Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Home Is Where The Heart Was (A Long Time Ago)

Childhood memories of the homes in which we grew up can become distorted over time. What once seemed idyllic may, in retrospect, help us understand how bad news was kept from us so that, despite events like the Holocaust, we could develop a positive outlook on the world. Looking back can also lead to a greater awareness of what might have caused some of us to evolve into dysfunctional adults.

The famous abolitionistFrederick Douglass, claimed that "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." Current memes floating around the Internet include statements such as:
It's rare that one gets to witness the contrast between a happy household viewed nostalgically through an adult's eyes and the collapse of an unhappy household in back-to-back performances. When these two scenarios (heavily laden with fantasy) are set to music, audiences become more keenly attuned to the challenge of composing a score that will provide a solid foundation for what's transpiring onstage.

Will there be an even balance between the audience's aural and visual experiences? Or must one necessarily trump the other?

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For the final production of its 2015 fall season, the San Francisco Opera's leadership opted to think waaaaaay outside the box by offering its audience a double bill of two works based on Edgar Allen Poe's famous short story, The Fall of the House of Usher. The evening opened with the American premiere of Gordon Getty's one-act opera, Usher House, and closed with La Chute de la Maison Usher (music and libretto by Claude Debussy reconstructed and orchestrated by Robert Orledge) in a co-production with the Welsh National Opera that was first staged by David Pountney in Cardiff in 2014. As General Director David Gockley explains:

To stress how far opera production styles have progressed from a dramatic stage presentation surrounded by painted drops to a cinematic type of experience, it's safe to say that this double bill was an evening in which audiences left the opera house whistling the projections.

I do not mean that in a derogatory manner. Between filmed projection and digital mapping, today's state-of-the-art technology and stagecraft allow audiences to experience music well-suited to guiding them through a slowly paced musical nightmare framed in a rich visual format. The following stills (taken from David Haneke's projections for Usher House) show how easily a dramatic scene might be depicted onstage without having to build three-dimensional sets.

A raven taunts Edgar Allen Poe (Jason Bridges) in the
opening scene of Usher House (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

A scene from Gordon Getty’s Usher House (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

A scene from Gordon Getty’s Usher House (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

Edgar Allen Poe (Jason Bridges) with Madeline Usher (Jamielyn
Duggan) in a scene from Usher House (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Doctor Primus (Anthony Reed) in a scene from Usher House
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Edgar Allen Poe (Jason Bridges) and Roderick Usher (Brian Mulligan)
in a scene from Usher House (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

A scene from Gordon Getty’s Usher House (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

A scene from Gordon Getty’s Usher House (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

Edgar Allen Poe (Jason Bridges) kneels outside the
doomed edifice of Usher House (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

In the following clip, Daniel Knapp (San Francisco Opera's Director of Production) explains how projected images evolve in front of the audience with the use of only three scrims.

What happens when animation is added to the mix? The audience is drawn into a more cinematic, psychological, and often dream-like style of storytelling perfectly suited to characters plagued with paranoia or who are descending into madness. Whether it feels as if the audience is being taken on a virtual tour of a decrepit gothic mansion or an acid trip, the visuals quickly assert their dominance over the music.

When discussing musical theatre, people often ask which comes first: the music or the lyrics. But with the advantages of digital mapping and today's projection techniques, perhaps the question that should really be asked is: Which is stronger? The visual or aural experience?

As I sat through this double bill by two composers from radically different eras and musical genres, I was struck by a curious thought: If one took away the music and simply depended on the titles and projections to tell the story, would it matter?

In the case of Gordon Getty, I think not. And, following the recent advice of U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson ("If you hear something, say something"), I can't help wondering if Getty is a much more talented orchestrator than operatic composer.

Throughout Usher House, it was obvious that although his ominous orchestrations helped to set the mood, Getty had trouble establishing any kind of interesting vocal line for a text that was often argumentative or declamatory. Toward the end of his one-act opera, he finally hit on a gimmick in which a performer sings several notes before jumping a fifth higher.

Had I not had a peculiar earworm haunting me from a skit entitled "She Doesn't Have The Range" that I had watched on YouTube earlier that week, I probably would not have connected the musical dots between those great British comedians (Matt Lucas and David Walliams) and the final scenes of Getty's opera.

The music held up much more strongly in Robert Orledge's completion of Debussy's score for The Fall of the House of Usher. I found Debussy's music infinitely more operatic, theatrical, and accessible than Getty's and could only marvel at conductor Lawrence Foster's ability to bring both scores to life. The following stills give a sense of the much more ominous approach to Poe's story taken in Debussy's one-act opera.

A scene from The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

A scene from The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

A scene from The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

A scene from The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

A scene from The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

The doctor (Joel Sorensen) with Roderick Usher (Brian Mulligan) in a
scene from The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Roderick Usher (Brian Mulligan) is dwarfed by architectural projections
in The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Brian Mulligan as Roderick Usher in a nightmarish scene from
The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Roderick Usher (Brian Mulligan) stares at the ghost of his sister,
Madeline (Jacqueline Piccolino) in a hallucinatory scene from
The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

A scene from The Fall of the House of Usher (Photo by: Stephen Cummiskey)

Without any doubt, the evening was a total triumph for baritone Brian Mulligan (who had already performed this season as Enrico in Donizetti's 1835 opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, as well as tackling the title role of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street). Here's some footage from the evening's double bill.

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As I entered the Orpheum Theatre for the opening night of the national touring production of A Christmas Story: The Musical, I had no idea that I would be battling two unexpected handicaps during the performance.
  • The shrill impact of a group of heavily amplified screaming adolescents onstage combined with the sleep deprivation resulting from a smoke detector whose alarm merrily chirped all night long in my apartment (because its battery was running low) made it difficult for me to stay alert and focused.
  • The fact that I had never seen the 1983 film upon which the musical is based further diminished my enjoyment.
Christian Dell'Edera as Flick inA Christmas Story: The Musical
(Photo by: Carol Rosegg) 

That's not to suggest to suggest there is anything wrong with A Christmas Story: The Musical, which has a book by Joseph Robinette with music and lyrics by the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The touring production is a faithful knockoff of the show that was directed on Broadway by John Rando and choreographed by Warren Carlyle. With Matt Lenz recreating Rando's staging (using sets designed by Walt Spangler and costumes by Lisa Zinni), there was much to delight an audience.

Chris Carsten led off as the show's narrator (Jean Shepherd), while the stars of the show included Myles Moore as young Ralphie, Joshua Turchin as his brother (Randy), Christopher Swan as "The Old Man," and Susannah Jones as Ralphie's mother. Although Avital Asuleen held center stage in the big number written for the boys' substitute teacher, Miss Shields ("You'll Shoot Your Eye Out"), I was much more impressed with the simple sweetness of the mother's solo, "Just Like That."

Daniel Smith enjoyed his moments as a crotchety Santa Claus and Charles Pang shone briefly as the waiter in a Chinese restaurant. However, the evening's professional scene stealers proved to be a young tap dancer named Seth Judice and the two Bumpus hounds (played by Hoss and Stella).

Set in suburban Indiana during the late 1940s (when all that nine-year-old Ralphie can think about is how badly he wants Santa Claus to bring him a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle), the production does a nice job of capturing an era when families ate dinner together and no one had the option of using handheld electronic devices to isolate themselves from friends and neighbors.
  • Boys did a splendid job of getting into trouble simply because they were boys,
  • Mothers had their work cut out for them according to strict gender roles.
  • Fathers could make utter fools of themselves without being totally humiliated by their families.
Christopher Swan as The Old Man in
A Christmas Story: The Musical (Photo by: Carol Rosegg)

While the family depicted in A Christmas Story: The Musical is a far cry from any of Norman Rockwell's paintings, it shares many moments of tenderness and dysfunctional behavior. The scene in which Randy (who has always refused to eat a full meal discovers the joys of Chinese food was a special delight for me.

Nevertheless, I must admit to having two sobering thoughts during the performance. In the second act, there is a scene of abject gun worship which felt downright creepy in light of recent mass shootings throughout America. And I couldn't help but wonder how the tone of A Christmas Story: The Musical might shift if Lewis Black had been cast as the show's narrator!

Susannah Jones, Christopher Swan, Cal Alexander, and
Colton Maurer in a scene from A Christmas Story: The Musical
(Photo by: Carol Rosegg)

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