Peter Seth: Re-Learning from My Masters

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Even if you know something very well, it can still teach you new lessons.

Last Saturday night, the Tiny Goddess and I saw THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO at the Los Angeles Opera. Not only have I seen this opera before and own a DVD and thirteen different recordings of it, it might very well be my “most-listened-to” opera of all. In the mornings, I usually write with one of the three operas that Mozart wrote with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte – FIGARO, COSI FAN TUTTE, and DON GIOVANNI – playing in the background. I write to FIGARO when I’m working on a humorous scene, COSI when I’m working on an intimate scene, and DON G when I’m working on a tragic/weighty scene. I am just one of many people who considers these operas to be a high point of human artistic accomplishment … and great entertainment, too.

But seeing this production of FIGARO at the LA Opera – which the TG and I loved – reminded me of how much I can get out of works that I already know extremely well. As well as I know FIGARO, I got new insights into the characters, plot, the creators’ technical accomplishments, etc., from this production. Part of that is the work of a good director; in this case, Ian Judge. And part of it is that great works of art are infinite and never-ending in what they can give us. It’s also best to see an opera, not just listen to it. Before last night, I never saw how perfectly da Ponte and Mozart create uncertainty – and raise the stakes – for each of their main characters as the plot develops.

The plotting of FIGARO is intricate. As frantic as some of the exits and entrances are – in Act III alone, there are eighteen entrances and fifteen exits — the main characters are real people, whom we care deeply about by the end of play. It is a farce, but it’s a farce raised to a serious level. The plot plays out in just one day, but it encompasses a range of human emotions and reactions that is unequalled in any one work for the stage. And it is also a “greatest hits” opera: Mozart keeps a constant stream of gorgeous, character-driven music going, for the entire evening. But don’t take my word for it. Johannes Brahms said, “In my opinion, each number in FIGARO is a miracle; it is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect; nothing like it was ever done again, not even by Beethoven.”

Here are some chunks of FIGARO, starting with the “Letter Duet,” the music from that great scene in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION when Andy locks himself in the warden’s office and plays music to the entire prison over the loudspeaker system. This is that music.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaVIwwNhocg  — Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Ileana Cotrubas singing “The Letter Duet” in the famous Georg Solti-conducted production

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uo5BiYDgj7s — the famous Act I finale – from a cool-looking production from the Australian National Opera

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NToJ2phG7Qk  — Renee Fleming sings “Porgi Amor” — comedy can be serious, too

“LIKE A ROLLING STONE” by Bob Dylan

I grew up on Bob Dylan. I was a teenager in the 60s who was deeply influenced by Dylan’s music. There was nothing like being young and sensitive and being exposed to “Bringing It All Back Home” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Blonde On Blonde” in one fourteen-month period. I still remember tripping on LSD in my parents’ living room and listening to “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” clearer than I ever thought possible. (Not to be tried at home.) His songs went “like a corkscrew to my heart.” Brilliant image: piercing the heart, yet opening it, too.

But as the decades went on, and Bob refused to quit smoking cigarettes, his voice became pretty much unlistenable for me. Of course, he is still writing amazing songs such as “Make You Feel My Love” and “Mississippi.” It’s just that he can’t sing them anymore.

These days, I lazily listen to Pandora radio, and while I don’t have a dedicated Bob Dylan station, it seems that every one of my other stations – the Van Morrison station, the Bruce Springsteen station, the Beatles station, the Rolling Stones station, the Jayhawks station – keep playing me Dylan all the time. And the song they constantly play is “Like A Rolling Stone.”

Now this is a song that I know as well as I know any song in the world. It was the song that changed everything in popular music. After writing hits for others – “Blowing In the Wind” (Peter, Paul and Mary), “Mr. Tambourine Man” (The Byrds), and “It Ain’t Me, Babe (Sonny & Cher) – Dylan had his first hit on his own with this revolutionary record. It forever changed the public concept of what a singer of hit record’s voice could sound like. Voices didn’t have to be “pretty” anymore. It smashed the three-minute barrier. It boldly declared that a “pop song” could be about anything. It was the opening assault in the rise of the “singer-songwriter.” It made the case for rock music as poetry. It upped the ante for everything in popular culture.

But hearing “Like A Rolling Stone” anew, almost every day, makes me re-appreciate the song. Everything about it is explosive and challenging. From the “pistol shot” opening drum hit to the torrent of words to the sting of Mike Bloomfield’s guitar vs. the wash of Al Kooper’s organ, the song is an assault on the listener’s sensibilities. It holds nothing back. Dylan’s nasal, nasty, impassioned vocal was like nothing that was ever heard on popular radio. Hard as it is to believe now, for a short while, Bob Dylan was a great singer. He forced the words into your ears; he made you listen to what he has to say.

This is a deadly serious song, and Dylan made no compromises in writing it. It’s a six-minute lesson in artistic bravery, and I hear that more than ever today. And for that I’m as grateful in 2015 as I was in 1965.

Here are some choice bits of Bob —

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHOdoJDgtrk — Bob and the Band – a nice big chunk of “Like A Rolling Stone” from the Martin Scorcese documentary NO DIRECTION HOME

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1TKUk9nXjk — Bob at the Newport Folk Festival – some amazing footage

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZO7QFo5OKBo — the handwritten lyrics of “Like A Rolling Stone” sell for $2 million (a CBC News report)

THE GODFATHER (1972)

We have a standing joke in our house that there should be a “Godfather” channel on TV, one that just plays “Godfathers I and II,” back to back, in constant rotation. For variation, they could occasionally show the cut-together “Godfather saga” that Francis Ford Coppola edited, that put the whole story in chronological order, but that’s it. (No “Godfather III,” of course. That movie does not even deserve the name ‘Godfather.’)

I don’t think I’ve seen two movies more than I’ve seen “The Godfathers I and II.” Whenever I pass one or the other on TV, I have to stop and watch. Both movies are so packed with incident and character that there is literally no fat on either movie: it’s all watchable.

Just think of the goodies that they offer: “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes” … “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” … the horse’s head in the bed … “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the Family again.” … Sonny beating Carlo with the garbage can cover … “Leave the gun, take the cannolis.” … “I don’t want my brother coming out of that toilet with just his dick in his hand” … “Women and children can be careless, but not men.” … “Michael, we’re bigger than U.S. Steel.” … when young Vito tracks Don Fanucci from the rooftops … “Mike, I’m your older brother; I was stepped over.” … “I loved baseball ever since Arnold Rothstein fixed the World Series in 1919.” … the sleazy music in the ‘Superman’ sex show in Havana … Brando with the fangs made of an orange peel

I watch both movies all the time, and I don’t know which I like more. Godfather I has Brando and a single, propulsive story. Godfather II is more interestingly structured – with DeNiro playing the young Vito, cut against the story of Michael’s increasing isolation. Godfather II is almost a comment on Godfather I. But no matter how many times I see them, I see something new.

Just this last time, watching Godfather II, I really noticed how much the climactic line – “It was you, Fredo, it was you.” – is a direct homage to the “It was you, Charlie, it was you” line from the taxicab scene between Brando and Rod Steiger in “On The Waterfront.” And how I really appreciated how sadistically and elaborately Michael constructs this lie to Carlo even though he has already planned to have him killed.

MICHAEL
(almost kindly)
Don’t be frightened. Do you think
I’d make my sister a widow? Do you
think I’d make your children
fatherless? After all, I’m
Godfather to your son. No, your
punishment is that you’re out of
the family business. I’m putting
you on a plane to Vegas–and I want
you to stay there. I’ll send
Connie an allowance, that’s all.
But don’t keep saying you’re
innocent; it insults my intelligence
and makes me angry. Who approached
you, Tattaglia or Barzini?

CARLO
(sees his way out)
Barzini.

MICHAEL
(softly)
Good, good. Leave now; there’s a
car waiting to take you to the
airport.

And then he has Carlo killed, while he watches from the porch unemotionally. Vito Corleone was also a master criminal, but I don’t think he was the monster that Michael becomes.

And there is also a personal connection to these films. “The Godfather” was the Tiny Goddess and my first – and only(?) – date. And my sweet wife actually worked on “Godfather II” when she started working in the publicity department at Paramount Pictures soon after college. So “Godfather II” is one of her pictures, too.

Here are some favorite bits to revel in —

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSQqv2UuvC0 — Michael shoots Sollozzo and McCluskey

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DZNDEqcSi — “I’m Moe Greene!!”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d30Y0n1nDH4 — Tessio is taken away

Yes, I love new things, but certain works of art are classic for me for a reason. They are infinitely deep. And as I age, I see more into them.

Peter Seth

Peter Seth is the author of What It Was Like. You can stay up-to-date on his blog posts at his website.

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One Response to Peter Seth: Re-Learning from My Masters

  1. mary marcus says:

    I loved this piece. Though I don’t understand how anyone can write with music in the b.g. except
    for white noise. I love Mozart. thanks for this.

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