Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Dark Side of the Wounds

One of the more quixotic challenges involved in writing about theatre, film, and opera is to try to articulate someone else's artistic vision. First introduced by the German philosopher K.F..E. Trahndorff in 1827, the term "Gesamtkunstwerk" (meaning a "total work of art" or, in some cases, a synthesis of the arts) has often used to describe the operas of Richard Wagner.

Some people mistakenly assume that an arts organization's mission statement is the same thing as its artistic vision. Having logged more than half a century attending live theatre and opera, I'd suggest that artistic vision is a bit like what former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United StatesPotter Stewart, said about 1964's Jacobellis v. Ohio:
"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [hard-core pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."
To my mind, someone's artistic vision is best understood by examining their creative output. Some artists, obsessed with the creative process, are compelled to continue experimenting in order to see what else they can do with their skills. One of the great polymaths of the opera world during the last half century was Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, a gifted stage and film director as well as a prolific costume and scenery designer. Ponnelle's productions were designed with such integrity, intricacy, insight, and innovation that some of them remain thrilling more than 30 years after their premieres.

Today, there are plenty of legends in their own mind whose greatest achievement seems to be talking about their art without producing much of anything. In today's fear-based environment, the statement "If you see something, say something" has taken on extremely negative connotations. I much prefer to apply that sentiment to artists whose vision and execution inspire rather than intimidate people.

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Two short films shown at the 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival nearly leaped off the screen due to the brilliance and execution of their ideas. Each was like a signal flare indicating the presence of artists whose work merits continued attention in future years.

First up is Icebergs, a 10-minute stop motion film based on Efthymis Fillipou's book entitled Scenes. In 14 short vignettes (some relatively normal, others hysterically surreal), animator Eirini Vianelli introduces viewers to a cluster of crazed characters whose battles with loneliness and despair border on black comedy. Imagine putting Todd Solondz, Charles Addams, and William Steig in a room with a bunch of papier-mâché dolls that can cry and sweat, and then giving them a few hits of LSD. Then think what might happen if they could look down on a freeway clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic, a middle-aged African American man doing a belly flop into a swimming pool, or a waiter who had just dropped an entire dessert tray onto the floor of an upscale restaurant. And that's just for starters.
Created by Florian Brauch, Matthieu Pujol, Kim Tailhades, Yohan Thireau, and Romain Thirion, Hybrids may only be six minutes long, but it packs quite a wallop. This film is designed to explore an undersea world where pollution has inflicted some radical changes on marine life. Half biological and half mechanical, it's not really fair to call these hybrids genetic mutations. Among the creatures filling the screen are:
A mutant sea turtle from Hybrids

A predatory bird from Hybrids

A giant grouper from Hybrids

Bottle cap crabs strip a grouper's corpse in a scene from Hybrids

Poster art for Hybrids

Accompanied by Vincent Govindin's lush and spooky musical score, Hybrids examines what the "circle of life" might look like in an underwater realm where fish have mated with garbage. One longs to see a full-length feature from this creative team. Here's a teaser of their work:
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When Tom Cipullo's opera, Glory Denied, received its world premiere from the Brooklyn College Opera Theater on May 5, 2007, it had an undeniable timeliness. Based on Tom Philpott's book about Colonel Floyd James Thompson (the longest-held prisoner of war in the history of the United States) and his struggle to re-assimilate into American life after spending nine years behind enemy lines in Vietnam, the opera debuted at a time when many American troops were returning home from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSDAnti-war sentiment was reaching new heights throughout the nation. In a note written in August 2001, the composer pointed out the unique aspect of his libretto:
Glory Denied may be the first opera adapted from an oral history. As such, it presents no linear narrative. Rather, it jumps from moment to moment, as a man’s mind might leap when subjected to horrific stress. Virtually all of the dialogue in the opera is taken literally from actual statements by the real people involved. On those few occasions where, for dramatic purposes, words have been changed or statements conflated, the composer has taken care not to alter the intent of the speaker.”
Morgan Balfour (Younger Alyce) and Ricardo Garcia
(Younger Thompson) in a scene from Glory Denied
(Photo by: San Francisco Conservatory of Music)

Since its world premiere, Glory Denied has been performed by New York's Chelsea Opera in 2010 and during the 2013 Fort Worth Opera Festival (a full-length recording is available on Albany Records). In 2015, Glory Denied was performed at the Vulcan Lyric Summer Festival in Philadelphia as well as the Syracuse Opera in November (with the help of a grant and a partnership with the Chittenango-based organization Clear Path For Veterans).

In April 2016, Opera Idaho performed Cipullo's opera in an airplane hangar at Aviation Specialties Unlimited near the Boise Airport. The Nashville Opera performed Glory Denied in November of that year.

In 2017, Glory Denied was performed by the Anchorage Opera in February, by Opera Memphis as part of its Midtown Opera Festival, and by the Tri-Cities Opera in Binghamton, New York in November,

In June of 2017, New York City's Opera Upper West performed Cipullo's work on the deck of the Baylander IX-514 (a former helicopter landing trainer billed as "the world's smallest aircraft carrier) which is now serving as a museum ship at Brooklyn Bridge Park. And in November of 2017, the Houston Grand Opera presented two performances of Glory Denied in the 1940 Air Terminal Museum Hangar at Hobby Airport as part of the company's four-year Veterans Songbook project (which gives voice to the stories of Houston-based men and women who served their country as well las to the stories of their loved ones).

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music recently staged two performances of Glory Denied in its Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall. Conducted by Curt Pajer, directed by Jose Maria Condemi, and using Cipullo's instrumentation for a 23-piece orchestra, the production featured costumes by Callie Floor. Peter Crompton's steeply raked set combined with a wealth of projections using photographs from the Department of Defense and The Record (from Bergen County New Jersey) transformed Glory Denied into one of the most successful multimedia opera productions I've ever seen.

Ricardo Garcia (Younger Thompson) in a scene from Glory Denied
(Photo by: San Francisco Conservatory of Music)

Clocking in at approximately 80 minutes in length, Cipullo's opera is written for four singers: two sopranos (Morgan Balfour and Taylor Haines) take on the roles of younger Alyce and older Alyce while a tenor and baritone take on the roles of younger Thompson (Ricardo Garcia) and older Thompson (Edward Laurenson).

Not only is Cipullo's score riveting, it maintains a sense of dramatic urgency from start to finish. He writes handsomely for the voice, taking care to ensure that dramatic moments make the strongest impact. The wildly uneven playing areas of Crompton's set (including a giant screen skewed at a stark angle) reinforce the concept that nothing that happens during war is as it should be, and that the stress and confusion borne by a lonely wife trying to raise four children on her own and get some honest answers from the military is enough to drive a person crazy.

Ricardo Garcia (Younger Thompson) and Edward Laurenson
(Older Thompson) in a scene from Glory Denied
(Photo by: San Francisco Conservatory of Music)

By the time Thompson returns home to America, he is a shell of his former self (and his wife is not doing much better). Not only has his war experience shattered this soldier's life and future, it has ruined his marriage and demolished every hope he held onto while in captivity. At one point, when he tells Alyce that he forgives her for not being faithful while he was held captive, Alyce looks him in the eye and barks "Ask me if I give a shit!"

I was deeply impressed by Glory Denied, not only for its musical strengths and the strong ensemble work at the performance I attended, but because this is the kind of timely and relevant opera/musical theatre piece that folks at OPERA America could only dream about back in the days when they launched the Opera into the '90's and Beyond program. When one thinks back to last fall's bloated and cringe-worthy world premiere of Girls of the Golden West (the new opera by John Adams and Peter Sellars that debuted at the San Francisco Opera), the contrast in theatricality, accessibility, and craft is mind boggling. There's no doubt in my mind which work will have a longer life and enjoy many more productions. Not only can Glory Denied spark community outreach to veterans support groups wherever it is performed, it is already scheduled to be staged by the Pittsburgh Opera in February 2019 (Girls of the Golden West is largely an academic exercise is mental masturbation). Nor can there be any doubt about which opera is the more culturally important and stageworthy artistic achievement.

Morgan Balfour (Younger Alyce) and Taylor Haines
(Older Alyce) in a scene from Glory Denied
(Photo by: San Francisco Conservatory of Music)

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