So William Shakespeare wasn’t the writer?

The range of the bard’s vocabulary and situations long appeared to be beyond the possibilities of the man’s background and training.

Long ago I came to a sense that he might have simply been the recorder and editor of a more free-form ensemble, an improv troupe, if you will.

Now I’ve come across arguments that the real playwright was Amelia Bassano, and it’s far more convincing.

A digital search will point you to the arguments, pro and con.

Anyone else like the idea that the most important writer in the English canon was a woman? One of Italian and Jewish descent, at that?

An aside on poetry readings

Catching up on my stack of Harper’s magazine, I came across a remembrance of the poet Etheridge Knight, and it stirred a long buried memory.

Etheridge? I paused, before remembering he was a black inmate of the Indiana State Penientiary when he began writing seriously. Damn good stuff, as I discovered.

My introduction came in the mid ’70s when Roger Pfiingston asked if I wanted to go with him up to Indianapolis, aka Naptown, to a reading and open mic. I was free that night. The trip from Bloomington was a little over an hour, and he was driving.

The event was at a bar in the inner city, not a familiar terrain, and Etheridge was hosting. I should go back to my journals for details, but I recall it as a warm and comforting evening. I think Jared Carter was the featured reader. Another damned good Indiana poet.

I was a bit nervous about one of the pieces I’d brought with me, one that quoted a friend’s father about a lover in the ’30s, but I read it anyway.

The line in question triggered delighted, loud laughter from Etheridge, especially. I was sooooh relieved!

Looking back, I see it as one more confirmation – and welcome – as my identity as a poet.

What a wonderful community!

Zoom? Ten takes on group meetings online

By now, you’ve probably had your fill of Zoom or GoToMeeting or Skype. (Any others I haven’t heard of?) They’ve become inescapable, it seems, and essential.

Here are ten takes from my end.

  1. We don’t look good, folks. Everybody looks older. More wrinkled. Distorted, too. (There are reasons actors use so much makeup!)
  2. We spend too much time on trying to figure out what we’re doing. It’s not just the agenda, but mostly about getting settled, figuring out who’s “here,” and tweaking our settings. It’s a real problem when we have only 40 minutes total.
  3. Tech confusion. Are you muted or not, why isn’t this or that working, that sort of thing.
  4. Remembering to cover or uncover the camera
  5. We sound wobbly. That, and all the awkward pauses and unintentional interruptions. Oh, yes, and all the ambient noise if a group is mostly unmuted.
  6. The moderator is very important. Though trying to chair a meeting and simultaneously man the controls is a bit much. We really need a “producer” for that.
  7. Selecting who’s to speak next. Do we raise a hand to the camera or press the little hand button instead? How about the Chat function? Are we unmuted? This gets difficult once the group gets bigger than a handful and the moderator has to keep scanning the panels that were offscreen.
  8. We get to “visit” in others’ homes. Often, the scene is an individual’s dining area or study, but we’ve also been outdoors on a porch and down in the cellar (which looked and sounded more like an Apollo space mission). It’s been fun seeing other sides of our friends this way, though often the lighting’s not so hot. (See Point 1.)
  9. Remembering to “attend.” Or to send the invitation out to all in time. Somehow, we’re losing track of time, even the day of the week, in this self-isolation.
  10. Doesn’t work as well on smart phones or tablets. No, you really do need a laptop, PC, or large screen for optimal control.

What stands out from your encounters?

Ten more takes from the Met’s nightly free streaming

One bright spot in for me in this Covid-19 self-isolation has been the Metropolitan Opera’s nightly streaming of a Live in HD performance from its archive. As I mentioned in a March 23 posting, these are free and available until 3:30 the next afternoon. Better yet, the series is continuing. I’ve now seen more operas this way than I’ve seen live and in concert combined.

As I mentioned in “Spending nights at the opera on my laptop,” watching these performances is quite different from listening to them on the radio, and some of the things that stand out for me are the extraordinary level of the acting, by not just the principal singers but everyone on stage, leading to the important presence of the chorus in its role as actors and not just voices, and the brilliance of the opera’s dancers, who I’ll argue are highly underappreciated – they even move much of the set around during some productions. Yes, and those sets and costumes are amazing, even with all of the excessive luxury, expense, and unbelievable perfection that the video cameras catch even when those in the audience are oblivious at their distance. This is as close to the ideal, overall, as anyone could ever expect in live theater.

The backstage videos and interviews have also deepened my appreciation. Many kudos.

That said, let me note ten more distinctive things that are jumping out for me as I watch:

  1. The oath. Or, in far fewer instances, a vow. I hadn’t notice this before, but in at least 90 percent of opera, the entire drama revolves around a sworn declaration – often forced upon someone, as in a deathbed scene, but sometimes from youthful outbursts. Watch for this, as I am now. And then, swear not, as Jesus counseled. It always leads to trouble.
  2. The physicality of the singers. Gone are the days of lining up the big voices and the chorus behind them. Nowadays, they’re running and jumping and dancing while singing the most incredibly difficult music, even when they get a break to drop back on their backs. Look, to sing like this you need a LOT of breath (try to follow them as they sing and see where they pause to inhale) and then think about all of the other demands on their air. Got me? It’s amazing.
  3. The swordfights. Remember, this is live, with no room for a retake. And it’s convincing.
  4. Dancing or miming the overture or prelude. The opening music has often seemed like a spacer to establish the mood while latecomers arrive. Something like a mini-symphony, to spotlight the instrumentalists, before we get to the real stuff. Some of the newer productions, however, are raising the curtain by the time the conductor enters the orchestra pit and feature dancing or acting during the introductory music. It’s like showing a movie scene before rolling the credits, and even more impressive. Why haven’t we always done it this way?
  5. Updating the action. Trying to reset the historical setting of the story is always tricky, but when it works, it’s brilliant. Note the Met’s “Rigoletto,” move to gambling Las Vegas, which we’ve not yet viewed. But everything I’ve seen so far along these lines has been brilliant. “Macbeth” as a ‘ 50s rebellion definitely fits, once we take it out of Scotland. As does Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutti” in Coney Island, though I wish they had swapped the couples at the finale – this production had room for that feminist power reintrepretion.
  6. Appreciating the subtitles. I love that these are contemporary translations, unlike the tortured Victorian-era lines I tried to follow way back when. As an exacting editor, I appreciate their high quality (only one or two places I’d object as a grammarian), My sole qualm has been in religious references when these drop into “Biblical” language, the “thee” instead of “you” line of speech, even in Drudic and Hindu instances.
  7. On-stage touches. Everytime I see flames in a scene, I wonder how they got that bit past the fire marshal. Not just cigarettes or cigars (hope they don’t inhale, it’s bad for the voice) to candles and torches and fireplaces and conflagrations that level a village. The use of puppetry is incredibly effective, as we’ve seen especially in “Butterfly.” And then there are the wigs, even for the chorus. (More than 2,000 a season, as we learned in a backstage interview.)
  8. The animals. Yes, dogs, horses, donkeys, and more … on stage!
  9. The collegiality of the cast. The days of the infamous prima donna is largely gone. Singers today are generally professional and respect the work of others, even when they tackle the same roles. It’s apparent in the interviews.
  10. Conducting. It’s not the same as leading a symphony, and I find these maestro’s motions much harder to follow. For one thing, they’re way ahead of the beat. Even so, the Met band is glorious, a far improvement over the rough-edged ensemble before James Levine’s tenure. The audience doesn’t start applauding as soon as a big singer ends an aria, either, but waits for the final orchestral note fades.

Is there anything that’s making this period of shelter-in-place somehow special?

 

IKEA, where small is stylish

The Swedish retailer of low-cost home furnishings, appliances, cookware, and the like is a magnet for folks trying to make the most of tight spaces like apartments. Say a challenge like a 400-square-foot apartment.

Even if you have an old five-bedroom home like ours, the interiors can be challenging. IKEA has frequently come to our rescue. Yes, some assembly is usually required, and I can attest it’s not always idiot proof, but overall, we’ve been pleased with the results.

The closest IKEA superstore to us is located south of Boston, and since deliveries aren’t cheap, it’s worth the four-hour round-trip, even if you get lost inside once you’re there, as I have. The cafeteria, by the way, is quite the bargain.

Are you one of those intrigued by the small-scale living space displays in the IKEA superstores?

What’s your experience been?

I’d love to take a train ride but …

My wife mentioned that she’s seeing a lot of deals from Amtrak, and that had me thinking how overdue I am for a trip on the Downeaster to Boston or the other way up to Portland, Maine, or beyond. As a senior, I even get to ride at half-price.

Of course, Covid-19 came into the picture, and I started flashing through the factors.

If the train’s not crowded, I’d have plenty of social distance. I could also carry hand sanitizer and even wear my colorful homemade mask to reduce risk of exposure.

I’ve been wanting to go to a Boston Symphony concert, finally see their new music director in action, but then I paused, realizing all of those concerts have been cancelled.

My considerations moved on to a visit at Harvard’s famed Fogg art museum, which had reopened after extensive renovations. Well, reopened is the wrong word. For the time being, it’s closed again. Hope the renovations hold.

Ditto, too, for a fine meal, maybe even in the North End’s Little Italy a few blocks from North Station. Forget that during the coronavirus shutdowns.

So it looks like that getaway is off, maybe till autumn? Or sometime next year?

This is getting boring. Or something like that.

Where are the Greek-American stories?

As I’ve become aware of the extensive presence of Greek-Americans in my own town and across much of New England, I’m surprised how little fiction has been written of their experience and distinctive culture.

They’re not the only ones to be largely unseen in American literature, especially as it has reflected the melting pot ideal of the wider society. Still, there are reasons distinctive identities remain, as we might see in the stories of blacks, Southerners, Irish-Americans, and Native Americans who were among those who gained a significant voice in the last half of the 20th century. Wandering through the library stacks, I’ve also been surprised to find so much by Asian-American novelists and African expatriates.

And most notably, perhaps because of their strong rabbinic tradition and support of erudition, American Jews have long been prolific writers and storytellers, producing many of the leading novelists of the 20th century.

In puzzling contrast, Greek-Americans, with perhaps as much as half the population of American Jews, have been largely invisible.

The Greek perspective is most likely to be expressed in the old country, especially in the works of Crete native Nikos Kazantakis, although I’m also intrigued by the Dubai-born Karl El-Koura, now living  in Canada.

Here’s what I’ve found by Americans:

Natalie Bakopoulos’ The Green Shore is about life under the Greek junta.

Celebrated Dean Bakopoulos (My Amerian Unhappiness) looks entirely at mainstream consumer life.

Prolific D.C.-focused crime novelist George Pelecanos touches on Greek connections (Shame the Devil, for instance) without revealing anything unique to the culture – his characters could as easily be Irish or Italian.

Susannah Hardy’s Greek to Me Mysteries perhaps come closer.

The stellar exception is Michigan native Jeffrey Eugenides, whose father was of Greek descent and his mother, English and Irish.

His 2002 Middlesex is a masterpiece of not only the Greek experience before and after arriving in the New World but also of the frequently overlooked Midwest itself. His other two novels, The Virgin Suicides (1993) and The Marriage Plot (2011) also contain telling insights into the Hellenic influence.

The one other writer I know of who tackles the identity head-on  is Anna Pappadapoulos and her marvelous 2015 Samaritans. The novel has both a Greek-American mother and an opening in Indiana, something it holds in common with my own What’s Left before veering off in a much more precarious life journey.

Well, yes, there is also The Movie (you know the one I mean). It is sweet and informative, but barely touches the surface and has some saccharine scenes that make those in the know blanch.

Do you know of any other Greek-American novelists or books to add to the list? Are there other ethnic or religious cultures who need better representation?

 

Spending nights at the opera on my laptop

When I graduated from college 50 years ago, I expected to wind up living and laboring in a major metropolis like New York, Chicago, or Seattle where nights at the opera or symphony would have been part of the package. As you can see, my life took a much different direction. In fact, working weekends and nights along with the bottom-tier professional wages of my profession curtailed much of my attendance where I was, even for the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD showings in local movie theaters.

Surprisingly, now in the midst of our Covid-19 cloistering, I’m relishing in daily free online streaming of past performances from the Met’s series, and what a revelation they are.

Each show gives me a fuller awareness of the stellar productions than I could ever get from listening to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts – incidentally, available where I live only by streaming. Well, that’s another rant, though I’ll send out a shout to both Harvard’s student-run FM station and New York’s WQXR for their participation.

The university I attended was acclaimed for its opera department, with a show every Saturday night and, as I recall, seven productions during the regular school year. Each of these was in English, which I found made the experience feel more like going to a Broadway musical rather than an esoteric ceremony. It was pointedly called opera theater, with an emphasis on blending music and showtime, abetted by stage directors like Ross Allen who insisted on historically correct motions for the periods being presented. A woman wouldn’t have shown her ankle while dancing, for instance, or sat in a particular posture, that sort of thing. As for facial expressions or delving into the psyche of a role? That wasn’t widely valued in earlier incarnations of the art form. But today?

Back to the Live in HD.

Imagine a Hollywood movie being filmed straight-through in a few hours like this, rather than gleaning only a minute or two of usable film a day, as is standard in the cinema biz. There’s no room for retakes in a live performance, and yet what I’m viewing is cinematically gripping. The acting is extraordinary, and the stars are visually and vocally convincing – something that wasn’t often the case when I got hooked back in the ’60s. I’m enthralled simply considering the camera work (and planning) behind each of these. (I have a feeling we’re deeply indebted to NFL and MLB technology and practice on this front – think of those crisp facial closeups shot from the other side of the field.) As for the lighting? Wow.

Opera is often discussed as the pinicle of the arts and their muses – vocal, choral, and instrumental music conjoined with drama, dance, poetry, scenery and costumes in the theater itself. It’s a collective enterprise, the way movies are. Well, I often consider it as the movies of the 19th century and, let’s not forget, the distinctively operatic singing style evolved to project into a hall long before electronic amplification existed. The vocal style is not as frilly as you might think but is actually quite flexible and expressive, even if it’s often an acquired taste.

As I was saying about these productions?

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The latest on the coronapocalypse from here

Has anyone else noticed how quickly our language has added “coronavirus” to common usage and then, over perhaps a week, “COVID-19” has become equally common parlance?

It started as a synonym, and at first I would have said it made for a shorter word in headlines but now I’m thinking it’s about the same length. When it comes to newspaper columns, the shorter the word, the better, especially in headlines.

Watch for the next step, which is to make the acronym even shorter by going from all-caps to Covid-19, as it’s already appearing in a few places.

~*~

You’ve probably already noticed the panic rush on the supermarkets after the Tom Hanks diagnosis was announced. The shelves of toilet paper, especially, were quickly cleared out. The new deliveries have been limited to one package per customer, maybe two, depending.

My wife just came back from a quick trip to one store (for its special on butter). She noticed the guy ahead of her in the checkout line, a blue-collar type apparently stopping on the way home from an overnight shift and picking up a few more items for the duration. He had a package of toilet paper, not surprising, and a half-dozen cartons of Ben & Jerry’s. How’s that for priorities?