In the glory days of bel canto, all opera houses in Italy had a casino attached. According to Stendhal’s biography of Rossini, the composer received 200 ducats a month as musical director but five times as much–1,000 ducats–as his share of gambling proceeds. Opera houses have been government-financed ever since, and the art has stagnated.
Legal Gambling Can Be Good for Sports–and Even for Opera.
Reuven Brenner, The Wall Street Journal
Saturday night, nothing to do with everybody I know out of town on vacation, many of them–according to my wife–in Italy, where she’d like to be, instead of with me. I have that affect on people I’ve been married to for 32 years.
The phone rings, and I’m tempted not to answer it. Nobody uses the land line anymore except for 19th century authors, for whom a rotary phone is still a novelty, especially in Boston, where in 1875 Alexander Graham Bell spoke those fateful words–“Watson, we need to work late on our phonautograph, let’s order pizza.” We have several fateful events looming on the family horizon, however, and so instead of ignoring the bleeping plastic descendant of Bell’s invention, I pick it up and utter my usual greeting, designed to repel life insurance salesmen and political robocalls:
Rocco: “Do you mind? I was napping. Again.”
“Rocco’s Texaco,” the fictional service station I named after our late, lamented tuxedo cat.
“I am sorree,” Stendhal says in his broken Franglais. “I was trying to reach . . .”
“Hey Hank,” I reply, because I know it pisses him off. His full name is Marie Henri Beyle, Stendhal is just a nomme de plume. Also de l’argent and des escargots.
“Allo–so you have played un truc sur moi-meme?”
“Absolument. How they hangin’?”
“A la gauche,” he replies, and we both laugh. With just a few words, we’re right back where we were, nearly a half century ago.
We first got to know each other in the fall of 1970, when I took a course in the 19th century French novel. I was a mere lad of 18, a sophomore in college, while “Marie”–what we called him when we wanted to get under his skin–was more than ten times older, 187 to be exact. To be frank, he looked at least 188. Must have been the wine.
“What brings you to the 21st century?” I ask, genuinely curious.
“I have been asked to–how you say–‘consult’ on a project.”
Stand-offish starling, refusing to join a murmuration.
“You want to hear my joke about consultants?”
“What’s the difference between a flock of starlings and consultants?”
“Je ne sais pas.”
“When a flock of starlings flies into town and shits on your head for a week, they don’t send you a bill for it.”
“So what’s your gig?” I ask, impressed that he has lined up a paying engagement when he’s been dead for 176 years.
“With legalized gambling spreading, and opera companies struggling, I have been ‘tasked’ . . .”
I groan, and not inwardly. “Don’t tell me that consultant-speak has overpowered your graceful prose style.”
“Sorry. When a consultant, do as all the other consultants do.”
“Continue,” I say, with more than a trace of annoyance.
“I have come back to the present from the past to show your tacky casino operators how to acquire at least a thin veneer of culture . . .”
“Instead of a Wayne Newton show?”
“Exactement. While at the same time we revive the art form of opera, which always struggles here in . . . what is the nickname again–‘Ville de Haricots’?”
“Right, Beantown, except we’re all such foodies now you can’t find a bean in Boston to save your life.”
“These beans of yours–they are so-called ‘first responders’?”
“No, that’s just an expression, un adage. So how, exactly, do you propose to kill these two apparently opposed birds with one stone?”
“We will introduce le jeux d’argent upon opera!”
“Betting on opera? How’s that going to work?”
“Well, let’s say you’re going to see Renee Fleming in Cosi fan Tutte. You can bet on the highest note she’s going to hit, whether she’ll have a head cold and be replaced by an understudy, the over-under on how many encores she’ll take.”
Renee Fleming: “I really, truly deserve to be in a classier post than this.”
“And the point of this exercise is?” I ask, drawling out the last word to convey my skepticism.
“To make opera more interesting to more people.”
It’s time for me to put my foot down. Stendhal sees it coming, and sidesteps me. “Henri,” I say, “what you are suggesting would ruin opera for me.”
“Vraiment?” he asks, sincerely mystified. “I did not know you were such a purist?”
“I’m not,” I say.
“So what is, as you Americans say, le problem?”
“I’ve had some of the most peaceful hours of sleep in my life sitting in the opera,” I say. “If you make it interesting, I might actually stay awake.”