Wednesday, November 7, 2007


For 25 years of my life, opera was an obsession. I was one of the lucky people who managed to turn my obsession into a professional lifestyle. After years of experiencing opera from the standing room sections of Lincoln Center's Metropolitan Opera House and New York State Theater, I was handed the golden opportunity to write an opera column in San Francisco's Bay Area Reporter (a local gay newspaper whose writers included a rising politician named Harvey Milk).

The editor at that time (1977) was a charming man named Paul Lorch, who admitted to knowing absolutely nothing about opera. But as someone tuned in to the pulse of the gay community, he knew that the two most popular topics of conversation in San Francisco's leather bars were an expensive new kitchen gadget called a Cuisinart and, of course, opera. Paul's roommate, Kristin Robert Bjornfeldt, was an aspiring tenor who sang in the San Francisco Opera chorus. When Bobby recommended me to Paul, he offered the following caveat: "All you need to know about George is that he travels all over the place to catch Beverly Sills in performance."

Since the B.A.R. offered no pay to arts writers at the time, I knew I would have to make do with whatever press seats I could scrounge from opera companies. Of greater value was the fact that I had the chance to experiment with an artistic soapbox. Writing a column is very different from merely reviewing performances. In launching Tales of Tessi Tura my gimmick was simple. I was the first music critic in the nation to write about opera from an openly gay standpoint. My goal was to try to reach gay readers who (a) knew nothing about opera, (b) were much more tuned into disco music, but (c) could pick up on the sense that the columnist really, really loved this bizarre 400-year-old art form. The fact that I had a fairly strong knowledge of the subject meant that I could include lots of "in" jokes for dedicated opera queens.

My hunch paid off in spades. Tales of Tessi Tura ran for 15 years and I acquired a reputation for saying -- in print -- some of the things that a lot of people in the opera world wished they had the courage to say out loud. Using street vernacular I managed to get away with murder in the stuffy world of classical music. I once titled a piece about the Houston Grand Opera's full-length revival of Gershwin's Porgy & Bess as "Big, Black and Uncut."

One afternoon, while enjoying lunch with two renowned music critics from Southern California, I was surprised to hear them express envy for the raunchy language I used so freely in my column. "With the strict editorial standards here at the Los Angeles Times, we could never get away with that," one of them sighed.

"Well, that's one of the perks of writing for a small gay newspaper," I chuckled. "We don't have any standards at all!"

My original attempt to name the column Tales of Tessitura was quickly sabotaged by the newspaper's publisher, a vicious opera queen who was also a key member of San Francisco's Imperial Court. Determined to give me a proper drag name, Bob Ross split the word "tessitura" into two words: "Tessi" and "Tura" (in its intended usage, tessitura is a musical term).

However, for those of you who don't know, Tessi Tura ("That's Ms. Tura to you!") is the name of the the lead stripper in the musical Gypsy. Attempting to combine her limited knowledge of classical ballet technique with the standard bumps and grinds of burlesque, Tessi Tura made Broadway history in 1959 when she introduced the song "You Gotta Have A Gimmick."

I still cherish the memory of Beverly Sills cheerfully introducing me to a colleague as "This is Tessi Tura!"

Sometime around 1990 I started to work on a murder mystery set at the Metropolitan Opera House. This was before the digital media explosion -- when very few people had access to the Internet. Upon showing the first 80 pages to a coloratura soprano whose opinions I respected, I was surprised to hear her gasp "George, I know these characters. I work with them!"

A financial crisis, followed soon after by a major career change, forced me to put the story on the back burner for nearly 15 years. However, by 2007, blogs had become a force to be reckoned with. While converting a textbook I had previously written (Dictation Therapy For Doctors) into blog format, I discovered a way to be surprisingly creative with today's new technology.

As I began to toy with the idea of revisiting my long-abandoned murder mystery (and, as the title states, transforming it into a "curiously cross-linked operatic adventure"), the ways in which today's technology changed the process of writing continually amazed me.

I also got some rather startling insights into how the cultural landscape had changed in the 30 years since my name first appeared in print. Because we live in an age dominated by electronic wizardry and laser technology, new inventions bombard us so quickly that last year's breakthroughs are easily forgotten.

"The further and faster the human race goes, the more difficult it becomes to remember its receding and ever-expanding past," claimed William Clay Ford. "To neglect that heritage is to risk a future in which young people find themselves without a means of building on the firm and reassuring foundation of the past."

Had it not been for the zeal with which Ford's grandfather, Henry Ford, collected traces of America's Industrial Revolution, there might be little left to remind us of our not too distant history. Their pattern of display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan is vastly different from that seen in most other science museums. In Dearborn, visitors can observe minute changes in technology and design. The evolution of dictating equipment proves fascinating when compared to the technology of today's electronic office.

An indicator of the breadth of Henry Ford's collection is to note that, during the first few years of the museum's life, nearly 80% of its visitors could recognize and identify most of the objects on display from their personal experience. At best, no more than 5% of today's visitors can readily identify the same objects.

In researching links for this blog, I soon realized that many corporate and cultural landmarks had disappeared in the past quarter century. Words which were once a common part of our vocabulary and fallen from use.

Perhaps, in order to understand where we are headed, we need to stop, take some time to reflect on recent changes in our lifestyles, and try to understand how the language we use in our daily lives has been affected by the changes in our culture. Thanks to Wikipedia and other online resources, readers of this blog can easily reacquaint themselves with the recent past.

They can also choose what kind of reading experience they wish to have:

Option #1: The Simple Approach (Entertainment):

If someone justs want to read the text of a novel, he can do that for the sheer fun of it.

Option #2: The Complex Approach (Edutainment):

If the reader is curious about certain terms or people with whom he is not familiar, by clicking on an embedded link he can instantly access a wealth of knowledge.

When I asked some friends for their reaction to the experience, I was surprised by what they had to say.

  • One commented that this process was much more fun than reading academic footnotes.

  • Another felt that, although it may have slowed down his reading a bit, the access to embedded links broadened his ability to see and experience the novel in a new way.

  • As the author, I was floored by the reference materials that were just a click away (and were barely imaginable when I started attending opera).

  • And as a web surfer, I learned a whole lot more than I expected to in the course of writing a novel.
Depending on your own reading habits, you may find it best to read the text of each page before going back and clicking on those links which interest you. If you are fascinated by etymology, you'll have yourself a grand old time. If you simply enjoy web-based wild goose chases, click away to your heart's content!

I am especially grateful to Armistead Maupin and David Perry for encouraging me to move forward with this new format. Here's hoping you enjoy the result!

Next: March 3rd


Anonymous said...

Tessi is back! Brilliant!

photoken7 said...

Thank God - finally the return of a rational voice on the opera scene ..... oops, did I say rational?

welcome back, Tessi