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Monday, December 28, 2009

Sam Savage



I know very little about the writer Sam Savage, author of two terrific novels. I read them in reverse order. The second, "The Cry of the Sloth" was one of my favorites for 2009. I just read his first novel, "Firmin", the autobiography of a rat who lived in a bookstore in Scollay Square. Where? Scollay Square was a Boston neighborhood that was bulldozed, completely wiped out, in the late 1950s to make way for the ugly and barren Government Center. Scollay Square was home to pimps, hookers, thieves, strippers, sailors, crooks and the like. As such it was the bustling heart of the city, the alternative to sometimes chilly Friday afternoons in Symphony Hall. (A digression: My mother's first cousin, Mary Elizabeth Corbett, became the voluptuous Marie Cord, headliner at the majestic and infamous Old Howard, complete with swinging tassels. Go ahead, laugh. Marie died young on Christmas Day 1963, but to this day her elderly siblings live in a fine house she bought and paid for). Firmin, our rat friend, is not only born in a bookstore-in a nest made of shredded bits of Moby Dick, but he becomes a voracious reader himself. He eats up great books, often literally. He falls in love with Ginger Rogers, whose films he sees regularly at the Rialto Theater-which becomes a porno house at the stroke of each midnight. Firmin also falls in love with Norman, proprietor of the bookshop, but Norman resorts to rat poison and that's the end of THAT Romance. Ultimately Firmin is adopted by the down at heel writer and philosopher Jerry Magoon, who likes rats. Alas, the street life catches up with our Jerry and finishes him off. Leaving Firmin in a cleaned up neighborhood devoid of interest and humanity-the very qualities this novel has in abundance!

All I know about Sam Savage is what I read in his brief author bio: advanced degrees from Yale, born 1940 in South Carolina, now living in Madison Wisconsin. He's a complete original. Read "Firmin" and "The Cry of the Sloth"-put them on your Best Book list of 2010. Thanks Sam, whoever you are!

Here's an excerpt:

And you don't have to believe stories to love them. I love all stories. I love the progression of beginning, middle and end. I love the slow accumulation of meaning, the misty landscapes of the imagination, the mazy walks, the wooded sleeps, the reflecting pools, the tragic twists and comic stumbles. The only literature I cannot abide is rat literature. Including mouse literature. I despise good natured old Ratty in The Wind in the Willows. I piss down the throats of Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little. Affable, shuffling, cute they stick in my craw like fish bones.
--Sam Savage, "Firmin" pp.37-38 Coffee House Press

Friday, December 11, 2009

Books in 2009




Early this morning I was reading in bed, it was still dark out but it was time to get going. I had 10 pages left to read of John Irving's new novel Last Night in Twisted River. I'll get back to it tonight. I loved this book. John Irving rules!

Also on my reading table:
To Serve Them All My Days by R.L. Delderfield
-a World War I vet's life teaching in an English public school

and

Ted Kennedy's autobiography, "True Compass"

and the books I've finished most recently I've really loved:

Jane Eyre-Charlotte Bronte

The Humbling, Phillip Roth. I'm not much of a Roth fan, although I did like The Human Stain and The Plot Against America. But I loved The Humbling, the story of what it means to be an artist. This short novel made me run out and re read Isaak Dinesen's sublime Babette's Feast, then I read The Humbling again.

My most unforgettable books in 2009:

The Humbling-Phillip Roth
Jane Eyre-Charlotte Bronte
No Future Without Forgiveness-Desmond Tutu
The Help-Kathryn Stockett
An Infinity of Little Hours-Nancy Klein Maguire
Zeitoun-Dave Eggers
Last Night in Twisted River-John Irving
__________________________________________________________________________

WHAT DID YOU READ IN 2009? LET ME KNOW!
__________________________________________________________________________

These are the books I read in 2009. *= a favorite

Thomas Beecham, An Obsession with Music--John Lucas
The Reluctant Fundamentalist-Moshin Hamid
War as They Knew It-Rosenberg
Chic-Bob Hunter (OSU football great Chic Harley)

Homeboy-Seth Morgan

Laura Keene -V. Bryon (Keene was the actress manager on stage at Ford's Theatre the night Lincoln was shot, starring in "Our American Cousin". There was a lot to her story).

Moth Smoke-Moshin Hamid
Mrs. Astor Regrets-Meryl Gordon

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran--Homan Madj
Love,Work, Children-Cheryl Mendelssohn
The Scarlet Letters-Louis Auchincloss

Embracing the Wide Sky-Daniel Tamnent
Verdi-Julian Budden

Cakes and Ale-Somerset Maugham
*Push-Sapphire
*Animals Make Us Human-Temple Grandin
In Spite of Myself-Christopher Plummer

*No Future Without Forgiveness-Desmond Tutu
War Journal-Richard Engel
Theatre-Somerset Maugham

*An Evil Cradling-Brian Keenan-an Irishman kidnapped in the Middle East

Victor Fleming-Michael Sgrabin-the bio of the director of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind

Lincoln-Gore Vidal
The Violent Bears it Away-Flannery O'Connor
Flannery O'Connor-Brad Gooch

Inside the Recording Studio-Peter Andry

*The Last Dickens-Matthew Pearl unfolding the mystery of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"

*The Believers-Zoe Heller
Murder in the Marais-Cora Black
Rough Weather-Robert Parker

Falconer-John Cheever
*Cutting for Stone-Abraham Verghese
Cheever-Blake Bailey

White Heat: Emily Dickinson and Thomas Higginson-Brenda Wineapple
Music Therapy: Death and Grief-Chava Sekeles

Now or Never-Jack Cafferty
The Lady Elizabeth-Alison Weir

"*The Unlikely Disciple-Kevin Roose-undercover at a fundamentalist Christian university

The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson and the Lincoln Memorial-Raymond Arsenault
The Last Lion: Ted Kennedy -ed. Boston Globe

Manic-Terry Cleary

*Joseph P. Kennedy Presents-Cari Beauchamp--the patriarch's years in Hollywood, with and without Gloria Sanson

*Columbine-Dave Cullen harrowing

*The Help-Kathryn Stockett. READ THIS BOOK

Go Down Together-The Story of Bonnie and Clyde--Jeff Guinn

*Closing Time-Joe Queenan

*Brooklyn-Colm Toibin
The Gardner Heist-Ulrich Boser

*An Infinity of Little Hours-Nancy Klein Maguire-the lives of Cistercian monks in England. Magnificent book.

Dead Line -Brian McGrory
*Gabriel Garcia Marquez-Gerald Martin
Horse Boy-Rupert Isaacson
Peace Mom-Cindy Sheehan

Requiem Mass-Dufresne
A Whole New Mind-Daniel Pink hope for those of us who are right brained!

*The Unit-Nikki Holmquist

A Drink Before Dying-Dennis Lehane

Remembering Laughter-Wallace Stegner
Losing Mum and Pup-Christopher Buckley
Crossing to Safety-Wallace Stegner

Strange Child of Chaos: Norman Treigle-Brian Morgan

*The Speed Queen-Stewart O'Nan

Answered Prayers-Truman Capote
Father Joe-Tony Hendra

*Parallel Play-Tim Page a struggle with Asperger syndrome
A Pale View of Hills-Kazuko Ishiguro

*A singer's Silent Sounds-Linda Esther Gray-what happens to an opera star who loses her voice

Siegfried-Harry Mulish--what if Hitler had a son?
Homer and Langley-E.L. Doctorow

The Confessions of Edward Day-Valerie Martin
The Biographer's Tale-A.S. Byatt

*The Cry of the Sloth-Sam Savage-a compulsive letter writer and curmudgeon. My type of fella!

That Old Cape Magic-Richard Russo

Born Round-Frank Bruni
Tenors-John Potter
This is Where I leave You-Trotter

Strength in What Remains-Tracy Kidder
*Zeitoun-Dave Eggers--one family survives Katrina
The Queen Mother-Hugo Vickers

Intervention-Robin Cook

The Mammy-Brendan O'Carroll
The Friends of Eddie Coyle-George Higgins
Busted-Art Schlicter

*Wolf Hall-Hilary Patel Man Booker prize winner-the life of Thomas Cromwell at the dangerous court of Henry VIII

A Strange Eventful History: Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Gordon Craig--Michael Holyroyd

*Jane Eyre-Charlotte Bronte
Sinatra-Anthony Summers
*The Humbling-Phillip Roth
Put Out the Flags-Evelyn Waugh
*Invisible-Paul Auster

*Practicing Catholic-James Carroll

*Last Night in Twisted River-John Irving

*Firmin-Sam Savage-READ THIS

Offical Book Club Selection-Kathy Griffin

Lit-Mary Carr

New York Trilogy-Paul Auster

The Man Who Saved Christmas-Les Standiford

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

John Irving's "Last Night in Twisted River"

I love John Irving's books and this new one is a honey. What I especially admire among Irving's themes is the profound love between fathers and sons. Especially the concern and protectionism of an older father to a growing son. None of this Oedipal crap that gets in the way. I understand John Irving didn't know anything about his own biological father-who had been a war hero during WWII-until very recently, and that Irving has three boys of his own. Lucky boys.

I'm further attracted in "Last Night in Twisted River" by advice given to writers:

"In the media, real life was more important than fiction; those elements of a novel that were, at least, based on personal experience were of more interest to the general public than those pieces of the novel writing process that were 'merely' made up. In any work of fiction, weren't those things that really happened to the writer-or perhaps, to someone the writer had intimately known-more authentic, more verifiably true, than anything anyone could imagine? (This was a common belief, even though a fiction writer's job was imagining, truly, a whole story-as Danny had subversively said, whenever he was given the opportunity to defend the fiction in fiction writing-because real life stories were never whole, never complete in the ways novels could be.)"
John Irving, Last Night in Twisted River, pp. 372-373

Friday, December 04, 2009

Cardinal Cushing



Richard Cardinal Cushing (1895-1970) was archbishop of Boston during my Boston Irish Catholic youth. I remember him as the ancient gravelly voiced prelate rumbling the rosary of the radio. He seemed to have a gift for public relations and established a power base in my politically minded hometown. He wasn't afraid of controversy and he was known as good copy. I remember during the busing riots in Boston in the mid 70s, after his death, my parents saying "Cushing would walk right into Southie and tell them all to knock it off." He was known as a friend of the Kennedys (surprisingly, not always a good thing in Boston) and his support of Jacqueline Kennedy at her marriage to Onassis was cited as contributing to his resignation in 1968--his resignation was not accepted by the Vatican, which continued to criticize the President's widow. Cushing was said to me discouraged and angered at the volume of hate mail he received in support of her.

I thought of Cardinal Cushing again while reading "Practising Catholic" by James Carroll. A lot it is a re evaluation of Cushing, who if remembered at all is as a sodden old man. Cushing stood up to the conservative movements tying to overtake Vatican II. He complained loudly when the sessions were conducted in Latin. He wouldn't tolerate the anti Semitic rants of Father Feeney and he practically invented the dialogue between Catholicism and other faiths. Cushing's sister was married to a Jew-very dicey in Boston 80 years ago-and the Cardinal's love for his sister and her husband enabled him to face down criticism and hierarchical nonsense and embrace people as he found them. No Nulla salus ex Ecclesia for this Ironmonger's son. If Cushing himself wasn't a comfortable man he made Catholicism a structure to embrace all of humanity. Yes, he took the Nuns to the Dodge 'em cars at Nantasket Beach-he dodged the Curia too, and seemed to remember the working people who made up the church in his day. I'm sure he would have hit abusive clergy right up side the head, and they woulda been history, goddammit!

Cardinal Cushing awaits a serious biographer.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

What do you read in the gym?

Readers of this blog will know of my misadventure last year in moving a large, heavy, bulky elliptical machine from the top of my house to the bottom. Suffice it to say that unlike Humpty Dumpty, who I otherwise resemble, the machine was put back together again and had a few more good months before a final collapse. It is now in pieces, in the basement, with cobwebs and worse, like the old wreck that rode it for years--me. The old wreck has joined the local gym, the better to abuse the Ellipticals (ellipticii?) Stairmasters, Precors or whatever over there. The sight of me growling and huffing away resembles a polar bear in acute bowel distress no doubt, but I at least try to read while running, the better to improve my mid while my girth grows, Elliptcii or not.

What do you read in the gym? I've found that trash and smut work best, but I'm, usually too embarrassed to take my own advice. Recently, "The Lost Diary of Mary Queen of Scots" by Erickson had me mired in chick lit lite, historical fantasy with Mary Stuart consorting with Elizabeth I in a mud bath, alas not what you think. This was too fuzzy (muddy?) even for me, but I did finish the book. Better was Anthony Summers's bio of Frank Sinatra. Our Tony (!) has mafia on the brain, and the best bedfellows weren't Mia or Ava Gardner but Sam Giancana with the Kennedys. Who needs Marilyn?

Michael Holyrood's very, very long book about Henry Irving and Ellen Terry and Gordon Craig and all their friends and relations over 100 years of the British and European theatre (re please, theatre) was, like this sentence, long, long, long. I kept thinking as I pounded away, Are these people ever going to die?! They did. A bio of the Queen Mum was okay, if you like twee and lilacs. I kept hoping she'd beat up a chamber maid or do a hit and run on the Duchess of Windsor or at least spill a little of the pink gin, but no. William Shawcross's new 1000 page "authorized" bio of the late Royal Mother is on my list. The papers thanked the abdication crisis for adding a little spice to the sugar, even a spot of bother but that isn't until page 431! I may lose weight on that one. "The Tenors" had the attractive Placido-Luciano-Jose buddy boy photo on the dust jacket, but you'd better want to know about Heddle Nash and the rest of 'em too.

And then there's "Practising Catholic" by James Carroll. He focuses on the 60s,when he was studying for the priesthood with the socially aware Paulist Fathers, and its nice to see a hero made of the Prince of my youth, Richard Cardinal Cushing, who survives today in memory as an irascible old guy with more than a touch of the Irish virus. His diplomatic skills and bloody smarts are shown time and again. Reading light this is not, but a provocative, sometimes infuriating bloody good read it certainly is. Books like this will keep me going to the gym. Tell me I'm losing weight. Go ahead, lie to me!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

AIDA in HD

I'm one of those people always yelling that yes, you need to have committed actors for opera and sure it helps I guess if they're good looking but bottom line I want to hear the great voices who understand what they are singing about. And I underline great voices. Like many of us, I grew up on recordings and added the visual element later in life. My opera going days during the 700s and 80s were mostly from standing room way WAAAAY upstairs so my perspective was very different from seeing youtube at my desk (and what a blessing youtube is!)

The Met's HD presentations in movie theaters are changing things. I suspect that many of the productions, staged in the past four or five years were designed to be seen from a closer perspective. Showing the twenty year old Aida gave us close ups of hollow columns that from a distance look spectacular. And then there were the singers.

Look, you need big magnificent voices for Aida. The tenor and the mezzo had 'em. The mezzo owns this music, all over the world. I haven't heard anyone touch her for power. But the camera was not kind to her. The close ups of this princess of Egypt did no one any favors. After all these years her voice is undiminished. It's a force of nature. I don't approve of my attitude in even noticing anything else about her. The tenor is a big BIG boy. A really big boy. I loved the fact that he was unafraid to use the sweetness in his splendid voice for Radames. He really sang the music, and he sounded like a lover. I suspect the experience live in the theater was more powerful than in the cinemas. Again, I'm worried that I even noticed, but up on the big screen, blown up the size of a building people's physicality can't be missed or discounted. I did love our mezzo throwing a few skinny bitch looks to Renee Fleming during an awkward intermission interview. Renee looked great but she can't sing Amneris. Our mezzo...my God!-certainly did!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Opera Columbus: This is what I would do

RANT ALERT!

What follows is only my opinion. We all know what opinions are like.

After an okay staged concert performance of Pagliacci with a grievous error in sight lines that pissed off the public and embarrassed the company. After producing one opera when they should have done two-no Cav-no nothing*-after staging the opera in such a way that many upstairs couldn't bloody see it...well...

Look, Opera Columbus does not need to be doing Pagliacci. They don't have the chops to compete in the big boy Italian repertoire that depends upon vivid-and rare-singing actors. A mediocre Pagliacci plays mediocre, (a mediocre Boheme can still break hearts) not exciting and does no one any favors. And Jesus God almighty, did NO ONE know that the show couldn't be seen from a number of the upstairs seats? How was this allowed to continue? The whole thing playedlike an attempt to further a few careers on the backs of a company. Cut it out. Right place right time and luck help us all but Tullio Serafin is not conducting in the Ohio Theater. There's no reason for this company to fold finally-finalmente-because of ill advised artistic choices and stupid mistakes.

Revive the Columbus Light Opera. Do a spring or summer festival. Month of May or June....perform every three day weekend.. Fri Sat night, Sunday matinee. Stick to G&S Offenbach, Romberg et al; cast locally with the terrific people who packed em in in the Light Opera days.(And stop saying "Opera Columbus Center" when you answer the phone. Center of what? for Pete's sake. Phony.)Do this for two seasons and build back your audience. If the Southern is unavailable use the Lincoln (Go ahead! I dare ya! It's beautiful) Use the Riffe Center and collaborate with Ohio State at the Thurber. THEN start adding a Boheme, A Barber of Seville, A Figaro, a Traviata with more adventurous-if you will-casting. Study the writings and films of Walter Felsenstein. Invite Nic Muni up to supervise. I'd work for him for nothing, just for what I could learn. So should you. Get serious. Give the audience a lot of what is proven and THEN surprise them with lovely, fully integrated operatic productions on a reasonable scale. And yes I think new work is crucial but I'm talking about restoring fiscal sense first.

Anyway, that's what I would do. Nobody asked me.

*I don't want to hear about it. LA and Washington can get away with Pag alone when Domingo sings. Otherwise, its cheap.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dont' throw away your old LPS

Not a month goes by that I don't get a call from someone cleaning out Grandma's attic. They don't know what to do with the stacks of records-they were 78s, but I'm getting nearer to Grandma's age so now there are more 33s-the LPs and records treasured in the house for years, often well played and well worn and well loved but of no use to anybody in this digital age. I never tell people they are no use to me either. I do refer them to a few dealers who can maybe help, but despite Antiques Roadshow, unless you have a pristine 78 of Edwin Booth or Christ himself, I doubt you'll see a penny for any of them. Sarah Bernhardt is on youtube for goodness sake!

I have stacks and shelves of LPs I can't bear to give up. Many are well worn. Most of them represent times in my younger life I don't want to forget, good and bad. These records were my introduction to music I have loved so much all these years. I first heard Don Giovanni, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Monteverdi's Sixth Book of Madrigals, and The Last Train to Clarksville on these now warped and beaten down shellacs. Throwing them away feels like a betrayal. Its like hanging on to your first time when your first time was ecstasy-an other first times seldom are. Messy and inconvenient ("why would people do that?") but seldom ecstatic.

My first Don Giovanni, on five RCA LPs from the library was ecstasy. Just the sound of the overture, those crushing, dark chords changed my life and I was 8!
A few days ago at the OSU Music Library record sale I came across that LP set for $5 and I didn't buy it. I realised I could never play it, and I had the performance now on Cd. I wish I had bought it! Just to have for $5! My bad.

Recently a friend took a stack of my LPS-titles that have never made it on to CD,irreplaceable-and put them on CD for me. It wasn't easy and it wasn't cheap but he did it. Now I can listen again to:

Purcell: Did and Aeneas, Boston Camerata, to hear the divine D'Anna Fortunato in this music again!

Cesare Valletti in recital, the wonderful Italian tenore di grazia in Pizzetti, Schumann, Schubert, Handel-a rare performance of lieder but an Italian artist.

Massenet: Werther with Valletti and the beautiful Rosalind Elias from Lowell, Mass.

The Boston Camerata in Josquin's Missa pange lingua and in Flemish music from Renaissance Italy

The Last Train to Clarksville has long been on CD. The Monkees don't need any help. Adrian Willaert and Purcell and Massenet, apparently do.

I'm so glad to have these performances back. No, they aren't as great to me now as they were nearly forty years ago. But they are very beautiful and its like recovering a lost piece of myself to hear them again.

Renata Tebaldi's Last Tosca


It was hardly the end of her career; she sang opera until 1973 and retired from concerts three years later. On January 10, 1970 Renata Tebaldi sang her last Tosca. She had given over eighty performances of the role in twenty years and I doubt she expected this last leap into the Tiber was to be her last. It just happened that way. Tebaldi continued to sing in Otello, La fanciulla del West, La boheme, Andrea Chenier and Falstaff. I bring this up because in digging through the avalanche of Met broadcasts I came across this Tosca performance, and was able to really listen to it for the first time.

I must have heard it live on my transistor radio (If you're reading this blog and you're under forty, God bless you, you don't know from transistor radios. Think I-pod with a battery). Tebaldi was forty-seven and her voice was in decline. She was still a gorgeous woman-I saw her in 1973-and there's a lot of the old velvet left to the middle of her voice. Unlike Callas, her press fueled nemesis, Tebaldi's voice didn't separate. There were no glaring holes, but it became more difficult to sing in tune. The sound remained huge, and often very beautiful. You can hear the effort it was taking her to make this sound-she really worked to get the voice to flow. But the unmistakable timbre remained. Hers remained a very great personality-a vocal personality clearly identifiable. And what commitment! She had to know the top notes weren't going to be pretty, but she shirked nothing, and every sound she made served the drama. I was drained after listening to this Tosca. Thank God for transistor radios. I wish I could have been there (I was thirteen). Her colleagues were the Hungarian tenor Sandor Konya, having a nasal day. I think he was pushing his beautiful, lyrical voice into the Italian parts without the Italian cojones-and the great American baritone Cornell MacNeil. He was another one who always used text to propel the stage action. His voice lacked the sensuousness and beauty of Robert Merrill's. Merrill on record sounds too good to be a convincing Scarpia. MacNeil is terrifying. I saw him in the role later in his career and from all the way up in standing room you FELT him.

I have cases of Met broadcasts, going back to 1934. They are my baseball cards. I especially like to revisit the performances, like this Tosca-from my earliest listening days, which began in 1968. Back then, whether you liked the voices or not they meant what they were singing.Most of the great names of the 1950s, like Tebaldi, were fading when I got to hear them-but they bring joy and pain both forty years later.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Met's Tosca...so what did you think?



Whole lotta brouhaha and gnashing of teeth over the Metropolitan Opera's new staging of Puccini's "Tosca", which made its way internationally last Saturday via the Met's first HD transmission of the season. "Forty one countries, one thousand theaters" trumpeted the Met's Peter Gelb, a media maven who has been capo di tutti capi at Broadway and 63rd St. for the past three? four? seasons. Gelb promises a new way to look at and experience opera and boy-o he wasn't kidding. The HD presentations are terrific. I've seen most of them. I may not have liked everything I saw and heard but its fun to be onstage with the caked make- up and heaving bosoms. The HD experience, like opera titles a generation ago, is here to stay. More people are hearing more opera.

You could argue whether or not more people are hearing better opera. I suspect Gelb knew what he was doing is producing a de- constructionist Tosca that did without the candelabras and crucifixes attributed to Sarah Bernhardt and Victorien Sardou (in that order). And if you are going to replace Franco Zeffirelli's gargantuan, realistic Roman sets (I loved them. I loved that staging) in the midst of a horrible recession you are going to use a lot of bare brick walls and turrets and some faux-contemporary furniture in primary colors.

Conductor Joseph Colaneri led a big boy interpretation-loud, and swept up and with an occasional Brucknerian fatness that I loved. Colaneri is one of those very gifted maestri you can count on both to do it up right and to add a few touches-the Act I love duets were slower than I'm used to, but also sounded sexier. It was hot. Colaneri can do slow in this opera without dropping the dramatic thread. That's an accomplishment.

The Met cast three charismatic singers, requirement one for Tosca. Look, go ahead and laugh but I've always maintained that the soprano singing Tosca can be an adequate singer is she is a sensational actress. Karita Mattila, lacking the Mediterranean warmth and fatness mid voice (no body fat on her by he way...she's stunning) nevertheless spared herself nothing vocally. It's a bright, forward sound with just the bit of cut you need to ride the thick -blaring!-orchestra. She came off stage after Act 2 to be interviewed by the luscious Susan Graham and I was impressed at seeing how much the performance had taken out of her, while she was clearly eager and pumped to continue. And what's with no applause at Tosca's entrance? Are you kidding me? Forget the purists. Do we no longer buzz in anticipation of Tosca's entrance?

I've always loved Marcelo Alvarez's singing. The phrasing of recondita armonia was choppy. I was waiting for the silken line of a Bjoerling or Pavarotti but Marcelito wanted to pump out the sound and he certainly did. Cavaradossi, unlike Tosca can be as charismatic as hell but he better be able to sing, sing, sing and Alvarez delivered. And I liked Georgi Gagnidze, the Scarpia in spite of a few Snidley Whiplash grimaces up on the big screen. The costumes were attractive but suggested nothing as to period, and Alvarez has quite a fanny on him that even the dark clothes couldn't hide. The Met has no girdles?

Yes, people have been whining about the Act 2 blow job with Scarpia in flagrante-his vicious isolation is a part of the story, this man wouldn't resort to tarts-and about Tosca taking to the couch to fan herself slowly after murdering Scarpia-with a knife- thrust to the cojones, yet. The great tension and anguish of the scene fell off a cliff. And the final jump took too long-Puccini's music indicates the horror of the opera's last ninety seconds-the staging had us waiting around for a 2 second look at an affect. Still, Luc Bondy clearly didn't rely on sets or costumes to tell the story, and he kept our attention on the principals. That's quite an accomplishment. Even the current Met dares not put lasers into 19th century Rome--there were strobe lights.

It's a new day. Gelb is hiring Luc Bondy to crate buzz and if its negative buzz that's fine, maybe better. The boos on Tosca's opening night (stupid) made the evening news. Even Brian Williams talked about it !

Friday, September 25, 2009

An Interview with A.S. Byatt


Yesterday I had the good fortune of sitting in on a telephone interview between book critic and literary wonder woman Kassie Rose (don't miss her blog: www.thelongestchapter.com) and writer A.S. Byatt. Ms. Byatt, or Dame Antonia as she is addressed, will be speaking at Capital University on October 13th.

We were lucky to get her. The author of "Possession", "The Biographer's Tale", and "The Virgin in the Garden" among other titles, Byatt has been shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize for her new novel, "The Children's Book." Kassie made sure I understood that the Man Booker Award is the world's most prestigious literary prize....not quite second to the Nobel. Dame Antonio won back in 1990. She told Kassie that she was pleased to note that if won this year she would be the first woman to receive the prize more than once. J.M. Coetze has won twice already and is shortlisted again this year. Jeez. Even Candace Bergen withdrew her name after her fifth consecutive Emmy for Murphy Brown!

You can hear the interview at Scott Gowan's wonderful web site: www.wosu.org/blogs/arts

Here's a quote from yesterday:

"I have a terrible fear that I write dark novels whether I want to or not. I fear the world is a dark place. That's one side of the equation. The other side is that when I am writing a novel I so intensely enjoy writing that the world is a very bright place, with lots of beautiful pots and lovely trees and people running in the woods...I think I'm extremely double and I think the novel is double..."

Again...you can hear the interview at www.wosu.org/blogs/arts

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rossini on Mozart

I love this:

"Mozart roused my admiration when I was young; he caused me to despair when I reached
my maturity; he is now the comfort of my old age."

--Gioachino Rossini

The Hyatt Hotels and The Cry of the Sloth

I'm blissing out right now listening to a new recording of Mozart's "Idomeneo" while preparing it for broadcast and am having a lovely time. Late last night I finished reading Sam Savage's recent novel, "The Cry of the Sloth". Quite a contrast to "Idomeneo"! "Sloth" is the tale of writer-landlord-narcissist-nutcase Andrew Whittaker, who lives to write vituperative letters-, and operates at full glee in victim mode. It's like watching a train wreck: horrible, but you can't not watch. "The Cry of the Sloth" is perhaps the grown up cousin of the wonderful "A Confederacy of Dunces", the latter one of my all time favorites.

I bring this up because while I don't mind being a curmudgeon, and while I too like to rail at injustice, I hope I'm not sinking into Andrew Whittaker's craziness. "Idomeneo" brings me up for air. If I can wallow in this beauty-and I do, then I feel safe in continuing to rant.

So...
What's up with Hyatt hotels in Boston? Three of 'em have fired 98 housekeepers, mostly minority women and single mothers who after years of service had gotten themselves up to $15/hr to clean the toilets, etc. These ladies, as reported in the Boston Globe and NPR, were asked to train some vacation replacements, even more hapless workers being paid $8/hr to do twice the work, then our core 98 was fired. Not laid off, fired. Yesterday's NPR report (and don't roll your eyes) had the fired ladies reporting they were sent into the locker rooms and given a few minutes to change out of their uniforms and collect their things, all under the eye of HR staff, and then ushered out. Period, goodbye, get out of here.

Two sides to every story? I don't care. Hyatt management either thought this would escape any kind of public notice, which makes them stupid, or knew there'd be a brouhaha and didn't care, which is worse ("No such thing as bad publicity")
The Governor of Massachusetts has called for a boycott of Hyatt Hotels (I hasten to add-AFAIK this action is limited to three hotels in Massachusetts) and the chain has back pedaled a bit by sending out press releases offering "retraining" -to clean the toilets?-and three months of medical coverage, which is nice but doesn't help these workers when the extension runs out around Christmas time!

Shame on Hyatt. Shame on anyone who is unwilling to take a little less so that everyone can have a job.

You can follow the Hyatt ruckus at www.boston.com.
And don't forget "The Cry of the Sloth" by Sam Savage.
And really don't forget Mozart. Mozart makes Hyatt and lousy management bearable.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ted Kennedy Goin'Home

Yes, of course I watched the news feeds of the motorcade going from Hyannis Port to the JFK Library in Boston. For miles and miles up Rte. 93 there was nothing to see. But I timed it right, and when I tuned in the cars were gliding through Haymarket past Faneuil Hall, through the North End where Rose was born, across the Rose Fitzgerald Memorial Greenway which was a dump in my pre -big- dig era. And thus to the Kennedy Library with the wall of glass overlooking the harbor and JFK's boat, the Victura.

If you go into my grandparents' house, in Arlington, Massachusetts today, and my 85 year old uncle still lives there, you'll find the Infant of Prague statue, probably very dusty but complete with dress, a framed blessing from Pope John XXIII (go look him up if you're so disgustingly young) and a larger framed photo of JFK, faded and worn out but with dried palm branches above the frame, no doubt from Palm Sunday circa 1966. That's what you'll find in my grandparents' house in Arlington, Massachusetts if you were to visit today, in 2009.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy and "The Rascal King"



I suppose I should be sadder than I am over the passing of Ted Kennedy. He wasn't the martyred saint of my childhood the way his bothers were. He was, happily, able to live out a full span of year and die an old man in his bed, not in the back seat of a car in Dallas or on the floor of a hotel kitchen in L.A. It may be because his death was not appalling or horrific. Ted didn't seem to touch me the way his brothers did (though Bobby seemed rather a shit). With all the health care chazerei in the press these days it will be both sobering and useful to become better informed about his decade long fight for health care. The remarks today insist Ted Kennedy was comfortable with everyone and worked hard to improve the lives of minimum wage workers. That is ringing true. But by the time I was old enough to take it in, Chappaquiddick had happened and his reputation never really recovered. Not among the Boston Irish politicos I called family forty years ago. Smarter, savvier people you'll never meet, with a low tolerance for bullshit (they called it 'blarney' in those more genteel days!) unless they were slinging it themselves (and oh, boy...). It does seems Ted earned his rest after a long career helping others. There were bumps along the way, but who among us hasn't sinned?

I don't know why I've been thinking so much of a contemporary of Ted's parents, the raffish James Michael Curley (1874-1958) the oft elected Mayor of Boston and Governor of Massachusetts, one of whose favorite mantras was "Vote early and often!" Not for our James clean electioneering. Your grandmother and all her lady friends would be casting their ballots for "James Michael" in every election in spite of the fact that Grammie and the ladies had long since called Gate of Heaven Cemetery home. You didn't have to alive to vote for James Michael Curley! There were shamrocks cut into the expensive shutters of his white brick palazzo in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Run against him? Rose Kennedy's father tried it. At the same time the hapless Mayor Fitzgerald was rumored to be enjoying the charms of one Toodles Callahan, a hat check girl in a downtown boite. James Michael, a fabulous public speaker with no shame announced he was giving a series of lectures in history at the Boston Public Library, the first to be called "Great Love Affairs From Cleopatra to Toodles." You could love a guy like that.

Ted Kennedy learned shame and humility with horribly difficult lessons that left one woman dead. He was successful is restoring dignity to his life. Today, with his passing, the newspapers don't ignore Chappaquiddick and the aged frat boy bouts, but they give plenty of space, top of the fold, to decades of selflessness and public service as well. As it should be.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Excerpt from Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl


The experiences of camp life shows that man does have a choice of action. There are enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions...We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.


...And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

Seen from this point of view, the mental reactions of the inmates of a concentration camp must seem more to us than the mere expression of certain physical and sociological conditions. Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it became clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him, mentally and spiritually. Dostoevsky said once, "there is only one thing that I dread, not to be worth of my sufferings." These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings. The way they bore their sufferings was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom, which cannot be taken away, that makes life meaningful and purposeful.
--Viktor E Frankl (1905-1997) "Man's Search for Meaning" (1959)
pp. 65-67 Beacon Press edition

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dublin Grand Opera Society

This just in from the September 09 issue of OPERA NEWS, in a "Letter from Dublin" by Brian Kellow:

There's still a conservative faction to contend with, however. In 2007, Opera Ireland presented Gavin Quinn's sexually charged production of "Cosi fan tutte". "There were two chorus members on the floor at one stage", recalls COO Claire Kendlin, "and I took a complaint call in the office. This person said, 'They were fornicating onstage'! I went down and said, 'Listen you two, I took a complaint about last night'. The girl said to me, 'Last night? No. Last night, we were fine. If you'd said Monday night, I would have said, yeah-we actually were having sex onstage. Are you sure it was Monday night?'"

From "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" by Gertrude Stein



Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. As I am an ardent californian and she has spent her youth there I have often begged her to be born in California but she has always remained firmly born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. She left it when she was six months old and has never seen it again and now it no longer exists being all of it Pittsburgh. She used however to delight being born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania when during the war, in connection with war work, we used to have papers made out and they always immediately wanted to know one's birth place. She used to say if she had been really born in California as I wanted her to have been she would never have had the pleasure of seeing various french officials try to write, Allegheny Pennsylvania.

Monday, August 17, 2009

reading the autobiography of alice b toklas



well this is a fun summer read but I have read this before but still enjoyed it it seems gertrude stein for years nagged alice b toklas into writing her memoirs she said you could call it wives i have sat with or my twenty five years with a genius or something and alice b toklas said i don't have time to be writing on top of everything else i have to do so gertrude stein wrote this book and it made her famous in america not three lives the making of americans and not certainly tender buttons but this witty book written in alices voice a memoir going back to 1903 and has chapter headings like gertrude stein in paris i come to paris the war and like that alice recalls the vernissage in paris around 1907 when the portrait by matisse of his wife made such a scandal people attacked the painting and tried to scrape off the paint but gertrude stein bought the portrait and hung it on the all of her atelier at 27 rue de fleurus and nobody could say why the portrait antagonized people so until it was revealed that the woman whose face looked like a horse was matisses wife it was thought insulting but alice goes on to say lovely things about madame matisse and tells a story of the five year old son of the janitor at 27 rue de fleurus who when all the paintings were ignored that is all the paintings on the walls of gertrude stein's atelier the paintings werent worth anything nobody wanted them that is to say nobody thought they wanted them the walls were filled with nudes and braques and cezannes and matisses and picassos this little boy jumped into getrude steins arms and looked over at a large nude and cried oh la la une femme and gertrude stein knew then the paintings would be worth something some day later gertrude stein told alice b toklas to take french lessons from fernande olivier who was picassos mistress because they were splitting up she and picasso and fernande needed the money and alice was agreeable fifty cents hour the problem was that for all the conversation and fernande was lovely and had a beautiful speaking voice and spoke elegant french but for all that fernande only had three topic hats perfumes and ive forgotten the third topic thats why gertrude stein said later oh wives bother me they bore me they bore me to tears helene was a wife she was also the femme de menage or housekeeper for gertrude stein and her brother at 27 rue de fleurus in fact helene being a wife became a problem since her husband made her quit the household he did not approve of helene working for americans but helene was a thrifty and efficient housekeeper i can feed the entire household on five francs a a day it is my pride she would say and so she did sometimes if company was expected she had to go up to seven or eight francs that was her pride also after all but she resented guests who would invite themselves to dinner she resented matisse who once asked in advance what was to be served then later gertrude stein told helene monsieur matisse will stay to dinner and helene said in that case i will fry the eggs rather than making an omelet it requires the same amount of eggs and butter but it lacks respect he is a french man and so he will understand and if youre looking for a fun read to the end of a hot dull summer do yourself a favor and read the autobiography of alice b toklas by gertrude stein the end is funny as i said earlier gertrude stein had been after alice toklas to write a memoir for years and alice b toklas said im not a writer and i dont have time so gertrude stein said well you know what i am going to do i am going to write it myself the autobiography of alice b toklas and she did and she has and you should read it

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Wonderful Way to Go

Yesterday a colleague and I had a lunch date scheduled with Nancy, who used to be a colleague but has now gone on to a new job. We waited and we called and finally reached Nancy who was in crisis mode. She works in a nursing home and a resident had just died. Back at the office this e mail from her was waiting. I thought it was lovely, and in a way life affirming, and wanted to share.

Nancy writes as follows:

So sorry to stand you up but things got quite out of hand here. During the 11:30 aerobics class, Pennsylvania 6-5000 was just getting the ladies going when Anna seemed to stumble and fall. No nurses around, so who gets called? Yours truly. No pulse, no breathing, a peaceful expression. Death is pretty easy to identify. I ask that she not be moved, and go to find the nurse practitioner. She's out to lunch, and the doc is never there on Wed. Somebody official has to certify the death, so my only alternative is to call the squad, so I call. The other ladies in the class pull up chairs and wait prayerfully. They know how to do this kind of thing with real grace. Rosaries appear, and they all somehow agree to recite the Lord's Prayer for Anna.

EMT's arrive-but so does Anna's daughter, THE MESS as she known by the other ladies. And messiness ensues. She tries to do CPR, although Anna has a do not resuscitate order (and is wearing the bracelet), The wonderful EMT man and woman try to deflect her, but nothing doing. Full hysterics, and the EMTs have to treat her with oxygen and hook her up to a monitor because she says she's experiencing chest pain. The ladies ignore her, and one of them says I might call Anna's pastor, who comes to see her weekly. I get his cell phone number from her records and call--he is minutes away and I think might be good for the daughter, and the other ladies as well. The aerobics instructor has disappeared--I hope she doesn't quit.

I stay with the ladies, who seem to be taking it all in stride. Anna is on the gurney now, and covered with a white sheet. One of the ladies keeps a hand on her arm "so she knows we're helping her get to heaven-in spite of the distractions." Eyebrows raise and all gaze at the whimpering daughter who is clutching the wrist of the handsome young EMT.

The pastor arrives WITH A COOLER. He opens it and pulls out a full plastic pitcher, and 3 Tupperware containers: orange slices, maraschino cherries and ice. Plastic wine glasses and napkins appear. He says, "Anna loved to have a whiskey sour when we visited." The ladies smile at him and hold out their glasses. We all have a belt (except the EMTs and the daughter, who is now wailing and hiccoughing) and then he says like he does this every day (and maybe he does!) "let us pray for our deceased sister Anna as she enters the mansion of our heavenly father." I love that man. I haven't had a whiskey sour that good since Christmas 1962, when my Uncle Pete made one for me on the sly.

So, how was your day at work?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Eunice Kennedy Shriver


The Kennedys still push the old Boston-Irish-sentimental button with me. I'll probably have a good cry when Ted dies. What can I say? I remember JFK, I was six when he was assassinated but I still remember all the hoopla surrounding his Presidency. I remember being in the car with my parents, box cameras the the ready, sitting in stopped traffic 100 feet form the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. The state police allowed you to get but so close, and no closer. Snap, snap, snap. The flag was flying on the lawn because the President was there visiting his parents. We actually got close enough to see the front porch. That would never happen today.

Eunice for me was a mouthy, toothy lady with a raspy voice who looked her age. Until I became involved the world of special kids. Then I looked again. I saw someone who banished the word 'retard'. More importantly, she banished the entire idea of wasted, useless under utilized lives. If you have two legs and two feet, use them. If you have one leg, use it. Find a way. Get up and do. And Eunice Kennedy Shriver seemed to say, as she lived her life, If you can't really get up and do on your own, don't worry about it. We'll get someone to help you until you can manage on your own. And you will manage on your own. Period.

RIP. The lady has earned her place in heaven.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more!"

I spent a hot Saturday night, after the disaster of kayaking (q.v.) watching "Network." I hadn't seen it since its original release in 1976. You remember "Network". Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duval and above all Peter Finch as Howard Beale, the mad newscaster. He harangues us all, via TV- the great leveler, the 1970s Valium , to get up, GET UP! go to the window, open the window and yell, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!" And people do. In Keokuk, Kalamazoo, Kenosha and Kentucky, you name it, windows go flying open and neighbors, probably many of whom had never met the guy next door, scream "I'm as mad as hell!" out into the night..

I loved every line of this film. I don't remember if it was a shocker back in 1976. It did win a spate of Academy Awards. Good. Thirty- three years later isn't this relevant? Peter Finch/Howard Beale/Paddy Chayefsky were predicting the Howard Sterns and Rush Limbaughs who would make huge livings tapping into the public rage. And you can go ahead and rage against Stern and Limbaugh et al all you like. You can also turn them off and ignore them. Too many people don't do that. Don't blame the messenger and don't even blame the broadcast hucksters who fan the flames. Blame us. Blame me and blame you. We listen to them. Not enough of us direct our mad as hell moments to elected officials and big business-those who control the destinies of the rest of us. You don't like it? Don't buy it and don't vote for it and tell your friends why. It's your right.

Back to the picture. It's the work of director Sidney Lumet and the great Paddy Chayefsky (1923-1981). I need to read more of Chayefsky's work and learn more about him. I know his plays were called "kitchen sink realism". This comes from television in the 1950s. Loretta Young might have been glamorous and Pat Boone was selling big cars, but Chayefsky was writing about lonely people living ordinary lives. That's his gift: the ability to resonate completely with his audience. In "Network" we watch in horrified fascination at Faye Dunaway's man- eating robotics, and in horror at Peter Finch's meltdown. I suspect most of us would like to be Peter Finch long enough to tell the world via TV to fuck off; or be William Holden so we can be a decent man who stumbles long enough to have sex with Faye Dunaway and regrets it.

Chayefsky wrote "The Hospital" "A Catered Affair" (superb!) and above all "Marty" which swept the Oscars twenty years before "Network". Rob Steiger starred in the 1953 TV production. Ernest Borgnine won an Oscar for the movie three years later.
"Network" was an accurate mirror in 1976. It seems more accurate now. It did pave the way for the shit of yak radio. The missing ingredient is art.

Monday, August 03, 2009

A nice compliment?

A few weeks ago I heard from a colleague about a friend who had called in during a recent talk show I hosted. The friend had never called such a show before and was nervous. We get a lot of calls so its hard to remember a specific guest. This woman was so pleased with her call and the show that she reported "Christopher took my radio cherry!"

You can't make this stuff up.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Moon






It's forty years since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Do people get thrilled any more? By anything? Yes, sports victories are great. I kvell to great music making. It may not be the same music you like but I get the thrill. 9/11 united us all in horror.

But when was the last time when the entire world, or at least all of the US was united, or at least felt untied in a shared 'high'. I can't think of much past July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. It's good to see him,at 80, making the news and talk show rounds. I don't think he had done that before. Neil Armstrong seemed to have been reclusive, and good for him. Maybe he 's a humble man who felt he had a job to do, and did it. But hot dog her was not...in fact none of the Apollo11 astronauts followed up with spousal abuse or drunk driving charges, the kind of shit we worship hearing about on the news today. No disrespect, but non stop coverage of the death of Michael Jackson insults heroes like these astronauts. Just my opinion. If you want to honor Michael Jackson, buy and enjoy his music.

I was 13 years old on July 20, 1969. I was Camp Miramar in Duxbury, MA. We all stayed up late wot watch the moon landing on the one 18" black and white TV. Younger campers fell asleep. I didn't. I'm so glad to have this memory. I wish everyone could, and share in an hones to God thrill. I wish younger people -40 and under!- could summon this memory and remember how amazed we all were that man had landed on the moon.

A Pie in the Face






It's funny when the Three Stooges throw pies, and it was a laugh riot growing up watching Bozo the Clown take a pie in the face, but on the evening news? Could it happen today? It did in 1977. Most people today don't remember Anita Bryant, but I remember the buttons people wore: Anita Bryant Sucks Oranges (and worse). She was the beauty queen turned singer who made it her mission to repeal gay rights. I hadn't thought much about her. Why would I? She was a thirty five year has been at least. But recently I watched Milk, starring Sean Penn. Harvey Milk was assassinated along with the Mayor of San Francisco in 1978. Milk had been the first openly gay politician. This was while Bryant was touring the country saying gay people, because they didn't reproduce were busy recruiting your children to join them. In other words, abbracaddabra and a kid with no such inclination ever becomes homosexual because of gay pixie dust. Thus spake Anita, and people took it seriously. More frighteningly, people still do. Google Anita and you'll find a lot of vitriol and a fair amount of recent admiration. I had forgotten how vicious she was, and how ignorant. It was frightening that such nonsense got such play.

Anita was "pied" at an airport in 1978. By this time her credibility, both as a well compensated spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Association and, as a singer and as an activist was waning. She became ridiculous. It's one thing to be opinionated and passionate, it's another thing to be stupid. Even your friends lose patience.

I never like to see anyone vilified for their views, much less assaulted. But go ahead, ask me to feel sorry for her. Just ask me.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

EDWARD DOWNES and EDWARD DOWNES

Edward Downes has been in the news this week. The British born conductor (1925) long associated both with the BBC and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, traveled with his wife to a clinic in Switzerland where the couple, under medical supervision, took their own lives. Sir Edward was 84, nearly blind and deaf and immobilized by old age. Lady Downes was in the final,painful stages of cancer. The couple had been married fifty years and decided to go out peacefully, together. I applaud them.

But I've had some e mails of sympathy! I never met Sir Edward Downes. I wrote my doctoral thesis on the critical writings of Edward Downes (1911-2001) the long time host of the Texaco Opera Quiz. MY Edward Downes was a critic and musicologist. I was able to find through his scrapbooks years of musical criticism he wrote for the Boston Evening Transcript in the late 1930s. I've also been able to write about his life based on recorded interviews I had with him in New York in the mid 1990s. There are TWO Edward Downes in music. Both honored and influenced many by lives of devotion to music. God bless them both.

Edward Downes's writings and my comnents of him can be found if you search the early years of this blog. My paper on his life, with all the interviews and excerpts from his critical writings can be accessed as follows:

go to www.ohiolink.edu/etd

Type my name in the search function: Christopher Purdy
Edward Downes: A Life in Music and the Media will come up.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

I'm right brained!


The Columbus Dispatch recently published a fine column by Dennison W. Griffith, President of Columbus College of Art and Design. He discusses the importance of encouraging right brain people and references a book called "A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future." Now I admit,especially as I spend this week at home with house and yard chores to despairing at my incompetence at same. How many Christophers does it take to screw in a light bulb? None. Christopher can't screw in a light bulb. Christopher will break the borrowed lawn mower by putting oil in the gas tank; he washes blues and greens with whites and everything on hot water with lots of soap (do you want it clean or not?) He'll put liquid dish soap in the dish washer and enjoy the endless bubbles and froth and don't even get him near trying to fix a computer. Who knew laptops needed a power source? Doctorate or not, he can't find the ON button.

But by Christ, Christopher can sell the arts. He can't play or sing or dance but he can sell. He can talk about Bruckner and Monteverdi and Beethoven and Verdi and Bellini and he can get people to listen and laugh and enjoy and here's the greatest gift of all that Christopher gets to enjoy and not everybody does: He gets to see the lights go on. He gets it when people get it. When a tune or two notes or an idea flashes across a cranial tabula rasa and invades, takes root and grows into a great tree of passion and joy and love. Christopher gets to do that. Christopher-that's me is right brained. He can't do math or linear logic and would rather skip tasks that make sense, that are logical and necessary and important to know. He-that's me-doesn't follow recipes, and in the ten minutes of typing this has had to check twice that right brained is what he meant: intuitive, emotive, empathetic reasoning (otherwise called creativity) as opposed to left brained, favoring science, technology and math. Forget it. I burn the toast. But I can play you a little Schubert and get out of the way!

Find this article at www.dispatch.com. Arts education would provide right balance
by Dennison W. Griffith, July 5 09. I'm quoting him in this piece. And the book Mr. Griffith references is (again), "A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future" by Daniel Pink.

I'd like to stay longer, but have to go turn up the Gesualdo madrigals in the other room while I get ready to milk the chickens. No kidding.

P.S. The spell check took much longer than the writing. And still there will be typos....

Thursday, July 02, 2009

O CARTUSIA

Kassie Rose, WOSU's sublime book critic has a terrific blog called www.thelongestchapter.com, and on it she provides a list of 54 of the "Great Books". She did this for her own birthday, as a present to herself, offering the titles that have changed her life. I recently hosted an Open Line broadcast where Kassie was a guest,and she reiterated that "An Infinity of Little Hours" by Nancy Klein Maguire is a must read.

I read it. I'm so glad I did. My long standing attraction to monasticsm and the cloistered life turns out to be a lovely fantasy. After reading this I realize now I could never live the life. Maguire uses records, archival material and interviews to reconstruct the path of five novices in the Carthusian charterhouse at Parkminster, England. Soldiers for God are one thing-these are full scale warriors. The life of silence is lonely and demanding, and one either finds the fortitude to continue or one does not. It seems one is always cold, tired, hungry and dirty. Four of these men left. All went on to successful lives, as did the monk who stayed. The monks live alone in cells-really multiple room dwellings, however modest. They leave the cell three times a day for offices in the church. On Sundays the community eats together-vegetarian, no dairy during Lent. There is no conversation. You could live years in the cloister and barely recognize the men around you, much less know them. Quanitaevly figure 20 hours of alone time per day. Its a life or prayer and mediation, and it is the life of a warrior, of an athlete, of a strongman (and woman-there are Carthusian nuns). Several of the monks break down. And I'm glad I'm not the only one worried about passing gas in church. The very, very few people in this world suited to such a life are either very blessed or have a screw lose. I'm thinking blessed. If you type in Carthusian on youtube you'll get some compelling video, but I doubt Maguire's book would have been possible fifty years ago. There was simply no access. Even now the Carthusians have web sites (!) but among the "FAQs" about visitors the reply is always, Not Possible.

All of us can live a life of prayer and many of us should strive to pray more, and mean it. The Carthusians, who were brutally persecuted as Henry VIII was wooing Anne Boleyn, have a legacy of courage and strength on which to draw, and they find the way to persevere. I'm so glad I read "An Infinity of Little Hours" by Nancy Klein Maguire, and I hope you'll read it too. I didn't feel cheered or comfy or encouraged at the end. I felt unsettled and disoriented and a little sad. Which may be the point!

Again, Kassie Rose's blog is www.thelongestchapter.com

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson

Sad.
It seems to me as if he lived and died like an unloved eight year old.
For all that talent, he was still the kid nobody wanted.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

IRAN


While following the horror shows going on in today's Iran, I'm reminded of an interview I did a year or so ago with Kathryn Koob. Ms. Koob was one of the Americans held hostage in Iran in 1979-the infamous 444 days. She's a woman of great faith and guts and I enjoyed talking with her. I'm tempted to call her again and ask for her assessment of what's going on today, but it sounded to me as if she'd moved on with her life quite nicely. Meanwhile, if you are interested, my interview with Ms. Koob is on line at

www.wosu.org/interviews

Scroll on down.

Do you think I should call her again?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Anne Frank at 80


Anne Frank was born on June 12, 1929. I would have liked to have remembered her eighty years to the day. There's a lot to remember, and a lot to be grateful for in that short life. I consumed her diary when I was a kid. I hope my daughter did the same (she'll never tell me). There's a great website devoted to Anne Frank's legacy and I recommend a visit: www.annefrank.org.

It is always good to think of Anne and what her words mean when nutcases run lose to spew filth on the web and barrel into holocaust museums with guns. That a play about Anne Frank and Emmet Till was to be performed at the museum just a few hours after the shooting is a terrible irony. My daughter and her school visited the Holocaust Museum a few years ago. She read Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meeting" at school. This morning I was glad to read on the Anne Frank site that Miep Gies, who helped shelter Anne and her family, is in good health at age 100.

Time to read "The Diary of Anne Frank" again. Can it be read too often?

Monday, June 08, 2009

Great Book: THE HELP

THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett

I want to recommend this new novel by Kathryn Stockett.
I'm only half way through it, but its the best fiction I've read in a long time.
Though its presented as a novel, every page rings so true that it would read convincingly as a non fiction examination of race relations in the deep South in the 1960s. The worlds of white society and the African American help intersect on every page, and as the begin to cross things get dicey. Most of the whites were raised by African American women. Abiliene is raising Mae Mobely, whose Mother is indifferent to her. The point is made that these children get love and nurture from "the help", then grow up to be like their Mamas. James Meredith, Rosa Parks and Medgar Evers frame the context of this book. It's 1962. Mrs. Parks has already refused to move to
the back of the bus, and Mr. Evers has just been murdered.

I'm still reading so I'll say no more for now. Except that I want my daughter to read this book.

Friday, June 05, 2009

CATHOLICISM: BLAST FROM THE PAST

Monastic life has always intrigued me. I am old enough to remember, barely, the pre Vatican II days of the Catholic church. During a kiddie mass back in 1964 we all knelt with the Grey Nuns hovering nearby, while a priest droned on about all "the changes." I remember his tone and the look of some of the nuns. Within a few years the nuns were in mufti. A few years after that the nuns were gone and so was I.

(This same church, Sacred Heart, Lexington MA, attracted a lot of negative comment a few years back when during the remodeling they got rid of the pews and the kneelers...were they saying no kneeling to pray allowed?)

So I am both horrified and fascinated, and drawn to the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. They are a religious order of sisters and brothers, with a school, out in Massachusetts. The St. Benedict Center was the later home of one Father Leonard Feeney. He was known for his rants on Boston Common fifty and more years ago, preaching one theme: Extre Ecclesia Nulla Salus. Without the Church there in No Salvation. He meant the Roman Catholic Church. He was saying out loud what was the accepted dogma when I was very young. Eventually Feeney was driven to a remote part of Central Massachusetts and that's where his adherents are today. The sisters are in the full traditional habit. The Latin Tridetene Mass is the only one celebrated. There's a busy school, there are publications and there's no use for gays, protestants, Jews, abortion rights, stem cell research...there's room only for Roman Catholic dogma. No argument, no debate. The orders don't look crowded, but they are active.

Do they anger me? No. As I said, I'm fascinated, even if I just can't go there. I wonder how many stay? Commitment and strength there certainly is, but total acceptance of any dogma without the opportunity of argument or free thought do not rounded adults make. And it seems that any group proclaiming themselves THE ONLY and better than embraces divisiveness and separation. Well, God bless 'em I guess. I'll pray that they learn to embrace their views and listen to others. Still, it touched me to know the Latin mass is still said, and that there are religious willing to live the dogma fully. I guess.

JOSEPH P. KENNEDY PRESENTS


JOSEPH P. KENNEDY PRESENTS: His Hollywood Years by Cari Beauchamp

Here's a fresh look at the Kennedy patriarch via his years in the movie business, c. 1920-1930. Self- invented as "the world's youngest bank president" (His father was on the board of the bank) Kennedy was smart enough to realize early the profit potential of moving pictures. By the early 1920s he had snapped up distribution rights first throughout New England and later nationally. At one time he controlled FBO-later RKO, First National and Pathe, all major players in film production and distribution. Cari Beauchamp brings a film historian's knowledge of the time, a business professor's understanding of the intricacies of finance and manipulation, both of stock and more importantly, of people.

Kennedy's most notorious Hollywood collaboration embraced the bedroom and the film studio. Gloria Swanson was the undisputed Queen of Hollywood during Kennedy's years as a player. And play they did! With her finances in disarray, Swanson turned to Kennedy for a bailout and fiscal management. Their affair tore the place up! Fifty years later Gloria Swanson claimed that the Archbishop of Boston, William Cardinal O'Connell, told her to give Kennedy up, that she was "an occasion of sin".
A publicist would run with that today! Business wise the liaison was a disaster. "Queen Kelly" was supposed to be the epic crown to Gloria's career. But director Erich von Stroheim let his porno fed imagination run away with him. Expenses mounted and hours of film were unusable. The project was scrapped with Gloria left to foot the bills. Kennedy went back East.

There's a pattern there. Old Joe goes in for the kill , pockets the profits and leaves others to clean up and pay up. Somehow we can't feel sorry for Gloria. Glamour goes a long way and Swanson didn't appear impoverished when she died at 84. Fred Thompson is another story. A likable, truly nice guy, Thompson was parlayed into an early screen cowboy career. He literally signed himself over to Joe Kennedy and his career died. So did Fred, of a purported aneurysm on Christmas Day, 1927.

Cari Beauchamp's expertise takes us right back to the silent era. We are in on the meetings and in on the affairs and gloat over the take and see Kennedy emerge as a fascinating, brilliant player with no conscience. (The young JFK is quoted, "We lived great in the 1930s. I learned about the depression at Harvard")
You won't put this book down.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Unlikely Disciple

I tend to salivate with glee over any effort to debunk the religious right.
Along comes a book by twenty year old Kevin Roose called "The Unlikely Disciple".
While a sophomore at Brown, Roose took a semester's leave to study at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA.

Roose describes himself as a pacifist Quaker from Oberlin, Ohio.
Since I'm a pacifist Quaker outta Catholic schools in Boston 100 years ago, I thought myself and the young Kevin could gloat and salivate together, and get along fine.

Boy, was I wrong.

Make no mistake, this book chronicles support groups for chronic masturbators, and makes no bones (okay bad pun) about Liberty's rampant homophobia. There's also the little issue of "If you're not saved, you're going to hell, even if you are Mother Teresa". I could shake my head, but I realize that I was taught the same thing forty years ago. (Pray for our lovely Jewish neighbors. Offer it up.) We all need to grow up, me included.

Roose humbles me by his sense of fairness. No, I doubt he's planning to buy a house on the Liberty campus. An Unlikely Disciple is very well written, fair, compassionate and funny. He likes a lot of the people he meets at Liberty and you will, too.
It's a good book more about what joins us than what separates us. You go, Kevin!

Still, its hard to imagine Mother Teresa as "not saved". Sigh.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

RENEE FLEMING AT DENISON


Her bio calls her the "people's prima donna", and Renee Fleming brought her beauty, her fine voice and a sharp and endearing stage manner to Swasey Chapel at Denison University on April 14th. I took bets we'd see a red dress before the end of the evening. She began in elegant black, but after intermission I won my bet, or at least half of it. (Crimson).

The opening Handel arias were skimmed through. They reminded me why I want so much to join the many who worship this artist, but can't quite get there. The diction was mushy, the notes were touched, the line was choppy and the sometimes the cutes took over. But Fleming won my heart with her performances of three songs, written for her, by Henri Dutilleux. (M. Dutilleux is completing a fourth song for this set, Le temps l'horloge-all four will be recorded in Paris next month). This was music that didn't care about intrinsic beauty, and Fleming ran with the opportunities to be dramatic in one phrase and understated in the other. The poets were Jean Tardieu and Robert Desnos, the latter a resistance fighter who died just after the liberation of Auschwitz. His haunting "Le disparu" (here called Dernier poeme) was set by Poulenc. Dutilleux's is a bit more forward, and very compelling. I'll be buying Fleming's soon to be completed recording of these works.

John Kander's Letter From Sullivan Ballou completed the first half; here the diction was spot on, and the over used dreaminess, the opaque quality I find troublesome in Fleming's voice was nowhere to be heard. A friend commented, "She's thrilling when she just opens her mouth and for Christ's sake sings!"

Fleming told us that Richard Strauss was her desert island composer. She performed five of his lieder, including Fruendliche vision, Standchen and Zuiegnung, but she didn't live them. There was never a connect from the lovely woman singing prettily to the guts of each lied. Arias from Manon Lescaut and the redoubtable O mio babbino caro were the evening's first nod to balls to the wall opera. I give Fleming high marks indeed for ending the printed program with a rousing and sexy aria from Zandonai's Conchita. Still, the morbidezza and the trashiness needed to excel in such music just were not there(listen to Maria Caniglia)

The five encores included Summertime, a parody of My Funny Valentine in the style of Beethoven, and I Could Have Danced All Night (with audience participation). The evening ended with an exquisite performance of Strauss's Morgen. Here, we saw and heard the artist. Fleming told us that pianist Hartumt Holl "is an orchestra". Indeed he was. His was the passion sometimes lacking in the singer. No matter. The packed out house cheered and roared and I doubt anyone in the hall had less than a fine time. For all my grouchiness, she's a gorgeous and intriguing artist. But I wish she would just for Christ's sake open her mouth and sing.

Friday, April 03, 2009

QUAKER MEETING

I've been attending the North Columbus Friends Meeting (Quakers)
for the past two years. There's a peace and a camaraderie there I find both comforting and attractive. The task of sitting in silence waiting for the light for an hour each week is enormously difficult. Its a good exercise for me; not to speak but to listen and not to speak unless I feel truly led. I find it very difficult. Spiritual bench pressing of at least 250 lbs, not that I've ever done that1

At a pot luck meeting last night, Quaker worship was discussed. NCFM has what is called an Unprogrammed meeting. You sit in silence. People speak only when they feel compelled to do so. No clergy, no sermon, no prayers, no structure. Its the lack of structure I find exhausting! But it also forces you to make choices, to be a spiritual grown up. You have to take the responsibility to empty yourself out and to really listen, both to others and to what is going on with you. I wasn't raised to be quit and listen for God. I was raised to participate in ritual and embrace dogma, with no thought for questions. This is a new challenge for me. I haven't gotten the hang of it yet, but I'm enjoying the people, the peace and the opportunity.

Monday, March 23, 2009

LA SONNAMBULA or WHERE WERE YOU 40 YEARS AGO?

....I was twelve, and in the Hynes Civic Auditorium in Boston-the War Memorial in those days-hearing Joan Sutherland (not yet Dame Joan) and Marilyn Horne together in NORMA.* I never forgot it, down to Miss Horne's low cut costume.

Speaking of boobs (remember, I was twelve) I went backstage where I did not belong afterward to see Miss Sutherland. She was very nice and very large and I was chest high to her and she had on a low cut dress, too, with lots of powder down there and I thought I'm meeting Joan Sutherland and all I can do is look at her boobs because they were, well, so...... present.

But I digress.

The Met HD "La sonnambula" with Natalie Dessay, Juan Diego Florez and Michele Pertusi
was the greatest singing I've heard since that day back with Dame Joan's boobs in Boston. Go ahead, laugh. I may not get out much anymore. But I know exquisite tuning when I hear it, and the duets between Natalie and JDF were superb. The two ladies 40 years ago sang Norma like nobody's business. I still haven't forgotten it.
Same thrills last Saturday Dessay and Florez in the Sonnamubla duets. Magnificent, great, stunning. Made me forget the staging nonsense going on all around it. Ripped up papers indeed! And the whole "One singular Sensation" dance number back of "Ah, non giunge"! Please.

This made me wonder what Dame Joan Sutherland or Miss Marilyn Horne would have done if, while sing the finale of Tancredi (the sad one) or Orlando Furioso or Norma or La sonnambula some director had decided to have a chorus line dancing waving flowers in back of her.
Go ahead, ask.I dare you!

The best I can say for the staging is that it didn't ruin the music for me.
I've never SEEN La sonnambula and as of today I guess I still haven't, but I certainly did hear a vocal feast.

*It was April 22, 1970. Okay, ALMOST forty years ago. And I was thirteen.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

MADAME BUTTERFLY'S PUPPET


Last week the Metropolitan Opera shared its production of Puccini's Madam Butterfly to the world, via a live HD presentation beamed into cinemas. I saw it in Worthington, Ohio. The staging by the late Anthony Minghella's (I've resisted headlining this "Minghella's Butterfly") has been admired except for one point. Butterfly's child, Dolore (Sorrow) is played by a puppet...dressed in a sailor suit, the size of a three year old, manipulated by three onstage puppeteers. The concept was greeted with hoots of dismay on all the opera yakky boards before and after the premiere.

I don't know how the puppet 'reads' in the far spaces of the Met, but I was heartbroken. I thought the puppet was terrific. I focused completely on Butterfly's tragedy. Instead of waiting to see how the diva in question (the intense Patricia Racette)fared with the music, I saw her as a real character having to give up her child. I loved the use of space and color in the production-minimal sets-and felt Minghella kept the drama front and center. And the puppet was haunting. This production of Butterfly is one of the few Met shows now selling to the walls.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

MET OPERA HD: ORFEO ED EURIDICE

I don't think I've ever seen Gluck's great opera Orfeo ed Euridice. I'll see it this Saturday when the Met presents it in HD in movie theaters. I'm looking forward to this production: First, to hear Stephanie Blythe, a rich-voiced contralto and a scrupulous musician in the title role. I'm eager to hear how James Levine, whom I've never heard in music pre- Mozart, shapes this score. Mark Marris's staging has won critical handstands. His interpretation of Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" sprang entirely from the music. I suspect his staging of Orfeo will do the same.

Here are some notes I was asked to write for local audiences:

ORFEO ED EURIDICE
Music by Christoph Willibald Gluck
Libretto by Raniero da Calzabigi
First performance: Burgtheater, Vienna, October 5, 1762

The myth of Orpheus, the great singer whose love for his wife sends him to Hades in search of her, to whom the gods promise Euridice's return on the condition he never look at her until safely back in the mortal world, was the subject of the first opera we know about, Jacopo Peri's "Euridice" (1599). Monteverdi's great "La favola d'Orfeo" is the oldest opera you are likely to encounter today, and Gluck's version of the same tale 150 years later is one of the oldest operas still performed.

The original, from 1762, was written for castrato. The opera was revised by Gluck several times, most notably in 1774 for Paris, where the local disdain for castrati led Gluck to re compose the title role for haute-contre, the high French tenor. Hector Berlioz revised Gluck's score for mezzo -soprano Pauline Viardot Garcia in 1859. There exist many performing editions of Orfeo ed Euridice, in French, Italian and German. What is never lost is Gluck's simple, deeply moving music and a story of love and loss that resonates today.

Christoph Gluck (1714-1787) is called the reformer of opera. His famous
"Introduction to Alceste" (which may have been written by Calzabigi) puts forward the need to simplify operatic plots and to rely on melody to tell the story:

"I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression and by following the situation of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless supply of ornaments...I believe that my greatest labor should be devoted to seeking a beautiful simplicity..."

The Metropolitan Opera's current production was planned for Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson. Her untimely death in 2006 robbed us of what should have been a sensational performance. The staging is by dancer-choreographer Mark Morris, with costumes destined by Isaac Mizrahi. A perfect blend of old and new! In the title role we hear a young American force of nature, Stephanie Blythe. She recalls Louise Homer (1871-1947), the Pittsburgh born contralto whose twenty performances of Orfeo conducted by Toscanini at the Met between 1910 and 1914 put this great work firmly on the map in America. Mr. Morris and conductor James Levine use Calzabigi's original Italian language text, with Berlioz's adjustment of the vocal line for female contralto. The work is performed in one act without intermission.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

MET HD-LA RONDINE

Metropolitan Opera presents Puccini's LA RONDINE
live in HD in movie theaters worldwide, Saturday, January 10th.

LA RONDINE
(The Swallow)
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Adami
after Alfred Maria Willner and Heinz Reichert

Premiere: Monte Carlo, March 27, 1917

By 1910 Giacomo Puccini was on top of the musical world.
La boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly were international sensations.
The earlier Manon Lescaut has plenty of admirers. La fanciulla del West had just opened a the Metropolitan in New York, with Enrico Caruso and Emma Destinn. The audience was lukewarm but the newspapers were writing that Puccini had outdone himself.

What next? After love and death in Napoleon's Rome, or Nagasaki, or the California mountains, what could be left? Puccini had several projects in mind, including Marie Antoinette. Paris did win out as the setting of the composer's next opera, but not the tragic French-Austrian Queen. Instead, Puccini was going to write an operetta for Vienna. A German language libretto was was re shaped and translated into Italian, and La Rondine was born. World War I scuttled the Viennese premiere. La Rondine's first performance was in Monte Carlo, starring Gilda dalla Rizza and Tito Schipa. The audience and press were polite.

Soprano Angela Gheorghiu has called La Rondine, "Traviata without the heartbreak."
In the Parisian setting we meet Magda, the rondine-or swallow-of the title. The cynical poet Prunier tells Magda that just like a swallow she will fly away only to return home. Magda is a kept woman who meets a nice young man from the country. When he asks to marry her, she leaves him, realizing such a marriage would ruin his life.
No bloodshed, but a lot of pathos. At La Rondine's New York premiere in 1928, with Lucrezia Bori and Beniamino Gigli, critic W.J. Henderson wrote, "It is the afternoon off of a genius."

If the story is on the slim side, the opera does have Puccini's exquisite gift for melody. The first act 'Sogno di Doreta' is unforgettable. Magda follows this up with the wonderful 'Ore dolce e divine'. The second act waltz and ensemble are usually applauded o the rafters. Henderson conceded that "The Waltz in Act II will go the rounds. The phonograph will seize it. The radio will air it. The night clubs will do strange things with it." All that came to pass. But La Rondine lacked the blood and guts of Puccini's earlier operas, and the music was considered sentimental. The Metropolitan gave La Rondine only 17 times between 1928 and 1936. The first widely available recording, with the magnificent Anna Moffo, wasn't published until 1967.

Three recodings followed (buy the Moffo on RCA). La Rondine has been heard in Chicago, London, New York (conducted by Alessandro Siciliani at the New York City Opera) Vienna and Paris. Her recording of Doretta's aria made Leontyne Price a star. Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna have starred in Nicolas Joel's staging in London and San Francisco. These artists and this prodution return Puccini's score to the Metropolitan for the first time in over seventy years. Listen to the music. This afternoon off of a genius is a melodic score that would have defeated anyone else.

MET OPERA HD-THAIS


It was a few weeks ago but here are some notes I was asked to write for THAIS-
before the recent Met Opera HD presentation w. Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson.

______

THAIS
Opera in three acts
Music by Jules Massenet
Libretto by Louis Gallet
Based on the novel by Anatole France

Premiere: Paris, Opera-comique, March 16, 1894

Take a hedonistic novel by Anatole France, add a composer with a bent for sensuality and an eye for feminine pulchritude, an exotic locale, a fascinating leading lady and voila:Jules Massenet's opera Thais ruled at the box office of the Opera-comique in Paris for years after its first performance in 1894.

Thais was a smash in Paris, especially when Sybil Sanderson sang the title role.
California born, the beautiful Sybil reportedly had a clear and attractive voice and looked well in Thais's costumes, both in the beginning of the opera as a courtesan and at the end, as a nun. She knew how to expire prettily in the arms of the baritone-monk Athanel, who chases Thais with the fervor of Jerry Falwell, seeking to "return this soul to God" in the fourth century, A.D.

Sybil Sanderson died young, reportedly from alcoholism and morphine addiction. She was succeeded as Thais by Scots-American soprano Mary Garden (1874-1967). Not for our Mary an early death. Her career embraced silent films and lasted on stage until the mid 1930s. Late in life she made the rounds as a lecturer, noting that "Massenet's love making was impossible." Mary even in old age knew how to get attention. No one denied her on stage potency, but her singing was controversial. "Miss Garden sang last night", wrote one critic. "Discussion of it is not agreeable." (Garden's few recordings, some over 100 years old, are lovely) Mary's American debut was as Thais-it was forgotten that it was the opera's American debut, too. The New York Times on December 14, 1907 noted the importance of the opera and Miss Garden's fame but added, "as a singer she improves upon acquaintance."

The source of the opera is a novel by Anatole France, winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize for Literature. Anatole France's text arguing the merits of paganism and sensuality v. Christianity and religious obsession changing into sexual obsession was powerful in its day. Massenet need a stage vehicle and wanted to capitalize on Sanderson's charms and box office clout.

Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967) brought Thais to the Metropolitan in 1918. She was said to have disliked the role. Geraldine was a looker and a big star herself, but the public preferred Mary. "A faint and shadowy substitute" sniffed The New York World. It's true that Thais as an opera depends on a powerful leading lady. But a baritone with a warm, masculine voice is also a requirement. Over the years, Maurice Renaud, John Charles Thomas, Clarence Whitehill and Sherrill Milnes have led us to Thomas Hampson. Renee Fleming, our heroine today, is an artist of beauty and style, and unlike Mary Garden, her singing gets critical hosannas. And let's not forget Beverly Sills, the heroine of the Metropolitan's last Thais revival, thirty years ago. It was late in Sills's career, and her retirement was already announced. The staging was disliked. The diva herself had a savvy publicist float a rumor that Beverly as Thais would dance nude. This gave Sills the perfect opportunity to appear on every TV chat show and laugh:
"You'd have to call this opera THIGHS, honey."
Mary Garden was smiling in heaven.