04 November 2014

Martinů’s ‘Alexandre’ & ‘Comedy’

The Comedy cast: Ott, Siladie, Dennis, Slayden, Beutel, Fischer (standing, left to right), with Sørensen and Smith-Kotlarek (kneeling).
This and all photos by Richard Termine,
courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera.

Arriving late (gee, thanks, MTA) to the October 16 performance of Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest double-bill of one-act operas by Bohuslav Martinů, I missed the first half of the evening’s curtain-raiser, Alexandre bis. Luckily, this was the work I’d seen the Gotham team rehearse, so I knew what was going on — but this account of my impressions should be taken with an even larger dose of salt than usual. However, I saw in its entirety the evening’s second offering, The Comedy on the Bridge, and so on that subject my perspectives are (naturally) authoritative.

Comedy proved more satisfying than Alexandre, though it is in some ways the easier of the two operas: better-known, more straightforward in its plot, more appealing in its music, more universal in its message. One by one, five villagers are stranded on the titular bridge between two warring territories: nobody has a safe-conduct to cross or to go back the way she came. It’s a neat conceit, played for its absurdity and yet distilling admirably the futile illogic of war. The characters’ trust for one another breaks down, relationships suffer, personal alliances crumble and reconfigure, while Martinů’s orchestra burbles and tootles and flourishes, accentuating but never overdoing the comic points.

Alexandre — at least in the chunk that I saw — seemed even smaller on the stage of the Gerald W. Lynch Theater than it had in the rehearsal room. Martinů’s score seemed somehow richer when performed by the rehearsal pianist, and rather wispy and less satisfying in the composer’s full orchestration. Could it be that Alexandre would be better served if performed in a salon identical to the one in which this opera takes place? And I found myself wishing that stage director James Marvel had drawn greater distinctions between the movement and business of the central dream sequence and the “real-life” scenes of the opera: as it was, the cast pranced and swanned in much the same exaggerated ways throughout every scene.

Does Marvel mean that everything is supposed to be a dream? That we should take nothing seriously here? Is André Wurmser’s French libretto, which is pretty cynical about marriage, equally cynical about theater, or about life itself? These were questions to ponder. What I didn’t question in the slightest was Gotham’s justified commitment to presenting both these operas.

Dream sequence, dream cast: Ott, Velasco, and Beutel (standing) with Siladie (kneeling) in Alexandre.

While Alexandre, fully realized, may not have been my cup of tea, I was grateful for the opportunity to hear it: as the piano-only rehearsal proved, the music is worthwhile, fun, and intriguing. And Comedy is even better. In both cases, the company lavished care and imagination on the work, and conductor/artistic director Neal Goren’s enthusiasm and affection for Martinů shone through. The composer himself couldn’t have asked for a presentation better suited to afford him a fair hearing.

As ever, Goren’s gifts for fielding appealing young singers and for eliciting accomplished performances served the audience well, and the cast confirmed and built on the favorable impressions they made on me during rehearsal. As good as Jenna Siladie was in Alexandre, she was even better as Popelka in Comedy, a winsome lass who’s always just a tad slow to realize what a jam she’s getting into. Jarrett Ott proved very funny as Popelka’s jealous fiancé, and once again Cassandra Zoé Velasco’s turn as the French maid in Alexandre struck the right balance between complicity and disapproval. All three were in splendid voice — again, still, and quite possibly always.

Tenor Jason Slayden, as the sporty Oscar of Alexandre, displayed a bright, clear instrument and, as Oscar’s polar opposite, an absent-minded professor in Comedy, proved himself an excellent actor, too. Joseph Beutel, as the singing portrait in Alexandre, has to deliver several speeches in French, and he was by now thoroughly comfortable with the language. His resonant singing brought a nice touch of danger to the farmer in Comedy, and Abigail Fischer matched him as his indignant wife. Because Fischer is such an excellent musician (whom I admired extravagantly in Missy Mazzoli’s Songs from the Uproar), I’ll resist the urge to remark that her hair, luxuriously cascading ringlets, is one of the crowning glories of opera today, even when, as here, partially concealed under a kerchief in Fabio Toblini’s typically expert costume design.

As dancing Devils in Alexandre and opposing Soldiers in Bridge, Aaron Sørensen and Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek had less than the others to sing, but they approached their work with zest and character — and admirable confidence in spoken Czech. As the dour, disinterested voice of authority, Joshua Dennis made the most of his brief role.

Listening better: The villagers in Comedy
(Siladie, Ott, Slayden, Beutel, Fischer).

In all, it was an occasion to salute Neal Goren and Gotham Chamber Opera for their continuing excursions into obscure repertoire. Comedy falls with Montsalvatge’s El Gato con Botas (a delightful production which will be revived in December) and with last season’s Baden-Baden 1927: works I’d heard about but never gotten to hear in live, staged performance. (In the case of Baden-Baden, I’d yearned for some 30 years to hear the complete quadruple-bill, the hallmark of which is Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel.) Alexandre was a work I’d never heard of at all. Goren and Gotham gave me the chance to listen, to watch, and to make my own judgments of each piece, on the strength of its merits — and I had a good time doing it. Now, if experience is any guide, I’ll approach even familiar warhorses with greater insight and understanding.

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29 October 2014

Westwood to Design DiDonato Gown for Tonight’s World Series Game

LONDON -- In feverish anticipation of tonight’s seventh game of the World Series, renowned designer Vivienne Westwood has been working around the clock to create a couture original for mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. Following an intense campaign by her fans on the Internet, DiDonato will sing the National Anthem before the game, which pits her hometown Kansas City Royals against the San Francisco Giants.

“Your American baseball is fascinating to me,” Westwood told reporters, “and I find it profoundly moving that teams from so many different nations have gathered to compete in this World Series. In my design, I’ve tried to incorporate elements of traditional American baseball uniforms, which I’ve been researching quite a lot.”

DiDonato has worn Westwood gowns for her “Drama Queens” concerts and for the recent tour of Handel’s Alcina, which concluded at New York City’s Carnegie Hall on Sunday, to rave reviews.

“Joyce wears my work beautifully,” Westwood said, “and as we’re getting to know each other, I’m also reflecting her personal tastes in my designs for her. For example, Joyce loves to wear boots, and so her World Series gown will feature boots that resemble those stirrup-y socks that players wear, as well as the pointy bits on the soles.”

Cropped short since a Covent Garden production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, DiDonato’s hair will be streaked with the Royals’ silver and blue. The skirt of Westwood’s gown imitates the Royals’ jersey, “but with lots more sparkle,” Westwood said. Silver baseball earrings and enamel sweatband bracelets complete the ensemble.

Westwood is particularly pleased with one element of her design, the baseball-cap brassiere. “So often men tell me that Joyce has a really great hat-rack,” she said. “So why not take advantage of that?”

DiDonato in Westwood at Carnegie Hall on Sunday.
“Thanks to Joyce, I’ll be seeing my first American baseball match tonight,” Westwood said. “Isn’t it thrilling?”

UPDATE: Evidently Vivienne Westwood and her team were unable to complete the gown in time. Joyce wore a windbreaker and trousers instead. Here’s how she looked.

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02 October 2014

Area Woman Just Wishes People Would Stop Talking About Her

In happier times: Mrs. Lawson says her weekly bridge game has been cancelled. “I thought those girls were my friends,” she says. “It’s times like these when you find out what people are really made of.”

SPRINGFIELD -- For the past few weeks, her life has become unbearable, she says. She can’t pick up a newspaper or magazine, turn on the television or radio, or go to the grocery store without hearing her name spoken — often by total strangers — in the most horrifying and scandalous terms.

“I have done nothing to deserve this,” Ebola Mae Lawson says. “You don’t know me. You haven’t lived my life. Mind your own business, why don’t you?” She’s cancelled her subscriptions, no longer listens to the news, and runs whenever she hears her name called — but the whispering continues.

“It’s Ebola this, Ebola that, everywhere I turn,” she says. “I tried not to pay any attention, but I’m turning into a nervous wreck. Who are these people?”

Mrs. Lawson is most disturbed by accusations that she is somehow targeting children. “I raised three boys,” she says, “but that chapter of my life is over. I have no interest in your children, and I am not coming to get them. What ever put that fool idea into your head?”

She’s also baffled by suggestions that she is somehow in league with President Obama. “I never met the man,” she says. “I didn’t even vote for him.”

“This is really ruining Ebola’s life, but she’d better get used to it,” says her cousin, Chlamydia Wilkes. “I’ve had to put up with this kind of nonsense for years.”

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01 October 2014

A Long Stay in Stars Hollow, or How I Got Gilmored

Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel
as Lorelai and Rory.

The television series Gilmore Girls is receiving welcome attention right now, as fans look forward to the show’s debut on Netflix, beginning today. That’s all well and good for some, but I only just completed watching the series, start to finish, on DVD. Which I purchased, and which now occupies physical space in my apartment.

I’m not sorry to have made the addition to my library, however, and I use the word “library” on purpose. Gilmore Girls is very much a writer’s show, carefully constructed with a unified vision and all its elements in place from the first minutes of the pilot episode. The denseness of the dialogue (“Life is short. Talk fast” ran one ad for the show) combined with the richness of the characterizations recommends Gilmore Girls for prolonged study, over long intervals, much in the way of a good novel. I’d hardly ended my first tour of Stars Hollow before I began yearning for a return trip.

The greatest of the show’s charms are the Gilmores themselves, thirtysomething Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and her daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel). The background, even before the first episode: pregnant and unmarried at 16, Lorelai fled her wealthy parents (Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann) and brought up Rory alone — with the help of nearly everyone in Stars Hollow, a picturesque Connecticut town peopled by colorful eccentrics. Really, the show is a seven-year illustration of the truth that “it takes a village,” and as the series begins, both Lorelai and Rory are poised to make adult choices and to determine their future lives.

Initially, much of Rory’s appeal for me had less to do with Bledel’s performance (lovely though she is) than with the presentation of her character. Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino designed the show for parents and children to watch together, and she and the writers (including her husband, Daniel) injected just enough soapy teen angst (and cute boys) to entice their younger audience. But they had more interesting motives and goals.

Most (but not all) of the recurring cast.

Rory, after all, is a high-school student who reads books. This would be singular enough in television, where books are primarily used as props to be dropped at the cue of a doorbell: books signify simultaneously that the character is intelligent and serious, and that she is about to be interrupted by someone with dramatic news to share. The great example of this is Brooke (Julia Barr), the resident intellectual of Pine Valley on All My Children. Oh, yes, she reads. But only when she is alone. Which she seldom is. And you seldom never hear her say a word about what she’s read.

Not so Rory Gilmore, who not only reads books so that we, the audience, can see the title (astute viewers have compiled long lists of Rory’s favorites) — she also alludes to those books in her conversations, makes educated references to the authors’ lives, and draws comparisons between literature and the events in her own life. She does the same with old movies and TV shows, too, but the books are, as I say, the real shocker.

Rory’s intellectual life defines her, and among teenage girls on television, I’ve never seen anyone quite like her. She values academic achievement and aspires to attend a top college. (Harvard, at first — but quite sensibly she changes her mind and winds up at Yale instead.) Her principal nemesis, the divine fussbudget Paris Geller (Liza Weil), isn’t a bitchy gorgeous blonde cheerleader, she’s another ambitious intellectual — only she’s more neurotic than Rory is.

Please note that the title is clearly visible.

Still, being smart doesn’t impede Rory and Paris’ social lives. Both of them get boyfriends (granted, Rory’s tend to be cuter than Paris’), and the two girls develop a profound friendship over the years. Since the show was aimed in part at tweens and teens, it probably counts for something that both Rory and Paris wear pretty clothes, too. And it’s reassuring that Rory’s penchant for bad boys turns out to be pretty tame. Lunkhead mechanic Dean, wannabe Beat poet Jess, clueless Marty, nearly identical poor-little-rich-boys Tristan and Logan: they’re ultimately just diversions.

Rory’s true story isn’t about which boys she kisses, and she finds her real strength in her mother, her grandmother, and role models like Madeleine Albright and Christiane Amanpour. Rory herself (and, to a lesser degree, Paris) is presented as a role model for tween and teen viewers: no matter what else is going on in the plot, she consistently demonstrates that girls should exploit their abilities, that intelligence is an asset to be promoted, not hidden, and that their dreams aren’t reliant on the whims of a boy with good hair.

When Rory follows a different path for a while, we’re meant to understand it as wrong, a betrayal of her true nature and of her potential. Certainly Lorelai takes it that way, though when it comes to her own personal life, she makes remarkably bad choices, of which teen pregnancy is only the first. We’re given to understand that, right up until the series begins, she’s led a faultless life as a single mother — but, boy, once she loosens up a bit, she makes a series of horrible choices in her love life.

Fully aware that it’s inappropriate to date her daughter’s English teacher, she forges ahead. Conscious that Rory’s father is one of the least reliable people she’s ever known, she nevertheless rekindles her old flame repeatedly, with predictably disastrous consequences. When you look at Lorelai’s choices, many seem to stem from a barely conscious reluctance to commit to the man who is obviously her soulmate, Luke Danes (played by Scott Patterson), the owner of the local coffee shop. But then, Luke has commitment issues of his own.

Luke + Lorelai = 4Ever
Scott Patterson and Lauren Graham.

Lorelai ought to be a colossal pain in the neck and the principal reason not to watch Gilmore Girls. But in Lauren Graham’s performance, she’s the best reason to watch, the embodiment of the guiding spirit, the one actor who consistently makes the scripts’ rapid-fire, reference-laden, tragicomic dialogue seem like normal speech from a real person — from a woman you’d really enjoy hanging out with. That Graham is pretty helps her cause, certainly, but she’s a proud heir to the legacy of Elizabeth Montgomery, a good-looking woman who’s perfectly willing to pull a face if it means getting a laugh. I’d seen Graham before but underestimated her: given a central role of great complexity, she proves herself a phenomenally versatile actress. And she even speaks French.*

Graham is especially good in scenes with the Gilmore parents, and it’s a sign of her talent that she holds her own opposite pros like Bishop and Herrmann. These veteran actors could play their roles in their sleep, yet they’re inspired here, bringing tremendous invention and nuance to every scene. I grew up admiring Herrmann (and, starting with his Klipspringer in The Great Gatsby, I often tried to be like him), but I’d seen Bishop only in smaller roles and wasn’t prepared for the complete command she brings to her art. Emily and Richard Gilmore can barely communicate with their daughter, and sometimes they scarcely try, yet there’s a depth of feeling in every second of their interaction with her. They dote on Rory and see her as a second chance to correct their earlier mistakes — too much so for anybody’s comfort, in season 6 — yet they seldom realize that it’s with Lorelai, not Rory, that correction is needed.

Themes of mother–daughter relationships are explored throughout the series, notably in the characters of Anna and April Nardini (Sherilynn Fenn and Vanessa Marano) and Mrs. Kim and Lane (Emily Kuroda and Keiko Agena), and in the mother-in-law–daughter-in-law relationship of Emily Gilmore and the terrifying Lorelai the First (Marion Ross). The father figures in this show are also searching for the right answer, though they’re somewhat less frequently the focus of the drama — and sometimes they’re altogether invisible, as Mr. Kim is. The real emphasis is on the mothers.

What we have here is a failure to communicate:
Emily (Bishop) and Lorelai (Graham).

Bringing up children, Gilmore Girls suggests, is one of the riskiest undertakings on earth, with few guideposts and no sure bets. If Rory turns out so well — or at least so sure of her destiny — it’s due not only to Lorelai’s single-minded single-motherhood but also to the zany neighbors, as we see most clearly in the ambiguous-yet-satisfying finale of the much-maligned seventh and final season. Everyone in Stars Hollow is personally invested in Rory’s success, everyone is proud of her achievements, and everyone celebrates the young woman she has become.

That the residents of Stars Hollow are so odd and so comical (and played irresistibly by actors like Melissa McCarthy, Sally Struthers, and Liz Torres) makes the show entertaining, certainly, but their communal lunacy doesn’t alter the fundamental message that the show conveys to young people, especially young girls: it’s okay, it’s even popular, to work hard and do well. People will still like you even if you read books. They’ll forgive your missteps and foolish choices so long as you stay on track.

I’m not sure there’s a more uplifting theme in series television. Family values got the Waltons through the Depression, and true-blue American values got the Enterprise through the future. But the community of Stars Hollow, larger than a family yet smaller than a nation, less cynical than The Simpsons’ Springfield, less angst-ridden than thirtysomething’s Philadelphia, gets the Gilmores through a far less certain present.

That’s why the best way to watch Gilmore Girls is with somebody else. Whether the show functions, as intended, as a program for parents and children to watch together, I can’t say — though I’d be willing to bet that it does. If you’ve got someone else to watch with, someone to discuss with, someone to scream with every time Lorelai doesn’t wind up with Luke, you’ll get more out of Gilmore Girls. So find somebody to watch with. Form your own community. Create your own Stars Hollow. Order a pizza. Read a book. And oy with the poodles already.

The last shot of the series echoes the last shot of the first episode.

*NOTE: Rory is supposed to be the French scholar in the Gilmore home. The catch is that Alexis Bledel spoke Spanish before she spoke English, and her French accent — like that of Yanic Truesdale, the Canadian actor who plays the Parisian Michel — pales beside that of Lauren Graham. But I overlook such petty details, really.

We also note with pleasure that one of Rory’s colleagues on the staff of the Yale Daily News is played by Devon Michaels, who played a little boy with uncanny high notes in Rags in 1986. So now I know what happened to him.

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30 September 2014

Cohen’s ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’

Beatrice (Britt, foreground) with Giovanni (McDonnell)
and Lizbetta (Dunn).
All photographs courtesy of Michael Cohen.

In the circles I frequent, Michael Cohen is much admired as the composer of “Das Chicago Song,” the delirious, pitch-perfect pastiche of Weill songs that Madeline Kahn sang in her New York debut, her Broadway debut, and her audition for Blazing Saddles. Michael also helped Madeline to prepare “Glitter and Be Gay,” Cunegonde’s tour-de-force aria in Bernstein’s Candide; she used the number to audition for the New York Philharmonic’s concert performance in 1968, rendering moot any question whether she was up to the demands of the song. “She was not foolin’ around,” stage director Sheldon Patinkin remembered. “She wanted that part.”*

Michael has written all sorts of other music, too: instrumental, music-theater, opera, and perhaps most notably, three pieces based on the story of Anne Frank (Yours, Anne, I Am Anne Frank, and I Remember). This month, New York’s Theater for the New City saw Michael’s opera Rappaccini’s Daughter (to a libretto by Linsey Abrams, based on Hawthorne’s short story) in fully staged performance to piano accompaniment — and I could easily picture Madeline in the role of Lizbetta, the wily landlady. Lissa Moira’s production was one of the most lavish I’ve ever seen in such circumstances, and I got a clear idea how effectively Rappaccini could transfer to an opera house. My introduction to Michael’s music, “Das Chicago Song,” may be a spoof, but Rappaccini is an opera, all right, and Michael isn’t foolin’ around.

From the first swirling notes of the opera, we’re transported to a garden of twisting tendrils and mysterious powers. Rappaccini (baritone) pressures Lizbetta (mezzo-soprano) to lure unsuspecting young men to rent a room that overlooks his garden, all part of a scientific experiment he’s conducting on his daughter, Beatrice (soprano). Over the objections of Baglioni (baritone), Giovanni (tenor) rents the room and falls in love with Beatrice — only to discover her secret, and then to learn to his horror that he can’t rescue her or himself.

Michael’s score is gratifyingly Late Romantic, in which passions are expressed fully but more coolly than they would have been in Hawthorne’s time. Though Michael’s approach is thoroughly contemporary, there’s nothing cynical in this music and the way it tells this story: it’s as if the score shares the characters’ feelings yet understands them differently. Amid the Debussian atmospherics, full-throated arias and love duets pop out, and Abrams’ libretto, with its steadfast reliance on rhyme, supports the music’s tonality. She and Michael aren’t reinventing the art form; they’re adapting traditional forms to their own purposes. And I’m eager to hear what Michael will do with the orchestration.

The production got so many things right, while pointing to areas where improvements still could be made. From the start, Rappaccini’s garden is alive with writhing plants portrayed by five dancers. This brilliant concept instantly conveys the strangeness of the setting, but choreographer Robert Gonzales, Jr., gave us a little too much of it, and despite Moira’s efforts to keep the focus on the singers, dancing bodies can be awfully distracting. Designer Mark Mercante’s gorgeous set unfortunately required compromise with the performing space (and perhaps the budget). The elimination of a wall made it quite difficult at first to understand why Giovanni doesn’t simply walk right into the garden. And Lizbetta’s characterization — much rounder than in Hawthorne’s short story — may require a little fine-tuning in the libretto as well as in the staging. I particularly admired Jennifer Anderson’s storybook costumes and the wonderfully weird flowers in the garden.

Giovanni and Beatrice confront Rappaccini (Broderick),
as Baglioni (Fisher) looks on.

Almost like a Golden Age soprano from the 1930s, Samantha Britt presented a sweetly warbling, classically Romantic heroine, and she portrayed Beatrice’s innocence with real feeling — something that’s quite difficult to do, actually. Like all the cast, she offered beautiful diction, though some of her music is written in registers too high for verbal clarity. William Broderick and Martin Fisher made fine foils as Rappaccini and Baglioni. The contrast in their voices — Fisher stentorian and burnished, Broderick lighter and almost genial — suggested that Baglioni is wiser and more authoritative, Rappaccini more naïve, an intriguing interpretation of the characters.

Douglas McDonnell lent an almost Heldentenor quality to Giovanni’s music, which proved especially apt when (in another departure from Hawthorne) the character dies along with his beloved. McDonnell has money notes galore, but in this small space I sometimes regretted that he didn’t scale back his sound. Darcy Dunn’s Lizbetta was the most complex character onstage, and her singing, from limpid high notes to a rich middle and lower registers, reflected that complexity. Yes, she made me wonder what Madeline Kahn would have done with the role, and I mean that as a compliment.

At the piano, music director Jonathan Fox Powers exulted in the lush textures of the score, easily shifting gears from the evening’s first presentation, Seymour Barab’s comic opera Out the Window (also directed by Moira), marvelously entertaining yet often no more than a series of jingles. As a demented wife in Window, Lauren Hoffmeier walked off with the show, with abundant vocal power, daredevil physicality, and hilarious characterization.

What stuck with me was the theme of Rappaccini, however, and perhaps it’s difficult for anyone my age to hear Beatrice sing, “My breath may be tainted, but my heart is pure,” and not think of the early years of the AIDS crisis: my ears heard “blood,” not “breath,” and I thought of love and risk and death. Hawthorne may have written this story in 1844, but Michael Cohen and Linsey Abrams made it relevant to a listener 170 years later. Here’s hoping more people have the chance to hear this opera, and to find its meaning as it applies to their own experience. That is, after all, what real operas invite us to do.

*NOTE: A titan of American theater, Sheldon Patinkin died September 21, during the run of Rappaccini’s Daughter. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to interview him for Madeline’s biography.

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27 September 2014

Martinů bis, and Make It a Double: Previewing Gotham’s Latest Adventure

Ciel! Mon mari!
Siladie and Ott cavort in Alexandre.
Photo by Richard Termine. All illustrations courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera.

Before we consider Gotham Chamber Opera’s upcoming double-bill of one-acts by Bohuslav Martinů, let us first consider the potential for confusion for any stranger (or, for that matter, a humble blogger) who wanders unaware into the rehearsal space at a dance studio downtown. Attractive young women in casual street clothes. Hunky young men in gym clothes. Is this an opera run-through or a Zumba class?

Granted, most Zumba classes don’t have live piano accompaniment and a conductor. But the cast of Gotham’s Alexandre bis got quite a workout the other day. Director James Marvel’s staging has them leaping and prancing around the room from start to finish, with highly stylized movement in a fascinating cross between Feydeau farce and Absurdist comedy. Sung in French, Alexandre bis will be paired with Martinů’s better-known The Comedy on the Bridge (both written in 1937) in performances from October 14–18 at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater in midtown Manhattan.

Give or take Comedy on the Bridge, most of Martinů’s work remains phenomenally obscure in the United States, but this isn’t the first time Gotham has gone to his well. Twelve years ago, when Gotham was still the Henry Street Chamber Opera, the company presented Martinů’s Hlas Lesa (The Voice of the Forest) and Les Larmes du Couteau (The Tears of the Knife). The production was a sold-out hit — and the first time fans lined up around the block waiting for returned tickets, as conductor Neal Goren recalls. It was a taste of things to come, and soon enough, Gotham productions would reliably and perennially prove some of the hottest tickets in town, playing to critical acclaim and avid fans.

Cameron Anderson’s set design for Alexandre.

Still, the sight of so many people lined up in the snow for a little-known Czech composer’s operas “planted itself on my memory,” Goren says, “and as we were planning our upcoming fourteenth season, I thought it high time to present another compelling Martinů double-bill. I was egged on by Yveta Synek Graff, the world’s leading advocate of Czech opera, who helped prepare our 2002 double-bill.”

Goren, who’s Gotham’s founder and artistic director, as well, says that Martinů’s chamber operas were among his principal inspirations when he started the company. Though he really doesn’t remember when he first encountered them, a series of recordings on the Supraphon label kept them on his radar screen, and he’s become friends with Ales Brezhina, director of the Martinů Institute in Prague. But only after the success of his first seasons (landmark productions of Mozart’s Il Sogno di Scipione, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and Milhaud’s Les Malheurs d’Orphée) did Goren feel confident that New York audiences would turn out for programming quite so obscure.

Particularly in Alexandre, Martinů’s playful sensibility and Gotham’s freshness are so closely linked that it’s hard to tell which informs which. A young husband tests his wife’s fidelity, Così Fan Tutte–style, by shaving his beard and showing up as his own American cousin. Up to now, the wife has been fending off the advances of another admirer, but after she meets “Alexander twice,” all bets are off. The hoary adage “Jamais deux sans trois” takes on new meaning.

Fabio Toblini’s costume design for Armande, Alexandre’s wife.

Martinů’s score sounds much like something Kurt Weill would have written, if he’d stayed in France two more years, and the libretto (by André Wurmser, the dear friend of my friend Stanley Karnow) features a singing portrait and a bedeviled dream sequence. Opportunities abound to expose audiences to new repertoire and to showcase bright, multitalented young singers — things that Gotham and Goren strive to do every time they go to work.

At the run-through, the entire cast of Alexandre seemed ready to impress audiences. It was hard to believe they’d only just begun to rehearse this piece, and Marvel and Goren hardly needed to give notes afterward. Yet again I found cause to admire young American artists as a group: they really can tackle any assignment you throw at them. Everyone was terrific, and soprano Jenna Siladie (as the wife), mezzo Cassandra Zoe Velasco* (as a better-behaved Despina), and baritone Jarrett Ott (as Alexandre) struck me as especially promising additions to the long roster of Gotham artists whose work I’ll seek out in the future. Comedy on the Bridge will feature the exciting mezzo Abigail Fischer, whom I’m eager to hear again, and I was delighted to see a veteran of Fort Worth Opera’s Ariadne, bass (and Danish–American rights activist) Aaron Sørensen, in the ensemble, too.

Martinů remains “a composer unknown by all but the most obsessed music cognoscenti,” Goren observes, and Goren himself has conducted virtually every note of Martinů’s music that I’ve heard in live performance. But thus far every one of these operas has proved worthwhile, and you can’t beat the thrill of discovery. Gotham’s latest exploration of Martinů’s work promises to be a memorable adventure.

Toblini’s costume design for Oskar, Armande’s would-be lover.

*NOTE: Evidently Cassandra Zoe Velasco is from Mexico City, but before you correct me, please remember that Mexico is part of North America. So I’m not really wrong. Thank you.

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23 September 2014

Progress Report 22: A Cover, an Endnote, and a Finishing Line

As Madeline’s 72nd birthday approaches, I’m emerging from the latest stint of high-pressure deadlines and 12-hour workdays — but at least there’s something to show for it. We have decided on a title, the art department at the University Press of Mississippi has cooked up a cover, the spring catalogue is at the printers, and at last we know the official release date. Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life will be available for purchase in both hardcover and electronic editions beginning in May 2015.

Perhaps not surprisingly, we went through several different titles. One of the most obvious choices wasn’t quite right. Yes, we could call the book Sweet Mystery, but with few exceptions, Madeline wasn’t a terribly mysterious person. Ultimately, I kept returning to an anecdote that Alan Arkin shared in his memoir, and to a sentiment that Madeline also expressed on a few other occasions. Why, Arkin wanted to know, did you become a performer? Madeline told him that, when she was a tiny child, she spent hours playing and replaying a recording of Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.”* “I wanted to be the music,” she said.

There have been times I’ve sensed Madeline, almost as if she were looking over my shoulder as I wrote. I had that feeling when I saw the first draft of the cover art — with her name misspelled. I could just picture her shaking her head and saying, “Really? Somebody writes a book about me and they can’t even get my name right?” But she would have liked the art director’s excuse: he was so bewitched by her smile, he said, that he didn’t notice the spelling.

Please note: “The Wrath of Madeline Kahn”
was not one of the titles we considered.

Most of my attention was devoted to the final revisions, and as that term suggests, once those revisions are completed, I can’t make further changes. That’s a nerve-wracking state of affairs, particularly when fact-checking leads to new sources, new revelations, and even one new photo. I heard from my last interview subject — John Cullum, Madeline’s co-star in On the Twentieth Century — at 11:20 a.m. on the day my revisions were due. (Naturally, I asked for an extension, because it’s a university press and I figured they were used to extensions.)

When I got to the last page, I found myself almost misty-eyed. Not the chapter on Madeline’s death, mind you, but the last endnote got to me.

Just then, I came across something that Ken Burns said about Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt, the subjects of his latest documentary series. “I love them,” he said, “the way you love complicated people in your own life. …I cried in the edit room when they died, all three of them. That doesn’t mean I'm sentimental and nostalgic. That’s just the way you feel when you get close to people.” I understand.

Natural beauty: In the fourth-season premiere of Cosby,
with Phylicia Rashad.

I’ve learned a lot about Madeline, and while I hope I haven’t developed a proprietary, projected, overly personal attitude toward her — which is to say that I hope I haven’t turned into Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire — I do still like her tremendously. I’ve discovered or rediscovered certain of her films and television work, and that has meant extending and broadening the pleasures I find in her performances.

And I’ve come to realize that, when she was at her lowest ebb, beset by every kind of pressure and fear during the run of On the Twentieth Century, she was in many ways at her most admirable. The experience might have broken another woman — certainly the universe seemed to be trying to break Madeline. But she kept going, and in the end she showed real courage.

She showed courage, too, when she fought to stay with another show, the sitcom Cosby, years later. This time Madeline didn’t have to deal with a hostile director or a demanding musical score: the challenge was greater by far. She worked as often as she could, at first telling no one she was ill, wearing wigs to cover the hair loss from her chemotherapies. By the show’s last season, however, she’d found the confidence to wear her own silver, short-cropped hair. She even got one last glamour part, as a sexy Russian spy in a dream sequence inspired by Cosby’s first TV series, I Spy. She was months from death — but she was still Madeline.

Many people seem smaller, the more one studies them. Madeline Kahn wasn’t one of those people. I’m not ready to say goodbye yet, and I’ve still got plenty of work to do on the book. But when the time does come, I’m going to miss her.

One last glamour part: With Robert Culp.

*NOTE: Like most people, Madeline knew “The Dance of the Hours” not from Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda but as the ballet for hippos and ostriches in Disney’s Fantasia. There’s a chance you may know it, too, as the melody that inspired Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.”

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