the word “Opera” to 20222 and a $10 donation will be made to the Opera in the Park fund. This has become a very popular method of making a contribution, whether for Haiti or other causes. People are so tied into mobile phones and don’t bring cash to the park.

The texting audience is vast and includes all ages, but it also attracts young people. Texting is so easy to do, it has become second nature to them.

Do have special messages or warning for those who attend?

Just to urge people to obey the usual rules of the park – no grills, no alcohol, no dogs. But we encourage picnic dinners and hope that families make a full evening out of it. The park opens at 7 a.m. and right at 7 a.m. there are people putting down their blankets for the performance.

How attentive do you find the crowd compared to other events or concerts?

It is very different from, say, Concerts on the Square. We start later. Performers feel they have the audience’s attention. The hillside slope of the park helps. Everyone is facing forward toward the stage, so you can’t help but be focused on the stage.

Plus, the human voice has a significant way of attracting attention that is different from an orchestral sound. It brings more personality to the expression of art and grasps someone’s attention.

How do audiences generally behave and react to the music?

It’s tremendous. We get very loud applause. And we typically sell about 7,000 light sticks. People love to participate in the performance, which includes a sing-along.

Next year is the 10th anniversary. Is Opera in the Park here to stay?

That’s our intention. But there is no ticket revenue, so it’s a hard thing to predict. It can never be a sure thing. If it has survived the last nine years, that’s a pretty good sign.

Does it help Madison Opera’s attendance during its regular season? Does it increase donations?

We’ll have about 250 people attending the pre-concert donation support dinner. It’s crucial. It’s key. It thanks generous supporters who make the event possible and provides an entry point for people to become associated with the Opera in the Park and with Madison Opera.

We receive many, many donations at and after Opera in the Park. We feel the impact resonates throughout the season and the year. A gift made in December may reflect having gone to Opera in the Part. We know that people buy tickets from the brochure for the regular season that will be available at the park. In the days and weeks after Opera in the Park, we will see a large number tickets sold.

Come the fall, people will remember Opera in the Park and that we previewed the season. So it has an impact. Next season we have very recognizable operas, but the impact is especially huge with unknown repertoire. We take it as a chance to celebrate Madison Opera.

If you go to Opera in the Park, let The Ear know about what you thought of it.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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