Bernstein’s Candide

Took in Washington National Opera’s Candide, their season closer, and part of the celebration of the centenary of the maestro’s birth.

Been meaning to get down some things to say about it:  the show was the usual mixed bag, and the production’s ineptitude–despite good voices and some strong performances–failed to solve the abundant problems. Is it an opera, an operetta, or a musical? Should the winking parody style of the musical numbers (including Gilbert and Sullivan and Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy) be reflected in the production or underplayed? How do you deal with the picaresque narrative, which jumps continents and timeframes in its catalog of disasters with cinematic rather that stage logic? And most of all what to do about the fact that, at its core, it’s not a drama: it’s a satire that centers on a philosophical issue rather than a character-driven conflict (the key ingredient of almost all successful operas*). The protagonists,  without the directorial attention of a Mary Zimmermann, turn into very thinly drawn puppets. And even her musical comedy version was a bit like a revue (if winningly so).

That said, if anybody could have done a music-theater piece about an idea, perhaps it was Lenny. After all, He did write a violin concerto about a Platonic dialogue. But even he never seemed to be able to pull the threads together on Candide, and although I don’t regret taking in WNO’s as they did right by the intermittently wonderful score, the show never quite lives up to that wonderful fizzy overture, here conducted by the man himself.

Perhaps somebody should do a movie–the material might not fight the form so intensely.

*Strauss’ Capriccio is perhaps another example of an opera based on an idea “words vs. music” but it has better character development, and still has some problems in the theater.

Consultant Humor

Heard at the beginning of a two-day tech meeting years ago (back when I was working on my first websites in the mid-90s). It’s been knocking around a while.

A frog lived on a lily pad in the middle of a pond. Unfortunately, the pond had become infested with alligators, and the frog couldn’t figure out how to get to the shore to escape them and save his life.

Thinking all was lost, he noticed an owl in a tree, and knowing their reputation as sages, he implored, “Oh, wise Owl, I’m trapped here in this pond, and alligators will eat me if I can’t get to shore. How can I escape?”

The owl, who weirdly looked a lot like Clay Christensen for some reason, paused gravely and said, “Well, I think you are missing an obvious approach. Just fly away and you can reach the shore, escaping the alligators who are competing to eat you!”

The frog began to hop frantically, waving his appendages. But instead of escape, this commotion delivered him into the gleaming jaws of a nearby alligator.

As those jaws came clamping down on the poor creature, he shouted at the owl, “didn’t you know that frogs can’t fly?” The owl merely said “my plan was sound, you just had an implementation issue.”

Although the room was packed with actual consultants trying to sell us stuff, it got a big laugh.

Poetry: In Flanders Fields

As we head into the Memorial Day weekend, I remembered a poem from childhood. First asked my mother about it when I was a small child in Chicago and saw WWI Vets selling paper poppies.

Envelope with stamps honoring Moina Michael, Athens, Georgia, 1948. Moina Belle Michael was a United States professor and humanitarian, known as the “Poppy Lady” for conceiving the idea of using poppies as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in World War I. In 1948, four years after her death, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring her life’s achievement.

In Flanders Fields

By John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.


The Met has a post worth reading,
In Flanders Fields, 100 Years Later: Comprehending the Incomprehensible, and a lithograph from 1918.

Bad Arguments: Illustrated

Via a visit to a real bookstore, found my way to Ali Almossami, an author and software engineer, who has done the public service of posting a free book on bad arguments.

Amusing examples and illustrations, covering some of the same ground I encountered implicitly in high school geometry and directly in a college logic course, using Copi’s text, nicely summarized over at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (and of course philosophized about at length).

For all these efforts, we seem to be drowning in bad arguments all the time (as it has ever been).


Opera Wednesday: Crespin

éIt’s been a while since I have curated any opera clips for you. Following a wild goose chase reference questions about U.S. performances of the Gounod rarity Sapho, I rediscovered its chief (perhaps only) gem, “O, my lyre immortelle” performed here by the late, and much missed French mezzo Regine Crespin.

And keeping with Crespin in French repertoire, but moving to Berlioz, here is the song “Le Spectre de la Rose” from Berlioz’ song cycle “Nuit d’été.”

Given the elegance and control, it’s possible to overlook that this was one of the grandest, largest voices in opera. And what words…you could take down the poem verbatim from this performance.

Finally, some gutsy Verdi–another side of this artist. (Sorry about the weird audio edit.) “O Don Fatale,” from Don Carlo.

Literary Steps

Came across this photo of great books steps at a university in Lebanon in a post on Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog. As a long time list-maker (who did a lot of it when I co-produced a show on world literature),  I’m always interested in choices of this kind.

Lots of these make sense to me, Gilgamesh is an inevitable and reasonable starting point.  I don’t read Arabic so can’t assess those titles. The others are mostly good company, whether literary monuments like Goethe or Dante, or core philosophy texts from The Republic to Thus Spake Zarathustra. And while I get while The Prophet, Steven Hawking, and even Toynbee are there. But the final step appears to be Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead has me a bit stumped, although acknowledgment of the digital age is valid, and perhaps what seemed like a tepid read 20 years ago or so has aged better than I would have predicted. But in the company of Descartes? Kant?  For reals?

I like the collection of books that the Kansas City Public Library built into its architecture too:

Photo by Dean Hochman, Flickr.

Lost Treasures on the Internet: Vol. I

Wandering around the Internet Archive Movie Image Collection, I came upon this nutty Betty Boop cartoon, which purports to be the Snow White story but soon evolves into a David Lynchian music video for St. James Infirmary. Either genius or completely off the rails; I’m not sure which now and wasn’t when I first saw it in a Smithsonian cartoon festival 30 years ago or so.

Judge for yourself.

From the Vintage Cartoon collection, where you’ll also find Popeye, Little Lulu, Woody Woodpecker, and Felix the Cat.  

Poetic Words: B. H. Fairchild

Found a ‘new & collected’ by a poet I’ve been following for years, and have been browsing it happily.  A lot of his works are about that most essential question, do you stay put in your life (geographically, psychologically, culturally, etc.) or do you light out to some other destination?


The Men
By B. H. Fairchild

As a kid sitting in a yellow vinyl
booth in the back of Earl’s Tavern,
you watch the late-afternoon drunks
coming and going, sunlight breaking
through the smoky dark as the door
opens and closes, and it’s the future
flashing ahead like the taillights
of a semi as you drop over a rise
in the road on your way to Amarillo,
bright lights and blonde-haired women,
as Billy used to say, slumped over
his beer like a snail, make a real man
out of you, the smile bleak as the gaps
between his teeth, stay loose, son,
don’t die before you’re dead. Always
the warnings from men you worked with
before they broke, blue fingernails,
eyes red as fate. A different life
for me, you think, and outside later,
feeling young and strong enough to raise
the sun back up, you stare down Highway 54,
pushing everything—stars, sky, moon,
all but a thin line at the edge
of the world—behind you. Your headlights
sweep across the tavern window,
ripping the dark from the small, humped
shapes of men inside who turn and look,
like small animals caught in the glare
of your lights on the road to Amarillo.

Commonplace Book: The Joys of Editing

Lovely piece by Rebecca Saletan in Poets & Writers about editing, including this precis of a key moment in editing.

At its best—and it is often this good—editing means getting to be such a friend, and entering into that strange and almost primal process of divining the shape the work is trying to assume. It was Matthiessen himself who gave me my first experience of being taken seriously as an editor, back when I was an assistant to the formidable Jason Epstein, and Peter was working on a collection of stories. One day he asked if I would look at one he’d been laboring over. Something was hampering it, but he didn’t know what. I read it and instantly saw—or rather, felt—what was off: The story was constructed on a hinge, and the hinge was stuck, much as an actual hinge might be.


This ‘hinge’ issue (for some reason I usual think of these as pivots) is one of the major things in writing. Odd that it gets relatively little attention in writing instruction (or did in mine at least). In an essay, a story (even in a blog post sometimes) how the cards get turned over to reveal a pattern–and the moment that comes clear–is so important, and tricky to get right, with implications for what comes before and after. To try a different analogy, it is when the water hits the shore, and whether it is a gentle lap, or a tsunami, how it was prepared for is what makes the piece work. It’s hard to see how to fix it yourself (forest and trees idea, since analogies seem to be on sale today), and therein lies one of the many advantages of working with a good editor (and keeping them in editorial enterprises).

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