29 August 2010

‘Xena’-philia with Renée O’Connor and Her Fans

Xena: Warrior Princess, the syndicated television show that ran from 1995–2001, achieved such a high degree of popularity that I hardly felt the need to watch it in order to be aware of its cultural impact. Particularly among women, it seemed to strike a chord (or several) that resonated throughout the public discourse. I knew that — but not much else. And so I’m probably a true fan’s worst nightmare: I got the privilege of hanging out with Renée O’Connor, who played Gabrielle in the series, though I’d never watched a single episode.

This weekend, I had the opportunity to assess Xena’s hold on the popular imagination — and it turns out that my general and ultimately vague understanding didn’t measure up to the reality. Years after the show ended its run, a small army of Europeans turned out for a fan convention, the first of its kind in France, thousands of miles from Hollywood and from New Zealand (where Xena was filmed). Fans had traveled from Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic, Germany, Sweden and Norway; the intensity of their devotion to the show, to Gabrielle, and to Renée herself was palpable and ultimately quite moving.

That’s Ms. Legend to you: Lawless as Xena

As a saga of strong women traversing ancient civilizations, Xena presents an invented mythology (alongside some synthesized ones), but it’s potent, offering many people a way to understand the world and themselves — which is what mythologies do. I’d only guessed at Xena’s success in that regard.

This weekend, I learned how the producers guaranteed Xena’s status as an epic by adhering to the template of legend, rather than abiding by the rules of present-day popular entertainment, where everything demands a sequel and a franchise. Thus Xena dies in the series’ final episode, heroically sacrificing herself to a noble cause, as well as sealing her relationship with Gabrielle.

Again and again this weekend, I saw how that relationship served countless real-life women as a model of strength (these ladies kicked some serious ass) and love.

Yes, the short-skirted, midriff-baring costumes, fleeting kisses, and assorted other titillations were likely designed to lure in the fanboys, but a lot of women saw something else. There was absolutely nothing that Xena and Gabrielle wouldn’t do for each other, and while the series shied away from depicting a sexual relationship between the characters, what was shown was incontestably physical — and generally quite tender. In addition to frequent, simple affirmations of “I love you” were some lines of dialogue that approached poetry.

“I will never leave you.”

Throughout the convention hall, I saw evidence that women had recognized themselves in the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, and that they had received a powerful message: love is an adventure to be shared.

It’s not unlike the message that gay men received from Jacques Martin’s Alix and Enak: perhaps not precisely what the creators intended, but an independent interpretation that they welcomed. Even in pop culture, some creative artists do find the grace and courage to say to their audiences, “This belongs to you now; you are free make it your own story.”

Bard softly, but carry a big stick.

Women and men received other messages from Xena, too, and as I eavesdropped on (or translated) Renée’s conversations with her fans, I got additional insight into the show’s impact, because many of the fans had a personal story to relate. In no particular order, Xena had:
  • Given viewers a starting point to form a community and to connect with likeminded souls around the world;

  • Encouraged them to work out and take better care of their bodies, so they could look as fierce as Renée and Lucy Lawless;

  • Helped to improve their English-language skills;

  • Inspired their artistic endeavors, ranging from poetry to comic books (of which I saw one excellent example) to videos;

  • And — in at least one case — saved a life.
I didn’t get many details on that last one; the rest of the story was intended for Renée’s ears alone. But her eyes filled with tears as she listened.

Naturally, I thought back to the Star Trek conventions I attended in my youth. Watching these young fans meet the adored actor, I remembered the excitement — a kind of stage fright mixed with religious ecstasy — that I felt when I met Nichelle Nichols and George Takei. The fans thrilled at the chance to communicate directly with an artist who’d touched each of them and given them something meaningful to carry through life.

But there’s an aesthetic dimension here, too. Both Xena and Star Trek have their cheesy elements, and to a point, you wouldn’t be wrong to say, “Oh, it’s just a silly TV show.” And yet, by inviting viewers to invest in and to locate themselves within the televised saga, some shows have the power to transcend the usual limitations of the genre. It’s useful to be reminded periodically of the value of popular art.

Renée spent an inordinate amount of time translating for me
whenever fans referred to any of the show’s signature weapons,
such as this one called (I believe) a “whatsis.”

On Friday, Renée’s fans weren’t wearing character costumes (and neither, for that matter, was she), and their memorabilia paled in comparison to the phasers and other gizmos we used to trade. But the truest signs of their devotion came from within.

Throughout a long, busy afternoon, Renée remained fully engaged with her fans. She knows that these are special moments for them, and they’re special to her, too. Just as Xena invited them to form a community, so they invited Renée to join it, too, completing the circle.

I’ll write more about Renée in an upcoming post, but for now, suffice to say that she’s a smart, centered woman with a clear sense of who she really is. (Not every actress can say the same.) And she’s even prettier than she was on TV.

Next Sunday: An interview with Renée O’Connor!

NOTE: One important difference between the Xena convention and a Star Trek convention was the lack of nitpicky questions during the Q&A session I attended. At no point did anyone stand up and say, for example, “In S3E12, Scene 7, the third extra to the left standing behind you is clearly wearing a Swatch over his armband. Shouldn’t somebody have been fired for that?” Maybe the distinction between science fiction and fantasy explains the differing mindsets of the fans.

Read more!

25 August 2010

Two Nights with Patricia Kilgarriff

Few announcements occasion so much disappointment in the hearts of theatergoers than that when the expected star will not, in fact, be appearing in tonight’s performance, but that the standby will go on instead. Experience teaches us that very seldom does the 42nd Street triumph ensue, in which the standby comes back a star: rare in the extreme is the Kiri Te Kanawa who steps in for Teresa Stratas, or the Salvatore Licitra who steps in for Luciano Pavarotti (Met debuts for both artists), which is why we still talk about their performances. Yet on my two visits to the original Broadway production of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, a standby presented me with one of the most thrilling adventures of my career in the audience.

One night, Dorothy Loudon did not appear as Dotty Otley; the second night, we were deprived of Linda Thorson’s Belinda Blair. By attending the show twice, I got to see both ladies in their roles, and they were wonderful. But they were outmatched by the standby, who took over for each in turn, and who (it’s no exaggeration to say) risked her life to do so: the actress Patricia Kilgarriff.

Noises Off is an indescribably complex comedy, its three acts depicting the same scene of a tatty English sex farce in three stages of production, from differing perspectives. Simply keeping the lines of this puzzle clear was a phenomenal intellectual achievement for the author; that might have been enough, but he managed to make the thing funny, as well. Thereupon, Michael Blakemore directed the piece to run at breakneck speed — still keeping the lines clear and the jokes funny — without killing anybody in the process.

Someone else’s mediocre photo of the original Playbill.
One of these days, I’ll get a scanner or a new camera,
and you’ll have the benefit of my own mediocre photos.

Because Noises Off is, as much as its subject, a farce, there’s a great deal of physical comedy involved, and if any of the actors misses a step, there’s a chance that somebody will wind up with a broken bone. This sort of precision makes brain surgery look as easy and safe as playing with Tinker Toys. One night, taking a pratfall, the actor Victor Garber landed on his back — and kept skidding, fast, until his head hung over the edge of the stage, practically in the lap of a young man in the front row.

I know because I was that young man. A little more momentum, and we’d both have wound up in the emergency room. Or the morgue — considering how close Victor Garber’s neck came to snapping.

So I was conscious from the get-go of the physical risks that the actors took. I had enough theatrical experience of my own to know that, during rehearsals for the show, they’d repeated each stunt until it became almost instinctive, the natural response of the muscles. But standbys don’t get as much rehearsal as the first cast. I knew that, too.

If Patricia Kilgarriff felt any anxiety whatever about flinging herself into the scrum onstage, I saw no hint of it. Meanwhile, she delivered a Dotty Otley that (as I would learn when I saw Loudon in the role) was subtler, wittier, more believable. Those qualities aren’t strictly necessary in a farce, where everybody’s a cartoon. And yet Kilgarriff managed to hoist Dotty’s character into another, more humane realm, without unbalancing the comedy, and she richly earned the laughs she got.

And she didn’t get herself killed. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of this fact.

See a movie twice, and the cast remains the same; that’s not necessarily so with the cast of a stage play. Theater is like life, though: changing, growing, subject to random chance. Thus, the next time I saw Noises Off, Kilgarriff took over for Linda Thorson.

Yet again, she offered a more rounded interpretation of the character, with a better grip on the moral ambiguity and humor of Belinda’s well-intentioned busybodying. Kilgarriff was more focused and funnier than Thorson now, just as she’d managed to hit other parts of the theater than the back row (of the theater across the street) to which Loudon, God bless her, typically played.

And yet again, Kilgarriff dove into the choreographed pile of potential murder-suicide — this time, from a completely different angle. Mind you, Loudon and Thorson would have gotten the bulk of the rehearsal time with Blakemore, if not all of it, and they were responsible only for knowing one set of blocking: Kilgarriff had to know two.

She survived, unscathed, to receive my compliments at the stage door. Because of course I had to tell her how much I admired her thrilling performances. Both of them. Indeed, I was almost impatient for the ovations to end, so that I could shake the lady’s hand.

Courage of another kind: Kilgarriff as Florence Foster Jenkins,
the notorious coloratura soprano,
in a regional production of Glorious!

She was wonderfully modest. I saw that she wasn’t doing this for marquee billing or a big paycheck or her picture on the cover of some magazine. She did it because — well, it’s what an actress does. And she made that recompense seem, in itself, greater than any other.

That was 1985. Years later, those nights in the theater aren’t quite so distinct in my memory, yet the overall impression remains vivid. Kilgarriff’s twin performances affirmed the words of Lloyd Dallas, the director of the play-within-the-play Noises Off:
“That's what it’s all about, doors and sardines. Getting on, getting off. Getting the sardines on, getting the sardines off. That’s farce. That’s — that’s the theatre. That’s life.”
And that’s one reason I keep going to the theater. You never know when life is going to strike.

Patricia Kilgarriff continues to work on stage and screens, and to pursue a career as a voiceover actress and reader of audio books. Since this work doesn’t entail tripping over Paxton Whitehead, it’s safer — and I daresay no less rewarding.

NOTE: My appreciation of the practical demands of Noises Off was no doubt enhanced by my companions: the actor Andrew Weems, the first time I saw the show; and kick-ass lyricist Amanda Green, the second time. True-blue theater animals both, they have never failed to raise my consciousness of the stage. Andy has since acted in the play, as Lloyd. (So now maybe Amanda should adapt it as a musical?)

Read more!

22 August 2010

The Festival at Canari, Part 5: Interview with Jacques Scaglia

Photograph by Elizabeth Scaglia©
Used with her sister’s permission.

In writing about Jacques Scaglia, the founder and presiding genius of the Festival International du Chant Lyrique de Canari, I’m reluctant to refer to Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo. After all, I’ve never seen the movie. Moreover, Klaus Kinski isn’t known for play nice, sane people like Jacques. Still, there’s something more than visionary — something outside the realm of everyday imagination — about bringing operatic singing to a remote location like Cap Corse. Jacques didn’t try to carry a steamboat over a mountain, but he’s done just about every other kind of heavy lifting. Not many other men would do as much.

The results are a great success with the public, and, as I hope I’ve made clear, the Festival has provided me with indelible memories and a closer understanding of music.

Were I to write about Jacques the way that I once wrote about Gabriel Bacquier (in Gaby’s own estimation: “The Americans must have loved reading it, all that sentimental stuff”), then I might describe him as a man in a constant process of giving something back: to music, to Corsica, to youth. It says something about a man who reared five daughters, yet who wants to stay involved with the development of young people’s talents.

Listening to him, I’m struck that his experience closely resembles that of the director of an American festival: Jacques must worry about funding, in a way that other European impresarios seldom do, and the pursuit of sponsors occupies a great deal of his time.

At the close of last year’s Festival, I sat down with Jacques on the terrace of the restaurant Au Bon Clocher, in the hope of learning more about how he got this far, and where the road ahead may take him.

Classy Masters: Scaglia and Bacquier
Photo by Rita Scaglia©
Used with permission

WVM: The seventh festival will be ending soon. Are you happy with it?

JS: Very satisfied. The level of the singers was — with regard to many other competitions — very high. Even the singers who came from abroad and participated said, “We didn’t think to expect this level of skill.” I think that they may have come — and this is my own opinion — thinking, “Oh, if we didn’t win over there [at other competitions], maybe we’ll win in Corsica, because it’s not the same thing at all.” And here they found themselves facing competitors who were even tougher.

WVM: And judges who are very demanding, shall we say? Very serious.

JS: Yes, they’re highly competent, and what’s more, they get along well together, even though it isn’t always the same panel. And for example this year we don’t have only singers. We have, first of all, Gabriel Bacquier; that’s a monstre sacré of judging, with real heart. We see it clearly, between rounds: he takes the singers aside to correct their mistakes, which is terrific. But we have a conductor, who has led all the great forces, from the opera in Berlin to La Scala in Milan, all the great forces. He has conducted often at the Opéra de Paris — New York, too. There you have a man of sovereign judgment, intransigent, who has seen everyone, and listened. [Also, there is] Michèle Command, a great vocal technician, and a great lady, besides. At this competition, there have been quite a few of her pupils. But she has judged with an open mind, without playing favorites at all.

And then, for my part, what I have appreciated this year is to have among the members of the jury a phoniatrist. Because, for one thing, this is a man who has sung, who took singing lessons with good teachers, and what’s more who has [as a physician] cared for many great singers. This means that, a great phoniatrist, in hearing a voice, can say, “This one is forcing, this one isn’t flexible enough, this one is too tight.” And it’s true that this is very important, because it’s really the musical judgment of a doctor. Because a phoniatrist is someone who takes care of the sonority of the voice.

WVM: Exactly. The health of the voice.

JS: So I’m very glad that he’s come, because moreover he’s a very nice guy. I know that this evening he’s going to join us for dinner [at the home of Jacques’ daughter Rita and her husband, Pascal Dolémieux].
“When I started out, people said to me quite simply, ‘In Corsica, if you’re going to do this, you must be crazy.’”

WVM: I know that you want to continue the Festival for as long as possible.

JS: Yes. Of course. Even after my time is finished, if that’s possible.

WVM: So what is the future of the Festival, then?

JS: The future is to find someone who will come after me, and become just as crazy about it as I am. Because you’ve got to go the limit. To do things in Paris or elsewhere, it’s almost easy. But in a setting that is — not hostile, you know, but it’s not really the setting where this sort of thing happens ordinarily — you’ve got to believe a little bit that anything is possible. When I started out, people said to me quite simply, “In Corsica, if you’re going to do this, you must be crazy.” And you’ve seen for yourself that now the whole gang is on board. Truly on board.

So that permits me to think that people are going to say, “You’ve got to teach me how to keep this going.” Because once things are underway — it’s difficult to make things happen, but now, things are already in place. So for the future, so long as I’m in good shape, the Festival will continue in the same fashion, and I hope better and better. Difficult though that may be.
“The Festival lasts one week, but it’s a full year of work. And a full year of worries.”

I’ve already got a few people who are open to the idea. But it’s necessary to be not just crazy but also a bit self-sacrificing. Because I can assure you, the Festival lasts one week, but it’s a full year of work. And a full year of worries. Because the dossiers [grant proposals] — without money, you can’t do anything. We looked for sponsors this year, we made requests to very important people … we got nothing. For the past couple of years — and this makes us very happy — some entities have helped us, including Air France. But apart from them, as far as financial sponsors go, we’ve gotten nothing [new]. But on the other hand, the merit of this is that, the proposals being put together, and we submitted them to the [inaudible] officials. So if they answer, “Okay,” for us, it’s the comfort that comes from reliability. Because it will encourage, over the long term, the events to take place conclusively.

We’ve been doing this for seven years now, and this is the first year that I haven’t had any concerns about the funding. There hasn’t been money to throw around, but for the first time I could distribute the prizes to the singers without having to worry. I could even make arrangements here, during the week — while sometimes there were so many prizes — we could nevertheless convince other people to appear before the audience [to present the prizes]. I even escaped, because you know I don’t like compliments, people who say, “Merci, bravo,” and all that. Before, I used to wait for them. But now, it wears me out more than anything. [Laughter] So everybody understood. And I got away this morning. — And you, how did you find the level of singing?

WVM: The level of singing? Very, very high. Very professional, in fact. But just to linger on the subject a little longer, normally, when we speak of the development of a festival — and yours is still quite young — we speak of expanding it, making it bigger. And here, I wonder whether — the church, for example, doesn’t hold many people.*

JS: I’ll tell you, yesterday I got a bit angry, because there were people talking about the setting, and getting a bigger theater, and there we could do things better. And I said, “Well, we have a way of to do things better.” …Let’s say, let’s put on one concert [at the conclusion of the week of master classes], and the next day a second one, for people who can’t make it to the first. If that happens, the students will really get something out of it. They could get back a little of what they put into the master classes. And for the audience, people who can’t attend the Friday concert, because they have to work, they can take advantage of a show on Saturday evening. That, we’re seriously thinking about. As far as the opera is concerned, when there’s a competition, we can hold the finals on Friday, and the Saturday we’d put on a concert with the prizewinners.

We’ve thought about [producing additional concerts] elsewhere. But I’ll tell you one thing. Rita will say, “Papa, you’re always saying the worst.” But, with respect to what I say, or what others say, look, it’s so little, it can’t put a brake on passion. And it winds up costing nothing. Because for me, my dream is that eventually, the competition winners from Canari will put on a concert in Bastia, before a large audience. I’ve talked to a few people, it’s complicated — for now, I’ve let it drop.
“The intimacy is irreplaceable … as soon as we supersize, we’ll lose that human quality.”

WVM: But it’s a way to enlarge the Festival a bit.

JS: That’s right. What’s happening is that, now, the theater in Bastia has taken notice of what we’re doing. They’re interested. Now, to associate themselves with us, even though it’s not the same area, we have different operatic activities, there’s talk of copying us, and that pains me, because, in fact, we were the trailblazers. But it’s true that, if we work there, if we put on a concert there, we’d get a bigger audience than we’d get [with an extra concert] in the next village over. But it would mean a sacrifice.

WVM: In fact, the charm of the Festival is the size, the intimacy. The chance to get to know the singers very well, over the course of the week, both in the master classes and in the competitions. To get to know Bacquier and Michèle Command, et cetera.

JS: The intimacy is irreplaceable.
“‘What the audience couldn’t see was what went on backstage, that the rivals were affectionate friends.’”

WVM: The chance to get to know the singers and the art, I find that absolutely wonderful.

JS: And as soon as we supersize, we’ll lose that human quality. I saw an article I liked very much, and it ended by saying that “what the audience couldn’t see was what went on backstage, that the rivals were affectionate friends.” That really touched me. Because he said [the singers] were hugging each other. This year, though, we felt that less. I don’t know why.

I think perhaps there were singers who said to themselves, “After all, [winning the prize money] will give me something to live off of for a couple of months. That would be good.” So there’s a connection — a bit of an anti-connection — with regard to the material needs, too, because [the economic climate] is making it more and more difficult for young people who want to sing. So automatically, when they win a competition, they can breathe easier.**

What amused me the most, yesterday, was that the Canadian — you saw her, she’s adorable — when I said to her, “Karin, I have to write out your check,” she answered, “Oh, that’s right, I won!” [Laughter] “That’s right, I won!” We were very happy that this one won. Already at the semifinal she was excited, we weren’t sure she could handle the thrill. But she was so charming, and her singing was so artistic and so musical. She looked good onstage, too.

WVM: I’m looking for my words in French, but if there’s a downside to intimacy here, there are times I suppose when, if an artist doesn’t win the competition or doesn’t perform well in the master classes, it can be difficult. Because we get to know them so well. You have to find something to say, try to be nice. Many of them are very nice, and we know that. Is that hard for you?

JS: No. In the master classes, for starters, we take twelve singers. Which means they all come to the convent. They’re all in the same place, and they’re all studying together. That stimulates conviviality. They can also get together to raise a glass of rosé in a toast from time to time. A few years ago, a Mexican soprano came to the master classes, and at the end she said to me, “What I really didn’t expect was this conviviality among us all.” In spite of everything [stresses, competitiveness, differing critical perceptions of other singers’ work], there’s the sea, the mountain, people who take care to shake everyone by the hand when they run into you. We’re not quite like what you usually find in other places.
“We’re not quite like what you usually find in other places.”

And you can appreciate that. From sunup to sundown, [the singers] have the same enthusiasm, which is perfect. And what’s more, each time we hold master classes, they ask me, “Can you send me the list of the singers, with all their names.” And they correspond with each other. Recently, I received an e-mail from Jean-François Borras, the tenor, who was singing in a production of Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco in Rouen. I got such a kick out of it, because it was one of those mass e-mails where you can see all the other people’s addresses — and there were all the singers from the master classes [in 2006]. Really, that’s a holy communion! [Laughs.]

WVM: Let’s say — I’m thinking of one singer in particular from this year, who was eliminated early. She seemed fairly bitter, not very happy with that decision. You didn’t feel any awkwardness around her?

JS: No, because, for starters, nothing’s perfect, but I like people. And above all, I like to help developing singers. Because I know how much singers suffer when they run into a failure. Let’s not even talk about a vocal failure, where you can really feel a singer falling into the abyss. But say a failure where they didn’t win but they felt they did well; they really knocked themselves out. The mistake for them is to say, “This competition isn’t really a competition; there were certain people in collusion, judges — conductors or impresarios — who had an interest in promoting certain other singers.” But it’s true there have been people who felt extremely bitter, and who deserved better than their lot.
“You have to start with what you really are, and then to deepen that by being coherent about it.”

Beyond that, I know the person you’re thinking about, she had a hard time choosing her arias for the elimination rounds. Because you have to build to a crescendo. But in my opinion, you have to start with what you really are, and then to deepen that by being coherent about it, by giving a linear performance. And not by making massive leaps. It’s enough afterward to sustain the impression made at the beginning, to enlarge and to embellish it according to one’s vocal comportment and technique.…

WVM: But they’re judged on their performances throughout the competition, and not only for the finals.

JS: Exactly. But sometimes, you know, at a competition like […], for example, they don’t even get to sing an entire aria. As soon as the judges have heard enough, [they stop the singers]. One juror told me, “Two minutes is enough.” But you’ve also got to feel everything that’s going on, not just the voice. There’s everything in the background.

WVM: The action, et cetera.

JS: Everything else that’s going on. But this year, there were perhaps some singers who deserved better than they got. In my opinion. But there were also some others who surprised me. I used to have a colleague who often said about a particular project, “It’s a big world, and you can’t please everybody.” [Laughs.]

WVM: Ultimately, every judgment is personal.

JS: It’s simplistic, but that doesn’t bother me.
“I like people. And above all, I like to help developing singers.”

WVM: You also used to sing, and I’d really like to know whether there are moments when your experience as a singer helps you in managing the Festival.

JS: I’ll tell you, I think you already know this, I’ve had a highly atypical life. When I was young, I was able to find some good teachers, such as Vladimir Karavia, who was the partner of [legendary Russian bass Feodor] Chaliapin, who was a formidable man. He expressed admiration for me when I was 18. That’s crazy, somebody who inspires admiration at the age of 18, that doesn’t happen. So I had that to start out with, and then there was a Romanian tenor called Emilio Marinescu, who sang with the opera in Marseille. By then I was 19, and he said, “But it’s incredible. The voice is beautiful.” I had been to Conservatory [in Marseille], but that doesn’t mean anything.

And then what made up my mind was that I came back to Corsica. [The local people] helped me out, so that I could study in Paris or — and then, my poor mother, who was a widow by this time, and my brother said, “But after all, why not give Milan a shot?” I left for Milan, I studied for three and a half years at La Scala, where I acquired a technique typical of the 1950s.
“During the rehearsal, I had my head stuck between [the soprano’s] breasts, and I really thought I had no business being there.”

After that, circumstances demanded that, first of all — this was the era of Gabriel Bacquier in 1958, at the Festival d’Aix [en Provence], when he made his big splash. One of the directors was Gabriel Dussurget, who heard me and said, “It’s an interesting voice.” And his friend, a great specialist, said, “Yes, but Gabriel, he’s a midget!” [Laughter.]

That had no effect on me, but the second trauma, as far as my height goes, was also in France. I had some friends who were taller. And this was at the Opéra de Marseille, when I auditioned to sing Silvio in Pagliacci. The Nedda was a soprano who was as tall as this. During the rehearsal, I had my head stuck between her breasts, and I really thought I had no business being there. I thought, “I’ll never get out of this.”

And I won’t try to hide it, I had stage fright. Every time I had to sing, I’d get sick two days before. Sick, but so sick — you can’t imagine the stage fright. Was I insecure about myself? It’s possible. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had that stage fright.

So, I quit singing, I abandoned it to pursue something completely different, you know.*** Then, by the time I turned 53, it was time to think about my retirement. I thought, “What’s going to happen?” The retirement age is 55. And then I had the idea to take up singing again, after all. So there I was, in Paris, in front of a mirror. And two sayings came back to me.
“It was time to think about my retirement … and then I had the idea to take up singing again.”

One is when we singers were working with the maestro in Milan. And when I dug into a song, it wasn’t horrible, but physically, it didn’t make me happy. Discouraged, I thought of José di [?], who said this to me — I was 23 at the time — “You’re 23, but you manage your voice like somebody who’s been in the business for 20 years.” So that encouraged me for a while.

And then my wife, Evelyne, was saying, “But it’s crazy, don’t you realize? You never wanted to [sing] before. How are you going to manage?” You see, on the one hand there was the part of me that wanted to sing, and on the other, it seemed as if the moment had passed. Then, by accident, one day in Paris, I was singing “Eri tu” from Un Ballo in Maschera. She opened the door and said to me, “That was wonderful! I thought you’d never do it.”

Jacques Scaglia found a pianist in Paris to accompany his lessons, and in turn he started to give singing lessons to her boyfriend. One thing led to another, and soon, he had 20 students.

JS: …And that’s how I met Michèle [Command, who teaches voice at the Conservatoire de Paris]. She said, “Who is this baritone that I keep hearing about all day?” And so we became great friends.

When I got to the village [in Corsica], I had a student who sang very well, but because she was my daughter, as soon as I said anything, she’d contradict me…. I called Michèle, and I said, “I’ve got a girl with a superb voice, a real musician. But she’s so stubborn, we wind up arguing over nothing for an hour at a time. Can I send her to you?”

She said, “Listen, what the heck do you expect from her?”
“She said, ‘What are you waiting for? Why don’t you start a singing competition?’”

In those days, I didn’t have the cats.**** I had my voice lessons, I had students who were coming from Bastia, and I’d go to Bastia. I wasn’t bored….

[Michèle Command] said, “What are you waiting for? Why don’t you start a singing competition? If you start a singing competition, Gaby and I will come.”

In the meantime, the mayor had asked me to come before the town council.… The convent had just been restored, and he said, “Do we have any ideas?” I said, “I’ve got an idea: a singing competition.”

WVM: So it was really an evolution —

JS: A number of things that came together. The restored convent — do something that could be promoted, but there wasn’t much space. We needed to find an event sufficiently interesting on a cultural level, so that we could obtain the necessary funding. That’s why we’re funded by the Centre Culturel.
“From the first year, we were in luck.”

So then, from the first year, we were in luck. Even at the town council, a guy said to me, “I believed in it. If we can’t do this, we can’t do anything.…”

It takes a lot of work, you’ve really got to throw yourself into it. You’ve got to enjoy it. In these cases, the grant proposals have to be very reliable, they have to signal professionalism, so that they don’t give the impression you’re just somebody putting on a village fair. And here I think that, from the beginning, we’ve been lucky — a bit crazy though I may be — in our commitments, in everything I commit to do, I’m very meticulous, very careful. That takes a lot of time, because I’m slower than somebody whose skills are more directly related than mine. But in the end, by applying myself, it’s working out. This year, for example, they gave us funding even before it was brought up at the meeting. And the Conseil Général gave me money even before I submitted my proposal….

So I said to myself, “Hey, this is good.” It gives me peace of mind. …I’m talking a bit about the technical side of things, but it’s to tell you what kinds of difficulties when you want to create something of this kind, and you’re in a small village, and especially when it’s something new.

WVM: The idea of a festival here is at once perfectly logical and crazy.

JS: With regard to what you have to do to make it happen.

WVM: It’s fascinating to hear this. And frankly, I didn’t know what to expect, the first time I came here. I didn’t know you in those days, and I said to myself, “Hmmm, a singing festival in a little village like that?” It’s true that Bacquier’s reputation inspired me a bit.
“In the competitions, each member of the jury brings something important … and that adds more and more.”

JS: Among other things, what pleases me very much, in the competitions and the master classes, Gaby and Michèle are brilliant. But in the competitions, each member of the jury brings something important. They’re expected to bring something, and that adds more and more.

WVM: It’s really not just some little festival or other, at the far end of the world. Not at all. As I say, it’s simultaneously logical and crazy.

JS: Yes. There’s something magical about it.

WVM: Yes — but without the improbable aspect [of magic].

JS: An integrated mixture of [musical] material and setting. And tomorrow, we’ll have a change of scenery. Yesterday, I was worn out, I went home. What was funny, I said to myself, “Good, tomorrow we won’t have any kind of reception.” But everybody followed me. My wife, and all these people. So I didn’t really get away from anybody. Just as well. [Laughter.]

WVM: Congratulations, and thanks for speaking with me.

*NOTE: In fact, the Church of Saint-François is often packed to the rafters during the Festival, particularly for both the end-of-week concert of master-class students and the final concert of the vocal competition, when prizes are announced.

**Scaglia’s implication was that, until the competition was over, the singers were perhaps too tense or too wrapped up in their own work to make connections among themselves, as they had done in previous years.

***Scaglia was for many years an executive with the Pari Mutuel Urbain (PMU), the entity that oversees betting on horseracing in France.

****Nowadays, nobody is really sure how many cats Jacques Scaglia has in his home; it’s the household equivalent of a wildlife refuge.

Read more!

21 August 2010

The Festival at Canari, Part 4: Being There

So what’s on the program for this year’s Festival International du Chant Lyrique de Canari? A surprise guest, for starters: legendary French coloratura soprano Renée Doria will be in attendance. As Stephen Mudge’s interview with her in the August 2010 issue of OPERA NEWS makes clear, Mme Doria is abundantly equipped with insight and opinions, and though she won’t be conducting any master classes, she’s certain to share her perspectives — a rare opportunity to learn, as well as an unexpected treat.

This being an even-numbered year, the Festival will be given over to master classes conducted by soprano Michèle Command and baritone Gabriel Bacquier, focusing on technique and interpretation, respectively. All the classes are open to the public, and culminate in a concert on Friday, 10 September. This provides a remarkable opportunity to watch young artists learning, developing, and displaying their talents over one week of intensive work.

Belle, éternellement: Renée Doria

The program is as follows: Michèle Command will direct the first session with the students (Saturday, 4 September, 3:00 to 8:00 PM), concentrating on vocal technique, breathing, posture, articulation, projection, and placement of the voice, range, and tessitura. You will never again take good singing for granted.

Gabriel Bacquier will guide students toward repertory choices best suited to their vocal quality, color and character, their personalities, timbre, and vocal strength. Throughout the classes, he’ll instruct them in the best ways to interpret the selected repertory. This is a show in itself.

La Master Class
Photo by Rita Scaglia©
Used with permission.

For the next few days, students will work closely with both teachers in morning (9:00 to 12:00) and afternoon (4:00 to 7:00 PM) sessions. Typically, Michèle Command holds forth in the sanctuary of the Convent, while Gabriel Bacquier presides over the cloister. (Sunday, 5 September, through noon on Thursday, 9 September.)

The long break between morning and evening classes is absolutely necessary, not only to the stamina of the artists involved, but also because lunch in Corsica is not (and should not be) a quickie affair.

On Thursday afternoon, rehearsals begin for the big concert (3:00 to 8:00 PM), with a dress rehearsal beginning at the ungodly hour of 9:00 on Friday morning. Most professional singers I know are unaware that there is such a thing as 9:00 AM on the day of a performance, but these young artists are a hardy lot, and they’re not trying to blow the roof off the Convent. Not yet.

Le Concert
Seated in the front row: Jacques Scaglia, Michèle Command, Gabriel Bacquier
Photo by Rita Scaglia©
Used with permission.

At 4:00 PM on Friday, 10 September, the closing concert begins. Seating space is limited, so you’ll want to get there early.

Afterward, there’s a cocktail party (usually in the cloister, weather permitting), where you can compare notes with your fellow audience members and congratulate the young artists, as well as the indefatigable pianists, Sylvie Lechevalier-Bartoli and Olivier Cangelosi, who will have played, hour after hour, day after day, repertory from Gluck to Gershwin, Mozart to Massenet.

What the official program doesn’t fully suggest is how much fun all this is. The physical beauty of the setting — the man-made convent contrasting with the natural wonders of the rocks, trees, and sea — corresponds to the beauty of music, in which natural sound is shaped and directed by art. The air is invigorating, the personalities captivating, the experience pretty much unforgettable. Do you wonder that I’m so enthusiastic?

WVM with Gabriel Bacquier.
I know I’ve used this picture here before,
but it’s one of my proudest possessions. Deal with it.

Read more!

20 August 2010

The Festival at Canari, Part 3: Getting There

One of the great charms of the Festival International du Chant Lyrique de Canari is the improbability of its location. Not only is it on an island, it’s in a remote part of Corsica, the Cap Corse at the northernmost tip of the island, accessible only by narrow, winding roads. The old method of getting around — a donkey — has a great deal to recommend itself, but nowadays, most people prefer to drive cars. And most Corsicans prefer to drive fast.

However, you’re not advised to drive to Corsica — at the least, you will want to find some vehicle other than a car in order to cross the Mediterranean. On previous visits, I took an airplane, but last year, I took the ferry back and forth. These represented the longest trips I’ve taken by boat, and while the accommodations on Corsica Ferries are more like those of the Love Boat than those of Caesar’s galleys, I was nevertheless consumed with the romance of that ancient sea.

Preferred transport of Jacques Martin’s Alix

For one thing, the Mediterranean really is that shade of blue that bears its name. One can see the color from the coast, of course, but it’s really striking when you’re surrounded by miles of it. Then, as you approach the craggy shores of Corsica, their rainbow rocks warmed by the touch of the rosy-fingered dawn, you sense what centuries of seafarers, conquerors and pirates must have felt: wonder.

This will, inevitably, put you in the mood to hear good music. So it is just as well that you were planning to attend the Festival.

Canari, with only a few hundred year-round residents, boasts no Club Med, Hôtel Ibis, or other conventional commercial tourist lodgings; rooms can be rented in gîtes (rural bed-and-breakfast accommodations), at the Auberge du Pêcheur, and in the Convent of Saint François itself, but most of these are reserved for participants in the Festival. When you go, you’ll need to scout out inns and B&B — or even bona fide hotels. (The Corsican tourist office can be found here; one specialist in area rentals can be found here.) These lodgings may require a bit of driving when you’re ready to attend Festival events, but on the other hand, this makes it easier to explore the beautifully unspoiled coast.

Sunset in Canari, with a view of the Clocher.
(Photo by WVM)

Dining options in the village are somewhat similarly limited, and the restaurant closest to the Convent, Au Bon Clocher, is packed at lunch and suppertime. Attached to the Auberge du Pêcheur, with a spectacular view of the eponymous bell-tower and the Mediterranean beyond, the Bon Clocher specializes in fresh seafood (diners pick out their fish from a platter piled with the day’s catch) and typical Corsican cuisine, or cuisine with a Corsican accent (such as the Canneloni au brocciu, a local sheep’s milk cheese). The owners, Henriette and Francis, and the chef, Ange, earnestly attempt to adapt their hours to the Festival’s schedule, whereas other local restaurants don’t necessarily make the effort: I have yet to eat anywhere else in town, because most places are closed by the time I emerge from the Festival. In some ways, Canari is still adjusting to the notion that a seasonal international tourist attraction has taken up residence there.

(Photo by WVM)

If you’re traveling by plane, Air France provides frequent service between Paris and Bastia, where you can rent a car. There’s also service from other cities in France.

Corsica Ferries sail from Nice, Toulon, and Marseille, docking at Bastia and Ajaccio — where you can rent a car if you didn’t bring your own.

Be advised that, when traveling either by air or by boat, you’re subjecting yourself to the vagaries of labor unrest both French (demands for earlier retirement, bigger pensions, shorter hours, higher pay, fluffier pillows) and Corsican (absolutely inscrutable to anyone who isn’t Corsican).

If you prefer not to rent a car, your options are few. Like much of Corsica, this area is frequented by hikers (mostly English) and bikers (mostly insane), but for the rest of us, the exertions required aren’t worth the candle.

And now you’re ready for the Festival!

Read more!

18 August 2010

The Festival at Canari, Part 2: Michèle Command

Photo by Pascal Dolémieux©
Used with permission

At the Festival International du Chant Lyrique de Canari, Michèle Command is no-nonsense in her master classes (even-numbered years) and even more serious on the jury panel at the Festival’s singing competitions (odd-numbered years). And yet she’s nothing less than delicious — the best word I can find to describe her.

Last year, she gave me a fascinating glimpse of her character when she recalled her childhood. To hear her tell it, she was a sort of Tom Sawyer, albeit French and female. The leader of a small gang of kids, she conducted thrilling expeditions in the forest, raids on neighbors’ gardens, and all manner of contests of physical derring-do at the swimming hole. Though she was brought up in a proper, churchgoing home, she was a child of nature, a spitfire and a bit of a rebel. She still is.

She is so pretty! But don’t mistake her for a china doll. Yes, she has dainty hands — but they’re hardworking, because she’s a visual artist and hardcore gardener, too. (Ask her about her tractor sometime.) Yes, she has beautiful eyes — but watch out when they start to flash. And yes, she has a refined, perfectly placed voice — which she uses not only to sing but to communicate an acerbic, slyly disarming sense of humor.

The more I know of her and her ideas about music, theater, and art — and life — the more I regret that I never saw her in performance. Before coming to Canari, all I knew of her was a handful of (very good) recordings, mostly in small-ish roles. (If she made any video, it hasn’t shown up on YouTube.) Seeing her at work, I understand that the quality of those recordings didn’t come about by accident.

In master classes, she gives hints of what she must be like onstage. The music absorbs her, and she listens not only with her ears but with her whole self. She’s constantly analyzing, questioning, exploring. Physically and vocally, she’s graceful, centered. Her posture is flawless, yet without apparent effort: even when she’s standing ramrod straight at full attention, she’s not posing, she’s poised, ready to leap into action. She will go where the music tells her.

With those who are willing to learn, she shows infinite patience, but not the sort that makes excuses. “Try it again,” she says, making the student repeat passages over and over until he gets it right — and then again, once he understands what he’s supposed to do. Her standards are among the highest I’ve known. (She also teaches at the Conservatoire in Paris.) And yet, when she encounters genuine talent (like the Monegasque tenor Jean-François Borras, who came to the Festival in 2006), she keeps a level head. No gushing, no sighing, and never, ever fawning. One grasps instantly that her praise is carefully considered, fair and sincere, and all the more valuable in consequence.

Certain things are important to her, and she takes them seriously — art above all. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for fun and games, for jokes and stunts and pirate raids. But her very being reminds me that only when you’ve done your homework can you find true freedom. Perhaps needless to say, I’m smitten with her.

And so, if ever you chance upon Michèle Command in a leafy bower, be assured that she’s not a Fragonard shepherdess, just languishing there. She’s landscaping. And by heavy lifting, vigorous digging, and judicious pruning, she will leave that glade more beautiful than she found it.

My photos don’t do her justice.
Photo by WVM©
Used with audacity

NOTE: You can hear Michèle Command in several excerpts from a collection of lullabies, recorded recently with accordionist Jacques Bolognesi, by going here. The warmth and color of her voice really are extraordinary.

Read more!

16 August 2010

The Festival at Canari, Part 1: Master Classes

A young singer in the Convent of Saint François.
This and all photographs here by Rita Scaglia.©
Used with permission.

This is the first in a series of articles I’ll be posting here on the Festival International du Chant Lyrique de Canari, in Corsica, culminating in an interview I conducted last year with the Festival’s founder, Jacques Scaglia.

This year’s Festival runs from 4–10 September. I’ve been lucky enough to attend three times (in 2006, 2007, and 2009), witnessing both the singing competition and the master classes conducted by soprano Michèle Command and baritone Gabriel Bacquier. This year being an even-numbered year, master classes are again the order of the day, and at the Festival, these are something truly special.

Much of this specialness is due to the participation of Madame Command and Maestro Bacquier, two phenomenal artists bound by a profoundly serious attitude toward their work — and by an equally profound joy in music. Their tastes are exacting, their classes rigorous. Officially, Mme Command focuses on technique, while Bacquier focuses on interpretation, but in practice, there’s a good deal of overlap between the two.

Watching Gaby for even a few minutes, one quickly realizes that, for him, there’s no way to separate technique and interpretation: neither discipline will work properly without the other. A singing actor can’t perform the expressive physical gesture that reveals character, if she hasn’t got the breath support to move while singing a particular passage; an acting singer will lose the audience’s interest (or indulgence) if he’s hitting consistently sour notes or garbling the text.

Bacquier with a student, 2006

Thus, Gaby and Michèle don’t function so much as a perfectly balanced yin and yang, with a distinct boundary between them, but as an organic whole. Yes, their teaching styles are different, on the surface: Michèle is tough but fair, and you don’t hear a lot of laughter in her classes, whereas Gaby is forever interjecting humorous asides, hopping out of his chair to demonstrate whatever idea has popped into his head, playing to the crowd. (While Michèle is very funny, too, she generally saves the laughs for later.) But over the course of a week of classes, one sees that the two masters are coming from the same place, and aiming for the same goals.

“Color” is the goal they talk about most often, the matching of sound to emotional character. It’s a concept I’d appreciated but not really thought much about, prior to my visits to Canari; since then, however, I’ve learned that finding the right color is the nearly obsessive quest of all of my singing friends and of the artists I have always admired most.

The young singers who attend Gaby and Michèle’s classes are at different stages of their careers: some students, some professionals, some amateurs. They bring several arias or mélodies to work on, with the idea that, by the end of the week, they’ll have narrowed their repertory down to a single piece to be performed in a concert before the public. Gaby and Michèle already know every number by heart, which shouldn’t be surprising, given their vast experience, and yet it is, in its way, astonishing. They have devoted their lives to this music, picking it apart, unlocking its secrets, putting it back together, polishing it, and putting it on display. And now they come to Corsica to share their knowledge with a new generation. That’s as a master class ought to be.

Gaby in action.

The classes take place in a convent, connected to a church built in 1505. Most days, when the weather is warm enough, Gaby holds court in the cloister, while Michèle takes the chapel. This may help to explain why I get a sense not only of scholarly purpose (as if I were spying on a music conservatory) but also of an almost priestly devotion. Not all of the young singers are destined for stardom, or even much of a career in opera. But each has made a commitment to the art of singing. For this week, at least, each has a true and sincere vocation.

As an audience member, I learn a great deal from these classes. Because the really good singers make it all look easy (most of the time), I may forget or take for granted how much work goes into a performance. A singer doesn’t just open her score and sing perfectly the first time out; she may spend weeks or even years to find the right color for each note. Instead, she must undergo a process of trial and error, of exploration and study. The great ones have an instinct, and develop it over time, but the work — like the discipline — remains necessary.

Moreover, I come away from the master classes with a new appreciation of even the most familiar music. There is simply no way I will ever spend as much time thinking about the Jewel Song from Faust, for example, as Gaby and Michèle have: with each repetition of the aria, they give me new ways of looking at the song, and of hearing it. The next time I go to the opera house or concert hall, my criteria will be a little smarter and better refined: I’ll get more out of the music I hear.

I never went to conservatory. Since I can neither sing nor play an instrument, and since I have scant aptitude for music, there wouldn’t have been much for me to do there; and as yet, no school offers a degree in Advanced Stage-Door Johnnying. But for these hours in the village of Canari, thanks to the aegis of Jacques Scaglia’s Festival, I can make up for a few gaps in my education.

Oh — and the students learn something, too.

Read more!

14 August 2010

One Woman’s Story

Pioneer Woman, Feminist Icon

In the late 1970s and much of the ’80s, I was a pink-collar worker and a hired gun, an office temp in Texas and New York. My bosses conducted important business, such as adjusting insurance claims, packaging and shipping underwear, and persuading Americans to manufacture more food in tubes, but ultimately those were just details that had no impact on my duties, which consisted of typing and filing as fast as I possibly could. In every office, my colleagues were, with only the rarest exceptions, women.* And on every desk and every cubicle wall, these women had posted Cathy cartoons.

That’s why I’ve always felt that Cathy Guisewite’s comic strip afforded me a meaningful glimpse into the day-to-day realities of American women in the workplace. Guisewite indulged in as many stereotypes as she shattered, and sometimes her observations were broadly generalized. I was more likely to learn about women’s concerns by going to lunch (or, better yet, for drinks after work) with the “girls” than by reading Cathy strips. But Guisewite clearly struck a chord with thousands of American women, and this week, as she announces her retirement after 34 years, her achievement commands our respectful acknowledgment.

It’s possible that Guisewite’s gently satirical humor overstayed its welcome. “The four basic guilt groups” (food, work, love, Mom) is a genius idea, but there are only four of them, and only so much one can say. I haven’t kept up with Cathy in recent years, but these days I hear more mockery than praise: it’s a bad sign when The Onion columnist Jean Teasdale cherishes your creation.

Yet it’s important to remember that, when Guisewite started out, she was a true revolutionary. In those days, our most prominent model of liberated womanhood on the funny pages was Lucy Van Pelt — a little girl. Lucy may have empowered women to be bossy and crabby, and her psychiatric practice may have been a thriving business, but the fantastical element of Peanuts (children who behave like anxious grownups) always intruded. And, of course, like most comic strips in those days, Peanuts was written by a man.**

I am woman, hear me “Aack”

By giving us any kind of woman’s perspective, Guisewite broke ground. Mostly Cathy shared with us the sorts of things that, give or take a piña colada, women say among themselves — when there’s a chance a man like me may overhear them. Thus readers see frustration, rather than rage. Loneliness rather than alienation. Small-scale hopes rather than world-conquering dreams. However, the concerns and anxieties that Guisewite did depict are universal enough that women were able to identify with them — and laugh.

Picking up the newspaper from time to time, I grew to feel a little frustrated, myself. It’s one thing to see Lucy pine for Schroeder for half a century, and another to see Cathy suffer Irving for even a few years: fantasy versus realism. Cathy’s reality is surprisingly gloomy, though Guisewite scrupulously kept us from falling into the dark abyss that lies just beyond the tidy squares of her strip: nevertheless, we see that men are not truly human, and a woman has a better chance of connecting on a spiritual level with her dog than with her boyfriend (to say nothing of her boss).

If she’s lucky, like Cathy’s mother, a woman will find a man who’s passive and ineffectual, who recedes into the background; yet even Cathy’s mother was so profoundly shaped by the male hegemony that her values drove her daughter to distraction. The world, like Mr. Pinkley’s office, is created by and for men, and a woman must do constant battle to make a place for herself there.

For the most part, Guisewite hinted at these things more than she spelled them out. As I say, I heard similar complaints from the working women I knew — who never forgot for a minute that I was a guy. Yet I never forgot that most other men weren’t even listening. If any of them happened to read Cathy in the morning, they probably learned a little something.

Thin, attractive, successful, empowered: Guisewite

Other women’s voices are heard on the funny pages now, and other artists have expanded the possibilities of the form far beyond anything that Guisewite achieved or attempted. That’s what it means to be a trailblazer. Sometimes, people forget that, before you came along, there never was a trail at all. But I hope Guisewite takes a moment to turn in the saddle, to look back and to see that, modest though it may seem to others now, the trail was well worth blazing.

*NOTE: My development as a Sensitive Guy of the Seventies wasn’t a matter of angling for dates, or copying Alan Alda: it was a professional necessity.

**Since Charles Schulz divorced the woman who served as inspiration for Lucy, we can detect and confirm a degree of authorial hostility toward her. She’s really not a hopeful model for anybody, and that’s a shame. Would that Schulz had retired before his strip descended into a years-long Hell of almost surreal pointlessness.

Read more!

11 August 2010

The Opera Hoodlums

Scene of the crime: The Music Hall at Dallas’ Fair Park

I confess I’m somewhat surprised by the reactions in Opera World to Glenn Beck’s recent tirade against American cities that continue to support the arts while basic services are being cut back in hard times. Apparently, Beck got all of his facts wrong, but we’re used to that, aren’t we? What strikes me is that we artsy elites are getting so defensive, when we know in our hearts that, facts aside, Beck speaks the truth.

If we’d just get rid of opera, symphony, theater, art museums, and after-school recreation programs, we wouldn’t need police. We wouldn’t need streetlights. America would be a safer place, because it’s precisely our cultural institutions that lead to delinquency and crime, especially among young people.

I could draw the connections for you, if I had a blackboard. It’s a well-known fact that Adolf Hitler liked opera, and thus we can see that anyone who likes opera is a Nazi. (People who like show tunes are probably, I don’t know, Socialists.) Street crime comes naturally to people like this. But I don’t need to reach far for examples. My own case illustrates the point.

I remember when it happened. I was 15, and I was attending a matinée performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, when something snapped.

“Life is nothing but moods and impressions,” I thought. “You can never truly connect with another person. What’s the point of living if you’re not going to seek out the most intense impressions you can get?”

In the darkened auditorium at Fair Park, I turned to my wingman, K-Vin. I had sensed that something was coming over him, too, something changing deep inside him, ever since the day, a few weeks before, when we’d gone to see the Van Gogh exhibition. While staring at the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, K started to shake. Within minutes, he’d knocked over a rack of postcards in the gift shop, and made saucy remarks to an old lady in the parking lot.

Now, as Frederica von Stade kept telling us she was not happy, the change in K was complete. I could see that he’d already begun to fashion a zip gun, using his playbill and some old ticket stubs.

Fort Worth’s Kimbell Museum:
We were looking for trouble … and paintings.

We didn’t exchange a word. We didn’t have to. We knew what we were going to do — what we had to do.

We’d probably have hijacked a bus, but in those days, there was no public transit in Dallas, and so we had to wait for K-Vin’s mom to pick us up. While waiting, I passed the time by signing false names to about a hundred raffle tickets for the Opera Ball, and K roughed up a theology professor from SMU, tying his shoelaces together and disproving the existence of God.

When K’s mom finally arrived, K stuck the zip gun to the side of her head and said, “Hand over The New York Review of Books, woman.”

Her eyes wide with terror, Mrs. P*** stammered, “I — I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

She’d scrimped and saved for that subscription, sometimes going without food and gallery openings just to afford it. I didn’t care. “Hand it over!” I barked.

“Boys — that stuff really isn’t for kids — ”

“Look, sweetheart,” K said in a voice I’d never heard before (though it closely resembled that of the legendary tenor, Fritz Wunderlich), “we can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way.”

She fumbled in her Channel 13 tote bag. “Here — take it!” she gasped, thrusting the magazine into my outstretched hands. “Just don’t hurt me!”

“That’s more like it,” I said. “Now take us to the Mansion at Turtle Creek. I got a jones for some crème brûlée.”

“And make it snappy,” K-Vin said. “There’s a Kurosawa retrospective at the Edison.”

So began our first spree. We didn’t get home until 9 that night. Mrs. P*** was never the same.

Neither were we.

The Edison is gone; the Inwood is all that’s left.

Soon, our gang expanded to include Karen, whom we called Anybody’s, not because she actually was anybody’s but because she liked West Side Story; Keith Kaski, who didn’t need a nickname because his last name was already kind of unusual; and Ben, whom we called K-Tel, because he collected record albums and because we had a thing for alliteration. Me? I was Killer … Killer Bill.

Our sphere of terror expanded, too. We’d check books out of the library, then return them to the wrong branch “by mistake.” We’d roam the streets, correcting other people’s grammar. We’d deface back issues of The New Yorker, blacking out the captions so the cartoons didn’t make sense anymore. We played Maria Callas and Ella Fitzgerald back-to-back. We read Proust — in reverse order — then gave away the ending to people who hadn’t read it yet. We had become what every community fears. We were ruthless, reckless, jejeune.

We hot-wired fuel-efficient, economy-size Japanese imports, drove them very slowly, gassed them up again, and put them back where we found them. We spoke foreign languages. Hell, we were such punks, some of us didn’t care whether the language was living or dead.

We went to galleries, the symphony, the ballet, Shakespeare in the Park. We ate in museum cafeterias. For the thrill of the moment, there was nothing we wouldn’t try — even endive. I’m not proud of that, but I’ve got to tell it.

Soon, we started doing the hard stuff.

You know what I’m talking about.


It’s a wonder I lived to tell the tale.

One by one, the gang fell apart after that. We lost K-Tel when he tried to exchange a boxed set of the Beethoven symphonies. “I want my Knappertsbusch!” he screamed as they led him away.

We lost Kaski to Abstract Expressionism and a girl who played the vibraphone.

And Anybody’s — well, you’ve heard how that turned out. Demon Kir.

I don’t want to talk about it.

One night, as K-Vin was spray-painting “Nietzsche is dead” in contrasting shades of teal and vermilion under the old Central Expressway overpass, he paused and said to me, “You think grownups will ever wise up?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“If only grownups would stop funding arts and recreation — stop giving kids a place to go where they can pick up dangerous ideas like Bergsonism and the Pythagorean chromatic scale — and basketball! If only they’d get us out of the library and back on the streets where we belong — then you and I might stand a chance of getting somewhere in life.”

That was the last time I saw him, before they caught him and sent him up the river to New Haven.

What a tragic waste.

Read more!

10 August 2010

Patricia Neal

While many of Patricia Neal’s most acclaimed performances have thus far eluded my moviegoing, I admire everything I’ve seen of her. She was a gifted actress, past any question or doubt. And yet one reason I find her performances so compelling surely has less to do with her talent than with something beyond her control, of which she was completely unaware: when both women were young, Patricia Neal and my mother looked alike. Strangers would comment on the resemblance, and those who know Mom may see it in the photograph of Neal, above.

The resemblance grew vaguer as both women aged, and it was never more than physical. If Mom ever smoldered (as Neal typically did), I’m unaware of it and hope to remain so. Neal led a life that was worthy of a Glenda Jackson movie — something few of us can say for ourselves — while Mom’s dramas have been, for the most part, small scale and private. Now, on the heels of Mom’s birthday and my reflections on the influence of one actress, Mary Martin, on Mom’s life and my own, Patricia Neal has died. This has given me cause to consider Neal’s somewhat similar influence on our family.

In Ike Godsey’s store, with the doll that Elizabeth craves but for which there is no money, Olivia contemplates the limits of a parent’s ability to provide for her child.

Neal’s performance as the original Ma Walton, in a made-for-TV movie called The Homecoming, is not first among the credits listed in her obituaries this week, and in terms of assessing its effect on our family, I can’t divorce it from the performance of Miss Michael Learned, who stepped into the role once The Waltons became a weekly series. Learned’s Olivia Walton is more modulated than Neal’s, more sensitive perhaps, certainly less angry, and more genteel. But Learned didn’t look like my mother.

And around the time that The Waltons came to television, my mother came to realize that her son wanted to be a writer — just like John-Boy.

Most parents would prefer for their children to support them in old age, rather than the other way ’round, and Mom never really did give up hope that I might take a more serious interest in developing “something to fall back on,” such as accounting. (Really.) Herself a child of the Great Depression, Mom doubtless found absolutely nerve-wracking the prospect of a son who chose a career in any of the arts. Only when I got to CBS and began to earn a decent income from my writing did she begin to relax.

But long before that day, the models of the Walton family seemed to give her some kind of courage, optimism and assurance. And there were years when, just like Olivia Walton, Mom would offer me the Christmas present of a Big Chief notebook, something to write in, the way John-Boy did.

It can’t have hurt that, in Patricia Neal’s face, there was the possibility of self-identification. Most of us go to the movies or watch television and identify with the characters we see on-screen, whether they look like us or not. But if the actors do look like us, if they speak with an accent like ours, if they remind other people of us, then we may find it easier to put ourselves in their shoes, and to explore the thoughts and emotions of circumstances other than our own.

And in circumstances such as parenting — where there are instruction manuals, though they’re mostly worthless — it is surely helpful to find models on-screen, who act out different scenarios so that we can see the results, before we start experimenting on our children.

My parents didn’t have much warning that I’d want to write; I’m not sure they’re prepared for the idea even now. But the Waltons helped them both to take a deep breath, to give me a hug and then to step back — and to let me write.

As I say, that has only a little to do with the artistry of Patricia Neal. I might serve her better by writing about her stunning performance in A Face in the Crowd, which I saw at last only a few weeks ago. (I’ll get around to it, I promise.) But for the moment, I’m struck by the way she helped to blaze the trail that brought me where I am.

Read more!