“Viva la libertà!”

I now have a new reason to keep my mind sharp into old age: I want to remember last night’s Don Giovanni performance–directed and conducted by Iván Fischer, and performed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, eight singers, and sixteen young actors from the University of Theatre and Film, Budapest–for the rest of my life. After it ended, I wanted to see and hear it all over again, from start to finish.

First of all, the opera is magnificent; it hits so many tones of comedy and pathos, and plays out the characters so tangibly, that by the end you feel like a participant. It’s full of play on sound and words, from “si” and “no” to the musical quotations from Figaro, etc. Leporello is my favorite character; he seems a bumblingly versatile, playful, corporeal Ariel longing for release from his master. (Don Giovanni is anything but a Prospero, though.) Yet every character became my favorite at times, partly because of the music, partly because of this particular performance.

This was no typical production. As Mr. Fischer explained in the question-and-answer session before the performance, he could not be the kind of conductor whose sole focus was on faithfulness to the score, although he respected this; he had to be both conductor and director and thus had to erase the divide between the two. He brought together singers and musicians into a single life and form.

Then there were the silent actors, who served as props–a seat, a gravestone, a table, a building, a garden with fountain, a coach, villagers, dancers, and figments of the imagination. They appeared with moonlike glow and pallor. This had the effect of making everything physical and breathing (though also dreamlike). You could see the world through Don Giovanni’s eyes. The music contributed to this effect too, through the subtle textures, the mandolin, the stage musicians, the trombones that accompanied the Commendatore, and the extraordinary voices.

That might have been the greatest brilliance of all: to let us (at moments) into Don Giovanni’s mind. It is easy to condemn him. But this performance brought us into him; not only did the objects breathe and move, but each aria, each terzetto seemed more beautiful than the last. You wanted to catch each one without fail;  you would fall in love with one only to find yourself chasing the next. I disagree with James Jorden, who praises this production to the skies (in his New York Times review) but ends with the claim that it lacks “an indefinable spark of the divine.” No, it lacks no such thing. The divine is palpable, not only in the sensuality that implicates you and melts your everyday judgments, but in the surprises of beauty and soul.

One of my favorite scenes of all was Zerlina’s aria “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto.” Many find this aria troubling and hard to interpret–but here the interpretation seemed like life. Masetto’s look of anguish–sustained throughout the aria, up almost to the end–tells us that he would not beat Zerlina, and that Zerlina knows this. Her “Batti, batti” shows such confidence, such tenderness, that she can move closer and closer to him and find, at the end, no rancor, just jealousy and pain.

It’s easy to be fond of Zerlina and Masetto–but I also found myself entranced by Don Ottavio, the “straightest” of them all, and by Elvira, that troubled soul. I can’t just consider them singly, though; right  now I am remembering the duet of Leporello and Don Giovanni in the finale of Act I, “tornerete a scherzar e ballar.” (I have been looking up favorite parts in my score this morning.) Later in the finale, Don Giovanni’s ominous “Viva la libertà!” first plays against the others’ “Siam grati a tanti segni di generosità” but then becomes the refrain of all; they sing these words as though not knowing what they (the words or they themselves) mean. There’s something mad and reckless in that “libertà,” but for a moment, all are swept into it.

I took two pictures during intermission: one of the harpsichord tuner (above) and one of a member of the stage crew who mopped, sprayed, and mopped the floor over and over (below). Thanks to them, to the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center, and to everyone who brought this performance about.

I made a few edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

What Is Civics Education?

Utopia

After the Charlottesville violence, there will probably be renewed calls for civics education.* But what is civics education? Any initiative needs a clear understanding of it.

Here is what I would offer. Civics education conveys, develops, and enlivens the premise that a country is built on principles, structures, realities, and interpretations, and that each of these has internal contradictions and contradictions with other elements. Civics education would help students understand (a) what these principles, structures, realities, and interpretations actually are; (b) where they come from, historically and philosophically; (c) how they have coincided or conflicted with each other over time; (d) how one can grapple with these confluences and contradictions; and (e) how one can apply this understanding. In addition, such a curriculum would bring out the relation between external government (government of a country or smaller political unit) and internal government (government of the self). A civics curriculum that built this kind of knowledge, questioning, analysis, and introspection would be fine indeed!

So, for instance, the principle of “pursuit of happiness” runs into frequent conflict with the principle of equality, but both are essential to this country and part of its foundation. How does one reconcile them? Answers may be found in philosophical works, court cases, literature, and more, but such answers are not final and do not solve everything. The question stays open, continually calling for new responses, not only in the political arena, but in our minds and lives.

A civics curriculum would include but go beyond courses in government, philosophy, and history alone; it would involve arts, languages, literatures, mathematics, and sciences, since all of these help us understand who we are, who others are, what is known and unknown, and what matters.

Very well, you might say. When and how will this great education come about? I say that it already exists, in places and in pieces. The challenge is to lift it up and make it stronger. This will require, among other things, renewed dedication to secular education–that is, not education that denies or diminishes religious faith, but that builds a common basis and mode of discussion among people: a basis of knowledge and a mode of reasoning, imagining, and listening.

This may sound grand and far-fetched, but I have seen it in practice. I sensed these qualities in my best high school, college, and graduate school classes; I have found them when visiting classes taught by colleagues. I see them in the philosophy roundtables and philosophy journal at Columbia Secondary School. I experience them each summer at the Dallas Institute and look forward to reveling in them at the upcoming ALSCW Conference. In addition, I find them when reading, listening to music, visiting other countries, speaking other languages, and writing. These are some of the contexts I know; how many more there must be! This practice exists, in other words; it just needs attention, recognition, and strengthening.

Image credit: Sir Thomas More, Utopia, 1516 edition.

*The term “civics education” may seem redundant, since “civics” already denotes a field of study. I use it to refer not just to the field but to the ways of teaching it and the subjects surrounding it. 

 

More on “Free Relation”

PushkinBenchOver the past two days I struggled with the post on The Stone Guest and statues; I realized that the topics were too large and the connections too weak. After revising it many times, I finally let it stand. But something came out of it, at the end: the idea that a “free relation” to a statue or other work of art comes through a spirit of learning. This kind of freedom consists of movement beyond misconceptions, limited understandings, and errors; not only that, but it yearns for such movement. It is the opposite of ignorance, which rests on self-satisfaction and becomes a rut. As Diotima tells Socrates in Plato’s Symposium, “If someone doesn’t think he’s in need of something, he can’t desire what he doesn’t think he needs.”

I think about my relation to Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin, which I first encountered as a fourteen-year-old in Moscow, through Tchaikovsky’s opera. I loved the opera (which I saw as many times as possible) but in a limited way; I saw myself as Tatiana and understood the work primarily from that perspective.

In brief: Tatiana falls in love with Onegin and writes him a letter; he rejects her; he flirts with Olga, Tatiana’s sister, and ends up killing Lensky in a duel; and five years later, he attends a ball in Petersburg, only to discover that Tatiana is married to a prince. He suddenly falls in love with her–and writes her a letter–but she explains her resolve to be faithful to her husband forever. That’s a crude summary, with many details missing, but I was drawn, in any case, to Tatiana’s torment and courage.

While in Moscow, I obtained the sheet music for the opening duet “Slykhali l’ vy” between Olga and Tatiana and practiced it, hoping to sing it beautifully one day. Here’s a recording of a 2011 performance by the Bolshoi Theatre, with Galina Vishnevskaya as Tatiana and Larisa Avdeeva as Olga:

Seeing myself in the opera, I missed a great deal; even when I read the poem that year, I understood it in terms of the opera. But at least the opera was in my life; I would return to it many times later.

In graduate school, I read the poem carefully and came to see its subtleties, ironies, and play; it had humor and bite that the opera seemed to lack. I learned that Nabokov considered Tchaikovsky’s libretto “an absurdity and an abomination,” full of “vulgar and … criminal inanities.” I thought my teenage enthusiasm for the opera had been naive.

Still later, I came to admire Tchaikovsky’s Onegin again, but on different terms. I saw it most recently at the Metropolitan Opera last April and was moved by the entire performance, but especially by Prince Gremin’s aria, performed by Štefan Kocán, in which he tells Onegin of his love for his wife, Tatiana, whom Onegin previously rejected. This aria, rich in life and tranquility, is nowhere in the poem itself; the narrator has some of these words but gives them different meaning. The music alone conveys what Onegin lacks; Gremin’s genuine happiness upends any stereotype. I have found no recording of Kocán’s performance online, but here’s one with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and here’s the sheet music:

I outgrew both the teenage attachment to Tatiana and the later deference to Nabokov (whom I also questioned and satirized, even then). Pushkin’s novel in verse and Tchaikovsky’s opera are two distinct works, each to be taken on its own terms, over a lifetime. Sometimes the understanding is intellectual, sometimes visceral, sometimes learned, sometimes intuitive; but it builds and changes over time. I have much to learn about both works; I returned to them today to see how much I had missed before.

So a “free relation” to art is one that moves beyond error, safety, and limitation. A person returns to a work, learns from it, learns about it, and understands it in a different way from before, all the while staying alert to more. Maybe, like Gremin, the person moves toward simple joy, the joy of not needing to own or sum up what one loves, the joy, sometimes difficult, of living among things that grow in beauty and meaning and that return, again and again, with more.

 

Image: Photo of a statue of Pushkin at Tsarskoe Selo. Courtesy of the MadOpera Blog.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

When the Statue Nods

stoneguestIn anticipation of Don Giovanni, which the Budapest Festival Orchestra will perform at Lincoln center on August 17, 18, and 19, I reread Alexander Pushkin’s dramatic poem The Stone Guest, which was inspired by a Russian-language version of Mozart’s opera. I had not read it in years; this time, I was amazed by the part where Don Juan (spelled “Дон Гуан” in Russian) orders Leporello to invite the statue of Dona Anna’s* deceased husband (whom he himself murdered) to come watch Don Juan meet with her in her home. (In Don Giovanni, it is the father of Donna Anna, not the husband, whom Don Juan has murdered and who later appears as a statue.) Leporello starts to speak to the statue but can’t finish; the scene is rendered in tense, broken iambic pentameter, where the silences hold little time and great weight. Leporello finally works up the nerve to invite the statue, who nods his assent. Don Juan does not see this; he finally invites the statue himself and, seeing him nod, cries, “Oh God!” Leporello: “What? I tried to tell you…” Don Juan: “Let’s get out of here.”

Here’s the Russian text of this passage (you can see the trepidation in the broken lines themselves). You can listen to a recording too; the quoted lines begin at 35:38 and end around 37:45. This is from a 1962 performance by the Alexandrinsky Theatre.

Лепорелло

                                Охота вам
Шутить, и с кем!

Дон Гуан

                            Ступай же.

Лепорелло

                                                Но…

Дон Гуан

                                                        Ступай.

Лепорелло

Преславная, прекрасная статуя!
Мой барин Дон Гуан покорно просит
Пожаловать… Ей-богу, не могу,
Мне страшно.

Дон Гуан

                        Трус! вот я тебя!..

Лепорелло

                                                    Позвольте.
Мой барин Дон Гуан вас просит завтра
Прийти попозже в дом супруги вашей
И стать у двери…

Статуя кивает головой в знак согласия.

                            Ай!

Дон Гуан

                                    Что там?

Лепорелло

                                                    Ай, ай!..
Ай, ай… Умру!

Дон Гуан

                        Что сделалось с тобою?

Лепорелло
(кивая головой)

Статуя… ай!..

Дон Гуан

                        Ты кланяешься!

Лепорелло

                                                        Нет,
Не я, она!

Дон Гуан

                    Какой ты вздор несешь!

Лепорелло

Подите сами.

Дон Гуан

                        Ну смотри ж, бездельник.

(Статуе.)

Я, командор, прошу тебя прийти
К твоей вдове, где завтра буду я,
И стать на стороже в дверях. Что? будешь?

Статуя кивает опять.

О боже!

Лепорелло

                Что? я говорил…

Дон Гуан

                                                Уйдем.

There’s comedy and horror in this scene; both Leporello and Don Juan must each experience the statue alone; hence the eruptions and ellipses. Yet for all its jagged appearance, this dialogue keeps up the iambic pentameter as if propelled along. In the recording, the statue’s nod is signaled by music, which both interrupts and intensifies the rhythm. There are references to nonsense, death, God, and madness; exclamations of “ay!”; and a simple yet terrifying nod. The statue is more than a likeness, more than a stone carving. It holds hidden life; it traps time in a solid.

Having started to think about statues, I think of Charlottesville, yet the connection here seems tenuous. For Don Juan, the statue becomes his witness and demise; confronting it, he spirals into himself. It’s the poetry itself that nods. This statue moves in verse.

For us today, in the U.S. and elsewhere, a statue holds the history that will not go away, that shows up at the door. Even without great historical significance, even at its most mundane, a statue pulls at the imagination. Because of its dimension and its presence among us, because of its gesture (sometimes seeming in motion), it tempts us to sit on its lap, shake its hand, take pictures with our arms around it, put a cap on its head, and so on. Or it can offer much more. Simulating a body, it simulates hidden thoughts.

The white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville claim that nonwhite and non–”Aryan” groups (e.g., blacks and Jews) have robbed them of their rights, that life would be much better for them if others were put in their place or destroyed. For people who hold this view, a Confederate statue may express the restitution they desire. To move the statue is to rob them of their perceived rights; some will sooner kill others than let that statue go. The statue becomes their defender–theirs, not other people’s. It is their fantasy, oxidized and towering, astride a seemingly permanent horse.

A statue strangely joins life and death; it takes something that can never walk again in the world and puts it in our midst. But it matters how we regard it. We can have a free relation with it, taking it on its own terms and coming to understand it better. Or we can see it as an emblem of our rights and wishes, in which case we are bound to it. At its best, education moves toward the many languages and forms of free relation.

Image credit: V. Favorsky, to “The Stone Guest” by A. Pushkin.

I revised this piece substantially after posting it. I am still not satisfied, but the dissatisfaction itself is on the right track.

*A spelling correction: In the Russian text, it’s Dona Anna, not Donna Anna. In Spanish it would be Doña Ana.

 

Krasznahorkai’s Ken

woodchuck

Yesterday I did two things for the first time: saw a woodchuck on these particular steps of Fort Tryon Park (I have seen many woodchucks in the park, but not there–a stranger pointed him out excitedly), and read László Krasznahorkai’s story The Last Wolf (which I followed up with Herman this morning). The two events are related in that this woodchuck reminds me of the “noxious beasts” of his stories, the beasts that arouse human cruelty and remorse.

Just a few lines into The Last Wolf, I knew that I was faced with great literature–great, that is, in the reading itself. But what makes it great? It is the way of unraveling and revealing thoughts that I recognize as my own but that catch me off guard with their undertones and contradictions. The stories’ threads combine, diverge, combine: the narrator’s story to the bartender, the many stories he gathers, despite himself, of the last wolf, and then the story of his own mind, revealed only to the reader–all of this in a single sweeping sentence.

… and he remembered that the strange thing about the article was not only the way the oddly poetic sentence stood out in the text but that anyone would know when “the last wolf” had died, for how would anyone know, and beyond that, the verb itself, “perished” for did any scientist speak like that? no, there was something not quite right about the article, about the sentence …

This is introspection filled with the world. You start reading, and from then on, with all the twists and turns, you’re balancing on thin logs; nothing sags, nothing lets you quit, and with just a slip of the foot, you’re trapped.

It wakes up my mind; as I read, I become the game warden, the enthusiastic interpreter, the sleepy bartender, the repeated phrases, the changes of the conscience. Herman is fantastic too; the story’s two parts contradict each other in places, leaving me to suspect that people are lying, that stories are not fully told, that people rumored to have disappeared are dead or vice versa, that something magnificent has happened against our knowledge, and that the public imagination can’t hold a single solitude.

It’s possible to read these stories as allegories, but is it necessary? I would say no; the meaning lies in the things themselves, not in what they might represent. An allegorical reading would evade some of the meaning (and give the reader an escape).

Some readers find Krasznahorkai’s prose too dense and slow. I have a different reaction; his prose holds me much more than some lighter styles do, not because it’s dense, but because the density is so involving. The language sings, but with the pain of someone confronting himself like a stranger. Krasznahorkai has been compared to Gogol, and with good reason; he also reminds me a little of Borges. But these comparisons are slant; he has a ken of his own. I can’t wait to read The Melancholy of Resistance.

 

I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Present and Future News

rootsAfter a beautiful July at the Dallas Institute, I have resumed preparations for the ALSCW Conference in Dallas at the end of October. I will be leading a seminar on Shakespeare in the K-12 classroom; in addition, I will present a paper on cantillation (of two verses in Megillat Esther) in David Mikics’s seminar on slow reading. If you are interested in attending this conference, go ahead and register! It should be intellectually and artistically invigorating.

Speaking of the ALSCW (Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers), I was just elected to a second three-year term on the council. I am honored and excited to continue this work.

Stay tuned for more (big) news; I don’t want to tell it before it’s confirmed, so I’m holding back for now. In a week or two I should be able to say something.

Who Is the Ashik on Istiklal Street?

istiklalasikI have come one step closer to learning the name of the musician I heard on my first day in Istanbul, whose music I loved in those few minutes and later. He plays the bağlama (or saz). The photographer who took the picture on the left (Ali Enes Mollaoğlu) refers to him as an âşık (ashik, which means approximately “minstrel”–but that is an inadequate translation). Turkey has a long and rich ashik tradition, about which I am just beginning to learn.

In Istanbul, I learned that this musician plays many songs of Âşık Veysel. Yesterday I found several videos of him (the unnamed musician), besides the one I recorded. Today I found some photos–but no name and no further information.

I love what I have heard of his music for its gentle rhythms and rumination, its subtle inflections; without understanding a word, I find it traveling into my memories, thoughts, and yearnings. I have looked up phrases (in my rough spelling), but nothing has come up.

Here is one of the videos:

Here’s another (of the same song I recorded, but several years earlier):

Another of the same performance, or one close in time, but a better recording (this song begins at 2:11):

And here’s another:

He is clearly admired and beloved. Someone out there will know his name. I will keep searching and asking.

Photo credit: Ali Enes Mollaoğlu.

I added substantially to this piece after the initial posting.