Wednesday, March 30, 2011


"Das ist das Gift Wiens" he said with that cold little smile, and my bilingual (actually it feels more unlingual these days, master of no tongues) brain took his comment positively at first. I caught myself, though, and I'm sure I managed some version of a polite but grammatically incorrect reply before this conversation faded into another jampacked day of meetings, rehearsals, schedules, and practicing. It resurfaced, however, this morning as I strolled to work. Now that the sun is out and the air grows warmer, I let the D-Bahn go by and strolled down the Liechtensteinstrasse on my own two feet. I turned right on Hörlgasse (where yes, my inner Butthead always gives a tiny heh heh) and I saw this:
Das Gift Wiens. Aber nein, das Geschenk.

I smiled then at the gulf between my two languages. Present, poison. I continued down the Herrengasse, chariots and angels bursting from the tops of the old palaces on either side of me, fake Greeks in marble and real Austrians in too-warm winter coats for my company. Churches of six centuries, students on bikes in their impossibly cool t-shirts, stylish professionals in good shoes, the gold paint that was the emperor's favorite color, flower shops, bakeries, birds, babies. All of this was there, is there every day, simply available to me if I will just look.

But not every gift is easy like that. Sometimes the great prize comes at a great price. Just because the apple was poisoned doesn't mean it wasn't a gift (does the prince ever show up if Snow White never takes a bite?).

Poison, of course, is a real topic in these weeks. None of this is simple.

Geschenk, related to schenken, which can mean to pour out, as water, or wine, or whatever antidote seems right. In the story, the piece of poisoned apple is jostled from our heroine's throat when the cart carrying her casket goes over a rough bit of road. The Fiaker clatter by me on the Herrengasse, the horses from the Riding School are led across the street.

Perhaps the Gift is given so that we may pour out...our voices? Ourselves?


Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Every night for the past four I have opened this page and waited in vain for the words to come. A great sorrow is upon the earth and every syllable withers in its wake. Maybe there isn't actually greater sorrow than usual, but something seems to be breaking inexorably apart. Or maybe that's just the song of my selfish mind, dressing its own griefs up in concern for the strangers suffering unspeakably in the videos on my screen. On any case, I can't dare to type a word about what I see and think, I don't trust a thought in my head.

Fortunately, there are so many people and so many available words.

Henry Miller...
We clutter the earth with our inventions, never dreaming that possibly they are unnecessary - or disadvantageous. We devise astounding means of communication, but do we communicate with one another? We move our bodies to and fro at incredible speeds, but do we really leave the spot we started from? Mentally, morally, spiritually, we are fettered. What have we achieved in mowing down mountain ranges, harnessing the energy of mighty rivers, or moving whole populations about like chess pieces, if we ourselves remain the same restless, miserable, frustrated creatures we were before? To call such activity progress is utter delusion. We may succeed in altering the face of the earth until it is unrecognizable even to the Creator, but if we are unaffected wherein lies the meaning?

John Ashbery...

The blackboard is erased in the attic
And the wind turns up the light of the stars,
Sinewy now. Someone will find out, someone will know.
And if somewhere on this great planet
The truth is discovered, a patch of it, dried, glazed by the sun,
It will just hang on, in its own infamy, humility. No one
Will be better for it, but things can't get any worse.
Just keep playing, mastering as you do the step
Into disorder this one meant. Don't you see
It's all we can do? Meanwhile, great fires
Arise, as of haystacks aflame. The dial has been set
And that's ominous, but all your graciousness in living
Conspires with it, now that this is our home:
A place to be from, and have people ask about.

Mary Oliver...

I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wien ist anders

Staatsoper snapshot, first of March, cold air and bright sunshine. We'll take the top down approach, literally. Up in the tent, on top of the house, we are about to begin rehearsals for the hour-long kiddie version of the Ring Cycle. The Eberhard Waechter rehearsal stage houses the new production of Anna Bolena in its first days of work. Down to the 6th floor: in the Orgelsaal with our poor old organ and the maestro monitor for whoever is playing in the evening, we are rehearsing the hour-long version of the Magic Flute, in which Papageno introduces children to everything about opera - singers, costumes, lights, orchestra. 4th floor, Carlos Kleiber rehearsal stage: Ariadne auf Naxos is in the third of its six total rehearsal days (a strong and stable ensemble makes many amazing feats possible). The babel of the coaching studios echoes from down the hall (where is Elektra/The sacred soil of Egypt/Oh, what a face!).

The second floor, administration, looks normal except for the red bunting hanging from the ceiling, the first clue before you hear the hammering that something is up. Stage level: the transformation of the Opera Ball has begun, workers and tents and gear and fabric and refrigerators and dollies carrying boxes of who knows what. Bacchus, ironically, is about to get pushed into our smallest rehearsal room as the Carlos Kleiber stage gets transformed into a party space, and we'll lose the Orgelsaal as well. Music rehearsals for Sonnambula and Aida will take place in cramped coaching studios as the Philharmonic rehearses for the opening ceremony. And on Thursday, we all get kicked out at 2 pm. Some of us will go home and change for the ball, others will cook comfort food dinners and watch the red carpet parade on TV. The cream of Viennese society and the trashiest elements imaginable (Berlusconi's teenager, really?) will cram themselves onto the dance floor until 4 o'clock Friday morning, then pour outside to get sausage from an all-night street vendor and stumble home.

We will show up to work as usual Friday (rumor has it that there are sometimes guests left over in the opera house that morning, doing the walk of shame past the techies and early-rising music staff). Bolena, Sonnambula, Ariadne, Aida. In the theater, the dance floor still in place, hundreds of children will listen to Papageno and the Vienna Philharmonic explain to them how the house works.

My next door neighbors will go and take their daughter; almost four, she will listen to this shortened Flute for the second time. I can hear her singing in the hallway this morning as they leave for kindergarten.

"Das klinget! So herrlich! das klinget! so schoen!"

She almost remembers the tune correctly. I bet she gets it this time.