30 July 2013

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

The usual performance season heats up in September of course, as does the Bay Area weather, but if you want to escape the melancholy of late summer (I don't mean the usual end-of-summer "as the sun set, a bit earlier than usual, I felt a sudden oncoming chill" sort of thing, but a listless, grinding sense to the days – am I the only one who always feels this?), you can't go wrong with these possibilities; though I also don't discount the appeal of just relaxing for a while. Every summer my concert calendar dwindles to what most people would consider normal (that is, almost nothing), and I always think I'm going to get caught up on all sorts of things, but I somehow don't. I've been staring out at my yard, and thinking of the beautiful lacy plants (officially "weeds") that suddenly appeared last spring, and how I decided they were so attractive I wouldn't pull them up; and now, in the dead of summer, their delicate white flowers have turned into horrible little beige burrs that stick remorselessly on anything that brushes them however lightly. I walk out to water my heirloom tomatoes and I return with my shoelaces, pants, shirt, and cap covered with these things; they even cling to my body hair, and brushing them off with a bare hand means tiny prickly stingers annoy your flesh the rest of the day (brushing them off also means you're spreading the seeds for a thicker onslaught next spring, so I can't fault the ingenious evolutionary adaptation there). They quite literally won't come out in the wash, either. It seems like some sort of allegory (as by some aesthete John Bunyan) for the punishments waiting those who heedlessly and whimsically surrender to fanciful beauty, careless of the painful consequences. Anyway, enjoy! Next spring those plants will be uprooted remorselessly. Who's laughing now, O Evolutionary forces?

Sarah Cahill plays music by Henry Cowell, Samuel Carl Adams, Ann Southam, John Kennedy, and Shinji Eshima (the premiere of Delta 88, with the composer in attendance) at Old First Concerts on 2 August.

The Merola Opera program presents its second opera this summer, Le Nozze di Figaro, at the Everett Middle School Auditorium, 1 and 3 August; their grand finale takes place at the Opera House, 17 August at 7:30, during which the Merolini will sing such a wide range of selections that the concert sounds as if it will be practically a history of opera in kaleidoscopic survey form.

At the Ashby Stage, the Shotgun Players have extended the run of Josh Kornbluth's Sea of Reeds until 18 August; I highly recommend it – just putting that out there in case I don't get a chance to write it up while it's still running. There's other stuff going on in that space as well: Shotgun Cabaret and First Person Singular present Love in the Dark: Pauline Kael at the Movies, adapted from Kael's work and directed by Joe Christiano, with Mary Baird as Kael, for two nights only: 5 August is sold out, but the added performance on 6 August still has seats available. And at the end of the month, Shotgun Players presents Bonnie and Clyde, written by Adam Peck and directed by Mark Jackson, 27 August to 29 September.

Also at the end of the month Aurora Theater kicks off its 22nd season with After the Revolution by Amy Herzog, directed by Joy Carlin; 30 August to 29 September.

Enjoy some diva glamness at the Symphony on 9 August as Jessye Norman sings "the American songbook" (you know – American lieder), accompanied by Mark Markham on piano. The Symphony has had some really interesting summer programs this year, which I usually found out about after they had happened, which is my fault for assuming their summer series would all be pops-type stuff that I wasn't much interested in – I particularly regret missing Cameron Carpenter on organ accompanying a showing of Battleship Potemkin. Damn!

The Lamplighters revive the delightful Iolanthe for most weekends in August, but in different locations; check here for details.

Cal Peformances kicks off early with the Goat Rodeo Sessions, featuring Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and guest Aoife O'Donovan, up at the Greek Theater on 24 August.

TheatreFIRST in its new home at the Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley opens its season with Sarah Ruhl's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, directed by Domenique Lozano, 15 August to 15 September. I re-read the novel in anticipation of probably going to see this, but . . . maybe that was a mistake, since it only reinforced my feeling that Orlando doesn't really lend itself to adaptation: you read the book for the richly beautiful prose, for the quicksilver wit and intelligence, the passing reflections on time and memory, and the clever capsule history of literature and the literary life in England from the Elizabethans up to 1928, when the novel was written (though, as is often the case with Woolf, you are also likely to wince several times at her casual racism and fatuous snobbery). Those are mostly things that come from the narrative voice, and will mostly be lost when you turn the story into live-action-with-dialogue. Several years ago I did see the movie version (Tilda Swinton was in it, and I think Billy Zane as well, though I can't remember what he played, and was Quentin Crisp Queen Elizabeth I? that at least was clever), and found it mildly amusing and mostly forgettable and not at all up to the novel. So on the one hand I'm curious to see what Ruhl has done with it; on the other, I have a sneaking suspicion that maybe she's concentrated on what you might call the gender stuff, which may well have been fresh and provocative in 1928 but which this time around struck me as the least interesting part of the book; I just feel those leftovers have been reheated and served forth way too many times already. Well, perhaps I shall take a chance; all theater is experimental, and you don't know unless you show up and pay attention.

29 July 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/31

Ch'ang Kan

When the hair of your Unworthy One first began to cover her forehead,
She picked flowers and played in front of the door.
Then you, my Lover, came riding a bamboo horse.
We ran round and round the bed, and tossed about the sweetmeats of green plums.
We both lived in the village of Ch'ang Kan.
We were both very young, and knew neither jealousy nor suspicion.
At fourteen, I became the wife of my Lord.
I could not yet lay aside my face of shame;
I hung my head, facing the dark wall;
You might call me a thousand times, not once would I turn round.
At fifteen, I stopped frowning.
I wanted to be with you, as dust with its ashes.
I often thought that you were the faithful man who clung to the bridge-post,
That I should never be obliged to ascend to the Looking-for-Husband ledge.
When I was sixteen, my Lord went far away,
To the Ch'u T'ang Chasm and the Whirling Water Rock of the Yu River
Which, during the Fifth Month, must not be collided with;
Where the wailing of the gibbons seems to come from the sky.
Your departing footprints are still before the door where I bade you good-bye,
In each has sprung up green moss.
The moss is thick, it cannot be swept away.
The leaves are falling, it is early for the Autumn wind to blow.
It is the Eighth Month, the butterflies are yellow,
Two are flying among the plants in the West garden;
Seeing them, my heart is bitter with grief, they wound the heart of the Unworthy One.
The bloom of my face has faded, sitting with my sorrow.
From early morning until late in the evening, you descend the Three Serpent River.
Prepare me first with a letter, bringing me the news of when you will reach home.
I will not go far on the road to meet you,
I will go straight until I reach the Long Wind Sands.

Li T'ai-Po, translated by Amy Lowell

If this translation by Amy Lowell sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because there is another famous translation into English of this same poem, known as The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter, by Lowell's friend and compatriot Ezra Pound. Neither American poet worked from the original Chinese of Li Po.* It's interesting to compare the two versions as English poems (I am unfortunately not qualified to speak of them as translations from the Chinese). But Pound and Lowell were very interested in Chinese poetry and published collections of their renditions; both were also modernists, interested in re-making poetic language for the twentieth century, and one way of doing that was opening American poetry to a different, non-European tradition.

Lowell's version nicely preserves a sense of the poem's foreignness, but sometimes I think it's at the cost of sounding sort of quaintly exotic; Pound is more direct and simple. For example, she says "the Eighth Month" and he says "August"; she notes without explanation that during "the Fifth Month" the Whirling Water Rock of the Yu River must not be collided with (is collision OK during the other months?) and he omits the part about avoiding collision and merely refers to "the river of swirling eddies." He will sometimes keep the Chinese place names, which perhaps oddly makes them sound less exotic in English: the river Kiang instead of Three Serpent River and Cho-fu-Sa instead of Long Wind Sands; "the look out" instead of Looking-for-Husband ledge. I especially like Pound's simplicity and directness in what are for me (in his version) perhaps the most haunting lines in the poem; here is Lowell's version again:

. . . my heart is bitter with grief, they wound the heart of the Unworthy One.
The bloom of my face has faded, sitting with my sorrow.

Here is Pound's version:

They hurt me.
I grow older.

Lowell's speaker seems more of a piece; with Pound's speaker I have a sense of a very reticent woman whose longing for her absent husband forces her at times to break out with unusual directness. As with Othello's "the pity of it, Iago, the pity of it" or Cordelia's "Love, and be silent," it's the simplicity within the complicated emotional context that makes these short straightforward lines so powerful. But perhaps familiarity plays some part in how I'm receiving these two poems, since I've only read the Lowell recently and I've known the Pound version for a very long time (longer than the age of the wife in the poem). Lowell's version has its own power and integrity, even compared with Pound's still contemporary-sounding rendition.

This is from Amy Lowell: Selected Poems, edited by Honor Moore, in the Library of America's American Poets Project series.

* Lowell's translation calls him Li T'ai-Po, and Pound's Rihaku, which is a transcription of the Japanese version of the name; he is usually known in English as Li Po or, more currently, Li Bai. I need to look through my books of Chinese poetry to see if I can find a current translation of this poem.

22 July 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/30

Orchards in July

Waters from cold springs
and glittering minerals
tirelessly wander.
Patient, unceasing,
they overcome granite, layers
of hungry gravel, iridescent
precincts of clay. If they abandon
themselves to the black
roots it's only to go
up, as high as possible
through wells hidden
under the bark of fruit trees. Through
the green touched with gray, of leaves,
fallen petals of white
flowers with rosy edges,
apples heavy with sweet redness
and their bitterish seeds.
O, waters from cold
springs and glittering
minerals! You are awaited
by a cirrus with a fluid,
sunny outline
and by an abyss of blue
which has been rinsed
in the just wind.

Zbigniew Machej, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass

I wanted to slip this in before July slipped away. There's a nice circle-of-life thing going on here; the waters and minerals seem almost more alive than the trees they pass through on their way from the earth up to the clouds. The poet ends with a little zinger, the piquant adjective "just" – what makes an impersonal force like wind "just"? Perhaps it's exactly because it is impersonal, doing what it does impartially. The adjective closes out the cycle with a sense that things are doing what they're meant to be doing; it's sort of a more sciencey version of the feeling described by another poet as "God's in His Heaven, All's right with the world."

Machej is a twentieth-century Polish poet. This poem is from the anthology A Book of Luminous Things, edited by Czeslaw Milosz.

15 July 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/29

Secret of the Inner Chamber

My flower holds both red dew and white honey,
attracting yellow wasps and purple butterflies, different types.
By the spring window I sleep in dreams of lust.
Next to me in the quilt, my husband knows nothing.

Li Shangyin, translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping

This poem is quite short but feels lush and expansive, filled with bright colors (red, white, yellow, purple) and natural phenomena (flowers, dew, honey, wasps, butterflies!) just in the first two lines, giving us a restless, sensuous view even before we get to the "spring window" and the dreams of lust in the third line. It isn't until the fourth and final line, though, that we can place the speaker: the flower reference in the first line appears as in a Georgia O'Keeffe painting, and strongly implies the speaker is a woman, but we don't know much else about her: is she a young virgin, a courtesan, an old woman? what is her situation in life? She is a wife. Although her husband is next to her in bed (presumably having his own dreams) he knows nothing of what she's feeling. It's a poignant illustration of the isolation of the individual, even from a lover. Is this a momentary divergence? Or the on-going condition of their marriage?

A few years ago a friend of mine from Taiwan told me that the Mandarin equivalent of the English phrase "bedroom eyes" was "peach-blossom eyes" (at least, I'm pretty sure that's what he meant; he's sometimes a little vague when I ask for details). I think it's very likely that a lot of the natural imagery in Chinese love poetry, which can seem sort of perfumed and refined in translation, actually comes across in the original as earthy and direct. Here's another thing about translation: when I first read this poem, I, not always knowing the gender assignment of Chinese names, assumed the author was a woman. Actually, Li Shangyin was a man, a minor official who lived from 813 to 858. Learning that a man wrote this poem reminded me of the passage in In Search of Lost Time in which Proust's narrator, bored with his lover Albertine, is about to break up with her, until he hears a rumor that she had had affairs with other women (is that also implied in this poem by the "different types", wasp and butterfly, that are attracted to the speaker?). He then realizes that despite his closeness to Albertine, she has a life he can never share or imagine. That begins his obsessive and ultimately failed love for her. Perhaps the ignorant husband in this poem is Li Shangyin, himself, attempting with imaginative empathy to translate himself into his lover's spirit, and acknowledging that any such attempt must ultimately fail.

This is from the collection Chinese Erotic Poems in the Everyman Pocket Poets series.

09 July 2013

I don't know how to love Him

Last Tuesday I was at the San Francisco Opera for the fifth of the seven performances of the world premiere run of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, with libretto and music by Mark Adamo. It purports to be an alternate version of the life of Jesus, based not only on the canonical gospels but also on the gnostic scriptures found at Nag Hammadi, contemporary research, and, I suspect, lots of wishful thinking. It's a fascinating idea that has resulted in a disappointing opera. I found the music quite enjoyable but as it stretched out to three hours I found it a bit too unvarying. I was sitting in the first row, right in front of the brass section, so obviously I was very aware of when they were playing (and of when the players were whispering to each other), but my impression after I left the opera house was of a smooth continuous stretch without much variation - a seamless garment, if you will. I very much wanted to love this work, or at least find it provocative and challenging, but the plot and themes are - well, keep reading, and I'll try to explain; I just found so much wrong with what's on stage; and there's so much talent and conviction and complete sincerity up there that the final effect was very dispiriting, and I felt with the saints who pleaded with the Lord for a glimpse of his grace during their spiritually barren days.

The opera opens on the single set, a 21st-century archeological dig. Chorus members in casual contemporary dress (they are described in the cast list as "seekers") mill around, until someone lights a fire and they start wondering if they should burn their Bibles, for though they love "the story" (presumably of Christian salvation) they are not sure how to separate it from its "lies." These lies are unspecified. The word is problematic, since the implication is that what we're about to see is The Truth, as if at this far remove there is some empirically verifiable version of what "really happened" in Galilee about 2000 years ago, as opposed to more or less educated choices shaped by our current culture and made from among conflicting and fragmentary materials.

Adamo freely selects and shapes his various sources, which is fine but in that case why the strenuous and inflated pretense that what we're seeing is "authentic"? Texts are combined or cut without regard to the differing motives and meanings and cultural contexts of the original works, and some material is apparently invented. Somewhere in the program we are told that the libretto has over 100 footnotes, which is nice but a bit pointless since we're watching something on stage, not reading the libretto. Some of the footnotes are built into the sung text, and the chorus will occasionally intone "Gospel of Thomas" or some other source, and I have to admit I enjoyed the charming pedantry of having them sing "ibid.", but such choral citations should happen either more frequently or not at all; they are very spotty, raising more questions than they answer. (I'm curious if there actually is an existing ancient Scripture in which Mary his mother confesses that Jesus was the illegitimate product of a failed premarital love affair, and that she seriously considered drinking a midwife's offered potion to induce abortion).

Why should we believe that the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary [Magdalene] is more "truthful" than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Even within the canonical Scriptures themselves, there are choices to be made; to take one example relevant to the subject of this opera, St Paul (or someone writing under the name of St Paul) tells us in one spot that women should be silent in the churches but in another that in Jesus Christ there is "neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free." If we see one passage as false, and the other as true and useful, we're making a choice guided by our personal and cultural beliefs. Why not acknowledge that? Again, why the spurious claims of telling the "real story"? Why the implication that the canonical gospels (which have, after all, touched something very deep in millions of diverse people for many centuries, and therefore should be respected as literature, regardless of your personal belief or lack of belief in them) are less reliable than the gnostic gospels? Why set the whole work in an archeological dig, with its implication of the actual and scientifically uncovered, as opposed to, say, a library, with its plethora of possible texts and interpretations?

Here are some changes made to the events recounted in the brief, fragmentary Gospel of Mary [Magdalene], which I understand is one of the major sources of the libretto: what Mary actually recounts to the apostles, an esoteric revelation made to her in a vision by the dead Jesus about the progress of the soul through various "powers," is all omitted: this omission makes sense, since anything smacking of the miraculous, the divine, or the supernatural is strenuously avoided in the opera, and so this passage would sound like the most ludicrous mystico-moonshine mumbo jumbo; the closest thing in the opera to a religious or spiritual impulse seems to be a generalized wish to improve oneself and do good, and despite the occasional reference to God or demons, the society depicted here is so secular that you wonder why anyone is bothering at all with Yeshua the street preacher. Jesus is clearly the fount of spiritual knowledge in the gospel, not a co-preacher who learns from his equal Mary Magdalene, as he is in the opera. When Peter questions Mary Magdalene after she speaks, doubting that "the Savior" (a term avoided in the opera) revealed these things to her, a mere woman, instead of to them, Mary weeps before responding; the tears, which presumably are too girly, disappear from the stage action. And it's very possible that in the cultural context of the original writer, the point of the confrontation is not that Mary is Peter's equal but that he should listen to her exactly because she is not his equal - that, in the spirit of "suffer the little children to come unto me"and "the last shall be first," even a man favored by Jesus should have the humility to learn even from a woman. Again, let me emphasize that the problem is not that Adamo has changed, adapted, and added to this or any other source, it's that if you're going to do that, it seems a bit disingenuous, not to mention smug, to present your version as, at last, The Truth.

The libretto relies heavily on rhyme. I feel this is a mistake. It's not that Adamo is bad at it; there is little that seems padded or twisted for the sake of the rhyme. But he's not particularly good at it either; I frequently found myself anticipating what the next line would be, based on the rhyme, and over the course of a three hour performance it gets to sounding a little jingly, rather than elevated and formal in tone, which I assume was the intent. Some of the word choices seem too modern or flat; I was a bit surprised when Yeshua said that John the Baptist was his "mentor," which makes Yeshua sound like a junior executive trying to rise in the ranks. (Also, Mentor is from the Iliad, so I was distracted into a different story.) Adamo also uses repetition, which is a more Biblical form of poetic structure, though sometimes its use is puzzling; for example, after the crucifixion Peter, the long-time antagonist of Mary Magdalene, repeats some earlier lines of hers, which seems to indicate he is finally accepting her, but in fact his antagonism not only continues but deepens. These things - the rhyming, some of the word choices, odd use of repetition - are minor, but they add up.

The opening chorus gives way to a crowd in ancient Galilee, and we meet Mary Magdalene. She is not exactly the prostitute of legend, but she is clearly open to love affairs. She seems interested in sex mostly as part of her search for larger, vaguely uplifting spiritual currents. Her boyfriends keep letting her down. She is plucky and independent (she has a lot of money, though its source is unclear, since as I said she is no longer a courtesan). Nowadays she would no doubt describe herself as "spiritual but not religious." She is basically Thais for the NPR set. Early in the opera and again towards the end she makes brief reference to "demons" that trouble her, but they have no real effect on any of her actual deeds or words; they slide thoroughly off the representation of her, and it's difficult to picture this woman having a dark night of the soul. Mary Magdalene is performed by Sasha Cooke, whom I've loved in everything else I've seen her in, and she does what she can here, in particular managing some very touching moments at the end, when she communes with a vision of the dead Yeshua. But the character is in many ways a plaster saint, much more so than the repentant courtesan of legend, with her fascinating historical accretions of story and significance.

We see Mary Magdalene with Simon (Hadleigh Adams), her boyfriend, who has to leave - he needs to return to his wife. The sudden mention of the wife is an interesting and effective little shock, and when Tamar (Marina Harris), the aforementioned and very angry wife, appears with two Roman guards, demanding that both the adulterers be stoned according to the law, we head into the famous episode of Christ and the woman caught in adultery, or rather into Adamo's version of it. There's no suggestion here that whereas for us adultery is mostly a matter of personal betrayal, it might have a different significance in a small, tight-knit, besieged community guided by deep clan loyalties and religious rules of conduct.

Mary Magdalene announces that she the meant the wife no harm, which is a comically stupid thing to say, whether in ancient Galilee or modern America, but I think we're supposed to accept it as essentially well-meaning, especially since Tamar is presented as vindictive and spiteful. She is also a hypocrite, as we discover when Yeshua the street preacher suddenly appears and confronts Tamar with the accusation that she has had five husbands and is also herself having an affair. He asks if she still wants to stone the two. Rather unconvincingly, she does not, as if people were not deeply skilled in condemning others for faults they share (there's always some self-excusing distinction that can be made). Anyway, Tamar and her husband (both fine performers) disappear from stage to sort out their business, and Mary Magdalene is grateful to Yeshua for saving her life, but is skeptical when he invites her to come hear him at the local synagogue.

It's always emotionally satisfying to see a hypocrite unmasked, but dramatically it seems too easy. Why not complicate our reactions by having Tamar be a good wife, or a good person? It's a sort of emotional bookkeeping, in which we excuse our main character's adultery with the husband because the wife is a bitch. If I'm remembering correctly, it's a different woman in the canonical gospels who is shaken when Jesus knows all about her several husbands even though she is a stranger. (In the operatic version, he might easily be repeating common gossip.) In the canonical version, it is a crowd (that is, the whole community, not just one angry wife) that is planning to stone the woman caught in adultery. Jesus says that those among them without sin (not specifically sexual sins, but sin) should throw the first stone. No one in the crowd has the arrogance to claim sinlessness (a condition belonging only to God), and they drift away, and Jesus tells the woman to sin no more. So in the opera, we have a single hypocrite unmasked and thwarted; but in the gospel version, we have an entire community challenged to a personal examination of conscience, which leads to a re-examination of the customary laws in the light of compassion for shared human weakness. So in what way is this revised version superior to or more daring than the canonical version?

Mary Magdalene does go to the synagogue to hear Yeshua, where he is announcing that he has come  with a sword to divide, to set mother against son. . . . The rabble-rousing attracts the interest of Roman guards, but his mother Miriam, accompanied by two other sons, intervenes, begging them to let her oldest boy off because he's mentally disturbed. (Maria Kanyova is Miriam, and does a good job with what she's given to work with.) When they agree to let him go, she warns Mary Magdalene repeatedly to run from her son, because he's so messed up (hey, thanks Mom!) and just look at how he treats her!

In fact she's pretty much the stereotype of a nagging Jewish mother, obsessing over and berating her oldest son in equal measure (first Tamara, now this - women not named Mary Magdalene don't come off very well in this opera, but then in all fairness neither do any of the men). Here's where she confesses to Mary Magdalene the whole story of the illegitimate birth and so forth (which is actually kind of an odd overly personal story to tell someone you've just met; wouldn't a woman at that time try to hide such shame?). And that's the reason Jesus is always going on about his Father in Heaven, and why he rejects his mother and (legitimate) brothers - his earthly father didn't stick around, so, clearly: Daddy issues!

And that's typical of this work: everything is reduced to personal "issues" (all understood in the cultural context of 21st century America, not ancient Galilee). As mentioned earlier, all references to the miraculous or supernatural are shorn away. But more than that, all need for the miraculous or supernatural is removed, to such an extent that it felt odd when God was occasionally mentioned - what does He have to do with any of this? Yeshua is allowed the first half of his famous quip about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, but not the pointed second half: "and to God the things that are God's." There isn't much here that seems to be God's, and that's fine, but in that case you have to wonder why anyone is paying attention to any of this. It seems beyond belief that any of these people could be motivated by a moral necessity that lies outside themselves, and we don't actually see much of what lies outside the main characters, except for the occasional reference to the yoke of Rome; where is the febrile and tense religious atmosphere of the time that led so many to expect a Messiah? It's reduced to a man shamed because he's illegitimate.

There are references to God's (or the universe's, or something's) "design" (characters often mention that they interTWINE in a deSIGN), but no explanation is given of what the design is, or why there is one. There is no reference to Original Sin, or the death of Jesus as expiation to redeem fallen humanity through God's love, and no reference to Israel's special covenant with God (the Jews here seem to be a group bound together by Roman oppression rather than Mosaic law). At one point Yeshua is asked about circumcision, and there was some laughter in the audience. But this is not a trivial question. Are people unaware that circumcision is the physical sign of Abraham's covenant with Jehovah?

Yeshua is pretty much just another street preacher, and not a particularly effective one, judging by what we see here. For one thing, he is unable to reconcile his good friend Peter to his new friend Mary Magdalene. In this version Peter takes the role usually held in Biblical epics by Judas (who is written out of this version) as the disciple who mistakes Jesus's message as a call to arms for independence from Rome, whereas Mary Magdalene is more about personal spiritual growth. And she asks a lot of questions, which annoys the guys. (The gender roles here are quite traditional: men are immersed in the business of the world, including fighting, while the women are intent on the domestic and the intimate.)

Mary Magdalene rather cynically uses her money to buy acceptance from Peter, who rather cynically accepts the money. Neither they nor Yeshua seem disturbed by the cynicism or the basic disagreement on the purpose of their group. Yeshua ambles in on the money changing hands and seems mostly impressed at his new girlfriend's ability to work the system. Where is the man who drove the money-changers from the Temple? Where is the gospel Jesus, who consistently condemns the rich and demands that they give their money to the poor? That message would be far more challenging to the opera audience, and to current American society, than the anodyne messages we get here.

The rest of the story is shocking only in its banality: you see, Yeshua is pretty messed up and angry, but no wonder 'cause have you met his Mom, she's a piece of work, but he met this great woman and she's really smart and together, and honestly I don't know what she sees in him he doesn't even have a job, but his friends don't like her and really she's just too good for them anyway so they resent her until finally wedding bells break up that old apostolic gang of mine. We all know guys like that, saved by the love of a good woman, but it seems unlikely they would be studied and worshipped and argued over  2,000 years later.

The apostles throw Yeshua a bachelor party, but talking about Jesus's bachelor party makes the whole thing sound too frisky, even with the Song of Solomon-style verses about her breasts being like gazelles ("Stop talking about her breasts, " Yeshua finally announces). Maybe John Waters or Luis Bunuel or Flannnery O'Connor should have handled this material: when Mary talks about considering an abortion or Jesus has a bachelor party, shouldn't there be some sort of frisson, some sort of shocked amusement that maybe takes us deeper into what we really feel about this story? Should it all really feel so much like dutiful uplift?

Anyway, Yeshua clearly has some issues with women because of the whole thing with his mom, and Mary Magdalene overhears him telling Peter that she's so good she's practically a man anyway so Peter should relax, and though Yeshua tells her he was just saying that because you know what Peter is like, she almost calls off the wedding but then he learns to learn from her and after the intermission which ends the very long first half they start appearing in public in flowing white robes as co-preachers, with Miriam radiant at their side (Mary Magdalene has been so good for him!) and Peter tagging along. They start talking a lot more about love, in such general terms that it's really not clear why the Romans decide Yeshua needs to be eliminated for these bromides; it's as if an angry mob wanted to crucify one of Hallmark's more sentimental versifiers. (And why do they not crucify his wife and co-preacher as well? it's not as if the Romans were shy about torturing women.) There is no resurrection, but Yeshua rises up like Erda and tells Mary Magdalene to carry on, even though they both know Peter is going to write her out of the story (much as most of the apostles are written out of this story, I suppose).

Many years ago I read Gershom Scholem's book on Sabbatai Sevi, and one insight which has stuck with me over the years is his suggestion that the Sabbataian movement did not outlive the false messiah for more than a few years because Sevi himself was too much of a cipher for belief in him to take strong root, lacking as he did the powerful personality and philosophy of, say, Jesus of Nazareth (who is, of course, in some eyes just another false messiah). I thought about Scholem's words during this opera, because what we have here is an absence at the center. I am a long-time fan of Nathan Gunn; he is a charismatic performer, and I've seen him give powerful performances as conflicted men and (even more difficult) as radiantly good men (his Billy Budd is famous). So I'm puzzled by his recessive, overly affable performance here.

And I have to blame the way Adamo has structured the role. If you're ruling out entirely, as the opera does, that Yeshua is in fact the Messiah, or otherwise linked with the divine, you are still left historically with a powerful teacher and preacher whose influence has long outlasted his time on earth. Whoever wrote the Gospel of St Matthew knew you need to start with your strong material: in that book we go almost immediately to the Sermon on the Mount. In this opera, the subversive and actually perverse and essential words of the Sermon are not heard. When we finally hear some specifics about what "loving your neighbor" might mean, we're already two or possibly two and a half hours into the performance (I actually checked my watch to see how long we had to wait before hearing that we should feed the hungry or care for the sick, but frankly I was checking my watch fairly often so I can't be more specific about the timing). But important as it is to feed the hungry and care for the sick, nothing in those actions is a potential threat to existing society; where is the Jesus who not only associated with but sought out the low-class, the fishermen and tax gatherers, the foreigners and the lepers and the weak, and denounced the rich and powerful? The Jesus who announced repeatedly that the last would be first, that the meek would inherit the earth, that the selfish rich man would burn in Hell while the scabby beggar outside his door was basking in Abraham's bosom?

William Burden as Peter gives an impassioned, vocally distinguished performance, probably the most memorable of the evening, and his achievement is even more impressive when you consider how Adamo has stacked the deck against his character. We don't really know why he objects to Mary Magdalene so strongly, though it's hinted at one point that he has some unresolved feelings for her as well as for Yeshua; it's mostly because he's kind of a jerk who is too arrogant to listen to a woman. I assume he is a stand-in for institutional religion, particularly the Roman Catholic Church that claims its authority from him as the first in a long line of direct apostolic succession from Jesus himself. As such Peter is the villain of the piece, and though he is not actually made responsible for the betrayal of Jesus to his executioners, his good or endearing moments are jettisoned while Adamo gleefully seizes on his canonical denial three times, because in this version the Peter who wanted to fight against Rome is also a coward who runs when the real fighting starts. Mary Magdalene, of course, boldly goes to seek the body, even though Peter practically whimpers as he warns her of the danger. (Jesus does get his line about those who live by the sword dying by the sword, but since Mary Magdalene said it earlier, it is presumably one of the many things he's learned from her.)

Contrast the treatment of Peter here with that of the chief prosecutor in Shaw's Saint Joan (Cardinal Beaufort? apologies if I get some details wrong here; I'm working from memory). Though Joan is clearly an extraordinary person - so extraordinary that she is one of those few who manages to move the heavy mass of humanity forward, however slightly - Shaw treats her enemies with understanding and respect. Far from being a corrupt, cowardly hack, the prosecutor is a man of integrity and intelligence - you believe that people would believe in him. He has cogent, insightful arguments to make about why Joan is a dangerous example. And though ultimately we side with her, it's not a cheap or foregone conclusion. Her stature is increased when her opponents are not straw men. The exaggeration of bad qualities - and I see this sort of thing way too often - deadens the drama by removing the debate and the ambiguity. It's all too clear which person we're supposed to side with, and which reject.

And the fact is that it is Peter's church that has lasted, and not Mary Magdalene's. However admirable you find the free-form spiritual seeking of the gnostic movements, it is of its very nature too vague and shapeless to have a long institutional life (Elaine Pagels makes this point in The Gnostic Gospels). And many of the gnostic movements, with their emphasis on arcane knowledge passed down only to a select few, were far more elitist than the official Church, which held (however inconsistently or with whatever hypocrisy) that all souls are the same in the eyes of God, a potentially dangerous and certainly radical doctrine of leveling.

The main point of the evening seems to be that women were cut out from the development of Christianity. But, pace Adamo, such is the deep human need for both masculine and feminine energies, and such the dynamics between men and women, that women have had a powerful and continuing presence in Christianity, in ways both official and unofficial, real and symbolic: the Church itself is referred to as "Mother Church"; Wisdom is traditionally seen as a woman (Sancta Sophia), as are other virtues; Mary the mother of Jesus has a powerful continuing presence, particularly in the Roman Catholic church; many parishes from the first century to today are run largely by women; abbesses and nuns often had great power and influence. In the spirit of George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke, there were many remarkable women (as well as men) whose names are forgotten though their beneficent spiritual influence ripples on. It's a loss that women were excluded from the priestly hierarchy, but the hierarchy and its earthly powers are, from a spiritual point of view, ultimately irrelevant; the purpose of the Church is to help the believer into the divine presence, which is open to all (as is the meritocracy of the sainthood, and the many female saints outrank mere priests). And certainly many Renaissance popes had mistresses who helped them rule, as Mary Magdalene does Yeshua in the opera, but I think nonetheless that few of those men were renowned for piety and virtue.

As I got up from my seat at the end of the long evening, feeling downcast and disappointed, I heard a white-haired matron behind me say with a bit of self-satisfaction, "Well, I liked it." Well, why wouldn't she? The main message here seems to be that men should listen to well-off women, at least when they're as intelligent as Mary Magdalene - in other words, when they're (presumably) like the satisfied white-haired matron. Who can disagree? But shouldn't a convincing representation of Jesus make us pause and examine and re-evaluate our lives, not just pat ourselves on the back for our advanced understanding and spiritual superiority?

08 July 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/28


Those who don't like it say it's
just a mutant violin
that's been kicked out of the chorus.
Not so.
The cello has many secrets,
but it never sobs,
just sings in its low voice.
Not everything turns into song
though. Sometimes you catch
a murmur or a whisper:
I'm lonely,
I can't sleep.

Adam Zagajewski, trans. Clare Cavanagh

It's difficult for me to believe that anyone doesn't like the cello, but I've learned there's always someone who doesn't like what "everyone" likes, particularly with music. Zagajewski draws an amusing distinction between the star turn of the violin, with its sobbing and its constant songfulness, and the deeper (in meaning as well as sound, perhaps) world of the cello, where we can catch a companionable glimpse of those secret sadnesses that haunt us all - the evanescent feelings that music often evokes and lyric poetry also tries to capture.

Adam Zagajewski is a contemporary Polish poet. I took this poem from Music's Spell: Poems about Music and Musicians, edited by Emily Fragos for the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.

01 July 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/27


It grew in the black mud.

It grew under the tiger's orange paws.
Its stems thinner than candles, and as straight.
Its leaves like the feathers of egrets, but green.
The grains cresting, wanting to burst.
Oh, blood of the tiger.

I don't want you just to sit down at the table.

I don't want you just to eat, and be content.
I want you to walk out into the fields
where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.
I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth.
I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing.

Mary Oliver

Summer is when even the most tender and delicate fruits are available in easy abundance. No matter how sweaty and sticky the hot days get, I can always console myself with the thought of the ripening tomatoes. It's also the time of the occasional "speed eating" contests, in which contestants struggle to cram down as much pie or as many hot dogs as they can in a limited amount of time. I find these contests sickening, and immoral in a world in which so many are hungry. Abundance should call forth abundant gratitude and respect.

In this poem Oliver urges us to a deeper sense of gratitude and respect through seeing the whole natural chain that results in the rice on our tables. It's not enough just to eat and be satisfied: we have to understand and connect. She starts with the black mud (I love her vividly present colors: the black mud, the orange paws, the green leaves, the white tablecloth). She suggests a whole natural world around the rice paddies, and its distance from our daily American experience: it comes from the land of tigers. The egrets appear only in simile but remain in our minds as real birds. The water essential to rice cultivation shines (the sun must be bright) in the fields and the grains almost burst before they are harvested. Oliver ends by returning to the mud, now elevated to an essential part of the blessing that comes when we connect with the natural world. The blessing comes not with the clean white tablecloth (with its suggestion of the overly antiseptic, particularly after the other bright colors earlier in the poem), but with the mud. And it only becomes "like a blessing" when we fill our hands with it. And in between the two mentions of mud is a subtle, primal rhyme (in the last line of the first stanza) linking the mud at beginning and end with the life in between: mud - blood - mud.

Oliver brings out the visionary aspect of her appreciation through a simple but very effective device: each line of the poem is separate and ends with a full stop right through the midway point of the second stanza, when she invites us "to walk out into the fields" and for the first time in this poem we expand unbroken into the next line: "where the water is shining, and the rice has risen." Shining, with its implications of lightness, glowing, and reflection, is just one of those words that inescapably conveys a transfigured state, and even if you lack the religious background that links risen with the Resurrection, your ear will respond to the verbal echo of rice / risen (the only example in this poem of this kind of word play, which can be found abundantly in the Oliver poem I posted earlier).

This is from Oliver's New and Selected Poems.