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November 24, 2018

The scene I’m spending the most time on in Improvement is Sc 14, “The Doctor”. I’m playing… the Doctor. Linda meets him at a party. He’s callous to her, interrupting her constantly until he launches out an unprompted disquisition about how the offering of images is a secularized form of Judaism, and goes on to map Protestantism as a secularization of Christianity, Modernism as a secularization of taste, Science as a secularization of memory, and theater as we know it as a secularization of experience. She was just trying to tell him about her dream before he launched into all this. He’s totally misses the point of what she’s trying to say. She never comments on the content of his spiel.


You’ll notice that Bob, as the narrator, invokes this same list of secularizations in the intro to Improvement – offering of images, Protestantism, Modernism, Science, and theater as we know. It’s central stuff to understanding what’s going on. Also significant to me is that the opera starts with “To continue…”, acknowledging that it’s picking up where Perfect Lives and Atalanta left off, using the same characters and tracing the same trajectory of stories and language as they proceed westward across the continental US. The intro first gives name to Now Eleanor’s Idea, the tetralogy of which Improvement was the first piece written, moreso than the individual opera by that name, also one of the four in the series. (for a full discussion of how these pieces fit together I recommend the notes at the end of the published Perfect Lives libretto or the book Outside of Time)

Eleanor herself, aka Now Eleanor, only shows up once more in Improvement, in Sc 7, where it’s rumored that she and Don are headed for Mexico. We’re told there’ll be more on this subject later, ie in Foreign Experiences (which is about what happens to Don next, hint: it doesn’t involve Eleanor) and Now Eleanor’s Idea, the opera. The titular idea that Now Eleanor has is germinated in Perfect Lives and expressed in Now Eleanor’s Idea – the idea that she needs to leave the bank and what she knows in the Midwest and go somewhere far away (the Southwestern US) to learn more about “the Mexican” she witnessed in the bank, the people he represents rather than the Mexican himself, who is not actually Mexican. She eventually finds her role in something far larger than herself, as a vocalist, singing of the importance of cars to a culture she’s gotten to know.

What strikes me, and what I can’t quite synthesize right now, is the way intro to Improvement gives a frames the rest of the four operas in the tetralogy and it’s relationship to the idea that Now Eleanor has. Here’s the frame (and here’s the audio):

“New Eleanor’s idea
conceived as if
in a flash of light”

(the flash of light is the moment the bank is revealed to have no money in it in “The Bank” from Perfect Lives… continuing on:)

“The offering of images is
a radical form of Judaism
which has come to us
in the same form as
and Theater as we know it
Her idea explains
at least to her how
all of these things have come together
and differences have disappeared”

It’s no doubt significant that the Intro ends with

“For the sake of argument Don is Spain in 1492
and Linda is the Jews”

Just to map that, if Don is the reunited Christian Spanish kingdom ending the convivencia, and Linda is the Sephardic Jews who spread through the Mediterranean, or South America or West Africa or became crypto-Jews, then who is Eleanor in this metaphor? Giordano Bruno, so important to the thoughts behind Bob’s opera, and other Renaissance hermeticists were thought to have built on the work of early Kabbalists of the late Spanish era and shortly thereafter. Maybe Eleanor, best friend to Linda, known to have flirted with Don, represents those like Bruno who worked within existing Catholic hierarchies but dealt with ideas far beyond mainstream Christianity.

The tricky thing is that the connection to Eleanor, and hence the other three operas in the tetralogy, is the intro but it’s never really addressed head-on in the rest of the opera. In the printed score we were first given when we started rehearsing Improvement, there’s a sheet that lays out the allegories in the piece (I think this is in the CD booklet also?). Eleanor represents “America” on this sheet, which in the logic of the overarching Atalanta-Perfect Lives-Now Eleanor’s Idea trilogy is where old ideas, stories, and cultures are gradually eroded as you pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which is where we find ourselves starting with Improvement.

I don’t think this is the place to unpack each scene of Improvement and talk about the metaphor for post-expulsion Jewish existence, though I think there are some clear parallels Bob is trying to draw for assimilation, isolation, and violence over the centuries. I’m also coming at this from the perspective of being raised Jewish and being so inclined to think about the ways a common Ashkenazi narrative paves over the broad range of Jewish experiences in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. I don’t think Bob is thinking of any of that, despite the fact that the Sephardim, the descendants Jews exiled from Spain, really went all over and have had a huge range of experiences, in addition to Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Bukharan, etc narratives.

But Improvement is a brilliant piece because it works on a lot of levels. The Doctor scene is powerful to me more because what is says about gender than what it says about Judaism, Modernism, etc. Bob’s very deft at putting a complex thought on the connection between, say, architecture and food supply right out in the open in a text without taking you out of the flow of the story and characters, such as it is. In this piece he’s writing about his perceptions of Judaism and being a woman in society with no first hand knowledge, and it never feels cheap or pandering to me. Even when he gets something factually incorrect, like in Sc 14 referring to Moses as “the first Jew we can remember” (I mean, the first Jew he could remember, most people would say Abraham), it’s clear that he’s using these ideas with his own sort of flavor.

So to get back to the idea of the list of secularizations, how it plays into Eleanor’s Idea, and what it says about this opera and all the others, I don’t know. I don’t entirely grok the ideas and history of what Bob calls the offering of images. I can see what he means by “secularization” if “theater as we know it is a secularization of experience” – a removing of sacredness and vitalness until it’s fit for easier consumption, so you don’t have to wrestle with the heaviness all the time. With specific relation to Judaism, I think talking about its secularization sounds more interesting as a thing to say than it is as a thing to deeply consider (ie if he’s talking about Rabbinic Judaism, wouldn’t Karaite Judaism be a better parallel for secularization in the context of list? Or in a certain sense, Hasidism? I don’t think there’s a single “Judaism” to secularize in the way he thinks there is).

In referring to Eleanor as America in the allegory sheet, I do think he’s getting at the larger movement in these pieces – increasing atomization and isolation, in exchange for greater superficial personal identity, built through things like your job, your consumption habits, how good you are at playing bridge. In Perfect Lives, Linda starts from the position of a well-articulated community, having clear relationships to family and friends. Same with Eleanor. As they move west, the community is gone, Linda’s husband leaves her and she gets only the occasional letter from her son, she’s had to reinvent herself over and over again, and she and Eleanor don’t speak any more. Instead of the more fixed relationships, identities, and hierarchies of Judaism or pre-Protestant Christianity, instead of having a clearer handle on taste, memory, and experience, they’re fluidly moving through a secular world, shifting roles. So too do Don in Foreign Experiences, trying to fly higher than eagles and remake himself in an indigenous fashion, and Junior Jr in el/Aficionado, supposed to be the spy who can slip in anywhere but finding that the work gets mucked up.

– Dave

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