How about some aria fresca?
Quarantine’s got us all cooped up and miserable, sick and tired of the usual Netflix and Chill, and endless cooking and survival shows, and way over home workouts on Zoom and endless drizzly walks around the block with the not-so-cute-anymore dog. And the wife's already hung the handwritten on an old piece of cardboard in magic markers "HUSBAND FOR SALE" sign in the window.
So how about a bit of operatic drama thrown into the mundane mix for a change of pace? Even if you don’t like it and have never been, there’s such a treasure-trove of movies and performances, easily accessible online, to convert even the hardest hardened musical hearts, and to broaden almost any provincial’s definition of edutainment.
Here’s our eclectic, electric list:
1. I was fortunate enough when I was living in Milan in 1989 to see Riccardo Muti conduct Nabucco at La Scala during an Easter Sunday matinee performance – Muti, Verdi, and Milan at their blossoming sublime. Even though there’s nothing to compare to the thrill of being there, dressed up, anticipating, when that curtain between the you and the woohoo is lifted, and the first familiar notes transport you to another place, however briefly, there is a YouTube video of a 1987 La Scala/Muti performance that almost captures that exalt. Set aside your Sunday afternoon and enjoy. Funny sidebar: I was sitting in the second or third nosebleed balcony next to a woman of a certain age from Puglia, and she said to me after we had been chit-chatting for a while: “Ma, tu hai un accento strano.” I said “Anche tu.”
2. Puccini’s La Boheme is the most-performed opera in the world, and if you haven’t seen it live, you haven’t lived. Seriously, the best recording I can find, with subtitles, is the Teatro Real Madrid performance on Amazon Prime. So many of the arias from this timeless romance have become part of our pop culture that we don’t even know or care where they came from. No big names or famous anybody featured in this production, which is exactly how it should be: the opera is the star.
3. Breaking Away. This 1979 charmer about Bloomington, Indiana “cutter” Dave and his dream of becoming a bicycle racing champion is hilarious and inspiring – if you aren’t watching the end credits with a mile-wide smile on your face you’re either dead or dead and buried. What does it have to do with opera? Watch it and find out for yourself. Bonjour!
4. The Phantom of the Opera. Rent the 1925 black and white classic starring Lon Chaney. I watched this as a young child and the frightening and foreboding I felt way back then during the "unmasking" scene is still horrifying to me today. Haunting.
5. Carmen, based on the Prosper Merimee novel, and featuring the celebrated 1875 score by Georges Bizet, is conducted by Frederic Chaslin, and stars Beatrice Uria-Monzon. The 1997 RD Studio recording on YouTube of this Paris-Bastille Opera treasure I think best captures the spirit and excitement of a live performance, which in this time of the Corona Virus is the most we can hope for. BTW, it’s the second-most performed opera in the world, for good reason.
6. There’s a two-part documentary on YouTube called Baroque Duet, starring Wynton Marsalis and Kathleen Battle, that’s a cinema-verite look at the making of the record of the same name. Fascinating behind-the-scenes and biographical insights, full of heart, humor and stunning craft. Two virtuosos at the height of their extraordinary powers.
7. Fitzcarraldo is a 1982 film directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski that basically tells the single-minded story of rubber baron Brian Fitzgerald trying to lug a steamship over a mountain in Peru for I forget what reason. The soundtrack features performances by Enrico Caruso, and excerpts from the operas Ernani, Pagliacci, La Boheme, and Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. Kinski is a raving Teutonic lunatic, both on and off screen, and the making of the movie movie, My Best Friend, is train-wreck fascinating as well.
8. I re-watched the Academy Award-winning chestnut Moonstruck just the other day, starring Cher and Nicolas Cage, and even though it’s not at all about opera, except for an unintentional double-date night at the Met – I was never here! – there are several Puccini arias sprinkled over the cannoli and ravioli, if you know what I mean. The witty script and postcard-perfect New York scenes hit your eye like a big pizza pie.
9. Diva is a 1981 French thriller directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix, starring Wilehlmenia Wiggins as the American soprano Cynthia Hawkins, and Frederic Andrei as Jules, the opera-loving postman. Her performance of Ebben? Ne andro lontana from Catalani’s La Wally in the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, a theater in the round where I happened to see Carmen performed live that same year, is blinding and spellbinding – guaranteed to convert anyone sitting on or anywhere near the opera fence for life. The film itself is a departure from the ‘70s French realist style, and a return to the melodic colors of a new/old Gallic Hollywood, which has been dubbed cinema du look. Diva, initially panned, has since become a cult classic.
10. Two operatic shorts that’ll sucker punch all of you smack dab on your stir-crazy kissers are Long-Haired Hare, and Rabbit of Seville, both starring the redoubtable Bugs Bunny as a Stokowski-esque opera conductor. Still terrific fun and cartoonishly funny seventy years later.
11. A final tidbit treasure, also found on YouTube and this time showcasing the impregnable Pavarotti – forget The Three Tenors and their overhyped, safe, syrupy spectacles. Pavarotti sings an O Sole Mio duet in his hometown of Modena with Bryan Adams on a summer night that’s almost unbelievably beguiling. Don’t scoff – it cuts like a knife.
Photo: Milano-scalanotte ©Cc-by-sa-2.0
Ship Talking, or How to Navigate Life.
Have you ever sailed around in the middle of the ocean? Where sea and sky unite? Especially at night, where the only reference to up is the steely hard below your soles and the crushing hush of the stars above.
I took a fascinating elective course many years ago in college called “Literature and the Sea” and the teacher was a recent Naval Academy grad, who was also a runner-up to a Rhodes Scholarship. He told us that when he was the Officer of the Deck on the U.S.S. Nimitz they would do zig-zag maneuvers in the pitch-black night. As he stood on the bridge, twenty stories above the Pacific Ocean, giving the command “90 degrees right rudder,” and then “90 degrees left rudder”, he said he didn’t feel like the ship was moving – he felt like the earth was at his command, rotating beneath his feet instead.
“90 degrees right rudder,” and the world turned.
I’ve been telling this story for over thirty years now, because it’s so poetic, vivid, and transcendent, and when I decided to recreate the syllabus for a proposed course at the International Yacht Restoration School, I thought I'd at least list the books here, for your summer, sunshine, seaside reading pleasure.
Here goes: Moby Dick; In the Heart of the Sea; Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage; The Odyssey; Treasure Island; The Tempest; Barbarian Days; Heart of Darkness (or Lord Jim); The Shipping News; Captains Courageous; Kon-Tiki, and Robinson Crusoe.
I'd recommend a small, weekly book group, and each person reads one book and reports on it, instead of everybody reading all ten.
It's almost as easy as E = MC2. Einstein supposedly came up with this riddle (also known as the Zebra Puzzle) and said that 98% of the population wouldn't be able to solve it. To our readers, of course, it's a trivial challenge of inferential logic. Since anyone can easily get the answer on the internet, we aren't going to make this a contest per se — but we would like to hear how long it took you to figure out, without cheating?
1. In a street there are five houses, painted five different colors.
2. In each house lives a person of different nationality.
3. These five homeowners each drink a different kind of beverage, smoke a different brand of cigarette, and keep a different pet.
The question: who owns the fish?
1. The Brit lives in a red house. 2. The Swede keeps dogs as pets. 3. The Dane drinks tea. 4. The green house is next to, and on the left of the white house. 5. The owner of the green house drinks coffee. 6. The person who smokes Pall Malls rears birds. 7. The owner of the yellow house smokes Dunhills. 8. The man living in the center house drinks milk. 9. The Norwegian lives in the first house. 10. The man who smokes Blends lives next to the one who keeps cats. 11. The man who keeps horses lives next to the man who smokes Dunhills. 12. The man who smokes Blue Masters drinks beer. 13. The German smokes Prince. 14. The Norwegian lives next to the blue house. 15. The man who smokes Blends has a neighbor who drinks water.
It's going to take some paper and pencil work, so we're offering a FREE printout of "Einstein's Fish" for your puzzling convenience.
How to live life like you mean it.
Have you ever been punched in the face? Plucked a duck? Wooed a woman in another language? Joined the army? Sailed across the ocean? Stood on principle? Written a poem? Risen to the occasion? Quoted the inimitable Mark Twain?
THE OFFICIAL OLD'S COOL EDUCATION (Handbook, Black Book and Read Book) is our attempt at know-it-all guides to the really important things in life, and each is filled with practical, old-school basics, some hero-worship, and the art of living well. We believe you can't buy character — you need to go out into the world and live an upright life worthy of your own admiration. These how-tos help you do just that, with class and verve and nerve.
These are the perfect gift for the many manly gentlemen and gentle mentors and family members you've loved and learned from your whole life, and for a limited time –
Buy two sets and get the third set FREE.
Life Lesson #22
Sometimes it's as simple as a beautiful girl, a happy dog, and a vintage convertible on a sunny summer day.
The Wicked/Smartest Books Ever Written.
1. Our praise is usually not unconditional, or stated with absolute certainty, but we will say this: If you don't love this book it means only one thing – you are dead.
The Odyssey is the most important stone in the foundation of western literature because it is the first. This timeless classic has endured and entertained for 3,000 years for good reason. Read Robert Fagles masterful translation.
Goethe once wrote something to the effect that the measure of a man's education is that if all the knowledge of the universe was destroyed, how much of the culture could he recreate from memory. We put together what we're calling "Old's Cool U." – what we think are the 10 books you would need to know to be considered civilized, or to at least not embarrass yourself trying to recreate the learned universe.
"Best Non-Fiction Book of the Twentieth Century." – Time
Scribble, scribble, scribble.
3. From the Autobiography of Edward Gibbon: "It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind. But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the city rather than of the empire: and, though my reading and reflections began to point towards that object, some years elapsed, and several avocations intervened, before I was seriously engaged in the execution of that laborious work.
I always liked this quip, from The Duke of Gloucester, brother of King George III, on seeing the second monstrous volume:
“Another damned thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?"
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a masterpiece of history, philosophy and literature.
The Holy Bible.
4. We're not religious over here, and you don't need us to tell you that The Bible is absolutely stunning: it's done more to shape western thought and culture than everything else combined. By far the best-selling book of all time, with good reason.
We were once partial to the King James version, of course, but we now find the New American Edition more readable and relevant. You can pick one up for free the next time you're in a motel room hopefully shamalamadingdongin with someone rambunctious, but you can certainly buy it.
We'd recommend Jordan B. Peterson's Biblical Series on Youtube for a lot of etymological, mythological and psychological meat and perspective on what the heck the Bible is really all about.
The Prince of Denmark; The King of Everything and Everyone.
5. I'm going to quote Shakespeare's contemporary and critic Ben Jonson, who states in a poem he wrote about his rival that not only is he superior to other English playwrights, but to the Greek and Latin masters as well. Johnson says first and definitively what has become a universal opinion:
“Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show/ To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe/ He was not of an age, but for all time!”
This link is to Amazon's Oxford World's Classic Edition of Hamlet, which I think is the best of the best:
Editor's Note: I have The Norton Anthology of English Literature
, and all the wisdom of the world is in it – ludic, enlightening, and lucid – including Hamlet
. It's the desert island book – if you could only have one. You can get the Ninth Edition these days (I have the Fifth Edition), all 2643 monstrous pages by clicking/clacking here.
Count me in.
6. According to Luc Sante, "The Count of Monte Cristo has become a fixture of Western civilization's literature, as inescapable and immediately identifiable as Mickey Mouse, Noah's flood, and the story of Little Red Riding Hood." It's a dashing, romantic, and heartbreaking hero's journey that we all wish we were on.
Which is kind of how I felt when I read it in Newport in the summer of 1981 in between docking boats at Williams & Manchester Marina, setting myself on fire for Dylana the waitress at Christie's, and painting houses with my brothers – I couldn't have been more transformed and remained a human being.
Penguin Classics, Robin Buss translation is best.
Desire predicts its own satisfaction.
7. From the inside flap: "As one of the architects of the transcendentalist movement, Emerson embraced a philosophy that championed the individual, emphasized independent thought, and prized 'the splendid labyrinth of one's own perceptions.' More than any writer of his time, he forged a style distinct from his European predecessors and embodied and defined what it meant to be an American. Matthew Arnold called Emerson's essays 'the most important work done in prose.'"
Seriously, people, if you haven't ever read Emerson, or haven't since high school, you might as well realize you're a fatuous imbecile. "The eye is the first circle." "Men are what their mothers made them." "The attractions of man are proportioned to his destiny." What the hell are you waiting for?
“As long as all that is said is said against me, I feel a certain sublime assurance of success, but as soon as honied words of praise are spoken for me, I feel as one that lies unprotected before his enemies.”
This is the Modern Library Classics Edition on Amazon:
The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People
8. I think most self-help books are horse manure. This one isn't. In fact I really think it's the only one you'll ever need, if indeed you do need help. Some of us don't.
Jane's got it summarized for you in easy-to-read bullet points, but the book really is a deep and meditative marvel.
Life's all about style. And grammar.
9. This book has been mostly on my desk for the past 35 years. Have I ever read it I hear some of you wise snots asking. As a matter of fact I just opened it the other day, and a photograph of an old girlfriend fell out. Cinematic and sublime. And the book's fabulous too.
I'd pick up a used copy on ebay or at a flea market, just to make is seem like you've owned it forever, because shame on you if you haven't.
A hard choice.
10. This last book was the most difficult – we thought about Confessions of St. Augustine, Meditations, Democracy in America, Against Interpretation, Crime and Punishment, Catcher in the Rye, and Brave New World, to name a few, but finally settled on a book that made a lasting impression on us in our youth. We also wanted to just mention Montaigne's Essays, which had a profound impact on us, as well as The Great Gatsby, which, because we read it in our "younger and more vulnerable years" has, and always will be our favorite book.
That said, here is our decidedly unique last pick:
This profound tome is a corker as we used to say back home, a college edumacation in and of itself.
For all you Spinal Tappers out there.
11. Even though this is technically not a book, we think it is the greatest document in the history of the universe, and we're talking not only the 15 billions years since the beginning of time, but also the anywhere in space aspect too.
The U.S. Constitution is the follow-on and basically the basis for Western Civilization, but to us the DOI is the real achievement and everything else after is just epilogue and footnotes. Speaking of which, if it wasn't for Cliff's Notes we wouldn't have gotten as close as we did to almost graduating, so we thought it might be a good idea to get this guide, to help you better understand context, intent, ramifications, nuance and continued relevance: