27 February 2007

Maybe it's best to be afraid of Virginia Woolf

Berkeley Rep, having apparently presented every play worth doing, turned to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as adapted by Adele Edling Shank for the show I saw last Friday. I can see the interest an artist would have in turning Woolf’s introspective poetic novel, filled with shifting meanings and perceptions, into another form, but I don’t really see that the stage, with its emphasis on dialogue, action, and interaction, is the right form, as opposed to a film or a symphonic treatment. The play is filled not just with soliloquies but with characters turning to the audience and giving them bits of narration, expostulation, and interpretation of other characters as well as of themselves. I should just say right now that the whole thing doesn’t work. If you take a mosaic apart and then put the tesserae back in even a slightly different way, you will end up with a different picture. If an omniscient narrator sidles up to you and tells you that X notices the flowers but Y doesn’t you get one effect; if X has a fleeting thought that she notices the flowers and Y doesn’t you get a different effect; and if X announces in condescending tones to Z that Y never notices the flowers, you get a completely different effect, and one which might say more about X than about Y. This dislocation ends up changing the impressions of the Ramsey family and their guests, and some miscasting doesn’t help either.

Radiance is a lot to require from an actress, but Monique Fowler as Mrs. Ramsey seems too ordinary and self-absorbed to act as the center of this group; the adaptation increases the emphasis on Mrs. Ramsey’s conventional side but misses out on her social work among the poor. Lily Briscoe is supposed to be a bit odd, a bit dry, and not the smiling beauty Rebecca Watson presents. David Mendelsohn as the awkward, striving Charles Tansley looks much too handsome and distinguished for us to understand his position in this socially superior group. During the dinner party scene he wears a suit and tie rather than evening clothes, and he talks to the audience about his father being a chemist (and Shank should really have made the point clear by using American English), but still – he’s dressed for dinner. Most of us don’t even dress for the theater anymore. I don’t think it’s an accident that Woolf has the uncertain Tansley rather than the patriarchal Mr. Ramsey tell Lily women can’t write or paint – his opinion is coming out of his insecurity and lack of social standing. The presentation of Tansley, like the omission of Mrs. Ramsey’s good works among the poor and the omission of Mrs. McNab the housekeeper in the middle section, narrows the scope of Woolf’s novel by avoiding the experiences of the lower classes that she tried to include. (The boeuf en daube is a triumph – how does Mrs. Ramsey do it? they all ask – she does it by having a cook who spends three days under her direction – though I have to say Woolf doesn’t really point out the irony there either.) Mr. Ramsey, the aging philosopher who has, if thought were the alphabet, reached Q if not R, is a figure that one might expect to resonate with a Berkeley audience. Instead he (portrayed by Edmond Genest) is made to look ridiculous. Unless he is an intellectually imposing, distant yet uncertain figure his children’s struggles against him don’t make any sense. When he walks through the garden reciting Tennyson out loud, it’s because he is so intensely absorbed in his inner life that the outer world slips away, not because he’s a mumbling old fool. And the end of the first part of the novel, Woolf’s amazing lyrical crescendo of unspoken depths between the long-married couple, which ends with the clinching evidence of Mrs. Ramsey’s radiant comprehensiveness, turns into a scene of jaw-dropping vulgarity as the Ramseys resolve their standard-issue stage bickering with her exiting while smiling an invitation and Mr. Ramsey jumping up to follow, perkily adjusting his jacket in the expectation that he’s about to Get Some.

And maybe they should have avoided the accents altogether. After hours of fluting, giggling, and archly affected accents I was longing to hear a normal voice. Instead what I got about 20 minutes before the end was a bizarre and inexplicable outburst of song. The thoughts expressed were similar in substance, style, and intensity to those expressed earlier, only they were (poorly) sung, to the inoffensive ineffective music of Paul Dresher. (The composer who should have set Woolf to music is Wagner, with his leitmotivs, his curling pooling melodies, and his psychological insight; one of the amazing things about Woolf’s novel is how she manages to compress without distortion the techniques of Wagner and Proust.) The effect is so bizarre that I felt momentarily giddy. The singing did explain why these Edwardians were all wearing earpiece microphones, though I have to say I am puzzled by the acoustical situation – singers use mikes when they have spoken dialogue, and actors use them when they have to sing – shouldn’t it be one or the other, scientifically speaking, assuming that both houses are roughly the same size? The sudden use of song, the narration delivered directly to the audience, and the many projections all seem like efforts to expand the stage to encompass the world of Woolf’s novel, but they’re also a way of pointing out that the usual resources of the stage can’t really handle this material.

The play’s failure to present Woolf’s work accurately or adequately wouldn’t matter so much if it created something different, if not necessarily better. But what we have is a simplified, distorted view of Woolf’s novel that at some key points doesn’t even make sense unless you’re familiar with the source (it’s not clear that Andrew Ramsey is killed in the war and that Prue dies in childbirth around the same time, something that could have been made clear with a few lines of dialogue – the point is further confused by having the actors who played Andrew and Prue show up at the end as the older James and Cam, on their way to the lighthouse at last). This adaptation isn’t a disaster on the order of TheaterWork’s vandalism a few years ago of My Antonia, but to make the point I made afterwards about that fiasco, the novel is not that long, and if you took the travel time plus the running time of the play and just a fraction of what you would spend on the ticket and transportation, you could buy and read the book and have a much richer aesthetic and intellectual experience. In the meantime, Berkeley Rep may want to look into, oh, Shakespeare or someone, whose stuff actually works on stage.

26 February 2007

It wasn't God who made honky-tonk angels

I’d say the highlight of the fall opera season was Karita Mattila in Manon Lescaut. I was glad they were doing the Puccini, which I had never seen on stage before, rather than Massenet’s Manon, one of the few operas that strikes me as a total waste of time. Years ago I read Abbe Prevost’s novel, which is quite entertaining but seemed more like a satire of romance novels in the fashion of Jane Austen’s juvenilia than the thing itself. This is not a reaction I had to, say, Melmoth the Wanderer or Anne Radcliffe’s novels. I will even admit that apparently I was the only student in one of my classes at Cal who found anything scary in Frankenstein. I still see nothing wrong with that reaction to Mary Shelley’s intense, hallucinatory prose, but I’m glad my pathological timidity kept the professor from noticing or making me discuss this reaction in class. Maybe Prevost’s novel just crams too much into too short a space, or involves a guy besotted with a heroine I find just too unsympathetic. She’s like Becky Sharpe (yes, I was an English major – why do you ask?) without the self-awareness or sense of humor, which makes her pretty much just a social-climbing whore. Violetta, with her inherent nobility and melancholy, never seems this way to me.

If anyone can save this character, it’s Mattila of the golden hair and more golden voice. She is also a skilled actress who pays attention to the little gestures that build a character. Misha Didyk as des Grieux was not on her level either vocally or dramatically, but I did like him, unlike some people I talked to who absolutely hated him. He does this funny little swoop with his whole body when he’s going for the big notes, which I find endearing though cartoony. I found the whole cast to be on a very high level, unlike the production, which was the sort that gets described as realistic but which is not that at all, reality being too dirty and diffuse to meet the strenuously picturesque requirements of operatic directors. Everyone is quaffing or roistering or lustily fencing while wearing color-coordinated costumes and everything is way too clean. I’m not sure what “realism” means anyway to a work that ends in the “deserts outside New Orleans.” You want eighteenth-century reality? Try dirt, mud, shit in the streets, dust everywhere. I had a total inner-housewife moment when Lescaut visits his sister in the second act and jumps on her kept-woman bedspread in his boots. If you’re going to pimp your sister out, you should at least respect the lovely things her old man is rich enough to buy. I kind of liked the dark blue walls of that second act set, but one of the problems with these elaborate sets for each scene is that each half-hour act is followed by a half-hour intermission, which breaks the mood. Usually it’s ballet that reminds me of watching football (pretty girls in short skirts jumping around, muscular guys in very very tight shiny pants, moves I couldn’t possibly duplicate) but this production made me think of those final five minutes that can last thirty, as in “there’s a lot of dead time here.” I think you’d get a lot more expressionist punch from the wild contrasts between the acts if they happened when we could still remember the preceding scene.

I felt pretty much the same way about the staging of Carmen I saw the next night. There were two casts; I saw the one with the excellent Escamillo of Kyle Ketelsen, a nice combination of studly and subtle, and the luscious Micaela of Ana Maria Martinez, who for once seemed like a plausible rival to Carmen. The gypsy girl herself was sung by Hadar Halevy. I liked her without falling under the spell. She grinned a lot, which was an interesting, devil-may-care choice for Carmen, as opposed to the more common spitfire approach. Marco Berti as Don Jose just disappointed me. If he starts out looking like a disheveled middle-aged man who’s been on a bender, you kind of lose the dramatic arc of his fall into obsessive stalking. I could have gotten past the looks if his voice had been youthful and filled with pain and longing, but no such luck.

25 February 2007

Myself I shall adore, if I persist in gazing

Now that my job has been re-org'ed out of existence, I have much less time for checking in on my usual blogs -- if you've ever been an efficient worker in the average office, you know exactly what I'm talking about. So it had been a little while since I checked in on the blog of Joshua Kosman, the SF Chronicle's classical music reviewer. Imagine my surprise at getting a double ego-boost: first I guessed correctly the instrumentalist who denounced In C, which she claimed was by John Cage. Usually I can't even do anagrams, much less blind items, so I felt pretty in-the-know. And then I saw myself quoted on the joys of giving up on Johann Strauss. Thanks for the shout-out. I've updated the blogroll with On a Pacific Aisle. You can also find Kosman at sfgate.com, the Chronicle's website.

Gung Hay Fat Choi all the way home

January 1 is a ridiculous time to start the new year. It’s cold, dark, and filled with post-holiday depression. Lunar New Year comes flashing in red and gold when the trees are starting to flower (in California anyway). All the decorations in Chinatown remind me that this is my year: I am a pig (I am a boar? It doesn’t sound any better that way), which will presumably stand me in good stead when I get around to looking for a job.

I have a mug printed all over with helpful Pig information. According to this cup, we Pig people are “a likeable character with a cheerful and helpful disposition – always ready to help others. They love harmony and rarely become angry except when others take advantage of their good nature. Pig people crave for luxuries and just love the life of ease and self-indulgence.” It’s like looking in a mirror. It was printed in Scotland, so I know it’s all true. My Chinese name is Zhu, the sign of honesty, which is nice but not as good as my pirate name, which is Diego the Bitter. Suggested careers for me are vet, dentist, caterer, artist, florist, window-dresser, designer (hey . . . what are you trying to say?), and student. And with thoroughness my mug notes that dark blue is my color and lapis-lazuli, coral, and beryl are my stones.

All very nice. Of course, if someone analyzed my character based on my astrological sign (Libra, in case you’re curious) I would politely edge away. Such is the beauty of a cultural system one is not raised with. You’re free to pick and choose all the fun colorful parts and ignore all the underlying unpleasant assumptions. Unmooring the holidays is the first step toward turning the culture into something else.

Whatever the something else turns out to be, here’s hoping it involves good health, prosperity, and most of all peace.

21 February 2007

And as for you, Barber. . . .

I was of course thrilled that Nathan Gunn returned to the SF Opera House this season, though I would have preferred a revival of Billy Budd rather than Barbiere. But like the modest opera fan I am, I am content with what I’m given, more or less. This production is one of the Rosenberg updates, and it was instantly controversial in conservative San Francisco because it didn’t come with dust already caked on the costumes. But in all honesty I don’t think the production works all that well.

It’s set in a huge, rotating house done in a stripped-down modernist style (it’s sort of amusing to think that the stodgy Dr Bartolo would be a modernist these days, just as I can tell my taste for the 12-toners puts me a bit out of musical avant). There are lots of sight gags, most of them fairly clever, though some people object to the frenzy. But overly abundant shtick is inevitable when anything derived from commedia dell’arte is staged, as witness just about every production of Moliere ever done. And the Opera’s previous staging, which was extremely traditional in style, was also criticized for an excess of irrelevant sight gags, as many seemed to forget in their rush to attack Rosenberg. I think the big rotating house affects the acoustics. I’ve now seen this production three times (twice when it was new and then again this season) and I’ve noticed this each time. I think its odd open shape keeps the sound from bouncing out the way it usually does. It also affects the sightlines, which is kind of a sore point to me since I sit a bit off to the side and I think directors should keep the side-folks in mind.

The cast was very strong. I particularly liked the rich voice of the attractive Allyson McHardy, and I was glad to see that Catherine Cook recovered her reliable form after her caricature of Marzellina in last summer’s Nozze di Figaro and brought some poignancy to Berta’s aria about how no one wants to marry her, though she does plop down on a hatbox at the end of it. As for Gunn, well, you didn’t think I was going to say anything negative about Nathan, did you? I did notice that, compared with two years ago, his performance and voice seemed bigger and more in charge of the stage. We’ll see if this production gets jettisoned for the next revival, which I hope will not be all that soon. I like Barbiere, but there's a lot of other stuff to fill the Rossini spot in the rotation.

19 February 2007

the old bat

I have a theory, based mostly on ignorance and prejudice, to explain why I love Gilbert and Sullivan but dislike Viennese operetta: the insouciant sadism and Lewis-Carroll logic of G&S satirize society whereas operetta ends up applauding the audience’s conventional lives. (I’m not hugely familiar with Offenbach outside of the Tales of Hoffman, but he seems more in the G&S line.) A few years ago I had not much enjoyed watching The Merry Widow slowly dragging its elephantine art-nouveau ass across the War Memorial Stage. (And yet an incredible roster of great artists have sung in it – maybe it’s fun to wear the hats?) So I was extremely worried about the Gockley future when his major change to this past season was to add Die Fledermaus, which I have dodged for several decades of opera-going.

I also have a theory that when something is described as “delightful” or “frothy” I am probably not going to like it much. I will happily say that I was amused that the artist friend who tries to seduce Rosalinde made every entrance by climbing through a window rather than going to the front door, and that he was dressed in the broad-brimmed black hat and red scarf that Lautrec gave to Aristide Bruant. (Alfred is the character’s name – I had to look the name up in the synopsis, because the plot, based mostly on revenge for some silly frat-style prank, has slipped away from me completely. If I’m seeing a revenge play, I want the dead bodies to be on stage, not in the audience.) But of course in something like this the artist is going to be a silly, affected fellow (I do not think this is comparable to G&S’s Patience, which is mocking a specific intensely aesthetic movement and its underlying sexual assumptions – also, to continue my totally unsubstantiated theorizing, I’m guessing Patience is one of the least revived of the G&S shows, not quite in Utopia Ltd territory but close enough.)

Looking at the playbill I’m reminded that Jennifer Welch-Babidge was funny and charming as the servant girl, and since I had first seen her in Candide at the Symphony a few years ago, I spent most of the evening wishing I were watching that vastly superior work. And Christine Goerke as Rosalind – fabulous! She was funny and sang beautifully and managed to be knowing towards her servant and husband without coming off as a condescending, which is actually pretty difficult to do, especially when you’re playing a woman in a big house who has servants. All the performers were at a high level and the orchestras was sparkling, but can I just confess that after a while all those tunes sound the same to me? (Though G&S have similar songs in their operas, all the music within each opera has never blurred in my mind during performance the way Fledermaus did.)

Champagne always gives me killer headaches anyway, though a lot of people love it. Same with this, I guess, though I found the total effect somewhat like being clubbed to death with meringues. The staging, the singers, and the orchestra were all excellent, for which I was truly grateful, since I can now feel that I have seen a top-notch production of Fledermaus, that I still disliked it, and therefore I need have no guilt about wanting never to see it again.

18 February 2007

Ave Caesar

Even with my favorite composers and performers I usually don’t remember when or why exactly I started listening to them. (Why do I listen to Elliott Carter? I just know I started in the 1980s, possibly because I had read he was “difficult.”) But with Lou Harrison I know exactly when and why: when I heard Ursula Oppens play his Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony; and the why is obviously because I loved it. I headed to Tower the next day and found the Keith Jarrett recording; I see the copyright on the disc (I’m listening to it now) is 1988, which is later than I would have guessed. So as soon as I read that Harrison’s opera Young Caesar would have its (final form) world premiere at Yerba Buena, I bought a ticket. In fact I bought the ticket so early that they sold me one for a row that disappeared into the orchestra pit. Fortunately they found me another one in the front row and even better there was no one beside me.

What a swell evening! I’m not saying the work is perfect: the second act is too long, for example (the first half is about an hour and the second about ninety minutes). And I’m familiar enough with Harrison and with Asian theatrical styles to accept the formality, the repetition, and the reliance on a narrator (the outstanding John Duykers, who looked a bit like Harrison), though I can see where someone coming from verismo might be put off. But what impressive staging, singing, acting, and dedication from all involved. There were no surtitles, and none were needed. There was (hallelujah) no miking, even for the parts that were sung-spoken rather than sung out. The set was an elegant and effective series of white cloth panels that could be raised or lowered, supplemented in the second, Bythinian, half with slightly narrower panels in pink, rose, and crimson, to suggest what used to be called Oriental splendor.

Harrison avoided the usual division in musical styles between West and East, using a sort of Chinese opera sound throughout (anyone familiar with Harrison will be able to guess how the music sounds). Some other conventions were not so successfully avoided: Eugene Brancoveanu was impressive as Caesar’s lover, Nicomedes the King of Bythinia, and wore his costume (a sheer red body stocking with gold lame briefs, a cape, and piles of golden curls) with panache, but I couldn’t help feeling that at moments his behavior and attitudes were a little anachronistically camp, a little too Auntie Mame, for a royal potentate of that time. The “gay love of Caesar” angle has gotten a lot of publicity, but the opera is rightly called Young Caesar – and Eleazar Rodriguez ably shouldered the burden – rather than “Caesar and Nicomedes” since the affair doesn’t start until the second half, and is seen as a step in Caesar’s development rather than the main point of the evening (and therefore his life), making this more of a bildungsroman – bildungsopera? – rather than a straight-forward love story. Harrison and Robert Gordon, the librettist, avoided making the affair into anything overly simple or idealized; it’s clear that, loving as the interlude might be, it is only an interlude, and Caesar knows it as well as Nicomedes, even though the latter is presented as an older, more sophisticated man initiating the newcomer. (I was reminded several times of Rosenkavalier, in substance if not style.)

The interlude is supposed to teach Caesar to value chance and pleasure in addition to the Roman calculation and discipline urged by his Aunt Julia (more excellent work, this time from Wendy Hillhouse), but the point is blurred a bit, since as Caesar himself points out to Nicomedes, the sudden death of his father and the abrupt reversal of Julia’s fortunes have taught him already about uncertainty. And it’s suggested that Nicomedes’s seduction of Caesar is a delaying tactic, to avoid sending ships to the Roman wars as required by treaty. This blurring might be intentional, though, in a yin/yang way, just as Harrison’s music (nicely performed by the young and attractive orchestra conducted by Nicole Paiement, to whom I am very grateful since she was a guiding force behind the realization of the opera), blends European styles with Chinese opera and gamelan into the distinctive Harrison sound. If you like his music, I hope you were there, or get a chance to hear this work.

17 February 2007


It's funny what you pick up about foreign languages as an opera-goer: from German operas I've learned to say, "Beware!" and "Stay back!" and "You are lost!" From Italian operas I've learned to say, "I can stand no more!" "Help me!" and "I am alone, lost, and abandoned!" All of these have plentiful uses in what we laughingly call "the real world." From Russian works I have so far learned one word: Slava! or Glory!, which was the general exclamation around here when my darling god-daughter Marin, who has been in Moscow for several years showing the natives that not all Americans are obese imperialists, finally started her blog about Russia. She's been added to the blogroll. I can claim credit for at least one entry title: I was the one who thoughtlessly assumed (years ago) that everyone knew (SPOILER ALERT!) that a certain Tolstoy heroine throws herself under a train. Apparently it did not help that I explained that said act was not the end of the book, since there remained fifty pages of Levin getting cranky, which is what everyone reads the novel for anyway.

Another Slava! occasion is that at long last I have a new computer at home, thanks to my godson who told me what to buy. As he was setting it up he reprimanded me for plugging everything into the wall rather than a surge protector. I pointed out that he was the one who had plugged everything in, long ago. Of course he was around 13 then. I bought that first computer about seven years ago, and computer years are like dog years, and mine had reached the "we love it but it's peeing all over the carpet and that tumor is going to cost a month's salary for removal" stage. So I have a new one, and soon I will put down this buggy whip long enough to switch to DSL rather than dial-up. I'm also told I'm not supposed to turn this computer off, so it sits here poised for action, and when it's in sleep mode I see a Gatsbyesque green light blinking at me from across the room.

16 February 2007

Kitschy witches, sad clowns

One advantage of talking about performances several months after they happen is that you can see what has stuck with you and what has slipped away, so it’s pretty dispiriting to report that I have very little to say about the Opera’s opening Ballo, and even more dispiriting to report that the final performance, which I saw, was apparently much improved over opening night. (I tend to figure that audiences for the season openers deserve what they get, anyway. They should really just have a runway show while some CDs are playing) It would be a little unfair to judge Voigt’s Amelia since she had been sick enough to cancel a performance just a few days before. She was fine, but nowhere near the radiant Ariadne she sang a few seasons ago. The staging was stodgy and conventional. Over at The Standing Room M. C- had a witty write-up, which I would link to if my computer weren’t so slow and I weren’t so lazy, but if you go searching for it you’ll enjoy his other postings. I have to share his amazement that the peasants gathered around Ulrica had banners ready for waving in case a random petitioner turned out to be the King. That shows a certain party-ready Swedish extravagance for which the films of Ingmar Bergman had not prepared me. I prefer the Boston setting anyway, since I feel the spirit of Hawthorne hovering like a haunted Fate above the thwarted passions. The evening wasn’t disastrous, but it wasn’t particularly memorable, despite the hearty applause at the end. The woman next to me flailed her arms about and shouted “bravo!” for all the ladies and “brava!” for all the men. Perhaps she was confused by the excellent Oscar of Anna Christy.

The next foray into Verdi was their much-revived Rigoletto, with the di Chirico-style sets. (I once heard someone condemn this production because “it doesn’t look like fifteenth-century Mantua” – seriously.) I love Rigoletto but I can see that others who don’t love it as much as I do might be getting a little tired of it. The narrow repertory is less of a problem in New York, where the Met and City Opera and assorted other groups do about five times as many performances as any other American city, but when there are only nine or ten a season you get tired of seeing the same five over and over. But I suppose that’s our reality for the time being, so I’ll just be grateful at getting Rigoletto and not Traviata or Boheme. This time around I liked Paolo Gavanelli better than I had last time, but I still found him a little underpowered at the end of the first half and overly broad in his acting. But I really liked Mary Dunleavy’s Gilda – I had seen her in the Philly Pearl Fishers where she was a bit overshadowed by Nathan Gunn’s Zurga. It’s interesting to see what gets varied in these revivals – the opening party/orgy scene was triumphant proof of how powerful repression can be; this time around there were no bare breasts or disheveled gropings but an air of contempt and menace amid all the black, bird-like costumes that set you up for everything that happened at that court. But I’m still a little puzzled by the Opera’s approach to Verdi – he’s amazingly dramatic, and they do his works over and over, but they just end up not quite making it all the way.

10 February 2007

Aspects of Diva-dom

"Diva" is one of those words that's had a vogue recently. Any tantrum-throwing American Idol reject gets called a diva. Office workers who try to mask their boredom and emptiness with grand-standing or gossip get called divas. (I once had to explain to someone at some job that unless you have a huge amount of talent, being difficult doesn't make you a diva, it makes you a jerk, which seemed to be a revelation.) The common thread is a sense of entitlement to bad behavior, a sense that, as the center of the universe, one is allowed just about anything. But this sort of thing is to real divas as most American Idol rejects are to Maria Callas. The thing about real divas is that their major quality is not arrogance, but humility, and the famous diva antics are done in the service of art and the diva's beloved audience.

Look at the big diva encore arias: I am the humble handmaiden of art. I have lived for art and love. And when the diva announces her encores, it's in a soft voice, so that the pathetically eager audience has to lean forward to catch every word: "Well, since you all have been so very kind, I will trouble you perhaps with one more aria. . . ." I only realized the soft speaking voice was a diva trait when I went to hear Itzhak Perlman and I leaned forward to hear what he was announcing as the encore, only to be greeted by a booming voice that easily filled Symphony Hall in Boston. When she steps out on stage, the diva, who knows perfectly well she can fill any concert hall in the world and that her appearance has been anticipated eagerly for months and months, is always so very pleased and touched at the tumultuous cheers that come before she's even opened her mouth.

The first time I heard Leontyne Price in recital, she walked out on stage and I have rarely seen anyone with so much electricity emanating all around her. I really wanted to see her in opera, in an ensemble, but I never had the chance since she retired from opera around the time I started attending it. She came to Boston just about every other year when I was there to do a recital and then I heard her once in San Francisco shortly after I moved back. Each recital was a special occasion for the whole audience, and I treasured them because her rich warm voice had drawn me into the world of opera. I remember hesitantly buying a cassette tape of highlights from her Madama Butterfly -- that was a long time ago, and one thing led to another, and here I am.

About ten years ago RCA released an 11-disc retrospective and a "live at Carnegie" album. I happened to walk by Borders near Union Square and saw a sign in the window saying that Miss Price would be signing CDs later that week. I will walk out of restaurants if there are three people ahead of me, but I stood in line with everyone else on that rainy night, and when it was my turn I had the chance to say, "Miss Price, you changed my life -- it was your voice that made me love opera." And this distinguished artist, who had risen from a life under American apartheid and surmounted so many social obstacles and artistic challenges so many decades ago to become one of the great singers of a great generation, reacted to my nervous little speech as if I had given her the greatest possible gift, one that humbled and gratified her. She gave, just for me, the greatest diva performance I have ever seen -- so moved, so touched, her hands moving to her heart as if she were unutterably grateful, with a grand gesture that was however perfectly scaled for its audience of one. She graciously signed both her picture on the CD cover and at my request the lyrics inside to one of my favorite arias, Pace Pace Mio Dio. I walked away wishing I were more worthy of her art. And that's a diva.

And a very happy 80th birthday to Leontyne Price, American diva.

09 February 2007

. . . Man never Is, but always To Be, blest

Every year around this time, up until April or May, comes the theater-goer's version of the crocuses poking through the snow -- the announcements of next season's opportunities for ecstasy and disappointment and mostly stuff in between. Even as I find myself wondering why I thought it would be a good idea to have plays and concerts four or five nights in a row and as I stare in disbelief at the constantly escalating credit card bills, I still pull the cards out to do the same thing next year. So much just looks so good! And so much for living in the Now. I actually called the Ballet to see about subscribing this season, but like the Opera they charge an extortion fee for the best seats and though I've gotten used to it from the Opera and have been going long enough so that I sit pretty close without giving in, I'm not starting that all over again with another group. The so-called premium seats cost well over twice as much as the second-best, not that there were any of those close enough for me, so instead of seeing all eight programs I just bought individual tickets to three. I don't understand why they don't even the cost out a little more, especially with all their whining about making opera and ballet more accessible and avoiding "that's for rich people" stereotypes.

The earliest announcement was for David Gockley's first real season at the Opera. I have to say I think he did a good job in a difficult situation. I've thought of this season as "the Rosenberg rebuke." There was a definite Opera 101, throw-up-your -hands feel about the season, as if the basics were all that could be offered to people who groaned at having to hear Messiaen and Ligeti. I was afraid Gockley would go too far to win back that crowd (that's a dead end for the future anyway) by offering a stable crammed with exhausted warhorses (kind of like this season, only more so). In fact I had vowed that if Boheme showed up on the schedule I would switch to buying individual tickets, unless they took up my suggestion of an "opt-out" choice for those of us who just can't sit through certain things again.

I had to get past my intense embarrassment that this is being marketed as a "season of glamour" (complete with British spelling). There's nothing too shocking in there, but there's a new work by Philip Glass, some favorite composers showing up in less frequent incarnations (Macbeth and La Rondine), and one or two that are pretty unusual --like most (or any) baroque operas, Ariodante is probably a stretch for most of the opera audience. I saw several baroque operas before I saw a mainstream one, so I'm thrilled. (Once someone asked me in disbelief why I had three recordings of Ariodante. My reply was "Janet Baker, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Anne Sofie von Otter." Baroque opera is the reason I do not believe people who go on about new operas failing because "there are no melodies." Baroque opera is nothing but gorgeous melody after gorgeous melody, but it still freaks out the usual opera audience because it's unfamiliar. Repetition is how we hear melody.) San Francisco audiences like to think of themselves as international-level and very daring, but they're actually quite conservative and label-conscious (which may be why we're getting so many singers in roles that were big hits for them at the Met -- not that I'm complaining too much). And I'm always happy to hear The Rake's Progress.

Since I've already complained about the extortion fee and the over-reliance on warhorses, I have to mention another pet peeve, the standard 8:00 start time, because I need to salute the Symphony for changing the start time of the new John Adams opera, A Flowering Tree, to 7:30. I don't have the postcard to hand but the reason given was basically "so people aren't up all night." Accept the thanks of a grateful nation. I'm really looking forward to this work -- one of the first things I did after returning from Bayreuth was buy a ticket for it. And that is despite my disappointment in Dr. Atomic, and despite "I Was Looking At the Ceiling (Because What's on Stage Sucks So Much)" being one of the worst things I have ever sat through. Hope springs eternal in the human breast. . . .