29 November 2005

Lys Symonette

At her desk, photographed by David Farneth

Lys Symonette died Thanksgiving weekend, 2005, a few weeks before her ninety-first birthday. She could pass for a much younger woman, and her colleagues at the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music were universally astonished to learn her real age, a few years earlier. Lys had concealed not only the year but the day of her birth, and she tried to forget both, as she tried to forget most of her life’s harder knocks. She had to be sweet-talked into celebrating her tenth decade: she didn’t like to be the center of anybody’s attention.

She was small, shy, soft-spoken. Yet her passions were outsized, fierce and unwavering. One thinks immediately of her late husband, a distinguished Heldenbariton, and of their son, a gifted conductor: no one ever had a more ardent champion than Randy and Victor found in Lys. Yet the longest lasting of her passions was that for the music of Kurt Weill.

She was a girl in Germany when Die Dreigroschenoper opened. Like Weill, Lys was a respectable member of the secular, Jewish bourgeoisie, and no banner-wielding Bolshevik. Yet Weill’s score fired her imagination, and she thrilled to his assault on German conventions and on music itself. Was Weill giving voice to feelings that Lys had already, or was he putting ideas in her head? It’s impossible for me to say: those ideas were deeply embedded in her character by the time I knew her. But her last act before fleeing the country, in 1936, was to play Dreigroschenoper records, already banned by the Nazis as “degenerate art,” from the balcony of her hotel room. (It was a defiant farewell to her homeland, but it was also a damned fool stunt that could have gotten her arrested. I like to picture her that way.)

Nine years later, in 1945, she was Weill’s musical assistant on Broadway; she would continue to work in that capacity for the rest of his too-short life. At the time of her death, her devotion hadn’t faltered. She worked to bring Weill’s Broadway works to Germany, through ingenious translations and ceaseless proselytizing. Perhaps most significantly, she urged the composer’s widow, Lotte Lenya, to hand over an armload of unpublished songs to Teresa Stratas. It was Lys who delivered the music to Teresa’s apartment, with the result that nowadays The Unknown Kurt Weill is so firmly ensconced in recital repertory, you can’t leave home without hearing “Youkali.”

Lys advised Lenya in musical matters large and small, played piano for her performances, and helped her to organize and maintain her archives and business deals; after Lenya’s death, Lys joined Kim Kowalke to translate and edit the Weill–Lenya correspondence, winning rave reviews and several awards. She was vice-president and musical executive of the Weill Foundation for a quarter century, and she was still showing up for work the week she died.

Through the auspices of the Foundation and of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (her alma mater), she coached innumerable singers and conductors on the necessary pliancy and bite of Weillian style. Not everybody listened to her, she acknowledged, and at concerts it sometimes was difficult to restrain her when the conductor started “hacking” (as in Fleischhacker, or butcher). When it was a singer who went astray, Lys would turn to stone, staring straight ahead and saying nothing until she was well clear of the auditorium. Yet when singers, such as Joyce Castle, did follow her advice, the most Lys would permit herself was to say, “She’s smart.”

Though she might find fault in a phrase or a gesture, and criticize it tartly, she never lost confidence in the artistic excellence of those she cared about. Among the many were Stratas, Castle, Astrid Varnay, Maurice Abravanel, Harold Prince, Julius Rudel, Burgess Meredith, Weill and Lenya themselves, and this writer. You cannot imagine what it meant to be numbered among this august company, to be embraced in her admiration, and I daresay I’m not alone in feeling frankly terrified of the future without her.

For if a few (okay, one) of us were not the greatest talents of our time, she never mentioned it. She held indefatigably the highest hopes for each of us, no matter how long the wait between our triumphs. Because we were human, it was reasonable to expect that we might make mistakes or encounter obstacles, but ultimately we would prevail: after all, that’s what Lys had done.

Merely one example: after graduating from the Curtis Institute, she and a classmate, Alberta Masiello (later a Metropolitan Opera mainstay), found themselves not only jobless but German and Italian in the gung-ho throes of World War II. So they refashioned themselves as The Mexican Sisters, and, replete with big skirts and big earrings, they played Gershwin duets in nightclubs cross-country. Though the club in Galveston was built at the end of a shaky pier, the “Sisters” played straight through a hurricane, rather than forfeit their fee.

Yes, Lys may have looked cuddly, but she was tough. Intelligence and independence combined to make her the most stubborn person I ever knew. Just when you thought she might back down, she was gearing up for another round. And while she adored and admired Kim, David, Carolyn, Elmar, Mario, Joanna, and the rest of our colleagues at the Foundation, she didn’t necessarily agree with us.

I was fresh out of college when I came to work at the Foundation, and Lenya had been dead two years. Lys was almost seventy when we met. Almost a decade later, she calculated that we could now begin to address each other informally, as “du” instead of “Sie,” but only after we’d shared a glass of wine — and it had to be white wine, and German, in a specific sort of glass. Otherwise, the deal was off.

She never let my lack of musical ability prevent her from mentoring me. She was eager to share her staggering knowledge of German opera — all of it. She couldn’t help but revere Wagner and Strauss, but she also taught me how to listen to Berg. Tirelessly, she foisted on me the works of German comic writers, such as Kästner, Kraus, Grabbe, and the inevitable Brecht, but her broadest smiles were reserved for two of Weill’s American collaborators, Ogden Nash and Ira Gershwin.

Thanks to Lys, I have an almost firsthand knowledge of shows and artists I’d otherwise have missed. Though she might forget where she left her glasses, Lys could recall every detail of performances by Gertrude Lawrence or Jarmila Novotná, Karl Valentin or Karl Böhm, Richard Tauber or Ezio Pinza, and she’d mimic them all (usually in the same voice). She told stories about Lenya so vividly that I feel as if I knew her, and Lenya still appears in my dreams sometimes, bossing me around.

At one point, Lys decided that I needed to know The Firebrand of Florence, which was the first show on which she worked with Weill and Lenya, and the one in which she met her husband. (Randy played the Hangman.) Until recently, there was no recording of the score, so Lys devoted a precious Saturday afternoon to singing and playing every damned note for me on the Foundation’s piano, and she described set changes and costumes, too. If I’d asked, she’d probably have recreated the original choreography.

In the Foundation archive, we pride ourselves on preserving everything — every available scrap of the past. But we didn’t save that performance, and somehow the scraps we do have of Lys will never seem sufficient. She can’t be replaced.

This portrait appeared, in edited form, on the music website Andante.com, and excerpts were published in The Kurt Weill Newsletter.

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28 May 2005

Cannes-Do Attitude

Thanks to Nate Goodman, a friend since Brown, I found myself at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2005. For years, I’d avoided the Riviera altogether: too crowded, too expensive. But as soon as my high-speed train slowed down at Marseilles and began to creep along the coastline, I realized I’d made a mistake — the countryside is gorgeous, and every time I looked out the window, I’d see a Cézanne, a Renoir, a Matisse. The sea is as blue as the stained glass at Chartres, and the hillsides and mountains were decorated with wildflowers and almost unbearably cute houses. And the crowds were manageable, although afterward Paris seemed downright empty, a “populous desert,” as Violetta describes it.

I stopped over in Nice the night before meeting Nate’s plane, discovering that this is the second-largest English-speaking city in Europe (after Amsterdam). It was impossible to stop people from preemptively speaking English, a tiresome stunt that even the snootiest Parisians no longer attempt with me. The exception was a tourist from Dallas, who was seated next to me at dinner. She was taking an immersion course in French and wanted to practice — and brother, she needed it! A direct appeal to my teaching instincts. At the end of the meal, she said goodbye, and when the waiter brought my check — guess who was expected to pay for her supper? Here at last my French proved useful in Nice, and I successfully talked my way out of getting stuck with her bill. (Her game was so flawless that it’s impossible to tell whether she intended to con me or simply forgot to pay her own way.)

Nate arrived the next morning, and we drove to Cannes, about half an hour away. Because we’d decided so late that we were coming, the best (that is, the only) hotel Nate could find was in Mougins, up the hillside from the city proper, in a roadside motel overlooking the freeway. Not picturesque at all. Somewhere beyond lies what’s reputedly a beautiful town, full of four- and five-star restaurants, but we never saw any of it. Nate went into warp speed almost immediately, never showing the slightest hint of jet lag, constantly on the go, switching between English and Italian as needed. Whenever he wasn’t taking a meeting to discuss his movie, we were roaming up and down the main drag, the Croisette, hoping to bump into other people with whom he could talk. (This proved excellent strategy.) It helps that Nate’s script is so personal and true — he cries when he recounts the plot, and his listeners often do, as well. This isn’t merely his first break as a writer/director, it’s a project dear to his heart, and his enthusiasm is contagious.

Sunday, our first day, was Star Wars day: the Croisette was jammed with fans in costume, the city’s public-address system (presumably the one used to announce German invasions) blared excerpts from the soundtrack and, between musical numbers, Darth Vader’s heavy breathing; and the original movie was played on a giant screen at the beach that night. Since I have refused to acknowledge the existence of Episodes I and II, I was able to brush aside reports that Episode III was worth seeing. Monday was Pentecost, which until this year was a French holiday and the second four-day weekend in a row; this year the government is taking away the holiday, so we had strikes and demonstrations, and the police were in riot gear that looked suspiciously like the costumes of the imperial storm troopers.

We met up with Nate’s producers, Robbie and Ellen Little, who have all kinds of distinguished credits and are genuinely nice people. Ellen told wonderful stories, including some real gems about how she kept the peace between Julie Taymor and Anthony Hopkins on the set of Titus. Really, I was surprised by how many nice people we met. I’d been expecting nothing but sharks, but maybe they’re all swimming with the studios — because the “independents” were great. They’re bright, interesting people who just love movies. When we arrived, Ellen was having lunch with Edoardo Ponti, the son of Carlo Ponti and Sophia Loren, who’s now a director, and he too turned out to be cool, even picking up the tab at dinner with Nate and me. (That’s the sort of gesture I haven’t much seen among the children of the rich and famous.)

With the modern beachfront architecture, expensive shops and restaurants, and English-only conversations about nothing nothing nothing but movies, you’d have sworn you were in Hollywood. Socially, however, we were in pre-revolutionary France, as the royals (movie stars) are driven through streets choked with screaming mobs (the fans); the rest of us fit into an elaborate system divided by sometimes subtle gradations, fiercely defending our privileges, from producers, directors, distributors, backers, publicists, journalists, starlets — to pishers like me.

Thanks to the Littles, I was able to get credentials sufficient to get me access where needed, and I saw three movies: the Brazilian Movies, Aspirin and Vultures, a very good buddy picture set in the wilderness, with WWII looming in the background, though I never figured out where the vultures came in; François Ozon’s Time Remaining, the best thing he’s done, substance over style, and yet somehow shallow nevertheless; and To Paint or Make Love, an empty comedy that couldn’t be salvaged even by its stars, Sabine Azéma and Daniel Auteuil. This last movie, however, was screened as part of the festival competition, which meant that Nate and I got to walk up the Palais steps, with their famous red carpet — changed three times a day, to guarantee that it’s constantly fresh and ready for its next photo op.

We never stopped running into people from Brown, from those whom we expected to see (Rachel Rosen, now program director of the LA Film Festival; Christine Vachon, the producer) to the thoroughly unexpected (Jared Seide, whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years at least).

The festival would’ve felt like one of the Big Events I used to attend for CBS (political conventions, the Hong Kong Handover), but for the preponderance of celebrities ... and the clothes. Wild fashions, some chic, some hilarious, and anybody with breasts was letting ’em hang out (that goes for the six-foot-five transsexual “masseuse” who chatted me up in the Majestic lobby). No question, Cannes is Boob Paradise.

Celebrity sightings included actors Matt Dillon, Aurélien Wijk, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers; directors Ozon, Stephen Frears, and Jim Jarmusch; playwright Sam Shepard; actress Betsy Blair (married to and divorced from Gene Kelly, blacklisted, co-star of Marty); pop object Kid Rock; producer Harvey Weinstein; musician and Brazil’s minister of culture Gilberto Gil. Probably a lot of other names I’d know, but crossing the lobby of the Majestic was like eating in the cafeteria at the Metropolitan Opera, where I frequently couldn’t recognize even favorite singers out of costume.

Nate’s friend Alexander Payne, a director who just won his second screenwriting Oscar (for Sideways), was president of the jury for the Un Certain Regard competition, but found time to have dinner with us one night and drinks the next. He’s executive producer of Nate’s movie, and Nate is also trying to get him interested in my most recent novel. (Alexander’s interest proved useful to Tom Perrotta, whose first novel, Election, was the basis of Alexander’s second movie. Tom was the best friend at Yale of my best friend from high school: the circles are running rings around each other.)

Since Sideways is set in the Napa Valley, Alexander is now deferred to on all matters oenophilial — and people keep sending him wine and more wine. This is quite a pleasant outcome, and Alexander is by no means unhappy about it. Nate and I are going to have to have a very serious conversation about product placement in his movie; there’s already a good chance of my getting some opera records out of it, provided anybody ever makes opera records again.

The last two nights in Cannes, we got no more than eight hours sleep. It took weeks to recover. We ate well, but seldom in restaurants that featured much in the way of local cuisine — which is why I returned to the house at Beynes to make a big ol’ pot of ratatouille and a damn fine pissaladière.

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10 May 2005

Franz Kafka in Versailles: Préfecture Follies of 2005

I moved to France in 2004, departing New York the day after George Bush was elected. Yeah, a lot of people talked about fleeing the country, but I actually did it. (In truth, I’d already made up my mind to move, and I didn’t want to give Bush any additional power; he’s grabbed more than enough as it is. But it makes a good story, doesn’t it?)

The process of getting my residency permit was so difficult that now I can easily sympathize with the “sans-papiers,” that shadowy class of immigrants who slip past the borders and do much of this country’s heavy lifting while praying the authorities don’t notice. Apart from pesky questions of legality, there’s little incentive to put oneself through the bureaucratic hurdles. At every turn, there’s another, wholly unanticipated, unannounced extra step, which in turn requires days or weeks of extra preparation, extra fees, visits to ancillary bureaucracies, and phone calls to lines that don’t work.

For instance, despite the fact that my passport contains all information pertinent to my birth and citizenship, in French and English, confirmed by the government of the United States, I was required to furnish my birth certificate. Since I don’t travel with that particular document, I had to call to request a copy from San Antonio. (Between clerking and shipping fees, this cost about $100.) Thereupon, since a Texan birth certificate isn’t written in French, I had to provide a translation: not my own, but one by a state-approved translator. His two-page effort was 75 percent longer than the original. And it set me back another $50, plus another delay while he took a week-long state-mandated vacation.

Most time-consuming and frustrating was my struggle to open a French bank account. With time running out before the expiration of my visa, the first bank took two weeks to tell me they couldn’t open my account because I didn’t have a residency card — something I’d told them in our initial conversation. (It emerged that the woman assigned to my file went on vacation, and the guy who picked up my file in her absence had lost it — though naturally he didn’t say so.) Other banks were more efficient, informing me immediately that, although I needed a bank account to obtain a residency card, they required a residency card before they’d give me a bank account. Even bank employees admitted that this was “une situation Kafkayenne,” but they knew of no way around it. Apparently, every other applicant for residency has given up and gone home at this point — or else gone underground.

Instead, I threw myself on the mercy of the bureaucrats at the Préfecture, doing the John-Boy Walton impression that has been my salvation in the States on many an occasion. (The surprise was that it worked in French, too.) I was given a form indicating that I’m legitimate, am in the process of filing my application, and not the worst possible risk. This was sufficient to get an account — at the Société Générale, the bank where Kurt Weill kept his money after he fled the Nazis. These guys know from refugees.

With only a few days to spare before the deadline (which was April Fool’s), I assembled my outstanding paperwork, and showed up at the Préfecture in Versailles, around noon on the last Thursday in March. I was informed that I was too late, “the window was closed,” and I should come back the next day. Versailles lies smack between Beynes and Paris, and I don’t have a car: the commute isn’t easy, but no matter.

So the next morning, I arrived bright and early, and the lady at the reception desk said, “You’re too late — all the places are taken.”

“Are you serious?” I asked. “It’s only 10:30.”

“Yes, and if you keep showing up at this hour, you’ll never get anywhere,” she said. “We have 15 places in the morning, and 8 in the afternoon, and they go fast. People start lining up outside around 6 in the morning. All these people —” indicating a sea of humanity, most of whom appeared to be from former colonies of the French Empire — “are on standby. I can’t take anybody else. You’ll have to come back another day.”

Naturally, nobody during any of my previous trips to the Préfecture had offered me quite so much detail. As a result of this uncharacteristically thorough briefing, I walked out, reserved a hotel room across the street for Sunday, and returned to the Préfecture at 5:45 on Monday morning, with a good book (Zola’s La Curée) and an umbrella in hand.

I was the fifth person on line.

It was pitch dark, drizzling when not pouring, and much colder than I’d anticipated. Of course I was losing body heat the longer I stood there.

By seven o’clock, there were easily two dozen people behind me; by eight, there were forty or more. The Préfecture doesn’t open until 8:45. And this is how it happens that the staff is overbooked before the day starts.

All through the long dark morning, people ahead and behind kept asking me to save their places while they went to the bathroom and such. I complied, being a) an excessively nice guy, and b) thinking that we had a long wait ahead of us and I might need their cooperation, too, before we were done.

Apparently my niceness pissed off a Moroccan guy, who (around 8 a.m.) cut ahead of me, announcing that he’d actually been the first person on line, had arrived at four in the morning, but had been off drinking coffee somewhere.

“C’est une belle vie,” I said between clenched teeth.

“Oui,” he agreed blithely, “c’est la France!”

I was furious, but when I saw that nobody was going to back me up, I figured I’d better just let him have his way. I did start to tutoye him — using the informal tu instead of the formal vous — but I was too tired to make any bigger scene.

Which turned out to be a very lucky thing, because around 8:40 — just before the doors were to open — he announced that he’d been kidding, and returned to his place on line. Possibly some of the others around me were in on the joke (except for a little Russian lady, they all spoke Arabic, too). Teeth still somewhat clenched, we laughed it off. “Let that be a lesson to you next time,” said the Moroccan guy in conclusion, “not to hold places for others.”

The Senegalese guy standing between us enjoyed the comedy immensely, and greeted me like an old friend every time we ran into each other afterward. Oh, we are a jolly little immigrant community in Versailles.

At last we were admitted into the Préfecture and assigned numbers to wait for the various windows. I had to wait about twenty minutes, because none of the personnel for the “services étrangers” windows had shown up yet. I was still freezing — shaking so much, I was afraid people would think I was a drug addict. But in due time the last of my paperwork was processed speedily and pleasantly —

— And I still didn’t have the residency card. Because there was yet another unadvertised next step — a medical screening, in a town I’d never heard of, on the next Friday morning. I was told I was lucky they had appointments available so soon; some people have to wait weeks.

By now, even French people were dismayed by my misadventures. Friends had stopped laughing (“Oh, you’re exaggerating, you don’t really have to get there that early!”) and had begun telling me helpfully, “You know, the French police almost never uphold deportation laws.” However, I didn’t intend to take any chances. I learned in high school that I have a guilty face — I couldn’t order a Dr. Pepper without getting carded.

And yet, as my efforts to obtain the residency card began to take on the proportions of an Icelandic saga, the medical exam was almost disappointing. Although we were required to wait at several points, all the waiting areas were indoors, and I was processed and done within about an hour of my appointment. The staff at the medical center pretty much took one look at me and skipped several parts of the exam, which I’d been told to expect. “You work out a lot, don’t you?” the doctor said, when I removed my shirt. They let me keep my chest X-ray (the first I’ve ever had!), and it’s now decorating the refrigerator door. You’d never guess I was a smoker for eight years.

The next step was to purchase four stamps, at 55 Euros a pop. I’m still not sure where the folks at the Préfecture wound up affixing them, but I’ve learned that the French use expensive stamps to do a lot of business — to pay parking tickets, for example. (God forbid you need to send a letter and use the wrong postage.) Balzac, who clerked in a law office, writes often of papiers timbrés — stamped papers — and now I have a clearer idea what he means.

Once the Préfecture received the results of my medical exam, they were supposed to write to me, instructing me to come back to them to pick up the card. Instead, they waited for me to phone. They really were testing me — making sure this wasn’t just some whimsical notion that popped into my head.

Six and a half months after I arrived in France, I received my residency card. The hell of it is, I was lucky: Mary Dibbern, an American musician who’s lived here for 26 years, has never heard of anybody getting a card so quickly. The process would’ve been even tougher if, God forbid, I wanted a work permit. And many times, I realized I was being treated preferentially: I wasn’t an ex-colonial or a Slav, I was an educated white person, who bathed and spoke reasonably good French. I got more explanations than most people around me were getting, as well as more patience and tolerance, and more leeway. It was blatantly unfair. And I wasn’t about to complain.

However, just to prove that France doesn’t automatically get easy just because they tell you you’re legitimate, I attempted to visit the Château de Versailles (across the street from the Préfecture), to celebrate my good fortune. And the palace was closed. No explanation, no access, but hordes of tourists waiting patiently for the doors to open, or re-open. I said the hell with it, and went home.

(It turned out that the château was closed while Sofia Coppola shot scenes for her empty strudel of a movie, Marie Antoinette. Hardly worth the inconvenience.)

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