Saturday, May 19, 2007

About town: Magic in Bozeman, bungalows in Billings

The weekend found us heading to Bozeman for the Intermountain Opera Association production of Mozart's Magic Flute. No matter how much one enjoys classical music, opera is something best enjoyed once every year or two -- whether one needs to or not.

During the two-hour drive to Bozeman, it was impossible not to think and talk about how stunning everything looks at this time of year -- emerald green grass, the Yellowstone as full of water as we have seen it in some time, and the trees along the river looking happy. And of course, there is the progression of Pryors and Beartooths to the Absarokee Range, the always stunning Crazies coming up out of the middle of the prairie, the Bozeman pass, and the expansive view of the Spanish Peaks, Bridger range, Tobacco Roots...

Talk of course turned to what a two-hour drive to the opera would be like in our nation's largest cities: smog, bumper to bumper traffic, and people, people, people. Most of them wouldn't want to live here in the boonies, and that's just fine.

Mozart was such a genius that he can make even the simplest music into something exquisite -- and much of the Magic Flute, like his other "light" operas, is quite simple. Much, but by no means all: the "Queen of the Night" role requires a coloratura soprano of impressive talent, and Patricia Vigil was indeed impressive. The high F in those two famous arias is one of the highest written notes in classical music (a highlight excerpt was included in the movie Amadeus) and has to be heard to be believed.

One of the refreshing trends of opera of the last couple of decades is that the old "it ain't over till the fat lady sings" is increasingly uncommon -- as well as being exceptional singers, opera singers look and comport themselves more and more like stage actors, and the dramatic action is more important than it ever was, yet without any diminution of musical talent.

As such, The Magic Flute is an interesting stage event -- an eccentric mix of 18th c. bucolic fantasy, Enlightenment philosophy, family treachery, and elements inspired by Mozart's knowledge of Masonic ritual. At times, it has ridiculous elements that make one sigh, but the music carries the sometimes flighty, sometimes ponderous, dialogue along in a way that makes one really not care.

Overheard at the break was a local Bozemanite apologetically asking a couple of companions how the production compared to the Met. The reply started out predictably negative and quickly faded from earshot as strolling patterns in the halls went in the other direction. One was tempted to point out that while it certainly wasn't the Met, the panoramic drive to the performance was unmatched... so put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Such a question, however, misses the point. One doesn't even need to attend to know that an Intermountain Opera production isn't going to be the Met or the Chicago Lyric Opera. The point is that a competently done live performance of a great piece of musical art (and this one was more than competent) is its own reward.

Think of it this way -- at the risk of making some opera lovers turn over in their graves: it would be great to have the 1975 lineup of Lynard Skynard show up in one's local bar, and it would be hard to live without being able to crank up one of their classic recordings. But that '75 lineup ain't coming back, and when a good bar band covers "Sweet Home Alabama," one gets a thrill that you just don't get sitting at home.

That local economy, once again. Marrying the girl next door, and all that sort of thing.


Speaking of living locally and marrying the girl next door, the Heritage Home Tour in Billings this weekend featured seven bungalow-style homes scattered from 10th and N. 31st down to the 300 block of Clark Ave.

Saturday was one of those gorgeous sunny May days that is warm enough to really feel that summer is here -- yet without a touch of the summer central Billings swelter that is our poetically just punishment for having so many days in January in the 50's or even 60's while our brethren not far out of town are freezing and wind-bitten.

The homes were of course exquisitely maintained and restored. The recurring thought that had to be going through many minds was, "why don't they build stuff like this anymore?" The compactness, the attention to flow in designing room progressions, the creative use of limited space -- all within walking distance of downtown Billings and our favorite restaurants, Pug Mahon's, our skyscrapers, our farmer's market, and of course our Defining Element.

As inveterate walkers insist, there is no real way of getting to know a neighborhood -- its nooks, crannies, subtle architectural secrets, and people -- other than on foot. (Which condemns miles of unwalkable American suburban neighborhoods to the fate of never being known by anyone.)

As such, one of the pleasures of a tour like this are found as one passes the houses not on the tour: an unexpected herb garden, window boxes with flowers reminiscent of northern Europe, a sunroom you had never noticed when driving down that street, or a backyard carpenter at work. And a row of houses on a street you had never been on before, with its yards and houses kept immaculate -- manifestly not because of what the neighbors will think but because... well, because it's home.

Rod Dreher, in his book Crunchy Cons -- the name and cover art of which belie its seriousness -- has an entire chapter simply called "Home." In it, Dreher addresses the utilitarianism that has dominated in American for half a century regarding where we live.

He talks about a developer who, in discussing the high quality of construction and attention to detail in older bungalows, points out that people who buy $80,000 bungalows are

...pickier than the people who buy McMansions. The people who bought the less-expensive houses were going to live there forever, and the McMansion people weren't. A lot of them were planning to move out before there were problems.

Dreher continues:

This disregard for craftsmanship and ethic of disposability rubbed (him) the wrong way. "It seems to me the essence of being a conservative is appreciating what's there, what you have. Conservatives seem to be not so willing to cast aside what they have just because something new and superficially more interesting has come along. They ought to have the same views about their homes and communities."

In talking about other friends who chose to live in an older home in an overlooked neighborhood, Dreher learns about "Arts and Crafts enthusiast Charles Keeler's ideal of home as 'the family temple,'" and quotes a stay-at-home mom who says that she wants visitors "to come in and feel a sense of peace, because the people who live here really love each other, and love God, and invite him into their house."

He encountered something that "had to do with far more than aesthetic taste" and rather found "a conscious rejection of suburbanism, which... they associate with alienation and loss of community."

A priceless section is one where a carpenter friend of Dreher (a conservative evangelical) describes the modern architectural dichotomy:

See, McMansions, with their vaulted ceilings and fashionable kitchens, are glamorous, but our house is beautiful...

They are like the hot prom queen you luck out and marry, only to learn she has a drinking problem and is terrible with the kids.

She dumps you while her looks are still going for her, sticks you with alimony, and shacks up with a guy who owns a Porsche.

My house (by contrast) is the solid girl next door who is pretty and loyal and makes you want to be worthy of her love.

Not perhaps exactly the way that Montana Headlines would have devised to express the sentiment, but it is pretty unforgettable. As another of Dreher's conservative friends put it more elegantly, "people these days think that beauty is either a luxury or an affectation, but... not only is simple, elemental beauty possible for ordinary people to achieve in their houses, it's a humanizing and necessary thing."

There was much humanizing and necessary elemental beauty to be seen this Billings Saturday afternoon in our as yet (may it ever be so) ungentrified old neighborhoods. Not everything old is good (hard as that is for an old-fashioned traditionalist to say) -- but to the extent that "everything old becomes new again," one hopes that this glimpse of beauty was not so much a window into our city's past as into its future.

No comments: