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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sideshows and Carnival Barkers (on the Birther issue, Donald Trump and others)





SIDESHOWS AND CARNIVAL BARKERS

by Douglas Messerli

The United States, in its history of political campaigns, has surely had its share of outrageous behavior, hypocrisy, and outright lies. There's something particularly about running for president that brings out the worst in some of the men and women who seek that elusive and, to my way of thinking, undesirable job. Thank heaven there are still megalomaniac men and women who want to run our country. And occasionally one argues persuasively that he or she has the best interest of the US citizens at heart—whether or not that turns out to be a fact.

I feel Obama, despite all of his failures (which, after all, are complicated by the failures of our legislative government) has convinced me that he is less interested in his own voice than in reforming government policies. However, his necessary commitment to the center has defeated his own best attempts at accomplishing anything. But I am not going to attempt here a deconstruction of how the President and the Congress together have failed an often uninformed and sometimes a near-idiot public. We are undergoing one of the most difficult times, with regard to the federal and even state governments, that we have ever faced as a country. Trust in public office seems to be at a new low, and those outside of government seem to be increasingly ignorant of what politics is about. The trouble with playing the center, as Obama has attempted to do, is that there may no longer be a center in American culture, which makes the President's position an extremely lonely one. If his approval ratings continue to decline as they have, I think we can chalk it up to the fact that there is no longer any way for a leader to appeal to both the left and the right, in part because both sides have too often let their extremist voices speak for them.

What concerns me most is that while we face dire issues of health care, global politics (particularly with regard to the new north African and Arab populist challenges), ongoing participation in warfare in Afghanistan, and financial debt which may collapse everything we have worked for, we are evidently unable to focus on these dilemmas, while we are transfixed by peripheral and quite meaningless issues. One of the most egregious of these, it seems to me is the "birther" issue, long-festering since Obama's election, in extreme right and religious groups, and more recently whipped up by potential presidential candidate Donald Trump. At the beginning of this week a USA Today and Gallup poll found that, among Republicans 43% felt that Obama was not born in the United States; and even among the general electorate, 15% say he was "probably" born abroad, with another 9% saying that he was definitely born on foreign soil. Perhaps one should not take these polls too seriously, since, as an article in the Los Angeles Times this morning mentioned, about 45% of those polled questioned the American birth of Donald Trump.

However, that this stubborn perception of Obama still persists after Hawaiian officials, both Democratic and Republican, have stated over and over that Obama was born in their state, along with biographical evidence that his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, an American citizen, lived, at the time of Obama's birth, August 4, 1961, in Hawaii, is shocking.

As Janny Scott, in a fascinating essay, "The Young Mother Abroad" (The New York Times Magazine, April 24, 2011) reports:

She dropped out of school (the University of Hawaii), married him (Barack
Hussein Obama) and give birth shortly before their union ended. In the
aftermath, she met Lolo Soetoro, an amiable, easy-going, tennis-player
from the Indonesian island of Java.

Dunham and her son moved to Seattle, where she enrolled at the University of Washington from September 1961 to June 1962, moving back to Hawaii, where she resumed her education at the University of Hawaii. Soetoro and Dunham married in 1964, and in 1967 Ann Dunham and her son, Barack, joined Soetoro in Indonesia, to where had been called home the previous year because of political events. The future president was 6 years of age. So what's the problem?

Of course there are numerous conspiracy theories, suggesting that Dunham somehow faked the Hawaiian birth, although why an unknown young mother would want to illegally register her son as a native-born American seems a rather odd supposition to me. How she might have accomplished this is even more perplexing. Could she have even imagined a young boy with a Black Nigerian father might someday be president?*

But then the very idea of the need to be born in the US in order to run for president, from my point of view, seems equally absurd. I suppose the early founders must have feared that a man born in another country might have conflicts of interest and influences from that other country which might stand in the way of US interests. Of course, many of us are very much influenced by the homeland of our forbearers, and, since we are a country of immigrants, one might suggest that anyone but a Native American would have no possible influences from abroad.

When I was 16, I lived for a year in Norway, and over the years, I have found some of the most pleasurable moments of my life in France. Might I not be, if I were to run for president, described as having special interests in these countries? It all seems rather tribal to me. I have always felt that just being citizen ought to be enough.

Accordingly, I basically ignored the "birthers'" concerns, seeing those who supported the question primarily as crackpots. When an aunt of mine, a fundamentalist, born-again Christian, e-mailed me bigoted texts that argued for Obama's illegality, I simply deleted them, until one day, after receiving several of these unwanted epistles, I wrote her, asking to be taken off her mailing list. Good Christian that she is, she replied that she would never talk to me again. And she was kept her word.

Despite my disdain for the whole issue, however, I realize that it is the current law that the President must have been born in the US, and the problem is that for some apparently illogical souls—a great number of them actually—Obama must be excised from his American heritage. Many intelligent observers have suggested, and I strongly agree, that this position is supported by strong racial animosity and outright xenophobia.

Why, accordingly, when Trump began talking about this issue—and others equally disturbing ("We need to seize Iraq's oil. " "The Chinese are our enemies!")—didn't some of the few sober Republicans speak out? Of course, some may have, their voices drowned out by an equally crass media, who allowed Trump to capture the stage, where he claimed, at first, that the President's birth may have happened in Africa, and later, on March 17th, "The reason I have a little doubt, just a little, is because he grew up and nobody knew him." I gather that Trump had never heard of or refused to believe in Hawaii Governor Neils Abercombrie's memories of Obama's mother and his celebration with them of Obama's birth.

A few days later Trump described hiring his own private investigators who, "at a certain point in time," will reveal some "interesting things."

Finally, Trump told CNN interviewer Ali Velshi, "When I started, two months ago, I thought he (Obama) was (born in Hawaii). Every day that goes by, I think less and less that he was born in the United States."

Whatever information Trump was privy to, we never discovered. It is clear to me that it was simply another "trump," a play of the cards to keep the public focused on his confused and obscure political positions. In any event, the tactic paid off as far as he was concerned, if only because it forced the President to finally lay the question to rest by producing his own birth certificate, which indeed states his birth to be on August 4, 1961 in Honolulu.

One might have imagined that finally this piece of dirty folklore could be laid to rest. But Trump, turning everything inside out, claimed that he was "honored" to have helped get the certificate's release. He was "proud of himself" for having had a role in settling this matter finally so that we can move on to other issues. Repeating himself, Trump declared and he was "really proud" and "really honored," before suggesting that the document had to be looked at carefully, as if to hint at new doubts.

In truth, Trump's major role was precisely what the President spoke of that morning, namely that of playing a part in the sideshow as a carnival barker with the pretense of saying something important about American politics. It was he, not the president, who had stirred up new doubts for an issue that might have been laid to rest years ago, given the statements from the State of Hawaii, released early on as Obama announced that he would run for president.

Obviously, the issue will not disappear. As Hendrig Hertzberg righteously suggested in The New Yorker of May 2, 2011.

The dismaying truth is that birtherism is part of a larger pattern
of rejection of reality that has taken hold of intimidating segments
of one of two political parties that alternate in power in our
governing institutions. It is akin to the view that global warming
is a hoax, or that the budget can be balanced through spending
cuts alone, or that contraception causes abortion, on a par with the
theory that the earth is six thousand years old...."

Hertzberg goes on to suggest that as Trump has proclaimed, "the world laughs at us."
What Trump doesn't comprehend, however, is that if the world is laughing it is at his own, and others like him, buffoonery. The sad commedia repeated by the thousands of so-called leaders and individuals in our country who cannot deal with the realities that Hertzberg suggests and other truths such as the fact that the US is one of the few civilized and wealthy countries that provides no health care for vast numbers of its citizens, and is apparently determined to take away even the insufficient benefits provided by Medicare and Medicaid; or the tragic-comic fact that public education in our country is in shambles, with states and cities less and less able to provide high quality teaching.

As if this recent circus had not been enough, a couple of days later Republican Committee Chairman, Reince Preibus, like a flying trapeze artist, turned everything on its head once more:

We're borrowing four and half billion dollars a day and this
president is more worried about birth certificates, Oprah Winfrey
and fundraisers at the Waldorf Astoria. It's maddening and I just
wish the president would engage in the real issues that are
affecting America.

When asked why, then, he hadn't suggested to Trump that he should alter his rhetoric, Preibus argued that his role was not to serve as censor. Yet Preibus would clearly censor the President for even responding. The most maddeningly thing of all is not the President's inability to engage in real issues, but the Republican inability to even comprehend what any "real" issues might possibly be or how to communicate them within the political forum, which would mean to do precisely what Preibus refuses to do, to sit down with his constituency to determine a sane beginning to a dialogue.

More recently, Trump has publically mused, why hasn't Obama released his grades from his Freshman year at Occidental College in Los Angeles—as if one of the best-educated and intelligent of Presidents in decades needed to prove something.

Before I could even revise this essay, that wonderful political spokesman, Donald Trump, again attacked the Chinese: "Listen you mother fuckers, we're going to tax you 25%!" Even a suicide bomber might be reminded that the Chinese own $755.4 billion of the US Treasury securities against American debt. Do the Republicans—so determined, as they insist, on balancing the budget—really want to risk this mad rhetoric on a complete and total financial collapse, all in the name of Trump's entertaining, family unfriendly, expletives? La Commedia è finita! And I haven't even mentioned Sarah Palin!

Los Angeles, April 29 and April 30, 2011

*Janny does report, amazingly, that Ann Dunham did think that her son, as he got older, could even become President of the United States. What a wonderfully determined mother she must have been.



Copyright (c) 2011 by Douglas Messerli

Friday, April 29, 2011

Ghent--Boating







GHENT—BOATING

I had planned to spend my final day in Flanders in Antwerp, touring the city by myself, and finding a good restaurant for the evening. But when Tom van de Voorde invited me to his home, I really could not turn that offer down to see Ghent and, in particular, the Ghent altarpiece in the Cathedral there.

I left the city by train early in the morning, again walking, this time back to the train station. But at least I didn’t have my large “auntie” suitcase with me (I've joked elsewhere that traveling with my large suitcase was like taking a trip with a large maiden aunt), and I felt relatively lightweight and was prepared to enjoy the day.

Once in Ghent, I thought that I might be able to walk to Tom’s house, but after asking a couple of people for directions, I realized it was quite a distance, and took the streetcar instead. Fortunately, once I was told which car to take and at what stop to exit, the trip was an easy one, and I found Tom in his beautiful apartment which faced one of Ghent’s many canals.

Tom served coffee and showed me his quite extensive poetry collection before we set off, stopping by a pleasant restaurant near the main center of Ghent where I had a salad and wolfish, also known as Seawolf.

Tom suggested that we take a boat trip around the center-city canals, and I, loving all sorts of water travel, didn’t dare to tell him that such a trip in the hot sun would turn me bright red.

The tour, led by a friend of his and his wife’s, was a beautiful one, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite that my face, arms, and other exposed body parts were all in a blush. Sites along the way were the old castle, the only wooden house in a city of brick and stone buildings, and views of the absolutely beautiful guild halls. There’s something incomparable to slowly gliding along beside the streets, observing the city en route.

Next stop was the cathedral, where Tom told me a kind of horrifying story, funny nonetheless. Much of the beautiful white marble work, including the sculpture and tomb of Bishop Triest inside St. Bavo’s Cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal) was created by the then-renowned Flemish artist Jerome Duquesnoy, the younger. Throughout the period of installing his sculptures, he commanded that they be kept from public view by large hanging canvases and arras. One day, however, a guard dared peek into the area where the artist was working, only to discover Duquesnoy sodomizing a young boy, his model and assistant. The city elders where outranged, and he was soon after tried, set upon a pyre and burned to death in the large square outside the building.

The sculpture was lovely, as was the great P. P. Reubens painting “Saint Bavo Entering the Monastery.” But when we attempted to see the better known The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, we found only one small section of it on view; it was evidently being treated for conservation. Outside the cathedral, in the square was a group singing English chanteys, attempting to stir up interest for the Ghent Opera’s new production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd.

By this time I was quite exhausted, but Tom suggested we visit the nearby Flanders Poet’s House, a wonderful library containing every book of poetry published in Flanders in Dutch and in translations. Not even the well-run Poet’s House in New York can match the professionalism and complexity of this collection. I was enthralled and loved meeting the founder and the collection’s curator.

I was nearly crawling by this time, so painfully did my legs hurt. I cursed my my arthritic limbs, but I had enjoyed the entire day nonetheless. I took the train back to Antwerp, slowly transporting myself by foot, stopping along the way for a drink, to my hotel, collapsing into bed and a brief nap. I did venture out to De Markt, a nearby restaurant, later, where I inexplicably had a hankering for Italian food, and ordered up spaghetti.

Los Angeles, April 27, 2011

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Piper's Son (on Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw and Noye's Fludd)





THE PIPER'S SON

Myfanwy Piper (text, based on novella by Henry James), Benjamin Britten (composer) The Turn of the Screw / Los Angeles, Los Angeles Opera, the production I saw was a matinee performance on March 20, 2011

As I suggest in my piece about Jack Clayton's film The Innocents (see International Cinema Review), Britten's powerful opera, The Turn of the Screw, is quite different from both the film version and, even at times from James' original. In James' novella and Clayton's The Innocents, for example, the ghosts may or may not be manifestations of the governess' imagination; or, at least, we can never be certain. But, while in the Britten version the phantoms may still be in the mind of Miss Giddens (Patricia Racette, who is given no name in the opera), they are, on stage, very corporeal, singing and moaning, with the children appearing to see them or hear them and responding to their commands. The specters clearly, in the Britten work, have an influence of their charges even beyond death. And Britten strongly suggests that the greatest part of that influence has to do with sexuality, not only between the former valet Peter Quint (William Burden) and former governess, Miss Jessel, but with Quint and the young boy Miles (credibly sung and performed by 12-year old Michael Kepler Meo) and Miss Jessel and Flora (Ashley Emerson).

Consequently, Britten's carefully structured two acts of eight scenes each explores not just the psychology of its characters, but their metaphysical encounters with good and evil. The question of innocence, so central of the film version, is embraced, accordingly, within the larger question of the battle between these forces.

It is clear from the very first scene, when the Governess, charged with all responsibilities concerning the two children, expresses her anxieties, that she will never be up to the task. She is too young and untried to take on the battle with the unsavory forces of history represented by Miles and Flora's short past. In this society of the fin de siecle (which is, one must recall, the period in which this "ghost story" was written), forces are moving in two opposing directions; with Victorian conventions still in full force, the unspoken dominating over the open and honest presentation of sexuality, the era also saw a rise of unconventional behavior represented by and in literary figures created by Wilde, Huysmans, Schnitzler, Zola, Shaw, etc.

The children's seemingly perfect behavior creates a sense for the two women, Governess and Housekeeper, that everything is as it should be, while we witness, through Britten's cunning music and Myfanwy Piper's text, that something is terribly wrong. From the first moment of their obedient bows and curtseys, we suspect there is something amiss, our first real clue being the news of Miles' dismissal from school. In Britten's work the reasons for that dismissal are even vaguer than in James and the film, but the fact that he will never be allowed to return hints at the gravity of the situation, and Britten allows our imaginations to take us where we want.

Mrs. Grosse, who cannot quite say what she has seen except to suggest that it was terrible and not to her liking, also hints as something more evil, perhaps, that what the reality was. And, in that sense, like the busybody housekeeper in Wuthering Heights, she helps to create the hysterical atmosphere which defeats any logical solutions the Governess might have come to.
But then, there are those visitations, and Quint's banshee-like cries for Miles in Britten's Act I, Scene 8—cries to which Miles does respond—that seem to make it quite apparent that the relationship he had with Miles was more than a simple case of bad influence. His ululations come from a deeper place than a simple relationship between a young master and servant. And so too does Miss Jessel's sad soliloquy in Act II, Scene 3, in which she bemoans both her loss of love with Quint and Flora, indicating something far more serious than a Governess-pupil encounter.

Even greater revelations, however, come in the form of how the children play. While it may at first seem totally innocent, the children's haunting song of "Tom, Tom the Piper's son," with, in the Los Angeles production, Miles astride his sister with a whip, is more disturbing, I feel, than even the presence of the ghosts. We recognize almost immediately that there is something almost sadomasochistic about the game, and that it obviously is connected to something sexual of which children should have no knowledge. Moreover, the subject of that song, Tom, the son of the piper, has been naughty, is beaten, and "howls through the streets." There is also the suggestion in the word piper, moreover, that Miles must eventually "pay the piper," that he must eventually face the consequences of his acts, and, along with that, the underlying story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who, when the city refused to pay for his services of removing rats, turned the children into rats.

Similarly, Britten's hidden joke of Miles' Latin lessons, wherein Miles sings Latin words that all pun on sexual body parts,

amnis, axis, caulis, collis,
clunis, crinis, fascis, follis,
fustis, ignis, orbis, ensis,
panis, piscis, postis, mensis,
torris, unguis and canalis,
vectis, vermis, and natalis
sanguis, pelvis, cucumis,
lapis, cassis, manis, glis.

while the Governess, apparently not terribly knowledgeable in Latin, smilingly listens, points to a world far more evil than the one the Governess has ever imagined.

Miles' strange "Malo" song, with its references to "malo," a variation of bad or evil, "naughty boy," and an "apple tree" reveal that Miles, himself, recognizes the condition of his world, and expresses his fears for his own condition, that he is bad because he has eaten of the tree.

If James only hints at these possibilities, Britten projects them, plays with them, and through them makes a case for why the situation must come to the close as it does in all versions. In the battle between good and evil—even if we can describe the Governess as representing good—she is no match. Her absurd belief that by speaking something you can exorcise it (not entirely different, of course, from Freud's methods) does not deal with the possibility that evil can swallow up the truth and spit it out. Those so many unsaid things about life at Bly house may have silenced any truth forever.

Although Miles may recognize Peter Quint as the Devil with his last words, the Devil has stolen the boy from the living as surely as if he was an obscene lover. The Governess, in her battle to "win over" Miles, to transform him, did not know enough to love him as the boy he was.

Finally, it is evident that the composer may have been drawn to these concerns because of his own inclinations, particularly his love of young boys, sensitively revealed in John Bridcut's Britten's Children. Although Britten lived for years with his singer-partner Peter Pears, he also became close friends and a father-like figure for dozens of 12-14 year-old boys, showering them with gifts and letters. Many of these boys came from children's choruses, and for some of them he wrote roles in his operas. Only one boy, 13-year-old Harry Morris accused him of possible sexual molestation, claiming that Britten entered his bedroom in Cornwall where the composer had taken the boy on a sailing trip; charges were never filed.

Britten chose the young singer, David Hemmings (later a noted actor) for the role of Miles and, according to friends, was obviously obsessed with the boy, an adoration which Hemmings, strikingly handsome at 12, readily accepted. But Hemmings later insisted that Britten made no sexual advances. It is apparent, nonetheless, that Britten very well knew what Quint might have felt for Miles, and understood the ramifications of such involvements. And, to my way of thinking, it is why Britten was so focused on those aspects of James' tale.

Los Angeles, April 20, 2011



The day before we attended Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, Howard and I, along with our cleaning woman and friend Ana-María Abraham, saw a production by the Los Angeles Opera, with various young orchestras and choirs, of Benjamin Britten’s setting of the Chester Miracle Play, Noye’s Fludde. The groups included members of the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra, the Hamilton High School Academy of Music Orchestra, the Colburn School String Orchestra, the choir of St. John Etudes Church and School, members of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Choir, the Colburn School Children’s Choir, Pueri Cantores San Gabriel Valley Children’s Chori, the Padre Serra Parish Choir, the Jubilate Catholic Korean Choir, the St. Mel Parish Choir, and the Musical Youth of California Children’s Choir. Eli Villaneuva directed, with opera singers Richard Paul Fink, performing Noye, and Kate Lindsey, performing Mrs. Noye, along with Richard K. Price, singing the voice of God.

Like past productions at the Cathedral of our Lady of Angels, the production was a joyful one, which included the participation in three songs from the congregation, along with lovely costumes—particularly with the entry of dozens of pairs of animals performed by teens and young children—and with the joyful music of the entire work, conducted by the beloved LA Opera conductor James Conlon.

Perhaps the most fun of this piece involves the stubborn refusal of Mrs. Noye to join her husband, as she remains on land surrounded by her gossip friends until finally Noye and his sons drag her onto the ark and into salvation!

It was a perfect afternoon for all those who attended, which we followed with an excellent dinner at Los Angeles’ famed Pacific Dining Car with Ana.

Los Angeles, April 20, 2011

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Embedded Trio (on Rossini's opera Le Comte Ory)




EMBEDDED TRIO

Eugène Scribe and Charles Gaspared Delestre-Poirson (screenplay, based on their play), Gioachino Rossini (composer) Le Comte Ory / New York, Metropolitan Opera, live HD broadcast, April 9, 2011

Rossini’s 1828 opera, Le Comte Ory is one of his most memorable and truly humorous works. However it is seldom performed. The Metropolitan Opera of New York had never before mounted a production of it until April 2011, an excellent rendition directed by Bartlett Sher which was presented in a live-HD broadcast on April 9, which my companion Howard and I attended.

For one of the first times in my memory, the opera began without a curtain, attempting to recreate the theatrical conventions of the age, allowing the Prompter to be observed throughout, and using cast and chorus members to enter and exit openly with sets and props.
We are in Touraine around 1200, where most of the men of the community have gone off to fight in the Crusades. Outside the castle of Formoutiers the women, who have pledged a vow of chastity in the absence of their men, gather outside the castle where they have moved in with the Countess Adèle to protect themselves while serving her.

In love with the Countess, the irreparable Ory (Juan Diego Florez) has disguised himself as a hermit, sending his friend Raimbaud ahead to announce his arrival. The women, aware to the hermits’ legendary ability to grant all their wishes, bring him a bounty of food and gifts, each hoping to get a chance to speak with him, revealing their desies. Since the women have been so long in solitary, they are desperate for the return of their husbands—or, at least, the attentions of a man, all which Ory, when he appears, turns to his advantage. One of the great joys of this slower moving and somewhat less invigorating first act (the music of the act repeats many of Rossini’s songs in his earlier opera Il Viaggio a Reims) is Florez’s comic miming as, in his long beard and dingy clothing, he greets each of his supplicants with numerous promises and strokes of her body and hair.

Meanwhile, Ory’s tutor (Michele Pertusi) and his page, Isolier (Joyce DiDonato) have coincidentally arrived in the same area, hoping to find the missing Ory and bring him home before he does any damage. When the tutor hears of the presence of a noted hermit in the area, he is certain that it must be his student, proclaiming to Isolier in the long lament of his “honorable” role in life.

When Isolier encounters the hermit, he also asks the “holy” man for advice, admitting that he is love with the Countess and that he has a plan how to enter her retreat, dressed as a female pilgrim. Ory, as the hermit, encourages him, proclaiming that he will do everything in his power to help.

When the hermit meets up with the despondent Countess, his advice to her is that she must find love, embracing it immediately to rid herself of her depression. When the Countess sees Isolier nearby, she quickly falls in love, as Ory, tries to warn her to beware of his former page, in hopes that he himself may ultimately be the object of her love. Her paean to Isolier (“En proie à la tristesse”), turns into a wonderful tussle between the two wooers, Ory and Isolier, as they vie for the Countess’s favors.

The tutor arrives just in time to see through the hermit’s costume, revealing his student’s reprehensible acts, as the women, in horror and dismay retreat once again into the castle, vowing to remain in isolation.

If Act I is charming, Act II, although much simpler in terms of plot, is the heart of this opera and for which Rossini wrote new music. As villainous as always, Ory determines to employ Isolier’s plan to lay siege to the women of the town and to seduce, most particularly, the beautiful Countess. Dressing as nuns, he and his numerous followers, arrive at the castle in the middle of a stormy night, proclaiming that they too have been attached by Ory, pleading to be allowed protection within the castle walls for the night.

The Countess eagerly permits them into her company, finding rooms for the entire group, and speaking with Ory in nun’s habit as the representative of the group. Florez plays his role of Soeur Colette with great vigor, alternating between a shy and frightened pilgrim and a woman in need of love and its caresses, thoroughly confusing the Countess. But that is only a warm up for further mischievous acts.

Raimund, having found a cache of wine and liquor, passes out the bottles to Ory’s group, as they sing a drinking song (“Buvons, buvons”), between the entrances and exits of the Countess’s servant Ragonde, suspicious of the noises coming from the kitchen. The song is completely extraneous to the developments of the opera, but the very idea of a group of bewhiskered nuns drinking bottles of wine creates a sense of hilarity that is a perfect introduction for the next scene, in which Ory attempts to break into the Countess’ bedroom to rape her.

Fortunately, Isolier, come with the news that the women's husbands shall soon be home, realizes that the hairy pilgrims are Ory and his band, reporting the news to the Countess, who, together with him, plan their revenge on the Count.

In the Met production, the bed is lifted somewhat vertically so that he can witness the absurdity of the event, as in the dark, the Countess courts Ory, while Isolier lays silent between them, receiving most of the intentions of his bodily press, while Isolier plants kisses on the lips of his beloved. It is an absurdly funny scene, given the fact that Isolier is played by a female mezzo-soprano. Accordingly, if you perceive the situation as it is in the fiction, Ory is making love to Isolier, with two men and a woman upon the bed; but if you perceive the work in terms of their actual sexes, it is two women lying upon the bed with a man, all eventually becoming wound up and around each other as if in orgiastic joy that is either gay or lesbian. Scher has directed this so flawlessly that when the deception is finally revealed, Ory stands with a slight smile upon his face, as if he has not at all minded the confusion of sexual identities, singing out in praise of marriage which brings home the man. With the help of Isolier, he makes a final escape, presumably to seek out others to trick into love.

Just moments before the show began, Florez had sped away from his wife’s bedside, having just witnessed the birth of his new son. He reported between acts that he had not slept all night.

Los Angeles, April 18, 2011

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Two Poets (on my visit to South Korea)




TWO POETS


After my rescue from the city of Incheon in South Korea, the very first thing I did was to meet with members of the steering committee for the 2010 World Writer's Festival in the Hotel Seoul KyoYuk MunHwa Hoekwan. I don't believe the entire committee was there, but there were four or five individuals, Kim Hye-won, Park Duk-kyu, Lee Si-young, Kim Soo-bok, and Hae Yi-soo (my rescuer) among them.

I was asked to sign some documents, and paid, in the traditional way—in American dollars—the amount promised for the lecture I was asked to present.

My inability to remember names is quite notorious among my friends, with whom in conversation I sometimes must make two or three associations before anyone comprehends of whom I speaking. In Korea, because of the popularity of the names Kim, Lee, and Park, it was even more difficult to remember the names of those who were entertaining us. Moreover, other than Hae Yi-so, few of our hosts spoke English, and, accordingly, conversations were held through my wonderful translator. Fortunately, I would whisper to her, from time to time, to tell me to whom I was speaking, and by the third day, I finally was able to develop relationships that involved their individual identities.

The two poets of the committee, Kim Soo-bok and Lee Si-young, particularly interested me. I encountered Kim's poetry in the festival catalogue, where just a few lines fascinated me: The sea surging at the the tip of your toes, from the tip of your toes, to your knees, from the knees, to the thighs, to the stomach, to the heart, and as you breathe, hearing your, your, your free breathing, we cross your meandering stream, bearing our shadows on our heads. I asked my translator to check the original to see if the repetitions I so loved, and felt were so appropriate in this breathless action of the poem, were in the Korean as well, fearing it might have been only a typo in the English. Yes, she assured, they were there!

Upon a break in sessions, I asked my Ko Un translator, Brother Anthony, whether there had been any other English language translations of Kim's poetry. He had translated some others, he assured me, but not many. "However," he continued, "I have translated a substantial amount of Mr. Lee's poetry in my Cornell East Asian Series book, Variations: Three Korean Poems. The next morning he brought me a copy of that book, and I read several of Mr. Lee's poems, which also seemed excellent, although perhaps a bit more conventional or, at least, traditionally Korean in tone and subject matter. But there were wonderful narrative moments in the work, particularly in poems such as "Chong-im," about a young girl of his youth, now long vanished. I could see the possibility of publishing small books by both poets, particularly if I could get some aid from the Korean Translation Foundation. That afternoon I mentioned my idea to them. Both poets beamed with excitement.

It was about that time that the relationship between me and the poets began to alter, as they became more and more attentive to me. I had asked if I might be able to stay on after the Festival in Seoul for two days to better see the city. But they explained that I would have to pay for my expenses—which I had offered to do—and find my own hotel, since the one in which I was staying was only for special groups and events such as the Festival. Accordingly, I had asked my translator to help find a hotel, and she had done so, in the Cheonggyecheon district. The price seemed right, and the hotel, when I looked it up seemed pleasant. But at our last big dinner, both poets decided that I would be unhappy there, and arranged for me and a couple of others who were extending their visits to stay at a Artist's retreat, Seoul Art Space, at a much more isolated distance from the areas that I wanted to visit. Yet, since the offer meant that we would not be paying, I could hardly turn it down.

Soon after, Mr. Lee suggested that we go on a tour of the city the following day, and Mr. Kim invited me to a Southern island where he and his wife had a condominium in the woods. In Korea, as in many Asian countries, it is considered rude to leave guests alone for long periods of time, but I had to pass on their graciousness, explaining to Mr. Lee that I love walking around cities, discovering things for myself as I alternate between wandering and resting in cafes and bars. I told Mr. Kim that I truly appreciated his offer, but would never forgive myself if I returned home without seeing any of the city in which I had stayed.

Mr. Lee later introduced me to his girlfriend, who spoke English, and explained that she would love to be my guide the following morning. Again, I had to defer.

The Art Space location, although quite lovely, was quite distant from the shopping areas I had planned to visit, and far more rustic than would have been any hotel. I had to take a long taxi ride to the Itaweon district of Seoul, enjoying, as I mention elsewhere in these South Korean memories, the day, all to myself.

But on the last day, both poets again insisted on touring me through Jongno and elsewhere via auto, Kim's daughter serving as translator. There was no way I could possibly reject their offer. They took me to a wonderful Chinese lunch, and Mr. Kim drove me the long distance to the airport—kindnesses that, although truly heart-felt—seemed somewhat more forthcoming, so it appeared to me, because of my role as a potential publisher. In any event, I was truly appreciative. And my friendship with both poets will hopefully continue in the years to come.

In February 2011 I met with Mr. Kim in my own city of Los Angeles, and had a very enjoyable lunch with him, his wife, and a friend of theirs in Koreatown.


Los Angeles, March 9, 2011