Over the past six months, to go back no further, several experiences got me thinking about matters I wanted to share with the world at large. Conflicting editorial obligations in the twilight zone of print left no time to follow through, so here I sit with a long list of notes for projects unfinished for the cogent reason that they were never set in motion.
A case in point. Early July brought a jaunt north of the Arctic Circle for the International Festival of Chamber Music, held on a remote Norwegian archipelago of breath-taking beauty (http://lofotenfestival.com). To hear Bach or Mendelssohn under the midnight sun, free of the biting insects that are the plague of the Far North, as shadows of brass chandeliers stole across the walls of historic churches—this was as close as it gets to bliss.
In other mental snapshots that will not fade I see purple-flecked wild orchids blanketing a rocky mountainside; a lonely night owl winging his imperious way across the road in broad daylight; outer islands like giant alphabet blocks hurled into the sea; the cracked floorboards in my landmarked fisherman's cabin, through which the sea glistened. Yet at the time, writing so much as a paragraph was out of the question. Under the midnight sun, I was either on the go, absorbed in the music, or in the iron grip of sleep, regardless of the hour.
Thanks to twitter—at the time a new communications tool for me—I could at least pass along my excitement about the orchids, known to the pious as the little hands of Mary, and air my puzzlement about some sea birds that looked like penguins but were not.
The rules of the game:
1. Each posting, or tweet, answers the question, "What's happening?"
2. A tweet may be no longer than 140 characters.
(As originally phrased—as I recall, "What are you doing right now?"—dictated a type of answer to which very few tweeters bothered to conform. People just plunged in, filling their space as they pleased. That's still true, but with the revised question, the disconnect feels less egregious.)
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From Norway, my path went south to Munich, for back-to-back performances by the Bavarian State Opera of Wagner's Lohengrin and Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. As it turned out, they represented to my mind the acme and the nadir of contemporary Regietheater.
The director Richard Jones used the Wagner to dramatize the composer-librettist's life-long domestic yearnings. In concrete terms, that meant giving the show over to the construction, on the stage, of a move-in replica of the Wagner villa in Bayreuth. As psychological speculation, the theme had essayistic possibilities. As stagecraft, it was totally Mickey Mouse. Yet the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann (in a role debut) imbued the hero with such shadings and such radiance, in anguish as well as in joy, that the production miraculously ceased to grate whenever he was on stage.
In sharp contrast, Robert Carsen's abstract, symphonically through-choreographed staging of the Strauss took place in a black box furnished mostly with mirrors and dancing extras. Within the austere setting, a superlative cast glowed all the brighter, and no one more than Diana Damrau as the überflirt Zerbinetta in Jungle Red six-inch stilettos. Again, no time to write the compare-and-contrast-and-consider essay that was forming in my head. But here was the gist, in 140 characters on the button: "mickey mouse vs fantasia. kaufmann transcends jones's daft lohengrin @ bavarian state opera. damrau transcendent in carsen's divine ariadne." What more could I say?
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Back in New York, Lincoln Center's annual Mostly Mozart Festival was in full swing. Among the major entries, at least in prospect, was a program by the Mark Morris Dance Group, performing, as usual, to live music. Only five instrumentalists were in the pit, but one of them was the star pianist Emanuel Ax, another that box-office magnet the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. In short, a precertified blue-ribbon event.
And what did we see? The opener, Visitation (set to Beethoven's Cello Sonata in C major) was danced barefoot, though the women's steps cried out for toe shoes. And the dye job on the costumes was no help. Dark and ugly, the duds—which did not fit—looked like an industrial experiment gone wrong. Next came the forgettable Empire Garden (set to a seductive Ives trio). Once again, the costumes—neat, constructivist affairs—registered for all the wrong reasons, reducing living bodies to mannequins. The finale was V (set to Schumann's ravishing Quintet in E-flat major for piano and strings), dominated by the image of dancers crawling across the stage. Alas, only one of them imbued the activity with poetry, purpose, or even interest. And this time, the costumes resembled discarded medical scrubs, minus caps but with the trousers cut off at the upper thigh. Navels showed. Bellies bulged.
At the final bows, when Morris joined the company onstage in Garden of Gethsemane sandals, he flung his limbs about like the Dying Swan gone bananas. Does anyone else recall his shenanigans on opening night of the revival of his Metropolitan Opera production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice in January 2009, starring the powerhouse mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe? He actually fell prostrate in the dust before her. Was this a tribute or a poke in the eye?
Anyone who loves the theater loves sacred monsters, but holy smoke. The exhibitionism of the bows, the costumes that make a mockery of the dancers—what is all this? Morris is rubbing his audience's nose in something, but what? The remains of his genius? On the evidence of his recent dances, here is an artist in decline if not in his dotage. The twitter version, with 36 characters to spare: "get a grip, mark morris! what gives with the rags? what gives with your bows? more matter with less art."
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The sample tweets given here are virtual: they were never sent. As a dear friend I'll call the Patient Griselda once said to me, "Whenever I write, there is something in me that resists writing." Her long list of excellent books casts doubt on that confession, but I knew what she meant. When a magazine editor once asked me to approve a biographical note of the "is a frequent contributor" variety, I blue-penciled it to read "is occasionally prevailed upon to break his silence."
An affectation? Yes. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. Writers gotta write, whether or not their livelihood is at stake. To the obsessive, polishing 140 characters to a high gloss can be as taxing as producing a New Yorker essay or even a haiku, but when the juices are flowing, the thing is possible.
My esteemed acquaintance the pundit Tunku Varadarajan (tunkuv), a voracious reader of far-reaching interests, lets hardly a day go by without frequent tweets, regaling his followers with his one-man clipping service on current affairs. Since opening my account as mg1228 in June, I have occasional broken my silence with tweets on subjects ranging from autumn foliage in the rain to Philip Glass's Kepler, William Kentridge in performance to samurai armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the latest Almodóvar epic and Schubert as adapted by Sting.
My grand total as I write is 69. There will be more. And this I promise: You'll never be told what I'm having for breakfast.
What? No twitter account? Click on https://twitter.com/signup to create one. Then do what comes naturally.