America

It’s the Fourth of July and I can’t, I just can’t. My neighbor across the street, who two elections ago had a big orange “DEFEAT OBAMA” sign in his shrubbery, and during the last election interestingly displayed no sign at all, has a honking big American flag hanging in his porch entry, as sort of a flyscreen I guess. I ought to tell him it doesn’t work that way.

My country is taking kids away from their parents and giving them back, if they’re given back, broken, and I can’t do a lot more about it than write kiddygarten postcards to voters begging people to vote for anyone who will act to stop this insanity. I don’t even like kids, but you don’t do this. You don’t.

There’s a link there at the word “broken.” Read as much as you can stand. Goddammit.

Nonetheless, I’m an American — not a Brit, though I almost did that once (and they have their own problems), not a Canadian or anything else. When I was born Eisenhower, aka the Last Honest Republican, was President. My father played in the Army Band, Pershing’s Own, and I learned first hand how full of shit the rah-rah-red-white-and-blue could be, but still, here I am. I have to find something that I can still love.

I reverted to Arthur Foote. A Unitarian kapellmeister, who studied in Europe and channeled Dvorak, Brahms and Mendelssohn, he is the only American composer I can entirely embrace. Fuck your folksy Aaron Copland first grade orchestral settings and your Charles Ives cacophony. Here is a beating heart.

Unitarianism is an interesting faith, if it is one. I don’t really understand it much. I think it basically follows the rubric “be a good person.” We could use that.

Here is the Foote piece that I always come back to. Tell me if the world isn’t redeemed at about 1:24 when the B section kicks in, or if not there when the melody comes back dancing on the roof of Creation at 7:35. An American did that. So we’re not all damned to the outer dark.

Sorry, but those are the thoughts I think these days.

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The World Sucks And Yet

This was a very depressing week to be an American. There are people, of a rather Ralph Naderish persuasion (purportedly he never broke for rest and relaxation and slept on a cot in his office) who suggest that if you’re not using the Internet for anything but organizing to fight back,  you are part of the problem.

Well we all know how it worked out with Ralph Nader.

So I must share the thing that helped get me through this weekend: vintage Sondheim with Simon Russell Beale,  Daniel Evans, and Julian Ovenden plus, wait for it, the operatic bad boy of my heart-throb dreams, Bryn Terfel. Just blundered across it. Totally incorrect in these days of #Metoo but I would tidy up the dishes for Bryn any time, if he would sing.

Nadia

This was a weird one. A little while back I resumed using a thing called Sleep Wizard which is a speedball of nutriceuticals that accelerates your progress into deep stage sleep. I’d used it for years, then tried some other things that kinda sorta did the trick but seemed to leave me with an unrelieved calendar of anxiety/futility dreams, the kind where you’re trying to dial a phone but it doesn’t work, or you can’t find a restroom anywhere that isn’t too disgusting to even exist. Fortuitously, the company that sells the Sleep Wizard got its operation smoothed out, one of the reasons I’d looked elsewhere. It’s been about a month. I have interesting dreams.  Some of them are almost good.

Last night, I was at some sort of public performance or event, a fairly informal one that seemed to be taking place in a big open room or sheltered outdoor venue, with no seats, just people on the floor. Maybe blankets. Not sure. I am not even sure what music was being performed, but at a pause, famous people in attendance were to be brought forward.

The emcee produced a slender, ethereal woman, clearly old but not hag-like — in fact her features were hard to distinguish, her hair and eyes seemed dark — wrapped in a sort of sari or swaddling so closely you could not really discern arms and legs, and introduced her as Nadia Boulanger. For those who aren’t classical buffs, Boulanger was one of the Grey Eminences of twentieth-century music, composing little in her later life but teaching and directing copiously, mentoring most of the “modern” composers you possibly have heard of: Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Virgil Thomson, to name a few. When I was young and trying to channel all my mental energy (including melodies that hit me at all hours of the day and night) I asked my father, the hornplayer, if women had ever been composers — you wouldn’t know it from the playlists of the time. He brought up Nadia Boulanger. As far as I know, that’s the only conversation I ever had about her.

But in the dream I was stunned to discover that she was, though aged, still alive (she actually died in 1979), and appearing in public for unclear reasons, other than that it was a musical occasion, at least in part. And suddenly I stood up from my place on the blanket at stepped forward and sank to one knee in front of her, welling over with reverence and joy.

I have no idea what this means. Should I start practicing the piano again? The guitar? Terrifying the cats with my singing? Or found a religion?

Ear Defenders

I have been bitching for years about the universal plague of the earbud, the solipsistic me-world accessory that isolates other gym members in their own little music bubble and makes them impervious to things like friendly conversation or requests to “work in” on the machine they’ve been hogging for three sets without getting off in between. Well, you can talk to them, but you have to cause an international incident by raising your voice and waving your hand in front of their faces and repeating yourself when they fork the gross wax-glazed bud out of their ear and say “Huh?” like an old deefer in a retirement home.

Only I seem to have joined them. No, I don’t stick things in my ears. Never have, never will; it’s disgusting, and TOO GODDAM LOUD. I don’t need my music inside my bodily orifices; I really don’t need it in the gym at all. Which is sort of the reason. Gold’s was bad enough — they had their own disgusting radio station peppered with repetitions of the same ads every fifteen minutes,, for teeth whitener or Spandex leggings or what not. Back at Planet Fitness, where I reluctantly retreated after the millionth commercial and one too many rude assholes and a paucity of warmup bikes — they pick a Sirius station, and on Sundays I can stand the classic rock, which sort of takes me back to my roots at the biker gym that was my home in the 80s. The current top forty, however, can take a hike. It either sounds like a bad case of fleas or someone banging his head on a wall for eternity, and one of the current songs features a talentless female vocalist ascending to a dramatic peak note — practically in whistle register and grotesquely flat. I was raised on real music, goddammit — Mozart and Bruckner and Schumann and Brahms. I don’t know why people need to fray their nerves with this amateurish shit all day. No wonder society is in a mess.

So what happened was, I was reading the Twitter feed of Steven Silberman, who wrote the book, literally, about autistic people finding their place in human culture, and one of his autistic tweeps posted about wearing his Ear Defenders in the subway and meeting a gradeschool-age autistic kid who was excited at the sight because he wore them too.

I perked up. I have always gravitated toward people on the spectrum, though I didn’t usually know it because “on the spectrum” hasn’t been a term for most of my life. But forex, my first decent boyfriend (my “transgender ex,” as it turned out) ticked all the boxes for Aspie whiz kid with tics and quirks — could play reams of Bach and Beethoven by heart, chess maniac, used to make weird rolling movements with his hands and hum to himself, wore clothes until they were in tatters because they were familiar and soft. The Congressional protest candidate that I worked for in the oughts used to routinely stim while driving the car, holding his hand over the air vents and waving it continually at the wrist; couldn’t remember a face for five minutes; couldn’t shut up once he started talking, did statistics for a living, handled carefully planned public speaking with grace but had genuine meltdowns when there was too much unscripted interaction. (I earned some kind of an award for stage-managing his candidacy.) He had had a ham radio call sign since his teens — a hobby that was home to autistic people before the digital age gave them a larger playground. I was always sorry that I couldn’t coax him, a man born long before adult autism diagnosis was a “thing,” into getting evaluated, but like neurotypicals (that’s me and pro’lly you) of his generation, could only hear me suggesting that he had an awful defect instead of alternative wiring.

The common ground is that I get the characteristic low threshold that autistic people have for sensory input. I get a violent headache and throw up if I view 3-D movies or even the vivid animations that often precede a feature film. I cannot be near anything like a disco or party and, lacking any desire to attend a rock concert, can detect (and be crazed by) a loud stereo two houses away that the Engineer can’t even hear. This is a “thing,” too, though it is kind of mortifying that it is termed “high sensitivity,” which sounds like I am trying to align with a cohort of tender weepers who swoon if you say “fuck.” Whatever. It makes me a good bodyworker and ruthless lifter who says “fuck” a lot in the presence of excess commotion. Maybe that is its own neurotribe.

I stuck “Ear Defender” into the search bar.

A few days later this wonderful pair of orange things showed up.

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They look like the headphones that a lot of gym peeps wear, they’re just not connected to anything. No one else has to know that. They muffle 37 decibels, are considered adequate for driving monster trucks or light shooting, and I can attest that while they do not obliterate the vile noise that pours from the gym speakers, they move it way up the road. Also, I don’t have to overhear screamingly banal conversation from the schlubby housewives and shuffling pudgy men who use the machines backward and operate the bikes on zero resistance in slo-mo just so they can tell their doctors they “work out.” I miss the days when only goons and buff gay men (and me) hung out in gyms.

Now I get to be the one saying “Hm?” What the hell. It’s nice and quiet in here.

 

Tosca And The Golden Retriever Puppy

Or, I Am Never Going To See Bryn

We bought the tickets as soon as the season came out. For those who aren’t slavish followers of this blog, well, I have a giant fan crush on Bryn Terfel, the Welsh baritone who has made the province of operatic bad boys his domain. (“Bad Boys” is actually the title of a CD he cut, whose tracks range from Verdi to Sondheim.) He was the Hot Wotan of the first Ring Cycle I ever followed in toto, bringing a lower abdominal thrum to the usually soporific and didactic matter that Wagner gave to his “head god, and a crashing bore” [Dame Anna Russell]. Wotan is recycled Schopenhauer, mostly. Bryn made him romantic and, as a father sentencing his best loved daughter to common humanity, heartbreaking. (The by-play in their earlier scenes was globus hystericus to someone who once imagined she had a father’s love and learned otherwise.) The idea of him doing Scarpia — the blow-molded, double acting bastard operagoers love to hate — was slam-dunk irresistible.

And then some sort of shit hit the fan. I’m not sure in what order. Only, Bryn backed out, citing vocal fatigue, which a singer has to take seriously; then the soprano jumped ship; maybe before or after that, Jonas Kaufman, who is always and forever getting the vapors, abdicated the romantic tenor lead Mario Cavaradossi; last but not least, the Met ejected James Levine, who ferfrigsake back in the 80s my connections at the New England Conservatory and the Met knew all about him cornholing little boys and paying off their parents but somehow it took that long for the Met management to tweak on it. Whatever.

So I almost said to the Engineer, Give the tickets away. Glad I didn’t. If I couldn’t have Bryn, Željko Lučić was not at all shabby. I am doomed to see a good singing actor as Rigoletto and then see him in my very next Tosca (starting with Cornell MacNeil, who may have inaugurated the quill pen thing, of which more later).  Lučić’s Rigoletto — he testified that he had been told to play the scathing court fool as Don Rickles, but had no idea what was meant — totally did not suck. His Scarpia was dire, all too believable, full of baritone engine vibration, and imbued with the smugness of a man who has been getting his way for long enough that he takes it for granted.

I have this theory about Scarpia — the dreaded police chief of Rome whose word can send a man to the gallows and for whom, as Cavaradossi says, the confessor and the hangman are his procurers. I say he is a commoner. I speculate that, “Barone” Scarpia notwithstanding, he came from humble, even from despised peasantry — reference Anakin Skywalker for people whose fictive milieu is more modern —  and that one of the grim joys of his life is wielding the power of life and death over the nobility. The text yields tantalizing tells.  “Carnefice,” mocks the tortured but defiant Cavaradossi — repeating the word for emphasis — meaning “hangman,” a job not typically given to the upper class. Archly, earlier in the scene, Scarpia requires Cavaradossi’s attendance,  saying “Introducete il cavaliere”: “Bring in the gentleman.” Cavaradossi is a kinda witless, idealistic, well off member of a sort of creative class, working as a painter in the Church of Sant’ Andrea for sure, but also the owner of a secluded villa with all kinds of grounds, if you listen to his arias about snogging with Tosca therein. A bit young for that not to be inherited. And Scarpia: you sense him enjoying the harvest of Tosca, the fiery artiste,  only so much more because she is the favorite of the Queen. These are the passions of an arriviste, a man with something to prove.

But whatever. It was Cavaradossi who stole the show, which is a funny thing to say about a tenor lead, but I have always found the character a giant snore. He is noble, he loves Tosca, he gambles and loses his life, he should be a romantic blockbuster, but I’ve always found him a stiff, the kind of preux chevalier that we are told we ought to idealize zzzzzz. Bad-boy Scarpia always got my sidelong glance instead. Then along comes Grigolo, pawing over the soprano like the boyfriend who used to forget my parents were in the room, and most delightfully, bouncing up and down during the intermission interviews like a Golden Retriever puppy, extolling the idealism that goads Cavaradossi to tell the escaped political prisoner “I will save your ass!” and volunteering to continue the conversation after time’s-up you-have-to-prep-Act-II because “I am fine! It’s only Tosca!” At the curtain call I was half convinced he was going to leap down and possibly crowd surf his way through the orchestra pit. Watch this one.

Yoncheva was the Tosca — at long last — who really came across as a naive, sweet, vulnerable but brave kid versus a narcissistic high-maintenance diva, and the Met found its feet again after a grotesque production full of crass crap like lingerie-clad bimbos and statue-snogging. Does every opera production owe us a resurrection of the original time period? Not necessarily, but this one should be labeled “Welcome Back.”

But I still need to see Bryn before I die. There’s a Vienna Opera recording, and bits from Britain, but it’s not the Met live. Exophthalmic expressions notwithstanding, and the weird costume and signature fuck ’em Bryn hairdo: just listen to the oil and glycerine:

Oh. I said I’d get back to the quill pen. A bit of stage business. Scarpia writes a safe-conduct note for Tosca and her lover as exchange for her submission to him — all in vocal silence, over a slow orchestral vamp — and approaching her to collect his part of the bargain, runs the feather along her bare neck and shoulder, to her visible shudder. It looks like the schtick has been retired, but MacNeil did it and so did Diaz, to Renata Scotto, whose eyes widened in rivalry to Terfel’s here. Brr. Love dem bad boys.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lost Ancestors

Film composers crib classical works all the time. Forex, I sat up with a jolt, decades ago, at the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back when I realized I was hearing a parlayed version of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto behind the action in the Cloud City of Bespin. But last night, just letting the classical station run in an access of blessed relief at the end of the annual onslaught of Christmas dreck — who wants to hear the same string trio version of “Jingle Bells” six times a day? — something hit me between the eyes.

Just the first few bars. Go on, listen. Same key, even.

I’ve been a Trekkie all my life. And not only is Mahler on my Top Ten composer list, that one is my favorite of his symphonies; it’s even “our song” of poignant memory, the one whose A-theme gave my late and ex husband an opening to speak to me for the first time (“Are you whistling Mahler’s First, or the Songs of a Wayfarer?” Trick question; the answer is “yes,” because he recycled the melody).

How did I miss this?