Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Cultural Exports

In 1976, while most Americans were focused on celebrating the country's bicentennial, a new musical opened on Broadway that genuinely challenged its audiences. With a score by Stephen Sondheim that employed a pentatonic scale -- and actors telling the musical's story in the style of Japan's legendary Kabuki theatre -- few theatregoers arrived at the Winter Garden Theatre with any knowledge of how Japan's island culture had been opened up to Western influences during the second half of the 19th century.

The opening number of Pacific Overtures ("The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea") was a marked departure from standard Broadway curtain raisers. The show's 11 o'clock number -- in which the Japanese voice their determination to rebuild their country after World War II and transform it into a major economic force -- came as a shock to many theatergoers.

Haruo Nakajima's recent death at the age of 88 (quickly overshadowed by the deaths of singers Barbara Cook and Glenn Campbell) was a bittersweet piece of news for fans of monster movies. The Japanese actor was the first to climb inside a monster suit and portray Godzilla in Ishirō Honda's beloved 1954 film (Nakajima continued in the role through 11 more Godzilla films). While Japan has become noted for such cultural exports as woodblock prints, Bunraku puppet theatre, Kabuki dramas, manga comics, samurai movies, and animé films, most of these art forms have been overshadowed by the Godzilla franchise (which has left the monster's giant footprints all around the world).

* * * * * * * * *
In 2013, the driving creative force behind such beloved full-length animation features as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and Ponyo announced his retirement due to advanced age. Studio Ghibli's catalogue of beautifully hand-drawn animé films has brought the artwork of Hayao Miyazaki to children of all ages throughout the world. The upcoming Japan Film Festival of San Francisco will screen a documentary produced by NHK Television entitled Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki, which shows the artist struggling with a difficult challenge at the age of 75.

When he closed down Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki still had ideas buzzing around in his head and was curious about how he might able to work with the kind of CGI scripting used in many of today's releases. With the help of some young animators, he started to learn about various techniques that could be applied to his style of art. However, in the end, Miyazaki found that he could work faster and better by sketching his ideas by hand. The big question was whether or not he would have the strength to see a full-length feature through to animation.

The NHK documentary does a spectacular job of letting viewers in on the artistic process which guides the veteran animator toward a finished product. It also captures the moment when Miyazaki announces to his team that he has decided to tackle one more feature film (Boro the Caterpillar), which now has a projected release date sometime in 2019.

A compulsive smoker whose right leg becomes increasingly jittery as he gets deeper into his work, Miyazaki displays a gentle, self-deprecating sense of humor throughout the film, even though he is shocked by the deaths of two younger animators who he fully expected would outlive him. Here's an abbreviated version of NHK's 70-minute documentary.

* * * * * * * * *
If one were to seek a shining example of how cultural exports have spread around the world, the logical place to start would be with the work of William Shakespeare.
  • In 2012, the World Shakespeare Festival did a stunning job of introducing new audiences to Shakespeare and helping mature audiences gain new insights into the Bard's plays.
  • The Year of Shakespeare website documents many of the productions that were involved in the event (the biggest intercultural Shakespeare festival ever devised).
  • In October 2015, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced its plan to commission 36 playwrights over the course of three years to perform a remarkable collective task: translating all of Shakespeare's plays into modern English that will be easier for contemporary audiences to understand.
  • A popular app available on iTunes entitled Heuristic Shakespeare - The Tempest debuted as "the first in a collection of 37 separate apps. Each app is a tool for demystifying one of Shakespeare’s plays, making it more accessible to a modern audience. Sir Ian McKellen and Professor Sir Jonathan Bate take us on a journey of discovery using the world-famous Arden Shakespeare texts."
  • Last year, the world celebrated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death on April 23, 1616.
Edward Nelson stars as Hamlet for West Edge Opera
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Many point to Hamlet (1602) as Shakespeare's most frequently performed work. Having been in the public domain for more than three centuries, Hamlet has been reinterpreted, updated, and subjected to numerous cuts as actors and stage directors attempt to bend Shakespeare's play to suit their artistic vision.
Few, however, have relied on another playwright's adaptation of Hamlet, especially when that adaptation severely changed the shape of the plot. Based on a French adaptation by Alexandre Dumas, père, and Paul Meurice, Ambroise Thomas's opera features a libretto by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier. The work premiered at the Paris Opéra (Salle Le Peletier) on March 9, 1868.

I first saw the operatic version of Hamlet in 1978 when the San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Thomas's grand opera (which used a new English translation by Andrew Porter). Directed by Tito Capobianco, the cast was headed by Sherrill Milnes as Hamlet, Ashley Putnam as Ophélie, and Robert Hale as Claudius. Designed by Carl Toms, the production was shared with the New York City Opera in 1982.

The San Francisco Opera staged Hamlet in 1996 with Thomas Hampson in the title role, Ruth Ann Swenson as Ophélie, Judith Forst as Gertrude, and Robert Lloyd as Claudius. In 2010, the Metropolitan Opera debuted a new production of Hamlet starring Simon Keenlyside with Marlis Petersen as Ophélie, Jennifer Larmore as Gertrude, and James Morris as Claudius,

West Edge Opera opened its 2017 season with a production of Hamlet performed in the cavernous expanse of the former Pacific Pipe warehouse in Oakland. Conducted by Jonathan Khuner (who also handled the orchestral reduction) on an abstract set designed by Jean-Francois Revon to accommodate the use of shadow play for scenes involving the ghost of Hamlet's father (Kenneth Kellog), the opening night performance was graced with an unusual addition to the score -- the constant rumble from a Burning Man event being held on the next block.

I was happy to hear Thomas's score again, which is best known for Hamlet's drinking song at the end of Act I and Ophélie's extended mad scene in Act II. However, it's important to note that when Hamlet had its world premiere in 1868, Parisian standards required a five-act opera with a ballet and, preferably, a happy ending. As a result, Shakespeare's cast of characters was severely trimmed (no sign of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, or Horatio). Laërte, Polonius, and Gertrude do not die at the end. Instead, Hamlet lives and is proclaimed King of Denmark while his father's ghost banishes Gertrude to a convent.

Edward Nelson and Susanne Mentzer in a scene from
West Edge Opera's production of Hamlet (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

An interesting note about the history of Hamlet concerns the Parisian frenzy that eventually led a French composer to consider adapting the story for the operatic stage. According to Wikipedia:
“The Parisian public's fascination with Ophelia, prototype of the femme fragile, began in the fall of 1827, when an English company directed by William Abbot came to Paris to give a season of Shakespeare in English at the Odéon. On 11 September 1827 the Irish actress Harriet Smithson played the part of Ophelia in Hamlet. Her mad scene appeared to owe little to tradition and seemed almost like an improvisation, with several contemporary accounts remarking on her astonishing capacity for mime. Her performances produced an extraordinary reaction: men wept openly in the theater, and when they left were ‘convulsed by uncontrollable emotion.’”
Emma McNairy as Ophélie in Hamlet (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
“The 25-year-old Alexandre Dumas, père, who was about to embark on a major career as a novelist and dramatist, was in the audience and found the performance revelatory, ‘far surpassing all my expectations.’ The French composer Hector Berlioz was also present at that opening night performance and later wrote: ‘The lightning flash of that sublime discovery opened before me at a stroke the whole heaven of art, illuminating it to its remotest depths. I recognized the meaning of dramatic grandeur, beauty, truth.’ It wasn't long before new clothing and hair styles, à la mode d'Ophélie and modeled on those of the actress, became all the rage in Paris.”
West Edge Opera's production offered some solid singing by Philip Skinner as Claudius, Daniel Curran as Laërte, and Susanne Mentzer as Gertrude. Emma McNairy delivered plenty of musical fireworks to accompany her powerfully dramatic interpretation of Ophélie's mad scene. Working in an environment with surprisingly rich acoustics, the production's only regrettable elements were some truly bizarre moments created by stage director Aria Umezawa and costume designer Maggie Whitaker's unfortunate ideas for the opera's two females.

Ophélie's costume, in particular, looked like a nylon parachute that had been dyed to resemble a dark, watery riverbed. For most of the opera, it was folded up around McNairy's waist, looking less like anything a young woman would want to wear and more like something a homeless person shod in sneakers might choose out of utter desperation. When unfurled for Ophélie's drowning, it created a dramatic image which may have seemed like a thrilling idea in pre-production but did not fare as well in performance. There was no earthly reason for the chorus to be sporting the kind of safety helmets worn by welders.

Edward Nelson stars in Hamlet at West Edge Opera
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

The indisputable star of the evening was Edward Nelson, a recent graduate of the San Francisco Opera's Merola and Adler Fellowship programs. Having been impressed with Nelson's work when seen on the main stage at the War Memorial Opera House, this role delivered resounding proof of his talent, stageworthiness, and artistic development. Clad in a simple costume consisting of black pants, a tailored white shirt, and an abbreviated black hoodie, Nelson looked like the kind of moody and rebellious youth Prince Hamlet is supposed to be.

No amount of melancholy brooding, baring his chest, glaring at his guilty mother, or attempting to prove his ardor by mounting Ophélie atop a table could detract from the thrilling power and shading of Nelson's vocal performance. Frequently featured on Barihunks, his robust baritone never lost its passion or focus (the following video was recorded earlier this year at a benefit for West Edge Opera).

West Edge Opera's 2017 season includes performances of Vicente Martin y Soler's 1787 opera entitled L'Arbore di Diana (The Chastity Tree) and Libby Larsen's adaptation of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (which I saw at its world premiere at the Minnesota Opera in 1990). Plans for 2018 include productions of Benjamin Britten's last opera, Death in Venice (1973); the West Coast premiere of Matt Marks's Mata Hari (2017); and Luca Francesconi's controversial Quartett (2011).

No comments: