Saturday, June 16, 2012

Rosenkavalier in Another Context

I was very pleased to read Matthew Guerrieri's interesting musings about Richard Strauss this morning, and when I sat down to read Alexander King's May This House Be Safe From Tigers, I had every intention of writing a blog post quoting King's half chapter about Rose O'Neill, the inventor of the Kewpie doll (which all Kewpie doll collectors should read--it's in Chapter 12, and there are copies of the out-of-print book still at large), and the way the editorial staff of the New Yorker edited a story he wrote about her to smithereens, but then I found myself in Chapter 13, and had to share this story first.

When he was a child in Vienna, Alexander King's family doctor suggested the theater as a way to satisfy little Alexander's lust for life and to keep him quiet.
"But, Doctor," said my poor mother, "he just wants to go everywhere and to see everything. He goes to bed at two-thirty and he gets up every morning at six. What can we do with him?"

"Take him to a theater or a concert, maybe, but nothing that will upset his nervous system. I strictly forbid it," he said.

So my parents got some seats for the first performance of Der Rosenkavalier, which was to be conducted by Richard Strauss in person at the Hofoper.*
[Footnote: Please, please don't bother writing to me that this date is wrong. I know all about the official statistics on this subject, but when I did a piece on Rosenkavalier for Vanity Fair in 1931 I verified with Richard Strauss himself that, although the opera had its premiere in 1911, a preview of it was given in honor of the King in 1908.]
Since this opening was scheduled for the evening, I'm afraid my folks weren't exactly fulfilling the doctor's orders; but luckily they hadn't the vaguest idea how to raise a child, and, besides, I would certainly have fought like a savage if they had suggested taking me to a mere matinee.

Then a really bad piece of luck hit me: I got a terrible earache--got it around two o'clock in the afternoon of the very day when we were supposed to go to the theater. It was no ordinary pain either. It was as if somebody had inserted a good-sized corkscrew into my eardrum and was trying to pull the left side of my brain along with it. But I just had to keep my trap shut about it or else there certainly wasn't going to be any show that evening. I don't know how I finally managed to make it. All I remember is that I took about half a dozen aspirins before we finally started out, and that my mother had to dress me twice, because I perspired all through my clothes the first time. Of course my parents wanted to stay home, but I gave them such a desperate sales spiel that at last I managed to change their minds. That evening, obviously, cost us all a great deal even before the joy of it was properly under way. When we were finally seated in the opera house, my pain, luckily, left me, or it well may be that I just couldn't spare any further attention to it, considering all that was going on around me.

Once, years late, I saw a bum movie about the Congress of Vienna, with Lilian Harvey, and believe me, it was almost exactly like that. Everybody was dolled up in fancy dress with at least one red sash across their frilled shirt fronts; loaded down with swords and epaulettes and decorations of all sorts; and bowing and heel-clicking and hand-kissing enough to dazzle the most blasé of worldlings. I was embedded in such perfumes, such hair oils, such pomades and hairdos on all sides that I thought I was suddenly going to rise right up to the crystal chandelier with the wonderful odor and ecstasy of it all. It also seemed to me that the men who were pouterpigeoning it all around me were even more startlingly decked out than the women. The women showed off a lot of bouncy bosoms and bare shoulders and stuff, that's true, but the men were the ones who really had the most daring explosions of gold and silver trimmings all over their duds. It was sheer heaven.

There was one depressing not in this glittering assembly, however: me, and my folks. We looked like a nest full of molting dormice, and I must say I have never before realized that my old man was such a complete failure. He didn't even wear a silk rosettes in his buttonhole, or have a feathered cockade in his hatband, or nothin'. He was a real false note, and no mistake about it.

The minute the show started, the pain in my ear woke up again. It throbbed like crazy and I suddenly felt some tears running down the side of my nose. But it was dark and nobody noticed anything. I can't tell you how much I dreaded the coming of intermission. On previous occasions these used to be my favorite times in the theater, because, in Vienna, people stowed away enormous wads of grub during every entr'acte and this was always my big chance to wolf a lot of contraband stuff that I was never allowed to eat at home. I think I often liked to attend a lot of plays especially for the exciting food interludes that were offered at least twice every evening.

But not this time. I nearly died during that intermission.

Later I must have fallen into a kind of protective stupor or something, because I can't remember much about it. All I know is that when the opera was finally over and Strauss was up on the stage holding hands with the bowing principals, I suddenly slipped from my seat and passed out cold.

I woke up in the office of Dr. Brieger, a friend of my father's who lived right near the opera, and that gold man diagnosed my condition as a middle-ear inflammation.

"It is fiendishly painful," he said, " and I don't see how the child was able to stand it for all those hours."

"He just didn't want to miss the excitement tonight," said my tearful mother.

"Well, we'll have to lance it immediately," said Dr. Brieger. "I'm sure he'll be a good little trouper about it."

He was wrong, of course. I screamed bloody hell when the time came, and when my poor parents finally carried me home through the noisy, festive streets I was jus a collapsed bundle of whimpering disaster.

Twenty years later, on the very day, I was back in the Vienna Opera House to hear Dear Rosenkavalier, with Richard Strauss conducting again. He had gotten quite a lot older in the meantime and so he was directing the orchestra sitting down in an armchair. Well, I was there, all the way from New York, to help him celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his work, and my wife was there too, but my children, better brought up than I had been, were both properly asleep at our hotel.

It was a wonderful if somewhat less picturesque evening than the last one, and when we finally got back to the Bristol my wife and I were still harmonizing some of the enchanting melodies from the evening's production. when we arrived at our room, however, we found that we had nothing to sing about, because my older boy, age eight, was sitting up in his bed and tearfully complaining about a bad earache.

In the middle of the night we had to rouse the hotel physician, who examined him with Teutonic thoroughness and finally told us that the kid was suffering from an acute inflammation of the middle ear.

Fortunately I'm not particularly superstitious, so I never attached any special significane to this silly coincidence. It was just a drag, that's all.

While I was busy writing these last few lines about Rosenkavalier, my own ear suddenly started to hurt again after an interval of fifty years. So I knocked off for a while, applied a heating pad and even took a nap for a couple of hours.

But the pain continued.

Dr. Merton Hoskins, a neighbor of mine here in Framingham, just left me, after having given me a stiff dose of penicillin.

And what do I deduce from all these goings-on? What meaningful conclusion have I drawn from this astonishing, almost symphonically repetitive emergence of the earache them in juxtaposition to the Rosenkavalier leitmotiv?

Only this. That the knowing monitors of The New Yorker magazine may never dare to offer their sophisticated clientele any stories that form neat little patterns or have vulgar O. Henry finishes, but life, much more carelessly edited, just obviously doesn't give a good goddam.
[Margie King Barab holds the copyright for the Alexander King portions of this post.]

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