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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