Posts Tagged ‘opera’

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

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

Quentin Letts Shows Us What Ugly Is

What Ugly Isn't

What Ugly Isn’t

There’s been an uproar in the opera world after London critics delivered a series of very personal insults regarding Tara Erraught’s weight. “Dumpy of stature”, “unappealing”, and “chubby bundle of puppy fat” gives you a sense of it. Most of the critics have since tried to contextualize their comments as specific to the role at hand, one in which Miss Erraught plays a rakish young man. Indeed, it’s somewhat easier to swallow these comments as captions under an image from the production being reviewed than under Miss Erraught’s publicity still. But in a startlingly tone deaf retort, Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail actually doubles down, amazingly hurling a new round of insults towards the singer while defending the critic’s responsibility to speak their truth.

Here’s the thing Quentin, your truth ain’t shit. Your narrow definition of beauty has been polluting our collective brains for too long. If you were really searching for a truth, your criticism would read more like “Miss Erraught, who is more attractive than ninety nine percent of the people I encounter in the real world, and quite a bit more attractive than anyone I have ever shared any sort of intimacy with, doesn’t match the standard of beauty that I have been conditioned to expect when watching television or movies. By choosing to use my reviews to point out this difference in a particularly hateful way, I not only perpetuate these ridiculous, deceitful, and disgusting expectations, but I show that people who don’t conform to these standards shouldn’t be treated with respect or consideration. In short, I am a total asshat.”

Now that’s a truth worth publishing.

We’ve learned a lot about these critics in the past few weeks, enough for me to completely discount their thoughts and opinions regarding just about anything. We’re not censoring your thoughts, Quentin, we’ve just realized that they’re worthless.


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

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

Einstein and Moby and LINES, Oh My!

It’s been a big week for massive sweeping ambitious works of art. I read Cloud Atlas in preparation for the release of the movie (book is great, movie less so), saw Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick at the SF Opera, watched Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and capped the week off with four and a half hours of Einstein on the Beach while the San Francisco Giants were winning the world series (I managed to wait until the opera finished before checking the score. Game delayed on account of Glass).

Moby-Dick was a rather satisfying piece of conventional drama. Heggie’s score is appealing and easy to appreciate on a first listening. The use of computer generated imagery projected on the stage created massive sense of scale, although the combined effect of the tuneful score and projections made the opening sequence feel like the opening credits of a movie more than an opera. At the time it was exhilarating, but upon reflection, there’s something a little unsettling about an opera dressed up like movie. It’s like your mom showing up with her midriff exposed, navel freshly pierced, looking to hang out with your friends. The projections were most effective when they were creating the environment that the performers inhabited, particularly the small whaling dinghies.

The libretto streamlines the novel greatly, and the most effective source of drama is the tension between the obsessive Ahab and the more reasonable Starbuck. The secondary arcs involving Queequeg, Greenhorn, and Pip are much less well defined, holding little moral or emotional weight. At times it’s not even clear exactly what happens with those characters (Queequeq’s speedy recovery from his deathbed is unexplained, as is Pip’s somewhat spontaneous insanity). Reading the synopsis helps a bit, but I prefer a piece that can make itself understood without cliff notes. Still, between the visual spectacle and the scenes between Ahab and Starbuck, it’s a fine night at the opera.

Einstein on the Beach is a four and a half hour mega-opera that is anything but conventional, yet, 40 years later, remains deeply affecting. The libretto consists almost entirely of counting (“one two three four”) or solfege (“la si do si la si do si”) with brief, semi-coherent monologues of spoken word layered over the top. The music is monolithic, literally 20-30 minutes is spent oscillating between two or three harmonies with rhythms and accents constantly shifting beneath. In such a context, the introduction of a new harmony is startling. Much of the stage work is structured and formal, clearly delineated, with patterns and gestures that also recur and repeat over 20 or 30 minute chunks. Then there are the “Fields” the astonishing (and crowd pleasing!) ensemble pieces where dancers pirouette in precise patterns, creating arcs and complex geometries across the stage, yet never touching or directly interacting.

It is not a piece to decode or follow or explain. It is a piece to observe, to allow to seep in. Certainly there are recurrences and connections and things to notice. Being familiar with some of the specifics of Einstein’s work, I recognized the train and the space ship from his thought experiments, as well as the more abstract mathematic and geometric ideas that permeated the sets. Amongst the artifice and formality on stage, there were recurring references to the more banal aspects of human existence: the ensemble brushes their teeth, engages in a collective brown bag lunch break, files their nails. How amazing that a human, who eats bagged lunches, who brushes their teeth, who sticks out their tongue, also has the ability to combine the raw stuffs of mathematics into a model of the physical universe that human inhabits. Perhaps Einstein on the Beach is not so much about Einstein as it is an invitation to inhabit the mind of Einstein, to see the world as he might see it, to come to a unique understanding about the complex world emerging from the interactions of many seemingly simple events, meaningless in isolation, but luminous in concert.


Oct 2012