27 September 2008

Against the Physical Law That Prevents My Being Two Places at Once

I didn’t watch the U.S. Presidential candidates’ debate last night. I am in France, without television, and though the French radio news has been generous in its references to the event, these have hewed mostly to telling us that it took place, without characterizing the statements made or the outcome. We are interested in the electoral campaign, but we can’t quite bring ourselves to get bogged down in the details — somewhat like the candidates themselves.

Nevertheless, thanks to the Internet, I have been able to read the New York Times coverage and some of the Washington Post. Thanks to dial-up, this process took only slightly longer than the debate itself. I’m sure that watching the pages load was less interesting than watching the telecast, but I inspired in myself the enthusiasm, even the suspense, necessary to enjoy myself. (After these years of net-surfing in Beynes, I will be fully qualified for a paid, full-time position to watch paint dry.)

I do regret that I was unable to be in the States last night: the ideal circumstance would have been to sit with Feldstein, my most trusted political adviser, engaged in a simultaneous running debate of our own. “Debate” is perhaps the wrong word, since we agree on practically everything, and nothing more than our mutual certainty that, if only more people would do what we tell them, the world would be a better place. Last night would have been a princely occasion, liberally sprinkled with wine or something stronger, and the fact that we’ve known other such evenings would not diminish my enjoyment, any more than it diminishes my regret now.

But it is a law of physics that one cannot be in two places at once. I have tried to violate that law, without any success. This week would have been an exceptionally good time to find myself scribbling away in Beynes (as I have done) and at the same time skipping along the streets of Manhattan, off to see Feldstein and to attend the tribute on Thursday night to my former boss, Teresa Stratas, sponsored at Town Hall by the Metropolitan Opera Guild.

From the Met Guild’s promotion of the Town Hall event, Teresa as (left to right) Jenny from Weill’s Mahagonny, Marie Antoinette from Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, and Mar'enka from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. The last is one of my favorite pictures, because although Teresa smiles and laughs often, there are few pictures that show her doing so.

Some of my most precious moments with Teresa have been those when the two of us were alone, talking about music, which inevitably led to talking about life, a subject about which she knows a great deal more than I ever will. I knew that the Town Hall tribute wouldn’t afford me such opportunities, because the event would be shared with hundreds of people. In that sense, I wasn’t missing much.

But I was Teresa’s fan long before I knew her, and another of my precious moments was an entire summer we spent trying to organize her press clippings and other such memorabilia. Since Teresa has about as much interest in remembering her triumphs as she does in commanding a Marine landing, I don’t know what the purpose of this archival work could have been, though I suspect its real purpose was to put spending money in my pocket while I was in graduate school.

In a steamer trunk filled with clippings and photos, there were all sorts of unexpected gems. A performance at the White House, for President Kennedy! The Queen of Spades in the Soviet Union, when she created an international incident: she thought the Russians didn’t like her singing, when in fact they were waiting for the curtain call to cheer her. That Canada and the U.S.S.R. didn’t fire their missiles that night is pure luck. Or the time she was mugged in Central Park, and overpowered her assailant. (She’s 4'11.) And dozens of pictures of her in roles I never knew she sang.

That wasn’t a steamer trunk, it was a treasure chest. Some of these things she was willing to talk about, and others, she insisted, she had forgotten. Sometimes she seemed as surprised as I was by what we found.

As a fan, then, I’m tantalized by the knowledge that much exists in Teresa’s career of which I have only inklings. The Met Guild promised surprises of its own, rare video clips of her performances, and since there are plenty of those that I never saw, and others (her terrifying incarnation of Berg’s Lulu) I’ve seen only once, I’m furious at the laws of physics.

The Ancient Greeks of course preferred to blame their deities for these things. Teresa’s Cretan ancestors likely had a name for the god or goddess who prevented my being with her; if I supplicate appropriately, perhaps I’ll be able to see her in a few days, when I fly to New York.

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