James Joyce's Lost Opera - Umberto Tosi

Sylvia Beach & James Joyce at Shakespeare & Co., c. 1922
With Bloomsday less than two weeks off, I would love to hop an Aer Lingus jet to the Emerald Isle (where I've never been, actually) and go on the annual June 11- 16, Dublin street carnival and crawl tracing Leopold Bloom's footsteps through the city that James Joyce had to leave to write about so brilliantly.

Not to compare myself to Joyce, but I can relate. My move from the San Francisco Bay Area to Chicago ten years ago somehow opened gates to my writing more stories set in California where I spent my childhood and much of my adult life. No bucket-list Bloomsday crawl for me this June, however. I will be at home, sequestered from the coronavirus like any sane octogenarian and to hell with risking my life to "open the economy" for Mr. Trump and his cronies. In any case, most if not all Bloomsday fests around the world have been called off or postponed this pandemic year.

I'll spend another Bloomsday like Leopold Bloom - in my head.

To other cloistered would-be, Bloomsday celebrants I recommend Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, A Literary History of Paris in the Twenties & Thirties by Noël Riley Fitch, if, like myself, you didn't get a chance to read it when it was first published in 1983. (Maybe you weren't even born yet!) It's an assiduously researched, highly readable biography of the owner of Shakespeare & Company in Paris and her legendary following of American and European literary giants. (The book, by the way, inspired Woody Allen's 2011 hit Midnight in Paris, although the film barely scratched the surface.)

Her English-language bookstore, Shakespeare & Company, became an incubator and later a Mecca for the interwar period's best and brightest literary lights, including Ernest Hemmingway, Gertrude Stein, André Gide, D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, Man Ray, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, André Gide, Stephen Vincent Benet, Aleister Crowley, Harry Crosby, Caresse Crosby, and Berenice Abbott.

Sylvia Beach was first to publish James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922 a daring enterprise in those days when privately released copies had been confiscated by authorities in the United States reacting to its irreverent and erotic content, while major U.S. and British publishers rejected Joyce's masterpiece.

A bandaged Hemmingway, w/Beach, 1928.
She published Joyce's 700+ page novel on a shoestring. She worked with non-English-speaking, French typesetters, and accommodated Joyce's endless proof corrections and copious revisions scrawled on the gallies. The first printing was littered with typos, for which she apologized with a handwritten slip of paper inserted in each copy sent to her subscribers, according to Fitch's book.

Unlike big publishers then and now, she pushed Joyce's book with daring imagination and terrier-like persistence once she got the first edition - and the several that followed - in print. She sent copies to reviewers and cultural mavens worldwide. After police started seizing her mailings to the book's advance, U.S. subscribers, she got past censors by packaging the novel as "The Complete Works of Shakespeare," according to Fitch's book.

Nearly a century before e-books and social media, Sylvia Beach's Ulysses saga remains The Greatest Indie Publishing Story Ever Told! Proudly, I'd wear a gold-chained medallion of Sylvia Beach as a patron saint of our Authors Electric kind.

Noël Riley Fitch
Ms. Riley Fitch's sterling stories got the power back up and running in my dream factory. Among her many fascinating biographical characters, Ms. Fitch's history cites Sylvia Beach's and Joyce's friendship with another of my favorite creative, Paris expatriate geniuses, George Antheil (1900-1959.)  

Antheil was a prolific American composer, inventor, and concert pianist from Trenton, New Jersey who ran with Beach's distinguished crowd of writers, poets, artists, and filmmakers. He first toured Europe in 1919, including Germany just after the end of World War I with a loaded pistol at the ready on his piano "to discourage troublemakers." Antheil rented an apartment above Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare & Company bookstore, where he formed a close friendship with Joyce.

In his wild, anecdotal autobiography, Bad Boy of Music, Antheil reminisces about his friendship with James about Joyce's passion for music as well as language and especially his love of opera. He describes an opera based upon the Cyclops episode of Joyce's Ulysses on which Antheil said they collaborated. The reference intrigued me, having grown up in an operatic family myself.

"Bad Boy of Music" George Antheil, c. 1920
Other references to this phantom opera are difficult to find. One historical note refers to a 1930 Joyce-Antheil opera based upon Lord Byron's 1821 closet drama, Cain. Another footnote mentions Antheil having directed a performance of his Joycean opera at the University of Southern California during the 1940s.

Like his brief admirer, Igor Stravinsky, Antheil relocated to Los Angeles in the 1930s as World War 2 approached. He wrote dozens of movie scores. In 1941 he and German emigre superstar Hedy Lamarr (who was mathematician-turned-actress) developed a torpedo guidance system based on "frequency hopping," and contributed their patent to the U.S. Navy to help the allies against Hitler. The principles of their system became the basis for the "spread spectrum" technology essential to today's mobile devices.

Postwar coverage of the Lamarr-Antheil invention
Antheil was a master of diverse styles throughout his career. His always lively compositions range from dissonant to dramatic, to lyrical, to jazzy, to comic. His raucous, 1926, "Ballet Mécanique" combined a percussion ensemble, half-dozen pianos, aircraft engines, and an array of electric motors buzzing on cue. Antheil had originally written Ballet Mécanique to score a 1924 Dadaist, post-cubist art film of the same title by pop-art-predecessor Fernand Léger. But the two fell out and Antheil expanded his score into a concert piece.

He hyped its Parisian premiere by staging his own, sensationally publicized African jungle "disappearance" after which he "appeared" at the last minute to conduct his mysterious new work. The 1926 performance set off a brawl that spilled from the theater onto the street. Antheil was reported to have hired agitators to re-stage the Parisian brawl outside of Carnegie Hall when he brought the ballet to New York.

Stravinsky by Pablo Picasso, 1903
The sensational event echoed the uproar caused by Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in 1913. It made Antheil a hero of the Jazz Age's avant-garde, in particular earning him the support of Stravinsky and Ezra Pound. But Antheil soon tired of being a 1920s wunderkind shock sensation and moved to other styles. His impressionist, Capital of the World ballet is still performed, as are his six symphonies, dozens of suites, and numerous piano pieces. The James Joyce opera collaboration isn't a stretch. Antheil composed six full-length, staged operas, including Volpone (based upon the Ben Johnson comic play), and Transatlantic, for which he also wrote the libretto.

No trace of James Joyce opera appears to be extant unless archived somewhere in a USC basement, or a library or a box stored by one Antheil's descendants. There's a chance Antheil and Joyce never got around to writing or finishing it. But wouldn't it be marvelous to discover and revive a Ulysses, Episode 12, Cyclops, Joyce-Antheil opera in our dimension or another? The Episode's ruminating passages might have been a musical challenge but probably not to Antheil. They could be chanted by a chorus or a countertenor narrator. That would be fun. The contentious, ironic pub dialogs, however, would have made golden libretto material copied straight out of Joyce's pages. I can imagine them set to Antheil's percussive musical style, in contrapuntal duets and ensembles. I can almost hear "the citizen" bellowing his bigotted jingoisms in a self-important baritone voice.

Currently, my own stream of consciousness runs through my newest novel-in-progress, The Phantom Eye, set mainly in the mid-1950s L.A. when I graduated from Hollywood High School. Its characters paddle downstream through canyons of celebrity, corruption, dreams, and the delusions of my own youth. I see the "Hollywood" sign on the slopes of Mt. Lee - falling down at the time - where I once hiked and threw adobe dirt clods that exploded into golden dust on impact. Would the score of James Joyce's lost opera work as a MacGuffin? It's no  Maltese Falcon, nor is it the Death Star plans, nor The One Ring, or Rosebud, but is the stuff of my dreams anyway.

And a happy Bloomsday to all!

(Note: the photo of Sylvia Beach with Ernest Hemmingway is from Princeton University Library.)

Umberto Tosi is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine. He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at Umberto3000@gmail.com



Jan Needle said…
One question, Umberto. When do you get time to write? But please don't stop. I dream of a day in Dublin (Bloomsday or not), and this post helps. Thanks a mill!
Bill Kirton said…
How refreshing to be wafted away from the absurdities we're having to live through and the pompous, lying nonentities who are calling all the shots to times when cultural and intellectual life was so vibrant and acknowledged as necessary. And what a cast list you've assembled, Umberto. Thank you. Seems to me you've got your priorities right.
Sandra Horn said…
Another fascinating post, Umberto! The wonderful, inventive use of English by Irish people - and not just writers, but people-in-the-street lives on, I'm glad to say. I think Joyce would have loved the naming of Dublin's statuary by its citizens - in rhyme, too.
Griselda Heppel said…
I have learnt SO MUCH from this post! I never heard of Antheil before but he sounds terrific, a wonderful figure of the jazz age. Somehow reading about his on/off collaboration with Joyce reminded me of Alfred Jarry's Le Roi Ubu (I thought that was written in the 1920s but actually it's a generation earlier, 1896). I am woefully uneducated about Joyce himself... have never read Ulysses (oh shame) though I have read Dubliners. But what an extraordinarily rich, exciting time that was in Paris and how far-sighted and brave of Sylvia Beach to publish Ulysses. The book by Noel Riley Fitch sounds well worth reading. T

hank you for this fabulous post.
Fantastic blog Umberto. As always, enlightening. The mystery opera would be interesting to me indeed. Obviously, if only a McGuffin, it has worked. I’m intrigued!
Aliciasammons said…
How can one blog contain so many fascinating morsels about influential artists living in post WW1 Paris? This blog will transport you to those Parisian cafes where you can eavesdrop on some of 20th century’s most colorful figures. A very delightful read, indeed
a picture is worth a thousand words. You book is very attractive and getting a few reviews on https://honestbookreview.com can really take your book to the next level. I am good with interior design for a book, would love to help out for free !
Shivendra Yadav said…
Great Content, Superhigh-quality and keep it up :)

Rituparna Roy said…
This post is a great read - there’s so many hidden gems here!

Visiting Dublin on Bloomsday was on my wish list while I was based in the Netherlands – but never could manage it even in a decade. But may be, some day I will… haven’t given up hope!

I haven’t read ‘Ulysses’, but loved ‘Dubliners’ & ‘Portarit of the Artist as a Young Man’ happens to be one my all-time favourites! In fact, most of what I like of early 20th century English Literature, is Irish (Synge, Yeats, Joyce).

I wish we had a Sylvia Beach in our generation – willing to go great lengths to back authors she believed in. Can’t wait to read her biography by Fitch!

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