Sunday, June 17, 2012

News, News, News Has A, Has A, Kind Of Mystery

I'm often fascinated by what I discover from the juxtaposition of two productions which would normally never cross paths. My most recent pairing involved back-to-back performances of two works hailed as landmarks of musical theatre at their premieres. Their similarities include the following:
  • Each production deals with news events that were literally "ripped from the headlines."
  • Each production showcases the music of contemporary composers with huge followings who are also residents of the San Francisco Bay area.
  • Each production uses amplified sound and lots of video.
  • Each production focuses on a small set of characters with monstrous egos.
  • Each production contains coarse language from contemporary street vernacular.
While their similarities are evident, their differences are a bit more subtle. I judge this, in part, based on how I felt after each show.

Following one performance, the evening's music kept playing in my head for days -- a phenomenon I hadn't felt since last summer's performances of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungen at the San Francisco Opera. After the other performance I heard nothing, felt, nothing, and only wished for silence.

A bit shell shocked by the event, I found myself thinking about Stephen Sondheim's lyrics to a song from 1973's A Little Night Music entitled "Liaisons."
"What once was a rare champagne
Is now just an amiable hock,
What once was a villa, at least, is 'digs.'
What once was a gown with train
Is now just a simple little frock,
What once was a sumptuous feast is figs.
No, not even figs. Raisins!

Where is style?
Where is skill?
Where is forethought?
Where's discretion of the heart?
Where's passion in the art?
Where's craft?

In a world where the kings are employers,
Where the amateur prevails and delicacy fails to pay.
In a world where the princes are lawyers,
What can anyone expect except to recollect liaisons."
* * * * * * * * *
From her 1937 debut as Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore to her final performance during the closing night gala at the old Metropolitan Opera House in 1966, the beloved Croatian soprano, Zinka Milanov, had a career spanning nearly 30 years at the Metropolitan Opera. According to various operatic legends, a fan once told the soprano that her voice "was like pure silver." Without missing a beat, Mme. Milanov replied "Gold, dahlink, gold."

In addition to starring in productions of La Gioconda, Andrea Chenier, Don Giovanni, Norma, Tosca, and Cavalleria Rusticana, Milanov was best known for her interpretation of Verdi's heroines in such operas as Aida, Ernani, Simon Boccanegra, Otello, Un Ballo en Maschera, Il Trovatore, and La Forza del Destino.

Like most smart singers, Mme. Zinka knew her limits. When an adoring fan suggested that she tackle a specific role (perhaps the Marschallin in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier), Milanov had the wisdom and humility to reply "Is not my fach."

Before discussing Green Day's musical, American Idiot (whose national tour is currently onstage at the Orpheum), I want to make full disclosure about certain issues:
  • I did not see the show's world premiere production at the Berkeley Rep in 2009.
  • Having listened to singers perform for the past 50 years in all kinds of venues, I prefer the sound of an unamplified human voice to one that is strongly miked.
  • While many theatres offer electronic sound enhancement systems for people who are hearing impaired, I strongly believe that if music has been amplified to levels that require some people to listen to it through earplugs, the resultant sound distortion is counterproductive.
  • Because I don't see much value in making an audience succumb to sonic shock syndrome, punk rock has never been my "fach."
Scott J. Campbell (Tunny), Van Hughes (Johnny), and Jake
Epstein (Will) in American Idiot (Photo by: Doug Hamilton)

There's no denying the fact that, on opening night at the Orpheum, the theatre was filled with excited Green Day fans (since its release on September 21, 2004, the group's American Idiot concept album has sold more than 14 million copies internationally). A film version of the musical is supposedly in the works.

Green Day's music definitely has its own voice. With its high-voltage, high energy style of performance, American Idiot offers audiences a 90-minute onslaught of white-knuckle noise accompanied by enough frequent strobe lighting to induce seizures.

As a frenzied, megawatt musical temper tantrum, American Idiot is a loud, proud, outcry of disillusioned, alienated American youth. And yet, I found the entire explosive spectacle (for which Michael Mayer wrote the book and directed the show) to be quite underwhelming. Nor was I particularly impressed by Steven Hoggett's choreography.

This is certainly not the fault of the talented lead performers (Van Hughes, Joshua Kobak, Jake Epstein, Scott J. Campbell, and Gabrielle McClinton), who gave plenty of energy to the show's opening night performance. But, as our good friend Macbeth once noted:
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."
Van Hughes (Johnny) and Joshua Kobak (St. Jimmy) in
American Idiot (Photo by: Doug Hamilton)

The idiot in this case is a product of suburban malaise driven by raging hormones and the festering anger of a youth culture sick and tired of hearing themselves referred to as slackers, failures, and fuck-ups. But as Johnny learns, if the shoe fits...

Out of curiosity, I did some research to see how American Idiot ranks against other shows in its genre and came up with some interesting results.  After its Broadway premiere on April 20, 2010 at the St. James Theatre, American Idiot ran for 421 performances  (during which Billie Joe Armstrong, Melissa Etheridge, and Davey Havok stepped into the role of St. Jimmy to help boost ticket sales). The show closed on April 24, 2011. Although nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical, the only Tonys the show took home were for best scenic design for a musical (Christine Jones) and best lighting design for a musical (Kevin Adams).

Since American Idiot is essentially a rock concert strung together with a meager plot and intense production values, I thought I'd check to see how it stood up against jukebox musicals:
  • Mamma Mia! (which opened on Broadway in 2001) has logged more than 4,400 performances at the Winter Garden Theatre and is still going strong.
  • Jersey Boys, which opened on Broadway in 2005, won four Tony awards (including Best Musical) and is still playing at the August Wilson Theatre, where it has clocked more than 2,700 performances to date.
  • American Idiot lasted just over a year on Broadway, for a total of 421 performances.
Suppose we compare American Idiot to some of Broadway's hit rock musicals:
  • The 1968 production of Hair (which had a major impact on youth culture around the world) ran for 1,750 performances. The recent revival directed by Diane Paulus ran for 519 performances.
  • 1971's Grease ran for 3,388 performances on Broadway and is still delighting audiences far and wide.
  • The Who's Tommy, which opened on Broadway in April of 1993 and ran for 899 performances (also at the St. James), won five Tony awards.
  • Rent ran for 5,124 performances, won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four out of the 10 Tony Awards for which it was nominated.
  • In 2006, Spring Awakening opened to rave reviews, ran for 888 performances and won eight of the 11 Tony awards for which it was nominated. It has since been produced by numerous regional theatre companies.
  • 2009's Next To Normal ran for 733 performances, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and took home three of the 10 Tony Awards for which it was nominated.
  • American Idiot lasted just over a year on Broadway, for a total of 421 performances.

What's the missing ingredient? Why didn't American Idiot have a longer run? The answer is really quite simple and has nothing to do with punk rock.

Although the touring cast of American Idiot boasts some nice sweaty biceps and tight, high glutes, there isn't a single character onstage that anyone cares about.
  • The angry young drop-outs in Hair who were rebelling against their parents' generation? At least their mothers didn't lend them the money for bus fare into the city.
  • Disillusioned teenagers shooting up drugs? This is not news.
  • The use of raunchy language in a musical? Peppering the word "fuck" throughout a script may help it sound authentic, but its overuse quickly makes the word lose its impact. Besides, The Book of Mormon (which won nine out of the 14 Tonys for which it was nominated) has people singing "I've got maggots in my scrotum!" and "Fuck, you God, in the mouth, ass, and cunt!" 
  • The aerial ballet? That's been a staple of Cirque du Soleil shows for years.
  • The repeated attempts to shock the audience, including some energetic simulated fucking on a center-stage mattress? Porn went mainstream a long time ago.
Gabrielle McClinton (Whatsername) and Van Hughes (Johnny)
in American Idiot (Photo by: Doug Hamilton)

One of the sad facts faced by touring shows visiting San Francisco is that the sound engineering in the Orpheum Theatre often jacks up the amplification to a level that skirts the pain threshold. The irony, of course, is that, if the amplification in Brian Ronan's sound design were to be cut by anywhere from 50-80%, the audience would be astonished by the strength of Green Day's music and the power of Armstrong's lyrics. Try listening to some YouTube clips of their songs (when it doesn't sound as if you're standing next to a jet engine).

* * * * * * * * *
Speaking of jet engines, let's turn our attention to the San Francisco Opera's new production of Nixon in China which, thanks to the creative team at the Vancouver Opera, has brought an incredible new sense of vitality to the John Adams/Alice Goodman opera.

Brian Mulligan as Richard Nixon (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Under David Gockley's leadership, the Houston Grand Opera's world premiere of Nixon in China on October 22, 1987 was accompanied by the biggest media orgasm to accompany an opera's debut since the Metropolitan Opera moved to its new home in Lincoln Center and opened its 1966-1967 season with the world premiere of Samuel Barber's new opera, Antony and Cleopatra.
As opera maven Matthew Epstein astutely noted:
"Each nation experiences a century in which there is a sudden, incredible explosion of creativity -- a period which usually coincides with tremendous decadence in society. French opera reached its greatest heights during the decadence of French romanticism. Russian opera was at its greatest during the decadence of the Czar's regime. Italian opera had its greatest moments during the Risorgimento -- just before the Italian state entered its Fascist period. At this very moment, the United States is just ripe for opera to become a contemporary art form."
When I attended two performances of Nixon in China in Houston, Peter Sellars had forbidden the use of Supertitles. At its world premiere the opera was performed in two long acts.

I saw two more performances of Nixon in China (and part of a rehearsal) when HGO brought its production to the Edinburgh International Festival in August 1988. Because the stage in the 3,000-seat Edinburgh Playhouse was much smaller than that of the Brown Theatre in Houston, Sellars was forced to move some of the action out onto a stage apron (which was actually part of the orchestra lift). This made parts of Nixon in China feel like a cross between agitprop theatre and a play by Bertolt Brecht.

I next saw the work at the Los Angeles Opera in September 1990, which was the first time that Nixon in China was performed with Supertitles and divided into three acts instead of two. Last week was the first time I had seen the opera in 22 years. A lot has happened in the interim.
  • Nixon in China has since been mounted in 18 venues in the United States ranging from the 4,000-seat Metropolitan Opera House to the intimate confines of the 987-seat Loretto-Hilton Theatre with its three-quarter round seating. It has also been produced in 18 theatres outside the United States.
  • John Adams has emerged as an important voice in American opera (The Death of Klinghoffer, I Was Looking At The Ceiling and Then I Saw The Sky, El NinoDoctor Atomic, and A Flowering Tree).
  • In 2010, San Francisco celebrated the 30th anniversary of its "sister city" relationship with Shanghai.
  • Today, China and the United States are the world's dominant superpowers.
  • With the exception of 89-year-old  Henry Kissinger (who was recently frisked by the TSA while in a wheelchair), all of the opera's protagonists have been dead for more than 15 years. With these characters no longer fearsome politicians (but merely ghosts of the past), Alice Goodman's libretto has taken on a much more poetic and lyrical feeling.
  • Because the audience no longer feels antagonized by the main characters, they can be viewed as mythological remnants of the past or parts of a dream.
  • Thanks to the growth in telecasts of live performance over the PBS network, in baseball parks, and movie theatres, audience development is on the rise.
Michael Schwab's poster art for Nixon in China

Due to incredible advances in computer technology, the theatrical elements of opera have undergone a revolution in design and production techniques. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the scene in which the Nixons arrive at the Peking airport.

This clip from the original production shows a cut-out of Air Force One (the Boeing 707 Nixon dubbed "The Spirit of '76) being lowered from the flies (the cast features James Maddalena as Richard Nixon, Carolann Page as Pat Nixon, Sanford Sylvan as Chou EnLai, and Thomas Hammons as Henry Kissinger).

The first few seconds of the trailer from the Vancouver Opera's production show how animation has transformed the impact of the plane's arrival onstage (in this production the role of Nixon was sung by Robert Orth).

Computerized graphic design also makes it possible for someone like Erhard Rom to play visual tricks on the audience. One piece of scenery shows a series of portraits in which Richard Nixon's face morphs into the face of Mao Tse-tung. In another attempt to demonstrate how China and America can seem like opposite ends of the earth, Rom has designed the following scenic drop:

Photo courtesy of Vancouver Opera

On a quick side note: If you find the above image fascinating, I heartily recommend a new movie called Vivan Las Antipodas, which was screened at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival. Watch the following trailer and you'll understand why:

As set designer, Rom has included many more vertical elements than were seen in the original production.
  • In Act 1, Scene 1, Air Force One's nose cone, left wing, and left tailplane dominate the stage.
  • In Act 2, Scene 2, Mao Tse-Tung negotiates a tall staircase.
  • During Act 1's banquet scene, Chou EnLai and Richard Nixon address the dinner guests from a giant dais.
The Act I banquet scene (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
  • In Act 2, video is projected onto the placards carried by protestors. Pat Nixon's tour of pig farms and public parks gives a tremendous sense of depth to the stage (not to mention wonder and exhaustion to the character).
  • The careful integration of Christopher Maravich's lighting design with projections designed by Sean Nieuwenhuis creates a multi-layered, gauzy, almost dream-like effect for many of the visuals.
Chou En-Lai (Chen-Ye Yuan), Pat Nixon (Maria Kanyova), and
Richard Nixon (Brian Mulligan) in a scene from Nixon in China
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)
  • Video footage taken of Maria Kanyova during rehearsal is projected behind her as Pat Nixon sings her "This is prophetic" aria.
  • The triangular periaktoi designed by Erhard Rom prove to be a powerfully effective device from ancient Greek theatre that lets the ghosts of history create the illusion of greater stage depth and historical distance.
A moment from Act 3 of Nixon in China (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

In his director's note, Michael Cavanagh writes:
"How does art illustrate, reflect, or embellish history, with particular respect for Nixon's visit to China?  How do we, as contemporary audiences, benefit from seeing this particular story told in music? Every painting, sculpture, dance, or story offers a peek into another time and place. Historians often look to a culture's artistic inventory for insights into the everyday life or epic events of another era. While historians are condemned for taking liberties; an artist often feels an obligation to do so. Incongruously, this can make an artistic rendition of an event more honest than a so-called factual account.
We shouldn't think of a piece like Nixon in China as a window to another time, but as a kaleidoscope. Each member of the storytelling team -- librettist, composer, director, designers, performers, and conductor -- act like prisms, splitting the 'truth' into impressionistic shards. Their aim is to access the private, inner voices of the people involved (not just their public ones)."
Brian Mulligan as Richard Nixon (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

The production being used by the San Francisco Opera received its premiere at the Vancouver Opera on March 13, 2010 and was also presented by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City in March of 2012.
  • Under Michael Cavanagh's direction, the Nixons become far more animated and athletic than in the original staging.
  • The brilliant use of projections allows the audience to see Air Force One flying through the mist and then banking toward Peking as Nixon sits at a window, looking down from the sky.
  • As the banquet scene devolves into a drunken party, we get to see the protagonists acting as the party people they would like to believe they are (rather than as the political stiffs they might actually be in the physical moment).
  • Act 3 becomes a surreal and introspective dreamscape as the Nixons, Mao Tse-tung, and Madame Mao look back on their lives while Chou EnLai ponders the future.
Madame Mao (Hye Jung Lee) and Mao Tse-tung (Simon O'Neill)
in Act III of Nixon in China (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Nixon In China requires some heavy lifting from the chorus, which was impressively prepared by Ian Robertson. Conductor Lawrence Renes captured the fierce driving rhythmic force of the opera's score as well as its wistful, jazzy moments while giving strong support to his principals.

Brian Mulligan's portrayal of Nixon was like an excited businessman on the make instead of the taciturn crook who would be forced to resign from office two years later in disgrace. Baritone Chen-Ye Yuan shone as Chou En-lai. As is to be expected, soprano Hye Jung Lee brought down the house with Chiang Ch'ing's Act 2, Scene 2 showstopper, "I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung."

Others in the cast included Patrick Carlizzi as Henry KissingerMaria Kanyova as Pat Nixon, and Simon O'Neill as Mao Tse-tung with Ginger Costa-Jackson, Buffy Baggott, and Nicole Birkland as the three "Mao-ettes." Dancers Chiharu Shibata and Bryan Ketron starred in Madame Mao's revolutionary ballet entitled "The Red Detachment of Women."

An interesting piece of trivia about Nixon in China's world premiere in Houston: Madame Mao's line "We'll teach these motherfuckers how to dance!" was deleted because the opera was being videotaped for a delayed broadcast over the PBS network. Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

JP Choudhary said...

I saw American Idiot on Broadway and the entire time I couldn't stop thinking how I would much rather be seeing Green Day in concert. I got best American Idiot tickets. Aside from some very talented cover bands, I don't get the appeal of seeing music you like performed by people other than the actual band.