Archive for the ‘Reviews and Criticism’Category

Four Years

This is the first post in exactly four years.

Four years ago on November 7th, 2016 I was reflecting on the cathartic artistic explosion of Taylor Mac’s 24 hour theater piece. I had such hopes and dreams. I announced a plan to write up 24 essays about the experience. I was so sure I was going to do it. It was a done deal. “Starting tomorrow!” I stated as incontrovertible fact. As if “tomorrow” was a thing under my control.

And then… then November 8th, 2016 happened. The tomorrow in question. The unthinkable. The impossible. The utterly unimaginable disaster of Donald Trump becoming the president of this country derailed any plans for the future.

The past four years have been… tumultuous ones for me. Close friends died. A 25 year career at Pixar came to an end. Some serious health challenges arose. Foundational components of my life evaporated and through it all was the backdrop of a country becoming unrecognizable and unwelcoming.

But a number of good things happened as well. I had a great run as part of a vaudeville duo in San Franciscoso’s amazing immersive Speakeasy project. I’ve written some music and theater I’m very proud of, including Now I Am Become with Choral Chameleon and Death of a Playboy with West Edge Opera. I’ve been building a program within West Edge that aims to change the way opera gets commissioned.

And now, exactly four years after my last post, Donald Trump has been voted out of office. It seems fitting to post something after this strange, unsettling gap.

Will I start blogging again? I’m not sure. The future is still kinda hazy. I don’t expect it will ever be as unblemished as it was that Monday afternoon four years ago. But I expect things will start to get a little clearer as time goes on.

Maybe even tomorrow.


Nov 2020

Dog Days: Trust, Betrayal, and That Which Can’t Be Unseen

Dog DaysI wasn’t prepared for the ending of Dog Days. I’d gleaned enough from the reviews that the piece was powerful and unsettling, but I wasn’t prepared. (This might be a good time to say SPOILER ALERT. And apparently the creators have asked critics not to reveal the ending. Read at your own risk. Then again, watch the piece at your own risk.)

But yes. The ending was a surprise to me. A most unpleasant surprise. Not because I couldn’t see it coming, if anything, part of the surprise was because it was TOO obvious. You start the show with a stray dog (or a man in a dog suit), a dad with a rifle, and a hungry family relying on dwindling government rations for food. What do you think will happen? Surely it will go somewhere besides the obvious resolution to that story. And if it does need to go there, surely it will be done in a way that transcends or illuminates. But, (surprise), it does. And, (bummer), it doesn’t.

The most bitter component of that disappointment: I TRUSTED them. Up until that final, miserable tableau, I had complete faith in the creators. They’d constructed a compelling world filled with human characters I cared about. There are a lot of things in the opera which are pretty darn good (feel free to read any of the superlative reviews in the major outlets if you doubt me). There were some questions (If there’s no food how do the boys manage to still have weed to smoke?) and some questionable staging choices (do we really need to see one of the boys jacking off under a blanket?), but I was in it and eager to see where they went. Until they went there.

I don’t need a happy ending, there’s salvation in a well earned catharsis, but if you’re going to bring on the brutal, you better have a damn good reason to subject your audience to the things you’re asking them to endure. And for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to take from this. Is there anyone over the age of 13 who doesn’t know full well that humans will do the unthinkable when starvation is the alternative? If you’re gonna bring the hoary chestnut of savage desperation to the stage, you better be bringing something new to the table besides the novelty of the shock. What’s the angle here? Where’s the insight?

With no answers to be gleaned from the production, I turned to the source material. Reading the excellent story, (take 15 minutes to read it for yourself), I understood the creative team’s impulse to adapt it. It’s great. It all revolves around the dichotomous identity of the dog.

In the opening paragraphs of the story, the dog suit is clearly a shabby affair, held together with safety pins, nothing anyone would confuse for a real dog. But over the course of the story the language changes, as first the mother and then the daughter become complicit with the fantasy. It suits their purposes for him to be a real dog, a loyal protective companion, a harmless neutered Prince, a simulacrum of the normal when the world is disintegrating around them. And so from then on, when the girl refers to him, he is never anything but a dog.

As for the men of the family, they have no use for the fantasy. He is always just a man in a dog suit, sometimes a nuisance, sometimes a threat, sometimes a reminder of what they themselves are a just a few weeks of missed meals away from becoming.

And then in the final paragraphs, the roles are reversed. Now it is the mother who insists that he is a man, as she pleads for his life. And it is the father who insists otherwise. He’s just an animal.

The opera does as good a job one could expect with this dichotomy. Writing a story you use nimble language to align the scene with the point of view of the observer, but with the meaty realities of the stage It’s a challenge to explore the nuances between a man portraying a dog and a man portraying a man pretending to be a dog. Veteran performance artist and dancer John Kelly straddles the line between man and canine, but with his wild hair and sinewy body, always remains edgily human, unlike the chameleonic Prince of the printed word, who could become all dog with a few well chosen phrases.

So why did I finish the short story completely satisfied, yet left the opera feeling utterly violated? I fear the creators failed to account for the fact that moving something from the mind’s eye of fiction to the flesh and blood physicality of the stage turns the haunting to the horrific, the unimaginable to the unwatchable.

The final paragraphs of the story describes Prince’s flight from the father’s rifle in gorgeous prose. The narrator insists on describing him as a dog even as in desperation he gets up to run as a man. Prince is at first “galloping on all fours across the yard, his tongue hanging out like a pink streamer” and then he is “on his hind legs, lurching away two-footedly, front legs pawing the air”. “Two-footedly”. Is there a more perfect word to express both the awkwardness of a motion as well as the awkwardness of the mental gymnastics it would take maintain the willful belief that this dog-man wasn’t actually born to walk on two feet? How do you show that complexity on stage in the brief seconds you have for that action? Not even the great John Kelly is going to come close to expressing what those two sentences communicate brilliantly.

And then the closing line of the story: “They run across the lawn, the pack of them, and fall upon him snarling.” The transformation is clear, succinct, beautiful. Upsetting, disturbing even, but not repulsive.

Consider instead seeing three men returning from offstage, faces and hands stained a shocking bright red with slick blood, meaty organs dangling from their mouths, shaking and convulsing while a shrieking orchestra blares out the same crunch that’s been crescendoing non stop for the past ten minutes. It’s garish, harrowing, and merciless. It’s beyond all proportion. Why?

And if that’s not enough, there’s more death, and a completely unrelated ritual involving yet more body fluids that has absolutely no basis in the source material. It’s like the creators, knowing that staging this would be uncomfortable, chose to double down on the horror. We’ve gone from post-apocalyptic coming of age parable to torture porn. It’s Grapes of Wrath by means of GWAR. Why? Why is this happening? What are you saying? What do you want from me? What did I do wrong? I TRUSTED YOU!

There are so many things one can take away from this short story: our ambivalent coexistence with animals as both food and companions, humanity’s capacity to devolve to animalistic behavior in the absence of structured society, our need to cling to the remnants of the familiar in stressful times, gender roles, the dissolution of the nuclear family… there’s a lot there. The opera manages to keep the remnants of many of these themes, or at least give them lip service, but then by ending with a sequence so abruptly discordant and severe, so aggressively hard to endure, it eclipses everything that’s happened before. The entire opera is about whatever the hell those last few minutes are about and nothing else. And… I’m afraid I just don’t know what that is. They’ve managed to take a short story that’s about a lot and reduce it to a grim spectacle that’s ultimately about nothing. An audience deserves better.

Heck. A dog deserves better.


Jan 2016

I May Be a Douchebag (aka noise, criticism, and the New Music Gathering)

The New Music Gathering rolled into San Francisco this past weekend. Founded by Brooklyn stalwarts Danny Felsenfeld, Matt Marks, Lainie Fefferman, and Mary Kouyoumdjian, it was equal parts symposium, festival, and gab fest for composers, performers, and devotees of that amorphous non-genre we’re calling New Music.

The festival is, necessarily, a very large tent. In a field that’s always trying to expand its audience, it’s considered a bad idea to speak ill of another composer’s work, even if it’s not remotely to your aesthetic tastes. If we’re all struggling to get our music heard, we’re better off working together rather than tearing each other down. In the panel on new music criticism, Matt Marks said he could understand a beat writer slamming a piece of his, they’re required to review things even if they don’t like them. But if a blogger goes out of their way to write a bad review, well, in the words of journalist Joelle Zigman, that blogger is, in fact, a douchebag.

I’m not so sure. As someone who’s written quite a bit about pieces that I’ve found lacking, I’d like to think I’m not simply doing so as an exercise in douchebaggery. Rather, I’m doing my best to explore and understand the space. What is it about the piece that I’m finding lacking? What could have been different? Is it a failing of the artist? Is it a matter of taste? In the end, what do I value as a consumer of the arts, and where does this piece fall in the grand spectrum of things I’ve experienced. A thoughtful, honest, well considered response to a work can be a gift, even if it’s not an enthusiastic rave.

Case in point: there was quite a bit of music performed this weekend that I did not get at all. Many performances were noise explorations, without any of the traditional musical considerations of harmony, rhythm, or pulse, that left me alternating between boredom and annoyance. Based on my knowledge of the people who created it, and the people who seemed to genuinely enjoy it, I have to believe that there is truly some intellectual and/or aesthetic pleasure to be derived from this work, but it is entirely beyond me how to find it. It’s just not my bag.

I’ve been wrestling with why this is. Why is it that I’m perfectly happy watching long stretches of theater that defy any sort of rational comprehension (e.g. Richard Foreman), but if it’s sound exploration, I clock out at around 10 minutes? This weekend, while being confronted by the protracted drone of an electronically distorted minor second, I developed a pet theory: Maybe this is a function of my (oft maligned, yet occasionally insightful) Meyers-Briggs type, specifically my place on the S-N axis.

In Meyers-Briggs speak, a senser experiences the world more with their five senses and an intuit-er experiences the world through a layer of intellectual abstraction. I am ALLLLL the way over on the N side of things. I’m looking for patterns, for larger structures, for recurring themes and connections. Screw the tree, however lovely, and show me the damn forrest! Perhaps people who are ALLLLL the way over on the S side of things are better at reveling in the aural experience of the moment. They’re less concerned about the ‘where’ and ‘why’ and fascinated by the ‘what’. While I’m annoyed by not being able to find any structure or meaning in a sustained minor second, the senser is digging the experience of a shifting, gritty dissonance just sitting there.

This may be completely reductive, but it’s all I got right now. I’d need to hear more from folks who really dig the whole noise exploration side of the new music world. I’m all for keeping a large tent, let’s leave room for the extremes, but I think it’s telling that my favorite piece of the weekend, Samuel Carl Adams’s Shade Studies, sat right in the middle of the S-N axis. Relatively conventional harmonies satisfy the intuit-ers desire for structure, while the sustained, shimmering resonances allow the senser to bask in the layers of overtones that the harmonies created. That’s the kind of work that gets me excited, interested, engaged, and, ultimately, makes me want to create work of my own.

Who Watches the Watchers Watch? – Review: The Source

The Source, an opera oratorio meditation on the Bradley/Chelsea Manning/Wikileaks scandal is not at all what I expected it to be, and that’s a good thing. Composer Ted Hearne takes a ripped from the headline subject and treats it with a probing intelligence and artistry that largely ignores the low-hanging, and ultimately flavorless fruit that would tempt a ‘war is bad’ polemicist. Instead, the piece is a bounty of contemplations, and, like the volumes of information Manning unleashed, difficult to summarize or reduce. Amongst the ideas explored: identity, anonymity, what it is to watch, what it is to be watched, the nature of secrecy, the ubiquitous nature of information and popular culture, the difference between public information and private information, the difference between how you see yourself and how others see you, the difference between raw information and processed information, the tension between a lone voice and a crowd of voices, gender, culpability for one’s actions, culpability for actions carried out in your name. This is less a piece about an event as it is a piece about what it is to be a person in an increasingly connected, flexible, intrusive world. It may well be the first transhuman song cycle…

The music is unlike any I have ever heard. Heavily amplified and processed, many movements borrow liberally from popular music instrumentations and conventions, lending an immediate appeal despite the complexity of the writing. Autotune is used liberally throughout, the most effective use of the effect I’ve experienced. In addition to the robotic, digitalized sheen it lent, it allowed for the singers to perform impossibly complex duets with themselves, notably in [we called for illumination at 1630], where the solo voice, accompanied by its own digital simulacra, builds to an impassioned crush of tone clusters. The quartet of singers (Melissa Hughes, Samia Mounts, Isaiah Robinson, and Jonathan Woody) were uniformly phenomenal as were all the musicians involved. Beth Morrison has again managed to assemble a remarkable group of collaborators.

The text of the movements (thoughtfully curated by Mark Doten) alternate between excerpts from the material Manning leaked, media coverage of the scandal, and private chats between Manning and Adran Lamo, the former hacker who ended up betraying Manning’s trust. Designed by Jim Findlay and Daniel Fish, the audience is placed in seats evenly distributed throughout the space, half of the audience watching the other half. The room is surrounded by screens, upon which is projected large heads of people watching and reacting, although it’s not clear exactly to what. The singers are distributed amongst the audience, sometimes lit, sometimes in darkness. We watch them watching us watching the screens watching… us?: an uneasy ouroboros of observation.

Anyone with a trace of empathy will be affected by watching faces of those obviously affected themselves, even without any exact knowledge of what the source of that emotion is. In conjunction with vocal music that is somehow plaintive in its dispassion (an effect also achieved by David Lang’s Pulitzer winning Little Match Girl Passion), and at times ecstatically layered, it is hard not to be overwhelmed, transformed, as if we are experiencing an erasing of boundaries, an ever so slight dissolution of self, a glimpse of a collective mind. As the last notes faded, I was convinced of the unmitigated success of the evening…


But while the composition may have been over, the performance wasn’t. The director saw fit to add a coda. Without comment or explanation, the screens showed the collective audience the footage that the projected faces had all been responding to, raw footage of a military strike outside of Baghdad that resulted in the death of two Reuter’s correspondents.

My first reaction was that this was a colossal misstep, that it reduced the entire evening’s experience to the brain dead “war is bad” moralizing that I had feared. And I’m certain that for many an audience member, that’s exactly as it should be. But upon further reflection (and I have been reflecting on it for many hours now), one’s response to the footage, unedited and largely un-notated, says much more about oneself than it does about the footage or the rightness or wrongness of the events that it (allegedly?) portrays. You’ve spent the prior hour awash in mediated, transformed, vicarious, communal experience. With this stark coda, you’re confronted with the unprocessed world and left alone with your response to it. Now yours is the face on the screen. Without the coda, I would have likely been on my feet, applauding the night’s events. With it, the entire room sat in stunned silence as the lights came up. It was several minutes before a light smattering of unwelcomed applause broke us from our respective solitary confinements, and even then, not very successfully.

I’m still wrestling with this piece. I want to hear it again. Soon. It’s moving, daring, difficult, and perhaps even important. With or without the coda, there is something to be learned here, something to be understood. Like knowledge that can’t be unlearned, the continued evolution of the very concept of privacy is a door that humanity will soon be unable to close.


Oct 2014

Review: Hydrogen Jukebox

While much of the opera world is focusing on the behind the scenes drama at the Met, now would be a good time to take a look at the smaller, more intimate opera companies in your back yard, the ones that are doing amazing work with a teensy fraction of the resources available to the big houses. Here in the Bay Area, the resilient West Edge Opera company (formerly Berkeley Opera) has compressed its entire season into a summer festival whose programming reads like a page from the small opera company’s guide to staying viable in an increasingly dire environment. It includes a reimagined warhorse (Puccini’s La bohème), a tuneful and accessible work from a living composer (Jake Heggie’s The End of the Affair), and a more experimental work from a pair of american giants (Philip Glass’s setting of Ginsburg’s poetry, Hydrogen Jukebox). The productions are all done in a non-traditional space, the airy (and heavily windowed) atrium of the Ed Roberts Campus, right above the Ashby Bart Station, and this determined company tackles the ensuing lighting and acoustic challenges head on.

I was able to see the final dress rehearsal of Hydrogen Jukebox, and found the production a testament to what a small company can do. Despite my ambivalence around Glass and Ginsburg, who somehow manage to be simultaneously too much and too little for my tastes, I was won over by the appealing cast and imaginative and resourceful staging. Bay Area stage stalwart Howard Swain plays a non-singing narrator role, providing a worldly wise counterpoint to the fresh-faced sextet of young singers enjoying the fruits and pits of post war, pre-millenial America. War, drugs, sex, and the search for enlightenment are recurring themes in a plotless review as our modern crew of bohemians cross the country via plane, train, and green automobile, responding to the daily news, invoking the dark lord of capitalism, and, surprisingly often, taking their shirts off. Tenor Jonathan Blalock (who was fantastic in Prototype’s Paul’s Case in January) and bass Kenneth Kellogg have been brought in from the east coast, but the rest of the excellent cast is local. Their performances and Elkhanah Pulitzer‘s staging elevate Glass’s music and Ginsbug’s poetry into a rewarding night of theater.

West Edge Opera is a sterling example of a regional company doing remarkable work. As the Bay Area continues to struggle with its artistic identity in the face of an onslaught of internet fueled fortunes with uncertain priorities and values, we would be wise to support this worthwhile institution.



Jul 2014

Battle Chorale at the SF Conservatory

Choral writing is the foundation of Western music, the genesis of counterpoint, and the basis for functional harmony as we know it. Writing for chorus (as well as singing in a chorus, regardless of vocal abilities) was a requirement for compositions students of Nadia Boulanger, (as well as in the European American Music Alliance program where I studied two years ago). It’s not surprising that David Conte, a student of Boulanger would continue this tradition in his own pedagogy with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, in the form of a biennial choral composition competition. Last week was the ninth such competition with a total of 19 pieces vying for cash prize and bragging rights.

Each piece was performed by either the Conservatory Chorus Vocal Ensemble, the San Francisco Choral Artists, or the International Orange Chorale. (It wasn’t clear how the pieces were assigned to the ensembles, but it did seem like the more straightforward pieces went to the Conservatory Chorus). Before the performance, the composers would speak briefly about the piece, often explaining their choice of text and the ideas behind their settings.

I was surprised that for the vast majority of composers, this was their first time writing a choral piece. I would have expected that such a requirement would have come up earlier in their studies, especially considering the importance of choral writing in the western tradition. Choral pieces (and to an even greater extent, string quartets) are are a true test of a composer’s harmonic imagination, since the homogeneity of the voices robs the composer of the expended timbral palette of an orchestra to add color and interest. (This is less true in these days of extended vocal technique, as evidenced by Roomful of Teeth). All you’ve got to develop your ideas are the notes, without any flashy brass or blasts of percussion to hide behind.

The quality of the pieces, as one would expect, were varied. All of them showed a good sense of vocal writing and a decent ear for harmony. A few suffered from a lack of a direction, without strong gestures to grab the ear, orient the listener, and give a sense of departure, arrival, or development. Anne Polyakov’s treatment of Susan Griffin’s Summer Night showed a sensitivity to the text, the music nicely illustrating the images in the poems. It was fun to hear both Kyle Randall and Marko Bajzer with different approaches to the same text, Lorca’s Landscape, although Bajzer’s odd choice to end his setting with a lone alto singer intoning the final few words of the poem left the audience wondering if someone had perhaps made a mistake… perhaps someone had.

Jan Stoneman’s Kyrie eleison was the first piece of the evening to use extended techniques, with whispered text and pitch bending glissandi evoking a moving and otherworldly reverence. It, along with Nick Benavides wonderfully structured and harmonically imaginative setting of e.e. cummings i thank you God for most this amazing day, were the most arresting pieces of the evening. (Although I wish Benavides had done something more arresting with cummings’s explosive “yes” at the close of the first stanza). The judge’s tastes were well aligned with mine. They declared both Stoneman’s and Benavides’s works, along with Shase Hernandez’s setting of Walt Whitman’s As Adam Early in the Morning, in a three way tie for first place, the first time the prize was split evenly in the event’s history.

As the crowd pounced on the buffet table at the closing reception, there was some speculation around what the competition would look like in two years. The SF Conservatory is changing quickly. David H Stull has been the president for just under a year and has a strong vision for the future of the school. David Conte is becoming the chair of the composition department, stepping in for Dan Becker, and a replacement hasn’t yet been announced for Conrad Susa, who we lost last winter. But with Conte at the helm, and Ragnar Bohlin of the SF Symphony Chorus taking over conducting duties for the Conservatory Chorus, it seems certain that the choral tradition will remain integral to the program.




May 2014

Review: Singing Sexbots – The Companion

The other brief opera presented last week at Roulette by Ear Heart Music, American Opera Projects, and the American Modern Ensemble took a much more traditional approach to the theatricality of opera. While The Wanton Sublime was a static, largely plot-less monologue, The Companion was a fairly straightforward musical play, with conventional scenes, dialogue, conflict, and arias. If The Wanton Sublime was a meditation on the duality of the idealized woman, both pristine, virginal, yet still manifestly physical, The Companion is a bedroom farce about the idealized man, or at least technology’s efforts to create one.

The second in a trilogy of sex themed miniatures from composer Robert Paterson and librettist David Cote, The Companion tells the story of a robotic mate, a Blade Runner-ish android that is custom built to take care of one’s domestic and carnal needs. As is often the case in such stories, the technology has some glitches, not quite living up to the marketing hype.

The piece is charming and likable. The text is well set and well sung, with conventional arias for each character eliciting enthusiastic applause. Brandon Snook, as Joe, the robotic sex toy, exudes a Ken doll appeal with the comedic sensibilities to pull off the glitchy non-sequiturs of his underperforming AI module. His owner, the increasingly frustrated executive Maya (Nancy Allen Lundy), already in debt from the purchase, overextends herself further in an effort to upgrade to a flashier model, bringing in Kyle Guglielmo as her very much flesh and blood tech support guy, Dax. Dax is a good deal hunkier than your average robotics software nerd, a darker, stubblier foil to Joe’s wax and polish, yet his advances are spurned. Why Maya would prefer Joe’s antiseptic distance to Dax’s immediate presence is a mystery that the libretto doesn’t convincingly address. Instead we’re left with Dax’s rueful musing that humans are “broken machines”.

Ultimately, the story is rather thin. The plot twists in the third act arrive already undermined since Dax’s attraction to Maya is spelled out in the second act, and Joe’s own surprise paramour is strongly hinted at back in the first. The premise itself is well worn, and would have benefited from a fresh angle other than the novelty of the operatic voice. Instead the story is largely limited to the same tropes found in any number of science fiction stories topped with a sudden and largely unconvincing resolution. One can’t help but feel that Cote’s bright libretto, Paterson’s lovely score, and the strong performances throughout would have been better served by a few more revisions of the story early on in the process. Like its titular robot, The Companion is eager to please, but could use a bit more meat under its skin.



May 2014

Review: The Wanton Sublime

Ear Heart Music, the American Modern Ensemble, and American Opera Projects joined forces at Roulette to present two short operas that represented drastically different approaches to the melding of music and theater. Today I’ll focus on the first half of the evening and return for the second later this week.

The Wanton Sublime is an adaptation of Anna Rabinowitz’s book length meditation of the duality of spirit and flesh inherent in the figure of Mary Magdalene. The original work reflects upon the Mary myth through a number of angles and lenses, wrestling with the humanity that can be extracted from the extraordinary expectations hoisted upon this one woman, a victim, saint, virgin, servant. The text is filled with heightened language and exalted purpose. The ideas and images are of a density and complexity appropriate for the page, where the reader can pour over the text, teasing out the references, wrestling with definitions and semantic friction.

Transforming a work such as this into a piece of theater is no simple task. There is no action or dramatic arc, no story, no inherent tension or change, or development. It’s a static piece, an extended inner monologue with a series of internal perspective shifts. Stewarding this realization to theatrical experience fell to composer Tarik O’Regan, director Mallory Catlett, and mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn. O’Regan’s clear, mostly atonal setting of the text was shaded by variety of textures from the American Modern Ensemble, helping to delineate the different moods and facets of Rabinowitz’s Mary. Particularly effective were the final moments of the work, when the dissonances resolved into a sonorous and beautiful harmony. Chinn is well cast, with a confident, unerring voice, vast, expressive eyes and an arresting stage presence. Catlett’s staging imagines Mary dressed in a prim green uniform, folding laundry, performing the menial tasks required of her, God’s housekeeper. The field of flowers referred to in the text is manifested in the patterns of the bedsheets. References to light are realized beautifully (if somewhat literally) on stage.

As a whole, it’s unclear if the original poem benefits from the transformation. It functions more like an extended art song than a piece of theater. John Adams took a more traditional approach to Mary’s complex ambivalence in the first half of the opera-oratorio El Niño to great effect, dramatizing the conversations between Mary and Gabriel (performed by an otherworldly trio of countertenors). The surprisingly insightful Kevin Clark film Dogma portrays Mary’s revelation with contemporary sensibilities, and while the effect is mainly comedic, the remarkable complexity behind her situation is immediately communicated. The Wanton Sublime aims for a headier space, but one that might be more completely reached in a comfortable chair with a book of poetry, a dictionary at hand, and your own time frame than with thirty minutes in a darkened theater.


Apr 2014

Review: Prototype Festival – Thumbprint

ThumbprintOne of the larger productions in this year’s Protoype festival was the world premiere presentation of Thumbprint, an earnest and righteous account of the first Pakistani woman to prevail in a court of law against a group of tribal elders responsible for her “honor rape“. It’s the sort of subject matter that dares you to say anything bad about it. How can one object to the story of a powerless, illiterate woman bravely overcoming all odds and prejudices to find a justice that is almost unheard of in that part of the world? What are you? Some kind of woman-hating rape-supporter? Gulp…

The work starts out strongly with a bustling scene lifted from the middle of the opera (a structural conceit that seems likely to have been made fairly late in the game). An international press corps is strafing an overwhelmed woman with questions about her life, her story, and her strength. The music is exciting, melding instruments, sonorities, and modes from western and eastern traditions, a sort of exotic minimalism. It is exceedingly pleasant to listen to. After this brief non-linear prologue, we settle into the real beginning of the story, an idyllic scene at home with our protagonist Mukhtar (beautifully sung and sensitively portrayed by the work’s composer, Kamala Sankaram) and her mother and sister (the also excellent Theodora Hanslowe and Leela Subramaniam). It’s a charming scene, filled with likable people enjoying the simple pleasures of family and love and weaving. This pastoral setting is interrupted by a pair of powerful elders who have accused the young son in the family of having physical contact with a girl from another tribe. To atone for this crime, they must send one of their own women to a tribunal. Ever brave, ever noble, Mukhtar volunteers herself to plead for her brother’s release.

There is somehow a compelling forward momentum in these early scenes, despite the fact that we know exactly what’s going to happen. This remains true through the sensitive and powerful staging of the rape scene, the dramatic and artistic high point of the evening. However, the remaining 40 minutes of the opera seems overlong and somehow both inevitable and arbitrary. We know Mukhtar is going to ultimately prevail against her assailants, but we’re not given any insight into WHY she prevails. We’re told over and over again that no one will listen to a woman, and a disgraced one at that, but suddenly a judge seems to be sympathetic to her situation. Who was this judge? Why did he break with precedent? How did her case even get to court? What role did western influence and pressure play? Exploring these questions would have taken more stage time, but in the absence of such exploration, much of the last half of the opera seemed repititious. The climactic trial itself was mostly just a restating of things that we already knew.

The production was imaginatively staged, making good use of a minimalist set consisting primarily of three versatile cots creating various spaces over the stage. The projections, however, seemed under baked and over literal. I don’t think I need to see video of slow motion smoke ever again, whether projected in an opera, a nightclub, or a warehouse rave. Similarly, I could have done without a giant thumbprint hovering over several stretches of time. The performances themselves were uneven, vocally and dramatically. The women were all significantly stronger than the men, with Manu Narayan standing out as the most consistently malevolent of the bunch.

This is a theater of certainty, of absolutes, of archetypes in place of humans, of conclusions already made. The good characters are all good all the time. The bad characters are all bad all the time. There is no room for moral ambiguity, no space for an idyllic family scene where a tribal patriarch comes home and acts as a loving and supportive father to his daughters hours after participating in a gang rape of someone else’s daughters. Nor was there any space to reflect upon the death sentence given to the accused. Does Mukhtar wish them dead? Would it change the way we feel about her if she does? These are questions about humanity that are unexplored. Instead we learn that she uses her newfound confidence to build a school for other victimized women. This is a noble and heartwarming conclusion, to be sure, but at the risk of being called a woman-hating rape supporter, this reviewer would prefer a smidge less Oprah in his opera.


Feb 2014

Review: Protoype Festival – Paul’s Case

Who wants to live in a world too serious for snow angels?

Who wants to live in a world too serious for snow angels?

The Prototype Festival, a multi-week festival dedicated to showcasing new works of opera for reduced forces in smaller, more flexible spaces has garnered a lot of press in recent months. Last year’s inaugural festival has made it into several top 10 lists of 2013 and producer/ cheerleader/ impresario Beth Morrison was recently profiled in the New York Times (apparently her striking neo-goth rockabilly style confounded the photo editors, believing her to be too hot for the classical world).

This year’s festival largely followed the successful model of last year’s: a world premiere, some productions brought in from around the country (and world), some works in progress, and a couple of cross genre cabaret acts. Over the past two weeks I was able to see almost all of the works presented in the festival (I had already seen Visitations at its premiere at Stanford last year, and the one night only co-presentation of Elizaveta at Joe’s Pub was sold out). I’ll post brief reviews of the pieces in the days to come.

Gregory Spears’s Requiem is amongst my favorite pieces composed in the past 5 years, so I was very excited to hear the New York premier of Paul’s Case, his operatic adaptation of Willa Cather’s morally ambiguous tale of a young man who bristles against the values, expectations, and responsibilities of industrial society. Though it predates the Requiem, it shares the luxurious tonal sonorities and ornamented vocal lines of the later work. With the exception of the opening scene, the libretto is largely expository, the characters saying what they are doing and thinking and feeling, as if we are watching an omniscient narrator speaking through their characters. The repetition of lines and phrases plays an important role, as several characters are often singing their text simultaneously, creating shimmering vocal harmonies and requiring the listener to tease out the text from the mass of sound.

The voices in this production were uniformly gorgeous and particularly well suited to the material. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a cast of voices so strong in a theater so small. Jonathan Blalock‘s Paul would spin delicately earnest and precise tenor lines though a half smile/half smirk that made you half think he was laughing at you in front of your back. As Paul’s business minded father, Keith Phares used his powerful baritone to assert a compelling authority that only the hardiest of fools would ignore, yet could color his phrases with shades of loss, evoking genuine sympathy when betrayed by his son. In a smaller ensemble role, Melissa Wimbish was a standout for her brilliant soprano, as well as for her tawny mane tightly bound in an up-do that, at times, seemed poised to explode. (It is at this point that I feel compelled to mention that the members of this cast, in addition to being fantastic actors and singers, were all REALLY good looking! Certainly the kind of cast that makes one thankful for small, intimate theaters. But… I digress…)

The story is a fascinating one, and I very much appreciated the nuanced handling of the moral ambiguity of the tale. Yet as the piece progressed, I felt an emotional distance, an inability to comprehend or sympathize with the main character’s choices or ultimate plight. This may be inherent to the source material and its rubbing against my own belief in one’s responsibility to those around you, but it seems to have been exacerbated by the expository distance and static, tableau-like nature of the scenes. However, in the final moments, though a lovely convergence of stagecraft, plotting, and a no-net performance of breathtaking vocal acrobatics, I finally felt all the emotions that had been missing rush in at once, sadness, loss, and elation… transformed by the relentless and unapologetic beauty of the past hour of music, and judging from the 30 seconds of hushed silence that separated the fade to black and the enthusiastic ovations, I was not alone.


Jan 2014