I have been writing for a month about screenings at the Paley Center for Media‘s festival Judy Garland: The Television Years (July 20-August 18, 2011) and films shown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center‘s festival Judy Garland: All Singin’, All Dancin’, All Judy! (July 26-August 9, 2011).  The challenge of summing up the experience has stymied me — so different from indulging in closely observing and responding to individual festival programs.  But help has arrived.  A piece appears in the Sunday August 21, 2011 New York Times about charismatic opera and other classical music performers to provide some summary concepts.  “A Gift From the Musical Gods”, by Zachary Woolfe (full article published online August 17, 2011) gives me some tools to step outside of my recent Garland immersion to consider a few themes.  From a remove.  The fact that this author begins his ruminations on the subject of “charisma” considering the audience response to Maria Callas, one performer I have discussed often parallel to Garland’s appeal to fans and type of artistry, I contend is not a coincidence.

Maria Callas in Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera March 19, 1965. Photo: Louis Mlanon.

Woolfe writes of the riveting nature of charismatic performers, which suggests commentary over the years about Garland on the screen.  Some fans, in mock seriousness, say things such as: you know, that’s the 50th time I’ve watched the “Couple of Swells” number in Easter Parade and I still haven’t seen Fred Astaire in it!  Woolfe writes:

“Charismatic performers are those whom you simply can’t look away from. Their charisma is an almost physical presence, a spark that powers even the most unassuming musical passage.”

The experience is visceral.  As I wrote to one of the Paley Center employees early on in the Paley television retrospective — to be a Garland fan is not a passive activity.  For me I literally move with her performances, as if the performance were live.  I also suggest that there is a sense of physical transformation and elevation in experiencing her in performance.  Woolfe notes:

“To experience a charismatic performance is to feel elevated, simultaneously dazed and focused, galvanized and enlarged. It is to surrender to something raw and elemental, to feel happy but also unsatisfied. Charisma calls forth a melancholy, a vaguely unrequited feeling. I’ve caught myself, after certain performances of an aria or a movement, leaning forward, as if drawn against my will.”

Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall. April 23, 1961.

Many Garland fans like myself enjoy a wide range of musical talents that offer a context for her particular voice and her power.  We are eclectic, yet that range and depth of knowledge constantly entertains and circles back to what is similar to, different from, or somehow suggested by Garland’s work.  An old Yahoo online music sharing group rooted in celebrating the vocal art of Garland called The Judy Garland Experience used to play with this idea often, posting entire concerts by Garland, for example, and also the work of people who worked with her or who played the same venues she played, or who provide other kinds of context.

Woolfe notes:  

“Charisma requires that you acknowledge a new, larger set of possibilities. It is demanding. We are told of Callas’s overwhelming use of her body and voice onstage. As Schonberg added, of that 1965 “Tosca,” “the stage presence shown by Callas in her performance would have raised the hackles on a deaf man.”

As I have reflected here, the film and television retrospective offerings dating back to Frances Gumm at age 7 performing with her sisters show us the little girl who later changed her name to Judy Garland had “it” at seven. Woolfe reflects on the fact that you have it or you don’t.  

“It is a pure, mystifying gift. It cannot be taught, though silly how-to blog posts proliferate (“Eight Keys to Instant Charisma”). Someone who has it will exude it, whether performing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or Scarlatti, Mimi or Marguerite. Charisma is not earned with age; an artist is charismatic at 16 or 60. Rigorous training enhances and focuses it, but it cannot create it. The young tenor Vittorio Grigolo, who made his Met debut last year in Puccini’s “Bohème,” is still getting used to being and singing onstage, but his charisma is unmistakable. There are people who try to manufacture charisma by overacting or choosing music that goes very fast or very high, people who attempt to fascinate with technique; but someone who is truly charismatic is riveting from the start.”

Woolfe concludes his musings with a quote from the current Metropolitan Opera soprano Aprile Millo who he describes as having this kind of charisma and burning intensity.  The author decides to ask her what charisma is, and elicits a response and a reference that brings up Moss Hart‘s dialogue for Garland’s wondrous A Star is Born (1954) uttered by Norman Maine to Esther Blodgett on the nature of her great singing.  While Esther demurs on this point, Norman pursues the question of charisma, of the something extraordinary, the something extra.  “If you’d never seen a bullfighter before you’d know a great bullfighter from the minute he stepped into the ring.  From the way he stood, from the way he moved.  Or a dancer.  You don’t have to know about ballet.  That little bell rings inside your head, that little jolt of pleasure. Well, that’s what happened to me just now. You’re a great singer.”

Ms. Millo responds to Woolfe’s query with the same bullfighting analogy.

“Hemingway gave us a haunting clue to it. In his obsession with the Spanish bullfights, he spoke of the lust of the crowd and its desire to feel something special, a raw authenticity, even in so brutal a setting. What he mentions is the hush that would come over the crowd at the entrance of the toreadors. The people could sense the difference between those who did it for the fame, the paycheck, and those who had the old spirit: the nobility, bravery, heart, ‘duende.’ I believe this also happens in the theater. The crowd can sense the one with the authentic message, the connection to the truth.”

The book will never be closed on Garland’s talent because it is current, fresh and living. New fans encounter her, established fans continue to enjoy her, and everyone can learn new things when performances are presented anew, in a new format, with a fresh perspective.  The charisma, the joy, the wisdom, the humor, the genius, and the truth of the legacy.

© Martha Wade Steketee (August 20, 2011)


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