29 December 2009

Chez Berthillon

Photo by Dan Guller. Used with permission.

Among the gustatory delights of Paris, few rank higher than the ice creams and sorbets at Berthillon, reputedly the finest to be had in the capital. Since I’m not a fanatic, I haven’t sampled any of Berthillon’s ice cream (only a few of the sorbets), much less the wares of every other purveyor in town — so I can’t judge too strictly. But I can safely say that Berthillon’s is the best sorbet I’ve had in France — and indeed anywhere else on earth. Whenever possible, I make a point of bringing visitors to the Ile Saint-Louis, the tiny island just to the east of the Ile de la Cité and the backside of Notre Dame de Paris; it’s an ice cream paradise where the house of Berthillon reigns supreme.

Treasure: What appear to be cherry, tangerine, and mango sorbets.

Beginning in 1954, the Berthillon family has run its business from a salon de glace there on the Ile Saint-Louis, but since the restaurant is always packed to the rafters, I’ve set foot there only once in my life. Ordinarily, I join the ranks who line the Rue Saint-Louis-en-Ile to purchase my Berthillon on the sidewalk. Berthillon has a couple of windows open to the street, and many other licensed vendors on the island sell Berthillon products, whether in cafés or from windows, as well.

For such is Berthillon’s reputation that the entire island is known for its ice cream, and a magnet for other brands that capitalize on Berthillon’s renown by selling their ice cream all along the street. As a consequence, you should look closely for the Berthillon name before making your purchase — or else you can judge by the length of the line of waiting customers. The longest lines are for Berthillon products; the shortest are for other brands.

Eric James (far right) awaits the joys of Berthillon, May 2007
Photo by Dan Guller. Used with permission.

The key difference lies in the ingredients, and Berthillon rightly boasts of the freshness and wholesomeness of its products. All the milk and eggs and most fruits come directly from the market at Rungis; the more exotic varieties of fruit, as well as the chocolate and vanilla, are scouted and shipped from farms around the world. Heaven forbid Berthillon should use a preservative or coloring or an artificial anything. In practical terms, however, this means that many flavors are seasonal, and once the stock of cherry sorbet (for example) has been depleted, it won’t be replenished until the next year.

The devotion to choice ingredients doesn’t entirely explain the intensity of the flavor, however. Berthillon’s cassis sorbet, one of my personal favorites, exudes a muskiness, beyond the sweetness of the fruit, that speaks not only of blackcurrant berries but also of the leaves and soil and sunlight. One taste, and everybody else’s cassis sorbet will seem forever dull and rather puny.

In the shop, you can order more elaborate ice cream dishes, with plenty of crème Chantilly and cookies, as well as other sorts of desserts. Yet for this purist, the real pleasure of Berthillon consists in strolling along the Rue Saint-Louis-en-Ile, which retains so much of its antique charm, then buying one’s cone and sitting on the retaining wall overlooking the Seine, in the shade of the plane trees.

This is especially nice to do in hot summer months, but naturally the Berthillon folks, being Parisian, take vacation in August, precisely when you want their ice cream most. Right now, when Paris is cold and damp, you can get all the Berthillon you want.

So what? Don’t most great pleasures require a small sacrifice of comfort or of convenience?

In the Salon de Glaces, with one of my godsons, March 2008.

For your edification, I’ve copied the list of flavors from the Berthillon website:


Agenaise [Agen prunes]
Banane [Banana]
Café au whisky [Coffee with a shot]
Café Dauphinoix [Coffee with something else in it]
Cannelle [Cinnamon]
Caramel au beurre sale [Salted-butter caramel]
Caramel au gingembre [Ginger caramel]
Chocolat au nougat
Chocolat blanc [White chocolate]
Chocolat du Mendiant [Chocolate with nuts]
Chocolat blanc du Mendiant [White chocolate with nuts]
Chocolat noir [Dark chocolate]
Créole [Pineapple? Rum? Tropical, anyway]
Feuille de Menthe [Mint leaf]
Gianduja à l'orange [Chocolate fudge with orange]
Gianduja aux noisettes [Chocolate fudge, with hazelnuts]
Lait d'amande [Almond milk]
Moka [Mocha]
Marron Glacé [Candied chestnuts]
Noisette [Hazelnut]
Noix [Walnut]
Noix de coco [Coconut]
Nougat au Miel [Honey nougat]
Pain d'épices [Gingerbread]
Pistache [Pistachio]
Plombières [Tutti-frutti (not plumbing ladies!)]
Praliné au citron et coriander [Candied nuts with lemon and coriander]
Praliné aux pignons [Candied pine nuts]
Réglisse [Licorice]
Thé earl grey [Earl Grey tea]
Turron de jijona [Spanish nougat]
Vanille [Vanilla]


Abricot [Apricot]
Ananas [Pineapple]
Cocktail Exotique
Cacao extrabitter [Extra bitter cocoa]
Cacao au whisky [Cocoa with whisky]
Cassis [Black currant]
Citron vert [Lime]
Cerise [Cherry]
Figue [Fig]
Fraise [Strawberry]
Fraise des Bois [Wild strawberry]
Framboise à la rose [Raspberry with rose]
Fruit de la passion [Passion fruit]
Framboise [Raspberry]
Groseille [Red currant or Gooseberry]
Litchees [Lichi]
Mandarine [Tangerine]
Mûre sauvage [Wild blackberry]
Mûre de framboisier [Blackberry from a raspberry bush]
Myrtille [Blueberry]
Mirabelle [Small yellow plum]
Mangue [Mango]
Menthe [Mint]
Orange sanguine [Blood orange]
Pamplemousse rose [Pink grapefruit]
Pêche de vigne [Wild peach]
Pêche [Peach]
Poire [Pear]
Pomme verte [Green apple]
Reine-claude [Small green plum]
Rhubarbe [Raccoon or possibly muskrat]

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28 December 2009

Exclusive Book Excerpt! Dick Cheney’s Memoir

Chapter Seven
First Grade: Years of Decision

So often, it’s the values we learn in childhood that shape our lives as adults.

When I was just a lad of six or seven, I took my trusty hatchet and chopped down the cherry tree that stood in an undisclosed location in our backyard. My dad wasn’t pleased.

“Son,” he said, “I want you to tell me the truth. Did you chop down this tree?”

“Dad,” I answered honestly, “that information is classified.”

He thought about this for a moment, and that’s when I accidentally shot him in the face with my trusty shotgun. He lay there for a while, and I went back into the house.

Mom was baking apple pies. I asked if I could have one pie all to myself.

“Now, son,” she said, “I don’t want you to spoil your appetite.”

However, I immediately began to apply a series of enhanced whining techniques. At last, standing naked on a box, while my dog Buster snarled and nipped at her ankles, Mom relented.

“Oh, all right,” she said. “You can have all the pie you want.”

That’s when Dad walked through the door. I’d hit him pretty bad, I guess, and he looked a mess. Blood (my favorite flavor!) was streaming down his cheeks. Mom was upset.

“Son, did you know your father was injured?” she asked. “When were you going to tell me about this?”

“I had other priorities!” I said.

I couldn’t believe her attitude. Especially at a time when we were menaced by outside forces, the nature of which I could not reveal to her, I thought she was the most disloyal mother who ever lived.

But after I sent her to stay at her aunt’s house in Boise for a couple of weeks, she came back, full of remorse….

I was a happy, imaginative lad, and I loved to play dress-up.
Here I am at age 9, just before putting on one of my costumes.

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23 December 2009

Westward to Pine Valley

Lucci: She’s going to need those sunglasses.

When counting the cultural landmarks of New York City, I doubt that even the most hardcore soap-opera fan would number the studios where such sagas as All My Children have been produced. That’s a mistake, I think. The New York soaps proved an invaluable training ground for some terrific actors (and some very bad ones) over the years, and they injected a note of populist appeal into an artistic symphony that is sometimes too highbrow, even for those who like it that way. (“Shall we see the Heiner Müller play at BAM?” “Oh, yes, let’s shall!”)

So I read with sadness that All My Children has shot its last scene on a New York soundstage; henceforward, the show will be produced in Los Angeles, and One Life to Live will be the last New York soap on daytime television.

The loss of AMC is a blow to me, because it’s the only daytime soap I ever really watched. I began with an ulterior motive — to impress the girl I was dating — but soon enough I was hooked. No matter that the intrigues were overblown, no matter that roughly three-quarters of the cast were more sexy than talented, no matter that the pacing was slow and the dialogue ridiculous. This was engrossing, possibly irresistible. For years, I’d drop in on Pine Valley every now and then, keeping up with the multiple plot lines. I grew to admire Susan Lucci, who portrayed the series’ central character, Erica Kane, a wily, willful, egocentric beauty.

At one point during Lucci’s famously prolonged quest for an Emmy, I even wrote a little radio piece for Dan Rather, in which he suggested that the Academy just name the award after her: The Lucci for Best Actress. Surely it takes a remarkable talent to sustain audience interest over decades, despite a shifting cast of changing tastes, writers, husbands, and careers. We don’t know (as Dan and I observed) whether Sarah Bernhardt was capable of such a feat. But Susan Lucci has done it again and again.*

The late Ruth Warrick played one of the series’ most entertaining characters, Phoebe Tyler Wallingford.

Beyond actors and writers, many of whom presumably will move to Los Angeles, AMC and other New York soaps provided steady work for a once-vast population of technicians, the salt-of-the-earth types you never see on screen. The loss of all that employment is going to have an effect on New York’s economy — as if any further damage were needed.

That said, the technical aspect of the soaps wasn’t high. Upon meeting the late Frances Heflin, who played Erica Kane’s put-upon mother, I was nearly shocked to discover that she was quite beautiful in person. On camera, she certainly wasn’t. It was the same face, but her own make-up and the lighting in Madeline Gilford’s living-room were superior to what she found on the set of a network television series.

Another favorite AMC actress, Jill Larson, achieved the impossible by stepping into the shoes of Dorothy Lyman in the role of Opal Gardner, a kind of trailer-trash Becky Sharp.

So be it. Each episode took the viewer to so many places, and embraced so many characters, for five hours per week, that there was no time, probably, to polish. Just get the work done. That’s wonderful training for an actor, and that’s why so many good ones came out of the New York soaps. When I studied acting, I used to poo-poo the soaps, but I soon stopped. You learn your craft. You hone your reflexes. You get the work done. (You also build a fan base and draw a handsome paycheck.)

Soaps themselves are an endangered species; AMC’s future welfare will not depend on location. It will be the same show, pretty much, and it will fade away when it stops making money, as almost all the other soaps have done. Yet the loss of the soaps will change the cultural landscape of New York. We may not notice all the consequences right away, but we will see this, surely: the arts in the city will be much less a melting pot, and a little less fun.

*NOTE: Though we sent her a copy of the radio script, Susan Lucci didn’t respond, as I’d hoped she might. Maybe she didn’t know we were sincere — both of us. Dan’s mother-in-law was an AMC fan, and he respected the work, though he didn’t quite understand all the fuss that surrounded it.

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22 December 2009

Record Roundup for 2009: Pop

MIKA: The Boy Who Knew Too Much
Casablanca Records B002M9FWQE

And now for something completely different: an album to dance around the room in your underwear to. If we were uncertain as to that purpose, Mika gives us full authorization: he spends most of his time in the video “We Are Golden” dancing around the room in his underwear. It’s all about being young and impatient, sassy and unfocused, and by golly, few songwriters have done it better. (Especially the underwear part.)

The Boy isn’t exactly a sophomore slump — it’s chockfull of catchy melodies — yet it’s a step down from his debut album, Life in Cartoon Motion, and it represents what I presume to be a conscious scurrying away from Cartoon Motion’s surprising emotional depth and honesty. Indeed, The Boy is by far the cartoon-ier of the two.

What Mika knows too much about, I suspect, is fame. The first album was such a hit, and followed by such intense public scrutiny, that he changed the way he goes about his business. To cite but the most glaring example, with the album’s success came a tremendous public interest in his sex life. Every journalist inquired whether he was gay, and one fellow even threatened to kill Mika if he didn’t come out of the closet.

He wasn’t all that closeted, yet he didn’t want to speak plainly. The glam and pop artists of the 1970s who are his direct ancestors could gender-bend and play as coy as they pleased, and Mika must have believed he could follow their lead. He couldn’t. He has at last come out (about as directly as a boy can who doesn’t want to spoil — or halve — his chances of getting laid on a Saturday night), but to compensate for this violation of his privacy, he’s slammed shut a number of other doors.

It says something, I think, that after repeated listenings, I can’t remember more than a couple of lyrics. These weren’t Mika’s strongest suit, even on Cartoon Motion: he has a weakness for false rhymes, and sometimes one can’t be sure what he means, or what story he’s telling. In “Love Today,” from the first album, I defy anyone to tell me what’s going on in the verses — until you get to the unforgettable, instant-hit chorus: “Anyway you want to / Anyway you’ve got to / Love love me.” He tries a similar approach in “We Are Golden,” already a hit and probably the album’s best song. Yet please note that, when we arrive at the chorus of the new anthem, he’s talking about a lot of people — and not about himself alone.

Having made one of the most stirring arguments in favor of pop music in modern, Mika now retreats to the shallowness of the kind of pop that needed defending in the first place. He’s no longer a personal songwriter. That’s a pity. But he’s young — he’s got time and talent enough to grow — and you know what? There are times when you want to dance around the room in your underwear.

Another Kind of Cartoon Motion:
Mika in the Video for “We Are Golden”

He’s got a lot of energy, doesn’t he?

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21 December 2009

Record Roundup for 2009: Vocal Recitals

This is not a picture of Vivica Genaux or Joyce DiDonato.
(But he has sung opera.)

Gone are the days when I worked at Opera News and took home dozens of new CDs each year (one of the very, very few perks of that job), and farther still the days when I worked at CBS, and made enough money to walk into Tower Records three or four times a month, and to walk out with a bright-yellow bag stuffed with music. For that matter, gone are the days of Tower Records and a robust recording industry, too, and I’ve been told that I’m an old fogey for continuing to buy discs instead of downloading from the Internet. (In my defense, please note that downloading is grossly unsuited to opera — where are the librettos? — and iTunes and other such sites are managed by nitwits who know nothing of classical music.)

So over the next two days, I offer a roundup of the new albums I’ve enjoyed this year. There are three of them, and they’re very nearly the only new albums I’ve gotten in 2009. I’ll start with the vocal recitals.

VIVICA GENAUX: Pyrotechnics
Vivaldi Opera Arias
Virgin Classics 50999 694573 0 2

Pyrotechnics is the latest album from mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, who last week brought a selection of these arias to a concert here in Paris. Vivica looked gorgeous, as always, and I noted that, after a weekend when every Frenchman bitched about the cold, she walked onstage Monday in open-toed shoes. “But it wasn’t very cold up there,” she exclaimed. “I was fine!”

”Yes, but you’re from Alaska!” I pointed out helpfully.

Vivica’s album gathers a sampling of arias from operas by Antonio Vivaldi, and the ensemble Europa Galante, conducted by Fabio Biondi, joins the singer. Right off the bat, they announce that this is not going to be another “Pale-White, or Nymphs and Shepherds,” touch-it-with-a-tweezer Early Music performance: Biondi elicits polished fluidity from his players, and Vivica throws herself into each dramatic situation.

The trouble is that the situations aren’t terribly compelling: Vivaldi, an unsurpassed master of choral and orchestral writing, desperately wanted to write for theater, but ultimately was better-suited to the church. These arias aren’t bad, but they lack variety and insight into character. After an album’s worth, you find yourself wishing for Handel.

In compensation, you get the promised pyrotechnics, and plenty of ’em. The notes fly as furiously as snowflakes in a storm (which I have proven scientifically, by playing the album during the wintry weather that descended on Paris as Vivica left town), and her luscious timbre is like a mug of steaming-hot cocoa. The results are exciting, even festive, and you may enjoy the music even more if you forget about the lyrics and Vivaldi’s theatrical ambitions and consider this instead a kind of undiscovered Christmas cantata. (Why not? Doesn’t every one of the Four Seasons sound like sleigh bells?)

JOYCE DiDONATO: Colbran, the Muse
Rossini Opera Arias
Virgin Classics 50999 6945790 6

Richard Wagner (among others) used to complain that Rossini’s music disregarded the libretto: the characters in his operas sang the same way, regardless of circumstance or feeling. Rossini didn’t help his case much by assigning the same aria to different operas, as in the case of “Una voce poco fa,” which Rosina sings to comic effect in The Barber of Seville, but which was originally written as the Queen’s “Quanto è grato all’alma mia” in the melodrama Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra. (Yep, that’s Elizabeth I of England.)

In a really good performance, we’re unlikely to notice the disconnect between compositional style and characterization. Singers such as Marilyn Horne or Shirley Verrett wielded such authority, commanded the stage and score so completely, that every note rang true, and you thought, “Of course she’s singing this music at this moment.”

And then you get Joyce DiDonato, who focuses on Rossini the same laser-beam she brought to bear on Handel last year, performing a kind of musical microsurgery that yields the most penetrating psychological insights imaginable. She’s beyond an advocate for Rossini — she comes up with riches that he himself probably didn’t suspect were there. Pyrotechnics galore here, too, but also languorous caresses and quiet melancholy. To Hell with Wagner: Rossini knew his way around a theater, and so does Joyce.

Beyond that superlative combination of study and instinct, Joyce’s interpretations benefit from the particular quality of her voice. Beneath its shimmering surface runs a powerful current of sadness; this vocal chiaroscuro lends emotional complexity to any music. Joyce’s singing reminds us that even great joy is hard-won at great cost — or, more usually in Rossini dramas, doomed to brevity — and it must be seized and savored.

She is abetted by the tenor Lawrence Brownlee, whose performance in Rossini’s Semiramide at Caramoor last summer I missed, but whose Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore at the same venue was one of the most exciting events I witnessed all year. (Unbelievably, it was the first time he’d sung the role; he nailed that sucker.) He and Joyce have sung together onstage many times, and I’m looking forward to a long continuation of this fruitful collaboration.

Edoardo Müller conducts the Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia of Rome.* Some (Wagner-influenced?) conductors balk at bel canto, saying there’s nothing for them to do here, yet Müller makes one feel that he isn’t standing back but creating a space in which the singers can assert their creative forces. I admire that.

And speaking of Joyce and conductors, I draw your attention to the link to the new website of conductor Leonardo Vordoni, who, in addition to his manifold talents and accomplishments, is also Joyce’s husband.

TOMORROW: My Record Roundup for 2009 turns to Pop Music.

*NOTE: And by the way, wouldn’t you love to hear how Rossini would set a phrase such as “Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia di Roma”? A lot of triplets, I’m guessing.

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20 December 2009

Suis-Je Français?

Often I’ve been known to say, “I’m French,” but usually as an excuse for my reflexive impulse to kiss both cheeks when I’m greeting a friend, or for my failure to recognize some megacelebrity of U.S. pop culture. (You can’t imagine my bafflement when I arrived in the States last spring to find “Jon & Kate” on the cover of every magazine.) On a more serious level, I do love this country passionately, and I can envision circumstances in which, yes, I would die for France and proudly. I may some day apply for citizenship. But do I consider myself truly French? No. Do my neighbors consider me French? Non.

In the context of the current debate on l’identité française, however, many people are asking what it is to be French. Having considered the question at length (two decades), I now propose a handy list of the most important traits that identify a true Frenchman.

To be French is to be born knowing all things — most especially that, if anything goes wrong, anywhere in the world, it is the fault of an American.

Hallyday: Le Plus Grand Français de Tous les Temps
Celui qui a dit “Yé yé yé!”

To be French is to be more interested in the health of Johnny Hallyday than in the Copenhagen conference, wars in the Middle East, world hunger, national politics, the weather, or, for that matter, the current debate on l’identité française. That Hallyday is partly Belgian (and until recently lived most of the year in Switzerland) makes no difference.

To be French is to go on strike at the least provocation, in a way designed to inconvenience the greatest number of people. At any rate, that seems to be the thinking of the transit workers, who voted to continue snarling up the suburban commuter rails through Monday at least — making it impossible for many people to do their holiday shopping.

Désolé, Madame, you will have to take the next train …
some time in January, peut-être.

Similarly, to be French is to profess tremendous faith in the collective wisdom of the state, but to take to the streets in protest any time the government actually attempts to wield power.

To be French is to expect that everyone else in France will uphold a rigid code of personal conduct, a combination of le respect and la politesse, without being told precisely what that code entails. The code differs from Frenchman to Frenchman, and by the way, it’s unlikely that he will uphold it with regard to you. (Especially on motorways.) But you, vous les autres, you’d better mind your manners.

To be French is to defend tradition from threats abroad: French bakeries and French cinema enjoy the “exception” that permits them to compete more advantageously both at home and on international markets. Meanwhile, it’s increasingly difficult to find an edible baguette, and the French line up to see every Hollywood blockbuster that comes down the pike.

Objet Volant Non-Identifié

Just so, to be French is to uphold the importance of la cuisine du terroir and the charm of the béret basque — while dining at McDonald’s and wearing a Yankees cap.

To be French is to enjoy Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey movies in the confident belief that their behavior is typical of all Americans; and to enjoy Woody Allen and Roman Polanski movies more in the years since we discovered what sexual deviance they’re capable of.

Un Américain Typique

To be French is to mistrust one’s neighbors while spending as much time as possible with one’s family. They are the only people with whom one will ever discuss religion, politics, or money. The reason being that, in generations past, one’s neighbors have been prone to denounce and to inform on each other over questions of … politics, religion, and money. (Since there is no record of anyone’s ever being cast into the Bastille for supporting a football team, the French do discuss sports quite openly.)

However, with all that reverence for family, to be French is nevertheless to be perfectly willing to trade one’s grandmother for a really good truffle.

En avant, mes enfants! There’s a special on offal at the butcher’s!

To be French is to believe so fervidly in the Rights of Man that one believes with equal fervor that those rights extend to dogs, as well.

And on the subject of rights, to be French is to ignore any distinction whatever between entitlements and rights, or between rights and privileges, so long as we are talking about one’s own entitlements and privileges, and not somebody else’s. (See “Motorways,” above.) Indeed, this is the second-most important qualification for French identity.

The most important qualification is this: to be French is not to be American.

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19 December 2009

So French

The French are currently engaged in a great debate — over whether to engage in a great debate. So far, the “Shut Up and Move On” contingent has the force of numbers behind it, according to a poll this week in the Nouvel Observateur magazine, but the “Let’s Keep Debating (Until Legislative Elections in March)” contingent has behind it the force of the President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and so onward we debate, whether the conversation does us any good or serves merely to drive us farther apart.

The subject is “l’identité nationale,” or what it really means to be French. On strictly legal grounds, the answer is simple: you’re either a native or a naturalized citizen, or else you’re not French. But that leaves out a lot of people (such as this writer), and it begs such questions as whether one can be taught to be French, and what the French state can reasonably expect from those who live here. At the moment, the government is scrutinizing displays of non-Christian faith, in particularly the Muslim veil in all its forms, and it’s a telling discussion.

For one thing, the separation of church and state has been the law of this land since 1905. (There were parties to celebrate the centennial.) Is it really within the government’s purview to ban, to permit, or even to question traditions of faith? And we had hardly begun to discuss the veil before we felt the shock, shock of remembering that many French Jews wear head coverings, too. If a Muslim woman can’t wear a veil, can a Jewish man continue to wear a yarmulke? And don’t Catholic nuns wear veils? Ooops. This is more complex than we thought, isn’t it?

Sarkozy: A soupçon of debate never hurt anybody, n’est-ce pas?

The debate wasn’t intended to round up the Jews (been there, done that), or even to touch them; neither was it intended to revive the anti-clerical measures of the Reign of Terror. Supposedly, it’s a security issue: how can the police identify you if you’re wearing a burqa? Yet at its heart, the present debate really asks “what to do” with the 5 million Muslims who live here. It’s a nasty question — neither Sarkozy nor any member of his government has phrased it this way — but a significant number of French people hear it clearly.

For among the French, in certain quarters, there’s a widespread mistrust of, and in some cases hostility toward, Muslims. We know who feels this way: in the Nouvel Obs poll, the oldest and the least educated registered the strongest support for the debate, which in turn legitimizes the expression of sentiments that, in a civil society, might better be kept quiet. A wave of terrorism in the 1990s, followed by 9/11 and the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran exacerbated the mistrust. These factors ostensibly elevate the debate now to a question of national security.

In turn, fears are growing (with cause) that some of these expressions of hostility will take the ugliest possible forms, from insults to desecration of mosques to ad hominem violence. And none of this — absolutely none of it — does anything to facilitate the integration of a vast population who are indeed French citizens, yet do not enjoy the rights, privileges and esteem that every other Frenchman takes for granted.

Villepin: Stop!

Among those calling for an immediate end to the debate are Dominique de Villepin, the former prime minister and Sarkozy’s onetime rival on the center-right; the entire Socialist Party, the principal opposition party; an assortment of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders; and an impressive majority of those surveyed in the Nouvel Obs poll.

Fat chance that Sarkozy will listen — to Villepin, who may have engineered an attempt to frame him in a criminal scam a few years ago; to the Socialists, who needless to say do not have his best interests at heart; or to anyone else. He’s hoping to attract voters on the far right, especially those who might otherwise vote for the Front National. He’s been down this path before, and to appeal to the FN voters he covets, he has several times adopted stances that — more implicitly than explicitly — indicate that he’s as nationalistic, as anti-immigration, and as racist as they tend to be.

Security risk? Sarkozy with an Immigrant

It’s anybody’s guess why Sarkozy, a man whose own heritage is Hungarian (and in part Jewish), and whose wife is herself an immigrant (from Italy), seeks to broaden his base with this segment of the electorate. Does he really think he can reform them from within, or channel their fear and rage toward constructive ends? Or is it really about getting the biggest parliamentary majority possible? As I say, it’s no coincidence that Sarkozy’s immigration minister, Eric Besson, is expected to deliver his report on the debate just ahead of the legislative elections.

In a purely philosophical context — of a kind which does not exist in politics and government — there is much to be said for asking, “Who are we? What makes us who we are?” Some of my favorite works by Henry James and Mark Twain address what it means to be an American, and I daresay I’m a better person for having considered the question under their tutelage. France, predicated on geographical grounds, and only later devising political and philosophical reasons to exist as a nation, might profitably indulge in some self-examination — that is, if it were more honest than the debate Sarkozy has launched.

Waxing Philosophical: Sarkozy, with a friend,
engages in his favorite kind of debate.

TOMORROW: Are you French? A handy checklist will let you know.

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17 December 2009

Julie Andrews


It’s snowing in Beynes, in flakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes, while the coming of Christmas brings a remembered soundtrack of Julie Andrews’ recordings of carols. In Paris, the current stage production of The Sound of Music (a.k.a. La mélodie du bonheur) at the Théâtre du Châtelet mean that Andrews’ face and voice are popping up all over television these days. And so the first diva I ever worshipped has been much on my mind lately.

I met Julie Andrews backstage after a performance of Putting It Together, a Sondheim pastiche that represented her return to Broadway after a three-decade absence. You’d never have guessed she’d been away, however: she commanded the stage with total mastery. I couldn’t identify the secret source of her presence, but I could see the results, and while the piece wasn’t very good, she was phenomenal.

Scott Frankel, the show’s music director, introduced me to Andrews in her dressing room. I was terrified that I’d start gushing, so I kept my comments to a minimum and mostly listened while they discussed that evening’s performance, what had worked and what they agreed needed more work. Andrews was thoroughly professional about all this, but something more: she made clear that she admired my friend, and she took care to praise him in my presence. “Isn’t he a genius?” she asked me.

I was struck by her generosity. Yes, Scott is a genius, as it happens, but nobody was forcing Andrews to say so, least of all in front of his friend. This was the antithesis of stereotypical diva behavior, and I remember thinking as I left the theater, “I need to be this way, if ever I’m in anything like her exalted position in the world.” Not that there’s much chance, but I’ll try to remember the lesson.

By this point in his career, Scott had worked already with several legendary ladies of musical theater: Bernadette Peters, Teresa Stratas, Shirley MacLaine, Barbra Streisand. He wasn’t in awe of Julie Andrews, therefore, and as he told me, his boyhood idol was Streisand.* Was it something in our family backgrounds, we wondered, that made us gravitate toward the diva who most reflected our heritage? For just as Streisand is Jewish, so Andrews couldn’t be more a WASP.

I quite literally cut my teeth on Julie Andrews records, and when I was a baby, my mother used to sweep me in her arms and waltz around the room while listening to the My Fair Lady cast album. Evidently there were occasions when I did dance all night. And so deep was my infatuation with Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins that I used to dress up like her, grab an umbrella, and fly around the neighborhood.

Practically Perfect in Every Way

Her performances paved the way for my later explorations of opera, and some elements of her work continue to influence my taste: the clarity of her projection and the intimately conversational quality in her singing, and the precision of her diction are qualities I seek in other singers now. Sometimes, it turns out that these singers were influenced by Andrews’ technique: in the course of an interview, the wonderful Barbara Bonney told me excitedly of her early admiration of Julie Andrews, and indeed Bonney’s own bell-like soprano has often been heard in Salzburg.

Sitting around and wondering what simple folk would do.

As I grew older, my enthusiasm for Andrews diminished a bit, tempered not only by the mediocrity of so many of her vehicles but also by her limitations as an actress. She portrays only five emotions, as discrete as the gears on a car’s transmission, with comparably pronounced shifts between them. (Shifting into anger is especially difficult for her.) I found greater openness and truth in her singing — and in her writing, particularly her first book, a novel for children entitled Mandy.


Nowadays she’s pursuing her writing quite seriously, and reportedly drawing great satisfaction from it — though the profusion of children’s stories arrives a bit late to do me much good. A pity she didn’t take up the pen earlier and more often: how many of her movies, in a bundle, would I trade for just one more Whangdoodle!

Yet when she was good, she was sublime, and if you have never found yourself on a green hillside, outstretched your arms and twirled around, then burst into song — you have never truly lived.

*NOTE: Streisand’s style was inculcated in Scott to such a degree that, when he worked with her on the Back to Broadway album, she sometimes turned to him to sing a particular phrase — that is, to show her how to do it her way.

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