24 November 2011

Perry Declines to Pardon Thanksgiving Turkey

AUSTIN — Citing the supremacy of the rule of law in the state of Texas, Gov. Rick Perry today refused to pardon Tom, a two-year-old broad-breasted white turkey cock, as part of a longstanding Thanksgiving holiday tradition.

"Ours is a society of laws," Perry said, "and it is only at our peril that we as a society show unwarranted mercy toward those lawbreakers who break the law and who have been found guilty by a jury of their peers in a court of law."

Tom was sentenced to die after a Texas jury found him guilty of strutting while intoxicated, aides to the Governor told reporters. A last-minute appeal was denied, leading to the eleventh-hour request for the Governor's clemency.

In another break with Thanksgiving tradition, Perry personally executed the turkey in question.

Other Republican governors in recent years have maintained slightly different positions regarding turkey pardons.

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‘Youth and Beauty’ at the Brooklyn Museum

Portrait of the Artist as a Beautiful Youth:
Paul Cadmus, as seen by Luigi Lucioni

Somewhere there exists an alternate United States, where, on the day after Thanksgiving, Americans throng not to shopping malls but to art museums. Well, it’s a nice thought, anyway.

If for some reason you’re inclined to do something besides shopping, a new-ish exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum is worth your attention. Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, curated by Teresa A. Carbone, finds quite a lot to bring together — and to say about — pieces the Museum owns already, as well as paintings, photographs, and sculpture from other collections. (Through 29 January 2012.)

We get an idea of what it meant to be “clean,” in the context of the times, and why the artists wanted to depict “clean” bodies, for example: it wasn’t only a version of Art Deco streamlining, the whiz of high-speed modernity, that they sought to capture, but also the antithesis of the ugliness and mess they’d seen in Europe during World War I.

We also get some of the first stirrings of an explicitly gay sensibility in American art, and quite a lot of the work in Youth and Beauty anticipates the Museum’s latest exhibition, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, a meditation on sexuality and gender in portraiture that opened last week (and running through 12 February 2012).*

Guy Pène du Bois’ People, one of the creepier images in the Youth and Beauty exhibition. I grew up on du Bois’ illustrations for children’s books, representative of the ways in which some of these artists were tamed, in a sense, later in life.

The portrait of Paul Cadmus by Luigi Lucioni is arrestingly beautiful in itself — and my desire to see it up close, instead of in a subway poster, is in fact what brought me to the Museum. But knowing that it’s not just any pretty boy but Paul Cadmus points you toward the boys in Cadmus’ own paintings, and the burgeoning sexuality in his work. Suddenly, you think that it may have been pretty easy, after all, for Cadmus to find models for even his most outrageous paintings.

The Youth and Beauty exhibition doesn’t have any of Cadmus’ work, but there are plenty of “liberated” bodies, freed of constraining clothing (in the early 1920s, even a woman’s form-fitting knit bathing suit would have made a bold fashion statement, Carbone’s notes remind us) and free in gesture, too, often captured in tumbled-together, almost orgiastic compositions. Such images hearken to Classicism but also to ultra-modern Madison Avenue advertising and cinema — and there’s a portrait of movie star Gloria Swanson to prove it.

We had faces: Swanson, as seen by Nickolas Murray, circa 1925.

A kind of eroticism pervades the landscapes and cityscapes, too. Architectural forms, especially, when “cleaned” of details, become more sensuous, weighted and shaded as if you could reach out and fondle them — and in a booming industrial society (or in the Great Depression that marks the end of this exhibition’s survey), the potency of a smokestack hardly need be explained.

Carbone’s texts link one artist to another, and also draw on the works of writers who were, one way or another, influential at the time: Sinclair Lewis, William Carlos Williams, Fitzgerald, and so on. I yearned to buy the exhibition catalogue, but even the paperback edition is expensive, and it’s in the nature of museum culture nowadays that it’s nearly impossible to replicate or record the experience more cheaply by purchasing postcards (the Brooklyn Museum gift shop has almost none from this exhibition). Our contemporary Depression has its own chilling effects, it would seem.

Aaron Douglas, Congo, circa 1928.
Somewhere in this group is a figure based on Josephine Baker.

I first set foot in the Brooklyn Museum a couple of decades ago, on a Saturday afternoon jaunt with friends, and didn’t return until Joyce Castle performed William Bolcom’s Hawthorn Tree there last autumn.** Each time I go, I vow to spend more time there: there are wonderful collections of all sorts of things, not merely accessible but friendly. Here, for example, is a collection of Egyptian antiquities of such proportions and display that I might at last get a clear sense of the meanings and movements of that art — if only I’d go back and spend an afternoon or two puttering around and studying!

I expect I will go back to see Hide/Seek (and to look again at Youth and Beauty) in the coming days, and since I’m to be Louvre-deprived for the near future, I hope to make the closer acquaintance of the treasures in Brooklyn.

Get used to it: Berenice Abbott’s portrait of writer Janet Flanner in the 1920s suggests the sitter’s sexuality. From Hide/Seek.

*NOTE: Hide/Seek is best known for the brouhaha it stirred last year at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, when an overhasty G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian, removed David Wojnarowicz’s short film A Fire in My Belly from the exhibition following complaints from some representative of the American Taliban.

**The Brooklyn Museum would be an absolutely brilliant setting for a performance of Statuesque, the marvelous little song cycle that Jake Heggie wrote for Joyce.

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23 November 2011

World’s Best Recipes for a Thanksgiving Feast

As close as most Frenchmen ever get to a turkey dinner.

The American holiday of Thanksgiving presents expatriates in France, as well as curious-minded French people, with a number of peculiar challenges: despite the fact that, with that modesty and lack of pretension that is so common to all French people, the French invented the American custom of Thanksgiving (complete with friendly native tribespeople), nowadays almost every bit of the tradition is completely alien to France.

Despite what some people will try to tell you, the difficulty of Thanksgiving to a Frenchman does not extend to saying “thank you,” since the French are, in general, far more polite than Americans, and they are even known to give thanks from time to time, especially when thinking how lucky they are not to be American. But try explaining Thanksgiving Day to the French — just try! The percentage of French people is minuscule who have heard of the holiday and can pronounce the name correctly: “Sahnx-geeveeng.”

The ingredients of a proper Thanksgiving feast are difficult, as well, to obtain in modern-day France. But by following these easy instructions, you, too, can prepare a typical, traditional meal, just like those that I like to prepare in my charming kitchen in the French countryside.

Roast Turkey

Part 1: Ordering the Turkey
  1. Turkey is one of the puzzles of French agriculture, like corn: something one sees growing everywhere, but one seldom sees in the grocery store. Therefore, you will have to go to the poultry vendor (volailler) at his independent shop, or at his stall at the town market.
  2. On or about November 1, inform the poulterer that you will be wanting to purchase a turkey, in time for the third Thursday of the month.
  3. Listen politely as the poulterer nods understandingly and tells you that turkeys make excellent guards and are guaranteed to make a racket whenever an intruder enters your yard; however, turkeys are less interesting as pets, and one must take extra care that they do not look up when it’s raining, due to the risk of drowning.
  4. Explain to the poulterer that, actually, you were planning to eat the turkey.
  5. Apologize to his wife when she comes running to see why her husband just fainted like that.
Suggested pairing: Cognac.

Part 2: Roasting the Turkey
  1. Find a large roasting pan.
  2. To achieve the correct flavor and consistency of an American turkey, shoot the bird full of hormones. If this is not possible, expect that your French turkey will have a very strong flavor — indeed, it will have flavor.
  3. Also, it may be tougher than you expect, due to its bizarre habit of walking around, which it does because it has space and a normally proportioned breast that doesn’t cause the entire bird to tip over every time it stands up.
  4. Rub the turkey with salt, pepper, herbs, and/or butter.
  5. Basting (arrosage) will be especially important. Among the ingredients that many Americans use to baste their birds are butter, whisky, maple syrup (sirop d’érables), and, of course, ketchup (cette sauce de merde).
  6. Preheat the oven to the 6 or 7 setting. You don’t know how hot this is, actually, but it’s hotter than usual, and after all, a turkey is a very large bird, so you figure a couple of extra degrees are a good idea.
  7. When you have begun to perspire profusely, the oven is hot; open the door and attempt to force the turkey in.
  8. Discover that your oven, like any oven in France, is in fact too small to roast a turkey.
  9. Chop up the turkey in to parts, hoping to get it to a size that would actually fit your oven.
  10. Even a drumstick is too big. Keep chopping.
  11. Remember how much your Gaz de France bill was last month, and at this point the oven has been on 6 or 7 for, what, two hours already?
  12. Make turkey soup instead.
Suggested pairing: The latest, trendiest Beaujolais Nouveau.

Cranberry Sauce
  1. Call or write to a friend in the United States.
  2. Ask your friend to send you a can of cranberry sauce, which is impossible to find in France.
  3. Pay extravagant duty fees when the package arrives at your local post office.
  4. Return home; open the can; serve.
  5. Contemplate the fact that this is probably the most expensive thing you’ll serve this year.
Suggested pairing: Coca-Cola.

Pumpkin Pie

Part 1: The Crust

Pumpkin pie is unusual among American pies, in that it does not feature a top crust. It looks comparatively like a French tarte. For hints, see my World’s Easiest Recipe for Tarte aux Fruits.

Part 2: The “Filling” (untranslatable)
  1. Look up the word for “pumpkin” (citrouille or potiron).
  2. Go to the supermarket. Notice that citrouilles and potirons are not sold whole, but only in slices.
  3. Buy as many slices as you think would make an entire pumpkin.
  4. Remove the rind and seeds; chop the pumpkin meat into chunks and stew them.
  5. Notice that this really doesn’t look right. Also, it doesn’t smell right.
  6. Taste.
  7. Make soup with it instead.
Suggested pairing: Pepsi-Cola or Root Beer.

  1. Despite the similarity in appearance and texture to chunks of pumpkin meat, yams or sweet potatoes (patates douces) are a traditional American side dish, prepared with enormous quantities of butter and brown sugar, and American children are typically required to finish at least one helping before they are allowed to eat dessert. Yams can be purchased only at African markets in France’s larger cities. Find one, and go to it.
  2. Try not to notice that the yams don’t look quite like the ones you used to get back in the States. Order a couple of kilos.
  3. Listen politely as the vendor tells you that, in many parts of the world, people eat sweet potatoes — and not only as a remedy for venereal disease, did you know that?
  4. Return to your charming kitchen. Peel and chop the yams.
  5. Boil for approximately 20 minutes, or until soft.
  6. Drain.
  7. Taste.
  8. Make soup instead.
  9. Salt, pepper. The herb tarragon is one popular seasoning.
  10. Serve piping hot, with miniature marshmallows.
Suggested pairing: Fanta Orange.

Green-Bean Casserole
  1. Nothing bespeaks America’s harvest bounty like the traditional green-bean casserole made entirely from canned goods!
  2. Open a can of green beans.
  3. Open a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup©, which you can actually find in the Exotic Foods department of many large French supermarkets.
  4. Open a can of fried onions, which will be markedly more difficult to find at the supermarket; if you can’t find fried onions, tried slivered almonds instead, though they will cost approximately 8 times as much as the other ingredients combined.
  5. Mix the green beans and the mushroom soup. Do not add salt, as the canned goods are already full of sodium.
  6. Pour the mixture into a baking dish.
  7. Sprinkle with the fried onions (or slivered almonds).
  8. Bake at thermostat 5, even though you don’t actually know how hot that is.
  9. Serve.
  10. Explain to your guests that many Americans think this is a French recipe.
Suggested pairing: Diet Coca-Cola.

Mashed Potatoes
  1. At last! An easy one! Not only is the recipe easy to follow and the ingredients easy to find, but also it’s a familiar and favorite dish throughout France. In fact, you’ll find that every Frenchman has his own special way of making mashed potatoes (purée de pommes de terre, which is smooth; or pommes de terre écrasées, literally “crushed potatoes,” which are chunkier).
  2. For a typical American Thanksgiving (6–8 servings), take 96 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks.
  3. Place in a pot and cover with cold water.
  4. Cover and bring to a boil.
  5. Boil until soft (usually under half an hour).
  6. Drain.
  7. Add milk, butter, seasonings.
  8. Mash, using one of those handy mashing tools you bought at Ikea last year. (Where did you put that thing, anyway?)
  9. Serve.
  10. Bury your face in the mashed potatoes and scream while the French people around your table blast you with vicious criticism for not making the purée correctly. What kind of barbarian are you, anyway?
Suggested pairing: More cognac.

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22 November 2011

The Lost Empires of Brian Kellow

Kiss kiss etc. etc.

My friend Brian Kellow’s biography of the New Yorker’s infamous film critic, Pauline Kael, is now on sale at bookstores near you — relative and archaic though that expression may be, in this day and age, but you can buy it on Amazon, too. Released on the occasion of Kael’s centenary, A Life in the Dark has elicited sensational reviews (including what I think is the first article Frank Rich has written for The New York Times since his inexplicable jump to New York Magazine), and Brian hardly needs me to add to the stack. I’ve read the book greedily — but also wistfully.

For what strikes me about this book and its predecessors, Ethel Merman: A Life, The Bennetts: An Acting Family, and Can’t Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell, is the pains Brian has taken to document worlds that no longer exist. Namely, a Broadway and a Hollywood where a particular kind of art was practiced by truly distinctive talents, and in Farrell’s case, a musical environment where an opera singer could not only appear regularly on television but also have her own radio program, singing whatever she pleased, including pop, without apology to anybody.

Now Brian has done it again, focusing on one of the great chroniclers of the last era when Hollywood made movies for grown-ups (instead of 14-year-old boys) — which is also an era when magazines mattered, and criticism counted. Since Brian and I met at Opera News, another venerable institution of a magazine, where both of us have on occasion written criticism, the example of Pauline Kael is poignant, perhaps as much so to him as she is to me.

Brian, in a photo by Nick Granito

A vast chunk of A Life in the Dark is given over to quoting from Kael’s reviews — with all manner of contextual material that a reader in 1975 (for instance) might have had fresh in her mind, but a reader in 2011 surely does not. And Brian does a terrific job of capturing the excited anticipation that greeted the arrival of each New Yorker in the mailbox: what would Pauline say this week? To kids like us, in the hinterlands, those reviews were like road maps to another world.

You couldn’t believe how long she’d go on, her stamina, her passion. She was bossy, telling you what you thought and felt, even when you hadn’t seen the picture, especially when you didn’t agree with her. She indulged a taste for films that I found (and still find) trashy and unworthy of my time, but she also had a way of digging into a great film and making it even clearer, until you could hardly think about a movie without also thinking of a particular phrase Kael used to describe it. Madeline Kahn had ample reason to be dismayed when Kael called her “a water bed at just the right temperature.”

In an era when it became hip to say “The personal is political,” it was true of Kael that the professional was personal, and you’re not quite surprised to see how little of A Life in the Dark is given over to conventional biographical accounts. Kael wasn’t conventional, and while she wasn’t quite correct when she said that she’d already written her autobiography — in the course of her movie reviews — there’s plenty about her private life that I didn’t know before Brian exposed it — when you’re reading her criticism, you get the feeling that nothing else matters, to her or to you.

A certain kind of journalistic accuracy seldom stood in the way of Kael’s oh-so-subjective passions, and she wielded an uncanny gift for matching intensely physical descriptions to the images she’d seen on a movie screen. In that sense, she’s not far from today’s bloggers and the current climate, wherein actual knowledge of an art form is by no means a requirement, where democracy has taken over and blurred any distinction between audience and critic, because indeed “everybody’s a critic” now.

But Kael was a guide — even when she was wrong, even when her tastes didn’t accord with yours, you needed her to help you find your way — even when that was an entirely opposite direction from Kael’s own. You talked about her reviews — “Did you see what she said?” — and you and your friends argued as if she were in the room with you to debate your opinions.* Granted, there was nobody else like her, even at the time, but there’s surely nobody like her now, and with the decline of magazine journalism, the chances of there ever being another Pauline Kael are practically nil.

Movies are simpler now, and more simple-minded; maybe we don’t need guides anymore. I find this deeply, deeply sad. With magazines, as with Broadway musicals and so much else, I often feel as if I arrived just a little too late to a marvelous party: it was breaking up already by the time I got here — which is just about when Brian got here, too.

Reading Brian's books is not in itself a melancholy experience, not least because, in his own way, Brian is playing at Proust’s game. He doesn’t mourn the past but recaptures it by recording its details, and there’s something joyful at times in the process. It’s only after closing the book that I sigh for empires glimpsed and lost.

*Sometimes you even started to sound like her.

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17 November 2011

Davies’ ‘Kommilitonen!’ at Juilliard

Revolutionary Children:
Heather Engebretson (seated) and Wallis Giunta (crouching)
learn a tough lesson.
(At far right, that’s Wei-Yang Andy Lin on the erhu.)
Photo by Nan Melville, courtesy of Juilliard.

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill wrote an opera for schoolchildren, the Lehrstück (Learning-piece) Der Jasager (He Who Says Yes, from 1930), but it doesn’t much resemble Kommilitonen!, the new work for somewhat older students by composer Peter Maxwell Davies and librettist/stage director David Pountney, given its American premiere at the Juilliard School on 16 November. (The title comes from a German word I’ve never before encountered, meaning “students” but suggesting the English word “tone” and the roots for “militancy” and “togetherness.”) Whereas Brecht and Weill steered away from specific political references and set their opera in a generic Storyland (vaguely Japanese, because based on Japanese source material), Davies and Pountney aim directly at three 20th-century tales of student activism in Jim Crow-era Mississippi, Nazi Germany, and Mao’s China.*

Davies and Pountney are pretty up-front about the debt to both Brecht and Weill, from the Verfremdungseffekt of Red Army officers portrayed as puppets who sing like the Andrews Sisters, to the ultra-Weillian scoring for brass and the recurring jazz rhythms. Really, it’s like Kurt Weill on acid. That there are other ways to write music for such stage works was proved conclusively during the German sections, where Weillian homage would ordinarily have seemed most appropriate yet is seldom heard.

The results, heard at the Juilliard premiere, are satisfactory more on musical (and, presumably, educational) grounds than as an exhortation to political action: when you’ve spent the entire evening steadfastly refusing to appeal to the emotions, you can’t expect to get a crowd fired up. This is a fundamental problem in many of Brecht’s plays, too (and, considering whom he was working for, thank goodness).

Try to keep your eye on the puppet. No, seriously, try.
(On the bright side, that’s JeongCheol Cha on your left,
providing the voice of the Father.)
Photo by Nan Melville, courtesy of Juilliard.

Pountney’s eminently singable libretto tells its three stories in interweaving episodes, rather than separating them (which, as Pountney points out, is Puccini’s approach in Trittico, and which he finds less “interesting” than his own) is scrupulously evenhanded in its targets: we get one oppressive society in America (as James Meredith attends Ole Miss), one right-wing (as Hans and Sophie Scholl’s Die Weiße Rose group opposes Hitler), and one left-wing (as regrettably generic characters watch their parents swept up in the Cultural Revolution).

The point, when we get to it (a luscious final chorale) is something about joining forces in order for freedom to prevail, yet Meredith is seen entirely alone for most of the opera, the Scholls don’t survive to see their viewpoint affirmed, and the Chinese children join the very forces that murdered their parents — they prevail by going with the flow, and they never do find freedom. Ultimately, I’m not sure the creative team picked the best examples for the ideas they wanted to depict, and while we in the audience may not get as much to think about as Pountney and Davies surely intended, we do get plenty of business to hold our attention.

Davies’ score pleasingly synthesizes a number of different styles and forms, but most especially the styles of jazz and the form of oratorio. Indeed, the Meredith sections are so much an oratorio, they feel dropped in from another work entirely, one that’s completely lacking dramatic action, reliant on Meredith (here, Will Liverman) to narrate the pertinent events. Paradoxically, just as you’re realizing the Meredith sections are never going to turn into drama, Davies and Pountney perpetrate a switcheroo, when the interrogation of the Scholl siblings is presented in the form of a Bach Passion, with an Evangelist (Noah Baetge) and an Inquisitor (Aubrey Allicock).**

Pountney’s staging erred significantly in one regard: an excess of scene changes. Given the utter simplicity of the scenic elements, and the ease and effectiveness of lighting and rear projections of photographic images (to say nothing of the cues in Davies’ score) to suggest a change of time and place, one has to wonder why anybody with Pountney’s vast experience fouled this up so badly: was it a Brecht-style attempt to take us out of the dramatic moment? Certainly Pountney has studied his Brechtian tricks thoroughly, as we could see in the use of projected titles (announcing, for example, “The March of the Revolutionary Children”), the makeup (unexplained Xs on the cast’s cheeks), and so on.

Verfremdung macht Spaß!
Meredith Lustig, Laura Mixter, and Rachael Wilson
as the Red Army’s answer to the Andrews Sisters.
Photo by Nan Melville, courtesy of Juilliard.

Pountney elicited strong performances from his youthful cast, notably including a kind of authority that few kids can command onstage or anywhere else. This was most evident in Liverman’s performance: it was hard to see how anyone would dare oppose this James Meredith, and when he told us that he slept soundly despite the violent protests outside his dorm room, we believed. But Allicock, Lacey Jo Benter (as the Chinese mother), and JeongCheol Cha (as the Chinese father) had authority in abundance, too.

As ever, I’m reluctant to get too specific about student performers, but I approved enthusiastically of everyone onstage, and the aforementioned, along with Wallis Giunta (in the trouser role of the Chinese son), Heather Engebretson (the Chinese daughter), and Deanna Breiwick (Sophie Scholl), impressed me especially. The last-named are all exceptionally attractive young ladies, too — but then, this is Juilliard, where “even the orchestra is beautiful,” as Joel Grey might say. (At least two of the young men in the stage ensemble looked like — and may be — Abercrombie models.)

Anne Manson led an assured, spirited reading of the score, by turns dissonant and lyrical though it is (and sometimes both at once). Even when she was called on to command an onstage band and chorus, plus soloists planted in the audience, not to mention those musicians still loitering in the pit, nothing seemed to faze her. I couldn’t ask for a fairer first hearing.

Carolyn Choa’s choreography kept the stage lively even at its most oratorio-esque. Far from intrusive, the dancing actually helped to cover some of those darned scene changes. Representing the Chinese parents, puppets from Blind Summit Theatre, on the contrary, were operated by all-too distracting puppeteers; the Chinese-officer puppets were more successful (very much along the lines of Blind Summit’s puppet King in Gotham Chamber Opera’s El Gato con Botas last season).

I admired Robert Innes Hopkins’ costume designs, which enabled ensemble members to transform from Mississippi redneck to Maoist Red Guard with ease; my only quibble was that the German women shouldn’t have worn trousers under their overcoats, a fashion lapse for which they could have been arrested by the Nazis. (Would it have been so difficult to roll up the pants legs?) Hopkins’ stark, evocative scenic elements were terrific, too, but for the fact that there were so many of them — which isn’t entirely his fault.

I daresay Kommilitonen! was a learning experience for just about everybody involved, including this writer. Whether the piece endures is another question — and yet, so long as young people keep marching in protest, I expect that this opera will never be strictly a museum piece, but a living testament.

Kommiltonen! will be presented at Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater on Friday, 18 November, at 8 PM, and on Sunday, 20 November at 2 PM.
For further information, call 1 (212) 769-7406
Or visit Juilliard’s website.

*NOTE: The political dimensions of the new opera must have taken on extra relevance during the rehearsal period, as the Occupy Wall Street movement grew in influence (and manifested across the street from Juilliard on opening night), and as the so-called forces of order began to crack down in various, predictably ill-advised ways. (Who knew that “Bloomberg” was the Yiddish word for “Mubarak Lite”?)

** I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that the Scholls — however admirable, prophetic, and martyred — were somehow Christ figures, but the authors dodge that logical conclusion by denying the student activists the response that Bach surely would have given to Jesus. Alas, this meant less for Alexander Hajek (as Hans Scholl) to do — but on the other hand, he can’t sing Gianni Schicchi every day, can he?

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16 November 2011

Muhly’s ‘Dark Sisters,’ at Last

Sisterwives: Jennifer Zetlan (Zina), Margaret Lattimore (Presendia), Caitlin Lynch (Eliza), Jennifer Check (Almera), Eve Gigliotti (Ruth).
This and all photos by Richard Termine.

Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters was given its world premiere last Friday night by Gotham Chamber Opera, one of three organizations that commissioned the new opera. (The others are Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Music-Theatre Group.) Having heard a preview in September already, I attended the performance Tuesday night.

Very often, when one talks with composers or reads an interview, one finds oneself wondering why these artists have landed upon this particular form as a vehicle for their expression: you don’t always sense an affinity for opera itself. That’s not the case with Nico Muhly, I’m pleased to say, and I cite as an example something he said in his quasi-cabaret act with Gotham musicians last month. At one point in Dark Sisters, he said, he set out to write the world’s slowest mad scene.

What I understood — and what the score of Dark Sisters confirms — is that Nico Muhly wanted to write a mad scene. Something that is instantly associated and inextricably embedded in one specific art form. Namely, opera. Yes, the guy is in the right business.

Gigliotti, in Ruth’s mad scene

And the proof lies in that very mad scene. Muhly and his librettist, Stephen Karam, have created a lovely piece of music, inventively staged by Rebecca Taichman. The scene is also a star turn for Eve Gigliotti, whose portrayal of hapless Ruth glides seamlessly from comic relief in Act I to aching despair in Act II, culminating here in a moment of the most fragile beauty.

In other sections of the score, composer and librettist do betray their inexperience: Act I sorely lacks momentum until a few minutes before the curtain, when a plot point is shoved in hurriedly. It’s as if the guys suddenly looked up, saw what time it was, and realized they’d better get busy. It’s all well and good to devote a chunk of your opera to leisurely exposition and character development, but these things aren’t dramatic — and to be honest, Act I is too often not merely static but quite dull.

I’m not sure how this is possible, given that Dark Sisters (despite the misleading title, which makes you think it’s about witches*) is a ripped-from-the-headlines drama set among a fundamentalist, polygamous Mormon family whose children have been seized (just before the opera begins) in a police raid. Conflicts that have simmered below the surface (rivalries among the five wives for the affections of their shared husband, the Prophet; rebellion against his authority; the struggles of mothers to recover and to protect their children) now bubble up. Or anyway, you expect them to, but Act I only begins to fulfill that promise.

Things perk up substantially in Act II, beginning with a culture clash, as the wives appear on a TV talk show (a more sensational sort of Nightline), moving swiftly to our heroine’s flight, the aforementioned mad scene, and a poignant farewell. Here was the best evidence of Muhly and Karam’s strengths, with suspense, comedy and pathos operating brilliantly in the service of real drama.

Even so, Muhly has written only a few (at most) of the kinds of big, gutsy outbursts that I need in an opera, and it’s telling that Dark Sisters ends not with a flourish, a fanfare, and a transfiguration but with a wistful tinkling and a blackout. I daresay he can cite for me 743 important philosophical reasons he chose not to write bigger moments — but the bottom line is that I heard the score twice and I wasn’t satisfied emotionally.

Brash, brilliant, and scarily articulate, Muhly seems like the last person you could ever accuse of timidity. But listening to some passages of Dark Sisters, I fantasized that Marilyn Horne might step out of the wings, take Muhly by the shoulders, and say to him, as she says to singers, that he needs to be bigger, to step up to the spotlight: “This is the glory of your voice! Now you’ve got to let ’er out. Not everybody has that.”

That said, this remains a gorgeous score, full of interest, lyricism, and character, and it’s substantially more promising than many another composer’s second opera. Compare Muhly’s Dark Sisters with Puccini’s Edgar, and you can be excused for predicting that Muhly will turn out to be the most important — and popular — composer of opera in the 21st century.

And now the latest news.
Kevin Burdette as King, the anchorman.

In the pit, Neal Goren celebrated his company’s tenth anniversary by leading a shimmering, open-hearted account of Muhly’s score, evoking by turns wide-open horizons, starlight on rippling waters, and daggers straight to the heart. Among the pleasures of the performance was the opportunity to salute Gotham Chamber Opera’s progress to a theater with good acoustics: the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College is a far cry from Gotham’s birthplace, the Harry De Jur Playhouse auditorium at the Henry Street Settlement.

What surely and mercifully hasn’t changed about Goren’s work with the company is excellence in casting. As Eliza, the rebellious wife, soprano Caitlin Lynch made it impossible to take your eyes off her, turning in an affecting, thoroughly credible characterization while singing in a limpid soprano voice with all the naturalness and immediacy of speech. She seems to be — she must be — poised for an important career.

As Ruth’s sister, mezzo Margaret Lattimore impressed me even more on second hearing, and I admired especially her subtle means of conveying Presendia’s efforts to assert her authority over the other women — and herself. Her principal rival is the young, hugely pregnant Zina, given a glittering portrayal by Jennifer Zetlan, pretty and bright but also as hard as gemstones.

The always-appealing Jennifer Check registered strongly in an emotional Act I aria, remembering Almera’s mother and grandmother, but I was impressed just as much by the delicacy of her acting, the flicker of distant desires across her face as she merely listened to the others. Kristina Bachrach sang Lucinda, Eliza’s 16-year-old daughter, with a beautifully placed instrument and a physical presence that conveyed the haste with which Lucinda is pressed into grownup life.

Kevin Burdette, a Gotham stalwart most recently heard as the Ogre in El Gato con Botas, gave the score a resonant foundation — its only male voice, and a basso at that — as the rigid, implacable Prophet. Burdette excels in sly character comedy based on careful observation, and he exulted in a second role, that of the TV host, called King, a cross between Ted Koppel and Maury Povich.

Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer’s video design hoisted the interview scene, using not only clips of real-life polygamous families under the news camera’s glare but also focusing on and enlarging the performers onstage: it’s thanks to them that I could appreciate Gilgiotti’s expressions of ecstatic anguish as she listened silently to Eliza’s outburst during that interview. Warner also designed the set, a barren plain of red earth (actually, carpeting) against a stark blue sky; a center section rose to evoke a cliff or a marital bed, then sank to suggest a grave.

Stage director Taichman shone most brightly in the utter clarity of the character relationships and her sureness in dramatizing a series of situations that are alien to most of her audience. Even the most extreme moments seemed recognizable and true; I’d love to see what she does with a standard-rep work.

Quite apart from the details of the performance, Dark Sisters offered, as I say, a terrific way to celebrate Gotham’s anniversary. Plenty of New Yorkers have tried to start opera companies, without surviving ten years; Gotham Chamber Opera is still going strong, partnering with other organizations and exciting artists in every field, exposing me to new ideas and unheard songs, giving me pleasure — and plenty to buzz about.

Did I mention that Stephen Sondheim was in the audience Tuesday night?

A star is born: Caitlin Lynch

Dark Sisters
Gotham Chamber Opera
Remaining Performance: Saturday, 19 November, 8:00 PM
For ticket information, click here.

For information on upcoming performances (June 2012) with Opera Company of Philadelphia, click here.

*NOTE: Compounding the title’s problems was the premiere, just two weeks after Halloween.

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13 November 2011

Ignatius Revisited, or Toole’s ‘Confederacy of Dunces’

Canal Street, where our tale begins

John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Confederacy of Dunces enjoys a sterling critical and popular reputation, yet to this reader its success has seemed more corrective than deserved: unable to find a publisher for the novel, Toole committed suicide in 1969, and only when his grieving mother stalked another, more famous (and vastly superior) Louisiana novelist, Walker Percy, did the book see the light of day, in 1980. Suddenly we discovered an overlooked masterpiece — or so I was told.

Percy’s imprimatur was all I needed to seek out Confederacy, but I couldn’t get very far in my reading: the quirks and comedy struck me as painfully labored (the very criticism my own attempts at humor most often elicited), with little else to support them, and I set the book aside, picking it up from time to time, as if to see whether the prose had somehow changed in the intervals.

John Kennedy Toole

What did change was Confederacy’s reputation: the book has gone from succès d’estime to sacred writ, a Bible of lunacy and a manifesto of defiant eccentricity, in the eyes of many readers I admire. Not having read Confederacy meant missing out on a good joke — or so it seemed. And so I returned to its pages yet again.

Having finished the book, three decades after I bought it, I am still more bemused than amused. I can understand why so many people take Confederacy’s protagonist, the gargantuan Ignatius J. Reilly, to heart. But I can understand, too, why nobody wanted to publish the book in the first place.

That Confederacy languished so long in obscurity isn’t the fault of Robert Gottlieb, the noted editor who tried to help Toole whip the manuscript into shape at Random House but surrendered at last, complaining that the book lacked a point. Pace, Mr. Gottlieb, but that assessment isn’t entirely accurate. The picaresque plot ably reflects Ignatius’ favored philosophy: that chance (or, as Ignatius would put it, Fortuna) rules our lives. A single, apparently random incident brings together all the major characters, creating or revealing connections, and it drives the rest of the story. Plenty of novels succeed with less point than that.

The rest is character study and local color, but the book is like Ignatius himself, shapeless and often overbearing. Some characters, notably the pants-magnate’s wife, Mrs. Levy, are so exaggerated that they’re no longer plausible and therefore not terribly funny, much less interesting. While several of the characters, notably Ignatius’ mother and her sidekick, Santa Battaglia, grace the pages with comic dialogue in exquisitely rendered local accents, Ignatius himself is lingered upon well past the point of our “getting” him, and this reader, at least, couldn’t hear Ignatius’ speech in any recognizable way, though I’ve known a fair number of people who resembled him.

Doris Day, Ignatius’ favorite movie star.
She’s never identified by name in the book, but who else could it be?

Ignatius is a fine character, yes, and he’s surely the reason for Confederacy’s enduring appeal. But Toole gorges us on him, with no more restraint than Ignatius shows for hot dogs and Doris Day movies. Ignatius careens from one marginal New Orleans community to another, ever on the lookout for his own apotheosis, but his debacles are disappointingly small-scale, and the reader has to wait a long, long time before getting any sense that this character will develop or even move forward; my patience wore thin, as it has done every time I picked up the book.

On the Internet, where everything is true, one learns that Toole’s friend, a college professor named Bob Byrne, inspired many of Ignatius’ principal attributes, yet at this remove I’m inclined to see a great deal of autobiography in him: an intellectual not quite so clever as he imagines, a mama’s boy, a failed writer, monstrously egocentric, neurotically sheltered both in his mother’s home and in medieval philosophy, hopelessly and yet defiantly out of step with his times. (And when I say “autobiography,” I mean both Toole’s and my own. I feel quite sure that Ignatius is destined to become an opera fan.)*

If no one wanted to publish A Confederacy of Dunces in Toole’s lifetime, it’s because the book is a mess — still to this day, though it’s unpopular to say so. Ultimately, the book required an extra backstory — the mother’s crusade and Percy’s intervention — to take off. To the extent that Toole achieves something epic and admirable in Ignatius’ louche grandeur, the book’s subsequent success is easy enough to understand. Readers turn to Ignatius as a validation or an excuse, if not quite a justification, for their own foibles.

In his introduction to the novel, Percy does Toole no favors in comparing Ignatius to Quixote, for Cervantes (to say nothing of Rabelais) did this sort of thing much better. But who reads them anymore? For modern readers, Ignatius strikes home. He’s the patron saint of excess — and Toole is his most fervent acolyte.

Let us drink to the lees, as Ignatius would have us do.

*NOTE: That said, there’s an aspect less than benign to this story, innocent though it may have seemed when Toole began writing it. After all, at the very moment when Ignatius and his intellectual delusions and political pretensions are prowling the streets of the French Quarter, so was Lee Harvey Oswald.

(This is not to suggest, however, that I identify with Oswald.)

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11 November 2011

If Sally from Sondheim’s ‘Follies’ Had a Sassy Gay Friend

Brian Gallivan, the creator of the Sassy Gay Friend

It’s hard to imagine that Sally Durant Plummer doesn’t have a Sassy Gay Friend. After all, she’s the main character in Follies, a cult musical by Stephen Sondheim. And she’s been portrayed by iconic divas like Bernadette Peters (in the current Broadway revival) and Barbara Cook. Sally should be positively swarming with gay friends.

But she doesn’t have one. How else to explain Sally’s behavior? (Or that dress?) Clearly, she needs a Sassy Gay Friend — just like the popular Second City character-turned-pitchman — to set her straight, just the way he’s done for so many heroines of Shakespeare.

In Follies, the scene might go something like this.

Bernadette as Sally on Broadway

SALLY and BEN: How many mornings
Are there still to come!
How much time can we hope that there will be?
Not much time, but it's time enough for me —

SASSY GAY FRIEND: Stop it, stop it, stop it! What are you doing?

SALLY: Why, I’m staking everything on a chance at late-life happiness with Ben!

BEN: That’s right.

SASSY: I’m not talking to you — you already have a Sassy Gay Friend!

BEN: I do??

SASSY: Have you taken a good look at your wife lately? She’s like me in a dress. But back to you, Sally. How does your husband feel about your running away with Ben?

SALLY: He’ll just have to understand. Buddy always understands everything. (She stifles a yawn.)

SASSY: Right. Which is why it’s such a good idea to leave him, I guess.

SALLY: Well —

Bernadette with Ron Raines as Ben

SASSY: This isn’t the first time you and Ben were going to run off together, is it?

SALLY: Why, no. Thirty years ago, we were going to get married.

SASSY: Mm-hmmm. And how’d that work out for you?

SALLY: Uh … Ben threw me over for Phyllis.

SASSY: And what’s changed since the last time you and Ben saw each other?

SALLY: Why — I’m much wiser and more mature, now that I’ve spent 30 years sitting on my ass in the suburbs!

SASSY: Which naturally means you still have the figure of a 19-year-old showgirl?

SALLY: Er — well —

SASSY: Unless of course you’re Bernadette, in which case we’ll just suspend our disbelief for a couple of hours now, shall we?

BEN: I think Sally looks just fine.

SASSY: Don’t make me hurt you, Ben. Now Sally, tell me how you spend your mornings.

SALLY: Well, sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor, not going left, not going right.

SASSY: That’s because you’re depressed, girlfriend!

SALLY: I am?

SASSY: Trying putting Prozac in that coffee cup, sister!

SALLY: Mmm! It’s much tastier than Sweet’n’Low!

SASSY: Meanwhile, back to you, Ben. You’re not really going to leave Phyllis, are you?

BEN (humming thoughtfully): Leave her? Leave her? How could I leave her? Uh — maybe for a couple of nights.

SASSY: Sally’s talking about forever, Ben!

BEN: But that would be the end of my political career!

SALLY (as the Prozac takes effect): You’re really not very nice, Ben, are you? And to think I might have left the most patient, adorable husband in the history of Broadway musical comedy — I jeopardized the happiness of four people — just for a manipulative blowhard like you! What was I thinking?

SASSY: Say it with me, Sally. You were a stupid bitch.

SALLY: Ha! I was a stupid bitch!

SASSY: But not anymore! Now, you’re —

SALLY: I — I’m here?

SASSY: Say it!

SALLY (sings): I’ve run the gamut, A to Z
Three cheers and dammit, c’est la vie!
I got through all of last year, and I’m here.
Lord knows at least I was there, and I’m here!
Look who’s here!
I’m still here!

SASSY (aside, while SALLY brings down the house): And remember, folks, we owe it all to Prozac! It’s like MiO© liquid beverage enhancer with a prescription-strength kick!


Yes, if only Sally had a Sassy Gay Friend, or Prozac,
she might look very much like this:
Elaine Paige as Carlotta

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09 November 2011

Paterno to Retire from Football, Run for Pope

In nomine Patris

His long record tarnished by a growing child-abuse scandal and accusations of a high-level cover-up, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno has announced plans to retire at the end of this season. His next step, sources say, will be a bid to be named Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.

“Joe believes that his experience — especially his most recent experience — is exactly what the Church needs,” said one friend. “He’s the right man with the right skills for the job.”

He knows from Hail Mary Passes.

In an unrelated development, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain has announced his willingness to accept the post of Prime Minister of Italy, following Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation, which is expected to be announced this week.

Bunga bunga

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08 November 2011


In front of her old house — the new one is fancier.
Goliad, Texas, 1983.
Photo by WVM of a photo by WVM
*Retouched by Linc Madison*

It’s not so much a surprise that she has died — she was 92, after all — as the surprise of discovering she’s not there. Is it a coincidence that I woke with a start this morning, just as she died? I’ve known Elizabeth Pullam for longer than I’ve known anyone else. She started working for my family 74 years ago, when my mother was barely a year old, and she stopped — well, I guess she won’t be coming around on Friday morning.

She really didn’t want to stop. She was stubborn about it, and it’s only quite recently that my mother and aunt have been able to persuade her to join a party instead of serving. Bessie was old-fashioned in many ways, and her estimation of her place in society wasn’t exactly revolutionary. It took no less an occasion than the Bicentennial to compel her to sit down to a meal with me and my family; we had to wait decades before she’d do it again.

Bessie in 2006, with WVM and a platter of her famous fried chicken.
Photo by Letitia Robinson Barnhill

I call her my grandmother’s “housekeeper,” but the job description used by most people in Goliad is simply “maid.” She was valedictorian of her high-school class, and in another generation, she might have excelled in any of a number of careers. But she was who she was, in her own place and time, and the work she had, sustained her.

She’s always been there, more reliable than Minute Rice. I can’t imagine, much less remember, a world without her, and indeed one of my earliest memories is of Bessie. Yet it is, in its way, a memory of her absence.

Bessie and little David Dye, just as she and I used to walk.
Photo by Travis Dye

I had come to my grandparents’ house, not the one I knew best and longest, where my parents live today, but the old house. Bessie wasn’t there, and my grandmother and I went “looking” for her. Where might she be hiding? It was a game, I guess, because I remember looking in the coffee pot. (Bessie was little, but she wasn’t that little.)

Other memories of her run together, because they changed so little over 50 years. Bessie in the kitchen: singing hymns, frying chicken, baking squash. She took pleasure in cooking my favorite foods, she said, because I appreciated them. How could I not?

Bessie at the dinner table: telling me to mind my manners, to sit up straight (“Do you want to turn out like Julius Caesar?”), to use the right fork. Bessie around the house: grumbling over my haircut or some other accident of contemporary society.

Sometimes I’d sit with her in the kitchen and watch her as she cooked. As a boy I was interested simply because it’s interesting to watch anybody make anything; as a man I tried (I admit it) to pick up her secrets and take them back to my own kitchen.

Scenes from a Childhood
“Animal Crackers,” from The Bumper Book
, 1952.
Illustrations by Eulalie

We’d talk while she worked, but she didn’t give away much about her own life (a discretion I intend to reflect here, as well). She asked about my life, and she took perhaps a greater interest in my girlfriends than I did. Years after I’d forgotten my second-grade crush, a girl named Anna Knott, Bessie remembered.

Sometimes I followed her around the house as she worked. Making a bed is easier with two people, she explained, and perhaps for that reason I don’t make my own bed very often. She had a way of smoothing the sheets that seemed symbolic, epic, as if she were wiping away our cares, too. And she didn’t so much clean things as arrange them more attractively: a stack here, a heap there. The place was tidier when she left it than it was before she got there, anyway. That’s how I clean house, too.

This year, there’s been a lot of talk about a movie, and the book on which it’s based, called The Help. I haven’t felt the necessity to try either, because in a sense I know the story already: I grew up with Bessie. The things I don’t know about her, I won’t learn from people who never met her.

And there are things I still don’t know. Only today, for example, did I learn that her first name was Charity.

Stories sounded better when Bessie read them.
“The Wee Kitten Who Sucked Her Thumb,” from The Bumper Book.

She’s helped to rear four generations of my family; she loved children, and we loved her. I can still hear the stories she read to me at night, and I can feel the washcloth she applied — firmly but not violently — to my little arms at bath time.

But she was good with older folks, too, and she nursed both my grandparents steadfastly. When illness made my grandfather (never an easy person) more difficult than ever, she bore his snaps and tirades — though she made a point of telling the rest of us that she did so only because she “knew he was sick and didn’t mean it.”

I understood the warning she meant to convey: Heaven forbid anybody else might speak to her that way!

She composed a song for me, a lullaby she sang when I was a tiny baby and often enough after. I had the satisfaction of hearing her sing it to my godson once, too: “You’re my friend, Bill, you’re my friend. / You’re my friend, Bill, ‘till the end.”

I can’t sing for her now, though I’m sure she’d be listening. So please allow Miss Mahalia Jackson to answer for me.


Here’s another rendition of the same song from Mahalia Jackson — I hesitated to post it with the entry, primarily because Bessie would never have let Miss Jackson go out looking like this. (“Fix your hair! Put on a nicer dress! Do you want Louis Armstrong to see you like that?”) But the power of her song is what I need right now, and you may need it, too.

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