Vienna and Die Zauberflöte

Many decades ago I was in the Austrian capital Vienna with a group of friends, all fellow students from the Sorbonne. We did the usual tours like the Schönbrunn Palace with its Baroque splendor, reminding us a little of Versailles, admired the Donau, even went as far as Grinzing. At one point one of us began humming An der schönen blauen Donauone. We went to the ancient cathedral of St. Stefan,  admired the bell tower there, and heard the story that Beethoven once saw birds flying out of the hollow when the bells tolled, but could not hear them ring: which is how he discovered he had turned deaf. One Christmas eve, we listened to Sille Nacht Heilige Nacht sung in the Cathedral. We had an exotic dinner at the Rathhauskeller,  the spacious underground restaurant famous for its Austrian cuisine. The minstrels walked from table to table, playing on their instruments pieces of  schrammel: Viennese music. It was all very delightful.

But  the most memorable of all our experiences  was the visit on December 21 1955 to the Staatsoper which had opened barely two months earlier. There, standing with a crowd of a few hundred people who also opted for the cheap-ticlet-stand, I saw Mozart’s  Die Zauberflöte performed at a far away stage: That was  my first operatic delight. I was tickled by the Bird-catcher’s ditty of which I could barely make out the words Der Vogelfänger, and I was most impressed by the coloratura as she belted out the shrill of the Queen of the Night.

Over the years I have seen this fantastic (in more than one sense of the word) opera many times, mostly on TV, video-tape, and DVD. As coincidence would have it, I saw it again on December 21 this year, exactly 56 years to the date after my first seeing it in Vienna. This time it was at the huge Century Theater on Maple Avenue in Evanston, IL. [I thought of my friends who had been with me at the Staatsoper. Some of them have passed on.] I was not too enthusiastic about going to see it when I read that it was going to be a modern abridged version in English. I don’t usually care for such tampering with the original. I went this time only because it was a presentation by the Met.

But it turned out to be most enjoyable. Yes, the stage decors and props and serpent and giant creatures all seemed at times a bit much. At first the English sounded somewhat out of place. But as the show progressed and the singing was incredibly superb and the rhymed translations so correct, concise, and cute that I put my biases to the background and just enjoyed the opera as children (for whom it was intended) would. This could indeed be an excellent introduction to opera for youngsters.

Nathan Gunn stole the show as Papageno, whether he was struggling to sing when his mouth was locked or stuttered with Papagena about the chicks to be born.  Erika Miklosa was simply superb as the bellowing bad queen. Her features and mouth-distortions exuded the required  evil while the modulations of her voice epitomized what great arias are supposed to sound like. Tamino reminded me a little of Mikado of Gilbert and Sullivan in his costume, but he was very good also, as were  Sarastro  and Monostatos. Julie Taymor‘s stage  was grotesquely grand.

Dec 27, 2011

The Miniature Rooms at the AI of C

I have been to the Art Institute of Chicago many times, and every time it has invariably been enriching, whether admiring the Silk Road Exhibit, or enjoying the works of Salvador Dali or Julien Levy or whatever. With my cultural bias I always spend some time in the Asian room standing at various Hindu sculptures. Origin-wise, the Nataraja from Tamil Nadu seems natural, the Karttikáya on a peacock from Madanapalle in Andhrapradesh is somewhat surprising, but interesting;  while the Dasávatara from Bangladesh and the Head of a Bodhisattva from Pakistan strike me as anachronistic and dystopic, if not downright offensive. But then Haga Sophia is in Turkey and there is an Empangeni Baptist Church in Zululand. History has played countless dirty tricks, mingling and mangling cultures and locations.

But the memorable experience this time (December 23, 2001) was the hours I spent in The Thorne Rooms. Here I discovered for the first time the fruits of the project of a certain Mrs. Narcissa Niblack Thorne: Sixty eight miniature rooms, decorated and furnished with incredible taste and charm, reflecting classical living styles of the upper class at various periods in different countries: England, France, Germany and the United States mainly, with one Chinese and one Japanese room in the collection.

The chairs and sofas, the stacked bookshelves and writing tables, the carpets on the floor and the paintings on the wall, the grandfather clocks and lamps and chandeliers, all made the mini rooms exquisite,  feasts for the eyes. As one peered into the rooms, in many instances one could see through doors into adjoining rooms; and staircases, winding or straight, leading to an upper floor. Also, the windows with the tiny open curtains gave glimpses of a green yard or a flowery garden with fences, and sometimes one could see buildings across the street.

I told my daughter that these human-made things were more beautiful than even the lakes  and rivers, valleys and mountains, planets and stars that Nature had constructed. But my daughter reminded me that life forms crafted by Nature, whether spider or sparrow, fox or fish, were infinitely more complex and of comparable beauty, and indeed that the human body and mind which made miniature rooms surpassed in creativity and potency anything we can think of. The human body and mind are creations of Nature or God.

I agreed. And  I am happy that some humans utilize their talents to create things of beauty which are joys for ever, even while some others wreak havoc and hate on fellow creatures.  I am grateful that the Art Institute of Chicago has made these three dimensional visual delights within reach of thousands of people  

December 26, 2011

On Christopher Hitchens

The Army of Atheist Fundamentalism has lost one of its able generals in its crusade against Religions. But the  writings and legacy of Christopher Hitchens will continue to inspire millions in the years to come.

Hitchens’  righteous indignation against the evils of bigotry was always eloquently and forcefully expressed. Sometimes he seemed to carry this beyond the reason he often extolled, as when he disparaged  Mother Teresa and gave his ardent support for the Iraq War.

Like the garbage collector who imagined from what he saw week after week that households generate nothing but garbage, he concluded from what he saw of their ugly aspects that religions give rise to only superstitions, stupidity, and fanaticism.

Hitchens was no Bertrand Russell in the polished dignity of  language contra religion, but then he belongs to an age where civil discourse is no longer in vogue, where mutual contempt in exchanges is the norm.

If, as he was convinced, he was no more than a brilliant blob of mindless matter with molecules, it is sad to see such a premature termination of its vigor and virtues.

If, however, the less probable side of Pascal’s Wager turns out to be true, then some might wish his transformed state eternal peace. But  such hope and wish would be regarded as absurd and offensive by his followers. So I will be silent on this.

Whatever the case, Christopher Hitchens  was undoubtedly among the prestigious array of  thinkers who, all through the ages,  understood fully whatever is terrible in the mindless and heartless niches of religions.  

I salute him for the integrity, forthrightness, and courage with which he spoke out against the pernicious potential of religion: a matter that needs to be periodically brought to everybody’s attention.
It would serve humanity no less if keen thinkers like Christopher Hitchens also recognized the  positive contributions of religions to human culture and to the human condition.

December 19, 2011

A Visit to the Taj

From New Delhi we took a car, on a bright and sunny day.

Our goal was to drive to the Taj all the way.

Past crowded streets and traffic thick we reached at first, not last,

The Grand Trunk Road where vehicles moved both slow and fast.

Cars, trucks and bullock carts, and rickshaws motorized,

Cycles bearing more than one, and buses oversized

Seemed to roll as they pleased, and this I did suspect:

That there were no good traffic rules, which wielded much respect.

They crossed the lines and overtook, at random, one assumes.

Honking horns ceaselessly, midst all the exhaust fumes.

Past Mathura and Brindavan, where Krishna once had played,

Past scores of little towns, where people prayed and stayed.

Past accidents on the roads, and trucks broken down,

We reached at last the congested and famous Agra town.

And is this Agra, this the town, of which my fancy cherished!

So like Wordsworth did I feel: An image that just perished.

We parked the car in a crowded lot, and took a van to Taj:

That great and famous monument, of the extinct Mogul Raj.

We stood and saw the awesome Taj, with the vast blue sky behind,

To describe it and its charm, enough words we couldn’t find.

Stupendous,  glorious, it stood proud and serene,

It was a feast to our eyes, nothing such we’d ever scene.

Its symmetry was striking, its majesty was grand,

It was the most beautiful structure in the land.

The marble and the etchings, its ornate profusion,

The architect’s devices to cause some illusion,

The minarets, the domes, the mosques on either side,

The peaceful tank that lay in front the pathways long and wide:

The tombs within the building, of the king and his queen.

All made us just exclaim, “What a magnificent scene!”

It was sad the Mogul’s beloved wife, died when she was so young.

But if she had lived to ninety three, would the Taj ever have sprung?

Unhappy things do happen in life, this of course is true.

But sad things in life and history, may bear some good fruits too.

December 5, 2012