26 February 2012

Academy Nixes Appearance by James Franco

Franco, in character as “The Host”

HOLLYWOOD -- The American Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has refused to permit an appearance at tonight’s Oscar ceremony by actor James Franco, in character as his “Host” persona.

The last time Franco made such an appearance, many were baffled, unsure whether he meant to be funny or offensive. “I just didn’t know whether to take him seriously,” complained one person who attended the 2011 ceremony, actress Anne Hathaway. “He kept waving his butt at me.”

Franco’s managers had requested permission to make the appearance in character as part of a promotion for his upcoming film, Hey, I Wrote, Directed, and Starred in This Movie in 15 Minutes … While Cleaning My Oven!

“While we wish Mr. Franco all the best, we must remind him that the Oscars™ are not about shameless self-promotion, much less bizarre stage acts that make the audience wish we’d hurry up and hand out another technical award,” said an Academy spokesperson. “If and when Mr. Franco is prepared to take this sacred ritual seriously, we will be happy to welcome him back.”

Through his own spokesperson, Franco released a brief statement: “Ranunculus.” Seasoned Franco analysts were at a loss to explain.

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24 February 2012

Hazanavicius’ ‘The Artist’

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo

It’s one measure of the enduring power of Hollywood’s own mythology that one of the most striking Hollywood movies of recent years is actually a French production. The Artist is a movie about Hollywood, and it is of Hollywood, too, buying into the mythology wholeheartedly.

And yet Hollywood forced even Charlie Chaplin to stop making silent movies (though he continued to work in black-and-white). Maybe a filmmaker has to be outside “the community,” as Michel Hazanavicius is, in order to tell a story this way, and to tell this story might be even tougher for a hardcore Hollywood habitué.

Dog is in the details:
The filmmakers got everything right; they even resurrected Asta.
Dujardin with the astonishing Uggie.

If somebody like Stephen Spielberg or Ron Howard systematically evoked every classic from A Star Is Born to Sunset Boulevard to Singing in the Rain, he’d risk our scorn: would we say, “He’s done his homework!” or, “What a loving paean to the Golden Age”? Far more likely that we’d say, “Dang, he’s really piling on the clichés here!”

And if an actor–director such as Ben Stiller made The Artist, he’d almost certainly have played the lead; in turn we’d accuse him of mawkishness and self-aggrandizement. We would, too. We’re vicious that way, we audiences, and the dreaded “studio buzz” would be nastier still.

Brice, a bubble-headed man-child who doesn’t quite grasp that he’s not a California surfer — on account of he lives in Nice, ya know — was one of Dujardin’s splashiest early roles.

The Artist succeeds where an American picture might not, and for that reason, the picture deserves most of the award nominations it’s received. What’s striking to this audience is the shower of accolades on the film’s star, Jean Dujardin, previously known for extremely dopey comedies. Suddenly, Brice de Nice is on the verge of winning an Oscar. Pigs must be flying!

Yet Dujardin’s performance is stellar. He perfectly captures the physicality and self-mocking brio of Douglas Fairbanks, for example, and it’s here that his history with Hazanavicius really pays off: their most successful collaborations have been the spoofing spy-movie series OSS 117, in which Dujardin plays a James Bond type à la française. He’s almost a stereotypical leading man: tall, dark, handsome. But in the spy movies, Hazanavicius exploits our equally stereotypical suspicion (consider the way Darrell Hammond skewers the original Bond, Sean Connery) that a leading man is not in fact terribly smart: master spy Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath is an oaf.

Hazanavicius’ Cairo, Nest of Spies united Dujardin with his Artist co-star, Bérénice Bejo. (She’s terrific in that picture, too.)
(She’s also Mme Hazanavicius.)

Even beyond that, Hazanavicius locates the correlation between what we see of a movie star’s smug self-regard and what we also see as the worst kind of French arrogance — which is itself another stereotype. The OSS 117 movies may not be high art, but they’re clever, and very funny.

Given this background, the leap to The Artist is more like a quick hop. This director and this actor know how to pick up on broad general tendencies and to make them significant in a particular context. We all have very clear received ideas about Hollywood, and Hazanavicius and Dujardin seize on those.

He is big! It’s the pictures that got small.

It’s no surprise then that The Artist scores as parody, but the movie’s serious scenes gain in poignancy because we’ve seen so much goofy exuberance, and we grieve for that spirit as Dujardin’s character falls on hard times. And when he dances — well! I’d like to see Kenneth Branagh beat that!

So, yeah, The Artist may win some big awards on Sunday night, and if it does, I’ll be pleased, not only in recognition of the excellence of the work, but in anticipation of the immense fun Hazanavicius and Dujardin will have for years to come, poking fun at their newfound stature.

Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont!
No, it’s Jean Dujardin and Missi Pyle.
I fondly remember her truly unearthly performance in Galaxy Quest.

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23 February 2012

‘Glee’-nalysis: Quinn Fabray Must Die

Dianna Agron as Quinn Fabray

Glee has completed its winter season with a bang that promises to resolve at least one of the most significant dilemmas the show has faced: at least since the end of Season 1, the writers haven’t had a clue what to do with Quinn Fabray (the gorgeous Dianna Agron). Short of admitting that the girl has some sort of multiple-personality syndrome — which at this point is, really, the only way to account plausibly for her erratic behavior — then killing her off is surely the best thing for the character, for the show, and for the gifted young actress herself, who’s destined, I hope, for better things than, as Sue Sylvester put it this week, “singing ‘oohs’ and backup ‘ahs’” at McKinley High School.

The way has been prepared for Quinn’s demise, along with a Very Important Message in an episode that was heavy laden with ’em. On the chance that you haven’t watched yet, I won’t spell out the details — it’s a doozy of a scene, actually — but I will observe that Quinn effectively said goodbye to the entire gang, most notably to Sue, who will have the satisfaction of having said all the right things in their last conversation. There are no loose threads in the crazy quilt of her story.

How can a show that gets some things so right
be so inept about almost everything else?

Moreover, Quinn’s loss would mean that New Directions had something very real to cope with, all the way to Nationals. Not just Mr. Schuester’s arbitrary weekly themes, but genuine grief for a girl about whom most of the kids had pretty complicated feelings. (Complicated not least because the others can’t ever have known which Quinn was going to turn up: Evil Scheming Quinn, Devout Quinn, Punk Quinn, Honor Student Quinn, Quinn Who Thinks She’ll Never Leave Ohio, ad infinitum.)

Hello, my name is Batshit Crazy Quinn.

Unfortunately, the writers can’t knock off every single character who stymies them. Will Schuester himself, for example, is still in principle the central character in the show, so they can’t kill him — and yet it’s telling that the writers have no idea what to do with him, either.

How to kvell: At long last, Rachel’s gay dads turn out to be
Jeff Goldblum and Brian Stokes Mitchell, here listening
to their little girl and her big voice.

Even Will’s relationship with Emma (Jayma Mays, whom I love) posed a challenge to the writers, once they realized that her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which they’d treated as a joke for two seasons, is in fact a serious condition that observes certain rules, shall we say, that they couldn’t ignore any longer. So what to do with Will? “Hey! Let’s make him the campaign manager for Mr. Hummel’s congressional campaign!” Lotta mileage that one provided.

Weirdest Coming-Out Story Ever:
Inadvertently outed by Finn, Santana (Naya Rivera, right)
was targeted by a politician who clearly never heard of libel laws. With Heather Morris as girlfriend Brittany.

At least Sue’s pregnancy and her newfound goodwill, whether hormone-induced or not, is off to a promising start. Then again, her congressional campaign was promising, too, before it turned into yet another — and therefore tedious — way to lash out at the glee club. So who knows whether impending motherhood will make any significant difference in Sue’s character?

The Story Line to Nowhere.
Jane Lynch as Sue.

The fall and winter episodes have been enlightening. It’s now clear, for example, that there are certain things for which the creative team has a gift, and other things they simply don’t know or don’t care how to do. They write sensitive, sometimes wise material about gay guys, but the magic touch begins to falter when it comes to gay girls, and beyond the casting department, they’re hopeless on race. The soap-operatic quality of a serialized comedy–drama about angsty teens is pretty much a given — but even so, their plots manage to strain the viewers’ generous credulity.

Rachel (Lea Michele) and Finn (Corey Monteith) proudly announce
their ludicrous engagement.
Even by soap-opera standards….

It’s also clear that they’ve got attention deficit disorder. Sugar Motta? At the beginning of this season, she sang so badly that Mr. Schue broke his longstanding open-door policy and refused to let her join New Directions. When her own glee club broke up, suddenly Sugar traipses into Mr. Schue’s classroom and joins the gang, without as much as a mention of her tin ear. She’s a mildly amusing character, and I like the look of Vanessa Lengies, the actress who plays her.

Sugar (Vanessa Lengies) shows Mr. Schue (Matthew Morrison)
how not to suck all the life out of a room.

We may yet see some interesting conflict between spoiled rich girl Sugar and the penurious Sam (Chord Overstreet), but I wouldn’t bet on it. Sam’s family’s financial situation — the most interesting thing about him — is mostly forgotten now. Mom and Dad are off being poor in Kentucky, but Sam’s in Ohio, so everything is cool, right?

Chord Overstreet: They’re still trying to make
a Czech porn star out of him.

At least the show is giving him something to do occasionally, and that in turn has meant more spotlight for the sensational Amber Riley, who plays Mercedes, long one of the best indicators that the writers never had quite enough ideas at any given moment. She finally got a boyfriend, and he’s played by an actor who appears old enough to be her father’s older brother, but because she and Sam held hands once, suddenly she’s all conflicted and — well, whatever. Somehow Riley plays these scenes with astonishing conviction, and then she opens her mouth to sing, and you think, “She’s got a great career ahead of her, and some day none of this will matter.”

“I Will Always Love You”: Amber Riley as Mercedes.
The scene was produced before Whitney Houston’s death.

Part of the trouble, of course, is that there are so many characters on the show, and they keep adding new ones. The Irish kid! The Christian with the dreadlocks! Evil Sebastian Warbler! How do you find time for them all? When Mike Chang (Harry Shum, Jr.) got a story arc, in the fall, it was practically delivered in shorthand. Dad doesn’t approve of your dancing! Dance anyway! Even spread over a few episodes, the whole story was told in a matter of seconds.

Asian F: Keong Sim as Mike Chang’s disapproving father,
with Harry Shum, Jr., as Mike.

Glee keeps bringing minor characters back, too, notably including Karofsky (Max Adler), the closeted homophobic bully who was the focus of so much attention in this week’s episode. I’ve had reservations about this character from the start, and this week’s step-by-step instructional video, How to Commit Suicide the David Karofsky Way, didn’t help, despite the good intentions.

Karofsky (Max Adler) returned for Valentine’s,
primarily so that we could (almost) lose him this week.

You may not have noticed this — in fact, the gay entertainment website AfterElton.com didn’t — but this week’s episode was a pitch for the Trevor Project, a terrific outfit that’s trying to stop gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning teens from killing themselves. In addition to a public-service announcement from Daniel Radcliffe, who is exactly the right person to deliver this message to the right audience, the show featured Sebastian and the Warblers taking donations for the group. But Sebastian’s announcement was so rushed, and moreover surrounded by the hubbub of the Regional Competition, that it was easy to miss.

The Couple Most Likely:
Sebastian (Grant Gustin) & Blaine (Darren Criss).
Actually, I wouldn't mind losing a little of the exemplary, even pious behavior from the Blaine–Kurt affair.

So now Karofsky and Kurt are going to be friends, which is of course exactly where we left things last fall, before somebody decided to bring him back and teach us all a Very Important Lesson. And viewers like me are back to worrying that Glee will try yet again to force Kurt to date the boy who once threatened to kill him — which may entail sending Blaine off to sleep with Sebastian. Which, clearly, the producers intend to happen. And it will probably feature a Very Important Message about trust and fidelity.

The friendship between Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Rachel remains credible and satisfying.

Ultimately Glee is a show about acceptance: being accepted by others, accepting yourself for who you are, and (especially this season) accepting your own limitations. It’s at its best when it shows how people react when they learn they’re not getting the lead in the school play, not earning the football scholarship or the Broadway contract, not winning the student election or receiving the acceptance letter from drama school.

The cast rose to the occasion for the West Side Story episodes, featuring some of the show’s all-time best musical numbers. Here, our Maria and Tony, Rachel and Blaine.

What I’m trying to accept is simply this: Glee isn’t going to get any better. In fact, given the nature of American television shows, which decline in quality after a few years, it’s probably going to get worse.

We may yet see new episodes as good as the fall episode about sex and love, and we’ll probably see clever misfires like the Christmas episode, too. But week to week and scene to scene, Glee is what it is: hit and miss, and mostly miss.

Accept it.

“Love Shack” got it right.

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22 February 2012

Eric Owens at Zankel Hall

This is a good time to be Eric Owens. With acclaimed performances as General Leslie Groves in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic and as Alberich in Robert Lepage’s Ring cycle at the Met, and with a splashy profile feature in the New York Times last Sunday and the January cover of Opera News, the bass-baritone has captured the imagination of the city’s musical community. A solo recital at Zankel Hall last night, with conductor Robert Spano on piano, gave us a chance to focus on Owens, without the Lepage Machine to distract us, and it served notice to anyone who didn’t know already that Owens has really and truly arrived.

And yet most of the enterprise felt almost like an audition for something else — namely, for a recital in the big hall upstairs. Zankel is a small space, but Owens persistently sang bigger and louder than he needed to do; he and Spano didn’t even dress up for the occasion. His program was largely predictable, until we got to the end: yes, a Wagner number, but an obscure one, and rightly so, as it turned out. “Les deux grenadiers” is the kitschiest piece I’ve ever heard from a major composer, a blatant ploy to make money by appealing to the patriotism of the French: when Wagner gets around to quoting the Marseillaise, as you know he eventually must, you want to groan.

What carried the evening was the thrill of Owens’ voice, a massive instrument. He started off with a somber set of Lieder (Wolf, Schubert, Schumann) that pretty much confirmed Anna Russell’s analysis of the form: “soggy poetry set to magnificent music” — except that there were few masterpieces among these particular selections. After the interval, he moved into French art songs (Debussy, Duparc, Ravel) that likewise confirmed Russell’s analysis of that form: “great poetry set to rather wispy music.”

Owens redeemed most of these numbers with intensely focused concentration and authentic feeling — and also with a perfectly calibrated drunk routine in Ravel’s “Chanson à boire.” (His French diction is especially good.) But I wasn’t entirely sure why he was singing these numbers, with so much else to choose from, and really it was the two encores that gave the clearest sense of Owens’ artistry.

You remember the Ring?

You might not think that a voice like his would be terribly flexible, but he sang the title role in Peter Sellars’ staging of Handel’s Hercules at Lyric Opera of Chicago last season, and his account last night of Purcell’s “Music for a While” was pure magic, tender and loving. He followed this up with what he called “my answer to the Schumann set,” an impassioned “Shall We Gather at the River?” that pretty much baptized us all in its warmth and its message of hope. Here, too, he sang softly — right until the end, when he raised his voice in what seemed the absolutely justifiable expectation of triumph.

With the piano lid gaping wide open, Spano may inadvertently have encouraged Owens to over-sing at times, but overall he played beautifully, with a splendid balance of strength and sensitivity. It’s puzzling that accompaniment has figured so slightly in Spano’s distinguished career, and I’m hoping he’ll return frequently to New York in this capacity.

Owens had a full house, and he showed a nice rapport with the crowd, teasing us when the second half began (“You didn’t leave!”) and giving a shout-out to his first piano teacher. In so many ways, he’s a sensational artist. For his next recital — in Stern Hall, with a more intriguing program — he’ll be ready, and I’ll make it a point to be there, too.

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18 February 2012

Vigne, la Révolution!

Nous sommes les Saint-Pourçain!

We are plucked from the vine when we are still tender, then we are crushed and forced to work for tyrannical overlords.

We are kicked out of our cellars and shipped around the world while they stay home and drink Coca-Cola.

We are made to listen to the idiotic things you say to each other over a glass of wine.

We are made to accompany inferior dishes prepared by substandard chefs.

We are even forced to swallow cheeses made from pasteurized milk.

And then you have the nerve to seize the time slot for our little wine fair in February and hand it over to the Cattle Show.

We are not savages. We are the Saint-Pourçain.

And we are not A-OK.*

Occupons la Foire des Vins!

(Actuellement Foire des Bovins. Merci.)

*NOTE: We are, of course, A.O.C. Thank you for respecting this small but important detail.

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17 February 2012

‘Carrie: The Musical’

Molly Ranson and Marin Mazzie in Carrie.
Illustration by WVM©
Blurry photo of the drawing also by WVM©

Carrie, a musical by Michael Gore (music), Dean Pitchford (lyrics), and Lawrence D. Cohen (book, based on his screenplay for Brian DePalma, based on the novel by, you know, Stephen King), is currently in previews at New York’s Lucille Lortel Theatre. Tremendous interest surrounds the production, not least because, in 1988, it was the biggest flop in Broadway musical history, breaking the records that Rags had set.

Now, previews aren’t supposed to be reviewed by professional critics. The cast and creative team are still allowed to make changes (and even mistakes). However, I paid full price for my tickets, and other bloggers have gone to town and back already since previews began. Moreover, while Carrie has been “reimagined,” the material is familiar, and it probably behooves the producers to smile when I say that the new version is far better than the reputation of the original. Just the same, my ethics and my respect for the process impose a certain degree of restraint — such as opening with the reminder that every single thing I saw and heard could change completely by the time the show opens, on March 1.

But a few observations are in order, and the first of these is how many problems remain with a famously troubled show. Carrie has been in workshop for something like a year, and playing at the Lortel for a few weeks already. The DePalma movie on DVD features a brief interview with Cohen about the Broadway misadventure, and watching it, I understand why he hadn’t made more improvements: he doesn’t seem to believe the show needs any, preferring instead to blame the stage director of the original production (Terry Hands, of the Royal Shakespeare Company).

A scene from the 1988 production.

The show’s biggest problem — an excess of earnestness — is new, however, and it will disappoint anybody who comes looking for a camp extravaganza. The show’s creative team seems overmuch impressed with topicality: Carrie is among other things a story about bullying, a subject that’s captured public attention lately. Understandably moved by terrible news stories, the creative team has responded with its collective heart, instead of its head.

The catch is that Carrie isn’t a show about a normal girl who gets bullied: it’s not an After-School Special, any more than it’s an episode of Family starring Sada Thompson and Kristie McNichol just because a mother-daughter relationship is central to the story. I needed less earnestness and more weirdness.

Not exactly an After-School Special
on the consequences of bullying.

Starting with Carrie White herself. When she first enters, during an onstage volleyball game, she’s wearing gym clothes and she looks much like everybody else. So did Sissy Spacek, in the first scene of the DePalma movie, and in the next scene, naked in the gym shower, Spacek actually looked quite beautiful. But to an audience in 1975, she was a bit of a freak, thin, with those huge eyes and that tiny nose, her pale hair hanging limp and — without makeup — her eyelashes almost white.

Molly Ranson, the young actress playing Carrie in this production, is sweet-faced, adorable-looking, really. But her hairstyle isn’t all that much different from those of any of the other girls onstage, and the principal difference in costuming (once we move past the gym-class sequence) is that her skirt is much longer and her sweater a bit bulkier. A few more visual clues could have heightened our understanding that, no matter how Carrie tries, she is not in fact like the other girls.

Musically, too, there was little about the role to set her apart from the others. Consider the way that a not-terribly gifted composer, Andrew Lloyd-Webber, makes clear that Eva Duarte Perón isn’t like anyone else, the minute she opens her mouth: she’s strident, aggressive, taking odd harmonic lines, standing out.* Gore and the music director–arranger, Mary-Mitchell Campbell, don’t even begin to explore the possibilities — though I’m confident that Ranson could rise to the challenge.**

Molly Ranson, a Carrie for the 21st century

The trick is that there should be a moment when we in the audience are in Sue Snell’s position: no matter how nice we are, no matter how nice Amy Irving was in the movie or Christy Altomare is here, we should react negatively to Carrie’s strangeness — so that we, like Sue, spend most of the rest of the evening feeling guilty and wanting to atone.

Carrie functions in its way rather like a Classical drama: we understand better the conflicts of our own lives when we see them portrayed by someone so much larger than life. Terry Hands proved pretty clearly that Carrie White isn’t a Jacobean princess, but she does function as an Aristotelian protagonist in some ways — notably, she’s like Medea, another tragic witch. Once we understand the harm that has been done to her, we root for her to exact her vengeance — but when she begins to do just that, according to her own internal logic, we recoil. Euripides set up his story this way for a reason, and so presumably did Stephen King, Brian DePalma, and Lawrence D. Cohen himself.

In short, Carrie’s supernatural powers invest her with a heightened command over our terror and pity, from which we may learn something. And that goal surely chimes with the creative team’s earnest interest in making an anti-bullying statement.

Mazzie and Ranson

The quality of the singing proved one of the evening’s greatest pleasures. Marin Mazzie, playing Margaret White, Carrie’s fanatical mother, is a known quantity, whose classical training gives her access to color and range that few other Broadway divas can match. As I observed when I saw her Lili Vanessi in Kiss Me, Kate several years ago, Mazzie has a fearlessness that reminds me of the late Elizabeth Montgomery, a beautiful blonde who was perfectly willing to mug and grimace in service of the comedy she played on Bewitched. Mazzie doesn’t play Margaret White for laughs, but it’s a thoroughly unglamorous performance just the same, and thoroughly compelling, too.

Carrie should be a star-making part for Molly Ranson. Hers is a big, gorgeous voice, supple and even and clear. I didn’t get the impression that her acting skills are yet on a par with her singing talent, but this young woman is clearly destined for the best that musical theater can provide her. (In the ever-optimistic spirit that there will still be musical theater worthy of the name.) And Christy Altomare is sensational as Sue, a tough acting job with singing assignments almost every bit as challenging.

Some of the pitfalls that I might have expected turn out to pose no significant problem in the staging. Cohen’s book relies very heavily on his screenplay, but that turns out to be an excellent starting point for the stage adaptation, and director Stafford Arima has found theatrical tricks that give an audience the sort of thrills and spectacle that fans of the DePalma movie must expect. While the cast is tiny, the stage seldom feels underpopulated.

As proof that responses may differ widely, be it noted that Patrick loved the show and found it meaningful and moving; he also admired the score. I’m less enthusiastic, as you’ve seen, but I’ll confirm that there are many good reasons to see Carrie: The Musical, and only a few of them have anything to do with the show’s unhappy history. Is this an unjustly neglected masterpiece? No. Neither is it a so-bad-it’s-good sideshow. Carrie is just a surprisingly modest attempt to tell a good story through music, and it’s worth taking a look and a listen.

You probably don’t need to be told anything about this picture.

*NOTE: The Madonna movie screwed up Evita’s musical characterization by transposing the music to lower registers more comfortable to the star, who, for all her virtues, is no Patti LuPone.

**The program also credits an orchestrator (Doug Besterman) and a “vocal designer,” whatever that means, by the name of AnnMarie Milazzo. With so many people involved, tweaking Carrie’s music might be quick work — if only they’d get started.

Due to an editing error in the original posting of this essay, Molly Ranson’s last name was misspelled. Thanks to the anonymous reader who pointed out my mistake.

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16 February 2012

Americans Worst Parents in Universe, New Book Says

Nikto-7Z781 with her youngest child, Benjamin Spock.

American parents are the absolute worst in the entire universe, according to a new book, Bringing Up B2D2, by noted Rigelian author Klaatu Nikto-7ZY81. Although the book won’t be released until next week (by Area 51 Press), it’s already generated considerable controversy — and it’s also a best-seller, the most widely pre-ordered book on Amazon this week.

For example, Nikto-7ZY81 credits the current rise in childhood obesity in America to the tendency of Americans to allow their children to eat carbon-based food. “You never see a Rigelian child weighing more than 2.7 gozwats,” the author says, “and every American parental unit must look deep within its blood-pumping apparatus to ask the reason why.”

“Even this guy is a better parent than you,
silly American Earthlings,” says Nikto-7ZY81.

Discipline is never a problem for extraterrestrial parents, Nikto-7ZY81 says. “My child units know that it would take only a single misstep in order for me to terminate and begin to raise one of their clones instead,” says one Antarean mother, Shazbat Nanoo of Delta Ceti 12, quoted several times in Bringing Up B2D2. “Disobedience would be highly illogical.”

Nikto-7ZY81 was born on Antares 5, but abducted in her youth to Rigel 7. She is the mother of three life forms, ages 3 to 597 time units; she tells readers that she conceived “in the traditional manner, following extensive anal probing on board the mother ship.”

Despite what some Americans may feel is an alien perspective, Nikto-7ZY81 tells reporters that the lessons she brings to Earth can be applied broadly. “They don’t call ’em universal for nothing,” she says.

Playtime between parent and child-unit is perhaps
the most important part of the solar interval,
Nikto-7ZY81 says.

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13 February 2012

Interview: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet on Isolde in Dallas

The stuff of legends: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet and Clifton Forbis
as Wagner’s immortal lovers.

It’s always painful when Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet sings great music in some place where I can’t get to hear her. It happens too damned often. But the pain is especially acute this week, as she sings one of her touchstone roles, Wagner’s Isolde, with Dallas Opera; a run of four performances begins on Thursday night.

I heard her sing a transcendent Liebestod in Bordeaux a few years ago, and it’s killing me to think that, for once, Jeanne-Michèle is right here in America, singing the whole megillah, and I can’t go. But my regret doesn’t end there.

JMC and Forbis in the same staging, from Geneva.
This production, directed by Olivier Py, was recorded for DVD,
which you can (and should) purchase.

When I was a boy, Tristan und Isolde was the first Wagner opera that Dallas Opera (then known as Dallas Civic Opera) produced, a rite of passage for the company and for me, too, since Tristan was thus the first Wagner opera that I ever attended. (It was also the first time I asked a girl on a date. I was smooth, all right.) To return to Dallas, all these years later, and to hear the opera with fresh, better-educated ears, while a friend sings the heroine’s music, would be magical indeed. No such luck.

But Dallas Opera is also where I launched my journalistic career, interviewing Beverly Sills in her dressing-room before a performance, and so far as sopranos and interviews and Dallas Opera are concerned, at least, my luck is still good. Despite a phenomenally busy rehearsal schedule — in which what was originally planned as a concert performance has been fully staged — Jeanne-Michèle managed to find time to answer a few questions about a work that means a lot to her and about a company she’s clearly pleased to revisit.

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, in person.
She grew up in New Orleans, which is sort of next-door to Dallas, if you think of it as a very, very wide door.

WVM: For a while now, the DVD of Tristan from Geneva was the most reliable way for audiences in the United States (your native country, by the way) to get a sense of who you are and what you do.

JMC: This appearance in Dallas feels like the completion of a beautiful circle, and maybe the beginning of another? Clifton Forbis and I did our first Siegmund and Sieglinde here together. Then we did the Geneva Tristan, his first and my second, together.

For me, that was such a magic production. It was the beginning of my close relationship with Olivier Py and a musical highlight in my life to sing this music with the magical Armin Jordan. The DVD that was made there captures so much of that for me. Clif and I are very similar musicians and artists, and our voices work very well together. It is such a joy to be back in T&I and Dallas with him. Old home week.

JMC and Forbis in another scene from the Geneva production

WVM: How has your interpretation of Isolde changed since the Geneva production?

JMC: Of course, every production brings new ideas into my interpretation, and with most roles, every time I sing it (and I mean every time: rehearsal, performance, run-through in my living room), I discover new things, new colorations, new nuances in text and musical phrasing.

I think the biggest change for me is the fleshing out of the character's backstory, both within my life and my imagination. In this production, for example, Isolde has Morold's coat and is in possession of Tristan's original sword. She uses the coat as a comfort, a reminder, a talisman. At first I felt confused by this idea, felt a little Elektra-like, but slowly I have worked the coat into my Isolde: the need to feel that things could have been different, that had Morold lived and she had spent her life with him, everything would be okay.

JMC with Thomas Moser as Tristan, in Naples, 2004.

In my personal opinion and experience of the character of Isolde, Tristan and Isolde were in love at first sight; the potion unleashes their inhibitions, but does not create the love. I find using the coat, using this almost-escapism to her past, makes her younger, more vulnerable in a way. It gives an expression to her weakness/humanity, so, despite the intensity of her rage in Act I, you see the woman who just wants it all to be okay.

WVM: I was around in 1976 for the company’s very first Wagner opera — which just happened to be Tristan. Coming to town decades later, how do you find the company’s command and the audience’s response?

JMC: We will have some public for the general rehearsal [final dress, tonight], so I cannot comment on the audience response. But I can say that this cast is a good as it gets, and the atmosphere is so congenial and positive. We all are reveling in each other's abilities and ideas. Such a fabulous working situation. The production, by Christian Räth (another old friend) is beautiful. Clif (who has sung 100 Tristans) has said that he feels it is one of the truest he has been in.

Roberta Knie and Jon Vickers in Tristan at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 1979, three years after they sang these roles in Dallas.
Only much, much later did I understand how good they were.

WVM: I’ve admired Graeme Jenkins’ conducting on several occasions and in varied repertory, but I’ve never heard him in Wagner. What is he bringing to this music?

JMC: He loves this score and has prepared it so well and with such attention. He is absolutely present with us, and we are making great music. The orchestra is thrilled to play it and has put in a lot of time on the score. I think the audience is in for an exceptional treat.

WVM: Any advice for audiences who’ve never heard this opera before?

JMC: Wagner takes a big commitment of time and energy from performers and audiences alike. The more preparation one does, the more one gets out of it. That said, do not come hungry, or too tired, if possible, and do be ready to be transported.

JMC with Petra Lang as Brangäne. Santiago, Chile, 2007.

Listen both to the voices and the individual voices of instruments and sections in the orchestra. Wagner gives information on many different levels: textually, melodically (both voices and instruments), harmonically, texturally, color-wise, etc. He constantly is guiding the listener in their experiences and the experiences of the characters on stage. Listen for the leitmotifs, and know how every act reverberates into the next, the ripple effect of a stone thrown into a pond, and how all is connected. Another ever-expanding circle.

Tristan und Isolde
Dallas Opera

Thursday, 16 February, 7 PM
Sunday, 19 February, 2 PM
Wednesday, 22 February, 7 PM
Saturday, 25 February, 7 PM
For information and tickets, click here.

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11 February 2012

Judging Judy

You’re walking on thin ice, buster.

I’ve spent much of my life trying to shield myself from the debatable pleasures of daytime television, but I have at last come across a show that’s so compelling, I can’t help getting caught up — on those occasions when I do allow myself to watch at all.

Judge Judy, a syndicated courtroom “real-life” extravaganza, has been on the airwaves since 1996. Its star is Judith Sheindlin, a retired judge usually described as “no-nonsense,” who somehow manages to muster the patience to listen every afternoon to at least a couple of small-claims cases. Technically, hers isn’t really a court of law: it’s an arbitral proceeding. But try telling her that.

Whatever you’re selling, she’s not buying.

There’s nothing new about Judge Judy, which isn’t the first such courtroom show in the first place and which has been on the air since 1996. Yet the fact that the show is such a known quantity contributes to its appeal (in the emotional, not the legal, sense). Because day after day, you watch — mesmerized — as people who really ought to know better get themselves into even worse trouble with the implacable Judge.

How can so many people be so stupid, or so un-self-aware? Have they never watched the show, or any of its numerous parodies and imitators? When a party in a case appears in Judge Sheindlin’s courtroom in sloppy clothes, or slouches, or interrupts, you watch much as if it were a horror movie: the suspense is mounting, the axe teeters and wobbles. It’s only a question of when the blade will fall.

They really don’t pay me enough.

For Judge Judy demands respect and good manners — more, perhaps, than she shows to the hapless souls in her courtroom. She’s impatient with long stories and convoluted explanations. Speaking out of turn is a capital offense in her eyes. And when she seizes on an inconsistency — or worse, a display of irresponsibility — she pounces.

But we know these things about her. Why do so many of the litigants — almost all of them, really — believe they can get away with lies and nonsense, or bad manners, or bad posture? Why do so many believe they can outfox her?

How many times do I have to tell you?

This is one of the signal features of the reality-television phenomenon, so far as I have come to understand it through my limited exposure. The contestants or litigants are so supremely unaware of their own abilities and limitations that they set themselves up for disaster. Most often, they wind up humiliated: screeching off-key in an audition for American Idol, voted off the Island, rejected by the celebrity panel of fashionistas, or dismissed by Judge Judy.

For those of us at home, the great satisfaction comes when we think (smugly, of course), “Oh, I would never be so foolish.”

What a wonderful affirmation of our own good sense! Indeed, our superiority! And all because we parked our butts in front of the television set for a few minutes.

Are you kidding me?

Judge Judy’s other great satisfaction, as Patrick observed when he caught me watching the show, derives from the orderliness of the proceedings. There are no motions or delays, and the Judge distills each argument to its essence as quickly as she possibly can.

In our daily lives, we’re not so lucky. We have to put up with people’s nonsense all the time: their excuse-making, their bad choices, and the consequent nuisances that befall us. We can’t shush other people, we can’t tell them how to behave, we can’t stop their bickering. In our daily lives, we’re oppressed by other people’s mess.

Judge Judy sweeps it all away — then moves onto the next case. It’s cathartic. No wonder the show is the most popular daytime program in America today.

Yes, I mean you.

Looking very much like someone who used to play the Pixie on a children’s show in her youth, and nowadays behaving like a very tough yenta, Judge Sheindlin is a marvelous character, a study in contrasts. Look at the dainty white-lace collar on her severe black robe! But don’t be fooled by it.

It’s probably best not to dwell too long on any of the larger issues that loom just off-camera. Are the litigants really representative of a broad spectrum of modern society? Is there some correlation between smallness of mind and smallness of claim? Looking at the positively medieval way Sheindlin’s court operates (arbitrarily, of course), you may be tempted to think there’s something to be said for due process without attorneys or juries. Is there something wrong with a legal system that doesn’t ordinarily resolve disputes in 15 minutes? Or with judges who don’t cut through the crap the way Judge Judy does?

No, better to sit back and watch her put everything — and everyone — in its proper place. She brings order not only to the court but also, as Patrick says, to the universe.

Zip it.

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