Opera and Life

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In my youth, music came from the radio or via records played on a gramophone. Each record was printed with a dog attentively listening to the sounds emanating from a record player’s big horn. The text read, “His Master’s Voice.”

What kind of “tunes” was I listening to? Mostly opera arias by the great singers of the time: Caruso, Nicolai Gedda, Jussi Bjorling, Chaliapin and others. Yes, many of them were males. But I also liked the pop music of the day. Back then there was not such a divide between the two genres. Many singers had a foot in each camp: Mario Lanza,Ezio Pinza, Grace Moore, Lily Pons, Deanna Durbin were some of them. It was the golden age of the movies and they all appeared on the screen. Films were the great unifier. One pop singer was called Tino Rossi . He was the Andrea Boccelli of my youth and appealed to the sentimental sensibilities of the 1930s.

Back then I thought opera was just a collection of beautiful solos. We had no opera house and I had never seen a complete opera performance. And then one day I witnessed an amateur rehearsal of “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Mascagni. Suddenly my whole musical world was totally changed. Although I had never been in love, I completely identified with Santuzza pleading with Turiddu not to abandon her. Her pain became my pain. I understood that opera was much more than bel canto. It was drama, tragedy, poetry, farce, all of it enriched by music. And music often expressed those sentiments better than words alone could. What would seem absurd, even excessive if spoken suddenly seemed absolutely right when sung. In the famous quartet in Rigoletto four people speak at the same time and instead of resulting in cacophony, each voice is heard and understood while they blend at the same time. When listening to Violetta (in La Traviata) sacrificing her own happiness to that of Alfredo, you cannot help crying.

The same scene in Dumas’ “La Dame aux Camelias” might seem mawkish and over the top because our sensibilities are not the same as those of the 19th century. “La Dame aux Camelias” was inspired by the real life story of Marie Duplessis an ignorant peasant girl in Normandy whose brutal father beat and raped her. When she was fourteen, he sold her to an old man of 70 who took her to Paris. Within a few years she changed her name from Alphonsine to Marie and totally remade herself into the most famous courtesan of the day. She lived by her wits and prospered. She died of tuberculosis at age 26. Her story inspired a novel, a play, several movies (including one starring Greta Garbo), a ballet and Verdi’s La Traviata.

Sometimes an opera plot is so absurd that it is only held together by the music. In Verdi’s Il Trovatore, you will find revenge, abduction, mistaken identities, a baby thrown into flames. It is so ludicrous that no matter how much you would wish to suspend disbelief it is impossible to identify with it. It is only held together by Verdi’s glorious music.

And sometimes the union is perfect: Don Giovanni goes to Hell in style and The Marriage of Figaro ends with everybody living happily ever after to Mozart’s uplifting music.

A Muslim Woman of Valor

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1969. As a 5-year-old she was subjected to genital mutilation. Her family moved to Saudi Arabia, then Ethiopia and Kenya. Throughout this time she was a fervent Muslim. In 1982, refusing to submit to a forced marriage, she fled to the Netherlands escaping from her family. In 1992 she was granted asylum. She learned Dutch, went to University and became a member of Parliament. She then began to speak publicly against the repression of women under Islam.

In 2004 she collaborated with Theo Van Gogh on the film “Submission” based on the book she had written about the suffering of women, including honor killing in the Muslim world. Van Gogh was assassinated by a radical Islamist who left a letter threatening Hirsi Ali pinned to his chest with a butcher’s knife. Aayan then went into hiding (like Salman Rushdie). The Dutch Government, in an effort to placate its Muslim community, refused to grant her protection.

Eventually she moved to the United States. Here, no liberal institution wanted anything to do with her because of her outspoken criticism of Islam as a whole. She is now a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
In her book Heretic, Hirsi Ali says that Islam is ready for a major overhaul and that it needs to find a way for its vast majority (more than a billion people all over the world) to express their condemnation of a murderous minority.

Because of such utterances, she has been accused of Islamophobia. She says: “If Islam is like any other religion, why can’t people criticize it or leave it? Is it controversial to say that women and men should be equal? Most of the suffering attributable to the religion is visited on Muslims themselves. If you say, for instance, that Mormonism has some ridiculous beliefs, no one will try to kill you. Moderate Muslims hate me because I make them feel uncomfortable.”

Other religions have shed the most barbaric aspects of their creed and have been weathered by humanism, reformation, science and secularism. Ayaan Hirsi Ali believes that Islam, unreformed, when put into practice leads to dystopia.

She has found an admirer in Sam Harris, the author and bio scientist. He says: Ayaan has surveyed every inch of the path leading out of the moral and intellectual wasteland that is traditional Islam. Christopher Cadwell writes in the New York Times: “Voltaire, who spoke out against religion in the 18th century, did not risk his life with every utterance, making a billion enemies who recognized his face and could, via the Internet, share information instantly with people who aspired to assassinate him”. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a brave woman and deserves the support of all thinking individuals.

Hero of the American Revolution, Marquis de Lafayette

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LAFAYETTE and the HERMIONE

The Hermione, a replica of an 18th century Liberty frigate, set sail on April 16, 2015 from Port des Barques, France for a transatlantic crossing of 27 days and 3819 miles. It will arrive in Yorktown, Virginia to commemorate the historic voyage of the Marquis de Lafayette who sailed in 1780 to support George Washington and the American Revolution. Lafayette brought 5,150 men and 5 frigates as reinforcements and he had financed the whole enterprise himself. He was only 22 years old.

In Yorktown, Lafayette’s frigate took part in the blockade that led to the surrender of Lord Cornwallis and his army, helping to turn the tide of the American Revolution. Lafayette fought for the principles of the American Declaration of Independence and became an American general. He also became a symbol of the Franco-American Alliance and a part of the mythology of the United States. His motto was “Why Not.” Of the Hermione he said, “She sails like a bird.”

When he returned to France, Lafayette wanted to expand the rights and liberties of ordinary people but he was also a royalist and wanted to keep Louis XVI on the throne. Lafayette was a moderate who believed in an empowered nobility and a constitutional monarchy, but France was then moving towards radicalism. Lafayette was eventually relieved of his command of the French national militia and accused of treason. He was imprisoned for 5 years. In 1824, he made a triumphal return to the United States and was celebrated everywhere.
During World War I, when General Pershing’s aide, Charles Stanton arrived in Paris in 1917 he uttered the famous words: “Lafayette, nous voici.” (Here we are)

Lafayette died in 1834 at age 76 and President Jackson declared a national day of mourning.
There are at least 36 cities and numerous counties and other localities named for Lafayette in the United States but in France he is not as well remembered. There is a small “rue Lafayette” in Paris, but when people on that street were recently asked whether they knew who it was named for, most did not. One person guessed that it was perhaps for the founder of the Galeries Lafayette (a Parisian department store).

Lafayette is also the subject of a statue in New York’s Union Square Park by Frederic Bartholdi (the designer of the Statue of Liberty). He is buried in Paris at the Picpus Cemetery. The American Flag floats over his tomb.

And The Walls Came Tumbling Down

Castle and ramparts, medieval city. Carcassonne, France

Ever since the Bronze Age, people have banded together and erected barriers to protect themselves against invasion by dangerous “others.” This was especially true in Europe during the Middle Ages. Because of constant wars, dense population centers surrounded themselves with elaborate fortifications including walls, gates, observation towers and deep ditches. Some were built around castles. Others extended beyond citadels.

The Great Wall of China was erected for protection against the Mongols and other nomadic tribes. Hadrian’s Wall in northern England was meant to thwart barbarians and keep them from invading this outpost of the Roman Empire. These walls also served to collect customs fees.

Soon however, as cities expanded and flourished, the walls became an obstacle to commerce and contributed to isolation. They began to come down. Fortunately many have survived.

I have always been fascinated by the still existing walled towns and have tried to visit many of them in my travels.

Carcassonne, high on a hilltop in the center of France, is the largest former fortress in Europe. It is a medieval fortified town, restored in the 19th century. Its massive walls, dating from antiquity, encircle a gothic cathedral. There is also a castle complete with drawbridge. The view is superb everywhere you walk.

Saint Malo, a walled port city in Britany, was almost totally destroyed in 1944 by Americans. They believed a great number of Germans were hiding there (they weren’t). It too was completely rebuilt. You can walk on the cobbled streets of the ramparts and see the ocean on all sides. It is often grey and windy which adds to the overall somber effect. It is in Saint Malo that I have seen the highest and fastest tides in the world. Climbing to the top of the walls they seem to be propelled by giant forces.

Dubrovnik in Croatia was founded in the 7th century on a rocky island. Its thick creamy walls, turrets and towers are bathed in radiant sun. The vermillion rooftops, with views to the azure and glistening sea, give it the look of a jewel. You can walk and enjoy it for a long time.

Quebec City is the only walled city on the North American Continent. Its cobbled streets overlook the St. Lawrence seaway. A castle (Chateau Frontenac), cannons, churches and bell towers add to the fortress effect.

The Berlin Wall (1962-1989) was conceived as an anti- fascist bulwark meant to keep Western “fascists” from entering Eastern Germany and undermining its moral purity. Its real purpose, however, was to imprison the East Germans. It was to keep insiders inside.

It finally exploded from within in 1989, releasing all its prisoners. And the walls came tumbling down.

Frederic Chopin 1810-1849

Why does some music become stale and impossible to listen to? I no longer enjoy Bizet’s Carmen, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker or Swan Lake or even Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. I get a powerful urge to turn off the radio when I hear them. They have lost their potency and are merely annoying. Chopin, on the other hand, seems to live eternally. Is it because the composer died early and his music remained young with him?

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Piano music is intimate and seems to have been written for you alone. Chopin’s genius was in making the instrument perform like a whole orchestra while seeming to reach out from across the room. It is in turn passionate, tender, moody, exalted and stormy. It flows without any hint of sentimentality. This is romantic music in the original sense of the word rather than the pallid “candlelight and roses” meaning it has acquired in popular culture. It is pure sound without a story to prop it up.

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Chopin created or reinvented new musical genres like the ballad, nocturne, prelude and dance music like the mazurka, waltz and polonaise. Many lent themselves to adaptation into popular music without any loss of originality or vitality. The ballet “Les Sylphides” evolved from the Grande Valse Brilliante.” I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” comes from a fantaisie-impromptu. “No other Love” from an etude. They have migrated easily and there are more.

Chopin’s music is also infused with patriotic fervor and nostalgia. He was born in the Duchy of Warsaw in 1810. His mother was Polish, his French father taught in the local lycee. Chopin moved to Paris in 1831 and never returned to Poland but always retained a strong attachment to a country that disappeared from the map several times during the 19th century. For 123 years there was no sovereign country called Poland. On three separate occasions it was partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria and became a phantom country. This only reinforced Chopin’s fierce patriotism and fueled his music. He never ceased to mourn his native country. In France Chopin had a troubled and tormented relationship with the author George Sand. In his and her writings their relationship is often expressed in petty and acrimonious complaints but this too was sublimated and found an outlet in his music.

Chopin died of tuberculosis in 1849 and was buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. His tombstone features the muse Euterpe weeping over a broken lyre. Later his sister took his heart back to Poland where it is preserved.

Editor’s notes: Pictures by Simone’s daughter, Dina Cramer.  Your comments and responses to Simone’s posts are deeply appreciated.

 

 

 

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