B U R E A U O F P U B L I C S E C R E T S
The Opera Lulu
The Negro Writers Conference
San Franciscos Absurd Bond Fight
Harassment in Haight-Ashbury
Back Home in Indiana
Cops and the Core City
What the New Youth Are Asking
Destroying Urban Beauty
A Magnificent Opera Season
What an extraordinary art opera is. You would think that sheer expense would act as a screen and only the very best works would survive their tryouts. Yet we have had both Andrea Chenier, a piece of not even trash but shoddy workmanship, performed in an outworn and absurd style, and Lulu in the first weeks of the season.
How could Chenier hold the boards for two generations and Lulu have so much trouble getting on them at all? I went away from the Opera House after Lulu exalted as though I had just gone through a shaking religious experience. I think this is one of the greatest, possibly the very greatest, utterances of all the Schoenberg school.
Pierrot Lunaire and Transfigured Night bore me for long stretches. Wozzeck may be musically impressive, but it suffers from an oafish libretto, even for a story about an oaf.
Wedekinds original double play of Lulu is one of my favorite plays in all the worlds dramatic literature. Bergs noble and relentless music leaves you stunned. Stunned with what? Not just with artistry, but with a psychological grandeur, a humane concept of the tragic that sees deep into and transmutes and in a sense glorifies its storys sordid facts.
This is what Wedekind wanted and what he conveys with difficulty and obscurely in the two plays from which the libretto is taken. Bergs music focuses and illuminates the original concept in the way that few composers have ever managed to do with any libretto.
It was written long enough ago so that it speaks for the period when the Schoenbergians were still taking over the best Wagnerisms and reorganizing them into something far more complex and noble. The score is full of leitmotifs, both personal, accompanying each member of the cast, and emotional, unifying the elements. However, they are not little tunes, childishly repeated, but complex tonal relationships that are, as we say now, subliminal.
They are also witty in a grim way, since they are mostly derived from popular songs. I do not agree that it is unfortunate that the voice parts for the last scene were never finished. Quite the contrary Schoenbergs orchestration of Bergs manuscript and the later reworkings of the Lulu Suite have, in this version, combined to produce a last scene of terrifying sonority, which sums up and multiplies by itself everything that has gone before.
Meanwhile, the characters speak little, or move silently through a storm of sound, punctuated by Lulus death scream and one pathetic aria from the dying Countess Geschwitz. Were lucky even Berg would not have dared a silent last scene.
Nor do I agree that the original plays, The Earth Spirit and Pandoras Box, are dated and corny. Far from it I think Wedekind is second only to Strindberg in his time, and like Strindberg, a bridge across to us on the eve of destruction.
Both playwrights cut to the bone searching out the sickness of modern man, whereas Ionesco, Albee et al. only fool around with cosmetic problems. We know our face aint on straight, but wheres the cancer?
I thought everybody lived up to expectations. True, the original Wedekind Lulu is a more resonant character, of vast emotional depth, and should be played by someone like Garbo at her best. But there isnt anybody like this.
Sue Darby, when she did it at the Playhouse, read the part somewhat like Brigitte Bardots best role in En Cas de Malheur . . .
[The last few sentences are missing from my copy.]
[October 3, 1965]
The Negro Writers Conference called by the magazine Black Dialogue last week was better than the one at Asilomar staged by the University of California Extension and Herb Hill, labor secretary of the NAACP, for the reason that it was attended mostly by young Negro writers passionately interested in writing. It never degenerated into a civil rights rally.
Nobody wasted time on long speeches devoted to the startling news that Negroes suffer from discrimination. People did not talk about the fact that they suffer from almost total ignorance of themselves and their real problems on the part of the white community, and that books by Negroes sell best when they provide this ignorance with stereotypes and ignore the real problems.
The stereotypes are new and appeal to white masochism rather than white race vanity, but they are still stereotypes Tom Uncleism instead of Uncle Tomism.
As long as Negro literature is for the white market it will be crippled. But where is the black market? The average young Negro in the Fillmore has never heard of James Baldwin, much less Ralph Ellison or Jean Toomer.
He is incapable of reading even the one well-known writer who is a Negros Negro Chester Himes, because he doesnt read at all. Claude Browns Manchild could tell him how it is, exactly the way it is, but Claude Brown will find his audience on Telegraph and Russian Hills and Pacific Heights, not in the Fillmore and Hunters Point.
White folks say, Why dont you people do something for yourselves, like the Jews or the Chinese? The place to start is where it doesnt involve solving the white problem for the white man.
Instead of coffee shop geopolitics, the works of Mao or Fanon in hand, playing the futile and consoling game of Mao-Mao chess what these young militants should do is go to the people like the self-sacrificing Narodniki of nineteenth-century Russia. Its a sellers market for teachers, counselors, recreation directors, coaches and directors in the performing arts, culture guides of all sorts.
Until the voiceless in the ghetto find in the flesh real live people who speak to us, there wont be the Negro literature there should be. Its slow and hard, but it is not a diversion.
One of the best things in the whole conference was a panel of four Negro women on The Negro Woman with excited participation from the floor. It immediately uncovered one of the real problems. From the market women of the Ivory Coast to American pet slave, to the modern social worker or nurse, Negro women have dominated their society.
One participant, the most intelligent and the most hostile woman I know, pointed out that protest in most protest novels is directed not against white society, but against the Negro matriarch, and the hero finds himself by finding a white girl who can respect and cherish him as another human being.
However free, Negro society will not be fully adult and healthy until its people accept each other as free and equal human beings. American white society loves to imitate the black. Maybe if the Negro can transmute the matriarchy into a relationship of equals, whitey will take it up, like jazz or so-called Italian suits, and start recovering from the vast evil of American Momism.
[October 4, 1965]
San Francisco the city of pusillanimous and parsimonious patronage! How absurd this rumpus over the Opera House bonds is. Of course we need neighborhood facilities and we need to free those we have for use. Of course we need headquarters for a civic theater, presumably the Actors Workshop. Of course we need all sorts of things for the house of the performing arts at levels accessible to common ordinary people. We need imaginative use of the parks for such purposes.
But we also need a decent, large, properly equipped central theater, which, if it offends somebodys proletarian sensibilities, we can call something else than Opera House.
Some time ago I said that if all the art collections in the city were put together they wouldnt add up to a museum worthy of Waterloo, Iowa.
Well, the San Francisco collectors show at the de Young had done precisely that with precisely that result. Many of these paintings represent great sacrifice on the part of their owners, motivated by love of painting and really personal discrimination.
Thats the point. Most of the better pictures come from the homes of people who are only well to do, not rich. None of them come from lavish collections of great pictures. For generations people in San Francisco have been getting away with the reputation of being Medicis and Maecenases when in fact they have been bargain hunters and collectors of studio sweepings.
It is perfectly obvious that the attacks on the Opera House and hospital bond issues are both inspired by interested motives. Most of the noise has been made by a man who actually believes he can build on this issue to eventually erect himself as a candidate for high office, possibly even the governorship or the Senate.
For sheer demagogy the anti-bond issue propaganda passes belief. It is not true that any of the upcoming bond issues will raise the property tax one tiny fraction of a penny. We have a one-cent sales tax which brings in $18 million a year, all set aside for capital improvements buildings, etc. and bond service on previous similar outlays. Eighteen million dollars is an awful lot of money for a place the size of San Francisco. It is more money than we are spending at present. We are actually retiring bonds faster than we are voting and issuing them.
At the Art Fair, and since then at similar places, you may have seen young Negroes passing out handbills attacking the Opera House bond issue. Somebody is hiring them, calling them to meetings, briefing them and sending them out. The appeal is obvious This is what the white devils are doing to you, taking your hard-earned taxes and spending them on pleasure palaces where they can wallow in wicked bourgeois pleasures like symphonies and operas and ballets while poor little old you dont even have a place to play your broken saxophone.
We could easily afford another bond issue to build facilities for the performing arts in all the poor neighborhoods of San Francisco. I am all for this and so should be every Negro leader and everybody else interested in reversing the processes of demoralization which now make our slums what they are.
On the other hand, there is not the slightest reason why the poor and underprivileged of the city should not demand their rights to enjoy what will go in the Opera House. There are already all sorts of student rates and other art-to-the-people programs, but there should be more and those we have should be better known.
How many of the Negro elite, the people who ornament the pages of Ebony magazine, use the Opera House? Nobody discriminates against them. They are more than welcome. The black faces I see in the audiences are just ordinary middle class and professional people and students. I never see the Race Spokesmen. Why not? The symphony and the opera are civic functions like the trooping of the colors and the changing of the guard, besides being artistic experiences in their own right.
The leadership of the city belong in the boxes. Its their duty to be there, whether they are white, Negro, Oriental or Latin American. How ridiculous of Ets-Hokin to think he is insulting [Mayor] Jack Shelley by accusing him of sitting in the Golden Horseshoe. Thats part of his job.
On the other hand how many of the leadership of our minorities can be found at performances of the Aldridge Players, the integrated Mission Neighborhood House Players, listening to jazz at the Both/And or supporting their race in the performing arts in any way whatsoever? It is all so ridiculous. When Pittsburgh wanted a similar theater one man sat down and wrote one check and that was it and there are at least a dozen families in San Francisco twice as rich as he is.
[October 10, 1965]
The Haight-Ashbury is in a swivet. The Blue Unicorn, famous on all ten continents, has been closed temporarily while its habitués pitch in with brush and hammer, wrench and screwdriver and bring it up to Health Department codes. They feel they have been, as the saying goes, harassed.
People leaving the Both/And, home of the John Handy Quintet, the most important musical activity in San Francisco, except for the Operas Lulu and Pelléas and the Tape Music Center across on Divisadero Street, have been rousted by the boys in the skunk car. In fact, I have a copy of a letter that alleges that the peace officer, as the polite name for a policeman has it, made insulting and inflammatory remarks.
The heat seems to hit the interracial places mostly. There is something about a mixed couple that makes the typical policeman see black and white with red spots. Again, the beard and sandal set get the roust. Every place with unconventional shades or hand-painted stained glass windows is suspected of being a dope pad. Every barefoot boy and girl is assumed to be walking along the street with a hypodermic stuck in a vein somewhere. Equally interesting places that are predominantly for black people, even if they are very famous, like Connies, are seldom bothered.
I think we need to bring this business all out in the open. I feel a special responsibility because some people say that the series of news stories we did on Haight-Ashbury provoked all the heat. I dont think this is true, rather the opposite. The stories carefully emphasized the upbeat, avoided considerable and very inviting temptations to sensationalism, and by and large portrayed the Haight-Ashbury phenomenon as what it is, de-slummification without aid of bureaucracy.
Somehow the administration of the City and the Police and Health Departments must be persuaded to cooperate with the new population of the district rather than opposing it all along the line, and to understand the meaning of the social changes taking place.
Bohemia has deserted North Beach because of the evil place it has become, just as I prophesied it would.
The old Italian population of the Beach doubtless are saying good riddance, but when the bullets start flying through the windows and the pineapples explode in the doorways and you have to pay off to the Organization to run a shoeshine stand or a family grocery, they are going to long for the good old days of Isidore Gomez, Mirtokleia, Mona and the Beatniks not least because their property values will have hit the skids.
I suggest that Bob Stubbs, owner of the Blue U, Shef and Delano, owners of the Both/And, maybe Connie, and a couple of the solid artists, for instance the potter Sylvia Clark and the painter Ovid, get together with Lieutenant Andreotti, head of the Human Relations operation of the Police force, for a little public meeting of the kind Andreotti has held to cope with other neighborhood problems. I know a couple of clergy who would be glad to participate and it would be easy to air the discussion, both of the panel and from the floor. Perhaps the Divisadero studio of KPFA could be used.
[October 11, 1965]
Inside last week I took me a trip back home again to Indiana. I had a fast series of lecture dates in a circle around Chicago, beginning with Bloomington, Ind., where is the state university.
This is one of the most difficult places on earth to get to, so I rented me a little valiant Avis at OHare Field and, as they say at Finnochios, simply flew! Its 20 years or more since Ive driven through the autumnal Middle West. Ive never seen it lovelier.
I drove along the Kankakee, where long ago Id taken a canoe trip, in the years before the river have been straightened and improved and its river-bottom forests and rich wildlife destroyed.
In those days it looked much like a Louisiana bayou, its temperate-zone jungles swarming with birds and the waters with immense fish.
Even more interesting were the inhabitants literally habitants because in those days the only communication for many river villages was by water, or by a muddy, rutted road out to the turnpike, which was usually impassable a good part of the year. The old River French life survived intact, and many a night we stopped in villages where they had to hunt up somebody who spoke either English or modern French. All, all is gone vanished with the passenger pigeon and the great auk and the natives of Tasmania.
Driving back the length of Indiana by secondary roads to Elkhart and South Bend, I was once more impressed by how much like France Indiana is. This always gives my highbrow expatriate friends fits when I say it, but its so true. You see, France doesnt mean to me the Cafés Flore and Dôme. Indiana is in fact built geologically like the land from the lower Massif Central to the Paris Basin a series of limestone cuestas like a low pile of cracked saucers, and has become, since the New Deal conservation programs, quite bosky, even where once was an embayment of the long grass prairie roamed by bison.
Every farm has a large woodlot, there are trees along the edges of the fields and the roads and dense little groves around the houses, all of them now, of course, dappled with orange and crimson and scarlet. In the farm houses and villages goes on a life singularly like Emma Bovarys, Julien Sorels, or the Grandets if not like the life lived by Flaubert, Stendhal and Balzac.
My expatriate friends dont know that about France, they think its occupied by 50 million Jean Cocteaus and Jeanmaires. If they knew, theyd hate it. Me, I love it.
Back in Elkhart, I discovered I had lived next door to the Bierce family when I was about five or six years old, and Alan and Alma and Albert, etc., they were all initialed A, were family friends in the days when Ambrose was holding down the job I now have. I visited his aging grandniece, now totally blind, and we discussed his letters and the maps hed made of the Civil War battles.
All along the Michigan border were places I knew as the last stops on the Underground Railway or reception centers in Michigan from which free men were distributed over the state.
Alas, its all been forgotten, and this is now one of the most reactionary parts of America. But its not been forgotten by me. Nor for the matter of that, by my childhood sweetheart, whom I left for the big city at the age of nine.
I dont know if shes the leading progressive between Michigan City and Toledo, but if not, its not for lack of energy and conviction.
The little boy next door I played with when about four and five is now boss of one of the largest pharmaceutical businesses in the world. Long ago we used to be mistaken for one another and mutual friends say we still look alike very world weary. He collects modern art, but he was away on business with the Republican National Committee. Oh well, it was the party of Lincoln.
I discovered hed succeeded me as a childhood boyfriend of the grocers daughter with whom I read all the Oz books those dangerous manifestos of a Utopia run by children.
And there were most of the old mansions, all in a row, looking out over the broad waters of St. Jo River and the overgrown park of Elk Heart Island where Indians still camped when I was very little, but our house was gone with its tall columns and porte-cochère and replaced by a sort of wooden Romanesque job, itself already very run down, and up for sale. Maybe I should buy it and go back where I started.
What impressed me most about the whole trip was the gracious relationship between the people of the Middle West and their land. Indiana and Illinois were hardly the most spectacular states in the Union in 1900, and California was exactly that. Today we have destroyed most of our accessible beauty and are busy piling hideousness on horribility. We have turned the most beautiful lake in America into a stinking slum and our highways are nightmares by Andy Warhol. You can still catch fish in the St. Jo, and the parklike woodlands hold fast to the fertile land.
They used to say that everybody out here except the spawn of gamblers and dance hall girls came from Iowa and Indiana. If things keep up, maybe well all go back where we came from.
[October 17, 1965]
My goodness, that bit on the heat on Haight-Ashbury stirred up a lot of response! It seems already to have been the topic of discussion at Lieutenant Andreottis Human Relations get-together, and they do plan to have a large public meeting of the type I suggested.
I hope they can get some clergy especially from the Roman Catholic churches in the neighborhood, and not least, somebody from the Jesuits on the hill. After all, theyre neighbors, too. I for one could certainly recommend a couple of Jevvies who are thoroughly up on the extraordinary changes taking place in our society, the changing attitudes towards work and leisure, towards race, towards sex, all the other things which are going to form a new kind of society the post-automation world.
The major blockage in the problem is the police officer on the job. Just as the new bohemia is a definite subculture, so most policemen come from another subculture, white, Christian, churchgoing, family-centered, patriarchal, and whether Catholic or Protestant, pretty puritanical.
Furthermore, they are terribly overworked. So when this new urban society, which is their exact opposite in almost every detail, comes into confrontation with what we might call the police ethic, the results are likely to be lack of communication at the least, and explosive antagonism at the worst.
Some way we are going to have to get over this. After all, were all in the same city together.
For example, there was a meeting between some commissioned police officers and representatives of the very square and respectably behaved homophile organizations. The latter said, We have no desire to come into conflict with the police, but only to live our own lives, amongst our friends, without provoking scandal or trouble. Tell us how we can cooperate with you.
The answer was, Very simple. Stop being homosexuals. Its against the law. It would be lovely if the problem could be solved that simply.
Centuries of effort by specialists in the troubles of the human mind, whether confessors or psychiatrists, have found no simple solutions at all. Meanwhile, as I say, we all have to live together, citizens of no mean city.
Again, there is no question but what the man on the beat is conditioned by long experience to respond with suspicion, if not what the psychiatrists call negativism, to the sight of a Negro male and a white female less so to the much less common reverse mixture.
It doesnt matter that some of the most civic-minded people in the community are partners in mixed marriages, the suspicion remains. What is ever going to cure it? Miscegenation amongst the police force? Its not race prejudice it is the assumption that such people are most likely underworld characters.
Maybe, in the experience of the man on the beat at Eddy and Webster, they are. But anyone who knows the subject knows that intermarriage in San Francisco is largely a middle and professional class phenomenon.
As for Beatle haircuts and bare feet, oh boy! But we have no sumptuary laws in San Francisco and whatever their costumes and hairdos, the inhabitants of Haight-Ashbury are without doubt the most active, community minded and civically responsible bunch of neighbors in the City. This is what all the planners try to bring about in the core city. Here weve got it. Lets not spoil it.
[October 18, 1965]
I recently returned from a swing around the Midwest, and now Im off on another Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, giving readings and lectures at the Library of Congress and various colleges.
What I enjoy most about these trips is the students, the question and answer period, meetings with spontaneous seminars, student parties. Its difficult sometimes to avoid stuffy faculty parties, but I usually manage to duck them. Thats the kind of place you sure dont learn a thing. From the students, if you listen, you learn a great deal. Theres nothing like the young to keep you journalistically awake.
At most Midwest colleges youd think they had sumptuary laws. Everybody is most modestly garbed. The girls wear dressmaker dresses, the fellows ties and matching pants and jackets. Rarely a beard, no Beatle hair-dos, no tights, no bare feet. Its like an old-timey covered dish supper in the church basement on Young Peoples Night.
But appearances are misleading. Here beside the Bay were in the eye of the hurricane of the New Youth. Everybody is going in spirit to Berkeley or S.F. State. Its not What shall we do in Bloomington or South Bend? but Whats happening in the Bay Area?
No one who gets out and really mixes with students can fail to be impressed by the breadth and depth of the objection to the Vietnam war. Pro-war sentiment is looked on as much more eccentric than taking LSD or indulging in obscure Oriental religions. In fact the Student Right is the far-out group now, made up of the people who are so anxious to be nonconformists they have taken up conformity as the last put-down.
Dont get me wrong. Student intellectual activity and political or antipolitical ferment is far from frivolous. This college generation is far more serious and better informed than the Beat wave of 10 years ago, and far more mature than the legendary students of the Left Thirties whom they tend to idealize and overrate.
And they are not misled. Again and again I was asked, How can the thousands of people who object to the Vietnam war dissociate themselves from the Maoists who are trying to take over the leadership?
This was certainly not a subject I brought up. I have no desire to be put out of communication with the label Red Baiter. It is a question students want an answer to.
I suppose the answer is, Make clear you are for peace, not for victory by the other side. Make sure that power remains in solution in group responsibility and spontaneity.
What all Bolsheviks, of the Russian, Trotskyite or Chinese variety, fear above everything else is the development of independent power centers. They are more interested in power than in peace and it doesnt take much experience with them to learn this.
Of course, if you are for the world victory of Chairman Mao, thats different. In that case in the long run you will find it will pay you not to kid yourself that you can kid other people for very long.
I estimate the normal person is good for not more than three united fronts in a lifetime. Suppose the Russians, possibly with the connivance of the Americans, solve the logistic problem of supplying Ho Chih Minh? What will happen to those who now are for a Chinese peace?
I remember when a youth delegation was on the White House lawn, singing I hate Wah, and so does Eleanah! under the banners saying The Yanks Are Not Coming! when the news came over the air that Hitler had invaded Russia. Instantly the demonstration dispersed, but within the week the same leaders, with a new following, were back demanding Open a Second Front!
The leaders, of course, were perfectly consistent with the principles they did not enunciate but alas for the followers. Me, I am just opposed to war, period. This one and all others, past and to come.
Back to Haight-Ashbury, it seems to have replaced the Left Bank as the favorite summering grounds of the New Youth.
At lunch in Beloit an eager miss in a floral print Butterick pattern said to me, Mr. Rexroth, I imagine you live in one of the gorgeous apartments on Russian Hill where the generation of the Thirties lives but there is a fascinating new district in San Francisco where this new culture which you say is the reflection of the technological substructure in the ideological superstructure and which people call the New Youth is to be found in heaviest concentration and that is a fascinating neighborhood in the heart of the Negro district where all the young people now go and where there are simply fascinating places, I lived this summer is a fascinating old Victorian flat of the sort people call a pad at the corner of Haight and Scott Streets! (Pause for breath.) Yeah, said the well-groomed fellow at my right, you were one block from Rexroths. He invented Haight-Ashbury.
On this subject Mrs. Connie Williams points out that her restaurant is most certainly not, as I said, primarily for black people but for everybody, and in fact her patrons are mostly white people. Certainly Connies at 1466 Haight is one of the Citys most interesting restaurants and one of the very best places to eat for miles around. Ill return to this subject again, meanwhile, I suggest you try it, its great.
[October 24, 1965]
Glen Park, Golden Gate Freeway, Yerba Buena Development, Panhandle Freeway, St. Marys Square, Opera House, Civic Center Plaza, Main Library, Old Hall of Justice, Chinese Center, Japanese Center, on and on it goes and the music goes round and round! What a mass of concretions, boluses and hairballs obstructing the passages and functions of The City!
As is well known, I am flatly opposed to the editorial policy of this paper in the matter of the Panhandle Freeway. The Golden Gate Freeway keeps jumping around on the drafting boards so fast I cant catch up with it to oppose it or favor it.
The Glen Park plans have stirred up a terrific ruckus, and rightly so. This is a very beautiful park, and its potential beauty is many times greater. If you want to know what it might be like, next time youre wandering around Paris, visit Buttes Chaumont, best on a Sunday afternoon, and see what a wonderful center of relaxation and contemplation it provides in the center of a troubled and congested city.
Its beautiful lake, with the world-famous restaurant alongside, its playgrounds, rocky cliffs, meadows and copses were all developed from some abandoned quarries and wasteland originally very similar indeed to the site of Glen Park and Miraloma Canyon except we have a prettier place to start with.
Why do freeway planners seem to seek out just these places and no others? Are they motivated by conscious malevolence? From the Redwood State Parks to the hideous scar across the granite slopes above Lake Tenaya, they manage always to go straight to superlative beauty spots like a sick cat for a hot brick and destroy them permanently, beyond all hope of restoration.
Why? Is it the interests? What interests? If you talk to the big money boys who in radical theory run everything from ultra modern desks on which there isnt even a telephone, and above which hang paintings by Jackson Pollock, you discover that they are red hot conservationists. Roosevelt spoke of the bastions of entrenched greed. Are we dealing with pillboxes of dug-in petty covetousness?
Sometimes I think California is run exclusively by small-time real estate brokers. But even they stand to lose, not in the long run, but right away, if we destroy the most beautiful city in the most beautiful state.
We are destroying The City with pavement so the sub- and exurbanites can get in to their offices. But we are also destroying the beauty of the suburbs and turning them into one-story slums, and obliterating their setting and endangering their water supplies as in the butchery of the Spring Valley Lakes now under way.
The time has come for a completely new Master Plan for The City and another for the State. We simply cant go on like this. The brutal fact is that the places we left, like Kansas, Iowa and Indiana, are more charming by far than California will be in another ten years. Unlike the gorillas, we cant move on after we have fouled our nest with our own filth. This is the jumping-off place.
(SOCIOLOGICAL NOTE: Lieutenant Andreotti is have a big meeting of his Human Relations Council to discuss the brave new world of Haight-Ashbury at, guess where? The Blue Unicorn itself. Thursday at 8 p.m., 1927 Hayes St.)
[October 25, 1965]
I wonder if we have ever had a better opera season? There were only two real dogs, Andrea Chenier and La Bohème, both due to capitulation to the foolish star worship which is the besetting sin of the old generation of opera patrons. Weve had a procession of operas like a march of giants.
One of the things that has made them outstanding is that they have all been musically substantial. When I was young, no self-respecting highbrow would be found dead at The Girl of the Golden West. Now we all go and dig the whole-tone melodies and the transcendental chords, and say of the plot that it is one of the great classical stereotypes and so it is.
Don Giovanni, of course, is the old-timey highbrows favorite or even only acceptable opera. Me, I dont like it, but its certainly got a lot of music in it for the price.
The Masked Ball and The Force of Destiny are, with Don Carlos and Simon Boccanegra, the operas of Verdis middle period, which for many years were pretty much at a discount. Since the Second War they have become genuinely popular except for Simon, which has the music but no libretto to speak of, much less sing of, or to.
What is characteristic of all of them is their meatiness, the rich musical substance and wide scope. Although they are products of the very heyday of the star system, nevertheless, The Masked Ball and The Force of Destiny demand large supporting casts with a uniformly high level of ability. Furthermore, unless everybody can act, they turn into shambles of silliness.
Few opera companies do them better than we do, and the whole secret is in casting and direction, both stage and musical direction. Seeing them this season it is hard to believe that two generations found them tedious and incoherent.
Maybe the one opera that we do best of all is The Barber of Seville. I know it gives highbrows fits, but I like it better than the one by the other fellow on the same subject. Like Carmen and one or two others, it is an absolutely perfect opera, and a perfect comic opera, of which there arent near as many as the uncomic variety (Falstaff, The Marriage of Figaro, maybe Meistersinger if it was just cut in half, what else?).
The Barber is pure pleasure unalloyed from start to finish and we always put it on with the total conviction that every single member of the cast and orchestra is having an absolute ball. You can almost see the stage hands and electricians behind the scenes just rolling around in stitches. Of course anything Reri Grist and Sona Cervena want to sing is dandy with me, Ill go and listen to three-note fugues by Webern with the phone book for libretto if they do it.
Two special signs of growth Id like to mention Molinari-Pradelli gets better all the time, his readings this year were superb and he was really maestro of the orchestra, with great delivery and control; and the ballet is getting just a little more room to maneuver each season. Maybe it is sinking into the heads of the powers that be that you cant do the ballets of Aida or Turandot on a hall carpet.
Ballet is the Cinderella of opera. Nobody expects much except some graceful scampers and wiggles, so if there is just enough room the choreography is within the competence of most anybody. What I would like to see is a first-rate choreographer given a chance to turn on some really original, profound, show-stopping ballets where the script permits.
The trouble has always been that this detracts and distracts from the divas and, whats masculine? Divers? As you know, my motto is, as they used to say before the Free Speech Movement, the h with the divas. I think the thing that will restore opera to its rightful place as a mass art is insistence on acting ability and on uniformly high-level casting. There is one lady we had this year I sure hope never gets asked back.
And last, of course, there were Lulu and Pelléas and Mélisande. Now lets do The Coronation of Poppea and an opera by Stockhausen or Barraques Death of Virgil or Les Mamelles de Tirésias or commission Ramon Sender and Terry Riley to do an electronic opera and really loosen things up a bit. (Some of these, of course, have yet to be written.) Somewhere, someplace there must be contemporary mss. of operas that are better than Blood Moon.
It would be so nice if ten years hence we could look back and say, 1965 was the turning point in programming for the S.F. Opera. Lulu and Pelléas began a movement which has lifted the San Francisco company to the top of Western hemisphere opera.
My, my, wouldnt that be nice? Then maybe we could get started on adult programs for the Symphony, and that will take a lot of doing.
[October 31, 1965]
“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.
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