I'm back from Glimmerglass opera in Cooperstown, New York. (I'm currently working on a print article due next week. But if you're eager to read a review of the internationally-known company's season now, check out Tony Tomasini's excellent piece in Wednesday's New York Times.)
While I was there, I has the privilege of hearing Jonathan Miller give a talk to a small crowd of fans. Miller, a British medical doctor who has become a celebrated opera director, spoke for a little more than an hour, without notes. He described his influences and approach to directing, citing his greatest influences as philosophers and photographers. (Here I was on the edge of my seat.)
John Searle's book Speech Arts teases out the meanings of sentences and explores the notion of context. Take any sentence, Miller said. WHO utters it determines its meaning and weight. Where is it coming from? This makes all the difference.
He described his efforts to work with what he called Jurassic Park singers, who spread their arms and belt, oblivious and stilted. He tries to teach these performers to act naturally on stage. He tunes into people's involuntary acts such as twirling a lock of hair, rubbing the edge of a table, making fluttery hand motions. These are the small, subtle gestures he tries to coax from singers.
Miller takes that one step further, he said. He doesn't want to direct these gestures at all. His role, he said, is to create an atmosphere in which singers invent expressive movements on their own. He also considers the sensibility of the mind which produced a work of art before he presents it to a contemporary audience. For example, when asked to film Alice in Wonderland, Miller didn't call a special effects crew. Instead, he explored what childhood meant during the Victorian era, when Lewis Carroll wrote the book.
Victorians considered childhood a magical time, a time of incredibly vivid experiences. Kids see everyday life with visionary intensity, they thought, something they lose as they grow older. So instead of dazzling his audience with weird scenery and costumes, Miller directed this sequence as though it were a dream a Victorian child might have.
Tim Burton is making a new film version of Alice in Wonderland with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter that's due to be released next year. Miller says it'll probably be filled with amazing special effects. He laughed. He'll go see it anyway, he said.
Well, I missed the whole thing. The historical significance of the event was beyond my comprehension. Consequently, the iconic image of the earth rising over the dusty moonscape never struck me as unusual or bizarre. Years later, when I was in my teens, fiction writer James Michener opened my eyes to the marvel of it all, the risks, and the fact that until they landed, the crew of Apollo 11 half-expected to sink into six feet of powdery dust.
In this Sunday's New York Times, Tom Wolfe argues that since the first landing on the moon on July 20, 1969, NASA has sunk itself into a metaphorical pit with no vision for the future.
“NASA never understood the need for a philosopher corps,” Wolfe writes. With all of its smarts, the American space program lacks a poet, someone able to spark enough general enthusiasm for building a bridge to the stars.
Such a philosopher would find his work cut out for him. My generation is hard to impress. When was the last time you were truly floored by a scientific discovery or piece of technology? We expect daily, small-scale marvels. Turn on the news. There they are.
The last time I felt fullblown wonder at a scientific advance was in 1992. I was sitting in front of a computer, and my husband was explaining the Internet terms “gopher,” “archie” and “veronica.” He punched the return key. A tiny green star whirled on the black screen.
“Your computer is making another computer in Denmark look something up,” he said. I hardly believed him. Then text appeared, in Danish, pre-Google, like primitive paintings on the cave walls near Lascaux, France.
New Yorker writer Alex Ross argues that the Internet is The Best Thing Ever for classical music lovers. You have, at this moment, immediate access to some of Western culture's most iconic musical figures. Richard Strauss. Leonard Bernstein. Arnold Schoenberg. John Cage's 4'33. The choir of Westminster Abby singing Tavener's Song for Athene at Princess Diana's funeral.
With such a resource, it was pretty simple to whip up a morning of lunar-inspired classical music for you on the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's small step.
Long before people walked on the moon, composers looked up to dream.