30 December 2012

Fencers Make Good Neighbors

Tenor Matthew Polenzani: Unfazed by a foil.

There’s no swordplay in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, but two of the leads in the Metropolitan Opera’s first production of the work — opening New Year’s Eve — have crossed swords before. As Romeo and Tybalt in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Joyce DiDonato and Matthew Polenzani engaged in a bit of derring-do that inspired me to write the following article for OPERA NEWS three years ago — only to discover that the most unkindest cut of all is that which comes from editors with space limitations. So, for those who wonder how singers manage stage combat, I present the article in full.
We’ve seen it all before. The tenor and the baritone can tolerate no more. As tempers flare and voices rise, swords are drawn. And then — nothing. Two or three whacks, and they run off in opposite directions. You’ve seen more convincing swordfights on the playground.

Stage combat, especially swordplay, is one of the most frequently disappointing features of opera, and yet it seems churlish to mention it. After all, singers already meet the challenges of musicianship and acting, sometimes waltzing, too. Now we’re asking for another skill?

But swordplay is a fact of life in Opera World. As tenor Matthew Polenzani puts it, “Certain pieces in the repertory lend themselves to this sort of thing. And that’s the sort of thing I sing.” He estimates that he’s called on to parry and thrust in “a third to a half” of the operas he performs, including Lucia di Lammermoor, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, and much of Mozart. “Even in something like Don Giovanni,” he says, “I have occasionally crossed swords with Giovanni.”

I had the chance to see Polenzani’s swordsmanship in action in Robert Carsen’s production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi at Paris Opera, in 2008. Surrounded not only by a team of non-singing professional fencers but also by mezzo Joyce DiDonato (swashbuckling up a storm as Romeo — really, she may have enjoyed that sword too much), Polenzani sounded gorgeous yet seemed less than fully at ease with his épée. Why would he be, I wondered, when he’s got so much else to do in this opera? I set out to talk to him about the conflicting challenges of singing and swordplay, and it turns out that he’s unfazed by a foil.

Matthew Polenzani and Joyce DiDonato rehearse
Maria Stuarda at the Met.

“Growing up and in young-artist programs — even when you’re singing in choruses — there are big fight scenes,” he says. “You grow up doing it. You have to learn how, how to be safe, how to thrust a sword at somebody to make it look, from an audience standpoint, as if you’re jabbing at their heart, though you’re really jabbing at the upper left arm.

“If you’re doing an overhand smash,” Polenzani continues, almost as if he were giving me a lesson over the telephone, “you can do it from the outside shoulder, but from the audience point of view, it looks like it’s going to land on the head. You can keep your colleagues safe and at the same time lend an air of verisimilitude to the proceedings.”

Verisimilitude is the key, the same goal that drives the vast majority of today’s singers to hone their acting abilities and to watch their figures. In generations past, audiences probably didn’t care whether Enrico Caruso or Jussi Bjoerling could handle a rapier, or whether they looked and acted plausibly heroic. Today’s audiences demand realism. “And a sword helps you identify with your character,” Polenzani insists.

“Character is a huge part of what we do,” he explains. “I suppose if you’re not as interested in the people that you’re playing, [swordplay] could seem like a pain, but you have to deal with it because it’s part and parcel with this genre of opera. It can be a little scary, but it’s fun to do. Anger is one of those emotions that is very easy to tap into, and so it helps you feel more like you are really the person who is singing. This is always the battle anyway, just to try and be as much Romeo or as much Edgardo or as much Tebaldo as you possibly can be, so that the audience, their belief is completely suspended. I love doing it!”

Polenzani began to study stage combat while at the Yale School of Music, one of a number of American conservatories and artist programs that now see fight choreography as an important part of a young singer’s training. “We were taking lessons in how to move our feet,” the tenor recalls, “and how to roll, how to hit the ground, all those things, not just with swords. So you can make a wrestling-match look real, how to throw a punch, how to slap somebody and make a sound but not hurt them.”

A fight choreographer and stage director, Dale Girard says most singers don’t have fight training; however, he adds, the same is true of actors in spoken theater. “I’ll show up for a production of Three Musketeers in a theater company,” he says, “and find that most of the people who are in a swordfight have limited training. I also find in opera, some singers have had no training, some have had some training. It’s kind of a crapshoot.”

Dale Girard with students at the University of North Carolina
School of the Arts.

Girard has worked at the Met (“They have a phenomenal armory”) on its latest production of Roméo et Juliette and at regional companies from Vancouver to Fort Worth. As a teacher, he’s worked with young-artist programs, at Yale (where Polenzani was his student) and the Hart School, and he’s now Director of Stage Combat Studies at North Carolina School of the Arts. (What’s more, he does stuntwork for films.) He has an advantage when it comes to opera, he says, because on one of those Roméos, he wound up marrying the Stéphano, mezzo Jeanine Hawley.

“Opera singers are usually really gung-ho,” Girard says, “because they want the show to rock and roll. They want a strong dramatic presentation, as well — they got into [opera] because they love it. You’re trying to make it look good, to let the music tell the story and make sure they’re ready to sing at the end of the piece. Don José and Carmen have to fight, Donna Anna and Don Giovanni have to fight, and still be able to sing…. If you’re doing Shakespeare, they don’t care if you’re out of breath at the end of the fight. In fact, a lot of those scenes have fractured prose at the end, to indicate that you’re out of breath. You can wind an actor in theater, but in opera, they need to act winded.”

While Polenzani reminds me that composers typically avoid requiring an artist to sing and fight simultaneously, Girard identifies other important challenges in effective fight choreography for opera. “So many of the things that happen in a fight are preconditioned responses,” Girard says. “Physical activity, especially in the States or Western culture, is usually accompanied by tension. You go into the gym, and they’re groaning, trashing their voices to help them lift — but your vocal cords will not help you lift more weight!

“If you rehearse the breath, work with the artist to make sure they are vocally free and tension isn’t being practiced — a lot of the time, you’re unaware that you’re clenching, if you’re not phonating. That’s just not productive. So if we can address that early, and make sure that the fight — it could be completely safe and no one gets hurt, and you could still damage the voice. Knowing that from the beginning, rehearsing it and checking with the singers, helps avoid the problem,” Girard says, adding, “You have years of conditioning to tense up in physical activity.”

However, he finds that singers, more than actors, possess a “kinesthetic awareness. Their ability to sense and manipulate their vocal instrument translates into the ability to use their bodies effectively. Sometimes they haven’t practiced it, but that sensitivity of the physical instrument that comes from the vocal instrument does come out.”

Though Girard agrees that characters in opera seldom have to sing and fight simultaneously, the line is sometimes fine. “Escamillo sings right after the fight with Don José,” he says. “The uncut piece of score is a good chunk of fight music, but even trimmed down, it’s only two or three bars afterwards when Escamillo has to sing.”

That limits the possibilities for combat — or at least for Escamillo to defend himself. Beyond breath, though, a fight choreographer has extra concerns in opera. The singers have to be able to see the conductor, for example. “And the maestro has a lot to say on tempo and rhythm,” which naturally has an effect on how a fight is staged. Moreover, if the conductor believes there’s a potential risk, “I’ve had them go, ‘I like it, let’s change it now, I have a fear of this.’”

But it’s music that drew Girard to opera. “I just found that the sense of having a full orchestra supporting and playing your fight, was the closest you could get to cinema,” he says. “All the fight music was so beautiful, deep, and rich.” And he speaks admiringly of the Met’s Roméo et Juliette cast — as fighting actors.

“There are stigmas that go on about the Met in the theater community,” he says, “but we’re fighting on a raked stage that’s revolving. The singers were completely open to it, because each step of the way, their concerns were addressed. They were part of the collaborative process.”

Comparing opera to its theatrical antecedents, Girard observes, “You do tend to see more violence in opera than you do in Classical theater. Contemporary theater has gotten bloody — Lieutenant of Inishmore, you’ve got gunfights onstage and people’s heads exploding. That’s American theater right there. I don’t think you’ve gotten quite that far in opera.”

He thinks this over. “But I just worked on Tosca at Chautauqua. You’ve got guns going off, a stabbing, and a woman jumping off a building — maybe theater’s catching up on opera!”

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19 December 2012

Maria, Regina di Scozia

J-DiD as M-Stu.

Even as I indulge in Susan Graham’s soon-to-be-legendary performances as Dido, Queen of Carthage, in Berlioz’s Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera (now playing), I’m getting psyched for Joyce DiDonato’s Mary, Queen of Scots. Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda opens at the Met on New Year’s Eve, and it’s a company premiere. With Joyce’s Drama Queen mojo pumping these days, these performances should be nothing short of spectacular.

And there’s an added bonus, almost as exciting (at least to bel canto fans like me) as the singing itself. Even Donizetti operas could be longer than they are, and Maria Stuarda is no exception. I’ve learned that the Met’s production restores a final scene, long believed to be lost, to a libretto by Monte Pitone. By special arrangement, I’m pleased to present the text now.

Drama Queen.

Maria has just finished her prayer. There is a knock at the door.

ASSASSIN: Tu sei Maria, Regina di Scozia?

MARY: Son’ io!

ASSASSIN: T’ammazerò!

MARY: Aiiii! Aiiiii!!!

The ASSASSIN chases MARY around the stage, beating her with a stick and throwing dishes and furniture at her. There are thumps, bangs, slaps, pneumatic drilling, sawing, flogging, shooting, all interlaced with Mary's screams.

MARY: Aiiiii!!! Aiiiiiiii!! Soccorso!!!

Under this furious assault, MARY collapses on the floor. Silence. Then…

ASSASSIN: Penso che sia morta!

MARY: Non sono!

MARY rises to her feet and resumes running around the room, while the ASSASSIN chases her. More mayhem.

As the curtain falls, Pinkerton returns, then realizes he’s in the wrong opera, and the Penguin on the Telly explodes.


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15 December 2012

Bad Breakups from Berlioz and Schubert

Susan Graham and Marcello Giordani at the Met.

So your boyfriend says, “Listen, I really care about you, but God has other plans for me, which I know because the voices in my head are telling me to go away now.” Naturally, you’re so surprised that you can’t even answer a ludicrous thing like that. So he leaves.

That should be the end of it, but instead, you chase after him, plead and threaten, humiliate yourself in front of all his friends and your friends, quit your job, destroy every single present he ever gave you, and finally kill yourself. Because it’s an opera!

Or say that your girlfriend decides she’s Just Not That Into You and marries somebody else. Every single thing you see reminds you of how miserable she has made you. This water? It’s like your tears! Those crows? They’re just waiting to pick at your loveless, lifeless body! That mailman? He has nothing for you! This weathervane? Yes, even the weathervane is depressing you. Because it’s Lieder singing!

Instead of going to the doctor and getting a prescription for antidepressants, you find an organ-grinder and listen to him until you can’t take it any more (because you couldn’t find a bagpiper!), and finally you kill yourself. Because it’s a Lieder Cycle!

I spent much of my Monday coping with other people’s breakups, and let me tell you, it was fun. You should definitely try it sometime. Because it’s cathartic!

David Adam Moore in Brooklyn.

One great thing about being a fan is that your totem singer can lead you places you didn’t expect, and show you things you didn’t know your life depends on. Susan Graham led me deeper into Berlioz. Before she recorded his Les Nuits d’été, I really didn’t think there was any need for anybody ever to sing the piece again, because Régine Crespin had sung it perfectly, on an essential recording that all people should own. Period.

Then Susan found stuff in that music that even Crespin hadn’t found. So her recording is essential, too, and what’s more, it’s opened me up to listening to other people’s interpretations, to hear what they find. José Van Dam. Joyce DiDonato. David Daniels. Anne Sofie von Otter. Gabriel Bacquier. They’ve all got something to say — and now I know better how to listen.

If Susan hadn’t taken me by the ear and led me into Berlioz, I would have missed her performances in Les Troyens. I’d have missed John Eliot Gardiner’s conducting when she sang this opera in Paris, at the Châtelet in 2003. Gardiner is an early-instrument buff who raided museums in order to get antique brass instruments like those that Adolphe Saxe created especially for Berlioz, who wrote (among other things) for this opera a fanfare that’s an important, recurring musical theme. Suddenly I was transported to an entirely different world, hearing sounds I’d never heard before — and that, I realized, was just what Berlioz wanted.

Susan at the Châtelet.
One of the most powerful performances I have ever witnessed.

Susan has returned to the role of Dido: a revival of Francesca Zambello’s production from 2003 opened on Thursday night at the Met. I saw the final dress rehearsal, and of course nobody is supposed to pass critical judgment on a rehearsal. I will venture to say that Susan’s interpretation is, if anything, deeper than it was nine years ago, boldly acted, thrillingly sung, and unbelievably sexy. You should see her rock Dido’s purple gown.

Another great thing about being a fan is that sometimes you get to feel really, really smart. The singer says, “I’m going to perform such and such,” and you say, “That’s a perfect fit for you,” and then he sings it, and you were right. Now aren’t you the clever one?

When David Adam Moore told me that he was going to tackle Schubert’s Winterreise, I knew he’d come up with something terrific. He’s mature enough to dig into the melancholy of the verse without sounding like a tiresome kid (which is, let’s face it, exactly what the narrator of the Winterreise would be if you ever met him in a bar). His voice is perfectly suited to the music: it’s warm, centered, produced with ease and conversational directness. He never sings at anybody. Best of all, David is still young enough that I can be confident he’ll be able to continue his explorations of the Winter Journey for years to come, continue to discover new phrases and new feelings, continue to make this piece come alive. [My interview with David on the occasion of his first Winterreise, two years ago, can be found here.]

And I was right. Performing in a tiny venue somewhere in what, everybody assured me, is called Park Slope, Brooklyn, David more than lived up to my expectations. I’d say he aced it — except that, as I say, I know he’s going to keep singing the Winterreise and getting better and better. To his A+ he’ll add extra pluses.

Because David is a polymath who also composes and creates video art (and so on, and so on), he’s “staged” this Winterreise with a fluid series of videos that isolate and distill the images discussed in the poetry. Just as the Narrator is completely absorbed in his melancholy, so David is completely absorbed in the images: he wears a white shirt and trousers so that he becomes a part of the screen (or, in this case, the wall) onto which the video is projected.

There’s some beautiful stuff here, most notably a sequence in which we see what the Narrator remembers of his lover lying in bed. David reaches out his hand to touch an image that is no longer flesh. Gorgeous. And yet I’m hoping that, from time to time, he’ll perform the Winterreise without the video, too.

The texts of the Winterreise are uncanny: somehow the poet has latched onto German vocabulary that’s about 80 percent cognates for English vocabulary, and with a printed or projected text, it’s easy for an educated listener to follow along. Add to that David’s expressive gifts, and he can make us see the images even when he hasn’t got a video projector.

Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise: it’s a good thing to follow a musician — to be a fan. A singer who’s already demonstrated an ability to communicate with you, is going to be able to help you understand better the things she’s discovered in the music. You’ll learn more, and she’ll point you in other directions, too, that you can explore on your own or with other artists. And by sharing the experiences in the music — even really bad breakups — you come out wiser, stronger, richer.

Also, it helps if the singer went to high school in Texas.

Paradoxically, David performed on the most tropical night in the history of Decembers in the Northern Hemisphere.

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08 December 2012

Progress Report 19: So Glad We Had This Time Together

A mutual appreciation society.

“I just want to quell all those rumors about me and George Clooney!”

That, according to Carol Burnett, is why she agreed to an interview for the authorized biography of Madeline Kahn (which, as you may have noticed, I’m writing). We spoke by phone this week about Harvey Korman, about The Carol Burnett Show, and about the episode in which Madeline appeared in 1976. I can’t say much here about what she told me — I have to save something to make you want to buy the book, don’t I? But it’s an occasion to reflect on a performer and a show that meant a lot to me — and to Madeline, and I dare say to you, too.

Madeline’s contribution to the episode (“One of my favorites,” Carol said, as she proceeded to quote from it, 36 years later) consisted of a “Family” sketch, in which she played a pretentious actress trying to rehearse with poor Eunice; a chat with Carol and a duet, “Friend”; and a delirious send-up of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, in which Madeline and Harvey warble “I Always Used to Oooh” in a “film clip” from a spoof of That’s Entertainment.

Right there, you get a sense of why the episode, and the show itself, made an indelible impression on this viewer. For instance, when Madeline’s character exhorts Eunice to concentrate, she intones, “In our circles, in our circles!” For the duration of my (limited, long-ago) experience working in theater, not one production in school, off-off-Broadway or on-Broadway went by without somebody’s quoting that line in rehearsal.

Mavis Danton (Madeline) rehearses with Eunice Higgins (Carol).

What’s more, The Carol Burnett Show reliably delivered at least one gag per week that left me helpless with laughter on the floor — and in this particular episode, it comes during Carol’s contribution to the That’s Entertainment parody, in which she performs an Esther Williams-style routine in a retro residential swimming pool strewn with plastic water lilies. Singing even when she’s underwater (at which point she sort of gargles the notes) and when water gets in her mouth (at which point she spits), tossing aside the flowers when they get in her way, Carol clowns around much the way any kid clowns in a pool — “Look at me, I’m Esther Williams!” — especially a movie-mad kid, like the one Carol was, or the one I was.

It’s that playfulness that makes so much of The Carol Burnett Show not only memorable but also approachable. We’ve all done silly stuff like this, though few if any of us goofed around in a way that might be entertaining to anybody but ourselves. I’ve seen the proof more times than I care to count at summer-camp jamborees and school talent shows, when would-be Carols and Harveys wore out their welcome almost before they began. The comedy on The Carol Burnett Show could be very broad, often campy. How did Carol know when to stop while it was still funny? “Instinct,” she told me.

The camaraderie among her core players — Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Lyle Waggoner — extended to guest stars and even to the audience. We had a good time watching them because we sensed that they were having a good time. (Something that seemed to be confirmed every time Tim Conway made Harvey Korman crack up.) In talking with Carol, I found myself referring to Korman simply as Harvey, and now I’m writing about her as Carol, as if I’d known them, which I didn’t, or as if I’d grown up with them, which in a very limited sense, I did, actually.

Not exactly the “Indian Love Call”: Harvey and Madeline.

Together they demolished classic films I hadn’t seen yet. As a kid, I barely knew who Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were: when it came time for me to see Now Voyager and Mildred Pierce, I had to leave the movie theater, because I was laughing so hard, remembering Carol’s parodies. For this viewer, she did to old movies what MAD Magazine did to the great films of the 1970s, and what Anna Russell did to Wagner.

And yet, in every case, the more I’ve learned about the source material, the more I’ve come to appreciate the care with which it was spoofed, and the artistry required to give an audience something to laugh about, no matter how little or how much background knowledge they possessed. You didn’t have to know anything about Gone with the Wind (though I did, by the time Carol got to it) in order to find “Went with the Wind” hilarious. Each week, jokes aimed high and low, and hit their marks. That’s a rare gift.

Even in their broadest gestures, Carol’s imitations of the great screen goddesses were so keen — and yet so affectionate — that the ladies themselves loved them. Joan Crawford regularly watched the show and wrote Carol a fan letter after “Mildred Fierce.” Gloria Swanson was so smitten with Carol’s demented “Nora Desmond” character that she guest-starred on The Carol Burnett Show — whereupon the “Nora” character was retired, much to my disappointment. I underscore: at the time, I’d never seen Sunset Boulevard. I just thought Carol’s Nora was funny.

Always ready for her close-up: Carol as Nora.

As a result, Carol Burnett’s movie parodies were an entryway to my exploration of an art form — in very much the same way that Anna Russell eased me into Wagner while reminding me not to take the music (or the music criticism) too seriously. The very clear lesson from both ladies was, no matter how brilliant this stuff is, we should have fun. At the same time, the bitter conflict between Eunice and Mama taught me that the best comedy has its foundation in pain.

Television creates an artificial intimacy with the viewer, and that can be tough for performers, and even for news anchors. I’m sure there are moments when Carol really doesn’t want to hear how much complete strangers love her, how much she influenced them, how much she taught them. And in talking with her the other day, I kept all of those things to myself — though they were right there, ready to be said and very sincerely felt.

But at all times during our conversation, Carol Burnett was gracious, open, and funny as hell. In short, exactly the person I hoped she would be. I add her to the list of boyhood idols with whom I’ve been able to communicate, as a result of Madeline Kahn’s biography: Lily Tomlin, Bill Cosby, Betty Aberlin, to name a few. These opportunities inspire in me a gratitude I can’t quite express — though I suppose I’ve just tried.

“I saw it in the window and I just couldn’t resist!”

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06 December 2012

Eccomi in Italiano!

I am pleased to announce that I have begun contributing to the Italian online magazine GBOpera: the first of my reports have been posted, in English and in Italian translation.

My pleasure is nearly as great when I announce that I am not required to write in Italian: the editors translate my work for me. Self-taught in Italian, I can get through the day-to-day routines of ordering food and going to museums; I can manage a cocktail party conversation with somewhat less élan, though it helps immensely a) if I’ve had a glass or two of wine; and b) if the person to whom I am speaking is flirting with me. Just saying. And I can read an opera libretto, so long as there’s a dizionario nearby.

However, my written Italian would be an embarrassment to just about everybody, something on the order of “See Spot Run”:

“Vedi, Joyce canta! Canta, Joyce, canta! Canta canta canta! Joyce canta bene. Fine.

I love this picture of Joyce beyond my power to describe
— in any language.
Carnegie Hall photos by Steve J. Sherman.©

Really, it’s a gift to all of us that somebody else is putting all this into Italian. But I must say that I sound wonderfully sophisticated and sexy when I read the texts aloud, and you can try it yourself by following these links. (If you’d prefer simply to read the English text, scroll to the end of the review and there’s another link.)

For my review of the Richard Tucker Foundation Gala (Avery Fisher Hall, November 11, 2012), click here.

For my review of Joyce DiDonato’s “Drama Queens” concert with Il Complesso Barocco (Carnegie Hall, November 18, 2012), click here.

And be sure to check GBOpera.it regularly for my latest reports — and all kinds of reviews, interviews, and cool stuff!

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29 November 2012

What Hepburn Wore

While at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts the other day, on my way to do some research for my biography of Madeline Kahn, I glimpsed from the corner of my eye a familiar dress on display. Then another. Then another. The corner of my eye is crummy — I wear glasses and have no peripheral vision — so I turned to face an extraordinary (and little-heralded) exhibition, Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen, on view through January 12, 2013.

Small wonder that I recognized the clothes: Hepburn, who died on Pride Weekend, 2003, is by far my favorite movie actress, to whom I once proposed marriage. (She had the good sense — typically — not to respond to my letter.) I’ve seen most of her films multiple times, and there’s only a couple I’ve never seen at all. I’m saving them up, the way one saves a couple of Shakespeare plays, to be sure there’s still some pleasure left before dying.

What even a completist Hepburnite does not expect is to see the woman standing before him, in the old familiar costumes, in the poses she struck in life. Yet that’s precisely the effect that Dressed has.

Calla lilies: Terry Randall’s costume today,
and as Hepburn wore it in Stage Door.

Hepburn’s irrepressible vitality made her seem to pop right off the screen, even in her roughest performances and worst movies. Where can all that energy have gone? It was a force so powerful that even now it seems to inhabit her clothes, and the mannequins are arranged such that you feel Hepburn’s presence, disembodied and yet corporeal, ghostly and yet real, multiplied by dozens around the room.

This is most obvious in the pose of one pair of her trademark trousers — upside-down, as if Hepburn is doing a handstand — but also in the tilt of a hat, just so. You can almost see that strange, beautiful face, the head cocked, the blazing blue eyes probing yours, the mouth set in greetings both welcoming and wary. Playful, then proud, then somehow slightly scornful.

You’d always heard that, when she appeared in a TV adaptation of The Glass Menagerie, Hepburn re-purposed the wedding dress she wore on Broadway in The Philadelphia Story, and here’s the proof: the dress itself, with photos from the play. With a few seams let out and a fabric flower added at the throat, what was once up-to-the-minute fashion for Tracy Lord became Amanda Wingfield’s faded finery, an adornment insufficient to win over a Gentleman Caller.

So many of her films were in black-and-white — as are all the photographs from her early stage appearances — that the living colors of some costumes hold a special fascination. Most notable, perhaps, is a pale lavender dress with lace trim, which Hepburn wore in Long Day’s Journey into Night. We see at once that Mary Tyrone is too timid to seize the royal purple she’s entitled to; in the lace we see her Irish heritage. On screen, the dress never impressed me. In the exhibition, I understand how it contributed to Hepburn’s single greatest performance.

Costumes mattered to Hepburn as an expression of character — even the stuff she wore off-camera expressed the person she wanted to present to others — and throughout the exhibition, various documents testify to her collaboration with designers, striving to make the desired effect. We also see hairpieces, makeup kits, publicity photos, and a watercolor self-portrait — but Hepburn isn’t inside them, not the same way, and so we keep going back to the clothes.

Here are the chic, vaguely Chinese jackets she wore in Coco, and the Edwardian folderol in which she swanned in Love Among the Ruins. Here’s the Gypsy drag she donned as Lady Babbie in The Little Minister, the Soviet uniform she wore in The Iron Petticoat and the elaborate Indian wedding gown from Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry. And here’s the evening dress she wore in Adam’s Rib, probably the last time any camera got a good look at her aging neck (of which she was highly self-conscious) until Henry Fonda kissed it, peeling back her collar in On Golden Pond, more than three decades later.

We see her body changing, from willowy to surprisingly stout, from Alice Adams to Miss Moffatt — but this is perhaps the only thing we see that Hepburn might have wanted to hide from us. A true artist, albeit a collaborative one, she was presenting an image to the viewer. The images survive her — eloquently. This is no mere scrapbook of a career; it’s an almost-living monument.

The exhibition is commemorated in a new book, Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic, and the costumes are part of the Kent State University Museum permanent collections, so if you can’t get to the Lincoln Center Library, you may yet have a chance to admire these extraordinary reflections of a woman like no other.

Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen is at Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts through January 12, 2013. Admission is free.

“Who the devil cares what a woman wears?”
Hepburn as Coco Chanel, a self-portrait.

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28 November 2012

Julian Fellowes to Create Several More Original Series

Because of course American versions of British series
always turn out so well.
(Actually, I quite liked Beacon Hill, especially Kathryn Walker’s performance as bohemian Fawn Lassiter.)

Following the announcement that Julian Fellowes is creating a new period drama for NBC, set in 19th-century New York, several critics have described the new series as nothing more than an Americanized rehash of Fellowes’ own Downton Abbey, which itself is sometimes described as a rusticated rehash of Upstairs, Downstairs. Stung by this unexpected backlash, screenwriter Fellowes today announced the creation of several new series “entirely unlike anything ever seen on television, and particularly unlike anything ever seen on Masterpiece Theatre at any point in the 1970s,” Fellowes told television reporters.

Several networks, including the BBC, NBC, and BET, are now said to be mulling over options. The series include:

Pwylldark: A dashing Revolutionary War veteran returns to his native Wales — “not Cornwall by any means, that’s right out, it’s Wales, W-A-L-E-S” — where he discovers that his fiancée has married his rival. In later episodes, Rhys Pwylldark clashes with the wealthy Leghorner family and marries his own servant, the spirited but unintelligible Welsh girl, Dementia.

Murder Must Amortise: A dashing, witty, completely original detective, Lord Peter Walmsley, goes undercover in a mortgage office to solve a baffling murder. Starring Marcus Brigstocke, whose portrayal of Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster has been much admired, “unless of course Dan Stevens suddenly becomes available,” and featuring “lots of that nattering about in drawing rooms and evening wear that I do rather awfully well.”

The Eight Wives of Henry VI: Sex, violence, and insanity at the dawn of the War of the Roses! While the historical Henry VI had only one wife, Margaret of Anjou, Fellowes insists that the series is “emotionally true, because poor Henry was mentally ill and couldn’t count. Besides, Margaret was woman enough for eight. Grrraowr.”

Henry the Somethingth.

I, Vitellius: Sex, violence, and intrigue in the court of imperial Rome! Vitellius, third of the “Four Emperors” who ruled in 69 A.D., narrates this gripping saga. A few scenes may not be unsuitable for young children. “I envision the opening credits with some sort of slithery creature, possibly a salamander or newt, or even a BBC executive, sliding menacingly across the screen,” Fellowes said.

I, Vitellius: Fiends and Romans.

Hortense: Celebrated by poets and painters, the beautiful French-born soprano Hortense Schneider soon catches the eye of the Prince of Wales. Fellowes describes Hortense as “by far the most scandalous of all the many mistresses of Edward VII, because she hasn’t been serialised yet.” He admits to wishing her name were “more euphonious,” and holds out the prospect of changing it to something like “Lilian Longtree, perhaps.”

“As a writer, I’ve always longed to make a Hortense,”
Fellowes told reporters.

Other potential series include The Forsythia Saga, The Point of Spoylton, and The Duchess of Cavendish Street, about a feisty kitchen maid who works her way to opening a chic London hotel in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Most promising of all, however, is Pride and Premises, in which a dashing writer, Fitzgibbon Dancy, clashes with headstrong Elizabeth Bonnett. Elizabeth at first believes that Mr. Dancy’s latest television scripts borrow too heavily from other people’s work, while Mr. Dancy for his part insists that he is the most original writer ever to work in television. Since the series is set in the 18th century, Elizabeth cannot disprove his claim.

Pride and Premises.

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Kristen Johnston’s ‘Guts’

A promotional photo from her TVLand series, The Exes.

As Kristen Johnston admits, early in her memoir, Guts, “‘an actress addicted to booze and pills’ is relatively unheard of. And ‘an actress addicted to booze and pills who then writes a book about it’ is even rarer. And when I say ‘unheard of’ or ‘rare,’ what I really mean is ‘disturbingly commonplace.’” Indeed, the enterprising librarian could easily stock a new wing with nothing but actors’ recovery stories.

It’s the nature of the beast, as I’m hardly the first to observe: drunks are storytellers (at least, until they pass out), and recovering drunks have got at least one surefire story, recited and polished in A.A. and in therapy, in which “hitting bottom” provides a perfect dramatic climax. And what actor doesn’t like drama? Moreover, the recovering abuser has a moral justification, perhaps even an imperative: to share the story may help another abuser to find the path to recovery.

All of these things are true of Kristen Johnston’s Guts, subtitled The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster. It’s a helluva yarn, and it may help others: indeed, her Facebook page* is strewn daily with messages from readers who have found strength and courage — “guts,” dare I say it — in her honest example.

What sets Guts apart is the excellence of Johnston’s writing. That may come as a surprise: most actors, even the ones with great addiction stories of their own, need a script, the organizing discipline and the mot juste that writers provide. Johnston is the real deal, a gifted writer who just happens to be a terrific actress.

3rd Rock Memories: John Lithgow, Johnston,
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and French Smith.

Her authorial voice is so powerful and so personal that you couldn’t mistake it for anybody else’s. At the same time, her prose is so breezy and so funny, so vernacular and (yes) so vulgar that the reader may be forgiven for overlooking its rigorous precision. Her writing may seem chatty, but there’s hardly a word anywhere in Guts that doesn’t hit its mark squarely. She constructs scenes and provides background information with balance and economy, giving the reader exactly what’s needed, no more and no less, to feel along with her. I know very few professional writers who could accomplish anything comparable.

Johnston zips through her early years and her award-winning career onstage and on TV’s 3rd Rock from the Sun, relentlessly zeroing in on the moment she hit bottom, while appearing in a West End comedy — and thereupon she lingers, almost exulting in the gruesome spectacle, as if she were a Jacobean playwright. When an ulcer explodes (exacerbated by pills), leading to acute peritonitis (and a godawful, foul-smelling mess), and when she undergoes emergency surgery, Johnston spares nothing, and the reader shares her ordeal in squirm-inducing detail that evokes something close to real time.

If you’re looking for cute stories about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, you’ve come to the wrong place — though John Lithgow makes an appearance, caring and concerned and somewhat bewildered by the force of the demons Johnston kept (mostly) hidden for so long. Fame is part of the story, primarily because Johnston shot to stardom while still in her twenties and completely unprepared for international scrutiny. It’s telling, however, that she doesn’t place the blame on fame,** or anywhere, really. She’s trying to move forward.

Like many viewers, I’d always supposed that Johnston came to 3rd Rock from the world of high fashion, but it turns out that’s not the case at all. Her height (almost six feet tall by the age of 12) made her more the object of adolescent scorn than the focus of photographers’ lenses, and she reports that it never occurred to her that she was good-looking until she started to read the 3rd Rock scripts, in which her utter gorgeousness was taken as a matter of fact.

But Johnston was never just a pretty face, and as she tells it, she developed her sharp sense of humor as a defensive weapon, early on. Indeed, her sheer toughness is so great that her moments of vulnerability are poignant and memorable — especially as she confronts the day-to-day challenge of recovery. The book may be over, but her struggle isn’t, by any means.

Hell, yes, people are learning from this example.

In her career, Johnston learned the value of words, and she wields them deftly, whether she’s acting from a script or writing from the heart. As a person, she’s still growing, in the ways that count, and trying valiantly to make a difference in the world, whether by striving to establish SLAM (Sober, Learning, and Motivation, a New York high school for kids with substance problems), or by teaching at the Atlantic Acting School, or by writing this book. As she points out in the introduction to Guts, “Everyone’s addicted to something,” and she’s got a lot to tell us all.

Guts is now available in hardback and as an audio book; the paperback edition comes out early next year.

*NOTE: Kristen Johnston is trying exceptionally hard to keep her Facebook page personal, and not a sort of celebrity promotion. If you want to be her friend, you need to provide her with a reason — why she knows or ought to know you. (Also, it’s a very good idea to avoid the abbreviation “LOL,” since, as I say, this woman knows the value of words and prefers more expressive language than Internet shorthand.)

**Fame may not be the problem, but it doesn’t necessarily make life easier: Johnston first spoke publicly about her addiction during an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, and even having prepped Dan Rather for innumerable Letterman appearances, I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for her!

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27 November 2012

A Party with Amanda Green & Friends

Years ago, the legendary book-and-lyrics team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green used to throw parties — or rather, A Party with Comden & Green. On TV or in a theater, they’d get up, tell funny stories, and sing songs from their vast and indispensable catalogue. Two albums record these performances, and they’re among the treasures of my LP collection. They provoke in this listener the irresistible fantasy that he’s sitting in a living room (either Betty’s or Adolph’s, or maybe Leonard Bernstein’s or Judy Holliday’s or some other friend’s), where a real party is going on. You’re soaking it in, listening to smart talk and great music from fun people — and trying not to shout out “Rin Tin Tin” when the pressure to name-drop grows too strong. When one day I finally got to see Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman’s living room, I thought, “Yes. This is exactly what I pictured. This is what life in New York City is supposed to be like.”

The reality hasn’t always worked out that way for me, but every now and then, Phyllis and Adolph’s daughter, the songwriter Amanda Green, takes charge. She did so again last night, at the New York nightclub Birdland, leading a spectacular review of her songs, joined by a pack of her super-talented friends, appropriately called “Amanda Green and Friends.” And when I tell you that it was a great party, I mean party in the very best sense, the Golden Age of New York sense, in which life is what it’s supposed to be.

What she was born to do: Amanda at Birdland.
This and all subsequent photos by Monica Simoes©.

After all, Amanda Green will have two shows on Broadway this season: Bring It On, which closes December 30, and Hands on a Hardbody, which is slated to begin previews in February. She gave us a sampling of both. From Bring It On, we heard the fierce trio “It Ain’t No Thing,” performed by the cast members Ryann Redmond, Ariana DeBose, and Gregory Haney; Elle McLemore wasn’t able to join the team last night, so Amanda gamely performed Eva’s cheerily vicious “Killer Instinct,” with an assist from Broadway’s brightest muse, Jenn Colella. Ever incandescent, Jenn also offered a sample of Amanda’s work from High Fidelity, in which she starred on Broadway a few seasons ago. Another longtime exponent of Amanda’s work, Brooks Ashmanskas, sang what’s become an Amanda Green Standard, “If You Leave Me.”

I am now officially revved up for Hands on a Hardbody, from which we heard several numbers, with performances by cast members Andrea Burns and Jay Armstrong Johnson, both new to me and both marvelous, as well as by Amanda and Trey Anastasio, who along with Amanda has written the songs for the show. What’s especially fascinating to me about her work in these songs is her authentic feel for Texas. She understands the place better than I do, though she’s an Upper West Side girl to her core. She’s also written for the show what is without question the greatest Keith Carradine song since “I’m Easy” — and moreover she announced that he’s signed to do the show. The minute the guitar started playing, I knew she’d nailed it: the song fits Carradine like an exquisitely tailored kid glove.

Authenticity: Because Jenn Colella requires the best.

Really, authenticity may be the key to Amanda’s gifts as a songwriter. Even in purely comic numbers — including the hilarious, semi-demented scenas for First Lady Betty Ford and the actress Fran Drescher (the latter’s “Be Yourself” anthem is almost scarily universal) — Amanda doesn’t talk down to her character or to her audience. That’s the great strength of Bring It On: yeah, the stakes of a cheerleading competition are small-scale to the rest of the world, but to the characters, this is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to them, and Amanda respects that. Her sympathy for the small-town Texans in Hands on a Hardbody shines through every word, too.

This may be the first such evening when Amanda didn’t perform her most personal song, “Up on Daddy’s Shoulders,” the tender expression of a daughter’s love. I missed it — and yet I also understood why it wasn’t necessary. As an artist, Amanda truly is up on her daddy’s shoulders now, excelling in the field where he excelled, and proving that she knows how to throw a party.

The next time Amanda comes to Birdland, I hope you’ll join me there. In the meantime, hurry up and see Bring It On, and start booking your tickets to Hands on a Hardbody.

With a little help from her friends: Colella, Johnson, Burns, and Anastasio join Amanda onstage.

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27 October 2012

Counting Losses

From the expression on her face, I suspect she is plotting
to get some vanilla ice cream.

When she was just a tiny child, pronouncing her own name proved an almost insurmountable challenge: “Marna Towtee” was as close as she could manage. Years later, when her first grandson was born, I suggested “Marna” as an alternative to the inevitable “Grandma” — but, like most of my ingenious nicknames, it never caught on. Still, it’s how I think of her. Marna.

Over the course of four decades, I must have shared countless conversations with her, but the one I’ll remember best came on the night that first grandson was born, and it was entirely one-sided, an answering-machine message. “Cairn’s had her baby,” she said, since even in adulthood her old-fashioned Texas accent made her daughter’s name a challenge, too. And then she added, “I guess you know what she’s going to name him.”

I did not in fact know that Cairn planned to name her firstborn after me. Marna’s message was my only warning. I had a new godson and a new namesake. You could say that Marna changed my life the day she gave birth to Cairn, my oldest friend, but the extent of Marna’s power was never clearer than it was that night when Will was born.

She passed away last week, the first in a rapid succession of loss that caught up two other souls dear to me, Little John and His Excellency. A week later, I’m still absorbing the shock.

As Marna foretold it: Christening my godson, 1992.

Marna’s power over me was remarkable, because when I was a kid, I seldom saw her. She was resolutely hands-off when it came to her daughter and her friends; Marna was anything but a helicopter parent. And of all my friends, Cairn was the readiest to live as a grownup, who earned her own keep long before she graduated high school. Independence was her nature, but it suited her mother, as well, and only my fear that my godsons will read this and try to copy us can prevent me from recounting here the sorts of scrapes and jams Cairn and I got into, while Marna was off in some quiet corner of the house, reading a book or watching Masterpiece Theatre.

Shy and retiring, she was a quiet soul, all right, but in the right company she could be a chatterbox, going on breathlessly about the subjects that captivated her: mystery novels, classical music, art, history, genealogy. Cairn and I loved these things, too, and it’s safe to say that, while we might have discovered them on our own, Marna’s interests fueled ours. She planted the seeds, as it were, but true to her nature, she left the cultivation to us.

Between Marna and me, especially in later years, there developed a complicity, and thus even when she was at her most voluble, we didn’t talk about personal matters. We didn’t need to. A topic might come up — Cairn’s ex-husband, for example — and Marna would simply say, in a fretful tone, “Well….” And that was all, and I’d know what she meant. And she’d know I felt the same way.

Thus there are things I never asked her, and because we weren’t warned of her passing, I’ll never have the chance now. Something the same is true of Little John, my cousin, who passed away just days after Marna did. I’m not sure anyone else ever called him Little John — but when I was a boy he seemed so right for the part that I couldn’t call him anything else. Older than I by several years, he was big and burly and, you could tell, absolutely capable of overthrowing the Sheriff of Nottingham.

His parents, my Uncle Johnnie and Aunt Loey, were very much a part of my childhood, and their other children and I were very close, too, at several points. Davy came to stay with us for extended periods, and Paulie was close enough in age that he always seemed my big brother. Ruthie lives in Rhode Island and kept an eye on me while I was in college. But I never saw as much of John: no matter where I lived, he lived far away: the Madison diaspora swept him up early.

Even from a distance, I could tell that he was honest and reliable. I knew he was funny and loving. I caught glimpses of his mind from the relics left around his parents’ house and the influence he exerted over his brothers: a particular band or a book or movie could be traced back to him, and might influence me, too, in turn.

But I never seized the opportunity to ask him about much of anything. It can be said that for 51 years I adored him without really knowing him. You always think there will be time to catch up — until the time runs out.

His Excellency.

And so it happens that, of the three losses I’ve sustained in the past week, only one entailed a proper farewell. I think that both His Excellency and I knew when we said goodbye that it would be the last time we’d see each other. Even the way he greeted me seemed meaningful, the look in his eyes full of recognition if not quite reproach: “Well, there you are,” he seemed to say. “I was wondering when you’d show up.”

My sometime roommate ate out of my hand and did not object to my petting him, though I was anxious about it: he was frail and terribly thin, but his dignity could not be shaken. After a while, he retired to his favorite chair for another nap, waking only a little when I took my leave of him and giving a little nod before dropping his head again to drift to sleep once more. Bursting into tears would only have upset everybody, but I had to remind myself of that fact and to hope that His Excellency’s servant would attribute the huskiness in my voice to the onset of seasonal allergies.

I don’t know how many of his nine lives he’d used up in the various health scares he’d had in the course of his 16 years: I can count at least three or four off the top of my head. It’s possible then that he’s arrived in kitty heaven, or whatever you want to call it. For the first time, he will be surrounded by others of his own kind — and forced therefore to confront the realization that he may himself be a cat.

He will take this news with his customary dignity, I am sure. But I don’t say he’ll like it.

And for my part, I’ll miss him. I’ll miss them all.

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21 October 2012

Progress Report 18: Message in a Bottle?

A Woman’s Career, At a Glance.
Photo by WVM.

Madeline Kahn was an intensely private person who would never have written an autobiography, much less cooperated with a biographer. She left a remarkably thin paper trail, with only a few playbills from her stage career and no more correspondence than what lay in and around her desk at the time of her death, in 1999. Instead of a diary, she kept a single spiral notebook with several years’ worth of musings, observations, notes for an act that never happened; she also kept appointment books — and these, mercifully, have survived.

To the extent that there’s any “Sweet Mystery” to Madeline’s life, the books do require a fair amount of detective work. The personal notebook contains no dates whatever, so I have to make educated (I hope) guesses as to when she wrote a particular page. In the appointment books, dates are easy to spot, but Madeline will sometimes write “Rehearsal,” without any indication as to what, precisely, she was rehearsing. “Audition” is another tough one, since like any actor she didn’t always get the parts she auditioned for. She wasn’t trying to make this easy for me: she just wanted to be sure she showed up on time.

I do occasionally find hints that, wherever she may be now, she doesn’t entirely disapprove of the work I’m doing. One of the most surprising came the other day, as I was going through the personal notebook. On the third page, there’s an entry that looks very much like a message for me — not just her future biographer, but Bill Madison, specifically.

Madeline as Esperanza the Gypsy Queen, from Lucky Luke (1992): Maybe she could read these portents.

I worked for Dan Rather at CBS News in a variety of capacities from 1987 to 1999. Among the most sacred of my duties was the guardianship of the “Ratherisms,” the colorful expressions Dan uses to keep his reporting lively during longer, live broadcasts, especially election-night coverage. The Ratherisms were stored in a big binder and, as needed, written out on index cards; we culled them from oral tradition, books, the sports page, almost anywhere — and some were entirely original.

Now, Madeline never met me, and even if she had, it’s doubtful that she’d have had reason to know that I was the curator of the Ratherisms. So how do we account for Page 3 of the personal notebook?

With the underscored title “Bill,” Madeline jots down four Ratherisms:
That person makes me do this (telescope.)
" " has more nerve than a toothache.
— is flying on the wrong trapeze.
— ought really to be in costume at all times.
The first might require a bit of pantomime, or else rephrasing (“makes me close down like a telescope”), but the three others are Rather-ready. It’s uncanny.

Please note that she does not split the infinitive “to be.”
Photo by WVM of a photocopy by WVM.

Presumably Madeline had encountered someone whom she found so annoying that she had to look for fresh ways to express herself. But I have no idea who the fellow was. A colleague? A character? Me?

If she did have a premonition that the Keeper of the Ratherisms would someday write her biography, I confess I’d prefer to find a list of colorful descriptions of how charming “Bill” can be.

Ah, well.

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20 October 2012

If Strauss’ Elektra Had a Sassy Gay Friend

Oy, has this girl got problems: Christine Goerke
as Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Those who are unfamiliar with this exciting artist should know that she’s really very attractive when she’s not working.

If Brian Gallivan of the Second City troupe is still playing his Sassy Gay Friend character, then I’d advise him to hurry over to North Wacker Drive as quickly as possible, because there’s a girl at the Civic Opera House right now who really needs his help.

I’m talking about Richard Strauss’ Elektra, of course, currently incarnated by the brilliant Christine Goerke in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of the 1908 masterwork. Sure, Goerke is surrounded by a galaxy of great singers, a dream cast including Jill Grove, Emily Magee, Alan Held, and Roger Honeywell — but Elektra is allein! Weh, ganz allein.

She’s an urgent case, even worse off than Sally from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. Time is of the essence. In the event that Mr. Gallivan is unable to find a cab, I’d like to suggest how the scene might play out.

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Elektra in Berlin.

SASSY GAY FRIEND: Girl! You are a mess!

ELEKTRA: I don’t care!

SASSY GAY FRIEND: What happened?

ELEKTRA: Well, you remember how my dad walked out on my mom a few years ago and then killed my sister?

SASSY GAY FRIEND: How could I forget? It’s all you and your mother ever talk about! I could practically set it to the Brady Bunch theme song.

ELEKTRA: Well, he came back — with some tootsie he picked up in Troy.

SASSY GAY FRIEND: Is that so ter—

ELEKTRA: So mom and her boyfriend killed him.

SASSY GAY FRIEND: Enough with the drama, already!

ELEKTRA: Now I think of nothing but revenge.

SASSY GAY FRIEND: And that’s your excuse for looking like a dumpster drag queen? Get over yourself!

ELEKTRA: I wish I knew how.

SASSY GAY FRIEND: I have one word for you: shoes. Sister, we are going shopping.


SASSY GAY FRIEND: The first step to vengeance is always a new pair of shoes.

ELEKTRA: Are you sure?

SASSY GAY FRIEND: Girlfriend, by the time I’m through with you, you’ll be Elektra-fying! You’re gonna look so good, no one will pay any attention to your mother — and with her fashion sense, that won’t be too tough. Then you can do whatever you want!

ELEKTRA: I guess you do have a point.

SASSY GAY FRIEND: First, though, we’re going to have a spa day! [Looking her over slowly.] Or maybe a spa week. This could take a while.

ELEKTRA: A mani-pedi does sound nice!

SASSY GAY FRIEND: Then put down that axe and let’s go! [They start to leave.]

ELEKTRA: By the way, I saw this really cute guy on the beach this morning. I’m hoping we’ll run into him again —

SASSY GAY FRIEND: You mean the mysterious stranger from Athens who looks exactly like you? Hello, Gaydar! Didn’t you notice his inseparable companion Pylades, son of Strophius?

ELEKTRA: He’s not in this opera. But speaking of Pilates, do you think we could take a zumba class this afternoon? I really feel like dancing!

Brian Gallivan as the Sassy Gay Friend.

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19 October 2012

Afterthoughts on Anthony Roth Costanzo at the Players Club

Like Teresa Stratas, ARC-en-Ciel (background) has the power to seem the most imposing figure onstage — at least until an Apollo like Jared Angle (foreground) makes his entrance.

Writing of the premiere of Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls at Fort Worth Opera a couple of years ago, I confronted the sobering realization that I had brought to bear too much of my education. As my Brown classmate Rick Moody has observed of the graduate writing program at Columbia University (which he followed a few years before I did), much of the workshop process is predicated on the notion that any new work is necessarily a work in progress, and therefore one’s criticisms derive from fault-finding, ostensibly with a view to “improving” the piece. Much less emphasis is placed on identifying areas in which the new work is successful, and in the case of music–theater work, on how the audience (not to mention the producers) got its money’s worth.

As it happens, Jorge joined me on September 28 for a performance that made me face the same issues: a collaboration among that polymath prodigy, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo; New York City Ballet principal dancer Jared Angle; harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire; and choreographer Troy Schumacher, under the aegis of Jessica Gould’s Salon/Sanctuary Concerts program at the historic Players Club on Gramercy Park. While primarily a fairly straightforward recital of Baroque music, the program offered as a centerpiece a choreographed performance of Vivaldi’s cantata Qual per ignoto calle, in which Angle joined ARC-en-Ciel, nothing if not a flexible artist who danced at several points, as well.*

And I’ll be damned if I didn’t walk out of the performance thinking — and talking — of ways to “improve” what was, on a purely gut level, a marvelous experience. What follows is my belated attempt to correct my own responses.

The James Franco of countertenors, ARC-en-Ciel is no stranger to multi-disciplinary stage pieces: having co-written, produced, and starred in The Double Life of Zefirino, he’s better aware than I of the challenges involved. Moreover, he and his collaborators are acclaimed artists, much in demand in their primary fields and very, very busy. ARC-en-Ciel particularly is taking off like a rocket these days. Who’s to say when these men would have time to work out the kinks in this show, if they even want to?

And really, if there were any flaws in the performance at the Players Club, they were mostly logistical. Neither salon nor sanctuary, the space at the club isn’t designed for multi-disciplinary programs, and depending on where you sat, sight lines were terrible. Much of Angle’s dance was obscured for me by a pillar.** In order to put on the dance, Brookshire’s harpsichord had to be moved back and forth, and so it also had to be tuned and retuned (a harpsichord’s tuning evidently more delicate than a chocolate soufflé), which prolonged the concert: a different ordering of the pieces would have streamlined the evening.

Artistically, my principal complaint — my only complaint, really — lies with the choreography. While Schumacher found some marvelous means of incorporating the singer in the dance, at some points Angle simply picked up ARC-en-Ciel as if he were an inconveniently located piece of furniture, a floor lamp perhaps, and plunked him down by the harpsichord, out of the way of the next steps. Heck, even Dick Van Dyke managed to dance around the ottoman, those nights when he didn’t trip over it.

But in hindsight, these things don’t matter much. Consider that I had an unbeatable opportunity to witness ARC-en-Ciel’s stage presence. Singing arias by Handel and Purcell and wearing a suit, he’s commanding: you’re consumed by his gleaming voice, his astute musicianship, his uncanny fidelity to text (in songs where, to many people’s thinking, the words barely matter at all) — and, let’s be honest, his good looks.

Then set him barefoot and coatless alongside Angle, a strapping fellow by any measure, and ARC-en-Ciel seems suddenly fragile, and all the more so as he traverses the searching, lonely lines of the Vivaldi cantata. In the choreography, the men were by turns friends, lovers, and alter-egos: sometimes Angle’s dancing illustrated what ARC-en-Ciel described, and sometimes he took a more dramatically active part, provoking or consoling the singer.

This was all the more fascinating because countertenor singing by its very nature (or its alteration thereof) challenges conventional notions of masculinity — especially in works written for castrato. In ARC-en-Ciel we have an artist who can, as Marilyn Horne might say, “Sing big” (as too few young singers in any voice type can do), and yet who explores his vulnerability, who projects heroic virility even as he’s acted upon by another man.

Hell, yes, I’d like to see them develop this piece further. But what I got was stunning, and weeks later, I’m still turning it over in my mind. That’s revolutionary in more ways than one.

*NOTE: ARC-en-Ciel does indeed move beautifully, but he doesn’t have the pop singer’s option of lip-synching when the dancing gets strenuous. His movements here left him plenty of breath control, and so we’ll have to wait to see him pay homage to Britney.

**Okay, I bought a cheap seat. It didn’t occur to me to ask for a press ticket.

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