Out & About with Pavarotti

I waited on the tarmac. It was Spring, 1972 in Memphis, Tennessee and I  was awaiting  the arrival of my girlfriend at the airport.  She was coming in from New York City; I had driven from the St. Louis area and we were to meet for an enjoyable weekend of performances by the Metropolitan Opera on its then-annual Spring Tour. This was during my Hippy days, and I looked the part. As I waited, I was surprised to see a man emerge, a man not yet nationally famous, but instantly recognizable to me. As our eyes met, I said in Italian, “Mr. Pavarotti, welcome to Memphis.”

 The tenor descended laughing, then said “You are my welcoming committee?” We chatted amiably for a few minutes. Suddenly, a large group of people approached Pavarotti, apologizing for being late to welcome him. He summoned enough English to say “Here is my welcoming committee”, or words to that effect, indicating me. It should be noted that in later years his English improved considerably. The well-dressed opera patrons eyed the disgraceful Hippy with amazement, then swept their star away. My girlfriend came out and everything began to proceed according to plan. Such was my first meeting with the man who would become one of the three most famous opera singers of the 20th Century, along with Enrico Caruso and Maria Callas, both of whom lacked the mass media advantages that Pavarotti enjoyed. Future meetings proved equally unexpected.

 The second one was several years later at the Kennedy Center. By then the Hippy appearance had been discarded and I was working my way up the ladder there; I was in the Box Office for the Opera House. Pavarotti’s name had by then become a household  word and he was to appear in four performances at the Opera House during the Met’s still-active tour. One day, during a very slow part of the day, those of us at the windows were astonished to see Pavarotti approaching us with a big, friendly smile. As if it were necessary, he introduced himself. He then told us he was singing the four performances and encouraged us to come to see him. He proceeded to go all around the entrance level of the building and did the same with the people at the souvenir stands, the ushers, with anyone he saw who worked there. In all my years at Kennedy Center, he was the only star to do such a thing and it made quite an impression. Several employees who had never seen an opera went to see him as a result of his efforts as goodwill ambassador. I of course needed no encouragement, having previously gotten tickets for his Un Ballo In Maschera and L’Elisir D’Amore performances. It  was becoming clear that I was never to have what might be described as a normal meeting with this man. Little did I know how odd the next, and last one would be.

 The vocal pinnacle of Pavarotti’s voice was from the late ’60’s  through the mid-70’s. Nearing the end of the ’70’s, the easy lyrical brilliance of his tone had begun to harden slightly as he entered his ’40’s and took on heavier roles. In any case, Pavarotti’s voice type is often at its best in a tenor’s younger years. While the tenor continued to sing very well, those of us who had heard him at his absolute best noticed the difference. I was somewhat alarmed to hear that Pavarotti had decided to take on the role of Manrico in Il Trovatore, hardly a role he was born to sing. However, when he began to perform Manrico at the Met, I went to hear the result, not without trepidation. As far as Pavarotti was concerned, I got what I expected: a still fine tenor voice singing music not really appropriate to it. The rest of the experience could hardly have been predicted.

 I found myself next to an elderly gentleman who, from the sound of his “Bravo!”, was Italian. During the first intermission, I spoke to him in Italian, asking him if he were from Italy. He responded as predicted and then asked me what I thought of the tenor. When I simply responded that Pavarotti was one of the best tenors in the world, he said “One of the best? He’s the best.  He’s my son.” Such was the passion of his response that I felt it best to simply agree with him. I learned that he was from Modena, a town I had once spent a considerable amount of time in and we discussed that. He revealed that he had come from Modena particularly to hear his son’s Manrico and was staying for several performances. In those days, the Met had 3 intermissions for a 4-act opera and we spent each one in conversation. By chance I was on the list for admittance backstage after the performance, as was, of course, the elder Pavarotti.

 At the end of the performance, we duly went backstage to the area near the star dressing rooms. The tenor saluted his father affectionately and Pavarotti, Sr. introduced me as “Gregorio”. I told Pavarotti of our first meeting and he told me he recalled it, though I was doubtful. I excused myself and said hello to a couple  of singers and staff members I knew, then bade farewell to both Pavarotti’s, as it seemed  best not to intrude. As I walked away, I reflected on the unusual nature of all three meetings with Pavarotti. Though I was to hear him sing many more times, our paths did not cross again. Through those years, I often thought of Caruso and Callas, wondering what level of fame they would have achieved in the media age. Had they been contemporaries, would Pavarotti’s fame have matched or even exceeded theirs? A provocative question to be forever unanswered. For his 21st Century fans, Pavarotti’s preeminence will likely remain undisputed. 

 

Death of a Friend

Darkness and Light

 This reflection began with the death of a friend, Kerry Davis, with whom I used to play basketball. First this happened:

 My dear friend Charlie, who told me about the funeral, had everything wrong. He was there waiting for me at the station in Lugano …We take the small train to Caslano where he says  we can view the body at 14h30…Charlie  has  recently had a knee operation and can barely walk…We limp the mile from Caslano station to the church…No Kerry Davis in sight…Another funeral has ended…Charlie shows some casket chauffeurs in front of the church  the info on his iPhone where he has a picture of the death announcement…(they actually remember Charlie, Kerry, and I from our playing and coaching days)…Kerry is not in Caslano, but in Lugano where he can be viewed at 16h30, but the funeral is the next day at 9h…We walk the mile back and take the train and bus to where Kerry is supposed to be in Lugano (the viewing spot is 100 meters from “La Gerra” where the Lugano basketball team used to play)…I leave Charlie in a café and go see if Kerry is there. There are 5 doors with names on them. I put on my glasses. Kerry is there…I look around…It’s 16h…No one looks at me…I try the door…It opens. I enter heaven.  Kerry and I have a moment together just like old times though he is resting in peace (the expression seems appropriate). However his 1m98 body barely fits in the box. His shiny coffee-black skin makes him look very healthy and I keep thinking he will open an eye, wink, say something, wiggle, etc. –  you know, share a moment with me about a couple of our great memories together, maybe even tell me how he died. I say without thinking, “Kerry, I love you to death.”  He doesn’t wake up… I go fetch Charlie at the café. It’s 16h30 and he is charging his phone and having coffee. I have a quick Irish beer and then take him over to see Kerry. An old basketball person who speaks only Italian is there. For fifteen minutes he talks with Charlie  (he coached in Lugano for three years and speaks decent Italian) about his own bout with cancer. I ask if he knows   how Kerry died. He doesn’t know –  just says it  was “subito”. At least I think that’s what he says. I walk around the casket a few times. I can’t see the scar on Kerry’s forehead where he had hit his head on the basket forty years before. Oh could he jump with those thighs of elastic steel. I touch his hand and we go back outside. Both are cold…As we walk to the bus to the station, Charlie says he doesn’t like that kind of stuff. 

We get on the same  train at 17h42. He gets off in Lucerne…I come in the house at 22h30. Both other occupants are up, one in front of the tv and the other in front of her iPhone. I ask them how their day was. Answers are brief and  neither questions me about anything. I go to bed…

 I send this to friend Chris in California. She answers saying: those are very powerful moments alone with the dead. did you feel something missing? spirit? life force? a hollowing out? when i was alone with pam’s dead son, i couldn’t stop touching his hair…, but something indefinable wasn’t there.” 

 I answer: i’m tempted to say something is always missing…but the dead seem to be missing all but the flesh that will soon rot away…o life

 Her reply: all animals the same…a hollowing out when the time comes…where does that energy go? where does the light go when i turn off the switch? 

 My answer: imagine all the suns – stars – out there in space and yet still most of space is black, bleak, lightless. there is definitely much much  more of the universe in the dark than in the light, probably 99.9 %…can the same be said for mankind? if so, where are the human lights, the ones that really glow on their own, not from the lights of cameras, stages, and spotlights? 

 And so I began to reflect on darkness and light, life and death, and humans that might be lights unto themselves, humans that actually give off light as opposed to humans that walk in the light of cameras, stages, and spotlights, i.e. humans who are suns themselves as opposed to humans that bask in the light of the stars and suns. 

 Who creates her or his own light? Who lives in the light created by other sources?

 There are suns and stars all over the universe that are attached to nothing and exude light of unimaginable proportions. Our sun can reach temperatures of 15 million degrees Celsius. We are 93,000,000 miles away, but the sun keeps us warm. It is that strong, that hot, that much of a force. What are we, we who grovel for a few decades on the earth? Are there any sources of light among us?

 Our sun is not even one of the bigger suns in the universe. Just in our own Milky Way galaxy (wouldn’t “Milky Way” be a wonderful name for a shopping mall?) there are stars that are thought to be 1,500 times bigger than our sun.

 But we should not compare ourselves to things so far away. What good does it do? Oh yes, it can help to give us a perspective on things…But what things should we really have a perspective about? Ourselves? Others? Our nations? Our values?…Our thoughts?…Our beliefs?…Our truths?…Our time alive and dead?

 What is the goal of “having a perspective”? Might it be that only one who can step back can shine out? Only one separate from the block of humanity can one shine on humanity?

 Ask yourself, “Am I a source of light?”… “Do I simply live off the light of the sun and others?”… “Do I absorb light or do I give it off?”

 Now let us ask, “What is truly enlightening?” Other than suns, fire, and electric lights, what gives off light? When you are in a dark place with other human beings or animals, which creatures will make the place feel darker and which ones will make it feel lighter?

 When I stood next to my friend Kerry’s coffin, it did feel as though he was giving off light. He had always been a source of pleasure when we played together and when I coached him. We never argued or fought. If we won, we had a few pleasant beers together. If we lost we had a few pleasant beers together. He never bitched or complained about life. It is true that he stuttered and because of this was not a man who said much, except after a few of those pleasant beers.

When we were in Rome together in 1978 celebrating the end of a season, we invited a couple of women to our hotel. We had had a few grandpas during the day and we bought a bottle of whiskey for when the “girls” came. They finally showed up around 21h. It became evident that we were not two matches made in heaven when one of the girls said she was a couple months pregnant and another said she had some female problem with her reproductive apparatus. After they left around 23h, Kerry and I drank most of the bottle of whiskey. We laughed and joked to where he fell headfirst between the two beds and couldn’t get up. I remember standing on a bed and pulling his massive body up by his skinny ankles. 

But O my God those thighs weren’t skinny. Oh no! They were made of elastic steel. 

 Even dead, Kerry was light.

 

 

 

 

Death of a Sister

BOOKENDS

Yesterday we celebrated a niece’s birthday.  Today our celebration is of the more somber bookend.  I wanted to share three thoughts and  a few lines of verse—all of which I dedicate to our elder sister:

SUZANNE ELIZABETH GARDNER

1942-2014

We live our lives between the past and the future. Our thought is usually of the one or the other—such thought, along with everything else, takes place in the present.  When the past and the future collide, there is nothing to ponder between them—the present has dissolved into what I call a God-moment—the place between birth and death where a life has been gathered in the mind of God.

The second thought is more pedestrian. From an early age we are made and become well aware of the calendar day that marks our birth—our birthday. Significantly Less thought is given to another calendar day, no less significant but rarely conjured in wakeful consciousness.  Suzann Elizabeth—the lovely daughter of our memory discovered that fateful day three weeks ago, today.  As her birthday will forever remain April 10, 1942–her death-day will forever remain March 3, 2014.  So I submit that when we appraise the days of the year—when we note anyone of its familiar 365—that we remember that anyone one of them might be that day the when our past and futures collide—and if we find that any particular day is not that given day then it is given to us to rejoice in the day that it is and  rejoice in the day that it’s not.  Whitman is instructive:

Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave let him know he has enough.

The third thought concerns the immortality of the written word. In finitude, immortality is, of course, an illusion—words and the books that they contain will one day perish along with all and any of the other products of time.  But for the interim they give the impression of longevity—like the God-moment they are sandwiched between two covers—a present moment flowing down a page gathered between a beginning and an end.  At the end of a book I finished writing yesterday—I had a melancholy moment. I realized this was a book that Suzanne would never read—and I  further reflected that until yesterday that I been too busy living my own life to think very often of hers— so I found myself adding something simple, something suggestive of that melancholy, to the book’s final page–so now that she is gone and the book to press– I  think I am destined to  contemplate her life more often than I would have otherwise supposed.  But before the finitude of that conclusion—the promised lines of verse. The lines are,  again, as you might imagine (in this place of endless lawns) from  Walt Whitman—They are taken from the beginning and the end of Song of Myself—they bookend his take on life and death as he contemplates a single spear of summer grass:

I celebrate and sing myself

And what I shall assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

A child said what is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands,

How could I answer the child?  I do not know any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it must be the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt.

Bearing the owner’s name in the corner that we may see and remark, and say whose?

And now it seems the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

The scud of (this) day holds back for me,

It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadowed wilds

I coaxes me to the vapor and dust.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,

I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift (away) in lacy jags,

I bequeath myself to the grass I love,

If you want me look for me under your boot-soles,

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you never the less,

And filter and fiber your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Suzanne awaits me and any others at the end of the book I finished writing yesterday.  It quotes Whitman yet once again:

I that was visible am now invisible.

And concludes opposite his line  with the collision of a beginning and an end  gathering a past and future forever fixed in the mind of God:

         Susanne Elizabeth Gardner

1942-2014

Whitman’s Lost Novel

In 1852 — three years before Leaves of Grass — Walt Whitman anonymously published a short novel, in six parts, in New York’s Sunday Dispatch.

A literary treasure buried for more than a century has been unearthed by Zachary Turpin, a grad student at the University of Houston.

It’s a work of short fiction: a 36,000-word novella published anonymously, in six parts, in a New York newspaper in 1852. The discursive nature of the manuscript’s full title — Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography; In Which The Reader Will Find Some Familiar Characters — places it squarely in its literary era, as does its subtitle, A Story of New York at the Present Time.

The find was announced on Monday as the full book was published online in the literary journal Walt Whitman Quarterly Review; the University of Iowa Press is releasing it in book form.

What’s notable about the novella is its author — the beloved American poet Walt Whitman — and its place in Whitman’s literary career. Just three years after Jack Engle saw print, Whitman would publish the work that would enshrine him in the American canon: Leaves of Grass.

Prior to Monday’s announcement, it was believed Whitman spent the early 1850s at work on that magnum opus, publishing little of note.

In 1842, Whitman had published another work of fiction, a harrowing “temperance novel” about a stouthearted young man whose life is nearly destroyed by alcohol. Whitman distanced himself from that early work and never publicly acknowledged authorship of Jack Engle.

“It was wild,” he told All Things Considered‘s Ari Shapiro. “The literary research that I do isn’t as glamorous as you might think. I was actually in a guest bedroom at my in-laws’, putting together a Pack-and-Play, and I got an email. …

“What I’m looking for are these very unique character names Whitman had written out — Wigglesworth, Smytthe … and the first thing I see on the page are those names. … It was surreal.”

Turpin describes the book as, among other things, Dickensian. “It’s also a sentimental novel; it’s also city mystery novel. It’s multifaceted, let’s put it that way.”

As for how Jack Engle intersects Leaves of Grass, Turpin says, “They’re apples and oranges. You have certain passages like [those excerpted below] that are remarkably similar, that presages … Leaves of Grass, which he was probably writing simultaneously. … There are also elements that are wildly different — chases across New York and romances and scheming, mustache-twisting villains are not the stuff of Leaves of Grass, but these are the stuff of Whitman’s long and storied fiction career, and career as a journalist.”

As for what Turpin thinks of the the work itself, he says, “I’m really blown away by this book. … It’s all things to all men. It’s weird, it’s wild, it’s beautiful and hilarious, and turns on a dime in ways that are both great and terrible. It’s truly phenomenal, and I think something that everyone will enjoy picking up.”

It’s the second time in as many years Turpin has made such a discovery. Previously, he found another Whitman manuscript, a series of articles offering tips for a healthy and vigorous lifestyle, in another newspaper.

Asked if historians should respect Whitman’s wish for his early work to “be dropped in oblivion,” Turpin says, “I respect that … on the other hand, Whitman’s greatest wish was to be the greatest and most famous poet in America.”


In this excerpt, the narrator stops into the graveyard of Manhattan’s Trinity Church and muses about mortality. Turpin and other Whitman scholars believe this section offers a glimpse of the poet engaging with some of the same language and themes that would define Leaves of Grass:

“Truly, life is sweet to the young man.—Such bounding and swelling capacities for joy reside within him, and such ambitious yearnings. Health and unfettered spirits are his staff and mantle. He learns unthinkingly to love—that glorious privilege of youth! Out of the tiny fractions of his experience, he builds beautiful imaginings, and confidently looks for the future to realize them. And then he is so sure of those future years. …

“Out there in the fashionable thoroughfare, how bustling was life, and how jauntily it wandered close along the side of those warnings of its inevitable end. How gay that throng along the walk! Light laughs come from them, and jolly talk — those groups of well-dressed young men — those merry boys returning from school — clerks going home from their labors — and many a form, too, of female grace and elegance.

“Could it be that coffins, six feet below where I stood, enclosed the ashes of like young men, whose vestments, during life, had engrossed the same anxious care — and schoolboys and beautiful women; for they too were buried here, as well as the aged and infirm.

“But onward rolled the broad, bright current, and troubled themselves not yet with gloomy thoughts; and that showed more philosophy in them perhaps than such sentimental meditations as any the reader has been perusing.”