Thursday, November 22, 2007

Language Skills

One of a writer's greatest sources of joy is the time he spends playing with words. Writing paragraphs, shaping phrases -- discovering new and interesting sounds to use while trying to communicate one's thoughts and ideas to an audience -- these are the moments that give a writer intense intellectual satisfaction. With electronic word processing now the norm, I, too, am guilty of sending out enough computerized mailings to choke a horse. What alarms me, however, is how many writers and media professionals with electronic spell checkers at their fingertips simply cannot spell.

I once had a roommate who was a voracious reader. But, when I asked him to read something for me aloud, he raced through the text with no ear for the music hidden within the words. Speaking in a dry monotone, he read the passage as quickly as he possibly could, looked up at me and said "Okay. Now what?" This growing insensitivity toward the power of language, the beauty of spoken sound and the precision with which words can -- and should -- be used is a source of grave concern. In recent years I have encountered a rash of editors who do lunch very well but spell phonetically.

During a recent performance of Kurt Weill's Street Scene at the New York City Opera, I was appalled to see Supertitles -- written by a professional translator -- which, instead of saying "He should've done it," or "He should have done it," read "He should of done it."

This is coming from a person who specializes in linguistics!!!

As most of my friends know, I love doing crossword puzzles, Jumbles and other types of word games. Recently, someone came up to me and said, "You see you doing these things all the time was wondering... you think you"

After he walked away, I wanted to cry.

What's the big fuss, you ask? The big fuss is a recent performance of Capriccio I attended at the San Francisco Opera. Strauss's last masterpiece is basically a mind game in which poets and composers argue over whose contribution to opera is more important. Just like the age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, they keep debating which is more important: words or music. To demonstrate the power of each art form, the composer lets some passages be performed without music. Others without words.

The end result proves that the two art forms have a synergistic effect on each other. Each strengthens what the other achieves and adds an extra dimension which carries the dramatic thrust even further. The words are not overwhelmed by the music and, although there are times when the music has a definite upper hand in matters, its effect is never diminished by the presence of the poet's words.

This all sounds like pretty dry academic blather until one sees it transpire onstage and realizes that, without the use of Christopher Bergen's superb Supertitles, Capriccio -- which is an extremely 'talky' opera -- would not have stood a chance with today's audience. Strauss's opera was not written for the blood and thunder people who want tunes by Verdi or Puccinian schmaltz. Nor was it aimed at the "tired businessman's" crowd. Its appeal is strictly to the intellectual sensualist -- the perfectionist with a strong sense of aesthetics who seeks the most rarified and refined of operatic experiences.

In order to appreciate a work like Capriccio you can't just read Connoisseur. You have to be one. Here's why:

The opening sequence of the San Francisco Opera's new production (designed by the late Mauro Pagano, who died of AIDS) features a group of string musicians seated in a dimly-lit salon, making music. It is one of the most simple, unaffected dramatic moments in all of opera. Although carefully constructed by director John Cox and exquisitely framed by Thomas J. Munn's lighting, the scene is deliberately underplayed, letting the sheer magic of Strauss's music fill the auditorium with the kind of luxuriant radiance one feels as a sedative begins to take its effect on the nervous system. The mind is alert enough to appreciate the glory of the music. But the body is already floating on a cloud.

Perhaps it's the other way around.

Toward the end of the opera another such passage, requiring no words from the singers and little, if any, stage action transpires. It is an orchestral interlude of such emotional intensity, ethereal beauty and cathartic joy that, as the musicians keep playing, all the worries of the world seem to evaporate into thin air. In several bars of musical nirvana, one experiences an intensely private moment of spiritual salvation amidst 3,000 people seated in a darkened auditorium.

That, very simply, sums up the magic of music.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 22, 1990.

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