Friday, May 29, 2015

Opera Columbus and The Human Voice

Opera Columbus presents a double bill of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and Poulenc's La voix humaine at the Southern Theater. Public preview performance Wednesday June 3 at 7:30, further performances Friday June 5  at 8:00 and Sunday June 7 at 2:00.

Pagliacci is sung in Italian and La voix humaine in French. English titles are projected above the stage. Just come. Allow yourself to be seduced.

Tenor Enrico Caruso self caricature as Pagliacci. H
e's not singing in Columbus
You know Pagliacci. Heart broken clown betrayed by his young wife. Everything ends badly. "No more rice krispies."

Opera Columbus and The Human Voice? Is that a tacky play on words, or what?

La voix humaine is a one act monodrama by Jean Cocteau, set to music by Francis Poulenc and first performed as a one woman opera in 1959. There may be a rolling of eyes among those who "hate opera" in the first place. It's bad enough with all the tenors screaming and the elephants doing on stage what elephants have to do. But at least there's some crowd and some color. What's to enjoy with one lady alone on stage even if she's just wearing a slip, and she's on the phone yet, all the while.
Francis Poulenc

These days couples break up via e mail and texts (wimps) over a lunch break. Fifty years ago you
could break up over the telephone, but you were in a two way conversation making it harder to bail. Believe it or not, it's hard to hang up on someone, be they former lovers or bill collectors.

A woman alone is on the phone with her lover who is clearly leaving her. The table is set for dinner for two. The bed is turned down. Elle (she, her) is being stood up. She realizes this slowly, as it becomes clear the voice on the other end of the phone is humoring her, leading her and hanging up. In the midst of her threats and her pleas, she rails at the operator for dropping "His" call. She orders the party line to empty.

Here's the soprano Camille Zamora, who sings La voix humaine next week in Columbus:

Composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was a devout Catholic who liked rough trade. He was a devotee of the Madonna of Rocamadour, where his nephew was a monk.  Poulenc wrote in every genre. His sacred choral music is exquisite. His opera Les dialogues des Carmelites tells the true story of an order of nuns destroyed by the French Revolution. He wrote a ballet called La biches and another opera called Les mamelles de Tiresias where a man gives birth to 55,000 children. This was a composer of creativity and wit, with a deep spiritual bent.

Poulenc's music, combined with the bite of Cocteau's text that makes La voix humaine a lot more than just some dame being dumped. In the forty minutes it takes from the first dial tone, the audience is damned near wiped out. Cocteau's play has been a vehicle for Ingrid Bergman and Anna Magnani.

Last year, Sohpia Loren returned to the screen for a thirty minute adaptation directed by her son Edoardo Ponti. Both Cocteau and Poulenc insisted that Elle must be a beautiful young girl. Never mind. Since when has Sophia Loren at 80 ceased to be the world's sexiest woman?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Windsors: Were the Duke and Duchess Nazi Friendly? A Visit with Andrew Morton

Andrew Morton is best known for his biography of Princess Diana, on which that unhappy lady collaborated secretly, causing an uproar in the British press and the Queen's orders for Prince Charles and the Princess to divorce. Morton has written biographies of Tom Cruise, Angela Jolie and the Queen herself.

Morton's new book is a study of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. 17 Carnations, The Royals, The Nazis and the Biggest Cover-up in History.

 King Edward VIII abdicated the British throne in December, 1936 in order to marry a twice-divorced American woman, Mrs. Wallis Simpson. As the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the couple lived an international life style among the jet set, a life increasingly meaningless as the years went by. The Duke of Windsor died in 1972, the Duchess in 1986.

I spoke to Andrew Morton from his home in Los Angeles.

 What does the title mean, 17 Carnations?

AM: That's the number of roses Joachim von Ribbentrop sent to Mrs. Simpson during their affair in London, while he was the German ambassador to Great Britain. The number supposedly is the times they were together.

CP: How active was Mrs. Simpson in the abdication? Could she have stopped it?

AM:  Mrs. Simpson tried to stop it. She issued a statement saying Don't do it! But she realized that, and so did Edward VIII's friends that he was very obstinate. He set his heart on marrying Wallis and she was stuck in a corner. She even considered sailing to China to get away from him. She realized he would follow her, and it would be a more undignified situation than that which eventuated.

CP: Shortly after their marriage in 1937 they toured Germany and were photographed with Hitler.  What do  you think the duke was trying to accomplish with this visit?

AM:  Supposedly he was going to look at housing project. Beneath that it was really to show Wallis
what it was like to be treated like a royal.  To be given  the royal treatment, to be treated as Her Royal Highness. That was a title the duke's younger brother, King George VI refused ever to give the Duchess of Windsor. She was always just known as Her Grace . The visit also politically gave suck-up to Hitler and it dismayed Hitler's critics.

CP: Do you think, the duke  found anything admirable in Nazi Germany?

AM:  Yes, he very much admired Nazi Germany. He thought Hitler was  doing a very good job in restoring stability to a country under the Wiemar  regime of the 1920s , which was when inflation was rampant, unemployment was high, there was fighting in the streets  between Communists and right wing organizations like the Nazis,  The duke felt that Hitler restored stability and order to Germany.

CP:  You write that there was plot to put Edward back on the throne as King of a German conquered Great Britain. Was the duke aware of this plot?

AM:  At the time he wasn't aware of this secret plot, hatched by Hitler and his right hand man Joachim von Ribbentrop.   Ribbentrop allegedly had an affair with Wallis Simpson , hence the tile of the book 17 Carnations.  At the time  Hitler, under Operation Willi as it was known, planned to seduce Windsor back to Spain -they were then staying in Lisbon-where they could be kept in a castle and held in abeyance waiting for the Nazis to invade Britain . Then he would be restored as the King. In Norway, Holland and  in all the monarchies the Nazi invaded, they desperately tried to capture the King or the Queen in order to use them as pawns.

CP: You make the point that in 1937 the duke was not alone in his sympathy for Nazi Germany

AM:  Not just the British people but the Americans too. Hitler in Mein Kampf  gave Henry Ford a  special honorary mention .  Many American companies did business with the Nazis and wanted that business to continue during the war. In Britain, Hitler was known by Lloyd George as the George Washington of  Germany!  Hitler had a tremendous following both in America and in Britain.

CP: The Windsors were stashed out of the way in the Bahamas during the war, where the duke was made Governor general. Was he rehabilitated after the war for his pro German views?

AM:  No, he was never really rehabilitated. Quite frankly, after the war when the full horrors of the Third Reich were exposed, when the films of the camps were made known, anybody remotely supportive of  Nazi Germany in the 1930s  was looked upon with disdain.   The duke's right wing views and his friendship with Hitler were seen as very badly judged.  Particularity once people became aware of what the Germans had been doing before and during the war.

One of the  positions of this book is to show how the British and the Americans tried to destroy papers relating to the Duke of Windsor and his views held during the war. They felt these could be extremely embarrassing for the British monarchy.

CP: There were huge files hidden away in a schloss in German  under the pretext of letters from Queen Victoria to her eldest daughter .

AM: In fact there were two operations going on.  King George VI was sending  some of his courtiers out to Germany to a German castle to pick up letters from Queen Victoria . They were also told, keep an eye out  for any correspondence between the Duke of Windsor and Hitler.

But also far more damning, there was a metal canister hidden in the grounds of a German estate, uncovered by a British officer.   Those files exposed all the inner working  workings of the Third Reich. There were conversations between Hitler and Mussolini for example. Between Hitler and the Japanese, there was correspondence with Franco. Among these papers was the Duke of Windsor file. This was incendiary. It showed the duke has contempt for his family, his brother King George VI and sister in law Queen Elizabeth, He had derision for his own nation. He considered that  Britain should have been subject to heavy bombing  to bring her to heel.  He had respect for Hitler.,t the time this would have been very damning,to the duke and to the Royal Family

CP:  But to what extent are those sentiments because the duchess was so totally rejected by everybody in Britain Certainly the Royal Family

AM:  Very much so. Wallis Simpson was seen as a Nazi spy.  She was seen as one notch up from a whore . She was seen by Queen Mary, the duke's mother,  as a sexual hypnotist and those sentiments drove the Duke of Windsor wild. He had utter contempt for his brother the king.  And for his sister in law and the whole court . It really altered his thinking toward Britain and the Royal family.

CP: Does the evidence really portray the duchess as a selfish and unpleasant woman ?

AM:  She was born into penury. She was always worried that the trap door was always open and that she would fall back in , so she was quite grasping.  There are a couple of incidents that showed that. When she was in Lisbon about to go to the Bahamas during the war, she insisted that her green bathing suit, which she had left behind in their rented villa in the south of France, in Vichy-enemy control, be retrieved by the American consul.  He duly did that. Went to the house which was all boarded up  in enemy territory and got the swimsuit!

Secondly, she insisted through the duke that he contact the Germans  in France about looking after the security  of their two rented properties, and for their possessions. Their silverware, and for their very fine bed linen. She was very, very self absorbed.

CP: While children were being blown up she was worried about her bathing suit .Finally, you are no stranger to controversy with books about the Royal family. Have you had any push back  from 17 Carnations?

AM:  Yes. The feeling in Britain is that you shouldn't re open these issues. But we live in  the age of Wikileaks . For once though, the controversy gets it right: There was a conspiracy to protect the duke and duchess of Windsor by the British Establishment  from embarrassment and from their behavior harming the monarchy.   It's a fascinating story

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Peter Gelb

Peter Gelb has been General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera since 2005. He has especially in recent years been the target of criticism in the press, on line and in social media. Seldom is a good word said about this gentleman who inhabits a job most opera lovers think they can do better. Maybe they can. I admire a manager who brought the  Met to the world live in HD. I love the crowds in Times square and in front of Lincoln Center watching performances together. A community of people who don't go to the Met focused on opera. The message is one the Met neglected for years: "This is for you, too." (The New York City Opera did this message masterfully. Don't get me started.)

Opera is an emotional art.
At its best it calls up a visceral reaction from the audience. It is difficult to view a beloved work with objectivity and an ear toward the box office. The General Manager of the  Metropolitan Opera is not hired to love opera. not on company time. Save that for his I-pod on the elliptical in the gym. He's hired to put butts in seats, to maintain a healthy box office and a balanced budget. If he shows a profit at the end of the season, he'll be canonized by whatever God(s) a board of directors can invoke. AS with the U.S. presidency, I can't image who would want this job.

I'm sure it helps if the GM loves opera. The criticism on line comes from persons emotionally in vested in the art form. It comes from people who weep at the end of La boheme and who stay awake through the Ring cycle. There are people who believe opera performance stopped with the retirement of Maria Callas, the death of Luciano Pavarotti or when Placido Domingo decided to become a Verdi baritone.

I have never met Peter Gelb. My name means nothing to him. I have no knowledge of the day to day operations of the Metropolitan Opera. Once I lived in standing room. At this writing I have not been inside the  Met in nearly ten years. What performances I've seen since then have been in movie theaters. I don't need to be told that seeing the Met in the opera house is different from HD or any other D in a movie house, popcorn or not. Back in the day we snuck popcorn, beer, and worse into the Met for the standing room munchies. My point being that as of today I write from several degrees of separation.

I still love opera. I love the stage craft and dramaturgy. I love imagining what Parsifal's relationship was with Herzeleide. Did he bounce baby Lohengrin on his knee? I love wondering if Norma's 'Sediziose voci' is delivered in defiance or fear. I don't need a tree to be a tree. I need singers who can communicate the text. Stage craft that makes sense. I want to be moved, uplifted and changed in a positive way. It don't have to be happy and giddy leaving the opera house. But I do want to know that I have experienced something special.

Gelb is charged with providing the visceral thrills. There's a core repertoire Mozart-Verdi-Wagner-Puccni that must be maintained. I'm the first to admit that the Luc Bondy Tosca helped nobody. But the Luc Bondy Tosca was part of the point.

Gelb's passion seems to be re- energizing the audience. Forget the core audience. I'm not getting any younger. If I'm the target market then money's being wasted. I'm the choir. Don't preach to me. I'm not the young choir. I think Gelb's mandate is bring "downtown" opera. He wants to rough it up. That's not bad. It's an honest attempt to bring in audiences  who thought Lincoln Center was a president of the United States. A dead president. The person who successfully reinvigorates the opera audience is smarter than I'll ever be. So far, it seemed that juicy productions have been the rule. I liked the Vegas Rigoletto. The person responsible for the recent Parsifal has my devotion forever. I love  having From the House of the Dead and Doctor Atomic available.

The Ring. Ah, the Ring. That would have been any GM's largest gamble. Do we all remember when people came from all over the world any Ring cycle? The four music dramas were ......(fill it in)--proof. Not anymore. The Robert Lapage Ring was relentlessly promoted. Millions spent to reinforce the Met stage were widely resented in days of post crash austerity. Enfin, the Lapage staging gave some visual thrills. Th Ring became about The Machine. The Machine malfunctioned. People laughed at the Machine. The Machine became the show at Wagner's expense. Who could imagine such a thing happen? The problem with many of these new stagings is that they do not wear well. Once seen, okay. Even I'm not sure I want to live with a Vegas Rigoletto.  The Lepage Ring began as an attempt to rethink  opera's most iconic work. Opera's most iconic work didn't need Robert Lepage. It needs the magnificent Met orchestra, which must have felt dissed by the expense over runs, and great singing actors.

Which goes to the point of the Met orchestra, chorus and everybody backstage. Where are their betters? Thy don't have any. I'm not here to say anyone's salary is inappropriate. I'm not paid what I'm worth. Are you?  But you neglect one group at the expense of another, then you got a problem. Orchestra, chorus and backstage are fixed asserts. Opera productions need to be built around them, not vice versa. Front of house spectacle doesn't work without reinforcements.

I would ease up the relentless pre-promotion. You are setting up a disaster if your product doesn't live up to the hype/ I would realize that your new target audience may have the money but wold rather spend it elsewhere. Lights cameras and machines will not bring in the crowds. The Met management and boardrooms are still tone-deaf (!) as to the paying customers. Yeah I know you are dealing with an expensive art form and that ticket sales don't cover costs. Opera began as a popular art but soon needed to be supported by the nobility. I'm sure there are noble hedge fund managers in the 21st century. Gelb, who comes from the New York  intelligentsia lacks an approachable touch in public. Who didn't love Mr. Volpe's capo di tutti capi persona? My way or the highway. Volpe made that fearful and fun. Gelb can't bring that off. He comes across as cold.

One thing opera never is is cold. It's not cynical either. Hard to put a price tag on love but that's what opera comes from. Go ahead, laugh. Opera is about that, too.