Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Books Read in 2013

These are the books I read in the past twelve months. Many titles were suggested to me by the peerless Kassie Rose, WOSU's book critic and my cohort for All Sides Weekend/Books on 89-7 WOSU FM
Ed Hoffman, book antiquarian supreme introduced me to the stories of J.F. Powers and Edwin O'Connor. Kevin Griffith at Capital University kept me on the best literary paths. I digressed with bios of Artie Lange, Debbie Reynolds, Whitey Bulger and Jodi Arias. Shirley MacLaine's daughter wrote a "Mommy Dearest" Read some fun historical fiction by Philippa Gregory

This was also the year I tried and failed to crack William Faulkner.
I DID read, finish and love Ulysees. Did I get it? Dunno. Had a great time reading it. Much of it sounded like the conversations in my grandmother's kitchen fifty years ago.

At my age I try not to re-read. But recently I need ed a Hemingway fix, and went ahead and indulged. Also I don't even try to reisit Wally Lamb or Lionel Shriver.

These are my favorites for 2013:

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
    An incredible study of persons dealing with everything from autism and savants to chronic illness and delinquency. Solomon gives humanity to people and those who care for them

The Testament of Mary  by Colm Toibin
    The mother of Jesus presents herself as a mother scorned and kept at the edge of her son's life and death. A new voice and a real voice for he most revered woman in Christianity

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetze
     NOT what you'd expect

The End of Life Book Club  by Will Schawlbe
    The author formed a book club with his mother as she underwent treatment for cancer. You are welcomed into Mrs. Schwalbe's rich life and you are welcome at her death, surrounded by family and books.

We Are Water by Wally Lamb
     He's done it again.

Thank You for Your Service   by David Finckel
    Vets broken by service in the middle east and what more needs to be one for them and heir families

Patriarch: Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw
      A reexamination of a formidable crook on Wall St. and an appeaser during WWII-and the father of a president

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
    Everyone loves this novel and I did too. A boy survives a n explosion that kills his mother. A small paining is his only legacy.

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
    A hate crime in Maine resonates

Wilson by A Scott Berg
    A complicated man in a ciomplicated time with debilitating illnesses and a randy love life

Zealot by Reza Aslam
     A biography of Christ with an eye toward historical facts and away from dogma

Here's the rest from 2013. *= recommended

*Far From the Tree     Andrew Solomon
One More Thing Before I Go   Johnathan Tropper

The Redgraves     Donald Spoto

*Stella Adler on the American Playwright
John Quincy Adams     Harlow Unger

Outlaw     George Higgins

Queen Unseen    Peter Hince

*NW     Zaide Smith

The Last Runaway    Tracey Chevalier

Tropic of Cancer     Henry Miller

Ride a Cock horse     Raymond Kennedy

*The Leftovers           Tom Perotta (interview with Tom Perotta on this blog)

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train    William Kuhn
A City of Dark Secrets     Michael Douglas

Beautiful Ruins     Jess Walter

Casual Vacancy     J.K. Rowling
*Moscow Rehearsal     Norris Houghton

The Middlesteins     Jami Attenberg

First and Lasting Impressions     Julius Rudel
Redeeming Features     Nicholas Haslam

Crappalachia     Scott McLanahan

Lucky Me     Sachi Parker
*Going Clear Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison  Lawrence Wright

Cranberry Sidewalks     Rodney Crouch
The Law Given     Herman Woulk

*The Testament of Mary     Colm Toibin
Sacred Hunger     Barry Unsworth
The Antagonist     Lynn Coady

Ulysees     James Joyce
Vatican Diaries    John Thavis

Invisible Cities     Italo Calvino

*The End of Like Book Club     Will Schwalbe
*Until I Say Goodbye     Susan Spencer-Wendel

The Swimming Pool Library     Alan Holinghurst

Whitey Bulger      Kevin Cullen and Shelly Murphy

Civil War Dynasty, The Ewings of Ohio   Kenneth J. Heineman
Gods Like Us : On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame     Ty Burr  

Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning T.V.   Brian Stelter
Wheat that Springeth Green     J.F. Powers

Silver Lining Playbook     Matthew Quick
Karajan     Richard Osborne

*Libra     Don DeLillo

Carrie and Me     Carol Burnett

*Frank O'Connor   Stories
*J.F. Powers          Stories

The Line of Beauty     Alan Holighurst

Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church     Lauren Drain

A Thousand Pardons     Jonathan Dee
Blood Doctor     Barbara Vine
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (stories)     George Saunders
In Persuasion Nation     George Saunders

Unsinkable     Debbie Reynolds
You Came Back     Christopher Coake
The Other Queen     Phillippa Gregory

The Woman Upstairs    Claire Messud
*The Burgess Boys     Elizabeth Stout

A Killing in the Hills     Julia Keller

Harvard Square     Andre Anciman

*Too Much Happiness (stories)     Alice Munro
Priestly Sins     Andrew M. Greeley
Sight Reading     Daphne Kolaty

The Way of the Dog     Sam Savage (interview with Sam Savage on this blog)
*Big Brother     Lionel Shriver
I Know This Much is True    Wally Lamb    (interview with Wally Lamb on this blog)

The Collective     Don Lee
Deadly Audit     David Selcer (interview with David Selcer on this blog)
*The Son     Phillip Meyer
*The Execution of Noa P. Singleton   Elizabeth L. Silver

Dispatches from the Edge     Anderson Cooper
Rose for Mary: The Search for the Real Boston Strangler     Casey Sherman
Light in the Ruins     Chris Bohjalian  

*An American Tragedy     Theodore Dreiser
The Butler     Will Haygood
A Study in Revenge     Kieran Shields

The House     Ann Leary
Mary, Ted, Lou and Rhoda
As I Lay Dying     William Faulkner

All That Is    James Salter
Everything That Rises Must Converge     Flannery O'Connor
*Patriarch: Joseph P. Kennedy     David Nasaw

Mothers and Sons     Colm Toibin
Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch   Barbara A. Perry

The Litigator     John Grisham
The Girl Who Loved Camellias

Manuscript From Accra     Paolo Coehlo
Salinger   David Shields
Raise the Beem     J. D. Salinger

Sanctuary     William Faulkner
Inferno     Dan Brown
*Five Days at Memorial     Sheri Fink

*The Childhood of Jesus    J.M. Coetze
*Dissident Gardens     Jonathan Lethem
*Sparta     Roxandra Robinson

Helen Taft: Musical First Lady   Louis Gould
The Empty Family     Colm Toibin

Ear to the Heart     Mother Dolores Hart
*Thank You for Your Service     David Finckel

*The Aftermath     Rihdian Brook
The Silent Wife     A.S.A. Harrison
*Drama High     Michael Sokolove

Pray for us Sinners Patrick Taylor
Crash and Burn    Artie Lange
*Zealot    Reza Aslam

Adam     Henri Nouwen

*The Orphan Master's Son     Adam Johnson
The Salinger Contract     Adam Langer

Queen Anne     Anne Somerset
Basketball Diaries     Jim Carroll

*The Way We Live Now     Anthony Trollope
Nine Inches     Tom Perrotta

Wotan's Daughter: The Life of Marjorie Lawrence     Richard Davis

Bobby Orr: My Story     Bobby Orr

*Empty Mansions     Huguette Clark

*Wilson     A. Scott Berg

*Brewster     Mark Sloucha
Americans in Paris: Americans During the Nazi Occupation

Johnny Carson     Henry Bushkin
*Reinventing Bach     Paul Elie
The Best Short Storeis of 2013 ed. Elizabeth Strout

*The Color of Water     Wally Lamb

The Sun Also Rises     Ernest Hemingway
Tony C. (Conigliaro)     David Cataneo

A Farewell to arms     Ernest Hemingway
*The Goldfinch     Donna Tarrtt

Exposed: Jodi Arias     Jane Velez-Mitchell

*The Death of Santini     Pat Conroy

One Verdi Opera per Day: At Last, Falstaff

Tito Gobbi
Today marks the final day of Verdi's bicentennial year. I've made it a point to listen to every one of his operas, minus some of the revisions, in sequence. I came across some unexpected new hits, including Alzira which the composer himself disowned. It was great becoming acquainted with Il corsaro and I masnadieri. Less so with Un giorno di regno.

There are a handful of operas considered to be miracles. I'm not sure how subjective my list is: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria; Cosi fan tutte; Norma; Aida; Tristan und Isolde; Otello...to these I would add Giuseppe Verdi's final opera, Falstaff 


Verdi's fat knight out of Shakespeare has been much in the news lately. The Metropolitan's new production is a huge hit. The action has been moved from Elizabethan Windsor to Elizabethan II Windsor, circa 1955.I thought everything worked. The costumes, big bellies and big hair, the dirty underwear, what was not to love? Ambrogio Maesteri owns this role. You know why? Language.

Falstaff is about language. Not just for its Shakespearean roots but but for Arrigo Boito's masterful
Boito and Verdi
adaptation and translation. Mrs. Quickly sprouts "Povera donna!"  a dozen times and its never boring. Falstaff makes love to himself, to youth and to the audience as remembers his days in service to the Duke of Norfolk, when he was sottile, sottile, sottile (skinny skinny skinny)

Ambrogio Maesteri

Falstaff's word setting is conversational. You needn't know Italian well to listen to this opera as one would watch a masterful TV sitcom. I Love Lucy and Vitametavegimin comes to mind. Or Carol Burnett as Scarlet O'Hara. The ensembles often sound bus, because the characters are, plotting against one another-wives v. husbands. The forward momentum, often the joy of the music makes Falstaff a "fast opera", over before you know it and you want to hear it again. Now.

Verdi knew what he was doing, saying goodbye with a comedy. Falstaff himself is US. We are all foolish, silly and stupid. We all deserve both comeuppance and forgiveness. Other people need to laugh and need to forgive. My favorite parts of this score are the juxtapositions of the raucous with the sublime


The great final fugue borrows lines form a different Shakespeare play. Tutto nel mondo e burla: The whole world is crazy. This is the farewell of Verdi and his gift to the audience. W know the composer was a taciturn and rather unpleasant man. Sad to think he was suppressing such sentiments, such music for eighty years. But the last six minutes give us a g'bye with happiness and no bitterness. VIVA VERDI.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Opera is Back and Columbus Has Got It

The title may be poor grammar but the excitement is sincere. Opera/Columbus has reinvented itself as an organization dedicated to local talent, world class excellence and a damned good time. Last weekend's performances of  Madama Butterfly at the Southern Theater is the beginning of a wonderful new chapter.

The New York City Opera has shut own after seventy years. World clas opera companies are teetering. The august Met no longer plays to packed houses, whether or not Anna Netrebko is singing. (I wonder how early the standing room line begins these days. In my day it was four a.m. to hear Sutherland, Pavarotti, Domingo, Milnes, Price, Siepi...you get my drift) Opera Columbus has been shipwrecked more than once. I don't think that will ever happen again.

I've seen Madama Butterfly a hundred times. So have you. I've seen it seen it set in  a whore house, in Hiroshima after the bomb, and as a drag show I shit you not. I've heard it sung in Croatian, French and sort of English. I know my way around this show. Opera/Columbus's production outshone most of these.

When an opera is done in this town I switch right into I know more than you so how you gonna impess me mode. Well, slap me on the ass and call me Sally!

This production markrs the beginning a collaboration with the Ohio State School of Music. Truth to tell, this is not new but has now been made o-fficial. The scene shops, orchestra musicians, singing musicians, and stage craft will all blossom with such a collaboration. I hope they involve Dan Gray and Kristine Kearney.
Rebecca Turk made bautiful costumes for this Butterfly.

But the audience doesn't care. Were they moved? Did the show look beautiful? Was the singing wonderful? How was the conductor? Did the stage director actually know the opera?

Yes. Yes. Oh, yes.  Terrific. Absolutely.

Olga Perez Flora, Espen Elfers, Priti Gandhi

Conductor Kostis Protopapas eschewed the Karajan-esque sentimentality that can drench and cheapen this opera. He gave us a brisk, unsentimental reading. The chours twice began to veeroff course. Protopapas firmly righted the ship, immediately. This maestro did something new to me: He conducted what Puccini wrote. No extra layers of musical psycho babble-unwanted retards, shifts in tempi, or cliff hanger note lingering were. Protopapas was Riccardo Muti was heart.

Harold Meers as Pinkerton
Likewise stage director Crystal Manich told the story of Madam Butterfly. She trusted the work to do its magic, by offering a clear, motivated and beautifully looking production. Manich offered several new touches: The prelude to Act III was staged with several Pinkertons and Butterfly fruitlessly searching for the real thing. There was a nice touch in Act I where Pinkerton was blocked by Butterfly's formidable mother. Little touches like this add up to originality.

Ron Kadri's multi screen set was attractive and functional and never became boring. Special congratulations to Christofer Popowich for his warm lighting, the sun reflected off the sea ('spira sul mare...')

John Nevergall
Okay, yadda-yadda yadda how was the singing? Soprano Priti Gandhi is a a fine musician.  Priti is what we on the old standing room line called a kunst-diva (say that carefully) meaning she is riveting and effective with more than a voice (think Anja Silja or Catherine Malfitano) What about her voice? She's more Callas than Tebaldi (bullshit, she's Priti and she's great) Hers is not the Butterfly voice I most want to hear. The voice lacks spin and a bit of float. She is the Butterfly I most want to see live the role. What do you do with Pinkerton, a naval lieutenant played as asshole deluxe? Harold Meers is a good looking man who sang it beautifully. You can't like the character, but it was good to have a handsome tenor with a fine voice and a good stage presence.
born actress and
Robert Kerr

More to the OSU connection, my boys Robert Kerr (Sharpless) and John Nevergall (Goro)  were front and center terrific. Kerr's was the voice of the show. He needs to go sing in New York and Chicago. His voice often moves me to tears. Yesterday I just set and kvelled.  Nevergall has developed into a character actor of great talent with a voice continuing to grow into leading roles. Full disclosure: I've worked with both of them and am crazy about both of them.

Olga Perez Flora made Suzuki very much a leading role. Her solo opportunities in Act III showed a voice that will one day sing Amneris and Carmen . The smaller roles were  well filled. Everyone created a character and every one down to the one-lines made an indelible impression-no doubt helped by Ms. Manich. There were no small artists in this show.

I despair of published music criticism in this town. I won't do it myself except on my own blog. Conflict of interest and all that. But believe me when I tell you, Opera Columbus is back, with a Madama Butterfly that had Puccini weeping with joy and counting his money  in heaven.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Andre Dubus III: A Writer with Fantastic Reviews and a Great Heart

Andre Dubus III, now in his fifties,  is the son of Andre Dubus (1936-1999) who was a master of fiction short and long.  Andre III is certainly no stranger to success. His novels include House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days.  His memoir, Townie will curl your underwear and break your heart.

Dubus III's new collection of novellas ('novellini) is Dirty Love,   a must read for anyone who enjoys good fiction.

Andre was kind enough to agree to a phone interview from his home in Massachusetts. You gotta love a guy who is an internationally acclaimed author who talks with you  "just come in from putting a roof on my shed" and trying to make himself a cup of coffee...spills and all.

CP: Your new collection, Dirty Love is a collection of four novellas...the New York Times Review of
Books last Sunday,  in a very laudatory review calls it "a new and staggeringly good collection." Tell me your pros and cons of working in the short story form.

AD3: I don't think it's my natural form. It certainly was my father's, who was a great short story writer. I tend to go on and on. Novels seem to be more my natural canvas. What I love about the novella form , first of all I love what Faulkner said. "When the writer first tries his hand, he tries poetry. When he fails at that he tries the short story. When he can't do that either he ends up writing novels. " I think what he means is that the novel is a much more forgiving form. The shorter it is, the harder it is. It's not nearly as forgiving . We've all read 500 page novels that are great . But they could lose 200 pages , but they still are great books.

You can't have that in a short story. Every word really has to be the right word, every scene has to be the right scene. It has to be placed in the right order. That's some of the larger challenges of the shoter form. Also, what I love about it, especially the novella , 75 or 100 pages, that's like sitting and watching a 90 minute or 2 hour movie. You can sit down. But as you know the emotional truth is the hardest to writen after dinner, or in a char with your tea, and you can have the whole experience in one sitting before bed. I think that's pretty cool.

CP: Where did you get your eye for detail?

AD3: Beats the hell outta me.
I write slowly, I report back what people see, what they're smelling, what they're hearing and what's making them think and feel. It's really the way I think myself into their varied stories

CP: I've always thought everything in your fiction rings true. Then I read Townie and realized everthing is true! Tha'ts a memoir, not ficiton, but must have been devastating to write while supplying you with ideas for fiction.

AD3: Yeah. Any memoir writer after A Million Little Pieces is really careful not to flub anyting. I try to be very accurate about everything I remembed. Then I'd check it out and corroborate things with friends. Like my buddy Bill who's Sam in the book . "Buddy that was a Trans Am we threw in the lake wasn't it? Was it Schlitz Tall Boys we were drinking?" that kind of thing...I think you need to be honestly naked but emotive and fair to others

CP: You had a very difficult life when you were young. Was it hard to go back there?

AD3 No. For years I tried to write the stuff in Townie as fiction. And it just wouldn't come. I try to leave my own life behind when I'm writing fiction. Frankly, I have more fun when I do. 

This whole memoir came out of my taking my sons to baseball , and I remember thinking how come I didn't play baseball? The hardest part of writing Townie was not my own life and my own pain and my own darkenss. There was enough distance from that. It was writing about my famuily that was the hardest. Writing about my father when he wasn't there to defend himself . That was the hardest part.

CP: Here you are a successful writer with a family and a great life. How did that happen?

AD3:  I'm one of these secular humanist types who prays every day. I have a hard time believing in a God but I pray every day. I started praying when we had our first child twenty-one years ago. We have three kids. And really, there's got to be some divine hand behind everything.

One thing I've learned. Having gone from a sedentary, depressed, scared kid to an athlectic, hard, disciplined kid, I learned some valuable lessons.  I learned that you can change your life. I learned that you can acutally go from dark to light, through your own actions. Just the discipline of changing myself from soft to hard, and from passive to active, it creates a thousand litle changes. Every day these add up to a life.
I can't take all the credit. I'm very aware tha there are larger, mysterious forces helping us. I have no idea what they are but I do sense them out there.

CP: Your characters in Dirty Love and in your other work live very hard lives .They have a lot of challenges. Do you have hope for them?

AD3: Yeah! A friend of mine , this  tough lady from Lynn, Massachusetts , which is a really tough town,  has this great expression. "Y'know honey, nobody gets outta here alive!"

CP: Jim Morison said that, too

AD3: I love that! I think its hard for everybody. I'm always a little surprised when someone talks about these characters being flawed or having hard lives, they just looks like all the people I know~!

CP:  I didn't find them flawed--I'm fascinated the character of e overweight young woman , she finally meets a guy who loves her and who is good to her--but he's boring! He's a neat freak. And she wonders if she's better off alone. But I'm read that and saying "Be careful honey, he may be your only shot...
I like the fact that in the end she thought she might be happier on her own.

AD3:  I was really wrestling with couple-dom three. This pressure to stay in a couple just so you're in one. It's not always the best choice for us as individual souls. I have a lot of hope for these characters. I have hope in everybody. I tend to be haunted on a personal and maybe artistic level by how wrongly things can go in life. But frankly that's' where good stoies lie .  A lot of us do get out of one tough mess and then we have a good stretch and then another tough mess, and that's just part of life. .

There's a wonderful line from the French writer Leon Blum who said, "Man has places in is heart which do not yet exist. Into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence."

People who have suffered and come through the other side, their hearts are larger and they end to have psychological and emotional and spiritual muscles that will serve them and frankly others later  in times of crisis. If you look at the word crisis in Chinese , its two characters...anger and opportunity.

CP: I think too that people often don't have a choice. They have to live and get on with it it. I think that can be helpful

AD3:: I think so, too. We have to survive. I do think -I really try never to inject a philosophical stance in my stoires. I really just try to be these people and live their lives and see where they go-I do thnik that Amercian culture , we kind of whine quite a bit. I think we're fairly immature. I'm not say this of individual people, -the country's full of hard working, good people, but as a culture, I think that whole life, liberty, pursuit of happiness  has done a number on us. I think the older cultures we all come from know better. Life, liberty and surviving the best you can. I don't think life is about being happy.

It's about striving, and growing and trying to live an authentic life. When you do that, you have moments of great joy but also momentst of great darkness, but that's part of being alive.

CP: Were you writing professionally when your father was alive?

AD3:  I was, yes, for years. My dad was really generous with me. He was generous with all young writers. He got to see my fist two books published. My third book, the one that put me on the map was a novel called "House of Sand and Fog" . He read that in manuscript and he read the first two or three reviews . He died two days after it came out in hard over . He actually predicted when the read the manuscript that it would be a finalist for the national book award. Six months later, he died, and and six months later, on my mother's birthday, they called......


Monday, November 18, 2013

Notes From a Trappist Monastery

My Visit to Gethsemani.

Because this is long, I have highlighted my favorite points.

Our Lady of Gethsemani

I have always been curious about monastic life. I had read Augustine, Merton and some of the lives of the saints. The political stance of the Catholic church in recent years, along with the horrendous child abuse scandals and the church's (lack of) response to it has kept me and many others distant. My interest in ritual and prayer survives any loss of confidence in dogma of the church militant.

Growing up I was about an hour and a half away from St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Ma. I visited once as a child, and remember hearing the monks chant the hours. I remembered the beauty and peace of the surroundings. But that was a very long time ago. Now, I live closer to the "source",  the super bowl of Trappists monasteries in the U.S., The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Trappist, KY. They bought the town no less. Nearest large burg is Bardstown. This is the Abbey where Thomas Merton lived from 1948 until his death twenty years later. From here, his prolific theological writings traveled the world. It was good to realize that Merton, a devoted Trappist liked booze and he liked women and he abandoned neither.You struggle. Some days are better than others.

Last week I drove the four and a half hours to Gethsemani.  I stayed three days.

Monday, November 12

 First thing they asked on the phone is Will you be here for lunch? I didn't know when I made the request in August-and I'm not sure now. The drive from Columbus is uneventful. Pleasant enough. I don't like to listen to music while driving. I like news or talk radio. My 89-7 colleagues kept me good company until just before I hit Cincinnati. After that, it was catch-as-catch-can, but a lot of rocky-country music (I love real country music, but all this multi tracked digital shit drives me nuts) Still, there was a fair amount of Jesus and damnation in words and music over various stations. Good sports radio (Mike and Mike!)  Good boys singing about broke ol' heart since she went off but left me with Jesus. Okay.

The signs to the Bluegrass parkway begin twenty miles-it seems-before the entrance. Eventually, I hit New Haven Rd., and take the left onto Monk's Rd. The surroundings are hay fields-mowed, barren, trees, flat and and a few gentle rises. All of a sudden the monastery is on your left, like a Great White Whale. I imagine the physical plants are very different from what Merton knew. Everything is white washed, sleek, functional. It's a no fuss style of architecture The monastery owns the surrounding 250 aces. They haven't farmed in years. Nowadays the bills are paid via a sophisticated fudge-fruit cake and cheese making concern.

Once you hit the walkway from the parking lot you encounter SILENCE. There are signs everywhere. Shut Up.

WE SPEAK SILENCE HERE. In the dining room  SILENCE. In the church and corridors, SILENCE. In the can-SILENCE. And in case you miss the point, SILENCE!

Not twenty minutes after my arrival a group of bikers showed up. Roaring in on their hogs, leather jackets, doo-rags, biker chicks. Kentucky Guns on the back of their jackets. They headed for the gift shop and came out laden with books, tchotkes and fudge, And roared off.

There's no place to indicate where retreatants head. When in doubt go to the gift shop. The lady there directed me to "the little door on the left" and there I am. The brother on duty doesn't seem to know what to do with me. I report in, state my business. "You're staying in the monastery wing". Where is that? "Sext starts in ten minutes."

The attached church is easy enough to find. It's a long shoe box. 1950s era stained class. The long nave is white washed. There's no crucifix to be seen. A long narrow space with six steel beams holding up the dome over the main altar. But that's far away. There are a long rows  of benches on each side of the central aisle. Here the monks live. Really. They are in this church eight times a day, beginning at 3 a.m. Past this are black conference room style chairs, about four rows in front of the modern altar. I came to love the church. Nothing gets between you and prayer.

The monks file in for Sext (12.15) at the bells. I count 30-surprisingly quite a few were under forty and several in their twenties. They each have an assigned space. They chant the psalms antiphonally, in English. We guests listen and way from back of the church-those conference room chairs here, too. There's a waist high glass partition between us and the monks in the church.

Dinner, the main meal,  follows Sext. I skipped dinner to unpack and take a walk. To get to my room Brother had to give me pre-printed instructions. Take the elevator to three, walk down to two, walk another seven steps, cross over the church balcony, go through another door and "room 2050 should be easy to find." You know what? It was!

There's no direction and no orientation past what you read in your rooms. My room is nice. My first apartment in New York wasn't as nice as this. Spotless. Simple bed. Plenty of linens and blankets. Good light. Overlooking the monk's cemetery. Sink provided. Shower and loo down the hall. Were I in the retreat house proper I would have had a modern room with private bath. I had asked to stay in the monastery wing because I wanted to meet and talk with the monks. Guess what? No access. Plenty of doors say MONKS QUARTERS and SILENCE.

There are twenty other retreatants, all men but two. The entire retreat is in silence. Thus to this day I know nothing about them. I read the guest book and saw Indiana-Ohio-Kentucky-NY-Wisconsin and priest-pastor-priest-criminal attorney-priest-deacon-retired high school teacher-student.  In three days we never spoke to one another.. Click on this link:


By 2:15, after a walk around the grounds it was time for None. Now I could listen to the chant. I expected it to be gentle, authoritative and Latin. What I heard was a bit scattered, slow and in English. Then it hit me, the truth of this place. The monks are not performing. They are working. Their entire purpose is to pray for the world by chanting the canonical hours. Everything else they do contributes to the seven daily offices and the Mass.  The Holy Rule of St. Benedict requires monasteries to be self-supporting. Work pays the bills. Monks work from 8 a.m. to noon. The rest of the day they pray, read, do some chores, pray some more and go to bed at 8 p.m. Trust me, this is no easy life.
Any one of these monks, at 25 or 80, could easily throw me over the wall..

Nothing distracts the Brothers from prayer. Not fancy buildings, not gorgeous grounds or gourmet food. The buildings are attractive and functional. The church is austere. The grounds are nice-spacious but we are not in the Swiss Alps. The  food is the penance.

More signs everywhere: INTRODUCTORY FILM AT 6.40!. Would they come and drag us in? I didn't need to find out. It's a nice well made film, everything we need you to know in twenty minutes, from chant to cheese.

The film made me miss the 7 pm rosary. I wanted to be there. Tomorrow. Compline at 7.30 was lovely. The chant and readings were beautiful, a perfect quiet end of the day.

Tuesday, November 12.

At 3 a.m.  a deep, slow bell began to toll. Fifteen minutes later we were all in church for Vigils. The church is completely dark. Slowly you make out the monks beginning to file in. Lights come up slowly and they are all in place.

The monks chanted and prayed. I was comforted to see more than one monk yawn.  There's lighting over the guest areas and balcony usually kept on, so we can read and follow along. I wish they'd kill these lights. I would have much preferred to sit in the darkness, and listen. The church balcony gives a great view of the monks in their stalls. Its only a few steps from my room, and I came in in sweatpants and socks. The monks begin their day at 3 a.m. I went back to bed. Just down the hall.

Lauds at 5:45.  For the daily Mass at 6:15 we are admitted to the main altar and the church proper. The mass is simple and beautiful.  The church acoustics make it very difficult to understand what is said. Remember the Monks are doing this for God, not themselves. Acoustical comfort is not a priority..
At communion I kept the host in my hand. I am used to tincture, dipping the host in the wine. I froze when offered the cup, host in hand. The Monk said to me, "Arntcha gonna eat the host?

Abbot Elias (L)
The Abbot is a very tall lean man who looks not older than forty. There is something austere about him. I found out later he's in his early fifties and has been Abbot  for six years. Abbots are elected for six year terms so I guess he faces re election. Does he campaign? I don't know. I found out much later his name is Raymond Dietz, now Dom Elias Dietz. The Abbot is the head guy in charge, helped by a council. But the buck stops with him.

I had found the wonderful guest library and walked the grounds and the surrounding woods. Yesterday was a perfect day, in the 50s. I was able to sit outside and read 'Zealot' by Reza Aslam. This is a new biography of Jesus, putting him in a historical context. Aslan's view would be at odds with the dogma in which I was raised, which these brothers espouse. His Jesus is a Jewish peasant from the boondocks. It was  interesting to read about James, the brother of Jesus. James had a very active role after the crucifixion, but he is played down, since early prophets didn't want to deal with the virgin birth. We never hear of siblings for Jesus but Aslan insists he came from a large family.

I took a ninety minute walk outside, through the woods on the side of the building. There was a separate path, monks only. They are serious about their own silence and mine. The Brothers live and work in the world. Interior silence is a big part of their lives. They are silent so their brothers can be silent. They are silent while stirring vats of fudge, or pounding cheese or decorating fruitcake. It is made clear that as a visitor you need to partake of the silence for your own benefit and that of everyone else.

Father Louis (Thomas)
died December 10, 1968
 I  visit the Monks cemetery. White crosses only. Only in recent years have the decedents name been included. Its interesting to me that someone who died in 1976 can be next to someone who died in 2008. Merton's grave is a pilgrimage site. There were stones left for him. I also visited the grave of Father Matthew Kilty. He died in 2011, well into his 90s. His talks and sermons are on line, given in a terrific South Boston accent. He sounds like my late Uncle Jack.

This morning we had our first conference with the guest maser, Brother Christian. He's been in the community for forty years. He began as infirmarian, caring for the old and sick. Then he scrubbed toilets, then he went into the Abbey's fruitcake/cheese business, as head salesman. He supervised the catalog and the mail order business. He told us that every November they process 50,000 holiday orders from around the world. Local people are hired to work the phones and process orders. "We work from 8 a.m. to 12 noon. We could easily process a million orders if we worked round the clock. But we are Monks. We earn just enough to pay the bills. Our primary purpose is prayer. "Remember, the walls around the monastery aren't meant to keepp you out, but to keep the silence IN."

We live for

Of these, spiritual reading is the most important. It gives us a basis for our prayers. There's no radio or TV here. We get newspapers. We do keep up with the world. After all, we gotta know what we're paying for!" There is limited Internet access. Used in business  of course. The web is highly filtered. The Abbott can tell who is going on what sights and access is shut off after a half hour. Prayer is the reason. Not the web.

Breakfast was porridge each day. You call it oatmeal. Plenty of raisins and brown sugar. Coffee  is pretty good. Dinner-at twelve thirty was oh my God-a sort of tuna casserole with shells. Penance,. We ate slivers of the Monk's fruitcake and bourbon fudge-the latter about 100 proof and irresistible. Goodbye, AA!

I enjoy the library. I'm going through some Merton, his book on silence. Also Henri Nouwen's book on his care of Adam, a man with daunting physical handicaps. A biography of Jean Vanier, who founded the L'Arche communities for the disabled. No New York Times here. Catholic magazines I'd best avoid.

The Abbey chaplain, Father Joseph makes himself available in the afternoons. I went to see him because I wanted to talk to a monk! Father has been at Gethsemani for 67 years! He is elderly but clear. Soft spoken. He must have seen and heard it all. I asked him if Thomas Merton's (Father Louis) fame was bad for the Abbey's privacy. No-but it was very troubling to Merton. He lived his last two years as a hermit.

I saw Father Joseph throughout my stay, at his age in choir at 3 a.m. and at every other time. When you ask him a question you get very perfunctory answers. He is by no means impolite. But conversation is not part of the deal here.

I walked over to the gift shop. Bought a rosary "made by the monks of Gethsemani." Looks a bit like cocoa puffs strung together with walnuts. It cost 18.95. This gift shop is large and VERY pricey. More than one of these monks  has an M.B.A., you mark my words.

The afternoon offices of Terce and None get a little tedious. By this time you've been up since 3 a.m. You have not spoken. You have walked and prayed and read. You are surrounded by people, but lonely.  Silence is not easy. I find Vespers at 5.30 difficult. Compline is absolutely beautiful. The going to bed. May you watch over us this night. We all become five years old again, for ten seconds. Comforting.

Supper was scrambled eggs, bacon, salad, peaches, fruit cake. You can have coffee or iced tea, hot water, cocoa, fruit any time, 24/7 help yourself. Boxes of fudge were put out this afternoon for snacking. I got giddy, again.

 Rosary at 7 pm is for laymen. Thee were six of us in the Skakel Guest Chapel. Ethel Kennedy is a Skakel. So's her nephew Michael, currently doing time for beating a young girl to death many years ago. Evey family has its ups and downs. Everyone took turns but I sat it out, said it on my own. Not ready to share this yet. Still, I finally heard some speaking voices!

Wednesday, November 13

This morning I clicked into my surroundings and began to feel the peace. It's clear very very few places like this exist in the world. It's only purpose is to pray. Everything supports prayer. The silence outside is magnificent. You seldom hear a car. Even the bikers didn't make a lot of noise. In the woods there's silence. The leaves have already dropped. The birds have flown south and the bears are hibernating. Ask yourself, whens the last time you experienced total silence. The beauty of the sky, the tree, the fields and the buildings come into much sharper focus. It gets difficult when you turn into yourself.

Brother Christian gave very interesting talks at 8.30 a.m. The definition of Holiness is having a heart willing to give and open to receive love.  He told us about the bungler. Everybody has a neighbor who wants to help out. You mow the lawn, there he is. Wash the car he shows up. Walk the dog, he comes along-and scares the dog. He wants to help. He is inexhaustible and does everything wrong. You want to run when you see him coming. But he is trying. Every day he is trying. That is his ministry. He never gives up. Yours is patience and love and nobody says its easy..

I went to the gift shop today. More fudge samplers available for the tasting. I wrote down several book titles to find in the library back home.  Chief among them  the true story of the nuns of Compiegne who were guillotined during the French revolution. Their story is the basis for Poulenc's opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites. There are several books about L'Arche and its founder, Jean Vanier.  I'd like to know more about the L'Arche (Ark) communities. These are places where handicapped people are cared for one on one-living in the world. There are several in the U.S., one in Bradford, MA! Henri Nouven was chaplain for L'Arche Daybreak in Toronto. He's a very prolific spiritual writer. Nouven can get whiny. I suspect he was very needy in person. I don't think he ever felt loved, so he gave and gave and gave and life sometime overwhelmed him. Just an impression. I don't know.

There are two small hills on the property for climbing. Even better there's trail through the woods marked To the Statues. They do love their signs here. Signs To the Statues every twenty feet, over a stream, up a hill, through the woods, through hay fields. To the Statues. Finally, two large bronze pieces. One a kind of pieta, standing figure in grief. They were sculpted by Walter Hancock. They are in memory of Jonathan Daniels, one of the Freedom Fighters killed in Alabama in 1965. Worth the walk to say a prayer for him.


I have to say again its frustrating to be amongst people and know nothing about them. As far as I can tell, everyone respects the silence. I do, but its hard. This is not an easy life.
I think of this when I watch the young Monks. Today a young man in jeans sat amongst the brothers. Clearly he's more than a visitor, he's trying out for postulancy. What brings a young guy into this life in 2013? Unceasing work and prayer. Bad food. No women. Long hours. Silence. I want to understand better the nature of being called. It must be you come here because you can't NOT come here.

Lunch today was small chicken cutlets,  skinless and none too well done. More fruitcake. And smoked cheddar, both from the monastery kitchens.

My sense of peace and gratitude lasted the entire day, right through Compline.. The Monks chant  in unison, without harmony. When they're really cookin' the sound of men singing is powerful and beautiful.

Thursday November 14

Brother Christian spoke this morning of the accepted church truths. He concentrated on Mary and the virgin birth. Non negotiable.  "We are lucky to have Mary as our mother. We have had everything given to us.". I haven't heard comments like this in fifty years.  I was touched but don't think I can buy into it.  To do so requires more faith than I have at the moment. Long ago I adopted St Joseph. Brother Christian went on to remark that Joseph disappears shortly after Christ's birth. As a Jewish man Joseph would have been head of his family. Very little if any public role for his wife."His mission was fulfilled-and he was taken into heaven." Hearing this while reading Aslan's book is fascinating and troubling. Aslan maintains that the
virgin birth was invented. Joseph probably died in Jesus's childhood. Jesus almost definitely had siblings. Joseph disappears because he could not have "weathered he Crucifixion" Instead, Christ was mourned by his mother and the women at the foot of the cross. Then why does the church continue to refuse to ordain women? And yeah, the Crucifixion may have broken Joseph's heart, but to say he 'could not have weathered it'?....

I really like Brother Christian. He's from Lynn, Massachusetts. He's been at Gethesemani for forty years. Later I did speak to him briefly one on one. He was friendly, but came across like a very busy executive, which he is. I asked about the statues in the forest. "Dunno. I only know what 's written up there.". I asked about the young man in mufti: "Oh yeah, he must be a new postulant. You'd hafta ask the vocation director." A smile and a warm handshake but no nonsense. He did say, and he meant "I am glad you're here."

I'm leaving later this afternoon, one day early. I'd love to stay longer, but want to be back for a broadcast tomorrow and a weekend of pre concert talks for which I have yet to prepare! I've been feeling content and very peaceful silence yesterday. Last night after Vespers I sat in the church by myself. The organist was practising a Bach chorale. I couldn't see him. I loved the music and the peace of the empty church. The energy of the Monks's prayers was still palpable..

Back to the gift shop. I bought fudge, blueberry jam and cheese. Some Christmas tree ornaments for the two kids of a friend of mine. Bought some cards. The books I'll get from the library. Sheesh. I did notice a house painter, all in white, with a plastic cap, and shoe coverings. He was a middle aged man flirting with the ladies in the shop.  He was a very jolly guy. After I left with my purchases  I stopped in to see a little film about the monastery. I was interrupted by my jolly house painter friend. He thrust a box of fudge at me. Here! Take this with you! With God's blessings!" It turns out  he is Brother Albert, the head candy maker. "You gotta get in the candy business!" he told me.

Sixty seconds with Brother Albert made my visit. I took my fudge and my cheese and my ornaments and went back to the church. My car was already packed. I sat in the church and found I couldn't leave. I actually couldn't get up and walk to my car. The church was empty. I have never felt such peace as in those final moments. Eventually I got up, took my fudge, and went home.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

We Are Water: An Interview with Wally Lamb

Wally Lamb's novels She's Come Undone and I Know This Much is True were both selected for Oprah's Book Club before and after achieving best seller status. Lamb's novel The Hour I First Believed dealt with the after effects of the 1999 Columbine massacre. Wally's new book is We Are Water . Like his previous novels, this is a multi-layered family saga with unexpected turns and several possible endings, not all of them happy.

Wally Lamb is based in Connecticut. He spends a lot of time teaching creative writing to the inmates at York Correctional Institution. Couldn't Keep it To Myself: Testimonies of our Imprisoned Sisters and I'll 
Fly Away are the autobiographical writings of Wally's students at York.

I was able to speak with Wally Lamb by phone on October 23rd. His novels can be read and re read always offering new insights and new enjoyment. Here's our conversation.

CP: Creative Writing 101 tells us write about what you know. You've been quoted as saying you don't write about what you know, or you write about what you don't know

WL: (laughing) Right! And also who I don't know. I create these characters and they sort of lead me into the story. When I wrote a book called I Know This Much is True, I had no idea I was starting a book about identical twins, one of whom develops paranoid schizophrenia.  I didn't know that with this most recent book, We are Water--it's about a family, a husband and wife whose marriage falls apart after twenty-seven years and the wife goes off and falls in love with another woman, marries her.

I didn't realize their three grown children  were going to start speaking in this novel. These are not at all close to my own experiences, but I learn from them

CP: Your novels are about families, very often in some kind of tragedy or dysfunction. When you sit down to begin a book, are you filled with hope for whoever you create, for their lives, after the book is finished?

WL:  Yeah, I think in general I'm a glass half full guy. But I don't know going into the story if the characters are going to be okay, or what the dilemmas are that they are going to have to deal with. They leave,. There's a puppeteer and a puppet and I'm not necessarily the puppeteer.

CP: The Hour I First Believed your novel has the shooting at Columbine as its basis. To me, that tragedy was not the centerpiece of the book but the affect that horror had on a woman who witnessed it, and a domino effect of everything falling apart in her life. Are those things difficult to write?  You are moving toward historical fiction in a way, having to deal with an event that IS true?

WL:  They are difficult to write. But when I look back at the last couple of book I've written, I see I've been greatly influenced by the women at the York Correctional Institution. It's a women prison in Connecticut where I live. I've doing this program for fourteen years. I encourage them to write what the need to write about. Very often what they need to write about is their own lives, especially childhoods. They are not trying to make excuses. It's refreshingly not about that. They do examine some of the traumas in their lives, they connect the dots between those difficult childhoods and what eventually happened to them. I'm teaching them writing, but they're teaching me about life. One of the things that comes over and over and over is the post traumatic stress disorder that comes from childhood molestation. And so, I've gotten quite and education from the women at the prison.

CP: Annie, in We Are Water has had a horrible background as a child. She copes in her own way. She was not very nice to her son as he was growing up. Her former husband, has a traumatic accident. I didn't get that he was enraged about that. He seemed in a period of acceptance. This is towards the end of the novel

WL: I think the novel picks up about three years after the traumatic things that happens to him. He does talk about going through a very dark time and trying to accept his new limitations. There is an examination of how he went down for the count before he rebounded. I think one of things I love most about not only my characters but a lot of people that I meet and I know is he resilience of the human spirit

CP: I'm always fascinated by authors when they sit down that first day at the blank page or the blank screen You wrote a novel where in the first paragraph a man chops off his hand in the public library,.
Now, where did that come from?

WL: That's a great question, Christopher. It came from back when I was a high school teacher . I ran a writing center. I invited people who had been teenagers during the great depression to come in and talk to my students. One of the people who accepted the invitation was a guy that I didn't know . He had been a religious zealot back in the 1940s. He followed a biblical dictate that he believed would stop World War Two.  He made this sacrifice that he took off his hand, a year later he took out his eye,  All I could think of when he was telling this to the kids, to the class.  Oh My God! This oral history project is going on all over the country, and I get this guy!  But he became my subject. All the students were afraid to work with him. I saw in him a kind of screwed up valor. He was locked away in the state mental hospital for about forty years. But there was something brave, something sad and  courageous about this guy. He became the model for Dominic in I Know This Much is True

CP: Your books probably take along time to write because they are so multi-layered. But let me tell you right now, they are not put down books. They are easy reads in the best way. You cannot stop until you finish them. We are Water is certainly in that category.

WL: Oh, Christopher Thank you so much. That means a lot to me!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Were You There? November 22, 1963

For many people my age, the assassination of JFK is our first vivid memory. As happened on 9/11, the world stopped that Friday afternoon. I don't remember much about that weekend nor do I remember watching the funeral as it happened. I remember my father letting out a bellow as Oswald was killed on live TV.

Remember, if you are NOT of a certain age, that television was being used in politics for the first time. I mean in terms of 8 hr a day access five days a week. The 24/7 news cycle and relentless recycling of headlines was way in the future. In my day, headlines meant war, a moon walk, or assignations.

You don't have to like the Kennedys. Many people don't. Certainly those in my generation are rather ho-hum. But you gotta admit, no one had more style than Jackie and JFK. I DO remember my mother buying a pill-box hat. I remember being in the car with my parents and grandparents driving on the Cape and "just having "to go by Hyannisport. JFK was there that weekend. You were allowed to get very close, but no closer. The state police stood gaurd and diverted the long long line of traffic snaking in front of the "compound" You got close enough to see he lawn and the house...And keep moving.

I'm not going to post the horrible news films of that day. We've all seen them and will be seeing them again ad nauseam in the coming weeks.   My question to you is, Where were you when you heard the President had been shot? What do you remember?.

I was in second grade at Harrington School in Lexington, MA. We came out of school the usual time. I remember a lot more parents were picking kids up that day than ususal. One boy called to his mother, Ma! Is it true? I was with my buddy Peter. He was living with his grandmother across the street from us while his father was working in Washington. We both said, we'll call Peter's father in Washington and he'll tell us it isn't true.
Harrington School, Lexington MA, not as I remember it!

My mother was in front of the large black and white rabbit ear TV clutching her rosary beads, glass of scotch--Four Roses, the GOOD stuff- in the other hand yelling Jesus Mary and Joseph! I remember Mrs. Kennedy being helped off the plane at Andrew's Air force base, and getting into the back of the hearse. The door was locked and she had to tug a beat too long. More than that I don't remember from that day. I don't know what we did next. I expect we went to my grnandparentss house in Arlington. They came over from Ireland on the boat fifty years earlier. Their house and pictures of the sacred heart (bleeding, of course) the Pope and JFK side by side. My grandparents house was broken up and sold very recently. I wonder what happened to those pictures.

Please leave a note on this blog and let me know your recollections of November 22,  1963. Thanks. Begorrah.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

One Verdi Opera per Day: Otello

Arrigo Boito after Shakespeare  January 5, 1887  La Scala, Milan

Mario del Monaco, Renata Tebaldi, Leonard Warren, Martha Lipton, Paul Franke, Luben Vichey, James McCracken (Roderigo) Fritz Steidry conducts  Metropolitan Opera broadcast  March 12, 1955

This gets harder. It wasn't too difficult to offer impressions of the early Verdi operas. I liked Aroldo and Alzira , didn't care much for Giovanna d'Arco. But when you get into Aida=Don Carlo it gets harder to know what to say. Otello is harder still. I love this opera. I'm thrilled by it. But I seldom listen to it. So real does the tragedy become for me that I can't bear knowing what's to come, even from act I. Still, what tenor has a greater entrance than Otello's 'Esultate!'.  What baritone has a more sinister monologue that Iago's Credo.

And what soprano has the exquisite Salce and Ave Maria for Desdemona.

I avoid listening to Otello partly for what I've already stated, and partly because I fear the miracle of it won't hit me. I listened again today. I got hit.

Look at the devices used to relive tension. The Fuoco di gioia! chorus in Act I. The magnificent offstage serenade of Desdemona in Act II. Then in Act III, after Desdemona is insulted by her husband ('vil cortigiana!) Iago seduces Cassio-I intend that word, seduce-first with bel canto:Vieni...l'aura e deserto...and then piu rapido.

The final act orchestration always sound spare. Not just eerie, but haunted. Otello's suicide till keeps wit hit a degree of dignity-he remains a heroic figure, an important person, even after falling prey to Iago and murdering his wife. Verdi forbids us to regard Otello as stupid. Which is easy to do!

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

One Verdi Opera a Day: AIDA

 Aida  Antonio Ghislanzoni  Auguste Mariette, Bey  Cairo  1873

Leontyne Price, Rita Gorr, Carlo Bergonzi, Mario Sereni, Cesare Siepi. Georg Solti conducts. Metropolitan Opera broadcast, December 7, 1963

One British critic wrote, "Aida brings out the epicurean." Spare me. Here's a four act opera set in the Egypt of the Pharaohs. Dark body paint, walk-like-an-Egyptian,  all singing away in Italian. Are you dying
laughing? No one ever was. Aida has not one spare note of music.
Aida was my first. Do you remember yours. It wasn't the initial "sigh of the violins" that got me, but the low strings introducing the second theme in the prelude.


Aida introduced me to great voices and to drama. With no sense of the plot and no Italian , anyone can feel something else is about to happen. Something dangerous. There's a lot of  urgency of this music. Even at its most seductive and romantic, there is always the sense that something is about to happen

Verdi gives us splendor unparalleled in opera, and a sad, gorgeous death scene, all in the same score.

and there's no topping Verdi's triumphal scene. The composer doesn't give even try. Verdi gives us a finale of deep quiet and beauty:

I remember in particular  two productions of Aida. One in 1980. The Opera Company of Boston. Sarah Caldwell staged and conducted the work for Shirley Verrett. Verrett was going through her "I'm a soprano" phase, with hits and misses. Her Aida was a hit. At least as I heard it. She was regal, she was tragic and her
voice soared to touch heaven. James McCracken was Radames, a big burly man with a weird , opaque sounding voice. But power he had and beauty, too. Elizabeth Connell, Amneris and David Arnold, Amonasro. Ramfis was Ferruccio Furlanetto in his American debut. Sarah got lost in the prelude during the first performance. It was one of those start again moments only she was damned if she was going to start over. The assistant conductor was standing in front of me hissing "Jesus!" "shit!" and worse. Sarah was nonplussed.

Leontyne Price made her farewell to opera as Aida, a part she owned. It was January 5, 1985.McCracken was Radames. Some of us wanted to go back and see him but he told us, "Hell,  they'll barely let ME backstage." Miss Price's farewell was an electrical event. The lady had been dealing with a hoarse and froggy lower register for a few seasons. but on this night, all was well. Her voice was filled with splendor and light and passion and she was Leontyne Price and I was there, in standing room:

Aida, the opera of humanity. Viva Verdi!

Monday, September 23, 2013

One Verdi Opera a Day: Don Carlo(s)

Don Carlos  Joseph Mery, Camille du Locle  Paris Opera 1867

Don Carlo   Achille du Lauzieres   Naples 1872/ Bologna 1872/Milan 1884/Modena 1886

Neil Shicoff, Pilar Lorengar, Alan Titus, Stefania Toczyska, Robert Lloyd, Joseph Rouleau/John Pritchard. San Francisco Opera, September 5, 1986 

Don Carlo  Placido Domingo, Margaret Price, Piero Capuccilli, Elena Obrasztova, Yegeni Nesterenko/Claudio Abbado  La Sacla, January 7, 1978

If you put a gun to my head and made me choose between the original French language Don Carlos or its several Italian cousins, Don Carlo, I'd probably end up dead. Like many Don Carlo in its five act version is the one I now best. I'm a devotee of the French original (is there an original Don Carlo(s)? Do we know exactly what was performed at the premiere?)

To start with these facts. Don Carlos is a French language opera based on Schiller, composed for the Opera de Paris.  The opera premiered with an elaborate ballet in 1867. The librettists would return to Verdi's life to greater affect in Aida: Joseph Mery and Camille du Locle.

Phillip II
Would you kiss this face? He's not as bad as some. This is King Phillip II of Spain (1527-1598). The King's second marriage, to the French princess Elisabet de Valois (1545-1568). Phillip is at the heart of Don Carlo. So why isn't the opera called Phillip or Phillipp and Elizabeth? Because the King's son, Don Carlos, the Infante of Spain was Elizabeth's first intended, until the King chose the young princess for himself. This example of Oedipal splendor is only one of the strands of Verdi's opera, magnificent in its five act incarnation in French, and bloodcurdling in Italian.

History tells us that the marriage Phillip and Elizabeth was happy, ended by her premature death at the age of 23. We also know that Don Carlos was suffered a devastating head injury in a fall in 1862. The remained of his short life was plagued by violence and delusion. He was nobody's first choice for the altar. He was offered to every available noble lady in Europe, including Mary, Queen of Scots. Nothing doing. Don Carlo was an exact contemporary of his step mother Elizabeth and he died unmarried.

Like most operas based on historical subject, Don Carlos plays with history.  It is a glorious pageant of an opera, in any language. The elegance and danger of the Spanish court is played again the doomed (and fake)
Elisabeth de Valois
love story of Carol and Elisabeth and Carlos and Rodrigue. The latter is mirrored in Verdi;s relationship with his one time pupil, the conductor Angelo Mariani, passionate without a discernible sexual nature.

The horrid chanting of monks at an auto da fe; the flirtatiousness of the Princess Eboli, Elisabeth's resignation and despair, Don Carlo's passion and madness, Rodrigo's love, Phillipp's loneliness: Verdi has a musical signature for each


Princess Eboli, the King's mistress, in love with Don Carlo

Don Carlo and Elisabeth, alone in their misery:

The love of Carlo and Rodrigo

My problem with this opera is that I can't stop.

Here's the Auto-da-Fe scene in French:

Friday, September 13, 2013

One Verdi Opera a Day: Aroldo, Un ballo in maschera, La forza del Destino

Verdi looking Russian
Continuing with my listening to one Verdi opera a day, in chronological order, in honor of the composer's bi
Caruso in Un ballo inmaschera

Aroldo Frncesco Maria Piave  1857  Rimini

Montserrat Caballe, Gianfranco Cecchele, Juan Pons, Vincenzo LaScola, Luis Lehbrez; Opera Orchestra of New York/Eve Queler

Verdi was disgusted with the Franco-Austrian censors and disappointed that some of the public disapproved of Stiffelio. A Protestant pastor and a German no less! The music was too good to waste, thus Aroldo. Aroldo moves the action to medieval England and Scotland-medieval British more tolerated than 19th century German protestants?-The music is not the same, the plot is very similar. If you know and like Stiffelio, Aroldo is well worth a spin. I've never heard Aroldo performed live. The above cited recording is great, but cut. Seek out Fabio Luisi's more recent recording on Philips.

Un ballo in maschera  Antonio Somma 1859 Rome

Maria Callas, Giuseppe DiStefano, Tito Gobbi, Eugenia Ratti, Fedora Barbieri. La Scala/Antonino Votto 

First of all, where are you? Late 18th century Sweden or Colonial Boston (God bless us and spare us). The assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden at a Masked Ball is the basis for this opera. So far, we've met a lot of great Verdi women: Elena/Helene, Giselda, Abigaille, Lady Macbeth, with a lot more to come. Ballo for me is the tenor's opera. Go ahead, laugh. Gustavo is written to well display a strong lyric tenor voice. I always loved Pavarotti in this opera.

 And this sparkling bit for Oscar is effective against the dark plotting of Renato and the assassini

La forza del destino  Francesco Maria Piave  1862 St. Petersburg

Renata Tebaldi, Mario delMonaco, Ettore Bastianini, Cesare Siepi,

Imperial Theater, St. Petersburg
Oh, the singers ho used to perform this opera and oh, the paucity of them today! I hadn't listened carefully to Forza in a long time. It's sprawling, yes and there are a fee moments of crowd painting you could miss-but the tenor/baritone duets!



Leonora's three arias-the scene with Guardiano, and the final trio! If you listen to this closely it will stay with
you for days. I'm not familiar with the score as given at the premiere, only the changed version now performed. This is a heavyweight big/boy big girl opera. Thrilling.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

One Verdi Opera a Day: La traviata, I vespri Siciliani, Simon Boccanegra

Renata Scotto as Elena in I Vespri Siciliani

I'm continuing to listen to one Verdi opera a day, not on consecutive days but in
order, in partial celebration of the Verdi Bicentennial. I'm also making use of Mary Jane Philips Matz's magisterial biography of the composer, along with books by Julian Budden and Francis Toye. Mostly I'm just listening for my own enjoyment, as I hope my comments reflect

Maria Callas in La Traviata
La traviata   Francesco Maria Piave, based on Dumas fils "La dame aux camellias"  Venice 1853
Inspired by the courtesan Marie DuPlessis (1824-1847)

Maria Callas, Giuseppe DiStefano, Ettore Bastianini/Carlo Maria Giulini La Scala 1955

La traviata is an easy opera to take for granted. The story had notoriety before Verdi/Piave got to it, mostly via Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse. What begins in a brittle and cynical manner becomes an exercise in sincerity that dares you to mock. Violetta may be to sopranos as Hamlet is to actors. Again, Verdi is a great tune smith

We go from hedonism to pathos to deeply moving drama

The role of Alfredo is misleading. He has less to do emotionally in the opera. The heart of the piece is the Violetta-Germont scene in Act II. But Alfredo is no easy sing. He's worth doing for the Act III scene at Flora's if for nothing else

 Don't miss the new biography of Marie DuPlessis, whose life inspired Dumas fils and Verdi 

The Girl Who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanaugh



Les vepres Siciliennes   Eugene Scribe/Charles Duveyrier  Paris 1855

Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Gregory Kunde, Dario Solari, Orlin Anastassov/Gianluigi Gelmetti Naples 2011

I vespri Siciliani  Ettore Ciami  Perugia 1855

Renata Scotto, Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, Paul Plishka/James Levine
Metropolitan Opera November 4, 1974

These are two different operas with the same music and plot. Verdi wrote a French opera, to a French text for the Paris Opera.

In Verdi's day opera was sung in the language of the audience, thus necessitating an Italian translation, which
Salle Le Pelletier, Paris c. 1850
the composer hated.  Most of know I vespri Siciliani better than Les vepres Sicilienne. I don't know the French text very well. Even so I can tell the words fit the music perfectly. The French language gives this opera dignity the Italian lacks, the latter becoming more of a pot boiler. I would love to see a staged French language production of Verdi's original. I imagine Vepres/Vespri is a bitch to cast. The duets for Henri/Montfort and Henri/Helene are highlights for me. But my favorite moment in this opera is at the very beginning. The Duchess Helene demands her fellow Sicilians rise up against the French: Some of what I mean is at 4:00. But this is a wonderful clip surrounding the Verpres production from Naples cited above


Verdi knew that the Italian Vespri would run afoul of the censors. The Italian libretto was refashioned and called Giovanna di Guzman.  Whatever.
For I vespri Siciliani, here's a recent production from Verdi's own Parma:

 BTW: Verdi was also working on the French edition of Il trovatore--Le trouvere

Tito Gobbi as Simon Boccanegra

Simon Boccanegra   Francesco Maria Piave   Venice 1857  Music revised with new text by Arrigo Boito Milan 1881

 Tito Gobbi, Giorgio Tozzi, Leyla Gencer, Giuseppe Zampieri, Rolando PaneraiGianandrea Gavazzeni  Vienna Opera Orch and Chorus at the Salzburg Festival August 9, 1961

Sometimes I think this opera gets lost between Traviata and the impending, Ballo, Forza and Don Carlo. I've never paid it enough attention. The tenor and soprano take a back seat to the baritone and bass. Well, I'm here to tell ya, this is one powerful opera. If you don't know, invest 2 hours in a listen. Verdi's music captures both the image of the sea and the grandeur of the Venice of the Doges. There are moments of great intimacy, notably the soft 'Figlia' sung by SB after meeting his adult daughter. The Council Chamber Scene, added in 1881 (I don't know the 1857 version, as far as I know it is rarely performed) I've seen Simon Boccanegra and it plays like the grand opera it is. The last thirty seconds are especially thrilling. Boccanegra dies of poison. The crowd outside is calling for him. Fiesco says Greet Gabriele Adorno, your new Doge. No! Boccanegra! He is dead. Pray for his immortal soul". "

Verdi was apparently discouraged and annoyed with thew opera's failure in 1857. He had written it off until Boito convinced  the composer to accept the revisions, giving us the opera as performed today. Don't miss Simon Boccanegra