30 October 2007

and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring

So are my Red Sox the new Yanks? Uh, no, not quite, as any Yankee fan will eagerly tell you. Two World Series wins after an eighty-six year drought is not quite the same thing as decade after decade of dominance (so I can still root for the Red Sox without feeling that it's like rooting for Bank of America, which is what rooting for the Yanks is like). But you become what you battle, and it's been quite some time since a Red Sox fan could without hypocrisy accuse the Yanks of "buying their titles", which I guess means paying high wages to the players, or think of themselves as scrappy underdogs. I've been at A's games where Red Sox Nation was so omnipresent and so vocal that the A's players, who really are scrappy underdogs and whose payroll is fairly small, must have felt they were playing in Fenway. (Unfortunately I won't have too many more opportunities to go to A's games since their current owner, who in an astonishing coincidence is also a real-estate developer, is planning on dumping them in Fremont, and not near the BART station either.)

It’s not the Yank's record of success that really irks the non-Yankees fan, I think; it’s an assumption so deep-rooted that I’m not sure it even counts as arrogance that while it’s fun for the rest of the country to play let’s pretend, anything that really matters happens with, to, for, or by the Yanks. I was pondering this during the last innings of Game 4 the other night, when it looked as if the Rockies would pull it out and at least prevent a sweep – and that was the moment A-Rod chose, with a total and typical lack of class, to announce that he was exercising his free-agent clause and would be leaving the Yankees. The Fox announcers – and of course, this figures because everyone on Fox who isn’t animated, yellow, and four-fingered is a total suck-up to power, preferably reactionary power – were panting with excitement and spent the next suspenseful inning or two wondering if the firing of Joe Torre was involved and where A-Rod would go and gee, maybe he’ll end up at the Bosox replacing their current third baseman (that would be Mike Lowell, who would be named World Series MVP at the end of the game) and wouldn’t that really stick it to the Yankees? Apparently this announcement was too big to wait a day or two until others had a chance to celebrate in the limelight. But then that self-involvement is usually seen as a general New York attitude, not limited to their American League team. Personally, I love New York, and wish I could spend more time there, but I decided long ago that I didn’t want to spend that much energy on sheer survival and that given my tendency to overspend culturally I would shortly be ruined as surely as a rich man in Balzac who has found an enticing new actress.

I don’t even think the Patriots are the new Yankees, an opinion I hear fairly often, since people tend to have incredibly short memories. When I lived in Boston the Patriots were widely considered a bad joke, and football fans looked to Doug Flutie and Boston College instead. After reading about the Red Sox news in the Globe, you might turn to the little football updates to see which player had been arrested the night before for carrying concealed weapons, probably on the way to visit an ex-girlfriend who had accused him of beating her up. Around the time I moved out of town, Bledsoe came in and things started looking up for the Patriots. I always thought Bledsoe was a class act, particularly in the way he handled his injury and the ascension of Tom Brady. But given the nature of football, any team is always one injury away from years of disaster.

But I have to wonder what all of this celebrating is doing to New England’s image of itself (the reality is no doubt unchanged). I always thought the whole Puritan influence thing was vastly over-rated. Yes, they have rough winters and they used to hang witches, but soon we’ll all have terrible winters thanks to global climate change and the witches are now quite the revenue stream for Salem. The remaining blue laws were repealed shortly after I moved to Boston, though it was startling the first time I went downtown on a Sunday and found the place deserted. But any actual serious Puritan influence was long ago and is completely dissipated by now. New England just isn’t that isolated.

While New England grapples with the haunting specter of athletic success (which can breed its own terrors – just look at the bitter back-biting and rumor-mongering that surround the Yankees or the 49ers when they don’t win it all), or at least tries to recover from sleep deprivation caused by game after game that ended after midnight, I’d like to take a moment to – well, a Yankees fan would say whine, but let me call it a chance to reflect on what has changed. After 2004, a Yankees fan I know said to me, “You know, your team is now basically the Minnesota Twins.” I had to laugh – a good team that wins every once in a while definitely lacks the romance of the team that keeps coming close only to have the champagne snatched cruelly away at the last minute. I’m enough of an old-school Sox fan to have watched the last game against Cleveland in the ALCS and to have thought, Bottom of the 8th, 11 to 2 Boston – they could still blow it. But of course they didn’t, and every time they don’t, that attitude becomes a little more of an affectation. It’s a shame, in a way. There should be a place in American life to acknowledge that life is difficult, that bad things happen to good people, and that sometimes things just don’t fall your way. There have been points in my life when I’ve thought, I’m single, I have no children, I have no driver’s license, I don’t even have an apartment in my name – basically, in the eyes of the world, I don’t exist. A few years after the big loss in ’86 made me a Sox fan, I started reading articles in the Globe about how Bostonians were coping with the latest economic downturn, ways that mostly involved taking only one vacation to Bermuda that winter, or getting spa treatments less often. Load up the Pellegrino water, Tom Joad, we’re moving out to Californee. Clearly to the eyes of these writers I and my ilk had become invisible, and I wasn’t nearly as badly off as the ragged, deranged, and suffering beggars who were becoming a frequent sight in any urban area at that time, thanks in large part to various government policies, and who could at least demand attention by standing on the sidewalk screaming. It’s easier to support destructive policies if you pretend the victims don’t exist or are undoubtedly to blame for their fate in some way.

Lots of fans in both Boston and Denver were holding up signs saying that They Believed, as if that’s enough. Belief can do a lot of things, but scoring runs for your team isn’t one of them, and giving you complete control over your fate is another. If you win, it tends to be the nature of reality that someone else loses. I was happy the Red Sox won this year, of course, and I’ll be going on-line to get the requisite T-shirts and caps (all the old-school teams can count on the merchandising to help them compete with the Yank’s payroll), but to be honest this is a bit less exciting for me than ’04, and though it’s ridiculous to talk about the tragic sense in relation to any sport – Manny was right, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if they’d lost – it’s a shame for American society to lose any glimpse, however romanticized, of how hard and painful life can be.

28 October 2007


Sometimes more really is less. I had been eagerly anticipating the Bunraku Puppet Theatre of Japan’s visit to Berkeley. They rarely travel, I love puppets (well, not so much the human kind), and one of my all-time favorite movies (Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide, if you want to fire up the Netflix queue) is based on a Bunraku classic. So, about ten minutes after the inevitable 8:00 p.m. start time that Saturday, we get a beautiful excerpted scene from Oshichi’s Burning Love – The Fire Watchtower. The set fills the stage. The puppets are quite large, maybe two-thirds life-size. I don’t know how they look from the back of that large hall, but I prefer to sit close anyway and even just a few rows away the illusion is amazing. Within this ten-minute scene you forget that there are three puppeteers (two of them hooded and dressed in black, but the main manipulator bare-headed and buskined) working on each doll. The eyelids move, the fingers move, there are slapping sounds to convey their walks. So far, so great. And then, after that brief scene, we were given An Introduction to Bunraku, in which the narrator, and then the musician, and then the puppeteer came out one by one and with the translator’s help spent a solid hour illuminating the obvious by pointing out that they use different voices/tunes for different characters, or that different strings control the different features of the face and so forth, along with some background information which was also in the program and could be read in less than ten minutes.

Does Bunraku really need an introduction? It’s pretty clear how it works, and the theatrical conventions are not so utterly bizarre that they need a condescending hour-long explication. A friend of mine once told me about an inadequately prepared junior-high class trip to the ballet; after about ten minutes his classmate leaned over and whispered, “Duuuude! Why aren’t they talking?” So maybe, under some circumstances, such as a presentation at a grammar school, the Introduction might have been necessary. I don’t think those circumstances include a presentation at a major university on the west (Asia-facing) coast. For one thing, it was clear from the sympathetic chuckles before the translator helped out the rest of us that about half the audience understood Japanese (and as the chuckles indicate, the jocular tone was totally unsuited to the essentially tragic mood of Bunraku, which seems to be the way these talks always work out). There had been a public symposium a few days before, which unfortunately I missed, and then a talk before the show. Isn’t that enough? Does the magician keep stopping his act to explain that he actually pulled the rabbit from a hidden compartment in his hat, or that he was distracting you with one hand while extracting eggs with another? There’s a lot to be said for the willing suspension of disbelief, and for not needing every last detail explained to you, and for strangeness as a desirable aesthetic quality.

Then we had the intermission, of course, and though after that we finally had an actual play, deft and dazzling (Miracle at the Tsubosaka Kannon Temple – Sawaichi’s House and the Mountain), its lyrical beauties came a little late for me. It’s a bad sign when I’m checking the running times and when even my heedless self starts thinking about how much the ticket cost. These were not cheap tickets, and frankly I felt a bit annoyed and ripped off – I was in that theater for two hours and forty minutes, and only one hour and ten minutes of that involved an actual performance. I would have been less annoyed if they’d just performed the puppet works – you know, the thing I paid to see – and cut the evening short. That was something to mull over during the interminable wait for the noisy, dirty, short BART train, and then again as the bus pulled away just as I ran up the sidewalk, giving me at least twenty-five more minutes of mulling time in the drizzly cold.

What a contrast back at Berkeley several nights later when I heard Hilary Hahn (ably accompanied on all but the Ysaye Sonata No. 5 by Valentina Lisitsa on piano). She has very long, elegant, and obviously very strong fingers, and I enjoyed watching them turn printed scores into gorgeous sounds. The first half was Franck, Mozart, and Ysaye, which I thought might be too much sweetness, but Hahn and Lisitsa found various shades of lyricism from seraphic to fizzy that kept the beauty from cloying. After the Franck the performers left the stage. A stagehand entered from the left and closed the lid of the grand piano. A moment later a different stagehand entered from the right, shaking his head and muttering, and raised the lid of the grand piano back up; hilarity ensued. I have to give lots of credit to performers who can come out and dedicate themselves to producing such wonderful music when a lot of the audience is clearly almost as entertained by a stagehand’s mistake. After the intermission Hahn put on her glasses and put up the music stand for Ives’s Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano, which was a gentler side of Ives but still possibly my favorite piece of the evening. Then they finished with the Brahms Sonata No. 2. The women returned amid applause to give us an encore – “a break from half-hours of lyricism” as Hahn charmingly noted; they played the tangy march from the Love for Three Oranges. This concert also lasted about two hours and forty minutes, but the two young women performed with tireless beauty for all but about half an hour of that time, and then stayed later to sign programs and CDs in the lobby. I decided not to stay, since I got my signed CDs last time I heard her, but I assume she was as personable and gracious this time as she was then. That’s a generous performer, dedicated to her public, and I can't wait to buy her forthcoming recording of the Schoenberg and Sibelius violin concertos. Sometimes more really is more.

22 October 2007

grave the vision Venus sends

I think we can safely call Graham Vick’s production of Tannhauser controversial, which might be the only safe thing about it. Actually, I think Tannhauser itself is sort of a hard sell these days; when it’s new any piece's strangeness works against it, and then it becomes overfamiliar and taken for granted, and it’s difficult to find the moment of perfect balance, especially when cultural conditions have changed as much as they have between nineteenth century Germany and twenty-first century America. For one thing, if we don’t actually live in Venusberg, we’d like to, or we assume that we should; I’ve had to explain to people why the Wartburg court might look askance at the realm of unbridled sensuality (think of it as the end of Death in Venice, when the Dionysiac leads to dissolution, ghastly comedy, and death). People who eagerly hang categorical labels on themselves as well as others, or the many journalists who blithely declare that “the boundaries between workplace and private life are dissolving” as if that’s a good thing, are not in the cultural frame of mind to understand the tormented divisions of Wagner’s creation. Tannhauser is a man in constant confrontation with the agonizing limitations of life: if you’re in one place doing one thing, you can’t also be anyplace else doing anything else; you thereby, every moment, cut yourself off from thousands of life’s possibilities, and the further you go the less able you are to encompass all of life.

I’m going to mention some of the things that went wrong with the production, but most of them are fairly minor, and to me Vick’s production was an honest and intriguing approach. It’s also an example of what I think of as the staging gap between opera and other forms of theater: the single set, with its seraphic corbels and large symbolically used windows above a dirt floor, and its tree and big harp stuck in the middle of the stage, and its consistent use of the ancient elements (earth, air, fire, and water), wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows at all in a production of King Lear, or even of The Way of the World. I’ve read and heard from people who hated this production, and I respect that. I don’t see any need for an avant-garde pissing contest with anyone (even the need to be avant-garde can be a trap). If you don’t have an initial connection with this type of production, then you just don’t. Many times I've heard people talk about "Jungian archetypes" and I think, Or you might say, "cliches" or "stereotypes". Other times I’ve listed dozens of objections to particular productions, only to get the response, “I agree with all you’ve said, but I still liked it.” And that’s fine with me. There’s a level different from the intellectual at which we respond (which is part of what Venusberg is about, and why I was careful to say “different from” rather than “below”). But here’s the thing: I can’t slam the Opera for being as timid as school kids at their first dance and then sneer at them when they do something adventurous. For his first season Gockley would have thrilled a lot of locals if he’d thrown Boheme on stage with a couple of well-known names from the Met and plenty of half-hour intermissions so that all the fancy overstuffed furniture could be moved on stage and all the fancy overstuffed audience members could admire each other and themselves. Instead he took a chance on a non-traditional approach to a big work, and even if the result had been less successful than I considered this Tannhauser, I’d rather see an interesting failure than a safe, conventional production that will be forgotten the next day. He could have kept on sticking Fledermauses into the schedule, but he didn’t, and I have to salute that gratefully.

The major staging mistake was having Wolfram strangle Elisabeth, at her request. I don’t see any need to spell out how exactly she dies, and it’s already clear how deeply Tannhauser’s desertion has wounded her. She just needs to be up in Heaven at the end so that her Ewig-Weibliche qualities can redeem him (whatever redemption means in this context; at the Wagner Society’s Tannhauser symposium, someone asked why he had to die at the end, but there’s really no other resolution to his riven personality). It’s against Wolfram’s character to do something so rash, especially to a woman he loves himself in his conventional courtly way, but the main point is that there is nothing in the music to justify the murder, which has the psychological and moral implications to be an opera in itself.

I should say a few words justifying Elisabeth (and in a different time, it would be Venus I would have to defend, but the Goddess of Love requires no feeble aid from me). I don’t think she’s a simp or conventional, though like Desdemona it is part of her tragedy that she is seen that way, and not just because of her social status, but also because of her compassion and individuality. She is drawn to Tannhauser, as Desdemona to Othello, exactly because of the alien qualities that repel the genuinely conventional. Given the court’s frequent references to her as an angel, it’s revealing that she is drawn to the one man who thinks of her as a woman, and she boldly intervenes to rescue him at the song contest. And I’m not sure if I’m making this up, but I’ve always understood her to be at least partly based on St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who defied government orders (that would be either her father or her husband; I can’t remember the details) by continuing to give help to the poor and oppressed. Here’s her miracle: she was stopped on her charitable way with her cloak full of bread; when ordered to open it, the bread had been turned into roses. Like many saints she’s subversive beneath the halo, and if Elisabeth isn’t exactly the same woman, she’s that type.

Most of my objections to the staging other than the inserted mercy killing are minor or debatable. The Landgraf shouldn’t enter on a real horse. Live animals always get the audience’s attention, which is why they’re almost always a mistake, since what the audience is attentive to is whether the animal will crap on stage. Tannhauser should not play his harp with the sweeping gestures wittily described in The Standing Room as “air harp” and Venus should not open her towel to flash him, as such coy naughtiness is beneath the dignity of a goddess. I had mixed feelings about the pilgrims having their sins written on them. It is a bit over-literal. On the other hand, it’s exactly the sort of thing medieval pilgrims would do. We all draw the line in different places: what bothered me about the words is that if they are actually cut into the pilgrim’s flesh as the program states, then they can’t really wash them off later, and the words would be scarred over after the pilgrimage (wouldn’t gangrene have set in by then otherwise?), and if the pilgrimage ends when the leaves are falling, wouldn’t it be too chilly for the pilgrims (all of whom are male, though that might be Wagner and not Vick) to have bare torsos, and if they’re using the cold to punish themselves even after the pilgrimage, then what was the point?

But to turn to yet another hand, the pilgrim’s inscribed sins were echoed at the end by the children emerging from the earth with virtues written on their bodies, and again, you might find this too obvious, but without it the striking image just uses the children themselves as symbols of hope and rebirth, a use which can only be justified by those who have no memory of what being a child is like. I don’t usually like having types of people representing qualities, and if you wanted to object to the way the main women in this work function symbolically or as means of redemption, then I won’t argue with you, because I think such representations work only if you take “masculine” and “feminine” as conventional labels for different, more ambiguously gendered qualities (say, justice or law or war versus mercy or creative nurturing or peace). But it’s best not to be too literal about the staging, since its suggestiveness is its strength.

For instance, the tree and the harp center stage: are they nature and art? The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil versus the angelic harps? The living (and therefore the sexual) versus the man-created? Or did the stage picture just need the anchor of the tree as a strong vertical element, and a subordinate (sometimes horizontal) element in the harp to keep the other object from dominating the stage? The end of the first act exemplifies the method: Tannhauser joins the retinue from the Wartburg court to return to civilization and Elisabeth, and the hunters throw down their kill and start carving it up, an act foreshadowing the attempted killing of Tannhauser in the second act, or showing the Wartburg court’s destructive, possessive attitude towards flesh, or simply because that is what hunters have to do with their kill – slice it up for easy transport. Venusberg itself is staged to suggest something other than just “this place represents sex”; the Martha-Graham-does-Pilates dancing suggests the primitive or chthonic or aggressive rather than the standard funtime orgy. As I suggested earlier, it’s probably wise, particularly for a contemporary San Francisco audience, not to make Venusberg too clearly just about sex. The use of a single set suggested that Venusberg and Wartburg are not so much separate places as separate mental states, or approaches to life.

The production was like an art installation. It used an elemental approach throughout, not just with the dirt floor, but in the vivid sky blue (or watery blue) of Elisabeth’s cloak (which also helps associate her with Mary as well as relieving the steady pale ash-gray of the set; if you think of the Virgin’s endlessly altar-pieced cloak, it’s that shade of blue), and in the fires of Venusberg. I had some mixed feelings about the fire. It is a common symbol for passion (perhaps too common, though I didn’t object to its use in the Sellars/Viola staging of Tristan), as well as purification and also destruction. But the ring of fire around Venus and Tannhauser did indeed make me think of Johnny Cash, and even more than that it made me think of Siegfried and Brunnhilde. And the tree bursting into flame as an apparition of Venus was visually stunning, but the bush that burns yet is not consumed is already pretty strongly associated with a different Deity. But visually you needed the hot orange color of the flickering flames to contrast with the cool blue of Elisabeth (also, I really like watching things burn). The ending, with the children emerging from the earth and individually placing green leaves on the bare limbs of the tree beneath a steady hazy shower of rain coming down through a strong white light, was also visually stunning (unless you had already checked out of the show, in which case it wasn’t going to change your mind) and thrillingly solved the problem of making the staff flower without looking like a provincial magic show.

If I haven’t mentioned the musical side of things until now, it’s because I think there’s a lot less debate about that than about the staging. Even those who hated this production could shut their eyes and be drawn into the performance while visualizing their own preferred action. Runnicles is known for his Wagner, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be praised every time he conducts it (though I have to admit there’s usually a moment in the beginning of his Wagner performances when it seems a bit slow to me, but then either he adjusts or I do). I particularly liked Ji Young Yang as the sweet-toned young shepherd. Petra Maria Schnitzer was strong and sweet as Elisabeth. I was a little more mixed about Petra Lang’s Venus; she was vivid and fiery, but there was a sort of metallic edge to her voice that I don’t always respond to. And Peter Seiffert commanded the stage, unflagging for hours, as the tormented Tannhauser.

21 October 2007


About a week before I went to Oakland Opera’s Turn of the Screw, I received an e-mail from them warning me that their location had changed, due to real estate shenanigans beyond their control. (And earlier this year, TheatreFIRST lost their storefront stage – does Oakland just not care about the arts? These places aren’t even real theaters to start with. Can’t the city do better than this? It looks as if they can't even hold on to their baseball team.) Good thing I’m semi-obsessive about e-mail and addresses; the new place is on 3rd Street rather than 2nd, but quite a few blocks further inside the abandoned warehouse district of Oakland right outside Jack London Square. I hope it works out for them. I guess most people will just drive there. But it’s far enough off the main street to give pedestrians from BART pause late at night. It’s a shame, because Oakland Opera continued its streak of excellent productions, and that’s where they should be putting their energies, rather than having to unlock streetside Port-a-Potties to use as restrooms or setting up more rows of folding chairs (making this possibly the most uncomfortable theater I’ve sat in, after Bayreuth). If you’re sitting there looking at a big pile of money and wondering what to do with it, you could do a whole lot worse than sending it Oakland Opera’s way.

I have rows of CDs and DVDs by Britten, even his version of The Beggar’s Opera, but no Turn of the Screw, which seems like an odd omission, so this was my first exposure to it in any form (Deirdre McClure was the conductor and was a wonderful advocate for the piece). The story’s combination of the corruption of innocence with an outsider’s struggle to find a place makes it pretty obvious Britten material. The setting was moved to the American South, which is a good idea because it connects with the whole Southern Gothic tradition, though it ended up not making a huge difference in the presentation (it’s possible the sudden change in venue was part of the reason). The outside settings are bayou-like, and the old housekeeper is, in keeping with the location, a black woman (Lori Willis acted an old woman quite convincingly, but her vibrant and supple voice beautifully undercut the illusion of age). I had wondered if Quint and Miss Jessel would also be black servants, but that creates the obvious problem of having blacks as the evil characters (more precisely, sexually evil characters), which may or may not be why the Opera didn’t pursue that possibility. The ghosts were played on stage by acrobats (I don’t know if my Jessel was Ena Starling or Emily Leap since the program doesn’t give dates for their appearances, but Danny Starling was Quint) occasionally suspended from harnesses, which sounds like a cumbersome gimmick but was surprisingly effective; as is usual in such cases, the apparatus was clearly visible but disappeared for all practical purposes in the intensity of performance. Quint in particular was such a long, lanky man that his physique added to the unearthly quality of the apparition. The ghosts were sung by Marta Johansen and Gerald Semintore; the whole cast was of excellent vocal quality, and though they had surtitles they were not really needed at all, given everyone’s clear diction.

I had always assumed that any theatrical adaptation of The Turn of the Screw would of necessity make the ghosts real and lose the ambiguity of the first-person narration (is it all real? or is the governess hysterically projecting her sexual fantasies onto the children?), but Myfanwy Piper’s libretto actually preserves quite a lot of the possibility that it is the governess who is the problem. Anja Strauss is lovely in the role, both physically and vocally, but I thought at first that she was bugging her eyes and holding the expression of horror a bit too long, as if she were calculating the performance for a much larger space; then I realized it was a legitimate reflection of the character’s growing mental problems. The children are quite striking; Piper very cleverly has them speak mostly in nursery rhymes, prayers, games, and lessons, which subtly sets them apart from the adults and conveys the primitive and playfully surreal violence of childhood. I saw Nick Kempen and Kelty Morash as the children; Brooks Fisher and Madelaine Matej play them at alternate performances. Kempen in particular was quite striking and obviously had vocal training; I don’t usually like the sound of boy sopranos but he shouldered his burden manfully and seems to be sort of specializing in the role, to the horror of the nice woman sitting next to me, a long-time opera-goer and academic, who announced to me that she wouldn’t have let her children perform the role. Kempen seemed to be suffering no ill effects, judging from his buoyant bio. He lives in Castro Valley, where I grew up, and I was amused to see he had shared the stage with my younger niece in a recent production there of The Wizard of Oz, another American classic of dispossession, alienation, supernatural horror, and the search for the place where one belongs.

09 October 2007

old times there are not forgotten

Some of the world premieres I’ve gone to have been tarted up with klieg lights and glam women in gowns they should have known better than to wear; not so last Friday night at Appomattox,the new Philip Glass opera, and the subdued, even somber atmosphere was better suited to this somber and meditative piece. The opera opens and closes with clusters (not really a chorus) of women: Julia Grant worries about her husband, who has assured her the bloody war will end soon; the wheelchair-bound Mrs. Lee counsels her daughter on facing adversity with fortitude; Mrs. Lincoln and her black seamstress discuss their anxieties and interpret dreams. Christopher Hampton's libretto deftly individualizes the women through the course of the evening and avoids the sentimental mistake of separating them into a Trojan Women chorus lamenting a disaster they are related to only through suffering. In the final scene, the same women repeat the opinion of Abraham Lincoln, with all the moral weight his words carry for an American audience, that war and the suffering of war are inevitable. Not only has this war not ended with the triumph of justice, but it is part of the endless cycle of violence and suffering; if the mournful conclusion of this opera isn’t inspiriting like the final aria in Satyagraha, it’s because that aria expressed an endless cycle of suffering followed by regeneration, and Appomattox ends with an expression of an endless cycle of suffering.

Small and large events illustrate the inevitability of greed and bitterness: after the generous peace is signed, souvenir hunters loot Wilmer McLean’s house and beat him up when he resists; when a Union officer checks with Mrs. Lee to see that she has been treated with respect, that bitter woman, who had claimed that she and the General would have freed their slaves happily (and who also claims that some day the slaves will regret being freed) objects to having a black soldier guarding her house, and the Union officer switches the guard to a white soldier with apologies to her but not to him. The work’s title is carefully chosen: this opera is not about “the Civil War” as an historic event (there’s no mention of state’s rights, John Brown, the Fugitive Slave Law, territorial rivalries, the contradiction between the founder’s revolutionary ideology and their slave-holding, or any number of other causes and crises, and the atmosphere of the work justifies spending more time on Mary Todd Lincoln and a former slave discussing dreams than on Lincoln and Grant discussing strategy). It’s about one very specific incident, the battle at Richmond and the resulting surrender at Appomattox, and how that was supposed to be the end of the war, and how it was not. There’s a scene in the second half in which some of the black soldiers we’ve seen are now civil rights workers from a few decades ago, angrily pointing out that a hundred years after Appomattox the former slaves are still waiting for justice. This scene is the only one in rhyme, possibly because the most contemporary moment needs to be stylized for contemplative distance, or to capture the sense of chanting; it was also the only scene interrupted by spontaneous applause on opening night, in which I would have joined except the music was already playing for the next scene. The thought-provoking, smoothly managed juxtapositions of past and recent events and the shifts between depiction and meditation deserve lots of praise, since, to judge from the botched libretto of Dr. Atomic, it’s very difficult to bring off this sort of thing effectively.

The women who open and close the opera appear throughout, and my initial reaction was that I would have preferred a little less of them if it meant more time for the voices of ordinary soldiers (again, this absence was a major fault in Dr. Atomic, which found plenty of time to repeat the Kokopelli kitsch of the chanting “Native American child-care giver” but couldn’t bother scrounging up the thoughts of a single soldier on the ground, or indeed find any military man who wasn’t a posturing buffoon). Daguerreotypes of individual soldiers are carried in by the women in the opening and left on the front of the stage, and more appear on the backdrop later, but only two choruses come close to giving us their opinions and voices: one a sardonic, mournful soldier’s ballad sung by the Confederate men and the other a song of muted defiance sung by the black troops invading Richmond. These two choruses have a very distinct, catchy sound, and I’m assuming they’re based on actual Civil War songs (which the rest of the score is not; one advantage of Glass’s method – or of “the Philip Glass sound” – is that the Civil War is wrenched away from familiar associations with Dixie, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, slave spirituals, or even Max Steiner’s Tara and since what we hear is new it forces us to see things in a new way). These choruses also, in their immediate appeal and sense of comradeship, help show a little of the excitement and glamorous appeal that war undoubtedly possesses, and without this sense (brilliantly evoked by Whitman in the beginning of the Drum-taps section of Leaves of Grass) it’s too easy for us to shake our heads and wonder what they were thinking. You especially need this evocation to understand General Lee and his insistence on his honorable behavior.

I confess I have never admired General Lee. Perhaps I should make clear that, despite my frequent mentions of Boston, I am not some determined Yankee. I’m a native Californian, and though I wasn’t raised with any special sense of the southern myth, I did have a maternal great-grandmother from Virginia who watched her brother being shot dead by marauding Union forces when he ran to save the family horses (so the dead horses suspended on the stage, and rising again in the end, had a certain resonance for me); decades later, dying in Detroit, she felt she was dying in a foreign land. And I have also been the victim of racial harassment and even violence, so I don’t think I have an overly sentimental view of what oppression does to people. Others might hear the opera and have a more sympathetic view of Lee’s dilemma. He decides to surrender rather than switch to guerrilla warfare because his men will inevitably end up lawless, but in fact that’s pretty much what happened, in one of the great tragedies of American life, as the ideology of white supremacy defeated any advances in social justice the end of the war might have brought; the whole moonshine and magnolia farce of “the Lost Cause” is a thin decorative veneer over a corrupt society that used terrorism and twisted laws to promote its racist exploitation of the impoverished former slaves. If we were presented with a German military man steeped in the traditions of Goethe, Schiller, and Beethoven, who, however reluctantly, and motivated by love of the Rhineland’s beauty and a sense that he owed it to his birthplace, agreed to command the Nazi army (not “didn’t emigrate” or “reluctantly continued to function” but commanded the entire Nazi army), would we really be expected to sympathize with him? So how is Lee different?

There’s a scene early on (I assume this really happened) in which General Cobb protests Lee’s proposal that slaves be used to fight alongside white soldiers (unlike the segregated units of the Northern army). There are hints that Lee is considered wishy-washy on the subject of slavery. Lee’s response is that he is practical and his business is to win the war, but supporting the corrupt ideology of the weaker side does not seem like a practical act. (Also, though this point isn’t mentioned: if your slaves are fighting by your side, you can keep an eye, and a gun, on them; if they’re in a separate unit, there’s a good chance they would shoot their commanding officers and go join the Union forces, so I'm a little doubtful that Lee's stand is just about equal rights.) General Cobb is, in a sense, correct: if you are fighting an ideological war, and you ignore or subvert your ideology because it doesn’t work, then why are you fighting for that ideology in the first place? If Lee felt this way, and had the same conflict about slave ownership as many in the Revolutionary generation, then shame on him for not taking the offered leadership of the Union Army. Perhaps I just lack the egotism to think that a place is important because I happened to be born there, but some things are even more important than your blue remembered hills, and justice or even simple human decency might be two of those things.

During the intermission I overheard a few people saying they were disappointed (though the audience as a whole gave an enthusiastic ovation at the end). As a general principle I think you need to see where a piece ends up before you decide it took the wrong road getting there, but I wonder if for some people the word “opera” conveys a more limited meaning than it should. Appomattox does not build up to big, tension-releasing arias or to moments when the emotions, either tragic or triumphant, soar upwards through the action, and if that’s what you’re looking for in an opera, you’re better off approaching Appomattox as something like the St. Matthew Passion, or indeed not approaching it at all. During a lot of the first half I had the feeling that the music was building, and then building again, and not breaking through. It wasn’t until the end, with the mournful acknowledgement of the inevitable cycle of war and suffering, that I saw that the music’s stifled, circular feeling was the intended point. (Anyone who doubts Glass’s ability to say exactly what he wants to should listen to the bright sparkling piano music illustrating Grant’s migraine before his meeting with Lee, though I have to say that my migraines, described musically, would probably take the form of very bright repeated arpeggios – in other words, what people think of as “Philip Glass music.”) Dennis Russell Davies kept the music from sounding overly repetitive (though occasionally he did allow the orchestra to cover the singers.)

The only scene I found a bit disappointing musically was the siege of Richmond, with a chorus saying, “Ah!” repeatedly, though the staging, with refugees clutching treasured possessions coming down the ramp mid-stage and more refugees entering from the back, some dropping from exhaustion, was effective, as was the entire production generally. The costumes were historical but the sets were mostly abstract. The stage curtain was a beautiful abstract in grays and white, with some splashes of black, which opened directly onto the action (there is no overture). The silvery first set gives way to a stage-sized orange box which holds abstracted fences, maps, and mirrors as the act progresses. The second half set, with its pale grey and white, its pale squiggles, its scrawled phrases (Sic Semper Tyrannis, notably), and soldier’s portraits barely emerging from the background, made me think “Cy Twombly’s Civil War”, which gives you an idea both of its beauty and of the disorienting effect it could have on someone who came in expecting a history rather than a meditation.

Dwayne Croft as Lee and Andrew Shore as Grant were excellent, but the many Adler Fellows in the cast really shone: Rhoslyn Jones as a warm and sympathetic Mrs. Grant, Jeremy Galyon as Lincoln (it can’t be easy to put on the stovepipe hat and avoid caricature), Heidi Melton as Mrs. Lincoln and Kendall Gladen as her seamstress, and Elza van den Heever as the increasingly bitter and racist Mrs. Lee – it’s a tribute to her portrayal that when she walked on stage for her curtain call, smiling and young-looking, it took me a moment to realize who she was. Noah Stewart was powerful as T. Morris Chester, a black journalist who first reports on the fall of Richmond and then returns to describe how later years have failed the promised justice of the Union victory. And long-time SF Opera singer Philip Skinner made my skin crawl with the casual sanctimony and viciousness of Edgar Ray Killen, a preacher and Klan member who murdered four Civil Rights workers.

If I haven’t mentioned any parallels with our sad times and our endless wars fought from ignorance and greed, it’s because there’s no need to; a meditation on the endless cycle of war and suffering and injustice is too obviously of our times, and of all times.

04 October 2007

hey there -- you with the stars in your eyes

I walked past a movie theater today and its marquee was advertising both the regular feature and the Friday night midnight movie, so it read:

The Jane Austen Book Club
Night of the Creeps

That is exactly how the previews for that movie make me feel!

In further blog-related hilarity (I’ve had another visit with the plumber, and this time he brought his camera guy, and when you hear “Sorry, but we may need to adjust the estimate” with a friendly clap on the shoulder, you start desperately searching for hilarity of any kind), I’ve finally had my first (to my knowledge) “Nathan Gunn naked” hit on Google, which seems like sort of an opera blogger's bar mitzvah. I also had “David Adam Moore shirtless”; Moore was Gunn’s replacement as Billy Budd in the Pittsburgh production I saw last May. I guess I’ll know he’s had his big breakthrough moment when the search graduates to “David Adam Moore naked”.

Next up on the opera front is the opening night (I know there are people who call these things “the prima” but I just can’t bring myself to do it; insidery jargon fascinates me, but the implication in using it is that you’re an insider) of Appomattox. On the bus last night I ended up talking to two ushers who had been at a dress rehearsal. I asked what they thought; the verdict was that one would like it if one liked Philip Glass. That’s about as insidery as I’m going to get. So let me talk about Dancing with the Stars, which I stumbled onto last spring several weeks before the finale, and to which I rapidly became addicted. This time around I was ready with my popcorn before the big opening night (the prima, as it were). Unlike a certain popular singing competition (yes, American Idol, I’m staring at you – don’t you ignore me!), it is pleasantly free of nasty undercurrents, and the judges actually say helpful things, as opposed to “I dunno, dawg – it was a little pitchy,” which is probably as helpful to the singer as it is clear to the audience. On Dancing with the Stars, the judges actually give useful, specific technical advice that helps the viewers understand what to look for, things like “you need to keep your shoulders back.” And they will praise whatever they can, even if it’s clearly a desperate reach (the only thing that really bugs me about the show is the audience booing at the slightest hint of criticism – maybe this really is the generation that received trophies just for showing up). Of course, there’s a difference between dealing with desperate unknowns hungry to break into pop music and established celebrities who are larking in a highly specialized art form. Still, in the words of the immortal Swan of Avon, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but tyrannous to use it like a giant. I wish Bruno would tone down some of the Roberto Benigni-style effusions, but the judges usually make astute and even subtle points (again, what a contrast to the paradigmatic trio), as when they told Cameron Mathison that his classically handsome looks created expectations of perfection that worked against his beginner’s level of skill, or when Len told the Cheetah Girl (who initially bugged me but is now winning me over by quantum leaps) not to rely overmuch on her obvious skill at fast and flash. My preference for the constructive, technically clear approach as opposed to snark-and-stab may only be due to the intense tenderheartedness of my nature, however. I just don’t know if I have the emotional strength to deal with reality shows. I hated to see sweet Josie the swimsuit model leave after the first week, and not just because my favorite moment that week was when she said, “I think dancing is like this” and flung her arms out and her partner, who had already wittily described her as “deceptively unfit”, had to suppress the look of panic and horror on his face. (Possible runner-up moment: Jonathan “I’m the perfect gentleman of ballroom” muttering “cameracameracamera” to Marie Osmond, his chatty and easily distracted partner, during the opening pan of the cast – by the way, did anyone have to explain to her what Carrie Ann meant by calling her a “cougar”?) And then this week, continuing the ruthless purge of models, Albert Reed was booted. Like everyone else except Abercrombie cultists, I had to look him up when the cast list was announced. I like to think I don’t make assumptions about people, but I guess the surfer/male model combo did not lead me to expect his good-humored, low-key charm; that plus his dancing skills had me big-time man-crushing on Albert even before his elderly grandmother told him how proud his grandpa would be. Who could resist that? I was also amused by the two women from the audience who were so excited that he danced with an open shirt the first week: Ladies, being a surfer/Abercrombie model pretty much means that taking your shirt off is a major professional skill. Some day you will find out about The Google, and then you can learn all about it. (I was also amused to see that Cameron Mathison was working the open-shirt look the second week. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.) So once again I have to sit the nation down for a stern talking-to: America, just what the hell are you thinking? Do we have to have this conversation after every single election? You boot Albert and leave me with Wayne Newton? Not to be unkind since it’s the way of all flesh, but many of us watch these things on big-screen or even HD TV, and there are just certain people, iconic entertainers though they may be, beloved and worthy human beings though they undoubtedly are, who, um, are not at their scenic best on either big screens or high definition television. Yes, I’m a shallow man. A shallow, shallow man. No, I don’t really have a problem with that. Wayne Newton is also just a really clunky dancer. I realize there’s the Jerry Springer Memorial Spunky Older Guy Who Isn’t Very Good But Goes Farther Than Expected spot, but come on. Though I have to admit, I basically like Wayne, and am only reacting this way because of the Albert thing. And doesn’t Scary Spice need to go practice whatever it was the Spice Girls did for their big, long-awaited, much-anticipated, 38-second-sell-out reunion? But even her “look at me, I’m naughty” brand of faux-outrageousness is winning me over, or at least not causing me active revulsion as it did at first. And I wanted to hate billionaire basketball-team owner Mark Cuban, but I really can’t. That nice billionaire is just trying so darn hard! I think maybe I should always come in on these things towards the end, since the early departures are so painful for me to watch. I will probably get over the Albert thing (but can I ever really trust America’s voting again?) and learn once more to love, laugh, and tune in next week, only to find myself unexpectedly liking someone else who had put me off, and then I have to go through the whole "stages of grieving for reality-show stars who are better off than I'll ever be” thing all over again. All this sympathy for people I was cheerfully looking forward to hating and ridiculing reminds me of the great line from The Rules of the Game: “Everyone has his reasons; that’s the terrible thing about life,” which might be my favorite movie line of all time.

02 October 2007

everybody is always being what they are

Sometimes it was just by chance that I started listening to certain composers. I can’t remember when or why exactly I started listening to Philip Glass, but it was a long time ago. In fact the first CDs I ever bought were Handel’s Solomon (John Eliot Gardiner, in what was then a brand-new performance) and The Photographer, which I had recently seen staged by Joanne Akalaitis. Maybe it was Koyaanisqatsi that started me. I was surprised to realize last year during all the Steve Reich birthday celebrations that I knew very little about his music; I would have said it was because he didn’t happen to come to Boston when I lived there, but recently when sorting out over twenty years worth of playbills I came across some flyers advertising him, so I guess it’s just that I didn’t happen to go to any of his concerts, who knows why. It’s strange to say that a major composer slipped through the cracks, but so it was with Reich and me. So I bought the Nonesuch set to catch up on what I’d been missing. I can see why he and Glass (and Adams) were grouped together, but they don’t really sound alike, and I can also see why they all rejected the “minimalist” label (it’s odd how many art movements bear names that started out as dismissive insults: Gothic, Fauve, Impressionist, Ash-Can School. . . ). But Glass I heard fairly often: chamber operas (The Juniper Tree and The Fall of the House of Usher) at ART; 10,000 Airplanes (a collaboration with David Henry Hwang with such an awful libretto – hey, maybe the crazy people are really the sane ones! – that I ended up never seeing M. Butterfly; knee plays and tissues for Robert Wilson works like The Civil Wars; and performances by the Philip Glass ensemble. One of these is particularly vivid in my memory, since it took place in the long, narrow auditorium belonging to the Berklee College of Music and the woman right in front of me was bobbing her head in time to the music. Think about that for a minute – she was nodding her head up and down in time to Philip Glass’s music. A glance around verified that not one other person in the entire place was similarly bobbing. Nope, just the person directly in front of me. My habit of listening to instrumental music with my eyes shut may have started that night. I had to do something to avoid vertigo. Too much of a steady beat is actually what made me listen to less Glass over the years; increasingly I was disturbed by the overwhelming monotonous thump of most pop music, and I look for sounds with a little more variety. But every time I think I probably wouldn’t like Glass any more, I listen to him and find him mesmerizing. Satyagraha is one of those works I just need to hear on a fairly regular basis. You respond to this sort of thing or you don’t. People like to say that all Glass sounds the same, but you could say the same about Gregorian chant, if you didn’t respond to it. But if you do, there’s infinite variety within a very specific-sounding world. Hearing Philip Glass is like reading Gertrude Stein at her most cubist; both have a stripped-down feeling that sounds permanently modern, and both are going to send some people screaming into the night, while others will be hypnotized by how significantly a single modal change can affect what’s happening, and find a lot of wit and profound understanding in the experience. Last Friday’s “Evening of Chamber Music” with Philip Glass, presented by San Francisco Performances, was more intimate than the other Glass concerts I’ve heard. It’s always interesting to me to hear chamber works from a composer when I’ve mostly been hearing big operas or symphonies; a year or so ago Cal Performances presented a John Adams Composer Portrait featuring small-scale instrumental works (performed by Alarm Will Sound, I think – my apologies to the artists, but I always get them confused with Bang on a Can), and there was a whole side of Adams I hadn’t heard much of lately. Glass has a pleasingly low-key, slightly confused-sounding manner that obviously hides a very determined personality. He announced the program from the stage; he started off by himself playing Metamorphosis on the piano. I’m not really familiar with this piece; I wonder if another pianist would have used the pedal as much, but I also don’t care a whole lot – there’s something really thrilling to me in hearing an artist perform his own work, even if he’s not a dazzling pianist. This is, I suppose, basically irrational, since the thing is to hear the music and not see the person through whom it arrived in the world, but music itself is an irrational pleasure, so I enjoyed his performance possibly more than I would a more accomplished one. Then Wendy Sutter took over with a fluent Songs and Poems for Cello (which, by the way, is a piece that doesn’t “sound like Philip Glass,” the way Metamorphosen to me doesn’t sound like Richard Strauss, which may say more about the assumptions we make about composers than about their actual range). Then the final performer, Mick Rossi on percussion, appeared, and we heard Tissues from Naqoyqatsi and some music for Genet’s The Orchard (Glass rather endearingly admitted he had seen the play so long ago that he couldn’t remember what part was prompting the music). The concert closed with the Opening and Closing sections of Glassworks, which, Glass wittily noted, “sound the same.” But even within the distinctive Philip Glass sound, there are differences; his music seesaws between frenzy and elegy, which I think captures the mood of our time persuasively.