29 April 2011

Drunken Prince Charles Spoils Royal Wedding by Telling Everybody William Is Adopted

LONDON -- Today’s wedding between Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton will be less happy than anticipated, sources say, since the groom’s father, heir apparent Prince Charles, delivered a rambling, drunken toast over dinner last night. The most shocking revelation, according to several people who were present, was the announcement that William was adopted.

“Charles stood up — very unsteadily, I might add — and started to read a fairly conventional wedding-eve toast,” said one witness. “But then he said, ‘To hell with this,’ tore up his prepared remarks, and started to insult every member of the Royal Family, beginning with William himself.”

“Look, I know everybody says that you’re the one who looks like me, but don’t fool yourself, lad,” Charles is quoted as saying. “I mean, I don’t even see the so-called resemblance to your bleeding mother. Now Harry — there’s a real Windsor for you. Who else but my fucked-up family could produce such a git?”

Turning next to Middleton, Charles said, “Good God, woman, get out now, while you can!”

William’s alleged birth parents are a Northumberland couple, Kwame and Eunice Nkobe, who were selected after MI5, the British secret service, conducted an exhaustive search for suitable children whom Charles and his first wife, the late Diana Spencer, might adopt.

“Oh, right, did I mention that you’re black?” Charles added, as his father, Prince Philip, went into cardiac arrest.

Eyewitnesses said that Charles might have gone on all night, had he not been wrestled to the ground by an indignant Prince Harry, and then hit over the head with a bottle of Champagne by his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. Sources close to the Royal Family say that Her Majesty’s behaviour was unrelated to the Prince’s speech; in some confusion, the Queen thought she was supposed to christen a battleship.

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28 April 2011

Poll: Majority of Americans Want to Believe That Obama Is a Stereotypical Negro or Extraterrestrial

Fueling skeptics’ concerns, Obama is reputed to enjoy basketball.

Public-opinion polls confirm that a statistical majority of Americans are not satisfied with President Barack Obama’s birth certificate and continue to seek proof positive that he is a stereotypical Negro, an extraterrestrial, or perhaps both.

“Donald Trump says Obama was a terrible student in college,” said one American surveyed, Forest Bedford of Ignoramus, NE. “Definitely not Ivy League material, like our previous president, God bless him. I hear Obama spent all his time playing basketball and eating chitterlings in Harlem, which is the location of Columbia University and, as you know, just full of Negroes.”

An alleged photo of Obama from the Columbia yearbook, 1981.
Some Americans claim the President may secretly speak jive.

Presumed presidential candidate Donald Trump confirmed these demands, while also calling for Obama to prove that he can resist a plate of fried chicken and a slice of ripe watermelon.

“Also, if there are any white women who are willing to put themselves at risk, I would really like proof that Obama can resist a white woman,” Trump added. “I realize that this is asking a lot, but really, ladies, it’s for the good of the country.”

Trump: “Today I’m very proud of myself.”
Enough said.

In a related development, many Americans continue to seek conclusive proof that Obama is an outer-space alien bent on world domination. “It all makes sense, don’t you see?” Lester Blodgett, a retired driver-ed instructor, told reporters at a packed news conference in Foxnews, VT.

“They sent him here from another planet, and they gave him the power to hypnotize humans into voting for him,” Blodgett continued. “Then they’re going to beam us up to the Mother Ship and probe us and eat us, or force the white Americans to be slaves, or to socialize medicine, or something equally unnatural. It’s the perfect plan, and who would suspect? You sure don’t hear about this in the lamestream media.”

Blodgett’s wife added, “But if Obama’s a Venusian, then we don’t have to do anything he tells us to do, ever.”

Obama takes the oath of office, Stardate 2009.0120

A spokesperson for the Republican National Committee could not be reached for comment. White House sources say that President Obama will hold a press conference later today, during which he will cut open a vein in his forearm to prove that his blood is red and iron-based, rather than green and copper-based.

Even that may not be enough to satisfy some Americans. “Is his penis bifurcated?” asked Mrs. Henrietta Lewis of Prurient Falls, WI. “I want to see the president’s penis before I make up my mind. Until then, he’s no president of mine.”

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has said that she will veto a bill currently before the Legislature that would make liking Tyler Perry movies an impeachable offense.

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26 April 2011

Konigsburg’s ‘The View from Thursday’

In writing recently about E.L. Konigsburg and in sharing fond memories of her work, I was reminded that I’ve fallen behind: since I read her first novels for young people (Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), she’s written many, many more. My happily nostalgic mood made me eager to pick up one of her newer books. I settled on The View from Saturday, with which Konigsburg won her second Newbery Medal, three decades after her first (for Mixed-up Files): the book promised an auspicious renewal to my intermittent rediscovery of a cherished author.

Moreover, I had just spent a few days with two of my godchildren, a little older perhaps than those whom Konigsburg depicts in The View from Saturday but very much in the spirit of her young characters: smart, funny, interesting, and just a little bit off-beat. So it was that the first thing that struck me was how much Konigsburg likes children — or at least, the smart, funny, off-beat ones. She writes about and for the kinds of kids who develop a sudden, overwhelming enthusiasm for sea turtles (or Michelangelo’s sculpture, or calligraphy, or baseball), who know magic tricks and the difference between hanged and hung, kids who (as one character in this book puts it) still ask “Now what?” instead of “So what?”

I was one of those kids, and so are Jeremy and Ilana; such kids are Konigsburg’s ideal readers. Part of the comfort — and the joy — of reading her books is the growing realization that, no matter how other kids treat us as oddballs, we are not alone. And a really cool lady is telling us a story that is, in some ways, about us.

This far into Konigsburg’s career, she has the assurance necessary to attempt a complex narrative structure, to write in several voices, and (as she explains in a note at the back of my paperback edition) to fuse several stories that were originally written as separate. I underscore: other writers could not do this, especially when aiming at younger readers, and others would waste a great deal of time calling attention to the achievement. Not Konigsburg. For example, one of her young narrators, Nadia, steadfastly refuses to use contractions, but Konigsburg trusts that her readers will care enough to notice.

Her ostensible subject is a sixth-grade team in a New York State Academic Bowl, and I dare say most writers would devote most of the story to the preparation and the contests. Konigsburg takes her own time getting there — which has the happy result of a more suspenseful, faster-paced account of the final round. What interests her is how the characters get where they’re going, more than what they do when they get there.

This philosophy extends to every part of her story-telling. There are, throughout the book, suggestions of what might happen to these children when they’re older: in particular, there’s an incipient romance between two of the children, Nadia and Nathan. Another character, Ethan, has traits that suggest he may eventually be gay. But Konigsburg doesn’t need to spell any of that out: these are kids, and where they are right now is already plenty exciting. Clearly, she is not the kind of adult who spends her time asking children what they’re going to be when they grow up.

Her sympathy with children as they are is, I suspect, the key to her enduring success, and the influence she has wielded over a couple of generations of readers like me. She appreciates us, she observes us, and she locates the stories that will be meaningful to us. When she writes about Nadia’s complex reaction to her parents’ divorce, or Julian’s even subtler reaction to his mother’s death, we don’t feel as if Konigsburg’s a therapist or a melodramatist, or talking down to us. It’s all matter-of-fact and respectful.

Kids are always on the lookout for grownups who are kindred spirits, and Konigsburg (perhaps because she is such a grownup) gets that, too. She gives us two adult characters, the teacher Mrs. Olinski and the parent Mr. Singh, who have problems of their own but who are wise, patient, and caring toward the four teammates. There seems to be a hint of romance between the grownups, but Konigsburg doesn’t spell that out, either: after all, this is a book about kids.

Konigsburg’s sense of humor is equally remarkable. Nathan’s narrative voice is hilarious, yet Konigsburg has the presence of mind to recognize that more than one chapter of it would probably exhaust most readers. (Fact, as Nathan might say.) No matter: she has plenty of good material, and she sprinkles it throughout the book. This makes her writing immensely appealing to adult readers (or to this one, at any rate).

The View from Saturday suggests that what other people consider trivia can in fact lead to glory, that the misfits among us have greater potential than other people recognize, that friendships make us stronger, and that the journey really does matter. While it’s probably best enjoyed by readers who already know at least some of the answers to the Academic Bowl questions, I recommend it without reservation — and yet again, I count myself lucky to have met its author.

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22 April 2011

Remaking the Remakes

Just an elderly English spinster:
The Margaret Rutherford of Our Time

Back in the good old days, keeping up with the entertainment news was a good way to avoid thinking about your personal problems. Nowadays, news from Hollywood is just one new headache after another. Case in point: it has been announced that the next actress to play Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple will be Jennifer Garner, who is seen in the photograph above. Previous Miss Marples looked like these ladies, Joan Hickson and my beloved Geraldine McEwan, each of whom won deserved acclaim in this role.

The Jennifer Garners of Their Day: Hickson and McEwan

This leads me to believe that, after years and years in which it seemed the day would never come, Hollywood has at last come up with an original idea. Namely, to produce remakes so radically different from the original that the source material becomes irrelevant and the end product unrecognizable. I mean, you can tell just by looking at Garner’s picture that the New Ms. Marple will chase terrorists and have hot sex with lots of guys. After all, who cares what kind of character and story interested Agatha Christie and her millions of readers over the decades?

At least when they remade Star Trek,
they cast a Spock-like Spock, Zachary Quinto.

Not to be left out, I have come up with a few suggestions for exciting new movies — each of which could be converted easily into an entire franchise of fast-paced action films centering on a (erstwhile) familiar figure, or at least a semi-recognizable brand name. (And they’re all in the public domain! Which spells cheap!)

After all, another of Hollywood’s principal concerns is whether sequels can be made from a successful remake. Thus we begin with one of the most distinguished of all franchises, the Falstaff franchise, which no less a luminary than William Shakespeare pursued through three plays. The obvious candidate to play this iconic role is, of course, Taylor Lautner.

The better-developed part of valor

Sir John Falstaff, known as the Fit Knight, will join his faithful sidekick, Hal Prince (no relation), while getting into comically violent scrapes and thrilling adventures. Something such as — fighting werewolves, maybe. Just to give Taylor a change of pace, and allow him to demonstrate his range as an actor.

Similarly, audiences must yearn for a series of fast-paced spy movies, featuring the notorious “sleeper” agent, Medea. She lives peacefully in Corinth for years and years, if you recall, before assassinating the king’s daughter and other, collateral civilians of some description.

And why stop there? Agent Medea could assassinate people and do other lady-spy stuff all over, in film after film. Talk about franchising! The trouble with Maria Callas’ career, of course, is that she made only one Medea movie.

I haven’t decided whether Modern Medea* should retain the magical powers she possesses in ancient legend, but clearly there’s only one actress today who’s capable of portraying this character. I refer of course to Miley Cyrus.

And really, it’s not too soon to start talking about Justin Bieber’s Lear.

Blow, winds! And comb your hair!

Hollywood doesn’t ask my advice, of course, which is why they’re proceeding with a remake (and I’m not making this up, you know) of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Since all the previous adaptations of Gatsby were, in one way or another, fatally flawed, it’s not the adaptation in itself that bothers me: it’s the fact that they’re making the movie in 3-D. What on earth can be gained by this? And how can they possibly contemplate it when the only actor truly suited to play Jay Gatsby in 3-D has been dead for years?

So, Daisy ... would you like some pancakes?
The late John Candy as the ideal Gatsby

I really don’t understand the movie business — and therein lie my latest headaches. Perhaps I should start reading the financial pages instead.

*NOTE: Unfortunately, audiences may confuse my lady-spy character with Tyler Perry.

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20 April 2011

Fizzy Lifting Drinks

Some readers may be under the impression that I have spent all my time in France sipping Champagne from ladies’ slippers. This is not entirely true, and I hasten to admit that I do drink other beverages — including some with bubbles. For the French, not content to discover Champagne, have also discovered other truly uplifting fizzy drinks.

Whereas good Dom Pérignon believed, upon his first sip of Champagne, that he was drinking stars, my brother had another reaction entirely when he first drank Ricqlès: “It tastes like fizzy toothpaste!” For my part, I find the stuff absolutely brilliant: a lightly carbonated, almost entirely natural soda flavored with mint, and quite a lot subtler than any toothpaste. The very idea!

The Ricqlès brand is terribly old and respected, dating back to 1838, when Henri de Ricqlès distilled a sort of mint alcohol. (You can still buy this product, which is useful in flavorings and is said to have some medicinal properties, as well.) Because of the use of natural ingredients, the soft drink is sometimes difficult to find even in France, and it’s my belief that the name Ricqlès is one of those words which no American can pronounce intelligibly to a Frenchman’s satisfaction. (Because of course so many other things sound exactly like “Ricqlès.”)

The cans are virtually impossible to find, anywhere,
except in certain bars.

But on a hot day, when you’ve been driving across the French countryside in an un-air-conditioned automobile, for example, there is almost nothing more refreshing than a well-chilled glass of Ricqlès.

The most famous fizzy beverage in France, after Champagne, is surely Perrier water. I regret to inform you that it’s far from the best of the mineral waters in the country. My personal favorite, Badoit, from a natural spring in Saint Galmier, is distinguished by bubbles so tiny and elegant that one realizes instantly just how vulgar and aggressive Perrier truly is, and one will shun it evermore.

The mineral content of Badoit is much more flavorful, as well, and presumably the water also possesses all those important health benefits that are so important to Europeans. For a long time I used to call it “salt soda,” and it’s an absolute essential for me on any kind of road trip, whether by train or by car. Fortunately, then, it’s relatively easy to find almost anywhere in shops and cafés throughout France (and even in some groceries in Manhattan, if you’re willing to pay for it).

Such is Perrier’s dominance of the market for eau gazeuse that, a few years ago, Badoit began selling “Badoit Rouge,” with big popping bubbles like those of its better-known rival. Of course I refuse even to taste the stuff. As usual, I stick to the classics, merci beaucoup.

For me, both Badoit and Ricqlès are among the most evocative flavors in all of France. I can’t count the number of Proust moments they’ve evoked: one sip, and memories of summers past come rushing to the fore.

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17 April 2011

Pineau des Charentes

It tastes like home.

In preparing my departure, I realized with horror that we were lacking an essential ingredient: I had no Pineau des Charentes in the house with which to make a toast. Mercifully, there was still time to run down to the Nicolas shop (a national chain of liquor stores) to pick up a bottle. Whether it will turn out to be as good as my customary brand, which comes from the Château de Beaulon (located on the road between Bordeaux and Royan), remains to be seen. But as a disciple of Henri Boutrit, I could not observe a moment of such significance without raising a glass of the stuff.

Inside the distillery: Copper makes it taste better.
All photos from the Château de Beaulon website*

Henri was a passionate Charentais, sprinkling his conversation with vocabulary from the traditional patois and faithfully upholding the cuisine du terroir. It’s no surprise, then, that Pineau was one of the first of the local treasures he shared with me, the night we met, 20 years ago.

Charente-Maritime, souche d’Henri
The Château de Beaulon is in St Dizant du Gua, also in Charente-Maritime.
Map from Wikipedia

Pineau is a fortified wine, made by mixing fermented grape must with a more famous Charentais invention, Cognac. It comes in white or red, sometimes described as rosé though it’s really a dark purple, resembling the color of some port. (There’s a similarity in taste and in consistency, as well.) Generally one serves Pineau chilled, in small glasses, since it packs a wallop. Most people, including Henri, favor it as an apéritif, but connoisseurs recommend it as an accompaniment to certain dishes, including foie gras. I have sampled that particular combination and judge it to be so exquisitely pleasurable that I am confident that my Puritan ancestors disapprove completely.

The Château de Beaulon dates back to the reign of Louis XI.

The best Pineau is that in which the alcohol in the Cognac slices through the sugar; sadly, however, most of the stuff that one finds in the States is quite sweet and syrupy, and the rouge, which I prefer, is extremely difficult to find. The Château Beaulon is among the best I’ve tasted so far, and their aged Pineau almost obscenely good. But one hears rumors of even better Pineau, and on a couple of occasions Bernard and I have gotten lost in Charentes, searching for another château that is evidently more secret and better guarded than most military installations in this country: we never have found the place, despite our persistent zeal in quests that somewhat resembled a Pineau version of the search for the “domaine perdu” in Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes.

Un autre domaine perdu, retrouvé:
The park of the Château de Beaulon

This is what Pineau does to you, when you get hooked on the stuff. I say it again, there was no way I could leave France without tasting it one more time. And I’ll drink to France, to both Charentes, to every Boutrit and especially to Henri, my maître, who passed away five years ago this month, and who did so much to make my life here so much more special and more flavorsome.

*NOTE: Be advised that, by entering the Château de Beaulon website, you certify that you are old enough to drink Pineau. Click responsibly. The folks there also produce an excellent Cognac.

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15 April 2011

Beynes There, Done That

I said goodbye to my vegetable vendor yesterday, which, like every Thursday in Beynes, was market day. I told him I was going back to America, and Franck* received this news with a remarkable lack of sentimentality: he cocked one eyebrow and exclaimed, “So I’ll see you in a couple of months, then?” Apparently, my “definitive departures” have gotten to be undramatic, even routine.

But the fact remains that I can’t afford to keep coming and going this way: can’t afford it financially, or physically, or emotionally. It’s grueling, this business of pulling up stakes every few months, packing all my belongings into heavy suitcases, and bidding farewell — no, not farewell — au revoir — to the only roof I can call my own. Sort of. And this time, I honestly don’t know when I’ll be back.

I’ve been coming to this little house for 20 years, making my first prolonged stay in 1999, when I spent an entire summer here. And here, I’ve had the opportunity to pursue a kind of housekeeping that’s remote in many ways from my old habits in New York. I cooked my first rabbit in the little kitchen, my first leg of lamb, and my first preserves. My back is stooped now from washing dishes at the little sink. (The house’s original owner, a spinster schoolteacher named Juliette Challat, was evidently very, very short.) This is the only place I’ve ever lived where I lock the front door with a skeleton key.

All the while, I have been able to live out a boyhood dream, and it seems important to bear in mind that, no matter what happens next, nothing can change that fundamental fact. I always wanted to live in France, like a Frenchman. And for seven years, I’ve done it. Not many other people can say the same. I mustn’t let myself look on this move as a retreat.

So rather than getting maudlin (or worse), I ask your indulgence as I celebrate some of the lessons I have learned, here on the sleepy banks of the Petite Mauldre, in the shade of the mirabelle tree.

What I Have Learned in Beynes

1. How to use a gas stove without a pilot light, and how not to blow up the house in the process.

2. How to mow the lawn with an electric-powered machine that has no wheels and therefore must be shoved, and that does not cut the grass so much as mash it down for a while.

3. How to do this without running over the extension cord.

4. That mowing the lawn in spring means ruining the wild violets and primaveras.

5. That the idea of gardening is better than the fact of it, particularly when you get a cold, rainy summer. There is nothing romantic about tomatoes rotting on the vine.

6. That the garden is home to many kinds of wild life, including songbirds, moles, hedgehogs, snails, all manner of insects, and the occasional feral cat, most of which are determined to destroy all nearby vegetation and not one of which recognizes your right to live there, too.

7. That living on the main street means that the picket fence in front of the house will be periodically knocked down by vehicles driven by people who are in no hurry to help you repair the damage they’ve caused.

8. That the main street is the parade route for thrice-annual celebrations for the local schoolchildren, who evidently would be traumatized if they weren’t allowed every four months to dump heaps of confetti all over your doorstep, which neither they nor anyone else in town will bother to clean up afterward, and which you’ll be tracking into the house for the next year.

9. That ditto ditto dog shit ditto ditto.

10. That there is really nothing you can do to keep a white-tile floor clean in the entryway of a house on the aforementioned main street in a country village.

11. That the French penchant for do-it-yourself home repair and remodeling projects (bricolage) is much less quaint and adorable when portions of your home are indefinitely uninhabitable, and you can’t even open the back door for all the equipment and supplies stacked there, while in the meantime other, minor repair jobs go unattended. For years.

12. That if you keep your radiators clean in winter, and your clothesline hanging in summer, you’ll never need a dryer. Except during the spring and fall.

13. That keeping the larder stocked requires meticulous planning, since every store in town takes a lunch break, then closes for the night between 7 and 8, and if you aren’t on your toes, you’ll starve.

14. That living in the miraculous land of Picard frozen foods doesn’t mean much if your refrigerator doesn’t have a freezer compartment.

15. That, in France, eating alone is no excuse for skimping on the courses. Ideally, every meal should consist of a starter (perhaps soup), main course (with multiple vegetables), green salad, and cheese course, all accompanied by wine, and perhaps dessert and coffee. If you cooked a meal in your cuisine in Beynes, then it’s French cuisine, de facto, and it must be respected as such!

16. That preparing nice things for Bernard to take back to Paris and eat during the week does not guarantee that he will actually eat them. (Subtitle: “What’s That Smell?” or The Sad Fate of That Roast Chicken I Made for You the Other Weekend.)

17. That, while it’s very nice to be so close to Paris, the commute would probably drive you insane if you did it on a daily basis, and there are times when it’s really too much hassle to go into town.

18. That, therefore, it is sometimes quite easy to keep ’em down on the farm when they’ve seen the lights of gay Paree.

*NOTE: Yes, after all these years, I have learned my vegetable vendor’s first name. I overheard someone addressing him the other day.

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14 April 2011

Being in Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Ory

How not to stage a bed trick

Rossini’s comedy Le Comte Ory, the latest high-definition simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera, prompted me to return to the Aquaboulevard, a shopping mall just outside the periphery of Paris, and my mood couldn’t have been merrier. The star of the evening was Joyce DiDonato, my first glimpse of whom was in a video (Mark Adamo’s Little Women, from Houston Grand Opera) projected onto one entire wall of a hotel suite: she knows how to work a close-up, and the screen at the Aquaboulevard is even bigger. For Le Comte Ory, her co-stars were Juan Diego Flórez and Diana Damrau, names to be reckoned with, and the production, new this season, is a solid, sold-out hit with Met audiences. The New York Times review made the front page of the online edition, and really, how often do my friends get that sort of treatment — without any use of the phrases “high-powered automatic weapon,” “statewide manhunt,” or “troubled loner”?

But the production itself left me dissatisfied. Everyone at the Aquaboulevard seemed to love it, and you don’t argue with a hit — but I really wanted to argue. Too few of director Bartlett Sher’s choices made much sense, and while I hope that some of the very busy stage business is more effective in the house (perhaps when viewed from the Family Circle) than it was on screen, his work never convinced me that he had a clear vision of or even much appreciation for this little-known gem of an opera.* There were times I wished I were listening to the radio broadcast instead.

Mad about the boy: Joyce as Isolier, Diana Damrau as Adèle

The plot of Le Comte Ory concerns the titular count (Flórez), a rake who takes advantage of the Crusades — while most of the other men in France are out of the way — to seduce as many ladies as he can. The primary object of his lust is the Lady Adèle (Damrau), but she’s too virtuous to be wooed openly, and moreover she’s in love with Ory’s page, Isolier (Joyce). So Ory aims to improve his chances by disguising himself, as a fortune-telling hermit in Act I and then as a nun in Act II.

Much of this is and ought to be great fun, and Flórez has proven memorably entertaining in other Rossini operas where he’s disguised (Barbiere, Cenerentola). So when his hermit impersonation turned out to be unfocused, broad, and busy, you know the problem lies with somebody else. (His nun impersonation was much defter and far more successful.)**

Appearances may be deceiving:
Flórez as Ory, disguised as a hermit, with Damrau in Act I

Take the setting. The libretto specifies the Crusades, but Sher updates the production to the late-18th century, in a somewhat ramshackle theater. Why? Our simulcast hostess, Renée Fleming,*** suggested that the intention was to create the illusion of a theater in which Rossini himself might have seen the opera, in 1828. But performers in those theaters wouldn’t have worn street clothes from 50 years before; they’d have worn costumes. Folks in Rossini’s time had their own ideas of what the Middle Ages looked like, and the Met could have had great fun with them. (Feathered helmets!) The Met’s costumes (by Catherine Zuber) were lovely, in fact, but they didn’t have anything to do with anything. (They were interchangeable with the costumes for Sher’s production of Barbiere. Who knows why?)

Is the Met audience supposed to feel a greater connection to 1828 than to the 12th century? And why a theater? During an intermission interview with Fleming, Sher gave a reason: he didn’t want to build a realistic castle set. So this is the best alternative you can think of? The Met already has one recent production of a bel canto opera — La Sonnambula — set in a theatrical milieu. The “it’s only a play” attitude all but announces that the repertory is so artificial that it can’t be taken seriously on its own terms. (And it may reflect the Met’s artistic ambivalence about bel canto: James Levine finds the music unchallenging to conduct, but the operas are popular and some star singers are awfully good at them, so the Met produces the shows anyway.)

Le Comte Ory is an unfamiliar work to most audiences, as I say, and it had never been performed at the Met until this season. There was no reason to pile up the distancing effects, as Sher did, and at times I wished that one hallmark of 19th-century theater had been observed: namely, I could have done without the stage director altogether.

The sound of Rossini’s music: Flórez in Act II

The refusal to play Ory straight (as it were) was manifest in Sher’s staging of the Act II trio, in which Ory thinks he’s making love to Adèle, who coos sweet nothings to him while he’s really fondling Isolier. In the plot, it’s a stalling device, to preserve Adèle’s virtue until reinforcements arrive and the rest of the menfolk return from the war; in literary terms, it’s a standard bed trick, with variations for the comedy’s sake: Isolier and Ory are wooing, not screwing, and Adèle helps out, but chastely. (Shakespeare’s bed tricks, in All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, the most famous in literature, are less complicated than this one — and they’re also less funny, by design.)

Sher stages the scene as a polysexual ménage à trois, in which Ory quickly realizes that he’s making out with Isolier, and in which Adèle takes an active role, too. As my friend John Yohalem has pointed out, this raises all sorts of questions about the characters without ever answering them, and it demolishes the two central conceits of the entire story, namely Ory’s womanizing and Adèle’s chastity. But it was titillating, and it didn’t seem to diminish the audience’s enjoyment.

Nun and games: Flórez and Damrau in Act II

The singing was gorgeous, though, and the trio found Flórez at his smoothest, most ingratiating best. (It’s not only because he’s cute that he’s become a matinée idol.) All evening, I enjoyed Damrau’s lush tone and, particularly, her almost orgasmic explosion of coloratura in Act I, when she admits her pent-up love for Isolier. Sher elicited an appealing brashness from baritone Stéphane Degout as Raimbaud (exactly what I missed from this singer at his New York recital debut, several years ago), and mezzo Susanne Resmark’s imperious Ragonde proved winning. But Sher couldn’t create a consistent character for the Tutor, who caromed from moment to moment. (How does the Tutor feel about Ory? Sher never made up his mind.) At least bass Michele Pertusi sounded as if he knew what he was doing.

When she wasn’t being knocked to the ground, Joyce seemed to be operating in a different theatrical world — one that made sense. She looked terrific, and she swaggered with real conviction. Her ease and accuracy in the music, her excellent French diction (all those trips to Paris are paying off!), and her fine grasp of color and nuance left me happy beyond my powers to describe.

And there were often moments when I just wanted to bask in the wonder of the moment. A friend of mine was singing, halfway around the world, and I could see and hear her perfectly. What an age of miracles we live in!

*NOTE: Sher also directed the musical adaptation of Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, by which I was less than thrilled, as you may recall. More happily, Sher directed the Met’s Barber of Seville, in which I saw Joyce a couple of seasons ago.

**Flórez assisted in the delivery of his son, just minutes before the performance began.

***I still think the hosting portions of the Met simulcasts are too scripted and restrictive — but Fleming came off relaxed and natural-sounding, the best of the three hosts I’ve seen. (Deborah Voigt and Natalie Dessay were the others.)

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11 April 2011

Ball Play

“Beckett Silences Yankees and Gives Red Sox Hope”
-- Headline in The New York Times Sports Section,
11 April 2001

Ball is such a sad word, is it not?

Strike. Strike. Strike out. Strike out for where? You can’t go home. You can’t go on first. You can’t go on.

At the same time, I prefer this to … the bench. There are endurable moments.

That’s what I find so wonderful, that not an inning goes by — to speak in the old style — hardly an inning, without some addition to one’s stats however trifling, batting average, home runs, RBIs.

Are? Be? I?

No answer. Only silence. Waiting.

What’s the idea? Stuck up to my diddies in the bleeding mound. Base fellow! What does it mean? What is it meant to mean?

Most Valuable Player:
Whitelaw in the Mound

Base, very base. Ball. Bat. Batter up. Catch. Yankee. Bunt. Well, I won’t go there. Catcher catching the balls in his mitt, cupping the balls in his cup. Is it a sign? Something to do with the batter's box?

Gnaw on the teat of tobacco. Spit. No, not yet.

What’s in the bleachers? The Wave, how is the Wave? Damn the sun.

Time he walked.

Enough, it’s time it ended, in the dugout, too. Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of an endorsement contract.

All this business of a labour to accomplish, before I can end, of a run to score, a truth to recover, in order to say it, before I can end, of an imposed task, once known, long neglected, finally forgotten, to perform, before I can be done with pitching, done with batting, I invented it all, in the hope it would console me, help me to go on, allow me to think of myself as somewhere on the road, moving, between an inning and an out, gaining ground, losing ground, getting lost in the outfield, but somehow in the long run making Fenway.

In other sporting news, Watt’s on second.
A scene from Abbott & Costello Meet Godot

Let us not waste our time in arguing with the umpire! Let us play while we have the chance! It is not every day that we can get up at bat. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would swing the bat equally well, if not better. That is rotation. That is bench strength. To all the team they were addressed, those cheers still ringing in our ears!

In and out. Inning out. The game has no notion of time.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Swing again. Strike again. Strike better.

In the end, if I can’t steal home at the end of a long day, I will silence the Yankees, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on first, I can’t go on third, I’ll go on.

NOTE: Evidently the Times meant Josh Beckett, who is a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and not the late Irish playwright, Samuel. But what do I know about sports?

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10 April 2011

Wouldn’t It Be Great if Joyce DiDonato Guest-starred on ‘Glee’?

A Very Special Guest Star?

Among the gratifying responses to my proposed scenario for a guest appearance by Susan Graham on TV’s Glee came several comments (including one from Susan herself) urging me to speculate on what might happen if Joyce DiDonato were to guest-star on the show. Dear readers, in truth it was always my intention to do so.

What strikes me is how much artists like Joyce and Susan represent the Glee paradigm: that music can lift us out of our problems and carry us to almost unimaginable new feelings and experiences. If Joyce hadn’t pursued her singing career, I can absolutely picture her teaching high school somewhere in Kansas — not all that unlike Will Schuester, challenging her students and pointing them in new directions. As a girl, Susan was active in her church choir, and even composed music for the group (and presumably those hymns were at least as good as Rachel Berry’s immortal “My Headband”): real life doesn’t get much more Glee-like than that.

Ultimately, of course, both women had the talent and drive that took them far beyond Kansas City and Midland — which is exactly what Rachel and Kurt and all the kids at McKinley High dream of doing.

In addition to the necessary qualities that make Joyce such an effective Ambassador from Opera World (good looks, acting ability, gorgeous voice, sense of humor), she possesses a couple of extremely Glee-friendly assets. She’s from the Midwest — not all that far, geographically or philosophically, from Lima, Ohio, where the show is set. This helps to explain her hardworking levelheadedness, her inability to take anything for granted, and her generally upbeat disposition. And there’s one other hallmark of her career thus far that might prove especially effective in a Glee context. You’ll see what I mean.

Welcome to the wood-and-metal-and-auto shop at William McKinley High School! The classroom is humming, as many of our favorite characters learn practical skills that will be a boon in later life if they never get out of Ohio. Finn is repairing a car, Santana is welding everything in sight (you know she would, too), and Puck is constructing a “sex chair,” which we never actually see, but from the reactions on the other characters’ faces, we can tell that it’s pretty wild.

Mark Salling as Puck

Even Kurt is hard at work. As he explains, “It’s easy enough to give Barbie a wardrobe makeover, but that Dream House is hopeless. You’ve got to start over from scratch.” (It’s a present for Blaine!)

Moving around the room, inspecting the projects and offering advice, is the shop teacher, an attractive person in loose-fitting overalls. The catch is: nobody is sure whether s/he’s a man or a woman. Karofsky has a question about radiator repair, but he hesitates, barely even getting out the first syllable of “Mr.” or “Mrs.”

“You can just call me Lou,” says the teacher — special guest star Joyce DiDonato!

Our first number: the kids sing Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady.”

Chord Overstreet as Sam

Of course, this is an opportunity to exploit Joyce’s affinity for trouser roles in opera: she’s just wrapping up a run as the page boy Isolier in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory at the Met, where next month she’ll sing the Composer in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. You wouldn’t know it to see her in street clothes (there’s a nice crowd on that balcony, as my French neighbors would say), but Joyce has got a real knack for butching it up.

And while Glee has done a terrific job of exploring questions about sexuality, the gender-ambiguous Lou can take the discussion even further. It’s cutting edge.

[NOTE TO JOYCE: Speaking of cutting, this gig will require you to cut your hair — really short. Art demands sacrifice, and anyway, it will grow back.]

Then some other stuff happens.

Jayma Mays as Emma

Cut to the teachers’ lounge. Will is planning to direct the spring musical, and he asks Lou Flaherty for help building the sets. “Sure,” says Lou. “What’s the show?”

“Well, we got into such hot water when we did Rocky Horror last fall that I thought we’d try something completely safe: The Wizard of Oz. Nobody can object to that, right?”

When Lou leaves the room, the other teachers start whispering. “At last,” says Emma Pillsbury, “I think I’ve met a man I could give myself to completely.”

Dot Marie Jones as Coach Bieste

“What makes you think she’s a man?” says Coach Bieste.

“I — I just assumed,” Emma stammers. “What makes you think he’s a woman?”

“She’s more feminine than I am,” Coach Bieste replies.

“That’s setting the bar pretty low, don’t you think?” Sue Sylvester snaps.

Clearly, Lou is a troubling presence, and both Emma and Coach Bieste are eager to stake a claim. Together, they sing the Paul McCartney–Michael Jackson hit, “The Girl Is Mine.” (Except that Emma says “boy” and Bieste says “girl.”)

Cory Monteith as Finn

Will and Sue decide to find out the truth, each in his or her own way. For Sue, that means breaking into Principal Figgins’ office at night. For Will, that means asking Lou out on a date — sort of. “You want to grab a beer after work, maybe catch a movie — or go dancing?”

“Sure,” says Lou. “Pick me up at my house at 7?”

Then some other stuff happens.

Dianna Agron as Quinn

Lou lives with his/her father, who is played by another special guest star Shaun Cassidy (because really, Joyce should get some fun out of this). Dressed in boots, slacks and a long leather coat, Lou is still pretty hard to peg.

Will and Lou wind up in a bar, and Lou explains that s/he doesn’t really want to go dancing, because of something weird that happened the last time s/he went out. And s/he sings the Kinks’ “Lola.”

Matthew Morrison as Will Schuester

During the number, of course, Lou and Will dance, much as the characters in the song do. Will is completely baffled, but also kind of turned on.

Meanwhile, in Figgins’ office, Sue has found Lou’s file. “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s genetically superior uncle!” she exclaims.


Back at the Flaherty home, Lou’s Dad asks how the date went. Together, Lou and Dad sing “Da Doo Ron Ron” (“I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still / Somebody told me that his name was Will”).

Then some other stuff happens.

Kevin McHale as Artie

Casting The Wizard of Oz turns out to be much more contentious than Will imagined. Artie wants to play the Tin Man (“It’s all about the metal!” he cries), but Mike Chang insists that it’s really a dancing role. “If you think I’m playing a Munchkin, you’re nuts,” Mercedes says. At least everyone agrees that, while Sue would be the ideal Wicked Witch, no one would be able to hear any of the songs over the screams of terrified children in the audience. And besides, it’s a student musical.

Chris Colfer as Kurt

The biggest clash comes between Kurt and Rachel: both of them want to play Dorothy, and this time, Kurt isn’t backing down. “Are you trying to tell me that a girl can’t sing ‘Over the Rainbow’?” Rachel shrieks. “It’s not as if it’s never happened!”

“That was the exception that proved the rule!” Kurt insists.

Lea Michele as Rachel

In another of their famous “duets,” we see Kurt’s and Rachel’s auditions, and they’re both amazing, of course. Will doesn’t want to disappoint Kurt, after all he’s been through, but what can he do? It’s a girl’s role.

“Let’s be honest,” Kurt says. “We both know Rachel would look terrible in a Dorothy dress. And we also know that blue is my color.”

Lou stops hammering the Emerald City set long enough to overhear. “What about gender-neutral casting?” s/he says.

Jenna Ushkowitz as Tina

And so the casting is announced:
Dorothy (Kurt)
Scarecrow (Tina)
Tin Man (Artie)
Cowardly Lion (Mercedes)
Wizard (Lauren Zizes)
Glinda (Sam)
Wicked Witch (Santana)
Munchkin Mayor (Puck)
Aunt Em (Quinn)
Uncle Henry (Mike Chang)
Toto (Brittany)

As a special treat, we get to hear Mercedes sing “King of the Forest,” which would be mind-blowing.

Amber Riley as Mercedes

Then some other stuff happens.

Cut to the teachers lounge. Lou is reading Popular Mechanics when Sue walks in. “All right, Flaherty, the jig is up,” Sue says. “I’m onto you.”

“Are you going to tell anybody?” Lou asks.

“That depends on you,” Sue replies. “I can be very cooperative … with people who do what I tell them to do. Kiss me, you fool.”

Jane Lynch as Sue

They start making out — but we still don’t know whether Lou is a guy or a girl. Just then, Coach Bieste walks in and sees them. Her eyes filling with tears, she runs away.

Cut to Figgins’ office. Parents are already complaining about The Wizard of Oz. “I don’t care how high his upper register is,” Figgins tells Will. “You can’t put a boy in a dress on that stage!”

“It’s gender-neutral!” Will says.

“It’s a kids’ show! Recast it now — and that is not a request,” says Figgins.

Iqbal Theba as Figgins

Coach Bieste bursts in. “Why didn’t anybody tell me about Flaherty?” she sobs.

But before we can learn anything more, sirens start going off. “It’s a twister!”

“Everybody into the cellar!” Figgins shouts. Because it turns out that McKinley High has a root cellar. It’s the Midwest, after all.

We then get an exciting montage of tornado footage. At one point, Artie is swept into the air. His wheelchair turns into a broom, and he flies all over Lima.


Wee-yotch: Naya Rivera as Santana

The next thing we know, Terri Schuester (Jessalyn Gilsig) is waking up in the hospital. “What happened? Where am I?”

“You caught quite a bump on the head during the storm, honey,” says Terri’s cousin Louise, who’s visiting from Kansas City.

“I had the strangest dream,” Terri says. She looks around the room, pointing to Louise, her Uncle Henry (Shaun Cassidy), Santana (a candy striper, remember?), and Will. “You — and you — and you — and you were there! But the strange thing is, I wasn’t in this episode. I mean — in this dream.”

Jessalyn Gilsig as Terri

“Just try and get some rest,” Santana says.

“You’re not really going to direct The Wizard of Oz with a boy playing Dorothy, are you?” Terri asks Will.

“No, we’re doing South Pacific this year,” Will says. Quick cut to Tina, singing “Happy Talk” to Mike Chang (who’s the only kid in school with abs good enough to play Lieutenant Cabell).

Harry Shum, Jr., as Mike Chang

“And now that I know you’re okay,” Will adds, “I’ve got to go, because I still hate you.”

Terri sighs. “I’ll get him back, some day. Remember how good things were in the beginning?”

“I sure do!” says Cousin Louise, and the episode concludes with a final chorus of “Da Doo Ron Ron,” as sung by Terri, Louise, and Uncle Henry.

Fade out.

Your thoughts?

Guest Star Shaun Cassidy

NOTE: If you’re adamant about getting opera onto Glee, there are several opportunities here for Joyce to sing Cherubino’s “Non so più.”

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