17 December 2014

Cuba Welcomes Discussion of Human Rights

HAVANA -- As President Barack Obama declared that normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba will give the United States the chance to engage the island dictatorship directly on the subject of human rights, Cuban President Raúl Castro announced that he welcomes such discussions.

“Obviously we have a great deal to talk about,” Castro said. “For example, 716 in every 100,000 Americans are incarcerated. We’re nowhere near that level! Granted, our prisons are in some ways even more brutal than American prisons are, but that’s what these discussions are about: a frank exchange of ideas about making people even more miserable behind bars.”

Castro also indicated that the recent Senate report on U.S. use of torture in the war on terrorism could be of particular interest to the Cuban government. “There are several areas where we could really refine Cuban techniques,” Castro said. “That whole ‘rectal feeding’ thing? Genius!”

Among the other topics Cuba hopes to address is voter suppression. “Let’s face it,” Castro said, “we’re a bunch of hopelessly clumsy amateurs compared with statehouses across America.”

In all, Castro said, Cuba “eagerly awaits stern moral lectures from a country that jails one in every three of its black males, a country that makes basic health care all but inaccessible to millions of its citizens, a country that enslaves its college students in debt, a country that subsidizes its banks and large businesses but lets its children go hungry. Yeah, seriously, America. Bring it on.”

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16 December 2014

Interview: Isabel Leonard on Kapilow’s ‘Gertrude McFuzz’

One of the more eagerly heralded recordings of this holiday season is Rob Kapilow’s Polar Express and Gertrude McFuzz, concert adaptations of the beloved books written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg and Dr. Seuss (respectively, of course). Aiming to engage young audiences with music that’s fun but not dumb, Kapilow has composed lively scores with plenty of appeal for grownups, too, and he mixes child singers (a chorus in Polar Express, a preternaturally red-hot jazz-baby soloist named Olivia Lombardi in Gertrude) with Opera World grown-ups Nathan Gunn (in Polar Express) and Isabel Leonard (in Gertrude).

Especially when seen in excerpts on video, Leonard’s performance really makes you wish you could just bring her home and let her do her stuff for you. She’s a busy woman, of course, so in all likelihood you’ll have to settle for buying the album. But it’s spectacular work in any case. Even having seen her as Rossini’s Cinderella with Fort Worth Opera in 2009, and as Mozart’s Cherubino at the Met this fall (among other roles), I was only barely prepared for the wit and charm — and vivid acting — she brings to bear as Gertrude’s Narrator.

“Rob created a very fun, funky, musically narrative score for the book,” Leonard told me in a phone interview several weeks ago. “It’s perfect for kids, and that’s what this whole CD is about, not only bringing classical music to kids but bringing classically trained voices who can do a variety of things with their voices, to show kids what’s possible.”

Mezzo Isabel Leonard

For Leonard, the Gertrude score represented an opportunity “to play with my voice, to sing in a classical style and maybe in a more musical-theater style and jazzy style … a combination of colors and different styles,” she says. “Sometimes when you’re entrenched in the opera world, you forget what it is that you can do, in general. I’ve done jazz and musical theater, and it was great to put it all together.”

Renowned as the host of NPR’s What Makes It Great?, Kapilow has adapted Dr. Seuss before — his Green Eggs and Ham is widely considered a contemporary classic — and he has a pretty good idea what makes Seuss great. His music exults in the author’s imaginative use of language, and, much though we love the illustrations in the book, Kapilow rises to the challenge of substituting sound for image. He provides his own ingenious surprises, characters and curlicues and improbable landscapes, until we feel as if we’re listening to the pictures.

“[Kapilow’s] vocal writing has a range, so the singer has to have range and good rhythm, good funk in your voice,” Leonard says. “I was able to do that, and play around with accents and being goofy, and really, really telling the story, not just by way of beauty — which is what you hear so much in opera — but even more with the texture of sounds and words.”

Both Polar Express and Gertrude McFuzz are a particularly effective kind of composition for young audiences. They’re not didactic, explaining what a woodwind is; instead, they’re exemplary. These pieces demonstrate an original way to tell a story, and they showing that music isn’t just for Wotans and Valkyries and venerable conductors with great profiles, because kids can take part, too. You wind up with gateways to more and more music — which will seem less intimidating, because kids already have a sense of the potential pleasures and rewards.

As a parent — and as a former child — Leonard describes music education as “paramount, just like any arts education,” and she’s worked with children and young adults many times. “They’re still at that stage where they’re an open book: they can be inspired, and they’re still willing to be inspired,” she says. As audiences, kids “respond to something that’s true, their response is very genuine. It’s something they don’t forget, so they’re impacted on a level that really lives with them, for the rest of their life, most likely.”

Gertrude McFuzz does contain a moral — and wouldn’t we all like to be smart enough to know what’s enough? But Leonard was smart enough to have a good time with Kapilow’s score. “You can’t go far from the microphone” in the recording studio, she says, “but I was definitely rocking it out and having fun. It’s that kind of music. It’ll get little kids and older kids up on their feet, bouncing around and having fun with it.”

The Polar Express/Gertrude McFuzz album is available now from Amazon.com, in plenty of time for holiday giving.

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13 December 2014

Meatballs à la Madeline Kahn

Madeline knew her way around the kitchen.

If you’re a Madeline Kahn fan and you’re looking for the perfect hors d’œuvre for your next cocktail party, here’s your solution. Thanks to Betty Aberlin, I’m able to share with you Madeline’s own recipe for sweet and sour meatballs, as reported in the Chicago Tribune in 1975.

A few provisos: I haven’t tested this recipe, you’d better have no moral objections to veal, rolling the meatballs can get your hands messy (Madeline herself offered this warning), and some of the ingredients are processed. For example, you might prefer to mince and sauté a fresh onion, instead of taking “instant minced onions,” soaking them, and then sautéing them. Johna Blinn, the reporter on this story, noted that, at the time, Madeline was “learning how to live a healthier, happier life by studying homeopathic medicine, herbs and organic foods!” (Exclamation point in the original.) So as you follow the recipe, just consider that this may be what passed for organic in 1975.

Like the recipe itself, the Tribune article is a product of its time, taking a tone that’s simultaneously admiring and condescending as Johna Blinn notes that Madeline “is an operatic singer, speech therapist and a voracious reader” — and she can cook, too! Gee, fellas, this one’s a keeper!

Fifteen meatballs is my limit.

Madeline was still living on East 73rd Street at the time, and she complained of her tiny kitchen, which prevented her from throwing real dinner parties: “I don’t like doing things halfway, so I really don’t try and cook whole meals very often. I’m more apt to invite someone in for cocktails, and that’s when I bring on the meatballs!” Shortly after the article appeared, Madeline moved to her Park Avenue apartment, where the kitchen was (from what I can tell from photos) spacious by Manhattan standards — or anyway, I’d gladly trade with her.

Madeline’s description of her approach to cooking chimes with her approach to acting. “When I cook, I just improvise as I go along,” she said. “It’s never quite the same from one time to the next.” In the movies, this improvisational approach to acting led to “Flames! Flames on the side of my face!” and gave directors a variety of takes to choose from. In theater, her approach yielded admiration from some colleagues (Kevin Kline, for example), frustration from others (Victor Garber — affectionate frustration, I hasten to add), and fury from others (notably Hal Prince).

Madeline’s meatball recipe is the result of sampling other recipes and experimenting with her own — and since that’s the way I cook, I’m in no position to say she’s wrong.

An improvisational approach.


1 cup tomato sauce
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon instant minced onion
1 tablespoon salad oil
1 tablespoon powdered mustard
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon ground red pepper
1 cube chicken or beef bouillon
Combine all ingredients. Bring to boil, stirring constantly. Set aside. Makes about 1¼ cups.

2 tablespoons instant minced onion
2 tablespoons water
1½ tablespoons butter
1 cup soft bread crumbs
1 cup light cream
1½ pounds lean ground beef
½ pound lean ground veal
1 egg, beaten
1½ teaspoons salt
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon or curry
Rehydrate onion in water; let stand 10 minutes. In large skillet, melt butter; sauté onion 5 minutes. Soak bread crumbs in cream. In large mixing bowl combine onion, bread crumb mixture, meats, egg, salt, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon or curry. Mix well, but do not overmix. Shape into 1½-inch meat balls. Let meatballs stand in refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking. Line baking sheet or broiler tray with aluminum foil. Broil meatballs in preheated broiler until lightly browned. Turn to brown on other side. Watch carefully so meatballs do not overcook. Serve meatballs in heated sauce. Makes about 3 dozen.

Monkey’s brains, though popular in Cantonese cuisine, are not recommended for this recipe.

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10 December 2014

Emily Gilmore’s Stuffed Cornish Game Hens

EDITOR’S NOTE: The recent debut of Gilmore Girls on Netflix has led to a gratifying resurgence of interest in the hit television series (2000–07). With the holiday entertaining season upon us, we decided to ask the Gilmore matriarch, Emily, to share one of her favorite recipes.

Perfect for intimate dinner parties, my D.A.R.-approved recipe for stuffed Cornish game hens has been handed down from generation to generation. In fact, according to family tradition, my great-great-great — well, my many-greats-grandmother prepared this recipe for the crew of the Mayflower on the trip back to England, after she discovered just how hard it was to find good help in colonial Massachusetts.

Today, in our lovely home in Hartford, Richard and I enjoy serving stuffed Cornish game hens to all of our guests (excepting Tweenie Halpern, who’s a bore, and Pennilyn Lott, who’s a tramp — those two are no longer welcome at my table). I think you’ll find this recipe is as easy to follow as it is delicious to eat!

Special appearance by Emily’s husband, Richard Gilmore.

1. Tell Louisa, your new maid, to ask the butcher for four exceptionally fine Cornish game hens.
2. In the kitchen, tell Louisa to flame the hens.
3. Fire Louisa.
4. Tell your new maid, Consuela, to sautée one small onion and two ribs of celery.
5. Fire Consuela. Anyone who doesn’t know to chop the onion and celery before sautéeing them has no business in a kitchen.
6. Tell your new maid, Gudrun, to mix together wild rice, ten ounces of chicken stock, and one cup of finely chopped mushrooms. I think there are some kind of herbs in there, too.
7. Well, of course you cook the rice first. You’re making a stuffed hen, not a baby’s rattle.
8. Fire Gudrun.
9. While waiting for the agency to send over a new maid, check the other preparations for your dinner party. Those candlesticks should be precisely six inches apart.
10. Tell your new maid, Esmeralda, to sprinkle the hens with salt and pepper, both outside and inside each bird.
11. Not that much salt! Are you out of your mind? Richard has a heart condition!
12. Fire Esmeralda.
13. Tell your new maid, Diane, to stuff the hens with the rice mixture, then place them on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Cover the pan with foil, then let it bake for 40 minutes in the oven, preheated to 350 degrees.
14. Fire Diane. Don’t listen to her when she says it’s not her fault the oven wasn’t preheated, because she only just got here. Surely she didn’t expect you to turn on the oven!
15. Tell your new maid, Genevieve, to remove the foil from the pan, baste the hens with melted butter, and allow them to bake, uncovered, for another 25 to 35 minutes.
16. The remaining cooking time will give you the opportunity to greet your guests and to serve cocktails.
17. Pair the hens with a crisp white Burgundy, nicely chilled but not too cold, and serve with fresh asparagus and a tossed green salad.
18. Fire Genevieve.

We Gilmores enjoy nothing more than a good meal and stimulating conversation.

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08 December 2014

‘Peter Pan Live!’: I’d Like to Clap Louder Next Time

Wire we here? Williams as Peter.

The latest in NBC’s live broadcasts of classic Broadway musicals, Peter Pan Live! has generated a plentiful amount of criticism. Most of it — for the good and for the bad — has betrayed a curious lack of understanding of what this particular show represents (to say nothing of its history), why these broadcasts are worthwhile, and why it’s incumbent upon us (or anyway, those among us who can keep a civil tongue in our virtual heads) to say both what we did and did not approve. After all, the generally negative reactions to Carrie Underwood’s acting performance in last year’s The Sound of Music Live must have informed this year’s casting of a young woman who actually could handle the acting demands of a different role created by Mary Martin.

These broadcasts are valuable, and I’d like to see them continued, for at least a couple of reasons. First is that, while the view they provide of an actual Broadway show is distorted (unlike the Mary Martin telecasts of Peter Pan, which were essentially the original musical with cameras where the audience used to be), they are reaching people whose opportunities to see the real thing are limited. Mary Martin’s Peter Pan was the first Broadway show my mother ever saw; the telecast was the first Broadway show I ever saw. Granted, Broadway has changed a lot since the 1950s and 1960s. But this much hasn’t changed: very, very few shows ever were so perfect that they were immune to criticism. People used to carp, and they still do. (Now we have the Internet to help us do it more widely.) But there’s always the chance — and, in the case of Peter Pan, this is especially true of young people like my mother and, later, like me — that a spark will catch, and that lasting impressions will be formed about a great American art form.

Mary Martin’s TV performance benefited from her having played the role onstage first.

Opinions do vary, but Peter Pan Live! improved greatly on Sound of Music’s foundation. Neither show is easy to stage, one requiring aerial acrobatics and the other requiring a balance between I-hurt-my-finger cutesy kids and singing nuns. Oh, and the Anschluss, too. SOM has superior music, but Pan is, or ought to be, simpler to get right. In both productions, Christian Borle proved himself an invaluable player, and this year, inheriting the show-saving duties of SOM’s Laura Benanti, we had Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling, who elicited my strongest emotional responses. The expression on O’Hara’s face when the kids came home? Worth the preceding three hours. Both of course are experienced stage actors with professional Broadway musical credits.

In Mary Martin’s time, TV still turned to the stars of New York theater to boost ratings. Nowadays Broadway is more likely to turn to TV or movie stars to boost ticket sales, and a lamentable number of Americans outside New York don’t know who O’Hara and Borle are. So we arrive at Christopher Walken as Captain Hook. He may not have brought as many eyeballs to the TV set as Carrie Underwood did last year, but he generated a great deal of anticipation, as we all reminded ourselves that, yes, he’s a dancer, too. In the event, he did bring exactly what was expected of him: an eccentric performance that nobody but Christopher Walken could deliver. He’s Christopher Walken. This is what he does. It’s his brand. And remember, he’s 71 years old. You were expecting him to play Hook, or sing and dance, the way Nick Jonas would?

Presumably for Walken, the producers removed “Mysterious Lady” and beefed up Hook’s role with additional musical material from Jule Styne’s trunk, with fresh lyrics by Amanda Green, my friend and the daughter of one of the original lyricists, Adolph Green. The new songs had character and, if less operetta-ish than Hook’s other numbers, seemed close enough kin to the songs that traditionally belong in Pan. But they did prolong the evening and throw off dramatic pacing — a problem. (And speaking of pacing, does anybody else remember the good old days, when advertisers reduced the number of commercials they ran during extra-special, “event” programs like this one?)

All singin’! All dancin’! All Walken!

Watching the show, it was clear that director Rob Ashford had instructed all the actors, including Walken, to work small for the TV cameras. Since none of them (unlike Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard) had ever played these roles before an audience, we lost much of the show’s theatricality and the potential for larger-than-life personalities that win us over. With that context in mind, Allison Williams’ background as a TV, not a theater, actor didn’t matter so much, and mostly she did a terrific job: she’s got a lovely voice, she’s certainly attractive, and she dug deeper into the character than Mary Martin did (or needed to). Taylor Louderman as Wendy and the little boys playing Michael and John were charming and unaffected. Alanna Saunders as Tiger Lily provided fierce dignity that suited the character’s revised personality.

Ultimately, what didn’t work stemmed from a series of miscalculations. James M. Barrie derived the source play from playtime — that is, from observing and participating in the games and from listening to the stories of his young friends, the Llewellyn Davies brothers. Sure, there’s a lot of English pantomime tradition involved, too, but everything theatrically distinctive about Peter Pan derives from children’s games of “let’s pretend”: magical powers, pirates and swordfights, Indians and pow wows, playing house and obliging the only girl to play mother — and above all, flying. Not all that different from the games that kids still play today, in those rare moments when they’re on the playground or in the yard, instead of Krazy Glued to some screen. The intensity of a child’s belief in “let’s pretend” facilitates belief: that that a woman in tights is a ten-year-old boy, that a pinpoint spotlight is a fairy, and that clapping will save that fairy’s life.

When you believe in Peter Pan, you look beyond, and at best you don’t even see the wires that hold the actors aloft. (Only when I grew up did I notice Mary Martin’s wires.) Peter and the Darlings are dancing on air, doing what every child dreams of. Ashford’s decision to make the set environmental — with décor everywhere the actors turned — constrained the joyous soaring swoops of previous Pans across the proscenium and TV screen. Williams and the kids twirled in close quarters instead, and (if comments on the Internet are any indication) viewers focused on the wires, not even on the miniature London below them or on the lavishly colored island ahead. They barely took notice of the flight itself.

Lost Boys, lost opportunities.

Thus the decision to cast grown men (or nearly so) as the Lost Boys proved fatal. Sure, it was easier to choreograph their numbers, because their bodies are mature and they’ve had years of training. And cute and/or hunky chorus boys have their appeal. But gay men and straight women are only part of the target audience here. Eye candy and fancier dancing came at the expense of Peter Pan’s most potent magic: in every good incarnation, from Maud Adams to Cathy Rigby, the play has always made children think, “What fun! I want to play like that! I want to fly! This magic can be mine.”* Jerome Robbins, who first staged this musical Pan, understood that casting young children as the Lost Boys was vitally necessary. Most of us knew in our hearts that we’d never be Peter. But we’d willingly settle for being Tootles.

Peter Pan contains some pretty serious themes. Reconciling the Scary Father with the Good Father (a message muddled in this production, where Borle’s Mr. Darling turned into Smee instead of Hook). The perils of young love, and the paradigm of sensible girls who fall for irresponsible boys. The moment when a woman lets go of her first love, and steps aside for a new generation to discover love. While we may not understand these things at first, they stick with us into adulthood. But if you can’t deliver the magic, you can’t deliver the message.

This isn’t to say that Peter Pan Live! lacked magic entirely, and in that sense, the most important review came from little Iain, the six-year-old Internet sensation. He wore Peter Pan pajamas and stayed up past his bedtime to watch. He liked the show. He clapped. He believed. And that’s what matters.

Again, that’s why it’s important that television keep attempting these live broadcasts — and that they keep trying to do them better. The place to start isn’t hedging your bets with stunt casting or ever-fancier sets or vast blankets of advance publicity, and it’s probably not in #savetinkerbell. The place to start is in believing in the worth of the individual show and in the power of the Broadway musical itself.

*NOTE: Rewriting the lyrics to “Ugg-a-wugg” may make it easier for children of Native American descent to enjoy the exuberantly playful spirit of that number. Why exclude them even a little from the pleasures other children have found in this show? Amanda did a terrific job.

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07 December 2014

Progress Report 23: Realities

This is no dream! This is really happening!
The physical, book-shaped object,
photographed by Jeffrey Kahn.

Just in time for Christmas shopping, it’s — a Mothers Day gift! Though Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life won’t be released until May, the book is now listed in the catalogue for the University Press of Mississippi, which I hope all independent brick-and-mortar bookstores will scrutinize closely. Being the Music is also available now for pre-order (at a highly attractive discount price) on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble sites. To my gratified surprise, the first week on Amazon we ranked among the Top Five theater biographies, presumably alongside such august tomes as John Lahr’s new biography of Tennessee Williams. I promise not to take it personally if you decide to wait a bit to pre-order, to drive up the ranking when we’re closer to the release date.

Being the Music in the University Press
of Mississippi catalogue.

Given Madeline’s often difficult relationship with her mother, I advise you to reflect a bit before you offer Being the Music as a gift to your own mother. Is she likely to read into the book some unintended messages about your relationship? Will she identify more closely with parent or with child in this story? Is she a Madeline Kahn fan to begin with? Does she have a crush on Gene Wilder, or is she more the type who fancies Kevin Kline? These are serious questions.

Write out your answers on a slip of paper and contemplate them, weighing the pros and cons. Then go ahead and buy the book. Thank you. (And seriously, it’s at the top of my mom’s wish list. So, really, you can’t go wrong.)

Being the Music has now been typeset, and a few select individuals received copies of the bound galley proofs. This means that the book is now a tangible physical object that casts shadows. To make the moment even sweeter, I can’t help noticing that it is also book-shaped. Somehow I always believed that this day would come, and yet now, after six and a half years, I want to pinch myself. After all, I didn’t get my own copy of the bound proofs. But Madeline’s brother — her de facto archivist — did, and he sent me the picture that’s posted here. He’s a very honest fellow. So it must be real.

Barnes & Noble’s page for Being the Music.

The curious thing is that, now that I’ve proofread the typeset pages, I’ll never again change a word of this book. I’ve lived in dread that new information would come in at the last minute — and of course it has, because why would the final phases of the process be any different from all the phases that came before? But from this point forward, I’ll have to report my findings here, and not between the covers of Being the Music.

Madeline died 15 years ago December 3. She worked with everybody from Leonard Bernstein to the Muppets, and she touched many lives, very much including my own. I tried not to make a big deal about the anniversary — didn’t mention it on The Authorized Biography of Madeline Kahn page on Facebook, for example — because for the most part, my purpose is to celebrate her life, not her death.

For the most part. But not entirely.

Amazon’s page for Being the Music.

Because I do have another purpose. Especially after writing this book, I’m angry that I never got the chance to meet Madeline. Angry that she never got the chance to know how many people loved her, though she’d never met them. Angry that we’ll never get the chance to see what she’d have been doing when she was 72 years old. Angry that the disease that killed her is still taking its toll, and that there’s still so little we can do.

That’s why it’s important to do what we can do, and to support the organization that Madeline herself endorsed, the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. If you’ve got the inclination and the budget, in this season of giving, then I hope you’ll remember the OCRF.

The book is real at last. But the cause is more important.

A copy of the program from Madeline’s memorial.

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04 November 2014

Martinů’s ‘Alexandre’ & ‘Comedy’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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29 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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02 October 2014

Area Woman Just Wishes People Would Stop Talking About Her

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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01 October 2014

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

Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel
as Lorelai and Rory.

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

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

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

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

Most (but not all) of the recurring cast.

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

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

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

Please note that the title is clearly visible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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30 September 2014

Cohen’s ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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27 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Cameron Anderson’s set design for Alexandre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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23 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One last glamour part: With Robert Culp.

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

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12 September 2014

In Praise of Boots & Saddle

“Welcome home,” Victoria Chase said to Kevin Daly one night when he walked into Boots and Saddle. Kevin had been going through a rough spell. He’d visited the bar only a few times, and that was months ago. Victoria was onstage, in the middle of her act, and Kevin was just some kid by the door. But she recognized him, sensed that he was looking for shelter from the storm, and she spoke up: “Welcome home.”

There’s been a lot of confusion about Boots and Saddle, a 40-year-old Greenwich Village gay bar now seeking a new location. Much of that confusion, it must be said, has been sown purposefully, maliciously and mendaciously, and it’s complicated the efforts to move the bar. So this seems a good time to tell you precisely — and honestly — what kind of place the bar is. Boots is a business, certainly, but it’s much more than that. It is a community, stronger and more diverse than any other I’ve found. When Victoria tells you you’ve come home, she means it, and she’s right.

Victoria Chase: One of the most remarkable people I have ever known, a gifted entertainer with a noble, caring heart.

Just look around the room. We don’t look like the crowd in any other bar, and we don’t look like each other. We are every age, every ethnicity, every class, and every sexuality. Yet there we are, together. So long as we play by the rules, we’re welcome, and the first rule is that we recognize and respect the worth of others. That’s why you don’t see a lot of attitude and posing. You see people talking to each other, even before Victoria takes the microphone and instructs us to turn to the person on the right and introduce ourselves — something she often does.

Boots got its start as a cowboy bar, but in recent years it’s evolved into a showcase for drag performers like Victoria, who in addition to her own shows books the other acts for the bar, a consistently surprising lineup of singers, dancers, and comics. Historically, Greenwich Village has welcomed boundary-breaking entertainment by young artists: Eugene O’Neill, Comden and Green, Billie Holiday, Lenny Bruce, Nina Simone, Barbra Streisand, Charles Ludlam. And just by painting up, the Boots artists align themselves firmly in the Greenwich Village tradition that launched the gay rights movement 45 years ago, when the drag queens fought back and set off the Stonewall riots.

So if you block a drag act, then you are the one who’s upsetting the status quo, “ruining the neighborhood,” and devaluing the reputation that brings visitors from all over the world. The first time I came to Greenwich Village, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place: it doesn’t look all that different from any other part of town. What defines the neighborhood is the people — and historically those people have been communists and socialists, artists and free thinkers, homosexuals and bohemians. In the post-Giuliani, post-Bloomberg era, I’m not sure what will define Greenwich Village now. Property values, maybe.

When did Helen Lovejoy move to Manhattan?

A side note here, to the Helen Lovejoys in the neighborhood so deeply, deeply concerned about the children: it’s possible that, in Springfield, no drag queen will rise up before an impressionable kid. But in New York, we’ve got posters for RuPaul on city buses. Here, drag is a fact of life, and the kids aren’t scarred, they’re better adjusted than you are. Consider the example of the little girl who came running up to Misty Meaner outside the bar and asked, “Are you a princess?” The acts can get a little raunchy, but most of the shows go on long after the library has closed and the kids have gone to bed. As another of the performers, Frostie Flakes, said the other day, “Drag queens are full of light, love, and color.” Heaven forbid we should expose our children to any of that.

As a person who lives directly upstairs from not one but three bars, I sympathize with the concerns of Boots’ neighbors. Bars can be loud, any establishment that serves liquor to crowds can get rowdy, and sometimes unpleasant behavior spills out onto the sidewalk. But Boots’ owners, Ron Silver and Robert Ziegler, take responsible steps, including a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and brawling, professional security guards, and a proactive approach to keeping not just their own doorway, but all of Christopher Street safe. I wish the bars in my neighborhood did the same. No, it’s not perfect, but nothing is (even in Greenwich Village). And the benefits Boots offers do a great deal to outweigh potential nuisances.

Above all, Robert has spent years fostering the community represented by the bar’s customers, staff, and artists. He’s done this not least by hiring Victoria and endorsing her vision of what Boots can and should be. He’s also committed the bar to important causes, taking an active role in the community at large, in a way that few other gay bars in New York do. Boots has raised money for political candidates, and organized the customers and staff to march against violence. Boots has sponsored events for homeless LGBT youth, for AIDS research and care, and for individual members of our “family” who were in need.

Kevin sings karaoke at Boots.

Moving to a new location means getting approval for a liquor license from the community board, which hears arguments on both sides before deciding. The customers, staff, and artists didn’t have to attend the first community board meeting, and yet we did, about fifty of us, in such a number that our opponents packed the next meeting. At that first meeting, I tried to explain that we were ourselves a community board, brought together in all our diversity because Boots and Saddle represents something that we can’t find anywhere else. We came to be heard, because we come to Boots.

When we are lonely, or bored, or in love, we come to Boots. When members of our community are in need — when our brothers and sisters are beaten and killed in the streets, and we are ready to march together — we come to Boots. When we are grieving or when we are celebrating a birthday or an engagement or a wedding — we come to Boots. When young artists reveal talents they could share nowhere else — we come to Boots.

Greenwich Village is synonymous around the world with the freedom to discover and to be our true selves. When we are ready to do the same — we come to Boots.

I’ve been to bars in four continents, and this bar is like no other place on earth. If some neighbors have their way, and Boots and Saddle moves to some other part of town, then Greenwich Village will be poorer for the loss.

My karaoke debut, imitating Dietrich
while singing “Falling in Love Again.”
(In German, mostly.)

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