31 July 2010

Haiku 2010/212

first fallen fig leaf
bright yellow on the dull green
grass of late July

30 July 2010

Haiku 2010/211

crowded on a train
stuck like an obnoxious tune
you want to forget

29 July 2010

Haiku 2010/210

mysterious milk!
sitting for days in the cold,
then it just goes bad

28 July 2010

27 July 2010

Haiku 2010/208

(for Anne Akiko Meyers; h/t to Lisa)

feeling winter's chill,
I lie here longing to hear
summer's lullaby

26 July 2010

25 July 2010

Haiku 2010/206

voices on TV
drone chatter and shout while I
keep on half-sleeping

24 July 2010

23 July 2010

Haiku 2010/204

afternoon eyelids
droop over littered papers
much too tired to sleep

22 July 2010

21 July 2010

Haiku 2010/202

so often we want
swans gliding on lakes but get
pigeons in gutters

20 July 2010

this looks promising

I have mixed feelings about attending livecasts (to me, they have the disadvantages of live performance -- rigid start times, sitting crammed in with other people -- without the compensating thrill of in-the-moment live sound, and in addition, they're generally more expensive to attend than it would be to buy a DVD) but I'm glad they exist, especially these days when the larger local organizations (that would be the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Symphony, in case you were wondering) are retreating headlong and frantically into the most conservative possible programming and staging. So the more variety available, the better. The Met obviously is the current big leader in these livecasts, but there's increasing competition from a group called Opera in Cinema, which has been livecasting from La Scala and the Gran Teatre del Liceu. (Click here for their website, where you can enter your zipcode and find out which theaters near you offer their shows, and also see some of their previous offerings.)

So here's the promising part: Opera in Cinema is teaming with Opus Arte and so will be adding livecasts from Covent Garden (the first livecast will be September 10, when the Royal Opera opens with Jonathan Miller's production of Cosi Fan Tutte). And not only will they be livecasting from these three great European houses, but they have a new ballet series, and a Shakespeare series from the Globe Theater in London -- I can't wait for that one. Perhaps my dream of seeing an actual performance of Timon of Athens will be coming true! And I have high hopes that DVDs will result, since Opus Arte regularly releases very high quality sets -- in fact, they released one of my recent favorites, Messiaen's Saint Francois from Amsterdam. Remember the days when we'd occasionally get live stuff like that out here? Ah, what an opera fan I am -- longing for the good old days!

Haiku 2010/201

this filthy bathroom
both rebukes and offends my
animal nature

19 July 2010

Haiku 2010/200

on a day like this
throw gratitude to the winds,
to whom we owe it

18 July 2010

17 July 2010

Haiku 2010/198

Old man complaining
relentlessly: yes, you will
inherit the earth

16 July 2010

Haiku 2010/197

back in my own bed
I see the old tree waving
in winds I can't feel

15 July 2010

Haiku 2010/196

moonlight on dry grass
dogs bark and bark in the heat
can anyone sleep

14 July 2010

Haiku 2010/195

All mornings are gray
(just as they say all cats are)
seen in certain lights

13 July 2010

Haiku 2010/194

outside the green park
a lovely streamlet gurgles
into the gutter

12 July 2010

Haiku 2010/193

steady as bird song
or the back and forth of waves:
pain behind the eyes

11 July 2010

Haiku 2010/192

everlasting mists
fleet over sturdy buildings,
built only to fall

10 July 2010

Haiku 2010/191

bird perched on a fence
I glance away and then back
now there's just a fence

09 July 2010

Haiku 2010/190

recurring refrains
in your brain welcome or not
and this is your life

08 July 2010

Haiku 2010/189

one window glowing
yellow in the gray-blue dawn
off in the distance

07 July 2010

fun stuff I may or may not get to: July & August

These are the doldrums months for theater, and as such perhaps a bit of a relief, though there’s always something tempting:

Here’s some long-running fun: at the Exit Stage Left on 156 Eddy Street, starting July 8 and running Thursday-Friday-Saturday for four weeks, No Nude Men Productions is presenting a series of twelve staged readings of new plays, each based on one of the classical Greek deities. The website is here but also check out Marissabidilla’s more detailed entry here.

Festival Opera in Walnut Creek (at the Dean Lesher Center, a short walk from the BART station) presents Madama Butterfly (July 10-18) and Lucia di Lammermoor (August 7-15).

Berkeley Opera presents Legend of the Ring, a revival of its much-praised one-evening condensation of the Ring Cycle.

Old First Concerts at 1751 Sacramento Street (that's Sacramento and Van Ness) continues its regular series of concerts; the one that jumps out at me is early music vocal ensemble EUOUAE performing the Messe de Tournai, which they describe as the oldest polyphonic setting of the Mass to have been collected under one cover. They are also doing several other interesting pieces; see the full description here.

The 15th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs from July 15 through July 18 at the Castro Theater. The big news here is Fritz Lang’s wild and wildly influential Metropolis, presented with 25 minutes of previously lost footage, but since Kino is releasing the new restoration on DVD this fall, I would rather see A Spray of Plum Blossoms (Yi jian mei), a 1930 Chinese version of The Two Gentlemen of Verona; or Rotaie, an Italian film from 1929 that sounds reminiscent of Murnau’s Sunrise; or L’Heureuse mort, a 1924 French comedy about a playwright whose alleged death makes him suddenly a valuable property. Oh, if I could stand the crowds I'd just stay in the theater from start to finish; all the films look enticing and they have some great live music from the Alloy Orchestra among others.

And the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is devoting its two top floors to its big summer show, Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection. Click here and here for SFMike’s two-part survey of Donald Fisher and his collection, complete with many lovely photos that give you a great sense of what's on view. I will say that since robber barons appear to be inevitable in our society, I’m grateful for any of them that direct their loot towards art, rather than running for political offices they don’t deserve to hold, and I'm talking about scum like Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina. You often hear it remarked (well, depending on the circles you travel in) that it’s puzzling that the public will resist modern music though not modern painting. I’ve wondered about that myself. There are a couple of points to consider though: one is that the audience for modern art need only be one person with enough extra cash, and live performance needs significantly more people for even a tiny audience, and all of them need to be available at the same time. The second is that if you want to establish your social credentials through art (or if you are in fact genuinely interested in it), the contemporary is often the only thing both available and affordable, whereas given the centuries of scores piled up, you have to be actively interested in contemporary music to choose to subsidize it rather than something less risky. Also, of course, it's easy enough to walk away from a painting on a wall, or to stare at it until you feel you "understand" it, which is a very different experience from being forced to sit quietly while strange sounds fleet by. Anyway here’s your chance to check out the new holdings even before SFMOMA builds its planned addition. There’s a beautiful room filled with paintings by Agnes Martin, though my favorite is still the one already in the collection (that’s the painting I’m looking at in my avatar up there).

I have no idea what's going on with the fonts in this entry, and why blogger won't let me fix them.

Haiku 2010/188

three days no blue skies
the streets crowded and vacant
tell me what love means

06 July 2010

05 July 2010

Are you there, gods? It's me, Marguerite

Almost twenty years of going to the War Memorial Opera House, and the Saturday matinee of Faust was my first trip all the way up to the balcony. I'd been wondering if the romantic nicknames (the heavens, the gods) used by les enfants du Paradis and their raves about the sound were really just compensation for being unable to see anything. I used to sit in Dress Circle, but that was many years ago. Saturday I was up as high as I could go, in the very back row. I thought I was getting an aisle seat, but I was three seats in, in one of the center sections.

So here’s the scorecard: it is warmer up there (not something I like), but not suffocatingly so. The seats are fairly tight but endurable, though I did take advantage of some third-act exits to move over a few seats so that there was no one on either side of me. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake, since it put me that much closer to a five-year-old boy who had had enough by then, and let me just say that taking a five-year-old boy to a four-hour French opera on a sunny June Saturday is not at all a completely insane thing to do. On the other hand, the woman to the left of my original seat had not only taken off her shoes but crossed her legs, so if I had stayed there I would have spent the last hour dreading the moment she violated my space and touched me with her disgusting bare feet. (Why do women think it’s OK to do this in theaters?)

As for OperaVision, well, it is a big plus if, like me, you consider opera to be theater. But, of course, you see only what the camera chooses for you to see, and sometimes you want close-ups when they give you stage views and vice versa. It’s a little disorienting to be about two-and-a-half miles above the stage, up where opera glasses do no good, watching the tiny people move below, framed by two screens on either side showing you the same thing, only much larger. Of course you watch the screens, because you can actually see things happening there. But they flatten the colors severely, so you see a drabber version of what’s on stage. I first really noticed this with the soldiers’ coats, which were a vivid dark teal on stage and a flat steel-blue on screen. The fiery red of Mephistopheles’s motley in the second scene was a subdued red, and the rich velvety blue of Act 2’s night sky lost its bloom entirely.

I’m curious to see how Faust sticks in my memory: as something live on stage, or as a video. There’s this odd thing my memory does with the size of a performer: the more vivid and intense the performance, the larger he or she looms in memory. So for instance when I think of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson burning up the stage as Octavia in L’Incoronazione di Poppea, she’s absolutely huge, as if I were in the front row of a movie theater looking straight up. And when I think of something like the labored antics of The Merry Widow, the singers are all so tiny. But then I go back inside the theater and realize that neither memory could be accurate. But that huge/tiny split is what you really do get, simultaneously, in the balcony. I did feel quite distanced from the action, so that it took me a while to realize that the soldiers’ rousing and patriotic chorus in Act 3, which would otherwise have been a tedious and time-wasting set-piece, was poignantly accompanied by widows and mothers receiving their wounded men, or just the flags given them in memory of the slain, and it took me even longer to be moved by it.

So would I sit in the balcony again? I wouldn’t rule it out. It would be a good way to see something I was curious about but maybe not that vested in seeing, or to see something a second or even third time (but I do have to say that although the seats up there are relatively cheap, that's not the same thing as being actually cheap – my ticket was almost $50, and that’s with whatever discount I got as the possessor of a choose-your-own subscription – anywhere else but an opera house or a football stadium that would have gotten me a seat much closer to the action). I do like to feel more immediacy in the theater, and more connection to what I've paid to see.

There is a nice large promenade back there, and if standing room is as uncrowded as it was that Saturday, it would probably be nice to sit back on one of the plush benches there and listen, only coming up to the railing if you wanted to check out the staging. As for the much-vaunted sound up there: well, it is nice. Oddly enough, it’s more blended and refined, lacking some of the rawness and urgency I hear down in the costly seats. It would have been interesting to have heard Fanciulla in the balcony, to see if the orchestra is as overwhelming as it was below. Of course, it's a little unfair to base this on only one opera, and that opera Faust.

I’m not the Faust-hater some people are, but I think I probably don’t need to see it again anytime soon (though the music is attractive enough so that I would certainly put the CDs on while doing something else). I had also seen Faust last time SF Opera performed it, in 1995, so I knew not to expect the intellectual and spiritual qualities in Goethe’s or even Marlowe’s version of the story (and that’s fine – I don’t think Verdi’s Otello is as deep as Shakespeare’s, either, though Boito and Busoni both show it's possible to bring more depth to an operatic treatment of Faust). But Gounod’s hero doesn’t seem to have any yearnings that couldn’t be taken care of with a prescription for Viagra and regular visits to a gym. It’s hard to believe he has a soul, much less one the devil would struggle to win. No wonder the focus shifts to Marguerite as soon as it can.

Berlioz and Schumann and Mahler set only scenes from Faust, avoiding any attempt to compress the story into a manageable operatic evening. In an odd way Gounod does that too. It's not just that the modern taste is for swifter, more concentrated drama and this is discursive, sentimental, filled with set-pieces that delay the action. (Even with the Walpurgischnacht ballet omitted the action dawdles.) And it’s not just that he concentrates on the affair with Marguerite, which is certainly a defensible way of proceeding. It’s that he indulges himself in the parts he enjoys, that fit his smooth and lovely style (the Act 2 seduction of Marguerite seemed endless – this must be what Act 2 of Tristan is like for anyone who hates Wagner). And then we get four important scenes in the final act treated so rapidly, and with crucial details alluded to so quickly that you could easily miss them (for example, that Marguerite has lost her mind and accidentally killed her child, which is why she herself is condemned to death). But this version is stripped of the details of Mephistopheles's subtle manipulation of Faust, and how Marguerite’s innocence appeals to both the best and worst qualities in Faust, and without this kind of psychological or emotional framework you end up with a story about a creepy old man who wants nothing more than to seduce and abandon an innocent girl.

Seduced and abandoned – yes, Marguerite is a fallen woman. You see how far the story is from our moral framework. Her redemption seems not like a subversive example of a more pure morality, the way it would have in the nineteenth century, but like simple justice. It’s her brother Valentin and Faust whose behavior is not only completely unjustified, but downright repellent in our eyes. Interestingly, the final scene of this staging showed Marguerite ascending a long Caligariesque stairway to salvation (the stairs were extremely effective, and would have been more so if I hadn’t been up in the balcony where about the top third was cut off) while Mephistopheles down below presents Faust with the signed contract and claims his soul. This is of course not Goethe’s ending, and I thought it wasn’t Gounod’s either, but it's remarkably fitting and effective here, since there is no earthly reason why this Faust should be pardoned.

The performers were in good voice the afternoon I went. John Relyea is an imposing Mephistopheles, with surprisingly little to do besides looking suave and slightly menacing. I liked Stefano Secco’s light clear voice as Faust. I’m a long-time fan of Patricia Racette, but I had mixed feelings about her: she comes into her own as the crazed, anguished Marguerite of the finale, crazed and anguished being things she can really commit to, but there was something weirdly campy about her in the early scenes. Maybe that’s inevitable when a diva plays an innocent, naive girl, but she really should not have flipped away the faithful Siebel’s bouquet so quickly once she spotted the box of jewels – that was straight out of Charles Ludlam, and people laughed. Siebel was nicely sung by Daniela Mack, Marthe was the reliable Catherine Cook doing her bawdy older woman thing, and Valentin was Brian Mulligan, who sang the unsympathetic part with beauty and force, though I think if he is going to portray soldiers he should hit the gym a little more often. Giuseppe Finzi conducted fluidly, though occasionally I wanted him to pick up the pace. I didn’t think the music was profound enough for the subject or for slowness. The tunes have been running in my head ever since, though. It’s all so pretty and catchy when you sell your soul!

Haiku 2010/186

only morning fog,
and me, and the cawing of
crows flying away

04 July 2010

03 July 2010

Haiku 2010/184

after the street fair
booths bereft of funnel cakes
streets filled with napkins

02 July 2010

Haiku 2010/183

sun on the water
a breeze through tender green leaves
a bird on the wing

01 July 2010