Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Most Magical New Flute

There are many reasons for the head of an opera company to plan a new production.
  • Local audiences may have already seen the same production in more than three subscription seasons.
  • Several opera companies may be willing to co-produce a new production which will help to amortize the pre-production costs for all parties.
  • The company's board of directors may wish to make an artistic statement with a major new production.
  • The company's previous sets and/or costumes burnt to a crisp in a warehouse fire (this happened to the New York City Opera in 1985).
  • A major star (whose presence is guaranteed to boost box office sales) is eager to tackle a new role in a new production.
  • A major donor wants to have his name written all over a new production.
  • The opera in question has not been performed for many years and a new production will draw plenty of media attention.
  • An opera company may want to build a production whose subsequent set and costume rentals can provide a steady revenue stream in future seasons.
A scene from the popular co-production of Turandot
that was designed by Allen Charles Klein

Perhaps the most important factor for the creative team is the chance to articulate a new artistic vision of a composer's work. Over the years, some operatic stage directors (Peter Sellars, Frank Corsaro, Francesca Zambello, Jonathan Miller, Stephen Wadsworth) have been noted for their ability to dig deeper into the dramatic relationships that propel an opera forward. Others (Beni Montresor, Franco Zeffirelli, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle) have gained fame for designing as well as directing new productions.

While much of the repertoire takes place in houses and rooms (La Bohèeme, The Marriage of Figaro, La Cenerentola, La Traviata, Der Rosenkavalier), the operas which take place outdoors, in fairy-tale settings, or require special effects (Hansel and Gretel, The Cunning Little Vixen, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Lohengrin) have a special fascination for opera fans. One of the most popular of these operas is, of course, The Magic Flute (1791).

The 1966-1967 opera season was an important one for New York's opera lovers. As the Metropolitan Opera moved into its new home in Lincoln Center, two mammoth (30 x 36 feet) murals by Marc Chagall were unveiled. Along with the performing arts center's architecture, "The Sources of Music" and "The Triumph of Music" have dominated Lincoln Center Plaza for the past 45 years.

"The Sources of Music" by Marc Chagall

Whereas landmark productions of beloved operas are often referred to by the name of their stage director, e.g. Jonathan Miller's Rigoletto, Frank Corsaro's Traviata, Francesca Zambello's Ring cycle, productions of The Magic Flute are more often associated with the artists who designed them.

Two new productions of The Magic Flute debuted at Lincoln Center during the 1966-1967 season. In October 1966, the New York City Opera presented Beni Montresor's beautiful fairy-tale version. In February 1967, the Metropolitan Opera unveiled a new production of Mozart's opera designed by Marc Chagall.

Poster art for Marc Chagall's production of The Magic Flute

A scenic drop designed by Marc Chagall for The Magic Flute

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Chagall is not the only internationally famous artist who has created sets and costumes for The Magic Flute. David Hockney's famous production of Mozart's opera premiered at the 1978 Glyndebourne Festival Opera (click here to see a gallery of his set and costume designs). The following video clip of James Levine conducting the opera's overture includes a montage of Hockney's sets.

In 1981, David Gockley (who was then General Director of the Houston Grand Opera) unveiled a new production designed by Maurice Sendak.

Poster art for The Magic Flute by Maurice Sendak

A drawing by Maurice Sendak forThe Magic Flute

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Because The Magic Flute places a heavy demand for props and costumes on a designer, there is always a challenge to create something new and delightful for audiences. The following clip from a 2007 San Francisco Opera production shows some of Gerald Scarfe's witty designs.

One of the most elaborate productions in recent years was designed by Julie Taymor for the Metropolitan Opera in October 2004. When Opera Australia staged Taymor's production in 2012, the production had to be scaled down to fit into a theatre (the Sydney Opera House) that is less than half the size of the Metropolitan Opera House. As a result, many of the props were recreated "down under."

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Last month, the San Francisco Opera unveiled a new production of The Magic Flute designed by Japanese-American artist Jun Kaneko (click here to view a slideshow of Kaneko's set and costume designs). To get a better appreciation of Kaneko's art, watch the following video clip:

Computers have played a major part in bringing Kaneko's artistic vision for The Magic Flute to the stage. As part of an intense design process (which included animating much of the artist's work so it could be digitally timed to match the pace of the production), Kaneko built a scale model of the stage of the War Memorial Opera House to use in his Omaha workspace.

Jun Kaneko's scale model of the stage of San Francisco's
War Memorial Opera House in his Omaha warehouse

As Rory Macdonald began conducting the familiar overture, I was seized by a moment of panic as I watched Kaneko’s computerized designs proceed to fill a giant scrim. “Is this entire production going to look like three hours of trying to choose a screensaver?” I wondered.

Happily, Kaneko’s designs have a cumulative effect which seduces audiences with their easy mood changes and fascinating imagery. They also prove to be extremely flexible in key dramatic moments (such as when Tamino and Pamina must undergo the trials of water and fire in Act II).

Directed by Harry Silverstein with grace and humor (I love the two-headed dragon that reappears for a curtain call), the San Francisco Opera’s new production was graced with Albina Shagimuratova's fearsome Queen of the Night -- one of the best I’ve heard in decades. Adding to the fun was David Gockley’s ribald new translation (a welcome relief from Andrew Porter’s familiar script), which brought Papageno (Nathan Gunn), Monostatos (Greg Fedderly), Pamina (Heidi Stober), and Tamino (Norman Reinhardt) firmly into the realm of today’s vernacular. At the performance I attended, the audience laughed easily, heartily, and frequently.

Others in the cast included Nadine Sierra (Papagena), David Pittsinger (The Speaker), Melody Moore (First Lady),Lauren McNeese (Second Lady), and Renée Tatum (Third Lady). Exceptionally strong work came from young Etienne Valdez (First Spirit), Joshua Reinier (Second Spirit), and John Walsh (Third Spirit).

One of Jun Kaneko's designs for The Magic Flute

Occasionally, props will be moved on and off stage by a team of black-clad stagehands (as is common in the Japanese tradition of Noh theatre). Western operagoers who are used to seeing ancient Egyptian elements in an opera that refers to Isis and Osiris will, no doubt, be surprised to see Sarastro looking like he forgot to change his costume after appearing in the title role of Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta, The Mikado.

Over the years, I've attended performances of The Magic Flute that were sung entirely in German, performed entirely in English, or presented with a cast that sang all of Mozart's music in German and spoke all of the opera's dialogue in English. David Gockley (who has now helped bring to fruition two artistic visions of  Mozart's opera -- each designed by a major artist) notes that:
"When Emanuel Schikaneder offered Mozart a commission to compose a singspiel for a suburban Viennese theatre, he was compelled to accept. Singspiel is best compared with our own musical comedy -- songs separated by spoken dialogue -- all performed in German, the vernacular of the Austrian public. The idea was to create a popular form of music theatre in a language the audience could understand. Often there were comic lines -- some improvised on the spot -- that could only come across vividly in the native tongue of the public. Regional accents added color to the text and characters."
Tamino is surrounded by Jun Kaneko's animals
in The Magic Flute (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
"The practice of Supertitles, which began in 1984, certainly got opera texts across to our public in a consistently successful way. Simultaneously, they gave the company an 'out' of not having to come up with great translations and drill casts to get English text successfully understood in a huge opera house. Supertitles solidified the practice of using 'the original language' as the lingua franca of the international opera company.  The practice was welcomed by top-class singers who have increasingly refused to perform their roles in translations."
Pamina and Tamino undergo the trial of fire in
Jun Kaneko's production of The Magic Flute
"When we performed Magic Flute in 2007, I felt that something was missing hearing the work done in German. I resolved our next Magic Flute would be once again done in English (yes, with titles) and that I would personally be involved in the translation. Fortunately, our mostly youthful -- and mostly American -- cast embraced this concept, as did the conductor, Rory Macdonald. I want to especially thank our Sarastro (Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson) and Queen of the Night (the stunning Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova) for  making the effort to learn a version of Magic Flute they may never do again. Somewhere, Mozart and Schikaneder will be smiling."
Tamino encounters a two-headed dragon in
The Magic Flute (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Because so much of the production’s design is built on computerized projections of Kaneko’s art, the animation in this version of The Magic Flute (which is shared with the Washington National Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Opera Omaha, and Opera Carolina) adds an element of acceleration to the proceedings. As the eye adjusts to the constant motion of the art being projected on the flat (and occasionally angled) panels, it plays a neat visual trick on one's perception of performance time.

Whereas most productions of this opera rely on painted flats for scenery, Kaneko created more than 3,000 storyboard images to accommodate the work's 28 scene changes. As the artist explains:
"Striking a balance between the musical and visual experience and the flow between the two from beginning to end is crucial. It's very tricky. Many times, the costume and set designer have different concepts and that can show easily (by doing both, I think I avoided a conceptual design gap). Lighting was a challenge, and I knew this would be a headache for the lighting designer.  The front projectors in the piece can be particularly challenging because the singers cast shadows. The director, Harry Silverstein, felt that shadows are part of the piece and suggested that we not try to fight it. That really freed me up from a design perspective and we've come up with some interesting solutions."

One of the most impressive aspects of Kaneko's artistic vision is not just what it does for current audiences, but the potential it has to charm audiences of the future. The large pieces of necessary projection equipment can be found in any major city. The show's computer cues are easily transportable in electronic media. I anticipate this production will travel far and wide and enjoy a very long shelf life. Here's the trailer:

Monday, July 30, 2012

Forces Of Crushing Debt

Now that Dick Cheney has admitted that choosing Sarah Palin as John McCain's 2008 Vice-Presidential nominee was "a mistake," is it fair to remind people of his insistence that "deficits don't matter"? Since 2008 (when Wall Street did its aggressive best to loot the United States Treasury while George W. Bush was still in the Oval Office), it has become clear that debt means different things to different people.
  • For some, debt is a tool that can be leveraged toward amassing greater wealth. 
  • For others, it is a curse that brings dishonor upon not only them, but upon their family as well.
  • For some, debt is a line item on a balance sheet.
  • For others, it is a death sentence.
During the recent 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival it was interesting to note a series of films about foreign farmers who had been driven to suicide by their failure to pay off their debts. Watching how wealthy Americans handle debt (onscreen and onstage) only reaffirms that the system is rigged to benefit the superwealthy who live in an alternate universe that is very much of their own making.

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John Shank’s feature film, Last Winter, follows the plight of a handsome young man who struggles to preserve his family’s heritage and his way of life as an independent farmer. Unable to compete with larger economic forces that are driving Belgium's small farmers out of business, Johann (Vincent Rottiers) is too stubborn to let go of his macho pride. As Shank explains in his director's note:
“Johann is a man bearing two different heritages on his shoulders: one of them material, the other spiritual. Both heritages are embodied in the same elements, the same gestures and the same places, deeply rooted in the realities of the rural life that bring immense joy to Johann but, at the same time, wear him out. Apart from his belonging to a long line of farmers and a close knit rural community, Johann feels bound to the vaster and larger natural universe that surrounds him. In this vaster universe, he feels needed. He has a purpose. But what is to become of this man's life, of his spiritual existence, if the objects and elements, gestures and rituals that carry him, that seem to be his support, are taken away?

Vincent Rottiers as Johann

Johann is gradually forced to fight harder and harder to preserve his heritage, concealing his difficulties from those who surround him, trying to cling to the world slipping away from beneath his feet, and feeling the elements of his own personal mythology begin to fall to pieces. His inability to let go of his roots plunges him into a violent uprooting, far more violent than the pain caused by material loss of his childhood home and the disappearance of the only world he has ever known. His spiritual existence is slowly being smothered.”
In his youth, Johann had a habit of going for long walks in the forest and not coming home for days at a time. Unfortunately, his love for the land (coupled with his determination to live the life of an independent farmer) prove to be his undoing as the forces of international trade triumph over tradition.

Much of Last Winter’s drama is to be found in its lonely vistas, silent looks of pleading, the cold power of winter, and the desolate frozen Belgian countryside. Alas, this is yet another film about independent farmers going bankrupt and committing suicide in various parts of the world.

Other than scenes in which Johann is meeting with the farmers' co-op or trying to get a loan from someone, Shank’s film is lean on dialogue. As the filmmaker explains:
“I want to embody this story in few words and simple gestures. I want to embody this story in the rising of the very first light of day and the dawning of night. In the coming of winter and its first flakes of snow. In the face of a young man and the relentless work of his hands and body. In the heavy drops of rain slapping faces. In the body of a man carrying the weight of his sister in his arms. In a man hiding in bushes, watching his home and his land from afar. I want to embody this story in the turning off of a bedside light, when the body of a loved one dissolves into darkness.”
Visually rich, Last Winter follows Johann as he begins to isolate himself from friends and fellow farmers until the time arrives for him to take that long final walk into the frozen forest from which there is no return. Here's the trailer:

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The final installation in Micha X. Peled's trilogy of documentaries about the hidden effects of globalization, Bitter Seeds, delves into the mystery of why, every 30 minutes, another cotton farmer in Central India commits suicide by drinking Monsanto pesticide. Whereas cotton farmers formerly nurtured seeds from the previous year's crop with cow dung (a natural fertilizer), Monsanto's genetically modified seeds have taken over the market and forced many farmers into bankruptcy.

Bitter Seeds is a bracing work of documentary journalism that shines a light on class warfare within an emerging superpower. Introduced to India's farmers in 2002, Monsanto's new genetically-modified seeds are 3-4 times as expensive as hybrid seeds, require costly fertilizer, pesticide, more water, and rarely produce their advertised yields. Farmers who cannot get a bank loan are forced to work with illegal moneylenders. Because they lack modern irrigation, they must depend on the local weather to provide water for their crops.

When their crops lack sufficient water (or succumb to infestations of mealybug), India's farmers often lose their land to moneylenders who heap insult on injury by charging outrageous interest rates on their loans. Meled's story line follows the efforts of an 18-year-old woman whose father committed suicide. Manjusha's goal is to become a journalist so that she can write about what is causing so many farmers to commit suicide.

Shot in the Vidarbha region of the state of Maharashtra in India (where most farmers are cotton growers), Peled's heart-rending documentary shows farmers caught in a web of debt, ignorance, and shame who can find no escape from their troubles other than death. Here's the trailer:

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Over at the EXIT TheatreOpenTab Productions is presenting the West Coast premiere of Enron 2012 by British playwright, Lucy Prebble. Using some superb puppets designed by Miyaka Cochrane, the production has been directed by Ben Euphrat with a fury appropriate to the greedy tale of what happened to "the smartest guys in the room." When her play premiered in London in 2009, Prebble explained that her aim was:
"... to show the theatricality of business and the illusions on which it thrives. For Enron, business became a form of show business. They would hire Cirque du Soleil to perform at company parties. I learned that Jeffrey Skilling used to wake up at 4:00 a.m. thinking of all the pressure on him. I found it easy to relate to that since I used to do exactly the same when I was younger, thinking of all the lies I'd told and fantasies I'd created. Jeffrey Skilling transformed himself from a nerdy geek into the biggest showman of them all. In the opening scene, at an office party, I have Skilling explain the whole process of mark to market in which projected profits are treated as a tangible reality. It's motivated by Skilling's fury at business people who don't understand an accounting system used by all the big Wall Street investment banks. Enron's president had a messianic zeal and believed he could change the world by creating a virtual economy."

"Andy Fastow (Skilling's chief finance officer) was a fan of fantasy films and sci-fi. He gave Enron's shadow companies names like Raptor and Talon -- an idea I seized on so that on-stage raptors become a scary, sinister way of showing how Fastow's ideas spun out of control. When Fastow explains to Skilling how losses can be shifted on to shadow companies, the emotional drive comes from the fact that Fastow is desperate to impress his adored boss. In fact, it almost becomes a love scene between the two men."

When talk turned to deregulating California's energy market, I cringed with the memory of my electricity bill (which is now 40% of what it was when Enron was putting the squeeze on Governor Gray Davis). OpenTab's production features excellent performances by Alex Plant as Jeffrey Skilling, Laurie Burke as Claudia Roe, and an actor named GreyWolf as Ken Lay.

However, the character which travels the greatest dramatic distance is Andy Fastow, who is brilliantly portrayed by Nathan Tucker. As one watches Tucker frantically feeding debt to a trio of brilliantly-designed, screeching puppet raptors, one can't help but admire Prebble's wit and Plant's energetic stage direction.

Andy Fastow (Nathan Tucker) and Jeffrey Skilling (Alex Plante)
go for the money in Enron 2012

When it comes to the theatre's ability to dissect and depict what has caused recent wild swings of financial markets (as well as the global crises of the past two decades), those who had the opportunity to enjoy Bennett Fisher's excellent Hermes will quickly recognize Prebble's play as an excellent companion piece. Enron 2012 continues at the EXIT Theatre through August 17 (click here to order tickets) and is strongly recommended.

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David Siegel (who claims to have played a major role in getting George W. Bush elected President) and his busty wife Jackie were well on their way to building their dream home in Orlando  -- a 90,000 square-foot mansion modeled after the famous Palace at Versailles -- when the the recession wiped out their main source of income (Westgate Resorts and timeshares). Lauren Greenfeld’s fascinating documentary, The Queen of Versailles, looks like a chapter of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous when the wheels come off the rich people’s bus.

Jackie, a boisterous 43-year-old shopaholic mother of seven children, was caught off guard when her 74-year-old husband’s real estate empire took a huge financial hit. Even as she ordered the chauffeur to stop at McDonalds so she could pick up some fries, cutting back on spending was easier said than done.

Much of Greenfeld’s jaw-dropping documentary will seem like red meat to the Occupy Wall Street movement as it examines how the 1% deal with financial setbacks during a recession. From the stuffed carcasses of old pets on display in glass cases to the high-priced tackiness of the Siegel residence, the moment in the film that gets the biggest laugh occurs when, after taking her brood on a commercial flight, Jackie arrives at a regional airport in upstate New York and asks the rental car service agent who her driver will be.

In the midst of the family's ongoing chaos, many strange moments fill the screen:
  • As a severely depressed David sweats out the stock market, he can be seen brooding in his office/den, wanting to be left alone.
  • As house staff are let go and pet care becomes less of a priority, the family must navigate around numerous dog droppings. "I didn't even know we had an iguana," notes one child upon discovering a dead lizard.
  • At one point Jackie worries if the family's downward financial fall might even mean that her kids will have to go to college.
As Greenfield notes:
“In an age of cultural obsession with the rich, chronicled by reality TV (Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills), I wanted to tell a deeper, cinema-verité story of an extraordinarily wealthy family that had the ambitious goal of building the biggest house in America.
David and Jackie Siegel pose in their 26,000 square foot
"starter mansion"for filmmaker Lauren Greenfield
After Jackie invited me to stay in their 26,000 square foot ‘starter mansion' and life started to stray from all of our expectations, I was fortunate that Jackie and David had the courage to stay committed to the project and allow me to document their journey. As two remarkable individuals who had come from rags to riches and weathered many storms, they didn’t fear this one. They understood, on some level, that their journey was a statement about the American Dream and the challenge the crisis posed for that dream.”
The irony, of course, is that in many respects it is Jackie's ebullient personality that helps keep the family functioning, even if no one has strapped an Irish setter atop the limousine. Here's the trailer:

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Never Forget

During the weeks leading up to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, a brouhaha erupted over whether there would be a moment of silence to honor the memory of the Israeli athletes who were massacred 40 years ago at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. As kerfuffles of confusion and indignation floated across blogs and social media, few people stopped to wonder if the British might have had something else in mind. Something closer to home.

Just before the performance of British-Bangladeshi choreographer Akram Khan's piece began, BBC announcer Hazel Irvine stated:
"Ladies and gentlemen, please pause silent for our memorial wall for friends and family who can't be here tonight. The excitement of that moment in Singapore seven years ago when England won the games was tempered the next day with sorrow from the events of July 7th that year. A wall of remembrance for those no longer here to share in this event."
As Timothy Burke writes in his post on Deadspin.com:
"The major transitional element of today's London Olympics opening ceremony was a downtempo performance of adoptive sporting anthem "Abide With Me" by Scottish singer Emeli Sandé. The song and accompanying dance were a tribute to the victims of the 7/7 terror attacks in London that claimed 52 victims days after the 2012 Summer Olympic hosts were named (it's also been suggested the performance was a memorial to the war dead). Regardless, it was a rather significant and emotional moment in the opening ceremony, coming just before the parade of nations -- and it wasn't aired in the United States.

Instead, viewers were treated to a lengthy and meaningless Ryan Seacrest interview of Michael Phelps. NBC regularly excises small portions of the opening ceremony to make room for commercials but we've never heard of them censoring out an entire performance -- especially to air an inane interview. Some readers have commented that the official media guide to the opening ceremony makes no reference to 7/7. The sheer number of news stories that cite the performance as a tribute to its victims (as well as the performance itself) gives us pretty good confidence that the memorial was its theme."
Atlanta-based blogger Nicholas Wolaver (who is a a member of the International Association of Olympic Historians writes:
"I asked some Italian journalists in the London Media Center: 'What reaction would Italians have had if NBC cut Pavarotti from the Torino Opening Ceremony?' They answered, 'That would be bad. A scandal!' I asked the same of a China media journalist who responded, 'I think people [in China] would want to know why they did that.' I concur."
The television critic for Time magazine, James Poniewozik, pointedly noted that: "Given the stranglehold NBC maintains on content for an event its audience has a massive interest in, why edit anything out? It may have been a long ceremony, as they always are, but there was plenty of time to air the song rather than have Ryan Seacrest interview athletes (which NBC has the rest of the games to do, over and over and over)."

Although video from BBC One does not yet offer the embed code which would allow me to include it in this blog post, you can -- and should -- watch the performance by clicking here. I mention this not only because Khan's poignant dance piece deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, but also because this is such a blatant example of needlessly boneheaded corporate censorship.

So often, Jews will invoke the phrase "Never Forget" as a way of stressing that memories of the past must not be stolen from us. Three films screened this month at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival focus on moments that should not be forgotten.

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Polish filmmaker Tomasz Wisniewski has spent years researching the history of the Jews who lived in Bialystok. In addition to collecting documentation on eight Jewish cemeteries, he has written numerous books and articles on the subject (Wisniewski's website www.bagnowka.com hosts approximately 20,000 photographs of Jewish tombstones whose inscriptions have been translated into English).

Like many filmmakers, Wisniewski has his heart set on creating a full-length feature film. His project centers on the relationship between Poles and Jews in Bialystok. In his film, a young boy from a deeply religious Jewish family falls in love with a Polish girl. The young man is willing to discard his Jewish religion; the young woman is equally willing to abandon her Christian faith. Having found his dream location (the last, unaltered pre-war district of Bialystok), Wisniewski has made a short film with which he hopes to attract funding for his full-length feature. Enjoy The Pencil:

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It's rare for me to get creeped out by a short film, but Adi Kutner's 18-minute Barbie Blues really rattled my nerves -- and with good reason.

Mika (Meyrav Feldman) is a spoiled teenager sunbathing in her family's back yard in suburbia. When she discovers a dead falcon floating in the swimming pool, she is initially repulsed by the thought that it has contaminated the water, but finds herself equally eager to get it removed from the pool. After she asks her new neighbor for his help, Gershon (Dvir Benedek) and Mika spend part of the afternoon getting to know each other.

Mika, however, is a little cockteaser who starts to flirt with the fat older man and tease him in a rather inappropriate way. Gershon tries to keep his cool at first, but ends up succumbing to lust and temptation. Grabbing Mika from behind in what could easily turn into a rape scene, he holds her tight with one of his big, hairy arms as he digs his other hand into his bathing trunks and starts to jerk himself off. After climaxing, Gershon warns Mika that he won't tell mother what happened (an implied threat that this incident could recur).

I don't know what bothered me more: Watching the scene unfold while knowing it had been caused by a teenage flirt who didn't understand boundaries -- or watching Mika casually put her earbuds back in, nonchalantly lie back down on her beach chair, and continue sunbathing after Gershon had gone back to his home. Here's the trailer:

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One of the attractions that is almost guaranteed to be on the program of any Jewish film festival is a new documentary about the Holocaust. Although this year's standout, Harbour of Hope, does not take place in Germany, it pays tribute to a little known part of post-World War II history.

In early 1945, nearly 30,000 Jews who had been liberated from German concentration camps were rescued by the Red Cross and transported by ferry to Malmo, Sweden to get a fresh start on life. Some were emaciated and nearly at death's door. Others were children with little or no concept of what was happening around them.

A young Jewish refugee enjoying a hot meal in Malmo, Sweden

Director Magnus Gertten explains how the citizens of Malmo took it upon themselves to help care for the Jewish refugees and get them back on their feet. Today, the few surviving children who arrived on the ferries have scattered from Sweden to South Africa, from Malmo to Minneapolis. One woman, whose family moved to Cape Town recalls, as a child, wondering when her father would find their family and come to join them. No one told her the painful truth that her father had been killed by the Germans.

The Malmo Museum, which served as
temporary housing for some of the new arrivals.

Harbour of Hope has many heart-wrenching moments, like the one in which an elderly woman views naked footage of herself and her mother as they are being checked out by Swedish health authorities upon their arrival in Malmo. Others tell stories of being taken to the Malmo Museum, which served as a temporary shelter until they could be placed in private homes. The film even includes a reunion between two men who met as boys when one of them was brought to Sweden on a ferry filled with battered Jews.

Joe, whose family was murdered in concentration camps, arrived in Malmo as an orphan. After the horrors of World War II, one of the strangest experiences for him was to eat dinner with a family where everyone knew each other and eating together was a routine event. Others recall how their parents refused to talk about what had taken place in the concentration camps, hoping to protect their children from such horrible memories.

In a fascinating twist of fate, Harbour of Hope is able to contrast the faces of innocent Jewish refugee children with what these people look like in their geriatric years. Here's the trailer:

Friday, July 27, 2012

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

On the day before I was scheduled to leave town on a business trip in May 1987, I stopped by Ralph K. Davies Hospital  to say my final farewell to my good friend Mark Topkin, who was dying of AIDS. To my surprise, Mark had convinced his parents (who had flown in from Florida) to return home early. Not only was their grief-stricken presence causing him more stress, he and his lover, Lee Trevino, wanted to spend their last moments together in Mark's hospital room. Alone.

As Mark and I talked, I told him about a recent experiment I had read about. I described how, if one mixed corn starch with water and poured it into a bowl, the resulting colloid's surface would be solid enough to resist  a fist. But if a person slid his fingers into the mixture at an angle, they would easily slip below the surface. We both snickered at the sexual connotations of the experiment before moving on to other subjects.

Alas, the numbers from his lab tests indicated that Mark didn't have long to live. "The hardest part is letting go," I counseled.  "Try to imagine yourself sliding into a giant pool of chocolate mousse and it might be easier for you. Just remember: I'm flying Eastern Airlines tomorrow.  I might get there before you!"

Mark smiled and we said our good-byes (he was one of many friends who succumbed to the disease over the past quarter century). I'm grateful that there was no unfinished business left between us.

Not everyone is so lucky. Whether a person dies unexpectedly or late in life, a trail of unanswered questions, painful regrets, and unresolved accusations follows him to the grave. These may involve questions about issues that should have been addressed in the moment, rather than years later. Sometimes, as in the case of Sally Ride, a person's death reveals facts that were previously hidden from the public.

Two recent Bay area productions examined what happens when parents make deeply personal sacrifices in order for their children to pursue their dreams. Though nine decades apart in their creation, each told a story filled with ambition, regret, and the need to let go.

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Before discussing Laura Schellhardt's new play, Upright Grand, perhaps its best to demonstrate how an upright grand looks and sounds. Why?  Such instruments are not seen on concert stages. Indeed, many contemporary musicians who practice or perform on electronic keyboards may not be familiar with anything other than a formal concert grand.

I first encountered Upright Grand at a reading during the 2011 New Works Festival held run TheatreWorks at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. As with any reading of a work in progress, the script depended a great deal on the audience's ability to fill in the blanks. At the time, Schellhardt's script seemed like it needed a lot of work to soften the daughter's whining selfishness and find its dramatic spine.

The play's world premiere production (directed by the festival's outgoing director, Meredith McDonough) seems to have found its emotional core, thanks to the use of a turntable and the hollowed out piano frames which allow the audience to see through a piano's skeleton while getting to the heart of the matter. In many ways, it was the act of merging the show's accompanist with an actor who could play minor roles (a piano tuner, a music professor, and funeral guest) that helped to define the piano as the fourth character in her play.  As Schellhardt explains:
"The piano, like the cello, is a truly human instrument, and it's imposing enough to become a character in the room in a way that some other instruments are not. Like many instruments, the piano is also an heirloom, something passed down from family to family, something treasured and preserved. I find that in any musical family, the piano often becomes the center of the house. What has changed (for the play's world premiere) is the way in which the piano informs the piece, and the more difficult theme of a child besting her father.  The piano is really the fourth character in the play. The way it's used onstage has grown by leaps and bounds."
As a painfully awkward and insecure teenager, Kiddo (Renata Friedman) likes to tease her father, Pops Dan Hiatt, about the blatant sentimentality of his musical choices. Too young to understand the appeal of songs which defined a previous generation, too confused to know what she wants from life, Kiddo eventually realizes that she's better at playing piano than most of the other kids she knows. Winning a piano competition is also a great way to get back at a teacher who gave her no encouragement.

Dan Hiatt and Renata Friedman in Upright Grand
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

As Kiddo progresses from small time awards to graduating from Juilliard and moving on to a professional career as a concert pianist, the growing lack of communication between a globe-trotting artist and her aging parents comes into clearer focus. Furious to learn that her parents have separated without telling her (Kiddo's mother left her father to move in with the shrink who counseled mother and daughter), the adult concert pianist is also horrified to learn that her father allowed the family's upright grand piano to be sold.

"That was your mother's decision," replies Pops, as he tries to explain that his wife felt shut out of the intense musical relationship shared between father and daughter. As the playwright explains:
"I think father/daughter relationships are unique in several ways. I think there's a delicacy that fathers have in the early years of raising a daughter that often isn't there with sons. I also think there tends to be a type of idol worship girls have for their fathers early on, especially if the home functions in a more traditional way (with the father away more often). I'm most interested in what happens when those things fall away (when the child realizes her parents are not just human, but deeply flawed) and when parents realize their children have grown beyond their reach.  I've recently started thinking about having a family of my own and I think a lot of those questions have structured the latest drafts.  How one balances their work life with their parental responsibilities, how to ensure children are following their own path and not yours, how difficult it is to balance art and parenting, and yet how deeply connected the two endeavors are -- all of these topics are front and center in the play now in a way they weren't before."
Brent Ryback and Renata Friedman in Upright Grand
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

While the bulk of the evening belongs to the father/daughter relationship shared by Pops (Dan Hiatt) and Kiddo (Renata Friedman), I was quite impressed with accompanist Brett Ryback for his work at the keyboard as well as in supporting roles. The revolving unit set designed by Kris Stone helps to build upon the sentimentality of the songs Pops likes to play and his daughter's growing awareness of how quickly, and irretrievably, time has flown by.

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The San Francisco Silent Film Festival recently screened the 1925 version of Stella Dallas, which stars Belle Bennett in one of the great cinematic tearjerkers of all time. Based on a 1920 novel by Olive Higgins Prouty and directed by Henry King, this is the story of a small town girl from the wrong side of the tracks who sets out to lead a more respectable life.

With Ronald Colman as Stephen Dallas and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as young Richard Grosvenor, the film boasts two incredibly handsome husbands-to-be. Most people are familiar with the 1937 version of the story starring Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Midler's 1990 made-for-television adaptation entitled Stella. But the silent film is a true gem.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Stella is the social climber whose driving ambition cannot compete with her innate tackiness. After marrying a banker, she tries to become popular with the local socialites but always seemed a bit too crude and lower class to fit in with the crowd at the local country club.

Belle Bennett as Stella Dallas

After her husband's bank relocates Stephen to New York, Stella insists on remaining at home where she can be a medium-sized fish in a small pond while taking care of their daughter, Laurel (Lois Moran). Stella's friendship with Ed Munn (Jean Hersholt) sets local tongues wagging and eventually, Laurel is forced to withdraw from her exclusive private school.

After refusing to divorce her husband, Stella takes Laurel to an exclusive resort each summer in the hope that her daughter can socialize with "a better class of people." But one fateful day, after her doctor has advised Stella that going for a walk (instead of holing up in her hotel room) might be good for her health, she becomes a major source of embarrassment to her teenage daughter.

Stella Dallas (Belle Bennett) goes for a walk

Upon learning the reasons for Laurel's unhappiness, Stella pays a visit to Helen Morrison (Alice Joyce), the wealthy widow who is her husband's childhood friend, and asks if she and Stephen plan to marry if she grants him a divorce. Having figured out that their wedding would allow Laurel to keep her social position, Stella embarks on a plan to set her daughter free of all ties to her mother so that Laurel can move on up the social ladder in ways that Stella could never accomplish on her own.

This screening was greatly enhanced by the accompaniment of Stephen Horne, an extraordinary composer and festival favorite who knows how to combine a delicate sense of romanticism with strategic uses of silence and emotionally-loaded single notes. The final scene, in which Stella stands in the pouring rain, watching through an open window as Laurel marries Richard Grosvenor, is a classic example of maternal love taken to extremes.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Can You Hear Me Now?

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. During the 30-year period from 1970 to 2000, the wall between opera and musical theatre was simultaneously being demolished. In trying to describe why so few operas were being written by composers of rock 'n' roll, Ben Krywosz, OPERA America's first project director for the "Opera into the Eighties and Beyond" program, once noted that:
"Curiously enough, the operatic establishment does not speak the language that most people in America do. As a result, there's something which is not quite connecting to people on a core level. And that something has a lot to do with having a different cultural point of view."
Ambitious musical theatre composers were starting to experiment with classical sounds and compose music designed for more operatic voices. Simultaneously, operatic composers were learning how to use computers to help generate musical scores and finding ways to enhance the music they had written for classical voices with subtle amplification.


While most notable for its massive scenery, the original production of Sweeney Todd required a cast of 27 actors and a 26-piece orchestra. In addition to its spectacular production values, the original London production of Les Misérables required a cast of approximately 35 performers.

Rising production costs have forced many contemporary composers to avoid creating new works that, because of their demands for numerous performers and instrumentalists, may be too expensive to ever produce a return on their original investment. With revivals of both Sweeney Todd and Les Misérables currently playing in town, it's fascinating to witness how each show holds up with 21st century audiences.

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The marketing debacle following the 1985 introduction of New Coke led many consumers to cry "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Much the same could be said of Cameron Mackintosh's 25th anniversary touring production of Les Misérables, which apparently left the original production's directorial team (Trevor Nunn and John Caird) feeling "horribly betrayed."

Based on the sprawling novel by Victor Hugo, the original production (which I saw in London and at the Kennedy Center Opera House) was a knockout that had the kind of dramatic power which swept audiences off their feet. But with a first act that contains such an incredible amount of narrative exposition, it's important to keep matters moving -- often at any cost.

The Barricade (Photo by: Dean Van Der Meer)

With new (and not necessarily better) orchestrations by Chris Jahnke, this 25th anniversary production was directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell who, quite frankly, should be slapped upside the head for what they have done to an iconic work of musical theatre. At the very least, there is absolutely no reason for Betsy Morgan to perform  Fantine's plaintive solo, "I Dreamed A Dream," with the aggressive fury of "Rose's Turn."

Peter Lockyer portrayed a gaunt, determined Jean Valjean trying to escape Andrew Varela's villainous JavertTimothy Gulan (Thénardier) and Shawna M. Hamic (Madame Thénardier) took full advantage of their characters' lust, greed, and other bawdy attributes.

Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic as the Thénardiers.
Photo by: Deen Van Der Meer

As the young lovers, Lauren Wiley (Cosette) and Max Quinlan (Marius) went from innocence and naivete to a greater depth of emotional understanding. They received sturdy support from Briana Carlson-Goodman (Eponine), Jason Forbach (Enjolras) and Marcus D'Angelo (Gavroche).

While much of the evening seemed as if was being performed with a bad case of roid rage, I cannot, in all good conscience, blame the cast.  The fault, dear readers, lies not with the actors but with Mick Potter's singularly oppressive sound design.

I'm certainly not the only person to have complained about the outrageous levels of amplification in the Orpheum Theatre in past seasons. But a recent article by Cara Buckley in The New York Times entitled Working Or Playing Indoors, New Yorkers Face An Unabated Roar raised some noteworthy points:
  • Experts in hearing loss prevention warn that people should not be exposed to sound levels of 100 decibels for more than 15 minutes without wearing some form of hearing protection.
  • Cumulative damage from chronic exposure to noise can go undetected for years (loss of hearing usually affects high-frequency sounds first).
  • As the federal agency responsible for monitoring workplace noise, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has very specific standards which businesses must meet. Unfortunately, OSHA usually only launches an investigation when complaints are made (most employees are reluctant to do this for fear it might affect their job security).
  • Although a study conducted by The New York Times at local restaurants, bars, stores, and health clubs easily recorded sound levels above 90 decibels, many of the business owners had no idea they were in violation of OSHA's sound guidelines.
While municipal agencies usually handle complaints about noise from neighbors, most theatregoers feel powerless against the onslaught of sound aimed at their eardrums during many touring musical productions.  The San Francisco Opera's recent production of Nixon in China did a splendid job of showing how amplification can be used to enhance (rather than distort) a performance in the 3,146-seat War Memorial Opera House. Critics may point out the sound problems with shows booked into the 2,203-seat Orpheum Theatre, but until SHN's President (Carole Shorenstein Hays) and CEO (Greg Holland) decide to take a proactive stance toward monitoring sound levels, many of their ticket buyers will continue to suffer unnecessarily.

Andrew Varela as Javert (Photo by: Dean Van Der Meer)

I was also quite surprised to see how Matt Kinley's set design (purportedly inspired by Victor Hugo's paintings) and the projections used for the scenes in which Jean Valjean must drag the wounded Marius through the sewers of Paris seemed to darken, diminish, and ultimately cheapen the production. With the exception of some unnecessary strobe lighting during the Act II battle scene, Paule Constable's lighting had some extremely effective moments. Here's the trailer:

Curiously, watching this 25th anniversary production of Les Miserables only made me more eager to see the film adaptation starring Hugh Jackman, which is scheduled to hit theatres at Christmas. Here's the trailer for the film:

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For a thrilling experience in making the most of a theatrical classic, head to lower Jackson Street, where the folks at Ray of Light Theatre have staged Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street  with a six-piece band performing a reduced orchestration of Stephen Sondheim's score. Revel in the intimacy of a talented ensemble performing without any amplification in the 290-seat Eureka Theatre.

Set designer Maya Linke has carefully utilized every inch of the Eureka's stage, with director Ben Randle making some judicious adjustments that allow ROLT to scale the action down so that it can fit on a postage-stamp sized stage. In all truth, I found this a much more satisfying production of Sweeney Todd than John Doyle's gimmicky 2005 version (in which the principals played musical instruments onstage).

In past Ray of Light Theatre productions, I've been extremely impressed by this company's solid musical preparation. With Sweeney Todd,  Sondheim's mammoth score got every bit of the respect it so deeply deserves.

Sweeney Todd (Adam Scott Campbell) gives Judge Turpin
 (Ken Brill) the closest shave he's ever had (Photo by: Claire Rice)

In such an intimate setting it was especially gratifying to be up close to the stage to catch some wonderful work by Kevin Singer (Tobias), Michelle Jasso (the Beggar Woman), J. Conrad Frank as a preening Beadle Bamford. and Terrence McLaughlin as Signor Pirelli. Ken Brill was appropriately loathsome as the evil Judge Turpin.

Matthew Provencal as Anthony (Photo by: Claire Rice)

Ray of Light Theatre's casting instincts are especially strong, with Matthew Provencal displaying a strong and beautiful tenor voice as Anthony and Jessica Smith an imposing (if mightily confused) Johanna. The real test of any production of this musical, however, lies in the casting of the two leads. Adam Scott Campbell delivered an almost lyrical Sweeney -- who could be seen slipping into a state of psychosis -- while Shelley Crowley's portrayal of the amoral Mrs. Lovett was deliciously droll.

Adam Scott Campbell and Shelley Crowley in
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
(Photo by: Claire Rice)

It's a curious choice between two mega-musicals whose world premieres were little more than a year apart. Three decades later, both shows are being performed in San Francisco in radically different stagings than their original productions.

Given a choice between the overproduced, overamplified staging of Les Misérables at the Orpheum or the chamber version of Sweeney Todd at the Eureka, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the latter (which allows audiences to wallow in the ensemble's crisp diction and solid musicianship). There are indeed times when less equals more (click here to order tickets).

Sweeney Todd (Adam Scott Campbell)  and his business partner,
Mrs. Lovett (Shelley Crowley). Photo by: Claire Rice)