28 May 2008

Watchman, what of the night?

On Memorial Day morning, which was cloudier and colder than expected, I stood in my living room trying to figure out which of the many things I had left undone I should try to do. I was in one of those moods where there was so much I should be doing that I couldn’t do any of it, so I was pretty much just wandering from room to room looking more or less helplessly from here to there. I couldn’t even decide when I should take my shower, so I was unshaven with my hair all askew, but I had at least managed to change from my nighttime shorts to jeans and a wifebeater. I looked out the window and saw two very nicely dressed black women, probably in their late 50s, coming up the walk, and since I had at least managed to get semi-dressed I decided that I would be courteous and take the copy of the Watchtower they were going to offer me, because I could tell immediately that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Some people get venomous about the Witnesses, but I don’t. In my experience, they’re quiet, polite, and well-dressed, and all they want to do is offer you a pamphlet. There are worse visitors in a neighborhood. It’s not as if I need more things to irritate me, so if I can be easy-going about the Witnesses, I’m going to seize the opportunity.

Anyway I went to open the door after the two women rang the bell, and since I figured it would be an extremely short visit I didn’t bother to pause my CD player. I had at least managed to decide what CD to put on that morning: the first disc of one of my new Marston sets, the Complete Recordings of Marie Delna.

So I opened the door and one of the women was about to give her talk when she stopped and said, “Oh! What lovely music!” “Oh my, yes!” said the other. “Yes, it is,” I agreed. It was Disc 1, track 16, Printemps qui commence from Samson et Dalila, and as I stood there on my porch with the two Witnesses that piece gave way to the next track, another selection from Samson, Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix. The three of us stood there for a few moments listening to the swelling beauty of a voice captured on disc in Paris in 1907.

After a pause the women roused themselves to offer their literature, but one burst out, “Oh, it’s just so beautiful! I would love to have a massage to that music!” I found that totally charming, since at some point in the past few years “having a massage”/“going to a spa” apparently became the absolute pinnacle of whatever serenity and beauty is possible in life. So the two ladies, Anna and Anna Maria, offered me the Watchtower, which I took, and since they had also commented (“You should sell those!”) on the many lemons on the tree in my backyard (and it’s true, that wonderful tree has a shining abundance of fruit year-round, especially in the branches visible from the sidewalk, which get a lot of late afternoon sun) I offered to give them as many lemons as they’d like. They politely declined, since they were on their way to services, and so they went off down the street, and I went back to Marie Delna, and to wondering what I should be doing with my day. And thus endeth the lesson: another true operatic encounter.

23 May 2008

I'll to the well-trod stage anon

So we all know the ironic paradox of capitalism: when you have a job you have money but no time, and when you don’t have a job, you have time but no money. Yet somehow, in my talented way, I’ve ended up with a job and no money. Ideally, that would be the other way around. Could there be some link between this state and the fact that I’ve had a month or two of being at the theater three to five nights a week? I suppose I can’t blame all my money woes on plumbing disasters and unexpected root canals. So here’s the blogging corollary to the paradox, at least for theater-goers: when you are out attending things to blog about, you don’t actually have enough time left to blog about them.

Also, I have to admit, I was glued to Dancing with the Stars on my few free evenings. I’m guessing this show is a huge hit now, since I see it cited more and more frequently as evidence that The End Is Near, which is utterly ridiculous. Salon.com had an article a couple of weeks ago about how great it is to watch your pennies in the grocery store and just generally not need things; I can see the beauty of a St Francis approach to life, but to me this article already had too much of a whiff of “poverty might be fun for a while” – and it sure can be, when it’s voluntary – and when the writer listed the hit status of DWTS as evidence of cultural decline – there was only one other example given, equally flimsy, so much so that I can’t even remember what it was – I just didn’t bother reading any further, so though the writer continued to have spiritual epiphanies while choosing the less expensive bag of dried beans, I can’t tell you what exactly her revelations were. Even Joan Acocella, whom I normally love, wrote an oddly sour and, to my mind, uncomprehending article about DWTS in a recent New Yorker. You want cultural decline? How about the inexplicable success of Madonna, who can’t sing, can’t act, can’t dance, and isn’t even very attractive? She’s the Ronald Reagan of pop. Both blights arose at the same time; both had, as their only discernable talent, a kind of genius at manipulating the always gullible media and public perceptions; and both of them had voices that made me run across the room to shut off the TV or radio. I clearly was not seeing, or was not susceptible to, whatever was charming the rest of America.

The other thing slowing me down this particular week is that I’ve finally put down the buggy whip and pushed aside the bear-grease pomade in order to install DSL on my home computer. I was assuming that my dial-up connection would work until I actually installed DSL, but as with so many assumptions, I was wrong. So I’ve had no home Internet for almost a week. I guess I can file that under “poverty might be fun – and spiritually uplifting! – for a while”, but I really just want my Internet back. And I haven't even been home to reap any spiritual benefits from all the free time I would supposedly gain, and which I would probably need to spend doing housework anyway, my abode having reached a state that even I consider disgraceful. I plan to install DSL this weekend, and then launch a YouTube orgy. Yes, if you’ve sent me a video or link to a video anytime since, oh, forever, I will at last be able to watch it. I don’t know why it takes me so long to do these things. I don’t really like gadgets and really dislike setting them up. I just don’t even know where to begin with most of them. (So big thanks once again to CMB for helping me out here.) It doesn’t help that once I actually realize it might be a good idea to read and follow the instructions, they usually turn out to be in diagram form. Last time I was forced to add staples to the copy machine, I not only cursed like a drunken sailor’s even drunker parrot, I accidentally smashed two staple cartridges before getting my third and final cartridge correctly inserted. The key was figuring out that they had four different diagrams, and I was using the wrong one. That was one of the keys, anyway. I still don’t know why they had four different diagrams. I’m just pretending the whole thing never happened.

One thing I can do is alphabetize, so you’ll notice I’ve re-arranged the blogroll. To dazzle the simple natives with my high-level skill, I ignored introductory articles while alphabetizing (so that, for example, An Unamplified Voice is under Unamplified, not An). Don’t let anyone ever tell you that a degree in English is not useful! You’ll also notice a few new blogs there, so check them out, and thanks to those bloggers for adding me. (If you link to me and I don’t know it, please let me know and I’ll add you.)

There’s I’d Rather Be Sleeping (But Opera Is Keeping Me Awake), which you can find to the right under Opera Is Keeping Me Awake. Susan is a super at the New Jersey opera and mother of a young son as well as a person with a job (I know! I get exhausted just reading about it!), and she’s a fellow Nathan Gunn fan, so there are lots of NG links, including some of those YouTube things I will finally get to see, though if I now have the capability, something even newer must be just around the bend, which I will learn to use in about five years.

Opera Tattler is another Bay Area blogger who reviews performances and their audiences, which I love, because it makes me feel I’m not just an unrecognized Louis XIV who wishes to banish all those strange beings with their rustling programs and inane whispers. I’ve occasionally thought about writing a concert review that was all about the audience noises rather than all that racket on stage: “The piece began, conventionally enough, with a tremolo effect in the lower mezzanine, though the orchestration was varied from the conventional seat-shifting and program-rustling by the addition of an amusingly pizzicato purse-zipping. After an almost concerto-like interlude for solo cellophane-wrapped hard-candy, the piece concludes with a rousing fugue for hacking cough that uses the spatial arrangements of the hall to intriguing effect. I would be remiss not to mention the fine job done by the poignant whispering chorus of possibly senile but certainly dithering gray-haired ladies. . . .” This is how I entertain myself, in lieu of punching people (or working on my anger issues). I hope audiences will behave better knowing that OT is on the QT, marking their transgressions.

Also check out a singer’s life as lived by Anne-Carolyn Bird, and don’t think I haven’t been wishing for weeks now that I could hear her sing Cunegonde at Wolf Trap. Candide is one of my favorite musicals (a term I will use here for the sake of convenience, since I’m only minimally interested in arguing what square peg fits into which round hole). I once saw a performance at the Huntington Theater in Boston in which the actor playing Candide gave such a wonderful reading of the line, “I cannot believe that I have just killed two men! I – who have a heart that is filled with love!” that my abrupt and fortissimo laugh made him, for just a split second, go out of character. One of my favorite theatrical memories, and oddly enough I've seen performances that omit the line; such is the complex textual history of Candide. . . . Anyway, you can also read about the Bhakti Project here. And you can look for her in the forthcoming recording of the Wolf Trap-commissioned Volpone, set by John Musto to Ben Jonson’s play as adapted by Mark Campbell, and don’t think that last summer I wasn’t wishing I could hear that. I checked Amazon to see if the recording was listed, but all they offered me were copies of the play and, for some reason, T-shirts from American Apparel. But from what I hear, Volpone is an outstanding addition to the admittedly small yet semi-distinguished company of Ben Jonson operas. Poor Ben Jonson! Swamped by Shakespeare even as an opera source. Maybe there’s a forthcoming version of The Alchemist or Every Man in His Humour, but somehow I think not. It’s actually difficult to find a collection of his complete plays– I haven’t managed to – and if you discount the occasional used copy of the now ancient two-volume Everyman set, with the tiny tiny type and the abbreviated speaker names (why did they ever do that?), it’s well-nigh impossible. Did Jonson foresee his fate when he wrote that WS was “not for an age, but for all time,” or did he just think to himself, “Nice phrase! Top that, dead William!” Jonson was prodigious as a sudden-springing mushroom after rain, but he’s competing with a mushroom cloud.

13 May 2008

Please select only one! Which of the following do you consider wiser: (a) the tigers of wrath, or (b) the horses of instruction.

There are those near and dear to me who love taking personality quizzes. Me, I keep searching for choice (c), which would be does not apply, or maybe sometimes, or yes (or no) but with reservations more or less severe.

I had to take Myers-Briggs today. The results will only be revealed in a long, drawn-out session, as if reality has become a reality television results show. But I've done this before, often enough to know that "Introvert," on which I score about as high as you can go, doesn't necessarily mean shy and withdrawn; it means you are energized by solitude and drained by company, which I basically knew anyway, because being in company is all about being inundated and irradiated with nuance, and that's exhausting. Besides, sometimes people actually disagree with me! You see what I put up with.

So I'm zipping along, being dissatisfied with all the choices, but I tend to pick all the "yes, I prefer facts/the down-to-earth/reality/pre-planning" answers, because although I know I'm going to look like Mr Practical Realist Who Must Follow A Schedule, I also know what they're talking about when they talk about imagination and spontaneity: it's not William Blake enraptured in his garden, it's some way overpaid schmo who is Thinking Outside the Box As Part of the Envisioning Process. In a job long ago and far away, I had been listening to one of these blowholes gassing on about how he was going to save the world with his suggestions on how we should do our jobs which he by the way and you probably have already guessed this knew nothing about, and I finally couldn't stand it anymore and said, "Well, that's a very interesting idea, but it would require having a second [expensive piece of equipment], and right now the company won't even buy us paperclips." (That was literally the case, by the way: we were scrounging on the floor for any that might have fallen onto the carpet.) He looked at me as if he had just noticed a fly buzzing around his salad. "I'm just coming up with ideas," he said. Sweet Jesus on Sunday morning. You know, I'm not even sure I want to put up with William Blake in his garden. I'm already hyperemotional and oversensitive. Give me a midwestern farm gal anyday.

Anyway, I continue zipping along in the test today, and I hit this question:

In reading for pleasure, do you:
(a) enjoy odd or original ways of saying things, or
(b) like writers to say exactly what they mean?

Does this mean something in somebody's world? Form follows function, people: the odd or original way of saying things is the direct result of someone trying to say exactly what he or she means. What does this even mean?

Good thing I had small faith in psychologists to start with. I've been disillusioned enough already.

07 May 2008

Go, lovely rose

Last Friday at Zellerbach I heard the West Coast premiere of Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince, while surrounded by a noisy, inattentive audience – oh, not the many, many children, who were beautifully behaved, and whose joyful excitement after the show was a treat to see – just the usual moronic, rude adults who think everyone wants to hear them talking during music. There seemed many more of them than usual. The innocent open pleasure of the children versus the self-absorbed self-importance of adults is actually quite the theme in this work, and for a moment I had to consider, based on the evidence around me during the performance, whether it really is true to life. That moment didn’t last long. Most adults I know are almost too conscious of being trapped in absurd situations and pointless routines, and aren’t particularly pompous about it or proud of it. There just isn’t any way out, if you want to pay the bills and otherwise get through the day. It’s odd but maybe appropriate that a celebration of the impulses of childhood over adulthood should come at a university. As I walked through the glades on the Berkeley campus towards Sproul Plaza, I noticed each lightpole was hung with huge banners showing a photograph of a current Cal student, his or her future graduation date, and a sentence saying what the whole crazy Berkeley experience has meant to him or her. Apparently my alma mater has taught most of them that they, too, can reduce their lives to inspirational clichés. Keep on living out loud, whatever that means! Just please don’t do it while I’m trying to listen to music.

I thought I had never read The Little Prince. Now, several days after seeing it, I’m thinking maybe I did read it, though obviously it didn’t make much of an impression on me, and believe me, I was a child prone to weeping. I love children’s books and still read them (my rule of thumb for giving books to actual children: it has to be something I would consider reading myself). The Oz books were and are particular favorites. Let me commend the Beckett-like character of the Hungry Tiger (who can only be sated by eating fat babies, but who is too tender-hearted to allow himself to do so). Check out the heroic chicken Billina in Ozma of Oz. And if you want to cry at the end of a children’s book, read The Lost Princess of Oz. The harsh, hilarious dreamworld logic of those books (another obvious example is the Alice books – Amazon is finally sending me my DVD of Unsuk Chin’s new Alice opera, by the way) captures something really true to the helpless absurdity of childhood, and it echoes into the helpless absurdity of adulthood.

But I don’t think The Little Prince is a children’s book at all. It’s an adolescent’s book, and I can see that if you read it at a certain stage in your life, it will make a profound impression on you, and seem like truth, and you will remember it with deep affection, and perhaps even retain the affection if you re-read it as an adult. It speaks to that very early stage of late childhood/early adulthood when you have the troubling sense that the world is terribly wrong, but that if only people would think – or, more to the point, feel – differently, then life and the world would be different, as if the world’s troubles are a matter of perception and organization, rather than inherent faults or flaws. I don’t really respond to these books, I guess. (I was also the only one in eighth grade who hated SE Hinton's The Outsiders. Everyone else was sobbing. I thought it was sentimental and manipulative. But I kept my mouth shut and went back to reading Dostoevsky’s Idiot on my own. Supply your own joke about how popular I was.)

So I’m only guessing when I say that the opera is faithful to the book in story and spirit. That seemed to be the feeling around me (as I sometimes do, I've avoided reading reviews and reactions until I could post mine). I wonder if certain details are made clearer in the book: for instance, how the little Prince gets from planet to planet in the first half, and why he’s stuck in the desert on Earth for the whole second half. Reading the summary in the program book afterward, I gathered that the flock of cranes was moving him from planet to planet, but I still don’t know why they couldn’t move him around on Earth. I wondered why the cranes were on stage, but frankly the story is a bit disjointed anyway, and the crane chorus, like all the choruses, was lovely so I just enjoyed listening. In fact all the music is really genuinely lovely, in a melted ice cream kind of way, and maybe too relentlessly so. During the crane chorus a woman soloist does a soaring vocalise above the rest of the singers, and it’s really lovely. Then there’s another chorus later on where I think flowers are singing, and a woman representing water also does a soaring vocalise above the rest of the singers, and I might have the details wrong because it started to blur a bit, but the second time around, it was still lovely, but it didn’t seem like a deliberate echo of or reference to the earlier moment, it just seemed like a lovely effect in a perhaps fairly limited range of lovely effects. Lovely – I keep using that word, and after a while, it starts losing its force, doesn’t it?

I think the music would have been more powerful if the opera were shortened – maybe 90 minutes without intermission, as opposed to a bit over two hours with an intermission. As I said, it’s a bit disjointed. I wasn’t sure we needed all the little planets in the first half, however amusing they might be on their own. I was frankly puzzled by the planet of the Vain Man. He’s sung by the tenor Thomas Glenn, who has a really appealing reedy quality to his voice. He’s very handsome, but his face was made up so that he bore a startling resemblance to Joel Grey as the MC in Cabaret and he’s dressed in an odd, bright yellow suit and hat – sort of like Jim Carrey in The Mask except completely round in the middle. Is the point supposed to be that he’s not handsome at all in any conventional sense, just hungry for attention? Glenn returns later as the Snake and does a really terrific job in modulating his voice and performance, giving a slight hiss on his sibilants and moving with the slightly jerky rhythm and menacing hooded air of a snake.

The performances are all very fine. Kenneth Kellogg has wonderful stature and a commanding voice as the King, Andrew Bidlack was poignant in different ways as the Drunkard and the Lamplighter, Marie Lenormand is a tender fox, whose hunters are also played by some of the guys I’ve just mentioned. I think the hunters and the fox are there to teach us a valuable lesson about loving, but to be honest my attention wandered a bit at that point because with a sudden rueful pang in my heart I started wishing I were at The Cunning Little Vixen instead.

Eugene Brancoveanu as the Pilot has a voice that is bright and clear without being cartoony, which also describes the sets and costumes. I assume the costumes are based on Saint-Exupery’s own illustrations to his book, so he must be responsible for the puzzling look of the Vain Man. But generally the costumes look great, except for the Rose and the other flowers, which I thought looked sort of swollen and fake. Ji Young Yang had a nice metallic quality to her voice – I’d call it sharpness but that is misleading in a musical context – that helped embody the thorny side of the Rose.

I heard Tovi Wayne as the eponymous Prince. I’m not that crazy about the white sound of boy sopranos or children’s voices generally, and the character strikes me as kind of annoying – if I were a pilot who had just crashed in the African desert, and I couldn’t fix my plane and was running out of water, I don’t think I would succumb to the tender wisdom of some weird little kid who appears out of nowhere and denounces me as a silly grown-up for trying to fix my plane and get the hell out of Dodge instead of drawing him suitable sheep; I mean, what the hell? it’s very whimsical and all, but I’d probably be thinking about the water situation – but Wayne did a nice job, and was very appealing. He was also amplified. I understand the necessity for helping a child singer in a barn like Zellerbach, singing with and against the trained operatic voices of adult men and women, and it was very well done, but it was done, and that should have been noted, I think, if only by a discreet note in the program. I realize amplification is a loaded issue in opera houses. Personally, I join those opposing it. But I can see why it might be necessary in this case, and if the house hides that, it looks as if they feel they shouldn't be doing it.

During the curtain calls Brancoveanu in a nice dad kind of way picked his Little Prince up and put him on his shoulders to receive the crowd’s applause, and when he put him down Wayne, who was probably less than half the size of the baritone, made as if to pick up Brancoveanu in his turn. Very sweet moment. Maybe more so because it felt like a truer and freer and more affectionate interaction between adult and child than the performance did – no lessons about loving, just a loving act unself-consciously performed. I wish my feelings weren’t so mixed. Lovely, and maybe too much so. Sweet, but maybe too long for the sweetness not to cloy. Childlike, but maybe tipping over into the childish too often. Anyone who loves this book would likely love the opera as well. The children in the audience really seemed thrilled, and I feel like a spoilsport even saying anything critical, but I've been to children's operas that could also be felt deeply and unreservedly by adults (for example, the ENO's staging of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel presented by SF Opera a few years ago, with its fish-headed waiters and concentration on hunger.)

The Little Prince ends with a chorus about letting your heart be your guide, though I was a little mystified by the references to the Little Prince’s laughter (if he laughed during the opera, or if his laughter was represented musically, I missed it). The chorus itself, and I’ve already mentioned how lovely the choruses in particular are, struck me as a late-blooming example of oddly Victorian uplift, though the sentiment is one that the Victorians themselves satirized. I mean, I can’t be the only one whose heart has ever misled him – right? I saw people sobbing at the end, and I was moved to well up a bit myself, while still retaining my skepticism about what the chorus was saying. Such is the strange power of music, separated from the words and sheerly as sound, to slip beneath our conscious thoughts and even our deepest constructions of the meaning of our lives and to stab us in spots where we didn’t even know we were vulnerable. But I don’t know if people were crying because of what they were feeling, or because of what they felt they could not feel.

06 May 2008

glances backwards and forwards

"Way back when I lived in Boston I would see phonepole flyers for a group called Relentless Cookout – I never heard them, but the name stuck with me."

I remember writing that, but I couldn’t find it again when I recently made the attempt. I was looking for it because John Flaherty quoted it back to me in an e-mail with a link to Relentless Cookout’s Myspace page, and I salute his research skills. As he said, here’s my chance. For reasons too complicated (and tedious and embarrassing) to go into, I can’t really access all these crazy Myspace/YouTube sites that all you kids are grooving to these days, but I hope to change that soon. In the meantime, enjoy. I probably would have back in the day, since I used to listen to New Wave and indie stuff before I turned my back on rock/pop/whatever, at least insofar as one can turn one’s back on it in our society (you know, if you tell most people you hate God they’ll smile and nod – I mean, He sure has a lot to answer for, am I right? – but if you tell them you hate rock and roll they get really angry, with the disgusted contempt of a Republican faced with the Constitution). But I’ve opened up a bit, and am ready to accept Relentless Cookout into my heart.

When I googled the name (partly in an attempt to find where exactly I had written about them) I got their official yet skimpy website, which said that the group was often listed among bands with unusual or bad names. Unusual, perhaps, but bad – au contraire! It was the name that’s stuck in my mind all these years, conjuring up a brutal death march of enforced suburban fun the wryly cynical assessment of which seemed a basic part of New Wave. So check them out, perhaps at an upcoming Memorial Day barbecue, and enjoy that long-awaited three-day weekend!

And ChiChi Fargo, who sent me the link to LHL's Elmer Gantry aria, has posted another YouTube video, this time of Philip Glass’s The Juniper Tree, which ART did back in 1985, so it’s nice to see the precious musical flotsam and jetsam of my Boston past bobbing up and down on the vast and murky waters of the Intertubes. Check it out here. So I guess I shouldn’t give up hope that the other Glass chamber opera I saw at ART, The Fall of the House of Usher, will also show up someday. I liked both of them a lot, but as with anything very stylized, lots of people didn’t. I worked with a woman who announced (about the Fall of the House of Usher), “It made me laugh – I guess I’m just not smart enough to get it” in tones that clearly indicated I was supposed to feel that she certainly was smart enough, and if she didn't get it, it wasn't worth getting. I smiled vaguely, since I suddenly realized she was not, in fact, smart enough to get it, or at least receptive enough to the outré to appreciate it. I was just grateful my enjoyment wasn’t ruined by her moronic snickering. Look, lots of people hate Philip Glass (and Edgar Allan Poe), finding what they do too boring or repetitive or just plain whacked-out messed-up Gothic weird (well, that applies to Poe more than Glass), but that’s no reason to annoy other people with one’s ostentatious displeasure.

But people are so resistant to any change. Part of the big Boston/NYC trip I couldn’t take was going to involve going to Nathan and Julie Gunn’s Zankel Hall recital, a meditation on the monastic life that involved a dancer and video projections as well as solo piano and vocals. Since I didn’t get a chance to see it myself I obviously can’t say whether I thought the evening was successful, and I should make it clear that I respect the opinion of those who were there and found it baffling or unsuccessful. What surprised me about some of the confusion, especially given that some of these reactions were on a fansite dedicated to Nathan Gunn so you’d think people would have enough trust in his artistic judgment to give him the benefit of the doubt, was the edge of contemptuous anger in some of the assessments. I thought about responding, but since I hadn’t been there I would be urging a theoretical openness and a nuanced reaction to people who clearly felt kind of threatened by the whole thing. It was getting a little too Opera-L in there, so I let it go and just hope I’ll get a chance to see the program some other time.

I’m missing lots of great stuff, in fact, and not just the new Harbison symphony in Boston that Gunn was also performing that week. There’s Satyagraha. Yes, I like Philip Glass, which is sort of odd considering that one reason I stopped listening to rock is that the steady monotonous thumping bass just drives me crazy. Glass doesn’t affect me that way, go figure. And I see that Lee Hoiby’s Tempest was presented at Purchase College in New York in a newly revised version. I have met people who swear this is one of the great American operas. I would love to see this in a season that also included Ades’s version of the same play as well as Harbison’s version of The Winter’s Tale. (Has someone done Cymbeline and Pericles, just to round out a season of the Romances?) I’d buy tickets to that, even though on the whole, and with the exceptions of Britten’s Midsummer and Verdi’s Falstaff, I usually have very mixed feelings about operas based on Shakespeare. The omission of Verdi’s Otello from the short list of exceptions is not accidental. Much as I love Verdi, I can only admire Otello coldly. You will sometimes hear people say it’s “better” than Shakespeare’s, and usually I’m very laissez faire about people’s tastes and opinions, but they’re wrong. Just wrong. If you ask them what they mean by “better” they’ll tell you that the plot is tighter and the motivation clearer and the action less diffuse, but that’s exactly why I prefer the messy, murky stage play.

Here’s something else I’m missing, this very week: the premiere of Kirke Mechem’s opera on John Brown at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, starring the redoubtable James Maddelena. I’m planning on buying a ticket to The Bonesetter’s Daughter here in San Francisco, but is it wrong to admit my anticipation is pretty lukewarm, and I’d rather see John Brown? Besides, I hear tell that Kansas City is a beautiful city of many fountains, and I'd love to see the Royals in their home stadium since they are the Brigadoon of baseball teams ("Who are the A's playing? The Royals? Oh, yeah – I forgot they exist!") Nonetheless, I take what I can get, and will head off to the Bonesetter's Daughter this fall, and as with any evening at the theater, I will walk in prepared to be converted. I am occasionally wrong, especially when I’ve formed opinions based on airy nothings. It happens. I freely admit it.

There is some stuff I’m actually going to, since yesterday’s announcement by the SF Ballet pretty much closed out the Announcing-Next-Season season, which is sometimes more entertaining than the actual seasons. As previously noted, I have not renewed my subscription at the Opera (by the way: subscriber and donor since 1992, and absolutely no one from the Opera has contacted me to find out why I haven’t renewed, not that I’m keeping track or anything; far be it from me to begrudge anyone the rare opportunity to see a live performance of La Boheme or La Traviata, but I’m not ponying up for that, and I’m certainly not donating – that would only encourage them).

Cal Performances did drag me back in, spending more money than ever, though I’d first like to note how unbelievably offensive it is that tickets to the Yo-Yo Ma concert are only available to those who have donated at least $1200. Why rub our grimy, impoverished faces in our miserable lot by putting this in the brochure in the first place? If the motive is to make us look at that big pile of cash sitting on the dining room table taking up space and just grab it all up and send it off to Cal Performances because you’ve been meaning to tidy up anyway, they have miscalculated. I’m thinking instead that there might not be any point in giving them any money at all unless you’re starting at $1200. So, Cal Performances – please stop yapping about reaching out to new audiences and being inclusive when you’re so very clearly selling exclusivity. But what can I say? They’re bringing Mark Morris back twice, with the new Romeo and Juliet and the old L’Allegro, which is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen on stage. Plus Dawn Upshaw is back, this time in the Peter Sellars staging of Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments. There’s bunches of other stuff, including a meatier theater selection than they often have, but this is the stuff floating to the surface for me.

What floats to the surface with San Francisco Performances is their Elliott Carter weekend: the fabulous Pacifica Quartet returns with his complete string quartets, and keyboard goddess Ursula Oppens plays the complete piano music, along with lectures by Robert Greenberg – at least, that’s my memory of what’s being offered. Their brochures are still stuck at the printer. They present great stuff, but they do seem to run into these odd problems.

The Ballet is offering a Mark Morris evening, and a new Swan Lake. I love Swan Lake. You know all those oddly self-sacrificing women in nineteenth-century opera, who redeem (whatever that means in this context) the hero by jumping into the sea or off a cliff or otherwise immolating themselves? Here’s one work where the guy does it. Score one (and yeah, it does seem to be only one, unless someone can augment my memory or my knowledge) for the ladies. Anyway, I'm happy to see another Swan Lake, though I’m sure there are balletomanes who feel about it the way I do about Boheme. Maybe not, though – the classical ballet crowd seems to be even more self-contained than the opera crowd.

I was hoping to spend some of those evenings when I was discouraging Gockley’s regrettable season by boycotting Boheme in reading Vladimir Nabokov’s final novel, The Original of Laura, which his son has finally decided to publish. Nabokov, the perfectionist arranger of each lustrous detail, wanted the manuscript destroyed when he realized he would die before completing it to his satisfaction. Faced with the wrenching decision of physically destroying his father’s last work or leaving it for some ambitious Associate Professors to fight over, the son chose to publish. I thought the announcement meant that the book was imminently available, so I went on Amazon.com and searched for The Original of Laura. Their first offering was Stop Whining, Start Living by Dr Laura Schlessinger. Uh, no thanks. I’ll just sit here in the dark and wait. And I'll "whine", which I guess means express opinions different from yours, if I want to, thank you very much Dr Laura, if you are in fact a doctor.

04 May 2008

fanboy fever!

A couple of years ago I was re-watching Griffith's Intolerance and there was a close-up of some chickens, and I thought, "Wow. Those chickens are long dead!" So were most of the actors, of course, but something - perhaps it was their total ignorance that they were being immortalized - really hit me emotionally about those chickens scratching away for worms, and really brought home that silent films resurrect a vanished world in a way no other art form really does. Even old recordings (and I eagerly anticipate each new Marston release) aren't quite the same revivifiers; it's not so much that the sound requires some aural adjustment as that the repertoire performed (especially, alas, in the case of the operatic solos) is almost exactly the same repertoire that similar performers would record today, whereas silent films, though an integral part of film history, are also a completely self-contained and finished world of artistic achievement, often at a breath-taking level. A few years after sound became widespread you couldn't make a silent film without its being an hommage, or camp, or some type of artificial throwback of a highly conscious sort. Even Chaplin gave up after Modern Times in 1936.

As a teenager I read Kevin Brownlow's superb history of silent film, The Parade's Gone By, and that's where I first heard about the French director Abel Gance, and I became a fan without having seen a single one of his films. They sounded remarkable, a dazzling blend of the old-fashioned high Romantic style of the nineteenth century melodrama with twentieth-century technological innovations that everyone else took years to rediscover. He made movies that lasted four or five hours yet were famous and influential because of the rapid editing that later became known as "MTV-style". As with many of the mainstream operas and ballets, an otherwise extinct theatrical mode has been preserved because of the style used to tell it.

Or would have been preserved if so many films hadn't been unavailable or lost. I did manage while still in high school to see Napoleon as restored by Brownlow. I should find the poster I bought on the occasion to check the exact date and location. It was a theater in San Francisco, and one valiant organist played the mighty Wurlitzer for the film's entire five hour length, and because it was a special benefit for the Pacific Film Archive, admission cost an unheard-of five dollars, and I sure do feel like an old man talking about how cheap things used to be back in the day. Several years later, when Coppola paid to have the film tour America, I saw it again in Boston, and when the cheering died down at the end of the film, someone official came out on stage to inform us that Gance, by then in his 90s, had died that night in Paris (and thank you IMDB - it must have been November 10, 1981), but he at least had lived long enough to see his great masterpiece restored and celebrated.

It's a remarkable film, and just about the only one I can think of that doesn't work even better at home on a large screen, because the last half hour bursts onto three screens, and when you see a cavalryman's horse gallop from the far left of the farthest left screen right up to the camera and then off to the right of the farthest right screen, you understand physically the basic magic of movies. But the three screens aren't just used for their panoramic possibilities; they also break into triptychs and diptychs and a rhythmic explosion of swift shots and double exposures that pull you into accepting Napoleon as a great force of nature instead of the shabby little dictator he was. And all along Gance has used the amazingly fluid camera of the silent cinema to create an entire and realistic world through clearly artificial means. I love the scene where the Marseillaise is first sung. It's been so long since I've had a chance to see the film that I won't even attempt to describe it, but it ends with the singing crowd dissolving into a shot of Marianne, the female embodiment of the Revolution, joining in and swinging her sword wide, and I swear it wasn't until hours later that I realized that no one had actually been singing; that's how effectively the film and its instrumental accompaniment had created the vivid impression of vocal music.

Anyway, I have been looking for other Gance films for over thirty years now. I came close long ago, again in high school days, when SF MOMA announced a showing (appropriately enough, for a museum then located in the War Memorial building) of Gance's great anti-war film, J'Accuse, parts of which were filmed on the front with actual soldiers. My very wonderful mother (hi, Mom!) drove me there only to find out that the show had been canceled for reasons I don't really remember - maybe the print never arrived, or it wasn't the version they thought they were getting. Gance spent a lot of his post-silent-film life recutting J'Accuse and Napoleon. His was not a style that translated well to the static cameras required by early sound equipment, or to the changed tastes of self-consciously modern times. I have seen some of his sound films, and though he does some interesting things (particularly in his film about Beethoven, where he experiments with the sound to give you a vivid feeling of what it was like for the composer to go deaf), they are generally fairly minor. (Besides the Beethoven film, I've seen one he made about Lucrezia Borgia; there's also a shortened version of Charpentier's Louise, which I have but haven't yet seen.)

So here's my big excitement: I was trolling through upcoming DVD releases on Amazon.com, and saw La Roue, which is the name of another of Gance's great silent films. I'd never even come as close as an announcement to seeing this one. I was frankly kind of stunned it was being released, and thrilled to see it was being released by Flicker Alley, since I have (and have even watched!) several of their sets, and they always do an absolutely superb job. According to their website, "[t]his new restoration with a running time of nearly four and a half hours, accompanied by Robert Israel’s symphonic score, is the fullest presentation of La Roue to reach the public since 1923." Even though I found this through Amazon, I didn't buy it from them, since for some weird reason (they do this with Criterion sets as well - does Amazon just hate cineastes?) they do not offer their usual discounts with Flicker Alley sets. So I bought it directly from Flicker Alley, and if you have any interest at all in silent movies I encourage you to do the same. And they have a discount before the release date! Which is Tuesday, May 6, so don't even think twice. Just start clicking your Paypal account into service. And then, once you are a Gance fanboy as well, you can also get J'Accuse, which Flicker Alley is releasing in September.

Obviously I haven't actually viewed either of these sets (or even these movies) yet, but based on what I know and have experienced with both Gance and Flicker Alley I can guarantee these will be outstanding. And if you feel otherwise, please do not tell me. I would like to respect you in the morning.

The other thing that's sabotaged my "get out of debt" plans this weekend is the latest ArkivMusic weekend special: Bantock's setting for "gargantuan orchestra" and soloists of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat. The weekend sale price will no doubt be gone by the time you read this, but the idea of all those succint quatrains about the evanescence of life and the fleeting quality of beauty being presented in an elaborate three-hour Edwardian extravaganza is too whacked out for me to resist. I fully expect to enjoy this, but I'm not making any guarantees about this one - I can really only promise you one sure thing at a time. After all this high Romantic swirling I think I will watch some Ozu films to bring myself back into balance.