Thursday, November 17, 2016

With All The Beauty of The Rainbow

From rainbow flags to rainbow coalitions, using the colors of the spectrum to symbolize the beauty of diversity has been a powerful way of framing a message. After all, rainbows have always been seen as a symbol of hope and good luck. Whether presented as a fractal, a mythical bridge for the gods to cross as they enter into Valhalla, or a dazzling display of reflections and refractions, rainbows rule!

The colors of the spectrum as they appear in a fractal

The entrance of the gods into Valhalla in Wagner's Das Rheingold
(Photo by: Ken Howard)

Colors of the spectrum on pieces of glass

From a political perspective, the colors of the spectrum have broadcast a message of welcome, inclusion, and support. On June 26, 2015 (the Friday before New York and San Francisco's LGBT Pride parades), the United States Supreme Court issued its groundbreaking ruling in the case of James Obergefell, et al., Petitioners v. Richard Hodges, Director, Ohio Department of Health, et al. The Obama administration celebrated the victory for LGBT rights by bathing the White House in rainbow-colored lights.

For many, the Supreme Court's decision was a moment that reinforced the words of 19th-century abolitionist, Theodore Parker. His phrase ("A democracy -- of all the people, by all the people, for all the people") was initially used in a speech in 1850 that influenced the crafting of the Gettysburg Address as it was delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863. Parker, however, is more famously remembered for the following quote:
"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. incorporated the sentence "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice" into his speech before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in August of 1967. It has been a cornerstone of President Barack Obama's administration.

June 26, 2015: The White House bathed in the colors of the rainbow

While rainbow tchotchkes have been marketed to gay consumers for many years, the City and County of San Francisco gives the rainbow its institutional backing whenever it bathes the War Memorial Opera House, City Hall, and San Francisco International Airport's main terminal in the colors of the spectrum as a show of support for LGBT rights and a welcome sign to arriving travelers.

San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House in rainbow colors

San Francisco City Hall in rainbow colors

San Francisco International Airport in rainbow colors

Plenty of songs have also been written about rainbows. While most people associate Judy Garland with Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen's legendary "Over The Rainbow" (which was written for 1939's film version of The Wizard of Oz), Garland can be seen in the following clip from 1941's Ziegfeld Girl singing "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows." The next two clips show Ella Logan recreating one of her big moments from 1947's Finian's Rainbow during a 1954 television appearance and Renata Scotto singing "Over the Rainbow"on October 27, 1980 during the New York City Opera's gala honoring Beverly Sills.

I mention these references to the colors of the spectrum because they are such clear reminders of the beauty that can be found in a rainbow; colors which surround us in nature on a daily basis. From the eerie beauty of the Aurora borealis to the tantalizing iridescence of an opal and the crystals hidden within a geode, there is much to marvel at -- especially when it feels as if the world is darkening all around us.

Two recent experiences (one onstage, the other onscreen) stand out for the sheer exuberance of their creative team's artistic vision. One unfolds its mysteries slowly, to a musical score more than a century old. The other is an unending rapid-fire series of brilliantly-colored vignettes and revelations -- some scary, some hysterically funny. In each case the music not only compliments the richness of the visual artistry, it amplifies its impact on the viewer.

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As a diehard fan of Nina Paley's beautifully animated feature film, Sita Sings The Blues (2008), I had no idea what to expect from The World of Goopi and Bagha (one of the entries screened at San Francisco's 2016 International "3rd i" South Asian Film Festival). The rewards were much more than I could have anticipated.

The stars of The World of Goopi and Bagha travel around India

Written by Rohit Gahlowt and Soumitra Ranade and directed by Shilpa Ranade, this delightful film (whose original title is Goopy Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya) explodes with color from start to finish. An anti-war film based on one of Satyajit Ray’s most beloved works, Ranade's adaptation premiered to great acclaim at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

The stars of The World of Goopi and Bagha hold up their magic shoes

Based on characters created Satyajit Ray's grandfather (Upendra Kishore Roychowdhury) that first appeared in 1915 in the Indian magazine Sandesh, its leads are two goofball musicians clad in bell-bottom pants whose level of idiocy is dangerously close to the cumulative intellect of Beavis and Butt-Head. In fact, Goopi and Bagha's music is so bad that it has gotten them banned from their respective villages (although, for some bizarre reason, it fascinates the fearsome King of Ghosts who is made up of tree bark and fire).

The King of Hundi gets outwitted in The World of Goopi and Bagha

The Ghost King happily grants the two musicians four magical boons. As in the original story, their first three boons enable Goopi and Bagha to:
  • Instantly receive food and clothing by simply clapping their hands (this becomes an especially handy gimmick after they are thrown in prison).
  • Acquire a pair of magic slippers which can transport them anywhere in the world in a flash (a keen way to fly a persecutor to a desert island and leave him there).
  • Stop people in their tracks with the magic of their music (whether or not anyone really wants to hear it). In its own way, this boon redefines the use of "shock and awe."
Magic is a potent force in The World of Goopi and Bagha

In a rare moment of forethought, the two musicians ask that the King of Ghosts allow them to determine the fourth boon at a future date, perhaps when they have a better idea of what they might want or need. As Goopi (a singer with a terrible voice) and Bagha (a drummer who drives people crazy) proceed to roam the Indian countryside, they attempt to find princesses who can become their brides.

The King of Hundi listens to his evil adviser in
a scene from The World of Goopi and Bagha

This misguided (and somewhat delusional) duo is also challenged to defuse a political crisis between two brothers who are rival kings. From his throne in the kingdom of Hundi, one brother lusts after power and revenge on his perceived enemies and is easily manipulated by an evil adviser. The other (the king of Shundi) is extremely fat and full of farts.

The King of Sundhi is fat and full of farts

Produced by the Children’s Film Society India, The World of Goopi and Bagha looks very different from a lot of Western animation. In the following interview, the filmmaker explains some of the challenges facing Indian animators who seek more opportunities in storytelling as opposed to providing back-end work on video games being produced for Western nations.

With a musical score composed by Narayan Parshuram for his group (3 Brothers and a Violin), Ranade's film contains music which reflects various parts of Indian culture. As framed by the filmmaker's vivid palette, its army of bejeweled warrior elephants, collection of insane ghosts, and two kings who look absolutely ridiculous truly dazzle the viewer's eyes (this is definitely a film to watch while stoned or tripping). Here's the trailer:

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In 2012, when the San Francisco Opera presented a new production of The Magic Flute that had been designed by Jun Kaneko, the artist's ability to use computer-generated imaging software as a tool for playing with light and color proved to be a breathtaking treat. Kaneko had already impressed audiences at Opera Omaha with a 2007 production of Madama Butterfly and at the Opera Company of Philadelphia with a 2008 production of Beethoven's Fidelio.

In June of 2014, when the San Francisco Opera presented Opera Omaha's production of Madama Butterfly, Kaneko's fresh and invigorating approach to the work charmed and disarmed the audience. The company revived the production this fall with a new cast of singers and some impressive results.

A scene from Act I of Puccini's Madama Butterfly
(Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

Upon entering the auditorium, the audience is greeted by a huge museum-like display of kimonos hanging above the stage like semaphore flags. Gone are the opera's traditional three-dimensional sets (which include a Japanese house, the surrounding trees, and the footbridge that Cio-Cio-San and her entourage must cross to reach the spot where her wedding will take place). Gone, as well, are Pinkerton's military uniforms, replaced by a rather jazzy set of civilian outfits.

Vincenzo Costanzo as Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton in
Puccini's Madama Butterfly (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

There are times when Kaneko's unit set resembles some of the productions designed and directed by Wieland Wagner decades ago. But, oh, what dramatic miracles Kaneko achieves with CGI animation. As the artist explains:
Madama Butterfly has been one of the most difficult challenges and one of the most exciting creative experiences I have had in my life. Maybe I was lucky that I did not have any prior knowledge of opera production because, if you have no idea, you have no fear. One of the most difficult aspects of the opera for a person more familiar with sculpture and painting (which do not traditionally move around during an exhibition) is that nothing stays the same. There is constant movement in the music, singers’ positions on the stage, and vivid lighting variations. All of these elements have to make great sense together in each moment of the performance.”
Soprano Lianna Haroutounian makes her entrance as Cio-Cio-San in
a scene from Puccini's Madama Butterfly (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
“Shortly after I started to develop the costumes, I realized that working on the scenery and costumes simultaneously would make better sense for the total artistic vision, keeping my focus on the unity of the music, singers’ voices, lighting design, and the interpretation of the artistic and stage directors. This complex collaboration with everyone involved in the production was the total opposite of my familiar experiences as an individual studio artist. It was a new challenge in making an artistic statement for me, full of unknowns. Several months into the process, I began to have a good understanding of telling Madama Butterfly’s story and the director’s concept for the singers’ movement on stage. This was a great turning point for me. Afterwards, everything started to fall into position. The design’s conceptual complexity was completed by the final addition of video projections. Images moving and fading in and out gave me the opportunity to orchestrate the element of time visually on stage.”
Lt. B. F. Pinkerton (Vincenzo Costanzo) awaits his bride
on his wedding night in Puccini's Madama Butterfly
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Case in point: Many companies (including the San Francisco Opera) now perform Madama Butterfly in two acts instead of three. The orchestral interlude (between the moment when Cio-Cio-San sets up her night watch to await Pinkerton's return and the early morning moments when the sound of birds accompanies the break of dawn over Nagasaki's harbor) has always presented a challenge for audiences. Aided and abetted by Gary Marder's lighting, the digital mapping which allows Kaneko to illustrate the interlude with simple displays of color patterns projected onto three large screens. The effect is both refreshing and remarkable (as is his toy-like depiction of Pinkerton's ship, the S.S. Abraham Lincoln).

Lt. B. F. Pinkerton (Vincenzo Costanzo) meets his bride,
Cio-Cio-San (Lianna Haroutounian), in Act I of Puccini's
Madama Butterfly (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

Because Butterfly is so frequently performed, many people forget that the title role presents a tough challenge for the soprano portraying Cio-Cio-San. Over the years, I've been fortunate enough to have experienced quite a few great performances from such artists such as Francesca Roberti (a/k/a Frances Roberts), Leona Mitchell, Diana SovieroTeresa Stratas, Renata Scotto and Yoko Watanabe.

Lianna Haroutounian stars as Cio-Cio-San in
Puccini's Madama Butterfly (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Under Leslie Swackhamer's direction, Lianna Haroutounian's Cio-Cio-San grabbed my attention and held it in a way that few other artists have. A tiny woman with a shockingly large voice, Haroutounian did a fine job of communicating Butterfly's childlike naiveté prior to the marriage ceremony (hard to maintain when, by the age of 15, one has already spent several years working as a geisha), followed by the steely resolve which allows her to maintain her dignity in spite of being in dire financial straits. Rarely has the inscription on the blade with which Cio-Cio-San's father committed harakiri ("Who cannot live with honor must die with honor") held such poignancy.

Cio-Cio-San (Lianna Haroutounian) introduces Sharpless
(Anthony Clark Evans) to her boy in Act II of Puccini's 
Madama Butterfly (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

Although the singing by Anthony Clark Evans as the American consul, Sharpless, was powerful and resonant, I was a bit disappointed in tenor Vincenzo Costanzo's Pinkerton (which seemed a bit subdued). Zanda Švēde's Suzuki and Julius Ahn's Goro were handsomely sung, along with affecting cameos by Edward Nelson as Prince Yamadori, Raymond Aceto as The Bonze, Matthew Stump as the Imperial Commissioner, and Julie Adams as Kate Pinkerton.

Conductor Yves Abel led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in a sensitive and supportive reading of Puccini's magical score. Although the following video features the 2014 cast (Patricia Racette, Brian Jagde, and Brian Mulligan), it offers a glimpse into how Kaneko's artistic vision has shaped this nontraditional production of one of the most beloved works in the operatic repertoire.

1 comment:

Nikki Andrews said...

Rainbow is awesome! Just like this rainbow color women occasion wear!