09 September 2008

the real deal

I’ve noticed for quite some time now that “passion” is a buzzword these days the way “ambition” was back in the late 1980s: both are deeply ambiguous qualities that are nonetheless presented as simple and unambiguously positive. “Passion,” in fact, has become such a cliché that I merely note its presence, since it has no real meaning anymore; I know most people mean “the thing that makes me interesting” but what they are actually describing is usually “the thing that makes me especially loud-mouthed and ignorant.” Last year I was living in fear that during job interviews someone would ask me the latest inane and fashionable question, “What are you passionate about?” Would I then be true to myself – to my passion – and blurt out the truth: “Avoiding conversations like this?”

“Authenticity” is now a rising buzzwords (or an emerging one, to use another buzzword); I’m hearing and reading it more and more these days. Again, since it is an ambiguous word used without ambiguity, I’m not sure what it means – what true purity and actual Reality are meant. Thoughts of authenticity and even of passion were floating cloud-like through my mind over the past few days, as I began the giddy autumn round of theater-going.

Nothing (except possibly a free ticket in premium orchestra, and even then only with a stun-gun) could induce me to go to Opening Night for either the Symphony or the Opera. I like to think I’m an open and democratic guy, but in my heart of hearts I have the snobbish conviction that the people who go to these things, like Catholics who only go to mass on Easter or Christmas, only believe in social obligation rather than in music. But I can catch the gala spirit, which is one of the reasons I very much enjoyed Angela Gheorghiu’s recital at Berkeley on Saturday. For someone who has only previously appeared in this area once before, she certainly received the ovation of a much-loved star, and she certainly knew how to milk it, which was charming in its way.

It’s a really lovely voice, though at times not quite powerful enough to rise above the orchestra (I was in the front row, but my balcony friend had the same opinion). The Puccini arias – Ch’il bel sogno di Doretta from Rondine, Un bel di, O mio babbino caro as an encore – came off best, I thought; her Pace, pace mio Dio, one of my all-time favorite arias from one of my all-time favorite operas, lacked the umber shades I wanted, but then I have heard Leontyne Price sing the aria live (in recital, several times).

The odd, somewhat incoherent program varied the celebrated opera arias with orchestral interludes from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, which sounded splendid and precisely flowing; what a pleasure to hear them sounding so good, and to hear the overtures to Figaro and Cenerentola and the intermezzos from Manon Lescaut and Cavalleria Rusticana without the chatter of those who are only waiting for the big arias (so good job by the Berkeley audience on this one!).

The orchestral interludes also allowed Gheorghiu time to change from her white gown to her black one and then to a red one – that’s three gowns for a total of eleven vocal pieces (counting the three encores); that’s 3.6 songs per gown, which seems like a high ratio, even for a diva, and despite my enjoyment I couldn’t help feeling we weren’t quite getting full value for our gala-priced tickets, with only slightly more than an hour of music (including the orchestral pieces). The ruched black gown was so tight that, in my humanitarian way, I was worried that she wouldn’t be able to breathe, and therefore sing, in it. She did succeed, and it turned out to be an interesting sight, like watching the buffer baritones sing shirtless: you got to see what muscular movements produced what sounds (and I didn’t realize those vibrated on the high notes – I love sitting in the first row!).

The “popular songs” – “popular” meaning “not operatic arias”; you’re not going to hear Curtis’s Non ti scorda r di me or Delibes’s Les Filles de Cadiz blaring from an iPod on public transit, unless you're next to a conservatory student, or hear them sampled by rappers keeping it real – were less interesting to me, though Gheorghiu sang them with as much conviction as the meatier arias. And I’m just not sure that a Romanian soprano is wise to risk I Could Have Danced All Night to an American audience. That’s one of the few songs I actually like from My Fair Lady (the other is On the Street Where You Live, thanks for asking). My dislike for that particular musical predates my becoming aware of what seems to be a critical consensus that it is “really” a Viennese operetta, proving once again that Viennese operetta is a genre to which I have an instinctive aversion. You’d think Romania being close to Vienna, at least physically, would help out, but I couldn’t help recalling Audra McDonald’s performance of that same song in that same hall last June; she had an easy mastery of the style and sold it (and even conducted a sing-along) in a way that Gheorghiu didn’t quite manage.

Somehow, despite the lovely evening, and my enjoyment, and the audience’s vociferous happiness, I can’t quite listen to Gheorghiu without a certain ironic distance. The grand diva mannerisms, like her somewhat studied on-stage flirtatiousness, seem slightly too calculated. That makes them oddly endearing in a way – she wants so much to have the audience adore her like an old-fashioned grand diva – but also makes her seem to be more in the service of La Gheorghiu than of la Musica, makes her seem not quite to have a deep musical intelligence – I couldn’t imagine Dawn Upshaw doing this type of mixed-bag program. Have I heard too many stories about Gheorghiu’s backstage antics? That arm upraised in triumph at the concluding high note – both arms for a really big finish! – with each repetition it seemed less like the spontaneous exultation of the triumphant athlete that a successful singer is, and more like a gesture calculated to convey the Diva manner. I’d entertain the thought that the old-fashioned Diva cannot be regarded without irony these days, but I don’t think that’s true: Callas reigned in the 1960s, and that’s not a decade that, as it is popularly conceived, seems congenial to her form of the Divaesque. I’ve heard great divas, and I’ve heard great singers, and they move you to a place beyond ironic distance.

Friday night I was at Thick Description Theater’s second show this season, Colman Domingo’s A Boy and His Soul. I didn’t find it as completely successful as their production earlier this year of Blade to the Heat (next up is The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks, which I’m really eager to see), though it’s quite entertaining and sustained my interest for its (almost) 90 minute running time. Domingo overcame a slightly halting start, and his charm and energy and presence can carry you past the holes in the concept. But afterwards, waiting for the bus and then the BART train, my doubts loomed larger and I felt that the piece could have used some further work. (Though I should point out that a lot of the audience felt differently – the woman behind me, giggling constantly and chewing gum, was not the only one singing along – is this what it’s like to sit through Mamma Mia!? Anyway, she seemed perfectly happy with the whole thing.)

It’s an autobiographical one-man piece about growing up black and, it turns out, gay in Philadelphia in the late 70s. The running theme that ties it all together is soul music. That felt a bit contrived to me. For one thing, that wasn’t the music Colman himself favored as a boy. He keeps asserting that the soul music of the late 70s is his music, the music that created him, but if there’s a moment when he really takes it to heart, we’re not told. The closest he comes is going with his sister to an Earth, Wind, and Fire concert, and realizing how much it unites the black audience.

As he flips through the family’s old vinyl LPs in a crate on an old record player (the show’s madeleine dipped in tea, and one of the few props on the mostly bare stage, along with some family photographs on the back wall), which he discovered abandoned in the basement after his parents moved out of their now crack-destroyed neighborhood, he comes across the Carpenters album that belonged to him – it gets a laugh, being the square white music among all the soulful black acts, and it’s also an early indication that he’s, you know, “different,” but I wonder why an old Carpenters album should be any sillier to us than an old Earth, Wind, and Fire album. And why should his practicing Beethoven on the violin – Beethoven, of all the soul-searching and soul-creating heaven-stormers – be used as evidence of his effeminate, nerdy nature? It’s the standard pop culture link between classical music and the effete, decadent, and esoteric (just as discussed by Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise). Why should Beethoven be any more alien to his soul than to any contemporary American’s?

I was reminded of a novel I read quite a few years ago, Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow, about a well-off middle-class black widow who has to discover her “real identity” by abandoning her comfortable life and discovering her “cultural identity” in the happy and musical poverty of the Caribbean islands. But nothing in that life is what she has actually lived, and she actively resists it in the beginning – so in what sense is that way of life her “authentic being,” in a way that the comfortable middle-class existence she really lived is not? Why should she allow the sentimentally summoned “ancestors” to control her self-identity? (Try to imagine a novel about an Irish widow who discovers that she no longer needs the nice house she and her husband worked for, because what she really truly needs are the sod huts of her suffering ancestors, with their requisite rich poetry (at least according to the stereotypes) and empty stomachs.)

It’s a way of defining one’s allegiance to and identity with a group with which one might have little in common, but to which outsiders insist you belong: you embrace and celebrate the limitations. Domingo mentions that his mother encouraged his classical studies and love of art, and used to put Leontyne Price on the record player on Sunday evenings, until his stepfather said he wanted to hear music that “sounded black” (an interesting sidelight into the various types of racism Ms Price had to face during her great career, though that’s not the point that’s being made here). I had the feeling that what we were seeing here was simply the exhaustion of Otherness – that, worn down by the constant consciousness of his race in a racist society and his sexual orientation in a homophobic society, Domingo decided, based on the importance of soul music to his family, that declaring it important to him was his way of belonging not only to them but to the larger black community. I guess it’s a standard need to define oneself by a group or groups, whether or not the groups really want you, but why shouldn’t he include the Carpenters and Beethoven in the music that defines him? Why limit himself to his family’s or his society’s limitations? Why not include his mother's definition of "music that sounds black" as well as his stepfather's?

Domingo convincingly and swiftly embodies the different members of his family, though some portraits are less successful than others. His sister – a proudly loud-mouthed chainsmoker who makes a point of blasting her music to annoy people – is given a moment at the end, after we also hear that she battled drug addiction for years, when she says she feels like the B side – the flip side of the hit, the side that never gets played – and that maybe that’s why she’s so loud. Well, sure; there’s a certain poignancy there, but also a fairly obvious motive, and as someone who has ridden many buses and trains with people who make a point of being inconsiderate to prove that they exist and are important, it’s the adolescent obviousness of the motive that makes such behavior so incredibly annoying. It would be sentimental of me to pretend otherwise. I can’t muster too much sympathy with that sort of self-indulgence.

But the portrayal of the mother and stepfather are particularly interesting and moving, and the emotional high point of the show – the moment when the use of soul music didn’t seem like just an arbitrary gimmick to tie loose scenes together – is when both parents are slowly dying, each conscious that both are slowly dying, when the mother encourages her husband to sing Gladys Knight’s You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me the way he used to. It’s a deeply personal moment, painful and beautiful. There are other moments, however, when the personal moments are, to be somewhat harsh, less interesting. That’s a hazard in telling your own story. I’m sure it was profoundly significant and moving to Domingo when he came out to his family and they accepted him, but from a theatrical point of view it’s a story we’ve seen too many times before, and it feels a bit dated – though of course he’s talking about a couple of decades ago, and that’s already another era.

And there is a certain celebration of datedness here. At the end, we find out about a younger brother, who hasn’t been mentioned before, and he explains that when the parents moved they left the LPs in the basement, hoping some other family might enjoy them, because they had bought all the old music on CD at Virgin Records years before. This is meant to be sort of a comic moment, and the solution to the mystery of how his parents could abandon their past, but as soon as Domingo mentioned the abandoned LPs at the very beginning of the show I had already thought, well, they probably replaced the old albums with CDs. Times change and so does technology.

There’s a certain amount of dwelling on telling ephemera of the time (certain types of colored aluminum drinkware, certain ways of doing one’s hair or entertaining oneself) that can seem like easy nostalgia, a shared identity of age that really only seems shared. Except for a brief dismissal by the stepfather, there’s no mention of rap music, which has been around for decades now (and is also used by many as a signifier of black identity, and as such, like rock and soul, is quite popular with the corporations trying to sell us stuff). Despite his repeated assertions that the music made him, this piece isn’t really about that specific music – it’s about what was playing on the radio when he was young, when people he loved were still around to enjoy it.

Then the evening before that (we’re back to Thursday now) I went down to Davies for the San Francisco Symphony. The orchestra had recovered splendidly from the exhaustion of Opening the Season the night before. I did see a few women whose hilariously grotesque costumes made me think the Season Opener might be a two-day affair. It was a great beginning for the real start, the musical start, of the Symphony's exciting season, even though Tilson Thomas insisted on picking up the microphone before opening with Ligeti’s Lontano. He proceeded to talk mostly about Stockhausen. OK, he wasn’t quite as disjointed as I’m making him sound – his point was that Ligeti was trying to create with an orchestra the sounds and textures that Stockhausen created electronically – but did this gorgeous swelling beast really need to be defanged with the little lecture, putting it all in perspective? Let the gorgeous sounds speak for themselves. Ligeti and Berlioz, much as I love the recordings of their music, really strike me as two composers whose works have a different quality, more vivid and detailed and ravishingly alive, when heard in person. I'm glad San Francisco Symphony is including more Ligeti in its programming; the Requiem is coming up later in the season.

The gaminesque Labeque sisters, Katia and Marielle, then played the Poulenc Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra. I haven’t heard les Labeques all that often, but I’ve always liked them, mostly because I remember reading a review in the Boston Globe (probably by Richard Dyer) that mentioned they were one of the few soloists he had ever seen return to the hall after their part of the program just to listen to the rest of the music. The Poulenc is a delightful mélange, and it reminded me of the story that John Adams wrote his Chamber Symphony while studying a Schoenberg score and hearing a Looney Tunes cartoon that his son was watching in another room – not because of those specific influences, but just because of that free-ranging grasp of different styles, from knotty to nutty. Throw in the Prokofiev 5 after the intermission, and that’s a nice evening. I was glad that in the Prokofiev Tilson Thomas avoided his tendency of late to smash things out. I thought it was really nicely balanced.

At home on Saturday, killing time before the theater – which is basically all I ever do – I dug into the CD pile and pulled out a recent release of Porgy and Bess – a recent release, but an old performance (brought to me like Alcestis from the grave), featuring Leontyne Price and William Warfield in the leads. It was the touring version which gave Price her first big break, though after that I don’t think she sang Bess much, no doubt to avoid being racially typecast. The opera underwent some adaptations and adjustments during and after its first run, and there were several versions floating around until the Houston Grand Opera revival in 1976 sort of set the text. This version differs slightly from the now familiar one not only occasionally in text but also in feel – the drums have more of the African sound so familiar to us nowadays from our world-music CDs, and there’s a jazzier feel all around, and not just because Cab Calloway plays Sportin’ Life. Porgy and Bess was the first opera I ever saw, so I have a special fondness for it, and though many consider it the Great American Opera I know that others dismiss it, partly based on its mixed-culture origins. Whatever its impurity, to me it creates its own cultural field, and is deeply moving, and a beautiful thing.

8 comments:

sfmike said...

My god, I'm exhausted just following all your theatrical adventures. Hope you're enjoying "Simon Boccanegra" tonight at the opera, without all those Easter Catholic first-nighters to contend with.

As far as the use of "authenticity" and "passionate" as new buzzwords, by george, I think you're onto something. And of course there can be no Diva who is more Authentic and Passionate at this moment than Angela, and I say that with an ironic straight face. I'm glad you got to watch her vibrate.

pjwv said...

Dear Mike,
Yes, it's all about the vibrations.
I did enjoy Boccanegra, and recommend that you go to Ana Maria Martinez's remaining performance. I would have like to have seen Frittoli as well, but Martinez is gorgeous.
As for the first nighters, I of course exclude the loyal denizens of standing room from my general sneering.
And I'm exhausted too reading about my theatrical adventures. My God, how do I do it?

Sibyl said...

I love reading about what you've seen and getting your assessment of same. I used to do theater like that when I was young, unencumbered and had an ounce of energy. I have a rabid (because I cannot use the word passionate) loathing for the whole "passion" thing extending back about 5 years (when you hear a 7 year old talk about their passion you know the cultural moment needs to pass); it is very satisfying to see that someone else has noticed.

May I ask some advice? I have recently given up my orchestra season tix (my only indulgence in life), but I need to see Tote Stadt and Boccanegra: where in the balconies are seats best sonically? Is it all good, or are there places it's pointless to sit? I imagine this sounds like a ridiculous question, but I am old, encumbered and exhausted, so I need all the help I can get.

sfmike said...

@sybil: Try to get tickets in the last row of the last balcony. That's where the sound is the best, and I think they've even lowered the price this year. Also, try to go during one of the "OperaVision" performances so you can see the screens on the side for closeups.

Sibyl said...

Thank you! Thank you!

pjwv said...

Hi Sibyl,
Thank you for the kind words. As for advice on where the good yet cheap seats are, you're best off following Mike's advice; I, like Tom Rakewell, have become a byword for extravagance and folly, and though I gave up my orchestra seat subscription this year (based on repertory), I bought even more expensive seats for individual operas (Boccanegra last Tuesday, Bonesetter's Daughter next Tuesday, and Tote Stadt the Tuesday after that). I've thought about giving the balcony a try, especially with all the good things I've heard about Opera Vision, but I haven't moved on that yet. For one thing, I have the impression that the seats up there are pretty cramped, which is something to bear in mind during a long opera. I used to sit in the last row of the first balcony (I think they call it Dress Circle here -- I always forget) and I find that I really like and need to have the visuals. My eyes are pretty bad, even with glasses operatic and otherwise.

Sibyl said...

I am a fairly small person, so with any luck the seats won't seem tootoo cramped. I definitely need visuals, but this year the financial took precedence over the sensual. I was actually relieved that the rep was so lackluster I couldn't find 5 operas worth keeping my season tickets for. I LOVE sitting in orchestra (and when I was bringing my daughter I could justify the expense for her cultural education), but Tuesday I'll be sitting amongst the angels. Probably I will be thinking about okapis, as I am wont to do.

pjwv said...

Sibyl, I hope you don't have anyone like me in front of you then, to obstruct your view, and that the surrounding audience will be as quiet and shy as the okapi. I'd love to hear what you think of the balcony/Opera Vision experience if that's what you end up doing. I'm doing my best to make financial needs take precendence over the sensual, but I'm just not that good at that sort of thing.