30 December 2016

Debbie Reynolds

Taking stock of the treasure:
With costumes from Singin’ in the Rain.

Unlike most of us, Debbie Reynolds never seemed to question her luck. If she hadn’t become a movie star, who knows what would have happened to her? Can you imagine her waiting tables or teaching school? I can’t. Reynolds was one of the last products of the Hollywood studio system, making her greatest mark in cinema when she was only 19 years old, and she spent the rest of her life celebrating her stardom.

If she ever gave an interview when she wasn’t “on,” I haven’t seen it, and most of her appearances in sitcoms were merely variations on the character Hollywood created for her, out of the raw materials she supplied: forever the energetic innocent. Even when times were tough, she seemed to enjoy her lot in life, as few people do. She might be broke, she might be down and out, but she was always a star.

Reynolds returned the favor, though Hollywood didn’t seem to care. Recognizing that Hollywood movies are an essential part of our culture and our history, she set about collecting memorabilia that no one else seemed to value at all. We’re going to be very sorry, one day, that we didn’t hold on to Reynolds’ prizes, and keep them in one place, as she tried to do. Her own museum failed, and the Hollywood studios declined to establish another museum to take its place. She wound up selling the stuff at auction, and her life’s work went scattering to the winds.

With costumes from My Fair Lady.

Maybe Reynolds understood the value of Hollywood better than other people did because, as a girl, movies were forbidden to her, considered profane in the Nazarene church. But oh, what wonders of magic the movies could perform! Not least transforming a poor girl into America’s sweetheart. She’d lived the legend, and she knew it was real.

Hollywood didn’t seem to appreciate Debbie Reynolds nearly as much as she appreciated Hollywood. For two of her best-known roles, she wasn’t the first choice: Gene Kelly wanted a real dancer to play Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain, and just about everybody involved in The Unsinkable Molly Brown wanted Tammy Grimes to repeat the role she’d created on Broadway. When Reynolds made Mother with Albert Brooks, returning to the big screen after nearly a quarter-century, she delivered her best performance, by turns funny and exasperating and dear.

Somehow the Academy didn’t reward her with what would seem to be a reflex, a nomination for an older actress in a good part, a highpoint in a long career. She went unnoticed that year, and Dan Rather and I took to the pages of the Los Angeles Times to protest. Reynolds wrote Dan a sweet note, declaring that the essay was “the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.”

Now she’s gone, upstaging her daughter one last time — in perhaps the most flattering way, and certainly the most show-biz. Hers was a grand exit, one that we’ll be talking about for years, and one that left us wanting more.

There’s no place like Hollywood.

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13 December 2016

Lyric Opera’s ‘Les Troyens’

Nuit d’ivresse: Susan Graham and Brandon Jovanovich.
This and all photos ©Todd Rosenberg courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago.

When Lyric Opera of Chicago announced that Susan Graham would be stepping into the role of Didon in Berlioz’s Les Troyens this fall, I welcomed the news. I’ve heard her each time she’s sung this opera, and I had supposed that her performances in San Francisco last year would be her last — no matter that she had never sung Didon better. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” I said to myself, and made plans to fly to Chicago.

Little did I realize how, days after the announcement, the plot of Les Troyens would come to seem so timely: the opera depicts the collapse of not one but two governments, the demise of one civilization and a prediction of the demise of a second. Yet it wasn’t until the performance began that I fully understood the necessity of what was, in effect, a pilgrimage.

Outside the walls of Troy.

Lyric’s production, the company’s first, featured a vast cast, most of whom but Susan were new to their roles; and a vaster chorus of 94 singers, with Sir Andrew Davis in the pit and Tim Albery providing stage direction. Sir Andrew and the orchestra got off to a blurry start on November 17, when the sheer strangeness of the music simply didn’t come across. Berlioz is creating a sonic environment that’s meant to be like nothing we’ve ever heard, automatically transporting us to another time and place. But within a few measures Sir Andrew corrected course and steered us ably onward. Part of the satisfaction of the performance was the vivid sense that the Chicago musicians had been yearning to play this score.

Albery’s best decision may have been to keep so much of the principals’ action downstage, where we could better appreciate the relationships. For example, virtually every principal in Act II is a member of one family, and the stage groupings and the singers’ interactions made this clear. We weren’t merely watching heroes of legend, we were watching a family, people like us. When my biggest complaint is that the curved wall of Troy should be convex when the Trojans are outside it, and concave when they’re inside (instead of vice-versa), you know Albery succeeded overall.

Goerke as Cassandre (foreground, with Meachem at center).

Singing this opera for the first time in her career, Christine Goerke was the production’s great revelation, so right is she for the role of Cassandre. She sang magnificently, coloring her immense instrument with a wide range of emotions, knowing precisely when tenderness is required and when to let it all hang out. Her acting brought me to tears at the end of Act II, something no other Cassandre has accomplished. Now I may have to become a camp follower for Goerke’s Cassandre, the way I’ve been for Susan’s Didon.

Okka von der Damerau was the wittiest Anna I’ve seen, a gleeful schemer in the scenes where she plays matchmaker for her sister, Didon, which makes for a nice contrast with her sorrow when that match goes awry at the end of the opera. Hers is a plush voice — she’s sung Erda with Lyric — so that vocally this was the definition of luxury casting. Lucas Meachem sang Chorèbe with great feeling, and he and Goerke made a plausible couple, giving the sense of a real history to the characters’ relationship. Annie Rosen was lively and appropriately gamine as Ascagne.

Jovanovich as Enée.

The afternoon began with the announcement that tenor Brandon Jovanovich had a cold. At first my heart leapt — did this mean that my friend Corey Bix would step in to sing Enée, as he did when I heard Troyens in San Francisco? No, it did not; though he did step in for one performance after I left Chicago, Corey sang the role of Helenus this afternoon. Apart from a couple of notes (to which honestly I might not otherwise have paid attention), I’d never have known that Jovanovich was indisposed. His voice has matured so handsomely since I first heard him, and I’m hoping he’ll continue to sing Enée and to grow in the role.

And then there was Susan. Albery’s production sets the opera in a non-specific near-present, and Tobias Hoheisel’s first costume for Didon made her look distinctly more like a prime minister or president than like a queen. Was it compensation — or the cumulative effect of having sung the role so many times — that made Susan’s Didon more regal than ever? The character’s awakening to love (a transition made more gradual by another nice directorial touch, making the “Royal Hunt and Storm” ballet the embodiment of the sleeping Didon’s dream*) became clearer: as she fell in love, she really did let her hair down.

Reine par la faveur des dieux.

For financial reasons — namely, the need to avoid paying overtime — Sir Andrew and the team cut some music, pretty judiciously. Yes, I noticed the absences, but the plot didn’t suffer, and one passage (the long sequence of tributes in Act III) can be theatrically boring, no matter that the music is nice and it’s fun to hear people going on endlessly about how terrific Susan — I mean Didon — is.

But some music in Troyens you wish could go on forever, particularly the duet “Nuit d’ivresse” that closes Act IV. As the music spun out in its dreamy, voluptuous whirls and eddies, Albery made use of Lyric’s new revolving stage, and Didon and Enée’s love carried them beyond all earthly concerns, beyond the earth itself, with stars and planets (projections by Illuminos) looking on. I hesitate to say “perfect,” but this was close to perfect, an entirely apt visual representation of what we heard and the characters felt.

Didon’s dream: The Royal Hunt and Storm ballet.

French repertoire has provided Susan with so many opportunities to revel in the sheer sensuality of her voice, and perhaps none better than “Nuit d’ivresse.” But she doesn’t stop there: then come the blind fury of Didon’s fight with Enée and the anguish of “Adieu, fière cité,” leaving me an emotional wreck. At a talkback after the performance, Susan said she thought she’d sung the aria better that afternoon than she’d ever sung it before — and I was in a position to confirm that she was right.

It’s been a helluva ride, as I’ve followed Susan to Paris, New York, San Francisco, and now Chicago with Les Troyens. A friend estimates that I’ve spent two full days of my life sitting in theaters and listening to her Didon. She has made this music so meaningful to me, and never more so than this fall, when much of the world has seemed to be collapsing around us all. Didon is more, then, than a signal achievement in the career of an artist for whom I feel both admiration and affection. It’s a gift of art that Susan has shared, when we need it most.

So if it should happen that she decides to sing it again — in Brussels or Barcelona or Bug Tussle — I’ll find a way to be there, too.

A gift, an offering: Rosen as Ascagne with Graham.

*NOTE: To a degree, the start of the ballet reminded me of Laurie’s Dream in Oklahoma! — and I mean that in a good way. I’d love to see this staging concept developed further.

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26 November 2016

‘Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life’ and Four Last Words

The welcome return of Gilmore Girls in four new episodes entitled A Year in the Life to Netflix has been for this admirer a tremendous success. Naturally, it helps that Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband, Dan Palladino, took charge, because the new episodes’ sense of the history of the show — the lives these characters have led — was just about impeccable. Actors returned to familiar roles, even minor ones, and only in a few instances did their homecomings strike me as contrived. And the look of the show couldn’t have been closer to the original.

No matter that the original interiors had been discarded, no matter that the exteriors for Stars Hollow had been, right up until the day before production started, the exteriors for Grease Live, production designer Denny Dugally and art director Natasha Gerasimova recaptured every detail. When Emily (Kelly Bishop) points out all the changes she’s made to her living room, it’s an in-joke: nobody, Lorelai (Lauren Graham) included, can tell the difference.

Costume designer Brenda Maben had a little more latitude — fashions change over the course of nine years — yet she got everything right, too. There’s never a scene in which you think, “Oh, she would never wear that.” The exception to that rule is, of course, Emily’s T-shirt and jeans, but that aberration is intended to show how badly she’s responding to the death of her husband. The T-shirt and jeans are all wrong, which means they’re perfect.

The reunion of writers, producers, actors, and designers lends a sense of community to the proceedings, and since the community of Stars Hollow provides much of the appeal of Gilmore Girls, the episodes are even more satisfying to watch. When my worst complaint is that each episode doesn’t start off with Carole King’s “Where You Lead, I Will Follow,” we’re in pretty good shape.

We got terrific performances from actors such as Graham, Bishop, and Liza Weil (the indispensable Paris Geller), and Alexis Bledel was charming as ever — though it’s getting harder to ignore Rory’s flaws. We got plenty of Stars Hollow eccentricity and Hartford snobbery. We even got a pig, which only raises the question why we never had one before.

Above all, we got the sense that, while we had left the Gilmore Universe for nine long years, that universe proceeded. And there’s the suggestion that it will continue to do so, whether or not we’re privileged to return.

There follow some plot spoilers. If you haven’t watched A Year in the Life and you’re a fan of the show, please don’t scroll further or click “Read more.” Seriously. Don’t do that to yourself. Do what I did: go to a friend’s house, order takeout, and watch the show. Enjoy it. This blog will still be here when you’re finished.

As for the rest of you — click away.

First, let the show surprise you.

Let’s start with the biggie: the Four Last Words. For years, Sherman-Palladino, who was bumped off the show before its final broadcast season went into production, teased us, telling us that she knew exactly how she would have ended the series. Speculation built as the revival drew nigh, and now I gather that quite a few people are disappointed (or worse) in the four-word exchange between Rory and Lorelai.

It made sense to me. The original idea of Gilmore Girls was that a single mother and her daughter were best friends, and the show explored the ways in which mothers and daughters can be alike and different. Emily factors in, to display similarities and contrasts with Lorelai, of course, to the point where young Lorelai rebels constantly and eventually flees Hartford to keep from being like Emily. Lane and Mrs. Kim were foils to the other mother-daughter pairs. If the show had ended its original run with Sherman-Palladino in charge, then Rory would have announced that she was about to become a young single mother — like young Lorelai.

Now, since the likely father, Logan (Matt Czuchry), presumably can't call off his engagement to the French heiress, Rory is facing the prospect of becoming a less-young single mother. (On the bright side, that means she doesn't have to listen to Logan call her "Ace" all the time.) Naturally, she'll turn to her trusted friend and advisor — Lorelai — for help. Lorelai even alludes to “the cycle of life” earlier. Well, we’re coming full circle now.

And yeah, it does leave open the possibility of another new series (or single movie?).

To support my analysis, I cite Richard Gilmore’s will, which leaves Luke (Scott Patterson) money on the condition that he expand and franchise his diner. A contrivance? A steal from Middlemarch? No, it’s a callback to the early days of Luke’s first affair with Lorelai, when Richard took him golfing. From the start, Richard didn’t believe that Luke’s Diner was a concern large enough to make Luke worthy of his daughter. After seeing Luke and Lorelai reunite, and last for nine years, naturally Richard is going to want to try one last time to instill some ambition in Luke, and the kind of success that Richard admires. The Palladinos really thought this stuff through.

(By the way, there are several references to Luke and Lorelai’s having been together for nine years. Which means that, yes, just as we suspected and hoped, they did rekindle their relationship at the end of the last episode of Season Seven. History!)

All that said, I could never stand Logan and am hoping the Wookiee is the baby daddy. After all, Lorelai got pregnant accidentally. This is a different kind of mistake — but like mother, like daughter....

I also wouldn't be surprised if Jess (Milo Ventimiglia) stepped in and offered to marry Rory or to help her bring up the baby that isn't his own. Clearly he still carries a torch for her. And after all, Luke effectively adopted Rory — and like uncle, like nephew…. That idea probably appeals to me because I thought always Jess was a terrible boyfriend and a wonderful ex-boyfriend (which he proves again in A Year in the Life).

The suspense in a future episode/series/movie, then, wouldn't be “Who's the daddy?” but “Will Rory really do this on her own — with an entire town to help her — the way Lorelai did?”

To ask that question may be to answer it.

In the space of a few minutes, Lorelai goes from becoming a Sadie to finding out that she’s going to be a zaydie.
Oy, with the milestones already.

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02 September 2016

Gene Wilder

Gene Wilder was one of a handful of people I knew I’d have to talk to in order to tell the story of Madeline Kahn, the Oscar-nominated, Tony-winning star whom he described to me as his “most talented actress and favorite co-star.”

A lot of fans consider Gene and Madeline one of the all-time-great movie couples. In reality, they made only three pictures together, and in one of those, they don’t share a scene. That’s Blazing Saddles. But Gene was so taken with Madeline that he hung around the set for every single take of her big number, “I’m Tired.”

Afterward, he told Mel Brooks, “If the entire movie is just that one scene, it will be worth the price of admission.” The two immediately started trying to find a part for her in their next movie, Young Frankenstein.

I was keenly aware that, without Gene, I wouldn’t have a book that would be worthy of Madeline herself.

This accounts for some of my eagerness in our first interactions. Something he said when I first wrote to him, led me to believe that he’d be willing to meet face-to-face. So I offered to meet — and Gene’s response nearly exploded out of my laptop. NO, he did not want to see me! He was so skittish that for several nervous minutes I was afraid of losing him altogether.

I wrote back to say that I’d be willing to ask him my questions any way he wanted. Telephone. E-mail. Semaphore. Smoke signals.

He chose e-mail.

As the Fox, outstanding in his field.

At first, Gene seemed a little … terse. He’d write no more than two or three sentences in answer to any question.

Now, my aim in writing my book was to allow the reader to hear voices — not only Madeline’s voice, because I was looking at her first as a singer — but also the voices of the people she worked with. Gene’s answers weren’t what I’d imagined.

Beyond that … was he brushing me off? I picked up his memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger. And then I understood. This was Gene’s writing style. To the point. Terse, if you will, but in keeping with a man, most of whose writing had been movie scripts.

As I looked over what he’d written to me, and compared it with what he’d said about Madeline in other places, I saw that, so far from brushing me off, he was actually giving me his best material.

I was reminded of one of his early movies, The Little Prince. Gene played the Fox. The Fox can’t be tamed, and he’s very shy. For the first time, I understood: when Gene played the Fox, he was typecast. And so I tried to keep myself at a distance where he’d be comfortable with me. He signed his notes “Gene,” but I never addressed him as “Dear Gene.” Maybe that was a mistake, but it’s too late now to undo it.

Over the years, he continued to give me his best material, always answering me promptly. I seldom had to wait more than an hour for a reply to any of my questions.

He was fastest when I wrote to get his response to Mel Brooks, who insisted, even as I objected, that Gene and Madeline must have had an affair. Quite a few fans still believe this. Madeline herself, Gene had told me, thought it was a good idea. His own stepdaughter believed it to be true. And now Mel — who knew both Madeline and Gene well — told me he couldn’t believe it wasn’t true.

Yet again, Gene’s reply exploded out of my computer. This time in ALL CAPS. NO, he and Madeline never had an affair!

“I want everything I’ve ever seen in the movies!”

When it came time to solicit endorsements for the back cover of the book, Gene obliged. I wrote to thank him, and I never heard back. His birthday rolled around about six weeks after the book was released; I dropped him a note. I didn’t hear back.

Maybe he didn’t like the book, I thought — despite the evidence that he had liked it. (I promise you, my publisher didn’t put a gun to his head when they asked for his endorsement.) Maybe he figured that my book was finished, and therefore that was the end of it.

Or maybe he was only a little more than a year away from death.

Reading his obituary, I realize that our later correspondence followed his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. He must have known that each note to me represented a last chance to express his feelings for a dear friend, whom he missed quite painfully.

He was a helluva guy. Gene was very, very ambitious for himself. But he loved his friends. He made them his co-stars. And he did everything he could to make them look as good as possible.

He wrote The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother specifically for Madeline — and Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise, and himself. Every one of them gets a chance to shine. You see a similar generosity in the scripts he wrote for Richard Pryor and Gilda Radner, too. This was a man who truly cared about the people he worked with.

If you haven’t seen Smarter Brother, I hope you’ll do so soon. It was the first picture Gene wrote and directed, and he also stars. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a beautiful tribute — to Madeline — to Marty — to Dom — and to Gene himself.

Now, Gene didn’t write a movie for me. But he did what he could to help me. And make no mistake — that, too, was his tribute to Madeline.

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14 August 2016

The Florence Foster Jenkins Moment

Queen of Delight? Streep as Foster Jenkins.

At movie theaters, we’re in the middle of a Florence Foster Jenkins moment. Stephen Frears’ film, starring Meryl Streep, has opened in the United States — following Xavier Giannoli’s French film, Marguerite, released just a year ago and based on Foster Jenkins’ life, starring my beloved Catherine Frot in a César-winning performance. In the works is a documentary, The Florence Foster Jenkins Story, in which none other than Joyce DiDonato plays the demented diva.

Why now? Is it merely that, at this historical moment, we happen to have three talented actresses who are willing and able to play the woman widely regarded as the worst singer who ever lived? Is there some vast audience that’s been demanding — for decades, presumably — multiple interpretations of this story? Does Foster Jenkins’ story speak to something current in our society? Is this just a fluke?

Having seen the Frears and Giannoli films, I’m inclined to opt for Answer 1. Streep, who as a child studied with Estelle Liebling, is the right age, more or less, and quite open to the challenge of impersonating well-known women (Margaret Thatcher, Julia Child). Frot has made a career-long specialty of loopy bourgeoises, finding in their stories a measure of comedy and tragedy, and Marguerite offers audiences a taste of both. And Joyce, widely esteemed as one of the greatest singers alive, is also a good sport with remarkable sympathy for those less gifted: I once attended a dinner party at which we played some of Foster Jenkins’ recordings, and while the rest of us writhed in a mixture of agony and delight, dear Joyce refused to say a word against the woman.

The next question, then, is what’s the point? What lessons are we to draw from Foster Jenkins? While I can’t yet address the documentary, I’m prepared to answer for the Giannoli and Frears films. Ultimately, Marguerite is the tragedy of a woman who doesn’t know herself; her delusions are at once her reason for being and her undoing. And Florence Foster Jenkins is a garden-variety biopic, leaving its message to the marketing team (“You don’t have to be good to be great,” runs the slogan).

On wings of song: DiDonato as Foster Jenkins.

Both films present a Foster Jenkins who is entirely unaware of how badly she sings; Frears’ film implies that neurological damage from syphilis accounts for her inability to hear herself as others hear her. Both films disregard the theory that Foster Jenkins was in on the joke, that her over-the-top performances were a sort of performance art avant la lettre — which may or may not be true, but which would make for an interesting movie.

Marguerite comes closer to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, the story of a man who doesn’t understand that his true talent is friendship — not moviemaking. If Burton’s film doesn’t attain the level of tragedy, it’s because the movie doesn’t permit the title character any recognition of his fatal flaw. He remains blithely oblivious to what he’s been doing wrong, and yet the message is clear and (for this audience) meaningful. At those many, many times when my writing career hasn’t gone as planned, I’ve wondered whether I hadn’t been kidding myself all along. Wood’s friendship with Bela Lugosi resembles in some ways my friendship with Dan Rather — and so on.

Marguerite gives its heroine her Aristotelian moment, and so, to a degree, does Frears’ FFJ. But in general Frears is up to something different, and his film may be interpreted as a 110-minute expression of the popular maxim, “Dance as if no one is watching.” Florence does indeed sing as if no one is listening, much less judging. But should she? Music is her passion, and she follows her bliss. Okay. That’s fine for her. But what about the rest of us? Are we really supposed to follow her example? If so, I’ll book Carnegie Hall myself.

Thus, despite all of Streep’s dazzle, the focus shifts to her common-law husband, St. Clair Bayfield, a ham actor who at least sometimes has the self-awareness not to subject other people to his “talent.” Effectively a kept man, he coddles Florence, pays off her critics, papers the house, indulges her fancies, and defends her dream world. Even in private conversation, he can’t bring himself to admit that Florence sings badly — as we see in a nice scene with her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (his real name). And only when he lets down his guard — taking a vacation with his mistress — does Florence set in motion the Carnegie Hall concert that will at once fulfill her dream and bring it crashing down on her.

Ah! Je ris! Frot as Marguerite.

We get more insight into Florence’s character in a single scene than in the entire rest of the movie. On a surprise visit to Cosmé’s apartment, Florence talks about her youthful ambition of becoming a concert pianist, and reveals that damage to her hand cut short her career. Thereupon she and Cosmé sit at the piano and, one hand each, they play a Chopin étude. Suddenly, Streep’s performance isn’t about ticks and twirls, and least of all about her voice: it’s about a real woman who does not happen to be Meryl Streep. The Chopin doesn’t merely show us that music is important to Florence; it shows us why music is important to her, and what music does to her.

Does Bayfield understand this? We never see any evidence, one way or another, and yet that explanation could elevate his behavior from self-interest (so long as he humors her, he enjoys a prosperous lifestyle) or benevolent affection (as depicted here, he really does love her). As the film is constructed, however, we get only hints of Bayfield’s attempt to define the point at which he does his lover no favors by telling her lies.

Those hints come not so much in the dialogue but in the weary blue eyes of Hugh Grant, who plays Bayfield. It’s a remarkable performance, particularly coming from someone whose acting is known more for charm than for depth. He’s coasted on piffle in almost every movie he’s made — and he almost always seems to know it. But here he’s working with Meryl Streep, and he rises to the challenge.

Happy, darling? That’s all that matters.
Streep and Grant.

For those who say Grant isn’t a true actor because he doesn’t (or can’t) play Shakespeare, he offers up a self-aware, truly terrible soliloquy. “No, I’m not Ken Bloody Branagh,” he seems to say, “and isn’t that perfectly marvelous?” In what’s almost a throwaway line, Florence tells Cosmé that she hides bad reviews from Bayfield — just as we know he hides them from her. That’s a theme that should have been explored at greater length. The deceptions are mutual, co-dependent, symbiotic.

Yet even as he’s playing what amounts to a drawing-room comedy, Grant suggests, again and again, how much it costs Bayfield to sustain Florence’s fantasies. The script calls for him to retreat to his bachelor pad — and his mistress, and her bohemian friends — to recharge his batteries. But that’s not enough to save either Bayfield or Florence. Perhaps, then, the lesson of Florence Foster Jenkins is that friends don’t let friends dance like there’s no one watching when people actually are watching.

On The Big Bang Theory, Simon Helberg plays Howard, who (at least in episodes I’ve seen) is often presumed to be gay. Here, he plays Cosmé, who really is gay — though the script doesn’t make much of that, and nothing at all of the immortal paradigm of Diva and Gay Disciple. To this day, Florence’s most ardent followers often are gay men, as they were in her lifetime. Perhaps in a nod to political correctness, the script makes only oblique references to Cosmé’s sexuality — too subtle, I think, since a gay man with whom I saw the movie didn’t understand what Cosmé meant when, arriving late and disheveled (but not bloodied or bruised) to an engagement, he explains that he’s been “waylaid by sailors.”

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Helberg as McMoon.

Seated at the piano, Helberg has to react more than speak, and some of his mugging seems better attuned to TBBT than to FFJ. But he knows how to bring Cosmé’s gayness just to the point of caricature and no further, and he plays piano quite well. He and Streep didn’t dub-and-mime their music, performing directly on camera instead, and their teamwork is inspired — one of many ways in which Frears pays gratifying attention to details that other filmmakers might neglect. But the character is barely sketched, and ultimately his motivation — like Bayfield’s — is summed up with the too-simple explanation that he, too, in his way has fallen in love with Florence.

But why do these men love her? Is it her money, her joy, her vulnerability, all of the above? Ultimately, Florence Foster Jenkins skims along its frilly surfaces, and doesn’t dig terribly deep. That’s not a sin, and yet it’s a shame. The talent is on hand to make a truly superlative picture, one that we’re still talking about seven decades from now — the way we talk about Foster Jenkins herself.

Florence Foster Jenkins is a charming entertainment, perfectly pitched to Streep’s fans and the diehard PBS viewer — which makes it all the more puzzling that the trailers “approved for this audience” all featured phenomenal amounts of violence. Well, I suppose it’s possible that the people who come to see FFJ will also want to see Ben-Hur and Jack Reacher and that other picture with explosions and noise, whatever it was. But really, the tone-deafness (and I use the word advisedly in this context) of the marketers makes it seem almost miraculous that there’s even one Foster Jenkins movie, to say nothing of three.

In this deleted scene, St. Clair Bayfield confronts Foster Jenkins’ critics.
(No, actually, it’s Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher, a film I’m unlikely to see, and less likely to enjoy.

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13 August 2016

From the Archive: Has ‘Joker’ Actor Gone Too Far? Friends Express Concern

Losing Himself? Romero as the Joker.

HOLLYWOOD -- As shooting continues on ABC’s Batman, friends and family of actor Cesar Romero are growing increasingly concerned. “He’s completely losing himself in the character,” confirms Burt Ward, who plays Robin on the popular TV series.

“It’s as if he can’t let go,” Ward continues. “Whenever I see him, he’s wearing wildly colored clothing, mincing around, gesturing flamboyantly — and worst of all, he can’t stop joking — and laughing at his own jokes, which aren’t even funny.”

“He’s becoming a pain in the neck,” agrees Adam West, who plays the title role. “The other day, we were at a public appearance, signing autographs in the parking lot at a shopping mall. I said to him, ‘It’s pretty breezy out here.’

“Without missing a beat, he said, ‘Just wait until the fans leave.’ And then he started hooting with laughter. I didn’t even get it, at first.”

With a weary shake of his cowl, West adds, “I can’t tell any more where Cesar ends and the Joker begins.”

Romero, who recently began taking classes at the Actors Studio, could not be reached for comment.

In Happier Times: Friends see almost no trace of the Romero they used to know.

“It’s really painful to see what he’s doing to himself for the role,” says Eartha Kitt, a frequent guest star on the show. “I guess he’s getting the purrrrrrformance he wants, but at what cost? And what will the viewers say? They’re not used to this kind of intensity.

“Purrrrrrrrrsonally, I find it hard to watch,” Kitt adds.

“I keep asking the producers when the breaking point comes, and when they’re going to stage some kind of intervention,” says Burgess Meredith, who plays the villainous Penguin. “I guess they’re just waiting for Cesar to crack-crack-crack-crack-crack.”

If Romero doesn’t get help, friends say, his condition will only get worse.

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30 June 2016

Hello, My Name Is Sybil

Lonely, eccentric DORIS MILLER, a sixtysomething bookkeeper, has developed a crush on JOHN FREMONT, a much younger colleague. Now, inspired by a self-help lecture, she decides to make a play for him. Through elaborate ruses, she manages to throw them together several times a day. Little does JOHN know DORIS is a hoarder … of personalities.

(Knocking on the door to John’s office.)
John, do you have a minute?

(Scarcely looking up from his work.)
Sorry, Doris — I’m in the middle of something right now. Can it wait?

It’s just that the exercise ball they gave me for an office chair — it’s got a leak. And I thought of your bicycle pump.

Oh, sure. Sure. Just give me a few minutes, and I’ll drop by your cubicle.

Thank you so much!
(She leaves John’s office, then returns almost instantly.)

Is there something else, Doris?

Doris? (She bursts into peals of tinkling laughter.) Hahahahahaha! How could you possibly mistake me for her? Obviously, I’m Doris’ friend Vanessa.

Uh … is there anything I can do for you, Vanessa?

I hoped you could help me — the loquet on my necklace is broken, et je ne peux rien. Isn’t it joli? I’m so attached to it. Papa gave it to me during my last year at boarding school in Switzerland.

I don’t really know much about repairing … lokay?

Hahahahahaha! Silly me — oh, what is the English word? Is it … hasp? Do you say hasp?

Uh … can I come by your cubicle in a few minutes?

Bien sûr! A bientôt!
(She leaves, but returns immediately.)

Vanessa, I really just need a few —

Vanessa? Who’s Vanessa? My name is Sister Bertrille, and I’d like to ask you to make a contribution to the annual fund drive for the Convent San Tanco.

I’m Jewish. It’s kind of not my thing.

Oh! Of course. I’m sorry to interrupt you — have a nice day.
(She leaves, but returns immediately.)

Look, this is getting out of hand —

I’ll say it is! Exercise balls instead of office chairs? The way they treat the workers in this shop is terrible! There’s only one solution. (She holds up a sign with the word “UNION” scrawled on it.) We’re going on strike! Are you in?

Can I just get a few minutes —

You can think it over, but you’d better think fast!
(Singing “Look for the Union Label,” she leaves, but returns immediately.)

(Really losing his temper by this time.)
For Pete’s sake, I can’t even concentrate! Come on, Doris, just give me a few —

(Begins crying and muttering through her tears.)
When — when you yell like that — it scares me! Break glass, Peggy! Need to break glass!

She beats her hand against the glass wall of John’s office, shattering it.

DORIS and JOHN stand in silence, staring at the glass. Then, brightly —

So … you want to have lunch sometime?

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13 June 2016

After Orlando, Pride

“Time to paint up!” Porsche is wont to exclaim when she’s getting ready to put on a show. One of the most phenomenal vocal impressionists I’ve ever heard, Porsche wears a dress, heels, and a blond wig to work — as well as false eyelashes, lipstick, and foundation. Thus adorned, she sings: exactly like Eartha Kitt, exactly like Tammy Wynette, exactly like Debbie Reynolds. (Seriously. Who else does Debbie Reynolds?)

Porsche is a man, a former high-school football player from Texas. She also sings exactly like Elvis Presley.

You could take painted-up Porsche home to mother, and yet she is everything that some people want to eliminate. A gay man who dresses as a woman, works in gay bars, and drinks alcohol. (A necessary preparative for singing exactly like Janis Joplin.) She uses her artistry to express a range of feeling, but mostly to express and to inspire joy.

Her shows are a regular summer feature at the Ice Palace in Cherry Grove, Fire Island. Yesterday, as news reports about the massacre at Pulse were still coming in (and they’re still coming in as I write), Porsche had to paint up. By this morning, she’d learn that one friend had been injured in the attack. Another friend did not survive.

How do you put on a show, when all that is going on? How do you “address this,” as Porsche asked herself? You sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” is how. Because Porsche also sings exactly like Judy Garland, and when President Kennedy was shot, that’s what Judy sang. For gays, it’s not a hymn of Christianity. It’s a hymn of Judy-ism.

The performance wasn’t merely “the show must go on.” This was defiance, and once again, as at so many points in our journey, a drag queen was leading the way. We will go on — we will go marching on. Whether you respect them or not, we will continue to celebrate art, and pride, and freedom, and love, and life itself.

Photo by Jim McGann.

Again and again in recent years, I have asked myself how to respond. When — and how — do I move beyond grief and anger? And once I’ve done so, what do I do? Is it possible for me to make any gesture that represents what the fallen might have done, to pay tribute to their lost potential? “We don’t let the terrorists win,” okay, but in yesterday’s attack, there’s another factor. Daesh has been tossing homosexuals off of buildings for a while now, and as they bring their campaign to American shores, it was a matter of time before they specifically attacked gays and their friends. True, Daesh hates other people, too; their adherents could have gone after anybody. But Sunday morning, a man professing allegiance to Daesh went after the gays.*

Daesh isn’t the only outfit that calls for the punishment of homosexuality by death, and it’s hardly alone in its enthusiasm for violence. Around the world, governments call for much the same, as do groups and individuals. In the United States, some people invoke religion to demand the execution of homosexuals. During the primary campaign, the Texan Senator Ted Cruz gratefully accepted the endorsement of one such pastor, and Cruz’s own father, also a pastor, is an outspoken homophobe. Neither fellow is a Muslim.

Among the Republican politicians who tweeted their “thoughts and prayers” yesterday, I saw only one who referred to the scene of the attack as a gay club. It’s hard not to construe this across-the-board omission as a nod to social conservatives, who are eager to roll back the advances in civil rights made by gays in recent years.

For now, at least, we still have the right to marry. And even Texas hasn’t passed a law subjecting us to the death penalty. But in many states, gays can legally be denied housing, employment, and basic services, simply because they’re gay. Gays are subject to daily persecution, and in many states, a crime against them is not considered a hate crime under the law, no matter how many times the assailant bellows, “Kill all the faggots.” The Red Cross may not want our blood, but plenty of other people do. We are still second-class citizens.

At Boots & Saddle on Sunday.

While Porsche was singing on Fire Island, another man from Texas, Miss Victoria Chase, had to paint up in Manhattan. Sundays are karaoke night at Boots & Saddle. But yesterday wasn’t like other Sundays. Wary of a copycat attack, police officers in combat gear stood guard outside the door. They carried automatic weapons. As one of Victoria’s friends observed, it’s a sign of progress that the police are now protecting, not raiding, gay bars — the Stonewall is just around the corner from Boots. But the need for protection is unnerving.

How do you put on a show, with all that going on? By singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” Victoria’s signature number, which reliably brings me to tears. Leader of her community that she is, Victoria sang for all of us. No, no, there’s no way. We’re not going.

In some ways, “And I Am Telling You” may seem like the flip side of “Battle Hymn,” immobility versus marching. Yet both songs are about prevailing, refusing to submit, and staying true.

Victoria sang “And I Am Telling You,” she tells me, as part of her Pride Package, along with Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” Well, this is Pride Month, and we’re thinking hard. This year we’ll remember that the Stonewall Rebellion was a response to a violent attack. We’ll remember that Pride isn’t just a parade or a party. We’ll remember that Pride stayed strong even while thousands of us were dying.

It’s time to paint up, stand up, and raise our voices. Most especially for those who no longer can.

Miss Victoria Chase.
Photo by Jim Silvestri.

*UPDATE: After I posted this essay, reports began appearing to the effect that the Orlando shooter may have been a closeted and/or self-hating homosexual; his affiliation with Daesh never seemed close, though Daesh gladly took credit after the fact. The shooter’s mental health (and his relationship with his father) surely factors into his motivation and his crime, as well. It will probably be a long while, if ever, before we know even a substantial part of the full story. However, it occurs to me that it’s possible to be both radicalized and closeted at once, as the 9/11 attacker Mohammed Atta reportedly was. And if anything, the new reports about the Orlando shooter confirm the need to respond to the massacre with pride. The more we break down the closets, the more society admits our worth and respects our rights, the healthier and safer we will be.

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26 May 2016

Returning to ‘Little Women,’ or How Mark Adamo Concord Me

Where it began: the HGO cast in 2000.
Margaret Lloyd, Stacey Tappan, Stephanie Novacek, Joyce DiDonato (my first glimpse of her).

I first saw Mark Adamo’s opera, Little Women, in 2001, a video of the production from Houston Grand Opera (a revival of the world premiere, from 1998) projected on the wall of a New York City hotel room for the benefit of music writers who wouldn’t be able to watch the broadcast on PBS a few days later. The next year, I attended a performance at the Glimmerglass Festival — and I got a sense of the work’s power to move listeners. During Beth’s death scene, a man began to sob and ran out of the theater. The Glimmerglass production took the stage at New York City Opera in 2003, where I saw it again. A performance at the Seagle Music Colony in 2004 was the last that I would see — until now.

I’d kept up with Mark and his work in the meantime. My interview with him, for a profile in Opera News in 2001, represented the first of many long conversations that have led to a rewarding friendship. I’ve heard much but not all of the stage work he’s written since Little Women: I’ve attended two performances of his Lysistrata and watched his Becoming Santa Claus — a live simulcast from Dallas, projected on another wall in New York.

But what would I think of Little Women upon hearing it again after all this time? “Things change, Jo,” as Meg observes in the opera, and so of course do I. Little Women was Mark’s first opera, crafted on a much smaller scale than Becoming Santa Claus and the grand Lysistrata. Twelve years ago, I wasn’t hearing nearly as many new operas as I do today, and even a work I admired — Berg’s Lulu — contained passages I didn’t learn to love until last fall, when the Met unveiled its new production. My tastes are changing.

Composer-librettist-conversationalist: Mark Adamo.

Even my admiration for Little Women developed gradually. The libretto won me over from the get-go, and thanks to Mark’s understanding that “almost alone among adolescent protagonists in classic American fiction (Tom Sawyer, Holden Caulfield, Roth’s Portnoy), [Jo is] happy where she is,” I’ll never think about Alcott’s novel the same way. As Mark dramatizes the story, Jo learns to accept change — and she’s powerless to resist it. (Her only option, represented by her fearsome Aunt March, is to seal herself off from the world — to bury herself alive in “a house of stone.”) That’s a good deal more compelling than the plot of a novel I found sticky-sweet and infuriatingly girly. And as a stage work, the opera provided performers with plenty of chances to shine — something that’s important to me as an unabashed diva-worshipper.

But the music took a little longer. Not terribly long, but in retrospect I think that I, like so many others, expected an operatic adaptation of Little Women to sound like either Aaron Copland or Stephen Foster. It sounds like neither, and its only concession to the music of anyone other than Mark Adamo is Professor Bhaer’s Schubertian Lied “Kennst du das Land?” — so achingly beautiful that you’re grateful when he sings it a second time, in English. It’s a clever composer who writes the singer’s encore into the opera. And the song makes it easier than ever before to understand why Jo settles for the Professor.

The trick of false expectations is that they can sometimes blind (or in this case, deafen) us to reality. Only at Glimmerglass was I able to begin to set aside my ideas about what I wasn’t hearing, and to pay attention to the music Mark actually wrote. The orchestral ensemble is small, so that a certain “American” openness is built in, and 16 years after I first heard it, the music is still fresh, even bracing. The vocal writing is gratifying to young singers especially, and where the music is spiky, “modern,” rebellious, uncompromising — well, aren’t those the qualities we cherish in Jo? You may think you want Stephen Foster, but what you require is Mark Adamo. He knows how to tell this story in sound.

At the Gerald W. Lynch Theater on May 7, Joseph Colaneri led the Mannes Opera and the Mannes Orchestra in a production staged by Laura Alley. Insofar as the staging of a new opera can be traditional, this one was, and it looked a lot like the original production in Houston. My only quibbles were with the men’s hats (no, they wouldn’t wear them indoors) and the brief moment when Jo sets time in reverse (insufficiently clear). I’m always reluctant to write about student casts by name — the whole point is for them to learn, not for them to be perfect, or even to seek our approval. (Mine least of all.) But I’m happy to report that everyone performed with spirit, and mezzo Melanie Ashkar reminded me that Jo is a tour-de-force role, seldom offstage and usually singing. Colaneri elicited polished playing from his ensemble, and thus he gave me a real chance to concentrate on the music.

Again and again, I found myself recognizing a theme that, I knew, would return later in the opera. I heard details in the orchestration that I hadn’t noticed before. I smiled at the familiar. I chuckled at the jokes. I looked forward to pleasures. And as I listened, I realized that this is what I do with any opera for which admiration has turned to affection, whether it’s La Traviata or Lulu — or, by now, even Dog Days. Over the years, Little Women has become a contemporary classic and a pillar of the standard repertory.

Its status as such is confirmed by the myriad productions it receives — I’m told that this year alone there will be something like a dozen, maybe more — and by the ways in which audiences and young musicians take it to heart. You needn’t take my word for it. Just listen.

Ava Pine in Mark’s Lysistrata at Fort Worth Opera.

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11 April 2016

In Search of Ana María Martínez

Ana María Martínez as Rusalka in Chicago.
(Where I didn’t get to hear her.)

If I had a nickel for every time a New Yorker has asked, “Why doesn’t the Met hire Ana María Martinez?” I could probably have paid for my airfare to Houston last January to hear her in precisely the sort of role the Met should be begging her to sing: the water nymph Rusalka in Dvořák’s Romantic fairy tale, in which she’d triumphed already at Glyndebourne and in Chicago.

Ana made her Met debut as Micaëla in Carmen in 2005. I was in France and had to miss it. She went on to triumph in Paris, London, Santa Fe, Vienna, Munich, Dresden, Berlin, and Madrid (among others!). Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington became like second homes for her, and Houston really is her home. Meanwhile, New York had to wait. Opera lovers subsisted on recordings, video clips, her rave reviews, and the ecstatic word of mouth from friends who’d been able to hear her almost everywhere except New York.

At last, ten years after her debut, the Met asked her back, this time as Musetta, the seconda donna in La Bohème. The choice of role was curious, since she’s sung Mimì to acclaim all over the world. On the plus side, all her experience means that she’s worked with many Musettas, so she must have some idea of what does and doesn’t work — a head start, even before she rehearsed. To her performances last December, she brought wit, sex appeal, and plush tone.

Welcome back! Ana as Musetta at the Met.

I’ve come to expect the unexpected from her — the penetrating insight that changes my own perceptions — and yet I was almost startled by a seemingly insignificant moment in Act IV, when she brings a muff to warm Mimì’s hands. Mimì asks who’s speaking, and she answers, “Io, Musetta.” Listening to the tender warmth that Ana lavished on those words, I realized that I was hearing Musetta’s true character. This is who Musetta really is. She’s letting down her guard for once. She’s not putting on a show (as she surely is in her aria “Quando m’en vo”). She’s not playing with anybody’s feelings. She just wants to help her friend.

Please note that Ana accomplished this on the words “I, Musetta” — just as Shakespeare would have wanted her to do, in any of his “I am” speeches.

Running backstage after the performance, I greeted Ana with a happy “You’re alive!” — after all, she’s died in every other Bohème she’s ever sung. I had missed Ana: her performances, her winning smile, her kindness and wit. And when we spoke of the upcoming Rusalka in Houston, she added, “I hope you can see it. It’s something really special.” Now, Ana isn’t the sort of soprano to command her admirers to attend her performances, and she wouldn’t say something was special if it weren’t.

So off to Houston I went.

It was at Houston Grand Opera that I first heard Ana — as Mimì (here with Garrett Sorenson and Joshua Hopkins).

Unlike Musetta in Bohème, the title role of Dvořák’s Rusalka vividly displayed a full range of what New York has been missing out on — not least because for most of Act II, she’s mute and must pantomime first her yearning for her Prince (tenor Brian Jagde), then her desperation when he turns to the Foreign Princess (soprano Maida Hundeling). Ana is so complete a performer (a Gesamtkünstlerin, if you will) that, without singing a note, she held the audience’s attention and sympathy at every moment. (I attended the January 31 matinée.)

The extraordinary grace Ana showed in Act I, “swimming” onstage, hoisted aloft, flipping an enormous mermaid tail (even during her Song to the Moon), now turned into the tentative footsteps of a woman who has never walked before and is honestly afraid that she’ll hurt herself if she tries. (We recall that Andersen’s Mermaid feels pain as if she’s walking on broken glass.) Through her physicality, Ana created a poignant awkwardness that reminded me of the effects Gilda Radner so often achieved (to very different ends). You wanted to hug her, to tell her everything would be all right.

But of course it wouldn’t. Not for Rusalka. As Bugs Bunny says, “What did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”

Director Melly Still and designer Rae Smith rightly emphasize the darkness of this opera, and Ana revealed all the darker colors of her voice, so that her high notes came to seem like the moon itself shimmering on the surface of deep water. She drew on enormous reserves of power for the marathon Act III, and yet she still had energy for a talkback session with the audience after the show.

Jill Grove as the witch Jezˇibaba (at once comic and terrifying) and Richard Paul Fink as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik (stentorian and tender in an awful costume), were spectacularly good, and conductor Harry Bicket, whose work I had known exclusively from 18th-century music, made a strong case for his abilities in 19th-century repertoire, even while maintaining an almost Mozartean clarity in the lush Romantic orchestration. Donna Stirrup directed this revival of Still’s production.

Like a sophomore attending the senior prom: she’s so sweet and pretty, but you know this isn’t going to turn out well.
Ana as Rusalka, Act II.
(Photo from the Glyndebourne performances.)

Leaving Houston, I congratulated myself. I’d given myself a booster shot of Ana’s magic, enough to hold me until another season rolled around. Little did I know — little did anyone know — that she’d be back in New York within weeks. Called on to replace Hei-kyung Hong in the title role of Madame Butterfly at the Met, Ana flew to New York from Los Angeles, where she was rehearsing the same opera in a different production. I’m not certain of the exact logistics, but there were a couple of back-and-forth trips before she completed the last of four performances — of which I attended two.

This is Ana María Martínez’s repertory, folks. Yes, I’m sure she was a lovely Micaëla, and her Musetta was inarguably wonderful, but dramatic leads are her natural habitat, where she can explore a character’s psychology and exploit the expressive range of her voice.

Butterfly is often portrayed as naïve in the extreme, but Ana understands that the heroine of Puccini’s opera has led a life of hardship before she makes her entrance in Act I. She’s seen plenty, and as she suggests when describing her career as a dancer, a lot of it was ugly and unfair. Thus Ana’s Butterfly isn’t naïve — and in fact she’s extraordinarily intelligent. She realizes that Pinkerton may not be completely honest with her, but she chooses to believe him. She knows how to be tough when she needs to be, as she demonstrates in Act II, dispatching Goro and Yamadori. When she kills herself, it’s not because she’s heartbroken or trying to hurt Pinkerton or upholding a code of honor — but because she believes it’s her son’s only chance for happiness. If Butterfly doesn’t kill herself, she’s in for a terrible time. Rejected by her family and most of Japanese society, she’d easily wind up not a geisha but a prostitute or a beggar. And her son would know that, and be tormented. So through her death, she frees him.

This is what Ana brings to the stage, even in a role you think you know backward and forward. Astonishing. Every word of text conveyed meaning, and Ana’s voice exulted throughout the vast Met, soaring over the orchestra, spinning out high pianissimi, making you listen, no matter how familiar the music may be. This was my first viewing of Anthony Minghella’s celebrated production, and on the whole I admired it — not least because it gave Ana room to do what she does so well. Critics and audiences agreed with me: she received rave reviews and thundering ovations.

Butterfly at the Met: Ana with the indispensable Maria Zifchak as Suzuki.

Having knocked out New York, Ana went back to Los Angeles for the run of the Butterfly production there — almost as if nothing unusual had happened. The Met went on about its business, too, and Ana isn’t on the roster for next season, not even in the new production of Rusalka. Who knows how long New York will have to wait to hear her again?

As for me, I’ve certainly made up for many of the performances I’d missed. And yet … she’s singing Elisabetta in one of my favorite operas, Verdi’s Don Carlo, in San Francisco in June. Ordinarily, I consider Eboli the more interesting woman onstage in that opera. But then again, I’ve never heard Ana’s Elisabetta. In fact, nobody has — this will be a role debut.

Can I justify the expense of flying out there? Can I justify missing out?

Backstage after Bohème.

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05 February 2016

A Little Mini-Festival in New York

Man in Motion: David T. Little.
Photo by Merri Cyr.

The past few weeks have brought me fresh opportunities to hear the work of composer David T. Little. First up was the New York premiere and my third hearing of his opera Dog Days, to a libretto by Royce Vavrek (from a short story by Judy Budnitz). My initial response to this piece was complex: the piece is so powerful, so compelling, and yet I needed a long time — years, actually — to sort out my thoughts.

Dog Days is a tough, uncompromising work that becomes even more so in its final sequence. Just when you think you can’t take any more, David and Royce throw more at you — and then more, and more. The staging (by Robert Woodruff), the plot, and the music almost insist that you turn away, cover your ears, flee. And yet there’s a fundamental message of hope. No matter where Lisa is going, no matter what happens to her, she will be what she has been: a bastion of humanity in a savage world. The one who keeps trying, no matter the odds, to connect with others.

Seeing the piece first in its premiere production in Montclair, NJ; again in Fort Worth in 2015; and again last month in New York (always with the same, brilliant cast), that message resonated more and more powerfully, and I am ever more convinced that David’s music conveys that message just about flawlessly. Because I am who I am, I gravitate to some of the more lyrical passages, notably the haunting lullaby that accompanies Lisa’s letter to her pen-pal at the end of Act I; and the variations on the hymn-like grace pronounced by the family over its dwindling dinners. But because David is who he is, he weaves in a variety of compositional styles, dissonant or lyrical by turns, including a Broadway-ready duet for Lisa’s horny teenage brothers; and elements of hard and electronic rock pretty far from what I ordinarily listen to.

The brothers (played by Michael Marcotte and Peter Tansits) reveal a great deal about the way characters are portrayed. Surely the boys are, by necessity, a good deal younger than the grown men who portray them: the younger boy hasn’t really hit puberty yet. This lends a twist, no matter what your eyes are telling you, to the scene in which the Captain (Cherry Duke) tries to persuade the Father (James Bobick) to let her enlist the boys in the army. It’s not only that the Father tries, throughout the opera, to assert himself as provider and protector of the family — it’s that the boys are too young to be soldiers.

At each performance, I admired the restrained, weary-seeming, thoroughly lovely performance of soprano Marnie Breckinridge as the Mother; and the ingenious portrayal of Prince, the dog–man, by actor John Kelly. Each character is trapped, in a way, acting out a role because neither knows what else to do.

Worsham, in the world premiere.

Above all, Dog Days has benefitted from the fearlessly acted, limpidly sung performances of soprano Lauren Worsham. What Callas was to Tosca, Worsham is to Lisa, and as a diva-lover, I can predict that one factor in this opera’s future life will be the desire of other sopranos to sink their teeth into this role. Never in any performance medium have I seen anything to rival the extended scena in which Worsham, as Lisa, contemplates her body, wasted by starvation, in a mirror. (Woodruff and his tech crew have installed a camera in the mirror’s frame, so that Worsham’s “reflection” is projected on a giant screen over the stage.) Dressed only in underwear, her nose running (at least in Montclair), her eyes watering, Worsham’s Lisa grows ecstatic, believing that at last she’s attained the kind of body she’s admired in advertising and fashion magazines. It’s total theater: a marriage of music, words, staging, and performance.

It’s no wonder that Dog Days put David, Royce, and their producer, the indispensable Beth Morrison, on the cultural map. Thanks to David Adam Moore’s advocacy of David’s Soldier Songs, I was already keeping an eye on the composer’s work — but Dog Days has turned my interest and appreciation into something like an obsession.

That’s one reason I was so pleased to attend last night’s concert, at Opera America’s National Opera Center. Under the aegis of New York Festival of Song, David hosted an evening of works by composers he knows and admires. This was an extraordinary opportunity to know a composer’s mind — what excites him? Where does he see himself in the contemporary landscape? Through hearing other music, I feel I understand David better. When he observed from the stage that, earlier in his career, he avoided the beautiful in music, I thought I knew what he meant: though I found passages of beauty in Soldier Songs, and vast quantities of the stuff (albeit unexpectedly) in Dog Days, I’ve heard a new maturity in his forthcoming opera, JFK, an outright embrace of beauty — of majesty — of mythology and mystery and timelessness.

The other selections on the program helped to put this development into context, with the result that I’m not only more eager for JFK’s premiere (at Fort Worth Opera, April 23), I’m also more eager to hear the work of David’s colleagues.

First on the program was Colin Read’s Fairy Tales and Letters, an aptly magical song cycle, to texts by Lisa Rosinsky, performed by the pure-voiced soprano Justine Aronson (who might make a terrific Lisa), and, on piano, NYFOS associate artistic director Michael Barrett. From the stage, David observed that, the first time he saw Read’s score, he was struck by its “patience,” and indeed the music takes its (very) sweet time to make its points, spinning out the moments. The cycle is recital-ready, and I look forward to hearing it again.

In the most intriguing segment of the program, Kate Soper presented two excerpts from Here Be Sirens, singing alongside sopranos Gelsey Bell and Brett Umlauf. The sense of play — singing into and strumming the soundboard (my brother and I used to do this, far less artfully), using rocks for percussion, blending harmonies, extending notes and lines as if in a relay race (two singers kept singing while the third breathed) — combined with a sense of danger, until I felt as if I’d watched the women play with very deadly knives. Not only in the sheer curiosity is there an element of drama: the three sirens were distinctly characterized and fully compelling. Soper is clearly a talent to watch — I feel about this work much the way I felt about Soldier Songs. (Yes, some music is like a gateway drug.)

Singer, composer, siren: Kate Soper.

Also singing his work, Ted Hearne experimented with the conventions of pop music in “Intimacy and Resistance” (text by Allison Carter) and “Protection” (text by Meaghan Deans). David also takes inspiration from a variety of popular-music styles, and Hearne’s singing was marvelous. As grownup pop, aesthetically challenging, frequently surprising, Hearne’s songs score their points, but it’s not my field, and I’ll have to hear more before I grasp what he’s really after. (I emphasize: the fault is mine, not his.)

The always-impressive mezzo Eve Gigliotti performed Jeff Myers’ “Requiem Aeternam” — a poignant lullaby in which sleep brings intimations of death — from his Pagtulog na Nene, accompanied by string quartet (Ayano Ninomiya and Danbi Um, violin; Leslie Tomkins, viola; Alice Yoo, cello). After opening with tiny, thin lines from the violins, the entrance of the cello proved extraordinarily eloquent. Gigliotti delivered the text (in a Philippine language) with rich vocal colors and a smile that suggested that sleep or death might be a welcome comfort and release.

Gigliotti returned for David’s contributions to the program, two numbers from JFK: Jackie’s aria, “Caught in Shutterspeed” and her Moon Duet with Jack, sung by baritone Matthew Worth (who will sing this role, opposite Daniela Mack’s Jackie, at the world premiere). Full disclosure: I worked on JFK in its early stages, collecting research and interviews (which David and Royce didn’t need), and I’ve attended readings of the libretto and the score (minus a scene or two). This background doesn’t make me any more or less biased in the opera’s favor, though it does let me know in advance that the characterization of Jackie is going to be remembered as one of the signal achievements of opera in the 21st century, and a key to JFK’s future.

Always a treat to hear her: Gigliotti.

Indeed, it’s going to be a great pity if Gigliotti doesn’t wind up playing Jackie at some point. A born actress, she dug deeply into the character, and in her aria, eyes (including her own and mine) welled with tears. The Act I closer, “Shutterspeed” finds Jackie watching the sleeping Jack and rededicating herself to their marriage — on the night before his death.

The Moon Duet depicts Jack and Jackie’s courtship, compressing several encounters into one, from “Don’t I know you?” to “You love me,” and it offers us glimpses of two young people before history caught hold of them. Jack’s charm, Jackie’s shyness (and sly intelligence), the irresistible force of their union: it’s all here, and it, too, is poignant, because we know what comes after.

To judge by the reaction in New York last night, audiences in Fort Worth will need Sham-wows, not handkerchiefs, to wipe their tears. Maybe mops. This opera is going to be tremendous, and Worth is ready: uncannily, he looked more like Kennedy the more he sang. And this Little mini-festival has further whetted my interest, not only in JFK, but also in everything yet to come.

Little and Vavrek, Together Again.
For this fan, it’s like getting to follow Mozart and da Ponte wherever they go.

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