30 June 2012

Haiku 2012/182

having cleared some trees
my first thought is how to fill
the space with new trees

29 June 2012

28 June 2012

27 June 2012

Haiku 2012/179

white sails on whitecaps
blue and white intersections
blue sky on blue sea

26 June 2012

fun stuff I may or may not get to: July 2012

I'm posting next month's preview earlier than usual, mostly because I was out six nights in a row last week and I'm out three nights this week and of course I've been at my regular job as well and so despite the lengthy list of entries I have to write I'm just too tired to do anything but this. July is usually a fairly slow month, which I'm thinking is a good thing right now.

To pick up where we left off last month: Shotgun Players present Truffaldino Says No from 30 June to 22 July.

The San Francisco Opera's summer season runs through 8 July, so you still have a few more chances to see Attila, The Magic Flute, and Nixon in China. (When you speak of this season later on, Nixon in China is the one you'll boast about seeing.) After the 8th it's all about the summer Merola program. The Schwabacher Summer Concert takes place 5 July at 7:30 at Herbst Theater and then again on 7 July at 2:00 in the Yerba Buena Gardens, if you prefer your summer singers al fresco. Last year Merola's only opera was The Barber of Seville; this year they're switching it up with two interesting-looking rarities: Dominick Argento's Postcard from Morocco (19 July at 8:00 and 21 July at 2:00) and Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera (2 August at 8:00 and 4 August at 2:00). Both operas are at the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason, which is too bad but you can't have everything, I guess. The grand finale will be in the opera house, on 18 August. Get your Merola details here.

After the triumphant presentation of Abel Gance's Napoleon last March, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival returns to the Castro Theater for its annual summer extravaganza, 12 - 15 July. I was going to list out films that looked particularly interesting but then I realized they all look interesting and what I was really doing was picking out the films I knew were not available on DVD. Check out the schedule here.

American Bach Soloists presents its summer Bach festival (I think this is the second annual?) from 12 - 22 July at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Highlights include performances of the B Minor Mass, Pucell's Dido and Aeneas, and Rameau's Pigmalion, information on those concerts and many others can be found here.

SFMoMA's Cindy Sherman show opens 12 July for member previews, opens to the general public 14 July, and will stick around until 8 October.


Haiku 2012/178

silver rivers run
flashing beneath golden skies
I'm stuck at a bank

25 June 2012

23 June 2012

Haiku 2012/175

all speakers blaring
packed streets persist in dancing
to their own music

22 June 2012

21 June 2012

20 June 2012

Haiku 2012/172

skyscraper canyons
bright above, so gray below
a cold wind whips through

19 June 2012

Haiku 2012/171

stretching in the sun
drowsing through dull afternoons
the wisdom of cats

18 June 2012

17 June 2012

from vision to inheritance


After Attila on Tuesday I reached the BART platform just as my train was pulling in – and, unusually for that hour, it was a full-length train (they do need full-length trains on that line late at night, they just rarely run them; it’s all part of BART’s project to make commuting as expensive and unpleasant as possible). So I was pretty pleased with my BART luck and wondered how long it would last. Not long, was the answer: early Thursday morning a fire in west Oakland shut down the transbay tube. There I was, stranded in the east bay, with an expensive ticket to an excellent seat for that night’s performance of the John Adams/Alice Goodman/Peter Sellars opera Nixon in China, which I have wanted to see on stage since its premiere in Houston twenty-five years ago. People chuckle at my need to get to the theater early, but in the back of my mind I’m always thinking What if BART stalls? What if something happens? You know what it’s like when you realize your paranoia is justified? That's how I felt. (Which is not a bad frame of mind in which to contemplate the ambiguities of Richard Nixon, actually.)

Anyway, I attempted to keep my panicking to a minimum (not sure I succeeded) and with help from V I made it to Civic Center in plenty of time (even for me) for that night’s performance, the second of the run. I love this opera and have heard both recordings dozens (maybe hundreds?) of times. But I have never seen it in any form, having missed the broadcast of the original production as well as the Met livecast from last year. I’m going to start off with something negative, because I pretty much only have the one thing (and it’s not a fault of the production, but a preference of the composer, for reasons I do not understand): the amplification, though not as bad as it might be, led to some strange occasionally disembodied and flattened voices, and I sometimes felt the cast was singing against rather than with the orchestra. Everything else about the production – design, staging, lighting, costumes, cast, orchestra – is just completely awesome. (Tickets available here.)

Initially I did have some hesitation about Maria Kanyova’s Pat Nixon, who seemed a bit too much like a society woman – in fact, I realized after a few minutes that she was playing her as if she were Nancy Reagan. The actual Pat Nixon had a recessive, fragile quality that in the cultural context of her time was often read as a regressive banality, an active rejection of the counterculture and the feminist movement. (Now she seems a much more ambiguous and sadly gentle figure.) Kanyova’s portrayal certainly worked well, and it’s possible my opinion is colored by remembering the actual historical figure, at least as she appeared in the media of the time, but I think ideally the gentleness of the character would have been brought out a little more.

Confronted with this re-creation, those of us who remember not just the opera’s premiere but Nixon’s actual visit to China can’t help but reflect on the passing of time, of course. (The passing of time is also very much on the minds of the opera's protagonists: the aging and increasingly infirm Mao, a leader from a previous generation, reflects that "revolution is a boy's game" and the Nixons reflect on life during World War II, Pat at home and Richard in the Pacific Theater . . . "that was the time I should have died" he sings.) It’s strange to think that Nixon (who instituted wage-and-price controls, started the EPA, and funded the arts, along with many other less salutary actions) would be pilloried as a leftist these days by his own party. But then he always sought out vilification as justification for self-pity. He was a figure of deep Shakespearean shadows and conflicts; since then the presidential parade has mostly illustrated the banality of evil, and the advancing derangements of illegitimate empire. And Mao’s reputation as a political philosopher has sunk rapidly as the facts around the Cultural Revolution (and his whole repressive rule of China) become clearer. Both countries now are united in enriching their entrenched elites at the expense of the general population, particularly the working poor. It’s strange to look back on a time when the two countries were thought to represent such divergent paths.

Goodman’s superb libretto (allusive, elusive, evocative, poetic) concentrates on the days of the encounter, though it does hint at the darker qualities and other days of the protagonists: Nixon’s paranoia (“rats begin to chew the sheets”), Mao’s serene indifference to the suffering of others. Mme Mao’s murderous, controlling rage is deftly pointed out in “I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung,” her instantly celebrated aria that ends Act 2, in which ambiguous phrasing illuminates the character and indeed China’s situation. (During one intermission I heard a ninety-year-old woman exclaim, "This is the most intense opera I've seen! It's the whole history of China!") In the aria's first lines (“I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung / Who raised the weak above the strong”) it’s ambiguous who is being modified by the second clause: is she saying that Mao raised the weak above the strong? or is she claiming that glory? or is the implication that she is doing it through him? Ambiguity makes clear her urge to power. In the third and fourth lines (“When I appear the people hang / Upon my words. . . “) Adams sets the third line twice so that you don’t miss the threat hidden in the line break: when I appear the people hang. A few lines down (“And when I walked my feet were bound / On revolution.. . .”) the pause as the line breaks is significant again, a reminder of the oppressive conditions that led to the urge for a revolutionary break with the past – it wasn't just the colonial exploitation of China that caused rebellion, it was the traditional culture of China as well (early on, Mao tells us “We cried ‘Long Live the Ancestors!’ / Once, ‘It’s Long Live the Living!’ now”).

An interesting thing about finally seeing this work staged is noticing the increasing presence of Mme Mao during Act 2, as she guides the ballet and its audience and finally explodes in her fierce aria. Hye Jung Lee is astounding in the role; a tiny, intense young woman, her rich voice soars through her showstopper number without any strain or harshness; there’s a warm sultry undercurrent to her voice that reminds you that Chiang Ch’ing was a showgirl before she became Mme Mao.

The second-act ballet, a version of Red Brigade of Women, has always been one of my favorite parts of the opera. I know it’s supposed to be kitschy and clichéd, but it’s also thrilling and effective, with its mash-up of James Bond saxophones and sweeping Wagnerian strings: there’s a reason propaganda and Hollywood films take the form they take. I would maybe have toned down a bit the slobbering of the Kissinger character (Patrick Carfizzi), but it's suitable to the tone; this anti-imperialist story seems like a very pointed entertainment directed at the visiting Americans. After the Houston premiere I read several reviews that were completely baffled by the goings-on in the ballet, particularly when the Nixons, moved by the plight of the abused young peasant woman, insert themselves into the action. I was surprised that anyone was surprised. As soon as I heard about it I thought it was a brilliant idea: the China summit was itself an act of theater; Mao and Nixon and company were all playing roles that were reported (and their images created) according to set patterns: there’s theater, and politics that is enacted as theater, and “reality” that may or may not be real, and we’re watching all this recreated on stage – part of the idea’s brilliance was that it was so obvious to point out these ambiguities by blurring the sometimes arbitrary line between what is seen as theater and what is seen as real. (Short version: hadn’t any of these people seen Hamlet?)

I shouldn’t slight the men: Brian Mulligan is commanding as Nixon, dominating the stage immediately with his excited and even boyish delivery of his introductory aria (“News has a kind of mystery”), which expresses not only Nixon’s self-conscious view of himself as a world-historical figure, but his sense of how his image is being perceived by the public through the filter created by the media (with which Nixon had a well-known obsession). The President, though trying to embody a conservative view of America emphasizing self-reliance and continuity and contented success, smiles nervously, trying to win the approval of these placid and implacable older revolutionaries with their riddling and ambiguous remarks. Simon O’Neill captures the vigor and ambition of the physically fading Mao, his stentorian vocal lines part of his self-presentation as the new and improved Confucius. Chen-Ye Yuan is a Chou En-lai of reserve and depth. The entire cast is praiseworthy. Really, the whole production is all so well done, with so many nice touches! For example, the way the opening chorus (“Soldiers of heaven hold the sky”) takes place behind a scrim until “the people are the heroes now,” when the scrim rises and for the first time we can see the people clearly; or the lovely way Pat Nixon extends both arms out to her sides and slowly pivots as she sings her visionary Act 2 aria (“This is prophetic”).

One daring structural feature of the opera is the third act; it’s a tribute to what Adams, Goodman, and Sellars achieved that despite its lack of the big set-pieces of the first two acts and despite coming at the end of a long evening (the performance lasts three and a half hours) and despite coming after Mme Mao's searing barn-burner of an aria, it seems like the perfect ending, the right change in tone and mood and focus. We move away from the banquet halls and official tours and theatrical presentations and we hear fragmentary thoughts, and conversations, spoken or murmured but perhaps not meant to be heard. Nixon, the representative of officially optimistic America, dwells on his days in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War, thinking of death. Nixon and Pat dreamily dance, and so do Mao Tse-tung and his wife. Chou En-lai looks back in time and has no answers. His final words end the opera: “Outside this room the chill of grace / Lies heavy on the morning grass.” It’s one of those seemingly casual observations of the natural world, precise yet universal, typical of traditional Chinese poetry, evoking ambiguous and endlessly troubling, or calming, implications. (I wonder if I’m reading too much into the lines to hear an echoing reference to Whitman’s ultimately American leaves of grass, uniting both cultures in a single image?) The lines are both optimistic (the grace and the fresh grass) and cautionary (grace is chilly, and lies heavy; and there’s the usual “morning” / “mourning” homonym). The music is strangely calm and low as it ends.

This opera plays (and connects) with operatic history and conventions throughout just as much as with what we might call "history history." (The toasts echo the traditional drinking songs, there's a Queen-of-the-Night-style aria of rage and revenge, the three Chinese women translators recall the Queen of the Night's trio of attendants, there's a ballet, the personal and political intersect in a Verdian manner, the airplane-landing music in Act 1 evokes the pompous grandeur of the entry of the gods into Valhalla, Act 1 ends with one of those tumultuous scenes familiar from Rossini and company of everyone singing different things at once. . . .) It still reads and is perceived as "new", yet if you saw Turandot in 1950 you would be seeing something closer in time to its premiere than we are to the premiere of Nixon in China. The world has moved on since then, for better and worse. It’s an odd coincidence that this season opened and closed with operas on “contemporary” American history: first the puerile inanities of Heart of a Soldier and then the triumphant Nixon in China, a work both theatrically exciting and powerfully subtle. (I'm hoping the decline in depth and quality and the rise in unthinking militaristic jingoism from Nixon in China to Heart of a Soldier is merely a coincidence and not a sign of American cultural decline.) The music of Nixon in China clearly springs from the minimalist movement, but is already moving beyond it; though Adams’s music has become even richer since, this score still sounds fresh; you don’t listen to it thinking, oh, yeah, remember when everyone used all those arpeggios?; instead, you think I am going to have this music in my mind for weeks now. I’m happy to have it there.

Haiku 2012/169

dark blood-red petals
lie scattered on pale dead grass
victims of a breeze

Hey Hun


Tuesday night I was at the opening of Attila at the San Francisco Opera. This early Verdi opera, despite its relative rarity, has kind of slipped into the season (rather demurely for a Hun), overshadowed by both the eagerly awaited local stage premiere of Nixon in China and a new production of the ever-popular Magic Flute, which is rapidly replacing La Boheme as the beloved masterpiece I am most tired of seeing revived (nonetheless, I am going; since I’ve never seen Nathan Gunn as Papageno, it seemed a little silly not to).

Attila was first performed here in 1991, which was right before I moved back to this area, so Tuesday was the first time I’ve seen it live. I can’t say I was surprised it hadn’t been revived since; about every twenty years seems about right for this opera. Well, maybe that’s overly harsh – maybe ten years? As with Lucrezia Borgia earlier this season, it kept reminding me of other works (chiefly Nabucco and Macbeth, composed around the same time). The basic material is interesting enough, but it kept threatening to turn into something more gripping and deeper than it was, and though the music is striking and effective it’s just not as memorable as so much of Verdi is – this is one of those works that would probably be valued more highly if the artist hadn’t gone on to write greater works exploring similar themes.

There are some wonderful musical effects, like the sombre gray dawn music that opens the opera; or a rousing soldier chorus that suddenly drops out, leaving an ethereal offstage chorus. The character of Attila is an interesting precursor to Macbeth; both are driven, power-hungry, and ruthless killers who are also plagued by internal doubts and terrors. Attila is also a man of integrity; when the Roman general Ezio suggests they join forces, with Ezio ruling Italy and Attila the rest, he rejects the suggestion because he couldn’t join forces with any man dishonorable enough to betray his country. Ezio has one of those patriotic arias (“take the rest of the world, as long as I have Italy!”), which leave me pretty cold, no matter how beautifully they are sung. I understand why the Risorgimento audience went crazy for them, but I’m just not tribal that way. I was intrigued by the thought of these pitiless killers and their anger at the corrupt, controlling Empire – it occurred to me this might have made a more provocative 9/11 opera than the feeble Heart of a Soldier.

Another interesting feature of the music is that there are very few female voices – in the opening there’s a chorus of Roman women, but they soon drop away and their leader Odabella is the only woman around. No wonder everyone loves her! She and Attila meet cute on the battlefield. He likes her spunk. She also has a boyfriend, Foresto, who joins them later. When he realizes she is in Attila’s camp, he assumes she has betrayed him (during the pause after that scene the elegant woman next to me exclaimed, “I love the jealousy! You can tell they’re Italians!”). The previously martial Odabella responds with surprising meekness – her anger is reserved only for Attila, it seems, though she seems a bit attracted to him (a theme which is not developed as much as it should be; in the second half in particular events move so rapidly that they leave little time for ambiguity or nuance; I know Verdi often liked theatrical moments that flash and strike like lightning and thunder, but I think he misjudged the speed a bit in this one). I was waiting for her to rip the doubting lover, so that was a bit disappointing for me, if not Foresto. (The fault there belongs to Verdi and his librettists, not singer Lucrecia Garcia.)

The first half is climaxed by the appearance of a stately sacerdotal procession, headed by the Pope, telling Attila to turn away from the Church’s holy ground. He does so, having been terrified the night before by a dream-vision of this same old man saying the same words. The Pope (St Leo the Great) is played by Samuel Ramey. This artist's many long-time admirers already know the shaky quality of his current vocal state, so I don’t really want or need to dwell on it. He brings an extremely effective stage presence to the role, along with an ineffable Samuel Rameyness, and he could probably give lessons in appropriate papal deportment to Benedict XVI.

The rest of the cast is, vocally, quite strong and appealing, despite the occasional rough patch (not surprising at a first performance) here and there. Ferruccio Furlanetto is particularly fine in the title role. In addition to the aforementioned Lucrecia Garcia as Odabella, Diego Torre is Foresto, Quinn Kelsey is Ezio, and Nathaniel Peake is Uldino, Attila’s attendant. The chorus is a major element (I was reminded several times of Boris Godunov), and they are suitably strong and vigorous.

After the Pope appears for a smashing Act 1 finale (as my mother says, the Church always knew how to put on a good show), the action switches to the complications, political and amorous, of Odabella, Foresto, Ezio, and Attila – basically, the first three gang up in various ways to kill the fourth. This material all moves so quickly that it seems a bit sketchy. The story-telling really was not helped by the production’s few and mostly ill-advised fancy touches: after a straightforward first act, the second act set is backed by horseshoe-style opera boxes of the sort you rarely see in the United States, with a few supers in the semi-ruined boxes wearing the sort of evening clothes almost no one in the United States wears to the opera (or anywhere else outside of the senior prom). That's such a staging cliche by now that it barely registers. The egregious error is in the third act: while all the plotting and killing is going on, there’s a cheeseball 1960s Italian epic on Attila playing (silently) in the background. It’s very distracting and I think confusing to anyone who hadn’t happened to see the explanation in the program – it turns out this is supposed to represent changing images of Attila or something tangential like that.

The film and the opera boxes were not only irrelevant but odd, because almost every other aspect of the production is completely traditional, stand-and-deliver stuff: The singers may circle the stage, but inevitably, as moth to flame or iron filings to a magnet, they would end up heading out to the lip of the stage, dead center, facing the audience. For duets the singers would again circle but inevitably hit the center, standing side by side, facing not each other but the audience. There was the occasional moment of obviously manufactured stage business, such as Attila picking out a random soldier from his troupe and challenging him to a sword fight, but the singers were actually much more effective when they simply stood there and sang. During the intermission, before the zany cinematics, the woman to my right, the one who loved the jealousy of the Italians, told me that “some of the regulars” were disappointed by such a tame, traditional production. Given her generally elegant demeanor, I gathered that the regulars she referred to were the sort of society types that, according to unchanging stereotype, make up the opera audience. I was amused that the swells were clamoring for regie madness – a sure sign that that style has passed, so traditionalists can take heart. Personally I am all in favor of wild inventive productions, as long as it seems some thought has been put into them. But in this case it was the more staid elements of the production that were most effective, and seemed most in tune with the opera.

16 June 2012

Haiku 2012/168

praise the noonday heat
praise the dusty afternoon
praise exhausted night

Who can answer a riddle?

– Who can answer a riddle? Stephen asked.
They bundled their books away, pencils clacking, pages rustling. Crowding together they strapped and buckled their satchels, all gabbling gaily:
– A riddle, sir. Ask me, sir.
– O, ask me, sir.
– A hard one, sir.
– This is the riddle, Stephen said:

The cock crew
The sky was blue:
The bells in heaven
Were striking eleven.
‘Tis time for this poor soul
To go to heaven.

What is that?

– What, sir?
– Again, sir. We didn’t hear.

Their eyes grew bigger as the lines were repeated. After a silence Cochrane said:
– What is it, sir? We give it up.

Stephen, his throat itching, answered: 
– The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush.

He stood up and gave a shout of nervous laughter to which their cries echoed dismay.

A stick struck the door and a voice in the corridor called:
– Hockey!

They broke asunder, sidling out of their benches, leaping them. Quickly they were gone and from the lumberroom came the rattle of sticks and clamour of their boots and tongues.

Sargent who alone had lingered came forward slowly, showing an open copybook. His tangled hair and scraggy neck gave witness of unreadiness and through his misty glasses weak eyes looked up pleading. On his cheek, dull and bloodless, a soft stain of ink lay, dateshaped, recent and damp as a snail’s bed.

He held out his copybook. The word Sums was written on the headline. Beneath were sloping figures and at the foot a crooked signature with blind loops and a blot. Cyril Sargent: his name and seal.

– Mr Deasy told me to write them out all again, he said, and show them to you, sir.

Stephen touched the edges of the book. Futility.

– Do you understand how to do them now? he asked.

– Numbers eleven to fifteen, Sargent answered. Mr Deasy said I was to copy them off the board, sir.

– Can you do them yourself? Stephen asked.

– No, sir.

Ugly and futile: lean neck and tangled hair and a stain of ink, a snail’s bed. Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and in her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him under foot, a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own. Was that then real? The only true thing in life? His mother’s prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode. She was no more: the trembling skeleton of a twig burnt in the fire, an odour of rosewood and wetted ashes. She had saved him from being trampled under foot and had gone, scarcely having been. A poor soul gone to heaven: and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped.

Sitting at his side Stephen solved out the problem. He proves by algebra that Shakespeare’s ghost is Hamlet’s grandfather. Sargent peered askance through his slanted glasses. Hockeysticks rumbled in the lumberroom: the hollow knock of a ball and calls from the field.

Across the page the symbols moved in grave morrice, in the mummery of their letters, wearing quaint caps of squares and cubes. Give hands, traverse, bow to partner: so: imps of fancy of the Moors. Gone too from the world, Averroes and Moses Maimonides, dark men in mien and movement, flashing in their mocking mirrors the obscure soul of the world, a darkness shining in brightness which brightness could not comprehend.

– Do you understand now? Can you work the second for yourself?
– Yes, sir.

In long shaky strokes Sargent copied the data. Waiting always for a word of help his hand moved faithfully the unsteady symbols, a faint hue of shame flickering behind his dull skin. Amor matris: subjective and objective genitive. With her weak blood and wheysour milk she had fed him and hid from sight of others his swaddling bands.

Like him was I, these sloping shoulders, this gracelessness. My childhood bends beside me. Too far for me to lay a hand there once or lightly. Mine is far and his secret as our eyes. Secrets, silent, stony, sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned.

The sum was done.

– It is very simple, Stephen said as he stood up.

Happy Bloomsday to my mountain flowers. Go ahead and say yes I will Yes.

15 June 2012

14 June 2012

13 June 2012

Haiku 2012/165

We talked retirement.
You said, "I can't sing all day."
I could sing all day.

12 June 2012

Haiku 2012/164

hunched over my lunch
trees bend and sweep in the wind
birds peck random bugs

11 June 2012

O Internet, I love you so!

One of my favorite professors at Cal (though she moved on before I graduated) was Professor Margaret Anne Doody, from whom I had two classes in mostly eighteenth-century English literature: one was a survey course that started with Milton and went to the edge of the Romantic movement, and the other was a course in the English novel from Defoe to Austen. About two-thirds of the way through the quarter she asked each of us in the novel class to say which was our favorite so far. I felt, once again, incurably boring and wishy-washy, because everyone had strong opinions and I had none, I had enjoyed them all equally. I was trying to express general love and excitement at discovering the richness and strangeness of the period, but I was conscious that I just sounded feeble. (It occurs to me now that the rest of the class probably assumed I hadn't read any of the novels.)

That was before the next book on the syllabus, which would have provided me with a clear favorite: Fanny Burney's Evelina. Professor Doody was an expert on Burney as well as on Samuel Richardson (it was thanks to her lectures on Pamela that I spent my Christmas break reading Clarissa, and finding the unabridged four-volume Everyman edition of that novel still counts as one of my greatest finds at Moe's Used Books).

Anyway, I loved Evelina, and spent years searching, mostly in vain, for Burney's other novels: Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer. (In case you're wondering, this was long before the Internet or Kindles; if you wanted an out-of-print book, you had to hope it would show up in a used book store.) Burney gets compared to Austen (who greatly admired her predecessor), but that's mostly because they're both women who wrote at roughly the same period, and because most people have only read Evelina, which is indeed like a more rambunctious Austen novel.


Eventually I found copies of the elusive three (pictured above). Two of them are from the Oxford World's Classics series, which also published Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison around that time, so the 1980s, in retrospect, were good for at least one thing: finding copies of hitherto unavailable eighteenth-century English novels. I think several of these have since been allowed to go out of print, but of course it's much easier to find used books these days, what with the aforementioned Internet and Kindle-type products. At some point I sold or otherwise disposed of my copy of Evelina, which had a truly clunky and hideous 1970s cover. But that's always been the Burney novel that's easiest to find. Anyway, after finding and reading the other three novels (though so long ago I should probably re-read them), I can tell you Burney is actually more like Dickens: she has that kind of vast social range and ambition, and that wild comic sense mixed with the searingly dramatic.

Burney also wrote plays, which were mostly unstaged, because her father, the historian of music Charles Burney, felt that writing for the stage was inappropriate for a lady (gone were the days of Aphra Behn, though she probably doesn't count as the right kind of lady anyway). Burney did write several, both comedies and tragedies, which have been published in a two-volume set. I recall Professor Doody telling us about seeing one of the comedies, The Witlings, which apparently worked quite well on stage. I found the copy of the set below from a catalogue, now vanished as far as I can tell, called The Scholar's Bookshelf, which basically sold remaindered books from university presses. I loved that catalogue.


That catalogue is also where I bought my copy of the Burney biography eventually published by Professor Doody. (Note the name in the title: Burney is usually called Fanny, sometimes Frances by those who feel the diminutive undercuts her with a sort of coziness, and occasionally Mme D'Arblay, her married name. There's an almost Wagnerian thing going on with the names there! Interestingly, Cecilia pivots on the question of women's names; the eponymous character is left a fortune by her uncle with the stipulation that any husband she takes must take her name; this is a problem for the sort of old, proud English families who consider themselves entitles to heiresses.)


Throughout her long life (1752 - 1840) Burney was connected to many of the key figures and events of her time; early on she was befriended by Dr Johnson, she worked as Second Keeper of the Robes at the court of George III and became friends with Queen Charlotte, she married a French emigre general and was drawn into the political difficulties of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. And she kept a diary and wrote letters throughout it all. After her death these were often printed in excerpted or otherwise abridged form, but from 1972 to 1984 Oxford did publish a twelve-volume set, which was one of my prize purchases from The Scholar's Bookshelf. Except it wasn't quite a twelve-volume set: Volume 2, covering her courtship and marriage, was missing (this was made clear to potential purchasers in the catalogue; I never really understood why a set would be missing one volume, but there are lots of things I don't understand).


So for over twenty years I looked for a copy of Volume 2. I called Oxford University Press and was told the set was out of print (which would of course explain why The Scholar's Bookshelf had it). Whenever I went into a used bookstore, which was whenever I saw one, I would always check for the stray volume, because you never know: surely all those Volume 2s missing from those otherwise complete sets must have gone someplace? I even had fleeting thoughts of seeing if the libraries at UC Berkeley had a copy of Volume 2 and then photocopying the whole thing. I just couldn't start reading any of these volumes until I had all of them. I didn't even want to read the biography until I could follow it with the diaries and letters. Time passed and there were plenty of other things to be read, but in the back of my mind I kept hoping Volume 2 would show up. Once I discovered Amazon (and Alibris and other such sites), Volume 2 was one of the first things I checked for. But nothing turned up. It began to seem hopeless. Then one day a few months ago, realizing I hadn't searched Amazon for Volume 2 in quite a while, I decided to check again, more from habit and boredom than anything else: and there it was. I wasn't entirely sure it was the right book until it actually arrived from England a week or so later. Not only was it the long-missing volume, at last, but my total cost for the book and shipping was $7.87. Seriously.


Once the book arrived I began a frantic search late on a Friday night for the box that held the other eleven volumes. I knew I had lugged it through various moves and finally stuck it in a closet to wait until the unforeseen day when the lost volume returned to the fold. Eventually I remembered which closet I had put it in, but not before some panicking when it wasn't in the first two places I looked. What I did find in the first place I looked (so I guess it's a good thing I hadn't put the books there) was a horrible swarming mass of ugly brown insects devouring all the cardboard boxes in that closet. I raced those boxes into the backyard and emptied and vacuumed the closet and called the next day to schedule a termite examination.


Luckily for me, the swarm had not caused any structural damage. But I had a horrifying thought of how far the nasty nibblers would have gone if I hadn't happened to check that very messy closet at that particular time. So that is the story of how the Internet united me with Frances Burney and saved my house from the terrible jaws of the termites.

Haiku 2012/163

eye-dazzling daylight
blanches the ghostly city
white as desert bones

10 June 2012

09 June 2012

08 June 2012

07 June 2012

Haiku 2012/159

(for my co-workers)

damp paper towels
crumpled heedless on the floor
inches from the bin

06 June 2012

Speak Low


A few weeks ago I heard Ute Lemper and Dawn Upshaw on successive days. I have heard both performers live before and I like them both very much. But the two recitals were contrasting illustrations of how technology can work against and for a performance.

Lemper performed with the Vogler Quartet (Tim Vogler and Frank Reinecke on violin, Stefan Fehlandt on viola, and Stephan Frock on cello) and with Stefan Malzew (on clarinet, accordion, and piano). The program looked inviting: songs and instrumental works from and influenced by Weimar-era Germany, including Schulhoff, Edith Piaf, Weill, Eisler, Piazolla, and Jacques Brel. Lemper has a striking presence (she looks like John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X) and a louche glamour perfectly suited to her repertoire. So far so good. Now we come to the amplification.

Someone said to me later, “But you must have expected that she would be amplified.” Yes, I went in knowing that she’s a cabaret singer and they generally use microphones. I read something recently about the microphone enabling a singer to sound as if she’s whispering in your ear. That’s great, but they can also make a singer sound as if she's shouting in your ear. And all of the instrumentalists were amplified as well, which I really wasn’t expecting. Maybe that wouldn’t have been a problem if the sound mix hadn’t been so awful. During the second half, after making various gestures to the sound man indicating what she wanted modified, Lemper just started speaking to him from the stage, which kind of broke the mood. I think she ended up happy with the sound, though I did not. I really tried to get past it. It wasn’t a problem for me last time I heard her (but that time I had been sitting halfway back in very large Davies Hall, not up front in very intimate Herbst Theater). Far from increasing the intimacy, the bludgeoning volume made me feel I was being shouted at for a couple of hours, which is exhausting.

To further increase the alienation, the songs were in French, German, Russian, Yiddish, and Spanish, and there were no texts or translations provided (there was a little English thrown in there as well, in the Brecht/Weill songs). I’m touched by her mostly unwarranted faith in our linguistic versatility. Lemper spoke before or after each song, but only occasionally did she give us some idea of what the song was saying, and frankly after a while it all started blending together. That was partly intentional; she was pointing out cross-currents and similarities in wide-ranging cultures, but if you’re going to do that for two hours you need to differentiate and vary the moods. Mostly the inter-song segments were vaguely atmospheric spiels about plucky refugees wandering from city to city with their one little valise of songs, or jaunty denizens of the demimonde disappearing with the dawn, laughing at the loss of their last centime – a smile, a shrug, another bottle of wine you can’t afford, to forget another love you can’t afford to remember. That’s all very well, and appealing in small doses, but with repetition such poses can seem increasingly sentimental and evasive, ignoring the grinding exhausting wearing-down caused by poverty, exile, and drug abuse.

Sadly, despite her efforts and mine, she lost me long before the end. For an encore we had the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash song Speak Low, stretched out with a glittering display of scat-singing that was both dazzlingly virtuosic and interminably self-indulgent, completely missing the tender heart of the song.


I was back at Herbst the next night to hear Dawn Upshaw with Stephen Prutsman on piano. Before the performance Ruth Felt, head of San Francisco Performances, came out to announce they were trying something new, and she hoped we would all let them know what we thought of it: they were using surtitles for the recital. She sounded a bit uncertain and hesitant during the announcement, as if this were some bizarre experiment and not a long overdue and very welcome change to the recital format. I’ve been saying for years that they should use surtitles during recitals, and Upshaw’s performance proved how right I was. (I have to mention this to make up for the times I'm very wrong.) For once we didn’t have endless rustling, folding, turning, and creasing of pages during the songs; we could watch the singer (and the words behind her) rather than the program on our laps; the houselights didn’t need to be up so we could read, and the darkened room helped create an intimate, concentrated bond with the singer. Finally, a use of technology that enhances rather than undercuts live performance!

Of course Upshaw had much to do with setting the mood and creating the bond. But the overdue use of surtitles helped remove the barriers between us and her. This recital had been rescheduled from January, and it’s well known that Upshaw has had some serious health issues, so I’m happy to say she was in beautiful voice, much better actually than the last time I heard her, about a year ago. The song selection was also innovative; instead of sets, there was a continuous series of dreamy, moody songs, gentle and sad and lovely and loving, by composers ranging from Monteverdi, Purcell, and Dowland to Schubert and Schumann to Berg and Messiaen to Golijov, Weill, and Vernon Duke (though the songs were arranged by emotional rather than chronological order).

I’m sure someone in the audience had some silly objection to the surtitles but I can’t imagine what it would be, and I don’t much care. Some people will object to any change. My only suggestion would be prefacing the words with the title of the song and the composer, so that there’s no need to check the program. There were no surtitles for the English-language songs; I was fine with that though I can see that some might prefer them. I hope recital surtitles catch on; I keep hearing that the vocal recital is a hard sell and a dying form, but surtitles heighten the form’s unparalleled intimacy and directness of communication. Why shouldn’t surtitles expand the audience for recitals the way they have for opera?



Haiku 2012/158

though all else be lost –
that light sparkling on those waves –
let that not be lost

05 June 2012

fun stuff I may or may not get to: June 2012

I thought May would be a quieter month when I could catch up on everything; I was wrong.

The Berkeley Early Music Festival is well underway so I'll just point you to their schedule here. I thought I would have all this posted before the festival started; such is life. . . .

You still have time to take advantage of Ojai North, presented by Cal Performances in Berkeley. (OK, technically, it's Ojai North!, but I'm going to drop the exclamation mark from now on, because it's just too jazz-hands for me). The wonderful pianist Leif Ove Andsnes is this year's artistic director. The series opens Monday 11 June with a free performance at 5:00 PM in the Faculty Glade (near Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus) of Inuksuit by John Luther Adams. Then on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, there are two concerts per night, one at 7:00 and one at 9:30. Check out the exciting line-up here. Tickets are a steal at $10 - $20 each. And I'm kicking myself for having scheduled over most of that week long ago. Since I try not to make the same mistake twice, I've already marked off 10 - 16 June 2013 for next year's Ojai North (Mark Morris will be the artistic director).

The San Francisco Opera returns, closing out its season with Verdi's Attila, a new production of The Magic Flute (with Nathan Gunn as Papageno), and, at long last, the company premiere of John Adams's modern classic, Nixon in China. The three run in repertory from 8 June to 8 July; check here for more information.

San Francisco Symphony closes out its centennial season with three powerhouse concerts: Yuja Wang playing Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto, along with the Sibelius 3 and Faure's Pavane, 14 - 17 June; Michelle DeYoung and Alan Held perform Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, along with Jeremy Denk playing the Liszt Piano Concerto No 1, 21 - 23 June; and the Beethoven 9, along with Ligeti's Lux Aeterna and Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw, 27 - 30 June; Michael Tilson Thomas conducts all three concerts.

Wild Rumpus New Music Collective has a concert of fresh new music by Nomi Epstein, Florent Ghys, Jenny Olivia Johnson, Dan VanHassel, and Yao Chen; 8 June at ODC Dance Commons, Studio B.

Garden of Memory returns to welcome the summer solstice with an awesome array of performers; 21 June from 5:00 PM to 9:00 PM at the Chapel of the Chimes, 4499 Piedmont Avenue in Oakland.

Jack Curtis Dubowsky's Harvey Milk Cantata receives its world premiere on 22 June at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, performed by the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco. There are two performances that night, one at 7:00 and one at 9:00; Jack will give a pre-concert talk at 6:15. More information and tickets here.

Aurora Theater closes out its season with Salomania, a world premiere written and directed by Mark Jackson, about the trials of Maud Allan. 15 June to 22 July.

Cutting Ball Theater presents Risk Is This . . . , its annual festival of new (or newly translated) and experimental plays in staged readings. The line-up includes Christopher Chen's Aulis, an adaptation of Euripides's Iphigenia in Aulis; Anthony Clarvoe's GIZMO, an adaptation of Capek's RUR; and Paul Walsh's new translations of Strindberg's five chamber plays. 8 June - 14 July, and details can be found here.

The American Conservatory Theater presents Kander and Ebb's much-praised musical, The Scottsboro Boys, 21 June - 15 July. I've been keenly interested in seeing this ever since it was announced, but my attempt to buy a ticket on-line the other day led me to quit ACT's site in disgust and ponder how much I really wanted to go. In the first place, they have exactly one weeknight 7:00 show, on a day I can't make, and since the thought of working all day and then having to kill 3+ hours around Union Square before the show even starts is enough to make me drive a red-hot spike into my forehead, I have to find a Saturday or Sunday when I'm not already occupied. So I actually found a day, because I still really wanted to see this show, and then I realized that ACT's site doesn't let you pick your own seat. Their arbitrary and mysterious system had thrown up one that looked pretty good, however, and I was going to proceed when I realized I had missed the step where you enter a discount code (use the code BOYS before 15 June for $50 orchestra/$40 mezzanine seats), and the seat was just too expensive for me without the code. So I emptied my cart of that seat, went back to the beginning, entered my code, and instead of receiving the same seat was offered a much inferior one way off to a side. Apparently in the two minutes between transactions the first seat suddenly was no longer "the best seat available." Also, in my experience, musicals at ACT tend to be crudely and brutally amplified, so I'm taking a chance no matter where I sit. Anyway, I'm still pondering this one. It really shouldn't be this difficult and inconvenient to give theaters my money, and there are certainly plenty of other takers.

This one is squeaking into June under the wire, since it starts 30 June and runs through 22 July: Shotgun Players present Truffaldino Says No! The ticket was cheap, the times are convenient, and the box office is extremely helpful. ACT should ask them for guidance.

Haiku 2012/157

fading columbines
so beautiful just last week
bending down to earth

04 June 2012

Haiku 2012/156

late light sinking low
sun's sudden disappearance
short nights of summer

03 June 2012

Haiku 2012/155

one broad hawk chases
three scared gulls: Ancient Augur,
tell me my future

02 June 2012

Haiku 2012/154

(for V, a special souvenir from a special day)

She called me psycho
what else could I do to her
a fork in her arm

01 June 2012