Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Problems With Impetuous Young Men

Puppies! What's not to like? They're so eager to get to know you, lick you, find out more about you. They love being held, stroked, petted, and picked up. Just watch them trying to figure out what to do with a potential friend in this video clip:

Puppy love is so adorable -- especially when you're talking about a real puppy. However, when one's attention is coveted by a grown man with the maturity of a puppy, problems can ensue. It's like having a six foot tall golden retriever who just wants to wrap his arms around you, lick your neck, and curl up beside you. How cute is that?

Of course, there are also the man-puppies who want to be told what to do and disciplined whenever they misbehave. They'll roll their eyes at you, excitedly hump your leg and, if you're not watching carefully, mischievously piss on the carpet. Why? They love begging you to roll them over on their backs, tickle them between their legs, dangle their favorite squeeze toy in front of their eager wet mouths and offer them a nice hard, chewy treat.

Sometimes puppy love can be utterly disarming. Sometimes it shows a level of naivete that is almost unbelievable -- especially when it comes to dealing with the horrors of the real world. Just witness this spoof of West Side Story:

Some men have the "puppy" look down pat. They can look wounded and hurt, or just blink at you, with their tongues hanging out of the side of their mouths. They're always eager for a kiss, a swat, a poke, or a fuck. It's not that the men who want to be treated like puppies are so needy -- some of them are top executives -- they just really, really, really get off on all that attention!

Puppy-like emotions played a strong role in two recent arts events that could not have been more radically different. One was a documentary shown at Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival); the other an updated version of a classic opera. The common thread between them was one that took me completely by surprise: the role of the chorus in each production.

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Few people would ever expect that a reality show in which a group of young gay men live in a house equipped with 32 strategically-placed webcams (while subscribers to an online service get to watch their every move, comment on their actions, and occasionally chat with whoever is on camera) would have any relevance to one of Giuseppe Verdi's greatest operas. But they would be wrong.

Incredibly wrong.

Premiered in 1853, La Traviata dealt with the societal scandal of a major Parisian courtesan (a kept woman) falling in love with a younger man, running off to live with him in her country villa and -- horror of horrors -- selling off her assets to support her young lover. The opera's chorus of onlookers and Parisian partygoers plays a crucial role in commenting on plot developments and moving the action along.
  • "Ah! Let’s drink to love – to wine that warms our kisses."
  • "The dawn is breaking in the sky and we must take our leave;
    Thank you, dear lady for such a splendid party.
    The town is still a-reveling; pleasure rolls on its way.
    In slumber we’ll store up again the zest for further joys."
  • "Bravo! Alfredo has all the luck!"
  • "What you have done is shameful -- to strike down a tender heart!"
  • "You have insulted a woman! Get out of here!
    We’ve no use for you! We’ve no use for such as you! Go!"
The thoughts sung by the choristers may sound trivial. But are they? Not when you realize that their 21st century counterpart has become the chat room (a virtual chorus voicing plenty of opinions).

In George O'Donnell's new documentary, College Boys Live, audiences get to watch more than just the men who are living in a webcam house. They also get to watch the steady scroll of comments from virtual voyeurs whose input instantly appears on computer monitors throughout the house.

The minute anything goes wrong, online subscribers are quick to comment on what has happened in much the same way Verdi's chorus analyzes the events at their party. Although Zac Adams (the owner of the claims that his webcam house is all about showing that “it’s okay to be gay,” like any reality show it is a form of exploitation. The residents of the house are young, fairly immature gay men whose egos are constantly stroked by messages from thousands of virtual voyeurs.

Although the residents of the group home are encouraged to have outside jobs or attend classes, they are required to spend two hours a night chatting with subscribers (and strongly encouraged to spend the last 30 minutes of their chat sessions naked). Webcams show them showering, cooking meals, doing laundry and sleeping. They can be seen lounging about in the pool or making out in a hot tub.

Without a doubt, College Boys Live was better than I expected it to be. There was the usual amount of pouting, diva-like behavior, and drunken outbursts. It certainly made me appreciate the huge amount of stability I enjoy in my life compared to the blazing insecurities of most of the webcam house's residents.

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Maturity also plays a key role in tempering the effects of Alfredo's puppy love for Violetta in Verdi's opera. Based on La Dame aux Camelias (by Alexandre Dumas, fils), the story is quite familiar to most operagoers. The interesting challenge these days is to stage a production of La Traviata that actually grabs the audience and doesn't have to compensate for weaknesses in casting, design, and/or direction.

Over the years I've attended scores of performances of La Traviata. Many were exceptionally good, many were mediocre. Some -- like Nicholas Muni's 1990 staging of an AIDS-era Traviata for the Tulsa Opera -- were quite controversial.

However, all too often the big money went to sign a world-famous soprano who might, by the time the contracted performance rolled around, have been a bit past her prime. The artist might have been older and heavier than one would have hoped for, and might have traveled with her own set of costumes (which did not necessarily mesh with the production design). In many cases, she may no longer have been able to handle the stringent vocal demands of Violetta's music.

A soprano may be able to nail the coloratura work in Act I of La Traviata, but lack the vocal heft required for Acts II and III. Conversely, she may have some pretty shoddy coloratura technique but have no problems sailing through the musical passages which demand a spinto or dramatic soprano.

Many sopranos have developed their own interpretation of Violetta and will do what they find most comfortable when onstage. Therefore, to hire someone who (a) has the musical chops for the entire evening, (b) is a good-looking woman, and (c) is a skilled actress is like winning the lottery.

It happens less often than one might wish.

The tenor cast as Alfredo can often be a poor physical match for the soprano, may sound extremely nasal, or be someone who almost looks as old as his stage father. Because La Traviata is a staple of the operatic repertoire, many productions have been rented or shared between multiple opera companies and, over the years, developed a world-weary look that simply cannot be ignored. Many stage directors have essentially become traffic cops who are "remounting" a particular production in one city after another.

Thus, I was genuinely thrilled to experience Marta Domingo's production (on loan from the Los Angeles Opera), which not only updates the action to the 1920s, but treats the story with a near-cinematic tenderness. The first act alone moves through a series of settings as if the action were being staged for a movie.

La Traviata, Act I (Photo by: Terrence McCarthy)

The second scene, staged outside Violetta's country house, has a sense of verdant fertility symbolic of two lovers in full bloom. The gambling scene which follows is designed in such a way that Alfredo's denunciation of Violetta takes place on a raised platform/stage in front of all their friends. The final act, magically set in starlit isolation against a background of falling snow, almost feels like a dream.

Domingo's production is at once thrilling and seductive, fascinating yet intensely focused, cinematic but staged for live theater. It maintains the code of manners and chivalry in the opera's original era without missing one bit of the roller coaster drama that is devouring Violetta from every angle. It shows her desperation to escape from life within a bubble and to be genuinely loved, as well as her mature insights into what must be done once Alfredo's father demands that she end her love affair with his son.

David Lomelí and Elizabeth Futral
(Photo by: Kristen Loken Anstey)

While Elizabeth Futral delivered a vocally rock-solid performance as Violetta, she was immensely helped by David Lomelí, who was making his official San Francisco Opera debut on the main stage. A tall, handsome bear of a man who is a native of Mexico City, the tenor is a former winner of the Montserrat Caballe Competition, the Jose Iturbi Vocal Competition, and the Palm Beach Opera Competition. He is a graduate of the Los Angeles Opera's Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, the San Francisco Opera's 2008 Merola Opera Program, and was recently signed by the San Francisco Opera as an Adler Fellow. It's easy to see why.

Mr. Lomelí has something opera lovers crave: a voice that is naturally strong, well centered, and not just loud. His voice has a clarion brilliance that is very rare and, if handled carefully, will provide him with a major international career. Watching him perform with Futral reminded me of my early operagoing days, when I used to see Placido Domingo and Patricia Brooks perform in the New York City Opera production of La Traviata that had been directed by Frank Corsaro. Why? Both men had remarkable instruments, great vocal confidence, and the brute strength necessary to sweep their leading ladies up in their arms with as much tenderness as if they were lifting an infant.

Stephen Powell lent strong support as the elder Germont, with Leann Sandel-Pantaleo as Flora, Dale Travis as Baron Douphol, Austin Kness as the Marquis D'Obigny and Renee Tatum as Violetta's maid, Annina. The performance was conducted with great sensitivity by the company's outgoing music director, Donald Runnicles.

While the evening was an artistic triumph for Marta Domingo's production (and certainly for Ms. Futral as well), the excitement of hearing a young, full and healthy tenor voice like Mr. Lomelí's marked this as a debut that people will be proud to remember having witnessed. As it says in the libretto: "Attention must be paid."

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