28 November 2009

The Blonde Side

Bullock: She’s concealing a handgun in that bag.
Up to you to decide whether that’s a good thing —
but if you don’t buy the Proposal DVD, she just might use it on you.

The current release The Blind Side is one of the more remarkable pieces of rightwing Christian propaganda you are likely to see in a major Hollywood motion picture. It tells the uplifting story of Michael Oher, a young black man who is rescued from poverty and set on the path to stardom in professional football, all thanks to the tough love of a pistol-packing bourgeoise, played by Sandra Bullock. Though The Blind Side is based on a true story, it begs the question why that story is being told — and why it’s being told now.

For in the course of the film, we are made to understand that Oher can be saved only by divorcing himself entirely from any people who look like him (or indeed anyone who isn’t blond). The other black men in the movie are, without exception, thugs; his mother is a crack addict. The one and only time Oher embraces his own culture — singing a rap song — he wrecks the car he’s driving and nearly kills his white stepbrother, played by a Quinn Cummings clone.

By the time we get to the end of the picture, we have met only one black character who is intelligent, educated, and gainfully employed, but she’s so unsympathetic that I’m not sure what we’re supposed to make of her.

This isn’t to say that the picture isn’t entertaining, and even I found myself rooting for Bullock, who remains a charismatic presence onscreen, despite the plastic surgery. (She’s a few years younger than I: does this mean I need a facelift, too?) And if The Blind Side encourages other Southern, white, Christian, Republican bourgeoises to take real action to help their less privileged neighbors, I’m unlikely to complain much.

Yet, as I say, the timing made me uncomfortable; the film has been released just one year after a man who identifies himself as black achieved an unprecedented position of power in the United States. Granted, President Obama doesn’t behave like a drug-dealing gangsta, and surely that accounts at least in part for his success. But are we as a society really saying (or worse, believing) that African Americans can’t succeed on their own, without the Tarzan-like intervention of white people? Haven’t we come further than that?

Hollywood loves a remake, and I’m eager to see this movie remade — with Angela Bassett in the Bullock role.

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26 November 2009

Characters in Search of a Reader, or ‘Le Rouge et le Noir’

In the 1954 film adaptation of Le Rouge et le Noir,
Gérard Philipe and Antonella Lualdi as Julien and Mathilde

Seldom have I encountered a novel so entertaining as Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir. Seizing upon Denise Boutrit’s paperback copy, I galloped through the chapters, and each time I set down the book, I did so reluctantly, so eager was I to see what would happen next. The question is why it took me so long to finish, for the intervals between my multi-chapter gulps were long indeed.

When we’re kids, most of us have the Toy Story fantasy, that when we leave the playroom, our toys get up and play without us, in adventures of their own devising. With Le Rouge et le Noir, I imagined something different, particularly during the long pause I took, just when Stendhal’s hero, Julien Sorel, had stolen into the bedroom of his employer’s daughter, Mathilde de La Mole, for the first time. I pictured them waiting for me.

JULIEN: He said he’d be right back.

MATHILDE (stifling a yawn): I know.

JULIEN: Do you want to play cards, or something?

MATHILDE: We could always make out.

JULIEN: No, that might advance the plot.

MATHILDE (sighing): I guess we’d better wait, then.

At long last, I returned to them, and they enjoyed their first tryst. Oh, yes, they did.

Ciel! Mon mari!
Danielle Darrieux as Mme de Rênal, with Philipe.
Though older at the time of filming than Julien’s 19 years, Philipe was so much the right physical type for the rôle that it’s hard to believe Stendhal never saw him.

Indeed, as with so many great French novels, Le Rouge et le Noir is very, very sexy, especially by the British and American standards of the time — 1830. Julien is low-born and scrawny, but he dreams of Napoleonic glory for himself. This puts him in conflict with both his wealthy employers — first, the provincial Monsieur de Rênal and, later, the Parisian Marquis de La Mole — as well as with the priests at the seminary where he studies for a time. Julien judges that, without a noble title, he has no options but the military (the Red) or the church (the Black). Yet most of the time, his conquests are limited to the bedroom.

Stendhal picks apart his characters’ social and sexual politics with undisguised glee. The shifting emotions of Madame de Rênal, especially, touch on high satirical comedy, and as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Stendhal has spent most of his life observing the peccadilloes of men and women, while enjoying himself thoroughly.

Of course, literature professors are unlikely to tell you that one of the great monuments of French fiction is a laugh-aloud sexcapade that frequently borders on farce; they will not tell you this about Zola’s Nana and Pot-Bouille, either, or about the huge chunk of Proust’s account of Charlus’ misadventures that is in fact quite funny.

This is why we must read these books for ourselves: because the experts are keeping all the good bits a secret.

Being French, and being based on a real-life character besides, Julien Sorel must give over to philosophy at the end of the book; I suppose it’s for that reason that Le Rouge et le Noir is required reading in French high schools. Honestly, I don’t think it would be possible to fail to comprehend Julien’s gist as it plays out in the narrative, but his final monologues are very beautiful. I do know that the version we were given to read in Texas high schools was so heavily expurgated that it bore no relation whatever to the full-length novel, apart from a couple of characters’ names.*

Now of course I intend to check out La Chartreuse de Parme and — holy of holies — Stendhal’s life of Rossini, preferably while listening to Joyce DiDonato’s new recording of arias for Isabella Colbran.

*NOTE: There’s some satisfaction in the realization that I finished reading Stendhal’s novel on a day when I met for lunch with my high-school French teacher, Carlene Klein Ginsburg. At long last, I have fulfilled the assignment from 1978.

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20 November 2009

What I Didn’t Say at Bob’s Memorial

In every memorial service, I think, comes a moment when the talk ceases to serve its consoling purpose. No matter what the speakers say, they can’t fill up the absence, that empty seat in the theater. Yesterday’s memorial service for Bob Straus was especially poignant because, for most of my adult life, he’s been the guy who helped me get through other people’s memorial services: I knew that, at the end, he’d take me out for a bite to eat, and I’d feel better. Yesterday, he was present only in our loving recollections — and of course that wasn’t quite enough.

So often, it has been Bob’s presence that saved the day for me — not so much the specific things he said or did, as his just being there. During the tortuous production of the Broadway musical Rags, in 1986, it often seemed that Bob was the only grownup in the theater, and though he was powerless to correct most of our worst problems (an underdeveloped script, clashing egos, dwindling finances), it helped me — it helped most of us — just to know he was there, seeing through the most elaborate façades and cutting through the densest bullshit, keeping us connected to reality. It was fascinating to hear other people, who worked on other shows, confirming this experience of Bob.

For example, it turns out I am not the only person whom Bob counseled to shut up and take a needed paycheck with the words, “We’re all whores.”

Beyond theater and work, though, Bob could — simply by being who he was — remind you of what was good and possible in life. All of us who loved him have examples of this, whether we’re talking about his love of good food or of travel, or of any of the things that Bob valued. For me, Bob and his wife, Marguerite, served as irrefutable proof of the possibility of true love, at a time when I most needed to believe.

I had my first love affair with another man while I was working on Rags. He was involved in the show, too, but among that close-knit troupe of colleagues, friends and surrogate family, we told no one. And so when he and I broke up, I felt I had no one to turn to. And I kept it to myself.

Swift and heavy, the guillotine blade of our breakup dropped on me in the middle of 51st Street, outside the Mark Hellinger Theater. I was so overwhelmed by emotion that I staggered back, slammed against the brick wall, and slid to sit on the ground. Judy Kuhn and Lonny Price, who played young lovers in the show, walked up. “What’s the matter?” they wanted to know. And the only word I could find to answer was: “Nothing.”

They left me to my stupefaction. They had work to do. So did I, for that matter, but I was so consumed by loneliness, by the certainty that, if Scott didn’t love me, then no one ever would, that I wasn’t much good for anything but staring into the middle distance, where visions of my empty future danced before me. I couldn’t even cry; I could barely breathe. Only when show time approached did I manage to pick myself up and take my place in the stage manager’s office.

Was Marguerite backstage that night, or was Bob merely talking with her on the telephone? I can’t remember. What I do remember — most vividly — was the sound of their voices, and what it told me, more than what they told each other. For at that moment I understood that, if Bob and Marguerite could find true love, then so could other people. Sure, it hadn’t worked for me this time, but it was out there, something to look for and aspire to. It took me nearly two years to try again, but I’m still hoping.

Theirs has been a rare sort of love, that doesn’t shut out others; when Bob and Marguerite were together, you felt the embrace, as if we were all in a big group hug. You felt warmer and better protected. You liked the human race, and the whole planet Earth a little better. And you hoped that some day, somebody would feel the same way about you.

Bob’s passing hasn’t taken that hope out of the world, but he was one of its best models, and in this as in so many other things, I’m going to miss him. A grown man — a straight man — who called me “Sweetie.” Where will I ever meet his like again?

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17 November 2009

Interview: Daniel Okulitch on Don Giovanni

Daniel Okulitch recently made his New York City Opera debut in the title role of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in a new production directed by Christopher Alden. It’s a big moment for the company, which has returned to its home base at Lincoln Center. But it’s also a big moment for the young bass-baritone from Calgary.

We got to know each other in 2008, when Okulitch sang the lead in the world premiere of Howard Shore’s The Fly, at Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet; I heard him again as Joseph DeRocher, the condemned man in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, at Fort Worth Opera last spring. His willingness to take on such dramatically demanding roles is remarkable, and impresarios must be increasingly aware that, if they need a very tall guy who can sing while ripping a man’s arm off, or while doing push-ups, or while hanging from the ceiling or stooping under 50 pounds of Latex costuming, Dan is their man.

Moreover, he’s able to project dense texts cleanly and tellingly, over thunderous orchestrations, and to create fully dimensional characters. As Seth Brundle, he adroitly negotiated the transitions from nerd to lover to monster, from man obsessed to something not human; as DeRocher, he located the lonely vulnerability of a murderous brute.

Hearing him now in standard repertory, I was able to appreciate the warmth and amplitude of his tone, the excellence of his Italian, and the mastery of his dynamic shadings. Okulitch is quite simply a wonderful singer. Yet Alden’s staging is, in its way, no less demanding than those of The Fly or Dead Man, and I’m conscious of how much more accomplished — at everything — a young artist must be, in order to succeed these days.

Daniel Okulitch took time out from a punishing performance schedule to answer a few questions by e-mail.

Polymorphous: Okulitch, center, with his NYCO cast mates.
Clockwise from lower left: Joélle Harvey (Zerlina); Kelly Markgraf (Masetto); Gregory Turay (Don Ottavio); Keri Alkema (Donna Elvira); Stefania Dovhan (Donna Anna); Jason Hardy (Leporello)

Teresa Stratas likes to say that “Mozart is honey for the voice.” Safe to say she had more down-time between performances?

Ha. Yes, I suppose so. This first week has been a tiring one, with only one day off in between shows. While some may say, “It’s only Mozart,” it is still a big, long sing, a very physical show, emotionally demanding, and the level of vocal and dramatic commitment is taxing. That being said, singing Mozart properly is very, very healthy for the voice. In my career I have tried to balance the contemporary opera I do with Mozart, to keep me honest, to keep me healthy. All your problems are revealed in Mozart — the music is so exposed, so it’s a good way to test yourself.

We spoke briefly about the different colors your voice takes on in this music, as compared with the contemporary works I’ve heard you in. How much of the difference can be attributed to the musical language? To the English language? To the characters you portray? How do you find your sound in a score?

This is an interesting question. Singing contemporary operas in English is always a challenge vocally, since they are often angular, and even if not, the act of singing in English, in the style they often require, can seem like a different animal altogether than singing Mozart. In my growth as a singer, this is something I am working to unify more. I’m glad that in Giovanni you are hearing a wider range of colors, since I am trying to sing with a healthier, more full sound which allows the natural colors of my voice to come through. I am rarely thinking of particular vocal colors (with the exception of the Serenade, where I consciously do some straight tone and a much more intimate dynamic), but rather, the dramatic intention, and allowing that to “color” the voice. The trick, as always, is to not let the intensity of the drama rob one of your voice, which I find more difficult to do in contemporary operas, perhaps because of the immediate, visceral connection to the language.

As Joseph DeRocher, in Heggie’s Dead Man Walking
Fort Worth Opera, 2009

One reason writers (and stage directors) are drawn to Don Giovanni is that so much is open to interpretation. For example, in the libretto, the Don and other characters talk about his successes with women, yet in most productions, we see no evidence; likewise, we have only Donna Anna’s word that he forced himself on her. How do you see the character? If you were directing this piece, what would you emphasize about him?

Too often Giovanni is played in a rather one-dimensional way ... either as a complete brute and sociopath or a somewhat shallow Cavalier who is simply trying to have a good time in his own way, and is continually showing the audience how great it is to be the Don. Both are boring to me. In this production we allow moments where Giovanni is alone, or observing other characters, and there is a sense of inner conflict or regret, or fighting a growing sense of unease, which he then must chase away in the only way he knows how: pursuing sex and women and extreme sensation. There is humanity in Giovanni, even in his most despicable moments, that has to come out. Even the most amoral seducers have moments of insight or analysis or perhaps times of loneliness. As archetypal as he is, he is still a person with complex feelings, and I would try to direct (and play) him as such. The interesting part of Giovanni is not the façade, but what is underneath it. How much self-awareness he has is up for debate and varies from production to production, but no matter what, I am not interested in the typical “Good Ol’ Giovanni,” where everything on the page is taken literally.

Physique du rôle: With Jason Hardy as Leporello

The Alden production is yet another that relies on your physicality, whether you’re stripping to your shorts or dragging Jason Hardy around the stage. Does being in good shape give you an edge over other singers? What’s the downside — if any?

I ate a lot of gelato over the summer* so had to hit the gym again for this show. [Smile] Chris [Alden] warned me, so I had a little lead time. I can’t speak to whether being in shape gives me an edge. I don’t think it hurts to be in shape, no matter what, and it does allow for a certain directorial freedom by then knowing that I will be comfortable with taking my shirt off if it is called for. The downside can be that there are those who will say that I might be cast more on appearance than vocal ability, but I work hard, so that once I open my mouth to sing, it is hopefully clear that I am there on my vocal merits, as well.

A New York City Opera debut is a career milestone, and you’re appearing in a role that has an especially distinguished history with the company: Norman Treigle and Samuel Ramey are just two of NYCO’s revered Dons. At what point do you block out this kind of background noise?

One has to block out this noise, because it doesn’t serve me, my nerves or my performance to think on it. Ramey and Treigle are two of my idols, so I don’t dream of being considered in the same category as them. With a role such as Giovanni, it is inevitable that comparisons will be drawn to the great interpreters of the past. One can’t avoid it. My Giovanni is not the definitive one — no Giovanni is, since no one will ever come to a consensus on who was the “best.” I do my Giovanni my way, to the best of my ability at this time in my life, in this production. Some will love it, some will hate it. What more can I do?

Okulitch as Olin Blitch, in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah
Boheme Opera, 2006

How do the acoustics in the renovated theater seem to you? Is it a comfortable space in which to sing?

I really enjoy singing on this stage — we get a lot back from the house and I don’t feel we have to push. Our set is particularly kind, since the walls and floor reflect the sound out into the audience. So far, I think the renovations have been an improvement, and I believe there are more yet to come.

Where do you go from here?

Next I perform in Little Women** with Calgary Opera, then the title role in Le Nozze di Figaro in Vancouver, and finish out the season in St Louis as Willy Wonka in the world premiere of The Golden Ticket. I’ll open the 2010 season in LA with Figaro again, which I’ll repeat in Arizona, and have a few other things cooking which I won’t speak of just yet. [He concludes with another smile.]

Daniel Okulitch appears in Don Giovanni again on Friday, 20 November, and Sunday, 22 November (matinée).

*NOTES: Okulitch was singing the role of Theseus in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at La Scala. And avoiding gelato in Milan is like avoiding sausage in Germany: it cannot be done.

** In Mark Adamo’s opera, Okulitch sings the role of Professor Bhaer, whose Act II recitation of Goethe’s “Kennst du das Land” is a highlight of any performance, and a brilliant showcase for the singer.

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09 November 2009


Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is everything the book is not: overlong, talky, ugly, and dull. While I’m astonished that the movie received so many admiring reviews in the press, I’m not surprised that moviegoers have not (as yet) expressed disappointment by staging a riot or tearing down the theater, for this movie simply isn’t good enough to excite any kind of passions.

In general, the picture seems to have been created by that rare species, the American adult male who has spent too much time in psychotherapy, and Jonze and his collaborators indulge at length in the fantastical notion that the dysfunctions of the Wild Things — depicted here as a kind of family — will be of absorbing interest to others. Instead, the dialogue is painfully tedious.

This is a shame, because on most other levels, the Wild Things are beautifully realized: as cuddly as they are strange and menacing. If they had anything worth expressing, the Wild Things would certainly have the means, for they’ve got delicately nuanced CGI animation to bring emotion to their shaggy faces, and their voices are those of excellent actors: James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, and Lauren Ambrose. Gandolfini is given the lion’s share of the dialogue, but only O’Hara manages to create a character as dimensional as the costume from which it emanates.

Sendak’s book has limited plot, the better to let young readers project their own stories into the pictures; whereas movie audiences pretty much demand clearly constructed narrative. Jonze therefore couldn’t make the film that would have served the book best — an impressionistic collection of images. So be it, but I don’t understand why he surrendered so many of the best images in the book (especially the wonderful moment when Max’s bedroom is transformed into a forest). I do understand why he washed out the color in the scenes in the Land of the Wild Things: he wanted to make the images seem stranger. But without color, the images are also dull, in several senses. Jonze sabotaged what should have been his signal achievement.

Among the human actors, young Max Records is borderline pretty, which is all wrong for our hero, Max. And though at times he locates and exposes some profound emotional characterization, he’s frequently too self-conscious. During his rampages at the beginning of the film, for example, he keeps sneaking peeks at the camera. As his mother, Catherine Keener fills in whole chapters of back-story with a glance and a gesture, and her depiction of maternal love would be the best thing in the movie, if this were supposed to be a movie about mothers.

But it isn’t, of course. I now suspect that the several child-friends who have seen the picture were trying to protect adults like their parents and me when they described themselves as merely disappointed with Where the Wild Things Are. They wanted to let us down easy. We all grew up with the book. But for them the dream of Max’s long night is fresh and real, almost untouched by nostalgia — and nothing at all like this movie.

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08 November 2009

Una Voce Poco Fa

Co-stars at the Met: Proof that I’m not the biggest ass Joyce knows.

Though I’ve seen Rossini’s comedy The Barber of Seville many times, it’s never made me cry — until last night. I wasn’t bawling, mind you, but I got misty, and there’s no point trying to deny it. The question is why I reacted this way. Did the happy ending move me? (Maybe. On the other hand, it wasn’t exactly a surprise.) Am I simply in a weird mood, or excessively vulnerable these days? Or was I caught up in the excitement of seeing Joyce DiDonato at the freaking Metropolitan Opera at last?

“All of the above” is the correct answer, I expect.

Joyce looks on as Barry Banks, the World’s Most Dangerous Tenor,
performs impossible feats of daring.

After the show, Joyce remarked that people seemed grateful for the opportunity to laugh, and it did feel good, in a weekend saturated with bad news of all kinds, to kick back and watch the good guys outwit the bad guys. Joyce was in excellent company, including the tenor Barry Banks as Almaviva. Banks approaches his work with such intensity that in dramatic roles, he seems fully capable of throttling the soprano or setting fire to the theater; here, he could concentrate on being funny, and on luscious singing. I particularly liked his lesson scene and his “Ecco, ridente in cielo,” probably the sweetest I’ve ever heard.

Meanwhile, Joyce frolicked. Fully recovered from the leg she broke singing this very role at Covent Garden last summer, she bounded about the stage, scooting up and down a ladder while wearing a flowing gown, and she created a Rosina who’s young and ultra-feisty. It’s not often I have the feeling that a Rosina would bust out of Dr. Bartolo’s house even if Almaviva and Figaro didn’t come along, but Joyce’s character is a proactive protagonist, and great fun to spend time with. Musically, what struck me most was her shaping of rhythm, lending wit and excitement to even the most familiar passages. Really, she’s mastered this score so completely that now she can squeeze and stretch tempo as if it were a toy — Silly Putty, to be specific.

What’s more, Joyce looks so picture-book pretty in the costumes by Catherine Zuber and that tumbling mane of red curls that, somewhere, her Irish ancestors’ eyes are smiling, I’ll bet.

Joyce made her Met debut a few seasons ago, but this was my first opportunity to see her there. It’s a hell of a thing: you go to that famous house, this woman makes the chandeliers dance, and the crowds fall all over themselves to cheer her. And then you go backstage, and she’s still Joyce. Traipsing along after her is one of my life’s great pleasures, and I can hardly wait to see what she’ll do next.

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06 November 2009

New York City Opera’s American Voices

¡Por favor! ¡Toreador!
Joyce Castle and a few friends celebrate NYCO

New York City Opera is so much the “people’s opera” that it’s a bit strange to attend a really glitzy fund-raising event there. This thought occurred especially during the auction that concluded last night’s season-opening gala, “American Voices”: do City Opera fans really have enough cash to plunk down for a hunting vacation in Germany (hosted by members of the Bismarck family, no less)? Well, apparently some do, because the prize did not go begging, though most of us seemed to be sitting on our hands, for fear of being mistaken for bidders.

I don’t know how much money was raised, but the evening was a great morale-booster for the company, which has suffered from financial crises, homelessness, a blacked-out 2008–09 season, and a leadership vacuum in recent years. “American Voices” are indeed a traditional specialty at this populist institution, and — with ticket prices starting at $12 — we were treated to a parade of American singers, in American song.

Ramey (center): A tongue of flame

I was particularly moved by Samuel Ramey’s account of the revival scene, from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, an opera with a distinguished history here. (The great Norman Treigle, whose shoes Ramey was hired to fill in the 1970s, created the role of Olin Blitch for City Opera, at the work’s New York premiere.) Though his career is nearer now to its twilight than to its dawn, Ramey grew in confidence as the scene progressed. You could actually feel his growing awareness, as if he were waking to his own power. His voice, wobbling at the outset, swiftly found its secure placement, and his acting seethed with intensity. He was having a good night, and he ran with it — exhilarating for him as an artist and for us, his audience. In the pit to egg him on was Julius Rudel, 88 years old, the company’s former director and in many ways responsible for its enduring artistic vision.

City Opera’s reigning prima donna, soprano Lauren Flanigan, offered an aria from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, a great success for her here a couple of years ago. Alas, I didn’t get to see any of those performances, and the selection this evening (“Do not utter a word, Anatol”), divorced from its context, proved less than compelling. To a degree, this wasn’t a problem: Flanigan gave one of her trademark dramatic readings, and we ate it up, because this is her house and we’d love her if she sang nothing but “Mairzy Doats.” Hell, we even put up with Deborah Drattell’s work, just to hear this woman sing. But I can’t help wishing she’d chosen a stand-alone piece, something with a more festive mood, or a bigger dramatic gesture, or a more melodic sweep — or all of the above — which is to say, something more appropriate to the occasion.

Flanigan: We loved this dress, too.

Another beloved City Opera soprano, Amy Burton, did her best to inject interest into a blurry, repetitive, pretentious aria (in French) by pop star Rufus Wainwright, from his new opera, Prima Donna. Wainwright himself performed “That’s Entertainment!” — a fun contribution, but too fast and with insufficient point. Surely a man who writes lyrics ought to appreciate the importance of putting across lines like “Where a ghost and a prince meet / And ev’ryone winds up mincemeat,” but Wainwright failed us, and I was hard-pressed to explain to friends why I admire him.

A better tribute to City Opera’s crossover traditions came from the orchestra, under music director George Manahan, with a spirited arrangement of “New York, New York,” from Bernstein’s On the Town; and from Broadway’s Marc Kudisch, who acted up a storm in Carousel’s “Soliloquy.”

The Gang’s All Here: Manahan & NYCO Orchestra

Manahan and the orchestra were in wonderful form all night, as it happens. Over the years, the level of playing has risen so far, it’s almost a miracle, and so long as the musicians have received adequate rehearsal (as was abundantly the case this evening), you’re assured of a first-rate performance. The orchestra opened the concert with Stravinsky’s “Fanfare for a New Theatre,” followed closely by a companion piece, the world premiere of Peter Lieberson’s “Fanfare for New York City Opera.”

Several numbers at this performance were given over to young singers: the delectable Anna Christy sang “Blue-green beautiful chlorine” from William Bolcom’s A Wedding; sumptuous (and barefoot) Measha Brueggergosman gave us Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now”; and Talise Trevigne and Kelley O’Connor scorched the gold leaf off the walls with a duet from Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainamadar.

Not until the end of the evening, however, did the occasion become a real gala. First, mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle cavorted gleefully through “I Am Easily Assimilated,” from Bernstein’s Candide, a hallmark of her repertoire with this company and elsewhere. This was authentic star power, quickening every pulse in the room. Joyce clattered away on her castañets and hopped and shimmied through her tango, with most of the City Opera chorus to partner her. (You really need to see a close-up of her facial expression, so I’ve provided this inset. Has assimilation ever looked like more fun?)

Koch Classic: Our benefactor starts the show.
George Steel looks on, at left.

A tough act to follow, and it fell to that other Kansan mezzo named Joyce — DiDonato — to alter the mood and to send us out with another kind of uplift already. City Opera’s new general manager and artistic director, George Steel, selected her material: Bernstein again, “Take care of this house” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The song speaks of the White House, but in this context, it spoke of the “new” home of New York City Opera: the David H. Koch Theater, inaugurated with this very performance, that is both the same old New York State Theater we’ve always loved, and a completely new space, with an uncertain but possibly brilliant future before it. With caressing tenderness and unflinching conviction, Joyce offered the house a blessing, and we, her congregation, joined in.

According to Kara Lack, I am clearly visible in this photograph.
Can you spot me?

I’ve said it before: this company informed so many of my ideas about what opera could be, it presented so many memorable performances by so many great artists, it means so much to me. I don’t want to see New York City Opera fail, or even falter in its mission. (And it has one.) For these few hours, I felt good about the company, and I remain hopeful. That in itself is cause for celebration.

Much easier to spot me in this photo with Joyce DiDonato.
Really, the gala should have been called “American Joyces.”
Photo by Darren Keith Woods. Used with Permission

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02 November 2009

A Visit to the Set of TV’s ‘Heroes’

Be it known: I don’t deserve some of the opportunities that come my way. I am so far behind in my viewing of the television series Heroes, it’s embarrassing, particularly because my friend Nate Goodman is director of photography and — as of tonight’s episode — a director, period, of the show. There are mitigating circumstances to defend my tardiness, but the bottom line is that there are hundreds of people who really ought to visit the set during a shoot. Nevertheless, I’m the one who got to do it.

What follows are a few notes on my experience. But first, a spoiler alert: I was able to make out almost nothing of the plot, and not even the title, of the episode that was being shot. However, fans of the show are a very knowledgeable, serious bunch, who have already published a web biography of Nate; and since they surely can extrapolate all kinds of juicy details from my account, they may not wish to read further. I promise not to take that personally.

Hayden Panettiere: Boy, does the camera love her!

At the studio where Heroes is shot, it is a truth universally assumed that any visitor knows already where he is going. I was told to look for Nate in a building, where I wandered lonely as a cloud, until I forced a woman to tell me that the set was in another building entirely, and that Nate was most likely there, not here. “Look for a carnival,” she said, but I saw only an old-time diner and a few storefronts, in the middle of what Gansevoort Street looked like, back before Manhattan’s Meat-packing District got cleaned up.

So I made my way to an alley in Tokyo, where crewmembers were eating a late lunch. Plenty of signs here, but of course I don’t read Japanese.

Believe it or not, I found parking near here.

At last a young woman pretty much shoved me down another alley, just beyond Gansevoort Street, where I found what must be the narrowest carnival ground on record. I had seen last week’s episode, which featured scenes at the carnival, and so I marveled at the way Nate, the camera crew and director, and all the set and lighting crew had made this tiny space seem so large. Well, it turns out that there’s a full set for the carnival, at a remote location. The alleyway carnival is used primarily for more intimate scenes, like the lunch (or was it dinner?) among carnival employees (and visitors?), which Nate and episode director Ron Underwood were shooting as I arrived.

“Shooting” actually entails a series of lengthy discussions between Nate and Ron Underwood (a go-to guy for this sort of television production, his other credits include the film City Slickers), with input from camera operators and other members of the crew. “What if we put the camera here?” “What if we shot over her shoulder?” “What if we moved this here?” “Can we get between these two tables?”

Really, this debate/negotiation/brainstorming moves efficiently and with relative swiftness: these guys know what they’re doing, and they do it every day. But for those of us who aren’t involved in the conversation, the novelty wears off fast. Between one take and the next, I nodded off.

Oliveri: “Thaïs! Du Barry! Garbo! All rolled into one.”

Watching a monitor during the shooting, I was struck by the camera’s glamourizing effect. Hayden Panettiere, who plays Claire, is a perfectly nice-looking young woman, and yet I walked right past her and focused instead on Dawn Oliveri, the knockout who plays Lydia the Tattooed Lady.* When Panettiere is photographed, however, she becomes arrestingly beautiful, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her image on the monitor.

I worked in television for a very (excessively?) long time, yet one seldom gets to witness such transformations in television news. This may have something to do with the business: ostensibly, television newspeople present reality, not artistry. And so Connie Chung really is exquisitely beautiful on-camera and off. Yet I’ve seen often enough the interview subjects, and even reporters, who aren’t telegenic at all, whose features go flat and whose expressions are warped or wiped out on camera, no matter how well-informed or flatteringly lit they may be. Some people are just lucky.

David H. Lawrence XVII

Claire and Lydia talked about something, but I couldn’t quite hear the dialogue (and it’s to be doubted I’d have understood it anyway). Eric Doyle, as played by David H. Lawrence XVII, took in every word the women said, and punctuated the scene with a bite of cake that chilled the blood of pretty much everyone who saw him. Doyle has the “puppet master” ability, and he’s a fan favorite.

Once these two scenes were finished, the actors were released, and we turned our attentions to some visual effects being supervised by Eric Grenaudier. These scenes kept most of the crew busy, while Underwood and two actors rehearsed another scene. None of this was terribly interesting to me, and so I went off to explore the rest of the studio: random bits and pieces of places I couldn’t identify, as well as a big Japanese office, a cut-away carnival trailer, and the uncanny Burnt Toast Café. All the furnishings had been pushed about, as if this were moving day, yet every bottle of ketchup was full and every slice of pie as fresh as this morning’s baking.

Knepper as Samuel Sullivan

At last the actors were ready to walk through the next scene for the benefit of the crew, who watched and decided on camera angles and such. Since the scene took place in the New York apartment of Emma Coolidge (played by Deanne Bray), I felt at first as if I were arriving at a party — about 30 of us crammed into the space. Almost immediately, I felt as if I were eavesdropping on a private conversation, between Emma and Samuel Sullivan (played by Robert Knepper). As the actors went through the scene, a crewmember followed after with bits of masking tape, so that they’d be able to hit the same marks each time they ran through the scene. Bray is deaf, and so an interpreter accompanied the rehearsal; she signed Samuel’s lines (and Underwood’s direction) and spoke Emma’s dialogue. Presumably, her work will be replaced with subtitles in the filmed and edited scene as it appears on television.

Deanna Bray as Emma

Here, as on the diner set, I was impressed with the attention to detail in the set decoration. Emma Coolidge’s diplomas are framed on the wall of her apartment, for Pete’s sake, though I can hardly believe the camera will ever linger over them.

I couldn’t linger, as it happened, so I never got to see how Nate shot the scene in Emma’s apartment.

While I stayed on the set, the tension between unreality (shifting walls) and reality (minute details) grew to seem less and less like Alice’s Wonderland, and more like a workplace. One must get used to the oddities, until they become almost normal, and then one simply goes about one’s job. Indeed, the cast and crew struck me as impeccably professional. That may disappoint some readers, who hoped for scandal. Sorry, folks — I saw only an easy camaraderie among everyone on the Heroes set, matched by an unswerving determination to make each scene as strong as possible.

So that’s what Nate does when he goes to work in the morning — or the afternoon — or the pre-dawn darkness. Show business isn’t very glamorous at all, and yet the set is a nice place to visit. Would I want to live there?

Depends on my ability.

At the Burnt Toast: Panettiere with Thomas Dekker (Zach)

*NOTE: That name — “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” — isn’t an accident. Heroes finds points of reference in every kind of culture.

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01 November 2009

Marathon Man

In a 26-Mile Slog, a Shortcut Can Be Tempting
Last year, 71 runners in the New York City Marathon were disqualified for various violations of race rules — at least 46 of them for reducing the marathon to something less than 26.2 miles. An untold number of runners escape detection, marathon officials said. Surely some cheats will prosper among the 42,000 entered in Sunday’s race.
From the Times

Whew! Hang on — let me just — catch my breath! Whew! I mean — shoot, man! I just ran the New York City Marathon! Woo-hoo!

Hey, can I get one of those shiny blankets? The kind that only New York City Marathon runners are entitled to receive?

What do you mean, why aren’t I sweating?

And what do you mean, “How can you run the New York City Marathon when you’re 3,000 miles away?”

I don’t like your tone. I happen to be a very fast runner, I’ll have you know. I can run faster than my own sweat.

Yeah, baby!

Over here! Can I get some water? ’Cause I just ran the New York City Marathon! Yeah! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

What do you mean, where’s my number? Listen, just get away from me, all right?

I pity you, man. I really do. You’ll never know what it’s like to test your self — to push your endurance to the limit — to race not the clock but your own soul — for an entire 26 blocks in the heart of the greatest city on earth!

I told you. Get away from me.

Hey, Mister! I need to get me one of those pasta vouchers. Over here! Got to load on some carbs now, please! ’Cause I just ran the Marathon!

And maybe a shiny blanket?

Dang, I think my knee is about to give out.

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