Paul Alexis Reads to Emile Zola: As seen by Zola’s schoolmate, Paul Cézanne
It’s easy to call Emile Zola’s Rougon–Macquart Cycle “monumental”: stack its 20 volumes, and you’ve got a monument, right there. Examine it more closely, and it remains impressive, “A Natural History of One Family under the Second Empire” told in a series of (mostly) absorbing novels. Among these are a handful of the keystones of 19th-century French literature, and as good as anything anyone has ever written, in any language: L'Assommoir, Nana, Germinal, La Terre, and La Bête Humaine. This week, I concluded my reading — with Le Rêve — bringing to an end an adventure that has lasted six or seven years (no one is really sure) and spanned two continents. The process has surely been transformative, though it may be some little while yet before I fully understand the transformation. Nevertheless, now is the time to begin to record my experience, and the realization that, for the first time in years, I don’t quite know what to read next.
As the subtitle of his cycle suggests, Zola made proud claims for the scientific validity of his fiction, constructing elaborate hereditary medical backgrounds for his characters. Alas for him, science has since disproved many of his theories. We’re able to appreciate the books’ value nevertheless, because two strains that dominate modern reading — psychology and politics — are given their full due by Zola, whether or not he realized or intended it. (Usually, he did.) In the debate over “nature versus nurture,” Zola tends to side with “nature,” where we now believe “nurture” responsible, yet his powers of observation are so keen that his stories are no less true. Can any novelist strive to achieve anything better?
Several of Zola’s characters will walk beside me forevermore:
Gervaise Macquart, whose aspirations to the middle-class are drowned by liquor;
her daughter, Nana Coupeau, hoisted by her beauty to become the toast of Paris;
Gervaise’s son, Claude Lantier, a painter driven mad by his inability to realize his grandiose vision;
their cousin, Eugène Rougon, the government minister, who lusts after power instead of women;
his brother, Aristide Saccard, whose pursuit of wealth is a sport;
their mother, Félicité, who blithely sacrifices the lives of several members of her family in the interest of her own (and, okay, her husband and children’s) social advancement;
Félicité’s direct opposite, Pauline Quenu, who willingly surrenders all she has, for those she loves;
Octave Mouret, who sleeps his way through the apartment building where he lives, a scale model of French society, as he invents the department store;
and Buteau, no kin to the principal families in the story, who cheats, rapes, and murders his relatives without qualm in order to assert his dominance.
That’s just for starters. And while the events in which these characters figure may not always be memorable, Zola takes meticulous pains to research and describe occupations and backgrounds: he takes us to coal mines and the stock exchange; ministerial and doctor’s offices; salons and studios; churches and markets. We learn how to organize a labor union, how to embroider a chasuble, and how to survive the Franco-Prussian War.
Family Tree: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, the Rougons, and the Macquarts
For the most part, Zola resists easy judgments on any of his many subjects. His sympathies are with artists and social visionaries, yet he depicts their ideals as impractical and their efforts as mostly futile; meanwhile, he finds amused sympathy for the worst sinners (even Napoléon III, who shows up in La Débâcle). Already I have begun to see that France, a century later, demands such flexible perspectives — and detailed study. And for all that they span 20 volumes, Zola’s books are only the beginning of the necessary research.
The Life of Emile Zola: I may need to see the Paul Muni movie now.
Hunter Foster & Sebastian Arcelus in Happiness at Lincoln Center Theater
The last time I was in New York, Scott Frankel was too busy preparing his new show, Happiness, to see me. Now the show has opened and I’m able to see it, but Scott is still busy, writing the music for another new show. Ultimately, I bought a ticket to the Wednesday matinée and went on my own to Happiness, and that turns out to be an exemplary (if not ideal) way to take in its lessons. The critics weren’t wrong who complained that John Weidman’s book held too few surprises, and at times it’s sentimental: harried New Yorkers, both the audience and the characters onstage, are hardwired to resist that sort of thing. Yet alone in the dark, our defenses crumble, and we succumb. Yeah, we can admit it: the happiest moments of our lives may well have been corny, too. We do recognize ourselves up there. (Especially insofar as the show concerns a stalled subway car.) I sniffled away contentedly.
For a long time, I hated to go to the theater by myself. Almost any other entertainment, it seemed, was better suited to solitude. It has taken me years to understand that live theater fills in all the spaces around me, and I am never alone, so long as there are actors and audience nearby. That’s why I wasn’t much distressed (much) by the shocking discovery that Feldstein, that inveterate anglophile, didn’t want to join me for Mary Stuart the same evening. Rather than try to argue with him, I tucked my head in and, like the Little Red Hen, did it myself. That he missed a great evening of art is his problem, not mine.
Identical cousins? Walter and McTeer as Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart
As a high-school German student, I read (or tried to) Schiller’s play, but it was and has remained more familiar to me in Donizetti’s operatic adaptation, a spiffy vehicle for Beverly Sills (and, more recently, Joyce DiDonato). This was my first opportunity to experience the spoken Mary Stuart onstage, and my appetite was whetted by the participation of Janet McTeer (who won every award in the world several years ago in Ibsen’s Doll’s House, though I somehow missed that show) in the title role and Harriet Walter as Elizabeth. The play works brilliantly without Donizetti’s help, and Schiller presents the court intrigues more efficiently than Shakespeare does in comparable dramas. McTeer managed to make Mary’s speeches seem spontaneous, like emotional outbursts instead of rhetorical exercises; while Walter managed a somewhat opposite effect, making of even her most heartfelt statements a carefully crafted public pronouncement. We see at once that only one of these conflicting queens is really suited to her job, and that only one will prevail; the tragedy unfolds irresistibly from that central point, and we’re unable to look away.
It’s widely assumed, and possibly true, that English actors are better trained and by nature better equipped than Americans to enact this sort of story, but I was immensely pleased to see John Benjamin Hickey (from Plano, Texas, and a former workout buddy of mine in New York) deliver a beautifully shaded, witty performance as the Earl of Leicester.
Joanna Gleason (center) defines not only Happiness but also Fabulousness
Like Scott’s previous New York venture, the much-lauded Grey Gardens, Happiness is full of surprises, and in both shows the greatest surprise may be that anything so quirky has made its way to the professional stage. (Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show ... about dead people!) This is a refreshing contrast with 98 percent of the rest of musical theater these days: you don’t leave the show feeling as if you’ve stepped in bubblegum that won’t be scraped from your heel. I admired the cast (especially three radiant divas, Joanna Gleason, Phyllis Somerville, and Jenny Powers); director/choreographer Susan Stroman kept the stage swirling, and music director Eric Stern can’t be outshone. Though in several numbers Michael Korie’s lyrics take precedence over Scott’s music, it’s only when Scott cuts loose that the show really comes together. “Golden Ladder” and several pitch-perfect period pieces testify best to this composer’s ability to tell a story, and I’m hopeful that his next projects will afford him more such opportunities. We need his brand of musical theater.
For my part, I need theater — period — and I couldn’t be more pleased to have spent my Wednesday alone in the dark.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the MTA is currently experiencing delays on some subway lines. We’re sorry for any convenience.
1 Northbound Broadway-Seventh Avenue Local Delay due to red signal.
2 Southbound Broadway-Seventh Avenue Express Delay due to flashing yellow signal.
3 Unbound Broadway-Seventh Avenue Express Delay due to flashing chartreuse and vermilion signal. The colors, man. The colors. You can touch the colors.
4 Southbound Lexington Avenue Express Stalled train outside Hunter College. How can we answer the question "Are we there yet" when every place is, in some sense, there?
5 Inbound Lexington Avenue Express We are experiencing significant delays due to switch work. Therefore, we switched to not working. We like that better.
6 Loop-de-loop Lexington Avenue Local-Express We are shocked, shocked to find that there are rats in the subway! All stations are closed until further notice, by order of Capt. Renault.
A Uptown Eighth Avenue Express Even we are unsure why this train is being held in the station, since no one can understand the dispatcher.
C Downtown Eighth Avenue Local We are being held in the station in order to prevent you from catching the A express train.
D Upside-Down Train delayed due to noxious odors and loud noises that aren't the usual noxious odors and loud noises. Anybody got any ideas what's going on?
L Manhattan-bound Canarsie Local Train being held in Limbo until passengers choose the happiest moment of their lives. Train will be moving as soon as all passengers proceed to the Afterlife in an orderly fashion.
Photographs from the Lincoln Center Theater production of Happiness.
The following are service changes for the weekend of January 1, 2009 – Stardate 2937.4
1 Broadway–Seventh Avenue Local Number 1 trains will provide skip-stop service between the hours of 12:01 AM and 12:02 AM. For service at other times, take the 5 to Union Square, transfer to the L, exit at 8th Avenue, and stay there.
2 Broadway–Seventh Avenue Express Number 2 train service is suspended until further notice. For service, take the Number 3 train.
3 Broadway–Seventh Avenue Express Number 3 train service is suspended until someone notices. For service, take the Number 2 train.
4 Lexington Avenue Express Number 4 trains will provide alternate service all weekend. Every other car will take passengers. However, since the car you're in isn't any other car, you won't be able to board.
5 Lexington Avenue Express Number 5 trains will run on the Number 2 track.
6 Lexington Avenue Conflicted Number 6 service in Manhattan will be replaced by shuttle bus service in Queens.
7 Flushing Local/Express Number 7 trains will run approximately every 36 hours between Ditmars Ave. and Boyd Ave.
8 Flushing–Panting–Heaving Express There is no Number 8 train.
9 Broadway–Seventh Avenue Local There is no Number 9 train, either; we dropped that years ago. Are you sure you live here?
A Eighth Avenue Express Due to track renovation, A trains will run on the C track from 11 PM to 6 AM, but we’re not telling you which day.
B Sixth Avenue Express Due to construction, B trains will run on the B track, except when they don’t.
C Eighth Avenue Sporadic Due to construction, C trains will run on the C track, only backwards.
D Sixth Avenue Indifferent D trains will be completely invisible, as part of a new program initiated by the Department of Homeland Security. Remember: If you see something, say something.
E Eighth Avenue Inscrutable As usual, service on the E train will remain fast and frequent. Nobody knows why. Passengers traveling to stations served by the E train are advised to take alternate transportation.
F Sixth Avenue Elusive F train service is tired and depressed, ever since learning there was no 8 train. Please, just leave it alone.
G Crosstown Local G train service will continue to go places people don’t actually need to go, while tantalizingly close to places people really, really want to go. That’s the G Attitude, baby. Deal with it.
J Nassau Street Express J train service is offering a $1,500 reward for any information in connection with the disappearance of the 8 train.
L Canarsie Local You’re not serious, are you?
M Nassau Street Local M train service is being held by police on unspecified charges.
N Broadway Express Ladies and gentlemen, your safety matters to us. Remember, riding between subway cars is dangerous. As is riding inside subway cars. Really, wouldn’t you rather stay home this weekend?
Q Broadway Excresce Q train service will not be operated by foul-mouthed yet adorable hand puppets, no matter what your neighbor told you. We’re sorry, that’s just the way it is.
R Broadway Lo-Cal R trains will run on the number 2 track.
V Sixth Avenue Local V train service raises the philosophical question: What is train service? Is it movement? Or the idea of movement? What role does faith (the belief in the V train’s eventual arrival) play? Would a just God permit His followers to suffer on the platform? Or does the existence (or non-existence) of the V train disprove the existence of God?
W Broadway Local W train service will be suspended between Queensboro Plaza and Etoile–Charles de Gaulle. For service to Manhattan, transfer at Hauptbahnhof Tiergarten.
S Shuttle S train service continues uninterrupted between Grand Central Station and Grand Central Station.
Z Nassau Street Express Due to construction, Z train service is suspended. For service, take the F train at Sutphin Blv to the R train at 71 – Continental Avs. Transfer to E train service at Roosevelt Ave – Jackson Heights. At Queens Plaza, transfer to the V, transferring at Court Sq to the G train. At Hoyt – Schermerhorn, transfer to the A. Exit at Howard Beach – JFK Airport. Proceed to the International Departures Terminal. A woman named Chantal will hand you a ticket. Proceed to the gate. There, you will be arrested by federal agents. You will be taken to prison. Upon release, take a taxi to your destination.
How does this affect my trip? It’s only slightly more complicated, and much faster, than taking the subway during normal service hours, back when we had any.
Why is service being changed? Who can say? But in a few days, you’ll be paying even more for it!
New Yorkers are among the most fascinating, sophisticated people on earth, lively conversationalists with opinions on every subject. This does not explain why we are so terrified of actually hearing what any other New Yorker has to say; yet it’s a fact, impossible to ignore, and the proof lies in our insistence on turning up the volume on “ambient” music at every club and bar (to say nothing of dance clubs, which I ceased to frequent years ago). This weekend I’ve come too close to tinnitus in the aftermath of my innocent pursuit of the company of old friends. One establishment I visited on Friday was a karaoke bar, where I discovered the firm conviction that nothing improves the karaoke experience more than louder drunken amateur singing of uncertain pitch. And anyway, why would you want to converse when that sorority girl from New Jersey is wailing “Wind Beneath My Wings”?
It’s seldom openly acknowledged yet nevertheless evident and true: the reigning philosophy of New York bar managers has long held that, the louder the music, the more popular the bar must be. I’m distressed to learn that this philosophy extends more and more to restaurants, too, and it is only by paying phenomenal sums of money that one can dine where the clink of crystal and the caressing lilt of conversation are audible. These places consider themselves “elegant” instead of “trendy,” and they‘re priced accordingly. For any other meal, you‘d do just as well to squat in the middle of the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway. (Good luck getting a table.)
The cynical or heartless among you may argue that my objection to noise pollution stems from my age, and that as I approach the golden years of cantankerousness and crotchetitude, I fall necessarily into the pattern of every old crank who came before me: complaining about that which amuses younger persons. You may have a point, particularly where the kind of music blaring is concerned: I do prefer songs from days gone by. And because I spent more of my youth in opera houses than in rock clubs, I have never developed the ability to shout intimately. That would have been a useful skill.
But it’s true that noise levels really are rising. Part of this phenomenon, I suspect, is a response to custom. For once we grow used to a level of noise, other noises must be made louder, merely to get our attention. If your car radio is playing loudly, that ambulance siren must crank up the volume, or you won’t hear it. When both your car radio and the siren are in the street directly outside the restaurant, the manager will crank up the sound system inside, ostensibly to avoid spoiling the dining experience. Bit by bit, life gets louder and louder and louder.
In this thrilling, hitherto unreleased sequence, Spock (Richard Secrist) fights Kirk (Charles Stevens).
It’s likely that even the most hardcore Star Trek fans are unaware that, as early as 1973, the characters from the original series (TOS, to those in the know) were portrayed on film by young actors other than those who created the roles. Oh, how audiences cheered the heroics of Mr. Spock (Stuart Goodnick)! Or they would have, anyway, if we’d known how to develop and edit the approximately 90 seconds of film we managed to shoot. Something about Spock being attacked by aliens in a vacant lot near Stuart’s house. I honestly don’t remember the plot.
My real point, however, is that I am not one of those Star Trek fans who believe that Shatner is the only Kirk, for I watched the 13-year-old Charles Stevens play the part; and since I once played McCoy, I must confirm that there exist interpretations other than that of the late, beloved DeForest Kelley. I’m not saying I was better: I’m merely noting that I tried.
Eventually, Richard Secrist took over Spock’s duties (after Stuart moved to Colorado), and we quit trying to film our adventures, sticking primarily to audio-tape recordings that we believed (no, seriously) we might be able to sell (for money) at Star Trek conventions. Among the busiest players in our little junior-high repertory company was Karen Strecker, who, because she was the only girl we knew, took the roles of Uhura, Nurse Chapel, and the occasional yeoman or green-skinned space babe. Today she is the mother of two of my godsons, and it was in their company that I watched some vastly more competent actors incarnate Kirk & Company, in the new Star Trek movie. There were time warps aplenty, let me assure you.
Though the new film’s producers insist that their aim was a movie that even neophytes could enjoy, it was the Star Trek veterans, Karen and I, who got the most pleasure out of the picture. References to the original series are adroitly inserted in the narrative and elicited yelps of joy from us. (Our reflexes aren’t what they used to be, however, so it took one of us about 15 minutes to realize that this Captain Christopher Pike is the same one from The Menagerie.) Other bits of the movie, I don’t understand at all: chief among these is the Ewok who works with Scotty, but a close rival is why anybody thought Winona Ryder was appropriate casting for the part of Spock’s mother. (Especially when Karen was available. I’m telling you, she owned that part, 33 years ago, and I'm sure she’d be aces today.)
Meanwhile, the godsons seemed somewhat more entertained than they might have been if Karen and I were looking over old yearbooks and recounting our adolescent memories.
As a sometime student of folklore and mythology, I didn’t mind the variations on canonical themes. Arthurian legend, for example, agrees on almost nothing (though there's a consensus around Guinevere and Lancelot), so why should Star Trek mythology falter when Kirk, Spock, and Uhura fall into a romantic triangle? I’m sorry that Nichelle Nichols didn’t get to explore Uhura in comparable depth (over 79 TOS episodes, six films, and I forget how many animated shows), but I’m delighted for Zoë Saldana.
Saldana as Uhura: Guinevere in Outer Space?
Moreover, when the characters are depicted with snappy dialogue, fast-paced action, and hard-bodied actors, you don’t get much chance to fret over the fact that the "real" Chekov was much too young to board the Enterprise during the maiden voyage of Kirk and crew — or any of the other matters of such import to the faithful. What’s most remarkable, perhaps, is the way these characters, this mythology, continue to prove meaningful to so many people, including me. Some bits don’t age well, other bits are forgotten, yet these stories possess an enduring, perhaps irresistible power. They’re part of our lives, as even my godsons may eventually discover.
Despite my overall approval, my enthusiasm is tempered. The stakes are lowered so far, simply because we know that, no matter how things turn out, Shatner’s Kirk and Nimoy’s Spock, Kelley’s McCoy and Nichols’ Uhura, and all the rest, will go on to live out their exploits just the same, no matter what Pine, Quinto, Urban, and Saldana do. They could blow up the Enterprise, and it wouldn’t change the future one bit.
Still, I’m game to ride along, the next time they go boldly.
Seattle’s Figaro: A very palpable hit. (Featuring Joyce Castle, left, as Marcellina)
The economic crisis has hit many arts organizations a fatal blow in recent months, and the swine flu panic threatened to shut down much of the country in the past couple of weeks. If one is to heed the Vice-President’s advice to avoid planes and subways, is one really going to risk a trip to Carmen? The answer, apparently, is “yes.”
The news came as a relief this weekend that some companies have been enjoying remarkable success despite the troubled times. Both Seattle Opera’s production of The Marriage of Figaro (continuing through May 15) and Fort Worth Opera’s 2009 festival season have sold like hotcakes — including several performances entirely sold-out, and a closing performance of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking with only a few seats to spare. And let’s underscore: though the Dead Man was walking, the audience did not. They stuck around — spellbound — to the very end. Underscore: this is a contemporary opera, about the death penalty, playing in Texas.
The most obvious conclusion to draw — and lesson to learn — seems to be that, when times are tough, people want music more, not less, especially when it’s presented in a compelling way (as Seattle and Fort Worth always like to do). If companies can just hang in there, if support (both private and public) can be sustained, opera won’t merely survive, it will flourish.
Daniel Okulitch in Fort Worth Opera’s Dead Man Walking: Not for the faint of heart
Though I haven’t been able to fly to Seattle for the Figaro (though it boasts the triumphant return of Joyce Castle to the role of Marcellina), I did manage to swoop down on Fort Worth for most of the festival season. I’m profoundly sorry to have missed Beth Clayton, an artist I admire, as Carmen, but I’m thrilled to have heard Isabel Leonard in Rossini’s Cenerentola. Robynne Redmon, Daniel Okulitch, and Sheryl Woods led a vast ensemble in Dead Man, under FWO Music Director Joe Illick’s baton: very seldom did one have the impression that these people were performing: they were living.
I was struck, at weekend’s close, by how much fun I have at Fort Worth Opera. That’s to the credit of the company’s director, Darren Keith Woods. He presents varied repertoire with gifted artists, and with such commitment that it’s impossible, I suspect, to leave one of his productions unmoved. You can hardly wait to see what he’ll try next.
NOTE: My profile of Darren Woods will appear in the July issue of OPERA NEWS.
Just as I complete the book proposal for the authorized biography of Madeline Kahn, the need for speed (or at least for efficient time management) is made apparent once again. One of Madeline's close friends and most frequent co-stars, Dom DeLuise, has died, and I never got to interview him. DeLuise and his wife, Carol, brightened many an evening for Madeline, whenever she was in L.A., and Dom and Madeline shared an interest in opera. (Predictably, perhaps, DeLuise's "interest" was really an outsize passion.) I'm sure they could have helped me to draw a more rounded portrait.
But I'm sorry to see Dom DeLuise go, for reasons that have nothing to do with the biography.
When he was at his best, he captured that giggly giddiness that I've seldom felt since childhood: the sheer helplessness of having laughed too hard for too long. What's striking is that, for most comics, the surest way to lose a laugh is to start laughing: if you think you're funny, no one else will agree. (This is the reason my stand-up career doesn't even get past the dinner table.) DeLuise was exceptional, because he gave the impression that he was already hysterical before a sketch began, very much in on the joke and out of control. In reality, he must have calculated some or most of his effects, yet you couldn't see it. His abandon was infectious, and soon enough, you'd be laughing, too.
Thanks to my research on Madeline Kahn, I've caught up with DeLuise's performance in Gene Wilder's film, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother. He plays an Italian opera singer who is, of course, a spy, and in the funniest scene in the picture, he squares off against Professor Moriarty (the great Leo McKern). In seconds, the two criminal masterminds are fighting like preschoolers. If you haven't seen the movie (which also features some wonderful musical numbers for Madeline), hop to it! It's a great way to pay tribute to a funny man.