Life is Beautiful

This weekend I watched Life is Beautiful with my wife and older kids (15-year-old Jonah and 10-year-old Hannah). Two-year-old Mia Sarah hung around, too, but didn’t really watch it.  Life is Beautiful is an Oscar-winning Italian movie, written and directed by Roberto Benigni.  Benigni also won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Guido, the main character, a Jewish Italian man.  I watched this movie for the first time in 1998.  If asked at the time, I would have said it was a tragicomedy about the Holocaust.  But 18 years later, having become a father, I saw a different movie.  I saw a love story between a man and a woman, but even more importantly, it’s a love story between father and son.

It is hard for me to tell you about the movie without ruining it for those who decide to watch – which I highly recommend.  On Guido’s son’s fifth birthday (in 1940-something), the Nazis take Guido, his uncle, and his son to a concentration help.  Guido is a very light-hearted character who cannot bring himself to tell his son of the severity of what has just happened.  He makes up the story that this is his present to his son – they are both participants in a elaborate game where the winner will get a prize.  The yelling, abusive Nazis are actors playing the part of angry people.

This was the part of the movie that had the biggest impact on me.  When you become a parent something strange happens to you.  It’s as if kids mutate your DNA and you become more sensitive to the world around you.  I think we parents internalize the world more and start placing ourselves in the situations we see around us.  As I was watching the movie this time, I was thinking “How would I behave in this situation?”  I started to imagine the horror, were this to happen to us now – not to the generation of my parents and grandparents.  When you start doing that, the movie has a much different impact on you.

My kids loved the movie, too.  Mind you, this is a foreign-made movie with subtitles (though my kids have had plenty of practice watching operas, which always have subtitles).  I took Jonah to Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC a few years ago.  This movie had a much bigger impact on him than the Holocaust museum, because it humanizes people.  It shows the simple, ugly transition from a sunny everyday life to the dark horror of a concentration camp.

Unlike most Hollywood movies that you forget about right after you leave the theater, this is a film that moves you; it stays with you.  As I was tucking Hannah into bed yesterday, she was still asking me about this movie.

Today I want to share with you the famous barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann by the German-born French-Jewish composer Jacques Offenbach.  This is one of the theme songs in Life is Beautiful. 

  • Excerpt from Life Is Beautiful (scene at the opera)

  • Excerpt from Life Is Beautiful (scene from concentration camp)

  • Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca

(We rented it on iTunes, but you can buy/rent it on any movie streaming service.)

Casta Diva

Today I wanted to share with you an aria Casta Diva from Vincenzo Belini’s opera Norma.  Here is a very short synopsis of Norma from UK Telegraph:

“the opera is set in occupied Ancient Gaul. The priestess Norma is urged by her people to inspire a rebellion against the Romans. But she has fallen in love with the Roman proconsul Pollione and borne him two boys. Pollione, for his part, has taken up with another druidess Adalgisa. (Risky business but, hey, these Romans are crazy.) When Norma discovers his betrayal she threatens to kill the children. Only the unexpected friendship of Adalgisa – their relationship is the emotional core of the opera – stops her.”

Norma premiered in La Scala (the Mecca of opera in Millan Italy) in 1831.  Casta Diva is one of the most challenging arias ever written for soprano.  During the rehearsals before the premier Italian soprano Giuditta Pasta refused to sign it she said it was “ill adapted to her vocal abilities”.  Belini was able to persuade her to keep trying.  I’ll share with you half a dozen interpretations of this magnificent aria because each one of them brings something different to it.  Maria Callas American-born Greek diva made Casta Diva aria famous in 20th century.

Santa Fe Revisited

Last year I wrote about (what has become) our annual trip to Santa Fe. The first two years it was grandfather, father, and son (my oldest, Jonah, who is 14). This year, the “boys” trip was turned into a “boys +1” adventure as we were joined by my nine-year-old daughter, Hannah. Below, I have added the story of our Santa Fe experience this year at the bottom of the 2014 trip write-up. I hope you enjoy it.

2014: Our Trip to Santa Fe

As I get older, I find welcome recurrences popping up in my life; or as Tevya the Milkman from Fiddler on the Roof would put it, my life is turning into a series of traditions.

In February each year I go to a conference in Florida, then in early May there is Buffett’s Omaha shindig, and in June I host our own conference VALUEx Vail (here is a link to some presentations from this year’s conference). Last year we created a new tradition – Boys’ Culture Trip. Grandfather, father (me), and grandson (thirteen-year-old Jonah) drive to Santa Fe.

Why Santa Fe?

It’s a modest-sized town – the population is a mere 70 thousand –about 300 miles from Denver. However, in the summer it becomes quite the little cultural oasis. Despite its size it is home to 350 art galleries and the Santa Fe Opera. The majority of galleries are located on Canyon Street, a narrow thoroughfare that at one point was probably just another sleepy residential neighborhood with a few hundred one-story adobe houses, now converted into galleries.

A million art lovers come to Santa Fe every year just to walk that street and browse in the galleries. (I imagine some might even buy a painting or two.)
For Jonah and me, walking Canyon Street was a special experience, as we got a guided tour from my father, who aside from being an artist is a connoisseur of paintings (rather than collecting paintings, my parents had a library of art books, which we brought to the US from Russia).

As I write this I realize I’ve been receiving similar tours from my father since I was seven. On any vacation my parents would always find a museum to visit. We’d be near a small, remote village on the Volga River, with one broken-down road leading into town, surrounded mostly by cows, and my parents would inform me that there was museum in the house of a famous Russian painter nearby, and we’d have to check it out.

A few times a year we’d go to Moscow to visit my father’s parents, and every time my brothers and I would be taken to my father’s favorite museum: the Tretyakov Gallery (think of it as Moscow’s equivalent of the Hermitage).

I’ll be honest: I went not because I had a great love of art but because I had no choice. We’d look at a picture and my father would ask me what I thought about it. He’d actually listen patiently to my opinion, and this always made me feel good – I felt important. He’d never disagree, but then he’d share his thoughts. He would patiently explain each painting, telling me its story, pointing out things that I’d never thought to think about, providing perspective both as an art expert and an artist. Going to a new city with my father and not going to museum was not something that was done.

Fast-forward twenty, thirty years. Every trip I have gone on with my father the past decade – and we usually travel together a few times a year – we have visited a museum or two. Again, not because I have a great desire to see paintings, but because my father puts art on the agenda. I enjoy art, but it is a very light form of enjoyment, unlike my appreciation of classical music, which I actively seek out and listen to all the time. I am a passive, you might even say a reactive, art aficionado. As I got older I realized that my enjoyment of art came through listening to my father explain it to me.

Back to Santa Fe. In the evening last year, after we visited a few dozen galleries, we went to the Santa Fe Opera to see Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. The Santa Fe Opera has one of my favorite opera houses. Its exterior is constructed of adobe, just like the rest of New Mexico, but there are no walls to the sides or behind the stage. The opera house sits on a hill overlooking a beautiful mountain range. In a normal opera house, when the overture starts, the lights slowly dim. Not here. The opera starts at 8:30 pm, as, almost as if by request, the sun slowly sets (beat that, Met!)

I’ve been to many operas, all over the world, but this was the first opera that had tailgate parties in the parking lot. But this was not your hotdog and beer football gathering. Opera lovers, dressed nicely for the occasion, brought their portable tables, with white linen cloths for them, and some even had flowers and candles. This was a wine, steak, and fine cheese kind of tailgate event with genuine wine glasses and fancy silverware.

The Santa Fe Opera House holds about two thousand people. I looked very carefully, and there was not a single other child there; Jonah was the sole casualty. He cracked a lot of jokes about voluntarily subjugating himself to a few hours of screaming and how it would cost me a lot of ice cream the following day. I felt somewhat guilty, and I even bought him Sprite. (We don’t usually let our kids drink soft drinks, so it was a big deal for him.)

This was the first time I had experienced Don Pasquale, and it was terrific. Unlike most operas, which are tragedies in which a heroine usually dies at the end, this one is a light-hearted comedy. The humor kept Jonah occupied, and he ended up enjoying it.

Jonah is just a regular, skiing- and basketball-loving thirteen-year-old. But he voluntarily came along on a seven-hour (each direction) driving trip for the second time to see paintings and watch opera (screaming). Why? I think the answer is simple: for the same reason I go to museums with my father; he wanted to spend time with grandfather and me.

I don’t know whether Jonah will love classical music or opera when he grows up. I don’t know if he’ll love art, either. My parents never pushed me toward either one. All they did was take me to museums and listen to classical music at home. Music became an important part of my life.
I am not going to push Jonah to become an opera lover, but as long as he enjoys spending time with me and his grandfather, maybe he’ll develop a mild appreciation for art and music.

Here is an aria from Don Pasquale, performed by Anna Netrebko

You can watch the full opera here.

2015: Addendum

Hannah had never been to the opera. She had listened to it in the car a few times, and to be honest she hated it. She would make comments along the lines of, “Why do we have to listen to people squeal?” So, as I was planning this year’s Santa Fe trip, I was a bit nervous. I didn’t know whether to ask Hannah to come or not. But I really, really wanted her to experience opera live and to like it.

I even bribed Jonah, asking him to say only positive things during the performance. She looks up to him and would be easily swayed if he made a snarky comment.
The opera we went to see was one of my favorites: Rigoletto by Guiseppe Verdi (based on the play by Victor Hugo). When I get writer’s block, I put headphones on and listen to either Puccini’s La Boheme or Verdi’s Rigoletto. Italian opera has a tremendous, plunger-like effect on writer’s block.

After the performance, as we were walking to the car, I asked Hannah what she thought. She said “Dad, I know you really wanted me to like this opera. And honestly, what I am telling has nothing to do with what you want. I really, really liked this opera.” My eyes are watering a little as I write this. I guess we want to connect with our kids. We want to share with them things we love, and we want them to love them too. Hannah was not just taken by the music but by the story line, too. Rigoletto is a wonderful though tragic love story.

Today, July 29th, my whole family (other than my 19-month-old daughter, Mia Sarah) is going to see Aida by Verdi, rebroadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in a movie theater near us (and actually, you can too – check it out). Hannah is going, too.

Here are some excerpts from Rigoletto:

“Bella Figlia Dell’Amore”:

  • Anna Netrebko, Elina Garanca

  • Pavarotti and Sutherland

“Caro Nome”

  • Maria Callas

  • Anna Netrebko


  • Ingvar Wixell

My favorite – to my surprise, it’s sung by the Soviet pop singer Muslim Magomaev. I vaguely remember him being incredibly popular in Russia when I was a kid.


Today I wanted to share with you aria from Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth. I saw this opera for the first (and only) time with my wife on one of our first dates. Now she cannot say that she wasn’t warned about my extracurricular opera excursions.

Macbeth was Verdi’s tenth opera. It was first performed in 1847. Verdi wrote it his when he was in early thirties. But think about that for a second: by the time Verdi was 34 years old he had already written ten operas. Ten! In all fairness, that was before Facebook, smartphones, and email, so he was not distracted by all the nonsense of the today’s world.

But 160 years ago age 40 was like today’s 76, as life expectancy at birth for men was 38.3 years (in 2011 it was 76.3 years). Verdi, of course, defied life expectancy tables of that era and lived till the very respectable age, even by modern standards, of 87.

Though Macbeth was a success, it was nothing compared to the three operas Verdi came out with three years later, between 1850 and 1853: Rigoletto, Il Travatore, and La Traviata. They made Verdi the most famous person in Italy. How famous? When somebody wanted to send him a manuscript and asked for his address, he replied “send it to ‘Verdi.’” No address was needed.

These operas are still performed around the world today, as if they had been written yesterday. There are two performances from Macbeth I want to share with you:

One by Italian diva Maria Callas in a very rare 1959 performance,

and the other by Russian diva Anna Netrebko.

The reason I am sharing these with you today is that we are going to see Macbeth on Saturday at our local movie theater, streamed live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera, featuring Anna Netrebko.

I am taking our kids – my thirteen-year-old son, Jonah, and my almost-nine-year-old daughter, Hannah. Our nine-month-old Mia Sarah will be staying at home with Mom.

This will be the first time I have taken Hannah to the opera (though we have watched operas on TV). I really hope she enjoys it. My parents took me to see live theater when I was Hannah’s age or younger, and though I probably didn’t appreciate it at the time, I really am thankful now. I am probably going to have to bribe Hannah by promising to take her to Dairy Queen after the opera, but classical music is an acquired taste and may at first need to be sweetened by ice cream.

Netrebko & Garanca

I wanted to share with you an aria from opera Lakme by French composer Leo Delibes. Ironically it is known as British Airways’ theme song. It is sung by two of my favorite sopranos Anna Netrebko from Russia and Elina Garanca from Latvia. I have to be honest, I am not sure I am very objective in judging their voices, as I am probably smitten by their beauty. I take it back, their voices are simply incredible.

Just listen to this Offenbach’s Barcarolle duet.

Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin

I’ll dedicate the next few musical notes to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. I have always had a difficult relationship with his music. My parents loved his first piano concerto, and I’ve listened to it a few thousand times over the years (I love it, too). At the same time, I was forced to listen to his music in school in Russia. Anytime I am forced into something I naturally start resenting it. This applies to Russian literature as well: my teachers turned Russian literature into Mark Twain’s definition of a “classic ”: a book that people praise and don’t read. I am still trying to get back into Russian literature, but Tchaikovsky’s incredible music has overcome my implanted childhood resentment to it, though it took time.

In the next few musical notes I’ll share Tchaikovsky’s music and what I’ve learned about him. There are several theories as to why Tchaikovsky died at age 53. The theory I heard when I was a child in Russia was that he died from cholera – probably from drinking contaminated water. However, there is another theory about his death: that he committed suicide. Tchaikovsky was a Russian national treasure, a symbol of Russian greatness, something the propaganda machine could point at and say, “Materialistic Americans have their poisonous hamburgers (and a chicken in every pot, and toilet paper, and…), but we got art.” This is also why the propaganda machine would censor a little-known fact about its national hero: Tchaikovsky was gay.

Today we see headlines about Putin’s homophobia, but as much as it’s convenient to blame it on Putin, it is not him but his country (admittedly, a very general statement). I did not learn of the existence of gay people until I was 17, and what I was told about them by my friends and the media was not much different from what the majority of Russians perceive today: that all gay people are AIDS-spreading pedophiles, so that being gay is a contagious. Also that one can become gay by observing gay behavior and that gays are responsible for the ongoing depopulation of Russia. (This is a new one and contains more than a kernel of self-denial: drinking unto death is the more likely explanation for Russian population shrinkage.) Russian homophobia goes back centuries and was in full flight in the late 19th century, the Tchaikovsky era.

Tchaikovsky hid his gay “flaw” all his life. Many think the cholera story was a cover-up of his suicide. Tchaikovsky was caught out having an affair with Duke Stenbock-Thurmor’s nephew. The duke was going to write a letter of protest to the Czar. This would have supposedly brought disgrace to Tchaikovsky. A “court of honor” made up of his former classmates in St. Petersburg ordered Tchaikovsky to swallow poison. He did. Or so the story goes. We’ll never know which theory is true, the cholera or the suicide, but we do know that being in the closet all his life had an impact on his music. This  will bring us, by and by, to Evgeniy Onegin (also known as Eugene Onegin).

Almost everything we know about Tchaikovsky today (and this is true about most classical composers) we learn through his letters exchanged with relatives and friends. In one letter to his brother when he was in his twenties, he says that he needs to get married. Not because he wants to have a family, but to help maintain his cover story. “I’ll marry anyone that will have me.” Shortly after, he got a fan letter from one of his former students at conservatory. She confessed her love for him. Tchaikovsky did not remember her, but they met. This is where the story gets murky. She wanted to marry him. He tried to explain to her that he was not interested in women and that it would be a fake marriage. Either he did not communicate that part that well or she did not understand it. They got married. She wanted more from him that he could give her. He could not physically stand her. His brother made up a story that doctors had told Tchaikovsky that his wife was making him sick. They separated.

At about the same time Tchaikovsky received a letter from Nedezhda von Meck, a very wealthy widow of a railroad magnate, who was also a fan of his music. Von Meck wanted to be his pen pal. She also ended up being his sugar mama (she supported him for thirteen years). They became close friends and exchanged over 1,000 letters. He dedicated his Symphony Number 4 to her. (I’ve written about that symphony here). But they never actually met!

There is a reason why I am writing about this. At about the time when Tchaikovsky received letters from his future wife and Nedezhda von Meck, he read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. (For those who did not go in for the Russian classics, Pushkin is the godfather of Russian literature, the Russian Shakespeare, if you will.) Anyway, Tchaikovsky was asked many times to compose an opera based on Eugene Onegin. He always declined, because he felt the bar raised by Pushkin was too high. But one sleepless night he read Eugene Onegin and became infatuated with the “letter scene” (see how this all starts to make sense?). Tatyana, who is love with Onegin, is writing him a letter, confessing her love for him. It is a deeply emotional scene, and this is the scene that pushed Tchaikovsky into writing the opera. Her felt a significant personal connection to it.

We saw Eugene Onegin in “Live in HD” broadcast from the Met last month. To my great surprise, my son loved this opera (in some cultures, taking a twelve-year-old to see opera would be considered child abuse). So today I want to share with you a few excerpts from this opera:

Letter Scene by Anna Netrebko (the performance we saw).

Here is another version of that scene by Kristine Opolais (notice the completely different stage set)

Lensky’s Aria by Rolando Vilazon (one of my favorite performances)

Prince Gremlin’s Aria (Alexei’s Tanovski sang it in the performance we saw at the Met)

La Traviata – Anna Netrebko

In today’s musical note I want to share with you one of the most popular operas of our time: La Traviata.  It was composed by Giuseppe Verdi in 1852.  I watched this production a few years ago and I thought it was probably the best one I’d ever seen.  Aside from the great performances by Anna Netreboko and Rolando Villazon, I really like the stage – it has only white walls, a clock, and a couch.  This minimization stimulates the imagination.

I have to admit I’m completely smitten by Anna Netrebko.  I am going to sound shallow for a second – so be it.  Usually, female opera signers don’t fit the characters they try to portray on stage, especially characters of Verdi and Puccini operas (frail beauties that men are supposed to lust for).   It is very difficult to find an opera singer that has all three qualities: a great voice, great acting ability, and physical beauty.  You usually get one, maybe two, but three? – well, you get them with Anna Netrebko.

I am going to stop here before I say something politically incorrect… So here is La Traviata.


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