Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley

I was born in late 1956. I turned fourteen as the 1960s ended. Like most fourteen year olds, my mind was not on world affairs. While I was aware of the MLK-RFK assassinations, Vietnam, the 1968 democratic convention in Chicago, Kent State, Peace Day and the Manson murders-I was not riveted to any of it.  I do remember clearly seeing all of these events covered on TV-Black and white, rabbit ears-. My father was Archie Bunker before there was an Archie Bunker. His pungent comments to the TV screens would have my mother, Budweiser in hand, yelling, "Shut up Bill, for Christ's sake, you don't know what you're talking about. Look at all those poor goddamn kids being killed. Jesus, Mary and Joseph."

I am no longer missing the 1960s. I'm learning about them anew in Douglas Brinkley's new biography of Walter Cronkite. This book is like overly buttered popcorn..delicious and impossible to put down. The grease and cholesterol are worth it. That's a bad analogy, since this long  book is not a long read. I almost want to ration myself to a few pages a day to make the pleasure of learning the history going on around me in my younger days.

Brinkley gives us the serious, hard working, forthright, no bullshit newsman. He gives us "Uncle Walter"  who was courtly (sexist) with women, loved a good flirtation, more than one drink of an evening and a dirty joke. I've been called cynical now in my mid fifties, but it never occurs o me that Cronkite's glasses- off reaction to the murder of JFK (as a younger person remembers 9/11/...) was anything put spontaneous-a reaction to this stunning, awful news.

"If I've lost Cronkite I've lost America." LBJ was supposed to have said that, or a variation thereof, following Cronkite's excoriation of the Vietnam War.

No, his views weren't universally popular. People equated an anti-war stance with a hatred of our troops. Indeed there were enough morons who DID beat on our people, the ones who came home alive. THAT is what pissed off much of America. We were much more innocent then. The realization that all was not a it seemed or should be with elected officials was new, shocking and news. Would a 'Watergate" so traumatize the country today? Maybe. Remember we don't have Uncle Walter, who was not handsome, nor glib, nor elitist (stupid overused word) to tell us about what was going on and to make us as citizens demand to know more.

I don't believe a Cronkite would be able to function today-when a pretty girl getting a divorce after two months is news. Makes me rather glad I was born in 1956 and not 1996.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Memories of Opera on Radio pt. 2

Franco Corelli as Calaf. And still champ.
Maybe it was a bad idea to sort and organize my collection on opera broadcasts going back seventy years. There's only so much room, and all this Mp3 technology is beyond my advancing years. But  I've filled two large bookcases, pilfered form the store room, and there's more scattered over the floor. It took several weeks, but we are all sorted by composer and then title. OCD rocks!
But it is fun to know just where to find a specific performance and either remember hearing it originally or learning about voices and performance styles from the past.

Here are a few more:
Here are a few more
Massenet: Thais, January 28, 1978: Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, Raymond Gibbs, James Morris/Sir John Pritchard  Beverly Sill's years sang at the Metropolitan were in the closing years of her career, with the sparkle and brilliance of her voice diminished. (Why it took so long is another story.) The tone is dry and brittle. Her first act is too obviously hoochy-kootchy, and lacks the sophistication needed to put over the character. Later on she can't fill out the dramatic writing for the randy courtesan who finds God through the help of the monk, Athanel. Sherrill Milnes is macho and vocally impressive. The rage of the character and his later grief and acceptance don't faze Milnes, who in 1978 was THE baritone in opera. The production was not liked much visually-I recall more than one cry of "Vegas!' for its faux oriental glitz. Thais is a good score of the second rank. There's obvious diminished chord and colorful 'wash' in the orchestra. It's more a question of musical show don't tell.Massenet was a master of the stage at the time of Sarah Bernhardt-her histrionics would be ludicrous today. Don't believe me?

Carol Neblett's X-rated Thais in
Thais has a bizarre history in the States. It was for many years the property of Mary Garden, who learned it from Massenet. Geraldine Farrar created Thais at the Met and claimed to dislike the role. California bombshell soprano Carol Neblett infamously ditched a high note in a performance in Baltimore, shucking off her splendid robes altogether to reveal her own altogether. That made the papers. Anna Moffo destroyed her career with a very highly publicized recording of the opera In 1975 which found her voiceless. as in no voice. The booklet photos looked hot, though.
Anna Moffo and the Thais that wasn't

Unkind wags called these 1978 performances "Thighs", but say what you want about Sills, she sang this role 17 times in New York, having originated it in San Francisco, never,  I'm sure to an unsold seat. Her publicist floated a rumor picked up by all the newscasts-that she would dance naked on the stage. (David Brinkley cringed reading this-go ask your parents.)  The lady cheerfully told the press that she was "flattered anyone would think a fifty year old woman could be appearing naked, anywhere!" You gotta lover her. I saw this on tour in Boston

Menotti The Saint of Bleecker Street from the New York City Opera, with Catherine Malfitano, Enrico diGiuseppe, Diana Soviero, Sandra Walker, Irwin Densen/Cal Stewart Kellogg
This is the soundtrack to a TV broadcast from the New York City Opera in 1978.  I'm just old enough to remember the pre-Vatican II church, and whether its Irish Boston or Little Italy in New York, the ritual of the church and the dogma were pervasive. It was lived.  Menotti reflects this beautifully in this opera. I wish the video of this would be released commercially in toto.  Bits are available on youtube.

I remember watching the live telecast. The cast represented the best of American opera: Malfitano and the underrated Di Giuseppe-and the wonderful Diana Soivero.  And it represents the lamented New York City Opera at its best-as a company.

Verdi: La forza del Destino, Met January 23, 193. (forty-three-my keyboard won't type the number!) Stella Roman, Frederick Jagel, Lawrence Tibbett,  Ezio Pinza/Bruno Walter

This mid war broadcast comes to us with Spanish language commentary. With the exception of Pinza and the great Bruno Walter, the cast on paper doesn't look too appealing. Caruso introduced this opera to New York in 1918, with Rosa Ponselle in her first opera performance anywhere. Ponselle continued with the opera with Martinelli, Jose Mardones, Pinza, Danise until 1932. She was retired-sadly-by 193 so Stella Roman shared the role with Milanov. I went to college with one of Mme Roman's grandsons. She is considered another good not great artist. But there was a lot to this lady. She sang in the Italian premier of La donna senz'ombre (Die Frau ohne Schatten) and was acclaimed for her Marschallin in Il cavalier d la rosa. Hers is a beautiful voice that lacks the fatness-the juice throughout the middle register, and its short on top. Never mind. She gets the job done, and a fine job it is. Pinza is great. Jagel has a monochromatic voice but sings like a fine musician. Exciting he is not. He's loud when he's supposed to be loud, etc. Every discussion of Lawrence Tibbett's career goes into tragic mode once past 1939. Either it was overwork that led him to drink or drink that ruined his voice, but his throaty gargling and forced top notes are not those of the great Amercian baritone he had been. Bruno Walter reminds us that Forza is a tight dramatic opera with great music. It's a very passionate performance, the singing not always up to the conductor's level.

I want to pay tribute to Lawrence Tibbett by showing him in full voice, in 1935:

Frederica von Stade, THE Cherubino of my youth
Mozart Le nozze di Figaro Met February 7 1987. Jose van Dam, Jorma Hynninen, Kathleen Battle, Elisabeth Soderstrom, Frederica von Stade

Elisabeth Soderstrom. Wonderful even when NOT singing.
Von Stade owned Cherubino for years and I remember vividly not only her fine singing but her lovable, horny stumbling around as Mozart's randy little page boy. I attended this performance thanks to the Texaco Opera Quiz. I don't remember much about Kathleen Battle in her pre -smack down days, except I'm sure she was vocally ravishing (she was as Pamina and Adina around the same time.) Jose van Dam is a great artist who easily owns any stage. He is not a basso cantante but he points the text to the benefit of non Italian speakers. No, for me the news was the Countess of Elisabeth Soderstrom. She was nearly sixty at this performance. Just the way she held herself told you this was a noble lady. She is vocally understated but intact. Never will I forget the look on her face, all of three seconds, as she heard the Count trying to pick up "Susanna" in Act IV. One for the ages.

Puccini: Turandot April 27, 197four. Elinor Ross, Franco Corelli, Edda Moser, John Macurdy/Gabor Otvos. Met on tour in Boston.

Edda Moser
I saw my first opera in the War Memorial Auditorium in Boston in 1969. The boat show trade show auditorium would host the circus one week and the Met the next, or was it the other way around? No matter. It was no place for opera but it is what we had. It became home to me (long gone) I attended this Turandot. the draw was tenor Franco Corelli, he of the golden thighs, endless visceral voice and onstage/backstage mania. The voice rings out in this performance as it nearly always did. He attempts a diminuendo on 'o meraviglia' in Act I. The crowd went nuts for him. They always did. It was soprano Edda Moser who wiped up the afternoon. Who knew? She had sung Donna Anna earlier that week. she was a Met Queen of the night, Musetta. no handstands. This Liu is another story. There's a full, rich, luscious voice here. Even with Corelli it was Moser who got the ovation that afternoon. I remember her sincerely overwhelmed the audience response. I was cheering , too.

Elinor Ross, today...a goddess
Elinor Ross's career is being reassessed today. Listening to her broadcasts its true this was a huge, exciting voice. I remember the casing of vibrato all through the tone as off putting. During the intermission of this Turandot a friend said to me, "I've never heard her better". And listening today, its true-she'd be a goddess. Kudos to conductor Otvos for keeping everyone together-mostly-in a bran of an auditorium. (Note to the Emperor Altoum. Sing, don't mince.)

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Father's Day, by Buzz Bissinger

Here's a question for you Dads out there. Do you kiss your sons?
Not just when they're adorable toddlers, but later-even into adulthood.
I was raised to kiss my father and did so the day he died when I was in my 20s.
He and I had a tormented relationship that was never healed. Thirty years later I'm learning compassion and if that's his legacy to me, good.

But what about the rest of us? I have a daughter, not a son so I don't count much for this discussion.
Not to weird anyone out or to suggest anything besides deep paternal love, but I've been thinking a lot about men and their sons since reading Buzz Bissinger's new memoir, Father's Day.

Mr. Bissinger is a journalist and sports writer, best know up until now for his book Friday Night Lights-which became a hit move and a fine TV series. We learn now that Bissinger became the father of twin boys thirty years ago. The babies came far too early. Gerry recovered well and is today a smart 30 year old pursuing a successful career. Zach was oxygen deprived and Zach's life today is very different. He was left with the cognition of a 7 year old.

Zach will never live independently. He will never drive a car, hold a meaningful job, marry or have children of his own. He will always be 7 years old. His father has not written a book filled with new age- paeans to divine order and all that shit. Buzz Bissinger has written a book about a relationship between a father and a man child that is messy, heartbreaking, infuriating and one of the most loving I've ever encountered. Buzz is the dad to a man who doesn't spontaneously love back, but he is certainly heartful and affectionate. This kind of dialogue goes through the book.

BUZZ:  Do you love me?
ZACH: Yup.
BUZZ: Why?
ZACH: 'Cuz you're my Dad.

You will never tire of these exchanges. Such is Bissinger's sincerity-and skill as a writer.
 And to this day, Buzz Bissinger kisses Zach goodnight.

Buzz and Zach
At the hear of Father's Day is a cross country drive the two take, a bonding experience that Father hopes will truly impress Son. It doesn't. Zach isn't capable of that kind of depth. Zach has savant qualities. Geography and maps are his thing, but being a savant takes the place of emotional connection. He knows he has a dad, a mom, brothers, step- parents and he loves them all,  "'Cuz you're my Dad". Period.

The trip goes from Pennsylvania to Chicago and down down down to West Texas and up to California. Bissinger re- lives some of the early days of Friday Night Lights. Zach wants to visit old haunts. The drive is exhausting and disorienting. A perfect 'date night' for father and son in Vegas is a bust. The trip is no bust-Buzz Bissinger makes clear that the opportunity for time alone with one of his children is a tremendous opportunity. Zach doesn't and won't change. Buzz finally accepts his son's limitations and loves him even more.

Zach goes back to his job bagging groceries in Philly. Brother Gerry knows and accepts that eventually Zach will be his responsibility.. Bissinger writes a beautiful and heartbreaking book with no phony endings. Zach loves his father,  "'cuz you're my Dad'.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Memories of Opera on Radio

A young friend and I have exchanged lists of collected opera performances on CD for trade.
 I had spent part of this spring cataloging and updating my collection of broadcasts going back to 193 (Deems Taylor's Peter Ibbetson). My list is long but in no way as impressive as the many completists with whom I correspond.

My friend sent me his 'wish list' from my collection. I'm delighted to share. As I pulled the CDs and sampled some, the floodgates of memory opened.

Massenet: Werther  March 27, 1971-the Met broadcast premiere of an opera the company had not performed since 1910. Franco Corelli starred as Goethe's unhappy (and unhappy, and unhappy...) poet,  with Rosalind Elias as Charlotte. With John Reardon and Donald Gramm.. Alain Lombard conducted. There was an outcry that Corelli was cast in this over Gedda. And its true our Franco yelled and yodelled his way through the French. But who would have looked better in the blue frock coat and tight-tight leggings?  Elias was gorgeous in this role. I met her years later and she told me the role was her favorite-it meant a lot to her. To me, too. Elias is on Broadway this year, at 82 in Follies. Great lady

Rosalind Elias: Still wowin' them
I saw this Werther  in Boston a few weeks after the broadcast. Crespin sang the Charlotte with Corelli. What I remember most is Corelli's's wife screaming at him back stage. She could be heard out front, in the vast car/boat show-esque War Memorial Auditorium. Backstage there was a mob around him. Crespin was ignored and pissed. He picked me, a kid out of the crowd, flashed me a smile (it would have melted you, too-I don't care who you are) and signed my program.

Last night of  'La Loca' Beverly Sills and John Mauceri
Menotti:  La Loca (The Madwoman) Menotti wrote this as a vehicle for Beverly Sills's farewell performances in 1979 and 1980. There was a great deal of pre-show hype about this. I attended a talk Sills gave where she described the opera -then a work in progress. Her description of the mad Queen Juana-a daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella-who was abused by father, husband and son...was riveting. Alas. At the premiere in San Diego the opera was still in progress. At the New York opening, well, a great opportunity had been squandered. The lady herself was cheered to the rafters. Chunks of it as I recall had no music! An opera who first lines are "Early this morning I saw three horses, galloping round and round", well it didn't improve from there. And I thought it sad that Sills took her last curtain calls as the abused and elderly Juana, in rags. Nevertheless, always a pro, the lady stopped the applause and said, "Thank you for a wonderful love affair. The best is yet to come." You gotta lover her.

Puccini: La boheme October 16, 1972. The Met debut of Henry Lewis, who became the first African American to conduct at the Met. Is he still the only one? Scandalous. This is an in house recording. Anna Moffo was in the midst of her vocal crisis, plus a high profile marriage to Robert Sarnoff, the chairman of RCA. She lost her voice but not her glamour. She had just sung Mimi in Hartford. The reviews were not kind. Occasionally she could put it over, but her career never recovered from a disastrous broadcast of Lucia in 1969. (A party favorite for vocal necrophiliacs.) Richard Tucker sang Rodolfo-what a luxury to have that great voice based at the Met for so many years. He died a few years later at 63-I heard later performances and he easily rattled the roof. The real deal. If you are under fifty you missed out on a voice that  like Nilsson, had vast and tremendous presence.

J. Strauss: Die Fledermaus January 23, 1955 Eleanor Steber. What's not to love? By 1955 the booze and the night life were catching up with her. She had a few years of great singing ahead of her (Arabella, Vanessa) but already she was feeling Bing's preference for foreign artists. I don't think there was a finer musician in opera than Steber. Her master classes at NEC years later were a hoot. She was bedecked like the Boston common Christmas tree. Her concerts in Jordan Hall yielded nothing to age or the party life: Big Verdi, Strauss, Mozart, Poulenc, Brahms. The voice was patchy but the delivery was great. Oh yes-Fledermaus. Patrice Munsel I'm sure stole the show as Adele. She was later considered somewhat crude but I've never heard an -ina performance from Munsel  where she didn't steal the show. Charles Kullman and John Brownlee are in the cast: the latter made his debut in opera in London, 1926, on Melba's last night at Covent Garden. Jarmila Novotna was demoted to Orlofsky in her final Met years. Franz Lehar's Giuditta, not to mention a Violetta, Butterfly and Octavain of note-I used to see Novotna at the Met in the mid 1980s. She was that age herself then, but a lovelier old lady you never saw, except for my Grandmother Annie Duddy-but she died a few years earlier.

Phyllis Curtin. Who was lovelier?

Milhaud La mere coupable This is the neglected third Figaro play by Beaumarchais. Milhaud's opera was introduced in Geneva in 1966. I doubt it's been performed again. This is the premiere, in so- so sound. I have always loved Phyllis Curtin, for her pioneering of American music-and her great mix of sexiness and brains. What an artist! She's the Rosine-the title character.  Curtin stated many year ago in an interview that she had sung the permiere of this opera. Last year I finally found this 50 year old broadcasts. I wrote the lady asking if she's like a copy-she wasn't interested but wrote me a long marvelous post ("Dear Christopher: What a memory you have!") She herself recalled little of this except it was a rush-rush job, deadlines missed and there was a whole lotta sight reading going on. One listen told me why the opera isn't done. Jose van Dam has a tiny role-with Luis Quilico. Serge Baudo conducts.

MORE TO COME........