B U R E A U   O F   P U B L I C   S E C R E T S

 

San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)

 

 

October 1960

Why I Don’t Like Jazz Festivals
Aida and Ornette Coleman
Governmental Clowning
An Astonishing Painting Prodigy
La Traviata and La Bohème

 

 


 

Why I Don’t Like Jazz Festivals


This week I had thought of writing about the haniwas, the primitive Japanese terra cotta sculptures, which fill a large room at the Japanese show at the de Young Museum. Fortunately, Alexander Fried has said everything I would have said, or just about, and with illustrations.

A few ideas occur to me. The very ancient pieces, before the haniwas, known as dogu, bear a startling resemblance, not just to modern sculpture in general, but specifically to the work Ralph Stackpole, for two generations San Francisco’s leading sculptor and now permanently residing in France, has been doing of late years.

There is no possibility of influence. These things have been known outside of Japan only recently. Not only that, but last year we drove up from Aix to visit some friends, a Swedish painter and his French sculptress wife. They live in a dry stone abandoned farmhouse, perched on a vast side hill, deep in the Vaucluse. There, lined up against the fence, were the same kind of figures. “Did she know Ralph Stackpole?” “No, never heard of him.” “Was she familiar with Japanese sculpture?” “No.” Anthropologists call this “convergence.”

I stood in the fierce spring wind and looked over the immense panorama of soaring hills, touched with the first hint of green, and spotted with white splashes of the early blossoming almond trees, and thought of how human minds, all over the world, and back through time, are so deeply kin that they find again and again the same answers to the same questions of the sensibility.

How simply and subtly at once this sensibility can speak. One of the most haunting pieces of sculpture in all art is the little girl’s head, number 17 in the haniwa catalogue. Why? I haven’t the faintest idea. It is so modest, its effects are achieved so quietly, so delicately. You would think that it would be easily ignored, especially by an American audience wandering idly through the museum. Yet almost everybody stops at it an unusually long time, and many go back for a second look.

This is the special refinement, the unforgettable fragrance, the Japanese were later to develop in their minute, fragmentary poems. Here it is already at the very beginning of their civilization, caught in a bit of baked clay. Furthermore — this sensibility found expression in what we would call mass-produced, commercial art. I wonder if future archaeologists will find faces as haunting in our display advertising?

* * *

I guess there are those who expect a big think piece from me about the Monterey Jazz Festival. I didn’t go. I don’t like jazz festivals. I don’t even like “concert jazz” of the sort made popular by Norman Granz.

For me jazz is intimate music. It depends on a close audience participation. One of its points of origin was the New Orleans brothel, certainly an intimate enough atmosphere. Another was the intense group “folkloristic” life of Congo Square. Another was the small and even more intense group of the revivalist church. Even in the period of the craze for big ballroom dancing, jazz was most successful in the smaller places. True, the big bands of the swing period played for immense audiences, but in the years since, the trend has been back to the small group in the small club and only a few big bands have been able to keep going.

I think the audience relationship determines the music. I can’t bear the Dixieland Revival. It’s music for drunken college boys who bang on the table, clap, and stand up, blubber, “Shay fellows, lesh have good ole ‘Tiger Rag’,” and fall down. Good time music if that’s your idea of a good time. If not, not.

The music of Ornette Coleman, the Modern Jazz Quartet, John Coltrane, is essentially popular chamber music. It is a product of a special kind of night club. It is true that the ordinary night club atmosphere destroys it. But that just goes to show.

Jazz belongs in dark and quiet dens full of natural shoulders and bouffant hair-do’s. It needs the light tinkle of glasses and the brittle laughter of would-be dangerous women. It is not football, polo, or sulky racing. The Modern Jazz Quartet playing in the middle of a race track to 8000 people is just as ridiculous, no more, no less, than the Budapest String Quartet would be under the same circumstances.

Furthermore, what is wrong with modern jazz is the exclusive domination of “stars.” This has destroyed all but the most childish form — “You take a chorus and I’ll take a chorus and he’ll take a chorus, and we’ll all go out together.” In other words, everybody is a star, and each one, except sometimes the poor drummer, has his chance to show off.

I am longing for the day when I can go into a club, sit through a set and not hear a single instrument solo for more than four bars. I don’t care how good the musician is — this is why most people “outgrow” jazz — the form is insufferable after a few years. Think of the effectiveness, and the inexhaustibility of the solo instruments in [Stravinsky’s] The Firebird or in Debussy’s Trio Sonata. We never grow tired of them. Both pieces have had a powerful influence on modern jazz. Think of how tedious they would be reduced to the form of theme and variations and broken up into 32-bar solos with “rhythm section” accompaniment!

This is the real primitivism of modern jazz — not its imagined African background. Amusingly, this is the principal formal difference between modern African “jazz,” if you want to call it that, and our own. The popular African music is incomparably more complex and contrapuntal.

Obviously, the jazz festival only reinforces this star system. A premium is placed on Big Names, virtuosity, gimmicks and stunts. The circus atmosphere corrupts the natural response of the jazz musician to the closely participating audience. Serious new musical developments are appreciated for the wrong reasons, as though they were quadruple somersaults and double barrel rolls in mid-air or home runs. Jazz is not a spectator sport. It is an art which depends entirely on audience participation.

So I listened to the Saturday afternoon program, the only one I was interested in, on the radio. Well, I was there when Whiteman produced that famous and lamentable Gershwin bit, all got up in white tie and tails. I don’t see any difference. Gunther Schuller is just more up to date. At least Gershwin wrote what a famous statesman and amateur art critic called “tunes the workers can whistle.” Serialism and dodecaphonics, indeed! It’s just slumming.

I wasn’t impressed by the Coltrane numbers. Perhaps it was the context, but they sounded to me too much like the Whiteman “concert version” of “Dardanella.” Virtuosity, yes, I don’t know if it got ’em out in the aisles at Monterey, but I can imagine situations in which it sure would have had ’em crawling out of their baskets.

Ornette Coleman is another dish of tea. He is one bright hope in jazz in this period of worn-out clichés. (Charles Mingus is another.) Next week I’ll write about him. Go and hear him at the Jazz Workshop.

[October 2, 1960]

NOTE: For more extensive discussion, see Rexroth’s Some Notes on Jazz.

 


 

Aida and Ornette Coleman


You couldn’t ask for a worse opera critic. Unless something is very wrong, I just wallow in it.

So does my daughter Mary, who is just the mental age for which most of the operas were written. (She is 10.)

I guess my favorite opera is Aida, operatically speaking, that is — Boris [Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov] and the Mozart operas are music, and transcend opera altogether. Aida has everything, and with a slight spurt of imagination, you can even see the kitchen sink amongst Rhadames’s trophies. As Verdi’s sumptuous music and noble sentimentality roll out over the auditorium, I always settle back to enjoy the show of the year.

Mary has already learned the techniques of the compleat opera goer. She studies the people in the opposite boxes, compares their gowns to Renoir and Clouet, compares the performance to a previous one in Europe, and, I suppose, frightens the neighbors. What is more essential to truly civilized entertainment than the presence of beautiful women? What greater reward has middle life to offer than the chance to take one’s daughters out to dinner and the opera? Nothing. Nothing.

Aida lived up to its expectations. Jon Vickers had a slight disagreement with the orchestra about “Celeste Aida” which boded ill, but once this was straightened out, all went smooth as smooth. Everybody was in top form, and Rysanek, Dalis and Vickers even managed the make the roles convincing, no mean trick.

It seems to me that every year the choreography gets just a little less absurd. This time the ballet did itself proud. Sure, it is pure corn. But as the Governor of North Carolina said to the Governor of South Carolina, “What’s better than corn?” I do wish, though, they would throw out the blackface dance. I know these things were standard in ballet for over a hundred years, but we have outgrown them. The music is brisk and truly comic, it would be easy to do some new choreography.

What we have outgrown, I’m sure, are the sets and costuming. I would like to see an Aida got up in slightly simplified, but authentically designed Egyptian costume, with sets of an Appia-Gordon Craig sort of starkness, but again, with the real form of Egyptian architecture and sculpture. Even the movies do better than the Piscanuci’s King Tut Soda Fountain Style that is traditional for Aida. It would be a whole lot cheaper, too.

Do the leads insist on the old clothes? Rysanek, Dalis and Vickers were garbed very little differently than the Caruso, Galli-Curci and Nellie Melba of my childhood. I can’t conceive of a lady singer wanting to look like Mme. Schumann-Heink. Really, Aida is a natural for a great designer who could just about double its impact. Think of it redone by the Picasso who did The Three-Cornered Hat!

Eighty-nine years have rolled away since this show opened in Cairo to celebrate the first ship through the Suez Canal. It was the birthday of modern imperialism in Africa. The audience was full of crowns and coronets. “Patria Mia” was a song of welcome to an Italy new born after twelve hundred years.

Where are we now? The would-be Parliament of Man is full of new black faces. The old imperialist powers shower them with largesse and unwanted advice, and the leader of the second most powerful nation in history comports himself like a soap-boxer in Bughouse Square for their entertainment. As the Pharaoh and general bandied tunes about freedom while the Ethiopians cowered by the footlights, I realized with a shock that I had lived through over half of the total history of the imperialist epoch. Now it was over, and I wonder what kind of Aida my daughters will see when they are fifty. And where.

After the show the daughter returned to her mother, who is fed up with opera, and I went down to hear Ornette Coleman at the Jazz Workshop. Although my head was full of Verdi at his best, I must say these four young men stood up very well.

I don’t understand all the furor about this music. The public is one thing, but aren’t the critics familiar with modern “classical” music? Why does everyone find Coleman so difficult and strange?

An evening spent with a few easily available records by Webern, Boulez, the later Stravinsky and Bartok, would acclimatize the ears to Ornette Coleman. These are the Old Guard, the comparatively orthodox modern musicians. These is no need to adventure into the truly modernistic contemporaries.

I don’t mean to imply that Ornette Coleman is importing devices from classical music directly into jazz, in the fashion of Gunther Schuller or Fred Katz. He is not. Most of his novel material comes from close musical study of the novelty passages of so-called rhythm and blues orchestras, the popular bands of the Southwest style.

The rest of his innovations are only a natural development of the main stream of modern jazz since the bop revolution. What is wrong with jazz is lack of scope. It doesn’t say enough, in enough different ways.

Coleman has succeeded in giving it new scope. He says more, about more. He does this, however, by purely musical means, and without ever going beyond the rather defined limits of the jazz idiom. People say he doesn’t swing, but they say that about everybody new and different. The group doesn’t just swing, you could roll and bump to it if you wanted to. Underlying all the musical adventuring is a solid foundation of the music of Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana country dance halls and cheap clubs.

Last week I spoke about how bored I was getting with the endless virtuoso solos of modern jazz. Of course I am quite well aware that the Coleman group uses the same form. But I think there is a difference. There is not just a close musical relationship between the solos of each member of the group, there is a strong dramatic relationship, too, a genuine passionate conversation. It’s like Aida.

Furthermore, although I find people who jabber about Bach and jazz in the same breath absolutely insufferable, I am afraid I know of no better example of how Ornette Coleman develops a musical statement than Bach’s famous Chaconne. By which I do not mean that he is as great as Bach or even in the same category. It is just that each restatement refers back to its predecessor and ahead to its successor in the same way. It is a kind of one-line counterpoint. The solos of Lester Young, on the other hand, are a continuously unfolding harmonic development.

I do think, however, that the group is at its most exciting in ensemble. It’s when they all get going at once in all directions, with Cherry and Coleman crossing each other in the most extraordinary dissonances that they are at their best. I do wish they’d do a whole set like that sometime. It might be the Lexington and Concord of modern jazz.

[October 9, 1960]

 


 

Governmental Clowning


Taking it on the whole, I’d much rather write about art or nature than about politics, but things do pile up. I don’t know if authority always corrupts, but it does seem to make some people a little daffy.

During the last month some very curious things have happened. First, Herbert Matthews, the New York Times correspondent in Havana during the early days of the Castro regime, and a man of long and deep understanding of foreign affairs, has been abused by a couple of noisy Congressmen, and subjected to unsuccessful intimidation because his reports had shown favor to the new regime. The intimation was that he had misled the American people and aided in selling Cuba to Castro and his cohorts the way “traitors in high places” in America had betrayed China to Mao.

Unless the country is at war, I see no legal grounds whatsoever which would permit the Legislative Branch to push the press around — certainly not for a conscientious, if possibly mistaken, interpretation of carefully gathered facts. Least of all when Matthews’s opinions were, in the honeymoon days of Castro’s revolution, shared by almost everybody in the United States.

I understand that Matthews has changed his estimation of the Castro regime, but even if he hasn’t, he has not engaged in any sort of illegal act. Castro may be a fool, and a dangerous one — to himself and his country and the peace of the world — but he is not legally an enemy of the United States. I can think of few acts more subversive of our social order than government harassment of the press.

Worse still, the British critic Kenneth Tynan was called before the Un-American Activities Committee and questioned because, along with a bevy of movie stars, TV personalities, writers and intellectuals, he had signed a pro-Castro manifesto. In the course of his interrogation, he was asked if he thought he had the right to disagree with the President of the United States! This is worse than harassment of the press . . . the word is egregious folly. Not only should a legislator in a democracy defend freedom of the press with his life if necessary, he should, before all else, comport himself with the dignity befitting his office.

Clowning in high places is certainly subversive. The late Senator McCarthy was permitted the wildest allegations, but when he flouted the dignity of the Senate, he discovered that he had destroyed himself. Those “bad old days” were supposed to be over, and the committee he once headed was supposed to be going about a serious job in a serious way.

In criminal legal parlance, such conduct is called “by the color of authority,” or “C.O.” for short. It may well be true that so disorderly a people as the Americans could never be effectively policed if the cops showed as much respect for the person and for due process as they do in Britain. There may be some excuse for freewheeling police methods in a bar room brawl, but such capers are dangerous in the high places of the legislature and judiciary.

Poor Judge Eyman, prosecutor of poets, has beaten a hasty retreat, but what kind of law did he ever read that told him that a police magistrate, hearing a traffic violation, has any right to lecture, even abuse, the culprit about his life, morals and livelihood, totally unconnected with the case at issue? As a matter of fact, a magistrate is, because he speaks from a public forum, somewhat more responsible under such circumstances than a private citizen.

Anyway, young Jory Sherman has paid his reduced fine, served his reduced time, and is back writing his poetry and editing his weekly paper. I do hope he is keeping his car in a garage. Once again, it is possible to say that this little episode was a pathetic sort of harassment of the press. The very fact that nobody ever heard of Jory Sherman’s paper and that it pays him only a pittance, is precisely the reason why a magistrate should bend over backwards to protect his rights — certainly he should not give him a tongue lashing and hold him up to contumely.

These Congressmen and judges and policemen never seem to be able to keep clearly in their minds that their jobs and their power are derived directly from a social compact of which freedom of speech is one of the main clauses. The Congressman is a Congressman because Herbert Matthews can say anything short of treason or incitement to direct commission of crime that he wants to. This freedom is the color of authority.

The Un-American Activities Committee just won’t quiet down. Next a schoolgirl has her fellowship lifted because she attended the unforgettable City Hall riot this spring. The fellowship is for teaching her all about government and democracy and civil rights and all that noise. Uh uh. This kind of vindictiveness is so silly that it defeats even its own immediate purpose, while of course it turns its ultimate purpose in this case into its opposite. I imagine by now the girl has several offers of far better fellowships.

If that one wasn’t silly enough, our own, presumably sensible Chief of Police has announced that he wants a kennel of police dogs. If he had had them at the time of the City Hall riot, says he, things would have been different.

Now, really. What was that, Eliza, about the rights of the person and due process? There are, after all, certain laws governing the relations of police officers and people, even arrestees. I am not much of a martyr, but I hereby offer my little pink body to be mildly mangled as a guinea pig for any civil liberties organization that would like a test case.

That riot cost enough as it was. If the cops had turned loose a pack of Alsatians on the students, they would have to tear down the City Hall and sell it for scrap to pay for the lawsuits. Oh, please, Massah Cahill, doan sic them crool haowns on po’ ’ole me!

[October 16, 1960]

 


 

An Astonishing Painting Prodigy


Last Sunday was planned more or less as children’s day. We went to the park in the morning for a preview of the exhibition of Japanese children’s painting, then for a walk around the still uncrowded tea garden, then to the beach, then in the afternoon to the Children’s Opera.

I could see a good deal of room for improvement in the Children’s Opera, but Mary and Katherine were fascinated.

The show of Japanese children’s paintings was something else again. They are all good, somewhat more sophisticated than an American show of the kind would be. They show the effects of a society in which the standards of popular design and commercial art are a little higher and considerably more subtle than ours.

Whether deliberately guided by their elders or not, these children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are singularly uninterested in painting guns, bombers, soldiers and submarines. There is not a sign of war or the memories of war.

There is plenty of everything else, brightly colored observations of all of modern Japanese life — lumbering, the rafting of logs, factories, railroad yards, the circus, fields of cattle, a wonderful pig looking over a fence at two men unloading corn, a hockey game, gardens of flowers, water lily pools with dragonflies (very Art Nouveau), birds of every sort, terraced farms and dreams of toys.

Children all over the world do seem to paint more or less like the early German Expressionists who learned so much from them. Most of these pictures look like early Kandinsky, Jawlensky, Munch, even Franz Marc, but they have a special Japanese flavor of spontaneity, lightness of touch and at the same time sureness.

Most of these youngsters will doubtless soon forget all their fresh vision of the world and their modest sparkling talents for interpreting it. Right now their paintings are a refreshing experience for the jaded eyes of a middle-aged critic who has scuffed his eyeballs in all the museums of the world. Better than that, they had my girls in raptures, so they must have been what they call authentic.

This was all routine, a high level of accomplishment for youngsters 7 to 11 years old, but not unlike what you could put together anywhere in the world nowadays with the spread of modern teaching methods to the most remote spots. Then came, not a surprise, but a real stunning blow. No matter how good it is, child art still always looks like child art, or else it looks precocious and sickly.

One after another they brought out and leaned against the wall a series of watercolors and one oil of, nothing much, just people and cows. The only trouble was, they didn’t look like even the work of the most prodigious prodigy. They looked like the work of a thoroughly finished craftsman, a man of matured taste and considered judgment of the world. It was very spooky, and myself and daughters were thoroughly intimidated, almost frightened. The artist’s name was Kuniyasu Hashida. He was 7 years old, and these were a selection of his work for the past two years.

Kuniyasu was born in a small village. His father was not an artist, as you might easily expect, but an office worker for a textile company. However, from the age of 2 he encouraged him to paint and draw. At 5 he was commuting alone six kilometers to school, and painting small canvases in oil. Soon he began to win prizes, and at the age of 6 won two prizes in the All-Japan Concours of Children’s Painting. This is an institution or activity which was started ten years ago by the well-known artist Shinichi Nichida and which today, due to his devoted guidance, has become one of the best things of its kind in the world.

Nichida says in the letter he sent with these pictures, “The day the prizes were awarded, Kuniyasu Hashida came along with his parents and he carried his designs and a diary in pictures. After I saw these drawings and paintings I found the value of them was not achieved by guidance of his teachers, but is purely his own creation. This is 10 years after I opened the Children’s Concours of Painting, and his paintings are the first ones to give me complete satisfaction. I borrowed his pictures and designs to exhibit as evidence of his ability, which are the ones you have in San Francisco now. It would be most gratifying if Japanese children could share communication with beauty through their painting.”

Indeed, it would. One of the most gratifying cultural activities of the present time is the great international show of child art staged by an Indian newspaper, Shan Kar’s Weekly. Once a year they issue a special supplement which educators would be well advised to procure and study. For some reason, few people in the States know about the show, and still fewer children send pictures. In the company of my little daughters, I have always greatly enjoyed this annual art show issue of Shan Kar’s Weekly, but there has never been anybody in it like Kuniyasu Hashida.

Believe me, I am not one to fall for talking dogs, bicycling seals, calculating horses and infant wizards. See for yourself.

It is not true that prodigies wither early. Most children, true, can paint better than many grown artists, and as life catches up with them, they lose this talent. But many great painters, and, of course, the majority of great violinists and other musicians have been child prodigies. Let’s hope this young man keeps up. He certainly has the makings of a great artist, and he is already a very considerable one.

It is very touching, really, to think of this little boy in his village in the Japanese countryside, speaking out so clearly and beautifully, across all that distance — sharing, as Mr. Nichida says, “with American children his communication with beauty through his painting.”

[October 23, 1960]

 


 

La Traviata and La Bohème


Altogether too much is hitting the electric fan.

This is supposed to be a personal column about anything that interests me. I should narrow my interests, at least at the height of the San Francisco “season.” I try to limit my political observations to the big issues: peace, nuclear disarmament, community integration, the problems of the underdeveloped nations, civil rights and civil liberties.

The presidential election is just a few days away. Europe is fuming with rumors of the devaluation of the dollar. (We call it “raising the price of gold.”) Allen Ginsberg’s friend in the Caribbean is cooking up something. Martin Luther King got arrested. All those gentlemen whose names sound like new rock and roll steps are abusing the UN while their unhappy country advances step by step past the limits of what used to be called “falling apart.”

Somehow, in spite of the month-long run of “West Side Story” in the General Assembly, peace does seem to be creeping painfully nearer. History is passing through a climacteric, a critical point like that dot on the thermometer at which water turns into steam. Never in my lifetime have changes taken place so decisively, so irrevocably and so fast.

Meanwhile, the calendar of events in San Francisco has started to burst at the seams. It’s just too much.

I take refuge, at least for now, in Mary Costa. If Jane Russell could call the Deity a living doll, the term should be appropriate to Mary Costa, without serious breach of good taste. My, my, what a talented girl! I have never seen a reading of La Traviata quite like hers.

Offhand, I would say that I prefer Violetta done with a kind of weary, haunted wistfulness. Mary Costa’s was anything but that, but she sure made it convincing. It was far from Garbo in Camille, in fact, it was quite the opposite — the portrayal of a powerful woman in the grip of love and death. When she got the shakes and began to hallucinate, it was pretty scary. The only possible criticism would be that she gave the role almost more than the text could bear.

La Traviata is a natural. Everybody has only to act like himself — tenors like tenors, sopranos like sopranos, so on down the line. The characters all behave like a bunch of opera stars, caught out in their own private lives. This makes Alfredo a part I, for one, wouldn’t care to play. Whoever sings it runs the risk of seeming to satirize himself. Giuseppe Zampieri, who is doubtless a lovely man in real life, managed simultaneously to sing like a bird and make you want to climb on the stage and give him a good shaking. Any decent Germont, of course, can come close to stealing the show, and Robert Weede made the most of his opportunities.

But Costa was in full command, her Violetta was a real grand courtesan, of the kind that once ruled France, and you knew that if it wasn’t for the TB bacilli pulling her down, she would have knocked all their heads together and sent them packing.

What are we going to do for something to write operas about now that Koch’s Bacillus is succumbing to the wonder drugs? Even Aida dies of suffocation, a sort of respiratory trouble.

It’s a true picture, in its way, that operatic life. Things were like that once. Last year we saw a lovely La Traviata in Vicenza, far less sumptuous, and so, more realistic than this one.

The opening scene drew me back to the parties my parents used to give before the other War, the Edwardian glitter, the well-mannered conflict, and the hidden doom. How terribly far away that world is, more distant to our understanding than the Egypt of Aida. And to think that I too danced in white kid gloves, black velvet suit, and a lace front shirt, even if only at children’s dancing school. Not only that, but I remember my father and mother, during her last summer, walking in the woods and singing the first happy arias of La Traviata to each other.

I first saw La Bohème in the long gone Bucklin Opera House in Elkhart, Indiana. It made a tremendous impression. Next year we saw it in Chicago, with who? . . . maybe Geraldine Farrar. I wonder if it marked my life? I seem to have spent a number of years once, living in a series of happy garrets, all of them, whether in New York or Chicago, on the Rue Où Gît Le Coeur, the street where the heart rests.

Mary, Rexroth not Costa, said, “Where is the Café Momus supposed to be?” “I don’t know,” I said, “the street’s on two different levels. Maybe it’s the Rue Monsieur Le Prince. Maybe it’s the Rue Des Mauvais Enfants.” “It’s just like the Café Dôme,” Mary said.

It’s still there, that life, still alive under the betrayed sullenness of Les Tricheurs and the Beatniks, in North Beach, in Chelsea and Soho, in Montparnasse — though hardly in Saint-Germain. I wonder how much longer it will last? Malraux says he’s going to build a forty-story skyscraper on the site of the Gare Montparnasse. That should fix the bohèmes, far more effectively than the Broadway spillway of the freeway, or Chief Cahill’s Beatnik Detail.

Mary Costa. My, my, what a talented girl, I say again! Lon Chaney Sr. could play monsters and old ladies, but he spaced the roles years apart. It is quite something to play a grand courtesan one night and a tart forty-eight hours later. After all, no two human beings are less alike, heart of gold or not. Next thing she’ll make a sensation as Boris Godunov.

Lucine Amara made a perfect Mimi. Once again, something went wrong with the cue for her first big aria, but after that she gave it everything, and died in that special odor of sanctity that is Mimi’s alone, while Jan Peerce shouted in the dawn. He is a fine singer and turned in an admirable performance, but not everybody can utter that hoarse, abandoned shout and raise your hair the way Puccini intended it to be raised. My hair, for one, went up. Like the famous “poetry and jazz” passage in Traviata, it requires a certain artistic discipline.

Puccini can surely wring your heart if you give it to him to be wrung. And why not? There is a noble and an ignoble sentimentality. There’s nothing dishonest about Puccini. How many thousand Butterfly’s were produced in the years after World War II? It’s all true to life in its own melodious way. The music is heartbreaking, but only for a few minutes, and after all, there’s nothing like a good cry. And that Mary Costa and Lucine Amara, when she gives her the muff to play with as she dies. My, my.

[October 30, 1960]

 


“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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