Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

La Nilsson

Reading La Nilsson, the at-long-last translated autobiography of the loudest human being on the planet in the second half of the twentieth century. It's a highly intelligent book (no surprise! she was always a brainy lady) and often amusing (ditto). She never mentions certain issues of interest to Americans - such as the five years or so she did not set foot in the U.S. due to a "disagreement" with the IRS - indeed she never seems aware of her besetting vice, a petty pinching of pennies, which obviously led to that half-million-dollar misunderstanding. (How well I remember standing all night on line at the Met for standing room to her Return performance! She opened the concert with "Dich teure Halle," and on the words "geliebter Raum," she drew them out in a spontaneous (okay, rehearsed) ritard: "Beloved room" - well, the new Met was designed with her voice in mind, was it not? - and it was as if she had leaned out and kissed every one of us on the cheek.)

One of her typical stories: The Wiener Staatsoper said it could no longer afford her rising salary, but they loved her and she loved Vienna - they would give her a ceremonial gold plate to symbolize their appreciation. Next year, again a plate. Third year, again a plate, though she had heard them grumble that the price of gold was up. This time she pulled out her little jeweler's eyeglass (don't all divas travel with one? No?) and inspected it: sure enough, gold-plated silver. She wrote the Intendant: "I hope my voice will continue to be gold and not gold-plate." He had the grace to blush.

She never (hardly ever) says anything unkind about another singer, and she worships several of them (especially Swedes: Bjoerling, Svanholm, Gedda), and she admires many lesser-known conductors while sticking pins of varying length into famous ones like Bohm, Solti, Bernstein - and there is no love at all lost with Karajan. Bernstein once said, "Birgit, you sing that so much better now that I've showed you how to do it." Assuming he was joking, she replied, "Yes, I'm so grateful - I can't get jobs on my good looks forever." Only when she'd finished speaking did she realize he had been serious.

She admires the stage directors of her time, deplores the current trends (don't we all?), hates singing teachers heartily (an old grudge - but what on earth could singing teachers DO with a voice like that?), and rips John Culshaw a new one or two. She's still angry at him about the Solti Ring - he boasted to everyone that you could hear the triangle and every violin in the orchestra, and when she suggested the voices were getting short shrift, he said, testily, "This is an orchestra of 100 prima donnas - they all want to be heard as much as you do." She did not reply, as she wanted to, that no one buys a record for the triangle player; they buy for the soprano as often as not. She adds that she never liked the sound of her voice on the vinyl disks of that Ring, but balances were much adjusted when it was released on CD - and then she liked it far more. This was a revelation to me, as I too never liked the quality of her voice on the London vinyl (the Leinsdorf Walküre is much finer; better cast too) - but the first time I heard the CDs, I leaped out of my seat: "THAT'S what Nilsson sounded like in person!" I screamed to the party assembled. (Full of people who had never heard her.)

But the voice itself - now there's a problem. I never really cottoned to the voice itself. Huge, yes; brilliantly controlled; intelligently produced; a singing actress of no mean accomplishment as well as a superb musician. And loud. The loudest voice I ever heard. (Farrell second, Julia Juon third, Sutherland tie for third.)

But it was a harsh voice. In the book, people are always marveling at its beauty (she says), and beauty was never a quality I found in it. True, I only heard her after she had turned 50 (one of her last Turandots; four Isoldes, Tosca, the three Brunnhildes, a few Elektras, the Dyer's Wife, Sieglinde, a bunch of concerts). So I have set myself to seek out her younger recordings: on youtube, a wonderful Ozean du Ungeheuer from 1964, pirates of her Elettra in Idomeneo from 1951 and an Aida from Cleveland in 1964. It is an immediately recognizable voice. And some of the later sharpness was not yet present (she boasts of perfect pitch in the book, but notes that Vienna pitch was always higher than New York pitch or Stockholm pitch).

Still: Harsh is the word I would use for the sound. Even when she floats lovely pianissimi in that '64 Aida, they are not sensuous pianissimi (as Price's were, or Arroyo's, or Tucci's, or even Milanov's): they are ice-skating on the Nile, as W.J. Henderson would say. I never feel in touch with the character of Aida when Nilsson sings it. Similarly her Mozart and Puccini (other than the Turandot of Act II). It was not the ideal voice for a lover - for me, Crespin in Wagnerian roles, Te Kanawa or Zylis-Gara in Mozart, a cross between Tebaldi and Freni in Verdi and Puccini. Nilsson's is just not the sound of love. She is a superb scornful Isolde or vengeful Brunnhilde or icy Turandot, but she does not make love, vocally. Flagstad, another Nordic singer, is also not sensuous, but the sound is warm and its beauty striking - one can believe in love from such a voice. Not from Nilsson's.

But what an extraordinary voice! What an extraordinary woman! What wonderful stories she tells!

Not least, the tales of how she slowly came to understand her voice and how to use it. She wasn't the sort of woman to let such things be casual - she thought about it every step of the way, and she can write about it intelligently - not a gift every singer has.

So I recommend the book, and you can hear the recordings and come to your own conclusion.

If you ever hear another voice like Nilsson's, let me know. But you won't have to - wherever it is, I'll be able to hear it.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Is This a Phaser that I See Before Me? - Patrick Stewart's Macbeth

Friday the weather turned inclement, seven to nine inches of snow, rumors of ice storms and sleet and who knows what-all. New Yorkers know what this means: the museums will be empty, the theaters uncrowded. About 6:15, I headed for the Brooklyn Academy of Music where the Chichester Festival was performing Macbeth, the entire run sold out. I was offered cheap seats upstairs and expensive seats in Row R or Row B in the orchestra. Row B was way over my budget – but screw the budget.

It was my third Macbeth since last summer – fourth, if you count the second season of Slings & Arrows on DVD. First off there was the rather tidy one at the Istanbul Opera in October; then the special-effects and glamour one at the Met. For Chichester, mysteriously, they did not play Verdi’s score. It was halfway through before I noticed this lacuna – I guess I’d been humming it – but suddenly there were a couple of scenes that Verdi did not set in his opera, and I noticed that only I had been musicalizing. (Considering what Guleghina did with her cabalettas, this was sort of a relief.) Then I realized that not only was the text being spoken, not sung, but all of it – every word of Shakespeare – was on display, which is not the usual thing at all. Some lines were reassigned, but they were all there.

The star was Patrick Stewart, a good name for an actor playing a Scottish king – though the Stewart dynasty were the descendants of Banquo and Fleance. A short, stocky, handsome, aging gentleman with a completely shaven head, PS looked familiar somehow – oh yes, he was the excellent Prospero in the Central Park Tempest a decade back. And didn’t he do something on TV? A detective addicted to lollipops? I could be wrong.

Both he and Kate Fleetwood, the excellent Lady M, avoided the usual pitfall: they were not ghastly from the get-go. Macbeth was a jolly good fellow – but muttering under his breath. He plays practical jokes on his party guests – and only from their expressions do you realize that they are all scared of him, that this is a tyrant’s dinner party, that they know they could all be dragged off and shot in an instant. His mood stays buoyant until, in the last scenes, you realizes it is a last stratagem against despair. When the doctor says uneasily that Lady M is tormented by dreams and moods, Macbeth cries, cheerily, “Cure her of that!” and it got a laugh.

Fleetwood, chosen in part exactly because she was so much younger than Stewart, so that she can be seen to be using her sexual promise to keep him ambitious, did some charming things, showing the terror lurking beneath her determination to do evil. When Duncan arrived at the castle, she and her staff were chopping things up in the kitchen, and she had an apron on. Having already plotted his murder, she had the grace to be embarrassed, to laugh and blush and pass it off as confusion at being seen in kitchen clothes – she rushed to a sink and washed her hands, a move that we were intended to note (and, of course, remember – in the sleepwalking scene, when the faucets ran red, which since it can only be true in her dream, was perhaps overkill). (But we jumped, as we were intended to.)

The play, Macbeth, is the tragedy of an ordinary man – neither overly good nor overtly evil – who commits a deed he knows to be wicked, fully aware of what it will mean. Worst of all, he is an imaginative man – he foresees things – sometimes things that are not there. He has regrets, too – he cannot lie to himself, tell himself it is a worthwhile action (as most of us can when we violate our better instincts), or pretend later that there is anyone else to blame. Rightly he does not blame his wife (as many a real man would), or the witches – he has walked into this, eyes open (to this world and other worlds), and the play examines the problem of why such a man would do so. (Since so many do.) Considering how often the devil is mentioned in the play (a lot), Shakespeare blames him very little. Macbeth has doomed himself. When he reaches the pit of despair, we shudder, and are meant to. No one but Malcolm triumphs. (The crowing of Hecate and the witches is an interpolation by Middleton, and it was not played at BAM; I have never seen a production of the play that did use it.)

Stewart, who has said, “I realized I’ve known these speeches all my life,” speaks them as if their knotty paths were only just opening to him. He speculates on the witches’ motives, on the phantom dagger, on Macduff’s flight, on the miserable conclusion of his ambitions, on the point of surviving at all. He displays his mind. It is all very clear and nimble. I was riveted. (But then, I was in Row B.)

I’ve never been sure how I’d stage the Ghost of Banquo – the usual bloody fellow appearing suddenly from the crowd does not satisfy me. Perhaps, I thought, I’d have no one there at all, Macbeth pointing at nothing, so that we could share the consternation of the guests. I’d have liked to have it both ways – the horror Macbeth sees and the other horror – a madman in mid-fit – seen by everyone else – but I couldn’t figure out how to manage that. That, no doubt, is why Rupert Goold, not I, was chosen to direct the production – he shared my ambition, and he figured out how to pull it off.

You can break a Shakespeare play almost anywhere in reason, and I was not sure when the break would come – before or after Banquo’s death, before or after the banquet and apparition scene that follows. I had never thought of breaking it in the middle of the latter scene. (In the opera, of course, one cannot do that – the concertato that ends the scene must also end the act.) Goold played the banquet scene through Macbeth’s confabulation with the half-achieving murderer; then he sat at the table and the Ghost entered, drenched in blood, and marched down the long table to Macbeth (who had his back to us and therefore might be imagined as aghast as we liked). At which point, blackout, intermission. Then, to start again, the whole scene again, this time from the guests’ point of view – they did not hear what Macbeth was muttering to the murderer, and there was no visible Banquo – only a king howling outrage and horror. But we knew what he was seeing. Clever.

The Witches were surgical nurses. (They were surgical nurses at the Istanbul Opera too – makes more sense than Monty Python bag ladies with awkward shoes and tiny handbags, as at the Met.) I cottoned to this before most people – they were working on the Bloody Sergeant during his rather excessive report on Macbeth’s generalship to Duncan in the opening scene. (Scene ii in the printed text, but no matter.) When Duncan bade someone “see to his wounds” and departed, the nurses calmly murdered him (gasps of horror around me), and launched “When shall we three meet again” (scene i in the printed text). Later they were servants at Macbeth’s banquet, making him uneasy. (I wasn’t crazy about that, but I don’t think the witches should be made too powerful – they tempt Macbeth, but they do not make him do things – this was a mistake the Istanbul – and many other – Macbeths make; the witches manipulated everything: handing Macbeth the letter to write to his wife, delivering the letter, arming the murderers, empowering everyone – flying in the teeth of Free Will, a concept Shakespeare makes clear is quite enough to account for Macbeth’s bad behavior.)

What did seem to be made clear was that when he first meets the witches, Macbeth is wary of them; he is willing to not act, to let the crown come to him, if it’s going to. And after all, it is they who confront him – they tempt him (and don’t bother with Banquo) because they know he’s already been speculating crown-wards. In contrast, when he seeks them out on the heath, he wants them – though he bullies and insults them, he desperately needs their reassurance and no longer automatically distrusts their words. By the end of the scene, he is totally given up to them, and therefore (unspoken) to Hell – it is his only hope, since he cannot speak Amen, cannot ask God for help in what he well knows are unholy deeds. His ego is not barefaced enough (as real tyrants’ egos surely are) to see his own deeds as necessarily right, and all opposition as necessarily evil. He is unable to lie to himself – an ability surely most criminals possess. “You lack the season of all natures, sleep,” says his lady (almost her last waking utterance). It is his conscience that refuses to sleep – but he has already defied it. “I am afraid to think what I have done.” But he can’t stop thinking. Every murder he commits after the king’s – the grooms, Banquo, the Macduff family – is unnecessary, but they are active, and he is willing to do anything rather than be pensive. He sleeps no more. His imagination cannot be unloosed. (And from his lady’s fate, we know what could happen if it were.)

From the second witches’ encounter, therefore, the scene of the apparitions, Macbeth is wholly theirs. That they have betrayed him without lying gives them no pleasure – it is what he really wanted – that they’d tell him he was secure when he knows in his heart of hearts that he can never be secure, that he deserves the punishments he’s going to get. They tell him what he wants.

The witches’ recipe-spell is another pitfall for a director, and this one Goold has miscalculated. They rap the spell, and at such a pace that not a word of it is intelligible but the refrain, “Double, double.” Most rappers have pretty decent diction, but not these dames. (One of them had a pleasing Scottish accent in her solo lines, but not here.) The words burbled by unheard, and our attention flagged – I could not help contrasting this with the wedding masque in Stewart’s Tempest, a scene usually dropped or ignored – when three ladies on stilts in enormous gowns came in chanting their lines in Caribbean rhythms – the image was striking, the verse catchy, the moment riveting while (appropriately) outside the experience of the play, another world – it is a visitation of three goddesses, after all. Perhaps Big Bill wrote it, hoping to attain the popular appeal of the apparition scene in Macbeth, which became (and long remained) one of the most audience-catching parts of the play, a big draw, music and light and special effects. And of course both were designed to appeal to the highly theatrical king, James VI and I (eighth kingly descendant of Banquo), who believed in witches, read of gods, and adored masques – whose daughter’s wedding may have been the occasion for the writing of The Tempest.

The apparitions were contorted figures in body bags. Not bad. The witches spoke their lines (they also did in Istanbul). Fine.

Lady Macduff and her children (who had earlier appeared in the waking-of-Duncan scene) were given some originality here. Suzanne Burden was so upset by impending doom as to speak her lines in a fretful humor rather than the usual sentimentality. Tim Treloar played Ross (and lines of several other characters) as a weathervane-watching suit who develops a conscience over time. The porter (and other characters), Christopher Patrick Nolan (a little too melodramatically sinister), performed what all London Shakespeare now requires: the onstage pissing scene. He dwelt on the “E-qui-vo-ca-tors” a bit heartily in his Hell-gate monologue, a moment that has been connected to the Jesuits implicated in Guy Fawkes’s Plot around the time (it is generally guessed) of the play’s premiere. But as I thought about it, the whole play, not just some imaginary damned person, is about equivocation – Macbeth bargaining with the Devil, with Fate, with his own sanity. “Don’t be this sort of king,” James is being urged – with the examples of his virtuous ancestors, Duncan, Malcolm, Banquo and Fleance to inspire him.

The murder of Banquo was set on a subway car packed with huddled and indifferent commuters – it sort of worked. (At the Met, it’s a crowd of homeless tramps around a fire. In Istanbul, the witches loaned knives and surgical gowns to the murderers. None of these approaches was entirely satisfactory, but the Met’s was just silly.) I was least happy with Scott Feast’s constantly menacing Macduff and Scott Handy’s vacant-eyed Malcolm, and least happy of all with their “temptation” scene together, which was set in either a temperance hall or a music-hall – difficult to know which. People around me who did not know the play did not understand what was going on in this scene at all; I of course did, but the debate was not made interesting. I liked the background slides best when a very green, effective Birnam Wood surrounded Malcolm and his commanders, and when the blood began to ooze about in curlicue patterns, illustrating the mind of Macbeth without distracting us from Stewart’s speaking of the speeches. The blood was probably more effective at a distance – close up it looked too theatrical a scarlet. Paul Shelley, a tolerable Duncan, was more effective as the Doctor. Polly Frame did the gentlewoman well.

On the whole I’d have to call it the most satisfactorily understated staging of the play in my experience – and this is a play that almost demands, but very ill rewards, overstatement. The blood is all there, and the hysteria; you don’t need to add more, overwhelming as the temptation may be. Stewart and Fleetwood and Goold resist that temptation; they give us a play, not an out-and-out spookshow.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

What if they'd said yes?

A game for opera nuts:

The following list is of famous singers and roles they never sang but were offered. Which ones make you glad they said No? Which ones are dreamy might-have-beens?

Joan Sutherland - Louise
Kirstin Flagstad - Marschallin
Tatiana Troyanos - Cassandra
Leontyne Price - Desdemona
Renata Tebaldi - Norma
Victoria de los Angeles - Adalgisa
Leontyne Price - Abigaille
Maria Callas - Vanessa
Kirstin Flagstad - Norma
Tatiana Troyanos - Idamante
Joan Sutherland - Konstanze
Leontyne Price - Vanessa
Birgit Nilsson - Carmen
Lotte Lehmann - Kaiserin

Any others? (I'm sure there are thousands - Nicolai Gedda said 80 percent of a career is saying No, and he sang everything.)

Birgit and the Pirates

I'm reading Nilsson's autobiography, La Nilsson, which (no surprise) is highly intelligent, tactful and gives away few secrets (how she produced that sound, for instance). She doesn't even mention the reason she didn't sing in the U.S. for five years, and she hardly seems to notice her besetting sin of penny-pinching, a standing joke among all her associates and friends. (A natural vice in a farmer's only child, eh?) She likes other singers and loathes singing teachers. Conductors come in half-and-half -- the more famous they are, the more she likes to cut them down to size. And she's still mad at John Culshaw for making the triangle sound more important than the soprano in the Ring.

I did not hear Nilsson till she was 50, and I always found the voice astonishing, its deployment thoughtful, but the sound itself harsh -- I wouldn't call her an ideal Isolde or Sieglinde or even Brunnhilde for that reason, much less Tosca or Amelia or the Marschallin. But she quotes reviews of her early performances in the late 40s and the 50s that marvel at the beauty as well as the size of the voice. (Or just the beauty -- Karl Bohm harrumphed, "She's a soubrette!" when he first heard her sing Wagner.)

But then she made no professional recordings till she was 40 (the Walkuere with Leinsdorf is heaven; she tells a naughty story about it, also her first Turandot recording with Leinsdorf, Tebaldi and Bjoerling -- whom she adored). The other day, on youtube, I found her singing Ozean du Ungeheuer in 1964, and the voice has a richer, fruitier sound than I associate with her.

So I wondered: do pirates exist of her performances before 1960? (she says someone sent her a list of pirated performances that went on for 27 pages -- "that didn't make me happy" -- but it makes ME happy -- and wherever she is, Valhalla no doubt, they don't have numbered accounts). I never hear about them, and I'd love to know what she sounded like in the early years when Wieland Wagner fell at her feet.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Il Trovatore and Jenufa

No one seems to have remarked - and I've only just realized myself - how closely the plot of Jenufa (aka Jeji Pastorkyna, that is, Her Stepdaughter) resembles that of Il Trovatore (aka La Zingara).

Consider: Two half-brothers who hate each other are in love with the same girl - who adores one of them, loathes the other. (The jealousy of the disliked brother is the engine that drives much of the plot.) The fourth character, who is actually the most important and usually steals the show (the glory of mezzo-sopranos!) is a foster mother , possessively, devouringly in love with the child she raised but never bore. (Her love is the real engine of the plot.) A baby murdered by the foster mother also figures.

They say there are only six plots. (Five of them are against me.) I doubt anyone has connected these two before.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Voices and Colors

Went to the Met for Manon Lescaut last night - Karita Mattila was sensational, as expected, but as many have remarked, not very Italianate. In her case, in this opera's case, this did not bother me - I do not anticipate being happy with her Tosca, slated to open the Met in a couple of seasons. Frankly, I would rather hear her as Arabella, or Vitellia, or Emilia Marty - or Isolde, but I'm sure she'd never take that on. (Alas. Maybe on records only, like Margaret Price.)

Italian opera of the Verdi-Puccini-verismo stripe, in any case, calls for a voice in the red or red-orange spectrum. Mattila has a blue-gold voice. On my very personal “color” scale for voices, Ponselle is the only true red. Tebaldi is cherry red with magenta highlights, Ricciarelli candy apple red, De los Angeles an elegant cerise, Callas, Freni and Scotto various shades of orange, Caballé crimson, Price umber, Sutherland blue in her early days, purple later on, Sills a metallic yellow edged in chartreuse (an ugly shade) – and Mattila is blue-gold.

Nothing could be more subjective. With the right crowd and the right records and the right 420, we could keep this debate going for hours.

English Jewish joke - p.s. to Mike Leigh

1946. An Englishman – from an entirely assimilated family - is horrified to learn that one of his distant cousins has turned up in one of the camps where Jews who survived the concentration camps were interned. He investigates - it's true. The poor man has survived his entire family, and now, broken in spirit, is one of the last persons in the camps who has not been repatriated somewhere. The Englishman consults with his family - of course there's only one thing to do - I mean, the guy can't be expected to go back and live in Poland, now, can he? After all he's been through. And there's no one there to receive him in any case. He's probably in terrible health. He deserves a family - and fortunately, they're still Jewish enough to remember family. The paperwork is submitted and after endless delays, more than a year having passed, the man is located, is permitted to enter England as the refugee relative of an English family through whom he can build himself a new life.

The big day comes. The plane lands at whatever airport they were using in 1947. The Englishman, a fixed smile on his stiff upper lip, waits at the terminal. A vagabond, bent and prematurely aged, thin and sickly, emerges from the plane. He smiles with his few remaining yellow teeth. The Englishman smiles back (thinking, Oh my God), and embraces him. The refugee bursts into tears. The Englishman is terribly embarrassed. "None of that, now," he mutters. "There's no point to it. You're safe now. You're in England. ENGLAND." The cousin stops sniveling and begins to think about this.

The Englishman takes his cousin at once to Bond Street, goes to his personal tailor (to whom he had explained matters in advance), and orders him shirts, shoes, ties, suits, hats - so they can take him around and not be ashamed of him. The refugee has forgotten about such treatment. He is overwhelmed. He cannot grasp things, but he tries. He lets the tailor pick everything out that might be suitable. He stands before the triple mirror being fitted. Cuffs? Does he like cuffs? How long should they be? Lapels? How wide?

It is all too much. He bursts into tears again. The English cousin is even more mortified - in front of his tailor! Egad. How will I ever face the fellow again?

"Oh, don't go on like that, Cousin Osip. I've explained it to you. We're English now!"

"Yes!" sobs Cousin Osip. "English! And we've lost Ind'ya!"

(My mother told me that joke. I should send it to Mike Leigh. The father in Two Thousand Years tells bad jokes. A lot.)

Friday, February 1, 2008

So I did some research on Mike Leigh actually

From an interview in The Guardian on the occasion of the move of Two Thousand Years from the Royal National to the West End (U.S. equivalent: Off-Broadway to On), which may be found href=",,1755767,00.html:"> here.

'Leigh's parents met in 1936 at Habonim, the Jewish socialist Zionist youth group in Manchester. Both his mother's sisters made aliyah (emigrated to Israel), one in 1934, another in 1949. His parents had also considered making aliyah themselves but married at the beginning of the war and by the time it ended, his father had a doctor's practice in Salford. "There were always people in and out of our house who were off on aliyah," Leigh says. It was a kosher home, though they only went to synagogue now and again and they drove on the sabbath. "But it was very, very Jewish. My grandparents were immigrants - they talked in Yiddish - and there were some outreaches of the family where there were genuine frummers [Orthodox]." In 1960, like many Jewish teenagers, he went with Habonim to Israel for the summer, and hitchhiked there on his own the following year. Nevertheless, when he became a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, he consciously escaped his Jewish identity because, as he writes in an introduction to the play, he was escaping being stereotyped; having so many other possibilities closed down. This seems to be a peculiarly British dilemma that does not afflict American Jews; in the US almost everyone comes from somewhere else. To be British is to have to suppress where you came from, to pretend you always came from here.'

Yes, pat on my back, I seem to have spotted the difference between an English Jewish family (with a kibbutznik Socialist background) and my American Jewish family (with its hoity-toity Norman Thomas Socialist background). In the play, when Josh demands of his grandfather, "What does being Jewish mean to you? Are you ashamed of it?" the old man grumbles, "You're born Jewish, and that's the end of it. Ashamed of it? Proud of it? You just are." He certainly doesn't believe it calls for any religious observance, and by the end of the play, Josh has accepted this family attitude as well: He was acting "Jewish" to attract God's love because his family was treating him as an embarrassment or refusing to notice him at all. Now that they do notice him, now that he feels loved again, and part of the conversation, he can forget about God.

Perhaps this is Leigh's sly – and devastating – sendup of religion, and what gets people involved in it. It certainly helps to explain my delight in polytheism and a multiplicity of deity, and personality – my cordial dislike of One Omnipotent Father before whom to cringe, desperate for notice and some sign, any sign, of affection. Better to interpret every thunderclap as that. At least the folks are talking to me.

'"There is no doubt whatever that there is a context in which there is a confusion between Jews and Israel," Leigh says. "That Israelis, for better or worse, bring it on themselves, is all I'll say. The play is a reflection, rather than a conclusive didact because that's what I do." In the play, the daughter, with her Israeli boyfriend, reflects how Zionism has changed from being "something positive and hopeful" to a dirty word. For the family, Zionism has been a disappointment because it has not lived up to its own founding values. To others, I point out to Leigh, it had only ever been a colonial movement bent on ethnic cleansing. "Given the events of even the 19th century, Zionism was inevitable," he replies. "Given the events of the 20th century, Israel was inevitable." The play is about disappointment, he says, twice during the interview. Political disappointment and, perhaps, disappointment at how one child, of whom you had high hopes, has turned out.'

A universal theme, seen, however, through a uniquely English-Jewish lens. (All great art reveals a particular lens on a universal question. "Man is the noblest study of all - says Man," as James Thurber put it. An American-Jewish lens would show a different play, a different way of exploring the questions; so would a French-Jewish lens, or a Russian-Jewish lens, or a South African-Jewish lens. And within the nationalities, the attitudes would certainly vary. I have friends who see everything through a self-consciously Jewish lens and (rather closer) friends who find their Jewishness irrelevant. This is a luxury they might not be allowed in other societies, but it is allowed in this one, and they revel in it, and American society permits them to. (Does it permit this to Muslims these days? But Muslim plays and novels have not been produced much in this society – yet. I'm looking forward to it. Can't read the Jews, mostly, but I love the Catholics.)

By the way, on Leigh's working methods, another Guardian article provides this:
"Leigh's idiosyncratic preparation for both his plays and films is well documented. The director shuns scripts in favour of improvisation and likes to spend time talking his actors through the people they are going to play.
It was reported that, with the exception of Imelda Staunton, who played the eponymous abortionist, the cast of Vera Drake was not told that the film was about abortion until their characters discovered for themselves what Vera did."