Dawn of the Sound Era
In the beginning (of the recording industry, that is), there were wax cylinders. The tinny, scratchy sound that came out of those cylinders was one reason for their demise. And because of their fragility, longevity was not a strong point, either.
They were eventually supplanted by the longer-lasting yet heavier to carry 10-inch platters. That’s when thick, circular discs could be played at an astounding 78 revolutions per minute, mostly by hand-cranking a lever that would make rudimentary turntables revolve at approximately that speed.
A needle or stylus was lowered onto the turntable via an antiquated “tone arm.” This device would then cut into the record’s grooves. Vibrations that emanated from the grooves to the stylus were transmitted to a large acoustic horn, which emitted the sound of what was preserved on those same grooves that could then be heard in a record shop, or in one’s living room (known as the parlor).
Variations in the makeup and performance of these elemental record players (called gramophones) resulted in widely fluctuating pitches. This undoubtedly effected the enjoyment of an artist of Caruso’s renown as he flung forth his trademark “Vesti la giubba.” (Uh, was that A sharp or A flat, maestro?) Be that as it may, those fortunate enough to have afforded this revolutionary gizmo could indulge themselves to the fullest in the evolving pastime of record listening.
It was said at the dawn of this new era of sound reproduction that Puccini’s arias were made to order for the gramophone (later dubbed the phonograph) — an obvious reference to their brevity and an added boon to those enamored of his oeuvre. On the other hand, anything by Wagner, whose main quality was his persistent long-windedness, was clearly unplayable in this form.
This highlighted one of the major defects of the 78-rpm record, i.e., its short playing time. At three to four minutes per one-sided disc (depending on the turntable’s speed and accuracy, as well as the record’s groove spacing), this was hardly enough time for the prelude to Lohengrin to reach its climax. When 12-inch platters came out, the time-span increased to just over five minutes per side, give or take a few. You can imagine how many platters it would take to hear a relatively brief work such as Mascagni’s 80-minute Cavalleria Rusticana, let alone something of Der Rosenkavalier’s heft.
Soon, cumbersome 78’s were replaced by longer lasting 45-rpm’s, to be replaced later still by the microgroove LP sometime in the late 1940s. Around the mid-1950s, the 45 had been relegated to such genres as folk, pop, blues, jazz and rockabilly, music that barely lasted a full three or four minutes per side.
With further technical refinements and the development of the 33 1/3 long-playing album, as much as a half hour of time on either side (again, depending on the microgrooves in between) could be taken up with vocal, instrumental, orchestral and/or choral programming of varying types and degrees. Hah, Götterdämmerung be damned!
Thus the notion of the complete opera album came into existence, with “complete” being a relative term — not that opera wasn’t available on those old 78’s, not by a long shot!
Surprisingly, a goodly amount of the standard repertory had already been committed to disc by the 1930s and 40s, the so-called Depression and War years. The downside, as stated earlier, was the sheer size and bulk of those albums. In many cases, a work such as Verdi’s Aida would require a huge financial outlay (for the time, of course). Not to be done in by the cost factor, the weight of having to lug around 30 or more platters was off-putting, to put it mildly.
Along with the above problems, most opera sets were severely cut in order to fit what remained of the music onto those hulking discs. Added to which, the vintage sound quality of those early acoustics and the slightly more tolerable electrics were hardly what one would call state of the art.
Indeed, the 33 1/3 LP record had come along at precisely the right time.
Opera as Spectator Sport
Even better for opera buffs, the next series of tweaks and innovations — the development of stereophonic sound reproduction with that of the opera album itself, which included deluxe librettos, copious liner notes, and historical and biographical information — became a godsend to novice listeners such as myself.
For the first time one could hear an uninterrupted presentation of Wagner’s Ring cycle, or stretch one’s comfort zone immeasurably by taking a chance with those interminable Strauss monstrosities. The other novelties that stereo reproduction introduced us to were the enhancement of and appreciation for opera as a performing art.
Still unsatisfied, avid collectors the world over would scour their local record shops for ever more out-of-the-way anomalies on what knowledgeable opera aficionados might call “privately issued” labels. Others less inclined to political correctness would prefer to use the term “pirated editions” of their favorite artists or works. Such rarities as Catalani’s Loreley, Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, or the Lisbon Traviata, for example, were at one time considered the Holy Grail for lovers of the form.
Opera fans my age and older would search high and low and over a vast range of pre-recorded formats, either on reel-to-reel tape or low quality discs, for that one outstanding performance, or that one elusive moment, that towered above the rest — many preserved, unfortunately, in positively excruciating sound.
Still, what price wouldn’t fanatics pay to to relive Maria Callas’ spontaneous high C from Mexico City in the conclusion to the Triumphal Scene from Aida, or tenor Franco Corelli’s voluminous, gasp-inducing, stratospheric assumption of Calàf to soprano Birgit Nilsson’s icy Princess Turandot? How about Mario Filippeschi’s dramatically declaimed Radames from the Naples Opera? Did he really take that phrase, “Sacerdote, io resto a te!” all in one incredible breath? You bet he did! Opera was treated as a spectator sport in days gone by….
Moments such as these were unheard of when complete opera albums appeared on the scene. What was so often felt in the opera house could not hope to be duplicated in the studio — nor would it. The point of record albums was to introduce prospective buyers, both amateurs and veterans alike, to the joys of listening to a given work in the comfort of one’s abode, just like the old days of grandpa’s gramophone. There, one might begin to cultivate an intimate relationship with opera, one that would nurse you through tough times.
Today, we have YouTube, live streaming and other Web-based methods of revisiting those fabulous moments from the past. Back in the LP era, though, you were limited not so much by the medium of the analog recording itself as to the content the record companies put out into the marketplace. Standard works were the norm, while adventurous repertoire was a risky maneuver. And therein lies the rub: economics and the reality of the complete opera recording business.
As they approached the end of the millennium, the classical divisions of the most highly respected record labels of the 1950s through the late 1980s (RCA Victor, Decca/London, EMI/Angel, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, etc.) experienced shrunken budgets and cost-cutting measures on an ever-widening scale. It was an accepted fact that, over the span of many decades and with the exclusion of artistic merit, complete opera albums were considered a money-losing proposition.
Given the cost of having to pay for a 100-piece orchestra, for 60 or more choristers, for conductors of unquestioned repute, and for singers of superior abilities, to include sound engineers, recording technicians and other highly skilled professionals, the size and scope of such an endeavor as recording a complete opera remained prohibitively expensive.
When record companies first started recording their efforts at, say, La Scala, Milan, or inside the Rome Opera House, as many of them did early on in the process, the costs were shared by most participants. Frequently, budgets were kept in check or out of the equation entirely over the objections of those in charge of the enterprise. “Never mind the bottom line,” some record executives would insist, “it’s the preservation of the art form we most care about.” Oh, really?
As salaries skyrocketed and the tremendous physical and financial demands of traveling overseas increased exponentially, the break-even point for producing and releasing complete opera albums had long-ago vanished.
Nowadays, with most of the standard and not-so-standard repertory items already firmly “in the can,” what was there left to record apropos of the opera?
My Time with My Favorite Pastime
Recalling my own adventures with the recorded art, I can tell you that everything I learned about opera first started with my listening to it. And what was it I listened to? Why, the radio, of course! Where else could a kid from the inner city enjoy opera at his leisure — and for free?
In my early teens, I couldn’t afford to attend live performances, not until I started working. Oh, there were plenty of live options: the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, City Centre, and Lincoln Center. All were available, but not to me.
No, I grew up listening to the Met on the radio, as many people my age did. Fortunately, I discovered a wealth of opportunity at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. There, I could borrow complete opera albums to my heart’s content. Prior to that, I had spent many a free hour at our local branches, pouring over books and librettos of my favorite works, and jotting down the words to my favorite arias, in between studying for exams and such.
The unalloyed pleasure of listening to a complete opera, unencumbered by daily chores or current events, is something I will always treasure with fondness, longing and a large measure of nostalgia. Those were the times I could really sink my teeth into dissecting the content of what the performers were trying to achieve when they sang their roles in a foreign tongue. Having the original Italian, French, German or Russian libretto at hand, while following along with an accompanying English translation of the text, opened up a marvelous new world of knowledge and comprehension.
More significantly were the influences on me of such classic albums as the Georg Solti-conducted Ring cycle on Decca/London and the RCA Victor Madama Butterfly with Gigli and Dal Monte, real eye-openers as far as my acquaintance with the medium was concerned. I would also add the RCA Victor Aida with Milanov, Bjoerling, Barbieri, Warren and Christoff, along with the Decca/London Fanciulla del West with Tebaldi, Del Monaco and MacNeil, as testaments to their staying power.
My self-studies began in earnest with the earliest of the items indicated above, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Originally released on 78-rpm records in 1939, this RCA reissue introduced me to my parents’ favorite work, one they had heard often in Brazil, in particular on the night before my birth (for a more detailed description of this event, please see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/opera/). These old monophonic LP’s had been played so often that the staccato fugue introduction was by now unlistenable, so scratched were the sounds that emanated from their grooves.
Beniamino Gigli, the Pinkerton, was in his element. The lieutenant’s caddish nature, the good humor he exhibited in his exchanges with Goro and Sharpless, and the ardent deference paid to his teenage bride Cio-Cio-San, were well preserved, to which can be noted the pouting, sighing tones Gigli was famous for. No other tenor on records has captured that quizzical aspect of the line, “Milk punch o whisky?” when offering the American Consul some refreshment. I always wondered, as many listeners no doubt have, what the hell “milk punch” was? My best estimate would be the Italian librettists’ erroneous translation of Japanese saké.
Toti Dal Monte, a renowned coloratura at the time the recording was made, was a controversial choice for the title role. On record, her voice was thin, wiry and high-pitched, and may strike listeners’ ears as irritating. However, she alone (among a surfeit of recorded Butterfly interpreters) immediately convinces us of the “little girl” behind the arranged marriage to the foreign naval officer. Because we know she was only a child-bride, her rapid transformation into adulthood is all the more striking for its fierce determination. With tears flowing and an astounding ability to act with the voice, Dal Monte’s ritual suicide is the most heart-breaking on record, and the most emotionally wrought. It takes a steady hand not to be overcome by the sheer intensity of her performance.
The thing I noticed most, however, as I followed along with the libretto, was where the text diverted from what was actually recorded. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but RCA Victor had inadvertently printed the ORIGINAL 1904 libretto to the opera, not the thoroughly revised 1907 Paris edition of Butterfly — the one most opera-goers are familiar with and which the world’s opera houses have continuously staged. How odd, then, and how confusing for a neophyte such as myself! But instead of frustration, curiosity got the better of me. I needed to learn WHY there was a difference between what Gigli was singing and why a large portion of his dialogue was missing from said recording.
Years later, when I became aware of the multiple versions of Puccini’s opera, I realized the Butterfly we’ve seen on stage was not what the composer had intended. I sought out and bought a CD that included what was available of the original source material, along with the various modifications introduced at Brescia not four months after the work’s disastrous premiere at La Scala, as well as further snips and cuts.
The result was a more refined reworking of the composer’s conception, one that centered primarily on the character of Cio-Cio-San, as the above recording certainly does, and on her growing maturity, both personal and psychological, as a mother and as a woman, which Dal Monte superbly encapsulated.
All this from a sonically compromised, monophonic recording.
(End of Part One … To be continued)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Met Opera Round Up: Singing the Broadcast Blues (Part Two): ‘Nabucco,’ ‘La Bohème,’ and ‘Roméo et Juliette’
Now, Where Were We?
Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio and Verdi’s Nabucco. The time interval between these two radically diverse works was half a century. Mozart composed his three-act comic masterpiece (a Singspiel, or opera with spoke passages) in 1782, while Verdi completed work on the four-act drama Nabucco in 1842.
Not only were these operas as different from one another as the proverbial day from night, but the lifestyles of their respective creators were equally as far apart. Despite the disparities, Verdi and Mozart were students of politics. All throughout his short life Mozart struggled with his inability to be taken seriously as an artist. Perhaps it had to do with his more playful, carefree nature. On the other hand, Verdi was dead serious from day one.
Who could have foreseen that these two great musical minds might have shared a commonality of thought: the humanist and eternal optimist Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart versus the darkly pessimistic genius of Giuseppe Verdi?
They both experienced extraordinary success as well as the deepest sorrow and tragedy. In Verdi’s case, as recognition in the Italian opera world was within his grasp, within a span of a few short years he lost his entire family, comprised of two small children (a girl and a boy) and his raven-haired wife, Margherita. In his own words, Verdi insisted they had perished in a matter of months. This was not so, although biographers have often cited his version of events for its dramatic impact.
We tend to forget in our so-called more “enlightened” times that early childhood deaths were a common occurrence in centuries past. This was why families, whether they had the means at their disposal or not, produced large broods of siblings. In fact, it is not generally known that Mozart had produced children of his own — by some counts, as many as six from his wife, Constanze Weber (some say no more than two). His papa, Leopold, beside Wolfgang and older sister Maria Anna (nicknamed “Nannerl” by Wolfie himself), fathered an additional handful of children, all of whom died young.
In contrast, Verdi sired no more offspring — and by that, we mean legitimate ones. His long-time relationship with a live-in lover, the former singer Giuseppina Strepponi, may have resulted in at least one illegitimate daughter (given up for adoption). Much later in life, Verdi was quite taken with a seven-year-old cousin of his, Filomena, whom the composer rechristened “Maria” and officially adopted as his own.
As far as politics was concerned, Mozart, during the time that he lived and worked in Salzburg, then later in Vienna, may have floundered on many occasions but continued to navigate the ever-changing political headwinds as best he could. Certainly, he ran into the censors; and finances (or the lack of them) were a constant, pressing issue.
It was Mozart’s fondness for living high on the hog, his immaturity regarding money matters and inability to maintain a steady source of income that historians felt contributed to his dire financial condition. They may also have precipitated his decline into a premature death at the age of 35.
With Verdi, who was born to modest means (even though he felt that his family was poor) and blessed with life-long robust health, musical ability, along with shrewdness, thrift and a peasant’s appreciation for cultivating the land, made the Master of Busseto a very wealthy man.
Lucky in life, lucky in art, right? But all that would come later. In 1842, however, Verdi had reached rock bottom. He was commissioned by a fellow called Merelli, the impresario of La Scala, Milan, to write an opera based on the Old Testament monarch Nebuchadnezzar, or Nabucco for short, and the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews.
The story goes that after the failure of his 1840 romantic light-comedy Un Giorno di Regno (“King for a Day”), coming so soon after his family’s passing, Verdi had given up the notion of composing as a stable occupation. Running into the impresario on Milan’s streets, the depressed Verdi, in the direst of despairs, reluctantly agreed to take up the challenge of a new opera. He had no choice, when you come right down to it: Merelli had his signed contract, so Verdi was honor bound, as well as legally constrained, to provide an opera for La Scala at the height of its season.
Ever the dramatist, Verdi would later claim that he came back to his hotel room and threw the libretto onto his bed (or a table, in some versions). Miraculously, the pages opened up to the words “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (“Go, thought, on golden wings”), the cry of the Hebrew slaves yearning for their homeland. Duly inspired by the lyrics, set down by the librettist and poet, Temistocle Solera (a hell of personality in his own right), Verdi was overcome with emotion — but not enough to do it the proper justice at that point.
He tried to return the libretto, but Merelli would have none of it. Thrusting it back into the composer’s coat pocket, Merelli left Verdi to his own devices. This is a wonderful story, which, in Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s scrupulously researched biography, she does not disprove outright but only questions as to its veracity. The fact remains that Verdi went on to complete the music, and Nabucco, as the opera came to be called and only his third work for the stage, became a tremendous hit.
Verdi’s future lover and spouse, Strepponi, was cast as Abigaille, Nebuchadnezzar’s adopted child. Their father-daughter relationship, fraught with nervous tension and high-flying vocal pyrotechnics, provides a powerful contrast to the prayer-full prophet Zechariah’s messianic musings.
But the crux of the work, and the raison d’être for its continued success, is the emotionally compelling third-act chorus “Va pensiero.” The Robert Shaw Chorale recorded the definitive version of this piece for RCA Red Seal’s Living Stereo label, but any opera company worth its weight in seasonal subscriptions can deliver the goods.
What You Hear is What You Get
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, led by its choir master Donald Palumbo, is one of the finest such ensembles on the planet. It got a stirring ovation at the premiere of Nabucco earlier in the season, with the “Va pensiero” chorus itself getting a deserved encore. No such luck at the January 7, 2017 Saturday matinee performance, which starred Plácido Domingo in the title role, soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska as the fiery Abigaille, and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy as Zaccaria (the spelling of these Slavic names will be the death of me!).
Music director emeritus James Levine conducted the Met Opera Orchestra in this Elijah Moshinsky production, with massive sets by John Napier and appropriately classical costumes by Andreanne Neofitou.
No need to tell readers that the opera Nabucco is a travesty of ancient history. It makes nonsense out of the plot, and even imposes on the title character an uncharacteristic religious conversion! Yet the music in this early work is stirring in the extreme. My favorite recording is the first note-complete stereo version on Decca/London, with the great Italian baritone Tito Gobbi as Nabucco, and the Greek-born Elena Souliotis (in her finest Maria Callas incarnation) as his daughter. The two make an impressive team, along with Lamberto Gardelli’s expert leadership on the podium. If only Carlo Cava as Zaccaria were of equal worth …
As for the Met’s radio broadcast, I’m a firm believer that Domingo has ventured far beyond his normal capacity as a tenor into the baritone realm. It may be too late for him to ever go back, but I must say that here, his dramatic instincts were far better served than his vocal ones. By all reports, Domingo managed to dominate the stage whenever he was on — even if his resources have now dwindled down to an audible but decidedly low-level caliber.
As Abigaille, Monastyrska made some imposing noises, although her coloratura needed steadiness and control. Notes poured out of her with a galvanizing wallop, but the dramatic purpose behind them was lacking. A mighty sound indeed! With careful nurturing, she may yet turn out to be a singer worth hearing. For now, let’s say that Liudmyla is getting a thorough workout at the Met’s dramatic bel canto wing. She knows how to husband her resources, which is a better verdict than some of her predecessors received, including the aforementioned Souliotis, whose career fizzled out much too soon, and that of Italian diva Anita Cerquetti in the late 1950s to early 1960s.
We’ve run into basso Belosselskiy before as Silva in the Met’s Ernani. What I said then about his performance goes double for his Zaccaria: an imposing sound, with a pleasant beat to the tone, but not the rolling, booming force of nature of, say, a Boris Christoff or a Nicolai Ghiaurov. Compared to them, Belosselskiy lacked individuality. His soft singing was admirable, but unlike another Slavic powerhouse, the Russian Yevgeny Nesterenko, who practically owned the part (on records, at least), one missed the massive weight of a voice that could rain down God’s wrath on Nebuchnezzar’s head.
In a change of pace, the January 14, 2017 Saturday broadcast of Puccini’s popular perennial La Bohème, in the by-now-classic Zeffirelli production (with costumes by Peter J. Hall), brought out an essentially youthful cast of aspirants, which it well deserved.
Among the raw talents on display were baritone Alessio Arduini as a tremulous Marcello, tenor Michael Fabiano as an especially ardent Rodolfo, bass Christian Van Horn as Colline, baritone Alexey Lavrov as Schaunard, veteran basso Paul Plishka in the dual role of the tipsy landlord Benoit and cuckolded old geezer Alcindoro, the lovely Ailyn Pérez as Mimì, and brassy Susanna Phillips letting it all hang out as the noisy Musetta. The opera was conducted by Carlo Rizzi, who knows this verismo terrain about as well as anyone.
While most of the above artists tread lightly over their parts, I was immediately impressed by tenor Fabiano’s bright, lava-like outpourings as the poet Rodolfo. Incidentally, I was also struck by his similarity in timbre to the late Franco Corelli. Mind you, this comparison to a primo tenore of the Met’s unrivaled Golden Age was more than just mere coincidence.
I do not attribute Corelli’s incredible lung power and unmatched ability to coax high notes out at his will and pleasure (when Franco was able to exercise control over his output) to anything that Fabiano displayed. No, it was just that Fabiano’s basic sound, the way he shaped the poet’s words and phrases — most markedly, how he caressed the vocal line by either lengthening it or bending it to his particular purpose — smacked of a growth in artistry I had not expected of him.
The climax on high C of “Che gelida manina” (“How cold your tiny hand is”), the true litmus test for any aspiring lead, was well handled. I sensed only a slight discomfiture in his taking of it. He ended his narrative softly, running out of breath at the phrase “Vi piaccia dir.”
Ailyn Pérez was an appropriately vulnerable Mimì, without erasing the memory of such past luminaries as Montserrat Caballé, Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, and Ileana Cotrubas. Soprano Phillips cleared the stage of rivals as a thoroughly bombastic, self-absorbed Musetta in Acts II and III. God help the fellow who got in her way! She powered down noticeably for Act IV, where Musetta displayed her sensitivity for and empathy with Mimì’s situation.
Wherefore Art Thou, Roméo?
About the best one can say for these January broadcasts was that here, in little old Raleigh, we had good weather for most of the month. That was not the case in New York City, my old Met stomping ground. Because of this, I had mixed feelings about the January 21, 2017 transmission of Charles Gounod’s romantic opus, the five-act French opera Roméo et Juliette, based on Shakespeare’s tragic play.
Gounod’s 1867 foray into this territory, after his highly ambitious retelling of the Faust legend by Goethe, was a step down in musical-dramatic vitality and distinctiveness but a decided step up in the development and enrichment of nineteenth-century French opera.
This new production, the handiwork of director Bartlett Sher and set designer Michael Yeargan, with costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, choreographer Chase Brock and fight director B.H. Barry, brought back fond memories of a relic from the Old Met’s days on Broadway and 33rd Street. During those halcyon times the company staged this piece with Bidu Sayão and Jussi Bjoerling in the leads. At Lincoln Center in the late 1960s, a production that starred Mirella Freni and Franco Corelli brought out these respective singers’ fans en masse. Perhaps all they wanted to see were Franco’s manly thighs in hip-hugging tights, along with those fearsome high C’s.
Getting more than they bargained for, followers of the contemporary teaming of German soprano Diana Damrau as Juliette with Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo were regaled with his (as per the Met’s sure-fire ad campaign, he was supposed to be shirtless) appearance as an intensely involving Roméo. Grigolo was the hit of the season, and not just for his hunky Roméo, with high notes blazing, sword flashing, and crooning and carrying on to his fans’ delight; he made an especially memorable Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, as well as a brooding, Byronesque Werther in Massenet’s eponymously titled opera.
With a voice to match his strikingly good looks, this was French opera in the raw. Especially endearing were Vittorio’s vulnerability and athleticism. Could Signor Grigolo be the next generation’s embodiment of Corelli? Already he’s been tapped to replace the smoldering Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi in next season’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca. Wait till you hear Vittorio’s second act cry of “Vittoria!” We shall await his presence with bated breath.
Damrau, as his Juliette, was recovering from a recent illness which left her out of the dress rehearsal. Still, hers was a peculiarly non-French traversal of this part, one that emphasized the girl’s rapid development from youthful impulsiveness to considerate adult. Her passage work, roulades and coloratura scales were above criticism, so easily did she encompass every facet of her character’s opportunities to shine. Dramatically, she made one believe that Juliette was an over-eager, tempestuously minded sixteen year old who gained in maturity and understanding as the opera progressed. THAT made all the difference.
Her duets with the handsome Grigolo was one of the Met’s most propitious pairings to date. Damrau made equal gains in her prior encounter with Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, in which her partner was the ever-dependable Matthew Polenzani.
Mezzo Virginie Verrez was a quicksilver Stéphano, as was Elliot Madore as Mercutio. His “Queen Mab” air was light and airy, as it should be, yet he showed real bite when the going got rough in his duel to the death with the vengeful Tybalt, played by tenor Diego Silva. Madore showered Met Opera audiences with an ample, vibrant baritone sound of assertive proportions. In fact, his deportment and that of the extras who embodied the feuding Montagues and Capulets betrayed the pervasive influence of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton in the staging and choreography of Gounod’s opus.
One can either praise or revile director Sher for this obvious intrusion into what Broadway does best. There’s no denying it, since Sher has long been associated with the Great White Way (his 2008 Tony Award-winning staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is a perfect case in point). This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a reflection of the times. Still, I have no doubt that Elliot Madore would make an excellent Marquis de Lafayette, should the occasion arise.
The other citizens of Verona were sung and acted by bass-baritone Laurent Naori, as an authentically Gallic Capulet; bass-baritone David Crawford as Paris; mezzo-soprano Diana Montague (!) as the nurse Gertrude; bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha as Grégorio; peripatetic tenor Tony Stephenson as Benvolio; and bass Oren Gradus as the grave Duke of Verona. The only cast member who disappointed was bass Mikhail Petrenko as an easily bristled Frère Laurent, his mushy-sounding tones and wavery notes above and below the staff were inadequate for this key character.
Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who has spent the last few years in St. Petersburg, Russia, as the principal conductor of the Mariinsky Theater, in addition to his duties with the BBC Philharmonic, drew splendid brass and string playing from the Met Orchestra. This was not a particularly Italianate reading of the piece, but rather an elegantly conceived interpretation —personable, authoritative where it needed to be, yet stylish and enveloping, with just the right amount of Gallic reserve.
If I have mentioned the hallowed name of Franco Corelli often in this piece, it is because his grand style of vocalism and outsized personality are in desperate need of revival on the world’s opera stages. If the likes of the young Michael Fabiano and Vittorio Grigolo have embraced Corelli’s galvanizing stage presence and formidable technique, then more power to them (and to us).
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Truth to Power
These are the photographs and/or descriptions of the remaining works left behind by the late Michael Richards, an artist and sculptor who perished in the 9/11 attacks that brought him and thousands of others down with the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.
Let Me Entertain You, 1993, Mixed media installation with video, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Michael Richards Estate
“The installation takes the form of a historical dressing room of famous performer Bert Williams … A video of the artist applying blackface is projected unto the mirror. On the left wall of the room are four mirrors, printed with photographs of the artist, on which text is silk-screened questioning the degree of blackness reflected: ‘Black, ‘Blacken,’ ‘Black Enough For You.’”
Climbing Jacob’s Ladder (He Lost His Head), 1994, Resin, mirrors, lights, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park and the Michael Richards Estate
Escape Plan 76 (Brer Plane in the Brier Patch), 1996, Wax, resin, paper, metal, rubber, lights, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem
Swing Lo’, 1996, Steel, neon, wood, speakers with musical soundtrack, audio tape, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” an old spiritual, the voice of reason — preaching tolerance and understanding. But at the same time, holding a “mirror” up to life’s inequities and how we have been treated by those who have exploited race and economic equality for their own purposes.
The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee), 1996, Wood, resin, plexiglass, tar, feathers, paper, bonded bronze, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem
Untitled (Air Lift), 1997, Super hold hair gel, plastic, wax, pigment, and plexiglass, Installation image courtesy of the Bronx Museum of the Arts
Free F’All, 1997, Resin, steel, mirror, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum of Harlem
[Untitled] (Free F’All), 1997, fiberglass and resin with iron oxide, Brooklyn Museum, Anonymous gift in honor of Michael Richards, 2007 © Estate of Michael Richards, Installation image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum
Map Head, 1999, Urethane, resin, transfer, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem
N’Kisi Nigga, 1999, Urethane, metal, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem
Tar and Feather, 1999, Bonded bronze, tar, metal, Installation images courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park
Are You Down?, 2000, fiberglass, bonded bronze, resin, concrete, black beauty sand, Installation images courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park
Fly Away O’ Glory, 1995, Resin bronze, feathers, motors, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate
Air Fall 1 (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me), 1998, Hair, latex, and glass, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate
Planes plummeting from the ceiling above into a mirrored abyss — again, Michael’s prescience was captured by his ultimate realization of the existing 9/11 Memorial, built on the exact spot where the North and South Towers once stood: two rectangular-shaped pools of water, open spaces, with middle squares of water pouring into a hole.
A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo, 1994, Resin, marble dust, wood, motor, photo transfer, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate
Travel Kit, 1999, Bonded bronze, hair, and wood, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate
Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian
Say It Loud!
And these are the voices of those who knew and worked with Michael, along with Michael’s own special words:
Sam Seawright, Artist: “For Michael making art and getting his message to a diverse audience was essential to his being, and a vital component of his core beliefs. One beautiful lesson I learned from Michael was the importance of overcoming prejudices, lack of funds, false perceptions and misguided criticisms and to make art at all costs, in the end the art speaks for itself. He was able to practice in the studio the lessons he learned from the hardships persevered in his personal life. He preached compassion and understanding with his art and practiced generosity of spirit in his life.”
John Hock, Artistic Director/CEO and Co-founder, Franconia Sculpture Park: “Of the many blameless people annihilated that day in 2001, few can have meditated quite as much as this man did upon the quick rise and quicker fall of hope: a Jamaican, an immigrant, a black man, Richards knew something about the loneliness of exile, and the feeling of exclusion from others’ realities. It is no presumption to imagine Michael, at times, had nothing to go on but his rage against an identity projected on him by apartheid.”
Carolyn Swiszcz, Artist: “I would describe Michael as soft-spoke (but not shy), confident (but not overbearing), and sophisticated (but not pretentious). He had a knack for charming pretty much everybody he met. It seemed to me that he didn’t suffer from the kind of prickly bad moods I struggled with, or maybe he was just much better at managing them. What stays with me most, almost twenty years later, is his smile. He shared ut often. I can easily envision it spreading across his face in response to a joke or in an attempt to express a sympathy.”
Wendell Walker, Deputy Director for Operations, Exhibitions, and Design, Museum of the Moving Image: “The fantasy of flight was a frequent topic between us during our early days together at the Grey [Art Gallery]. We shared dreams of flying — both beautiful and frightening ones — that we both had as children, and I cherish those conversations even though they now haunt me. I feel those dreams represent such a critical part of Michael’s work and life, and I feel strangely reassured that, on that horrible day, he decided to fly.”
Marysol Nieves, Vice President, Specialist, Latin American Art, Christie’s Former Senior Curator, The Bronx Museum of the Arts: “The impressive body of work Michael Richards produced during his brief, yet prolific career reflects the discourse on identity, racial and gender politics that was so pervasive in the landscape of contemporary art during [the] 1990s. yet his work eschewed many of the tropes often associated with identity based art by tackling the complexities of, and at times painful histories implicit in the investigation of such notion as blackness, masculinity, and power.”
Dread Scott, Artist: “As much as I will remember Michael as an incredible brilliant artist and some of his unrealized projects, I really remember him as a fried and the simple things that make up friendship. What I remember most is him frequently greeting me in intentionally thick patois saying: ‘Whayousay Dread?’”
Jorge Daniel Veneciano, Executive Director, El Museo del Barrio, former Curator of Exhibitions, The Studio Museum in Harlem: “Michael was a poetic soul. Somewhat quiet, with a bemused, all-knowing smile. He had a keen sense of irony. It suffused his work, sharpened his artistic wit. A poetic sensibility for human contradictions deepened the aesthetic value of his work… His interest in metaphors of flight adds a confounding layer of irony to his life and passing. Like Icarus, perhaps he flew too close to the sun — too close to the truth. And the dark poetry of the universe answered in an unforgiving way. Yet Michael’s work prevails as a living, lasting retort to the unmoved universe.”
Genaro Ambrosino-D’Amico, former owner, Ambrosino Gallery: “You know when sometimes you meet someone and you think, ‘Wow, he’s so cool! I want to be his friend’? That’s how Michael was. He was handsome, he dressed well, had a killer smile. He was loving and warm and made sure that you knew that you could count on him. He was smart, street and book smart. He could talk politics, art, music, history and popular culture with the same ease and knowledge, and always with a consistency that made you agree with him, even when you really didn’t! But one thing above all I loved of Michael, and makes me miss him most. He was fair, he was just. And you can’t say that of many people. That’s why he was so ‘cool.’”
Michael Richards, Artist Statement:
“— Does the glass ceiling which excludes also reflect the desire to belong?
“My current body of work investigates the tension between assimilation and exclusion. By focusing on issues of identity and identification, I attempt to examine the feelings of doubt and discomfort which face blacks who wish to succeed in a system which is structured to deny them access.
“How do systems of representation, and the portrayal of success both seduce and repel? I wish primarily to give voice to the psychic spaces in which exist both hope and frustration, faith and failure, and the compromises which must be negotiated in order to survive.
“Though the issues which inform the work may be seen as primarily political, I use language of metaphor to express them. The use of feathers and tar, mirrors and ladders, the concept of flight both as freedom and surrender, all attempt to open a metaphorical space into which the viewer can be seduced.
“This space allows for an examination of the psychic conflict which results from the desire to both belong to and resist a society which denies blackness even as it affirms.
“In attempting to make this pain and alienation concrete, I use my body, the primary locus of experience, as a die from which to make casts. These function as surrogates, and as an entry into the work.”
The End Game
We look in vain for clarity to horrific events, and for meaning to our lives. Michael Richards discovered both fairly early in his career. I cannot help but think of the Winged exhibition, a spare memento of the artist’s state of mind, as an austere expression of his Spartan lifestyle.
Here, one may presume that Michael found closure in enclosed surroundings. His surviving works, as few in number as they were, have been arranged in predetermined patterns. We are left with a mere handful of artifacts, objects conceived and sculpted in cogent thought, in the hope of achieving a higher purpose and in demonstrating to the observer the many injustices that Michael witnessed around him.
What would Michael have said about the Black Lives Matter movement? About the murders that’s gripped the city of Chicago? About the NFL protests by quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers? How would he have reacted to the treatment of young black men — which he, too, happened to be one — to the violence around them?
These are the true tragedies of Michael Richards’ death; the art and political world were deprived of his powerful, reasoned voice. The exhibition of his remaining work, at the Art Center at Governor’s Island, sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, offers, if nothing else, a singular vision of what it was like to live as a talented black artist in a racially and economically divided America.
Unlike the noise and strife that surrounded him, amid the tumult of world affairs — the so-called “body politic,” and the use of his own body to portray that very politic, spiraling out of control — Michael’s voice was one of calm and reason. To paraphrase a line from the poem “Invictus,” he was the master of his fate; he was the captain of his soul. He commandeered a measured, more pensive response to the world’s problems. He gave thought to his actions, yet put action into his thoughts.
I see a severed head (his own, if such as thing were possible) encased in a football helmet, the American flag draped around the lifeless body of a football player, kneeling before us. In my mind’s eye, I see the artist’s statement — it is Michael himself.
With gratitude to Alex Fialho, co-curator with Melissa Levin, for the use of photographs and literature from the Michael Richards: Winged exhibition, and to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for their help, support and cooperation in the writing of this article.
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
The City Never Sleeps
Having grown up and lived in New York for almost four decades, you would think that I had visited most of its myriad attractions. Not so! There are many such unfrequented hotspots in and around town, one of them being the little known Governors Island.
To get to this nearly inaccessible site, one must travel by subway to the tip of Lower Manhattan, where the East River meets the Hudson. From there, you wander aimlessly about until some kind soul leads you in the right direction.
“I’m going there,” said the young girl wearing a New York Harbor School T-shirt. “Follow me.” After a short stroll, my volunteer guide piped up again. “The ferry to Governors Island is right over there,” she pointed out to me, “in the building to your left.” That would be the Battery Maritime Building, right? I thanked the young girl, who disappeared inside a local coffee shop.
I waited at the terminal until the appointed 8 a.m. hour when the next ferry would be ready to launch. The boat ride itself lasted under a quarter of an hour, a pleasant enough trip with little if any turbulence — just the thing for this landlubber.
Disembarking from the ferry at Governor’s Island, the first view I had was of the bay and the newly rebuilt World Trade Center buildings. Looming silently in the distance behind me, they stood as a bulwark against a clear, cloudless sky — coincidentally, the same September sky that shone brightly over Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. Noisy helicopters, simultaneously taking off and landing from the busy heliport near the East River, broke through the stillness.
I approached the Arts Center entrance on foot, where I was greeted by an apportioned wall with the name of the exhibition, Michael Richards: Winged, in emboldened lettering. A variant of Matura MT Script Capitals, the title was displayed prominently to my left, with the figure of the artist’s Winged sculpture suspended directly ahead. Cast from Michael’s own forearms, it was “conjoined at the elbow,” and, as the written description indicated, “pierced with feathers, bringing together human anatomy and bird-like features to evocative effect.”
I stared intently at the bronze and metal object floating before me. With its outstretched arms, the work gave the appearance of bidding me to come forward and inspect the contents within. If I had stood underneath that welcoming embrace, the hands would have brushed lightly against my shoulders — reassuringly, I would imagine, in preparation for what I was about to see.
Though some of what I witnessed would cause me (and others like me) great pain, those extended hand figures — and ergo, Michael’s spirit — would still be there, guiding and comforting me along the way.
Roughly a year ago this past September, I wrote an article in memory of the late World Views artist Michael Richards. Michael had been working on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center’s Tower One (aka the North Tower) on the morning of September 11. He perished, along with thousands of other victims, when one of the hijacked planes crashed into the floors above his studio. Accordingly, whatever Michael had been working on had vanished along with him.
The manner in which he died was brought to poignant light when a work thought lost resurfaced in a cousin’s garage. This was the harrowing Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, displayed at North Carolina Museum of Art, from November 2003 to March 2004 and beyond, as part of their Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight exhibit (see the following link to my original article: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/09/12/lost-navigator-michael-richards-a-story-of-redemption-through-art/).
Since viewing that same Defying Gravity exhibit, where the extraordinary figure of Michael dressed in a Tuskegee airman flight suit was being pierced by dozens of model airplanes, I had determined to learn the details of this remarkable artist’s life and his controversial art.
In one of those unforeseen circumstances, just prior to the start of Memorial Day Weekend I received an e-mail from Melissa Levin, Director of Cultural Programs for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which sponsored the World Views artists-in-residence program, inviting me to a reception for their Michael Richards: Winged exhibition on the afternoon of June 25.
The exhibition, to be held at the Arts Center (a former army warehouse) on Governors Island, for which Ms. Levin served as co-curator with her colleague Alex Fialho, was planned as a combination retrospective and commemoration. It was slated to include “a range of Richards’ work in sculpture and drawing, most of which has not been on public view for over 15 years, as well as documentation and ephemera of his art and life.”
While I was unable to attend the reception at that time, I made my desire known to both Melissa and Alex that I would like to pay a visit to their exhibition. This I managed to do towards the end of September 2016.
Obscure Objects of Desire
The term “ephemera,” as noted above, is normally associated with transitory matters — namely, objects of a short-lived, impermanent nature. In this instance, the so-called ephemera of Michael Richards’ life and art, gathered together in this impressive collection, transcended the dictionary meaning of the word. I realized, to my astonishment, that these works were not so much ephemera as they were the enduring artifacts of a socially-minded individual far ahead of his time.
More so than most artists, Michael spoke wholly and exclusively through his art. As such, he gave voice and substance to millions of unheard voices that have rung out through much of our nation’s history. Sadly, his own voice was silenced on September 11, 2001. Today, it speaks louder than ever, crying out anew from the remnants of Tower One, in the exhibition Michael Richards: Winged named in his honor.
The Arts Center in which Michael Richards’ remaining works were housed was large and spacious, albeit underutilized. It struck me as more empty than full; a hallowed dwelling providing safe haven for what was left of his Estate. The walls were lined with rows upon rows of photos and artist statements, along with epigrammatic descriptions of his work — some written by Michael himself — as well as reminiscences from those who knew and worked with him.
Amid the hall’s open spaces and echoey ambience, the exhibition as a whole expressed to me what was both moving and lacking in the display. For instance, why were there not more pieces physically present as part of the exhibition’s central theme, i.e., the celebration of the artist’s purpose in life? Why was there an uneasy sense of “incompleteness” about the whole affair, an unshakably deaden feeling of works still in progress?
True, many of Michael’s art pieces had found permanent residency in such places as the Brooklyn Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Socrates Sculpture Park, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, in addition to Franconia Sculpture Park outside of Minneapolis, the Michael Richards Estate, and those of private collectors.
But instead of closure and acceptance; of moving away from the sins of the past so as to get on with one’s present and future existence, the majority of Michael’s surviving output, represented in whole or in part by photographic depictions, seemed dwarfed by comparison to the monumentally tragic events that surrounded them.
Once I left the exhibition hall, however, I had ample time to reflect on what I had seen. I must confess that, over the course of these past several months, my initial reaction has changed drastically from mild disappointment to sincere admiration for the thought and consideration that went into this pioneering effort.
How else could the terrible emptiness I felt inside when regarding Michael’s work, and the horrifying circumstances of his demise, have been accurately depicted? The sense of shock and outrage at what was done to him and to those around him has been tempered by the knowledge that Michael Richards’ life was dedicated to documenting the abuses of power and authority.
A potent, early expression (from 1990) of racial injustice can be found in a series of photographs of an installation entitled History: Meditating on the Middle Passage. Quoting from Michael’s artist statement, the installation consisted of “three life-sized boats built to resemble coffins.” These coffins were “positioned in a row evoking both funeral processions (and the political functions such gatherings serve in many black communities) and ship convoys used in the Middle Passage,” [to wit, the slave trade in which millions of blacks were forcibly shipped from Africa to the New World].
“In each vessel are 100 glass slides silk-screened with the faces of black men. Each face,” the statement went on to explain, was “repeated in its own vessel to both reinstate and drain its identity. The slides are illuminated from within the boats/coffins, and 4 phrases are projected unto the walls corresponding to the cardinal points in the room.
“These phrases, ‘No Name,’ ‘No Face,’ ‘No Place,’ and ‘No Tongue,’ speak not only to a lost history and culture but to a process of transformation by which African-Americans were formed.” A chill ran down my spine as I moved in for a closer look. Yes, I pondered, this was how the ancestors of today’s African American communities were brought to these shores — if they survived the perilous ocean voyage, that is, with “survival” a dubious term, at best, considering the subsequent nature of their lives as slaves.
The next exhibit (via another photographic display), a mixed media installation entitled Al Jolson Dances Forever: Birth of a Nation, came from 1991. It consisted of (and I quote) a “large ornate frame into which an 8mm movie loop of Al Jolson performing in blackface is projected.”
The son of a Jewish rabbi and cantor, Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson in present-day Lithuania) was a popular entertainer who starred in The Jazz Singer, the first “all talking, all singing” motion picture. The frame leads up to and is flanked by two rows of tarnished and damaged trophies “with their arms raised in a gesture of either victory or surrender. The pedestals on which the trophies stand are silk-screened [similar to those in the previous display, History: Mediating on the Middle Passage] with the legends, ‘Who Wins,’ and Who Loses.’
“On the wall opposite the frame projection, a mirror reflects the installation and the audience that enters the room. On the mirror are silk-screened three questions: ‘In Whose Name,’ ‘With Whose Face,’ and ‘In Whose Image.’ An audio loop of Al Jolson singing ‘Mammy’ plays continuously in the room.”
Juxtaposed alongside History: Meditating on the Middle Passage, the exhibit paid belated tribute to the hundreds of unsung African American performers who came before and after Jolson. While taking nothing away from Jolson’s work, the installation questions the rationale for our having neglected the incredible range of talent that helped shape the American entertainment landscape, and (by implication), the sports industry as well.
In a similar vein, another unspeakably vile image came a year later, in 1992, with Same Old Song and Dance. Again, quoting from Michael Richards’ boldly assertive statement, “The piece was installed in two large windows which faced the street. Both windows were arranged as a theatrical tableaux united by a half-raised red velvet curtain, across the top of which ran the title in large white letters. In the left window, partially concealed by the curtain, four pairs of suspended legs dressed in tuxedo pants and patent shoes slowly rotated. In the right window, 12 disembodied black heads rotated slowly in the opposite direction. Audible from the sidewalk, the pop song ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’ played continuously.
“The piece sought to examine the pervasive nature of racial violence in our society and the empty apologies offered in response. The theatrical setting addresses questions of the perception of racial violence in a society of spectacle, while the minstrel costumes evoke the historical battle of representation and the violence implicit in this struggle.”
The dangling feet of the dancers were a stark reminder of the horrors of Jim Crow and the illegal lynching of poor blacks during those God-awful times. How anyone could extract meaning from such hateful associations proves the truism that “The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.” This was about as intense a lesson as anyone was capable of absorbing.
End of Part One
(To be continued…)
With thanks to Alex Fialho, co-curator with Melissa Levin, for the use of photographs and literature from the Michael Richards: Winged exhibition, and to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for their help, support and cooperation in the writing of this article.
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
The View from the Chair — Walk of Life: An Analysis of Two Scenes from William Wyler’s ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959)
With the coming of the fall season and the expectation of cooler and (it is to be hoped) balmier days ahead, now would be an appropriate time as any to introduce a new series of posts — an artistic reawakening for yours truly: in this instance, an overview of some of my favorite scenes from movies past and present.
I’ll call this series “The View from the Chair.” Whose chair? That all depends! Admittedly, it would be a picture-perfect excuse to shape our discussion around a particular director’s point of view, or that of an actor or group of actors — or the audience’s, for what it’s worth, thus metaphorically killing two birds with one stone. By whatever means this topic can be approached, it would be great fun to simply get those cameras rolling — the motive behind it be damned!
So, without further ado, let’s jump-start this series with an analysis of two scenes from one of the all-time most watchable family features: the 1959 widescreen, Technicolor remake of Ben-Hur. At the time of the film’s release, this multi-award-winning epic cost Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer a hefty $12.5 million, an immense sum even in those bygone times. Over 15,000 sketches were drawn prior to building the three hundred or more life-size sets on which the story would take place. These sets covered approximately 150 acres of territory in and around Cinecittà Studios in Rome.
None of these figures remotely begins to take into account the sheer number of extras involved in the project, to include technical and administrative staff, work crews, painters, architects, builders, camels, horses, props, costumes, food and drink, to say nothing of the tons of materials necessary in recreating the massive arena where the famous chariot race would be run. Months of preliminary planning and backbreaking labor went into this effort before the first feet of film was even shot.
With impressive location footage and a sturdy international cast, headed by Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur, Stephen Boyd as Messala, Jack Hawkins as Quintus Arrius, Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim, Finlay Currie as Balthazar, Martha Scott as Miriam, Cathy O’Donnell as Tirzah, Sam Jaffe as Simonides, and Haya Harareet as his daughter Esther, the picture went on to gross over $40 million at the box office, not to mention its record-setting eleven Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Cinematography (Robert L. Surtees), Best Actor (Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Griffith),and Best Score (Miklós Rózsa).
One of those coveted honors went to director William Wyler. A German-born immigrant to the U.S., Wyler studied music at Lausanne and Paris. His film career took off in earnest in 1922 at Universal Pictures’ New York headquarters, first as a messenger boy and then as a publicity writer. Moving to the West Coast, Wyler apprenticed as a prop man, grip, script clerk and cutter, rising in rank to become a casting director, then an assistant director on several prestige pictures, among them The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney (1923) and the silent version of Ben-Hur (1925) with Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman.
A list of Wyler’s accomplishments must surely encompass such classics as Dodsworth (1936) with Walter Huston, Jezebel (1938) with Bette Davis, Wuthering Heights (1939) with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier, The Letter (1940) with Davis and Herbert Marshall, The Westerner (1940) with Gary Cooper, The Little Foxes (1941) with Davis with Marshall, Mrs. Miniver (1942) with Greer Garson, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) with Fredric March, The Heiress (1949) with Olivia de Havilland, Roman Holiday (1953) with Audrey Hepburn, The Desperate Hours (1953) with March and Humphrey Bogart, Friendly Persuasion (1956) with Cooper and Dorothy McGuire, and The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, and Charlton Heston in a supporting role.
That’s quite an impressive résumé by any standard. Still, the director had a reputation as a demanding taskmaster who often clashed with cast and crew. Known in the business as “90-Take Willie” for his copious retakes and excessively fastidious working methods, Wyler’s background in the cinema on a multitude of assignments, and his ability to get the best performances possible out of his stars, prepared him well for the rigors of helming Ben-Hur, one of Hollywood’s finest (and longest) Biblical spectaculars.
Ralph Winters, the Oscar-winning film editor on Ben-Hur, described him as “a damn good director, Wyler was. Damn good. But I didn’t care too much for him personally.”
Keeping all of the above in mind, let’s take our assigned seat in the reserved section and turn to the epic at hand.
Begin at the Beginning
“Then God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’”– Genesis 1:26
“The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.” – Genesis 2:7
The act of creation, so movingly depicted in the first book of the Bible through these two powerful yet poetically-inspired passages, also frames the opening and closing credits of our feature film.
Notwithstanding the above, the movie proper begins with a brief prologue showing the birth of Christ — the New Adam, born without sin to Mary and Joseph, hitherto known as the Holy Family — in the picaresque town of Bethlehem. Three Wise Men from the East have come to pay homage to the child Jesus, who lies comfortably in a stable while cradled in his mother’s arms.
This gentle episode, whereby family unity and stability are stressed — a unity and stability that will soon be shattered by unfolding events — is immediately followed by a majestic brass fanfare (the score comes courtesy of veteran composer Rózsa) announcing the main title sequence. As the credits roll, in the background and completely filling the widescreen space is a detail of Renaissance poet and artist Michelangelo’s brilliant rendering of the “Creation of Adam” panel from the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
In H.W. Janson’s classic work, The History of Art: A Survey of the Major Visual Arts from the Dawn of History to the Present Day, the scholar offers the following commentary concerning Michelangelo’s monumental conception: “[The panel] shows not the physical molding of Adam’s body but the passage of the Divine spark — the soul — and thus achieves a dramatic juxtaposition of Man and God unrivaled by any other artist… the dynamism of Michelangelo’s design contrasts the earth-bound Adam and the figure of God rushing through the sky.”
It’s a captivating combination: on one side we have God (the Old Testament, gray-bearded father figure), caught in the very act of creating, with Man (His earthly offspring) receiving the “breath of life” from the creator. God appears to be admiring His creation, faintly nodding to him in pride and approbation; while on the other side, Man — helpless, alone, and adopting a childlike expression of awe and reverence — looks to God with hope and longing, little realizing that permanent expulsion from the Maker’s Paradise is just around the corner.
If we look further into this stately introduction, we make note of the fact that our title character, Judah Ben-Hur, will himself be expelled from his own paradise — that is, from his family’s ancestral estate. But of course, we do not know this going into the drama. We will learn about his fate soon enough.
Although the full title of Wyler’s epic, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, refers to a subplot that hardly seems fitting for the main course of action, the film turns often to the recurring Christ figure, who has his own musical motif from the start — followed swiftly by the four-note Ben-Hur theme, placed in direct succession to that of Christ’s in order to capitalize on the religious, political and ideological distinctions between the true protagonists of the drama: Judah and Messala.
Judah Ben-Hur, a prince of the Jewish people — a man at the height of his wealth and power, who, like Adam, experiences a precipitous fall from grace, only to regain a semblance of his former stature by film’s end; and Messala, his boyhood companion, now a hardened Roman tribune hell bent on bringing order to the unruly province of Judea, whose furthering of his own deep-seated career ambitions at the expense of his former friendship with Judah will have dire consequences.
Their past association — or what little of it that remains — is severely tested when Judah, refusing to aid Messala’s cause by revealing the names of the Jewish resistance leaders, is wrongly accused of threatening the life of the new Roman governor. As penalty for his “crime,” Messala sends him off to hard labor on board a Roman warship, while his mother and sister are held as prisoners in the Roman fortress’ dungeon. Condemned to a living death, Judah will spend the rest of his days chained to an oar.
What Judah subsequently suffers through — his grueling ordeal in the galley, his rescue of Roman consul Quintus Arrius, his freedom from bondage and eventual redemption and reclamation of his family’s rights — is mirrored in a parallel story involving Christ’s suffering and Passion.
This setup happens to be bookended by two scenes that call to mind the opening “Creation of Adam” sequence. Throughout the story, various acts of kindness — represented by touching, giving and receiving — are reenacted by the film’s participants for the audience’s benefit as well as their own. Wyler references these acts at key moments so as to alert us to their deeper meaning within the context and framework of the plot.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
In the first scene under review, Judah is marched through the parched desert country as punishment for his alleged attack. Accompanying him are Roman guards and other criminals. They are on their way to the port city of Tyrus to serve out their harsh sentence. It’s blisteringly hot and dusty. Exhausted from the long trek through the sand and rock, one of the prisoners falls to the ground. Rather than minister to a condemned man, the guards untie his bonds and toss the body over the dunes to its death. This, then, is the sad fate for anyone who stands in the way of Rome.
The music in this sequence, both angular and sharp, is disconcerting in its dissonance. Calling to mind a similar set of circumstances from twenty years prior, it will remind attentive viewers of Rózsa’s powerful score for Zoltan and Alexander Korda’s desert saga, The Four Feathers, from 1939, in the scene where Ralph Richardson gets blinded by the sun.
Finally, the prisoners arrive at a village, where they pass the house of a certain carpenter, sawing away at his workbench. The line of prisoners moves from left to right. The soldiers call for a temporary respite from the march. “Water for the soldiers!” one of the guards shouts. “Soldiers first!” Some of the prisoners leave their formation and rush headlong to the well, but they are beaten back into line, where they await the hapless villagers who are forced to attend to their needs.
As each prisoner is handed a cup or a bowl, Judah waits his turn with hands outstretched. Again, the camera pans from left to right, surveying the ragged line of desperate men. The first to drink is a soldier on horseback, who takes a huge swig from a ladle. Just as another ladle reaches Judah’s lips, a pug-nosed foot soldier snatches the water from his hands and barks out an order: “No water for him!”
After quenching his thirst, the pug-nosed soldier arrogantly spits out the remainder. Judah attempts to gather what droplets he can salvage, but the soldier roughly pushes him back into line. Denied the water’s life-giving sustenance, Judah collapses to the ground in despair. Just as the previous prisoner was left to die an agonizing death in the sand dunes, Judah knows his fate is sealed.
Helpless, alone, and at the end of his rope, he cries out to in a choked voice, “God, help me.” He has been beaten into the ground from whence he came, and from whence God first made Man. “For dust you are, and unto dust shall you return” is the oft-quoted Biblical passage most closely related to the foregoing.
Judah’s body occupies the left and middle portions of the frame. His arms are extended (especially his left arm) in the same manner as that of Adam in the “Creation of Adam” panel at the start. Just then, a shadow crosses Judah’s face and form. We hear the soft theme-music associated with Christ — significantly, the same theme-music the trumpets and full orchestra had thundered forth during the opening credits.
Wyler had his award-winning cinematographer Robert L. Surtees shoot this crucial scene with his cameras low to the ground, forcing the viewer down to the characters’ eye-level for a closer and more intimate encounter.
Christ approaches Judah with ladle in hand and sprinkles water over his neck, head and face. Next, he touches Judah’s left hand with his right in replication of God’s bringing Adam to earthly life (“the breath of life”). Seemingly “baptized” in water and earth, Judah’s head is lifted upward from the ground and onto the ladle and its thirst-quenching contents. Judah drinks his fill of the water while Christ gently strokes his hair and forehead — a much-needed sign of comfort and affection where previously none existed.
Judah stops to look up with hope and longing (just as Adam did to God) at the man who has favored him with libation. He then resumes the business of drinking. At that very moment, the pug-nosed soldier catches sight of Christ with Judah and calls out, “You! I said no water for him!”
The soldier pulls out his whip and is ready to give the miscreant a thorough lashing, when Christ abruptly rises to his feet (occupying frame right), the low camera angle giving him the impression of towering over the guard. Backing off, the confused soldier looks down at the ground, then at Christ, then at the others to his right, and at the ground again before finally turning away. Not knowing what else to do, he takes one last look at Jesus and barks another command, “All right, on your feet, all of you!” before sauntering off.
Thoroughly sated, the reinvigorated Judah returns the ladle to Christ. In a spontaneous gesture of gratitude, Judah reaches out to touch his hand. They both rise simultaneously to their feet, with Judah occupying the center of the frame and Christ opposite him and to the side. The camera closes in on Judah, who is now in the exact center — reclaiming, as it were, his rightful spot as the focus of attention. A mounted guard comes over to lash him with a whip, shouting: “You there, back to your place! Back to your place!”
Getting back in line with the prisoners, who resume their lengthy walk to the port, Judah (with the noble Ben-Hur theme resounding prominently in the orchestra) cannot help but look back at the man who saved his life — the one who has given him a second chance and renewed his faith in the goodness of men.
As the sequence comes to a close, Christ, with his back to the audience (his face is never seen from the front), moves to the extreme right of the film frame, the ladle still dangling from his left hand — his gaze deliberately directed at Judah. They will meet again before film’s end. Meanwhile, Judah and the line of prisoners are at left, walking slowly away in the distance.
The camera shifts its focus to Judah’s face, which again happens to be in the middle of the frame. He stops briefly to give pause as to what has occurred. With his chin up and head held high, Judah takes one last look behind him (much as the pug-nosed soldier had moments before), at the place and person he’s left behind. They will be etched in his memory for later. Once again, he joins the other prisoners on their walk of life, little realizing where the road will take him next.
End of Scene One
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes
The conclusion to a proposed musical theater piece about the award-winning documentary ‘Waste Land’ (‘Lixo Extraordinário’)
In the first part of my tribute to the denizens of the Jardim Gramacho slum (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/waste-land-the-musical-we-suffer-we-die-and-were-buried/), one of the catadores was hurt by an unfriendly encounter with a garbage truck and its contents. Meanwhile, the office was looted by drug thieves who made off with the monthly payroll.
Act II: Resolution
Number 12. “Rescue Attempt” – The garbage pickers pull Zumbie out from under the crumbling rubbish heap. “The truck’s gate fell on him,” yells Big Carl, one of the slum’s inhabitants, “but he’s going to be okay.” With a huge sigh of relief, the garbage pickers take the stricken catador de lixo to the hospital. “Over 20 people will donate blood,” Zumbie announces proudly. “I’m surrounded by good fr-fr-friends.” He’s well on his way toward mending, both physically and emotionally.
Number 13. “Vik’s Visit” – The famous artist, Vik Muniz, now comes to call on Jardim Gramacho with a unique proposal for the pickers. He wants to take their pictures – i.e., photographs of the workers, in all sorts of weird poses. As Vik explains it, he intends to recreate the classic paintings of old. The garbage pickers look at him in alarm and amazement. “What’s this all about?” they wonder openly.
Vik tries to clarify his idea, but they still don’t get it. “Pictures? Pictures of what?” they inquire in unison. “Pictures of garbage,” Vik replies, rather matter-of-factly. They are even more astonished at this alleged clarification. They still can’t believe their ears. “Who in their right mind would want to do that?” they declare. “I would,” says Vik. “It’s what I do for a living.” “And people say we’re crazy!” is their response. This leads to an extended discussion (via an ensemble passage) where everyone chimes in with their own ideas about the project.
Eventually, the issues are resolved and the garbage pickers’ reluctance begins to fade. Vik is making headway in his appeals to their self-esteem: he wants them to think of his project as a possible “way out” from the dead-end lives they’ve been leading.
Number 14. “Death of Marat” – The first to take his turn at the canvas is boss-man Tião, who decides to pose for the painting of Jacques-Louis David’s “Death of Marat,” followed cautiously by the other participants. In a humorous episode, Tião starts to undress before the other participants, who shyly look away as he slips into Marat’s outfit. “Irmã’s Painting” is next in line. After posing for her picture, she is finally able to see herself as others do. “Artists have to suffer,” she offers, which leads into the next number.
Number 15. “Isis’ Suffering” – “They aren’t the only ones,” cries Isis, another of Jardim Gramacho’s put-upon residents. “I don’t see myself in this trash heap anymore. I don’t want to go back to the garbage. I don’t…” Isis then reminisces about her young son, who died in a nearby hospital of pneumonia. The scene shifts between her recollection of the recent past and the events at the landfill, which are taking place simultaneously – in parallel – but on two different levels. Some of the garbage pickers are transformed into doctors and nurses, keeping Isis informed of her son’s deteriorating condition.
This becomes the emotional crux of the drama, wherein Isis sings about the ant crawling on her deceased son’s face – the same ant that, if one pulls back far enough away from the landfill, everyone appears to resemble. “We’re just a bunch of tiny insects in this life,” Isis insists. “I saw my son die at three years old,” as she resumes her story. “He died of acute pneumonia. His name was Carlos Igor.” At the mention of his name, Isis breaks down in tears. In trying to comfort her, Vik tells her that no one can do anything more to her than has already been done. His mission, then, is to help the populace see what life is like on the outside, beyond the confines of the garbage dump. That is the most that he can do – the rest is up to them!
Number 16. “Lesson: How to Look at Art” – This is the scene where Vik instructs the residents of Jardim Gramacho how people who go to museums look at (and appreciate) the works of art they find there. First, they take a step up to the painting, and then they take a step back. This routine turns into an amusing vignette, with the onlookers contributing their own versions of “how to look at art.”
In the meantime, the lesson continues: back and forth, everybody leans in and everybody leans out; they move away, see the material, see the landscape, and then move out again. “Since we’re all garbage pickers,” they claim, “all we see are the recyclable materials.” “But that’s the thing,” Vik pipes in. “They’ll spend hours looking at your photographs. There is more to them than just garbage. Watch, you’ll see.” We know exactly what he means, which is: there’s more to the garbage pickers – much more, it turns out – than meets the eye. You just have to “get up close and personal” to simple folk, they retort, to learn “who we really are” – just like regular folk do with the paintings.
Number 17. “Madonna and Child” – A photo session involving Suelem and her two children takes place. In recreating the artwork, the garbage pickers themselves do the actual placing of the objects onto the photo – that is, they recreate the art from the trash heaps that they themselves have picked. In addition, each work is a commentary – a personal statement, if you will – on the personality and character of the individual who did the picking. For the “Madonna and Child,” this indeed is how Suelem sees herself and her brood.
This happens to be the real theme of the show: i.e., how others have perceived the garbage pickers to be, but, most importantly of all, how Vik, the artist, and especially the garbage pickers, see themselves and their roles in life. It goes beyond what anyone ever imagined at the start. How much they have changed in such a short time! Each finished photo is displayed in its glory. The garbage pickers are overcome with emotion by their wonderful portraits, especially Big Carl and his wife.
Number 18. “The Museum Visit” – In a change of scenery, reporters appear to gather around the garbage pickers doing makeshift interviews. At the museum, Vik and Tião stumble upon a bronze sculpture of a garbage bag. “What’s in it?” Vik asks. “Can you tell me? Can you venture a guess?” Tião pauses and ponders the contents. “Hmm, a cup of yogurt, hearts of palm, small boxes, a brand new cell phone, and the rest.” This scene is reflective of an earlier one, in Act I, in which the pickers made fun of people’s trash. It ends with Tião’s perceptive comment: “I feel like a pop star.”
We next revisit the skit, “How to Look at Art,” now called “Life Imitates Art,” but this time it is put into practice, with the garbage pickers seeing real people looking at their precious pieces of art, in exactly the way that Vik had taught them beforehand, the living embodiment of the phrase “life imitates art.” Both garbage pickers and museum visitors admire each other, first from afar and then from close up, a rather comical observation on how different groups of individuals behave and perceive the other to be – and a perfect illustration of the point that Vik Muniz was trying to make above.
Number 19. “The Auction” – It starts with the sale of an Andy Warhol original, beginning almost in staccato form, à la Mrs. Lovett from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Interspersed with the auctioneer pointing to various parties gathered at the auction, there are comments and asides from Vik and Tião interspersed throughout, as well as from the other participants, somewhat along the lines of: “Did you hear? Did you hear?” and “Did he say twenty, did he say twenty?” “Is it true? Is it true?” “It’s been sold for fifty thousand and two! Did he say fifty, did he say fifty? Sold today, sold today? Is it true what they say?”
At scene’s end, Tião’s picture is sold for $50,000 dollars. He is overcome with emotion and breaks down, weeping with joy – quite a different situation from the earlier one at the end of the first act, where we found him bawling his eyes out at the loss of the company payroll. He simply can’t believe his good fortune. “It’s all worth it. It really is,” he admits. Vik and Tião embrace warmly, in friendship and solidarity, as the onlookers break out into spontaneous applause.
Number 20. “Finale” – The musical ends with Tião and the garbage pickers’ appearance on a popular TV talk show (in Rio de Janeiro, it’s Jo Soares’ program; in America, it’s Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert). Here, the talk-show host introduces the group as “collectors of garbage.” Tião has the polite audacity to confront him: “If I may correct you, sir. Garbage can’t be reused, whereas recyclable materials can. We are not pickers of garbage, but pickers of recyclable material.” What he’s trying to say is that human life is never wasted; it’s always salvageable – recyclable, if you prefer – even if you’re a lowly garbage picker. “I stand corrected,” Soares states, as he looks out approvingly into the audience.
The show comes to a rousing close with the repeat of Valter’s number, “Here’s wisdom aplenty: Ninety-nine is not a hundred, and nineteen is not twenty,” after the elder statesman’s personal motto. The entire cast comes out in a stirring rendition of “The Waste Land Song”:
Seven thousand tons of trash
Work all day for little cash
Robbing Peter, paying Paul
Look, here comes another haul
It’s a Waste Land
The set reverts back one last time to the garbage dump overlooking Guanabara Bay. Only this time, Christ the Redeemer is facing the audience. His massive stone countenance is seen looking down on the inhabitants. It almost appears as if He’s given His blessing to the goings on.
Blackout and curtain
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes