31 May 2011

I Hear America Singing

Juilliard students in Gianni Schicchi, April 2011
Tomer Zvulun’s very funny staging featured
these brilliant costumes by Vita Tzykun.

The musical “season” in New York City ends, more or less officially, with Memorial weekend; parachuting into its final weeks and attending so many performances, I’ve found myself barely able to absorb, much less to write about, what I’ve heard.

“The Americans are always prepared,” Gabriel Bacquier once said to me in an interview. “It’s true! You’re the perfectionists.” Returning to New York at the end of the spring season (musically speaking), I’ve been reminded of Gaby’s words — and reconfirming them. My musical calendar has been chock-a-block full, and I’ve attended performances by artists both established and starting out.

Classy master: Joyce DiDonato as the Composer
Strauss’ Ariadne at the Met, May 2011

The need for thorough preparation can seldom be more apparent than it was (for example) to soprano Ana María Martínez, negotiating the tricky lines of Marvin David Levy’s Passover oratorio, Atonement, in four languages (English, Latin, Greek, and Ladino, a Hebrew-Spanish hybrid). Another Passover oratorio — this one by Paul Dessau, Bertolt Brecht’s third-favorite composer — found baritone David Adam Moore doing something similar in Hebrew, in a score that had never before been performed complete.* Neither oratorio persuaded me completely, but Ana, David, and their colleagues permitted me to give each score a fair hearing — and that’s exactly what we require of singers in such circumstances.

In recent weeks, I’ve had a couple of chances to see even younger American artists in the very midst of their preparation, both in auditions for a major foundation grant and in performance at the Juilliard School. In the interest of discretion, I won’t name the foundation in question, and it’s to be noted that I didn’t hear each and every audition. Still, there was a striking distinction between the first set of singers, those who are still studying; and the second, those who have launched their careers already and are seeking a little extra financial support. (Not to mention the prestige of winning a competition.)

We in the audience couldn’t see the competition jury
and could only imagine what they looked like.

The distinction was surprising, namely that the less experienced singers were more impressive. One friend observed that this was because “they’ve spent less time with bad teachers,” and he may be right. But I’d seen a couple of the more experienced artists in professional productions and found them very good.

It’s hard to say what went wrong, though I suspect part of the problem is the desire to hit judges with everything you’ve got — which appears to be a mistake. Blasting away at your listeners in rep that’s a little bit of a stretch for you is a proposition completely different from getting cast and coached by someone who believes you’re going to be right for a part.

In both segments of the audition process, the singer began with an aria of her choosing, then sang a number requested by the judges. In every case, the second aria was a better fit, vocally and temperamentally. Nerves may have something to do with this, but it’s sometimes true, as well, that singers don’t hear their own voices as clearly. (Any more than anyone else hears herself as others hear her.) Even when I was underwhelmed by a selection or an artist, I was impressed with every young singer’s poise and musicianship, and most of them had clean diction in several languages, too: this, surely, is part of what Gabriel Bacquier was talking about.

Gianni Schicchi at Juilliard, April 2011
Staging by Tomer Zvulun, costumes by Vita Tzykun

On April 27, I attended a double bill of comic operas at Juilliard: Ravel’s L’heure espagnole (which I’d never seen) and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. In a small theater, where voices needn’t strain to be heard, in a production staged by grownup professionals, both of these ensemble works give young artists a chance to put into practice what they’ve been studying, and Schicchi especially gives several of them real opportunities to shine.

As a general rule, I’m a little reluctant to critique student performances: in a learning process, one ought to be able to make mistakes without too many consequences, and everyone onstage earned at least a passing grade from this audience. That said, two of the young singers in Gianni Schicchi impressed me very favorably indeed: Lacey Jo Benter (a formidable Zita) and Alexander Hajek (Schicchi himself) knew exactly what to do when handed two of the juiciest roles in the repertoire, and they’re clearly ready to graduate to major assignments.

I’m even more reluctant to single out young artists who participate in master classes, but the kids who worked with Joyce DiDonato at Juilliard on May 6 provided me with instruction: how it is that Americans get their famous preparation, and what they do with it. In a sense, the class represented the missing piece in the puzzle I’d been working on for a couple of weeks.

For example, in most cases the Juilliard kids were able to grasp almost instantly the points Joyce was trying to make, and they were able to incorporate them immediately. “Can you try it thus-and-such a way?” she’d ask, and by golly, the next time they opened their mouths, they’d do just as she asked. That bespeaks a thorough training, familiarity with one’s instrument, and terrific instincts, as well. It made Joyce’s master class more gratifying than some others I’ve attended: I really felt as if we were getting somewhere.

Juilliard’s Gianni Schicchi:
Benter (standing, center) and Hajek (seated)

It was gratifying, as well, to hear Joyce discuss her own artistic process, the results of which I know so well but the nuts and bolts of which I’d only guessed at over the years I’ve been listening to her. She stressed the need to do a tremendous amount of groundwork — and then, once you’ve got the music and words thoroughly learned, you’re ready to explore, to experiment, to to take risks, to play.

Thus, when you’re ready to perform for an audience, you’re free (a word Joyce used about 8,000 times in the course of two hours) to deliver the color or effect or gesture that (in your now thoroughly prepared opinion) you like best.

Surely one reason it’s so much fun to listen to Joyce is the sense she gives that communicating with us brings her pleasure. Music is a two-way street, and she’s having fun along with us. And that sort of calculus works in reverse, too: if some of the competition auditioners I heard were dreary, was it not because they weren’t having fun? Yes, they’d prepared each aria thoroughly, but toward a specific goal, which unfortunately wasn’t to communicate but was instead to win.**

Cecilia Hall shone as Concepcion in Juilliard’s Heure espagnole.
Staging by Tomer Zvulun, costume by Vita Tzykun

Whereas with Joyce, Ana, David and other singers I admire, I invariably get the sense that, on a profound and personal level, they need to share with us what they’ve learned about a piece of music. If we don’t like it, too bad, but at least we’ll have heard it performed with ease and authority, and the reality is that these people are going to bust if they don’t sing.

As is so often the case when I’m listening to artists in fields other than my own, I find it easy to find the parallels between their work and mine — in fact, it may be easier for me to take lessons from a singer than from a writer. My defenses drop, perhaps, and my admiration isn’t tempered by jealousy. (After all, there’s no way I could do what a trained singer does!) And 20 years after I completed the graduate writing program at Columbia, I wonder whether I ought not to have attended a music conservatory instead. I’d still be a lousy musician, but I’d know more about life.

*NOTE: The claim of a world premiere for the Dessau oratorio was made by the conductor of this performance, Leon Botstein. Since that gentleman is also the president of the college attended by two of my godchildren, I would be disinclined to dispute his claim (even if I were capable of doing so), and along similar lines, I applaud his conducting with avid enthusiasm that will endure unabated at least until the kids graduate from Bard. Indisputably, however, David Adam Moore’s performance in the oratorio represented his Carnegie Hall debut, and I was greatly pleased to witness such a landmark occasion.

**In a story I wrote for Opera News, back when I barely knew him, Darren Woods warned me about the dangers of singing for the wrong reasons in an audition. A singer has to be herself and to sing for herself, he said; she should set short-term personal goals and not try to impress other people. It may sound counter-intuitive, but by golly, I see the proof all the time.

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29 May 2011

Perry May Run for President

Why should Steven Tyler have all the fun?

According to this guy I overheard in a bar last night, rock musician Joe Perry is considering a run for the Presidency of the United States. Now, this guy and his friends in the bar seemed to think that the potential candidacy was just a big joke, “the stupidest idea I ever heard,” according to one of them. But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes to me.

True, Perry, lead guitarist for the band Aerosmith, has no political experience, and although he’s earned a lot of money from his music, I don’t think you could exactly say he’s got business experience, either. But he’s had other kinds of experience that could be valuable in the White House during these trying times.

For example, you know that Joe Perry wouldn’t get us into unnecessary military conflicts, in which our young men and women might be put in harm’s way, because those are the people who buy his record albums, and Joe Perry is going to look out for them. And you know he could negotiate a lasting peace in the Middle East: all he has to do is get the opposing sides together and tell them to “Walk This Way.”

Speaking of which, Perry’s work with Run DMC shows that he could reach out to Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. One of his other songs is “Eat the Rich,” so you know he has special sympathy for the working class, schoolteachers, and others who are having a hard time these days. Perry isn’t beholden to corporate fat cats.

Perry has good hair, too, which is important when you’re a politician trying to make a good first impression.

Now these guys in the bar said Perry has an “appalling” record on women’s issues and gay rights — but if you ask me, “Dude Looks Like a Lady” is a great record and maybe Perry’s political philosophy is just a little too nuanced and sophisticated for some people. I’m not sure where he stands on gun control, because I don’t really remember the lyrics to “Janie’s Got a Gun,” but I’m sure Perry will clarify his position over time.

Let’s not forget that one of America’s most fondly remembered Presidents, Ronald Reagan, was originally an actor, not a politician, and that George W. Bush went to prep school in New England and had substance-abuse problems that he overcame, much like Joe Perry. Perry could reassure Republican voters that he has a lot in common with his predecessors and that he would be a worthy steward of the Reagan–Bush legacy. Also, according to Wikipedia, Perry is of Portuguese–Italian descent, and it’s about time that fine community had representation in the White House.

Ultimately, we shouldn’t forget that America needs leadership right now, and Perry does after all play lead guitar. Granted, Perry is an unconventional choice for President, but there are worse people you could pick. The more I think about it, the more sense it makes. I would encourage him to think seriously about a candidacy and — sorry, what did you just say?

Wait — you mean they were talking about Texas Governor Rick Perry?

He’s the one who may run for President?

You have got to be f***ing kidding me.

If he wins, can I secede?

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28 May 2011

The MTA’s Poetry in Motion Redux

New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority discontinued its participation in the “Poetry in Motion” campaign a few years ago. Brief poems about all kinds of journeys, these little posters were in subway cars and city buses, where otherwise we were accustomed to seeing far less artful advertising.

The program was immensely popular, not least because, for most of us, this was the only serious poetry we were likely to read all year. For a few seconds, we could almost believe we were like commuters in other cities, who can listen to NPR on the way to work — which New York subway riders cannot do, since we can’t get radio, phone, or Internet reception in the tunnels.

Although the Poetry Society of America continues “Poetry in Motion” in other cities, and has bought space in New York buses, subway riders are far more likely to see the MTA’s ubiquitous self-promotion nowadays. These ads announce the MTA’s profound concern for us and the manifold improvements it’s making to every part of its vast system of reduced services, rising fares, unreliable equipment, and nightmarish conditions.

Far be it from me to point out that the MTA might have gained more money to pay for those improvements if it sold bus and subway advertising to others, rather than claiming so many spots for itself.

Instead, I'll merely say there’s really no reason the MTA couldn’t pursue its “public awareness campaign” in verse — salvaging a little of the spirit of the poetry campaign even while pursuing a different goal. Herewith, a few examples.

Yes, I’m taking another swipe at the MTA.

Select Buses, On the Move

Select Buses, in express lanes,
Will speed you night and morn.
Just pre-board pay — You’re on your way!
Unless something goes worng.
Perhaps the fares miscalculate,
Or else the bus is running late,
There’s no way to correct it.
Yet there’s no cause, to make complain’s,
For you have been Selected.

The Heavenly Help Machine

We used to hire human beings
To talk to you or sell a token,
But now we have the Help Machines,
Which do all that — except when broken.

Our New Text Alerts

When train service goes from bad to worse,
We’ll send you handy text alerts!
But since the subway’s Internet-free,
Our text alerts you’ll never see.

The Countdown Clock

While waiting for the train to come
You’ve often stood and wondered
But thanks to our new service signs,
You’ll know just what you’ve squandered:
The time that would be better spent
Pursuing love and merriment,
And fleeting joys of passing youth.
But too late now — and that’s the truth!

We’re Making Improvements, Non-Stop!

Oh, don’t you love the MTA?
We’re constantly improving
The years of breakage and decay,
The trains that weren’t moving!
Neglect, abuse: we’re working on
It! All problems soon will all be gone!
We’re conscientious, you might say;
Our work is never ended!
We care so much — now go away!
This train has been suspended.

Inspired by an earlier subway campaign:
“She’s a home-loving girl,
But she loves high society’s whirl!
She adores the Army, the Navy as well.
At poetry and polo, she’s swell.”

-- “Miss Turnstiles,”
Lyrics by Comden and Green
From Bernstein’s On the Town

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26 May 2011

Prancing around in Art Museums Improves Mood, Health, Study Says

According to a study released in the May 23 issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, swanning about in theaters and concerts, prancing around museums and galleries, and generally flitting from one sissified cultural activity to another can yield significant health benefits, particularly among men, or, to use the scientific term, humanoids who used to be manly until they started participating in loser studies like this one.

The study found that benefits were less noteworthy among women, maybe on account of they were girly already to begin with.

The health benefits derived from behaving like a freaking pansy can lead to greater longevity, experts say. What the study does not suggest, however, is why anybody would want to live longer, if they had to do stuff like this all the time.

These poor fools are probably going to live forever.

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25 May 2011

‘Glee’-nalysis: Wonderful Town

Broadway Baby: Lea Michele as Rachel

When I was growing up in the American Heartland, I dreamed of New York City, smart and sexy and sophisticated. Its daily rhythms were the beat of Gene Kelly’s feet, set to the scores of Gershwin and Bernstein, and the city’s voice was that of Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, and Beverly Sills.

Also Joey Ramone. What can I tell you? I was a weird kid.

What do kids today dream of when they dream of New York? I can’t be sure. The city has changed so much since I first arrived. But Broadway has changed even more than the rest of New York. Nowadays, when kids in the Heartland are pouring out their hearts in the school musical, they’re not dreaming of being anonymous, interchangeable parts in one of the soulless amusement-park attractions that are a modern-day Broadway show. They’re dreaming of shows that allow them to be themselves as they really are — which is to say superstars.

Those kids are, I suspect, dreaming of Glee.

So it was interesting to watch Glee’s first foray into New York last night, and significant, I think, that the show recalled so many notions of what New York represented to earlier generations of American dreamers. The steady flow of Gershwin songs underscoring the action recalled not only George and Ira but also Woody Allen’s Manhattan. The New Directions kids mashed-up Madonna and Bernstein, but they danced just like Gene Kelly and the gang in Bernstein’s On the Town. And Rachel and Kurt ate breakfast at Tiffany’s.

New York, New York: The Central Park sequence

How do we reconcile the disparity between those sounds and images, and the present-day town, which looks more and more like an overcrowded upscale suburban shopping mall? Will today’s Broadway ever conjure up the sweetest dreams of ambitious children?

Luckily for us, the Glee kids didn’t try to tackle such questions. But returning to the city after so many years away, I was heartened to see New York through their eyes. Yeah, a lot of it is lost or forgotten, and some of it never really existed. But it’s still here. New York is real. And if I had it to do all over — this is where I’d come.

Special appearance by Miss Patti LuPone
How is it that the writers of a Hollywood TV show understand her mystique better than the creators of a recent Broadway musical did?

The episode was full of incidental pleasures, almost none of which had anything to do with the ostensible season climax, the show-choir competition. That sequence featured forgettable numbers that the kids had ostensibly written themselves (and — implausibly, need I say — written only after they got to New York), as well as a kinda-sorta step forward in Rachel’s love life. Beyond that, one marvels that this tepid segment was what the show has been building toward for months.

The judges’ decision made sense, at least: New Directions is composed of professionals (in real life) and they’re substantially more accomplished than what one assumes is the typical level of typical mid-American high-school show choirs. You’ve got to find a reason for them not to wipe up the stage with everybody else, and the writers did that. So okay, next season we’ll be more invested in whether New Directions wins first place — before most of the cast “graduates.” We won’t say, “Ho-hum. They win again.”

Look at the skies! They got stars in their eyes!
Also, Puck plays accordion. Why not?

What worked in this episode was seeing the various relationships as they played out against a new backdrop, and how they changed (or didn’t) when the kids went home again. The evolution of Brittany (Heather Morris) and Santana (Naya Rivera) from extras to central characters has been one of the most satisfying developments in the course of Glee, and both ladies got excellent opportunities to sing, dance, and emote this week. I was a bit puzzled when Quinn (Dianna Agron) seemed fully aware of a relationship that Santana has only barely admitted to herself — but in the world of Glee, that’s a minor lapse. (Typically for the show, it was also a set-up for an easy laugh.)

Glee sometimes gets so caught up in its own fabulousness that it forgets its original concept: that New Directions are the losers, and it’s downright weird that the popular kids, jocks (Finn, Puck, Sam) and cheerleaders (Quinn, Brittany, Santana) would join. This week we were reminded of that central theme as popular Finn strove to woo misfit Rachel, but we’re so accustomed to seeing her as the McKinley High School Dynamo that the moments didn’t quite work: the writers left this plot alone for too long.

Not so cheery Cheerios

And they don’t seem to have any idea what to do with Quinn anymore. Her promised moment of High Camp Villainy was resolved with a simple haircut. Really? Okay, she’s only a high-school cheerleader, she’s not Wilhelmina Slater or Alexis Colby Carrington Trump. Yes, every few episodes she gets a killer dramatic speech and occasionally a song. But who is Quinn Fabray? Does anybody know?

Far more effective were the scenes between Rachel and Kurt (Chris Colfer), characters who have evolved from antagonism to respect to affection. Part of this was necessary, since Kurt had become America’s sweetheart and Rachel was becoming wildly unpopular among viewers. Good writers often reveal character through other characters, and because Rachel cared about Kurt, viewers may have started to cut her a little more slack.

The proto-Rachel: Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick

Rachel is very much a musical Tracy Flick, the iconic character from Alexander Payne’s film and Tom Perrotta’s source novel Election; for Glee, she’s fused with the young Barbra Streisand. That character, by her DNA, is not likable — but to sustain a weekly series, the leading character must be likable. (At least that’s the case on American television.) So the writers of Glee keep reminding us that this girl who would have annoyed the hell out of us in real-life school, is actually lovable.

Kurt would need no reminding, especially on those occasions when Rachel isn’t stealing his solo numbers. They speak the same language, sing the same songs, crush on the same boys, and it was especially lovely to see these characters sharing their New York dreams. Even when they weren’t together, they were thinking about each other: “I have to do it, for Kurt!” Rachel exclaimed, while summoning up the courage to speak to Patti LuPone at Sardi’s.

Dreams of Broadway
One of these days, I really have to see Wicked.

Seeing Rachel and Kurt evoke Holly Golightly, I realized that at last somebody could cast a remake of Breakfast at Tiffany’s correctly, and maybe even revive the Broadway musical version (a notorious flop that starred Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain).

The rest of the New York scenes were mostly exuberant, as out-of-town field trips are, and they thoroughly disregarded geography, as movie musicals do. The “Bella Notte” number lacked only a callback to Brittany and Santana: we really needed a shot through the window of an Italian restaurant, where Brittany rolled a meatball with her nose. Dancing in the park to “New York, New York”? Yeah, that’s how the city feels when you’re young. I’ve done it myself.

Darren Criss: Awwwwww.
Some day, we must talk about how this man and this show are warping the romantic expectations of approximately 99.44 percent of gay teenagers in the United States alone. There are no Blaines in real life, people.

Ultimately, the trip mattered more than the competition itself, and the episode’s final act, in which the characters reflected on their adventures, rang true. In another indication of the show’s flexibility and the writer–producers’ attention to the blogosphere, we see that Mercedes (Amber Riley) and Sam (Chord Overstreet) are dating: bloggers had complained that Mercedes had no boyfriend because the show featured no other black actor in a leading role, and therefore (it was alleged) the producers didn’t have the imagination to give her a boyfriend who wasn’t black. After hints at this romantic pairing last week, this week we got the glimmer of a payoff.

Sam, meanwhile, has been underused for anything but gay-bait (both for the show’s gay characters and for the show’s gay viewers) since he arrived, so maybe he and Mercedes will be allowed to develop as satisfyingly as Brittany and Santana have done. Any excuse to give Amber Riley more solos. Seriously.

A typical Sam moment.
Believe me, he isn’t doing this to advance the plot.

In one sense, Mercedes was right when she declared that New York City was built on the site of Old York City: one dreamland springs out of another, especially in this town. Puck was right, too: New York is the city of love. And Rachel and Kurt were right, too: we’re always going to find room for kids with big ambitions and bigger talent. No matter how much it has changed, New York remains what it was: what you make of it.

It made sense to bring the Glee kids here, as of course it made sense to take them home again. As Dorothy returned to Kansas, so they return to Ohio. Will New York change them? Will it give focus to their dreams? Or will it be just one more damned thing the writers forget about until it’s convenient to remember it? We’ll see. But the past few episodes have been strong enough to make me hope that this show is — finally — hitting its stride.

So long as it lasts.

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23 May 2011

Valeurs Familiales

And just what are these values worth?
Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy, parents-to-be

In the ongoing horror story that is Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest on rape charges in New York, what fascinates me most is how incredibly easy it is to believe the man was set up by his political opponents. I don’t seriously believe — and every feminist bone in my body shrieks in pain every time I doubt for even an instant the motives of DSK’s accuser — and yet for me as for vast numbers of French people the possibility of a political conspiracy against DSK remains irresistible to contemplate.

As I’ve said from the start, the timing of DKS’s arrest, just weeks before he was expected to announce his candidacy for the French presidency, is almost preposterously convenient to his opponents, notably including the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy. But hardly had DSK completed his perp walk when the announcement came that Sarkozy’s wife, the singer Carla Bruni, was pregnant. Now, reliable old DSK is an accused sex offender and Sarkozy, of all people, can position himself as a family-values candidate: suddenly, the political landscape of France is remade.

Courtroom drama: DSK in NYC

American readers may not recall that Bruni (an artist whose work I rather like) is Sarkozy’s third wife. He met the second wife, Cécilia, when, as mayor of Neuilly, he officiated at her marriage to another man — whom she promptly divorced in order to marry Sarkozy. Though it was believed that Cécilia had little interest in becoming first lady of France, she stuck by Sarkozy throughout the election campaign in 2007, then bolted after he’d won. Sarkozy began dating Bruni a few months later, then married her.

Bruni herself had maintained a busy love life and was described in the press as a “man-eater,” with a long list of famous lovers, including at one point a father and son, more or less simultaneously. This sort of track record is more usual in the music industry than it is in French politics, and while the “family–values candidacy” is more an American concept than a French one, the Sarkozys were not the first people you’d expect to find running on such a platform.

Until now.

For much of his career, Sarkozy, a right-winger, has seemed obsessed with co-opting voters from the farther-right Front National. That party has seen its prospects rise lately with the retirement of its longtime standard-bearer, Jean-Marie LePen, in favor of his media-savvy daughter, Marine. Usually Sarkozy has tried to appeal to FN voters by adapting or adopting anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric that is often understood as xenophobic. Sarkozy seems to suggest he can offer FN voters more or less what they wanted, but in more palatable form; but if Marine LePen herself represents the FN in a more palatable form, his campaign will be more challenging in 2012 than in the past.

One answer could be in those traditional values — the local equivalent of Kinder Küche Kirche — upheld by a certain segment of the French right. For generations, the French paid little attention to their politicians’ personal lives, but that’s changing, in part due to the allegations against DSK and in part due to Sarkozy’s love life, too. A newborn baby could be a campaign asset for any candidate trying to appeal to the French right.

Of course, one would have to be paranoid in the extreme to believe that Carla Bruni somehow timed her pregnancy just to help her husband get reelected; one has to perform daring feats of mental gymnastics to understand the DSK case as any kind of conspiracy, in the face of physical evidence and testimony. And yet conspiracy theorists are always quick to ask, “Who stands to gain?” For now, the answer to that question does little to dispel my unwilling temptation to wonder whether there’s something fishy going on.

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22 May 2011

Xerox Celebrities

The late Benton Srpski, around the time he met Aunt Hattie.

The great American philosopher Sally Boldt once opined that there are in the world a limited number of faces — and all of the Xerox copies are in New York. This accounts for the frequency with which one sees people on the sidewalk whom one thinks one recognizes, only to be realize the mistake a moment later. Ideally this is done before one has embarrassed oneself by joyfully embracing one’s Great Aunt Hattie, who turns out to be a Greenwich Village eccentric and neither Hattie nor (quite possibly) a woman at all.

New York is filled with faces that truly are famous and recognized — celebrities live on the sidewalks in this town, and very often one finds oneself lying in the gutter and looking up at the stars of a Broadway show, major motion picture, or TV series. My real-life Aunt Hattie once bumped into a famous editor and quiz-show star on a New York street. “Why, Bennet Cerf!” she exclaimed, exactly as if he were an old friend whom she hadn’t expected to see anywhere but the lunch counter of the Von Dohlen-Byrd Pharmacy in Goliad, Texas. (Actually, given the state of Hattie’s mind in later life, it’s possible she did believe just that.)

History does not record precisely what Mr. Cerf said to Aunt Hattie, but we must presume that he handled the matter gracefully enough that she bore him no grudge and continued to watch What’s My Line? as avidly as ever.

Is this my darling Jib-Jib or his twin —
the lesser-known Jason Franco?

Of course, there’s no assurance that the man Hattie met really was Bennet Cerf. Not only was her vision awful, but the cosmic Xerox machine that cranks out all those copies of un-famous faces is cranking out copies of famous faces, too. Anyone spending more than a few hours on the streets of New York will encounter dozens of ordinary pedestrians who look exactly like exciting celebrities — and who really, really don’t want to sign an autograph for you because they are sick to death of being told they look like Neil Patrick Harris.

Celebrity Doppelgängers are an unstoppably entertaining phenomenon, and some years ago, Andy Weems made a game of it.

“Look!” Andy would cry out. “It’s Dom DeLuise’s twin brother, Tom DeLuise!”

Authentic photograph of Tom — or possibly Don, Doc, Dean, or Dumbarton — DeLuise

New York being full of Italian-Americans (and probably several of the late Mr. DeLuise’s own relatives), “Tom” DeLuises were plentiful in those days, and really, the name switch began to seem too easy. Andy endeavored to make the game more and more challenging, and I began to play, as well. Now you can play, too.

For example, who among us does not yearn to run into lovely Beryl Streetman in a New York subway?

And who wouldn’t warn Brittania Speaks to cover up when she goes outside? New York is full of crazies; we don’t want to encourage them, do we?

Sightings of Doppelgängers of the Glee cast were rampant a couple of weeks ago. Here, we see Corbin Moncrieff, alongside Chord Overstreet, whose name already sounds as if it’s made up. Seriously, what are you going to do with that? Corky Overstrike? I don’t think so. Fortunately, not many people look like him, so there’s scant chance of running into his twin.

Be advised, however, that the Celebrity Doppelgänger Game can be played both ways. Several years ago, I was hanging out with a few college friends when a man approached us.

“Aren’t you John Kennedy, Jr.?” the man wanted to know.

“I get that a lot,” John replied ruefully — but honestly. (After all, he didn’t actually deny who he was.)* The man marveled at the uncanny resemblance, then wished us a good night and went on his way, little realizing that he had just taken part in another adventure in the capital city of fame and Xeroxes.

*NOTE: Christina Haag, whom I got to kiss in a play at Brown, has written a memoir of her time with John (whom I knew only slightly, I must add). You can order the book from Amazon by clicking here.

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21 May 2011

Interview: Ava Pine on Handel’s Cleopatra

Ave, Ava!
The reigning soprano, beyond denial.
Photo by Ellen Appel, courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

Part of the fun of visiting an opera company repeatedly over several seasons is the chance to witness the development of young singers — and equally good fun are those moments when you’re surprised by a singer whose work you’ve gotten to know. The really good ones have always got one more trick up their sleeves: a vocal color you’ve never heard from them, a dramatic nuance you wouldn’t expect, to make the music more meaningful to you.

I’ve enjoyed both the development (a glimpse, anyway) and the surprises (abundant) of Ava Pine, a coloratura soprano who distinguished Fort Worth Opera’s productions of Eötvös’ Angels in American and Donizetti’s Elixir of Love in 2009 and 2010. As the Angel, Ava performed a wickedly jagged, otherworldly score while flying over the stage; in Elixir, she created an Adina of proud intelligence, quiet yearning, and luscious lyricism. Listening to her, I feel as if I’ve been magically transformed into FWO General Director Darren Keith Woods, who is surely the most enthusiastic audience on earth: Ava’s singing makes me want to grab strangers by the collar and tell them, just the way Darren would, that they’ll never forgive themselves if they miss out on hearing her.

The Texas native returns to Fort Worth Opera as Cleopatra in Handel’s Julius Caesar, opening May 28 — the first Baroque opera the company has produced in its long history. From the moment Ava’s casting was announced, I was thrilled by the prospect of hearing her in this music — so right for her, and yet very different from what I’ve heard her sing already onstage.

Costume fitting, New York, April 27, 2011
WVM in background.
Photograph by Joy Partain, Fort Worth Opera

Cleopatra is a showcase role for soprano, featuring a stack of gorgeous arias and a multifaceted character. It’s the role that made a star of Beverly Sills, at New York City Opera in 1966, the recording of which was one of the first I owned and learned almost by heart. (Believe it or not, Fort Worth will use the set that Ming Cho Lee designed for that NYCO production.) I could hardly pick a score better suited to Ava’s sparkling vocalism and theatrical skills, in which her dance training and good looks will count for plenty, too: it seems only natural that the Ancient World would bow before her.

While rehearsing Julius Caesar, Ava took time to answer a few questions, shedding light on Baroque singing and on this opera in particular: if anything, I’m even more eager now to hear her Queen of the Nile.

WVM: Julius Caesar is Fort Worth Opera’s first Baroque opera, but not the first time FWO audiences will hear you singing ornate music with a lot of high notes. What’s different in your musical approach to Cleopatra, as opposed to Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore (or the Angel in Angels in America, for that matter)?

AVA PINE: Those are certainly three very different roles from three very different musical genres. I would jokingly answer that compared to the Angel, Cleopatra requires less counting, and less sheer terror in general!

Joking aside, Baroque opera, with all the possibilities for ornamentation and personal expression, offers a singer unique challenges and opportunities. The role on the page is like the most delectable unfrosted cake, and it’s up to me to put on the frosting and make it not only beautiful, but to keep it just as delicious as it originally was. I love that Baroque opera gives me the opportunity to do much of this at my own discretion, using my own artistic choices — choices that are then blended with the conductor’s and director’s during the rehearsal process.

I do this most obviously through ornamentation in da capo arias, but also in the recitatives through my inflection of the Italian, and through the use of appoggiatura. Approaching a note from a different direction can completely change the tone of the drama — turning a statement into a question, underscoring a character’s sincerity or deception, or changing the pace of an intense moment. Since the recitatives are where the action is advanced the most, a singer’s handling of them can really impact the arc of the show.

Heavenly: Ava as Eötvös’ Angel
Fort Worth Opera Festival 2009
Ava also took this role to London for the work’s U.K. premiere,
and she’ll reprise it soon in the Los Angeles premiere.
Photo by Ellen Appel.

Regarding ornamentation, I confess that I’m a total geek about writing them. I’m constantly singing the arias — in my head, in the car, on the train, in the shower — trying out different things. I will often compose a new ornament on the fly in rehearsal. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. But I love the experimentation and the expression!

Apart from the musical bones of the piece, there’s also the issue of style. Baroque music requires a different style of singing than other genres. I’m not referring to straight tone singing, which I usually find affected. It’s more a way of knowing how to wrap the voice around the notes and respect the structure of the piece in a way that illuminates it, rather than obscures it.

WVM: You recorded Hasse’s Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra for a Grammy-nominated disc — another Baroque composer, the same historical figure, depicted at a later point in her life. Has performing the Hasse given you any insight into the Handel?

AP: More than anything else, performing two composers’ ideas of the same woman in such a short timespan has fanned the flames of my geekery! The two settings are actually quite different, and I find it fascinating to compare and contrast the two versions written so close together — Handel’s in 1724 and Hasse’s in 1725. These men had many colleagues in common and surely knew each other and the other’s work. What did Hasse learn from Handel’s setting? Did Handel take anything from Hasse when he reworked Julius Caesar in 1725? The possibilities for geekery are endless!

Handel gives the character of Cleopatra such great range, both musically and dramatically. Each of her arias is so well defined that the portrait of the character is quite clear. Hasse focuses more on the character’s fiery side, and the arias he wrote are relatively similar: even Cleopatra’s love aria is allegro! Granted, Handel has the luxury of a three-act opera, while Hasse only had a 90-minute serenata. Learning and performing two different versions of this almost mythical woman has certainly broadened the scope of my preparation and my awareness of the character.

Ava Pine as Adina, Michael Fabiano as Nemorino
in FWO’s Elixir of Love, 2010.
Photo by Ellen Appel

WVM: Handel’s Cleopatra travels such an interesting dramatic arc — we see much more emotional development from her than from most (any) of the other characters in this opera. As an actress, what appeals to you about the role?

AP: The most appealing thing is the very arc that you describe! I am a stage animal: I love to inhabit a character, and to travel that character’s arc over the course of the evening. Cleopatra begins the opera almost childishly, toying with people and feuding with her brother Tolomeo over who should rule Egypt. She torments and teases him as only a sibling can do. By the end, she has fallen in love, experienced pain and worry, taken great risks, stared down her impending death, and helped orchestrate the downfall of her brother. She goes from being very similar to her brother, to resembling the noble widow Cornelia in her carriage and dignity.

That’s a lot of character growth in a short amount of time. Finding and feeling the impetus for this growth and making the audience see and feel it too are the things that keep people engaged in the story over the course of the evening.

When I’m onstage, I really feel everything that’s happening to the character. I live it, so it feels less like I’m acting and more like I’m just being. Cleopatra’s journey is so intense that I am exhausted by the time I’ve made it all the way through. I have sung her final aria, ’Da tempeste,’ for years, but never fully understood the emotions behind it until the first run-through of the entire show, when I took the journey to get me to that point. The aria took on a whole new meaning as I experienced her relief and joy at being saved and knowing that her cause had won the day. I’ll also confess that coming at the end of the opera, Cleopatra’s relief and joy mingled with my own: knowing that it was the last aria (of seven) I had to sing that day!

Costume fitting, New York, April 27, 2011
Designer Robert Perdziola in foreground;
WVM still lurking in background.
Photograph by Joy Partain, Fort Worth Opera

WVM: For this production, you’ll be wearing several truly exquisite costumes by Robert Perdziola. I’ve got to ask: do you have a favorite, and if so, which one?

AP: The costumes are so gorgeous, I’ve run out of descriptive adjectives to use when I talk about them. It is a privilege to wear them. I have five gowns, each of them perfectly fitted and amazingly detailed. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I am partial to the costume I wear at the top of the show: a gown in a vibrant lapis blue. It is Robert’s nod to Egyptian fascination with lapis lazuli. But if you ask me tomorrow, my favorite could very well be the innocent looking muslin I wear when pretending to be a maid, or the jewel-encrusted gown designed to seduce Caesar. Perhaps the fierce battle costume. Or the jaw-droppingly ornate final gown. I love them all! Don’t make me choose!

Handel’s Julius Caesar
Fort Worth Opera Festival, Bass Performance Hall
May 28, 7:30 PM
June 5, 2 PM
For more information, click here.

With countertenor Randall Scotting as Caesar.
One hopes these two are hitting the nightspots of Fort Worth —
wearing these outfits.
Photo by Ellen Appel.

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18 May 2011

‘Glee’-nalysis: Melting the Wicked Witch

Glee is so famously, infuriatingly inconsistent that one is almost terrified to observe how good the show has been the past few weeks — four strong episodes in a row, by my count, so good that I don’t want to jinx matters. It’s a bit like the Monty Python sketch about the apartments built by hypnosis: they’re very nice, so long as you don’t question whether they’re real.

Last night’s episode tackled head-on what had become a persistent problem for Glee: the show’s breakout character, Sue Sylvester, had become a liability. The writers threw so many outrageous lines at Sue that she ceased to be credible, and often she wasn’t even terribly amusing. (Reality is the basis of most — though not all — comedy.) She was also less effective as an antagonist to Will Schuester and the New Directions gang. Something had to change, and last night, the writers gave us a Sue Sylvester who was all-too real, feeling human emotions and behaving like people you or I might know (or become).

As the episode played out, three-dimensional Sue closely resembled another Sue Sylvester we saw (briefly) last season, and she raises questions about where the character can go, dramatically speaking, next season. But for the duration of the hour, this viewer found little to complain about — and what a nice feeling it was.

It was no surprise when Sue Sylvester became the breakout character — the most compelling face in Glee’s dysfunctional gallery. The underlying theme of the show is that the world is not in fact a nice place, and some people are selfish and unkind: nobody demonstrated that better than the tyrannical cheerleading coach of McKinley High School. Moreover, the actress who plays her, Jane Lynch, had been stealing entire movies out from under better-known colleagues, and now at last she got a brilliant spotlight of her own.

But this season, it has seemed very often as if the writers had no idea what to do with the character. She’s popular with viewers, but this meant that she often seemed to appear in a given episode only because the writers felt obliged to include her, not because they had any serious purpose for her. When Sue started firing cheerleaders out of cannons, we were in jump-the-shark mode, and remained there until this week. In the real world — with which Glee has at least a fleeting relationship — Sue would have been fired, and possibly jailed, months ago. Instead, she kept coming back, week after week, appearing more and more irrational. Her jokes began to seem desperate, and her villainy merely cartoonish, rather than legitimately menacing.

For a little while, in recent weeks, the writers played with that, and had some fun with it. When Sue recruited henchmen to help her thwart New Directions, the comedy was over-the-top, yet funny (and a welcome opportunity to bring back several underused minor characters). The writers even ackowledged Sue’s apparent lunacy, as for example when she disguised herself as David Bowie and Ann Coulter.

But in a show that regularly visits serious themes such as sexual identity, bullying, and the economic crisis (a nice touch, giving Sam something to do in recent episodes), a flat-out absurd Sue Sylvester couldn’t be sustained in her dominion over Cloud Cuckoo Land. This week brought her back to earth.

Robin Trocki as Jean Sylvester

From the start, Sue’s relationship with her sister Jean has illuminated and justified much of her behavior (as when she defended Kurt Hummel), even as it made other aspects of her personality harder to understand. Sometimes it was as if Sue could feel sympathy for only one person, and after that, her quota was complete and she could freely terrorize everyone else. The writers needed to return to the relationship with Jean in order to bring Sue back from the extreme weirdness where she’s resided most of this season, and last night’s scenes of grief and reconciliation proved poignant and true — and Jane Lynch rose to the occasion magnificently. Though the time line seems blurred, it even seemed possible that Sue has been acting so strangely for weeks precisely because she was worried about Jean.

Yet while I watched her reconcile with Will Schuester, I realized I’d seen this moment already: at the end of last season, when she grudgingly conceded Will’s gift for teaching and buried the hatchet (momentarily) in her quest to undermine New Directions. Does this mean that next season she’ll start all over, and reconcile again next spring?

Or will the writers — instead of writing on the fly, as I suspect they too often do — actually think about the character’s development, and allow her to grow? The prospect of Sue’s entrance into politics seemed to be played for a joke, and yet it might yield some entertaining material, in keeping with “Sue Sees It”, her TV commentaries, and yet unlike anything we’ve seen from her so far.

Lynch and Potter as Sue and Becky

Last night’s episode also gave Sue a chance to interact with characters who seldom appear opposite her — notably Kurt and Finn — as well as with her loyal sidekick, Becky Jackson (Lauren Potter), in a way that suggested a deepening of that relationship.

But Glee is Glee, and there were implausible moments last night, as well. Are we really supposed to believe that Mr. Schuester, with hardly enough money to pay for airfare to the national competition in New York, would hire a “show choir consultant”? Well, it’s an excuse to bring back Jonathan Groff, so maybe we shouldn’t complain — that is, until Groff’s character started to channel Simon Cowell and to insult the other characters, in a way that is entirely antithetical to everything we know about Mr. Schuester’s methods and beliefs.*

Maybe Jonathan Groff’s Jesse St. James is being set up as the show’s new cartoony villain. I honestly don’t think they need another — but I suspect I’ll keep watching, just the same.

And that’s how Bill sees it.

*NOTE: It must be said that I agreed with Jesse on one point at least: I didn’t think Kurt sold “Some People,” either. But Mercedes’ “Try a Little Tenderness” was one of the best things this show has ever done.

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