Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Interview with Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane's new novel Live by Night traces the career of Joe Coughlin, from his youth Boston as the son of the police commissioner, to his rise amid that city's speakeasies and bootleggers, to his career in hotels, gambling, off-loading and more near Tampa, Florida. Lehane's readers will recognize the masterful blend of street smarts and vulnerability in Coughlin, along with the color of Lehane's favorite era, the 1920s.

Lehane's previous novels include Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Any Given Day and Shutter Island.   Dennis Lehane's voice is among the most authentic in writing today. Having myself an ear for Boston-laced dialogue, I had long wanted an interview. Here it is, a phoner recorded October 23, 2012

CP: Your new novel, Live by Night, deals with the end of prohibition and goes into the depression years. In your previous book you dealt with the Boston police strike of 1919. What makes a particular historical time interesting to you as a writer?

DL: I'm not exactly sure. Given Day was interesting to me because I was interested in the Boston police strike, so the germ of the idea was always the Boston police strike. That led me into, as I was writing that book, to my favorite decade, the 1920s. The reasons for why that's my favorite decade are as shallow as they had great clothes. It's the grandest failed social experiment in American history-prohibition-you look at a time in which the entire country turned its back on the rule of law. We became a society of outlaws. That must have been so exciting.

CP: I've noticed in your books that even if a reader has never set foot in any of the places you write about, you immediately recognize them. You immediately  become at home. You have a wonderful sense of place. Is that something you developed ? Are you aware of that?

DL: I am insofar as its something I'm place-centric in a lot of ways. I'm someone who can become quickly depressed living in a place I don't like. I'm not one of those people who can just live anywhere. I don't get those people. That might have something to do with my psychology when it comes to place. When I do write about a place its usually a place that I'm enamored of in some way, shape or form. And I try to put that onto the page. But there have been plenty of times when I've written about places I've never been, that I thought for whatever reason sparked my  imagination and came out as  vividly as I'd hoped. I'm thinking of Oklahoma in Given Day or the Pinardo Rio region of Cuba in Live by Night.

CP:  Your ear for dialogue I like very much in that everything sounds very authentic, whether in Florida or Oklahoma, or South Boston or Dorchester.

DL: The dialogue is the one thing, I don't want to say born with,but its something I brought to the table when I started to become a writer. The reason I don't say 'born with it' is because I grew up in a place where people spoke very vividly. Boston in general, but then you get into the sort of inner city neighborhoods, people just speak very vividly. Very pronounced dialect. So, by the time I started writing, as I began down this path, the one thing I could always do is write dialogue, because I'd heard so much great dialogue my entire life, just walking out the door every day.

CP: Specifically, all of your characters speak  in very short questions. Instead of saying "Do you know what happened?" they say "Know what happened?' .

DL: The very first kind of moment I remember having as a writer -the first revelation I remember having, was connected to dialogue. It was just standing on a subway platform, I heard somebody say-this is the polite PG version, that's not what he said, he said "The hell ya doin'?" It just hit me at this moment. I think I was about twelve, he didn't say 'What" . He went right to 'the hell you doing?" . That's suddenly a moment when you just tune your ear without knowing you did it, but I remember that was a great moment for me, I remember writing it in a notebook. Wow! That's how people really speak here! Not what you see in books, you know?
CP:  You were twelve years old, is that when you knew you would become a writer?

DL:  No, that's when I was kind of really walking down the path, but I didn't know I was going to become a writer til I was twenty.   

CP: But a twelve year old wouldn't think to go home with a notebook and write something like that down.

DL: I knew that I liked to write, but it was not considered a viable career option where I came from. That's why it just didn't occur to me until by the time I was twenty I'd dropped out of college, with two differed safety majors, I just realized that I was no good at  anything else.

CP: You're not Patrick Kenzie are you?

DL: Not remotely. The thing about Patrick I always say is I gave him my taste in music, and I gave him my sense of humor because you can't fake sense of humor.

CP:  In the movies made of your books, are you satisfied in the way they handled dialogue and accent and place. To me, Gone Baby Gone was really vivid

DL: Gone Baby Gone is wonderful -that's the movie where the accents are pretty stupendous. That was (director) Ben (Affleck) That was Ben sort of riding herd , and this is what an authentic Boston accent sounds like . And Casey (Affleck) being the lead -having gown up there as well. As far as I feel about the films over all, I think they're all wonderful. I can't judge them at the end of the day, but I would say they're certainly extremely faithful, and they capture the spirit of the books which is all you can hope for.

Friday, October 19, 2012


Opera Project Columbus began last year with two women, one who wanted to sing more and the other who wanted to help her sing more. How many orchestras and opera co.s have collapsed in the past ten years. Who 's nuts enough to start a new Opera Co. Are you? Not me. I'm already on cold cereal and generic lean cuisine.

Thank goodness the two wwomen were, if not nuts, then brave. You know what we have in Columbus, Oh? Football, beer, Football, good Chinese food, Football, soccer even hockey (sometimes, and I'm a Bostonian so don't get me started) Jeni's ice cream, terrific garage theater,  two professional orchestras, Football...and damned good young singers. Very talented folks, many of whom love Football. I wish they had a venue locally that would pay them heartily. They don't. That may come in time. Opera Columbus is doing a good job with the young audiece pool, who put down their I-phones and coke spoons long enough to enjoy La boheme.

Here's a bit from last season:

Tonight at 8 Opera Project Columbus presents an evening of opera scenes. None of this Bastein and Bastienne shit. La sonnambula, Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly, The Barber of Seville, und so weiter. They have folks who can sing this big boy big girl stuff.  I want them to keep together as a company  attached to a local church or museum 'in residecne' where they'll have a rent free place to perform. Many of this kids--er artists (sorry) are already working professionally. The New York Times has raved aobut one of them. Now its their communities turn. I have to get there late tonight but you don't. Bottoms in seats plase, tonight 7.30, Opera Project Columbus, First Unitarian Church, 93 W. Weisheimer, Columbus. Park in the funeral home lot (don't start)

I don't know all of tonight's singers but I don't mind telling you I have a great paternal affection for several of them. I'm also deply impressed with the professionalism, and how they condcut themselvs. Many are now having children of their own.

Sutherland, Callas, Pavarotti, Price, Domingo, Merrill, Tebaldi, Milnes, Corelli, Tucker, I heard them all. I got hammered with two of them and I slep--never mind-with another. They were all young singers once. People went to churches in their home town s to hear them. Nobody went away disappointed. Nor will you, See you tonight.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Opera Columbus continues its renaissance with a new way to present La boheme.

You know the drill. Impoverished students in Paris circa 1850 live in cold and want but manage to find wine, women and (obviously) song.  Puccini used Henri Murger's Scenes de la vie de boheme as the basis for his opera. So did Leoncavallo, composer of Paglicacci, who also wrote a La boheme, a wonderful opera never heard. That's another story. Call me up on the phone.

La boheme. The cold, the poverty, the wine, the muff, the death:

Along comes Opera Columbus wanting to do something new. Rent is based on La boheme and its been a smash for years. Can Puccini build a new audience?


Last night  I went to see Opera Columbus's new production of La boheme at Shadowbox, a venue in the Brewery district reminiscent of the shoe-biz 'rooms' of an earlier time. It's a lovely restaurant and bar, and a performance space with its own company, led by Stev Guyer (no 'e' at he end, please.) Stev's a favourite guest of mine on All Sides Weekend. So is soprano Peggy Dye, Opera Columbus's new Head Diva in Charge.

Together, Shadowbox and Opera Columbus are presenting La boheme, in English, sung by attractive young local artists.  (Last night the baritone had a wardrobe malfunction giving the audience a bonus.) The show is performed in the restaurant, and I do mean performed. Shadowbox has long been the home of the most creative and entertaining revues, with its artists encouraged to work the room. Musetta sang her waltz (beautifully) five feet from me. If several gentlemen nearby had coronaries, I'm here to tell you the died happy.

La boheme. Intimate, musical, sexy, lovey and in English. Almost in your lap. Don't miss this Sundays at 5 PM through November 18. FREE.  Shadowbox is at 503 S. Front St.

No excuse. you don't need to watch another presidential debate or reruns of The Real Housewives of New Jersey. The baritone has probably bought a new belt by now for his britches, but Musetta and company remain potent and wonderful. They, with their formidable, multi-tasking pianist, will delight you. As will Puccini..

Welcome back, Opera Columbus. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Memories of Opera on Radio pt. 5

This is a transistor radio. You might want to write this down. A radio like this was my gateway.

    Verdi: Luisa Miller with Adriana Maliponte, John Alexander, Cornell MacNeil, Bonaldo Giaotti, Paul Plishka, Mignon Dunn conducted by James Levine. Metropolitan Opera  December 11, 1971

Did you have a shitty childhood? Mine wasn't so great. Forty years after this broadcast of Luisa Miller I have learned compassion. I look back on those days now knowing that people really did do the best they could while fighting their own demons. So when I hear in my head my father's voice, saying "Where's Chris, Mary? I'm getting ready to take the dog out" I no longer shudder. This must have been a cold Saturday afternoon in Boston for Luisa Miller. I was trying to tape all the Met broadcasts in 1971. I had just turned fifteen and had a real to real tape recorder Luisa was one of my first tapes and in those days for me it meant putting a Ken-doll type mic up to the face of my transistor radio. Thus, when Adriana Maliponte says the lines, "Non temer, piu nobil spirto.." my father's call to the dog came through on tape loud and clear. It took me many years to listen to that part of the opera without mixed emotions

James Levine is much in the news these days, with his return to the Met after years of infirmity. This Luisa performance was early in his first run of Verdi. Levine had made his Met debut the previous summer. He was 29, and EVERYBODY noticed there was a new sheriff in town. Fausto Cleva's death left a need for a Verdiano conductor, and there was Jimmy. He is cheered to the walls in this broadcast-and forty plus years later I know he will be again.

John Alexander was a regular with Sarah Caldwell's Boston Opera. His was a case of good voice, outstanding musician. You can have a world busting career the other way around, but Alexander was nothing if not valued. Malipointe was a school boy crush of mine. A few years alter I saw her in La traviata. Bosomy and yummy in her Act I gown, she sang well, too,  as she does here. That memory is worth keeping, as is this performance.

   R. Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier Elisabeth Soderstrom, Delia Wallis, Erie Mills and Donald Gramm. Mario Bernardi conducts. Houston Grand Opera 1978

Erie Mills: A Star is (was) Born
My  living situation was dramatic when I had this broadcast on. I do remember it as a career boost for Erie Mills, replacing Barbara Hendricks. Erie got her star is born broadcast. I saw Soderstrom as the Marschallin yeas later and exquisite she was. She was nearing sixty and you would have jumped her bones from the fifth balcony. Donald Gramm was the papa eminence of the Boston opera, a source of impeccable musicianship, sanity and outrageousness. God rest his soul.

I don't know when the Houston Opera began broadcasting in syndication. I do know I was playing this broadcast on the radio, taped not live,  while living in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, so it must have been the summer of 1979. I graduated from B.U. in 1978 with a degree in music, little talent and no prospects. A summer work study job in' 78 turned into a full time gig. Where? Sargent College,  school training Physical therapists, OTs, Rehab Counselors-a serious  place doing serious work, except possibly in my office. I was in the support staff, presided over by a florid Irish-American lady and man did she and the associate dean like their gin and tonics at lunch-every day. The undergrad admissions counselor was running through a love life dry spell, punctuated with the occasional idiot. "Last night this guy walked me home and he started to take off his clothes at my door. in the street." The graduate admissions coordinator was an intense young woman I didn't like who didn't like me. She kept going on a rice diet, kept getting blocked up and kept being admitted to Mass General to be blown apart. You'd think she'd have learned (P.S. she was in no way heavy in the first place)

Sheridan St., Jamaica Plain, Ma. Chez George
Oh yeah, Jamaica Plain. I needed a place to live that summer and I had no money (B.U. salary was $120/wk, considered good in them days) A bulletin board produced George form Jamaica Plain. He had a large apartment in a run down manse in JP-the toilet flushed up, if at all. The glory days of this place were in the time of James Michael Curley. But I digress. The rent was $75/mo. It was a big place, formal dining room, big kitchen, sun deck, two bedrooms. For $75 a month what's the kick.

George was the kick. He has since died. I was amazed he lived as long as he did. Let me say I was very fond of him. George was one of the most intelligent people I ever met. He had a big heart and a dog named Teddy. He built and re build stereo equipment for a living. Today he's be repairing computers for $500 and hour. He could write, oh man,  he could write. The type who gets up from the typewriter (this was 1979) and mails the pages directly to the New Yorker where it was published immediately.

George was a gay man, sexually insatiable (he never bothered me and no we did not thank you very much.) He was an  alcoholic with no judgement. Many's the night when he would bring home trade and I'd stand top of the stairs and demand to see trade's ID. He wasn't bring home Harvard boys but they were usually over 18. (When he said 'trade' I thought he meant baseball cards.) He totalled two cars in the four months we were roommates, was arrested twice (and bailed out by a rich doctor from Lewis Wharf, don't ask..) and worried my mother when she dropped in one day and found the Gay Community News under Teddy's dishes in the kitchen.  Withal, I was crazy about George, even if in his drunken stupor every night he would crank up the Stones at 3 a,m. bringing on the cops. Lesson learned: Sleep in your clothes. George had no problem greeting the police bare ass, but I did have a sense of propriety. I was in no way scarred by any of this. It made me grow up fast, a good thing. George and I kept in touch. He died about 10 years ago, the booze and the plague finally getting him. Ashamedly, I'm surprised he lived so long.

Monday, October 15, 2012

As Much as I Love Big Bird...

His birdness has become the talisman in the discussions over funding of public broadcasting.. I was a kid who watched Sesame Street and I'm a parent who values Sesame Street. That means Big Bird and company.

But...Let's not forget the wealth of value PBS offers. NOVA, Frontline, POV, Live from Lincoln Center, Masterpiece Theater and Classic...Julia Child! Working at a media outlet I was privy to a morning after Sewing with Nancy didn't air and the sewers and their friends-and there were plenty of them, were not pleased.

I first heard serious music on PBS. I first learned the horrors of a nuclear war on PBS. I learned about Stephen Foster, Elia Kazan Duke Ellington, Stella Adler, Paul Robeson and Jacques d'Amboise on American Masters. PBS told the story of the Kennedy dynasty with praise and honesty. PBS gives voice to children being denied care and education. I could go on and on. So could you.

I'm worried that Big Bird is being used to mock PBS. I interviewed Big Bird a few years ago-I really did-and it was a wonderful experience. I actually said thank you to a large chicken and meant it. Because kids had learned to read and count and sing and I heard Bernstein conduct the Verdi Requiem and Charlie Rose talk to Carl Sagan, Henry Kissinger and Elizabeth Taylor. Put all of those pictures out there with our avian friend.

SUPPORT PBS! The right to informed discourse. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Met in HD 2012-2013, Ready, Set...GO!

The Metropolitan Opera's live in HD presentations in movie theatres world wide begins tomorrow with a new production of Donizetti's delightful L'elisir d'amore (The Elixir of Love). And it is delightful, an opera filled with wit and charm and opportunities for gorgeous bel canto singing. I'm not always on the Anna Netrebko bus, but God love her she seems to be the only artist who can guarantee a sell out today. I'm a big fan of Matthew Polenzani's who tomorrow sings Nemorino, the role loved by Bonci, Caruso, Gigli and Pavarotti.

It looks like a cute, down home type staging that won't get in the way of Donizetti's delicious music.

Verdi's Otello is next, October 27. The press is raving over Renee Fleming, and quacking "this is your last chance" to hear her Desdemona. If she drops the role now I'll bet she can clam to have sung it for years without one less than gorgeous note. South African tenor Johan Botha sings the title role. He had a good success with this demanding part a few years ago. Allergies apparently sidetracked him a few weeks ago. I've always liked his voice and his singing. In this rare instance I will comment on an artist's weight to say I hope it doesn't rob Botha of the energy and the passion as Otello must have. German baritone Falk Struckman's Iago is being greatly admired. His is a less than rich and beautiful baritone, but he uses his voice with terrific attention to subtext and insinuation. For a bonus, we get tenor Michael Fabiano as Cassio. In Columbus he's remembered for his magnificent singing of Verdi's Requiem here last season.

And so to Thomas Ades's The Tempest. I've loved this opera on
recording and anticipate it eagerly on November 10.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Charles Long: Adventures in the Scream Trade

You gotta love this guy.

Charles Long is a baritone who made a fine career in opera, and a fine career in all areas of music as a singer, instrumentalist and conductor. I remember him from my days of attending New York City Opera performances at the New York State Theater (I refuse to call that wonderful building the David Koch Theater). Charles Long was long, very tall and slim and he moved like the prize fighters he admires.

Now Charles Long has written a memoir called Adventures in the Scream Trade (

Singers memoirs are generally "....and then I sang..." "I starred in..." "this conductor is an idiot... and"" I married this idiot and that idiot. They often go on for hundreds of pages in this vein. There are exceptions. Renee Fleming's book is a wonderful primer of building a career-I've bought it for many a young musician. Galina Vishnevskaya survived the siege of Leningrad and Soviet-era politics. Marilyn Horne shares her one case of crabs treated on a lonely Christmas Eve in Germany. (You gotta love her, too)

Charles Long's book is wickedly and delightfully atypical. He knows where the bodies are buried and he spells out locales, proclivities and locations. Valued names in the arts-many of you will recognize them-get some truth telling-this book says what people know and dare not spill.  The chronology skips around. I had a hard time counting marriages-come to think of it, I believe one was the magic number. Penny Orloff is mentioned as CL's long time companion. He calls her foxy and on stage from the cheap seats foxy she surely was and I'm sure is. Sexual addiction is admitted. There are delightful scenes of the hetero Charles sharing a communal dressing room with some non heterosexual fellas during summer stock. Their lack of  inhibition was a delight not a threat-"I laughed and covered my eyes, which ignited squeals of laughter from bare-assed men dancing in the aisles". (Another blog I use wanted me to say 'bare-bottomed-', but that loses the er, flavor,  if you will,  of the sentence.)

Charles was too fine a musician and too short on patience for bullshit to make a game playing career in opera. There's a lovely cameo of coaching Russian with the elderly baritone George Cehanovsky. Some big names are praised: Shirley Verrett, James McCracken, Placido Doming..some qualified; and some, well, I guess it wasn't fun to sing with Teresa Zylis- Gara. For the rest-and there are plenty-buy the book. It's a delight to read the life of a baritone who's happy to use the noun  bone as a verb.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Cinderella in New York

It's not yet noon of a rainy Wednesday and already this morning, two pieces of news, one great one lousy.

Lousy first. The New York Times reports that The New York City Opera is selling off its sets and costumes of previous productions. Costumes worn by the displaced and unemployed NYCO Chorus, not to mention Sills, Domingo, Triegle, Rolandi, Alexander, Lewis, Curtin, Gramm, Bible, Lankston...need I go on? Designs by Maurice Sendak-gone. The 2009 production of Don Giovanni (2009!) probably the company's last hit-gone. I'm sure Beni Montresor's Turandot and Magic Flute are on the discard hit, if not already destroyed in a 1985 fire-and the unit set for Giulio Cesare designed by Ming Cho Lee. The costume-or lack thereof-worn by Norman Treigle in Mefistofele.

Company General Director George Steel cites the rising storage costs and gets off more than one snarky remark.

Remarking that the strange situation has been expensive fir a long time, "I feel like you're making a false story. It's been a complicated money loser for  a long time, and we're trying to sort it out.:

And note the NYCO pater familias conductor Julius Rudel, now in his 90s: "It's the final nail in the coffin. Thee is no more company:"

The mail however, just happen to bring an aircheck of the New York City Opera's 1980 Cenerentola by Rossini with a wonderful City Opera cast: Suzanne Marsee, Gianna Rolandi, Rockwell Blake, Alan Titus, and by (briefly) office mate Brian Salesky, now GD in Knoxville. He kept trying to get me to do EST-but was a good guy withal. I was an intern from nYU, at 22 at my most arrogant, obnoxious and immature. To this day I bless the kindness and patience of Nancy Kelly.

The proof is in the viewing and the listening. You can give away the costume, but YouTube lives on!

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Just Because its Wonderful

 No reason to post this ewxcept I just came across it and fell in love.
Wonderful, indeed!

The Yellow Birds

This is one of the most moving books I've read in a long time.
Two very young soldiers bond in Iraq.
Bond may be the wrong word.
One soldier promises the other soldier he will look after her soon.
This promise becomes a duty, a vow and an imposition.
The son is 18-the other soldier 21.
They are led by a Sergeant not yet thirty.
Even he tough guy asks how old they are? Then he sighs and says look, stay close to me.

We move between the middle east, the U.S. military hospitals in Germany and home:  small towns in the U.S. where nothing extraordinary happens.

I won't give it away. It's a brief book, just over 200 pages but a slow read in the best sense.
The writing is rich but compact. Mr. Powers knows how to chose words. He writes with and austerity that fits the plot and situations-and I kept re reading paragraphs so as not to miss the smallest detail.

Whatever your political affiliations or your views on war-this book will haunt you.

Tom Wolfe has called The Yellow Birds "The All Quiet on the Western Front of America's Arab wars."
 I call it an important and devastating read.

I believe this is Mr. Powers's first novel. I especially love writers who come out of nowhere and hit it outta the park.