November 26, 2015

Music school and Burger King: a Thanksgiving memory

I began my doctoral studies at Northwestern University in January, 1977. I was a newlywed piano performance major with big plans, big dreams and a taste for Liszt and Rachmaninov. Finances were tight, so both my bride and I got part-time jobs at the Burger King across the street from the School of Music. For any Wildcats out there reading this post, that was the old School of Music downtown, not the shiny fancy lakefront location today's students enjoy. Nope, we practiced and studied in a creaky edifice converted from a women's dormatory. It was..... quaint.
Festive holiday feast, 1978, Evanston IL

But with today being Thanksgiving (and I hope all my Faithful Readers are having a great one!), my thoughts turned to the Least Festive Thanksgiving In Recorded History, and I thought I'd share some Burger King memories with you.

If nothing else, and presuming that you yourself were never employed at a fast-food joint, it'll give you one more thing to be thankful for.

So this was probably November of 1978, and I had to work at the King on Thanksgiving Day. "Well," I thought with remarkable foresight, "it'll make a good story years from now." Was it a slow day? Well, naturally - normal people are interacting with loved ones, arguing about politics and watching football, even though entrepreneurs had yet to give us Draft Kings and betting on the NFL was still largely confined to Vegas and Reno.

Yes, the hours passed slowly through what normally was the time block of "lunch rush". But here's the thing that struck me:

Several of the lunch "regulars" came in as usual, and ordered the same damn meal they ordered every other day. 

Now THAT'S sad.

There was a tall, gangly middle-aged guy with a pasty complexion, a permanently stone-faced expression and military buzzcut who always came in at noon and ordered two plain Double Whoppers, no cheese, just meat and bread, and two small cartons of milk.

Every day, five days a week.

And here he came through the doors on Thanksgiving Day, stepping up to the register.

And ordered his usual.

I wanted to say "Dude!" (Was "dude" a thing in 1978? Not sure...) "It's THANKSGIVING! Put some ketchup and mustard on it! Get some onion rings! Get the apple pie! SOMETHING!"

But of course, I kept my peace, took his money, made change, and handed him a tray of steaming beef and (hopefully, but no guarantee) fresh milk.

It really was part of my education to work at a fast food enterprise. Everyone should do it for a short while. Here are some other random B.K. memories:

When you start working there, the manager schools you in the proper way to apply ketchup on a burger. For the record, you're supposed to swirl it in perfect concentric circles beginning in the center of the patty. In actual practice, of course, it's busy and you're twelve orders behind, the cashiers are yelling at you, and so you grab the ketchup bottle and give one big SPLOOTCH that leaves the burger looking like the victim of an axe murderer. Pretty sure it ends up tasting the same.

Every now and then, when you're working up front as cashier, the manager orders you to push one particular side item or dessert. One time I was instructed to push onion rings with every order. Now, I'm fairly passive by nature and don't like to be pushy in the first place, so this made me uncomfortable. One afternoon, a harried businessman in a three-piece suit hurried in. The following scene ensued:

BUSINESSMAN: Coffee to go, please.
ME: Cream and sugar?
BUSINESSMAN: (testily) No! Black. I'm in a hurry.
ME: (with the manager eyeing me carefully) Would... *ahem* ...would you, um, like... onion rings with that?

This is a family blog (sort of), so I will not print his response. It was colorful.

Here's a tip for you fast-food freaks. Burger King makes a big deal out of special orders, right? One of their vintage TV jingles intoned "Have it YOURRRR way, HAVE it your wayyyyy". The company policy was that if a burger was made incorrectly, the customer could have a new one made at no charge. So people would take advantage of this. Quite often someone would bring back a double cheeseburger with one small bite remaining and complain: "Excuse me, but this was supposed to have no mustard." Sure enough, there was a smear of yellow on that remaining tablespoon of sandwich. They got a new one, no questions asked.

Finally, I remember the time we ran out of buns. That's right: the burger joint ran out of hamburger buns. Not every store manager is blessed with planning skills; they just hadn't order enough. So I, your Humble Blogger, was given a hundred bucks in cash and a mission: drive to every grocery store in Evanston IL and buy up hamburger buns.

That day, customers got their burgers on some unusual buns: some were whole wheat, some had no sesame seeds, and there was no help for it.

I hope your holiday feast is better than a couple of plain double burgers with milk!

...Unless that's your regular...

November 21, 2015

Why great opera music doesn't have to be great music to be great

When I travel around Virginia teaching opera classes or speaking to groups about opera, I sometimes get feedback like this:
Giuseppe Verdi: master of irony

"Glenn, all this information you give us is interesting, of course, but I'm going to confess something to you. When I go to the opera, I don't read the plot synopsis or read the super-titles or listen for the motifs or whatever. I just sit back, close my eyes, and enjoy the beauty of the music and the lovely voices singing it."


I really wish people wouldn't tell me things like that.

It's not that I don't understand where they're coming from; I do! And there is a degree to which great operas can be enjoyed merely for the surface attractiveness - or "greatness" - of the music. There's a lot of seriously beautiful, eloquent, profound, complex and utterly moving music in the operas we love. But one of my mantras as an opera educator is this: An opera is not a concert! Opera is theater!

There are numerous passages in the standard operatic repertoire which, if first encoutered on the car radio or via CD, would fail to measure up to a Beethoven concerto, a Brahms symphony, a Chopin ballade or some mountain-top piece of concert music.

There are, to be blunt, moments in several operas that, if heard out of theatrical context, would sound dorky, cheesy, trite, or all of the above to the uninitiated listener.

But that doesn't mean they aren't "great"! My theory: the most important quality of operatic music in rating its merit is appropriateness. Every musical idea in an operatic score must be:
  • appropriate to the character;
  • appropriate to the action;
  • appropriate to the words being sung; and
  • appropriate to the psychology of the scene.
Putting things at the simplest level: if a character is simple-minded, should it surprise us if his music is simple-minded as well? We also can't forget that irony is one of the chief weapons in the arsenal of effects available to composers of operas. Much of what's too often assumed to be shoddy is, in fact, pointed irony.

With this in mind, let me illustrate the point with a few examples of operatic passages that are "great" for their theatrical/dramatic value more than for intrinsic musical "greatness"; passages that, if first heard on the radio, might impel one to change the dial while muttering "Geez, opera is so tacky sometimes."

The Entr'acte before Act 2 of Donizetti's La fille du régiment. This lame little waltz for solo violin is so insipid that it rivals the lamest portions of Mozart's A Musical Joke. It begins around the 1:16:45 mark of this video of the opera. Here we have music that just begs one to skip ahead to the next track on a CD and move on to some comedy. But that misses the point that Donizetti is providing some wickedly witty commentary on Marie's new circumstances. This tomboy-ish daughter of the regiment, thanks to an Act 1 plot twist, has left military life to take up residence in a mansion with her high-society, elitist new relatives. The composer uses his drab waltz-tune to describe the bloodless, lifeless, useless milieu of the wealthy snobs who have claimed her. As a waltz, it's forgettable. As a foreshadowing of Marie's fish-out-of-water problem, it's perfect. It's.....  GREAT.

"Bella vita militar", chorus in Mozart's Così fan tutte. Let's just agree that, as a specimen of choral music, this little march (which you can hear at this link) ranks well below Brahms' Schicksalslied or Verdi's "Va, pensiero" from Nabucco. In this case, there is a cartoonish quality that is exactly what Mozart had in mind. Così is an absurd farce. The departure of the two soldier boys from their respective lovers is comically ridiculous, as is much of the action, including the moment when Despina produces her Big Giant Magnet to restore the "Albanians" to health. This is 18th-century Monty Python. Now, I'm the first to admit that Mozart has a seriouis and profound underlying message beneath the farce; but that's a subtlety. On the surface, nonsense prevails. The little chorus of villagers celebrating the valor of Ferrando and Guglielmo is thus appropriately pat and nonsensical. Who told these villagers about Ferrando & Guglielmo's plans? How did they know to show up? Are they in on the joke? It doesn't matter - they're a cartoon! It's perfect. It's......... GREAT.
And, sticking with Mozart for the moment, there's

Masetto's aria in Don Giovanni. If you'll scroll up a few paragraphs, I believe you'll see I used the word "simple-minded". Hello, Masetto!!! When the title character neatly elbows Zerlina's bridegroom out of the picture prior to wooing her, Masetto is rewarded with a short exit aria during which he pouts mightily at the turn of events. This aria: it's unimaginative harmonic scheme (lots and lots of toggling between tonic and dominant) is matched by its melodic plainness and lack of vocal virtuosity. All of this makes it perfect for Masetto! He's a plodding peasant; a country bumpkin; a good-hearted oaf. He'll spend his days laboring in the fields under the sun, never thinking about much besides dinner and taking Zerlina to bed. The small expressive scope of his solo is perfect for his small mind. Even when sung by an artist like Ferrucio Furlanetto as in this recording, Masetto's attempts to summon up heroic indignation are weak tea. It's perfect for Masetto. It's.......... GREAT.

The entrance of King Duncan in Verdi's Macbeth. Some of those operaphiles who revere Verdi as the god he was find themselves making excuses for passages in the operas of his early period. This holds especially true in his treatment of the orchestra, the so-called "big guitar" effect of too much oom-pah-pah. The parade of Duncan's retinue passing by Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth in Act 1, heard beginning at 26:36 in this recording, is less big guitar than a rural village dance band. You know those village bands that always turn up to welcome visiting mafiosi in the "Godfather" movies? They have their roots in this provincial, inelegant tune. If your car radio came on while this was playing, you'd be forgiven if your reaction was along the lines of "Sheesh - it ain't exactly La Mer, is it?" Dorothy Parker's quip about Katharine Hepburn displaying "the gamut of emotions from A to B" might apply to the range of orchestral color and overall musical sophistication in this banal episode. And that's what makes it great. No composer ever exceeded Verdi's grasp of dramatic irony and human psychology. Duncan's entrance is his only appearance in the opera, and he never speaks or sings a single word. He appears less as a flesh-and-blood human being than as a figurehead. Lady Macbeth is inciting her husband to commit an act of horrific violence. In order to bring himself to the point of following through with it, Macbeth must detach himself from the reality of Duncan's humanity and see him as merely the obstacle to his own advancement and success. The banality of the music lends an unreality to the king's procession, detaching him from the visceral passions and desires of the Macbeths. Verdi is allowing the music to establish point of view: we see Duncan through the filter of Macbeth's objectification. It's perfect. It's........ GREAT.

I'm not saying all opera music is great. Oh good Lord, no. There are, in this world, bad operas, bad ballets, bad symphonies, bad sonatas, bad jazz, bad Broadway musicals, and bad rock bands. LOTS of bad rock bands, let's be honest. And bad restaurants, don't get me started - whole other blog. What I AM saying is that you can't judge from your radio or home stereo whether a moment in opera is bad, or ironic.

You have to see the show to know for sure.

November 15, 2015

Chef Puccini reduces the Bohème sauce

La Bohème is remarkable not least for its fast pace. There are literally no dead spots in this opera; no soybean meal in the hamburger. That's not always true of masterpieces! I personally love Mozart's Marriage of Figaro more than Bohème, but I will confess that I squirm a little during Barbarina's little solo at the top of Act 4. And I'm grateful that the arias originally assigned to Basilio and Marcellina are virtually always cut.
A nice intense white wine sauce
photo courtesy of Adrian Dreßler

But in La Bohème, even expository dialogue is set to engaging music and every sequence seems essential. So my question: which moment or scene is the best? There are lots of candidates:
  • The back-to-back arias for Rodolfo and Mimi in Act 1, which are (as far as I know) the first time two arias had not so much as a single syllable of dialogue or plot advancement between them;
  • The end of Act 2 beginning with Musetta's "Quando me'n vo", remarkable for the use of a stand-alone aria to advance the narrative flow rather than interrupt it, and the way it expands and grows into a giant ensemble for all principals and chorus; and
  • Mimi's death scene, probably the greatest tear-jerker in opera history.
But I think those are all tied for second place behind the moment I consider not only the greatest moment in La Bohème, but a moment I would nominate to be included in a list of the best-crafted numbers in all of opera.

That would be the quartet in Act 3. This simultaneous break-up of the two romantic couples is about as good as opera composition gets. This is a composer at the height of his considerable powers. Is it the greatest music in opera? Well, no. But I'm talking about the craft of opera-writing, and in its conciseness, clarity of texture, vivid characterization and extra-musical meaning, Puccini's craftsmanship is simply staggering.


Are you into cooking? I confess that most Saturday mornings find me watching a series of cooking shows on public TV. I especially like Jacques Pepin and Vivian Howard, as much for their charm as their recipes. Now, once you start dallying in the world of cooking, you soon pick up a lot of jargon. As an example, what does it mean when a recipe directs one to "reduce the sauce"? Stated simply, this means to boil or simmer a sauce with lots of liquid until most of the liquid has evaporated. What remains in the pan is rendered more concentrated, the flavor greatly intensified.

That's what Puccini accomplished in this quartet.

Look: as I stated in an earlier post, one of the structural premises of this opera is the balanced and symmetrical contrast of comedy and drama. Here's the little chart of Bohème's structure I drew (rather exquisitely, wouldn't you say?) to illustrate the point. (Obviously, C = comedy and D = drama)

Fine. We toggle back and forth between laughs and pathos like flicking a light switch on and off. We grasp that Mimi/Rodolfo are the tragic couple whereas Musetta/Marcello are the (mostly) comic couple. Yin and Yang.

So: see what's happening in the quartet? This entire concept, which took two entire acts to introduce, is now boiled down to one six-minute ensemble in which the pathos and comedy of young love's struggles happen simultaneously.

What's more: there are moments, once Musetta enters in full hissy-fit mode, in which all four characters are speaking at the same time. Because I'm no spring chicken, I recall that in one of Leonard Bernstein's Omnibus television programs from the 1960's in which his subject was opera, he invited four stage actors to act out the Bohème quartet, speaking the lines as if in a stage play. The result was a muddle of too many voices at one time, creating incoherent babble. Then he had vocal artists come on and sing the number. Of course, the musical treatment makes everything crystal clear. Mimi and Rodolfo's nostalgic outpourings serve as a kind of descant to the more conversational cadence of Musetta and Marcello. It's so clear, in fact, that translations are hardly needed. I was a boy of twelve when I first listened to this opera, and without following a libretto I knew intuitively what was going on.

But there's a touch of genius at the climax of this ensemble that I believe escapes 95% of those who know it; even those who know it well. It has to do with the surprising appearance of a particular musical motive at the climax of the quartet.

Puccini's operas are filled with musical motives representing characters, objects or concepts. It's kind of a watered-down version of Wagner's more comprehensive textures built on "leading motives", but still makes for fairly tight construction and economy of means. An example of  a motive representing an object is the short phrase that always appears at any mention of the bonnet Rodolfo buys for Mimi in Act 2:

Several characters have their own individual motivic signatures. Rodolfo's, for example, is the jaunty phrase to which he sings his opening lines.

Mimi's is the legato ascending figure heard in the strings when she steps into the garret; it becomes the opening phrase of "Mi chiamano Mimi".

But, as with Wagner, I believe ideas and concepts are also represented in musical terms. The one I want you to observe is found in the first four notes of the opera. In fact, counting the original motive and its melodic inversion, these four notes are heard six times before the orchestra continues with new material:

These four notes, which I will refer to as "pa-dum-pum-pum" because that's what they sound like, are vigorous and energetic. I believe Puccini means the motive to represent the youthful energy of the four bohemians. "Pa-dum-pum-pum" recurs like punctuation throughout the comic half of Act 1, constantly reminding us of the ebullient (not to mention recklessly irresponsible) nature of the would-be artistes.

"Pa-dum-pum-pum" retreats once Mimi makes her entrance and does is not a factor in Act 2, or the portions of Act 3 featuring Marcello's interaction with Mimi and then Rodolfo. HOWEVER: listen to this recording of the quartet, skipping ahead to the 3:10 mark. Rodolfo and Mimi are waxing poetic about the evening breeze "spreading balm over human suffering"; Musetta is defiantly stating she'll make love to anyone she chooses, and Marcello hurling his own invective. Listen, just before the big climax, to the brass instruments. It's "PA-DUM-PUM-PUM", blaring out like gangbusters.

What does it mean? Puccini is dead, so we can't email him and ask him, so I'll tell you what I think.

I think it's an example of a composer inserting a bit of his own personal commentary on the characters. I think Puccini intends for us to recognize our own youthful selves as we watch the two couples breaking up, one with pathos and the other in a shouting match. Puccini remembers his own romantic misadventures from his own bohemian days. He was always a ladies' man, and did not always treat women in a way he could look back on with pride. He knows, Faithful Readers, that you and I might look back with discomfort, regret and perhaps a bit of shame at our immature, groping, struggling attempts to function as adults in our first romantic relationships.

Like the two couples in Bohème, it's likely we weren't always successful at the "mature grown-up" thing.

Puccini, in choosing the climax of the quartet to re-introduce the "Pa-dum-pum-pum" motive of Youth, is saying directly to every member of his audience: "Look at these four people: They're. So. Young. They have so much to learn about life and love! Do you remember, my friends of the audience? Do you remember when you were that young? I do, and I'll bet you do too."

That's what "Pa-dum-pum-pum" means, both in that climactic moment and the two further repetitions that follow with solo oboe in the bittersweet coda with Mimi and Rodolfo.

And it's great. THIS sauce has lots of flavor - LOTS.

November 8, 2015

So whatever became of those four bohemians, anyway?

La Bohème ends with the death of Mimi, but life is just beginning for the other five principal characters. Do you ever wonder what happened to them later in life? What were they all doing ten years later? Will any of the four struggling artists end up "making it" in their chosen fields? Will Musetta settle down with Marcello or leave him for good to live the good life on the dime of another wealthy geezer?
Colline is pretty much done with these.

I think I know, because the libretto offers hints. Let's indulge in a little speculation. C'mon, it'll be fun!

I give him a 0% chance of becoming a writer. It's. Not. Gonna. Happen. He's constantly "talking the talk" about being a poet, but he doesn't exactly "write the write", so to speak. In his aria, he boasts: "Who am I? I'm a poet." When introducing Mimi to his friends in Act 2, he says "I am the poet and she is the poetry". And even when they're breaking up in Act 3 and Mimi cites the "bitterness" of their relationship, he can't resist playing the poet card again: "...which I, poet that I am, would rhyme with caress".

But all this is belied by what happens every time he tries to buckle down and get something down on paper:

Nothing. Bupkis. Squadoosh. He has three observed opportunities to write:
  • At the top of Act 1 as the curtain is rising, Marcello the painter is standing at his easel, busily working on his painting of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. Rodolfo? He's staring out the window at Paris, "looking at the skies gray with smoke".
  • Later in Act 1, when the other boys are ready to head out to Café Momus for Christmas dinner, Rodolfo stays behind to finish an article for some journal called "The Beaver" (sounds like a college newspaper, doesn't it? Is Rodolfo the editor of his campus paper?). After about 10 seconds of "I'm a busy boy" flute music, he says to no one in particular, "I'm not in the mood". Big surprise! And finally,
  • In Act 4, the curtain rises to provide a bit of deja vu: we're back in the garret, with Marcello painting and Rodolfo writing. Predictably, Rodolfo gives up, this time blaming his "terrible pen". Yes, I know, Marcello also quits, but by now he's got more credibility. We learned in Act 3 that he's been working as an artist at that tavern.
Some writer! He's a "poet" in the same way that your waitress at Olive Garden is an "actress" because she was an extra in a music video three years ago. Add to all this the fact that Rodolfo was quite sanguine about throwing his five-act play into the stove for a few seconds of heat, and you have to conclude that something is lacking in this would-be Verlaine.

My theory: Mimi's death left him with permanent writer's block as he realized how badly he'd blown it in his treatment of her. Eventually, he became a school teacher, sharing his love of poetry with children. Nothing wrong with that. 

As for romance, I see him having one or two more affairs, but with no more success than he found with Mimi. A jealous nature is one of those personality traits that is pretty difficult to fix in adulthood, wouldn't you say? It might always end up being a deal-breaker with his romantic partners. But he'll be a fine teacher!

I think he makes it as an artist. He may or may not go down as an immortal, but I feel pretty confidant he'll earn a decent living in the field of his choice. The opening moments make it clear that his work ethic is far superior to Rodolfo's. He, like his friend, is freezing in the unheated apartment. But instead of grousing about it and staring out the window, he channels his frustration into his painting. He turns to his work! When Brahms was grieving about the death of Clara Schumann, he didn't stare out the window; he wrote the elegy that became the slow movement of his D Minor Piano Concerto. 

Also, as mentioned above, Marcello had a gig going for himself at the tavern. There are lots of taverns in France. He'll find another one.

His affair with Musetta? I think they end up together and get married. There's a telling and suggestive moment in Mimi's death scene. Musetta has decided to sacrifice some jewelry to pay for a doctor. Marcello agrees to attend to finding a doctor, and Musetta says, quite deliberately, "I'll go with you". It's noteworthy that the orchestra drops out completely as she delivers that line; Puccini wants to make sure we hear it. Marcello has already said to Mimi that he knows exactly how good Musetta is, and now she says "I'll go with you." This sounds Biblical to me, as when Ruth says "Whithersoever thou shalt go, I will go" in the Old Testament. It sounds like a vow of fidelity to me. Mimi's death has made both Marcello and Musetta think hard about what really matters in life.

Will they stay married until "death does them part"? That's another matter. They both have volatile, artistic temperaments. One of their spats might prove to be a camel-back-breaking straw down the road. But regardless of the longevity of their relationship, I think wedding bells will sound shortly after the curtain falls on Bohème.

Our resident musician has an advantage over his three buddies: musicians can stand on street corners and play for passers-by, and they can audition for things like orchestras and chamber groups. Schaunard seems the least caught up in the whole "woe is me" soap-opera-ish doings of the others. He scored a good-paying gig in Act 1 and is not distracted by girl-problems. He'll be okay.

It must have surprised the audience at the premiere performance of  Bohème when Colline stepped forward to sing his solo "Vecchia zimarra", as up til that moment he was a minor figure, by far the least important of the bohemians. If they were Marx Brothers, Colline would be Zeppo. So his sudden melancholy farewell to his coat stands out, which makes us suspect it must be a significant moment.

It is.

In my first Bohème post, I stressed the theme of entering adulthood; that Mimi's mortality marks the precise moment when childish ways are put aside for good and the characters face grownup realities. In my opinion, Colline is not really saying goodbye to an article of clothing; he's saying goodbye to his youth, and also to his youthful dreams of being a great scholar.

Look at the text of his solo. He mentions that the pockets of that coat held poets and philosophers. We may take it, then, that the coat represents the world of scholarly study to Colline. So when he says "I'm staying behind, you'll go on to greater heights", here's what believe he's really saying:

Someone else will wear you. Your pockets will be filled with his academic books. He will become a distinguished professor or immortal philosopher - not me. 

Colline reminds me of that creature found at every great university: the perpetual doctoral candidate. I remember a woman named Mildred from my student days at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Mildred, who has likely passed on to the Big Garret In The Sky by now, had been pursuing her D.M.A. for several semester. That dissertation never seemed to progress. Five, six, seven semesters... and there was Mildred, just hanging around, with that degree remaining just as far away no matter how hard she swam towards it.

I would suggest that Colline is like Mildred. He's been sitting around on his butt, pawning books, buying more books, pawning those, and getting nowhere for some time now. Mimi's death is a dash of cold water in his face. It's time to stop piddling around reading books and live his life. He's going back to pitch in with the family business in whatever small town is his home.

What do you think? Disagree with me? My views of Rodolfo and Colline seem to align nicely with the ethos of verismo opera. Let's not romanticize opera characters! Let's allow ourselves to view them without rose-colored glasses! Let's give them the gift of being......  


November 1, 2015

Rodolfo: a very verismo boyfriend

Well, I sure didn't see that coming.

Act 3: the break-up quartet
(from The Victrola Book of the Opera)
I'm referring to the unexpected reaction to last week's La Bohème post about Mimi. My typical readership comes to a few hundred per week; this post drew a few thousand. Comments on social media ranged from whole-hearted agreement to the predictable group of those who want me to know that I don't "get it" - that I just don't understand the opera. Between those who approved of my take and those who didn't, my portrait of Mimi as a grisette became the second-most read item ever on this site.

Thanks, those of you who were kind enough to share, re-post and re-tweet. I appreciate it.

Oh, and if your reason for disputing my opinion was that I ignored the beauty of Mimi's music and failed to infer from that beauty that she is innocent, guileless and sweet, here's my response. Puccini's music is intended to compel us to like these characters. The composer had no interest in making Mimi unattractive or unlikeable simply because she is not perfect or saintly. Puccini, remember, literally fell in love with his female characters, Mimi included. His aim was to enable the audience to identify with the bohemians and their women; to empathize with them; to remember that we ourselves were similarly imperfect in our own coming-of-age struggles with romance. So the music is winningly passionate and lovely. Hey - none of those characters are lacking in passion, that much is clear.

SO: if your bowels were in an uproar over my take on Mimi, be prepared for what I believe the opera wants us to know about Rodolfo.

Rodolfo is a typical young man in the way he experiences his first great love affair. (Yes, though the libretto doesn't specify his romantic history, I'm speculating he's new to this kind of infatuation.)

He has no idea what love is! He talks about it, he's besotted with Mimi, he flings the word amore around freely, he believes that what he's experiencing is true love.

It may indeed be love, but (as with many young people) for Rodolfo, "love" is a fairly narcissistic and immature phenomenon. Young people in the throes of infatuation experience the object of their affection as a reflection of themselves. They're fascinated with how the relationship makes they themselves feel. They're prone to describing love in terms of their own sensations:

"My stomach is churning - I can't eat!"

"I can't concentrate!"

"It's like I'm burning up inside!"

"I'm tingling all over!"

Or, as Oscar Hammerstein II put it,
"I know how it feels to have wings on your heels, and to fly down the street in a trance."

That's all great! We should all get to feel that way at least once in life! But love? Real love is when you are equally concerned with how your partner feels; their wants and needs. Rodolfo, as the opera progresses, is mainly concerned with his own pleasure or lack of pleasure.

Notice how, from the outset, Rodolfo treats Mimi and how he expresses himself to her. After the great lyrical outburst of "O soave fanciulla", there is this exchange:

RODOLFO: Give me your arm, my little one.
MIMI: I obey, sir.
RODOLFO: Tell me you love me.
MIMI: I love you.

"Tell me you love me". Yes, because my male vanity wants to know I've successfully conquered the fair maid. Heaven forbid that I, the man, say those words to you.

In Act 2, which takes place perhaps thirty minutes later at most, Rodolfo is already sounding like a jealous idiot and exhibiting possessiveness. "Were you looking at him?" "A happy man is always a little jealous". And later, as Musetta creates an uproar flirting with Marcello, Rodolfo earnestly tells his new girlfriend, "If you were to behave like that, I'd never forgive you."

Oh, Rodolfo, what're you doing? You haven't even slept with her yet! Slow down, buddy!

And when he introduces Mimi to his friends, note that it's all about his self-image. "I am the poet, and she is the poetry." Could he be any more obvious about regarding his girlfriend as a reflection of himself? It's classic, actually.

It gets less attractive in Act 3. Rodolfo is hanging out with Marcello and Musetta in the warmth and comfort of the tavern, leaving Mimi to stomp alone through the cold and snow to find the painter and confide her desperate situation to him. Rodolfo, we learn, is acting like a jerk. The seeds of jealousy we observed in Act 2 have sprouted into a stinky weed of pathological dysfunction. He's angry and suspicious. Actually, he's abusive. If I behaved like that, my friends would hold and intervention -- which is sort of what Marcello does once Mimi conceals herself behind some trees to overhear their conversation.

When Rodolfo first emerges from the tavern to announce that he wants to leave Mimi, his music is deceptively bouncy and cavalier. He certainly doesn't sound angst-ridden. This is a subtle choice by Puccini, as it will become clear that Rodolfo is lying to himself as well as to Marcello. His lame excuses (the affair has become boring; Mimi is a flirt) are preceded with the phrase "I love Mimi, but......" etc. etc. NOTE: this is the only time in the opera he ever specifically says "I love Mimi"; he never says "I love you" to her face.

But when the truth finally emerges outside the tavern, Rodolfo's honesty does him little credit. The music turns serious and earnestly dramatic when the poet confesses that he's terrified by his lover's deteriorating health. He's very concerned that she is dying and, what's worse, the cold weather combined with his unheated apartment is aggravating her condition. For her own sake, they should part.

REALLY? "I love my girlfriend, but she's dying and my home is bad for her, so we should break up."


How about you do whatever it takes to GET HER TO A DOCTOR? How about THAT, lover?! How about you stop hanging out in the tavern and shovel coal or muck out barns or rob a bank or DO SOMETHING??

Rodolfo is no Des Grieux, the male lead in Puccini's previous work Manon Lescaut. Manon left the poor student Des Grieux, becoming Geronte's kept woman. Geronte eventually had her arrested on prostitution charges, leading to her being tried, convicted, and deported with a band of scuzzy whores to America.

And Des Grieux? He showed up at the dock, begging to join Manon in spite of dire warnings from the ship's captain. In the opera's final scene, they're wandering in a wilderness together without food and water.

Now that's love. That's the real deal. Atta boy, Des Grieux!

Rodolfo: observe and learn.

I would also caution you Faithful Readers not to over-romanticize Rodolfo's behavior in Act 4. Months later, as the scene begins, we learn via dialogue that the poet has not seen Mimi in some time; she's taken up with a wealthy Viscount. In his suavely melodic duet with Marcello, Rodolfo's tone is not that of a man in love; he's not tearing out his hair that he's lost the love of his life; he's not desperately searching Paris for her so he can beg her to take him back. Nope: they've broken up. His tone is nostalgically wistful, nothing more. And in this duet, he's not remembering how good she was; how his mis-judged her; her kindness or sweetness. Nope: he's remember how she looked. Her tiny hands, the way her hair smelled, her white neck. He's still objectifying her.

Of course, when Mimi arrives in the agony of her final minutes, Rodolfo feels terrible. He's not a monster; he's not a bad person, he's not stupid; Mimi was his lover and she's dying and he's aware of the tragedy taking place.

I believe he's experiencing an epiphany: the scope and extent of his mis-treatment and poor behavior is finally dawning on him. He's feeling guilty.

HOWEVER: note their interaction once the other bohemians have left and Mimi pours out her death-bed confession of love. As I pointed out last week, the reality of facing the end of her life has forced Mimi (as it forces all those facing terminal illness too young) of what really matters in life. She wants Rodolfo to know what she's figured out: that he was the great love of her life.

Rodolfo's response is telling. This is a moment when he could have responded. "Baby, I love you! I love you more than anything in the world, and I'm so sorry for the way I treated you! I love you with all my heart!"

He doesn't say that.

He says "Ah, Mimi; mia bella Mimi!" (Ah, Mimi, my beautiful Mimi.)

He doesn't - perhaps can't - say the "L word".

Okay, Readers! If you've made it this far and didn't get mad at me for being hard on your favorite tenor eight paragraphs ago, let me be clear.

Rodolfo isn't a bad person. He's not hard-hearted or mean or despicable.

He's YOUNG. He hasn't figured out grown-up stuff yet. He doesn't know what "true love" is.

"But Glenn! How can you listen to that magnificent love music and doubt that he loves her? That music PROVES that he loves her! Just listen to the music!!!"

I have. Over and over, for a half-century now. Listen to me, opera-lovers: the music proves that he believes that he loves her. The music adopts the point of view of "first person", as it were, inducing us to see Rodolfo as he sees himself: a man in love. But it's not a mature love. It's not Radames and Aida, or Leonora and Manrico, Or Beethoven's Leonora and Florestan. This is verismo opera, not fairy-tale opera. No knights in shining armor here, willing to die for his maiden fair.

How mature were YOU at age eighteen? Or twenty? Or however old these bohemians are supposed to be? Were you the perfect, mature partner in your first romantic relationship? Didn't you have a lot to learn? We're not meant to dislike Rodolfo. We're meant to recall the unwise moments of our own youthful experiences. The music allows us to do so.

The tragedy of La Bohème is that if Rodolfo does figure things out and learn from his mistakes and become less narcissistic about romance, it will be too late for Mimi. He will always look back on their affair with regret.

Personally, I wonder if his future relationships will be more functional. Pathological jealousy is not such an easy personality trait to control.

October 25, 2015

What Mimi is really saying in her first aria

I think most opera-lovers take Mimi's famous aria "Mi chiamano Mimi" at face value.

"La Grisette" by Constantin Guys
That's a mistake.

Because Mimi is 1) likeable and 2) doomed, opera-lovers tend to over-romanticize her. Most of you out there want -- no, need -- this young woman to be as sweet, loving, loyal, demure and guileless as she appears on the surface as she steps into Rodolfo's apartment. But it's important to bear in mind that this is one of Puccini's most verismo operas. Verismo, you'll recall, means "truth". For composers of the turn-of-the-century "nuova scuola" movement in Italian opera (such as Mascagni and Leoncavallo), this meant NO MORE FAIRY-TALE OPERAS.

No more dashing, brave, virtuous, noble tenor heroes.

No more black-hearted, purely-evil baritone villains.

And no more sweet, chaste, maidenly, faithful soprano heroines.

"People aren't perfect; we're all a messy conglomeration of good AND bad impulses", the verismo composers are saying.

In the case of Mimi, she is actually a fairly typical example of a type of19th-century working girl known as a grisette. (Click on the link for a bit of history.) Of course, opportunities for women were lamentably limited in the 1800's. A college education was a fantasy, as was a career in business, law or medicine. Women either found themselves a husband or, like Eliza Doolittle, aspired to a position in a flower shop, hat shop, or the like. But if you think we have salary inequality in 2015, imagine the pay scale for females in 1830! It wasn't enough to live on. So the working girls of Paris learned the cardinal rule of urban living: Do whatever you have to do to survive.

For the grisettes (so named because they tended to wear simple gray dresses), this often meant making oneself available to be picked up by a young man at a tavern or other gathering-place with the goal of getting him to buy her a meal. If he did, she would spend the evening with him, laughing at his jokes, going along with his plans, with one clear understanding:

There was a sexual quid pro quo to come.

At the end of the evening, she would repay his largesse by returning to his place and sleeping with him. The grisette's sexuality was an asset to be leveraged for the necessities of daily life. With that bit of social history as our frame of reference, let's examine the Mimi of Act 1.

I believe it's no coincidence that she happens to knock on Rodolfo's door immediately after the other three bohemians depart for the Latin Quarter. She's been waiting for such a moment, hoping to find "the cute one" alone in the garrett. Surely the ploy of her candle having gone out is rather flimsy; in fact, once he re-lights it, we see her deliberately blow it out again to prolong her visit. When Rodolfo offers her some wine, she doesn't say "No, no, thanks, nothing for me"; she takes it with no hesitation.  Now let's see what occurs in her great aria.

Rodolfo, remember, has just finished his "who am I?" monologue. Among other things, he states that he is a poet, and that, although poor, he is rich in dreams, fancies, and castles in the air. (And you thought that was an American English expression!)

When it's Mimi's return to talk, she says the following, explaining her fondness for flowers:
"I like those things that ... speak of dreams and of fancies; those things with the name of poetry".

Translation: "You like dreams and fancies? ME TOO! You like poetry? ME TOO!" Gee, what a co-inky-dink.

She continues:
"I make my meals alone, by myself." Translation: I'm available. No boyfriend. No competition for you.
"I don't always go to Mass," Translation: I'm not one of those goody-goody prudes; I'll "put out".
"But I often pray to the Lord." Translation: ...But I'm a nice girl; I'm not a slutty whore.
"I live alone. All alone." Translation: Again - no boyfriend. Gee whiz, I'm lonely and unattached.

And then comes a little line that seems insignificant, but I think is incredibly significant!
"There, in (my) little white room, I look over the roofs and into the sky."

What's the big deal about that, you ask? Think back to the opening moments of Act 1, after Marcello declares he's going to drown a Pharaoh. He asks Rodolfo what he's doing (since he's not doing any writing), and his friend answers:
"I'm looking out at the gray skies and the thousand smoking chimnies of Paris"... etc.

Mimi has just paraphrased Rodolfo's opening line!

WAS SHE EAVESDROPPING AT THE GARRETT DOOR THE WHOLE TIME, WAITING TIL RODOLFO WAS ALONE? Ducking into the shadows when Colline and Schaunard came along?

Not impossible!

That she's a grisette with a plan becomes even more apparent in the final moments of the act. Consider: after the great duet of "O soave fanciulla", Rodolfo plants a kiss on her. She protests. He makes another pass at her.

She firmly says "Your friends are waiting". (Translation: no dinner, no sex.)

He thinks she's telling him to go on by himself. Shyly but insistently, Mimi says she was hoping she could go with him. She just invited herself to Christmas dinner at his expense.

He suggests they stay inside and (obviously) make out.

She demures.

Then, a very transactional, business-like exchange:

HIM: And when we return?:
HER: (teasingly) Aren't you curious!

Translation: "Yes, I will sleep with you."

Now, if you like your sopranos innocent and maidenly and you're inclined to scoff at my interpretation, let me remind you: by Act 4, Mimi has moved on. She's in the company of a wealthy nobleman, riding in a luxurious carriage, dressed to the nines. She has moved on up the survival-by-prostitution ladder of 1830's Paris and become either a Lorette (a "kept woman") or a full-fledged Courtesan a la Violetta Valery or her real-life model, Marie Duplessis. Her embroidery days are behind her; she found a way to survive until tuberculosis ended her ascent.

This much I'll give you, you Romantics: yes, at the end she came to realize that she did, in fact, love Rodolfo, in spite of his immaturity, jealousy and other flaws. In a wonderful bit of dramatic symmetry recalling how, in Act 1, she waited until she could be alone with Rodolfo to introduce herself, in Act 4 she waits until all the bohemians have left on their various errands to open her eyes and ask Sono andati? (Are they gone?) Now she wants them to be alone to tell Rodolfo that he truly is the love of her life.

That's the thing about a terminal illness; about facing one's own mortality.

It makes you grow up fast; it makes you assess what remains of your life and come to grips with the things that matter most.

October 19, 2015

Balance and contrast in La bohème

The power of La bohème to move us is due in part to the manner in which it compels us to recall the highs and lows of life experienced by young adults. We in the audience may never have lived in a Parisian garrett apartment or burned our own works of art for heat, but the path to adulthood is always a roller-coaster ride of extreme contrasts and Bohème succeeds as no other opera in re-creating it.
La bohème, Metropolitan Opera, 2014 (photo by Bengt Nyman)

Since conflict is the essence of drama and story-telling, any opera will feature opposites: a protagonist will have an antagonist; good will be countered by evil; and so on. In La bohème, however, the device of contrast is taken to an extreme: the opera is a fabric woven with the threads of numerous contrasting elements. For every concept introduced, there is a polar opposite; for every Yin, its Yang. Consider these:
I. Comedy and drama. 
Perhaps the fundamental character of the opera is defined by the highly-organized interplay of comedy and drama in an architectural plan of great balance and symmetry. Here's a little chart of the structural plan of the opera, act by act. Obviously, "C" = Comedy and "D" = Drama:

Notice the symmetry: both Acts 1 and 4 neatly divide into two nearly equal sections; an opening sequence of comedic horseplay among the bohemians turns instantly to more serious drama. In both cases, Mimi is the catalyst for the darkening of mood. Though the finale of Act 1 has its share of "meet-cute" moments (to use a phrase coined by critic Roger Ebert to describe the initial stages of romantic comedies), the tell-tale cough uttered by the seamstress tells us that for all its charm, this affair will end badly. The intervening acts devote themselves to a single affect, with Act 2 exploring comedy and Act 3's bleakness only partially relieved by Marcello and Musetta's cat-fight.
The arrows above point out that the opera forms a mirror image of itself: the first half is "comedy/drama/comedy", while the second half  is "drama/comedy/drama". In short, this formal plan succeeds in producing a true chiaroscuro of moods that add up to a kind of virtual reality opera had rarely attempted before.   
II. Cold and heat. 
The importance of cold is made clear immediately as the action begins at the top of Act 1. Marcello and Rodolfo complain about the lack of heat in their apartment. Within moments, they apply the image of cold to romance as well: Marcello compares the freezing temperature to Musetta's heart while Rodolfo goes on to wax poetic about love being like a furnace. They proceed to solve the problem by igniting Rodolfo's play-in-progress. When Mimi enters, Rodolfo begins his aria "Che gelida manina" by noting how cold her hands are, proposing to warm them in his own. The audience makes the connection that both the literal and metaphorical aspects of "cold" are in play here, as romance heats up along with Mimi's fingers. As for Mimi's ensuing solo, she confides that she exults in spring, when "the sun's first rays are mine!". Act 3 continues the dual meaning of "cold" as falling snow accompanies the end of Mimi and Rodolfo's affair, not to mention the confirmation that her disease is terminal. Act 4 returns the action to the garrett, though the Yin of Act 1's frigid temperatures is now balanced by the Yang of warm weather in an unspecified season, spring or summer. But the image of "cold" now takes on a tragic meaning as the dying Mimi's hands are once again cold, as Rodolfo notes in an ironic and unconscious echo of his aria. Now "cold" no longer means the vagaries of romantic infatuation, but the ending of life.

III. Poverty and wealth. 
The absence or presence of material possessions reveals the arc of the bohemians' journeys from Act 1 through to final curtain. The opening scene confirms their group poverty: the apartment has no heat, nor fuel for heat; Colline is frustrated that the pawn shops are closed for the holiday - he's broke; Schaunard becomes a momentary savior when a paying gig allows him to enter laden with supplies and cash. The episode of the landloard Benoit shows that the roommates are three months behind in their rent, a state of affairs they regard as a joke. In "Che gelida manina", Rodolfo tellingly asserts that he lives in a state of poverta lieta (happy poverty) and that in dreams and castles in the air, he's a millionaire. The action of Act 2 in the Latin Quarter demonstrates why the boys have chronic money problems: whenever they come into a little cash, it goes through their fingers. Schaunard buys a horn, Colline some books, Rodolf a bonnet for Mimi; when the dinner bill arrives, it's for far more than Schaunard's payday. Fortunately, Musetta controls the purse-strings of the wealthy Alcindoro: all is well. Whatever stability Musetta and Marcello achieved in residence at the tavern seen in Act 3, their break-up argument ruins, leading to the painter returning to the miserable garrett in Act 4. When Mimi enters in her last moments, Musetta asks Marcello what they have to offer in the way of something to drink. Marcello mutters "Nothing - only poverty". Musetta, dressed to the nines and adorned with jewelry, gives up a pair of ear-rings to pay for a doctor.

IV. Lies and truth. 
Children lie; adults face unpleasant truths. Sometimes liars lie to others; sometimes, to themselves. Just as La bohème gives equal time to comedy and drama, so we observe lies being told in the context of both comedy and pathos. The roommates cheerfully lie to Benoit, both promising to pay him with Schaunard's cash, and claiming that he must be about their own age. Rodolfo may or may not be lying to Mimi in Act 2 when he tells her of a millionaire uncle who will leave him a fortune some day. And, of course, Musetta's foot doesn't really hurt when she commences screaming prettily in pain to dispatch Alcindoro. But lying is less amusing and shows Rodolfo at his least attractive when, in Act 3, he casually explains why he plans to leave Mimi. First, he claims the affair has become boring; next, he blames his lover, saying Mimi toys with men. Marcello's having none of it, forcing Rodolfo to admit the greater truth that he himself is pathologically jealous. Suddenly, the essential truth spills out: Rodolfo is terrified that Mimi is dying and he can do nothing to stop it. This man-child is facing human mortality for the first time and lacks the maturity to deal with it, preferring to leave Mimi to her own devices. 

V. Vice and virtue.
Mimi and Musetta are likeable characters, but both engage in behaviors still regarded as "not respectable" in 1896, and certainly not in the opera's time setting of 1830's Paris. "Nice" girls landed a husband and became mothers and household managers; they did NOT sing in public and exist on the bankroll of millionaires as does Musetta. For that matter, Mimi herself behaves as a typical "grisette" in her first scene. Grisettes were the working girls of Paris, earning meager wages in shops or, in this case, doing needle-work. To survive, it was necessary for a woman to trade on her sexuality and become available for any young man who might buy her a meal. Mimi does an efficient job of manipulating Rodolfo into a dinner invitation when he clearly would rather stay home and make out; yet she also clearly lets him know that his generosity will be rewarded later. That she eventually falls in love with him doesn't change the reality of her tactics in blowing out that candle and all that follows. For that matter, the beginning of Act 2 shows that she intends to milk Rodolfo for every "quid" she can get from him (bonnet, necklace) before dishing out the inevitable "pro quo" in bed.

And yet, Puccini has no intention of painting either woman as meriting harsh judgement. For all her Act 2 narcissism, Musetta proves to be loyal and capable of sacrifice in the final scene, and Mimi's essential sweetness and longing for true love make her highly sympathetic.

VI. Youth and age. 
The four bohemians and Musetta are vibrantly, robustly, and glowingly young and healthy. Mimi is young. In contrast, Benoit and Alcindoro are old. Really old. Foolishly old. Well, aren't all old people foolish? They don't know anything!! It's fun to toy with them. 

I always maintain that one of the subtleties of opera is the way in which it can suggest point of view, just as a novelist can do. In traditional stagings of Bohème, Benoit is a doddering fossil. I smile at his entrance music, a chain of puny, shuffling triplets played by solo flute. However, I pose this question: how old is Benoit, really? Let's put the average age of the bohemians at 19 or 20. At that age, how do young people define "old"? Anything over 35, right? Right. I sense that we in the audience may be seeing Benoit through the prism of the point of view of Marcello and friends. He may actually be in his sixties... or fifties... or forties!

Look, I haven't nearly exhausted this topic. There are other polar opposites on display in La Bohème. If you're inclined to study the piece, make your own list! And then admire the craftsmanship which wove this intricate spider's web of Yins and Yangs, this complex texture of opposites that pretty much nails a stylized version of real life. Enjoy the roller coaster ride!