It seemed to be Plácido Domingo’s idée fixe, his improbable and just slightly amusing conviction that Oscar-winning filmmaker Woody Allen should be paired with the Los Angeles Opera. Following his appointment as General Director of LA Opera, Domingo tried tempting Allen with one suggestion after another. Over the course of four years, each new idea was found wanting and discarded, until at last an agreement was reached. The 2008 season would begin with a new production of three Puccini one-acts known collectively as Il Trittico, with Woody Allen producing Gianni Schicchi, the third and final opera of the set.
The first two operas, Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica, were produced by another filmmaker, William Friedkin, and later reviewed as “a pair of smart, beautifully crafted, beautifully designed and beautifully performed productions that gave grit, grandeur and even a hint of class to old-fashioned melodrama.”
Meanwhile, Allen and his longtime collaborator, Santo Loquasto, used sets and costumes to produce what The New York Times described as “the look and style of some old black-and-white film. Not one of those black-and-white Woody Allen films, [but something like] “Big Deal on Madonna Street”. Throughout the process Allen, who described himself to The NY Times as “not the greatest choice in the world” to direct opera, became even more self-deprecating than usual. Asked how things were going with the new production, he played down his suitability for the job. “I have no idea what I’m doing,” he told The Los Angeles Times, “but incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm.”
Plunge in he did. Allen’s enthusiasm for Gianni Schicchi helped him create a terrifically comic conclusion to Il Trittico, and while Allen called Schicchi “funny compared to Tosca, not funny compared to Duck Soup”, LA Times reviewer Mark Swed said, “Don’t believe that, either. A production of genius, his Gianni Schicchi is a riot.”
As the curtain fell on opening night the audience seemed to concur, though their applause failed to bring Allen forward to take his bow. I can’t imagine a Los Angeles audience would have been surprised. Allen’s famously reticent, especially on Oscar night, and there was no reason to expect a different setting would evoke a different response.
Still, when Allen was offered an opportunity to bask in the glow of the operatic sun, he accepted. In December of 2008 he traveled to Italy to receive the 38th Giacomo Puccini Award in Florence. The occasion also marked the 150th anniversary of Puccini’s birth, and not everyone was pleased. One Italian fumed, “Why did they do it to Puccini? As if there were no Italian artists to be honoured! Shame on [those] responsible!” Others, more sanguine, suggested Allen’s association with Puccini and Il Trittico may have stirred interest in opera among at least a few who generally prefer tailgating or Green Day concerts to songs sung in languages they don’t understand.
Whatever the Italians thought of an American writer and director winning their prize, no matter what anyone thinks of Allen personally, regardless of how we judge his films, it’s impossible to avoid seeing something atypical in photos from that day.
Gone is the poseur, the hard-edged urbanite, the insufferable yet strangely appealing neurotic. What shines out from the photographs seems to be joy – simple delight in having made an enthusiastic leap into an unfamiliar world despite that nagging sense of incompetence, and having succeeded beyond all expectation. Looking at the photos, I can’t help but imagine Allen might be remembering some of his own words from decades earlier. “The longest journey,” he said, “begins with a single step. The best journeys begin with a moment of temporary insanity”.
I’ve loved that quotation for years, so much so that I inscribed it onto the first page of a sailing scrapbook I created as an adult. I’ve made a few enthusiastic leaps myself into more-or-less crazy ventures and in each instance – making a radical career change, beginning to sail, developing my own business, starting a blog – I had only a vague idea of what would be required.
Still, as time passed (and despite a multitude of mistakes) I began to learn skills – how to bid a job, how to trim a sail, how to format a post. In the process, I learned larger lessons as well, including one Woody Allen surely learned years before his tongue-in-cheek comment to an LA Times reporter. What we call “incompetence” often is nothing more than inexperience, and inexperience can be remedied – by experience itself.
My most recent brush with inexperience came about three years ago, when I found myself contemplating yet another plunge into an unfamiliar world. I’d discovered that seeking permission to use other people’s photographs for my blog could be complicated, especially when late responses – or none at all – made timely posting difficult. I’d tried various photo sites like iStock, and while they weren’t overly expensive for occasional use, they rarely provided exactly the image I wanted. The solution was obvious – whenever possible, I needed to take my own photos.
I already had an adequate camera, and with a little searching I managed to find its instruction manual. A cursory look through the manual suggested the camera’s operation wasn’t terribly complicated, particularly for a point-and-shooter like myself. I began taking photos, and for several months all was well.
One Sunday morning, I traveled down to Galveston to take some photos of Victorian houses being restored after Hurricane Ike. Wandering through the historical district, filled with admiration for the beautiful homes, I began snapping away as though I knew what I was doing. Then I previewed the photos, and found this.
I checked my settings and tried again, with similar results. After about ten minutes of manual-reading, I made a third attempt. The photos were fine, despite the clouds which had drifted in while I was trying to solve the problem. Relieved to know my camera wasn’t broken, I retraced my steps and took duplicate photos of the houses, including this charming portrait of the one pictured above.
Despite an evening with the instruction manual and some conversations with friends, it took a second occurence of the problem for me to sort out what had happened. During a later trip to Galveston, I captured yet another set of blurred, miserable photos. Frustrated, I asked myself, “What could make them look so foggy?” And there was my answer, so obvious it was embarassing. After an hour’s trip in an air-conditioned car, with the cold air blowing directly on the camera, I’d stepped out into the heat and humidity of Galveston Island and the lens fogged up in a flash. After fifteen minutes or so, the camera warmed up and the fog disappeared. No one had mentioned lens fog in the manual.
Since that day, I’ve learned a good bit more that isn’t in my manual. I’ve discovered that dime-sized blurs in the middle of photos can be prevented by cleaning the lens. I’ve found that “Delete All” is a command to be used with caution. I’ve promised myself never again to try out a new lens on a special occasion without first learning how to use it. I know the day I forget spare batteries and memory cards is the day the batteries will die and the camera card fill up, and I certainly realize now that a camera bag protects against air conditioning as much as against bumps and scrapes.
In short, I’m gaining experience, and every lesson learned increases my enthusiasm for the lessons yet to come. Like the good Mr. Allen, I often have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m increasingly willing to take the plunge. After all, if a director who insists on paying homage to Duck Soup can win the Giacomo Puccini Prize in Florence, who knows what other joys await?