The wonderful Kim Witman makes the connection.

A Little Carried Away?

December 13, 2011

“An opera is far more real than real life to me … I wish that life was an opera. I should like to live in one.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

At the very least I’d choose my role very carefully.

China in Nixon

February 5, 2011

Since the Metropolitan Opera premiere this week of Nixon in China, everybody (and by everybody I mean hundreds and hundreds of people) is talking about the great events of the seventies in which the eponymous President went to the eponymous country. My memories of that historic moment are, however, dominated by thoughts of impeccable Chinese food provided by a glamorous woman.

Sheila Chang, born in Shanghai of a Chinese father and a Scottish mother, and educated by aristocratic French nuns, ran an extraordinary restaurant on Third Avenue a few blocks north of Bloomingdales. I was a young musician who had just come to the city and had fallen in with a major Handel series (for which I wrote the program notes and did some continuo playing). But, much more importantly, the late lamented Albert Fuller (or, as he liked to alter that expression, “The Late Demented”) was involved and was a pal of Sheila Chang. So off a hungry band of us would go after rehearsals or performances to Sheila Chang’s Shanghai East. Placed around a large table, we would be visited by the proprietress, who would offer to go see what was best in the kitchen that evening. She would send out to us generous portions of whatever she chose. This was not an inexpensive establishment, and I was a student. But — no fear — when we had eaten our fill of sometimes quite rare delicacies, she would rub her hands together, survey the damage at our places, and demand five or six dollars from each of us.

Presumably she was asking more of Miss Alice Tully, for whom this was also a much-frequented restaurant.

But my reason for bringing this up in an operatic context is not just for the China part but for the Nixon part as well. It may be hard for kids now to imagine, but Americans didn’t just go online and make plane reservations for China in those days. Nixon’s trip is spoken of as having “opened up” that huge country. So, all of a sudden, lots of important people wanted to know all about Chinese food — and not at the level of the ordinary fare of New York takeout and delivery (though I’m the last to despise that variety when I’m hungry for a little hot and sour soup and chicken with garlic sauce). Suddenly we humble minstrels and Miss Tully found ourselves joined by major politicians and media figures who wanted to acquire the savoir faire to dine creditably in China. One night it was Harry Reasoner at the next table, and another brought Senator Kennedy. I was also there on the night when the entire Chinese kitchen staff refused to cook for a delegation of diplomats from what was then ordinarily spoken of as Red China.

It was a sad day for my little musical posse when Sheila Chang decided that the bloom was off the rose for Chinese restaurants in Manhattan, and the torch was passed to Tel Aviv, where I trust she found other appreciative musicians to feed. But I like to think that our great Republic suffered less embarrassment — lost less face — when members of Mr. Nixon’s entourage manipulated their chopsticks with aplomb and didn’t send back their thousand-year-old eggs with the complaint that they were spoiled.

The celebrated Old Spice series displays an enlightened awareness of the power of music.

previn Last evening’s world premiere of André Previn’s powerful setting of John Caird’s perfect libretto based on the haunting David Lean movie, Brief Encounter, was in turn based on a one-act play of Noel Coward, Still Life. Even with a lineage like that, a success is not guaranteed. In this instance, however, the success was entire.

There is no point in transferring a story from one medium to another unless something is thereby gained. It would be foolish to insist that an effective work of art like the Coward play or the Lean film needs to be supplemented via other means. But when — as in this case — values are magnified, new relationships of word and emotion are brought into relief, new emotional recollections are evoked, and new pleasures bestowed, the contributions of the new medium are not only commendable but to be celebrated. And I have been celebrating in the hours since I was overwhelmed by this opera.

I will give two instances of reverberant devices that only opera can add to a drama like this one. When Laura, the woman who is suffering the pangs of a love that doesn’t fit in with the rest of her life, is with other people who are prattling on with gossip or with crossword clues, her own agonized thoughts are sung in expressive duet with the quotidian banality of the other character’s utterances. This technique is utterly artificial and completely like the experience of real life at the same time. And only opera can re-present this.

Also, at the catastrophe of the final goodbye between Laura and her temporary lover Alec, we experience Alec’s expressive singing of his feelings for her and their permanence while, downstage in his accustomed easy chair, Laura’s quietly longsuffering husband Fred is singing with him the very same words. In both cases they are dramatically and psychologically true, but with completely distinct implications for the universe that all three inhabit. Again, only opera can portray all this at once. And rivetingly.

It was fitting that, the night before the premiere, a smaller, less formal event honored the 80th anniversary of the birth of André Previn. I sat immediately behind him and Anne-Sophie Mutter during this musical evening and was profoundly touched to see a physically feeble man of great mental and creative vitality react to the highly apposite musical performances that were devised to celebrate his life. Even though, from my teenage years, Previn’s work — particularly as a performer — has had a profound effect on my own life, I determined I would not be one of the people running to him afterwards to tell him how wonderful he is. For one thing, what does one say to increase the satisfaction a person must feel after he has received four Oscars (from eight nominations), a knighthood, and practically every honor the music world affords? But when we stood at the end, there he was: facing me directly. I stammered, “Maestro, I want to tell you that I heard you play Mozart piano sonatas thirty years ago in Pittsburgh, and I consider you the best Mozart pianist I have ever heard.” Whereupon he looked at me with an evident pleasure that could not have been feigned and told me that nothing I could have said would have made him happier. Every once in a while, one does the right thing.


LATE UPDATE: After posting the above from the Houston airport, I found myself at Andrew Sullivan’s Atlantic blog. In one of those gratifying instances of synchronicity, I find that he has today blogged about the experience, as a repressed, lonely, lovelorn teenager in England, of “memorizing Brief Encounter.” While I hope new generations of conflicted, teenaged romanticists experience Coward and Lean, I trust that Previn also will lead them to new manifestations of the cathartic emotions of this powerful story. Surely a CD (and, preferably, a DVD) is in the offing.

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