When Ella Fitzgerald had no one to watch over her

Ella Fitzgerald’s voice means warmth, joy, careless brilliance, strength wrapped in velvet. But her early life was cold, rough, harsh.

It’s Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday today, and on NPR’s Morning Edition, Susan Stamberg reports that Fitzgerald, born poor, was orphaned at 15. Her surviving stepfather was hard on her, and she lived for a time with an aunt, but then started skipping school, eventually living on the streets.

“She was on the streets of Harlem dancing for tips” [Smithsonian Curator of American Music John] Hasse says.

She earned more pennies as a lookout for cops outside a brothel. At one point, she was arrested for truancy and sent to a reform school, where she was regularly beaten. So she ran away — this awkward, gawky girl with skinny legs and old, cast-off boots — with no money, living on the streets and sleeping where she could.

Around this time, Fitzgerald used to say, she first began to sing on stage. She was 17, and found herself terrified in front of a brutal audience at Amatuer Night at the Apollo. She had been planning to dance, but her legs shook too badly; so instead, she sang. And everyone loved it, so she kept on singing. At least that’s the way she tells it.

Who can describe her voice? Instead of talking about it, let’s listen. The velvety ballads are my favorites. Here’s one of the greatest:

Oh, how I need. What a miracle of vocal engineering that she goes all high and hoarse without losing an ounce of power. Happy birthday, you beautiful woman. Someone I’d really like to know.

Image: Ella in 1940, photo by Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

The perfect version of this work

Today, I wanted to put together a collection of music for Holy Week. Music posts always take far, far longer than I expect, because I know exactly what I want the music to sound like, but it takes forever to find the best version — if it even exists anywhere besides in my head.

I was looking for a recording of “O Sacred Head Surrounded,” under the impression that the words were composed by Bernard of Clairvaux. Not so, according to some quick research:

The hymn is based on a long medieval Latin poem, Salve mundi salutare,[1] with stanzas addressing the various parts of Christ‘s body hanging on the Cross. The last part of the poem, from which the hymn is taken, is addressed to Christ’s head, and begins “Salve caput cruentatum.” The poem is often attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), but is now attributed to the Medieval poet Arnulf of Leuven (died 1250).

I also thought the melody and harmony were by Bach. Also more complicated than that:

The music for the German and English versions of the hymn is by Hans Leo Hassler, written around 1600 for a secular love song, “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret“, which first appeared in print in the 1601 Lustgarten Neuer Teutscher Gesäng. The tune was appropriated and rhythmically simplified for Gerhardt’s German hymn in 1656 by Johann Crüger. Johann Sebastian Bach arranged the melody and used five stanzas of the hymn in the St Matthew Passion ... Franz Liszt included an arrangement of this hymn in the sixth station, Saint Veronica, of his Via Crucis (the Way of the Cross), S. 504a. The Danish composer Rued Langgaard composed a set of variations for string quartet on this tune. It is also employed in the final chorus of “Sinfonia Sacra”, the 9th symphony of the English composer Edmund Rubbra.

And so, overwhelmed with information that made it harder, not easier, to narrow down exactly the version I wanted, I tried video after video. It seems I’m not the only one who adores this hymn. It’s been recorded a lot, by just about every group, in just about every style and level of skill imaginable. I even found an ASL version, recorded in the shadows of somebody’s kitchen.

I listened to dozens of versions. “That one’s pretty!” my daughter called out from the other room, maybe hoping to help me settle on something and quit hopping from one video to the next.

When I got to this earnest, nasal rendition

I started to cry like an idiot, and not out of frustration.

This is the week when the whole world is looking to grab ahold of the right version — the whole world, in and out of various translations, deleting some stanzas, ruminating over and expanding others, practicing and training with different assemblies of people, harmonizing, re-harmonizing, simplifying, making it garish, making it sentimental, making it florid, making it pale.

There were versions by small groups of women, huge choruses of highly trained choir boys, struggling teenage girls who want to be Amy Grant, overambitious tenors who titled their rendition “O Sacred Head Surrounded Barbershop Style,” and dozens and dozens of isolated tracks — just the bass, just the alto, and so on, because it is a difficult work. A difficult work.

There was a Filipino choir belting it out in a strangely baroque basilica, their voices fighting with the tropical birdsong coming through the windows. In some recordings, there was a persistent buzz from a mishandled mic; in some recordings, the camera man wanted to sing along, and rattled the pages of his hymnal, too.

Stupidly, I cried and cried. I stopped looking for the perfect rendition.

Everyone is trying to grapple with what is going to happen on that terrible hilltop. Everyone is trying to make sense of it, to locate the perfect version that satisfies, to comprehend it completely.

It doesn’t matter how accomplished you are, how well you have prepared. It cannot be done. It is too difficult a work.

 

Valhalla Rising, cavemen farting, Terry Pratchett giving it a shot, and me running(!)

 

I’m watching . . .

Originalos (and Valhalla Rising)

Let’s say you’ve picked out a swell movie to watch, and everyone’s ready and snuggled up on the couch, except that one kid is still washing the dishes. Still. So what do you do? You watch a few episodes of Originalos. Here’s a representative sample:

Look, I’m not proud of it. In my defense, if you saw Irene laughing that long and hard at a farting caveman, you’d probably let her watch more, too. These 3-minute episodes are streaming on Amazon Prime.

We also watched Valhalla Rising (2009, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed Drive, which we loved) last night, and we’ll have a lot to say about it on this week’s podcast! (To join my super secret, super fun podcast club, see my Patreon page.) Here’s the trailer for Valhalla Rising:

Reading . . . 

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Behind the curve as ever, I’m just now getting into Terry Pratchett, who played with words, and with ideas of futility, heroism, absurdity and hope, throughout 41 novels about Discworld. He died in 2015.

I did read Going Postal a few years ago, and was charmed and moved by the characters and dialogue but very confused by the plot. Guards! Guards! was much easier to follow, and very winsome and entertaining, as well as touching in parts. Looking forward to hanging around with Captain Vimes more, as well as that very, very interesting Patrician.

Guards! Guards! summary: In the human-all-too-human city of Ankh-Morpork, the canny leader of a secret society realizes that he’ll have the citizens in the palm of his hand if only he can find a champion to conquer the terrible dragon. Only there is no dragon, except for small, mostly-harmless pets. So he summons a big one. Things do not go as planned! The focus of the story is on The Watch, the ones you call when things go wrong, but you don’t really expect them to do anything. In fact, you count on them having no intention of doing something. Well, this time, they do something.

As far as I can see, this is a typical Pratchett theme: Everything has gone to hell, and there’s not much anyone can do about it. Still, for whatever reason, the one guy who knows better decides to give it a shot anyway, and make a stand for what he decides to believe is the right thing to do. (Pratchett fans, do I have that right?)

Listening to . . .

The Black Keys

Also not a new find, but I’ve rediscovered the Black Keys as excellent running music. Yarr, my husband and I are doing Couch to 5K. We’re on week three, when you have to run for three minutes at a time. This is only possible if I hide the fact that I’m running from as many of my senses as possible (especially since we’re celebrating spring with hail and slippery freezing rain; and, not wanting to die, we are running inside).

Here are a few Black Keys songs with a good beat for a slow, steady run:

“Gold On the Ceiling”:

“Tighten Up”:

“Fever” is a little brisker:

“Howlin’ For You” (which comes along with a satirical sexploitation revenge fantasy movie trailer that made me laugh so hard, I almost fell off the treadmill) (warning: stupid, but R-rated):

I welcome other suggestions for running music! I’m putting together a list, because I hear there is more running coming up in this fershlugginer program.

***
Now your turn! What are you watching, reading, and listening to?

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Pratchett graffiti image by David Skinner via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Maite Roche Advent Calendar giveaway! Introducing Sister|Sinjin! and a little punching.

Advent begins in less than a week! This year’s Advent is the longest that Advent can possibly be, but it surely came up quickly, didn’t itly? I have three lovely things to share with you.

One is Incarnation, a new Christmas album by Sister|Sinjin, a musical group made up of Elizabeth Duffy (a fellow Patheos alum) and two of her friends, one Catholic and one Lutheran.

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-9-19-11-am

From one of the blog posts giving some background about the project:

Once we realized we were a band and began thinking of a name, we knew we would feel inclined to self-identify more as mothers than musicians. Our various experiences of motherhood certainly bear down on these songs.

When I’ve been pregnant (I have six children) I almost always fall into a depression, inability to pray, distance from God, and a heavy darkness that lifts almost immediately once I’ve given birth. In the midst of those pregnancies, I’ve thought more than once that I should name my child for the author of The Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross.

As Kaitlyn notes, creativity often springs from this sometimes painful, always holy duty to bear and support the lives of others.

We hope you enjoy these songs, which both extend from, and are an homage to the darkening season of waiting for new life in our Beloved Savior.

Very beautiful stuff. You can hear a sample of two of the tracks here, and you can pre-order the album, which comes out December 2.

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Second is a GIVEAWAY of this splendid Gospel Advent calendar by Maïte Roche, one of my all-time favorite Catholic illustrators. The artwork is just luminous (the cell phone photo below doesn’t do it justice), and the calendar opens into a scene that includes all of Bethlehem, with a window to open each day. You can hang it on the wall from a little grommet, or it will stand on its own on a tabletop.

advent-calendar

Even better, it comes with a little illustrated companion booklet that provides prayers, short readings, meditations, and suggestions for each day. So much better than the usual routine, where the kids fight over whose turn it is, then mom gets mad and opens it herself, and then you just stand there staring at the little picture of a star or something. It will appeal to children, but would be helpful for adults, as well.

advent-booklet

(As you can see, Corrie liked it so much, she took a bite of it, and then threw it in the dog’s water dish. At least I hope it was in that order. If your booklet is not wet, you can even color in the illustrations.)

Thanks to the publisher, Ignatius, I have one calendar to give away! Same rules as last time:

To enter, leave a comment on the blog, and that’s one entry. To get additional entries, share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ or elsewhere on social media, AND . . .  IMPORTANT: Please leave a separate comment for each additional entry you would like to earn.

So if you want three entries, leave one comment saying “Me please!” [or whatever], one comment saying “I shared your post on FB” and one comment saying “I tweeted this post.” And so on.

NOTE: Don’t be concerned if your comment doesn’t show up right away in the combox. The comment moderator is a little strict at the moment, so I’ll be approving comments in batches as time allows. Thanks for your patience!

This will be a quckie contest, since Advent is right at our throats. Contest closes Tuesday, November 22, at noon, and I’ll notify the winners asap.

You can also find the calendar for sale on Amazon and from Ignatius.

***

One last thing: One of these days, I’m gonna make me an Advent calendar like this. Each day leading up to Christmas, you get to punch something, and you get rewarded for it. Uh, for the kids. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Kids these days.

In addition, I would like to say that when I tagged this post music, WordPress suggested the tags “soul music” and “butt music.” That means my archives have arrived, and they’ve brought their tags. Hooray?

 

No, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” doesn’t need to be updated to emphasize consent

Unpopular opinion time! “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” isn’t a rape song. It’s not even a rapey song. It’s a seduction song, and we used to know the difference between seduction and rape, before we elevated consent to the highest good.

Apparently there is an arch parody that updates the song to emphasize consent. I despise arch parodies, so I refuse to watch it, and you can’t make me.

For the record, I don’t even especially like the original song. It’s okay, as far as cutesy duets go. It does an adequate job of capturing a familiar relationship between a man and a woman. As with any song, you can make it come across as creepy and criminal; but you can also make it come across as it was originally intended: as playful.  The couple is literally playing a game, a very old one, where the man wants what he wants, and the woman wants it too, but it’s more fun for both of them when he has to work for it a little bit. It’s a song about persuasion. That’s what seduction is, and that’s what makes the song interesting: the tension. If there is no tension, there is no song.

Here are the full lyrics. The woman’s lines are in parenthesis. If you’re convinced this song is a rape song, please do read through the lyrics before you read the rest of this post!

You’ll note that the only protests the woman makes are that her reputation might be soiled. She doesn’t say that she wants to go, only that she should. This is because  . . . I’m dying a little inside because I actually have to say it . . . she actually wants to stay. As women often do, when they are already in a relationship with a man they are attracted to and with whom they have been spending a romantic evening, and whom they have been telling repeatedly that they are actually interested in staying.

Most critics get hung up on the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?” The assumption is that he’s slipped a drug into her cocktail (or, occasionally, that he’s spiked her virgin drink with alcohol). Okay. Or maybe, at the end of an evening of dancing and drinking, he’s added a little more liquor than she’s expecting. Or maybe he hasn’t done anything, other than give her the “half a drink more” she just asked for, and she’s playfully making an excuse for what she’s about to do:  Whoo, what’s in this drink? I’m acting all silly, but it can’t be my fault, mercy me!  This was a standard trope of that era. Anytime something weird goes on, you blame the bottle.

Again: there is no indication, unless you take that one line out of context, that there is anything sinister going on. There is overwhelming evidence, if you listen to the whole song, that it’s a song about a pleasurable interplay between the sexes.

Heck, if we’re going to give this song the darkest possible reading, and single out one line while ignoring the context, why not call it the False Rape Accusation song? After all, the woman says, “At least I’m gonna say that I tried!” You see? She’s calculating a malicious plan to claim that she didn’t give consent, so that when her family and neighbors look askance at her for spending the night, she can make it seem like it was against her will!

Humbug. This is what happens when we’re all trained to see consent as the highest good. This is what happens when we’re trained to ignore context. People who can’t tell the difference between persuasion and force are people who have forgotten why consent is so important.

Consent isn’t valuable in itself. If it were, then it would be a holy and solemn moment when we check the “I agree” box when signing onto free WiFi at Dunkin’ Donuts. Consent is only a good thing because it’s in service to other things — higher things with intrinsic value, such as fidelity, free will, self sacrifice, respect, happiness, integrity, and . . . love. These are all things that you can’t have unless you have consent.

But when all you look for is consent, and you ignore the context, you get two human beings who see each other in rigid roles — business partners with black and white contractual obligations. In short, you have what modern people say they despise about the bad old days: love as a business arrangement.

My friends, I firmly believe there is such a thing as rape culture. When we wink and smirk and say, “Boys will be boys,” we degrade both women and men, and we teach women that they have a duty to give men whatever they want so they’re not a tease or a downer. We teach men that they can’t control themselves. We teach women that they can’t really say no, and that if they do, they’ll be scoffed at or blamed or disbelieved. When we tell the world that “no means maybe,” we’re setting the stage for rape.

But is this song doing that? Or is it just a little vignette of that deliciously warm in-between place, where reasonable people can have fun together? Because when we step outside, and make everything black and white, then, baby, it’s cold. So cold.

We degrade both men and women when we tell them that sex is just another contractual obligation — and that there’s no difference between a violent encounter between strangers, and a playful exchange between a romantic couple, and a violent exchange between a romantic couple, and a loving relationship in marriage, and a violent relationship in marriage. We’re told that the relationship doesn’t matter, and that the actual behavior has no intrinsic meaning. The only thing that matters is consent. We think that focusing on consent will ensure that no one will be degraded or taken advantage of; but instead, it has won us abominations like “empowering porn” and 50 Shades of Gray and even the suggestion that children can give consent.  It wins us a generation of kids that asks things like, “How can I tell if she consents or not, if she’s not conscious?” (A real question I read from a high school kid; I’ll add the link if I can find it again!) These miseries are not a side effect; they are the direct result of a culture that elevates consent to the highest good.

It’s not only promiscuous, secular types whose lives are impoverished by the cold rule of consent. I’m a member of a group of Catholics where one young woman wrote for advice about her husband, who, she tearfully reported, kissed her without first asking consent. This made her feel violated.

It was her husband.

Who kissed her.

And she thought he needed to ask consent every time.

This is where the pendulum has swung. We’ve pathologized the normal, healthy, give-and-take of love. We’ve taught people that there is no such thing as context: that’s it’s fair game to ignore the entire relationship and to reduce each other to business partners.

Now, if you’ve been victimized or abused, then this is probably not going to be your favorite song. You’re free to find it creepy, and you’re free to change the station. But we don’t heal from abuse by turning the whole world into an isolation ward. Healthy relationships, where the context does allow for some interplay and ambiguity, should be the norm, and they should dare to speak their healthy name.

And one more thing (and I could write volumes about this): not everything is a lesson. Not every pop song is a primer for how to behave. I tell my kids that it’s our duty to be aware of what the world is teaching us, for good or ill; but just because we’re learning something doesn’t mean there was a life lesson intended.  Sometimes art, including pop art (like pop songs) is just giving you a slice of human experience, and when it feels familiar, then it’s done well, period.

No wonder people have no idea how to stay married anymore. They expect everything to be a lesson, and they expect those lessons to be black and white. They think that life is going to give them crystal clear boundaries. They think that it’s always going to be obvious what they can expect from other people and from themselves.

I’m not talking about sex, here; I’m talking about love, and about life in general — life without context, life without tension, life without ambiguity, life without play. Baby, it doesn’t get any colder than that.

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Image: Pedro Ignacio Guridi via Flickr (Creative Commons)
This essay ran in a slightly different form on Aleteia in 2015.

Reading, watching, listening to …

I’m reading …

When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris

cabbage cruz

Sedaris is the master of the short, comic, grotesque personal essay.  Are his rambling ideas connected, or is he just really good at making it seem like they are? I don’t know, but I die of envy. A little David Sedaris goes a long way, though, and the essays in this collection are not quite as tight and sharp as some of his other works – but still, very funny stuff, enough to make me snort while I’m reading in bed.  An excerpt from “What I Learned”:

It’s been interesting to walk around campus this afternoon, as when I went to Princeton, things were completely different. This chapel, for instance—I remember when it was just a clearing, cordoned off with sharp sticks. Prayer was compulsory back then, and you couldn’t just fake it by moving your lips; you had to know the words, and really mean them. I’m dating myself, but this was before Jesus Christ. We worshipped a God named Sashatiba, who had five eyes, including one right here, on the Adam’s apple. None of us ever met him, but word had it that he might appear at any moment, so we were always at the ready. Whatever you do, don’t look at his neck, I used to tell myself.

It gets a little more R-rated than that in other essays; caveat lector.

 

I’m watching …

Disney Animated Shorts on Netflix streaming.  An overall entertaining collection with good animation, including:

“John Henry,”
“Lorenzo,”
“The Little Matchgirl,”
“How To Hook Up Your Home Theater,”
“Tick Tock Tale,”
“Prep & Landing: Operation Secret Santa,”
“The Ballad Of Nessie,”
“Tangled Ever After,”
“Paperman,”
“Get A Horse!”
“Feast,”
“Frozen Fever” which even the kids thought was kind of weird. Adorable animated snot monsters? Sure, why not.

“Feast,” which premiered before Big Hero 6, is just wonderful, especially if you have a dog. Very beautifully rendered, sweet, deft, and funny. Also, I appreciate the fact that Pixar consistently says, “Psst, babies don’t actually ruin everything!”  (It’s not about kids, it’s about a dog (well, really it’s about love, like all Pixar films); but it shows a happy family as the natural progress of love.)

We have a bunch of pukey kids at home, and these are keeping them happy, but they are skipping past the little introductions before each short.

For Halloween, the little kids watched Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which features actual Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr.  Benny, 3, was almost overcome with terror; the rest of us watched with one eyeball and let the other eyeball rest. This movie is a bit of a puzzle for us, as my husband and I are both convinced that we only show it to the kids because the other one desires it. I don’t even like Abbott and Costello, so I guess that settles that. Why would you watch Abbott and Costello instead of the Three Stooges? Other than Lon Chaney, Jr.?

The older kids were too worn out to deal with the scary DVD we rented, Diabolique, so we watched Army of Darkness again.  Still funny. But the next day we went to Mass and I told my son I was going to write the grandparents’ names in the Book of the Dead, “UM, I mean ‘Book of the Deceased.’”

This is the kind of thing that gets us quietly taken off the LifeTeen email tree.*

*Not really. They are very  nice.

 

I’m listening to …

a bunch o’ Sibelius, because it’s his birthday, and I’ve had just about enough. I do like singing hymns set to “Finlandia,” though, unless the words they choose are “This is my song.”

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

And God is like, “That’s your song, eh? That’s your song? Check yo’ Unitarian privilege, mah people!”

What, are you saying God is racist? That’s just weird.

I’m reading, I’m watching, I’m listening to . . .

I’m reading . . . 

Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith.  

havana bay

Fourth in the Arkady Renko series that began with the brilliant Gorky Park, about which I said this:

Maybe because it was so popular when it came out, or maybe because the author’s name is so snazzy, I somehow assumed that it was a trashy beach book, or some kind of dated, two-bit thriller.  Boy, was I wrong.  This is the real deal — real literature, a genuinely great novel.  Almost Dostoevskian at times.

The characters are so real.  Their sorrows and loves are so real.  The places are so real.  My memories of passages I read are as strong as memories of places I’ve actually, physically visited.  The plot is insanely complicated, but it’s never outside the realm of what might, actually possibly happen to someone who is as unlucky, as talented, as driven, and as flawed, and as Russian as Moscow homicide investigator Arkady Renko.

Havana Bay is not quite on the same level as Gorky Park (so far Polar Star comes closest. I can’t remember the last time I felt so cold while reading a book), and I don’t think I’m just imagining it when the plot feels a little wobbly; but it’s still good writing. I came across this passage last night:

Bugai had kept retreating and Arkady had kept advancing until he stepped on a pencil that broke with a sharp crack. The vice consul jumped and looked not as cool as a jellyfish anymore, more like an egg yolk at the sight of a fork. His nervousness reminded Arkady that he had killed a man; whether in self-defense or not, killing someone was a violent act and not likely to attract new friends.

This tone of melanchony wiseassery is pretty typical. Love that: like an egg yolk at the sight of a fork. Ha.

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I’m watching . . . 

The IT Crowd. If you don’t like very broad British comedy, then avert your eyes. It’s a spoof of the nerdliest nerds navigating office life and trying to have a social life.Northanger Abbey it ain’t. There is a lot of naughty language, poo jokes, sex  jokes, screaming, etc. Just funny enough, sometimes hilarious. Honestly, it’s not something I’d sit and watch avidly, but it’s pretty good for when you’re blitzed and just want something making amusing noises while you sip your glass of Chateau de There There, The Kids Are In Bed Now. And I kind of love the opening credits:

Bonus: Roy, the tall Irish doofus, also does the voice of the narrator for Puffin Rock. It’s a comforting brown corduroy kind of voice, just right.

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I’m listening to . . .

Son Little’s self-titled new album, which my dear husband bought for me as a surprise. I’m listening to it now.

Here’s “Lay Down,” which I could listen to on a loop all day (video is PG):

On the label’s website, it says, “For Son Little, studio time is a joy, where every good idea leads to four more.”
I’ve mentioned Son Little before. The many-layered production of these songs is a delight, but the real pleasure is in his voice, where there is both brass and velvet and deep dark earth. Best new music I’ve heard in years and years.

I’m reading, I’m watching, I’m listening to …

I’m reading . . .

A Case of Conscience by James Blish (1958).

case-of-conscience

It turns out that the bland title has prevented anyone else in my house from picking this book up, and they had no idea it’s a Catholic science fiction adventure novel about a biochemist Jesuit who is on an alien planet collecting information about a society of super intelligent lizard-like creatures who do not sin and who have no apparent need for God, and what do we think about that? In his down time, he works on solving an arcane ethical dilemma posited in Finnegan’s Wake.

Confronted with a profound scientific riddle and ethical quandary, Father Ruiz-Sanchez soon finds himself torn between the teachings of his faith, the teachings of his science, and the inner promptings of his humanity. There is only one solution: He must accept an ancient and unforgivable heresy–and risk the futures of both worlds . . .

Crazy, man. I’ve read this book before, but thanks to my Swiss cheese memory, I have no idea how it ends. The writing is snappy and entertaining. Recommended so far, for a bright middle schooler or high schooler on up.

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I’m watching . . . 

Puffin Rock, which premiered in January of this year. Everyone should be watching Puffin Rock. It’s on Netflix streaming, and it will help you remember that it’s a good world, really.

Sweet as can be. I don’t even mind when the song gets stuck in my head. Made by the same people who made “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea.”

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I’m listening to . . .

the irreplaceable Jean Redpath. Here she is singing “Lady Mary Anne”

just in case you wanted to cry about stuff.

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How about you? Share your micro-reviews here!

 

The lady was sad, and MAD. (We showed the kids an opera!)

don giovanni

My kids’ experience with opera comes entirely from Bugs Bunny, and we really wanted them to branch out. So, with great trepidation, we showed them Don Giovanni last weekend … and they loved  it. More or less.

We did it in two nights. The first night, I set out some trays heaped with treats in the living room. We had brie, havarti, and honey goat cheese and three kinds of crackers, red and green grapes, mini chocolate eclairs, and sparkling cider. So the kids were all excited and cheerful, and ready to have a fancy good time. For my kids, this step is essential. If they get any whiff of high art or culture, they turn into jerks and refuse to enjoy themselves, so they need to be softened up. This is okay with me, because I, too, enjoy cheese.

We went with the Metropolitan Opera’s 2000 production with set design by Franco Zeffirelli. This production has large, clear subtitles, and all the literate kids followed the action just fine. (And the story doesn’t waste any time, but leaps right in, which is one of the reasons I chose this opera.)

The amazing thing was that Benny (age 3) picked up an awful lot, too, and was engaged throughout. She could tell that DonjiManji was one bad dude. She called all the women “princesses” (score one for the wonderful costumes, which were everything opera costumes should be) and said that Donna Elivra was “sad, and mad.” When Don Ottavio was pestering Donna Anna for the umpteenth time, she remarked, “The princess wants him to shut up.”

They laughed at the funny parts (Ferruccio Furlanetto as Leperello did a great job of making all the subtler jokes obvious with gestures and smirks) and were aghast at Don Giovanni’s wickedness.

The NYT review said that Bryn Terfel

comes to the Don with his own powerful if somewhat repugnant point of view. If the production is about period elegance, the character itself achieves a modern mean-spiritedness. Endearing naughtiness is replaced with outright sadism. This is a coldly obsessive figure for whom rape and murder is not offhand but committed with pleasure.

Well, that is the role. I don’t see how the rest of the opera makes any sense if the Don is just endearingly naughty; and his sneering callousness helped the kids to see why (spoiler) Don Giovanni goes to Hell but Leperello gets off the hook. Terfel’s power and command were sufficient to explain why the women found him hard to resist, and, as the NYT says,

this not very nice man sings like an angel. The articulation was wonderful, and Mr. Terfel commands such a depth of color that his ”La ci darem la mano” could soar out into the hall even at half voice. Volume does not necessarily conquer the Met’s bigness. Quality and focus have a better chance.

The entire cast had that focus, and no one seemed dwarfed. Here’s the rest of the cast:

Bryn Terfel (Don Giovanni), Ferruccio Furlanetto (Leporello), Renee Fleming (Donna Anna), Solveig Kringelborn (Donna Elvira), Hei-Kyung Hong (Zerlina), Paul Groves (Don Ottavio), Sergei Koptchak (Commendatore) and John Relyea (Masetto). James Levine was conductor.

Renee Fleming was tremendous. I think a few of the kids were crying when she wept, “O padre mio!” The NYT:

Fleming’s Donna Anna had unusual breadth. ”Non mi dir” luxuriated in the softness of her timbre, yet the early scenes abandoned beauty for its own sake and took on a wonderful fierceness. She is in both moods a splendid musician; the attention to rhythm, phrase length and pitch legitimized the emotion.

Quite right about the two moods. She showed real depth. Her character is naturally more interesting than Don Ottavio’s anyway, but I was really struck, in this production, by how unworthy he is of her! And what a pest, good heavens. I think if she broke a toe or won the Nobel prize for phsyics, he’d scoot over and explain that this was the perfect time for her to get over her grief and marry him.  Anyway, she was immensely present in the role, and plus, she is just so beautiful.

Solveig Kringelborn as Donna Elivira was a revelation to me. I’ve heard this role mainly played as straight up crazy bitch; but Kringelborn brought out some real pathos and humor, and avoided sounding screamy in a role that has a lot of high notes. I enjoyed every minute of her performance, and the kids loved her.

Zerlina, I was not so crazy about, and the kids had a hard time with her character. I’ve seen her played more winningly.  Her voice was crystalline and her diction was perfect, but there was no appeal in her stage presence, that I could see. It would have been fine as an audio performance, but I wouldn’t seek out Hei-Kyung Hong out for this stage role again.

Masetto did fine. Paul Groves as Don Ottavio was nicely stolid and useless, and his voice was as lovely as you could wish for his lovely arias. Don Ottavio is not actually allowed to breathe at any point, and Groves did not. The Commendatore was nice and creepy. I totally would have repented if it had been me holding that cold hand!

assuming I was still awake by the time the Commendatore showed up again

assuming I was still awake by the time the Commendatore showed up

We rented this two-disc set through Netflix, which has several Don Giovannis available. You can buy the DVD set on Amazon, or you can rent it directly from the Met for $3.99.

Very sensitive audiences will be upset with the scariness of the final scene, and with Don Giovanni’s handsiness, but it is an opera about rape and damnation, so. There was nothing so explicit that we found it off-bounds for the kids.

Next up: not sure! I think Mozart is great for kids: the emotion is so evident, and he doesn’t waste any time. Maybe The Barber of Seville.I’m sadly ignorant about Italian opera, and I’d like to remedy that. What would you suggest?

I’m reading, I’m watching, I’m listening to . . .

I’m reading . . .

Zorro by Isabel Allende.

zorro

Allende is definitely a guilty pleasure. Zorro is silly fun, very typical of Allende, with her contemptuous fondness for Catholicism, the silly sex scenes mashed naively in with a kind of lascivious clumsy feminism, a few plot turns that don’t make any sense and quietly get abandoned, and lots of running around, sailing, fighting, crying, eating, singing, being squalid, and more running around. I like the bouncy, tasty prose, and her characters are always memorable.  So sue me.

I’m watching . . .

The Sopranos for the first time.

Sopranos_ep211b

image source

Damien is a few seasons ahead of me, but is watching along with me on Amazon Prime. This show blows my mind every single episode. It’s super violent, and we have to look away during the sex scenes, but the writing and acting are even more brilliant than everyone said. Probably the best TV I’ve ever seen in my life. Every episode leaves me something to think about, and funny, oh my gosh.

DO NOT TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS. I’M ONLY ON SEASON THREE.

I’m listening to . . .

Jessye Norman singing Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

Mahler,-detail,-JihlavaJan-Koblasa,-Gustav-

 

By NoJin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I honestly thought I didn’t like Jessye Norman, but hoo boy. We were driving home from Philly and I dozed off in the back seat, and this came on the radio sometime during interminable Connecticut. That woke me up! Here is “Der Abschied” (“The Farewell”)

From Wikipedia:

Three personal disasters befell Mahler during the summer of 1907. Political maneuvering and anti-semitism forced him to resign his post as Director of the Vienna Court Opera, his eldest daughter Maria died from scarlet fever and diphtheria, and Mahler himself was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. “With one stroke,” he wrote to his friend Bruno Walter, “I have lost everything I have gained in terms of who I thought I was, and have to learn my first steps again like a newborn”.[3]

A translation of the words:

The sun departs behind the mountains.
In all the valleys the evening descends
with its shadow, full cooling.
O look! Like a silver boat sails
the moon in the watery blue heaven.
I sense the fine breeze stirring
behind the dark pines.
The brook sings out clear through the darkness.
The flowers pale in the twilight.
The earth breathes, in full rest and sleep.
All longing now becomes a dream.
Weary men traipse homeward
to sleep; forgotten happiness
and youth to rediscover.
The birds roost silent in their branches.
The world falls asleep.
It blows coolly in the shadows of my pines.
I stand here and wait for my friend;
I wait to bid him a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side
to enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where are you? You leave me long alone!
I walk up and down with my lute
on paths swelling with soft grass.
O beauty! O eternal loving-and-life-bedrunken world!
He dismounted and handed him the drink
of Farewells. He asked him where
he would go and why must it be.
He spoke, his voice was quiet. Ah my friend,
Fortune was not kind to me in this world!
Where do I go? I go, I wander in the mountains.
I seek peace for my lonely heart.
I wander homeward, to my abode!
I’ll never wander far.
Still is my heart, awaiting its hour.
The dear earth everywhere blossoms in spring and grows green
anew! Everywhere and forever blue is the horizon!
Forever … Forever …