29 February 2008

dog in the manger (High School Musical 2)

Murmurs had reached even my isolated ears that Trinity Lyric Opera was not, after all, going to be allowed to give the previously announced northern California staged premiere of Nixon in China this summer, and last week, while catching up on Soho the Dog, I saw the rumors confirmed. Another advantage of blogging: I can find out what's going on in my backyard by reading Boston-based blogs.

It's customary to say, "I'd love to know the real story here!" but, you know, I really wouldn't. Whatever pettiness, egomania, and backstabbing were involved (fingers have been pointed at San Francisco Opera), the situation has obviously put a struggling (I assume all arts organizations are struggling) small group in an awkward position (they were already selling tickets! to me!) and has deprived local opera-goers of a performance that easily would have been more interesting than three-quarters of SFO's upcoming season. As it is, Trinity Lyric will be performing Robert Ward's The Crucible instead, which I've never heard but is probably more interesting than only half of the upcoming SFO season.

By the way, I find it strange that no one from SFO has contacted me about my failure to renew. I'm not talking about responding to my blog entry; I have no reason to believe that anyone there has read it or knows who I am; also, as I've pointed out, there really is no response they can give to what I wrote. I mean, they can't claim they're giving me a Toscarific, Traviatastic season that I'm going to eat up with a spoon and a side of fries while begging for more. I mean that no one has bothered to contact a subscriber (and minor-level donor) of over fifteen years to find out why I haven't sent my money in yet. Topnotch marketing there, and thanks for caring about your faithful subscribers.

Speaking of caring, Magda of La Rondine just keeps on giving in the statcounter.com department. The other day I got this search: "im thinking of marring a rich female". I assume that was an error for "marrying a rich female", but it works either way.

26 February 2008


The day after St. Valentine’s, I went down to Macy’s and bought myself some heart-shaped boxes of high-quality chocolate at half-price. Sure, that’s pathetic – pathetically delicious!

You see that I have, on occasion, a fairly high embarrassment threshold. But I finally read Sarah Boxer’s “Blogs” article in the February 14 issue of the New York Review of Books, and color me as red as a heart-shaped box from blushing with embarrassment, mostly for her, though anyone who read this article without having read any actual blogs – and bear in mind that the NY Review, though my favorite magazine, has a back page filled with passionate, vibrant, laughing and deeply intellectual lovers of life looking for a mate with the starting age of 60, so perhaps its readers are not really immersed in the blogosphere, however familiar they might be by now with most other computer-related functions – may well conclude that I, a blogger, am the one who should be embarrassed, given Boxer’s clear implication that we are a surly, savage lot of brutes, with our pre- (or is it post-?) verbal “emoticons” (which I see in e-mails frequently, but only rarely in blogs), and our weird lingo, which she carefully explicates for the uninitiated – i.e., “snarky (read: snotty and catty) comment” – like thieves’ lingo in some eighteenth-century novel of London lowlife. Don’t I feel a bit of a flash cove!

Normally I would avoid joking about the average age of NY Review readers, as I slouch towards that Bethlehem myself, but I had the feeling that the generational divide, in attitude if not chronology, is crucial to Boxer’s approach. Throughout I felt as if I were reading one of those MSM (back before they called it that, and let me explain, Boxer-style: MSM is mainstream media; i.e., think the NY Times or Newsweek or the major networks) cover-stories trying to explain hippies to their readers, who are by definition the real and substantial people (“Do these so-called ‘hippies,’ with their long hair and strange lingo – ‘outasight,’ for example, means something so far out of sight that it’s what they call ‘groovy’ – really have something to say to people who bathe? Perhaps, in some sense, they do. . . .”). Or maybe they were trying to explain beatniks. Or the Aesthetic Movement, or anything else seen as new and strange, and associated with the young, that ruthless tide rising towards and undermining our decent and traditional and serious shores.

Links in particular, and the practice of writing a brief commentary on a link, seem to throw her. I don’t know why. What are the Midrashim but a series of comments on an existing document written by someone else? She herself quotes Mark Liberman (of a blog called Language Log) comparing the conversational tone of blogs with the opening of Plato’s Republic. It wasn’t the blogosphere that created this referential, commentative style; it was the style that created the blogosphere. As for the obscure or forgotten references to people, places, and things, that hasn’t really been an insurmountable barrier to readers of diaries and letter collections, or indeed of older or foreign novels. Links are just more convenient footnotes. And if Boxer reads further in that same issue, she’ll find that the always interesting Charles Rosen has an article on Montaigne, every page of whose essays is sprinkled with quotations from the classics, sometimes wrenched out of context or shape – in other words, he’s linking, sometimes casually and sometimes calculatedly, to a vast body of knowledge that exists outside of the text he’s compiling. That’s not essentially different from the blogosphere. So how can Boxer claim that “the whole culture of linking – composing on the fly, grabbing and posting whatever you like, making weird, unexplained connections and references – doesn’t sit happily in a book.” Sure sounds like Tristram Shandy to me, among other books, and it sits on my shelves pretty comfortably as a book.

“Blogging at its freest is like going to a masked ball. You can say all the spiteful, infantile things you wouldn’t dream of saying if you were in print or face to face with another human being.” Well, actually, it is exactly like being in print, except for this: such is the nature of pixels over paper that a blog will be available longer. She makes an interesting assumption that, given freedom of speech and topic, one would inevitably reach for the spiteful and infantile rather than the poetic or sublime; I don’t know what sort of conversations they have over at the NY Review, but most daily conversations are fairly mundane, and most people will shoot down anyone who tries to talk too fancy; such is the human need for power and control. Yes, there are many commenters out there who are spiteful and infantile. You can find lots of them on Fox News or right-wing radio. If these trolls show up on blogs, most bloggers boot them. Nothing says you have to allow anonymous comments, or that you can’t delete someone who crosses the line, wherever individual bloggers draw it.

I’ve run across lots of blog-fear lately. Sometimes it just takes the mild form of assuming that all blogging is ranting; other times, as in Boxer’s article, it’s the presentation of bloggers as some weird secret band of thugs, uninhibited by decency or convention, with something like the air of dash and danger of a band of brigands in Byron. There is plenty of unprincipled, cruel, and, worst of all, ungrammatical stuff flowing out through blogs, but that’s the way of the world: the same thing happened right after Gutenberg put his Bibles on the market. Blogging is just a means of distribution, and once a society gets a new means of distribution, first it broadcasts its sacred scriptures (the Bible, or the scientific information for the exchange of which the Internet was originally devised) and then comes the flood of porn and politics, usually combined. It’s just that we’ve had time to adjust to the printing press, and figure out what to select and save, and corporations have figured out how to control it and make money off it. I’m sure we’re all deeply surprised to discover that control and hierarchy turn out to be at the heart of blog-fear. Now anyone can put his or her own stuff out there, without intervention, and new forms of democratic expression are always cause for concern, because democracy is not a natural human view (which is not to condemn it – on the contrary, I laud the artificial). But it’s an unnerving prospect, being the corrupt Pope when Martin Luther self-publishes his 95 theses.

Eventually, like the Soviet Union, Boxer’s theory about “bloggy writing itself” collapses from its own internal contradictions. She mentions opera blogs, so for once I’m actually familiar with the blogs she’s talking about, which hardly helps her case. “For opera, to take another example, you have Parterre Box, which is kind of campy, or Sieglinde’s Diaries and My Favorite Intermissions, written by frequent Met-goers, or Opera Chic, a Milan-based blog focused on La Scala. . . ". Milan is stylish enough to make the cut, but please note her standard-issue New-York-centered view of reality; I assume the Wellsungs didn’t make the cut because of their unfortunate tendency to write about Chicago, and don’t you even think about going west, young man. But the beauty of blogging is that anyone can and does write about his or her local opera company, and anyone else can read it. As far as “bloggy writing” goes, I’ve been enjoying for years the opera blogs she mentions (and others as well), but even if I had just discovered them this afternoon, it would be immediately obvious that their very distinct styles and points of view can only undercut any notion that there is some sort of specific blog style. She also doesn’t mention one of the most prominent music bloggers, Alex Ross, possibly because, as music critic of The New Yorker and author of a well-regarded book on twentieth century music, he counts as a real person and his unfortunate slumming in blogtown is the sort of thing one is too tasteful to acknowledge; or possibly it’s because his success as a blog writer completely undercuts her notion that regular journalists, or those affiliated with magazines, companies, and newspapers, somehow can’t blog correctly. “When you write for pay, you worry about lawsuits, sentence structure, and word choice. You worry about your boss, your publisher, your mother, and your superego looking over your shoulder. And that’s no way to blog.” You mean I’ve been doing it wrong all along? Damn! Here I’ve been worrying about sentence structure and word choice, just as if I were a real person. If that’s the sort of blog Boxer enjoys, that’s her prerogative, but I don’t see that her preference makes it a universal rule.

There’s a strange passage when she discusses a blogger (also unfamiliar to me) called El Guapo, who writes as a youngish Guatemalan-American living in DC, whom she was trying to identify for inclusion in her anthology of blog writing. She “desperately wanted [his entries] to be a memoir.” But “in a book, you can get in trouble for writing under false pretenses or writing a false memoir (right James Frey?). In a blog you can’t.” She then contradicts this point with the anecdote about Lee Siegel creating an alias and attacking critics on his own blog (google it if you’re curious; I don’t want to bother with him – see how handy the whole google thing is?). Well, writing possible fiction about the colorful times of a young Guatemalan-American in our nation’s capital is not at all the same thing as selling as fact an invented story, one which undercuts most accepted theories of rehabilitation, and that’s not the same thing as going undercover to praise yourself. Lots of people out there think a story that really happened is somehow superior to one that was invented, but I expected the NY Review to have a more sophisticated grasp of narrative theory. Pretending your story is real is the oldest trick in fiction, and I know because I read the strange yet true fact in this curious old manuscript secreted within a cupboard of this boarding house into which I just moved, due to peculiar circumstances, which, for particular reasons, I must conceal. Does it matter to the reader, really? The opening of this entry, about buying discount Valentine’s chocolates for myself (see how I’m tying that in? You thought I was being random, didn’t you, instead of carefully selective): are you sure it really happened? Did it really happen as I described it (maybe I bought more, or less, or just thought about the purchase)? Is the story less amusing, or less revealing of me, if I didn't actually buy the chocolates? Narration is inherently choice, and choosing by its nature distorts; and whether the distortion is intended, great, or small, is where the skill comes in, even for bloggers, because it’s all narration, and only the means of distribution has changed.

Perhaps the oddest bit of this odd article comes at the end: “. . . I marveled many times at the large number of bloggers obsessed with masked superheroes . . . Finally, I think I get the superhero fixation. . . .” First, I haven’t really come across many blogs or bloggers obsessed with superheroes. Second, I nonetheless have no doubt there are many of them, because it’s exactly the sort of subculture (like opera, locavore living, baseball, and so forth) that elicits strong feeling and interest and therefore the need for expression. Third, our culture generally has become sort of obsessed with superheroes the past few years – just ask Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, or any number of other young (mostly male) writers, or check any list of forthcoming summer films for the recent past. Fourth: Finally? Finally she gets the superhero fixation? Let me put it this way: masked superheroes are mysterious, often misunderstood, yet good and heroic; they are big, handsome men with wall-to-wall muscle and no shame in or fear of their bodies (those tight suits leave nothing to the imagination!); men envy them, women want them, or vice versa; those around them do not realize who they really are, in their true and secret powerful selves; their intervention always turns out well, and on the side of uncomplicated truth and justice. I realize I was once an adolescent boy and Ms Boxer presumably was not, but does it really require a deep sympathetic imagination to get the appeal? I’m convinced one of the reasons I wasn’t obsessed with superheroes when I was a boy was because I thought it was too naked a reflection of my anxieties.

But I think the real point of her ending is the stereotype that superhero fans (and by insinuation bloggers) are arrested adolescents, who might be physically living, if you can call it that, in Mom and Dad’s basement, but emotionally dwell in Cloud-cuckoo-land, and these are the strange, dreamy infantile types playing with dangerous big boy toys. I guess that’s meant to be her big finish. Here’s a better one: She seems to think the barbarians are at the gates. The real situation is that, like the walls of Jericho, the gates have come tumbling down.

22 February 2008

search throughout the panorama

1. A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur

The search terms cropping up on statcounter.com have not been as entertaining lately; I mostly get "reverberate hills" over and over, which is probably just OCD me checking and checking, come to think of it. But I did get a good one recently: "prefer real ladies over clumsy women". Wow. Sure. I mean, I guess one would. But since the search came from the Hague, I'm picturing sort of a mash-up of fin-de-siecle Paris and a Dutch genre scene, with a monocled diplomat in morning coat off to the side, pursing his lips in disapproval as the bulky ruddy milkmaids with their chapped hands trip and spill through their morning labors, while his eyes gaze longingly across the way towards the ostrich-feathered ladies of the minor aristocracy, sipping tea from gold-rimmed Sevres held daintily in their tapered fingers.

In case you're wondering, what the seeker after refined ladyhood was offered was my write-up of La Rondine. I'm guessing that's not what he/she really wanted, however instructive it might be. But it's still more likely than the searches I get for "menstrual pad porn" (which always gets my weird trip to LA last spring) and "free bestiality" (I'm assuming that came from my mention of the "narwhal porn" searches, and I should really stop encouraging these things by mentioning them). Why do those always come from Turkey? Do I even want to know?

2. It Was Inevitable

Today Amazon suggested I buy the graphic novel Justice Society of America: Thy Kingdom Come, Volume 1, by Alex Ross. The reason? I had earlier purchased The Rest Is Noise by Alex "No, he's the other one" Ross. The Rest Is spandex-clad, kick-ass vengeance!

ADDENDUM: I was casting about for a title and, since I was listening to Iolanthe, I naturally thought of the opening chorus of Princess Ida, which I recollected as "Search through the panorama". Tip of the Red Sox cap to Joshua Kosman for e-mailing me with a correction: it's "search throughout the panorama". So I did what I should have done earlier, and checked both the text and the CDs, hoping he was wrong: not only did I misremember the words, I had the tune completely wrong. It scanned in my version! But I am now shamed in front of all Savoyards, and therefore no doubt will soon appear on Koko's Little List, or be lampooned in a relentlessly witty patter song. There's no defense for carelessness or stupidity, but it's customary for the blunderer to offer one, so here goes: late-Victorian satires of female education are not necessarily something I spend too much time with. I'll leave that to the person who was searching here for real ladies instead of clumsy women, and will retreat instead to Proustian meditations on the fragility yet reality of memory. I'm glad someone besides me notices my titles, though.

21 February 2008

what light through yonder window breaks

Cal Performances usually makes its announcement of the upcoming season in late April, but here’s an exciting preview to help make up for disappointments caused by other season announcements, and yes, I’m looking at you, War Memorial Opera House: they will be presenting Mark Morris’s latest evening-length work, Romeo & Juliet: On Motifs of Shakespeare, on September 25 – 28, in Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. These will be just the second performances after the July 4 – 9 world premiere at Bard College.

Here’s some intriguing information from a letter to the Friends of the Mark Morris Dance Group, sent appropriately on Valentine’s Day:

“This new production will be set to the original manuscript by composer Sergey Prokofiev and dramatist Sergey Radlov, recently discovered in Moscow by musicologist Simon Morrison. Forced to change his original work by Soviet cultural officials in 1935, Prokofiev’s manuscript includes a different ending from Shakespeare’s traditional, tragic finale and nearly twenty-five minutes of never-before heard music.”

Damn! Not only Mark Morris – a Prokofiev premiere!

Oddly enough, though I have, in decades of Shakespeare watching, seen R&J on movie and television screens, or various permutations of it danced by guys in tights and girls in tutus or played by orchestras or sung by suspiciously dancey West Side gangs, I have never seen a live performance of the actual play, though as with all of his plays I’ve read it many times. I haven’t exactly sought it out, but I haven’t avoided it either; the young love thing isn’t really a magnet for me (Angelo and Isabella are actually my favorite Shakespearean fun couple). I have noticed that most productions I read about are really staging the idea of West Side Story rather than what Shakespeare wrote: they make it about two historically and culturally opposing groups, like Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, or Jews and Palestinians on the West Bank, or something like that, whereas Shakespeare makes it completely clear that the feuding houses (“two households, both alike in dignity”) are pretty much identical. He very pointedly does not even specify an origin to the feud, something he could easily have done in two or three lines.

I’m very intrigued by the “On Motifs of Shakespeare” subtitle. In Joan Acocella’s excellent biography of Morris, she points out that the keystone of ballet, the male-female pas de deux, has not played a huge part in Morris’s work, and obviously R&J calls for that, so I can’t wait to see what he does with this material. I’m also very curious about the changed ending – a tragic finale would seem to be the point, and I’m not sure what sort of apotheosis the Soviet censors would object to. Just another reason to buy a ticket, I guess.

MMDG has set up a special new website about the production and the musicological issues; you can find it at http://www.lovelives.net/, which I like as a name because Love Lives can be either adjective/noun or noun/verb. Nicely done!

19 February 2008

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, had a bad cold

I’d probably be pretty traumatized and depressed if someone told me how much time I’ve lost in my life to allergies, colds, and other nose-system problems. Sometimes I have to envy Gogol’s character whose nose just walked away. I had a sudden allergy attack yesterday and took plentiful medications, which left me woozy and drowsy but still sneezing and otherwise dripping in unpleasant ways, and unable to do much when I got home, and it picked up again today as soon as I got on the BART train, whose fabric seats collect dust. It might also be a delayed reaction to chopping down two large juniper-like trees (more like super-elongated bushes, actually) on Sunday. They were way too close to my bedroom window, and thinking of possible fire danger, in one of my bouts of prudence or paranoia I pulled out the axe; I also wanted to eliminate the handy bridge they provided to the roof for the squirrels and, no doubt, even worse creatures. I noticed that the rain puddles this evening were gilded with the powdery florescent pollen, so perhaps I’m just in for a long bout. I was reminded of my never-ending cold in December, and how much that threw my month off. I did get my taxes done this weekend, and here’s an unsolicited testimonial: all praise to TurboTax! I saved trees by filing electronically, and then cut them down in my backyard, so I feel well-balanced. Of course, as soon as I cut the trees down my window looked much more exposed, and I wondered if I had made a mistake.

I also wondered if there would be a lot of glare on the big screen (my television is conveniently located in my bedroom), so I had a test viewing of L’Elisir d’Amore from Vienna with Netrebko and Villazon. Yes, all my bitching about the upcoming San Francisco Opera season kind of put me in the mood to see it, and no, I don’t see any contradiction there – I mean, I love toasted coconut ice cream, but not at every meal, and sometimes I’ll happily eat it if it’s in the freezer, but I won’t bother going to the store and buying more even if I crave it, and it's like pulling a DVD off the unmanageable piles rather than buying an expensive seat months in advance and devoting a whole evening to the outing. I basically go to the theater for the show, not to get out of the house or through some weird misguided delusion that I’m in some sort of community, so the show has to be something I can’t get at home. All too often I’ll get postcards for plays that are about “romantic complications among thirty-somethings” or something similar that I have no interest in, and I just don’t see the point, when I could stay home and get the same thing for free, only better written and better acted, on any repeat of Friends. You don’t survive as a cultural institution by providing people with a more expensive, less convenient version of something that’s easily available all around them.

I did experience envy and the urge to go out of my house and straight to Houston when I saw that next season they get to hear the fabulous Laura Claycomb in Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict – I don’t care who’s in it, I just want to hear this live – plus a world premiere by Andre Previn based on Brief Encounter, starring Nathan Gunn. We’re awaiting final counts from all the precincts, but our experts are predicting that San Francisco Opera will hold on to its clear lead as the hand’s-down winner of Most Boring Opera Season in America.

Anyway, Otto Schenk was the director of this L’Elisir, which means, depending on your point of view, that it’s tasteful, charming, and realistic in a traditional way, or boring, conventional, and completely unchallenging. I’m giving it a generally positive review, since I am at heart mild-mannered and easily pleased, and I like the two leads a lot, and I always enjoy the energetic Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (who plays Dulcamara), and it’s a delightful opera, and we’re spared Zeffirelli-style vulgarity, but if this is tradition, it needs, if not a mad regie makeover, a careful examination. Do all the cheerful peasants need to be quite so clean and happy? Couldn’t someone tell Leo Nucci that Belcore is supposed to be a dashing miles gloriosus instead of a grinning buffoon, and that’s where his comedy comes from? Also, someone unfamiliar with the opera might wonder why the lovely Adina has decided to marry someone clearly old enough to be her father (perhaps there’s a hint of a regie concept there?). And this is the sort of thing that gets called “realistic,” showing once again that realism is merely a set of familiar conventions.

I don’t know if my precarious finances will allow me to travel to Houston in a year – it’s seriously a wonderful city to visit, what with the Opera House and other cultural halls on one side, the very nice newish baseball stadium on the other, and in between a light rail that takes you to the Museum of Fine Arts and the de Menil collection – fire up your Feldman and visit the Rothko Chapel! – but I would definitely make it happen if the Berlioz were on at the same time as the Previn. I’ve been on a Berlioz kick, as I’ve mentioned, and I’m not really foreseeing Beatrice et Benedict on the schedules out here anytime soon. I’ve noticed that, as with Ligeti, Berlioz’s music heard live has a vivid, detailed, ravishing quality that recordings don’t quite capture. Dutoit’s Damnation of Faust at the Symphony last spring was so crammed with life, it helped make up for the disappointment of the dry-voiced tenor in that work at the Opera a few years ago. I finally finished the second volume of David Cairn’s Berlioz biography, which took me longer than perhaps it should have, and I realized that, without consciously intending to, I was postponing the painful ending, when the disappointed old man, struggling against constant illness, sees his great opera fail, outlives his lovers and his son, and is left with only the grim determined hope that in the future his music will be played, understood, and enjoyed. It’s a story of neglect and incomprehension that sounded very contemporary to me, and it made me want not only to hear Berlioz’s music, but that of my own contemporaries. Let this expiate! as Lovelace cried. I regret more than ever not going to New York to hear Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Les Troyens.

So despite my December headcold without end, I did make a point of getting to the Symphony’s performance of the Symphonie Fantastique and its sequel, Lelio (big thanks to SY, who got me a half-price ticket, and best wishes for a speedy recovery from one brave little soldier to another, much braver little soldier). I had drugged myself up so that I could listen without annoying myself or others with sneezing and coughing, though unfortunately the equivalent of the original instruments movement has not taken over medicine, and I was drugged not with absinthe, laudanum, tincture of opium, or other historically informed medications or drugs, but with Claritin, Sudafed, Theraflu, and whatever else I had in my satchel that seemed to promise a dry and silent nose.

I had somehow gotten the impression that the Symphony was going to perform the complete Lelio, which is why I really wanted to hear the concert – these days everyone loves the Symphonie Fantastique, and so do I, but it’s not really a rarity the way its sequel is, and I probably would have gone home searching for rest and chicken soup if I’d known. Cairns tactfully suggests that Lelio’s odd combination of solos, choruses, spoken interludes, and satire on the Parisian music scene doesn’t really hold up well, and that may be true, but I’d like a chance to hear it live and judge for myself. Most sequels suffer by containing too much of what made the original successful, and Lelio probably pushes the idea of the suffering artist maudit farther than we can follow; rebelling against society by becoming a brigand or a pirate probably seemed less ludicrous to a post-Byron generation whose world actually contained brigands and pirates, so I can’t really fault, however much I might regret, the Symphony’s decision to play only sections from Lelio, but without the framework it really does end up being just lovely bits of random Berlioz. The soloists were Stanford Olsen, Shawn Mathey, and Dwayne Croft, and generally they sang beautifully, though at a couple of points I wondered if they were fighting the same cold I had, in which case I sympathize and congratulate them on how successful most of their singing was. The chorus did itself proud as well.

Lelio was performed first, which was sort of odd since it's the sequel, but the Symphonie Fantastique was being filmed for the Keeping Score series and they used the intermission to set up the cameras and the audience. Right before the performance they demonstrated how the cameras would be sliding up and down and across all on their very own, which was wise because the audience just could not contain its excitement at the sight, so we got that out of the way before the music started. I have to say it – God, audiences are stupid! You’d think these people had been raised in a Bornean rainforest, far from any sign of the Industrial Revolution, and had only been dropped in Davies Hall five minutes before the performance started.

I was in the front row, and had enjoyed having empty seats on either side of me during Lelio, but for the filming no seats that prominent could be unfilled, just like the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oscar night. Fortunately I realized what was happening in time to move one seat over so that I was at least on the aisle. I honestly don’t know how three or four normal-sized men manage to fit side-by-side in those Davies Hall seats. One under-recognized aspect of Wagner’s theatrical genius is the elimination of armrests from Bayreuth, so we’re spared the territory-marking they always entail. I especially love it when women who are about a foot shorter than I am can’t sit without elbowing me in the ribs all night. So I tend to sit with my arms folded across my chest, mostly out of courtesy to those around me, though I suspect I look as if I’m angrily daring the performers to please me. To top it all off, since I am visually oriented and easily distracted I often listen to instrumental music with my eyes shut, so unless the camera made me look as if I’m in an ecstatic trance of artistic bliss similar to the ones illustrated in those cheeseball ads in the playbills, there’s a good chance I’m ending up on the cutting room floor, which is fine with me.

Yes, I enjoyed the performance of the Symphonie Fantastique, though there’s something clean and precise about Tilson Thomas’s approach that may not capture the full wildness of Berlioz (Mike at Civic Center expressed this opinion in his much more timely report on the concert). But it’s the nature of wildness to recede with familiarity, so you can either accept that and emphasize other qualities – Berlioz’s classical side, for example – or risk emphasizing the grotesque for its own sake, which can also be an artistically and historically valid approach to this music. I had felt bludgeoned by Tilson Thomas’s accounts of the Brahms 4 and Mahler 7, so I was overall pleased with his approach, and I'm always pleased with this music. On the very first flight I ever took, during a high school trip to Washington DC, I put on the headphones they provided and just as the plane lifted into the air the most incredibly perfect music for that exciting moment started playing, and I listened to the whole program so I could find out what it was – it turned out to be the March to the Scaffold from the Symphonie Fantastique, music which ever since has given me the sensation of flight.

12 February 2008

Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek & find

I haven’t seen a lot of Mary Zimmerman’s work, and I’m not sure why – maybe because it’s usually marketed as something to take the kids to, and I tend to avoid those performances, though children are in fact usually better behaved than adults, and if they’re not, they have excitement and inexperience to excuse them. I had seen The Secret in the Wings, based on some of Grimm’s fairy tales, at Berkeley Rep a few years ago and liked it a lot, so I trekked out there again when they presented her latest work, Argonautika, the story of Jason and the golden fleece. I liked this one too, but not quite as much; during the performance the dazzle of the staging distracts you from weaknesses in the script, especially in the second act.

The set is relatively simple and so are the props, but just about any trick that could be done with them was done, to fantastic effect (though to continue with my sea monster thing: the billowing blue cloth that went from waves to menacing monster would have been even better if the creature hadn’t looked a bit too much like Cookie Monster). That’s the part you have to experience live to appreciate. Unfortunately it’s easier to talk about the script flaws than to convey the basic theatrical excitement that can be created with a few ropes and sheets, but that’s what I’m going to do.

The whole approach to the characters was a little cartoony for my taste, and tended to limit the characters to anachronistic caricatures; just to take the goddesses, Hera is a bitchy suburban matron, Athena sort of like the butch best friend in any girl-detective story, and Aphrodite a silly giggling flirt. Hercules is a bit of a buffoon, as he often is, and Soren Oliver was large if not ideally muscular, but he was also surprisingly subtle and moving, especially in his refusal to rejoin the expedition and move on after the death of his young lover, Hylas (Justin Blanchard). In the most profoundly moving exchange of the evening, Hylas half-emerges from a trap door, transformed to a shining river god, to comfort and still the mighty man’s grief with the distant pity and long perspective of the newly immortal. (Oddly enough, though Zimmerman says in the program that Hercules and Hylas are “clearly boyfriends” they are never described in those terms during the performance; they are always called “good friends” in a way that reminded me of the New Yorker cartoon from the 1940s showing a teacher crooning to her class, “Now, of course, Anthony and Cleopatra were the very best of friends.” I don’t know if this is some misguided attempt to be family friendly or merely a laudable reluctance to insist on the semi-obvious.)

Jake Suffian as Jason had an interesting solemnity and sense of duty that might have been better suited to Aeneas; I’ve always had the feeling that Jason is sparkier. Atley Loughridge as Medea had a perfect quality of oddity and apartness about her, but the play would have benefited with less of Medea; instead of shoe-horning the whole history of Jason, Medea, and eventually their murdered children into the second half, Zimmerman should have followed the example of L’Incoronazione di Poppea and left us with the happy couple and the clear knowledge of their unhappy future, for there are two things that everyone (and by “everyone” I mean “anyone likely to buy a ticket to a show at Berkeley Rep called Argonautika”) knows about Greek mythology, and one of them is that Oedipus marries his mother, and the other is that Medea kills her children (though years ago in New York I saw Zoe Caldwell as Medea, in the Robinson Jeffers translation, with Judith Anderson as the Nurse – yes, I actually saw Dame Judith Anderson on stage; I was of course a mere slip of a lad, and she was already encrusted with legend – and when Medea came out at the end with her hands covered in blood announcing that “the stars that scorn the weak shall not be mocking me!” the man next to me, suddenly roused, exclaimed, “Did she just kill her kids? She’s nuts!” which is semi-accurate without being quite adequate).

Not only does the whole child-killing angle swamp everything else, as such a thing would tend to, but I had the feeling Zimmerman was stacking the deck on Medea's behalf. I realize there are variants to all the legends, but I’ve always read that the brother she kills to distract Jason’s pursuers was a youth; here, he’s not only a fully grown man, he’s a vulgar bully, and she’d be justified in offing him just on those grounds. We also never see or know the children, and their murder takes place offstage, so we’re not really forced to confront what she did, which might lessen our sympathy for her, but only why she did it, which increases our sympathy. So much time is taken up with the extended Medea saga that we don’t even see the fulfillment of the prophecy that Jason will kill King Pelias; that storyline, the main plot engine at the beginning, just disappears. The script is entertaining despite its flaws, but it’s the images that really make the evening; at the end, the actors slowly come out and one by one all the elements of the story are turned into the starry constellations of the zodiac, using just some twinkling lights and posing actors, and it’s pure theater magic.

I also saw my second play by Adam Bock: The Shaker Chair, with the Shotgun Players. I had seen The Typographer’s Dream at the same theater about a year ago. The Shaker Chair was a little more problematic, I felt, because it’s an issue play, and that doesn’t necessarily fit in with what I see as Bock’s strength, which is the creation of evocative conjunctions in suggestive, verbally fluid ways, which is much more entertaining on stage than it might sound. He has a Hawthorne-like touch with ambiguous symbols, such as the Shaker Chair itself, which is ornament, rebuke, luxury, and discomfort all at once. It is a recent purchase by Marion (Frances Lee McCain), a single older woman whose generally sensible attitudes can hide her quietly questioning side; she likes the new chair because it is cleanly built, and carefully designed with a reverent purpose, but she admits it’s not very comfortable. The overstuffed, possibly too comfortable chair across the living room is occupied by her sister Dolly (Nancy Shelby), whose main occupation in life is fighting with, fleeing from, and then forgiving her husband Frank (Will Marchetti). Their friend Jean (Scarlett Hepworth) enters, because Marion has the kind of house where friends naturally gather, and it turns out she’s involved in increasingly violent acts of vandalism against a local factory farm that mistreats its pigs, and Marion slowly becomes an activist.

The characters are all quite vivid, and they talk about issues the way people really do, which is actually kind of a problem in an issue play, because the way people really talk involves not thinking things through, and leaving things out, and getting flustered and forgetful, and insisting on things they know are wrong, or just wish were right, and repeating meaningless stuff loudly just because they heard it on TV or the radio. It’s very easy to lose the balance between a fairly thorough airing of the issues and the lived experience and personality of the characters. And that’s why issue plays are surprisingly difficult to write, and why Shaw, who managed the balancing act over and over, really is such a great playwright.

At slightly over an hour, the play is too brief for full coverage of the complex entanglement of agricultural mass production, looming ecological disaster, evolving humanitarian concerns, and corporate control that makes up our machine for living. I kept waiting for someone to make some obvious points about switching to a vegetarian/vegan diet, or buying locally grown and humanely raised food, or, especially, about car culture as a main cause of the world’s sickness, especially since the action starts with Jean needing to borrow Marion’s car for her mission of sabotage, but no one seems to think that there’s any choice except indifference or arson. And the issues aren’t presented in a way that would make the typical Berkeley audience question its assumptions about the whole corporate farming issue – and I’m not disagreeing with those political views, I’m just saying that you need to subvert the audience’s assumptions and smug certainties (something Shaw did regularly) for the play to be more than an evening telling us how right-thinking we are. There’s a brief moment when a live piglet is brought out (proving yet again that live animals on stage are generally a mistake, because the place fell apart; the woman two rows behind me could not shut up the whole time the piglet was trotting about), and with inadvertent irony it shows how alienated the audience is from the life of a farm; actual farm folk are much less sentimental about animals, and manage to control themselves in the presence even of cute little pink ones with delightful curly tails.

The handling of the issues is fairly schematic, but the characters make the evening interesting and complex. Dolly’s romance can seem ridiculous, or even pathetic, but she knows what’s important to her in life, and there’s a lovely moment at the beginning when she talks about her husband walking by when she’s mad at him, and smiling, and she can’t help but forgive him; and you bear that in mind, and it’s a bit of a shock, but also makes complete sense, when we finally meet Frank, and see how calculating and reptilian he actually is – though not with his wife. At the end, Marion, radicalized by the shooting death of Jean during one of her raids, sits in her Shaker chair and ponders her next step as an activist: “I could always loosen one bolt. . . .” The bolt she’s planning to loosen is obviously a symbol for the small things we can do to undermine the machine, but unlike the Shaker chair, it felt too forced and a bit fake to me. I didn’t believe for a moment that a woman like Marion, who has been concerned throughout with possible injury or damage to innocent people, would actually become that sort of violent activist, and that moment of falsity is a tribute to how skillfully and deeply Bock has let us know his characters.

04 February 2008

the best in this kind are but shadows

No, I did not enjoy the Super Bowl. Thanks for asking. But now that the game's final five minutes, which I couldn't even stand to watch, snatched the perfect season from the Pats, they are once again underdogs, so in a couple of days I fully expect to hear the haters saying, "You know, it sure is a shame they didn't get a perfect season," and maybe they'll even start to talk about how sick they are of the Manning family and its tendency to hog all the titles.

Anyway. Since I've been lecturing opera houses on marketing, I thought I'd share my latest notion, which came to me while reading the Wellsung entry about what the Met was doing the day they were born. So there you have it, the perfect stocking stuffer for the opera lover in your life: a CD copy of whatever the Met was doing the day of his or her birth, in simple but elegant packaging. Or the deluxe set: the entire season for your birth year. You see where this is going.

So I looked myself up. It turns out the Met was dark that night. Um, OK. I didn't say my idea was fully thought-through. For instance, I guess summer births are out of luck.

I did check San Francisco Opera, and they made up for the Met by presenting two operas that day! The first was a student matinee of Pagliacci -- yes, a student matinee, in Italian, back before surtitles, and starring Jon Vickers as Canio, Dolores Mari as Nedda, Lawrence Winters as Tonio, Cesare Curzi as Beppe, and Theodor Uppman (Billy Budd!) as Silvio. No "family versions" translated into English of The Magic Flute or L'Elisir d'Amore for that crowd, and I kind of feel the student audiences have just kicked sand in my face.

The evening performance really interested me, though. It was the second performance of the American premiere run of Die Frau ohne Schatten. My mother, who can still recall decades later the excruciating boredom of having to sit through Norma at the Old Met as a little girl and who has mostly avoided full-length operas ever since, has always told me that she and my father went to the American premiere of Die Frau at the invitation of some friends. After about two acts they had had enough and left. Since she clearly was not at the second performance, being otherwise occupied contracting and dilating and suchlike, she must have attended the actual first performance, when she was eight months pregnant. I'm amazed she made it as far as the intermission under the circumstances, and Mom, I'm sorry if I kicked you in the stomach for leaving early. Maybe that's where I got my whole "I do not leave before the end" thing. Who knows what reaches you under those circumstances? I don't even want to think about what intrauterine influence the plot and music of Die Frau ohne Schatten had on my fragile little psyche. But at least I can now tell everyone I was at the US premiere, though the people I was with refused to stay to the end.

02 February 2008

fighting vainly the old ennui

Dr Johnson, who would have killed at open mike night (“Ever notice how Whigs and Tories say hello? Whigs are all like, ‘Come, Citizen, let us to the alehouse whence we shall foment dissent!’ and Tories are all like, ‘Prithee, good sir, let us repair to the chapel, where we may thank the beneficent Maker for the rights of true-born Englishmen’”), famously observed that second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience; the same is true of subscription series – so many glittering stars and promising debuts, beloved masterpieces and exciting new works, laid out like a map to a new land, eventually turning into the reality of half-forgotten misty ruins, some shining monuments, blurred photographs, and lots of dust and inconvenience, and, always, a pile of bills waiting after the journey. I know this, but still get excited every year, by every company’s announcement. So I took it as a very bad sign for the upcoming San Francisco Opera season that I was bored, restless, and discontented even before I finished reading the renewal brochure.

One of the first things I did when I returned home in 1992 was to subscribe to the Opera, and I’ve been a subscriber (and small-level donor) ever since. The Opera has always formed the spine of my theater-going here. I came close to switching to individual tickets once before, when I was tired of uninspired performances of the same old standards (kids – this is what we call foreshadowing), but then Pamela Rosenberg took over and I could start expecting something interesting at the Opera House. So I actually feel very melancholy about this, and have put off posting about the upcoming season. I was fully prepared, despite an urgent need to pay off home repairs and suchlike, to pull out the credit card for the Opera. I guess I should be grateful that Gockley is watching my expenses for me.

It's like the scene in The Hard Nut when the older daughter, who thinks she's very adult and stylish and sophisticated, opens her gift from her parents, and can't hide her childish disappointment at the ugly fluorescent green sweater covered with weird squiggles, which they obviously chose in the hope that it would be stylish and sophisticated enough to please her. It's a complicated sadness, of misplaced good intentions and misguided hopes. I’m going to survey the upcoming season, so if you’d like to skip the idle philosophizing and rueful retrospectives then feel free to jump on down to where I resume delusional speculation, sorrowful denunciation, and general more-or-less insightful bitching.

First up is Simon Boccanegra, with Hvorostovsky and Frittoli, Runnicles conducting. No arguments with this one, so I’ll go off on a tangent instead, no doubt to the shock of any regular readers. I’m a little surprised this was chosen for Opening Night, but then I don't know why they bother performing an opera at all on Opening Night. They should switch to an hour of popular arias and then straight to the party. Or skip the arias altogether and just have the society women march across the stage in their usually garish and poorly chosen gowns. Warhorse, clothes horse – it’s not a night about music. So I’m definitely getting a ticket for this one, and definitely not on opening night.

Next up is The Bonesetter’s Daughter, a premiere by Stewart Wallace with libretto by Amy Tan. I have my doubts about this. Let me put it this way: I am one who frequently went straight from Symphony Hall to Tower Records (or, in later times, to Amazon.com) to buy CDs from composers new to me whose music I had just heard (Messiaen, Lieberson, Harrison, and Rouse were some of them). I’ve been known to buy CDs just because a review or blog mentioned a composer in passing (certain key words, like “gloomy”, “intellectual”, or “difficult” can always get me to buy, regardless of whether the reviewer means them as compliments). So I was thinking I knew nothing at all about Stewart Wallace, and it turns out he composed the opera Harvey Milk which was done here a few years ago, so I had not only read about him, I had sat through an entire evening of his music, and I still didn’t remember his name. I’m thinking that’s not a good sign. I want to see this just because it’s new, and I’m hoping for the best (if I weren’t basically an easily pleased optimist, I wouldn’t go to the theater as often as I do). But I don’t think the Opera should pat itself on its backstage for taking a risk with this particular new work, at least as far as the box office goes; artistic success is yet to be determined. Amy Tan is an extremely popular author (and she lives in this area), the large local Chinese-American population would be drawn to the story, what I recollect of Wallace’s music from Harvey Milk is, shall we say, not forbidding to the general public, and those desperate for novelty on the operatic stage will want to support anything new.

The San Francisco premiere of Die Tote Stadt is next. Well, so far this season is looking deceptively appealing, since I would love to see this one as well. (Perhaps “City of Death” would be suitable for opening night, especially since the target audience wouldn’t get the joke.)

Idomeneo follows. This is probably my least favorite of the major Mozart operas, partly for semi-silly reasons, and yes, I’m talking about the lack of on-stage sea monster action. Sorry, I just have a sea monster thing, and if you’re going to tease me with frequent mentions of a terrible sea beast, then you’d damn well better put the thing on stage. Also, just as for me Bach’s Christmas Oratorio always conjures up a frosty late December night in an ice-cold church in Harvard Square, and the wooden pew getting harder and harder (possibly because it was literally freezing) and consequently my butt getting more and more numb as the hours slipped towards midnight, and this naïve young concert-goer thinking, This is a whole lot of German, so Idomeneo conjures up a struggle to stay awake on an overly warm summer evening in Tremont Temple during a concert performance of a very lengthy and unfamiliar work with only a bare plot summary to hand, back in the days before surtitles. That might even have been the night when I first wondered why everything, no matter what its length, had to start at 8:00. I remember thinking during the concert, We’re early music people – this is too late for the likes of us. (I looked up the playbill: Roger Norrington conducted, and the cast included Anthony Rolfe Johnson as Idomeneo, Lorraine Hunt [Lieberson] as Idamante, Jeanne Ommerle as Ilia, and Lisa Saffer as Elettra, and yes, I would love to have that evening back, along with the chance to take a nap beforehand, and don’t I feel like one whose hand, like the base Indian, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe.)

So far it’s at least modified rapture; the score is four for four, though as they say in football, some of those were ugly wins. But next up is Boris Godunov, starring Samuel Ramey. Out of respect for a distinguished artist, I don’t want to dwell on this, but I’d like to remember his voice as it was. Normally this would make my cut, but not under these circumstances. The large local Russian population will most likely turn out in force for this no matter what.

Then we have L’Elisir d’Amore, a title the Opera insists on translating, because while apparently “Die Tote Stadt” poses no problems as a title for an American audience, that same audience is incapable of figuring out that L’Elisir d’Amore means The Elixir of Love. This is a new production, set in the Napa Valley wine country (so let me pose the obvious question right now – would Nemorino, raised among wineries, really not realize what it was Dulcamara was selling?). Given that angle, and this opera’s general sunny pleasantness, and especially its short running time, I’m surprised this isn’t the Opening Night victim. Sometimes at the opera I’ll see what is obviously date night for some attractive young pair, handsomely dressed up in dark suit and expensive tie and nice floor-length dress with a gauzy wrap to cover the bare pretty shoulders, and often the night’s performance is really ill-omened for the young couple – Don Giovanni, Madama Butterfly, The Queen of Spades, all calculated to give pause to young love – and since they seem like such nice kids, I’d like to give them this advice: Take it from one who knows, because he’s read a lot of books, and they talk about this stuff, and he’s had plenty of time to think about such things while sitting by himself in many an ornate and gilded auditorium waiting for the show to start – this is the one to go to for date night. You will smile gently at the lovers’ misunderstandings, you will glow warmly at their happy union at the end, and in between, since all great comedies have moments of deep and pervasive sadness, your hearts will be pierced when you hear Una furtiva lagrima (especially, no doubt, as sung by Ramon Vargas in this production), and you will think of all the secret tears you have shed, or hope to shed, for the beloved by your side, and your hands will creep together, and remain clasped until the end, when you must reluctantly separate them to applaud the delightful show; and in later years – and the Opera seems intent on giving you many, many chances for repeat viewings – your memories of this night will add to your pleasure in the opera and in each other; and I wish my imaginary couple great joy of it, but I’m not feeling the need. You see? I know it all already.

Next up is La Boheme. Of course.

I thought of leaving it at that (the alternative was: Next up is La Boheme. No. Fucking. Way.), but of course there’s more to say. Look, it’s a beautiful opera, and a justly loved masterpiece; it happens I’ve never particularly liked it, and resent it in my petty, brooding way, but I can see what people respond to (sort of like watching Jacques Tati films at the UC Theater back in the day, with a thin smile on my face, while some around me are howling with laughter), and the love duet in Act 1 always made me cry, at least until the last time the Opera put it on. But I seriously feel as if Mimi’s gelida manina are wrapped around my throat, and tightening their grip. Can’t they just let that bitch die in peace? When you live in an area of limited live-opera resources (that is, if you live anywhere outside of New York City), you can’t help but miss all the works unstaged so that the bohemians may once again trot out their increasingly threadbare antics. The big deal with this production (in case you haven’t noticed, the selling points this season are setting and star, not the overly familiar repertory – I was going to look up how many times I’ve seen these operas in my years with San Francisco Opera, but then I realized I didn’t need to bother, since the telling fact is that it seems as if I’ve just seen all of them, even the new ones) is that Nicola Luisotti is conducting, and Joseph Calleja is making his debut, and Gheorghiu is returning. I liked Gheorghiu quite a lot in Rondine, but it will not have escaped my astute readers that I spent more time discussing her truly awful hairdo than her truly beautiful voice – I would be happy to hear her again, but I’m not desperate about it. I understand Mimi is a signature role for her, and I’m curious about that, since Gheorghiu seems to traffic in mid- to high-wattage star power and general glam diva-ness, while the qualities you need for Boheme are sweetness, simplicity, sincerity, and a melting tenderness, qualities which, let me just point out, are all the more endearing when they are only seen at refreshingly long intervals. So I’m back to No. Fucking. Way. (Let me clarify what that means – it means I don’t want to pay for a ticket to this. That would only encourage them. If someone gave me a ticket, I would go, of course –my principles aren’t that strict. I’m not exactly saying I can be bought, but I can certainly be rented for extended periods.)

Tosca, the first opera I saw at the War Memorial Opera House back in 1992, and many times both before and since, follows. Again, I like this opera a lot, but the only way I would pay to see it at this point is if Maria Callas returned from the dead, and even then only on one of her good days.

The Opera, by the way, is claiming that Tosca and Boheme are being presented as a special tribute for the 150th birthday of their composer. Sounds more like business as usual to me, and pretty half-assed as tributes go. I have yet to see Trittico or Fanciulla, or Edgar or Le Villi – can’t they even present unusual repertory from the familiar names? Even a single gala concert by distinguished artists of famous scenes or arias would have seemed more like a special evening and a suitable tribute to their favorite cash machine.

Porgy and Bess, with players to be named later, returns; this is actually the first opera I ever saw, and in the touring production sponsored by David Gockley’s Houston Grand Opera, no less. (Oh, David! You remembered! But I’m still not forgiving you for this season). I love the opera, it’s a great, vibrant work, and I just don’t feel like seeing it again.

Given the nature of this season, you had to know that Traviata would make an appearance – hear that lyrical coughing off in the distance? This time it’s not the audience. Again, a beautiful work, though I could easily name five, or six, or seven other operas by Verdi I prefer (well, if you’re going to force it out of me: Falstaff, Trovatore, Rigoletto, Ballo, Forza, Boccanegra, and Don Carlo/s). I’ll confess to being a little torn about this one; Alfredo is the dashing Charles Castronovo, and each time I’ve heard him (Tamino, Nadir, Don Ottavio) I’ve been progressively more impressed, and Violetta is La Netrebko. People divide very sharply on her. I’ve always been on the pro side of the great Trebs Divide, but she seems to have changed repertory since she sang all those Russian roles here long ago, and I’m curious to hear her now. But last time I saw Boheme, I had changed my ticket so I could hear her Musetta, and even her famously gorgeous shoulders couldn’t carry the overly familiar work for me. (I also note that for this, as well as Boheme, the much-touted stars are not singing every performance, and the second cast is not even named, so why buy in advance when you don’t know what you’re getting?) So right now I’m very doubtful about this one.

Then there’s the new Jake Heggie piece, Last Acts, with a libretto by Gene Scheer based on a play by Terence McNally and starring Frederica von Stade. As with The Bonesetter’s Daughter, I want to see this because it’s new, but I have my doubts, though fewer in this case. Generally I like Heggie’s music, and I’ve enjoyed a number of Gene Scheer’s songs and I thought he did an excellent job with the libretto for An American Tragedy, and von Stade is always appealing. On the other hand, though I especially liked Heggie’s music for his last collaboration with Scheer, To Hell and Back, an updated version of the rape of Persephone premiered by Philharmonia Baroque last year, I thought Scheer’s libretto was a failure, largely because of the simplistic and stereotypical presentation of the male character (who doesn’t even make an appearance; it's sung by two women). As for McNally . . . I’m not expecting much beyond slick and entertaining and sentimental on cue. I heard At the Statue of Venus, his last collaboration with Heggie, a scena about a woman waiting to meet a blind date. The libretto was basically the Barber/Agee Knoxville Summer of 1915 and Sex and the City run through a blender (Sex and the City: the incredibly repetitive adventures of four spunky gals in the big city – the whore, the bore, the priss, and the lawyer – who are not nearly as interesting and intelligent as they seem to think). Mixed bag here, but it’s actually a moot point for my decision on the Opera subscription, since I can get this through my Cal Performances subscription, and I’ll keep subscribing to them as long as they keep bringing Mark Morris back.

So there it is, and I don’t know anyone who is excited about this schedule. Well, let me adjust that, since I am nothing if not scrupulously accurate: there was one. At the intermission of the recent Gil Shaham concert, after appropriate introductions from a mutual friend, I mentioned to the elegantly dressed and obviously respectable dowager next to me that I was disappointed in the Opera announcement. She seemed stunned. “What do you want?” she demanded. “All new stuff?” Naturally I stoutly denied the ugly accusation, but things were never really the same for the rest of our five-minute acquaintance. I just think planning an opera season, especially at a large house, is a tightrope act, and I really think Gockley lost his balance this year.

There’s no shame in a safe season of well-produced and familiar works, but there’s little excitement either, and no glory, and ultimately no future. Twenty-five years ago, I would have been, if not excited by this season, at least satisfied enough to send in my money. But now, like all too many of this season’s protagonists, I’m left alone in my chilly garret, wondering why (O mio destino avverso!) cruel fate has decreed that I must part from my long-time love, the operatic stage. Here’s a conversation I’ve had way too many times:

Me (to Opera-Lover): Are you going to [name of the season’s token “modern” opera]?

OL: Oh, no. I hate modern opera! I don’t want to hear that!

Me (too courteous to point out he/she hasn’t heard the music yet): Oh. Are you looking forward to [fill in name of warhorse]?

OL: Oh, no. How many times do I need to see that?

As with anything, the core group that really loves and appreciates the form is fairly small, but steady, and you need their excitement to leaven the lumpen mass of the benignly indifferent (this applies to baseball or football as much as opera or the symphony), and I just don’t see much here to excite that group. The Opera has been doing a lot of outreach, with simulcasts, and the forthcoming movie (and, I hope, DVD) releases, and with lowered ticket prices this season (I salute that sincerely, and wish I liked the season enough to take advantage of it; all they need to do now is acknowledge that most of us have to work to buy our tickets, even at the lower prices, and raise the curtain earlier), but the outreach is mostly technological and not artistic. I’m not sure that filling a stadium for a live simulcast proves much except that you can round up several thousand people who don’t actively hate opera, and who love a free show. In order to move at least some of those people into paying for tickets, you need to break out of the view of opera as a stuffy, dead-end art form, and I don’t think you do that by showing the same ten operas over and over. Do you need to bring people into the opera house only to drive them out after a few years because they’ve already seen everything there?

There is a potential audience, and not just of music lovers, who turned out for St Francois, Dr Atomic, Dead Man Walking, Le Grand Macabre, or anything exciting, controversial, and adventurous. I have friends who bought tickets to those operas who had laughed at me for going to Boheme and Traviata repeatedly. I think what they were responding to was not any individual qualities in those fine works, but the sense that opera was a closed and somewhat outmoded and smug world for the already-initiated, or an expensive and comforting diversion for the comfortable. I’ve often heard that marketing has taken over arts organizations, and I’ve often wished it were actually true. Considering all the useless or dangerous junk that marketing types convince Americans they need (vitamin water? the Republican Party?), why can’t they convince people to sample something they really do need, like more productions of Janacek? There seems to be an assumption that anything outside the established warhorses is going to turn off potential opera-goers, but that’s just a projection of timid and conservative taste. There is absolutely no reason why Janacek would be more foreign or difficult than Puccini for a contemporary American with an interest in music or theater, and I wish musical organizations generally would stop sighing heavily about how difficult some music is, or how new music doesn’t sell out. You don’t tell people stuff is difficult and doesn’t sell. You tell them: Look, this isn’t for the run-of-the-mill opera-goer; this is for more cutting-edge types who don’t mind something a little more adventurous, and I'm thinking this might be something you would appreciate. You create series like the Los Angeles Opera’s Recovered Voices, with an intriguing premise that will keep people coming back. You don’t tell them something never gets put on because about ten people want to see it; you tell them it’s a rare opportunity to judge a controversial work for themselves. I have no background in marketing, but isn’t this obvious? I well remember walking around and around Boston Symphony Hall, nervously scanning all the posters day after day for weeks, thinking about going to a concert. I finally decided that Mozart’s 40th symphony and Beethoven’s 5th would be safe. I went and decided going to the symphony was OK. Dissolve to several years later, and I’m getting all excited when I hear there’s a piece consisting of 100 metronomes set off at the same time (and it doesn’t sound at all the way I thought it would, and I can no longer even remember what I was so afraid of in my cautious early years). See? It can happen. And I was an exceptionally timid youth. And if you still get people who refuse to see anything but the same ten operas over and over, well, to quote another celebrated quipster (not Dr Johnson this time, but also associated with the Word), let the dead bury the dead.

I wasn’t exactly expecting Moses und Aron or Die Gezeichneten to show up on the schedule, but there are plenty of neglected operas that are well within the artistic boundaries of this season that at least would be interesting to experience live; there are older works by Carlisle Floyd, Barber, Hanson, or Menotti, or newer works such as An American Tragedy or Margaret Garner, or even revivals for some of those world premieres that we keep hearing Gockley championed in Houston. But familiarity, down to each phrase of each celebrated aria in each well-known work, is the guiding principle here. Think of what a deep shock it would be to see Wozzeck on this schedule, and you realize how constricted the season is.

When your big step outside of mainstream repertory is Korngold's 88-year-old opera, already beloved by those who know it, by a well-known (albeit mostly for film music) composer, one considered unfashionable for a long-time because of his lush, melodic sound. . . . well, you’re just not that far from Puccini at all. The repertory this season seems particularly narrow in theme as well as style, and a gray sameness settled over the season as soon as I read through the list; most of them are of the “isn’t this romantic?” school, however misguided such an interpretation might be; most of them are of the “what pretty tunes!” school, however superficial such a judgment might be, or however based on familiarity more than anything else. Perhaps any musicologists out there can tell me if there is a single dissonant passage in this entire season; I feel like the dinner guests of the Emperor Heliogabalus, suffocating to death beneath the relentless cascades and accumulating drifts of heavily-perfumed rose petals.