Signal Hill has long been a communications point on the Southern California landscape. In an earlier era, Native Americans signaled their brethren with fire and smoke, from Santa Catalina Island to the foothills of the Coastal Range bordering what is now L.A.

Today the signals are electronic, connecting us--at the click of a mouse--to vast, new worldwide networks.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I Have Lived for Love, I Have Lived for Art

Poet and rocker Patti Smith has written an intimate memoir worthy of an opera--a tale of love, artistic triumph and personal loss.

The book, "Just Kids," is Smith's long, loving song-poem chronicling the mutual relationship of artist and muse she had with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the late sixties and seventies, in New York.   She begins her narrative with the call from Robert's brother, announcing her former lover's death from AIDS-related pneumonia.  She writes:

"I stood motionless, frozen; then slowly, as in a dream, returned to my chair.  At that moment, [Puccini's] Tosca began the great aria 'Vissi d'arte.' I have lived for love, I have lived for art.  I closed my eyes and folded my hands.  Providence had determined how I would say goodbye."

Give a listen to the aria performed by Renee Flemming and linked above, for a hint of the drama Patti and Robert played out together, from Coney Island to Forty-second street; from their tiny rooms in Brooklyn and then in the infamous Chelsea Hotel; crossing paths with the famous and notorious of the era, including Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix; and touched by the ghosts of Rimbaud, James Joyce, Genet, and Dylan Thomas.

Our friend and opera buff Kevin Lin says we should have linked to the Maria Callas version of the aria.  Callas, he says, sings it "with absolute pathos, and she absolutely embodies the character of  Tosca."  I had chosen the Flemming version for its clarity, warm sound and her impeccable technique.

Listen to the two versions and tell us what you think.

-- RCH


  1. I took you up on the suggestion to listen to both versions and I thank you so much! While different, of course, each is so very beautiful. What a wonderful treat. I don't think we need to compare Maria Callas and Renee Flemming... just appreciate what each brings to that beautiful piece of music.

    Sort of like the many masterpieces in the visual art world... each can be enjoyed infinitely, don't you agree?

  2. I've been thinking about your question, Annie and, after several false starts, I'm now prepared to say, I don't know.

    I was about to say I agree, definitely, respecting the view of the artist who--at some point--must throw caution to the wind, melt into the cosmos, and create. Why call upon those restrictive and divisive tendencies of comparison and criticism that simply carry us away from the pleasures, the connections of art?

    And then I'm reminded of the hours I've spent reading the criticism of Christopher Knight and Mark Swed, critics of the L.A. Times, and how much life their comparisons of art and artists have given me, made me appreciate even more, their respective subjects.

    So, again, I arrive at "both/and." Yes, each can be enjoyed infinitely, and a comparison can bring additional life to both.