31 August 2011

Haiku 2011/243

and the broken world. . . .
sharp shards of broken bottles
glitter in the sun

30 August 2011

Haiku 2011/242

random mosaics
glitter through the starry skies
and the broken world

29 August 2011

Haiku 2011/241

still the blossoms fall
on pebbles and last year's leaves
random mosaics

28 August 2011

Haiku 2011/240

you've tried to avoid
this and that and the other
still the blossoms fall

27 August 2011

Haiku 2011/239

light falls obliquely
a slow realization
you've tried to avoid

26 August 2011

Haiku 2011/238

on cubicle rows
dull Friday quiet descends
light falls obliquely

25 August 2011

Haiku 2011/237

goodbye to summer
dead white unchanging light shines
on cubicle rows

24 August 2011

Haiku 2011/236

gilded carousels
sitting in pretty stillness
goodbye to summer

22 August 2011

Haiku 2011/234

a lone child, staring
faint echoes over a field
some distant playground

21 August 2011

when this you see remember me

I was at the Thursday and Saturday night performances of 4 Saints in 3 Acts, sponsored by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (in conjunction with their exhibit The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde), held at the attractive small theater at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts right across the street, and performed by the fabulous Ensemble Parallele.

It’s a bit misleading to describe the evening as a performance of 4 Saints in 3 Acts; this was an “Opera Installation” (I’m only surprised that its art-museum origin didn’t result in its being called “The 4 Saints Project”) so what we actually had was an abbreviated version of 4 Saints, preceded by a new composition called A Heavenly Act, a setting by Luciano Chessa of parts of Stein’s text cut from the reduced Saints. The idea of continuing the avant-garde performance tradition association with 4 Saints is not in itself a bad one, but they would have been better off leaving 4 Saints alone – Ensemble Parallele’s performance being, as expected given their track record, of such quality that I wished they were performing the entire opera – and maybe commissioning a new setting of some of Stein’s other texts.

On Thursday we were allowed to go directly into the event we had paid for; last night, however, we had to start with not one but two (one for Yerba Buena and one for SFMOMA) pointless and boring speeches from museum functionaries. They blathered on and on about their “installations” and “projects” and “background” for the piece, all of which (and more) is already easily available on-line or in the program. Gentlemen, let me tell you about a wonderful invention called the Internet. Anyone who is interested in what your organizations are doing, based on their viewing of the performance you are delaying for your own ego-gratification, can look it up later on the Internet. If we’ve spent up to $85 on tickets, there’s a good chance we already know what we’re going to be seeing, and if we don’t, that’s a deliberate choice that should be respected.

These tedious speeches were not only exasperating. I think the one from the SFMOMA guy was actually destructive, since he announced at one point that it was “OK to laugh” (then he added, as a condescending afterthought, that it was “OK to cry” as well; thanks, but I really don’t need to be told what makes me laugh or cry), which a large portion of the audience took as official permission to regard the opera as just silliness and hijinks; no matter what the words and music and movement evoked of beauty or passion or melancholy delicate poetry, there was continuing inane laughter that had not been there Thursday night when we had no little speeches. (And even the comic parts of the opera are really more evocative of witty smiles than guffaws; this isn’t Deputy Dawg.) Since the newly created scenario for 4 Saints involved the mercy killing (of St Teresa 1 by St Ignatius), a major operation (St Ignatius as the doctor), a trial for the life of St Ignatius, and his execution in an electric chair (the silly old women behind me chortling constantly throughout), the laughter was a pretty clear indication that people weren’t open to what they were seeing, but to what they had been told they should see. Why is a curator of modern art trying to direct our responses anyway? Why not trust the work of art and trust the audience and let us have our own reactions and our own opinions?

I liked Chessa’s music even more on the second hearing, though I would have preferred to hear it when I wasn’t waiting for 4 Saints. His piece opens with mistier shadier slow undulations, which contrast nicely with Thomson’s crisper tunes, and he elegantly references Thomson’s music, and though it’s beautifully done (as if he were an architect incorporating echoes of an attached older building into a new one), the very fact of doing so means this work is not in the tradition of 4 Saints, which was (and, wonderfully, remains) bold and eccentric and original.

There is a video projection by Kalup Linzy, consisting mostly of clouds and gauzy angels in smoky black-and-white, which was all quite lovely but not at all original or challenging in the way of the original. Linzy is black, and the program connects his role in this production with the famous use of an all-black cast in the original 4 Saints, but audience expectations are no longer challenged by seeing black singers in an opera; this is a good thing for both art and society, but it’s another way in which this production does not – could not – generate the frisson of the original. In fact it’s difficult to think of a more universal symbol of The Lovely than soft-focus angels and clouds. Nothing wrong with that, but just another source of frustration when I’m waiting for 4 Saints.

A Heavenly Act is very dark, at least on stage; the music covers a wider spectrum. The chorus mostly wears black cowls, and the lighting is low. The music suddenly changes to a stylish waltz, which evoked a raffish but elegant hotel ballroom of the 1920s with potted palms; the waltz grows increasingly frantic and moves towards a gospel number, sung by Linzy with angel wings (and a microphone) and in dark robes of the sort of black that looks green, but unfortunately he doesn’t have the voice or presence to carry off a gospel number – you can hear in the music that it was meant to be an exuberant explosion, but you can’t hear it in the performance. (And, again, gospel numbers on stage are not only not novelties, they’ve become a bit of a Broadway cliché.)

Throughout the first act, the words are mostly unintelligible. Stein, careful guardian of her own genius, would not like this. And I don’t think Thomson would either; famously (or notoriously, since people now tend to find his attitude patronizing), he decided to use black singers because of the clarity and beauty of their elocution. The libretto of 4 Saints is one of Stein’s, uh, more deeply hermetic texts (which means you’ll either find it evocative and poetic, as I do, or incoherent gibberish; personally, I admire Stein for continuing to walk the far edge; her difficulties remain difficult, which is part of their point; they haven’t been glossed and smoothed into a standard reading), but – and this is part of Thomson’s genius – it really does make sense, certainly poetic and emotional sense, when it’s sung. The form and shape of the music help form and shape the words and their possible meanings and echoes (and they build, which is why it's problematic to perform only part of this opera). Things live on the stage in a way they don’t on the page (which is why theater, despite its inconveniences and never-ending problems, and stupid giggling audiences, lasts).

Surtitles were not used for either part. I think this is a defensible idea for several reasons: the lack of surtitles has the effect of both forcing you to pay closer attention to the words and relieving you from needing to follow the libretto word by word. (I realize these two effects sound contradictory, but the dual effect is true; and if you dislike paradox and obscurity, 4 Saints is not the opera for you.) The opera is a balancing act between words and music and they need to join in performance; surtitles can emphasize the words in a way that obscures the emotional clarity provided by music and action (as when you buy a used book and any underlined or highlighted words jump out at you, even if you have no idea why they were underlined or highlighted).

As I said, I would have enjoyed A Heavenly Act on its own; as it was, I found it much too long (almost 40 minutes of a 90-minute performance), since I was eager for 4 Saints. I would happily buy a ticket if someone wanted to do a similar “installation” to one of the over-produced staples of the repertory, but 4 Saints is done so rarely that the evening led to a sense of frustration rather than adventure. The original is itself only around 90 minutes, and performing the whole thing doesn’t require anything that isn’t also needed for the short version (which, by the way, was never intended as a substitute performing version or final revision, no matter what SFMOMA is implying; Thomson made a short version, based on the hour he was given for a radio broadcast, and a record executive told him he would record that hour; Thomson refers to the recording in a letter to Alice B Toklas after Stein's death as "excerpts" of the opera).

As previously noted, 4 Saints is one of my all-time favorite operas, and I have never had the chance to see a full-length production; given that, my frustration with this evening was maybe to be expected, but it was a bit of a perverse tease to sell me a ticket for 4 Saints and then spend so much time on something which, while quite lovely, is not 4 Saints.

The overall excellence of Ensemble Parallele’s performance added to the frustration (especially since I felt on Thursday night that a few moments, particularly in the beginning, would have benefited from some of the rehearsal time that was no doubt spent on A Heavenly Act; there were some glitches on Saturday but on the whole the performance seemed more confident, though I shouldn't leave the impression that either night was overall anything but superb). I’ve sketched out their new scenario above, and director Brian Staufenbiel did a wonderful job staging the opera, using the words and music as the key to the action, so that sometimes it all made excellent (and even surprising and new) sense, and other times it created a wonderful disjunction between sense and scene (as in the trial, when the arbitrary-seeming phrases made a satirical point about the workings of earthly justice versus the higher morality of St Ignatius’s actions). There are elegant and witty dances (choreography by Michael Mohammed) when the music calls for them.

The set is also elegant and witty, with a bed, tables, and some chairs, all in white and on wheels, with touches of silver (as in the silver masks that line the top part of the bed, where a canopy would hang, which echo the silver faces of the white-clad cast). There are some touches of yellow and pale blue; St Teresa 1 is all in buttery yellow, and St Ignatius in brilliant red. (Set design by Staufenbiel and costumes by Christine Cook.) As noted, the rest of the cast is in white, except for the non-singing supernumaries, who are silver-faced policemen (click here for photos and a backstage report from evil supernumary SFMike), and the Compere and Commere (respectively John Bischoff and Wendy Hillhouse), who are in grand and slightly tatty Napoleonic finery, a witty reference to the Parisian milieu of Stein and Thomson.

Nicole Paiement, conductor and artistic director of Ensemble Parallele, had a wonderful touch with the music; hearing it after being so used to the recording was like seeing a familiar fresco cleaned and restored to its original fresh brilliance of color. The cast (many of them still students at, or newly graduated from, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music) was strong throughout. I particularly liked the purity of Heidi Moss’s St Teresa 1 and Kristen Choi’s St Teresa 2; Choi seemed to connect directly to the emotional truth and lyric beauty of each of her lines. The St Ignatius of Eugene Brancoveanu dominated the proceedings with his flowing baritone, large and deep; he was particularly fine – vibrant and sensitive and pointed – in Pigeons on the grass, alas, which is the Nessun Dorma of avant-garde opera.

What was there was all so good! Please, why not do the whole thing?

Haiku 2011/233

a bird flying off
a flat stretch of still water
a lone child, staring

20 August 2011

Haiku 2011/232

always your heart aches:
children playing in the sun,
a bird flying off

19 August 2011

Haiku 2011/231

universal specks
mountains and cherry blossoms
always your heart aches

18 August 2011

Haiku 2011/230

watch the dust dancing
lightly over worldly things
universal specks

17 August 2011

Haiku 2011/229

a shaft of soft light
glowing through an empty room
watch the dust dancing

16 August 2011

Haiku 2011/228

endless blue silence
floating between thoughts and words
a shaft of soft light

15 August 2011

Haiku 2011/227

birds disturb the air
closing over restless wings
endless blue silence

14 August 2011

they wept because "they didn't know something so beautiful could be done in America"

In conjunction with their amazing reunion of the Stein collection this summer, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is sponsoring a revival/restaging/partial revision of the Gertude Stein/Virgil Thomson modernist milestone, 4 Saints in 3 Acts, by the fabulous Ensemble Parallele. It runs this Thursday, 18 August, through Sunday, 21 August, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Get your tickets here.

4 Saints in 3 Acts, one of the few operas whose librettist is always given equal billing with the composer, has always been one of my all-time favorite operas. I have been fascinated by it since I first heard about it, probably when I was around 13 and reading something by or about Gertrude Stein. It was one of the first operas I bought (on cassette; this was before CDs) and listening to it is one of the few things that can reliably make me happy, even after all these years.

This is a somewhat arbitrary list of related materials, for anyone equally fascinated by this Gertrude Stein/Virgil Thomson collaboration:

Thomson, who was a music critic for many years at the New York Herald Tribune, is one of those musicians like Berlioz whose writing is almost as entertaining as his music. He wrote quite a lot about 4 Saints, its genesis and reception. His autobiography and his selected writings are vivid and provocative, though as with all autobiographies you might want to check what he says against a more disinterested source, particularly the Tommasini biography mentioned below. Actually, the Virgil Thomson Reader I have seems to be different from the one linked to above, and is now I guess out of print. I read the Reader and the autobiography so long ago that I should probably re-read them.

Stein wrote less about the aftermath of 4 Saints, perhaps because she and Thomson had been quarrelling at the time of the premiere and she didn't even see it until her tour of the USA, when it happened to be staged in Chicago when she was there. She mentions it in passing in several places in Everybody's Autobiography, the sort-of sequel to her surprise (and surprising) best-seller, The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. She did enjoy the extra celebrity brought to her by the opera's unexpected success.

A few years ago I bought a used copy of the 1934 first printing of the text, which is the classic "slim volume of verse." It has an introduction by Stein's friend and defender, Carl van Vechten, who suggests that in both words and action 4 Saints is no more obscure and convoluted than Ponchielli's La Gioconda. Whoever owned this copy earlier wrote on the flyleaf in pencil "Nobody knows the Opera I seen, nobody knows but Gertrude" with the initials F.P.A. below, who is either the newspaperman Franklin P. Adams (how do I even know that name?) or the pencilling quipster him- or herself. You can find both the Autobiography and the text of 4 Saints in Volume 1 of the Library of America's two-volume Gertrude Stein collection.

About a year ago Oxford published the collected letters (to each other) of Stein and Thomson, under the title Composition as Conversation. It's thoroughly and helpfully annotated, and quite entertaining, though I'm only about half-way through it since letters, like lyric poetry, need space around them and do not benefit from cramming. It's always fascinating to see how much of a writer's style is simply a natural extension of personality and how much gets into the finished product. For some letters are a completely different thing from their "real" writing. Not surprisingly Stein is not one of these, though she can be fairly direct and matter-of-fact. Thomson usually resists the powerful rhythms of her style and manages to keep on sounding like himself.

Anthony Tommasini's biography of the composer (Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle) is affectionate but not uncritical, and pretty much indispensible if you're interested in Thomson and his times. The discussion of 4 Saints is particularly insightful on the work's staging and cultural milieu.

Steven Watson's Prepare for Saints is entirely about the first production of the opera. Some of the Amazon reviews seem particularly clueless about this book, commenting that it's full of gossip instead of whatever it was that reader was looking for; but it's not a literary study of the text or a musicological study of the opera; it's a cultural history, so, yeah, there's a lot of what you might call the higher gossip about who was quarrelling with whom and who was sleeping with whom and who snubbed whom and how somehow art gets produced while all the rest is going on. It's a thorough and very interesting book.

Incidentally Watson is speaking at the Contemporary Jewish Museum about 4 Saints this Thursday before the premiere of the new production, but I see by their website that it's sold out. But the CJM's Gertude Stein exhibit is also worth a visit or two, and includes some brief footage of the Mark Morris Dance Group production of 4 Saints, last staged here around six years ago. (As far as I know a film of Mark Morris's production is not publicly available; I assume the footage they use is from the MMDG's archives.)

The name Chick Austin kept recurring in all these accounts; he was the director of the Hartford Atheneum who first managed to get the opera staged and who helped make it a sensation. He has his own excellent biography by Eugene Gaddis, Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America. If you wonder how museums went from the personal fiefs of rich collectors and connoisseurs to public, academically-inclined institutions, or if you wonder how modern art (that is, modern painting, not necessarily modern music) became widely seen (whether you like it or not) as the major art of our time, then you should read this book. It made me regret that I never went down to Hartford in the years I lived in Boston. It's fascinating to see how influential were many of Austin's personal interests and tastes (in baroque art, in circuses and movies and other "low" forms of art, in Picasso and other modernists, and even in the museum as a place not just for paintings but also for theater and for parties). Gaddis's even-handed approach to Austin's bisexuality is a model for such discussions: he doesn't brush it aside, but he doesn't dwell on it at the expense of Austin's more important achievements, and he doesn't naively insist, as many would these days, that Austin was "really" gay. Austin was married with children but had a number of male companions both before and during his marriage; he seemed to value both types of relationship, though at the end of his life he abruptly dumped his long-time male companion and returned permanently to his wife, announcing he never wanted to see the friend again. (I've forgotten the man's name, which I guess is rather Chick Austin of me, but he ended up working in a men's clothing store in Florida.)

Well, sexuality is sort of an unavoidable undercurrent in discussions of 4 Saints, among other things. I think it was in Tommasini's biography that I read that the original cast used to refer to the creators among themselves as "Mr Stein and Miss Thomson." Since a number of the (male) performers were sleeping with various of the (male) collaborators, I assume this was a somewhat affectionate gesture, even if they didn't use the nicknames in front of Thomson. There's a provocative and intriguing discussion of sexuality and 4 Saints in Nadine Hubbs's The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity. It's about how a small group of mostly gay (and mostly Jewish) modern composers helped create what we think of as the American sound, thereby making themselves the voices of a society that wasn't particularly sympathetic to gays, Jews, or modernists. Hubbs's style can be a bit heavy with the academic-ese, but she doesn't substitute theory for thought and observation, and the book is well worth the time if you're interested in the subject.

After all that reading and theorizing, let's not forget the music and singing:

Capital Capitals, a Stein/Thomson work which preceded 4 Saints and is a sort of dry-run experiment by Thomson in setting Stein, is available on a couple of recordings. You can find its premiere recording, with Thomson on piano, in one (Modern American Vocal Works) where it's paired with Thomson's Stabat Mater (with Jennie Tourel), along with classic recordings of Copland's Old American Songs (featuring William Warfield with Copland on piano) and Barber's Knoxville Summer of 1915 (with Eleanor Steber) and Hermit Songs (featuring Leontyne Price with Barber on the piano). Capital Capitals is also available on an all-Thomson disc (Mostly About Love, which features Anthony Tommasini on the piano) along with a number of shorter vocal selections, including some others with texts by Stein. It's been a while since I've listened to these recordings but I remember liking them a lot.

The famous final Stein/Thomson collaboration, The Mother of Us All, is available in a recording from Santa Fe, conducted by Raymond Leppard. Again, it's been a while since I've heard this one, and I suppose I should have given it another listen before bringing it up, but right now I'm kind of buried under newly-purchased yet unlistened-to CDs, among other things, and I've always preferred 4 Saints as more poetical anyway, so I didn't. You get to have the joy of discovery, and of forming your own opinion! You can sometimes find copies of the Columbia University premiere floating around, but I think it wasn't ever officially released.

And, of course, there are recordings of 4 Saints itself. Even without the added interest that comes from being conducted by the composer himself and from including many of the original singers, Thomson's own recording is bouncy and tangy and, though I really hate using this word in a context like this, essential. It is also, unfortunately, only about half of the opera, so it's sort of 2 Saints in 1.5 Acts. What's really unfortunate is that this abridgement (insisted upon by a record executive; since CDs can have longer running times they've filled the rest of the CD with Stokowski conducting Thomson's The Plow That Broke the Plains) has often been taken as an alternative performing edition. (To continue with unfortunate things, the upcoming performances are abridged, though I understand that was not Ensemble Parallele's idea.) C'mon, people, the whole thing is only about an hour and a half! There is one very good complete recording, which is the one I first bought on cassette long ago, though my cassettes were replaced, also long ago, by CDs. But it too seems to have fallen out of print, though like some of the CDs mentioned earlier used copies are available at prices ranging from the reasonable to the outrageous, and I keep hoping for another one anyway (possibly Naxos's American Opera Classics series will come through for me), because, as previously noted, I can't get enough of this opera.

The photograph at the top is a detail from The Cathedrals of Broadway in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, painted by Florine Stettheimer, who is best known for her original designs (fanciful, colorful, and staged with cellophane) for the 4 Saints premiere.

Haiku 2011/226

breezes shake the boughs
squirrels shiver the branches
birds disturb the air

13 August 2011

Haiku 2011/225

random recurrence
flashes of light dappling shade
breezes shake the boughs

12 August 2011

11 August 2011

Haiku 2011/223

slinking in silence
on the frayed edge of the crowd
mentally noting

10 August 2011

Haiku 2011/222

maybe that's a cat
dark fur against dark shadow
slinking in silence

09 August 2011

Haiku 2011/221

darkness settles in
unlit room, inky corner
maybe that's a cat

08 August 2011

Haiku 2011/220

brown grass of August
a soccer ball sitting there
darkness settles in

07 August 2011

Haiku 2011/219

O the giddy whirl
revolving globe changing days
brown grass of August

06 August 2011

dealing in realities

When I posted my August preview the other day I mentioned that whoever scheduled the Merola production of Barber of Seville was, to quote myself, "simply not dealing in reality." (My original post, and my explanation for saying that, can be found here.) A friend of mine e-mailed me an objection to what I said and how I said it. With his permission I’m posting what he wrote, followed by my response. His text is in blue. I've omitted some stuff that doesn't directly pertain to his argument.

Dearest Patrick,

I was going to leave this in the comments on the fun stuff post then thought better of it because of how it may sound. As you know, I am not retired, unemployed, self-employed, nor am I a student – but I'll be there both nights because I can walk home afterwards – and stop home and have a bite to eat beforehand. I'm not gloating about this, it's just a fact. I don't think the start times are the real issue here as much as the location of your home in relation to the event. Most people don't view that three hour gap as "wasting time" but as an opportunity to have dinner with someone, go home and change, whatever. I find it more difficult and annoying to have to be at something that starts at 7 or 7:30 than at 8:00 and as I've said to you before, I wish this stuff didn't start til 8:30 or 9:00 – which would be more convenient for me but would cause you to go apoplectic – or at least give up on performances altogether. I don't do a lot in Berkeley for the same reason, but that doesn't make them wrong when it obviously works for so many people.

I don't know – I say this to you as a friend and someone I admire and respect, but to say "these people are simply not dealing in reality" sounds pretty harsh to me and I don't think we bloggers are at the top of the list when considerations are made on scheduling the starting times of events – but I do think they are interested in making it convenient for all those folks who want to eat at Absinthe or the Hayes Valley Grill (or at the Grove or Arlequin for that matter) and that's the majority. And for those that abhor late nights, that's what weekend matinees are for, but why would they want to willingly give away comp tickets to performances that won't get them coverage until after it's all over (and to performances that will probably sell better than the evening shows)?

Just wanted to share these thoughts with you.

[from a second e-mail, after I thanked him for responding and told him he should post his remarks or let me post them]:

I just don't want to come across like I'm criticizing you because that's not my intent. I remember when you wrote to me about "War Music" that just because I didn't like how they did it didn't make them wrong for doing it that way, and that's really the spirit of what I'm saying here.

It's up to you whether or not you want to post it and respond [. . . ] and be "nice" in your response, please.

Are you at least going to the Friday performance?

My response now follows. I will point out here that what I said in my original post and what I'm saying here about start times applies generally to performing arts groups in the Bay Area, not just to the Merola Program or the San Francisco Opera.

I was going to leave this in the comments on the fun stuff post then thought better of it because of how it may sound.

It sounds fine. Tone is conveyed not only by what people say but in how the reader reads it. I’m reading it in a positive way. I’m not big on personal abuse but I’m always open to differing viewpoints. I assume people realize that but maybe I shouldn't make that assumption.

As I’ve said all along (for instance, in this post about the Royal Danish Ballet fiasco at Cal), I’m perfectly willing to stick the subject of start times in the FML file if anyone can give me solid reasons why every performance in the Bay Area has to start at 8:00. Please note that in that entry I define what a “solid reason” is.

As you know, I am not retired, unemployed, self-employed, nor am I a student- but I'll be there both nights

I’m sure there were other regularly employed people there; I’m speaking broadly about the attendees. The point I was making is that most people who attend midweek 8:00 performances, aside from the occasional live-performance addict like you and me, are clearly retired people or students, something that is easily verifiable at any performance. I notice that in your write-up (which I will be happy to link to if you wish to identify yourself) you mention how little sleep you got. You have to be very dedicated to the Barber of Seville to make that sacrifice. Most working people aren’t going to make it.

because I can walk home afterwards- and stop home and have a bite to eat beforehand. I'm not gloating about this, it's just a fact.

Yes, that is very handy (I was in a similar situation when I lived in Boston) but you don’t seriously think that most theater-goers live that close to Civic Center, do you? (And if so, what do they do if they want to see something across the bay or downtown?) Also, I know quite a few people (men as well as women) who would not be willing to walk through the neighborhood you walk through late at night. You’re talking about a very small group here – people who, in the first place, are interested in live theater and can afford it, and who live close enough to the theater (or at least a theater) to walk to it, and who are OK with walking alone at night. That's a pretty small subset of potential ticket-buyers. I think the majority of theater-goers are people who work downtown but live farther out.

Let’s also remember that a sizable percentage of them take public transportation, which, in the Bay Area, tends to shut down shortly after midnight. We've all been at opera performances where a lot of the audience is silently screaming "just die already!" because they're afraid of missing the last train. Anything that discourages the use of public transportation is bad. It is way past time when we need to adopt policies that discourage our non-sustainable reliance on cars. (I’m not even going to get into the trouble and expense of parking in San Francisco.)

I don't think the start times are the real issue here as much as the location of your home in relation to the event.

Nope. I don’t think it’s a violation of my personal privacy guidelines to say I live in San Leandro, right next to Oakland, where instead of living in a cramped, overpriced, and relentlessly noisy apartment (as I did in Boston) I can own a pretty nice house with a yard. But it’s not as if I’m out in the boonies, either – the local BART station is a quick walk away, and from there I can catch a direct train that will get me to either downtown San Francisco or Oakland/Berkeley in about 25 minutes.

I get the “one hour” figure I always use by adding in travel to and from the stations and waiting for the train, which can be up to 20 minutes late at night. So the whole trip after commute hours almost always takes an hour. That’s still a shorter trip from Civic Center than to almost anyplace within San Francisco – I’ve occasionally, while staying in the city, spent 30 minutes just waiting for a bus to show up. I could, if I were so minded, come home after work, spend about an hour here, and still get to the theater in time, which I think strengthens my point that there is an absurd amount of time to fill before an 8:00 performance.

If theaters can’t accommodate people who live where I live then they’re in trouble – I would guess most of the local ticket buyers live a similar distance away, even if they're San Francisco residents, and quite a few live even further out, in the Walnut Creek area. It's really great to live as close as you do, but most of the potential audience is just not in that situation.

Most people don't view that three hour gap as "wasting time" but as an opportunity to have dinner with someone, go home and change, whatever.

Well, last time I flew back from New York we sat on the runway for almost three hours, and though I got a lot of reading done (from one of my favorite authors, too – I had Volume 2 of the LOA edition of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s complete stories), I pretty much considered that Jet Blue was wasting my time. I’m very skeptical of institutions that tell me their bizarre delays are really for my benefit.

I’m also wondering how you know this – most people I know definitely regard it as lost time, which is why many of them have dropped live performance in favor of more accommodating forms of culture and entertainment.

Incidentally I have had a couple of friends offer to kill time with me beforehand, which seems like an imposition but they made the offer. But it’s a lot to assume that they’re going to be available when I need them to be, and will be willing to wander off when I need to get to the theater. There are always time pressures when you’re going to a performance, which is why so many restaurants offer special menus for those who have to make a curtain time. I go out to dinner with friends fairly often, but that’s about spending time with them, not using them as filler because theaters, for reasons still unclear to me, insist on starting everything at 8:00.

As I have said before, most working people I know, unless they are hardcore live-performance aficionados, are not even going to consider going to something that won't even start until 8:00 on a worknight. I’ve had retired people say to me that they don’t know how someone who is still working can manage to go to the theater and I’ve had temporarily-fully-employed freelancers tell me they do not know how I can do it. I've had people tell me that when they worked in SF they remember how dull it was waiting for performances to start. The only person I've ever met who doesn't consider the time a waste is you, which of course is a perfectly legitimate position, but as far as I can tell, and in my almost invariable experience, you're in the minority on this.

This does get into the social aspect of theater-going. I realized long ago that no one I knew was interested in going to the theater as often as I was, so I developed the habit of going by myself. I know there are lots of people who view theater as an adjunct to their social life rather than as a thing in itself.

I think of this by and large as the “gracious living” school of theater-going, by which I mean people who see going to the theater as an aspect of their self-image as well-off, cultured people. (To some extent we all do that, no doubt.) I am going to state clearly and emphatically that I am not issuing judgments about whether a more social motivation for theater-going is worse, more trivial, or so forth, than going for the sake of the performance itself. I am stating this clearly and emphatically because though I really do feel people can go to the theater for whatever reason makes them happy, I also have an instinctive stomach-clenching revulsion when people say things like “it’s so civilized!” or “enjoy a leisurely supper beforehand” and suchlike. There is a comic aspect to seeing an aesthete such as myself as an angry proletariat, but there it is. I also reject completely the common stereotype that the "real" lovers of music and theater are of course the poor people up in the cheap seats and never the rich people in the expensive ones, so there that is.

I understand the appeal of a nice night out. But most of the people who feel that way (yes, there are many exceptions, you among them, but I think I’m describing the majority of the group accurately) are, at a deep level, more about self-image than about whatever is actually being performed. These people are no doubt the majority, which explains why we have so much safe theater that pretends it’s edgy.

“Safe” theater is different from bad theater: I’m talking basically about people who want well-known established brand-name performers and works. Nothing wrong with that – there’s usually a good reason why certain works and performers are classics, and we all like to ride our favorite warhorses – but I do think theaters that embrace a role as just another luxury good are making themselves ultimately irrelevant.

All live performance, and this isn’t an Internet thing but rather dates back to the advent of cinema/radio/TV, is – I won’t say “elitist,” because that’s such a loaded term, but “of interest to a minority.” What is new with the Internet is the dumbfounding range of great works that are easily and flexibly accessible. Live performance isn’t the only cultural game in town anymore. Yes, there is something irreplaceable about the experience of live performance (though you could make a valid argument that what you lose in immediacy you gain in breadth of repertory – if the local theaters are doing Barbiere over and over, you can turn to DVD for Moses und Aron).

But it also has many drawbacks: it’s expensive, you are crammed in with a lot of (often irritating) people, and you have to be at a certain place at a certain time. That’s very different from the way that “culture” is, increasingly, consumed. I think theaters would do well to emphasize the specialness of the experience itself, and not sell themselves as just part of a lifestyle, one which only emphasizes the stereotype that live theater is a toy for the contented.

OK, I’m getting a little far afield here, so I’ll go back to your points.

I find it more difficult and annoying to have to be at something that starts at 7 or 7:30 than at 8:00

OK, you're certainly entitled to annoyance, but you don't say why you find it difficult. I have gone to things at Berkeley that started at 7:00, and I have time to take public transportation from work in San Francisco, eat a decent dinner slowly, and still arrive in the theater lobby right after the ushers. And the theater is full when the show starts at 7:00, so plenty of other people are managing to make it there in time. I'm not saying that everyone has to do things the way I do, but I am saying that it is possible to work a regular day and arrive in a different city for a 7:00 performance without an annoying rush. Do you really know a lot of people (who work, and whose jobs have regular hours) who say, “I would love to go to the theater more, but I just can’t get there by 8:00?” (Yes, as I have repeatedly stated, I do know a lot of people who tell me they won’t go to anything that starts at 8:00.)

and as I've said to you before, I wish this stuff didn't start til 8:30 or 9:00 – which would be more convenient for me but would cause you to go apoplectic – or at least give up on performances altogether.

Actually I wouldn’t go apoplectic, I would just do other things with my time. As would anyone who takes public transportation, needs a certain amount of sleep, hates wasting half an evening waiting for an 8:00 curtain, etc. The thing is, theaters are interested in selling as many tickets as possible, aren’t they? Should they really be writing off large segments of potential ticket-buyers?

This may be a problem without a solution; somewhere in the three volumes of Shaw's music criticism, he mentions that audiences tend to be young or old; the middle group is busy with work and family. But I don't think live performance is in such a vibrant state that it can afford to ignore such a large pool of potential ticket-buyers.

I think theaters are already aware that 8:00 start times are a problem, as witness the slowly increasing experimentation with earlier start times – even when they’re misconceived, like the Symphony’s 6:30 Fridays, there is an awareness that 8:00 is a problem for many potential ticket-buyers. (Incidentally I don't see much experimentation with later start times.) We’re all certainly entitled to our personal preferences, but I really think the majority of potential ticket-buyers in this area are not longing for later start times.

I don't do a lot in Berkeley for the same reason, but that doesn't make them wrong when it obviously works for so many people.

Well, exactly: there’s lots of great stuff in Berkeley, not only from Cal Performances but from Berkeley Rep and the Aurora Theater, but if it’s too much of a burden you’re not going to go. Wasting three hours between work and the start of a performance is a burden, and you have not persuaded me that most people don’t see the waiting time as wasted. To some extent, yes, it works for many people in the sense that current audiences are OK with the 8:00 start time, but as I've pointed out, those audiences tend to be made up of retired people, students, and others with flexible schedules. Most working people just don't bother to go.

I don't know – I say this to you as a friend and someone I admire and respect, but to say "these people are simply not dealing in reality" sounds pretty harsh to me

I don’t mean it to be harsh (as it would be if I said something like, “these people are crazy”). I’m not trying to be harsh, or snarky, or “controversial”: I’m trying to be accurate. I think they are not dealing in reality, and I think this is the easily verifiable local reality:

1) Most people in this area have jobs that start at 8:00 in the morning or earlier. I don’t know for sure (it probably has something to do with the financial markets in New York and the three-hour time difference) why my jobs back east were 9:00 to 5:00 and out here they’re 8:00 to 5:00, but such is the case. I frequently get to work between 7:30 and 8:00 and the office is already mostly full and that is not considered unusual. Walk through the Financial District at that hour and the streets are packed. Unless you’re someone who likes to think of himself or herself as the sort of person who stays out late, you’re not going to go to many things that end late, because it makes the next day too difficult.

2) Most Americans do not get enough time off and even those who do often end up not using their allotment because of workplace pressures. Time off is precious. Hours spent waiting for a performance to begin start adding up as wasted hours. Go to the theater enough and you’re going to start adding up the hours spent waiting and you will start thinking this is maybe not the most productive use of your time. It gets back to a conversation I had with you several months ago that really resonated with me: I mentioned that you seemed to have cut back on theater and one of the reasons you gave was to avoid “entertaining yourself to death” at the expense of other things you could be doing with your life. Exactly.

3) Live performance is competing against plenty of cultural choices that are cheaper and more easily accessible. Theaters need as many paying customers as possible, and it is foolish to make it so inconvenient for working people.

Given the fungible nature of reality, people are of course free to dispute the points above, but it needs to be about accuracy, not personal preference. I really don't think that what I'm saying here is the equivalent of "well, I'm here, so they can start now." I think my experience is shared by many.

and I don't think we bloggers are at the top of the list when considerations are made on scheduling the starting times of events –

I’m making this point not as a blogger, but as a frequent theater-goer (who buys expensive tickets and often donates to theaters, by the way – they’re losing more than a $10 ticket when they lose me) who also works a regular 8:00 to 5:00 job. Blogging is essentially irrelevant to what I'm saying here.

but I do think they are interested in making it convenient for all those folks who want to eat at Absinthe or the Hayes Valley Grill (or at the Grove or Arlequin for that matter) and that's the majority.

I’m curious where you’re getting that information. That group couldn’t possibly be the majority because I doubt that all those restaurants combined (and throw in Jardiniere as well) have enough seating to accommodate the audience in Herbst, let alone Davies Hall and the Opera House, on those nights when all three venues are on.

Also: those are fairly expensive restaurants. I prefer to spend my money on tickets. You’re taking an expensive evening and making it even more expensive. I thought theaters were trying to fight the image that they were only for the rich, or for people who didn’t need to work? Look, if theaters want to cater to that crowd (yeah, instinctive revulsion is going on), that’s (quite literally) their business, but, as noted earlier: looming irrelevance. Because even if the fine-diners are the majority (which I doubt), going after that group instead of those interested in theater itself is, as I have pointed out above, the way to cultural irrelevance.

And for those that abhor late nights,

This isn’t about “abhorring”; it’s about a realistic assessment of the hours most working people in this area have to keep. There’s no attempt at curfew here; anyone who likes late nights is free to go to a bar or restaurant after the show. I do realize there aren’t many open then, because there aren’t enough customers for it to be economically feasible. There aren't enough customers because most people have to work early the next day.

that's what weekend matinees are for,

Sure, but weekends get filled up, and so do weekend matinees. Theaters realize this, which is why so many of them charge more for weekend tickets. Wouldn’t it make sense for them to increase the potential number of ticket-buyers, and therefore increase the theater's income, by instituting more realistic start times during the week?

but why would they want to willingly give away comp tickets to performances that won't get them coverage until after it's all over

Again: my point is not about getting comp tickets. I get them so seldom that it's not really a consideration for me. In the original entry I went back and forth on whether it should be “bloggers” or “working people” who had difficulties with 8:00 weeknight performances. I ended up going with “bloggers,” which perhaps obscured my point.

As for not getting coverage, well, even professional reviewers are not going to have a review in print until the run is pretty much over. That’s what happens when your run is over a single weekend. You have the same problem when the performance is a one-off, as are most recitals etc. I assume the benefits of getting the word out about a particular performer or theater group make it worthwhile for them to hand out comp tickets. It’s not really my problem. Though I will happily accept free tickets, I never ask for them and don’t count on them. My point here is about regular theater-goers, that is, people who pay for their tickets.

(and to performances that will probably sell better than the evening shows)?

If weekend matinees are selling better than 8:00 evening shows, theaters might want to do some serious thinking about why that is.

[from a second e-mail, after I thanked him for responding and told him he should post his remarks or let me post them]:

I just don't want to come across like I'm criticizing you because that's not my intent.

As stated earlier, I’m fine with hearing different viewpoints. I’ve usually come from the theater, not Mount Sinai, and I have no tablets of celestial law.

I remember when you wrote to me about "War Music" that just because I didn't like how they did it didn't make them wrong for doing it that way, and that's really the spirit of what I'm saying here.

Indeed. I meant that more to apply to what theaters are staging as opposed to how they’re operating, but it’s still a valid point. And I don’t say theaters are wrong for persisting in the 8:00 start time. I say they’re foolish, because as far as I can see they’re missing out on a lot of their potential audience.

If that’s what they want to do, that’s their choice, but then they really do need to drop the whole “expanding the audience” blah blah blah shtick. Being innovative in this case isn’t about setting up a Twitter feed or whatever the e-thing of the moment is; it’s about taking a hard look at the fundamentals of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, and maybe doing things differently.

It's up to you whether or not you want to post it and respond [. . . ] be "nice" in your response, please.

I’m actually not sure how to take that. I think I’m always nice, sometimes too much so, though of course I realize that for various reasons people don't always see things my way. But I wasn’t kidding in my original entry when I said I was speaking with love in my heart. I never try to be snarky, I try to be accurate. I’m afraid you have not convinced me that I’m wrong in what I said, so I’ve had to express that. I’ve realized that no matter how carefully I phrase things (and people don’t always realize how carefully I’m phrasing certain things) people are sometimes going to read them in a tone that’s very different from the one I had in mind. There’s not much I can do about that, short of emoticons.


Are you at least going to the Friday performance?

No, I did not, and here’s a summary of what I did with my evening instead: a light workout, then I worked in my garden for an hour, then washed the dishes and did a load of laundry and some other housekeeping stuff, I checked e-mail, I read about the first book and a half of Sarah Ruden’s new translation of the Aeneid, I listened to my new Kurtag CD, watched an episode of South Park, and was asleep by about the time the second act of Barbiere would have been beginning, which was good because I was exhausted and would rather sleep at home than in the theater. (We've all seen people who nod off as soon as the lights go out: another hazard of late start times.)

I had a good evening: productive and filled with cultural enrichment. I hope yours was also pleasant.

Haiku 2011/218

dolls notice neglect
when gambling guys are rolling
O, the giddy whirl!

05 August 2011

Haiku 2011/217

night falls on toyland
Candyland lies deserted
dolls notice neglect

04 August 2011

Haiku 2011/216

children are sleeping
kittens curl on coverlets
night falls on toyland

03 August 2011

Haiku 2011/215

lovers are lying
stately moons roll overhead
children are sleeping

02 August 2011

fun stuff I may or may not get to: August

August is as usual a fairly slow month, but there’s a surprising amount of opera on offer:

This year’s Merola singers, by all accounts a very promising bunch, are performing Rossini’s evergreen Il barbiere di Siviglia at Herbst Theater at 8:00 August 4 and 5 and 2:00 August 6 and 7. The opera is doublecast, with each cast performing twice.

OK, the Merola Program offered me tickets to this, for which I am grateful, since I don't get these offers very often, but: we are “strongly urged” to attend on both the 4th and 5th, and those who do get “seating priority”; tickets will be “extremely limited” for those who can only go once, or to the later performances. That's fine; it makes sense to have reviewers hear both casts, and I was starting to look forward to doing so, this being an instance in which hearing something twice might be more interesting than hearing it once (I like Barbiere but don’t really feel much urgency about hearing it again, but it would be fun to compare the different casts).

Then I checked the calendar. I had assumed we were talking about Friday and Saturday: no, it’s Thursday and Friday. So this is apparently how this is supposed to go: I get up early and work all day Thursday, then I have to kill three hours until the show starts at 8:00; the show runs about three hours, so I don’t get home until around midnight; then, after five hours or less of sleep, I have to get up early, go work another full day, then waste another three hours waiting for 8:00 to roll around, and then I get home around midnight, presumably to rise early the next morning to be first out of the gate with something cogent and quotable.

8:00 start times on Thursday and Friday night for a three-hour work, two nights in a row? Look, I say this with sincere love in my heart, and mucho gratitude for the offer, and every good wish for the success of these swell young singers, but: these people are simply not dealing in reality. Does someone over Opera-House Way realize that most of us bloggers actually have to have jobs? Ones that, you know, pay? Where we need to be productive, or at least semi-conscious, and no one cares that we’d really rather be at the opera?

Well, if you’re retired, unemployed or self-employed, or a student, please enjoy the show!

The Merola Grand Finale will take place on Saturday, August 20, at 7:30, in the Opera House.

Berkeley/West Edge Opera offers the world premiere of Caliban Dreams; the final two performances are Friday August 5 and Sunday August 7.

The fabulous and adventurous Ensemble Parallele offers one of my all-time favorite operas (thank you!), the Virgil Thomson/Gertrude Stein collaboration 4 Saints in 3 Acts, at Yerba Buena on August 18-21. This is billed as an “opera installation” with additional music by Luciano Chessa. I personally have never felt the need for additional music to 4 Saints, but considering Ensemble Parallele’s track record I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt.

If you’re tired of singing (or, rather, of listening to singers), Old First Concerts has some interesting programs; the one that is catching my eye is Sunday, August 28, at 4:00: Robert Howard on cello and Elizabeth Dorman on piano, performing Orion by Takemitsu, Louange a l’Eternite de Jesus by Messiaen, Suite Italienne by Stravinsky, and the Sonata in F major by Brahms.

And speaking of Gertrude Stein, SFMOMA’s showing of the reassembled Stein collection will be there for only about another month. This is arguably the artistic event of the year, and it almost doesn’t matter which year you’re referring to.

Haiku 2011/214

stretched under the stars
your future path is lying
lovers are lying

01 August 2011

Haiku 2011/213

young nights of summer
a breeze rustles restless dreams
stretched under the stars