28 February 2009

Haiku 59

Saturday morning:
The haute bourgeoisie strolls out
To get its coffee

*******

(after seeing an "Obama for America" sticker on an SUV parked in a bus stop zone)

Your righteous thinking
Does not count for more than your
Unrighteous doing

27 February 2009

Haiku 58

Even after lunch
Many buildings resemble
Slices of white cake

Haiku 57

Songs of fleeting time:
Yet we want them sung to us
In ripe, supple tones

*******

My shabby raincoat:
It won't last another year;
Perhaps one more month?

*******

A breeze makes the leaves
Dance; the light makes the shadows
Dance; I see them both

25 February 2009

Haiku 56

Lush Lounge flashes red
Neon against black windows
Empty morning street

24 February 2009

Haiku 55

David Beckham's bulge
Eye-level on each kiosk
Shoppers walk on by

*******

White bright light of noon
Shadowless on the water
Gulls swoop on garbage

23 February 2009

Haiku 54

Waiting for the rain
Umbrellas sprout like mushrooms
Runners dashing by


(As will sometimes happen, this is a week when I may not have computer access every day, in which case I will just post that day's haiku when I next have access.)

22 February 2009

21 February 2009

20 February 2009

Haiku 51

Beggar's shopping cart
Crammed with papers and old bags
Those things are his home

*******

Last week's bare branches
Gemmed with buds and small pale leaves
Traffic whizzes by

19 February 2009

fun stuff I'm probably going to miss

There seems to be a critical mass of interesting stuff I’m most likely going to miss in the next couple of weeks, thanks to previous commitments or general exhaustion, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take advantage of what's being offered. Some of this is stuff I’ve wanted to see since I first heard about it, like the new Swan Lake at the San Francisco Ballet or Sofia Gubaidulina’s residence at the San Francisco Symphony (I’m hearing at least one of these concerts, but I might miss the first one and the chamber performance), so too bad for my poor planning and poverty generally.

The Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble is performing live music to experimental films tomorrow night, Friday February 20, at Artists' Television Access at 992 Valencia Street. I heard Dubowsky's Eisenhower Address last fall and was really impressed by it and would love to hear it again. Go see what he does with Genet, Jarman, and company.

The excellent local chorus Volti is presenting another intriguing program chockfull of world premieres, at St Mark’s (2300 Bancroft Way, Berkeley) on Friday February 27 and at St Gregory of Nyssa (500 De Haro Street, San Francisco) on Saturday February 28. If you too can't make these performances, you can always go to their website and buy their CDs.

The California Symphony is presenting a new orchestral work, White Lies for Lomax (as in Alan Lomax), by their Young Composer in Residence, Mason Bates, who also has a work coming up with the San Francisco Symphony later this season. Also on the program is the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with a young soloist, Stefan Jackiw, and the Brahms 4. That’s Sunday March 8 and Tuesday March 10 at the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.

And the next Other Minds Festival starts Thursday March 5 and continues for the next two days at Kanbar Hall at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (3200 California Street at Presidio).

So go, defy the Republican reactionaries by spending what money you have to support the arts, and enjoy. Tell me what I'm missing.

Haiku 50

White frost on green grass
Sparkles as the sun first shines
Then it vanishes

18 February 2009

Haiku 49

Grey pigeons gather
Pause and peck at who-knows-what
On red brick sidewalks

*******

(for Marcel & Madeleine)
My eyes fill with tears
Emotion or allergies?
Two dogs on my lap

17 February 2009

Haiku 48

Fine, Buddha, you win!
Desire, even existence,
Lead to suffering.

*******

Hipster hats can't hide
That bald spot or those grey hairs,
But they still look sharp

*******

Fallen oranges,
Random bite marks and gashes
Something scampered off

16 February 2009

Haiku 47

After waiting on a cold wet windswept platform for 20 minutes because BART's website assured me my regular train was coming on what is a holiday for most of the United States but not for me and then walking into a Walgreen's or RiteAid or whatever, all those stores look alike to me, and having to listen to the theme song from Flashdance (Take your passion! And make it happen! -- when people say things like that, I can barely keep from punching them in the mouth) while discovering that I can't afford their umbrellas so I'm stuck with the already overpriced one I have that broke upon its first use:

Fluorescent graveyard
Where old shit songs haunt the rows
Of shiny plastic

15 February 2009

Haiku 46

Nodding daffodils
I have forgotten just when
I first planted them

LHL at Ravinia

A new Lorraine Hunt Lieberson disc is being released: her recital at Ravinia accompanied by Peter Serkin. This is self-recommending, of course.

Although it is also available from Amazon, my link above is to MDT, a British outfit that often has lower prices (as in this case), even with shipping costs. They also tend to have releases sooner; I've had the Bartoli/Florez Sonnambula for months already thanks to them, and I don't think the Messiaen St Francois I mentioned in a previous post has even appeared on Amazon yet. The only thing you have to watch out for is that the DVDs are all-region, so they'll play on US players.

14 February 2009

Haiku 45

Why do rainy days
Seem like a gentle demand
To play some Chopin

*******

My neighbors gather
Flash of a gilt-edged Bible
Someone else's life

Don't change a hair for me, not if you care for me

And here’s a special St Valentine’s Day half-price heart-shaped box of links for my readers, starting with some hilarity from the Onion.

I had more or less forgotten the day until the Opera Company of Philadelphia sent me an e-mail urging me to “treat my Valentine to Turandot!” I sometimes wonder if Marketing Departments ever bother to look up the plots of the operas they’re trying to sell. On the other hand, maybe they’re just having their little joke: marketing + bad love choices = St Valentine’s Day! At least it wasn’t The Rape of Lucretia, which I am going to see in June, by the way.

Here’s something else to look forward to: a DVD release of Messiaen’s St Francois d’Assise! This production is from De Nederlandse Opera (which recently brought us the first official recording of Dr Atomic, thereby retaining European supremacy in recording modern operas) and stars Rod Gilfry, and I have to admire a singer who can portray both Stanley Kowalski and St Francis.

And the line-up for the next season of Dancing with the Stars has been announced, and though I realize “stars” is being used loosely (I wasn’t really expecting Brad Pitt to suit up), I don't know who a lot of these people are. That's not that much of a problem, because really, what do I care? And at this point the professional dancers are better known anyway and on the upward curve of their careers (some nights it's like watching multiple little versions of A Star Is Born). But seriously – Denise Richards? You have to worry a little when Charlie Sheen is the mature, responsible partner.

The worrisome trend to me is the boast that there are several “real-life couples” on the show, since there seems to be an increasing emphasis on "relationship drama" rather than, you know, "dancing." Maybe the ratings got a big boost when viewers were wondering if Derek Hough and his partner from a few seasons back (sorry, I can't remember her name, and all this searching and hyperlinking is wearing me out) were dating. I liked her until she had a teary-eyed meltdown over the criticism of her hip movement. I'm a weeper myself, and granted she was at a severe disadvantage next to Derek’s serpentine hips, but, you know, keep it together. And she really did need to work on her hips.

Since then we’ve been treated to an increasing number of emotional outbursts, the most inexplicable being Lacey Schwimmer’s announcement that she just couldn’t keep on trying to please Lance Bass, who seemed fairly mild-mannered and tractable. Given her announcement that he was her teenage crush, I’m thinking he was just the victim of her issues, but maybe she was reacting to stuff we hadn’t seen. Or maybe not, since he seemed as befuddled by the surprise attack as the viewers were. There was a priceless shot of his sad blank face looking slightly puzzled when she stormed out. But full points to them for dancing to “I Kissed a Girl.” Witty choice!

I assume the “relationship counselor” who came to talk to the finalists was just a joke that didn’t quite work. Poor Cody Linley, bursting into tears. I was both amused and creeped out to hear him mention that there was a website dedicated to his eyebrows. I do know people with an eyebrow thing. Not to mention any names, of course. His Hannah Montana co-star Miley Cyrus is seriously creepy – she was shown greeting him at her "Sweet 16" birthday party in Disneyland, and I thought I was watching a 45-year-old divorcee trying to pick up her son’s naïve high-school teammate.

Another thing they need to stop doing on that show: having the little kids dance. Yes, these kids know it’s a competitive field, which means sometimes they lose, but no one that age needs to lose on national TV before millions of viewers, especially if they’re not just watching, they’re deliberately choosing to reject you. (Or maybe the viewers don’t vote on the little kids – I always leave the room during that part, so I really don’t know. I should probably get Tivo.) It’s the difference between playing sandlot baseball and playing in the Little League World Series on ESPN.

Another thing they should never do again: Cloris Leachman. It wasn’t so much her limited dancing skills as her constant need to be the center of attention that really annoyed me. My jump-the-shark moment with her was when Cody and Julianne were being interviewed after their dance (poor Cody! that kid was abused a lot) and Cloris came over and started pawing him. Possibly she just thought he was a camera. I’m sure the audience would have been equally delighted if those had been, say, Mickey Rooney’s liver-spotted claws caressing barely-legal flesh. But we all know that old women aren't rude, self-centered, or camera hogs: instead, they’re feisty. That's a pretty absurd and condescending attitude, especially toward a woman who made movies with Mel Brooks, but she certainly took advantage of it. When she finally left she announced to Carrie Ann, “I know you didn’t mean what you said” (referring to her comment from the week before that it was sad to see Toni Braxton leave when she was starting to improve, just so that Leachman could continue flopping around, though she phrased it more gently than that). Guess what, Cloris? She did mean it.

But the most painful moment of all was when Carrie Ann made Susan Lucci stand up and say, “I’m a good dancer!” or whatever empowering you-go-girl nonsense she made her repeat. I thought this was an incredibly degrading thing to do to a woman of her professional standing and, how shall one say, life experience. But improved self-esteem (justified or not) was a leitmotif with several of the other women. Strangely, the only man who was treated to these little confidence-building discussions was Lance Bass, which of course had absolutely nothing to do with his position as the only openly gay contestant.

Well, I do really enjoy the dancing. And I even like the Superstars of Dance segments; most of them, anyway. I think I was a little misled when they started off with Alvin Ailey. I wasn’t exactly expecting Pina Bausch (though that would be fun) but maybe Mark Morris. . . . But I’m very naïve about these things. When I heard that there was a movie coming out named Gigli, I assumed (as one naturally would!) that it was about Beniamino Gigli. I thought Ben Affleck was kind of odd casting. In my defense, there have been movies about Caruso, though it’s not much of a defense since Caruso is a very different sort of cultural figure; it's like Carreras and Pavarotti.

In any case, here's one more sweet link for you, before we toss the empty heart aside (empty except for the sour quince log, of course): Defamer’s pairings of the upcoming DWTS cast and some of the great choreographers. That's entertainment!

13 February 2009

Haiku 44

Apricot tulips
Remembered from years before
Glowing in the light

*******

Drunkard on a train
Shouts racial slurs at himself
We read newspapers

12 February 2009

Haiku 43

(for Charles Darwin, born 12 February 1809, and for V)

Our beaks differ now
Erstwhile lizards have grown wings
Those fish crawl landward

11 February 2009

10 February 2009

Haiku 41

Ruined reveries
And slumbering grey half-worlds
Pierced by an alarm

*******

Clear afternoon sky:
Behind the blue, stars unseen
Glitter, far and cold

09 February 2009

Haiku 40

My sandwich order
Ruined by Seller's Market
Ruining my day

Yes, it's a product placement haiku, but since it's negative I'm going to go with it, integrity intact. I don't know what got into me -- must be something in the air -- actually, I do know what got into me: an incredibly overpriced and bad sandwich. Is it that difficult to understand an on-line order that says "no mayonnaise/aioli"? So why am I getting a sandwich slathered with aioli that leaves a disgusting greasy aftertaste? I won't even start on the inadequate slice of ham, the almost total lack of fig in the ham-and-fig sandwich, and the undistinguished bread.

Yeah, I ate it. Due to time constraints I couldn't bring it back. And it was so small I figured it wouldn't matter. I was wrong. My stomach has been queasy ever since.

Don't even get me started on BART, our pathetic over-priced excuse for a transit system. Tonight was even more of a nightmare than usual.

I'm listening to some Elliott Carter to cheer myself up.

Here's another haiku that's less of a Twitter-style update:

And this is your life
Rattling phones and crowded rooms
And desktop clutter

08 February 2009

Haiku 39

Burn your love poems
Contemplate the light falling
On wet empty streets

07 February 2009

By my so potent art

First, some memories for context:

I’m in Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street in Boston to attend a concert, and I’m looking for a toilet. For whatever psychological/theological/aesthetic reason, it’s often difficult to find a toilet inside churches, so I’m wandering around in the basement or off to the side or somewhere else dark and confusing. There’s a middle-aged woman down there looking for the same thing, only she asks one of the singers, a well-known countertenor. He gives her a somewhat brusque reply, not too surprising for a singer interrupted right before a concert by a stranger asking irrelevant questions. But his reaction seems to bother her since back in the pews I hear her telling her companion about the incident. Only in her telling the countertenor (who, for what it’s worth and if my memory serves me, and it may not, was married with children) gives a very snippy, fluttery answer in the high-gay mode. But he didn’t – I heard and saw him, and he sounded like a regular guy brushing off a stranger, not the queeny guy she made him. And this was from a woman musically sophisticated enough to go hear obscure Handel oratorios (that is, not Messiah) done by a small (that is, not prominent with society concert-goers) group. The incident stuck in my mind as a peculiar illustration of the disturbing power of a high but strong voice coming out of a male body.

A second one: I am in Boston Symphony Hall listening to a celebrity violinist also known for his good works (I should look it up, but I think it was Stern). Unfortunately his status meant that lots of people were there who had plenty of interest in either celebrity or good works, but not much in music. Clearly many there thought they were cultured because they were in a famous hall listening to a famous musician, but an actor observing the crowd could have gotten lots of tips on how to portray bored restless noisy indifference. The recital was sort of a disaster, until the encore. The violinist came out and announced in a booming voice that he was going to play a Haydn adagio. I don’t know quite what hit us. But he started playing his Adagio and every single person in that auditorium sat there in utter silence and stillness, transfixed and transported. It’s difficult to describe such beauty, much less how it came out of nowhere, but it reminds me of Larkin’s lines: “On me your voice falls as they say love should, / Like an enormous yes.” And everyone else in that auditorium felt something similar. It’s the only time in my life I’ve felt that kind of rapturous unity with an audience. Sometimes I think I keep going to concerts just in an attempt to regain that moment. It was my girl in the white dress on the New Jersey ferry. Because of that moment, I understand the legend of Orpheus.

One more: it’s late winter, again in Boston. I’ve gone home sick from work. The skies are overcast and wet. I decide to listen to one of the new CDs I’ve bought, the complete recordings of Alessandro Moreschi, the so-called "last castrato" and the only one ever recorded. The afternoon light is grey and cold, and I have a slight fever and a queasy stomach that are disassociating me slightly more than usual from the world around me. I’m listening to the sole survivor of another world, in the scratchy and imperfect sound that was possible during the recording in 1902. It’s like a visit from a ghost, and I ever so slightly freak out. It’s like looking at the stuffed body of the last passenger pigeon in the Smithsonian and trying to imagine crowds of those birds, darkening the sky. It’s like looking at a candle and trying to imagine the sun. It’s like glimpsing a foreign country from the window of a train, knowing that the sliver you see is all you will ever know of that strange land. It’s a vivid reminder of all the irretrievably lost efforts of art. Every time I listen to that recording I ever so slightly freak out in the same way.

So I made sure to get a ticket when Mexico City’s Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes visited the Yerba Buena Center with Monsters and Prodigies: A History of the Castrati. I was even inspired to read at long last a book I had bought years ago that had been waiting on my shelf ever since, Patrick Barbier’s The World of the Castrati, because it was credited as the inspiration for the play.

I can recommend the book highly: it’s informative, humorous but respectful, judicious, thorough, sensitive, dramatic, poignant, and absorbing. Somehow the Ciertos Habitantes managed to present a play largely consisting of chunks of Barbier’s text without capturing a single one of those qualities. It opens with some non-Barbier material: a centaur (so we are told; all we see is a flabby shirtless man with the horsy parts hidden behind a fence; the staging is fairly skimpy on spectacle, which is a problem when you're trying to present the spectacular) and conjoined twins recite some examples of the “monsters” (mostly malformed children) born in the Renaissance and the effect they had.

This may sound unduly callous, but these days there’s a certain academic conventionality to discussions of Renaissance “prodigies” and their cultural meaning. On the other hand, it’s certainly true the Ciertos Habitantes don’t seem unduly sensitive: one fairly extraneous character is a “slave” (he seems to be a South American Indian dressed in a fringed loincloth, I guess as a representative of Natural Man) who gets slapped around a lot – there’s a lot of slapping around on stage – and in one scene they turn the lights out and claim they can’t find him because of his black skin; actually, he’s more of a café-au-lait, but that’s the type of sub-minstrel show material we get when the boys wander from Barbier. I assume all this is meant to put the castrati in the categories of the “monstrous”; they are indeed outside the normal, but there’s a difference between a deliberately man-made and rigorously trained phenomenon like the castrati and an aberration of Nature.

Then we go to Barbier: conjoined twins (not from Barbier, but undoubtedly meant to represent duality or the monstrous or some damn thing) talk at us about how castration is performed. This led to lots of chuckling in the audience, particularly among two youngish women in the row behind me. I have no doubt that these sensitive and intelligent viewers would react in absolutely the same way to a description of female genital mutilation.

There seems to be some sort of thesis here that the castrati represent “Beauty” or “the Prodigious,” which is eventually to be destroyed by Science, an argument made by poets in the past and fundamentalists today. Perhaps I'm reading too much into the play; the various theses don’t make any sense, really, since castration is, after all, a medical and therefore scientific procedure, and the castrati received years of rigorous training, which hardly makes them natural prodigies or freaks. But I’m not going to spend much time teasing out and examining the implications; why should I put more work into the ideas behind this play than the writer, director, and actors all combined? There’s a lot of grandly theoretical conceptual-art-type language in the playbill. What you see on stage is mostly lots of prancing, giggling, and slapping, and lots of talking at the audience. One mentions themes only to counter the argument that one didn't "get" the subtleties of the material. If there’s a puerile and uncomprehending way of presenting something, this group will find it.

One actor – I’m not going to trouble myself or embarrass him by looking up his name – seems to be the chief representative of the castrati. He is short and fat, prissy and pouty, greasy with excess make-up, and he simpers around the stage in increasingly elaborate and intentionally absurd costumes, rendering ridiculous the whole baroque aesthetic of spectacle and disguise. It’s like watching a giant donut hole. A giant effeminate donut hole. A giant effeminate donut hole that can’t sing. Though Barbier makes the point that there is no reason to assume the castrati were all or even mostly – to use an anachronistic term – homosexual, here they are consistently represented as cartoons of flouncy, petulant effeminacy. Sometimes this actor is meant to sing poorly (you can tell by the grimaces of the other actors on stage, which are so much of the “mamma-mia-those-crazy-emotional-Italians” sort that I needn’t describe them), and sometimes he’s meant to sing superbly (ditto), but both sound pretty much the same and both range from the inadequate to the painful. I was reminded several times of American Idol auditions, when you can tell why the singer thinks he or she is good, but you can also tell why he or she is not.

Though the castrati were the great singing artists of their day and the delight of vocal connoisseurs, what you see on stage here are foolish preening caricatures either singing or listening to ridiculous music. We get glimpses of cardinals, always snoozing, and aristocrats, always simpering. We get a poor performance of “Lascia ch’io pianga” (from Handel’s Rinaldo, and two minutes on the Internet, if you’re not already familiar with the opera, will tell you that that particular aria is sung by Almirena, a role created by Isabella Girardeau: in other words, it wasn't written as a castrati aria at all). We get a musicological description of Gluck’s Che faro senza Euridice, which I guess is better than hearing this group try to sing it but doesn't quite capture the aria's grandeur. One of my mother’s college professors had been a Rhodes Scholar, and at every lecture his students would comically and cruelly count the number of times he slipped that fact in, so I hate to be like this, but I need to mention it again: I heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson perform this repertory live. Don’t try to tell me that baroque or classical art is dated, irrelevant, ridiculous, or incapable of touching the soul in the deepest possible way. This is the first time in my life I’ve sat in a theater thinking, They really should have used pre-recorded music here instead of live.

To make an obvious point, if you don’t respect this music – if you don’t respect the power of art, and of the artists, however strange or unfortunate, who made it, and if you think the people who listen to it are affected poseurs – the whole phenomenon of the castrati is just going to be a silly freak-show spectacle for you. There’s no insight or pleasure to be gained there.

So why, when I have so many better past performances patiently waiting for me to describe them, am I jumping the queue for this tedious debacle? Because of what happened next:

We’re about 90 minutes into the performance, and I’m desperately trying to remember how long this intermissionless show lasts. A couple of people have already snuck out. The entire performance is in Spanish and Italian, and the poorly translated surtitles (which never included the lyrics to the arias, which seems a peculiar choice in a show about musicians) are getting increasingly erratic – zipping by too quickly, or disappearing for long stretches. The “slave” appears again, this time apparently as a French revolutionary. (As I know from Barbier, the French public never really warmed to the castrati, partly because of political and cultural rivalries with Italy, and during the Revolutionary period the feeling was especially intense.) I say he was “apparently” a revolutionary, because the surtitles have disappeared again, and I can catch Liberte, Egalite, and Fraternite, but little else, though frankly I’m not trying too hard. I’m listlessly checking my watch yet again, having given up hope that this anticipated evening would be anything but long and wasted.

And then the woman to my left, who had been sitting there quietly except for the occasional chuckle and a moment when she was rustling in her purse for a butterscotch lifesaver (we were crammed in pretty tightly there) suddenly jumped to her feet! Her voice rang out like a trumpet: “What is this performance? What is going on? Do you know what he’s saying? He’s insulting us! This whole show is an insult! Can’t anyone else speak French? Do you know what they’re saying?”

For a giddy moment I wonder if this is part of the performance. Then I realize it couldn’t be – it’s so much more dramatic and interesting than anything we’ve seen so far. Someone shouts, “Why don’t you leave then?” Her companion looks panicked and starts murmuring, “I’m sorry.” The actors are stunned for a moment and break character. They start shouting at her, I can’t tell what, and she says, “Oh yeah? Come say that to my face, big man! Why don’t you go back to Mexico City! Come here and say that!” She’s not a large or fierce-looking woman, but frankly I wouldn’t have messed with her just then either. The actors soon return to the spirit of the play by reacting in the most juvenile possible manner: they grab the plate of dinner roles that the fat castrato has been gorging on (a fat guy eating – hilarious!) and start throwing them at her. Since I am right next to her, one of them hits my left arm and bounces off. I am collateral baked goods damage! Fortunately they were Parker House rolls – a Dutch Crunch roll could have done some serious damage.

By this time the other woman has managed to take her friend’s arm and persuade her to leave. My ennui has dissipated – I am electrified! For the first time, I really understand how the Italian audiences of the baroque could laugh and chat and flirt during a performance and suddenly be galvanized by a great moment of dramatic truth. At last the evening has given me some insight into the theater of the castrati! I am a strict believer in not imposing your reactions in a way that would disrupt other viewers, but this is a world turned upside down: I’ve just seen the greatest performance of the evening, and heard easily the best voice.

And so, angry blonde stranger on my left, bravissima, bravissima, arcibravissima! Trembling with adoration, I crown you with immortal laurel, and weeping with ecstatic pleasure, I toss roses at your furious feet!

The play resumes; someone dressed as Napoleon is prancing around on stage, and someone is saying repeatedly, “No, Napoleon was a midget!” I gaze wistfully at the roll lodged in the now-upright empty seat beside me. I, who hate food fights, briefly consider tossing it at the youngish women behind me, who are talking again. Their eyeglasses really bug me. You can tell they were carefully chosen to say “We’re stylish and sexy – but intellectual!” I realize I’m just trying to extend a moment that has come to its natural end. I also realize that expecting this mess to become worthwhile and interesting in its last – is it still half an hour? O dear God – is expecting a miracle beyond the capacity even of Lourdes. I normally stick to performances to the bitter end, but I’m realizing that I now have a clear path to the aisle, and so . . .

Haiku 38

Pink camellias drop
Petals into rain puddles;
Inside, it's warmer.

06 February 2009

Haiku 37

Black trees on grey streets
Random golden smudges dot
Windows blurred by rain

05 February 2009

Haiku 36

Sudden gusts of rain
So unpleasant in the street
So pleasant at home

*******

Dawns before my birth,
Dawns I've seen, dawns I've slept through;
Dawns after my . . . .

04 February 2009

Haiku 35

Branches, maybe birds;
A fleeting glimpse of weather:
They work their magic

03 February 2009

Haiku 34

Mist hides the mountains
Flowers nod on battlefields
A smile hides your thoughts

02 February 2009

But glad that now his Sea should find a shore

I decided to go to Idomeneo this fall because Alice Coote was singing; it turned out she was sick the afternoon I went, but I enjoyed the performance anyway. Adler Fellow Daniela Mack, her substitute, was a last-minute but committed and beautiful Idamante, and I thought Kurt Streit was fine as the lead. None of the voices were really big or outstanding, but none were weak or half-hearted either. I like the elaborate baroque costumes in the Greco-Roman sets (I’m not sure if that’s due to John Copley, who is credited with the Production, or John Conklin and Michael Stennett, credited with respectively Sets and Costumes, or some combination of the three). Donald Runnicles led a fluent performance and is certainly going out on a high note.

The only night-time performance I could have made was on a Tuesday night, with the usual idiotic curtain time of 8:00, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it through the next day at work, and possibly through the rest of the week, if I did that. I was, you will be astonished to hear, complaining about the start time to someone who told me, “Well, Tuesday night is rich people night, so they don’t care about getting to work in the morning.” You will be even more astonished to hear that I complained to more than one person, and got pretty much the same response each time. Apparently everybody but me knows that Tuesday nights are society nights at the San Francisco Opera, so performances must start at 8:00 rather than 7:30.

Should I be proud or embarrassed that I didn’t know this fact? Does it make a difference that I would have known it if this (my life, I guess) were a novel by Edith Wharton, which it pretty emphatically is not? (Note to self: next season, for that Old New York experience, Faust on a Tuesday!) I still think it's silly to start a three-and-a-half-hour opera at 8:00 on what is for most people a work day. In my experience of Tuesday nights this season, all the old society types are leaving before the end anyway, so they can be in bed by 10:30, sipping the Postum that Lupe so considerately heated up for them before taking the bus back home to Richmond. So why not throw a rational bone to the rest of us?

Anyway, I ended up at a Sunday matinee, and I think I need to reconsider my long-standing prejudice against Sunday matinees, since the audience was well-nigh perfect (that is, I forgot they were there, except for one moment I'll get to). The charming elderly Austrian woman to the right of my front-row seat was actually wearing elbow-length white gloves, pearls, and a fur-trimmed mantle. Afterwards she asked me to help her over to her walker in the corner, and she was even pleasant when she was obviously frustrated that I couldn’t figure out where to put my arms in order to guide her without either crushing her or engaging in inappropriate touching of the sort that children have to illustrate for the court on little dolls. I finally told her to grab my arms and place them where she needed them to go. No wonder the old ladies love me. She was pleasantly friendly during intermissions and completely silent during the performance. What a jewel. Even better, the seat on my left was empty.

The audience was so surprisingly attentive and respectful of the artists and other audience members that I was kind of shaken when laughter swept parts of the auditorium at the dramatic high point, when Ilia rushes onto the executioner’s block to offer herself in place of Idamante. I honestly didn’t see (and still don't see) what was funny about it. Of course she has to throw herself down in the same position as Idamante: you can’t just stand off to the side immovably warbling that they really ought to consider taking you as the sacrifice in place of the person whose neck is on the altar. What did people think she was supposed to do? Such opera-seria conventions might be alien to our outlook on life, or to our theater, but if you can’t enter sympathetically into the theatrical conventions of the past, then perhaps the opera house is not where you should be spending your time.

The gesture that struck me as ill-considered and possibly comic (though I didn't laugh, it takes more than that to make me laugh) was in Elettra’s big 11:00 number (D’Oreste, d’Aiace, Ho in seno i tormenti, in case you’re wondering), during which she tore off her crown and gave it a Hail-Mary pass to an unseen receiver in the wings. After the fake and gooey reconciliation at the end of Bonesetter’s Daughter, I appreciated the integrity and psychological acuity of Elettra’s exclusion from the reconciliation at the end. As with Beckmesser in Meistersinger (or Malvolio in Twelfth Night), the point is made that happy endings aren’t happy for everyone. There’s no pretence, as in Bonesetter’s Daughter, that if our protagonist is happy, then no one else’s feelings matter. Elettra's pain is real, and she is given her great moment apart from the general rejoicing.

I'm glad I went, but despite my enjoyable afternoon Idomeneo is still my least favorite of the major Mozart operas (and despite the valiant attempt to show some sort of sea monster on stage as illustrated here with cupcake assistance by the Opera Tattler; even if it looked mostly like a multi-headed hippocampus, I appreciated the effort). In watching Idomeneo bow to the gods and lose his throne, and his son defy the gods to battle a monster and create a new world, I was reminded of Wotan and Siegfried. If you enter sympathetically and mythopoetically into opera seria, it’s not a formal and foreign world, alien to our deeper concerns, though I have to admit I still prefer La Clemenza di Tito.

Haiku 33

Apartment buildings
Float, flattened by morning light
Hover over hills

01 February 2009

Haiku 32

Super-sized remnants
Picked over and abandoned
on plates and in Bowls

OK, kind of a stretch. Go Steelers, though I'm OK either way, unlike last year.

Here's an addendum, written on the train coming home from this evening's concert (Kronos Quartet). I still don't know which team won the game.

Windows flash past lights
Remembered melodies sink
Into transit noise.