31 July 2014

30 July 2014

Haiku 2014/211

hermetically sealed
climate-controlled work spaces
dream of dawn breezes

29 July 2014

West Edge Opera: Hydrogen Jukebox


Last Sunday I went to Berkeley to hear the first of three performances by West Edge Opera (formerly the Berkeley Opera) of the Philip Glass/Allen Ginsberg free-form opera Hydrogen Jukebox, staged in the large glass-walled lobby of the Ed Roberts Campus right near the Ashby BART station. The unconventional space is used resourcefully. The show started at the fairly awkward time of 5:00. What's really awkward is that there were no assigned seats, yet company General Director Mark Streshinsky and director Elkhanah Pulitzer stood in front of the rows of chairs talking to the assembling audience until almost the start of the performance, which meant that either you were stumbling around looking for a seat, disturbing those trying to listen, or you were hanging courteously to the side while less considerate sorts grabbed all the decent seats, or you had to actually sit in your seat so that you didn't block the view of those behind you, even though you might prefer to spare your backside by standing until the performance started; and even if you prefer to avoid this sort of pre-performance chat you were forced to listen or to risk having your seat nabbed by someone else.

The excellent musicians (David Moschler conducting and on keyboards, Ben Malkevitch on keyboards, Audrey Jackson on flute and soprano saxophone, Cory Wright on soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, and bass clarinet, and Doug Chin and Lily Sevier on percussion) were seated in the balconies above the stage, though I believe it was Moschler who descended via ladder to play the piano for the end of the first act, Ginsberg's great poem Wichita Vortex Sutra. The performance was originally listed as being about an hour and fifteen minutes, no intermission (which is what I'd expected from the CD, but that apparently had been cut), but was actually two hours with an intermission. Though the piece is clearly structured for an intermission after the Wichita Vortex Sutra, I think it would have worked better to perform it straight through – it wouldn't be much longer than 90 minutes, and the audience was notably slow to settle down and listen after the break.

There were six excellent singers, whom I will discuss momentarily. There was also the non-singing role of the Narrator, played by actor Howard Swain. I don't know if it was the actor's conception of his part, or the director's, or some combination thereof, but I have seldom hated an individual performance as much as I hated his. In the opening he's wearing a stars-and-stripes top hat and a long black coat, long dark red scarf, and dark glasses, cigarette dangling from his lips – all very too cool for school, the complete picture of The Poet as douchebag poseur. He gawks and gapes awkwardly and obviously, he gestures too broadly and clumsily, when marijuana cigarettes are mentioned he has a cartoonishly large rolled-up joint: everything is overdone attitude and fakely theatrical posing. Yes, I realize that this corresponds to a part of Ginsberg's public persona, but it's not what makes his work interesting and worthwhile and memorable; in fact, as Milosz said of him, to see his worth you must look past his "journalistic clichés, [his] beard and beads and [his] dress of a rebel of another epoch." Swain speaks all his lines in a generic rant, an assumed and automatic attempt at the mysteries of poetic ecstasy. I winced when I realized he would be the one reciting the Wichita Vortex Sutra (whenever I listen to the recording, that is the part that makes me stop and pay close attention; I feel very fortunate to have heard Glass himself perform the piece in concert, with a recording of the then-deceased poet reading his own words); I winced at his smug little pause of distaste before naming the Republican River, I winced as he slammed through the poem's ironies, I winced as he reduced this moving and majestic poem to a pile of ham and cheese.

And about the cigarette dangling from his lips: he smokes a lot during the performance, as do the six singers, and (outside of the passing reference to smoking marijuana, which is different anyway) there is no reason for it – in fact, there is good reason not to have cigarettes at all, particularly in this work. I'm guessing the relentless smoking is an attempt to evoke (which really means, foolishly buy into an image Big Tobacco has paid a lot of money to big advertisers to foster) a sort of free-spirited past bohemia (though it should be obvious that addiction cannot symbolize freedom, particularly when you're talking about tobacco addiction, the most boring and bourgeois of all addictions). But Big Tobacco is exactly the sort of destructive, mindless, conformity-inducing, profit-at-any-cost military-industrial-capitalist behemoth that Ginsberg typified as the Old Testament's Moloch, the grim relentless god that demands constant sacrifice. And Ginsberg knew this – see his Put Down Your Cigarette Rag (Dont Smoke).* So if you're not realizing this yourself – if you're just using cigarettes in this decorative way (the way an ad campaign would, and that is definitely not a compliment), if you don't see how Big Tobacco corrupts the political process and devastates the environment (not to mention human lives) to sell death for profit – if you don't see that Big Tobacco is one of the arms of Moloch – you're reading Ginsberg is a uselessly superficial way.

What made the Narrator, and the stupid use of cigarettes, so annoying and disappointing is that everything else was just so incredibly good. The rest of the staging was so imaginative, energetic and inventive, making ingenious use of minimal props, constantly shifting from one striking image to another (just as the poems do, and the throbbing pulse of the music), with the six singers moving in various (mostly same-sex) configurations and couplings, caressing, quicksilver, tossing torn newspapers or paper airplanes at themselves and then the audience, standing quietly as if shivering beneath a snowfall of torn paper, shadow dancing behind an American flag one minute, wrapped in the flag like the Statue of Liberty the next, one minute smiling stewardesses, then the three women turn into the three Fates, cutting the thread of life (a ball of red yarn stretched among them); then the singers are youthful companions, joyful on the road, then again huddled and homeless under the iron command of Moloch; pulling their shirts off, then back on, then stripping down to their boxer shorts. There is much repetition, particularly in the second half, of movements and motifs, which is perhaps mostly a dance-type way of impressing meaning through repetition and revision (which is also the method of the music).

Glass wrote some soaring, beautiful vocal lines for the women – the three of them (sopranos Sara Duchovnay and Molly Mahoney and mezzo-soprano Nicole Takesono) were excellent throughout, but were particularly memorable in their vocalises. Like the three male singers, they threw themselves into their parts with inspiring conviction and energy. Bass Kenneth Kellogg was a commanding presence, and tenor Jonathan Blalock was smooth yet ardent. It's no criticism of them to say that baritone Efraín Solis was particularly memorable, sweet-voiced and moving, in his opening (from Iron Horse) and closing (Father Death Blues) solos.

I'm really divided about the performance, which I guess means, given how much I had been looking forward to experiencing this piece live, that honestly I was disappointed. But for all that was fun and fascinating and thought-provoking, pleasing and memorable to eye and ear and mind, there was the Narrator, dragging the whole thing down into clownish caricature.

There are two more performances, on 2 and 8 August; West Edge is also performing La Bohème (remaining performances 1 and 10 August) and Jake Heggie's operatic version of Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair (3, 7, and 9 August); click here for more information or tickets.

* Dont rather than Don't is Ginsberg's spelling in the poem's title.



Haiku 2014/210

birds sing their old songs
serenading this walker
let the stars vanish

28 July 2014

Haiku 2014/209

long empty platform
train pulls in, people rush out
long empty platform

Poem of the Week 2014/31

Danse Russe

If I when my wife is sleeping

and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees, –
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely,
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades, –

Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

William Carlos Williams


Presumably this poem was written when the Ballet Russe was the advanced guard of the art of Dance; the title might be a whimsical little joke, contrasting the famous and accomplished troupe with the lone poet in his room; or it might be meant to associate the two, as different but connected examples of why humans dance; or, since the Ballet Russe was best known for works such as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring that combined an evocation of primitive humanity with the very latest artistic innovations, it may be meant to position the poet's dance also as both primitive and highly sophisticated; or, of course, it may be meant to suggest all those things, simultaneously.

The poem is written in free verse, structured as three long "if" clauses followed, after a significant line space, by a two-line "then" conclusion. The first "if" clause draws us into the speaker's household; his wife and baby are asleep, and so is the unidentified Kathleen – presumably a young woman (given her name, probably an Irish girl) who helps with the baby or the house-keeping. We are intimates now, almost conspirators, inside his home when the rest of the family is napping; given the assumption of familiarity, he doesn't need to name his wife and baby or identify Kathleen (surely we know who they are, we who are inside his home watching the three of them sleep).

So we're inside the house, yet the speaker does not describe the house, or the neighborhood. Instead he feels himself in Nature, as if he were out in the wilds instead of in a house in a small town or suburb. He describes the natural world in ecstatic language: the sun is "a flame-white disc"; it is in "silken mists / above shining trees." Alone in his home with his family, he feels himself outside of both home and family, alone in a silken and shiny world.

In the second "if" clause he describes himself in his north room. Why north? Perhaps, since he's mentioned the sun so prominently, he wants to avoid the rising sun/beginning and setting sun/ending associations of east and west; perhaps he's hinting at the traditional poetic association of the icy North with isolation and witchcraft; perhaps he simply had a room in the north of his house, and was in it when this poem first occurred to him; perhaps he just wanted the n in north to emphasize by alliteration the n in naked in the next line; or, again, perhaps it's all of those things at once, and something else besides.

He does not pretend that either he or his dance is a thing of apparent beauty; he immediately modifies his naked dancing with the adverb grotesquely. He doesn't mind, and finds his own beauty as he dances in front of the mirror, waving his shirt like a flag. What does he softly sing, surrounded by his sleeping family, feeling the beauties of the world outside? A strange and defiant chant of loneliness. He is aware of his solitude: the sun is out, it's daytime, yet his family is sleeping, giving him a brief and perhaps unexpected moment alone in the house. Lonely usually brings with it associations of sadness, but everything in the poem so far – the sun shining through mist, the trees gleaming, the speaker's wonderful sense of abandon as he dances alone – prepares us for the strange joy he finds in the condition.  He declares not only that he is lonely, but that he was born lonely, and what's more – that he is best so.

In the third "if" clause, I feel (even more strongly than in the rest of the poem) the presence of that other New Jersey poet, Walt Whitman: this is a very fleshy, exultant song of oneself. Standing before the mirror, the speaker admires his body in its grotesque dance: not only the "public" parts of it, such as his arms and face, but also the usually hidden parts, the flanks and buttocks; he celebrates them all.

All this builds up to the conclusion, separated from the rest of the poem with the gulf of a line space: "Who shall say I am not / the happy genius of my household?" Genius here is used not in the sense of exceptionally creative or intelligent but in its older original sense of the presiding or protective spirit of a person or place. He lives in a household with wife, child, and helper Kathleen, and in a community, but he realizes that ultimately he is alone in the world, that even his loved ones cannot fully share in who and what he is – and he's realizing the same thing about them; they too, have their grotesque, hidden, beautiful dances. He finds joy in this – that's why he's the happy genius – and in feeling that it's shared with each person there – that's why he's the happy genius of the household. Although he is solitary, he is linked with the others by his generous understanding that they, too, are separate individuals, and each has this thing, this elusive thing that is his or hers alone, this soul.

I took this poem from the anthology Solitude, selected and edited by Carmela Ciuraru, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.

27 July 2014

26 July 2014

Haiku 2014/207

(see also yesterday's haiku)

moths live on birds' tears
but to them, it's just their life
we all live on tears

24 July 2014

23 July 2014

22 July 2014

21 July 2014

Haiku 2014/202

fragments of the day
swept into some stray corner
there was nothing left

Poem of the Week 2014/30

Two Poems on Fishing

Should I go drinking and wenching?
Oh, no. It isn't proper for the poet that I am.
Shall I go hunting wealth and honor?
I am not inclined that way either.
Well, let me be a fisherman or shepherd
and enjoy myself on the reedy shore.

When it stops raining at the fishing site
I will use green-moss for bait.
With no idea of catching the fish
I will enjoy watching them at play.
A slice of moon passes as it casts a silver line
onto the green stream below.

Kwon Homun, translated from the Korean by Jaihiun Kim

Two poems from a sixteenth-century Korean poet: I don't know if they are linked in the original or just in the translation, but there is a natural movement between the two. In the first the poet chooses an image for himself -- a life that will define the kind of poet he is seen to be. Carousing does not suit him: we still have a Byronic overlay (or maybe it's been updated to Dylan Thomas) in our conception of how "a poet" should behave in public, but I can easily see TS Eliot or Marianne Moore agreeing with Kwon that it is not suited to all poets. He also rejects the search for official position -- for public honors and the wealth that will probably come with them. The formality of his phrasing -- "I am not inclined that way either" -- may help us see why a boisterous or public life is not for him. He chooses the solitary but active life of a fisherman or shepherd: connected with nature, away from the often frustrating and pointless clamor and confusion of human society. This is a pastoral poem, and is often the case with such poems, it emphasizes the beauty of such a life instead of its real-world difficulties.

In the second poem, we see him as a fisherman -- only, dependent on the vagaries of Nature, he isn't actually fishing; he's waiting for it to stop raining so that he can go to the fishing hole. Perhaps he won't even be able to fish today at all; as we find out at the end of the poem, it must be night already since the moon is out. But the poet doesn't seem disturbed or anxious; perhaps this is an example of the philosophical patience that fishing is said to teach. He's not even particularly interested in catching fish; this is not fishing as a hard-scrabble way of scratching out the necessities of life from a harsh world, but a dream image of fishing as a moral choice and aesthetic pleasure: at peace, enjoying the flash of the fish through the water, so in harmony with Nature that the moon, in the vivid closing image, is doing the same thing the poet is doing: as the moon rises, its reflection looks like a silver line cast onto the stream (the stream is green, which connects it with the green moss the poet uses for bait). As with Chinese ink painting, a few vivid strokes of the pen conjure up a complete world, remote but invitingly beautiful.

These poems are from The Art of Angling: Poems About Fishing, edited by Henry Hughes, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.

20 July 2014

Haiku 2014/201

yellow bell-blooms hang
swaying like Chinese lanterns
gentle twilight breeze

19 July 2014

17 July 2014

16 July 2014

Merola rides a Streetcar Named Desire

Last Saturday I was at the second of the two Merola Opera performances of Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, in a reduced orchestration prepared by Peter Grunberg. The libretto by Philip Littell is based of course on the famous play by Tennessee Williams. This was the first revival of the work since its world premiere here in 1998. I saw those original performances and liked them, but despite the care taken and the overall excellence of Saturday's performance, the opera itself seems more problematic than ever.

There is a single-unit set used for all three acts (Steven Kemp did the scenic design). The street, the stairs, the neighbors above, the Kowalski's two-room apartment, are all jammed together, giving an effective sense of poverty and claustrophobic quarters and confusion verging on chaos and also vitality. The costumes by Kristi Johnson and the lighting by Eric Watkins were equally thoughtful and appropriate. The pace and energy of the orchestra, conducted by Mark Morash, was undimmed for the entire length of the show. The direction by Jose Maria Condemi had numerous subtle, excellent touches, such as the business-like way Blanche nods (setting aside her airs and affectations) during one of her exchanges with Stanley; or the look of incredulity and barely hidden pleasure on the face of the young paperboy when he realizes Blanche is trying to seduce him; or the way the essentially innocent Mitch sadly and pointlessly smoothes his hair and adjusts his shirt during Blanche's final exit. . . .

And the singers were all strong and convincing, from the smaller roles (Alexander Elliott as the asylum doctor and Amanda Woodbury as the nurse, Shirin Eskandani as the Mexican woman selling flores por los Muertos, Mingjie Lei as the paperboy, Eliza Bonet and Benjamin Werley as Eunice and Steve Hubbell, the upstairs neighbors) to the four leads: Casey Candebat as dreamy, naive Mitch; Adelaide Boedecker as an appealing, warm Stella; Thomas Gunther, who succeeded in creating a Stanley (crude, tough, and smart) that stood on his own without constantly evoking or imitating his famous predecessors; and Julie Adams, tireless in the exhausting, many-layered role of fragile, deceptive, destructive Blanche, floating beautiful high notes at the end as surely as she had done all through the preceding hours. Clearly it was not the fault of singers, orchestra, director, or designers if I still came away not quite convinced that the opera itself was a good idea. I think Streetcar is a much stronger opera than some of the other recent San Francisco premieres (such as The Bonesetter's Daughter, Heart of a Soldier, and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene). And yet, and yet. . . .

Like Ibsen, Williams creates a world of surface "realism" that can seem realistic to the point of sordid, but which contains, just below that surface, a stronger, sustaining world of myth and poetry. The play, one of the few reliable classics of the American theater, seems so obviously meant for music that you have to wonder if perhaps that is an impulse best resisted -- that it seems so obviously meant for music because the words and actions already contain all the music the play really needs. For every moment in which the score crystallizes or releases something in the dramatic situation (Stella's cat-who-just-got-the-cream vocalise the morning after she and Stanley have make-up sex; Blanche's impassioned cries "a light had gone out" when she finishes the agonizing story of her husband's suicide; Blanche's floating, ethereal repetition of "whoever you are" as she makes her final exit, helped by the asylum doctor and nurse) there are whole scenes in which the music slows the action and constricts the performers' possible interpretations. And though I enjoyed Previn's bluesy-woozy music, there are too many moments when its sexy-time woo-wooooo sounds conventional and cheesy.

The familiarity of the play (particularly in the form of the 1951 film with Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando), not just in general plot terms but down to specific lines and moments that have entered the common currency of American cultural reference, also works against the opera. My recollection from the time of the premiere is that the Williams estate kept very strict control over what changes could be made to the play. As a result, every single moment happens as expected, there are no surprises (and, as noted above, the score frequently keeps the performers from interpretations that might surprise us). I don't think it's an accident that Stanley shouting "Stella! Stella!" did not make much effect Saturday (as it did not in the premiere performances) -- it's no criticism of Thomas Gunther, who as I said gave us a Stanley of his own, if he could not erase (as the excellent Rod Gilfry during the premiere could not erase) the iconic memory of Marlon Brando, his shirt torn and drenched, howling in the street. Previn's music for the moment is practically recessive, as if he knew it had to be included but he couldn't quite figure out what to do with it. At least there was an attempt to turn Blanche's "I don't want realism, I want magic!" into an aria, and the challenge of "Whoever you are -- I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" was brilliantly handled by emphasizing the "whoever you are" part rather than "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers," which sadly has become almost a camp line. But there aren't enough moments of such brilliance.

There's also the matter of the run time, which is three-and-a-half hours. This is not long enough to be an event (a la Einstein on the Beach, Les Troyens, St Francois d'Assise, or almost anything by Wagner), and it's not short enough to fit in with the way we live now. Americans notoriously are forced to spend too many hours at work, and often have long unpleasant commutes. A three-and-a-half hour performance is not going to fit easily into most schedules. I'm not saying this is a good thing, but I think it is a real thing. I've been noticing for several years now that if a theatrical performance is anything approaching or over three hours then the run-time generally gets commented on in reviews. The occasional response to these comments is to sneer at the Philistines who are only concerned about the last train back to the suburbs (it's always the suburbs). But for most people, a three-and-a-half hour performance is automatically a non-starter.

And I think this is one reason for the growing number of "family" presentations of familiar operas: it's a respectable way of cutting classic works whose run-times were designed for a different era. People have to live their lives in a daily detail way, and that often means worrying about things like when the last train leaves. And Philistinism doesn't even need to enter into it -- given the digital cornucopia now available so easily to us, you could spend that three-and-a-half hours watching The Passion of Joan of Arc and Cries and Whispers, and have time left over to make popcorn and read some Baudelaire. Throw in the travel time to and from the theater, and you've got hours available for cultural Crazy Town. Saying a work is too long is always a way of criticizing some other failing, and I can't really say Previn's score is worth the time it takes.

The Merola Program motto is "the future of opera." Based on Saturday, I'd say that as far as design and performance go, the future of opera looks very bright. But based on the opera itself as an example of new repertory, I'd say it's cloudy with a chance of drought. Merola's forthcoming Don Giovanni plays 31 July and 2 August (more information here), and if the cast is as strong as Streetcar's it will be well worth checking out.

Haiku 2014/197

high up on a hill -
windswept, wild, and wonderful -
clouds and sun chase by

15 July 2014

14 July 2014

Haiku 2014/195

wind-blown trash drifts by
fog drifts in through hectic streets
wash this day away

Poem of the Week 2014/29

Auto Mirror

In the rear-view mirror suddenly
I saw the bulk of the Beauvais Cathedral;
great things dwell in small ones
for a moment.

Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass

Zagajewski offers us a brief but richly suggestive poem -- only one sentence, but it covers a lot of ground in time and space. The speaker is in a car and checks his rear view mirror. The car must be going fairly fast because objects appear suddenly (and presumably are replaced just as suddenly). So the first line establishes where we are and how quickly we are moving and then the line breaks on the dramatic word suddenly. What happens suddenly? He sees "the bulk of the Beauvais Cathedral." Bulk here conveys not only that he is seeing most of the cathedral, but also that it is massive in size, even by modern standards. The cathedral in Beauvais, which is in northern France, is one of the largest manifestations of the lacy ornateness of the high Gothic style. It is so large that it has always been structurally unsound, a few trusses and buttresses away from collapse. So the first line establishes that we are in modern times, in a car, moving swiftly; in the second line we have the dramatic appearance in an unexpected perspective (the rear-view mirror) of the Gothic cathedral.

Cars and cathedrals are both engineering marvels, but one conveys speed and forward movement, individuality, and modernity; while the other conveys a sense of history, starting with the Middle Ages when it was built, of a specific rooted place, and of a community drawn together by religious beliefs. A Gothic cathedral moves upward, towards Heaven, rather than forward, like a car. Although both are the products of largely anonymous engineers and artisans, we associate cars with the individual freedom they offer their drivers (never mind that such freedom is semi-illusory), and we associate cathedrals with (though this too may be semi-illusory) a communal life united by faith and place and hierarchy (remember that a cathedral is the seat of the local bishop). Two contrasting metaphors are briefly joined in the speaker's rear-view mirror.

In the third line the speaker draws a moral from this glimpse: "great things dwell in small ones": this is, on the one hand, a literal description of seeing the reflection of the massive, mighty cathedral in the small rear view mirror. On the other hand, the line opens the way for metaphorical contemplation. Great can mean both of large size and of outstanding excellence. Ever since the Industrial Age began the Middle Ages have been associated not with barbarity and superstition, as they once were, but with a richly meaningful spiritual and communal life, in which everyone used his or her hands in artisanal ways not for individual fame and wealth but for the glory of God and the joy of creation. This view is the Middle Ages seen as metaphor, and as an implicit contrast and rebuke to the chaotic, mechanistic, spiritually barren modern age. Perhaps the "small thing" in this line, in which the great thing dwells, is not so much just the rear-view mirror as it is a person's life, so brief and so harried, rushing on; perhaps the small thing is the insignificance of the modern age itself, contrasted with the metaphorical power of the great cathedral -- but though the cathedral building is from another time, many of its metaphorical uses are a creation of the modern age: perhaps that is one reason the great thing dwells in the small one, rather than merely being reflected  in it. (These are prevailing cultural metaphors, and such things are always slippery: "great things dwell in small ones," the thought here of our contemporary, the poem's speaker, is at its heart a spiritual perception; and for all we know, those who built this grand cathedral, larger than any of its like, were motivated by individual pride and ego.)

And then after the line break comes the kicker to the moral: "for a moment." We are passengers in the car and have to keep moving forward so that we don't cause a crash. He notes the cathedral and reflects upon the sight even as he speeds onward, leaving it far behind. Its old grandeur and beauty are inexorably metaphoric for us. You could spend a lifetime studying its details. But the speaker won't, or can't, stop, even for a visit. We don't know where he's going, but he continues on, his ride and his thoughts enriched momentarily ("for a moment": but everything is only for a moment) by the sight of the cathedral.

I took this from A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, edited by Czeslaw Milosz.

13 July 2014

12 July 2014

10 July 2014

09 July 2014

08 July 2014

Merola Master Class with Eric Owens

As part of San Francisco Opera's Merola Program for young artists, distinguished singers give master classes. I recently heard bass-baritone Eric Owens conduct such a class for four young singers. I had never been to a master class before and found it quite interesting; it was two hours without a break, but the time went by quickly, even given the very technical nature of what was going on. I was very interested in seeing Owens in the role of teacher since he gave a truly remarkable recital for Cal Performances a few years ago.

There were four singers: baritone Alexander Elliott, with Sahar Nouri on piano, performed Wie Todesahnung . . . O du mein holder Abendstern from Wagner's Tannhauser; soprano Talya Lieberman, with Sahar Nouri on piano, performed Oh! Quante volte from Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi; mezzo-soprano Nian Wang, with Kirill Kuzmin on piano, performed Parto, parto from Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito; and bass-baritone Rhys Lloyd Talbot, with Ronny Michael Greenberg on piano, performed Vous qui faites l'endormie from Gounod's Faust.

Owens spent about thirty minutes with each performer, always starting with genial and sincere words of praise before moving on to detailed critiques of individual phrases and even consonants and vowels. There was advice on breath, and on the piano phrases that take more breath. He had them vibrate each note, or sing nasally. It seemed to be a matter of taking things apart and then putting them back together -- of making the singers very aware of all the physical elements that went into producing each note (and into producing a finely spun legato line) and then moving them beyond that self-consciousness. It struck me how difficult singing is, as well as how simple and natural -- and what mental poise it takes to live simultaneously in those two realms, of self-critical hyper-awareness and of selfless, joyful music-making as a specific-character. At least in a class the singers can stop and try again. In a performance, what happens happens and you need to keep moving.

He  rarely offered emotional or interpretive advice, though he did end by telling Lloyd Talbot as Gounod's Mephistopheles to go ahead and "be that bad boy they all love - this is the ultimate one -- you're the damn devil!" He also said to one of them, "You're going to tell me a story, and it's not that you've memorized an aria -- these words are being spoken for the very first time." And he told someone else, "Stop trying to make your voice beautiful -- it's already beautiful." Instead he offered acute but always considerate advice on how to produce certain sounds ("German is a gorgeous language"), and the sounds ultimately produce the effects.

He would step away from the stage as the performers repeated phrases at his request, and he was very considerate about not blocking the view of any audience members as he stepped back into the auditorium (I wish the rest of the audience had been nearly as considerate -- there was an irritating amount of whispering, program shuffling, and other garden variety bad concert-hall behavior.) He reminded the singers that "it's work what we do up here" and that "my job is to make myself unnecessary." It was a remarkable view of vocal artistry, the kind of behind-the-scenes look that we audience members don't usually get (and should probably forget when listening to opera). All four singers impressed me right off the bat with their voices but then I was further impressed by their eagerness to learn and try things differently -- it can't be easy to be on display like that.

The class was followed by what looked like a lavish reception, but I had to work the next day (this was a Thursday night) so I had to high-tail it out of there. Your next chance to catch the Merolini in operation comes with the revival of Previn's Streetcar Named Desire on 10 and 12 July; more information on there may be found here.

Haiku 2014/189

from the other room
movie romances unreel
in an empty house

07 July 2014

Haiku 2014/188

pristine paperbacks
marked way down for quicker sale:
reader, buy these souls

Poem of the Week 2014/28

The Lonely Street

School is over. It is too hot
to walk at ease. At ease
in light frocks they walk the streets
to while the time away.
They have grown tall. They hold
pink flames in their right hands.
In white from head to foot,
with sidelong, idle look –
in yellow, floating stuff,
black sash and stockings –
touching their avid mouths
with pink sugar on a stick –
like a carnation each holds in her hand –
they mount the lonely street.

William Carlos Williams

Here is a poem of summertime, though the living isn't all that easy. Much is suggested indirectly. The speaker, presumably a man, is watching a group of young women. He doesn't seem to know them; he doesn't mention names or family connections or personal histories, but he notices that "they have grown tall." He knows them by sight, and sees that they are maturing, entering or well into their adolescence. Youth is suggested by the opening words: "School is over," though it's possible only the girls are school-age and the speaker is older and merely realizing that that is why the girls are out idly strolling. We can tell it's summer because "it is too hot / to walk at ease." There is an immediate separation between the speaker and the girls, and a distinction made, in the second line: "It is too hot / to walk at ease. At ease / in light frocks . . .". (Obviously the frocks are what tip us off that he's watching a group of girls.) It is too hot for him to walk at ease, but that is exactly what they are doing, whiling the time away, and giving sidelong, idle looks. How conscious are they of the effect they're making on at least one observer? We don't know; we see the effect on him, but the girls are as mysterious and as separate from the reader as they are from the speaker. (I am reminded of the narrator of In Search of Lost Time when he first observes Albertine and her little band of girls on the beach at Balbec.)

The girls almost seem for a moment like priestesses in procession, dressed in white and holding "pink flames in their right hands." We can deduce from the later mention of "pink sugar on a stick" that the "flames" are actually the swirls of cotton candy, another sign of summer. The description of the band of girls is indirect (we don't even know how many there are, but the plural is used so there must be more than one): they are in light colors, "floating stuff," which reinforces the earlier description of them as "at ease": the girls themselves seem to be floating. The only description of their bodies, apart from the mention of the hands holding the cotton candy, is of their "avid mouths" which are just touching the spun sugar, which is then described as being like carnations. The description of the cotton candy (sweet, summery, evanescent) shifts from pink flames to sugar on a stick to carnations, just as the vision of the girls (perhaps also sweet, summery, and evanescent) shifts from their "light frocks" (light: the girls seem to be weightless, floating, and glowing with the summer's sunshine), "in white from head to foot" to "yellow, floating stuff" to the accents of their black sashes and shoes and then to their avid mouths, part of the intensification of erotic language towards the end of the poem: their avid mouths, the pink sugar, the "mounting" of the street (instead of ascending or strolling or walking or anything else). It is an evocation of an erotic feeling that will not be satisfied. We are reminded at the end (as we were notified at the very beginning, with the title) that this is a lonely street. Perhaps it only feels lonely when the unknown but desirable girls appear on it. Is the speaker older than the girls, old enough so that he can't appropriately approach them? Is his social background too different? Is he just too shy? We don't know, just as we don't know if the girls even notice that they are being observed with longing. We have the summertime heat, and longing desire, and separation and loneliness.

I took this poem from American Poetry, The Twentieth Century: Volume One: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker in the Library of America.

05 July 2014

Haiku 2014/186

my crunching footsteps
turn dead leaves to lively noise
while the wind whistles

04 July 2014

Haiku 2014/185

a spray of green leaves
a spray of splashing water
hummingbirds flash by

Friday photo 2014/27


on Pacific Heights in San Francisco, which is an odd place to find something like this displayed naturally, instead of as an expensive piece of "folk art" hung on a tasteful white wall, possibly in either sober or ironic juxtaposition with other art works

03 July 2014

02 July 2014

Peter Grimes at the Symphony

Last Friday I was at the second performance of Peter Grimes, the San Francisco Symphony's spectacular season-ender. I've seen Grimes on stage, and I've heard recordings, and I knew the opera's role in Britten's life and in the history of British music. But on Friday I felt not only as if I were experiencing these things for the first time, but experiencing them with tidal-wave force. I almost don't know what else to say, so entire and complete was the performance.

The stage at Davies Hall had been altered with an extended performance area jutting out front and center into the audience and with wavy-shaped screens circling the back of the stage. Semi-abstract black-and-white videos of the sea and sea-side villages played on the screens, and the soloists were in costume and made entrances and exits. The chorus was mostly dressed in subdued black, as they usually are, and mostly seated above the action, like a community sitting in judgment (until the final scene, when they spread out through the aisles of the auditorium, making us part of the gathering mob). These simple, partially "realistic" but mostly stylized elements brought the village to vivid life. Here's my great compliment to conductor Michael Tilson Thomas: I didn't notice him. He was right before me, clearly visible and central the whole time (I was on the right, in the second row (first half) and first row (second half), but everything he and the orchestra did sounded so right and so elemental that I was barely conscious of them. And that's how it should be -- that's how emotionally compelling the performance was; I wasn't thinking, "nice solo there" or whatever, just "this is how this must sound"; "this is not a 'sea interlude,' this is the sea."

Stuart Skelton was a splendid and anguished Grimes, stubborn and awkward and yet lyrical in his visionary flashes and even in his heart-breaking attempts to fit in to the village he can't bring himself to leave (perhaps as with Hester Prynne, he has come to define himself by their rejection of him and his determination to show them up at their own game). Elza van den Heever, a voice as pure and strong as her presence, was the hopeful yet fatalistic Ellen Orford. The whole cast was superb: Alan Opie as the tough-minded, not unkindly Balstrode; Ann Murray as worldly-wise Auntie, with Nikki Einfeld and Abigail Nims as her nieces; Nancy Maultsby as the laudanum-addled, dream-befuddled hissing spinster, Mrs Sedley; Eugene Brancoveanu as lively Ned Keene, Richard Cox as Bob Boles, Kim Begley as Horace Adams, John Relyea as Mr Swallow, Kevin Langan as Hobson -- not a weak link anywhere. Even the non-speaking/non-singing role of the new apprentice boy was absolutely heart-breaking as played by Rafael Karpa-Wilson, and the smallest roles were performed with authority by members of the SF Symphony Chorus. Symphony audiences already know how superb the chorus is. The chorus members are particularly important in this opera, in which they play a key role as the villagers in opposition to Grimes. And they didn't just sing with abstract beauty, they embodied the village. (James Darrah was stage director and costume designer.)

I don't usually rave like this. It's exhausting!

I was struck by how nuanced the opera is, how ambiguous and troubling in ways not usually covered by the usual plot summaries and capsule descriptions. I was more impressed than ever with Britten's artistic vision and courage in creating such a work in the aftermath of England's victory in World War II, when he himself, fairly newly returned from the United States, was still looked upon with some suspicion for his pacifism, his homosexuality, and what was seen as his desertion of England in the early days of the war. He had to return, a permanent outsider, to the uncomprehending land he loved whose opposition defined him. This performance was part of the Symphony's celebration of Britten's centennial (which technically was last year, but symphony seasons overlap the calendar year). But what a reminder of Britten's continuing and growing relevance and power. The hall was packed.

A couple of minor things: sometimes the action was staged in the back, and even though the singers were on a raised platform they were sometimes difficult or impossible to see through the orchestra if you were in the front rows or the side seats. But you know what? Forget it -- even when I couldn't see the performers, I felt I was in the village with them. And, of course, it's ridiculous (from the point of view of many audience members, and potential members) to start a performance, especially one that lasts three hours, at 8:00 on a work night. But I've said enough about that sort of thing elsewhere. I did wonder beforehand, as I wasted the many hours between end of work and start of performance, if I should bother to go. Luckily I did. What a triumph for all involved. The ovations were long, enthusiastic, and well-deserved. Grimes will never be the same for me. This is why we keep going back to the theater.

Haiku 2014/183

bowed under burdens
eyes glued to the ground under
boughs burdened with birds

01 July 2014