Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Kinds of Blue

Freezing fog, gorgeous from my window, shrouds the glowing city. The Stefansdom spire lost in the mist, the unlit Christmas lights strung over the Kärntnerstrasse, the steps to the Albertina painted like the Monet waterlilies, everything blurs in the watery air. People are wrapped in down coats with furry hoods, or maybe they didn't plan and so hurry by with their hands shoved in their pockets and their scarves wrapped high over their ears. I was in the latter group last winter, but now I'm strolling with the former, on my way home through the cold night, snacking on the icy air and still tasting the horn solos Paul dished out in the warm little club.

He played the blues tonight, a group of guys joyously rocking the tunes, laughing and smiling and joking the sad lyrics. "Glück im Unglück", said my colleague a few days ago, not speaking of the blues. She was talking about a friend jumping into the last opera in our Ring cycle. Too bad about the friend who had to cancel, but oh how glorious the substitute. She brought down the house (a little opera pun there for my geek friends). The orchestra was detailed and monumental, grand under the famous conductor, one of the best in the world, and we were all in the Loge to weep at the beauty of it and to cheer.

And since then I have felt a little sad. Not the scary sadness, but, well, blue. I met the beautiful substitute ten years ago, at another opera house. There was also a great orchestra there, under the leadership of a great conductor. The Rings I had the pleasure of working on there were life-changing for me. The first ones came when we were newish in New York, still missing Seattle but starting to get the hang of things. The community aspect of working on the Ring (Wagnerians are a clannish bunch) was such a part of becoming rooted in the city and in my job. That house, and that conductor, were an arrival point for me, a seminal part of my professional life. Now that era is coming to an end, as all eras must. But that's been just an idea to me. Something about being in the presence of another truly great Ring this week made the penny drop for me: the first important era of my grownup professional life is past.

Digging a bit deeper, past work, it's simpler: those people are still incredibly important to me, and I miss them. There's the second shade of blue tonight, passing my subway stop, turning onto my street, past the Apotheke, the Altwaren shop, the Mittelschule, in other words, my neighborhood.

Home. A complex little word, that.

It's easy to identify the stresses of moving. Everything's new: the job, the apartment, the people, the language, the habits. Learning all the new info is hard. But there's another part. I believe some of that first year suffering is your whole self dragging its feet as you try to adjust, denying and refusing the whole way, because it knows better than you that you're about to lose something.

My new Ring family made me long for the old one. Jazzland tonight made me miss the OK Hotel. Siggy's guitar playing makes me hear Ken. Glasergasse in the cold is so far away from the warm nights on Thornton Road.

Vienna is full of friends and familiarity and warmth now, but that means that another set of relationships and loves has receded. I've done this before, and I know that I get to keep more than I lose. But tonight, turning my key in the lock of my door, entering my home at the end of a day filled with people and music, I hope it does no disservice to anyone here if I allow myself a cup of tea and a slightly melancholy blogpost. So much other music and so many other people are on my heart.


Thursday, November 10, 2011


That side of the house is cold because of the sun. It shines on the roses out back. In the kitchen you can stand on your toes and see him in the the garden, gently pruning, turning the blossoms this way and that. Otherwise they won't grow, she says, or at least not be so pretty. I don't really understand how it works, she says, and takes the warm bread out of the oven.

The electric blanket is because of the bedroom on the cold side. You have to shut the door because of her snoring, so the rest of the house can't share the warmth. In the city they didn't have the extra space, but now we can take turns visiting. There is a strange odor when the blanket heats up in the cold room, but it isn't dangerous.

Don't we take care of you, he says. He is not afraid of bees. I don't go near the roses. They are fragrant in the light, tied to their stakes.

In the living room we watch TV, the Clancy Brothers on Johnny Carson. Past bedtime, she says. Don't tell your folks, he says. The room is warm and rich, bread and whiskey and pipe tobacco. His smile, her gentle early dozing. The song from the old country. The national anthem.

I don't know how to refuse the electric blanket's oppressive, heavy spell. I unplug it in the dark, secretly, to spare their feelings, but of course by then it is too late.


Thursday, November 3, 2011


Tonight I sat in the dark as Stephen Gould, Christian Thielemann, and the Vienna Phil brought the Forging Song to brilliant life. Fire flamed up and flickered in the orchestra, metal glared, the maestro coolly held the forces in hand so that the tenor could ride the waves with gusto. "Ho hei!" sings the tenor, while hammering away at the newly forged Nothung, the sheer joy and effort of his work taking him beyond language into pure music.

Wagner brings out the hammers when there's work to be done. Rheingold's Donner (Thor, really, but in this story a much less awesome god than Wotan), eager to dispel the confusion left by Alberich's curse, gathers the winds to him with a "Heda, hedo" before he deals his thunderous Schlag. In the second act of Meistersinger, Hans Sachs  is also moved to nonsense syllables and hammer blows as he tries to take care of business. "Jerum, jerum, hallo hallo he!" he cries, whatever that means, slogging away over a pair of shoes and drowning out a troublesome rival. 

The act of working itself lifts the characters out of their lengthy Wagnerian discussions into an act rhythmic, repetitive, and purely melodic, unbound by syntax and meaning. The exertions of labor seek and find their release. Some of Wagner's characters are part magical, pure expressions of nature, and their voices leave human hammerstrikes behind to dwell in a deep world of mysterious meanings. Their syllables bear no explanation, nor do they need one. The Rheinmaidens in the water, the Valkyries in the air call to us as the birds or the wind called to us in childhood, when we could still understand everything. Weia, wala, heia, hoyotoho. Siegfried will later drink dragon's blood and understand the woodbird's speech, but in the Forging Song he is on his way, a lumbering, powerful bird himself with his wordless song. 

Good, honest, simple work, the way to bliss, one seamlessly connected to the other. It is that easy...until the neighbors spill out into the chaotic street, until you put in on the wrong shore. Because, legends teach us, beauty and peril dwell together, the search will lead you astray, and dark oblivion will mask itself in a friend's chalice or a sweet song. The pull of desire, the gleam of the gold - are these the real treasure, found at last? Is it your true love calling to you, or is it Lorelei?

Where is your wisdom? 

The strong work of rowing the boat slows and calms to a gentle rocking. It feels so like the good release after honest exertion. Is it not the same, have you not earned it? You notice your own face reflected in the waves, more beautiful than ever.

Stay with me. Whose voice calls you?

The oars are idle at your side. Can you still decide to pick them up again? 

Halb zog sie ihn, halb sank er hin. 

Oh, Lorelei will take you down to the bottom of the river, and you will want to go.

Wehe, wehe. 

Nights like these, in the darkened theater, the Rhein swirls up at me from out of the orchestra pit, takes me, drowns me. I know it's not Lorelei, because I know her song. I'll never take the journey without sharpening my gaze into the blackness, scanning the shore for danger. But the journey, yes, absolutely, above all things: for the navigation, for the work, for the wordless joy.

Weia, leia, hei ha. 

3 years

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Ring, November 1

Vollendet das ewige Werk.

Now that we are building our own little Valhalla out in Texas, I have a moment of kinship with Wotan as he intones these words tonight. I hear his sentence mundane and literal for the first time, the stress and strain and hope and ambition involved in creating a castle. Of course, the giants are the ones doing the labor, and there arises the complicated question of ownership. What did you do, and what do you believe you have earned? Wotan and the giants each demand, offer, and accept unreasonable reward, reward that is not theirs to give or receive - a beautiful goddess, youth, and the gold they've heard about from the Rhein. So the story begins in theft and deception, every god for himself.  Wotan wants power, Fricka wants Wotan, and they imagine that Valhalla will bind these things to them, or the gold will, or surely something will - but their doubt runs through the whole piece. Give it up, they say to each other, the gold or the girl, but that is the hardest thing to do.

Herrliche Wohnung, wonniger Hausrat, sollten dich binden zu säumender Rast.

Outside the theater, it is All Saints', and people are buying flowers and taking the trams to the cemeteries. There are the former citizens of Wien, Vienna, Vinobodna, in houses no more permanent than any built on earth or in the clouds. It's different in death, though, when the hands have opened and have had to let go. No one fights over the house. Flowers are brought, and poems, and balloons, and toys, and they say, this space belongs to us still.

Was mächtig der Furcht mein Mut mir erfand.

This morning, over coffee, I did some more work on my family tree, pages of my dead. I love the narrative of my immigrant ancestors. Piecing together the patchy stories left to us, I can build a sense of what these people gave to me - of course, that's not what they imagined they were doing. They did unreasonable things, crazy things, in the service of acquiring something bigger, grander, different. The terrible crossing, the backbreaking labor, the foreign language, the scarcity: when plenty began to arrive, it felt earned, deserved. Then the questions. What have you done, what do you imagine you have earned? Often they fought and broke off relations forever, over gold, over the goddess. 

Denn was nur lebt, will lieben.

My own dead are near me today. Grandma Alice, you've been gone almost a year. You helped me build my house. Little Halen, you gave us so much in such a brief time, you floored me with the devastating generosity you brought out in your family. I know where you are, under the tree in Northfield, next to Ralph at Ft. Snelling, in the beautiful Valhallas of my beloveds' hearts and minds. 

Alles, was ist, endet. 

Inside the theater, a beautiful woman rises out of the earth, her daughters call from the depths of the Rhein. Give us back what is ours. 

The treasure does not belong to you.

Open your eyes. Both of them.