Month: July 2013

How I Taught English in Brazil and Survived to Tell the Story (Part Three)

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In this next installment of my series on teaching English in Brazil, I cover some of the more practical aspects of the profession, as well as taking a look at other types of jobs that are available to teachers.

Weather Patterns: Dress for Success

Sao Paulo at Sunrise (gringoes.com)
Sao Paulo at Sunrise (gringoes.com)

I quickly glance at my watch and see that it’s now 9:00 a.m. I fly down the stairs to the lobby — no time to wait for the elevator — where I deposit my visitor’s badge, and then head straight for the exit.

On my way out, I run into some former students, who either wave friendly hellos or exchange brisk handshakes with me, as I brush past the guards and bolt across the street before the traffic light changes. Streaking across the plaza, I bound down the steps of the subway station and break out into a light sweat.

The temperature is already 29o Celsius, or close to 84o Fahrenheit. It’s hot and stifling in downtown, which is shrouded in a dull, orange-gray mist that covers much of Avenida Paulista. The noise and pollution levels have risen dramatically — and in close proximity to the temperature reading — as rush hour in the city reaches full throttle.

Today, I decide to take the subway to Santana, and then switch for a bus to Zona Norte (North Zone); all told, about a 45-minute ride on a good day.

I always tried to dress casually but presentably for each teaching session, knowing that São Paulo can go through four different seasons in one day; it can be chilly in the morning, warm around midday, brutally hot in the afternoon and rain like a tropical monsoon in the early evening. If you are out in this mess, you are constantly susceptible to the elements and must, therefore, dress appropriately.

On one occasion, I simply overdressed, thinking it was going to get colder later. When the temperature rose higher than expected that same afternoon, I found myself melting under a ton of extra layers of clothing. By the time I got home, I was a pale vestige of my former self. After a refreshingly cool shower, abetted by several delightful glasses of bottled water, I went to sleep off my debilitating dehydration.

From then on, I religiously set my Sony clock-radio alarm to the all-news station and listened intently to the weather forecast before deciding on what to wear.

Another time, I almost came down with heatstroke after rushing to a job interview in Pinheiros under a broiling noonday sun. With my bald-pated head, I should have known better than to expose myself at that hour, but I was in a hurry (as usual) to get there and forgot to take the necessary precautions.

I finally arrived to the interview with a monstrous headache and a decidedly green pallor to my visage. I managed to survive the ordeal, but only after I had wolfed down two mouthfuls of aspirin accompanied by a hefty ice-cold glass of lemonade courtesy of my future employer. My head hurt so much I had to excuse myself to go to the bathroom and splash water all over my face — and right in the middle of our conversation. It was a fairly embarrassing moment, to say the least.

The next time I went out in that sweltering heat, I made sure to wear a good sunscreen or baseball cap to protect my pale skin from exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

To facilitate my meanderings around town, I usually wore a light polo shirt or cotton print over a clean pair of sport slacks and some comfortable walking shoes. In hot weather, a clean T-shirt, sneakers and blue jeans were added to the ensemble. For cold snaps, a long-sleeved dress shirt with a heavier pair of pants was the order of the day, topped off with a smart woolen sweater or an insulated jacket.

Depending on where you intend to live and teach in Brazil, your wardrobe will need to be modified given the region’s climate and weather patterns, but most instructors should be able to adapt swiftly to the prevailing trends in informal teaching attire with little to no problem.

However, I’ve known some male colleagues to over-abuse the wearing of blue jeans, so much so that the jeans started to take on that rough-and-ragged look more beloved of Harley Davidson bikers than steadfast English teachers.

And a few of the younger ones used to wear their open-collared shirts a little too open for my more conservative dress tastes to approve of. A bit more discretion and decorum are good rules to follow when conducting in-company classes; at home is another story, where informality and comfort are the major themes.

And men, please take this next piece of advice to heart: do not forget to shave. It only takes a few minutes of your valuable preening time in the morning to make this a regular part of your daily routine. I grew a small beard to keep my mouse-colored mustache company, so I didn’t have all that much facial hair to scrape off.

You have no idea how scruffy-looking a male teacher with a five o’clock shadow appears to a group of sleepy-eyed students at seven o’clock in the morning. It’s like talking to Zé Colméia (Yogi Bear). Unless you are Ben Affleck or Thiago Lacerda — in which case, you wouldn’t be teaching English anyway — you are much more presentable with a nice, close shave or an expertly trimmed beard.

Even my female colleagues were not immune to violations of the “dress code.” One teacher I knew used to wear a super low-cut blouse over skin-tight stretch pants that left nothing to the imagination.

Another friend once came to work wearing a ghastly array of costume jewelry and gold pieces, with rings flashing from every finger and bracelets galore all up and down the length of her forearms. She also absolutely reeked of her own liberally applied perfume. It took all my powers of concentration to fight back the unseen fumes that floated up toward my super-sensitive nostrils every time we chatted.

The point of classes is not to parade oneself as if in a fashion show, nor is it to distract students from the session — particularly those with short attention spans. You will want to look your best but not overdo it.

A professional outlook and appearance to match are the best combination for all language instructors, who don’t get enough respect and recognition in their profession as it is. Inappropriate or over-elaborate dress can only lead to ineffectual lessons.

These may seem like minor quibbles, but even experienced professionals can overlook these basic but strategic tips.

It Looks Like Rain  

Cloudy Skies over Sampa (theguardian.co.uk)
Cloudy Skies over Sampa (theguardian.co.uk)

As the subway car pulls up to Santana station, I peer out of my window for an on-the-spot check of the weather. The clouds have that dark and menacing appearance of a late-summer rain shower, as my sense of dread tells me it’s going to pour like the dickens!

Sure enough, no sooner do I finish my thought than it immediately starts to drizzle. In a few minutes, the drizzle turns into a heavy and penetrating downpour.

I run for protection under one of those fiberglass-covered bus stops along Rua Dr. Gabriel Piza. As luck would have it, I’m able to step aboard a bus bound for Avenida Nova Cantareira, which is just close enough to my apartment that I won’t have to walk too great a distance for very long.

I always carried a small portable umbrella in my bag for just such a situation — you never knew when the skies overhead would suddenly open up and all hell would break loose on top of you. And it can really rain in this city! You would think you were in the middle of a deluge somewhere in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

One time, I was accompanying my student back to her place of business after a lunchtime restaurant class — another one of those wonderful teaching perks I previously talked about — when all of a sudden the clouds unleashed a powerful rainfall of antediluvian proportions along Avenida Paulista. Within seconds, the streets were awash in a raging torrent rivaling the Mississippi River in strength and ferocity.

After I was successful in escorting the student safely to her office, I still had to go out into that storm to catch the subway for the trip back. By the time I reached my apartment building, I was the spitting image of a very cold, and very wet, street rat — even with my trusty umbrella in hand.

Residents of the major cities all face this terrible dilemma of flash flooding during the dreaded rainy season. City officials and state bureaucrats alike have so far failed to come up with a permanent solution to this seasonal set of circumstances, which many feel are due to rampant, unregulated overbuilding and to inadequate drainage systems, among other complicated causes. It remains a serious and potentially life-threatening hazard for anyone caught in the middle of these habitual rainstorms.

Because of this, teachers are strongly urged to avoid scheduling any late afternoon or evening classes too far away from their apartment, home or business, particularly during the months of January, February and March. This will help you to avoid being stuck in traffic somewhere, or up to your literal ears in rainwater.

Fortunately, the rains tend to come when the majority of your students are on vacation or on holiday, but you can’t always count on the seasons to obey your carefully worked-out schedule.

Illness can sometimes be the result of over-exposure to bad weather, or too dramatic a fluctuation in the temperature, or too many hands shook during a major influenza outbreak. Sooner or later, it may even require a little trip to the local health clinic.

A reader recently wrote me requesting information about medical insurance and hospital facilities in Brazil. Although my experience with these matters is limited, my family and I did have occasion to use the local doctors for treatment of various degrees of illness.

And, at the risk of sounding like a senator up for reelection, it is an absolute necessity for teachers with families to have adequate and affordable health insurance in case of sickness or emergency situations.

Language instructors should shop around for qualified insurance agents — and try to obtain the best available rates from them — for single, married, or family coverage. Again, your friends, relatives and teaching associates can probably guide you better along this well-beaten path than I can.

As a self-employed professional, however, be prepared to pay mile-high insurance premiums for your children and spouse, unless your language school has appropriate medical coverage under its health plan (not always likely, or even possible). It’s worth the extra effort to check it out and make absolutely certain.

Mid-Morning Utility Break

HBO do Brasil Logo
HBO do Brasil Logo

I arrive in my apartment around 10:00 a.m., which, because of the águas de março (waters of March), is pretty fast timing, considering all the traffic problems our bus encountered along the way.

My wife greets me at the front door and hands me a message from Flora, a teaching colleague of mine. The message says that Flora has a movie for me to transcribe, and wants to know if I can pick it up at PriceWaterhouse around noontime and before my next class.

I call Flora back to tell her that we can meet in the lobby at twelve.

“No, Joe,” she says, “I’m too busy to meet you myself. You’ll have to take the movie from my husband. Would you please be a dear and help me out with this problem?”

“Sure, Flora,” I grunt in acknowledgement. “No sweat. I’ll take care of it,” as I hang up the phone.

In addition to teaching, I also did freelance work for Home Box Office (HBO) of Brazil. My job was to transcribe the dialogue for films, movies, television series, news programs, documentaries, and other TV shows for the History Channel (Civil War Journal), the SuperStation (Biography), and the NBC Television Network (The Today Show, Dateline).

It was a lucrative and challenging area for an English teacher, but an extremely cliquish one as well — and very difficult to penetrate. It was also exceedingly demanding of my teaching time and all too regularly crept into, and interfered with, my social and family life.

As an example of what I mean, transcribing an hour program such as Great Chefs of the South, Biography or Modern Marvels can translate into approximately six to eight hours of non-stop, butt-busting work on the computer, television, headphones, and VCR. You are stuck in your home for all this time while you’re trying to complete the task.

It was a boring, tedious, and meticulous job assignment whereby every word and line of dialogue was listened to, typed, repeated, checked, and then saved to diskette for eventual dubbing or subtitling prior to being aired.

And there were other considerations for me to keep in mind: because of the high service and use charges in São Paulo, my monthly utility bills were going through the roof every time my electronic devices were kept on for longer periods of time than normal—and certainly over the course of an entire day’s work.

The same thing was true for the telephone lines and my Internet Service Provider. In addition, embedded within these regularly-billed items were such exotic charges as “frequent-user tax” and “value-added tax,” “rate adjustments” and “readjustments,” “additional fees and tariffs” and “penalties and late charges,” “interest charges” and other “add-ons.”

Many newcomers to Brazil are completely unaware of these hidden charges. You will become an expert on them, I assure you — once you have been a frequent utility, telephone and computer user. Your lifestyle may need to be “readjusted” as a result of them as well.

The Video Follies

I was definitely not looking forward to this additional drain on my free time — and on my wallet — but my friend was in a bind. She had to deliver the finished product by Wednesday morning in order to meet HBO’s strict deadline, but she was too laden down with other work to do it herself, so she was counting on my assistance.

That was the problem with transcribing in general, and HBO programs in specific: they were always on such a fixed and immutable airing schedule that simply had to be worked around.

I calculate the approximate time it will take me to complete Flora’s film; she told me over the telephone it was an hour-long documentary, so the chances of it being wordy are fairly high.

I surmise, then, that it’s going to take roughly six hours of solid work to transcribe the lengthy dialogue in its entirety.

If my noontime student cancels his class that will give me the six hours I needed to complete this task before my next set of lessons later this evening. With a little luck, maybe my evening students will cancel out on me (it’s happened before). That will free up even more time, just in case it takes longer than expected to finish the job.

Since I was now under the gun, I had to make the best use of my available time and resources. This is another all-too-common occurrence for teachers who are on a tight teaching schedule. Interruptions, extra workloads, spur-of-the-moment job requests, and due-yesterday translations of important documents are all part-and-parcel of the teaching profession.

There were days when I hardly even taught a class, much less stepped outside my apartment, because of the additional assignments I had taken on.

Why do teachers do this to themselves and take on so many more job functions than just plain old teaching? Well, for the fundamentally sound reason that teaching by itself does not, and cannot, pay all the bills all of the time.

Although a busy private teacher can expect to earn anywhere from R$2,000 to R$3,000 Reais a month — more or less — that’s only when the Brazilian economy is booming. If you are a young, single, and upwardly-mobile English language instructor, this can sound like an incredible amount of money.

But consider that most salaried employees in the country only earn about three or four times the minimum wage, and you will have a much better appreciation for the pitiful salary conditions most Brazilian workers find themselves trapped in.

If, like many wage earners, you have your own family to feed, extra school expenses to face, insurance and medical costs to meet, and a home or apartment to pay for, you will need to supplement your teaching income by tackling a wider array of English-related tasks or work assignments.

When cash gets tight, as it inevitably does in balmy Brazil, and your students find they can no longer afford your private language classes, you must look elsewhere for work opportunities to be able to weather the economic storms.

Translations, Always Translations

Doing transcriptions for HBO movies is only one of the many different jobs available to language teachers. I once received a call from a business entity called Save Speed Back Enterprises, Ltd., a private São Paulo-based firm that specialized in emergency medical treatment to business people and their families.

I thought to myself, “What in the world could they want me for?” As it turned out, an employee at Save Speed Back had come into possession of one of my business cards, and was interested in taking advantage of my services to translate some flyers, brochures, and nursing course descriptions into colloquial American English.

This was a lucky break for me, because I really needed the extra cash at the time, since I had stopped doing HBO programs due to the devaluation of the currency in 1998, and I had other financial setbacks because of the loss of several of my students. I jumped at this chance and told Save Speed Back that I’d be very glad to meet with them.

An extremely popular and growing field for English teachers to engage in, then, is that of traduções (translations) — or versões (versions) — of books, brochures, pamphlets, newspaper and magazine articles, proposals, legal contracts, correspondence, letters, memoranda, and other types of business documents.

To put it simply, a tradução involves the translation of a document from the English language into the Portuguese language; a versão, on the other hand, is basically a translation from Portuguese into English, or whatever language the translator is most comfortable or familiar with, which makes it a “version” of the original document.

Of course, this presupposes that you have a thorough knowledge of the Portuguese vernacular. It’s a given, however, that not all English language instructors will know the foreign tongue as well as their own, but teachers should not discount what could be an additional source of revenue simply because of this seemingly insurmountable obstacle. After all, that’s what Brazilian wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, relatives, colleagues, and acquaintances are for. They should always be relied upon and recruited to lend a helping hand when needed — and be justly compensated, too — for their translation efforts.

Once you accept a translation assignment, be ready to work diligently, rapidly, and under a tight, pressure-filled deadline. Have a large supply of dictionaries, thesauruses and encyclopedias on hand (in English-Portuguese/Portuguese-English) to help you wade through the more difficult portions of a given text.

Carefully proofread your work and have another person double-check your spelling and grammar for accuracy. You don’t want to submit anything that’s sloppy or slipshod, or you’ll lose the repeat business, which is where the real money can be made.

One Last Call

Future Brazilian Lawyers
Future Brazilian Lawyers

I get ready for my noontime class. Before leaving, I make myself a light snack just to have something solid in my stomach. As I munch on my sandwich, the telephone rings. My wife answers. It’s Wilma, a lawyer friend of mine, who dabbles as an English language teacher on the side.

Lately, because of the turnaround in the economy, Wilma’s law practice has been sliding a bit, so she’s been doing more translation and teaching work as financial stopgaps. I take the call, knowing that my friend will keep on calling me until I respond to her query.

She says she needs my help with a translation of some “phrases” for a legal document she’s preparing. I spend about twenty minutes on the line with her, trying to waylay her “doubts” about the text. She wants me to review her work and make any changes to it before she prints it out for her client. I tell her to send it to me via email and I will get to it later today. She thanks me for my help, as I hand the receiver back to my wife.

I met Wilma while I was attending a gathering of teaching colleagues at a mutual friend’s house. She earned her Master’s degree in Linguistics, taught English as a Foreign Language at União Cultural, and was currently working on her post-graduate thesis in Comparative Law.

As a non-native speaker, though, there were moments when she was simply unable to grasp the innate subtleties of the English language. At those times, she required the services of a competent legal “advisor.”

Since I happened to have a paralegal degree from an accredited American university, I was more than willing to help Wilma with her inglês jurídico (Legal English), which is used in all forms of Contract Law, Criminal Law, Procedural and Substantive Law, Civil and Matrimonial Law, as well as Bankruptcy and Immigration Law.

For Wilma’s law studies group, I was even able to teach several courses of my own design, which were taught in English (with a smattering of Portuguese), and tailored to the tastes of lawyers, law students, secretaries and other legal professionals.

As I mentioned before in Lesson 1, prospective teachers need to look carefully at their own business backgrounds or past specialties, and try to turn their previous work experience into potentially lucrative fields that may involve the use of English.

Other areas that may be applicable here are the airline industry, journalism, travel and tourism, hotel and hospitality, manufacturing, metallurgy, agriculture, crop science, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, engineering, Internet, computer technology, troubleshooting, and sales, marketing and research.

Take a Card, Any Card

Your Business Card
Your Business Card

Your business card can be your entry ticket to many potential teaching opportunities, both of a temporary or permanent nature.

Be sure to have your pertinent contact information (including name, home address, home telephone number, cell phone number, pager, email address, and Internet website, if applicable) all professionally printed on good quality stock. You can either do this yourself if you have the requisite software and high-speed printer, or have one of the many specialty print shops around town do it for you (for a fee).

While you are at it, try to think up a clever phrase, slogan, or jingle describing exactly what you do. It makes it easier for your potential pupils to remember you by. And have it printed on your business card, too. It can be anything within reason that tells students you’re in the “Teaching English as a Foreign Language” business.

Have a recognizable foreign symbol or logo printed onto the card that will connect you to your place of origin. For example, I used to have the American flag and a bald eagle — quite apropos, in my case — placed on all my business cards, followed by my title (Mr. Joe Lopes, but not Josmar, which sounds too Brazilian), my profession (English Teacher), and a brief description of my services (translations, subtitling, dubbing of videos, English for Business Purposes, Legal English, whatever).

Hand them out to as many people as you come into contact with on a regular basis. You never know where they will end up, or in whose hands.

Before you know it, your telephone will be ringing off the hook, especially after Carnival, when most companies and their employees seem ready and willing to get down to the serious business of learning English.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

The Fab Four of Opera: Mozart, Verdi, Wagner & Puccini (Part Two)

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Never Trust Your Own Bad Press

Mozart in his later years (nndb.com)
Mozart in his later years (nndb.com)

We take it for granted that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was an overindulged, child-like, and devil-may-care fellow who loved good wine and good jokes (but not so good women). That he was also a supremely gifted artist is a matter of historical fact.

Despite the obviously bad press he’s gotten throughout the years, there’s been no argument whatsoever that Mozart, above all the composers of the Classical period, was perfectly capable of writing in just about every conceivable form. From piano pieces, string quartets, octets, and concertos, to symphonies, sonatas, solo works for individual instruments, cantatas, motets, songs for soprano, dozens of operas (both comic and tragic), and even lofty church music.

In fact, his varied output of sacred works has been described as miraculous, melodious, and this side of heaven – in more ways than you might imagine. One of his absolute best came near the very end of his life: the unfinished yet spiritually uplifting Requiem in D Minor from 1791.

This fabulous choral and instrumental piece, “fueled by a dark and furious energy,” has been deemed by most musicologists as rivaling, if not altogether surpassing, the finest church music that issued forth from the pen of Johann Sebastian Bach. That’s high praise indeed, considering that Bach was one of the most prolific musicians who ever lived, with two (count ‘em) two wives to his name, as well as a boatload of talented offspring.

How the Requiem came to be written has been a matter of conjecture for a number of years. Believe it or not, playwright Peter Shaffer was right on the mark (well, almost) when, in the play and movie Amadeus, a mysterious masked stranger comes to Mozart’s door to commission a mass for the dead. Little does Wolfie know that the man behind the mask, and under the three-cornered hat, is his arch-rival Salieri; and the mass in question is for Mozart himself!

As patently melodramatic as this may have all sounded, there is some basis for it in fact. The reality of the situation was this: an eccentric aristocrat named Franz von Welsegg had the nasty habit of commissioning others to write music that he would later claim as his own. Such was the case with the Requiem. According to accounts of the time (some of which are purely speculative), Welsegg, through several intermediaries, gave Mozart a partial down payment to begin work on the project, only to have Mozart die a short while later.

Welsegg never fulfilled the remainder of his contract and was all set to claim the mass as his personal property. Fortunately for posterity, Mozart’s widow Constanze was able to deter this miscreant from making off with her late husband’s work by having the mass, or what little of it there was, a) completed by others, notably Franz Xaver Süssmayr and Joseph von Eybler; and b) performed in a public concert. Unlike the ditzy movie version, the real Frau Mozart knew a thing or two about how to outsmart others!

You can judge the beauty and power of this work for yourself in the following clip from a live Vienna Philharmonic concert, conducted by maestro Herbert von Karajan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ia8ceqIDSJw

The Master: Johann Sebastian Bach (salon.com)
The Master: Johann Sebastian Bach (salon.com)

While the Master Bach succeeded in accomplishing his many labors by living to a then-ripe old age of 65, poor Wolfgang suffered an early demise at 35. We should bear this in mind the next time someone attempts to compare these two artists’ gifts.

Dare we ask who was the greater of the two? That’s a matter of personal taste and opinion. I’m of the conviction that both men were equally great, but in their own individual way. Of one thing we are certain: Mozart wrote operas – many of them forming the cornerstone of the standard repertory – whereas Bach did not, which is why Bach was not included in our fabulous foursome.

You’re Not Getting Older, You’re Getting Better

Another long lived member of the Fab Four of Opera was the Italian-born Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901). As serious and sullen in his outlook on life as Mozart was sunny and disarming, the mature maestro Verdi, who regularly sported a full beard that gave him a suitably brooding countenance, had all the darkness of character implicit in Shaffer’s play that its cackling protagonist Wolfie so sorely lacked.

Due to an outbreak of typhoid, Verdi suffered the loss of his entire family early on, to include his wife and two young children. Yet, for such a melancholy gentleman Verdi left the public with a most imposing list of stage triumphs. Even a partial litany of his accomplishments would make any operagoer’s head spin: Nabucco, Ernani, Macbeth, Luisa Miller, Rigoletto, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, Un Ballo in Maschera, La Forza del Destino, I Vespri Siciliani, Don Carlo, Aida, Otello. The list seems endless.

Giuseppe Verdi (longisland.about.com)
Giuseppe Verdi (longisland.about.com)

His finished product numbered over two-dozen works, several of which were thoroughly reworked or refurbished several times during his lifetime. That was Verdi for you: the man just kept at it, until he finally got the thing right. No wonder he’s been hailed the world over as one of the few composers around who grew better at his task the older he got.

Consider, if you will, that Verdi lived to the age of 88. Consider, too, that he was a mere lad of 26 when he composed his first opera, the nearly forgotten Oberto; and that his last stage-work, the comic opera Falstaff (based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and parts of Henry IV), was written when he was nearing 80. What we’re talking about, then, is a career that spanned more than half a century. Imagine how many operatic hits Herr Mozart might have completed had he lived as long as Verdi! Too many notes, indeed!!!

Born on October 13, 1813, in the provincial town of Le Roncole, in the north of Italy, young Verdi was not blessed with financially well-to-do parents. Quite the opposite: he was considered a pauper by the rigid social standards of the time, yet his talent for music and grasp of the fundamentals of his art were plainly evident from an early age.

I can reasonably assure you that once heard, a Verdi melody will not soon be forgotten. Think of the Drinking Song from La Traviata, or better yet the aria “La donna é mobile” from Rigoletto. Here’s a sample, sung for us by Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=juan%20diego%20florez%20la%20donna%20e%20mobile&source=web&cd=4&cad=rja&ved=0CDsQtwIwAw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DeHcjAXmDHSs&ei=KxXzUeqNKJLy8ASU34GYDA&usg=AFQjCNGLnEim6w-CFLxsBbTa5T09Z3ahww

The case for “La donna é mobile” is an especially compelling one.

Juan Diego Florez (musicalcriticism.com)
Juan Diego Florez (musicalcriticism.com)

The story goes that the tenor at the opera’s premiere was desperate for a third act showstopper. Verdi, that wise old man of the theater, knew perfectly well he had a hit tune on his hands. To release that tune prematurely into the music world, however, would have spelled doom for his piece. Why, every organ-grinder in town would have played the catchy theme before it had a chance to be heard in context, thus losing the dramatic impact its composer had originally intended.

Consequently, the shrewd Signor Verdi refused to give the tenor the music for the number until just before curtain time. Heard in its proper setting, the aria was the hit of the show! This is only one example from among many of the composer’s incredible farsightedness with regard to his own melodic output.

Here’s another example of his melodic output: it’s one of Verdi’s most potent scenes for tenor, the aria, “Ah, si ben mio,” followed by the fiery cabaletta, “Di quella pira” (“The blaze from that funeral pyre”), from the opera Il Trovatore (The Troubadour), a tour de force if ever there was one. It will be sung by one my favorite artists, tenor Luciano Pavarotti, accompanied by soprano Joan Sutherland.

Joan Sutherland & Luciano Pavarotti (images.com)
Joan Sutherland & Luciano Pavarotti (images.com)

As a side note, Verdi did not write the two famous high C’s that conclude this bombastic piece. Those were added some time later by a lead singer who really wanted to show off his talents. With that said, this is as good an opportunity as any for Pavarotti to show off his talents. Let’s see if he can pass the tenor acid test:

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=luciano%20pavarotti%20and%20joan%20sutherland%20di%20quella%20pira&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&ved=0CCoQtwIwAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D3JdI4oNTb7U&ei=UBbzUa2VMYK-9QS1ioGIDw&usg=AFQjCNHs50xn0JNwmuArI1tU4LYOFLBvDQ

(End of Part Two — To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Hollywood Goes to the Opera – More Cinematic Disparities for Your Viewing Displeasure (Conclusion)

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Director Martin Scorsese
Director Martin Scorsese

Concluding my previous blog posts about the absurdities of opera singers and opera singing in Tinsel Town (and beyond), below are a few more examples of this egregious practice for good measure.

But What Does It Have to Do With Opera?

Everybody knows (or at least, I hope they know) that opera, as it’s been handed down to us, originated in sixteenth-century Italy — Florence, Italy, to be exact. It was supposed to be a somewhat heightened method of speech tempered with music and drama. Whether that concept has successfully carried over into modern times, or whether it’s been good or bad for music and drama as a whole, I’ll leave it to the experts to determine.

What I can say about opera is that many filmmakers and directors of Italian and/or Sicilian extraction, with Francis Ford Coppola among the more notables ones, have been obsessed by the genre from their earliest infancy. It must be in their blood. But whatever the reason, we have Coppola and his fellow paisan to thank for spicing up the medium through non-operatic methods.

One such director has been that prolific genius of the celluloid, Martin Scorsese. A graduate of New York University’s Film School, not only is Scorsese an inveterate movie buff, film historian and preservationist, but a scrupulously curious-minded individual whose fascination with how opera and the performing arts can be incorporated into such a seemingly incompatible form as film has led him down some fascinating roads. I’m not sure Mr. Scorsese has ever successfully reconciled these two art forms, to be honest, but he certainly gave it the old NYU college try!

Many of his most famous films preserve some aspect of the operatic art, whether it’s the music or an actual “staged” performance. Let’s say that opera (that larger than life way of expressing oneself through song), in the hands of master movie-maker Marty, can make you see things in an entirely different light; while adding to our understanding of a scene or plot point without regard to its sometimes gruesome subject matter.

Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull
Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull

There’s plenty of evidence for that in Scorsese’s Oscar-winning biopic Raging Bull from 1980, which should start things off nicely for us. By emphasizing the Intermezzi from both Pietro Mascagni’s one-act Cavalleria Rusticana (loosely translated as “Rustic Chivalry”) and his later unsuccessful Guglielmo Ratcliff, Scorsese featured these two pieces of music, one in crisply edited, black-and-white photographed, slow-motion action shots, and the other in a facsimile of a 16mm handheld camera, to paint two pre-MTV versions of a proto-music video in several artsy-fartsy sequences.

The film, a brutal and starkly realistic look at the turbulent life of middleweight boxing champ Jake La Motta (played by Robert De Niro), and based on the fighter’s autobiographical book, no less, presented a foul-mouthed portrait of an overly jealous man behind the athletic shorts. Co-star Joe Pesci, in his film debut as La Motta’s equally forceful younger brother, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his comic-opera turn. Pesci got the nod again (and won!) a decade later for his similar assumption of a garrulous Mafia hood in the same director’s Goodfellas (1990). What’s so funny?

In a complete 180-degree turnaround from blood-sport and warring factions, Scorsese gave us a suitably lush picture of late nineteenth-century Manhattan high society in his screen adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1993). Beautifully shot and elegantly narrated by Joanne Woodward, the film in its early going takes us to a “live” Metropolitan Opera Company performance of Gounod’s Victorian-era opus, Faust.

Evidencing a deft familiarity with the era’s conventions, as specifically related to this opera (thanks to his superb research department), Scorsese’s movie accurately reconstructs an Italian-language Faust, which as incredible as it may seem the opera was actually sung in. Indeed, all the operas, including most of the German repertoire, were performed by the Metropolitan in la lingua italiana, the norm for that time period.

Wynona Ryder is Age of Innocence
Wynona Ryder in The Age of Innocence

Not to be outdone, Scorsese, in following Wharton’s lead, knew full well that most society families had the rather noxious habit of taking their marriageable-age daughters to see Faust, mostly for purely “moralistic” purposes, in that the lead female character of Marguérite (or Margherita in this version) meets a very sad fate through her out-of-wedlock relationship with the title character. Hey, that’s one way to keep your girls in line!

Evviva Italia!

Continuing along this path, the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s were a splendid time in Italy for films of an operatic nature to be produced. The most unusual aspect, shall we say, of these quickie flicks was the sub-par lip-synching employed throughout, as well as the even more nonsensical practice of dubbing opera stars’ voices with… well, other opera stars’ voices! Appearances counted for much back then.

One of the earliest examples of the above was of Donizetti’s charming comic opera The Elixir of Love (1946), which starred photogenic baritone Tito Gobbi as Sgt. Belcore, bass Italo Tajo as Dr. Dulcamara, and soprano Nelly Corradi as Adina — but with the chirpy singing voice of Margherita Carosio. This made little sense, as Carosio was a pretty enough figure in real life to overcome any implausibility. Hmm, maybe she was just camera shy….

A slightly “better” (relatively speaking) production was The Barber of Seville from 1947, which repeated the successful formula of Gobbi, Tajo and Corradi, but added portly tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini as Count Almaviva (singing and acting, by the way) to the mix, along with burly basso buffo Vito de Taranto as Dr. Bartolo. The sets were rather crude and makeshift, to be kind, as they were borrowed direct from the Rome Opera, where the production was filmed. Talk about a tight budget!

Tito Gobbi a Figaro (youtube.com)
Tito Gobbi a Figaro (youtube.com)

Next up was a series of Verdi operas, including the bombastic La Forza del Destino (1947), with Gobbi, bass Giulio Neri, and Corradi again. This time around, Corradi was dubbed by dramatic soprano Caterina Mancini. Tenor Gino Sinimberghi appeared as Don Alvaro, but was voiced by Galliano Masini. Go figure! An even better production of Rigoletto (1946) starred our old friend Gobbi, with actress Marcella Govoni sitting in for the hugely proportioned, but vocally well-endowed Lina Pagliughi.

Golden-throated tenor Mario Filippeschi emoted onscreen, while his own sterling tones (described by his baritone colleague, Signor Gobbi, as “a splendid Duke with a ringing voice and smilingly sardonic appearance”) sang the life out of “La donna é mobile.” Mamma mia! According to Gobbi, the entire film was shot on the stage of the Rome Opera House in a span of 14 days. Always a quickie, never a longie!

Two films — one a comedy and one a tragedy — were released in 1948. Let’s start with the tragedy: Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci or, as it’s known in the ersatz American translation, Love of a Clown. Again, we have Gobbi acting the part of Tonio, while singing both Tonio and Silvio, the soprano’s love interest. A young (and I do mean YOUNG) Gina Lollobrigida appeared as Nedda. Stay with me now, for this is going to be a real mishmash. Gina was dubbed by soprano Onelia Fineschi. Her lover, Silvio, which we already know from the above was voiced by Signor Gobbi, was acted by… you guessed it, Signor Gobbi.

All right, so far so good. Here comes the funny part (funny as in, “What the…?”). Canio, the main clown (i.e., Pagliaccio), was sung by tenor Galliano Masini. You remember him! He sang in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. Well, then, the actor playing Canio was none other than… are you ready for it? Baritone Afro Poli! (Sure, why not?) Rounding out the ensemble was tenor Gino Sinimberghi, now SINGING the part of Beppe, but PLAYED on the screen by… an ACTOR! And the actor’s name is? The envelope, please: Filippo Morucci. (WHO???) You got all that?

Okay, so what about the other flick? After the above comedy of errors, not even Rossini’s enchanting La Cenerentola, the Italian version of the Cinderella story, could bring as big a smile to one’s face as what transpired with Pagliacci — oh, excuse me: Love of a Clown. Nevertheless, the role of Cinderella was played onscreen by Lori Landi (whoever she was). She was dubbed by the luscious-voiced mezzo Fedora Barbieri, along with basses Enrico Formichi and Vito de Taranto. The most memorable feature of this particular production was the sumptuously filmed locations, which included the Royal Palaces of Monza and Turin in Italy.

Here’s an interesting variant. The late composer, librettist, director and producer Gian-Carlo Menotti — the man responsible for the annual Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds — directed a film version of his own opera, The Medium (1950), in his native Italy. At the time, it was considered opera’s first excursion into film noir and Italian neo-realist territory. American contralto Marie Powers gave a powerful performance of the title role, with a young Anna Maria Alberghetti as Monica, and Leo Coleman in the mute role of Toby.

The finale, where Powers mistakes Coleman for one of her phantoms and shoots him dead, is full of religious iconography and punctuated by funereal chords in the orchestra. Seldom has a theater piece so transcended its operatic origins and become a full-fledged film product on its own. For the movie, Menotti expanded his opera to 80 minutes from its original one-hour running time. Tick… tick… tick….

Hang in there. Only two more to go! Actress and singer Franca Duval, the mammoth-voiced tenor Franco Corelli (he of the mighty thighs and endless high notes), and jack-of-all-operatic-trades baritone Afro Poli all appeared in Puccini’s Tosca (1956). The gorgeous Duval was sung on the soundtrack by aging diva Maria Caniglia. Corelli sung for Corelli (now there’s a novelty), while his good friend and fellow singing-actor Gian Giacomo Guelfi dubbed in the part of Baron Scarpia. The whole film was spoiled by an extremely intrusive English narration. Stop the music, stop the music!

Sophia Loren as Aida
Sophia Loren as Aida

And now for the piece de résistance! A famous 1954 Technicolor-film version of Verdi’s Aida that starred actress Sophia Loren at the very beginning of her career. In case you were wondering, the role was actually sung by the lirico spinto Renata Tebaldi. Lois Maxwell — the future Miss Moneypenny for all those early James Bond movies, and the brunt of Sean Connery’s puns — acted the part of Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter. Lest you think that Lois was capable of assuming the vocal aspects of this part, think again: the famed mezzo Ebe Stignani sang Amneris on the soundtrack.

Our tenor hero Radames was lip-synched by an immobile actor named Luciano Della Marra. Tenor Giuseppe Campora sang for him, (though the tenor was severely over-parted). Afro Poli was the Amonasro, but voiced by the very capable Gino Bechi, while Antonio Cassinelli played Ramfis the High Priest; his voice (you knew he wasn’t going to do his own singing, now, didn’t you?) was dubbed by the noble bass of Giulio Neri. The whole show was directed by Clemente Fracassi. Unfortunately, Verdi’s most popular opera was trimmed down to about 90 minutes. Not a good day for us purists.

Cartoon Frolics and Puppet Shows

At around the same time as those Italian opera productions were making their way around the globe, Warner Brothers got into the act by releasing three unusual theatrical shorts during the heyday of animated features.

The first was “Long-Haired Hare” from 1949. With musical direction by Carl W. Stalling, it featured our favorite cartoon rabbit Bugs Bunny in a raging battle with a smarmy baritone named Giovanni Jones (“That’s the nice fat opera singer”).

Bugs Bunny and Giovanni Jones
Bugs Bunny and Giovanni Jones

The second, “The Rabbit of Seville,” released in 1950, was an animated spoof of Rossini’s opera that used the work’s world-renowned overture to produce a mini-opera in itself. Musical direction was again provided by Stalling. This one had Bugs and a perpetually flustered Elmer Fudd running around the stage trying to top each other in mayhem.

The last, and probably one of the finest animated masterpieces from this period, is “What’s Opera, Doc?” from 1957. A thoroughly hilarious takeoff on Wagner and the Ring cycle operas, this marvelous (and exceedingly expressionistic) short used music from The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, Die Walküre, and a song, “Return My Love,” with lyrics by Michael Maltese, to fulfill our operatic needs. The musical direction was by Milt Franklyn.

It’s a classic by any definition of the word, and a highpoint for the studio — especially when Elmer Fudd expresses his undying love for the German “diva” Bugs Bunny: “Oh, Bwunnhilde, be my wove!” Oy vey, it’s enough to make one swear off opera for good. One can still feel its influence in the 2009 release of The Secret of Kells, an Irish, French and Belgian-produced feature, beautifully rendered in brilliantly colored backgrounds and art work. (And “that’s all, folks!”)

Hansel and Gretel movie poster
Hansel and Gretel movie poster

And now, for a simply delightful change of pace, we have another certifiable cult classic: the stop-motion musical adaptation of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel from 1954. Revolutionary in pioneering electronic techniques, and a prototype for later CGI and stop-motion work by the likes of Henry Selick and Tim Burton, this film was aimed squarely at the kiddies.

Based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, it boasted the voice of famed lecturer, singer and comedian Anna Russell as Rosina Dainty Lips, that irksome child-eating Witch who gets to ride her broom around a candy-colored set. Broadway’s Mildred Dunnock, who acted in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, voiced the part of H & G’s Stepmother. As far as pushing the technology of the medium goes, this puppet-based “toon” earned its stripes in the visual effects department with (ahem) flying colors. Produced and directed by Michael Myerberg.

I Want My MTV – Not!

As anyone who’s ever lived through the eighties and nineties will tell you, it was the age of Music Television, or MTV for short (not anymore it isn’t). And music videos were all the rage — at least, up until the start of the new millennium. That’s when Reality TV took over, thanks ever so much to a prolonged writers’ strike. We’re still paying the price for that one.

Neil Shicoff as Eleazar
Neil Shicoff as Eleazar (youtube.com)

In any case, I can wholeheartedly recommend tenor Neil Shicoff’s MTV-like video performance from 2005 of the aria, “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” from the grandest of French grand operas, La Juive (“The Jewess”), by Fromental Halévy. Directed by television and movie veteran Sidney Lumet (now there’s an odd choice), Shicoff appears as Eleazar, the Jewess Rachel’s father, and emotes convincingly in his Jewish rabbi garb.

In addition to being a full-throated American tenor, Shicoff is also a full-throated Jewish cantor on the side. Significantly, his stirring rendition of this difficult piece, a favorite of Enrico Caruso’s, was in homage to the late tenor Richard Tucker, also a cantor, but who never got to sing the role at the Metropolitan Opera House, his home for nearly 30 years. If anything, Shicoff knocks this out of the ballpark, so fiercely determined was he to express the full gamut of emotions.

The video is included on the DVD edition of the complete opera, released by Deutsche Grammophon and performed live by the Vienna State Opera. You’ll want to get your hands on this one quick, as it’s destined to become a classic.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

 

 

‘The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess’ – Classic Opera or Broadway Musical? It Ain’t Necessarily So!

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The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess (nytimes.com)
“The Crap Game” from The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (nytimes.com)

When I last visited New York City in September 2012, I took my youngest daughter with me to see her first Broadway show. What we saw was the final week’s performance of a recent mounting of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, with music by George Gershwin, libretto by DuBose Heyward (based on his 1925 novel Porgy and subsequent stage play, co-authored with wife Dorothy), and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Heyward.

A musical-theater classic (its Broadway bow occurred on October 10, 1935), this latest version boasted a totally revamped book, substituting the sung recitative for spoken dialogue, adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks, with a musical score adapted by Dierdre L. Murray. First performed at Harvard University’s American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on August 17, 2011, the revival (or, more accurately, “revisal”) was choreographed by Ronald K. Brown, with scenic designs by Riccardo Hernandez, costumes by ESosa, lighting by Christopher Akerlind, and musical direction by Constantine Kitsopoulos. The entire production was directed by Diane Paulus (Hair, Kiss Me Kate, Pippin).

We were most fortunate to have seen and heard the original cast – a solid gold cast, I should add – headed by the incomparable Audra McDonald as Bess, Norm Lewis as Porgy, David Alan Grier as Sporting Life, and Phillip Boykin as Crown. Others in the talented ensemble included Nikki Renée Daniels as Clara, Joshua Henry as Jake, NaTasha Yvette Williams as Mariah, J.D. Webster as Mingo the Undertaker, Bryonha Marie Parham as Serena, and Nathaniel Stampley as Robbins, with Christopher Innvar, Joseph Dellger, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Phumzile Sojola, and Cedric Neal in smaller roles.

Surrounded by controversy before it even opened on the Great White Way (an ironic turn of phrase, I gathered, considering the show’s all-black cast), what Parks and Paulus did was to shake the cobwebs off the piece, to rethink it, rearrange it, stir it up, and refurbish some dialogue and musical material by realigning it in what I felt to be a respectful and inventive manner, if a tad leaner than what one has been used to in the past – all with the blessing and backing of the Gershwin Estate.

Director Diane Paulus (arts.columbia.edu)
Director Diane Paulus (arts.columbia.edu)

“We are trying to create a more dramatically complete version that will be the most powerful experience in terms of story and characters for a twenty-first century audience,” Paulus declared. “Different things need to be adapted and changed for different reasons,” claimed Parks. “There are several [of] what I would call ‘anthropological moments’ in the original, meaning moments created by people who were probably not deeply familiar with any African-American community… And there are moments that need additions/rewrites/tweaks for pure dramaturgical reasons.” To the discussion above, McDonald added that Bess “is often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character.”

Notwithstanding their efforts, and without having even seen the completed show, famed Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim wrote a blistering condemnation of the team’s motives in The New York Times: “Ms. Paulus says that in the opera you don’t get to know the characters as people. Putting it kindly, that’s willful ignorance. The characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theatre, as has been proved over and over in productions that may have cut some dialogue and musical passages but didn’t rewrite and distort them.”

Award-winning director Harold Prince, who collaborated with Sondheim on many of his finest musicals, offered this view of their so-called tampering with the classic: “To my mind, Porgy and Bess is a sacred text. How can she and Diane Paulus know what George Gershwin had in mind? They don’t have a clear line to him.” Indeed, how can any of us know what playwrights and composers, not to mention lead producers, book writers, songwriters and lyricists, had in mind for any of their past musical projects? That’s why we have revivals: to test the waters, try out new theories and advance opposing ideas.

Other reviewers jumped on the critical bandwagon – a bit prematurely perhaps, for the show turned out to be a huge hit, its run having been extended several times. Not only that, but McDonald went on to win a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, as did Diane Paulus for Best Director of a Musical Revival, a wake-up call to those detractors who claimed this version was an unworthy endeavor.

Say what you will about this or any other revival of Porgy, the work speaks for itself. That it had such eloquent spokespersons as McDonald, Paulus, and Parks testifies to its durability and relevance for our time. But is Porgy and Bess a classic opera or a Broadway musical show? That’s a question the smartest, most thoughtful minds in the business have been pondering for generations – and a most tantalizing one to have to answer!

A Show by Any Other Name

George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward & Ira Gershwin
George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward & Ira Gershwin

Certainly George Gershwin, the show’s composer and guiding light, and one of Tin Pan Alley’s greatest (if not the greatest of) songwriters, thought it was an opera – a folk opera to be exact, in the jargon of the 1930s, but an opera nonetheless. Realizing that the opera ran to over four hours during its out-of-town tryout in Boston, George and his lyricist brother Ira, along with novelist Heyward (a native of Charleston, South Carolina), decided to cut back the mountain of material they had originally created by trimming away many of the score’s more picaresque moments, much as Giacomo Puccini was forced to do with Madama Butterfly after its initial failure at La Scala.

“If I am successful,” Gershwin claimed later, “it will resemble a combination of the drama and romance of [Bizet’s] Carmen and the beauty of [Wagner’s] Die Meistersinger.” Such superb ensemble writing as the opening “Crap Game,” for instance, was unheard of for an American opera composer at the time. “Like Carmen, Porgy and Bess has gorgeous songs that are an integral part of its musical fabric,” wrote Robert Kimball, in his program notes, “The Roots of ‘Porgy and Bess’,” for the Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s milestone recording of the work. “Arguably,” continued Kimball, “the comparisons to Meistersinger are even stronger. The large choral ensembles and dramatic scenes, the effective use of leitmotifs, the Wagnerian scope and difficulty of its principal roles, and surely the fight-scene fugue owe much to Meistersinger. Above all, there is a similar feeling of community that links Catfish Row [the setting for the play and the opera] and Nuremberg.”

I think that for a full evening’s entertainment, though, the four-hour running time is a bit much for modern audiences to have to sit through. The demands on cast and crew are daunting as well, especially for the chorus and orchestra. This is a work of Wagnerian proportions, no doubt about it – a total work of art, or Gesamtkunstwerk as Wagner would term it. It’s a long and fascinating piece, best appreciated on records and CDs, with beautifully worked out numbers, textual acuity, an adult story line and three-dimensional characters: Bess is a whore and a dope addict, plain and simple; Sporting Life is a drug dealer and a pimp; Mariah a bossy Earth Mother; Crown a cold-blooded murderer; Porgy a superstitious beggar and cripple with a heart of gold; Jake a male chauvinist, and so on. To winnow things down to Broadway-size proportions, without abandoning its operatic origins, is a challenge on any front.

Compare and Contrast

Paulus directing Boykin & McDonald (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
Paulus directing Boykin & McDonald (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)

Gershwin drew a comparison above between his Porgy and two classic operatic works. I’d like to make one of my own, if I can: in comparing the Act II, scene ii picnic episode on Kittiwah Island with a similar scene in Carousel, one gets the sneaky suspicion that Rodgers and Hammerstein must have known the opera well, for they virtually “cloned” this sequence into their own musical outing from a decade later (April 1945, to be precise), but with an all-white ensemble instead. Not a deliberate steal, mind you, but an obvious homage, I’d like to imagine, one that’s been overlooked by musicologists for years.

In fact, how many other works have profited from Porgy’s dramatic truth and tunefulness? And what other show has such instantly recognizable hit tunes as “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Bess, You is My Woman,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nothin’,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “Leaving for the Promised Land,” “It Takes a Long Pull,” etc., and so forth?

Suzan-Lori Parks (newsinfo.iu.edi)
Suzan-Lori Parks (newsinfo.iu.edi)

I could go on and on praising its songs, but I want to take issue with something Suzan-Lori Parks said earlier. She talked about some of those “anthropological moments” by “people who were probably not deeply familiar with any [my emphasis] African-American community.” I respectfully disagree with that statement.

According to Kimball, a musical theater historian and co-author (along with Alfred Simon) of The Gershwins (Atheneum Publishers, 1973), Gershwin paid “many visits to Charleston to work with Heyward… His longest stay was in the summer of 1934 when he and his cousin, Henry Botkin, rented a place on Folly Island off the Carolina coast. In search of inspiration for his music, Gershwin visited Carolina churches, homes, night clubs, and prayer meetings, soaking up everything.”

Heyward himself later described “their fruitful working experience” in the following passage: “[W]e established ourselves on Folly Island, a small barrier island ten miles from Charleston. James Island with its large population of primitive Gullah Negroes lay adjacent, and furnished us with a laboratory in which to test our theories, as well as an inexhaustible source of folk material… I shall never forget the night when, at a Negro meeting on a remote sea-island, George started ‘shouting’ with them. And eventually to their huge delight stole the show from their champion ‘shouter.’”

What Ms. Parks may have objected to was the lack of political correctness in many of the words and phrases both Gershwin and Heyward used to describe the poor blacks they came into contact with. She and quite a few others may have forgotten that Gershwin grew up and worked in multiracial, multi-ethnic neighborhoods, in the teeming byways of the Lower East Side of New York, as well as in Harlem, where the Gershwin family had lived. If I may quote from Kimball again: “Gershwin knew such influential black musicians as James P. Johnson and Eubie Blake, studied for a time with Charles Luckeyth ‘Lucky’ Roberts, and greatly admired Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller, Art Tatum and W.C. Handy. One of many black musicians who befriended Gershwin was the talented arranger and composer Will Vodery. When Gershwin left [his publishing company] in 1917 to try to make it on his own, Vodery was one of the first to offer help and encouragement… It is important [to note] that it shows Gershwin had an interest and a musical involvement in Negro life early on.”

This is not to say that ignorance and prejudice did not exist in the 1920s and 30s. Far from it! However, where the Gershwins and Dubose Heyward were concerned, they consciously tried to capture the speech pattern, rhythm and cadences, musically as well as vocally, of the Southern black population that lived and loved in the fictional Catfish Row of their imagination. If Parks wants to call their attempts at doing this as “not deeply familiar with any African-American community,” then by all means do so – keeping in mind, if you will, the historical, sociological and musical context in which these men labored and thrived in. Were their observations “racist”? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s say they were products of their era and leave it at that.

Bess, You is the Woman Now

McDonald & Norm Lewis (chicagotribune.com)
McDonald & Norm Lewis (chicagotribune.com)

The first thing I noticed with this version of Porgy was Bess’s domination of the stage, a rare occurrence indeed and one director Paulus struggled especially hard to convey. Toward that end, she had the phenomenal Audra McDonald to rely upon. McDonald brought enormous stature to the role, a raw energy, a gutsy, combative spirit, a strong personality, strong wants, strong needs, and even stronger desires – drug lust and sexual craving chief among them. Her obsession with the massively realized Crown of Phillip Boykin, her fear of him, and her own irrational fascination with him, came through boldly and vividly.

It was a risky choice on Audra’s part to do this, but it paid off handsomely in the long run by bringing the usually reticent personality of Bess into sharper focus, in addition to making her one of the central figures in this production – as well she should be, since Bess is one of the title characters, along with Porgy.

And speaking of which, Norm Lewis’ soft-spoken, low-key traversal of the crippled Porgy, by turns pained and sullen, as well as gentle and loving in his absolute dedication to Bess, was a breath of fresh air. As comprehending a soul as could be found, his Porgy was patience personified, what with Bess’ drug addiction and sexual appetite vying for his affection. True, this was a downplayed yet determined Porgy – again, a different interpretation from past adherents – but one not to be toyed with. He was ever mindful of his deformity and affliction. For his troubles, the production dispensed with the usual goat cart; in its place, Porgy sported leg braces, which aided in his (literal and physical) standing on his own two feet to face the tribulations to come.

I admired the way Lewis took his time with the part, and especially how he took Bess gently into his arms – so tender, so full of joy and hope and longing – for a thoroughly satisfying “Bess, You is My Woman Now”; again, not the usual operatic bawling, but a calm, almost gradual awareness of their burgeoning love. The couple practically billed and cooed like the proverbial lovebirds.

By contrast, Phillip Boykin’s overpoweringly monstrous Crown was a force of nature. His volcanic presence bullied and bludgeoned all around him like nothing I’ve witnessed on the stage. A veritable hurricane of a man, Boykin was the most impressively sung and physically imposing Crown in memory (only Gregg Baker at Glyndebourne and the Met came close). When Boykin came a-knocking during the Act II storm scene, I half expected the devil himself to come bursting through that door, so overwhelming in impact was he in this role. His “What You Want With Bess?” duet with McDonald was the highpoint of their emotional encounter, and of the show itself. Both artists outdid themselves – in fact, Crown’s rape of Bess left many in the audience squirming with discomfort. But that was the point! To have actually felt the man’s presence and Bess’s desperation in that awful moment, even at a safe remove from the stage, was absolutely terrifying.

David Alan Grier as Sporting Life (centrictv.com)
David Alan Grier as Sporting Life (centrictv.com)

Walking the walk and talking the talk, David Alan Grier was an assured and downright roguish Sporting Life, his snakelike strut and air of self-satisfaction telegraphing the character’s evil intent at every turn. Still, I missed that last note of sarcasm in the voice – his “It Ain’t Necessarily So” lacked the bite that such memorable portrayals as those of John W. Bubbles (the original Sporting Life), Cab Calloway, and Damon Evans have brought to the part. All the principal and secondary roles were excellently performed, but in a toned down, non-operatic manner, i.e., very little belting to the rafters but certainly not lacking for lyricism. A perfect illustration of this was Joshua Henry’s Jake and Nikki Renée Daniels’ Clara. NaTasha Yvette Williams’ Mariah was sassy and brassy, as the part required, without sacrificing any of the character’s warmth and motherly concern, while the chorus was a shade undernourished.

Since a good deal of the opera’s scenes had to be “trimmed” and rearranged – an hour’s worth of content, by my reckoning – this left some of the work’s most elaborate musical numbers, such as Jasbo Brown’s opening piano pounding, by the wayside. What a shame! The sets were simple and attractive, especially in the second act nighttime sequence, but were nothing to write home about. However, in the show’s defense (something I believe I have been doing since the start of this review) there was the sense of a real community at play, a Catfish Row made livelier by the men and women who inhabited it.

Norm Lewis "I'm on My Way" (berkshirefinearts.com)
Norm Lewis “I’m on My Way” (berkshirefinearts.com)

At its conclusion, Porgy ultimately finds the strength to go on, a strength he never knew he had, by his brief association with Bess. After being told that Bess has run off with the revolting Sporting Life, Porgy goes after her sans his formulaic goat cart; to trudge along an unworn path on steel braces, to the big Northern city of “Noo Yawk,” in a most heartrending finale. A finale that’s emblematic of this work’s having “made it” on its own two feet, and on its own merits.

So now we come to the question that still needs answering: is Porgy and Bess an opera or a musical? I’d say neither. It’s one damn terrific show, that’s all! And I’m so glad not to have missed it.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

From Verdi’s Violetta to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: Two Fallen Sisters Under the Skin

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Natalie Dessay as Violetta (Ken Howard / NY Times)
Natalie Dessay as Violetta (Ken Howard / NY Times)

For a birthday present, my daughters gave me tickets to see the Live in HD showing of Verdi’s La Traviata at one of our local theaters. Similarly, I used a gift certificate my brother had sent me to purchase a Blu-ray Disc of the latest movie incarnation of Leo Tolstoy’s tragic heroine, Anna Karenina, with Keira Knightley and directed by Joe Wright.

Two fallen women, two sisters under the skin – a lucky draw of the cards I simply could not overlook, although I intend to comment on Tolstoy’s epic at a later date.

The Live in HD transmission was a rebroadcast of an April 14, 2012 presentation of Traviata starring French soprano Natalie Dessay as Violetta Valery, American tenor Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo Germont, Russian baritone and Verdi specialist Dimitri Hvorostovsky as his father, Giorgio Germont, and principal conductor Fabio Luisi leading the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

La Traviata came from Verdi’s so-called middle period. Written almost concurrently with the wildly popular Il Trovatore, both works had their respective premieres barely two months apart, in 1853. They were preceded by another middle-period piece, the lively Rigoletto from 1851. As a result, all three operas share many stylistic elements and tonal similarities, a good example of this being the dirge-like theme in Traviata’s Act III finale that sounds suspiciously like the Miserere from Act IV, Scene i of Trovatore.

What makes Traviata so engrossing for modern-day audiences is its reliance on flesh-and-blood characters, all of whom were derived from actual individuals, as relayed by Alexandre Dumas fils in his semi-autobiographical novel and play, La Dame aux Camélias (“The Lady of the Camellias”). The real-life protagonist of these pieces, Marie Duplessis, was a member of the hedonistic demi-mondaine of Paris, which Dumas was familiar with. The play accurately (if somewhat fictionally) renders the events of his affair with Duplessis in dramatic fashion. Its popularity eventually grew to become the sumptuously filmed Camille (1936), with lovely Greta Garbo (renamed Marguerite Gautier) as Marie, young Robert Taylor as her lover Armand, and crusty Lionel Barrymore as Armand’s father.

Another startling happenstance was Verdi’s operatic treatment of the subject. Long before Traviata was conceived, the composer had engaged in his own well publicized affair with former singer Giuseppina Strepponi, who had earlier appeared in various Verdi works. Verdi dared to live openly with the ex-star of La Scala, which scandalized the populace to no end. Poor Giuseppina was habitually ostracized wherever she went, but Verdi refused to bend. Having given birth to several illegitimate children by previous lovers, Strepponi gave them up for adoption (including Verdi’s), with the composer becoming directly involved with their placement in foster homes. To top it off, he had a little fling on the side, allegedly with Austro-Hungarian diva Teresa Stolz – all of which is fully documented in Verdi: A Documentary Study, Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s monumental history of the composer’s life.

Verdi went on to legitimize his relationship to Strepponi, who became the second Mrs. Verdi in 1859. Incidentally, she maintained a respectful friendship with Stolz even after her husband ended the affair. This brief background history, then, is basically a lead up to the main event: mainly, that Verdi certainly felt, and experienced a great deal of sympathy for, the forlorn Violetta by the time he got down to actually writing La Traviata.

A Brilliant Performance

Natalie Dessay in Act II
Natalie Dessay in Act II

I found this version of Traviata (translated as “The Wayward One”) riveting from beginning to end, to which I give full credit to the brilliant Mme. Dessay. The concentration and intensity she demonstrated as the fallen woman Violetta was a testament to Dessay’s professionalism and dedication to her art. Despite a recent cold, Dessay managed this feat of theatrical legerdemain by carefully husbanding her limited resources, and by molding her lyrical statements to suit the dramatic purposes of the plot.

In short, Dessay did what only the greatest artists are capable of doing: she convinced us that she was the achingly put-upon Violetta, not only making the role her own, but shining a beacon of light on the character’s hopeless plight, thus illuminating the tragic circumstances surrounding her life, yet treating Violetta with the sympathy she so richly deserved – without undue sentiment – in as matter-of-fact a way as possible.

I happen to own the DVD of Russian diva Anna Netrebko’s first performance of Violetta, from the 2005 Salzburg Festival, in this same production of German director Willy Decker’s deconstruction of the opera that, quite literally, made Mme. Netrebko an international sensation. Her Violetta, while vocally thrilling and flamboyantly acted, lacked something of the spark of inspiration to truly ignite her performance. That’s not to say it wasn’t a bold undertaking; only in juxtaposition with Dessay’s own assumption of the role did Netrebko leave something to be desired.

As some readers may know (but others may not), Decker’s stripped-down, bleakly cold setting (a single corrugated wall unit, no intermission between the acts, very little color except for Violetta’s red dress) wisely makes Violetta the focus of the drama, which is as it should be. Not only that, but every character and scene in the opera, including several set pieces (specifically, the Act II choral sequence where the ladies are supposed to be dressed as gypsies and the men as matadors; and the Carnival interlude in Act III after Violetta’s mournful “Addio del passato”) revolve around the protagonist’s dilemma and subsequent tragedy.

To spell things out, the tragedy involves an illicit affair with a young man named Alfredo, who falls for the courtesan (a high-priced call girl) at a mutual friend’s dinner party. Confessing his love to Violetta, the enamored lad is encouraged in his advances by the obviously flattered lady. They then decide to live together without benefit of wedlock, which at the time of the opera’s premiere was considered positively indecent. Alfredo’s father, Germont père, visits Violetta and succeeds in getting her to give up the boy and go back to her former life, by using his own daughter’s pending wedding as an excuse.

Dessay with Matthew Polenzani
Dessay with Matthew Polenzani

Violetta makes the ultimate sacrifice, but Alfredo is not told the real reason for her abandonment. Later, he erupts into a fit of jealous rage at another dinner party, offending and ill-treating Violetta in front of her friends. This leads to a duel, which Alfredo survives, only to be told the truth from his dad. Alfredo rushes to Violetta’s side, only to have her die of tuberculosis.

Except for a brief interval (the elder Germont’s confrontation with his son, and the start of Act III), in this version Violetta is onstage constantly. So is Alfredo, who appears in scenes he would not normally be featured in. These are certainly debatable directorial choices, but the end result is that both characters come across as fully rounded personalities. The despicable Alfredo has a perfectly justifiable reason (in his own mind) for throwing that second act “temper tantrum” – as reprehensible an action as any I’ve seen in the theater. Taking his winnings and stuffing them under Violetta’s dress and into her bodice, Alfredo is denounced by his father for his callous cruelty. It’s an absolutely devastating moment, which both Dessay and Polenzani played to perfection (Polenzani drew a fair amount of sweat for his strenuous efforts, too), making Alfredo entirely unsympathetic in everyone’s eyes – everyone, that is, except Violetta, who cries to herself, “Alfredo, Alfredo, how could you understand all the love that’s in my heart? How could you know that I’ve proved it, despite your contempt?”

And Now, On to the Singing

As gorgeously sung as Netrebko’s Violetta undoubtedly was, the heart and soul of this Traviata was definitely Dessay. Sleight of stature but big of talent, Dessay used her petite frame to generate an immense pity for the pathetic little creature. Natalie has been at the forefront of her art for nearly 20 years. While her voice has diminished in size and undergone some changes (about a decade ago, she experienced vocal problems that necessitated surgery), her dramatic skills have taken a huge leap forward – the result of which is the most compelling and fully realized portrait of Verdi’s misunderstood heroine I have ever seen. I doubt there will be another such performance of this role in my lifetime, and in quite this same manner – and that’s saying a lot.

Although Dessay’s voice is not exactly what we’ve come to expect from past Violetta’s (the lighter-voiced Bidu Sayão, Ileana Cotrubas and Roberta Peters, however, have done wonders with the part), she was ideally cast and the center of everyone’s attention. Her coloratura was free and agile, although at this stage the voice lacks sufficient volume to overcome the vastness of the Met’s auditorium. This is not to downgrade Dessay’s performance, only to comment on any HD transmission, which can never be a proper substitution for being in the theater.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Germont
Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Germont

Papa Germont, sung by Dimitri Hvorostovsky, was elegantly performed – perhaps a shade too elegant. He is played much less sympathetically in this production than in others I’ve seen, however Dimitri’s long line and endlessly spun legato were a pleasure to hear, the manly weight and timbre of his voice bringing a much needed bite, and welcome respite, from Placido Domingo’s later turn in the role, a performance I did not find especially pleasing – see my earlier review (https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/salad-bowl-italian-opera-style-continues-with-la-traviata/). Hvorostovsky proved, at least in this performance, that he still possesses extraordinary breath control and agility.

Matthew Polenzani’s Alfredo began and ended well. His singing had a quicksilver sheen to it, the top notes ringing out thrillingly and fluidly, while his voice had a slight edginess to it that bears listening to for possible heavier assignments (as of this writing, he’s gone on to conquer the lead parts in The Tales of Hoffmann and Werther). Captured last year before his significant weight loss, Polenzani nevertheless resembled Hvorostovsky in hairstyle and deportment (both men are tall). One could believe that this was a younger, awkward incarnation of the older man; hence, their relationship as father and son proved much more believable.

This is important, since they both dress in darks suits, white shirts and ties, as did virtually all the minor characters and chorus members – with the exception of Adina the maid (excellently sung by Maria Zifchak, a marvelous comprimario with a lush tone and dead-on enunciation), and the second Dr. Grenvil, played by Luigi Roni as a Grim Reaper in black leather coat, white hair and beard. One critic thought he resembled Verdi himself, but I’m not sure that was Decker’s plan.

Maestro Fabio Luisi led a masterly performance from the Met Orchestra, the strings open and soaring, a heartfelt performance that went direct to the crux of the story. The woodwinds delicately traced Violetta’s sad trajectory and downfall, leading to her final sorrow and onstage death from consumption (tuberculosis, the so-called “artist’s disease”).

Times runs out for Violetta
Times runs out for Violetta

When Mme. Dessay came out for her solo bow, soon after the curtain fell on her ultimate demise, she was visibly wiped out – emotionally and temperamentally. The strain of performance showed on her face. In tribute, the Met audience gave her a standing ovation, a well-deserved honor for her stunning portrayal of a fallen woman.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective

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Johnny Depp at 50 (olsen-twins-news.com)
Johnny Depp at 50 (olsen-twins-news.com)

It’s always been my view that birthdays and anniversaries are affairs to be remembered. In fact, my own birthday is just around the corner, thank you very much. And with respect to anniversaries, this month marks the one-year anniversary of my blog. Hooray!!!

So let me celebrate both these occasions in grand fashion with a toast to one of my favorite film performers: Mr. John Christopher Depp Jr. or, as he’s known in the trade, Johnny Depp.

Wait! What’s that you say? Bad boy Jacky’s turned 50? Wow! Now that’s a milestone worth talking about! I certainly wish him well and many belated returns of the day. But what gives that his latest film feature – Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger – is such a box-office dud? That’s not exactly what I’d call the perfect gift, now, is it?

Well, to be perfectly honest, Depp’s had his share of ups and downs, as well as hits and misses, during his nearly 29-year movie career. But 50 is such a nice, round number that it would be a shame not to take advantage of this opening gambit for a deeper examination into Johnny Depp’s cinematic output.

With a star of this magnitude, there are usually issues to be addressed and questions to be asked. For one, what makes Depp so popular with fans? For another, what attributes does he bring to his roles that continue to outshine his rivals? My thought is to provide readers with a fair and balanced glimpse of exactly how far this iconic figure has come – and how far he still has to go in his profession.

Life is What You Make It

Depp in 21 Jump Street (tumblr.com)
Depp in 21 Jump Street (tumblr.com)

Born in Kentucky on June 9, 1963, and the youngest of four kids, Depp and his family relocated numerous times until finally settling in Florida. But Junior didn’t stay put in the Sunshine State for long. With his parent’s subsequent separation and divorce, little Johnny was basically left to fend for himself. It was here that the kernel of the actor’s later alienation and notoriety was born.

A high school dropout, Depp changed venues to Los Angeles, where, after his initial contribution to a garage band floundered, he decided to take up acting. Landing a job as an extra in Hollywood, Depp’s so-called “big break” came in 1984 with a minor role in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Some labeled his intro to moviedom as “the end of a career before it even began,” but no matter.

A tiny part in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War epic, Platoon (1986), led to an offer to co-star in the fledgling Fox Network’s detective series, 21 Jump Street (1987-89). This was the beginning of Depp’s image as a teen idol, one the young thespian rightly resented.

After a two-year stint, John jumped ship, as it were, to appear in director John Waters’ Cry-Baby (1990). A quirky follow-up to his earlier Hairspray from 1988, the cult favorite Cry-Baby (and the title character’s ability to cry on cue) served to establish Depp’s reputation as a heartthrob on the big screen, in addition to paying homage to his salad days as a rock-n-roller. It also made the young actor out to be a star on the rise, if not one to be watched.

Sensitive and Scarred

But the movie that firmly cemented those same teen-idol “creds” was Edward Scissorhands (1990). Sensitive and scarred, the impressionable Edward (charmingly played by Depp) is the scissor-handed Figaro for the laid-back California set (actually, Central Florida, a return to Johnny’s small-town roots).

The film is a modern parable of director Tim Burton’s pet hang-ups of having grown up in middle-class suburbia. It was also his and Johnny’s first joint venture, a partnership made in cinematic heaven and one of (at last count) seven movies they’ve participated in.

Depp & Winona Ryder in Edward Scissorhands
Depp & Winona Ryder in Edward Scissorhands

Depp had his best role ever as the misunderstood boy-monster, a walking textbook of physical deformities and psychological debilities, but with a cookie-cutter-shaped heart of gold. In essence, Edward is a Quasimodo for the nineties, an atypical success story driven to fits of anger and violence by the very townspeople he earlier had befriended. His story ends in death and tragedy, but Edward lives on, alone but happy in one of those stereotypical old mansions – blissfully trimming the verge as he goes.

An allegory of our own equal fascination with and fear of anything different or abnormal, Burton exploits Johnny’s sensitive side to the fullest. Indeed, his angst-derived interpretation of a misfit who just can’t fit in was spot on. When the perky Avon lady Dianne Wiest comes a-calling, only to discover Depp hiding under the ruins of what appears to be a window – with one of the window panes shaped like a broken cross – you know you’re in for a makeshift ride through pseudo-religious territory.

The Strange and the Idiosyncratic

Depp’s love and appreciation for silent cinema manifested themselves in Benny & Joon (1993), a wonderfully low-key feature. Billed as a romantic comedy, the film turned out to be director Jeremiah Chechik’s ode to silent-movie greats Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, among others. As Joon, Mary Stuart Masterson was a last-minute replacement for Winona Ryder, after Ryder and Depp had broken up their ill-fated romance (which began on the Edward Scissorhands set). Joon is a mentally challenged young woman cared for by her overly protective older brother, Benny (sympathetically played by Aidan Quinn, another last-minute substitute).

Depp as Benny (fanpop.com)
Depp as Benny (fanpop.com)

As the derby-wearing video employee Sam, Depp is relegated to supporting status, although he winds up becoming Joon’s love interest during the course of the film. With his eccentric persona and idiosyncratic behavior (i.e., making grilled-cheese sandwiches with a flat-iron), Johnny grabs the acting honors and wins moviegoers’ hearts – especially when he channels Chaplin’s fork-and-roll dance routine from The Gold Rush and Keaton’s hat-on-the-ground shtick. We come to the obvious conclusion that Sam and Joon were meant for each other (no kidding), despite Benny’s concern for his sister’s well-being.

It’s a patently sentimental tale that could have grown mawkish, but with the aid of Quinn, Masterson, and the dependable Julianne Moore, however, Benny & Joon can be seen as another feather in the developing Depp’s acting cap. Add to this an unusually catchy end song by the Scottish pop-rock band The Proclaimers (“I’m Gonna Be 500 Miles”) and you have a surefire hit, what is now politely referred to as a “date flick.” And who wouldn’t want a date with Johnny?

Only the Lonely

Speaking of date flicks, here’s one that’s strictly off the beaten path (if not totally off the wall): 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? A character driven story that’s three-parts-drama to one-part-comedy, this film’s loaded with “the bizarre and the unusual,” to say the least. Depp plays the title role, the sanest member of the Grape family, a supposedly dysfunctional bunch that’s moored to a small mid-western town called Endora.

Depp as Gilbert Grape
Depp as Gilbert Grape

Gilbert’s mentally challenged younger brother Arnie, amazingly played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is constantly getting himself into hot water. DiCaprio has the showier role (and how similar to Benny & Joon is the plot of this tale, with Depp taking over as the caring older brother). He’s followed by the engaging Juliette Lewis as Becky, Mary Steenburgen as the love-smitten older woman Betty, and the truly remarkable, 500-pound Darlene Cates, in her film debut, as Gilbert’s morbidly obese mother Bonnie, who hasn’t left the house since her husband’s suicide seven years earlier (!). Cates’ presence in the movie came about through her own real-life sad and lonely past.

The highpoint of the story is when Arnie finds himself atop a water tower and is thrown into the hoosegow for his disruptive action. This drives Bonnie to venture forth from the safety of her home, and confront her disapproving neighbors, in order to spring Arnie from jail, in what is a most bittersweet moment (that shot of Bonnie in the backseat of Gilbert’s van is priceless).

Though Depp’s easy affability and unsentimental take on the lead won critics over, it was DiCaprio who received the lion’s share of notices, along with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The ending stretches credibility to the breaking point, but overall this film makes a nice companion piece to Depp’s supporting turn in Benny & Joon.

Freak Show

If you thought What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? was odd, wait till you get a load of this one! We come to quirkiness personified: Ed Wood from 1994, one of Johnny’s finest screen creations. Right from the opening scene, a fidgety, never-say-die enthusiasm surrounds the person of Edward D. Wood Jr. As the no talent outsider looking in, Wood is another of Depp’s classic portrayals of oddballs who either don’t belong in polite society or haven’t a clue as to why they can’t be like other folks.

Billed as the “worst director of all time,” Wood became famous, if that’s the right term, for his poorly acted, poorly scripted, ludicrously directed and abysmally edited fare. Despite the title character’s faults as a filmmaker, Depp uses his onscreen charm to make the most of Wood’s efforts and absurdities, and in the process makes him reasonably appealing to fans.

As Ed Wood (cineplex.com)
As Ed Wood (cineplex.com)

A disappointment at the box office, the movie wisely concentrates on Ed’s spur-of-the-moment friendship with the down-and-out Bela Lugosi, the centerpiece of the action. Another Tim Burton collaboration, the story line incorporates several of Wood’s notorious clunkers, among them Glen or Glenda, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and Bride of the Monster. Burton’s reenactments of these flicks are fairly close to the originals (but not too close, thank goodness), with some leeway here and there for individual interpretation.

Surrounding Depp is a veritable who’s who of supporting actors playing a laundry list of fellow losers, including Martin Landau as the track-marked Lugosi, Sarah Jessica Parker as Wood’s girlfriend, the talentless Dolores Fuller (the one with the angora sweater), Patricia Arquette as Wood’s other girlfriend, Kathy O’Hara (who doesn’t mind that Eddie has a sweater fetish), the buxom Lisa Marie as horror host Vampira, Jeffrey Jones as bogus psychic Criswell, Bill Murray as the fey Bunny Breckinridge, pro wrestler George “The Animal” Steele as man-mountain Tor Johnson, and Max Casella and Brent Hinckley as production assistants Paul Marco and Conrad Brooks.

Vincent D’Onofrio of Law & Order fame has a brief bit as Orson Welles. Otherwise, Depp (with or without his front teeth) is the cinematic glue that holds this disparate group together. Howard Shore wrote the clever theramin-based score and Stefan Czapsky provided the black-and-white photography. Incredible production designs perfectly capture the look and spirit of low-budget fifties movies at their (choke, gasp) “finest.” And remember, dear friends: it’s all based on sworn testimony!

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

The Fab Four of Opera: Mozart, Verdi, Wagner & Puccini (Part One)

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Wager, Mozart, Verdi & Puccini (arcanoartists.com)
Wagner, Mozart, Verdi & Puccini (arcanoartists.com)

When people think of “opera,” they usually picture a fat, overweight soprano in Viking headgear, screaming at the top of her lungs and singing in some incomprehensible language about who-knows-what. That’s the general impression.

But does anyone ever go beyond the stereotypes? Beyond the yelling and screaming and what-have-you, to discover what makes opera and opera singing the art forms they are?

Without getting too deep into the “what, when, how and why” of opera, let’s begin by discussing the “who” — i.e., four of opera’s best known composers: Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Puccini, the cornerstones of the operatic repertoire. But does talking about them make our task any easier? And how does one go about describing these formidable giants and their works?

Well, one way to do that is to provide some context. In this case, some stormy weather, as if we haven’t had enough of that lately! What I mean is, we can start with a blast of ocean breezes, the taste of salt water and the briny deep, the sense that a wave is about to hit the side of your vessel and wash you and your whole crew overboard… Does that sound inviting?

Believe it or not, those are exactly the qualities to be found in the Overture to The Flying Dutchman conducted by James Levine with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (11:44): (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNg07c0Mocg).

Whew! You could just feel the force of the sea in that one. This and many other works you’ve encountered in films, TV and animated cartoons are all of an operatic nature – which is to say this particular musical theme was originally part of a full-length opera, in this instance one written by that most unlikeable genius of the German stage, Richard Wagner, one of opera’s greatest hit-makers.

And that’s the theme of my post for today: we’re going to take a brief look at the lives and works of several of these hit-makers. The Fab Four of Opera, as I like to call them. We’ll try and find out what made them tick, as if such a thing were possible. Needless to say, it can be safely stated that without these utterly unique individuals, the operatic repertoire as we know it would be thin indeed. So, to keep the oceanic metaphor going, let’s plunge right in!

Oh Wolfie, oh Wolfie

Wolfgang Mozart (www.last.fm)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (www.last.fm)

The earliest of our fabulous hit-makers (born on January 27, 1756) was also the most prolific: Mozart, or, to use his full baptismal designation, Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. But no matter what his real name was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart does have a nice ring to it. If you cut out his first and last names and use only the “Amadeus” portion he added later in life, you wind up with a fairly good title for a hit play.

Yet, I must confess – and I say this with all due respect to British playwright, Sir Peter Shaffer, for his wonderful theatrical contributions throughout the years – that hit play of his, Amadeus, has done more damage to the memory of one of Western music’s most talented artist/musicians than anything I could ever dream up on my own.

It’s done quite a lot of good as well, in that it succeeded in making Herr Mozart a household word. Despite the numerous fallacies and false implications the play and the subsequent 1984 film version (directed by Milos Forman and written by Mr. Shaffer) conspired to perpetrate on unsuspecting audiences, they did get some things right: Mozart’s jovial nature for one, along with his absolute disregard for money matters, his fun-loving ways, his notorious potty-mouth, his clashes with his father Leopold, his flighty, devil-may-care attitude about love and life, and so on.

They also got a lot of things wrong – dead wrong, in fact. The most glaring piece of misinformation was the long-held belief that Mozart was secretly poisoned by his arch-rival, Italian composer Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) – a neat and tidy dramatic device, for certain, but one not borne out by the facts.

Antonio Salieri (culturacolectiva.com)
Antonio Salieri (culturacolectiva.com)

Recent scholarship has revealed that “Wolfie,” who died in 1791 at the age of 35, may have been the victim of kidney failure, followed by rheumatic fever and/or uremic poisoning – take your pick. Part of the problem with trying to come up with an exact cause of death is the simple fact that Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave; ergo his remains have never been examined or exhumed.

Not satisfied with that, some scholars have gone so far as to compile a list of 125 other possible explanations for Mozart’s early departure from this world – all of them deriving from a whole host of supposed physiological ailments and social diseases. But not once in the entire historical record has poison ever been mentioned as the main culprit in the composer’s demise. Yet, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, romantic (and unsubstantiated) rumors of his untimely passing have continued to survive to this day.

Another of those dubious elements that plagued both the play and the movie were Mozart’s struggles to produce an operatic hit. We know, for instance, that he played fast and loose with his finances; that he constantly borrowed funds from wealthy patrons in order to make ends meet; and that he was terribly slow at paying back his debts, which is fine as far as they go.

But to suggest that Mozart’s comic masterpiece, The Abduction from the Seraglio, had “too many notes,” as Austrian Emperor Joseph II seemed to imply; or that his remarkable opera Don Giovanni, one of the two or three greatest works for the stage ever created, was his “darkest, blackest work yet”; or that his most agreeable bedroom farce, The Marriage of Figaro, was a long and boring flop, is totally out of bounds and too troubling to overlook.

Still, one has to admit that all this manufactured drama does make for some intriguing flights of fancy, so who am I to complain? And, as the old saying goes, “You can’t argue with success.” If the play and the movie have succeeded in drawing new audiences to Mozart’s sublime art, so be it. It’s all for the best anyway.

Let’s listen now to one of the composer’s best, an excerpt from the opera Die Zauberflöte, or as it’s known in the English-speaking world, The Magic Flute. This performance was taped at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. It’s one of the Met’s most celebrated productions, sung in an excellent English translation (attributed to poet J.D. McClatchy) by an international cast. It was directed and designed by Julie Taymor, a past veteran of stage and screen, and no stranger to musical theater, who was responsible for Broadway’s The Lion King a few years back and, at last notice, was associated with the troubled stage musical Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.

Erika Miklosa as the Queen of the Night (Cory Weaver / Met Opera)
Erika Miklosa as the Queen of the Night (Cory Weaver / Met Opera)

We’ll hear the Queen of the Night’s lively vengeance aria from Act Two. The plot of this work is too convoluted to get into. It has something to do with the forces of good and evil, with a touch of Freemasonry thrown in for good measure. The role of the Queen of the Night is sung by Hungarian coloratura Erika Miklosa (3:47): (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWUOeWHvn3k)

That’s a fiendishly difficult piece to bring off. This particular production, a truncated version of Mozart’s much longer work, includes lots of spoken dialogue, which is not as unusual as it sounds for opera. Beethoven’s Fidelio and Bizet’s Carmen are prime examples of this type of hybrid work, one that incorporates both spoken and sung passages. In this country, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music can be included in that distinguished “company” – no pun intended.

(End of Part One)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes