Friday, February 29, 2008

Thomas, I'm listening ... gimme a hand, here

I finished The Magic Mountain today and I will admit that it brought me to tears.*

What makes the book wonderful is that while, after 700 pages, you trust the narrator so much that you would follow him to Hell on your knees, he's so good at playing Devil's Advocate with his many, mostly depraved characters that you're never sure whose side he's on. A new one comes along and you think, "here's a good guy" only you're not really sure what Mann's game is. Is he setting you up to like a particular character, only to make you feel terrible later on when the guy pulls some unthinkable, heartless stunt? (But he seemed so nice!) The point, I think, given that the book is about the state of mind and politics that led somehow, painfully, unbelievably to the Great War, is if that the character and opinions and lusts of any man -- whether he's an intellectual or an ignoramus -- lead to violent measures, they ought to be cross-examined. But then, given history, or given this particular novel, how do you know a good guy when you've got one, seeing how good ideas can lead to hideous conclusions? You can't.

At the end of the book, there's a moment when two characters whose debates account for about one third of the book's length decide that their political-theoretical differences are so insoluble they have to have a duel. One of these two characters is the one I most wanted to trust in the book. In the end, he's willing, literally, to die for his ideas. But then, this seems both heroic and at the same time stupidly suicidal.

What do YOU think, Thomas?

If I didn't think it was wonderful, Majel, if I didn't think ideas can and do have real and practical weight, I'd be a sham philosopher.

But, Thomas, the question I'm asking is, if your ideas lead to combat, what then? Forge on?

That is the question, Majel.

Here's the passage that made my bones shiver.

"...You are mistaken first in the assumption that intellectual matters cannot be personal. You should not suppose that. You are, however, above all mistaken in your assessment of the intellect, which you apparently consider too weak to produce conflicts and passions as harsh as those that real life brings with it ... The purified abstraction, the idea, is at the same time also the absolute, is thus rigor itself, and contains far more profound and radical possibilities for hatred, for categorical and irreconcilable hostility than are found in social life..."

Is Mann messing with my head? Does he believe ideas are worth going to war for, or doesn't he? I am in a troubled state. A state of reckoning; I want to get my priorities straight. What will I go to war for?


I went to a collosal party last night (see below) where Konrad, my dear friend Konrad, told me it would be better for everyone if I were happily intoxicated in a heap in the corner. I can't possibly expect to be able to enjoy Berlin if I'm not willing to do that, he said.

How do you know when you're old? Because I feel old.

This was some kind of giant competition between bands from all over Germany and here was one of the last three. They were all pretty bad. And I lost my priceless, darling, yellow antique gloves that I bought at a Flohmarkt on the U2 line. Actually, I only lost one, which is worse. And I blew off the Aida dress rehearsal. Both of these experiences (the latter is more like just massively poor judgement) happened after I ate a mount (mount, not mound) of chocolate cake. I think I see a pattern.

*Matt, I can't thank you enough for recommending this book.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

99 avant-garde operas on the wall

I breakfasted heartily this morning in Prenzlauerberg with a bunch of Americans and pretty much the entire city of Berlin. Everything is closed on Sundays with the critical exception of churches and restaurants. It's clear what you're expected to do. God, followed by Eat. Having been told that Sunday brunch was a horrible experience in Berlin, I am happy to report that this is completely untrue. (Who told me that?) Moreover, they do all kinds of unexpected things with food, here. I picked up a carafe of something yellow and poured it on my muesli. Yum. What the hell was that?! Picked up a carafe of something else also yellow and poured it onto my eggs. Hmm ... tastes like ... applesauce?

Tonight I went back to the Komische Oper for their Teseo (Inszenierung by Benedikt von Peter). It was rife with German allusions which, sadly, I am still not equipped to pick up on. From what I could gather, von Peter sets the plot (yet another Greek drama with extra frills c/o Handel) in whatever would be the German equivalent of the stop on the LIRR where the girl with the pink miniskirt and terrible nail polish gets off.

The characters begin in a waiting room with plastic lawn chairs and a coffee/hot chocolate vending machine in the corner, and end up in a dirt-filled shantytown that may or may not be showing signs of nuclear fallout. During one scene, Theseus spoons raw beans from a can. About twenty minutes into the opera there is a literal deluge on stage (technically, I have no idea how they did this), turning the dirt into mud. Every scene thereafter involves a mud fight (which all the singers did very willingly for singers). There's a giant wind machine that kicks up some of the mud (this got the blue-haired audience in front of me duly riled up), and in another scene, a family of -- I think -- Turkish immigrants (remember, I'm guessing here) descends on Agilea on her trailer-park porch and within two minutes is having a full-on raging party with hotcakes and wine until Medea breaks through the back wall with an ax. I'm not making this up. Von Peter must have found one aria in the second act a complete yawner because he turns up the house lights, projects the words, and insists the audience sing along. Get it? Karaoke. In an opera house.

I was impressed with the singers in this production. I was impressed with their acting especially. Still, I wanna say the opera was maybe ... a little like other recent MODERN, AVANT-GARDE, NEVER-A-DULL-MOMENT Handel stagings I've seen recently. I don't wanna von-Peter bash, because the guy is smart; the production was riveting. But I AM saying that this production belongs in an era with other productions like it, and which for lack of a better coinage I'll call collectively super-tricked-out-technologically, plus-hilariously-pop-culture-referency, plus-there-are-singers-who-could-model-underwear Opera.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Just for the Sake of Argument ...

Let's just say that there would be a point to setting an old, 18th-century opera in the Abu Ghraib detention center. So that, say, the men's chorus wears American cammo gear, tortures "prisoners" and takes pictures of themselves with the prisoners using their cellphone cameras. Assuming that this opera would be possible, to use my favorite graduate school query -- what WORK would this do? Culturally, socially, artistically, what would this accomplish? My sense is that in a very cool world, a journalist working in Iraq could ferret out something like the scandal at Abu Ghraib and stage an opera about it in the middle of Central Park in front of all the press in New York City BEFORE the whole thing got past the censors. That would really be something. Here would be an opera with something essential to report. But what about staging an Abu Ghraib opera now? Hm ... it ... reminds us? It ... forces us to witness unspeakable acts? But with what intention? To what purpose?

The Komische Oper is showing Barrie Kosky's staging of Iphigenie auf Tauris, and I wanted to like it, but it was sheer horror. Whether sheer horror can be productive onstage is a question better left to more capable, scholarly hands, but let me just tell you what I mean.

The plot: Thoas, the king of Tauris, learns from an oracle that he'll be killed by a friend of his. Life on his island accordingly becomes a real reign of terror: anyone who arrives is immediately killed without ceremony. But the task of killing is given to poor Iphigenia, who happens to be there too (sister to Elektra, daughter of Agamemnon, daughter of Clymenestra: even for Greek tragic history this family is F.U.B.A.R.). Her brother arrives on the island with a pal of his. No one recognizes anyone else. Iphigenia is on the verge of killing her brother when they figure out what's going on, and that's the end. (Happy tragedy, sort of.)

So Kosky's brainchild. The people living on Tauris are at Abu Ghraib, and they live in fear of their lives. They look terrible. The king's cronies/American soldiers jaunt around poking their guns at people. They stick bags over prisoners' heads, they pee on the prisoners, they make them do horrible things. Now, just when things couldn't get worse, they go off the deep end. A 70-year-old naked woman walks slowly onstage. She looks ghastly. Following her is a 70-year-old naked man, also looking ghastly. They remain onstage either dancing together, attempting to comfort the principals, or simply staring into space for the remainder of the opera and generally making everyone uncomfortable. For awhile I thought Tauris was a particular version of hell in which Persephone & Hades are a rumpled old couple wandering around uselessly underground. This idea seemed interesting. But then, in a later scene, another dozen old people walk onstage during Orestes' aria and play horrible games with him. I won't describe what goes on because it's unmentionable. In another scene, prisoners plant small, scrubby, blood-red trees onstage using dirt and ... blood.

I will say one unconditionally good thing, which is that Iphigenia and Iphigenia's voice are two separate people. There's Iphigenia the actress, and then Iphigenia the singer, who stands to the side of the stage. The rest of the singers have their voices. I won't say I found this device particularly telling, since I'm not sure what it was for, even if the effect was cool (you hear Iphigenia singing, but when you look at her she's just straining to speak without being able to say anything...) But the woman playing Iphigenia was absolutely tremendous and I can't imagine anyone else who could stare out at an audience for two hours with as much force.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Room for Improvement

After classes at the Goethe in the evening, I generally grab a latte, or two, and head back onto the subway with my copy of The Magic Mountain (sadly, incredibly, I'm almost done) to catch the last bit of Aida rehearsals. Tonight I caught the last 7 minutes. But Christopher and Roy invited me to dinner.

I'm done with Kneipers. Done. (Kneiper: tacky, Oktoberfesty, Germanish casserole & wurst-centered bar/restaurant strangely like diners in Dallas.) The waitresses in Kneipers don't like to draw straight lines with their eyeliner pencils and you can't get the taste of wurst out of your mouth. Roy and Christopher go to one nightly. When I couldn't finish my tomato soup-flavored overcooked pasta with cut-up ham squares (something you could only otherwise find 18-year-olds eating in the worst college kitchen after an all-night bender) the waitress refused to take my plate away.

Rehearsal this morning was one big hilarity. The stage had been built super high for this production (for reasons I can't discern), putting the singers & chorus a good 3 feet higher than they'd normally be. This puts the orchestra a good 3 feet further away from the singers than it would normally be, and Renato Palumbo (semi-famous conductor who looks like he's in the Sopranos) likewise. Renato had a fit. So rehearsal was effectively ended and a group of thick workmen with cigarettes, tattoos, slick hair and leather came out to rig the orchestra up a couple feet in the air while everyone else left in a huff. I'm not sure where these guys come from, how they raised a 50-person orchestra 3 feet in the air, or more particularly, why they work in an opera house and not at a kegger at Oktoberfest, but they're hysterical. It's like going to a nursing home and finding that your 90-year-old grammie is being cared for by a 250-lb. ex-professional weightlifter with long, greasy hair.

This weekend I move to a new apartment (my 119th since being here?) footsteps away from the Institut so I can spend my remaining days in Berlin in the smack dab center of the city studying my butt off -- apart from buying flashcards, I wouldn't say I've studied hard so far -- and going to as much theater as humanly possible. Something to look forward to.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

No Irony in Leather

In my post on women fashionably or not so fashionably dressed in gyms, I really ought to have added the fact that I also see a lot of unironic wearing of leather pants here. And there's no correlation between the wearer and any identifiable group or subgroup of the general population, unless I'm so much on the cultural-social periphery here that I can't identify the subgroup.

In the states, I think people who choose to wear leather fall into a few groups. Correct me if I'm wrong.

1. Women, generally fit & hale, who likely live in or come from the Midwest and have a thing for horse-owning culture. My neighbors across the street in Nebraska, for instance. Generally in this category leather belongs with hairspray and 4X4s. Also possible: WWF-related weekends, husbands who hunt and (in Nebraska) own leaf blowers.

2. Women who may or may not be trophies but in any case fall into a select tax bracket that allows for shopping time at fine shoppes in technically metropolitan centers. None of these shoppes contains anything with a "Harley Davidson" label (see above).

3. Men who drive motorcycles cross-country and can braid hair.

In Germany, you don't have to be a skinhead to wear leather. You can be a mother of four.

This morning at the Deutsche Oper, we watched a handful of extras practice a timed wheeling-onstage of two 22-foot high, plastic, larger-than-life plant arrangements. Like, Honey I Blew Up the Kids big, intentionally tacky plantlife. I'm not actually sure why they're there, but they're pretty hysterical. One leaf is the size of 2 men. There's also an absolutely enormous freight train backstage. I think it's for another production, but I'm not sure. And there's a monster-sized deer. I think the deer is for Aida. Since I miss half of each rehearsal day being at classes, I've gotten a bit lost about the production process. But the main look that's emerging is the oversized, tacky green marble fountain with fake rock and fake animal arrangements you would find built into a Marriott foyer conference center in Vegas, complete with plastic chandeliers. Christopher expects half the audience to walk out. After hearing the audience complaining two weeks ago at what I thought was the most brilliant thing I'd ever seen (Neuenfels' Nabucco) I'm ready for anything. We go up March 2nd.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Form and Content

The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages ... and the costumes women dare to wear in Berlin gyms. I think it's high time for a short report on the state of female athletic couture over here, if only to emphasize that I have nearly peed my pants after two recent encounters.

First of all, I'm in a women's gym. I'm not sure how that changes things, if indeed it does. Meaning, I can't tell if women in all women gyms are more or less lazy, sloppy, dirty or overdressed in a girls-only situation than they would otherwise be. I truthfully can't tell. But what I do know, is that two days ago I saw a women wearing what could have been the winning costume in an all-out, all-80s aerobics instructor contest. The following is a truthful account. I'm leaving the locker room and I see in front of me (from the back) a women with Dolly Parton blond hair. She's wearing true blue shiny racer tights to below the knee, overtop of which is a black, one-piece THONG swimsuit with and a tight floral undershirt beneath the swimsuit. Her hightops are white adidas, and straight out of the eighties. You'd have to get them on ebay. She's headed toward the treadmill. Truthfully, her behind wasn't embarrassing or flabby, but it was visible. I averted my eyes.

Today I met a women coming down the hall from the bathroom and almost choked. She had on patent leather white flats, a strapless, loose-fitting yellow, very fancy, top, and strange, sexless black jog pants.

I don't wanna give the wrong impression. For the most part, women in gyms are women in gyms. Just like in America, women in gyms walk around slowly and look at the equipment, wondering if it this machine or that machine might be interesting. They climb on one backwards, do a move or two or three with awkward, slow motions, then get off. They spend a lot of time checking each other out, and checking themselves out. All of this is comforting and familiar. Yesterday I got a lecture on my form from an overweight 50-year-old.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

This is not a ...

When I arrived in my Goethe-arranged lodgings, my hostess announced that the bathroom would be mostly unusable for the next 2 weeks due to its being worked on. There would be no showers. Tonight marks my tenth shower taken sitting down. But wouldn't that be a bath, Majel? Perhaps it should be called shbath. But the point of my bringing this up is to tell you that really, it's neither. Or, rather, the benefits of showering and bathing are both absent with a shbath. You neither experience the stream of water 'n' gravity effect of showering, nor the pool-of-hotness effect of bathing. When shbathing, you sit in an empty tub holding the showerhead in your free hand while the other is busy. There are no soapholders, hooks or ledges in a shbath, so if you put the soap or shampoo or razor down, you had better be ready to then put the showerhead down in order to retrieve the soap/shampoo/razor. It's a lot like trying to put a sock on with one hand. The average shbath lasts anywhere from 20-25 minutes and if you need to wash your hair, add 8 more minutes. Shbaths are a little cold. The funny part is that the bathroom workers finished their work on the bathroom today, but we're still shbathing. Apparently they were only working on the tiles.

The word I'm looking for is I think 'unheimlich.' The most interesting part about being in Germany is that I keep expecting it to stop being Germany. There's a language which I understanding perfectly well, and then there's this other one, which is like mashed up bits of words, and I keep being surprised that every time I get onto the subway in the morning, people are still talking the mashed-up language instead of the one that makes sense. The doors are still push to go in and pull to go out. There are still no water fountains; I drink out of the sinks. I shbathe.

Visits are Nice

This past Sunday, Pier Oddone (first-rate Peruvian particle physicist, and pal/colleague of Young-Kee Kim & Sidney Nagel in Chicago ... for those who don't know him, also maker of excellent vino!) made my day by visiting Berlin for 10 hours. And it was a LOVELY, sunny day. We are at the Brandenburger Tor [Tor = Gate] in the picture, if I'm not mistaken. But much, much more exciting, in the Starbucks next to the Brandenburger Tor, I got a private tutorial in cutting-edge particle physics and a free latte. You're the best, Pier.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Fairgrounds of Overstimulation

Not to fear. No news is good news. Classes at the Goethe Institut started this past Tuesday, so with opera in the morning, opera in the evening, and Goethe in the middle, plus hour-long train rides in all directions, I'm a tired girl.

My classmates are hands-down hysterical. Brilliant people, all around: an archaelogist from Turkmenistan, a photographer from Nigeria, an anthropology professor from China, two engineers from Russia and so on. NO ONE has the vaguest idea what's going on. Our adorable, grandmotherly teacher repeats two, and three, and four times over, "This is a table," in German (Das ist ein Tisch), and then asks the Libyan surgeon, "What's this?" but he doesn't understand. She asks again, "WAS IST DAS?" But he doesn't even have enough German to tell her he can't understand her and begins to look like he'll vomit or run. He looks to the Italian hotel manager for help. The hotel manager says: "Here is a door." It's first rate comedy.

I sit at the English table with an English girl who's normal (not an aeronautical engineer), a Romanian actress, the one other American, a guy who appears to be averting a mid-life crisis by simply side-stepping it, and a New Zealander who's so busy having a good time he hasn't learned anything.

I discovered a few days ago that in Germany you can buy gum in bargain-size pill bottle containers. My chain chewing habit is decidedly more serious. Not to mention my other bad habit: I had probably six milchkaffees today. But then, I've also discovered the rapture of Vollmilch here which, of course, we have in America: full fat milk. Not to mention full fat cheese.

Last night I saw the best opera of my life. No exaggeration. This was one hour after I considered that it would be a good idea for me to leave Berlin immediately and apply to Divinity Schools. That was three hours after my mother called me on the phone from Nebraska and I cried. Like I said, I'm a little tired. It's good.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Skidding around the edge of sanity

There's a word, Sitsmark (also English), which means the imprint in the snow left by a skier after falling backward on his/her ass. It also means the [wake of disaster] in the [supermarket/subway/street-crossing] left by [me] after [generally making mud pie of everything I do here]. Damn the torpedoes. It's been a busy week. Tomorrow more I here write of in general things.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Dark Night of the Soul

It's always quiet in Nebraska, where I spent my childhood. There just isn't a lot going on, unless the crickets are out and about in the summertime screeching and breeding like pigs. And then this is simply not sleeping weather. But most of the time in the quiet, in the dark, you can lie completely immobilized and the silence is almost physical.

Until I was seven years old I was an only child. I hated being alone. Sometimes I'd be lying in bed and the silence of being in the middle of nowhere crept up on me like a drum. Stricken and remote: here you are in the great, great wide world. And however violently my heart batted, God was as distant as he was huge outside my small, tiny room. Miles and miles of sky topped miles and miles of people doing miles upon miles of things while I lamely lay and beat, and beat, and beat.

I think back on this and wonder if true religiousness is only possible with children. I had real FEAR, then. In the biblical sense.

In later life, I've found cities comforting. Someone is always outside, laughing and kicking a can. In the subway and 4 o'clock in the morning there are always people going God knows where, just like you. In the apartment next to yours, someone is shouting at a dog. Stillness, however, requires a stiff upper lip.

I am finally in my semi-permanent lodging in Berlin. It's a quiet neighborhood. The stillness is graphic.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

A few balls richer

Still just me (and a Stadtplan of Berlin) in these pictures. But don't feel bad. I have plenty to do. The U-Bahn is up again after a strike, which means less walking. And I made my big chicken move today.

Christopher Alden was staging his pie-eating contest scene at the Deutsche Oper this morning, and it wasn't quite working; other members of the production team who are more important than me were making a fuss about it, but Christopher wouldn't budge. Pretty soon it was lunchtime, which is always a mess of social politics. People make an assessment about how cool they are and choose seats accordingly (near Christopher and Roy [Rallo], not so near Christopher and Roy). Rather than saying something witless in front of someone who may have play in my future career, I generally sit with the people closer to me in age. Even among us production minions (costume designers and costume designer assistants, stage managers, stage builders and stage builder assistants) I'm on the bottom rung. I walked in off the street. But back to my move.

I sally up to Christopher and Roy with my fifth latte of the day and ask to join. (Christopher is pouring Gerolsteiner into a wine glass.) I tell him I'm worried about the staging. I don't think it reads. The audience may get lost. Perhaps he would want to experiment with [I offer my thoughts.] Christopher responds with brotherly frankness. He seems more or less convinced. I maintain coolness till lunch is over.

Back up in the Malsaal after lunch, Christopher implements my new staging plan. And, cooler than cool, I get called over from my post in the corner of the Malsaal to sit up front with Roy and Christopher as stage consultant while they reconfigure. Briefly, CLOUD NINE.

In other news, I've inexplicably started eating tomato soup, which I've hated like death since childhood.

And in more news, I've met Laura Weiss, who graciously invited me to stay with her a few days until I can FINALLY move into my Goethe-host's house. I am possibly the last person in Hyde Park to finally meet Laura, who dances in the city. Laura's apartment is literally 50 meters from an enormous church of indeterminate denomination with bells that give real meaning to the word PEAL. At 7a on 5 hours' sleep it's hallucinogenic.