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the opera of early twentieth century technology

The Wright Bros. came next, we were delighted they had decided to appear after all in The Opera of Early Twentieth Century Technology, they tipped their derbies at us from their aeroplane as they went round and round the opera house in it to the music of Erik Satie, whom we adored ever since The Opera of the Spanish-American War had made him famous, for us if not the world which at that time was largely elsewhere - and weren't we pleased not to be in it, the world? especially now that Orville and Wilbur were circling the ceiling in a yellow aeroplane catching, as it did, in the scissoring klieg lights! who brought this whale into the opera house? the impresario demanded in a rage, who? sorry, said the stage manager sheepishly, it belongs to The Moby Dick Opera, well that opera is not now but next week, so out with it, it is in the way, remove it at once! half-a-dozen stage hands in striped jerseys tugged the whale outside, come back again when the ocean backdrop is finished, the impresario shouted forgivingly, it's still wet in the properties room, then we'll give you our undivided attention, yes! we promised, then, but now all eyes were on the Wright Bros. who were still wheeling about the ceiling of the opera house to Erik's gay music, a little tune like his Gymnopédies, now just look what Calder has done, hung one of his colorful mobiles in the opera, see how it folds and unfolds on its hinges in the air, sharing it with Orville and Wilbur who don't mind, oh! to have seen such beauty in our time! we all said thrilled, throwing hats and flowers onto the opera stage, author! author! we shouted, Joseph Cornell shyly appeared and bowed, and that is how The Opera of Early Twentieth Century Technology entered the repertoire where it persists, because of the beauty of its effects which consoles us for having lived all our life in the opera house.


opera with moon snails
for Meredith

He had caused Algiers to appear in the opera house, a little of it, the part of it inside the old city walls, the Kasbah, Joseph Cornell had caused it, we did not know how and marveled, a thin music wound like adders through the crooked streets, we loved the red fezzes, the Arab women, the spiced and orangey air, the boat from Marseilles bumped against the dock and sighed, Méliès arrived to make a film of the Kasbah, because of the scarcity of dreams, he said unwinding his watch, Berta Kukelvan - the actress - was with him, her wrist in plaster, they had just finished Le Voyage dans la lune, the cardboard rocketship stood in a corner of the opera next to a section of the lunar precipice, it is all of it a dream, said Méliès, happily, Joseph Cornell murmured his assent and hung paper lanterns, we watched nervously as he climbed the slender ladder into the darkness, the moon next if you please, requested Méliès adjusting his Kinétograph lens, the moon, alas is torn! the impresario replied, the rocket had struck it and Berta Kukelvan had tumbled out injuring her wrist on a picnic hamper, thus the plaster cast which had made us wonder in secret, she disappeared now into the depths of the Kasbah in order to, as she said, immerse herself in her role, we wished her bon chance! waving our programs encouragingly, the sun fell behind the rocky hills of Africa, we were afraid of the strangeness of it all, what shall we do until the light comes again? we asked ourselves, the ocean that slid back and forth between Algeria and Spain rattled over stones, hissed in retreat from the beach, roared down the black jetties, we smoked to make a little light in the night, it was then Méliès turning his camera towards the shore cried out to us - look! look, my friends! he cranked his camera ecstatically, the beach! the beach shone with moon snails blue and coolly lunar, an unexplainable stage effect provided by Joseph Cornell for his opera of the Kasbah, for which Méliès thanked him, as we too do thank him for this dream.


the opera of levitation

It happened a little before sleep, Miró had decorated the opera for Joseph Cornell who wished this time to compose the score, he did, Joseph Cornell did compose it, it was a silence and something more difficult to express, the music he'd heard once in the operating theatre as he went into a black world, Miró leaned a ladder against the darkness at the top of the opera house whose ceiling was obscured by storms, the slender ladder left over from The Kasbah Opera which had enchanted us with accidental moon snails, now Miró's red disk and chill blue sky enchanted and disconcerted too but not unpleasantly: like going up the tower - Eiffel's, we told each other while an invisible wire of desire threaded through our mouths and bellies, our bones became light so that we rose helplessly giddily in our seats, Joseph Cornell allowed the richly embroidered silence to unfold into the opera's far corners, then exhausted by creation he folded himself into the prompter's box in order to renew himself for the work ahead, Miró turning to us asked for our admiration and we gave it to him gladly, we love a strange tableau, we said, and the music this music we also love it, it gives us rest, a space in which to listen to memory, to the sweet music of our glands and ducts, I took the floating diva's hand in mine and looked at her fingernails, at the moons rising there, and was happy.


the opera of time's topology

Jules Verne returned and with him the Time Traveler, but he is from another's imagination! we shouted, another's story, Wells', H. G., dear to us in childhood and even now as we ponder time travel (the problems of which these operas have vanquished), we met in the past, Verne explained, mine, which the Time Traveler visited in order, as he said, to pay his author's respects to his literary forebear, me, we liked each other instantly, what an idea! we scoffed, what a travesty! we sat back in the blue plush seats of the opera house Frank Lloyd Wright had built for us, sat back and closed our eyes and prepared once more to set out each of us in the small boat of dreaming, in the ensuing darkness (a kind of night that enfolded the opera house) Verne and the Time Traveler performed we know not what - perhaps, someone later speculated, an intimate dance in which the borderland between reality and fiction was further obscured, I should like to add something meaningful to the discourse on time, I said to myself, but cannot other than the obvious: that I am aging as I remain here year after year, if "year" is meaningful in the opera house where time is not and space is illusory, I wonder if I will breathe my last into the rich romantic dust? suddenly I opened my eyes and saw Verne crumble inside his clothes, the Time Traveler had brought the future with him, it laid waste to Verne who was already dead, looking at our hands, their flesh, we called to the impresario, help us please help! a lovely piece of stage furniture finished in vernis Martin (a brilliant lacquer developed in the reign of Louis XV by the Martin frères) slid onto the stage, distracting us, I treasure it even now, that moment, knowing I had then a glimpse into the secret method of Joseph Cornell whose operas these are, knowing vernis Martin lies across the page in the big encyclopedia from Jules Verne - an aleatory process, chance had opened a hidden door in the cabinet and the Time Traveler entered, returning to the Eloi and Weena, his adored one, or perhaps somewhere else, who knows, for who among us does know time's topology? and how, I wonder, did I know what lay on the pages of that encyclopedia? I who had never laid eyes on it, was I a spectator at the opera or an actor? I was once again afraid.


the venetian opera

Compose for us next A Venetian Opera! we cried, we longed for the city of canals because we had come to know this about ourselves: we will never leave the opera house, the beauty of the decorations suits our dreams, outside is snarling and the noise of iron fists beating against the door, no, we cannot go out, we are afraid - we admit to our fear, readily! - and so we remain in our plush seats in thrall to art, to a lavish illusion, A Venetian Opera if you please! so as not to miss it in our lifetime, Venice, we begged Joseph Cornell to give us it, not all of it but the canals, the gilt-and-marble palazzos, the softly pigeoned squares, that much only, oh, he did! Joseph Cornell who has given us much pleasure did fashion it! lanes of light lapped against Goldoni gondolas with pretty women recumbent in them cool as sherbet, we were glad of the spectacle and watched until nightfall when orange-and-violet rags were dragged across fine wires simulating sunset, the canal water darkened and frisked under the wind-machine, how lovely and desirable is this Venice! but wait! a vaporetto snarled to a stop undoing the lyric mood, Lenin stepped out onto the pier, his beard a dagger, shouting sternly - comrades! you are living in a fools' paradise, the world is outside in the street, no, no! we shouted back, we were once outside and now we're glad to be inside, the impresario looked to Joseph Cornell for a stage effect, he produced Isadora Duncan, a revolutionary artist, and also a small orchestra - dance with me, Vladimir Ilych! she said, but he would not, she dropped her drapery to seduce him if she must, our faces flushed, but still he would not - nyet! Lenin said with loathing for us, for art, for Isadora's splendid nakedness - nyet again! he shook an uncomradely fist and returned to the vaporetto, it whisked him into The Opera of the Revolution, we threw roses into the canal and at the feet of Isadora - we are yours! we cried, and also yours, Joseph Cornell, for giving us these operas (although perhaps unreal), is there not a kind of truth in them (if not truth, then perhaps something other) to be upheld?


the final opera

Houdini came at last, we were happy to see him after so many missed cues and abortive entrances, his poster stuck up outside on the wall of the opera house had long since turned blue - so we had been told by the stage manager who left the opera house each day returning in the evening when the house lights were turned on and we resumed consciousness in our plush seats, we never left, did not wish to go, captive to Joseph Cornell's uncanny tableaux, Houdini entered from the miraculous cabinet which the Time Traveler had passed through on his way to Weena in the loveless future - he, Houdini, stood now before us, shyly, our sympathies engaged we called: Harry! make us marvel, bring us helplessly to the very edge of our seats! poet of escape, demonstrate for us an existential freedom: escape death, its muscular hand, its sometimes sweet blandishments! that I cannot do, he said sadly, please! we pleaded, he shook his head no, we looked to Joseph Cornell whose opera house had banished it, death, for us, but we longed to leave, to go out in the street with men and women unmoved by opera's artifice, the cyclorama darkened, the wind-machines scattered autumn leaves and love notes - a brilliant stage effect! I have escaped everything, Houdini admitted, but this, then what hope for us? we thought, our hearts a moment before so gay now sunk as fear possessed us, the impresario wheeled out a guillotine from the properties room, the blade spoke of finality, of a door opening one way, Houdini caressed it, we held our breath to see if he would open this door and put his head through it for us, Sousa raised his baton in expectation, Houdini sighed and took off his clothes in order to enter without hope of concealment the final cabinet, we knew he would not come again and wept - for him and also for us.