Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Navigating The Great Barrier: Grief

Some people let out a gasp of shock, others break down in tears. Some people scream out in anguish, others collapse to the floor in a state of helplessness. The news that someone you love has committed suicide is never greeted with laughter, joy, or a sarcastic "I told you so."

How did I learn that Chuck Cleaves (the man I followed to California) had committed suicide? Late one night, shortly after returning home from a long flight from the East Coast, I got a call from our former roommate, Larry Long, who simply said "Chuck finally succeeded." By that time, his death was no surprise to anyone who had known Chuck.

In the past month, a series of suicides by gay teenagers has continued to make headlines. Larry King spent an emotional hour interviewing celebrities like Wanda Sykes, Kathy Griffin, Chely Wright, Lance Bass, and Tim Gunn about the phenomenon. In the following clips from that program,  The Trevor Project (a 24-hour hotline for LBGT youth contemplating suicide) was mentioned numerous times.

Celebrities ranging from Jane Lynch and Hal Sparks to Alec Mapa and Cindy McCain have posed for the NoH8 campaign. Others, like Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, and Lily Tomlin, have made public service announcements and issued messages of support to LGBT youth. Surprisingly, some people have reacted to the recent coverage of gay suicides with an astonishing lack of sensitivity.
Sarah Silverman voiced her opinion on YouTube. 

Openly gay columnist Dan Savage blew a few people's minds with his Savage Love Letter of the Day: Almost Sorry  (a must read). Savage has also launched the "It Gets Better Project" on YouTube, aimed at encouraging gay youth to stick it out. In the following clip, Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, speak directly to gay youth:

No matter how much media coverage is devoted to the unfortunate deaths of  recent LGBT youth who have committed suicide, the bottom line is that there was no need for them to die. There are no words that can console their families and friends.

Oddly, the situation reminds me of a moment at my grandfather's funeral.  After the eulogy, the rabbi (who I doubt even knew my grandfather) went over to share a few moments with my grandmother. When he asked if she liked his speech, Grandma looked him straight in the eye and said "It's not going to make him warm again, is it?" That woman sure had a way with words.

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There aren't many words spoken in Ocean of an Old Man, a new film directed by Rajesh Shera. Presented by the Global Film Initiative, Ocean of an Old Man is, instead, a meditative film about how, in the aftermath of 2004's Indian Ocean tsunami, someone tries to cope with unspeakable grief.

Tom Alter stars as an elderly English teacher who tries to keep teaching the children who survived the tsunami, even as he is haunted by visions of those who drowned or were carried out to sea and never seen again by their families. A film of ghostly loneliness, Ocean of an Old Man was shot among among India's Andaman and Nicobar islands.As the filmmaker notes:
"I visited the isolated and marooned islands of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal after the Great Tsunami of December 26, 2004. The human agonies, which I witnessed there, the aftermath of the devastations, and similar tales of woe and loss that unfolded around the world remained with me even after I came back from the archipelago.
These remote and unknown islands are so far away from the consciousness of the people, of the world. But within the rich texture of the island's history and its flora and fauna lurk the overwhelming stench of death. Thousands died in the tsunami. I felt that the pristine beauty of the exotic Andaman seascape was intensified by the pathos left behind by the tsunami. As I roamed the different islands and spent my times with the inhabitants of those islands, the silence on their faces had conversations with me, which I still cannot forget. But then I met a teacher who was left insane by the tsunami. I sensed a great urgency to tell a story of this tragedy to the world and I choose my medium of cinema."
Shera's film bears witness to a quiet, hopeless kind of grief that knows no consolation and simply tries to move through the motions of a daily routine. A government official eventually orders all of the people still living on the island to be relocated to safer ground. While Ocean of an Old Man requires a great deal of patience from viewers, it is filled with magnificent seascapes and enhanced by the cinematography of Tapan Vyas.  Here's the trailer:

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Whereas Ocean of an Old Man deals with a quiet, numb kind of grief, Werther is all about the kind of hysterical grief that results from a lifetime of emotional constipation and not getting what you want. As much as I love Massenet's music, Werther has never been one of my favorite operas. The San Francisco Opera's new production (a shared effort with Lyric Opera of Chicago) didn't improve my feelings toward it at all.

Let me stress that this was not due in any way whatsoever to the actual musical performance which, under the baton of Emmanuel Villaume, was all one could hope for. The piece was solidly cast, with tenor Ramon Vargas as the impassioned poet suffering a fatal case of unrequited love, mezzo soprano Alice Coote as a radiant but emotionally restrained Charlotte, Brian Mulligan as a blustery Albert, and Heidi Stober as an annoyingly perky Sophie.

Charlotte (Alice Coote) and Werther (Ramon Vargas)
Photo by: Cory Weaver

Nor was the fact that it was a hot night in the opera house (temperature wise) the real issue. The reason for my negative reaction lies solely with the production (designed by Louis Désiré and directed with a ridiculous sense of gimmickry by Francisco Negrin) that, to my mind, was totally counterproductive. In describing his approach to Werther in this production, Negrin states:
"...the passion and lyricism and sadness won’t always come where you expect, but hopefully from a deeper psychological place. We want to show that the love story takes place, initially, more in Werther’s imagination. He wants to be in love with a girl like Charlotte and falls in love with her at first sight without really knowing her. He loves what she represents, the type of girl she is, the type of life he is looking for. Initially, Charlotte finds this amusing. She doesn’t even know him, so she doesn’t take it seriously. Werther insists on this love, which he cannot have because Charlotte is marrying Albert. Charlotte tries to be nice to Werther, but unconsciously leads him on and causes more of a mess. She has opportunities to stop this, but she doesn’t. Then, she settles into her marriage, but cannot forget Werther. When she finally wakes up to the fact that she loves him, it’s too late; they miss each other. It’s a wasted opportunity. The opera is revealed as a tragedy instead of a tear jerker."

I beg to differ. Mr. Negrin's production is the real tragedy on display here.

From the use of video to suggest the obsessiveness of Werther's fixation with Charlotte to the gimmick of having multiple actors dressed like Werther standing over his dead body as Charlotte tries to figure out whether or not she wants to kiss his corpse, I found a great deal of Mr. Negrin's staging to be just plain silly (don't get me started on those men with torches running all over the set in the last scene). The use of black drapes to form changing apertures was totally unnecessary. The scrolling piece in the back with roughly drawn pictures of rural homes made this Werther  looked like a bastard remnant from an old production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Werther (Ramon Vargos) and Charlotte (Alice Coote)
Photo by: Cory Weaver
Negrin claims that:
"We prolong the building of the story quite a long time until the musical interlude between Acts III and IV, which is the most amazing and passionate music in the opera. This is where we situate the love story. Up to then, it’s really more of a non-love story. The twist is that the love duet doesn’t actually take place in this production. Instead, we see Charlotte, now married for a few months, remembering what happened during the previous summer when she met Werther. She rereads his letters, and falls asleep, and imagines what might have happened. When she wakes up from the dream, she realizes she is in love with Werther. The actual love scene will take place shortly after, during the interlude between the two final acts. I think this is really what defines the production."
I don't. What's more, I thought Werther's tripartite death scene was clumsy, embarrassing, laughably inappropriate, and a horrible failure in communicating to the audience.

Did Negrin's staging ruin Werther? No. I'm quite sure Massenet's opera will survive long after this particular stage director is gone.

Did it add anything to the performance for me? Only an increased sense of urgency to leave the theatre as soon as the performance was over.

1 comment:

Corey Fischer said...

Thanks for your wonderful reviews and reflections. You provide a great service. But I really do wonder how you manage to partake of so much film, theatre, opera, TV and more, and still manage to write your blog? Inspiring!