We’re All Just Being What We Are

I just posted the following on the WELL, in a conversation about homophobia and racism and other forms of prejudice.

That’s true of a lot of hatreds. They’re complicated and unconscious and hard to pull apart and analyze. They can arise from internal conflicts and denials, or just from unconsciously picking up and imitating attitudes and behaviors from the society around you as you’re growing up, or a combination.

I myself am gay and was raised to be liberal and yet in my thirties I started to realize that I nevertheless had picked up a lot of attitudes from my childhood in Orange County that, though they weren’t homophobic in the clinical sense of projecting my inner fears and self-loathing onto other people, were nevertheless negative ideas about homosexuals I was carrying around without being conscious of it.

That was very hard to, first, admit to myself and, second, do something about. It meant getting rid of some kindly illusions about myself and about other people and about how the society around me worked. Like realizing my own thoughts and behaviors are far more influenced by unconscious habits and far less the product of rational mind than they appear to be; that this was true of other people as well; that those unconscious thoughts and behaviors could be bearers and transmitters of the very same prejudices I was consciously fiercely opposed to; that this also was true of others. It took me a while to accept that and not be furious at others or at myself for it.

So I’m always a little skeptical when someone tells me they aren’t homophobic. Maybe it’s true, but then again maybe it’s the case that they just haven’t realized it, that it’s something unconscious in them that hasn’t been raised yet to the level of self-awareness.

In the first act of the opera The Tales of Hoffmann (which is on my mind because a production in Berkeley of my adaptation of it just finished), a young man falls in love with an automaton (I guess the modern term would be android) that he believes is a living woman, and he doesn’t realize he’s only projecting onto her all his illusions and ideals about what a woman is. On some level I think that’s a metaphor for how all of us are about other people. In the opera, he only discovers his error when the automaton is pulled apart, but if things had progressed otherwise, I can imagine that he’d eventually start to realize she can only say and do the same things over and over again, and he’d come to hate her for being limited in this way, for being less than all these other women he could choose instead. But the hate would be about him and about the illusions and ideals and other baggage about women that he carries around with him; she’s just being what she is. And eventually the young man might come to realize that all the other women are automata, too, at which point maybe he’d stop hating them for not living up to his ideals and start loving them for being very good automata.

And he might even come to realize that he himself is an automaton. I think we’re all something like 95% automaton (conservative estimate), only we’re focused all the time on the 5% within ourselves that is conscious, rational mind, and because of that, we fool ourselves into thinking it’s much much more than 5%. And then we get angry at others for being 95% automaton and not meeting our expectations for the imaginary rational creatures we’ve made up called human beings.

Quick the Night Flies

Jeremy Knight videotaped our production of The Tales of Hoffmann and has posted a clip from the Giulietta tale on YouTube. (There won’t be a recording available for sale, though.)

This will be an unfamiliar moment and an unfamiliar aria to anyone who knows the opera only from the grand opera version. I’ve explained more about this in the program notes I wrote for the production; the short version is that my version of the Giulietta tale is structured differently from any earlier version. The music is Offenbach’s, but originally written for another opera. (The same opera, in fact, that he himself borrowed his own Barcarolle from, which may be why this aria seems to fit very naturally with the rest of the music in the tale.)

I had a number of motives in restructuring the tale this way. I wanted my version of the tale to make dramatic sense from beginning to end (something no earlier version really does, in my completely unbiased opinion), and I wanted to end with E.T.A. Hoffmann’s own bleak conclusion to the story that the act is based on. To make this work dramatically, I felt it was important that Giulietta have an aria here.

An aria that Offenbach actually wrote for Giulietta in this act turned up in a bunch of manuscripts in the 1970s, but it hadn’t been published yet when I was writing the libretto ten years ago. It had been recorded, though, and I’d already decided it didn’t have the right character to work with the way I wanted to structure the story. It’s a lightweight, jaunty coloratura aria, and I didn’t think the Hoffmann who’d just sung the drinking song at Giulietta’s party was going to be won over so easily by that kind of charm. To seduce a man that bitter, Giulietta needs to present herself as a woman who is suffering deeply over a similar heartbreak in her own past.

In this song, Giulietta (played by Angela Cadelago) is pretending to be unhappy and trapped in her life to gain the sympathy of Hoffmann (Adam Flowers) — just one more step in her scheme to steal his reflection.

Pattern Words

A basic technique in solving cryptograms is looking at what puzzle people call pattern words, words that repeat one or more letters (not necessarily consecutively). People who do cryptograms regularly get to know the common ones. For example, if you see XYZX in a cryptogram — especially when you know the result will be a quotation or otherwise more or less normal English — then nine times out of ten it will stand for the word that. There are other words with the same pattern — sews, bomb, aqua, high — but that is by far the most common of them in normal English. In the same way, VWXVYW is usually people, while the similar VWXVYZ is almost always always.

So a while back Dave was sitting across the kitchen table from me working on one of those daily newspaper cryptograms, one in which the answer is always a quotation, and he saw a pattern word he couldn’t find any answer for. He told me what it was — XYZ’XX, with an apostrophe. After maybe 10 or 15 seconds the light went on and I knew not only what the word was but what the entire quotation was. (I’ll leave it for you to solve.)

Then I got to thinking about whether there are other reasonably well-known quotations that could be gotten in the same way from a single pattern word. I couldn’t think of any others.

Review in the SF Chron

Whew, what a weekend last weekend was. Terrific performances on Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, with a whole lot of friends in the audience on Friday and a few on Sunday as well. There were a few empty seats in the back rows on Friday, but Sunday was completely sold out and Dave and I had to stand in the back of the house to watch the show. (Believe me, I don’t mind.) Sunday’s audience gave us a standing ovation, and then during the bows the cast presented Ernest Knell (our musical director) and me with a lovely gift: copies of the poster of Stella in Don Giovanni that was onstage during the show, autographed by the whole cast and framed. Oh, man, that was very, very sweet.

Last Friday morning the San Francisco Chronicle review came out. On the whole a very, very good review, though with a few odd qualifications about my libretto:

The Berkeley Opera’s lively and affecting new production of Hoffmann touches those chords with deft precision. Treading a fine line between comedy and pathos, Wednesday’s performance at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts combined first-rate musical values with a clear dramatic and verbal focus to produce a nimble portrait of artistic self-justification.

The verbal element was the province of wordsmith David Scott Marley, whose English adaptation of the text — a revision of a script first mounted in 1999 — brought forward the combination of exuberance and longing at the heart of Hoffmann. Compared with the manic inventiveness of some of Marley’s other stage creations — including The Riot Grrrl on Mars, which transposes Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers into outer space, or Bat Out of Hell, his contemporary Berkeley version of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus — this is a far more subdued affair.

Uh-oh. I think he’s saying he prefers my earlier, funnier films — I mean, librettos.

There is, by my count, only one topical allusion — the bankrupt House of Elias becomes the House of Lehman — and the giddy Gilbertian rhyming that is Marley’s trademark gift is rarely in evidence. And although the version is billed as being steeped in the vein of speculative fiction known as steampunk, that tradition showed up more in the costuming, with its emphasis on stovepipe hats and aviator goggles, than in the text itself.

But as a faithful and accessible English translation of a familiar work, this Hoffmann is hard to beat. The words fit Offenbach’s melodies as they were meant to, with the expansive emotional outpourings rendered as precisely as the quick-witted comic numbers.

I bristled a bit when I got to faithful and accessible English translation. My libretto is not a particularly faithful translation of any earlier version of Hoffmann, neither the authors’ original version nor anybody else’s later reconstruction, traditional or otherwise; that’s why I billed it as an “adaptation”. But then when I think about it, it’s pretty cool all the same that my version feels like a faithful translation to somebody who knows the opera; it means that my rather Jungian interpretation of the story and all my other changes come across as feeling well integrated with the opera as commonly done and not just sort of pasted on top of it. That is, after all, what I worked hard to try to achieve; if somebody who hasn’t had the time to compare my version side by side with previous versions comes away with the immediate impression that my version is “faithful” to their memories of other versions, then it’s a strong sign that I’ve succeeded in making it feel all of a single piece. And the rest of the review is very complimentary, so I’m happy, and I’m sure it steered quite a number of people into the theater on Friday and Sunday.

(Naughty of him to give away the House of Lehman joke, though. Before the review appeared, there was no particular reaction to the first mention of a failed bank, and we got a nice laugh later when the bank’s name was finally mentioned. At Friday’s and Sunday’s performances, though, that first mention of a bank failure got a huge laugh, long before the bank’s name was ever given. Oy. By the way, the joke was an interpolation just for this production; it had my OK but it’s not actually part of my libretto.)

Another Review, and More

Ooh, a terrific review from San Francisco Classical Voice, plus a separate feature article about the production on the website’s home page. From the review:

Berkeley Opera’s performance of The Tales of Hoffmann, which opened Saturday at the Julia Morgan Center, is a resounding success.

Jacques Offenbach’s opera, unfinished when he died, has been performed in widely different editions. Librettist David Scott Marley, benefitting from recent discoveries of Offenbach’s sketches for the last act, has returned to the original librettist’s work and also to the three actual tales by E.T.A. Hoffmann on which the opera is based.

Marley’s version makes convincing sense of the opera, and with its use of spoken dialogue is well adapted to the Julia Morgan space. He has returned to Offenbach’s original order of the three acts, and has eliminated music written by other composers. And the libretto abounds in delightful wordplay and audacious rhymes.

Yay! Raves for everybody!

From the home-page feature:

The juxtaposition between emergent technology and the much more human, romantic themes are in part what led [director Phil] Lowery to use as a palette for this production the increasingly popular aesthetic of “steampunk.” Originally used as the name for a type of speculative fiction writing, the term now refers to artistic works and fashions incorporating the aesthetics and elemental limitations of the 19th century with more-modern concepts or futuristic fantasies. … For this production, it includes the presence of Victorianesque costumes with various gadgets and set pieces that give simultaneous nods to both old and new, like a remote control crank, complete with joystick, for the doll Olympia. Also, since this version includes the often-omitted “Violin Aria” for Nicklaus, Robért and Lorna Shashinda of the local Bear Paw Fiddles created a special “Steampunk” violin.

A nice posting, too, on the Opera-L email list:

Wanted to alert Bay Area folks that Berkeley Opera has put together a very good production of Tales of Hoffmann, with a clever English adaptation by David Scott Marley. It comes together very well -- singing, acting, orchestral playing, costumes, sets. Three more performances this week. I'll leave the reviewing to someone with more expertise -- I enjoyed it a great deal!