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time for emotional reflection illustrated in opera

October 25, 2018

Okay. More Improvement thoughts. This one’s about Scene 15, “The Good Life”, arguably my favorite scene in the whole dang thing. The catalog of Linda listing everything she’s consumed that day is stunning and captivating. So simple, so impossible to turn away from.


Part of what gives the scene its pull is the stark texture. Occasional ping-pong-ball and sine tone iterations of an E minor chord (it’s written as F flat in the score, why not) in a way that harkens back a little to “the Supermarket” from Perfect Lives is the whole background. Linda and her unnamed companion go back and forth, and the theme of memory returns from earlier in the opera when Mr Payne memorizes the contents of Linda’s purse, and from the immediately preceding scene with the Doctor [nb even though Tom Buckner in the original and Brian in our production play both Mr Payne and the companion, it’s specified that the male companion in Scene 15 is not Mr Payne, this took me a while to realize].

But the chorus part in this scene, done by Aliza & Paul in our production, mostly by Sam & Joan in the original, is really what rewards repeat listenings. Often, the chorus is just saying what Linda & her companion are saying with a slight delay, but other times they add pithy subtext. One of the best lines in the whole piece is here – a fast “men give drugs to women” after the companion offers Linda some cocaine and she turns him down. Elsewhere, when Linda mentions the newspaper, the chorus enumerates everything Linda can remember about what goes in the paper.

The chorus bit that makes the hairs on my neck stand up a little is line 1313. The companion starts listing everything she’s consumed around 1:00 in the album recording – tea, toast with butter, orange juice… and the chorus says “this is sixteen hours ago”. It’s slower and easier to catch than “men give drugs to women”, the rhythm helps it stand out. Maybe what we’re meant to understand is that she consumed these things sixteen hours ago. But equally plausible and more powerful to me is that the chorus means that Linda is remembering this conversation with her companion 16 hours after it happened. The conversation is situated such that it seems to be happening in the restaurant when the “Trouble” of Scene 16 goes down. The Trouble itself to me is a metaphor for various expressions of state-condoned violence against Jews over the centuries, though in the list of allegories in the opera, Bob says it’s “politics”. The Trouble is clearly a turning point for Linda, it comes up in Scene 17 that she sees the men who caused the Trouble again, and they’re literally brownshirts this time.

So the chorus adding in this time displacement is a subtle and fantastic touch. After a mentally scarring event, Linda the next day is thinking back on this seemingly mundane attempt to catalog her intake. Much in the way that Mr Payne’s manipulation of the information of what was in her purse when they first met at the Airline Ticket Counter (the Inquisition in Bob’s allegory) is something that she can’t understand until she’s had time to go over it in her mind.

Whether you’re reading the actions on the level of divorce, or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, or the numerous other levels it works on, it’s a deft way to illustrate emotional trauma. When it happens, you’re just trying to get through it, to survive. The story that you eventually tell yourself when you have a minute to breath is what becomes the true story, and that’s the story that Linda tells in Improvement.

Of course I might be reading too much into this and maybe it just means that they’re talking about breakfast 16 hours later. But that’s no fun.

– Dave

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