Friday, January 4, 2008

Opera guide 1: Dido & Aeneas

This is the first installment in what is going to be an open-ended series on my favorite operas.

Henry Purcell's Dido & Aeneas (1689) is an oddity among 17th-century operas. Most Baroque operas are 3 hours long or more, and have a happy ending, however contrived; Dido takes less than an hour to sweep from the introduction of the characters to its tragic conclusion. The primary language of Baroque opera is Italian (although there's also a parallel French tradition); Dido is in English. As a result of its unusual qualities, Dido is an ideal starting point for anyone (or at least, any English speaker) interested in exploring opera, and particularly Baroque opera. Another reason it's ideal is that the music is very tuneful and, especially at key moments, ravishingly beautiful.

The outline of the story is taken from Book IV of Virgil's Aeneid. In Virgil's great poem, Aeneas, fleeing with a few followers the destruction of Troy by the Greeks, finds a safe haven in Carthage, ruled by Queen Dido. Against her better judgment Dido finds herself falling in love with the valiant warrior, a love that is fatefully consummated when, during a hunting party, the couple take shelter from a sudden storm in a secluded cave. Soon, however, Mercury--the messenger of Jupiter--appears to Aeneas and commands him to sail to Italy to found, in Rome, a new Troy. The abandoned Dido, angry, heartbroken and desperate, commits suicide out of "the grief / Of lovers bound unequally by love" (in Robert Fitzgerald's translation[1]); Aeneas, from the deck of his ship heading seaward, sees the smoke rising from her funeral pyre.

Purcell's librettist, the poet Nahum Tate, was famously called "a cold writer, of no invention" by Alexander Pope in The Dunciad. But Tate's changes to Virgil's story actually make it more dramatically complex and stageworthy. He introduces the character of a sorceress, who is Dido's sworn enemy and who plots to destroy her; the scenes in the witches' cave are delightfully dreadful. In the opera it is the sorceress who sends a spirit "in form of Mercury himself" to command Aeneas to leave Carthage; and in Tate's version it is not just Dido's pyre, but the entire city that burns (although Tate is discreetly inexplicit about the cause of Dido's death).

Any performance of Dido & Aeneas succeeds or fails on the basis of its Dido, and my favorite recording of the opera features Lorraine Hunt (later Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) in the role. She is a powerfully moving Dido, especially in her two great tragic arias: "Ah! Belinda, I am press'd" and "When I am laid in earth." Nicholas McGegan conducts the period-instrument Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra beautifully: he's sprightly in the dance sections, but brings out the full pathos of Dido's tragic arias. McGegan does go for a very characterful portrayal of the witches and sailors, which may bother some people. And while Michael Dean is a good Aeneas, Ellen Rabiner's Sorceress has a broad vibrato that makes her sound as though she's been airlifted in from some Wagner opera. But despite these minor stylistic issues and several other fine recordings, Lorraine Hunt's Dido makes this my first choice.

Here is Hunt's performance of Dido's first aria, "Ah! Belinda, I am press'd":

The words are, "Ah! Belinda, I am press'd / With torment not to be confess'd. / Peace and I are strangers grown; / I languish 'til my grief is known / Yet would not have it guess'd."

Many modern productions portray the sorceress as an aspect of Dido, and the roles are often performed by the same singer. Choreographer Mark Morris created a danced version of the opera in which he brilliantly enacted both Dido and the Sorceress; this is Dido's death scene (Dido is sung by Jennifer Lane):

The Mark Morris Dance Group, 1994

(Again, if the image doesn't load for some reason, here is a direct link.) Some of the commenters about this clip on YouTube are obviously nonplussed that Dido is being portrayed by a man. They are clearly unaware of how thoroughly gender was bent in Baroque opera. While a male Dido is unusual, a male sorceress is less so (perhaps it enhances her uncanniness). But even more surprising, in the first performance of Dido it's likely that the role of Aeneas was sung by a woman.

A single copy survives of the libretto from the first performance, "by Young Gentlewomen" at a boarding school for girls in 1689.[2] Recently a libretto for John Blow's Venus & Adonis was discovered which was printed for an April 1684 performance of that opera at the same girls' school.[3] The Venus libretto mentions that it was "Perform'd before the King. Afterwards at Mr. Josias Priest's Boarding School at Chelsey." Since Dido was modelled on Venus, some musicologists have speculated that Dido also must have been first performed at court. However, while both an early score and the libretto for Venus explicitly mention a court performance, the sole existing contemporary libretto for Dido does not. The 1684 libretto for Venus does have contemporary hand-written annotations indicating that the part of Adonis was sung by Priest's daughter; presumably the same practice--that is, having all the parts sung by women--was also followed in the 1689 Dido performance.

Alas, no score has yet been discovered that dates from Purcell's short lifetime (he died in 1695, in his mid-30s). The earliest surviving score is from around 1750, although it was apparently copied from a pre-1720 source.[4] There is a prologue in the libretto for which no music has been found, and other issues (such as the original range of the parts of Aeneas and the Sailor) that will remain a matter of speculation.

Nonetheless, what has survived is dramatically compelling and spectacularly beautiful. If you're unfamiliar with Dido & Aeneas, the Lorraine Hunt Lieberson recording is an excellent place to begin your acquaintance.


1. Virgil. The Aeneid. Robert Fitzgerald, trans. New York: Vintage, 1983.

2. Ellen Harris. Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

3. Richard Luckett. A new source for 'Venus and Adonis'. The Musical Times, v. 130 (no. 1752), Feb. 1989, 76-79.

4. A. Margaret Laurie. Allegory, sources, and performance history. In Curtis Price, ed., Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas: An authoritative score (pp. 42-59). New York: Norton, 1986.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Chori Chori Chupke Chupke

Chori Chori Chupke Chupke ("Quietly, Secretly") (2001), like Kya Kehna (1997/2000) (a previous Preity Zinta film that also centers on questions of sexuality and motherhood) is frustrating and fascinating, regressive and progressive, taboo-breaking and convention-affirming, in roughly equal measure.

A brief plot synopsis for those who haven't seen Chori Chori Chupke Chupke: Raj (a remarkably subdued and so surprisingly tolerable Salman Khan), the fabulously rich grandson of a major industrialist, marries Priya (Rani Mukherjee), who is soon pregnant. But due to the requirements of the plot, she has an accident that results not just in a miscarriage, but in her permanent infertility. Since Raj's granddad (Amrish Puri) has such an emotional investment in great-grandchildren, Raj and Priya decide to conceal her condition from the family, and Raj goes in search of a woman to be a surrogate mother.

A search which takes him, as it would any reasonable person, to a bar that features the dancing girl Madhu (Preity Zinta). No sooner does Raj watch Madhu bumping, grinding and crawling across tables in "Diwani Diwani" ("Crazy, Crazy") than he decides that this is the ideal surrogate mother for his and Priya's child.

One problem: no, it's not that Madhu can quote the hourly and nightly rates for her company, or that she has trouble extrapolating those rates to a full year. It's that she lacks manners: she's crude, loud, and tacky, which will never do. So Raj embarks on a Pygmalion/My Fair Lady/Pretty Woman makeover of Madhu.

It has to be said that Preity Zinta does a great job of making you cringe at Madhu's crassness, while keeping her character basically sympathetic. The whole setup is misogynistic and classist; on the other hand, when just before the intermission Madhu is finally revealed as the Preity Zinta we know and love, elegantly striding through an airport in a chic pantsuit, the transformation is striking. I guess the movie ferreted out my own unconscious class prejudices.

So Raj, Priya and Madhu jet off to Switzerland, where they'll live for a year in order to conceal Madhu's pregnancy and perform several dance numbers with spectacular background scenery. Of course, Madhu isn't impregnated in a clinic or even using a turkey baster, but the old-fashioned way. Despite the double suspension of disbelief involved (first, that this incredibly rich couple is unaware of the medical technologies of surrogacy, and second, that Raj doesn't find the transformed Madhu to be attractive), the impregnation scene is actually rather sweet--Raj can only perform after he's drunk enough to imagine that Madhu is really Priya. One night, of course, is all it takes for Madhu to get pregnant--and to fall hopelessly in love with Raj.

Oddly enough, Raj's family begins to wonder at his insistence that they have to stay in Switzerland for a year, and they show up in a surprise visit to convince the couple to return to India for the birth. (Priya stuffs a pillow under her sari to fake pregnancy, and Madhu is passed off as the wife of a business associate.) There's a remarkable scene in which Priya's mother-in-law (Farida Jalal) massages Madhu's swollen feet and legs with oil. In Hindu culture, of course, the feet are considered to be the most unclean part of the body (thus the gesture of touching an honored person's feet as a sign of respect), and the feet of a prostitute/lower caste woman especially so. Preity does a great job expressing the conflicting emotions this act--the touching of her feet by an elder/superior--arouses in Madhu: shame, embarrassment, pleasure, gratitude.

Back in India, Raj's granddad has arranged a ghod-bharai ceremony for the "expectant" Priya. Wanting the child to be blessed, Priya convinces Madhu to attend the ceremony in her place. Of course, a semi-transparent veil is enough to conceal Madhu's identity during the ceremony, since Preity and Rani look so similar. It's not like Preity has rosebud lips and sharper chin while Rani has a generously wide mouth and a squarer jaw, or anything like that...

I realize that to complain about the implausibilities of a Bollywood plot is to miss the point. Instead, I should just confess to enjoying the pleasures the film offers--the obvious onscreen chemistry among all the principles, and particularly the terrific performances of Preity and Rani. There's a great confrontation between the two in the final part of the film where Madhu decides to keep the baby and the saintly Priya finally lashes out in very convincing anger. If the conclusion of the film reaffirms that in Bollywood, motherhood is the condition that absolves all sins, it's just the price you pay for admission. And under the, er, veil of reaffirming traditional values, the movie has managed to suggest a number of fairly radical propositions: that one's identity is more a matter of life circumstances than of ineluctable fate; that the reduction of a woman's value to her childbearing ability is highly damaging; and that love--like generosity and self-sacrifice--takes no heed of caste or class boundaries. As with many Bollywood films, you just have to take the crunchy with the smooth.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Music as a drug: Musicophilia and This Is Your Brain On Music

Two books have been published recently on music and the brain: Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007) and Daniel J. Levitin's This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (2006). Both offer fascinating insights into the way brains perceive and process musical information, and the sometimes startling effects music can have (or fail to have) on us. However, both books are ultimately unsatisfying, because they bring us no closer to understanding the deepest mysteries of music: why it is so necessary to us, and why it can have such profound emotional (and even physical) effects.

To take the books in reverse chronological order, Musicophilia offers anecdotes about "the overwhelming and at times helpless sensitivity of our brains to music." Sacks introduces us to Alzheimer's patients who can still play Bach fugues flawlessly, even though they can't remember doing so five minutes later; virtually immobilized Parkinson's patients who, under the influence of music, can temporarily regain smooth, controlled movement; an unmusical man who, after he is struck by lightning in early middle age, is compelled to become a pianist and composer; people with perfect pitch who don't enjoy music, and profoundly musical people who can't carry a tune. (Incidentally, Sacks offers evidence that as infants, most of us possess perfect pitch--an ability, like that of learning languages, that we lose to a greater or lesser extent as we grow older.)

Although Sacks devotes a chapter to the question of music and emotion--pointing out, for example, the apparent paradox that when you're sad, happy music can seem trivial and sad music can be consolatory--the chapter concludes where it should begin, telling us, in effect, what we already know. Most of us have direct experience of music's power to evoke deep emotions and bring long-buried memories to the surface of our consciousness. So most of us would expect, for example, that the emotional centers in the brain would be involved in musical perception. While the experimental confirmation of this is a dazzling technical achievement (in which Daniel Levitin has played a large role), it gets us no closer to understanding why this should be so.

In This Is Your Brain On Music, Levitin attempts to provide an explanation. Levitin's own curiosity about musical effects dates from his days in the punk rock scene in San Francisco. Today he is a neuroscientist who performs functional MRIs on the brains of people listening to music, and tries to elucidate the synaptic structures in the brain that are involved in musical perception. As you might guess with something as complex as music (which has rhythm, absolute and relative pitch, melody, harmony and dissonance, timbre, loudness and softness, etc.) many areas of the brain are involved, including the areas considered to be the earliest to evolve.

Levitin spends the final part of his book speculating about why music might be adaptive in an evolutionary sense. But this "explanation" can only ever remain speculative. Yes, as language developed it would clearly have been advantageous for our ancestors to be able to distinguish the nuances of meaning carried by variations in pitch and rhythm. However, it's a long way from figuring out whether a particular grunt means "I'm threatening you" or "So what?" to creating a musical passage that causes otherwise rational adults to break down and weep helplessly. Like all explanations proposed by evolutionary psychology, Levitin's for the adaptive role of music can't be tested; in Karl Popper's famous formulation, it's unscientific because it's not falsifiable.

In any case, it strikes me that it is equally probable that musical appreciation might be, in Stephen Jay Gould and Roger Lewontin's term, a "spandrel"--that is, something that arose as a side-effect of other evolutionary developments, rather than directly as a product of natural selection itself.

Levitin's evolutionary explanation also ignores music's huge cultural dimension: we learn to hear particular sounds in particular ways. It's not clear that a passage of music that sounds mournful in the context of the familiar Western diatonic scale would necessarily sound the same way to an auditor who was only familiar with, say, a pentatonic scale. And if not, music is like language: something for which there seems to be an innate propensity in most of us from birth, but whose specific meanings (including emotional content) are culturally determined.

In any case, despite my criticisms, I found both books to be highly interesting. And I applaud both authors for wrestling, even if unsuccessfully, with the ultimate mystery of their subject: what gives rise to our hunger for, profound pleasure in, and deep emotional response to, music of many different kinds. Perhaps there are some questions that brain-imaging technology, amazing as it is, will forever be powerless to answer.