31 December 2007

Maximus and Minimus of the Year XL

Best Chariot Race: IVth race, Circus Maximus, Ides of Martius
(Artist’s rendering)

Friends, Romans, countrymen! Lend us your ears! With the celebration of another Saturnalia, it is time to take stock of the CCCLXV ¼ days just past, and as we do every Julian year, your devoted staff of Acta Diurna scribes have reflected upon the best and the worst of the memorable names, dates, and orgies.

He, Claudius.

There was no contest in this category, really. And we are quite certain that we would arrive at the same decision even if we did not face being thrown to the lions at the first sign of the Emperor’s displeasure. For how we all marvel at Tiberius Claudius Nero and his ability to govern us all so impeccably — and still find time to write all those fascinating histories and memoirs! We must remember to buy a copy of his latest, The Etruscans. It’s been a good year overall for the Emperor, who was recently declared a god in Britain — there’s a feather in your cap! Or it would be, if the Emperor actually wore a cap. (He still prefers wreaths. And very handsome they are.)

Livia: Don’t touch the figs

A much tougher call, as the Palatine was rocked this year by II still-growing scandals. The Dowager Livia is believed to have poisoned roughly half her own family. Will this affect her campaign to be declared a goddess? Entrail-readers say it’s too soon to say. Meanwhile, as if problems with his grandmother weren’t bad enough, our Beloved Emperor had to contend with the pubic spectacle (yes, you read that right) of his wife, Messalina. Is there anyone (besides the Emperor himself) she hasn’t had sex with?

Messalina: Next!

In a crowded year, with many fine candidates to look back on, we opt for the brutal murder of Blutus Blutarscinus Belusinus, whose opponents in the Senate glutted him on food and drink ceaselessly for VII days upon the Lupercal, then burst him like a pimple. Sure, poison and daggers are quick and discreet, but sometimes it’s the big, splashy death that really conveys your message.

The late Senator Blutus

Drusillus of Tarsus was a sentimental favorite of ours — until he lost his arm in combat and had to be retired. We like to think that there’s a little bit of Drusillus in every one of the lions fighting in the arena today. And, come to think of it, there is.

We were going to award a prize to Romulus Romule Romuli, but he declined it.

Diophobe of Cumae sees all things, past and present! And she says that stola hemlines will go higher next season.

In Judea, so-called “Jesusians” “debate” “theology”

Those crazy Jews! They’re still arguing about some eccentric rabbi whom Pontius Pilate crucified several years ago. Is that kosher? (And if it is, what does it mean?) Meanwhile, Diophobe predicts that Isis Worship will be the next big trend in our temples.

Trimalchion’s Feast: They’ll be talking about this one for years

No question — it’s the party at Trimalchion’s house. Started on the calends of Junius and still going strong! CCLVI guests! Musicians! Dancing girls! We’ve lost track of the roast oxen and heaping piles of hummingbird tongues! What a blowout! (Speaking of which, Trimalchion renovated his vomitorium, just in time for the party, and it looks fabulous.)

A CONTEMPORARY EDITORIAL NOTE: Well, it does seem as if year-end thumb-sucking “Best & Worst” and “Top Ten Trends” rundowns have been going on since the dawn of time, and each year there are more and more and more of them. You can’t pick up a paper without the artificial nostalgia rubbing off on your fingers. These articles do have one asset: they make me look forward to February.

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29 December 2007

Lydia Mendoza

They called Lydia Mendoza “The First Queen of Tejano Music,” but that’s over-qualifying what ought to be a very simple statement: she was the Queen of Texas. She has died now, at the age of 91, and I’m immensely sorry, for entirely selfish reasons. Not realizing that she was still alive, I didn’t seek out an opportunity to meet her. I came thisclose, years ago, at a ceremony for the Texas Walk of Fame, when my former boss, Dan Rather, got a star in the Austin sidewalk. Lydia Mendoza was also honored at the ceremony, but she didn’t attend; her daughter stood in her place.

I’d never heard of Mendoza before, but her story intrigued me. I went directly to the Tower Records near The University of Texas campus and bought a copy of Mal Hombre, a collection of her early recordings. The title track is perhaps her most famous, and surely one of her most evocative recordings, a lament for the “bad man” who done her wrong. She discovered the lyrics on a bubblegum wrapper, heard the song at a vaudeville show a short time later, and promptly made it her own.

In all those early recordings, her voice is thin and plaintive yet tough and sweet. She plays twelve-string guitar with virtuoso nimbleness; she started out with a violin, in a family act with her father and siblings, but she traded in the fiddle for the guitar, which freed her to sing. Many of her songs are solos, but sometimes she’s joined by her kids. Several of whom have serious pitch problems, but that’s part of the charm.

Listen to her music, and you will be transported to a Texas you probably never knew — it’s lodged deep in your subconscious. Air conditioning hasn’t been invented. You can hear the Texas heat. You can hear the poverty, too, and the sorrows of working women and the resilience of the state’s oppressed Mexican-Americans. So it’s a Great Depression? Mendoza’s folk have always been poor. Prosperity is something she’ll work for — work hard for — but for her kids and grandkids. She doesn’t expect it for herself.

Meanwhile, people — your neighbors — are doing terrible things to each other on a Lone Star scale. Yet Mendoza doesn’t sing of big social problems; she sings of personal problems, with an immediacy and candor that belie the sometimes over-the-top Latin melodrama of the lyrics. And all at once, even if your Spanish doesn’t rise above the Español de Cocina level (mine doesn’t), you understand what she’s talking about. It’s the stuff that connects us that matters to her.

I’m a gringo from the suburbs, and half her age. I haven’t experienced any of the things that marked Lydia Mendoza. She had a lot to teach me, and in conversation she might have told me about the record business at its most exploitative and least remunerative; she might have shared her recipes, which I’ve found represented on the Internet. Yet what she did teach me, and continues to teach me, is plenty. Her music carries me to a Texas that is bolder and richer and more ancient even than the state’s most ardent admirers can possibly imagine.

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26 December 2007

Passing Fathers

Henri Boutrit’s beech-grove, l’Enclouze, Boxing Day, 2007

I have lost a brace of quasi-kinsmen lately, a band of surrogate fathers: Henri Boutrit, Dick Dennis, Don Goodman, and now Alan Wagner. The world is a good deal lonelier without them. It is the season of my life, a passing of the guard from one generation of fathers to the next; soon enough, it will be my own father’s turn. Yet more important than the loss of each man is the awareness that I have learned and inherited something valuable from each.

Each man was a prodigious host, welcoming me not only into his home but into his family. Don Goodman announced upon meeting me that I was to call him “Uncle Don,” and by golly, I did and still do. That he was not, in fact, any kin of mine now strikes me as an alien and rather hostile notion. Only someone who wishes me ill would dare to point out such a thing. Dick Dennis shared his Thanksgiving table with me for more years than my own family has managed to do. Henri Boutrit threw wide open the larder of l’Enclouze and indeed of all of France, gleefully offering me regional delicacies, explaining them to me and demonstrating the correct means of their consumption.

The glimpse I got of Alan Wagner was almost magical: his home was an enchanted grove, with opera records tumbling out of every available space while loving attendants (his wife Marti and daughters Susan and Liz) stood by. Music was part of the fabric of the family, in a way that would have been unimaginable to me when I was a kid, and when my burgeoning love of opera set me apart from almost everybody else I had ever met.

Alan was a regular panelist on the intermission features of the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, and by chance I reconnected with Liz, a friend from Brown, just as I was beginning my career at Opera News. It took no great intelligence to ask Alan to write for the magazine, but my colleagues found the idea terribly clever. Alan had been a driving force behind Sills and Burnett at the Met, a show that I’ve seen precisely once, at its original airing 30 years ago, and that I remember now with crystalline clarity: “We’re only an octave apart,” Beverly sang, explaining to Carol that their voices were really not so different, “Just eight little notes on the musical line — eight little notes between your voice and mine.” Alan and Marti were great friends of Sills, and of the soprano Elisabeth Söderström, as well, and their anecdotes of life with these artists are seasoned with affection and insight.

One doesn’t need to be a musician to care deeply about music, and about musicians, as Alan showed me. I try to be like him. And yet the extraordinary devotion among the Wagners was a kind of music of its own, a little masterpiece of intertwining melodies in the service of a mighty theme, performed by a virtuoso ensemble.

Uncle Don and Nate Goodman, Philadelphia, March 2007

Music was important to Uncle Don, too, who when we met was almost obsessive about scheduling his day to accord with the programming on the classical-radio station. He was an amateur composer, too, and I’ll never forget the night of his son’s first wedding, under a starry Los Angeles sky, when Uncle Don turned to me and urged me to pay close attention to the band’s next song. “I wrote it,” he said, “when I married Libby.” And with that, Uncle Don took in his arms his bride, who is to this day an almost startling beauty, and he and Aunt Libby went off in sweeping circles under the stars, dancing to a melody that belonged to them. It was, as Uncle Don himself might say in his Philadelphia accent, “beauty-full.”

(Uncle Don was as keen to share the bounty of Philadelphia as Henri Boutrit was to share the bounty of France. One day when Nate and I visited him at his office, downtown, Uncle Don was shocked to learn that I’d never had a cheese-steak. He threw us into the street, ordering Nate to get me a sandwich, now. Not a second could be wasted; my future depended on it.)

Dick Dennis loved jazz, and there was something wonderful and intensely moving to see this tough, powerful man melt as he listened to a favorite singer, with a glass of good wine in his hand, in the Vermont countryside. He worked hard to savor those moments. As a young executive with a family in the New Jersey suburbs, Dick often indulged in the highly, highly suspicious behavior of Driving While Black in order to come home in the evenings. He was regularly pulled over by the police until one evening when he politely, perhaps even gently, but very firmly explained that the cops by now surely recognized his car and his face, and that if they continued to pull him over, there would be hell to pay.

Jazz was the right music for Dick, for not very far beneath the playful surface of jazz lies a drive to seize the established order and to reinvent it as something more personal and expressive, more complex and also more satisfying. Some see jazz as an act of rebellion, and often it is, though I find that jazz seldom gets enough credit for its discipline and precision, two qualities not often associated with rebellion. But in any case jazz represents a defiant statement: “This art belongs to me, too, and here is the proof.”

Music played a different role in the Boutrit household, when I knew it: very seldom did I enter l’Enclouze to find the radio playing, for example. Music was really the province of Denise Boutrit, who played piano and who’s known as “la Danseuse” at the nursing home nowadays. Henri’s special music was the French language, and his conversation, his arguments and tirades, were symphonic in scope. He relished odd vocabulary in the Charentais patois (of which enclouze is one example), and he beat the pants off me at Scrabble — in French. Only when he was feeling very, very charitable did he permit me to consult a dictionary. But I’m proud that, the last game we played together, he and I were a team. And we did not lose.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” as the saying goes, and although I was grown when I met these men, each of them helped to raise me. Maybe it’s my upbringing as a Christian, but it comforts me to think that, to the degree that I can carry forward the gifts they shared and the lessons they taught me, they will never really leave me.

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20 December 2007

Waiting for Guignol

Gône but not forgotten: Guignol, right, on the eve of his bicentenary.
(That’s Flageolet the Gendarme beside him.)

Lyon’s most influential son, Guignol, was born in 1808, when an impoverished local, Laurent Mourguet, fell into the line of teeth-pulling. Mourguet noticed that his clients — one wouldn’t call them patients — screamed a lot less volubly when he distracted them by gossiping and telling funny stories. Catching sight of a traveling puppet show, Mourguet had a brainstorm, and he created a hand puppet, giving the clients something to look at, as well as listen to. (We may infer from this that he could pull teeth one-handed.)

Up until that time, puppets observed the conventions of commedia dell’arte, with established character types and nearly immutable plots: Pulchinello became Punch, and occasionally interested himself in politics, but it took Mourguet to revolutionize modern puppetry. His puppet looked like himself — a true Lyonnais from the working class of canuts, or silk weavers — and his routines were improvised, topical and self-expressive. Guignol does adhere to convention with slapstick (he prefers a plain old baton), but more important are the conventions he created.

Mourguet died illiterate, so we have no record of what Guignol said, exactly, until his children took over, during the era of Napoleon III, when censors required every theater to present a written script for approval. To this day, nobody knows for certain where Guignol’s name originated: one theory cites a patois word for “funny.”

His popularity was swift and enduring. Mourguet dropped the teeth-pulling and focused on puppetry; his great-great- great-grandchildren are still at it. For the last hundred years, Guignol has addressed children’s audiences, primarily, but his satirical, adult humor is upheld by Les Guignols de l’Info, a political TV show that closely resembles Britain’s Spitting Image. Itinerant companies crisscross France with Guignol shows. (“Guignol and Nemo” came through Beynes not long ago — and that’s Nemo the Disney fish, not the Verne sea captain.) A scene from an outdoor Guignol show in the Luxembourg Gardens, in Paris, closes every episode of French in Action, an educational TV series in the United States, so that his influence is felt across the Atlantic, too.

Going more or less direct to the source to learn more, I decided to visit one of Lyon’s several Guignol shows, as performed by the Compagnie des Zonzons.

After the show, we got to go backstage!

I was the tallest person in the audience, though not the oldest: several grandmothers attended the matinée. The piece was entitled Guignol and the Giant Bonbon, and the target audience was children over five. We were immensely well-behaved, and even the kid who threw up managed to do so tidily, in his mother’s hand. We paid such rapt attention that sometimes we forgot to clap along with the songs and to answer when the puppets addressed us. Apparently, it’s not a Guignol show if at some point one of the characters doesn’t ask, “Which way did s/he go?” and the audience doesn’t scream, "To the left! To the right!”

When, dutifully, we told the candymaker Papillot that the Witch had just made her exit to the left, the old boy mused, “But I don’t understand. The Left doesn’t exist anymore.” A little political humor for the grownups.

Guignol is big business in Lyon, with several theatres and innumerable souvenirs.
This is the shop window of a Guignol “museum” in Vieux Lyon.

For this grownup, the plot was instructive and heartening. A wicked witch was wreaking havoc by jumping into favorite stories. She stole Cinderella’s slipper, so that the Prince couldn’t track her down. She stole Tom Thumb’s pebbles, so that he couldn’t leave a trail to find his way home. Most cunningly, she turned Red Riding Hood’s cloak to blue, so that the Wolf lost his appetite.

”Please, please, Monsieur,” the Grandmother implored, “won’t you devour my granddaughter?”

“Bleagh,” replied the Wolf. “I prefer red meat.”

But Guignol saved the day: armed with a magic pen, he rewrote all the stories correctly. The pen is mightier than the Sorceress. A good lesson for all who write.

The star greets his public.

There’s a purity to children’s theater, when it’s well done (and this was pretty well done), an economy of means and a simplicity of expression. But it’s got to be sincere, as Joyce DiDonato has explained to me. She sings a lot of Cinderella — the Rossini version — and she’s sung for a lot of school groups, as well. “They can smell inauthenticity a mile away, and call you on it,” she told me. “But I think the other joy for [performing] for young children, is that they haven't yet learned to be inhibited in the theater, and so they feel free to laugh, to scream, to gasp for air.”

Or to run up and down the aisles. But really, we were well-behaved. Honest.

In the dark, I looked around the room to see how the show was playing. I saw plenty of little faces totally transfixed. Their belief in the reality was evident and absolute. Yet the real magic took place when the artifice was stripped away, and we were invited backstage. It’s a remarkably tidy space (albeit too cramped to take good pictures), with dozens of other puppets hanging in carefully organized rows along the walls. Somehow, even when you see the nice lady handling the puppet, and she’s patiently explaining to you how the puppet works, it’s thrilling to see the Witch swooping down on you.

And from the look of it, Guignol is still making friends: and why not? He’s cute, he’s funny, and he’s a gône, a local boy who made good. “I urge you all to keep growing up,” Guignol told us, “so that you can bring your children to see me.” In another hundred years, his next centenary birthday is guaranteed to be a great occasion.

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Lyon in Winter: A Travelogue

The Presqu’île, viewed from the opposite bank of the Rhône

Taking pictures is like playing piano: one day I mean to get serious and really learn how to do this. Instead, I never rise above the level of embarrassment. The intimidation factor is high, since I know so many professional musicians — for example, one does not watch Scott Frankel play piano and then say, “Oh, I could do that.” And it seems that almost everybody I know is a gifted photographer, from Guido Organschi to Will Wissemann, from Catherine Karnow to Jacques Torregano. And what is the point of learning to do something if you know in advance that you will never be better at it than all your friends? As long as you will always be inferior, you may as well remain untrained and unpracticed: at least you will have an excuse.

Nevertheless, I expose myself to scrutiny now by presenting a few snapshots in the hope of conveying the charm of the city of Lyon, from which I have just returned. I’m really smitten with the place, and since I can’t serve you heaping portions of quenelles, charcuterie, and Côtes du Rhône, these images are the best illustrations I’ve got. Faute de mieux.

“All of Gaul is divided into three parts,” Julius Caesar wrote, and Lyon was the Roman capital of Gaul. And a very prosperous, lively capital at that. The city is crammed with marble ruins, and it seems that you can’t dig a ditch without discovering priceless artifacts. On the steep hill of Fourvière, the Gallo-Roman museum sits amid the remains of the ancient Odeon and Amphitheater, the latter so well preserved that archaeologists were able, after countless generations of wondering, to figure out precisely how the Romans worked their stage curtains. The answer: a system of pulleys and weights raised the curtain up from the stage.

The Amphitheater is still in use, after a bit of modern-day refurbishment, and plays and concerts are presented there in warm weather. (The weather was emphatically not warm this week!)

The Museum itself is built into the hillside, and its galleries descend in a long spiral; its few windows resemble portals on the Starship Enterprise. The ancient Lyonnais seem to have needed only about ten minutes of Roman rule before mastering all the Empire’s arts, and many of the best statues and mosaics, random bits of pottery and glassware are displayed in almost pristine condition. The Emperor Claudius was born here, and later in life he returned to Lyon to deliver a speech: the city gratefully engraved the whole text on two brass plaques. Only the bottom portions of the plaques survived intact, but they’re on display, in tribute to Claudius’ striking lack of talent as a speechwriter.

Though the locals seem to have adopted every Roman custom, Lyon is awfully good at resistance, and the first real demonstration of this came with the early Christians, who were executed by the hundreds, yet kept on believing. One lady appeared to have thwarted the Romans when the lions at the circus refused to eat her; but the centurions found a sword and slit her throat. She’s now a saint, Blandine.

Generations later, Lyon resisted the French Revolution, and again thousands of citizens were executed. The guillotine was kept so busy that at one point word was sent to Paris: “Lyon is no more.” An overstatement — although the name of Lyon was stricken from the maps and the city was officially renamed during the Terror. [See note below.] During World War II, Lyon was an important base in the French Resistance, and scene of some of the war’s more notable acts of bravery.

But Lyon’s heyday was the Renaissance, when a booming silk industry made it one of the most prosperous cities in Europe. Big fairs guaranteed a brisk trade not only in goods but in ideas, and Lyon was a center of publishing, as well: Rabelais, who lived here for a time, published his Gargantua and Pantagruel here, to be sold at the fair. An entire neighborhood along the banks of the Saône boasts narrow cobbled streets of original Medieval and Renaissance structures, built tall to catch daylight in the bustling workshops. They’re beautifully preserved, and full of bouchons, the traditional Lyonnais restaurant. The word also means “wine cork,” and the local wines, Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône, flow freely. You will eat pretty much what Gargantua would eat, and in comparable portions. Every bouchon serves precisely the same dishes, it seems: lots of regional sausages, tripe, chicken-liver gâteaux, occasionally a rabbit or fish (besides the quenelles that purportedly are made from pike, though you’d never know it).

The streets of Vieux Lyon are so picturesque that you could spend weeks taking photographs, though they’re also so narrow that it’s hard to get the angle you want. Seeing the place, you wonder why the folks at Disney thought it was good idea to put a theme park in this country, that already has so many castles and storybook houses.

Vieux Lyon is anchored by the Cathedral of Saint Jean, adjacent to the site of an even older church, bits of which are exposed. Inside the Cathedral stands a clock, about five meters tall, that rings in selected hours with a performance by little automatons: a dove descends to tell the Virgin she’s pregnant, an angel moves his arm, another rings a bell, and a rooster flaps its wings. Not much activity, truth be told, for such a big clock, but it’s hundreds of years old and still keeps excellent time.

The heart of town is the “Presqu’île,” a peninsula formed by the Saône and the Rhône, and there you find the Beaux-Arts museum, in a former convent. Its statuary collection isn’t impressive, and they’ve crammed it into an old chapel that wasn’t open this trip; but the collections of antiquities and paintings are dazzling. As is so often the case, I’m frustrated that the paintings I like best are not those that have been reproduced as postcards, and this museum has very few books for sale: if you like a picture, you have to keep coming back — or troll the Internet, as I did, to find an image. (Because of course you aren’t supposed to photograph the art for yourself.)

The painting seen above is Francesco Campi’s The Ricotta Eaters, and it’s one of the most arresting I’ve seen. It looks for all the world like a candid snapshot that somebody took at a rowdy party — excepting of course that it was painted some 300 years before photography was invented. The natural expression and realistic detail are wonderful, and though the painting is Italian, it really captures the spirit of Vieux Lyon, where the silk-weavers, or canuts, enjoyed a soft white cheese, or cervelle, mixed with herbs and garlic. (It’s on the menu at every bouchon.)

The center of the Presqu’île is the Place Bellecour, which is dominated by an equestrian statue of Louis XIV. During the Revolution, angry mobs were tearing down any such statues they found, but some clever person put up a sign on this one: “Masterpiece of Lemot, Sculptor and Lyonnais.” The appeal to civic pride worked, and the statue was spared. The fateful message has been carved into the base of the statue now, so that future revolutionaries may take heed.

Just behind the city hall is another big square, the Place Terraux, with its fountain. If the sculpture looks familiar, there’s a reason: it’s the work of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who created the Statue of Liberty.

The opera house is a pretty ingenious piece of architecture: instead of tearing down the eighteenth-century building, they built above it: the upper floors house offices and rehearsal rooms, with the dance-rehearsal hall running the length of the building, just under that arched roof. So far, so good, but inside, you feel as if you’re in the Death Star: everything is black marble and black wood, and with the exception of the bar, which still has its gilt and white-plaster ornamentation from years gone by, it’s not merely modern but futuristic. Not the world’s most inviting space, but the current general director of the Opéra de Lyon, Serge Dorny, is keen to open up the place, to make it more relaxed and accessible. He does this with varied repertory and popular prices — as he explained to me, “Going to the opera is more like going to the movies” — and opened a restaurant, so that people come to the opera not only on nights when there’s a performance. But one bit of community outreach that he hadn’t planned goes on every evening in the arcade out front: kids practice their skateboarding and break-dancing.

So that’s a little bit of Lyon. I’ve been there three times, and I hope to go again. It’s a terrific place.

NOTE: During the Terror, Lyon was known as Ville-affranchie, or “Emancipated City.” The name is nowhere to be found in present-day Lyon, and I had to look it up on Wikipedia.

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19 December 2007

Yet More Proof of Reincarnation in Hollywood

Damn! I just missed the 21 Jump Street reunion!

The picture above is all over Paris these days, on posters advertising an exhibition of the works of Gustave Courbet at the Grand Palais. The painting is called Desperate Man, but obviously it might just as easily have been called Depp’s All Right, Man.

There’s no telling me this is coincidence. Coming so close on the heels of my discovery of Joaquin Phoenix in an Italian Renaissance portrait, Courbet’s painting invites us to scrutinize the work of other old-time artists, for possible signs of Heath Ledger and George Clooney.

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16 December 2007

Lyon in Wait

It really does look like this.

I leave shortly for Lyon, one of my favorite cities in France: great food, fascinating museums, a topnotch opera company, cool architecture, an inviting natural setting, et cetera. Wandering around the impeccably preserved historic district, Vieux Lyon, you can just picture François Rabelais, who made his home here and who first published Gargantua here. Though the city celebrates its native sons (including the Emperor Claudius and the author of Le petit prince, Antoine de St-Exupéry), it’s Rabelais’ spirit I feel most strongly here: and so I go for another meal. Bring on the wine!

I’ll have limited Internet access while I’m in Lyon, and so there won’t be any new blog postings for a few days. Perhaps more distressingly, I can’t find the charger for the batteries of my camera, so there may be very few pictures of this beautiful city to illustrate whatever reports I do eventually make. Zut, alors.

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15 December 2007

The Caroling Club

These things don’t just happen by themselves, you know.

Are we all bundled up and ready to go? Everybody have mittens? You can’t carol if you don’t wear mittens! Good. We’ve spent such a long time planning this, and I wouldn’t want anything to go wrong. Since the blizzard is so bad, I guess I’m not sorry that you voted unanimously to reject my proposal that we rent Victorian costumes for this evening. I’m sure they’d have been warm enough, but we probably would have risked getting them wet and spoiled, and you know the costume-rental company would charge us extra for that. And after what happened last year, when I spent four months sewing those cute little von Trapp Family outfits for everybody — well, I’m not going through that again.

Does everybody remember our caroling route? We’re going to turn left onto Elm Street, and we cover the west side first, then the east side. Then onto Maple Avenue — and again, that’s Maple Avenue, not Mapletree Court — north first, then south. Then we are completely silent while crossing Elm again, because we don’t want to spoil the mood. Then it’s on to Hickory Street, but only the west side, because the people on the east side asked us not to come this year. But this way, we won’t have to double back, and we’ll go straight on to the band shell at Runnybrook Park. Then we cross the park and stop off at the old folks’ home and —

Yes, I know it’s a long route this year, and I know the Weather Service is predicting another five inches tonight. That’s why I brought this special industrial-strength artificial pine garland. Just hold onto it, and you won’t get lost. And it will look very cute, too. I am sorry, but it’s precisely during a blizzard that people really need holiday cheer. That’s what the Caroling Club is here for: holiday cheer. We can warm up for a few minutes while we’re singing at at the old folks’ home. And there will be hot cocoa and tasty cookies for everyone when we get to Mrs. Peavy’s house. No, we are not taking another vote on this. It is decided.

So is everybody ready? Let’s get started — except for you, Suzy. I thought I made it clear: you cannot come waltzing in here at the last minute and expect to go caroling. The Caroling Club has standards. You do not meet our standards. We have been rehearsing for two months, Suzy. It’s not just the words and the caroling route that we’ve been practicing, it’s the four-part harmonies. It’s the gestures. It’s the wholesome smiling. It’s the whole Caroling Club attitude. You do not have the Caroling Club attitude.

Caroling Club, Christmas 2006: A good time was had by all.
Need I remind you?

And Danny Guller, I don’t mean to practice discrimination, but you ought to have the good sense to figure it out for yourself: Jewish people do not go Christmas caroling. Just go home. This has nothing to do with you personally, it has to do with your people. Your people don’t sing about Christmas. They just don’t. And if you mention Irving Berlin to me one more time, I promise you, I am going to scream.

And Johnny, what are you doing here? I told you last year that you couldn’t come this year. Members of the Caroling Club do not pee in the yards of the people we are singing to. I know you say it was an accident, but we in the Caroling Club do not have accidents. We think about these things before we leave the house. I cannot emphasize too much: we have standards in the Caroling Club.

Yes, I know that Mr. Loomis isn’t here this evening. I’m very sorry about that. He says he wouldn’t be able to play his French horn in the snow anyway. His lip tends to stick to the mouthpiece. I know that will make some of our carols a little thin-sounding, especially “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” but I’ve written out some new arrangements that you can study on the way to Elm Street. Margery, will you pass these out for me? Thank you.

Mr. Loomis is not a quitter. That’s a very mean thing to say, Tommy. I’m sure he would be here if he could, but his mother passed away last night.

What do you mean, his mother passed away last year, too? That can’t be right.

Look, it’s not as if anybody’s forcing you to come caroling. They are? Well that’s no reason to take it out on me. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into planning this. The least you can do is show a little cooperation.

All right, we really need to get going now. Big smiles, everybody! Hold onto the garland! Here we go!

Wait, everybody — Elm Street is that way!

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14 December 2007

The Man Who Came to Dinner

Paris, by Atget: Masterpiece of color

There comes a moment in the life of every American in Paris when he realizes that all those charming lithographs and black-and-white photos of the city’s streets and monuments are in full color.

Not Moscow, not Midtown, not any place I have ever been is as grey as the City of Light in winter. It seldom snows here, but the weather finds other ways to assert its dominance over us. Paris wasn’t built for extremes of temperature high or low, and the invention of central heating, like that of air conditioning, arrived too late to be adapted to our graceful, draughty architecture. At the moment it’s -5 degrees Centigrade. Which, as I made the mistake of ascertaining just now, is 23 degrees in Fahrenheit. In Manhattan, that’s manageable, but in Paris, it’s hell. As I write, I am wearing two T-shirts, a thermal shirt, a wool sweater, and a wool turtleneck, and a wool cap. Yes, I am indoors. Yes, the heating has been turned on.

It has been a disagreeable week in other ways, and a foul time to be a Frenchman. The no-smoking ban goes into effect in a matter of days, and the nation is already irritable. Never mind that Spain and Italy coped with and adhered to their no-smoking bans, in the past few years: évidemment, the Spaniards and Italians were dilettantes. If they were serious about smoking, if they understood it as an art and philosophy unto itself, they wouldn’t have stopped. They would have spat in the face of any policeman who tried to write a ticket, and if they were French, they would have had plenty to spit. As the entire nation goes into nicotine withdrawal, the public mood will grow only worse.

How bad can it get? Imagine that this guy decided to make his official state visit permanent.

Muammar Qaddafi has been in town for a week, and no French person, regardless of political views, is happy about it. Even business leaders, who began the week by celebrating all the contracts that Qaddafi would sign, found their enthusiasm dampened by the realization that the total value of those contracts fell far short of the 10 billion Euros promised by President Sarkozy.

Qaddafi made the visit at the invitation of Sarkozy’s wife, Cécilia, who cleverly obtained her divorce and skipped town before the Libyan set foot here. Hell hath no fury like a soon-to-be-ex-wife. Seeing the dictator greeted with every pomp befitting a head of state, the left as a whole (and much of the right) rose up in protest. President Sarkozy argued that this was a valuable opportunity to encourage Qaddafi’s respect for human rights, and to rehabilitate him, to ease him into the fraternity of civilized nations.

However, Qaddafi construed the trip as an opportunity to make the West look bad. He’s always been more concerned than most dictators with outward appearances: three decades ago, Saturday Night Live mocked him as a clotheshorse (a Jordache parody vaunted “the Qaddafi Look”). Nowadays he looks a wreck. Le Monde compared him to Keith Richards, but in the same sentence had to remind readers who Keith Richards is. Nevertheless, he is no slouch at a certain kind of public relations. And all week, he was the cynosure of every camera and microphone in town.

So when Sarkozy defended himself, insisting that he’d discussed human rights with Qaddafi the first day, Qaddafi blithely told the press that “the subject never came up.” Moreover, he scheduled meetings with ethnic minorities here and with women, the better to declare that “the condition of women is tragic here” — and, worse, “Before you go talking about human rights, you’d better make sure that immigrants in your own country have them.”

Are you still here?

And worst of all, while he denied ever having sponsored terrorism (which would come as a surprise to David Dornstein), he praised it as a useful tool for the disempowered, and underscored that his country supports nationalist independence movements: if some of those movements resort to terrorism, “it’s not our responsibility.”

Even the little things seemed to drive the French crazy. Letting Qaddafi stay in the Matignon Palace wasn’t enough: he wanted to set up a traditional Bedouin tent in the garden — and Sarkozy let him do it. Qaddafi’s motorcade (and a boat ride down the Seine) tied up traffic all week. He toured the Louvre in a mere 30 minutes — what nerve! Even his personal guard, the “Amazons,” irritated the French, not only because they are so numerous but also because they are women. France is still a weirdly sexist country.

After a day or so of trying to justify or to support Sarkozy, members of his own party began to backpedal. Members of his cabinet didn’t even wait for Qaddafi to arrive before they put distance between themselves and the dictator. The minister for human rights told a reporter that “Dictators have to understand that France isn’t a doormat, on which they can wipe the blood from their feet”: she’s now a media darling who’s left the Socialists groping helplessly for any pithier sound bites. Two of the cabinet’s biggest stars, Bernard Kouchner and Jean-Louis Borloo, overbooked their schedules and left town altogether, rather than attend any meetings or state dinners with Qaddafi. Hard to imagine how the week could have been more humiliating for Sarko.

Tomorrow Qaddafi will be gone, and France is ready to be relieved of him. “Guests, like fish, go bad after three days,” said Monsieur Benjamin Franklin, and Qaddafi was here for five. But the sour mood will return, once the smoking ban goes into effect. The winter promises to be long, cold, and cranky.

L’état, c’est lui. Mais quel état est-ce?

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12 December 2007

Eine Liebesgeschichte

Taking U.S.-German Tie Personally: Unusual Warmth Between Bush and Merkel Seen Driving Recent Thaw
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 12, 2007; Page A24
BERLIN -- Diplomats here are still buzzing over a relationship that almost nobody would have dared predict a few years ago. President Bush's current best friend in Europe, if not the world, may be a German: Chancellor Angela Merkel. Bush and Merkel talk so much that German officials say they can scarcely keep track of their phone calls, video conferences and face-to-face meetings.
Oh, sure, that’s what people say. They call it “diplomacy.” They call it “alliance.” They call it “politics.” But nobody knows what we really feel for one another. It’s like the hunger you feel after mountain-biking for three hours, that hunger that can’t be satisfied with just a bag of chips. You need the whole meal. It’s that need to see each other again, to touch each other, to be together.

I was the first to feel it. Angela resisted at first. But she came to see that I was sincere — and what’s more, she knows now that I really measure up as a lover.


You see, you have to know how to handle a woman. And I’m the Handler in Chief. You start with a look, a wink, a little smile. Let her know you’re interested. Then you got to invade. Stand just a little too close. Get right into her personal space. She’ll start to get the message.

Then you gotta really handle her. Maybe you put your hand on top of hers. Then when the moment is right, you kinda put your arm around her. Or maybe give her a little shoulder rub. Women like that kinda thing. They like for a man to pay attention to them. And that’s what I do. I’m the Payer Attentioner.

Of course, you can’t rush ’em. But Merkels come to those who wait, you know? See, most women are afraid somebody’ll call ’em a slut or something, if they show you they’re interested. They gotta play hard to get. But see, not to brag or anything, but I have experience. I knew what would happen. She got me alone, and she was all over me.

Patented Seduction Technique:
Never take ‘Nein’ for an answer

I’d never been with a German woman before. They’re hot, boy. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s from being around all that sausage all the time. But they talk kinda funny. Like Angela. Her name isn’t Angela, it’s ANGLE-uh. Well, sometimes you gotta humor a woman, you know.

Sure, nobody expected this thing to happen between us. And that’s why nobody suspects it. You can’t suspect what you don’t expect. Lucky thing, too. You ever see Laura mad? And people say I’m the mean drunk! And Condi would take it pretty hard, if she found out she’s not my only “special workout buddy.” It’s hard, trying to keep so many women happy. But it comes with the job. It’s what you call Executive Privilege. If you know what I mean. Heh-heh-heh.

Sure, the world is going to heck in a handbasket. And I understand how people could get discouraged about the war and the — other stuff — but it doesn’t bother me. So — you know, Psych 101 ain’t working. I feel good. I feel — I’m relevant — to a lot of hot babes. You want to know how I can sleep so soundly at night? Heck, you’d be worn out, too!

Most of my friends are okay with it, too.

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11 December 2007

Bonus! DVD Commentary Track!

Hollywood has so much to say to us...

STAR: I thought this scene turned out really well. It’s one of my favorites.

DIRECTOR: Why? You’re not in it.

STAR: What’s that supposed to mean?

DIRECTOR: I mean we’ve been sitting here for forty minutes, and it seems like the only scenes you want to talk about are the scenes you’re in.

STAR: I don’t think that’s so strange.

DIRECTOR: I’m just saying.

STAR: What else am I supposed to talk about? It’s not as if I was on the set every day. I don’t have any stories to tell about scenes I wasn’t in.

DIRECTOR: It doesn’t have to be stories. You could say something about my camera work.

STAR: I’m not a director.

DIRECTOR: Plenty of people who aren’t directors admire my camera work. And that editing! Look at that cross-cut!

STAR: What cross-cut?

DIRECTOR: That one — oh, just go back and look again. See how I built up the tension between the characters?

STAR: Can we do that when we’re recording commentary? Are we allowed to rewind?

DIRECTOR: This is the twenty-first century, sweetie. We don’t rewind anymore. We’re digital.

STAR: Well, can we go backward — whatever you call it. Why are you being so hostile?

DIRECTOR: I’m not being hostile. You’re being defensive. Can we talk about the movie, please?

STAR: I’m trying to talk about the movie. You keep changing the subject. You want to talk about the movie? All right: I didn’t love that scene. I hated it. When I said I loved it, I was faking it.

DIRECTOR: Do you really think the people at home want to hear this?

STAR: Now who’s changing the subject?

DIRECTOR: I think this is a good opportunity to talk about your process as an actor. Are you primarily a method actress?

STAR: It’s about time you asked about my process.

DIRECTOR: I’m asking on behalf of the people at home — what do you mean, “it’s about time”?

STAR: You certainly never gave a damn about my “process” while we were filming. “Stand over there and scream. Okay, try again, but louder.” You call that directing?

DIRECTOR: We’re here not here to talk about me. We’re here to talk about the movie.

STAR: Shall we talk about how we wound up making a slasher movie instead of the romantic comedy you promised me?

DIRECTOR: I beg your pardon? I never promised you a rom-com.

STAR: That is so typical! You are unbelievable. You’re trying to tell me you didn’t — ugh! My mother had you pegged right from the start.

DIRECTOR: What does your mother know about anything?

STAR: You leave my mother out of this. At least she knows the difference between a slasher movie and a romantic comedy!

DIRECTOR: I never said it was going to be a comedy! It never happened!

STAR: I suppose that means you think this is romantic. A guy wearing my panties on his head and trying to strangle me with a phone cord is romantic.

DIRECTOR: I don’t want to talk about this.

STAR: Who even uses a phone with a cord, anyway?

DIRECTOR: It was going to be a period piece.

STAR: Ha! I didn’t have to make your movie, you know. I was coming off a successful series on Fox. I had a lot of offers. Dreamworks offers.

DIRECTOR: You are out of your frickin’ mind.

STAR: I only took this part because I felt sorry for you.

DIRECTOR: I only gave you the part because Renée Zellweger wasn’t available.

STAR: I gave you the best option of my life, and you took me direct to DVD!

DIRECTOR: Do you hear yourself? Do you even hear yourself?

STAR: I hear plenty, mister. And by the way, the movie ended five minutes ago. Do you have any profound artistic insights to share about the production credits, or can I go now?

DIRECTOR: As a matter of fact, I would like to give a shout-out to our production manager —

STAR: I’ve had it. I’m leaving.

DIRECTOR: What about the “making of” interviews?

STAR: Why don’t you ask Renée Zellweger? I’m sure she’d be happy to drop everything and come right over.


STAR: This is goodbye.

DIRECTOR: Fine. Goodbye.

STAR: Is that really all you have to say?

DIRECTOR: Have a nice day.

STAR: Because when I walk out that door, it’s over.


STAR: And I won’t come back, no matter how hard you beg.

DIRECTOR: I understand.

STAR: There’s nothing you could do, no part you could offer me, that would make me work with you again. Ever.


STAR: Not even the lead in your next picture.

DIRECTOR: Actually, I thought you’d be very good — but never mind. You’re right. Just go. It’s better this way.

STAR: Well, then. Goodbye.

DIRECTOR: It’s been great working with you. I hope you find that rom-com you’re looking for. You really could be the next Drew Barrymore.

STAR: Do you think so? I — I don’t know what to say.

DIRECTOR: I realize we had our ups and downs, but I really enjoyed working with you. I learned a lot from you, in fact. I didn’t mean for things to turn out this way.

STAR: I realize that. I’m sorry. I just can’t — well. Enough. I’ll see you around.

DIRECTOR: I wish I hadn’t been such a dope. I really could have used someone like you in my next picture. It’s even a romantic comedy.

STAR: Really?

DIRECTOR: Well, it has elements. I mean, I don’t want to get stuck in a rut. If people get the idea that you can only do one thing —

STAR: Tell me about it!

DIRECTOR: Yeah — I guess I don’t need to tell an actress about being typecast.

STAR: No, I mean tell me about the new movie….

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10 December 2007

’Tis the Season

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. In the American suburbs, this will be manifest in the sudden appearance of elaborately decorated houses, brilliantly lit in what the New York Times the other day called “a gift to Con Edison.” Right about now, for a few weeks, the sidewalks of Manhattan will smell not like garbage but like Christmas trees, sold on every corner for a price only slightly lower than that of a comparably sized truffle.

Christmas carols will be playing throughout the Western world, and you can measure the duration of your meal or your shopping excursion by how many times you hear Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” I insist that Christmas music isn’t as good as it used to be: what happened? Surely it’s not only that I have now heard the songs so many more times that they have lost the freshness they had when I was six, or that I no longer have the weeks-long pleasure/pain of listening to my mother singing along, often keeping time with her foot on the accelerator. If I can survive that rough treatment, and recall it so fondly, surely I could bear up under any arrangement, no matter how souped-up or treacly or rocked-out.

In Paris, and even in Beynes, decorations have gone up. But the cities of France, possessing more beauty the rest of the year, don’t give themselves a seasonal makeover. Christmas decorations are treated as accessories here, the way a Parisian woman might add a foulard or pin to her already impeccable toilette. Beynes puts up a few lights along the Rue de la République, snowflakes and globes that add a little sparkle to our nightscape, and that make it easier for me to find my keys when I come home in the evening.

Paris, for its part, is already the City of Light. Although it has no objection to a little extra illumination this time of year, it sees no need to compete with London or New York, cities whose Christmases are festooned with tinsel and garlands and are moreover trademarked. There is no Balzac “Canticle de Noël” to rival Dickens’s “Christmas Carol,” and Kris Kringle specifically inhabited Macy’s, not the Galeries Lafayette, in Miracle on 34th Street.

What the Parisians do take seriously, and competitively, is Christmas shopping, and already the crowds are out in force. Late Saturday afternoon, returning from Beynes, I found myself in a Métro jampacked with shoppers. I was unable to stand entirely upright; I had to lean backward over the seat behind me, clutching my backpack before me. My hands were pressed hard against the breasts of the young woman in front of me, in a way that at any other time of year would have gotten me slapped. But I couldn’t lift a finger. Neither could she raise a hand against me. There was nothing for it. We were stuck. In Utah, we would be legally married now. When we came to my stop, she shoved another man out of the way, grateful to let me pass. And I heard her exclaim, as I drove out of sight, “Va crever, espèce de salaud.” I could almost believe myself in New York at Christmastime.

This year, as in many years past, I’ll be spending Christmas with the Boutrits at l’Enclouze. There are advantages to this: we will eat extremely well, for starters, and we are unlikely to hear *NSync’s “It’s Christmas” or Elmo & Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer” even once. And it is a fine thing to spend a holiday with my adopted family. Though I’m grateful to anybody who feeds me, on any day, I’m especially grateful to those who take me in at Christmas, and the Boutrits have proven stalwart. Yet it still feels as if I’m intruding on someone else’s holiday. It’s a hard thing to be a grownup without kids: Christmas belongs to them, and not to you, and you find yourself standing to one side and looking at your hands a lot, no matter where you are.

The alternative, however, is to ignore Christmas altogether, not only the holiday but the buildup, and I’m not prepared to do that. If we don’t mark some days as special, then all the years will be the same, and therefore monotonous, humdrum. And I refuse to be a Little Humdrummer Boy. So I play Christmas music, usually when I’m alone, and to get me in the proper spirit, I don’t leave song selections to the public-address system of the department store. I seize control.

I’m a strict traditionalist, for the most part: Julie Andrews, Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, and Vince Guaraldi, whose Charlie Brown Christmas album is one of the most potent pieces of art ever known. Apart from Eileen Farrell’s, I’ve never cottoned to opera singers’ Christmas albums: too much egg, not enough nog. But I’ve got an oddball hit list, featuring Cyndi Lauper (“Home on Christmas Day”) and Tammy Wynette (“It’ll buh-yee a ba-LEW Cree-yiss-muss withawut YEW”). I do try to keep the season bright.

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01 December 2007

Dining with Divas

Bisou sans bijoux: Joyce DiDonato and Bill
Photo by Gilles Jaroslaw, Paris 2007

One of the nicest things about not being a critic anymore is this: so many singers are now so much more comfortable around me. Lately I’ve had occasion to reflect on this, and to enjoy the benefits of my new status. I’ve attended performances by three wonderful artists, visited the ladies backstage, and gone for supper with them afterward. This is a rare privilege, one that makes me both grateful and boastful. But knowing the singers is also — I am understanding more clearly — valuable to me as an artist.

Long ago I recognized that opera appealed to me as a kind of storytelling by other means — in fact, by all the means at once — and the ladies who sing opera are therefore storytellers of a high order. If I pay attention, I can learn things about their creative process that will inform my own.

Let’s begin with Joyce Castle, the Texas-born mezzo-soprano whom I’ve known since an afternoon in the mid-1980s, when she visited the Weill Foundation. In those days, I was immensely excited by the existence of any Texan in opera, which I took as a sign that I was not alone in the world. Never mind that Joyce left the state shortly after her birth. Only a Texan would insist that she’s a Texan.

I began to seek out her performances at New York City Opera. Sometimes the presence of Joyce’s name on the bill was sufficient to induce me to purchase a ticket. That was the case with Einem’s The Visit, in which Joyce played the leading role, and my reward was one of the most complete portrayals I’ve seen on any stage or screen. She’s populated the stage of the State Theater with a whole town’s worth of memorable characters, comic and tragic and just plain weird, applying keen musicianship and theatrical insights that are consistently thrilling. In time, it wasn’t enough to see only what she did at City Opera, and now, whenever I can, I travel to hear her: to Minneapolis, for The Handmaid’s Tale; to Fort Worth, for The Turn of the Screw; to Boston, for Mahagonny; to Wilmington, for The Medium.

Joyce Castle, center, sublime as always in NYCO’s Cendrillon.
Sadly, she did not wear this outfit when we went out after the show.
Original photo by Carol Rosegg©

Last month I traveled to New York to hear her, as Madame de la Haltière, the stepmother in Massenet’s Cinderella opera, Cendrillon, at City Opera. In a rollicking production, with strong contributions from almost everybody, Joyce carried the show. As a hilariously hypocritical snob, she gleefully combined so many odious traits that you couldn’t help loving the character. She kicked up her heels in a couple of dances, and she soared over the (often very loud) orchestra with ease.

You’d have every right to expect her to be exhausted after that performance, but Joyce received my friends and me in her dressing room, then went out with us for supper. She regaled us with stories and tantalized us with her upcoming schedule (notably a return to Herodias in Strauss’ Salome, in Milwaukee); she made a point of engaging each of us, asking about our lives and our plans, too. That’s typical of her generosity. We had pretty much closed down the joint (O’Neal’s), when like Cinderella herself Joyce announced it was time to turn into a pumpkin and go home from the ball. But when I met her for lunch a few days later, Joyce was concerned that she’d been a party-pooper. On the contrary, she made the party, and if we went to another bar afterward, it was because she’d fired us up. Now some of us are talking about flying to hear her in Salome. In Wisconsin. In February.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds: if we go, we will be rewarded. At times Joyce becomes so consumed with the character she’s playing that she really becomes another woman. In Handmaid’s Tale (pictured at left, with Elizabeth Bishop), there’s a mammoth set piece in which one of the Handmaids gives birth, attended by all the women of the community in an elaborate ritual. As Joyce’s character, the barren Serena Joy, looked on, she began to strike her fist nervously against her stomach — below the belt. Her empty womb.

It was a stunning theatrical gesture, summing up so many of the character’s conflicting emo- tions, yet she did it discreetly, not trying to upstage anybody, just living the scene. Where did she come up with the gesture, I asked her later. She didn’t even know she’d done it. And I learned that sometimes the best art is that which we simply allow to happen.

Thanks to Joyce, I know Darren Woods, who introduced me to Joyce DiDonato, who introduced me to Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet. Though she’s as unlike a prima donna as a dramatic soprano can be, Jeanne-Michèle conforms to type in this: she avoids socializing with critics. When she heard I wrote for Opera News, she nearly stopped speaking to me on the spot, she later confessed. Mercifully, she gave me a chance to redeem myself, and we are becoming good friends, abetted by our love of New Orleans (her hometown) and of good music.

She came to Paris on 29 November to sing the world premiere of Philippe Fénelon’s Judith, which he wrote for her. The piece requires her to portray not the stealthy political assassin I remember from the Bible story but a psychosexual terrorist: difficult to imagine that this Judith could sneak up on the sleeping Holofernes. She sang at top volume, over the full orchestra of the Opéra de Paris, who played not in a pit but alongside her onstage. Yet Jeanne-Michèle seized on the less bombastic passages, too, caressing where she could, teasing out nuances where she found them. And though it’s a concert piece, she acted the role, as well, all the while singing the bejeezus out of a challenging, densely orchestrated score. As she took her bows, I said (but not too loudly), “Bis, bis!”

I was kidding. I didn’t seriously believe anybody could sing the piece twice. But when I found her backstage, she declared without prompting that she’d love to sing the whole thing over again, right away. With Jeanne-Michèle as with Joyce Castle, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find her completely exhausted, bundled up and whispering. Au contraire. Beverly Sills used to say that only toward the end of a performance did she begin to feel really warmed up; likewise, perhaps, Jeanne-Michèle was raring to go.

It must feel good, to let it all hang out this way, to engage for a couple of hours in a more disciplined variation on the primal scream.

Plenty to smile about: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet

Moreover, there was consensus backstage that in contemporary works a single hearing isn’t enough to appreciate the composer’s achievement. That’s often my reaction to contemporary music, too, but I’m an amateur, and I was surprised to hear professionals say this — wholeheartedly. I regretted that I hadn’t called more loudly for that encore.

We went to a Lebanese restaurant, where at two long tables we must’ve resembled an updated, better-behaved version of one of the rowdy soupers that one finds in nineteenth-century French novels: Marguerite Gautier or Nana Coupeau & Cie. Jeanne-Michèle has some extraordinary friends in Paris, including Denise Wendel-Poray, Gina Elardo, and two ladies whose acquaintance I hadn’t made: the dancer-choreographer Richild Springer and the costumer Mine Barral-Vergez. Richild and Mine have worked with everybody — including Josephine Baker, whom Mine dressed and with whom Richild danced. Hearing this was like hearing that I was sitting next to two of Christ’s own Apostles, and they obliged me with some thrilling reminiscences.

But we didn’t need to look to the past for evidence of great careers: Jeanne-Michèle sat right before us. It’s an exciting time for her, as she explores a new role, Strauss’ Elektra, at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. It’s a wonderful fit for her dramatic skills, and she’s able to bring her healthy vocal beauty to a part that’s too often shrieked.

Elektra seems to have opened up new artistic possibilities for her, as well. Not that she was adrift beforehand, I hasten to add: the woman sings the most demanding Wagnerian roles all over the world, and you can’t do that without a keen sense of direction, and a keener sense of self. Yet when Jeanne-Michèle speaks, you can feel that a kind of harmonic convergence has been achieved, and you want to be in on it. I don’t know how, but I’m going to find a way to be in Berlin in February, when she sings the part again.

We’ll always have Paris.

The next evening, Joyce DiDonato returned to Paris, like Violetta in Act II of La Traviata. She was coming from an idyll in the countryside with her lover, and she was bereft of all her jewels. The resemblance isn’t exact: Violetta is a soprano who has pawned her jewels, and Joyce is a mezzo who was robbed.

She’d agreed to appear as a last-minute replacement for Marie-Nicole Lemieux, the Canadian singer, in a concert with the Ensemble Matheus, under the baton of Jean-Christophe Spinosi. The event organizers had removed Lemieux’s name but not her Fach from the advertising and the program, with the result that Joyce was billed as a contralto. When I told her this, she stared at me a second and then said, “You wanna go for a scotch? Or a cigar?”

Other singers might have freaked out under the pressure. Not Joyce. I spotted her as I stood outside the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. She was crossing the street, on foot and unescorted, carrying her gown in a garment bag, and she seemed perfectly happy to greet me and to chat for a moment. (I on the other hand was a nervous wreck. “Don’t you have to go to work now?” I said.) She was even trying to be upbeat about the robbery.

Joyce sang a number of arias by Handel, whose work she’s been performing a lot of (most recently Alcina in Milano and Poissy, and Ariodante in Geneva). But she hasn’t been performing this music with Spinosi, and without optimal rehearsal time together, they cast what was for me a really fascinating light on the process of music-making. On most occasions, Joyce makes it all look so easy. She stands there, the notes pour out, and you’re transfixed and transformed. A walk in the park. A mere bagatelle.

But of course it ain’t easy, any more than Astaire’s dancing or Pollock’s painting was easy. Joyce is such a hard-to-satisfy professional that she used her encores as do-overs for a couple of numbers. But it was hardly as though she and Spinosi hadn’t offered us extraordinary work the first time around, and I’d never have guessed that any improvement was possible in her “Ombra mai fu,” any more than I’d have guessed that she’d never sung it in public before that night.

Wendel-Poray: De-lightful, De-lovely, Denise
(But not to be mistaken for Di-Donato)

Tragically, she had another engagement and couldn’t go out for our traditional post-show beer. Denise Wendel-Poray and Gilles Jaroslaw and I went instead to a reception for the Ensemble. Denise, who happens to be a North American mezzo-soprano and blonde, too, was mistaken for Joyce at first: when we walked in, she was greeted with awe and reverence. Which she deserves after her own performances, but not necessarily after other people’s.

We heard some interesting views on orchestral playing, putting into context Spinosi’s animated behavior: though his baton work is tightly controlled and precise, the rest of his body is dancing. This turns out to be the Matheus philosophy. As one fellow put it, you’re moving your body in time when you play music. You are dancing. Why try to conceal the fact? Since my career as a violinist lasted precisely six cat-strangling weeks, I’d never considered the question.

My playing was not dance. It was abuse. I loved music too much to continue.

And so it is a very great thing that I know people who make music well, and who are willing to share their time, their experience, and their insights with me. In every meeting, I come away a little wiser. As artists, they are worth going out of my way to hear them; as people, they go out of their way for me. I’m a lucky guy, and I know it.

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