28 January 2009

Cabin Fever

I’ve been out of practice, where snow is concerned, thanks to my residence the past few years in a place that’s not concerned with snow. All of my old habits, and my snow boots, were set aside. But now I’m getting a crash-reintroductory course. And I’ve been reminded that the only important difference between a Currier & Ives print and the Donner Party is a question of timing.

It’s snowing again along the Hudson River, and I’ve got to tell you, the cat is starting to look pretty tasty.

It’s time, too, to make a confession: my mother was right about something. Just one thing, just one time. But still. She was right. It’s hard for me to admit this, as I hope you will appreciate.

The subject of her rightness was the humble hat. It is true that if I wear a hat in cold weather, I get sick much less frequently. In my tender youth, I never wore a hat. “How was this possible?” I later wondered. “You had a year-long cold,” replied my girlfriend in Texas. “Every year.”

“The first time I saw you without a runny nose, you were 30,” replied a friend in New York.

My mother may or may not be right in the scientific bases for her assertion: I find suspicious, for example, her claim that a person loses precisely 3,712 percent of one’s body heat through the head. Thermodynamics was never her subject; neither was math. Yet it’s provably true that I’m healthier when I wear a hat. Thanks, Mom.

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22 January 2009

Let Horne Resound!

Here in New York, the 75th birthday of Marilyn Horne has been the occasion for all sorts of celebration, and it stirred me to action. Though the great lady is renowned for her master classes, I’d never attended one; surely this was the moment at last to see and hear for myself. I doubt that anyone, least of all Marilyn Horne, can count the young singers she’s worked with, sharing with a new generation the lessons she’s acquired over a lifetime in song. She’s tough and direct, though never nasty. She sweeps aside the mistakes and excuses, seizes on a singer’s potential, and instantly locates the technical flaw or interpretative shortcoming.

As ever, I’m fascinated by the discipline of musicians. A painter or writer need hardly even be conscious in order to work at her art, and indeed for many visual artists I’ve known, sketching and painting are almost a tic, involuntary, or a nervous habit that can’t be dropped. Musicians must practice. Moreover, they can spend hours — perhaps days — maybe even years — breaking apart a musical phrase, analyzing its components, and putting it back together again. Indeed, that process is what a master class encapsulates. I knew that Marilyn Horne’s master class would be instructive. Yet — even though I knew she’s a pistol — I wasn’t entirely prepared for how entertaining the evening would be. More than once, she had me in stitches.

As a service to myself, first and foremost, and maybe even to you, I took note of some of the smart things Marilyn Horne said on Wednesday evening. More than a few of her remarks contained wisdom applicable to almost any endeavor, so take heed. (All comments are those of Ms. Horne, except as noted.)

Long time, no see!
This is Legato City — but remember, we want all those consonants.
Why did you crescendo there? [Without waiting for an answer.] Because you didn’t want to support!
[At her suggestion, the singer and accompanist attempted to resume in the middle of a line. They failed.] It always happens! You try to shorten it, and you have to start from the beginning anyway.
If you’re gonna take a breath, you better take it fast. I don’t recommend doing without it.
I know you want to be glamorous.
Don’t be afraid.
I don’t think that’s a new [vocal] color.
What do mothers think about their children — mostly? They adore them. [Then, gleefully.] And then they get grandchildren!
Do you have to breathe there? Don’t!
Chickennnnn. [After a singer failed to attack a phrase.]
The only reason I moved your hands is I don’t want you standing there like studentesca.
Tie it up in a bow and serve it on a platter! One of the things we’ve got to learn as young singers — and even old singers — is you’ve got to end it.
You know the word Schwung? You need much more of it. The French call it élan. What do the Americans call it? I think we just call it Schwung.
[After a singer confessed she’d “listened to too many recordings” while preparing her song.] That might have been somebody who couldn’t hold the note!
[Moments later, Horne correctly identified the recording artist that the young singer had listened to.]
[In response to the lyric “If you only knew”] Do you know?
If somebody hears you breathe, it’s okay. That makes it more dramatic.
This is the glory of your voice! Now you’ve got to let ’er out. Not everybody has that.
Just slam your cords with some air.
It’s got to have some drama in it! The words! Always go with the words!
You know how bad the economy is if I read Paul Krugman before I do the crossword. [The audience laughed, but the young singer looked confused.] You know who he is? Big economist, Nobel Prize. Beside the point.
If you get this [song] really right, you’ve got one of the great encores of your life.
[When a young singer admitted that “I don’t know that I know” a particular piece.] I wanted you to learn it. I’ll survive.
[As the singer proceeded, Horne approached him and began to dance and sway before him.] I’m gonna direct you a little bit.
[To the accompanist] Be prepared! For everything.
Don’t think you can squeeze it out — everything is based on support.

You see what I mean. She’s right in what she says — about more than music. We’re lucky to hear her.

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20 January 2009

Ding! Dong!

Oh, how we’ve waited.

This marks my last blog entry of the Bush Administration. I struggled to find the right words to describe my emotions — then realized that others, including Yip Harburg, have already said all that needs to be said. Join me, please, in a chorus of “Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead!”

This is a day of independence,
For all the Munchkins and their descendants!

Which old witch? The wicked witch!

Sing it high! Sing it low! Let them know...
[Dick Cheney (center), with a few friends]

Be off, before someone drops a White House on you!

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19 January 2009

Songs of New York

Spending time in New York means hearing the city’s music once again, and revisiting some of the institutions that have sustained me in my love of opera over so many years. An institution unto herself is Marilyn Horne, who celebrated her 75th birthday (Friday) with a gala concert (Sunday) at Carnegie Hall, where tribute was paid to the great lady by several of my other favorite artists: especially wonderful were Frederica Von Stade (our mistress of ceremonies, eternally sublime), Thomas Quasthoff (in Brahms), Thomas Hampson (in Mahler), Dolora Zajick (“Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix”), and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (“O Carlo, ascolta”).

Among the younger artists, Nicole Cabell offered a luscious “Adieu de l’hôtesse arabe” that makes me hungry for more French rep from her; and Meredith Arwady, who impresses me more each time I hear her, in Elgar’s “Where Corals Lie.” (The gala was a benefit for the Horne Foundation, which sponsors recitals by these and other young artists in venues all across America.) The opportunity to hear any of these artists singly would be exceptional; the opportunity to hear them in one afternoon, historic; the opportunity to hear them and my beloved Susan Graham (“Connais-tu le pays?” so delicate that you could smell the orange blossoms) and my beloved Joyce DiDonato (closing the program with a courageous, kick-ass “Tanti affetti” that left us giddy), quite simply a blessing. Then Ms. Horne herself stepped out, hardly letting us cheer for as long as we wanted, before giving us a funny, tender little speech. Only in New York, kids.

The afternoon was a tonic, really, and it helped me to set aside my gnawing anxieties over the fate of another great musical institution, New York City Opera, that preoccupied me for much of the previous week.

Mortier: Pouf! He, how you say, vanish!

In the 1970s, City Opera’s signature artists (Sills, Treigle, Rudel, Capobianco, so many others) defined the possibilities of the art form for me as a boy, and its production of Menotti’s Juana La Loca was the first opera I heard in New York, in 1979. The company has suffered significant reversals in recent years, and many of them, it must be said, can be blamed on its board of directors. These folks — well-meaning, surely — chose the Belgian provocateur Gerard Mortier two years ago to take over City Opera as general and artistic director. Manifestly the wrong man for the job, Mortier quit in November, even before assuming his duties in full, yet he managed to screw the company just the same. At his urging, NYCO is on hiatus this season, while the New York State Theater is renovated. How any opera company is supposed to maintain a presence — to persuade donors that it’s viable — is anyone’s guess, but it’s a signal truth that Mortier, like so many Europeans lately selected by American boards, has at best limited fundraising experience. (The money is supposed to appear magically.) And of course Mortier quit when he discovered that City Opera had even less cash than he’d anticipated. His grandiose (and sometimes insulting) plans for the company couldn’t be fulfilled.

Now the company has turned to George Steel, who has minimal experience raising funds or producing opera at all. I thought he was a risky choice to run Dallas Opera, when he was named to that post a few months ago; I can only hope that his few weeks in Dallas have provided him with an intensive education in — well — everything. Both my hometown companies are cash-strapped, at the very beginning of an economic crisis. But City Opera really can’t afford a single misstep or a second wasted.

Man of Steel or feet of clay?

It’s the topic of every conversation here, almost. For every encouraging reminder that Steel does know New Yorkers, and is a well-regarded conductor, comes the dispiriting news that the company will cut its productions by half next season, or that Steel’s favorite opera composer is Johann Christian Bach. I wish I saw any cause for optimism.

As a reminder of what’s at stake, City Opera presented its only performances of a complete opera last week: two evenings of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra in concert at Carnegie Hall. The score has suffered under the yoke of a terrible reputation, since it was given its premiere performance on the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera’s new home at Lincoln Center, in 1966. The composer Mark Adamo has defended the piece on his blog, and I urge you to read his analysis; but to these ears, Antony and Cleopatra’s enduring neglect is entirely justified: its Orientalist exotica (in the Egyptian scenes) sounds like movie music, its more aggressive “Roman” themes are bombastic, and in all its postwar conservative, tonal and melodic idiom isn’t very interesting. Menotti did this sort of thing much better, at least for the stage. Yet it’s important to hear Antony and Cleopatra, and to make one’s own judgments.

The shmatte they fall: Flanigan and Rhodes

The title roles are good parts for good singers, written for Leontyne Price and Justino Díaz, and taken here by the City Opera superstar Lauren Flanigan and a debutant, New Zealander Teddy Tahu Rhodes, whose work I’ve enjoyed at Houston Grand Opera in previous seasons. George Manahan led the City Opera orchestra with genuine passion, and it’s a luxury to hear that ensemble so well-rehearsed — polished, even, to a brilliant luster. In short, this is exactly the sort of thing City Opera ought to be doing.

Just pray that Steel doesn’t fuck it up.

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17 January 2009

John Mortimer

The English novelist and playwright John Mortimer has died, taking with him any hope that I might catch up with his writing while he lived. In 1994, I spent a fascinating day with the gentleman, whom Dan Rather was questioning for his recollections of V-E Day. Though that television interview took precedence, of course, over anything else, there might have been a moment for us to speak about books and other important matters. But the sorry truth was, and remains, that I’ve read very little of his work, and my esteem for him isn’t really an earned critical judgment but an ability to sum him up in conversation at cocktail parties as though I know what I’m talking about.

Mortimer suspected this, I think, when Dan introduced me as a fellow writer and an admirer (something at which Dan was always best when I was most in ignorance). He smiled graciously, as if pleased and flattered, but his glances went suddenly sidelong at me. A lucky break that Dan didn’t submit me to cross-examination by the former barrister.

With Leo McKern in Rumpole regalia

That day I drank in a full measure of what Mortimer described as his “Champagne Socialism.” We found him at his country house, in the Chiltern Hills in Oxfordshire, and he took Dan’s questions from a lawn chair on the brink of one of the most magnificent gardens I’ve ever seen. It was springtime, and every bush, bed, and branch was in riotous bloom, vomiting color and fragrance, testing the limits of human endurance. The English like to pretend that these things happen naturally, that their gardens are careless, almost accidental, but somebody must tend the buds, and that somebody manifestly wasn’t John Mortimer: already infirm, short of breath, unsteady of foot, creaky of joint, and foggy of vision. Sir John hired a gardener — several perhaps — to create and maintain his English Eden.

He took a sweetly subversive approach to the interview, managing very often to bring the subject ’round to how easy it was for a young man to get laid in London at the war’s end. This is a theme of his writing, too, but not of American television interviews, usually. And he stoutly defended the surge of Socialism that seized Britain after the war. It may not have worked out as intended, he conceded, but after confronting tyranny and hatred for so many years, what better purpose could Britons have found than equality?

Brideshead Visitor: Mortimer understood the seductions of luxury.

Inside the house, his wife, Penny, was leading some sort of political meeting, as I discovered when I had to locate the Mortimers’ loo. I doubt that Penny and her cohort were plotting much more than a petition against John Major, but I can’t know for sure what they were talking about, because they clammed up instantly as I came near, and stared at me with something near outright hostility until I left. I could practically feel their eyes drilling through the closed door; just try not to be pee-shy at a moment like that. “The English are frosty, when you are Amurri-kin,” as the poem goes. (Or something of the sort.)

I’ve long meant to read up on my Mortimer, not only the celebrated Rumpole novels but also the Titmuss trilogy and the memoirs, which do promise to be juicy. Like most Americans, I know him best for his television work, for Leo McKern’s Rumpole as much as for Mortimer’s, for Lord Olivier in A Voyage Round My Father and for Jeremy Irons in Brideshead Revisited. Sir John’s Brideshead screenplay originally came in at a perfectly normal length, it’s said, until the producers insisted that they wanted something much grander — in order to bolster their claim to a license renewal. This is why the series stretched to 11 episodes, and featured so much of Jeremy Irons reading aloud from Waugh’s novel. Cut all that away, and you’ve got Mortimer’s version.

In the meantime, I honor Sir John’s efforts (more heroic than Americans know) in defense of a free press and free society; I do admire his literate entertainments and his habit of beginning each day with a glass of Champagne. Ah, to be more like him!

I’d settle for a demi-bouteille of Château Thames Embankment.

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16 January 2009

What Am I? Madoff Money?

Reenactment of a scene from French literature

Spending the past days in the U.S. has enlightened me on several fine points of the Bernard Madoff Scandal, beginning with the correct pronunciation of his name, which no Frenchman seems to know. (We’ve been saying, “mah-DOFF.”) Yet the more I learn, the more French the scandal seems to be, and I realize now that this is because I just finished reading the novelization of the Madoff story — namely, Emile Zola’s L’Argent (Money), first published in 1891.

In Zola’s novel, the protagonist, a cheerful scoundrel named Aristide Saccard, sets up what he calls the “Universal Bank.” This, he hopes, will become a bank for all Christians, and he succeeds in attracting the investments of lots of Catholic charities, while donating generously to others, and pleading with the Pope for an official sanction. (Saccard’s desire to do good is sincere, albeit shallow; it’s tempered by his sense of Catholic charities as a great place to pick up wealthy women.) Saccard’s ambitions are too great, and he launches several other businesses with funds from his bank: a railroad, engineering projects, a kind of commercial Crusade in the Middle East. In order to keep his board and investors happy, he winds up launching a sort of Ponzi scheme, and it works — until a Jewish banker swiftly ruins him. Zola based many of his characters on real-life and immediately recognizable figures: Saccard finds his roots in a banker named Eugène Bontoux, and his Jewish nemesis, Gundermann, is clearly based on a Rothschild.*

It’s Zola’s genius that, even as we gawp and giggle at Saccard’s audacity, we witness and pity the destruction he leaves in his wake. Well-meaning people are taken in not necessarily from greed but from need, and through faith; they are ruined as a result.

Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme differs in certain particulars from that of Aristide Saccard, notably in the reversal of religious affiliations, yet the basics are all right there in the pages of Zola. American commentators have been tut-tutting lately that courses in elementary economics and finance ought to be required of high-school and college students, to prevent us from getting fooled again. Why aren’t we insisting, too, that economics students read more novels? They’d learn a great deal.

*Please note that Saccard’s anti-Semitism is one of his signal character flaws; Zola’s own views on the subject have evolved already, and at the time of writing L’Argent, he is only a few years away from his famous defense of Alfred Dreyfus.

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15 January 2009

Write Your Own Inaugural Address!

The President-elect, with a few friends

Have you ever wanted to deliver an Inaugural Address? Sure, we all have! But — darn it — there are always two major obstacles on our path to the Capitol steps: a) we have not been elected President of the United States, and 2) we have at our disposal no highly paid political speechwriter.

I can’t help you with the first problem, but surmounting the second is a breeze with my new, patented Write Your Own Brand© Inaugural Address.

[1.], it is with [2.] and [3.] that I stand before you [4.].

Truly, this is [5.] in [6.]!

I call on [7.] to [8.].

Let us all [9.] and say [10.]! God bless America!

My fellow Americans
Punahou graduates, alumni and parents
South Side Rotarians

a gentle rocking motion
a slight inflammation

a deep sense of responsibility
a hole in my sock
rich, Corinthian leather
the cast of TV’s Ugly Betty

on line at the grocery

a great day
the first time I’ve been able to walk
a .44 Magnum, aimed straight at this puppy’s head
a little disappointing, really

our nation’s history
more than six weeks
scenic Washington, D.C.
vino veritas

all Americans
anyone who’s listening
people whose last name begins with “R”
Sasha and Malia

rise to the challenge before us
do the Hokey-Pokey
lend me a couple of bucks until pay day
get down ’n’ funky

join hands
give the little lady a round of applause
agree to disagree
sing the theme from Welcome Back, Kotter

“Where’s the beef?”
“I can see Russia from my house!”
“Good night, Gracie!”
“I’m king of the world!” (No, seriously, I am.)

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10 January 2009

Inauguration Party Tips

The upcoming inauguration of President Barack Obama is cause for celebration. But how best to ring in a new era of truth, justice, and the American way? Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of January 20!

Tip 1: Recover from Hangover from January 19 Party! (Important)
Like most Americans on George Bush’s last night in office, you’ll be tempted to celebrate by getting sloppy drunk. (Even he may join us!) But you’ll enjoy Barack Obama’s inauguration more if you’re awake and not suffering from a blinding headache all day long. If you do overindulge, remember that lots of water and magnesium supplements can help get you back on your feet — so that you can start the celebration all over again!

Tip 2: Wear Something Kicky and Festive!

Tip 3: Decorate!
Jon Feldstein has something other New Yorkers only dream of: a terrace! Granted, it’s less than a foot wide, but at six feet long, that terrace is the perfect place to corral guests outside in the cold. This way, they’ll know exactly how it feels to stand on the Mall in Washington during the Inauguration. (And by locking a few dozen guests in the bathroom, Jon can give others a feel for what it’s like in a network television anchor booth!) But even if your party space is a humdrum rumpus room, you can make it come alive for Inauguration Day.

There’s nothing like a big old banner to set a party mood!

Tip 4: Don’t Forget the Party Favors!

Tip 5: Be Sure to Run a Thorough Background Check on the Babysitter!
There are a lot of creeps out there.

Tip 6: Party Like It’s 1999!
That’s right — the most important tip is to pretend that George W. Bush’s presidency never happened! Remember pregnant chads, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack,” Shock & Awe, “Mission Accomplished,” Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Katrina, global economic crisis, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, Rove and Alito? The only correct response is simply this: I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Don’t you feel better already? Party on!

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08 January 2009

Harnessing Our Domesticated Energy Resources

As rank-and-file Americans confront the worsening realities of a global economic crisis, it behooves us to think creatively in order to find solutions for our daily needs. Every household wants to save money on energy — yet how many of us have thought about harnessing our housecats?

“Properly stroked, even a very young kitten can generate enough static electricity to light up a single-Watt bulb for 20 seconds,” Dr. Morris Chaton, of the Finick Institute, told me. “We estimate that a herd of 300 cats or more, per household, could reduce monthly energy bills by up to $10. In today’s economy, that’s real savings.”

Additional measures, such as wearing wool sweaters, can yield even better results, Dr. Chaton said. Angering a cat, so that its fur stands on end and it makes those electrical “ffft-ffft” noises, can also produce energy.

“For generations, housecats have been considered inefficient energy sources,” Prof. Tybalt Katzenberg said last month, in an interview at Grimalkin University. “However, that’s primarily because the old-fashioned methods — throwing a cat or two in the fireplace and lighting them — were inherently inefficient. At best, a cat might burn for a couple of hours, and you’d end up with a little tallow, suitable for a few candles. And in the end, you’d have to generate another cat-source.”

“That may have been good enough for our ancestors, but it won’t meet the energy needs of modern America,” agreed Felix Carrabas, president of Pussipower, a start-up energy firm. “But a cat’s static electricity is a constantly renewable resource. So before you set fire to your cat, try petting it. You’ll be glad you did.”

NOTE: This blog entry is dedicated to Mittens, whose new-found habit of rubbing up against my laptop threatens a short-circuit that will wipe out not only my laptop but most of the power grid for the Eastern Seaboard.

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02 January 2009

The Next Bailout Bill

WASHINGTON -- Joining major American financial institutions, the automotive industry, and steel industry, the nation’s Bill Madison producers are the latest to seek a bailout from Congress.

“In these challenging economic times, Americans cannot afford to see our Bill Madison industry collapse,” said Bill Madison, an industry spokesman. “Ones of jobs are at stake. We are asking Congress and the incoming Obama administration for a $3 billion stimulus package, as soon as possible, to be pumped directly into my pocket, where it will do the most good. The urgency of this crisis can’t be overstated.”

Approximately one-whole of the Bill Madison consumed annually is produced by the “Big Three”: Dadcorp, Momalgamated, and BankAccount–Loving. All three report significant losses in the last 19 quarters. Sales have declined sharply, and Bill Madison-wide layoffs occurred in 1986, 1999, and 2003, stunning industry observers and leading to an industry-wide crisis of confidence. In a worst-case scenario, say Wall Street analysts, continued low earnings may require Bill Madison to get a job.

All of the workers pictured here could be dead if Congress
doesn’t take swift action, Bill Madison claims.

Moreover, another significant dropoff in Bill Madison profits could have a ripple effect in related businesses and industries, such as French restaurants, France, opera singers, movie houses, and, most in jeopardy, distilleries, breweries, vineyards, liquor stores, and bars. “The impact of such a crisis could be very painful indeed,” agreed Bill Madison, chairman of the Department of Bill Madison Studies at the Bill Madison Institute, a leading liberal think-tank.

With a stimulus package of $3 billion, Bill Madison asserts that he would have enough time to overhaul his design, restructure his business plan, and explore new technologies, including the purchase of a flat-screen TV, and finally finding out what a Wii is, or are. The results would lead to increased sales and revenue, Bill Madison said, and would make it “possible to keep Bill Madison jobs safe inside the U.S., instead of having to outsource to foreign countries.”

Some industry analysts dismissed Bill Madison’s claim, however. “This is not a viable market-based product,” said Lee Whiplash, of Doright Dudley & Snide & Associates, New York. “The last banner year for Bill Madison production in this country was 1961. Americans need to be refocusing, and putting available monies into promising industries such as Bill Madison’s godchildren, who are clean, energy-efficient, streamlined, and super-productive — truly the wave of the future.”

On Capitol Hill, reaction to Bill Madison’s plea divided along party lines. “For nearly half a century, Bill Madison has represented all that is best about America,” said Algernon McDonald (D–NY). “I say let’s stand up to the plate, do what’s right for America’s working families, and give Bill all the money he needs, as well as a rent-controlled apartment. Or perhaps, if he prefers, we could give him a bright shiny castle in Pixieland, full of bunnies and kittens.”

“The whole idea is outrageous,” responded George Testalegno (R-AZ). “What’s next? We bail out the saltine cracker industry? Bill Madison is a dinosaur, and spending money won’t change that. We can do more by cutting government programs and lowering taxes — that’s what’s best for America. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to screw a Congressional page.”

Reaction elsewhere indicated the bailout proposal had yet to gain much public support. “Giving Bill Madison money is like pouring money down the drain,” said one insider, who asked not to be named because he is Bill Madison’s brother. “Mom and Dad — or Congress — should just give the money to me.”

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