Thursday, November 22, 2007

American Gothic

When I first started writing this column in March 1977, the Bay Area Reporter was little more than a gossip sheet for drag queens with one lone political columnist named Harvey Milk. In the 13 years that have ensued, the Bay Area Reporter has gained strength and gone weekly, the gay press has taken root and blossomed throughout the nation, and the millions of Gay men and lesbians who contribute to the fabric of our culture have evolved into a much more visible part of American society.

During that same period (thanks to a steady diet of live telecasts) opera has become an increasingly popular art form. The number of professional opera companies in North America has more than doubled. Educational outreach programs have begun to pay impressive dividends (Central Opera Service reports that for the 1988-'89 season, attendance rose by a whopping 21.4%). Meanwhile, profound advances in technology (digitalized sound, CD-ROM, VCR's and compact disks) have enabled opera to play a growing role in the home entertainment center. In Megatrends 2000, John Naisbitt points to opera as a phenomenon which will benefit immensely from growing trends toward global lifestyles and cultural nationalism.

What makes the parallel growth patterns of both opera and the gay movement so fascinating for me as an openly gay music critic is the ability to write about an artistic renaissance happening in my own time and society in a newspaper aimed at a carefully niched market which reflects my own sexual identity and lifestyle. The icing on the cake is that, just as the sexual revolution has allowed so many Americans to embrace more imaginative sexual practices than the missionary position, the blurring of artistic boundaries between opera, musical theater and other types of performance art has given us permission to view our cultural history and performance literature from a decidedly more operatic perspective.

A perfect example of this is the Goodman Theatre's staging of The Grapes of Wrath which, after premiering in Chicago has toured to various locations and earned a Tony award for Best Play on Broadway. By standard definitions, the Goodman's presentation is hardly an opera. There are no operatic voices onstage, nor is there an orchestra in the pit. And yet, the words, cadences and accents one hears do a powerful job of creating a musical arc which spans the length of the performance.

When one considers that John Steinbeck's epic about the plight of America's Okies as they struggled to survive the Dust Bowl era has such a panoramic sweep to it and then acknowledges that (a) folk and country music punctuate key dramatic moments in Frank Galati's superb staging, (b) incidental music helps bridge many of the set changes and divisions in time, and (c) many moments are staged as either spoken arias or group ensembles, this production scores strongly for its near-operatic presentation. Not only is its director, Frank Galati, the driving force behind this production concept, Galati is scheduled to direct the Lyric Opera of Chicago's world premiere of McTeague (which takes place during San Francisco's Gold Rush days). If the material awaiting Galati in William Bolcomb's new opera is as fertile as Steinbeck's novel, McTeague could become quite a fascinating affair.

While the intoxicating era of the Gold Rush and the dog days of the Depression mark distinct highs and lows in American history, a very different period of Americana was recently on display at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion when the Los Angeles Music Center Opera presented Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! Of course, this being Los Angeles (where fantasy is a serious business), LAMCO's opening night of Oklahoma! developed into quite a festive occasion. Many members of the audience -- as well as LAMCO's administrative staff -- were dressed in Western outfits. As is typical for such costume affairs, there were plenty of buffed and bespangled cowboys on hand who had ridden every sort of bucking bronco -- with the notable exception of a horse.

As expected, there was the usual amount of beefing in the musical press about the purportedly heinous use of microphones by an opera company as well as the substitution of Mary Jane Houdina's dances for Agnes DeMille's classic choreography which, back in 1943, made Broadway history. In many ways, it was the incorporation of DeMille's dances into the plot of Oklahoma! which allowed the popular Rodgers & Hammerstein musical to pave the way toward an integrated (read that as "operatic") style of through-composition in which music, dance and drama were all treated as integral ingredients of a unified whole.

While traditionalists may have been shocked by the look and sound of this production, I took great pleasure from John Lee Beatty's colorful sets (on loan from the Minnesota Opera) and conductor Randall Behr's spirited attack on the score. Under Charles Abbott's direction, a welcome show-biz novelty with a touch of Hollywood was added to this production: Curly made his entrance astride a horse while singing "Oh What A Beautiful Mornin'" and his steed contributed handsomely to the folksiness of the evening. Jean Stapleton's animated and hootily-sung portrayal of Aunt Eller, Lara Teeter's animated Will Parker, Larry Storch's sniveling peddlar man and Jodi Benson's riotously funny characterization of the lusty Ado Annie helped tremendously to energize LAMCO's production. Rebecca Eichenberger's darkly feminine Laurey had an undeniably romantic appeal. Strong cameos came from Zale Kessler as Ado Annie's father, Andrew Carnes, and from Cathy Susan Pyles as the ditz-brained Gerti Cummings.

What made LAMCO's Oklahoma! production so fascinating was to see two Los Angeles-based artists (who have been regular members of LAMCO's roster) doing a splendid job in musical comedy. Although Michael Gallup's sadistic Jud Fry was a bit too gruesome for my tastes, Rodney Gilfry's Curly was so damned appealing (both physically and vocally) that I would gladly have crawled across the stage for a chance to lick my way up that boy's leather chaps. This handsome young baritone, who previously appeared with LAMCO as the four villains in Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann (and gave a dazzling performance in the title role of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro last January) is a perfect example of the newly-emerging breed of American artists. Keep your eyes and ears tuned to his future, for Gilfry is the kind of performer whose strong craft and artistic flexibility enable him to succeed in more than just one performance style.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on September 13, 1990.

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