Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

My Staycation

This past Saturday, as I noted in an entry from a few days back, Kim and Skylar joined me in celebrating my father's eightieth birthday two days early, since they were headed back to San Diego for a mother-daughter vacation.

It was a beautiful moment, one that moved my father and me. As he confessed tonight, he has been taking advantage of his new Apple TV device to watch it over again, as well as the equally happy-making video of the celebration that Kim and Skylar put on for me in May.

I've watched both videos a number of times myself recently. They have a way of boosting my spirits when I'm down, as I was for much of the past week. Because Kim and Skylar were away, I had the house to myself. But I've never done very well with that kind of solitude, even under the best of circumstances, and found it especially hard to bear in light of the burdens I'm coping with right now.

It didn't help that I had mixed feelings about their trip, both because I wanted to go back to the beach myself -- who wouldn't, in light of the fires that have made this Arizona June even more unbearable than usual? -- and because the two of them had gotten into a heated conflict on our previous trip to San Diego a few weeks back about how they would spend their time together. But they had a great time, in the end, and I made up for my loneliness and hurt at being left out by spending lots of time with my parents.

Because my father's birthday falls roughly a week before Father's Day, he liked to conceive of his celebration as a multi-day affair, highlighted by eating his favorites dishes and taking pleasure in his favorite operas. Knowing what a hard year he has had and how little he got to enjoy his birthday last June, when he was alone with my mother in Maryland only weeks after her discharge from long-term care, I made it a point to tell him that I would both cook a meal for him and watch an opera with him.

He let me pick the opera, so I opted for a 1998 German-language production of the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht collaboration Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny). It wasn't the best presentation from the standpoint of sound quality or staging, but compelling nonetheless, especially for someone who has a soft spot for Brecht's mordant depiction of modern society and loves Weill's fusion of jazz and "New Music" influences.

Plus, there was the added benefit that the German was well enunciated, letting us comment on the many places where the English subtitles differed sharply from the original book. My father's German is not as good as mine from an active standpoint, but having grown up in a household where his parents spoke the language all the time gives him advantages over me.

One interesting thing I realized, when I was looking up Brecht's date of birth for him, is that my paternal grandmother was born, like Brecht, exactly one hundred years before Skylar. She and my grandfather had my father when they were in their early 30s in New York, after emigrating at the end of 1922. And my father was 37 when I was born.

I imagine that it's pretty uncommon for such a long span between generations. It's pretty cool to think about how my father's parents were living In Harlem during the height of the Jazz Age. I've shown Skylar photos of them in their stylish clothes from that time but need to do so again when she studies that period in school. It seems likely that she'll be reading The Great Gatsby at some point, for example.

The other revelation watching the opera, which my father and I watched in three installments, ending tonight, is that it played a huge role in shaping my politics as a teenager. Back when my sense of the world's complexity was still fairly inchoate, I watched the Metropolitan Opera's telecast of their 1980s production starring Teresa Stratas and was completely transfixed, both because Stratas -- who grew up in a rough neighborhood right near where Lincoln Center would later be built -- was amazing and because the savagely ironic edge to the proceedings resonated with my adolescent turmoil. This wobbly, low-res video is taken from a tape of that telecast:

Doors fans will recognize that song, which is repeated throughout the opera, as one of the few that the band covered. It's funny to read the YouTube comments by people who thought that the Doors had written the song, though I suppose it matches Jim Morrison's image well enough to make that conclusion plausible. But I heard the song in the opera before I came across the Doors version, since my education in popular music was always several years behind what I learned about classical music from my parents.

Shortly before I left for a year in Germany as an exchange student in 1986, right after I'd graduated from high school, I watched a theatrical production of what I think must have been a Brecht play with my father. At any rate, I remember getting sucked into it because it reminded me of the opera. Around that time, I also read a New York Times article that discussed the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whom I had never heard of up until that point, at considerable length.

And that's why, when I went into my first German bookstore a few days after beginning my language class in Hamburg, I skipped the instructional materials and purchased a slim paperback of what turned out to be rather obscure Rilke poems and a hardcover collection of similarly marginal German plays, the first of which was Brecht's version of Turandot, which I had gotten to know from Puccini's last opera.

As my fellow American exchange students were goofing around in our language classes, I was laboriously attempting to translate Rilke and Brecht even though I knew almost no German. It probably wasn't the most efficient way of learning a language, but it did wonders for my literary training, sending me down the path that would lead me to being a German major in college.
Tags: autobiography, everyday, family, music

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