24 June 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/26

Amateur Fighter

for my father

What's left is the tiny gold glove
hanging from his key chain. But,
before that, he had come to boxing,

as a boy, out of necessity – one more reason
to stay away from home, go late
to that cold house and dinner alone

in the dim kitchen. Perhaps he learned
just to box a stepfather, then turned
that anger into a prize at the Halifax gym.

Later, in New Orleans, there were the books
he couldn't stop reading. A scholar, his eyes
weakening. Fighting, then, a way to live

dangerously. He'd leave his front tooth out
for pictures so that I might understand
living meant suffering, loss. Really living

meant taking risks, so he swallowed
a cockroach in a bar on a dare, dreamt
of being a bullfighter. And at the gym

on Tchoupitoulas Street, he trained
his fists to pound into a bag
the fury contained in his gentle hands.

The red headgear, hiding his face,
could make me think he was someone else,
that my father was somewhere else, not here

holding his body up to pain.

Natasha Trethewey

Here's another boxing poem. I actually come across very few works* that grapple in a meaningful way with what masculinity means in our society, which is something I think this poem does very thoughtfully and beautifully, even though it's not written by a man (proof once again that empathy and artistic detachment and understanding are much more important in writing about a group than is being a member of that group – insight is not determined by genetics). It's interesting how central fighting still is to works that examine masculinity – Fight Club is an obvious example, but also the play Blade to the Heat and W C Heinz's novel The Professional (Hemingway could only dream of writing a novel that good).

In this poem, boxing – the primal almost savage urge towards both attack and self-defense limited and guided by rules that turn it into both sport and art – is both forced upon and chosen by the young man. He needs to defend himself against the hardness of the world (first visited on him in the person of his family, specifically a stepfather). But he also feel an inner, visceral need to fight; he's a scholar and voracious reader, but physical risk and danger are part of living in the world, a part he feels the need to embrace. How much can even a scholar understand if he doesn't understand and prepare to fight back against the hardness of the world? It's the gentle and quiet parts of his nature that lead to anger against the thoughtless cruelty of the world: it may sound like a paradox for Trethewey to refer to "the fury contained in his gentle hands" but the fury and the gentleness both reside together and are aspects of each other. (I have read that there is a manifestation of the Buddha shown with fire swirling up as he stamps his feet in anger at humanity's refusal to move towards enlightenment.) He boxes, he swallows cockroaches on a dare, he dreams of bullfighting – and he also tries to help his daughter learn difficult lessons about how unforgiving life can be. Men are expected to live in the world in a certain way, which is why the narrator here has the not uncommon experience of seeing her father in a social role (in this case, in the ring, with his headgear on) and realizing that her father can be a man completely unfamiliar to her.

In the last line, I love the placement of "up," because I see a different shade of meaning there: if she had said "holding up his body to pain" I think that would have implied that he was mostly enduring – that the pain was actively attacking, and he was passively resisting. But "holding his body up to pain" implies that he is choosing to stand against pain – he is seeking it out, which is a way of beating it, even if ultimately the pain wins.

Trethewey is currently the Poet Laureate of the United States. I took this poem from The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry, edited by Arnold Rampersad; you may find other works by Trethewey here.

* If you can think of others to recommend, please do so.

17 June 2013

fun stuff I may or may not get to: July 2013

This seems like a slow month, even for a July, but these all look worth the time and trouble. I could  use a slow month or two anyway; besides the perpetual backlog, I'm still digesting the fantastic Ojai North concerts that Cal Performances put on last weekend.

Shotgun Players present Sea of Reeds, a new monologue by Josh Kornbluth, 2 July to 4 August.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs 18 - 21 July at the Castro Theater; I was  going to list highlights but I'd just end up listing everything, so check it all out here.

American Bach Soloists presents its annual summer festival of concerts and lectures, 12 - 21 July at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; highlights include Handel's Esther and Bach's Mass in B minor; complete schedule here.

West Edge Opera presents Britten's The Turn of the Screw, 20, 26, and 28 July.

San Francisco Opera ends its season early in the month, but you can see future stars of opera in the Merola production of Britten's Rape of Lucretia on 11 and 13 (matinee) July, in the Everett Auditorium at 450 Church Street in San Francisco.

Poem of the Week 2013/25

Here's another boxing poem, and it's also another one by Ishmael Reed:

Petite Kid Everett

The bantamweight King of
He couldn't box
He couldn't dance
He just kept coming at
you, glass chin first
Taking five punches for
every one he connected with

Petite Kid Everett
He missed a lot
Slipped a lot and
By mid-life he'd
developed one heck
of a sorehead
Took to fighting in
the alley
Gave up wearing a mouthpiece
Beat up his trainers
Beat up the referee
Beat up his fans
Beat up everybody who was
in his corner

Even jumped on Houston Jr.
the lame pail boy
Who didn't have good sense
Petite Kid Everett
There's talk of a comeback
He's got new backers
He stands on one of the four
corners, near the Prudential Life
Trading blows with ghosts
Don't it make you wanna cry?

Ishmael Reed

Here are some things I love about this poem:

I love that he's "Petite" Kid Everett; even more than little or tiny or Kid, petite gives you a sense of overwhelming odds against him – is it the fancy Frenchness of the word? its association with women's sizes? its general aura of daintiness? But it also sounds a bit grander than little or tiny: again, the fancy Frenchness, etc. In an almost Dickensian way, a lot of the character – his persistence, his loserdom – is rolled up in the name.

I love that he ends up standing on a corner, "near the Prudential Life / Building" – and there no doubt is an actual Prudential Life insurance company building on that corner in Newark, but a prudential approach to life is exactly what the struggling Petite Kid does not have – on one side, the vast imperturbable substantial walls of an impersonal calculating agency, on the other, a doomed man flailing away with increasingly random violence against first opponents, then friends, then bystanders, then ghosts – obsessions, visions, insubstantial but inescapable hallucinations.

And unlike last week's poem, the boxer's persistence isn't seen as necessarily an admirable, hopeful quality, and that's another thing I love about this poem: the way the last line jolts the whole thing into a certain framework. This isn't a sociological or protest poem about a man denied opportunities; it's much deeper than that, an encapsulation of rueful and even tragic wisdom about what life, at a basic level, is like, as the hapless Petite Kid spirals ineluctably down.

I took this from Reed's New and Collected Poems, 1964 - 2006.

16 June 2013

Bronze by gold

Bronze by gold, Miss Douce's head by Miss Kennedy's head, over the crossblind of the Ormond bar heard the viceregal hoofs go by, ringing steel.

– Is that her? asked Miss Kennedy.

Miss Douce said yes, sitting with his ex, pearl gray and eau de Nil.

– Exquisite contrast, Miss Kennedy said.

When all agog Miss Douce said eagerly:

– Look at the fellow in the tall silk.

– Who? Where? gold asked more eagerly.

– In the second carriage, Miss Douce's wet lips said, laughing in the sun. He's looking. Mind till I see.

She darted, bronze, to the backmost corner, flattening her face against the pane in a halo of hurried breath.

Her wet lips tittered:

– He's killed looking back.

She laughed:

– O wept! Aren't men frightful idiots?

With sadness.

Miss Kennedy sauntered sadly from bright light, twining a loose hair behind an ear. Sauntering sadly, gold no more, she twisted twined a hair. Sadly she twined in sauntering gold hair behind a curving ear.

– It's them has the fine times, sadly then she said.

And is it Bloomsday again? Then Happy Bloomsday once again to my mountain flowers.

12 June 2013

sketches for Gesualdo, Prince of Madness

Last Friday I went to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for Opera Parallele's "opera lab" first public presentation of Gesualdo, Prince of Madness, based on the life of the Italian Renaissance composer, with music by Dante de Silva, libretto by Mitchell Morris, and graphics by Mark Simmons. The performance was held in the smaller recital hall there, which was packed. As usual with Opera Parallele, Brian Staufenbiel handled the staging and Nicole Paiement conducted. An electronic keyboard stood in for most of the orchestra, but there was also piano, percussion, and, for that distinctive Renaissance sound, a theorbo, along with a trio of women singers, to evoke the madrigals Gesualdo wrote for women's voices.

The opera is in two acts; the performance, which started late, lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes. The first half tells the notorious story of Gesualdo's murder of his wife and her lover when he caught them in bed together. The second half shows the aftermath: Gesualdo, struggling with obsessive memories of the murdered pair, withdrawn into a private world of musical calculations, is married for political reasons to a different young woman, who, advised by a cunning old attendant, is plotting her own way to freedom. The plot is as lurid as anything John Webster might have come up with, complete with adultery, murder, mad scenes, cross-dressing, and deadly herbal poisons, and is a reminder of the reason so many Jacobean tragedies take place in Italy.

But the emphasis isn't so much on the violence as on Gesualdo's distracted mental state; there is frenzied music, but also disquieting, plinking sounds reminiscent of a brain being picked at and over obsessively. There aren't really stand-alone arias; the dialogue flows on as in Wozzeck. Complex ensembles evoke Renaissance madrigals, and the music sounds contemporary with both us and the characters on stage.

Opera Parallele's stagings are always stylish, adventurous, and experimental. The idea for this one is that the "staging" will actually be a projection done in the style of a graphic novel. I assume in the finished version the singers will be in the pit or otherwise out of sight, but I might be wrong about that. I also don't know if the finished version will have continuous movements (as in an animated film) or "panels" that give way to other panels, with some interior animation, which is what we saw on Friday.

It's an interesting idea, and in some ways is the ideal of a certain type of opera creator (or fan): the characters will always look as they do in the drawings, without the variations and chance qualities that you get with different individuals (particularly in opera casting, where voice and not appearance is the primary concern). But I like seeing the different qualities different performers bring to a role; I was thinking about this when Nikola Printz started singing Artemisia, the older lady-in-waiting – I could tell immediately from the way she darkened her voice not only that she was singing a different character from before, but the type of guarded, calculating character this woman was. It played off in interesting ways against the singer's youthful appearance and Louise Brooks-style hairdo. But on screen Artemisia will always have the same dour, dessicated look. The drawings are very well done but personally I prefer a more stylized look (the style here is similar to the fairly realistic style used by Dave Gibbons for Alan Moore's Watchmen).

In addition to Printz, the singers were Daniel Cilli as Carlo, impassioned and convincing as both killer and composer, Michelle Rice as his first wife Maria, Maya Kherani as his second wife Leonora, Andres Ramirez as Maria's lover, Chris Filipowicz as a male servant, and Sarah Eve Brand, Lora Libby, and Rachel Rush as the female trio. Though there were projections there were no surtitles (a printed libretto was provided). I had little trouble understanding the words, though, except for some of the ensembles and the higher-lying voices, which are where I usually have trouble. Keisuke Nakagoshi played piano, Adam Cockerham played theorbo, McKenzie Camp played percussion, and Eva-Maria Zimmerman handled the keyboard. It was difficult to believe they'd only been playing this piece together for a week or so.

The opera has been in development for several years, but the company has only recently started working on it as a group. I look forward to seeing the finished version, or other intermediate stages. There was a Q-and-A session afterwards with the artists, followed by a reception, but I was unable to stay for either. Perhaps if I had I would have seen Axel Feldheim, who was there, though sadly for me I missed him.

11 June 2013

Krispy Kritters at Cutting Ball Theater

A few Sundays ago I went to the Cutting Ball Theater to see their world premiere production of Andrew Saito's Krispy Kritters in the Scarlett Night, directed by Rob Melrose. The cheerful and efficient young woman who handles the tickets asked me how I was doing. "I'm OK," I lied. "Just OK?" she said. "Maybe our show will make you feel better." I smiled weakly, because that is what I do in situations like that, but damned if she wasn't right: two hours later I walked out feeling much, much better. Because a terrific evening of theater can do that to you.

But I'm not sure how to describe this play, or what I can say that would entice people to go, though I think they should. I often wonder why we decide to attend one event and not another – what piques our interest? People usually fall back on plot, but I often find that the least interesting element of a show – it's certainly the most transitory; once you let the horse of plot out of the theatrical barn, you can't coax it back inside. Some works grow richer if you watch them knowing how they develop and end, but works planned with such subtlety usually have other elements (character, psychological or social insight, language) that are even stronger than plot.

On the other hand, wondering what happens next is a basic human impulse. It's the energy that keeps a story moving forward. But I have to admit that one reason I've never seen a play by Neil Labute (on stage; I did see the film version of The Company of Men, which struck me as a bit off, like something written by someone who had read anthropological articles about "the alpha male" and corporate life but had never actually experienced either) is that they're generally sold in terms of their plots, which tend towards such overheated and calculated "controversy" that they seem to me the dramatic equivalent of clickbait. They just don't sound interesting to me, though I can see that they might to some others.

So I'm not sure what to say here that would be the right thing to say. Enthusiastic adjectives are too commonplace to catch attention, and though a lot happens in this play . . . well, the descriptions of Krispy Kritters that I saw beforehand made me think it might be trying too hard, or be a bit too cutesy or quirky. It's not; it's like being trapped inside several interesting minds at once. Here are some elements of the show, and I hope there's something that snags your attention:

There's a young man, Drumhead, who works in a mortuary, and has his own furry little version of a glass menagerie: a collection of stuffed mice and other vermin that he keeps in matchboxes (except for the hamster Jesus, hanging on a cross in his room); he's fascinated by the prostitute Scarlett. Scarlett's madame is her grandmother, a dear, semi-doddering old woman who enthusiastically recommends masturbation to women, and who occasionally loses her hearing, and when that happens, Scarlett or Nurse Candy will have to suck out the animal obstructing her ear, and the animal, caught in a paper bag, usually carries some sort of object as well, like a shoe (are these spirit animals carrying totems and portents? you can go as real or as metaphysical as you like with them); the animals get dumped out into the growing, growling, threatening menagerie in the backyard and basement. The grandmother sometimes requires a key body part from Scarlett; Nurse Candy traipses over and sweetly insinuates that Scarlett needs to do right by Gran Ma Ma until Scarlett gives in and the doctors take out her kidney or lung or whatever.

There's a rival prostitute as well, a young Japanese woman called Snowflake, and there are constant power struggles among these women. Drumhead is both fascinated and repelled by their sexuality. His father Pap Pap, a legless old man in a wheelchair, fights naval battles in a basin he holds on his lap. He dreams of getting his legs back. There are mysterious deaths among Scarlett's clients; Drumhead sees them at the morgue and plays detective, ineffectually, while he moons over Scarlett and Snowflake moons over him. It's all grounded in lots of bodily fluids, and lots of animal life, and lots of sex and death. There's flagellation and youthful yearning and aged regrets. Grotesque comedy gives way to grotesque tragedy, and vice versa. It all makes perfect sense while you experience it.

Credit for that goes not only to playwright Saito, who kept it all together while also taking it all apart, but also to director Melrose, and the versatile, deeply talented cast: Felicia Benefield as Scarlett, Wiley Naman Strasser as Drumhead, Marjorie Cump-Shears as Gran Ma Ma, Mimu Tsujimura as Snowflake, David Sinaiko as Pap Pap, Maura Halloran as Judge Gristle and Nurse Candy, and Drew Wolff and Caleb Cabrera in a variety of smaller roles.

It's the best kind of theater: you can't describe it, you can only really experience it. And if you go see it again, I think you'd have a different experience each time – you'll pick up on different themes and connections. The run was originally scheduled to end 16 June, but has been extended to the 23rd. Click here for tickets. Andrew Saito is just beginning a three-year assignment as Resident Playwright at Cutting Ball. I'm looking forward to what the next three years bring.

10 June 2013

the sweet By and By

On a recent Thursday I went to the Ashby Stage to see the Shotgun Players presentation of By and By, a new play by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Mina Morita.

We plunge right into the story, with Denise's shocked reaction to her father Steven's announcement that she was cloned from his wife Denise, who died in a car crash about eighteen years ago. He is finally telling her this because a quasi-governmental agency has been trying to contact them – this is a slightly future world in which cloning humans is possible, but not all that successful; most of them die in their mid-teens, so the agency is very curious to find out why Denise has so far shown no signs of the usual illnesses. The downside to the immediate plunge into the action, though, is that we have no sense of what this family is like normally. I'm sure it would be a bit of a shock to discover you were cloned (I wonder how people react when or if they find out they were conceived through in vitro fertilization?), but Denise's histrionic, obscenity-laden repetitions make her seem like an annoying, self-dramatizing adolescent, not like the wonderful person Steven keeps saying she is. (The dead wife, also played by Jennifer LeBlanc, shows up for Steven's benefit after the daughter has run away, and is much more appealing.)

The cloning is very expensive – a cost of a million dollars per procedure is cited. We live in a country in which millions of people can't afford even basic health care, and there is angry debate over whether they should be able to. No one raises this issue. We live in a country in which reproductive rights and euthenasia and respect for life and what that means are also fiercely debated, but no one raises those issues either. We live in a country in which wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in a small percentage of the population, but here cloning seems widely and easily available. (No one seems concerned about overpopulation, either.) The only objection to the process seems to be that it doesn't work that well, which is why the quasi-governmental agency seems to be trying to shut down or at least control the process, despite the money to be made, a development which, how shall I say, does not seem congruent with long-term trends in American society. (As in last season's uneven Precious Little, the play is weirdly blinkered by a very narrow, class-privileged view of American realities). Some of the obvious (and potentially lucrative) possibilities of cloning are never mentioned at all: organ harvesting, for example, or the creation of a class of special workers or soldiers (that may seem too science-fiction-dystopian, but I recently saw an article on physiological research to increase wakefulness in combat soldiers; a huge amount of scientific research is funded by the military, and our society is increasingly militarized, but not in the world we see here).

Money is treated very vaguely throughout. The cost of the procedure is mentioned, but not how the families raised the money, or how the massive debt affects their lives; the only other clone we meet is a young black man who seems to come from an ordinary middle- or maybe working-class family. How did his mother get a million dollars to recreate her son? Steven (I wonder if he was made so nebbishy so he didn't seem like a Dr Frankenstein?) assures his daughter that he quit the lab after he cloned her, but though there's no indication he works anywhere else, he seems to have plenty of money – presumably he gets some sort of residuals from the process, since he invented it, though again this is never spelled out, and no one, even the angry receptionist at the clone support agency, accuses him of profiting from the pain of others, and he seems to think that quitting the lab absolved him of all further association with cloning.

I've gone on here about cloning and money because the play doesn't. It uses cloning almost entirely as a metaphor for trying to hang on to a loved one in spite of death. (Though it's an imperfect metaphor since, as Steven assures his daughter, cloning doesn't recreate the same person, because of the influence of environment and so forth – this raises the interesting possibility that some people paid a million dollars for what turned out to be an unsatisfactory reproduction of a missing original, but that possibility isn't explored).

As I mentioned, Steven's wife appears to him when his daughter runs off, and she is full of the sort of warm, loving wisdom not untinged with condescension frequent to spirit visitors from beyond as well as to wives. She finally urges him to let her go – in other words, he may be the agent of his actions, but she is the agent of his emotional growth. In life as on stage, that's certainly not an unknown situation, but it would have been maybe less conventional to have a more painful realization on his part – that his experiences as a father and widower and scientist had led him to grow past her, since her development had been cut off by her early death.

At the end, father and daughter are re-united; he has tried to shield her from scrutiny, but now, in an effort to move on and, in general, heal, he talks her into going public with him. Earlier his dead wife had chided him for not dating again (though she also expresses jealousy that he might do so) and had mentioned how restricted his life has been since her death, and even though this is because he's trying to protect his cloned daughter, I also thought that maybe Gunderson had noticed, as I have, how underpopulated a lot of plays are. But I guess I was wrong about that, since father and daughter head off into a future that seems clear of anything to trouble or harass them, outside of the committee: for one thing, there seem to be no media, social or mainstream, that might hound and exploit them (can't you see the headlines now? "Clone Girl Breaks the Silence! Clone Girl: 'I'm not my mother!' Clone Girl in DUI!"). There is no indication that there might be violence directed towards them, or even lawsuits, or other unpleasantness or danger. It's all about their personal emotional growth, which seems to happen in a social vacuum.

It's not that every play needs to be a searing denunciation of American realities, but if you're going to bring up a topic like cloning, you need to make it more than a hook. I had the feeling Gunderson really just wanted to write a play about moving on after the death of a loved one. And as such this play has some touching scenes – between father and daughter, and husband and wife, and with the ill young man, and with the wife's kindly, aging sister, whose mind is starting to wander. There are some beautiful speeches about appreciating each moment, because you never know which will be the last (I guess I envy people who haven't already been taught that by life). But the superficial handling of the cloning theme keeps weakening the play.

The cast is strong, though I felt they were sometimes a bit too emphatic, but then I often feel that, so maybe that's just me, though the Ashby Stage is such an intimate space, I wish more advantage were taken of the intimacy. Michael Patrick Gaffney is Steven, Jennifer LeBlanc is both wife and daughter Denise, Lynne Hollander plays the other female roles, and Bari Robinson the other male roles (it would have been witty, or at least interesting, to work the multiple roles played by two actors into the cloning theme). The play moves rapidly, lasting about seventy minutes with no intermission. It runs through 23 June; click here for more information.

Poem of the Week 2013/24

the loser

and the next I remembered I'm on a table,
everybody's gone; the head of bravery
under light, scowling, flailing me down . . .
and then some toad stood there, smoking a cigar:
"Kid you're no fighter," he told me,
and I got up and knocked him over a chair;
it was like a scene in a movie, and
he stayed there on his big rump and said
over and over: "Jesus, Jesus, whatsamatta wit
you?" and I got up and dressed,
the tape still on my hands, and when I got home
I tore the tape off my hands and
wrote my first poem,
and I've been fighting
ever since.

Charles Bukowski

I don't really have much to add to this. Poets, keep battling! I took this from Perfect in Their Art: Poems on Boxing from Homer to Ali, edited by Robert Hedin and Michael Waters. More books by Bukowski are available here.

08 June 2013

a fantastic new Flute

Kenneth Branagh's film of The Magic Flute was made in 2006 but is only now being released in the United States. I have no idea why there was such a delay – the film is captivating, and Mozart is well served. Over the years I've seen quite a few of Branagh's films (he's described on the DVD case as "the director of Thor," which is accurate but not adequate), and though I generally liked them (some of them quite a lot) I was really not prepared for the excellence and inventiveness of his Magic Flute. I preferred it to Ingmar Bergman's celebrated film adaptation. Even if, like me, you feel you've seen enough Magic Flutes to tide you over for the next decade, or two, I urge you to check out this one.

As with Bergman's film, this is an adaptation for film of the opera (as opposed to a recording of a stage production). Branagh did the adaptation, as well as directing, and he had the brilliant idea of setting the story in the midst of World War I, the war that broke open the modern world. Before I saw the movie I would have hesitated to declare that a brilliant idea, but the result is completely convincing, and accommodates the familiar story with surprising ease. The setting amid the trenches and the slaughter immediately raises the stakes, and many elements that before had a fairy-tale arbitrariness now make life-and-death sense: the vow of silence, for example, when Tamino cannot tell even Pamina what his mission is. For once I wasn't irritated that he didn't turn to comfort her. Or the trial by fire, when he and Pamina, both holding the flute, actually walk through enemy fire in their quest for peace.

But I shouldn't make the staging sound too literal: though there are some substitutions (the fierce serpent at the beginning is a hissing grenade, which releases a long tail of black smoke), we still have the titular flute and the spell-casting silver bells, and there are elements that evoke Surrealism, one of the several artistic responses to the war: a trench-wall of sandbags sings a chorus; characters fly and bounce and appear in different locations; when Papageno dreams of one day finding a Papagena, he is suddenly in a bright flowery field, and a huge pair of red lips float Magritte-like in front of him, until he suddenly snaps back to reality, where he's in a cell.

The ambiguities of war help explain some of the story's seeming contradictions: who can tell who is good and who is not and why, in the middle of battle? The Three Ladies first appear when the grenade knocks out Tamino; they float down from the night sky, all in wimpled white, like nurses or nuns. Then when they see how handsome the young soldier is, they pull off their headresses and show a lot more cleavage than nuns or nurses generally show. It's amusing, and part of learning how deceptive appearances are, particularly during wartime.

There's a constant tension in the film between the realistic and the magical (between war and peace, you might say). At the beginning as the overture plays a white butterfly flutters in musical time over green fields and then over the trenches and then war planes drop out of the clouds and also start rolling and dipping in time. The three boys appear and disappear and float in air or roll out of chimneys (their white and beige garments showing no sign of the soot billowing out with them) but they also behave like three actual little boys: when they clap their hands over Papageno's mouth, they do it a little too roughly, enjoying the mischief of it. (There are many excellent touches like this in the performances, as when Pamina hastily smooths her hair before seeing Tamino again.)

There's no simple equation of, say, the Queen of the Night with the Germans and Sarastro with the British. She is bent on war, driven by a personal enmity towards Sarastro (as in Bergman's film, he is a former lover of hers). She makes her entrance backlit, astride a tank. As she sings her first aria to Tamino, commanding him to rescue her captured daughter, the camera moves in until her mouth, issuing its sparkler notes, takes up the whole left-hand side of the screen, and as the other tanks in the background slowly move over the horizon, they look as if they are all issuing from her mouth. The movie is full of inventive touches like that.

Sarastro sometimes seems to be a medical man, at other times a military leader. Subtle touches make him more complex than usual: Sarastro is a good man, but how good, ultimately, were any of the men who led the war? One of the mystic signs of wisdom inscribed on the wall of his temple is the famous line from Horace which the British Empire took from the Roman, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and fitting to die for one's fatherland), a reminder of the imperialistic, patriarchal culture of war and patriotism that led to such massive carnage and devastation.

Monostatos is still a dark-skinned man, and initially I was a little surprised that Branagh didn't just change that to avoid the racially-tinged treatment of the character. But it lends some complexity to him; he feels he's victimized because of his skin color (he smashes mirrors as he laments his appearance), and it's a reminder of the imperial era's pervasive racism (he first appears in sort of Indian garb). But this staging doesn't excuse Monostatos or make him too sympathetic; he still tries to rape Pamina. There are darker-skinned men who have positions of authority in Sarastro's army. The crowd that supports Sarastro contains many different types of people (as many as were ruled by the British Empire), and I felt this conveyed the universal import of the story better than Bergman's device of showing "faces of many lands" during the overture.

This is the only Flute I've seen in which the very end, the final attack against Sarastro by the Queen of the Night, Monostatos, and the Three Ladies, doesn't feel sort of arbitrary. Amid the celebrations of the triumph and subsequent wedding of Tamino and Pamina, the Queen and company scale the walls of Sarastro's tower. Sarastro tries to help her but the Queen's rage and despair are so great she chooses death rather than his help. This is not only psychologically plausible, it also helps complete the theme of suicide – both Pamina and then Papageno finally resist the urge to kill themselves (though he's never quite as serious about it), but the Queen cannot bring herself to reconcile with her enemy.

Yes, this is an opera, so music must have the final word, and fortunately the visual felicities and thought-provoking staging are in service of an excellent performance. James Conlon conducted, pacing and shaping the music beautifully (and I believe I also saw him in a Hitchcock-like cameo as an officer in the trenches, comforting a sharpshooter). Joseph Kaiser as Tamino really dominates the story as a leading man in a way that stage Taminos usually don't – and here the wartime setting definitely helps; as I have previously noted, Tamino is the most hilariously unmanly of all opera heroes, but there's something really at stake in what he does here, and the chivalrous idealism that motivates his actions movingly evokes the high-minded romanticism of many of the young men killed in the war. The charismatic Kaiser is an excellent actor as well as a singer of warmth and sensitivity.

Benjamin Jay Davis as Papageno also gained from the wartime setting; he's still a bird-catcher (he first shows up with a canary used to test for poison gas) and still fun-loving, but Davis brings out a wistful side that sometimes get shortchanged when it's all about Papageno guzzling booze (here his drink of choice is beer, not wine, which shows how careful the adaptation is with details; of course a working-class man like Papageno would drink beer, not wine). Rene Pape brings his sonorous authority to Sarastro. The women are just as strong; Amy Carson is a lovely Pamina (when Tamino first sees her portrait, he imagines dancing with her, in a swirly swoony black-and-white dance that epitomizes youthful romanticism). Lyubov Petrova brings surprising nuance to the Queen of the Night. The men in particular had clear diction, though it's probably also more difficult to understand words sung by higher voices. Generally all the soloists are clear. Ensembles are more difficult to understand, which is to be expected. I did wish the DVD had the option of subtitles, though in general they weren't necessary.

The excellent English libretto is by Stephen Fry – no filler, no banging rhymes, no straining for effect; mostly just good straightforward English rhymes, and the right balance of jokiness and seriousness in the dialogue. I had to laugh when Papageno rescues Pamina and tells her about Tamino who loves her after seeing her portrait, and she says, "But where is he?" I always wonder that too during that scene. But then she and Papageno sing that all who are deceitful and treacherous should be punished, and we see the battle lines and the trenches of a war brought about by deceit and treachery and foolishness, with all the attendant waste and slaughter of a generation, and I found myself, to my surprise, bursting into tears.

The film is being released in theaters Sunday 9 June, with a reprise screening Tuesday 11 June. In some theaters the Sunday screening will be followed by a webcast Q-and-A session from London with Branagh (check www.emergingpictures.com to check for showtimes and theaters near you). The film is also being released on DVD on Tuesday 11 June, and is available on Amazon and the other usual sources.

05 June 2013

fun stuff I may or may not get to: June 2013

To pick up where I left off on my preview of this preview, Cal Performances closes out its season with its annual presentation of Ojai North; this year's director is Cal Performances favorite Mark Morris. A highlight is sure to be the world premiere of Spring, Spring, Spring, Morris's new version of The Rite of Spring as rescored by The Bad Plus and featuring the Mark Morris Dance Group, but the entire schedule is jampacked with enticements, some free, and I encourage you to check it all out here. The festival runs 12 - 15 June.

San Francisco Opera closes out its season with Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman, and the world premiere of Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalen. The Opera has also sponsored a host of Magdalen-related ancillary events, some of which are upcoming. Performances of all three operas runs through early July.

The San Francisco Symphony closes its season with a strong series of concerts: Kirill Karabits conducts Honegger's Pacific 231 and the Sibelius 2, along with Britten's Double Concerto, featuring Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik and principal Violist Jonathan Vinocour, 6 - 9 June; Roberto Abbado conducts Schumann's Genoveva Overture, the USA premiere of Ivan Fedele's Scena, the Schubert 3, and the Schumann Piano Concerto, with soloist Jonathan Biss (returning to Schumann and San Francisco after his excellent four-concert series earlier this year for San Francisco Performances), 13 - 15 June; Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Stravinsky in honor of the centennial of The Rite of Spring: first up is the Rite, Agon, and the Violin Concerto with soloist Gil Shaham, 19 - 20 June, followed by an exploration of Stravinsky's Russian roots, on a program featuring the Rite, Les Noces, and Russian folk songs with the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble, 21 - 22 June; then for the season finale Tilson Thomas leads West Side Story, 27 June - 2 July, with Alexandra Silber as Maria and Cheyenne Jackson as Tony. I haven't heard her before, but I heard him in Finian's Rainbow on Broadway about three years ago; he's a very winning leading man.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents The Hitchcock 9, nine silent Hitchcock films newly restored by the British Film Institute, with live music. That's at the Castro Theater, 14 - 16 June. The Festival also offers a special Hitchcock walking tour of San Francisco on Saturday, 15 June.

The Cutting Ball Theater's Hidden Classics series closes its season with Leonid Andreev's The Black Masks, in a new translation by Allison Horsley, at 1:00 on Sunday 9 June. And Andrew Saito's Krispy Kritters in the Scarlett Night, which I recommend highly, runs through 16 June.

Ray of Light Theater presents Sondheim's Into the Woods, 31 May - 29 June.

Crowded Fire Theater presents 410 [GONE] by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, 6 - 29 June, at Thick House Theater in San Francisco.

The New Conservatory Theatre Center presents Charles Busch's The Divine Sister, 31 May - 29 June.

And the International Orange Chorale of San Francisco presents recent works by women composers; two concerts remain in the run, Friday 7 June at 5:00 in the Solarium Atrium at 55 2nd Street, San Francisco, and Saturday 8 June at 7:30 at St Matthew's Lutheran Church at 3281 16th Street in San Francisco. Performances are free but donations are encouraged and appreciated.

03 June 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/23

Sappho: Fragment 47 x 14

The last time I held a Sapphopalooza, we looked at six different versions of what is possibly her only surviving complete poem, the Hymn to Aphrodite. This time I thought it would be interesting to see the many possibilities of one short fragment – really just a simile, about love but grand in the epic style, that survives from an otherwise unknown poem. The oldest version here from my ever-growing collection of Sappho translations is only from the late 1950s. I think earlier periods prized these surviving remnants of the past, but were more likely to see in them antiquarian rather than aesthetic interest; the twentieth century, under the influence of Imagism and other poetics that favor brevity and fragmentation, were more likely to find a remnant like this a satisfactory poem on its own.

And it is indeed a vivid and emotionally complete statement. The translations, though all from a relatively compact period, show a surprising range emotionally (from wonderment to agony and various places in between) and technically (from an emphasis on the fragmentary and dislocated to attempts at recreating the formal structure of the original). Each version reflects a slightly different view of love, of Sappho, of what Sappho should sound like to our foreign ears, and of what makes an effective poem.

 The original was preserved in the Orations of Maximus of Tyre:
Socrates says Eros is a sophist, Sappho calls him a weaver of tales. Socrates is driven mad for Phaedrus by Eros, while Sappho's heart is shaken by Eros like a wind falling on oaks on a mountain; (i.e.):
Ἔρος δ’ ἐτίναξέ μοιφρένας, ὠς ἄνεμος κὰτ ὄρος δρύσιν ἐμπέτων
That quotation is from the Loeb Classical Library text, and so is the first translation below. I'm starting with this one because, as previously noted, the purpose of the Loeb series is to provide a straightforward, fairly denotative guide on the right-hand pages to the original on the left-hand pages, so this version should be a fairly clear guide to the basic meaning of the words. The other translations are arranged alphabetically by the translator's surname; the date after each is the copyright date of the translation. One translator rendered it twice; his come in order of copyright date.

Love shook my heart like a wind falling on oaks on a mountain.
— trans. David A. Campbell, Greek Lyric: Sappho & Alcaeus, 1982

          Love shook my heart
like the wind on the mountain
rushing over the oak trees
— trans. Josephine Balmer, Poems & Fragments, 1984

Without warning

As a whirlwind
swoops on an oak
Love shakes my heart
— trans. Mary Barnard, Sappho: A New Translation, 1958

Like a mountain whirlwind
punishing the oak trees,
love shattered my heart.
— trans. Willis Barnstone, Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets, 1962


Love shook my heart like wind
on a mountain punishing oak trees.
— trans. Willis Barnstone, Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho: A New Translation, 2006

          Eros shook my
mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees
— trans. Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, 2002

Desire has shaken my mind
As wind in the mountain forests
Roars through trees.
— trans. Guy Davenport, 7 Greeks, 1965

Love shakes my heart
like a wind
sweeping down a mountain
onto oaks
— trans. Suzy Q. Groden, The Poems of Sappho, 1966

     Eros has shaken my mind,
wind sweeping down the mountain on oaks
— trans. Stanley Lombardo, Poems and Fragments, 2002

like a cyclone
shattering oak
     love smote
          my heart
— trans. Richard O'Connell, 1975, from The Sappho Companion, edited by Margaret Reynolds

Like a gale smiting an oak
On mountainous terrain,
Eros, with a stroke,
Shattered my brain.
— trans. Aaron Poochigian, Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments, 2009

Then love shook my heart like the wind that falls on
     oaks in the mountains.
— trans. Jim Powell, The Poetry of Sappho, 2007

Love shook my senses,
like wind crashing on mountain oaks.
— trans. Diane J. Rayor, Sappho's Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece, 1991

shakes my heart like the wind rushing down on
     the mountain oaks.
— trans. M L West, Greek Lyric Poetry, 1993

(The second photo was taken at the San Francisco Legion of Honor; the others are from the Metropolitan Museum's classical galleries.)