29 June 2012

Anderson’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom’

There was a girl I loved, though I didn’t dare tell her so. I dreamed of running away with her, and strange though it may seem, she dreamed of running away with me, too. We were 14, too smart for our own good, we believed, and beleaguered by the sterility and conformity of the Dallas suburbs. Other children were cruel to us. Grownups didn’t understand us. The only solution was escape.

England was the locale of our favorite books and movies and television shows, and since we already spoke the language better than anyone we knew, England was our destination. Meticulously she researched everything we would need to know and copied it all out on notebook paper — because in those prehistoric days we had no access to a Xerox machine. Somehow other friends decided to join us, and so she kept copying her notes.

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman in Moonrise Kingdom.
I still think the title sounds like the name of a Chinese restaurant.

It’s a wonder we never left home. We were ready! And yet the closest we came was to dream — and, for my part, to write down the dream, in a spiral notebook. I added some drama (we were forced to flee when I got into an altercation with our English teacher, who pursued us like Javert across the sea), and I overflowed with jokes and intrigues among our little gang of fugitives. I even hinted at the romance I yearned for, with a moonlight scene in which the girl and I almost said what we felt. Because of course that’s what would happen, if only other people would just let us alone.

This was the first and perhaps only truly popular fiction I ever wrote. Our friends passed the notebook around, and eventually it fell into the hands of that English teacher. She called my mother for a Very Serious Conference, and that settled it: there would be no escape.

Wes Anderson’s new movie, Moonrise Kingdom, comes closer than any other work I’ve yet encountered to capturing that barely-adolescent spirit. I recommend it highly — and so, for that matter, does the girl I loved.

I’m not a diehard Anderson fan, and some of his greatest successes have struck me as belabored in the extreme: sometimes he tries so hard to be quirky. But he’s at his best here, or close to it, and it’s easier for this audience to accept the quirkiness of smart, troubled 12-year-olds than to accept that of, say, grownup Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums.

And the opening sequence of Moonrise Kingdom even manages to recall a film I thoroughly admired, Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, as the camera roams around a family home that looks like a dollhouse. Even the scout camp reminded me of Mr. Fox: the boys’ uniforms are too small, and as a result they’re even more awkward than other boys that age. They’re all gangling limbs and stiff movements, like stop-action characters.

Edward Norton as Scout Master Ward, with his troops.

Young Sam (Jared Gilman) meets the love of his young life, Suzy (Kara Hayward), appropriately enough when he wanders away from a group. Rather like Romeo and Juliet, but decidedly less talkative, Sam and Suzy need only one look to seal their destiny. They write to each other, pour out their troubles and console each other, and soon enough it’s clear: they’ll have to run away.

In the woods and waters of an outrageously picturesque New England island, Sam puts his scouting skills to good use: here I realized that I had no such skills whatever, and it’s unclear to me now just how I would have contributed, if my friends and I really had run away. (Complete recall of Monty Python sketches — my greatest strength — is not a survival tactic.) Meanwhile, Suzy reads stories aloud, much like Wendy in Peter Pan.

Profiles in maturity?
Frances McDormand and Bruce Willis

The grownups on the island are a dysfunctional lot, as we’ve come to expect in an Anderson picture, and they’re thoroughly incapable of holding onto these kids. Suzy’s parents are brilliantly portrayed by Bill Murray (an Anderson regular) and the great Frances McDormand, two actors who understand the value of economy and restraint amid the Andersonian wildness. As the police captain, Bruce Willis reminds me what a good actor he is when he gets out of his own way and finds the character he’s supposed to play.

Edward Norton projects a wonderful earnestness as the scoutmaster, and Bob Balaban is the all-knowing, sometimes participatory Narrator. Tilda Swinton and Harvey Keitel turn in amusing cameos as the most self-serious people on the planet.

The movie’s only serious misstep is Cousin Ben, another scoutmaster played by Anderson’s muse, Jason Schwartzman, as if the director (and perhaps the actor himself) channeled all their annoying tics into one character, rather than spreading them across the entire movie. Cousin Ben practically screams, “Love me! I’m a half-crazed manchild eccentric, just like dozens of others you’ll see in a Wes Anderson picture!” But fortunately the movie doesn’t linger over him.

“Love me! I’m crazy!” Jason Schwartzman.

The young scouts and Suzy’s brothers, terribly serious boys all of them, are given appealing portrayals by a group of terrific young actors. I expect this was a fun set to work on. Gilman isn’t one of those terrific young actors, and you never shake the feeling that he’s only reciting his lines. But those lines aren’t easy — in truth, nobody on earth really talks like an Anderson character — and Gilman does convey a kind of nascent manliness that’s essential to the picture. Hayward is the more skillful actor, and she’s uncannily beautiful besides.

Mention must be made of the soundtrack, which uses a phenomenal amount of Benjamin Britten’s music, including scenes from Noye’s Fludde, in counterpoint to a climactic hurricane; and a passage from another great runaway story, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s also a classic hit from Françoise Hardy, “Le Temps de l’Amour,” to which Sam and Suzy dance, and the lyrics (in French) could hardly find a better match than this story, or mine:
It’s the time of love, the time of friends and adventure.
When time comes and goes, we think of nothing, despite our wounds,
Since the time of love is long and it’s short.
It lasts forever, we remember it.
Only now do I see the racoon’s face. This movie would reward repeat viewings on DVD, I think. There’s quite a lot of information to process.

NOTE: Clearly, Anderson has done his homework, with references to all sorts of runaway stories. While I don’t see any overt reference to one of the very greatest of these, E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, I do note that the mean boys in the scout camp develop emotionally much as the mean girls do in the summer camp in Konigsburg’s The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place. A coincidence, perhaps, but pleasing.

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26 June 2012

The Wedding of the Century

All-star production: Dr. Stephen Gentle officiates.
Photo by Jim Carnahan.

Contemporary society is changing so fast! As he welcomed us to the wedding of Steven Bryant and Darren Woods on Sunday, Dr. Stephen W. Gentle of the Disciples of Christ admitted that he’d “never done anything like this before,” then paused. “It’s the first time in my 27-year career that I’ve officiated at the marriage of a couple who have been together for 32 years.”

He grinned, and we cheered. Darren and Steven have indeed been together a long time, and in Opera World they’re something of a hallowed institution unto themselves. You can’t say that by an exchange of vows on Sunday they made their relationship official, or even much different from what it was on Saturday — though because the ceremony was performed in Schroon Lake, New York, it certainly is legal now. Maybe when something is so right, so tested and true, people just need to acknowledge it, and so Darren and Steven did.

Of course, attending the wedding meant missing Pride in New York. Darren scoffed when I pointed this out. “This is a Pride Parade,” he said, almost like Miles Gloriosus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and in the event the turnout was exceptional, great throngs of people who were as proud as they were joyful.

Steven W. Bryant and Darren K. Woods: The official portrait.
Photo by Ellen Appel.

The date was significant, just two days before the anniversary of Darren and Steven’s first meeting, on this very ground: the Seagle Music Colony, where the boys were students, and where Darren is now artistic director and Steven supervises wigs and makeup for the annual productions of opera and musicals.* No other day would do.

Moreover, I knew I’d see at least two gleaming torsos, even if there were no go-go boys (and there weren’t) on this Pride Day: Steven is launching a line of men’s formalwear accessories, gorgeous and brilliantly colored ties, vests, and cummerbunds.** Sure enough, both grooms were decked out in eye-catching finery.

I also knew the music would be spectacular, and it was. A chorus made up of this year’s Seagle kids lined the stage of the Oscar Seagle Theater, under the direction of Tony Kostecki, in numbers by Vaughn-Williams and Daniel Pinkham. And the evening’s other selections together constitute one of the most radiant highlights of my listening year.

Soprano Ava Pine, herself a Seagle alumna, delivered a melting, shimmering account of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer 1915 — which just happens to be the year that the Colony was founded — with Tyson Deaton on piano, for all the world as if he were at the head of a full orchestra. Ava and Tyson returned at the end for “Let the Bright Seraphim,” from Handel’s Samson, which Ava ornamented with more fireworks than any other Pride celebration in history has known.

And a little later in the evening, bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch sang a tender setting of Browning’s “Grow Old with Me,” written by Jake Heggie as an anniversary present for another terrific couple from Opera World, baritone Robert Orth and his wife.

Ava has amused Darren, possibly by mentioning that I’m still angling to join them in Daughter of the Regiment
at Fort Worth Opera next season.
Photo by Daniel Okulitch.

Thereafter, we set about partying, and we took this as seriously as you would expect from a group of conscientious, professional, artistically minded folks — who were over the Adirondack moon with happiness. What struck me almost immediately was that the party was as important as the ceremony: a celebration of a community that has been brought together by the love of these two men.

So many of the people here are dear to me, and dearer by the minute, and that’s pretty much because Darren and Steven willed it so. Darren talks often about the families we’re born into and the families we choose for ourselves: add it all up, and Darren’s family is vast. On Sunday I looked up and realized that I’m part of it, too.

I’m not alone: every person present must feel the same way. What an extraordinary achievement!

Lucky WVM with Ava Pine, Janice Hall, and Daniel Okulitch.
Trivia note: I have interviewed each of these phenomenal singers both for this blog and for features in Opera News. (Ava for her profile in the June 2012 issue, Janice for a profile of Darren a few years ago, and Dan for a preview of Shore’s The Fly in Paris.)
I believe Kurt Howard took this picture, using Dan’s camera.

I thought back to the afternoon, when I arrived early and barged into Darren and Steven’s house, though they had better things to do (ya think?) than look after me. Cool and collected before the Big Event, Darren observed — with a note of wonder, if not surprise — the enthusiastic reactions he’d received from everyone in and around Schroon Lake. Even people who weren’t attending the wedding knew about it and happily supported it. Everybody got into the spirit, notably including Dr. Gentle, whose speeches during the ceremony revealed a sense of humor that chimed perfectly with Darren’s and Steven’s.

All of this may have surprised Darren, but it’s no surprise to me. The guys have been part of the Schroon Lake community since 1980, and all the moreso since 1996, when Darren took over as general director at Seagle, which, as the Colony’s slogan puts it, has been “Bringing Music to the Adirondacks Since 1915,” no small thing. It only stands to reason that Darren and Steven would make friends with their neighbors, the way they’ve made me their friend, the way they’ve made their other friends my friends.

The next day, as he drove us to New York through relentlessly pounding rain and a brief hailstorm, tenor Scott Scully grumbled, “This is what happens when you let the gays marry.” He was kidding, of course.*** Scott knows, as I do, that what really happens when you let gays marry — even when you merely let them live together in peace and love for 32 years — is that you strengthen the fabric of society. Simply stated, we’re all better off because Steven Bryant and Darren Woods are married.

Anybody who tells you different, is full of beans.

Scott Scully and WVM.
Photo by Daniel Okulitch.

Darren and Steven suggested that, in lieu of presents, their friends make contributions to Fort Worth Opera or to the Seagle Colony. I’ve spoken often about Fort Worth Opera (and I believe I’ve even mentioned that I’ll make my company debut there in 2013). The Seagle Colony is notable not only for its history — it is the oldest summer singer-training program in the country — but also for its approach.

The Colony provides young artists with a safe environment to try new things. The goal isn’t to be perfect, but to learn and to grow. Darren has no patience for those audience members who show no patience toward his kids; he’s been known to eject forcibly folks who came in with a bad attitude. I underscore, however, that this is no amateur hour, and many of the most impressive young American artists you’ll hear these days are Seagle alumni.

Over the years, the Colony has also become an important proving ground for new work, as well as new voices. It’s a remarkable place, and worthy of your support, as well as mine.

Jonathan Blalock (Lázaro) and Wes Mason (Reinaldo Arenas) in Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls at Seagle, 2008.
Both singers graduated from the workshop to the world premiere,
at Fort Worth Opera two years later.
Photo by Ellen Appel.

*NOTE: I believe that Steven will be in charge of wigs and makeup for the Fort Worth Opera Festival of Ariadne auf Naxos next May. So if I don’t look pretty when I take the stage as the Haushofmeister — you’ll have to blame him, not me.

**I expect we’ll have more to say about Steven’s formalwear designs when the business is closer to commencing full operations.

***Scully is also an excellent driver. Navigating the monsoons in Houston turned out to be just the training he needed to get us home on Monday.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: It’s through the good grace of Joyce Castle that I met Darren and Steven in the first place. Joyce was unable to attend the wedding, since she’s in Central City, Colorado, preparing for opening night of Oklahoma! (a work that deserves its exclamation point more than ever before, now that she’s playing Aunt Eller); she’ll also reprise her legendary interpretation of the title role in Menotti’s The Medium with Central City Opera for two sold-out performances later in the summer. As the ceremony began on Sunday, however, I sent a silent message to the Universe: “I’m representing Joyce. Amen.”

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18 June 2012

Andrew Weems Invites You to ‘Damascus’

Andrew Weems has written a new play, Damascus, featuring one actor, who also happens to be Andrew Weems, and a cast of thousands, whom he conjures with one of the most expressive voices I’ve heard and a melting pot of accents. This isn’t in itself newsworthy, however, since Andy’s previous one-man show, Namaste Man, and indeed almost any conversation with the guy likewise entail this kind of richly populated yarn-spinning: for this reason, he’s one of my favorite actors and one of my most beloved companions.

He’s up to something extraordinarily ambitious here, and I urge you to drop by the 4th Street Theatre, where the Acting Company is presenting Damascus in a production directed by Ian Belknap, through a Saturday matinée on June 23. Andy weaves truth and fiction, elements of his own life story, exotic travelogue, and urban chaos into a single, sublimely poignant moment.

You will have to see the play in order to understand the full significance of this picture, which I believe Andy himself took, and which I filched from his Facebook page.

Act I focuses primarily on the Narrator, an impoverished would-be writer on a sordid, steeply spiraling, Schlitz-stoked decline; Act II focuses more on Alexander, the protagonist of a magazine story that the Narrator reads on the first day of the rest of his life. Soon enough the lines between Inwood (where the Narrator lives) and India (where Alexander travels) and between “I” and “he” are blurring, as both men’s lives — seemingly unrelated — converge in a metaphorical Damascus, where revelation leads to conversion.

As a playwright, Andy doesn’t show much sympathy for the Narrator, which is a shame and yet perhaps necessary in order for us to see how very much he needs redemption; and in the telling, the Narrator doesn’t show much sympathy for anyone else, either. Fair is fair. Ultimately, it’s the story, more than the Narrator himself, that exudes compassion.

It’s up to Andy the actor to bring all the characters to the stage in a way that keeps us engaged, and this he does with the most elegant means, tiny but telling gestures, tone of voice, tilt of head. It’s as if he’s pulling delightful tricks out of a magic box. Some of the characters resemble people whom Andy and I both have known, which lends to my enjoyment of the performance: for example, he has absolutely nailed one woman who managed a bookstore we used to frequent. Even those who aren’t familiar to me at all — an injured Irishman in India, a fulminating Russian landlord, a kindly server at a Dunkin Donuts, so many others — are recognizable and real.

“How could I forget that I have everything?” the Narrator muses at one point, leading me to a little epiphany of my own. Whereupon I started to cry, in a way that I might not, had this story really been in a magazine, as Andy depicts it. (His writing is certainly good enough for any magazine. He’s always had that knack, damn him.) But theater is life and a precious gift, as Alexander comes to understand, and I needed to hear those words from a guy standing in the room with me. Andy knows that, and he knows how to do that better than anyone else.

Damascus, written by and starring Andrew Weems.
The 4th Street Theatre
83 West 4th St., near Second Ave.
Now through Saturday, June 23
For tickets and more information, click here.

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16 June 2012

Miss LuPone at New York’s 54 Below

The deity surveys the faithful.

If you ever doubted for an instant that this is Patti LuPone’s world, and we are just extras, hie thyself to her nightclub act. The great diva is the first headliner at 54 Below, a new venue in the basement of the old Studio 54, which several years ago reverted to its original purpose — theater — and has since become an important fixture on the Broadway scene, with landmark revivals of Cabaret and Assassins, among others, by the Roundabout Theatre Company.

Miss LuPone is the antithesis of Broadway’s current idea of a leading lady. Which is to say that she has her own, highly individual personality. You are never going to mistake her for anyone else who has ever lived. If you have cast her in your show, you are going to have great difficulty replacing her when her contract runs out and she is ready to move on to other conquests.

Now 63, according to the Times, Miss LuPone knows everything she will ever need to know — and more than anybody else — about working a crowd. Her Patti-patter is perfectly aimed and fired. Her voice is eccentric, but wide-ranging and artfully deployed: she’ll massage and pummel notes, diction, and pitch in her interpretative ardor, and yet, as my host observed, she’s rigorously faithful to the rhythm.

Our opinions may vary at times as to what is and is not appropriate material for her — I have avoided hearing her recent performances of Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins with the New York City Ballet precisely because I don’t think the role of Anna I is a good fit for her voice, and I didn’t quite find the material in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown worthy of her — but she’ll get no argument from me over the selections for her current act, an emotional rollercoaster entitled (as if it really matters) “Faraway Places.” She had me howling with laughter, gasping in awe, and — at one point — wiping away hot tears.

I cried for her.

My aforementioned host was Mark Adamo, and it’s always interesting to watch a composer’s reactions to other people’s music. Clearly, on this occasion, Mark was transported, giving his own (silent) performances in response to Miss LuPone. The truly curious thing is that Mark seemed to be under the misguided impression that Miss LuPone was singing to him, whereas of course we all know that she was really singing to me. She is that kind of artist.

She’s named after Adelina Patti, the legendary Italian soprano, but that background explains only a little her fearlessness in assailing classic repertory. She gave us a one-two punch of Edith Piaf, first with Bill Burnett and Peggy Sarlin’s “I Regret Everything,” offered as a hilariously irreverent response to the Little Sparrow’s “Je ne regrette rien”; followed by a heart-melting “Hymne de l’Amour” (in an excellent English translation). She made “By the Sea” (from Sweeney Todd) her own, superior to her own interpretation on Broadway a few seasons ago, and making me forget — for a moment — that I’d ever heard Angela Lansbury or Joyce Castle sing the song.

And, backed up by five musicians, her account of Weill numbers — a rollicking “Bilbao Song,” a ferocious yet ultimately haunting “Pirate Jenny” — nearly forced me to reconsider my resistance to her Seven Deadly Sins, which as originally written is in a key beyond her reach and backed up by an orchestra. But you know what? She’s Patti LuPone. She doesn’t need my approval.

Her prime has lasted a very long time, at least since Evita, but she’s in that prime right now, all right. She sounds better than ever, and she looks fit and feisty. If she’s had any work done, it’s impossible to tell, and really her comfort with who she is — her looks, her sound, her personality, her history* — is a big part of what makes her so irresistibly appealing.

The nightclub itself is a comfortable space, with great sight lines and sound. The mix of quasi-faux-Victorian décor and harsh overhead lighting (turned down, mercifully, during Miss LuPone’s act) suggested to me a cathouse after the police have already raided the place. But it’s a good room, as Milton Berle used to say, and I look forward to my return there — probably when Amanda Green and Ann Harada join forces there on Monday, June 25.

Looking around, you could get the impression that Miss LuPone doesn’t have a lot of female fans, or else the vast majority of thin, well-groomed men in the audience simply couldn’t find dates. Go figure. But I recalled that it was one of the great master strokes of Ugly Betty to cast her as Marc Saint James’ disapproving mother; as I’ve observed, her declaration that “I have no interest in knowing you,” was one that would drive almost any gay man in New York to despair and possibly suicide. We were secure last night that Miss LuPone does love us, nearly as much as we love her, and we hollered and cheered and leapt to our feet with each token she offered. It was a great night to be in New York.

Hold back? What does that even mean?
Why on earth would she — or anyone — hold back?

*NOTE: Miss LuPone even allowed that, had she not been an actress, she “would have made a great flight attendant.” “Turn off that phone! Who do you think you are?” she roared, and we roared right back in recognition and delight.

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15 June 2012

TV’s ‘Dallas,’ and Mine

The cast of the new series.

The venerable CBS series Dallas is being revived on the cable network TNT, and while the show elicits a certain curiosity (and mixed reviews in the press), I doubt I’ll do more than dabble in it. That’s in keeping with my practice during the show’s original run, beginning in 1978, when I still lived in the eponymous city. In those days I was more interested in getting out of town than in studying its habits and mores — which Dallas the TV series may or may not reflect accurately. Who am I to say?

I do have some insight into the original series, because for a period of about three days one summer, I was hired out by the business manager at my father’s office, where I worked, to help her friend in the bookkeeping department of Lorimar Productions.* They’d been shooting around town for a few weeks and needed an extra hand or two as they closed down the location office.

Among my tasks was the destruction of scripts that had been used by the actors and crew during the shoot. Suddenly, all manner of astonishing plot twists and revelations fell into my lap. In such a circumstance today, I could have built a career for myself as a TV insider or gossip maven or celebrity sleuth, and who knows where that might have led me? Matt Drudge got his start by eavesdropping on conversations (and, it’s been whispered, by digging through wastebaskets) at CBS, and look at him now. Oh, the possibilities were limitless!

Who Head Shot? J.R.!
Larry Hagman as the Ur-villain of prime-time soaps.

Trouble was, there was no Internet in those long-ago days, so the means of distribution were beyond my reach. Worse yet, I didn’t follow the show and barely knew the names of the principal characters, much less the details of their intrigues. If Sue Ellen slept with Bobby, I’d never perceive the significance.

What I did see was that the dialogue for this show was terrible, the flattest, dullest, most wooden, most stilted stuff you can imagine. It was as if the scripts had been sent from some other planet, and they inspired in me a kind of awe, for in their complete lack of interest or sense, in their sheer worthlessness, they possessed a glorious majesty. They were like cathedrals of awfulness. There was nothing to do but kneel before them.

And this is my reason for writing now: in tribute to the actors of Dallas, who made those lines sound more or less like human speech, and who brought to their performances enough charisma that, for a time, half the planet hung on their every move.

Respect and never forget them.

The cast of the original series.

*NOTE: It’s hard to credit, but it’s true: the company that produced the Ewings also produced that family’s polar opposite, The Waltons.

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14 June 2012

The State of the Broadway Musical

Sure, “I Believe,” but does anyone else on Broadway?

I’m pleased to announce that the new online magazine The Aesthete has just published my backstage profile of Caissie Levy, the appealing star of Ghost: The Musical, an adaptation of the popular 1990 film now playing at the Lunt–Fontanne Theatre; you can find that article here.

In order to speak to Levy without making a complete fool of myself, I attended a performance of Ghost a couple of days before our interview. Appropriately, perhaps, after a show that opened on Shakespeare’s birthday, I walked out thinking of Polonius. “To thine own self be true” turns out to be good advice in entertainments, as well as in personal conduct, but it’s here that Ghost, for all its flash and boom, fails miserably — and that, in turn, bodes ill for all of Broadway.

Ghost stars Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy.

Most of the flash in Ghost is found in the stagecraft, the show’s most impressive component, which uses all kinds of mechanical ingenuity and digital imagery to create evocative scenery and whiz-bang special effects — to the point that, every time that designers Rob Howell (sets), Jon Driscoll (video), and Paul Krieve (illusions) don’t pull out their high-tech bag of tricks, as for a rather puny little Italian restaurant set, you’re rather disappointed: “Is that all there is?” you think. “Why no flying spaghetti?”

Ultimately, Ghost tries very, very hard to be a movie. It’s even got an opening title, including a flying aerial view of New York City, and the show recalls the film’s most memorable sequences and gestures (notably including that pottery-wheel scene that’s burned into the memory even of people who never saw the movie) with care. That’s not surprising, since the book of the musical, like that of Carrie: The Musical, was written by the screenwriter, in this case Bruce Joel Rubin.

See the movie, see the show: Levy and Fleeshman
in Ghost’s most famous sequence.
Nothing if not a savvy pro, Levy rightly predicted that this scene
would be included in the show, and as soon as she was cast,
she went out and took pottery lessons.

Ghost also tries very, very hard to be a rock concert, with a score by Dave Stewart of Eurythmics and Glen Ballard, who’s written monster hits for stars such as Alanis Morissette and Michael Jackson. Despite decades of trying (since Hair, in 1968), Broadway has never really, entirely assimilated rock or known what to do with it, but in the meantime, the general public has stopped listening to theater music: the days when the original cast album of My Fair Lady was the number-one record in America are long gone. And so Broadway tunesmiths keep trying, and Broadway producers keep turning to rock stars, hoping to come up with something popular.

For Ghost, sound designer Bobby Aitken pumps up the volume to earsplitting (and I mean that almost literally) levels, all the better to trick us into thinking we’re attending a concert. I seldom go to rock concerts and I’m not accustomed to listening to music this loud — or this distorted — but, I quickly understood, I am not the target audience for this show.

The target audience is tourists, as it is for virtually every show on Broadway nowadays. Producers seem to have concluded that a monster hit cannot be sustained by New Yorkers alone, and in our society’s post-Reagan thinking, only the monster profits of a monster hit are worthwhile. Thus Ghost also tries to be a tourist attraction — something of a thrill ride, in fact.

Not a scene from Ghost: Andrew Rannells (center) in The Book of Mormon, flanked by Nikki M. James, Josh Gad, and the company.

What Ghost is not, and seems to have forgotten to try to be, is a Broadway musical — not in any way in which that term of art has ever been understood before. Only intermittently, and primarily in the performance of Da’Vine Joy Randolph (as Oda Mae, the psychic played onscreen by Whoopi Goldberg), do you get the sense that anybody connected with this show has ever seen a musical, much less knows how to write one.

The contrast couldn’t be more pronounced between Ghost and the last musical I saw on Broadway, The Book of Mormon. That show’s creators, Robert Lopez, Trey Parker, and Matt Stone, have done their homework, quite possibly all their lives. Certainly there are plenty of examples of strong musical-comedy sequences in Parker and Stone’s most famous collaboration, South Park; Lopez is a creator of Avenue Q.* Not only their knowledge of but also their affection for musical comedy are evident in every scene.

Thus we get “I Believe,” an anthem for the central character that recalls — and quotes from — “I Have Confidence” in The Sound of Music. And the brilliant sequence in which the Ugandans enact their own version of Joseph Smith’s story is a direct reference to “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” in The King and I. You don’t get more classic than that, and those are just two among countless examples of Book of Mormon’s complete understanding of its antecedents and mastery of the form.

An authentic Broadway dance number: “Turn It Off,” choreographed by Casey Nicholaw and featuring Rory O’Malley (left).

What’s most remarkable is that Lopez, Parker, and Stone have adapted the conventions of the Broadway musical in a way that simultaneously satirizes and celebrates them — that is to say, their approach to the Broadway musical is entirely analogous to their approach to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Sure, this stuff may look absurd to outsiders — but it works, if you let it.

And as proof of their faith in the form, they didn’t merely adapt a popular Hollywood movie. They created something wholly original, in which they’d fully invested themselves, so that no plot development is unconsidered, no detail unexamined, no possibility unexplored. The results are almost unnervingly flawless.

Ethel Merman never did this:
Fleeshman walks through closed doors in Ghost.

Producing a Broadway show is a hugely expensive undertaking — just buying a ticket is no small feat — so one can understand to a degree why producers and creative teams are wary of the risks that originality entails. They’re constantly hedging their bets.

They exploit the least sophisticated audiences and the most familiar material possible, because surprise means risk. They hire actors (either crowd-tempting Hollywood celebrities or near-anonymous journeymen) whose personalities are irrelevant to the essence of the show, the opposite of Merman or Martin or Channing. And most and worst of all, they bend over backward to be something they’re not.

Which means that the thing they seek to do, no longer exists. What I saw was less Ghost: The Musical than a ghost OF a musical, and despite The Book of Mormon and the efforts of a few other quixotic idealists, I’m less and less optimistic for the survival of a great American art form.

The cast of The Book of Mormon.

*NOTE: It was through the generosity of Ann Harada, one of the original stars of Avenue Q, that I was able to see Book of Mormon.

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13 June 2012

Progress Report 14: When Hiller Met Paula

Paula Kahn, Dramatic Soprano.
A head shot, probably from the early 1960s.
In later years on her acting résumé, she listed her “special skills”:
“Belly-dancing, Mother of a Star.”
Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Kahn.

In 1948, Hiller Kahn’s girlfriend suggested that they drop by the apartment of an attractive divorcée who worked under her. Freda Goldberg Wolfson’s daughter had earned a certain renown already for her singing ability, the girlfriend said, and when they got to the apartment, on West 60th Street just off Columbus Circle, there was tiny Madeline Gail Wolfson, standing on a table for her stage and performing popular standards for about a dozen friends and neighbors, while her mother played piano. Madeline was about six years old, and had come home from the Pennsylvania boarding school where Freda had enrolled her one year before.

Little Madeline was “endearing,” Hiller remembered in conversation with me, long afterward, though Freda didn’t impress him much at first. Soon enough, however, he found himself caught up in her formidable charms (which I witnessed firsthand a few years ago). In 1953 in Mexico, he married her, and at his insistence, he adopted Madeline and brought her to live with them in Jackson Heights. “I wanted her to be part of the family,” he told me simply. Madeline kept his name the rest of her too-short life.

Freda and Hiller divorced in 1958. He passed away on June 6; five days later, she died after several years of declining health. My condolences to their son, Madeline’s brother, Jeffrey, and every member of their families are heartfelt, mingled with shock at the terrible coincidence and with gratitude that Jef consented to share them with me.

I’m struck by how many of the family dynamics came into play already at that first meeting in New York. Hiller and Freda really weren’t meant to be together, as it turned out. Freda, who eventually adopted the more marquee-ready name of Paula Kahn, had studied opera and was Madeline’s first voice teacher; she harbored dreams of success on stage or screen, but it was her daughter who became the star attraction: starting perhaps with Hiller, good things often came to Paula because Madeline made them happen.

But the relationships are remarkably complex. Paula trained Madeline in the talents she needed to succeed, and the same talents might have paid off for Paula, too, if only she’d been willing to work as hard as her daughter did. Instead, she seemed to expect stardom to be handed to her, and if her glorious and inevitable destiny was to be fulfilled at the expense of Madeline’s finances and reputation, so be it.

A thoroughly decent guy, Hiller tried diligently to bridge the gap between him and Madeline, especially in later years, but much of the damage was done already. All of her childhood taught the lessons of abandonment, which surely marked her as an adult. Both her father and stepfather left in the aftermath of divorce; Paula left her at boarding school. Even Jef, always Madeline’s indispensable emotional support, would go off to visit Hiller, leaving her alone with Paula.

Madeline’s romantic relationships were affected as a result, naturally, and she wasn’t consistently able to prevent her insecurities from coloring her professional relationships, too. If her personal experiences made it easier to play fragile or neurotic characters so memorably onstage and onscreen, they sometimes made her a difficult collaborator offstage and offscreen.

Treating Madeline and her parents fairly may be the greatest challenge before me as I write her biography. Misjudgments and misbehaviors by a parent can result in such painful consequences for a child, and yet there was plenty of good, too, and Madeline would not have been the person or the artist she was without their influences. The same is true of any parent–child relationship, of course, and few of us ever manage to reconcile ourselves to that. Until somebody comes up with a better system, there’s nothing left but to study and to try to understand.

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09 June 2012

Public Transportation in Dallas (No, Seriously)

I’m not making this up, you know: The DART train.

Growing up in Dallas, I suffered as keenly from the lack of a drivers license as from my virginity: I could not be considered anything but a child until I had gotten one and lost the other, and in some ways the two conditions were linked. Wheels meant independence and freedom. Dallas possessed many attractions in those days, including opera, art galleries, and repertory cinemas, but in order to reach any of them, I had to hitch a ride with a friend — or, even more shamingly, with a friend’s mother.

In those days, there was no public transportation system to speak of, by which I mean that the scrawny system in place wasn’t much, and also that nice people didn’t speak of it. Buses were dilapidated, stopped only at out-of-the-way places, and took forever to reach their destinations — or so we were told, in whispers, by people who had braved the ride.

Now, returning to the city, I discover what once would have been unimaginable: a perfectly brilliant light-rail system that is swift, clean, reasonably priced, and wonderfully efficient — and evidently not much used. Even at rush hour, I had no trouble finding a seat while getting where I wanted to go. Using it instead of a rental car or the kindness of my friends (or their mothers), I even have traversed the suburbs and arrived in that fabled no-man’s land, Downtown Dallas, a place I hardly ever saw when I was growing up.

Take the A Train: Denton’s commuter line.

Oh, the twists of fate! The DART train stops just a few blocks from my parents’ last home, in Carrollton, and it connects to the Denton A train, which stops not far from my godsons’ home. It’s almost painful to think how much easier my visits might have been, when the boys were younger, if only the rail system had been in place then. The money I saved on rental cars might have put them both through college.

And how much easier my boyhood explorations of Dallas might have been, too! Not least because the DART trains boast one tremendous advantage: they run much more frequently, and longer hours, than does the Denton rail, which appears to have been designed exclusively for 9-to-5 commuters and not (for example) for midday shoppers or for tourists. The DART trains go places I actually want to go, and it’s somewhat astonishing to look out and see — for instance — the “grocery store” outpost of Herrera’s Mexican restaurant, just steps from the DART Inwood station.*

Continue along this same line, and you wind up in the West End, a newish development of ancient buildings in Downtown Dallas, with all manner of defunct warehouses and office buildings remodeled as cute little restaurants, pubs, and clubs. Downtown Dallas features any number of beautiful skyscrapers and quiet little parks, few of which existed when I was a boy, but generally the area confirms the old joke about other big cities: that they’d be so much nicer if there were no people. The streets are deserted, like something out of a Twilight Zone episode.

Further out is Deep Ellum, a neighborhood that features nothing but music clubs and tattoo parlors. Here, too, development didn’t begin until long after I left town, and my few visits to the area were marked by extreme frustration over the lack of parking. That’s not a problem when you take the DART train, though the “Deep Ellum” station is actually a couple of blocks away from the authentic quarter, which in itself is quite spread out and decidedly not conceived with pedestrian traffic in mind. Still, there’s virtually no more excuse now to be the uncool sort of person who doesn’t hang out in Deep Ellum.

Since Dallas weather tends to be frigid in winter and blistering in summer — and since spring and autumn are more theory than seasons here — you may not be willing to endure the walks from station to landmark around town, though hardy urbanite that I’ve become, I don’t mind a bit. One of these days, I’m going to try the link to Fort Worth’s transit system, too.

Presumably, as Dallasites accustom themselves to the advantages of the rail system, they’ll use it more and make improvements, too. It would be nice not to have to go all the way downtown just to transfer to a given line, for example, and it would be very nice if the Denton trains ran more often, so that (for example) you might go out for the evening and not be stranded in Dallas.

But the very attempt at mass public transit in any part of Texas must be applauded. For those with limited budgets or no drivers license, there’s no calculating the benefits of liberty and mobility in a state that scoffs at the vastest suburban sprawl. And never mind the trouble I’d have enjoyed getting into, when I was a boy, if only I’d had this resource available.

Really, never mind. I’m sure I’d have lost my virginity eventually. I regret nothing.

All aboard for adventure!

*NOTE: When Godson #1 was a baby, we used to take him to the “grocery store” Herrera’s, where the total lack of décor and the limitless patience of the staff proved invaluable, since little Will invariably flung 98 percent of his own dinner and a substantial percentage of ours all over the restaurant. We used to leave extravagant tips as a means of apologizing for the cleanup that Will necessitated; it’s a wonder he ate enough to sustain himself. Now that he’s looking forward to his sophomore year at The University of Texas at Austin, we have to come up with other excuses and explanations for his conduct at the table.

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05 June 2012

Fort Worth Opera Festival 2012: Adamo’s ‘Lysistrata’

War of the Sexes, Sex of the Wars: Nico and Lysia engage.
Scott Scully and Ava Pine in Mark Adamo’s opera.
Illustration (in progress) by WVM©

The final performance of Fort Worth Opera’s 2012 Festival was Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata, a contemporary comedy that had its premiere at Houston Grand Opera in 2005; the premiere production went on to New York City Opera, where I saw it, in 2006.* Featuring a lively cast of singers who are as much fun onstage as they are off- (no small feat, that); a swift, smart staging by David Gately; a commanding interpretation by conductor Joe Illick; and the repurposed frame of the set of City Opera’s 1966 Julius Caesar, this Lysistrata was a brilliant example of what Fort Worth Opera does best. Not only was this an immensely entertaining production in and of itself, it also made the strongest case yet for Lysistrata’s place in the repertory of companies across the United States.

And it’s one measure of the ways that Fort Worth’s general director, Darren Keith Woods, has brought the audience along, not merely forcing folks to take their medicine when he presents a new opera, that my godmother, unable to attend the Festival this year, expressed greatest regret at missing Lysistrata. Clearly, Darren understands what makes new work appealing, and as a result, Fort Worth audiences are enthusiastically seizing opportunities that many other cities — too often including New York — pass by.

Mark’s libretto uses Aristophanes’ ancient comedy as a starting point for an increasingly serious examination of conflict — both on the battlefield and in the bedroom. You get some sense of his ingenious approach when you consider this opera’s “checklist” numbers, in which the men prepare for combat (two choruses) and the women prepare for love (one chorus). Broad humor, such as the exaggerated foreign accents of the Spartans (redolent of Lili von Shtupp), blends with satire (notably, the wry characterization of women protestors) — and with romantic outpourings and ultimately a hard-won, very serious wisdom, which Mark once summed up for me as “Treasure the truces.”

With comparable ingenuity, Mark’s score finds sounds to match the sense. I was particularly struck, on this occasion, by the echoes of Copland and Bernstein I heard — since I expected exactly such echoes in Mark’s first opera, the all-American Little Women, but didn’t find them there, because the last thing Mark Adamo sets out to be, is predictable. Overall Lysistrata is a complex score, its tonalities ripe for study, and yet it’s easy to enjoy, sweet and merry, hugely entertaining in its intricacies, even for those of us who aren’t scholars.

Superstar Ava Pine.
Photo by Ron T. Ennis© courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

Lysistrata might well have been written for a cast of young singers, many of whom are Fort Worth favorites. As Lysia, the Athenian wife who devises the sex-for-peace bargain, soprano Ava Pine returned to the company in utterly brilliant form, willowy and gorgeous of figure and supple and shimmering of voice. Some of her previous appearances in Fort Worth have hinted at the assets she displayed in Lysistrata: her humane sense of comedy in Donizetti’s Elixir of Love (2010), for example, and her fearlessness in contemporary music, as well as her flawless English diction, in Angels in America (2008).

But this performance seemed to gather up all her gifts, wrap them in a shiny ribbon, and hand them over to the audience. Has she ever been lovelier, more lyrical, more a full-fledged star? I could hardly contain my happiness.

Dimples of steel, abs of bronze:
Nico (Scully) reevaluates his strategy.
Photo by Ron T. Ennis© courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

Tenor Scott Scully has appeared with the Fort Worth company a few times, too, but never in a role as substantial and as fully developed as that of Nico, the Athenian commander and Lysia’s husband. His performance on Sunday fulfilled every promise he ever made as an artist here over the years: I marveled at his heroic tone and clarion projection throughout the role’s extensive vocal and emotional range: tender, virile, true.

Other leading roles were taken by familiar faces, most of them current or former members of the company’s Opera Studio; their success underlines the suitability of Lysistrata’s score for skilled but youthful singers. Meaghan Deiter, who so courageously incarnated Katisha in last season’s Mikado, found Kleonike an authentically congenial fit for her lush tone and sharp humor. Ashley Kerr, an alumna of the Opera Studio, lent Myrrhine some of the afternoon’s most passionate vocalism; I’m nuts about her sound, and it’s telling, I think, that a role I hardly remembered from six years ago now seems quite rightfully the second female lead in this opera. Among the Spartan women, Alissa Anderson (Lampito) and Corrie Donovan (Charito) proved especially effective in comic sequences.

Bass-baritone Seth Mease Carico, so memorable as the Scarpia-esque Cuban revolutionary in Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls (2010), returned to play Leonidas, the Spartan general. It’s rare to find an artist so young with such a firm grasp of command, but Carico is always completely in charge of the stage and of the most difficult music. Baritone Michael Mayes, a native of Cut and Shoot, Texas (no, seriously), enjoys a sterling reputation among my opera friends, but this was the first time I’d heard his generous, supple voice: now I’m a fan, too. He returns next season in Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied, and what a lucky break that I’ll be around to hear him.

The women and the men dig into their respective positions.
Richard Kagey’s design builds on Ming Cho Lee’s historic original set for Handel’s Julius Caesar, from 1966.
Photo by Ron T. Ennis© courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

Given that David Gately will direct and Joe Illick will conduct Ariadne auf Naxos, the opera in which I’ll make my company debut next season, I was profoundly and personally gratified to find them both excelling in Lysistrata. Joe, who had conducted a thrilling Tosca the night before, demonstrated his range this weekend — surpassing himself, really, by tackling two such differing scores with such confidence and command. David steered the cast along tricky physical and emotional paths, without ever overdoing either the sincerity or the silliness.

As I reflect on the variety and the excellence of this season’s Fort Worth Opera Festival, I feel utterly validated in my early appraisal of the company. Darren and his team make every opera seem fresh and dynamic, and they’re afraid of nothing.** This season demonstrates their embrace of every kind of repertory, and the sensitivity and intelligence with which they approach each work. Somehow, next year, I’m going to be a part of all that. Let’s hope I’m worthy of the honor!

Your fortunate correspondent with two of his favorite singers:
Native Texans Scott Scully, WVM, and Ava Pine,
Bass Hall, Fort Worth, 3 June 2012.
Photo by Kurt Howard.

*NOTE: The role of Lysia was created by soprano Emily Pulley, another Texan, who joined Fort Worth Opera this season to sing the role of Bea in Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers.

**Afraid of nothing with the possible exception of Kurt Weill, that is. But hey, I’m working on the problem.

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03 June 2012

Fort Worth Opera Festival 2012: Puccini’s ‘Tosca’

Vivo dell’arte di Carter!
Ms. Carter Scott as Floria Tosca,
Fort Worth Opera, 2012
Illustration by WVM©

Opera at its best makes no apologies for what it is, and that’s one reason, I think, that it has always appealed to the misfits in society. Opera is outsized, flamboyant, passionate, loud, unlikely to fit in, unrestrained and unashamed — just like us, and in some cases, just like the people who create opera.

Opera doesn’t get any flashier than Puccini’s Tosca, the heroine of which is an opera singer. In Fort Worth Opera’s bracing production, you never once forgot what Floria Tosca does for a living, and the full-throttle approach of soprano Carter Scott in the title role was matched by Daniel Pelzig’s throw-’em-across-the-stage direction, Andrew Horn’s monumental scenic designs, and Joe Illick’s sculptural approach to the orchestra. Thoroughly and unapologetically traditional, this Tosca proved exceptionally satisfying.

Never was Tosca more tragic onstage!
Carter Scott as Tosca, with Michael Chioldi as Scarpia.
Photo by Ron T. Ennis©
Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

Scott impressed me tremendously as Puccini’s Turandot in Fort Worth Opera’s 2009 production; when I heard she would return as Tosca (a role she sang here in 2005, too, though I missed it), my excitement mounted. If anything, she surpassed my lofty expectations, deploying a force-of-nature instrument that was never less than thrilling. Yet she explored subtler moments in both the score and the drama, scaling back for softer singing at times, and finding a girlish insecurity underneath Tosca’s prima-donna jealousy.

Meeting her head-on, baritone Michael Chioldi possessed like a demon the role of Baron Scarpia, a guy who seemed incapable of addressing any other character without flinging him across the stage, and who thundered and insinuated his menace and lust with equal abandon. Roger Honeywell’s tenor voice simply isn’t produced with ease sufficient to match the kinds of vocal characterizations offered by his colleagues, but he always cuts a dashing figure onstage and his voice rang out where it counted most. Among the smaller roles, bass Rod Nelman turned in the most musical Sacristan I’ve ever heard.

In the pit, Illick shaped the score much more aggressively than I’m accustomed to hearing him do, and he stretched out not only certain musical phrases but also pregnant pauses, to thrilling dramatic effect. It says a lot when the audience is absolutely silent during the interlude in which Tosca lays out Scarpia’s body. Unfortunately, the curtain fell on each act while the music was still playing. Human nature is irresistible in such circumstances, and we began to applaud much, much too soon, losing quite a lot of those moments in the score when Puccini really concentrates his energy and is at his most expressive.

Doomed lovers: Scott and Honeywell as Tosca and Cavaradossi.
Photo by Ron T. Ennis©
Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

Apart from these miscalculations in ringing down the curtain, Pelzig’s staging offered plenty of pertinent insight into the relationships and realities of this drama. I noted with pleasure, for example, the way Tosca peeped into the corridor outside Scarpia’s apartment before fleeing the murder scene at the end of Act II. Still, for the most part, this Tosca was about the embrace of the extreme: big passions, big gestures, big voices, big sets, big hair. It seemed too much for mere mortals to bear, and yet we all prevailed, and were better for it. That’s opera — that’s art — that’s life.

And thus what might have been expected to be the most conventional offering in this 2012 Festival season — one of the “safest” choices, in contrast to the unfamiliar, contemporary works on the calendar — turned out to be an unexpected triumph.

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02 June 2012

Fort Worth Opera Festival 2012: Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’

Figaro stars Jonathan Beyer (Count Almaviva), Andrea Carroll (Susanna), Wallis Giunta (Cherubino), and Jan Cornelius (Countess Almaviva).
Illustration in progress by WVM©

The Fort Worth Opera Festival really does try to program a little something for everyone. This means that, along the attention-getting, sometimes artistically (or even politically) challenging contemporary works, the company also produces the standard repertory — generally with stagings that are traditional but smart. Consider the toy-theatre Turandot that Daniel Pelzig directed, or the psychologically taut Lucia di Lammermoor that David Gately directed, both in 2008 — which is to say, the same festival that saw Floyd’s Of Mice and Men and Eötvös’ Angels in America.

The aim, clearly, is to challenge the maximum number of operagoers while losing the minimum. What strikes me is that Fort Worth’s productions of standard repertory tend to respect the music and to allow for the possibility that the audience has never seen a given work before. We get a chance to evaluate a score on its own terms, without editorializing or pandering or wholesale revision. Hardcore buffs sometimes sniff at such productions as “safe,” and yet arguably an opera can be safe only in so far as the original work itself was safe when the composer created it.

These thoughts occurred as I watched this season’s standard-rep productions, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Puccini’s Tosca (about which I’ll have more to say in an upcoming report), which managed to generate a considerable excitement in the audience — even in this jaded old grey-eared scribbler — mostly through smart, well-rehearsed musical interpretations but also through clear, coherent dramatic action.

Bride and groom:
Figaro (Donovan Singletary) and Susanna (Andrea Carroll).
Photo by Ron T. Ennis © courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

Musical values really carried the day in Figaro, thanks to a winning young cast and the spirited conducting of Stewart Robertson. This score is rather like a freight train made of soap bubbles: it surges forward with overwhelming, possibly crushing momentum, and yet the whole thing can be upset with the slightest wrong touch. Just like life itself: that’s what makes this music such a joyous exhilaration when it’s performed properly.

Robertson expertly navigated all the swirling currents, from the shimmering reflections on the rippling surface to the cold still depths, and he elicited confident, pointed interpretations from his young cast. You could be forgiven for forgetting how tough a job this really is; Robertson made it all seem easy.

By contrast, Eric Einhorn’s staging was easy in a less flattering sense. The action was very, very broad — far too much so for my personal taste, and at times almost to the point of burlesque. And yet it presented the character relationships clearly and accurately, so that even people who didn’t know the story could follow the dizzying doings on this “folle journée.”

Yes, the audience might have gotten more out of a more nuanced, more detailed production, one that played more on class distinctions and subtler relationships.* But with one significant exception, the decision to treat Figaro as a broad comedy did no harm, and it may even have made things easier for audiences new to the piece.

That exception was Figaro himself, as portrayed by Donovan Singletary, a charismatic young artist who has everything it takes to make a superlative Figaro and yet who appears unable to let well enough alone. He overacted as if from desperation that he might not communicate properly if he didn’t spell out every single syllable in great big capital letters — and he never stopped moving. This affected his vocal production, too, frequently steering him into poor projection, uneven support, and unclear diction.

Some blame must lie with Einhorn and Robertson, and yet, since the other young artists mostly avoided potential pitfalls, I’ve got to worry about Singletary and to hope the tendencies on display Saturday aren’t habit: I’d hate to see him sabotage a career so promising.

The women were the true heroes of this Figaro. As Susanna, young Andrea Carroll offered a feisty dramatic interpretation and ravishing vocal tone, perfectly centered, easily produced, generously proportioned, a pure pleasure to listen to. How I wished that Mozart had given Susanna more to sing! Carroll is 22, I’m told, and so with a little luck, we’re witnessing the dawn of a major career.

Hardly less impressive was Jan Cornelius as the Countess, the only performer onstage who seemed aware that class is an issue in this spectacle. Cornelius embodied noble elegance, presenting a gracious façade that cracked only when the character’s emotions became too powerful to contain: in short, an ideal dramatic interpretation. She brought to her assignment mellifluous tone and the breath to send her long vocal lines spinning and soaring.

“Voi che sapete”: Yes, these women really do know.
Jan Cornelius (Countess), Andrea Carroll (Susanna),
and Wallis Giunta (Cherubino).
Photo by Ellen Appel© courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

As Cherubino, Wallis Giunta did a terrific job of portraying the gangling adolescent boy — all the more remarkable a characterization, since she’s drop-dead gorgeous and a sometime fashion model. What a shame that Einhorn didn’t approach Cherubino’s cross-dressing scenes with a much lighter touch: instead, we mainly got lots of pulling the skirts up over the head, which doesn’t tell us much about the character, or his obsession with women, and isn’t even particularly funny. Giunta’s singing on this occasion wasn’t as distinctive as her acting, but overall she’s an appealing young artist and I look forward to watching her progress.

Kathryn Cowdrick’s plummy Marcellina and Corrie Donovan’s chipper Barbarina rounded out this Figaro’s exceptionally strong complement of women artists — and if, among the men in the cast, only bass Rod Nelman as Don Bartolo was up to the ladies’ level, it’s perhaps not surprising. The bar was very high indeed.

From a surprisingly tentative Act I, Jonathan Beyer seemed to grow into the Count’s role, gradually moving beyond swagger to something like nobility, beyond bluster to authentic feeling. With his smooth, pleasing baritone and his tall, naturally imposing stage presence, Beyer has much to offer, especially once he’s acquired a bit more experience and confidence.

Act I represented the height of Einhorn’s directorial shenanigans, and it’s a measure of Nelman’s skill that he managed to score all the points of Bartolo’s vengeance aria even while crawling on the floor. Thereafter, Einhorn seemed to calm down, leaving Nelman free to offer a zestily sung, bighearted interpretation. Having enjoyed his Dulcamara in Elixir of Love in 2010 and his Tosca Sacristan this weekend, I’m especially eager now to see him as Sulpice, opposite Joyce Castle’s Marquise in Fort Worth’s Daughter of the Regiment next season.

Allen Charles Klein’s generally handsome set designs pose the thorny question of why Cherubino and the Count would ever hide by the badly exposed armchair when there’s a perfectly good floor-to-ceiling curtain handy, in Act I. That’s a serious flaw, but I unreservedly admired Klein’s smart handling of the slamming doors and windows in Act II and the evocative garden in Act IV.

In all, this Figaro was an excellent introduction to the piece — for those who don’t know it already. And not a bad reintroduction, for those who know and love it, as I so dearly do.

Can this marriage be saved? Jonathan Beyer and Jan Cornelius as the Almavivas. Andrea Carroll as Susanna looks on.
Photo by Ron T. Ennis© courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

*NOTE: It would be a mistake to underline the fact that the Countess will one day bear Cherubino’s child (as we learn in the third Beaumarchais play, La Mère coupable), because that’s not the story Mozart and Da Ponte are telling, and you’ll overwhelm Figaro if you try it. But it is nice to allow for the possibility, which some stage directors do manage to do. Einhorn didn’t make the attempt.

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01 June 2012

Fort Worth Opera Festival 2012: Heggie’s ‘Three Decembers’

Matthew Worth (Charlie), Janice Hall (Madeline Mitchell),
and Emily Pulley (Bea).
Illustration by WVM©

Over the years, Fort Worth Opera has devoted a significant focus to smaller, contemporary pieces, with winning results. And while new chamber operas are being written (and perhaps with greater frequency now than ever) and there’s plenty of cachet attached to a world premiere, there’s also great value in returning to recent work by rising or established composers. A second hearing for some will be an entirely new experience for most audiences, and between those parameters we may arrive at new insights and judgments. A case in point: last year’s production of Glass’ Hydrogen Jukebox was downright astonishing, and effectively created a consensus that this is among the most important works of the late-20th century.

This year’s Fort Worth Opera Festival features two contemporary works, Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata and Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, the latter of which, an intimate family portrait, is the featured chamber opera this year. Although both these operas were heard first at Houston Grand Opera, Fort Worth is, in a very real sense, making its own, ongoing investment in both composers: Adamo’s Little Women was a highlight of the 2004–05 season, and Heggie’s Dead Man Walking created a sensation at the 2009 Festival.

Heggie’s work has been heard locally in connection with his residency at University of North Texas in 2010–11 and at Dallas Opera, which saw the world premiere of his Moby-Dick in 2010 and will unveil another new opera, Great Scott, in 2015 (with Joyce DiDonato in the lead). So there’s abundant reason to reexamine Heggie’s catalogue and to join in what is becoming a lively conversation here: few communities have the luck to play such an important role in a composer’s career. Certainly New York doesn’t hear him so often as the Metroplex does.

Fort Worth lavished great care on Three Decembers, giving the piece a brilliant production and every chance to make a favorable impression. Certainly many in the audience connected with the emotional themes of the piece, a portrait of a dysfunctional family.

Bea (Pulley) and Charlie (Worth) reminisce
on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Photo by Ellen Appel©
Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

Three Decembers concerns Madeline Mitchell, a Broadway star whose pursuit of professional success has wounded both her grown children. Gradually we see that her elder child, Bea, is going through the motions in a basically loveless marriage; apparently, she’s an alcoholic, too, though that possibility is treated most superficially in Gene Scheer’s libretto, based on a play by Terrence McNally. More thoughtful is the treatment of Bea’s brother, Charlie, whose homosexuality — and whose AIDS-stricken lover — Madeline has never quite accepted.

Creating effective showcases for artists he cares about is one of Heggie’s principal artistic goals, it seems to me, and he’s very much succeeded here. He designed the role of Maddy for Frederica Von Stade, with whom he’s enjoyed a long artistic collaboration and a close friendship; last year, Joyce Castle assumed Maddy’s crown in Central City, Colorado; and here in Fort Worth, Janice Hall took the role. Maddy is given ingratiating vocal music (including a show-stopping Broadway number), a sympathetic character, and just enough dramatic heft to earn multiple ovations by the evening’s end.

Janice, who’s enjoyed several noteworthy triumphs in Fort Worth, really rose to the occasion, with smooth yet characterful vocal lines and a powerful physical presence that told you not only that Maddy was a star but also that you’d be a fool to cross her.

Soprano Emily Pulley played Bea in Central City; here, she offered a poignant eagerness, mostly just trying to reach out to her mother and brother yet hesitant and painfully lacking in self-confidence. Baritone Matthew Worth cut a handsome figure onstage and lavished buttery tone on Charlie’s sorrows and frustrations.

Presenting Madeline Mitchell.
Janice Hall, photographed by Ellen Appel©
Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

Candace Evans, new to the company, directed with a sure sense of the flow, abetted by Bob Lavalee’s ingenious set designs. Rondi Hillstrom Davis might have done more to accentuate Bea’s character (she dressed too much like her mother, I thought), but she really captured Maddy’s theatricality and Charlie’s desire to be more like other people. Christopher Larkin conducted the chamber ensemble from backstage, and for coordinating the instrumental and vocal forces, he deserves abundant praise.

But there are limits to what a conductor can do to redeem a score, and this is far from Heggie’s best work. While I enjoyed his easy way with melody and his penchant for waltz numbers, I found his orchestrations twinkly, frailer even than the realities of chamber music require, to the point that they undermined the drama onstage.

In truth, there was precious little drama at all. Much of the blame for this lies with McNally and with Scheer, of course. They give us glimpses of the family in 1986, 1996, and 2006, ostensibly around Christmastime, with cards and reunions and observances. The opera’s title is misleading, however, since some scenes take place in other months, notably June for the Tony Awards. Far more serious contrivances emerge almost immediately.

The family is still recovering from the loss of Maddy’s husband, Bea and Charlie’s father, when the children were quite young. Somehow we’re supposed to believe that our protagonists reflect on this loss only on those occasions when we see them, beginning two decades after the father’s death. Thereupon, the characters talk — but do almost nothing. Granted, there are plenty of operas where people merely stand around and sing about their predicament, but those aren’t as intimate as this one: we’re not sitting right next to the singers, and they’re not addressing problems identical to our own.

And with regard to those problems, as they’re addressed here, I respectfully point out that the emotional response of the audience doesn’t suggest that the artistic treatment of is fully dimensional or particularly meaningful. People get choked up over Kodak commercials, too.

The only thing that passes for action in Three Decembers is a terrible confession that Maddy makes, for the simple reason that, if she doesn’t, there’ll be no story. Talk about contrivance! Maddy might have confessed 15 years earlier; she might do it 15 years later; she might hold her tongue altogether. The confession is almost entirely unprovoked and unmotivated, and Heggie doesn’t even do his bit by ratcheting up the tension in the music before Maddy lets fly with the truth. Thereupon all three characters respond to her announcement by talking some more, dooming our hopes that something might actually happen here.

And yet I didn’t hate Three Decembers. I found much to admire in this score, and I believe strongly in the value of reexamining a composer’s work from time to time. This was the first time I’d heard this particular score, and I’m not sorry Fort Worth mounted it. But Heggie, Scheer, and McNally have all proved themselves capable of better work, and such an underdeveloped piece may not deserve all the trouble required — from producers and listeners alike — to score the artistic and emotional points its creators didn’t manage on their own.

Tony Awards-night tensions: Pulley and Hall as Bea and Maddy.
Photo by Ellen Appel©
Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

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