MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Handel’s Witty, Urbane, Subversive Art: Staging Partenope

partenope-poster

My new essay for San Francisco Opera, where Christopher Alden’s award-winning production of Partenope opens this week.

Handel’s Witty, Urbane, Subversive Art: Staging Partenope

Even adjusted for inflation, his operas are now doing far better box office (255 years after his death) than he could have ever wished at the height of his career.

No doubt George Frideric Handel — as the German-born Georg Friedrich Händel rebranded himself in his adoptive hometown of London — would have relished the irony. Only a sensibility finely attuned to the ironic could have created the delicious blend of erotic longing and satire that defines his treatment of Partenope.

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Filed under: essay, Handel, opera, San Francisco Opera

Finding the Key: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

“What do we call visible light? We call it color. But… really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible,” is the lesson that beams in on the short-wave radio. The hyper-curious, gifted, white-haired German orphan Werner Pfennig and his sensitive sister Jutta listen in, escaping through the invisible waves for a moment from the coal-mining town of Zollverein.

This is just one of many memorably etched moments in Anthony Doerr’s new novel, All the Light We Cannot See. I became a fan of Doerr’s writing last year when his short story collection Memory Wall fell into my hands. Doerr possesses the rare gift of a distinctive style that avoids mannerism and that endows his characters — well, most of them — with depth and compassionate believability.

The beauty of Doerr’s fiction is both stylistic and structural. His lyrical, keenly observed prose in All the Light We Cannot See supports a meticulously crafted and layered narrative. The narrative follows a more or less old-fashioned model, using a thriller plot as the engine for what is really of interest: the development of its two main characters, the blind French girl Marie-Laure and Werner, as the horrors of the Second World War grimly unfold around them.

Doerr dextrously interleaves different points of view while time-warping back and forth from the climactic scenes in the walled port city of Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, just after D-Day in the summer of 1944. The tone similarly blends aspects of a fable with penetrating realism.

I agree with William T. Vollmann‘s assessment that one major flaw is the two-dimensional portrayal of Sgt. Maj. Reinhold von Rumpel: an almost comic-book Nazi villain hell-bent on his quest for a rare blue diamond known as the Sea of Flame. This Nazi’s “wickedness and physical loathsomeness are offset by nothing that could make him into a rounded character,” observes Vollmann. “His unbelievability exemplifies a mistake writers often make when describing monsters.”

And Vollmann captures the “old-fashioned” quality of Doerr’s achievement here when he notes that All the Light We Cannot See “is more than a thriller and less than great literature. As such, it is what the English would call ‘a good read.'”

Here’s how the author explains what he means by the title:

It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant).

It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.

Why continue to write about WWII? Doerr from his NPR interview with Arun Rath:

We’re losing thousands of people for whom World War II is memory every day. In another decade, there will be nobody left — very very few people left — who can remember the war. And so history becomes something that becomes slightly more malleable.

And I worry about how my own sons, my 10-year-old sons, are learning about the war, whether it’s through video games or the History Channel. Often, particularly politicians, they’re often presenting the war as a very black-and-white narrative. I worry that that’s dangerous. I think it’s important to empathize with how citizens come to a certain point, and you know, that might be a more meaningful way to try and avoid what had happened.

Filed under: book recs, literature

Interviewing Sam Harris

Sam Harris

I ran into this old interview I did years ago with the brilliant and hugely controversial neuroscientist, philosopher, and gadfly thinker Sam Harris.

It’s actually a decade old, from when I was still an editor at Amazon (and when Amazon was, let’s just say, a very different place). The subject was the first book by the prolific Mr. Harris, The End of Faith, which went on to win the 2005 PENN Award for Nonfiction.

Interview with Sam Harris: The Mortal Dangers of Religious Faith
Not long before the birth of Christ, in an age of violence and turmoil, the Roman poet and Epicurean philosopher Lucretius wrote an epic masterpiece titled De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”). His goal, in part, was to liberate humankind from the religious superstitions that he believed stood in the way of true peace of mind and happiness.

Author Sam Harris plays the role of a contemporary Lucretius in his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Harris received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and is a doctoral candidate in the field of neuroscience.

Well aware that a book about the inherent dangers of institutional, dogmatic religion would court controversy, Harris wrote The End of Faith out of a sense of urgency regarding what he argues constitutes perhaps the greatest threat we face today. He shared his thoughts about the character of dogmatic faith versus mysticism, the role of reason in civil discourse, and the hope that humans can overcome the propensity toward religious violence before it’s too late.

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Filed under: book recs, interview, philosophy, religion

Love and War: Partenope

Just to whet your appetite: a snippet from this deliciously sophisticated Handel comedy.

I’ll post my new essay on Handel’s Partenope as soon as San Francisco Opera publishes it. The production, which took the Olivier Award for Best Opera when it premiered at English National Opera, is directed by Christopher Alden, and I had a chance to spend time with him as he was rehearsing the SFO cast (a dream cast, I might add).

Filed under: directors, Handel, San Francisco Opera

Built-In Beauty

The Seattle Architecture Foundation’s new season has begun. Current tour schedules listed at http://seattlearchitecture.org/tours

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Photo by Monique Blanchard Photo by Monique Blanchard

My latest piece for City Arts :

The Smith Tower celebrated its 100th birthday earlier this month, and to mark the architectural anniversary visitors were able to enjoy the Tower’s Chinese Room and the vistas from the Observation Deck for the original admission price collected in 1914—a budget-busting 25 cents.

Of course, Smith Tower is always just “there,” part of the ever-present scenery of daily life in downtown Seattle. Maybe on your checklist of show-off-the-city items for visitors. But try for a moment to ignore the familiarity of icons like this.

Because architecture is so integrated into our everyday patterns, it’s easy to take the urban landscape for granted—buildings, facades, interiors, walkways, skylines—yet at the same time they profoundly influence the way we experience those everyday patterns, at however unconscious a level.

It’s the mission of the Seattle Architecture Foundation (SAF) to “awaken people to these…

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Filed under: Uncategorized

St. Lawrence String Quartet at 25

SLSQ

One of my favorite string quartets is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a typical overdrive of crative activity. Here’s my recent portrait of the St. Lawrence for Stanford Arts:

“It’s a great time both to be playing in a string quartet and to be writing string quartets,” remarks Geoff Nuttall, first violinist and cofounder of the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ). He’s thrilled about how both pursuits—those of the recreative performing artist and of the composer who creates from scratch—will be fused in three distinctive ways during the course of the SLSQ’s upcoming season at Bing Concert Hall.

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Filed under: chamber music, commissions, John Adams, string quartet

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