Sunday, June 30, 2013

These Artists Are Brought To You By The Letter "C"

My father was a high school biology teacher whose curiosity had no limits. As children, my sister and I were always urged to "Go look it up" whenever we had a question. It didn't matter what the question was or how complicated the subject, he helped us develop a life-long thirst for discovering new information and seeking out more.

Sometimes the search for new ways to link odd bits of data can yield surprising results. As I struggled to find a link for two reviews, I noticed that two words which kept coming to mind shared the same first two letters ("C" and "H"). So I decided to look them both up on Wikipedia. The results were fascinating:
"The Chimera was, according to Greek mythology, a monstrous fire-breathing female and male creature of Lycia in Asia Minor, composed of the parts of three animals: a lion, a snake, and a goat. Usually depicted as a lion, with the head of a goat arising from its back, and a tail that ended in a snake's head, the Chimera was one of the offspring of Typhon and Echidna and a sibling of such monsters as Cerberus and the Lernaean Hydra. The term chimera has come to describe any mythical or fictional animal with parts taken from various animals, or to describe anything perceived as wildly imaginative or implausible."
A painting of a chimera on an Apulian plate, circa 350-340 BC

While that definition didn't exactly match the promotional blurb for an Asian documentary seen at the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival, it gave me some ideas. The next search proved to be equally informative:
"Chameleons are a distinctive and highly specialized clade of lizards. The approximately 160 species of chameleon come in a range of colors including pink, blue, red, orange, turquoise, yellow, and green. They are distinguished by their zygodactylous feet; their separately mobile, stereoscopic eyes; their very long, highly modified, rapidly extrudable tongues; their swaying gait; and crests or horns on their distinctively shaped heads. Some chameleon species are able to change their skin coloration. Different chameleon species are able to vary their coloration and pattern through combinations of pink, blue, red, orange, green, black, brown, light blue, yellow, turquoise, and purple. Color change in chameleons has functions in social signaling and in reactions to temperature and other conditions, as well as in camouflage. The relative importance of these functions varies with the circumstances, as well as the species."
A West Usambara two-horned chameleon from Tanzania
"Color change signals a chameleon's physiological condition and intentions to other chameleons. Chameleons tend to show darker colors when angered, or attempting to scare or intimidate others, while males show lighter, multicolored patterns when courting females. Some species, such as Smith's dwarf chameleon, adjust their colors for camouflage in accordance with the vision of the specific predator species (bird or snake) by which they are being threatened. The desert-dwelling Namaqua chameleon also uses color change as an aid to thermoregulation, becoming black in the cooler morning to absorb heat more efficiently, then a lighter grey color to reflect light during the heat of the day. It may show both colors at the same time, neatly separated left from right by the spine."
A Namaqua chameleon responding to a threat

Really? Who knew!

* * * * * * * * *
Mika Mattila's often perplexing documentary, Chimeras, asks if the search for a national cultural aesthetic (so vividly expressed during China's Cultural Revolution) has been abandoned for opportunities to cash in on fame and celebrity in Western markets. As he looks at some of the art emerging from one of the wold's most rapidly changing societies, he focuses on two highly acclaimed Chinese artists at different stages of their careers.

The only child of a rural family, Liu Gang's career as a photographer took off like a rocket when an American curator invited him to exhibit his work in China's most prestigious art gallery. As his fame has grown, he has found himself socializing with Beijing’s jet set, living in a world of westernized luxury, attending embassy parties, and considering the promise of a major international career. With more money than he could ever have imagined in his youth, he now finds himself eager to cash in on a wealth of opportunities as he wonders what the future holds in store.

Liu Gang and his bride pose for a formal wedding portrait.

By contrast, Wang Guangyi is an internationally acclaimed pop artist, a multimillionaire who, back in the 1980s, helped modernize China's contemporary art scene with avant-garde Western ideas. Two decades later he is older and much richer than he could ever have imagined, yet he has evolved into a fierce crusader against the dominance of Western influences on Chinese artists. As Wang Guangyi starts to worry about his legacy, he has doubts about some of his achievements

Chinese artist Wang Guangyi

In his director's note, Mattila explains that:
"During the three years of making this film, the Chinese art markets have steadily grown from the third place behind France and the USA into the biggest art market in the world. Yet very few in the West can name a single Chinese artist besides Ai Weiwei. How can it be that we know so little about the modern culture of the biggest country and oldest continuously existing civilization on the planet? And when we do know something, why is it only from the singular perspective of politics (seen largely from the Western perspective in regards to China’s political system).

For me, what happens in the Chinese art scene not only encapsulates the underlying currents of Chinese society, but tells us something about the world we are about to enter. For the years that I’ve made Beijing my hometown, the art community has been my home base. I saw how the art scene could offer a window into Chinese modernity like no other segment in the society quite did. The contemporary art scene is perhaps the clearest segment of modern Chinese culture that is both deeply integrated with the global scene, but also domestically 'free' enough to flourish."
"There is a precedent for our ignorance that perhaps illustrates the point. When the British Empire tried to reason with the Middle Kingdom, wanting to lure them into relationship with the Europeans, the common understanding in China was that there was nothing of great value in the West. Weapons and some technical gimmicks might be useful but, all in all, the West was deemed a barbaric hinterland, culturally not worth another look. Western culture was seen as an exotic curiosity that would eventually either be drawn into the influence of the Chinese cultural sphere or else vanish back into oblivion. Even if the Europeans clearly possessed plenty of power, they certainly had nothing to offer culturally. It was not considered ignorance if one knew nothing about the West.

The Chinese Empire paid dearly for their arrogance, and only after two humiliating centuries is China recovering from their inability to adapt. The same questions still remain relevant within China’s cultural discussion: What is useful to adopt from the West? What is useless? Or even worse, what is harmful? Is modern always synonymous with Western? What most worries me is how little of this kind of reflection we do in the West.

Perhaps we are where China was a few centuries ago: the dominant culture (ignorant, arrogant and certain of the inevitability of our ways). Even if much of the fuss about the Chinese art boom could be dismissed as a passing trend, I strongly feel that what is happening in the contemporary art scene today is just foreshadowing something more significant and widespread that will follow. Through these artists and their reflections, we can perhaps open a window into a realm of thinking that many of us are not familiar with. A realm that is getting more significant to us by every day as Chinese influence in the world inevitably grows and old ways of seeing are forced into history."
One of Liu Gang's pieces of "crumpled paper" art.

I found myself drifting in and out of Mattila's documentary as it bounced from Wang Guangyi's reunion with fellow artists from the glory days of the Northern Art Movement to stories about how Liu Gang's mother advised him to forsake marriage in order to concentrate on his career. It may be that I found the art in Chimeras much more interesting than Mattila's artists and their celebrity. Here's the trailer:

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Over in the Mission District, The Marsh is presenting the world premiere of a one-woman show by Safiya Martinez entitled So You Can Hear Me that has been beautifully directed by David Ford. A petite woman who moves with the fluidity of a dancer (like her half Puerto Rican, half Russian Jewish mother) and mimics voices with the deftness of a jazz musician (like her African American father), Martinez drew her material from the special education students she met while teaching in the South Bronx and the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

While Martinez may only be five feet tall, her talent as a storyteller is huge. Her nine characters have the kind of expansive personalities which (though they may hunger for love) can fill any public school hallway with their bravado. Though they may be struggling with autism, dyslexia, and multiple sclerosis, like other kids their age they are also being jerked around by their raging hormones.

With a Master's degree in Urban Education and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, Martinez has conducted acting workshops at the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Center and been employed by Communityeorks, Inc. (an organization engaging in "arts, education and restorative justice programs that interrupt the far-reaching impact of incarceration and violence"). A recent graduate of San Francisco State University, she is a core member of Girlstory and an Arts Integration Specialist at San Francisco's Balboa High School. On her website, Martinez writes:
"This work interrogates several different issues thematically. At the top of the play, I focus on the transformation of the grittier reality of New York from my childhood during the 1980s to the multitude of issues that arise with present-day gentrification. The current climate within the school system reflects these issues in complex and painful ways. Through this work I explore how safety, aggression, and resistance are negotiated within the space of a school and how the larger economic and political climate of the city informs the lives of students and teachers.

So You Can Hear Me is a play about voice, and also works as a love letter to the youth culture that emerges from New York City. Its language speaks with urgency, swagger, vulnerability and, ultimately, an honesty that I dramatize for the stage. The work is an exploration of the universal human desire for love. Through interconnected narratives, each character voices an essential desire to be seen and heard, clearly."
Safiya Martinez (Photo by: Ian Davis)

Because so many of the characters Martinez has developed for her show are in high school, it's easy for her to switch between male and female voices without having to think about boys whose voices have changed. Some of her students are the kind of prepubescent squirmers whose energy can't be contained. The girls, however, are often wiser, more sophisticated, and in their own way, quite competitive.

As a solo performance artist (and a gifted writer), Martinez has done an excellent job of making So You Can Hear Me a lean, trim monologue which never sags or loses focus. She gives the audience plenty, but just enough to keep them wanting more. Performances of her show continue at The Marsh through July 20 (click here to order tickets). Here's a glimpse of Martinez as Sammy (one of her most memorable characters).

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Different Strokes For Different Folks

Two major works of musical theatre (one an opera, the other an oratorio) received their world premieres in San Francisco this month. One had been commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, a 90-year-old arts organization that, in addition to being a mainstay of San Francisco's cultural life, is currently being helmed by David Gockley (who has commissioned nearly 40 operas during his career).

The other was commissioned by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus (the group most often credited with  launching the international LGBT choral movement) to commemorate the 35th anniversary of its founding while honoring the 35 years since Harvey Milk was assassinated in his office in San Francisco City Hall on November 27, 1978.

Because these productions were staged in theatres two blocks apart (with only Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall standing between them) -- and close to a City Hall lit up in rainbow colors to celebrate Gay Pride Month -- there was no escaping the fact that a certain overlap exists between the audiences for the two presenting organizations. While one work proved to be effective and the other inspirational, some obvious similarities quickly come to mind:
  • Both composers are American artists with solid track records of writing music for the human voice.
  • Each composer wrote the libretto for his new piece.
  • Both works depict a patriarchy facing radical change (one with regard to gender roles; the other with regard to the political awakening of a sexual minority).
  • Each premiere took place in a municipally-owned auditorium (San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House was the first municipally-owned opera house in the nation).
  • Each work featured a pivotal character who, having been slain ahead of his time, subsequently achieved martyrdom.
  • Prior to their untimely deaths, Jesus and Harvey Milk were both "nice Jewish boys."
Two new works for voice written by two contemporary American composers, commissioned by two leading Bay area arts organizations to be performed in two theatres located two blocks away from each other.  While that might prove to be just too (two) much for some people to handle, the occasion presented music lovers with a rare opportunity to think about how we approach an important new work of musical theatre.
  • Do we take into account its political relevance and cultural timeliness?
  • Do we consider the community involvement that helped raise money to pay for the commission and performance of the new work?
  • Do we take note of educational outreach community events that were done for each new work prior to its premiere?
  • Do we measure each work's success by its artistic aspirations, the reaction of its audience, or its future stageworthiness?
No matter what lens one uses to compare these works it's crystal clear that one has a bright future ahead of it while the other does not. As usual, a great deal of the explanation can be found in their two most important ingredients: the words and the music.

* * * * * * * * *
First, some important disclaimers are in order.
  • I'm an atheist. While I may occasionally have a spiritual moment, my life and worldview have not been shaped by organized religion.
  • As a secular Jew, I was not the least bit titillated by Mark Adamo's use of the word "mamzer" in his libretto.
  • While I have not "come to know" Jesus, I did know Harvey Milk (who wrote the political column in the Bay Area Reporter when I started writing my opera column there).
  • Although some people can become deeply immersed in scholarly debate about religious hypotheticals (like how many angels can fit on the head of a pin), I have yet to see such mental masturbation transformed into a gripping piece of musical theatre. Although a man seated in front of me during the performance I attended of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene was rocking back and forth in exultation at some lines in the libretto, my reaction leaned more toward one of Nancy Pelosi's finer moments.

Performed on a unit set that was pragmatically designed by David Korins and effectively lit by Christopher Maravich, Adamo's opera takes place in two radically different historical periods. One is a modern day archaeological dig in the Holy Land; the other is the same site during Biblical times.

Mary Magdalene (Sasha Cooke) with Yeshua (Nathan Gunn)
in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Kevin Newbury's direction (particularly with regard to the chorus) often made it difficult to follow any kind of cohesive narrative. Nor was there any way to ignore the fact that Act I is a long, hard slog through a musical score that may be intellectually strong from a compositional standpoint, but does not offer much satisfaction in theatrical terms. Adamo wrote in his program note:
"In this piece, themes supporting the language of losing and finding oneself, of knowing and telling, of forsaking and being forsaken, and of being 'part of a design,' bring us, I hope, as close to the core of the drama as the words do. And in this opera, too, the music’s soul is the vocal line -- focused and refracted, but never dominated, by the orchestra that upholds it -- while the silence against which that line is sung is never far from my mind’s ear. (Were I a painter, I would use acres of white space.) But never has my simple music been simpler, nor my dense music been denser, than in this score.

In The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, a confession murmurs over only a pair of quiet woodwinds, then thickens into an anguished, grinding orchestral polychord. A postlude for mezzo-soprano and baritone unfurls against a string texture so diaphanous, and made so ambiguous by disjunct harp and piano figures, that it seems less a harmony than a timbre. Then, four scenes later, the chorus stacks up the tones of its savage incantations into clusters of granitic solidity. I believe the drama demanded this textural range. I thought the surging, restless sounds over which Mary Magdalene first sings of the blessedness of erotic love needed to feel drastically different from the hovering sonorities, burgeoning from a single tone, that illuminate the anointment monologue she sings much later in the score. But I spun both textures from comparable triads. Similarly, the two sermon scenes, one baleful, one open-hearted, obviously needed distinct harmonic colors. But both required an immediacy of melodic address, that, precisely because it implied preaching to a multitude, couldn’t be further removed from the oblique dissonances, in dry, offbeat accents, with which one character, in private council, excoriates another for betraying a cause in which they both believe."

While that all sounds great in theory, it did nothing to make me care about any of the characters in Adamo's opera. Unfortunately, there are times during many opera performances when a fierce combination of boredom and disinterest leads to bad thoughts.

After listening to Yeshua (Nathan Gunn) repeatedly implore Mary (Sasha Cooke) to "Look at me," I found myself wishing she would shrug her shoulders and sing "Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee." In moments when Adamo's opera fails to exert a dramatic grip on its audience, it becomes remarkably easy to see Yeshua's mother, Miriam (Maria Kanyova), as the original meddling Jewish mother.

Sasha Cooke as Mary Magdalene (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Despite the strong work of conductor Michael Christie and costume designer Constance Hoffman, much of Adamo's opera underwhelms. Where it does succeed is in creating a wonderful new role for a mezzo-soprano (a rarity these days) which, when blessed with Sasha Cooke's powerfully expressive voice and radiant performance, can occasionally lift this opera from its doldrums. There is no doubt in my mind that Adamo's second act is a much stronger piece of writing.

Whether or not The Gospel of Mary Magdalene has much of a future remains to be seen. Because the production costs of this world premiere were not shared with any other opera companies (to my knowledge, no performances are scheduled beyond the San Francisco run), I don't expect it to receive productions from many opera companies.

However, in May, the San Francisco Opera signed an agreement with Euroarts Music International for television and home DVD distribution of productions that have been recorded in high definition (HD) format. In the meantime, here's the trailer:

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Where Adamo's opera fizzles, Andrew Lippa's hour-long oratorio, I Am Harvey Milk, sizzles. This new work (a co-commission with the Atlanta Gay Men's Chorus, Dayton Gay Men's Chorus, Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles, Heartland Men's Chorus, Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus, and Vancouver Men's Chorus) also struts, sasses, soars, and comes close to breaking hearts before reaching the kind of rousing climax ("Tired of the Silence") that brings an audience to its feet roaring with approval.

Members of the San Francisco Gay Men's chorus

As most people know, Harvey Milk loved a circus. He would have certainly loved the media circus that took place just prior to this world premiere with the United States Supreme Court invalidating Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act and his beloved City Hall bathed in rainbow lighting. One can rest assured that Harvey would have been thrilled with Andrew Lazarow's timely (almost up-to-the-minute) video and projection design and would have laughed his head off at music director Tim Seelig's hilarious podium speech explaining why there were no toilets available in the newly-refurbished 1600-seat Nourse Theater.

Lippa's 12-movement oratorio begins with young Harvey Milk (Noah Marlowe) as an 11-year-old boy discovering his sexuality while wrestling with a mother (Laura Benanti) who's not exactly sure she wouldn't have better off without having given birth to him. Accompanied by a scratchy recording of Puccini's La Bohème, the opening number ("An Operatic Masterpiece") pays tribute to Harvey's future as a devoted opera queen.

Composer Andrew Lippa performing I Am Harvey Milk with
the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus (Photo by: Glenn Steiner)

Although Lippa's libretto does not follow Milk's life in chronological order, each movement is headlined "I AM" and devoted to one of the months of Milk's short-lived tenure on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Some movements may shock ("I Am The Bullet," "Sticks and Stones") while others capture the growing political momentum of the 1970s and the impetus for Milk's early achievements ("A Decent Society," "Lavender Pen."). No musical number was composed to celebrate Milk's famous piece of "Pooper Scooper" legislation.

Accompanied by the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (with excellent orchestrations by August Erksmoen), Lippa's score covers a broad range of musical styles from hushed crooning to Benanti's near-operatic solo ("Was I Wrong?"); from the boisterous beat of the disco era ("Friday Night In the Castro") to the full force of several hundred stout-hearted men raising their voices in song. In addition to a poignant tribute to the city of San Francisco, "Thank You, Mrs. Rosenblat" offers a tender nod to the teacher who pushed Milk to study harder.

Gay activist Cleve Jones addresses the audience
(Photo by: Glenn Steiner)

Prior to the premiere, Cleve Jones gave a moving speech in which he recalled how, as he held Milk's bleeding body, he was convinced the struggle for gay rights had ended on that horrible morning. With that evening's candlelight march from the Castro District to the steps of City Hall, Jones realized that the LGBT movement had taken on new life.

Lippa's full-blooded performance as the adult Harvey Milk was authentic, deeply moving, and inspiring from start to finish (the composer hopes to be able to perform I Am Harvey Milk in New York City and at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. at some point in the future). I have no doubt that this powerful piece of musical theatre will enjoy a long life and be performed in cities all over the world. Here's the trailer:

Friday, June 28, 2013

Your Cheatin' Heart

Some men are luckier in life than in love. Whether they become top athletes, matinee idols, or wartime heroes their trust in the goodness of people makes them loyal to a fault. Like big old dogs that can't stop wagging their tails with excitement once they see (or smell) a familiar face, these guys cling to idealistic fantasies about the women in their lives.

Alas, mothers and lovers are rarely as perfect as their men would like to imagine. Temptation rears its head at every turn (whether in the form of a new dress, some luscious chocolate, a hot stud, or the opportunity to don a new dress to impress a hot stud who arrives with some luscious chocolate).

Sometimes fantasies become reality and a woman is forced to make tough choices. At other times, she can have it all. As Mae West boasted in 1978's Sextette: "I'm the kinda girl who works for Paramount by day, and Fox all night."

How much should any man risk on a woman's desire for monogamy? From Mozart to Hitchcock, some stunning examples of spousal infidelity were on display this month in San Francisco.

* * * * * * * * *
As part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's weekend devoted to the nine silent films made by Alfred Hitchcock, audiences were treated to two movies in which love triangles provided the dramatic conflict. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who made the mistake of thinking that the title of 1927's The Ring (Hitchcock's fourth film) referred to the boxing ring in which two pugilists (Carl Brisson and Ian Hunter) vied for the attention of a polyamorous woman named Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis).

The only original screenplay that Hitchcock wrote in his career, The Ring is actually about the jewelry Mabel wears to indicate the object of her affection. If it's a small ring worn on one of her fingers, she's thinking of "One-Round" Jack Sander.  If it's the snake-like bracelet given to her by Sander's rival, she's thinking of Bob Corby,

Some of the scenes at the fairgrounds (built especially for this movie) show Hitchcock experimenting with various camera angles and techniques. Others are masters of suspense.

In The Ring, the two boxers are cursed by their competitiveness and the fact that they are in love with the same woman. Gordon Harker (the character actor seen getting drunk in the middle clip) plays Jack's trainer with the sad gruffness of a man who never really had a chance to shine.

This screening was accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, a favorite of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. While the plot is quite straightforward, Hitchcock's skill at building moments of suspense and jealousy is obvious from the start.

* * * * * * * * *
Brisson (whose son, Frederick, married Rosalind Russell) also starred in 1929's The Manxman as Peter Quilliam, the good-natured, dumb hunk who pledges to his best friend from school, Philip Christian (Malcolm Keen), that they will remain friends for life and always look out for each other's best interests. Unfortunately, both men fall in love with Kate Creegan (Anny Ondra).

What makes the plot of The Manxman so curious is that there is no real villain. Peter is a hard worker who realizes that, unless he goes away and makes a fortune, he will always be a poor fisherman to Kate's father (who refuses to let them marry). In a puppy-love kind of way, he extracts a promise from Kate that she will wait for him to return. However, Kate is already in love with Peter's best friend, Philip, who is now studying to be a lawyer in hopes of becoming a judge. Needless to say, Philip is torn between his affection for Kate and his professional conscience.

Then something remarkable happens. Word reaches their village on the Isle of Man that Peter has drowned in Africa. Kate and Philip are finally free to love each other and plan to marry. But when Peter returns to town (very much alive), he is eager to claim his bride and have Philip be the best man at his wedding.

Poster art for The Manxman

There's good reason for Kate to feel upset (she's carrying Philip's child) and if that fact couldn't kill Peter's spirit, there's more betrayal in store. This screening was accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano, flute, and accordion, and Diana Rowan on Celtic harp.  You can watch the complete version of The Manxman (without sound) in the following clip. While there isn't much in the way of intertitles, the film reaffirms Norma Desmond's statement that "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"

* * * * * * * * *
Which is worse? To discover that your lover has been unfaithful or to have bet money on her faithfulness and then had to stand by and watch as your best friend seduces her?  This month the San Francisco Opera revived its 2005 production of Cosi Fan Tutte (a joint venture with the Opéra de Monte Carlo). First performed in 1790 (barely two years before Mozart's death), this opera has always been a model of structural balance and style. With a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte (who was 51 at the time of the premiere), its plot is a work of remarkable maturity.

Did you know that, after becoming a naturalized American citizen in 1833, at the age of 84 da Ponte founded the New York Opera Company (the first opera house in the United States)?  Hell's bells, neither did I!

Despina (Susannah Biller) and Dorabella (Christel  Lotzsch) compare
their opinions on men in Cosi Fan Tutte (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Although purists may react strongly to one of Christopher Bergen's supertitles (when Don Alfonso tries to enlist Despina's cooperation in introducing the "new" Ferrando and Guglielmo to Fiordiligi and Dorabella, she asks "Are they well endowed?"), the production (devised by John Cox and staged this time by Jose Maria Condemi) remains solid. Although the action has been updated to a Mediterranean resort town in 1914, conductor Nicola Luisotti notes that:
"Così is a story of our weaknesses and the choices we make, especially when we are young and presented with new opportunities. It’s human nature to be drawn to exploring these opportunities (often without thinking about the outcomes). We’re doing something new with the accompaniments to the recitatives. Fiordiligi and Dorabella are really baroque characters whose music is florid and ornamented. They will be accompanied by a theorbo, a kind of baroque guitar. Despina and Don Alfonso are characters firmly set in the 18th century, the present time of the opera. They will be accompanied by the traditional continuo, harpsichord, and cello. Guglielmo and Ferrando are already living in the future, so they will be accompanied by a fortepiano (an instrument popular in the 19th century). I think this will highlight the characters’ qualities and circumstances."
Sisters Dorabella (Christel Lotzsch) and Fiordiligi (Ellie Dehn) plan
to indulge themselves in Cosi Fan Tutte (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Designed by Robert Perdziola, the San Francisco Opera's production of Cosi Fan Tutte neatly stresses the symmetrical structure of da Ponte's libretto and Mozart's score. Luisotti kept a tight rein on the proceedings, eliciting some beautiful work from Philippe Sly (Guglielmo), Francesco Demuro (Ferrando), Ellie Dehn (Fiordiligi) and Christel Lotzsch (Dorabella) as the impassioned -- albeit naive -- lovers. Marco Vinco (Don Alfonso) and Susannah Biller (Despina) helped engineer the comic moments onstage. Here's the trailer:

Monday, June 24, 2013

Two's Company, Three's A Crowd

For writers attempting to build a plot upon a love triangle, the introductory stages of "Getting to Know (Blow) You" are easy. It's later, when familiarity breeds contempt, that things get really messy.

It doesn't matter how a third person gets ensnared in a couple's relationship problems. Once lust fades and is replaced by languor (or leads to lashing out) it becomes clear that one person must be removed from a toxic environment in order for it to regain any semblance of equilibrium.

But where to start? Where to start?

Wade Gasque's 15-minute short, Housebroken, shows what happens when infinite idealism gets crushed by a predatory couple who initially view their guest as the perfect distraction from the problems straining their relationship.  As Gasque notes: "Relationships are tricky. When we’re not in one, we can start to feel worthless and view every couple we meet with envy. On the flip side, anyone in a long-term relationship can attest to that yearning for the fun, simple days of single life."

When Paul (Mark Strano) arrives in Los Angeles from the East Coast hoping to couch surf at the apartment of Dean (Justin Schollard) and Danni (Carrie Keranen) it seems as if he's landed in heaven. Not only are his hosts all cute and cuddly, they seem genuinely interested in helping him find with a job and make solid connections.

Justin Schollard, Mark Strano, and Carrie Keranen in Housebroken

It doesn't take long for Paul to find himself caught between their jealous accusations, temper tantrums, and volatile insecurities. Only at the end of the film, when Paul manages to disentangle himself from this dysfunctional couple, does he look at a previously-ignored text message from a friend who warned "Dude, whatever happens, DO NOT have sex with D&D!"

Perhaps Housebroken's depiction of a disintegrating menage-a-trois should have been titled "Thruple, Thruple, Toil and Trouble." As conventional wisdom warns: "A thruple may provide twice as much sex, but comes with six times as much emotional baggage."

* * * * * * * * *
Paul's loss of innocence seems like child's play compared to the machinations and power plays on display in Neil LaBute's 2005 dramedy, This Is How It Goes (which is currently being staged by the Aurora Theatre Company). As the show's director, Tom Ross, explains:
"Frequently referred to as the bad boy of contemporary theatre, LaBute has written this play to get under your skin. This is Neil LaBute unfiltered; a moralist who confronts our darkest behavior. I think This Is How It Goes is one of his most controversial plays. Although we all pat ourselves on the back that we live in a liberal enclave, racism does happen, and we can't just push it under the rug. This play has a fantastical role for an African-American actor and really pushes the audience's buttons in the way it confronts racism." 
Belinda (Carrie Paff) and Cody (Aldo Billingslea) are an interracial
couple in This Is How It Goes (Photo by: David Allen)

LaBute's script involves three adults who attended high school together in a small Midwestern town.
  • Cody (Aldo Billingslea) is an African-American businessman with a type A personality, a short temper, and an extremely competitive streak. A former high school jock who has evolved into a dominating control freak, he's what playwright Jon Robin Baitz describes as a typical LaBute-style bully: "a scared, fucked-up little child out to fight old wars long forgotten."
  • Belinda (Carrie Paff) is Cody's very white wife, who admits that she married him so that she could piss off her parents and so that people would pay attention to her. With two kids, however, their marriage has soured. Tired of her husband's continued putdowns, Belinda is constantly cringing in dread of domestic violence.
  • The Man (Gabriel Marin) is an old classmate who has returned to town after a failed attempt to build a career as a lawyer. In high school, he weighed a lot more, was known for cracking jokes, was bullied by Cody, and fell madly in love with Belinda. When he runs into the woman of his dreams near a strip mall at the beginning of the play and nervously makes plans to meet up again to rehash old times, he demonstrates a life-long propensity for putting his foot in his mouth.
Gabriel Marin and Carrie Paff in This Is How It Goes
Photo by: David Allen)

The Man also has problems telling the truth, often choosing to narrate his story through a rather self-serving perspective. LaBute (who claims to have been abused as a child) credits his father for teaching him the power words have to hurt other people. During his college years, the playwright converted to Mormonism. However, after writing a set of controversial monologues  (Bash: Latter-Day Plays) in which Mormon characters were portrayed as murderers, he was "disfellowshipped" by the Church of Latter Day Saints and no longer considers himself a Mormon. As he explains:
"It's part of my makeup to ruin a perfectly good day for people. I think that people are very driven by self-preservation and find it extremely difficult to live with other people, to maintain friendships, and to be honest. If it's slightly easier to get away with something, then they'll give it a shot. Humans find it so easy to just slide by, to take the road that's slightly easier, to make the choice that's just a bit more selfish or self-serving. To be able to create those characters, I have to be able to inhabit them. What interests me is to try and understand that person. It's not the racism joke that interests me so much as how they justify it. That fascinates me: What people do to live with themselves and what they've done.

I feel I have a kind of bravado in my writing that I don't have in life. I write things on a page that I don't want to have to deal with in life. Writing is a safe vacuum for me because I'm not saying those horrible things to someone's face. On the page, I can always find the great retort that doesn't come to me at the right moment in life.  But I always keep an eye on the pretty guy who can hurt me. Being pretty can bring out the worst in people. Pretty guys have this glow -- no matter how bad they are, people keep going back to them."
Gabriel Marin and Aldo Billingslea in
This Is How It Goes (Photo by: David Allen)

Because LaBute's play is so intricately plotted and deals with the racism one expects to find in a small town, I'll refrain from giving away any of the surprises the playwright throws in the audience's face. Let's just say that, having seen this play at the end of the day in which the media couldn't stop talking about Paula Deen's history of racist remarks, This Is How It Goes delivers a walloping dramatic punch. And, for what it's worth, its narrator also delivers a great dick joke.

Beautifully directed by Tom Ross with stunning performances by Aldo Billingslea, Carrie Paff, and Gabriel Marin (who seems to have developed a strong suit for portraying goofy schlemiels), LaBute's play offers audiences a 90-minute roller coaster ride between smugness and doubt, between jealousy and fear. This is the kind of play wherein caustic accusations fly as freely and fiercely as in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the children remain safely offstage.

Aldo Billingslea as Cody in This Is How It Goes
(Photo by: David Allen)

Performances of This Is How It Goes continue through July 21st at the Aurora Theatre Company (click here to order tickets). Be warned: this ain't no  Neil Simon comedy!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Well, Well, Hello, Dolly!

Do girls weave totally different fantasy lives than boys while playing with dolls?  Do lesbians create totally different fantasy worlds than straight women when playing with dolls?

The answer to these questions (and so many, many more) become apparent while watching The Altered Lives of LaVonne Salleé, a bizarrely entertaining short film that begins as the camera focuses on a woman walking two Yorkshire terriers down the street.  What makes her dogs stand out? The Barbie dolls riding astride them like cowgirls.

Artist LaVonne Salleé 

Salleé always had artistic leanings. She just hadn't found her specialty until 2007, when a walk down Market Street in San Francisco led her into an art gallery hosting the Fifth Annual Altered Barbie Show. As she explains on her website:
"I was born in Roswell, New Mexico on January 18, 1946. I was one year old when the Aliens landed there. Rumor has it that, when they crashed, their spirits left their bodies and entered the bodies of the babies in the area. Growing up, I showed creative and artistic abilities but was discouraged in regard to making a profession out of my artwork. At that time (the 1960s), being an artist was thought to be reserved for hippies, bohemians, and people who were not serious about financial security and did not have their priorities in order. I was taught that what other people expected of me, thought of me, and felt about me, was more important than what I thought and felt about myself or what I wanted for myself. So I did all the things I thought would gain the approval of those I wanted to impress. I worked for Corporate America. I earned the titles of Manager, Assistant Vice President, and Criminal Investigator. I retired in 2002 after 25 years."
LaVonne Salleé's version of The Evolution of Man
"I have no particular connection with Barbie. I did not have one when I was a kid and had no desire for one. I am not affiliated with any of the doll makers or the makers of the props or accessories I put in my pieces. I use these objects as my canvas. I love the idea of using recycled materials for my work. Not only can I paint, work with clay and plaster, I can also do her makeup, hairdo, make clothes, cut in pieces and chop, slice and dice her. I am never bored with Barbie."

Whether creating mock scenes like "Barbie's Last Sleepover" or "Barbie Gets A Colonoscopy," Salleé has learned to accept the words "You're really sick!" as a compliment. She still marvels that, when people see her sculpture (based on Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) entitled "God Gives a Condom to Adam," she'll hear questions about why the Barbie equivalent of Adam isn't circumcised.

Six years after Salleé found her artistic calling, she has become an established presence in the Altered Barbie subculture. For those who can't make it to Frameline's screening of The Altered Lives of LaVonne Salleé, the following slide show offers more samples of her work:

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Whenever one talks about dolls and opera, it's impossible not to think of Jacques Offenbach's opera, The Tales of Hoffmann (which had its world premiere at the Opera Comique on February 10, 1881). This month the San Francisco Opera (in a co-production with the Barcelona Gran Teatre del Liceu) presented a new staging of Offenbach's opera directed by Laurent Pelly and designed by Chantal Thomas (with costumes designed by Pelly). In explaining why the work of Flemish symbolist painter Léon Spilliaert was such a strong source of inspiration, Pelly writes:
"The association between the worlds of E.T.A. Hoffmann [the German romantic writer whose short stories inspired the opera] and Léon Spilliaert was immediately obvious to me. A realistic fantasy and mystery within everyday life can be found in the painter’s work of his central period, as with Hoffmann’s works. All of Spilliaert’s work seems to show a banal interior, animated by a disturbing magic. Through the eyes of the artist, every object, every piece of furniture, each colored wall takes the viewer into a deep and mysterious realm, transforming reality into something strange and surreal. It’s a traditional environment inhabited by shadows and secrets. We have chosen to take this fascinating world as the inspiration for the design of our production and create a space that comes from the imagination of the poet. A world both real and dreamlike, and a device that moves us from one story to another -- a reality both in the theater as well as in the foolishness of Hoffmann. The staging is not designed to be a decorative piece, but as a tool for mobile storytelling.

It is the combination of two geniuses: the poetical and fantastical world of E.T.A. Hoffmann combined with the musical inventiveness of Jacques Offenbach. It is the madness of a poet and the dream of a composer; an extravagant work that one can never completely circumnavigate, which successfully joins the grotesque and the sublime. While Offenbach never forgets the humor, he brings a dark, fatal dimension. In his quest for the absolute and ideal female to the adventures of the poet Hoffmann, Offenbach mixes exhilaration with the macabre, popular melodies with intense lyricism. Les Contes d’Hoffmann represents four eras in the emotional life of a man, four stories that together make a unique opera, a masterpiece of French romanticism, and a labyrinth of dizziness and lightness."

Although a bass-baritone usually sings all four villains (and one soprano may occasionally sing all four heroines), in most productions of Offenbach's opera it is the doll, Olympia, who makes the strongest impression on an audience. Not only does Olympia have to sing -- and act -- one of the most challenging coloratura arias ever written, her scene offers delicious challenges for any production's creative team.

Hye Jung Lee as the doll Olympia iwith Matthew Polenzani as
the Poet in The Tales of Hoffmann (Photo by Cory Weaver)

I tip my hat to Chantal Thomas for coming up with a brilliant idea with which to keep soprano Hye Jung Lee mystifyingly on the move while astonishing audiences with her aerial prowess. The trick employs a combination of Joël Adam's strategic lighting with the use of an old-fashioned cine jib (the kind of crane fitted with a bucket seat that allows a film director to rise above the action on a sound stage).

A modern cine jib

Although the first act was tough to beat, soprano Natalie Dessay's intense Act II portrayal of Antonia rested on solid vocal and dramatic techniques (Antonia's death scene was performed with a rare poignancy).

What I found so unusual about this production was the way its creative team had been able to make the scenery "dance" in such a way as to make the characters appear to be living in a cinematic environment. Using modern technologies ranging from Olympia's in-line skates to live video projection of Margaret Mezzacappa as the ghost of Antonia's mother; from standard magician's fire tricks to a live, split-screen video projection that makes it seem as if Hoffmann has lost his reflection in a mirror, this production uses some wonderful stagecraft to entertain its audience.

Natalie Dessay (Antonia) and her father, Crespell (James Creswell)
in The Tales of Hoffmann (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Underlying it all is some solid musical preparation by conductor Patrick Fournillier and chorus director Ian Robertson. Of course, the poet Hoffmann is perpetually drunk. The tales he relates to his drinking buddies about his encounters with Olympia, Antonia, and the courtesan, Giulietta (Irene Roberts) are all figments of his imagination. This makes it easier for a stage director to paint comic characters like Frantz, Andres, Cochenille, and Pittichinaccio (all portrayed by Steven Cole) with the broadest of strokes.

Matthew Polenzani was in fine voice as Hoffmann, while Natalie Dessay's Antonia and Hye Jung Lee's Olympia had the audience cheering. The four villains (Coppélius, Dapertutto, Dr. Miracle, and Lindorf) were all powerfully sung by Christian Van Horn.  Angela Brower doubled as Hoffmann's Muse and Nicklausse, with Jacqueline Piccolino appearing in the final scene as Stella.

It's unfortunate that The Tales of Hoffmann is not performed more frequently in America, for Offenbach's score is chock full of musical riches. The following clip contains some highlights from this production:

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Artistic Treasures

Artists are complex creatures. In the early stages of their careers, what sets them apart from others is what can quickly draw attention to them. That includes their passion, personality, and physique (to say nothing of  their youthful idealism, their seductive qualities, and the simple shock of the potential demonstrated by their raw talent). Unfortunately, not all artists are long distance runners.
  • Some turn out to be one-trick ponies while others strengthen their careers by diversifying their appearances and experimenting with new forms of expression.
  • Some find their horizons limited by changing technologies while others adapt to new media and new audiences.
  • Some leave the spotlight to raise a family while others are plagued by inner demons and may succumb to substance abuse.
Careers marked by their longevity are extremely rare. Bay area audiences recently had a chance to revisit two artists hailed far and wide for having made substantial contributions to popular culture. One (though long dead) was seen in the early stages of a career that helped to define certain aspects of cinema. The other, in the twilight of her career, gave a poignant demonstration of what it means to carry on carrying on.

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Born on August 13, 1899, Alfred Hitchcock's filmography is the stuff of which legends are made.  The San Francisco Silent Film Festival recently presented a weekend-long buffet of nine silent films directed by Hitchcock between 1925 and 1929.

You didn't know Alfred Hitchcock made silent films? Neither did I.

Hitchcock's debut as director of a full-length feature film took place with the 1925 release of The Pleasure Garden. Although based on a novel by Oliver Sandys (the pseudonym for Marguerite Florence Laura Jervis) and shot in Italy and Germany, the film was a financial flop.

The Pleasure Garden focuses on the the shaky lives of two chorus girls working at London's Pleasure Garden Theatre. Patsy Brand (Virginia Valli) is the good-hearted chorine who offers a helping hand when Jill Cheyne (Carmelita Geraghty) arrives in London with high hopes of becoming a performer but quickly gets introduced to the hard facts of life in the big city.

Exuding delusions of grandeur, Jill bluffs her way into a featured role and introduces Patsy to Jill's handsome fiancé, Hugh Fielding (John Stuart).  Hugh, in turn, introduces Patsy to his rail-thin colleague, Levet (Miles Mander). After Patsy and Levet get married and honeymoon in Italy, she returns home to London while he goes off to join Hugh working somewhere in Africa for their employer.

Virginia Valli as Patsy Brand in The Pleasure Garden

It doesn't take long for Jill to set her sights on a wealthy Russian named Prince Ivan (Karl Falkenberg). When a letter arrives from Levet explaining that he has been ill, Patsy heads off to Africa to take care of her husband. Upon discovering that Levet is involved with a native girl, her marriage crumbles, her husband murders his mistress, and Patsy finally finds happiness in Hugh's once-again-healthy arms.

The British Film Institute has digitally restored Hitchcock's first feature film with loving care and attention to detail. His wit shines through in telling moments and, with accompaniment by the multitalented Stephen Horne on piano, accordion, and flute, the screening offered flashes of the cinematic genius that was then in its earliest stages of development. You can watch The Pleasure Garden (fully restored) in the following clip:

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The past nine months have witnessed tectonic shifts in the local landscape of performance venues catering to jazz and cabaret artists. Last fall, the management of The Razz Room lost its lease at the Hotel Nikko, prompting a frantic search for a new venue. Live At the Rrazz had a brief run at the old Don Lee Building at 1000 Van Ness Avenue which came to an abrupt end over permit issues. The club's owners (Robert Kotonly and Rory Paull) were suddenly forced out of business.

On January 23, the new San Francisco Jazz Center at 201 Franklin Street opened for business. Soon afterward, Michael Feinstein announced plans to take over the Hotel Nikko's nightclub space. Feinstein's at the Nikko opened in early May amid speculation that its management may have overestimated what Bay area audience were willing to pay for entertainment. On June 13, the hotel's General Manager, Anna Marie Presutti, issued the following statement:
"Since opening Feinstein’s at the Nikko in early May, we have received comments and suggestions regarding the $30 food and beverage credit that was added to the price of each ticket. We wanted to let you know that we have listened to your feedback. Effective immediately, there will now be a $20 food and beverage minimum per person inside the showroom which guests can use towards cocktails as well as a variety of small plates crafted exclusively for Feinstein’s at the Nikko by Executive Chef Philippe Striffeler, through Restaurant Anzu." 
Barbara Cook with fellow 2011 Kennedy Center Honorees
Yo-Yo Ma, Meryl Streep, Neil Diamond, and Sonny Rollins

Pricing issues and the lack of a solid database of loyal local patrons may account for the half-empty room on June 19 (the opening night of Barbara Cook's return to the same venue in which she had performed in August 2012).  Noticeably absent was the effusive and primarily gay segment of the audience which attends many of Cook's Bay area appearances.

An artist who is much beloved for her musicianship, personal warmth, and solid contributions to the art of interpreting the Great American Songbook, it was Barbara Cook who introduced such songs as "Glitter and Be Gay" (from 1956's Candide), "Till There Was You" (from 1957's The Music Man), "Ice Cream" (from 1963's She Loves Me!), and "Better All The Time" (from 1964's Something More!). Here she is with Alfred Drake in a 1957 made-for-television production of Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta, The Yeoman of the Guard.

During her 75-minute set Cook performed many of the songs she sang here last summer in her "Let's Fall In Love" show. From Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You” to the Dan Hicks classic, “I Don’t Want Love”; from “Georgia On My Mind” to “Makin’ Whoopee” (a song made popular by Eddie Cantor in 1928) her intelligence and musicianship never faltered.

In her show, Cook poured her heart into Ram Ramirez’s "Lover Man” and Ben Oakland’s “If I Love Again.” An avowed fan of YouTube, she described how thrilling it has been to rediscover old songs on the Internet. Explaining that "Lover Man" had been written in 1941 for Billie Holliday and recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, she seemed amazed that, at this late stage of her career, she had finally gotten up the courage to sing it herself and urged everyone to watch Ella Fitzgerald sing this song on YouTube when they returned home after the show.

Blessed with some great arrangements by Ted Rosenthal and Lee Musiker, Cook’s artistry links the world weariness of “House of the Rising Sun” with “Bye Bye Blackbird” through a stark dramatic explanation that offers a surprising contrast to her sentimental confessions about how she likes to use stuffed animals as pillows. Ending her performance with the purest and simplest rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” one is ever likely to hear, the 85-year-old singer seemed a bit more frail and wistful than usual. Her heartfelt rendition of "Here's To Life" (written by Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary) was one of the evening's emotional highlights.

Singer Barbara Cook