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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“In braccio a morte”
The recent death of the great Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi at age 90 brings back many wonderful memories. One of the most striking of these memories is that I never saw a Bergonzi recital that was not attended by from one to several of his younger tenor colleagues, including Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. They all knew they had something to learn from the master. This situation is by no means common; I cannot recall ever seeing a noted tenor attending a recital or concert by any major tenor other than Bergonzi. The last time I heard this paragon was in Madrid when he was 65 years old. Excepting some strain beginning at B flat, he was the same great singer as ever. Many have testified to the surprisingly high quality of his singing at a New York recital when he was 75! But the core of our memories of this fine artist go back to the years of his happily long prime.
The Italian phrase in my title (“In the arms of death”) comes from the final scene of Verdi’s Un Ballo In Maschera which offered Bergonzi what most admirers considered his finest role. How appropriate that it is by Verdi, as Bergonzi was always particularly associated with the music of his great compatriot. He may have lacked the trumpet-like brilliance and glamour of such as Del Monaco or Corelli, but what he did have to offer more than compensated for that. There is much to be said for such virtues as impeccable legato, sound vocal technique, beautiful tone and fine musicianship, and these were among the qualities that Bergonzi possessed in abundance. Indeed, his solid technique and the wisdom never to push his lovely voice beyond its natural limitations, while still sustaining the necessary stamina and security in the upper register needed for some of Verdi’s heavier roles, helped make Bergonzi a master interpreter even of roles in such Verdi operas as Il Trovatore, La Forza Del Destino and Aida.
I hear people around me often say that the situation in the world is getting worse and worse. They seem to imply that in the past things were better, much better than they are today. They will talk about wars, global warming, pollution, violence in the streets, political leaders, the economy, insecurity, etc. to justify their pessimism. – What do these people think the world was like before? Do they think the Middle Ages were pretty? Do they think of the earth in the dinosaur age as some kind of pristine garden of love and harmony? Do they think the great plagues and famines that ravished the earth for thousands (maybe millions, even billions…) of years were times of joy and celebration? Do they not know how long humans lived before and how much they suffered? Do they think killing each other with swords, lances, and clubs is better than killing each other with drones and bombs? Do they think executions on crosses were better than electric chairs? Do they think the lives of peasants and slaves (certainly the vocation of most people on earth for the greater part of our “known” history) were a bowl of cherries? Have these people ever visited a Civil War hospital or Mexico during the Spanish invasion five hundred years ago? Have they seen a court of law in the eleventh century? Have they studied the two great wars of the twentieth century (what was it?…100,000,000 people killed?)? Continue reading
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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