|From "Wozzeck," photo courtesy of the Lyric Opera
Are you tired of the Saturday fun activity? I am, sort of. Okay, a lot. Plus I'm running out of halfway enigmatic photos, not that you guys ever are stumped.
So let's take a breather, at least for today. If this is a rend in the fabric of your universe, let me know, and I'll continue it next week. If you heave a sigh of relief, let me know that too, so I can be confident I judged correctly.
For today, I've unearthed this chestnut, in honor of Wozzeck, the Berg opera that opens at the Lyric Sunday. This 1998 column is one of the first I wrote that mentions opera, and is significant for several reasons.
First, it mentions Wozzeck, which I had seen as an entry-level subscriber when the Lyric last presented it in 1992. My central memory is of screeching, and a woman on a swing, and wanting to get out of there with a passion that could not have been greater had the place been on fire.
Second, while there are many criticisms that can be leveled at the atonal, jarring piece, I manage to malign it falsely in two ways, by alluding to its length—at 100 minutes long, it's one of the shortest operas—and an intermission, of which there are usually none because of the aforementioned brevity.
Third, after this column appeared, I received a scorching letter from Magda Krance, then and now the proud spokesperson for the opera. The letter ended up a crumpled ball hurled across the newsroom—just can't do that with email, alas. So I can't check what was in it, but I remember her saying that I had become Bob Greene, a low insult for any writer, but particularly barbed because Magda and I had collaborated on the takedown of Greene that had appeared in Spy magazine in the late 1980s.
What I remember most about this episode was sitting at my typewriter, pounding out a reply, a number of replies, actually one after the other. I would write a letter in a hot fury, seal it up, stomp over to the mail basket, put it in, stomp back to my desk, fume, then leap up, stomp back, pluck the letter out, tear it up, return to my desk and write a new one. I did this at least three times.
A luxury lost in our digital, send-it-and-regret-it age.
The letter I finally sent began, "Ignoring your letter..." and suggested that a publicist doing her job would have taken me up on my offer of donating some proper light plates for the lobby of the Lyric, which has grand marble and brass and these sad industrial electric outlets.
It is a tribute to the plasticity of the human condition, and our respective professionalism that Magda and I managed to get past that little speed bump in our relationship, and have worked together lo these many years and become bosom buddies as I went from being a subscriber, sitting in the uppermost balcony, to a frequent commentator with a better seat.
I'll be attending Wozzeck later this week, and am keen to discover if my tastes have changed in nearly a quarter century.
In the meantime, let us return to the years of Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, a scandal whose annoyingness our young columnist tried to express by way of operatic metaphor. It's not a very good column, but then I was new to the job.
If you've ever sat through a really terrible opera, one of those
four-hour jobbies, always modern — say "Wozzeck" by Berg — that the
Lyric Opera seems to feel compelled to inflict upon its audience,
periodically, perhaps as penance for the joys of Mozart and Verdi,
then you might have already struck upon my technique of escape
It is the second act. Having spent the intermission begging my
wife to leave and salvage what remains of the evening (she refuses,
out of the charmed notion that the performers, 100 yards and two
balconies away, will feel badly if we do), I slump down in my red
plush seat. The opera unfolds, hideously.
So I leave, not in reality, but in imagination. I narrow my eyes
and go through the process: getting up, murmuring apologies, sliding
down the row, trying not to grind my butt in the faces of seated
Quick-step up the aisle. Pass through the door into the light.
The relief of the unmobbed coat check desk. The giddy reunion between
man and coat. The rush down the stairs. The careful noting of the
crooked beige plastic electric wall socket plates in the lobby, an
amazing lapse amid the glorious marble and brass (I'm going to dip my
toe into philanthropy some day and raise the money to buy the Lyric a
half dozen real brass socket covers for its lobby — the Neil
Steinberg Memorial Wall Plates). The final release into the
revivifying night air.
I found myself engaging in a similar escape last week, when
struck by the tsunami of the Lewinsky; Tripp tapes, followed hard by
the typhoon of the impeachment hearings. (We never have thought of a
proper name for this nightmare, have we? Maybe we should take a cue
from Conrad, and just call it the Horror).
How will this end? When will the face of the general public —
turned away in relief since the elections, now roughly grabbed and
shoved, like a naughty dog, back into the noisome mess — once again
be permitted to turn skyward and view the stars?
My personal moment of squirming despair came Thursday. I was in
a cab, on Lake Shore Drive. Of course, the radio was turned to Ken
Starr (all radios and televisions were; you could keep up with the
farce by just walking down the street, like with the Cubs in a
Cab radios only have two volumes, tantalizingly soft and
eardrum-piercing loud. Straining to hear Starr's pious palaver, I
asked the cabbie to turn the radio up. As punishment, I was forced to
endure Starr's voice sawing full volume through my head for the rest
of the trip.
When will this be over and what will that be like? Can we
conjure up a scenario that, like a fantasy tiptoe out of the opera
house, can give us a bit of balm against the nightmare grinding out
before our eyes? Since relief tarries, might we not at least imagine
My first impulse would be to say: No, it's not possible. Steven
Calabresi, a professor of constitutional law at Northwestern
University, floated a scenario in which the Senate would still be
arguing this issue in January, 2001. And that was his short version.
He also suggested the Senate could hold some sort of hearing hounding
Clinton after he leaves office (after? after!) to legally bar him
from holding future office.
With all due respect to Calabresi, he's out of his mind, showing
the sort of oblivious wish-fulfillment that has led the Republican
Party to the precipice and is now inspiring them to leap over into
If this nonsense is still being debated into 2001, there won't
be a Republican in Congress to vote on the matter. Bank on it.
As with all moralists who periodically grab the reins of the
nation and drive us toward a cliff, they don't get the idea of a gray
region. The moderate mass of America doesn't think in absolutes —
we're trying to get through the day, which often requires compromise,
a concept lost on zealots. Abortion is bad, but banning it is worse,
so the rights of the fetus, such as they are, are trumped by the
rights of the mother. Smut on the Internet is a problem, but
appointing a committee of bluenoses to try to sweep it clean is
worse. Clinton lied under oath, but he lied under oath about his sex
life in a proceeding that grew out of a garbage lawsuit mounted by
his enemies who hated him prior to all his supposed crimes and only
hate him more now.
But it will end, right? I bring you good news. It will. The
inquiry will grind on, the Republicans trying to expand it,
desperately. But society, which cares little now, will begin to care
less. The hearings will continue, but we won't notice them anymore.
New developments will get pushed to the back pages, to the last
segment before the weather. Newspapers will run a small box, back by
the astrology tables: "Today is the 147th day of the impeachment
hearings. Rep. Hyde said . . ."
This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times Nov. 22, 1998