I want to bring back into the world of men some little bit of wisdom. There is a little wisdom in the world; Heraclitus, Spinoza, and a saying here and there. I want to add to it, even if only ever so little.
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The next Copernican revolution.
When Copernicus pointed out that the earth was not the center of the universe, it was said that he changed things forever. But did he really? Though man no longer saw his planet at the center of things, didn’t he still see “himself” at the center of things? Copernicus might have changed the map of the heavens but did he change man’s view of himself in those heavens?
Few opera lovers would dispute that the leading tenor roles in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Verdi’s Otello are the most fiendishly difficult roles to sing in the entire tenor repertory. Should a tenor appear today who could sing and act these three roles and prove definitive in each, the opera world would reel in disbelief. No contemporary singer is really satisfactory in any of them, let alone all three. Yet there was a tenor who was indisputably the greatest interpreter of all these roles during his career, and who sang them all within a six week period at the Metropolitan Opera in early 1974. This is the stuff of operatic legend, and Canadian tenor Jon Vickers indeed accomplished this at that time. I am in the fortunate position of being able to provide an eyewitness account of an achievement which reminds us what the much overused word “awesome” really means.
Jon Vickers’ operatic career began in the 1950′s and ended in 1987. In addition to the roles listed above, he was the leading interpreter of Florestan in Fidelio, Siegmund in Die Walkure, Samson in Saint Saens’ Samson et Dalila, as well as the title roles in Parsifal and Peter Grimes. Though he sang many other roles with great distinction, these eight parts were generally agreed to be his greatest characterizations.
That the gods die from time to time is due to man’s sudden discovery that they do not mean anything, that they are made by human hands, useless idols of wood and stone. Carl Jung
That The Gods Die…
What would the world be like today if the Aztecs had had the ships, guns, and swords and had sent some explorers eastward that discovered Europe? – When the Europeans were finished they had destroyed essentially all the Inca, Maya, and Aztec gods and religious practices. By the eighteenth century Jehovah, God the Father, and His Son Jesus Christ had replaced Xipe Totec, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, and Tlazolteotl (and many others) as the forces behind the universe. All the North American native gods were rubbed out as well. The Navaho, Apache, Cherokee, Eskimo, Sioux, and Seminole gods didn’t have a chance as they were backed by bows and arrows, whereas the Christian settlers had rifles, cannons, and lots of ammunition. – Imagine if the opposite had happened: in 1492 the “Indians” crossed the Atlantic and discovered Portugal. They had weapons far superior to those of the Europeans and they took over and spread their religious beliefs without mercy. Today Judaism and Christianity would be non-existent. Xipe Totec, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, Tlazolteotl, and various other gods with wonderful names would be worshipped. There would be pyramids all over Europe and humans would be taken to the top and sacrificed, their hearts cut out, held high, and given to the gods to keep them happy. There would have been no Hitler to exterminate the Jews. They and the Christians would already have been annihilated long before the twentieth century. – Yes, life would be different for sure. But the human being would still be “human”. He would still have a slew of explanations for where everything came from and what causes what. He would still have a totem pole of values. He would still preach about good and evil. Power would still decide what was moral and what wasn’t, what was “equal” and what wasn’t, what was “just” and what wasn’t. – Step back. Look at the world. Look at all the defunct gods. You Christians, Jews, Mormons, and Moslems think your gods will last forever. That’s what the Greeks, Egyptians, Incas, Aztecs, Mayans, Sioux, Navaho, and Apaches thought too.
While conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein was not generally thought of as an opera conductor, he did achieve great distinction as just that from time to time. Many treasure memories of Bernstein’s work at the Met, (Falstaff, Cavalleria Rusticana, Carmen), as well as his recordings of works he conducted in Europe (Der Rosenkavalier, Falstaff again, the Verdi Requiem, etc.). My own memories of Bernstein and opera tell quite a different story without contradicting Bernstein’s undeniable musical brilliance.
The John F. Kennedy Memorial Center For The Performing Arts in Wash., D.C. opened in 1971 with the world premiere of Bernstein’s Mass. For the rest of that decade and well into the next, Bernstein was a frequent visitor there. My first personal contact with him came on the night of the first annual Kennedy Center Honors in 1978. I spent most of the first part of the program in the Press/V.I.P. Lounge of the Opera House, relaxing and waiting to play host during the intermission. Most of that time was spent having a drink and chatting with Gregory Peck, who arrived a few minutes after the program had begun. At intermission time, a large and very illustrious crowd began to pour in. As usual, we had background music coming through speakers in the ceiling and I was unconsciously swaying to the rhythm when I caught Leonard Bernstein’s eye. Bernstein was also gently swaying, and he danced across to me, took my hand and began to twirl me around. Our dance was quite brief and lighthearted and he was soon circulating to greet friends and acquaintances, but the Maestro certainly made a vivid first impression. I had long admired his work and had had many opportunities by that time to appreciate it, but that hardly prepared me for the personal impression this most uninhibited of personalities could make.
The following year, the Vienna State Opera made their only Kennedy Center Opera House visit, offering two weeks of opera conducted by the likes of Bernstein and Karl Bohm, combined with Vienna Philharmonic concerts in the Concert Hall. This late 1979 visit marked the end of the Kennedy Center’s greatest decade, a period during which impresario Martin Feinstein had managed to arrange visits by the Paris Opera, Deutsch Oper, Berlin, the Bolshoi Opera, La Scala and finally, the Vienna State Opera. Such ballet companies as The Bolshoi, Stuttgart, and London’s Royal Ballet also graced the Opera House stage during those years, as well as the still-annual visits by the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. The Vienna stay opened with Beethoven’s Fidelio, conducted by Bernstein.
Bernstein and Vienna delivered superb Beethoven, but during the Leonore Overture #3, played as an Interlude before the final scene, Bernstein’s terpsichorean talents burst forth, leaving our little dance of the previous year in the dust. I was sitting quite near the pit and, just prior to the piece’s magnificent finale, was startled to see Bernstein suddenly crouch down low and jump straight up in the air, nearly clearing the top of the pit! He seemed to have been shot from a cannon, or at least to be using a trampoline to magnify the drama of his downbeat.
Has anyone ever pointed out the absolute irony of the United States of America today claiming to be a “Christian” nation? American senators, congressmen, and presidents constantly invoke their faith and belief in “God” – the so-called Christian god. Millions and millions of voters claim to be devout “Christians”. How is this possible in the country that has by far the biggest military arsenal in the world? Since World War II no other country has come close to America in using its military might around the world. Wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq have left death and devastation for millions of human beings. This is the work of a very powerful nation, not a very Christian nation. I am not arguing that the wars of America have been wrong or right; I am simply saying that they have absolutely nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ. America claims to be one of the most Christian nations in the world, but couldn’t it be argued that the opposite is true? Continue reading
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Has anyone ever stopped to think what monotheism has done to the world? It might be the single belief that has “enslaved” the human head more than any other. – When there were many gods, there were many possibilities for thinking. One god did and said this, another did that, and there was a certain “openness” to what life was all about. There was also an openness to what man was all about…Suddenly, with the Judeo-Christian single god, all that stopped. Continue reading
People come to opera in many different ways. One common way is to become enthralled by a particular contemporary singer or voice type, which in many cases leads to a larger appreciation of the art form itself. Part of this process often involves not only extensive reading, but also conversations with older aficionados, then to an exploration of great recordings of the past. This exploration is most enlightening and results in appreciations and understanding which are very enriching experiences.
Going through this process has happily led many of us to seek out recordings of the greatest Italian tenor of the 20th century, Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), the man Caruso authority Francis Robinson called “the greatest singer of his time, perhaps of all time”. Continue reading