The Imperfect Wagnerite

We ride through the night skies
Flashing our fat thighs
Picking up dead guys
Call this a job?
Call this a job?

New Readers Start Here (Synopsis)

Critical faculties

I saw the English National Opera's production of The Valkyrie in the newly refurbished Coliseum.

The Gentlemen's toilet was much as it ever was, but the Ladies' is, I am told, much improved. This means that I did not get a repeat of last years interval entertainment of being joined in the urinal by a group of persons of the female persuasion, who had evidently decided, as a protest or out of desperation, to go where no woman had gone before.

I suppose an amateur critic shouldn't throw stones at the professionals. I only write reviews when I have something to say. They have to file copy every morning in order to pay for their children's food, or at any rate their Montessori piano lessons. I know how much easier it is to create square kilometers of prose out of witty negativity than out of sweetness and light. Positive reviews are neither fun to write nor interesting to read. One of my more devoted fans expressed surprise that I had spent a page and a half explaining why I thought the movie Pirates of the Carribean worked: apparently, I should have just said 'it rocked' and left it at that.


The Guardian's critic described this Valkyrie as 'deeply depressing'. The FT thought it was silly. The Mail frankly told its readers not to go and see it.. A writer in the Telegraph went so far as to regret the fact that he hadn't brought a rotten tomato. The usual suspects filled the letter columns with the usual soliloquies about the evils of modern interpretation, the vanity of producers and the sacredness of the author's intentions. (I suspect, but cannot prove, that some of these were written by the same people who thought it was funny that a lot of modern paintings got destroyed in a fire.)

I, on the other hand, thought that it was the most overwhelming piece of live theater I'd seen since Parsifal at the ENO about five years ago. I was going to say 'It made me cry'; but that could be misunderstood. Everyone wipes away a tear when Fiver sees the black rabbit of death or when Data wonders if he missed the point of Tasha Yar's funeral. But I can't remember the last time that a theatrical production has made me feel that I had been repeatedly kicked in chest; leaving me physically sobbing for the last fifteen minutes of Act 1. And then did the same thing in Act II and Act III.

Or put another way: it rocked.

If someone draws an ash-tree, it should damn well look like an ash-tree

What the critics and pundits objected to was the staging: the fact that, rather than following Wagner's directions literally, the ENO used their imagination and created a series of stage pictures which explored---intelligently, cleverly, sometimes controversially but always sympathetically---the themes in his story.

Act 1 was naturalistic, albeit done in modern dress. (You would hardly bother to mention that a production of Hamlet did not involve people in tights and ruffs, would you? Is opera really so stagnated that we have to go through this argument every time a new production opens?) Hunding's hall was some kind of red-neck cabin, white-trash trailer or possibly a militia hide-out. It was a setting highly appropriate for a drama about rough, violent, scary (and religious) people who follow, or at any rate, talk about, strict codes of honour. When the red-neck Hunding pours Siegmund a whiskey and they size each other up across the table it's a moment of great tension and realism. It would have been very hard to achieve if the cast had been wearing viking helmets and holding drinking horns. The modernized setting facilitated a dramatic interpretation of the music.

That said, the naturalistic approach was abandoned at the end of the act. I have not yet managed to describe the final sequence to anyone without making it sound ridiculous. It wasn't. Siegmund and Sieglinde, you will remember, discover that they are twins. Siegmund sings a little song to welcome the spring. At this point, the rear backdrop was raised raised leaving the performers singing in front of a bright green screen. In the closing seconds when they decide that, since they are blood relatives, they had better run off into the forest and fornicate like Teutonic rabbits, the whole stage is plunged into green light, leaving the lovers in silhouette, black on green. The shadow of Siegmund pulls the magic sword from between the shadows of Sieglinde's legs, and then plunges it into her; symbolizing the obvious. I was completely stunned by the music at this point, and found that the surreal lighting and the statuesque, symbolic imagery to be a perfect visual expression of the music, the drama, and my own state of mind.

(Unless....perhaps everything I experienced came from the music, and the stage picture was an irrelevance. It is possible: Wagner's music overwhelms you, and you utterly accept what is happening on the stage, however silly. When you think back, you wrongly attribute to the staged drama feelings that were generated entirely by the score. Of course, if this is so, then Wagner's whole theory of music drama was wrong headed to begin with)

Act 2, in the realm of the gods, was consistently impressionistic. The critics sneered that the gods were represented as property developers, but I thought it fairly obvious that they were meant to be Hollywood film makers. Fricka was a business woman in a suit; presumably intended to call Hilary Clinton to mind; Wotan was more laid back. There was a huge cinema-screen across the stage, on which the gods watched Siegmund and Sieglinde's flight through the forest as a shadow-play (continuing the silhouette theme that closed Act I.) The gods write the script for human life and observe it unfolding like a movie. At the end of the Act, the screen collapsed, leaving the gods and the humans on the stage together. Fricka and Brunhilde had taken things outside of Wotan's script.

I liked the way Brunhilde's face was projected on the screen as she tells Siegmund that he is going to die: it made her seem very godlike and supernatural. I didn't like the fact that she then walked over and talked to him directly. This seemed to violate the stage logic which had been established, making us feel that the mortals had somehow wandered into the god's office. The scene was no longer occurring in any particular place, but just being acted out on a stage which happened to have some stuff on it. Which may have been the point.

Act 3 was purely conceptual: the staging was a visualisation of and commentary on Wagner's ideas. The libretto says that Wotan puts Brunhilde into a magical sleep and leaves her on the mountain to be claimed by the first man who finds her. This is a fantastically cruel idea, made worse by the genuine affection that Wotan feels for his daughter. He isn't really angry with her: he is doing all this for the sake of Fricka, so she can't claim that Brunhilde acted with his approval. Here, the 'magic sleep' becomes a 'trance'. Wotan gives Brunhilde an injection and leaves her standing on the mountain (in her underwear and a fur coat!) conscious, but not aware of what is going on, surrounded by rapists who Wotan disperses with Loge's magic fire.

Well, why not: when Wotan says 'Any man who finds you can have you' what else is he doing put pimping his daughter on the street corner?

Kathleen Broderick's sensational performance characterized Brunhilde as an energetic, sexy, fun, and boyish figure: more or less a biker-chick. Seeing her reduced to pathetic vulnerability is terribly shocking. In fact, I found the conversation between Brunhilde and Wotan at the beginning of Act II heart-breaking in itself. Father and daughter seemed so happy and right together, and yet we knew it was all about to go horribly wrong. I've never felt that in a production of Valkyrie before.

The modern trappings of the final scene made dramatic, as well as conceptual, sense. Brunhilde struggles as the medical orderlies hold her down; Wotan is almost unable to bring himself to administer the fatal shot. There is a sense that having pronounced sentence he has set up a legal process which is out of his own hands---that he's sentenced her to death and the law has now got to take its course. All this was enacting a brutality that is quite definitely present in the music and the text. I found it shocking; haunting. It may have been that two slightly different ideas were competing for our attention: when Wotan injects Brunhilde with the sleeping draft we are meant to be thinking of a Texas execution; and this imagery doesn't really sit very well alongside the prostitution metaphor. But I was able to accept it as a sort of dream logic.

Wotan leaves the stage and walks through the audience, turning his back on his daughter to become 'The Wanderer'. By this point, I guess, no-one in the audience was asking questions. I was still crying into my beer in the bar an hour later.

'Is Wagner a man at all? Is he not rather a disease?'

There's an old joke about there being two kinds of people in the world: Wagnerians, and music lovers. This is presumably because there are two kinds of music in the world: Wagner, and everything else.

Teenagers are meant to like pop music; teen culture is defined according to what sort of music you like. I had the opportunity to have been a punk or a ted or a new romantic, but I managed to get almost to the end of my teenage years without listening to any music at all, unless you count what forced itself into my consciousness in school discos and Seaside Special. I actually owned about three records. One of them was the BBC collection of sound effects from Doctor Who. One of them was the musical sound track to the Radio 4 Lord of the Rings. The third one was quite embarrassing. Some time around 1980, BBC 2 transmitted a Bayreuth Ring , at the rate of an act a week, a sort of very high brow musical soap. I turned on because I vaguely understood it to have something to do with the Thor comic. For the next five years, my musical tastes were re-defined. I listened to Wagner and nothing else.

My tastes have broadened since then. I've learned to appreciated Bob Dylan and the less corny bits of Elvis and some of the better musicals like Guys and Dolls and Pirates of Penzanze. I even concede that that fellow Beethoven may have some merit, especially the centaurs and the cherub's bum. But that's almost a non-sequitur: to say 'I like Wagner, and also the Bob Dylan' makes about as much sense as saying 'I like Thomas Hardy and also sushi.' There is music, which you put on your CD and listen to, and there is Wagner which you apply to go on a seven year waiting list for. Wagner lives in a box with my religion and my sexuality; it would be absurd to put him on a shelf next to the Beatles. Nothing against the Beatles. To tell the truth, after an hour or so of music-drama, even Mr Tolkien can seem a little dilute. Absolutely nothing against Tolkien.

'But Andrew---isn't this all a bit intense? You are getting awfully excited about what is, after all, only two people singing.'

Possibly. As Siegmund started to sing his soliloquy in Act I ('Walse! Walse! Where is the sword?') and I felt myself dissolving into small quivering pool of nordic jelly, there was also a little voice in my head saying 'Wagner really is a dangerous, dangerous man.'

I don't mean the Hitler thing. I know that it is written into the charter of the BBC that you are not allowed to transmit Siegfried's funeral march without showing grainy black and white footage of goose stepping Europeans, but that argument stopped being interesting a long time ago. Yes, Hitler liked Wagner. Saddam Hussien liked Frank Frazetta. Mussolini liked Mickey Mouse. And, no, it doesn't do Mickey Mouse any favours to deny that it is the kind of thing that you would have expected Mussolini to like. So yes, of course we can see the elements in the Ring which appealed to Hitler, and there is not much point in pretending that they are not there. During the last controversy but one about Israeli orchestras playing Wagner, someone claimed that the Nazi slur was silly because music can't have an ideology. I have to say that I find the suggestion that Wagner's music doesn't contain any ideas considerably more offensive than the suggestion that it is to blame for the Final Solution.

There is stuff in the Ring with which I am not comfortable. The idea that Siegmund and Sieglinde's love exists on some higher level than the rest of us, because it is adulterous and incestuous. The way in which Siegfried, the noblest hero of all, turns out to be a big bully. The idea of there being people with a special destiny by virtue of their race. The bellicose will-to-power machismo that runs right through it. But I am experiencing it as a story; not as guide to good behavior or a political treatise. I can enjoy a story in which all the dwarves are petty, greedy, treacherous and ugly without looking for real people to behead and throw in the Rhine, even if we have a suspicion about whose Wagner's preferred candidates for the role might have been.

So it isn't the Nazi thing which bothers me. It's the sheer big-ness of Wagner. The completely disproportionate reaction I have to his tunes. He seems to start out at an emotional pitch which Shakespeare maybe peaks on at the end of Act 5 of King Lear, and builds up from there. No, his operas aren't formally perfect and exquisite works, such as, (people tell me) Motzart writes. They don't poignantly express something you half-remember feeling, as with a good Beatles track. It feels more like Wagner sticks your fingers into the mythological national grid, and leaves them there. For five hours. And asks you to come back on four consecutive nights and repeat the experience. 'Guaranteed pure emotion. Bottled at source.'

Is this a rational way of spending a Saturday evening? It's not entertainment. It's more like one of those charismatic meetings where people get slain in the spirit and end up giving their lives to Nicky Gumball. Or hard drugs. Wagner may not have caused Hitler, but you can see how Hitler might have used Wagner. If a funny man with a mustache had stepped out on stage after Act II and said: 'This can all be true! All you need to do is invade Poland!' wouldn't I have been tempted? Just a bit?

As usual, in order to explain this I find myself falling back on the language of Joseph Campbell and Jung and Alan Moore, most of which I believe, at an intellectual level, to be codswallop. I don't think it can be the music itself, the specific configuration of sounds that Wagner tells the orchestra to produce, which has this effect on me. I think it must be that the ideas in the opera---the magic sword, the sleeping maiden, the magic ring, the dragon---came first and Wagner's music is the conduit which connects me with them. Certainly, these kinds of images carry some kind of charge when they turn up in other places: even in works of art of a pretty low quality. At one extreme there is Aragorn re-forging the shards of the sword which cut a quite different ring from the Enemy's finger; or King Arthur being pedestrian enough to pull a sword out of a a stone rather than an ash tree. At the other, Luke Skywalker receiving his father's lighsabre, or Dumbledore's parrot bringing Gryfindor's sword to Harry Potter. Or even the scene in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe where Father Christmas gives Peter a sword as present from Aslan. (Walter Hooper thinks this is an allegory of Pentecost; everyone else thinks it is an appalling lapse of taste on C.S Lewis's part.) I recall seeing a bad stage production of the Narnia stories a few years ago, and thinking more or less simultaneously 'This is a poor dramatisation of a scene that was pretty silly to begin with' and 'This is really very moving indeed.' Nothing whatsoever against Narnia, obviously.

I wasn't being completely facitious when I compared the Ring with The Mighty Thor. If you are thinking about literature, then Marvel Comics are about as low as you can go. But at some level, the stories seem to matter.

What's going on? You could be Freudian, and wonder if the excitement comes from the fact that, at some unconscious level I understand that the sword is a phallic symbol. The image of the wise old father giving a boy a sword 'means' sexuality---or growing up. The broken sword---in the Ring it is broken by the boys own father, as a punishment, and rescued by a goddess, and preserved by his mother---'means' castration, or being punished for masturbation, or just that your father won't accept that you are an adult. Re-forging the sword 'means' healing damaged sexuality; overcoming the damage done by bad fathers; properly growing up. All those heroes with broken swords do become 'real men' after their swords are mended. Siegfried reforges his sword in the morning and discovers his bride to be in the afternoon, pausing only for as long as it takes to slay a dragon and murder his foster father.

This is where Germain Greer was coming from in her programme notes for this production. Wagner's power can be explained by the fact that all the men in the audience want to fuck their daughters or at any rate, leave them in rings of fire on mountaintops, and all women in the audience want their fathers to do it to them. But if you have accepted the position of being a Germain Greer, I guess part of the job description is to be completely bonkers.

I'm more tempted to go for the Jungian tactic, and say that the swords-in-trees and broken-swords are archetypes. No-one made them up: they just are. You can't ask what they mean: they are universal symbols because they express something that won't go into words. You can use the word 'red', or you can point to a red thing, but you can't describe what redness is to someone who doesn't know. Similarly, I can't tell you what Siegmund's sword means? You have to be there.

Your Tolkiens and your Malorys put copies of archetypes in the middle of very long stories, and try to explain their significance in ways that make sense. I guess that's what I meant when I said that Tolkien feels 'diluted' compared with Wagner. To understand his version of the sword-that-was-broken-and-is-reforged you have to have know and care about Numenor and Rivendell and Arnor and Appendix II. Malory is worse. This is the story of Excalibur, the most famous sword in literature, and Excalibur is hardly even mentioned; as if Merlin and Arthur have somehow missed the point.

But, Wagner, you feels, has somehow got into contact with your original 22 carrot archetype, and used music to bypass your mind and put it directly into your your soul. (Or, if you prefer: spirit, unconscious, heart, high level programming language.) Or maybe connecting you with the collective unconscious, (spirit realm, idea space, the Dreaming, heaven, the world of the forms, childhood). Or that he is channeling a real 'sword' through the music. Or...

It's just hard for me to believe that there is anything in the pattern of sound:

which can make me feel the way I do when I hear it.

I find it disturbing to find myself thinking in this way about a work of art. It suggests that Wagner has taken on, for me, the role of a psycho-analyst, or a shaman, or a priest. I am going to the opera to have something done to me. This music has become more religious than my religion.

That is why the Hitler/Wagner connection is so hard to give up. Hitler is a powerful (archetypal) symbol of power, albeit the power-of-evil. Connecting the Ring with Nazism produces a fairy story which we feel, at some level, to be true. Once upon a time there was a magic ring which you could only own if you renounced love. Once upon a time there was an innocent boy who found a goddess asleep on a mountain. Once upon a time there was a piece of music so powerful that it sent a nation mad; changed the course of history; started a war.

I am pretty sure that the claim that the Ring 'caused' D-Day and the concentration camps isn't true; but I am absolutely certain that the claim that the ring is 'just a piece of music' is complete nonsense.

'Try. Fail. Try again. Fail better.'

An orangutan, writing in the Daily Telegraph made what I thought was the most telling comment about the ENO Valkyrie. It complained because ten lines of Act II were delivered from behind the shadow-play screen, which (according to the monkey) muffled the sound. 'Isn't the point of going to the opera to hear the singing?' it inquired.

No, it isn't.

Any more than the point of going to the pictures is to look at the cinematography, or the point of reading books is to look at the typesetting. We go to the opera in order to experience the drama. Song happens to be the medium which carries that drama. You come across schoolteachery critics who think that the point of going to see Shakespeare is to hear the poetry, meaning the 'great speeches', and that everything else is a kind of iambic roughage, best dispensed with. They object to actors who perform these speeches with expression: they should just recite, and let the language speak for itself. But that isn't how those of us feel who actually like the plays. This is the mistake in the old joke about Wagner having great moments and terrible quarter hours. The great moments are, by and large, the corny bits. If we want to hear the Ride or Forest Murmurs, we can stick it on our CD player. It's the dreadful quarter hours, the parts where the drama takes place, that make us prepared to spend £500 and 16 hours in an opera house.

A cro-magnon, writing in the Financial Times about a production of Rodelinda. apparently written by someone called Handel, went a stage further.

'(Your reviewer) writes 'Nobody would argue that it is hard to fill the time taken by a da campo aria.' But it is not at all hard: Handel has already filled it with music, usually of a rather sublime kind. All that is needed of the director is that he places the singer in the best possible position to sing the music well. The stage business that (your reviewer) complains of merely distract the audience and makes the the aria seem tediously longer than it is.'

Have you grasped that? Any stage action at all is a distraction from the music: all the singer should do is stand there and sing 'well.' We are not, it seems, dealing with people who disliked this particular production or that particular production idea (and gods know, there was plenty to dislike). We are dealing with people who dislike the whole concept of production. One suspects that they dislike the whole concept of of opera. They would prefer a concert performance; or, better yet, to listen to a CD in a dark room. If there must be a production, let it be fat ladies in horned helmets and fat men in bearskin rugs; a sort of sub-Peter Jackson pantomime. Maybe after we've dispensed with producers, we can dispense with conductors, orchestras and singers: perhaps some future computer will be able synthasise music directly from the score, with no baggage of feeling or interpretation to interpose itself between you and the sacred notes which Wagner wrote.

If that's what you are after, good luck. But the rest of us are happy to watch real companies struggle in various ways with not-at-all definitive conjectures about what Wagner might, perhaps, have meant; and to produce some stage imagery which might, perhaps, help us engage with that vision. One version, one try, to be experienced, and then put away until the next time. Of course, some productions may not work very well.

But some of them rock.

Please, Mr Daniel and Ms Lloyd. Don't to listen to the monkeys. Listen to the audience shouting 'bravo'. Listen to the mud-soaked crowd at Glastonbury, who broke into spontaneous applause when Wotan embraced Brunhilde---showing that they had understood the opera and the critics hadn't. Stick to you guns (or your swords or your tanks or your flamethrowers or whatever stage idea you come up with to represent the re-forging of Nothung). I am literally counting the days until Siegfried.

New readers start here

Act I

(Hunding's house. Enter Siegmund.)

Siegmund: Hello. My name is 'Hard Luck' .

Sieglinde: Unusual name. Have a drink. And wait for my husband to get home.

(Enter Hunding)

Hunding: What are you doing here?.

Siegmund: I was being chased by some people whose kinsman I killed at a wedding feast. I claim asylum.

Hunding: What a coincidence. I am chasing someone who killed my kinsman at a wedding feast. Tonight you are my guest, but tomorrow I am going to have to kill you.

Sieglinde: When you said you were called 'Hard Luck', you weren't kidding, were you?

(Exit Hunding)

Siegmund A sword would sure come in useful right now.

Sieglinde: I expect you are wondering about the ash tree in our dining room, and in particular, why it has a magic sword stuck in it. Apparently, only the greatest hero in the world can pull it out.

Siegmund: That'll be mine, then! (Pulls out sword). I name this sword...'Nothung'.

Sieglinde: Speaking of names, is your real name by any chance Siegmund?

Siegmund: Er...your father: tall guy, missing eye, magic spear?

Sieglinde: You don't mean...

Siegmund: The Force runs strong in my family. I have it. My father had it. sister has it too.

Sieglinde: Cool! Let's have sex.

(They do.)

Act 2

Scene 1: Heaven

Wotan: The reason I begat Sieigmund and Sieglinde with that mortal woman was so they could win the One Ring from the Dragon, save the Gods, and avert Gotterdamerung. When Hunding fights him, make sure Siegmund wins.

Brunhilde: OK Papa! Hyotoho!

Wotan: And by the way, Alberich has a son. That becomes important in the next opera but one.

Brunhilde: Whatever you say, Daddy-o-hyotoho!

(Exit Brunhilde; enter Fricka.)

Fricka: Siegmund and Sieglinde have fallen in love. As goddess of marriage, I can put up with you bonking mortals right left and center, but I draw the line at your condoning incest.

Wotan: I have sworn an oath not to intervene.

Fricka: What do you call leaving a magic sword in a tree trunk?

Wotan: Good point, well made.

(Exit Fricka, enter Brunhilde)

Wotan: Change of plan. When Hunding fights Siegmund, makes sure Hunding wins.

Brunhilde: Right ho Dad! Hyotoho!

Scene II: Earth

Brunhilde: Good news! You are going to die and go to Valhalla!

Siegmund: Cool. Can Sieglinde come too?

Brunhilde: Sorry, no mortal women allowed.

Siegmund: Then I ain't coming.

Brunhilde: Gee…you must really love her…that's so…cute.

(Enter Hunding)

Hunding: I am going to kill Siegmund!

Brunhilde: I am going to protect Siegmund!

Sieglinde: I am going to run off into the woods!

(Enter Wotan)

Wotan: If you want a job done properly, you have to do it yourself. (Smashes Siegmund's magic sword with his even more magic spear. Kills Siegmund. Kills Hunding for good measure.) And as for you, young lady, I am very cross indeed.

Brunhilde: I only did what you wanted!

Wotan: Yes, but I told you not to.

(Exit Brunhilde, pursued by a god.)


(A mountain top.)

Valkyries: Hyotoha! Hyotoha! Hy-ho, hy-ho, hyoto! Etc.

(Enter Brunhilde with Sieglinde.)

Brunhilde: Hey sis! Look what followed me home!

Valkyries: Technically, that looks like a girl you have there, not a dead warrior.

Brunhilde: It's Sieglinde. I found her in the forest. I rescued her from Wotan and Hunding. Can I keep her?

Valkyries: Dad is so going to kill you when he finds out.

Sieglinde: Don't trouble yourself on my account. Now Siegmund is dead, I don't want to live.

Brunhilde: Point of information. You are pregnant with Siegmund's baby.

Sieglinde: Save me! I want to live!

Brunhilde: Go and hide in the forest. I'll stay here and face Wotan. Oh, and look what else I have. (Produces broken sword.)

Sieglinde: The shards of Narsil!

Brunhilde: Er…It was Nothung.

Sieglinde: You're welcome.

Brunhilde: (Sublimely.) You will be the mother of the Greatest Hero of All. He will win back the One Ring from the Dragon. He will reforge the fragments of his father's sword. And his name will be 'Sieg Heil'!

Sieglinde: 'Siegfried' would be nicer.

Valkyries: This is all getting needlessly messianic.

(Enter Wotan.)

Valkyries: Thunderbolt and lightening, very, very frightening, ooo.

Wotan: Right, where is she? Own up, or so help me the whole class gets Saturday detention!

Brunhilde: Er…would it help to say sorry?

Wotan: No. You disobeyed me. As a punishment you will, one, stop being an immortal; two, sleep for a hundred years; and three, marry the first mortal who finds you and wakes you.

Brunhilde: Have you no mercy?

Wotan: No. I am the All-father, the War-father, Father-of-Battles, Father-of-Vengeance.

Brunhilde: I love you lots and lots Daddy! Weally, weally, weally!

Wotan: Oh, all right then. Sentence commuted. You will marry the first mortal brave enough to pass through this magical fire! (FX: Whoosh!)

Brunhilde: But only a really brave mortal could do that!...In fact, probably, only the Greatest Hero of All.

Wotan: You may think that, but I couldn't possibly comment.

Brunhilde: Well, goodbye then.

Wotan: (Sublimely) Bye! (*)

Wotan: Only the man who does not fear my magical spear will pass through this magic fire. Er...I don't know why I said that. It's going to cause me some trouble in Part III.

(*) Wotan's farewell.

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