Follow by Email

Monday, March 31, 2014

At the Circus and Pagliacci

This circus did not look like this
Every year I'm invited to accompany bus loads of children from the Ohio school for the Blind as they go to the circus. The kids wear headsets and I narrate the circus to them. It's a wonderful exercise for me, finding a way to describe 'orange' or 'clown' or 'trapeze' to some of these kids who have never had sight.Others are developmentally disabled and blind. The trip is financed by some lovely people, retirees from what used to be the Bell System. I look forward to this every year.


Last Thursday was the day. I got to thinking as I sat there, doing my best to help the kids have  blast. This year the circus was both horribly loud and horrible horrible. I worry for any family paying good money to bring the kids to see such drek. They wheeled out some tigers-awful to see such magnificent animals in captivity-and there they sat three looking bored and were wheeled off. There was an elderly tired elephant with a stupid outfit. The acrobats posed and believe me they weren't much to look at. The clowns were relentless and truly stupid rather than being truly funny. The arena was filled with screaming kids happy to be out of school. My kids were bewildered. I did my best but this year especially it was so LOUD....

I've been asked to direct Leoncavallo's opera Pagliacci  ("Clowns")  this summer. Most of you know this story of the clown whose wife goes off with another man, breaking his heart. He snaps and kills the wife and her boyfriend, and this short opera ends with the line: La commedia e finita...The show's over.

I looked at these circus performers and I saw all the RVS in the covered parking lot and I thought what a truly awful life. Town to town in drafty arenas, sleeping a midst traffic, animals and poor plumbing, depending on fast food. Up close the acrobats and everyone else were tired, worn, and thin. There was  a desperation, esp. from ringmaster" who was on the point of hysteria. (Two of my kids were scared) I don't criticize these circus members, I feel badly for them. There was joy and no fun in anything. That's okay, its three shows a day and there's not enough money in the world to pay someone  to be chipper and agile all that time. But the gritted teeth and the boredom were obvious. There was a  lousy dad and kids bicycle act complete with a 4 year old girl and an 8 year old boy (approx) I wanted to kidnap. None had the energy to be entertaining, the the heart of them had died out long ago.

Paglicacci is the same. In the opera they are traveling players in Italy around 1890. Town to town in a covered wagon. Four people. An unhappily  married couple . A surly assistant and a younger man. Nedda is the only girl handy to the three other men. She is lusted after but not loved, and she lusts for another man, a camp follower. A production of Pagliacci needs to recognize the irony and bitterness in Leoncavallo's jaunty music. He tells us the truth at the very beginning of the opera: The author wants to present a slice of life, the tears she are not false, they are not pretend!

I've seen very sumptuous stagings of Pagliacci. Extras galore, children running every where, fire eaters, acrobats having nothing to do with the story. This is an opera about exhaustion and despair. Nedda's affair with Silvio is the one glimmer of hope for anyone. And ii doesn't happen. Dirt, noise, drama, boredom and never ending performing. Like what I saw last Thursday. No love, no joy. La commedia e finita!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

We Are Your Fathers: A Memoir of the 1980s

Nobody was dying in 1979. I made my way to New York in September of that year, ready to buy and sell the world. New York was just recovering from near bankruptcy in the 70s. There was a famous headline: Ford to NEW YORK: DROP DEAD, not the best of legacies for Gerald Ford. I knew nothing of this as I got off the train. Student loans were for the asking then, at 2% interest. The West Side YMCA (I know, I know but what did I know?) offered a room at Lincoln Center for $33.00 per week. Tickets were available for the matinee of Sweeney Todd, then a new show, and Broadway was buzzing about a new musical with a singing Eva Peron.

The Met was closed but the New York City Opera was across the street. Four bucks got you a seat for Faust, Tosca and Madam Butterfly with the likes of  Diana Soviero and Samuel Ramey.

The years went on. My first apartment on W. 93 cost $400.00 (a fortune!) for  four floor walk up studio. Its one beguiling feature, unappreciated by me, was a terrace overlooking an SRO. Usually in the wee hours there'd be someone sitting naked in one of the windows, singing. One guy sang Christmas Carols and yelled HEY GET UP!! IT'S CHRISTMAS! IT 'S PASSOVER! I know I had become a New Yorker when I thought nothing of walking out on to the "terrace" at 3 a.m. in my skivvies to yell  RAMON! SHUT THE FUCK UP!

But this isn't about the neighbors of the opera or school or anything much but AIDS. Nobody was dying in 1979 but by 1981 they sure were. A very young conductor named Tom got sick. He was on his way to a good career. He had himself a high powered agent and some fine gigs lined up. I never met him but his name was around. Someone to watch. A friend told me Tom has pneumonia. No one thought anything of it. A few weeks later another friend said Tom died! I remember thinking, back in the 1980s that it was unusual for a young person to die of pneumonia.  This illness was called The Old Man's Friend, since it took the very elderly gently. Tom was in his thirties.

The fear and the awareness wasn't on yet. Not full time. I just looked it up and find that Bill died in 1984. Was my level of awareness so small by that time that pneumonia was convincing? That's what the NY Times obit said: viral pneumonia. They wouldn't print AIDS as a cause of death nor would they acknowledge any same sex partnerships.

People began to stir when one young man, then another, one old man, then another began to die of pneumonia. People likened this to the polio epidemics of a time gone by. If you live in the periphery of the arts and artists you began to notice more and more pneumonia dead. Then it was called neuro-cystic pneumonia. I'm guessing by 1985 it was full-on. Everyone knew someone who was very sick with pneumonia and only gradually did it strike people as odd that people were dying of pneumonia in the1980s.

Then it was called GRID. Remember GRID?  Those of you for whom I am writing this weren't even born when we began to hear about GRID. GAY RELATED IMMUNE DEFICIENCY. This was what it was called after too many gay men (50? 60?) began to die of Kaposi's sarcoma. Up to his time KP had been rare. Now everyone knew the acronym GRID and knew KP didn't mean kitchen patrol. Kaposi's was the name of the lesions and  spots that would appear all over your body. Pneumocistic pneumonia was caused by a fungus growing the lung.

Then there was the wasting. Guys with spots on their face began to waste away. Their weight would drop to nothing. They would become skeletal and infirm. Couldn't hold food down. Hospitals were filled with guys on IV nourishment that wasn't helping them. The first AIDS ward I'm aware of was at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York (long gone) This was in the village, probably the epicenter of the virus in New York;. You had beds lined up with wasting men, their throats often lined with lesions that made it impossible to swallow. You got used to running into old friends on the street you hadn't seen in a while and find them emaciated and sick.

The city was slow to respond and the Reagan administration wasn't interested. It was a faggot disease. Better they all die off any way. Even when IV drug use caused the blood supply to be infected, and children died form AIDS via transfusion...Reagan  shrugged. Believe me,  elected officials did say publicly 'faggot disease, let 'em die". The New York Times would not use the words AIDS in obituaries. They would knot acknowledge domestic partnerships. Gay men died of pneumonia, and they were single. People were thrown out of their homes. Landlords kicked out anyone suspected of being gay. You could be a ruddy 200 pounder and out you would go. The law did very little to protect people, this in a city where tenant's rights went back to the depression.

The Gay community realized that no one was going to help them so they helped themselves. The Gay Men's Health Crisis grew from a desk an a typewriter to an enormous agency. I was one of hundreds of volunteers to work as a 'buddy' to a PWA (Person With Aids). You were company, did some errands, etc. One of my buddies was bedridden. It became obvious it was his mother who needed support. Check. Another was well enough to be out and about and I told him so. Communities sprung up not only to support the ill but 'the worried well'.

Here's a film called Parting Glances with Steve Buscemi that gives a good idea what that time was like:

The Catholic Church made patronizing remarks about God's mercy. Cardinal O'Connor, a villain to many went to hospitals to shake hands. But priests wouldn't give the sacraments to the dying. You deserve it was the very clear subtext. St. Patrick's Cathedral began to be occupied by ACT UP-a branch of the GMHC. People were scared and angry and were no longer willing to be powerless.

I remember the fear. People wouldn't shake hands. People wouldn't use swimming pools or public restrooms. When it became clear that AIDS was affecting primarily IV drug users and gay men, there was a tremendous backlash again the post-Stonewall generation. The Gay community policed itself well. I remember one quote, "There is one hundred percent awareness". But  a one night stand from a  few years ago could kill you today.The arts community was slowly and painfully decimated: Beverly Sills later said, "We lost an entire generation, as if we were at war". Governments help? Nada in the Reagan years. The Church: Nada.

My best friend died in 1986. He had been a bathhouse hound. Many people were, in the East Village or the Upper East Side. He seemed fine.  Then the diarrhea began and would not stop. No appetite, some wasting, exhaustion. His parents were very wealthy and well meaning. They insisted he had 'leukemia' or tuberculosis.
A few days after his death my phone rang at 5 a.m.Our graduate class had placed a memorial in the NY Times. The voice on the phone said, "You don't know me but I was a friend of -----. How did he die?" I remember being sleepy and annoyed. "He died of AIDS." I still remember the shock and panic in that person's voice as we hung up.

The panic seemed to have levelled off by the time I left New York in 1991. People forgot to be careful. I was hoping that ACT UP and GMHC and Safe Sex are for nostalgia buffs today, but it's not so. "Now more than ever". The new generation did not live through the horror, the wasting, the diarrhea, the spots, the rejections from (parents, friends, churches) the death. Maybe today people are less careful. DO NOT DO THIS. NO GLOVE NO LOVE. Protect yourelf and value your life, in memory of all of those who died.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Inside a Pearl: Talking with Edmund White

Edmund White is the author of A Boy's own Story; City Boy, Jack Holmes and His Friend, The Married Man, plus biographies of Genet and Proust. White's memoir of a long life lived at the center of Gay culture on two continents continues with the just published Inside a Pearl, covering White's twenty years living in Paris and the death from AIDS of his partner, Hubert Sorin.

Edmund White and I spoke on February 12, 2014

Why are so many people-so many writers attracted to Paris?

I think in the 20s they were attracted because there was no Prohibition. They could drink there. And it was cheap. There were lots of women. I think now there aren't so many. Young American writers go to Eastern Europe. They go to Prague and Budapest, even to countries like Latvia and Lithuania.

What brought you to Paris?

For me it was always in my imagination. Growing up in the 50s as I did, Paris was always the
center of the world.  I was always a huge fan of Marcel Proust, of Jean Genet, of Gide. Paris became sacred territory for me. 

You have been the biogrpapher of Genet and Proust

That's right, yes

Did you know when you were very young that you were going to have a fascinating life?

No, I didn't. I thought I was a weirdo. My mother was always very encouraging in whatever I wanted to do, especially if it was something artistic. So I would take one lesson playing the harp, and one lesson playing the harpsichord, and one lesson acting and dancing. The only thing I could really do was write. I had an eighth grade teacher who encouraged me to write.

When did you realize you were going to be a full time writer? Making your living writing?

I started writing seriously when I was 15. I wrote a novel at that age. I wrote four or five more novels all unpublished. I didn't get one published until I was 31.  By the time I was 33 I knew I would write full time.

Your work is largely about the gay experience. Do you mind being typed as a gay writer?

No, it seems to me that middle aged white writers like myself who publish eight or nine books 
are a dying breed. Many we can't get published again because their sales aren't high enough. Everything today is bottom line. I'm lucky to have a niche.

But you are published all the time. The books are well respected and reviewed and hopefully they sell really well

Well, not really well but they are well reviewed , or at least widely reviewed and always published  up to this point.

Which of your book's made you famous?

Maybe A Boy's Own Story.  I think the first one was States of Desire: Travels in Gay America.
That was very  widely reviewed and mostly attacked. Now its being reissued by the University of Wisconsin this coming fall. 

Did you get any bad feedback from that book-any hate mail?

Oh, yes I certainly did. Not from the people in the book who I was careful to disguise, but from readers who would get indignant about writing so freely and openly about being gay. They'd write that I'd get some terrible disease and die, things like that.

What does the title Inside a Pearl Mean?

One day I was with my current partner. We'd been together 18 years and we got married last fall. He lived with me in Paris my last three years there. One day he was complaining about the weather. I said, well just think you're inside a pearl, its always kind of filtered, its cozy, its a nice feeling.  

Whay wonderful quote! It leads me to ask what you read?

Right now I'm reading an autobiography by a friend of mine called Brad Gooch. This book isn't out yet but it will be out soon. (Brad Gooch wrote a fine biography of Flannery O'Connor) Brad was a fashion model and writes a lot about that in his autobiogrhpy.  I judge several new book contests so I'm always hauling books around. OneI really loved is called The Teleportation Accident. It's by Ned Bowman  

What books do you think everyone should read?

Moby Dick. It really is the great American novel.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

A New Biography of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974) jazz pianist, composer, conductor and prophet is the subject of a new biography by Terry Teachout. 

Teachout is the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal . He blogs about the arts at  His earlier biographies of George Balanchine and H.L. Mencken join Pops,  Teachout's book on Louis Armstrong, published in 2009.

Terry Teachout and I discussed Duke Ellington and Duke over the phone from his office in New York.

CP: Your previous biography, Pops is of Louis Armstrong. Did Armstrong and Ellington, who were close contemporaries, influence one another?

TT: No. Not really. Armstrong in one sense influenced everybody by his reconstruction of jazz rhythm, what it means to swing. That was a matter of changing the language of early jazz  itself. Remember that Ellington is slightly Armstrong's senior. He's already making records before Armstrong was widely known. They were aware of one another. They made  a wonderful album together in the 6os. But as far as one really influencing the other, no.

CP: Here's a wonderful quote from your book, I think from Billy Strayhorn: "Ellington plays the piano, but his real instrument is the band."

TT: Ellington was a good pianist and became a great one. By the 50s he 'd evolved into a remarkable soloist. But piano playing was never his best way of expressing himself. He expressed himself as a composer, in collaboration with members of his band. That didn't quite make him unique-there were other jazz composers in this period. But he was the greatest one. Ellington was the first one to use the big band as a medium for really serious musical expression....Ellington's was the first big band and he the firs composer who were more than just dance bands. They played concerts, they performed in vaudeville houses, movie theaters,  and concert halls. But above all they played Ellington's original compositions. Ellington was compared pretty early on and throughout his career to major composers. This was a time when the idea that jazz was an art form was in no way solidly established, not in America and not anywhere else. Then comes this extraordinary composer and his band and suddenly everyone says it is. In a way, outside of the value of the music itself, that's Ellington's major contribution. He played a key role in establishing the significance of jazz.

CP: You write that Ellington used the language of jazz to say what had never been said before. How did this make Duke Ellington different

TT: Early jazz was a functional music, dance music played purely for entertainment. It wasn't a complex. A soloist like Louis Armstrong is obviously making very complex music utterances, but they're in a very straightforward setting. Ellington is not writing abstract compositions. He saw himself as a musical painter, paining portraits of people and circumstances, the world around him. He's musically ambitious in a way that jazz composer up until then had not been. They saw themselves as entertainers. They were more than that, and Ellington was himself an entertainer. But he absolutely saw himself as a serious artist. He was very ambitious in his purpose as an artist, That was the difference between him and his contemporaries.

CP: Was Black, Brown and Beige his throwing down the gauntlet to become a concert artist?

TT: In a way, yes. He'd never performed in Carnegie Hall. The mere act of appearing there a a great point in his life, a great transition.  While he had dabbled in large-scale composition before Black Brown and Beige , he had only done it a few times. And BBB was vastly more ambitious. It's forty-five minutes long. It was much larger than anything he had written before, and really any jazz composer had written before. He was setting a very high bench mark for himself, performing that piece in that place at that time.

CP: By 1956, just prior to high appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, Ellington was considered a "relic". What happened?

TT: After World War II the big band era, where big swing bands were the primary form of popular music in America came to an end, for economic reasons and social reasons. Most of those bands closed down.   The bands that continued to tour were having a harder and harder time.  Remember what was popular in 1956. That was the year that Elvis Presley became a star. Before that Frank Sinatra became a star. American popular music became dominated by singers. Then rock and roll came. You have Duke Ellington, a man born  in 1899, who has been leading a band since the 20s, and he's out there on the road but he's having a harder and harder time.  The band was declining in quality. Then comes this great opportunity to go to Newport and its as though he was galvanized at the chance. He pulled everything together, the band responded. After that, after all the acclaim that followed this performance -he got on the cover of Time-it was like a rocket that fired another stage. He was propelled into another phase of his life.

CP: "The Duke talked not to explain himself but to conceal himself".

TT: I wrote that. Ellington was an extraordinarily private man. In one sense every artist is, they don't want you to get too close. He led an extremely complicated private life.  He was estranged from his wife. He was,  too put it mildly, sexually active. He conducted himself in a way that no public figure in the 40 and 50s could get away with. He was a black man who among other relations had a long-term relationship with a white woman. It was important to him to keep his private life quiet because it was important to him to appear to be respectable. But I think beyond that beyond the simple need to keep his private life quiet,  this wa a man who lived in public. He spent his life on the road. He lived in hotel rooms. He used to say he only went home to get his mail. And yet he's out there composing.  He's doing the work of a very serous artist in very adverse circumstances. A person like that has to create for himself a zone of privacy and security in order to function.  I think that had a lot to do with the fact that Ellington was a man who liked to talk in circles. You could interview him for an hour and till get nothing from him. It may sound wonderful written down, but you realize he hadn't told you anything. It was because he had to preserve the mystery that I think is at the heart of every creative artist.

CP: What is the music that best describes Duke Ellington

TT: My favorite track is Koko which wa recorded in 1940. I think also any version of Mood Indigo, which was his first great popular hit, the one that sums up another side of his musical expression. Those two, I think will do ya.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Books Read in 2013

These are the books I read in the past twelve months. Many titles were suggested to me by the peerless Kassie Rose, WOSU's book critic and my cohort for All Sides Weekend/Books on 89-7 WOSU FM
Ed Hoffman, book antiquarian supreme introduced me to the stories of J.F. Powers and Edwin O'Connor. Kevin Griffith at Capital University kept me on the best literary paths. I digressed with bios of Artie Lange, Debbie Reynolds, Whitey Bulger and Jodi Arias. Shirley MacLaine's daughter wrote a "Mommy Dearest" Read some fun historical fiction by Philippa Gregory

This was also the year I tried and failed to crack William Faulkner.
I DID read, finish and love Ulysees. Did I get it? Dunno. Had a great time reading it. Much of it sounded like the conversations in my grandmother's kitchen fifty years ago.

At my age I try not to re-read. But recently I need ed a Hemingway fix, and went ahead and indulged. Also I don't even try to reisit Wally Lamb or Lionel Shriver.

These are my favorites for 2013:

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
    An incredible study of persons dealing with everything from autism and savants to chronic illness and delinquency. Solomon gives humanity to people and those who care for them

The Testament of Mary  by Colm Toibin
    The mother of Jesus presents herself as a mother scorned and kept at the edge of her son's life and death. A new voice and a real voice for he most revered woman in Christianity

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetze
     NOT what you'd expect

The End of Life Book Club  by Will Schawlbe
    The author formed a book club with his mother as she underwent treatment for cancer. You are welcomed into Mrs. Schwalbe's rich life and you are welcome at her death, surrounded by family and books.

We Are Water by Wally Lamb
     He's done it again.

Thank You for Your Service   by David Finckel
    Vets broken by service in the middle east and what more needs to be one for them and heir families

Patriarch: Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw
      A reexamination of a formidable crook on Wall St. and an appeaser during WWII-and the father of a president

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
    Everyone loves this novel and I did too. A boy survives a n explosion that kills his mother. A small paining is his only legacy.

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
    A hate crime in Maine resonates

Wilson by A Scott Berg
    A complicated man in a ciomplicated time with debilitating illnesses and a randy love life

Zealot by Reza Aslam
     A biography of Christ with an eye toward historical facts and away from dogma

Here's the rest from 2013. *= recommended

*Far From the Tree     Andrew Solomon
One More Thing Before I Go   Johnathan Tropper

The Redgraves     Donald Spoto

*Stella Adler on the American Playwright
John Quincy Adams     Harlow Unger

Outlaw     George Higgins

Queen Unseen    Peter Hince

*NW     Zaide Smith

The Last Runaway    Tracey Chevalier

Tropic of Cancer     Henry Miller

Ride a Cock horse     Raymond Kennedy

*The Leftovers           Tom Perotta (interview with Tom Perotta on this blog)

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train    William Kuhn
A City of Dark Secrets     Michael Douglas

Beautiful Ruins     Jess Walter

Casual Vacancy     J.K. Rowling
*Moscow Rehearsal     Norris Houghton

The Middlesteins     Jami Attenberg

First and Lasting Impressions     Julius Rudel
Redeeming Features     Nicholas Haslam

Crappalachia     Scott McLanahan

Lucky Me     Sachi Parker
*Going Clear Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison  Lawrence Wright

Cranberry Sidewalks     Rodney Crouch
The Law Given     Herman Woulk

*The Testament of Mary     Colm Toibin
Sacred Hunger     Barry Unsworth
The Antagonist     Lynn Coady

Ulysees     James Joyce
Vatican Diaries    John Thavis

Invisible Cities     Italo Calvino

*The End of Like Book Club     Will Schwalbe
*Until I Say Goodbye     Susan Spencer-Wendel

The Swimming Pool Library     Alan Holinghurst

Whitey Bulger      Kevin Cullen and Shelly Murphy

Civil War Dynasty, The Ewings of Ohio   Kenneth J. Heineman
Gods Like Us : On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame     Ty Burr  

Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning T.V.   Brian Stelter
Wheat that Springeth Green     J.F. Powers

Silver Lining Playbook     Matthew Quick
Karajan     Richard Osborne

*Libra     Don DeLillo

Carrie and Me     Carol Burnett

*Frank O'Connor   Stories
*J.F. Powers          Stories

The Line of Beauty     Alan Holighurst

Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church     Lauren Drain

A Thousand Pardons     Jonathan Dee
Blood Doctor     Barbara Vine
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (stories)     George Saunders
In Persuasion Nation     George Saunders

Unsinkable     Debbie Reynolds
You Came Back     Christopher Coake
The Other Queen     Phillippa Gregory

The Woman Upstairs    Claire Messud
*The Burgess Boys     Elizabeth Stout

A Killing in the Hills     Julia Keller

Harvard Square     Andre Anciman

*Too Much Happiness (stories)     Alice Munro
Priestly Sins     Andrew M. Greeley
Sight Reading     Daphne Kolaty

The Way of the Dog     Sam Savage (interview with Sam Savage on this blog)
*Big Brother     Lionel Shriver
I Know This Much is True    Wally Lamb    (interview with Wally Lamb on this blog)

The Collective     Don Lee
Deadly Audit     David Selcer (interview with David Selcer on this blog)
*The Son     Phillip Meyer
*The Execution of Noa P. Singleton   Elizabeth L. Silver

Dispatches from the Edge     Anderson Cooper
Rose for Mary: The Search for the Real Boston Strangler     Casey Sherman
Light in the Ruins     Chris Bohjalian  

*An American Tragedy     Theodore Dreiser
The Butler     Will Haygood
A Study in Revenge     Kieran Shields

The House     Ann Leary
Mary, Ted, Lou and Rhoda
As I Lay Dying     William Faulkner

All That Is    James Salter
Everything That Rises Must Converge     Flannery O'Connor
*Patriarch: Joseph P. Kennedy     David Nasaw

Mothers and Sons     Colm Toibin
Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch   Barbara A. Perry

The Litigator     John Grisham
The Girl Who Loved Camellias

Manuscript From Accra     Paolo Coehlo
Salinger   David Shields
Raise the Beem     J. D. Salinger

Sanctuary     William Faulkner
Inferno     Dan Brown
*Five Days at Memorial     Sheri Fink

*The Childhood of Jesus    J.M. Coetze
*Dissident Gardens     Jonathan Lethem
*Sparta     Roxandra Robinson

Helen Taft: Musical First Lady   Louis Gould
The Empty Family     Colm Toibin

Ear to the Heart     Mother Dolores Hart
*Thank You for Your Service     David Finckel

*The Aftermath     Rihdian Brook
The Silent Wife     A.S.A. Harrison
*Drama High     Michael Sokolove

Pray for us Sinners Patrick Taylor
Crash and Burn    Artie Lange
*Zealot    Reza Aslam

Adam     Henri Nouwen

*The Orphan Master's Son     Adam Johnson
The Salinger Contract     Adam Langer

Queen Anne     Anne Somerset
Basketball Diaries     Jim Carroll

*The Way We Live Now     Anthony Trollope
Nine Inches     Tom Perrotta

Wotan's Daughter: The Life of Marjorie Lawrence     Richard Davis

Bobby Orr: My Story     Bobby Orr

*Empty Mansions     Huguette Clark

*Wilson     A. Scott Berg

*Brewster     Mark Sloucha
Americans in Paris: Americans During the Nazi Occupation

Johnny Carson     Henry Bushkin
*Reinventing Bach     Paul Elie
The Best Short Storeis of 2013 ed. Elizabeth Strout

*The Color of Water     Wally Lamb

The Sun Also Rises     Ernest Hemingway
Tony C. (Conigliaro)     David Cataneo

A Farewell to arms     Ernest Hemingway
*The Goldfinch     Donna Tarrtt

Exposed: Jodi Arias     Jane Velez-Mitchell

*The Death of Santini     Pat Conroy

One Verdi Opera per Day: At Last, Falstaff

Tito Gobbi
Today marks the final day of Verdi's bicentennial year. I've made it a point to listen to every one of his operas, minus some of the revisions, in sequence. I came across some unexpected new hits, including Alzira which the composer himself disowned. It was great becoming acquainted with Il corsaro and I masnadieri. Less so with Un giorno di regno.

There are a handful of operas considered to be miracles. I'm not sure how subjective my list is: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria; Cosi fan tutte; Norma; Aida; Tristan und Isolde; these I would add Giuseppe Verdi's final opera, Falstaff

Verdi's fat knight out of Shakespeare has been much in the news lately. The Metropolitan's new production is a huge hit. The action has been moved from Elizabethan Windsor to Elizabethan II Windsor, circa 1955.I thought everything worked. The costumes, big bellies and big hair, the dirty underwear, what was not to love? Ambrogio Maesteri owns this role. You know why? Language.

Falstaff is about language. Not just for its Shakespearean roots but but for Arrigo Boito's masterful
Boito and Verdi
adaptation and translation. Mrs. Quickly sprouts "Povera donna!"  a dozen times and its never boring. Falstaff makes love to himself, to youth and to the audience as remembers his days in service to the Duke of Norfolk, when he was sottile, sottile, sottile (skinny skinny skinny)
Ambrogio Maesteri

Falstaff's word setting is conversational. You needn't know Italian well to listen to this opera as one would watch a masterful TV sitcom. I Love Lucy and Vitametavegimin comes to mind. Or Carol Burnett as Scarlet O'Hara. The ensembles often sound bus, because the characters are, plotting against one another-wives v. husbands. The forward momentum, often the joy of the music makes Falstaff a "fast opera", over before you know it and you want to hear it again. Now.

Verdi knew what he was doing, saying goodbye with a comedy. Falstaff himself is US. We are all foolish, silly and stupid. We all deserve both comeuppance and forgiveness. Other people need to laugh and need to forgive. My favorite parts of this score are the juxtapositions of the raucous with the sublime

The great final fugue borrows lines form a different Shakespeare play. Tutto nel mondo e burla: The whole world is crazy. This is the farewell of Verdi and his gift to the audience. W know the composer was a taciturn and rather unpleasant man. Sad to think he was suppressing such sentiments, such music for eighty years. But the last six minutes give us a g'bye with happiness and no bitterness. VIVA VERDI.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Opera is Back and Columbus Has Got It

The title may be poor grammar but the excitement is sincere. Opera/Columbus has reinvented itself as an organization dedicated to local talent, world class excellence and a damned good time. Last weekend's performances of  Madama Butterfly at the Southern Theater is the beginning of a wonderful new chapter.

The New York City Opera has shut own after seventy years. World clas opera companies are teetering. The august Met no longer plays to packed houses, whether or not Anna Netrebko is singing. (I wonder how early the standing room line begins these days. In my day it was four a.m. to hear Sutherland, Pavarotti, Domingo, Milnes, Price, get my drift) Opera Columbus has been shipwrecked more than once. I don't think that will ever happen again.

I've seen Madama Butterfly a hundred times. So have you. I've seen it seen it set in  a whore house, in Hiroshima after the bomb, and as a drag show I shit you not. I've heard it sung in Croatian, French and sort of English. I know my way around this show. Opera/Columbus's production outshone most of these.

When an opera is done in this town I switch right into I know more than you so how you gonna impess me mode. Well, slap me on the ass and call me Sally!

This production markrs the beginning a collaboration with the Ohio State School of Music. Truth to tell, this is not new but has now been made o-fficial. The scene shops, orchestra musicians, singing musicians, and stage craft will all blossom with such a collaboration. I hope they involve Dan Gray and Kristine Kearney.
Rebecca Turk made bautiful costumes for this Butterfly.

But the audience doesn't care. Were they moved? Did the show look beautiful? Was the singing wonderful? How was the conductor? Did the stage director actually know the opera?

Yes. Yes. Oh, yes.  Terrific. Absolutely.

Olga Perez Flora, Espen Elfers, Priti Gandhi

Conductor Kostis Protopapas eschewed the Karajan-esque sentimentality that can drench and cheapen this opera. He gave us a brisk, unsentimental reading. The chours twice began to veeroff course. Protopapas firmly righted the ship, immediately. This maestro did something new to me: He conducted what Puccini wrote. No extra layers of musical psycho babble-unwanted retards, shifts in tempi, or cliff hanger note lingering were. Protopapas was Riccardo Muti was heart.

Harold Meers as Pinkerton
Likewise stage director Crystal Manich told the story of Madam Butterfly. She trusted the work to do its magic, by offering a clear, motivated and beautifully looking production. Manich offered several new touches: The prelude to Act III was staged with several Pinkertons and Butterfly fruitlessly searching for the real thing. There was a nice touch in Act I where Pinkerton was blocked by Butterfly's formidable mother. Little touches like this add up to originality.

Ron Kadri's multi screen set was attractive and functional and never became boring. Special congratulations to Christofer Popowich for his warm lighting, the sun reflected off the sea ('spira sul mare...')

John Nevergall
Okay, yadda-yadda yadda how was the singing? Soprano Priti Gandhi is a a fine musician.  Priti is what we on the old standing room line called a kunst-diva (say that carefully) meaning she is riveting and effective with more than a voice (think Anja Silja or Catherine Malfitano) What about her voice? She's more Callas than Tebaldi (bullshit, she's Priti and she's great) Hers is not the Butterfly voice I most want to hear. The voice lacks spin and a bit of float. She is the Butterfly I most want to see live the role. What do you do with Pinkerton, a naval lieutenant played as asshole deluxe? Harold Meers is a good looking man who sang it beautifully. You can't like the character, but it was good to have a handsome tenor with a fine voice and a good stage presence.
born actress and
Robert Kerr

More to the OSU connection, my boys Robert Kerr (Sharpless) and John Nevergall (Goro)  were front and center terrific. Kerr's was the voice of the show. He needs to go sing in New York and Chicago. His voice often moves me to tears. Yesterday I just set and kvelled.  Nevergall has developed into a character actor of great talent with a voice continuing to grow into leading roles. Full disclosure: I've worked with both of them and am crazy about both of them.

Olga Perez Flora made Suzuki very much a leading role. Her solo opportunities in Act III showed a voice that will one day sing Amneris and Carmen . The smaller roles were  well filled. Everyone created a character and every one down to the one-lines made an indelible impression-no doubt helped by Ms. Manich. There were no small artists in this show.

I despair of published music criticism in this town. I won't do it myself except on my own blog. Conflict of interest and all that. But believe me when I tell you, Opera Columbus is back, with a Madama Butterfly that had Puccini weeping with joy and counting his money  in heaven.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Andre Dubus III: A Writer with Fantastic Reviews and a Great Heart

Andre Dubus III, now in his fifties,  is the son of Andre Dubus (1936-1999) who was a master of fiction short and long.  Andre III is certainly no stranger to success. His novels include House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days.  His memoir, Townie will curl your underwear and break your heart.

Dubus III's new collection of novellas ('novellini) is Dirty Love,   a must read for anyone who enjoys good fiction.

Andre was kind enough to agree to a phone interview from his home in Massachusetts. You gotta love a guy who is an internationally acclaimed author who talks with you  "just come in from putting a roof on my shed" and trying to make himself a cup of coffee...spills and all.

CP: Your new collection, Dirty Love is a collection of four novellas...the New York Times Review of
Books last Sunday,  in a very laudatory review calls it "a new and staggeringly good collection." Tell me your pros and cons of working in the short story form.

AD3: I don't think it's my natural form. It certainly was my father's, who was a great short story writer. I tend to go on and on. Novels seem to be more my natural canvas. What I love about the novella form , first of all I love what Faulkner said. "When the writer first tries his hand, he tries poetry. When he fails at that he tries the short story. When he can't do that either he ends up writing novels. " I think what he means is that the novel is a much more forgiving form. The shorter it is, the harder it is. It's not nearly as forgiving . We've all read 500 page novels that are great . But they could lose 200 pages , but they still are great books.

You can't have that in a short story. Every word really has to be the right word, every scene has to be the right scene. It has to be placed in the right order. That's some of the larger challenges of the shoter form. Also, what I love about it, especially the novella , 75 or 100 pages, that's like sitting and watching a 90 minute or 2 hour movie. You can sit down. But as you know the emotional truth is the hardest to writen after dinner, or in a char with your tea, and you can have the whole experience in one sitting before bed. I think that's pretty cool.

CP: Where did you get your eye for detail?

AD3: Beats the hell outta me.
I write slowly, I report back what people see, what they're smelling, what they're hearing and what's making them think and feel. It's really the way I think myself into their varied stories

CP: I've always thought everything in your fiction rings true. Then I read Townie and realized everthing is true! Tha'ts a memoir, not ficiton, but must have been devastating to write while supplying you with ideas for fiction.

AD3: Yeah. Any memoir writer after A Million Little Pieces is really careful not to flub anyting. I try to be very accurate about everything I remembed. Then I'd check it out and corroborate things with friends. Like my buddy Bill who's Sam in the book . "Buddy that was a Trans Am we threw in the lake wasn't it? Was it Schlitz Tall Boys we were drinking?" that kind of thing...I think you need to be honestly naked but emotive and fair to others

CP: You had a very difficult life when you were young. Was it hard to go back there?

AD3 No. For years I tried to write the stuff in Townie as fiction. And it just wouldn't come. I try to leave my own life behind when I'm writing fiction. Frankly, I have more fun when I do. 

This whole memoir came out of my taking my sons to baseball , and I remember thinking how come I didn't play baseball? The hardest part of writing Townie was not my own life and my own pain and my own darkenss. There was enough distance from that. It was writing about my famuily that was the hardest. Writing about my father when he wasn't there to defend himself . That was the hardest part.

CP: Here you are a successful writer with a family and a great life. How did that happen?

AD3:  I'm one of these secular humanist types who prays every day. I have a hard time believing in a God but I pray every day. I started praying when we had our first child twenty-one years ago. We have three kids. And really, there's got to be some divine hand behind everything.

One thing I've learned. Having gone from a sedentary, depressed, scared kid to an athlectic, hard, disciplined kid, I learned some valuable lessons.  I learned that you can change your life. I learned that you can acutally go from dark to light, through your own actions. Just the discipline of changing myself from soft to hard, and from passive to active, it creates a thousand litle changes. Every day these add up to a life.
I can't take all the credit. I'm very aware tha there are larger, mysterious forces helping us. I have no idea what they are but I do sense them out there.

CP: Your characters in Dirty Love and in your other work live very hard lives .They have a lot of challenges. Do you have hope for them?

AD3: Yeah! A friend of mine , this  tough lady from Lynn, Massachusetts , which is a really tough town,  has this great expression. "Y'know honey, nobody gets outta here alive!"

CP: Jim Morison said that, too

AD3: I love that! I think its hard for everybody. I'm always a little surprised when someone talks about these characters being flawed or having hard lives, they just looks like all the people I know~!

CP:  I didn't find them flawed--I'm fascinated the character of e overweight young woman , she finally meets a guy who loves her and who is good to her--but he's boring! He's a neat freak. And she wonders if she's better off alone. But I'm read that and saying "Be careful honey, he may be your only shot...
I like the fact that in the end she thought she might be happier on her own.

AD3:  I was really wrestling with couple-dom three. This pressure to stay in a couple just so you're in one. It's not always the best choice for us as individual souls. I have a lot of hope for these characters. I have hope in everybody. I tend to be haunted on a personal and maybe artistic level by how wrongly things can go in life. But frankly that's' where good stoies lie .  A lot of us do get out of one tough mess and then we have a good stretch and then another tough mess, and that's just part of life. .

There's a wonderful line from the French writer Leon Blum who said, "Man has places in is heart which do not yet exist. Into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence."

People who have suffered and come through the other side, their hearts are larger and they end to have psychological and emotional and spiritual muscles that will serve them and frankly others later  in times of crisis. If you look at the word crisis in Chinese , its two characters...anger and opportunity.

CP: I think too that people often don't have a choice. They have to live and get on with it it. I think that can be helpful

AD3:: I think so, too. We have to survive. I do think -I really try never to inject a philosophical stance in my stoires. I really just try to be these people and live their lives and see where they go-I do thnik that Amercian culture , we kind of whine quite a bit. I think we're fairly immature. I'm not say this of individual people, -the country's full of hard working, good people, but as a culture, I think that whole life, liberty, pursuit of happiness  has done a number on us. I think the older cultures we all come from know better. Life, liberty and surviving the best you can. I don't think life is about being happy.

It's about striving, and growing and trying to live an authentic life. When you do that, you have moments of great joy but also momentst of great darkness, but that's part of being alive.

CP: Were you writing professionally when your father was alive?

AD3:  I was, yes, for years. My dad was really generous with me. He was generous with all young writers. He got to see my fist two books published. My third book, the one that put me on the map was a novel called "House of Sand and Fog" . He read that in manuscript and he read the first two or three reviews . He died two days after it came out in hard over . He actually predicted when the read the manuscript that it would be a finalist for the national book award. Six months later, he died, and and six months later, on my mother's birthday, they called......