Sunday, January 11, 2009

Gentlemen of Japan

What does Rachely of Babylon, The Death of a Redstart and The Pirates of Galicia all have in common? Anybody . . . Anybody? Well, these are three of perhaps twenty-five unproduced Ed Patterson operas written between 1959 and 1961. They were unproduced because I never wrote the music, except in my head and when I sang them aloud in my bedroom. I even mentally composed Overtures, Ballets and here and there an Intermezzo. The sign of a crazy boy, eh? Well, I had a neighbor across the street who saw my vision and she tried to marry Rachely of Babylon to Brahms' Symphony No. 1.

I was a budding Opera queen. I was taken totally by the Opera The Mikado. It was the beginning of a full life devoted to the world of Gilbert & Sullivan, and beyond. Sullivan was the attraction, but soon W.S. Gilbert was my first mentor, leading me to a world of words that swarmed from the hive and over my mind and hands and typewriter.Rachely was a forceful drama about a fictional Queen of Babylon, who lost her throne and love (and her virginity) over a libretto that chortled in broken cuneiform and a ridiculous rewrite of history. I barely knew where Babylon was, except for the Hanging Gardens and all them fig trees. Still, there was a Chorus of Bablyonian courtiers that would have felt at home in my High School music class.

Better than drama was tragedy —The Death of a Redstart, which engaged a troop of birds, all types, but particularly a Redstart named Petitius (pronounced Pet-teet-tee-yus). Why a Redstart would have a Latin name is less curious than why a Redstart would be a tenor in an all bird Opera. Well, if it was good enough for Aristophanes, why not me? (BTW, I saw The Birds last year and it wasn't good enough for the old Greek). To this day, I can sing portions of the Love Duet: "Petitius, I lo-o-ove you." The tune has haunted me for my entire life. As for The Pirates of Galicia, which I thought was somewhere in Spain (probably landlocked; but if it was good enough for Shakespeare . . .), it reflected my exposure to The Pirates of Penzance. The rousing chorus "Men of the Sea, De-de-de-dee, De-de-de-dee!" was sure to bring the opening night audience to its feet (or the men in white coats to my seat). This array of libretti sailed from fingers and mind for three years, unabated. At first blush, you might be blushing, but even this excursion contributed to the creative forces that would shape my future writing. As bad as the poetry was, it was rhythmic enough to jolt me into the repetitive sonorities that naturally flow now from my pen. "I got rhythm! I got music!"

It was during this time that I developed this important facet. I also worshipped (and still do) at W. S. Gilbert's sarcastic throne. It will come as no surprise that even in my novel The Jade Owl, I have one character (a bureaucratic type) say: "Due economy must be observed," a direct quote from Pooh-bah in The Mikado. I also merit Gilbert with my interest in things Oriental. When I first came to study East Asian History and Culture, years later, I came through Japan instead of China, where I earned my meat and potatoes.

So Gilbert and Opera (I started attending The Brooklyn Conservatory of Music about this time with the aim - my parent's aim too - to become the next Jussi Bjoerling) gave my typewriter a new and inventive twist. I created worlds that didn't exist and became emotionally charged with characters that should have remained dead, both my own and others. Dickens crept into my reading. Shakespeare trickled. Disney tickled (Old Yeller). So, "if you want to know who we are, we are Gentlemen of Japan." The only regret I have is that I lost the folder with all my wonderful libretti in them. I would love to sing them again in the quiet hours between revising the mega-tomes I craft today.

Next up (If you'e up to it?) — Road Trip! Until then, I'm on a frozen pond whistling "Petitius I lo-o-ove you. Wu wu wu Wu wu wu wu-wu."

Edward C. Patterson

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