Thursday

Mar. 3, 2011

A Night at the Opera

by William Matthews

"The tenor's too fat," the beautiful young
woman complains, "and the soprano
dowdy and old." But what if Othello's
not black, if Rigoletto's hump lists,
if airy Gilda and her entourage
of flesh outweigh the cello section?

In fairy tales, the prince has a good heart,
and so as an outward and visible
sign of an inward, invisible grace,
his face is not creased, nor are his limbs gnarled.
Our tenor holds in his liver-spotted
hands the soprano's broad, burgeoning face.

Their combined age is ninety-seven; there's
spittle in both pinches of her mouth;
a vein in his temple twitches like a worm.
Their faces are a foot apart. His eyes
widen with fear as he climbs to the high
B-flat he'll have to hit and hold for five

dire seconds. And then they'll stay in their stalled
hug for as long as we applaud. Franco
Corelli once bit Birgit Nilsson's ear
in just such a command embrace because
he felt she'd upstaged him. Their costumes weigh
fifteen pounds apiece; they're poached in sweat

and smell like fermenting pigs; their voices rise
and twine not from beauty, nor from the lack
of it, but from the hope for accuracy
and passion, both. They have to hit the note
and the emotion, both, with the one poor
arrow of the voice. Beauty's for amateurs.

"A Night at the Opera" by William Matthews, from Search Party: Collected Poems. © Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1923 that Time magazine was first published. On the cover of the first issue was retired Speaker of the House Joseph G. Gannon.

Circulation has declined steadily since the late 1990s, but Time is still the most widely read weekly newsmagazine in the world. There's a global audience of 25 million people — of whom about 20 million are American.

It was on this day in 1931 that "The Star-Spangled Banner" became the official national anthem of the United States.

The lyrics come from a poem written by Francis Scott Key more than a century before, "Defence of Fort McHenry." He'd spent a night toward the end of the War of 1812 hearing the British navy bombard Baltimore, Maryland. The bombardment lasted 25 hours — and in the dawn's early light, Francis Scott Key emerged to see the U.S. flag still waving over Fort McHenry. He jotted the poem "Defence of Fort McHenry" on the back of an envelope. Then he went to his hotel and made another copy, which was printed in the Baltimore American a week later.

The tune for the Star-Spangled Banner comes from an old British drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven," which was very popular at men's social clubs in London during the 1700s. Francis Scott Key himself did the pairing of the tune to his poem. It was a big hit.

For the next century, a few different anthems were used at official U.S. ceremonies, including "My Country Tis of Thee" and "Hail Columbia." The U.S. Navy adopted "The Star-Spangled Banner" for its officialdom in 1889, and the presidency did in 1916. But it wasn't until this day in 1931 — just 80 years ago — that Congress passed a resolution and Hoover signed into law the decree that "The Star-Spangled Banner" was the official national anthem of the United States of America.

It's the birthday of Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, born in Baltimore (1959). He said there are really only two basic building blocks for the sort of stories that appear on his show: plot and ideas. He said: "Usually the plot is the easy part. You do whatever research you can, you talk to lots of people, and you figure out what happened. It's the ideas that kill you. What's the story mean? What bigger truth about all of us does it point to?"

He feels incredibly lucky if he's researching a story and a real-life situation starts to turn into a fable or allegory. If it does, he says he does everything he can to expand that part of the story. He said, "Everything suddenly stands for something so much bigger, everything has more resonance, everything's more engaging. Turning your back on that is rejecting tools that could make your work more powerful."

His favorite sorts of stories are the ones where there's "a cheerful embracing of life ... and a curiosity about the world," stories that "reassert the fact that we live in a world where joy and empathy and pleasure are all around us, there for the noticing," stories that "make the world seem like an exciting place to live." He said, "I come out of them feeling like a better person — more awake and more aware and more appreciative of everything around me. That's a hard thing for any kind of writing to accomplish."

He has collected some of his favorites into an anthology. It's mostly made up of stacks of writing that he kept behind his desk for years, photocopies and torn magazine pages that he would give to people in need of story writing or journalistic inspiration. That anthology, The New Kings of Nonfiction, was published in 2007.

He once said, "I have this experience when I interview someone, if it's going well and we're really talking in a serious way, and they're telling me these very personal things, I fall in love a little. They're sharing so much of themselves. If you have half a heart, how can you not?"

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the poet James Merrill, (books by this author) born in New York City (1926). His father was the founder of Merrill Lynch. At age eight, James was already writing a poem a day. He had a large trust fund, so he never had to worry about a job. He had time to write, and he traveled widely. He used a Ouija board to write his book-length poem Divine Comedies (1976), which won the Pulitzer Prize.

On this day in 1802, Ludwig van Beethoven published the "Moonlight" Sonata. Its official title is Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, Opus 27, No. 2. He was never happy about the sonata's popularity. He said, "Surely I've written better things."

It was on this day in 1875 that the opera Carmen appeared on stage for the first time at the Opéra-Comique in France. When it premiered, the audience was shocked by the characters of Carmen, a gypsy girl, and her lover, Don José. The opera ran for 37 performances even though it came out late in the season, and it came back the next season, too.

Nietzsche heard Carmen 20 different times, and thought of it as a musical masterpiece. Tchaikovsky first heard Carmen in 1880. Bizet died of a heart attack just three months after the opera's debut.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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