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.

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

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

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.

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

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

Is there something else, Doris?

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

Vanessa, I really just need a few —

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.

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

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

Look, this is getting out of hand —

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?

Can I just get a few minutes —

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

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

(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 —

So … you want to have lunch sometime?

Read more!

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.

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.

Read more!

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.

Read more!

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.

Read more!

05 February 2016

A Little Mini-Festival in New York

Man in Motion: David T. Little.
Photo by Merri Cyr.

The past few weeks have brought me fresh opportunities to hear the work of composer David T. Little. First up was the New York premiere and my third hearing of his opera Dog Days, to a libretto by Royce Vavrek (from a short story by Judy Budnitz). My initial response to this piece was complex: the piece is so powerful, so compelling, and yet I needed a long time — years, actually — to sort out my thoughts.

Dog Days is a tough, uncompromising work that becomes even more so in its final sequence. Just when you think you can’t take any more, David and Royce throw more at you — and then more, and more. The staging (by Robert Woodruff), the plot, and the music almost insist that you turn away, cover your ears, flee. And yet there’s a fundamental message of hope. No matter where Lisa is going, no matter what happens to her, she will be what she has been: a bastion of humanity in a savage world. The one who keeps trying, no matter the odds, to connect with others.

Seeing the piece first in its premiere production in Montclair, NJ; again in Fort Worth in 2015; and again last month in New York (always with the same, brilliant cast), that message resonated more and more powerfully, and I am ever more convinced that David’s music conveys that message just about flawlessly. Because I am who I am, I gravitate to some of the more lyrical passages, notably the haunting lullaby that accompanies Lisa’s letter to her pen-pal at the end of Act I; and the variations on the hymn-like grace pronounced by the family over its dwindling dinners. But because David is who he is, he weaves in a variety of compositional styles, dissonant or lyrical by turns, including a Broadway-ready duet for Lisa’s horny teenage brothers; and elements of hard and electronic rock pretty far from what I ordinarily listen to.

The brothers (played by Michael Marcotte and Peter Tansits) reveal a great deal about the way characters are portrayed. Surely the boys are, by necessity, a good deal younger than the grown men who portray them: the younger boy hasn’t really hit puberty yet. This lends a twist, no matter what your eyes are telling you, to the scene in which the Captain (Cherry Duke) tries to persuade the Father (James Bobick) to let her enlist the boys in the army. It’s not only that the Father tries, throughout the opera, to assert himself as provider and protector of the family — it’s that the boys are too young to be soldiers.

At each performance, I admired the restrained, weary-seeming, thoroughly lovely performance of soprano Marnie Breckinridge as the Mother; and the ingenious portrayal of Prince, the dog–man, by actor John Kelly. Each character is trapped, in a way, acting out a role because neither knows what else to do.

Worsham, in the world premiere.

Above all, Dog Days has benefitted from the fearlessly acted, limpidly sung performances of soprano Lauren Worsham. What Callas was to Tosca, Worsham is to Lisa, and as a diva-lover, I can predict that one factor in this opera’s future life will be the desire of other sopranos to sink their teeth into this role. Never in any performance medium have I seen anything to rival the extended scena in which Worsham, as Lisa, contemplates her body, wasted by starvation, in a mirror. (Woodruff and his tech crew have installed a camera in the mirror’s frame, so that Worsham’s “reflection” is projected on a giant screen over the stage.) Dressed only in underwear, her nose running (at least in Montclair), her eyes watering, Worsham’s Lisa grows ecstatic, believing that at last she’s attained the kind of body she’s admired in advertising and fashion magazines. It’s total theater: a marriage of music, words, staging, and performance.

It’s no wonder that Dog Days put David, Royce, and their producer, the indispensable Beth Morrison, on the cultural map. Thanks to David Adam Moore’s advocacy of David’s Soldier Songs, I was already keeping an eye on the composer’s work — but Dog Days has turned my interest and appreciation into something like an obsession.

That’s one reason I was so pleased to attend last night’s concert, at Opera America’s National Opera Center. Under the aegis of New York Festival of Song, David hosted an evening of works by composers he knows and admires. This was an extraordinary opportunity to know a composer’s mind — what excites him? Where does he see himself in the contemporary landscape? Through hearing other music, I feel I understand David better. When he observed from the stage that, earlier in his career, he avoided the beautiful in music, I thought I knew what he meant: though I found passages of beauty in Soldier Songs, and vast quantities of the stuff (albeit unexpectedly) in Dog Days, I’ve heard a new maturity in his forthcoming opera, JFK, an outright embrace of beauty — of majesty — of mythology and mystery and timelessness.

The other selections on the program helped to put this development into context, with the result that I’m not only more eager for JFK’s premiere (at Fort Worth Opera, April 23), I’m also more eager to hear the work of David’s colleagues.

First on the program was Colin Read’s Fairy Tales and Letters, an aptly magical song cycle, to texts by Lisa Rosinsky, performed by the pure-voiced soprano Justine Aronson (who might make a terrific Lisa), and, on piano, NYFOS associate artistic director Michael Barrett. From the stage, David observed that, the first time he saw Read’s score, he was struck by its “patience,” and indeed the music takes its (very) sweet time to make its points, spinning out the moments. The cycle is recital-ready, and I look forward to hearing it again.

In the most intriguing segment of the program, Kate Soper presented two excerpts from Here Be Sirens, singing alongside sopranos Gelsey Bell and Brett Umlauf. The sense of play — singing into and strumming the soundboard (my brother and I used to do this, far less artfully), using rocks for percussion, blending harmonies, extending notes and lines as if in a relay race (two singers kept singing while the third breathed) — combined with a sense of danger, until I felt as if I’d watched the women play with very deadly knives. Not only in the sheer curiosity is there an element of drama: the three sirens were distinctly characterized and fully compelling. Soper is clearly a talent to watch — I feel about this work much the way I felt about Soldier Songs. (Yes, some music is like a gateway drug.)

Singer, composer, siren: Kate Soper.

Also singing his work, Ted Hearne experimented with the conventions of pop music in “Intimacy and Resistance” (text by Allison Carter) and “Protection” (text by Meaghan Deans). David also takes inspiration from a variety of popular-music styles, and Hearne’s singing was marvelous. As grownup pop, aesthetically challenging, frequently surprising, Hearne’s songs score their points, but it’s not my field, and I’ll have to hear more before I grasp what he’s really after. (I emphasize: the fault is mine, not his.)

The always-impressive mezzo Eve Gigliotti performed Jeff Myers’ “Requiem Aeternam” — a poignant lullaby in which sleep brings intimations of death — from his Pagtulog na Nene, accompanied by string quartet (Ayano Ninomiya and Danbi Um, violin; Leslie Tomkins, viola; Alice Yoo, cello). After opening with tiny, thin lines from the violins, the entrance of the cello proved extraordinarily eloquent. Gigliotti delivered the text (in a Philippine language) with rich vocal colors and a smile that suggested that sleep or death might be a welcome comfort and release.

Gigliotti returned for David’s contributions to the program, two numbers from JFK: Jackie’s aria, “Caught in Shutterspeed” and her Moon Duet with Jack, sung by baritone Matthew Worth (who will sing this role, opposite Daniela Mack’s Jackie, at the world premiere). Full disclosure: I worked on JFK in its early stages, collecting research and interviews (which David and Royce didn’t need), and I’ve attended readings of the libretto and the score (minus a scene or two). This background doesn’t make me any more or less biased in the opera’s favor, though it does let me know in advance that the characterization of Jackie is going to be remembered as one of the signal achievements of opera in the 21st century, and a key to JFK’s future.

Always a treat to hear her: Gigliotti.

Indeed, it’s going to be a great pity if Gigliotti doesn’t wind up playing Jackie at some point. A born actress, she dug deeply into the character, and in her aria, eyes (including her own and mine) welled with tears. The Act I closer, “Shutterspeed” finds Jackie watching the sleeping Jack and rededicating herself to their marriage — on the night before his death.

The Moon Duet depicts Jack and Jackie’s courtship, compressing several encounters into one, from “Don’t I know you?” to “You love me,” and it offers us glimpses of two young people before history caught hold of them. Jack’s charm, Jackie’s shyness (and sly intelligence), the irresistible force of their union: it’s all here, and it, too, is poignant, because we know what comes after.

To judge by the reaction in New York last night, audiences in Fort Worth will need Sham-wows, not handkerchiefs, to wipe their tears. Maybe mops. This opera is going to be tremendous, and Worth is ready: uncannily, he looked more like Kennedy the more he sang. And this Little mini-festival has further whetted my interest, not only in JFK, but also in everything yet to come.

Little and Vavrek, Together Again.
For this fan, it’s like getting to follow Mozart and da Ponte wherever they go.

Read more!

29 January 2016

David Gilmour, 69, Reported in ‘Extremely Cautious’ Condition

“He won’t even go near the guitar anymore,” say family members. “‘Do you realize how easily I could electrocute myself?,’ he says.”

LONDON -- David Gilmour, 69-year-old guitarist and co-lead vocalist of the band Pink Floyd, is reported in “extremely cautious” condition at his home outside London, following a series of accidents that befell other people.

“Look, David remains an influential musician, a rock icon, and he’s 69 years old,” a friend told the Associated Press. “He sees the headlines. He knows what’s happening. Bowie, Alan Rickman, both 69. Glen Frey, almost 69. Paul Kantner and Natalie Cole — even Robert Stigwood and Pierre Boulez. Not 69, but also extremely influential. Céline Dion’s brother. It’s crazy. I mean, the odds are good that David is next.”

Gilmour has taken up a regimen that includes wearing a heavily padded jumpsuit and a bubble-wrap helmet, crawling very slowly on all fours on the rare occasions he leaves his bed, staying away from windows, and mashing up all his food for two daily feedings. “He’s ordered one of those plastic bubbles, like John Travolta had,” Gilmour’s wife, Polly Samson, told reporters. “Honestly, it can’t get here soon enough for me.

“Oh, dear God,” Samson added, “it’s almost Travolta’s turn, isn’t it?”

In happier, much less risky times.

Gilmour joined Pink Floyd in 1967; exponents of progressive and psychedelic rock, the band is perhaps best known for Dark Side of the Moon (1973) and The Wall, two of the best-selling albums of all time. Gilmour has also pursued solo projects, and in 2008, he received the Ivor Novello Contribution Award for music writing, which he now refuses to touch, for fear of cutting himself.

In other news, family members report that veteran actress Betty White, 93, has locked herself in her room. “She won’t come out,” says one friend. “She won’t eat anything — says we’re all trying to poison her. If we even try to open the door, she starts firing a pistol. And she keeps shouting, ‘They got Abe Vigoda, but they’ll never get me!’ We’re at our wits’ end.”

Read more!

27 January 2016

‘From Broadway to Hollywood’ at the Grove B&N

I’m pleased to announce the first event in Los Angeles (or anywhere else on the West Coast) in connection with Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life: “From Broadway to Hollywood,” a panel discussion on Madeline’s life and work featuring friends and colleagues, moderated by author Eddie Shapiro (Nothing Like a Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater). We’ll be at the Barnes & Noble at the Grove on Wednesday, February 10, at 7pm.

Confirmed participants include:

Robert Allan Ackerman, who directed Madeline in a musical adaptation of Kafka’s Amerika and in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit at Santa Fe Festival Theater in 1982–83.

Maris Clement, a member of the ensemble of On the Twentieth Century, the 1978 Broadway musical that nearly wrecked Madeline’s career (yet earned her a Tony nomination).

Julie Dretzin, a co-star of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, for which Madeline received the Tony for Best Actress in a Play in 1993;

Michael Karm, a co-star of the Broadway musical Two by Two, and also Madeline’s acting coach for her first film roles, including her Oscar-nominated turn in Paper Moon;

J.D. Lobue, director of every episode of the sitcom Oh Madeline, her first foray into series television.

Each of our participants (and, for that matter, Eddie’s interview with Judy Kaye in Nothing Like a Dame) helped me tremendously while I researched the book. They shared memories, filled in blanks, and generally helped me to understand not only what Madeline did, but also why she did it. I began to see Madeline more clearly as a working actor, and also as a person.

Beyond that — they’re all really nice people. So if you’re in the L.A. area — come on by. Admission is free, and there will be a book signing afterward.

To be determined: whether I,
like Madeline in California,
will be obliged to drive a car.

Read more!