02 September 2016

Gene Wilder


Gene Wilder was one of a handful of people I knew I’d have to talk to in order to tell the story of Madeline Kahn, the Oscar-nominated, Tony-winning star whom he described to me as his “most talented actress and favorite co-star.”

A lot of fans consider Gene and Madeline one of the all-time-great movie couples. In reality, they made only three pictures together, and in one of those, they don’t share a scene. That’s Blazing Saddles. But Gene was so taken with Madeline that he hung around the set for every single take of her big number, “I’m Tired.”

Afterward, he told Mel Brooks, “If the entire movie is just that one scene, it will be worth the price of admission.” The two immediately started trying to find a part for her in their next movie, Young Frankenstein.

I was keenly aware that, without Gene, I wouldn’t have a book that would be worthy of Madeline herself.

This accounts for some of my eagerness in our first interactions. Something he said when I first wrote to him, led me to believe that he’d be willing to meet face-to-face. So I offered to meet — and Gene’s response nearly exploded out of my laptop. NO, he did not want to see me! He was so skittish that for several nervous minutes I was afraid of losing him altogether.

I wrote back to say that I’d be willing to ask him my questions any way he wanted. Telephone. E-mail. Semaphore. Smoke signals.

He chose e-mail.


As the Fox, outstanding in his field.

At first, Gene seemed a little … terse. He’d write no more than two or three sentences in answer to any question.

Now, my aim in writing my book was to allow the reader to hear voices — not only Madeline’s voice, because I was looking at her first as a singer — but also the voices of the people she worked with. Gene’s answers weren’t what I’d imagined.

Beyond that … was he brushing me off? I picked up his memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger. And then I understood. This was Gene’s writing style. To the point. Terse, if you will, but in keeping with a man, most of whose writing had been movie scripts.

As I looked over what he’d written to me, and compared it with what he’d said about Madeline in other places, I saw that, so far from brushing me off, he was actually giving me his best material.

I was reminded of one of his early movies, The Little Prince. Gene played the Fox. The Fox can’t be tamed, and he’s very shy. For the first time, I understood: when Gene played the Fox, he was typecast. And so I tried to keep myself at a distance where he’d be comfortable with me. He signed his notes “Gene,” but I never addressed him as “Dear Gene.” Maybe that was a mistake, but it’s too late now to undo it.

Over the years, he continued to give me his best material, always answering me promptly. I seldom had to wait more than an hour for a reply to any of my questions.

He was fastest when I wrote to get his response to Mel Brooks, who insisted, even as I objected, that Gene and Madeline must have had an affair. Quite a few fans still believe this. Madeline herself, Gene had told me, thought it was a good idea. His own stepdaughter believed it to be true. And now Mel — who knew both Madeline and Gene well — told me he couldn’t believe it wasn’t true.

Yet again, Gene’s reply exploded out of my computer. This time in ALL CAPS. NO, he and Madeline never had an affair!


“I want everything I’ve ever seen in the movies!”

When it came time to solicit endorsements for the back cover of the book, Gene obliged. I wrote to thank him, and I never heard back. His birthday rolled around about six weeks after the book was released; I dropped him a note. I didn’t hear back.

Maybe he didn’t like the book, I thought — despite the evidence that he had liked it. (I promise you, my publisher didn’t put a gun to his head when they asked for his endorsement.) Maybe he figured that my book was finished, and therefore that was the end of it.

Or maybe he was only a little more than a year away from death.

Reading his obituary, I realize that our later correspondence followed his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. He must have known that each note to me represented a last chance to express his feelings for a dear friend, whom he missed quite painfully.

He was a helluva guy. Gene was very, very ambitious for himself. But he loved his friends. He made them his co-stars. And he did everything he could to make them look as good as possible.

He wrote The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother specifically for Madeline — and Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise, and himself. Every one of them gets a chance to shine. You see a similar generosity in the scripts he wrote for Richard Pryor and Gilda Radner, too. This was a man who truly cared about the people he worked with.

If you haven’t seen Smarter Brother, I hope you’ll do so soon. It was the first picture Gene wrote and directed, and he also stars. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a beautiful tribute — to Madeline — to Marty — to Dom — and to Gene himself.

Now, Gene didn’t write a movie for me. But he did what he could to help me. And make no mistake — that, too, was his tribute to Madeline.




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14 August 2016

The Florence Foster Jenkins Moment


Queen of Delight? Streep as Foster Jenkins.

At movie theaters, we’re in the middle of a Florence Foster Jenkins moment. Stephen Frears’ film, starring Meryl Streep, has opened in the United States — following Xavier Giannoli’s French film, Marguerite, released just a year ago and based on Foster Jenkins’ life, starring my beloved Catherine Frot in a César-winning performance. In the works is a documentary, The Florence Foster Jenkins Story, in which none other than Joyce DiDonato plays the demented diva.

Why now? Is it merely that, at this historical moment, we happen to have three talented actresses who are willing and able to play the woman widely regarded as the worst singer who ever lived? Is there some vast audience that’s been demanding — for decades, presumably — multiple interpretations of this story? Does Foster Jenkins’ story speak to something current in our society? Is this just a fluke?

Having seen the Frears and Giannoli films, I’m inclined to opt for Answer 1. Streep, who as a child studied with Estelle Liebling, is the right age, more or less, and quite open to the challenge of impersonating well-known women (Margaret Thatcher, Julia Child). Frot has made a career-long specialty of loopy bourgeoises, finding in their stories a measure of comedy and tragedy, and Marguerite offers audiences a taste of both. And Joyce, widely esteemed as one of the greatest singers alive, is also a good sport with remarkable sympathy for those less gifted: I once attended a dinner party at which we played some of Foster Jenkins’ recordings, and while the rest of us writhed in a mixture of agony and delight, dear Joyce refused to say a word against the woman.

The next question, then, is what’s the point? What lessons are we to draw from Foster Jenkins? While I can’t yet address the documentary, I’m prepared to answer for the Giannoli and Frears films. Ultimately, Marguerite is the tragedy of a woman who doesn’t know herself; her delusions are at once her reason for being and her undoing. And Florence Foster Jenkins is a garden-variety biopic, leaving its message to the marketing team (“You don’t have to be good to be great,” runs the slogan).


On wings of song: DiDonato as Foster Jenkins.

Both films present a Foster Jenkins who is entirely unaware of how badly she sings; Frears’ film implies that neurological damage from syphilis accounts for her inability to hear herself as others hear her. Both films disregard the theory that Foster Jenkins was in on the joke, that her over-the-top performances were a sort of performance art avant la lettre — which may or may not be true, but which would make for an interesting movie.

Marguerite comes closer to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, the story of a man who doesn’t understand that his true talent is friendship — not moviemaking. If Burton’s film doesn’t attain the level of tragedy, it’s because the movie doesn’t permit the title character any recognition of his fatal flaw. He remains blithely oblivious to what he’s been doing wrong, and yet the message is clear and (for this audience) meaningful. At those many, many times when my writing career hasn’t gone as planned, I’ve wondered whether I hadn’t been kidding myself all along. Wood’s friendship with Bela Lugosi resembles in some ways my friendship with Dan Rather — and so on.

Marguerite gives its heroine her Aristotelian moment, and so, to a degree, does Frears’ FFJ. But in general Frears is up to something different, and his film may be interpreted as a 110-minute expression of the popular maxim, “Dance as if no one is watching.” Florence does indeed sing as if no one is listening, much less judging. But should she? Music is her passion, and she follows her bliss. Okay. That’s fine for her. But what about the rest of us? Are we really supposed to follow her example? If so, I’ll book Carnegie Hall myself.

Thus, despite all of Streep’s dazzle, the focus shifts to her common-law husband, St. Clair Bayfield, a ham actor who at least sometimes has the self-awareness not to subject other people to his “talent.” Effectively a kept man, he coddles Florence, pays off her critics, papers the house, indulges her fancies, and defends her dream world. Even in private conversation, he can’t bring himself to admit that Florence sings badly — as we see in a nice scene with her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (his real name). And only when he lets down his guard — taking a vacation with his mistress — does Florence set in motion the Carnegie Hall concert that will at once fulfill her dream and bring it crashing down on her.


Ah! Je ris! Frot as Marguerite.

We get more insight into Florence’s character in a single scene than in the entire rest of the movie. On a surprise visit to Cosmé’s apartment, Florence talks about her youthful ambition of becoming a concert pianist, and reveals that damage to her hand cut short her career. Thereupon she and Cosmé sit at the piano and, one hand each, they play a Chopin étude. Suddenly, Streep’s performance isn’t about ticks and twirls, and least of all about her voice: it’s about a real woman who does not happen to be Meryl Streep. The Chopin doesn’t merely show us that music is important to Florence; it shows us why music is important to her, and what music does to her.

Does Bayfield understand this? We never see any evidence, one way or another, and yet that explanation could elevate his behavior from self-interest (so long as he humors her, he enjoys a prosperous lifestyle) or benevolent affection (as depicted here, he really does love her). As the film is constructed, however, we get only hints of Bayfield’s attempt to define the point at which he does his lover no favors by telling her lies.

Those hints come not so much in the dialogue but in the weary blue eyes of Hugh Grant, who plays Bayfield. It’s a remarkable performance, particularly coming from someone whose acting is known more for charm than for depth. He’s coasted on piffle in almost every movie he’s made — and he almost always seems to know it. But here he’s working with Meryl Streep, and he rises to the challenge.


Happy, darling? That’s all that matters.
Streep and Grant.

For those who say Grant isn’t a true actor because he doesn’t (or can’t) play Shakespeare, he offers up a self-aware, truly terrible soliloquy. “No, I’m not Ken Bloody Branagh,” he seems to say, “and isn’t that perfectly marvelous?” In what’s almost a throwaway line, Florence tells Cosmé that she hides bad reviews from Bayfield — just as we know he hides them from her. That’s a theme that should have been explored at greater length. The deceptions are mutual, co-dependent, symbiotic.

Yet even as he’s playing what amounts to a drawing-room comedy, Grant suggests, again and again, how much it costs Bayfield to sustain Florence’s fantasies. The script calls for him to retreat to his bachelor pad — and his mistress, and her bohemian friends — to recharge his batteries. But that’s not enough to save either Bayfield or Florence. Perhaps, then, the lesson of Florence Foster Jenkins is that friends don’t let friends dance like there’s no one watching when people actually are watching.

On The Big Bang Theory, Simon Helberg plays Howard, who (at least in episodes I’ve seen) is often presumed to be gay. Here, he plays Cosmé, who really is gay — though the script doesn’t make much of that, and nothing at all of the immortal paradigm of Diva and Gay Disciple. To this day, Florence’s most ardent followers often are gay men, as they were in her lifetime. Perhaps in a nod to political correctness, the script makes only oblique references to Cosmé’s sexuality — too subtle, I think, since a gay man with whom I saw the movie didn’t understand what Cosmé meant when, arriving late and disheveled (but not bloodied or bruised) to an engagement, he explains that he’s been “waylaid by sailors.”


How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Helberg as McMoon.

Seated at the piano, Helberg has to react more than speak, and some of his mugging seems better attuned to TBBT than to FFJ. But he knows how to bring Cosmé’s gayness just to the point of caricature and no further, and he plays piano quite well. He and Streep didn’t dub-and-mime their music, performing directly on camera instead, and their teamwork is inspired — one of many ways in which Frears pays gratifying attention to details that other filmmakers might neglect. But the character is barely sketched, and ultimately his motivation — like Bayfield’s — is summed up with the too-simple explanation that he, too, in his way has fallen in love with Florence.

But why do these men love her? Is it her money, her joy, her vulnerability, all of the above? Ultimately, Florence Foster Jenkins skims along its frilly surfaces, and doesn’t dig terribly deep. That’s not a sin, and yet it’s a shame. The talent is on hand to make a truly superlative picture, one that we’re still talking about seven decades from now — the way we talk about Foster Jenkins herself.

Florence Foster Jenkins is a charming entertainment, perfectly pitched to Streep’s fans and the diehard PBS viewer — which makes it all the more puzzling that the trailers “approved for this audience” all featured phenomenal amounts of violence. Well, I suppose it’s possible that the people who come to see FFJ will also want to see Ben-Hur and Jack Reacher and that other picture with explosions and noise, whatever it was. But really, the tone-deafness (and I use the word advisedly in this context) of the marketers makes it seem almost miraculous that there’s even one Foster Jenkins movie, to say nothing of three.


In this deleted scene, St. Clair Bayfield confronts Foster Jenkins’ critics.
(No, actually, it’s Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher, a film I’m unlikely to see, and less likely to enjoy.


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13 August 2016

From the Archive: Has ‘Joker’ Actor Gone Too Far? Friends Express Concern


Losing Himself? Romero as the Joker.

HOLLYWOOD -- As shooting continues on ABC’s Batman, friends and family of actor Cesar Romero are growing increasingly concerned. “He’s completely losing himself in the character,” confirms Burt Ward, who plays Robin on the popular TV series.

“It’s as if he can’t let go,” Ward continues. “Whenever I see him, he’s wearing wildly colored clothing, mincing around, gesturing flamboyantly — and worst of all, he can’t stop joking — and laughing at his own jokes, which aren’t even funny.”

“He’s becoming a pain in the neck,” agrees Adam West, who plays the title role. “The other day, we were at a public appearance, signing autographs in the parking lot at a shopping mall. I said to him, ‘It’s pretty breezy out here.’


“Without missing a beat, he said, ‘Just wait until the fans leave.’ And then he started hooting with laughter. I didn’t even get it, at first.”

With a weary shake of his cowl, West adds, “I can’t tell any more where Cesar ends and the Joker begins.”

Romero, who recently began taking classes at the Actors Studio, could not be reached for comment.


In Happier Times: Friends see almost no trace of the Romero they used to know.

“It’s really painful to see what he’s doing to himself for the role,” says Eartha Kitt, a frequent guest star on the show. “I guess he’s getting the purrrrrrformance he wants, but at what cost? And what will the viewers say? They’re not used to this kind of intensity.

“Purrrrrrrrrsonally, I find it hard to watch,” Kitt adds.

“I keep asking the producers when the breaking point comes, and when they’re going to stage some kind of intervention,” says Burgess Meredith, who plays the villainous Penguin. “I guess they’re just waiting for Cesar to crack-crack-crack-crack-crack.”


If Romero doesn’t get help, friends say, his condition will only get worse.


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30 June 2016

Hello, My Name Is Sybil


Lonely, eccentric DORIS MILLER, a sixtysomething bookkeeper, has developed a crush on JOHN FREMONT, a much younger colleague. Now, inspired by a self-help lecture, she decides to make a play for him. Through elaborate ruses, she manages to throw them together several times a day. Little does JOHN know DORIS is a hoarder … of personalities.

DORIS
(Knocking on the door to John’s office.)
John, do you have a minute?

JOHN
(Scarcely looking up from his work.)
Sorry, Doris — I’m in the middle of something right now. Can it wait?

DORIS
It’s just that the exercise ball they gave me for an office chair — it’s got a leak. And I thought of your bicycle pump.

JOHN
Oh, sure. Sure. Just give me a few minutes, and I’ll drop by your cubicle.

DORIS
Thank you so much!
(She leaves John’s office, then returns almost instantly.)

JOHN
Is there something else, Doris?

DORIS
Doris? (She bursts into peals of tinkling laughter.) Hahahahahaha! How could you possibly mistake me for her? Obviously, I’m Doris’ friend Vanessa.


JOHN
Uh … is there anything I can do for you, Vanessa?

DORIS
I hoped you could help me — the loquet on my necklace is broken, et je ne peux rien. Isn’t it joli? I’m so attached to it. Papa gave it to me during my last year at boarding school in Switzerland.

JOHN
I don’t really know much about repairing … lokay?

DORIS
Hahahahahaha! Silly me — oh, what is the English word? Is it … hasp? Do you say hasp?

JOHN
Uh … can I come by your cubicle in a few minutes?

DORIS
Bien sûr! A bientôt!
(She leaves, but returns immediately.)

JOHN
Vanessa, I really just need a few —

DORIS
Vanessa? Who’s Vanessa? My name is Sister Bertrille, and I’d like to ask you to make a contribution to the annual fund drive for the Convent San Tanco.

JOHN
I’m Jewish. It’s kind of not my thing.

DORIS
Oh! Of course. I’m sorry to interrupt you — have a nice day.
(She leaves, but returns immediately.)



JOHN
Look, this is getting out of hand —

DORIS
I’ll say it is! Exercise balls instead of office chairs? The way they treat the workers in this shop is terrible! There’s only one solution. (She holds up a sign with the word “UNION” scrawled on it.) We’re going on strike! Are you in?

JOHN
Can I just get a few minutes —

DORIS
You can think it over, but you’d better think fast!
(Singing “Look for the Union Label,” she leaves, but returns immediately.)

JOHN
(Really losing his temper by this time.)
For Pete’s sake, I can’t even concentrate! Come on, Doris, just give me a few —

DORIS
(Begins crying and muttering through her tears.)
When — when you yell like that — it scares me! Break glass, Peggy! Need to break glass!

She beats her hand against the glass wall of John’s office, shattering it.

DORIS and JOHN stand in silence, staring at the glass. Then, brightly —

DORIS
So … you want to have lunch sometime?



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13 June 2016

After Orlando, Pride


“Time to paint up!” Porsche is wont to exclaim when she’s getting ready to put on a show. One of the most phenomenal vocal impressionists I’ve ever heard, Porsche wears a dress, heels, and a blond wig to work — as well as false eyelashes, lipstick, and foundation. Thus adorned, she sings: exactly like Eartha Kitt, exactly like Tammy Wynette, exactly like Debbie Reynolds. (Seriously. Who else does Debbie Reynolds?)

Porsche is a man, a former high-school football player from Texas. She also sings exactly like Elvis Presley.

You could take painted-up Porsche home to mother, and yet she is everything that some people want to eliminate. A gay man who dresses as a woman, works in gay bars, and drinks alcohol. (A necessary preparative for singing exactly like Janis Joplin.) She uses her artistry to express a range of feeling, but mostly to express and to inspire joy.

Her shows are a regular summer feature at the Ice Palace in Cherry Grove, Fire Island. Yesterday, as news reports about the massacre at Pulse were still coming in (and they’re still coming in as I write), Porsche had to paint up. By this morning, she’d learn that one friend had been injured in the attack. Another friend did not survive.

How do you put on a show, when all that is going on? How do you “address this,” as Porsche asked herself? You sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” is how. Because Porsche also sings exactly like Judy Garland, and when President Kennedy was shot, that’s what Judy sang. For gays, it’s not a hymn of Christianity. It’s a hymn of Judy-ism.

The performance wasn’t merely “the show must go on.” This was defiance, and once again, as at so many points in our journey, a drag queen was leading the way. We will go on — we will go marching on. Whether you respect them or not, we will continue to celebrate art, and pride, and freedom, and love, and life itself.


Porsche.
Photo by Jim McGann.

Again and again in recent years, I have asked myself how to respond. When — and how — do I move beyond grief and anger? And once I’ve done so, what do I do? Is it possible for me to make any gesture that represents what the fallen might have done, to pay tribute to their lost potential? “We don’t let the terrorists win,” okay, but in yesterday’s attack, there’s another factor. Daesh has been tossing homosexuals off of buildings for a while now, and as they bring their campaign to American shores, it was a matter of time before they specifically attacked gays and their friends. True, Daesh hates other people, too; their adherents could have gone after anybody. But Sunday morning, a man professing allegiance to Daesh went after the gays.*

Daesh isn’t the only outfit that calls for the punishment of homosexuality by death, and it’s hardly alone in its enthusiasm for violence. Around the world, governments call for much the same, as do groups and individuals. In the United States, some people invoke religion to demand the execution of homosexuals. During the primary campaign, the Texan Senator Ted Cruz gratefully accepted the endorsement of one such pastor, and Cruz’s own father, also a pastor, is an outspoken homophobe. Neither fellow is a Muslim.

Among the Republican politicians who tweeted their “thoughts and prayers” yesterday, I saw only one who referred to the scene of the attack as a gay club. It’s hard not to construe this across-the-board omission as a nod to social conservatives, who are eager to roll back the advances in civil rights made by gays in recent years.

For now, at least, we still have the right to marry. And even Texas hasn’t passed a law subjecting us to the death penalty. But in many states, gays can legally be denied housing, employment, and basic services, simply because they’re gay. Gays are subject to daily persecution, and in many states, a crime against them is not considered a hate crime under the law, no matter how many times the assailant bellows, “Kill all the faggots.” The Red Cross may not want our blood, but plenty of other people do. We are still second-class citizens.


At Boots & Saddle on Sunday.

While Porsche was singing on Fire Island, another man from Texas, Miss Victoria Chase, had to paint up in Manhattan. Sundays are karaoke night at Boots & Saddle. But yesterday wasn’t like other Sundays. Wary of a copycat attack, police officers in combat gear stood guard outside the door. They carried automatic weapons. As one of Victoria’s friends observed, it’s a sign of progress that the police are now protecting, not raiding, gay bars — the Stonewall is just around the corner from Boots. But the need for protection is unnerving.

How do you put on a show, with all that going on? By singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” Victoria’s signature number, which reliably brings me to tears. Leader of her community that she is, Victoria sang for all of us. No, no, there’s no way. We’re not going.

In some ways, “And I Am Telling You” may seem like the flip side of “Battle Hymn,” immobility versus marching. Yet both songs are about prevailing, refusing to submit, and staying true.

Victoria sang “And I Am Telling You,” she tells me, as part of her Pride Package, along with Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” Well, this is Pride Month, and we’re thinking hard. This year we’ll remember that the Stonewall Rebellion was a response to a violent attack. We’ll remember that Pride isn’t just a parade or a party. We’ll remember that Pride stayed strong even while thousands of us were dying.

It’s time to paint up, stand up, and raise our voices. Most especially for those who no longer can.


Miss Victoria Chase.
Photo by Jim Silvestri.

*UPDATE: After I posted this essay, reports began appearing to the effect that the Orlando shooter may have been a closeted and/or self-hating homosexual; his affiliation with Daesh never seemed close, though Daesh gladly took credit after the fact. The shooter’s mental health (and his relationship with his father) surely factors into his motivation and his crime, as well. It will probably be a long while, if ever, before we know even a substantial part of the full story. However, it occurs to me that it’s possible to be both radicalized and closeted at once, as the 9/11 attacker Mohammed Atta reportedly was. And if anything, the new reports about the Orlando shooter confirm the need to respond to the massacre with pride. The more we break down the closets, the more society admits our worth and respects our rights, the healthier and safer we will be.


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26 May 2016

Returning to ‘Little Women,’ or How Mark Adamo Concord Me


Where it began: the HGO cast in 2000.
Margaret Lloyd, Stacey Tappan, Stephanie Novacek, Joyce DiDonato (my first glimpse of her).

I first saw Mark Adamo’s opera, Little Women, in 2001, a video of the production from Houston Grand Opera (a revival of the world premiere, from 1998) projected on the wall of a New York City hotel room for the benefit of music writers who wouldn’t be able to watch the broadcast on PBS a few days later. The next year, I attended a performance at the Glimmerglass Festival — and I got a sense of the work’s power to move listeners. During Beth’s death scene, a man began to sob and ran out of the theater. The Glimmerglass production took the stage at New York City Opera in 2003, where I saw it again. A performance at the Seagle Music Colony in 2004 was the last that I would see — until now.

I’d kept up with Mark and his work in the meantime. My interview with him, for a profile in Opera News in 2001, represented the first of many long conversations that have led to a rewarding friendship. I’ve heard much but not all of the stage work he’s written since Little Women: I’ve attended two performances of his Lysistrata and watched his Becoming Santa Claus — a live simulcast from Dallas, projected on another wall in New York.

But what would I think of Little Women upon hearing it again after all this time? “Things change, Jo,” as Meg observes in the opera, and so of course do I. Little Women was Mark’s first opera, crafted on a much smaller scale than Becoming Santa Claus and the grand Lysistrata. Twelve years ago, I wasn’t hearing nearly as many new operas as I do today, and even a work I admired — Berg’s Lulu — contained passages I didn’t learn to love until last fall, when the Met unveiled its new production. My tastes are changing.


Composer-librettist-conversationalist: Mark Adamo.

Even my admiration for Little Women developed gradually. The libretto won me over from the get-go, and thanks to Mark’s understanding that “almost alone among adolescent protagonists in classic American fiction (Tom Sawyer, Holden Caulfield, Roth’s Portnoy), [Jo is] happy where she is,” I’ll never think about Alcott’s novel the same way. As Mark dramatizes the story, Jo learns to accept change — and she’s powerless to resist it. (Her only option, represented by her fearsome Aunt March, is to seal herself off from the world — to bury herself alive in “a house of stone.”) That’s a good deal more compelling than the plot of a novel I found sticky-sweet and infuriatingly girly. And as a stage work, the opera provided performers with plenty of chances to shine — something that’s important to me as an unabashed diva-worshipper.

But the music took a little longer. Not terribly long, but in retrospect I think that I, like so many others, expected an operatic adaptation of Little Women to sound like either Aaron Copland or Stephen Foster. It sounds like neither, and its only concession to the music of anyone other than Mark Adamo is Professor Bhaer’s Schubertian Lied “Kennst du das Land?” — so achingly beautiful that you’re grateful when he sings it a second time, in English. It’s a clever composer who writes the singer’s encore into the opera. And the song makes it easier than ever before to understand why Jo settles for the Professor.

The trick of false expectations is that they can sometimes blind (or in this case, deafen) us to reality. Only at Glimmerglass was I able to begin to set aside my ideas about what I wasn’t hearing, and to pay attention to the music Mark actually wrote. The orchestral ensemble is small, so that a certain “American” openness is built in, and 16 years after I first heard it, the music is still fresh, even bracing. The vocal writing is gratifying to young singers especially, and where the music is spiky, “modern,” rebellious, uncompromising — well, aren’t those the qualities we cherish in Jo? You may think you want Stephen Foster, but what you require is Mark Adamo. He knows how to tell this story in sound.

At the Gerald W. Lynch Theater on May 7, Joseph Colaneri led the Mannes Opera and the Mannes Orchestra in a production staged by Laura Alley. Insofar as the staging of a new opera can be traditional, this one was, and it looked a lot like the original production in Houston. My only quibbles were with the men’s hats (no, they wouldn’t wear them indoors) and the brief moment when Jo sets time in reverse (insufficiently clear). I’m always reluctant to write about student casts by name — the whole point is for them to learn, not for them to be perfect, or even to seek our approval. (Mine least of all.) But I’m happy to report that everyone performed with spirit, and mezzo Melanie Ashkar reminded me that Jo is a tour-de-force role, seldom offstage and usually singing. Colaneri elicited polished playing from his ensemble, and thus he gave me a real chance to concentrate on the music.

Again and again, I found myself recognizing a theme that, I knew, would return later in the opera. I heard details in the orchestration that I hadn’t noticed before. I smiled at the familiar. I chuckled at the jokes. I looked forward to pleasures. And as I listened, I realized that this is what I do with any opera for which admiration has turned to affection, whether it’s La Traviata or Lulu — or, by now, even Dog Days. Over the years, Little Women has become a contemporary classic and a pillar of the standard repertory.

Its status as such is confirmed by the myriad productions it receives — I’m told that this year alone there will be something like a dozen, maybe more — and by the ways in which audiences and young musicians take it to heart. You needn’t take my word for it. Just listen.


Ava Pine in Mark’s Lysistrata at Fort Worth Opera.


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11 April 2016

In Search of Ana María Martínez


Ana María Martínez as Rusalka in Chicago.
(Where I didn’t get to hear her.)

If I had a nickel for every time a New Yorker has asked, “Why doesn’t the Met hire Ana María Martinez?” I could probably have paid for my airfare to Houston last January to hear her in precisely the sort of role the Met should be begging her to sing: the water nymph Rusalka in Dvořák’s Romantic fairy tale, in which she’d triumphed already at Glyndebourne and in Chicago.

Ana made her Met debut as Micaëla in Carmen in 2005. I was in France and had to miss it. She went on to triumph in Paris, London, Santa Fe, Vienna, Munich, Dresden, Berlin, and Madrid (among others!). Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington became like second homes for her, and Houston really is her home. Meanwhile, New York had to wait. Opera lovers subsisted on recordings, video clips, her rave reviews, and the ecstatic word of mouth from friends who’d been able to hear her almost everywhere except New York.

At last, ten years after her debut, the Met asked her back, this time as Musetta, the seconda donna in La Bohème. The choice of role was curious, since she’s sung Mimì to acclaim all over the world. On the plus side, all her experience means that she’s worked with many Musettas, so she must have some idea of what does and doesn’t work — a head start, even before she rehearsed. To her performances last December, she brought wit, sex appeal, and plush tone.


Welcome back! Ana as Musetta at the Met.

I’ve come to expect the unexpected from her — the penetrating insight that changes my own perceptions — and yet I was almost startled by a seemingly insignificant moment in Act IV, when she brings a muff to warm Mimì’s hands. Mimì asks who’s speaking, and she answers, “Io, Musetta.” Listening to the tender warmth that Ana lavished on those words, I realized that I was hearing Musetta’s true character. This is who Musetta really is. She’s letting down her guard for once. She’s not putting on a show (as she surely is in her aria “Quando m’en vo”). She’s not playing with anybody’s feelings. She just wants to help her friend.

Please note that Ana accomplished this on the words “I, Musetta” — just as Shakespeare would have wanted her to do, in any of his “I am” speeches.

Running backstage after the performance, I greeted Ana with a happy “You’re alive!” — after all, she’s died in every other Bohème she’s ever sung. I had missed Ana: her performances, her winning smile, her kindness and wit. And when we spoke of the upcoming Rusalka in Houston, she added, “I hope you can see it. It’s something really special.” Now, Ana isn’t the sort of soprano to command her admirers to attend her performances, and she wouldn’t say something was special if it weren’t.

So off to Houston I went.


It was at Houston Grand Opera that I first heard Ana — as Mimì (here with Garrett Sorenson and Joshua Hopkins).

Unlike Musetta in Bohème, the title role of Dvořák’s Rusalka vividly displayed a full range of what New York has been missing out on — not least because for most of Act II, she’s mute and must pantomime first her yearning for her Prince (tenor Brian Jagde), then her desperation when he turns to the Foreign Princess (soprano Maida Hundeling). Ana is so complete a performer (a Gesamtkünstlerin, if you will) that, without singing a note, she held the audience’s attention and sympathy at every moment. (I attended the January 31 matinée.)

The extraordinary grace Ana showed in Act I, “swimming” onstage, hoisted aloft, flipping an enormous mermaid tail (even during her Song to the Moon), now turned into the tentative footsteps of a woman who has never walked before and is honestly afraid that she’ll hurt herself if she tries. (We recall that Andersen’s Mermaid feels pain as if she’s walking on broken glass.) Through her physicality, Ana created a poignant awkwardness that reminded me of the effects Gilda Radner so often achieved (to very different ends). You wanted to hug her, to tell her everything would be all right.

But of course it wouldn’t. Not for Rusalka. As Bugs Bunny says, “What did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”

Director Melly Still and designer Rae Smith rightly emphasize the darkness of this opera, and Ana revealed all the darker colors of her voice, so that her high notes came to seem like the moon itself shimmering on the surface of deep water. She drew on enormous reserves of power for the marathon Act III, and yet she still had energy for a talkback session with the audience after the show.

Jill Grove as the witch Jezˇibaba (at once comic and terrifying) and Richard Paul Fink as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik (stentorian and tender in an awful costume), were spectacularly good, and conductor Harry Bicket, whose work I had known exclusively from 18th-century music, made a strong case for his abilities in 19th-century repertoire, even while maintaining an almost Mozartean clarity in the lush Romantic orchestration. Donna Stirrup directed this revival of Still’s production.


Like a sophomore attending the senior prom: she’s so sweet and pretty, but you know this isn’t going to turn out well.
Ana as Rusalka, Act II.
(Photo from the Glyndebourne performances.)

Leaving Houston, I congratulated myself. I’d given myself a booster shot of Ana’s magic, enough to hold me until another season rolled around. Little did I know — little did anyone know — that she’d be back in New York within weeks. Called on to replace Hei-kyung Hong in the title role of Madame Butterfly at the Met, Ana flew to New York from Los Angeles, where she was rehearsing the same opera in a different production. I’m not certain of the exact logistics, but there were a couple of back-and-forth trips before she completed the last of four performances — of which I attended two.

This is Ana María Martínez’s repertory, folks. Yes, I’m sure she was a lovely Micaëla, and her Musetta was inarguably wonderful, but dramatic leads are her natural habitat, where she can explore a character’s psychology and exploit the expressive range of her voice.

Butterfly is often portrayed as naïve in the extreme, but Ana understands that the heroine of Puccini’s opera has led a life of hardship before she makes her entrance in Act I. She’s seen plenty, and as she suggests when describing her career as a dancer, a lot of it was ugly and unfair. Thus Ana’s Butterfly isn’t naïve — and in fact she’s extraordinarily intelligent. She realizes that Pinkerton may not be completely honest with her, but she chooses to believe him. She knows how to be tough when she needs to be, as she demonstrates in Act II, dispatching Goro and Yamadori. When she kills herself, it’s not because she’s heartbroken or trying to hurt Pinkerton or upholding a code of honor — but because she believes it’s her son’s only chance for happiness. If Butterfly doesn’t kill herself, she’s in for a terrible time. Rejected by her family and most of Japanese society, she’d easily wind up not a geisha but a prostitute or a beggar. And her son would know that, and be tormented. So through her death, she frees him.

This is what Ana brings to the stage, even in a role you think you know backward and forward. Astonishing. Every word of text conveyed meaning, and Ana’s voice exulted throughout the vast Met, soaring over the orchestra, spinning out high pianissimi, making you listen, no matter how familiar the music may be. This was my first viewing of Anthony Minghella’s celebrated production, and on the whole I admired it — not least because it gave Ana room to do what she does so well. Critics and audiences agreed with me: she received rave reviews and thundering ovations.


Butterfly at the Met: Ana with the indispensable Maria Zifchak as Suzuki.

Having knocked out New York, Ana went back to Los Angeles for the run of the Butterfly production there — almost as if nothing unusual had happened. The Met went on about its business, too, and Ana isn’t on the roster for next season, not even in the new production of Rusalka. Who knows how long New York will have to wait to hear her again?

As for me, I’ve certainly made up for many of the performances I’d missed. And yet … she’s singing Elisabetta in one of my favorite operas, Verdi’s Don Carlo, in San Francisco in June. Ordinarily, I consider Eboli the more interesting woman onstage in that opera. But then again, I’ve never heard Ana’s Elisabetta. In fact, nobody has — this will be a role debut.

Can I justify the expense of flying out there? Can I justify missing out?


Backstage after Bohème.



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