31 October 2009

things that go bump in the night

I’ve never been to the actual Halloween in the Castro, but last Saturday I went to Jack Curtis Dubowsky’s new opera by that name (at Jack’s invitation, and check here for an interesting interview about this work posted in his blog), so now I feel free to sit at home on Halloween, since even if I had some slight thought that maybe I should experience it once, I no longer need to, because the opera provokes thoughts about the event much more entertainingly than the real event would, proving once again that art is life distilled and improved, and with much better music.

The opera was presented by the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco at the Metropolitan Community Church, which of course being a church is not necessarily designed with theatrical sightlines in mind, but the staging by Stephanie Lynne Smith and Shane Kroll makes clever use of the whole space. Presenting a new opera was amazingly ambitious for the chorus, which is basically a small affinity-based amateur ensemble, and I really congratulate them for taking on something that, as far as I know, lies way outside their usual fare. Though the individual voices varied in quality, and some were miked while others were not, everyone was really committed to the performance, and really put across the words (also by Dubowsky) – the lack of surtitles was no problem; there were only a couple of lines I couldn’t quite catch.

Given my lack of personal associations with the Castro Halloween and my feelings about identity politics (which range from indifference to loathing), I wasn’t quite sure how I would react, but as soon as the opera opened with a lovely melancholy piano and violin tune for Arnold (described in the dramatis personae as a Bitter Queen with the drag name Miss Ann Thrippy), who laments the passing of the old Castro and the death of his lover Alan, I realized right away that the opera was going to go beyond affinity groups and tourism; its real subjects are the bind between a romanticized past and the need to live in the present, getting older, and the search for community. These are resonant themes, and by the time the third act opens, it’s easy to see the metaphorical force of a chorus for those stuck on Muni, wondering if they’re ever going to move forward.

These themes are I think particularly resonant in the Bay Area, which can seem trapped in the 1950s and 1960s (that is, the beatniks and the hippies). I attended Berkeley about ten years after the riots that its name still conjures up, and was amused even as a freshman by the number of my fellow students who didn’t quite realize that HippieWorld had passed. Maybe they didn’t need to realize it, since they weren’t really interested in being hippies (all that patchouli, ugh) but in the glow surrounding celebrated rebellious spirits. Same thing with the Beat era – you can’t go half a block in North Beach without running across a dozen poseurs who think they’re free-spirited poets because they’re smoking and drinking overpriced cappuccinos while leafing through the copy of Howl they just bought at City Lights Bookstore. And then they go back to their corporate/social climbing and think about how they’re really rebel spirits.

After Arnold's opening aria, an Unseen Spirit warns him that a violent act will again disrupt the Castro this Halloween, and then the rest of the cast marches down the aisles in Halloween costumes singing a chorus that captures the fizzy excitement of the festivities with a sort of Kurt Weill-meets-the-baroque sound. Two bar owners then debate over how exactly they are going to make money off of Halloween: one wants to stay open, and the other wants the Castro Halloween turned into an upscale destination event. (You can make a lot of money off of the aura of danger and seediness, as long as actual danger and seediness are kept far, far away.)

They express their wishes to the Politician, who of course will do what they want, since they are big donors. He holds a Community Meeting where, in an amusing echo of Gilbert and Sullivan (particularly Captain Corcoran and crew in HMS Pinafore), he listens to the concerns of the Castro Community, assures them he is one of them (even opening his shirt collar to show his studded leather collar), and then proceeds to do exactly what he had intended to do all along: “shut down” Halloween by not providing city services, though the bar owners announce they will still be open for business.

That’s the first act, and already the libretto has deftly introduced the personal and the public, the romanticized, and the lost, as well as the carnival spirit that ultimately underlies all Halloween celebrations, and shown them running up against the economic and political realities of the world. The second act expands the cast of characters. First there’s a group of vacuous gym bunnies who dress in drag as cheerleaders, and I liked the way that throwing this group in the mix broadens the themes, since they reflect (as another character points out) that apparently universal highlight of the high school rally, when the cheerleaders dress in football uniforms and the jocks dress up as cheerleaders.

In response to the Bitter Queen’s charge that the cheerleaders are just perpetuating heterosexist stereotypical paradigms, the guys sing a hilariously extended baroque-style “you go, girl!” number – I love baroque music, but if you’ve ever wondered just exactly how many times some random phrase about the purling stream or the bleeding heart is going to be beaten into the ground, then this is the chorus you've been waiting to hear.

We see a straight couple from Walnut Creek (“it’s hard to be chic / when you live in Walnut Creek”) who decide to drive in (because they're sure there will be lots of parking) to check out the craziness. They have no costumes so they put tape on their glasses and pens in their pockets and go as “nerds” (which is pretty much what they are, and which plays in to the same high school-type social structure as the cheerleaders). The woman is wearing an AIG golf visor, which sums them up perfectly and hilariously. Their excited duet about wanting to see some gays in their native habitat is given a sinister twist in the variation sung by The Miscreants, who are concealing weapons and planning to go in to the Castro to cause trouble. Back in San Francisco we get a tender, touching duet between a lesbian couple, dressing up as a plumber and a housewife, and then Sister Chiquita Piccata Mundi of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence gives us a brief history of the Castro Halloween party.

During the street party in the third act, there is indeed an act of violence as foretold by the Unseen Spirit, but with an unexpected twist I won’t give away. This was the one part where I thought the staging fell down a bit; I couldn’t see what exactly had happened until the aftermath allowed me to figure it out (and the synopsis, which I read afterward, proved me correct). I had moved to a different seat during intermission, to get away from the whisperers next to me, and the only available seat was even farther in the back, which may be why I had trouble seeing. The opera ends as Arnold makes some tentative steps towards regaining a sense of community with those around him by joining the lesbian couple in what the synopsis calls “a plaintive and hopeful song” about restoring the joyous spirit (and with it the economic and social viability) of the festival.

I had walked in thinking this might be like one of those “occasion operas” that Renaissance and baroque composers used to write for important state affairs like marriages or treaties; it turned out to be a really satisfying evening of theater and music, with much broader scope than its immediate subject. Kudos to the outstanding instrumental performers: Paul Yeager on violin, Charith Premawardhana on viola, Anthony Fanning on cello, and Ryan Connolly on piano, and to all the singers. I really hope the chorus can manage to revive the work annually; it deserves to have legs.

Haiku 304


Melancholy shades
Haunt us, and the daily ghouls
Eat our living flesh

30 October 2009

Haiku 303

If the sky desires
To inspire, it should switch from
Endless crystal blue

29 October 2009

Haiku 302

That smiling old man:
What lies hidden in his heart,
Brooding, resentful?

28 October 2009

Haiku 301

I tried for beauty
And I'm mired in suckitude.
And there's your poem.

27 October 2009

Haiku 300

Songs from distant shores
Were reflected in your eyes.
You were never mine.


Emerald ripples
Strong winds wave over soft grass
Dead leaves jump like fish

26 October 2009

Haiku 299

From a train window:
Pink streaks of sunrise; later
Low sun burns my eyes

25 October 2009

fun stuff I may or may not get to: November

Philharmonia Baroque presents various Purcell works, including Dido and Aeneas with Susan Graham as Dido, on November 5-8 at their usual various locations.

San Francisco Performances presents Joyce DiDonato in recital on November 16.

The Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble plays in the Trinity Chamber Concerts music series in Berkeley on November 7.

Cal Performances presents the Globe Theater production of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

San Francisco Opera presents the Adler Fellows in a “gala concert” on November 22.

Volti starts its 31st season on November 13-15.

Oakland Opera Theater presents a new opera by Mary D. Watkins, Dark River, based on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer.

The New Century Chamber Orchestra has an exciting program on November 19-22 in various locations: Richard Strauss’s profoundly beautiful Metamorphosen and several works by the always interesting and entertaining William Bolcom.

Haiku 298

Green-leaved as in spring,
But paling and rippled leaves,
Waiting to drift down


Delicious the cool
Of a just-silent evening,
Ripened to purple

24 October 2009

Haiku 297

Like stepping outdoors
To a day like Claire de Lune:
Distant, clear, dreamlike

23 October 2009

Haiku 296

Edward Hopper light
Slanting pure and still above
Empty cubicles

22 October 2009

Haiku 295

So fleeting is life,
So much of it spent longing
For a longer sleep

21 October 2009

Haiku 294

Distant dog howling
A slurred and lonely voice shouts
Return to dreamland


A moment is caught
But many others slip by,
Half-remembered, lost

20 October 2009

Haiku 293

Parrots and palm trees
Clatter and caw like natives
Of this fog-bound coast

19 October 2009

Haiku 292

(for an ivory statue of mother and child from Japan, old enough to have lost a butterfly perched on the mother's hands)

Childish hands reach up:
Time broke off the butterfly,
Mama's hands remain

18 October 2009

Haiku 291

A plate of apples
Cool water, soft winds, a sigh:
Someone's happiness

Bali High

I very much enjoyed what a friend of mine called the “strange and beautiful” American premiere of Evan Ziporyn’s A House in Bali at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, despite its major miscalculations and flaws.

First, it probably would have been better if they had used the much smaller theater behind the big auditorium so that they didn’t have to amplify and therefore distort, deaden, and fuzzify everything. I heard many complaints about the quality of the sound system as well, so this isn’t just a blanket objection to amplification. Without the surtitles it would often have been impossible to make out what the singers were singing (and those ugly little microphones taped to their faces don’t help the theatrical illusion, either, though I guess you could make a case they function like the masks used for a couple of the characters).

The staging was extremely strange. I was in the front row, way over on the left, about where I had been to see Mark Morris the week before, so I know that normally that seat has a fine view. But for A House in Bali, they built a platform raised about a foot-and-a-half high across the very front of the stage, so that unless the performers were standing on the platform, I could only see their upper quarter (or third, depending on the height of the performer). Even stranger, they built an actual little house behind the raised platform where a lot of the action took place and nothing was visible except for the odd elbow or face. At least someone was back there with a video camera; without the live projection onto a large screen above the stage I wouldn’t have been able to see anything. At the intermission I slipped up to the empty low box on the side of the house, which put me even farther to the left, but at least high enough so the stage was visible.

The house (never a “home”) is crucial, since this is the fact-based story of Colin McPhee (sung by the countertenor Marc Molomot), who felt trapped in the western world and went to Bali in the 1930s, looking for a community he never really found. He spent the rest of his life working on his study of the native gamelan music. He also took up with a native boy (or boys); his wife accompanied him to Bali, but she is not mentioned in his memoir, also called A House in Bali, an elision which this work also follows. There are other westerners there, particularly the homosexual German painter Walter Spies (the tenor Timur Bekbosunov) and American anthropologist Margaret Mead (soprano Anne Harley), who briskly and to comic effect informs everyone of what it is they’re actually doing, in anthropological terms, referring them to her book for deeper understanding of their lives.

Bad amplification and misguided staging were problems inflicted on the work, but there are some inherent problems, too, in the libretto. At several crucial points it's unclear what's happening on stage unless you’ve read the program notes and plot summary: for example, that McPhee wanted his house constructed in the wrong season and an inauspicious location, arrogant miscalculations which lead the villagers to rebel and barricade him inside the house; or that he is rescued from a flash flood by the thirteen-year-old boy Sampih (performed by Nyoman Triyana Usadhi), an event staged in the bathtub of the house, which made me think initially the scene was about introducing the Balinese to indoor plumbing; or that Spies is arrested at the end by the Dutch colonial authorities on charges of homosexuality – you see a man in an elaborate coat (I have a vague memory of golden epaulettes) and a Balinese-style mask steps up to Spies, extends his hands and crosses them at the wrist; Spies follows suit and the man leads him off. Since we have just seen a harbinger of World War II in the person of a similarly dressed Japanese spy disguised as a tourist I thought at first that Spies was just being arrested as an enemy alien, and not on a "morals charge."

I don't think we can get too complacent in tsking over the morals charge, because I suspect that some of the discomfort the audience felt with the show (I heard remarks ranging from “it’s kind of . . . strange” to “I left at intermission”) has to do with the sexual element. It’s never made completely explicit that McPhee’s interest in Sampih is basically sexual (if in fact it is; perhaps I should not assume that he acted on the erotic interest that led him more or less to buy the boy from his parents, who were more than willing to unload him on the foreigner, and then train him as a dancer). Spies’s sexual activities are also only hinted at. He's surrounded by young men, but he's also organizing them into a painters' collective.

Here’s where our culture’s sophisticated acceptance of same-sex liaisons runs against its hysteria about sex with the young. I’m certainly not defending these activities, because I would never defend an abuse of power. There’s clearly an exploitative sexual-tourism angle here. But there’s also a complicated relationship in which McPhee helped this boy and his family in material and artistic ways they appreciated, and there are some comic hints that McPhee was really pretty helpless in dealing with the high-spirited Sampih. But in our grossly sexualized culture, there is a salacious paranoia and anger about a relationship like this that seems to signal a deeper contemporary disturbance. Perhaps this is one of our few acceptable ways to express discomfort with the uncontrollable force of sexuality. Perhaps it’s just our own childlike panic at the realization that taboos about sex with the underaged are not moral laws inherent to all people but more culturally conditioned than we like to believe. Margaret Mead could certainly explain to us the incredible complexity and variability of human relationships. Our judgments are sometimes both accurate and beside the point.

The ambiguities of the work may simply be an effective dramatization of its main subject, which is displacement and searching for a home and the clash between the strange ways of foreigners and our own strange ways. Throughout there is a lot of spectacular Balinese dance (particularly from Kadek Dewi Aryani and Desak Made Suarti Laskmi), which still looks alien to western eyes, despite its influence on contemporary dance (I noted in particular a way of holding the hand out and fluttering the fingers in a tightly controlled way that I think Mark Morris borrowed for Empire Garden, one of the new pieces I had seen his company perform the week before). At the end one of the women dancers thrashes convulsively for a long time, and then Sampih has an odd moment of falling to the ground and sort of undulating, then stopping, then starting again a few times just when you think he’s finished. I heard baffled complaints about those moves, but to me they showed an old tradition dissolving and, in starts and stops, something new evolving.

I’d call the piece flawed but fascinating. I think in a basic way the evening reminded me that for all my kvetching I just really like going to the theater. And the music was wonderful, particularly the gamelan elements. Gamelan is like a spring rain that softens and refreshes everything. The composer conducted the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Dewa Ketut Alit led the Gamelan Salukat. It was a miserably hot and muggy weekend and even in my dressed-down and informal attire I envied the gamelan players their loose red-batiked sarongs, bare chests, and golden hats.

17 October 2009

Haiku 290

Grey to blue to black
And then back: chameleon
Revolving heavens

16 October 2009

Haiku 289

Studied or ignored
Stars still shine and light the skies

15 October 2009

Haiku 288

(for St Teresa of Avila)

Laboring, laughing,
Waiting to be pierced by the
Ecstatic Arrow

14 October 2009

Haiku 287

Last rose of summer?
Perhaps we should be mourning
The last tomato

13 October 2009

Haiku 286

Bent low by the wind:
Foaming gutters overflow:
Black rain falls in sheets

12 October 2009

Haiku 285

Glimpse of pale blue sky
Beneath the pale gray cloud-pall
Bristling bright green grass

11 October 2009

Haiku 284

All you need is Love
Sang the old homeless woman,
Begging for money

10 October 2009

Haiku 283

(for Sappho)

Passion-structures: all ruined
O Time sweetbitter

09 October 2009

Haiku 282

The clock hands have stopped
But time goes on: measuring
Is not controlling

08 October 2009

Haiku 281

Tikka masala
Has changed this paper plate to
A saffron sunset


Whoever was there
Saw the hovering red hawk
Hoovering field mice

07 October 2009

Haiku 280

Yes, yes, the wind blows;
Indeed, the cherry blossoms;
Yes, it all passes

06 October 2009

Haiku 279

What can I tell you?
Most of my days have passed by.
I heard some birds sing.

05 October 2009

Haiku 278

Dripping through the leaves:
Winds shake out an after-rain
When the rain has passed


Like clockwork I walk
To work, yet this morning sky
Is lit by the moon

04 October 2009

Haiku 277

Candied orange moon
Turning bright silver in a
Soft blue velvet sky

03 October 2009

Haiku 276

Sunlight on the waves
Boats bob gently up and down
Everyday harbor

02 October 2009

Haiku 275

It should be the law
That each building must contain
At least one fountain

01 October 2009

Haiku 274

Speakers blare bad love
Songs from long ago, above
The sky is so blue