August 20, 2017

Political operas: the Samson & Les Miz connection


Saint-Saën
Camille Saint-Saëns began working on Samson and Delilah in 1867. Considering he was one of Europe's most celebrated musicians and the opera's status as a repertoire staple, it's performance history had an odd, counter-intuitive beginning. Consider:
  • It's first performance was not until ten years later when Franz Liszt agreed to mount the world premiere in 1877. And even stranger still,
  • The opera was not heard in Saint-Saëns' home country of France until 1890!
What could account for this highly "meh" reception for a dignified, beautiful, well-crafted stage work? Various factors contributed. For one thing, Biblical subjects were not in vogue in opera houses of that generation, considered somewhat improper. For another, there was a built-in prejudice against Saint-Saëns' career as a virtuoso pianist; musicians are always subject to type-casting. "You can't write operas - you play concertos!", etc.

But I think there was a larger cloud hanging over this opera, one that made the Paris Opera reluctant to bring it to its audiences. France, in the second half of the nineteenth century, was still suffering post-traumatic stress resulting from not one, but two revolutions. And the rebellion depicted in Samson - that of an oppressed people rising up against their oppressors - was too uncomfortably close to the circumstances of both revolutions.

As I'll demonstrate later in this post, this era of French history not only led to the creation of the mega-hit warhorse of music theater Les Miserables, but a case can be made that there are echoes of Samson and Delilah  in one of the iconic choruses of Les Miz.

Here's a brief recap of the background history.

The first uprising happened in 1830 in a revolt known as the "Three Glorious Days". King Charles X of the House of Bourbon had taken a series of steps to empower the elite and keep the masses at bay, including:
  • abolishing the free press;
  • instituting the death penalty for any citizen criticizing the Eucharist;
  • taking away voting rights from all but a small percentage of the populace; and
  • dissolving Parliament.
By July of 1830, working-class Parisians had had enough and took to the streets. Protests quickly escalated into full-scale riots. Citizens were fired upon; twenty-seven were killed the first day. The outlook for the king deteriorated quickly over the following two days. Charles, after a six-year reign marked by plummeting popularity, was forced to abdicate the throne and escape to exile in England.

A provisional government named Charles' cousin Louis-Philippe of the House of Orleans as successor to the throne.

Louis-Phillipe led a moderately liberal government. He was supported by the “financial aristocracy”; bankers, stock exchange magnates, railroad barons, owners of coal mines, iron ore mines, and forests and all landowners associated with them. This elitism resulted in the disenfranchisement of much of the middle and working classes. By 1848 only about one percent of the population held the franchise. Even though France had a free press and trial by jury, only landholders were permitted to vote, which alienated the petty bourgeoisie (i.e. small businessmen) and even the industrial bourgeoisie from the government.

Louis Philippe was viewed as generally indifferent to the needs of society, especially to those members of the middle class who were excluded from the political arena. Alexis de Tocqueville had observed, "We are sleeping together in a volcano. ... A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon."

Lacking the property qualifications to vote, the lower classes were about to erupt in revolt. The year 1846 saw a financial crisis and bad harvests, and the following year brought economic depression. A poor railroad system hindered aid efforts, and the Peasant rebellions that resulted were forcefully crushed. Perhaps a third of Paris was on the dole. "Dangerous" writers proliferated such as Louis Blanc ("The right to work") and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon ("Property is theft!").

Things came to a head in February. The Prime Minister resigned, causing a large group of citizens to converge on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; soldiers were dispatched to control them. When one soldier's gun fired, apparently by accident, a riot ensued. Dozens of Parisians were killed. An angry mob set fires and descended on the Palace. Louis-Phillipe, like Charles before him, fled for his life.

Now consider the plot line of Samson and Delilah through the prism of all this civil unrest stemming from discontent lower classes. France, within the lifetimes of most potential audience members, had endured two revolts. The opera depicts two uprisings: the death of Abimélech spurs the Hebrews to rebellion in Act 1, and Samson's self-sacrifice in Act 3 constitutes a one-man revolution.

The spectacle of Samson, bound and toiling at the Philistines' mill at the start of Act 3 was too vivid a symbol of the continual working-class discontent in France. What's more, political commentators often cited Samson's story in summarizing conditions in the country. Edgar Quinet, a writer and historian, described the French populace as a “blinded giant”, who “in the darkness would overturn the columns on which society rested and bury itself in the debris”.

Other writers noted a tendency among the working class to find a charism atic leader; a hero to emerge and begin a new era of liberty. For leaders fearful of more revolution, the obvious parallel in a mighty champion like Samson emerging to inspire his down-trodden countrymen was a dangerous image.

Now to consider the interesting connections between Samson  and Les Miz.

The musical deals with the aftermath of the events of July, 1830. With Charles long gone, Louis-Phillipe was already well past the "honeymoon" stage of his reign; his popularity had evaporated as the people again felt chaffed by bad harvests, food shortages and high inflation. Revolutionaries opposed to the new monarchy took to the streets in an uprising known as the "June Rebellion". This is the scene depicted by Victor Hugo in his novel Les Miserables, with insurrectionists erecting barricades in the streets of Paris.

But the roughly 3000 street fighters were no match for the National Guard and the French army, a combined force of some 60,000. The rebellion ended after heavy gunfire, resulting in nearly 1000 casualties.

One of the truly stirring moments in Claude-Michel Schonberg's musical is the spirited chorus "Do you hear the people sing", sung by a valiant group of citizens manning the barricades. You can hear it at this link. Pay particular attention at about 0:54 when the anthem becomes more energetic.

What I find fascinating is that there is a VERY comparable chorus in Act 1 of Saint-Saëns' opera. It's the moment when Samson sings "Israel! Break your chains"; the enslaved Hebrew chorus joins with him. Listen to this recording with tenor Richard Cassilly.

I don't know about you, but the similarity between the two choruses is striking, to say the least. Did Schonberg have Samson specifically in mind, or is this simply a case of comparable dramatic situations inspiring similar musical manifestations? Your guess is as good as mine.

And finally, let us consider our own political climate in the twenty-first century. It is perhaps a sign of how far opera has fallen from being an influential force in society to what many consider an elitist entertainment that Saint-Saëns' opera no longer inspires fear in circles of power. It's ironic, because what politician these days fails to pander to "ordinary working men and women", painting them as needing a champion to provide jobs, working wages, and a chicken in every pot? And why do they do this? Because American working men and women, according to polls, feel they've been forgotten. They're angry. They're frustrated.

If they were to listen to Samson and Delilah, they just might find a kindred voice speaking to them.






August 10, 2017

Delilah and Saint-Saëns' dysfunctional relationships with women

The issues in opera composers' personal lives generally find a way of insinuating themselves into their stage works. Familiar cases in point:
  • Puccini, consigned to a loveless marriage with a difficult woman, created ultra-feminine female roles, falling in love with each like Pygmalion with his sculpture.
  • Verdi, who tragically lost both of his young children to illness, wrote several operas in which a parent causes the death of a child.
  • And Wagner - hoo-boy... don't get me started...
Augusta Holmes: not lacking in admirers
You may not have thought that Camille Saint-Saëns belongs in this category of working out his demons through his art, but Samson and Delilah demonstrates the extreme likelihood that he truly does. I believe it's no coincidence that in his most popular and enduring opera, Saint-Saëns chose the story of a strong, powerful woman who uses feminine wiles and sexuality to cause the downfall of a hero. Delilah not only causes Samson to lose his fearsome, God-given strength, but once he's in captivity she taunts him, humiliates him and degrades him before meeting her final fate.

Now let's meet the women who exerted profound influence on the life of Camille Saint-Saëns.

The composer's father died when Saint-Saëns was three months old. His health was so delicate that his mother Clémence sent him away to be raised by a nurse for the next two years. There was none of the crucial bonding experience between an infant and its parents. Thus, we're already on an unhealthy track for a well-balanced attitude.

Once returned to his mother's care, the household was joined by Saint-Saëns' widowed great aunt Charlotte; the child never had a male role model. Charlotte gave the boy his first piano lessons, but it was Clémence who fostered a neurotic relationship with women.

Saint-Saëns lived with his mother until her death, when the composer was in his fifties. Theirs was a love-hate relationship; Clémence was capable of unbelievable harshness in her interactions with her son. Saint-Saëns, of course, was a brilliant keyboard virtuoso from childhood until the end of his life, performing with equal skill on the organ and the piano. On one occasion, a joint recital was planned with the great Franz Liszt. Saint-Saëns confessed to his mother that he was feeling nervous about the event. Here's how Clémence responded in a letter:

I found your letter upon my return from Mass. You make me ill with your fears. I used to think you are a man; you are merely a coward. I treat you with contempt. I believed I had brought up a man. I have raised up only a girl of degenerative stock. Play as you ought to play: an artist of great talent. Either you play well, or I will renounce you as my child.

Nice.

On another occasion, Saint-Saëns made the mistake of confessing to her some trepidation about an upcoming performance of Samson and Delilah. Again, Clémence responded with a verbal castration:

One fine day you will feel strong like a man. You have come into the world to make music. Then do so!

This iron grip on her son's psyche extended to his social life as well, including his attempts at meaningful relationships with the opposite sex. No woman could possibly measure up to Clémence's standards, and in any case, she was more interested in Camille's contacts in high society and intellectual circles than in romance.

Clémence was the ultimate needy mother, pushing the ultimate guilt-trip on Camille at all times. Here's another excerpt from a letter she sent him while he was away on a concert tour:

I begin to find your travels a little lengthy. When you are not present my brain suffers a little; I have so little time to live… my years seem to pass more quickly than others. I have a need to see you.

At the time of that letter, Camille Saint-Saëns was fifty-two years old; he was in the habit of writing to her daily.

With this background, it should come as no surprise that the composer's single marriage was appallingly dysfunctional and short-lived, marred by tragedy. Many were surprised when, at the age of forty, Saint-Saëns married Marie-Laure Truffot, a girl of nineteen who was his pupil. Clémence, unsurprisingly, was not pleased; what's worse, the new bride found that her hostile mother-in-law would continue to live with the couple.

And then a catastrophe happened.

While Marie-Laure was dressing to go out, her two-year-old son was playing near an open window of their second-floor apartment. He fell to his death. (The couple's other son also died in infancy.) Clémence held the child's mother completely responsible, making life unendurable. Saint-Saëns took his mother's side. In the end, shockingly, the composer did not divorce his wife; he simply abandoned her.

He never married again.

There was one other woman who played a role in forming Saint-Saëns' relationships with women: her name was Augusta Holmes. Camille met her when he was thirty and Augusta was twenty. She was an Irish woman born in France. Quite the glamorous figure, she had a mane of beautiful red hair. She sang; she played the piano; she attracted a devoted circle of artists, musicians and intellectuals.

Saint-Saëns was smitten.

Recalling evenings in Augusta's salon, he described them as
“orgies of youth, art, music and poetry. We were all of us in love with her; literary men, painters, musicians, any of us would have been honored to have had her as a wife.

Summoning his nerve, the shy and sexually inexperienced Saint-Saëns poured out his feelings in a series of poems, love letters and proposals of marriage. But the young pianist-composer was far from the most eligible admirer in Augusta's circle, which included Liszt (quite the ladies' man), Wagner (again, don't get me started), Rossini and other luminaries.

Bottom line: Augusta Holmes shot Saint-Saëns down, pricking the balloon of his hopes and his ego. (NOTE: as an post-script to the affaire Augusta, the composer Cesar Franck was also infatuated with Holmes. Though he was a married man, his Piano Quintet, a work of great eroticism, was dedicated to her. As it happens, it fell to Saint-Saëns to perform at the world premiere. He was so annoyed by the passionate nature of this musical tribute to Augusta that, at the final notes, he rose from the piano and stalked off the stage without acknowledging applause, taking no bows.)

Let's consider the unfortunate Marie-Laure as a victim of Saint-Saëns' dysfunction, not the cause. There is no doubt that it was the scorn of Augusta and the cruel domination of Clémence that wreaked havoc on any chance he might have ever had of a well-adjusted image of Womankind. Both women, in their way, managed to enslave, dominate and emasculate Camille; it just happens that Holmes did it to several men, whereas his mother aimed her poison only at her son.

Which brings us to Delilah.

Can you see it already? Do you see that this character neatly embodies the seminal personality traits of both the women who fascinated/tortured Saint-Saëns? Like the mother, Delilah emasculated Samson (the "mighty hero"... typical composer self-image, right?) and made him miserable, unable to break free. But like Augusta, Delilah uses sexuality to tempt Samson and then - the key point! - in the final scene she shoots him down with taunting insults.

Now get a load of this: Camille Saint-Saëns often appeared at parties in drag. Thus decked out, he would use his falsetto voice to imitate famous prima donnas, with maliciously precise impersonations of their quirks and the out-of-tune high notes. It got laughs every time.

Psychologist Kenneth Ring has summarized Saint-Saëns' crippling misogyny:


“Saint-Saëns spent much of his musical life dealing with thematic material that stemmed from his deep fear of women – a fear that was originally engendered by the humiliating control his mother exerted over his life and that was later compounded by the rejection he received from the only woman he ever truly loved. In time, the devastating effects of this treatment caused a fusion of images in which the strength of the former was conjoined with the seduction of the latter, forming SS’s basic and ineradicable woman complex, which only served to deepen his antipathy toward women in general."


And here's one final observation: this misogyny was not limited to the opera Samson and Delilah. Here are some thumbnail summaries of other of Saint-Saëns' works in the same vein:
  • His first opera Le Timbre d’Argent  is about a man ruined by the seductive power of a woman. Conrad (the hero) is betrothed to another, but infatuated by a dancer. His passion causes the death of two close friends and the dancer rejects him in the end.
  • His symphonic poem Le Rouet d’Omphale is the story of how Hercules becomes enslaved to the sexual charms of a woman who humiliates him by making him dress like a woman.
  • His opera Phryne is about a courtesan who subjects a foolish old magistrate to ridicule when he becomes infatuated with her
  • Another opera: Hélène (about Helen of Troy) Saint-Saëns described as “temptation triumphant, the irresistible attraction of forbidden fruit.”
  • His last opera, completed at age 75: Déjanire; again, it is about Hercules brought down through the wiles of a woman, his jealous wife in this case.
I assume, Faithful Reader, that you get the picture. Camille Saint-Saëns was a gifted man; a true intellectual; a composer with a gift for urbane, well-structured music of Gallic taste and eternal melodic appeal; that's his legacy. The legacy of his mother, on the other hand, was emotional chaos and a series of failed relationships with women; relationships that left bitter traces in his art.



August 6, 2017

Samson and Delilah and the "Seductive '70's"


Samson and Delilah by Guercino (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg)
About the title to this post – I’m talking about the 1870’s, specifically. Within the period from 1870 to 1877, three operas, each long since standard-repertoire staples, had their first performances. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, this trio is connected by the inclusion of scenes that are remarkable for both their similarities and the shocking effect they surely had on audiences of a century and a half ago.


The three: Aida (1870), Carmen (18750 and Virginia Opera’s opening production of the 2017-2018 season, Samson and Delilah (1877).
The point of commonality: in each opera, there is a scene in which a woman seduces a man into betraying his military duty, with disastrous consequences.

Weird, huh?

In 2017 we’ve long since become jaded to the femme fatale, wiggling her hips and making helpless men putty in her hands. A thousand movies and ten thousand TV shows have made her a familiar figure. But in the 1870’s? Theatrical audiences were used to the male characters doing all the seducing. From Don Giovanni (yeah, yeah, he had a pretty bad day in Mozart’s opera, but still – that catalogue had a buncha names in it, right?) to Edgardo to nerdy Nemorino to the Duke of Mantua, it was always the guys puttin’ on the moves on women who fell for their schtick.

But the Ethiopian princess, the wanton gypsy and the Philistine priestess brought us a whole new ballgame in the seduction department. Suddenly, it was the tenor’s turn to do some schtick-fallin’, ignoring any number of warning bells.

·         AIDA, unlike her sistren, is an unwilling seductress. She is guilted into manipulating her lover Radames by her father, who piles up the images of tortured countrymen to spur her into action. Her boyfriend is pretty much Caesar, Patton and Napoleon all rolled into one in the annals of Egyptian generals. When Aida tempts him into running away with her with romantic images of Ethiopia, she isn’t spinning a web of lies so much as describing a fantasy she desperately wants for both of them – in my opinion, anyway. Of course, Radames gets all excited and blurts out military strategy and it all goes to crap in a hurry. Aida experiences no satisfaction because she loves her victim.

·         CARMEN has no such patriotic issues motivating her seduction when she turns her attention to poor Don José. José actually suffers the indignity of TWO seductions! In the “Seguidilla” Carmen’s goals are simpler than Aida’s, and extremely short-term. She’s been arrested, she’s on her way to jail, and she doesn’t wanna. Also, her lizard-brain took note of José’s studied indifference during her exhibition in the “Habanera” earlier; she regards him as a challenge. Plus the whole “let-me-go” thing. Like Radames, José is betraying his duty to the army by giving in to Carmen, but it’s a very small-scale version of treason. Misdemeanor instead of felony, you might say. It’s in Act 2 that – doggone it! – he falls for it again; and this time, the stakes are higher. She seduces him right into desertion, a far bigger deal. José wasn’t executed for letting her go in Act 1, it was just a matter of a few months in the brig. But in the end, though the final curtain deprives us of seeing it, we know an execution is coming after all, just as it did for Radames. The other difference from Aida: Carmen is a sociopath: she feels nothing authentic for her victim; he’s a means to an end.

·         DELILAH also chooses a military leader to toy with: the Hebrew who uses donkey jaw-bones as his Weapon Of Mass Destruction: Samson. Like Aida, Delilah’s goal is to make the hero betray his countrymen; to allow an enemy state to rise up with the opportunity for victory. Like, Aida, Delilah is essentially a spy; unlike Aida, she is quite gung-ho about the assignment. Serious question: we never learn which side came out on top after Radames’s treason; did Egypt remain dominant, or did Ethiopia have a comeback? We sure do know how it turned out for the nation of Israel: they went right back into slavery, like a rebellious kid being sent to his room after staying out all night – at least until Samson pulled a super-strength rabbit out of his hat in Act 3.

But here’s what makes Delilah unique: she actively hates her victim; her seduction, replete with passionate declarations of “amour” is as phony as an eleven-dollar bill. Aida loves Radames; Carmen is interested in José in the moment of his seduction and for the duration of his usefulness to her. But when Delilah is free to say what she really means, she isn’t shy about expressing her complete loathing of him. And, importantly, the audience is fully aware of this animus PRIOR to her famous “My heart at thy feet” aria. Had there ever been this extent of female treachery before? Had a woman made love to a man with pure, unapologetic hatred for him in previous opera history?

Three female leads; three sexually-charged, red-hot seductions (okay, four, since Carmen did two); three soldier-boys whose moral fiber and military discipline turned to mush. So alike, yet with dramatically interesting nuances – and all within a handful of years.

In a future post, we’ll learn something about Camille Saint-Saëns’ real-life interactions with women in his private life that may shed light on his choice of Delilah for a portrait in music. Those interactions were……………………… complicated. Stay tuned!

May 13, 2017

Emmanuel Macron: opera lover!

Vive Macron!

Let's put politics aside, all right? For one thing, my employers wouldn't appreciate it; for another, this is an opera blog. But count me as a BIG fan of Emmanuel Macron, President-elect of France, for reasons having nothing to do with his views on immigration, France's unemployment rate or economics.
Macron: Un politicien qui aime la musique.
(photo by Copyleft)

The dude is seriously into music. What's more, he expresses himself intelligently and eloquently on the subject. An interview of Macron by NPR, available at this link, is making the rounds on the Web, and what it reveals about his musical tastes will be uplifting news to classical musicians and music-lovers. 

He is an amateur pianist, with particular fondness for the music of Schumann ("It has images and feelings I can't find anywhere else") and Liszt, whose Années de pèlerinage he calls "incandescent". Another idol is J. S. Bach, praising his music for its precision and spirituality, calling the composer "a passenger between several worlds, indefinable and brilliant".

But his passion for music, happily (in the context of this blog), also extends to opera. His comments on Rossini are worth quoting at length:

"I have a great admiration for Rossini. For me, (his music) occupies an essential place in music history. His freedom, his life and his genius have always impressed me. He took the opera out of his yoke by offering a new freedom to the voice; he completely reinvented the lyrical song. From Barbier  to Voyage to Reims to Cenerentola, he has created an irresistable style, but I am also sensitive to his serious operas such as Mosè or Maometto II, which are given so rarely.

This doesn't sound like a faker trying to toss around a few titles to create a faux image of cultivation; it sounds like the fruits of a lifelong and abiding interest. As his hero Schumann would have said, "Hats off, gentlemen!"

Lest you think I swoon over a French politician's erudition as a sneaky way of throwing shade on American politicians, I hasten to assure you that many U.S. Presidents have shared Macron's love of classical music. Here are a few, just in case you weren't aware:

THOMAS JEFFERSON was interested in, well, everything, so naturally he had a lively interest in music. He went so far as to aver that music "is the favorite passion of my soul, and fortune has cast my lot in a country where it is in a state of deplorable barbarism." His music library was extensive, Like Macron, he was an enthusiastic amateur instrumentalist. He played the violin; in his youth he devoted three hours a day to practice and was adept enough to participate in concerts at the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg as a student.

JIMMY CARTER made classical music a constant element of life in the West Wing during his term in office. Okay, the only instrument he tried to play was the ukulele, but he managed to lure no less an artist than Vladimir Horowitz to perform at the White House, which was considered a major coup. We also are told (by wqxr.org,) that Carter's familiarity with Wagner's Tristan und Isolde somehow played a role in his naval career. I'll have to ask the President about that the next time we have coffee...

RICHARD NIXON enjoyed playing the piano. I have found no evidence of any interest in opera, but on the other hand, did Jimmy Carter ever compose a piano concerto? He did not. NIXON DID. Sort of. Click here to view a clip from Jack Paar's Tonight Show to see a video of Nixon performing his own music, accomapnied (in the words of Paar) by "fifty Democrat violinists". Is his touch on the keyboard a bit percussive? Sure, but it must have taken some guts to play for a nation-wide audience. I give him props.

WOODROW WILSON is a POTUS who has fallen out of favor with historians of late for unfortunate views on race relations. But music lovers can still appreciate that he sang in a glee club as a young man, played the violin middlingly well, and did produce an admirable quote during the adversities of World War I: "Music, now more than ever before, is a national need".

And finally,

DWIGHT EISENHOWER is included solely as an appreciator, not as a musical amateur. Believe it or not, he and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower produced and released a record during their time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Titled "The President's favorite music: Dwight D. Eisenhower", it's a compilation of Bach, Beethoven, Strauss and (yay opera!) selections from Porgy and Bess. This record is still available for purchase from third-party sellers via Amazon. You can get yours at this link.

Hey - man cannot live by Gross National Products alone, am I right? And once again: Vive Macron!

May 3, 2017

How would famous composers have used Twitter?

Depending on how you feel about Twitter, you're either profoundly grateful or wistfully regretful that Richard Wagner passed on and ascended to Valhalla generations prior to the advent of that particular media platform.
Mozart: jokes, GIF's and snark?

Just imagine if Wagner had been empowered to trumpet to the world his incendiary views on politics, Jews, and (naturally) how the world didn't appreciate his staggering genius -- in 144 characters. 

Hoo-boy.

Naturally, Wagner would have employed the "thread" device you often encounter in the Twittersphere, where people's agendas can't be expressed in a single tweet, forcing them to make endless enumerated replies to the original post until they've finally run out of talking points.

Wagner's threads would have numbered in the hundreds; in the thousands.

This got me started thinking about how other composers might have employed Twitter. See if you agree.

VERDI: There is no chance Verdi would have used ANY social media. In fact, he'd have used email reluctantly, mainly for business arrangements or to open attachments containing the latest revisions from his current librettist. But Twitter? He would have held the whole enterprise in deepest scorn. "I have a farm to oversee and opera projects to complete."

That said, if I'm wrong and he did sign up for Twitter, he'd have used it exclusively for blunt, candid political statements with appropriate hashtags: #RISORGIMENTO 

MOZART: would have shared vulgar jokes and funny GIF's. Maybe the occasional snarky comment about Salieri, or some pianist or singer he didn't think much of.

PUCCINI: He'd have a P.R. person handle his account, using Twitter only to promote his latest opera or an important new production of another one about to open. "Really looking forward to working again with the beautiful Rosina Storchio in the new Tosca in Milan. Always a delight." That sort of thing. Nothing personal.

J. S. BACH: Daily inspirational quotes from the New Testament or Martin Luther. Possibly links to audio tracks of fave pieces by Telemann. Baby pictures. LOTS of baby pictures.

BEETHOVEN: I'm thinking he'd share photos he took on nature walks - pics of pretty landscapes, rolling hills, babbling brooks, etc. He would have weighed in on current events and politics, but less obsessively than Wagner. He was something of a "coffeephile" (i.e. a java connoisseur), so he might have tweeted about a new blend or dark roast he'd just discovered.

ROSSINI: Food porn! Links to recipes and photos of the most recent dinner he either was served or cooked himself. Also a fairly continuous stream of snark about the state of contemporary music. Actually, of all the composers, Rossini's personality seems the best-suited to commentary in 144 characters. Consider his famous remark "Wagner has lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour." I mean, how many retweets would THAT have gotten in the first 24 hours?! It's really a crying shame he missed out on Twitter...

JOHN CAGE: Pure guesswork here, but would it not be in character for him to composer a Tweet consisting of the phrase "144 characters" repeated until her ran out of space? Something like this:

John Cage @chanceman 144 characters144 characters144 characters144 characters144 characters144 characters144 characters144 characters144 characters144 characters


April 24, 2017

In which I trash "Mr. Holland's Opus"

WARNING: if you're a fan of "Mr. Holland's Opus" and are prone to high blood pressure, this post may not be for you...

A few months ago I wrote about the recent film Whiplash  I'm not a film critic, and that post was not a review; it was more of a description of my personal reaction to the music-school traumas the movie depicted.
Typical student orchestra, though that's not Mr. Holland.
photo by Anthony B.

This post is also about a movie, though in this case one from 1995: the Richard Dreyfuss vehicle Mr. Holland's Opus. Again, my purpose is to convey my personal reaction to a movie that won wide acclaim back in the day. Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 stars out of 4 and called it "very moving".

My wife liked it. My circle of friends at that time liked it. Maybe you like it.

Me? I HATE, HATE, HATE THIS MOVIE.

As I sat in the theater watching it upon its release, my hopes buoyed by strong reviews, I alternated between squirming impatiently and slumping in disappointment. I shall explain.

This film, by the way, was not Dreyfuss's first venture in the realm of movies with a classical music theme. In 1980, he and Amy Irving starred in a feature called The Competition about two pianists trying to make their mark in an international piano competition. I remember the artificiality of the crisis facing Dreyfuss's character: having failed to take the top prize in two previous contests, this one was his "last chance"; if he didn't come in first, he would be condemned to teaching beginning piano to inner-city children. This, of course, ignores the reality that, quite often, the 2nd and 3rd place winners in major competitions go on to careers far outstripping the ones who take top honors. Also: 1) just why would he not be eligible to apply for college jobs, or build a prestigious private studio? and 2) what's wrong with teaching inner-city kids, anyway?

But enough of that one: my sharpest rebukes I save for good ol' Mr. Holland. If you never saw it, the brief synopsis is this: Mr. Holland is a brilliant young composer who is sure to become the next Leonard Bernstein. Faced with a family to support and bills to pay, he takes a job as a high school music teacher, certain that it's only temporary until he achieves Lennie-status. The years roll by, he becomes dedicated to the job in spite of himself, all the while spending his spare time working on the big orchestral masterpiece he dreams of completing. As he nears retirement, his dreams unrealized, many of his grateful former students return to present him with a gift of appreciation: they perform the aforementioned orchestral masterpiece. Tears of joy flood Mr. Holland's wrinkled cheeks. The end. Sounds heartfelt and inspiring, right?

Big giant MEH over here.

Here are my problems with this stupid, stupid movie.

1. THE "WOW, WHAT A DIFFERENCE!" DEVICE
Movies and TV shows always exaggerate EVERYTHING. In medical dramas, diseases that take months to develop in real life reach the critical stage in days or even hours. In cop shows,bad guys fire an armory's worth of ammo at the hero without ever hitting him, yet he kills his enemy with a single shot from across a parking lot. Makes a better story, I get that.

The equivalent in Mr. Holland is the completely ridiculous transformation he brings about in the student orchestra. His first rehearsal on Day 1 of his new job is mind-bendingly awful. It's cacophony. Are they students or chimpanzees? They certainly sound as if none of them have ever attempted to play their instruments before. Cut to a scene in the not-distant future. The level of playing now approaches the Berlin Philharmonic. It's not just improved; it's completely professional, at least as I remember the scene. Give me a break.

It would have been perfectly possible - and reasonable! - to document an improvement in the students' playing without having them play at an insanely polished level of artistry. We would still have gotten the point that he's a really good teacher.

2, THE ICKY, ICKY DOOMED LOST LOVE
Midway through his career as an educator, Mr. Holland develops a close relationship with a talented student; a student who (we are to understand) is "going places". Her name is Rowena. Rowena knocks 'em dead at a student concert singing Gershwin, as I recall. Of course, the student band backing her up sounds like it could open at the Bellagio in Vegas because that Mr. Holland really knows his stuff! What follows is an episode meant to tug at our heartstrings. Rowena and her teacher have a powerful mutual attraction, despite Mr. Holland having a wife and special-needs child at home. Unspoken yet deep, deep feelings are conveyed through meaningful glances and sighs and so on. Eventually, Rowena bids her hometown goodbye, heading off to the big city to take Broadway by storm. A bittersweet moment of farewell passes between the young star-to-be and the sensitive instructor who molded her gifts. Farewell!

STOP IT! JUST STOP IT! MR. HOLLAND SHOULD BE FIRED. SHE WAS A STUDENT AND HE WAS 10-15 YEARS OLDER THAN HER. It wasn't romantic - it was CREEPY. It was PEDOPHILIA. The trouble with the movie was that this longing was glorified in a patently false and unrealistic way. Shame on Mr. Holland, and shame on Mr. Holland's Opus.

3. BAD CASTING IN A SUPPORTING ROLE.
The film required Mr. Holland to have a best friend-slash-confidante on the faculty, someone to share his ups and downs with. That fell to the varsity football coach, played by Jay Thomas. I recall also seeing Mr. Thomas, a perfectly fine character actor, on an episode of Law and Order SVU, in which he played a weasel of a shyster attorney involved in shady business deals. In THAT role he was perfectly cast. He was about as convincing as a football coach as, say, Woody Allen would have been.

And finally, most importantly,

YOU WORKED ON THAT PIECE OF CRAP FOR 30 YEARS???
The film makes a big deal out of the masterpiece-in-progress to which our hero remains devoted. When other men use evenings to watch TV and weekends to play golf, Mr. Holland is at his desk, poring over sheaves of manuscript paper, scribbling notes with what amounts to a good case of OC disorder. So, in other words, the build-up to the climactic performance in the movie's finale is immense. My god, the effort he put into this thing approaches what Wagner went through in creating the damn Ring cycle. This better be one heck of a piece! I want majesty! I want eloquence! I want substance!

Didn't get it.

This "opus" turned out to be about 5 minutes (or less) of unimaginably puerile elevator music. It sounded more like something one of his high school students might have written than "the world's most tragically undiscovered genius".

Now, it would be one thing if the movie had been acknowledged the awfulness of the music; if its low quality had forced Mr. Holland into an epiphany of self-awareness, causing him to realize that his true talent was that of a teacher; that all these years he'd been under delusions about his talent as an artist.

But no - this performance was his moment of REDEMPTIVE TRIUMPH! The world finally got to hear his magnificent music in all its.... uh... magnificence!

Mr. Holland, you aren't who you think you are. Sorry, brother, but each of us must face the realities of our limitations at some point.

I've never met anyone who was not inclined to give this movie a pass because it celebrated music education and made a hero of a devoted teacher and drew attention to the arts and..... You get the idea.

But I give it no pass. The actual music Mr. Holland composed seemed to me to carry the message that "this kind of music is for the birds. Take a crack at a rock band - at least you might make some coin instead of ending up an old man with nothing to show for it except the world's most lame symphony."

That concludes this rant! And really, if you loved kindly Mr. Holland, I regret any annoyance I may have caused.

April 2, 2017

Turandot in Rome: a fond, if blurry, memory.

The year was 1999.

I spent the month of July in Italy as a guest artist at the Operafestival di Roma, where I'd been invited to sing the role of Don Alfonso in a production of Così fan tutte and serve as Chorus Master. (I would return to the festival eleven years later, an experience I chronicled at length in my book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates.) With the food, the friends, the food, the sights, the food, the music, and the food, ....it was a great month. But I digress.
The Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Italy

The Rome Opera had their own production in the works: Puccini's Turandot. I remember that tickets were pretty inexpensive; was it ten lire? Fifteen? I can't recall, nor do I remember the conversion rate, though I know it favored the dollar. Anyway, a bunch of us decided to go on one of our rare evenings off.

This was an outdoor production; the venue was the Stadio Olimpico, a giant structure dating from the 1930's that had been rebuilt nine years earlier to be a modern soccer palace with a capacity of some 75,000. It's located north and slightly west of the city on the Viale dei Gladiatori, which seems appropriate for both sports: calcio and opera

A bus carried us the three and a half miles (5.8 KM if you want to get all European about it) from the hotel Domus Pacis, later known as the Hotel Torre Rosso and now, it seems as the Church Village. We forked over lire notes and climbed into the stadium, scrambling for seats with the best view.

Now, granted: Turandot was created to be opera on an epic scale - a genuine spectacle. But what greeted us at the Stadio was a sight I'd never seen before and don't expect to see again.

One stage? Nope.

Two stages? Try again.

Amazingly, there were THREE FULL-SIZED STAGES BACK-TO-BACK-TO-BACK, filling the length of the playing field. Pardon my lack of artistic talent, but something like this:


This allowed the director to work with an amazing number of human bodies comprising chorus and extras. During the big crowd scenes, I had the sense that if they'd all jumped up and landed simultaneously, the resulting tremor could have brought down the Coliseum.

And yes, the principals were miked. In other words, this was not going to be a performance focused on the subtle nuances of interpersonal relationships and the evolution of character development.

But then, when has Turandot ever been about that?

At the top of the show, you'll recall, Timur is knocked down and Liu calls out for help, attracting the attention of Calaf, who rushes over for a joyful reunion. In this staging, our Prince was on the outisde edge of the stage-right stage, while Liu and Timur were on the outside edge of the OPPOSITE STAGE. The poor tenor had to sprint the length of all three full-sized platforms to make his way over to Papa while the crazed populace of Peking cleared a path for him.

"Excuse me. Coming through. Scusi, scusi".

There really should have been a shuttle bus to get him there, and don't ask me how he was able to sing after that.

And who was in the cast? I have a vague memory that the tenor was named Massimo, which suggests it could have been the noted tenor Massimo Giordano. Giordano would have been 28 at the time and had not yet appeared outside his native Italy, which makes it possible.

As for the rest of the cast, I have no clue. Those names have long since evaporated from memory. Not surprising, since I no longer remember what I had for lunch yesteday. Don't get old, kids.

So it was big, loud, and over-the-top to the max. The conductor was stationed so far from the stage that, in order to cue the singers, he had to leap in the air. In this case, athleticism was at least as important as baton technique. He must have been exhausted afterwards.

By the time the opera had ended, the city bus lines had shut down for the night, leaving us to snag a taxi. It was around one in the morning, so that took a little doing. Now for most of us, our knowledge of Italian was limited to A) the roles we'd sung, and B) knowing how to order meals in a restaurant. Fortunately, my dear friend Heidi Schmidt was with us. Heidi had lived in Tuscany for a year, studying on a fellowship. She chatted amiably with the cab driver and his son, who was in the front seat for some reason if memory serves.

I know what some of you, the purists among my Faithful Readers, are thinking right now. I know my description of this Turandot has you recoiling in disgust. "That's not ART!" And you're right - Art it was Not.

Listen, I have standards too, okay? And I admit that I'll get way more satisfaction from next season's company premiere of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Virginia Opera than I did from that bloated, amplified, vulgar exhibition.

But I wouldn't have missed it for anything. Call it a guilty pleasure - it was FUN.