Tag Archives: Wagner

Business v Comedy rules. This comic got sacked after his Edinburgh Fringe show

Giacinto talked to me at Soho Theatre Bar

Giacinto talked to me at Soho Theatre

What happens after you perform at the Edinburgh Fringe?

One answer is: You get sacked.

London-based Italian comedian Giacinto Palmieri used to work in IT for a well-known property company. Then he went to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe with his show about Wagner.

“The big boss of my company,” he told me in Soho Theatre at the weekend, “came to see my show at the Edinburgh Fringe and, the first day after I came back, I was sacked.

“It would just be coincidence, though. He is so high up in the hierarchy that he would not have been involved in the decision. Probably my being away for three weeks just gave people the chance to plot against me.”

“Different worlds,” I said.

“Perhaps,” suggested Giacinto, “what makes it difficult to be a comedian AND have a day job at the same time is not any difficulty of fitting them into the time available, but the difference in attitudes.

“Comedy helps you develop an attitude which consists in always saying whatever you think and to develop zero tolerance for bullshit. Unfortunately, that is not always appreciated in the business world.”

“”Yes,” I sympathised, “It is probably unwise to say what you think in business.”

“It is such a pity,” said Giacinto. “I think every group needs a trouble-maker like a court jester in order to stop getting stuck in its own rules and ideology. Everything can be found in Wagner, of course.”

“Mmmm…?” I said.

“In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” Giacinto told me, there is:

Understand me aright! What a fuss!
You’ll admit I know the rules as well;
and to see that the guild preserves the rules
I have busied myself this many a year.
But once a year I should find it wise
to test the rules themselves,
to see whether in the dull course of habit
their strength and life doesn’t get lost:
and whether you are still
on the right track of Nature
will only be told you by someone
who knows nothing of the table of rules.

Giacinto’s Brighton Fringe poster artwork

Giacinto’s Wagnerian tendencies were given free rein

“Mmmm…” I said.

“The organisation I worked for…” said Giacinto, “…it used to be a start-up and it has kept some of the elasticity of a start-up but, unfortunately, it is losing its soul.

“The IT world used to be very anarchic, very informal but now there are these ‘process gurus’ who always have rules that will solve problems forever and stop software having bugs. They preach the importance of following a process. So we have more and more rules and they create more and more complex processes and people get stuck into systems that are not going to solve problems. If a process could solve problems, we would just be able to write a program which writes programs.

“There are only two types of people who like rules. Those who set them: because there are no rules about setting rules, so they are still enjoying their creative freedom. And people who are so scared of taking responsibility and of making mistakes that they use rules to hide behind them.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “I remember when ITV brought in experts – because people in ITV were trying to cover their own asses in case they made a wrong decision – they had an outside company which advised you on how to maximise the ratings in programmes by ‘scientifically’ analysing the content.

“There was a two-hour movie with Richard Dreyfuss in it. He was very popular at the time. So they said Promote Richard Dreyfuss heavily. But, in this film, he was about 18-years-old, in a bit part as a call boy and all he said for maybe two seconds was something like We’re ready! That was the only time you ever saw him in the film. They had analysed the data but had not watched the film.”

Rules. Don’t talk to me about rules.

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Giacinto Palmieri – on Wagner & comic Jerry Sadowitz taking a holiday together

Giacinto Palmieri in an upstairs room last night

Giacinto talked of operatic orgasms last night

London-based Italian comedian Giacinto Palmieri’s last full-length comedy show Pagliaccio was based on Ruggero Leoncavallo’s operatic character.

His new Edinburgh Fringe show this year is about German composer Richard Wagner and, more specifically, Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung.

Giacinto jokes that he has explained its plot to all his ex girlfriends (with the emphasis on ‘ex’) and now he wants to do the same with his audience.

It is going to be all about dwarfs, giants, Walkyries, magic helms and love potions and their connection with office parties, IKEA, Facebook and modern dating rituals.

I talked to Giacinto about it yesterday in the upstairs room of a pub off Shaftesbury Avenue.

“I’m challenging myself to laugh at my hero,” he told me. “One of the themes I’m developing in the show is laughing at your heroes in order to avoid falling into fanaticism. I thought: I really love Wagner; he’s always been a hero of mine. Let’s see if I can laugh at something I really love.

“I confess I have done comedy courses and usually one of the exercises you are given is to Rant or Rave. You have the choice to rant about something you don’t like or rave about something you love and 90% of people choose something to rant about. It is much easier to be funny about something you don’t like. Being funny about something you like is much more challenging.”

“Are there a lot of laughs in Wagner?” I asked.

Richard Wagner liked to climb trees and stand on his head

He liked to climb trees & stand on his head

“Well,” said Giacinto, “he was a very funny man. He liked to climb trees in his friends’ gardens for no reason. When he was very happy about something – particularly during rehearsals – he used to stand on his head. He was very histrionic. His works are not always that funny, of course.

“But comedy is a way of talking about things rather than a specific subject. The Great Dictator, the Chaplin film about Hitler, was very funny., but the subject was not funny. I don’t think there are ‘comedy subjects’. There is a comedic way of talking about subjects and, actually, the less obvious the comedic connection, the more interesting it can be.

“The Australian comedienne Hannah Gadsby did some very good shows last year about the history of art. I think there is more room in comedy to explore difficult subjects.

“You can talk about something which is already funny – but, in that case, the added value of your comedy is very low – or you can talk about what interests you – in this case Wagner – in a funny way and that is what I am trying to do.”

“Wagner’s stuff is very emotional, isn’t it?” I said.

“It’s even considered dangerous,” said Giacinto. “Wagner said about Tristan and IsoldeOnly bad performances can save me, because good performances will drive people crazy. And it’s true. The intensity of it will drive people mad. Some music director said that the Second Act of Tristan and Isolde contains seven simultaneous orgasms. Try that in life.”

After talking to Giacinto – unusually for me – I looked up some background.

Tristan & Isolde killed Felix Mottl

Tristan and Isolde killed Felix Mottl

On 21 June 1911, Felix Mottl uffered a heart attack while conducting the Second Act of Tristan in Munich. He died 11 days later.

In 1968, Joseph Keilberth died after collapsing while conducting the same part of the Second Act of the opera, also in Munich.

“Wagner’s work is more intense than life,” claimed Giacinto last night.

“I am trying to tell the plot of The Ring in parallel with my own life story, trying to explain the connections and the gaps in my life that I use Wagner to fill.”

“Women wearing horns on their heads?” I suggested.

“Well,” said Giacinto, “it has been noticed by, among others, Bryan McGee that mainly lonely people love Wagner.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Probably because of the intensity of the emotions,” said Giacinto. “People who feel that gap the most, who are trying to fill it through art.

Jerry Sadowitz on a holiday with Richard Wagner

Jerry Sadowitz reaches extremes just like Richard Wagner?

“The first time I went to see Jerry Sadowitz perform, I noticed a parallel between him and Wagner. When you go to see Jerry Sadowitz, you are allowed for an hour to get in touch with levels of yourself that normally you are not aware of.”

“Which are?” I asked.

“It’s like…” said Giacinto. “It’s like you take your liver out of your body and put it on the table. You look at it. You are disgusted. But you know it is part of you. It is just a part of you that you don’t normally want to recognise. When you hear Jerry Sadowitz going so deeply into stuff which is (or, at least, seems to be) a bit misogynistic or a bit racist, you know That is what we built civilisation to protect us from. But it is very difficult to be civilised all the time. So you go and see someone like Jerry Sadowitz and, for one hour, you are allowed not to be civilised any more. You are allowed to get in touch with your more selfish instincts.”

“So Wagner is uncivilised?” I asked.

“Wagner,” suggested Giacinto, “is a holiday from civilisation. For 3 or 4 hours, when you watch Wagner, you are allowed to be in touch with a level of emotion, with ideas and themes – like incest, for example – there is a lot of incest in Wagner – the kind of stuff that normally people don’t accept.

“For the duration of the work, you are allowed to get in touch with a level of passion – perversion, if you want – which normally you are not allowed to accept in your life. Just like Jerry Sadowitz. A holiday from civilisation.”

“I seem to remember Jerry loves Mahler,” I said.

“That’s interesting,” said Giacinto, “Because Mahler was a disciple of Wagner. I love the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th, which is the music from Visconti’s film Death in Venice.”

“So,” I said, “you are going to do a totally uncivilised comedy show about a perverted German composer?”

Amalie Materna, the first Bayreuth Brünnhilde, with Cocotte, the horse donated by King Ludwig to play her horse Grane

Star of the Ring – Amalie Materna, the first Bayreuth Brünnhilde + Cocotte, donated by King Ludwig II to play her horse Grane

“Well,” replied Giacinto, “comedy itself is a holiday from civilisation. It is sometimes a holiday from logic, a holiday from being polite, a holiday from making sense. It is an area of freedom. I think there is a lot in common between comedy and the type of art which Wagner represents. Because it offers you room to experiment and feel things that normally you are not allowed to experience.”

“You are previewing the show in Brighton this month,” I said.

“And in my living room,” said Giacinto, “which is something Wagner himself used to do.”

“He used to preview his operas in your living room?” I asked.

“No,” said Giacinto. “He used to do readings of his libretti and perform piano excerpts in front of his friends.”

“It must have been a big living room,” I suggested. “Wagner is a bit loud.”

“But there is also a very soft side to Wagner,” said Giacinto. “There is so much else to Wagner than The Ride of the Valkyries. There is a Wagner who gives voice to the forests or to water or to animals. There is a Wagner of the small things. He can be very lyrical. His palate is so rich. He is much more nuanced than people credit him.

“Mark Twain joked that Wagner’s operas are better than they sound. Music is only one part of something more complex. It’s a great example of how a joke can explain more than a detailed academic analysis.

“And Wagner is a great role model: the way he pursued an impossible dream of creating this cycle of operas which was impossible to stage. He worked on it for 26 years. It was very long; it required a type of singer that didn’t exist – a very ‘acting’ singer – and it required an audience that didn’t exist. It was not proper opera, it was not theatre. To attempt something like that really required a courage, a faith in himself.

“Of course, if you dare so much and you win it is quite understandable you become very arrogant. Of course he was a megalomaniac and full of himself. Only someone who IS can achieve such a difficult project. But he is a reminder of the fact you should dare, you should take risks. He had amazing artistic courage.”

“Are you using costumes?” I asked.

Giacinto’s Brighton Fringe poster artwork

Giacinto’s Brighton Fringe poster artwork

“No,” said Giacinto. “Just for the poster. For me, finding socks in the morning is difficult enough.”

“Who else do you like musically?” I asked.

“Pink Floyd. The Wall and Dark Side of The Moon.”

“And who else liked Wagner, apart from Hitler?”

“T.S. Eliot was a fan,” said Giacinto. “The Waste Land is full of references.”

“I don’t think I’m intelligent enough to understand The Waste Land,” I said.

“Like Wagner,” said Giacinto, “The Waste Land is one of those works you can spend all your life interpreting and finding new meanings in. That’s why Art is not Science. It is always open to interpretation. You can spend a lifetime in Wagner’s Ring.”

I laughed.

“Why are you laughing?” asked Giacinto.

“It was when you said You can spend a lifetime in Wagner’s Ring,” I explained.

“We have found your level there,” said Giacinto.

“I think so,” I admitted. “It was almost a knob gag.”

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John Lennon, Aristotle Onassis and the famous ballerina who was a gun runner

“There’s nowt as queer as folk,” is a saying which perhaps doesn’t translate too well into American. In British English, it means there’s nothing more strange nor more interesting than people.

So bear with me, dear reader, as I tell this meandering tale of less than six degrees of separation, a Wagnerian concentration camp, John Lennon and hand grenades in Cricklewood, north west London.

In my erstwhile youth, while I was a student, I lived in a Hampstead house of bedsits. One of the other inhabitants was the late Martin Lickert who, at the time, was John Lennon’s chauffeur. He lived in a bedsit because he was rarely home and only needed an occasional single bed to be unconscious in at night. Although, one night, I had to swap beds with him as I had a double bed and he had to entertain a girl called Juliet. He later went on to become a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. Long after I knew him, he trained as a barrister and specialised in prosecuting drug cases for HM Customs & Excise.

His relevance, as far as this blog is concerned, is that he accidentally appeared in the little-seen and staggeringly weird Frank Zappa movie 200 Motels.

In that film, shot at Pinewood Studios, the part of ‘Jeff ‘was originally going to be played by the Mothers of Invention’s bass player Jeff Simmons who quit before filming. He was replaced in the movie by Wilfred Brambell, star of BBC TV’s Steptoe and Son and The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, who walked off set in a rage after a few days and Frank Zappa said: “The next person who comes through that door gets the part!”

The next person who came through the door was Martin Lickert, by then Ringo Starr’s chauffeur, who had gone to buy some tissues for his drumming employer who had a “permanent cold”.

The co-director with Frank Zappa of 200 Motels was Tony Palmer, famed director of documentaries on classical composers who, last night, was talking about his career in a Westminster library. I was there.

It was an absolutely riveting series of anecdotes which lasted 90 minutes but it seemed like 20 minutes, so fascinating were Tony Palmer’s stories.

He has, to say the least, had an odd career ranging from directing Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave and Frank Zappa in feature films to large-scale documentaries on heavyweight classical composers and from making documentaries on Liberace, Hugh Hefner and Peter Sellers to Swinging Britain TV rock shows like Colour Me Pop, How It Is and the extraordinary feature-length 1968 documentary All My Loving, suggested to him by John Lennon and so controversial at the time that it was shelved by David Attenborough (then Controller of BBC2) who said it would only be screened over his dead body – Attenborough denies using these words, but Palmer has the memo.

All My Loving was eventually screened on BBC TV after the channel had officially closed down for the night. I saw it when it was transmitted and, even now, it is an extraordinarily OTT piece of film-making.

Tony Palmer’s film-making career is much like the composing career of Igor Stravinsky (whom Palmer introduced to John Lennon when The Beatles were at their height). Stravinsky saw Tchaikovsky conduct in the 19th century and was still composing when he died in 1971, after The Beatles had broken up. So there are fewer than even six degrees of separation between Tchaikovsky and Martin Lickert.

Palmer – who is currently preparing a documentary project with Richard Dawkins – has had an extraordinarily wide range of encounters from which to draw autobiographical anecdotes.

He directed Michael Palin and Terry Jones in Twice a Fortnight, one of the important precursors of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and he directed the 17-hour, 12-part 1977 TV series All You Need Is Love tracing the development of popular music. Again, that project was suggested to him by John Lennon and he discovered that, though The Beatles had never tried to copyright the title All You Need Is Love, it had been registered by a Hong Kong manufacturer of sexy clothing and a brothel in Amsterdam.

Palmer also advised director Stanley Kubrick on music for his last movie Eyes Wide Shut and has apparently endless anecdotes on the great creative artists of the 20th century.

Who knew that the cellist Rostropovich used to get paid in cash, would put the cash inside the cello which he then went and played on stage and bought refrigerators in bulk in the UK so he could send them back to the USSR and sell them at a vast profit?

I, for one, had never heard that the German composer Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer and much admired by the Nazis, actually had a grandson who ran a concentration camp towards the end of World War II.

Nor that, in the 1950s, ballerina Margot Fonteyn got paid in cash which she then took to a Cricklewood arms dealer to buy guns and grenades which were channeled though France to Panama where her dodgy politician husband was planning a coup.

It’s amazing that, by now, someone has not made a documentary about Tony Palmer.

I suppose the problem is ironic: that the perfect person to have done this would have been Tony Palmer.

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Shimmering images, Ann Widdecombe’s brilliance and Gordon Brown – The Opera

I have had a fair amount of feedback from yesterday’s blog about the appalling image of the current Labour Party leadership.

One thing I have not been able to figure out is how the Conservative Party has successfully re-imaged at least two of its failed former party leaders.

John Major had a very large and very under-underrated role in bringing a 30-year stretch of Irish Troubles to an (almost) end (or at least to a healthy pause). Tony Blair took the credit but it was John Major who set all the necessaries in place and started everything rolling along. Unfortunately for him, as Prime Minister, he had the image of a weak, grey man out of control of the economic events buffeting him and the accusations of tabloid sleaze swirling round his colleagues.

Yet, just a few years later, he had been turned into an amiable, cricket-loving uncle figure and now he has been transformed yet again, this time into an elder statesman – a wise advisor with a steady pair of political hands.

Almost more staggering was the transformation of William Hague from simultaneously too-young and too-bald laughing stock into the wise semi-Churchillian muse he always aspired to be – and now into a calm, respected Foreign Secretary. I would not be surprised to see him ‘do another Churchill’ in a few years time and return to lead the party or even the country.

A third failed Conservative Party leader (there have been an awful lot of them) Michael Howard seemed to be brilliantly and terminally characterised by a venomous Ann Widdecombe as having “something of the night about him”. But now, when he occasionally pops up on TV, he seems less like a political vampire than an amiable man with a humorous twinkle in his eye and a jolly chortle. Though I would still not trust him after dark in a gothic mansion.

Even Ian Duncan Smith, a man for whom the word ‘bland’ seems too glitzy a description, has re-appeared on our screens of late not seeming too definitively dull. I think, with him, though, even the Conservative Party’s best spin doctors are on to a semi-loser.

Compare these mostly successful Conservative image-changes to the Labour Party’s PR failure with their ex-leaders.

Neil Kinnock still comes across as a charming, well-meaning Welsh windbag, simultaneously over-erudite and approaching near air-headedness. I can imagine him banging his head in Wayne’s World.

Tony Blair is now seen as the bullshit artist he always was: a man endlessly prepared to duck, dodge, dive, weave, spin and shit on others – and allow others to die for his principles – always smugly secure in the knowledge that his opinion is right because he and God work as a double act.

That’s two former leaders whom the Labour Party has been unable to re-image.

And then there is the sad case of Gordon Brown who is still in that nether region where he is too embarrassed to pop his head above the parapet and everyone else is too embarrassed to talk about him.

If Anna Nicole Smith’s life can be turned into an opera (as it just has been for the Royal Opera House), then Gordon Brown’s story cannot be far behind. It cries out for loud Wagnerian music to accompany one of the great political and personal tragedies of the last 50 years.

The story of a man with deeply-held socialist principles and a lust for power who had to wait ten years watching superficial socialist pretender Tony Blair – all style and no substance – get plaudits… then, after waiting that long decade of labyrinthine, Machiavellian, soul-destroying plotting, he eventually gets the powerful job he always knew he deserved and was promised… only to find the whole edifice comes crumbling down around him. And, ironically, the one thing he was always lauded for – his sure touch on the Economy – is one of the main causes of his downfall. That and an accidentally-recorded aside about an ordinary woman he casually called a racist on an apparently insignificant visit to the provinces.

It is like James Cagney at the end of White Heat.

Gordon Brown – he finally got to the top of the world and it blew right up in his face

If that is not meat for an opera, I don’t know what is.

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