Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Job Hunting (£500 reward)

Dear Diary,

The weather has turned cold and it is time to find work. Also Lisa's nagging has become difficult to bear. She correctly points out that since all I'm doing is sitting around writing computer programs for fun, I might as well find someone to pay me to do it.

It will mean giving up Clojure, I feel, since I can't imagine that anyone local will be both curious about functional programming and using Java. But I have always enjoyed programming in any language, for any task.

I've never looked for a job before. When I was a starving PhD student, I went to the jobcentre in Cambridge and said "I'd like a job, please". And they said "What can you do?", and I said "Nothing really, but I loved computer programming as a boy", and they said "Ring this guy."

And ringing that guy (thanks ever so, Mike) led to an uninterrupted stream of contracts to do all sorts of interesting projects for local firms, all by being recommended to new companies by people I'd worked with before, or re-engaged by companies I'd worked for previously.

There was one period, long ago during a recession, when I wanted to work but no-one had rung up recently, so I contacted a couple of recruitment agents. The second one I phoned said "Actually I have a job that would be perfect for you, but it's just down the road and you've worked for them before, so it would be silly to go through us."  I phoned the relevant company and this turned out to be true. Nobody had thought to call me before they'd placed the job ad. So I started work the following day and that was that.

I phoned the second recruiter back and asked her if I could buy her dinner, since her behaviour had seemed sporting in the extreme, but she lived far away from Cambridge, so instead I sent her a personal cheque for £200. Thanks Sharon, I hope you did something nice with the money.

The first recruiter pestered me constantly for months with offers to work on COBOL in Aberystwyth for pin-money, so after explaining to him for the hundredth time that that wasn't really the sort of thing I would be looking for even if I wasn't working already, I ended up call-barring him.

But anyway, I've never needed to actively look for a job before, so this will be a new experience.

The first thing I'm thinking is to go through all my old contacts and see if any of them are still in the business and remember me fondly. So I'll get started on that.

And the second is that I need to bring the recruitment agent process in-house somehow.

So how's this: If, within the next six months, I take a job which lasts longer than one month, and that is not obtained through an agency, then on the day the first cheque from that job cashes, I'll give £500 to the person who provided the crucial introduction.

If there are a number of people involved somehow, then I'll apportion it fairly between them. And if the timing conditions above are not quite met, or someone points me at a short contract which the £500 penalty makes not worth taking, then I'll do something fair and proportional anyway.

And this offer applies even to personal friends, and to old contacts who I have not got round to calling yet, and to people who are themselves offering work, because why wouldn't it?

And obviously if I find one through my own efforts then I'll keep the money. But my word is generally thought to be good, and I have made a public promise on my own blog to this effect, so if I cheat you you can blacken my name and ruin my reputation for honesty, which is worth much more to me than £500.

Anyhow, if you're interested in helping out, my CV is at http://www.aspden.com

It's not much of a CV. I've never had to use one before, and the main reason I've maintained it is because sometimes HR people like to see one, as a formality, so the first order of the day is probably to improve it. All suggestions welcome.

There's also a massive vainglorious boast here: http://www.learningclojure.com/2010/10/gis-job.html 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Rigoletto (Covent Garden Dress Rehearsal)

A friend (Ll) is trying out for a place in the reknowned orchestra of the Royal Opera House. She invited me, along with her husband (G) to come and watch the dress rehearsal of Rigoletto.

G remarked before the performance that he'd always thought that Rigoletto was a silly work. He knows much more about music than I do, and so I was a bit worried by this.

not even slightly silly
In fact he challenged me to name a sillier opera (which proved to be easy, opera being an essentially silly sport.)

I've never thought of Rigoletto as at all silly. But then I've only ever seen it in English at the Coliseum, in Jonathan Miller's famous New York Mafia production. Actually I've seen it three times there.

The mafia is really the only modern environment which still works in the old style of fragmented Renaissance Italy or pre-Tudor England. In the famous BBC production of I, Claudius, the actors were reportedly at a loss for motivation, so different is the Roman world, until they hit on the idea of imagining the emperors as bosses of a particularly terrifying mob.

So people began to think that Rigoletto, set in a Renaissance which we all unconsciously model as the modern world with castles, was a silly opera.

In Jonathan Miller's production, he reconnected the audience with the terror of Rigoletto's situation by recasting the Duke as a mob boss.

It's a good idea, but one is always conscious of the metaphor. It's a good metaphor, but it leaks a little.

This production plays it straight and with great force. There is no metaphor in the way, and the Duke's court is a violent, unstable, debauched and very very dangerous place. There's a terrible sense of shifting power structures, and of rapid, pointless falls. Violation, humiliation, and loss of honour, all deadly, are ever present, and death itself is much more than a shadow hanging over the court.

The wonder is that all this is communicated. No one could be in any doubt about the seriousness of the character's troubles. No metaphor is needed.

The vileness of the Duke's character and intentions are made quite clear by having his recently discarded, humilated and broken lover snivelling under the stairs as he sings his love song.

Poor Rigoletto never has any choice about what he is or what he does. A moral man who is a cripple in a time of innumerable starving beggars, blood feud, poverty and disease has somehow found that his vicious wit and caustic contempt for the moral decay around him can entertain the capricious Duke and provide a place in this awful world for him and for his daughter, the one pure thing in his life. But it is no safe or comfortable place. Dmitri Hvorostovsky sings and acts all this with power and glory.

At the beginning of the opera, we were warned that, this being a dress rehearsal, some of the singers might choose to 'mark'. I'd never heard this word before, but apparently it means that they might sing quietly, or move their parts into easier ranges to spare their voices.

That probably explains what seemed like a weak start from the Duke, Wookyung Kim, but once he saw that he was playing to a packed and enthusiastic house, he sportingly changed his mind and gave it everything even though some of us were just freeloading. He sang superbly after that.

But as good as these two were, the high point of the singing for me was Gilda, Patrizia Ciofi. Her clarity and beauty stood out in a production where everyone was wonderful. She did miss one obvious high note, and I saw Rigoletto, leaning over her, supposedly in an agony of grief and despair, discreetly give her a friendly smile and a wink. Seeing that the actors care about each other only enhanced the humanity of the production for me.

Gilda was utterly innocent and beautiful in a world of grim horror and mortal danger.

In the mafia version, Maddalena, the waitress with a heart of gold, is a harmless beauty that I usually fall for over the course of the evening. In this one Daniella Innamorati is a ferociously sexual corrupt and murderous whore with one last scruple. And her only scruple only leads to more horror. Not that I didn't fall for her anyway.

When Gilda looks into Sparafucile and Maddalena's hovel and exclaims that she is looking into hell, she is only putting the obvious truth into words.

I feel, as people apparently felt when they first saw Jonathan Miller's version, that I've seen Rigoletto again for the first time. And G now says that it's one of his favourite operas, to be taken seriously.

One quibble, and it's Verdi's fault, not the production's:

The opera should end with Rigoletto crowing victoriously over the sack that contains his daughter's body. This is the climax of the horror, utterly devastating.

Gilda's unlikely revival and lengthy farewell only release the fracturing tension. The triumph of this production is that by the time of the sack, I'd forgotten that it was an opera I was watching, completely transported by story and music and emotion into elemental realms of involvement.

Covent Garden tell this story straight and well. It doesn't need an operatic swan song. They should cut it, and end it at a dead stop with Rigoletto's crowing. Turn off the lights and let the audience shiver in the dark.

The bassoon playing was excellent throughout.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Rheingold (New York Metropolitan Opera broadcast at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse)

Why do people say this is inaccessible? It's got singing mermaids in it. One of them is called Flosshilde.

But seriously, I feel that I may have done Wagner backwards. When I was small, I fell in love with it watching it with my father on TV, and what I loved was the dragons and the ring and the dwarves and gods and swords and stuff. And any subtlety was way over my head, and I don't even remember being that impressed by the music at first, although that might have been more to do with the sound quality of a 1970s television than any childish inability to love music.

Thinking back on it, the Ring that I loved for its magic story and special effects was probably the grim industrial Chéreau/Boulez Bayreuth Centenary production, full of angst and pain and cynicism. The magic takes a very minor role, deliberately underplayed, while the subtext becomes the ubertext, rammed in your face.

I totally nicked this still, and I think it's from Walkure rather than Rheingold. But Rheingold is this cool! Except for the silly plastic breastplates and the hammock. Which suck.
Now I'm forty. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen Rheingold on video or CD, and I've read whole books about what is going on in it.

And now the Metropolitan Opera makes this glorious cartoon version, full of light and primary colours. Subtext abandoned in a riot of special effects, Wotan's dilemma and the inexorable doom of the gods almost certainly invisible to anyone who's seeing it for the first time. If I'd seen this Ring when I was a little boy I'd have been demanding plastic action figures of the gods to play with!

And the cartoon version is brilliant. Intelligent, faithful, awe-inspiring. Magical, beautiful, colourful, and incredibly well sung and played. There's not one dud. Every character is a precious jewel, bringing something new to their role.

The rippling underlying angst is a subtext to the exciting and involving action, as it should be.

Wotan and Fricka for me will always be the spare elegance of Donald MacIntyre and Hannah Schwartz, but Bryn Terfel's take as an overweight heavy metal fan with a dodgy fringe is very fetching, and he sings MacIntyre's ass off.

Indeed the singing and the music here are the best I've ever heard, even after the losses caused by the transmission and cinema reproduction.

For the first time in my life, I wish I lived in New York. Obviously tickets will have sold out years ago, but maybe if I go and camp in the lobby for the entire run of the production somebody will have a heart attack during the first half and they'll give me their ticket so I can go and see the second.

Alberich here is pure genius. He can be sympathised with. The closest thing in the Ring to a symbol of evil is revealed here to be a creature with nothing to offer, humiliated and rejected simply for naively offering his heart to beauty. Rejected and scorned, burning with shame, he forswears love in an agony of passion, and leaves himself with nothing worth aiming for. It is longing for lost love that makes him scheme to rape the world, and he is truly pitiful when Wotan steals even that dreadful last hope from him. If there's a problem with this interpretation, which is always there in any Ring, it's that it makes Alberich forgiveable, which he really shouldn't be. I've always thought that if Wagner had lived to see the rise of the National Socialist German Workers Party, he would have identified them with Alberich, not with Siegfried as they saw themselves.

Alberich has made happy Niebelheim a hell, and the merry dwarves who loved to make trinkets for their women into pitiful terrified slaves. We shouldn't sympathise with him. We should detest him. His evil is the reason that Wotan needs to take and hold power, fatally compromising his own freedom and driving him into the suicidal mental conflict that ends the world.

I don't want to understand Alberich. I don't want to look at him humiliated and rejected by the daughters of the Rhine and think that every man knows what he's going through. I don't want to be reminded of old friends who were so desperate for love and so unsuccessful with women that they sacrificed their lives to make money in the hope that someone would one day love them for it instead of for themselves.

But I'm more than glad that this Alberich has made me think. I shall have to think some more until I can make the conclusion of my head match the conclusion of my heart.

The other characters are deeply realised and understood. The simple honest giant Fasolt, who is expecting Wotan the honourable god to pay him the agreed price for his sound work in the same way that he would expect fire to be hot or the dawn to come.

Even after the betrayal that will lead to his death, even after telling Wotan his simple insight that the Gods live by the sacredness of their word, even after seeing that the Gods are as venal and treacherous as anyone else under their honourable shell, still moments before his death he turns instinctively to Wotan to ask him to judge fairly the division of the stolen gold.

Freia's being obviously affected by his simple, honest, overwhelming desire is a masterful touch. Why has no-one ever noticed that before? It should obviously be there. She mourns him. I never thought I'd tear up at the death of Fasolt, but here it's a most moving thing.

I won't spoil the rest of it, but it's full of memorable moments. The dragon trick is glorious.

And after a weekend of great music, including two operas, one of which I saw live in Covent Garden, the take-home song, that I've been singing to myself for nearly two days is Donner, summoning the clouds to make a storm to clear the air.

Always before, I've wondered what the point of Donner was. He seems absolutely irrelevant except to demonstrate that Wotan can't just kill the giants. Dwayne Croft and his special effects, hammer swirling in the gathering tornado of light, and voice bellowing majestically as master of that storm, have tuéed le rôle. All future Donners will be conscious of trying to live up to him and his storm scene.

Even the usual tedious preamble interviewing the cast was good fun this time. One of the Rhinemaidens in particular looks at her flying-swimming-sudden-death-harness-arrangement with a sort of disbelieving sick terror. That will learn her. One doesn't become a Wagnerian soprano by accident. She's clearly loving it by the time of the performance though. A personal journey of self discovery to put alongside Wotan's.


Trying to find out Donner's real name to put instead of 'this guy', I found this exceedingly uncomplimentary review:


I had indeed wondered why Loge was booed at the end of the production, and since a vague resemblance to Gary Glitter shouldn't get a man booed, I'd decided that it was the sort of affectionate pantomime booing that Captain Hook always gets, from people who didn't understand that Loge is the only character who has survived the evening with his honour intact, indeed the only character who will survive when night falls on the gods. Apparently not.

I actually predicted the reviewer's complaint here:


And it looks as though this prediction has turned out to be true.

And what do I think?

Well done New York. For years, people have been trying to make opera accessible. And this has always seemed to mean dumbed down, or so low budget it's rubbish, or cheap seats that are cheap because you're so far away you can't hear or see properly. And accessible is now a dirty word.

Well not any more. This is what I call accessible. £20 for a good seat at a thrilling and very expensive production that you can walk to. Wagner with beautiful young women with beautiful voices playing the beautiful young women singing the beautiful songs. The audience in Cambridge loved it. And it was not an uneducated audience.

So well done New York and the commercial opera for doing what our subsidised houses have been trying and failing to do for years. The technology can only improve, the sound reproduction, which is not good currently, can become better than CD. Maybe opera can become an entertainment for people who aren't rich Londoners. Maybe Wagner can speak to the people as he wanted to do, instead of to the corporate boxes and to the German establishment.

And careful New York. You are on the bottom of the Rhine, looking at the gold. Do not forswear everything that you love for it. There is a curse on it. Beware of the curse. Do the right thing. If you can figure out what the right thing is.

There is just one problem with all this. I watched the simulcast. I heard Loge booed and wondered why. But I am sure that I also saw the whole house rise, and give the apparently pitifully bad production a massive standing ovation that went on for a very long time.