Friday, September 30, 2011

Come fly with me ... and, let's wallow in nostalgia

My mom and sister mid-1960s.
I debuted late in my family. And due to that fact, I sometimes feel like I was born in the wrong era and here's why...

Many of the family photos that I have were taken during the '50s, '60s and very early '70s ... and by the time Yours Truly came along in the mid '70s, pictures weren't being taken as often. Subsequently, when I look back on my family photos, I feel transported back in time. I'm transported to a time that I was never a part of - but, given the subjects in the pictures, feel incredibly connected to. To say that I feel nostalgic toward those decades is an incredible understatement.

In prepping for my recent post on the Barihunks "craze" contributing to the Hollywood-ification of Opera, I was revisiting my connection to and feeling of nostalgia for the decades directly preceding my birth. The reason being that opera was truly stellar during those decades ... Callas, Tebaldi, Stignani, Ludwig, Corelli, Di Stephano and Rossi Lemeni passed the torch to Sutherland, Horne, Pavarotti, Domingo, etc etc etc.

And you know what, Chiclets, I am struck by how drastically things have changed in our culture since then. How our lives have become ordinary, disposable, raw, casual and common-place. More specifically how over the last few decades, "elite" has become a dirty-word and anything that people might associate with the word "elite" has either been dropped like a red-hot potato or has been "dumbed down" in order to not appear that it is elite.

Princess Grace Kelly meets soprano Maria Callas.
For a perfect example all you have to do it turn on your television to any of the dozens of Reality TV shows that appear at any given time. We have "Housewives" who yell, back-stab, cry and generally act like self-absorbed fools. We have teen moms whose lives are glorified into a reality-based soap opera. We have a group of 20-somethings whose debauchery filled vacations at the Jersey Shore have turned them into instant celebrities. And then there's this: A family of absolute no-names who have made millions of dollars and gained celebrity status, all because their E! reality show has made them "relevant".

Need I continue?

I believe we are trying to do the same with opera and the arts in general. We want to take the "elite" out of it - to dumb it down and turn opera into a vehicle for people who probably have no business being on an operatic stage, but certainly LOOK "the part". (What exactly *does* a Valkyrie look like, anyway?) We want opera to be hot, now, relevant, hip and on-trend instead of what it was: grand, opulent, stunning, elegant and yes - elite. We want to turn it into something that is easy for people to watch in a local movie theater while chowing down on their bucket of popcorn, box of nachos, Skittles and drinking their silo of Coke.

I know... I know - it's like a pendulum. Society swings one way and eventually swings back. I get it.

I am certainly not advocating that we go back to the time when women vacuumed in their house dress and heels or when men wore suits everyday (I, for one, hate being hot). Nor am I advocating for us to go back to a time when Lucy and Ricky had to sleep in separate beds and say the word "expecting" because "pregnant" was too racy to say on television ... but, there has to be a happy medium, right?

Recently, I happened upon a piece written by the former managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, Leo C. Wolinsky. In it, Mr. Wolinsky talks about this very subject and has a truly interesting hypothesis as to how we got where we are.

Here in it's entirety (thank you, Mr. Wolinsky) is his piece:
A Flight From Elegance
Leo C. Wolinsky

The ever debonair Cary Grant personified it. So did actress turned princess Grace Kelly.

Some events still boast of it: Opening night at the Metropolitan Opera, Hollywood's Oscars, and Washington's Kennedy Center Honors.

Elegance is defined by Merriam Webster as dignified gracefulness or restrained beauty of style. Yet exactly what it means to be dignified, graceful or restrained clearly has changed over the years.

At the risk of wallowing in nostalgia, these days there's simply a lot less of it in our lives.

Two recent televised events got me thinking about elegance. The first was last night's ABC television premier of
Pan Am, the jet-age period drama depicting a glamorous era of air travel. The second was the 1964 audio interview with Jacqueline Kennedy conducted shortly after the assassination of JFK and aired earlier this month with much fanfare, also on ABC.

Both were reminders of a bygone era during which graciousness and manners were prized above today's values of raw candor and self-absorption.

Looking back at vintage photographs of the era, it's easy to see why Jackie Kennedy's Chanel-knockoff pink suit and pillbox hat became symbols of style and elegance. But it wasn't just her clothing. It also was the way the first lady carried herself; the low and slightly breathless way she spoke. Even the way she pronounced her name. It was Jockleen not Jackie, as America knew her.

Pan Am drama accurately reflected air travel in the 60s, when a flight between two cities felt akin to boarding the opulent Queen Mary for an Atlantic crossing. Men turned up in coat and tie; women in dresses. Airport lounges seemed luxurious by today's standards and service was gracious.

Much the same held true for fine restaurants of the day. The best had dress codes. Jackets were required of the men. If they showed up without one, they would be supplied by the waiter.

The Oscars was dominated in Hollywood's heyday by simple ball gowns; black tuxedos for the men. A worthy symbol of that period was the aqua silk gown created by Edith Head for Grace Kelly when she accepted her Best Actress statuette in 1955 for
The Country Girl.

One of the most enduring images from that era was J. R. Eyerman's Life Magazine shot of filmgoers wearing 3D glasses for an early stereoscopic movie -- the men in coats and ties, the women in hats and furs.

Even schoolteachers came to class dressed as if their time really mattered.

People spoke publicly in more elegant tones, although not necessarily in private among themselves. If you exclude the disputed image of an infuriated Nakita Khrushchev pounding his shoe on his United Nations delegate desk in 1960, public speaking was mild, even academic-sounding, in contrast to today's raw rhetoric.

Certainly early television never pushed the bounds of taste, not even daring to show married couples sleeping in the same bed. Forget vulgar. You couldn't even find crude. There were no Howard Sterns or Kardashians for that matter.

I'm not one to make a judgment here. After all, one of my closest encounters with elegance came at a grand opening of a mid-level hotel near Los Angeles International Airport, from with I was ejected for wearing an electric-blue sport coat, plaid pants and Cuban-heeled shoes. (Don't laugh, it was 1972.)

For many, the rules of elegance felt more like repression. Living in the 50s and 60s was like wearing a straight jacket. Public image often had little to do with real life that was being played out behind closed doors.

The turbulent period after JFK's assassination challenged all these conventions and created a new society that at least seemed more honest with itself.

But elegance was sacrificed. In its place came cool and hip.

Today's dress codes generally mean shirts with collars and no cutoffs. Ripped jeans, underwear as outerwear, the use of soft porn images on billboards, explicit language on radio, television and in ordinary conversation -- all of it passes for cool. It just isn't elegant.

What sometimes does pass for elegant today is simply glitz. The Oscars maintains its reputation as Hollywood's most elegant night. But for every Grace Kelly these days you're likely to find a Bjork in a feathered swan dress, more suited to the opening night of Ringling Brothers.

I'm sure there are still islands of elegance out there somewhere. So I scoured the Web. I asked my sophisticated friends. I drove through Beverly Hills. I even checked out that hotel near LAX.

I'm still looking.
So am I, Mr. Wolinsky. So am I.

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