30 January 2008

High School Musical!

I was in the middle of preparing a long entry detailing my disappointment in San Francisco Opera's upcoming season, when I did get some good operatic news (and let me express due gratitude to David Gockley for first staging the work in Houston back in 1987): this coming July, plucky local upstart Trinity Lyric Opera is presenting the (let me make sure I have all the qualifiers in place) northern California staged premiere of Nixon in China! (The exclamation point indicates my excitement; it's not an integral part of the title, indicative of general kickiness.)

And get this: it's at my old high school. Not in the cafeteria where they used to stage the annual spring musical (and I was already objecting to the body mikes back then), but in the brand spanking semi-new Castro Valley Center for the Performing Arts, at Castro Valley High School, where, I regret to say, they did not raise the weak above the strong, though I did learn that to be a grain of sand in Heaven's eye is to taste eternal joy. It's easily accessible on BART. I've already bought tickets to both Friday performances.

From the scorched earth
People step forth
Over dead wood
And over the dead:
Follow their lead!

28 January 2008

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Vingt Regards

Is Messiaen’s music now a cult? Hertz Hall is full for Christopher Taylor’s performance of Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus, with a buzz surpassing the usual recital. I overhear conversations about L’Ascension at the Symphony the other day and Saint Francois at the Opera several years ago. Does this happen to every composer on his way to “Oh, him again” status, or only the heaven-stormers? Is this what it was like to gather for a rare hearing of the late quartets when the generality still held that Beethoven’s late work was insane and monstrous?
resplendence, transcendence, refulgence, resounding reredos of reverberation
If you saw Christopher Taylor on the street, he would look completely ordinary, albeit slightly goofy; you’d guess correctly that he was interested in mathematics. When he plays, his looks change. He becomes completely compelling and magnetic. He’s downright adorkable!
I’m not on the coveted piano-recital left-hand side of Hertz Hall, but if I look at the glassy black underside of the grand piano's raised lid, I see the reflection of Taylor's hands dancing over the keyboard and then the jumping inner works of the Steinway. The entire piano is trembling, quivering and shaking.
Christ, this ticket was a bargain!
The paradox of silence, rarer and rarer in our world: the quieter and more attentive the room, the more disruptive even the smallest sound becomes; a hastily turned page in the program rips open the atmosphere. Once, on the hajj to Stratford-on-Avon, I was walking on a path beside an empty road, and suddenly the crunching of gravel beneath my feet sounded like a horrible deafening roar. I stopped walking, and experienced absolute stillness and silence for possibly the only time in my life, until a car came by and broke the spell.
I’ve had a low-level migraine all day, but I just noticed it stopped when the music started, and resumed when the music stopped. Should I forward this to Benedict XVI as Messiaen’s first miracle? Do I need more of a miracle than his ability to write such music? Years ago, in the Cathedral Treasury at Chartres, I noticed a rather sheepish reliquary stuck way up on a shelf. It contained the alleged cloak of the Virgin Mary, the alleged discovery of which caused the great cathedral to be built. Doesn’t that make it actually miraculous? Isn’t what’s around us enough? Why are we slightly embarrassed by the sublime, yet hoping always for miracles?
I am hearing passages I never really heard on the several recordings I have. Do I just listen differently in a concert hall, so that, for instance, nothing distracts me from the quieter moments? Or is it just the recreative performers who take the same score and render it slightly differently, to people who all hear it slightly differently?
“I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.”
(colors of the celestial city) I have my eyes shut. How did he get that bell sound? If I could play more than a C major scale on the piano, would I understand, even if I couldn’t replicate it? The sound is exactly like the Campanile carillon caroling as I walked through the light rain to the concert. It would be so cool to have synaesthesia right now. But only if I could turn it off later so the colors don’t blind me.
Who are all these people?
Walking out of the Hall, I’m oddly grateful for the misty rain and the trees of such dark green they’re almost black silhouetted against the pearly dove-gray sky.
This was one of the concerts I was most excited about this season. What do I do now? What does Taylor do after a performance? I would need to pace up and down in a darkened room for at least an hour.

22 January 2008

can I get a witness

I don’t usually see the New York Times, so I am indebted to indefatigable linkmeister Sid Chen of The Standing Room for bringing to my attention the recent article on the new, or finally produced, operatic version of Elmer Gantry, with music by Robert Aldridge and a libretto by Herschel Garfein. It occurred to me that I might post something about it, since apparently I am one of the few people around who actually heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing at least part of the role of Sister Sharon Falconer. I’ve often wondered what happened to the project since I heard the workshop back in 1992. Once the Internet blessed our lives, I would occasionally try to google some information, but rarely came up with much.

I had also wondered occasionally what happened to Composers in Red Sneakers, the composers’ collective in Boston that started around the time I moved there. The Times article mentioned that Aldridge was one of the original sneakers. I should dig out my old playbills and see if I heard anything by him at their concerts – for some reason I didn’t make the connection at the time. I sort of lost sight of the Red Sneaker group even before I moved out of Massachusetts (e-mail has since made it much easier to reach your potential audience), and I had assumed they had dissolved or otherwise imploded, as is the way of collectives. Turns out I was wrong – they’re still going strong, so good for them. I don’t know what they’re like now, but they were known back in the mid-1980s as a fun and informal new music group – this was back when being a fun and informal new music group was considered pretty much an oxymoron, or at least a bizarre and suspicious aberration. I’m not sure where exactly the name came from, but you got free admission to their concerts if you wore red Converse hightops. I had a pair and enjoyed new music, so I went several times. I think the concerts were usually at Memorial Hall on the Harvard campus.

The Elmer Gantry workshop was at the small C. Walsh Theatre at Suffolk University on Beacon Hill. According to my playbill, there were two performances, Thursday February 27 and Saturday February 29, 1992. I was at the Thursday performance. I know this for certain because I bought a libretto ($5) and had both composer and librettist sign it, and Garfein wrote the date. I wish Hunt Lieberson had been available to sign as well; I know there’s something silly about having people sign a piece of paper, which is why I rarely ask for autographs outside of formal signing sessions, but there’s probably some principle of sympathetic magic behind its appeal, and I wish I had had the chance to ask her – at least it would have given me the opportunity to say thank you to her.

I don’t remember where I heard about the workshop, though the Boston Globe seems the likely source. It was open to the public – I certainly couldn’t have gotten in otherwise. I talked some friends from work into going with me – the literary source might have held some interest (one of them actually had a Sinclair Lewis thing and collected editions of his work – not the author I would choose, but I respected it and found it kind of an endearingly offbeat choice), and these were people who were sort of edging into classical music and opera, and I’m sure they went because I said “You have to hear this woman.” I wasn’t really familiar with the lead, Vernon Hartman, but of the other singers Sharon Baker as Lulu Baines and Frank Kelley as Eddie Fislinger were familiar performers; I had often heard them with Lorraine Hunt (her name at the time).

There are two things I remember clearly about the performance. The first is this: The playbill said that the opera's opening scene would not be performed and the workshop would open with the second scene, and the libretto had only a synopsis of the first scene, and I believe either Aldridge or Garfein beforehand summarized the first scene and said that the faculty meeting we were about to see was actually the second scene of the opera, and despite all that, several people started off the post-performance discussion by saying they didn’t think the faculty meeting scene was the best choice as the first scene of the opera. The Times article implied a certain arrogance or at least bluntness on the part of Aldridge and Garfein, but I recall them being exceptionally courteous in the face of this evidence that the people who pay the least attention are always the first to voice their opinions. (By the way, the Times article isn’t quite correct in saying the workshop was of the first act – it was of portions of the first and second acts, and Aldridge and Garfein had a note in the playbill saying that “When complete, Elmer Gantry will be three hours long, in three acts.”)

The second thing I remember is of course Lorraine Hunt’s performance as the Aimee Semple McPherson avatar, Sister Sharon Falconer. While sorting through and organizing my boxes of playbills recently, I was surprised to see that I had heard Hunt as Nitocris, the king’s mother, in Handel’s Belshazzar. Imagine the luxury and folly of hearing her often enough to let some performances slip away from the mind. But others are particularly vivid in my memory (in Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito, for example), and one of them is the Elmer Gantry workshop. The Times article referred to a recording of her singing Sharon’s entrance aria. I hope it still exists and is released some day soon. No disrespect to the artist who ended up creating the role, but Hunt Lieberson’s peculiar spiritual intensity brought a special edge to the character – she might be an ordinary woman, she might be a charlatan, or, when you heard her sing, she really might be in direct contact with great powers sweeping through the starry skies, and it was all a matter of faith. The scene I remember most vividly had her crouched down in front of (possibly figurative) incense burners, her hands arabesqueing as if with the scented smoke, while she chanted and sang an incantation filled with deep, vibrant ululations. Afterwards one of my co-workers kept saying, “Oh my God! Oh my God! That thing she did with her voice!” Yep. Exactly. That thing she did with her voice.

20 January 2008

complacencies of the peignoir

I will sometimes go into the theater with hypothesis in hand. For instance, this one about La Rondine: its supposedly clumsy dramaturgy had more to do with people missing the point than with actual faults in the work itself – was it probable that the masterly dramatic mind behind Boheme, Tosca, and Butterfly could have fumbled that late in his career? It reminded me of what a professor of mine had once blurted out when discussing the middle of Dr Faustus – “I wish Marlowe hadn’t written these scenes!” I knew what she meant; between the noble questing of the beginning and the sublime tragedy of the end, there are scenes of low farce. But it seemed to me that those scenes are central to the meaning of the play – given great potential, and an amazing chance, most people will squander their opportunities on the equivalent of squirting wine in the Pope’s face, and so the bumptious comedy points to the moral even more than the high-toned tragic speeches do. I’ll admit to a bad habit of listening to operas without reading along in the libretto, but I vaguely knew Magda in Rondine had made a choice between love and comfort, and I was developing the possibilities of a whole Dr Faustus/Rondine comparison in my head, and just as I am apparently the only inhabitant of the blogosphere who has written at any length about both Nathan Gunn and Barry Zito, so I figured this was my big chance to be the only person in the history of the world ever to compare Rondine and Faustus.

It turns out I was wrong, though. It is possible for the dramatic genius whose works have both blessed and oppressed the operatic stage to produce an inept drama. After the first part of the recent San Francisco Opera production, I was thinking, That was lovely – the second act was maybe too reminiscent of the Café Momus scene in Boheme, but still all very lovely. . . . I left the theater after the second part thinking, Whoa! That sure went off the tracks.

I’d like to make a distinction between being tired of certain Puccini warhorses and dismissing Puccini. The very fact that certain works of his are so much in demand that any habitual opera-goer is sick to death of them is a tribute to his genius. You could argue that his success salted the earth for succeeding generations of composers, raising expectations of lyrical and dramatic success combined with popularity that no one else could live up to, or should have to live up to, especially under changed social and financial circumstances. Years ago I read that, even though he was seriously ill, Puccini traveled to Vienna to hear the premiere of Pierrot Lunaire, and took the time afterwards to congratulate the young Schoenberg. I’ve always liked that story, since it indicates a generosity and openness that I admire. I’d like to read a good biography of Puccini to get an accurate picture, since there is no trace of any such attitude in the playbill’s Rondine articles; according to them, Puccini was jealous of the success of other composers (notably both Strausses), was contemptuous of any Viennese experimentation, and longed to achieve the dubious goal of writing an operetta, which seems to me like being able to weave a great tapestry but aching to dominate the crafts fair through the mastery of macramé. Maybe Gockley & Co. are just trying to reassure the Philistines, who seem to be in the ascendancy at the house (how ironic that this season opened with Samson).

It was a lovely production; all three acts had a different and gorgeous Art Deco set, each of which received a round of applause while the music was playing, for they were that kind of set and it was that kind of audience. Angela Gheorgiu made her local debut, and she does indeed have a strikingly lovely voice. The first act opened with a group scene, and I wasn’t sure which one was our star, until she moved towards the on-stage piano to sing her famous aria, and I noticed her dress was slit up to there, and I realized, well, obviously, there’s our star. I didn’t recognize her because for some reason she wore an incredibly unflattering Gidget-does-Lulu hairstyle. Considering the role wigs have played in her story (for those who don’t know, she was the one playing Micaela in Carmen to whom Volpe said, “That blonde wig is going on stage whether you’re under it or not”), I was surprised she agreed to such harsh-looking hair. I’m all about the hair. Anna Christy, whom I keep seeing playing maids, was both pert and charming, but of course since this is an attempt at an operetta Magda’s maid is treated with condescension and ultimately is put in her place. I like Misha Didyk (I have friends who hate him), who is the tenor and therefore, needless to say, the male romantic lead, but I didn’t have strong feelings about him either way in this role.

As for where the work goes wrong, it’s the third act. After the café scene in the second act, which I needn’t describe because it’s so similar to Act 2 of Boheme (though I would like to offer sincere praise to the hilariously tacky disco ball glittering in the back of the set), Magda has run off with her young lover. There is no Violetta-type sacrifice here, though – the woman of the world and her ardent young lover are in a fashionable resort, just as stylish as the first two acts, running up the bills. They sing about how much in love they are, in a duet of ill-advised length. I can accept this sort of thing from lovers with a mythic aura, like Tristan and Isolde or Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton, but there’s only so much of other people’s bland banal happiness I want to sit through. The maid and her boyfriend show up and then leave. Our lovers realize they are in serious debt. (That’s something I’d prefer to hear them go on about – as one who has spent not wisely but too well myself, I await the great operatic treatment of debt. Other than Rheingold, of course.) The youth wants to marry Magda, but such are the benefits of her worldly experience that she knows such a marriage would kill his saintly mother. Again unlike Traviata, no parent is brought on stage to make such a plea for him- or herself, so instead of a dramatically interesting confrontation we are given a supposition, and a clichéd one at that. (Being partly of Latin descent myself, I have some familiarity with such saintly old women, and personally I’m figuring that the mother is actually a raging controlling bitch.) Magda realizes that mounting debts and society's rigid rules require her to abandon her young lover, who, we must take on faith based on his tenor voice, is the great true love that would last the rest of her life, and instead she turns to – not poverty, disease, and a lonely death, like Violetta, but the wealthy arms of her rich protector. I thought there would be another scene or two after she makes this choice, but no – that’s it! Since her protector was played by the handsome and distinguished-looking Philip Skinner, and he obviously has pretty elastic views of what he requires from her in the way of fidelity (as shown by his willingness to take her back, despite her running off with the young lover, and despite the really awful hair), I’m thinking she should maybe count her blessings.

I was glad to have seen Rondine at last, and I would enjoy seeing it again. But it filled me with ironic skepticism rather than a warm glow. Unlike such operas as Carmen or Trovatore, with their sympathetic treatment of outsiders and those alien to the usual opera audience, this is a work aimed at warming the toes of the privileged (so I guess Puccini did succeed in writing an operetta). It is designed for those who have chosen, or ended up in, comfort, and want to luxuriate without consequences in the pretense that they might have had a great romance instead (so I guess Puccini also succeeded in writing an ur-chick flick). It’s an essentially nostalgic work, like Boheme, though it lacks that work’s real sense of poverty and sickness, however obscured those qualities might be by a golden haze of remembrance.

I was kind of stunned to realize that the plot of Rondine is essentially the same as the plot of Mae West’s Sex, which I had seen a few days earlier. Mae handles the whole thing with greater aplomb, and there’s no silly pretense that marrying her rich older friend rather than her handsome young stud is some sort of tragic dilemma. Both were written around the time when “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” was a big hit, so the fate of what the times would have called women of the world as well as the need for women to find financial support seem to have been popular themes. Maybe this reflects the growing independence, sexual and financial, of women. Maybe it reflects the largely female audience’s need to see dramatic interest in their lives – though as dilemmas go, choosing between love and money is sort of like deciding between Paris and London for your annual vacation – it’s a dilemma of privilege. It’s not as if we’re talking about coal miners and their wives here. Maybe it just reflects a certain self-indulgent need to feel sorry for oneself, and to reflect weepily on what might have been from the comfort of our padded red velvet subscription seats at the opera. Magda’s tragedy? Magda’s dilemma? Cry me a river, sweetiepie – at least your cage is gilded.

12 January 2008

you're the moon over Mae West's shoulder

The hilarity ensues immediately once you buy a ticket for Sex, the Mae West play which has been making the national rounds: do you write “Sex” on your appointment calendar? Do you tell people you’re going to see “Sex”? I generally settled for “the play at the Aurora Theater” in my discreet way, but you’ve got to hand it to Mae – you might think society has moved past her particular brand of naughtiness, but she’s already sauntered ahead of you, because her good-humored innuendo not only outsmarts our blunt ways, she’s also as aware as Jane Austen of social class and money.

The script is similar to those West wrote for her movies – she (called Margy LaMont this time around) is a good bad girl; a rich and innocent young man, ignorant of her background, falls in love with her down in Trinidad; when he takes her home to meet his parents, she realizes that his mother Clara is the ungrateful society lady she rescued in the first act from a misadventure in slumming. Margy eventually decides that her future happiness lies in marrying her old-time friend and lover, the recently retired Lieutenant Gregg, who knows all about her life and keeps proposing anyway, and moving with him to Australia, an ending which satisfies everyone except the love-struck young man, who will get over it.

The play is actually similar to most of Oscar Wilde’s plays; like them, it is basically an ironic melodrama about class boundaries leavened with sexually subversive epigrams. I don’t want to oversell the comparison; I’m not saying West could have written anything like The Importance of Being Earnest (though even Wilde only managed that once), and she never wrote anything like Salome (though I would love to have seen her version). And her play is a lot looser than, say, An Ideal Husband, which is a disadvantage or an advantage, depending on how you feel about plot machinery. Her play has plenty of vaudeville moments, and the first half ends with a very entertaining and very extraneous series of song and dance numbers (Robert Brewer as the lovestruck young man had a particularly nice voice, sounding at times remarkably like an actual 1920s Irish tenor – I guess I’m thinking of the John McCormack sound).

The Aurora is one of those tiny theaters (four rows in a U-shape around the open stage) that like to claim there are no bad seats, but I had one, at the right-hand tip of the U, behind the stage couch. For quite a bit of the play I was looking over the actors' shoulders or observing their necks. I would have just accepted this as my bad luck, but I saw a woman buy a discount ticket at the box office half an hour before the show started, and her seat was much better than mine. You’d think that buying in advance at full price would give you the better seat. Apparently I have a lot to learn about the ways of the theater.

Seating discontent aside, this was an enjoyable evening (oh, all right, I’ll give in and say it – I really enjoyed the Sex, thanks so much, the money is in the box office), though I couldn’t help feeling that if this had actually been a film from the 1930s, the class drama would have been more sharply delineated – there’s something antiquated and formal about the dress, movement, and speech of the upper classes in those films that is alien to our society, and difficult to convey with modern actors in a stripped-down set. I wish the Aurora had trusted the material a little more and relied less on its curiosity value and period charm. They opened and closed the show with unnecessary historical background – a sketch of the usual jazz age pizzazz, some shocked contemporary reviews, the eventual arrest for obscenity after packing the house for months. I’m not sure why they thought this fairly straightforward, enjoyable play needed all that – they wouldn’t have done the same for Lady Windermere’s Fan.

The attempt to recreate the atmosphere around the original play may also have been the reason for the production’s major miscalculation, which I’m guessing was the fault of Tom Ross, the director: having Delia MacDougall, the actress playing Margy, imitate Mae West. There are certain artists, like Gertrude Stein or Groucho Marx, who have such strong styles that attempts to discuss them usually end up as attempts to imitate them, which is always a mistake. You’re just not ever going to see a better Mae West imitation than the one Mae West did. And the exaggerated voluptuousity that is the West physique provides a built-in punchline that just can’t be supplied these days, since the red hot Mama body type seems to have disappeared with vaudeville.

The basic question is whether a star vehicle can survive without the star. I think Sex is a solid enough play so that it would have been worth trying, and MacDougall brought enough interesting flashes to her performance so that I wish she had been encouraged to form an independent interpretation. One of the best plays I saw last year was a star vehicle without the star – Charles Busch’s Red Scare on Sunset, performed by the student actors at the American Conservatory Theater. Usually it just seems to work out that I post late, and basically I’m OK with that, on the grounds that it’s all based on memory the minute you leave your seat anyway, and sometimes it helps to have things shake out over a few weeks, and also it’s not as if anyone is waiting to hear what I think before buying a ticket. But sometimes a little too much time goes by even for me (though never say never – I may paper over poverty-induced gaps in my upcoming schedule with reminiscences of past theatrical glories, like some superannuated theater ghost who can’t wait to regale you with the time he was the understudy Guildenstern for the greatest Hamlet of three generations ago), and I do wish I had posted about Red Scare, mostly so I could salute the genius of Charles Busch.

I think I just had a vague sense that he was one of those guys who put on a dress and did bad Bette Davis imitations; I have nothing against that, but on the rare occasions when I’m drunk enough to laugh at something like that I’m usually preoccupied with wondering how to make the room stop spinning. I didn’t even bother going to see Tales of the Allergist’s Wife when it played here a few years ago. I don’t know what tipped me off that I might be mistaken, but I have recanted my heresy. Busch recreates, subverts, and glorifies a grand tradition of theatricality that goes back to Bernhardt and no doubt farther; and if you doubt me put Die Mommy Die in your Netflix queue. About halfway through viewing it I thought, Sweet Jesus, this is the Oresteia! with suppositories!

Last year the young conservatory actors created a Red Scare that was true to his spirit but independent of his presence. It was not only probably the most consistently well-acted play I saw last year, it was hilarious from start to finish (assuming that you find funny, and I do, a plot that centers on a Communist conspiracy to abolish star billing and the Arthur Freed unit at MGM and replace them with black-and-white ensemble dramas). It also dealt in a deeper way than many more ponderous plays with the function of art and fame in a democracy, with the easy American way of switching personal identity and its confusing results, and with the American attempt to define a cohesive social identity through demonizing outsiders. People tend not to see comic cross-dressers as holding the mirror up to our profounder nature, but I’ve gotten more out of Busch’s work than I have out of a lot of Eugene O’Neill’s. Charles Busch and Mae West, raffish provocateurs on the far shore of the mainstream! Is it universal, or peculiarly American, that it’s the marginal who tell all the truth, but tell it slant?

03 January 2008

tidings of comfort and joy

Oh my goodness. I woke up New Year’s Day to find the house a complete mess, with empty beer bottles filling up the recycling bin and the trash overflowing onto the filthy kitchen floor and a half-empty bottle of wine still on the kitchen counter forming a sordid still life among teetering piles of dirty dishes and promiscuously scattered shirts and pants and other shocking garments tossed both on the couch and on my bedroom floor which was also littered with fallen comforters and quilts and stacks of books looming up like trees from the undergrowth of old papers and magazines with odd clusters of random CDs and DVDs popping up here and there like mushrooms amid decay and damp, and all I can remember of the last few hours of the late year is a rowdy sailor and a big fight and then black silence and oblivion for hours.

In other words, I fell asleep well before midnight while watching Popeye cartoons (love those Fleischer brothers! remember – if it could really happen, it’s not animation!), and I woke to find myself still a schlub with a headcold who desperately needs to clean his house. And it wouldn’t hurt me to make like Popeye and eat more spinach, either. I had skipped most holiday traditions this year, even my usual New Year’s Eve viewing of Fight Club, and apparently my neighbors were in a similar mood, since midnight passed without firecrackers or gun shots to wake me. So although the arbitrary divisions of the year have given way, it’s business as usual here at The Reverberate Hills.

Except for one bright shiny new thing! Vicki, who persuaded me to start a blog almost two years ago, allowed me to return the favor and persuade her to start one of her own. I even gave her a blog title and a series of suggested topics, but I can tell she was already ripe for blogging since I came up with a different blog title that might be even better but she had already jumped in. And I can pretty much guarantee that there will be, at some point, cockapoo pictures of an almost sinister adorability. So slide on over to the blogroll and check out Christmas in July. (In case you’re wondering what the second title I came up with was, it was Sensible Shoes. I don’t know – what do you think?)