Pavarotti and Presley

January 31, 2008

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For some time after the death of Luciano Pavarotti I’ve been thinking about fame and reputation and how it often doesn’t conform to reality. The reaction to the great tenor’s death reminded me of the reactions to the deaths of Elvis Presley and Maria Callas both of which happened close together 30 years before Pavarotti’s demise. It seems very clear that Pavarotti will be granted the same legendary status accorded to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Queen of Opera.elvis.jpg

When Elvis died some wag commented, “Good career move.” Certainly it was. Can you imagine what Presley’s status would be if he were still sweating away in Las Vegas like Wayne Newton. I was never able to understand what the origin of Elvis’s sensational appeal to millions of crazed fans was. But I know very little about Rock ‘n’ Roll so my inability to see much merit in Presley’s performances could well be due to my ignorance.

Callas is a different story. I can appreciate her artistry but can also hear her failings. Her vocal technique was flawed from the start allowing her to get by with raw energy and dramatic intensity when she was young, but which became painful to listen to when she was older. Her career lasted about as long as Giuseppe Di Stefano’s did. But no one criticizes her for ruining her voice the way Di Stefano is chastised for destroying his. Di Stefano was, in my view, a far more interesting artist who had all the dramatic intensity conceded to Callas, but who also had one of the most beautiful voices ever recorded. No one ever suggested Callas had a beautiful voice. Callas was riveting on stage, but there was a hint that everything had been meticulously prepared in advance; the sense of spontaneity was dulled. But arguing about the reality of Presley’s and Callas’s talents vis-à-vis other comparable performers will change nothing. Their reputations have been sealed in cultural cement. This has hardened so securely that reality is irrelevant. In Callas’s case the masons were a handful of influential critics who have virtually made it a crime to place any other female singer anywhere near her. The deal is done I won’t say anything more – forget about Ponselle, Milanov, Sutherland, etc.

The same process is underway with Pavarotti. It will soon be operatic law that of 20th century tenors only Caruso was comparable. I heard Pavarotti many times in Chicago and New York in both recitals and staged performances. He was a great tenor; not many listeners would seriously dispute that. But I heard in performance three tenors who were clearly better – Jussi Björling, Richard Tucker, and Giuseppe Di Stefano. Placido Domingo in his prime was at least as good. Pavarotti had a great personality that audiences loved and which made his name known to just about everyone.

He had a lyric voice which he pushed into roles that were too big for him, Radames for example. His sound was beautiful but had a reedy quality to it. While his high notes were exceptional they did not have the ping that characterized Tucker or Björling at their best. His personality, however, clearly excelled either of the two other tenors. The one conceited and a shade pompous, the other reticent and with an alcohol problem.

If you made a list of the 10 best “Italian” tenors of the 20th century Pavarotti would clearly be on it. But I don’t think a critical listener would put him above all but Caruso. Listen to Björling here (Di quella pira) and here (Donna non vidi mai.mp3). Then listen to Tucker in his prime (Improvviso) and at the age of 59 (Va prononcer ma mort, rachel quand du seigneur). Finally listen to Di Stefano singing Salut demeure and Che gelida manina . The former with a diminuendo on the climactic high C the latter with a brilliant, and unforced, full voice high C. Was Pavarotti ever better than these three tenors? The just for kicks listen to Placido Domingo on just about the best evening (1972) of his life singing O paradis from Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine.

None of this will make any difference. Planes didn’t fly over Björling’s funeral. Di Stefano will not get a state funeral when he finally succumbs to the combination of age and his head injury. Tucker got a funeral on the stage of the Met, but only opera lovers know his name now. Domingo is justly famous today for his combination of singing, conducting, and running half the music world. But a generation from now his fame will not be near that of Pavarotti. “Pavarotti” will be synonymous for tenorial brilliance. Even some real opera lovers will take leave of their judgment be swept along by a tide created by a smile, a handkerchief , a popular groundswell and of course a voice.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”


Leonard Warren – The Great Verdi Baritone

January 26, 2008

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Before the sound of Leonard Warren’s great baritone fades from living memory, I thought I’d try to recollect the impression he made on me during the 20 or so times I heard him sing at the old Met. Born Leonard Warenoff in 1911, he was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Like his colleague Rubin Ticker, he worked in the New York fur district centered around West 29th St. My father who was in the same business knew them both casually. Also like Tucker, Warren spent the great majority of his career in New York at the Met. He gave over 600 performances with the company which were about twice as many as gave everywhere else.

His obvious vocal talent got him a job in the Radio City Music Hall’s chorus. In 1938 he won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air. After a short period of study in Italy he returned to New York and joined the Met as a soloist. After he few years he was the dominant Italian baritone with the company, a position he held until he died onstage during a performance of Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino. He death has been variously attributed to a massive cerebral hemorrhage or an equally massive heart attack. I can’t tell which diagnosis is correct.

George Bernard Shaw during his masquerade as Corno di Bassetto wrote frequently about Verdi’s baritones. Shaw whose brilliance was never tainted by wisdom was at this time a rabid partisan of Wagner’s operas and able only with difficulty to see the true merit of Verdi’s totally different operas. Nevertheless, his insights are always dazzling and sometimes insightful. He remarked, with a hint of disparagement, that Verdi’s baritone roles were written for the top third of the baritone range and were thus hard on the voice. It’s true that these parts are written for a high baritone. As Verdi had specific singers in mind when he wrote his operas it’s virtually certain that these baritones had voices that were comfortable with the high tessitura that is required by Verdi’s major baritone roles.

No composer came even close to writing as many great baritone parts as Verdi. He obviously wrote music that he knew could be performed well by the singers he had in mind while composing. The renowned Italian Baritone Felice Varesi varesi.jpgwas the first Macbeth, the first Rigoletto and the first Germont in La Traviata. Verdi used him so often that he must have had a baritone voice placed perfectly for the demanding roles Verdi assigned to him.

Leonard Warren was so perfect a Verdi baritone that he likely had a voice similar to that to that of the great Varesi. While Warren had extraordinary success in La Gioconda, Andrea Chenier, and Pagliacci it was in the great Verdi parts that he was unequaled. He is perhaps not as well known as he should be. This is partly because most of his performances were in New York , partly because he didn’t make a lot of commercial recordings, and likely most importantly recordings don’t capture the extraordinary sound his voice had in performance at the old Met. His sound was rich, round, of enormous size, and lacked a hard edge which made it better suited for Verdi than Puccini’s Baron Scarpia a role he frequently sang. His voice was so big that it called to mind a church organ. But it was the extension of the upper part of the voice that made him the greatest Verdi baritone I ever heard. He could vocalize to a tenor’s high C. High Gs and A-flats came out of him effortlessly. While his acting was pedestrian his vocal portrayals were intense and gripping. His vocal stamina was as unmatched as his high notes. Verdi can wear baritones out before the opera is over, but not Warren who sounded as fresh at the final curtain as he did in the first scene.warren-in-mufti.jpg

The first time I heard Warren was the Count Di Luna in Verdi’s frenetic masterpiece Il Trovatore. Neophyte though I was, it was clear that this was a voice that I was unlikely to hear matched by any other baritone. Il Balen sounded beautiful and easy when he sang it. It was strained and difficult when anyone else attempted it. Rigoletto is the supreme test of any Verdi baritone and Warren gave it all he had, which is to say that vocally no one could come close to him.

Tonio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci doesn’t have much to do after singing the prologue. But the aria is so good and showy that it always attracts the star baritone even though the rest of the opera belongs to the tenor. Warren sang the role 40 times with the Met starting in a broadcast performance in 1943. His rendition of the (listen—>) Prologue was one of those experiences that stay with you forever. The two high notes at the end were enough to justify the time and expense of the entire evening.

He sang his first Rigoletto with the Met also in 1943 in another Saturday afternoon broadcast. He was a last minute substitute for another great American baritone Lawrence Tibbett. He sang 88 more performances of this stupendous baritone role with the company, the last on tour in Toronto in 1959. His impersonation of Verdi’s conflicted buffoon remains definitive. He was the only baritone I’ve heard in the role who could get everything out of (listen—>) Cortigiani, vil razza danata that Verdi put into the aria, from the anger at the beginning to the pleading at the end.

Amazingly the Met didn’t get around to Verdi’s Macbeth until 1959. I was at this performance with Warren in the title role. A lot of attention was given to Leonie Rysanek who made her debut as Lady Macbeth, a role originally intended for Maria Callas. She was outstanding as Verdi’s nightmare wife, but Warren was magnificent. (Listen—>) Pieta, rispetto, amore could make you feel sorry for the wretched Macbeth. Warren interpolated a high A-flat at the aria’s close.

Don Carlo, the vengeful brother, in La Forza Del Destino was one of Warren’s best roles. It was another role he first sang with the Met in his breakout year of 1943. It was in the middle of the baritone’s (listen—>) big solo (Urna fatale, etc) in the third act that he collapsed on March 4, 1960.

By all accounts Warren was a very difficult man. He expressed his opinions very forcefully. Even Rudolf Bing was intimidated. He wrote in his memoirs that he didn’t produce Falstaff until after Warren was dead because the knew that he would have insisted on singing the title role. Why he didn’t want Warren to sing the role Bing didn’t say. But it’s obvious that he didn’t want to confront the baritone about it.

Several great baritones have succeeded Warren at the Met, but none has been his match. On a night when Verdi was sung at the old Met and Zinka Milanov, Richard Tucker, and Leonard Warren were in the main roles Verdi’s shade must have been satisfied which was all the emotion the supreme composer, more ancient Roman than modern Italian, would allow himself.

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The Amazing Noncollapsing US Health Care System

January 24, 2008

The above title is from another NEJM article. It’s interesting from a number of perspectives. It admits that medical care is provided to uninsured patients through a network of public and voluntary hospitals, free clinics, etc. It concludes that this safety net has prevented the collapse of the system that many have predicted over the last forty years. The author of the piece, Lawrence D Brown professor at Columbia, seems to imply that it is unfortunate that the system has not collapsed because this noncollapse has prevented reform of a flawed patchwork nonsystem. It is nice to see something in the NEJM that admits that patients without insurance do get medical care even if the admission is surrounded with distaste.

Arguing that our health care (an amazing misnomer) system will not collapse because it has yet to do so is like arguing that someone won’t die over the next forty years because he has not done so over the last four decades. Professor Brown believes that the survival of our noncollapsing system “resists any semblance of the planning that a $2 trillion annual enterprise demands.”

Here’s the nub of the issue. Is it possible to intelligently plan a $2 trillion enterprise? Professor Brown and many others obviously do believe so despite the repeated failure of central planning in the 20th century. Can you imagine what such a plan will look like after Congress and every special interest group in the country gets through with it? Then there’s the bureaucracy heaven that this plan will create which will again attract the special interest groups (which total more than the country’s population because everyone belongs to several) like medical students to a free lunch.

Professor Brown should take heart; the system (or nonsystem) likely will collapse under the burden of its cost. Then he and his ilk will get a chance to create the world’s largest bureaucracy and show skeptics like me that it can be done efficiently, at a reasonable cost, will deliver care that is appropriate to the needs of our population, and that this care will satisfy the public.

Mozel Tov


Everything’s Got a Reason, If Only You Can Find It

January 22, 2008

Also in Commentary

For a decade I’ve been a chairman. Last month I got a new ID card that declared I was now a chairperson. Since I believe in the inexorable march of progress I’m sure that this appellationary alteration will serve a noble end even if I’m clueless as to what it might be. So, like a true academic, I’ve decided to help purge the language of bad words although I don’t why I’m doing so or why the words are bad. While I’ve researched many sources, I am especially indebted to The American Journal of Bowdlerization for much of what follows and which I hope can be expanded into a sabbatical proposal.

Let’s start with the obnoxious chairman. Two alternatives are offered by the AJB, chair and chairperson. Neither is good enough. A chair is an inanimate object, a piece of furniture. Now I readily admit that a lot of chairmen resemble inanimate objects, but it’s not nice to rub our faces in it. That leaves chairperson – person? – SON? No way Jose. That’s as bad as chairman. Persit, that’s the only solution. It will offend no one not given to foolish introspection. Thus instead of being inanimate or gender specific one can be the chairpersit of the department.
Now for some tough ones. What are we going to do with man and woman? The AJB proscribes man, but is mute about woman. Are they mad? Don’t they know that woman means ‘of man’? Besides being linguistically offensive, woman is anatomically incorrect. With the exception of the first couple (I refer to Adam and Eve, not the Clintons), men are of women not the other way around.

So consider woman. The second syllable is obviously outre. If we can’t have policeman or fireman or salesman, we can’t have woman. What to put in its place? Wopersit though inoffensive seems charmless. Wo— admits to lack of imagination. I think we must eliminate all vestige of the hated three letters and use wo – one wo, two wos.

Man, thus, is a snap, duck soup, a cinch. Wowo for man, meaning of woman-oops, of wo. The AJB has good intentions but keeps slipping up. They recommend huMANity for mankind and perSONpower for manpower; these changes are, of course no changes at all. The correct words should by now be obvious. Girl and boy are problems to many thoughtful persits. Just think how offensively these words are sometimes used. Some would replace girl with prewoman, which of course should be prewo and eliminate boy altogether. While I sympathize with this view, I would retain girl and boy provided the persit in question has a medical certificate documenting that puberty has not commenced. We should avoid even the appearance of unreasonableness.

The AJB advises Happy Holidays for Merry Christmas. This is the ‘Put the X back in Xmas’ approach. Sober persit I am, I would allow Merry Christmas provided that a baptismal certificate is available from the persit to whom the salutation is addressed. In addition, I would limit the expression solely to the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Holiday should be avoided since it means ‘holy day’ and might offend atheists.

The third person singular is another thorny issue. He/she and he or she are recherche as is mixing singular and plural pronouns; eg: “Whenever a person (sic) says they are innocent.” We need a new word, a gender neutral third person singular pronoun.

Having come up with persit, I am reluctant to try for a home run again. I suggest a federally funded task force to supply the lacking word. In general, however, I find myself in agreement with the AJB’s guidelines for revised speech. Thinking-impaired for stupid, sex worker for call girl, land-of-one’s birth for fatherland or motherland (naturalized citizens will have to tough it out), height-deprived obstructor for shortstop, etc.

Now there are those who say that all this mucking around with language has to lead to some demonstrable good to be justified and that no one has provided any such evidence. To which I reply balderdash. The search for the mot juste is a justifiable end in itself. On a more practicable level, policing the language provides work opportunities for ability-impaired academics who might otherwise be employably-challenged.

We must not give offense. Therefore the safest course is never to say or write anything. Humming and doodling are okay. Reading should be closely regulated, for obvious reasons.

Aristophanes, Swift, and lesser satirists should be expunged from the curriculum since the purpose of satire is to offend and that’s not nice.

By the way, my editor has just informed me that the last syllable of my last name has got to go and so do I.

Originally published:
Kurtzman NA: Everything’s Got a Reason, If Only You Can Find It. Lubbock Magazine
(Dec):27, 1995.


Physicians and Execution

January 20, 2008

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) has an editorial with the above title. It takes the position that physicians should not participate in executions. This is hardly a surprising view; one which, I suspect, would be that of virtually all doctors in the US. It certainly is mine. So why write a piece in favor of a view everybody already has; ie physicians shouldn’t knowingly kill people? There is an interesting slip in the piece that suggests that the editors of the NEJM are concerned with more than physician participation in executions. Here’s the passage:

Since the Morales case, there is evidence of a growing sentiment in the country against executions: only 42 executions took place in 2007 (as compared with 98 in 1999), New Jersey decided in December 2007 to abolish capital punishment, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Baze v. Rees, marking the first time the Court has examined the constitutionality of lethal injection as a means of execution. But the people’s unease over the death penalty is not new. In his 1972 concurring opinion in Furman v. Georgia, in which the Supreme Court ruled capital punishment to be cruel and unusual because of arbitrary and capricious application, Justice William Brennan wrote, “The progressive decline in, and the current rarity of, the infliction of death demonstrate that our society seriously questions the appropriateness of this punishment today.”

I was taken aback by the assertion that the public was increasingly uneasy about the death penalty. My recollection was that a majority of the US public supported the death penalty. So I went to the Gallup organization’s web site and examined their polling data on the subject. Opposition to the death penalty peaked in 1966 at 47% and dropped thereafter. Currently it’s 27%.

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The graph above shows Gallup’s polling data for the past 26 years. Thus there seems to be no evidence to support either of the two contentions highlighted above in bold. In 1972 (data available at Gallup web site) opposition to the death penalty was 41% compared to 27% in 2007.

I suspect the NEJM has two issues on its agenda. The first, physician participation in executions serving as a straw man to insinuate the editors’ dislike (the second issue) of capital punishment no matter how dispensed. But I can’t be sure. What is certain is that editorial page seems to have a looser standard regarding data and the facts than the rest of the NEJM. Perhaps the journal’s editorials could be better served by peer review.

The unease about the death penalty seems to reside among the country’s cultural elite, but not among its population. This is not a unique disconnect.


Watermarking: Is It Torture?

January 19, 2008

“Watermarking offers copyright protection by letting a company track music that finds its way to illegal peer-to-peer networks. At its most precise, a watermark could encode a unique serial number that a music company could match to the original purchaser.” This is how Wired describes watermarking a technique that the record companies may substitute for DRM. If you think DRM is intrusive imagine how watermarking might work.

You buy a CD – Lawrence Welk’s Greatest Hits. It’s watermarked. After a few years of steady listening you decide you’re ready to move on. So you sell the recording at a garage sale, but with a little seller’s remorse. Susan Salami buys the disc. Her 16 year old son is a passionate Lawrence Welk fan. He takes the recording and plays it constantly in his car’s CD player. He listens so often that he leaves the disc in the player. He comes back from the orthodontist to find that the CD player has been stolen from his car.

Later the thief discovers the disc in his purloined player. Not being a Lawrence Welk fan he throws the disc away. A homeless person goes through the garbage bin and find the discarded CD. This homeless person is a great fan of Lawrence Welk but doesn’t have a CD player. So this homeless person takes the disc with him to the homeless shelter where he often goes for a warm meal. While eating he listens to the recording on the shelter’s stereo system. When he leaves he forgets to take the disc with him or perhaps leaves it behind because there is no stereo system where this homeless person plans to spend the night.

The next day the shelter’s social worker comes across the disc. No one claims it, so the social worker takes it home with her for her son who is a devoted fan of Lawrence Welk. The son uploads the contents of the entire disc to a file sharing site where it proves to be a runaway best seller – uh, best downloader. Millions of Lawrence Welk’s biggest hits are thus distributed. Several servers crash. This is too big to ignore. The RIAA becomes aware of this fraud and calls in the FBI.

The FBI reads the watermark that was imprinted on the CD that was uploaded and which is also on every file from New York to New Zealand. The watermark, of course, has your name on it. The FBI runs your name through their computers, but nothing turns up. One of the agent’s daughters is in the office because of ‘Bring Your Daughter to Work Day’. She has her laptop with her. She runs your name with her little computer and finds three unpaid parking tickets and four overdue library books, one of which is “1984” and the 12 million downloaded files. The FBI springs into action.

You’re are arrested and found guilty of violating 12 million counts of the Digital Millennium Act. You are sentenced to 12 million years – one year for each illegal download, but the judge lets you serve them concurrently. But your fine is $12 million. The RIAA files a civil suit.

When you get out of jail your spouse has divorced you and taken the children to Las Vegas. You’ve been fired. You file for bankruptcy and lose. You’re homeless. In desperation you start rummaging through garbage bins. You find a CD. It’s Lawrence Welk’s Greatest Hits.


Parsifal Redux

January 14, 2008

Some years ago I wrote about my bout with Parsifal. I had become Parsifal positive. I was only exposed once. Most people can listen to Parsifal many times without becoming positive. What bad luck. After years of treatment I licked it and have been Parsifal negative for more than five years.

Obviously, I am not the only one to suffer from this problem, but I’ve never known anyone else who did. For many years I have subscribed to The Opera Quarterly. My subscription is current. As it’s a quarterly I don’t look for it when the mail comes, so when it arrived a few days ago I suddenly realized that it had been some since I had received an issue – much more than 3 months had elapsed. I let it stand in the magazine pile for a few days before I looked at. It said “volume 22/number 2/ spring 2006.”

How did they get so far behind? At the bottom of the cover appeared “Richard Wagner – Parsifal.” The hair on the back of my neck stood. I suffered an all out piloerector attack. It took a day to gather the courage to look at the table of contents. It was all about Parsifal – I think. I was not able to look at it for more than a few seconds for fear of becoming Parsifal positive again and losing all that it had taken me years to regain after my previous episode with the disorder – dare I say disease?

In addition to more “Parsifals” than than have ever appeared on a single page I glimpsed “The Talking Wound” and “Hexatonic Poles” and “Parsifal hystérique”. After the last I had to avert my gaze. It was obvious that The Opera Quarterly had become Parsifal positive. I dropped the magazine and let it stay where it fell for fear of contagion. In passing I wondered whether a Hexatonic Pole was a person from some odd part of eastern Europe or whether it was something you strung wires between. A quick trip to the Wikipedia told me that it was neither.

Now I understood why The Opera Quarterly was two years behind schedule. The editorial office had obviously been infected. How, despite being Parsifal positive, they had soldiered on and gotten the issue out seemed a feat Wagnerian or beyond. My hat is off to the staff that remained at their posts in the face of an epidemic.

The next untoward event was that I stopped getting mail. I called the Post Office. There was no local number. I had to use an 800 number. After indicating my language preference, my sexual orientation, my favorite color, if I was calling about employment, whether anything was troubling my conscience, if I was hearing impaired – that one threw me for a while and I didn’t respond in time so I was sent back to the start menu. When I eventually reached the point where I was asked again if I was hearing impaired I mistakenly punched 2 (yes) which turned the volume so loud I had to place the receiver in the next room. Next the computer voice asked if I wanted my picture on a stamp and if so what denomination, then did I want to buy a building, and would I like a throat lozenge, did I need customs help, did I wish to register to vote in the US Virgin Islands or Samoa, did I have a domestic partner, would I like a free (plus $20 shipping and handling) government issued picture ID, and finally would I like to make a donation to the Federal Employee’s Holiday Fund.

“To repeat this menu press…”

“Stop!”

“Please hold for the next available agent.”

The Ride of the Valkyries was the ‘on hold’ music’ – for 12 minutes.

“How may I help you?” said a Spartan female voice.

“I live in…”

“There’s no need to shout sir.”

I stopped shouting . “I live in…”

“Sir, I can’t hear you. Would you like to return to the menu?”

“No, please, I need help.” I said in a finely modulated tone that I hoped would be just right.

“May I have your zip code please.”

I recited it.

“Do you subscribe to The Opera Quarterly?

I panicked, but said, “Yes.”

The line went dead.

I tried for days to get the American office of the journal – it’s in North Carolina – before finally getting through. A very pleasant young sounding lady answered the phone. I told her about my experience with the Parsifal issue. She said that the office was well aware of the Parsifal problem and that their email server had crashed as had their 800 number. After consulting their editorial board the quarterly had decided that their only way out was to publish eight issues devoted entirely to Rossini all on the same day. That, they hoped, would decontaminate their office, at least their American office. The young lady didn’t seem to be sure about their Japan branch.

I called the West Texas exorcist who came , shook his head, and left after seeing the magazine. Our local hazmat team disposed of the piece. I hope The Opera Quarterly is successful with their Rossini issues, but how will I know? I no longer have mail service.

My doctor says I’m still Parsifal negative.