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Recently there have been many reports in the media about the rapidly increasing number of school-age children diagnosed with ADHD.  But what about today's adults?  What about those of us who grew up at a time when a kid would not be considered psychologically abnormal unless he were found standing in his parents' bedroom with a smoking shotgun in his hands, staring at two bloodied corpses on the queen-size bed?  How many of us might have benefited from an early ADHD diagnosis, so that we would not have had to struggle through life as knuckleheads, dimwits, morons, or - in the words of loving but exasperated teachers - just plain fucking retards?

If you experience such pangs of regret from time to time and wish you could find out if you really suffer from this disorder, there is help for you too!  Below you will find a short yet remarkably accurate self-diagnostic test designed specifically for adults. 


 *      *      *

Adult ADHD Self-Diagnostic Test
_________________________________________________________
You should seek professional help if you exhibit at least two of the following symptoms:

(a)  feel restless while reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason;

(b)  fidget with hands or feet, or squirm in seat during the fourth hour of
        Handel's Giulio Cesare;

(c)  have difficulty concentrating on solving a system of non-linear 
        differential equations;

(d)  become moody and withdrawn when asked to recall the tone row in
        Berg's Violin Concerto;

(e)  turn hostile, aggressive, or violent if required to summarize six pages 
        of small-print legal disclaimers in the manual for a recently purchased    
        kitchen appliance.



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Recently I complained to my dentist that my teeth have become sensitive to cold.
He said I should consider moving to Florida...


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Imagine a situation in which I observe the suffering of an innocent human being.  Imagine also that, while I'm at it, there is a dreamy smile on my face, my eyelids are half closed, my lips are slightly parted, my fingers gently caress the armrests of my chair, and my breathing becomes progressively heavier and more rapid.  I think it would be perfectly reasonable for you to infer that the emotional (mental) states behind my behavioral responses are those of a full-fledged psychopath whose neural circuitry for empathy is either badly miswired or entirely missing.

When it comes to observing human suffering acted out on the operatic stage, I find myself, time and gain, making the same kind  of inference about the musical mind behind Donizetti's opere serie.[1]  Whether it is cold-blooded cruelty, shocking violence, or gruesome death, the emotional commentary on such events supplied by Donizetti's music makes me feel as if I am face to face (or, perhaps, ear to ear) with a textbook case of a psychopath.  How else am I to feel when Donizetti responds to human suffering with a gently swaying major key cantabile (a dreamy smile with eyelids half closed and lips slightly parted), in which a woodwind instrument traces an arched melodic line against the gracefully inflected figurations in the strings (fingers caressing the armrests of a chair), and which is often followed by a bouncy, euphoric cabaletta (rapid heavy breathing).

Of course, some Donizetti characters suffer in the state of delirium, in which case the lovely music may be taken to reflect the character's psychological withdrawal from the grimness of his or her circumstances.  But there are also plenty of Donizetti characters who suffer and die to the same kind of music without ever losing their grip on reality.  A typical example is Edgardo's serene, major key "suicide aria" Tu che a Dio spiegasti l'ali at the end of Lucia di Lammermoor.  The music's emotional profile is completely at odds with the mindset of a deeply traumatized man who is convinced that his life is no longer worth living, not to mention the fact that he finishes this lovely aria with the dagger already deep in his chest. 

Because Donizetti was known to be an unusually kind and generous person, I couldn't help but wonder about the reasons behind his psychopathic "compositional behavior".[2]  My guess it that at the time when Donizetti was coming up as an operatic composer, killing an innocent character on stage was still considered a serious affront to the social and aesthetic standards of decency and propriety.  In dealing with this kind of expectations (not to mention the vigilant censors), the options available to composers of serious operas were rather limited.  One was to devise ridiculously unmotivated happy conclusions to operas which, until the final scene, unfold as if spiraling toward a catastrophe. (Donizetti had done just that in some of his early operas.)  Another option - seemingly too speculative for musicologists to bother with, but one which I think Donizetti might have pursued in his most famous serious operas - was to retain the brutal and gory elements of the story while using music as a means for keeping the audience at a considerable emotional distance from the characters on stage.  With violence and death being musically aestheticized to the point where they only squeeze the viewer's heart instead of piercing it, Donizetti might have succeeded in keeping the public comfortable, but at the cost of presenting himself as a compositional psychopath whose music is marked by a strongly felt lack of empathy for the suffering of his characters.  That Donizetti's music also radiates a great deal of charm only adds to its pathological feel because excessive charm is one characteristic shared by many psychopaths.

Although decidedly not scholarly, this way of looking at Donizetti's music offered me something that the usual formalist perspectives on music history never could: a plausible explanation of why the operatic stock of this once immensely popular composer went into a century-long decline with the arrival of Verdi's so-called mature operas.[3]  So what if Verdi used a larger orchestra, if his vocal lines were more direct (with more functional than virtuosic ornamentation), and if his arias, duets, and finales were better integrated into the overall musical momentum (significantly diminishing their role as "units" of musical construction in favor of entire scenes)?  The average opera-goer probably cares little (if at all) about such analytic matters.[4]  What he does care about is the intensity of a musico-dramatic experience; and Verdi's formal innovations would be of no significance if they were not in the service of creating music of startlingly greater emotional authenticity.  After all, a Verdi tragic character like Rigoletto is made to suffer a lot, but surely not more than Donizetti's tragic characters who get beheaded by their siblings or poisoned by their mothers.  Yet it feels as if Rigoletto's suffering is vastly greater, and it does so only because when Rigoletto suffers, the music suffers with him.  The difference between, say, Donizetti's Lucia chirping to the glass harmonica obbligato in her "mad scene" and Verdi's Rigoletto gasping and growling in horror after hearing the Duke's distant reprise of La donna è mobile is the difference between music used to suppress our normal emotional responses and music used to amplify them.

If Verdi's music is psychologically much healthier than Donizetti's, it is still sufficiently manipulative to keep the public entertained by all the gore and violence taking place on stage.  Perhaps some kind of delicately controlled musical balance of emotional authenticity and psychopathic detachment is absolutely necessary for an operatic tragedy to achieve great and enduring popularity with the public.  If so, then Verdi seems to have mastered this balance better than most operatic composers: the Top 50 chart of operas performed all over the world in the last five seasons lists ten(!) Verdi tragedies, five of which are in the top twenty (including the number one spot).  By contrast, this chart contains none of the critically acclaimed operatic tragedies whose music can be said to have a clean (or almost clean) bill of psychological health: Elektra, Erwartung, Wozzeck, and Die Soldaten, to mention a few. 

The received opinion on the relatively marginal status of these 20th century masterpieces is that the public is allergic to music it finds incomprehensible because of constant unresolved dissonances and absence of easily recognizable thematically and harmonically guided narratives.  But what if the public comprehends this kind of music all too well and simply resents the discomfort caused by the music's complete empathy with fear, disorientation, panic, anguish, and pain experienced by the characters on stage?  
     What if the psychopathology in the music of popular operatic tragedies is there only to satisfy our perverse attraction to observing human suffering from a mixture of psychologically normal and psychopathic points of view?  
     What if composers of operatic tragedies are ultimately applied psychologists who design stimuli of a special kind (temporally organized sounds) to give us the desired experience?  

In that case I would probably owe Donizetti an apology for calling him a "compositional psychopath".  He might have simply erred, as an applied psychologist, by adding too much psychopathology to the mix of musical stimuli, just as the 20th century composers of operatic tragedies erred by adding too little or none at all.


_______________

1.  I do not include Bellini in this discussion because his operas - with their combination of saccharine melodies,  amateurish orchestration (if arpeggiated bass accompaniments deserve to be called "orchestration" at all), and constipated dramaturgy - bore me to tears.  (And so do Chopin nocturnes, for that matter, which all sound like piano reductions of Bellini arias.)  As for Rossini,  I am in awe of his many comedies, but much of the music in his serious operas strikes me as contrived, plodding, and lifeless; and it invariably makes me think that Rossini  should have taken to heart Beethoven's insightful advice to stick to opera buffa so as not to do "violence to his nature".
     None of this is to say that Donizetti's serious operas are perfect (among the dozen or so that I know only one - Lucrezia Borgia - comes close to perfection), but only that they are far more interesting to me musically and dramatically than those penned by Bellini and Rossini.  The loss may be mine, but since I'm not a masochist, I don't write about things I don't find sufficiently interesting.

2.  I don't think that the bel canto style's commitment to writing gracefully and virtuosically for the voice made it impossible for Donizetti to give emotionally more appropriate musical responses to suffering.  After all, Mozart had already shown decades earlier that coloratura arias - e.g., the Queen of the Night's aria Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen - can express much darker emotions without sacrificing vocal grace or technical brilliance.  Also, some of Donzetti's orchestral preludes and interludes vouch for his ability to write music that is emotionally dark and brooding.

3.  Of course, Wagner had a lot to do with displacing the operatic works of pre-Verdi Italian composers.  But, in the present context, Wagner's fairytale operas - populated by gods, valkyries, and giants - are irrelevant because their music does not comment on the suffering of human characters.  Even Tristan and Isolde are not, strictly speaking, human characters because humans don't get to drink magic potions.

4.  In any case, the originality of Verdi's treatment of formal elements in his operas is often overstated.  Even his mature operas show significant debts to Donizetti, sometimes to the point of aping the older composer's devices.  A well-known example is the opening of Verdi's Rigoletto, in which the dark and brooding orchestral prelude suddenly dissolves into the festive din of offstage music, and which is an almost plagiaristic appropriation of the opening of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia.  Many additional examples of Verdi's debt to Donizetti are discussed in Winton Dean's "Donizetti's serious operas", Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 100(1), 1973, pp.123 - 141.



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A few more live recordings of Carter's music came my way, and I thought I should not delay adding them to the blog.
 
First there is one of Carter's last compositions, Two Controversies and a Conversation, performed early this year in Paris by P.L. Aimard and Collin Currie with the French RPO under J.P. Saraste.  The orchestral support is more relaxed than what David Robertson obtained from the NY Phil in their world premiere broadcast, but the French performance enjoys significantly better quality of recorded sound.
 
Next, there is Carter's Oboe Concerto performed by Holliger a couple of years ago with the St Paul Chamber O. under Thomas Zehetmair.  Compared to Holliger's pioneering live recording under Gielen, the St Paul performance sounds attractively mellow, even dreamy. 
 
Also from St Paul are two chamber pieces: Enchanted Preludes and Esprit rude... , performed by members of SPCO.

Then there is the very recent Dutch premiere of Carter's Flute Concerto with Emmanuel Pahud supported by the Dutch Radio CO under Michael Schonwandt.

The last item, and the only one with less than superior sound quality, is Carter's Quintet for Piano and Strings, performed by M.A. Hamelin and Arditti Quartet.  The stereo sound is acceptable (certainly for Carter fans), and I find it vastly superior to the over-processed and sickeningly "glossy" sound of Ursula Oppens' commercial recording.
   
   

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Any day of the week on which I would come across my first live recording of a favorite piece by Elliott Carter would be a good day.  It just happened to be this Friday, so I am happy to think of this day as my "Good Friday".
     The piece in question is Triple Duo, performed by the Doelen Ensemble on Dec. 4, 2008 at the Muziekgebouw aan't IJ in Amsterdam.  Although the old studio recording by the Fires of London (on Nonesuch) is splendid in every respect, there is no substitute for hearing Carter's playful music in a superbly engineered live recording which captures face to face, real time communication between musicians and their audience.



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In the real world, the average life expectancy of a woman is significantly greater than that of a man.  In the world of opera, by contrast, the average life expectancy of a lead female character is, to put it mildly, less than modest.  If she does not succumb to a fashionable disease in the prime of her life (La Traviata, La Boheme), she can look forward to being stabbed, strangled, or poisoned by a jealous lover (Carmen, Wozzeck), husband (Otello, Il Tabarro, I Pagliacci, Violanta), brother (La forza del destino), or rival (Rigoletto, Adriana Lecouvreur, Edgar).  On those rare occasions when the plot does not provide any of the already listed sources of early death, the soprano is expected to do the dark deed herself (La Gioconda, Madama Butterfly) or at least die of a broken heart brought about by sexual exploitation and emotional abuse in the hands of various men in her life (Manon Lescaut, Der Ferne Klang, Die Gezeichneten).  Even in operas with nominally optimistic endings the soprano may still meet with premature (and violent) death, if only as part of some lurid fantasy in the mind of the male protagonist (Die tote Stadt).

Of course, not every opera allows its male protagonist to survive past the final curtain and leave us with the warm feeling of understanding that, despite his anguished cries of despair (Violetta!, Mimi!, Butterfly!), the poor fellow will soon find a welcome distraction from his grief in the complicated process of unlacing another bodice.  Sometimes the tenor gets his ticket punched too.  When this happens, however, some immutable law of the operatic world guarantees that the soprano will either join the tenor in departing the ranks of the living (Norma, Aida, Andrea Chenier) or follow him to the afterlife before the curtain falls (Tosca, Götterdämmerung).[1]
     
Having gone for a long swim in the turbulent waters of the standard operatic repertoire, I eventually returned to the dry land of common sense with some nagging questions. Would the end of a romantic relationship in the world of opera be any less worthy of great music if it were due to the premature death of a man? Would there be anything wrong, dramatically or musically, if a healthy Violetta were to lose her Alfredo to, say, testicular cancer?  (I'm sure that Alfredo's final aria - To die so young, with balls the size of melons! - would be hated by janitors in opera theaters all over the world for adding thousands of tear-soaked tissues to their post-performance cleaning chores.)  Or if the always hungry Rodolfo were to choke to death on a piece of stale baguette in his unheated Parisian garret?  (His final words to Mimi - My lungs are empty, but my heart is full of love... - laboriously wheezed in an ascending melodic line, could become one of those "death scenes" which send every man, woman, and child in the audience sobbing into the night.)
      In short, why does the operatic Grim Reaper favor women over men by such a wide margin?

The only plausible answer to emerge before I finished my second bourbon (which is all the time I can invest in questions of this sort) was so cliché that I thought it might as well have come from a stern-looking woman sporting a crew cut, Doc Martens boots, a Ph.D. in Gender Studies, and the perpetual squint of resentment directed at every man in sight.  Here it is:
      Being a creation of the male mind, the operatic world takes it as axiomatic that the premature death of a man, not motivated by evil deeds and not accompanied by the death of his woman, is too tragic, too verismo.  Its cosmic-sized unfairness would collapse the walls of the opera theater and merge the proceedings on stage with the ugly brutality of the real world, the world in which men often die young (wars, duels, hunting tigers in Burma) while their women move on with their lives and eventually find happiness with someone else.  No man involved in the creation of an opera in the standard repertoire - from the author of some weepy 19th century novel, to the literary hack who recycled the novel into a libretto, to the composer who set the recycled literary trash to music - could imagine how such unspeakable evil could possibly serve the aims and needs of entertainment, which is what every opera ultimately aspires to be.[2]  Hence the endless procession of consumptive courtesans, unhappy wives, obedient daughters, and idealistic virgins, all sent to their untimely deaths by composers and librettists with the seemingly unshakeable conviction that women, although desirable as amusing social ornaments in men's lives, are at best of marginal importance to the world at large.[3]

If these quasi-feminist musings are close to truth, there seems to be something faintly hypocritical about today's opera audiences which, season after season, enthusiastically applaud what must be the only blatant expressions of male chauvinism remaining in the arts and entertainment.  Outside the walls of the opera theater, these sophisticated, urbane, and well-educated opera lovers would no doubt object to films, television programs, or novels which systematically and gratuitously mistreat characters of specific gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.  Inside the opera theater, however, their yearning for social justice dissipates before the overture is over, and they are ready to cheer the sumptuously scored and vividly staged destruction of yet another female character whose predictably short lifespan would be chalked up, if pressed, to the "historical contingencies of the genre".
   
Perhaps this is a legitimate excuse.  But then again, maybe not.  At a time when historical photographs are airbrushed to remove undesirable evidence of smoking (1), and classic works of literature are mutilated to remove undesirable words (2, 3), appeals to historical contingencies in defense of opera sound frivolously selective and, therefore, not at all convincing.

I'm sure there is more to be said on this subject, but I'm itching to get back to my music room to finish listening to an old recording of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor with Renata Scotto and Giuseppe di Stefano.  I was told that Scotto's interpretation of the "mad scene" preceding Lucia's death is simply awesome... 


______________
1.  In Der Ring des Nibelungen Wagner showed unusual generosity toward Sieglinde by allowing her to live for about nine months after the death of Siegmund.  

2.  The lone exception, at least among operas performed with any kind of regularity, is Massenet's Werther, in which the only death is that of a young and decent, if clearly unbalanced, man.  Incidentally, when initially submitted to Paris' Opéra-Comique, this opera was rejected on the grounds that it involves "too serious a scenario".  And that's at the time (1887) when opera stages across the world had already been littered with female corpses - one of them supplied by Massenet himself in Manon, which premiered at the very same Opéra-Comique three years earlier.  If ever there was an exception proving the rule, this must be it.

3.  In the original version of Verdi's La forza del destino, Alvaro kills himself at the end of the opera, overwhelmed by guilt about having caused the death of his beloved Leonore and her brother Carlo.  A few years after the opera's premiere, however, it seems that Verdi himself began to feel guilty about his unkind treatment of the opera's leading man - so much so that he had revised the opera to make it end with Alvaro praying over the dying Leonore.  Talk about the brotherhood of men...



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