Bill Russo discusses his commedia dell'arte production
BROADCAST: Jul. 26, 1974 | DURATION: 00:34:11
Bill Russo talks about the commedia dell'arte production being staged at the Center for New Music at Columbia College Chicago. The production includes two pieces, "Pedrolino's Revenge" and "Isabella's Fortune".
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Studs Terkel How does a raggy music fit with the commedia dell'arte technique of 16th century Italy? And this is one of the challenges of Bill Russo, one of the creative spirits of Chicago, Bill, you know, is the--he's the, you're the director of the School of Music Columbia College.
Studs Terkel Yeah. And Bill is, I first knew Bill when he wrote music as a member of Stan Kenton's band, he's written music for Leonard Bernstein and for the Chicago Symphony as well, and the London Jazz Orchestra, and the work you're doing now, this work that's opening tomorrow night at the new center of music, the two, how--two comic operas, aren't there?
Bill Russo There are two comic operas, we got two--we went through a bunch of scenarios by Flaminio Scala, which were written in 1611, the first written-down scenarios which were kind of like the plots but a little more fulsome. And we chose two: Jonathan Abarbanel wrote the text for "Pedrolino's Revenge", and Bill Williams wrote the text for "Isabella's Fortune". We chose the two, they're both short works and there's a short intermission between them and they constitute a two-hour evening. And we wrote full works using rag, rock, jazz and classical.
Studs Terkel You know, Bill, I think can be good if we talked about the whole basis, about what is commedia dell'arte, and how it affected audiences in Italy in the 15th, 16th century and the changes that occurred and what it meant, you know.
Bill Russo I suppose that they were gypsies, they were roving musicians and performers, actors, but they were professionals. That's where the term "commedia dell'arte" originates, that means they were the professionals, they professed the art. They ad-libbed. They had standard scenarios, which they talked about before they went on, then they pasted them on the back of the flats so they could refresh their memories as they made their entrances and they were divided into categories. There were four types: The lovers, who were nice and always came together in the end; the masters, who were always cruel, lecherous, avaricious, incredibly demeaning in their behavior who almost always lost; and then there were the servants who manipulated the entire plot and the entire story, were always in control of the masters and usually helped the lovers find themselves; and the last category is the capitanos. Now, the capitanos were usually Spanish. They represented--as a matter of fact, when Italy was invaded and they were controlled by Spanish influences, the capitanos were the people who came, who were satires on the Spanish braggadocio soldiers, and of course, the capitanos go back to Plautus and Miles Gloriosus, the plots in a way are irrelevant. The characters are the same. It's like the Marx Brothers and Margaret Dumont.
Bill Russo Right. And the people were the same. Arlecchino, one of the principal servants, for example, was always Arlecchino, he always did the same things. He had different lines, different lazzi, different routines. Lazzi are numbers, a shtick, that each of them had, and they used them interchangeably. Sometimes they'd use the same lazzi in an absolutely different show.
Bill Russo He was always crucified, and with reason. He was incredibly vain, stupid, in love with younger women, made attempts to control, was ungenerous to his own children, represented probably the worst aspects of the monied classes.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel from the commedia. Now, who were the--this is a technique that you use in the two comic operas in which you did the music and Al Williams and Jonathan Abarbanel the lyrics. Who? Just the history again, who were the audiences back in those days for?
Bill Russo The basic audiences were the poor people. These works were mostly done out of doors. But then ironically, the aristocracy became interested even though some of the commedia skits or the added materials were very derogatory toward particular members of the aristocracy, especially mistresses of kings and dukes.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Bill Russo So they got in a lot of trouble, they were kicked out of many towns. One famous company was I Gelosi, The Jealous Ones, and that was the company that we think Scala, from whom we drew much of this, headed. His company was filled with women who argued continuously and troubles of all sorts.
Bill Russo It was everything. Improvising also. They made their own costumes, too, is the most obvious example of that is the Harlequin, or Arlecchino costume, which was made up of bits and pieces that the Arlecchino player was able to get from tailors around town. Harlequin, we don't know how the name came about, but Isabella was Isabella in the Gelosi company, and her part was played by other women whose name was not Isabella, she gave her name to the part, just like Flavio gave his name to the part.
Bill Russo It was pre-Shakespearean, as a matter of fact, which I wasn't clear about, because the influence on Shakespeare was extraordinary, but the taboo against women performing was not in effect in Italy or France at this time.
Studs Terkel So the audiences then, did they improvise, because we're leading up to your two comic operas, "Pedrolino's Revenge" and "Isabella's Fortune". They improvise also on local, contemporary situations, of course.
Bill Russo They always, when they went into a town, would like Bob Hope change the names of the locales to fit the neighborhood. If they were talking about how tough things were, they'd refer to Skokie. If they were doing a chow in Chicago, we haven't done that, but they did. They are the pre, the forerunners of all the popular arts of the 20th century. I mean, Chaplin obviously owes a lot to the pantomimic aspects. The Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, who had the same numbers they did in all the movies.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel So how did you--now, what did you do, you, Bill Russo? Then you're well-versed in the history of commedia dell'arte and the technique and all, and you got the idea then of what? Making it contemporary? Is that it?
Bill Russo But I didn't make it contemporary, I made the music contemporary, but I kept the story really old-fashioned. I had hidden a--I stayed away from that. Mort Sahl had a, I think, a detrimental influence on me in that respect. He and I were very close friends for a long time, and he said, "Don't do things in the past, because people won't understand the contemporary implications." But I finally decided I really want to go way back to 1611, the language sometimes, the language sometimes moves into 1974, and the music certainly is not Renaissance music in any way. But I really got excited about the idea of dealing with the colorfulness, the costumes, the vagabond quality. And we started on these works in January, December of 1973 and they were finished during the last two or three months.
Bill Russo The singers were Bill [Lubry?], who's the old man, Magnifico, and his servant, Pedrolino, after whom the work was named, is Doug Hoekstra, and then there's some choral singing at the end. Now it should be pointed out that one cast has 10 people and the other cast has nine people, and the band plays 30-odd instruments, so there are 50, 60 tasks. But all these people double. So that Bill [Lubry?], who is the Magnifico in this work, is the horn player in "Isabella's Fortune", he plays horn absolutely beautifully.
Studs Terkel Well, now, Jack Hafferkamp interviewed you in last weekend's "Daily News" and he asked you to explain the nature and, of course, quite complicated. What is "Pedrolino's Revenge"? Al Williams, he with you, he wrote the lyrics for "Isabella's Fortune" and Jonathan Abarbanel for "Isabella's"--[well, let's start with?] "Pedrolino's Revenge", even though it closes your show since we heard the music from it, you know.
Bill Russo Yeah, I--"Pedrolino's Revenge" is the story, is about father and son, the story is the whole Oedipal conflict, A, B, it's moment to moment, you see things happen now, and you see things happen there, you see one man in love with one woman, and you see two people fighting, you know what's going on at all times. The story as a whole is complicated and I think, in a way, almost irrelevant. What I'm trying to say is the real story is the battle of the sexes. The real story is the battle between young and old, and the real, real story is the war between the classes.
Bill Russo Right.
Studs Terkel The servant girl and that. So I'm thinking also, did something happen before you and Al Williams is here, who wrote the lyrics for "Isabella's Fortune", before you read little passages from it, you know, just sight read little passages in the technique and style, I can't help but think of that film that many people may have seen who are listening, "Les Enfants du Paradis", "The Children of Paradise", that French film, that dealt with sort of the end of commedia dell'arte and the beginning of the spoken word theater, and how the classes changed to a visiting theater from a popular theater, the working people, the lower classes, and then the bourgeois stepped in.
Bill Russo Yeah.
Bill Russo Right.
Studs Terkel So--
Bill Russo The funny thing about that is that that's the famous story about Deburau going to the doctor to find out what he should do to get to cure his melancholy and being told by the doctor that what he needed was a good night out on the town to see the clown Deburau. And he said, "I am Deburau."
Studs Terkel "I am Deburau." By the way, did a change take place in commedia dell'arte, too, as it did in the French theater that we saw, and did it alter from the popular theater, working people, the peasants, the farmers seeing it and then become middle-class?
Bill Russo Right. And the villain was ironically Goldoni, for whom I have a lot of respect. But Goldoni came in and smoothed out the work. He made it much more bourgeois. The servants were not as conniving, he took out the vulgarity, certainly all the sexual stuff he was opposed to, and he made the masters cruel but not as unrepentantly ugly as they were in the originals, although when he wrote the librettos for Galuppi and Piccioni, he exerted in music a very positive revolutionary force in the course of theater. He was essentially reactionary because he took away from this great form in its essence. He smoothed that out.
Bill Russo It's the moments, the juggling, it's the dancing, it's the costumes, and I think at the end you certainly get an idea of what the story is, you know that somebody wants somebody and that things are resolved and that whatever resolution is potential is possible in life does occur. But story in the sense of a realistic, naturalistic play, no, but, of course, that's the advantage of commedia.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Bill Russo That's the advantage of music, I suppose, over strict theater. I think that's what's so great about Stravinsk-- Shakespeare, to whom Wagner referred once as that great improviser, because the improvisational quality.
Studs Terkel Which leads to a question, is I'm sure I'm premature, during these performances that you'll be doing, will it be, will things alter on occasion now and then due to circumstance and happenstance?
Bill Russo We're not going to, we really thought about that a long time because I've done improvisation in all my works going back 20 or 30 years. We decided that we would improvise our way into everything, but once we got there we would lock it.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Bill Russo And I don't know whether we made the right decision but it's exciting. For instance, we would improvise scenes time after time, and then when we found something that was perfect, we would just grab on to and say that that's ours.
Bill Russo Yeah, this is a dialogue of scorn and reconciliation between two lovers. Some of the stuff was written down. I don't know how it happened. There were scribes around who got some of the stuff down, and generally as I said, there are no intact texts. So here's what it sounds like in the original form. Al is going to be the capitano and I'm going to be the woman.
Al Williams "Go!
Bill Russo Disappear!
Bill Russo That Cupid could become Lucifer." Anyway, back and forth they argue. Their Beatrice, Beatrice and Benedict quality found in many Shakespearean plays is here, and in addition there's this this business of one person finishing the other's sentence so, we did a similar thing in "Isabella's Fortune". This is between the capitano, the braggadocio bully and Isabella, that woman who's come to find him. He has let her down, as he always lets women down when he achieves success with them, which is not very often, and she starts off by saying, you must notice in this that he manipulates her fantastically. "Where did you?
Al Williams Hiding.
Bill Russo Hide.
Al Williams Seek.
Bill Russo Promises.
Al Williams Trust.
Bill Russo Nothing.
Bill Russo Capitano.
Al Williams Isabella.
Bill Russo I never understood timing until I did this work. I had backed off from becoming a director until I did this work and I really took on a big job and it's been very exciting. The timing is unbelievable. These stories about the Yiddish theater, about these old men staying up until five o'clock in the morning just to rehearse a handshake, are true, are absolutely true, it has to be on the end of one, not on the downbeat of two, or the audience doesn't laugh, and the audience is unbelievably sensitive to what's right and what's wrong.
Al Williams Yeah.
Bill Russo That's right. That's right. Well, the advantage of writing a play in music is that you have a greater degree of control over what the actor does than any playwright/director could ever have because you put it right there, it's specifically designated.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking, Al, since you did "Isabella's Fortune", the titles, "Isabella's Fortune", "Pedrolino's Revenge"--it's something quite specific and to the point. Fortune. Revenge. There's no bland word involved here at all.
Al Williams The original title of this scenario that the dentist is based on, that "Pedrolino's Revenge" is based on, is the dentist, and we thought it was too bland. We wanted something that struck out at you and the works are all about fortune and revenge.
Al Williams Yeah. We--it was Bill's initial idea. Bill Russo's initial idea to do the whole thing, and he suggested places, and Jonathan and I, you know, did our own research and we found a lot of things, and some of the scripts in my show and also in Jonathan's work, are completely taken from the historical sources and then a punch line added, like the whole, this Capitano goes into this whole line about "Patroness of my heart, Princess of my breast, Countess of my virility," all these things which are straight out of it, and then he says, "You may marry me."
Bill Russo Right, "opera buffo" was the whole thing that was then reformed and became "opera seria," under the mistaken notion that it's more intellectual to be serious and tragic than it is to be comic, but I have found that it's much more intellectual to be comic.
Bill Russo There's a lot of difference. I think "Isabella's Fortune" has a constant motion. It's more grandiose. It's, perhaps, more classical. The first movement, for example, which we're going to play later, the first section is a sonata allegro form, in fact, an idea that I got from the famous number 13 in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro". "Pedrolino's Revenge", on the other hand, has many more tableaux, the defined story plot of "Pedrolino's Revenge" is more a characteristic of it. "Isabella's Fortune" is more absurdist, more, I suppose, without being sexist, feminine. "Pedrolino's Revenge" is more direct, if those terms have any meaning any more.
Bill Russo several formats. You really, really can. You know, I'd get--Picasso gave me a great deal of strength. I used to worry about, people said, "Well, now you're writing rock. You used to write jazz, you've written symphonies," and I realize that other people have done the same thing, and why shouldn't one move back and forth according to where it feels best at that time? I never thought I'd do anything in rag, I thought the rag stuff was appalling and all voguish and faddish, and suddenly I wrote this piece and we started to play it and we realized it was a rag piece.
Studs Terkel Yeah. You know it occurred to me as I am talking now, the performances will begin of the comic operas tomorrow night. So this is Monday, Tuesday night at the--we've got to get these vital statistics. It's going to begin tomorrow night at the Center for New Music, it's 3257 North Sheffield.
Studs Terkel It leads to a question: Talent. We come to the matter of, you know, way back. You go back to 16th century Italy, Elizabethan days and the talents, the wandering actors, the whole performers who did everything, juggling, dancing, singing, talking, in Chicago you found performers.
Bill Russo I really did. For the first time I did all city auditions, and I got people, youngish, 18 to 30. I got some marvelous people. I think these are people on the edge of a brilliant career as much like the people who began in "New Faces" or the people in "Hair" or "Godspell". There are 19 people, and some of the comments are that each person is better than the next. It's hard to get favorites. It's hard to find somebody who is especially fantastic. I'm really very proud of this group of people and I really hope that we manage to get to New York. We're having trouble raising money now because money is so tight, but I really want to get to New York because I think New York deserves to see this show and I think Chicago has the capability and these people have worked harder. I mean, these people have worked unbelievably hard, because not only do they have to sing, they have to dance and they have to do the band stuff and they're in two different works. I'm very proud, I'm really proud of them and I feel they're extraordinarily brilliant.
Studs Terkel I do think they're, you know, with all the groups and I've been very remiss, by the way, in not having enough local artists on the program in the theatrical form. We know, for example, the Free Street Theater, too, has young performers in a variety of--by the way, do you play with the audience in the comic opera?
Bill Russo Yeah, we're thinking about touring. I talked to Bruce Sagan about that, as a matter of fact. I really would like to do it that way. It would take some redoing, it would allow some more connection between the audience and the performers, especially with the kids. Kids are enchanted by it, by the way, because they're not so worried about whether they can hear every word. You're not supposed to hear every word. Why do you need to hear every word? Strasberg says that if you have--that you shouldn't be able to hear the words and still be able to understand the play. I agree.
Studs Terkel It's very funny you're saying that, I'm thinking, the thought occurs to me, free association, in Robert Altman films, Robert Altman, you don't hear, I must have been, I'm a little disturbed now and then, but knowing the idea comes through. It's almost as though it were happening, as though you were eavesdropping.
Bill Russo Right. Well, we're all a little too literal, I th-- For me, I suppose this work represents a way of getting away from that whole middle-class upward mobility past and assuming the part of the befooled rather than the knave, saying yes, I am the jester, we're all in this together, we're all fools in the sense that Lear's fool was a fool. We had to speak the truth, we don't have the money, we don't have the security, we're confined to singing for our supper for our whole lives and that's it.
Studs Terkel Is it true--by the way, before we take a slight pause, slight break, the fact is the fools, the jesters, were the truth-sayers, weren't they? And they tell the court off. So in a sense this was commedia dell'arte telling off the big shots. And this is what the sense you're doing here in some tangential way.
Bill Russo I think it's fantastically entertaining and people need to be entertained, the world is so crazy. But also, what I suppose I've come to learn is that entertainment is so serious that you can deal with some serious things that you can't face head-on. There's some horrible things going on. If you get a chance to laugh about them, at least maybe then refreshed you can go back and do something about them. It's not merely escapist, although a little escape is not so bad.
Studs Terkel We're talking to Bill Russo, and with him is Bill Williams and Al Williams, called him Bill Williams, who wrote the libretto for one of the comic operas, "Pedrolino's Revenge", and Jonathan Abarbanel wrote the libretto for "Isabella's Fortune", and Bill music and the direction impresario and all-around. We'll take a slight pause and again remind the audience where it'll be, too, opening tomorrow night after this message from our sponsors. Resuming the conversation and we'll hear some of the music, too, in a moment, with Bill Russo and with Bill Williams here, too. The two comic operas based on commediate dell'arte. It's also good, I suppose, in knowing something of what happened in the past. This is also part of it. I mean, the techniques that were used in the past, the forms that were used in the past. It's funny. On BBC not too long ago, at the Masterpiece Theater, they had a music hall, an hour and a half.
Studs Terkel Yeah, and they were talking about the terrible conditions. At the same time, they were connected with that audience, which, by the way, was a working-class audience primarily. And so, here we have, as though there's a new interest now in what happened way back, and the old forms become suddenly very contemporary, don't they? So, before--we should remind the audience that the group--what do you call the group? It's the--
Bill Russo Tomorrow night we open, and it's a big night for us. One thing you mentioned, you mentioned Altman, by the way. Altman doesn't tell his audiences what to think. The trouble about most movies is that they tell--they show the audience what they're going to see and they give them the response, and the nice thing about living theater, live theater, is the audience gets a chance to make up its own mind, has a wider panoply of--I mean, actually visually, and it's dealing with real people on the one hand, and on the other hand, it's not necessarily realistic. You're not stuck with that deadly realistic literal-minded thing that seems to overcome Americans.
Studs Terkel Also, you know, to accept the word literally today will drive you mad, wouldn't it? The literal world being as cockeyed as far as values is concerned as it is. You have to have, because the fantasy it's a fantasy anyway. So you have to have some kind of a extra dimension to keep from going nuts, don't you?
Bill Russo "Isabella's Fortune" is, I guess, if somebody were to ask the story of that, I suppose we'd describe it as the pain of compromise. Isabella goes through her entire life trying to find the right man. She finds Capitano, he is obviously no good, and she doesn't know what to do and she has all sorts of dreams about what he should be like, and finally she finds the right man, but he's only a servant and she is a gentlewoman. And so she has to shed the fantasies like we all do when we grow up whether it occurs at the age of 20 or 40 or 60. So the pain of making that compromise, that good adjustment in the best sense, the most acceptable sense of the word, is I suppose what "Isabella's Fortune" is about, in addition to the fight between rich and poor and the way that the poor have to fight back in any manner available to them.
Bill Russo Well, this is the after an overture which consists only of the names of the characters, so the audience gets a much more secure feeling. This is the first number of "Isabella's Fortune" and it sets the whole scene. The lights come up on Argentina, who's a servant. She's scrubbing the tiles outside the inn in a very lazy and sensual manner. She's a healthy good-looking young woman, a serving maid in the inn that she and her husband keep. She's a budding earth mother. She exudes sex, but it's always playful and a little theatrical. This is her weapon; with it she keeps her husband and most other men right where she wants them. And Pantalone, the old man, much like Corvino and Volpone or Brabantio in "Otello" or Shylock or even better, Polonius, enters. He's old, very rich, very foolish old satyr, he's pompous, prone to malapropisms, and he pants all the time, which is part of his characteristic, easily flustered, and he goes and ogles Argentina and then he creeps up behind her and begins to fondle her. She teases him and leads him on. And then the son comes in and tells the father how frustrated he is. First of all, Pantalone's behavior shocks and bewilders the son Flavio. He is a very correct and frustrated naïve young man, and Flavio the son says, "I want to find a wife. I want to be married, too, and what are you doing fooling around with women at your age, especially a married woman? And that sets the scene for the whole first part of "Isabella's Fortune", which is a sonata allegro for those of you who are interested in those things.
Studs Terkel And so we have a combination here: the timing, the music, good musicians, obviously, and also, I guess, it's clear that you worked on enunciation, tell by the clarity, the clarity. By the way, clarity is part of the commedia dell'arte technique, too, isn't it?
Bill Russo Sure, it's sharing with the audience, it's not being private, avoiding that sort of narcissism. We had great speech teacher, David Avocalli from Goodman who's--bases his technique on the Leszek method, which we've had success with now for six or seven years. Incidentally, all our fights and chases and jewels were staged by Joseph Martinez, who did a brilliant job with Stewart Gordon in "Bloody Bess", one of these martial arts guys that are really wonderful to have around, now he's working with Gordon on "Rashomon", a brilliant young man.
Al Williams Well, I had studied with Bill. I'm a composer, primarily. The lyrics is just sort of a sidelight, and I'd studied with Bill, and Jonathan, Jonathan's been the most supportive critic of our work. So we finally hired him, so now we don't have him any more to write about us.
Studs Terkel So we have different musical forms here, but you yourself are the working in different form. I think there's something you said before you have to take off and we take off, we'll continue the program with maybe music related to this. The fact that there was nothing hidden to playing to the audience directly. You--I'm thinking about your jazz experience, there was that period when the jazzmen, you know, post-World War II, you know, some of the guys were hiding. Woody Herman had the trouble with the guys in the band. You know? They were kind of back to the audience type for a period of time.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Bill Russo Yeah, but there was a movement. The cool movement was connected with, I suppose, with drugs. I mean, there was a tendency to keep the music from the people, and I think it hurt jazz terribly, I think it had a lot to do with jazz being pushed aside for so long.
Studs Terkel This is a parenthetical comment since you've been so deeply involved with jazz as well as classical music. I was about to say serious music, jazz is serious, too. Of course, you worked with Ellington. Ellington never got a, he never got a Guggenheim, ironically enough.
Bill Russo You know, you're really on something. It's like what Duke did with his players. Duke wrote for his players a lot more than people think. But he wrote for the player whose personality, temperament, tone quality he really knew. So I was able to work with people that I had, that I--write for people that I had worked with since last September, October. So I knew their tone colors.
Bill Russo It's PG. It's PG. I mean PG, there's no violence but there are a few sexual remarks which I think are perfectly acceptable. I don't have any trouble with my kids seeing and there's no nudity. But kids love it. Yeah.
Studs Terkel Fantasy is reality, so commedia dell'arte from 16th century Italy to 20th century Chicago. Bill Russo my guest, and not the first time, nor I trust will be the last, and Al Williams, the librettist of "Isabella's Fortune", "Pedrolino's Revenge", and what's a good commedia dell'arte signoff for us right now? How do you say? Something pantomimically, so the audience won't see it. We say, well, I think "Take it easy, but take it" would be kind of good.