Saturday, July 7, 2018

Of Pork Pies and Trusting the Material...

I am going to express a minority opinion.  Apparently Union Ave. Opera's new production of HMS Pinafore has been receiving rave reviews and I wish I could jump on the bandwagon, but I just can't. I found the production very disappointing.  Now, it wasn't the performance per se.  The leads were mostly very good. Josephine and the Captain were the standouts, but Ralph and Sir Joseph were also quite excellent. I liked Little Buttercup's voice and she I think was a good actress but she needed to dial it back a bit.  Not only that but the chorus was terrific. They used a rather small chorus but it was amazingly well balanced even so.  It wasn't the set, or the costumes all of which were very good.  So then what is it?

The problem was with the director.  I got the distinct impression that this director at the very least did not trust the material that he had to work with. Consequently we were subjected to constant over-direction.  It started with the overture. Why can't the overture stand on its own, we will figure out soon enough that Ralph and Josephine have a thing for each other.  We simply don't need to be presented with this during the overture.  But no, bits and business filled the stage during the overture completely distracting us from the music. But that was only the beginning for what followed was a never ending cascade of silly and irrelevant bits that the director inserted in an effort (I suppose) to be funny.  Except, the material as it is is already really funny. 

A little story: Back in the days when Gilbert walked on this earth, his leading baritone Rutland Barrington started adding bits to add to the humor. Gilbert insisted he stop.  "Why?" asked Barrington, "The people are laughing."  Gilbert responded something to the effect that "If you went on stage and sat on a pork pie people would laugh but it adds nothing to the show and is ultimately completely distracting."  And, this is what this director gave us: a heaping serving of pork pie!

Several other egregious examples - The 2nd act entracte begins with a brief orchestral reprise of Little Buttercup's song from act 1. There is a melancholy to this brief orchestral moment that beautifully sets up the very melancholy song that the Captain sings to open act 2 ("Fair Moon to Thee").  It is a beautiful song and was beautifully sung in this performance.  But the effect was ruined by the senseless stage business that filled the entracte. It was not necessary to see the crew and the girls (sister, cousins and aunts) chasing each other and dancing. But for the me absolute worst moment occurred during what should be the highlight of the entire opera both musically and dramatically: "The Hours Creep On Apace" followed by the aria "A Simple Sailor Lowly Born." Gilbert and Sullivan are at their absolute best here. This is also the most serious moment in the show as it deals with the serious issue of social class.  We might think this is irrelevant today, but it is not, we have a lot of class issues that we struggle with.  And not only is it still a serious issue, but what the text points out is that perhaps even more important are the pre-conceptions that one has about class which prevents people from being able to relate to one another in a constructive way. And on top of it Sullivan's music is simply glorious. But we were not able to appreciate the profundity of this moment as this director filled the aria with bits that completely distracted the audience from the text and from the singer, who was also glorious by the way (it is a darn shame and she deserves an apology for this!) We don't need to see a future Ralph carrying two babies around while he is wearing a t-shirt and smoking cigars. We get it, because it is all in the text! And we don't need to watch Sir Joseph and the Captain acting pompous, we have already had quite enough of that, thank you very much.  The result was laughter that covered the singer and destroyed to moment!  Inexcusable! 

But that is not all. Presumably while Josephine is singing the Captain and Sir Joseph are drinking, and drinking and drinking and by the time they get to the Bell Trio they are totally drunk. It was simply not funny to watch two drunk guys stumble around on stage during what should be the funniest moment of the entire show.  In fact, this trio usually gets encores.  Mercifully we were spared this and the drunk men were able to stumble off stage.  Well, except for the Captain who amazingly was able to sober up immediately for his duet with Dick Deadeye.  And Hebe must have been ready with coffee back stage because Sir Joseph was also amazingly sober at his next entrance as well.

I was not going to write anything but I was so disappointed and upset by the way this director ruined Josephine's aria and the Bell Trio I felt I had to write.  Look - to all directors - Gilbert knew what he is doing.  He doesn't need you to add anything. He is amazingly funny as it is in the script.  If you have a great cast (as they have for this production) all you need to do is do the show seriously and it will be incredibly funny and even a little profound.  This production was neither funny or profound.  But it was at least very well sung, so that is something (though for some reason the orchestra was terribly soft.  The singers covered them almost for the entire evening.  What I could hear was very good but I think they could play out a bit more!)

Here is a video clip of Josephine's 2nd act aria - Valerie Masterson:
The Hours Creep On Apace

Friday, June 15, 2018

"E Pluribus Unum" – A Reflection on “An American Soldier” performed by Opera Theater of St. Louis

As part of its ongoing commitment to perform new works, Opera Theater of St. Louis this year commissioned and then presented a two act version of the opera “An American Soldier.”  The music, composed by Huang Ruo to a libretto by the well-known playwright David Henry Hwang (of “M. Butterfly” fame) tells the true story of a 19 year old Chinese-American man who enlists in the Army after high school because he wants to be an American! He wants to be seen as an American and he thinks this is the way to become a real American.  Despite opposition from family and friends and driven by this desire to be completely American (and the Army represents this to him) he enlists.  Initially things go well.  Basic training is a positive experience for him, but once he is stationed first in Fairbanks, Alaska and then shipped off to Kandahar in Afghanistan things go from bad to worse. And the issue is racism – bitter, intense racism. Despite his attempts to get along and do his job he is tormented and miserably abused to the point where he finally can no longer stand it and he commits suicide.  His commanding officer is court-martialed (Sgt. Markum is actually a composite of multiple officers who were court-martialed in 2012). Various witnesses then spin out the story of what happened to Danny over the two acts through flashbacks and short solo testimonies.  It is a chilling story of intense racial abuse (which includes horrible physical abuse) and touches on a variety of parallel issues (like the sexual assault of women in uniform!) And the opera raises a series of difficult questions – such as - who ever thought that having “racial Thursdays” was a good idea (at the base in Fairbanks, for the “good of morale” soldiers were encouraged to insult each other with the most heinous racial slurs they can think of)? Why is there little to no accountability for officers in the field who can behave in any way they want, abusing whoever they want? Why is it that men like Sgt. Marcum feel like the only way they can assert themselves is to put others down?  Why do so many white men like Marcum feel so threatened? Why do women and men who are assaulted find that any attempt to bring their abusers to justice is met by a thick brick wall?

The other important aspect of the story is the relationship between Danny (performed brilliantly by tenor Andrew Stenson) and his mother (beautifully portrayed by mezzo Mika Shigematsu).  Into this story was also included a girlfriend Josephine (also beautifully performed by the great internationally acclaimed coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim). Mother Chen’s struggles were an important part of the story. She cannot understand her son’s intense desire to become Americanized by becoming a soldier.  Initially she and Josephine cannot understand why Danny would choose to turn his back on a full college scholarship in order to enlist? The women simply cannot grasp the importance for young men to feel included and Danny feels separate.  He feels less than whole.  Growing up in Chinatown where he can speak Chinese but cannot write it he feels neither Chinese nor American and he desperately wants to belong.  But ultimately her struggle to understand her son gives way to another struggle: the struggle for justice. She demands justice for her son but finds that she is up against an institution that is unsympathetic.  The heart of this tragic story is found here and I found it deeply moving and upsetting.

            Given all that transpires the great final chorus - E Pluribus Unum – Out of the Many, One! – is less a celebration and more a reminder of how far we have missed the mark and failed.  These words that move the opera to its conclusion are sung as a final choral ensemble and interspersed with a commentary by the Military Judge (the excellent bass Nathan Stark). This nameless judge whose only identification is as the highest ranking officer in the opera – a Colonel – he presides over the court-martial trial that forms the frame of this work.  We are reminded at the outset of this choral ensemble that President Harry Truman had banned any kind of racial discrimination within the armed forces and that for a time the US Armed forces were somewhat of a model for the country, but this is no longer the case.  Nevertheless the judge reminds us that as a people as Americans are “White or Black, Asian, Native or Sikh, Christian, Jewish or Muslim, LGBT” It doesn’t matter.  We are all Americans and it is in this tapestry of diversity where the potential greatness of America is to be found. Whenever we approach greatness as a nation it is directly because of our diversity, but we mostly fail because of our fear of the other, our desire for power and wealth that overwhelms our ability to reach out of ourselves and embrace others. This fear then gives way to hatred – irrational hatred that cuts us off from one another and eats away at the foundation of the nation. The motto of the United States – E Pluribus Unum - points us towards all of this as it also strikes at the heart of this country’s original sin – racism! Ugly, bitter racism bred by fear and hate has always threatened the future of this nation and it will continue to do so. Whatever strength America has will lie in bringing all of the diverse threads of this nation into a whole and those who work against this are working to weaken and destroy.  The words of the motto of the United States additionally indict the current political leadership beginning at the top and including all those who enable this travesty to continue. This administration seems to be bent on destroying everything that this nation stands for. It coddles dictators and white supremacists, it arrests immigrants and in a disgusting and evil twist rips children from their parents and throws resources into a idiotic wall which it thinks will do – what? – keep out immigrants I suppose.  But it won’t.  All it will do is to further weaken and divide the nation and make us even more a pariah on the world stage.

And even though it is not a part of the opera, I have to bring up one of the most insidious dimensions of all of this and that is the Evangelical Christian dimension. It is appalling that so many so-called “Christian” leaders and “Christians” continue to baptize hate and exclusion as being somehow reflective of faith in the one who loved all and calls on all to be open to all. But this isn’t new – “Christians” devised “Manifest Destiny” from the Bible to justify the slaughter of Native peoples and defended the institution of slavery by extracting individual verses from the bible. This is called proof-texting and it works particularly well when you adopt a literalist way of looking at the bible. For with literalism the context doesn’t matter – what went before or comes after doesn’t matter – who Jesus was and what Jesus stands for doesn’t matter – all that matters is extracting the right collection of words from a bible verse in order to pummel an opponent and defend ones hate and racism and homophobia and transphobia and on and on.  But literalism is unfaithful, literalism is evil and is in fact a denial of scripture.  Context enables us to understand exactly what the scripture says and in this case it is pretty clear (with any number of rather explicit verses available as well) – racism is evil; hate is evil! We who claim to be Christians are called to love and love includes standing up and defending those who need defending.  Love also demands that we hold our leaders accountable. The progressive rotting of the fabric of this nation will continue until we can find a way to embrace our diversity. If America is ever to be great this is what will make America great = embracing diversity!

There is another issue that struck me profoundly by this performance and is related to the behavior of the audience. I have found it curious that predominately white audiences seem to have a tendency to cheer those perceived to be good guys and to boo those perceived to be the villains. No “gray” area here – it is either one or the other – good or bad! And it happens all the time. Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” is a perfect example. Invariably no matter where the opera is performed in the United States the white American character – Lt. B.F. Pinkerton - is always booed by the white American audiences. Why? The way he treats Butterfly? His attitudes towards others who are different than he is perhaps? But these attitudes are shared by the Consul, Sharpless, by the way and he is never booed. These attitudes were also the collective philosophy of the nation in the late 19th century and we are complicit in them since we have benefited from them. So, what is the point?  Are we attempting to assuage our own collective guilt by painting Pinkerton as “the bad guy” and booing him.  Does it make us feel superior to be able to identify, briefly at least with the abandoned Japanese woman who we just watched commit suicide on stage?

At the performance of “An American Soldier” I found the booing of Wayne Tigges (who plays Sgt. Marcum) absolutely appalling. Who do they think they are booing?  Marcum?  First of all, the point of curtain calls is that we finally get to meet and express our appreciation to the performers and artists, not the characters. It was not Sgt. Marcum who came out for a bow, it was Wayne Tigges who brilliantly performed this difficult role and was able to convey a variety of different dimensions of this complex character.  But even more important is that we must see that Sgt. Marcum is us! He is especially us white folks who think we are better than everyone else, who glory in our white privilege and feel threatened and fearful by those who are other.  To boo this character is a pathetic attempt to distance ourselves from this reality.  But you can boo all you want because the reality remains – we are all Sgt. Marcum and the sooner we recognize this and begin to address it the better it will be for us as a people!

Opera Theater of St. Louis has again presented a new work that is not only timely but in every way deeply moving and profoundly challenging. I was so affected by the performance last night I could not sleep. All of us need to take this message to heart – it is, after all, the motto of our nation: E Pluribus Unum.  In that little phrase is contained all that is necessary to “make American great…” – I won’t use the word “again” because it is irrelevant. American’s greatness, such as it is, has always been found in its diversity. And if America is ever to achieve any taste of greatness it will be because we find a way to embrace this gift of diversity.

(Feel free to comment.  But please note that I will not tolerate hate speech and such comments will be swiftly deleted!)

For more information about the remaining performances and for photos of the performance go to:

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Gateway Opera - 15 Minute Mozart

     One of the joys which comes from living in the St. Louis area is that there are four opera companies: Opera Theater of St. Louis, Union Ave. Opera, Winter Opera and (the new kids on the block) Gateway Opera. As far as I can tell Gateway Opera is a creation of love on the part of a number of committed and creative folks. I don't actually know the history, but I do know that one very important part of the success of Gateway Opera is Caetlyn Van Buren who does double duty as the stage director and writer!  Caetlyn's creativity is responsible for a number of the works they have performed, and this year's presentation: 15 Minute Mozart - is a great example.  Taking the great Mozart/Da Ponte masterpieces (Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte) and condensing them all into three 15 minute segments must have been quite a task.  But the result is not only completely successful, but it is hilarious. Not only does she reconstruct the music so it all fits within the time frame (she describes the process in the program), but she has reworked the libretto in a way that both lays out the basic narrative of the stories and then even comments on the plots themselves.  It was simply terrific and completely in the tradition on late 18th century popular Viennese theater where this kind of parody was popular entertainment for the general public.  There is a scene in "Amadeus" the film that takes place at one of these which is making fun of Don Giovanni, and Mozart loved it - which is one of the few things the movie actually gets right historically.

     Of course for all of the brilliance of the pieces they would all fall flat if they didn't have a cast to perform them that was really also terrific. Every single member of the cast was excellent.  I don't even want to lift up individuals because someone would get left out and that would be a shame. But I'll forge ahead anyway.  The company had 8 performers: 3 male singers, 4 women and one silent male actor!  Everyone one of them had moments where they stole the show.  A few of my favorite moments: Erika Cockerham's wonderful scene-stealing tantrum and then her quick transformation to flirty Dorabella, not to mention her lusty Cherubino; all of Laural Ellison Dantas' interactions with the silent Masetto of Shane Signorino and her silly Barbaraina and very funny Despina; Sara Gottman's irreverent Susannah and her stalker Donna Elvira; Anthony Heinemann was hilarious as a Don Ottavio who takes himself way too seriously and then teaming up with Jason Mallory as the boys in Cosi whose appearance as the "Albanians" just about stopped the show. Jason also played an excellent Figaro and Leporello. Kate Reimann had the "serious" roles of the Countess and Donna Anna, but she got perhaps the longest of any of the arias with "Come scolio" which was incredibly well sung.  And then Matt Pentecost played all the bad guys: Count Almaviva, Don Giovanni and Don Alfonso and as always he was terrific!  All of the singing and acting was great. I should add that the characterizations were all a little over the top - lusty Cherubino, stalker Donna Anna, irreverent Susanna, non sense of humor Don Ottavio - all of these behaviors are a part of the original character but one of the brilliant dimensions of these pieces is that Van Buren is able to bring them out in a way that would simply not be possible if you were to do the entire opera. 

    Of course, any time you condense an opera to 15 minutes you are going to miss something and I could give a list of all my favorite bits that were missing, but that would be to miss the point.  The point was parody and presenting the stories and if you had never seen any of these works you would leave with the basic plot in mind.  And if you are a veteran of hundreds of performances of these operas like me you leave with the reminder that these works are, after all, supposed to be comedies. Comedies in the Shakespearean way of understanding comedy perhaps, but still comedies. There is darkness, just like in Shakespeare, but it seems to me that most productions now emphasize the dark side of the works and it is easy to forget that there is a comedic dimension as well. These three re-workings created by Caetlyn Van Buren remind us that they are at the heart of it all holding up a mirror to for us to see ourselves and what we see should not only be all of the failure and disfunction but we should be able to laugh at ourselves too. And, by the way, I want to go on record as saying her take on the ending of Cosi is as good an interpretation as any I have ever seen and better than most! She does not shy away from ambiguity! Brava!

     I said above that Mozart had a great sense of humor and was perfectly capable of laughing at himself (Da Ponte, well not so much perhaps) but I think Mozart would have loved this evening's performance and would have laughed his ass off.  Bravi tutti!  Great job! And thanks for a wonderfully fun and entertaining evening!

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Met's New "Cosi fan Tutte"

The build up to the Met’s new Cosi was pretty much what one might expect. Lot’s of enthusiasm on one hand, and on the other the expected outrage that the Met might actually be attempting something creative instead of resorting to the old tired formulaic approach. Well the reality was an interesting and I think a very successful melding of a rather traditional approach to the story telling with the placing of the story in the context of 1950’s Coney Island. I have certainly seen productions of this opera that went farther afield in the basic production concept (Aix 2017 comes to mind). What was unique here was the integration of the setting and the story in a very colorful and entertaining way. Nothing, in my view detracted from the music (with the possible exception of the business which took place during the overture) and everything worked to bring about a presentation of this opera that was just very entertaining.
There are many dimensions of the original libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte that often get lost. In fact there are so many and the opera is so full of interesting allusions to other literature, biblical stories and historical realities that it is not possible to even pick up on them all. I am constantly learning and seeing more in this libretto all the time. For example, before this production I had a vague awareness that there were allusions to Adam and Eve and the snake (Genesis chapter 3) but the snake handler on stage, especially during Dorabella’s act 2 aria where her text is full of this allusion never struck me as profound as it did in this production. Also, the references to the girl’s emotions being like smoldering volcanos are references to the fact that Vesuvius sits right outside of Naples and is a constant visible presence in this busy seaport town. Naples in fact was an active and busy place and one of the issues these girls from Ferrara struggle with is the fact that life is so much faster paced and busy than they are used to. This busy, unusual setting is a key to understanding the Coney Island setting of this production. Life is different here in this place - people don’t act or look the same. It is both disorienting and it is exhilarating. Within this context it is not then all that much of a surprise that when they are abandoned by their boyfriends these girls don’t recognize the boys who are now pursuing them. One of the most effective scenes for me was the opening of the first act finale where the girls go out for an walk and experience one strange thing after another. In this I feel that the director was completely in tune with the heart of the libretto.
Another popular trope on social media leading up to the production surrounded the casting of Kelli O’Hara as Despina. Here, the claim was that the Met is trying to capitalize on the popularity of one of Broadway’s brightest star. Well, Kelli O’Hara not only sang the role exceptionally well but her embodiment of the character was, in my view, revelatory. She imbued the maid Despina with a humanity, a sadness and a whimsy that I am not sure I have ever experienced from any other performer. It was, perhaps the single most effective performance by a cast member last night. But Christopher Maltman’s philosopher Don Alfonso was not far behind. Again this performance was easily one of the most excellent performances of this role I have ever seen. For the boys and the girls we had excellent young singers: Ben Bliss and Adam Plachetka as the boys and Amanda Majeski and Serena Malfi as the girls. They were in my view wonderful. I particularly loved Amanda Majeski’s vulnerable Fiordiligi and Serena Malfi’s decisive Dorabella. These artists, along with their director, managed to strip away the inevitable sense of victim hood that tends to surround these characters, and also at the same time gave us a sense that they made the decisions they did with purpose and not out of a sense of weak inevitability. This also worked to free the boys of the predator nature which too often surrounds their behavior. What happens on Coney Island stays in Coney Island!
Without giving anything away let me make a couple other observations. The utilization of the side-show workers was highly effective in my view and they helped to create some memorable theatrical experiences: The aforementioned “walk” on the boardwalk, the “Garden of Pleasures,” Mesmer’s machine, the Notary all were highlights. If I had any reservations I have to say that as fun as the bit during the overture was it obscured the music (with the audience cheering) which I found unfortunate. I’m also not so sure I liked the balloon. (# See note below) I won’t say anymore than that.
Lastly, the ending of this opera is always a problem for a variety of reasons and I have seen so many different takes. For me the most effective was in a film of the opera which starred Furuccio Furlanetto as Guglielmo. This production doesn’t really have any new ideas about the ending. And that is ok - most productions don’t.
Overall this was a great night at the Met. I loved this production, this cast and this performance. Don’t miss the HD.
Here is the link for my earlier essay: In Defense of Cosi
# I didn't notice when I saw it in the theater but it was pointed out to me that it is not a balloon.  Fiordiligi is riding the Ferris Wheel!  I don't know how I missed that, it is brilliant and the coordination between the Ferris Wheel in the background and the gondola which contains the singer is terrific!  Watch for it - it is way cool!