Thursday, December 6, 2007

Untimely Deaths

During the 1970s, many gay men discovered that the safety of ghettos like the Castro provided a curious feeling of immortality. Since their biological clocks were no longer being measured by the annual progress of the children in their nuclear family (most of the rituals surrounding birthdays, school years, summer camp, weddings and anniversaries had been conveniently replaced with tea dances, drugs, orgies and Sunday brunch) some developed a dangerously false sense of security. Many of those who did a spectacular job of refusing to grow up became convinced that they had joined Peter Pan and his tribe of little lost boys in the gay version of Never Never Land. Some even tried to believe that they would never grow old and that, unless struck by lightning at Trocadero Transfer, could certainly never die. Why not? Because those things only happened to other people. Old people. Ugly people. Straight people. Until, of course, the debut of the AIDS virus.

About a year ago, I started to maintain a list of friends and acquaintances who had either been diagnosed or had died of AIDS. When I first mentioned my list to someone, he was absolutely horrified that I would do such a thing. But I strongly believed -- and still feel -- that the best way to keep from forgetting these people is to find some means of keeping their memories alive in my mind.

Unfortunately, "Out of sight, out of mind," is a credo by which too many people currently live their lives and, in today's fast-moving society, it's all too easy to succumb to the temptation of forgetting who your friends are. Or were. My AIDS list now contains the names of approximately thirty men who have been diagnosed and another thirty who have died. Although, when compared to some other people's losses, this list is small, one fact remains frighteningly clear in my mind. None of those men deserved to die an early death. No one ever does.


Last fall, when I traveled to New Orleans for the first time in my life, something very strange happened. I had always longed to visit this city (its history intrigues me) and yet, upon arriving and not knowing precisely what it was that I expected to find, I soon discovered that what lay before me was not at all what I had hoped to see. Much the same feeling came over me this past summer during a performance of William Mayer's A Death in the Family. Although I had previously heard a tape of this opera and been fascinated by its score, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis' well-planned production turned out to be a major disappointment.

What happened? Well, for one thing, most of the people in the audience knew they were being handed a real downer and, since people basically don't want to hear bad news, the mere mention of the title, A Death in the Family, was a sure signal that the evening was not destined to be a romp and a frolic. With the added knowledge that the opera's alcoholic hero, Jay, will soon be killed in a car crash, the evening became a continued downer. The ultimate disappointment, I suppose, was that despite John Conklin's unit set and Rhoda Levine's astute direction, the opera suffered from containing far too much narrative and exposition. This problem often occurs with new operas involving adaptations and I fear the situation here was further complicated by the fact that composer William Mayer -- who also wrote the opera's libretto -- seemed to have had quite a lot of trouble making cuts.

While there is indeed some beautiful music in Mayer's Score, A Death in the Family simply implodes under its own weight. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Jake Gardner's performance as Jay and Judith Christin's wonderfully sensitive portrayal of Aunt Hannah. Young Jeremy Cummins was extremely appealing as little Rufus; Dawn Upshaw gave a strong performance as his mother.


This fall, the San Francisco Opera's revival of Jenufa, while suffering from occasional boring moments, nevertheless made the most out of depression and despair. Like A Death in the Family, Leos Janacek's peasant opera (in which a stern and frustrated old woman drowns her baby grandson in hopes of erasing the societal shame which would otherwise accompany the child's illegitimate birth) is not exactly Hello, Dolly! But when given proper attention, it can pack an operatic rabbit punch.

Although Wieslaw Ochman's Laca and Li-Chan Chen's Jano were important artistic contributions, Neil Rosenshein's Steva was most disappointing. The three strongest features of this revival were soprano Gabriela Benackova's sensitive portrayal of the unfortunate heroine, Leonie Rysanek's obsessive histrionic effects as the anguished, misguided Kostelnicka and Charles Mackerras' superb conducting.

For Benackova, whose radiant and healthy soprano easily charmed the audience, this Jenufa production offered an impressive local debut. For Rysanek, the role of the Kostelnicka marked another important and wise shift in repertoire. Although this greatly-beloved singer is now nearing 60, she is one of those rare operatic figures who has kept her voice and artistry in good shape. More than merely aging gracefully, Rysanek has courageously chosen to explore new repertory -- roles which well suit the changes in her voice and dramatic presence -- during the twilight years of a magnificent career. Her choice involves taking great risks (risks which most other artists would avoid like the plague). But Rysanek is, has been, and always will be an artist of amazing commitment.

A Janacek scholar, conductor Charles Mackerras resurrected the composer's original orchestrations, thus adding a brutal brilliance to the score. Because Jenufa was sung here in the original Czech, the use of Supertitles was more than welcome. Indeed, largely due to the combined effects of Benackova, Rysanek, Mackerras and Supertitles, the San Francisco Opera's revival of Jenufa proved to be a far more exciting experience than the Met's lame and laggardly English version last year.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 9, 1986.

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