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JACK SMITH

No Margin for Error, Now That the Year's Quota Is Gone

January 23, 1991|JACK SMITH

I allow myself only two errors a year. I am going to have to be very careful from now on, because my quota for 1991 is already used up.

January was disastrous.

Most egregious was my use of a homophone--a word that is pronounced like another, but is spelled differently and has a different meaning. For example, row for roe , son for sun , there for their , tow for toe (as in tow the line), pouring for poring (as in he was poring over the dictionary), straight for strait and fate for fete .

There are hundreds of them, and what is most embarrassing to me is that I have several times chided my colleagues for making this mistake. Examples may be found in this newspaper every day. The computer checks misspelled words, but homophones aren't misspelled. The computer doesn't know they're the wrong words.

Enough of this temporizing. Let me confess. In my annual column on the RAND calendar, I wrote that this year it didn't seem "to hue to any theme."

The word I wanted, of course, was hew , as many readers let me know. "I'm aghast!" wrote R. R. Gates. "This should flood your mailbox with remarks of every stripe, including those from people who pour over their reading matter."

Also, in writing about "Opera and Omelettes," a delightful operatic spoof on Sunday evenings at the Gardenia Club, I called Jon Cypher a bass. I am told that the role he sang in duet with soprano B. J. Ward (Alfredo's father in "La Traviata") is always sung by a baritone. Also, I spelled his name John , for which I apologize. (I did ask how to spell Cypher, but it didn't occur to me that John would be Jon . Careless.)

That's three.

In that same column I noted that Cio Cio San commits hara-kiri in "Madame Butterfly," and that in "La Traviata" Alfredo's father pleads with the courtesan Violetta to give up his son for the sake of his reputation.

Aida Monte writes that Cio Cio San does not commit hara-kiri by stabbing herself in the gut, as I said. "This method of suicide was reserved to Samurai men. . . . Rather, women who felt that they were dishonored committed jigai , which means they stabbed themselves in the throat.

"Alfredo's father," she goes on, "is not a bass, but rather, a baritone, and he did not plead with Violetta for her to give up her son (I believe she means his son) because of Alfredo's reputation, but rather because of his daughter's reputation."

I quote from "The Milton Cross New Encyclopedia of the Great Composers and Their Music"--"Cio Cio San commits hara-kiri." Again: "Alfredo's father comes there (to Violetta's country house), during his son's absence, to break up the affair, which he insists will spell ruin for his son."

"I may be picky," Monte taunts, "but reporting has to be accurate especially in a first-rate paper. Right?"

I have always considered Milton Cross the ultimate authority on opera, but how can one argue with a woman named Aida?

But pending clarification from a higher authority, I will not consider those two plot descriptions as errors. I am not even sure that Jon Cypher can't be called a bass. He sounded to me just like Ezio Pinza in "South Pacific." Remember "Some Enchanted Evening"?

In any case, bass or baritone, his singing of the duet with B. J. Ward was charming, and I think I ought to be given credit for getting his last name right. (I might have spelled it Sipher.)

Aida Monte goes too far, I think, when she challenges the story told by B. J. Ward about the overweight Tosca soprano in New York who had offended a stagehand. When she jumps over the castle parapet, supposedly to her death, she is bounced back into view of the audience by the trampoline the stagehand has substituted for the net.

"The story of the trampoline in the last act of 'Tosca' has nothing to do with a fat soprano who had alienated a stagehand," Monte says, "but rather a much-used joke attributed to Maria Callas, after she jumped to her death from the parapet of Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome."

Monte is toying with legend here, and the legend (in various forms) is indestructible. Besides, I checked with our library and found that Maria Callas died in Paris in 1977, of a heart attack. She did not jump to her death from the parapet of Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome.

But there is no doubt I am guilty of hue to and John , and while John is not quite as embarrassing as hue to , it is still inexcusable. In a first-rate newspaper, names are sacred.

I feel like committing hara-kiri. But I'm not the Samurai type. Maybe I'll just commit jigai .

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