Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Becoming a Harlemite, Vietnamese, and a Catholic (Philippa [blog 5])

As mentioned in my previous blogs on this subject [Philippa blog I, 16 September 2012; blog 2, 18 September; blog 3, 25 September; and blog 4, October 7], I have been talking to people for some years now about an opera on Philippa Duke Schuyler, the Harlem-born concert pianist who died in Vietnam rescuing schoolchildren in 1967. But now I've decided to work on the piece in the open, via my blog, until such time as someone commissions it or the libretto (or opera) is finished. 

In Melbourne last week I read my new synopsis and scenario [blogs 3 & 4] for Philippa to a friend who thought that the amount of depth required could only be done justice to by a novel. I wasn't so sure. I believe a performance piece can conceal great depth in the exact, particular skew of its surface. Novelistic depth is revealed in a performance piece by subsequent performance and interpretation over many years (if you're lucky enough to get repeat performances). You don't have to have everything in there, but everything in the hinterland of the characters dictates their exact responses.

But I admit Philippa will require a good deal of novelistic research. Philippa Duke Schuyler was born in Harlem in 1931 just after or towards the end of the Harlem Renaissance.

Scenes from Harlem (and Sugar Hill) on a hot summer's day last year.

I am enjoying reading David Levering Lewis's book about that great flowering when African-American leaders, along with their white 'sponsors', decided that the one avenue open for African-American advancement lay in art and literature. When Harlem was in vogue gives me a whole cast of characters to get to know - Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Jessie Fauset, Philippa's father George... - and lists an impressive roster of achievement in that period (which Levering Lewis dates as beginning on 21 March 1924): 26 novels, ten volumes of poetry, five Broadway plays, innumerable essays and short stories, two or three performed ballets and concerti, 'and [a] large output of canvas and sculpture...'

There is also Vietnamese language and culture to come to terms with, because I believe the opera should be performed in the three (or more) languages that are pertinent to the story - English, French and Tiếng Việt. I believe that operas should be performed in foreign languages. I acknowledge Wagner's desire to have the words understood and sung in the language of the country the opera is being performed in (stated in a letter he wrote to a correspondent in Melbourne Australia in 1877 and covered in a previous blog), but we have surtitles now. And requiring audiences to understand foreign languages is actually one of the ethical virtues of opera. But Vietnamese is a tonal language (you don't ask a question through an upward inflection; you use a word - 'không' - at the end of a sentence) and this raises interesting questions about word-setting and rhyme schemes (Vietnamese poets tend to create patterns out of the pitches).

Then there is the emotional research - what did it feel like to be Philippa, torn between worlds, driven, thirsty, voracious, abandoned, and, of course, what is it like to be a Catholic convert?
The back of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Saigon, which Philippa would have known.
Because this, I think, is the key to finding some sort of resolution in the ending of the story, Philippa's tragic death in a helicopter crash into the sea off  Ðà Nãng while rescuing schoolchildren. I don't want to lay the religion on thick; but rather make it Graham Greene-ish. In other words: wrestle with the question as to whether there is a way to find this ending meaningful. Note that in my scenario I leave Jody with the final thoughts: 'I will kill myself' whispered or hissed under the Agnus Dei - something for the sceptics or realists (whatever they prefer to call themselves).

But I, personally, don't have any 'energy' on Catholicism. I don't have the angst or bitterness of the 'lapsee'. I was brought up as an atheist. If anything, I am a 'lapsed atheist'.

It was amusing when Andrew and I were researching Journey to Horseshoe Bend and we went out to a Lutheran service at Ntaria, the old Hermannsburg Mission in Central Australia. The service was in Arrernte and I could only orient myself by latching onto the odd word I understood. I hadn't a clue about the service. But Andrew, the son of a Lutheran pastor, kept pointing to the order of service sheet for me. I was more at sea in my own culture than anyone else in the 'sanctuary' (is that the correct word? because, the other day was the first time I'd heard of terms like Liturgy of the Word of God and Liturgy of the Eucharist).

Atheism is, I would say, a three-generation thing in my family. My great-grandfather (on my father's side) was a shepherd in the south of England or Wales who got us thrown out of the Catholic Church when he gave the local priest the 'bum's rush' when he came around to remonstrate with my forebear for marrying in a Protestant church. 'And never darken our doorway again,' I understand the priest said, brandishing his fist as he stormed away. And my family didn't. 'But', said my mother in one of her wisest bits of advice when she told me this story, 'just remember this if you ever want to sling off at someone else for their beliefs. You didn't know we'd been Catholics did you? You never know what's in your past.' And of course, it cut fine with her. Her own mother grew up in old sectarian Australia where the Labor Party tore itself apart when the catholics walked out on the socialists in the 1950s. 'She's a Catholic, but she's an awfully nice person,' is something my grandmother would say.

As for atheism, my father used to say 'Nothing can exist outside of time or space'. I would say things to him like, 'How come you can be in a strange city walking down a side street and run into a bloke you haven't seen for 20 years and was only thinking about that morning?' My father would say, 'Coincidence', without realising that coincidence has a lower statistical probability than design. 'Nothing can exist outside of time or space', he'd repeat. I'd ask, 'What is "thought"? How can a piece of meat [the brain] think?' Again, he'd have no answer. He was entrenched in his decided position.

And I don't know why people have huge heated arguments about whether there is a God or afterlife or not ("You cause wars"; "No, you cause wars.") I'm reconciled to the fact that I'm not going to know until just after the moment of death. And if I'm not conscious then, well...I'm still not going to bloody well know!!

You see, I think it is easy to entertain the possibility that there is something. 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy'.  And I admit I'm moved by passages such as the following in a book I'm reading called Now That You Are a Catholic (by John J. Kenny) (yes, I'm starting that basic!):

"The consecrated bread is usually called the host. This comes from the Latin hostia meaning victim. The Christ present in this bread is the one who offered himself as a sacrificial victim for us on Calvary." [italics added] I find it quite moving, regardless of truth or not, to be offered this example of self-sacrifice.

But my task will be to understand why Philippa chose these beliefs; what they released her from; how big a role they played in her decisions. In a sense, I will have to understand what it means to become a catholic.

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