The Most Incredible Things I Saw Watching The Classic Arts Showcase Network For a Day

It's a total cliché to say "I laughed, I cried..." about a work of art, and yet here we are.
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Publish date:
February 29, 2016
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art, television, Classical Music

The Classic Arts Showcase has been a true lifesaver for me. It seems that as far back as I can remember, it's been nestled in the higher digits of the channel listings of whatever cable provider I was utilizing at the moment, providing solace from the storm of contemporary pop culture. (And if it's not available in your area, you can always watch it online.)

Classic Arts Showcase has not actually been around forever, and in fact it was launched in 1994, so I suppose I was in on it from the beginning, excitedly whispering about it in high school with my like-minded, classical-loving friend. Yes, that's friend, singular, because even in a performing arts high school it's a bit much to have expected teenagers to prefer Katherine Dunham clips to Madonna videos en masse.

So the two of us whispered, amazed at this thing that we felt had been made just for us. The channel is not-for-profit and showcases classical performing arts, as the name clearly states, but they don't ever hold fundraising drives or ask for pledges like some of their network counterparts. Instead, CAS is entirely funded by the Lloyd E. Rigler-Lawrence E. Deutsch Foundation, having been the vision of founder Lloyd E. Rigler.

Mr. Rigler was a businessman, a World War II veteran, and a philanthropic lover of the arts who sought to increase that audience in a world that was rapidly discarding classical works in favor of newer mediums and technologies. Mr. Rigler and his business partner Mr. Deutsch invested in a number of classical arts endeavors, notably the New York City Opera and the Kennedy Center in DC, and their estates and the Foundation are what enable the 24-hour continuous CAS programming with no begging.

CAS was modeled after early MTV, to show continuous video clips in random order, with the exceptions being that there are no hosts, VJs, or commercials of any sort, and it seems to have maintained its exact format for all these years. As a lover of classical music, and especially classic dance and theater styles, I get easily exhausted by all things modern, and I often run to CAS as a fast-acting balm, an instantaneous relief that's always there for me.

Lately, I've left CAS on in the background while I go on about my business at home. It's like playing a classical music station, with the added benefit of offering fantastic visuals, like Julie Kent's flawless arabesque or Kathleen Battle radiating her specific brand of talent and beauty, when I glance up at the screen.

The other day, however, every time I looked at the screen I saw something that made me laugh, gasp, or stare in awe; for a multitude of reasons:

"Amor volat undique" from "Carmina Burana,"as directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle

In the world of classical arts videos, sometimes the creators go out of their way to make the material visually compelling or "fresh," and unfortunately, results can be mixed at best. In the case of this 1975 version of the classic cantata, production house Bavaria Film GmbH went buckwild with trippy scenes and the cheesiest of mid-70's era special effects.

Monsieur Ponnelle was a renowned opera director and at least one internet report says that this production was overseen by composer Carl Orff himself, so perhaps all the blatant sex and demonic carryings-on are simply true to his artistic vision, but whoa nelly are they also unintentionally hilarious.

And here's the full piece. Thank you, YouTube.

"100 Years at the Movies"

One of my biggest delights with CAS is glancing at the TV and catching a clip from the very early days of film. In this instance, I saw one of my beloved black-and-white scenes pop up, but then disappear almost as soon as I had registered what it was. I had caught Chuck Workman's 9-minute montage "100 Years at the Movies," joining it about a minute in.

Chuck Workman has contributed to many Academy Awards ceremonies, and also won one himself, for his montage-style documentary filmmaking. This "100 Years..." reminded me of so many of the specific shots and lines that have made me love movies, and had me tearing up by the end.

Holy Shit, Is That Elizabeth Taylor in Full Blackface?!

OK, that's not the name of the clip, or the performance that it's from, but that's all I could think when I saw this particular image on screen.

I couldn't even wait for the MTV-style credits that appear in the lower left hand corner at the beginning and end of each video; I Googled "Elizabeth Taylor Blackface" and lo and behold, there was Ms. White Diamonds in black makeup, her gorgeous eyes sparkling even more in contrast.

The film is 1988's "Il Giovane Toscanini," translation: "Young Toscanini," directed by none other than the great Franco Zeffirelli. Dame Elizabeth Taylor plays Nadina, a prima donna who (from what I could gather from the clip) is romantically entangled with (much) Young(er) Toscanini, during a time when he was a rising conductor-rockstar who also entertained a young lady closer to his age.

The blackface is because Nadina is starring in a production of Aida in the film, and it is certainly historically accurate to show a white opera star in blackface to portray the iconic Ethiopian princess. Being interested in the perpetuation of such things, or not, actually, I would even go so far as to say that I know the black makeup worn by white performers in certain opera roles such as Aida and Othello was not expressly intended to belittle or mock Black people as a race, which separates it from the minstrelsy with which we derive the term "blackface" as we (who know its history) use it.

Much of opera certainly does have a race problem, but that's a different conversation, and I'm not sure I'll ever have enough free time to watch the full film and see if it is addressed therein in any sort of socially conscious way, which was certainly possible in 1988 with a humanitarian superstar in the role.

Regardless, the visual was extremely jarring to me. Take a look for yourself, and if nothing else, turn away from the screen and enjoy the glorious vocals of Aprile Millo, who dubbed Nadina's vocals.

"Il Bacio di Tosca," scene re-enacted by Sara Scuderi and Salvatore Locapo

And now we come to the reason why CAS exists. It's one thing to have a chuckle at something unintentionally hilarious, or to be reminded of something I already knew and loved, or side-eye a real head scratcher, but to be drawn in by a piece of classical music that introduced me to a whole other work of art and led me to seek it out is the explicitly stated goal of CAS, which is what happened here.

I was not previously aware of Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, also known as Casa Verdi, after the legendary classical composer Giuseppe Verdi, who founded it. Casa Verdi is a rest home in Milan specifically for retired opera singers and other musicians who made their living in the industry and find themselves in need of such a domicile in their twilight years.

I was also not previously aware of "Tosca's Kiss," (or "Il Bacio di Tosca"), the 1984 documentary about Casa Verdi made by Swiss filmmaker Daniel Schmid. It's a total cliché to say "I laughed, I cried..." about a work of art, and yet here we are. The inside look at the residents of Casa Verde, still bursting with extraordinary talent and yet succumbing in various ways to changes that occur with old age, so moved me that at times I actually found it difficult to watch, but I kept coming back.

This clip, which is what CAS showed, depicts retired opera stars Sara Scuderi and Salvatore Locapo re-enacting a scene together, alternating between embodying the same intensity they performed with decades earlier and a casual sense of amusement, looking to the camera for direction and correcting each other as they go.

The second half of the clip is Ms. Scuderi listening to a 1928 recording of herself, and it is both momentous in its gravity and simple in its quiet reflection on her voice and her life.

I can't stop watching, and being moved by it all over again, this music that was recorded well before I was born, that has led me to discover and immerse myself in something new.

Thank you, Classic Arts Showcase. We see you.