World Premiere

It has been over a year since I posted an announcement of plans by the New Orleans Opera to produce my English translation of Tchaikovsky’s opera “Joan of Arc” (“Maid of Orleans”). Coincidentally, Joan is the patron saint of New Orleans.  Those plans have now been finalized, and it’s in production for performances at the Mahalia Jackson Center for the Performing Arts on the evening of Friday, February 7, 2020 and as a matinee on Sunday, February 9.

In my earlier posting I’d remarked on plans to clean up the old translation (performed by the Canadian Opera Company in 1978) by September of 2018, but the work actually lasted through November of that year. The revisions were so complex that I now in all good conscience can claim that the New Orleans Opera production will technically be a World Premiere!

Here’s why. This past September I was invited by the Krewe of Joan of Arc (a Mardi Gras organization with their parade scheduled for January 6—Joan’s birthday) to give a talk about the opera at their annual Salon de Jeanne d’Arc.  Significantly, 2020 will be the 100th anniversary of her canonization.  In my talk I discussed a serious “literary” problem in the libretto (written by Tchaikovsky himself), specifically the Love Duet in Act IV.

In my first translation, I’d been a slavish Slavic literalist, translating what Tchaikovsky wrote verbatim, if that means anything in a translation. Though I hadn’t been at all pleased with the duet, what could a mere translator do?  I explained to the Krewe:

“You’re probably aware that historically the saintly Joan actually never fell in love with anybody. But to follow the operatic convention and satisfy his intensely romantic nature, Tchaikovsky hauled in a love theme with the Burgundian knight Lionel—which runs head on into Joan’s vow of chastity.  I do believe that detail was also Tchaikovsky’s invention to turn the inspired peasant girl into a terrible sinner.  That way he could project his own angst and guilt over being a homosexual onto the poor maiden’s head, pun intended.

“Joan’s enormously conflicted feelings—and those of Petr Ilyich himself—led into a love duet that just plain didn’t work. Joan had to sing about how miserable she was and agonize about breaking her holy vow, abandoning all hope of heaven, by loving Lionel.  A real downer…

“While indisputably Tchaikovsky was a giant among composers, I’m afraid as a struggling poet he fell flat on his face in this obligatory love duet. Maybe you’ll think I’m betraying the role of translator—my sincere apologies—but I’ve almost totally rewritten the love duet.  So sue me!

“There was a brief phrase in it, ‘marvelous gift of love.’ Tchaikovsky apparently wrote those words recalling a charming but depressing chorus of minstrels in Act Two. They sang that love’s a gift from God, a flower sent from heaven, a magic talisman that enchants us and enthralls the soul with rapture, etc., etc.

“Since turnabout is supposedly fair play, I took the romantic sentiments of that early chorus and turned them into an ecstatic love duet. It may not be Shakespeare, but now it works, by golly.”

I suppose simply rewriting a love duet isn’t alone enough to make a world premiere. What I didn’t tell the Krewe was that to make the new duet work I had to adjust a number of lines in Acts III and IV to redeem Joan from Tchaikovsky’s casting her as a terrible sinner, to provide her with spiritual enlightenment, and to re-frame her execution at the stake as not an ignoble punishment for moral failure but as an apotheosis, a virgin martyr’s crown and the rapture of God’s divine embrace awaiting her in heaven.

Therein lies the rationale for calling the New Orleans Opera production of my new translation a world premiere. Nobody has ever seen this now truly grand opera before.

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Another Rather Large Whoop!

You’re probably not interested in hearing the involved backstory of this exciting post, but I’m going to tell you anyway.

Forty years ago, I was working for OPERA America, a service organization for opera companies. That was how I came by a commission from Lotfi Mansouri of the Canadian Opera Company to translate Tchaikovsky’s Russian libretto for his opera “Maid of Orleans.”  To be sung in English, their production (1978) in Toronto and Ottawa was called more simply “Joan of Arc.”  Attending its rehearsals, revelling in the performances, and lecturing about the work were the pinnacle of my academic career in Russian (which I’d abandoned some years before).

The next year (1979) David DiChiera of the Michigan Opera Theatre chose to mount another production, which I attended with greatest pleasure. And then the translation lay on my shelf for four decades. In January of this year, probably because forty years is a somehow hallowed cycle, I must have sensed that the iron was hot and decided to strike.

Out of the New Mexico blue I wrote a concise letter proposing that in view of the city’s great connection with La Pucelle de Orleans, the New Orleans Opera should do a production of Tchaikovsky’s opera. As encouragement, I added that the company would be welcome to use my English translation gratis.

Robert Lyall of NOO and I had phone conversations of great interest, and in May he called me to say that they had indeed decided to produce the opera in their 2019-2020 season—using my translation. I was totally delighted and offered to “polish” the translation up a bit—after forty years, I figured I might have matured a mite as a poet—especially the love duet…

So that’s my rather large whoop! JOAN OF ARC WILL RIDE AGAIN!  Exact dates TBA.

“Polishing” the translation has been a renewed joy. I can still hear the singers from forty years ago singing the lines and can easily make the words sound better!  Perversely, perhaps the most fulfilling part of re-translating is using my graphics program to set the printed language in the score.  In 1978, over white-out tape, I had hand-printed the translation on the pages, quite legible but still sloppy.  Now it looks for printed real!

I waited till July when my schedule with the YE GODS! show had normalized to start in on Joan again, and by the end of that month had completed Act I, which is one big honking act. This month I’ve been plugging along on the hefty Act II and hope to finish it in a couple weeks.  Acts III and IV are shorter, about the length of Act II, so I’ll be able to knock them off in September.  If the creek don’t rise…

For example, here is a page of the angels singing from Joan’s Aria with the Angels (the lines of which I included in my public library as an example of my translations). There were only minor language changes in this new version:

Page from Joan’s Aria with the Angels

But that’s not all! Apropos YE GODS!, I fully intend to finagle somehow doing an exhibition at New Orleans’ Delgado Museum of Art (in City Park) at the same time as the Joan production (in the Mahalia Jackson Theater).  Why not make it a double-barreled homecoming?  Prodigal New Orleans son (more or less) and Tulane grad brings a spectacular opera and an exceptional art show back home!

I insist on thinking positively!

Classical Music

I recently carried on about my love for Latin and Greek music, but that was in connection with dancing.  In connection with life, I love classical music.  However, as a teenager I was hooked on the early 45 rpm rock and roll—because I didn’t know any better.  Indeed, my aunt had sent me a big 78 rpm classical record with pretty music called Anitra’s Dance by a Grieg and some Hungarian dances by a Brahms, but for my taste in dancing, they weren’t quite Elvis.

When I got to Tulane in 1960, I totally lucked out to get a roommate named Roger, who was in the band and thus knew a lot about music.  From Roger I first heard about someone named Bach, and the record he played blew my mind.  Then he introduced me to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and the sound of my world was never the same again.  I immediately branched out on my own and discovered Vivaldi, Mozart, Saint Saens and a dozen other spectacular composers.

Many of the pieces I discovered way back then are still my favorites.  For example, Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the Emperor —I still prefer the performance I first heard over fifty years ago by Robert Casadesus.  Both that and the Saint Saens Symphony No. 3, the Organ have enormous emotional significance for me in connection with my first ever love.

All these many years I’ve kept on exploring classical music and composers and discovered so many treasures I couldn’t begin to list them in any priority order.  In general, if you name a composer I’ll have a favorite piece of his or her composition.  Or more than one.  My latest discovery several years ago was Luigi Boccherini.  His guitar quintets and cello concerti are sublime, for instance Quintet no. 9 in C Nightwatch in Madrid, or Quintet no. 1 in D minor , or hold on to your hats for no. 4 in D major Fandango.

I’ve always lamented not playing an instrument.  There was a false start in the fifth grade when I’d just been introduced to the piano keyboard and then we moved to the woods of Arkansas.  Ever since, I’ve had to make do with records, tapes, or cds and classical radio stations.  At home I live to classical music, and hundreds of compositions have become so familiar that often I can identify the piece from the first or second note.

Apropos radio stations, recently I’ve been so disgusted with the local classical station’s offensive commercials that I now listen online to all-music stations elsewhere—and to Pandora.  I enjoy it a lot because I’ve added stations for merengue and cumbia and can dance whenever I want to.

Speaking of familiarity with compositions, while driving, I’m known to sing along to favorites on the radio with la-la-la, dum-dum-de-doo, and such vocal antics (often with directorial gestures which may confuse or offend other drivers).  One evening last year I caught the tail end of the third Brandenburg Concerto and spontaneously whistled the last snatch of it right on key, like another instrument in the ensemble.  In my several earlier decades, whenever I’d tried to whistle, all I’d ever managed were vaguely obstreperous windy noises.  Imagine my surprise that I’d just made music with my mouth!

The next day on the same stretch of road, listening to a favorite Telemann trumpet voluntary, the Prince of Denmark’s March, the clarion notes of the trumpet made me give a little whistle.  The music grabbed something inside me, and I climbed right on that horn, the notes streaming from my lips without thought.   Part of me marveled at what my tongue was independently doing to change the notes.  The melody itself seemed to come without thought from somewhere in the back of my head.  I made it through most of it with short pauses for breath and at the end literally chortled in glee.

Meanwhile, it seems that without instrumental backup, I can’t whistle two notes of any tune together.  I guess my grandson’s right in calling me a karaoke whistler.  So what?  It’s how I can participate in my favorite music.  I just try not to do it when others can hear.