(This was originally posted in October of 2013. In honor of the upcoming vote on Scottish independence, I am repeating my review of this novel, and will keep this on the front page for at least a couple of days.)

Danny Gillan is one of those indie writers I’d heard good things about. Where does one hear good things about indie writers the uninitiated may ask? In this case, the Amazon and Amazon UK forums where every once in a while readers-who-aren’t-writers will mention good reads or promising authors. Gillan also participates in some threads (as do I) and always comes off as intelligent and not an asshole. So when I discovered  a free Kindle promo for Gillan’s 2011 novel, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, I went for it.

(For the 99.9% of Amazon users who were unaware of the existence of the forums, you can find them by clicking the word “Discussions” from any book’s Amazon webpage.)

Will You Love Me Tomorrow is the story of what happens when an obscure, forty-something (or very close to it), Glasgow rocker is “discovered” by a London record producer, three days after his suicide.

It’s a great example of taking a situational premise and running with it. There’s a perfect tag line on the cover – “Some musicians wait a lifetime for a record deal. Bryan Rivers waited three days longer.”

The story opens with Bryan’s suicide. As we don’t know Bryan yet, it’s not heartbreaking or too maudlin for the reader to bear. What it is, is perfectly clinically accurate, and I say that as someone with an MSW who spent years working with people in crisis. This was a really well done rendering of how someone who has been clinically depressed for years and just wants it all to be over would think and act.

Opening with a character who will be dead by the end of the chapter is a bold gambit. I wondered as I read on whether or not we would get Bryan from beyond the grave looking in on any of the action that follows. Thankfully, we don’t.

What we get instead are those he left behind, including his widow, Claire, his dog Toby, the best friend who’d sort of given up on him and now feels very bad about it – Adam, and assorted members of Bryan’s family. Those are the Glasgow characters. We also get London, mostly in the form of the rock and roll journalist turned record producer, Jason, who happens to hear the demo Bryan sent in shortly before his death. Jason falls in love with it without knowing that the writer was a tortured soul, recently departed.

The narration is close third person from different characters’ viewpoints – mostly Claire’s, Adam’s and Jason’s. Gillan writes women well. Claire is fully realized. Gillan’s technique of shifting point of view allows us to see Claire as she sees herself and also as others see her. She’s strong and beautiful and smart, but it’s a hard-won strength, and it can push others away.

Being a New Yorker, I appreciated the Glasgow setting. I’ve never been there, but feel I know something now about what it’s like that I wouldn’t have gotten from any one-day tour.

I wouldn’t classify this as either chic-lit or lad-lit, but there is an undercurrent of romance, a feeling early on that Claire will wind up falling into bed with either Jason or Adam. That’s not to say it’s predictable. There’s very little certainty about which one will win the prize or if anyone will really win in the end.

It’s easy to imagine this book as a movie or even a play, an intelligent full-bodied drama (with a little bit of comedy) about mostly likable characters. Gillan is not a sentimentalist, and deals realistically with Bryan. Tortured geniuses do not make the best husbands, friends or brothers. Suicide adds a great burden of guilt for the survivors – add to the mix that the deceased has suddenly become posthumously famous with adoring fans romanticizing his pain. Characters need to come to terms with their feelings, and Gillan gets us there.

This may not be a great work of literature, but it’s fine intelligent story for grown-ups. After spending a couple of months (at least) trying to slog through A Naked Singularity, it was a great relief for me to pick up a book I could devour greedily in less than a week.

The only thing I wasn’t crazy about it, I can’t tell you as it would be a spoiler. I will say that there is a climatic moment for one of the minor but important characters which involves a very sad thing happening. I won’t call it contrived, but I wish the writer had come up with another way.

You can’t get it “free” at the moment, but it’s regularly only 99 cents, and that’s quite a bargain.

(You know who else has written a thing or two? Check out a novel that’s mentioned on a wikipedia page.)

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This year we will be winging it at the Met. Our “to see” list is long. So why didn’t we get a subscription? After all, subscriptions have their advantages. Here are some of the pluses that you get as a Met subscriber:

  • Significant discount on ticket prices.
  • Reserve seats before they are on sale to general public.
  • Opportunity to buy non-subscription tickets before they go on sale to the public for additional operas, including hot new productions unavailable by subscription.
  • Payment plans so you don’t get a big bite out of your credit card all at once.

Sounds great, right? So why didn’t we go for it?

Here’s why:

The current subscription system still has an analog mentality in a digital age. Yes, you can subscribe online, but basically your request goes to human beings who will process it at some later date — weeks or months later. Your actual tickets won’t arrive till long after you’ve forgotten which nights you’re going, what you are seeing,  or which credit card is going to have the charges.  Although the Met has started to update the system a little bit – adding the possibility of exchanges if you can’t make a date in your series, it’s still a clunky system that requires subscribers to deal with customer service if they want to make changes– probably by phone – or to visit the box office.

The main issue is the lack of flexibility. The operas you most want to see may not be locked into the same series. The reviews aren’t out yet and a few of the operas in your chosen series might turn out to be clunkers. You’re booking everything so far in advance, there’s a good chance something is going to come up on one of those nights. And worst of all, while you do get to choose your seating section, you don’t get to choose your actual seats. That’s done for you. Plus, you get the same seats in the same section for your entire series.  This is just unacceptable to most people who’ve come of age in a choose-your-own seats world.

Maybe once upon a time people liked having the same seats every time. They felt a sense of ownership, maybe even started friendships with their neighbors.

But the world isn’t like that anymore. People rent now. They “share.” It’s the difference between buying a car and using Zip Car. If you are going to buy you have to decide the car you want to drive most of the time. If you’re going Zip Car you could go for the Miata when you’re in the mood for something zippy, or maybe a Prius when you’re trying to make a different kind of impression. At the Met, the sound is crystal clear in the cheap seats of Family Circle, but sometimes you might want to be a little closer to the action – like say if there are really spectacular sets, or dancing, or an especially hunky baritone or it’s somebody’s birthday. You can’t mix it up under the current system. You’re committed and defined by your choice. You’re either a Dress Circle Prime swell or a Family Circle Balance bargain-hunter. That’s got to end.

The Met does have some alternatives. After the initial push for subscribers, the Met offers people a “build your own series” option. It enables you to buy tickets before the regular tickets go on sale, but it doesn’t have the advantages of the regular subscriptions. You don’t get a discount. You also still don’t get to choose your own seat or mix seating categories. You don’t even get to buy tickets for the new productions that aren’t on sale to the general public yet.

I don’t work for the Met, nor have I spoken to anyone who does, so I have no idea how successful or large their subscription program is. My guess is a lot of old-timers are content with the way things are and the scalpers aren’t complaining. But if the Met wants to fill more seats with more subscribers – maybe a NEW GENERATION of opera-goers, then they need to innovate. Regular subscribers are good for business. “Special event” opera-goers, are not the frequent fliers they need to fill the house on a regular basis.

Here’s how I’d fix things:

First, keep the “traditional” system for the current subscribers who want it. Send out notices outlining the changes, but if customers want to do what they’ve been doing since Don Draper was the King of MADison Avenue,  allow them a three week period to mail in, call or go online for a “traditional subscription” before the new system comes online. Maybe even outreach via phone to some of the long-term veterans. Allow the “traditionals” to mail-in, go on-line or phone customer service for assistance. (Set up an  “existing subscribers extension” to make them feel special.) Process the subscriptions as they come in and have a one-week additional grace period before the new subscriptions start.

Second add something nice for all subscribers. Swag is nice. Look around at all those feisty Upper West Siders of a certain age with their PBS and QRX tote bags and visors. In some cultures, it’s a sign of respect.

Another way to make the subscribers feel the love, and maybe a prevent a few from getting mad because they hate change, would be to have some kind of educational program and/or subscriber days/activities. I’m not suggesting these be free, but they could be break-even/low-profit and not high-end fundraisers, maybe even at other venues in collaboration with organizations like the 92nd Street Y, Manhattan School of Music, Symphony Space, etc. They don’t even have to be in Manhattan. They could be on CUNY-campuses. I’m thinking of lectures, recitals, previews, interviews, etc. There’d be admission of course, but maybe with special series discounts to Met subscribers and student discounts as well. (Hint: You might try getting people the young people like involved with this. Neil de Grasse Tyson can fill seats with this demographic. No evidence he likes opera, but he’s a reasonable man. He can be converted.)

As for the the new system, it will feature a lot more flexibility in seats, choices of operas, and dates of performances. It will combine the best aspects of “build your own” and traditional subscriptions. It will be mostly be geared toward people able to navigate online, but for those who can’t, help should be available by phone, and even by mail order though that would have to be “let us choose your seats” and might require phoning patrons to make sure they’re getting what they want.

Here are the particulars:

A) Simplified discounts. The Met doesn’t need to offer as big a discount as they do for subscribers. Yeah, I know, I’m arguing for higher prices, but honestly by making the subscriptions so last century they’ll lose subscribers no matter how high the discount. They need to make the whole process more appealing so that more people will want subscriptions. Keep it simple. No admin fees, option to add single-tickets, and something easy to remember like  a 5% discount on ticket prices for a five-opera-series and a 7% discount on a seven-opera-series (with the discount to include single tickets bought on the same order as the subscription).

B) People of a certain age and archeologists will recall those old-timey Chinese restaurant menus. Remember one from column A? The Met has to make sure subscriptions work to ensure that newer or riskier productions will have some subscribers. Here’s a simple way to do that while still giving customers a sense of autonomy. Calculate which operas likely to be the most popular – call them “Blue” (as opposed to “Gold” or “A” or anything that indicates that these are “better” than the others. Next categorize the operas that will be probably do well but not as well as the first category. Let’s call them “Red.” Third take your more experimental or less known productions, and call them “Purple. Subscribers will have to pick a minimum number of operas within each category, but they will still be able to put together their own series. For instance, a seven-opera-series might include a minimum of two Purples, and two Reds, with a maximum of three Blues.

C) Combine aspects of “build your own.” Allow people to choose the performances they’ll attend. There can be limits. Some operas will not be available for subscriptions, just as now some new productions aren’t. Some will have black-out nights, including the galas. But subscribers shouldn’t be limited to building a Saturday night series, or a Tuesday night series, or a Thursday night series. They should be able to mix it up and choose dates that will work for them. Let them attend all five in one month if they want. Let them shop nights to find the best seats.

D) This is revolutionary: Allow people to pick their own damn seats online and to mix sections in their subscription. (Why? If you have to ask, you need to move to an adult community in Boca already, and also I’ve already explained.) Those choosing to subscribe by mail, might still be limited to picking a section, but even over the phone a service rep can find seats using a terminal and obeying a customer’s wishes. Most people will be doing this themselves because most people in 2014 prefer NOT to deal with people for stuff they can do online, and even the very old will likely get a beloved grandchild to help them out.

What will my season look like without a subscription? Pretty fantastic. There are at least a dozen productions I’m planning to attend. I’ll be in the orchestra section, and I’ll be doing it on the cheap. Of course I’ll have to earn those cheap seats by sitting on my butt waiting for weekday rush tickets at the Met. This is still the best-deal in the City, even if people (including professional-line-waiters) start showing up mid-morning. Yes, this isn’t an option for those who don’t have flexible work schedules, but for those who do, you can’t beat $20 orchestra seats. And I can also enter the weekend ticket lotteries — though  it means I might have to cancel existing plans if I win. Then again, my existing plans aren’t usually as exciting as a night at the opera.

(Find this useful? Mr. Gelb, you could thank me with comps or possibly a “no show” job. Others could please click on something from My Picks above, preferably one of the books I wrote, but anything will do. Thank you much.)

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Marion on September 12th, 2014

This will be a short update. I just want you look above this post at “My Picks.” All of these are books that can be purchased in digital versions for 99 cents to $3.99. These are all books that I think are swell. The genres and styles vary. More than a couple I wrote. Most I didn’t write. They have another thing in common. They are all “indie” books. By indie I mean self-published, even if the writers listed their own personal “imprints” as the publisher. If you’ve never (knowingly) read or purchased a self-published book before because you think they are all crap, any of these books will prove your assumptions wrong. Just click on a couple till you find one with a description that interests you. Then read the sample and decide for yourself if it’s worth investing less money than you spend on Starbucks. It’s that simple. If you don’t own a Kindle machine, you can read it on a device you do own. If you still hate reading fiction electronically, most are available in paperback (although print versions will cost more.) You are a smart cookie. You don’t need any filters beyond my recommendation and a sample to decide if a book is for you. I’ll change up my picks periodically, but I’m committing to only listing sp books because I keep reading online that they suck. 99.5% of what people put up on the Kindle is pretty awful, but it’s not difficult to find the fraction that is actually good. Just check out my picks.

Full disclosure: In addition to the royalties I get if you actually pick a book I wrote, I will get some loose change from Amazon through their Associates Program if you buy anything from them within 24 hours of clicking “my picks”. This does not mean they own me. It’s more like the relationship you have to the homeless guy who hangs out in front of your favorite bodega. Sometimes you give him a dollar, but he still may rant about how you are the devil from time to time.

Now that the threat of a strike is over, and the season about to begin, I thought I’d write a series of blog posts, offering Peter Gelb unsolicited advice on how to run the Met because this is the internets where every idiot can express his/her/their opinion.

During the tense negotiations, I kept thinking that the unions were wrong about one thing – the problem wasn’t expensive silk poppies in Prince Igor. Even a stark production like the Willy Decker version of La Traviata is still going to be expensive, and spectacles bring in the audience. I gasped when the palace was revealed in Act II of Zeffirelli’s Turandot, and the Paris street scene in La Boheme is as a vivid in my memory as a visit to the actual City of Lights.

If the Met isn’t making enough to sustain itself – especially with live in HD, then the problem is elsewhere, and so are the solutions. I don’t know if Gelb himself took a pay-cut in the end, but that probably would have been a nice place to start. Granted, this isn’t Europe and the government doesn’t subsidize art here, but cutting back on sets or rehearsal time is NOT a viable solution.

I’ve been to performances that appeared to be sold out, but I’ve also been to plenty with empty seats. There’s a lot the Met could be doing to fill more seats – both with its HD performances and at Lincoln Center.

Don’t get me started on subscriptions. I’ll devote a later post to that. In brief, the current system seems designed to appeal to people who’ve subscribed for the past 40-plus years and still haven’t quite figured out e-mail. I’m also not sure why HD is NOT blacked out in the New York metro area. The only reason to have local HD would be for operas that have become phenomenons, where the shows are selling out and HD is the only way to accommodate all the people that want to see it. Otherwise, people should be encouraged to get to the Met, and there are all kinds of things they could be doing and aren’t doing to build up both the local audience and to convince tourists that a night at the opera is both a must AND affordable.

Not only does opera need to be made more appealing to more people, but people need to know that as a form of entertainment it’s not beyond their reach financially. Advertising must emphasize that the Met is a fantastic venue, and even the cheap-seats offer full stage views and clear beautiful sound. They need to know that while dressing up is certainly a nice thing to do, you can wear what you’d like, and spend far less than you would on tickets to a Broadway show.

One problem is that in recent years, the Met seems to be trying to go low-brow on some productions, to make them more accessible by dumbing them down. This is one of those short-term gain schemes that really won’t help in the long-term. In the 2012-2013 season I was eager to see the Vegas Rigolletto because in theory setting it in a rat-pack casino sounded exciting and fun, but the reality was the Guys and Dolls “translation” didn’t really work. The “curse” being delivered by an Arab sheik was nonsensical and racist. The staging wasn’t very good. What saved the show (if it was saved) was the dynamic performances of superstars Diana Damrau and Piotr Beczala What saved it, was that they didn’t screw up the music.

Even worse than Rigoletto, was the truly horrible “new book” for last season’s Die Fledermaus. Apparently, an English libretto with Broadway pandering worked in the 1950s and was a solid hit, so they thought they’d do it again only more vulgar for a new audience. They threw in the same break-the-fourth-wall-and-make-fun-of-the-poors-in-the-balcony schtick that half the shows on Broadway are doing, added several scenes that do nothing but explain what’s already happened (in case the audience was napping), and made the primary couple Jewish because it allowed them to throw in Yiddishisms which everyone knows are hysterical.

While this kind of stunt, might bring in the curious, it does nothing to increase the opera audience. The people who are going because they’ve heard it isn’t really like an opera, aren’t going to fall in love with opera and they aren’t coming back.

We (the better-half and myself) are still novices. It will be three years this spring since our first venture at the Met. The spouse got us tickets for my birthday. We didn’t go on my actual birthday because that night was Wagner, and uh you know. It was the next evening when they were performing the Willy Decker production of La Traviata, with Natalie Dessay (who actually showed up). We were blown away. Why? Because it was NOT a Broadway musical. Because the sounds we heard were beautiful and it seemed almost impossible that unmiked humans could be making them. Because it was pure emotion. Because big themes – love, death, lust, sacrifice, tragedy. Because it was one of the most fantastic experiences of our lives.

What if our first production had been Die Fledermaus? Would we ever have returned? I doubt it.

I’m not saying the Met shouldn’t be trying “new” things, but Gelb should not be dumbing down opera to reach a wider audience. Why not try to smarten-up musicals the way Glimmerglass does? Why not one classic or new musical suitable for an opera stage each season, with a mixed cast of Broadway belters and opera singers? How about A Light in the Piazza for a start? It’s mostly sung and definitely NOT one of those shows like Chicago or Grease where you could get away with stunt-casting. The singing roles take some serious chops. Some of it is even in Italian!

Here’s a clip:

The “Broadway at the Met” productions themselves wouldn’t need to be the most elaborately staged. The emphasis could be on the music and the musicianship of the cast and orchestra. It would be a great way of getting people who already like musicals to begin with to look at opera. It would bring new people into the house.

The Met could also commit to one American opera every season. Last season they did have a couple of English-language librettos, but I’m talking about operas that tell American stories – even if they aren’t always written by Americans. They don’t have to be new productions (but that would be awesome). Here are five possibilities: Moby Dick, An American Tragedy, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Ballad of Baby Doe, Treemonisha.

There’s lots more they could be doing to create a future generation of opera goers, and none of it involves making opera less opera-like. Next post will continue this. Meantime, feel free to talk amongst yourselves and comment.

(Idiots at the Opera is a continuing series of views and reviews written by a idiot who knows nothing about music, but loves opera. All views expressed are probably wrong.)

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