Massenet’s ‘Cendrillon’: A Fairy-Tale Wish Comes True at the Met

Cendrillon (Joyce DiDonato) goes to the ball in Massenet’s ‘Cendrillon’

First Time’s the Charm

Yesterday, July 14, was the French holiday Bastille Day, or Le jour de la Bastille. In France, it is better known as la fête nationale, a national holiday. And in honor of said holiday, our topic today is French opera.

Jules Massenet’s charming Cendrillon, a rarely-heard late nineteenth-century work based on French author Charles Perrault’s fairy-tale rendering of Cinderella, was given its first Metropolitan Opera production nearly 120 years too late. Nevertheless, the opera worked its magic on Met audiences and on the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of April 28, 2018.

Originally in four acts, this piece was presented in a lengthy two-act version with the first-night cast virtually intact. That cast featured, among others, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Prince Charming, contralto Stephanie Blythe as Madame de la Haltière (the Wicked Stepmother), soprano Ying Fang and mezzo Maya Lahyani as the ditzy stepsisters Noémie and Dorothée, bass-baritone Laurent Naouri as Cendrillon’s father Pandolfe, and the stratospheric coloratura Kathleen Kim as the Fairy Godmother, called La Fée.

The Fairy Godmother, or La Fee (soprano Kathleen Kim), prepares the magic spell that will send Cendrillon to the ball

The opera was conducted by a fellow Frenchman, maestro Bertrand de Billy, and staged by Parisian-born Laurent Pelly who also provided the fanciful costume designs (it originated at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Opera in 2006). The sets were the work of Barbara de Limburg, and the Met Opera’s own Donald Palumbo served as chorus master.

French opera, as far as history records for us, has been deemed a close cousin to the Italian variety. And there is much truth to that connection. For centuries, Italy and France shared like thoughts regarding the genre. This extends to their respective musical language. Unusual for such an expressly Mediterranean art form as opera, its development in France ran almost parallel to what was happening in the Italian peninsula. Where the two countries branched off was in their choice of subject and performance styles, specifically the formulaic approach taken by composers Jean-Baptiste Lully (Italian by birth), Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Christoph Willibald von Gluck (of German background and birth).

Classicism, in the main, was most favored at the court of “Sun King” Louis XIV, where mythological themes from classical antiquity aspired to “enlighten” the ruling classes (fat chance of that!). The resultant fervor of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte brought about many changes to French society and to opera as a whole: in other words, opera as pure entertainment but on the grandest scale, where pageantry took precedent over the mundane. These changes had a profound effect on the likes of Luigi Cherubini, another transplanted Italian expatriate, and on his contemporaries, Gaspare Spontini and Antonio Salieri.

Interestingly, as the French style took hold and began to encompass habitual performance practices — to include extended ballet sequences, pastorals, mighty choruses, solos, and other hackneyed elements — any connection to actual drama and perceived human emotions was secondary at best; they were given much less prominence in the overall structure than the meandering plots and clichéd interactions. Gluck’s innovations along this front, then, were strategic in recapturing the essence of the story while refocusing the drama on the struggles of opera’s main protagonists. He was also a prime melodist, which lent his operas the primacy of originality.

It was about this same time that opera, in Italy, started to capitalize on the bel canto advances developed by Messrs. Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, and Gaetano Donizetti. In due course, however, even the epicurean Rossini, accustomed to finery in all its richly embroidered form, relocated to Gay Paree where his final opera, the truly grandiose Guillaume Tell, made its rousing debut.

A return to classicism of a sort occurred with the advent of Hector Berlioz and his highly individual choice of subject matter (for example, The Damnation of Faust, Benvenuto Cellini, and Béatrice et Bénédict based on Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing). Many of these works followed the traditional path of elevated stories borrowed from classical mythology or other literary components. The most ambitious of which, the two-part Les Troyens (“The Trojans”), gave Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid a colossal stage treatment that influenced a host of admirers, among them one Richard Wagner and his equally momentous Ring of the Nibelung saga.

Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Jacob Liebmann Beer), acknowledged purveyor of French grand opera

Contemporaneously with  Berlioz, opera in France — in particular, at the artistic epicenter of the City of Light, the Paris Opéra — became the focal point for the career of Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), one of the most wildly celebrated composers of that era. Born Jacob Liebmann Beer, the rechristened Meyerbeer, a Prussian-born Jewish descendant, began his studies in Berlin While traveling to Italy, he developed his own brand of opera that emulated, for a brief time, the Rossinian model. Venturing forth to the neighboring France, Meyerbeer settled down in Paris where, with such oeuvres as Robert Le Diable, Les Huguenots, Le Prophète, and L’Étoile du Nord (each of them incredibly elaborate five-act monstrosities), he set the operatic world on fire.

But Meyerbeer’s flame, which burned so bright for so long, soon began to fade from view. After the posthumous premiere of his final work, L’Africaine (originally titled Vasco de Gama) — a startlingly derivative piece reminiscent of Les Troyens — the way was cleared for a variety of artists to make their individual marks on the art form: Charles Gounod (Faust, Roméo et Juliette), Fromental Halévy (La Juive), Georges Bizet (The Pearl Fishers, Carmen), Ambroise Thomas (Mignon, Hamlet), Léo Delibes (Lakmé), Jacques Offenbach (Les contes d’Hoffmann), Édouard Lalo (Le roi d’Ys), Camille Saint-Saëns (Samson et Dalila), Claude Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande), Paul Dukas (Ariane et Barbe-bleu), Maurice Ravel (L’heure espagnole, L’enfant et les sortilèges), and Ernest Chausson (Le roi Arthus), were some of the more familiar names who thrived during the latter part of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century.

Intricacy, delicacy and melody continued to be the hallmarks of mid-nineteenth century French opera, until Wagner’s music cast a different shadow over the European model. Although  French opera had staggered, both this way and that, from the sumptuously elaborate to the intensely personal, with the lighter-touched opéra-comique (known for an abundance of spoken dialog) serving as an intermediary between the two forms, relatively few composers had the wherewithal to artfully navigate between these forms.

Interspersed among the above-named masters of their craft, one must conclude that Jules Massenet (1842-1912), born near the Loire Valley of France, eventually emerged as one of his country’s finest proponents of opera. His major works traversed an immense range of subjects, styles, genres, and literary and poetic influences, from the heroic and the epic, to the biblical and pseudo-historical: Le roi de Lahore, Hérodiade, Manon, Le Cid, Esclarmonde, Werther, Thaïs, La Navarraise, Sapho, Grisélidis, Le jongleur de Notre Dame, Chérubin, Thérèse, and Don Quichotte.

French composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912)

With so much creative output to his credit, one has to stop and wonder when Massenet found the time to relax from his labors. To many critics and musicologists, he became France’s answer to Italy’s Puccini. That’s not entirely fair or accurate; still, for our purposes we can cite his one-act La Navarraise as the Gallic equivalent of Italian verismo. For the most part, Massenet was his own “made man,” a fellow who marched to the tune of whatever suited him best: namely, the feminine mystique. Whether on an epic or less than grand scale, Massenet never lost touch with the unique qualities associated with his female subjects.

Performance Becomes Art

Cendrillon meets Prince Charming (Alice Coote) at the ball

So where did Cendrillon fit in? In between Sapho and Grisélidis, the delightful Cendrillon was conceived and composed between 1894 and 1896. The libretto by Henri Cain adheres closely to the Perrault story, including all the manufactured hocus-pocus. The later version of the tale, compiled by the Brothers Grimm, introduced the grittier, less pleasant side of storybook life. We make note, too, of Rossini’s earthier La Cenerentola, an opera buffa as popular at the time (if slightly less so today) as the same composer’s The Barber of Seville.

In Cenerentola, the title character Angelina is a scullery maid in her adopted family’s service. The fantastical aspects of the Fairy Godmother, for instance, or the magical transformation, and, of course, the proverbial “glass slipper” (which may or may not be a mistranslation of the original pantoufle de vair, or “fur slipper”) are non-existent in Rossini, in exchange for a more down-to-earth sensibility.

Whereas in Massenet’s construct, the characters are more broadly etched, even one-dimensional (as is the case of the stern Stepmother and her meddlesome daughters), their humanity has been preserved in music of a sweetly caressing nature, with pathos and tenderness taking bittersweet turns with the romance of Cendrillon and her lovesick Prince Charming. It is here that we begin to appreciate that Cendrillon is anything but a cardboard figure straight out of a Disney animated feature. And the incredibly tantalizing depiction of the Fairy Godmother, as luminously effervescent a musical realization as any in opera, rings true for our time. We could all use a little magical help from time to time.

The one major character left out of previous versions of the story is Pandolfe, Cendrillon’s doting parent, the paterfamilias — a rather foppish fellow, but a caring individual nonetheless. There are a few moody moments in their tender third-act father-daughter duet (Massenet was a master of melancholy), which Parisian-born Laurent Naouri delivered in deliciously natural-sounding French. His rich enunciation of the text (again, based on Perrault) was the equivalent of a fine French wine come to sparkling life, alongside his fuddy-duddy interpretation.

Cendrillon confesses her dream to her father Pandolfe (Laurent Naouri)

The singing throughout the broadcast performance was on a respectably high level. Curiously, the normally spectacular Joyce DiDonato was more subdued than usual for an artist of her repute. Perhaps this opera’s late season start or the harshness of New York’s winter weather prevented DiDonato from expanding her vibrant mezzo into the farthest reaches of the Met’s massive auditorium. It is my understanding that the staging by Laurent Pelly had placed the characters well to the back of the theater. And the lack of physical structures to bounce one’s voice from may also have inhibited more accurate displays of vocal fireworks. No matter, since Ms. DiDonato’s portrayal onstage was instantly believable from her first entrance onward. In softer, gentler passages, Joyce was untouchable. There are few singers of her caliber who could establish a character with her presence alone.

British mezzo Alice Coote, as Prince Charming (a “trouser” role, in the tradition of Der Rosenkavalier’s Octavian, or Mozart’s Cherubino from The Marriage of Figaro), was also off her generally fine form. This wonderful singer, for whom this writer has often heard and long extolled the many virtues of, could have found, as DiDonato did, that Massenet’s music is a shade too high for either of them at this stage in their respective careers. DiDonato, who will be 50 next year, and Coote, who is already 50, may have approached the age when, vocally speaking, the effort at embodying youthful exuberance has given way to reality. That the voice tends to get less flexible with age; that tautness sets in when one least expects it; and that the requirements of agility and lightness of tone diminish, are all a given. Visually, both artists looked divine.

Physicality as a positive trait was the province of contralto Stephanie Blythe as the haughty Madame de la Haltière. This force of nature galvanized Met audiences with her patented Earth-Mother approach to the part of Cendrillon’s Wicked Stepmother. That she used her (ahem) natural endowment to the betterment of her characterization is one of the many reasons why Blythe remains a compelling artist. She, too, is fast approaching middle age; but in her case, there has been little diminution in vocal output. Too, Blythe has a natural talent for broad comedy and slapstick, which was used by director Pelly to exaggerate her character’s dubious nature.

Madame de la Haltiere (Stephanie Blythe, c.) with her two daughters, Dorothee (Maya Lahyani) & Noemie (Ying Fang)

The two stepsisters, sung by Maya Lahyani and Ying Fang, profited from the ridiculous costumes they and Ms. Blythe were allowed to wear, clothing that accentuated their broad, over-the-top personalities. As an example, both Fang and Lahyani wore dresses that made them look like upside-down pomegranates. Their gowns were also ridiculously gaudy. Beside DiDonato, Coote and Blythe, the incredibly able warbling of soprano Kathleen Kim, in her assumption of the Fairy Godmother, was the shimmering candle atop this wedding cake. Thanks to Massenet, who provided music of the most delectable quality — one hesitates to use the term “gossamer,” but in this instance, the word fits — Kim outshone all the others.

The staging left something to be desired, what with its overuse of Perrault’s text (in French, mind you!) lining the walls of the sets throughout. Unless one is fluent in French, the words lose their connection to the stage action. But never mind. The finest aspects of this long-awaited production were the marvelous stage pictures, among them the magical horse-drawn carriage that swept Cendrillon to the Prince’s palace, and the carrying-on of the participants (especially, the parade of potential brides for the Prince’s hand — a veritable eighteenth-century reality show a la The Bachelor) at the ball itself. Holding it all together was Bertrand de Billy, who only sped up the orchestra slightly during the Cendrillon-Prince Charming encounter.

In the final analysis, the winner had to be Massenet. If I were to describe this piece, I’d say that if you are familiar with the opening segments to Werther or Manon — that is, the hustle and bustle of daily life, and the scrambling about that occurs when people are trying to get on with their business — then you would have no problem deciphering what Cendrillon sounds like to initiates, but only to a point. The opera may not have scaled the heights that either Manon or Werther, or even Thais, had reached, but there are memorable moments nonetheless. Many surprises are in store for those who wait, and that includes the lovely Cinderella herself.

This is one fairy tale that really came true!

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova’ — Preface to Life

The Fat Lady Sings!

Life is not worth living if one is insufficiently challenged or inspired by it.

My soon-to-be-finished book, Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova, and the stories within it were inspired by several themes in my life, the main one being the dramatic and forever-fluctuating fortunes of Brazil’s operatic Fat Lady, a subject not so normally written about even in the country of my birth.

Innocently enough, this all came about not as a weighty historical tome (which I pray it has not become) but as a series of challenges in the form of freelance articles first published online at an unprepossessing Internet website. Why challenging? Because, as it became apparent, a great deal of my time and effort would be spent on the task of researching, studying, and analyzing the subject beforehand. While this is a regular, everyday part of most professional writing assignments, it proved especially daunting where this topic was concerned, due in large part to its having been written almost exclusively in the United States and not in Brazil, as one might have expected.

Nevertheless, as these pieces began to expand and coalesce into a more or less sequential retelling of the history of opera in Brazil, I decided at that point to push the rough outline along by adding tidbits and side-trips to the other under-explored regions of Brazilian culture, namely those of popular music and the worlds of professional soccer, musical theater, and the once derided Brazilian cinema. But how, one might ask, could these diverse areas have anything to do with the tantalizingly horned grande dame of the operatic stage? After all, in America, at any rate, movies are movies, sporting events are sporting events, and popular- and classical-music programs are, well, popular- and classical-music programs — “and never the twain shall meet.” This has been the time-tested thought pattern for any number of years now.

Yet, as a native-born Brazilian with a healthy curiosity about his origin and roots, and an in-bred concern for these same subjects — tossed in, like so much salad, with recollections of how Carnival, pop music, soccer, and the stage and screen all seemed to blend together into one big kettle of black bean stew — never had I felt that these seemingly independent activities should be divorced from one another, not by any means. This led directly into the other all-embracing theme of my work: the interconnectedness with, and close identification of, individuals and groups with country and subject matter.

Perhaps the early influence of my father Annibal, who had a vast and nearly encyclopedic knowledge of all these areas, was of primary importance to me in my quest for some illumination through the sometimes-murky cultural waters that Brazil appeared to bask in. Perhaps, too, my own life experiences would lead me to the fundamental conclusion that, in essence, we are dealing with the same, basic ingredient: and that is, popular entertainment.

This is not to say that “popular” entertainment should be equated with “mass” entertainment, although, in theory, there are many overlapping elements common to both terms. In this instance, popular entertainment can come to denote multiple or myriad diversions that are, by their nature, both pleasant and appealing to most sensible human beings, irrespective of class, color, and origin, or their economic station in life.

Staying with this theme, I can remember a time in Brazil’s not-too-distant past when highbrow entertainment would freely associate with its lower-browed brethren, and at any number of public gathering places. Older readers in the U.S. may recall, too, that classical music was referred to at one point as “that longhair stuff,” and by no less an accepted authority than America’s own favorite cartoon character, Bugs Bunny — accepted, that is, until the advent of the swinging sixties and early seventies, when the hippie lifestyle and counterculture movements all but wiped those precious sentiments off the map of our subconscious.

On another, more personal level, nothing could ever wipe from my subconscious the memory of such life-altering events as:

Jair Rodrigues, “Deixa Isso Para La”

  • listening to an EP, or “extended play,” of the ever-smiling, ever-joyful São Paulo-born pop stylist Jair Rodrigues, performing his biggest hit, “Deixe isso para lá” (“Leave that to the side”), from 1965, with its rhythmic, over-and-under hand movements — a possible prototype for today’s ubiquitous hip-hop and rap music;

 

  • remembering the time my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Lawrence Bresner, knowing I was Brazilian, quite innocently inquired as to how to pronounce the exotic-sounding name of Astrud Gilberto (“Why, Astrud Gilberto,” I responded warily); he went on to mention a former top-ten tune of the period, “The Girl from Ipanema,” written by someone called Jobim (“Joe Beem?”), while, in the same breath, extol the scenic virtues of the film Black Orpheus; at the time, I had no idea who these two individuals were, or even where — or what — Ipanema or Black Orpheus might be;

 

  • seeing the fabulous soccer star Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or, as he was more commonly known to the sports world, O Rei Pelé, the “King” of the soccer field — live and in person — appearing with his home team, Santos, at the nearly dilapidated Downing Stadium on New York’s Randall’s Island, back in the mid-1960s;

 

  • getting drenched to the bone, along with my father, brother, uncles, and cousins (and everyone else who was present), at my first Corinthians soccer match in July 1971; the team, an old family favorite, won the game by some ridiculously lopsided score not even the record books could keep track of;

 

  • hearing future Bahian singing star Simone (née Simone Bittencourt de Oliveira) become an overnight sensation — and before our very eyes — at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in the summer of 1974, years before her recording of Chico Buarque’s song, “O que será” (from the film Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands), reached the top of the worldwide charts; this was also my initial exposure to the Brazilian martial art and dance form known as capoeira;

 

  • experiencing my first — and most likely last — Carnival dance party in February 1979, inside the huge Corinthians sports complex, situated in the upscale neighborhood of Tatuapé in São Paulo; and, as a result, becoming the unlucky recipient of the worst damned headache I have ever had the misfortune to obtain after four non-stop hours of constant drum-pounding and samba-line strutting;

 

  • finding a complete recording of Carlos Gomes’ most famous opera, Il Guarany, at some out-of-the-way spot in the old downtown district of the São Paulo back in 1985; a monophonic long-play in near-sterling condition, it featured a cast of Brazilian no-name singers, piping away in fairly decent Italian; the most striking thing about this album was its total lack of a libretto or program notes, which my father never stopped pestering me about;

Grande Otelo

  • catching the amazingly talented pequeno gigante (“little giant”), actor, singer, comedian, and popular entertainer Grande Otelo (born Sebastião Bernardes de Sousa Prata in the state of Minas Gerais) — so often described as a dynamic, pint-sized version of Sammy Davis Jr. (as if such a thing were possible) — at the Scala Nightclub in Rio de Janeiro, during my July 1987 honeymoon; the same Grande Otelo who once caught the discerning eye of maverick filmmaker Orson Welles in his unfinished It’s All True epic;

 

  • having lived, from 1996 to 2001, in the “concrete jungle” of São Paulo, population fifteen million (and climbing), during the latter half of the Clinton presidency, and getting to know a longtime friend of my wife’s family, Oswaldo Lucchesi; an ex-employee of Banco do Brasil, the late Mr. Lucchesi spent the start of his banking career in the wilds of Manaus, near the mouth of the Amazon River, where he witnessed the filming of the jungle adventure Fitzcarraldo, which featured Grande Otelo in a supporting role;

 

  • making the acquaintance of my next-door neighbor: former Broadway dancer, painter, sculptor, and art instructor Jon Kovach, who upon hearing that my wife and I were Brazilian-born proudly related the jaw-dropping anecdote of how he once danced the night away with the incomparable Carmen Miranda and her sister, Aurora, at the Roxy Club in Manhattan during the late 1940s; and

Susana Moraes

  • placing a late afternoon telephone call, in September 2010, to the late filmmaker Susana Moraes, the eldest daughter of legendary poet, playwright, songwriter, and performer Vinicius de Moraes, and speaking with her about her father’s play, Orfeu da Conceição, the film Black Orpheus, his favorite partner Tom Jobim, our respective parents, and the marvelous times in which they lived.

I lost count through the years of the number of individuals I’ve come into close contact with as a result of my writings. These and other noteworthy episodes aside, I sincerely feel that this maiden literary effort of mine has, to no small extent, brought these seemingly disparate elements together into one engaging and, it is my wish, perfectly lucid anthology for laypeople interested in or curious about Brazilian classical and popular culture. Examples of artistic eclecticism abound throughout, and can be found on almost every page: from native-born artists studying opera abroad, to classically-trained conductors writing their own film scores; from avant-garde directors experimenting with cutting-edge theater pieces, to American jazz-pop vocalists composing songs dedicated to Brazilian masters; from soccer players and pop stars moonlighting as movie actors, to opera singers dressing up as their favorite Carnival participants; and many more.

This is what the vibrant and colorful body of individuals that make up the multi-faceted and multi-racial society of Brazil can do to those who dearly love its culture so. And, indeed, diversity is what the country and the Brazilian people are ultimately about and what I aspired to recreate with the writing of this book.

As a consequence, I have scrupulously tried to capture the flavor of these various events, hence the longwinded subtitle A Personal & Cultural History of Opera, Pop, Soccer, Cinema & Musical Theater in the Land of Carnival & Samba. As any writer will tell you, reinvigorating the past in print, especially if one was not present to experience it, is a supreme challenge to anyone’s abilities. One must rely almost entirely on the accounts of others, or, at best, on those whose research has succeeded in bringing these past occurrences to life.

That being said, I have attempted to personalize my stories whenever and wherever possible, in the expectation that by doing so one can extract a good deal of useful information from them, which will allow the reader to identify more closely with the situations described therein, as they surely have for me. To be precise, establishing and maintaining a Brazilian identity in the face of rampant globalization and growing multi-culturalism is at the heart of everything I write.

What qualifies me for such a momentous undertaking? Besides a lifetime of living and working in the United States and Brazil as a Brazilian-born American married to a native paulistana (a resident of São Paulo) — which has been of tremendous significance to me in augmenting my sometimes myopic perception of things — I basically grew up with these topics. In addition to having taken part in, appreciated, and studied all these various aspects in depth, I have paid particular attention to those that piqued my interest the most.

As examples, I cite my participation in Fordham University’s Film Club presentations, as well as having been enrolled at that school’s Rose Hill Campus as a student of art history, theology, philosophy, and modern and medieval history; my work as a consultant and transcriber of movies, shows, television programs, and miniseries for the Home Box Office Network of Brazil; and my fifty+ years as an active eyewitness to a fabulous assortment of classical, operatic, athletic, cultural, and/or cinematic events. As such, I find myself uniquely blessed in attesting to the views and opinions put forth in this text.

What might also have spurred me on to complete this worthwhile project was the anticipation of Brazil’s hosting the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament, along with the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the first time any South American nation has been accorded that prestigious honor. A book covering this wide swath of Brazilian culture would go a long way toward providing some needed background for people whose first exposure to the country these events would undoubtedly be. It is to be hoped that my efforts were not in vain. ☼

Copyright (c) 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

The ‘Best’ of the Rest — Recent Films I Enjoyed (or Not) in the Movie Theater (Part One)

Carmen (Macarena Garcia), the lady bullfighter, in Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves

I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, boy, here comes another one of those ‘Best of the Year’ surveys!” Well, yeah, but not exactly.

My thoughts in compiling this list are more in line with taking an off-center approach to a much abused topic. By that, I mean to jot down my impressions, good, bad or indifferent, of films I happened to have enjoyed (or not) in the venues in which they were originally shown: the movie theater.

As readers of my blog are aware, movies have been a major preoccupation of mine for a number of years now. And since nowadays most films can be viewed online or in the comfort of one’s home on a variety of platforms, I decided to give equal time to works that merit the wide-screen approach. That’s the way these films were meant to be seen — and that’s how I saw them. Up there, big as lights!

Another reason I decided to make this list was simple: due to time constraints, I have been unable to write a longer analysis. However, I do hope to remedy that situation in the near future. Indeed, many of these works require, no, DEMAND, a full-length commentary on their own. For now, though, I believe this year-end to mid-year wrap-up will serve the purpose.

The films are in chronological order by year. Happy 2018 everybody!

Maribel Verdu as the wicked stepmother Encarna in Blancanieves

Blancanieves (2012)

A Spanish gothic adaptation of Snow White, with hints of magical realism and the Grand Guignol, Blancanieves took me and everyone who watched it by total surprise and sheer delight. Much as I experienced with Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when it was first shown in 2005, I found myself smiling all the way through while viewing this fabulous feature at the North Carolina Museum of Art — a most appropriate venue for this work. For indeed, this is a definitive example of film art, a pièce de résistance and labor of love for Spanish writer-director Pablo Berger and his cast and crew. The wind was nearly taken out his sails, however, when Señor Berger was informed that his silent-film project would be overshadowed by Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist (2011), which beat him to the punch by almost a year. Seen on its own terms, Blancanieves is the more challenging of the two for audiences unfamiliar with Spanish culture. Filmed in glorious black and white by cinematographer Kiko de la Rica, with an unforgettably haunting music score by Alfonso de Vilallonga, the plot takes a few liberties with the accustomed “happy ending” of most fairy tales, much to the film’s betterment. Set in and around Seville, Spain in the early 1920s — in particular, the bullfighting arena (with emphasis on Spanish artist Francisco Goya’s 19th-century Tauromaquia prints) — this revisionist retelling of Snow White (or “Blancanieves” in Spanish) tells the tale of little Carmen (Sofía Oria) and, as the young adult Carmen, Macarena García, the orphaned daughter of a once famous matador (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Through various plot contrivances and twists of fate, Carmen finds herself in the care of a troupe of wandering circus dwarfs, garnering fame through her travels as a female bullfighter. Of course, there’s a wicked stepmother, Encarna (played with lip-smacking glee by Maribel Verdú), and a perfidious henchman who doubles as her chauffeur (Pedro Ponce). Told through purely visual and musical terms, the film pays homage to Tod Browning’s Freaks, with references to the silent-film oeuvre of Abel Gance (Napoleon, Le Roue) and Carl Theodor Dreyer, especially The Passion of Joan of Arc in Berger’s close-ups of the bizarre and the grotesque. The purposely ambiguous ending will have you scratching your head for days, but if you are attuned to the director’s vision it should satisfy the insatiable critic in all of us.

Director Guillermo del Toro (l.) and Charlie Hunnam (r.) on the set of Pacific Rim (Photo by Kerry Hayes)

Pacific Rim (2013)

Pacific Rim, Mexican-born director-writer-producer Guillermo del Toro’s big-budget foray into the apocalyptic, end-of-the-world genre, has some captivating character studies, specifically the interactions between our hero, Raleigh Becket (British actor Charlie Hunnam), his literal sidekick Mako Mori (Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi), and the straight-talking General Stacker (tough-as-nails Idris Elba), their mentor and savior. If the ravings of Godzilla and King Kong are the ultimate in prototypical movie monsters that love to level your major cities around the globe, then the fantastic beasts of Pacific Rim will likely tickle your fancy. If not, then look elsewhere. Pacific Rim came out at time when a spate of dystopian pictures from World War Z, Oblivion, Battle: Los Angeles, The Avengers, and Edge of Tomorrow dotted the movie-going landscape. The gigantic sea monsters known as Kaijiu are indeed impressive, as is the interplay between secondary characters Dr. Newt Geiszler (a manic Charlie Day), the resentful Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), and black marketeer Hannibal Chau (the ever-reliable Ron Perlman, a Del Toro stalwart, in search of his missing shoe). In addition to which, the Jaegers, those humongous robotic machines built to combat the rampaging Kaijiu, are individually differentiated, if given less screen time than one would have liked. The story, however, has a “been there, seen that” quality to it, with an ending that can be telescoped a mile away and that calls to mind Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. Still, Del Toro’s affection for these monstrous adversaries is never in doubt, despite his characters’ penchant for indulging in stereotypical screen behavior, i.e., macho posturing. With that said, Charlie Hunnam has become (or tries to become) the Heath Ledger of his day. The walk, the talk, the attitude, the look, and feel of the late Australian-born Ledger are certainly “there” in spirit. What’s missing, at least from this angle, is Ledger’s obsession with establishing a real onscreen persona, quirky as many of them were. One a side note, the film’s score was composed by Ramin Djawadi, noted for his musical contributions to the popular Game of Thrones series on HBO, along with the cable channel’s Westworld.

Godzilla taking a stroll along San Francisco Bay in Godzilla

Godzilla (2014)

The big, bad Japanese gorgon is back! He’s filled out somewhat, and that midriff has gotten a shade heftier with “age.” But he’s as fire-breathing mean as the old boy has always been. A fairly winning reboot of the old Toho Studios franchise (despite the cheesiness of their later film product), this latest reincarnation of Godzilla, King of the Monsters (originally titled Gojira in 1954, which was retro-fitted in 1956 with scenes in American English starring Raymond Burr) holds up fairly well against the competition. Directed by British-born Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), the plot of this newest exercise in urban bashing extends the chaos to San Francisco, where U.S. Navy officer Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) wages a one-man battle to save the city not only from Godzilla’s atomic-age belches but from some Rodan-like pterosaurs called “MUTOS.” The film starts off well, with a genuine air of mystery about it. For one, we learn the reason for those atomic bomb tests in the forties and fifties was to combat Godzilla’s growing menace. For another, the menace was never extinguished. Yikes! As Ford’s scientist father Joe Brody, Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) acts rings around the other players. The intensity of his performance alone is what makes the first 20 minutes of the film so absorbing. The stunt guys in the monster suits are also believable enough, with some elaborate set pieces (i.e., Godzilla’s first entrance, and the destruction and mayhem surrounding San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge) earning kudos for realism and seamless integration into the whole. However, some of the main characters undergo little development. For instance, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), who served an essential function in the original Godzilla, can only stare blankly at the ensuing carnage. He’s there as a cynical nod to the Asian market. More’s the pity! The same goes for his assistant Dr. Graham, the usually capable Sally Hawkins, left to mutter pseudo-scientific bromides while the single-minded Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn, whose talents are also wasted) ignores her and Serizawa’s warnings about the implementation of atomic weapons against the beasts. As you may have gathered, there are more than enough similarities between this picture and Pacific Rim (reviewed above) to warrant copyright infringement. We won’t go into that (and neither did the producers). Let’s say that when the focus is on the almighty Godzilla’s battles with the voracious MUTOS, all is well. There’s a side-story, too, about Ford’s wife (Elizabeth Olsen), a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital, and his little son, juxtaposed against the opening sequence involving the loss of Joe Brody’s wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche). Beyond that, you may enjoy this FX exercise in technological gobbledygook.

Matt Damon as botanist Mark Watney in Ridley Scott’s The Martian

The Martian (2015)

A middle-of-the-road, sci-fi adventure flick from director-producer Ridley Scott, with a screenplay by Drew Goddard, The Martian is about survival of the smartest and how a daily routine can keep you firmly grounded, even on as desolate a setting as Mars. Based on writer and ex-computer programmer Andrew Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, with hefty nods to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the film focuses on space explorer Mark Watney (Matt Damon), accidentally abandoned on the angry red planet by his fellow crewmates. A botanist by profession, Watney uses what knowledge he has of the field as a way to increase his chances for survival, while hoping against hope that his crewmates will be able to rescue him before water, food, and oxygen give out. Meanwhile back on Earth, politics and monied business interests are at constant loggerheads with each other, as well as concern for the rescue crew’s safety. Eventually, international cooperation and humanitarian needs take precedent in this ultimately engrossing drama. You will be surprised to learn that there are no bug-eyed monsters in space (at least, not in this reality-based depiction), nor are there villainous saboteurs lurking behind the scenes. Just your normal, everyday human beings caught up in the business of rescuing a fellow space traveler from disaster, amid hyperbolic discussions about whether a single, supposedly expendable life is truly worth saving. The film shares a similar storyline with Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), with lots of tech talk and thousand-dollar words. There are also many fine performances, chief among them by Damon as the titular “Martian,” whose ingenuity and instincts for self-preservation are stressed almost to the breaking point. Too, there’s a war of wills between NASA director Teddy Sanders (an implacable Jeff Daniels) and mission director Mitch Henderson (one-track-minded Sean Bean), in addition to numerous character vignettes by Jessica Chastain as Commander Melissa Lewis, Kristen Wiig as NASA media director Annie Montrose, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor, Benedict Wong as director of the jet propulsion lab Bruce Ng, and Michael Peña as jocular mission pilot Rick Martinez. While botanist Watney is steadfast all the way through his ordeal, he does manage to lose his composure once he realizes the odds are stacked against him. His solution for preserving his sanity (and his own humanity) is in recording his feelings, hopes, struggles, and aspirations in video form. Of course, with such a big budget as US $108 million at risk, director Scott could not afford to let his hero perish. This gives the movie an atmosphere of inevitability and, if you will, futility. We know that Watney will be rescued in the end; that all will be well and the world will be made whole again. Still, despite the obviousness of the film’s chosen direction, my favorite sequence, implausible as it may seem, occurs towards the end of this elaborate sci-fi production. Sitting alone on a campus bench, Watney wordlessly contemplates his past exploits before stepping into the lecture hall. The survivor of a mind-boggling experience, he is now a survival instructor, about to teach a class of astronaut recruits the dirty business of keeping oneself alive. When practically all of his recruits raise their hands with questions, I wanted to raise my hand, too. Perhaps a sequel will come out of this lone and uniquely satisfying episode.

Amy Adams as linguist Louse Banks attempting to communicate in Arrival

Arrival (2016)

If you knew what the rest of your life would be like before anyone else did; if you had insight into your loved ones’ future prospects and, knowing what you knew, would you change anything about the outcome — or want to? These are the underlying themes of French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, his low-key answer to present-day, slam-bang science fiction. Based on writer Ted Chiang’s 1998 “The Story of Your Life,” taken from his larger collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, the screenplay by Eric Heisserer takes a tried-and-true formula — the presence on Earth of beings from another planet shake up man’s preconceived notions of superiority — and overlays it with both an intellectual and profoundly emotive core. The story is a simple one, though less straightforward than you would expect: Earth is invaded by twelve enigmatic, stone-shaped spacecraft which harbor seven-armed, octopus-like creatures the scientists have dubbed “heptapods.” Unable to converse with the aliens by ordinary means, the U.S. military, headed by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), along with its counterparts in eleven other nations, enlists the aid of linguistic expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Remmer) in an effort to comprehend the motives behind the visitation. The immediate by-product is skepticism on the military’s part. However, by dint of a series of hours-long learning sessions, Louise mounts a heroic effort at personal outreach. Soon, she is able to communicate with two of the aliens (whom she nicknames “Abbott” and “Costello”) via their pictographic non-linear language. Amy Adams’ shining portrayal of linguist Louise is a joy to behold. Her emotional catharsis throughout her journey helps the viewer comprehend the pain and suffering of one’s life in ways that become clear later on. Beautifully crafted and excellently acted, the film revels in a newfound appreciation for mutual cooperation between the sciences and language arts. It’s the triumph of reason, introspection, and empathy over force and armed might; of understanding the “other” through communication and language (“the foundation of civilization,” as Louise describes it), and of learning to view the passage of “time” in a totally different light. Archways, doorways, ceilings, and textures (along with strategically placed “flashbacks”) provide visual clues to the story’s definitive conclusion. The late Jóhann Jóhansson is credited with the percussive sound-scape. But the film is bookended by the superb use of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” for string quartet, an oft-employed piece found in several recent features, among them at the end credits of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, where it is paired with a Dinah Washington song.

End of Part One

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘I Read It in a Book’: Having Your Own Personal Reference Library (Part One)

The “Story” of My Life

Books! We have books!

Many people have asked me how I acquired my knowledge of opera, theater, film, history, pop music, and the like. Well, it helps to have a natural curiosity about the world around you. And knowing that not every individual we encounter can be as enthusiastic as you are about a subject, I made up my mind early on to satisfy my hunger for the things I enjoyed the most.

In one respect, I have been privileged to see plenty of staged opera over the course of my life, and to listen to boatloads of music from every conceivable genre. In another, I consider myself fortunate to have watched a ton of old movies almost from the time I was a child. I had my father to thank for the eclecticism, but for expanding my initial knowledge base? Ah, for that I turned to books.

I was — and continue to be — an avid reader of books. I visited the neighborhood library as often as time and opportunity would allow. Unfortunately, our local branch at Clason’s Point, in the Soundview section of the Bronx, was small and nondescript in comparison to other branches. Since it did not have as wide an assortment of reading material as one would have liked, I was forced to walk several miles to the Parkchester Branch. Now there was a library! Its collection of opera librettos alone was enough to sate the tastes of this inquisitive music lover.

It helped, too, that my older cousins owned a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which I was allowed to utilize whenever the occasion arose. But for the most part, my brother and I depended upon the facilities of the city’s library system.

For a short time, our family lived in midtown Manhattan. It didn’t take long for me to learn that the main branch of the New York Public Library, only a brisk 15-20 minute walk from our home, had an enviable music, opera, and film collection. However, I did not take advantage of this treasure trove until I started high school, and especially during my college years when primary sources were valued above all others.

New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan

I did not start to purchase my own books until I had earned enough money from summer jobs and full-time employment. Remember, there was no Internet or Web-based services to rely on at that time. We did have plenty of magazines, newspapers, and periodicals — all good sources of reference material, but again, you had to frequent the public library in order to have access to them.

Another essential resource for the inveterate researcher was the microfiche section of the main branch in midtown. This proved invaluable to me and to other students in writing term papers, and for doing independent examination into other subjects, including complete opera recordings.

By my early 20s, my exposure to live opera at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera in Lincoln Center, along with regular excursions to Broadway and its fabled theater district, made it easier to take pleasure in the performing arts in ways I had never anticipated. The thrill of live engagements made everything I read about opera, film, and theater come to life.

Soon afterwards, I began the serious task of collecting books and records — dozens of books by my favorite authors (mostly fiction, but some non-fiction), and hundreds upon hundreds of recordings of classical compositions, pop-rock groups, individual artists, musicians, singers, and, of course, opera.

With marriage and eventual fatherhood looming, my priorities changed — drastically. By then, I was more into childcare and do-it-yourself, how-to-fix-it guides. As you might imagine, children’s books became a major fixation, with titles ranging from Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, the Little Golden Book series, Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, and Shel Silverstein’s Falling Up and Where the Sidewalk Ends, to Dr. Seuss (ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, If I Ran the Zoo, and Green Eggs and Ham), and Else Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear.

With my daughters grown, in time I reverted to my old habit of acquiring books about movies, music, theater, and opera, in addition to a wealth of related material culled from the publications Opera News, Stereo Review, Sound and Vision, Film Comment, Cineaste, Stereophile, Starlog, Cinéfantastique, The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, and numerous others. While I was never a high-end audiovisual buff — that would have required a financial outlay I was ill-equipped to afford — I did share many of the amateur enthusiast’s traits.

For instance, I owned a stereo VCR and an exceedingly modest Dolby™ Pro-Logic Surround Sound system, with the requisite array of speakers and subwoofer. Eventually, I was able to acquire a widescreen, high-definition television set to match the sound equipment, with a reasonably priced Blu-ray Disc/DVD player thrown in for good measure.

But my main acquisitions during the past few years have been books. Readers may be surprised, as I surely was, at the sheer volume of material one can gather from videos, DVDs, old LP-recordings, and complete opera albums and cassettes. The accompanying booklets and inserts that were customarily packaged with these various formats provided, more often than not, additional background information, as well as the standard biographical data and scholarly essays (the Criterion Collection is especially noteworthy for this practice) that serve to further enlighten the subject at hand.

It’s my honest opinion, then, that every home should have its own personal reference library. Yes, I know that most people reach for their iPhone, GPS, or other Smartphone-like device to hunt for facts, figures, dates, directions, and so forth. That’s fine in a pinch. However, when you’re looking for some relaxation, there’s nothing like the tactile feel of a good book; of leafing through its pages or rummaging around the index section (remember that?). It’s the equivalent of hitting the Search function on your CD player or satellite radio receiver. No, it’s better! And you can do it for the heck of it, if for no other reason.

That’s the satisfaction I get from books, something no Kindle or Web-based gadget can gratify or replace. When I’m at a loss for information to supplement my weekly blog postings, I spend a little quality time probing through the items on my bookshelves.

The ever-popular Amazon Kindle

Over the years — due mostly to the number of times my family and I have had to move from place to place — I gave away or dispensed with books that, today, I would give my right arm to own. Still, I’ve been able to keep a good number of meaningful materials handy.

To give readers a glimpse into what some of this material might be, here’s a brief rundown of the many subjects and texts I consult with on a normal basis in researching a piece I have in mind. In the next installment of this post, I will discuss some of the items on my list in more detail:

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The March of Time — History and Art Books

Art History, Volumes One and Two: A View of the West – Marilyn Stokstad

The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic versus Classic Art – Kenneth Clark

Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades – Jonathan Philips

Beyond the Myth: The Story of Joan of Arc – Polly Schoyer Brooks

Portraits of the Artist: The Self-Portrait in Painting – Pascal Bonafoux

Van Gogh: A Documentary Biography – A.M. and Renilde Hammacher

Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight – Huston Paschal and Linda Johnson Dougherty

The Art of Osamu Tezuka: The God of Manga – Helen McCarthy

The Geronimo Campaign – Odie B. Faulk

Completely MAD: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine – Maria Reidelbach

Bury My Heat at Wounded Knee – Dee Brown

Dali… Dali… Dali… — Max Gérard

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century – Alex Ross

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The Lives that Matter — Biographies

Toscanini: Musician of Conscience – Harvey Sachs

John Wayne: The Life and the Legend – Scott Eyman

Alexander Hamilton – Ron Chernow

Bogart – A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax

George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I – Miranda Carter

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination – Neal Gabler

An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood – Neal Gabler

The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock – Donald Spoto

Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr. – Rudolph Grey

Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu – Simon Callow

Orson Welles: Hello Americans – Simon Callow

Orson Welles: One-Man Band – Simon Callow

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We Heard It through the Grapevine — Pop/Rock Music

The Beatles on Record – J.P. Russell

Beatlesongs – William J. Dowlding

The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics – Edited by Alan Aldridge

The Story of Rock: Smash Hits and Superstars – Alan Dister

The Story of Jazz: Bop and Beyond – Franck Bergerot and Arnaud Merlin

Rock ‘N’ Roll on Compact Disc: A Critical Guide to the Best Recordings – David Prakel

All Music Guide: The Best CDs, Albums and Tapes – Edited by Michael Erlewine and Scott Bultman

The Rolling Stone Album Guide – Edited by Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke, with Holly George-Warren

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain – Oliver Sacks

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And the Curtain Falls: Opera

Madama Butterfly 1904-2004 (Ricordi Edition): Opera at an Exhibition – Essays by Julian Budden, Vittoria Crespi Morbio, Maria Pia Ferraris

Opera on Record 1, 2 and 3 – Edited by Alan Blyth

Tito Gobbi on His World of Italian Opera – Tito Gobbi and Ida Cook

Wagner without Fear – William Berger

Verdi with a Vengeance – William Berger

Puccini without Excuses – William Berger

Puccini: A Critical Biography (Second Edition) – Mosco Carner

Puccini: The Man and His Music – William Weaver

Verdi: A Biography – Mary Jane Phillips-Matz

Verdi: The Man and His Music – Paul Hume

Wagner: The Man and His Music – John Culshaw

The Letters of Giacomo Puccini: Mainly Connected with the Composition and Production of His Operas – Edited by Giuseppe Adami

Puccini Among Friends – Vincent Seligman

Opera Lover’s Companion – Edited by Mary Ellis Peltz

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Hooray for Hollywood — Movies and TV Studios

The Wes Anderson Collection – Matt Zoller Seitz interviews Wes Anderson

The Grand Budapest Hotel: The Wes Anderson Collection – Matt Zoller Seitz interviews Wes Anderson, Ralph Fiennes, Alexandre Desplat, Robert Yeoman, and the crew of the hit film

The Girl in the Hairy Paw: A Documentary Study of King Kong – Edited by Ronald Gottesman and Harry Geduld

Character People – Ken D. Jones, Arthur F. McClure, Alfred E. Twomey

The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey – Martin Scorsese (series editor), introduction by Jay Cocks

More Character People – Arthur F. McClure, Alfred E. Twomey, Ken Jones

The Film Studies Dictionary – Steve Blandford, Barry Keith Grant, Jim Hillier

The Art of Alfred Hitchcock – Donald Spoto

The Godfather Companion – Peter Biskind

The Films of the Bowery Boys: A Pictorial History of the Dead End Kids – David Hayes and Brent Walker

Leonard Maltin’s 2014 Film Guide — Leonard Maltin, Editor

Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons — Leonard Maltin

Crime Movies: An Illustrated History of the Gangster Genre from D.W. Griffith to Pulp FictionCarlos Clarens, updated by Foster Hirsch

An Illustrated History of the Horror Film – Carlos Clarens

Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction – Guy Haley, General Editor

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film – David Thomson

Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry – Michael Glover Smith and Adam Selzer

The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History – Laurence E. MacDonald

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood – Mark Harris

Amazing 3-D – Hal Morgan and Dan Symmes

Lawrence of Arabia: The 30th Anniversary Pictorial History – L. Robert Morris and Lawrence Raskin

Bram Stoker’s Dracula: The Film and the Legend – Francis Ford Coppola and James V. Hart, edited by Diana Landau

The Films of Charlton Heston – Jeff Rovin

The Films of Errol Flynn – Tony Thomas, Rudy Behlmer and Clifford McCarty

Dances With Wolves: The Illustrated Story of the Epic Film – Kevin Costner, Michael Blake, Jim Wilson, edited by Diana Landau

George Lucas: The Creative Impulse (Special Abridged Version) – Charles Champlin

The Stories Behind the Scenes of the Great Film Epics – Mike Munn

Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Classic Film – Kevin Brownlow

Scarlett, Rhett, and a Cast of Thousands: The Filming of Gone With the Wind – Roland Flamiani

The Film Encyclopedia – Ephraim Katz

The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script – David Trottier

Film Art: An Introduction – David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson

Mars Attacks! The Art of the Movie – Karen R. Jones

All You Need to Know about the Movie and TV Business – Gail Resnik and Scott Trost

Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks – Jon Burlingame

Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies – Edited by Mark C. Carnes

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Give Us a Smile — Photographic Essays

Imagine: John Lennon – Andrew Solt and Sam Egan

Hollywood Glamour Portraits: 145 Photos of Stars 1926-1949 – Edited by John Kobal

The Image Makers: Sixty Years of Hollywood Glamour – Text by Paul Trent

Move-Star Portraits of the Forties: 163 Glamour Photos – Edited by John Kobal

Film-Star Portraits of the Fifties: 163 Glamour Photos – Edited by John Kobal

New York Civic Sculpture: A Pictorial Guide – Frederick Fried and Edmund V. Gillon Jr.

The Circle of Life: Rituals from the Human Family Album – Edited by David Cohen

The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax: Words, Photographs, and Music – Tom Piazza

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Broadway Melody — Theater

Producing Theatre: A Comprehensive and Legal Business Guide – Donald C. Farber

From Option to Opening: A Guide to Producing Plays Off-Broadway – Donald C. Farber

The Staging of the Self: Gerald Thomas — Silvia Fernandes and J. Guinsburg

Nothing Proves Nothing! — Gerald Thomas

Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater – Larry Stempel

On My Way: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin and Porgy and Bess – Joseph Horowitz

How Plays Work – David Edgar

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Bye-Bye, Brazil — Country of My Birth

A History of Brazilian Popular Music – Jairo Severiano

Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil – Caetano Veloso

The Brazilians – Joseph A. Page

Songbook (Cancioneiro) Vinicius de Moraes: Orfeu – Sergio Augusto (Text), Paulo Jobim (Musical Coordinator)

The History of Music in Brazil – Vasco Mariz

Mario Reis: The Best of Samba – Luis Antonio Giron

Noel Rosa: A Biography – João Maximo and Carlos Didier

Carmen Miranda: A Biography – Ruy Castro

Brazilian Bombshell: The Biography of Carmen Miranda – Martha Gil-Montero

The Night of My Beloved: The History and Stories of Samba-Canção – Ruy Castro

Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World – Ruy Castro

Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life – Alex Bellos

Bossa Nova and the Rise of Brazilian Music in the 1960s – Gilles Peterson and Stuart Baker

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(End of Part One)

To be continued….

 

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Skipping the Groove: The Long-Lost Art of the Complete Opera Album (Part One)

Enrico Caruso (ca. 1910) listening to a gramophone recording

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.

Gramophone with horn and wax cylinders strewn about

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

LP record with tonearm on turntable

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.

Franco Corelli & Birgit Nilsson in Turandot (Photo: Louis Melancon/Met Opera)

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

Album cover for 1939 Gigli-Dal Monte recording of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

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.

New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center

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.

Italian soprano Toti Dal Monte, 1925 photo

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’

Set for Verdi’s Nabucco at the Met (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

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.

The chorus sings “Va pensiero,” the lament of the Hebrew slaves, from Nabucco

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.

Abigaille (Liudmyla Monastyrska) confronts her father, Nabucco (Placido Domingo)

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.

Mimi (Ailyn Perez) tells Rodolfo (Michael Fabiano) about herself in La Boheme (Met Opera)

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.

Romeo (Grigolo) & Mercutio (Elliot Madore) are threatened by Tybalt (Diego Silva) in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette

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.

Romeo (Vittorio Grigolo) embraces his Juliette (Diana Damrau) at the Met (Photo: Marty Sohl)

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       

Michael Richards ‘Winged’ Takes Flight: A Voice Once Silenced Cries Out Anew (Part Two)

Truth to Power

Yours truly beside sculpture of Tar Baby vs, St. Sebastian (Photo courtesy of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Sep. 2016)

Yours truly beside sculpture of Tar Baby vs, St. Sebastian (Photo courtesy of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Sep. 2016)

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.

img_0973Let 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.’”

img_0977Climbing Jacob’s Ladder (He Lost His Head), 1994, Resin, mirrors, lights, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park and the Michael Richards Estate

“Richards references the biblical story of Jacob’s Ladder, which describes Jacob dreaming of a ladder that connects earth to heaven, on which angels ascend and descend. Yet, in this sculpture, the text and disembodied feet and heads reveal a complex and pessimistic interpretation, or possible consequence, of this dream. Climbing Jacob’s Ladder highlights the tension between faith and failure; of looking to the heavens with a longing for ascension and the letdown of earthbound realities.”

img_0979Escape Plan 76 (Brer Plane in the Brier Patch), 1996, Wax, resin, paper, metal, rubber, lights, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

This piece “consists of five downed airplane sculptures caught in thick barbed wire. In an artist statement discussing the iconography of his practice, Richards noted, ‘Planes and other vehicles of escape are always caught in traps, or crashed, abandoned signs of hope and promise.’ ”

“Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories of Brer Rabbit were a touchstone for Richards and the reference appears throughout the titles of Richards’ work. In one of these stories, Brer Fox thinks he has thwarted his rival Brer Rabbit by throwing him into the prickly shrubs of a briar patch, only for Brer Rabbit to escape because he was ‘born and bred in the briar patch.’ Richards turned to Uncle Remus folklore as narratives and metaphors for negotiations of historical and contemporary racial politics.”

img_0981Swing Lo’, 1996, Steel, neon, wood, speakers with musical soundtrack, audio tape, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park

Swing Lo’ consists of a large, rusted chariot outfitted with neon lights and one wheel (a seconds wheel is purposefully, but mysteriously, missing). When installed, the chariot played reggae music from a booming sound system. The work conflates the biblical chariot with the visual vernacular of a souped-up lowrider car, retrofit with lights and stereo. Richards often merged worlds in this way, bringing together spiritual and literary references with popular culture to complicate the themes of his work. Richards’ recurring interest was in both the everyday and the transcendent, and how bringing them into conversation with each other opened up to a plurality of representation and interpretation.”

“Along with a nod to lowrider cars, the title Swing Lo’ more directly references the American negro spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”

img_0984“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.

img_0985The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee), 1996, Wood, resin, plexiglass, tar, feathers, paper, bonded bronze, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

“In describing the stakes of this work, Richards said, “[The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee)] is in the form of a public monument. You see these bronze monuments in the park and you just walk past them, yet they’re supposed to be the highest honor in our society. They’re commemorating some great deed or person. But I have to question is that really what we’re fighting for — a piece of bronze in a public park that no one notices or cares about? The whole heroic ideal of glory that you’re fighting for seems rather empty and banal when it comes down to that. With this installation it gets ambiguous because ‘Tuskegee’ is inscribed on the base. People assume it’s referring to the Tuskegee airmen, but it’s also about the Tuskegee experiments. At the same time and place that the Tuskegee airmen were getting their training, black men were being used in experiments to see how syphilis would progress through their bodies. So therefore it’s a destroyed and neglected monument. But it’s also one in which, the viewer, in order to see the hidden tar field inside, has to bow down to the monument. It’s a sexualized and an allegorical work in relation to all of these things.’ ”

Untitled (Air Lift), 1997, Super hold hair gel, plastic, wax, pigment, and plexiglass, Installation image courtesy of the Bronx Museum of the Arts

img_0989Free F’All, 1997, Resin, steel, mirror, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum of Harlem

“Richards created Free F’All during his fellowship with Socrates Sculpture Park in 1997. A life-size Tuskegee Airmen figure stands atop a tiny landing, 16 feet in the air, with a bucket below him, evoking the image of a dicing board and pool, yet Richards’ figure instead has a much smaller space for positioning his potential leap, perhaps alluding to the limited and constricting options for African-Americans in the face of ongoing oppression. Richards’ figures and bodyparts were often pierced and the airman in Free F’All is riddled with nails. Specifically a reference to [Congolese] nkisi nkondi medicinal power figures, this visual allusion highlights Richards’ exploration not only of race in contemporary America, but also of African ancestry, tradition, and religion.”

[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

img_0991Map 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

“Throughout his career, Richards used his own body to cast his sculptures, including the disembodied heads for sculptures like N’Kisi Nigga and Map Head. Nkisi nkondi sculptures were an important reference for the piercing that was a hallmark of Richards’ sculptures. These Congolese power figures were used to protect a community and embodied defensive power. The nails and blades that often punctured the sculptures activated the spirits made accessible in the figures. Invoking the name of the N’Kisi figures and pairing it with the multiple inflections of the word Nigga, ranging from derogatory to the reclaimed, familiar, and colloquial, the title of Richards’ sculpture N’Kisi Nigga is a complex comment on the relationship between contemporary American racial politics and African heritage.”

img_0993Tar and Feather, 1999, Bonded bronze, tar, metal, Installation images courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park

Tar and Feather is a poetic balancing act of lightness and weight. Five cast bronze sets of wings hang precariously from monofilament, encircling an overfull bucket of tar and a resulting puddle of tar on the floor.”

“Richards was consistently interested in the complexity of charged materials throughout his practice. While the sculpture’s wings, feathers, and flight speak to the possibilities of escape and uplift for Richards, on the flipside, the tar, and its racial connotations, reflect the ways in which black people can be struck or inhibited by systemic racial prejudice. As with Tar and Feather, Richards’ work purposefully navigated and mined this tension in both material and concept.”

img_0995Are You Down?, 2000, fiberglass, bonded bronze, resin, concrete, black beauty sand, Installation images courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park

“Richards created his largest work, Are You Down?, in 2000, as part of a Jerome Fellowship at Franconia Sculpture Park, just outside of Minneapolis, MN.”

“John Hock, Artistic Director/CEO & Co-founder of Franconia Sculpture Park, describes the piece: ‘Are You Down? was created and is sited … outside the rural town of Shafer, Minnesota …. The original sculpture was cast in resin/fiberglass — cast into bronze, as a memorial, in 2012 & is the only permanent sculpture at Franconia. Are You Down? is a tableau of three life-sized human figures. Three parachutists fallen from the sky, they sit disconsolate on the ground in a mass of heavy black sand. Backs turned to one another, the figures form a triangle about fifteen feet on a side. Within the triangle of the figures is a large bulls-eye flat on the ground, the target where the men had aimed to land. Their heads clad in leather hat aviator helmets, their shirts torn from the drop, the figures represent three downs aviators from the storied, all-black Tuskegee Airmen Squadron of the Second World War, men whose images Richards (using himself as his model) returned to in his work obsessively, again and again. They speak not so much of the exhilaration of flight as of dreams of freedom crashed to Earth.’ ”

“In speaking to the pilot imagery in his practice, particularly the Tuskegee Airmen, Richards noted, ‘The pilots serve as a symbol of failed transcendence, and lost faith, escaping the pull of gravity, but always forced back to the ground, lost navigators seeking home.’ ”

img_0998Fly Away O’ Glory, 1995, Resin bronze, feathers, motors, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

Fly Away O’ Glory consists of an arrangement of seven pairs of metallic bronze, muscular cast arms, with hands extended, each holding one feather that spins vigorously via motor power. Richards often used motors and kinetic elements to give his artworks literal motion and drive. With its spinning feathers and disembodied forearms, this work calls to mind the Greek myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with wax wings that melted, causing him to fall to his death in the sea. In this work and others, Richards explores the opposing forces of uplift and downfall inherent in flight: the transcendent potential of wings and elevation and the inherently opposing risk of crashing and peril.”

“Grounded and flailing, the spinning feathers of Fly Away O’ Glory, despite their efforts, cannot lift and elevate the forearms of the sculpture. The unresolved, Sisyphean kinetic energy of this floor-bound sculpture speaks to the difficulty, maybe even impossibility of taking off and reaching great heights in a system and society that is structured to silence marginalized voices and repress their success.”

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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.

“In this impactful sculpture, 50 small airplanes wrapped in hair spiral downwards, from a cloud of hair in the ceiling, towards a mirrored bull’s-eye target on the floor. Richards often used hair in his sculptures, noting ‘I use hair and skin in an investigative way to raise questions of duality about race and social issues …. I just thought this is a perfect material in terms of its metaphorical content and reference to my own concerns about climbing the social ladder and how people judge me for my hair.’ ”

“The work’s title His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me quotes the religious hymns of Civilla Martin. The hymn is about value, hope, and faith in the face of hardship, and the care of the creator to all aspects of the world, including creatures as small as sparrows. Richards often included biblical references, from Jacob to St. Sebastian, in his works. In Air Fall 1 (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me), with airplanes as small as sparrows nose-diving toward a mirror that reflects their downward flight back upward, a sense of faith and fate are confounded and Richards’ interest in flight with its transcendent and devastating possibilities comes to the fore.”

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A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo, 1994, Resin, marble dust, wood, motor, photo transfer, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo features five bust-like plaster heads and pedestals. Four of the heads rest atop small bases and bear images of white police officers in confrontational postures outfitted in riot gear. The images themselves were cut from newspapers and applied via a photo transfer method. Plaques are adhered to the pedestals for each of these four busts reading, ‘When I was young I wanted to be a policeman.’ The fifth and central disembodied head spins via a motor, and has an image of Rodney King’s face in the middle of the forehead, with a plaque on the pedestal reading the titular phrase, ‘A loss of faith brings vertigo.’ ”

“Rodney King was a taxi driver who brutally beaten by police officers after a high-speed chase in Los Angeles in 1991. King found himself at the center of a furor around racial injustice and police violence as video footage of the four police officers repeatedly striking him gained international attention. The police officers were eventually acquitted of charges, which is considered to be the main cause leading to the 1992 Los Angeles riots in which 53 people were killed and thousands injured.”

“With King at the center, the narrative of Richards’ sculpture is one of a loss of faith in the police and the dissolution of any implicit relationship to safety and protection. The antagonistic stances and actions of the white police officers depicted, juxtaposed with the presence of King’s slowly rotating face, has an effect of total disorientation. During our contemporary moment, in the face of recurring police brutality, the continued murders of black men at the hands of police officers, and the responsive Black Lives Matter movement, A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo continues to have urgent and pressing resonance two decades after its creation.”

img_1014Travel Kit, 1999, Bonded bronze, hair, and wood, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

Travel Kit is one of the most surreal of Richards’ sculptures. While a standard travel kit contains toiletries or other every day items, Richards inflects his version with a tinge of the grotesque. Seven fingers extend from each of two hairbrushes entangled in tufts of hair, providing an otherworldly take on primping. For Richards, ‘The suitcases [in my work] function as carrier of memories, containers of longing and desire for a lost home.’ Richards was born in Brooklyn, yet grew up in Kingston, Jamaica before moving back to the United States to attend Queens College; his international upbringing provided him with an incisive perspective on America, particularly pertaining to social and racial inequities.”

img_0957Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian

“Michael was riffing on Saint Sebastian, the early Christian saint and martyr who was tied to a tree and shot with arrows by the Roman Empire. There were multiple historical narratives interwoven in Tar Baby Vs. St. Sebastian other than the early Christian martyr depicted in psalms:118 or Christian paintings. Some popular culture references include the film King Kong (1933) and Muhammad Ali’s infamous Esquire Magazine cover (1968). The Tar Baby reference comes from the character by the same name in the Uncle Remus stories (1881) written by Joel Chandler Harris, made up of Black stereotypes in the 1800s; Tar Baby literary being made up of tar and turpentine.”

“I remember Michael speaking about the complexity of these themes running through the piece. Concepts of isolation, sacrifice and transformation were key elements in Tar Baby Vs. St. Sebastian. The discrimination and racism the original Tuskegee airmen had to struggle with and overcome as it came from their own U.S. Government was only the beginning of their battle during World War II. This complex and contradictory part of America’s history was crucial in the development of Michael’s piece. Interestingly enough, today most search engines describe this piece as ‘St. Sebastian’ and exclude ‘Tar Baby Vs.’ and there is a lack of critical attention paid to the American built Mustang fighter planes attacking their own pilot. I know Michael would have scoffed at the misrepresentation of his work because he was very particular about media-history and its representation of people of color.”

“He decided Tar Baby Vs. St. Sebastian was too expensive to make in bronze plus he lacked the proper facilities. Michael spent weeks making the life-size clay figure based on himself and in the process later taught me how to make a rubber mold. He didn’t complete the piece in Miami but worked on it in parts from 1997 through 1999 and exhibited first in Miami at the Caveat Emptor exhibition at Ambrosino Gallery, Coral Gables, FL. Genaro Ambrosino (Director) admired Michael’s work and was a close friend. Ambrosino Gallery would eventually give Michael his first one-person show in Miami on September 16, 2000. The exhibition was a coming home of sorts for Michael after finishing his CAVA residency in South Beach the year before.”

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.”

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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.”

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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?’”

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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.”

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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