Thursday, June 29, 2017

Tricks Are For Kids

Algorithms: can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em! Algorithms are basically built on interpreting and programming patterns of behavior. What could possibly go wrong? They're great when their accuracy delivers results you're guaranteed to like. Not so great when they veer off into uncharted territory. Think about it this way.
As the learning curve from the sexual revolution of the 1960s evolved, it morphed from a free-wheeling numbers game (popular in gay circles prior to the AIDS epidemic) to today's hookup culture (made easier by apps like Tinder and Grindr). Today's cult of pornosexuals often prefers to avoid human contact rather than being forced to experience intimacy with real people who, in many cases, were presumed to be disposable sex partners. Egged on by the worst of "learned behaviors," sex offenders like Bill Cosby, Brock Turner, and Brandon E. Banks have become poster boys for rape.

At the core of today's crisis in a dangerously glib attitude toward consent coupled with an extremely selfish interpretation of what promiscuity allows. Back in the 1970s, when free love was associated with the new policy of permissiveness ("If it feels good, do it"), casual sex was often enjoyed by people who (regardless of how stoned they might have been) were usually consenting adults. Those who frequented gay bathhouses and sex clubs certainly knew what they were looking for when they paid the price of admission.

In 1987, director Peter Sellars staged a controversial production of Don Giovanni which updated the action to the present and set it in Spanish Harlem. Reconceiving the title character as a heroin addict who depends on his pimp and drug supplier, Sellars found a unique way to stage the deceptive role switch whereby Don Giovanni trades places with Leporello in his 1991 video of his production by casting identical twins Herbert and Eugene Perry. As you can see from this clip of the Act I finale -- in which a impressively buff Don Giovanni strips down to his tighty whities -- Sellars also made the production much more overtly sexual than opera audiences were used to seeing (you can watch the full opera with English subtitles by clicking here).

Knowing now what many didn't understand then, it is possible to re-examine an operatic classic through a more probing and sexually-enlightened lens.
According to Jacopo Spirei, who recently restaged Mozart’s classic for the San Francisco Opera:
“Don Giovanni is the mirror of society, a mirror that shows defects, that shows dark secrets, that shows the characters onstage as they really are, and shows the deepest and darkest side of each one of us. He is an example of a man who doesn’t take responsibility for anything he does while breaking the laws that hold society together. He’s the negation of all the 18th-century values: reason, logic, enlightenment. He’s pure instinct, which is why the 19th century loved this work so much. He challenges us to resist, yet his seduction power is endless, so it’s up to us to follow him into hell or try to survive by accepting our weaknesses and flaws.” 
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni in the San Francisco Opera's
production of Mozart's 1787 classic (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
“This is the fascination of mystery, evil, perdition, and that element of self-destruction that each one of us has inside. Don Giovanni gets away with everything because he’s incredibly wealthy. He’s constantly on the move because he’s curious and has a deep craving for life, lust, and women. He cannot stop. Don Giovanni doesn’t have his own musical language but, like a chameleon, he hides inside the other characters’ music. He talks all the time, but we never have any introspection.”
Erwin Schrott (Leporello) and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Don Giovanni)
in a scene from Mozart's opera (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

When Queen City Opera recently staged Don Giovanni, its artistic director and conductor, Isaac Selya, stressed that:
“Mozart's opera has been around for a long time and the music is popular. The opera deals with a rich young nobleman who uses his money and influence to manipulate and take advantage of women. After reading through, it became very clear to me that the original intention of the authors was that this is not a hero. This guy is not seducing women with his charm. He may be nice, he may be good-looking, but it is clear he is using status, money and the threat of force. After all, at the end he’s dragged down to hell.”
Andrea Silvestrelli (The Commendatore) and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
(Don Giovanni) in a scene from the San Francisco Opera's
production of Mozart's 1787 classic (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Queen City Opera advertised its production as “A dark comedy about a sleazy young nobleman who receives a supernatural punishment for committing rape and murder. Featuring the best music ever.” As part of its community outreach, it partnered with the educational departments of Jewish Family Services and Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio. Workshops entitled “Seduction? Or Rape?” included explanations of what constitutes consent, followed by excerpts from Mozart's opera performed by the cast of Don Giovanni. After the excerpts, viewers were asked if what had happened was consensual or not. As Selya explains:
Don Giovanni has universal truths. It’s sad that they’re still relevant, but you can still parse it with our modern viewpoint. If you market the opera as the sexy young guy seducing sexy young women, that sells tickets but it does a disservice. If you strip away the marketing and traditions and look at what the opera is about, you see the violence.”
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni in the San Francisco Opera's
production of Mozart's 1787 classic (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Sometimes an opera you think you know fairly well can really surprise you. Although I had planned to attend the June 21 performance of Don Giovanni at the San Francisco Opera, I was feeling quite tired that afternoon. Luckily, I managed to squeeze in a brief nap and, by the time I arrived at the War Memorial Opera House, was feeling much better. If I was keeping my expectations fairly low, that's because this production had been quite disappointing when it was unveiled in 2011 and Don Giovanni has never been one of my favorite operas. News reports of cast changes prior to opening night seemed like dark clouds over the horizon.

And then, a welcome surprise. With the help of projections and scenic adaptations by Tommi Brem, director Jacopo Spirei had done a stunning job of revitalizing this production. The 21 giant mirrors (six feet wide, 16 feet tall, and weighing approximately 300 pounds apiece) had been repurposed so that they could function as visual gateways into Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto and some of the characters' internal thoughts.

Don Giovanni (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo) fixates on Donna Anna (Erin Wall)
in a scene from Mozart's opera (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

The finale of the San Francisco Opera's production of
Mozart's Don Giovanni (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

To make matters even more exciting, four out of the five principals were making their company debuts. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo was a robust Don Giovanni who, through an odd optical trick, seemed like a towering hedonist when surrounded by peasants but, when seen against the much taller Masetto (Michael Sumuel) and Commendatore (Andrea Silvestrelli) was suddenly transformed into an aggressive runt overcompensating for his size. As Leporello, Erwin Schrott turned in the kind of musical and dramatic performance one dreams about experiencing. He was matched by the formidable Donna Elvira of Ana María Martínez, who made more out of the role than almost any soprano I've ever seen in five decades of operagoing.

Ana María Martínez as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni
(Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

Making his U.S. debut as Don Ottavio, Stanislas de Barbeyrac was in fine vocal form, offering a sturdy foil to Erin Wall's impassioned Donna Anna. Sarah Shafer's Zerlina, Michael Sumuel's Masetto, and Andrea Silvestrelli's Commendatore rounded out the cast in supporting roles. In his company debut, Mark Minkowski's conducting laid a solid foundation for a compelling performance.

Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Don Ottavio) and Erin Wall (Donna Anna)
in a scene from Don Giovanni (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

It's extremely rare for an opera company to so drastically reconceptualize a new production that has only been used for one season. Although Alessandro Camera's physical sets and Andrea Viotti's costumes have pretty much remained intact, Tommi Brem's projections (coupled with Gary Marder's lighting designs) delivers the operatic equivalent of some desperately needed cosmetic surgery. Here's the trailer:

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While wine and cheese are expected to get better with age, the same cannot be said for all gay men. Whatever the cause of their dyspepsia, bitter queens are everywhere. I can still remember how upset a man I knew in the 1980s became when he discovered that being hung like a horse was no longer enough to guarantee getting laid. With friends dying all around them, some gay men had become paranoid about having sex. The popular refrain ("I'd eat a mile of that man's shit just to see where it came from") had changed to "No dick is worth dying for."

The protagonist of Vincent Gagliostro and Anthony Johnston's new film, After Louie (which was the closing night selection of the 2017 Frameline Film Festival) is an artist wallowing in self-pity. Now in his late fifties, Sam (Alan Cumming) still has a circle of loyal friends. But the soul brothers he knew from the days of AIDS activism and ACT UP have mostly died, he has trouble understanding the confusing optimism and political apathy of a younger generation of gay men, and Sam now tends to his emotional baggage with a deep-seated sense of bitterness and survivor's guilt.

Early in the film, he is seen ushering a trick out the door -- a hustler who resents the fact that Sam has not paid him as much as he initially promised. When a young man hits on Sam in a local bar, he's initially surprised that Braeden (Zachary Booth) would be sexually interested in someone nearly twice his age. After they fuck, Sam casually hands Braeden $500, stressing that he's not paying Braeden as a prostitute, it's because he likes him.

Zachary Booth and Alan Cumming in a scene from After Louie

What Sam does not initially know is that Braeden is in a relationship with another young man (Anthony Johnston) and, while they have agreed to an open relationship, Lukas is none too happy to discover that money is now a part of Braeden's sexual adventures.

Among Sam's cohort of old friends are Maggie (Sarita Choudhury) and her husband, Jeffrey (Patrick Breen) and his lover, Mateo (Wilson Cruz), and Julian (Everett Quinton), a retired art professor who is one of Sam's former lovers. Sam's agent, Rhona (Justin Vivian Bond), wishes he would get out of his artistic rut and do something new with his talent but Sam can't stop obsessing over pictures, letters, and home movies of his old friend, William Wilson (David Drake), who died of AIDS.

Alan Cumming in a scene from After Louie

Sam has no problem inflicting his unhappiness on others. He becomes extremely obnoxious at a gallery showing for a younger artist (Eric Berryman). When Jeffrey and Mateo announce that they've just been married, Sam ruins their moment of joy by launching into a blistering tirade about why gay marriage (as a concept) is so politically incorrect and why it is morally reprehensible to him on a deeply personal level. Later, after a severely misguided attempt to film Braeden and Lukas, the sun of Sam proves too scorching for the young couple to maintain contact with him.

Temporarily estranged from his friends and still grappling with survivor's guilt, Sam finally makes peace with an unfinished bit of business from his past. As he was dying, William had drawn up intricate plans for his memorial service (a Christmas celebration he would not live long enough to enjoy) that Sam never got around to arranging. As director Vincent Gagliostro explains:
After Louie makes sense of contemporary gay life through the story of Sam, a man who came of age during the AIDS crisis, who must take a step back to understand how he and his community got to where they are today. To do that, he must first meet a guileless guide to the younger generation of gay men, a 29-year old writer named Braeden. Sam was a member of the AIDS political activist group ACT UP and saw most of his friends die several decades ago; Braeden is part of a generation that knows about the AIDS crisis, but has never had to deal with the trauma that so informs Sam’s life, then and now.”
Alan Cumming and Zachary Booth in a scene from After Louie
After Louie will be a testament to the joys of the fully lived life and the inseparability of art and living. My film is a portrait of what happened to us – the generation who endured the AIDS epidemic, a generation whose shared history continues to haunt us. In confronting the end of a traumatic era and provoking a conversation between generations, I dare us to dream of a new and vibrant future, again.”
Alan Cumming stars in After Louie

There's some very impressive work to be seen in After Louie with Alan Cumming and Zachary Booth carrying the brunt of the emotional load on their shoulders. However, two extremely talented actors nearly steal the show. One is Patrick Breen who, as Jeffrey, eventually reads Sam the riot act. The other is Quinton Everett, whose radiant performance as Julian is, by itself, a compelling reason to watch After Louie. Here's the trailer:

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