30 April 2010

Ben Heppner

Tonight at the Winspear Opera House, Dallas Opera will present the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, to a libretto by Gene Scheer, conducted by Patrick Summers and staged by Leonard Foglia. In the role of Captain Ahab — that notoriously obsessive, furiously vengeful icon of American literature, the prototypical boss from Hell — is one of the nicest guys in opera, Canadian tenor Ben Heppner.

From what I’ve seen, his behavior offstage doesn’t much resemble that of any of his best-known roles. That’s probably for the best. For example, he’s the last man you’d expect to badger a little old lady to death, as Gherman does in Queen of Spades.

As Otello: Doing stuff that Ben Heppner wouldn’t do.
Not that that helps Desdemona (Barbara Frittoli) much.

However, so long as Jake Heggie has done his job, this Captain Ahab won’t be watered down. Heppner, as much as any singer I’ve ever heard, taps into the transformative power of music, to such a degree that I come away from his performances with renewed respect for the art form. Hearing him as Walther in Die Meistersinger one afternoon, I marveled at the sweet lyricism he brought to the part, such that I hardly noticed the sheer power of his voice. Then I realized that, before my eyes, he’d turned into a younger, thinner, and (probably) blonder man, the kind of Aryan matinée idol Wagner must have hoped for. Heppner became the music.

Though I’ve met him only once, I learned a lot about him from that lone encounter. The occasion was a fancy dinner party in celebration of the tenth anniversary of his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, in a swanky Manhattan hotel. I was dispatched as a representative of Opera News, and I felt conspicuously out of place among the other guests, mostly recording executives, donors, or potential donors whom the Met’s then-general director, Joseph Volpe, vigorously courted all evening long.

It was my mission to convey the good wishes of the magazine, so I introduced myself to Heppner, and told him how much I’d enjoyed his performance in Meistersinger that afternoon. I added that he’d made the hours fly by, even though I was in standing room. (A corny remark, albeit 100 percent true.)

As Walther von Stolzing

“You stood through Meistersinger?” Heppner cried. “Good Lord, even I didn’t do that!”

And just like that, he put me at my ease. If in fact he wasn’t delighted to see me at the party, he gave out not a single clue. (Mr. Volpe, on the other hand, interrupted me in another conversation and promptly turned his back to me.)

Heppner must have been exhausted, I observed, though he didn’t show it; he replied that “exhilarated” was more like it. Maybe he was still drawing on the power of the music: Walther gets the girl and wins the prize, after all, while getting to sing some pretty thrilling material. Also, he said with a grin, he sometimes got to sit down during the performance.

The Met’s DVD was shot during the run of performances I heard.
Left to right: Karita Mattila, James Morris, and Heppner

Now Heppner was surrounded by people who were happy for him. Throughout the pre-dinner cocktail hour, he was laughing — and making others laugh, too.

I was seated at a table with people who were manifestly not potential Met donors, and who turned out to be terrifically interesting — because Ben Heppner felt strongly that any celebration of his anniversary ought to include the guy from the music staff who’d helped him to prepare Idomeneo, back in 1991, and the dresser who’d helped him into his costume on opening night.

As Idomeneo, fully prepared and fully dressed

Probably nobody would have noticed if these two had been omitted from the guest list, but Ben Heppner wanted them at his side. As he said at one point, “I’d never have made it through my debut without them; there wouldn’t be a tenth anniversary at all. This is their celebration, too.”

Not your stereotypical tenor attitude, is it? That night, he gave me cause to reflect upon the fact that, while Wagner may have skimped on the niceness among his Heldentenor roles, it’s a pretty darned heroic virtue, after all.

Teaming Ben Heppner with Jake Heggie makes sense, because Jake is also a disarmingly nice guy — and even more than I do, he loves singers. You can hear that in every note of his music. (Some of the pieces he’s written for Frederica von Stade make me feel as if I’m intruding on a private conversation between devoted friends — because in truth, I am.) In any case, Moby-Dick is sure to be special, and I’m sorry I can’t be in Dallas tonight to cheer them on.

Moby-Dick (World premiere)
April 30, May 2 (matinee), 5, 8, 13, 16 (matinee)

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29 April 2010

How to Have a Super Night at the Opera

Not all of these people are singing.

If you possess an interest in opera but lack the fundamental skills to sing in one, despair not. You can still take part — as a supernumerary. You’ll be rewarded with a greater appreciation of the world’s most complex and fascinating art form.

First, you must meet a few basic requirements. You should be graceful enough to cross the stage without tripping and knocking down the scenery. You should be able to follow directions, and to remember them, so that the soprano doesn’t have to interrupt her aria to tell you to cross left, not right. You should have sufficient spare time to attend rehearsals and all the scheduled performances. No excuses accepted: your daughter has waited 13 years for her bat mitzvah, and dammit, there’s no reason she can’t wait a few more days.

Above all, you should not expect a paycheck. American opera companies aren’t kidding when they declare they’re non-profit.

Amneris’ aerobics class

It’s helpful if you look presentable. Certain operas require a specific appearance: Aida, for example, requires crowds of bodybuilders, because archaeologists tell us that every man in Ancient Egypt worked out at Gold’s Gym six times a week. However, most operas require mainly that you fit into whatever costume they rented for you.

As it happens, I’ve never had any trouble buying off the rack. And so, in the fall of 1980, I answered a call for supers for a production of Puccini’s Tosca, presented by the late, lamented Providence Opera Theatre. My acting teacher, Jim Barnhill, heard that they needed people for the show, and Jim said he’d give us scene credit for participating. I didn’t need any extra inducement.

When I got to the theater with a couple of my classmates, I discovered that the leading lady was Clarice Carson, who’d sung my first Madame Butterfly, at Dallas Civic Opera a few years earlier. Her Scarpia was Lenus Carlson, the prototype of the modern-day barihunk, who sang Silvio in the first opera I ever saw, Pagliacci, also in Dallas. For about three days, all the girls in my sixth-grade class nurtured passionate crushes on him.

Lenus Carlson:
Rated “Cuter than Greg Brady”
by the girls of Bowie Elementary

Naturally, I shared this fascinating information with both the singers, half-expecting them to say, “And look how far you’ve come! Our humble performances launched your brilliant career, and now you’re starring in an opera with us!” (Their actual responses were more vague but impeccably polite.)

Of more immediate importance was the Cavaradossi, whom I’d never seen before. He was an Italian tenor in high-heeled boots and a bad hairpiece that were not part of his costume; I was told I would have to shoot him in the last act. As soon as I heard him sing, I banished any remorse I might have felt.

Indeed, it was all I could do to keep from executing him in the first act. Preferably sometime prior to “Recondita armonia.”

We supers got two costumes apiece: we were Swiss Guards in Act I, and soldiers in Act III. I had nothing to do in Act II, so I stood in the wings and watched Clarice Carson and Lenus Carlson tangle with each other. I realized that I was mouthing all the lyrics, of both roles: I’d listened to my old Callas–Gobbi recording so many times that I’d memorized the entire scene. Carlson caught me and asked if I were a singer; I assured him that if he’d ever heard me, he wouldn’t risk encouraging me now.

Thereupon, it’s entirely possible that Carlson replied that, since I wasn’t a singer, would I kindly knock off the two-bit ventriloquist act? Because it was distracting. However, this is the sort of petty detail that time clouds over in my memory.

I decided to create a back-story for each of my characters. In Act I, I was Riccardo, a simple country lad who had come to Rome and enlisted in the Swiss Guard.* I had a drinking problem, and my mistress was slowly poisoning me, little suspecting that I had gambled away my inheritance years ago, leaving my widowed mother to raise my brothers and sisters in Penury, near Umbria. I adored opera and had heard Floria Tosca sing many times, but I couldn’t betray my excitement when I saw her in the church, because my dedication to duty was absolute.

In Act III, I was Luigi, a simple country lad who had come to Rome and enlisted in the army. I collected stamps.

A Swiss Guard: For one night only,
I looked remarkably like this guy.

Then — suddenly — the opera was starting. Those brilliant, blaring chords came crashing out of the orchestra pit, and it was as if a runaway train were speeding straight at me. Yes, I’d listened to the recording eight million times and attended one performance of Tosca, but this was a completely different experience. It was huge. Even backstage, the sound was more tremendous than anything I’d ever heard — until I got onstage, when the sound was even more powerful. You haven’t lived until you’ve been inside the Te Deum.

I could understand how people get hooked on this: I sympathized with singers who sacrifice and struggle just for this sensation, this rush of the stage.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found any photos of Clarice Carson.
This is Magda Olivero, my first Tosca.

To paraphrase Mia Farrow, I kept thinking, “This isn’t a play; this is really happening.” I’d acted in lots of plays, and even a couple of musicals. This was different. There were so many people coordinating all their efforts. If any one of us screwed up — if I screwed up — the whole train could run off the tracks. And then what?

The pressure was getting to me. I tried to remember my blocking, which consisted primarily of being told not to walk as if I were doing the Graduation March. This proved more difficult than expected: the music was so stately, the rhythm so insistent.

The little Italian tenor was sweating already. All the singers were working hard, actually, though they were trying not to show it quite so much. I wondered how much preparation had gone into this single performance: years of study, weeks of coaching, hours of rehearsal. But only one chance to get it right.

Mercifully, some kinds of screw-ups didn’t matter. For example, nobody cared that Clarice Carson “forgot” the stage director’s orders and sang the entirety of “Vissi d’arte” from the floor. (She thought it worked better her way, and she may have been right. After all, she’d sung the part more often than the director had. And the audience loved her.)

Neither did anybody notice that I forgot to load my rifle before shooting Cavaradossi. The tenor fell over just the same, as soon as he heard the rat-a-tat-tat from the percussion section.

I don’t remember whether Clarice Carson jumped at the end, or whether we had a simple blackout instead. I do remember that we were supposed to run on, and then freeze. “Avanti a Dio,” and the show was over.** No cast party, no victory celebration. And no paycheck. I went home — to real life. I’ve never supered since.

But every now and then, I’ll see a casting call for the opera, and I’ll get a craving to point a wooden rifle, or to carry a spear, or to stand around looking solemn when the soprano hits an E-flat. Really, how often does one get to do any of that? I’ll do it again some day, and in the meantime, I recommend the experience to everyone.

*NOTE: Are Swiss Guards actually Swiss? Can Italians enlist? I didn’t have time to do research.

**So was Providence Opera Theatre. The company shut down not long afterward. This was my first — but by no means the last — lesson in the precarity of producing opera in America.

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27 April 2010

When Texans Make Opera

Handel’s Xerxes and Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls don’t have much in common: one had its premiere 272 years ago, the other hasn’t had its premiere yet. The composers — German-English and Cuban-American, respectively — approach questions of love and tyranny from completely different angles, and you can bet their scores don’t sound much alike, either. But both operas will be performed in coming weeks in the state of Texas, thanks to the hard work of Texans.

That’s personally significant to me, as I approach the 35th anniversary of my birth as an opera fan. Growing up in suburban Dallas, I often felt that opera isolated me from other Texans. Sometimes, that was a good thing — I was a snob. But other times, loving opera seemed a lonely occupation. How wonderful to realize, all these years later, that friends of mine who are Texans, too, share my love of that music, and have made it even more a part of their lives than I have made it part of mine.

Nice pants: Susan Graham as Handel’s Ariodante
A scene from San Francisco Opera
Photograph by Terrence McCarthy

Susan Graham and Darren Keith Woods are close to me in age and background: Susan grew up in Midland, Darren in Luling; their dads worked in the oil business, and my dad, an engineer, sometimes worked on the fringes of that business, too. Like me, young Susan used to listen to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts on Saturday afternoon, and dream of faraway music, but Darren, to a sometimes comical degree, didn't know much about opera until after he'd begun singing professionally.

Both Susan and Darren started singing in choir when they were young, and years later, they became friends at Santa Fe Opera — long before I knew them, they were collaborating onstage, and performing water ballets in their spare time. (This is legendary, but it's true; I've seen the video.) Though Darren has quit singing, at least for now, in order to be the general and artistic director of Fort Worth Opera, he is what Susan is: a passionate professional, the best in the business. That's why I know that Susan's portrayal of King Xerxes (at Houston Grand Opera, beginning April 30) and Darren's production of Before Night Falls (at Fort Worth's Bass Hall, May 29 and June 6 matinee) will be extraordinary events.

On occasion, HGO permits Susan to wear a dress.
Here she is in The Merry Widow.
Photograph shamelessly ripped off of Susan’s website.

In Xerxes, Susan makes her entrance with one of the most famous arias Handel ever wrote. In its instrumental incarnation as the “Largo,” it is, the Stage Manager informs us in Our Town, one of the few pieces that everybody in Grover's Corners knows; with lyrics, “Ombra mai fu” is a love song to a tree. This isn't silly at all, and in the present case, it's incredibly exciting. As I've noted before, when Susan sings, you sense not merely the atmosphere but the fragrance of the music. Simply stated, there is nobody better suited than Susan Graham to sing love songs to any form of plant life. She makes me wish I were a tree.

She's such a brilliantly communicative artist that (as I've also noted here) I keep looking for extra-musical connections between us, and explanations for the directness with which her voice grabs me. The truth is, she has this effect on everybody. Including you.

It’s also important to note once again that she looks good in pants.

Houstonian Handelians: Susan as Ariodante,
with soprano Alexandra Coku as Ginevra.
Photograph shamelessly ripped off of Susan’s website.

She's performed Handel (in pants) in Houston before, the title role in Ariodante, in which she sang the long, difficult aria “Scherza infida” on her back while sliding down a domed structure. I made the trip to Houston expressly to hear this, in 2002, though I little expected that bit of staging; not for the first time, she made time stand still for me. For Xerxes, her co-stars are countertenor David Daniels and soprano Laura Claycomb, from Dallas, who's rightly a darling of HGO audiences. I heard these two in Handel's Giulio Cesare in Houston in 2003; you can expect superlative performances from them, too. (The role of Arsamenes in Xerxes is in fact the first thing I heard David Daniels sing, at New York City Opera years ago; I became a fan on the spot.)

Darren Keith Woods
Photograph by Ellen Appel

Darren's delight in making opera happen is contagious, and from what I've seen, he's never more delighted (or delightful) than when he's making a new opera happen. I've actually witnessed the process, when we attended the final dress rehearsal of the world premiere of Eötvös' Angels in America, here in Paris: Darren was practically vibrating, levitating, radiating. He was also muttering, “I can do this. And I can do it better.”

I thought he was out of his mind: a contemporary opera about AIDS in conservative Fort Worth? My response to him was one that I can't repeat in an essay that my mother will read. But darned if he didn't make good. The regional premiere of Angels in America found an enthusiastic audience and provided thrilling music-theater — infinitely better than the Paris original. That production has become the gold standard for this piece: just a few weeks ago, most of Darren's cast performed the British premiere, under the guidance of David Gately, who directed Darren’s production.

Native Texans Ava Pine (the Angel) and David Adam Moore (Pryor)
repeated their Fort Worth successes in London.
Ava returns to Fort Worth this season
to sing Adina in Elixir of Love.
Photograph by Ellen Appel

Darren has been involved with Before Night Falls since its inception; he brought together the creative team for a workshop production at the Seagle Music Colony in upstate New York. This is crucial, because there's so little room for trial-and-error with a new work; most new scores would profit from a test flight before an audience, prior to the pressures of a world premiere. With David Gately directing and Joe Illick conducting, composer Jorge Martín could learn what worked and what didn't, and make adjustments accordingly, long before the critics came.

Tenor Jonathan Blalock (Lázaro) and baritone Wes Mason (Reinaldo) in the Seagle workshop production of Before Night Falls.
Photograph by Ellen Appel

Before Night Falls has been Darren's principal topic of conversation for two years now, at least. Twenty-three-year-old baritone Wes Mason will portray the opera's protagonist, the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, and the buzz about this kid is almost deafening already. Much of that buzz comes from Darren himself. He's passionate about developing young artists, and he literally can't contain himself when he's heard a fresh talent.

And that's as it should be. I don't want to attend an opera that's presided over by anybody who's indifferent. If I were a musician, I wouldn't want to perform for anybody who didn't believe in me. (Though I might do it, for the paycheck. But you know what? The audience would hear the difference.)

Composer Jorge Martín at Seagle Music Colony
Photograph by Ellen Appel

It's doubtful that I'll be able to attend either Susan’s Xerxes or Darren’s Fort Worth Opera Festival (which includes not only Before Night Falls but also The Elixir of Love and Don Giovanni). If you go, I hope you'll let me know.

And during the intermission, I hope you'll take a moment to reflect on the lesson that Susan and Darren have taught me: opera connects us to other people. And yes, to other Texans, too.

Making beautiful music together: Darren with soprano Janice Hall.
Janice portrays the Mother and the Sea in Before Night Falls.
Only two roles? A walk in the park for Janice,
who took on four in Angels, in Fort Worth and London.
Next, I expect her to portray the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

Before Night Falls (Martín)
May 29, June 6 (matinee)
Don Giovanni (Mozart)
May 22, 30 (matinee), June 4
The Elixir of Love (Donizetti)
May 23 (matinee), 28, June 5

Xerxes (Handel)
April 30, May 2 (matinee), 8, 12, 14
The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky)
April 16, 18 (matinee), 24, 28, May 1
(I don’t know anybody in this one, but I’m sure it will be very nice, just the same.)

...And lest I forget
Moby-Dick (World premiere by the very cool Jake Heggie)
April 30, May 2 (matinee), 5, 8, 13, 16 (matinee)
(Thanks, Laura!)

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25 April 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 10



Between mother and daughter. — Preparation of cabbage soup. — Veal à la bourgeoise. — How we peel carrots.

Yesterday evening, I could write nothing in this journal, since it was fairly late when the housework was finished, and I swear that I hadn’t the heart to stave off my sleepiness to note down here my impressions of the day.

However, I have so thoroughly developed the habit of recounting here whatever crosses my mind, what I learn each day by my dear mother’s side, that this morning, as soon as I awoke, I couldn’t hold off for very long. As soon as I was washed and dressed, I sat down at my table, and here I am writing.

Right at the start, I want to repeat one more time that I am very happy to be occupied with housework as I have been, not only because I am helping my mother but also because caring for the household fills my days most agreeably. In the morning, after sweeping out the bedrooms and tidying the house, Maman and I do our shopping; then we prepare lunch and, after lunch, we set about sewing, caring for the linens and clothing, all the while chatting together, the two of us.

What good things I learn this way! Surely, my former schoolmistress, Mademoiselle Fleuron, is very good and very kind; but how much more agreeable to hear are the lessons of my mother! My dear Maman has a way of saying things that makes me understand them right away. There is perhaps between a mother’s heart and that of her daughter an entirely natural communication that makes them feel and think the same way when they love each other well.

This is what I think when Maman chats with me. I would like to know how to tell her this, but I don’t know how to turn a phrase; so, at times, when I have a great desire to make her understand without my telling her, I throw myself at her neck and I kiss her with all my strength. Maman returned my kiss, then disengaged herself while smiling.

“What’s come over you, Madeleine?” she said.

“I don’t know, dear Maman, but there are moments when I feel my heart so full of tenderness for you that it is absolutely necessary that I kiss you. And it is good, then, it is good!”

“Well, for my part, I know why you find it so good, my little Madeleine,” she said. First, it is because you have an untroubled conscience, because you carry out your duties and because you apply yourself to the utmost each day. Then, you know that you make me happy, and nothing is sweeter to the heart than to bring happiness to those we love. Then, it is because you don’t waste your time, because you learn something new each day; you are training yourself for later, for the time when it will be your turn to take charge of a family, perhaps a husband and children to care for; and that is on your mind, without your realizing it, and that is also what makes you serious and attentive.”

This conversation with Maman (which I have summarized here) moved me very much, I don’t know why. Oh, yes! I want to continue to apply myself to housekeeping and to do everything I can to be like Maman when I am her age.

Her age! Ah! mon Dieu! Do you see Madeleine with grey hairs here and there and having a daughter my age of her own to teach in the art of housekeeping and cooking? It makes me laugh, just thinking about it. And yet, deep down, I feel that time is passing quickly and that Maman is right to make me think of the future.


What did we do yesterday? …. Let’s see, let me remember: housekeeping, marketing, a visit to Tante Victoire, who has a cold and can’t go out, some mending, and dinner.

The dinner kept me quite busy, since it took time to prepare: a cabbage soup and a piece of round fillet of veal.

I had a lovely cabbage, quite white, very firm, a piece of salted pork and some good fatty bacon. I removed the outer leaves of the cabbage because they seemed a bit tough, then I cut the cabbage into quarters and I washed it several times in cold water.

When it was clean, I “blanched” it, that is to say, I threw the pieces into a pot of water that I took care to begin heating earlier, so that it had just begun to boil. During the few minutes that I let the cabbage cook, I cut into small pieces the bacon that I had, and I “browned” it in a pot, then I put the little pieces of bacon (lardons) into the soup pot, which was empty so far. Next, I removed the cabbage that was in the water; I drained it in a colander and I browned it, as well, in the bacon grease that was left in that pot. Then I poured the bacon grease and the cabbage into the pot where I had placed my lardons. I added the necessary water, a big carrot that I had cut in two, and four mid-size potatoes. I also added the piece of salted pork.

To sum up, here is what I did:
1. I “blanched” the cabbage.
2. I “browned” the lardons and I placed them in the soup pot.
3. I “browned” the cabbage in the bacon grease, and I placed them in the soup pot.
4. I also added the salt pork, the carrot, and the potatoes.

My cabbage soup was ready, I had nothing more to do than to keep an eye on it while it cooked.

Up to that point, everything was going well. But my fillet of veal! How was I going to prepare it?

There are some people who, it seems, have cookbooks giving them all sorts of recipes. I don’t have any at all, and it’s Maman who is my principal advisor and guide. I explained to her my problem.

“Let us make it au blanc,” said my mother.

Au blanc? What is that, Maman?”

“It is a sort of sauce blanche, quite simply, which we also call blanquette or poulette. But I am thinking that the veal fillet is a bit too thin to be prepared this way. I would be better to make it à la bourgeoise.”

A la bourgeoise! What a funny name!”

“Yes,” said my mother, “it is rather funny, in fact. I think that this sauce got its name because it is that which is made most often for family meals and because it is a very simple dish and isn’t part of fancy dinners. I’m going to teach you how to make it.”

I took the veal from the larder where I had placed it upon returning from the market, and I set it on the table.

“Ah! What a nuisance!” said Maman. “Here we need bacon and we don’t have any at all.”

“Oh, yes, we do, Maman,” I cried, “we have some. I kept precisely a bit of what I used for the cabbage soup. I thought the piece of salted pork was so handy that I used a bit less bacon, to set aside in case of need.”

“You did well to think so far ahead,” said my mother; “That was a good idea, and you are going to see how it will serve us well.”

Maman cut into little pieces the bacon that I presented to her.

A modern-day lardoire, the tool Maman uses to lard the veal.

Then, with the help of a lardoire, a sort of big, special needle, she made holes in the piece of veal and put a small lardon in each hole. When the veal had been all “larded,” she set it to brown over the fire in a pot with a bit of butter.

Since the pot was uncovered, I hurried to put a lid on it.

“No, no,” said my mother, removing the lid, “meat and vegetables should always be browned in an uncovered pot, otherwise the vapor that they release will drip back on them and keep them from browning properly.”

Maman turned the meat in the pot so that it took on a beautiful color on both sides.

“You see,” she said, “I’m watching so that the veal doesn’t stick, and so that the juice doesn’t turn dark. If that happened, I would be forced to add one or two spoonfuls of hot water, but the meat would be less delicate. You will notice also that the flame is not too high, since, without that precaution, the meat would dry out and the bit of juice that came out would become like caramel very quickly. Now, prepare these carrots for me.”

I hurried to obey Maman, who, very busy with her cooking, didn’t watch me.

I brought to her five lovely carrots, well peeled.

“Scatter-brains!” said my mother. “You peeled the carrots? Don’t you remember what I said to you on this subject?”

“No, maman,” I said, a bit embarrassed.

“Carrots are not peeled, it’s enough to scrape them lightly, because their skin is so fine that it’s impossible to remove it without also removing much of the flesh of the vegetable. You will remember that next time, won’t you, girl?”

“Yes, Maman, but you know what? … I made the same mistake with the carrots in the cabbage soup: I peeled them.”

“Bah!” said my mother, “it’s not a great tragedy. Next time, you’ll do better. Meanwhile, let us continue the preparation of the veal.”

The carrots were sliced and put into the pot with the veal. We added to this a whole onion, a “bouquet garni,” two glasses of water (since we had no leftover broth), salt, pepper, and we abandoned the whole thing to the mercy of the fire [Sic!]

The fire behaved itself. When it came time to eat, the cabbage soup was perfectly cooked, and so was the veal.

We set aside the piece of salted pork that should be served cold the next day, and Maman poured into the soup bowl, over slices of bread, the broth and the cabbage that had been reduced to a puree, as well as the potatoes.

As for the meat, Maman uncovered the pot, releasing a delicious perfume. The meat and the sauce were a beautiful reddish color, and I was quite happy to see that the family did right by the veal à la bourgeoise.


[To copy and keep]

1. Every time I feel in my heart a burst of tenderness for my dear Maman, I will not permit myself to hold back, on account of a stupid timidity, and I will kiss my good mother with effusion.

2. I will understand that in learning to keep house and to cook I am preparing myself for the role of housewife and mother which I will play later.

3. When I buy a bit more bacon or butter or vegetables than are necessary to prepare a dish, I will set the surplus aside, which will be helpful in case of unexpected circumstances.

4. I will remember that to brown a dish properly, it is just like frying it: I must not cover the pot or the skillet.

5. I will remember that carrots must be scraped and not peeled.

Apart from that spiffy plastic handle, a modern-day French peeler looks exactly like the one Madeleine would have used. To my perpetual astonishment, the French, who are responsible for nearly every innovation in the kitchen, still haven’t adopted vegetable peelers with a pivoting blade, though these are standard in the U.S.

Next time: Madeleine makes pot-au-feu — under the watchful eye of Tante Victoire!

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24 April 2010

Interview: Maria Callas

These days, you can’t even glance at The New Yorker without reading about another journalist or biographer fabricating interviews with famous people, from Philip Roth and Toni Morrison to Dwight Eisenhower. My fear is that these scandals in the publishing business will cast needless doubt on the many hundreds of interviews I conducted with the subject of my forthcoming biography, Maria Callas: The Best Friend a Boy Could Ever Have.

Maria looked forward to my visits,
and she would wait for hours at the window
until I arrived safely at her door.

Over the course of the interview process, Maria and I grew exceptionally close. Often, I would visit her at her apartment in Paris, sometimes staying as her personal guest for several days at a time. We took several vacations together, and I will never forget our trip to Disney World, in October, 1977: running and skipping, laughing and singing. Surely “It’s a Small World” has never sounded so beautiful as it did when Maria sang it; she insisted that we take that particular ride six times, because “I want to see the pretty little Greek children again.” Naturally, I indulged her. How could I refuse?

As you will see from the exclusive excerpts below (meticulously transcribed from tape recordings that were later eaten by my dog), our conversations covered a variety of topics, and Maria spoke with a candor and warmth that are absent from any other interview she ever conducted. Indeed, she is almost unrecognizably unguarded — a sign of the intimacy we shared.

“You are the only one who truly understands me,”
Maria often told me.

October 18, 1971
For our first interview, Maria flew me at her own expense to New York City, where she was conducting her now-legendary master classes at the Juilliard School. We met at the home of our mutual friend, Leonard Bernstein, and bonded instantly.

WVM: Thank you for agreeing to speak with me, Madame Callas.

Maria: Call me Mrs. Onassis, please.

WVM: Then it’s true that you were secretly married to Aristotle Onassis?

Maria: No, I just like the sound of the name. “Mrs. Onassis. Mrs. Onassis.” It has a nice ring, don’t you think?

“I felt a kinship with Monroe,” Maria said to me.
“She was screwed over by Jack and Bobby,
and I by Jacqueline.”

WVM: Well, anyway, thank you.

Maria: The pleasure is entirely mine. You are clearly a very intelligent, talented young man. Writing my biography is not enough. You should be running an opera company of your own — or at the very least, directing opera. You understand music, you trust it. You understand theater. Opera needs you, especially now that I am performing so rarely.

WVM: But I’ve never attended an opera! I’m only ten years old!

Maria: Ah, yes, but you have a great future ahead of you. I can recognize a great talent, and I know all about you. You see, I read your blog avidly.

“Oh, Bill! Nobody can make me laugh
the way you can!”

WVM: My parents won’t let me have a blog until I’m older — probably not until some time after the Internet is invented … a few years from now.

Maria: Well, how should I know where I read your work? I cannot be bothered with calculations and statistics! I am famously near-sighted, and a very busy woman besides. I can’t be expected to remember details! The point is that I believe you have talent, but if you are going to get all statisticky on me, like that old bore, John Ardoin, we can stop this right now.

This was the only display of “diva temperament” I ever saw from Maria. Quickly, I changed the subject, making fun of Renata Tebaldi’s hairdo, which as I would learn was a surefire way to restore Maria’s good humor. By the end of the afternoon, our friendship was launched. Already, she had taught me to sing “I’m a Little Teapot” in Greek.

Maria: You are adorable! Oh, how I wish that I had a son like you!

Maria delighted in preparing simple meals for me.
Here, she boils water for my morning oatmeal.

53rd Interview: November 11, 1974
Maria flew to Texas to spend a few days with me and my family.

WVM: …And this is my school.

Maria: It is very nice. I am sure you are the most popular boy in this school.

WVM: To tell the truth, some of them are kind of mean to me … calling me names … tripping me … stealing my lunch money.

Maria: What monsters those children must be!

WVM: Actually, that’s just the teachers. The kids are even rougher.

I explained the bullying that I endured. Although she attended P.S. 164 in New York City, Maria didn’t know what a “wedgie” was. She was horrified when I told her.

Maria: What are the names of these people who hurt and humiliate you? I will personally go to each of their houses and claw their eyes out. [She showed me her nails, which were indeed lethal-looking.]

WVM: No, please — there’s no need to do that.

When the weather was nice, Maria and I enjoyed gardening
and other outdoor hobbies.

Maria: You must understand that nobody may harm the best friend of a Greek woman without suffering terrible consequences.

WVM: Really?

Maria: Of course! It’s described in all the greatest tragedies.

WVM: I mean, do you really consider me your best friend?

Maria: Oh, darling, you are so wise in so many ways, and yet so innocent! [She kissed me then, for the first time.] I feel like eating ice cream — would you like that? And then, perhaps, we may go to the zoo. Now, tell me again about this novel you are writing. When can I read it? I feel sure you must have a great gift for fiction!

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23 April 2010

Trills & Thrills

At this moment, friends in Chicago, New York, and Geneva are performing “serious” Rossini operas: Mosè in Egitto, Armida, and La Donna del Lago. Though none of these pieces is liable to dethrone The Barber of Seville, they’re all pretty exciting, and if you give any one of them a chance, they can take a powerful hold on your imagination. After all, it was Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth that made me an opera fan — 35 years ago — and it’s by no means a comedy.

In certain of Rossini’s works, the distinction between comedy and tragedy mattered primarily to the librettist: the composer gives you the same sort of florid vocal writing, and sometimes the same songs, no matter the subject. At least, that’s the accepted generalization, and in our post–Wagner era, Rossini’s concept of music–drama does require getting used to. Because very often, the real drama comes from the performance itself.

Beverly Sills, as she looked 35 years ago.

The sheer athleticism of Rossinian vocalism is thrilling to witness: to get through even an “easy” number demands stamina, breath, and muscular training. I sometimes think the trampoline of the human diaphragm must be moving faster than the eye could see, whenever a singer is firing off those signature triplets that Rossini never tires of. Without mechanical amplification, the voice must project from the stage, across the orchestra pit, and into the house. All at the same time, the singer is expected to stay reasonably close to pitch, and to keep the rhythm and vocal color in smooth running order. Playing basketball would be easier.

If the singer can add personality, psychological insight, and physical movement, as my friends most assuredly can, then you’ve got excitement you won’t forget any time soon.

Marilyn Horne has done more than any other singer
to bring Rossini’s serious operas to modern audiences.
(I heard her onstage only in his comedies, however.)

I’m baffled that kids, who thrill to high notes and loud volume as young people always have, and who easily appreciate the arcana and accomplishment of professional sport, don’t “get” opera more readily. Back in the good old days, when we had music education in public schools, kids may have understood better how difficult it is to sing opera. There’s an element of risk in performance that doesn’t exist in most pop music today, when everything is not only amplified but Auto-tuned and sometimes pre-recorded: an opera singer is exposed in a way that other artists seldom are. I keep trying to explain this to my godchildren.

The plots of Rossini’s serious operas might find common bonds with teenagers, who tend to be melodramatic and absurdly exaggerated, too. Certainly I had no trouble identifying with the over-the-top characters in The Siege of Corinth. (It surely helped that they were portrayed by singers who were such vibrant characters in real life: Beverly Sills and Shirley Verrett commanded my attention — and my sympathies — no matter what they did.)

These thoughts are with me right now because, as artists such as my beloved Joyce DiDonato; her pals, the tenors Lawrence Brownlee and Barry Banks; and her husband, the conductor Leonardo Vordoni present this repertory, there’s a chance that some kid will hear them, and be launched on a lifetime of opera-going, just as I was 35 years ago. All those fireworks do sometimes cast sparks that catch flame, you know.

My official anniversary is May 15, and doubtless I’ll have more to say about it as the time draws near. For now, let it suffice to say that, if you’d told me in 1975 that some day I’d get to hang out with the people who make this kind of music, I’d have thought you were crazy. Yet today we can see that it’s just one of the benefits of fandom.

Moses in Egypt at Chicago Opera Theater, conducted by Leonardo Vordoni.
April 17, 21, 23, 25

Armida at the Metropolitan Opera, starring Lawrence Brownlee, Barry Banks, and a certain Ms. Fleming.
April 12, 16, 19, 22, 27, May 1, 4, 7, 11, 15.

La Donna del Lago at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, starring Joyce DiDonato.
May 5, 7, 9, 11, 14, 17

Colbran, the Muse, Joyce DiDonato’s new album of seriously thrilling Rossini arias, is available at Amazon.

In this scene from Rossini’s visionary but seldom-heard Gianbredi,
middle sister Jan (Ewa Podles´, right) swears vengeance,
while glamorous Marcia (Georgia Jarman) looks on.
What? Tancredi? Oh. That’s very different.
Never mind.

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21 April 2010


As I arrived at the Cinéma Le Champo to watch Luchino Visconti’s L’étranger (The Stranger), I was struck by the disagreeable realization that I’d never read the novel by Albert Camus, on which the movie was based. Yet the really curious realization came as the movie played: I was already familiar with every bit of the story. Ordinarily, this phenomenon occurs only in pop culture. For example, I got all the jokes (such as they were) in Scary Movie, without having seen a single one of the scary movies being parodied, simply because they’ve made such an impression on the popular imagination that one needn’t see them to know what they’re about.

Still, a French existentialist novella isn’t quite the same thing as a horror movie. How could I possibly be so familiar with something so obscure? Or, coming at the question from a different angle, how could something so obscure have become so deeply embedded in my consciousness? Hoping for answers and fortified by Visconti’s vision, I set about to read the book.

On the set: Mastroianni (seated, left) and Visconti (standing, right)

Published in 1942, L’étranger is narrated by Meursault, a pied noir (Algerian of French descent) who leads a solitary, uneventful existence until the day his mother dies — “today, or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” In swift succession, Meursault begins an affair with a former co-worker, Marie, and launches a friendship with a neighbor, the disreputable Raymond. Halfway through the book, Meursault kills an Algerian Arab whom he doesn’t know. His motive is absurd, lacking logic, and it’s meant to tell us something about the hollowness of modern existence. In the novel’s second half, Meursault is tried and sentenced to death. This was exactly the story I expected the book to tell.

To a degree, there’s no mystery here. L’étranger was perhaps the foremost of a whole genre of fiction wildly popular among smart, disaffected young people. Surely some of them told me about the book, and it informed some of their discourse, so that I absorbed its message and much of its plot. But I was never so young: for whatever reason, I sought order and authority, preferring opera to rock, for example (and only later understanding that most of opera’s better composers were rebels, too).

In high school and college, I dipped a toe in several novels of this genre, first-person accounts of existential alienation by Sartre and Hesse, as well as Camus. But I grew impatient. In college, assigned to write an essay on La chute (The Fall), I drew a comic strip instead, depicting Camus’ self-important narrator and the poor slob in a barroom who has to listen to his tedious tale. Refusing to change the subject from himself, the narrator blathers on until his companion is driven to distraction and shoots him dead.*

Anna Karina as Marie, Mastroianni as Meursault

Coming at the form as a middle-aged man, I instantly saw Camus’ influence on Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, a novel that was among my favorites. Why did I respond to Percy and not to Camus when I was younger? Was it perhaps the setting? Percy’s narrator, Binx Bolling, and I had quite a lot in common, it seemed at the time, beginning with our old Southern families. Today, I’ve got something in common with Camus’ Meursault: we’re neither of us quite accommodated by the national structure in which we reside.

Camus’ writing is lucid and unadorned, almost Hemingwavian, though without Papa’s macho self-consciousness. With Visconti’s movie still fresh in my mind, I understood the sparseness of language to be an equivalent of the brightness of Visconti’s images, not only of sunlight, a major factor in the plot, but also of stark interiors, whitewashed walls and such. (I’m reminded of Al Hirschfeld’s explanation of his caricatures: he was inspired, he said, by the sunlight in Indonesia, which bleaches color and heightens contrast until he saw only outlines.)

Ultimately, one is left uncertain whether the stranger of the title is the unknown Arab whom Meursault kills without cause, or Meursault himself. The narrator passes through life without strong connections to any other person, including his mother and his mistress; as a pied noir, he is a foreigner (étranger) in his native country, as Camus himself was.

The greatest flaw in Visconti’s movie is the casting of Meursault. Marcello Mastroianni was an indisputably great actor, and he works very hard here (he also helped to finance the picture), but he brings too much Italianate brio to a role that is passive even when taking action. Especially in his prison scenes, alone with only his reflection for company, you can see Mastroianni struggling to restrain himself, and yet he still gives us too much. That’s a real shame, because Visconti had served prison time under the Fascists in World War II — that’s probably one reason the novel appealed to him — and everything else about these scenes rings true.

I’d have preferred to see Alain Delon, who starred in Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and who, I have since learned, was actually offered the part of Meursault. So was Jean-Paul Belmondo, but Delon would have been better: in his youth, his combination of extraordinary physical beauty and limited acting ability offered a kind of screen onto which good directors, like Visconti himself, could project their ideas. This is much what the other characters in L’étranger do with Meursault: to some, he is a friend, to others a monster, though nobody knows him well.

Rough trade: The actor who played Meursault’s victim was not credited.

Visconti does better with the casting of the Arab, played by a young actor so handsome that one can be excused for thinking that Meursault’s inability to forge a serious relationship with Marie and his abrupt friendship with the unsavory Raymond both may be attributable to latent homosexuality. (Visconti was openly gay.) That’s not the story Camus is telling, yet it doesn’t really contradict anything in the novel.

For this reader and viewer, the most striking scene in both the book and the film is that in which an examining magistrate attempts to browbeat Meursault into accepting Jesus. Brandishing a crucifix, the magistrate cries out “in an unreasonable way”: “How can you not believe that he suffered for you?” But at last he surrenders: “I have never seen a soul as hardened as yours. The criminals who have come before me have always wept before this image of pain.” Presumably things would go easier for Meursault if he played along.

It’s a ludicrous moment when the “system” breaks down definitively, an indicator that the absurd isn’t merely Meursault’s personal psychological problem but a characteristic of the society as a whole. The scene probably strikes French eyes today as otherworldly, yet to anybody who grew up in the South, it’s wholly recognizable.

Even so, when Camus maintains such a resonant emptiness throughout the rest of the book, the magistrate’s over-the-top outburst represents a significant disruption of tone: I’m still puzzling it out. The other principal anti-religion scene, a dialogue between Meursault and the prison chaplain in the book’s final pages, works more successfully, perhaps because the chaplain’s character is more fully rounded (he seems aware that he’s as empty as Meursault, though he’s resisting it).

Mastroianni as Meursault

If indeed I was resisting Camus and his contemporaries because I craved authority, I wasn’t entirely wrong: I would not have found what I sought in L’étranger. Our sympathies lie with Meursault primarily because he’s the one telling the story, yet we can’t escape the reality that “the sun got in my eyes” is not an acceptable justification for taking another man’s life — any more than it is right for the prosecutor to seek the death penalty because Meursault didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral.** If you are 18 and looking for sure footing, you will find L’étranger an uncomfortably slippery little book. If you are 48, you may find it painfully life-like.

In the publicity materials for their screenings of a new print of Visconti’s film, the Champo cinema quoted an interview that the director gave at the time of the movie’s release, in 1967. Of course he faithfully interpreted the novel, he said, because when a director imposes his own vision on a work, he merely reveals his own impotence. That’s a message that would have Visconti drummed out of Berlin these days, and quite a few other towns in Europe, too. Yet his vision of L’étranger provided me with an excellent foundation for reading the book. And how often is “See the movie, read the book” good advice?

Now I need to go back to the cinema, to see how Camus’ text will illuminate my appreciation of Visconti’s work; I may need to go back to some of the other novels I rejected in my youth, as well.

*NOTE: My professor, the distinguished Naomi Schor, remarked, “For better or worse, your comic strips are better than your essays.”

**A modern-day American will grow frustrated: why doesn’t Meursault just tell them he was in a state of shock over his mother’s death? The reason is two-fold: one, there would be no book if he did; and two, Meursault has never seen Oprah.

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