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Mezzo-Soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson: An Appreciation

Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has an appreciation of mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died Monday at her home in Santa Fe at the age of 52 after a long illness.


Other segments from the episode on July 7, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 7, 2006: Tribute to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson; Obituary for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson; Interview with Dave Chappelle; Review of the film "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead…


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Profile: Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz remembers
mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson who recently died at age 52;
excerpt from 1996 interview of Lieberson

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Many music lovers have called Lorraine Hunt Lieberson the most extraordinary
singer of our time. She died of cancer on Monday at the age of 52. We'll
listen back to an interview Terry did with Lorraine Hunt in 1996 before she
married composer Peter Lieberson. But first, we have an appreciation from our
classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz who says her death, at the very height
of her powers, is devastating.

(Soundbite of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing in foreign language)

Mr. LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson seemed to have everything. Her
sumptuous voice could turn from blue velvet to molten gold. Few singers have
ever matched her uncanny ability to enter the spirit of whatever music she
sang. To reveal the soul of every character she played, to draw every
listener in. She went from triumph to triumph, yet never became a diva, never
lost her sense of purpose or her sense of humor about herself. I was lucky to
hear her from the beginning of her vocal career, especially in the famous
Mozart and Handel productions staged by Peter Sellars, as well as with the
Boston Symphony and in leading roles at the Met. As Dido, queen of Carthage,
in Berlioz's epic opera, "The Trojans," she achieved a truly tragic stature.
She was such a regal presence that her suicide, when Aeneas deserts her, was
all the more heartbreaking. As Carmen, a role she sang only once, in Boston,
she was a scintillating, charismatic, complicated heroine, not a hip-swinging
cliche. Strikingly beautiful and sexy, she also excelled in so-called
`trouser roles.' In Handel's "Julius Caesar," she played a vengeful son of the
assassinated Roman leader, Pompeii. Her ferocity was terrifying. She never
held back, yet her singing was always magnificent, with pitch-perfect
accuracy, even in the most astounding coloratura and that remarkable indrawing
tonal beauty.

She was originally a viola player, then started singing as a soprano. But her
voice settled more comfortably into the mezzo-soprano range. Her dark, rich
timbre and seamless phrasing even sounded like a viola. This aria from a Bach
cantata, conducted by her friend Craig Smith, is a lullaby sung by the
sufferer to weary eyes that have grown tired of the world.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LIEBERSON: (Singing) "To the time...(unintelligible).
(Unintelligible)...sleeps, too. To the time, to the time, to the
time...(unintelligible). (Unintelligible)...sleeps, too. To the
time...(unintelligible). (Unintelligible)...sleeps, too."

(End of soundbite)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: One of her most recent appearances was with the Boston
Symphony in the gorgeous Neruda Songs, a series of love songs composed for her
by her husband, Peter Lieberson, a work that was a finalist for last year's
Pulitzer Prize. Hearing her sing these songs with such passionate intensity
and intimacy, you couldn't imagine how seriously ill she must have been.
Lately, her cancelations made almost as much news as her performances. It's
understandable. What could be more disappointing than missing someone you
wanted to hear so badly? Like the beloved British contralto, Kathleen
Ferrier, who died too young half a century ago, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's star
was still rising, and we wanted her to go on forever.

BIANCULLI: Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz remembering mezzo-soprano
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died on Monday at the age of 52.

In 1996 she spoke with Terry Gross. Terry asked her how she began performing
as a singer.

Ms. LIEBERSON: I was playing the viola, one of my gigs in the Bay area where
I'm from--the San Francisco Bay area--and Kent Nagano had recently become the
director of the Berkeley Symphony, and I was principal viola there, and he had
this really wild idea to do the opera "Hansel and Gretel" and take it to
prisons. And my parents had both been involved in opera--my father a director
and my mother a singer--and so I had been in productions myself as a--you
know, as a child I had been one of the gingerbread children in "Hansel and
Gretel," and so I knew the opera well, and I said, `Oh, I know that opera. I
was a gingerbread kid. I could do the role of Hansel, the mezzo role,' and
sort of, he said, `OK,' so I--so this was after many years of not singing or
not, you know, seriously studying or anything, and we did this cut-up edited
version of "Hansen and Gretel," and we took it to San Quentin prison. And we
didn't have much of an audience but they did seem to be appreciative and, you
know, wanted our phone numbers afterwards.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LIEBERSON: Oh, that's terrible.


Not a big turnout for opera in the prison?

Ms. LIEBERSON: No. I don't know. I guess the publicity hadn't been very
thorough or something. And also, we had to put together our costumes because,
you know, it was all very low-budget, so I just wore some, you know, pants
that I cut off at the knee, and I couldn't figure out how to flatten my chest
out so I just wore a, you know, flannel shirt--I was supposed to be a boy,
Hansel, and I had very long hair and I found a wig at the Salvation Army,
stuck it on my head. So after the show at San Quentin, I took the wig off,
and we're walking--we had to walk through the yard, the open yard where--to
leave, and as we're walking through the yard, I heard this guy say to another
guy, a little bit of a distance, I heard him say, `I thought that was a dude
with a big ass.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LIEBERSON: And I took it as a great compliment because I thought that,
you know, that with that wig and my flannel shirt, I'd been completely
unconvincing as a boy, but I guess--I guess it wasn't so bad so...

GROSS: Well, that's really funny because, you know, a lot of the opera roles
that mezzo-sopranos get are male roles in early operas.


GROSS: The roles that used to be sung by castrati.

Ms. LIEBERSON: Yeah. Yeah. And you know, thank God for...

GROSS: I guess the guys in prison didn't realize that.

Ms. LIEBERSON: Yeah. Thank God for some of these--the period costumes,
that, you know, where they have the big coats and everything, help disguise
my, my curves. But, anyway, that was sort of what got me back into singing.

GROSS: What an unconventional door back into singing!

Ms. LIEBERSON: I know. It was--and I remember on the bus back, people were
talking about the Met auditions, and I said, `Hmm, I should do the Met
auditions.' So I entered the Met auditions that year. And that sort of--I
really got back into singing.

GROSS: So when you started singing again, you knew you were a mezzo.

Ms. LIEBERSON: No, I went--I was singing soprano when I went back to school

GROSS: Why? Because the opera that got you back, "Hansel and Gretel," you
were singing mezzo in that. You were singing lower.

Ms. LIEBERSON: Yeah. Well, I--the teachers and people that were hearing me
sing--I remember the Met auditions after that "Hansel," I auditioned as a
mezzo and people were--the judges were--a lot of the judges said, `You're not
a mezzo. You're a soprano.' And granted, I hadn't taken lessons for years. I
just sort of went into the auditions, you know, cold. And when I first went
to the conservatory, they were--my teacher and you know--`Oh, you'll be a
countess in "Figaro" and...

GROSS: The roles are better for sopranos?

Ms. LIEBERSON: No, it wasn't. It was just where my voice was centered at
that time.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LIEBERSON: Eventually, it just kept settling a little lower and lower,
and now it's....

GROSS: It's low.

Ms. LIEBERSON: I say--well, no, no. I also have this cold, which is making
it a little lower, but it--I like to say I've now settled into my viola voice.

GROSS: Now, what's the difference between a mezzo-soprano and a soprano, in
the range.

Ms. LIEBERSON: It's--well, obviously, a soprano generally sings higher
and--but it's mostly about where the center of the voice lies, is what
determines--you know, what would determine a soprano and mezzo. I mean,
there's mezzo--mezzos that can sing, you know, quite high. A lot of mezzos
have no trouble with the top. It's more about where the voice is centered,
and it's generally lower than a soprano.

GROSS: Now when you're a mezzo-soprano, do you get a lot of male roles, the
roles that had originally been written for castrati?

Ms. LIEBERSON: Yeah, I seem to be suited for them, as I say...

GROSS: Suited. No pun intended.

Ms. LIEBERSON: Ha-ha. Not necessarily body type-wise...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LIEBERSON: ...but there's some kind of, you know, my male energy
is--kicks right in when I'm doing these roles, and it seems to--seems to work
well. I really enjoy it. I love the gender-bending aspects of what I do and
getting to play men and women, and girls and boys, and I love that.

BIANCULLI: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, speaking to Terry Gross in 1996.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1996 interview with mezzo-soprano
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died Monday at the age of 52.

GROSS: When you decided to actually become a singer, and you went back and
started studying again, were there parts of your range that you weren't yet
comfortable in and that you really had to develop and if so, how did you
develop it?

Ms. LIEBERSON: Well, the top was always a problem when I first started
singing again, especially since I was trying to sing soprano. So it was never
easy. I just had a lot of tension and, you know, I think it had a lot to do
with my breath, and all the other stuff that was in the way, technical
tensions and holding and--so even though my voice is base--centered lower now,
the top is easier.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LIEBERSON: So--and the bottom of my voice has opened up, too, which has
been a great kind of discovery for me in the last few years, that the bottom
has really filled out, and it's--it just feels like this great foundation,
which then allows the top to be freer. And when I was first singing as a
soprano, I had a teacher who sort of scared me off singing, of exploring my
chest voice, which is the low, the low part of the voice. So I never used it,
and you know, I suppose there were some good reasons for that, but now it's a
great new part of my voice, that I--that makes it feel complete.

GROSS: Well, I think one of the things that's so distinctive about your


GROSS: that chest voice, the deeper tones.


GROSS: Can't you show us the difference between, you know, a chest voice and
a higher voice?

Ms. LIEBERSON: OK. OK. Here's a little chest voice.

(Singing) "Deep river."

Oh, that's really low.

(Singing) "Deep river."

That's chest voice.

(Singing) "My home is over Jordan, deep river, Lord. I want to cross over
into campground."



GROSS: That's quite lovely.

Ms. LIEBERSON: Didn't really go way up but haven't warmed up today.

GROSS: Do you ever have trouble crossing over, in a phrase, from the chest
voice to the head voice? If a phrase is crossing that line?

Ms. LIEBERSON: Yeah. Sometimes.

GROSS: Is that a barrier you had to overcome when you were training?

Ms. LIEBERSON: Not really. It never was a big problem, but every once in a
while, there'll be a phrase that's written in a certain way that, you know,
maybe goes right on the break, and the break in my voice is becoming less and
less, but it tends to be around middle C, where middle C is a note for me
that, sometimes, goes easily into chest voice and sometimes wants to stay
mixed in with the middle register. So, you know, depending on the piece and
what the phrase is, sometimes it's kind of--you know, it doesn't know which
way to go.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now I think the person who gave you your first really big
professional break as a singer was the director Peter Sellars, who cast you in
a production of Handel's "Julius Caesar." Yes?

Ms. LIEBERSON: Yeah. He and Craig Smith, who was the music director.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Was it a different experience for you doing a male role in
contemporary drag as opposed to, you know, doing it in, you know, in a period
costume in the clothes of a man?

Ms. LIEBERSON: Well, yeah. I did obsess about having to wear pants on
stage, which, you know, modern dress. I was very self-conscious, you know,
about showing my legs, because that--I mean, it was just a little--in a period
costume, the pants are either, you know, knee pants, and they're kind of baggy
and you have a coat that, you know, covers your thighs and all that. But I
just felt a little more exposed. But Dunyerama Coba did a great job in the
costuming there. So it was a little nerve-wracking. And, of course, then you
always have to make this special binders, we call them, to go under the shirt
to flatten you out.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LIEBERSON: And that's always a challenge, too.

GROSS: It would be pretty uncomfortable.

Ms. LIEBERSON: Well, that's the challenge, is getting it to really look
right and be comfortable.

GROSS: Here's what I can't figure out. I mean, you have to breathe really
deeply when you're singing?

Ms. LIEBERSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You have to have a lot of freedom in your body...


GROSS: your lungs can expand. Now if you have something binding...


GROSS: ...your bosom, how can you get the breath that you need.

Ms. LIEBERSON: Yeah. That's the trick is to get--you know, they have to use
some kind of stretchy material and...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LIEBERSON: ...that will just be enough holding in and still not encumber

GROSS: I have one last question for you. Do you find that singing is any
more or less enjoyable now that you've been doing it professionally for a long
time as opposed to the period before you became a professional singer and you
just sang for pleasure?

Ms. LIEBERSON: Hmm. It's--I'd have to say generally it's immensely
satisfying, and I get a great deal of joy from it. Just the act of singing
is, for me, you know, especially when I'm feeling well and my voice is just
feeling free and soaring, it's a wonderful, invigorating, you know, healing
experience, even just for me personally. And every now and then, like, from
my past, when I used to sing in a choir every Sunday and do Bach cantatas,
just, yeah, making music is just one of the highest things for me.

GROSS: Lorraine Hunt, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. HUNT: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, speaking to Terry Gross in 1996. The
celebrated mezzo-soprano died Monday at the age of 52.

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson))

Ms. LIEBERSON: (Singing) "Deep river, my home is over Jordan. Deep river,
Lord, I want to cross over into campground. Deep river, my home is over

(End of soundbite)


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Dave Chappelle discusses his family background, his
upbringing, how he got into comedy and his Comedy Central series
"Chappelle's Show"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.

(Soundbite from "Chappelle's Show")

Unidentified Singer #1: (Singing) "Chappelle's Show."

Unidentified Singer #2: (Singing) "Chappelle's Show."

Singer #1: (Singing) "Chappelle's Show."

Singer #2: (Singing) "Chappelle's Show."

Singer #1: (Singing) "Chappelle's Show."

Singer #2: (Singing) "Chappelle's Show."

Singer #1: (Singing) "Chappelle's Show."

Singer #2: (Singing) "Chappelle's Show."

(Soundbite of harmonica)

Singer #2: I don't think he's coming.

Singer #1: Oh! Let's start the show.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: The comedy career of Dave Chappelle hasn't exactly been the model
of conformity. His Comedy Central sketch series, "Chappelle's Show," started
out as a modest success but exploded when it was released on DVD.

The first season sold close to three million copies, an amazingly high number.
Not only was it the most popular TV series on DVD ever released, beating even
"The Simpsons," but more people actually watched it on DVD than on television.

By the end of season two, Chappelle was so hot that Comedy Central made him an
offer he couldn't refuse: more than $50 million in exchange for two more
seasons' worth of TV shows and DVDs. But after filming a handful of new
sketches, Chappelle reconsidered the offer and did refuse.

Last April, just a month before the third season of "Chappelle's Show" was set
to launch, he quit his own show, disappeared for a while in Africa and
returned to announce on Oprah Winfrey's show that it wasn't in his heart to
come back.

Comedy Central, after waiting in vain more than a year for Chappelle to
return, has taken the skits he filmed before his vanishing act and cobbled
them into three new installments called "Chappelle's Show: The Lost
Episodes." They're hosted by Chappelle's former costars, Charlie Murphy and
Donnell Rawlings, and begin this Sunday.

Many of the sketches are about how much money Chappelle was making as a TV
comedy star. Here's a taste from Sunday's show. Chappelle is in the
Caribbean, getting an $8 haircut, when news comes over the TV about his
lucrative new contract.

(Soundbite from "Chappelle's Show")

(Soundbite of Caribbean music)

Unidentified Man: So, you going to do your show again?

Mr. DAVE CHAPPELLE: It's looking that way.

Man: You must be paid big TV star.

(Soundbite of Chappelle laughing)

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Nah, man, it's cable. I do all right, but nothing to write
home about.

TV Announcer: Congratulations to Dave Chappelle!

(Soundbite of audience cheering)

TV Announcer: He's raking it in on the new season of the "Chappelle Show,"
the "Dave Chappelle Show." Reports say Dave Chappelle has received $55

(Soundbite of crowd reacting)

Mr. CHAPPELLE: (Unintelligible)...on TV, don't they?

Man: All right, you're all set.

Mr. CHAPPELLE: How much I owe you, man?

Man: Eleven thousand dollars.

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Dave Chappelle in 2004, during the second
and last full season of the show.


You said of one episode of your show that, after someone complained to you
that your show was offensive to black people--and that person, by the way, was
white--you came up with this idea for a game show called "I Know Black

(Soundbite of "Chappelle's Show")

Audience: I Know Black People!

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Welcome to the show "I Know Black People." We take
contestants who claim to know black people and put their knowledge of
African-American culture to the test. The contestant who answers the most
questions, of course, wins our grand prize. Let's bring them out one at a
time now.

Our first contestant is a professor of African-American studies and history at
Fordham University, the New York City police officer who's a writer for such
black television shows as "The Chris Rock Show" and "Chappelle's Show." OK,
our next contestant works in a Korean grocery store, who's a DJ and claims to
have many black friends.

How can black people rise up and overcome?

Unidentified Woman #1: How can they rise up and overcome? Well, can they

(Soundbite of bell)

Mr. CHAPPELLE: That is correct.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Unidentified Man #1: Reparations.

(Soundbite of bell)

Mr. CHAPPELLE: That is acceptable.

Unidentified Man #2: This is a rap lyric?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: No, this is--I'm sorry.

Man #2: Oh, this a genuine question.

Mr. CHAPPELLE: This is an actual question.

Man #2: All right. That's a--there's a complex answer there.

(Soundbite of bell)

Mr. CHAPPELLE: That is correct!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #3: Staying alive.

(Soundbite of bell)

Mr. CHAPPELLE: That is correct.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. CHAPPELLE: That is correct.

Unidentified Man #4: Well, stop cutting each other's throat.

(Soundbite of bell)

Mr. CHAPPELLE: That also is correct.

How can black people rise up and overcome?

Unidentified Woman #2: Get out and vote?

(Soundbite of buzzer and audience laughter)

Mr. CHAPPELLE: That is incorrect, I'm afraid.

Woman #2: Oh, my goodness!

Mr. CHAPPELLE: I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Well, folks, our...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Dave Chappelle, that's such a funny idea for a show. Can you talk a
little bit about what happened in the writing of this sketch, like what it was
like to put this sketch together?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Originally, we were going to write the material. We were
going to write it like an actual sketch. And when we sat down and started to
write it, it was one of these things--it was like, `This would be better if we
got actual people and just quizzed them.' And we just came up with questions.
We just had them put this thing together...

GROSS: So you actually got real people? You got like a white cop...

Mr. CHAPPELLE: All those people were real. We had them get us a police
officer, get us a Korean grocer, get us a black dude. Yeah, everybody--it was
completely authentic. And then all the hosting elements were just like--it
was fun--those were, like, off-the-cuff, you know? But the answers were
incredible, man, the things that these people were saying.

One of the things, they're going to see me, so they kind of go for being
funny, but all of them were really nervous, and they were all kind of afraid
that I was making fun of them. And then once we got to shooting, I think
everyone just kind of relaxed and kind of unwound and--I don't know. That's
one of my favorite sketches we've done.

GROSS: Now you're really funny at doing white people. And I think like when
you're white, you don't think of there being like a white accent. Do you know
what I mean?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Yeah. Absolutely.

GROSS: But when I hear you do it, I realize, OK, there's definitely like a
white accent. So what do you do when you do white?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: (Imitating white person) I take the rhythm out of my voice.
I try to keep it monotone and even. But (laughs, returns to normal speech)
again, all right. See I do these things, but I'm not really--it's almost
like--sometimes I'll watch old movies and how they portray black people, you
know, with like Stepin Fetchit and all these things. I remember watching
them, and something in the movie made me laugh. And they were like, `Why are
you laughing at that?' And it's not that I'm laughing at black people as much
as I'm laughing at the way black people were perceived, like this is what they
actually thought about black people? Which just seems ridiculous to me.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. CHAPPELLE: So I think, you know, when I do that, I think--again, it's
not malicious, and it's not necessarily what I think of white people, it's
just a funny caricature of what, you know, what the world looks like through
my eyes.

GROSS: Is there a particular person you conjure up when you do a white man?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Not a particular--it's a composite. It's a composite

GROSS: Of who?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: It's funny, man. All right. You know, when I was growing up
in DC, in particular, there was a--now this isn't true for me personally, but
there was a lot of black people that I know who really had never had any
personal experience with white people, which is weird to think about in this
day and time. But DC's a predominantly black city and because of the economic
situation or whatever, they just didn't have any contact with white people
outside of being authority figures, officer, your honor, you know, as a
teacher or a principal, but always some kind of authority figure. So there's
this whole, you know, their experience with--across the color line normally
happened via television or, you know, or something when you're dealing with an
authority figure, so...

I, on the other hand--you know, my parents were split up, my mom was living in
DC, my dad was living in Ohio, I traveled to both places--so I was in the
nation's capital on one end; I was in the heartland of America on another.
So, you know, I just, culturally I kind of absorbed a lot. I don't know, man,
I got a pretty good understanding about culture. I think that all these
differences are just cultural things.

BIANCULLI: Dave Chappelle, speaking with Terry Gross in 2004.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with Dave Chappelle. It
was recorded midway through the second season, what turned out to be the final
full season of Comedy Central's "Chappelle's Show.""

GROSS: Now you grew up in different neighborhoods because--I guess this was
because of your parents' divorce. If I understand correctly, you grew up in
Silver Springs, Maryland; Yellow Springs, Ohio--because your father was
teaching at Antioch College, which is located there; and Washington, DC. So
you went to schools in these different places, too?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Yeah. The elementary school was Silver Springs, middle
school in Ohio, went to high school in Washington.

GROSS: Were you almost part of like different cultures in those different
places? Were there different ways of, like, dressing and different music that
your friends listened to, depending on which place it was, whether it was the
suburbs or the city or Ohio or Washington?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: I think elementary school was more integrated because, you
know, people were younger. They mixed freely. The black kids, white
kids--everybody was--you know, there was no real racial hang-ups in elementary
school. And people weren't really clothes-conscious because we were young.

And then, by the time I got to middle school in Ohio, that's when you start
seeing alligators on people's sweaters, and people start getting into, like,
status symbols and stuff. And that was the first time where I really started
thinking, `Hey, man, I'm poor.' And, like, `We don't have any money, do we?'
And then when I got to high school, then I started getting into clothes.

Then I go to high school and, you know, I was gone during middle school.
Crack came out while I was gone. So I saw like the before-and-after picture.
I had to piece the crack epidemic together. Like, I remember my first day of
high school and they were like, `All right, look. If you have a pager on in
school, then there's immediate grounds for suspension, because we all know
what that means.' I was in the back like, `I don't know what that means.'

And then, of course, I figured out that--and then I was also trying to figure
out how everyone had all this like gold and expensive stuff, and then I was
like, `Oh, OK, everybody's selling drugs.' You know, the crack epidemic was
crazy, man, and I think a lot of the stuff that I did in my act just coming
from Ohio and from--and then going straight back to DC during the crack
epidemic. I think that all of the inequities were just underlined.

GROSS: So how did you change as you changed environments?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: It's funny, man. When I was in Ohio, it was the first, like,
real confident period of my life, like I started gaining confidence, because
for these kids, I was this outsider and I had to make friends. And that was
when I got like this huge reputation. Everyone was like, `This guy's really
funny.' I remember in middle school everyone was just like, `This guy Dave is
so hilarious.' Then when I got to high school and the crack epidemic was out,
you know, what it took to be popular during then I just wasn't willing to

GROSS: Which was what?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: know. Sell drugs!

GROSS: Right.

Mr. CHAPPELLE: If you didn't have money, you couldn't get the girl you
wanted, you know--it was a crack epidemic. Selling drugs was like a
legitimate job in the high school I was going to. And all around DC was like
girls like drug dealers--because they had money. I wasn't willing to be that.
But it was kind of like that context kind of isolated me initially, and then
when I started doing stand-up, it was like I thrived all over again.

GROSS: So when you started doing stand-up and you were still in...

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Fourteen.

GROSS: ...high school--14, OK--in Washington, what was--what were the jokes
about? What was the humor about?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Man, the first act--Jesse Jackson was running for president
so I used to do jokes about that.

GROSS: Like what?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: I used to talk about stuff I saw on TV like "Alf" and--but
they all had race in them in one way or another. Obviously, Jesse Jackson
jokes are going to have some racial in them. "Alf," my whole thing was like
the alien comes three billion miles from space and gets a home with a white
family. There was the paradox in that joke, which all sounds corny now, but,
remember, I was 14 so it was like, `Wow,' you know.

GROSS: Who were your audiences then?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: All right. In those days in Washington, what--again,
remember, this is a majority black city, there was no black comedy clubs. And
I remember club owners saying things like, `We only put one--we'll never put
more than one black person on a show because it offends the audience.' I've
heard all these things.


Mr. CHAPPELLE: And in Washington, DC!

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. CHAPPELLE: You know, it was pretty exclusive. There was one point where
they actually had a rule that there--`No more cursing on our stage!' It was
like--this was in '88. And one of the comics who was black--this was pretty
funny. He was like--he's like, `Look man,' he said, `I curse.' He said,
`Black people use profanity because we live a profane lifestyle.' And then he
says something that I can't say on the radio. But he's basically like, `If
you see a roach crawling up the wall, you're not going to be like, "Oh, gee,
look at the roach." It's going to be, "Look at this mother (censored) roach."'
You know, you're just going to--you're just going to go for it. I know you're
going to cut that out, but it was really funny though. But just the
fact--thinking back on it, the fact that there was all these limitations and
all these weird issues that these club owners had, in one way, maybe prepared
me for television.

GROSS: I want to ask you another question about having grown up in three
different places: suburban Maryland, suburban Ohio, and Washington, DC.

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Rural Ohio.

GROSS: Rural Ohio?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Suburban Maryland, rural Ohio and Washington.

GROSS: OK, so that exposes you to different people, different cultures,
different kind of geographic landscapes, different ways of living. And I'm
wondering if that helped give you the ability to kind of stand back and look
at people and see what was kind of funny and ridiculous and absurd about all
of us. Do you know what I mean? Because I feel like you have that gift of...

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Yeah, absolutely, I mean...

GROSS: ...just like looking back and standing outside and looking at everyone
and seeing some pretty funny things about us all.

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Yeah, because most of the people that I stereotype, I know
the people that the stereotypes are based on, like personally I've met people,
you know. You know--I mean, I can remember friends of mine growing up, like
we used to all play football after school, and it'd be like if four was black,
two of us was Vietnamese, there was a Jewish guy from the Deep South. It was
like--it was such a--it was an eclectic group, you know, but we all got along.
We all, you know, were friends.

In the household I grew up in, my parents were somewhat--I don't know how to
explain it, but over our mantel place there was pictures of Malcolm X, you
know. We--I listened to Dick Gregory records growing up. I listened to The
Last Poets. I mean, you know, there were books all over the house and always
reading stuff. So like, you know, like people like Frederick Douglass, I--you
know, these guys' pictures were on my walls when I was growing up.

GROSS: You described your family growing up as the broke Huxtables.

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Yeah. We were like broke Huxtables.

GROSS: Your mother was or is a Unitarian minister?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: She was. Yeah, yeah. She was--I believe she was the first
black woman ordained in that Unitarian Church.

GROSS: And your father was a music professor?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Yeah. My father...

GROSS: What kind of music?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Boy, he's singing--he used to sing opera and stuff.

GROSS: So your family was really very educated and probably instilled those
values in you. Was there pressure on you to do well in school and what you
really wanted was to be a comic?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: I mean, first of all, I was a horrible student. My
parents--you know, my dad was very philosophical about these kind of things.
As a matter of fact, when I--I'm the first person in my family not to go to
college, like since slavery. And my grandmother, my mother's mother, didn't
like that at all.

She, at first--like, because, I mean, I was 17. I'm like, `I'm not going to
college. I'm going to move to New York and try to make it in stand-up.' And
she kind of flipped out. She was like, `It was--it's a dream of mine.' This
was a heavy guilt trip. She'd go, `It's a dream of mine to see all of my
grandbabies graduating from college before I die.' So I was like, `Why you got
to bring that up, Nanna?' That's a lot of pressure.

But then I--my dad's whole take on it was, `Unless you want to do something
that requires you go to college, then college could very well be a waste of
your time.' Like that.

GROSS: And he was a college professor. So coming from him that must have
really registered on you.

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Yeah. He was an educator; he was an educated man. And I
think my parents ultimately wanted me to be happy. You know, I mean, my
argument was, you know, `Dad, if you're making a teacher's salary that's--if I
can make a teacher's salary doing stand-up, to me I'd rather do that than
teach.' It's like--and he understood where I was coming from. Like, you know,
it's like I didn't necessarily have to be rich and famous. Obviously, I
wanted to but that wasn't necessarily my aim. I just really, really,
really--to this day, I really like doing stand-up.

GROSS: Since you started when you were so young, your mother had to--did she
have to or did she just want to come to the clubs with you? Was that required
as like an official chaperone because you were underage?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: Originally, she had to. Once everyone started knowing me,
this was kind of like our routine. We'd meet down at the club. I'd be coming
from school; she'd be coming from work. It was cool, man. It was like a good
way to spend time together.

And then at a certain age, like maybe a year into it, you know, she'd get
tired at night. We're both burning the candle at both ends, but I'd always
want to go, so she'd just let me go. And, you know, not until I'm an adult,
then she tells me how scary that was for her, you know.

GROSS: In what way?

Mr. CHAPPELLE: I mean, she'd tell stories like she'd hear gunshots in the
middle of the night. You know, she'd wonder, `Oh, my God, is my baby all
right?' I mean, remember, this is DC during the crack epidemic. But I guess
in her mind, it was like, `Of all of the bad things that my child could be
doing, he just wants to tell jokes at these clubs.' And it was a controlled
environment for me. It's not like the bartender's going to give me drinks.
I'm 14. It's--you know, everyone kind of looked out for me. It wasn't
like--I mean, I saw stuff going on, but not really. It was more of a--it was
really goal-oriented time I was spending there.

GROSS: Well, Dave Chappelle, thank you so much for talking with us. I really
appreciate it.

Mr. CHAPPELLE: All right. No problem. It was good to meet you.

BIANCULLI: Dave Chappelle, speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. Skits he filmed
before leaving Comedy Central are being showcased in a new miniseries,
"Chappelle's Show: The Lost Episodes," beginning this Sunday.

Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Film critic David Edelstein reviews "Pirates of the
Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest"

Inspired by a ride at Disney World, "Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of
the Black Pearl" was a surprise blockbuster in 2003. It grossed close to half
a billion dollars and won an Oscar nomination for Johnny Depp, a rare honor
for a comic lead performance.

Virtually the same cast and crew returns for "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead
Man's Chest." Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: There ought to be an SOB club for leading male actors.
That's Sons of Brando. And it wouldn't be for the generation that emulated
his method triumphs in "A Streetcar Named Desire" or "On the Waterfront." It
would be for actors who emulate late Brando, that is, weird Brando, who toy
with their lines and make you laugh at their mannerisms, the method clowns.
The president would be Johnny Depp, who worked with his idol in the movie "Don
Juan DeMarco," and because Brando played the shrink and Depp the patient, Depp
got to model his weirdness for the master.

I hope Brando got to see the first "Pirates of the Caribbean." In a gonzo
effeminacy contest with Brando's Fletcher Christian in "Mutiny on the Bounty,"
Depp's pirate Captain Jack Sparrow would win. And I say that with awe.

In "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," Depp has a riotous entrance
I won't spoil, but this time there's no sense of discovery. An actor like
Depp isn't suited to sequels. He should be out looking for new realms of
looniness to conquer.

Still, there's nothing quite like his Jack Sparrow. His eyes are rimmed like
a glam rocker's. His gait, a tipsy tiptoe through the tulips. The campy gag
is that the more conventional buccaneer stereotypes treat him as they would
any other pirate captain, instead of a mincing nut bird. It's a great joke,
and it has to be, because the film is more than two and a half hours.

It's loosely plotted, and it has no ending. It just stops, because the
filmmakers shot a third picture simultaneously and decided to leave you
hanging. Its predecessor started like gangbusters, but lost its rudder. This
one doesn't pretend to be much more than a collection of swashbuckling set
pieces, with the hustle of a vaudeville show.

You need to have seen the first picture to get the in-jokes. "Dead Man's
Chest" doesn't bother to reintroduce anyone. The loopy independent operator
Sparrow is dubbed "a dying breed" in an ever-smaller world by a shifty lord
who takes his cues from the East India Trading Company, a multinational
corporation using the military to deliver massive profits to itself.

The central couple is once again Will Turner, played by Orlando Bloom, and
Elizabeth Swann, played by Keira Knightley, who find their nuptials postponed
by imprisonment for treason. Will must track down Jack Sparrow and obtain a
certain compass. Why, I can't tell you. It's a MacGuffin. More important
are the characters he meets along the way. Zany cannibals, a giant sea
urchin, and half-man, half-fish pirate phantoms formed of soil and seaweed and
parts of crustaceans and mollusks.

The captain of the fishmen is Davy Jones, of Davy Jones' locker fame. A mean,
mandibled squidman, a special effect with the hoary snarl of Bill Nighy, whose
voice is recognizable by his trademark little snort. Here he makes a deal
with Jack Sparrow in exchange for the return of Sparrow's soul.

(Soundbite from "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest")

Mr. JOHNNY DEPP: (As Captain Jack Sparrow) Have you not met Will Turner?
Noble, heroic, mythic soprano. (Unintelligible).

Mr. BILL NIGHY: (As Davy Jones) Maybe three and a half.

Mr. DEPP: (As Captain Jack Sparrow) And did I happen to mention he's in
love? With a girl. Due to be married. Betrothed. Dividing him from her and
her from him would only be half as cruel as actually allowing them to be
joined in holy matrimony.

Mr. NIGHY: (As Davy Jones) I keep the boy, 99 souls. Done. But I wonder,
Sparrow, can you live with this? Can you condemn an innocent man, a friend,
to a lifetime of solitude in your name while you roam free?

Mr. DEPP: (As Captain Jack Sparrow) Yep. I'm good with it. Should we seal
it in blood? I mean, ink?

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: The director, Gore Verbinski, has grown more adept at
Spielberg-style action in which the fun is as much in the elegance of the
staging as the stunts. A fight atop a big, rolling wheel has so many
variables it's like a great Newtonian physics joke.

Orlando Bloom is a study in blandness, but he's largely a straight man for the
rest of the oddballs, including Knightley, whose big, thrusting jaw takes her
out of the insipid ingenue class. As Elizabeth Swann, she's like some kind of
iron-willed fishperson herself, only lovely enough for a bejeweled tank.

"Dead Man's Chest" comes down to a duel between the Swann and the Sparrow.
And Knightley has so much gumption as she stares down Johnny Depp that, well,
who knows? She might one day be eligible for the Sons of Brando club herself.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

(Soundbite of music)


BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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