All deaths seem unfair, but some are more unfair than others. Last week's sudden, unexpected passing of Garry Shandling at the age of 66 struck me as particularly unwarranted. Shandling was behind two of the best TV comedy series ever, and maybe he had one more great series in him.
I liked "It's Garry Shandling's Show," but I loved "The Larry Sanders Show." Hey now! Few shows have had two brilliant "second bananas" like Jeffrey Tambor as Hank and Rip Torn as Artie. The only equivalences I can come up with are Jason Alexander as George and Michael Richards as Kramer in "Seinfeld" and Christopher Lloyd as Jim, Danny DeVito as Louie, and Andy Kaufman at Latka in "Taxi."
Garry Shandling's comic persona was that of an anxiety-ridden, suspicious, depressed, cynical man. It yielded a lot of laughs, but I wonder how close it was to the "real" Garry. He never married, was involved in several embarrassing court cases (suing his own agent?), crossed a picket line, and let his career run down to almost nothing, never bouncing back from the debacle of "What Planet Are You From?" in 2000. In fact, the last project of note that he did – an episode of Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee," shot in January – was called "It's Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive."
"66" is young to me now. Every once in a while when Garry would show his face, like on Bill Maher's show, he revealed himself to be as sharp and funny as ever. He was famous for his interest in boxing (he co-owned a gym) and a weekly pick-up basketball game with comedians and actors. I wonder how he allowed himself get so sick, so fast that he died before paramedics could reach him. They had to break into his home to get to him. Very sad. At least we still have the shows.
Garry Shandling's episode of "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee"
"Inside Edition's" coverage of Garry's death
The wonderful theme to "It's Garry Shandling Show"
Larry Sanders doesn't want Hank to say "Hey now!" anymore
The Best of Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor)
The Best of Artie (Rip Torn)
The next very night, the TG and I saw "Madame Butterfly" at the Los Angeles Opera. Talk about an unnecessary death!
I've seen "Madame Butterfly" a few times and listened to it many, many times. (I own fifteen "Butterflies," but my go-to recording is 1966 EMI recording with Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli.) But this production imported from the Santa Fe Opera -- directed by Lee Blakeley, designed by Jean-Marc Puissant – hit me in a different way from the other perfomances I've attended.
The story of Cio-Cio San/Butterfly is one of misdirected, wasted love. Everyone warns the fifteen year-old not to throw away her love on the feckless American naval officer B.F. Pinkerton, but she will not listen. She changes religions and cuts off her family, even as he leaves her to return to America. Three years he comes back – not for Cio-Cio San, but for his son. Cio-Cio San achieves a kind of noble self-sacrifice, committing suicide rather than giving up her honor. It's incredibly sad.
Fortunately, the LA Opera had two real pros to handle the leads. Ana Maria Martinez is a "Butterfly" specialist. She has sung the role to considerable acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden, Munich Opera Festival, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera. Stefano Secco has sung Pinkerton in Hamburg, Toronto, Florence, Dresden, Chicago, Barcelona, Berlin, and San Francisco. Martinez especially nailed the part, hitting all the difficult, exposed notes cleanly, and making dramatic sense of the role, from naïve trust at the beginning to tragic confrontation at the end.
Conductor and LA Opera Musical Director James Conlon (who also gave his usual great, peppy lecture, right before the performance) made the orchestra and Puccini the real heroes of the night. The musical peaks of this opera – Butterfly's Entrance, the Love Duet, "Un Bel Di," the Humming Chorus, the Flower Duet, etc. – are as gorgeous as anything ever written. At this performance, I was especially struck by the overwhelming beauty and dramatic intensity of the Act II "bad news" trio with Sharpless, Suzuki, and Pinkerton.
And we all watched as Cio-Cio San slit her throat ... and cheered as the singer took her curtain call in her bloody kimono. I guess that's what Aristotle called "catharsis." Death is part of life and has to be good for something. Might as well make Art out of it.
Cio-Cio San, dead at the age of 18. Garry Shandling at 66.
A good friend's mother.
Maybe the best thing to do about Death is ignore it.
Or listen to Puccini in the meantime.
The Trio from Act II (Suzuki, Pinkerton, and Sharpless) – bad news for Butterfly – just heart-breaking
Another Trio – with Spanish subtitles
Butterfly's Entrance – with Mirella Freni
The Love Duet – with Mirella Freni and Jose Carreras – in fine voice
Fritz Wunderich and Pilar Lorengar – a miraculous "Love Duet" – in German!!!
"Un Bel Di" – by Renata Tebaldi, a famous Butterfly
The "Humming Chorus" – with some nice visuals