Posts Tagged ‘opera’

A recent photo of the woman who should right now be our president and is not — and a gov’t is being set up in the courts and elsewhere which endangers us all in every way

Dear friends and readers,

I thought I’d start this week’s diary with a couple of incidents that seemed more significant than my having seen a brilliant production of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliette at a rerun of the HD screening at movie-theaters, and heard two (to some extent) informative lectures on another opera, Carl Maria Von Weber’s Magic Marksman (English for Der Freischutz) about to be staged at George Mason University this Saturday evening, which I’m not yet sure I’ll go to. It was an slightly dramatic occurrence that helps explains why Hillary Clinton lost the electoral college, why it seemed so acceptable to excoriate her in public hearings repeatedly (and “lock her up” is still a rallying cry for Trump’s “base” — a scary bunch they have become) and accuse her of doing things called crimes which are in fact everyday business in top gov’t executives’ lives: Trump and his gang use private email servers — meanwhile she was not allowed to use a reasonable excuse that it is common, especially among those not so good at computer programs. Another example, commonplace, of what Rebecca Solnit wrote about so brilliantly last week in the LRB. In the case of Romeo and Juliette, the actress-singer was put into an outfit near falling off her; for the Weber opera, a member of the Virginia Opera Company made a mishmash of perhaps great art.


Susan Herbert’s ballerina

I still go to a gym (in the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center) two mornings a week (maybe I should go three) where I take an hour long strengthening class. As with so many of these classes I teach or go to everywhere (not the individual lectures at the Smithsonian though) the ratio is 5 to 6 women for every man on days when there are a number of men. Some days there are few men (they are much less joiners of institutionally-formed groups). I’ve noticed (and thought to myself does the instructor knows she is doing this?) she calls on men all the time to count, to do attendance, she kibbitzes with them, she consults with them in front of the class as authorities. The other day I thought she was flirting. She is 60 and in good physical health, a grandmother as she likes to present herself, living alone with dogs, gardening. She does sometimes address women and there I’ve noticed she has the curious social impulse to talk to women I recognize as alpha types, respected, sometime previously in their life, asking them how they are doing. So maybe the calling on men was not a totally aware act.

But this Monday the man who counts as we exercise and another favorite male who sometimes replaces him were not there. She seemed to ask someone to count as we exercised. She keeps up a patter of talk and she watches to see if people are okay (the average age is 55-65 and older). So I started. I felt a curious frisson. So I changed to French numbers for two sets and that seemed to somehow break tension but then I returned to English (as I had no intention of showing off if it would be seen this way). Then — and this is what I want to communicate — between sets one woman near me quickly came over to me and said how strange to hear a female voice. Yes,she said that and did not look glad. Another said I was not quite carrying across the room. So I spoke louder. And finally one or other of the women half joined to count as if one woman could not do this alone, as ifshe should not.

In other words, they knew and approved of her behavior to men.

Today I realized had I any doubt, she knows it too. When we finished the first half hour of dance, and it was time to exercise, I was not sure she would like this, not sure it was not pushing myself in to be the counter even though both men were not there again. Clever lady, she encouraged me when she saw me begin. I am doing it differently than the men. They seem to sing out a number only at intervals (five, fourteen, and then the last), rather carelessly as a joke, drawling sometimes, but I did it throughout regularly on a regular beat. She said aloud she liked that and my voice was carrying. I wanted to say I’ve taught for over 33 years and think I know how to project. She then went to the trouble of indicating first she always demonstrate so the second movement is no. 1. Then as I continued, she complimented aloud, and said this was very good. So did someone else — a woman. I’m not her and not strong, so some of my numbers start to wilt or groan as we proceed and there was laughter –congenial as if I was expressing what others felt. She indicated a thank you when this part of the strengthening hour was over.

These two incidents went well beyond making a minority of people in the room comfortable. Not just to the men but for the women a woman having any authority disturbs the group. She complimented me to give me legitimacy to give me legitimacy. I was doing it differently, more plainly and seriously. Not cavalierly as if we were above our exercises, didn’t care about our bodies this way.

Even in such an unimportant powerless kind of assertion, this society is made uncomfortable when an ordinary women is given some kind of authority that is not granted because she is a trained teacher. I know as a teacher at OLLI I find the men raise their hands and tend to dominate the discussion; my unashamed feminist outlook is not liked and when I did Tom Jones with a class I got into contentious altercations with men that women in the class had to interrupt and stop.

Sickening when I think of what this past couple of months would have been — only that a ruthless horrific attempt to impeach Clinton would have begun. Reporters actually asked Trump if he would accept the election if he lost. Would they have asked her? Wisers head might have prevail as gov’t is needed and she not be impeached, and then we’d have had a repeat of the Obama frustrated years, but not lose ground and end in a nuclear war. She was demonized to the point she was likened to him which anyone with brains after a week or more sees is governing as a dictator and looking to turn the US gov’t into a male white supremacist fascist oligarchy for a long time to come. Hillary Clinton would have done nothing like what he’s done to Muslims, she’d be improving our social services, not shutting agencies up, putting idiots and corrupt people at the heads of those he wants destroyed, and planning to eliminate health care and slash social security for millions. Soon he will attack voting rights directly. She was going to try to get rid of Citizens United and fight for a constitutional amendment so that money could no longer carry doing what it’s succeeded in doing over 40 years and we could slowly resume our republic.


Susan Herbert’s Fidelio

So what shall I say of the HD Met’s Romeo and Juliette? what was remarkable was how everything beyond the central love relationship was carved away from Shakespeare’s play. You were given the minimum story line you needed to have to understand the lover’s desperate situation. the set made a single slab the center which became marketplace, bed, tomb, a place for ghosts to wander.

Set designer Bartlett Sher

There was a powerful actor-singer for Mercutio (Elliot Madore) a part necessary for the plot-design: he must be killed by the fiercely hateful Tybalt (Diego Silva), and we must have the nurse (Diane Montagu), Friar (Mikhail Petrenko) and at least one parent: the librettist has Juliette’s father. Other than these it was simply a chorus. The major songs and long scenes between Diana Damru and Vittorio Grigolo were not only beautifully, alluring, magnificently sung, but acted. They really were psychologically persuasive. All the actors looked the roles too — dressed as young twenty year olds in outfits redolent of today’s teenagers or people in movies in Renaissance garb. Despite my anxiety-ridden and troubled state of mind I was moved. Is it patriarchal? Not as strongly as the Kenneth Branagh production I saw at the Folger (also HD screened, with Lily James as Juliet) because Damru did not seem as much a victim as James, as a passionate woman choosing her fate: but throughout she wore this nightgown which displayed as much flesh as could fall out of the gown, arms, legs, thighs, breasts, this flowing blonde wig. Was it necessary for her to be on the edge of such exposure from the the middle of the first act on.



A typical poster

The two lectures on The Magic Marksman were part of a four session course on Opera given by the “community outreach music director of Virginia Opera company, Glenn Winters, and his lectures function as advertisements and explanations (pre-opera lectures so to speak) for the productions the company mounts at Mason. I went because the dates of the composer, Carl Maria Von Weber (1786-1826) and his opera are in the romantic era and looked so interestng. I thought I might learn something about the 18th century. I hesitate to go the opera because while years ago Jim and I saw a marvelous production by this company of Aaron Copeland’s The Tender Land, a deeply thoughtful meditative opera, more recently three productions have been awful: there was a boring Marriage of Figaro and Jim said if you make Marriage of Figaro boring something is wrong. And Winters was excruciatingly condescending; tasteless jokes he thought would go over well (one of them with a semi-racist poster); he seemed determined to reach an audience he set up as stubbornly bored and hostile to this opera by making as many popular vulgar comparisons as he could.

The story is a folk-fairy tale one of a young man who is mocked by his village when he fails to win a shooting contest, and who is tempted by a devil with his sidekick to take some magic bullets, and who with these wins but in doing so cheats and almost causes the death of his beloved Agatha. He has to go before a trial, is judged guilty but is not executed; compassion makes the sentence a year long wait in exile. He can then return and marry the heroine. Mr Winters said music is a follower of style, not an innovator (he made large general assertions over and over), yet the interest of the opera is how it anticipates Wagner, and substitutes the old witty rational stories for a this folk one. Winters retold The Sorrows of Werther in a mocking way, but I could see the character of the sensitive alienated young man is that of this hero.

The transformative forces are from witchcraft and the famous scene set in a “Wolf’s glen” in the forest where our hero and he devil Samiel; and the man who has sold his soul already, Caspar, meet to forge seven magic bullets, the seventh of which (unknown to our hero) will kill the heroine. There is a dead mother’s ghost who comes and warns the hero — and when the clip was played this audience (alas) laughed. I had a hard time asking if he thought the center was gothic because he wanted to liken it to Star Wars and showed a clip of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker and the central Flash Gordon sequence of one of the movies as the opera’s equivalent. He did respond when I asked if Weber was influenced by Anne Radcliffe and Mysteries of Udolpho with a yes, and looked at me, curious, but didn’t want to go in this direction. I would have liked to say gothic movies are done today but he was intent on his male action-adventure with stunts super-popular comparisons.

I did find a staging of the Wolf’s Glen which is reminiscent in an austere way of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest, with one of her male-father villain type stalking along

He himself seemed to think the contemplative tranquil arias of the heroine were exquisitely beautiful but he talked of them as if we his audience would be bored, and want the passionate arias found in Puccini in all operas. Agatha is not sexy, not sensual he repeated over and over. It seems strange to me to try to appeal to an audience by talking to them half-hostilely about how they’ll be bored, seeming to complain and then playing music which is so appealing. At least I thought so. Maybe he did not and only liked the Wagnerian forceful macho magic music of the Wolf’s Glen which he did take a little time out to describe musically.

To my dismay I discovered most Agathas are dressed ludicrously sexily or they are put into witch outfits (in dark red): here is a rare attempt at some tasteful fidelity

He did mention that Beethoven’s Fidelio is exactly contemporary with this piece and described Fidelio as a flop (not popular, not making money). Fidelio is to me a neoclassic opera moving into austere romance, with serious ethical themes in a story about prisons and liberty: in other words Enlightenment. What was the shame was I could see he might have given such an interesting talk on this opera and yet did not, substituting crap comparisons because he thought these might get the audience to come see this opera. The Magic Marksman was a tremendous hit and has remained a staple of German opera since it was first played. His argument was Max is undergoing an existential crisis, his identity is threatened and the opera teaches him and us to lose yourself in the German world, its community, its rituals. You must be a huntsman and not by cheating.

I do worry that if he had anything to do with this production he’d be so cowardly as to ruin it by downplaying what is best about it, and going for spectacular scenery and special effects so I am still not sure if I should go. For all I know the costumer will have been directed to make an outfit for Agatha as searingly revealing as Damrau’s for Juliette: she is supposed to be all innocence, virtuous, all obedience to family, a coming mother. What he could not stand perhaps is this is an opera for a sensitive romantic person which uses folklore; that its sources include a female gothic which I doubt he will know anything about any more than he really did Goethe’s masterpiece. He opened the lecture by saying there were three kinds of operas goers, papa bears (dedicated, knowledgeable for real), mama bears (casual) and baby bears (hostile and ignorant). This was embarrassing to listen to but note the knowledgeable is the male. He then said for years he was bored by people watching car races and had to learn it’s as legitimate an activity as opera lovers (perhaps they are fantastically mechanically learned). I was waiting for him to try to bring in football but he never did. He was content with the father-son battle in Star Wars.

An opera with a Werther at the center, a sensitive ethical heroine, caught up in the dark forces of the natural and gothic world, becomes a variant on Star Wars …. This is a stupid mishmash of an opera to try to make it appealing. As I write this out (and see what I think) I realize I’m not going. I am glad I have learned there is such an opera and have been able to gain some insights into it by listening against the grain.

But I am losing my thread. A male hegemonic order which intensely sexualizes women was seen in Gounod, and in this man’s drawling discourse was dismissive of anything intellectual, sensitive. And oh yes to be good and valuable it must be popular and make money.

What if we had a body of opera by women? It would tell such different stories.


An example of one found in Menabilly began DuMaurier’s The King’s General where the heroine is crippled; Rose Tremain’s Restoration focuses on a mental aslyum and the plague in London — women’s historical fiction is a site for disabled characters, filled with grotesquerie

I am deeply engaged in my reading of Austen and the picturesque, in my reading for my coming teaching of a course on Booker Prize winners: I’ve now reread Michael Ondaatje’s masterpiece, The English Patient, Anthony Minghella’s screenplay and watched the movie. I carry on exploring historical fiction and the sources for Sontag’s Volcano Lover: a volume of fascinating essays called Vases and Volcanoes (collectors and wild geological and political forces). I watched the interesting film adaptation of Rose Tremain’s Restoration, have been listening to Gabaldon’s Outlander and browsing in Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General. I’m still reading about Surrealism and women artists (Whitney Chadwick’s book). About these more anon in separate blogs. I’ve much to do to interest me as long as I can stay among my books in my house. But I should not stay in alone altogether. Friends on the Net are not enough. I become desperate, and have panic attacks because of what is happening to the US and may hit Izzy and I hard. I was going to go to a local concert at someone’s home in Fairfax on Sunday, but it is the day of Izzy’s first social club of the year and I must drive her there.

So that’s this week from Lake Woebegone. Where we are really and truly Woebegone.

Susan Herbert’s mad Edgar from Lear: Tom’s-a-cold



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Casa Verdi or Casa Riposo di per Musicisti e Grabstatte (or Tosca’s Kiss, a 1984 film by Daniel Schmid)

The close of Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet (2013, inspired Hoffman says by Schmid’s film and the actual life of Casa Verdi)

They say that ‘time assuages,’–
Time never did assuage;
An actual suffering strengthens,
As sinews do, with age.

Time is a test of trouble,
But not a remedy.
If such it prove, it proves too
There was no malady.

— Emily Dickinson

Dear friends and readers,

I had another lesson in how hard it is for me to find myself anywhere without remembering Jim, without an enveloping sense of lacking him. I went for a third time to the Sunday morning film club at the Cinemart Theater in Fairfax in the hope of enjoying an intelligent absorbing and possibly unusual film and hearing informative and insightful talk. I did all that, but how much more meaningful it would have been had Jim been there. It was a 1984 documentary about Casa Verdi. I first heard of this place when Jim was an undergraduate and took a course in musicology, and wrote a paper on Verdi’s last operas. I remember him reading Verdi’s letters, talking about Verdi’s relationship with his librettist, his long-time partnership with a woman he finally married, and his endowing a mansion in Milan for aging musicians, composers, singers. I cannot have dreamed up that he mentioned this place, and now I’m thinking maybe it was when two Februaries ago now (three months before he was diagnosed) I went with Izzy to see Quartet, and naturally wrote a blog.

As I watched, I realized how idealized Quartet had been about aging. While this film is as upbeat, because these are not actors but real people at ages 75 to 95, we see frail people hanging on. Some of them were living in bare rooms. Many looked not well at all. One woman talked of her loneliness — her sons promise to visit but do not. Not all of them can still sing — though all have opinions, memories, and love music still. Gary Arnold, the Washington Post film critic who chooses the films, and leads the discussion, talked of how the film was restored, and how he wished that the weekly watching of operas on Italian TV at the house had been included since the people are (comically) hypercritical. The other people in the audience talked of how they were aware how lucky these musicians are — for old age for most people in a retirement home is often a bleak and lonely affair, often the person is impoverished too. They talk and can enact and are respected for their old memories. A woman whose career came to a height in the 1930s, Sara Scuderi, was seen singing alone and with others most often:


Some of the best moments: a tenor takes us (the film-maker and his camera are part of the film as the people are very aware of them) to an attic room and his trunk filled with his old costumes. He puts on a Rigoletto outfit and begins to sing and enact the role. At the close he takes off his costume, closes his trunk, puts out the light and walks back downstairs. Memories is a central theme of the film. In another sequence a composer shows us his two pianos, plays for us, and shows us his awards and prizes. A woman who taught the harp tells us of her brief career on the stage and her long career as a teacher. We see a photo of her young and beautiful in a ball gown playing her harp. A 90 year old woman in the cafeteria eating soup complains that the chorus (she was in a chorus) is the center of the opera and they are insufficiently appreciated and underpaid. One man singing a Verdi tenor with Sara Scuderi uses a phone booth inside Casa Verdi to die in. (This was a little too close to his reality for comfort for me.) As with Quartet we see gatherings where groups of people sing and play instruments. See slideshow.

The film lacked a focus; it seemed simply to end. Schmid did not give the kind of on-going sense of life the way Frederick Wiseman can. It was more like home-movies snatched here and there and then put togeher. There were many poignant songs of loss from Verdi, but this may just be central to Verdi’s oeuvre, so one cannot say this was a theme; but one sequence where a man played a violin brought tears to my eyes as the song was about the irretrievable past and how painful it is to remember happy times. (A Dante thought.) Someone else in the audience was struck by that and suggested it could have provided a satisfactory ending. Jim would have recognized and appreciated so much more than I was able to do. Perhaps he would have commented as he read about the place. He said more than once that Verdi was a secular person and maybe would have said Verdi wanted to memorialize himself outside religious norms. (The irony here would be the place was filled with Catholic icons and pictures.)

A salutary thought was I could not get Jim to join the film club with me, so he and I would not have gone to it together. I would not have known about it, since it’s the policy of the theater owner not to tell the film until 10 am that Sunday morning and many of the films do not become a commercially scheduled film. I’ve missed what was probably some early extraordinary years of these. The club is in its 7th year and goes on between May and October. I am told it was better in the first three because there was a second owner more interested in art films and another critic who would “close read” films. Arnold provides very interesting thoughtful background but only when prompted does he produce a critical evaluative comment. He is often apt but he can be dismissive and is clearly not interested in women’s issues — as one woman has told me the previous critic was. Since Jim wouldn’t go I was loathe to leave him and go off by myself. I was already “not paying attention to him” with my teaching, scholarship, the Net, writing. Most of the time too Jim walked out immediately after a cultural event; he didn’t like most popular conversation. Often it is jejeune, but not always and for three times I’ve heard sensitive thoughtful comments on the films. It was though another moment where I find I can’t escape him — I wondered how many people in the audience knew about music and operas and recognized the songs or history spoken of.

As last month I talked to someone afterward. This time I didn’t spill my coffee all over the floor (as I did last month). I had the presence of mind to buy a bottle of Minute Maid Orange juice. I did lose my car for a while. I had parked in close to the theater for the first time — usually when I’ve come (after 4 in the afternoon), it’s too crowded to get near. Well I couldn’t remember where I put it. Like Hansel without his bread crumbs. But I walked up and down the lines of cars and finally spotted it.


I find myself especially lonely in the car going along the highway coming home. I’m listening to Nadia May reading aloud the magnificent Daniel Deronda — which has a subplot about musicians and music. 


Jodhi May as Mirah singing (Andrew Davies’s Daniel Deronda)

I thought I’d mention how strongly feminist it is:  this time through I am so aware of the parallels between Mirah’s escape from her father’s attempt to sell her and Lucy Snowe’s anxious terror when she hits Bruges. I’ve listened to both in the car, once with Izzy in the car with me. Often people say there is little parallel between the Deronda and Grandcourt stories (named after the males) but in fact the women are utterly parallel: in the next scene Gwendolen comes home to learn how difficult it is for her to make real money, how she has not been trained to do anything but be a lady and teach others this — so the deadening mortification of governessing in a household where the mother strictly controls all her daughters’ education (thoughts as far as she can) is her fate unless she takes Grandcourt – and she has seen Lydia Glasher and her four children by Grandcourt.

Eliot (it seems to me) cannot but have a exemplary couple and fate and the beauty of Klessner and Miss Arrowcourt’s words as they come together to realize they want to marry are just splendid. There is no more beautiful sentence in all Eliot than these

Miss Arrowpoint (the arrows of her mind point unerringly to the heart of things)

“I am afraid of nothing but that we should miss the passing of our lives together (Bk 3, Ch 23)

I wish Elizabeth Bennet had said this to Lady Catherine de Bourgh:

“I will not give up the happiness of m life to ideas that I don’t believe in and customs I have no respect for.”


I am able to maintain your daugher, and I ask for no change in my life but her companionship.”

It’s this sort of thing in both Middlemarch and Deronda that make for the steadying influence on a soul hearkening to Eliot.


I’ll end with a photo taken of me about two weeks ago: those reading this blog may recall I took a boat ride up and down the Potomac with a few friends one Saturday evening. One person took photos with her cell phone and that’s see me between two people, one of whom with another friend I now plan to go to the 2014 Library of Congress National Book Festival with next Saturday. I hope to hear Alice Ostriker read her poetry, Clare Messud talk about her novels, Jules Ffeiffer discuss his cartoon art (among many others).



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