Saturday, June 23, 2007

Opera Guyed

Okay, you talked me into it. I gave a plug for Newman Levy’s Opera Guyed, in which Levy presents doggerel synopses of famous operas (link). Levy was the ideal doggerel versifier: his father was a famous and influential lawyer who pushed—bullied, one might say—his son into the bar, against the wishes of a young man who really seemed to prefer to lie around being amusing. I have vague recollections of reading as personal memoir by Levy fils—as I recall it was redolent of ease and good nature, none of the kind of bitterness you might expect from an intergenerational war of wills (I seem to remember something about his father reciting Shakespeare in the bathtub, so a literary bent seems to have been situated somewhere on the genome).

My copy of Opera Guyed, which I picked up a couple of years ago on the web, bears what I take to be a Levy autograph. Rather a double autograph; it says:

For Louise and Irwin* with love.

Newman.

June 20, 1960

*I mean Erwin--

Newman

July 21, 1965

A quick surf suggests a general consensus that his masterwork is his send-up of Thais by Jules Massenet (RenĂ©e Fleming did it for the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2003). I once got together a quarter of law professors to sting it at a student amateur show. We wore three-piece black suits and billed ourselves as “the vested remainders”—lawyer joke. Here’s Thais:

One time in Alexandria, in wicked Alexandria
Where nights were wild with revelry and life was but a game,
There lived, so the report is, an adventuress and courtesan
The pride of Alexandria, and Thais was her name.

Nearby, in peace and piety, avoiding all society
There dwelt a band of holy men who'd made their refuge there,
And in the desert's solitude, they spurned all earthly folly to
Devote their lives to holy works, to fasting and to prayer.

Now one monk whom I solely mention of this band of holy men
Was known as Athaneal, he was famous near and far.
At fasting bouts and prayer, with him, none other could compare with him,
At plain and fancy praying he could do the course in par.

One day while sleeping heavily, from wresting with the Devil he
Had gone to bed exhausted, though the sun was shining still
He had a vision Freudian, and though he was annoyed, he an-
Alyzed it in the well-known style of Doctors Jung and Brill.

He dreamed of Alexandria, of wicked Alexandria.
A crowd of men was cheering in a manner rather rude.
And Athaneal glancing there at THAIS, who was dancing there
Observed her do the shimmy, in what artists call The Nude!

Said he,"This dream fantastical disturbs my thoughts monastical,
Some unsuppressed desire, I fear, has found my monkish cell.
I blushed up to the hat o' me to view that girl's anatomy
I'll go to Alexandria and save her soul from Hell!"

So, pausing not to wonder where he'd put his winter underwear
He quickly packed his evening clothes, a toothbrush and a vest
To guard against exposure he threw in some woolen hosiery
And bidding all the boys Adieu, he started on his quest.

The monk, though warned and fortified was deeply shocked and mortified,
To find, on his arrival, wild debauchery in sway.
While some were in a stupor, sent by booze of more than two percent,
The rest were all behaving in a most immoral way.

Said he to Thais, "Pardon me. Although this job is hard on me,
I've got to put you straight to what I came out here to tell:
What's all this boozin' gettin' you? Cut out this pie-eyed retinue,
Let's hit the road together, kid, and save your soul from Hell!"

Although this bold admonishment caused Thais some astonishment,
She quickly answered,"Say! You said a heaping mouthful, Bo!
This burg's a frost, I'm telling you. The brand of hooch they're selling you
Ain't like the stuff you used to get, so let's pack up and go!"

So off from Alexandria, from wicked Alexandria
Across the desert sands they go, beneath the burning sun.
Till Thais, parched and sweltering, finds refuge in the sheltering
Seclusion of a convent in the habit of a nun.

And now the monk is terrified to find his fears are verified
His holy vows of chastity have cracked beneath the strain!
Like one who has a jag on, he cries out in grief and agony
"I'd sell my soul to see her do the shimmy once again!"

There’s a good-natured web appreciation of Levy here.

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