Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Embracing Death

Suicide is painless (at least that's what the folks at M*A*S*H try to tell us) but, with the current health crisis forcing many people to analyze the quality of living they can anticipate as their bodies succumb to a disease process, the act of taking one's own life is becoming, if you'll pardon the expression, a matter of grave concern. Lately, our culture has become more and more obsessed with the idea of suicide. Depressed teenagers hang themselves, corporations hoping to fend off unfriendly takeovers adopt poison pill policies -- even the Hemlock Society has begun advertising its materials in this newspaper.

In a culture which is loathe to deal realistically with the subject of death, it's always interesting to note why some brave people nevertheless make a rational choice to terminate their own lives. The most obvious reasons would seem to be their inabilities to cope with failure or withstand the pressures of success. After all, ruined romances, financial fiascos and career-oriented catastrophes offer prime incentives to check out and, once the decision to do so has been made, the only thing which matters is the manner in which the dreadful deed is executed.

In the past few months I've attended three productions whose protagonists all chose to embrace death. One woman chose death as the final statement of her life-long commitment to a romantic ideal; another opted for suicide as a matter of religious principle. The third, a gay man, chose death because, having attained thrilling heights in his work, he could no longer tolerate the stifling harassment he suffered because his homosexuality was still a criminal offense in the eyes of a petty bureaucrat.


For many years I'd longed to see a production of Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe and, in May, I finally caught two performances of this opera while spending a leisurely weekend in Long Beach aboard the R.M.S. Queen Mary. In its own curious way, the Long Beach area plays host to the memories of several classic death scenes. We all remember Shelley Winters swimming through the boiler room of the S.S. Poseidon (which was modeled after the Queen Mary) but I wonder how many readers have ever visited the San Pedro Maritime Museum, which contains the scale model used in the filming of The Poseidon Adventure and two beautiful cutaway models (whose public rooms have been decorated in miniature according to their original designs) of the Titanic and the Lusitania.

The mere mention of these vessels' names evokes bittersweet memories similar to those which come to mind when discussing the curious fate of Elizabeth (Baby Doe) Tabor who, once widowed, clung to her husband's Matchless Mine in Leadville, Colorado and was found there, frozen to death, in March of 1935. Although the story of the love affair between Horace and Baby Doe Tabor is a classic tale of the American West, one of my hosts for my weekend in Long Beach had never heard of Baby Doe, the unsinkable Molly Brown or any of the other folk heroes who emerged from the glory days of Denver society. "Hey, I grew up in California," she shrugged. "Like, y'know, we never learned about any of that stuff in school."

Thanks to Randall Behr's spirited baton and Peter Mark Schifter's stage direction, the Long Beach Opera presented a highly commendable version of Moore's melodic American opera. Richard Fredericks performed strongly as Horace Tabor, Michael Gallup's cameo appearance as William Jennings Bryan was appropriately full of bluster and Seattle's Geraldine Decker made a lovably crass and fleshy Mama McCourt. The thrust stage of the Long Beach Convention Center's Terrace Theatre helped to make this production a much more intimate experience than one would normally expect.

Although San Francisco Opera's Ruth Ann Swenson sang her first Baby Doe in this production with a great deal of charm and vocal strength, the evening really belonged to mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, whose stern portrayal of the jilted Augusta Tabor ranks as one of this year's towering achievements in opera/musical theatre. Castle (whose performance as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd nearly topped Angela Lansbury's achievement) is the proud owner of one of those rare and sorely underrated musical gifts: a genuinely operatic voice which is backed by profound dramatic skills and a superb sense of musicianship. I'd watch this incredible artist sing excerpts from the phone book any day.


Although, by remaining true to the great love of her life, Baby Doe froze to death at the entrance to Leadville's Matchless Mine, most other women have a touch of pyromania in their hearts. Some like it hot (Brunnehilde's not the only flamer in the operatic repertoire) and Bellini's Norma certainly knows the dramatic value of a good fire sale. After revealing to her fellow Druids that she has secretly borne two children created with the illicit sperm of a Roman proconsul, Norma ends her three hours of warbling her religious and political nonsense by mounting a nearby pyre and sacrificing her less than virgin body to the gods.

In April, I traveled to Houston for the first acoustical test of the city's new Wortham Arts Center and a chance to hear Ghena Dimitrova's Norma. A year ago, when heard in recital in Houston's Jones Hall, Dimitrova was a knockout -- belting out her arias with the force and intensity of a musical laser gun. However, when seen on stage in San Francisco's ill-fated production of Verdi's Il Trovatore and in Houston's version of Bellini's Norma, she left a noticeably different impression.

Partially due to the sheer lung power possessed by this soprano, the performance I attended may well be remembered as the loudest rendition of Norma I've ever heard in my life. Although Dimitrova managed some exquisitely shaded lyrical moments, her formidable voice seemed to challenge mezzo-soprano Stefania Toczyska and tenor Giuseppe Giacomini to pull out all stops in their efforts to match the Bulgarian diva's dazzling display of decibels. Alas, Dimitrova is no great shakes as an actress and, on this occasion, could not nail down a high C to save her life.

Thus, despite Daniel Oren's animated conducting, this Norma became one of those performances which felt as if it would never end. While I enjoyed many of John Copley's directorial ideas, was drawn to the earthy look of Robin Don's sets (this production was rented from the Royal Opera at Covent Garden) and admired the leathery, sci-fi beefcake appeal of some of Bob Ringwood's costumes for the male Druids, this particular performance never really caught fire. And, no matter how you cut it, without the excitement of a high priestess who can hit all her high notes, those Druids are left barking up the wrong tree.


While Baby Doe and Norma may have met noble deaths by clinging to heroic ideals, life was not as kind to Alan Turing. The British mathematician who helped to crack the Nazi's code during World War II, Turing's homosexuality proved to be his ultimate downfall. As a historical lesson, Hugh Whitemore's Breaking the Code will not shock politically aware gays since it tells a tale of sexual embarrassment which has often been repeated in the military. But, in a time when heterosexual trysts in foreign embassies continue to endanger the national security, it's fascinating to see how the bureaucratic mind works when confronted with a genius who has done no wrong but whose lifestyle does not fit the textbook's guidelines for maintaining a security clearance.

For Turing, whose work in breaking the Nazi's code allowed him to achieve one of the greatest breakthroughs in military history, the loneliness of his work as a mathematician left few if any equally challenging heights for his brain to scale. His harassment at the hands of petty police officers becomes all the more poignant when one realizes how introverted and desperately innocent Turing must have been. "When there is no way for the brain to continue at harmony with the body, why not leave the body behind?" he muses, while biting into an apple which he has rolled in a cyanide powder. "After all, this is merely a simple experiment to see if the mind can continue without the body."

Derek Jacobi's monumental performance as the stuttering protagonist will travel from London (where I saw it in June) to Broadway next year and, while this characterization of the painfully shy mathematician from Turing's childhood to his final moments is a triumph of theatrical technique, Breaking the Code poses several disturbing questions to its audience. Ironically, whether or not to commit suicide is the least disturbing of the lot. More to the point: Once you've accomplished something unique, savored the best there is or achieved the impossible, what do you do for an encore?

If, because of the very uniqueness of your situation, you can't create new challenges for yourself, do you mark time until life is over or take action to end the meaningless years of waiting to die? It's the challenge faced by every overachiever. How I wish I knew the answer.

* * * * * * * * * *

This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on August 6, 1987.

No comments: