The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘opera’

Black Pearls Before Swine

September 22, 2016 | by

Florence Foster Jenkins is remembered as a failed opera singer. What can we learn by listening to her today?

Florence Foster Jenkins.

When Florence Foster Jenkins made her self-financed public debut as a singer—in October 1944, when she was seventy-six—she sang “Clavelitos,” crying “Olé!” and flinging carnations at the audience in Carnegie Hall. For her encore, she had the carnations collected—and then pelted the crowd again. “Olé!” they roared back. Her friends cheered, hoping to drown out the screams of hilarity and derision.

Born in 1868 to a wealthy family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Jenkins had been a talented child pianist. She eloped with, then separated from, a man from whom she contracted syphilis, transforming herself into a working woman who supported herself with piano lessons; an heiress; and a socialite, arts patron, and founder of the musical Verdi Club. By 1944, she may or may not have known that her invitation-only recitals and vanity recordings of operatic arias had attracted a cult following. “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing,” Jenkins famously (maybe apocryphally) said.

But soon after reading the New York Post’s damning assessment of her Carnegie Hall debut (“she can sing anything but notes”), Jenkins suffered a heart attack and, within weeks, died. Today, her notoriety endures in five plays and three films, including a new Meryl Streep movie, and in a tradition of private entertainments reminiscent of Jenkins’s own soirees: at midcentury critic and photographer Carl van Vechten’s parties, “Often the evenings were spent innocently, writhing on the floor in laughter at Florence Foster Jenkins.” Streep first heard her at a theater students’ gathering. Even I heard first Jenkins’s “Queen of the Night” over digestifs at a New York dinner party. Read More »

Inside the Volcano

September 16, 2016 | by

volcano

“Ash had fallen. Perhaps it had fallen the night before or perhaps it was still falling. I can only remember in patches.”

In 1976, three years before she died, Jean Rhys published “Heat,” an autobiographical story about the 1902 eruption of Martinique’s Mount Pelée volcano, which destroyed Saint-Pierre, then the largest city on the island. Some thirty to forty thousand people died; Rhys, who grew up nearby on Dominica, would have been eleven at the time.

Some said the disaster was divine retribution for Saint-Pierre’s moral depravity; not only was the city a haven for loose women, it had a theater and even an opera. But in the immediate aftermath, an air of grave concern fell over the region. “Nobody talked in the street, nobody talked while we ate, or hardly at all,” Rhys writes in “Heat”: “They all thought our volcano was going up.” The night after the eruption, the narrator’s mother points out the black clouds hovering over Martinique. “You will never see anything like this in your life again,” she says. When the narrator’s friends offer her a bottle of ash, she refuses to touch it. Read More »

The Power of Perfect Park Pics, and Other News

September 14, 2016 | by

Roger Minick, Woman with Scarf at Inspiration Point, Yosemite National Park, 1980. From the series ‘Sightseers’. Courtesy of the artist and George Eastman Museum. Via Hyperallergic.

  • Every morning I wake up and I turn to the computer and I ask it, Did they turn a Thomas Bernhard novel into an opera today? The answer has historically been no, which brings me down. But today the answer is yes: David Lang’s opera adaptation of The Loser made its world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and it is, apparently, good. Francine Prose writes, “The beauty of the music makes us more intensely aware of the grief and disappointment that fuel the narrator’s anger. [Conrad] Tao’s marvelous performance and Lang’s restrained and gorgeous score are haunting reminders of what the narrator has given up. This is, after all, his whole life that he is talking about: his blighted dreams, his unrealized hopes.”
  • A new book, Picturing America’s National Parks, lives up to its name: it’s full of useful park pics, many of them perhaps not as rugged and authentic as you might expect: “Even in the nineteenth century, photographs were more propaganda than truth, conveying an idealistic vision of these ‘untouched’ lands. Eadweard Muybridge, for instance, added perfectly wispy clouds to his wet-collodion images. And notably, these landscapes were usually completely void of people, suggesting another West to be won and protected. If a person does appear, they are a tiny specter dwarfed by the grandeur of nature, and they are certainly not indigenous. There are plenty of ladies in full skirts strolling with parasols among the burbling springs of Yellowstone or the mountains of Yosemite, but no images of the tribes that had inhabited many of these regions for centuries.” 

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How Do I Live? I Live.

August 8, 2016 | by

La bohème, live at Attica State Correctional Facility.

The mess hall at Attica Correctional Facility, 1977. Photo (c) Karl R. Josker. Used with permission.

Opera audiences are all the same. There are always two bald guys seated in the third row, whispering a phrase-by-phrase critique. Someone cups his ear, frustrated by the hall’s faulty acoustics. Everyone looks daggers at the miscreant whose phone interrupts an aria. And some listeners sit with their hands folded under their chins, eyes half-closed in reverie. One man perches literally on the edge of his seat, listening with his whole body; his chest seems to swell with the singers’ every breath. Afterward, I’m not surprised when he says that, before today, “I didn’t know that Latinos do opera,” but “for a brief fifteen minutes, I was up there, I was singing.”

On August 2, performers from the Glimmerglass Festival, the summer opera festival based in upstate Cooperstown, New York, hit the road for a one-hour matinee of excerpts from Giacomo Puccini’s lush, popular opera about Parisian artists, friends, and lovers, La bohème (1896). The cast waited onstage, in costume, while an audience numbering about 150 took their seats: emerging from the cellblocks, they’d walked, in double rows, in groups of no more than forty, through several barred gates into the hall. Officers armed with batons ringed their seats, forming a standing-room only section. At the conclusion of the concert, when inmates leapt to their feet for a standing ovation, two officers shifted closer together, eyeing them: the ones who’d risen sat down immediately. We were at Attica State Correctional Facility. Read More »

Dark Was the Night

July 20, 2016 | by

On the Voyager Mission.

Mozart_magic_flute

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Stage set for Mozart’s Magic Flute, 1815.

This summer, we’re introducing a series of new columnists. Up this week is Alison Kinney, whose column, Songs to the Moon, is a series on fandom and how the music, art, and artifacts of opera transform cultures and desires. — Ed.

If the inhabitants of other stars should spot the Voyager 1 interstellar probe zooming past—if they capture it and assemble its onboard audio player—and if they have ears to hear, they might puzzle over this message from the Queen of the Night (translated here from German):

The vengeance of hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair blaze around me!

Perhaps these German-speaking aliens will visit Earth to eradicate the threat posed by Mozart’s 1791 aria. Or maybe they’ll thrill to the prospect of subscribing to the Bavarian State Opera, only to discover that the soprano Edda Moser, who performed the recording they’d heard, had retired five billion years earlier, in 1999. Read More »

Malthusian Flotsam and Unspeakable Jetsam, and Other News

March 28, 2016 | by

Photo: Kirk Crawford.

  • Jim Harrison has died at seventy-eight. “You don’t write—an artist doesn’t create, or very rarely creates—good art in support of different causes,” he told The Paris Review in 1988. “And critics have an enormous difficulty separating the attitudes of your characters from your attitudes as a writer. You have to explain to them: I am not all the men in my novels. How could I be? I’m little Jimmy back here on the farm with my wife and two daughters, and, at one time, three female horses, three female cats, and three female dogs, and I’m quite a nice person.”
  • Fact: you, too, can enjoy Aldous Huxley waxing lyrical about a controversial Los Angeles sewage treatment plant. “One day in 1939, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann, and two women walk along the shore south of Los Angeles. The weather is beautiful, the beach is empty, and Shakespeare is debated. Then the group realizes that something’s funny about the beach. As Huxley put it in the essay, ‘Like Hyperion to a Satyr,’ they are suddenly walking among ‘ten million emblems and mementos of Modern Love … Malthusian flotsam and unspeakable jetsam.’ The four had found themselves among a sea of used condoms that ejected by Los Angeles’s Hyperion sewage treatment plant. Huxley returned to those shores a few years later, after LA upgraded the plant in 1950. He was overjoyed with what he saw, and what he thought the vista suggested about the city: ‘Another torrent, this time about 99.95 percent pure, rushes down through the submarine outfall and mingles, a mile offshore, with the Pacific. The problem of keeping a great city clean without polluting a river or fouling the beaches, and without robbing the soil of its fertility, has been triumphantly solved.’ ”
  • In America, Joseph Brodsky is often held up as “the poster boy for Soviet persecution,” as Cynthia Haven writes—but a new biography is trying to change that perception: “Ellendea Proffer Teasley, in her short new memoir, Brodskij sredi nas (Brodsky Among Us), offers a different view of the poet. It’s an iconoclastic and spellbinding portrait, some of it revelatory. Teasley’s Brodsky is both darker and brighter than the one we thought we knew, and he is the stronger for it … According to the leading critic Anna Narinskaya, writing in the newspaper Kommersant, Teasley’s memoir had been written ‘without teary-eyed ecstasy or vicious vengefulness, without petty settling of scores with the deceased—or the living—and at the same time demonstrating complete comprehension of the caliber and extreme singularity of her “hero” ’ … Even so, the book has yet to find a publisher in English, the language in which it was written.”
  • Do you want Saul Bellow’s desk? He sat there, wrote some books. And it’s nice—a mahogany roll-top job dating to the Victorian era. A steal at ten thousand bucks. Please buy it. Please, please buy it. No one else is buying it, Bellow’s son told the Wall Street Journal: “I guess space is expensive on the Upper West Side. Nobody’s got room for a giant piece of furniture … I thought, well, this will provoke discussion. But it really didn’t … I’m moving to a smaller place and the desk just isn’t fitting into the plan.”
  • Problem: a staging at the Park Avenue Armory of Louis Andriessen’s 1988 avant-garde opera, De Materie, calls for one hundred sheep. Solution: get the fucking sheep. “Simply getting hold of so many stage-ready sheep was an exceptionally difficult bit of opera casting … The bane of international opera stars is a visa system that can be difficult to navigate. For opera sheep, it is getting the right veterinary certificates, exhibiting permits, humane handling paperwork and the like … Then there was the question of where to house them. The ovine troupers could not sleep at the Armory; could not commute from Pennsylvania; and would not have been welcome at the hotels that usually cater to visiting sopranos. So accommodations were found at the Bronx Equestrian Center, which has stables in Pelham Bay Park. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which has jurisdiction over animals in performances, issued a permit to allow the project to go ahead … Then the Armory had to be readied. A backstage paddock was built and soundproofed … ”