December 3, 2011

Orphée: Philip Glass's "Midnight in Paris"

Woody Allen and Philip Glass.

Turns out they're soul mates.  Who knew?

When Allen picks up his clarinet, he generally emits mello jazz rather than esoteric minimalism (sorry, Mr. Glass; I'm aware you're not fond of that term).  Nevertheless, as I study the score for Glass's Orphée, I have to say I am strongly put in mind of the most recent Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris.

Did you see the movie?  If you're the type to be reading a blog about opera, the odds are good that you did: clearly, you're all sophisticated and everything.  Owen Wilson, you'll recall,  played the principal role of Gil, a guy who I see as an avatar not only of the filmmaker who created him, but of Philip Glass as well.

Gil falls head over heels in love with Paris, but not so much with the present-day city as with its storied past.  He's a junkie for the glamour of the Lost Generation, that eclectic band of artists, writers and musicians who consorted, partied, fought, copulated and (most of all) created together in the cafés and studios of Paris in the first half of the twentieth century.  You know the names:  Stravinsky, Picasso, Satie, Hemingway, Fitzgerald (Scott and Zelda), Dali, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Gertrude Stein (hmmm... not sure why I felt you wouldn't recognize her without her given name...), and so on and so forth.  Oh, let's add one more:  Jean Cocteau, the mercurial creator of the film Orphée (the screenplay for which provides Glass with his libretto) as well as poet, novelist, designer and playwright, among other pursuits.

Wow.  I can't say I blame Gil.  Go to Paris today; it's just a bunch of French people.  When it comes to intellectualism and sheer artistic brilliance, that bygone Paris scene was da BOMB.  We may never see its like again - these days, if you want to start a new movement or cause a cultural shift in aesthetics, you can just sit at your laptop all by yourself and git 'er done.  

But it's becoming clear to me that it's not just Gil who's crushing on that savory broth of poetry, dance, painting and music; Philip Glass is clearly enamored of it as well.

The opera Orphée opens with a jazzy pattern meant to depict the milieu of Cocteau's opening scene: students gathered in a café while a combo plays some mellow tunes.  The first time I heard Glass's evocation, I immediately thought:  "Milhaud.  This music sounds like Darius Milhaud."  In time, I identified the exact piece of Milhaud I had in mind; it was the opening of his ballet Le boeuf sur le toit.  Certain passages in that opening "Animé" have the same carefree, irreverent jauntiness of Glass's café music.  And yes, Glass's version of "jazz" certainly contains some of his characteristic musical DNA: the repetitiveness, the odd chord progressions, and so on.  But considering the surreal atmosphere of the scene as Cocteau wrote it, the music is completely appropriate.  We're in a dream-state; Puccini-like chord progressions would be wrong.  Pretty, but wrong.

This resemblance of Glass to Milhaud, general though it may be, becomes highly suggestive when placed in the context of these facts:

1)  Milhaud's title came from a bar he used to frequent during his years in Brazil; he translated it to French from the Portuguese (the English meaning is "The Ox on the Roof").

2)  Sometime after his return to Paris, a certain tavern there was re-named for Milhaud's ballet; it's said that he and Artur Rubenstein used to play the score in a four-hand keyboard version for the patrons.

3)  This bar, "Le boeuf sur le toit", is the very bar in which Cocteau and his circle used to hang out during their salad days.

In Richard Kostelanetz's anthology Writings on Glass, Glass (who studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger in the 1960's) recounts his interaction with the elderly Darius Milhaud in Aspen, Colorado:

"I was mostly interested in the people he knew in Paris in the '20s and '30s.  I had been to Paris myself one year.  I think it was 1954.  I spent the summer in Paris studying French.  I was interested in Paris, and I asked him about what it was like then and he talked about it.  He reminisced a little bit, I liked the stories."

So like Woody Allen's Gil, wouldn't you say?

So now, when I hear the opening strains of Glass's Cocteau opera, I hear a tip of the cap to the composer who christened that temple of wine and spirits in which the filmmaker caroused with his fellow-artistes.  I hear an homage to Darius Milhaud.  I perceive a Francophile American composer immersing himself in an era he never experienced, yet for which he feels strong nostalgia.  This opera, this Orphée, is his labor of love.  

(Photo of Woody Allen by Colin Swan ( [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

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