May 1st


On this day in 1786, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna. The Burgtheater was created in 1741 by Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who wanted a theater next to her palace. The director of the theater, Count Orsini-Rosenberg, invited Mozart, already well known and admired, with dozens of symphonies, concertos, and sonatas under his belt, to write an opera buffa, or comic opera.

Mozart chose to adapt a play by the French writer Beaumarchais, La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro. The play had caused controversy in France and stirred up resentment between the classes, but Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, chose to scrub out the politics and instead create a frothy drawing-room comedy about a servant girl named Susanna and her beau, Figaro. Susanna and Figaro succeed in marrying, despite the many attempts of Susanna’s employer to seduce her.

Da Ponte wrote the libretto in six weeks and Mozart was paid 450 florins for his work, a comfortable sum at the time. He directed the first performance himself, seated at the keyboard. He had his detractors in Vienna, some of whom padded the theater with hecklers. They were no match for Mozart’s composition, though, and the performance inspired so many encores that Habsburg Emperor Joseph II was forced to issue a decree “to prevent the excessive durations of operas, without however prejudicing the fame often ought by opera singers.”

The Marriage of Figaro is scored for two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, strings, a fortepiano or harpsichord. A cello is often added.

Composer Johannes Brahms said, “In my opinion, each number of Figaro is a miracle; it is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect; nothing like it was ever done again, not even by Beethoven.”

Mozart died in 1791. The last five years of his life were spent composing four operas that became standards in the opera repertoire, including Don Giovanni, which again included a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte.

It’s the birthday of novelist Joseph Heller (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1923) and best known for the novel Catch-22 (1961), about an American bombardier named John Yossarian. During World War II, Yossarian attempts to get out of the Army by faking a liver ailment, sabotaging his plane, and trying to get himself declared insane. It became an international best-seller, with the title entering the lexicon to refer to an absurd, no-win situation.

Heller’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father drove a delivery truck and died from a ruptured stomach ulcer when Heller was five. Heller had no memory of him until he entered therapy in his 50s. He said, “In my house, we didn’t often talk about sad things.” He remembered only a happy childhood of corned-beef sandwiches, goofing on Coney Island roller coasters with his friends, and going to the public library to pick up the Yiddish versions of books by Tolstoy for his mother, Lena. Heller loved to read, too, especially the Rover Boys series. When he was 10, a cousin gave him the children’s version of Homer’s The Iliad, and right after finishing, he decided he wanted to be a writer.

After high school, Heller worked as file clerk, a messenger, and a blacksmith’s apprentice. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at 19 and found himself in Italy as a bombardier during World War II, where he flew over 60 missions, which was more than twice the normal amount. He did his best, and kept a meticulous diary. Heller said war was “fun in the beginning [...] you got the feeling that there was something glorious about it,” but he endured several harrowing episodes that he later used while writing Catch-22, and he became a lifelong anti-war activist.

After he was discharged, he went to college on the GI Bill, graduating from Columbia and Oxford. He worked as a copywriter at Time and wrote on the side, with short stories appearing in The Atlantic, Esquire, and Cosmopolitan.

One night, or one morning, no one is quite sure, the first lines of what would become Catch-22 came to him: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, [Yossarian] fell madly in love with him.” He finished the first chapter in a week and sent it to his agent, but he didn’t write again for a year — he spent that time planning the book in his head. Eventually, Simon and Schuster gave him $750 for the book and promised $750 more when he was done, which turned out to be eight years later. The book was originally titled Catch-18, but Heller’s editor, Robert Gottlieb, discovered that Leon Uris also had a war book coming out the same month as Heller’s, called Mila 18. Gottlieb and Heller brainstormed which numbers sounded funnier: 11 or 14. They settled on 22.

When the book came out in 1961, it received mixed reviews in America, but was a best-seller overseas. Gradually, through word of mouth and the escalating situation in Vietnam, young people in the U.S. began to buy the book in droves. It eventually sold 10 million copies and is considered a classic of post-war literature. Heller spent the 1960s traveling the U.S. and speaking out against the Vietnam War at college campuses. “Yossarian Lives” bumper stickers appeared on cars and students against the draft wore Army field jackets with John Yossarian name tags.

Catch-22 was made into a film (1970) by Mike Nichols and starred Jon Voigt, Orson Welles, and Alan Arkin. Heller also worked as an uncredited scriptwriter for the James Bond film Casino Royale (1967).

Heller took 13 years to write his second novel, Something Happened (1974), which one critic summarized as, “Nothing happens.” His other books include Good as Gold (1979), God Knows (1984), Picture This (1988), and Closing Time (1994). None sold as well as Catch-22. When an acquaintance told him he’d never matched the greatness of Catch-22, he answered, “Who has?”

Joseph Heller died in 1999. About death, he said, “Everyone else seems to get through it all right, so it couldn’t be too difficult for me.”

It’s the birthday of novelist and short story author Bobbie Ann Mason (books by this author), born in Mayfield, Kentucky (1940). She wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Nabokov and set out to write something completely different. She said: “Since Huckleberry Finn, or thereabouts, it seemed that all American literature was about the alienated hero. I had a vague sense that I wanted to violate that somehow, that I was sick of reading about the alienated hero. I think where I wind up now is writing about people who are trying to get into the mainstream, or they’re in the mainstream, just trying to live their lives the best they can. Because the mainstream itself is the arena of action.”

So, because she was raised on a Kentucky dairy farm, she decided to write about rural and small-town people in Kentucky. She published her first collection of stories (Shiloh and Other Stories) in 1982, and her first novel, In Country, came out in 1986. She’s been praised for her authentic western Kentucky dialogue.

Her most recent novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret, was published in 2011. It’s based on the experiences of Mason’s father-in-law, who was an airman during World War II. His plane was shot down in Belgium and he was spirited out of occupied Europe by the coordinated efforts of the Resistance.

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