30 September 2007

September Song

Deux amis: Denise and Bill, September 2007
Photo by Bernard Boutrit

When Kurt Weill died, some terribly bright folks audited his estate and deemed that among his compositional legacy, only two songs had any future commercial value: first was “September Song.” In its original context, in Knickerbocker Holiday, the lecherous Peter Stuyvesant smooth-talks a pretty young thing: presumably Walter Huston, who originated the role, got a big laugh when he sang the line “I have lost one tooth, and I’ve gone a bit lame,” since he was playing a peg-leg. But he sang it straight, as we hear on a much-lauded recording, and since then plenty of other artists have found grist for their mills in the song’s melancholic refrain. Nowadays, I’m closer to Stuyvesant’s age, and it’s not uncommon for me to sweet-talk pretty young things, yet the song still doesn’t quite speak to me. It isn’t among the music I brought with me to France.

Nevertheless, I’ve been pretty darned melancholic these days myself, and it is September, and the song comes back. So permit me, if you will, to seize the opportunity for a few reflections on the month as it closes.

During a short trip to Royan this month, I picked figs in the garden at l’Enclouze, and came back to Beynes to make preserves. This turned out to be a great deal of work, even more so than making other kinds of preserves, but the results are pleasing, in all 24 jars, several of which are jumbo-sized. A little too sweet, perhaps, and a bit runny. Moreover, I’m told I used too much lemon juice: the character of the figs is hard to discern. But it’s close enough to my grandmother’s recipe, using figs we picked from the trees on the old Pettus place in Goliad — and that recipe turned out to be identical to the one followed, half a world away, by Denise Boutrit in Royan.

Though it can’t be said that my fig preserves transport me, as Proust’s madeleine transported him, to another time and place, I am very much reminded of two people dear to me. A loving spoonful indeed. And probably as close to Proust as this writer is likely to get.

(I recall, too, the audible alarm with which my first agent, Gloria Loomis, greeted the news that I was reading Proust: “You’re not trying to write like him, are you?”)

As Denise’s own memory slips farther from her grasp, I’m struck by the tenacity of her affection for me. Surely she no longer has any idea how she knows me — but she does know me, and she recognizes me.

A few months ago, she turned to me and said, “I recognize your accent.”

“Usually you tell me that it’s my smile you remember,” I replied.

“I can’t go home anymore,” she said, in what I thought at first was a change of subject. Then she added, “But I’m happy here — if you make me happy.” (Je suis contente ici, si tu me contentes.)

She still has a knack for turning a phrase, and she seems delighted when I laugh at something funny she’s said: I think she misses being witty. We don’t talk much about the things we used to talk about, and instead of Proust or Balzac we are more likely to discuss the color of a passing bird, or the prettiness of a picture in a magazine. But it seems clear now that the topics of our talks were never what really mattered. We were friends.

With loss of memory has come a loss of certain inhibitions. Last year, she told me, “Je te trouve charmant, et en plus, je t’aime” (I think you’re good-looking, and what’s more, I love you). This month, she put her hand to my face several times, and she wanted to hold my hand when it was time for me to leave: she didn’t want to let go. Though I’m grateful, these are liberalities she would never have permitted herself before.

But she retains a large measure of her proper reserve. At Christmas, surrounded by people who were addressing her as “tu,” she seemed confused by my addressing her as “vous.” I decided to tutoye her, for the first time. She accepted this, but only briefly: then she began to vous-voye me. Also a first.

She used to recount a conversation, overheard through an open window perhaps, between an old married couple here in Beynes: “Mange ça, toi, Féno,” said the wife to the husband, directing him to eat some leftover, undesirable morsel. The brusqueness, the bossiness, the use of the family name in intimate circumstances: these things amused Denise endlessly. (We have since learned that Monsieur and Madame Féno were resident here about 100 years ago, so the story predates Denise by quite a bit.) Later, I used to say, “Mange ça, toi, Féno,” to my godchildren when they were babies. I doubt that they remember the line; I know that Denise does not.

For a while, she used to apologize because she couldn’t remember my name. Easy enough to excuse her. But I realized that, in truth, we’d never really been on a name basis of any kind: I’ve almost never called her Denise, or Madame Boutrit, much less “Ma Den,” the name by which her grandchildren, some of whom are near me in age, call her. We were simply “tu” and “vous.” How close can two people be who never call each other by name? We are finding out.

September draws to a close now, and I have much left undone. I haven’t set foot in a movie theater all month! Though I’ve done plenty of odd jobs around the house, it never seems enough to suit me. An account of my trip to Corsica, for example, is still banging around in manuscript. And like Peter Stuyvesant in “September Song,” I haven’t got time for the waiting game. Yes, the song is growing on me.

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Sunshine, or Joyce DiDonato

Joyce in a publicity photo:
Why didn't I bring my own camera?

I have discovered a new prescription for the blues, one that is less ingenious but more reliable than singing love songs to myself. Indeed, the beauty part is that I don’t have to sing at all: I can leave that to someone who actually knows how.

That someone is Joyce DiDonato, the mezzo-soprano from Kansas City. She blew through the neighborhood last night, singing the title role in Handel’s Alcina in concert in the nearby town of Poissy, with Alan Curtis conducting his Complesso Barocco. Alongside her were the luscious Québecoise soprano Karina Gauvin and the wily South African tenor Kobie van Rensburg, and a voice new to me, Franco-espagnol mezzo Maïté Beaumont, whose account of Ruggiero’s music was full-blooded and persuasive. Yet good as these folks were, for me it’s all about Joyce.

In a role that’s most often taken by sopranos, she offered up glittering melismas and penetrating psychological insights that made me eager to see her in a staged production. Rather than performing her several solos as stand-and-deliver declamations, she turned them into something quite like Shakespearean soliloquies. That’s far more nuanced and complex than the da capo structure usually admits. (The term means “from the top”: the first verse is followed by a contrasting verse, then repeated with elaborate ornamentation: A-B-A+.) Usually I’m perfectly content when a singer uses a number as Handel intended, and knocks my socks off. But Joyce is up to something here, and the role of Alcina — a lonely, sorceress, by turns manipulative and lovelorn, who falls under her own spell — provided her with abundant opportunity to explore a multidimensional character. Add to that Joyce’s special musical gifts, notably her phenomenal dynamic shadings and keen rhythm, and you’ve got yourself a great night in the concert hall.

Not all of this music is what you’d call happy, and very little of it was cathartic, yet I walked out feeling better than when I walked in. Joyce has that effect on me.

I’ve known her for a couple of years, starting with a telephone interview for Opera News. My long-lost brother, Darren Keith Woods, the dynamic director of Fort Worth Opera, introduced us after a performance of The Barber of Seville in Houston, and Darren reintroduced us several months later, here in Paris. Over dinner with Darren and the sublime pianist Mary Dibbern, Joyce invited me to hear her in the final dress rehearsal of the opera she’d come to town to sing: Handel’s Hercules, at the Palais Garnier. (There’s a video of this production, here.) Though I’d heard the opera, I’d never seen it before, and thus never fully grasped that Joyce’s character, Dejanira, sings almost ceaselessly through a catalogue of extreme emotions for four straight hours. I went backstage after the performance, expecting to find a limp noodle or a burned-up crust of mezzo, but Joyce burst out of her dressing room with a lusty cry of “Somebody beer me!”

We shut down the café, drinking and talking late into the night about art and life with her now-husband, Leo Vordoni (whose numerous, absurdly unfair gifts include being tall, dark and very, very handsome, as well as a wonderful conductor). That set a pattern for subsequent nights: Joyce sings, we go for a drink. Very often, we’ll be with a crowd of other people, yet it’s as if we’re alone in a coffee shop somewhere. I’m conscious that I’m monopolizing her, and probably preventing her from making useful social and professional contacts with other people at the table, and certainly preventing her from getting to sleep at a reasonable hour — but I can’t help myself. I don’t apologize for it, either, and I won’t promise that it won’t happen again. So there.

Rousseau and the Romantics led us to believe that any artist worth her salt must be egomaniacal, asocial and amoral, a rather savage beast. Happily, this turns out to be untrue in most artists I know (even the opera singers). Yet Joyce is so exceptionally unaffected, sincerely compassionate, and level-headed that it’s sometimes hard to reconcile her character with her sensitive, expressive artistry. Can anybody so pleasant really be so deep?

She’s no Pollyanna, yet when things sometimes go wrong in Joyce’s life, she maintains a generally sunny disposition that is disarming and, ultimately, contagious; she is a Phoebe in a world of Holden Caulfields. And if I had a kid sister, I hope she’d be like Joyce. She makes me feel special, and because she herself is so special, that’s a blessed favor.

Knowing that Joyce was in town only briefly, I was prepared to “settle” and just to hear her on Saturday night, but we went out for a drink and closed down yet another joint. A lovely evening, with lots of incidental pleasures: meeting Alan Curtis, whose recordings I own in abundance, and meeting Karina Gauvin, a memorable performer and a lively personality. (Backstage, a French couple said to her, “Are you from Canada? We hear your accent.” “And I hear yours!” Karina quipped.) I love to hang out with musicians: I admire their discipline, and I value their ability to describe the human condition — to tell a story — by other means than mine.

But really, it was all about Joyce. Again. And though it was long past midnight, and the moon was sailing high over Poissy, the sun was shining brightly in her smile.

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28 September 2007

Larry Kert

(the blog entry is here)

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Larry Kert

Somewhere, a place for him

The fiftieth anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story has launched a raft of tributes and souvenirs. Upon reexamination, the show remains a marvel, and it’s a touchstone for people I care about. Get Ana María Martínez, the wonderful soprano, started on the subject, and you’ll get a graduate-level seminar. The irrepressible Adolph Green, whom I knew through the magnanimity of his daughter, Amanda, used to lament that he and Betty Comden turned down the chance to write the lyrics for the show: “Romeo and Juliet on the West Side? It’ll never work,” they said, and handed the baton to a rookie named Sondheim.

But the show was more than a touchstone to someone else I cared about: Larry Kert. He was the original Tony. To which you say, “Wow!” When I met him, three decades later, he was the original Nathan Hershkowitz/Nat Harris in a show that made substantially less impact, Rags. To which you say, “Huh?” I was the lone production assistant on that $5.5 million musical, which closed after four performances and was, for a time, the most expensive flop in the history of Broadway. Larry was not lucky, it must be said.

He lost the lead in the film of West Side Story to a guy whose singing voice had to be dubbed, but who looked (or so the producers thought) the right age. He gained the lead in Company only after Dean Jones flamed out, and the lead in Cabaret only when Bert Convy called in sick. His big number in Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York was cut in the editing room. For his last show, Legs Diamond, he was standby to Peter Allen in a disaster-riddled production; both he and Allen were already succumbing to AIDS.

But Larry remained a pro, a breathtakingly skillful song-and-dance man who made it all look easy, and who took pleasure in the appearance of ease. His light tenor voice still sailed in Rags rehearsals as it did when he recorded Tony. And perhaps most tellingly, the joy and optimism of Tony — that you hear so memorably in his first number, “Something’s Coming” — belonged to Larry Kert. He wasn’t acting, there; he was living. To hear that song is to know him, and now that he’s gone, I can’t hear the song without getting choked up.

He was one of the funniest people I’ve met, and yet, curiously, he never seemed to be one of the smartest. I’ve always linked intellect to wit, but somehow Larry transcended my expectations — or else, as is entirely possible, he was a sly fox who didn’t need to show off in front of pretentious Ivy League eggheads like me. I’m sure I was all the more insufferable because I had the lowliest of jobs. Surrounded by people who could do things I couldn’t (sing, dance, play piano, work miracles), I was stuck doing things anybody could (making coffee, typing script revisions).

For me, Rags was a heady experience. Teresa Stratas kissed me on the lips, the way she kissed John the Baptist in Salome! (Well, almost the same way. My head was attached to my neck.) I met Jack and Madeline Gilford! I worked for Bob Straus! I got stoned with Lonny Price! Marcia Lewis took me to a seafood restaurant, and became my Oyster Bunny! I had a serious love affair that ended catastrophically! Yet somehow I always knew I’d go home, like Toby Tyler in his circus. Rags proved to me that, if the theater had any place for me (and it’s never been certain that it does), it wasn’t backstage.

Larry had learned long ago that his rightful place was onstage, front and center. But knowing where you belong is not in itself a solution. His role in Rags — the assimilationist (i.e., sellout) immigrant, the unctuous ward heeler among union rabble-rousers — was sketchy and unsympathetic, and no amount of rewriting seemed to help that. He didn’t even make his entrance until the end of Act I, and his numbers in Act II weren’t the crowd pleasers they should have been. And they never got better. As I say, Larry wasn’t lucky.

Putting the show up was an arduous process, complicated by a troubled script and innumerable shortcomings among the production team: the cast rose to every challenge, yet it took something out of them. Larry endured every hardship with — well, the same grace and ease and joy and optimism that marked his performance.

At some point, I mentioned that the first show I’d seen on Broadway was Sweeney Todd. Larry grinned. “One night I went to dinner at Steve Sondheim’s house, and he told me he’d just finished a new song,” he said. “So after dinner, we went to the piano, and he handed me the song and asked me to sing it. ‘Johanna.’ I was the first person to sing that.” And he sang me a few bars. “I feel you, Johanna / And someday, I’ll steal you….”

That sweet, limpid tenor voice was born to sing that number — about two decades too early. Victor Garber wound up introducing “Johanna,” and although it’s unclear that his subsequent career owes everything to Sweeney Todd, it certainly didn’t hurt. But what might have become of Larry’s career if he’d been in the right place at the right time — and the right age?

Did he ask himself the same question? He sure as hell wasn’t going to confide his disappointments and (if any) bitterness to the gopher (who was, not incidentally, the confidant of his costar). No, all I ever saw in Larry was the spirit of Tony from West Side Story, who knew in his bones that with a click, with a shock, the phone would jingle, door would knock. The air was humming, and something great was coming.

Maybe tonight.

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27 September 2007

Menus Plaisirs

A gal a day is enough for any man.

I’ve had the blues lately, and my friend Karen suggested that I borrow a page from Woody Allen, and make a list of the things that make my life worth living. I am willing to give it a try.

Hitherto, my patented, guaranteed method of cheering myself up was to sing love songs to myself. This method works for others, as well. Try it yourself sometime with an old show tune: “If Ever I Would Leave Me.” “We Could Make-Believe (I Loved Me).” “They Can’t Take Me Away from Me.” “The Street Where I Live”:
And, oh, the towering feeling
Just to know
Somehow I am near
The overpowering feeling
That any second I may suddenly appear.
People stop and stare.
They don’t bother me,
For there’s no one else on earth
That I would rather be.
Let the time go by!
I don’t care if I
Can be me
On the street where I live.

The Beatles provide lots of good material, too: “I Want to Hold My Hand.” “I Saw Me Standing There.” “Something in the way I move / Moves me like no other lover.”

You get the idea. But now back to my list. What indeed are the things that make life worthwhile?

Just give me a minute to think, will ya?

Family and friends, yes, but especially those in either camp who manage to become both friend and family to me.

My favorite teachers, who were neither friends nor family, yet more.

My godchildren. A more astonishing collection of people never existed. They exalt me. And I never had to change a single diaper.

Justice, liberty, reason, and compassion.

Opera, that mortal miracle in which all the arts come together to tell a story.

Opera singers, listening to them and knowing them. They aren’t like other people. And that’s a good thing.

Dead French pop singers: Charles Trenet, Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Barbara, Georges Brassens. Nobody among the living French moves me as they do, hélas.

Broadway show tunes, because they make me think of my childhood.

Jazz singers, because they take those same Broadway show tunes and pop standards, and make me rethink everything I ever took for granted.

Teresa Stratas, who just by existing makes me rethink everything I ever took for granted.

Rock songs from the Sixties and Eighties, because they make me dance and recall a youth I never quite had.

Embarrassing boy bands (and, lately, Mika), because they make me dance and recall a youth I definitely never had.

Relics from the youth I did have: Julie Andrews, Bewitched, Star Trek, Beverly Sills, Disney movies. Okay, so I was a weird kid.

Italian Renaissance and French Impressionist paintings, medieval French architecture, and Greek sculpture. Plus Rembrandt, Vermeer, Goya, and Turner.

Handsome men and beautiful women, who are God’s sculpture. But it’s helpful when He remembers to put in brains.

Smart, interesting actresses: Katharine Hepburn, Simone Signoret, Gena Rowlands, Billie Whitelaw, Geraldine McEwan, Miranda Richardson, Emma Thompson, Anne Bancroft, Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck, Isabelle Huppert. Meryl Streep and Catherine Frot, when they don’t take themselves too seriously.

Crafty character actors: Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Burgess Meredith, Jack Gilford, Steve Buscemi, Jean Rochefort. Preston Sturges’ whole repertory company of oddballs and screwballs, especially the Weenie King. Daniel Auteuil, Fabrice Luchini, Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart are character actors even when they’re leading men.

French movies, because I understand them.

French novels, because they understand me.

Mark Twain and Henry James, because they understand America, and Europe, and most of everything else.

The Marx Brothers and Monty Python, because they make me laugh no matter how many times I hear the jokes.

Television shows that create a world I can inhabit: Upstairs, Downstairs, thirtysomething, The Simpsons.

Theater, especially Shakespeare and Molière who connect me to something bigger than myself.

People who tell me stories.

People who feed me well.

People who have sex with me.

People who should have sex with me.

People who put up with me, and people who put me up.

People who believe in Something, yet who tolerate the fact that I don’t.

Knowing the right answer.

Knowing any answer.

Traveling — not getting there, which is a hassle, but being in a different place, especially if it’s old and beautiful and strange. Not being a tourist, but exploring on my own, and getting a sense of what the people are really like.

Riding through the French countryside and seeing the fields awash with bright yellow canola blossoms in spring, and sunflowers in summer.

The red tile roofs of the houses on the hilltops of Tuscany.

Cuisine française and cucina italiana.

Wine, especially Champagne.

Going to the market. Cooking, when I get it right, but not when I have to wash dishes or clean the oven.

Seeing results when I work out.

Other people seeing results when I work out.

The “Marseillaise,” which makes me cry, mainly because of that scene in Casablanca.

The English language.

The French language, because it feels so good when I manage to say something not just correctly but well.

The Italian language, because it feels so good, even when I say it badly.

Punning in French.

The ocean, when it’s warm. The moon, when it’s full. Summer, and its freedom. Autumn, and the places that have one.

The way Denise Boutrit put her hand to my face the last time I visited her, and didn’t want to let go of my hand when it was time for me to leave.

The scent of violet water my grandmother used to wear.

Bessie’s fried chicken and Tisha’s squash.

Going to Sunday lunch at a Mexican restaurant with my parents and giving my dad the lemon slice from my iced tea.

Being remembered when I go back to a restaurant I like.

Beating Mark Dennis to the check.

Napping, and falling asleep over a book at bedtime.

Writing, and reading over what I’ve written and thinking, “Yep. That’s it.”

Writing, and seeing what I’ve written in print. Or on a blog.

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26 September 2007

Blossom Dearie

Comeback kid:
Blossom Dearie at the Skylight Room

If you close your eyes and listen only to that wisp of baby-doll voice and to her piano playing, muscular and supple as a medal-winning teenage gymnast, you will be inclined to think that time has stood still for Blossom Dearie. When I heard her last, she sounded much as she did on her earliest recordings, 50 years ago. Her diction was as crisp as ever, and her genius for phrasing was undiminished, the way she goosed the rhythm or lingered over a note, usually to make sure her audience appreciated a witty lyric. Of which she had an abundance.

But when you opened your eyes, you saw a small, rather frail, old woman. Though her keyboard technique was still commanding, her hands were those of a grandmother. The steps made by her tiny feet were tentative. You realized that her voice, never rangy, was narrower now, and she didn’t sustain many vocal notes, and sometimes she cheated the high ones. Some favorite songs with intricate lyrics, such as “Someone’s Been Sending Me Flowers” and “Bruce,” no longer appeared in her set, and I had to admit the possibility that she had trouble remembering the words. She was never much of a salesman or showman, and now her onstage banter was mostly limited to dutiful recitations of the authors of a number. Ageless she was, but the description isn’t applied to young women. Even for Blossom Dearie, time did not stand still. It moved. But forward — yes, and upward — and satisfyingly so.

When I found her, she was not in a glittering Parisian boîte or a swanky Manhattan supper club, or any of her former haunts. The Ballroom in New York, where her annual engagements were a legendary event when I was young, had been closed long ago. Now she was performing in the back room of a Thai seafood restaurant in the Theater District. Her old record labels had dropped her and, fatally, never released her old albums on compact disc; for several years she’d been producing her own recordings, on her own label, quirky little cassette tapes and CDs that she sold and autographed after her show. Yet from these unlikely materials she fashioned a remarkable comeback. It was small-scale and a little shy, much like the lady herself. She installed herself in “Danny’s Skylight Room,” as the Thai venue called itself, and she waited for people to come to her.

And we came. The Skylight Room was always packed. Critics came, gave her rave reviews, and the record companies took notice, releasing her old albums on CD. Though she remained loyal to Danny’s until that place, too, closed down, I gathered that the number and quality of her engagements elsewhere improved. Suddenly, she was the name on everyone’s lips.

I heard her several times there — I’ve honestly lost count — starting just as her comeback was shifting into gear. Her greatest successes arrived when I was too young and too far from New York to enjoy them; her Ballroom engagements coincided with my impoverished phase, when I never imagined I could afford to go to a nightclub: only when she began to play at Danny’s did I hear her live.

Like most people my age, I first heard her voice on Saturday morning television, the “Schoolhouse Rock” segments that used to squeeze between commercials and cartoons, giving ABC a little taste of Sesame Street-style prestige. Later, one of my college roommates, Melora Wolff, was a fan; she occasionally played Dearie’s albums. One way and another, Blossom Dearie’s voice had been knocking around the corners of my consciousness for a long time, but that night in Danny’s Skylight Room was the first time I’d really listened to her. Once I got past the initial delight — she hadn’t changed — I began to pay closer attention to what she’d been doing all along.

She’d had early success in supper clubs, including a long stint in France that explains the presence in her repertory of so many songs in French, or about the French. She always favored soubrette numbers, droll bits by the sadder-but-wiser girl who isn’t long in the spotlight, and these chimed nicely with her distinctly reticent performing persona. She’s got a sharp sense of humor, and her repertoire is often howlingly funny, but she played the songs straight. She didn’t milk the jokes, and if you didn’t get ’em, no sweat. You’d naturally expect her to follow up a comic novelty number with a story, and maybe a rimshot from her drummer. But that’s not Blossom’s style.

Most of the novelty songs weren’t Dearie’s own; wizards like Dave Frishberg, John Wallowitch, and Sheldon Harnick wrote them for her. Her own compositions are subtler, jazzier, with lyrics that are less twisty yet every bit as sly. This material made her seem a somewhat wistful cynic, often disappointed in love, and it made an amusing contrast with her girlish delivery. Yet she took “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and turned it into shimmering gossamer. She did the same with “Tea for Two,” unlikely as that may seem. By exploring the old standards, by playing them freshly and sweetly, she made new sense of them. They were (who knew?) catalogues of the simplest pleasures of love. And the façade of weary disappointment cracked a little.

After every performance, Blossom retired to a booth in the restaurant, where she signed autographs. I went to speak to her the first night, buying all of her self-produced titles, and later, after a gig, I’d always go up to her, if not for another autograph just to tell her how much I enjoyed her work. She was always polite, but never more. She was not comfortable with strangers, and she hadn’t developed the handy automatic-pilot catchphrases of a stage-door pro like Beverly Sills. Meet-and-greet is part of the business, and Dearie submitted to it dutifully. But real personal contact between her and the audience took place only during the performance — during the songs, not between them, not after them.

Because Blossom Dearie didn’t put on a show: she had a private conversation with her piano, and I just happened to eavesdrop on it.

I’m not sure where she is now. Attempts to track her down via the Internet haven’t yielded much. But as long as she plays, I’ll listen.

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19 September 2007

Venice Postponed

I was thinking of taking a trip this fall...

For quite a long time, I have talked about going to Venice. Having made it as far as Paris already, I thought it foolish not to take the opportunity to visit la Serenissima, the most serene of cities, and to dive into her art and architecture. I haven’t obsessed about Venice quite so much as the narrator of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu: that poor fellow writes pages sufficient to fill anybody else’s novel with dreams of the city, learned discussions of her painters, and an almost carnal desire, more urgent the longer it’s thwarted, to go there. But when he finally arrives, the poor narrator is disappointed. The wanting was a greater thing than the touring, and evidently looking at pictures of pictures was more satisfying than looking at the pictures themselves. This is typical of Proust’s narrator, who [Warning: spoiler alert] winds up disillusioned with almost everything that earlier enthralled him. But it’s also typical of me, to a degree. Working at Opera News, for example, wasn’t nearly the polyhymniac picnic I imagined it to be when I was 15.

Other factors are holding me back, as well. The least of these is the weak dollar: I’d do as well to throw my money into the Grand Canal nowadays. Moreover, I’ve come gradually to realize something more serious. I’m not in a relationship right now, and as Katharine Hepburn and Dirk Bogarde have tried and tried to teach me, Venice is unsafe for singletons.

Signore, shall I tell your water-taxi to wait?

My preconceptions of Venice are romantic, and what indeed may befall me if I wander there alone? Supposing there is no Rossano Brazzi to sweep me up, and only a Bjorn Andresen to lead me astray? Might I skulk along the pestilential canals and alleyways in darkness, might I dye my hair and paint my face, might I expire like a sitting duck in a deckchair on the Lido? The imagination reels. Sighing under a bridge is the least of the dangers I’d face.

Having followed Hepburn’s example in so many ways, from her forthright handshake to her flattened, nasalized vowels, I follow again now. I will wait.

Unless of course somebody wants to go with me.

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17 September 2007

If I Didn’t Do It

Author’s note: If I didn’t do it, this is what happened.

Out in Las Vegas, over at the Palace Station Hotel & Casino, this guy was selling sports memorabilia. Some of it used to belong to me: autographed items, old family photographs, including some that were taken by my late wife, God rest her soul; even the suit I wore the day I was acquitted of her murder. You gotta remember the good times. That’s what memorabilia is for. That, and making a potload of money.

Now, in the world of sports, memorabilia is like mercury: it slips through the cracks when you’re not looking. You get home and you open your gym bag, and pow — your cleats are gone. You say to your wife, “Where are my damn cleats, woman?” And she says, “Ouch! You never came home with them!” Then the next thing you know, somebody is displaying the same cleats in a museum, or offering them at auction for some goofy charity, or selling them on the Internet, with your name on ’em, and you never get a dime. That’s happened to me so many times, man. To be honest, I never did find out what happened to the jockstrap I used to wear in the Avis commercials. Or the black ski mask I didn’t wear, or the knife I didn’t carry on Bundy Drive.

Because other times you get home, and to be honest, somebody’s put stuff in your gym bag that wasn’t yours to begin with. This one time, it was a vial of my late wife’s DNA, sprinkled all over my socks, and some ugly-ass shoes that I wouldn’t ever wear and a pair of gloves that didn’t even fit. Go figure. Sometimes you even find Joe Montana’s cleats in your gym bag. Or autographed baseballs. You know, things that make you go, “Hmmm.”

The point is, if some huckster has got a boxload of your memorabilia in his hotel room, some people might have tried to get back that memorabilia. Even if it meant a creating a misunderstanding. Or a disturbance. Or tossing around a few threats. Or shouting, “This is mine! And this is mine!” Or maybe even going all the way and breaking into the hotel room with a few buddies, some of whom may have been carrying a few handguns. And some of whom may have accidentally picked up memorabilia belonging to other people and may have accidentally put it in my gym bag. The way people are always putting things in my gym bag.

But I want to tell you: I am not the kind of person who would do such things, nor even permit the circumstances to arise. To be honest, I don’t have a problem with my temper or violent outbursts that would’ve led me to get in trouble with the law several times already since my wife’s death at the (gloved) hands of Real Killers.

No, on Thursday, September 13, I wasn’t even in Las Vegas. All kinds of crazy stuff goes on in that town, and you know what they say: “What doesn’t go on in Vegas, doesn’t stay in Vegas.” I was in my humble two-room rented apartment in Los Angeles, next to the freeway.

The day began much like any other. Over breakfast, I got all the kids together from both my marriages, and we had a long family counseling session. We had a really meaningful talk about violent impulses, irrational anger, and negative attitudes toward women, and how these influences can be passed from one generation to another. It’s not easy to talk about these things. But to be honest, I want my kids — all my kids — to grow up well-adjusted, happy and proud. I’d do whatever it takes to give my kids that kind of a future.

Later that morning, I went looking for the real killers. Those fiends are still out there, hiding in some hole somewhere. But I’m going to find them and bring them out of that hole, and I’m looking every day, sometimes searching as many as 18 holes a day. Justice will be served.

In the afternoon, I attended a friend’s wedding. Although it’s bittersweet for me as a widower, I often find that the newlyweds — especially the brides — are really moved when they see me at the reception. My late wife put her finger on it, I think, when she said, “Seeing you there helps them understand what marriage is really like.”

(You can’t beat that! Am I right, guys?)

Some buddies of mine were at the reception, but I didn’t tell them about my pilfered memorabilia. To be honest, those guys can be real hotheads sometimes. It just made sense to walk away.

Somebody else's memorabilia...

When I got home, I called my broker, but the New York markets had already closed. A couple of my stocks are doing pretty well, and I wanted to raise money for the families of my late wife and of Ronald Goldman, the man whom Real Killers murdered on Bundy, all those years ago. So I told my broker to sell $400 thousand worth of stock, first thing on Friday morning, and to transfer the money to the families’ accounts as speedily as possible. It’s only a little, but it’s a step in the right direction. Honestly, it’s not as if there’s any court order, compelling me to do this. I just know in my bones that it’s the right thing to do.

Finally, I returned home, where I quietly read a book, as I often do. Reading improves the mind, calms the troubled spirit, and makes it incredibly difficult to break into a room at the Palace Station Hotel and wave a gun around. I mean, you try holding a book in one hand and waving a gun with the other. You just keep losing your place! Even when you’re not wearing gloves! Nothing’s more frustrating when you’re enjoying a really good novel. Why, you can’t even read a comic book with one hand and then sneak up behind a person and with your other hand slit his throat, the way I did in the pilot for that TV show about Frogmen, but never, ever in real life.

So that night, I read a few chapters and went to sleep. After all, I was tired from a long day. But, to be honest, I slept the sleep of the righteous, knowing that I’m not the kind of guy who’d punch a photographer, experience road rage, or race my boat over manatees, or run into a hotel room in a disturbing and violent manner and start taking memorabilia.

Yet somehow I find myself in a bit of a jam this morning. All because some fool who looks like me went and got himself audiotaped doing things I would never do, in a town I would never visit, while shouting, “Motherfucker!” Not that I would ever use that kind of language.

I sure wish Johnnie were here to give me a pep talk. (Although don’t forget, I was never charged, and only briefly questioned, in the circumstances leading to his death.)

Because it sure looks bad for me right now. A
s Johnnie might say, “If that’s you on the tape, you must escape.” And to be honest, maybe I did goad the police just a little teeny bit, by writing a book confessing to a crime for which I was acquitted. I guess anybody might jump to wild conclusions and arrest me on different charges the minute the book came out. But everything will turn out fine, especially for my book. And for those of the defense and prosecution teams, the jury, the judge, the detectives, several witnesses, and maybe a bailiff. As Johnnie used to say when he was director of marketing at Random House: “To make the sale, go straight to jail.”

On the other (ungloved) hand, I’m not worried. Very shortly, people will realize that the man in the audio recording isn’t me. It's probably one of those professional impressionists, maybe Rich Little. I’d start by asking him a few questions, if I were the cops. After all, he’s in Las Vegas all the time, isn’t he? But it could have been a lot of people. To be honest, it would be very helpful to me if you, as a nation, could rally once more to my defense, and help me start looking for the Fake O.J.

I want you to keep looking for the Real Killers, too. But also to look for the Fake O.J.

I know it’s a lot to ask, but listen, we’ve all got to multi-task in a tough economy. I’m going out to look for him right now. Did anybody see where I left the keys to the Bronco?

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13 September 2007

Craig’s Wife

Shhh, don't tell: Secrets of a successful marriage

Honestly, girls, it’s about time you stopped complaining about your husbands! I realize that I’ve got an ideal marriage, but Jiminy! If you’d just learn a few tricks from my man, you’d see how gay wedded life can be!

Some people might think it’s a trial, being married to such a big, strong, heterosexual he-man type fellow. Even I was a little put off when I first got a glimpse of his wide stance. But Larry is a dream. Some husbands may insist on a three-course meal at suppertime, but nothing sets Larry's mouth watering faster than a big juicy wiener on a steaming hot bun! You won't see me bending over the stove all afternoon long — not for my man!

And Larry really goes out of his way for me. Just look at the helpful hints he gives me every morning when I’m getting dressed! He picks out all my outfits and accessories, down to the shoes. And if you think he’s a treasure in the closet, why, you should just see him elsewhere around the house!

Sometimes he helps with the laundry. Small loads, he says, are best taken care of by hand, and he wants to spare me the bother. Isn’t he the sweetest? He’s a wonder with the Hoover, too, and nothing can stop him from sucking up all kinds of scum.

But Larry really knows his way around the bathroom. How often I find him down on his knees, making sure everything is spick and span! Even the rim just sparkles — in every john! (Pardon my French.) And it’s not only our bathroom that he takes care of — Larry is such a good citizen that he takes care of public restrooms, too. You may think that your husband would never do such a thing, but Larry assures me that he has no trouble finding other men who like to give the old joint a good spit polish. Quicker than you can tap your toe, the job is done!

Even the closest couples need a little time to themselves; that’s why Larry thinks it’s important to take separate vacations from time to time, every few weeks. Why, he’s a one-man cruising industry! That’s a challenge, when you live in a land-locked state like Idaho, but he’s always popping off to the airport.

No need to bake, girls: Tell your man to go out
and pick up his own muffins!

Just to be sure he doesn't get lonely on his travels, sometimes Larry brings along his good friend, Pastor Haggard. Together, they've been to so many exotic places: Palm Springs, Miami, Ibiza, San Francisco, Fire Island, Brazil, camping trips to Wyoming.... I'd love to come, too, but you know how it is! There's just so much to do around the house. I wouldn't mind if they brought back a few pictures, but somehow they always forget the camera. I shouldn't complain — sometimes they even forget to pack a change of clothing!

Now, some wives might get jealous, thinking about all the exotic women their husbands must encounter, but I don't worry. Pastor Haggard is a man of the cloth, after all, and I know Larry is in good hands. He'll stick to the straight and narrow.

Of course, every couple has its worries, and we have ours. To put it plainly, Larry is just so gosh-darned attractive that other men are constantly propositioning him. Everybody knows that Larry’s not gay, and he’ll be the first one to tell you so. But even so, he practically has to beat them off with his stick before they’ll believe him: he’s really not gay. Larry even hires male prostitutes, hoping they’ll spread it around the rest of the gay community. That’s expensive, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Right, girls? Eventually, maybe those gays will get the message, and leave poor Larry alone.

Sometimes I feel sorry for all you girls, because I know your marriages aren’t as successful as mine. But the ones I really feel sorry for are those gay people. They’ll never understand that the only true happiness is the one between a husband and a wife, just as God and the Constitution intended. Didn't you folks learn anything from that cowboy movie last year? They didn't win the best-picture Oscar, and neither will you — so get with the program — my way

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12 September 2007

Gabriel Bacquier

At play in the fields of the Lord: Bacquier in Canari
Photo by Rita Scaglia, 2006.
Used with permission

At 84, Gabriel Bacquier, the veteran French baritone, may be the world’s oldest 14-year-old. It’s impossible to convey in mere words the force of his vitality, his naughty sense of humor, his roguish charm, the sheer fun of him, all the more startling when coupled with the exquisite taste and exacting standards of one of the world’s great singers. Yet I’ve tried to describe him, notably in an article for Opera News that appeared in July of this year. (That article appears in a subscriber-only portion of the magazine’s website, so I can’t provide a link.) Meeting him again at the Festival du Chant Lyrique du Cap Corse, one year after our first encounter, I am more than ever smitten with him — casting aside Dan Rather’s oft-repeated warning that a journalist should never fall in love with a story. But I neither apologize for nor regret my surrender. A combination of Falstaff and Father Christmas, he is quite simply irresistible.

The Festival alternates between a series of master classes one year and a vocal competition the next. The master classes found Bacquier at his exuberant best, in full command not only of his own vast repertoire but everyone else’s too. He knew all the lyrics by heart, and he seldom checked a single note in the score: on those rare occasions, his recollection was proven invariably correct. Very often he’d demonstrate bits of musical or theatrical interpretation, even of roles he never played. Although he insists he’s retired, I’d hire him in a minute for Leporello — or Pinkerton, or (most especially) Despina. His patience with even the least promising singers was boundless, and, as I wrote in my article, he engaged constantly with the audience. Between numbers, he regaled us with anecdotes and bawdy cabaret numbers, the best of which was a meditation on the differing qualities of his mistresses’ pubic hair.

Many retired singers live like Miss Havisham, obsessed with the past, pouncing on visitors to relive dusty triumphs. Their conversation, like their memoirs, takes on a “And then I sang” quality that, so far from justifying our interest in them, seems desperate and sad. “Don’t forget me” is the subtext. There’s none of that with Bacquier. He’s thrilled to have an audience — even nominal retirement can’t change the spots of this theater animal — but it’s not about gratifying his own needs. Entertaining is something Bacquier does for us, not for himself, and he lives entirely in the present. He’s abetted in this by his wife, the soprano and teacher Michèle Command, and by his zesty appetite for life: art, music, food, wine, conversation, flirting with pretty women.

Egalement irrésistible: Michèle Command

The competition obliged Bacquier to take a more sedate role, presiding over the jury at a long table. Even so, he pulled singers aside to coach them. This isn’t kosher at most competitions, because it makes objective judging all the more difficult, as Mme Command tartly observed. But “c’est plus fort que moi,” Bacquier told me.

He pronounced himself pleased with my article, and he repeated that “The Americans must have loved reading it,” because “there was so much sentimental stuff.” I take it that a French writer would not have discussed his affair with Mme Command and its effect on his career, bringing him back to France at the moment his managers wanted to make a worldwide star of him, a French Pavarotti. But all I did was repeat the story he told me, and I wonder how anybody could have done it differently. The French, they are a funny race of music writers, but surely they know a good story when they hear it.

He recorded extensively, and he sings on several of the first albums I ever owned. Most of these are on vinyl, and in storage in Connecticut, so I seized the opportunity to buy a few CDs here in France and acquaint myself further with his work. What’s most striking is the naturalness of his delivery, as if he were speaking a role in the theater. He studied acting under the great Louis Jouvet (“Bizarre, bizarre”) at the Conservatoire de Paris. (Jouvet never took him seriously, because he was a voice student, Bacquier recalls, and he used to drive the singers crazy by pretending to pick his nose, then wiping his finger on the piano keyboard. It's not hard to imagine Bacquier doing the same.) But he says the breakthrough in his interpretation came with two operatic roles, Don Giovanni and Golaud in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. He realized that the real meat of the music lay not in big arias — Giovanni has only a couple, Golaud none — but in Mozart’s recitative and Debussy’s quasi-parlando ruminations. The next discovery was that every role, in every opera, and every French mélodie contained comparable material.

Thus even when he’s singing a big aria, when he’s hitting a money note or executing some elaborate phrase, you hardly notice, so caught up are you in the detailed psychological portrait he draws. No matter how booming the passage, there’s an interior stillness in his voice. His respect for text illuminates every note, and he insists that it’s easier to hit a note if you pronounce the text properly. “The composers knew what they were doing,” he told me, “and they wouldn’t have written the same music to different words. They chose these texts to express their musical ideas.”

I regret that the only role I ever saw him play was Don Pasquale, because his Giovanni, his Leporello, his Golaud and his Falstaff, his Iago and his Scarpia must have been astonishing onstage. (Bits of his Count Almaviva and his Spalanzani show up on YouTube.) His repertory was so vast, from Mozart to Mussorgsky to Charles Trenet, that you’d have to staple yourself to him to see Bacquier in all his facets. But they’re all still with him, not dusty souvenirs but living aspects of his personality. Much of the pleasure of meeting him is like the pleasure of meeting Anna Russell: the artist I admired in my boyhood is still very much present and active.

Though he was born in Béziers and lives near Paris, Corsica seems like the right place for him, and the island’s raw beauty, its extravagant colors, vertiginous contours and bracing air find their match in him.

When Gaby met Billy: Reunited in Corsica

He has begun to call me Billy. In my life, only two other people have gotten away with that. The first was my aunt, Kay Crabb, who died in a plane crash when I was 16, and the nickname pretty much died with her. But once Fredd Tree, like the Mikado, has made up his mind to do a thing, it is done, and he calls me Billy, too. So it’s a select group, the Billy Trio, three people as different from one another as possible in every respect except my affection for them. I daresay they are unaware of one another’s existence, and they wouldn’t quite know what to make of one another if they ever met. Yet they might be pleased by the company, after all, and I have been uplifted by theirs.

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L’Shanah Tovah

For the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Jon Feldstein and I decided to make the day an annual celebration of our friendship — that is, to find something positive amid the rage and sorrow that still grip us. On the morning of the attacks, I saw the World Trade Center in flames but didn’t know what had happened, so I continued on my way to work. Feldstein and I telephoned each other several times, until phone service was cut off and my office at Opera News was evacuated. I had nowhere to go, and little way to get there: the subways were shut down, and bridges to Brooklyn, where I lived at the time, were closed. But I knew that if I made my way to Feldstein’s neighborhood, in the West Village, I’d find him somehow, and I did.

I walked downtown, against the flow of pedestrians and thinking, inevitably, of Scarlett’s return to Pittypat’s house when all the rest of Atlanta is fleeing Sherman. And thinking, too, that the last time America was attacked this way, we did it to each other. Now we didn’t know whom to blame, although a few people tried to find some scapegoat: I heard a white man shouting at a Sikh taxi driver, “Go back where you came from!” After that outburst, though, the long avenue of Broadway was almost completely silent. Nobody spoke, and there were only rarely any motor vehicles passing by: ambulances and police cars. People clustered around parked taxicabs, where drivers cranked up the radio and New Yorkers listened to the news. From time to time, a military jet passed overhead. As I made my way farther south, I began to encounter people fleeing Ground Zero. They were covered in white dust.

When I got to Greenwich Village, Feldstein hadn’t gotten home yet. I left a note at his apartment, then waited at Julius’, a bar that, by night, draws an elderly gay crowd (Tree calls the place “God’s waiting room”) and, like egrets to the elephants, young hustlers. But by day, the place isn’t very gay, in any sense of the word: just another neighborhood bar, where hardcore barflies shoot the breeze and knock back liquor in the dark, cool quiet.

That day, Julius’ was like Cheers on methadone: everybody knew your name, but nobody could remember it. We were in any case distracted by the television over the bar, where ABC News was playing. It was the first view I had of the pictures of the fall of the World Trade Center, and I heard myself cry out. I ordered another beer. Over time, the wound of 9/11 has not healed for me so much as been covered over, as if a metal plate has been riveted over a hole in my head. But I still can’t look at those pictures, moving or still.

Beside me, a scruffy barfly was drinking substantial quantities of vodka and repeating, to nobody in particular, “I saw it, man. I fucking saw it. I saw it.” I tried to get him to tell me more, but his shock was too great. Vodka was the only answer.

At last Feldstein found me, and through that long day and those that followed, we kept each other company. Late in the evening of 9/11, I was able to ride the subway back to Williamsburg, and the next day Feldstein met me there. The wind had changed, and in my apartment you could smell the smoke from Ground Zero. We went to an air-conditioned bar, where the smell was not so bad. We drank a great deal of beer. We didn’t talk much. But we got through it.

That is what I try to focus on when I remember that day. I was lucky: evil might attack, but I still had a friend.

I was lucky in other ways, too. I didn’t know anyone killed in the attack, and my cousin Nicole, who was working at the Pentagon that day, was spared. From San Francisco, my brother valiantly contacted anyone and everyone to tell them I was safe. Bernard, still in France at the tail end of a vacation from which I had returned only the day before, was panic-stricken, unable to think of a reason I might be on Wall Street but unable to rest until he got the news. My parents, on vacation in Budapest, remained strangely untroubled, and didn’t try to phone me until two weeks later.

But it’s hard — for them, for me, for anybody — to make much sense out of 9/11. It is unthinkable, unimaginable, ungraspable. In those first days, I wanted answers and leadership, and the mere fact of Mayor Giuliani’s saying “I don’t know” seemed like both. If I’ve had trouble drawing conclusions and learning lessons in the aftermath of 9/11, so has the government.

Some kind of strike against Al Qaeda seemed reasonable, necessary and urgent, but in time the war in Afghanistan was pushed aside by the war in Iraq, Osama bin Laden went unpunished, and the men and women in charge of the country came to seem like a Taliban unto themselves, irrational and implacable. From torture to secret prisons, from the destruction of legal institutions to attacks on civilians at home and abroad, the tools of terror are now wielded by the administration. Too often, my resentment toward bin Laden has been overshadowed by resentment of George Bush.

That feeling was exacerbated by Washington’s curious memorial service yesterday, the testimony of David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker on the “success” of what the White House calls a surge in Iraq. I’ve seen how this war has compromised the minds of many: Condoleezza Rice is perhaps the most brilliant woman I’ve ever met, whose intelligence is almost palpable as you shake her hand, but I suspect the average barnyard chicken could do a better and more honest job in government nowadays. And Petraeus and Crocker, to say nothing of the Congress, seem to be succumbing, with varying degrees of resistance and resignation, to the same warping spirit. Yet even Petraeus doesn’t try to say that America is safer now because we are fighting in Iraq. He is applauded when he calls for a gradual, partial withdrawal — though it was planned from the beginning, and though it will leave us with precisely as many soldiers in Iraq as were there in the fall of 2006, when the voters expressed their dissatisfaction with the war.

But Bush is persuaded of the rightness of his cause and dismissive of the will of the people. He still spouts his spurious justifications, flimsy arguments and ludicrous historical analogies. He still claims that his war in Iraq has something to do with fighting terrorism, against all available evidence; and as thousands of Iraqis die and millions take flight, he still insists they’re better off now than they were four years ago. In an administration where the vice-president can claim every executive privilege while insisting his office isn’t part of the executive branch, these pronouncements may seem reasonable by contrast. Yet listening to them, I’ve begun to feel nostalgic for the usual stance of his father’s administration: “We’re the government, and we say so — that’s why.” Better not to fudge an excuse if you haven’t got one.

In his more candid moments, the younger Bush has admitted he’s playing for time — he even uses that word, “playing,” while men and women and children are dying in the dust. It’s become clear that he intends to persist according to his lifelong pattern: you get a post because of your father’s connections, you make a colossal mess of it, and you leave it to someone else to clean up. He’s done this at every stage of his career, and the American people knew it when they voted for him. Angry as I am at Bush, I realize that America has no one to blame but herself. That’s one reason I left the country after Bush’s election, in 2004.

Before 9/11, I thought I’d live in New York the rest of my life, and the dream of living in France was just that — merely a dream. In my heart, I’m still a New Yorker, yet somehow it no longer mattered whether I lived there. But shouldn’t the experience have taught me — taught America — taught George Bush — something more?

We’ve come a long way since 9/11, mostly in the wrong direction. But there’s always hope for better times, and I’m comforted to see that the Jewish new year begins tonight — just when I need it most.

For some of us, there will be a day of atonement, too.

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10 September 2007

Roadkill, or Sick Transit

Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, we hardly knew ye!

Growing up in Texas, one becomes accustomed to seeing all sorts of critters dead on the highway: skunks, armadillos, possums, snakes, cats and dogs, slow-moving Democrats — you name it. But this afternoon in Beynes, I happened across a new kind of roadkill, right in front of my house.

Not knowing what else to do with a dead hedgehog, I took its picture, and as an honest disciple of Emile Zola and his literary naturalism, I present you with this image of life as it is in contemporary France.

Now I know what's been digging holes in my garden. (And aren't you glad I've got this spiffy new camera?)

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07 September 2007

Luciano Pavarotti

As Mario Cavaradossi, in Puccini's Tosca

I am not a crook. In my life thus far, I have stolen only two things. The first was three quarters of a link of chain, which I found on the floor of a hardware store. I picked up that morsel and put it in my pocket, with the idea that it might be useful in one of my arts-and-crafts projects: it was, needless to say, of no possible use to anyone else. Nevertheless, my mother gave me hell for taking it. I was about ten. A mere eight years later, I stole again: a ticket stub to a performance of Puccini’s Tosca, by the Metropolitan Opera on tour in Dallas.

The stars were Magda Olivero, the Italian soprano making an extremely belated Met debut (she was in her late sixties at the time); and Luciano Pavarotti. It was, not surprisingly, impossible to buy tickets, once the season subscribers had their fill, since the tour repertoire also included Beverly Sills’ Dallas farewell (as Norina, in Don Pasquale), and a Wagner opera, especially rare in that part of the country. (The Dallas Civic Opera had only recently presented its first Wagner opus, Tristan und Isolde, with Jon Vickers and Roberta Knie.) It was in truth the Wagner that put me off of buying a season subscription; to this day, those Teutonic bombasterpieces hold but little appeal for me. My friend Ben Schroth, the only other kid in my high school who liked opera, was a serious Wagner buff, yet we addressed my Italianate tastes, not his Germanic, by going to the Music Hall at Fair Park on opening night and listening to Don Pasquale while we sat in the lobby, then getting Sills’ autograph at the stage door afterwards. We got our picture in the paper as a reward: in the photograph, we’re blocking the camera’s view of Francis Robinson, the tour director, while Sills signs other people’s programs.

The next night, we were prepared. We sat in the lobby for the first act of Tosca, when we noticed that no one was guarding the bins into which ushers had thrown the torn halves of paid tickets. At the end of the first intermission, I deftly fished out two ticket stubs, showed them to the ushers, and Ben and I were admitted into the hall. Scrupulously honest even in our criminality, we didn’t even try to take unoccupied seats, if there were any. We sat on the floor to watch.

Although a sound recording of that performance exists (and is commercially available here in Europe), I’ve often regretted not taking notes — to say nothing of a video recording — of Olivero at work. Even at the time, only a few years into my operamania, I knew she was a practitioner of a lost art, the last vestige of a different era. Her acting was vivid but highly stylized, as if she were in a silent film, always conscious of the pictorial line of her body. This made sense, in context, since Tosca was created onstage by Sarah Bernhardt, whose own pictorial line was one of the principal inspirations of Art Nouveau; besides, Floria Tosca is an opera singer in an extreme situation, and you don’t expect her to behave like your next-door neighbor taking out the garbage.

Pavarotti was in a class by himself. His superstardom had only just begun; he was still “merely” an opera singer. His high notes still rang out with reckless ease, especially when, in Act II, he cried, “Vittoria! Vittoria!” and all of Fair Park held its collective breath. In later years, it became increasingly difficult to remember why we were so excited by him in the first place: his voice lost its lustre as he squandered his gifts in stadiums and idiotic television shows, and he became a pre-processed package, “Giorgio” with an exclamation point, a newspaper headline, a magazine cover, a Three Tenor who sang “Nessun dorma” whether you wanted him to or not. In 1979, he was still in his prime, and there was nobody to touch him.

Yet what I remember most clearly is not the sound of his voice but a gesture. He was never a subtle actor, but in Act III, as he awaited execution, he turned upstage to the painted backdrop that depicted the city of Rome. He outstretched his arms, then seemed to embrace all of Rome, and all of life. It was a stunt, of sorts, meant to prolong the applause that greeted his account of “E luccevan le stelle,” yet it was also very much in character: he had just told us that “Never have I loved life so much.”

After the performance, Ben and I returned to the stage door. Olivero had sung several times in Dallas, with the Civic Opera, but it was clear she was delighted to be singing now with the Met, and you could hardly stop her from giving you autographs and photos: I daresay if I’d asked for a lock of her hair or the keys to her house, she’d have given them to me. Her wreath was crowded with laurels long since; the last of the great (or even tolerable) verismo composers had written operas just for her, and she was written up already in all the history books. But her Met performances were a surprise, and even if she’d anticipated them, her success in them was unanticipated, unimaginable. Her delight was infectious.

Pavarotti arrived a few minutes later. He was bundled up against the cold, although it was a warm night in May in Dallas, and he’d wrapped a muffler around his neck and most of his face. He looked ready for a bank hold-up. Hard to believe nowadays, but Olivero counted more admirers than Pavarotti that night. I gave him my program to sign, then thanked him in Italian. “Grazie,” said I, and his eyes widened, caught off-guard by the sound of his native language in North Texas. “Prego,” he replied, through eight layers of muffler.

That was our only meeting. I didn’t tell him I’d heard his performance illegally, but I think he’d have understood and forgiven me. You listen to him singing Rodolfo, the young poet in La Bohème, and his identification with the youthful, rebellious artist is so complete that you know he’d identify with an impoverished student who bent the rules to hear him. I’ve never heard anyone to rival him for the effortlessness, the freedom of his high notes or the verve of his characterization. The fact that he hardly read music only made his interpretation of Rodolfo (and several other roles besides) seem more authentic: this was not something he’d studied but a force of nature he had liberated.

Listen to him sing “Che gelida manina,” Rodolfo’s big aria, and you’ll hear what I mean. The song starts out as a pick-up line, one Rodolfo has probably used many times, but his conviction grows by the stanza. “In my poverty, I’m wealthy as a lord,” he tells the girl he’s just met; “yet all that I have has just been stolen by the jewels in your eyes.” As he continues, “Ma questo non m’accora” — but that doesn’t matter to me — his voice cracks, and you realize that he realizes that this girl is the love of his life. He concludes in a tender whisper: “Now that you know something about me, tell me about yourself.”

He kept singing long after he should have kept quiet, and it became difficult for me to sit through his later performances. I walked out of an Aida in New York, because it was painful to hear him massacre the music. He alternately cheated and squawked high notes that used to flow as freely as wine. Coupled with his circus sideshow celebrity, his diminished vocal ability made him worse than a caricature of his former self: he was a traitor, an assassin, murdering the artistry I’d loved.

And his voice wasn’t all that suffered. His weight and his knees had a contentious relationship: the more famous, the fatter he got, and the more stress he put on his knees, and the more difficult it became to exercise, and so he got fatter still. In Turandot, when he was supposed to bang a gong, dancers had to do the job for him. When he sang Pagliacci with Teresa Stratas, he was no longer able to chase her around the stage or even to lunge at her with his knife in the last scene: instead, she ran a figure eight around the Met stage before returning to him and falling on his blade. Watch the video and you’ll see.

I joked that, after singing Pagliacci for so many years, Teresa had gleaned the insight that her character was suicidal, but neither of us laughed much. We remembered Pavarotti as he used to be, so unlike the creature he had become.

No artist lives in amber: one way or another, Pavarotti would have changed over time, no matter what I thought or what he did. If his mega-celebrity brought newcomers to the opera house, or kept his new wife happy, so be it. But it’s for those first twenty years of his career — and not the last twenty — that I continue to say, “Grazie.”

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05 September 2007

Holiday Snaps

Joshua White contemplates the air-speed velocity
of an unladen European swallow

My friends Kara and Konrad gave me a digital camera last spring, and as will become immediately apparent, I have a great deal yet to learn about its applications. For instance, although this image (like those that follow) is properly oriented when I open the file on my laptop, it falls on its side when I transfer it to the blog. Eventually, I will figure out how to correct this anomaly, but in the meantime there is no reason to deny you the pleasures of my roving photographic eye. In order to view the images, simply turn your computer on its side.

I depart this afternoon for Corsica, the wild beauty of which will doubtless inspire me to take a few more pictures. Moreover, I'll be attending the Festival du Chant Lyrique de Cap Corse, presided over by the irrepressible Jacques Scaglia, with the great French baritone and bon vivant Gabriel Bacquier and his wife, soprano and teacher Michèle Command, in attendance. Ya gotta get a picture of that, right? Mercifully, my hosts in Corsica, Jacques' daughter Rita and her husband, Pascal, are both professional photographers. Presumably they can give me a few pointers.

Failing that, I simply won't try to take any vertical pictures: everything will be horizontal.

Freemasonry opens doors: At a shop in Great Queen Street,
Joshua examines mystic accoutrements

Why can't the English teach their children? Joshua White has every reason to know the Monty Python canon by heart — yet he can't quote a single sketch. Not even the Dead Parrot. Nevertheless, I asked him to pose for a few Python-inspired pictures while I was in London last month, in honor (or honour) of our absent friend, Jon Feldstein.

Carlene Klein Ginbsurg: L'âge ne peut la flétrir,
Ni l'habitude épuiser l'infinie variété de ses appas.

This picture, since it's not silly, is the one I regret. But if you do turn your computer on its side, you'll see the same radiant 24-year-old who taught me French, three decades ago. The caption quotes a certain Monsieur Shakespeare, a very minor French poet, describing la Reine Cléopâtre.

You think I'm a menace now, just wait until I start making movies.

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