Monday, December 3, 2007

Professional Fluffers

Some of the most talented people in the porno industry have developed a curious job description. Known to headline performers as "fluffers," they possess the uncanny ability to help stars of various stud-sized epics overcome their performance anxiety and, as the saying goes, rise to the occasion at hand. Operettas tend to have a similar effect on an opera company's subscription sales. By assuring season subscribers that at least one experience during the upcoming year will be a smooth ride which is guaranteed to please, these old-fashioned pieces of musical fluff frequently coerce conservative subscribers into taking bigger artistic risks.

As far as management is concerned, the trade-off is a fair and simple one. Operettas are tuneful, enjoyable shows (the vanilla sex of the operatic repertoire) which are easily cast with young American talent. And so, if (to the scorn of the purists in the crowd) the mere presence of an operetta on a subscription series makes it seem as if management is pandering to its audience (by offering subscribers the operatic equivalent of a free blow job in order to keep them renewing and donating money) I suppose that's what it all boils down to in the end.

However, as any good fluffer will tell you, the mere act of giving head in preparation for someone's climactic shoot does not mean that the services rendered should be anything less than first class. Therefore, although some opera queens argue that any production of an operetta given by a professional opera company is ultimately doomed to failure (because it is less than great art) the hard truth is that many such performances become great crowd pleasers which can measure up to some pretty high artistic standards.

Are we talking here about art for art's sake? No. What we're really trying to do is fill all the seats in the theatre in the hope that we can make our audiences happy and keep them coming back for more. And if, by the way, you think my comparison between performing an operetta and giving a free blow job is a bit sordid and far-fetched, then consider this curious fact. In Central City, Colorado (where the summer population is equally divided between commercial shop owners, Hell's Angels and opera singers) an historic drinking establishment located within walking distance of the Opera House has the following sign in its window: "Glory Hole Saloon: Families Welcome."

I rest my case.


With productions of The Desert Song, Naughty Marietta, The Merry Widow, The Student Prince and The Chocolate Soldier popping up right and left, this summer the New York City Opera and Central City Opera decided to mount new productions of Sigmund Romberg's The New Moon. Another one of those adorable costume romps through late 18th-century New Orleans (where pirates were romantic heros and one's loyalty to France was unquestionable) Romberg's tuneful score contains such glorious chestnuts as "Stout-Hearted Men," "One Kiss," "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise," and "Lover, Come Back To Me." Whether on land or sea, its book includes every cliche of loyalty to country, family name, romantic ideals and muscular brotherhood.

Framed by Michael Anania's handsome sets (and using costumes rented from Malabar), David Gately's stage direction did a superb job of capturing the underlying spirit of The New Moon while showing a loving appreciation for the quirks of its genre. Many scenes either paused momentarily to accommodate a romantic tableau or concluded with the lovers frozen in position. At other moments, the male chorus sent shivers up people's spines as it declared its particular fondness for "stout-hearted men."

The performance I attended moved smoothly under Duaine Wolfe's baton. Baritone Eric Allen Hanson lent a certain disarming panache to The New Moon's hero, Robert Mission, while tenor Michael Philip Davis scored strongly as his maritime comrade, Philippe. As the heroine, Marianne (adored by servant girls and sailors throughout New Orleans), soprano Maryanne Telese was perfectly cast. Pretty as a picture and with plenty of stage personality, Telese seemed more at home in operetta than she does in some operas.

In supporting roles, Andrew Potter wallowed in the villainy of the evil Vicomte Ribaud while Joseph Oechsli drew laughs as a Napolean-like Captain Dejean.

With his animated facial features and ingratiating performance style, baritone Dean Anthony easily won the audience's affection as the bondservant, Alexander. So, for that matter, did mezzo-soprano Annette Daniels as his girlfriend, Julie.

Needless to say, Central City's matinee audience ate it all up while, the local contingent of Hell's Angels parked their hogs outside the Glory Hole Saloon and stopped to watch the square dance demonstrations being held in the middle of the street. From time to time, a shiver of the Old West coarsed through Central City as the whistle sounded on the historic mining town's steam locomotive as it puffed its way up and down the hills with a load full of tourists.


Further to the south, the Santa Fe Opera revived its 1986 production of Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus with most felicitious results. Conceived by the late, great Charles Ludlam (who adapted some dialogue from W.S. Gilbert's On Bail) this production, which was restaged in Santa Fe by Bruce Donnell, actually seemed much stronger the second time around. Despite a steady downpour during the performance I attended, 1988's Die Fledermaus turned out to be one of the most delightful evenings I've spent at the Santa Fe Opera in a long, long time. And that, I must say, was quite an expected surprise.

Perhaps I should explain why.

All too often, this operetta is thrown onstage without much in the way of dramatic motivation. Therefore, as one makes the rounds of the nation's opera houses, attending a performance of Strauss's hardy perennial can either seem like a bona fide treat or a lackluster professional chore. Although I was familiar with Andrew Jackness's handsome sets and Andrew Marlay's costumes for the Santa Fe Opera's production of Die Fledermaus, I was completely unprepared for the vocal and theatrical strength of Sheri Greenawald's Rosalinda.

One of America's most sorely underrated opera singers, Greenawald usually scores strongest in highly dramatic roles like the Governess in Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw. This was the first time I had seen her in a comic role and, to my absolute delight, Greenawald proved to be one of the finest Rosalindas I've ever encountered. Not only did she capture ever bit of her character's anger, humor and drunkenness (without ever resorting to mere shtick), she sang the pants off of Strauss's music. In short, the soprano's performance became one of those operatic tours de force where you least expect to find one -- in a character which often remains unfulfilled, neglected or subsumed into the evening's frenzy.

Greenawald's efforts were handsomely supported by soprano Sheryl Woods' perky Adele, tenor Mikael Melbye's prancingly fatuous Eisenstein, Gimi Beni's large and cuddly Frank, mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle's wryly aloof Prince Orlofsky and baritone James Busterud's lean and lanky Falke. The only sour note in the production was tenor Ragnar Ulfung's painfully geriatric and absolutely ghastly sounding Alfred. Whether Ulfung has the personal dignity to retire the role from his repertoire or John Crosby (as impresario and conductor) has the courage to retire his long-team colleague from this production, the time has come for appropriate action.

* * * * * * * * * *

This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on September 29, 1988.

No comments: