Month: August 2017

In Search of the Perfect Haircut: An Anecdotal Trip to the Barbershop

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Close Shaves

Typical Barber Shop ca. 1970s

Oh, brother! It’s that time of the month again, when one’s mane starts to look a bit straggly and those sideburns are in dire need of a wee trim.

Did you ever get the feeling that no matter where you went or whatever hairstyling establishment you happened to frequent, you could never get the perfect haircut to suit your taste, style and looks?

That’s how it was for me (uh, when I had a full mop of hair, that is). In my youth I wandered through a host of hair-clipping joints and local barbershops, always hopeful but never fully satisfied with the results.

That elusive search for the perfect haircut can take on the semblance of a hunt for the Holy Grail. This is something that has taken me years of aggravation to understand and appreciate, that never-attained but forever longed-for journey of discovery. It can take the shape of various forms and in various manifestations. And don’t you dare think that women have it easier! Why, it’s quite the opposite! Getting the right hairdo is just as frustrating for them as it for us — maybe more so.

The art of caring for one’s coiffure is, indeed, just that: an unreachable and strictly unattainable achievement in craft as well as the latest fashion trends. In ancient times, men and women of means often had their hair braided (only to prove that they could), while they just as regularly could have had their noggins shaved. These served as viable options for many a generation until the arrival of the Swinging Sixties and Seventies. Before (and, in hindsight, many years afterward), it was considered common practice to keep the hairline closely cropped.

Actually, the mania for long hair and full-facial whiskers started with the early settlers and the notorious mountain men, i.e. those rugged individualists in the masculine mold of your average Jeremiah Johnson. A bit later, during the Civil War years, extreme head and facial hair were the norm, due to the lack of equipment or, more likely, the dearth of individuals available to do justice to the style of the period.

About every other generation or so, the business of keeping one’s tresses lengthy or shortened undergo alteration. This piece is about those times when the novelty of keeping your hair long eventually wears off. It’s then that we’re faced with the act of doing something about it. And where does one go? Where else but the neighborhood barbershop!

The Barber of the Block

The search for a decent haircut began, basically enough, in one’s hometown. And there were plenty of enterprises to choose from, from Coy Powell’s Barbershop to Aunt Irma’s Place. These small business shops served the locals well for any number of years.

Indeed, the most fascinating aspect of all these myriad enterprises was their colorful epithets, used primarily as an attraction to potential customers: Joe’s Barbershop, The Italian Barber, Florio’s Hair Styling Emporium, Ye Olde Barber Shoppe (note the old English lettering), Your Tonsorial Palace — these were familiar and ongoing concerns geared mostly to males.

You might even call them mini-history museums. As a matter of fact, much has changed since the heyday of the “shave and a haircut, two bits” mantra of yore. I “fondly” remember the sound those crude ancient hair-cutting utensils used to make: obtrusive, whirring noises that smacked of another era entirely when getting a haircut was deemed a rite of passage for young men. However, for kids it was one long, laborious wait.

The racial makeup of the local barber pool ran the gamut of ethnicities, from Eastern European and Eurasian to Caribbean and South American. Many of our homegrown haircutters proved to be of Hispanic origin, while some were decidedly Mediterranean in looks and lineage (Italian, Greek) or Middle Eastern (Arabic and Lebanese, even Turkish). I’ve known a few Cuban and Puerto Rican barbers in my time, along with a smattering of African Americans. None of them were young by the standards of the day, and practically all of them (with rare exceptions) were non-natives.

Interestingly, Carmen Miranda, the entertainer known as the Brazilian Bombshell, had a father, José Maria Pinto da Cunha, who when he immigrated to Rio de Janeiro from Portugal took up the barbering trade in order to make ends meet. Regrettably for Seu Pinto, in those turn-of-the-century times engaging in a profession of cutting men’s hair was considered a rung or two above that of a streetwalker (go figure!).

How times have changed…

Robert Fiance Beauty School

A day in a hair stylist’s life: Robert Fiance Beauty School

As it happened, choices were limited as to where one could go to get a decent trim. An alternative appeared in the early to mid-Seventies, the so-called beauty academy or haircutting school. A relatively benign and unassuming storefront, for the most part the Robert Fiance Beauty School (established between the 1930s and 1950s) was staffed, on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx (where I grew up), by youthful and moderately “experienced” beauty salon students — all eager to please.

I was frequently attended to by both decent and poor hair-cutting aspirants on my monthly Saturday sojourns to the school. I usually got my money’s worth, certainly nothing that I would describe as an outright embarrassment.

The shop was clean and well run, and the charges were below your average rate for a haircut in high-priced New York. The downside of going to such a place was that you ran the risk of getting scalped, both figuratively and literally. It was best to get a second or third opinion before venturing forth on your own.

It paid, too, to get a few reliable recommendations from those who had frequented the better known establishments in one’s immediate vicinity. That’s how I happened to run across the next item on my list, Manzana Hair Cutters.

Manzana Hair Cutters

The name was simply a business moniker, what we call a DBA (or “Doing Business As”), a legitimate enterprise — unless served as a front for other activities.

On the “good word” of a customer of a place I used to work at in the mid-1970s (a policeman I’ll call “Bill,” or the guy with the oh-so-cool haircut), I took time off one day to go several blocks down the street and up a steep walkway to a second-floor loft on the Lower East Side.

I had to knock several times before someone decided to let me in. The person who opened the door seemed a trifle surprised at my presence. I told this suspicious individual that I was looking for Mr. Manzana. He rudely answered, “There’s no Mr. Manzana here.” I was taken aback by his snappy response, but plowed on nonetheless. When I informed him that “Bill” was the guy who sent me, he allowed me to enter.

No sooner did I set foot in the salon when I suppressed a mild shock at what I saw. This wasn’t your recognizable, everyday beauty salon or haircutting parlor, but a ramshackle warehouse. The majority of the so-called “stylists” were either gay or transvestites, something I wasn’t prepared to deal with back then. Still, I remembered how nice my buddy “Bill” looked and how much he praised Manzana’s abilities, so I swallowed what pride I had left and patiently waited my turn.

The head stylist finally came over and, before I could open my mouth, began to berate me for being a half-hour late. This forced me to assume a defensive position. I told this irate fellow that I was coming to his establishment on my lunch hour, that our business demanded we serve our customers first before taking off for lunch (not that he cared one whit for his customers).

Not impressed with my explanation, in a huff he pointed to one of the other stylists and told me to go wait in his chair. The other stylist, who was just as annoyed as the owner by my tardiness, took one look at me and launched into a verbal invective about having to give up HIS lunch hour to serve my needs.

Oh, well, so much for sympathy from a bunch of devils …

As for the haircut, it wasn’t any great shakes, if you get me drift. Nothing special or extraordinary, more of a cut and a snip and a vague swirl of the scissors; the stylist swatted my head this way and that, and hither and yon. I’ll put it to you this way: it was more show than substance. In the end, I got nowhere near the preferential treatment my friend “Bill” had received in this place.

After that little escapade, I never went back to Manzana’s.

National Geographic Special

Traditional head massage at an Indian hair parlor

Many years later, I happened upon a 2002 National Geographic Special devoted to the search for the Afghan girl, the one with the soulful green eyes on that famous 1985 cover of their magazine.

The special was about one of the photographers, Steve McCurry, who nearly two decades later went to a faraway locale in Afghanistan in pursuit of the mysterious “cover girl.”

What piqued my interest most was the fact that the photographer had heaped praise on a local haircutting parlor where, after a haircut and a vigorous shave, “they gave you this wonderful head massage.” The little thirteen-year-old boy who administered McCurry’s massage looked as if he was kneading the man’s head like bread dough.

At the time of this special, it made me wonder to what extremes some people will go in order to get what they were after — in this instance, a relaxing massage from a young boy. At least no one yelled at Mr. McCurry for being two decades late.

Women’s Beauty Salons

Speaking of young boys, I remember, as a small child, waiting endlessly — and impatiently — waiting, waiting, waiting with my little brother in a woman’s beauty salon, while our mother would sit under this massive hair dryer for a period that never seemed to end.

Mom would wear these enormous hair curlers, which the attendant at the salon had spent an untold number of hours placing in strategic positions on her head. She looked like she had a head of extra large eyes.

Women’s Beauty Parlor, 1961

That made no sense to me, why women would spend an entire afternoon (or all day, for that matter, usually on Saturdays) under a broiling contraption that spewed nothing but hot air for hours on end.

As for myself, I do remember getting a wonderful “hairstyle” in West Palm Beach, Florida (again, back in the late 1970s), AND by a female hairstylist. It was there that I first came across the marvelous hair products of a company called Redsen, or some such name. I forget now what the products were, but they were supposed to have kept my hair from drying out.

Regardless of the theory behind Redsen’s products, I was already at the point of losing most of what was left on my head. Soon, there would no longer be any reason for me to spend money on hair products. Descriptions such as “hair design,” or “hairstyle for men,” were useless for someone who had hardly any hair on his noggin.

Floyd the Barber

Not pleased with real-life barbers? What about the fictional variety? Well, there was only one person I could think of in a pinch: Floyd Lawson, the barbershop owner, who was strictly speaking a minor character on the Andy of Mayberry television series, also known as The Andy Griffith Show.

Played by character actor Howard McNear (1905-1969), Floyd fulfilled a purpose, fundamentally to provide the comic relief from the everyday tensions of the main characters, i.e. Sheriff Andy Taylor (Griffith), Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), Andy’s Aunt Bea (Frances Bavier), Andy’s son Opie (Ron Howard), the town drunk Otis (Hal Smith), and other denizens of the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina.

Mind you, one rarely saw Floyd give an “actual” haircut and shave; he would mainly go through the motions, although I distinctly remember him having a shop with your standard issue barber’s chair and waiting room.

Floyd the barber (Howard McNear) with Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) on The Andy Griffith Show

Not so strangely, the fictitious Floyd was inspired by a real-life barber, Russell Hiatt, who lived and worked in Mount Airy, North Carolina, the actual town where the star of the show, Andy Griffith, had grown up in.

Floyd was “honored”, somewhat, by an early Kurt Cobain song and music video titled “Floyd the Barber.” In it, Kurt shows up at Floyd’s barbershop for a shave and a haircut, only to be greeted by the mad merchant in a wild takeoff of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

In the video’s main section, Floyd, Andy, Barney, Aunt Bea, Opie and Otis all conspire to murder Cobain in the barber chair, a really “hair-raising” episode in Kurt’s body of work.

Filmed Barbers

Unlucky with TV shows? Well, then, let’s try the movies!

From John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), where Humphrey Bogart gets more than he bargained for at a cut-rate Mexican tonsorial parlor (wait till Bogie puts on his hat!), to legendary Marshall Wyatt Earp (a particularly laconic Henry Fonda) and his fancy, shmancy after-shave lotion in John Ford’s 1946 Western classic My Darling Clementine (“What kind of a crazy town is this?”), cinematic representations of barbers and their shops abound.

Too close for comfort: scene from John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946)

There’s a scene in Warner Brothers’ Dodge City (1939), directed by Michael Curtiz, where Errol Flynn’s British-accented Wade Hatton is seated in a barber chair, waiting for a shave and a mustache trim. The barber, played by the rickety Clem Bevans, is game for completing the task when he’s interrupted by the intrusion of the film’s villains, Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his evil gunslinger Yancey (a particularly repellent Victor Jory).

Did you think the handsome good guy Wade was going to sit still for a nice, relaxing shave and a haircut with these mugs staring him down? Not on your life! While his road buddy Rusty (Alan Hale) is sitting in a makeshift tub in the next room, bad guy Surrett insists on freshening up with his weekly Saturday bath. Shaky barber Clem hesitates but Wade comes to the rescue. He gets up out of the chair, straps on his gun belt and confronts both Surrett and Yancey with some old-fashioned straight talk.

Later on, Wade is back in the saddle again, or rather in the barber’s chair, when another of those tough hombres appears in the doorway, threatening to take him outside for “a little talk” with the boys. Hah, I’ll bet!

Wade takes care of him handily and in the twinkling of an eye. Sitting back down in the chair, Wade tries to resume the conversation where he had left off. He asks the barber what was it he was rambling about, taxes? The barber is too nervous to talk and too shaky to trim Wade’s mustache. Luckily for him, Wade is as handy with a blade as he is with the gift of gab. He is more than capable of giving himself a trim, which negates the need for a barber.

What’s Opera, Doc?

Moving on to the musical side of things, we have, of course, the mellifluous Figaro, the most famous haircutter in all opera. He can be found in several works for the lyric stage, the first by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte, the four-act The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro), based on the second play in the trilogy by French dramatist Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

The first play, The Barber of Seville, spawned two operatic versions written several years apart, the first by Giovanni Paisiello, and the second and more popular one by Gioachino Rossini. Both operas pay precious little attention to Figaro’s plying of his trade.

In fact, in the Mozart opus, Figaro is no longer a barber but is now Count Almaviva’s valet and servant, with nary a haircut or shave in sight. However, in Act II of Rossini’s version (sometimes played as a third act), Figaro attempts to shave the cranky Dr. Bartolo, guardian of his lovely young ward Rosina. In most stage depictions of this scene, Figaro deposits a generous helping of lather over Bartolo’s features in order to divert his prying eyes from the billing and cooing taking pace with the young couple in love, i.e. Almaviva (disguised as a music master) and Rosina.

I always get a big kick out of this scene, which is most amusingly done to Rossini’s quicksilver scoring. Any opera house worthy of the name can be counted on to keep the audience in stitches at this point.

Believe it or not, there was a sequel to the Mozart work, composed by Jules Massenet, called Cherubim, based on the secondary character of Cherubino. Now, the character of the playwright Beaumarchais, along with Figaro, Susanna (whom he marries), the Count, Rosina, Cherubino, and several illegitimate offspring, all make their presence felt in the 1991 composition The Ghosts of Versailles, with music by John Corigliano and text by William M. Hoffman. Unfortunately, there are no “close shaves” in this work, but the pre-headless form of Marie Antoinette does put in a ghostly appearance.

Another operatic hairstylist, the Barber of Baghdad is of German origin. Known as Der Barbier von Bagdad in its native land, the music for this comic opera was composed by Peter Cornelius. Although once popular in Europe, the title character Abdul Hassan (bass) has fallen on hard times. He shares many qualities with his Spanish counterpart, Figaro, in that Hassan acts as a go-between the two lovers, Nureddin (tenor) and Margiana (soprano).

Musical Tastes

Running counter to the romantic sentiments found in Mozart, Rossini and Cornelius, we now come to the notorious modern musical Sweeney Todd, made more famous than he ought to have been by Stephen Sondheim’s darkly sinister yet melodious score for the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Advertisement for Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

A sort of latter-day Jack the Ripper, on whom he was partially modeled, the revenge-seeking Sweeney (real name: Benjamin Barker) provides the tasty filler for the otherwise disgusting meat pies concocted by the loony landlady with a rolling pin, Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime.

There’s an associated side story as well, in the young sailor Anthony’s attraction to Johanna, the beautiful ward of the dissipated Judge Turpin. Certainly the plot of The Barber of Seville had been co-opted (or lifted), in part, by book writer Hugh Wheeler and composer/lyricist Sondheim in concocting this rather sinister brew. When one thinks of Anthony as a working-class Almaviva, Johanna as a Victorian-era Rosina, Turpin as an amoral Bartolo, and Sweeney (which goes without saying) as an Industrial Revolutionary Figaro swinging his razor high, the connections become obvious if, in the long run, abhorrent.

For a bit of animated levity, Warner Bros. Studio turned out a marvelous series of Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 1950s. One of the funniest is titled Rabbit of Seville, directed by Chuck Jones in direct homage to the Rossini opera. That “Wascawy Wabbit” disguises himself as the local hairstylist so as to escape the clutches of trigger-happy hunter Elmer Fudd.

Bugs Bunny gives Elmer Fudd the “treatment” in Rabbit of Seville (1950)

Fudd gets the treatment of a lifetime, however, while waiting in Bugs’ barber chair. The rabbit mounts Elmer’s forehead for an extended foot massage (in juxtaposition to that Afghan boy’s kneading of the photographer’s scalp). All this, and more, to the bouncy tune of the opera’s Overture!

Bravo, Signor Figaro, ma bravo!!!

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Having gone through every conceivable permutation (and then some) of the where and how of the local barber shop, I have come to the conclusion that it will have to remain an obscure dream — always within reach but forever eluding our grasp.

As we all know, the fun is in the chase. And like the art of collecting, you spend a lifetime in pursuit of the Grail, but you never, ever find it. If you did, then your search would have ended and, by design, so has your life.

You wouldn’t want that to happen, now would you?

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp — ‘Tristan,’ ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ and the Wagner-Rossini Connection (Part Two)

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Richard Wagner at the piano (1813-1883)

Operatic Odd Couples

They met in Paris in 1860: the renowned Italian master of opera buffa, Gioachino Rossini, and the fiery German composer Richard Wagner, creator of the “art work of the future.” How did it happen? What did they talk about?

Earlier in his career (in 1822), Rossini had held an audience with the great Ludwig van Beethoven, who counseled him to “make more ‘Barbers’ ” — referring, of course, to his ever-popular comic masterpiece The Barber of Seville. Four years later, while residing in Paris, Rossini quite literally ran into the tubercular Carl Maria von Weber (a cousin to Mozart’s wife, Constanze), nineteenth-century romanticism’s musical “guiding light.” And speaking of Herr Mozart, Rossini even shared musical memories with Wolfgang’s chief rival, Antonio Salieri — the same Antonio Salieri who served as the protagonist of Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus.

So what were Wagner and Rossini doing at the time of their historic tête-à-tête?

For one, Rossini had moved to the City of Light in 1824 in order to compose “grander, more serious works,” for which we can thank (or blame, depending upon one’s point of view) his future wife, the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran. The end result was the four-act spectacular Guillaume Tell, reviewed in a prior post on the occasion of its Metropolitan Opera premiere (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/met-opera-round-up-the-seasons-last-gasp-with-guillaume-tell-tristan-and-the-flying-dutchman-part-one/).

Another of his grandiose plans involved an Italian adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, which never came to fruition. We know, too, that after Tell, Rossini wrote no more operas, mostly because he was fed up with having to churn out work after work after work. He was now clearly in a position to live off the fat of the “lamb,” in a manner of speaking, that he himself had fattened through the years.

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), composer of The Barber of Seville and other comic works

For another, Wagner had recently put the finishing touches to a monumental opus of his own, the incredibly complex Tristan und Isolde. The paradox of how this work came about has always intrigued me. Let the buyer beware: for the average opera buff, getting into Wagner’s head is an occupation fraught with the greatest of intricacies. The fact is the man was a walking/talking contradiction in terms.

Realizing that, for the moment, his unfinished epic, The Ring of the Nibelung, might not soon see the light of day, Wagner stopped work at the close of Act II of Siegfried. He did not take up the subject again for another twelve years. Now, why on earth would he do that? An over-active imagination, pressing financial needs, and escalating emotional burdens would habitually lead the frantic composer off in pursuit of funds. He would also ease his troubled mind with quixotic dalliances with other men’s wives.

One of these infatuations involved Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of the wealthy silk merchant Otto Wesendonck who paid the tab for the bills that Wagner ran up while the three of them shared living quarters at Otto’s villa in Zurich (don’t ask). On occasion, they were joined by Wagner’s “better” half, his wife Minna. Despite the cozy arrangement, it didn’t take long for Minna to put two and two together and come up with the correct equation: that her husband had been cheating behind her back.

After completing Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, Wagner stumbled upon the philosopher Schopenhauer’s book The World as Will and Idea, from which he extracted a bumper crop of justifications for his newfound worldview. Without going into details — of which there are an endless torrent of essays, pamphlets, writings, and treatises by Wagner himself on subjects as wide-ranging as dismissing Meyerbeer as a hack in “Judaism in Music,” a self-analytical memoir entitled A Communication to My Friends, and a far-flung statement of his ideals in Opera and Drama — suffice it to say the composer glowed red-hot with inspiration for Tristan und Isolde, a story of scorching passions amid an illicit affair (what else?).

Mathilde Wesendonck, the inspiration for Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder

Fueled by his liaison with Mathilde, Wagner composed the Wesendonck Lieder (“Art Songs”) based on five of Frau Wesendonck’s poems. Meanwhile, Frau Minna kept pestering him to write a more practical lyric work for the stage, something that would bring their indigent lifestyle some stability and a steady revenue stream. With Wagner, however, nothing was purely “practical” — or “steady,” for that matter. Inventing music that, at the time, seemed vastly unplayable and (even worse) impossible to sing was part-and-parcel to his very being.

There was much more going on than we have room for. Let it be said that departing for Gay Paree was Wagner’s way of seeking his fortune elsewhere. But Paris wasn’t his only stopover point, not by a long shot. During the years 1858 to 1859, Wagner paid manifold visits to such venues as Venice, Zurich, Geneva, and Lucerne.

It’s significant to note as well that Switzerland, while recognized for its persistent neutrality, was the one place where Wagner could plead his case for monetary assistance to the likes of Herr Wesendonck. That would partially explain how the composer was able to get around town. Traveling was never easy for Wagner, even in the best of times, due to his well-founded reputation as a spendthrift and a deadbeat, and his facility for rubbing people the wrong way. He could also be incredibly persuasive, convinced, as Wagner was, of his “superior” intellect and skill at winning people over to his way of thinking.

Back in Venice, the “perfect mood and setting to work on the fatally erotic Tristan” (according to author William Berger), Wagner completed the score for the opera between March and August of 1859. By this point, he and Minna had decided to part ways: she in Dresden, he wherever the need took him. They met again in Paris and, for a brief moment, were reconciled.

Cosima Liszt von Bulow, Wagner’s future lover and eventual spouse

In the interim, another love interest laid waiting in the wings. Behind the scenes, Wagner had awakened the youthful yearnings of Cosima Liszt, the homely (!) but overly-admiring daughter of concert pianist and composer Franz Liszt (a notorious ladies’ man in his day). Cosima was recently wed to a brilliant but anxiety-ridden conductor named Hans von Bülow. Both individuals would play significant parts in Wagner’s life and career in the years to come.

Once in the City of Light, Wagner’s decision to conquer Paris eventually brought him in league (and on a collision course) with the Paris Opéra, where plans were finalized for an 1861 revival (in French, naturally) of his earlier Tannhäuser (for the history and background to this stirring piece, see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/03/31/les-pecheurs-de-perles-and-tannhauser-part-two-wagner-bizet-and-performance-practices-then-and-now/).

Clash of the Titans

The differences in approach to Rossini and Wagner, along with their individual working methodologies, were striking. After countless academic studies and tomes analyzing both composers’ oeuvres, we can state, categorically, that Rossini worked principally to fulfill his commissions and nothing more. Whether they were to individual singers or to a particular opera house’s requirements, his personal views toward any single assignment or subject were kept scrupulously out of the finished piece.

Simply put, there wasn’t enough time to devote to extra-musical ideas or theoretical speculations when the pressure was on to quickly bring an operatic piece to the stage. Rapidity of means and swiftness of delivery were the main prerequisites. These were but some of the reasons why Rossini borrowed, for convenience’s sake, from his existing work — by either rearranging and/or reassigning solos numbers and ensemble pieces to fit the needs of a specific situation.

An excellent example would be Il Viaggio a Reims (“The Journey to Rheims”), originally written to commemorate the coronation of King Charles X in France, and which was later reworked as the comic opera, Le Comte Ory.

This was definitely not the case with Wagner whose individual wants took precedent over everyone else’s, including those of his closest acquaintances and benefactors. His frequent crises and scandalous personal life became fodder for any number of operatic plot twists and story lines. You could say that Wagner was his own best dramaturg. Accordingly, it was far easier for researchers to link the worst of his traits to those of his male characters — for example, Wotan, Siegmund, Tristan, and the Dutchman — than it would have been to associate Figaro, Arnold, Mustafà or Tell with any of Rossini’s qualities.

Period caricatures of Wagner and Rossini by Andre Gill

To be honest, neither man was a saint — THAT’S putting it mildly. Signor Rossini was known to have suffered from the ill effects of gonorrhea (he would soon develop cancer of the colon). But there is no disagreement about Herr Wagner: he was as horrid an individual as they come. Still, once he got to Paris, Wagner made it a point to call on the retired bel canto composer, who had been living in France for over three decades. The visit was arranged by an intermediary, the Belgian music critic and journalist Edmond Michotte, who transcribed their lengthy dialogue for later publication.

Since no other methods of preservation existed at the time of the composers’ gathering, we must take what Monsieur Michotte has left us as a valuable document of their conversation, but with a healthy grain of salt. Purportedly, one of the pretexts for Wagner’s visit was to set the record straight as to whether or not Rossini had badmouthed him to the press — this from a man who, no matter where he went, had left a long list of insults and offenses in his wake.

“As for despising your music,” Rossini was alleged to have responded, “I ought in the first instance to know it, and to know it I ought to hear it at the theatre, for it is only in the theatre, and not simply by reading the score, that it is possible to render a just judgment of music intended for the stage.” Rossini went on to praise the Tannhäuser March, “which he had found very effective and beautiful. After thus clearing the ground,” Michotte remarked, “intercourse became easy and pleasant, and many interesting topics were broached and discussed during this short visit.”

The subject of Weber and his music had also come up. Beethoven was mentioned, too. “On [Rossini’s] expressing his regret that he had not enjoyed a more thorough training on German lines, Wagner showed his appreciation of what Rossini had accomplished by citing the ‘Scene of the darkness’ in ‘Moses in Egypt,’ that of the conspiracy in ‘Guillaume Tell,’ and, in another order, the ‘Quando Corpus,’ as examples which he could hardly have bettered, and these the veteran [composer] admitted were among the ‘happy moments’ of his career.”

This ad hoc mutual admiration society continued along this vein for some time, until “Wagner spoke of the trouble which the translation of ‘Tannhäuser’ was giving, whereupon Rossini suggested that he should compose an opera on a French libretto, a suggestion which, it is needless to add, did not meet with his acceptance. Then Wagner spoke of his ideals and his expressed desire to get rid of the formalism of opera [a noble thought, one that many composers have articulated throughout the centuries]…”

Wagner & Rossini, a meeting of unlike minds

Interestingly, the Italian master’s reaction was a tad surprising. “Though Rossini was the living embodiment of these conventions, he admitted the absurdity of the ensembles of grand opera, and said that when all the characters formed into line to take part in one, they always reminded him of a band of minstrels, singing to secure a few coppers.”

“It was the custom,” Rossini added, “a concession which we had to make to the public, who otherwise would have shied things at our heads!” You can imagine Wagner’s indignant shock at that admission, but he managed to maintain his composure. “To this Wagner made the obvious answer that, though convention is inevitable, it must be understood in such a fashion as to avoid the excess which leads to absurdities — all that one demands is that a convention, once admitted, should be artistic and consistent in itself.”

Where they disagreed (and most vehemently, or so we are told) was on the subject of the composer as both musician and librettist: “[Wagner] proceeded, sketching his ideas of music-drama, to lay down the axiom that the music and poem [i.e., the libretto] should be so closely knit as to be like the different aspects of a single idea, and this provoked from Rossini the comment that it made it a necessity for the composer to be his own librettist, a condition which he deemed practically insurmountable, but of course Wagner would have none of this, and with great animation urged that the composer should study literature as well as counterpoint.”

They moved on to talk about Guillaume Tell and related matters, until “this memorable interview ended by Rossini expressing his interest in his visitor’s aims, which he had so clearly expressed. For his own part he was too old — ‘being at the age when one is not so much inclined to compose as liable to decompose.’ — to turn his eyes to new horizons, but he was very willing to acknowledge that Wagner’s ideas were of a nature worthy of the serious consideration of young composers. ‘Of all the arts,’ [Rossini] concluded, ‘music is that which is, by reason of its ideal character, most subject to transformations, and to these there can be no bounds. Who, after Mozart, could have foreseen Beethoven? Or, after Gluck, Weber? And, after these, why should there be no end to progress?’”

As the meeting itself had come to an end, Wagner confessed his innermost thoughts to Michotte: “ ‘What would [Rossini] not have produced had he received a thorough musical training; above all, if, less Italian and less sceptic [sic.], he had felt in him the sacred nature of his art? … I must say this: of all the musicians I have met in Paris [which included Daniel Auber, Fromenthal Halévy, Ambroise Thomas, Charles Gounod, et al.] he is the only one who is truly great.’ ”

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes