Saturday, November 24, 2012

Does It Really Have To Be A Man's World?

If the past six months proved anything about the battle between the sexes it was that many men (though they may be married to women) have absolutely no idea how women think or feel. Their calls for transvaginal ultrasounds, idiotic notions about "legitimate rape," insistence on defunding Planned Parenthood, and the ease with which cretins like Rush Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke (or with which Mitt Romney assumed that women only voted for President Obama so they could get the "gift" of free birth control) made it clear that married men don't know much about their wives. Or, for that matter, single women.

Conservatives like Bill O'Reilly want to take the country back to the 1950s, when the perceived ideal was a family headed by Ward and June Cleaver. Unfortunately, what these men really want is to travel even further back in time to the early 1900s. In the following scene from Act I of Hello, Dolly! Horace Vandergelder explains why he's planning to get married again:

Although show business is often cited as an indicator of cultural progress, sometimes it sends mixed messages. Eve Ensler's provocative musical, Emotional Creature, just opened on Broadway to strong reviews. In the following clip, Ensler talks about why V-Day has been such an important part of her life.

And yet, for every progressive feminist like Ensler, there are traditional images reinforcing old stereotypes of women. In January, Broadway welcomes its first production of the 1957 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, Cinderella (which was originally produced as a television musical for Julie Andrews that reached more than 100 million viewers).

In 2010, when Sex and the City 2 was released (and rapidly bombed in theatres), one of the film's oddest moments was this rendition of Helen Reddy's hit song from 1971: I Am Woman.

As a gay man, I'm always amazed at the levels of ignorance about female sexuality among outspoken married men like Todd Akin, Paul Ryan, and Richard Mourdock. One of the best musical rebuttals to their self-righteous nonsense can be found in Cy Coleman's score to 1990's The Life. Here's the female ensemble performing "My Body" at the Tony Awards.

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One of the best ways to battle an oppressive situation is to deal with it from a position of power. During her recent opening night at the Rrazz Room, Betty Buckley was confronted with an unpleasant distraction. As she launched into a song, Buckley noticed a woman aiming a camera at her who was obviously trying to record her performance without the artist's permission.

Buckley stopped the show, asked her assistant to take the camera away from the woman (promising to return it later) and took the time to explain to her audience why that particular kind of unauthorized recording is so distracting and distressing to a performer. Later, when someone's cell phone went off, Buckley again stopped the music, sat down on a stool and asked "Is that for me?"

This is a form of audience education that has been sorely lacking. As far as I'm concerned, a little bit of humiliation by a professional entertainer goes a long, long way.

Buckley has always wanted to sing some of the great Broadway songs that were written for men. After seeing the film version of West Side Story, she longed to become one of the Jets. Instead of wanting to be cast as Maria or Anita, she yearned to play Riff.

Last year, Buckley put together a cabaret act entitled "Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway." It's an evening which gives a clear demonstration of the difference between a contract singer and a seasoned artist who brings her emotional depth and keen intellect to bear on a song; a woman who has not only dissected a  lyric but worked closely with a top-notch arranger to create interpretations that will challenge her audience and inspire them to think.

A perfect example would be Christian Jacob's magnificently off-kilter arrangement of "Hey, There" (from The Pajama Game). Or Eric Kornfeld's revised lyrics for "A Hymn to Him" (from My Fair Lady), which have been mischievously transformed into "A Hymn To Her."

In addition to shining new light on old classics like "I Can See It" (from The Fantasticks) and "My Defenses Are Down" (from Annie Get Your Gun), Buckley explained how she fell in love with a song by William Finn entitled "Venice" that was originally sung by Michael Rupert in Elegies. She then sang it with a kind of dramatic honesty one rarely finds in a nightclub.

With phrasing rooted in wisdom backed by the skills and artistry of a veteran performer, Buckley transformed classics like "I Won't Dance" (from Roberta), "More I Cannot Wish You" (from Guys and Dolls), and "Maria" (from West Side Story) into radically new and wondrous experiences. A medley from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street consisting of "Not While I'm Around," "Johanna," and "My Friends" was simply breathtaking.

A singer who has always had a big voice, Buckley opened wistfully and wisely, letting her voice warm up so that, by the time it was ready to go full throttle, she was able to use it for maximum impact. In February, Buckley will tackle the role of the Countess Aurelia (the Madwoman of Chaillot who saves Parisians from greedy oil executives) in a London production of Jerry Herman's poignant Dear World. It's a role that should fit her like a glove.

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Desperate women are often forced to make desperate decisions -- perhaps none more so than Puccini's impassioned Floria Tosca.  The San Francisco Opera has been presenting two casts in this beloved opera (based on Victorien Sardou's 1887 melodrama). I chose to attend a performance by the largely American cast and was quite happy with the results.

The Act I finale of Tosca (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

This 1997 production (designed by Thierry Bosquet) was inspired by the 1932 sets designed by Armando Agnini that opened San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House 80 years ago with Claudia Muzio in the title role. What made this cast particularly noteworthy is that all three principals were graduates of the Merola Opera Program and had served time with the company as Adler Fellows.

Brian Jagde and Patricia Racette in Act I of Tosca
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Not only is the stage of the War Memorial their "home turf," their ability to feel at home with the company shows clearly in performances that are solid, professional, and acutely theatrical. Some of this, no doubt, is aided by having the company's musical director, Nicola Luisotti on the podium and Jose Maria Condemi as director. But there were other dramatic touches, rarely seen in standard productions of Tosca, which showed new insights into the title character's motivation, and the urgency of specific moments.

Mark Delavan as the evil Baron Scarpia in Tosca
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

There is a moment in Act I when, after planting the seeds of jealousy in Tosca's heart, Scarpia offers her his hand. Many sopranos angrily push it away, repulsed by the boorish Chief of Police.  But Patricia Racette made the scene touchingly human. Her Tosca appeared to grow weak and vulnerable for a moment, as if about to faint into Scarpia's waiting arms, but then quickly gathered her wits and strength and gently brushed his hand aside.

In Act II, after stabbing Scarpia and placing the candles by his body, Racette's Tosca didn't just back out of the room slowly in horror.  Upon entering the upstage hallway she turned and started to run for her life (not every soprano is physically capable of doing this).

Scarpia (Mark Delavan) and Tosca (Patricia Racette)
in Act II of Tosca (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Because I hadn't attended a performance of Tosca in quite some time, the use of Supertitles made the experience fresh and new in many moments that might have been overlooked in years past. In Act III, as Cavaradossi looked up at the sky prior to singing "E lucevan le stelle," the sight of a tall, handsome, doomed romantic tenor in awe of the approaching dawn (aided by Christopher Maravich's sensitive lighting design) was startling in its honesty and emotional simplicity. Brian Jagde's robust tenor marks him as a talent to watch in the future.

Tenor Brian Jagde as Cavaradossi
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

As Scarpia, Mark Delavan (who appeared as Wotan in the recent San Francisco Ring cycle) was brutal, boorish, and the epitome of a corrupt bureaucratic bully. Dale Travis (another Merola/Adler graduate) delivered a solid performance as the Sacristan while Joel Sorenson (Spoletta) and Christian van Horn (Angelotti) shone in supporting roles.  Other Adler Fellows in the cast included Ao Li (Sciarrone) and Joo Wan Kang (the jailer).

Patricia Racette has long been a favorite with San Francisco audiences. Her approach to the title role was appropriately feisty, mercurial, and powerfully sung. In her own way, she showed audiences that a desperate diva knows how to drive a hard bargain for her body and take control over of her destiny (even if it means jumping to her death off a parapet as dawn breaks over the eternal city of Rome).

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