30 September 2009

Field Guide: Anne Brochet & Michèle Laroque

Brochet, center, as Roxane in Cyrano
(That’s Jacques Weber on the right.)

It’s often remarked that, whereas American actors traditionally are caught in a tug-of-war between New York and Hollywood, British actors profit from the concentration of theater, film, and television production in London. French actors may enjoy a similar centrality in Paris, but truth be told, the vast majority of stage productions in the capital are cheesy, smirking boulevard comedies that not even stellar performers can uplift. (That’s why I seldom go to the theater here.) Still, one regularly finds top-name movie stars on Parisian stages, and two delightful leading ladies are now treading the boards.

Both Anne Brochet and Michèle Laroque came to my attention in the 1990s with brilliant performances in a handful of films — and both have slipped off my cinematic radar in the years since, though they continue to work frequently. In both cases, the initial impressions were so strongly favorable that I look forward to seeing them again, but I’m waiting to see them in the right vehicle.

Brochet, as Madeleine de Sainte-Colombe

Anne Brochet is stepping into the role of Tracy Lord in Philip Barry’s Vie Privée at the Théâtre Antoine. Perhaps to avoid comparison to Katharine Hepburn, the play is not being performed under the title for which the movie The Philadelphia Story is known here (Indiscrétions). There’s no point promising a Hepburn impersonation when the leading lady isn’t going to deliver one: though Brochet is awfully good at projecting an eccentric, nervous intelligence, it’s quite unlike Hepburn’s, and she doesn’t possess anything resembling Hepburn’s rangy, athletic grace.

No matter. Brochet’s own assets are more than enough, as she proved in Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) and Tous les matins du monde (1991). The films are costume dramas, both set in 17th-century France, yet Brochet’s roles are wildly different.

In Cyrano, she’s Roxane, a lady of the court so gorgeously dressed that we may be excused for failing at first to understand that, of all the characters in this story, she has the strongest innate ability to perceive what lies beneath the surface. Everybody else is obsessed with appearances, but it takes a mind as nimble as Cyrano’s to dupe Roxane, and that’s Brochet’s triumph. She peels away layers before we know they exist.

The confrontation: “Père, je l’aime!”
With Depardieu and Marielle, from Tous les matins

In Tous les matins, she eschews all that glamorous artifice to play Madeleine, daughter of one composer (Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, played by Jean-Pierre Marielle) and lover of another (Marin Marais, played by Guillaume Depardieu, in his first leading role).

Here, the austerity of Brochet’s appearance contrasts with that of the young Depardieu: when Marais returns from the court of Louis XIV, it’s he — not she — who’s powdered, rouged, and bewigged. And the stillness of her performance makes the force of Madeleine’s emotion all the more startling. When she blurts out, “Père, je l’aime,” it’s as if the earth has split in two. Though she was only 25 when the movie was made, she delivers a performance of exquisite sensitivity and control.

Laroque, with Patrick Timsit, in Pédale Douce

Michèle Laroque appeared in a batch of gay-themed movies in the 1990s, including the international smash hits Pédale Douce and Le Placard. Though her characters weren’t terribly sympathetic, Laroque won hordes of gay fans, by whom she was a little nonplussed. When my brother met her at a film festival, he reported that she seemed really to have no idea what she’d done to deserve all the fuss.

The answer, I suspect, can be found in her performance as Hanna, the mother of a seven-year-old boy with a passion for dolls and dressing as a girl, in Ma vie en rose (1997). Hanna is at first bewildered, then angered by Ludovic’s behavior: it flies in the face of convention and it’s made the family something of a neighborhood spectacle, at exactly the moment when her bourgeois aspirations have reached a fever pitch. Her long path toward acceptance of her child is by turns funny, terrifying, and heartbreaking, and Laroque serves up a tour de force.

Perhaps only someone with Laroque’s checkered résumé could have pulled off such a part: she’s acted in everything from sketch comedy to police drama, and she writes and produces, too.* Laroque is currently starring in a comedy, Mon brilliantissime divorce, at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. Her website is skimpy on features and mostly under construction, but it can be found here.

*NOTE: Though you may not find this terribly pertinent, my mother will want to know that Michèle Laroque studied English at The University of Texas at Austin.

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29 September 2009

Progress Report 6: Madeline Kahn

Though this is not really a report on my progress in writing her authorized biography, I note that today marks Madeline Kahn’s 67th birthday. How young she would have been, if she were still among us! It’s a reminder that she managed to create an admirable body of work in a relatively short time, and to make a lasting impression on us.

Please join me in celebrating her memory today — perhaps in a chorus of “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life.”

And a reminder: if you’d like to help in the fight against ovarian cancer — the disease that cut short the sweet mystery of Madeline’s life — you can make a donation to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. Thanks.

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24 September 2009


Bogosse nec plus ultra,
le dauphin de tous les minets

If brevity is indeed the soul of wit, then the life and career of Filip Nikolic constitute a work of genius. The former standout of 2Be3, France’s most successful boy band, was barely 35 years old when he died 16 September of a heart attack, definitively answering the question, “Where Are They Now?”

It turns out he’d been acting on a TV police drama, in plain view for several years, and preparing a solo comeback in music. Yet he’d nevertheless slipped into such obscurity that the newspaper Libération purposely misspelled his name as “Philippe” throughout his obituary. The point, I guess, was to signify the dim recollection most readers would have of a man who was once — for about 15 minutes — one of the country’s biggest pop stars. Très amusant, non? (And I’ll bet his family loved reading it.)

How fleeting is fame! And beauty! And life.

You may not have been aware of the international arms race in boy bands, but it’s a matter of historical record: in the 1990s, 2Be3 was France’s leading answer to the dominant American and British groups.* French producers sought to surge ahead of the competition by casting adults (all three “boys” were in their 20s), instead of assembling young teens and building them up over time, according to the standard practice. In a sense, this put a time limit on the experiment: if 2Be3 didn’t catch on fast, the boys band would be old men.

Yet success was almost instantaneous. Within a year of the band’s launching, in 1996, their likenesses were enshrined in the Grevin wax museum, a certain indicator of French celebrity. 2Be3’s first and second albums sold so well that the boys took a long hiatus in the United States, to perfect their English and to cultivate their ultimate ambition: to work with Madonna. However, few people, least of all Madge, noticed the results (“Excuse My French”), and the group broke up. French women and gay men may now remember 2Be3 only mistily and with slight embarrassment, as early crushes, the stuff of adolescent dreams, before taste and experience were acquired.

Filip and his bandmates, Adel Kachermi and Frank Delay, had known each other since junior-high school (unlike most boy bands, who meet first in a producer’s casting call). Apart from that friendship, however, they could hardly have seemed more artificial: ethnically mixed as if to the specifications of a marketing survey**, chiseled and buffed to improbable radiance.

There was absolutely nothing homoerotic about 2Be3.
I have no idea why you would think a thing like that.

It was difficult to discern their actual talents. Their voices were so synthesized and homogenized that they could have come from anywhere. If 2Be3 never endured nasty rumors or a Milli Vanilli scandal, that may be due only to the fact that the group disbanded in 2001, just as the French really latched onto the Internet.

They surely were no actors, as they demonstrated on their weekly sitcom, which made Saved by the Bell look like the Comédie Française, and which consisted primarily of excuses for the boys to parade shirtless or in their underwear while complaining about their girlfriends. The continual, contrived exposure of exquisite flesh led to a substantial gay following. When amateur photos of Filip naked in a backstage shower popped up in a magazine, and teenyboppers’ parents expressed shock and disappointment***, his gay fans only wondered what had taken so damned long. We’d been waiting.

As dancers, 2Be3 did display some genuine skill, and Filip’s training as a gymnast graced the act with impressive backflips and handstands. Yet this proficiency in choreography only led to further doubts about vocal ability. Since there was no way they could dance that way while singing, it stood to reason that they performed to pre-recorded tracks — and who could be sure who’d done the pre-recording? After all, singing acts with more distinctive voices usually hire other people to do the acrobatic dancing.

These things might have mattered more if the stakes had been higher. But the songs were dancy piffle, sugar-free bubblegum that won’t stick to your braces. (That said, their biggest hit, “Partir un jour,” has thumped through my head for days.) Nobody took 2Be3 very seriously, and when their flash-in-the-pan popularity began to fade, they discreetly (for the most part) stepped out of the spotlight and went to look for other work.

Filip himself always struck me as an amiable, unpretentious fellow, perhaps not the sharpest cheese in the larder but conscientious in his attempts to make the most of his limited assets. That his life has proved as brief as his success is sad indeed. And as this phase of my life in France draws to a close, his death reminds me that nothing lasts.

*NOTE: The name 2Be3 is weak wordplay, presumably signaling a desire for success in Britain and America: with a French accent, “to be three” sounds like “to be free.” “Pour être libre” became the group’s rallying cry and title of their sitcom, but non-fans derided them as “deux-beuh-trois.”

**NOTE: While all the boys were born in France, Filip’s family is of Serbian ancestry.

***NOTE: Apparently, other French pop stars shower fully clothed. Now you know.

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18 September 2009

New Yorkers to Be Assigned Nannies, Bloomberg Says

[FROM WIRE REPORTS] -- Hot on the heels of numerous measures to require New Yorkers to adopt healthier lifestyles and more civil behavior — while also aiming to boost the city’s beleaguered economy — Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced today that, beginning in January, each household will be assigned a live-in nanny.

“Our city’s Finest can’t be expected to police every single New Yorker who’s cigarette-smoking outdoors, eating fatty foods, jaywalking, driving while texting, and honking car horns,” Bloomberg told reporters. “Whereas a nanny can go even further than a police officer can in the pursuit of good health and civility. She’s literally on the beat 24 hours a day.”

Each nanny will be authorized by the city to fine her charges for existing and new infractions, ranging from excessive consumption of alcohol to the use of curse words and playing with one’s food. [See chart below.] Bloomberg anticipated that, during the months of the program’s inception, fines paid will largely cover the cost of nanny salaries.

The nannies, in turn, will pump money into the economy, Bloomberg said, with an expected boom in sales of hairnets, sensible shoes, and The New York Post, for example. “At least for the first several years,” Bloomberg said, “this program truly will pay for itself.

“Over time, however, as New Yorkers grow more accustomed to behaving like little ladies and gentlemen, our revenue will probably have to come from other sources,” Bloomberg conceded, suggesting that a recently proposed tax on use of city sidewalks by vendors, cyclists, motorists and pedestrians might provide significant additional funding.

“Or else I could just pay for the whole thing myself,” the Mayor concluded. “After all, I’m richer than God and I’m going to be Mayor forever.”

Exceeding Recommended Daily Allowance of Bread (1 slice): $150
Exceeding Recommended Daily Allowance of Beer (3.04 oz.): $500
Failure to Keep Eyes to Self in Elevator: $250
Failure to Turn Down that Racket: $500
Failure to Take Our Vitamins: $150
Failure to Sit Up Straight: $100
Failure to Wash Behind Ears: $100
I Don’t Think We Need the Binky Anymore, Do You?: $200
Failure to Remember the Magic Word: $250
Talking with Mouth Full: $300

Courtesy of New York City Mayor’s Office of Courtesy

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16 September 2009

Ask Emile Zola!

Got a problem? Renowned 19th-century French novelist, critic, political activist, and advice columnist Emile Zola answers all questions!

Dear Emile Zola,

I work in the accounting department of a small firm in the Midwest. My immediate supervisor is a very nice guy, but he wears an overwhelming amount of cheap aftershave every day. My colleagues and I get dizzy and nauseous every time he stops by our cubicle. How can we gently (he is our boss, after all!) suggest to him that, in this case, less would definitely be more?

Arrivederci Aroma?

Dear Aroma,

Your problem is surprisingly common — I hear from people in this situation quite often. Yet all you need do is to follow these few easy steps.

First, murder your supervisor. Either a stabbing in a deserted alley or an “accident” in a rowboat will do. After a decent interval (three or four days should suffice), you can take over his job, seduce and marry his widow, and move into his apartment. All your problems will be solved, unless of course you and your new wife eventually become so consumed with remorse and suspicion that you kill each other. Good luck!
Dear Emile Zola,

I’m in my early 20s and quite shy. I’ve met a much older man whom I find attractive, and I believe he may find me attractive, too. I can’t work up the nerve to ask him out, much less find a way to let him know that I’d really like for him to ask me. He’s extremely well-off, financially and socially, and I don’t want him to think I’m a gold-digger. What can I do?

Demure, Chaste and Pure

Dear Demure,

Try removing all your clothing, then his, and then ride him around the bedroom like a horsie. The rest will take care of itself!

Dear Emile Zola,

I just started my freshman year at a liberal arts college in the Northeast. Before I left for school, my stepmom gave me an old lamp for my dorm room. Naturally, during a party, one of my friends knocked over the lamp and broke it. Now it turns out the lamp was an antique with a lot of sentimental value: it’s been in my stepmom’s family for generations. I know I need to tell her the truth — but how to do it so she doesn’t freak out?

Stepson Steps Up

Dear Step,

Just sleep with her! Chances are, your dad won’t mind. (Hint: if she starts to lose interest, try dressing up as a girl, then sleeping with her some more.)

Dear Emile Zola,

Now that my business is taking off, my wife would like to see us take a more prominent role in our community. Trouble is, I’m not much of a joiner, and after a hard day at the office, I’d really prefer just to stay home. But she’s putting more and more pressure on me. What can I do?

Pillar of the Community

Dear Pill,

Your wife is right: why not take advantage of your position? And moving up the ladder is easy! At the next political demonstration in your town, try shooting and killing a nephew or young cousin. If your pastor is also a social-climber, your wife or daughter (or both!) should seduce him, effectively linking your fortunes to his. Finally, if you have any relatives who are eccentric or outspoken, make sure they’re institutionalized as soon as possible.

These may seem like small, almost effortless measures, yet they’re guaranteed to improve your status.

Dear Emile Zola,

My wife’s younger sister has come to live with us. She’s quite attractive, and I’ve begun to have sexual feelings for her. What should I do?


Dear Brother,

Rape her! If she resists, stab her in the thigh, then ask your wife to help you hold her down. Happy rutting! (Provided, of course, that rutting is in your nature.)

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12 September 2009

Larry Gelbart

The writer Larry Gelbart has died, at the age of 81. Though he was a close friend of my beloved Gilfords, I never met him — something I’ll always regret, because I admired his work tremendously. He’s best known for the TV series M*A*S*H, in which his delirious wordplay and unabashed liberal politics were given something extraordinarily like free rein in the confines of a weekly network sitcom. His many other successes include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first of his Gilford spectaculars: Jack was a notable guest star on M*A*S*H and a co-star of Gelbart’s Sly Fox (an adaptation of Jonson’s Volpone), and one of Madeline’s last films was Starring Pancho Villa as Himself.

This morning’s newspapers will remind you of some of his other hits, including the film Tootsie, Sid Caesar’s TV show, and the Broadway musical City of Angels. Yet the piece that represents him best, I think, is a lesser-known comedy, written in response to the Iran–Contra scandal and subsequent Congressional hearings: Mastergate. It’s here that one sees most clearly the element that’s always present (yet more usually soft-pedaled) in his work: rage.

Like many left-wing Americans, Gelbart had watched his television in astonishment as the Congressional circus bumbled through its investigation of one of the lowest points of the Reagan Administration: the exchange of arms for hostages in Iran (contrary to the President’s oft-stated refusal to bargain with terrorists) and the funding of Nicaraguan rebels (in contravention of the Boland Amendment). What may have dismayed Gelbart most was the abuse of the English language, twisting reality and perception to the point that a hotheaded lieutenant colonel could not merely defend his patently illegal actions — but successfully construe himself as an American hero. (And lest we forget, Oliver North was at one point touted as a presidential contender himself.)

Gelbart responded with Mastergate, a stage play that ran briefly on Broadway in 1989. Rather than limiting himself to a direct satire of Iran–Contra, Gelbart cut loose, inventing a scandal that resembles many others, under many administrations; hearings populated by characters who resemble simultaneously the denizens of Washington and Wonderland; and a dizzying array of logic-defying rhetorical tricks specific to those characters. The clip above gives you a taste; some clever soul has posted the entirety of the film adaptation on YouTube, so you can enjoy the whole thing, if you’re so inclined. (You may also want to consider paying for the privilege of enjoying the script of the play.)

Though Mastergate did nothing to change the political landscape of America (or even a tiny corner of Broadway), it’s exhilarating, perhaps even therapeutic to hear, and liberals must regret that Gelbart was no longer at the top of his game in this century, when the Bush Administration heaped so many abuses on the Constitution, on the world at large, and on the English language. And in an age when American preachers are publicly praying for the death of President Obama, we may recall Gelbart’s tart observation, four decades ago, that he was moving to London in order “to escape the freedom of religion in America.”

The raw anger that underlies that remark and that fuels Mastergate sets Gelbart apart from most other comedy writers in popular culture, and it’s present elsewhere in his work: we catch glimpses of it in the darker moods of Hawkeye Pierce, in his furious opposition to the waste of war, and in his recourse to wordplay and gags as his only weapons against the prevailing unreason of his time. We think of Alan Alda when we think of Hawkeye — but the character was first a vehicle for the voice of Larry Gelbart.

Alda was, however, the cuter one.

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10 September 2009

Wilsonian Democracy

Upholder of a Glorious Tradition

In the discussion of Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R–SC) outburst during President Obama’s address to Congress last night, many commentators have observed that such a display is unprecedented. On the contrary, however, the United States boasts a robust history of heckling of its President by a member of its Congress. Consider, for example, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I have recently come into possession of a transcript of that speech, including the various asides and commentary made at the time by one Rep. Josiah Wilson (D–OH). It’s remarkable that so few historians have seen fit to record Wilson’s heckling, much less President Lincoln’s ultimate rejoinder.

Fourscore and seven years ago

Hey, genius! Learn to count!

our fathers

Get that — he doesn’t know which one is his father!

brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived

Your momma’s a slut!

in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Shoot, this is boring! Sure wish they’d let me bring my gun in here!

Now we are engaged in a great civil war,

What plan? What bill?

testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived

[Mocking laughter]

and so dedicated, can long endure.

Change the channel! Will no one invent the television so that I might change the channel?

We are met on a great battlefield of that war.

Flanders! Flaaaaaaanders! Heh-heh. Made you look.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.

Death panel! Death panel! Death panel!

It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

This speech is longer than you are, Abie!

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate…

Is that an envelope, for mercy’s sake?

we cannot consecrate…we cannot hallow


…this ground.

Get out of the way, gay-boy, and let a real man do it!

The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.

Stupid loser can’t even add or detract!

The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,

Hey! I forgot it already!

but it can never forget what they did here.

Did what?

It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here

Hey, tall guy! How come you’re so tall?

to the unfinished work

Loser! Loooooser!

which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

Go back to Africa!

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…

Tax cuts! More tax cuts!

that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause

Who do you think you are — the President?

for which they gave the last full measure of devotion;


that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain;

Illinois sucks!

that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth

Sit down, already!

of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

You lie!

Yeah, I remember my first beer, too.

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06 September 2009

Reading Lessons

The New York Times last weekend ran a fascinating article on a new way to teach reading: let kids read whatever they like. The article concludes with the suggestion from a couple of experts that this is the only way to make lifelong readers of students, and with the horrifying image of a teacher’s packing up all those staples of middle-school reading – To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank, etc. – while her students curled up with Captain Underpants.

Cultural conservative (and writer) that I am, I bristled instantly. What a harebrained notion! Who the hell cares what kids want to read? The simple fact is they don't know how. Sure, Americans may have a basic grasp of reading, but when it comes to analyzing a text, understanding literary method, distilling complex meaning from a lengthy piece of prose, they need guidance. Over the generations, Americans have tended to kick the can, putting off for as long as possible this necessary instruction. This is why college graduates make up the vast majority of readers of literary fiction: because only in college, not in junior- or senior-high school, do we receive the instruction.

If we stop teaching To Kill a Mockingbird in favor of Captain Underpants, we’re only kicking the can even further: kids will arrive at college with even fewer basic tools, and it’s easy to extrapolate, then, that in due time only those with post-graduate educations will read serious books. Or, for that matter, news reports, government documents, or political analysis – the very stuff we need to be responsible citizens. (There’s a reason behind universal public education, and it’s a stronger, healthier society.) Generations of lifelong yet incompetent readers loom before us.

Yet, somewhat to my surprise, the more I thought about the Mahagonny approach to education (Read whatever you feel like!), the calmer I got.

To judge from the Times story, the humble book report has fallen by the wayside – and yet, in my boyhood classrooms, that’s how we used to get school credit by reading for pleasure. That’s how we used to construct arguments to persuade our classmates to read what we were reading. And it’s how our teachers used to get to know our personal tastes, so that they could recommend to us more challenging yet otherwise similar material. In sum, the book report is very much like the classroom method that’s now being championed as a new way to get kids to read more. And I happen to think it’s a terrific idea.

Where I get off the bandwagon is this notion that reading for pleasure should replace, rather than supplement, assigned reading – the shared experience of a class discovering one text under the teacher’s guidance. Back in the Dark Ages, when I went to school, we managed to embrace both methods. Granted, we weren’t prey to all these newfangled modern temptations, such as video games and the Internet. (It’s worth remembering, however that few of my classmates ever ran short of reasons to avoid picking up a book.) What in modern life – or modern teaching – has made it seemingly impossible to promote both the book report and assigned reading? Are teachers overtaxed by No Child Left Behind? Are kids no longer reachable? What went wrong here?

And soon, we’ll all wind up like the Eloi,
unable to read the crumbling books in our libraries,
and defenseless against the Morlocks.

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04 September 2009

Facebook Revisited

I have a confession to make: despite my longstanding, principled refusal to do so, I have signed up for Facebook. I’ve been there several months, in fact, and I don’t entirely regret it. With friends from Opera World, Facebook is an excellent way to maintain contact, when I’m unable to stake out the stage door. This is unexpected, but true. However, I’ve truly been forced to eat my words in the multiple cases of those people with whom I’d lost touch completely over the years.

In the weeks leading up to and since my thirtieth high-school reunion, I’ve rediscovered a number of people, without having to fly to Dallas. We don’t have much in common, necessarily, and yet we keep discovering that we’re not terribly different, either. One person’s experience corresponds to another’s; one person’s taste complements mine. One junior-high “frenemy” (long before the word was coined) has grown from chatterbox girl* to perfectly charming woman, as mad as I about music, whose life history post-Westwood not only touches me but also chimes in many ways with my own. Moreover, she’s got a really cool car, with a horn that doesn’t just honk, it moos.

Mooing Violations: The famous cow car

Especially in the case of people I knew in Texas, I’m conscious that, while it wasn’t a mistake to hurry out of the state at the first opportunity, I did leave much behind. “Only connect,” Forster urges us in Howards End, and Facebook turns out to be one way to connect, or to reconnect. Better than some, no worse than others.

I had pretty much forgotten I’d ever known Mary Peoples Winter; she attended a different high school, so we lost contact after junior high. She was, as you see, exceptionally pretty, and an artist. But I don’t know much more than that, because shortly after she and I “friended” each other on Facebook, Mary passed away suddenly, in the Pacific Northwest. She lived there with her husband, whom I have never met.

The randomness of life — so hard to ignore, so much of the time — hadn’t invaded my little corner of Facebook, prior to Mary’s death. Now I wonder what I missed. Everything, really. Mary had been to Venice, I see from one photograph; I’ve never been. She might have told me, from the perspective of a woman who cared about art, where to go and what to look at, what to study and what to pass up.

For all I know, her life may have been as frenetic as mine, or so quiet I might at first think it was dull. I daresay she could have corrected that mistake, if we’d ever had a chance to talk about it. I’d like to say Mary Peoples Winter was my friend, but I can’t. She was my “friend,” a Facebook term that is both a noun and a verb, yet means not quite enough.

So there is this to regret about Facebook: it is no substitute for knowing somebody. It’s a means of communication, and most of us use it for only the most superficial news and greetings; many of us stop commenting on each other’s activities, or reaching out in any way, after a few days. We accumulate “friends,” but not friends. Those are best cultivated — still — in other ways.

*NOTE: I was such a chatterbox myself, it’s a wonder I noticed that anybody else was talking in junior high.

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02 September 2009

ARC & Triomphes

Countertenor Costanzo

One of the loveliest things about going to hear music in live performance is the possibility of making a discovery – hearing for the first time an exciting young artist. The risk, however, is that your “discovery” will be fresh primarily to you, and not to everyone else, who will have “discovered” the singer for themselves, ages and ages ago.

Such, alas, is the case with Anthony Roth Costanzo, the countertenor whom I heard in the role of the Sorceress in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Glimmerglass this summer. Sure, I knew he’d won the Grand Finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions this year – and that he was the first countertenor ever to do so. But apart from that trifling, historic accolade (which, really, who would notice?), I was certain that Costanzo was my discovery.

Speight Jenkins, the director of Seattle Opera (and my role model), would be surprised to hear that. He engaged Costanzo for the company’s young-artist program a while ago, and gave Seattle abundant opportunity to hear that striking voice. During Costanzo’s time as a Princeton undergraduate, the administrators lavished on him every laurel except a dining club in his name. And Princeton is, as my brother likes to remind me, a pretty good little school. Even before his college years, Costanzo began racking up achievements and garnering favorable attention. I may be the last – the very, very last – to find out about him.

Consider, for example, the movie A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, a Merchant—Ivory picture from 1998, in which Costanzo plays the best friend of the heroine (Leelee Sobieski). In this scene, Costanzo regales her and their classmates with “Voi che sapete,” from The Marriage of Figaro. The dialogue in this clip is dubbed into German (vielen Dank, YouTube!), but the singing is pure Costanzo. Already, the kid was a scary phenomenon, and in case you’re wondering, yes, that is the legendary Jane Birkin as his mother, at the piano.

Nowadays he looks about the same, really: a little taller, and he knows how to shave. He doesn’t appear to have gained an ounce since the movie, though. (Did I mention that he’s a dancer, too?) His voice has matured wonderfully, with the same brightness and openness you hear in the clip, but greater strength and point.

Thus, I respectfully announce that Costanzo is now poised merely to be one of those singers – like my “discoveries” Joyce Castle and David Adam Moore, who were also at Glimmerglass this season – for whom I go out of my way. I’m looking forward to hearing Costanzo for the first time again, soon.

Seated, yet on the rise: Costanzo (center),
with Liza Forrester and Kathryn Guthrie at Glimmerglass

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