Archive for the ‘Reviews and Criticism’Category

Review: Anna Nicole, The Opera

An Anna Nicole Smith opera. So obvious. High tragedy, low comedy, and all spectacle. The source material is golden.  One would think it writes itself. One would be very wrong.

The challenge (as with all adaptations, but even more so with non-fiction subjects) is two-part, first one must distill the mountain of actual events into a more or less functioning narrative. And second one must dramatize these events with a coherent and appropriate tone. Sometimes the tone takes more significance than the events themselves. Think of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, which freely intertwined aspects of William S. Burrough’s life with scenes from his fiction, creating a hazy nightmarish meta-biography that upon watching, gave one the queasy feeling of what it would be like to BE William S. Burroughs. Or Glass’s Satyagraha, which stubbornly, insistently, (and non-violently) presents Ghandi’s life as a series of static tableaus in an incomprehensible sanskrit.

In the superlative Jerry Springer: The Opera, Richard Thomas got the tone just right. He managed to tease the humanity out of the raunch while still leaving in a great deal of humor and a hint of travesty. He seemed a perfect match to tell the story of Anna Nicole Smith. But something, somewhere went wrong.

But first let’s focus on what went right. Sarah Joy Miller as Anna seems born to this role. From the moment she bounces in on her overstuffed lamé loveseat, her wide set eyes, and stunning beauty are perfectly suited to Smith’s unapologetic sense of irrepresable self. Her bubbly, effusive beauty seems entirely guileless, which, in theory, sets up a compelling dynamic against those who see her as a shrewd, calculating opportunist. But for all Miller’s abilities, the libretto fails her. A bunch of things happen to her, but we’re given little to no insight into her role in all of it, does she have agency? Is she a victim? A victimizer? Does she have thoughts or opinions? Desires? Regrets? We have no idea. In a colossal failure of imagination, the libretto tells us no more than we could learn by watching reruns of The Anna Nicole Smith Show. And that’s a real shame.

Instead we’re treated to a host of increasingly lame rhyming couplets about “titties” and “whores”, pronounced (and properly scansioned) as “hoo-ers”. And surely there’s a german word for “That feeling you get after a stupidly obvious rhyme is set up and you hope that maybe they’ll do something more clever with it but then they don’t”. If there is, I can think of no better example of it then a chorus of women awaiting breast implants singing a line that ends with “we are restless”. Ugh. Waiting for that other smelly shoe to drop wasn’t exactly a high point in the NYC Opera’s storied history. At some point the novelty of third grade potty mouth set to serious music loses its naughty appeal and you need to actually have an idea behind it. Avenue Q, for example, stands head and shoulders above this libretto when it comes to irreverent sophistication.

But those objections are overstated. When the libretto works, it works quite well. J. Howard Marshall II, Smith’s 86 year old second husband, stands out as the most well defined character in the opera. His entrance is wonderfully staged, flying in from the rafters in an oversized chair, making him look like a shriveled ventriloquist’s dummy, greeting the audience with a hilariously understated “Hi”. He is the big fish that Smith lands with her outsized boob job, but rather than a doddering old man being floozily bamboozled, he’s a sharp, aggressive, and frank manifestation of the american dream. He earned his billions and his money will afford him the pleasures that common decency would prevent. Their quid pro quo relationship is the most crystalline, sensible, and interesting aspect of the opera. Their wedding, the finale of act 1, is a perverse tableau featuring a pill popping, huge breasted Disney princess posed in a field of Jeffery Koons sculptures, arm and arm with an octogenarian prince charming, while a single dancer in a black leotard and a camera for a head proceeds ominously en pointe throughout. It’s hilarious and chilling with a hint of tragedy, by far the most effective moment of the work.

But the promise of this setup is betrayed by the second act, which sketches out the last half of Smith’s life so summarily that it barely registers. Once Marshall ends up wrapped in plastic (like the rest of his furniture) we’re treated to sleazy scenes of her lawyer/lover Howard K Stern capitalizing on her tabloid appeal and a wonderfully surreal appearance on Larry King, but no real exploration, or even more than a passing indication of her decline, her weight struggles, or her reality TV show. A story could be made here. Does Stern’s opportunistic exploitation of Smith echo Smith’s opportunistic exploitation of Marshall? Is Smith’s need for public exposure inherent to her personality or a necessity born from the withholding of Marshall’s money? There is no way of knowing the answers to these questions, but if you’re the sort of person who likes exploring these issues, perhaps you should write your own opera about Anna Nicole Smith, because this one doesn’t seem to have the time or inclination. It’s as if in place of a dramatic arc they just gave up and said “this happened, then this happened, and then this happened”, so by the time Smith herself is wrapped in plastic, we’re left wondering, so what?

A case could be made that this is intentional, that in the end there wasn’t anything under the surface of Smith’s beauty or exposure, that in place of a human being there was just a series of money shots. If that’s the case, this is a bleaker opera than perhaps any in the repertoire. But I can’t imagine that’s the case. I have to believe that the shortcomings of this opera, like those of Anna Nicole Smith herself, are due to an ignorance, a lack of intent, a failure of imagination of the authors, because the alternative, that this outcome could be the result of a conscious, calculating brain, and the ramifications that that would entail are too nihilistic for this member of the viewing public to bear.


Sep 2013

Arguendo – Bringing the Supreme Court to Life

Just back from NYC where I saw 16 performances in 10 days, the entire Prototype Festival of new opera, co presented by HERE Art Center and Beth Morrison Projects, and large chunks of the Under the Radar festival at the Public Theater.

That’s a lot of theater. And much of it was fantastic. When asked which productions have left the most pronounced impression, I quickly respond with Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times, Parts 1-4, and Elevator Repair Service‘s Arguendo as a close second. Both works deal with a similar approach to text, taking natural speech and transforming it through a theatrical process.

Elevator Repair Service, best known for their monumental Gatz, which consists of a theatrical reading of the entire text of The Great Gatsby, turns to the Supreme Court. They take the literal transcriptions of the oral arguments of a 1991 case regarding the constitutionality of a state ban on nude dancing and distribute the text between three performers, two of them taking on the roles of each of the justices, and one of them taking the role of both attorneys arguing the case. The delivery is slightly heightened, the “errs”, “aahs”, throat clearings and coughs are slightly more deliberate and exaggerated than they would be in natural speech. The demeanor of the individual judges are clearly delineated, it’s was delightful to watch Susie Sokol switch from the prim Sandra Day O’Conner to the scrappy Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Scalia’s bullying intellect is well rendered, but such details are likely to be noticed only by folks who pay close attention to the supreme court. Similarly, it’s unclear how well most audience members would follow the legal aspects of the arguments, with a fairly complex web of citations to previous cases. In an adapted text, an author would likely streamline and provide expository context for each citation, but no such leeway is given and as a result, large chunks of the text descend into legal babble. This is in no way a criticism, it is simply a byproduct of the process, and part of the charm of the performance.

Countering the babble are the surreal and often very funny scenarios the justices regularly hypothesize to test the extreme boundaries of the arguments, as well as the naughtiness of the subject at hand juxtaposed against the formality of the proceedings. In addition there is a large projection of a microfiche filled with citations and legal text that is manipulated by the participants to highlight the area of the law that they’re currently discussing. The piece works itself into a frenzy of absurdity as papers are strewn over the floor, justices push themselves across the room on their wheeled chairs, and the attorney shouts their final arguments regarding nudity, expression, and the first amendment.

The piece is still considered “in progress”, although it felt in fine shape to me. Granted, as something of a supreme court fan and law junkie, I’ma pretty ideal audience member. The oral arguments of the supreme court are inherently theater, although of a very different sort than what is usually presented at the Public. Arguments are less about a working out of the legal issues at hand and more about justices signaling to the other justices what legal issues are occupying their minds, preparing for the deliberations that will happen behind closed doors. But for the public, the oral arguments and the final decisions are often the only insights into the court’s thinking. In transforming this text into a live performance, Elevator Repair Service has provided a vital and entertaining exploration of the issue of expression and censorship as well as the workings of the supreme court.


Jan 2013

Come for the Schoenberg, stay for the Johnson

In today's very special episode, Pierrot learns that you can "Just Say No" to the moon and STILL be cool.

The Avant Music Festival got a lot of press earlier this week for their part in the John Cage centennial, a sold out marathon concert of his works. While I missed that extravaganza, I was able to swing by for the third concert of this, their third year. The first half was dedicated to Schoenberg’s seminal expressionist work, Pierrot Lunaire, the second to a song cycle by composer Jenny Olivia Johnson.

Premiered in 1912, Pierrot Lunaire represents one half of a great fork in the road of 20th century music. If one follows the road labeled Pierrot, one ends up in the expanse of expressionist atonalism and serialism. If one follows the road labeled Le Sacre (premiered just seven months later), one ends up in the world of polytonal neoclassicism. My tastes have always leaned towards the latter path, and while there are many works down the heady Viennese path that I love (more often than not, they’re composed by Berg) much of Schoenberg’s work leaves me cold.

Pierrot is not an exception. It’s a prickly chin-scratcher with a dense poetic text that feels oh so arty that it simply MUST be good for you. There are bits that are genuinely funny (those wacky German expressionists, smoking their bald pates) but most of the time I feel like I’m far too removed from the culture to really understand what’s supposed to be going on.

Wednesday’s performance was a strong one. The ensemble chose to stage the work, with projections, semi-mobile instrumentalists and a dancer performing the role of Pierrot. The multi-media aspect helped distract me from the chilly material and emphasized Schoenberg’s unique handling of the ensemble, with different movements featuring different groupings of instruments. Megan Schubert’s Sprechstimme was beautifully expressive with a ringing soprano head resonance that was, for me, a welcome change from the gruffer, Lotte Lenye-like contralto hues that I seem to associate with the technique.

But the surprise triumph of the evening was Jenny Olivia Johnson’s deeply moving and beautiful meditations on the trials of young adult-hood. Her After School Vespers combines four songs, each focusing on topics such as cutting, binge drinking, and molestation. If Schoenberg’s work was from a culture too foreign to relate to, Johnson’s ran the risk of covering territory too familiar to be taken seriously.

But more often than not, Johnson’s treatments are effective, particularly Cutting with its jarring use of a driving industrial sample, and Dollar Beers (Redondo Beach ’96) with its languorous descending chord progression. The latter two pieces, while also lovely and haunting, exposed a stylistic similarity in the cycle that made one yearn for more variety. The structure for each song seemed repetitive, a soprano intones individual notes in a haze of reverb as the ensemble builds diatonic clusters. Intensity builds slowly, eventually reaching a climax that finds the soprano sustaining fortissimo notes at the upper end of her register, a device that is perhaps best used only once in a song cycle. Still, when the concert was finished, I found myself disappointed that there was no recording of the piece for me to buy at the merch table. These are pieces I am looking forward to hearing again (as opposed to Pierrot, which I only need to hear once a decade, per stipulations of contemporary composer’s collective agreement no. 3324. I’m certified moon-sickness free until 2022.)


Feb 2012

Review: Little Match Girl Passion – Death Speaks

To get to Dinkelspiel Auditorium for an 8pm concert on a Wednesday requires leaving San Francisco at 6pm, an hour to get to Palo Alto fighting traffic all the way, and then another 45 minutes to an hour to fight the crowds to get a scarce campus parking space. Things will be different when Stanford Lively Arts moves to their new Bing Concert Hall next year, but last week this two hour pre show experience consisting of two of the least pleasant activities known to modern man might explain the surprising number of empty seats for a world premiere concert featuring the rock stars (literally) of the new music scene.

David Lang‘s The Little Match Girl Passion was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008 and spawned a co-commission from Carnegie Hall and Stanford Lively Arts, resulting in the night’s other work Death Speaks. The first piece (according to Lang’s pre-show speech, specifically made to allow those poor souls still searching for parking a chance to find their seats) came from Lang’s urge to explore the liturgical history of classical music in a context outside of religion. What would happen if we take the witnessing of Jesus’s suffering and instead witness an ordinary person’s suffering. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of a street waif freezing to death in plain sight serves as the narrative structure for this experiment.

And a most successful experiment it is. The piece is exquisitely sung by Paul Hillier’s Theater Of Voices, while accompanying themselves with an assortment of percussion instruments. The pathos and emotional heft of the story is belied by the pristine, almost chilly treatment of the text. The story is told in simple language, witnessing a painful tragedy in a series of matter of fact observations (“So the little girl went on with her little naked feet, which were quite red and blue with the cold.”) Lang sets this text on a simple, halting, repeating staccato line which is both impassive and somewhat childlike. There is little room for the voice to impose any sort of expression on these lines, which seems to make us, the audience, the true witnesses, respond with that much more intensity, with more outrage. How dare that soprano sing of those red and blue feet without DOING something about it! Interspersed in the narrative were moments of beatific beauty, invocations of mercy and patience and suffering. The piece is moving, devastating, and gorgeous, a monument to a religion of humanity that goes beyond any doctrine.

For the follow up piece, Lang took the bits of text throughout Schubert’s songs where Death is personified and given a voice. He then assembled an all star cast that reads as the who’s who of the new music world:  Bryce Dessner (of The National), Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond), Owen Pallett (of Owen Pallett) and Nico Muhly (of everywhere). I wish I could say the new piece was anywhere near as effective a work as the first half. Lang chose to stretch the text over longer vocal lines lines. In the audience talk back session afterwards he explained that he wanted to emphasize the text (and Worden’s voice) more, but the effect of elongating the text was to reduce it to sound and pitch as opposed to words and meaning. And without a narrative to latch onto, the piece washes over without much investment or involvement on a first listen.

Perhaps most disappointing, with the exception of Worden’s voice (and Pallett’s voice in an all too brief section of the final song), the parts could have been played by any instrumentalists familiar with modern performance practices. There was precious little Muhly-ness, Pallett-ness, or Dessner-ness on display, they all seemed subsumed in the common goal of Lang-ness, which may have been quite disappointing to concertgoers enticed by the high profile ensemble. A more cynical person than myself might catch a whiff of stunt casting, a move designed to please marketing departments everywhere. But for more charitable folks (such as myself) this was a genuine mutual admiration society whose sum ended up, in this case at least, much less than the parts.


Jan 2012

The worst music ever written

A couple of weeks ago I recorded an episode of VoiceBox with Chloe Veltman about the worst vocal music ever written. While preparing for the show I did my best to try to analyze the nature of “badness”, perhaps even creating a taxonomy of characteristics that contribute to bad music. The goal was to not simply list bad songs, but to try to get a better understanding of what makes bad bad.

One thing that we found was that it was much easier to judge the merits of popular music. As Chloe pointed out in her blog entry about the show, people are much less comfortable imposing such value judgments on classical music. I think this is for a few reasons. For one thing, aficionados of classical music often harbor notions that their music has more merit than mere “popular” music. At the same time, they feel that their music is rarified and, therefore, under constant threat of marginalization (witness the death of classical music that’s been a constant source of print articles over the past several decades). From this perspective saying that a particular piece of classical music is “bad” exposes you attacks of “you’re just not smart enough to get it” from one end and provides ammunition to those folks who don’t like classical music on the other.

For that reason, most of the show focuses on popular music, which, fortunately, has many examples of bad music. I’ll probably make some enemies with this show. My own subjective tastes leak through. Fans of Bare Naked Ladies and Celine Dion might end up boycotting my site, but I think most of my other examples of bad music will be generally agreed upon.

I’m particularly fond of the last portion of the show where I launch into a spirited case for The Shaggs aptly named “Philosophy of the World” as being a truly amazing album. I will stand by that argument until I die. There is no other album like it. It exists outside of judgment, convention, or taste. It exists outside of reason. It out-Duchamps Duchamp, out-Cages Cage. It is the voice of the very artistic soul of mankind channeled through three adolescent girls by means of sixties guitar rock. I am so glad it exists.

If you don’t like it, you’re just not smart enough to get it.

To hear the entire broadcast until the end of the week (Jan 20, 2012), visit this link to get the KALW local music player, then scroll to the bottom and click on “VoiceBox with Chloe Veltman”



Jan 2012

Glacial is the New Black: Satyagraha and Shen Wei

Stare at image for 2 hours. Intermission. Resume staring.

Somewhere imprinted in my brain is a sacred rule of story: take only as much time as you need to get an idea across. Get in, make your point, get out. Keep things moving and don’t lose your audience. But this week in New York two separate pieces, both non-narrative, reduced me to tears by combining a staggeringly slow pace with one or two immense gestures of inspired stagecraft that hit at just the right moment.

SPOILER ALERT – the unexpected nature of these gestures contributed much to their impact. If you plan on seeing either of the pieces discussed, reading this essay could well rob you of that discovery. Shen Wei often tours the country and you almost certainly have a great opportunity to see Satyagraha on screen in your local movie theater this Wednesday, Dec 7 via the Met’s Live in HD program. Perhaps go see the work and then come back and read this.

The Shen Wei Dance Company performed an evening of works adapted or created  for the mammoth Park Avenue Armory space. Read the rest of this entry →


Dec 2011

The creepiest thing ever…

What’s creepier than the Teletubbies? Teletubbies in slow motion with a Arnold Schoenberg soundtrack.

(Warning, if you’re easily spooked, you should probably watch something a little less creepy. Like ‘The Ring’ or ‘Saw III’.)


Oct 2011

Tweaking a masterpiece: Assassins

Few, if any, musicals mine darker creative ore than Assassins. By humanizing a group of disenfranchised, semi-stable malcontents, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman tell a story of the American Nightmare, a haze of anger, frustration, and humiliation that can, apparently, only be relieved by killing the President of the United States.

It’s long been in the short list of my favorite shows of all time (it shows up twice in my “greatest moments of Sondheim” list). It’s also bear of a show to pull off, requiring a very deft directorial hand to keep the audience in that uncomfortable state where they’re genuinely empathizing with despicable characters. Furthermore, it’s an ensemble show that requires vocal virtuosity throughout. The piece is rangy and demanding. But Ray of Light continues to be a small company that insists on thinking big. With last year’s excellent Jerry Springer: The Opera the company showed their ability to rise to the challenge of a large cast singing tough music. If any non-professional company would be able to put on a convincing production of Assassins, it would be Ray of Light. Read the rest of this entry →


Jun 2011

A 1-bit rave (with no dancing)

Hey! There's my social security number!

When in New York last month I was lucky enough to be invited to the advanced opening of Ryoji Ikeda’s mammoth video/audio installation the transfinite at the Park Avenue Armory. It’s a 40′ high screen, both imposing and overwhelming. The front side, entitled test pattern is a series of aggressive strobing black and white patterns flashing rapidly on both the screen and the floor. The ‘back’ side, both data.tron and data.scan, is a more subtle projection of a staggering amount of data, millions of digits represented in fonts no thicker than a pixel (at this scale, about 1/3″)  with individual table monitors spread throughout the room echoing parts of the data in greater detail. Both sides are augmented by a soundtrack of digital clicks and noise emanating from powerful speakers surrounding the room.

No images or video can replicate the sensation of being in that space, one that can alternate between amazement, disorientation, discomfort, and for some sensitive folks, just plain nausea. My wife could only stay in the room for short periods of time before stepping out for a break, and she didn’t dare actually step in the central area where the projection was on the floor as well (although that may have been because she didn’t feel like taking her shoes off.) It’s an impressive battering of your senses, one that strikes a chord for a tech geek like myself, (who was inspired to pursue a career in computer graphics after seeing Star Trek II as a kid. The visual displays of information all over the bridge of the Enterprise were just spellbinding.)

The 8-bit aesthetic (possibly even 1-bit? I’m trying to remember if there were any grays on the front side at all…) and digital artifact nature of the sound track reminded me of David O’Reilly’s lovely work in the short film Please Say Something. Standing in the transfinite is what I imagine an O’Reilly character experiences when they’re very agitated. Or when they’re at a rave.



Jun 2011

Brilliant? According to whom?

Early on in the week, based upon a few tweets from chambermusiciantoday and Sequenza21, I checked out Elodie Lauten’s ‘new’ opera The Death of Don Juan (apparently it originated in the 80s, but this is the first staging and it was radically overhauled). The timing was right, I was going to be in the neighborhood, and at only $15, it seemed worth taking a chance on.

The performance was, in short, underwhelming. It was scrappy and independent with rough edges and some questionable Read the rest of this entry →


May 2011