Yes, it was another trip to New York by bus last Saturday — to see Un Ballo in Maschera (by Verdi), the last of the three opera matinees at the Met to which I proactively subscribed last spring. The caption of this post is not in any way sarcastic. The weather was spectacular.
In contrast to the delights of the weather, I did not at all appreciate the “modernized” production we saw. What is the merit of dressing singers in an opera set in the late eighteenth century, and involving swords, prophecy and witchcraft, in mid-twentieth century dress, and against starkly minimalist abstract sets? Why was almost every scene “enhanced” by a painted Icarus falling from the sky? For me, such questions distracted from the richness of the beautiful singing to the point that the part of the day not involving the opera was more interesting than what was on the stage. Therefore once I show you the two glassed-in posters in front of the opera house advertising Ballo (above and below), we’re just going to enjoy being outside today. (With exceptions, of course, for bathroom and lunch and looking around at the opera audience.)
There were two free hours before curtain time. Rather than run to the Time-Warner building on Columbus Circle for quick but high-priced new-clothes shopping, I decided to hang out in the sun instead. After so long and difficult a winter, certain parts of New York, such as Lincoln Center, can be quite lovely when the heavens (rarely) consent to smile.
Here’s the Met itself (middle left on the map above), seen from Broadway at 11 a.m., several hours before the performance began:
As you walk closer, you get a better view of the fountain:
If at first you don’t succeed, try again. I had to go to the bathroom anyway, where there are real mirrors. The three photos below were taken in the Avery Fisher Hall ladies room, much more accessible than the Met’s (which in any event wasn’t open yet). After tending to business, I did first look around to be sure I was alone before engaging in this continued vanity project. Just as I was memorializing the shot, someone emerged from the last stall. However, she doesn’t seem to have noticed me. I therefore left her in the picture, to preserve the verisimilitude of the occasion.
Men: please do feel free to skip the next few paragraphs, which consist entirely of fashion notes inspired by a comment to a previous post suggesting I do a piece on what I buy when I next go shopping for new clothes. I haven’t actually bought anything new yet, but as none of you has ever seen anything not new from my closet, we could start with what I had on in these pictures last Saturday.
The tote sitting on the sink in bone and black leather was from Eileen Fisher last summer. (Bought full price online and by now worth every one of the many many pennies I paid. I liked it so much I didn’t put it away when winter came, and now here it’s in season again, never having spent a single day off my shoulder.) The watch with the red leather strap is from Alessi (Italian) but bought years ago at the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) shop. The sunglass frames on my head and the frames of the prescription glasses to see with on my nose (which sometimes hang from the ring on the cord around my neck) were both hand-made in France but have no manufacturer name on them. I bought them, seriatim, from an optometrist in Princeton at least five years ago.
Moving right along, the red cardigan sweater-jacket was acquired on sale and online, also from Eileen Fisher; I rarely wear it because it doesn’t look right by itself with pants or jeans and it doesn’t look right over skirts or dresses under winter coats. But the weather Saturday was too warm for a coat, and I couldn’t stay out through the evening in just a dress, so the red number got an outing. Bill is the only person who really likes it, but I guess it was all right for a wandering photographer to wear while taking pictures of herself.
The dress underneath the sweater (barely glimpsed in the photos) is black viscose jersey with long narrow sleeves; it spoke to me online at midnight four years ago from (you guessed it!) the Eileen Fisher web page. “Buy me!” it cried. (You can tell from the confessed provenance of most of my more presentable clothes that I consider this label a best friend to older women who still care how they look and are willing to spend some money to look that way.) The dress has no waistline or belt, but follows the body (not immodestly) all the way down to the hips, where it flares slightly. Too bad you can’t see the neckline, which is a loose infinity loop that looks as if it might be a scarf but isn’t; it’s part of the dress.
I will skip the source of the black tights. as I can’t remember where I got them. The black leather loafers are Italian; their purchase took place in Boston, which I left nine years ago, from a shoe store on Boylston Street, opposite the Boston Garden. But that sort of vague and dated information is useless, so let’s forget it. All this does go to show, however, that I keep things I like for a very long time — if that in any way justifies what I spend for them in the first place.
Okay, men. You can come back now. It’s chow time. Aka lunch.
Once in my seat at the Met, I did observe that some of the younger patrons may have over-welcomed the arrival of spring. There was a noticeably reckless casting aside of garments to display as much flesh as could be considered minimally decent in such a cultured venue.
After King Gustav had been stabbed, had pardoned everyone, had assured Amelia’s husband (in fine voice) that she was innocent of wrongdoing, and then had collapsed stage front, quite dead, as the curtain fell — I hurried out and managed to flag down a cab to take me north and east to the Upper East Side, where the 1% live. New York is beautiful there.
1. We met in Cambridge (Massachusetts). He was a 73 year old psychiatrist with a private practice. He also taught one class a semester at the Harvard Medical School. I was a 69 3/4 year old civil litigation lawyer by then practicing at a small firm in Boston that permitted a four-day work week. The other day a week I would trundle my laptop to the Boston Writers Room (where there was no laundry or internet to distract me) and try to write something that wasn’t a brief or a memorandum in support of a motion.
2. He hated Cambridge because it reminded him of his marriage to his second wife, who still lived in their Cambridge house, which she had obtained during an acrimonious divorce. Everywhere we went reminded him of something that had occurred during the marriage, or someone they had met when they were still, as it were, “together.” So from the day I first knew him, he wanted to leave. A psychiatrist can practice anywhere, once he obtains a license from the state he has moved to.
3. I didn’t hate Cambridge at all, but would have been willing to leave except I was chained to Massachusetts as long as I needed an income stream. It’s not that I loved my law practice so much. (I didn’t, really.) But I still needed money, having begun life as a single woman after a second divorce with a net worth of zero at the age of sixty. Moreover, my right to practice law wasn’t portable without sitting for two days of bar exams all over again, except to a few states that had reciprocity arrangements with Massachusetts. And even then, who would want to hire a 70-year-old lawyer without a book of business or knowledge of state law? So we stayed put where I was licensed. In my condo on Brattle Street.
4. There are lots of interesting foreign movies, concerts, exhibits and lectures open to the public when you live where Harvard is. (Moreover it sounds very classy to have a Cambridge address, especially on Brattle Street, if you care about that sort of thing. And yes, I confess, I did care, at least a little bit.) Right across the river in Boston — take the Red Line to be there in no time — is also Symphony and the Boston Ballet and three theaters showing road company versions of New York plays and musicals. Not to mention outposts of Saks, Lord & Taylor, Neiman’s and Barney’s, where it’s much easier to shop than in the mother stores in New York and Dallas. So it was really great to be in Cambridge, if it weren’t for the black ice in winter, and the miserably hot and humid summers, and Bill complaining loudly about how the grass would be greener somewhere else.
5. Then three of our combined five adult children wound up living in New York. Also both my financial advisor and accountant opined that I had frugally put by enough so that if I remained frugal I could retire and live till 102. (After that, if I were lucky enough to have an “after that,” I would need to get by on Social Security.) We could leave! But where should we go?
6. Clearly, New York itself — secretly in my heart for all those many years since I’d left it — was out of the question. We could probably afford no more than a studio in a good Manhattan neighborhood or a small one-bedroom in a not-good one. And we needed more space than that, so that we could get away from each other for a while. Where then? For reasons best known to himself, Bill suggested New Mexico or North Carolina, arguing that if we lived near a university in either of those states it wouldn’t be so bad to be so far from the Northeast where we both had grown up. For reasons I made perfectly understandable — the three children in New York, one of his in Switzerland, and one of mine in Florida — New Mexico was a geographically bad idea and North Carolina had nothing going for it as far as I was concerned except girlhood memories of having read Thomas Wolfe, who had left the state himself as soon as he could and was now, in any event, dead.
7. Then one sunny afternoon during our 2004 summer vacation on a tiny Greek island in the Dodecanese, Bill mentioned Princeton, New Jersey. Eureka! An hour and a half from New York and 3/5 of our children (not to mention my soon-to-be first grandchild). Home to a major university (think Princeton), the Institute of Advanced Studies (think Einstein), Westminster Choir College (think free concerts). Home to McCarter Theater, which brings in five plays a year, plus ballet, concerts by world-class instrumental soloists, jazz, and three operas. The university has its own art museum, theater, and Richardson Auditorium, a perfect acoustic venue for Princeton’s resident string quartet, for free concerts by the University Orchestra and for not very expensive subscriptions to the Princeton Symphony Orchestra). And New Jersey is historically a blue state. (We didn’t know Chris Christie was coming down the pike.) It even had a Whole Foods! How could we go wrong?
8. It took us over a year. (Selling Cambridge real estate, buying Princeton real estate, and like that.) When we finally moved, he was 78 and I was 74 1/2, which people sometimes say was brave, given that we knew no one here. But would it have been less brave to go on slipping on black ice at the risk of breaking elderly bones, and (in his case) go on being reminded of an unhappy past lived in Cambridge neighborhoods?
9. Anyway, what’s done is done and here we still are, nine years older. When people ask why Princeton, I sometimes say — because it’s easier — we just threw a dart at a map. If we really had, it would have been even braver of us. But I guess it’s too late to try that one.
We have three bird feeders hanging off the railing of our kitchen back deck. I try to keep them filled with black oil sunflower seed. They’ve been emptying with astonishing rapidity, considering the small size of the several species of bird who come to feed, usually a seed at a time.
The culprit, of course, is one extremely clever grey squirrel. (Or perhaps fungible grey squirrels take turns.) He climbs from the ground and attaches himself upside down to a feeder, where he can considerably lower the level in one feeding.
Poor little guy. Why shouldn’t he have his own grub so as not to rob the birds? Yummy unsalted peanuts from the supermarket. As soon as he discovered them, he went to work:
My taking pictures from behind the sliding glass door didn’t scare him a bit. He looked me right in the eye and went on munching.
At last he’d had enough.
That night it rained. What do squirrels do when it rains?
Guess we’re going back to the store today.
[ Note: Save this post for when you have some time. It’s not only somewhat lengthy but — a first for me — a time-consuming “viewing” and listening experience.]
Saturday I attended a matinee performance of Giacomo Rossini’s La Donna del Lago at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. I do these matinee “Opera Outings” at the Met about three or four times a year, not because I can’t live without opera despite its high ticket price, but because it’s good for me to get back to the city in relatively easy fashion and do something that moves me or teaches me or is otherwise different from my everyday life.
It’s true one can hear, and even see, perfectly good opera on CD or DVD. It’s not the same, though, as walking through that magnificent lobby into an opera house perfectly balanced acoustically, to hear a world-class orchestra and voices as they really sound — before being digitally recorded and/or remastered and/or whatever else is done to a performance to bring it to us in our living-rooms or on our iPhones. That’s one thing about going to the Met that’s different from my everyday life, before we get to the rest of it.
“Opera Outings” was the brainchild of Nancy Froysland Hoerl and her husband Scott, both on the music faculty at Westminster Choir College here in Princeton where I live. Every year for the past twenty-five years, they have bought a block of tickets at various price ranges for one of the Met’s standard matinee subscription packages, hired a tour bus, and sold the round-trip-by-bus plus tickets to the general public in the greater Princeton/New Brunswick, NJ area. Usually you buy three to seven of the offered operas together in the preceding spring. Tickets for single operas are rarely available, and only if they are left over afterwards.
The transportation is what makes this idea such a winner. Just drive to the Westminster Choir College parking lot (five minutes for me), park by 9:30 a.m., get on the bus, and by 10:45 the bus is on West 65th Street right by the steps up into Lincoln Center and the Met. Since the opera starts at 1:00, you have two hours to go do something else, or else meet a friend for lunch at American Table in Alice Tully Hall across the street. There you can sit and sit and talk and talk; nobody bothers you as long as you’re still nursing a cup of coffee. Also the bathrooms are very good, and no waiting in lines.
I would not have chosen La Donna del Lago. (My favorite opera, composed later, is still Puccini’s La Boheme — death by consumption in a mid-nineteenth century Parisian attic. That should tell you something about me.) Donna is a bel canto opera inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s 400-page poem, The Lady of the Lake. And “bel canto” (beautiful singing) is the term applied to a series of Italian operas from the first half of the nineteenth century, more often than not written either by Rossini, Bellini or Donizetti, in which the plots are for the most part mere trifles, often laughable, designed principally to support dazzling displays of song expressing the emotions of the characters. And I mean dazzling. If you can hang on to the end of this post, you’ll hear for yourself.
But Donna was in the Westminster package for 2014-15, and it was a big deal: the first time this opera has ever been mounted at the Met. New production, great vocal stars (Joyce diDonato and Juan Diego Flores) and highly favorable reviews. Of course the reviews came after I had paid for the ticket, but it’s always nice to know you’re not going to sit through three hours of ho-hum or worse.
I had the American Table lunch with an old friend. Sautéed catfish for me, tomato soup and Parker House roll for her. Then I went across the street, took a shortcut through the Avery Fisher Hall lobby because it was very cold and windy, pushed through the Met’s doors, showed my bag to the inspector with the flashlight to prove I wasn’t a terrorist and handed over my ticket to be scanned.
You may wonder why I paid so much to have an orchestra seat when there are four significantly cheaper tiers of seats, mounting to the sky-high ceiling, where I could have heard everything just as well. It began when Bill used to come along too. He gets dizzy going down steeply raked stairs, so we went for the orchestra seats together. Then he stopped coming. He doesn’t like novels, plays or opera very much and had been coming just to please me. (Believe it or not, he has trouble following a narrative line. He a psychiatrist listening to people’s troubles for forty years!) Moreover, the bathroom situation at the Met is, candidly, not good. I might further note, and he did, that the acts can be quite long before the permitted intermission dash to the few available toilet stalls. It was an issue for him. And who was I to argue?
So then I was on my own, and discovered I was spoiled. Yes, you can hear the music from anywhere in the house. And see tiny dots, representing human beings, way down there on the stage. But I like to see the faces. Good singers do act, you know. Besides, it’s much easier to just walk in, find your seat and sit down than to join gazillions of other people fighting to get into an elevator, then creep cautiously down rickety stairs to your designated row, after which there is a lot of “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me” as you slither without handrail to your seat in the rafters, past other annoyed patrons clutching their coats as they stand for you.
That’s why the orchestra seat. I hardly ever buy new clothes any more, which kind of evens things out, financially speaking. Okay?
Now that we’re in Seat O16 we can open the program. (Its cover is above.)
And look at photos of the stars inside:
But what’s most fun to do before the performance begins is to stand up and case the house.
Don’t forget to look up.
Unfortunately once the dangling light clusters are drawn up and the house lights dim, picture-taking ends.
I therefore cannot give you any idea of Act I except to say you have to suspend a lot of disbelief before you can enjoy the glorious music. Example: When the libretto requires someone to sing to us that the trumpets are calling him to war, all one can hear from the orchestra in the pit is a happy dance tune dominated by flutes!
An hour and fifteen minutes later comes intermission and mass flight, either to (a) the lower-level restrooms or (b) the bar in the lobby.
However, instead of checking out the restrooms, let’s walk up to the stage and peer into the emptied orchestra pit. (The lobby and bar are coming in just a minute. Have patience.)
Now the lobby:
Intermission is actually quite long enough to get pleasantly soused.
The companion of the lady below suggested I photograph her beverage. I suggested she hold her glass in such a way that we could all admire her jewelry and manicurist’s work as well.
I then turned to the companion, but he said he didn’t want to be photographed, although I could photograph his boots if I liked. I asked if he was very proud of his boots, and he said he was. Given permission, I aimed downward. I don’t think he’ll be reading TGOB to see how silly it all looks on the screen.
Enough nonsense. Back to our seat, passing the three rows of standing room at the rear of the orchestra seating as we go. When I was in my teens and the Met was on Broadway and 39th Street in its pre-Lincoln Center days, I used to line up for standing room to get my fix of La Boheme (and also La Traviata and Tristan and Isolde) at the Saturday matinees. It was $2.00 then, and there was only one row, without translations of the libretto at the push of a red button. You had to know what you were hearing ahead of time. I’m sure it’s not $2.00 any more.
And now, dear readers, as the curtain rises on Act Two I must turn off my phone. I can show you a bit of the high drama involved from the still photograph in the program:
Much better, though, if you have the time, is this YouTube upload of an intermission interview given by diDonato and Flores just after their dress rehearsal of Donna. Following some pleasant preliminary chitchat, you get a taste of the Act Two battle photographed above. Remember not to get upset when Elena grasps Rodrigo’s sword by its (supposedly) sharp blade; it shows the intensity of her feelings without really drawing any blood.
The showstopper of Act II, however, is Elena’s final aria, Tanti affetti, after the King has killed Rodrigo in honorable battle offstage, thus mooting her engagement to him, followed by his forgiveness of Elena’s father and beloved Malcolm (the mezzo) for their acts of treason in opposing his rule, followed after that by his joining the hands of Elena and Malcolm in marriage. (What a benevolent and self-sacrificing king.) It is ten minutes of extraordinary bel canto singing. Picture simple country girl Elena expressing her great joy in the King’s throne room before dozens of chorus members in creamy white Elizabethan garb. This still photo doesn’t do justice to seeing an entire stageful of the chorus in these costumes, but it will give you some idea.
Joyce diDonato frequently uses this bel canto aria as her “party piece.” In the following YouTube upload, she sings Tanti affeti in evening dress, with orchestra and chorus onstage, at a gala performance in honor of Richard Tucker. If you haven’t got ten minutes to listen to it all, move to the last three or four minutes, but don’t miss it. This kind of singing is at least one of the reasons why I get on the Westminster bus, and why opera survives.
There is no deep hidden meaning in this post, or even a shallow surface meaning. Think of it as penance, or atonement, for past failures to provide photos with my posts, which — I realize — a good blogger should always do.
Thing is, I’m no good at hunting up Creative Commons pictures that might be relevant, or even attractively irrelevant, to what I usually write about. And I don’t generally run around taking pictures of this and that anymore. (Our breakfasts? The cleaning ladies? My hairdresser?)
However, I do feel I can always fall back on the four-pawed members of the household when the need arises. Since I’m pretty sure I haven’t done any such falling back since the end of 2014, perhaps you’ll cut me some slack here and let me show you the five relatively okay shots I got last night of S & S. That should be sufficient penance for at least four entirely verbal posts already run. Then, starting tomorrow or the next day, I can babble on shamelessly photo-less for a while. Thank you.
Then Bill called out from the part of the bed I haven’t shown you, “Let’s sleep already.” (We’ve learned so much from these cats.) So that was that.
Lights out, nighty-night. Don’t let the bedbugs bite. (As they said in the seventeenth century when mattresses — you should have been so lucky as to have one then — were stuffed with straw.)
Now one or both cats will jump from their expensive perches — we’ll hear them — and run downstairs to frolic freely in the dark, disarranging the upstairs hall rug as they go. What they do down there I cannot tell. I don’t go snooping. Cats deserve some me-time, too.