Wednesday, May 28, 2008

I'm suffering for content, people ...

Seventh grade was probably the worst year of my life. All my fears -- about everything -- originated in junior high school. Among other absurd things I wish I could forget about this period of time was a class I took called Reading. I have no recollection, apart from the obvious, of what we accomplished in this class. But I do remember that on Mondays we were expected to show up with a book, any book, and to sit and read silently for the duration of class. Much as, as an adult, I would now consider this, like required nap time, to be a class sent by God, it's really shocking how hard it was for our teacher to organize an activity as progressive as silent reading when it involved a bunch of 12-year-olds. First of all, after a weekend of who knows what you do when you're twelve, what preteen could remember to bring a book to school (like, where do you even find those)? And did she really expect 25 kids to sit quietly for an entire hour? It's not that it was an inherently bad idea. It's just that ... IT WAS AN INHERENTLY BAD IDEA! If you've been a junior high teacher for longer than about nine minutes, you would know that this would never work. And sure enough, after the inaugural Monday silent read session, during which three or four kids got kicked out and probably half the rest of us given detention, she probably should have taken another angle, like, I dunno, reading out loud. But she stuck to her guns and made herself and us miserable for the rest of the year.

I wasn't one of the bad kids in the class, but I was the kid who never remembered, not even once, to take a book to class, and every Monday afternoon I had to walk up to this teacher's desk, look at my shoes, express my regret, and ask to go back to my locker to retrieve the book that I, along with the rest of my fellow students, would then not read for the next hour. This teacher did not understand my forgetfulness, and her displeasure with me for some reason made it more and more unlikely every week that I would ever actually remember to do what I was supposed to do. Negative reinforcement? Doesn't work.

One Monday about five or six weeks into the term, I was so mortified at having yet again neglected to bring my f-ing book that I decided, rather than announcing what I'd done, I would instead PRETEND I that I did have a book in my lap, and I would pretend for one, long hour to read it. Acting quickly, behind my desk I scrunched up my legs into a tight ball, placed my imaginary book in front of them, and stuck my face down close to my legs and the "book" and didn't look up for a second. I'm not sure if I really believed this would work, but it certainly would have been easier to pull off from the back of the class since there at least I would have been hidden by the level of activity going on in front of me. Unfortunately, in my desperation to become a better student I had chosen a permanent seat in the first row of the class. Still, for awhile it seemed to be working except that the kid next to me couldn't control his laughter. I calmly scanned from one side of my legs to the other and tried to look engrossed. The thought crossed my mind that I wasn't actually sure I could stare at my legs for an hour, but then I realized I'd been found out. How, I don't know, but I looked up, and the teacher was staring at me with the kind of irritation that if I remember correctly is common among long-since faded and resentful people who regret having chosen to work with children. She asked me, "Majel. What are you doing?"

The reason I'm telling you this story is because it actually relates to our work here at Den Norske Opera. We had our dress rehearsal last night, and while I won't say it was a complete and utter ruin, Christopher came damn near close to walking out even before the curtain. For weeks he's been telling the folks on the technical team, all Norwegians, that he needed to see the English and Norwegian translations they were were planning to use as subtitles for the libretto, and insisting they do a trial run with the subtitle screens on the backs of the chairs in the audience BEFORE THE DRESS REHEARSAL. The problem with a brand new opera house is that all the technology is also brand new, and nobody has any idea how to get it to work. The orchestra pit wasn't even built when we moved into the stage space, and people are continually falling off the steps into the pit. The curtain stopped halfway across the stage the first time we used it. There aren't even any house lights. When you're in the audience and you need to see anything, they have to turn on a big halogen bulb that could burn your eyes out, and that's suspended from the ceiling on a big power cord. No one seems to know where anything is, or even if they did know, how to do the right thing with it. Poor Paul, the stage designer, asked five weeks ago for a few patches to be mended in the wood panels on the back wall of the set. It's still not done and one day before the premiere, it's not looking like it'll get done. Last night, the poor fool running the subtitles kept blowing all the big lines by getting there too fast. They have 24 hours.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Descending into L'Orfeo

Orpheus loves Eurydice. Eurydice doesn't love Orpheus. He pines and finally, he woes her. On their wedding day, she's gathering flowers and stumbles into a nest of vipers, and like all dead Greeks, Eurydice descends into Hell. But Orpheus, no quitter he, suffers from the force of such denial of her death that he goes to the portal of Hell, where, having no money, he charms free passage by singing Charon a song. Down in the land of the dead, Orpheus softens the heart of Persephone,* who persuades Hades to allow Eurydice to go with Orpheus back up to earth, provided he can prevent himself from looking at her on the way up. As in all stories with an impossible object, Orpheus fails.

The variations of the Orpheus myth are legion, especially when it comes to Orpheus's big blunder. According to Plato, Orpheus was right to doubt that Eurydice accompanied him back to earth -- Hades had actually sent something back with him that sounded like Eurydice, but it wasn't actually the real thing. Virgil's completely unsympathetic telling has Orpheus actually making it back to earth without turning around. But then he forgets that Eurydice has two more steps to go and loses her just at the moment she comes into the sunlight. And in Aeschylus, Orpheus's OWN death is about as bad as it gets. First, he's torn to pieces, and then, if that weren't bad enough, his decapitated head, floating gently down the river Hebrus, keeps ... on ... singing. GAG!

And let's not forget the variations on the ending. Though Joseph Kerman famously (well, if you're a musicologist, famously) found Monteverdi's ending a bit Hollywood (Orpheus and his Dad, Apollo, ascend to heaven to some of the most mechanical and undramatic music Monteverdi ever composed) but Gluck's he thinks is just downright offensive (Orpheus, having in a strange twist decided to commit suicide over his wife's death, is suddenly told that the whole thing was a fake and Eurydice simply wakes up).

Christopher Alden's staging of L'Orfeo (the Monteverdi version, the earlier version) works for me. But if you get online and look for reviews of past productions at Glimmerglass and Leeds, they're all scathing. People hated the production. Even people I know and love hated it. And believe me, I understand why. Christopher is avant-garde to the nines. His characters smoke and drink cocktails on stage; they wear sexy outfits; and probably worst of all, there's oftentimes not much of a relationship between the libretto and his dramatic conception. Sometimes, there's almost none. Forget what you thought you knew about important climactic moments. The arrival of the messenger who informs Orfeo that Euridice has died? Nah, she doesn't arrive. She's been sitting on the sidelines right in the same room with Orfeo. She didn't even see it happen. And Orfeo's ascent to heaven? Yeah, actually, he's just gonna sit brooding pathetically in a chair center stage, until the last blackout. Oh, and Euridice is on stage with him. I mean, she's dead but ... she's still there.

Christopher paints in broad strokes. It's the difference between plot, what happens blow-by-blow (which, in this opera, we already know and DON'T need to be reminded of) and drama. And by drama I mean stuff happening. You're sitting on a park bench and two people are having a strangely animated conversation. You can't hear the words, but you're watching anyway. It's drama. There's a car crash. It looks horrible. You try to look away, but you can't: it's drama. I've gone to a lot of theater in the last couple of months where I didn't understand a word, and couldn't have described the plot to you if you'd hung a brownie sundae on a string in front of me and begged me to. But drama is the STUFF, people! You don't need language. It's better with, obviously. But that's not where the tension or the electricity or the bodies or the tears are, and to all you libretto people out there I'm sorry that I'm a slobbering disciple of Joseph Kerman but that's how it is with me.

So, what happens if you take plot out of Orfeo and add drama?

Well, Act I of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo basically boils down to a bunch of people hanging out together in a really weird looking room having a really weird looking party. Like all parties that are worth their weight, there are some drinks, and partial nudity. Period costumes are boring; here it's more like half and half: half Greek, and half something else. Renaissance ruffs, leopard print tights, biker gear, army-navy supply store paraphernalia ...

So far so good. Now, Orfeo loves Euridice. But isn't it a little strange that he had to pursue her for so long? And isn't it a little strange that after refusing him for so long Euridice would suddenly just ... change her mind? So why don't we just state the obvious. Orfeo is a complete obsessive! He should've gotten over her a LONG time ago! And Euridice has problems. In fact, she's depressed. It's not a healthy relationship.

In Act II Euridice leaves to hang out with her friends while Orfeo stays with the boys for awhile. It's a bachelor party. Everybody gets tipsy, they take off some clothes. And then the messenger shows up with bad news.

But come on. We all know this play. Euridice doesn't actually have to die; how boring. Better yet, let's duct tape her to the wall and call that "Dead" and then draw one enormous line down the center of the stage and call one side "Hell" and the other side "Not Hell." Orfeo can't cross the line.

And he pulls out a hoodie so he won't be tempted to look at anybody.

Anyway, you see how things begin to get a little out of hand. And of course there's more. Apollo walks around the entire show with a microphone pointed at Orfeo to record everything he sings, bootlegging all of the big musical moments. When Orfeo puts Caronte to sleep, the cast cheers and paper dollars start falling out of the sky like he'd won the lottery.

The difference between me and the other REAL reviewers out there is that I see no harm in these things. Moreover, I challenge YOU to come up with a challenging reading of a billion year old myth, one that engages with the same old basic tale and wrestles something strange and unexpected out of it. It's an experiment, people. It won't hurt you. Who wants to see the same sappy story again? Give me opera that goes out on a limb, or give me the death of opera. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: it WILL happen.

*Incidentally, it's a pretty a good thing that Persephone happened to be serving her yearly six-month sentence down in Hell when Orpheus arrived with his sob story. But wait a minute. If Persephone is in Hell, and you can ask Edith Hamilton if you don't believe me, then it has to be winter upstairs. But if it had been winter when Orpheus and Eurydice tied the knot they wouldn't have been zipping around in flowering fields waiting to run right into a big, fat snake den. Has anyone ever noticed this? PERSEPHONE SHOULDN'T EVEN BE THERE! HA HA, OVID!

**Lest the excellency of the photographs I post here deceive you, these are not mine, but George Mott's, taken during preparations for the opera at Glimmerglass in 2007. You can see more pictures of the opera on Christopher's website, which is where I found them.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The 17th of Maj

Today, May 17th (or Maj, in Norwegian) is National Day in Norway. It's a holiday with only one problem. National *what* day? National Pleather Day? But like all holidays that don't begin and end with santas or bunnies, the complexity of something like an actual object of celebration isn't really what's important. Just stick to the basics: Engage in group behavior. Beer is involved on a massive scale. Eat as much as possible; don't sleep until it's over. And in Norway, bring your karaoke machine.

Oslo is small enough that the whole town turns itself into a college campus overnight. I was out till three a.m. yesterday having the night of my life and fully intended on getting up at 9a with the rest of my Norwegian ingroup to make the trek down to the palace where every 17th of Maj the royal family stands and waves from the royal balcony at passers-by. But my baser instincts kicked in and instead, waking two hours too late for Champagne Breakfast (the first event of the day), I settled down snug and warm to watch Channel 3. Channel 3 involves a young woman seemingly from Southern California, but speaking perfect Norwegian, sitting in a director's chair looking at a single-view camera. It's a very simple show. She tosses her bleached hair and wriggles in barely-there clothing, giggling and shouting unholy commentary into the camera for hours nonstop. It's like spring break for a party of one. I'm probably the only person who watches this channel. It's terrible.

My window looks out on the main street. Grown men and women are staggering around singing drinking songs and waving flags. A few older people are peering out over their balconies with fear in their eyes. National Day would be better known as National Blow-off Day. Or National Regression Day. I thought I might do some laundry.

But first, a quiz. For one point: can you point to the Norwegian flag? Bonus question: which flag isn't the Norwegian flag, and what is it?

Sunday, May 11, 2008


What's blue and white and red all over?

The next new and improved stage piece for Opera Cabal?

Maybe! But until we can afford this guy, this sculpture garden will have to remain the absolute best thing I saw in Stockholm. Who can explain what is going on here?

In the same way that Strindberg for me wins on a basic man-to-man level over Ibsen, against the coherent and striking solidity of Stockholm, Oslo is conspicuously lacking. In fact, a few days ago I was sitting with a brimming latte (which this particular cafe puts into bowls so that you actually have to pick the whole thing up with both hands to sip it) and the case of Oslo suddenly became clear to me. I figured it out, as an old pal of some of ours used to say.

I had just met my first depressed Norwegian. His English wasn't great; he works with some kind of dissident group to return power to the working class in Norway, not that they ever had it. Norway itself, on the whole, is still new to the game of self-rule, he reminded me (or was I only learning this for the first time -- yikes!), having only been separated from Sweden as late as 1905. I told him I worked at the new opera house downtown and he gave me a shattering look. The government is trying to build a small New York City in downtown Oslo, he said, and the new opera house is part of that. "Norway is the largest protectorate of the American empire."

Unlike Stockholm, which felt grounded and self-confident, Oslo lacks its own basic self-concept. It doesn't know who it is.

I spent my day in Stockholm by the harbor with no inclination to leave and explore the rest of the city. Lotta water in Stockholm.

The funny thing about this beautiful part of the world is that it must really and truly be ab-so-lut-ely horrendous here in the winter. And now that the sun's out .... How else do you explain sunbathing on a train platform?

Or this?

But on a more serious note, Stockholm is home to a game I've never seen played before, but which with your help will be played in Hyde Park, Chicago this summer. It's a blend of croquet (it requires croquet equipment and semi-formal dress) and jousting, and it's played piggy-back.

Find a level, grassy area. Choose two opposing teams with at least four members on each team. Between the four players of each team, the two lighter players should each choose a friend to mount. The lighter player receives a croquet mallet.

Next, rush the opposing team and swing your croquet mallet at any balls you see.

If a player from one team hits a ball, rush after him and his mount to prevent the ball from going through your team's hoop.

Run this way and that.

Eventually someone will fall down, and you start the next point.

Nichols park, people. May 31st. Be there or be square.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

It's the 13-and-half hour rule

Hanging out here in Oslo on the set of L'Orfeo, Christopher Alden's third production of the show after stagings in Leeds & Glimmerglass, I'm feeling a little like the village idiot. Unlike the rest of the production team, I don't have duel citizenship in multiple European countries. My dad isn't a shipbuilding tycoon. I didn't just cut a CD. The cast is also confused about me. The Norwegians think I'm Norwegian and keep asking why I'm using this weird American-sounding accent. The Italians are convinced I'm supposed to be choreographing them.

But rehearsals are at a standstill because for the second time since my arrival in Norway, the country is having a national holiday. It's a little bit like Christmas followed by Easter. By the time I leave, it will have had a third. So it's more like Christmas followed by Easter ... followed by Christmas. Finding myself with another three-day weekend on my hands I briefly considered taking a plane to Iceland. It's closer than you'd think. But that thought was forged in the fires of the adventurous side of my brain, and the flabby, panicky side of my brain immediately gave a fearful little kick. So instead, tonight I sleep in Gothenburg, which sounds like Gotham, but is just beyond the border between Norway and Sweden on the Swedish side.

On my way to my hotel room tonight, I paused hungrily outside my next door neighbors' room where their breakfast tray hadn't yet been cleared away. It was close to 10:30 at night. It looked like they'd eaten some bacon and eggs. But the roll basket was more or less untouched, or so I gathered. I grabbed a roll. It's a little crusty but what the hell.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Theater, which was good

A few nights ago I went to Oslo's National Theater to see Büchner's Leonce og Lena (regi, Sebastian Hartmann) in Norwegian. At the end of the show, I didn't know which actor was Lena or Leonce. I didn't even know if those two characters even made it into this particular version of the play, which was developed by a production team from Berlin. Some of the tougher critics in the audience, namely, the Americans I was sitting next to, were unmoved by the performance, which consisted of -- I do grant you -- one too many stolen gimmicks from the Berlin Volksbühne productions, which have a style all their own. For instance, the people at the Volksbühne LOVE live projection. (Here, a video camera was planted in the sailboat's cabin so the actors can go under the boat and we still see them on the sails.)

But I'll tell you something. I can hear the same story twice and still think it's great. Stolen or not stolen, this production goes into my box of unforgettables. And I can't even tell you what on earth was going on.

In my favorite scene, two of the actors stand at opposite ends of the stage and strap on microphones that amplify and distort whatever their mouths are doing. You could eat a skittle with this get-up on and it would sound like you were crushing rock. They then reach into their pockets and pull out about three fake blood capsules each, stick them between lips & gums like huge wads of chew, and run at each other screaming bloody murder. They make horrifying (but funny) chewing and gagging sounds while LOUDLY munching on each other's necks and spitting out fake teeth, chins running with fake vampire blood.

And then just as suddenly they drag out an old, barely usable clunky smoke machine that covers the stage in smog, drop quickly to the floor and, made almost completely invisible by the smoke, slowly, slowly mime swimming back to the boat.

I went to an audition once where all the people auditioning were invited into the same room. For each of us, our one task was to walk out of the audition room, wait one minute, step back into the room, and then suddenly see all the auditioners and auditionees AS THOUGH WE'D NEVER SEEN THESE PEOPLE BEFORE IN OUR LIVES. It's very hard to do. Toward the beginning of Leonce og Lena the older male actor makes an entrance like this that I would never have imagined possible. He comes on stage. He's totally taken aback, shocked. He has to turn away. Then he's elated; he's so excited! Then he's overwhelmed; he starts to cry. It was worth every penny.

And at the very, very tail end of the piece, an actor you haven't seen at all yet for the 2 hours the production has been going on suddenly appears. He walks on in sweat pants and cheap looking angel wings and delivers a 5-minute mologue. And the actor had Down's syndrome. He played his part perfectly; he forgot nothing. An angel with Down's. I was almost in tears.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Country of Irreconcilable Opposites

Here's what makes no sense about Norway. Let me set this up for you.

On one hand, it's incredibly laid back. Which is great, don't get me wrong. I walked around for hours today while every store was closed and the city, which is usually fairly empty, was in fact empty as expected. But that's because everybody prefers doing adorable outdoorsy things like ... gardening in the biggest community gardens you've ever seen ...

... or strolling in the biggest, most well-kept public cemeteries you've ever seen ...

And if you weren't gardening, or remembering the dead, then maybe you were at the parks sunbathing in all kinds of shameless positions.

Norwegians love free time. They can't get enough of it. In fact, the completely respectable, normal working day here is only 10a-4p. Don't think I'm exaggerating. At the opera house, we'll be in the middle of a crucial scenic moment with someone's life on the line, and then the clock strikes four and the entire stage crew start looking around like dogs at afternoon walk time. Woe to the opera director who tries to arbitrate for an earlier start time to the Norwegian working day, or for a later end time. Double woe to the director who dares interfere with the regularity of the 2 1/2 carefully-spaced tea breaks surrounding lunch time.

But the culture of laid back has a strange other side to it. Because if you weren't hanging out outside today, you might also have been here:

Can you read that? The largest hotel in the city, the Radisson SAS Hotel, was having a "House of Pain" tattoo conference in its ballroom. Hm, House of Pain. Does that go with sunbathing and gardens? Well, let's think about what we know about Norway. (Mmm ... it's close to Sweden?) Norway is the home of artists who have hit real rock-bottom. Think about Ibsen's Peer Gynt, that bizarre, horrible boy who goes off into the craggeldy Norwegian mountains after abusing his poor mother and marries a troll princess. Or death-by-icy Hedda Gabler. Remember her? Egad! Or maybe you remember that Munch lived and worked in Norway. Remember Munch?

The Scream? Come On! Where's the laid back in that? What about this, whatever the hell it is?

And oh my God!

Vigeland! Rabid babies? Who came up with that? Who is this guy? Did he ever sleep? I'm sorry, but I just don't see how the country that produced this guy ...

... also produced this guy ...

What a catastrophe. But there you have it.

I know I've avoided talking about opera almost entirely so far. I have a lot to say. But I've only been here a week. I'm still getting warmed up.

One End of the World

In Norway you can take a train an hour and a half from Oslo and see the "Verdens Ende," the end of the world. Strangely enough, there's a lighthouse and a bunch of boats at the end of the world lined up to sail off to God only knows where -- where do you go if you're already at the end? To Copenhagen, tee hee, the Norwegians would say. I sense some rivalry. (Incidentally if you're ever traveling in this part of the world, take care to remember that Copenhagen, when you actually get to Scandinavialand, becomes København. This seems natural enough, but on no sleep in a strange airport with a bunch of elves instead of people, you too might find yourself wandering among endless rows of baggage looking for the ones tagged with a C-word, instead of a K-word.) A quick Google search reveals that there's a World's End State Park in Pennsylvania. And as we all know, the Pirates of the Caribbean were also "At World's End." Everybody's got one. My guidebook, wrong as usual, suggested that the end of the world would be good place to take a swim.

Actually, it was pouring rain. But! It was lovely. And in Tønsberg, I had the longest and loveliest lunch of my entire life. I and my small party began eating at 1 o'clock in the afternoon and we were still half-eating, half-sleeping when we had to get up to catch the last train back to Oslo at 9 that night. In the course of this supermeal, I discovered Norwegian goat cheese, which is indistinguishable from chocolate, and is the best thing I have ever eaten in my entire life. Some chunks of it left with me in my bag and are waiting to be eaten from their shelf in my fridge in Oslo.

Two glasses of wine, two more glasses of port wine, and a lot of goat cheese later, we then ate the next best thing I've ever had in my entire life which is very much like a Russian blini (they tell me), only better. You can't possibly make these little pancakes in the states because every step of the making process requires things that you can't buy there. Like "sour milk," which has to go into the batter, and is maybe a little bit like buttermilk. With a pancake sizzling on your plate, you then drizzle on something like very liquidey sour cream. I don't know what the stuff is called but it's like really excellent tartar sauce with cream cheese and sour cream all up in it. We probably don't have that in the states either. On top of the liquidey sour cream you spoon super finely chopped sweet onions, and on top of that, yellow caviar, which we might actually have somewhere. The black stuff is evidently DYED, which I never knew. Or at least, it's a rumor that Norwegians like to encourage gullible Americans to spread.

During a short break before the main course, I wandered off into the pouring rain with an excellent pair of borrowed galoshes, and here I discovered snails, a lot of them, and a lot of fluorescent moss.

I probably stepped on thirty snails flapping back into the house and screaming about how wonderful it was with the masses of snails on the ground, and everyone gasped. Tønsberg apparently had an infestation last year, and I was the bearer of the unwelcome news that they'd returned. Snails are like small goats; they eat anything. According to people living in Tønsberg, these particular snails come from the dirty people living in Holland who don't know how to keep their snail problem to themselves. But how cute??!