Wednesday, October 29, 2014

La Bohème--bringing death to life

Original La bohème poster, 1896
(courtesy of wikipedia)
If you've ever seen Puccini's opera La Bohème (1896), you know it's a compact story with lively characters and music. Rodolfo, a poet, and Marcello, a painter, share a miserable garret in Paris. They live on nothing, burning manuscripts to stay warm. Shaunard arrives with cash, along with Colline, and the four friends head to a café. Rodolfo is the last to leave and finds Mimì at the door, asking him to relight her candle. It's love at first sight and a catchy aria for each ("Que gelida manina" for the tenor and "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì" for the soprano). Together, they go to join his friends.

In Act II, the stage is filled with Christmas cheer. Marcello's former girlfriend, Musetta, arrives with a wealthy older suitor. Her brassy manner (aria "Quando m'en vo") and fight-picking with Marcello contrasts with the talk of kisses like honey between the new lovebirds. By act's end, Musetta returns to Marcello.

Act III finds Mimì looking for Rodolfo at a seedy tavern, where he's joined Marcello and Musetta after running away from Mimì. She is ill, a fact touched on lightly in the first two acts. Like most 19th century opera heroines, Mimì suffers from consumption. Claiming she is unfaithful, Rodolfo has subverted his fear of her illness into a jealous rage. The two speak outside the tavern and agree to part "senza rancor" (without bitterness).

Act IV, back in the garret, Rodolfo and Marcello are singles again. Shaunard and Colline come in with a meal. They are interrupted by Musetta, who has brought a terribly weakened Mimì. The others go off on errands to leave Mimì and Rodolfo alone. They reminisce about their first meeting, delighting the audience as melodies from Act I are reprised. The others return, each selling prized belongings for resources to care for Mimì. Only Rodolfo doesn't grasp what's happening. While he looks away, Mimì breathes her last. The audience is the first to know. Then friends standing nearby. Last of all, Rodolfo sees as a devastating funeral chord lashes up from the orchestra. His anguished cry of her name ends the opera.

In my opera-going experience, the final moments of La Bohème outweigh anything else. It's a death scene, choreographed as a chain of realization among the participants, audience included. In 1987, I saw La Bohème at the Volksoper in Vienna. The director was Hari Kupfer, an East German known for edginess and realism. The last moments of his Bohème remain with me still. I remember Mimì in a simple, pale-colored mid-calf dress. She's been seated downstage left on a straight-back chair, nothing more comfortable. The others busy themselves anxiously to help her, while Rodolfo looks away. Mimì's left arm drops from her lap and hangs beside the chair (the audience knows). A little time passes as the others help Rodolfo see. He speaks: "What are you saying?" His comprehension comes as the terrible chord blasts. At the same moment, the piece of stage on which Mimì sits is yanked sideways off the stage. Her body falls from the chair as the corner goes black. Rodolfo cries out her name. I sat in my balcony seat, feeling as though I'd been punched, and wept. (That was the moment I became a fan of Hari Kupfer, whom I got to experience in person a year later when he directed Wagner's Ring at Bayreuth.)

Markus, Miriam, and I saw La Bohème last Sunday in Stuttgart (October 26th matinee). Miriam is never eager, but she agreed to come along. Bohème is a good opera for the less initiated. It's short, the music flows pleasingly, the story's easy to follow, and nobody can escape the power of the last scene. The Stuttgart production, directed by Andrea Moses with music direction by Simon Hewett, takes La Bohème into the digital age. The artists work with video, and a bank of motley monitors shows images upstage left, sometimes live and sometimes not. Rodolfo and Mimì sing their arias to each other karaoke-style, while Rodolfo adjusts a mixer board. It works. See the photo gallery for a good idea of the show.

How did this production handle the final scene? The location shifted to an art gallery, stark white, with Marcello and Rodolfo mounting an exhibit. A large white screen in the middle of the stage had the words La Vie Bohème in reverse to welcome a public entering from deep upstage. There was a sofa and the ever-present video camera. All Rodolfo had to cover Mimì with as she lay on the sofa was a large sheet of plastic. As the two of them began to reminisce, they took turns filming each other, with the image beamed onto the large screen center stage. A still photo captured Mimì, smiling a warm smile. (Yes, I thought, that's what it's like, trying to capture the essence of a loved one. Moving.) As the scene develops, additional people fill in the back of the stage. Smartly dressed, they are art lovers at a gallery. Mimì's head drops back, eyes closed and lifeless. Instantly a close-up of her face appears on the big screen, this time black and white. While Rodolfo is coming to his senses, the gallery visitors begin to applaud for the artwork, a completely inappropriate gesture and one they stop immediately. Red dots appear on objects in the exhibition (Colline's coat, the image of Mimì), marking what's been sold. Rodolfo realizes finally, the chord bursts, the art-lovers seem thrilled, the opera ends.

I asked Markus if he felt implicated, as I had, by the art-goers. Here we were, seated in an audience, watching art about a person dying. He said, no, he'd felt a bit annoyed by them but that we were doing something else--watching staged art, whereas they were staged as watching a "real" scene. Complicated, eh? In my case, I felt nailed to the wall in my voyeurism and far too dismayed to be able to clap during the first minutes of the ovation myself. The video element added to the pathos of this production, and I applaud all involved for bringing it to life.

Where did my self-consciousness about watching the death scene come from? I believe that's an intended effect of this interpretation. But it was also the day before Objects of My Attention came out. I have written a death scene myself. I have questions about intimacy. What does an audience want? What am I willing to share? Does it betray or trivialize? I believe my choice to share intimate personal stories ultimately comes from the same impulse that sends me to the opera to be moved. All artifice aside, sharing the stories is how we make them real.

Monday, October 27, 2014


Photo: Markus Vodosek
Today is the day: I am a published author!  Objects of My Attention has been published in the 83rd issue of Quarterly West.

My essay was selected earlier this year as winner of the 2014 Writers at Work Fellowship in literary nonfiction. I'm joined on the "page" of Quarterly West by fiction winner Mil Norman-Risch and poetry winner Molly Spencer. Other contributions of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, new media/visual art, and reviews appear in Issue 83, selected by the editorial staff through their submission process.

Quarterly West (associated with the University of Utah Department of English) has gone completely online. When you visit the QW site, you will find my piece in a hip digital layout. The piece itself is conventionally formatted, but the site around it is visually complex (especially in the version that appears on mobile devices). If that's a bit too much for you, especially in contrast to my subject, you might want to print it out to read (your browser should print without the background).

I am grateful to Robin Hemley for selecting my piece as this year's fellowship winner and to Writers at Work for the time-consuming task of running a competition each year. I'm grateful to Quarterly West for publishing the winning texts. So many people engaged with me as I developed this piece. Nicole Walker, Christopher Merrill, Melanie Rae Thon, Matt Kirkpatrick offered sage teacherly guidance. Many have read and commented: Writers in Stuttgart (especially Cindy, Amy, and Jadi), workshop-mates and classmates, the Craigs (David, Julie, Ann, and Norm), Jim Martin, Anne Adams, audiences at readings in Bad Wimpfen, Oberlin, Alta, and Salt Lake City, and Markus, who lived through these times with me. Steve Woodward (Graywolf) and Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Tin House) offered spot-on editing advice to make the piece sharper and lither. Miriam, my daughter, expects more of my writing than anyone, and she will continue to drive me until there is a book you can hold in your hands. Simon, whose beauty and struggle have given life to my writing, will always have my loving attention.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

I finally put the flowers in the compost

A tall vase of chrysanthemums--bright green button mums among fringier-petaled gold, yellow, burgundy, and lavender mums--stood in my living room since the day before my parents left in September. Chrysanthemums remind my family of the October day when Markus and I got married (October 31, 1992). We decorated church, reception, and wedding cake with many colored mums. For a glance back, see the November 3, 2002 entry on Simon's Place. Be sure to click on the wedding photo to open a photo gallery that shows the mum-inspired color scheme in my wedding dress. In 2002, we celebrated ten years. This year we are approaching 22.

I remember the last day of my parents' trip, a Thursday, as a busy one. In the morning, I drove with my mother into Heilbronn, where she purchased a waffle iron as a gift for Miriam's birthday. Along the way, we saw a gorgeous outdoor flower display, and she bought the mums as a gift for us. I arranged them in a vase, remembering the dozens of chrysanthemums I bought back in 1992 to study for color while designing my dress. I even carried them into department stores and held their petals next to bolts of colorful raw silk.

After lunch at our place in Flein, we piled in the car to meet up with Markus' parents in Stuttgart. Then we drove south to the University of Hohenheim for a tour around the Botanical Garden. It was a rainy tour, but we held our umbrellas and kept walking until we reached the end of the garden with Simon's tree. Markus' parents had sponsored the tree in Simon's memory soon after his death. Ten years later, the zelkova serrata (Japanese elm) has suffered some setbacks and lost branches to extreme winter cold. Nonetheless, we found it and looked under the foliage long enough to uncover the sign. It's a spunky little tree. Here's a map of the garden and some photos of our visit.

Botanical Garden in Hohenheim. The purple pin (bottom left) indicates the approximate location of Simon's tree.
To find Simon's tree, you walk south from the Schloß (red pin above). Eventually you pass the lavender labyrinth and continue to an open meadow descending a hillside. At the bottom is a gathering of trees. Simon's is the small one in the middle (below) with touches of orange color.

Simon's tree viewed from the meadow.
Simon's tree
The botanical marker
Four who slogged through the wet meadow to the tree:
Ann Craig, Irmgard Vodosek, Mary Craig
(and Markus Vodosek behind the camera)
Miriam with all four grandparents
Our busy day ended with dinner out at Bella Vista, a restaurant on the top level of a luxury high rise. The view was indeed incredible, even under cloudy skies. A fitting last day for my parents' 12-day trip. The next morning I took them to the airport. Their flight was on September 12th.

And so my brain ticked through things as I snipped the flower stalks today to fit them into the kitchen compost. Just how long had those chrysanthemums lasted? I back-dated from my parents' departure date. The day before, when my mom bought the flowers, was September 11th.

September 11th. How odd. I don't remember thinking this year about the anniversary of 9/11. Not the day of. It was the kind of busy day when I don't listen to the radio, don't glance at a paper, where surely even in Germany the date would have been mentioned. But for me the day passed by.

I guess those flowers lasted about three weeks. I guess one day you notice you haven't thought about an anniversary you'd thought would never lose its power. I guess you can get that busy with your own life.