Posts Tagged ‘Opera’

Grand Tour #6 – Netherlands. The Garden Where the Brass Band Played / Simon Vestdijk

April 1, 2017

To the Netherlands, and I suspect to the only book of this project that I will have read before. Years ago I was the moderator of a message board (technically I still am, but it’s so quiet these days that it moderates itself), and one of our regular contributors was a translator who frequently deplored British readers’ lack of interest in translated literature. In the spirit of appeasement we decided to do a group read of a book from an unfamiliar language, and he suggested The Garden Where the Brass Band Played (De koperen tuin), a 1950 novel by the Dutch writer Simon Vestdijk, translated by A. (Alex) Brotherton. I felt like paying it another visit.


It’s a coming-of-age novel (a genre I inevitably gravitate towards) set in the early part of the last century, telling the story of Nol, the son of a judge in the northern town of W …, and his relationship with a girl four years his senior, Trix, the daughter of local musician Henri Cuperus.

Near the start of the book we witness 8-year-old Nol at a public garden where Cuperus conducts a Sousa march that fills Nol with such joy that he is moved to dance with Trix, also present. This moment of delight – of falling in love, as it turns out – colours everything that follows it. The Dutch title of the book would be more accurately rendered in English as ‘The Brass Garden’ (to be pedantic, ‘The Copper Garden’), the brass (or copper) referring not merely to the musical instruments but to the sheen that Nol’s memory of that afternoon assumes. It’s not a spoiler to write that the book ends with Nol returning to the garden and finding it damp and desecrated, not golden like the garden of his memories: that’s what has to happen when you grow up.

If the book ends with tragedy, it opens with exuberance, even in the trials of Nol’s childhood. Nol has heard his older brother Chris, frustrated by his piano lessons, crying in the room next door, and has even shed sympathetic tears himself, despite the coolness of their relationship. He nonetheless takes a vindictive pleasure in the prospect of getting one over on his brother:

Both of us came to supper with red-rimmed eyes, looking dazed, like geese after a storm. It had already been decided that Chris didn’t have to go to piano lessons any more. After the soup he had just as much to say as ever, but during the dessert, when my father told him to keep quiet, he didn’t kick me, which was just as well for him because, despite the sympathy that gave me a glow of pleasure for days afterwards, I had my answer ready. I wasn’t going to say: ‘He kicked me, the beast’, as I had done once and been sent to the kitchen by my father. I’d just make a sign, a movement of my hand, tracing the course of a tear down my own cheek with a finger.

Incidentally, though a minor character, Chris is at the centre of a comic interlude early on that I can’t believe I’d forgotten, in which he sets up a small business at school selling peppermints that gets out of hand. It’s so funny that I can’t resist quoting it.

He had rings under his eyes from sitting up, night after night, first at his homework, then, till after midnight, studying ‘economics’, compiling peppermint statistics, pricing shares with stock exchange quotations and all the fiendish complications of dealing in shares. He got thin and haggard, he looked as if he was bent under a heavy load. Even my parents, who knew nothing of his nightly labours, began to show the strain because he talked of nothing else at the table and persecuted my father with unanswerable questions. He always had a supply of peppermints of diverse shapes with him. Sometimes he would offer these to us after dessert. It was all treated as a joke though my parents used to look at each other with raised eyebrows and never kept the peppermint long in their mouths.


To return to music, the reasons for Chris’s abandonment of the piano are Clementi and Dussek, two names that strike terror into the hearts of little boys even now, presumably. Nol is not deterred by the failure of his brother, and persuades his parents to let him take piano lessons from Cuperus, who proves an inspiring teacher. Though the story of Nol’s love of Trix is the main focus, his love of music runs throughout the novel, always underscoring his hero worship of Cuperus, his estrangement from Trix, his contemplations of the past.

Most prominent of all the music in the book is Bizet’s Carmen, a performance of which Cuperus conducts when Nol is at the impressionable age of 17, with Trix singing the minor role of Frasquita. The second intermezzo (which I take to be the Entr’acte between Acts 2 and 3), with its gorgeous duet between harp and flute, later joined by clarinet and strings, recurs at strategic points. (There is also a clear parallel to be drawn between the characters of Carmen and Trix, though it’s not gratuitous.) The sweet wistfulness of this music infects the book.

Nol’s growing up is depicted partly through his changing taste in music. Snob that I am, when I read of Nol’s being moved by Sousa, my first reaction was, Sousa? Only now I think of it, I myself had a brief Sousa phase when I was about nine.

Frasier: Remember when you used to think the 1812 Overture was a great piece of classical music?
Niles: Was I ever that young?

Before he is too much older, Nol thinks back on Sousa as ‘the music that I had long since grown out of.’ He is introduced by Cuperus to the likes of Bizet and Wagner, and eventually branches out on his own, falling in love with the music of Debussy and Ravel that even the progressive Cuperus does not care for. Vestdijk writes about music with sensitivity and understanding. I remember flinching, the first time I read it, at Nol’s dismissal of Op. 31 No. 1 as Beethoven’s dullest piano sonata, the finale notwithstanding; I listened to the music this time and found myself nodding sadly with sympathy.

The growth to maturity of Nol is so delicately drawn that you are barely conscious of it as it is happening. A small event can change his understanding of life subtly, such as the conversation where he asks his mother, ‘But surely … you must have been in love once?’ and receives the poignant reply, ‘Not really.’ At various points he repeats his mantra, ‘Time is irrelevant to love’, which seems to me frankly bullshit, and perhaps by the end of the book he realises as much. Whatever else romantic love is, it is not stationary: it kindles, surges, mutates, dies (or am I making the mistake of assuming everyone experiences love in the same way I do, which I confess is probably not the case); and the depiction of love in this book, though reserved, convinces and moves me deeply.

This smile wasn’t like the sunlight breaking through the clouds. It was something altogether different, it must have been the lines around the eyes that lit up again with their natural mischievousness, the eyelids, and those lashes … I don’t know how to describe it exactly. I don’t know either how soon I forgot her again during those summer holidays, or how long, how many months, years even, I let pass by and scarcely gave her a thought. I don’t know how that was ever possible.



Ray Bourbon

December 15, 2016

I have a feeling drag’s rather unfashionable at present. With public awareness of transgender people increasing, the parody and pantomime of gender for entertainment are starting to look passé. Mind you, drag’s always made people uncomfortable. Today they feel uncomfortable because it may not be PC; fifty years ago they felt uncomfortable because of the subversion of gender norms that were deemed immutable. Which is where Ray Bourbon comes in.

I’ve been fond of Ray (or Rae) Bourbon for a couple of years now. His chequered history would make an interesting biopic: a pioneering drag artist from the 1920s onwards, he claimed in the mid ’50s (probably as a publicity stunt, capitalising on the fame of Christine Jorgensen) to have had a ‘sex change’ operation in Mexico (hence the public feminisation of his name from Ray to Rae, though he remained Ray in private), and died in prison just short of his 79th birthday following his implication in a murder. Colourful and all, but I don’t think I’d be as fascinated by Ray if it weren’t for the fact that so much of his act has been preserved in the albums he released of himself in cabaret, now available on the Internet Archive.


Let’s have a look at Ray’s back catalogue. The records that survive were produced on his own Under the Counter record label and distributed at his shows. Because of the necessary circumvention of mainstream media (who would have taken him on?) he’s able to get away with much ruder material than you’d expect of the 1950s. Although there’s a smattering of songs, most of the numbers are comical poems or monologues spoken above a piano accompaniment. He must have had a regular pianist, as there are certain quirks, mainly involving second-inversion triads, that recur across several albums.

The title track of Let Me Tell You About My Operation is a good place to start, containing as it does many of his hallmarks. In fact it’s better put together than most, as Ray’s occasional excursions into song mean that the piano/voice relationship has to be tight and disciplined. There’s the sense of confidentiality and scandal, the risqué (coarse, you might say) content (‘For the change I went south of the border / It took me just days to pack / I arrived there with excess baggage / But I had a lot less coming back’), and a fine sample of his tremendous repertoire of laughs — the high-pitched hee-hee giggle, the hoot, the raucous bark. Most of all, though, his personality. Even when the material’s not up to much (as here), Ray’s vivacity saves the day.

Ray’s default persona is that of a gossipy queen, telling innuendo-laden stories with occasional asides to his/her friend — ‘When I caught him kissing Tab Hunter’s picture / That’s when I said no to Joe — and meant it, Mary’ — and many of the character pieces share common elements, like the simile that aspires to wit but doesn’t quite make it: ‘The Piano Teacher’ (‘it sounded like Paderewski on a binge’); or ‘Three Girls at a Matinee’ (‘Get the puss on that mess, it looks like an antiquated lesbian — what a face, good heavens’); or ‘The Neighbor’s Party’ (‘Walking around the house naked … you look like a broken-down eunuch … you may as well be one for the good it does me’). Actually this one’s rather good as it tells a story, albeit a simple one, with Ray as a nosy housewife who, bitter at not being invited to her neighbour’s wild party, phones the police to get it stopped (‘I hope they cave her skull in like a fedora hat’) and finds her own husband arrested for exposing himself at the bathroom window.

Also on the album Don’t Call Me Madam is a trio of monologues that rewards closer scrutiny, with Ray as the mother of a nuclear family. She’s pushy and overbearing (to the children: ‘Your father’s a jerk!’), her conversation mired in mundanity, but along the way she has a lot of fun queering the pitch. ‘Mrs Smith!’ she cries at the sight of an acquaintance; then, ‘Oh, it’s Mr Smith. You can’t tell who’s the wife in that family anymore.’ Later, she tells her children a bedtime story: ‘Jack and his Beanstalk, it’s a fairy tale … no dear, it’s not about your father.’ It’s not like any fairy story I’ve encountered before. Jack: ‘Just look at the size of my stalk: today I am a man.’

I find myself increasingly in love with ‘Toga Saga’, the opening track of One on the Aisle, Ray’s ‘intimate view of grand opera’, perhaps because it shows a different side of his personality — gentler, less raucous, and even, when he finishes with a charming song to Jason (in the persona of Medea), kittenish, tenderly pleading with him to ‘keep it gay’ and vowing ‘You’re the only Greek column I want.’ Although ostensibly an album about opera, the music of the operas is mostly ignored (which may be where Katherine Jenkins got the idea), but the altered reality of opera gives Ray licence to flout sexual convention. ‘In the opera you can seduce anybody and nobody really cares, as long as you sing about it,’ he observes. As a lesbian Brünnhilde: ‘That’s when I discovered my father was really my mother and the whole family was a fruity piece of juice.’ His version of Carmen (featuring a lover called Juan Dildo) is inspired by a man taken for a woman by the composer George Bassett: ‘They had ’em in Spain before they had ’em in Denmark.’

I’ve forgotten why I started to write this post, but it’s probably because, whether it’s to your personal taste or not, this is a part of our shared queer culture and deserves to be more widely known about and celebrated. Hooray for Ray! If you want to investigate further, there’s some marvellous biographical detail on this website.

Biedermann und die Brandstifter

November 15, 2015


Last night I went to Sadler’s Wells to see the UK premiere of Šimon Voseček’s operatic adaptation of the Max Frisch play Biedermann und die Brandstifter, presented in David Pountney’s English translation as Biedermann and the Arsonists and directed by Max Hoehn.

The play’s been a favourite of mine for years. It’s touch and go with things you study at school, isn’t it. How many people have been turned off Shakespeare for life as a result of doing Othello at GCSE? Of course it’s rarely Shakespeare’s fault, more likely to be a combination of the teacher and the child and other variables. But with Biedermann, which I did for A-level German, I was lucky to have an excellent teacher and an excellent class.

Gottlieb Biedermann is an ostensibly respectable businessman selling his own phoney brand of hair tonic (Hormoflor) and living with his wife Babette and their maid Anna. His town is in the grip of a spate of arson attacks. The play opens with Biedermann reading the paper (translations mine):

BIEDERMANN: They should hang them … Another arson attack. And always the same story, believe it or not: a peddler, who makes his nest in the attic, a harmless peddler… They should hang them!
ANNA: Herr Biedermann –
ANNA: He’s still there.
ANNA: The peddler who wants to talk to you.

The peddler is Schmitz, an unemployed wrestler, who insinuates himself into Biedermann’s house and, with the help of his colleague Eisenring, proceeds to burn it down, with Biedermann’s tacit endorsement. It’s not that Biedermann’s an idiot exactly, but he’s hamstrung by his middle-class guilt. One reason why he doesn’t chuck Schmitz and Eisenring out is that he can’t bear to be thought of as prejudiced.

The arsonists are also crafty: they dodge and wheedle, using manipulation and negative psychology. My favourite of Eisenring’s deflections:

EISENRING: Don’t worry about the bathroom, Herr Biedermann. There was no bathroom in prison, you know.
EISENRING: Didn’t Sepp tell you I came from prison?
EISENRING: Not a word?
EISENRING: He only ever talks about himself!

Crucially, they don’t lie: as Eisenring observes to Biedermann, he has found telling the truth to be the most effective strategy (ahead of sentimentality and jokes), since no one believes it. Biedermann goes so far as to help him measure out the fuse for the detonator. The arsonists’ plan almost fails at the end, as they have no matches, but Biedermann comes to the rescue.

BABETTE: What did you give them? I saw it – matches?
BABETTE: Matches?
BIEDERMANN: If they were really arsonists, why would they have no matches?

I love the play’s dark and absurd humour. A secondary plot strand involves the suicide of an employee of Biedermann. Biedermann arranges for a wreath to be sent to the widow, but an administrative mix-up means she is sent the bill and he receives a wreath with a bow attached bearing the legend ‘TO OUR UNFORGETTABLE GOTTLIEB BIEDERMANN’.

The play is a popular choice for study in school because the morality is so ambiguous. To what extent is Biedermann complicit in the arson attacks? The arsonists never pretend to be anything other than what they are, though their brazenness increases as the end approaches. Does Biedermann’s blindness stem from delusion, or embarrassment, or what?

The familiar and unattributable quote about the only thing necessary for evil to triumph being for good men to do nothing inevitably comes to mind. When one views the play in its historical context, it’s most easily read as an allegory for the rise of Nazism, perhaps with special reference to Frisch’s country Switzerland. Michael Billington, in his recently published book The 101 Greatest Plays from Antiquity to the Present, notes that the Communist coup in postwar Czechoslovakia was the immediate catalyst for the play’s composition. Whatever Frisch may have had in mind, his play speaks to us of ourselves, often uncomfortably so.

As does Voseček’s opera. I’m very poorly versed in opera post-Britten, and perhaps it was a result of my own shortcomings in this respect and of the opera being sung in English that I found myself thinking most regularly of Britten as I attempted to place it musically. Some of the opening scene’s rhythmic urgency put me in mind of the vigour of the arrival of the new crew members in Billy Budd, while Biedermann’s (Mark Le Brocq) stridency occasionally recalled Bob Boles, and the lyricism of Alinka Kozári’s Babette, singing an arietta while she stuffs a goose, made me think of Ellen Orford.

Voseček’s music is lush, with a rich array of tuned percussion, and most memorable in its eerie achievement of approaching siren effects in the final scene. The libretto, wisely, is taken pretty much wholesale from Frisch, with the best jokes preserved. I had hoped for the inclusion of ‘Lili Marlene’, which Frisch has Schmitz whistle during one scene, but it was omitted; in its place, ingeniously, a twisted quotation from Don Giovanni, as Schmitz briefly becomes the Commendatore. The lengthy afterpiece, set in hell, is sensibly left out: Voseček’s ending, with the fuse approaching the detonator, is most satisfying.

David Pountney’s translation is a success. The final scene involves Schmitz repeatedly making a crude pun on the German word for gun (Schießgewehr becoming Scheißgewehr), which rarely translates well into English. Pountney’s solution seems the most satisfactory, an emphasis on the first syllable of the word ‘arsonist’. (I’m afraid I can’t remember what Alistair Beaton does in his translation of the play, which I saw at the Royal Court in 2007.)

It’s a shame there are only three performances of this opera scheduled, and tickets for the remaining ones so thin on the ground, particularly given how well sung and performed it is throughout. The opera deserves to be seen and heard widely. I hope at any rate that people will be inspired to seek out Frisch’s play, as provocative now as when it was first staged in 1958.

The Marriage of Figaro

October 6, 2015

Last night I went to The Marriage of Figaro.

I used not to like Mozart. The result of spending my early years listening to Prokofiev and Ravel and Kodály and Fats Waller (thank you, Mother) and, from the age of six, the Beatles. Anything pre-Brahms didn’t do it for me, the harmonic language too conservative. It took me a long time to care about Bach, and even longer to care about Mozart. Now, to my surprise, I particularly love the music I was least interested in then — the piano and violin concertos for instance — though there are still blind spots.

Figaro‘s a great masterpiece, isn’t it, musically and dramatically. Mozart and Da Ponte knew what they were doing. You laugh and you smile and depending on what kind of person you are some lachrymal fluid may come out. (Music and books don’t generally make me cry; films increasingly do. More on that later, perhaps.)

And yet, in spite of my enjoying it, at times immensely so, I kept thinking of Richard Strauss for some reason. Thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if this was Salome instead. There’d be more harmonic interest, and a severed head at the end, and I’d be home by now because it’s much shorter. The second I got out I had to put on Rosenkavalier to recover.

The thing about Mozart is he’s a genius but he does write exactly the kind of music you’d expect him to have written if he’d been alive in Mozart’s time. I have fantasies of going back and exposing him to more recent stuff, starting with Schubert and moving forward through Chopin and Brahms and Wagner and Ravel and Poulenc and Stravinsky and Charlie Parker — and of course he’d get it because he’s Mozart. His face would light up like Beethoven’s when he hears that keyboard demo in the mall in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. He might even see the point of Schoenberg.

I don’t have a list of favourite opera characters, because why would you? but isn’t Cherubino lovely, juvenile sex pest though he be. Perhaps I just have a thing for trouser roles. This article by the estimable Alice Coote is one of the most interesting things I’ve read on the subject. It’s a shame that the tradition seems to have died out. Which operatic characters, post-1900 are played against gender? Octavian in Rosenkavalier is the only one I can think of (possibly why Strauss was on my mind, Octavian and Cherubino having so much in common). Thomas Adès’s Ariel is sung by a coloratura soprano, but perhaps the character is meant to be genderless, I can’t recall. These are idle thoughts. I had a nice time, anyway.