Friday, November 1, 2019

The Foundling and the Found

The past 25 years have seen Americans become increasingly divided as a result of identity politics. From gun owners who insist on openly carrying their weapons wherever they go to trans men and women who are trying not to get killed, from right-wing Evangelicals who have abandoned all of the "golden rule" lessons they learned in church to investment bankers whose only concern is short-term gains, many people view today's world through a strictly binary lens. Few are willing to explore gray areas that might lead to more understanding.

As a result, students who have been traumatized by school shootings have been labeled as "crisis actors" and "collateral damage" while mansplainers don't understand why so many women are angry with them. Parts of our government are now being run by a gang of incompetent goons who have no respect for --and even less understanding of the oath they swore upon taking office.

With so much blatant corruption, righteous indignation, and dishonest media (can anyone prove that Mark Zuckerberg is not fucking Rudy Giuliani?), I keep waiting for an overly aggressive politician to test Facebook's new advertising policy by running an ad which describes the nation's hungriest media whore as an "alleged" child molester.

Would you like to guess who doesn't get a lot of attention from the media these days? Who's not trying to launch a career as a social media influencer by building their brand on YouTube? Foundlings, orphans, and victims of child trafficking, that's who. The perpetually ignored minority group consisting of people who were abandoned by their parents, misplaced during infancy, or stolen by pirates for the sake of musical comedy.

Two recent dramatic experiences focused on foundlings at vastly different moments in their lives. Their living situations, emotional stability, and optimism could not be more different and, yet, when the audience learns the truth about who and why they were left to fend for themselves, there's no shortage of empathy -- and occasional moments of hilarity.

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Written and directed by Safdar Rahman, Chippa (which will be screened at the upcoming 3rd i Film Festival) follows a young Indian boy along the streets and alleys of Kolkata as he searches for someone who can read Urdu. Abandoned by his father, and orphaned when his mother died, Chippa (Sunny Pawar) has been looked after by his grand aunt (Mala Mukherjee), who runs a food stand located near Chittaranjan Hospital. On the eve of his tenth birthday, she hands him a letter written by the father he has never known. Later, when he starts getting on her nerves, the frustrated old woman tells him that she never wants to see him again. That night, Chippa decides to run away with what few belongings he has (a backpack, the sandals on his feet, his drawing pad, and the clothes he is wearing).

Sunny Pawar stars in Chippa

For Chippa, who has pretty much grown up on the streets, striking out on his own is an adventure, regardless of the time of day or night. He's young enough to be thrilled by riding atop a taxi, making friends with a stray dog (which he names Pippa), and running errands for a friendly man (Chandan Roy Sanyal) who delivers newspapers, yet smart enough to deal with adults who are drunk, manipulative, or violent.

Sunny Pawar hitches a ride above a taxi in Chippa

Whether befriending a tall taxi driver (Sumeet Thakur) from whom he wins a bet, or a diabetic motorcycle policeman (Gautam Sarkar) who offers him a ride and subsequently comes to his rescue, the boy is surprisingly fearless. When the newspaper man brings Chippa home, the boy overhears him arguing with his wife (Ronjini Chakraborty) about whether or not they can afford to suddenly take in a child. Realizing that the outcome will not be in his favor, Chippa steals away before dawn, continuing on his adventure until he is rescued once more by the motorcycle cop who returns the boy to his grand aunt's food stand.

Actor Chandan Roy Sanyal with Pippa on the set of Chippa

In his Director's Note, Safdar Rahman writes:
"The underbelly of Kolkata lies squarely on top of its belly. In the middle of the chaos and bang in the center of the city is an over-the-top and underground mohalla called Park Circus. Inside Park Circus, you can rarely separate houses, buildings, shops, gutters, lives; they all mix and intertwine into one heavy concoction. Inside this concoction, on a footpath outside Chittaranjan Hospital, lives a ten-year-old boy who has decided he wants to break free."
Chandan Roy Sanyal and Sunny Pawar in a scene from Chippa
"Chippa is, to me, a universal story rooted firmly in the local milieu of Kolkata that is mostly unknown, even to Kolkataits. I have grown up in Chippa's real-life neighborhood and, in many ways, have been writing this story since I was his age. Almost every child I know has been threatened at some point in time of their lives to leave home. Sometimes you pack your suitcase, sometimes you even get as far as the neighborhood street corner. This film is a homage to that spirit and the timeless stories of children growing up."
Sunny Pawar and "Pippa" in a scene from Chippa

Filmed in Hindi (with English subtitles), Chippa is a charming coming-of-age story which, if nothing else, will make many moviegoers grateful for the basic luxuries they enjoy every day of their lives. Sunny Pawar is irresistible as the film's resourceful young hero, but you'll have to wait for the final credits to roll in order to witness the film's big reveal. Here's the trailer:

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One of the peculiar thrills of being an opera lover is the sheer amount of written and recorded documentation available to further one's appreciation of the art form. While the ABCs of opera (Aida, La Bohème, and Carmen) are staged frequently enough to develop an intense familiarity with each work, lesser known pieces such as Massenet's Esclarmonde, Mozart's L'oca del Cairo, and Delius's Fennimore and Gerda only make rare appearances.

Although composers like Mozart, Verdi, Donizetti, Puccini, Strauss, and Wagner exert a stranglehold on box office sales, the dedicated operagoer faces a different challenge. With so many productions of the standard repertoire being co-produced and/or rented by opera companies -- and so many stagings being handed down to second and third generation directorial assistants who helped bring the original artistic vision to life onstage -- it becomes increasingly difficult to experience a production which really digs deep into the text and score for character motivation, nuance, and musical shading.

A perfect example would be Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, which I first saw in the 1960s at New York City Opera and have since seen in numerous theatres in multiple cities. Because the opera is divided into four acts (which are usually set in different rooms of Count Almaviva's manor house), the set design often dwarfs the spirit of the music. Singers who have been performing key roles for years in opera houses around the world can fall into a kind of rote delivery which, while far from the old "park-and-bark" technique of yore, can become surprisingly wooden.

Occasionally, someone stirs the pot with a new concept that requires willing accomplices on an artistic adventure. During the 1980s, Peter Sellars took an axe to status quo interpretations of the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas (Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte, and Le Nozze di Figaro), setting the last one in a condo in Trump Tower!

A critical moment in Act I of the Peter Sellars staging
of Le Nozze di Figaro

“How should we make sense of an extract from a French play set in Andalusian Spain that is adapted as Italian opera for an Austrian imperial court and subsequently relocated by a Canadian director to postcolonial America for a 21st-century San Francisco audience? What is preserved and what is transformed? What is lost and what is found in this transatlantic game of telephone unfolding over the course of two and a half centuries?” asks Mark Burford in his essay entitled “The More Things Change: Making Figaro’s Meaning.” Today's audience may be far more sensitive to the Count's oversized libido being a symptom of class privilege ("Droit du seigneur") as well as a Jeffrey Epstein-like manifestation of male privilege ("A stiff dick knows no conscience").

The San Francisco Opera recently unleashed its new production of Mozart's 1786 masterpiece conducted by Henrik Nánási and directed by Michael Cavanagh, which uses Erhard Rom's delicious sets (whose schematic drawings play out during the familiar overture like an architectural student's wet dream and, through an immaculately conceived use of stagecraft, deliver a sly sense of dramatic propulsion throughout the performance by constantly reframing the action).

Nicole Heaston (the Countess) and Serena Malfi (Cherubino)
in a scene from Le Nozze di Figaro (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

I use the word "unleashed" instead of "unveiled" to stress the sheer amount of energy that went into Cavanagh's artistic vision and the buy-in necessary from the cast and the rest of the creative team in order to sharpen each and every dramatic insight. The ease with which three scenic panels (two horizontal and one vertical) transport the characters from one part of Count Almaviva's home to another is comparable to what Francesca Zambello accomplished with projections and film in her version of the RING cycle. Thanks to Rom's stunningly efficient designs, this 233-year-old opera zips by with the speed and breathtaking grace of figure skaters displaying their newest tricks. In his Director’s Note, Cavanagh explains that:
The Marriage of Figaro is all about new beginnings, hope, and possibility. Where better to set intimate, personal entanglements than a household? And where better to examine the struggle of public responsibility versus private fulfillment than the great social experiment that is the United States of America? Imagine a great house that is built just after a revolution, stands its feet just as a society’s grounds are shifting, and then falls into ruin, serving as a refuge for the survivors of a bleak and uncertain future. Imagine, too, that within the walls of this place are hopeful, passionate, desperate, and determined people, young and old. They love, they hurt, and they persist. This illustrates perfectly the push and pull of human life. We strive to live freely for ourselves while giving to, and taking from, others with whom we share this journey. People can be hurt, dreams quashed, and treasured ways of life altered forever. But that’s the price of progress, for every human heart as well as our collective soul.”
“The time period is the opera’s original one, the late 18th century. The location is unspecific, somewhere near the heart of a brand-new America. This is a post-revolutionary time and place, a world of vast possibility for some, but great resentment and resistance for others. It is a house and a nation under construction, representing a hopeful future in which people strive to express their individual freedom within a framework of responsibility to each other. This house is one where modes of living themselves are also under construction. These are all new Americans (as is virtually every American citizen, at one point or another) and they are gathered in this new space, in this new society, to figure out how to co-exist for better or for worse. Some, like Susanna and Figaro, are determined to carve out a fresh identity, to use this emerging culture to establish new customs and go forward into a bright and boundless future. Others like Almaviva and Bartolo want nothing more than to cling to the status quo, to resist change and retain all the privileges of their old positions. Still others, like the Countess Rosina and, indeed, so many of us, are deeply conflicted, torn between a wish for a more hopeful, progressive world and a nostalgia for a bygone era that seems (through the gauze of memory) to have been a simpler, better time.”

As the Count Almaviva and his Countess, Levente Molnár and Nicole Heaston offered multi-layered portraits of a married couple challenged by the husband's constant infidelity. The difference in social class was brought into sharper focus in this production by the casting of two African American artists in the servant roles of Figaro (Michael Sumuel) and Susanna (Jeanine De Bique). I was especially intrigued by the unique timbre of De Bique's voice, which brought a fresh new intensity to her character. As a soon-to-be wed couple, their reactions to the revelation of the identities of Figaro's long-lost parents were priceless.

Catherine Cook (Marcellina) and James Cresswell (Dr. Bartolo)
in a scene from Le Nozze di Figaro (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

In addition to singing with obvious passion, Serena Malfi gave the horny page, Cherubino, new levels of mischief. Artists filling smaller roles such as Doctor Bartolo (James Creswell), Marcellina (Catherine Cook), Don Basilio (Greg Fedderly), Don Curzio (Brenton Ryan), Barbarina (Natalie Image), and the gardener, Antonio (Bojan Knežević) were all fully invested in -- and given some truly wonderful new comedic bits for -- their characters. The musical direction for soloists (as well as the chorus under the direction of Ian Robertson) was excellent.

Assisted by costume designer Constance Hoffman, lighting designer Jane Cox, and choreographer Lawrence Pech, the creative team for this production has achieved a minor miracle: Working with a gifted cast of soloists, they have delivered a nearly perfect production of Mozart's opera.

It's extremely rare to encounter a production in which almost every movement has its meaning and the music positively glistens with Mozart's genius. Having sat through many a dull performance of Le Nozze di Figaro, I have to say that, by the final curtain call, I felt as if I had died and gone to heaven. The quality of the performance I attended was so good that I teared up at its sheer beauty and brilliance. Here's the trailer:

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