Bangelot (February 24, 1999)

Perusing my correspondence, I see that one year ago almost to the day is when I started into this whole thing.

It happened that I was down in New York trying to gain an audience with my agent, but she, of course, was in full Major Major mode: even when she was in she was out. After lurking angrily in the foyer for several hours I finally gave up when, just after lunch, the elevator door parted and who should walk out but Tammy Faye Baker. I already knew that Tammy Faye was represented by the agency, but still I stared, mouth agape, watching as she glided past the receptionist and into Barbra's office from whence I could hear my agent's high-pitched laugh.

After this vicious blow, I slumped into the elevator, then limped across 26th street to a bar. As I stared into a pint of beer, my thoughts wandered Uptown one hundred blocks, where I saw myself purchase a .25 automatic then find my way to Barbra's parking garage and hide in the back seat of her powder blue Cadillac. After she got in the car, I would wait another hour, until we were inching through traffic on the Long Island Expressway. Only then would I announce my presence: morning headlines in the Post.

A jostling at the elbow stirred me from this reverie. It was Cory. He was also on his way for a non-audience with Barbra, but seeing my forlorn face in the window, he came inside to cheer me up. Cory is never down, even though a few weeks prior to this he had let a 10-record deal slip through his fingers because he refused to have his head-shaved and tatooed. Barbra's image consultant had agreed with the record company, and now Cory was, like me, on the outs.

I had been a sideman on Cory's now-legendary rock anthem “The Story of Heaven” (heard on his “My Oyster” album still available from Pictoria Records). Now he had real big plans and he wanted to collobrate. This was the time when the first rumblings of the Lewinsky affair had been heard, and Clinton's denials promised that there was much more to come. Cory envisioned this as the subject of a full-scale rock opera: the story of how an ingenue brought the last superpower to its knees (or perhaps vice-versa). My spirits instantly raised: a new project to pour my heart and soul into.

After four more beers we had a working title: “Bangelot, Or, The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of William Jefferson Clinton.”

About this time I happened to look up and watch Barbara's power blue Caddy glide by, but by now thoughts of depositing a pair of .25 caliber slugs in her liposuctioned buttocks had long since departed my head.

After another couple of rounds, I was at the piano and Cory was wowing the assembled afternoon alcoholics with his over-the-top vocals as we romped through an ad hoc version of what promised to be our opera's hit single “Rock My Scandal” — to be sung by Bill with back-up from Hillary and Chelsea and the National Prayer Breakfast milquetoast Gospel choir.

Cory's idea was to frame the action with a Midwestern tv town-meeting which would serve as a kind of commentary, Greek Chorus-style, on the main action of the opera: the decadences and debaucheries of Bill and his courtiers in DC. His finale would have Bill himself making a surprise in-person appearance at the studio upon which a vast orgy of song and sex ensued 

By midnight, and on somewhat sober reflection, I proposed a more-or-less faithful re-working of Mozart's Don Giovanni. That great libretto was put together by Lorenzo Da Ponte from earlier tellings of the Don Juan tale. In Da Ponte, Mozart found a man who knew something of his subject. The great Casanova himself, who fittingly enough attended the first performance of Mozart's opera in Prague in November 4, 1787, described Da Ponte as “an extraordinary man known as a rogue of moderate wit, with sufficient physical attractions to be loved.” (Not a bad sketch of Clinton either.) My favorite bit from Da Ponte's self-serving memoir, written 30 years after his partnership with Mozart, finds him composing three librettos simultaneously: the text for Don Giovanni, as well as one for Salieri and another for Martin y Soler. Of course, these latter two works are utterly forgotten and forgettable, while Don Giovanni remains the greatest opera ever written.

Da Ponte worked 12 hours a day for two months straight, waited on by his neighbor's beautiful 16-year-old daughter, whom he frequently summoned with a bell. In a parenthetical comment that Bill himself would certainly appreciate, Da Ponte remarks of the girl that “(I should have preferred to love her only as a daughter, but, alas … !)” The ellipsis and exclamation mark are certainly one of the finest uses of punctation in the annals of literature.

Some months ago in the AVA Alexander Cockburn noted the parallels between the stories of Don Giovanni and Bill Clinton. By then we had already been at work on our opera for some time, confident that with Da Ponte's story as our model, we could hardly go wrong in bringing successfully to the musical stage the exploits of the most famous libertine of our age.

At times our fantasy rushed forward to the movie version of our masterpiece. The big screen would allow for a rich interplay of meta-textual references and witty allusion, as for example when, instead of Casanova in the audience, we would place Larry Flynt (to be played by Christopher Reeves) in the House gallery nodding approvingly as the great Libertine and Commander-in-Chief sings his State of the Union Aria from that chamber's floor.

Like Mozart's, our magisterial overture presented a somber, even foreboding opening gambit, with the stentorian trombones, which Mozart associated with the statue of the Commendatore and the ultimate damnation of Don Giovanni, updated to a Tower of Power groove, and Mozart's playful second theme becomes a full-throttle piece of power funk. Accused of cookie-cutter opportunism and a dismally ironic sense of operatic humor by some few of our friends (and mindful of Dwight MacDonald's observations that “it's not so easy to sell out if you have anything [worthwhile] to sell") we plunged ahead.

Initially, as we worked things out over the ensuing days and weeks, Don Giovanni proved to be the perfect exemplar for our music drama. Don Giovanni's man-servant, Leperello became Sydney Blumenthal, who in our opera is a source of side-splitting comic relief and wailing guitar solos: in Bangelot we did our utmost to make sure that Art improved on Life. The hysteric Donna Elvira, one of Don Giovanni's many spurned conquests, becomes Linda Tripp, who gets a vocal workout on our homage to Motown — “Playback.” The naive and not unwilling Zerlina becomes Monica herself (though the idea of having a leather-clad Dick Morris sing in falsetto a version of “Batti, batti” was a tempting one). Zerlina's boyfriend Masetto is transformed into Will, a California surfer who, in a fit of jealousy, comes to DC to have it out with the President. The Commendatore is, of course, Kenneth Starr, and Donna Anna his buxom daughter — upon whom Bill's eye alights — another of those sexy interns at the Heritage Foundation; her betrothed is one of the Bush boys.

Near the opening of the opera — with Sydney B. standing guard outside the Starr residence as the Prez attempts to sneak into the Starr daughter's bed — the Special Prosecutor charges onto the front line and catches Bill as he attempts to flee the scene. But Starr is mortally wounded by Bill in an Aaron Burr/Alexander Hamilton style duel, though before he expires he is wheeled to a nearby cryogenic center and put into the deep freeze.

Near the end of the opera, Blumenthal visits the cryogenic center, and through the glass case comes Starr's warning of terrible retribution. Thinking it a big hoax, Bill has Sid invite Starr's comatose form to an all-night Arksansas-style pork-and-bean feed at the White House. When Starr's frozen body miraculously appears and demands repentance, Bill refuses this, at which point Starr takes Bill's hand. The President feels the Special Prosecutor's icy grip and now realizes it’s curtains for him. To eternal damnation goes Bill to the sounds of that same burning Tower of Power groove.

With that thrilling finale committed to paper, Cory and I were convinced we had created a masterpiece.

But there were two big problems upon which our project now seems to have foundered. The first is the essential difficulty of embarking on an historical epic as history plays itself out alongside: the drama, or perhaps farce, was far too rich in characters — and getting richer by the hour. Christopher Hitchens certainly needed at least one decent aria, as did Henry Hyde and William Rehnquist and Hillary and …

The even more severe problem, however, was the conclusion. Da Ponte had sub-titled his libretto: “The Dissolute Man Punished.” But Bill had escaped his fate, and as a result our magnificent opera seemed more like a lavish spectacle of wishful thinking produced by the Right Wing conspiracy. This it is not: it is celebration of eros followed by some superb hell-fire. Even in these dark times, people prefer a tale with a moral: for our opera's sake, we can only hope that the dissolute man has not yet escaped his punishment.

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