B U R E A U O F P U B L I C S E C R E T S
Odds and Ends
Fine Opera with Shoddy Decor
Rigoletto and Coltrane
Thoughts While Watching Fidelio and Nabucco
More on the Above
Sergeant Musgraves Dance
Letters from New York and Florence
The Russian H-Bomb Test
Mark Twains remark about the weather is not altogether true. There is something you can do besides talk about it; you can go and live in it.
What a time it is, the Opening of the Season in San Francisco! Long warm days, smoke in the air and the leaves turning and now as I am writing, a full autumn moon rising at the end of the street. Deer and ducks are getting shot, sopranos are warbling in the Opera House, potters and weavers and barefoot dancers are at large in the Civic Center. Its too much.
From now to Thanksgiving is the best time of year in Yosemite Valley and Kings Canyon the only time for my taste and Id really prefer to take another jaunt in the mountains. Instead I am opera crawling and gallery crawling, but not, being an exceptionally cool type, pub crawling as yet.
A visit from Sam Edwards, editor of the new magazine The Second Coming, which is creating all sorts of excitement in publishing and editorial circles. Well it might. Their publicity flyers and the second issue are full of good wishes from rival editors and publishers. They are a hard bunch not to wish well. The average age of the staff is 23. The contents are an uncannily accurate reflection of the taste and opinions of the brand new target Madison Avenue has discovered in recent years.
This is the fresh young customers man or electronics engineer, just out of college, a whiz at selling bonds or splitting atoms, who reads Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and above all Salinger (not Pierre). Over his desk is a painting by Mark Rothko, by his office window is a bonsai for which his wife won a prize.
He may even sport a carefully trimmed beard on Wall Street, in the Stanford Research Institute, or on Madison Avenue. His set play badminton in carefully frayed olive drab tennis shoes and faded blue jeans.
As the man at MCA said to me in 1954, Rexroth, dissent is going to be the hottest commodity along The Street. As I said to him, Whats going to happen to the world when the Beats have taken over Chase National Bank?
Dropped into Opus One (Too), which I like because its relaxed and quietly chummy. Who should I find but my sometime secretary Marguerite Ray, very pretty in black lace under a soft spot, up on the stand, projecting like all get out. As they say, that chick can certainly put over a song. I cant keep up with all her talents, actress, singer, recreation director she was a wonderful secretary, too.
Theyve got a couple of new boys, the Gold Coast singers frightfully well bred and funny. They say they come from Fresno, but they act as though they come from Choate. I bet theyll be subscribing to The Second Coming.
Read Mark Schorers Sinclair Lewis. This is a masterful biography and much better reading than Lewiss own books, and, for sure, the story of a far deeper tragedy than Main Street or Arrowsmith.
I was going to devote a lot of this piece to the Arts Festival. Alex and the editor stole my thunder. So here is just my two bits. The Festival is not for the local Picassos, but for bootblacks and brokers and housewives and strip teasers who express themselves in paint or pots or wiggly jewelry.
It should be an all-out manifestation of all the talents of the community. Unfortunately, it is not because the local artists of reputation are such snobs that they boycott it. Thats too bad for them.
Maybe I prefer naïve painters to educated ones. The educated ones are a lot more naïve, it seems to me. I do agree that the best stuff has always been the pottery. I have a theory that the best artists hereabouts of any kind are the potters.
Alas, the top ones seem to have started boycotting the Festival too. For the first time in years I didnt buy a pot.
[October 1, 1961]
One of my pet projects is the lag of the purveyors of taste far behind the possibilities of the contemporary American public. Its a subject which is a small but not insignificant part of a wider one to which I am strongly committed indeed. That is that most social and political and economic theory, and most criticism of the arts, still operates with the categories of a bygone age.
Sitting at the opera these last few nights I have been most forcibly reminded of all this. It is not likely I should live so long I should hear a better [Madame] Butterfly than Leontyne Prices this season. The only superlative that fits Miss Price is superlative and everybody else sounded eminently satisfactory. Maybe it is the best I ever heard, but I hope to see much better Butterflies in the years to come.
It is absurd to present a Japanese subject to an audience as steeped in sound taste in things Oriental as the San Francisco one and not even bother to make the coiffures appropriate to the age and status of the women, or to trouble to see to it that the kimonos are not wrapped as they are for dead people.
The exterior stage set for the first act is not just ridiculous, it is insulting. The interior set is tawdry, pseudo-Japanese, and utterly ignores the dramatic pictorial possibilities of the action.
I know, it costs a fortune to redo an opera and weve already got all these cherry trees and these lovely screens from the Goodwill. But just think what could be done with Butterfly by a team of imaginative Japanese designers! The very thought makes me a little giddy.
The same goes for The Marriage of Figaro. Again, this was about as well cast a Figaro as were likely to see. People behaved as though they had been born and raised in the parts. Graziella Sciutti is a sort of total, absolute, ultimate Susanna. If the girl Mozart wrote the part for was as complete a realization of the role he was a lucky dog. Furthermore, she is one of those alas too, too few genuinely likeable girls in opera. I used to see her in the Deux Garçons in Aix-en-Provence when we lived there, and it was always a struggle to keep from just barging up to her table and introducing myself.
But visually, what was this Figaro? Well, it was several years younger than the shoddy Japonerie of Butterfly. It wasnt tawdry, but it was just plain unimaginative. I hope plenty of people made the comparison with the startlingly beautiful decor of The Magic Flute in the spring opera. And I hope a few people of influence started drawing the correct conclusions.
I think the motto for the design department of the San Francisco Opera for the next few years should be, Lets get Eliza off the ice.
[October 4, 1961]
Rigoletto last week started off more or less as a shambles. When we came to the final scene at the inn, what should show up out in the yard but the tules from the marshes of Wozzeck. Somehow they went with the general effect of polytonality.
Off and on throughout the opera I had the distinct impression that several keys were going at once, distributed liberally amongst musicians in the orchestra and the singers. Early on, Mary Costas voice broke in the acrobatics of the great aria, so badly that she occasioned a gulp of sympathy from the audience.
As the fellow said, once she got in the sack she was fine. One thing Mary does with élan is die. The reason of course is that then she relaxes and sings as quietly as can be.
Caro Nome is hardly my favorite of the exercises for the voice and I dont care much if its fluffed or not. Once I had a friend, name of Fred Franchi, who did an elaborate puppet show for Golden Gate dairy products, touring the grammar schools. He had a cow, a milkman and a milkmaid and also a full-sized puppet hen, a fussy, feathery Plymouth Rock. She fluttered and flustered and laid an egg while on a record Lily Pons sang Caro Nome. Thats the only time Ive ever enjoyed that number.
The reason disasters like this happen is that we just dont have enough opera around. If this had been Italy, Mary would have sung Rigoletto in Ukiah, Chico, Carson City and points west before she ever appeared in San Francisco in it. As it was, this was her first time in a very tricky role and one for sure in which the slightest strain or stage fright takes its toll. Shes to be congratulated for having been able to pull out of it and die with grace in good voice.
Prompted by Herb Scholder, Id like to mention that people struggle and find it most difficult to get seats at the opera early in the season, and then give up. There are always seats for the last week or so, especially for Thursdays and Saturdays, and this season some of the best is yet to be. Keeping the house full does keep down the deficit.
* * *
For most of his run at the Jazz Workshop, John Coltrane drew such a mob I couldnt get near the door. Also, when I heard him last year, at least that night he seemed indifferent, bored with himself, his band and the audience. I take it all back. Just before the show closed I finally got in and was knocked off my feet. I didnt know there was that much of a band rat left in these old bones. Like, I was sent.
Ive worked with Elvin Jones, the drummer, and know four of the others fairly well, but I was completely unprepared for the piano man, McCoy Tyner. This fellow is something new in jazz. In the first place, he has a completely competent concert technique, the facility of a piano virtuoso of the 1900s rippling through Chopin and leaping through Liszt.
In fact, some of the crab-like jumps and crosses of the left hand over a firelight on water fluctuant motion in the right, sounded remarkably like Liszt. Not harmonically, however; the basis of his harmonic development of the initial melody seemed to me to be largely modal, like continuously unwinding plain song. All this, and not least his beautiful legato touch, produced some extraordinary sonorities.
As you may know, I am dead set against the theme-and-variations form that now dominates jazz the toccata or chaconne passed around to exhibitionist soloists. I loathe Neo-Dixieland, but I would love to see a modernist restatement of the old Dixieland structures. However, this time I give in. For once I found the contemporary jazz form 100 percent satisfying. And how! Everybody, not just John and Elvin, was at absolute peak performance.
* * *
Last night to the hungry i to hear Leon Bibb. This young man has grown much in the last few years, and become a finished artist and a most engaging audience personality. He also happens to have a good voice, not a too common virtue in show biz. As they say, he alone is well worth the price of admission.
[October 8, 1961]
Sitting at the opera, I thought . . . Ive already led off something like this. Opera isnt usually considered a place to indulge in heavy thinking, but maybe this year Ive been unduly pensive. Anyway, listening to Florestan roll out Freiheit! Freiheit! in Fidelio and the Jews calling for freedom in the great choral ode in Nabucco set me to wondering what all this could mean translated into the mid-twentieth century.
Alex Fried said, reviewing the Sunday Fidelio, After all, is it so out of date to hear the persecuted Florestan say, I dared to speak the truth, and prison chains were my reward? Indeed it is not, but the issues have become terribly confused.
In the martyrdom of Sacco and Vanzetti the picture was clear and sharp in focus. They certainly didnt mount the electric chair protesting that they were LaFollette Republicans.
When we get to the Rosenbergs something has changed. One thing a martyr cant be is disingenuous. I can respect any many willing to die for a cause I personally despise. It is hard to give similar respect to those who are willing to lie for their ideals.
How clear cut the moral drama of Daniele Manins defense of Venice against the Austrians, or Napoleons murder of the Duke dEnghien two sources of the operas of Beethoven and Verdi.
What do we do when we come to Radek and Bukharin writhing in the dock at the Moscow Trials, the tiny red glow of Stalins pipe in his secret observers box? It is a horrifying drama, doubtless, but what does it mean? Is it tragedy, or something new that has come into the human situation? After all, these men were made up of the same corpuscles as you and I.
When Brouwenstein spread her arms and the spotlight brightened and she sang out with a kind of vibrant glory, I am his wife! I thought, Where am I? and the answer was obvious.
I was sitting in a theater full of handsome men and beautiful women, at least a quarter of whom would some day be tearing each others hearts out in front of the flash bulbs in a squalid divorce court room.
I was living in a state where marital loyalty has been codified by domestic relations attorneys for the convenience of movie actresses.
Freiheit! Freiheit! We live in an age and in a land where we have more freedom than we know what to do with, at least if we are white, and most of us are, more or less.
Our tragedies, in politics, or love or art or anything else, even business, occur as we let freedom fall, spoiled and unused, from our clumsy hands.
[October 11, 1961]
As you may have caught on by now, I dont try to compete with Lester Gorn or Alexander Fried or Stanley Eichenbaum or Ivan Paul or Dick Nolan. I just write about the places I like to go and the things I like to do, and about my own friends.
The only reason I am at all a reliable guide to food, wine, art, letters, women or horseflesh is that I have, I hope, a modicum of good taste. If case youve wondered what things like nonces and modicums are modicum means with measure. How much of a measure it doesnt say.
Anyway, since everybodys throwing publicity at Merla Zellerbach, society beauty exposes all, as though she were a mathematical horse or a bicycling seal, just let me say a word in defense of a friend. Love in a Dark House is an adequately promising first novel.
It has an intrinsic interest and readability because it is about San Francisco and about a subject Merla herself is very hot about rational psychotherapy. The book is full of faults, but they are beginners faults, not amateurs.
I dont see any reason why she shouldnt, if she wishes, go on to be a thoroughly professional novelist. I think this is a more flattering estimate than a billing as John Gunther in a brocade evening gown.
Back to the opera. Im beginning to get dizzy with opera and to be absorbed into its hallucinatory world equally hallucinatory, I guess, on the stage and in the mezzanine bar. Maybe the reason I like it is that it is really a folk art. The place to see the great corny Italian standards is somewhere like Parma or Spoleto, with a touring cadre of ivory-skinned girls, superannuated divas and oily young tenors filled out with locals from the church choir.
Nabucco is hardly the sort of thing you would want to go through every year in San Francisco. Once in a great while it is fun to see, and its good that we now have the expensive decor in the storerooms. The place for Nabucco is provincial Italy, where it is part of the essential mythology of Italian patriotism.
Watching it, with the singers rigged out like circus ponies and the music so like a steam calliope, I was forcibly reminded of the Three Kingdoms plays of the Chinese opera. These are the great circus performances of the Chinese theater. Everybody knows every speech and turn of action from childhood. They provide the Chinese people with the primary historical myths of their own grandeur and misery of empire.
You could take Nabucco, translate it into Chinese and put it on in Taiwan, mainland China or Hong Kong, and hardly be able to tell the difference. Va pensiero . . . or Let my people go. How many people have cried out so, by how many waters of Babylon.
Whats wrong with Fidelio? The books all say that it is a failure for Beethoven. Maybe, but a failure for Beethoven is quite a bit different from a failure for Dello Joio or Britten. In fact, Ill trade Beethovens failure for Donizettis success. The music always just knocks me out.
Furthermore, I thought everybody this time was just dandy. And furthermore, Brouwenstein is the kind of woman to whom the word diva is properly applied, and they knock me out whether they can sing or not, and she can. I hope I never get so jaded, writing for the papers, that I lose the wholesome instincts of a stage-door Johnny.
While on this subject, for those who follow my career, I did get up the nerve to introduce myself to Graziella Sciutti in the lobby as Nabucco, but since she had on one of the most beautiful dresses I have ever seen one of those timeless things that might have been worn at the courts of Florence, Versailles or Byzantium once again I was, for me, comparatively speechless.
If youre planning to see the Leningrad Ballet, youd better get a hump on. Orders were stacking high waiting for the tickets to get printed. This is still one of the greatest ballet companies of all time.
If you make the whole little season, youll see all their big numbers, and if youre even the most amateur of balletomanes, it should be worth it. There is not much question but that, where the Bolshoi has technique and a certain old-fashioned grandeur, the Kirov has consummate style and elegance.
[October 15, 1961]
Last week was an especially satisfying time. Three really good shows, thats a lot for one week. And when a theatrical experience is truly satisfying, it enters the class of satisfactions that are like those of love and food and drink states of being that the word satisfaction was invented for.
Way and above the best performance of this opera season, and one of the best of any season, was last Thursdays Un Ballo in Maschera. Everybody was in top voice and worked together like the parts of a good watch. Graziella Sciutti and Gre Brouwenstijn outdid themselves.
The part of Oskar, the king’s page, is not considered one of the choicest plums, as opera roles go, but Sciutti certainly turned it into one.
It is strange to see a tragedy in which the major role is given to a soubrette. But then, so it is often enough in life, and so, I suppose, the more profound and common tragic meaning is underlined.
This is an opera for men, on stage and in the audience. When Ettore Bastianini ended his long sustained flight of musical rhetoric one of Verdis best passages all about the disloyalty and irresponsibility of idle wives, the house rang with strong two-fisted applause and all the shirt studs rose and fell in sympathy.
Even the decor was satisfying, as it was surely a conclusive demonstration of how to get good results out of the design department dont give them too much money.
Hangings, panels, the necessary furniture and a few sticks and lots of stairs and platforms . . . the effects were thoroughly convincing until the last act, which was a conventional stage set, a trivial miss of the great opportunity of the opera the masked ball itself.
Saturday to Figaro with my daughter Mary, who was simply tickled pink. The second time for me, but I could do with it about every couple months indefinitely. How on earth did the poor girls manage to sing, got up in crinolines and on top of everything, those Louis Seize raincoats, in all that heat?
To the opening of Sergeant Musgraves Dance. This is a kind of fantastic charade, purportedly and in the first instance of the evils of war, but finally of the deeper evil of spiritual pride.
A sandaled miss behind me said, I wonder what the bourgeois press will make of this.
I felt that some of the audience and maybe some of my colleagues thought it was all a bit thick, but, Miss, this minion of the bourgeois press, for one, thought it was great.
[October 18, 1961]
Well, just as I thought, Sergeant Musgraves Dance stirred up controversy. If by controversy you mean adverse criticism. If by controversy you mean violent disagreement, hold on to your hat, because here it comes.
I have at hand the clippings of my critical colleagues, the boys Riesman calls engineers of taste. They were puzzled, and hence exasperated.
Partly their response may well have been due to a blurb on the program, a whole page opposite the cast of characters and bill of fare which is one of the most obfuscating public relations jobs of my experience. Mostly though the play is genuinely ominous, mystifying and oblique. So too are Arsenic and Old Lace, The Cat and the Canary, and Hamlet.
One thing for sure, a play like this cannot be reviewed on the basis of an irritable visit to the first act only.
First off, it is not a pro-pacifist play and it is as far as possible from being a soapbox for the social philosophies of a few of the staff, as it has been called. It is about absolute pacifism in the sense that it is about the disastrous effects of the spiritual pride that results from any kind of moral absolutism.
Pride leads to anger and anger leads to death you can read this in hundreds of little booklets which you can pick up in thousands of tract cases in front of churches of dozens of denominations all over the world, those at least that recognize humility as a virtue.
Those who know beyond all doubt that they are chosen instruments through whom history or God or science or truth speaks out in defiance of all men these are the people who breed random and senseless violence.
Here a little band of crazy saints in red uniform quarrels in a stable over a tart and a man is killed by accident. This is the subtlety of the play the iron logic and prideful duty of the inhumane saviors of mankind is false and mad and results of necessity in exactly those evils they hope to abolish.
To quote again, There are some who may consider the choice of Sergeant Musgraves Dance to open the season as a shining example of theatrical courage. I call it downright foolishness and I think the sponsors of the project should take a good look at just who is running the theater. And to what purpose.
Come, come. My respected colleague knows better than this. He knows the people who are running the Actors Workshop very well and he knows their purpose is to put on vital and timely drama period.
I hate war, as somebody said in 1940 or thereabouts. Who doesnt? I also think that charismatic madmen with the Truth, including the truths of peace and love of mankind, and the God-sent duty to enforce that truth with a Gatling gun I think these people are mischief makers and breeders of senseless violence. Nobody is running me, not the Kremlin, not the State Department, not even the Vatican or the Friends Service Committee.
Back to the play. Its a fine play. Maybe it is the high point of Tom Rosquis career.
It needs cuts, and more than cuts. It needs tempo. It is the lack of rhythmic inevitability that makes some of the speeches seem turgid and disconnected. Maybe Herb Barman should sit and thump his drums during rehearsals for a while. And last, Ray Fry should take a fetty pill. He is just too active and so throws himself out of phase with the rest of the cast.
Best of all, the whole job is a welcome relief from what was becoming a tradition a sort of Sutter Street Stanislavkyism.
[October 22, 1961]
The opera is certainly going out in glory. Ive been back for second helpings, The Marriage of Figaro, The Masked Ball, Nabucco, Fidelio, Rigoletto, Boris. These have been the best of the season, each with its own special excellences.
The Masked Ball was superb, even more superb than it was the first time. Ive come to the conclusion that the music is pretty good not just operatically speaking but actually good, like real music.
Watching the second time I was reminded of my own frequent strictures on authenticity. Whoever did these costumes turned out not just mid-18th-century ones, but clothes with a cut and color that seemed somehow very Swedish, dark greens and browns and slaty blues that gave the stage a kind of northern light. This is inspired costuming of a very subtle sort and deserving of the greatest praise.
The next season they give it, I only hope they throw away the sets and costumes for the last act and bring it up to the level of the rest of the show.
Once again, Graziella Sciutti stole all the scenes she was in. She is an expert at this sometimes she makes you forget that she can also sing very well indeed. Gré Brauwenstijn is beginning to grow on me, as people who know her said she would. Does she sing Isolde? I dont even know, I loathe Wagner, but if she would come back to town next year and sing that tortured perfidious girl, Id surely go.
This column gets around. I have a lovely letter from the Chamber Dance Group in New York. They say they read my column advocating such a group when they were out here with the New York Ballet and I gave them a name and furthered their impulse to get going. So here is their first performance dance as an art form in the true sense, able to move, reveal, explore, expose, and to find something of the human condition in its structure. I only wish I had been there to see.
This is the attitude we need hereabouts. We have the technique. We have the choreographic skill. We have the artist designers, though they are never used. What we need is a deepening of meaning in the original conception to put it bluntly, better taste.
Another letter from a man in the opera in Florence, saying Keep after the Ford Foundation. They are doing more harm than good.
He also says I dont need to be syndicated that people clip me and send me to Paris and Florence. I can just see the tousled little heads bending over the latest Rexroth in Lelands Bar or the Doni. Unfortunately I dont make as much money as Art Buchwald who is syndicated . . . and read in all the Harrys Bars all over the Free World.
[October 25, 1961]
Well, they set the damn thing off, although all the smart money in journalism guessed they wouldnt.
What on earth is wrong with the Russians? Why do they go on and on, pulling off these stunts of world-shaking moral folly? And how do they get away with it?
At this moment the headlines say, Protests Pour In on Russia. World Opinion Recoils in Horror. Yet those of us who have lived through almost 50 years of Bolshevism and remember Trotskys pamphlet justifying the Red Terror, the suppression of the Georgian Socialist Republic, the butchery of the Kronstadt sailors, know that the Russians do this sort of thing all the time.
And we know with absolute certainty that each time their supporters will recoil in horror and then coil right back.
I remember well after the Hitler-Stalin Pact when the fellow travelers were purging their ranks and regrouping themselves, Dwight McDonald observed in an article in his magazine Politics, that power not only always corrupts, as Lord Acton said, but, for some people, it has an uncanny fascination.
Just because hordes of fellow travelers all over the world would cheerfully walk off a cliff if Stalin or Khrushchev told them to does not mean they are dupes. Quite the contrary. Thousands and thousands of milquetoasts who wouldnt go through a traffic light, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists, opponents of steel traps and capital punishment, swallowed the Moscow Trials with shivers of delight, precisely because they were fed to them on the naked bayonets of the Red Army.
This time too, watch for drop-outs from the ranks of organizations opposing The Bomb. Watch for highly dialectical explanations of how bourgeois fallout causes strontium 90 to settle in babies bones, but proletarian fallout doesnt. Proletarian strontium 90, in fact, will subtly alter the genes of the oppressed peoples of the earth and produce a race of Lenins in Africa and Indonesia, and make every inhabitant of the Peoples Democracies a natural-born Stakhanovite.
As for the underground tests of the rotten imperialists, these are corrupting the deep-lying water supplies and will give us all cholera morbus. You think I am kidding? Wait and see.
Russia, Bolshevik or Czarist, has always been a pre-humanistic civilization. Marxs prophetic frenzy against the capitalism of his day sometimes turned into a rejection of the whole humanist tradition. It is precisely those elements of Marx that the Bolsheviks have institutionalized.
Erasmus, Rabelais, Grotius, Voltaire, Wilberforce, John Woolman, William Lloyd Garrison take any name at random from the long line of those who have led mankind toward greater reverence for life in the eyes of Lenin or of Peter the Great these people were simply tricksters. Their words were the frosting on the cake of the real facts of life the relation of political power to the means of production.
To borrow Emma Goldmans phrase, my disillusionment with Russia began not with some shameful political caper, but with a commissioned article I wrote in my early youth on the Russian lumber industry. Using only Bolshevik sources, I discovered that just as Marx stood Hegel on his head, so the Russians have inverted Governor Pinchots motto, A forest is a crop, not a mine.
Here was the self-proclaimed most progressive nation on earth, ruthlessly destroying its forests with never a hint of the most elementary conservation.
A lot of blood has flowed in the Kremlin since then, but things have not changed. Year after year we are treated to boasts from Chairman Khrushchev over his program of what we used to call suitcase wheat farming. This man is not only deliberately manufacturing a dust bowl, he is proud of it.
If the Bolsheviks have been proven intrinsically incapable of overtaking and surpassing Pinchot or Teddy Roosevelt in their management of their resources, what good has it done to kill all those good people?
These are the important things not the relations of political power to production and distribution, but their meaning in terms of real living human values.
What does all this come to in actual flesh and blood? If you want to know what Russia is like in these terms, read the descriptions of Western capitalism in its most barbarous period in the works of Marx and Engels. What we are witnessing in Russia is what Toynbee would call fossilization a living and terrible dynamic mummy from the days of the Robber Barons.
[October 29, 1961]
“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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