30 June 2011

Are You There, E.L. Konigsburg? It’s Me, Margaret

My too-long-delayed exploration of the more recent work of a favorite author, E.L. Konigsburg, continues apace, landing now on a pair of novels aimed at somewhat older readers. Where the books that earned Konigsburg my childhood admiration didn’t deny the existence of grownup themes, those weren’t the focus of, or even particularly relevant to, the stories she was telling. But sex makes an appearance in Silent to the Bone (2002) and The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place (2004), and suddenly Konigsburg is navigating waters that I might more readily associate with the works of Judy Blume than with those of the author of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Konigsburg proceeds with her customary taste and sensitivity, while accommodating the evolving concerns of her audience. Kids today are savvier than her original readers (namely, this one) were in 1968, but Konigsburg is ready for them.

Both novels are set in the fictitious town of Epiphany, NY (also home to the protagonists of The View from Thursday), and concern members of the same, somewhat dysfunctional family, Margaret Rose Kane and her half-brother, Connor. Silent finds Connor leaving childhood behind as his best friend is accused of abusing a baby (with plenty of sordid whispers attached to the incident): it’s up to Connor to find out what really happened and to clear his friend’s name, a task made all the more difficult because his friend, traumatized, is unable to speak for himself. And yes, there’s an older woman involved, an English au pair whose sexual charms work on both boys, in ways for which they’re unprepared.

As Connor sets out to solve the mystery, he’s abetted by his half-sister, a technogeek loner who’s cooler than thou on all matters except the father they share. We see Margaret as a girl in Outcasts, set during the summer when her parents’ marriage fell apart. The extraordinary ability of little girls to cause each other pain — which comes into play in Konigsburg’s first book, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth — is vividly depicted in the first chapters of Outcasts, in which Margaret spends a miserable few days in a rigidly managed summer camp. She’s soon rescued by her eccentric uncles, only to discover that their life’s work — “outsider-art” constructions that resemble the famous Watts Towers — are about to be destroyed.

As she fights to save the towers, Margaret finds an ally in Jake, the son of the summer-camp director, himself an artist and a grownup. His sex appeal is such that, to avoid complications with the girls at camp, he pretends to be an idiot, but Margaret sees through the pose quickly enough, and though she’d be unlikely to admit it as such, she develops a crush on him.

This is kid stuff, compared with the more intense sexuality that informs Silent, and yet the alert reader will note that, having “lost” Jake to another woman, Margaret as an grownup is single, with no known prospects. How great was her heartbreak? Should adult readers see her as a distaff counterpart to the narrator of Hartley’s The Go-Between?

Konigsburg doesn’t spell out the answers: she remains a model of discretion, to the point that I wasn’t certain how the boys in Silent responded to their English siren: a physiological reaction, an action, or what? In the other books I’ve read, Konigsburg keeps sex offstage, but here it plays an important role: a motive, but also a mystery to be solved later, after the book is done. Not for her the angst and explicit prose of other “young-adult” authors, but she does demonstrate an ability to address that audience honestly and forthrightly.

In many other regards, the Kane books fit squarely in Konigsburg’s oeuvre. These are smart, even smart-alecky, kids with curious intellects and offbeat enthusiasms. Margaret consciously mimics Herman Melville’s Bartleby when she declines to participate in summer-camp activities: I didn’t read “Bartleby” until I was in college, but Konigsburg’s characters tend to be more precocious than I. And if young readers are inspired to learn more about British slang, or the Watts Towers, or Melville’s fiction, or the psychology of trauma — as Konigsburg’s previous books may have inspired them to learn more about Michelangelo’s sculptures and about sea turtles — it’s all to the good.

There’s a big world out there to be explored, Konigsburg suggests, and she’s always encouraged us to step forward into it — when we’re ready, responsible, and with our wits about us.

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28 June 2011

Little’s ‘Soldier Songs’

Sam Poon (left) and David Adam Moore

Among the few military strategists I’ve known, “lessons learned from the last war” are practically an obsession; seldom, however, do I notice any pacifists heeding them much. The great exception is one lesson learned from the Vietnam War: to hate the war, but to love the warrior. The anti-war movement vilified those individuals who fought, showing those men very little of the peace and love being preached to everybody else, and it soon became clear that American society had suffered as a result. The next time the United States entered into a major conflict, the Gulf War of 1990–91, anti-war demonstrators vowed to be kinder in their opposition, and that vow was renewed when George Bush invaded Iraq.

Now, years later, composer David T. Little has applied this principle to a work of seriousness and compassion, Soldier Songs, a cycle based on interviews he conducted with friends and relatives who fought in other wars. This work has received a fully staged production, courtesy of director Yuval Sharon and producer Beth Morrison, which I saw as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, CT, on June 24.

David Adam Moore as the Soldier

Musically, Little’s score is never less than riveting. He makes extensive use of percussion, as one might expect in a work about the drums of war, but he does so often imaginatively, and he brings a similarly inventive spirit to his use of dissonance, which is seldom predictable here (as it would be in the hands of other composers). He contrasts violent, harsh tones with expressive melodies, for impressive dramatic effects. “Yeah,” you think, “this guy may never have fought, but he does feel for soldiers.”

Dramaturgically, Little is on somewhat shakier ground. His texts follow the trajectory of an Everyman soldier (portrayed by baritone David Adam Moore) from idealistic child, playing war on the playground; to jingoistic youth, playing video games; to increasingly disillusioned (and terrified) grunt; to shell-shocked veteran. That’s terrific, and insightful, as far as it goes.

The trouble is that the perspective Little offers us is so highly selective — and his approach somewhat heavy-handed. There’s nothing positive at all in his Soldier’s tale, and even experiences that might have been supposed to be relatively pleasant are described only in order for them to be demolished a second later: the Soldier does find camaraderie in service, for example, but then his friends are blown up.

If the matter were as clear-cut as Little describes it, no one would ever enlist, much less re-up, and every veteran would come home with advanced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I don’t disagree that war is Hell, but I’d have appreciated a greater recognition that war is also seductive, purposeful (for better or worse), and difficult to avoid; and that military service is very often a sincere demonstration of a person’s core beliefs. To acknowledge these truths would not necessarily tip the scales of Little’s argument: on the contrary, he might have evinced even greater sympathy for the soldiers he cares about, and he’s a good enough composer to make his point while allowing for a broader perspective.

Todd Reynolds led the ensemble Newspeak in a vibrant performance: at various points in the score, the players lend their speaking voices to the mix, and the flautist hopped up to join the percussionist for four-handed xylophone-playing. A playground seesaw became an artillery gun and a sandbox became a soldier’s tent in Sharon’s visually arresting production. The director adroitly stressed the universality of the work: this wasn’t any one particular war, but a general statement evoking Vietnam as well as Iraq. Corey Michael Smithson’s animations went further, including images from both world wars, but his style is sometimes so impressionistic that I couldn’t tell what I was looking at — and as a result of trying to puzzle out the images, I didn’t focus on the rest of the stage business.

Likewise, pre-recorded spoken texts were often indistinct, sometimes intentionally so (as toward the end, when they overlapped, to haunting effect) but other times not, so that I was unsure whether I was supposed to understand the words. That’s a shame, not only because it diminished the work’s overall power but also because it distracted me from two excellent performances. Young Sam Poon embodied the Soldier’s boyhood at some times, at others his lost innocence or a war-zone insurgent. I can’t remember a performance this good from an actor so young in a production of this type: some credit goes to Sharon, who kept Poon busy with pertinent action at all times, but clearly the kid has talent of his own.

The heart of the performance, however, belonged to David Adam Moore. Given the nature of Little’s texts, it might be tempting to condescend to the Soldier: “Poor naïve shmuck doesn’t know what he’s getting into.” David never stooped so low, and he kept the character honest in all his changing moods, flinging himself around the stage with fearless abandon. Little’s score begins and ends with the singer unable to articulate words — in this production’s final scenes, that’s because the little boy is stifling him. In between, David screamed and keened and crooned, thrillingly.

He’s been excited about this piece since its inception, and immediately I understood why. David likes a challenge, and Soldier Songs is surely that, musically and physically — and emotionally. It’s a chance to make a valuable statement about people we know and care about, and such opportunities are why David got into singing in the first place — and that, in turn, is why I admire him. He’s always pushing himself and surprising me. There’s nothing halfway about him as an artist.

The Davids — Little and Moore — have been presenting Soldier Songs for a few years now, in various formats and venues, and I hope they’ll continue to do so. It’s work worth sharing, and thinking about.

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26 June 2011

It Gets Better

Last fall, in response to a rash of teen suicides, the newspaper sex-columnist Dan Savage launched “It Gets Better,” a project in which grownups posted videos on YouTube to send messages of hope to gay teens and others. “It Gets Better” grew to encompass hundreds of such messages, and has now been adapted as a book — but on this Pride Day in New York City, what seems most remarkable is that the message seems to be turning out honest and true. There are still hurdles to overcome, but just in the past months, circumstances have improved immensely, culminating in Friday’s vote in the New York State Senate to legalize marriage equality.

Because this day is meant not only for partying, I’d like to take a minute to run down a few of the optimistic signs on the social and political horizon in the United States.

Standing up to Bullying
Savage started the “It Gets Better” project because so many gay teens had been so brutally harassed that, despairing, they took their own lives. Most of those who posted YouTube videos had been bullied as kids, and they sought to show today’s children that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Hang in there, the speakers said, and you’ll be able to move out, move away, grow taller and stronger, make money, find acceptance, find love, and create new families.

This message resonated especially for me, because it reflects my personal experience — and yet I didn’t write about it here when Savage launched “It Gets Better.” In junior high school, I was bullied on a daily basis. I was teased, tripped, shoved, punched, slapped, spat upon, and insulted. And though I hardly knew myself what my sexual orientation was, the other boys had made up their minds: they called me “faggot.”

I dreaded going to school each day — above all, I dreaded going to P.E. class, where I was at my most vulnerable (to attack not only from other boys but also from the coaches). No one in authority — not the school administrators, not the other teachers, not my parents — did a thing to protect or defend me, or my brother, or the handful of other boys who suffered similar treatment.

Seth Walsh, 13 years old, committed suicide last September.

If I haven’t talked about this — and I haven’t much, anywhere — it’s not least because my history reflects poorly on my parents, whom I love. But there’s also a level of shame involved, and such experiences aren’t something we discuss even among ourselves. Was Feldstein bullied? I don’t know. Does he know about my trials? I don’t know. As victims, we sometimes persuade ourselves that we deserve rough treatment — I certainly told myself that I deserved it — and that’s one reason bullying leaves such lasting scars, and must be opposed.

Apparently I lacked the sort of imagination that leads a kid to kill himself. That’s not to say that I bore the slurs lightly. Unfortunately, I also lacked the nerve to fight back. But I held out the hope of a happier future, and as soon as I was able, I went looking for it.

And I found it. I found dozens — hundreds — of men and women who’d survived similar treatment. Some of us were wounded more deeply than others, but we have nursed each other with respect and affection. Together we joined and created communities, institutions, couples, and families that sustain us even now. It gets better — and it’s still getting better.

Ryan McGinnis and Mark Indelicato on Ugly Betty, 2010

Marriage equality got a big boost on Friday night, thanks to New York’s state legislators and Governor, Andrew Cuomo, who staked his political capital on this issue and who now makes other politicians (notably our President) look wishy-washy at best. But the issue is far from settled, and a minority of Americans are still deeply and sincerely opposed not only to marriage equality but to a host of other rights for their fellow citizens. It gets better, but it ain’t over.

We’ve made notable inroads, however, including the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the well-intended (really) but ultimately destructive Clinton compromise that ruined careers and lives, and sapped this country’s military strength. (How many Arab translators could the U.S. afford to lose?) The repeal has yet to go into effect, but the longer we wait, the more DADT seems like ancient history.

Signed, sealed, but not yet delivered

Perhaps most importantly, the legal weaknesses of the opposition’s arguments (based exclusively on religion or revulsion or both, none of which has standing) and the personal hypocrisies of its spokespeople are becoming more and more inescapably apparent. Bullies exist, and even thrive, far from the playground, but we are seeing them as such. When the state of Tennessee bans the use of the word “gay” in teachers’ lessons in its public schools, you get a sense of just how terrified and helpless the opposition is. Over the long term, that kind of hysteria can’t prevail.

At the same time, younger generations of Americans are becoming more and more accepting — even embracing — of their gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender neighbors. This in itself is a political victory, a confirmation of Harvey Milk’s declaration that “They can’t hate us if they know us” and the result of the coming-out stories of a couple of generations of Americans. We’re not perverts or monsters, and more and more of our fellow citizens know that, and support us.

It’s just a matter of time before greater change arrives, and the wait will be shorter for those who are just arriving — such as the teens to whom “It Gets Better” is addressed.

The Media
It remains to be seen how powerful an agent of change is represented by positive images of GLBT Americans in the media — but those images are multiplying and prominent. Kurt Hummel, the gay kid on Glee, is one of the most popular TV characters today, and he’s played by an out actor, Chris Colfer. That’s heartening, but it would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. A broad audience is witnessing Kurt’s struggles and triumphs, which chime with those of thousands of other American kids.

Darren Criss and Chris Colfer in Glee

Our stories are being told now, and even straight performers are telling them. Actors like James Franco and Darren Criss have no hang-ups about playing gay characters, reality shows could hardly exist without gay participants, and Lady Gaga has stepped boldly up to the vanguard where Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna once fought — not only artistically but also politically.

I didn’t have the benefit of such images when I was growing up. The most sympathetic portrayal of a gay man I saw as a teen was John Hurt’s tour-de-force performance as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, the true-life story of a man who remained true to himself even as he was brutalized, marginalized, and unloved. Was that the best I could hope for? I wondered — then promptly told myself I’d never need to find out, because, after all, I was straight.

John Hurt returned to the role of Quentin Crisp in 2009.

There’s still a lot of work to be done in popular culture. Gay panic still dominates most mainstream comedies, and thoughtless rappers and comics still congratulate themselves on “pushing the envelope” when they’re inciting violence. A lot of Hollywood is still directing its energies toward 14-year-old boys — straight ones. (And rather oafish ones at that.) But the range of representation has expanded, and it’s not only gay kids who are watching.

Why We Fight On
Plenty of Americans still believe that the institution of heterosexual marriage is so flimsy that it will be threatened by gay marriages. Many believe that the Constitution is an apt vehicle for what amounts to Christian sharia. Many believe that we’re promiscuous, marginal, and corrupt — and therefore ineligible for the stability and socializing benefits of marriage. Marriage is only one area in which civil rights are denied to GLBT Americans; we are still second-class citizens everywhere in this country, to whom equal protection under the law is denied.

It gets better — but it hasn’t gotten great. Not yet.

We will go out and party today, and late into the night. We will march and also dance in the streets, and we will applaud the New York legislature and the go-go boys with enthusiasm. We will kiss and grope each other and wear outrageous outfits and play loud music — we will irritate more than a few straights. But we will push our babies in strollers, too, and walk beside our parents. We will cheer the politicians who act in our interest, and we will comfort our sick and mourn our dead.

We will celebrate, and speechify. We will call ourselves “we,” even when we have little in common. We will be proud, if only because pride is the opposite of shame — and we will not be ashamed.

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25 June 2011

It’s Not at All Strange that James Franco Hasn’t Called Me Since Gay Marriage Was Legalized in New York State

Oh, I know what you’re thinking: now that gay marriage has been legalized in New York State, it’s just a matter of time before James Franco pops the question. “Bill has been waiting such a long time,” you’re saying to yourself. “Surely now Jib-Jib will make an honest man of him! Why, I bet he’s on the phone to Bill right now! I can just imagine the conversation!”

So can I! After all, like dozens of other bloggers and entertainment writers in America, I’ve gotten quite adept at imagining conversations with James Franco. I can tell you — with utter confidence — that Jibby would be grinning audibly when I answered the phone. “Hey, babe,” he’d say. And then some other stuff that, really, it would be indiscreet of me to divulge.

Perhaps at this very minute, he’s getting ready
for the bridal shower.

But you have to understand: James Franco is a very, very busy man. Also, he doesn’t have my phone number. Oh, that silly old judge with his pesky restraining orders!

Still — set your mind at ease! There’s no reason to believe that James is holding out, or that he heard the vicious rumors about me and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, or that he has any reason to know I’m alive. Now that gay marriage is legal in the state where we both live, some of the time, he knows that he’s free to do the right thing.

You know how Jibby loves to multi-task! Actor, writer, musician, artist, director, producer. Why, at this very moment, he’s probably getting ordained, so that he can perform the ceremony himself. Yeah, that’s gotta be the reason.

Oh, it’s going to be beautiful. Just the way I always dreamed it would be.

(P.S. You’ve got so much on your mind, Jib darling, that I knew you’d forget — so I went ahead and registered us at Crate & Barrel.)

That said, don’t you think the bride should wear white?
Personally, I’m a traditionalist.

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23 June 2011

Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’

Joyride: Gil (Wilson) with the Fitzgeralds (Hiddleston and Pill)

Woody Allen’s latest movie, Midnight in Paris, finds him on familiar, perhaps even safe, ground — but because that ground is Parisian, and because Allen has never filmed there before, there’s perhaps more than usual interest attached to the picture. Or anyway, I forced myself to set aside, at least for now, the solemn oath I’d made never to see another of his movies. Give him credit for this much, anyway: if Midnight means the launch of a new, Parisian chapter in his career, his French movies will be watchable, at least, unlike all of his London and so many of his New York pictures.

Midnight suggests that Allen set out by asking himself first to identify what Paris means to him.* The answers were clichés and received ideas; for Allen as for most travelers, it’s impossible to arrive in Paris as a blank slate. But then he goes further, attempting to say something about the consequences of coming to a place about which one knows so much already. For example, what effect will prior associations have on an artist’s work?

In this case, it’s a fusion of several prior works: I spot elements of the short story “The Kugelmass Episode” and of the films Zelig, Purple Rose of Cairo, and even a little Play It Again, Sam. Our protagonist, a writer named Gil Pender, is mystically transported from his unsatisfying present into a thrilling alternate reality. Here, it’s Jazz Age Paris, crowded with some of the starriest names in Western culture: the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Stein, Picasso, and so on.

Time-traveler: Owen Wilson as Gil

This is perhaps ideal for a humorist who in a very long career has devoted the bulk of his punch lines to name-dropping and to effete cultural references: here, Allen can surrender to both at once. What’s surprising is how dull his zingers are, how little he has to say about any of the luminaries he revives onscreen, and how unspecific the jokes are. Is he talking down to his audience? Or has he lost the knack?

Only a few of the cultural references reveal any substantial knowledge of their subjects, but it’s a pleasure when, for example, Ernest Hemingway’s conversation sounds like a parody of Hemingway’s prose, or when Gil suggests an idea for a movie to Luis Buñuel — and that idea just happens to be the plot of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. “I don’t get it,” Buñuel (Adrien de Van) deadpans.

Otherwise, a lot of the script amounts to wasted opportunities to score smarter laughs, especially in the case of the Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddleston, excellent as Scott, and Allison Pill, passable as Zelda), Picasso (a strong resemblance but lifeless performance from Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates seems to have been cast because she fit the costume). The best of the historical impersonations comes, surprisingly, from Adrien Brody, whose cameo as Salvador Dalì is delicately calibrated for maximum effect, and very funny to boot.

What’s wrong with the present day: Gil with his awful fiancée, Inez (McAdams), the intellectual show-off Paul (Sheen), and bystander Carol (Nina Arianda).

At least it’s easy to understand why Gil wants to escape from the present: his wealthy fiancée (Rachel McAdams) is an odious portmanteau of all the worst qualities of Allen’s least pleasant female characters, almost to the point of misogyny, and of course she’s falling for a know-it-all academic (expertly played by Michael Sheen) who’s an even less sympathetic version of Michael Murphy’s character in Manhattan.

The movie might have been more interesting if McAdams’ character and her circle were more subtle in their awfulness — subtlety is, after all, one of the prime virtues expounded upon by Gertrude Stein during the movie — and again I can’t tell whether Allen thinks we won’t understand him if he understates, or if he’s forgotten how to do it.

As Gil, Owen Wilson manages the astonishing feat of making Allen’s dialogue sound almost natural, without ever seeming to imitate Allen himself. I didn’t buy him as a budding literary talent and didn’t really understand why Hemingway would do so (having, like me, read nothing of Gil’s work), but that’s a minor matter here, and Wilson communicates a lovely mix of astonishment and excitement throughout his time-traveling scenes.

Marion Cotillard looks pretty and speaks good English as Adriana, Gil’s Jazz Era love interest, but she isn’t given much to do, to tell the truth; only toward the end of the movie, when she makes clear just how much Adriana admires the Belle Epoque, does she come to life.

Chez Maxim: Wilson and Cotillard

What goes entirely unspoken, and evidently unconsidered, here is the question of historical context. That’s curious, since (for example) Adriana’s nostalgia for the 1890s would make good sense in a young woman who lived through the privations of World War I in France. That said, such an experience might plausibly prompt a character to yearn for an era even earlier than the Belle Epoque, just as Gil yearns for the long-ago 1920s — but perhaps Allen found Maxim’s and the Moulin Rouge irresistible.

While watching, I was inevitably prompted to recall my own expectations of Paris, 34 years after my first visit and seven after I first made up my mind to move there. I know the city so well now that there isn’t a single location in Midnight that I didn’t recognize from personal experience, I’m quite proud to say, but of course that wasn’t always the case. And the truth is that, on that first visit, my notions of Paris were barely formed, and mostly ignorant.

What resonated perhaps even more strongly was the recollection that Allen’s movies informed my expectations of New York City, just as the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway do for Gil: I fully expected that everybody in this town would speak as cleverly (and as artificially) as Woody Allen’s characters do, and surely real New Yorkers would flit like Kunstfeen from one cultural spectacle to the next. Would I have come here had not those fantasies already been planted in my mind?

I wish that he still made movies that were as meaningful to me as those early ones still are. As I walked out of the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and gazed up at the New York sky, I heard Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in my mind’s ear — and that’s entirely to Woody Allen’s credit. And I wonder, as I do every time I see one of his newer movies, whether it’s asking too much, to want more — and better — from him.

Though she’s top-billed in the movie’s posters, French First Lady Carla Bruni Sarkozy appears only in a couple of scenes, as a guide from the Rodin Museum.

*NOTE: American readers may not know that Allen is hugely popular in France — and fluent in French.

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21 June 2011

Mills’ ‘Beginners,’ or a Father’s Pride

Father and son: Plummer and McGregor

At least by dint of timing, I am probably the ideal audience for Mike Mills’ new film, Beginners: I saw the picture during Pride Week, the day after Father’s Day, shortly after returning from a visit with my own dad. The movie concerns the relationship between Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and his father (Christopher Plummer), who comes out as a gay man to his son toward the end of his life, and it provoked a long meditation on my part: what defines a father’s happiness? Was my own dad ever truly happy? What sacrifices did he make, in order to keep our family going?

Dad is unlikely ever to say, at this point, but so far as I know, he doesn’t have any coming-out bombshells to deliver. I do know a couple of men of his generation who did make choices similar to those that Plummer’s character (based on Mike Mills’ father) makes, and especially during Pride Week these men are, like it or not, the sort who make younger guys say, “Wow, I’m glad I’m part of my own generation, and not theirs.” We have options that our forebears did not.

Mélanie Laurent and Ewan McGregor

Not only because he cast the excellent French actress Mélanie Laurent as Anna, Oliver’s love interest, Miller has created what feels like a Los Angeles version of a French art film. He is interested in memory and reality, and in relationships, on a minutely detailed level. Thus we focus on a small group of complex individuals, we see their scenes play out in different ways, in a not-entirely linear structure, sometimes relying on still photos (almost like a documentary) and drawings. And, at least in my case, we surrender to solipsism of the most satisfying sort.

The movie’s greatest flaw is that Mills gives us dialogue, in the form of subtitles, from the father’s pet, a Jack Russell terrier. Surely there was another way to depict the sense of communication between Oliver and the dog that arises after the old man dies — but the gimmick won’t bother you unless you let it.

Somewhere in his wicked, miserable past,
he must have done something good.

There’s plenty of other material to hold your interest, and the performances are excellent. Plummer walks off with the picture: you can almost taste the old man’s pleasure as he creeps out of the closet in which he’s hidden all these years. He allows himself to live, even as he dies of cancer. McGregor’s Oliver is still walled-off, but gradually he, too, emerges, and it’s a measure of his skill as an actor that, even when he’s glum, he’s sympathetic and interesting to watch. You never wonder why Anna would fall for him.

Laurent is given a bad dye job, but her luminosity shines through, and she plays with a restraint that prevents her character from turning into what is now a recognized cinematic type, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. (She’s only a little pixieish and not at all manic, even when she’s roller-skating like Eloise in a hotel corridor.) As Oliver’s mother, Mary Page Keller is spectacularly good, channeling a number of 1970s icons (notably Paula Prentiss) yet creating something fresh and original.

Mélanie Laurent

I’m reluctant to say much more, because it’s such a small, graceful movie that too many words might capsize it; much of the pleasure lies in discovering it for yourself.

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16 June 2011

Stendhal’s ‘Chroniques Italiennes’

Guido Reni’s portrait of a woman believed to be Beatrice Cenci,
heroine of one of Stendhal’s Chronicles
(among many other works)

Stendhal’s Chroniques Italiennes (Italian Chronicles, 1836–39) — a collection primarily comprised of short stories based in historical fact, translated from Renaissance-era documents purchased in Italy by the author “at great expense” while he was French consul at Civitavecchia — is actually a good deal looser and more complex than that description would lead a reader to believe. For starters, editors disagree over precisely which stories to include in the collection, and what to call it. The edition I read opted to lump all the rest under the title of the longest story, “L’Abbesse de Castro,” which hardly strikes me as an ideal solution, since that piece is heavy slogging indeed and delayed my reading by several weeks: is this really the one the editors wanted to place ahead of all the rest?

There’s also the matter of how much Stendhal merely translated and how much of his own language and storytelling power he added to his work. What’s inarguable, and quite exciting to anyone, like me, who is in the blissful process of discovering Stendhal, is that the Chroniques open a window onto the author’s tastes and preoccupations. We see what kind of story appealed to him (not least because there were presumably a number of other stories among the manuscripts that he did not translate), and what prose style he aimed at (one with as little Romantic folderol as possible, as he acknowledges in the text).*

Naturally, then, there’s an abundance of the passions we like best in Stendhal’s fiction: rape, incest, vengeance, brigandage, revolt, unjust imprisonment, daring escapes, political machinations, and lots and lots of blood. Best of all, Stendhal suggests, it’s all true.

The twisty intrigues that dominate La Chartreuse de Parme (itself heavily indebted to Renaissance histories) can be seen taking root in the Chroniques, one of which, like Chartreuse, is set in post-Napoleonic Italy, nearly contemporary to Stendhal. We can likewise see the gestation of his favored heroic type: handsome, passionate, and unlucky. Curiously, however, all the Chroniques take female characters as their protagonists. While they’re not much different from their lovers in these stories, they don’t much resemble Clélia in Chartreuse or either of Julien Sorel’s lady loves.

Stendhal writes admiringly of anyone who displays the Italian attribute of virtù, a word he insisted was untranslatable: in these stories, it’s a kind of poised yet passionate derring-do in the pursuit of duty or destiny, right or wrong. And I underscore that this conduct need be neither wise nor moral in order to win the author’s approval: even Francesco Cenci displays virtù by sleeping with his daughter, Beatrice, who in turn displays it by murdering her father. While Stendhal insists that French people don’t know the meaning of the idea, much less the word, and declares that his countrymen are far more inclined to do something merely because it will impress the neighbors, he nevertheless depicts Le Rouge et le Noir’s Julien as a paragon of this kind of virtù.

Stendhal — whose De l’amour (On Love) must now rise to the top of my must-read list — kept both Rouge et le Noir and Chartreuse hopping with sexual shenanigans. Yet what struck me about the Chroniques was the unexpected ambiguity of so many of the relations depicted. The titular Abbess and her beloved bandito, for example, spend so much time not going to bed that ultimately one wonders whether either of them really wants to: they talk about passion without acting on it. When the Abbess finally loses her virginity,** she’s motivated as much out of curiosity and spite as anything else; it’s unclear whether her boyfriend ever does get laid. The contemporary heroine, Vanina Vanini, falls for her man, a fugitive rebel, when he’s disguised as a girl; later, in attempting to rescue him, she disguises herself as a man. (The Abbess also dons drag, at one point.) Again and again, the characters in the Chroniques are less easily defined, sexually, than the lusty denizens of Stendhal’s better-known novels.

For those who are looking to dip a toe into the waters of Stendhal’s works, the Chroniques may be a good start: even the longest, “L’Abbesse,” is just over 100 pages, and the other stories are quite short; most zip along entertainingly to their climaxes. And for those who have already caught the Stendhal bug, there’s plenty here to help you understand the master’s longer works.

*NOTE: Stendhal snipes at French authors of his own day, who made a fad of writing bodice-rippers set in Italy, and who, from sheer laziness, in his estimation, attempted to convey passionate character through the use of Italian names. Accordingly, Stendhal gives his characters the French equivalents of their Italian names — and we can understand better why the hero of Chartreuse is Fabrice, not Fabrizio.

**When the Abbess finally loses her virginity, it’s to a bishop, and like the heroine of a TV soap opera, she immediately gets pregnant. Stendhal’s attitude toward the clergy — Napoleonic at heart, skeptical at best — is evident throughout these Chronicles, not only in matters sexual but also in frequent allusions to corruption in the Papal courts — which during Stendhal’s tenure in Civitavecchia considered him highly suspicious.

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14 June 2011

Scream Therapy, or Schoenberg’s ‘Erwartung’

Hello, Gorgeous: The Glamorous Miss Voigt
Photo by Peter Ross

Performances of certain works pretty well convince me that the singer must feel great afterward, and Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung is one of that ilk. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet sang it a few months ago in Europe, and as I listened over the radio, I had the feeling we were both experiencing catharsis, or orgasm, or something even better. Erwartung ain’t exactly Easy Listening, but it’s surely therapeutic.

Later, however, I wondered. Was my reaction due to the fact that Jeanne-Michèle is a friend, or to the troubled mood I’d been wallowing in the night she sang? I had the opportunity to test the power of the Erwartung again last weekend, as soprano Deborah Voigt sang with the New York Philharmonic, under guest conductor David Robertson.

Portraying a nameless woman who wanders into a creepy forest to await her unfaithful lover — then finds him, dead, probably by her own hand (though she can’t quite be sure) — Voigt let it all hang out and clearly loved doing it. She ran a harrowing gantlet of moods, tones, and atones in 30 minutes, as Schoenberg demands. Much of the score is shrieking, let’s be honest, over a blaring orchestra — but what artful, purposeful shrieks! For the singer, the orchestra, and for me, the tension ratchets up and up, then releases. I walked out feeling positively buoyant, and though I once ran from this piece, I’m fast becoming a bona fide Erwartung fan.

Golden Girl: A Summery Glance by Dario Acosta

Moreover, Voigt looked great doing it. I refer merely neither to her famously slimmer figure, nor to her delectable candy-pink satin gown, but also to expression. She was committed to the music, which is serious as hell, but she was having fun, too.

I don’t know the woman, apart from a handshake several years ago, but I like her. I get the feeling, watching her these days, that she’s cast off not only unwanted pounds but also a number of inhibitions. Surely her new look has accompanied a new attitude: freedom.

I see it in the video from her Metropolitan Opera appearances as Wagner’s Brünnhilde and as Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West last season. There’s playfulness in her presence, but steel in her voice. From here on, she’s going to do things her way, and if we don’t like it, tough. Which is as it should be.

And so she made her entrance, laid-back and smiling. When she sang, she got thoroughly into the character — she can be an awfully good actress — but she was only borrowing this lady’s troubles, and it was good old Debbie, not Schoenberg’s Frau, who took the bow at the end.

I’m beginning to think that Voigt sang Fanciulla not so much because 2011 is the 100th anniversary of that opera’s premiere, but because it struck her as an appropriate warm-up for her forthcoming Annie Get Your Gun (at Glimmerglass Opera this summer). It’s Debbie’s Season of the Cowgirl, dammit, and knowing how good she is in American show music, and how funny she can be,* I’m hoping I get a chance to see her.

I’m certainly convinced that it’s well within Voigt’s right to play Annie Oakley. After all, Anna Russell once characterized Brünnhilde’s duet with Siegfried (which Voigt will sing next season at the Met) as “Anything you can sing, I can sing louder.” So really, who better than Deborah Voigt to tie up these many strands of disparate rep and weave them into something all her own?

And if you don’t like it — tough!

Eternal Nemeses: Debbie and the Dress
At the height of the dress controversy, in 2004, Voigt sang a memorable recital at Carnegie Hall; my review for Opera News can be found here.

*NOTE: To cite but one example, I prize the memory of Voigt’s deadpan in Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten when, as the Empress, she essayed washing dishes for the first time. She knows when and how to be funny, and when and how to be sublime.

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13 June 2011

Scandal over Photos Escalates

News organizations came under increasingly heavy fire today after it was revealed that the Associated Press news services, as well as print and electronic outlets such as The New York Times, CNN, and My Weekly Reader, had been transmitting photographs of a turgid, discolored, possibly engorged Boehner — in most cases to persons who did not choose to view such material and who were offended by the images.

Many of the photographs appear to have been taken on federal property, including the floor of the House of Representatives itself. In a statement typical of hundreds made by rank-and-file citizens to reporters across America, Susannah Elders, a housewife and mother in Dicktown, NJ, said, “I am outraged by this disgusting display, by the abuse of the people’s property, and by the appalling lack of judgment on the part of anyone who would disseminate these terrible Boehner pictures.”

Ms. Elders then added, “Won’t somebody think of the children?”

In many of the most severely criticized images,
the Boehner appears to be secreting unidentified fluids.

Fueling the controversy, it appears that the Boehner photos are only the start. Testifying before Congress this week, a panel of photo editors admitted that, at various times throughout the year, they had also transmitted other questionable images, including Irish actor Peter O’Toole, German conductor Christof Prick, and former President George Bush. But a majority of Americans surveyed said the images of Boehner were the most disturbing of all.

“If I pick up a newspaper or open an e-mail, this is definitely not something I want to see,” said Jack Bates, a retired forklift operator in French Lick, IN. “You can’t unlook a thing like that. What’s worse, it’s interfering with my ability to concentrate on the debt ceiling and other pressing issues of our time, on which all citizens should be engaged.”

In an unrelated item, House Majority Leader John Boehner told reporters, “It’s pronounced ‘BAY-ner,’ you moron. And besides, Republicans don’t do that sort of thing.”

Doubly disturbing: Child-advocacy and church groups claim
that images such as this one are unfit for young eyes.

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12 June 2011

Fort Worth Opera Festival 2011: ‘Hydrogen Jukebox’

Joshua Hopkins performs “Song #10”
Original illustration by WVM©

Darren Woods has balls. Great big ones. Texas-size balls, really. Not enough for him to program Philip Glass’ Hydrogen Jukebox, a work that had its premiere in 1990 and is far removed in every way from the 19th-century choices that most regional-opera audiences are presumed to prefer. (Even New York audiences shy away from contemporary opera — notably at the Met.) Not enough that the libretto by Allen Ginsberg contains gay themes and raw language, and constitutes the third in Darren’s relentless campaign to promote a homosexual agenda (as one patron claimed, last year).

No, these things were not enough. On top of all that, Hydrogen Jukebox targets, among other political and sociological bugbears, former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, a titan in the eyes of most Texans, and links him to the international drug trade.

And yet Fort Worth Opera sold out all nine performances of this opera. The (non-subscription) audience entering the Sanders Theater wasn’t frisked or passed through a metal detector. The night I attended (June 2), nobody walked out, and nobody picketed or protested.

Go figure. But surely the success of the production had something to do with the extraordinarily high quality of performance, the tastefully imaginative staging, and a shared respect and enthusiasm for the merits of a largely neglected score. I arrived in trepidation, but by the end of the evening, I was cheering.

Scene from a love scene:
Dan Kempson and Joshua Hopkins
Original illustration by WVM©

I have manifold misgivings about Philip Glass as an opera composer: though I dutifully sat through several of his works in the early 1980s, I gave up on Glass altogether after New York City Opera’s Akhnaten persuaded me the man knew nothing of theater. He favored gibberish librettos and repeated musical figures, and his work received static stagings. I suspected that his admirers must be high, but I was sober, and Glass bored the hell out of me.

Working for Opera News, I was obliged to un-renounce Glass, and I’ve found some of his more recent compositions for the stage a largely pleasant surprise. He has varied his musical language, and while he is still obsessed with Great Figures from History, the language of his librettos is more expressive, too. Sometimes there’s even a plot. Hydrogen Jukebox, written during the period when I shunned him, finds Glass moving toward his more stageworthy sensibility.

Yes, there’s a fair amount of patented Glass “deedle-dee-deedle” repetition, but there are echoes of jazz, folksong, and gospel choirs, beautifully played by a small instrumental ensemble, led by Steven R. Osgood. Appropriately enough, in setting a text that aims to describe America, Glass composed something like a melting pot, and while I’d hesitate ever to rank him with Kurt Weill, I recognized the eclectic — even democratic — impulse in Jukebox.

Because the score calls for a few electronic instruments, and because the playing space lay smack in between parallel rows of bleachers, where the audience sat, the singers were miked, but the amplification was so discreet that I hardly noticed.

Lawrence Edelson directed and choreographed the piece with a cast of six, who flowed in and out of scenes as if they were phantoms in a dream. Edelson acknowledged the work’s sometimes predictable late-1960s agitprop aesthetics (war, pollution, and the drug trade = bad; love = good), but without being bound by them, and in like fashion, his staging and the excellent video projections by C. Andrew Bauer reflected the text literally but judiciously. We got just enough visual reinforcement to guide us through what we heard, but we also got other images that transcended the text (just as the text, drunk on its own verbiage, transcends itself). That in turn helped to bring the piece forward into our own time — and our own lives.

And that may be the most surprising achievement of Hydrogen Jukebox. It’s only rarely that I see myself in an opera, and when I do, I usually have to take a cognitive leap: I must fool myself into identifying with a character who in no way resembles me or anything in my experience, and yet by now I’m quite used to seeing myself in Violetta, for example, or in Rodolfo. Even in two of Fort Worth Opera’s earlier successes, I had to strain a bit: the gay New Yorkers in Angels in America exist beyond the scope of my personal experience (and never once has a Mormon angel visited me), as does the gay writer of Before Night Falls.

But I have gone on a road trip with a lover; I have felt the thrill and the tenderness of lying together in a cheap hotel in the Middle of Nowhere, U.S.A., and I have lingered in that embrace and wished for it to radiate outward and to encompass others.

By golly, there it was on the Sanders stage: two men in bed, and as the number went on, two women kissed, too, and a straight couple canoodled for good measure. Nothing earth-shattering, nothing really dramatic in any conventional sense. Just a scene from my own life. In an opera. In Fort Worth, Texas.

The cast formed a true ensemble, in roles at once varied and anonymous, such that it would be almost impossible and decidedly unfair to single out a performance. And yet, among the voices, Rosa Betancourt’s warm soprano impressed me greatly, and bass Justin Hopkins’ spoken account of “Song #10,” the Act I finale (which Ginsberg originally wrote to perform himself), knocked my socks right off, eliciting my first “Bravo!” of the night. I don’t know of many young actors, much less singers, who could manage such a long, ecstatic text so expertly, but Hopkins did it.

The ensemble included a few other unfamiliar faces: mezzo Amanda Robie, who proved such a winning Pitti-Sing later in the Festival; lissome soprano Corrie Donovan; and baritone Dan Kempson, who fielded a great deal of the solo singing here and did so with warmth and distinction. Tenor Jonathan Blalock, so impressive in Before Night Falls, made a welcome return and has clearly joined my list of Fort Worth “discoveries” whom I’ll want to hear again and again. All of these kids had to sing in their underwear, it should be noted, and all of them looked damned fine doing it.*

It’s to be wondered whether I’d have given Hydrogen Jukebox a chance — and it’s certain I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to hear it — if Darren Woods and Fort Worth Opera hadn’t programmed it. As I say, I’ve grown to believe, over the years, that if Darren likes a score, there must be something to it. Our tastes aren’t identical, but even when we disagree, I learn by hearing through his ears.

This time, what he heard was my life. Thanks for that.

*NOTE: As I reflect on the preparation necessary to young American artists, I must acknowledge that it’s not only in the studio, but also in the gym where the serious work must be done. Richard Tucker never had to strip onstage, but today’s singers have to be ready for anything. Meanwhile, I’m starting to feel like a dirty old man every time I attend an opera. Seriously, I own socks older than some of these kids.

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11 June 2011

Fort Worth Opera Festival 2011: ‘Julius Caesar’

Ava Pine as Cleopatra
Original illustration by WVM©

NOTE: More original illustrations will be posted soon!
Please check again later.

Fort Worth Opera had never before produced a Baroque opera, I’m told, prior to this season’s Julius Caesar, but on the strength of this production, I’m eager to see the company try again, and often. This repertory plays to many of Fort Worth’s strengths, not least because we are blessed to live in an age when so many young American artists combine the training and talent needed to make this music come alive. Moreover, Fort Worth’s Bass Hall isn’t a barn like the Met in New York: the proportions are closer to what Handel and his contemporaries anticipated, and thus the orchestra and voices don’t get lost.

And the choice of Julius Caesar was smart, too. When Julius Rudel brought this piece to New York City Opera, 45 years ago (on the self-same set), Handel’s stage works were all but unknown in the United States, but today Caesar is very nearly a repertory staple; though NYCO prided itself on eschewing the star system, its Caesar nevertheless made stars of its leads, Beverly Sills (as Cleopatra) and Norman Treigle (as Caesar). In like fashion, Fort Worth Opera isn’t fixated on stars, and probably can’t afford to be. Yet this Caesar shone a brilliant spotlight on the Cleopatra of soprano Ava Pine — who’s scheduled to return next season in Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata and who seems poised to become the company’s de facto prima donna, whether anyone intends it or not.

As I watched on June 5, Fort Worth’s Julius Caesar signaled to me that this company really has grown up. That’s a paradoxical thing to say about what is, after all, the oldest continuously performing opera company in the state, but Fort Worth Opera really seems now what it never was before: a full-fledged player in the big leagues. Julius Caesar was more than an auspicious entry into new (albeit very old) rep, it was a fresh confirmation of how much Darren Woods has achieved over the past ten years.

The look of the show — nimbly staged by David Gately — gained in glamour thanks to Robert Perdziola’s gorgeous costumes and Chad R. Jung’s ingenious lighting: when the background lighting matches Cornelia’s burgundy-colored gown, you know you’re in sure hands. And there was something almost unbelievably poignant about that set, designed by Ming Cho Lee for NYCO in 1966. All those legendary photographs of Sills and Treigle in this opera? They’re standing on this very set. Sills sang often with Fort Worth, and to one who learned opera through her, and who first heard Cleopatra’s music in her voice, it seemed almost as if she gave this production her blessing.

Can this relationship be saved?
Achillas (Singletary) and Cornelia (Arwady)
Original illustration by WVM©

The role of Caesar was written for castrato, and while those guys are mercifully rare in the modern era, there are nevertheless a few ways to cast it: Fort Worth’s ensemble actually could have fielded several Caesars. Meredith Arwady’s opulent contralto voice suggested that she, like the great Ewa Podles´, could play either Caesar or (as she did here) Cornelia. Michael Maniaci is (to be exact about it) not a countertenor but a male soprano; the suppleness of his singing in high registers is arresting and could surely be tailored to Caesar’s heroic stature — though here he sang the role of Sextus, a teenage boy. Together, Arwady and Maniaci made the mother-and-son duet “Son nata a lagrimar” (I was born to weep) absolutely spell-binding, one of those moments in Baroque opera when you really don’t want the song to end, and the A-B-A structure seems insufficient. A-B-A-A-B-A-B-B-A-A, anyone?

It fell to countertenor Randall Scotting to incarnate Caesar, and especially as an actor he got much right. Tall and good-looking, he was unusually credible in the romantic-comedy scenes that make up so much of this opera; he didn’t quite manage the demeanor of Caesar as wily military leader, but at least he was dashing. However, in an era when the United States alone boasts a number of excellent countertenors with big, burnished voices, Scotting’s sound seemed a shade thin for this role.

Up-and-coming bass-baritone Donovan Singletary might have sung a Caesar in the Treigle mold — though early-music purists would have protested. As the Egyptian commander Achillas, Singletary had plenty of power and disarming sexiness, but the florid musical line exceeded the scope of his technique, and his performance really left me eager to hear him in Verdi, for example.

The role of Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s brother, husband, and rival, lends itself to some of the most exaggerated dramatic interpretation one is likely to see in American opera houses; compared with others I’ve seen, José Álvarez’s performance was actually fairly restrained, albeit still too broad for my taste.* Álvarez followed Gately’s direction to the letter and let it inform his singing, too, yet he found one aria in which he sang sweetly enough to remind us that, while this Ptolemy may be one-dimensional, this singer is not.

And what of Ava Pine? From the minute I heard she’d been cast in this production, my expectations began to rise, and they rose only higher as more details were announced. (When I heard about the Ming Cho Lee sets, I nearly burst with anticipation.) Not a lot of artists could live up to those expectations, much less surpass them — but Ava did.

Her voice, creamier and richer than it has any right to be, sparkled and shimmered over the surface of the music and plumbed its depths, too, in a wonderful demonstration of the dramatic possibilities of the Baroque. Cleopatra is, far and away, the most complex character in this opera, and Ava found the nuances from aria to aria — and from note to note. Girlish and flirty at the outset, grieving later, then jubilant — and always regal, always graceful, always gorgeous. As I say, one of the pleasures of attending opera in Fort Worth has been the chance to see and hear Ava in different repertory, and by now I am her devoted, unabashed and unrepentant fan.

It was a blow that one of her arias was cut, for reasons of timing. I regretted even more the loss of “Svegliatevi nel core,” a thrilling aria for Sextus with which Michael Maniaci could have done so much, and of course the more I hear of Meredith Arwady, the greedier I get, so I hated to lose any of her numbers. Alas, even in Baroque opera, reality does sometimes intrude.**

Daniel Beckwith, an early-music specialist, conducted with real feeling and genuine respect for the theatrical values of the score. (Not every early-music specialist would.) I dare say the Fort Worth audience does know some Handel, particularly the religious stuff, and next-door Dallas Opera produced his Ariodante a few years ago — so that Beckwith’s expertise didn’t go entirely unappreciated. Yet I sensed another impulse at work: If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right.

That was the sense I got from Fort Worth Opera’s productions of Of Mice and Men and Angels in America, too, from this season’s Hydrogen Jukebox and indeed from most of the work I’ve seen here, ever since a memorable Turn of the Screw in 2003. That’s why I keep coming back, and it’s why, bit by bit, across repertory that spans several centuries and not just the 19th, the Fort Worth Opera audience is becoming one of the country’s most sophisticated. When the work is this good, this audience is one of the luckiest, too.

The Finale Ultimo, with Michael Maniaci (far left), Meaghan Deiter and Lane Johnson (above, center), Ava Pine and Randall Scotting (below, center), and Meredith Arwady (far right).
Photo by Ellen Appel© Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

*NOTE: I am absolutely confident that the role of Ptolemy can be effective when played subtly — that is, not as a flamboyant queen. But at this rate, no stage director is ever going to give me proof.

**Play the entire opera through, and you have to pay a lot of people a lot of overtime; that’s surely one reason that Rudel’s performing edition from 1966 omits so many repeats: we get a taste of all, or almost all, the arias, but very few complete.

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09 June 2011

Fort Worth Opera Festival 2011: ‘The Mikado’

With joyous shout and ringing cheer: Cast members Meaghan Deiter (Katisha), Logan Rucker (Nanki-Poo), Lane Johnson (Ko-Ko), Jessica Cates (Yum-Yum), and Matthew Young (Mikado).
Illustration by WVM©

The Mikado must have looked like the safest bet when Fort Worth Opera programmed its 2011 festival: a perennial favorite, Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Japanese” operetta doesn’t require “the five greatest singers in the world,” as Il Trovatore does, and it doesn’t ask the audience to venture into unfamiliar rep, as Julius Caesar and Hydrogen Jukebox do. John de los Santos devised a lively staging, and an appealing young cast cavorted about Bass Hall, to the evident delight of most of the audience. Yet in the event, Mikado turned out to be the season’s biggest gamble, and for this listener, it didn’t quite pay off.

My reservations arose almost entirely from the relative youth and inexperience of the cast. In the great character roles of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, and Katisha, the Mikado’s presumed “daughter-in-law elect,” baritone Lane Johnson and mezzo Meaghan Deiter both sang, if anything, too sweetly, and they capered ably enough. But neither artist possesses the authority that seasoned pros deploy to put these roles across — and how can jokes about Katisha’s age register correctly when the singer is so young (and quite pretty)?*

Like Deiter, tenor Logan Rucker is a Studio Artist with this company; thus he’s just about the right age for Nanki-Poo, and his acting duties posed no evident challenges. His singing fell far short of the mark, however: he found just one vocal color and stuck with it throughout the evening, suggesting that, at this point in his career, he really was over-parted.

Such shortcomings would hardly be noticed in a conservatory production, and I repeat, the audience at Bass Hall had a marvelous time on June 4. But of the principals, only soprano Jessica Cates (Yum-Yum) seemed fully ready to assume her role on a professional stage, bringing an aptly luscious lyric voice, zesty comic acting, and smashing good looks. As Pitti-Sing, mezzo Amanda Robie (Pitti-Sing) shone brightly, and baritone Matthew Young’s Mikado ultimately won me over, while baritone Jesse Enderle was undone by de los Santos’ complete misreading of Pooh-Bah’s character. (Pooh-Bah’s multiple civic titles are an indication of pomposity — not hyperactivity, not multiple-personality disorder.)

De los Santos updated the scene to modern-day Japan, as much a fantasy construct here as Gilbert intended the town of Titipu to be, if somewhat less exotic. Cell phones, manga haircuts, Hello Kitty backpacks and Sailor Moon uniforms were displayed with good humor, and Ko-Ko’s “Little List” was recorded — where else? — on an iPad. Most impressively, de los Santos, who’s also a choreographer, kept the stage constantly moving, whether in ensemble dances or in an exquisite pas de deux for SegWay.

Fort Worth’s music director, Joe Illick, seemed less inspired than I’ve heard him on other occasions, and he had trouble maintaining the effervescence in this score. (Witness his stumbling account of the “cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block,” a number that doesn’t work if it isn’t precise.) Though Bass Hall’s proportions are just about right for projecting Savoy material, the company resorted to miking and amplification, ostensibly for dialogue scenes. This only rarely seemed intrusive aurally, and it fit right in visually: of course these up-to-date Japanese folks would wear microphones on their faces!

Evidently other critics were less forgiving than I of the audio technology, however, and Johnson had some choice words for them in the list song, which he updated at least three times over the course of the run with references both newsy and local. This time-honored practice added much to the fun, of course, and the audience cheered. So did I. But my reaction was better described as “modified rapture.”

*NOTE: Deiter was heard to much better advantage in Julius Caesar, which I attended the next day; she was thoroughly charming in the trouser role of Nirenus.

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08 June 2011

Fort Worth Opera Festival 2011: Darren Woods’ Anniversary

“The echoes of our Festival shall rise
triumphant over all.”
The remains of Darren Woods (newly slimmed-down),
with Jessica Cates (Yum-Yum) and Logan Rucker (Nanki-Poo)
from this year’s FWO production of The Mikado.
Photo by Ellen Appel, Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

“We’re glad to have you here today,” the usher told Darren Keith Woods as he entered Bass Hall for the final performance of this year’s Fort Worth Opera Festival. She was greeting everybody this way, as it happens, and she didn’t recognize Darren — though he’s the general director of Fort Worth Opera, and this is his tenth anniversary on the job. Darren laughed and thanked the usher, but I take the woman at her word. I really am glad Darren is here, and whether she knows it or not, so is that usher.

Fort Worth is now on my cultural map, and the Festival is on my calendar. When I can’t get to town, my regret borders on agony — but I make it my business to get there any way I can. As I’ve written here before, Darren’s approach to opera makes me young again: everything here feels fresh, and even when I don’t quite know what to expect, I know that what I see and hear will be exciting. But much though I hate to admit it, Darren isn’t doing this as a personal favor to me.

In ten years, Darren has turned Fort Worth Opera from a venerable but strictly minor-league regional institution to one of the most buzzworthy companies in America. Each season he combines bread-and-butter repertory (such as this year’s Mikado and more ambitious Trovatore) with adventurous fare (this year saw Fort Worth Opera’s first Baroque piece, Handel’s Julius Caesar in Egypt) and contemporary works, including a couple of world premieres — with the result that Fort Worth audiences enjoy a diet at least as varied as that in any major company in the U.S. or Europe.

Initiating the Festival a few seasons ago, Darren made clear that Fort Worth Opera was to be considered an artistic destination on a par with the city’s other cultural landmarks (including the Kimbell, Amon Carter, and Modern art museums and the Van Cliburn Competition).

Darren is also a tremendous booster of young talent, and surely the most appreciative listener I know. I sat next to him during Julius Caesar, and the man practically levitated all through the opera. (He even sang along at some points, and while Darren enjoyed a successful career as a comprimario, it must be said that Ava Pine is the better Cleopatra.) Through his eyes and ears, I’m getting to know a new generation of American artists — and they’re terrific.

It’s getting to the point that I trust Darren’s judgment. When he announced that this season he’d present Philip Glass’ Hydrogen Jukebox, I didn’t balk — even though for nearly two decades I had sworn off Glass’ stage works. If Darren heard something valuable in this music, then it must be worth a try. And in the event, I saw something that more closely resembled a scene from my own life than just about anything I’ve ever encountered at any opera house on earth.

Transported though I was by this image of myself, I was reminded nevertheless of the patron who, following last season’s world premiere of Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls, accosted Darren in the lobby of Bass Hall. “You’re promoting a homosexual agenda!” the man cried.

“This is the fortieth opera I’ve produced here, and only the second with a gay theme,” Darren replied. “If anything, I’m promoting a heterosexual agenda!”

Though Jukebox does raise Darren’s tally to three operas with gay subject matter, what really counts is his ongoing effort to give something meaningful to each person in his audience. Whether it’s a scene, a song, or a performer, he’s always looking to connect with us, to make the experience as thrilling for us as it is for him. You gotta hand it to the guy — and I do.

In the next few days, I’ll publish accounts of each of the three operas I attended in Fort Worth this season. (I missed Trovatore, alas.) But for now, suffice to say that, though the curtain only just descended, I can’t wait to go to Fort Worth again.

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06 June 2011

Degrees of Change

It’s been years since I attended a high-school graduation — quite possibly not since I attended my own. And never mind how long ago that was.

Time enough for at least one significant change. Back in my day, we had one valedictorian and one salutatorian. That was plenty, or so we thought. But it seems we were deprived most cruelly.

Since Friday, when I attended a godson’s graduation ceremony in North Texas, I have understood the low esteem in which my classmates and I were held by school administrators. Four salutatorians trooped across the dais, and eight valedictorians orated at us. Clearly, my classmates and I were much less special than we ought to have been, and while the speeches on Friday struck notes of hopefulness and rosy futures, I heard only echoes of my own youthful inadequacy.

So be it. Easier to face up to one’s erstwhile shortcomings than to accept that this towering fellow who shaves and needs to, who speaks complete sentences whenever he isn’t eating, this legally recognized adult who drives automobiles and who answers to your godson’s name, can possibly be the infant you set down for his nap only a minute ago.

At least there was nothing shocking in the graduation speeches themselves. The abundance of valedictorians left no room on the program for honorary degrees or grownup speakers, and it was truly heartening to hear how little changed are the speeches of callow, grade-grubbing youths, from my day to this. They are ready now as they were in my day to tell us that a bright future awaits us all as we go forth confidently into the world.

And they may be right. I certainly can’t contradict them. They must know something, after all, for they are valedictorians. I never was.

I don’t have predictions to make or advice to offer to these kids. What can I possibly say to my godson, or to anyone, that might be of use in later life, or even ten minutes from now? From the first moment I held that boy, he has humbled me, as if it were a vocation to him, and no matter how small he seemed in the beginning, I have always felt smaller. How can I be for him the person he deserves that I be?

I can’t and I haven’t, and at this rate, I won’t. I hope I haven’t botched the job too terribly much, and with or without or despite me he has achieved sterling results in life thus far. But as I say, he deserves the best, as recompense for the riches he has brought me, simply by taking part in my life.

And so I keep struggling to improve myself. I keep searching for the words or deeds or gifts that will clear the path, part the clouds, and build the citadel for him evermore.

All the while, he keeps doing for himself all those things I ought to have done for him already. He has always known what’s best for himself; he tucks his head in and waits us out, then strikes out in the direction he chose to begin with, exactly as if we never said anything at all. I can take no credit for him, and while that is as it should be, it stings a little, sometimes.

So off you go, my boy. Have a good time! Live and learn! Be young while you can be, and then be something else!

I’ll just sit here, waiting nervously in the dark, until you get back. Do drop me a line from time to time, won’t you?

(Surely if I were a valedictorian, I’d be a better godfather, and I’d think of something wiser to say.)

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