Saturday, December 10, 2011

Green Integer ON NET ("Go In")

Green Integer On Net ("Go In") is proud to announce its new series of book publications on line, a series that will include free and reasonably priced books of poetry and poetics, new and older, from around the world.

In conjunction with our educational efforts, these books will be offered free or for reasonable prices for our visitors: students, scholars, and readers of modern and contemporary poetry. Please note that any money we receive for books will go toward the maitenance of our site and for royalty payments for authors and translators. I do not receive a salary for my ongoing and quite endless activities.

Order through our website:

Books now available:
[alphabetical by author]

[ordered PDF files ship within 24 hours]

Djuna Barnes The Book of Repulsive Women [USA] free

Charles Bernstein Dark City [USA] free

Robert Bresson Notes on the Cinematographer [France] $7.00

Domício Coutinho Duke, the Dog Priest [Brazil] $5.00

JeanFrémon The Botanical Garden [France]$5.00

Julien Gracq The Peninsula [France] $5.00

Lyn Hejinian My Life [USA] $5.00

Ko Un Himalaya Poems [South Korea]  $5.00

Ko Un Songs for Tomorrow: A Collection of Poems 1960-2002 [ South Korea] $5.00

Douglas Messerli, ed. The PIP Anthology of 20th Century Poetry: Volume 8 [international] $7.00

Douglas Messerli My Year 2004: Under Our Skin [USA] $5.00

Douglas Messerli My Year 2006: Serving [USA] $5.00

Jules Michelet The Sea [France] $5.00

Ivo Michelis Book Alpha and Orchis Militaris: The Alpha Cycle, vols. 1 and 2 [Belgium] $5.00

Christopher Middelton Depictions of Blaff [England] $5.00

Tom Raworth Eternal Sections [England] free

Joe Ross Wordlick [USA/lives France] $5.00

Arthur Schnitzler Dream Story [Austria] $5.00

Gertrude Stein Tender Buttons [USA] $5.00

Guiseppe Steiner Drawn States of Mind [Italy] free

John Wieners 707 Scott Street [USA] free

The Conscience of a King (on Handel's opera Rodelinda)

the conscience of a king
 Nicola Francesco Haym (libretto, based on a libretto by Antonio Salvi), George Frideric Handel (composter) Rodelinda / the performance I saw as a live HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera of New York on December 3, 2011

    On the surface Rodelinda seems a somewhat confusing story about a King, Bertarido (Andreas Scholl) who has just been defeated, and presumably killed, by Grimoaldo (Joseph Kaiser). The former queen, Rodelinda (Renée Fleming) and her son Flavio have been immediately arrested and put into chains, sequestered away—at least in the Met production—in what seems like an abandoned bedroom somewhere in the bowels of the castle.

     Before Grimoaldo's usurpation of the throne he had been offered the hand of Bertarido's sister, Eduige (Stephanie Blythe), which would have made him the heir apparent to the throne, but she has several times denied him, and now that he has illegally taken over, he lusts for Bertarido's widow, Rodelinda. When he approaches her with his desires, however, she is outraged and insists upon her devotion to her former husband and the protection of his child.

     Meanwhile Grimoaldo's advisor Garibaldo (Shenyang) prods his master on to more evil deeds, insisting that only the forceful, even the brutal are fit to rule. He has his own plans, moreover, to take the throne for himself, by marrying Eduige and becoming the rightful ruler.

      Only the court advisor Unulfo (Iestyn Davies) knows that Bertarido is still alive, pretending death in order to evaluation the situation and retrieve Rodelinda and his son from harm's way.

      Through her lovely arias we know that Rodelinda is loyal to her husband, denying the approaches of Grimoaldo. But when Bertarido shows up, to be hidden away in a nearby horse barn by his friend Unulfo, he overhears yet another encounter between Rodelinda and Grimoaldo in which she first insists of her love for her dead husband, but then suddenly seems to change heart, accepting Grimoaldo's proposal for marriage. What the two men hiding in the barn have not seen is that Garibaldo has threatened to kill her son if she does not give in, the knife put to the son's neck.

     Suddenly Bertarido's world collapses around him as he believes that his wife has not been able to remain faithful. Unulfo attempts to cheer him with an aria that relays the underlying theme of Handel's work: what seems unbearable today will look different in the future. Performed as it is between the two countertenors there is a slightly homoerotic suggestion in the plea that Bertarido should try to forget his wife's faithlessness.

     Unulfo suggests that Bertarido tell his wife that he is still living, an idea which, at first, Bertarido rejects, but then perceives that it will help to torture her for her deeds. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Rodelinda has no intentions of becoming Grimoaldo's wife, insisting that if she is to marry him that he must personally kill her young son, that she cannot be a mother to the boy would have been king and wife of the throne's usurper both. The ploy works, as Grimoaldo backs down, and Rodelinda is freed, temporarily at least, from any vows.

     Meanwhile, Eudige discovers that her brother is still alive, meeting him upon a pathway in the night, reassuring Bertarido of his wife's constancy. Unulfo brings Rodelinda to him, and the two are lovingly united, joyful to be in each other's company again. At that very moment, however, they are discovered by Grimoaldo, who orders Bertarido's arrestment and death.

     In collaboration, Eduige and Unulfo plan Bertarido's rescue, she secretly passing him a sword, Unulfo determined to lead him through a secret garden passage to his son, Rondelinda and escape. However, when he comes to guide Bertarido to safety, in the dark room where he lies Bertarido mistakes the intruder as one of Grimoaldo's henchmen come to kill him, and he stabs Unulfo, who, although badly wounded, still pulls Bertarido to safety.

     Grimoaldo, meanwhile is in deep torment. All that he has sought has slipped his fingers. His first love Eudige has rejected him and Rodelinda has declared him a monster. Power has not fulfilled him, and he is tormented by conscience and his dark deeds. Finding him in such despair, Garibaldo his disgusted with his lack of will and determines to put a sword through his heart. At that very moment Bertarido and his family are passing, and the former king leaps into action, killing Garibaldo and, in so doing, saving Grimoaldo's life.

     Recognizing his position, Grimoaldo is only too happy to give up the throne to its rightful king. Turning again to Eudige she finally accepts his apologies, and the happy survivors sing in celebration of the future.

     Just recounting this breathless plot nearly exhausts me. One by one each of the major performers sing marvelous arias revealing their feelings and situations. This production was particularly blessed with the glorious soprano of Renée Fleming who premiered Rodelinda at the Met in 2004. Both countertenors were splendid, while Stephanie Blythe performed with her usual high artistry. The surprise of the opera, to me, was the tenor voice of Joseph Kaiser, who as the opera proceeded changed in both costume and voice from a seemingly pompous and puffed up murderer to a handsome man of sorrow and conscience. It was a remarkably revealing performance both in its musical expression and acting abilities.

     In all this was a marvelous opera. If only the director, Stephen Wadsworth—who the singers all highly praised—had not felt it necessary to keep everything in motion by bringing in and out ancillary individuals during each aria, and arming his singers with flowerpots, books, even toys which at some point were often flung or crashed into the set. We understand that Handel's arias are structured with a beginning theme that elaborated on and repeated several times before returning us again to the original theme to be repeated once again, but that does not mean that we need be continually distracted. If the singers are good enough actors—as all of these were—to revitalize and slightly revise each repeated phrase, the music enwraps us into a kind of trance that works against this production's realist interruptions.

     Although the set was quite lovely, and the concept of moving horizontality through different sets across the gigantic Met stage worked well in several scenes, it appeared that the designers and director feared that the audience might fall asleep without the constant interruptions of everyday life. Although he is a powerful storyteller and a masterful dramatist, Handel is not Verdi.

      Nonetheless, with such great singers I would love to see the Met look into yet more Handel and other Baroque operas. Rodelinda was a joy.

Los Angeles, December 9, 2011

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Separating Language from Meaning (on Philip Glass' Satyagraha)

separating language from meaning

Constance DeJong (vocal text), Constance DeJong and Philip Glass (libretto), Philip Glass (music)
Satyagraha / the production I saw was an HD, live production broadcast from The Metropolitan Opera in New York, on November 19, 2011

 In many respects Philip Glass' pageant opera, Satyagraha, is one of the most frustrating of all opera experiences. It is not that the work isn't, at times, musically splendiferous and even powerful—at least in the MET high definition live broadcast I saw in 2011. But Glass takes away so much of what opera is really about drama, language, and, at times, musical comprehension—that it is difficult to get one's bearings.

     I don't mean that the opera, itself, is difficult. The plot, if it can be said to have one, is quite apparent if you have a program. The seven scenes in three acts of the work represent significant moments in the early career of M. K. Gandhi, as he transformed himself in South Africa from a Western-dressed lawyer to a political advocate for the poor and suffering. Beginning with an imagined scene from the battle field of Bhagavad Gita (The Kuru Field of Justice), Glass and his co-librettist, Constance DeJong, take us from 1910 to 1913 in Gandhi's life, exploring his attempts at collective farming on his Tolstoy Farm (named after the great author and social experimenter), through the "vows" of South African Indians to resist registration, to Gandhi's return to South Africa greeted with violence, from a view of his newspaper activities on Indian Opinion in which he first expressed his concepts of "satyagraha" ("insistence on truth"), to the 1908 protest against the Black Act, in which his supporters burned their government certificates, and through to his final strike march to the Transavaal border, where many were arrested.

     Each of Glass' acts are overseen, furthermore, by an historical figure who influenced Gandhi or over whom he would have an influence. From the past, we see Leo Tolstoy, from the present, Gandhi's close friend, the Nobel-prize winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, and from the future, Martin Luther King.

   The program notes explain in some detail what we are experiencing. However, that experience itself is much less lucid. As Richard Croft (playing Gandhi) explained in an intermission interview, it is difficult to act because what is occurring is happening inside, not in the actual drama on the stage. The chorus, and more important, the Skills Ensemble, often play out—in a highly imaginative use of masks, puppets, and through staged acts—what is symbolically occurring, but the actors, somewhat like those of Wagner, are allowed little movement. Yet, unlike Wagner's figures, the major actors here are not even communicating with the audience in a language they can comprehend, since they sing the entire opera in Sanskrit, quoting spiritual fragments of the Bhagavad Gita.

     I am sure that when he first got the idea to use the language and images from a book which Gandhi knew intimately, it must have seemed a brilliant concept to separate language from meaning, but it ultimately cuts us off from true communication and, more importantly, given Glass' minimalist repetitions, presents us with long passages in which we only have a vague idea what is happening—not that it would help to know, at any moment, that Gandhi, for example, is reaffirming his ideals...or whatever. We sense the emotional impact, and Glass' simmering music often seduces us, but, nonetheless, it is sometimes a long endurance test, particularly in the last act, when Glass almost sentimentally links Gandhi with the future American racial revolutionary King—over and over again, so that eventually we must ask whether Gandhi or what he has wrought.     

     The most successful act of this opera is Act II, when puppets, chorus, and major singers all come together to create the horror of the wealthy Dutch landowners and the busy industry of putting together the newspaper, and the dramatic bonfire of government issued certificates.

     The cast, including Croft, Rachelle Durkin as his secretary, Miss Schlesen, Kim Josephson as a supporter, Mr. Kennenbach, and Alfred Walker as Parsi Rustomji were all quite adept, and the Met chorus was absolutely stunning in its ability to learn the Sanskrit score while counting Glass' tricky rhythms. The costumes and settings by Julian Crouch and Kevin Pollard, as well as the stage direction of Phelim McDermott and conducting of Dante Anzolini were all spectacular.

     The Met audience seemed thoroughly charmed by the opera, remaining through the entire series of applauses. Yet, for me, that was just the problem: long on charm, the opera was too short on substance, despite focusing on such a substantial historical figure. But then it is difficult, if not impossible, to think without language.

Los Angeles, November 20, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

So Are We All (on Mozart's opera Cosí fan tutte)

so are we all

Lorenzo da Ponte (text), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (music) Cosí fan tutte / LAOpera, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (the performance I saw was on Sunday, October 2, 2011)

 Despite the often splendiferous musical beauty of da Ponte's and Mozart's wise comic satire, there is something patently unfair about the major series of events. Yes, we easily conclude with Don Alfonso, "Women are like that," but so too, do we comprehend, are men. And it is the men in this opera who truly step out of bounds in testing their sweetheart's faithfulness.

     To be fair, the two young soldiers, Ferrando (Saimir Pirgu in the production I saw) and Guglielmo (the handsome Ildebrando D'Arcangelo) begin the opera singing endless praises of their loves, Fiordilgi (Aleksandra Kurzak) and Dorabella (Ruxandra Donose). We immediately recognize their naiveté; and when I say we, I think I can speak for the whole of USA culture given that the current divorce rate is 50% which rises substantially with second and third marriages. Although divorce may be caused by many things other than unfaithfulness, it appears that, in the US at least, Americans are fickle.

      But the young men are easily challenged and persuaded into obedience to their friend Don Alfonso (Lorenzo Regazzo), who, without much difficulty, convinces them to lie to their sweethearts by pretending to go off to war, and to themselves play cheats. After all, to dress up in the costumes of other men, taking on their very different personalities and to court each other's fiancées certainly suggests that they are willing to be guilty of behavior they do not hope to find in their fiancés Costumes are extremely important in Cosí fan tutte (and, of course, in the whole of the commedia dell'arte tradition, on which much of this opera is based); a slight costume change, an attached moustache, a bit of acting immediately convinces others that a familiar figure is someone else. Even women like the maid Despina can easily dupe their employers, dressed like a man (she becomes in the opera both a mesmerist doctor and a notary). In short, by donning costumes they temporarily become another person, and so too are these young soldiers allowing themselves in their transformations to become unfaithful seducers of the two sisters they proclaim to love.

     Moreover, Mozart gives his sweet heroines a great deal of reverence and fortitude in which to protect them. The celestial song they sing as their lovers go off to war, "Soave sia il vento" ("May the wind be gentle") is almost enough to convince the most hard-hearted realist that these two mean what they say. And to back it up, Fiordiligi sings the powerful "Come scogli" ("Like a rock") pledging her love to Guglielmo.

      The weaker of the two is obviously Dorabella who must be reminded consistently by her sister of the role she should play, and seems, quite early on, more distressed by being left alone than by the absence of Ferrando. Yet, despite her obvious interest in the two strange Albanians who suddenly appear in the sister's home, she also remains impervious throughout Act 1.

      The Albanians, on the other hand, although declaring their love for the two beauties, seem more interested in their own prowess than in the women they are trying seduce. A great part of the humor of da Ponte's text lies in the constant metaphors that point up their endowments, Guglielmo, in particular, pointing up his masculine attributes in "Non siate ritrosi" ("Don't be shy").

     In the production I saw this was reiterated by their attempt at suicide by arsenic poisoning, wherein their dying bodies were laid out upon a chaise longue, the two men almost on top of one another, hinting at a greater interest in their own bodies than in the two of what they later relate as "the fair sex." If nothing else, the scene suggested an long homoerotic embrace between Ferrando and Guglielmo, made even more apparent when the women come to revive them, all four crawling over and under one another.

     Clearly they are not "playing fair," forcing the women to brush against and touch them—often in somewhat lewd positions. These are beautiful young people, all four of them, and like most young people, are easily aroused.

      What Mozart and da Ponte also make clear is just how boring these wealthy sister's lives are. Except for the excitement through sexual flirtation, there is little do in their house, as Dorabella, in particular makes clear. Despina serves them meals and sweets such a chocolate, they play puzzles, and, mostly, sit discussing their situations. Might it not be fun to do something else since their soldier's have gone off?

      Even when Dorabella despicably gives in, exchanging a necklace, containing Ferrando's picture, for a gift from the Albanian Guglielmo, Fiordiligi runs away from her temptation, desperately trying to regain control of the situation through her consciousness ("Per pietà, ben mio, perdona," "Please, my beloved, forgive"). Her brief decision to dress up like a soldier and run off to war to find her lover is absurdly touching, if ludicrous. There is, obviously, no war, and one wonders to where she might run. And if she were to find Guglielmo, how could she show him her love dressed—like Isaac Bashevis Singer's Yentl—as a man? The opera, fortunately, does not take us down that path. Instead, Ferrando challenges her again with suicide. What is a woman to do, given that she has already tried to save him as chastefully as she can? Her only choice apparently is to give in.

     The men, all ego, are furious with the obvious turn of events, but fortunately Don Alfonso is wise enough to insist that they accept the natures of their loved ones, without mentioning their own  obvious failures and deceits. "Marry them," he advices, and so, apparently they do, both symbolically, with the fake notary marrying Dorabella and Fiordilgi to the Albanians (each linked to the opposite of their lovers in their previous existences) and then, again—at least in promise—to the miraculously returned soldiers. What does it matter, truly, who marries whom, when a simple moustache and coat can alter any personality. And, in that sense, Cosí fan tutte, is neither a celebration of faithfulness or even a return to order, but a joyful tribute to sexually-inspired love.

Los Angeles, October 3, 2011

Monday, September 5, 2011

Discovering What Everyone Never Remembered (on Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower)

Sayyid Qutb

Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden

John O'Neill

Lawrence Wright The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

Perhaps no book more clearly details the US's determination to keep history a secret than Lawrence Wright's brilliant post-9/11 study of the Muslim terrorist world and its interaction with the American FBI, CIA, and other government organizations, The Looming Tower.

Wright begins by lucidly outlining the various terrorist organizations and the individuals who led them, starting with a young Egyptian student studying in the US at what is now the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. Sayyid Qutb had mixed feelings in this community, originally planned as a temperance colony by Nathan Meeker. Greeley was a planned community that "would serve as a model for the cities of the future," drawing from the virtues of "industry, moral rectitude, and temperance." Accordingly, Qutb, a devout young Muslim, had, as Wright describes it, "stumbled into a community that exalted the same pursuits that he held dear: education, music, art, literature, and religion." But just as Qutb had found New York life frantic and unfamiliar, he found disturbing forces at work in this small Western Eden as well. Although the community had been founded on prohibition, students in the summer of 1949 could easily procure alcohol for their weekly parties, and Qutb perceived the fall of prohibition an American failure. As a man of color, Qutb witnessed a black man beaten by a white mob, and, although in the summers students from many different racial backgrounds attended, in the regular season there were only a couple of black students, one of whom, Qutb noted could not get a haircut in the local community. At one point, Qutb and a friend were turned away from a local theater because the owner saw them as being black. Although the theater owner ultimately apologized, Qutb refused to return.

Even the sport of football "confirmed Qutb's ideas of American primitiveness," since he felt it less a team sport, like soccer, than a game in which one player attempts to run with the ball, while others try "kicking him in the stomach, or violently breaking his arms and legs...." Women teachers outraged him. Accordingly he returned to Egypt more radicalized in relation to his religion than he left it. Qutb went on to establish the Muslim Brothers, the first of a series of radical reactionary groups against what they felt was Egypt's failure to keep the tenants of the Muslim faith.

The pattern was to become a quite typical one, with many of the well-educated and often wealthy young radicals receiving their educations in the West, opening them to experiences that only hardened them in their beliefs. The fascinating story of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who grew up in a planned community, Maadi, Egypt—that in its conception, at least, was not so very different from Greeley, Colorado—is a high point of the book. With his father working as a doctor and his mother a professor of pharmacology at Ain Shams University, Al-Zawahiri was raised in one of the most liberal and prominent families in Egypt. But as he grew older, Al-Zawahiri, influenced, in part, by Sayyid Qutb's writings, became more and more dissatisfied with the Egyptian government, ultimately creating, along with others, the al-Jihad movement, and involving himself, if only through his friendships, with the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat. Through his friendship with Abdullah Azzam Al-Zawahiri was ultimately drawn to Afghanistan, there befriending the charismatic Osama bin Laden.

Wright outlines these and numerous other relationships, introducing us, one by one, to most of the major figures and their families of the Muslin Brothers, Al-Jihad, the Taliban, Al-Queda, and other terrorist groups, including the numerous young, violent, and dissatisfied youths that eventually would make up the growing world-wide attempt to destroy anything American. It is Osama bin Laden, obviously, who through his early financing of terrorist activities and his gathering of many of these forces in Sudan to train them, who is the most fascinating—and puzzling—of figures. Even Wright's extensive presentation of bin Laden's family history and other major Saudi figures reads like an account by T. E. Lawrence. Through bin Laden's machinations, what began as fairly local attempts in the Muslim world to rid individual countries of Western influences, became a general call to destroy what they came to see as the common enemy: the United States.

Through hundreds of interviews gathered over a five-year-period, Wright brilliantly puts all the pieces of the puzzle together, so that the reader can discover that what seems to be a myriad of terrifyingly unrelated events grew, as the millennium approached, into an interwoven skein with the aim of strangling what all Muslim radicals began to see as the cause of all their misfortunes.

Of course, hindsight is always a superior position than that of suffering blindly through history. But how one wishes that minds like Wrights might have been employed in the very organizations whose function it was to piece these threats together! Instead, we are shown American fact gathering organizations such as the CIA, the FBI, and White House itself, begin by doubting any real threat, and later, when it was almost too late to change course, deliberately withholding information from each other. Given a directory intended to protect later court hearings, the various organizations perceived the so called "wall" as a barrier to any shared knowledge. FBI Chief of Counterterrorism, John O'Neil was perhaps the one man who had the tenacity and intelligence to bring the data together that might have saved the nation from the events of September 11, 2001. However, his own often dictatorial methods, his far flung affairs with various women, and even his dashing way of dressing, made for many enemies, including coworkers in the FBI and, in particular, the director, Michael Scheuer, of the so-called Alec Station in the CIA, which was also attempting to track the activities of Osama bin Laden and Al-Queda.

In the rivalry between the two, O'Neill ultimately won, with Scheuer suffering a psychological breakdown. But O'Neill's breaches of security—at one point he had brought one of his mistresses into FBI headquarters and, at another event, his computer, filled with sensitive information, was temporarily stolen—also brought reprimands and possible termination of his job. Yet, even in those difficult days, had the CIA reported to other organizations that Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khaled al-Mihdhar, both Al-Queda operatives, had entered the US on January 2001, and lived for a while in San Diego, O'Neill likely could have acted, spoiling bin Laden's plans.

O'Neill's abilities are outlined throughout Wright's book, capsualized, perhaps, in his clever extraction of information from figures involved with the bombing of the U. S. Cole without any torture, tracing, with the help of his Yemeni specialist Ali Soufan, the first real connection between the Cole and Al-Queda. But even in Yemen O'Neill was dogged by personality differences, in this case with US ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine, who forced him exit the country.

Even as O'Neill was scheduled to leave the FBI to become—in one of the most ironic situations in American history—head of security for the World Trade Center, he sensed something very large was the wind. "We're overdue," O'Neill told friends.

Only a week before O'Neill's retirement, a report from a flight school in Minnesota to the FBI noted that one of their students, Zacarias Moussaoui, was asking suspicious questions about flight patterns and locked cockpit doors. When the agent in Minnesota asked permission to search Moussaoui's computer, he was told he was "trying to get people 'spun up.'" His answer: "I am trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center."

Wright asks several of his interviewees why the CIA had been so determined to keep the crucial information that two Al-Queda operatives had been in the country secret, particularly since the men had been discovered on US soil, where the CIA had no jurisdiction. The answers range from the belief in CIA plans to use them as potential informants to the often stated argument that for legal reasons they simply could share that knowledge. But the truth, perhaps, is what Wright describes simply as the radically different make-up of the two major information-gathering organizations, the CIA consisting of internationally-seasoned individuals who often gathered information as a kind of protective act, using it only behind-the-scenes, so to speak, to influence the actions of other countries. The FBI world, Wright suggests, was made up primarily of Italo-American and Irish-American men, who much like the immigrant communities out of which they came, believed in information as a justification to act; from the earliest Hoover days, as Michael Mann's recent film, Public Enemies, reiterates, they were men of action. Each organization highly suspected (and perhaps still do) the other as being ineffectual. Their failures to work together, however, along with a weak grasp of the situations by the Bush administration—which clearly led to thousands of deaths—should be repeatedly retold and remembered by all.

O'Neill survived the original attack, running, as bodies fell from the towers into the plaza below, to access the damage. He reentered the South Tower, which, a short while later, collapsed, entombing him within.

Los Angeles, July 4, 2009

Remembering What Everyone Might Like to Forget (on the 9/11 attack of the World Trade Towers)

During the seven years since the horrific events of what are generally referred to these days as simply “9/11,” I have resisted writing about the subject, in part because it seemed to me that nearly everyone in the United States had experienced the destruction of the World Trade Towers, the attack upon the Pentagon, and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93—which was to have been crashed into the U.S. Capitol building—near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and there could not possibly be anything new I might say. 
      I still believe that to be so. Any of us might write about our experiences on that morning and throughout that September day—and many have. Moreover, with the confirmed deaths of 2,974 individuals, and the subsequent illnesses of fireman, police, and other workers who tried to help individuals to safety and later worked in cleaning up the disastrous collapse of both towers, there are hundreds of individuals who have much deeper experiences than my distant witnessing of events. 
    What we all generally forget, however, is precisely that—our general forgetfulness. Howard reminded me last night that most of his students at SCI-Arc (the Southern California Institute of Architecture), where he is teaching this semester, were only 11 years of age when these events took place, and, accordingly, their memories of it were those of children rather than adults. Millions of grade-school children today could not possibly comprehend how far-reaching those events, occurring before their births, have been upon their lives: that the war we continue to fight in Iraq was a indirect result of that terrible day in 2001 and that some of their individual freedoms have been permanently curtailed because of those events in the years since. 
      Perhaps we owe it to our future generations, even to ourselves, to once again share our experiences of that day. And in a series of books such as my cultural memoirs, I now perceive it absolutely necessary to remember my own experiences of that day—even if they might vary little from millions of other folks and I, like most others, might like to forget. 
      Howard and I arise fairly early, he at 5:00 each morning, I at 6:00. Accordingly, when a short time after 5:46 Pacific Time on September 11th Howard heard the news report and saw the image on television of American Flight 11 embedded in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, he quickly awoke me to tell what had happened. I ran to the television set to see the same image. Although we now know that many people working on the 95th to the 103rd floors and dining in the Windows on the World restaurant were killed immediately, it looked eerily quiet from the camera’s vantage point. I commented to Howard that obviously the crash had killed people, but we were uncertain even how the large the plane was. It looked almost like a small engine plane on our TV set.
      “How could such an accident happen?” asked Howard in a tone that sounded more like a lament.
      “People don’t just accidentally fly into The World Trade Center,” I answered, with suitable bluff. “No planes are allowed in that air path.” And immediately we both contemplated the possibility of a terrorist attack. For a few minutes we sat spellbound by the scene before us. We were nearly speechless.
     “I have to go to the bathroom,” I reported, as if somehow seeking Howard’s permission. As I began my walk down the hall, Howard screamed out: “Come quickly, come quickly. Another plane has just crashed into the other tower!”
      I hurried back, to watch the scene replayed, a clearly full-sized jet crashing into the South Tower. Now we and everyone knew: these were terrorist acts. Our eyes were cemented to the television, when a few minutes later an ABC newscaster announced that they were temporarily switching to a developing story in Washington, D.C., where it appeared that the Executive Office Building, near the White House, was on fire. The D.C. newscaster, however, soon reported that from a distance it appeared that it was the Executive Office Building, but it was believed to be coming from the area of The Pentagon, across the Potomac in Virginia. And soon we saw a fire billowing from the Pentagon itself, where, we now know, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed, killing another 189 individuals. 

      “What’s happening?” I asked in utter disbelief. And a few minutes later, as if in answer, it was reported that yet another plane apparently had been hijacked. 
      In Los Angeles, September 11th was a voting date, and the front of my Sun & Moon Press offices was a polling place. I was forced to abandon the television to shave, shower, and dress. By 6:45 Pacific Time, I was opening up my office for the voting registrars. I greeted them and briefly helped to set up the voting booths. 
     We all expressed the hope that the local election would be called off. But, by the time we were to open, we had still received no word of cancellation. I was almost angered by all the noise of the gossipy women behind the voter sign-in desk, and retreated to my back office to watch my office television set.
      Although it was illegal of bring a television into the voting area, one of the women working there, called to ask her daughter to bring in a set. At almost the moment they opened the doors to voters, I witnessed the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapse, people running in absolute horror in all directions. It felt incredulous. Peter Jennings, the ABC newscaster, was nearly in tears. He would continue to report all day and into the night, in all for 17 hours straight, and I watched almost every moment. 
      About eleven minutes after the collapse of the South Tower, it was reported that the missing hijacked flight, United Airlines Flight 93, had crashed into a hillside in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
     When the North Tower collapsed at 7:28, I finally began to cry. I was now worried for friends. Playwright Jeffrey Jones worked in the Towers; I had met with him there on one trip to New York to discuss theater. Poet Tan Lin (brother of Viet Nam Memorial sculptor Mya Lin), whose book, Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe I published, lived nearby. Artist Susan Bee’s studio was within visual distance of the Towers. Fortunately, these friends all survived. 
      As I report in “Death of the Father” [My Year 2002], I called my parents, who at the time had still not heard what was happening. How could anyone not know what was going on? I wondered. Yet the television showed even President George Bush peacefully sitting in a classroom at Emily E. Booker Elementary school in Sarasota at a time when one imagined he might instead be rushing back to Washington; evidently the President did not know what millions of others in his country did, and like Howard, when his advisors heard the news of the first crash several of them, including his Chief of Staff Andrew Card, presumed it was simply an accident: Card is quoted, “It was first reported to me… that it looked like it was a twin-engine prop plane, and so the natural reaction was—‘What a horrible accident. The pilot must have had a heart attack.” 
     After being taken aside in the school corridor by Karl Rove, where Bush was told of the crash, Bush himself reportedly replied: “What a horrible accident!” While Bush was on route to the school photo opportunity, Condoleeza Rice made a urgent call to the President, but even upon hearing of that call, he took time out to talk with Florida Congressmen and the Teacher of the Year before returning Rice’s call, and once he had heard from her, he continued to the classroom, remaining there to hear the story of a pet goat even after the second jet had completed its mission, despite the fact that the newest information was relayed to the President in front of the classroom students and millions of watching Americans. 
      For a number of reasons, including arguments between Bush and Cheney and indecision of his staff concerning where Air Force one should travel, Bush’s flight was diverted to the Louisiana Air Force Base before flying on to the Strategic Air Command at Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base. As the press attempted to follow the various maneuvers of Air Force One and the President, rumors grew, at one point some reporters even suggesting that his plane had crashed near Camp David. 
     It was clear to nearly anyone who could read the signs that neither Bush nor his administration knew how to proceed. Moreover, as the details of deaths and destruction became more and more apparent over that horrific day, there was a continued feeling, registered even the faces and voices of news commentators like Jennings of being caught up in a nightmare from which one couldn’t awaken. 
      In the weeks following, it was gradually revealed that not only were the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center destroyed, but 7 World Trade Center, 6 World Trade Center, 5 World Trade Center, 4 World Trade Center, the Marriott World Trade Center and St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church were also destroyed or severely damaged. The Deutsche Bank Building and Fiterman Hall of the Borough of Manhattan Community College were condemned and torn down. In short, a whole section of the U.S.’s most populous city was devastated; and one only can wonder what might have happened in the Washington, D.C. had Flight 93 been successful in its attack. 
     It still today seems nearly impossible to imagine that four American Airplanes could have been utilized to bring about such widespread destruction, resulting in so many deaths. 

Los Angeles, September 11, 2008

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Being There (on Edward Kienholz's "Five Car Stud")

"Back Seat Dodge '38"

"Five Car Stud"


Edward Kienholz, restored by Nancy Reddin Kienholz Five Car Stud / Los Angeles County Museum of Art, opened September 4, 2011 / I saw the installation on September 2, 2011 and again on September 3, 2011

Artist Edward Kienholz gained enormous notoriety as far back as 1966 for his "Back Seat Dodge '38," an assemblage that included part of a Dodge car with the backseat door opened, within which manikins portrayed a couple "making out." Today one can hardly imagine the furor it caused upon its Los Angeles County Museum of Art showing, when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors declared it as "pornographic" and attempted to shut the show down. A compromise was reached wherein the back seat door would remain closed, to be opened only by a guard when requested and no children were within the gallery! The uproar determined that the piece must be seen by everyone, and opening day more than 200 people lined up to see it.

In September 2011 Kienholz, who died in 1994, is sure to cause some controversy again with the presentation of his 1972 piece, viewed publicly in Germany at Documenta that year, and never again seen. The piece, purchased by a Japanese museum has been hidden away in storage and only recently, through LACMA and the Getty Museum's collaboration, has been restored by Kienholz's second wife and collaborator, Nancy Reddin Kienholz.

If the earlier piece shocked some with its sexual content, this should stun us all for its portrayal of violence. Certainly there are sexual elements; a Black man who has obviously been discovered in a truck with a white woman has been pulled from the car by six men, who, when we look closely at the scene, are in the process of castrating him. But the horror of this assemblage is not just the act, but the dramatic terror of the entire scene. The men are more bestial than human, their faces covered with horrific masks: one, pulling the ropes taught has his face covered with a mask that will remind some of the great circus clown Emmett Kelly; another, standing outside of the victim's truck, wherein a white woman sits vomiting, has a mask studded with horrific warts. The couple has evidently been caught by these brutes in an act of miscegenation. It is difficult to stare too closely at each of these men, even though the audience of 15 individuals allowed into the room at a time must pass close to them in purveying the entire scene.

It is interesting that these men had chosen "clown" masks or something close to them to hide their identities. It reminds us of the role James Stewart played in The Greatest Show on Earth, in which he dressed in clown makeup throughout to hide his identity—even though his crime was evidently an attempt to save someone's life. Further, it will bring to mind for some the serial killer of young boys, John Gacy, who worked as "Pogo the Clown," designing his own clown costumes, and sometimes enticing his victim's through charitable events. Gacy's first assault took place a year before Kienholz's installation.

Remaining within the surrounding cars are not only the sickened white woman, but, in another, a young boy, whom Kienholz describes as "sissy boy," modeled, in part, upon the face of his own son. The horror which this child is witnessing, unlike the sexual acts of Kienholz's earlier piece, is truly devastating, a vision that we recognize will never allow this fearful boy to live anything but a haunted life. These men are not only destroying a man and a woman, but robbing joy and innocence from the entire society in which they exist.

The victim himself is no longer a man, his torso having been transformed by the artist into a receptacle of fluids, a trough of water in which float the letters that occasionally spell out the word through which these men have justified their torture: "nigger."

Walking through this darkened exhibition, I was terrorized, awed even by the devastating act I was observing in tableau. But for me, even worse, was my own "being there," the sense of my voyeuristic fascination with the observation of it all. I could not bring myself to turn my eyes from the series of tragic events being played out before me, and I walked again and again round the circle of the five cars, peering into them, listening to the soft Delta music emanating from one. That can be understood as something good or bad. Perhaps in witnessing such a scene I could serve as a sensitive historian of such events in our own past, reminding others—those even today who might wish to harm people for racial or political differences—of what these actions mean to the individual and the society at large. Yet I might also simply be seen—in my inability to change history, in my own viewer passivity—to be merely an unwilling participant to such events. Only my actions in life can determine which kind of witness I might be. But I was there and cannot hide that fact. On the gallery floor the artist has laid down a carpet simulacrum of a dirt road, into which each viewer's footprints are embedded. I saw my own!

Los Angeles, September 4, 2011

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Fractures of Self (on David Antin's Radical Coherency)


David Antin Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature, 1966 to 2005 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011)

One of the first things anyone approaching David Antin's marvelous new collection of essays on art and literature will notice is the striking image on the book's cover, a photograph that depicts David Antin, looking perhaps a bit more Buddha-like than he does in real-life, walking toward another image of himself, this from the back side of the face. There is something arresting about this image, even a bit eerie, but I made little of it when I first saw it, except to register that it represented an image of the author, symbolically speaking, of 1966 coming towards his current being. A few friends, however, found that image quite disturbing, one suggesting he had to keep the book face down on his coffee table. Perhaps it was just the oddity of having a photograph, which we associate with the real world, representing something that we know cannot truly happen, one aspect of self meeting up with the other.

Yet, if we read on in Antin's book, particularly in his essay "The Beggar and the King," we recognize that this transaction between two aspects of the self is precisely what the author projects as being behind the narrative genre he has created in the "talk poem." Speaking of his early work, generated by a kind of collage sensibility, Antin observes:

...I started out in the 1950s like many young experimental artists
with a strong commitment to most of the received ideas of early-
twentieth-century modernism, the most important of which for a
artist was the idea of the exhaustion, experimental and aesthetic, of
the representation in all its forms. For a language artist this mostly
meant the uselessness of narrative.

Antin goes on to suggest that over the years, as he recognized the exhaustion "of nearly all the modes of experimental communication," that he began to reexamine narrative, exploring worlds of folklorists and ethnographers (the Grimm brothers, Afansiev, etc.) as well as V. Propp's structural study The Morphology of the Folktale, and others as far-reaching as Zuni Tales and Bernardino de Sahagun's definitions compiled from survivors of the Aztec culture. What Antin finally determined is that some narratives are not stories, and some stories have no narrative, coming eventually to articulate a definition of narrative:

a narrative requires a sense of something at stake for somebody in
some particular subject position, which is what characterizes the stake.
It is this sense of stake that should be taken as the center of narrative.

Like dreams, Antin argues, narratives build bridges across change.

The act of reconnecting subject positions across the gulf of
change is what constitutes the formation of self. All self is built
over the threat of change. There can be no self until there is an
awareness of one's subject position, which can only be created
by the threat of change or the memory of change. Every change
creates a fracture between successive subject states, that narrative
attempts and fails to heal. The self is formed over these cracks.
Every self is multiply fractured, and narrative traversal of these
fracture planes defines the self. Narrative is the traditional and
indispensable instrument of self creation.

It is this definition of narrative and Antin's own exploration of that genre in his "talk poems" that came eventually to define his art. One must understand the picture on the cover, accordingly, not just as an encounter of an older Antin with a newer one, but one kind of self facing the spectre of another and redefining that vision of self in the process. And in that sense, the image on the cover is a slightly disturbing vision of these two selves coming together almost to duke it out over the changes that have obviously occurred in the writer's own life, one might say, another kind of "radical coherency."

Yet I was struck in these revelatory essays, at how much continuity Antin demonstrates in a writing that bridges 39 years. There are only four works that actually fit the format of what the author describes as "talk poems" here ("the existential allegory of the rothko chapel," the title piece, "radical coherency," "the death of the hired man," and "john cage uncaged is still cagey," although Antin tells me that "Fine Furs" was originally written in the form, but later transformed into an essay), but I would argue that all of the pieces in this volume have the same Antin inflections of voice and structural patterns as his later works. Antin's is a voice filled with pauses, not always at the place one might suspect, but as in Stein, always there as part of the syntax itself. These caesuras are a product of Antin's whole process, which is so different from most critical writing that it is sometimes difficult to think of Antin setting out to write an "essay." For Antin does not "answer" anything, but poses of each artist, poet or groups of these, questions which he then ponders and pauses over in sentence after sentence, wandering and wondering aloud in astoundingly profound ways, how and why certain things are being said or done. Occasionally, for Antin is a true wit, these can be somewhat whimsical—in "Warhol: The Silver Tenement," for example, Antin's major summary is that in order for Warhol's beautiful creations to succeed, they must necessarily develop "scuffs," transforming his paintings, films, novels, soap operas, and even his planned "silver tenement" into a kind of "precisely pinpointed defectiveness," a kind of tawdry version of glamour—but by and large, no matter what his own position about the quality or purposefulness of the various art and poetic endeavors upon which he focuses, Antin asks serious questions, challenges set notions, and makes us rethink our assumptions.

In order to cover a large range of territory, Antin has clearly winnowed down what was to have been a far bigger book with numerous other essays (sometimes on the same artist at different periods in his or her career) into a whole that explores various aspects of the art scene from the mid-1960s through today. From Pop art, Antin moves on to the new representational work of artists like Alex Katz, taking out time in a wonderfully, slightly daffy piece to consider the work of machine-builders such as Jean Tinguely, before turning his attention to a "Pollution Show" in Oakland, California, consisting of photographs, drawings, kinetic junk sculpture, funk, discreet piles of rubbish, and even a dead seagull.

From these "earthwork" pieces, the author turns his attention to different kinds and traditions of constructivism and the issues of flatness in contemporary art, moving through Sol Lewitt, Robert Irwin, Michael Asher, Carl Andre and others. This is followed by a bruising criticism of the famed "Art and Technology," show, organized by Maurice Tuchman at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1971. Later essays include discussions of video art, an hilarious consideration—using the example of artist Robert Morris—of how one might comprehend the "proprietary rights" of an artist, followed by a sensitive evaluation of the color fields of Rothko's art in Houston's Rothko Chapel, often viewed under the light of clouded skies, and ending with a reevaluation of performance artist Allan Kaprow. In short, Antin's writing serves almost as a textbook, without textbook-like presentations and conclusions, of what art meant throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

I should add that not only can I hear Antin's voice in all these pieces but I perceive his various viewpoints as splendidly personal appreciations or disparagements. Reading Antin on art is as if one were accompanying a lively friend or uncle on trips to the museums and galleries throughout the country over a period of several years, the only way one can truly come to know and appreciate art.

Miraculously Antin does the same thing for literature, beginning with a substantial essay exploring issues of modernism and postmodernism in American poetry long before, 1972, anyone else had thoroughly considered these issues in depth. I remember sitting in Marjorie Perloff's class—Marjorie being one of Antin's first major critical supporters—four years later, where we still hadn't accepted the idea of there being a "postmodern" poetry. Antin was there first! His "Some Questions about Modernism" bravely explores, again long before it had been done by others, notions of different kinds of modernism, opening up all kinds of literary texts that move away from the Pound-Williams-Eliot-Stevens kind of poetic genealogy.

"Radical Coherency" humorously discusses the concept through a visit to a large shopping mall store where he attempts to help his elderly mother pick out some undergarments, priced at the amount she has been used to paying for years. That metaphor, of bargain shops within large clothing sections, striated by aisles and aisles of other ready-to-purchase goods, probably does more to explain what we might mean by a coherent thing that has radically exploded to contain all sorts of strange categories and subdivisions to meet the needs of contemporary culture.

Essays like "The Stranger at the Door," the already-discussed "The Beggar and the King," and "Fine Furs," open up the whole notion of what a poem is or might be understood to be. In one of the funniest works of the entire book, "the death of the hired hand," Antin deconstructs some of the poetry of Robert Frost (and incidentally, of my artist acquaintance, Siah Armajani's poetry room, in which Antin speaks). Antin's discussion of the kind of dishonesty—a "wearing of hats" as he terms it—of Frost's diction and poetic positioning will forever change, I can assure you, the way you see this plain carpenter of imitative New England poetic dialogues.

The penultimate essay is a brilliant reconsideration of Wittgenstein's work in the context of some critics' contention that his philosophical studies are also works of poetry. Antin dares to ask and attempts to explain just what that poetry might consist of, and how, sometimes rather strangely, it functions as such. In the last essay, "john cage uncaged is still cagey," Antin takes on work that has perhaps been very influential to his own writing, suggesting how the performances of this "cagey" composer, collector of mushrooms, and sometimes unofficial manager of Merce Cunningham's dance company, function as poetic events.

There are a few minor quibbles with Antin's book, namely concerning the lack of information the author provides about some of the artists and events on which writes. It would be useful to know the names and places of the shows he reviewed, in one case in particular, Antin, a close friend of the artist, does not ever mention Allan (Kaprow's) last name! It occurs only in a footnote. But these are small matters that might have been ameliorated by more editorial involvement.

The book as a whole is a stunning summary (although there are dozens of other works by Antin remaining to be republished) of one of our most engaging and challenging intellects. Radical Coherency is filled with the goods you can enjoy again and again.

Los Angeles, May 17, 2011

Monday, June 13, 2011



With its often overcast sky, its tall houses reflecting into the canals, and with streets dedicated more to bicycles than either cars or pedestrians, Amsterdam is a nearly impossible city to experience. There seems to be no way to see it.

When I checked into my hotel, the Eden—comfortably located in the midst of nearly everything—my room was not ready, so tired as I was from the travel, I determined to take a look at the renowned red light district nearby. But hardly had I got out of the hotel door, when a bicycle crashed into me, throwing both me and the rider onto the concrete. "Watch where you're going," he shouted out in English.

"Are you okay?" I asked, checking my own pained limbs simultaneously. He stood, shook himself off and sped away.

I had not noticed that what I thought was a walkway for human beings was the lane for masses of speeding bikes. At some points in the narrow streets, it was safer to duel with the car than with the revered two-wheeler.

The red light district, so I discovered, no longer exists—except for heterosexual men desperate for a quickie. I should have realized that there is no longer any need of printed pornography since the computer stores images and even whole movies so conveniently. The entire area is on the remake, slowly gussying itself up as a tourist destination, with only some isolated back lanes of glass covered booths wherein dreadful looking prostitutes await, pounding the glass as any man passes. Busloads of tourists were told that "here you can get whatever you seek," but I no longer believed them. There were only a few gay stores left, and some of them were now sleek boutiques filled with Sadomasochistic costumes and machines for which I could not even imagine a use.

I visited a couple of lovely bookstores, and returned to my hotel, which was certainly not elegant, but comfortable enough, even if I had to sit at the lobby-located bar to use my laptop. But then, I like to write and drink.

For dinner, I asked the concierge to suggest an old-fashioned Dutch restaurant that might serve fish, since I was in the mood for it, and could only imagine that with all the water hereabouts fish should be as bountiful as in Scandinavia. He suggested Sluizer on Utrectsestratt, perfect for my taste!

I saw wonderful platters of fish being served, but inexplicably ordered Weinerschnitzel with pommes frites. What I hadn't expected, but quickly perceived, was that nearly any food in both the Netherlands and Belgium would be accompanied by mayonnaise and other sauces. I chose not to participate in the national passion for cholesterol.

The next day, I would be leaving by an afternoon train to Paris, so, after an early continental breakfast, I hiked about the neighborhood in search of another room, since I'd been told that when I planned to return to Amsterdam for a few days after my travels in France and Belgium, the hotel was booked up. Several other hotels looked suitable enough and were accommodatingly priced, but they also had no rooms available. Finally, I spotted a small hotel facing the same canal opposite the Eden. The man behind the counter, who seemed also to own the small establishment, appeared to be gay, and rooms were available, so I booked.

Returning more than a week later, I was asked by the same gentleman if instead of a room I might like to stay in a nearby apartment the hotel owned or even on the houseboat docked in the canal in front. I was tempted by the latter just for the oddity of it, but the weather look chancey, and a bobbing, rain-splattered night appeared in store, so I chose the apartment. It was not elegantly decorated, but certainly had a sense of student-like flair, with furniture, it appeared, like the kind you find at Ikea. A rather large living room faced the kitchen and dining room, with a commodious bedroom with a large double and single beds behind sliding doors. It was perfect, I realized, since I was too tired to walk endlessly about the city in search of something to do. Most of the museums, I was told, were being restored, and had closed down large numbers of their galleries. Amsterdam still seemed bleak and difficult to get an image of.

I walked the flower market, I marched through Rembrandt Square, I wandered the opera house nearby, dropped into pubs, and met for lunch with Tom Möhlmann from the Dutch Translation offices, along with the vivacious Diane Butterman, who was translating the complete poems of Lucebert for us. At that pleasant lunch, on the top of a department store, I could, for the first time, actually glimpse a vista of the city. Perhaps I should have visited several churches, seeking out their bell towers. But I was happy at the large, circular table the hotel had provided for the apartment, upon which I had placed my laptop.

I wrote several pieces and, in pausing, stared down from the flower-leaden balcony at the mobs of soccer fans below, totally pleased with myself.

Bicycles spun down the streets with an abandon I no longer had to dodge.

One evening I ate what amounted to a feast at a nearby Indonesian restaurant, a delicious meal. I returned to Sluizer, this time to eat the previously-proffered fish, and the next night dined upon an overly rich meal of French oysters followed by veal medallions smothered in a sauce of mushrooms and sweetbreads with mashed potatoes patterned into small, dumpling-like mounds at Flo Brasserie. An economics professor and his psychologist wife conversed with me from the next booth over. Hearing I was a poet, he informed me that one of his colleagues uses Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" as the perfect metaphor for economic theory. I laughed, thinking to myself, "Oh, those clever Dutch. They've found the perfect role for Frost!

The next morning a taxi appeared, the driver helping me carry the big suitcase I'd come to call my "maiden aunt" down the stairs, maneuvering it into the trunk, then whisked me away to Schipol Airport, where I was charged $100 for the burdensome aunt.

Amsterdam, June 8, 2010

Friday, May 27, 2011

Casting Out the Self (on Wagner's Die Walkure at the Met)


Richard Wagner Die Walküre / The Metropolitan Opera, New York, live in HD broadcast, May 14, 2011

One of the major questions of Wagner's great opera, Die Walküre, is how it is possible to cast out or renounce oneself, and a great deal of the argumentative and pleading discussion between Wotan and his warrior daughter, Brünnhilde, is precisely about this issue. She claims, rightfully, that in protecting Siegmund she has only followed the will of Wotan, even if it is no longer his stated command. She is, she argues, only a manifestation of his will, and has no other existence. On his part, Wotan must suffer the strictures of his own laws, particularly since he has himself ignored those laws in search of power and love. Fricka, who insists on his destroying Siegmund in favor of Hunding, may seem unable to comprehend love or even less, unable to forgive, but she is right: Wotan has disobeyed his own rules, and so too have his offspring, the brother and sister lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde.

In this opera, Wotan painfully loses those whom he loves most, Siegmund and Brünnhilde, in order to obey his own proclamations. Suddenly the omnipotent god must be punished for his own sins. And, in that sense, he is, symbolically speaking, renouncing his own power; by casting out Brünnhilde from Valhalla, he is also assuring his own destruction and, ultimately the fall of the gods.Brünnhilde, now human, becomes a kind of Christ-like figure who shifts the center of reality from heaven and the underworld to earth itself.

It is for these very reasons, I would argue, that, although there is great music and drama in the other operas of the Ring cycle, Die Walküre is the most poignant, the easiest of all to hear and love.

Strangely, a similar "outcasting" almost happens with the god of this new Met production, director Robert Lepage, and most of the opera's characters. The final Met live-in-HD broadcast production of the season began 45 minutes late, having suffered, we were told during the first intermission, computer difficulties of the great, galumping, set of 24 rotating planks at the center of this production.

People patiently waited it seemed, both inside the opera house and at my movie theater, yet there was a sense, that only grew as the production got underway, that the wonderful performers— Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde), Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund), Bryn Terfel (Wotan), and Hans-Peter König (Hunding)—were now subject to the directorially created machine. Kaufmann was a stunning Siegmund, portraying a character with whom the audience could not help but be sympathetic, as he and the lonely wife of Hunding, Sieglinde, slowly fall in love. The planks, standing linearly to suggest a forest of trees, was quite effective, except that the image projected upon them was also reflected across the faces of singers (primarily Hunding).

The great ride of the Valkyries was quite terrifying given the see-saw movements of Brünnhilde and her sisters, particularly after we had been told, during another intermission, that in some of the early productions dresses had been caught in the apparatus. I am afraid that I missed a few of the Valkyrie's cries simply worrying about the actors as they slid one by one down the planks to the floor.

At one stunning moment, as Brünnhilde was left by Wotan on her burning rock, the apparatus rose to the heavens, with a body-double Brünnhilde suspended upside down over the fire, one felt that the machine had finally done something, created a kind of cinematic effect, that would have been otherwise impossible.

Yet for all that, I was, as my companion Howard had noted about Das Rheingold, under-impressed by this expensive machine (estimated at costing over forty million dollars), so heavy that the Met needed to reinforce the underpinnings of the stage itself. As some critics have suggested, it seems that the singing, excellent as it is in this production, was sacrificed to the art of staging.

It seems to me, moreover, that the kinds of effects achieved—far tamer than the recent Archim Freyer production in Los Angeles—might have been accomplished with more standard stage devices, light, scrims, etc.

Let us hope that in Siegfried and Götterdammerung Lepage might find a way to justify the immense cost of his device without ousting Wagner's singers from the stage!

Los Angeles, May 27, 2011