A great writer doesn’t need to dazzle the eye to break our heart…
I’m grateful to have discovered this book in 2014
A great writer doesn’t need to dazzle the eye to break our heart…
I’m grateful to have discovered this book in 2014
One of the most thrilling things about watching Nico Muhly’s new opera, Two Boys—which I saw last night at the Met—was being carried along by the story from beginning to end. As a big fan of noir films, and detective procedurals, it felt like a novelty to see a whodunnit unfolding on the opera stage. On first viewing, it was as much a theatrical event as a musical one, in the sense that the plot was driving the action. Why did that feel like a revelation? It had moments of strange beauty that were often surreal; and then there was the wondrous choral polyphony—at which Muhly excels—of the final scene.
The playwright Craig Lucas based his libretto for the opera on true events, which happened ten years ago in Manchester. After the opera, I immediately sought out the original story (on the internet, of course) and ended up reading Judy Bachrach’s 2005 Vanity Fair piece, “U Want 2 Kill Him?“, which went into considerable depth on this strange tale of two boys who found each other on the internet, via chat rooms, and culminated in a bizarre murder plot. I have to say Lucas did great justice to this complex tale, managing to fold in the key plot points into this relatively short opera.
But what also interested me, as a journalist, was the fact of an opera based on non-fiction narrative. Of course, there are examples of opera being based on true events—recent examples might include Anna Nicole (Mark Anthony Turnage), Nixon in China, Death of Klinghoffer, Doctor Atomic (John Adams), and Dead Man Walking (Jake Heggie). But it seems especially noteworthy when a piece of art is spun from a piece of narrative journalism.
It’s a special kind of story that lends itself to opera. I was fortunate to work on one, as the researcher on James B. Stewart’s 2002 book, Heart of a Soldier, a remarkable true story about a British man, Rick Rescorla, whose biography was the stuff of a Boy’s Own adventure. In some ways the story was old-fashioned in that it was an epic story, with themes of love and heroism that culminated in a dramatic finale on September 11, 2001. The San Francisco Opera commissioned an opera (composed by Christoper Theofanidis, libretto by Donna Di Novelli), which had its world premiere on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
Of course this story was quite different from Muhly’s opera. But what elements must a nonfiction story contain to make it right for opera, or shall I say, grand opera? Maybe the composer and critic Edward Rothstein was onto something with the following thought: “… an opera is usually a public event, a narrative meant to communicate something out of the ordinary.” In this regard, Muhly’s opera fits the bill. It’s an extraordinary exploration—using technology as a conduit—of an ongoing human problem. Loneliness.
My sometime band Secret Radio played at The Living Room in 2011. It was a definite highlight for us. The sound quality in the club was always excellent, on stage and off…
Here’s hoping The Living Room folks find another great space. Their last night was Saturday, October 26. Meanwhile the old space is up for rent at $19,000 per month. I predict another upscale tapas place, with $15 cocktails.
Oh Lower East Side where did you go?
Lake Champlain, VT
Lake Superior at dawn, Grand Marais, MN, September 2010
Photo by Damian Fowler
The Cloud Appreciation Society has a manifesto:
We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.
Obviously I haven’t been paying attention. How could I have missed out on Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose series? If this character sketch is indicative of the writer’s brilliant, savage wit, then I’ve got my reading cut out…
“With her curling blond hair and her slender limbs and her beautiful clothes, Inez was alluring in an obvious way, and yet it was easy enough to see that her slightly protruding blue eyes were blank screens of self-love on which a small selection of fake emotions was allowed to flicker. She made rather haphazard impersonations of someone who has relationships with others. Based on the gossip of her courtiers, a diet of Hollywood movies and the projection of her own cunning calculations, these guesses might be sentimental or nasty, but were always vulgar and melodramatic. Since she hadn’t the least interest in the answer, she was inclined to ask, “How are you?” with great gravity, at least half a dozen times. She was often exhausted by the thought of how generous she was, whereas the exhaustion really stemmed from the strain of not giving away anything at all.”
Loving this remix of Bowie’s recent song “Love is Lost.” After a few repeats, I went back to Reich’s Clapping Music, to which the remix pays homage. There’s clapping in the mix, even when it breaks into a four on the floor disco beat. I saw “Clapping Music” performed live by the percussion section of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra—mesmerizing, loopy, and I’m told pretty tough to pull off. The remix also feels spot on because of Bowie’s previous association with Reich’s music. Apparently Bowie was at the 1976 European premiere of Music for 18 Musicians at the Metamusik Festival in Berlin. Here’s recent recording of the whole piece (featuring the amazing Eight Blackbird). A few months later, in early 1977, later Bowie released his brilliant Low, the first of his “Berlin Trilogy” albums. The record features the instrumental track Wailing Wall, which Reich believes was influenced by his work. Bowie’s new record looks back with nostalgia to those Berlin years, so good on James Murphy for this remix. A round of applause for this, and especially for the sly quote from “Ashes to Ashes.”
A new play by the Tony Award winning playwright, David Henry Hwang, has just opened on Broadway. Chinglish is a comedy that explores the barriers of language and culture between the English-speaking world and China. It’s remarkable, not only because it opened without any big-name stars, but because a quarter of the play is written in Mandarin. OK, it does have surtitles (the kind you see in opera houses) and this works supremely well, allowing audience members in on the joke when one or more characters on stage are baffled by the confusions of language. Still, for a mainstream audience, the Chinese language appears to have arrived in a big way.
I did this feature on the play for BBC World News America last week, and interviewed members of the cast as well as the cultural advisers on the show.
But, as I looked into this, I discovered a long and rich history of Chinese theatre in the United States – though not for a mainstream (ie English-speaking) audience. From the middle of the nineteenth century Chinese opera troupes were touring in the United States. According to a study in the Cambridge Opera Journal, in 1852 there was a fully-fledged production staged in San Francsico by the Hong Took Tong, a 130-member trouple from China. In fact, there were many Chinese troupes touring all over the United States, including New York City, providing pleasure for the thriving Chinese-American community, which until the 1960s was predominantly Cantonese.
In the 1930s, the visiting Chinese opera singer, Mei Lan Fang and his troupe came to Broadway to present their lavish Peking opera productions. One of the operas he performed was The Drunken Beauty or The Drunken Concubine (the above is a colour plate depicting choreography from the opera). The music and style is a far cry from Broadway shows of the era – Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing or Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (which is currently on Broadway again). I read that when Mei Lan Fang performed, he transfixed his American audience as well as the theatre critics with his grace and beauty. Here’s a silent film shot by Eisenstein from 1935 of Mei Lan Fang, a star in his own right who became friends with Hollywood in-crowd of the time, including Charlie Chaplin. More recently the acclaimed Chinese director Chen Kaige made a film about Mei Lan Fang called Forever Enthralled (2008) – which follows in the footsteps of Chen’s best-known film Farewell, My Concubine (1993). You can watch the entire film in HD on YouTube, here.
One thing I’m curious about is whether Peking opera had any influence or impact on American musicals? On the face of it, not much. So David Henry Hwang’s idea to bring a little piece of China to the Broadway stage seems long overdue.
Once upon a time, I studied English literature at a British University. We started out reading 19th Century English works and had to choose five authors. We were supposed to read all of their major stuff. That’s a tough proposition when you’re 19-years-old and want to get down to the pub ASAP. Such, such were the pressures of a British University Education. Some of us made the mistake of choosing writers like Charles Dickens whose oeuvre is pretty vast. A lot of reading.
And then I discovered Lewis Carroll who was not only highly regarded as a Victorian writer, but didn’t write a vast amount of words. Also, there were those amazing John Tenniel illustrations.
What a godsend ! Of course I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from 1865, the The Hunting of the Snark, and then, Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There from 1871, which includes the famous Jabberwocky poem. Let’s quote a bit:
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
What fun! So I managed to read Carroll’s books and wrote some dubious essays about the brilliant wordplay, its symbolism, how it foreshadowed modernism. But little did I realize that, years later, I would end up writing a song inspired by Wonderland, which is kind of a dreamlike state where things get pretty weird. Who doesn’t love a good talking animal?
If I digress, it’s only because Lewis Carroll made digression an art. So now there’s this song called Weird in Wonderland that I wrote and recorded with our band, Secret Radio. Here’s what Alice said about the poem Jabberwocky when she heard it; I would like to think it applies to the song too…
“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.”
Anyway, here’s the song, Weird in Wonderland. Hope you like it.
I went to see Jez Butterworth’s sometimes brilliant, loose baggy monster of a play, Jerusalem, which is now in its last few weeks of an extended run on Broadway. It’s a kind of tragi-comic ode to England, centred on the character of Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a fearless ex-daredevil who lives in a mobile home in the English woods from where he dispenses drink, drugs and stories to his youthful acolytes. You probably wouldn’t want to live next door to Rooster Byron but, as played by the brilliant Mark Rylance, we accept him as a powerful force of nature. Is he a nutter or a guru?
The play takes its title from England’s most famous hymn, Jerusalem, which was composed in 1916 by Sir Hubert Parry setting William Blake’s words to music. Anyone who grew up in England is deeply familiar with the hymn, which begins with a vision of Jesus Christ taking a walk in the English countryside. “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountain’s green?” I recall singing it during morning chapel during my sixth form years at St Peter’s School in York. (The rugby team was especially fond of belting it out.) I think that was the sound of Englishness being forged.
So until I watched the play, I hadn’t given much thought to this mainstay of English culture. So when an American theatergoer wondered aloud if the piece had been written especially for the play, I found myself trying to explain just what this hymn means in England. It’s virtually a second national anthem. Of course it gets an outing every year on the Last Night of the Proms, when everyone sings along.
I realized I didn’t know much about this composer Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918). He’s best known for Jerusalem, but he’s really a forgotten English Romantic who helped inspire a new generation of English composers in the twentieth century, including Ralph Vaughan William, Gustav Holst and Herbert Howells. One of his peers said he was the most important English composer since Purcell, who’d lived and died in the 17th Century.
Parry may be seen as a quintessentially English composer, but late 19th century German composers, Brahms and Wagner, heavily influenced him. In fact he sought lessons with Brahms who was too bury to oblige. Instead he studied with a famous German pianist Edward Danreuther in London in 1873, who helped him develop his own personal style. At the time, England was what the Germans called “the land without music.” Okay, it’s true they did have some heavyweight guys churning out some rather grandiose pieces.
After 1875, Parry started to produce significant works, composing in virtually every major large form: five symphonies, a piano concerto, a symphonic suite, an opera, an oratorio, and more than 30 works for chorus and orchestra. One of his most sublime pieces is the Symphonic Variations, composed in 1897. Unfortunately Parry’s piece got overshadowed by Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which appeared a year or two later. Unlucky. Here’s a recording of Parry’s variations. The full orchestra doesn’t kick in until we’re over seven minutes into the piece. It’s a fantastic moment.
Parry was part of an academic movement that revived real interest in the English classics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the English folk song tradition. He helped nurture this, especially after 1883, when he became professor of composition at the Royal College of Music. His pupils included Vaughan Williams (his greatest champion), who became a collector of English folk songs that were fast become extinct in the early twentieth century. Williams travelled the countryside transcribing and preserving many himself. For a brilliant, fictional take on this movement read Wesley Stace’s excellent novel, Charles Jessold Considered As a Murderer.
Here’s one of Parry’s pieces for voice and piano, “No Longer Mourn for Me,” from Shakepeare’s Sonnet 71. This recording is from The English Songbook, with tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake.
Parry wrote Jerusalem late in his career in 1916, and it was soon adopted as an anthem of the suffrage movement, and later used for many other causes. It’s been used by groups across the political spectrum from the Labour Party to the British National Party, to supporters of the English cricket team, and also playwrights.
The composer died in 1918 at the age of 70 (from the Spanish flu epidemic) and is buried at St Paul’s Cathedral. Only recently has his orchestra music started to be revived. Just last year, two of his greatest works received their first ever Proms performances: his 5th Symphony “1912” and the Elegy for Brahms – which Parry wrote on the occasion of Brahms’ death. Maybe the twenty-first century will be a good century for the humane music of this overlooked British composer. Oh, and you can always tune in to the Last Night of the Proms on September 10 for a blast of Jerusalem.