Sunday, November 13, 2011

Too Much Of A Good Thing Can Be Wonderful

People spend a lot of time obsessing about funding for the arts, the political controversies surrounding provocative works of art, and the myriad challenges of building new and younger audiences for the arts. What often gets overlooked in these discussions is the pure joy that artists create for their audiences.

In a world that has been reeling from the catastrophic impact of tsunamis, earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns, child molestation in the sacred halls of football and the Catholic Church, and the inherent stupidity on display at the Republican debates, it's all too easy to be distracted from one's true feelings of joy. While it's easy to slather Liquid Joy all over your hands (or listen to Joy Behar's words of wisdom on television), let's not forget the genuine sense of joy artists experience when creating and sharing a piece of art.

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In May of 1988, I took a red-eye from Houston to London, where I planned to attend several performances before heading south to the Brighton Festival. After arriving at my hotel, showering, and taking a brief nap, I headed over to the Coliseum where the English National Opera was presenting George Frideric Handel's 1738 opera, Xerxes, in a new production directed by Nicholas Hytner and conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras.

With a cast headed by mezzo-soprano Ann Murray, soprano Valerie Masterson, and countertenor Christopher Robson (as well as a chorus dressed to look like the denizens of the darkly comic world created by Charles Addams), this staging of Xerxes took me completely by surprise. I sorely regretted not having time to go back and catch another performance.

David Fielding's set for Act I of Xerxes (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

I left London desperately hoping that some American opera company would import Hytner's brilliant production.  Nearly two decades later, the Houston Grand Opera did just that, staging Xerxes with David Fielding's delightful set and costumes and a cast headed by Susan Graham as the King of Persia and countertenor David Daniels as his brother, Arsamanes.

Susan Graham (Xerxes) and David Daniels (Arsamenes) in
Handel's Xerxes (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Last week (nearly a quarter century after my trip to London), I had a chance to once again enjoy this splendid production as I watched a performance of Xerxes unfold on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House. With Patrick Summers on the podium, the San Francisco Opera's company premiere of Xerxes included several instruments rarely heard in operatic ensembles: the arch lute, baroque guitar, and theorbo (a long-necked lute sometimes referred to as a chitarrone).

A theorbo (also known as a chitarrone)

While the addition of Supertitles increased the joy I felt as I wallowed in the musical pleasures of Handel's opera, the great appeal of this staging is the way it has been set in London's Vauxhall Gardens (at a time when the English were starting to acquire treasures from foreign lands). In his director's note, Michael Walling wrote:
"With Handel’s music running through my head this morning, I went for a walk in Golden Gate Park. And here, in the city where we are recreating the opera, was another Vauxhall. Here were the neo-classical pavilions and follies; here were the shrines of art, with busts of writers and composers appearing through the trees; here were the museums and galleries, the coffee houses and the concerts. Here were botanical specimens from overseas put on display for education and delight; here was the fascination with an exoticized and economically colonized Asia. Perhaps contemporary San Francisco is closer to Handel’s London than it may at first appear.
A scene from Act II of Xerxes (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
Handel, I am sure, would have recognized the city’s famous queer culture. Although there is no conclusive evidence that he was gay, it was very unusual for an 18th-century man to remain unmarried, and even more unusual for all his close friends to be other unmarried men. Certainly he took great delight in the gender-bending possibilities presented by the form of Baroque opera. The role of Xerxes was originally sung by the famous castrato Caffarelli, and Arsamenes by a female soprano, 'The Luchesina.' I suspect our reversal of the genders of the singers playing these royal brothers would not have perturbed him. Some of the most expressive music is reserved for the cross-dressed Amastris, whose tessitura is so low that in the final ensemble it is she who takes the tenor line. The conventions of gender are blurred. Identity, certainly, becomes brittle and impermanent. Like performance, it delights and then disappears."
Sonia Prina as the cross-dressing Amastris (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

The plot of Xerxes involves a series of mistaken identities as two very competitive brothers vie for the love of the same woman while one conveniently forgets his betrothal to a foreign princess. With a mezzo-soprano dressed in drag as the King of Persia (modern day Iran) and a countertenor portraying his bearded brother, there is enough gender confusion onstage to leave Rick Santorum sputtering in a puddle of, well, Santorum.

Simultaneously, two soprano sisters (one sincere, the other a jealous schemer) are in love with one of the aforementioned brothers. Add in a suspicious newcomer (the King's fiancĂ©e who has arrived on the scene disguised as a soldier), a male servant to Arsamanes who shows up disguised as a maid, and you have the ingredients for a grand farce. But while mistaken identities and misinterpreted messages help to move the plot along, Handel's opera takes a surprisingly mature look at fidelity, jealousy, and betrayal.

Michael Sumuel (Elviro) and Heidi Stober (Atalanta) in Xerxes
Photo by: Cory Weaver

Sharon Graham and David Daniels (who have each spent a great deal of their careers performing baroque music) were perfectly cast as the two brothers who fall for Romilda's charms. Each has a solid sense of style combined with the flexibility required for Handel's more feverish coloratura passages.

While many look to Handel's operas for spectacular displays of florid singing, his scores also offer exceptional opportunities for young voices. Three members of the supporting cast were graduates of programs for young opera singers at leading American opera companies.
Lisette Oropesa (Romilda) and Heidi Stober (Atalanta) in Xerxes
Photo by: Cory Weaver

Rounding out the cast were an impassioned Sonia Prina (a vocal powerhouse as Amastris) and Wayne Tigges as the commander of Xerxes's army (and father to Romilda and Atalanta). To suggest that Prina's singing may have eclipsed the vocal fireworks of the other members of the ensemble is merely a testament to the embarrassment of riches in this production. Here's the trailer:

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Suppose you had a friend from school who was about to make it big. Very, very big. What if you and several close pals were documentary filmmakers? Assuming you had access to the necessary technology and funding, would you "carpe diem" to the max? Go all out to document your friend's impending celebrity breakthrough? Of course you would. As the creators of Big In Bollywood explain:
"We call ourselves the Dream Team. We grew up together in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we all pursued filmmaking from an early age. We went to rival high schools, and to different colleges, but discovered in our twenties that we were on the same path. Between us, we’ve traveled to over 50 countries, made hundreds of short films, and worked as directors, editors, and hosts for a wide variety of projects. It was only a matter of time before we figured out some way to work together. Big in Bollywood is the moment that it happened.
The five of us have all worked together in a variety of ways for years. It’s a little complicated, but here goes: Matt McCroskey and Kenny Meehan grew up together making films. Bill Bowles and Tyler MacNiven grew up together making films. Tyler and Kenny went to college with Omi Vaidya, and in 2007, the three of them produced the narrative film Wrestling Mongolia. Tyler and Omi starred in the film, while Kenny directed, and Bill stopped by to say hello. Kenny and Matt traveled back to Asia to finish their documentary film Namaste Nepal, while Bill and Tyler traveled to Cuba to make Road Trip to Guantanamo. In late 2009, with old projects wrapping up nicely, we synchronized our schedules, and bought tickets to Mumbai."
Poster art for Big in Bollywood

Screened at the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (Third i), Big In Bollywood captures Omi Vaidya's ride on the roller coaster of fame as he suddenly became a Bollywood celebrity. An aspiring actor who had received plenty of rejection in Hollywood, Vaidya was cast as Chatur Ramalingam in 3 Idiots, a 2009 Bollywood musical starring Aamir Khan which opened in theatres across India as one of the most anticipated films of the year

As a non-native Indian cast in a Bollywood film, Vaidya was something of an oddity. His performance in  3 Idiots earned him the 2010 Star Screen Award for Best Comedian, the 2010 Star Screen Award for Most Promising Male Newcomer, and the 2010 Lions Club Award for Best Supporting Male Actor.

Vaidya and his friends decided to turn the whole experience into a grand adventure. As filmmakers, they could shoot footage for a documentary about Omi's big moment. As friends, they could accompany Omi's family as a bizarrely ebullient group of cheerleaders.

I knew Tyler MacNiven prior to watching Big in Bollywood because he and his brother, Rowan, had filmed a mini-documentary about my owl collection for their website. A tall, enthusiastic redhead with a hunger for adventure, MacNiven competed in the reality show, The Amazing Race 9, and shared the $1 million prize with his partner, B. J. Averell.

MacNiven and his friends approached Big in Bollywood as a combination of fun and adventure. As they explain in the film's press kit:
"This film is a distinctly 21st century documentary. Shot on five cameras, by five filmmakers in five different video formats, it stands squarely within the avant garde of contemporary filmmaking. Gone are the days of the single perspective, the voice of authority, and the fourth wall. The filmmakers themselves exist in front of the camera, and both their journey and their relationship with the subject are ever present. This transparency allows the audience the sort of intimacy usually afforded only to reality shows and video blogs. Simply put, this is a film made by and about a group of best friends, and the audience will feel like they’re along for the ride."

While Omi's trip to Bollywood is framed with the loving care of friends who can all laugh at themselves, Big in Bollywood offers viewers a refreshing look into the Indian film industry, combining key moments at the Star Screen Awards (India's equivalent of the Golden Globe Awards) with intimate footage of Omi's family and friends. Big in Bollywood is by no means your run-of-the-mill road trip movie, but it's a helluva lot of fun. Here's the trailer:

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