Saturday, May 30, 2009

Fatal Attractions

Sometimes, when a loved one dies, a funeral is simply not enough. For some people, a photo album or collage helps to frame memories of their time on earth. For others, a poem, a dinner with close friends or even a festive scattering of ashes helps to ease their pain. Of course, some people go to extremes. The most famous mausoleum in the world is the beautiful Taj Mahal, built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to honor the memory of his beloved deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Others take extreme measures. In the final act of Wagner's Gotterdammerung (after Siegfried has been killed), Brunnhilde orders people to build a funeral pyre and sings the famous Immolation scene before riding her horse Grane into the flames. The following clip features soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones as Brunnhilde in a 1980 Bayreuth performance of Gotterdammerung conducted by Pierre Boulez and directed by Patrice Chéreau (with sets designed by Richard Peduzzi).

While the next few weeks find San Franciscans in full festival mode with the San Francisco Opera's summer season in full swing at the same time as Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival), both arts organizations are offering works which ask audiences to think about death and dying. One might think of stringing these particular works together under an artistic banner of "Mourning in America."

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On Friday, May 29, the San Francisco Opera opened its summer season with a special performance of the Verdi Requiem featuring soprano Heidi Melton, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, tenor Stefano Secco, and bass Andrea Silvestrelli. Following the performance, San Francisco Opera's outgoing Music Director, Donald Runnicles, received the San Francisco Opera Medal in recognition of his nearly two decades of work on the podium at the War Memorial Opera House.

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the Verdi Requiem. As I waited for the house lights to dim, the woman seated next to me (who was probably in her late 30s) tried to start a conversation by excitedly stating "They tell me this is the loudest piece of music anyone can perform!" 

As I sat there thinking about the decibel levels reached in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, Britten's powerful War Requiem, the prologue to Boito's Mefistofele, and the orgasmic final moments of Puccini's Turandot, I wondered if this woman had never heard a large choral work performed live with a full orchestra. Surely, during her life she had attended an outdoor performance or rock concert in which the amplification reached ear-shattering levels. 

To think that Verdi's Requiem (which is, in truth, a musical setting of the Roman Catholic funeral mass) would be the loudest piece of music a person would ever hear betrayed a peculiar lack of context. The Requiem was first performed on May 22, 1874, on the first anniversary of the death of Italy's famed poet/novelist, Alessandro Manzoni.

Heidi Melton and Stephanie Blythe (Photo by: Kristen Loken Anstey)

For this performance, most of the orchestra pit had been raised to stage level so that the soloists could perform "out in the house" (as opposed to singing from behind the proscenium arch). Stephanie Blythe's rich, robust mezzo-soprano was a source of wonder to me. Stepping in on extremely short notice for an ailing Patricia Racette, soprano Heidi Melton performed admirably. I was, however, far less impressed with the tenor or bass (whose voice sounded surprisingly nasal and woofy).

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What happens when a creative team is nearing the end of its professional career? Especially a trio of gay artists who have been pushing the envelope together for a quarter of a century? General Idea: Art, AIDS and the Fin de Siecle is a 48-minute documentary that traces the history of General Idea, a creative artistic collective founded in 1969 by Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal (who both died of AIDS-related causes in 1994) as well as the group's sole survivor, AA Bronson (who is a key figure in the documentary). 

Whether publishing File magazine, painting stuffed poodles blue, or modeling their controversial AIDS poster after the popular "LOVE" poster, the men of General Idea did not shirk from controversy. One of their major installations, One Year of AZT/One Day of AZT is now housed at the National Gallery of Canada. Their 1991 piece, PLA©EBO (consisting of three giant pill capsules) was another form of protest against the AIDS treatments in vogue prior to medical breakthroughs involving the use of protease inhibitors and reverse transcriptase inhibitors.

While their art may have been fascinating, the physical decline of two members of the collective is extremely sad to watch. AA Bronson describes how, with death on the horizon, special efforts were made so that his two partners could keep creating art until their dying day. Bronson goes on to explain how, as Zontal was in the terminal stages of his illness, he agreed to have pictures taken of his emaciated body which, by that time, resembled pictures he remembered of his grandfather (following his release from a German concentration camp). Both Zontal and Partz endured slow, insidious deaths from AIDS. This documentary is a poignant reminder of how many members of the international arts community were taken from us far too soon.

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Unfortunately, when gay men die, it's not always from a lingering disease. Sometimes it is as a direct result of hate-induced violence. Transgendered people are often at much greater risk of falling victim to a hate crime. In 2001, a poor 16-year-old transgendered Navajo youth named Fred Martinez, Jr., was brutally murdered in Cortez, Colorado. His shattered body lay unnoticed for nearly five days in a canyon near where he lived. Martinez was a nádleehí (someone who, according to traditional Navajo culture, possesses a balance of masculine and feminine traits). The following clip is one of many tributes created in his memory.

Two Spirits: Sexuality, Gender, and the Murder of Fred Martinez is a 60-minute documentary that will be screened on Sunday afternoon June 21st at the Victoria Theater. Directed by Lydia Nibley, the film contains numerous interviews with Native Americans as well as people like Mark Thompson (a former editor of The Advocate known for his trilogy of books about gay spirituality: Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning, Gay Soul: Finding the Heart of Gay Spirit and Nature, and Gay Body: A Journey Through Shadow to Self).

A deeply moving film that not only shows the land on which Martinez lived, but includes several interviews with his mother, Two Spirits offers a detailed history of Native American transgendered men and women. Since so little of this material is available to the general public (some of it appears each fall during the American Indian Film Institute's Film Festival in San Francisco), I would urge those interested in Native American culture (as well as transgenderism) to attend this screening.

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Finally, mention should be made of Jenni Olson's seven-minute short entitled 575 Castro St., which screens as part of the Calling All Nerds and Art Fags program of shorts. Olson, who functions as Director of e-commerce for WolfeVideo, used her access to the set for Harvey Milk's camera shop when Milk was being filmed here in San Francisco to create a deeply moving short. According to her notes:
"I have been programming, researching, collecting, and writing about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) film since 1985 (when I founded the Minneapolis/St. Paul LGBT Film Festival).  My efforts to promote LGBT film and to help the other filmmakers get their work seen have ultimately fed my own desire to make movies. Three primary interests drive my creative work and career:  LGBT issues, formal experimentation, and historical documentation. These interests come together in 575 Castro St., which presents an intimate historical portrait of Harvey Milk in his own words, while at the same time capturing for posterity a tremendously significant artifact of LGBT film history: the Castro Camera Store set of Gus Van Sant's Milk. The film was commissioned by to be showcased online in conjunction with the theatrical release of Milk. The sensibility of 575 Castro St. harkens back to the dozens of Super 8 gay short films of the 1970s that passed through Harvey Milk's hands to be processed and developed. 

These mundane shots are almost bereft of movement and sound. So quiet, so still.  All the better to showcase the range of emotions evoked by Harvey Milk's words on the soundtrack. The audio track is an edited-down version of the 13-minute audiocassette that Harvey Milk recorded in his camera shop on the evening of Friday, November 18, 1977 (a few weeks after his election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors which made him one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States). Labeled simply "In Case," the tape was to be played "in the event of my death by assassination."
You can watch Olson's film in its entirety here. Be prepared to get all choked up.

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