So it was with no small amount of surprise that I found myself confronted the other day with three grocery sacks full of miscellaneous papers retrieved from an old desk I’d left behind in my previous apartment. I’d completely forgotten the contents of that desk, and though I didn’t expect them to include anything important, I thought I ought to give them a quick sifting just to be sure.
I threw out most of what I found. I saw no reason, for instance, to hang onto a two-inch-thick stack of photocopied pieces I’d written for the New York Daily News during my tenure as its classical music and dance critic, though I did shake my head at the thought of the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve published in the twenty-seven years since my very first concert review appeared in the Kansas City Star. Middle age has its cold consolations, one of which is the knowledge that you’re not nearly as important as you thought you were, or hoped someday to become. I used to save copies of everything I wrote, and for a few years I even kept an up-to-date bibliography of my magazine pieces! Now I marvel at the vanity that once led me to think my every printed utterance worthy of preservation.
Only one of those pieces held my attention for more than the time it took me to pitch it in the nearest wastebasket: a copy of the first piece I wrote forCommentary, a review of James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket published in December of 1985, six months after I moved to New York. I remember how hard I worked on it, and how proud I was to have “cracked” Commentary. Today it sounds hopelessly stiff and earnest, which is why I left it out of the Teachout Reader. What on earth could have possessed Norman Podhoretz to find a place for that immature effort in his book-review section? He told me the first draft was too “knowing,” the best piece of advice any editor has ever given me, and I revised it nervously, hoping to pass muster, never imagining that I would write hundreds more pieces for Commentary, eventually becoming its music critic. Would it have pleased me to know these things back in 1985? Or might it have dulled the tang of my first sale?
I didn’t expect to find a Metropolitan Opera program among my forgotten papers, though no sooner did I look at it than I knew why I’d saved it. I went to the Metropolitan Opera House on the evening of January 5, 1996, fully expecting to review the company premiere of Leos Janacek’s The Makropulos Case for the Daily News. Instead, I ended up writing a front-page story about how one of the singers in the production died on stage, a minute and a half into the first act. The opening scene of The Makropulos Case is set in a law office where Vitek, a clerk, is looking up the files for a suit that has been dragging on for close to a century. To symbolize the tortuous snarl of Gregor v. Prus, designer Anthony Ward turned the entire back wall of the set into a forty-foot-high filing cabinet containing hundreds of drawers. Enter Vitek, played by a character tenor named Richard Versalle. As the curtain rose, he made his entrance, climbed up a tall ladder and pulled a file out of one of the drawers. “Too bad you can only live so long,” he sang in Czech. Then he let go of the ladder and fell mutely to the stage, landing on his back with a terrible crash.
Three thousand people gasped. David Robertson, the conductor, waved the orchestra to a halt and shouted, “Are you all right, Richard?” Versalle didn’t speak or move, and the curtain was quickly lowered. I sat frozen in my aisle seat, stunned by what I had seen. Then I pulled myself together and ran to the press room to find out what had happened. A company spokesman told the rapidly growing band of critics and hangers-on what little he knew: Versalle had been rushed by ambulance to the nearest hospital. We started firing questions at him. How old was Versalle? When did he make his Met debut? Did he have a wife and children? I scribbled the answers (63, 1978, yes) on my program and pushed through the crowd to the nearest pay phone, where I dropped a quarter in the slot, dialed the number of the Daily News city desk, and spoke three words that had never before crossed my lips other than in jest: “Get me rewrite.” Eight years later, I leafed through the program of that unfinished performance, looking at my barely decipherable notes. As souvenirs go, it was a good one, and I decided to keep it.