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.