31 August 2008

gotta sing, gotta dance

As a dear friend of mine once noted, poverty sucks, and so last spring I had decided I couldn’t buy any tickets to the ballet. But much as I hate benefiting from the misfortunes of others, I ended up with several tickets from surgery-bound friends of friends (I’m happy to report that everyone is fully recovered). I would not have chosen the Jerome Robbins program myself, but charity boys don’t get to choose.

I probably wouldn’t have chosen a Sunday matinee either, having had some especially bad experiences in previous encounters with the home-before-dark crowd, but there I was, seeing the Opera House in afternoon light for once. The lobby is quite attractive, with its cool marble floors and the light glinting off the golden rosettes in the ceiling and dappling the sand- and wheat-colored stone of the columns and arches, and I watched for a while as the audience gathered; mostly crowds of middle-aged women wearing artistic scarves and traveling in groups, with a few trim and stylish enough to be obvious as former dancers themselves, and lots of dowager grandmothers towing along excited little girls who were actually wearing velvet dresses as if it were Easter Sunday, and the occasional woman by herself staring blankly at the occasional male couples, who seemed to come in two types (both too thin, or both too fat); altogether a scene crying out for the fluid brush of a Singer Sargent, or a Warhol, or Grosz.

It’s a bit different from the opera crowd, though perhaps the difference is because it was a matinee, so there were more women traveling alone or with children. I went up to the gift shop to see how it had changed from opera season, and I have to say, given the warm spring weather, what was up with all the scarves? Opera-season clothing doesn’t get past a few logo T-shirts (or sweatshirts for those chilly simulcast nights), but there were racks of scarves, gauzy, silky, flowered, shiny, and sometimes downright architectural. And there was lots and lots of pink stuff, and lots of items aimed at little girls. It’s odd that such a physical and erotic art should be conceived of as a dream for little girls, but then that's true of a lot of stuff considered suitable for little girls; even a demonic tale like Wuthering Heights is considered nice for girls, and clearly there’s a dark pull behind the prettiness. Whatever it is, the ballet sure doesn’t shy away from the precious little ballerina stereotype.

The program opened with Fancy Free, which struck me as even more grotesque than it did the first time I saw it last year, but then we’ve had an entire extra year of the Iraq war since then. Remember the Iraq War? It's getting even less coverage these days, what with high gas prices and all, plus the presidential election (though you'd think the election might actually lead to more discussion of the on-going war, not less). In light of what we’re doing in Iraq, it seems unbelievably perverse, or callous, to revive twice in two years this wartime propaganda pastoral of carefree and flirtatious sailors on leave. I can’t believe there aren’t other pieces more suitable for revival, even in the possibly limited genre of Cute and Innocent Americana. I did amuse myself during the irritating episode in which two of the men take that one woman’s purse and play keep-away with it by wondering how long it would take a woman nowadays to call the police – though I can’t believe that even then such bullying was really the best way to meet a girl. Whatever happened to Hi, I’m new in town, care to show me the sights?

After intermission we had In the Night, in which three different couples expressed their three different relationships in dance form. It was generally pleasant, though it struck me as a bit thin; but then, at least one couple was usually so far back and to the left that I simply couldn’t see them from my seat. No doubt an unobstructed view would have enriched my viewing considerably.

Before the third piece, the SF Ballet premiere of West Side Story Suite, I was earwitness to the following exchange among one of those groups of women who made up most of the audience. There were some younger women, daughters or possibly granddaughters and even great-granddaughters, and their mother (or grandmother), who must have been at the very least in her late 50s/early 60s, and then her mother, who looked extremely old and was almost bent double. So the mother says to the old lady, “Oh, Mother, next is West Side Story!”

The Old Lady: “What’s that?”

The Mother: “It’s about gangs.”

The Old Lady: “The gays?”

The Mother: “No, mother – gangs. In New York City. It’s Leonard Bernstein, so it’s very fast.”

The Old Lady: “Never heard of it.”

The Mother: “Oh, Mother, sure you have! Don’t you remember when [the name of her future husband] took me on our first date? We went to see the movie and I was all dressed up in that blue dress with the white sweater, and he stopped by the house first and we took a picture of it, and we had the picture hanging up in the living room?”

The Old Lady: “Nope. Never heard of it.”

To answer the obvious query, the old lady, though physically frail, seemed to be quite sharp mentally. So I have absolutely no idea how she managed to be the sort of person who takes family trips to ballet matinees yet had managed to avoid all knowledge of West Side Story. I know it’s beloved, but not particularly by me. Candide is one of my favorite musicals, but I’m pretty indifferent to just about everything else Bernstein wrote. And you know why I missed the traveling Dudamel concert last November that everyone has been talking/raving about ever since? Because the program featured Dances from West Side Story and I just didn’t feel like sitting through that, much less paying for the privilege (see note above about poverty sucking). I have a subscription ticket for the Symphony’s upcoming Bernstein program, and if Upshaw weren’t on the program I’d probably have switched it to something I was more interested in.

You can probably divide the world into West Side Story people and Candide people, just as you can divide them into Rodgers and Hammerstein people or Rodgers and Hart people. I’m always amused by those who say that the reason the great days of the musical are over is that audiences these days are “too sophisticated” to accept people bursting into song, as if acceptance of the stylized and artificial were not the essence of sophistication (or as if the audience that listened to Cole Porter and Gershwin were somehow less “sophisticated” than the audience that thinks Madonna is a singer). And I don't even take the slightly embarrassed tone some have these days towards West Side Story’s earnest and dated “relevance” or its fancy-stepping gang-bangers. I just don’t really connect with these stories of young love against the odds, I guess. I mean, they’re fine, but I really need something more. (So I’m especially curious to see how my favorite Mark Morris handles his new version of Romeo and Juliet at the end of September, and how I like it).

If you tell me that some guy is going to be haunted by the ghosts of dead virgins who plan to dance him to death, or that a guy falls in love with a swan, I’m totally there. But two crazy-in-love kids making beautiful love against the odds in this crazy old world, which is so filled with hate – meh, not so much. Anyway the dancing was very nice, though as sometimes happens in these slice-and-dice versions, the remaining story was so episodic – really not much more than the essential big hits strung together – that I wondered how anyone not familiar with the musical could figure out what was going on. Of course, the old lady next to me was undoubtedly the only person in that position, and she seemed to be having a pretty good time, so no harm done I guess. The ending does veer off into some Balletic Land of The Apotheosized Lovers, so all of a sudden the music starts sounding like Appalachian Spring and the young lovers walk off together, or something like that. But the really weird staging decision was to have the dancers do their own singing. I’m sure it was fun for them, in a high-school musical kind of way, and it might even have been fun for some of the audience, like their parents. I didn’t hear anything that made me think the opera world had lost any future stars.

And speaking of the opera world’s future stars . . . I heard a bunch of them at the Merola Grand Finale. I had missed the Merola productions of Albert Herring and Don Giovanni, not just because – here comes a recapitulation of the first theme – poverty sucks, but because they were at the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason, and it is a pain in the ass to get to. But I’d been hearing great things about this group. I’m not going to go on too much about individual performers, except to say I was particularly struck by Renee Tatum and Nathaniel Peake in Werther, mostly because it was an opera I was pretty much indifferent to, despite lines such as “It’s on the table where you left your translation of Ossian,” until I heard their intense performance of “Ah, mon courage m’abandonne.” (Check out sfmike’s write-up – with pictures! – here.)

What I would like to do is suggest to the Merola folks that if they included surtitles with the name and composer of the opera and the name(s) of the performer(s) before each excerpt, they would have cut down on the brain-dead chatter during the performance by about 90%. You’d think the people who would go to something like this are the sort of seasoned opera goers who wouldn’t need to play name that tune with Trovatore or Rosenkavalier. Perhaps being seasoned opera goers means they have lost the sort of common sense that would tell them that if one character addresses another as “Arabella” (or “Vanessa”), the opera in question most likely is Arabella (or Vanessa). I don’t really understand the panicked need to know right away what opera is being sung, anyway, since the words are there and you know what is being sung – do you really need to know the composer right then? If the piece is really that good, you'll still remember at intermission, when you can look at the program book, though apparently even that was just too difficult to follow for some, such as the decrepit old man (and this one really did seem to be slipping into that good night) and his daughter/caregiver on the other side of my compatriot (who was heroic in his forbearance – if I’d been next to them I wouldn’t have been so nice). They were particularly and perpetually nonplussed, except for the strange interlude during the excerpt from Pelleas et Melisande that opened the second half, when I heard a weird tuneless humming near me and realized that the old man was releasing his inner Mary Garden into the auditorium and singing along with Melisande. Ah, and who among us has not felt exactly like Melisande? But one is well-advised to keep that sort of thing to oneself.

Most of the staging was minimal, but for some reason the two Mozart excerpts (“La mia Dorabella . . .E la fede delle femmine . .. Una bella serenata” from Cosi and what was delightfully titled “Hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm” from the Magic Flute, and I’ll bet you know what part that is) were apparently meant to prepare the singers for careers in the regie theater strongholds of state-subsidized houses. I kind of liked having Gugliemo and Ferrando playing with Barbie dolls when they sing about their perfect mistresses, though it's fairly obvious, but having the Three Ladies smoking, and using a gun as the magic flute and a bag of cocaine as the glockenspiel, were all silly and terrible ideas.

So some moments of bad staging, many moments of thrilling singing, and an utterly clueless audience, and that’s a night at the opera. There was one more odd thing about the program, and I think it must have been deliberate, but I have absolutely no idea what the motive was, and I can’t say I’m really complaining, but: it is really strange that in an almost three-hour program of excerpts from (by and large) famous and beloved composers and operas, there was not a single note by Puccini played or sung. Why revive Boheme on the main stage, when these young and hopeful performers are the only ones who should be singing it?

24 August 2008

the tears have stained all the pages of my True Romance magazines

I guess I just really like getting magazines. These days, if you buy one or two issues a year, it’s often cheaper just to subscribe, which means there’s always a good chance of something new and interesting in the mail, which is something else I really like. But my big organization/clean-up project was stalled by the massive number of magazines; I kept coming across stacks of them in various closets, boxes, shelves, or, frankly, on just about any flat surface. So I gathered together the various piles and spread them all out in the living room by magazine. It was kind of frightening. I tend to accumulate – everything I own turns into a collection – but I pretty much could have built a fort with the piles.

I read magazines differently from books, apparently, since I can rarely read books on BART these days (the trains are just too filled with cell phones and iPods and other technological noise)but I can still read magazines, and not just the frivolous ones. It’s odd that I can read an essay in the New York Review on the train but would have trouble on the same train reading the same essay printed in a book, but some deeply ingrained feeling about books is preventing me. You’d think by now books wouldn’t be events for me, but I guess they are.

Even constant commuter reading was not going to work through the backlog I had accumulated, and clearly something had to be done. There’s a lot to be said for just tossing everything and starting afresh pioneer-style, but I can rarely bring myself to do that. I mean, something led me to spend money on the magazines in the first place. And I hate the thought of missing something, and there's always the delusional hope of absorbing everything, an impulse that has led me into excessive CD-buying (with piles of them yet unheard, or heard only once), excessive book buying (piles of unread books), too many nights at too many theaters, and the difficult problem of how long to stare at each painting in a museum – is staring for a lifetime enough to absorb something completely? Can anything stand up to that? Should you waste time on anything that couldn't?

There’s also a certain interest in seeing over a decade’s worth of magazines in one spot. You notice that at some point fonts got larger (they seem to be getting smaller again, but maybe that’s just my eyes getting even worse). Busy graphics take over one year, and white space takes over a few years later. The weeklies are the hardest to keep up with (the main reason I get ESPN the Magazine rather than Sports Illustrated is that the former is every other week, and the latter is weekly.) Season previews from six years ago for sports I don’t follow – those I can toss pretty easily. And current affairs have a way of not being very current if you don’t read them fresh – scan them for historical irony and then they can go.

Apparently I didn’t read the New Yorker at all in 2004 (and by “didn’t read the New Yorker” I mean “I read all the cartoons when the issue arrived and then tossed the issue on a pile to be forgotten for over four years”). Going through that year now, I found lots of articles about the utter failure of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, and I'd have to remind myself that this wasn't this week's issue, though it might as well have been.

Other storylines arc dramatically with nothing in the middle (which, by the way, is what I’ve always thought Fitzgerald really meant by “there are no second acts in American lives”; the standard play of his day had a three-act structure, so he was claiming that there’s the skyrocket beginning and the tragic end, without the solid, productive years of the middle act). In the space of a few years the New England Patriots went from the Cinderella team that needed to prove itself to the dynasty everyone (outside of New Englanders at home or abroad) is sick of. Sports stories tend to fall into two categories anyway: the young firebrand trying to rise up from difficult beginnings to make a name, and the old lion fighting to retain his pride. For the really successful athletes, one story turns into the other, and I think there’s a basic truth there, but it also seems like such a pre-made narrative that you can’t help wanting an occasional variant glipse.

After a while it gets easier to flip through the magazines and classify the stories and let them go. Going through the past nine years of ESPN the Magazine, I found a surprising number of stories about how steroids are ruining sports and we’re all turning a blind eye – surprising, because it seemed that only last year did it become big news. I don’t like steroid use, but I think the whole issue is a little more ambiguous than its presentation implies, though that’s undoubtedly true for all stories. (Do steroids really give you an unfair advantage if everyone is doing it? Why are some supplements legal and encouraged and others not? It’s a continuum, and I think lots of people don’t see that. These days I hear athletes or actors described as looking like "steroid users" when they really look like normal guys in their 20s who have started a serious workout program. Maybe we’re just not used to healthy-looking Americans. As I’ve said before, Ah, America, the land where athletes and actors get thinner and more muscular and the battening audience gets fatter and fatter.)

Then there were the annual articles on whether America (outside of Giants fans, so that, as in the usual definition of America, this one also excludes the Bay Area) would ever love Barry Bonds. I think we can safely say by now that the answer is no, which is too bad. The music magazines tend to run the same sort of articles about Schoenberg and Elliott Carter (is Carter the Barry Bonds of twentieth-century American music, or vice versa? Discuss!).

It’s not too tough even for me to toss the 1999 NFL preview or Entertainment Weekly’s Oscar picks for 2003, but a magazine like Gramophone is a little more problematic. A review from the mid-1990s might still be of interest. But on the one hand, there’s a good chance the recording reviewed will be out-of-print. On the other hand, it was so long ago that the recording might well have been re-released, and in a cheaper version.

Then I realized I have way too many CDs anyway. The worst thing of all is feeling pretty sure that I had read something while also feeling that I needed to read it again, since I was a little hazy on what precisely it had said. It’s also a little disconcerting to see a re-issue hailed as a beloved classic of the gramophone, and to realize I bought it when it was new. I was amused to see ads assuring me that the future of home opera-listening lay with LaserDiscs. Some things go off to the Land of Lost Technology never to return, I guess (for a lot of people, my CDs would be one of those things, but I’m not prepared to give them up. I like to have physical objects rather than computer files, which I guess is one of the reasons my living room is filled with piles of magazines).

I also tend to read through, or at least look through, magazines like Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness, as opposed to tossing them en masse, as I can with more topical titles. (Here’s a handy guide to telling these magazines apart: Men’s Fitness has articles on how to keep your girlfriend from staying mad at you, Men’s Health has articles on how to keep your wife from staying mad at you, and Best Life has articles on how to keep your children and your boss from staying mad at you.) There are only so many ways you can do a bench press, so a lot of the advice is still worthwhile, though even magazines that take a basically sensible approach to health and fitness change with the society around them: for instance, since 9/11 you’ll see more military-centered articles. And at some point the cover models stopped being fitness models (who, conceivably, could be the reader, if the reader were genetically blessed, devoted to fitness, and hairless – though in the past few years, chest hair has come back in style, though not to the furry excess of the 1970s) and became celebrities, most of whom were more or less eager to talk about the new exercise program that buffed them up to wear superhero spandex in their latest release, coming soon to a theater near you. I wonder if whoever came up with the notion of “synergy” back in the day realized what a suffocating small circle it would produce.

Where celebrity fever has really taken over, I regret to say, is in the tabloids. For many years I subscribed to People magazine, when it was still a general-interest publication and not what V refers to as “Menopausal Women’s Weekly” (don’t deny it, you know it’s true). This always amused people (as opposed to People), since apparently I didn’t seem like someone who would subscribe to a magazine like that, but as I pointed out, I never saw any of those who made fun of me for subscribing tossing it aside to get to the New York Review of Books.

I let that subscription lapse years ago (People, not the NY Review, which remains my favorite magazine), but for several years I did get the Weekly World News. You remember the Weekly World News, progenitor of Bat Boy the Cave-Dweller – its screaming headlines and doctored photos and insistent coverage of Bigfoot and space aliens were straight from the great tradition, still defiantly and inexpensively printed in black-and-white on cheap newsprint when everyone else had gone over to color and shininess. Even with the screaming headlines, the black-and-white looked surprisingly chaste and severe next to the glossy color photos of misbehaving celebs that dominated every other tabloid, as if it were an early Bergman film stuck among MGM musicals. The “celebrities” that have taken over are, of course, as anyone knows who has waited in line at the supermarket, nothing and no one that any rational person would recognize as celebrities.

I had decided not to renew Weekly World News, because amusing as I found the articles about the newly discovered garden gnome sculpted by Michelangelo that turned up in a garden shed at the Vatican or the twelve warning signs that your co-worker might be a space alien, a certain sameness set in after a while, and it was, given its cheap printing, surprisingly expensive. So I felt a brief sense of guilt when, shortly after I declined to renew, it went under, the last survivor of a breed that once haunted the earth. I suppose it had failed to adapt to the times; the Weekly World News didn’t venture too much into Celebville except for Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, who, by the way, is apparently alive and living with 34 cats and a retired plumber in Cleveland, according to the November 8, 2004, issue. That same cover also has the headlines Secret Bush Hid During Election Campaign and 2nd Great Depression! Spend all your money now – it will be worthless by June! It took a little while, but they were right. Sometimes I thought there might really be something to their claim to be The World’s Only Reliable Newspaper. They may have invented the half-man half-alligator, but that’s not much worse than the MSM’s blind devotion to the right-wing agenda. I’m fully convinced that one of the many victims of the Bush Administration will be the credibility of the standard journalistic outlets.

I briefly considered hanging on to the Weekly World News on the grounds that, since it’s now defunct, my formerly trashy pile of old newspapers has magically been transformed into mylar-worthy Valuable Collectibles, but I think as soon as the recycle bin is empty again I will just say farewell to the World of Wonders found in its pages and toss them all, a tribute to the wasted world. Life is not an economical proposition. Besides, I still have the Bat Boy T-shirt they sent me for subscribing, at least until that too wears out.

10 August 2008

I have a reasonable good ear in music. Let's have the tongs and the bones.

I often wonder what exactly people mean when they say they “love opera.” Usually it means they saw Boheme/Butterfly/Traviata once, and it made them cry, or that they’ve seen Boheme/Butterfly/Traviata hundreds of times, and if they’re not still crying, they at least enjoy complaining that the golden age is past. I wonder how many people are actually interested in drama expressed musically. My latest reason for wondering this is that everyone assures me that Festival Opera is taking a huge risk in staging Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. They probably are, since I saw a number of empty seats on opening night last night (once again, Festival Opera kindly invited me to attend). Neither Britten nor A Midsummer Night’s Dream are exactly unknown quantities, I would have thought, and it’s hard to believe we live in a world in which that combo is not self-recommending, but apparently we do, such is our fallen state. But then I have only realized this past year, based on various comments and reviews I’ve read, that Britten is apparently like coconut, in that people tend to love him or avoid him, with little middle ground.

If you have any interest at all in Britten in particular or opera in general, I urge you to head on down to Walnut Creek for the remaining performances of Midsummer Night’s Dream (which are Tuesday August 12, Friday August 15, or a matinee on Sunday August 17). Despite a few reservations, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, and as I’ve said before this is one of the few Shakespeare-based operas that are worthy of their inspiration. Britten and Pears did a wonderful, intelligent job compressing the play (though I think the opera was trimmed a bit further last night, since I missed a few moments, though my mind might be deceiving me). And if many familiar lines from the play are missing from the libretto, I have to say I have the same experience during regular productions of any of Shakespeare’s plays, which are almost always cut, and not always with this libretto's intelligence and care.

This is the third time I’ve seen this opera staged; the first was at San Francisco Opera several years ago, and the second was at the Met. I’ve been to the Met four times, and the oldest work I’ve seen is Midsummer Night’s Dream; I’ve also seen The Great Gatsby and the first two performances of An American Tragedy, so based on my personal experience I have to say that the Met is clearly a staunch advocate of operas written in English and new American works in particular, which shows you the limitations of relying on one’s personal experience. If only I hadn’t had to call off my New York trip this past spring – I could at least have added an opera in Sanskrit to the list.

I have to say those empty seats I referred to earlier came in handy, since I moved after the first two acts when I realized the people around me were pretty much not going to stop chatting. I’m sorry, but I have to say it – what the hell is wrong with the audiences in Walnut Creek? I can understand the occasional coughing fit, I can even understand occasionally forgetting to turn off your cellphone, but there is absolutely no excuse for talking during a performance, and certainly not for conversations as long and as loud as the ones around me. Don’t let that scare you off, though, since I was assured by friends who sat elsewhere that the audience was courteous in other parts of the house, but someone seriously needs to do something about those people. Given that this is their audience, I really have to salute Festival Opera with gratitude for scheduling one unusual work along with one popular favorite – I would be deliriously happy if San Francisco Opera could match that 50/50 split. Festival Opera deserves the support of the Bay Area’s genuine opera-lovers.

The staging (by conductor Michael Morgan, with Mark Foehringer listed as co-director and choreographer) is simple but had some effective touches, mostly involving the fairies clearing props from the stage or covering or uncovering the lovers or Tytania with long stretches of rose-colored fabric (I know it doesn’t sound like much when you put it that way, but the effect is often charming), or the fairies' barely concealed eye-rolling when Tytania makes them wait on the ass-headed Bottom, a nuance I haven't seen in other productions of the Dream. And I really enjoyed the airborne Puck (an athletic and elegant Kurt Wolfgang Krikorian). The set for all scenes is basic, with a slightly rolling elevated area, some pink cloths hanging down, and a map of the stars as backdrop; a large rose descends when Oberon mentions the magic flower. The look is vaguely late ‘60s/early ‘70s; in general I think it’s a mistake to switch works to this period, because it is already so heavily identified with particular music and slang, though perhaps people always feel that about the period in which they grew up. In any case the switch isn’t too intrusive until the final scene, when the lovers pass around a bong during the performance of Pyramus and Thisby, and Theseus seems to be proposing a threesome to at least one of the couples. If the court isn’t formal and elegant, the crudity and foolishness of the Pyramus interlude loses some of its contrasting humorous effect. Before that scene, though, the costumes look vaguely but not painstakingly of the period, so the total effect is of haphazard whimsical charm, and of a slightly different time and place from our own; it’s just enough to have a slightly and desirably unsettling effect.

The costumes for the fairy chorus in particular are bright and witty and assembled from the fun and funkier reaches of our costuming subconscious; unfortunately I didn’t think they jibed particularly well with the ethereal, haunting music Britten used to slide us into the fairy realm. Also, the fairy chorus was made up of full-grown women, and was not a boys’ choir as specified by Britten. There is a quality – can I just say ethereal again, so soon after using it to describe the fairy music? – that a boys’ choir has that a women’s chorus doesn’t, so a certain delicacy of sound was lost, though the performance was still gorgeous. As Oberon, William Sauerland had a beautiful voice, and he phrased and enunciated with great care, but I couldn’t help feeling his voice was a size too small even for this comparatively intimate venue. Ani Maldjian as Tytania came through beautifully as a last-minute replacement for Marnie Breckenridge, who was called to Glyndebourne to cover a role in the new Eotvoos opera.

I don’t want to shortchange the rude mechanicals (John Minagro as Quince, Jonathan Smucker as Flute, John Bischoff as Snug, Trey Costerisan as Snout, and Joshua Elder as Starveling), especially the vigorous and rolling-toned Kirk Eichelberger as Bottom (some felt he stole the show, and if he didn’t for me, it’s only because I’ve never quite warmed up to Bottom – Eichelberger gave a commanding performance), but I have to say it’s pretty remarkable to see a Dream dominated by the lovers; their quartet at the beginning of Act 3 was particularly soaring and stirring. Nikolas Nackley as Demetrius had to compete with my memories of Nathan Gunn in the role, but he held his own with Stacey Cornell’s Helena of the lovely floating tones; Jessica Mariko Deardorff, who made a surprisingly big impression on me in the minor role of Ines in Festival Opera’s Trovatore last month, solidified the impression favorably with her Hermia. But to me the outstanding member of the excellent set was Jorge Garza as a clarion-voiced Lysander.

Speaking of chatty audiences, the court’s comments during Pyramus and Thisbe always strike me as fairly cruel and annoying, and in this performance they should have toned down the snickering and eye-rolling of the lovers and Theseus and Hippolyta (Igor Vieira and Lauren Groff, respectively, in what must be two of the more thankless roles in the operatic repertoire). I’ve often wished that one of the hempen homespuns would turn to the court and announce, as Holofernes does under similar circumstances in Love’s Labor’s Lost, “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble,” a scathing rebuke that of course sails right over the heads of its targets.

It’s probably needless to say that despite the few reservations I had about this scene, Pyramus and Thisby brought down the house, as it always does, which is actually sort of surprising, since so much of its humor is so sophisticated. When I heard this opera at the Met, the woman next to me assured her increasingly restive son, who was probably around thirteen and made it clear he would have preferred attending the Mets game, that he would absolutely love Pyramus and Thisby, and I thought, hmm, I don’t think so. Finding it funny is very dependent on understanding the theatrical conventions it’s playing off. I mean, if you’re not really familiar with Shakespeare – and Midsummer Night’s Dream is always a popular one to take children to for their first Shakespeare – you don’t necessarily realize that “O grim-looked night! O night with hue so black! / O night, which ever art when day is not! / O night, O night! Alack, alack, alack. . . ” is funny and overdone, because it sounds like what people think Shakespeare sounds like. (In another nice directorial touch, Peter Quince sits below his troupe, mouthing along earnestly, totally engrossed in the awful script he's written.) Britten in this scene brilliantly parodies a variety of operatic styles and conventions, particularly the modernist sprechstimme (I don’t know if that’s technically what Britten is doing, but it’s what the parody sounds like) in Wall’s speeches, and most particularly the bel canto style, beginning its modern resurgence shortly before this opera’s 1960 premiere. Pyramus and Thisbe, a formerly respectable myth which Shakespeare sabotaged for all time, may be a case where getting all the jokes prevents you from seeing how generally appealing something is. Go see for yourself!

07 August 2008

blogging with Berlioz

Feuilletonist to blogger is not that big a leap; in fact, this all seems like a case of plus ca change, as so many things do. . . . (All quotations are from the David Cairns translation of The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, Everyman's Library/Knopf edition; anything in square brackets after this point is from me, not Berlioz.)

The Leonore overture, a truly gigantic piece, played with rare precision and verve, was received with only the feeblest applause, and I later heard a gentleman at dinner complain at their not doing Haydn’s symphonies instead of this ‘uncivilized music with no tunes in it’!! Even in Paris we do not have that kind of bourgeois any more. (p. 288)

[I think we still have them in Boston and San Francisco, though, because I swear I’ve overheard the same remark (possibly from the same old man), only with Beethoven’s name in place of Haydn’s.]

Let me now tell you about the Prague choral society. It is like all such bodies in Germany in being composed almost entirely of amateurs from the middle classes. . . . Unlike some institutions of the sort it does not have as its sole aim in life the rehearsal and performance of ancient masterpieces, to the exclusion of contemporary works. Such institutions are, if I may so describe them, mere sects, musical consistories where under pretext of a real or pretended enthusiasm for the dead they complacently dismiss the living, of whom they know nothing, deplore the growing influence of Baal, and consign all supposed golden calves and their worshippers [that would be Moses und Aron, I suppose] to perdition. These meeting houses of musical puritanism are the repositories of the religion not of the beautiful, whatever its age, but of the old, whatever its quality: a narrow, rancorous religion with its own Bible and the works of two or three evangelists, over which the faithful pore tirelessly, producing ever more subtle interpretations of passages whose meaning is transparently clear. . . . (p. 441)

I have never been able to bring myself to dilate on matters of which I am quite ignorant. It may come, in time and by force of example. Meanwhile you must forgive me if I keep silent. (p. 442)

Not only working men from Prague but also peasants came to the concert that I gave in the theatre, the low price of some of the seats having put it within their means, and I could tell from their fresh, uninhibited reaction to the more unexpected effects in the music how interested they were in what I was trying to do. . . . (p. 444)

. . .the season would open with an English version of that sparkling novelty, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. . . . (p. 490)

[OMFG! Hector, I love Lucia but ROFLMAO!!!! And that little jab at opera-house programming was written over one hundred and fifty years ago!]

Shakespeare! Where is he? Where art thou? I feel as if he alone of all men who ever lived can understand me, must have understood us both; he alone could have pitied us, poor unhappy artists, loving yet wounding each other [Berlioz is writing about the death of his wife, the actress Harriet Smithson, whom he had first seen as Juliet and Ophelia]. Shakespeare! You were a man. You, if you still exist, must be a refuge for the wretched. It is you that are our father, our father in heaven, if there is a heaven.
God standing aloof in his infinite unconcern is revolting and absurd
[interesting to think that the artist indifferently paring his nails over his creation became the ideal that replaced the Romanticism of Berlioz and his generation]. Thou alone for the souls of artists are the living and loving God. Receive us, father, into thy bosom, guard us, save us! De profundis ad te clamo. What are death and nothingness? Genius is immortal! What? ‘O fool, fool, fool!’ [He closes with a quotation from Othello; his wife also played Desdemona, and in a strange reversal of the play was intensely jealous of him after they married.] (p. 505)

He repeats himself, the reader will say. It is only too true. The same endless rhythm: remembrance, regret, a soul clutching at the past, a pitiful blind urge to arrest the present and hold it as it flies, a hopeless struggle with time, a mad desire to realize the impossible, a desperate craving for limitless love. How should I not repeat myself? The sea repeats itself; its waves are all alike. (p. 552)

[Amen, Brother Berlioz.]

05 August 2008

funhouse reflections

I went to the opening night of this year’s edition of Avant GardARAMA!, the Cutting Ball Theater’s annual evening of short experimental works, and it’s not too late for you to see them, which I urge you to do, despite my reservations about one of the three pieces.

First let me say I really love the idea behind these shows: that experimental theater is enjoyable and interesting. What a refreshing change from the eat-your-roughage approach most musical groups take. Last January I heard the Belcea Quartet, and the program book anxiously assured us that listeners “usually dismayed at the prospect of hearing Webern [in this case, the Five Movements for String Quartet, Opus 5] will find these pieces quite approachable.” What a relief to know I won’t need my smelling salts to endure a ten-minute excursion into the modern. It made me wonder if the accompanying Haydn and Schubert quartets, wonderful though they were, were chosen more for safety’s sake than beauty’s. Webern died over sixty years ago – isn’t there some kind of statute of limitations on these warnings? I mean, at some point they stopped warning us about Beethoven (though maybe they shouldn’t have – we wouldn’t take him for granted so).

And at the SF Symphony last June, at the premiere of Turnage’s Three Asteroids: The Torino Scale, Juno, Ceres, conductor Benjamin Schwartz turned to the audience – how my heart sinks when I see conductors put down the baton and pick up the microphone – and assured us that though the first movement was going to be awfully noisy, the second two were quite lovely. I don’t mean to single out Schwartz, who seems like a nice young man, but shouldn’t musicians his age be trying to shock guys my age with their wild and raucous sounds? Instead, though I preferred the first movement, I was a bit let down by its lack of awful noise, and wondered why a warning was considered necessary. Don’t undercut what you’re trying to sell.

So I salute the statement of Cutting Ball Artistic Director (and the evening’s director) Rob Melrose that this year's plays “are first and foremost experiences. There is no right answer, any more than there is a right way to respond to a walk in the woods. . . . There will be no test at the end of this performance. Sit back, enjoy and let your mind be washed over with these beautiful words and images.” And as usual with Cutting Ball, the video and sound (Cliff Caruthers), set (Michael Locher), lighting (Heather Basarab), and costumes (Jocelyn Leiser Herndon) were beautiful (by which I mean interesting as well as attractive) to look at and listen to. All three plays used the same set; a dully reflective silver material, somewhere between foil and mirror, which covered the floor and walls except when it broke for a narrow horizontal opening across the whole set about a third of the way up the wall.

First up was Gertrude Stein’s brief Accents in Alsace, performed by Paige Rogers, Felicia Benefield, and David Westley Skillman. While listening to Accents in Alsace I became convinced once again that Dr Seuss knew his Stein, and when you also consider how much Hemingway stole from her, it seems pretty clear that she is one of the great underground streams watering modern American literature. Some Steinophobes find her maddeningly childish, sing-songy and self-regarding, but I am a long-time Steinophile and feel that she has a winning charm and wit and poetry, even apart from the romance of her life story and her courage in pursuing her art. I sometimes think that I am possibly the only person in the world who has both never been to graduate school in English literature and also read in their entirety both Stein's The Making of Americans and Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this bonne bouche.

Benefield and Skillman returned for the second play, Betting on the Dust Commander by Suzan-Lori Parks. I’ve seen several of her plays now, and love her work more with each exposure. The Dust Commander was a horse on which Lucius (Skillman) had placed a bet. His wife Mare (Benefield) – well, there’s no point in trying to describe the plot, because the piece is about suggestive metaphor, rather than a particular incident. As with Beckett’s Play, the second half of the piece is a word-for-word repeat of the first half, though thanks to the skill of the author and the actors, the repetition feels like a deepening, as if mere repetition is giving us the contour of their everyday life and their entire lives. The props – the yellow couch covered with plastic to protect it from the dust, for instance, and especially the Woolworth-style dining room table with its cheap bright yellow seat cushions – were almost distractingly perfect in positioning the time, place, and economic situation of the couple. The horse racing around on a circular track, towards victory or defeat (seen in both video and language), the repetition of word and gesture, the couple’s circular lives and hopes, and the dust interrupting the circularity with its slow accumulation, all created an evocative sense of a complete world of many dimensions. Benefield and Skillman were outstanding.

The evening’s third piece was the premiere of Bone to Pick by Eugenie Chan, a forty-minute monodrama recasting the legend of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur in the labyrinth as the story of Ria, a waitress in a roadside diner, and her customer Theo. Paige Rogers returned to play Ria. I had always thought of Paige as a comic actress, based on her surprisingly hilarious turn several years ago as Phoebe in As You Like It, the first show I saw at Cutting Ball, but her Lady Macbeth for them a few years ago and now her Ria have convinced me that her range is much wider. She gives an absolutely riveting, enthralling performance as Ria. There’s a sheer physical thrill in watching someone singlehandedly hold the stage for forty minutes. But I wish Chan had been less self-indulgent with the language and especially the characterization.

The Stein and Parks pieces both summon up vivid worlds through a powerful and sometimes eccentric use of language that belongs uniquely to their creators; there’s a certain timelessness in their lack of the sort of reference that would need footnotes. Chan takes a different (and entirely legitimate) approach, using what we can call without irony the time-honored modernist tradition of pastiche, collage, and reference to both ephemeral pop culture and classic myths and literature. But one trap in this style that wasn’t always avoided is the possibility of seeming a bit too self-aware and self-congratulatory (the passing reference to King Lear – Out, vile jelly! – felt that way to me.)

But the real danger is that you let your references do the work for you. That applies to both the author and the audience, which can think it’s gaining insight when it’s just catching a reference. For example, the use of the Big Mac jingle (“two all-beef patties, special sauce. . . .” – you know how it goes) in relation to Theo: meat, flesh, is already established as one of the repeating metaphors. But a McDonald’s reference carries with it, especially for the sort of audience that goes to evenings of short experimental plays, a whole host of almost entirely negative connotations. It creates an entire (and uninflected) aura around the character it refers to. It’s condemnation by brand name. And there’s some validity to that, but it can feel too easy and dismissive, and Theo is already way too much of a caricature to withstand this sort of treatment.

Repeated references (too often repeated – the play could have used some pruning) are made to his “six-pack abs” and to his appetite for meat with a side of fries. Well, unfortunately for most guys, if you have that diet, you don’t have those abs. That’s not an entirely trivial point, since it indicates a failure to think through what Theo’s life and character are like. His abs might actually tell you some interesting things about him – that’s he’s very disciplined, or that he’s athletic, or that he’s just pretty damn lucky (not least because his body coincides with the fashion for defined abdominals in men, rather than, say, broad shoulders or thick calves). Instead we get the cover of a romance novel: he’s arrogant and kind of a brute, but also kind of sexy, so Ria’s acquiescence to him can be excused.

My point here is not that the presentation of Theo should have been sympathetic, or that the piece should be told from his point of view – my point is that, if she had wanted to, Chan should have been able to present the piece from his point of view; in other words, he needs to be a plausible human being. (Her presentation of Kingman, Ria’s father, is a good example – he was nuanced and interesting enough in the brief passage about him so that she could have written another play entirely from his point of view.) Repeating that he loves guns and meat, and hates foreigners, doesn’t really deepen or expand the picture of him.

The caricature of him makes the portrait of Ria an ideological balancing act; she has to be knowing enough to qualify as a strong woman, but victim enough so that she shares no guilt with him. So her actions and reactions become completely predictable – when she finally turns the combination that opens the labyrinth door, then (of course, of course) she immediately has a tender, understanding relationship with the awful monster, and Theo, to no one’s surprise but Ria’s, pulls out the gun she’s told him not to carry and brutally kills the Minotaur against her protests. The entry into the labyrinth and the confrontation with the Minotaur are obviously meant as a diving-into-the-wreck moment, but whether you read it politically (one of the combinations she tries out is 9-11-01) or personally (the numbers that ultimately open the lock are her body measurements), it sort of begs the question of what she was thinking, and why she agreed to let him in. How, given the portrait she is painting of him, and her wry comments about him, could she not know what he was going to do?

Ultimately the limitation is not in the presentation of Theo, but in that of Ria. He is crude, overbearing, and violent; she is of course aware of all this, since otherwise she would be stupid, or as bad as he is; yet she helps him all along the way as if she didn’t know better. The only real fault she seems to have (if fault it can be called) is that most glamorous, envied, and forgivable of failings, a lustful longing for love. As with any conspicuously one-sided view, you feel that the storyteller is omitting a lot that might complicate things. There’s no sense that Ria is to blame for anything, and I just don’t buy it as either life study or as political parable.

A few years ago a woman wrote a letter to the SF Chronicle saying that the whole mess in Iraq would be taken care of in no time if women were in charge of settling it. You could probably guess the letter writer’s age pretty accurately from that statement; I remember back when that sort of thing was the sort of thing to say. But I wondered who those women were who were going to settle everything so briskly and sensibly: Laura Bush? Condoleeza Rice? Peggy Noonan or Maureen Dowd? The military wives and mothers who attacked Cindy Sheehan in the press? Pvt Lynndie England? And even the recent New Yorker article about Abu Ghraib described the male soldiers implicated (particularly the African-American ones) as “angry” while England was described as if she were an emotional victim of the situation, not quite in control of all those cheery thumbs-up gestures she was making over the men she was torturing.

And recently I read that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called President Bush “a total failure” – no argument with that, except there’s at least one thing at which he’s been undeniably and brilliantly successful, and that’s getting everything he wants out of the Democrat-controlled Congress that she helps run. I’m an overly reasonable guy, and I understand about taking impeachment off the table and continuing to fund our illegal and immoral wars of aggression – a politician’s reasons are not my reasons, and I understand that there are things I don’t have to take into consideration. But there was no excuse for caving on FISA, especially given Bush's epic unpopularity. So while it’s very nice that she’s going around talking about “empowering” our daughters and granddaughters, why is she pretending that the blood dripping from her hands is somebody else’s fault?

It is way past the time when anyone can claim dispensation from the American disaster thanks to chromosomal coincidences. You know when you’re a full and equal member of society? When you’re held morally accountable for your actions and non-actions.