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Stories to Go 2: It ain’t over till the Fat Lady sings

I had never seen an opera before I came to Vienna. All I knew about opera was the quote above. This was the late 1970s and I did not then have Wikipedia to tell me that the quote is attributed to either US baseball player Yogi Berra or to sportswriter Dan Cook.

In any case, I went one evening in blithe spirits  to the Staatsoper, Vienna’s State Opera, to see Puccini’s La Boheme, expecting to have an experience that I would be mildly disparaging about later. If you are in your 20’s, short of money and long on energy, then the best way to see Opera in Vienna is to buy tickets for a standing place. Tickets were 20 schillings apiece, and their purchase involved standing in a queue for a couple of hours before the performance, in addition to the duration of the piece. From the vantage point of a lowly standing place ticketee, the Staatsoper at the time was tightly ruled by a bunch of brown-uniformed despots; doorkeepers and attendants who tried to uphold the dignity of the noble house by strictly regulating us slovenly tourists and opera novices. We were duly chastened for standing in crooked lines or for, God forbid, squatting on the floor to rest aching feet.

The prime standing places are located on the ground floor, at the rear center of the hall. The first 2 or 3 rows are coveted by music students because apparently this area has the best acoustics in the house.

At last, the opera began. The curtain went up. Mad, apparently bohemian, dashing about and singing. The sets and the lighting were beautiful. I ignored the high strung voices and admired the stage effects. Visually splendid show, I thought, but rather silly.

During Acts 2 and 3, my interest in the sets began to flag, and I listened to the singing. How absurd! They sing and recite lines to each other instead of talking like normal people. My mood is impatient and I am aware of aching feet.

Act 4: More singing, people come and go. I know Rodolfo well by now and rather like some of the singers and arias except when they go into singsong mode which sounds absurd. Enter Mimi stage left. She is obviously weak and ill, but still manages to sing with vigor. I get ready to snigger, but then something unexpected happens. Absurd though the exaggerated acting on stage, I get caught up in the sweep of the music. Mimi tells Rodolfo that her love for him is her whole life. They sing powerfully together some more. Mimi dies. Unexpectedly, I have been stirred by the music and my eyes are full, aching feet forgotten.

Years later, I went to live in Puccini’s Tuscan villa in a little village called Chiatri that lies in the hills between Lucca and Viareggio; a villa that was still owned by Giacomo Puccini’s descendants.. But that is another story… This one is a tribute to Mozart and appeared in a magazine called Vienna Life.


He was not in Vienna for nothing.  He was mad about Mozart, had been from the age of six when he heard the coloratura aria from an ancient TV rendering of the Magic Flute, accompanied by flimmering images of improbably costumed singers.  Captivated for ever from that moment, he listened to everything by Mozart he possibly could.  Seven years later the Queen of the Night descended to his pubertal bed on a staircase of song and he felt the flood  of bewildering panic that accompanied his first wet dream.

Now a young adult, he was intimately acquainted with the workings of computers, software, chips and other nonedible silicates. This newly acquired knowledge did not displace his boyhood adulation.  In contrast to Mozart in his productive prime, Vienna wanted him and he gladly accepted the offer.

In Vienna, he suffered at first from a surfeit of riches. There was so much going on all the time; culture pouring out of the woodwork, so to speak, in the many theaters and concert houses.  The old lady was a nodding acquaintance from the queue for the queue for first night standing tickets at the opera. They often stood shoulder to shoulder like soldiers marching into battle, waiting for standing place tickets, unsung arias in their hearts; undaunted by the large and threatening uniformed attendants of the house. The attendants eyed the waiting standees as husbands eye prospective ravishers of wives; jealously.

They stood for hours in the queue and talked about music. She knew a great deal, belonged to an old family of passionate Mozart fans.  How old is old? he asked, seeking enlightenment in the old world.

‘My grandfather came here long before the world war,’ she said, and the distant ring of her voice told him that it was the unnumbered one.  ‘He came into a small fortune and travelled across the continent to Vienna, having heard that some mysterious manuscripts had been discovered in the ruins of an old villa.

‘He was an expert, could perhaps decipher the scrawled signature, might from the construction of the bars and phrases of the music tell who the composer was.’ The young man was impressed and whistled softly.

‘No whistling in the queue, please,’ said the attendant.

‘What did he do for a living, your grandfather?  Was he a musician?’

‘Oh, that’s a long story.’

‘Well, we’re going to be in this queue for the next three hours.’

‘You wouldn’t want to hear an old woman’s improbable tale.’

‘I’m all ears,’ he avowed.

She was strangely reluctant to begin, but the queue was long, his legs ached and he insisted, wondering what manner of skeletons lay in her family cupboard.

‘You see, grandfather wasn’t a musician, but he knew a lot about people.  He felt that composers transmuted bits of their soul into music when they wrote their pieces.’

‘Rather like Einstein and relativity?’ he said brightly. ‘E=mc2.  Matter becomes energy; soul becomes music.’

‘I… suppose so,’ she agreed doubtfully.

‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t interrupt your story.  Your grandfather, you were saying…’

‘Yes, my grandfather was perceptive, something of a ‘kenner’ (a connoisseur) when it came to people and their motives.’

‘Like Freud,’ he suggested.  She was really annoyed.

‘They all relied on intellect rather than intuition,’ she snapped.  ‘My grandfather was long dead when Freud’s “revolutionary” theories gained wide currency.’

‘I won’t interrupt again,’ he promised humbly.  ‘Please go on.’

She gave him a belligerent look that made the steel rims of her spectacles glint like armour.

‘The manuscripts were discovered the year before the great war started.’

‘1913,’ he ventured.

She nodded, in approval this time.  ‘Yes, 1913.  The Titanic sank in 1912, the year that I was born, and the manuscript was discovered a year later.  The family moved to Vienna as soon as grandfather heard the news, of course.  There was a great controversy going on at the time.  Whose work was it really?  It was ascribed to several composers, but to relate the work to the style of any one of the major composers was extraordinarily difficult.  Grandfather was allowed, with some reluctance, to see the hallowed sheets of yellowed paper; he insisted on seeing the originals.  In those days there were no sophisticated chemical tests as they have now.

First of all he asked to be left completely alone with the sheets of music.  They hesitated; after all, these were valuable pieces of paper and he was a stranger, there was no knowing what he might do.  They finally allowed him five minutes alone with the papers.’  She went on to explain in great detail the tests he had made.

‘He held it close to his nose and breathed in the scents of the composer, traces of soul left behind on the paper.  It was extraordinarily difficult, he declared later.  Almost as though the music was written not by a man but by a ghost.  Sweat broke out, soaking his shirt and a few drops fell on the manuscript, smudging the precious scribble.

He carefully dried the paper and then called for a piano.  He wasn’t much of a musician, but he could read notes and pick out tunes, which he did.  You see, he was not searching for music in the notes, but for the soul of the dead composer.  When he played the first few bars, even with his inexpert playing, he knew it was music of extraordinary sweetness and purity, like all the colours of the rainbow transformed into sound, like fire and ice, snow and flame, rivers of molten lava meeting the sea, passions and great joys, everything that rages in the red-hot core of the earth and beneath the surface of human beings; everything was there in superabundance, an extraordinary smelter of sounds. It was mad, it was divine, it was frightening, the utter innocence and sheer insanity of it.

Grandfather gave a great cry and collapsed in a heap on the piano keys.  They heard the discordant notes, broke open the door in great alarm and found him, pale with terror, sweat pouring off his face in a gushing fountain, like water out of the rock that Moses struck.  He had fallen on the manuscript, obliterating all the notes.  They spent months reconstructing the original music, relying heavily on grandfather’s photographic memory, for he was the last one to have played the music.’

The queue had been moving like an engorged python, steadily but slowly in the direction of the box office.  At this point in her story, they were there.  The old lady stepped smartly to the window and bought her ticket.

‘Wait, wait,’ he cried in despair.  ‘You can’t go in now. I want to hear the end of the story.’

The attendant grasped him firmly by the arm.  ‘You have to buy a ticket and stop blocking the kassa.  And no talking inside. They’re performing Mozart today, not just anybody.’

Stories to Go 1: Being with Beethoven

When I came to Vienna in 1975, it was quite a different city. Its population seemed much older than it is today, and it was shrouded in an almost visible pall of nostalgia. The currency was the Austrian schilling. The EU was a mere blip on the horizon. Here’s a story that tried to capture the atmosphere of the place. It was published in an American anthology of short stories that’s no longer in print….


 Before he actually came to Austria and visited the city, he had not believed in its existence.  To him it was not a real place but a literary device, invented by writers of spy thrillers and musical fantasies as a background for their plots.  He came to Vienna in search of Ludwig van, as though hoping that some of the composer’s immortality would rub off on him.  He found he was a century and a half too late; but still clung on, trembling a little in every passing breeze, like an autumn leaf caught in an abandoned spider’s web.  He looked frail and infirm, but in reality was a sprightly old man; an iconoclast in his old age, wandering around the town looking for adventure, finding it sometimes unexpectedly; in the Volksgarten for instance, where a knotted gardener advanced on him like a house-proud hostess with a threatening shout: ‘Hey you, don’t walk on the grass!’  His helpless shrug and hands splayed in expiation did not appease that zealous keeper of the green.  ‘I never could levitate,’ he said by way of added apology.  ‘Ich hab’s nie gelernt, frei zu schweben.’

Or it might be the ubiquitous little old lady (like him, a dying species, he dispassionately observed), who objected to his nocturnal ramblings, his insomniac prowling around deserted city streets when all self-respecting citizens were in bed.  And his reply: ‘Ah, but who with?’ was met by a stare of unamused indignance and a slammed window.

There were many compensations.   He enjoyed quiet moments in his favourite cafe, where the smell of roasting beans clung to the faded velvet curtains with the tenacity of tradition; the welcoming smile as the waiter brought unbidden a cup of hot chocolate and his newspaper.  He was known here, and therefore he had a station in society; retired as he was, a distinction he did not take lightly.  He still clearly remembered the first time the waiter had addressed him as Herr Doktor, a smile of flattering complicity, not the least subservient, on his lips.  The complimentary epithet bound him to the coffee house for ever.  He knew from now on he would never patronize another.  To his tired old heart, it was as though he had found a second home.

In his first years here, finding his feet in this strange city soon after retirement, he had wandered around like a homeless waif, clutching a fistful of Reisefuehrers, Polyglotts, Baedekers, Fodor’ses, Harvard Guides, Berlitz Books, city maps.  He sought traces of his favorite genius in the dozens, scores, of buildings where he had once lived, for however short a time.  He sniffed the air around these buildings as eagerly as a young puppy, hoping to find some lingering traces of Beethoven’s presence in the air.  He wandered through the Stadtpark in the summer where the strains that waltzed through the crowds were of Strauss rather than Beethoven, and could hardly hide his bitterness and anger, the wounded sense of sacrilege, when the magnificent opening bars of the Ninth Symphony were used to advertise the efficacy of a brand of detergent.

Still he lingered in the city, buying a ticket to a concert here, listening to a new rendering of the piano sonatas there, spreading his arms out wide to clasp the elusive bars of sound to him.  In the old Gasthaus with its sooty, wood-panelled walls, chequered tablecloths and white-tiled ceiling, he imagined the hairy, barrel-chested owner’s ancestor serving the great man a schnitzel, together with a limp, pickled salad and a carafe of the strong, dry red wine that the penurious composer always downed with great enjoyment.

But time did not stop and exchange rates continued to fluctuate.   The value of the schilling rose.  When it rose it seemed to him as threatening as an advancing tide, cutting off his retreat to safety; and when it fell, he walked with pleasure and impunity by the edge of the sea, collecting the treasures revealed by the retreating tide.  His pension was adequate, but he had to to be careful.

In the summer now there were hordes of tourists, many groups of young people.  They swarmed and chattered in clusters, following the paths he had traced years ago; all hoping, like him, to encounter a wisp of genius, however brief the encounter; to inhale a trace of an ancient ambience, however musty the air.  ‘Sit still,’ he wanted to tell them with his hard earned wisdom.  ‘Sit very quietly and listen hard, or you won’t hear it.’  But still they thronged and chattered, and still they came, walking by the old man with hardly a glance at him.  ‘He’s a bit ga-ga,’ they said to each other, for he sat and stared at the empty sky with a smile on his lips.  They thought he was mad and avoided him, because they couldn’t hear the strains of the music.

Magnetic Resonance Coupling

100_0365 Major Innovations in transportation

Google’s driverless car has now clocked over 300,000 accident-free miles. Despite roadblocks, self-driving cars will be common within a decade. The next step: installation of magnetic resonance coupling infrastructure along highways and major roads. Electric cars will exit the highway fully charged and complete their journey on autonomous battery power.




Beginning today, check out this page for regular updates and links to interesting new fiction and non-fiction available online at Amazon or for the iPad.

Some of the stories are mine. I’ve been writing short stories and novel length fiction for more than 20 years now, and it’s time to send them out into the world… fragile paper boats loaded with the alphabet soup of my fictional dreams, hopes and fears.

I look forward to seeing you here again.