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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

No Fear

The CN Tower in Toronto has a glass floor at the base of its SkyPod, 113 stories up. The whole glass floor area is only about 15 feet across, with a double row of panes, each about 3'x4'. Stepping out on to the glass, you look down on to the suddenly miniature city below you and try to keep your brain from oozing out your ears when a bird flaps up underneath your feet. It took me a while to get there. I made the mistake of looking down before I took that step, and my reptile brain dug in its scaly heels and howled: "There's no there there. We are NOT taking that step."

This bothered me inordinately. I know I'm as big a sack of neuroses as the next gal, but I'm not especially well-stocked in the phobia department. I don't mind flying; I'm not fearful of being a passenger in someone else's car; spiders, insects, the great outdoors, enclosed spaces, elevators, the number 13, snakes, they're all good by me. Ok, so I'm not wild about down escalators, but I step on them regularly without medication. I scream a girlie scream when a rodent startles me, but I can then move on with my life. So why should that step have been so frightening? In the end, I took it, bringing me inordinate satisfaction to counterbalance---so it's a zero sum game.

Since then, I've been thinking a lot about fear and its eternal tango partner, anger over feeling fear. This preoccupation has been helped along by the remark of an acquaintance (a long-time resident of the US, but a Brit by birth) on Black Wednesday that Americans have got to get over their fear if we're ever to break the country out of its current direction. My initial reaction to this was "Bullshit." That it's more complex than terror about terror, and it surely is. But I realize that that reaction is born of a focus on my fear, which is fairly atypical, I think. (That sounds insufferably smug and I don't mean it to. I am not conspicuously brave, adventurous, kind, or remarkable in any way, as I said, I have the Hefty Tall Garden Sack of neuroses, the contents just differs).

I'm not sure my fears have always been atypical. I was a deeply neurotic kid. At three, I couldn't bear the thought of receiving a balloon from a friend of my dad's because of the inevitable heartbreak when it burst. At five or six, shortly after seeing "The Other Side of the Mountain" I fell and bumped my lower back on a kitchen chair. I lay awake every night, terrified to sleep because I was sure I would "go paralyzed" in the night. At eight, I saw "The Man Who Saw Tomorrow," a documentary about Nostradamus, and my fears went global. I'll never forget when the first generation of thick-barreled EraserMate pens came out, they struck fear into my heart, because they looked like the nuclear bombs in the movie.

I had what I think of as more usual fears, too--your basic knife-wielding maniac breaking in and killing us all and so forth. My fool-proof plan against this was to pile my stuffed animals on my chest over my heart with my favorites deepest in the pile, which has disturbing connotations regarding the limits of my devotion, I suppose.

On the home front, I lived in fear that my parents would get divorced, which was not all that irrational, I guess (though they're at 41 years and going strong, currently). My mother was a vicious fighter and to my child's mind, it seemed like she gave my dad the "sleep on the couch in the basement and be gone in the morning" spiel every other week. We all lived in fear of her "moods," and I don't mean to over-dramatize. My mother was not afraid of corporal punishment, but I was not abused in any way. Nonetheless, there was a certain feeling of freefall to my childhood and adolescence, because I could never predict what would set her off, never know what would get me punished or why.

As I've become an adult (nominally, if not actually), our relationship has failed to blossom into one of mutual understanding, with healthy doses of me realizing how right she was about everything. Our mother-daughter story would make a crappy movie. We still regard each other with wonder on a regular basis, each certain that the other is an alien. We're not so much in an arms race any more. We're not even really in a Cold War, though my perception of that doubtless differs from hers. She wants to understand me more than I want to understand her, though I'm sure there would be some psychic balm if I could. But there is a very real fear gap between us (between me and the rest of my family, really, however ridiculously adolescent and teen!goth-nobody-understands-me that sounds) and I think it keeps such a goal off the table permanently.

When we're not making each other scream, we've had a few conversations that give me some insight into the source of her fears. It seems impossible to overestimate the role that Catholicism has played in so many of them, especially when I take a brief jaunt into my childhood and examine the number of things that find their way into comedy and tragedy. In my childhood world, they just seemed normal.

I'm talking about the dual picture of The Sacred Heart of Jesus/Immaculate Heart of Mary in the hallway, the dress-up Infant of Prague under glass in the bedroom I shared with my brother, and the Emergency Sacraments Administration kit in the closet (a wooden crucifix, the face of which slid off to reveal candles [which one could stand up in holders in the arms of the cross], holy water, and chrism).

I'm talking about my grandmother baptizing my infant cousin in the sink, because my Aunt had turned her back on the Church (the Church would have none of it---she returned and her daughter my cousin was baptized for good measure at age 10). I'm talking about a house filled with fear that the Secrets told by the Virgin Mary to the visionaries at Fatima were coming true in their lifetime. Nostradamus may have faintly scarred the 8-year-old me, Our Lady of Fatima (and the Vatican's stereotypically patriarchal decision that the world was not ready for the revelation of the third secret in 1960) filled my mother's adult life with genuine terror.

Other fears that drive her, though, that I don't have any reference for, and I don't know why I seem not to have internalized them. When she first came to visit the house after we bought it, she was over the moon. She loved the house itself, she loved the neighborhood, she was homesick for the house in which she'd raised her family. They moved to the suburbs when my dad retired, and thence Westward for the winter and South for the summer (which sounds far grander than it is). As we sat on my porch, she asked, "Why couldn't Kolin [my childhood street] have stayed like this?" I couldn't resist a snarky "Because in Beverly, white folks didn't pack up and run the first time a black family looked over a house." Recommence screaming.

A few months later, they were staying at the house again. I think the boys were working on installing a ceiling fan. We lay upstairs on the guest bed together talking in the dark, and her worries came pouring out: "We've been running our whole lives from them [non-whites]. And now, we have our big, beautiful house and we're living next door to them." By all accounts, they have a cordial if distant relationship with their current neighbors (which applies to relationships with our very white neighbors while I was growing up, as well---we are not joiners). And she can't articulate the problem beyond, "Other. Different. Dangerous. Not Us." She can no more articulate it now than she could articulate it when she told my 10-year-old self that my friend Gina had "black blood" in her. When I asked her (in all innocence, I was years yet from adolescent challenge and defiance) how she knew and why it mattered, she had nothing other than a grim conviction that difference must be noted.

My older brother has surpassed my parents' wildest dreams of race fear and hatred, moving his family to Arizona where he could "go to a Diamondbacks game and not see one black face in the crowd." I have no way to account for him. My sisters have internalized the fear of difference, although they are at least conscious of the need to keep it under wraps in polite company. I love them, obviously, but I also LIKE them. I want to be friends with them. I want us to do better and be kinder to one another than my mother's family is able to be. But this aspect of them is frustrating and heartbreaking.

Last year, the older of the two of them was suffering from persistent migraines, something she'd never had before. I was trying to help her out with research on some medications and coaching her on ways to approach her doctor, who was not being helpful. I asked her if she wanted to meet downtown and have lunch, to give her a break from some of the stress. So she and my niece met me and we spent the day doing some shopping and then heading up for lunch at the Cheesecake Factory. This happened to be shortly after America invaded Iraq (again) and a group of Muslim men and women were demonstrating (peacefully and obviously with a permit) against it. The men chanted slogans and hoisted banners while the women prayed.

My niece was curious (she's a suburban kid and had never seen the likes of this) and I tried to explain what it means to be Muslim (not a task I'm especially well-suited to, I'm sure), what a protest is, why they're allowed to block the street, and so forth. My sister was silent, even when my niece asked her questions directly. I eventually realized that she was positively shaking with fear. A stiff drink later at lunch, she said, "I guess I just can't take the city any more." It was another "you're an alien" moment.

I really don't have any nationalism in me. I believe that some of the principles on which America was putatively founded have merit, but they're not a source of pride and identification for me. After all, as the good folks at have kindly reminded us, one doesn't choose their nation of birth. But I do have Metropolitanism, if such a thing exists. I love Chicago with my heart and soul. My common claim that I hate people is revealed as a blatant lie whenever I throw myself into the downtown crowds.

Everyone has a September 11 story. It's the event that defines this generation as Kennedy's assassination defined my parents'. Mine is not remarkable. I worked. On a floor full of head-down academics, many of the immigrants to the US, no one was glued to the television or abandoning the labs to be with their loved ones. I listened to the radio and watched a single sailboat glide down the Potomac behind the smoldering Pentagon (and I couldn't help but wonder if maybe the sailor had left so early that the news hadn't touched him) via a CNN webcam.

And throughout the day, I thought to myself: "I hope this is one of ours. I hope this is domestic. I hope this is Oklahoma City." I couldn't bear to think about the inevitable string of events that would happen (did happen, are still happening) when we knew it was bin Laden. I feared the fear that I didn't have but that I knew was all around me.

I don't think I cried that day, or at least not much. It had that unreal quality of time when something happens that is more terrible than should be possible. A lot of the world lives with that unreal quality most of the time.

The next day, I taught. I handled calls from students in the National Guard who had been called up. I wondered whether we'd make it to California on the weekend for the wedding of two friends. It was a lot like normal until my drive home. I took the Skyway, one of my favorite urban totems. It's a raised road connecting the Blue Collar south side of Chicago to the Indiana steel mills. It's been a spectacular failure as a toll road, and it's been in increasingly good company as the mills have been abandoned one by one. The margins of the Skyway have always profoundly moved me---the burned out, bloody scars of industry coloring an otherwise brown, scrubby, nondescript landscape. It amounts to so much failure and carelessness, but I could never help but be awed by the sheer hubris of the undertaking.

September 12 was a bright day here, and as I made it to the steel bridge, it was clear enough that I caught my first view of the skyline, still a good 10 miles from that point. I imagined that view being irrevocably changed, its heart ripped out. Then I cried. And when I stopped, I wondered if that would make the fear real to me. Would it have me cowering, feeling like I'd never be safe? Would it keep me off the streets that I love? Would it steal the joy I feel when I'm in a crowd of people in saris and daishikis and short skirts and black suits and stupid big pantz and all?

I don't know. I don't think so. I dearly hope not. But second-guessing myself doesn't get me any closer to understanding the fear, and I feel like now---especially now---I need to understand. There's an aisle to reach across, and I feel like I'm stuck on the margins. It's the wrong place to be. I can't afford to be here, but I've got really old blueprints of this place and nothing looks familiar.

That might give me some more of that good, old-fashioned smug self-satisfaction if that Santa's Magical Bag of neuroses weren't so obviously full to the brim. I'm desperately afraid of the mental illness that runs rampant in my family; the smell of pot has me curling into a ball, crying, shaking, unable to deal; woe to the person who tries to pin my arms.

Irony of ironies, I was in the middle of this entry, a coworker came to tell me that our Violent Stoner Lab Manager (fear made to order for me, and I've worked with it 5 days a week for almost four years) had been fired. He asked me to change the pertinent passwords and then get the hell out of there. I did. And when I walked out of the building and came face to face with him (flanked, thankfully, by two campus cops), I ran and I ran. I borrow trouble, too. I let fear rule me. I'm full of small-time fear and I've got nothing to brag about.


Fidelio: A Proper Noun, Not An Adjective

So I somehow wound up writing about A Wedding instead of Fidelio last week, which is in no way a comment on their quality relative to one another, nor on the level of enjoyment incurred from attending either.

The Chicago Reader is rarely the place to go for movie reviews. Not only is one likely to come away from a Reader review smarting from (usually) undeserved spanking of it (and of oneself for stooping to consider seeing such dreck), that's the best case scenario. Often, one comes away from Reader reviews exhausted, baffled, and unsure of what the original question was. Their reviews are not, as a rule, overly concerned with touching on the subject matter of the movie under review. Such is the privilege of being an artsy free paper in the Big City. The review of The Merchant of Venice, pointed out to yours truly by astute spouse M, really takes the cake in criticizing it for the transparency of Portia's courtroom stint in drag. Sometimes you just have to stare in disbelief at the Willy Suspension, ok? And The Bard usually makes it worth your while.

And so it is with Fidelio. The title hero is, quite blatantly, a heroine, not even of the trouser role variety. Judging from the program essay, Beethoven and his contemporaries (many of whom had dramatized and/or set to music their own versions of the same story), viewed her gender as central to the story: She is the wife who works ceaselessly to free her wrongly imprisoned husband and still the girl worth fighting for. Most other versions of the story (and Beethoven's two previous attempts at it) play under variations on Leonore (e.g., Bouilly's original play is Leonore, ou l'amour conjugal), yet Fidelio is her true name, despite the masculine ending.

It's odd that the plot winds up bearing analysis (at least according to my pea brain); as with most opera, it's hardly the point. Still, there's something in it that both stimulates and irritates. Leonore's ruse is successful with regard to the other characters, yet willfully transparent to the audience. But her gender is even less successfully concealed by the way in which she plays the role of the jailor's errand boy than her sex is concealed by her physical disguise. How that plays out, at least in the first Act, is downright bizarre.

The opera opens with Marzelline, our plucky young soprano, rejecting the attentions of Jacquino (a relatively robust, masculine-sounding [for a tenor] role). Marzelline favors Fidelio, who is pretty, attentive, and helps out around the house. Jacquino might as well have massive pit stains on his wifebeater and walk around continuously scratching his balls and farting for all the headway he's likely to make in this romantic triangle.

Rocco, Marzelline's father, Fidelio's employer, and Florestan's (Leonore's husband) jailor, is enchanted with Marzelline's enchantment with Fidelio, and smiles on the match. There is nothing to suggest that Fidelio has seduced Marzelline to secure Rocco's good opinion. In the quartets that dominate the first half of the Act (so cool, so well done, marvelous blending of the voices on all sides), she laments the pain she will cause Marzelline and the vocal line and libretto both unambiguously support her virtue. Marzelline seems simply to have fallen in love with Leonore's copious feminine charms and, moreover, become convinced that Fidelio loves her deeply in return. Is Marzelline simply that dim? Are all the characters? Or is it just that Leonore, the avatar of feminine virtue, has gotten her Philia (Sororilia [that sounds filthy]? What's the sisterly equivalent?) in Marzelline's Eros?

And then there's the fact that Leonore is likewise chock full o' Agape. She hands provisions around to the starving and silent prisoners. Though her repeated requests for a few daily moments of fresh air and sun in the garden has never been approved (or, indeed, presented to the evil Pizarro by Rocco who shrinks vocally and physically before the tyrant), she takes the initiative and opens that cells. They stream on to the stage, pale, blinking, and timid at first, their voices gradually swelling to an awed and awesome hymn of thanks for the fresh air (with more than a few nods to the 9th in this chours as TWMitU pointed out to me at Intermission). They are literally rehumanized before our eyes by an act of defiance made fundamentally womanly by her vocal contributions. (It reminded me of the moment in Little Women [Good Wives, technically, I suppose] where Meg forces her temperance agenda on poo, joyless Laurie on her wedding day, because no one can refuse her anything.)

Leonore is simply too good to be true. She is firm of purpose, but never too single-minded to do some estrogen-laden good works. None of the ugly business of imprisonment (most of it wrongful) ever touches her. No one wonders at her persitent fascination with helping out in the dungeon or seems to attribute morbid fascination with suffering to her. They are all better for their interactions with her, save Pizarro, and his failure to benefit is implicitly damning.

And then there's the second Act. But I have to run now. More on that and the actual production later.

I note that the Tribune's reviewers claims:

"Mattila's Leonore is no goody-goody "rescue" heroine but a desperate housewife fully capable of stealing money, packing a firearm and deceiving the lovesick innocent, Marzelline (the shining soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian), to get what she wants."

He is so high on smack.

So, in short (HA), I've decided that Fidelio is a pretty weird, genderfucked story. Those musings were based on Act I. In some ways, I rather wish the whole thing had ended with Act I, as Act II splashes on the Brut to make up for its rah rah Chyx ways in Act I.

In brief: Florestan is sad, hungry, in despair, and likely quite smelly. Rocco and Fidelio make their way down to dig his grave. Fidelio comes over all Billie Burke for no good reason. Pizarro wrings his hands, twirls his moustache, and plays a constant F..dim, to obliterate any and all ambiguity to the character. Florestan is saved in the short term by Leonore scolding Pizarro and whapping him on the nose with a rolled up newspaper. In the long term, he's saved by the arrival of Don Fernando, who disempowers Pizarro for good and all, invoking the political power of the mighty penis.

John Warrack, resident pompous essayist, notes "There are still those who feel that Fidelio is a work that begins in one world, that of 18th century Singspiel, and finishes in another, that of Revolutionary and Romantic opera." I don't know what, if anything, that might have to do with innie genitalia versus outie, but it seems there must be some kind of parallel. At any rate, Ludwig's Fidelio may have been a reaction against the Austrian frivolity of Mozart's operas (another point raised by Warrack), but it just ends up weird. Opera is not, it would seem, Beethoven's natural medium.

Criticisms of the text aside, lyric's go at this was positively splendid. The Tribune refers to it being set in "a banana republic," but both L and I thought "Nazis. I hate these guys." During Act I, stage left consisted of two tiers of cells with six steel buttresses aligned from downstage to up, that jutted out almost to center. Rocco and Marzelline's front door, stoop, and a small plaza occupied downstage right. Upstage of this were large roll-up doors leading out to the garden. This means that the majority of the stage is actually an enclosed courtyard within the prison complex. As much as Lyric's tendency toward grey-on-grey with a side of battleship goes horribly wrong, this really doesn't. It's a bit creepy that this production debuted in 2000, given its rather pointed commentary on issues of wrongful imprisonment, torture, dehumanization, etc.

The set in Act II hardly matters. In scene 1, it's barely lit, and as long as you recognize the filth, you've got the general idea. In scene 2, it's supposedly a rooftop triumph, but the backdrop and lighting looked as if no one had actually bothered to design it.

The cast was superb all around. This was the second time around for us to hear Isabel "Canadian-Armenian Babe" Bayrakdarian (Marzelline) and Karita Mattila (Fidelio/Leonore) in the same performance. If you have the means, I highly recommend it. It is so choice. Despite its frivolity, Don Giovanni is the superior work; nonetheless, this staging of Fidelio gave better opportunities to enjoy both their voices. Mattila simply because her role was more extensive and Bayrakdarian because her slightly underpowered voice did not suffer nearly so much from the asstastic soul-killing staging in DG.

Our man on the inside tells us that Mattila is something of a pain in the ass (a diva being a Diva? Go figure!), and Bayrakdarian is a sweetheart. Be that as it may, Mattila managed to infuse Leonore/Fidelio with the necessary charm to prevent the audience from wanting to stab out their own eyeballs to relieve the potential sanctimony of it all. As for our Marzelline, well, I predict that pocket-sized Isabel Bayrakdarians will sweep the nation. She's just. that. cute. Given the strength of their voices and acting performances, their duets in act I are just completely delightful.

That extends to all the group pieces in Act I (and there are many). Rene Pape as Rocco is understandably squeeful about the young lovers and his bass, as well as Steve Davislim's aforementioned manly tenor, balance extraordinarily well in the quartets. Things skip lightly from duet to aria to quartet to trio back to aria, and so on. If there's any flaw in this, it's Beethoven's attraction to looooooong interludes during which nothing at all is happening. In a two-Act opera, that presents a significant staging problem, unless you want to send in the mimes (not even the French want that). F..dim and Snidely Whiplash tendencies aside, Falk Struckmann's Pizarro is enjoyable, although the part is not written to give a strong idea of what the baritone is really capable of.

As beautiful as the group pieces are, they're merely teasers for the prisoners' chorus at the end of Act I. The minute the first notes of that sound, all the dawdling and awkward plotting and characterization don't matter a bit. Technically, I suppose the finale of Act II has many of the same things going for it, but it's a bit hollow without the charming build-up of Act I. I suppose the sugary Revolutionary coating was quite key to Beethoven's Rescue Opera agenda, but that also jangled a bit for me.

Still in all: Come back Ludwig, all is forgiven. Just don't write any more operas, 'kay?

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