Pavarotti is Back…

It would be difficult to imagine a celebrity in the last 100 years, larger in every way, than Luciano Pavarotti.

He ranks with Enrico Caruso as one of the two greatest tenors in opera history, famous for his brilliant and unmistakable voice but also for his voracious appetites, good works, and joie de vivre. Now, you can see, hear, and experience more of him, positive and negative, in a new documentary by Ron Howard. M and I saw it this weekend and have been all over YouTube, our CD collection, and PBS’ Great Performances listening to Nessun Dorma at the opening ceremony of the Torino Winter Olympics, watching an early film production of La Boheme and enjoying the relentlessly entertaining early Three Tenors concerts in Rome and Los Angeles.

With his over-the-top celebrity and blow-you-over pipes it is notable that Luciano Pavarotti was a genius, a flawed human being with a God-given gift, and one of the great philanthropists of the last 50 years. He willingly, joyfully, and generously shared himself and his gift with the world. 

He married his wife, Adua, in Modena, when they were young, had three children in four years and then left to develop his gift. Over the years there were infidelities but they stayed married for 39 years. In 2003, three years after their divorce, he married his assistant, Nicoletta, 34 years his junior, with whom he already had a daughter. He died 4 years later, and after a contentious battle between Adua, the daughters, and Nicoletta, the estate was settled and the women have worked together since to protect the Pavarotti legacy.

In 1984 two American friends, living in London, asked me if I would be their guest to see and hear Pavarotti singing in Aida at Covent Garden. It was an amazing offer that included dinner at Annabel’s, the posh private club on Berkeley Square, and I remember it all in detail – the spectacle of the Egyptian court, hundreds of extras, elephants crossing the stage, and Luciano in the role of Rademes , followed by champagne and oysters at Annabel’s. Opera doesn’t get any bigger or better. I’m not very knowledgeable about opera but to have seen and heard Pavarotti in such a spectacular production is one of the artistic highlights of my life.

Superlatives don’t really do justice to the voice, the life and the generosity of Luciano Pavarotti. Even after his voice could no longer reach its famous high C, his reputation continued to grow. He was a dominating figure on the stage. He drew stadium-sized audiences, worked with Bono to assist the survivors of the Bosnian genocide, joined forces with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras to celebrate Carreras return to the stage with the Three Tenors concerts following a bone marrow transplant at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The Three Tenors performed 34 funny, collaborative, and sensational benefit concerts as this clip of La Donna e Mobile from the 1994 Los Angeles concert shows:  

Marilynn has a hazy recollection that on one of his visits to Seattle, either when Carreras was in treatment or when he was in town for a Key Arena performance in 1997, Pavarotti made a stop at Shorecrest High School where my three step-sons went to school. Ken Noreen, the school’s former music director, was well connected but no one seems to know how or who it was that was able to entice the great tenor to visit the school, if indeed he did visit, but that is Marilynn’s recollection. True or not, it’s just who Pavarotti was – always generous with his time and energy.

The other linking thread in the Pavarotti story is mortality. He was only 71 when pancreatic cancer took him from us, and though not fatal his second wife, Nicoletta, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and daughter Giuliana was beset with symptoms of myasthenia gravis, the same disease that forced me to quit flying. We are all mortal, but some live larger and leave a more indelible impression. I loved the Ron Howard film and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to revisit the extraordinary life, voice, and personality of Luciano Pavarotti, the greatest tenor of our time.

I took this photo of the Frecce Tricolori (Italian Air Force aerial demonstration team) in 2016 from the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. This is the same exact fly-over and tri-color streaming that took place at the funeral of Luciano Pavarotti. 

Buon Viaggio, Luciano!

My Gardener…

I don’t like to think of myself as insensitive, but often in my desire to change the world, write the Great American Novel, or see Donald Trump behind bars I forget to thank and acknowledge the one person who brightens my life every day. This week I want to put those other things aside and celebrate my wife and her magnificent gardens. I can’t really do them or her justice, but I can share the joy and beauty they both bring into my life.

Eighteen years ago, we moved into our condo and started our new life together. It was a great move in all respects (no pun intended). We discovered the condo on a bike ride. It was perfect – with the Burke-Gilman Trail on one side, Lake Washington and a marina on the other, Log Boom Park to the West, and a different upscale condo complex to the East. We’ve loved every minute of our time here.

The one missing piece for Marilynn, when we moved in, was the absence of a garden, but as a lifelong gardener, she went right to work making one (two actually). I’m not a gardener and I’m not interested in becoming one, but it’s always been an important way for her to express herself. Her two previous houses had plenty of open space, but the condo was different. She was starting from scratch with a bare, relatively small, concrete enclosure on one side and a dirt strip that had the character and consistency of kitty litter on the other. Daunting to say the least.

I regret not taking pictures when we moved in, but that was before the iPhone made it easy. All I can say is the space was bare bones – like an oversized uninspired dog kennel – but she was excited to have a space to work with. Never mind that there was no dirt, no pots, and no view. There was a hose bib and that’s all she needed to get started. 

Today, 50 ceramic pots line the lattice fenced walls of the enclosure, a large Japanese fish sculpture hangs over the gate and some hanging art adds variety. I’m still pretty clueless about plants, and at least once a week when I walk in the front door, she asks me if I saw such and such blooming. I usually haven’t and like an errant child she takes me by the hand and shows me what I missed on my way in.

In defense, I argue that it’s hard to see anything now, because of the jungle she’s created. It feels more and more as if the vegetation is going to take over and start eating visitors. I’m going to need a machete to get from the gate to the front door any day now.

All joking aside, M has made a garden paradise out of our bare bones concrete enclosure, and planted in such a way that plants and flowers bloom from early spring until late fall (along with pansies and ice plant over the winter). There is always color and fragrance, all timed and sequenced to provide color and pleasure to the nose and eye. The garden court is 18 years old now, and mature trees, camellias, azaleas, bamboo, and jasmine surround us with annuals filling in for seasonal color.

And, did I mention the back? That’s the area that includes our deck, a narrow flower bed and some grass between the building and the ivy wall marking the property boundary. Here, she brought in potting soil, peat moss, manure and elbow grease to create a bed for cut flowers – dahlias, iris, peonies, Hostas, day lilies, dusty miller and various herbs in boxes and pots.

So, on this day, when she’s in bed with a summer cold, I’m celebrating her and her gardens. I’m so aware that hers is a project of love and hard work. The gardens have grown like Topsy and she’s had to hire a helper. It’s too much for one person, but it’s the design vision of a passionate woman who loves her gardens. Here’s to my very industrious, creative, and beautiful wife.

The Man Who Thought He Was President…

Suspend your disbelief–probably a good idea in today’s political environment–but in this instance it’s to recommend a highly imaginative and delightful film called Yesterday.

Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, 127 Hours) and screenwriter Richard Curtis (Love Actually) have made a movie with a suspend your disbelief premise—due to a Y2K-like electrical event the earth experiences a 12 second blackout during which a struggling singer-songwriter on a bike is hit by a bus. But wait, that’s not the premise.

It’s when he wakes up in the hospital and discovers that no one understands his references to The Beatles or their songs that he realizes the event has erased all knowledge of The Beatles in the world. He Googles The Beatles and gets beetles and so on. This is where the story really begins and Jack, the aspiring singer-songwriter, embarks on a long and winding road to stardom by presenting the Beatles’ songs as his own.

Don’t overthink it. Just go with it. Yes, there are obvious issues with the premise, but it also lets us look at a variety of personal, emotional, and ethical questions. Add Ed Sheeran, in an engaging cameo, as the hero’s enabler and you could do much worse than spending 1hr 56min listening to Jack’s playlist of the Beatles’ greatest hits. I loved it. It was the soundtrack of my young adulthood.

Jack Malik, the protagonist, is a young teacher who has willingly given up his teaching job to play small clubs and chase the dream of stardom. He is supported by his manager and childhood friend (played appealingly by Lily James) who also happens to be in love with him and his immigrant Indian parents with whom he is resigned to living in order to save money. When the story opens Jack is about to give up his failing music career, his second job as a forklift operator and return to teaching. But, lightning, i.e. that cataclysmic 12 seconds, strikes and the Beatles songbook propels him to stardom. 

No spoilers…there is a happy ending. I left the theater smiling, and at the same moment had an idea for the perfect sequel. But, before you hear my idea for a sequel you should watch the trailer for the Beatles-based movie:

The sequel called “The Man Who Thinks He’s President” would star Donald Trump as himself, an opportunity he couldn’t turn down. It goes like this: when the cataclysmic event occurs – 12 seconds of earthly blackout – the world’s memory of Donald Trump and the Trump family is erased. Can you Imagine it? Can you Let it Be

It wouldn’t take a wild imagination to write the script. The opening scene would be The Donald waking up in front of the Plaza Hotel. Confused and alone he flags down a cab and demands to be taken to Trump Tower. The cabby asks again. He’s never heard of the place. 

Angry and unable to find his phone, he has a fit and orders the cabby to take him to Fox News headquarters at 1211 Avenue of the Americas where Fox security refuses him entry. At the security checkpoint he causes a ruckus, asks to speak to Sean Hannity, and tells them all he’ll have their immigrant asses jailed for not honoring an order from the President of the United States. “Wait until my Secret Service detail gets wind of this.” The lobby erupts with laughter. The police are summoned and the “The man who thinks he’s President”  is arrested on charges of disturbing the peace. 

Taken to a holding cell at Rikers Island, Mr. Trump storms around until another inmate feeling sorry for him loans him a quarter to make his one telephone call. When the call is put through to Rudi Giuliani’s law office the receptionist puts him on hold. When she returns, she tells the him that Mr. Giuliani has “Never heard of this Chump, Frump, kook” or knowing anyone named Trump before hanging up. 

With little real news, crime beat reporters at Rikers send the story of the delusional inmate to their news desks. The evening news picks it up and adds details. New Yorkers love a good story, especially about a delusional oddball with a swooped-up fake blond comb-over and a grandiose tale of hubris and woe. The story refuses to die. Late-night comics have a field day satirizing the fat man with orange skin and too-long tie who claims to be the President of the United States and a good friend of Vladimir Putin’s. 

Unable to control him at the arraignment, the court orders Mr. Trump involuntarily committed to the psychiatric unit at Bellevue Hospital. No longer newsworthy, Mr. Trump is dropped from the news cycle and becomes “old news.” For The Donald, nothing could be worse. He’d rather be Fake News than Old News. In the last scene we see him pouting through the barred window of his padded cell at Bellevue in orange hospital scrubs.

It’s just an idea… but be sure to see the film it’s based on – Yesterday – starring Hamesh Patel as the struggling singer-songwriter. It may, for a moment, trigger your own fantasies or make you feel better about the current news cycle.

Photos courtesy of The Real Deal,,, and Working Title Films.

Half Cocked…

Malaprops were a signature of Yogi Berra. “Déjà vu all over again.” “We were overwhelming underdogs.” “Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.” Yogi’s malapropisms were always funny and in good spirits, but that was before Donald Trump took the stage.

Marine Corps drill instructors have an amusing half-serious prod for indecisive recruits – “Do something even if it’s wrong,” a lesson Mr. Trump has taken as scripture. The latest iteration is the aborted attack on Iran. Not only did he launch an attack and then change his mind, but he couldn’t even get the terminology right.

In a fumbling attempt to explain the reversal of his order, Mr. Trump used tough-talk terminology that must have amused the generals:

Mr. Trump, was trying to appear militarily hip but misspoke when he asserted that “We were cocked and loaded…” If President Bone Spurs had ever served in the military he would have known the correct military idiom is “locked and loaded,” a reference to the procedure for preparing an unloaded M-1 rifle for firing (i.e. the bolt must first be locked back to the rear so the clip can be loaded into the magazine). My Marine compatriots and Drill Instructors would laugh hysterically at the mistake, except for the fact that Ol’ Bone Spurs was talking about an attack on a foreign adversary with the likelihood of escalation in retaliation.

Instead of locked and loaded Mr. Trump went off half-cocked. He didn’t understand that the drill instructor’s dictum of “do something even if it is wrong” was a sarcastic prod to decisive appropriate action. But then, The Donald has never understood the subtleties of language. 

It may just be that Trump had a song Cocked and Loaded from the Revolting Cocks (Trump?) song from the 2006 L.A. Guns album. It wouldn’t surprise me, except that Mr. Trump doesn’t know much about music or art either. It’s better if we just leave him half-cocked. He can’t do as much damage in that state.

Remembering Romeo & Juliet…

On June 17, 1961 a 23-year-old dancer broke free of his Russian security detail, dashed through the immigration barrier at a Paris airport and asked the French for political asylum. Rudolf Nureyev wasn’t yet famous outside the world of Russian ballet, but in that world he was known as a White Crow – belaya vorona– Russian idiom for a person who is different from his surroundings, who doesn’t ‘fit’ within cultural circles, and goes against the stream. 

In 2018, a film entitled The White Crow was released without much fanfare. Written by David Hare (The Reader and The Hours) and directed by Ralph Fiennes, it chronicles Nureyev’s life up to and including his 1961 defection in Paris. It’s a mystery that the film didn’t register with the critics. It’s dramatic, true to its facts, suspenseful, and audiences loved it. Even if you’re not a fan of ballet it’s worth seeing. This is first class drama – both the life and film story.

Just three years after his defection and near the end of her remarkable career, London’s Royal Ballet paired 45-year-old Dame Margot Fonteyn with the explosive 26-year-old Nureyev in what became one of the great ballet partnerships of all time. Interestingly, it was not the first such pairing for Nureyev. At the Kirov in Leningrad, the ballet master paired the newly graduated 21-year-old Nureyev with the company’s 46-year-old prima ballerina, Natalia Dudinskaya, thinking a younger male partner would energize and thereby extend the career of its older star. It worked then and again later with Fonteyn.

It’s rare for ordinary mortals to experience greatness, but three years after his defection I had the opportunity to observe greatness as Nureyev and Dame Margot danced Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. I will never forget the feeling I had in their presence.

That night, as Dame Margot emerged en pointe from the wings, stage right, there was an audible gasp, a pause, and then explosive applause from the audience. She WAS the 13-year-old Juliet, and she held that audience in her thrall for the next two hours. Moments after her dramatic entrance Nureyev appeared, and the stage was set for Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers to dance their destinies to Prokofiev’s beautiful score.

In The White Crow, Nureyev is played by Oleg Ivenko, a talented young Russian dancer who not only looks like Nureyev but dances with the same swagger. Nureyev was a larger than life character. I had trouble imagining any actor or dancer playing the role, but in The White Crow Ivenko disappears almost immediately and Nureyev is on the screen front and center.

The film begins with his birth on the Trans-Siberian Railway enroute to Vladivostok and ends with a tense scene between Russian security guards and French immigration officials at Le Bourget Airport in 1961.

His Tatar-Muslim parents were poor and the father, a minor government official, was abusive and mostly absent, but when Rudik was six years old a ticket changed his life. His mother had one ticket to a ballet performance in Ufa, the Siberian town where they lived, and she was somehow able to smuggle Rudy and his three sisters into the theater. Afterwards, he said “There was simply from this quite early age the awareness that the only thing I wanted was to dance.”

His dance life began with folk dancing but his talent was so prodigious that he was handed from one teacher to another until at 17 he was selected by both the Bolshoi in Moscow and the Kirov in Leningrad for further training. To everyone’s surprise he chooses the Kirov, and this is where the film really begins…with his training under Alexander Pushkin.

Pushkin, the ballet master not the poet, is played by Ralph Fiennes who also directed and produced the film. I’ve always admired him as an actor. The English Patient is one of my all-time favorite films, but here, rather than a badly burned adventurer/spy, he plays Pushkin, the very placid, understated ballet master. Pushkin was not a frightening taskmaster like Diaghilev or a dominating personality like Balanchine. Rather, he was a quiet perfectionist and Nureyev his obsessively driven protege. Their relationship is complicated when Pushkin’s wife, a former ballerina, seduces Nureyev, but the seduction, like Fiennes character, is understated and some biographers have even suggested that Pushkin simply chose to ignore it.

Many of the actors in The White Crow are Russian, and so is much of the dialogue (with English subtitiles). Fiennes speaks it fluently and impressively. The film ends where most of us became aware of Rudolf Nureyev, with his dramatic escape to the West. It touches on his bisexuality but doesn’t dwell there. The White Crow honors his genius, individuality, courage, and lust for life. It’s such a shame that he was taken from the world by the AIDS virus at age 54.