31 August 2008

gotta sing, gotta dance

As a dear friend of mine once noted, poverty sucks, and so last spring I had decided I couldn’t buy any tickets to the ballet. But much as I hate benefiting from the misfortunes of others, I ended up with several tickets from surgery-bound friends of friends (I’m happy to report that everyone is fully recovered). I would not have chosen the Jerome Robbins program myself, but charity boys don’t get to choose.

I probably wouldn’t have chosen a Sunday matinee either, having had some especially bad experiences in previous encounters with the home-before-dark crowd, but there I was, seeing the Opera House in afternoon light for once. The lobby is quite attractive, with its cool marble floors and the light glinting off the golden rosettes in the ceiling and dappling the sand- and wheat-colored stone of the columns and arches, and I watched for a while as the audience gathered; mostly crowds of middle-aged women wearing artistic scarves and traveling in groups, with a few trim and stylish enough to be obvious as former dancers themselves, and lots of dowager grandmothers towing along excited little girls who were actually wearing velvet dresses as if it were Easter Sunday, and the occasional woman by herself staring blankly at the occasional male couples, who seemed to come in two types (both too thin, or both too fat); altogether a scene crying out for the fluid brush of a Singer Sargent, or a Warhol, or Grosz.

It’s a bit different from the opera crowd, though perhaps the difference is because it was a matinee, so there were more women traveling alone or with children. I went up to the gift shop to see how it had changed from opera season, and I have to say, given the warm spring weather, what was up with all the scarves? Opera-season clothing doesn’t get past a few logo T-shirts (or sweatshirts for those chilly simulcast nights), but there were racks of scarves, gauzy, silky, flowered, shiny, and sometimes downright architectural. And there was lots and lots of pink stuff, and lots of items aimed at little girls. It’s odd that such a physical and erotic art should be conceived of as a dream for little girls, but then that's true of a lot of stuff considered suitable for little girls; even a demonic tale like Wuthering Heights is considered nice for girls, and clearly there’s a dark pull behind the prettiness. Whatever it is, the ballet sure doesn’t shy away from the precious little ballerina stereotype.

The program opened with Fancy Free, which struck me as even more grotesque than it did the first time I saw it last year, but then we’ve had an entire extra year of the Iraq war since then. Remember the Iraq War? It's getting even less coverage these days, what with high gas prices and all, plus the presidential election (though you'd think the election might actually lead to more discussion of the on-going war, not less). In light of what we’re doing in Iraq, it seems unbelievably perverse, or callous, to revive twice in two years this wartime propaganda pastoral of carefree and flirtatious sailors on leave. I can’t believe there aren’t other pieces more suitable for revival, even in the possibly limited genre of Cute and Innocent Americana. I did amuse myself during the irritating episode in which two of the men take that one woman’s purse and play keep-away with it by wondering how long it would take a woman nowadays to call the police – though I can’t believe that even then such bullying was really the best way to meet a girl. Whatever happened to Hi, I’m new in town, care to show me the sights?

After intermission we had In the Night, in which three different couples expressed their three different relationships in dance form. It was generally pleasant, though it struck me as a bit thin; but then, at least one couple was usually so far back and to the left that I simply couldn’t see them from my seat. No doubt an unobstructed view would have enriched my viewing considerably.

Before the third piece, the SF Ballet premiere of West Side Story Suite, I was earwitness to the following exchange among one of those groups of women who made up most of the audience. There were some younger women, daughters or possibly granddaughters and even great-granddaughters, and their mother (or grandmother), who must have been at the very least in her late 50s/early 60s, and then her mother, who looked extremely old and was almost bent double. So the mother says to the old lady, “Oh, Mother, next is West Side Story!”

The Old Lady: “What’s that?”

The Mother: “It’s about gangs.”

The Old Lady: “The gays?”

The Mother: “No, mother – gangs. In New York City. It’s Leonard Bernstein, so it’s very fast.”

The Old Lady: “Never heard of it.”

The Mother: “Oh, Mother, sure you have! Don’t you remember when [the name of her future husband] took me on our first date? We went to see the movie and I was all dressed up in that blue dress with the white sweater, and he stopped by the house first and we took a picture of it, and we had the picture hanging up in the living room?”

The Old Lady: “Nope. Never heard of it.”

To answer the obvious query, the old lady, though physically frail, seemed to be quite sharp mentally. So I have absolutely no idea how she managed to be the sort of person who takes family trips to ballet matinees yet had managed to avoid all knowledge of West Side Story. I know it’s beloved, but not particularly by me. Candide is one of my favorite musicals, but I’m pretty indifferent to just about everything else Bernstein wrote. And you know why I missed the traveling Dudamel concert last November that everyone has been talking/raving about ever since? Because the program featured Dances from West Side Story and I just didn’t feel like sitting through that, much less paying for the privilege (see note above about poverty sucking). I have a subscription ticket for the Symphony’s upcoming Bernstein program, and if Upshaw weren’t on the program I’d probably have switched it to something I was more interested in.

You can probably divide the world into West Side Story people and Candide people, just as you can divide them into Rodgers and Hammerstein people or Rodgers and Hart people. I’m always amused by those who say that the reason the great days of the musical are over is that audiences these days are “too sophisticated” to accept people bursting into song, as if acceptance of the stylized and artificial were not the essence of sophistication (or as if the audience that listened to Cole Porter and Gershwin were somehow less “sophisticated” than the audience that thinks Madonna is a singer). And I don't even take the slightly embarrassed tone some have these days towards West Side Story’s earnest and dated “relevance” or its fancy-stepping gang-bangers. I just don’t really connect with these stories of young love against the odds, I guess. I mean, they’re fine, but I really need something more. (So I’m especially curious to see how my favorite Mark Morris handles his new version of Romeo and Juliet at the end of September, and how I like it).

If you tell me that some guy is going to be haunted by the ghosts of dead virgins who plan to dance him to death, or that a guy falls in love with a swan, I’m totally there. But two crazy-in-love kids making beautiful love against the odds in this crazy old world, which is so filled with hate – meh, not so much. Anyway the dancing was very nice, though as sometimes happens in these slice-and-dice versions, the remaining story was so episodic – really not much more than the essential big hits strung together – that I wondered how anyone not familiar with the musical could figure out what was going on. Of course, the old lady next to me was undoubtedly the only person in that position, and she seemed to be having a pretty good time, so no harm done I guess. The ending does veer off into some Balletic Land of The Apotheosized Lovers, so all of a sudden the music starts sounding like Appalachian Spring and the young lovers walk off together, or something like that. But the really weird staging decision was to have the dancers do their own singing. I’m sure it was fun for them, in a high-school musical kind of way, and it might even have been fun for some of the audience, like their parents. I didn’t hear anything that made me think the opera world had lost any future stars.

And speaking of the opera world’s future stars . . . I heard a bunch of them at the Merola Grand Finale. I had missed the Merola productions of Albert Herring and Don Giovanni, not just because – here comes a recapitulation of the first theme – poverty sucks, but because they were at the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason, and it is a pain in the ass to get to. But I’d been hearing great things about this group. I’m not going to go on too much about individual performers, except to say I was particularly struck by Renee Tatum and Nathaniel Peake in Werther, mostly because it was an opera I was pretty much indifferent to, despite lines such as “It’s on the table where you left your translation of Ossian,” until I heard their intense performance of “Ah, mon courage m’abandonne.” (Check out sfmike’s write-up – with pictures! – here.)

What I would like to do is suggest to the Merola folks that if they included surtitles with the name and composer of the opera and the name(s) of the performer(s) before each excerpt, they would have cut down on the brain-dead chatter during the performance by about 90%. You’d think the people who would go to something like this are the sort of seasoned opera goers who wouldn’t need to play name that tune with Trovatore or Rosenkavalier. Perhaps being seasoned opera goers means they have lost the sort of common sense that would tell them that if one character addresses another as “Arabella” (or “Vanessa”), the opera in question most likely is Arabella (or Vanessa). I don’t really understand the panicked need to know right away what opera is being sung, anyway, since the words are there and you know what is being sung – do you really need to know the composer right then? If the piece is really that good, you'll still remember at intermission, when you can look at the program book, though apparently even that was just too difficult to follow for some, such as the decrepit old man (and this one really did seem to be slipping into that good night) and his daughter/caregiver on the other side of my compatriot (who was heroic in his forbearance – if I’d been next to them I wouldn’t have been so nice). They were particularly and perpetually nonplussed, except for the strange interlude during the excerpt from Pelleas et Melisande that opened the second half, when I heard a weird tuneless humming near me and realized that the old man was releasing his inner Mary Garden into the auditorium and singing along with Melisande. Ah, and who among us has not felt exactly like Melisande? But one is well-advised to keep that sort of thing to oneself.

Most of the staging was minimal, but for some reason the two Mozart excerpts (“La mia Dorabella . . .E la fede delle femmine . .. Una bella serenata” from Cosi and what was delightfully titled “Hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm” from the Magic Flute, and I’ll bet you know what part that is) were apparently meant to prepare the singers for careers in the regie theater strongholds of state-subsidized houses. I kind of liked having Gugliemo and Ferrando playing with Barbie dolls when they sing about their perfect mistresses, though it's fairly obvious, but having the Three Ladies smoking, and using a gun as the magic flute and a bag of cocaine as the glockenspiel, were all silly and terrible ideas.

So some moments of bad staging, many moments of thrilling singing, and an utterly clueless audience, and that’s a night at the opera. There was one more odd thing about the program, and I think it must have been deliberate, but I have absolutely no idea what the motive was, and I can’t say I’m really complaining, but: it is really strange that in an almost three-hour program of excerpts from (by and large) famous and beloved composers and operas, there was not a single note by Puccini played or sung. Why revive Boheme on the main stage, when these young and hopeful performers are the only ones who should be singing it?

9 comments:

vicmarcam said...

Hey! I love Candide and West Side Story and I love Rodgers and Hammerstein and Rodgers and Hart. I guess I get to straddle the great divide. I'm not disagreeing with your division for the most part, though, because I can divide everyone I know into one of those groups.
I love the interaction between the mother and daughter. Old ladies can be scary mean.

pjwv said...

Sorry to break it to you, but you do not straddle the great divide. You're Rodgers and Hammerstein all the way. I'm not saying it's love/hate -- I'm saying it's basic nature. You're Rodgers and Hammerstein and I'm Rodgers and Hart. Ah well -- we'll always have Rodgers.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately, I'm a West Side Story guy, meaning, of course, the Oscar Peterson Trio recording of West Side Story from '62. Although I do have strong Overture to Candide association with Dick Cavett that may one day force me to cross party lines.

I love the Old Lady. Does that make me a bad person?

pjwv said...

Hey JW,
Which Old Lady are you talking about -- mine (who is obviously not easily assimilated) or Candide's (who is)? Either way, I think that makes you a far from bad person.

I was about to say I'm not familiar with the Oscar Peterson West Side Story, and I'm almost positive I'm not, but I'd better check the jazz CDs and see if it's buried there. I buy way too many CDs. I don't think that makes me a bad person, but perhaps just a person who's bad at time management.

Culturist said...

If ever you're in New York during one of the big ballet companies' seasons, I insist that you let me take you to a matinee, so we can compare East Coast/West Coast habits:

http://blogs.wnyc.org/culturist/2008/07/03/of-matinees-motherships-and-making-joisey-natives-mad/

The alcohol is on me.

I've always thought that the age of the great musical is over because, by and large, they've stopped making great, or even good, musicals.

cheers,
c

pjwv said...

Hey Claudia,
OK, you're on, for the ballet matinee and the alcohol, if I manage to get to NYC at an appropriate season. Thanks for the link -- I had read that particular post earlier but had not seen the comments. I love the part about Morris. One of the matinees I was referring to was actually his Sylvia for SF Ballet; the first time they did it I was in Philadelphia during most of the performances so if I wanted to see it, and I very much did, I had to go to the final matinee. There was one very spacey older woman about 15 rows back in the orchestra who had on so many clanking bracelets that the house manager showed up at intermission telling her (more apologetically than I thought was necessary) that she had to remove them because the dancers were complaining about the distracting noise. Unfortunately he couldn't do anything about the gag-inducing amount of perfume she was wearing; I was in the first row, so about 14 rows away from her, and I could hardly breathe due to it. And then *she put on more* during the intermission! The whole thing was very Miss Havisham.

Your comment about musicals made me laugh, because it's true (except for you, Stephen Sondheim!). I don't know if the great American musicals were just one of those weird cultural efflorescences that occur, like the boom in great British poets in the early nineteenth century or the great silent comedians in southern California during the early 20th century; I can't help thinking there were some other factors involved in the decline, like the economic basis of music switching to rock/pop/rap/whatever you want to call it, which, by and large, does not have the musical and emotional range to produce an evening of drama, though people keep trying.

Anonymous said...

It's possible that my love for the Old Lady is, in fact, love for your insouciant prose version of her. I can live with it, either way.

Oscar Peterson's West Side Story is not considered by the cognoscenti to be among his best efforts, for what that's worth. The Trio is so locked in and swinging so strongly and effortlessly, that it probably didn't matter what they played that day (which, of course, makes my adding it to this conversation a bit academic). I heard the recording again just the other day and thought to myself, "Do I like this better than any of the Broadway Cast versions?"

Culturist said...

Yay! I'll make sure to wear lots of bangles and one of Elizabeth Taylor's strongest perfumes ... and, of course, I shall unwrap hard candy at every opportunity ...

Tell me more about these great silent comedians in Southern California??? Fascinating.

I'm sure there are many factors involved in the decline (plummet?). I wonder if there is a good history of musical theater that goes into the factors. I bet there is.

pjwv said...

Hey JW, I'm happy to provide an insouciant prose version of someone you can love. We all end up being collections of words, especially in the blogosphere. I was always amused when I'd finally meet people who read my blog and I clearly did not look the way they had pictured me.

I listen to a fair amount of jazz but I never feel I know it as well as I do classical music -- maybe I just haven't been listening to it as long or as often, or I haven't read as much about it. I was thinking the other day (after listening to the L Price/Warfield Porgy and Bess) about the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong version -- I just don't know; I should listen to it again. Both have great voices in their very different ways but I'm just not sure they go together all that well.

And hey Claudia,
Make sure the hard candy is in plastic wrappers, and not the paper wrappers that deaden the noise. . . .

As for the silent comedians, I was just referring to the usual suspects from silent movie days: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon, Arbuckle, and others: a whole group that came from English pantomime and musical hall and American vaudeville and from just plain weirdness and made some very strange and entertaining films.

I should point out that I don’t actually laugh that much at these films. I lent City Lights to a friend of mine, mostly for the sake of the indelible ending, and he returned it saying it wasn’t all that funny, which kind of surprised me because it didn’t occur to me to warn him that it wasn’t. I tend to laugh at verbal things, I guess (though I did laugh at Lubitsch’s Marriage Circle, which is a silent comedy but not what people think of as “silent comedy”; a similar sophisticated film is Stiller’s Erotikon, which is Swedish).

Of course Chaplin and Keaton are the best known. If you’ve never seen them, check out Keaton’s Sherlock Jr for starters, or Chaplin’s Gold Rush. I like the invention and the poetry and the elegance. Plus all that homegrown surrealism! (Check out Charley Bowers’s short films.) The films of Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon have only fairly recently become easily available, so I haven’t seen all that many of them. Lloyd’s eager-beaver all-American persona isn’t as appealing to me as the weirdness of the others. Langdon is hard to top for weirdness. He has sort of a strange baby-man look (not boy-man – baby-man). I think Tramp Tramp Tramp is the film in which his romantic lead is Joan Crawford, which has to make up one of the strangest couples in film. (The title refers to a long walking contest, not to Ms Crawford.)