Thursday, September 30, 2010

The New Season(s)

I am eagerly anticipating the start of the opera season here in Roanoke, and over the next two weeks I will write more about the two events that loom largest on our horizon:

1. The Met "Live in HD Broadcasts" open in Roanoke at Virginia Western Community College on Oct 10 with the "live in HD" movie broadcast of Das Rheingold, the first installment in the much touted new production of Wagner's Ring cycle.

2. Opera Roanoke's curtain raiser, Faust & Furious: A Ride with the Devil! follows on October 16 at Shaftman Performance Hall.

The digital revolution that has changed the music world (in every genre) underscores the unique thrill of the live concert experience. While the convenience of mp3's makes music more accessible than ever, there is simply no substitute for the "real thing" itself. We are fortunate to live in an age with both.

I love having at my fingertips (via my laptop or ipod) thousands of "songs" from my favorite operas. I have playlists for my favorite composers beginning with John Adams and ending after Wagner. A new discovery for me this summer was satellite radio (a feature of my GM hybrid) and my dial is set to Sirius XM 79, where I listen to live Met recordings from their 75-plus years of archival recordings. Though not the same as being there, it is the next best thing. I'll take it.

In the Met's monthly magazine, Opera News, the current issue features an article by Brian Kellow provocatively called "The Crowd Snores."

Kellow recalls those halcyon days before text-messaging, when audiences were focused on the performance and not their blackberries. Passionate intermission discussions featured partisans of rival divas rather than the latest fantasy football results (disclosure: I have a blackberry and text; I know very little about fantasy sports teams).

As I write this, a Met broadcast from 1979 is playing of Massenet's great opera Werther (not to be confused with the gold-wrapped candy, Goethe's "hero" is pronounced "VerTARE"). A young Kathleen Battle is in a supporting cast led by Alfredo Kraus and Regine Crespin. Werther is the first Massenet opera Steven and I want to bring to Roanoke audiences. If you know the opera, you know why it gets our vote. Stay tuned.

A recent broadcast featured the debuts of two of the great stars of their--and any--day. Franco Corelli and Leontyne Price both debuted in a 1961 production of Verdi's Il Trovatore. The ovation that greeted their curtain call lasted 42 minutes. Think about that for a moment. Also featured in that thrilling performance was a young Canadian soprano about to make her breakthrough, Teresa Stratas, and the great American mezzo, Irene Dalis (a name familiar to Opera Roanoke for her work here with our company's founders).

Sirius XM radio broadcasts live from the Met several times a week during the regular season. It plays "encore" performances during the summer. Our own Steven White's performance of La Traviata was broadcast in August. I know I wasn't the only listener with chills up my spine and tears in my eyes when I heard Steven's name announced at that curtain call!

The Met manages to sell several thousand tickets a night for most of its season. All of those Traviata performances were sellouts. I hope all of Opera Roanoke's supporters will help ensure a rousing ovation and a full house for Maestro White, the RSO, and the 200 other performers joining him for our season opening concert, Faust and Furious: A Ride with the Devil!

I will be the Master of Ceremonies for this most spectacular concert in Opera Roanoke's 35 year history. I am looking forward to the highlights from all three versions of the Faust legend represented in our operatic concert suites on October 16. In particular, I can't wait to hear:

*Boito's awesome evocation of heaven itself in the Prologue to Mefistofele;

*Berlioz's wild and literally crazy version of all hell breaking loose in the onomatopoeic "Pandemonium!"

*The transcendent hymn that closes Gounod's grand opera, Faust.

But before that "save the date or be damned" concert on October 16, the Met is coming to Roanoke, live and in high def. Before the Met comes to Roanoke, Amy and I will be making a quick trip to NYC to see the new Rheingold production in person.

On the Met's homepage ( there is a link to a photo gallery of the new Rheingold, including a short video that illustrates why I am describing this new production as Lord of the Rings meets Cirque-de-Soleil. The latter is literally true, as the French-Canadian production team includes Cirque designers.

Other imminent highlights of the Met season (also coming in the HD broadcasts) are two of the grandest operas in the repertoire. THE embodiment of the Russian spirit is Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, featuring the operatic bass (who most closely resembles a rock star), Rene Pape.

Later this fall comes Verdi's epic masterpiece, Don Carlo. Both operas feature new productions. In the opera world, this is newsworthy as a star quarterback debuting in a new jersey in the NFL (both are ridiculously expensive).

I had the privilege of standing in the front row of a chorus behind the great Italian basso, Ferrucio Furlanetto, who will sing Verdi's version of the real life King Philip of Spain in Don Carlo.

Before Mussorgsky's and Verdi's great basso characters come to the Met, Amy and I will hear Thomas Hampson's portrayal of Verdi's Macbeth in a new production at Lyric Opera of Chicago (LOC).

Albert Camus wrote that the tragic hero "denies the order that strikes him down, and the divine order strikes because it is denied." This dramatic tension is present in great operas of every epoch. One of the grandest of operatic tragedies is Puccini's Madama Butterfly, the centerpiece of Opera Roanoke's season. The most popular opera in the US is also featured by Washington National Opera and Virginia Opera, both of whose productions run concurrently with ours.

Roanoke is the only place to hear Yunah Lee, THE Madama Butterfly of today. The same issue of Opera News I referenced above reviewed Central City's production from this past summer:

"The big appeal of this Butterfly was the presence of the Korean-American soprano Yunah Lee, who has made the opera's wronged title character her signature role. Lee handled the not inconsiderable vocal demands of the role with aplomb but also did a superb job of conveying Butterfly's shifting, contradictory feelings that are so beautifully evoked by Puccini's score--eroticism, innocence and guilt."

Opera is the stuff of life and as we say at Opera Roanoke, it's "life with a melody." But it is more than great tunes. Opera comes with incomparable harmony, is live in 3D and engages all of the senses. Our tagline this season is HEAR the drama, SEE the music, BELIEVE it's Opera Roanoke.

I hope to see you at the opera(s) soon.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Why Opera?" (My Address to CITS Annual Dinner)

Below is the text of the keynote address I offered the attendees of the Center in the Square (CITS) Annual Dinner Sept 16, upon the request of some inquiring minds. I should say it's the text upon which my speech was based, since I didn't stick literally to the "script."

(I will return soon with an article or two about the upcoming MET HD broadcasts, and Opera Roanoke's season opener, Faust & Furious).

Thank you, Steven. I can't begin to express the depth of my gratitude for not only this opportunity and all those you've afforded me, but for one of the most important friendships in my life. Roanoke is incredibly fortunate to have you and Elizabeth in our midst. I also want to thank Jim (Sears) and George (Cartledge), all the CITS staff, the volunteers, and everyone involved in the capital campaign. It is a sign of your visionary leadership and commitment that you have mounted such a successful campaign in this climate. I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes. Writing on the eve of WWII, C.S. Lewis observed:

"If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun."

Why Opera and why Opera Roanoke? I will try to answer both in about 7.’

We are about to begin our 35th Season: Hear, See, Believe:
Hear the Drama; See the Music; Believe it’s Opera Roanoke.

The experience of opera itself is one of the WHY’S. Looking for inspiration where other answers go, I turned to one of my heroes, Clint Eastwood. There are many days when I look in the mirror and ask "Well, punk; do you feel lucky?" And the answer most days is yes. Seriously, I was inspired by Clint's recent film Invictus, where Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) inspires the captain of the (mostly) white rugby team (played by Matt Damon) with the question HOW?

“How do we inspire ourselves to greatness, when nothing less will do?
How do we inspire everyone around us? It is by using the work of others…"

So, I'm going to follow that advice and use the words of others to describe our opera season...

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work… Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.

The Chicago Architect, Daniel Burnham, writing at the turn of the 20th century, could have been talking about our Opening concert, Faust and Furious, A Ride with the Devil. Mo. White will lead more performers than ever assembled on the Shaftman Hall stage in bringing an immortal tale to life. Joining three world-class, internationally-fêted stars will be the RSO & RSOC, my professional chorus, the Virginia Chorale, the Liberty University Chorale and our own Roanoke College Children's Chorus. 300 performers in a concert like you've never heard!

And if you don't recall that Goethe was the Shakespeaere of Germany, don't worry. If you need to "brush up your Goethe," fear not. Like all opera, it’s about love & death. Eros & Thanatos. Served with a twist. In this case, Satan. So save the date or be damned. You don’t have to sell your soul, just buy a ticket. Even if the Devil makes you do it, be there!

Opera is “larger than life”—it is so emotionally direct; it “takes the basic human emotions, pinpoints them, and magnifies them” (Bernstein), unfurling them towards you in the most splendid way imaginable! We don’t call it GRAND opera for nothing! The sheer range of expression in Opera is unsurpassable—and the means—the raw power of the naked human voice is like nothing else. The poet William Meredith puts it this way, in “About Opera:”

An image of articulateness is what it is:
Isn’t this how we’ve always longed to talk?

But it’s not GRAND in the exclusive sense, that it requires a special degree or indoctrination in order to GET it. The person sitting next to you doesn’t speak Italian either. But you both speak “human.” Opera was always meant to be a popular art, and a social one. And long before it was PC or necessitated by recessions, opera has always been the most collaborative, the most inclusive art form we have: music, word, drama, design, dance, & stagecraft & on…

Opera is the “total work of art” and makes for the grandest of experiences. And that grand, one-of-a-kind, larger-than-life world is at the heart of our season in a fully staged production of Madama Butterfly. Puccini’s masterpiece is the most popular opera in the US. If you’ve seen a great production, you know why. If you haven’t, you have two chances right here: March 18 & 20. And you can help guarantee our future as we consider the "how," "what" and "where:" join our matching-gift production fund campaign to ensure staged productions return to stay.

Our Season offers a rich variety of offerings. In between Faust & Mme Butterfly we get Intimate & personal with our Stars in the Star City Recitals. Think of these concerts as Opera Unplugged. One singer. One pianist. Nothing between his soul and your ears. Nothing between her voice and your experience.

This weekend, our colleagues in the Kandinsky Trio open their season at Roanoke College. I can’t wait to sit among the audience, forget about the rest of the world for a few blessed moments, and be transfixed by the power of Elizabeth Futral’s singing in the inimitable setting of the recital. Elizabeth will be gracing us with her beautiful voice and arresting stage presence in our Season finale, Mother's Day Serenade. Whenever I watch a great artist like Elizabeth, I feel the magic of the vicarious experience—those moments where we lose (or at least forget!) our selves and experience something other, something special, something extra-ordinary! Whether it’s attending the theater, looking at a painting, watching a film, reading a book—the vicarious experience is central to our existence. Why opera? Why NOT is the tougher question.

In Invictus, Mandela also says: we must all exceed our own expectations...

CITS is doing just that with its visionary campaign. And we at Opera Roanoke are thrilled to be a part of it, excited by the possibilities for collaboration, innovation, and rejuvenation. Among our new ventures this year are the MET HD broadcasts, hosted by Virginia Western Community College, and through their generous sponsorship, benefitting Opera Roanoke. These live, High Def movie broadcasts are a perfect entrée into the wonderful world of live opera. We are continuing our Sempre Libera program. That’s Italian for “always free” and it describes our ticket policy for students: always free. Just call us. We are launching an Apprentice program for local and regional college & university students this year. That’s the "why" and "where" for right now. And our future?

Looking ahead I envision an Opera Company that features a festival season with varied offerings of full productions in repertory, collaborating with not only our current partners like Center, the RSO & the Jeff Center, but our museums and galleries, the Ballet and MMT, and local businesses. This Opera Festival would help turn Roanoke into the tourist destination it could be, and build on the vibrant cultural center, that thanks to friends like you, it already is. Leonard Bernstein’s description of what makes opera great also applies to cities like ours:

Any great work of art is great because it creates a special world of its own. It revises and readapts time and space. And the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world; the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air…when we come out it, we are enriched and ennobled.

This is YOUR Opera Company. The great American conductor (and "father" of choral music in the US), Robert Shaw, speaking to his newly formed Collegiate Chorale in NYC, said:

This choir no longer belongs to one man. It belongs to each of us, everyone.
And what it does or fails to do from now on is your credit or your fault…
You don’t join the Collegiate Chorale. You believe it.

I will see you at the Opera. Thank you very much.

Postscript: below are the most famous couplets from the poem, Invictus. Below that is the excerpt Mandela actually read to the Rugby captain to inspire the team.

from Invictus, by William Ernest Henley

I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul...

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who strives valiantly; who errs… because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. (Theodore Roosevelt, April, 1910)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Arts Education: Against Ignorance

The following arrived in my inbox today from Opera America:

National Arts in Education Week, September 12-18, 2010
On July 26, the House of Representatives passed a resolution designating the second week of September National Arts in Education Week. Introduced by Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), the Congressional Resolution declares, "Arts education, comprising a rich array of disciplines including dance, music, theater, media arts, literature, design and visual arts, is a core academic subject and an essential element of a complete and balanced education for all students."

How telling that so essential a topic as arts education has been completely ignored as the nation focuses on a prospective act of base ignorance, the so-called "International Burn-a-Koran Day" scheduled for September 11 by an ignorant pastor and his misguided flock of 50 in Gainesville, FL.

One article I saw earlier today had the best advice I've seen yet:

"The best way to respond to Quran burnings is Quran readings, recitations, teaching, learning, sharing, living the best of the principles found therein," said Zaheer Ali, a New York Muslim leader and doctoral student at Columbia University. The pastor in question, Terry Jones, would make an excellent candidate for Ali's assignment, since he admitted having "no experience with it [The Quran] whatsoever."

One month ago I posted an essay called "An Ideal of International Harmony" and it referenced conductors like Georg Solti's and Daniel Barenboim's efforts to bring together ensembles of international personnel to embody just such an ideal.

Consciousness and conscience have been much on mind and in my heart this summer. While I try never to use this platform as a political forum, nor even veer towards the polemic, I do think we--as artists and fundamentally, human beings--should be more bold in affirming our common humanity and speaking, singing, playing & acting against ignorance.

I have also been referencing disparate voices that have been on my reading list this summer, and as is my wont, trying my best to weave them together with common threads. I believe one of my primary roles as an artistic director is to be an educator. And not just to middle, high school, and university students. The E.M. Foster epigram, "only connect" motivates me to fill in gaps in my own education. Gaps in our heads lead to holes in our hearts. Ignorance is the enemy of empathy. When coupled with fear & fueled by prejudice, ignorance leads to atrocities like the Inquisition and the Holocaust. The multi-layered textures of art are an antidote to ignorance. They are a rich source of tradition & learning, inspiration & innovation, and are a great place to start filling in those gaps of consciousness and conscience.

One of the compliments I treasure most is when someone remarks on the thoughtfulness of my programming. One of the Chorale's critics wrote last fall "if any area organization takes its education mission seriously, it is the Virginia Chorale." He was not referring to our Young Singers Project. He was referencing an eclectic program that combined familiar and unfamiliar repertoire, and juxtaposed Renaissance madrigals with a modern Shakespeare setting by Dominick Argento dedicated to the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

Another recent addition to my summer reading list is a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Its subtitle is "Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy." Bonhoeffer was executed for his role in the Stauffenberg "Die Walküre" plot to assassinate Hitler (the story was made into a recent film starring Tom Cruise, Valkyrie).

The book's chapters feature epigrams from Bonhoeffer's incisive writings and quotes worth remembering:

"When books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people, too."

That quote by the German, Jewish-born poet Heinrich Heine mirrors Sigmund Freud's chilling observation (following a 1933 "cleansing" of "un-German" books): "Only our books? In earlier times they would have burned us with them."

One of the most famous poems of conscience is quoted in Eric Metaxas' biography. It comes from a colleague of Bonhoeffer's, who made the tragic mistake of giving Hitler an early benefit of the doubt.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me--
and there was no one left to speak for me.

--Martin Niemöller

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan has just ended, and the Jewish High Holy Days have just begun. I listened to my favorite Chanticleer recording earlier in honor of the interconnectedness of the three central Abrahamic faiths (that would be Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in order of seniority). And on Earth, Peace features movements representing all three. The Turkish-American composer Kamran Ince contributed "Gloria (Everywhere)" which opens with a wonderfully fragrant image from the 13th century Sufist poet Rumi (who lived in what is now Afghanistan):

the aroma of God
begins to arrive

The heart of the 12' movement sings an interfaith message of international harmony:

Moslems and Christians and Jews
raising their hands to the sky
their chanting voice in unison
begin to arrive

Later on the poet offers an antidote to ignorance all sides of today's bitterly divided world should heed:

if your eyes are marred
with petty visions
wash them with tears
your teardrops are healers
as they begin to arrive

(from Fountain of Fire, Rumitrans. by Nader Khalili,
Burning Gate Press, 1994, and CalEarth, 1996)

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Wittgenstein's most famous aphorism creates a wide berth of application. Those who have not read the Quran and have not had conversations with Muslims have no business speaking about the subject, whether it be a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan or Islam itself.

"Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it," said the founder of modern political conservatism, Edmund Burke. One of the best op-ed pieces I've read during this xenophobic summer comes from The Philadelphia Inquirer's Dick Polman. "Where has all the love gone?" was reprinted in Sunday's Virginian-Pilot. He quotes at length comments "in the best American tradition" of considerable insight & intelligence, from a source that might surprise quite a few readers. They come from a 2007 ceremony at the Islamic Center in Washington:

"We come to express our appreciation for a faith that has enriched civilization for centuries. We come in celebration of America's diversity of faith and our unity as free people. And we hold in our hearts the ancient wisdom of the great Muslim poet Rumi: 'The lamps are different, but the light is the same.'" (George W. Bush)

The Chorale and Opera Roanoke are preparing to open their 2010-2011 seasons in October. The Chorale is performing music written by another victim of Hitler's Third Reich, the Lutheran composer, Hugo Distler. Opera Roanoke is opening with a gala-style concert based on three different versions of Goethe's Faust legend. Goethe is to German literature what Shakespeare is to English. A paradigm of the lifelong learner, Goethe began studying Arabic in his 60's, to learn more about Islamic art and culture. Daniel Barenboim's orchestra of middle-eastern musicians is named after Goethe's cross-cultural collection of poetry, The West-Eastern Divan.

Neither program is built or centered on interfaith dialogue, consciousness or tolerance. But music has a special power. It won't stop violence nor cure ignorance. But it shines a light into the hearts of those who open to it. A light lit, to borrow from the Quran, "within a crystal of star-like brilliance."

The ancient Chinese proverb, "it is better to light one candle than curse the darkness" is eminently good advice, for activists, artists and human beings of all parties, creeds, and affiliations.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Fragments & Hedgehogs...

In Guy Maddin's quirky 2003 film, The Saddest Music in the World, Isabella Rossellini holds a contest (to award the movie's title) in order to save her struggling Winnipeg brewery. I recently received a review copy of a book that anoints Barber's Adagio for Strings for the crown, entitled, The Saddest Music Ever Written.

The saddest music written in the western world is found in the death-haunted song cycles of Franz Schubert, and in his two Wilhelm Müller cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, in particular. If there is music more painfully hollow than the close of the latter set, than I can't wait to be so devastated by it.

Schubert's great cycles affected every song writer who followed him, and that influence continues to be felt--not only in classical music but in the worlds of jazz, pop, dance & theater. The composer most obviously in Schubert's debt was Robert Schumann. Even when finished, the miniature form of the art-song leans toward the fragmentary, and Schumann relished this fact in his great song-cycle, Dichterliebe. The opening song famously begins in the middle of a phrase, and ends with an unresolved cadence echoing its ambiguous beginning.

What is it about the romantic fragment? Charles Rosen's book, The Romantic Generation (based on his Norton lectures at Harvard) devotes nearly a third of its 700 pages to two chapters: "Fragments" and "Mountains and Song Cycles." Musicians know his more famous The Classical Style, which is rightly one of the ur-texts on the period of Haydn, Mozart & Beethoven.

Slowly sip the following sentence (about Schubert's Schöne Müllerin) to understand why I love this book so:

"The time of this song cycle is that of Romantic landscape: not the successive events of narrative but a succession of images, of lyrical reflections which reveal the traces of the past and future within the present."

Speaking of images, he simply lists the resonances of one of the cycle's primary symbols, the color green: "green is the color of hope, the color of the fading ribbon with which the poet hangs his lute upon the wall, the traditional color of the huntsman's [rival of the poet/composer] costume, the color of cypress, of rosemary, the color of the grass that will grow upon the poet's grave. Fluctuations of meaning replace narrative: they stand duty for action."

"Fluctuations of meaning" describe one aspect of the open-endedness of fragments, symbols and images. Fragments, aphorisms & epigrams, memory & dreams, relics & ruins--each and every one may be independent, sufficient unto itself.

Like water's inexorable need to stream--its restless coursing for a path in & through which to flow--is our human desire for space, room to breathe, and literal and figurative openness.

Rosen quotes the Romantic poet (under-appreciated in the English speaking world) Friedrich Schlegel on our subject:

"A fragment should be like a little work of art, complete in itself and separate from the universe like a hedgehog."

As I imply above, the fragment satisfies one of our needs for openness: to not have everything explained, every punchline spelled out. But if the hedgehog reference is opaque:

"The hedgehog (unlike the porcupine, which shoots its quills) is an amiable creature which rolls itself into a ball when alarmed. Its form is well defined and yet blurred at the edges. This spherical shape, organic and ideally geometrical, suited Romantic thought: above all, the image projects beyond itself in a provocative way."

And isn't that what we want from any "image" (or work of art)--to project "beyond itself" and provoke/evoke/invoke thought, feeling, response, release &/or relief?

We are stimulated when the familiar is made strange and the strange made familiar (to borrow from another under-appreciated romantic, Novalis).

Barber's Adagio is itself fragmentary in that it is the central movement of a three-movement string quartet. Many fans of this piece are unaware of both its origin and the vivacious music Barber wrote to encapsulate it. That it can be taken out of context and so beloved is but one sign of its value.

Another fragmentary torso (see Rilke's great sonnet, "The Archaic Torso of Apollo," referenced often in my essays and program notes) is Mahler's unfinished 10th Symphony. The visionary Adagio he left behind would have been the opening movement of another epic symphonic canvas. The last of his own works he heard performed was his 8th Symphony. His song-cycle symphony, Das Lied von der Erde (his 9th entry in the symphonic genre) his 9th symphony and his unfinished 10th form a valedictory--if fragmented--triptych of posthumously received masterpieces.

In the literary world, a similar phenomenon is still occurring with the posthumous publications (in English, especially) of the Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño.

I am a promiscuous reader. One version of purgatory would limit me to only one book at a time (not being able to read would be hell). In addition to a half-dozen or so open books at any given time are a number of magazines and journals I look forward to receiving regularly. My favorite section of Harper's magazine is the "Readings" section near the front. I finally opened August's issue to find an excerpt from a Bolaño "story," "Literature + Illness = Illness" from yet another posthumously published collection (he died in 2003 from liver failure at age 50).

Bolaño's fame in the English-speaking world materialized like a brilliant star in the sky we hadn't noticed. Never mind that the source of its light was extinguished. The Savage Detectives, 2666, and Nazi Literature in the Americas (novels of 700, 1,200, and 200 pages, respectively) form the triptych on which this wildly ambitious writer's fame took shape in the US beginning in 2007.

Bolaño's output during the last years of his short life is astonishing. He only began writing fiction (poetry preceded it) in his last decade. As a result, each new volume that appears is eagerly anticipated by nerdy bibliophiles like myself. Bolaño was a bibliophile himself who also lived pretty hard during his fifty years. His work, like that of many an artist, has the patina of autobiography. He lived hard and worked feverishly. The line between working one's self to death and partying one's self to death must be as gray as his diseased liver was before it--and life--failed him. Equally gray is the line between autobiography and invention in his stories.

In the recent Harper's excerpt, "The Writer is Gravely Ill," death haunts the paragraphs as it does Schubert's syphilis-tinged songs. The narrator is in hospital and is suffering from liver disease. His "story" leaps from a thin narrative thread to references ranging from French poetry to German philosophy to sexual appetite and travel, ending with the narrator's--and author's--favorite modernist, Kafka. Bolaño's wit is as unpredictable and various as the Borgesian (and Kafka-esque) layers of reference that fill his tales with a deliciously dense polyphony.

Novalis said "fragments of this kind are literary seeds...if only a few were to sprout!" In tales like Bolaño's, they have--and whether or not helped by the tragic irony of posthumous "fame"--they continue to.

Who knows if Bolaño's life may be the stuff of great theater or opera (his passionate voice certainly sings with verismo fervor). His brief life's work is sprouting with meanings, beautifully provocative as a hedgehog.