Thursday, October 13, 2011

Angels We Have Heard On High

I've never been a big fan of the Blue Angels (my fantasy is for them to be flying over the Golden Gate Bridge when Rodan makes an unexpected appearance). But the endless cries for cuts in the budget to match expenditures for programs like FEMA, Pell grants, and the Children's Health Insurance Program always leave me wondering: What would happen if we enacted some easily affordable budget cuts that took conservatives by surprise? Let me explain:

A 2010 article in The Washington Post estimates that the Department of Defense spends $550 million each year on all its bands. The United States Navy has requested $38.7 million for the Blue Angels for fiscal 2012 (the Blue Angels are paid out of the Navy's recruiting and advertising budget and do not perform any national security duties). That's nearly $600 million dollars that some might consider eligible for budget cuts.

Meanwhile, the fiscal year 2010 allotment for the National Endowment for the Humanities was approximately $167 million. The 2011 appropriation for the National Endowment for the Arts was approximately $155 million.

What that means is that, for every year that we cut funding for the Blue Angels and military bands, we could underwrite an additional two years for the NEH and NEA. I'm merely suggesting a simple way to make some cuts in the military's budget that would help build our nation's future.

I'm sure Eric Cantor and John Boehner will agree with me. It's called shared sacrifice.

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Thanks to two new artistic ventures, military matters have been weighing on my mind recently. In anticipation of the 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival, I recently watched Where Soldiers Come From. Heather Courtney's film follows three young men from her home town of Hancock on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
  1. Dominic Fredianelli, Cole Smith, and Matt "Bodi" Beaudoin who enlist in the military for obvious reasons. There is little if any future for them in their home town. 
  2. Assuming they survive their duty overseas, their military training and veterans' benefits help them become more employable.
  3. Having grown up together, they want to continue their friendship while serving their country.
Dominic serving in Afghanistan (Photo by: Heather Courtney)

Of the three, Dominic (a graffiti artist) shows the greatest potential for a career that will allow him to do something he loves. Unfortunately, the thrill of heading to a war zone doesn't always include thoughts about boredom or posttraumatic stress disorder.

Dominic spraying graffiti on a wall (Photo by: Heather Courtney)

In her director's statement, Courtney explains that she wanted to tell a story about her rural hometown that countered the usual stereotypes of small town America.
"With no clear idea of what my story would be, I began to peruse the local newspaper (the Daily Mining Gazette) and read about the local National Guard unit. I spent nearly two years filming them as regular 19 and 20-year-olds before they became active duty soldiers serving in Afghanistan. I also spent a lot of time with their families, friends and girlfriends. My goal was to get to know them as people rather than soldiers, and by knowing them and their families and town before they leave, we see how they all change over these four years. When the boys did go to war, I went with them. I also returned to Michigan several times during their deployment to show the effect of their absence on those left behind. And I was with them when they returned from war, filming their first year adjusting back to civilian life." 

Courtney's documentary gives viewers a nuts and bolts look at what life is like for soldiers in Afghanistan as well as for their families in Michigan. While Dominic and Cole seem able to roll with the punches, Bodi survives a few too many IED explosions and ends up with a bitter hatred for Afghanis.

What I found particularly touching were the scenes in which Dominic, having returned from Afghanistan with a certain amount of post-traumatic stress disorder, works with an art professor at Michigan's Finlandia University to use his artistic skills as a way of channeling his stress. As part of his work toward earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Dominic was encouraged to paint a 120-foot long mural on the wall of one of a campus building.

Scenes like that always make me wonder whether an artist would have thrived without going to war or whether Dominic's experience in Afghanistan will eventually strengthen and deepen his art. Here's the trailer:

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During the 15 years that I wrote about opera for the Bay Area Reporter, I attended enough operatic world premieres to learn that sometimes it's better to skip the opening night performance. All too often the cast has not had sufficient rehearsal time, the company's nerves are frayed, expectations are unreasonably high, and the pressure to succeed has reached a level that is almost counterproductive.

That's one reason why I chose not to attend the world premiere performance of Heart of a Soldier, the new opera from composer Christopher Theofanidis. Another was the matter of my own personal cynicism.

Whenever I used to fly out of Newark Airport, as I looked out the windows of my boarding area toward Manhattan and saw the twin towers of the World Trade Center, something told me that it was just a matter of time before they would be gone.  Those buildings formed such a clearly-identifiable target that it seemed too obvious for words.

Based on James B. Stewart's book about Rick Rescorla (who helped lead 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees to safety after two planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2011), the  San Francisco Opera had scheduled the world premiere of Heart of a Soldier for the exact date which marked the 10th anniversary of that tragic event.

Knowing full well that the first two weeks of September would be devoted to one long, protracted mediagasm commemorating the attack, I opted for as much peace and quiet as possible. By choosing to attend the fourth performance, I was pretty sure I could avoid the opening night frenzy and experience Heart of a Soldier as an opera, rather than a media event.

Over the years I've attended many an opera which included military themes.  From Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment to Gounod's Faust and Prokofiev's War and Peace; from Britten's Billy Budd to Verdi's La Battaglia di Legnano and Aida, soldiers and sailors have stood on operatic stages singing about the glories of war. However, Heart of a Soldier may mark the first time I ever thought "This opera might just be a little too butch for me."

Daniel J. Hill (William Burden) and Rick Rescorla (Thomas Hampson)
in a scene from the new opera, Heart of a Soldier
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

In the opera's early scenes, young Cyril Rescorla (Henry Phipps) is inspired by the American soldiers he has met in Cornwall, England as they prepare for the invasion of Normandy in June of 1944. By the time he turns 18, Cyril has changed his first name to Rick (which sounds more American) and gone off to fight in the northern Rhodesia. When Rick (Thomas Hampson) meets an American paratrooper named Dan Hill (William Burden), the two quickly become best friends and, at Dan's suggestion, aim their goals toward Vietnam in order to participate in what they hope will be "a just war."

After training at Fort Benning, Georgia, they end up in the war-torn jungles of Southeast Asia. When Rick and his soldiers overcome great risks to rescue Dan, it soon becomes evident that Rick is a man of fierce loyalty, determined to bring his troops home safely while Dan (who has greater intellectual depth) is beginning to realize that war might not be all it's cracked up to be.

By 1972, when Rick gets married in Dallas, each man is headed down a different path. Dan has found himself increasingly drawn to the structure provided by Islam and becomes a convert.

Twenty-five years later, Rick has become the head of security for a brokerage firm based in the World Trade Center. Older, wiser, and paunchier, the two men share their concerns about the the vulnerability of the Twin Towers to some kind of attack as Rick confesses that his warnings to management have continually been ignored.

Divorced and diagnosed with prostate cancer, Rick meets an attractive divorcée named Susan Greer (Melody Moore) while out jogging. They strike up an awkward conversation that quickly accelerates. Married in 1999, their relationship is cut short by he tragic events of 9/11.

Workers flee the World Trade Center in Heart of a Soldier
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

As she did to such brilliant effect with San Francisco Opera's recent production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, director Francesca Zambello made splendid use of film to speed up the expository process during the opera's early scenes. Her staging of the catastrophic moments at the end of the evening achieved the kind of lyrical impact at which Zambello excels.

After listening to so many new works whose scores sounded like an excuse for post-industrial noise (The King Goes Forth To France, We Come To The River) it was downright refreshing to hear an operatic score that was strongly tonal and contained many moments of lyrical beauty. Christopher Theofanidis's score for Heart of a Soldier struck me as heavily inspired by the musical style of John Williams (who wrote the scores for such popular disaster films as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno).

Though Heart of a Soldier was seen as a great vehicle for baritone Thomas Hampson, much of the evening's best singing actually came from tenor William Burden. It's hard to tell from the following clip but, throughout the opera, I sensed that Theofanidis showed much greater strength and creativity when composing for Heart of a Soldier's ensemble and choral moments than he did for solo arias or duets.

I was particularly impressed by the work of Michael Sumuel as the medic, Tom, by Ta'u Pupu'a as Omaha, and by Mohannad Mchallah as an Imam. Whereas Mark McCullough's lighting was particularly effective on Peter J. Davison's set for the Twin Towers, the strongest visuals often came from Steve Condiotti (Director of Photography) and S. Katy Tucker (Projection Designer). Patrick Summers conducted, with Ian Robertson getting some splendid work from members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus.

Unlike Nixon In China (which received its world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera under David Gockley's leadership as part of a co-production with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Netherlands Opera and The Washington Opera), Heart of a Soldier appears to be a stand-alone project whose timeliness delivered substantial media exposure and fundraising benefits to the San Francisco Opera. To my knowledge, no opera company has shown any interest in mounting a second production.

One last note: There's an old show business adage (attributed to W.C. Fields) which warns performers never to work with kids or animals. Susan's dog, Buddy (who plays an integral role when Rick and Susan meet in Act II), was performed by a gorgeous golden retriever named Koa, who melted hearts as soon as he walked out onstage.

Stage animals, however, have an uncanny talent for showing people what's really important. As soon as Koa sat down to scratch himself, it seemed as if nothing else -- not even the impending collapse of the Twin Towers -- mattered. Here's a beautiful shot of Koa, living in the moment.

Susan Rescorla (Melody Moore) takes her golden retriever,
 Buddy, for a walk in the park (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

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