Sunday, December 13, 2009

Katya Kabanova at the Lyric

The legitimacy of parental control mechanisms rest on a giant assumption: older people know better than young people what constitutes healthful entertainment and what harmful, dirty smut. But who's controlling the parents?

Three years ago my father discovered TiVo & immediately taped Topsy Turvy, the not exactly box office hit about Gilbert and Sullivan's rocky (to put it mildly) professional partnership. When I visit my parents in Omaha, among the usual questions (do I want some of my aunt's special sweet raspberry sauce made from fresh raspberries from her garden which she was kind enough to make specially for me and which she'll be devastated if I manage to avoid) is the unavoidable: do I want to watch Topsy Turvy with my Dad? Usually, I do. (I've seen it probably 9 times, which really begs the question of how much Dad's been dipping. Yikes!) On one hand, it's the equivalent of a child wanting to read Pooh or watch Bambie for the 9 millionth time and it's kinda cute. But if discerning the difference between an obsessive but cute habit and an obsessive and dangerous one is the job of a parent, shouldn't it be the job of the child to mitigate a parent's desire for the same when it becomes overwhelming?

Last night at the Lyric, when the curtain fell on Katya's dead body, the entire audience shot out of their seats in an ecstasy of applause. I've never seen enthusiasm like this at the Lyric. And in this instance, it struck me as particularly strange. There was nothing special about the performance. Some of this may be Janacek's fault. There's too much moaning about how things are gonna turn out (badly) and not enough doing, so that the whole opera becomes about Katya predicting her own downfall, and there's nothing less interesting than a character who ruins the ending in scene 1. The twentieth time Katya howls about how she's going to betray her husband, we ought to be thinking "OH GOD NO! It pains me when you say that, Katya!" I was thinking, "For Pity's sake DO IT!" But the set was blander than bland (intentionally and, I think, for obvious reasons, but nevertheless, something closer to what you'd expect from Les Noces) and there was very little in the way of acting. I have a brain condition that makes auditory processing impossible when there's nothing to look at (thus the inverse of the blind leading the blind ... the as-good-as-blind leading to auditory failure? Nevermind...) but my sense was that there was also very little in the way of singing. Karita Mattila, who plays the principal role, could barely carry over the orchestra. I have a theory (which won't hold up) that Kartia Mattila is a countertenor. Her consort of conspirators (including Liora Grodnikaite, Garrett Sorenson, & Jason Collins) were -- thank God -- stronger & brighter.

But I wanna get back to this ovation (because really, what's the point of reviewing an opera if not to emphasize what happens in the moments just after [what?!]). There could not have been more excitement if the orchestra had come up onstage bearing Janacek's body in carbonite and laid it on a giant dessert tray. Last night I saw the kind of crowd behavior I expect at a rock concert; it was a collective biological urge, a swarm. The woman to my right hadn't been able to get out of her seat all night, forcing me to climb backwards out of our row to go to the WC at the break. But she shot up like some crazy zombie at the end. I think some drool might have fallen on my leg.

I'm gonna float a suggestion. The Lyric needs a mandatory parental control/threat advisory screening for subscribers as they enter the house (perhaps administered by the people in bat capes who take tickets). A short and easy questionnaire would suffice: Does this patron know and use the various gendered/plural variants of bravo (brava, bravi)? If so, add 1 point to their threat rating. Does he/she have an assigned seat that pales in comparison to his/her regular seat? (What is this, 1828?) And so on. A patron who emerges with a rating of 3 might be encouraged to stay away from the drinks table and receive a free bottle of water at the entrance to the theater plus free tickets to the next Michael Moore documentary. Patrons with a 4 would be restricted to viewing one act at a time in a separate, padded room and encouraged to review sobering financial portfolios between acts. For 5 ... barbed wire ... tranquilizers ... but what could stop these people?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

eighth blackbird Pierrot lunaire

Eighth blackbird's new Pierrot with staging by Mark DeChiazza debuted last night in the Harris Theater. DeChiazza is a choreographer, not a director. (This is an opinion, not a statement.) I got wind that some tech'ing problems earlier in the day had caused a bit of concern prior to the performance, and Lucy Shelton mentioned something in the talk-back about not having "lived" with the piece, code for the feeling among performers that things haven't quite got settled. Apart from the lighting, which was shady (no small task, to invent lighting cues for 21 separate pieces unto themselves; there is an opera of lighting in this short little guy), and a couple supertitle snafus, the production itself was slick. The point of the production, however, left me hanging. And the problem may have been that 8bb also felt a bit left out to dry.

Pierrot lunaire is a work all its own. It exists according to its own impenetrable logic, propelled by its own strange momentum. The point of any staging of Pierrot shouldn't be to crack the code and expose the real story because we all know there isn't one but to elaborate on that story in a compelling way. The story has 1 character, the singer, or 6 if you count the instrumentalists as characters. So, 6 characters plus in this case a dancer and a Pierrot. 8 people in a room. Good. Now, what kind of relationship do these people have to one another? It doesn't have to be transparent; in fact, it can change, continuously even. But the characters should know what these relationships are. Do they like one another, or do they not like one another? Does one character adore another who loathes him? And then, what is this landscape? Why are these characters here? Does it feel comfortable to them? Is it a place they like being? Are there memories here? And so on.

There was no text painting per se in this production, and that's fine. But there was also a marked disconnect 95 percent of the time between what Lucy was saying and what the rest of the cast was doing. To the point that the singer could be moaning about blood and gore and the 8bb'ers were simply hauling chairs around the stage. (I'm exaggerating. Somewhat.) I don't expect someone to literally stage "He stuffs a little parcel / Of fine tobacco, with finesse, / Into Cassander's shiny skull." That's not the point. But do stage something that suggests a logic of its own. Do create a stage language that's coherent unto itself and do give the people on stage a deep understanding of how to communicate in that language. Shouldn't that be top priority? Unless you convince your actors of the value of what they're doing, the risk is that they look like so many automata in a series of rotating positions. Lights up, so-and-so moves chair stage right. So-and-so dances with Lucy. Someone climbs up the ladder. No one moves. Pierrot pulls out an umbrella. If you can't convince your cast of the worth of what they're doing, they can't help but show it.

The choreographer emerged after the piece along with Lucy, Matthew Duvall (the percussionist, who had dressed up in an oversize white suit to play Pierrot himself), a single female dancer (Elyssa Dole) and the violinist (the other Matt, Matt Albert), who managed the questions. I floated the suggestion that perhaps matching text to sight had been low on the choreographer's priority list. That instead of mickey-mousing, he'd intended a world apart for the bodies of the musicians and the dancer to live in, a world full of symbols that interacted with one another in meaningful ways, and that perhaps he wouldn't mind explaining the work this world was doing and indeed, what that world was. He seemed very pleased with the question. After listening to the music, he reported, he'd begun "hearing shapes" in the music, shapes which he then translated to stage. It's a perfectly reasonable thing to hear shapes in the music. It's a perfectly reasonable thing to put them on stage. I'm afraid it just wasn't the really the cipher I was looking for to decode this thing.

I got even less help from the rest of the audience who were more interested in noting Lucy's habitation of the role (she did inhabit it, marvelously) or from the 8bb'ers, who were more interested in noting, jovially, that Matthew, the percussionist/Pierrot, had never had so few things to hit onstage. Sigh.

Among other things (George Perle, hallo?), there was a Weill set on the program. Lucy sang "Mack the Knife" very sprech, with an understated and very effective pizz'y arrangement for 8bb by 8bb'ers Lisa Kaplan (piano) and Nick Photinos (cello). The arrangements were adorable. (And thus, alas, perhaps at odds with the original spiciness of Weill, or just an indication of how long ago the firey bite of the Brecht/Weill project actually began to die.) Also on the program, Berg's Adagio from Kammerkonzert for clarinet (Michael Maccaferri), piano and violin, was by far the most enticing part of the evening. These three have done due diligence getting to know one another's musical impulses to the point that they crafted a truly a collective notion of how the piece was meant to go. The beginnings and endings of phrases could not have been better timed if they'd had a metronome on stage. My only complaint, which was foreseeable, is that -- god almighty -- whose idea was it to put these folks in the Harris Theater? I like the hall. But it swallowed this trio alive. I would have liked to hear them in a suffocatingly small space where the pianissimos had a running chance to contrast with the crescendos, and the crescendos could have had a shot at being deafening, as they should.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

eighth blackbird, Tuesday November 17

The University of Chicago programming entity, artspeaks, opened its 2009-10 season Tuesday of last week with a performance of Osvaldo Golijov's "Ayre," featuring Dawn Upshaw and the members of eighth blackbird (yes, I've not only confirmed, I've been admonished: it's all lowercase) in addition to a few other players that included Jeremy Flower (laptop and sound design = thumbs up) and Michael Ward-Bergeman, who in my opinion stole the show (more on him later).

Upshaw's coloratura has justly earned her a reputation as an angelic singer (figuratively in Handel and literally as the Angel in Messiaen's Saint Francis of Assisi). But this particular performance involved her doing a lot more than angelic coloratura; I wish I could remember verbatim Golijov's comment about what he had in mind for the piece -- it was something along the lines of "I got really sick of writing Dawn Upshawy kinds of music for Dawn Upshaw so I decided not to this time." Has anyone ever heard Dawn Upshaw not sing like Dawn Upshaw? That's kind of what we got on Tuesday. Dawn Upshaw sang 1. mic'ed (and with variable mic levels, so that you never knew just how loud she was going to sound) and 2. in chest voice. The piece rocked out in certain places (at which points, parts of the ensemble would stand up like a big, jazzy Argentinian klezmer band and rock out with her, a nice touch of staging) and the chest voice kinda worked. Kinda. But ultimately, if you want a singer who can sing loud and chesty, you wanna write for a singer who doesn't need to protect her voice. Dawn sounded great. But somebody with a little more Arethra would've brought the house down.

I promised to say something about Michael Ward-Bergeman, who plays something called the hyper-accordion. It's as cool as it sounds. (Michael is also the only person I know who's ever been referred to as an accordiopimp.) Check him out here.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Baby Bro Done Did It Again

A shout-out (isn't what the cool kids say?) to my brother, Drew Connery, is in order. I blogged about his radio exploits less than a year ago; now it seems he's poised to become famous overnight. (Can anyone say jealous older sister?)

Along with his singer pal, Tyg, with whom he's worked on several albums, Drew has just gotten himself signed to Dungeon (otherwise known as the label that signed Outkast).

Their music is available on iTunes (The album is called "I'm a Nightmare.")

Drew, I am sincerely proud.

University of Chicago Magazine article on Opera Cabal's "USW"

This article on my beloved project, Opera Cabal turned up yesterday on the University's main page -- I'm not sure how I feel about the picture :) But press is press. Is press.

In other news, we've managed to raise half of the money we need to take this very same piece to Oberlin in February. We'll finish it there, then move on to Chicago & New York to do shows at Curtiss Hall & Galapagos!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

IMPROMPTU rides again...

The Mozartfragmentarypantomimereconstructionproject which I was recruited to direct for the Chicago Humanities Festival and which I've blogged about before appeared this past Monday at the University of Chicago Theater and Performance Studies Workshop . Minutes before the workshop kicked off we discovered 1. half the costumes were gone, including Jonathan DeSouza's entire costume and that 2. toenails (mine) react badly to being mowed over with pianos. Undeterred, this weekend we/the show travel/s to the American Musicological Society annual conference in Philadelphia to participate in its first year of experimental performance panels ... whoo hoo!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Anne LeBaron @ U of C

Anne LeBaron presented this past Friday to a (rather poorly -- yikes!) attended colloquium in Fulton Hall. The subject: her opera, Sucktion. LeBaron's work sounds immediately fascinating. Here's a random selection from her very impressive CV: she won a Guggenheim, studied with Ligeti (not in that order), has written a "dance opera" called Pope Joan, and Wet, another opera about the big business of water and the horrors of floods and she, I'm quoting, lectures at CalArts on the "concept of HyperOpera." (I don't know what this means but surely it is meant to address the hyper, erratic, overblown aspect of opera--aspect, or sine qua non--that is, the histrionic too-muchness of opera, perhaps in order to address what happens when the "Opera/Too-much" dial continues to be turned even further up, up, up?)

In the beginning of her lecture Anne charmed us by revealing a years-long fascination with old vacuum cleaners and vacuum cleaner sounds. She played us early samples of her work, female vocalizations layered on top of recorded & processed vacuum sounds. At times the two seemed uncannily to merge, and at one point, LeBaron had the vocalist spit and buzz into the vacuum mouthpiece to produce a series of fun sounds that would probably make Kaija Saariaho jealous. LeBaron's collaborators on Sucktion include the poet Douglas Kearney, whose libretto is a clever homage to Marinetti typeface. This all seemed promising.

LeBaron saved the nugget of her presentation for last -- that is, the semi-finished, workshop staging of the opera in L.A. But this is where things started to go downhill. LeBaron later mentioned she feared that 40 minutes of vacuum sounds weren't in and of themselves interesting enough to justify the ticket prices (okay, I made that part up, but she did say she was worried the vacuuming lacked moxy) so she crafted a heavy-handed scenario to go along with them. (For the record, vacuum sounds are TOTALLY interesting. Maybe not for forty minutes, sure, but for at least 25. If John Cage can get away with Points in Space, I say go for it!)

Oppressed housewife cleans house, anticipating the arrival of her husband home from work. (The singer/actress in this case was Asian, and one grad student floated the thought that LeBaron intended the opera as a critique of interracial marriage. Or better, I thought, that the Mail Order Bride phenomenon in this country replicates/updates in the 21st century the phenomenon of the overbored, undersexed housewife of the 1950s? But LeBaron seemed uninterested; or else this was my private flight of fancy. Anyway.)

The husband arrives home (a recorded voice-over, "Honey, I'm Home"; i.e. there is no "husband"), finds the place a mess & retires for the night. Depressed, the housewife turns melancholy. A vacuum arrives. A present from her hubby. She falls in love (with the vacuum), sprawls on it orgasmically and thus the comedy endeth.

To put it simply, the problem? Too much scenario and too literal.

1. Put the husband in a locked closet stage left so that the "housewife" (or is she a dominatrix? an updated Alcina?) controls his exits and entrances.

2. Or make it Erwartung Appliance! Instead of losing her fiancé, this poor woman is in denial over the death of her beloved vacuum.

3. Or make the husband's cleanliness phobia the center of the (o_p)/e(r?)a and his hapless wife the Mrs. Haversham of the Ace Hardware Cleaning aisle.

A dash of the intellectual wit that has made LeBaron such a successful composer and a writer is needed. Instead, the staging we saw consisted of the soprano (who, by the way, is a musicologist and member of the group that commissioned the opera) putting on and taking off rubber gloves, stuffing them into her oversize apron pockets, dropping them, and putting them on again. LeBaron's score, and her ideas, play happily far off of the beaten path. But this opera needs a director so that the curiosity that motivated its inception gets taken up a notch. Staging, to honor its points of origin (the ideation of the opera, the wit and spirit of adventurousness that composers like LeBaron bring to the table), should amplify, qualify & problematize that origin; not bow to it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I think I might be famous...

... but I'm not sure. Does a photo in the Hyde Park Herald constitute arrival, recognition, everything I've been waiting for?

(Confirmation pending.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Lucinda Childs at the MCA

I fell for it. No, I TOTALLY fell for it.

The MCA press for its Lucinda Childs show last weekend advertised not "Lucinda Childs Dance" or "Lucinda Childs, Adapted, Updated" but "Lucinda Childs." Period. And the only accompanying photo on their website is a lithe Lucinda Childs doing something extremely cool with her arms that I can't reproduce. (I tried.) I don't mean to accuse the MCA of false advertising, but they really had me: I thought, despite her being 70 years old, Lucinda Childs herself was going to walk up on the stage and dance. And come on: I'm not insane. Dancers age better than the rest of us. Look at frigging Baryshnikov! But I should have known. There's an age at which respectable artists of all stripes stop publishing photographs of their current selves and use the same one indefinitely. Lucinda looks a little too gorgeous in the photo to be 70. But then, who knows? It seemed to me at least plausible that if she were 70, and that picture had been snapped when she was 60 (it's a stretch, but not totally ridiculous) it might be the case that the show was not just a showcase of her work, but that Lucinda would appear in the flesh. And in a way she did.

"Dance" is a reconstruction commissioned by the Richard E. Fisher Center at Bard. The original piece (1979) comprises three 20-minute pieces with music by Philip Glass. Rather than simply reenacting the piece and having done with it, the creative team last weekend thought it would be a good idea to project a live recording of the original, 1979 version on top of the live dancers. A very, very thin scrim divided the audience from the stage making this possible. The video was rarely in sync with what was going on onstage and the projected dancers were also very, very large by comparison so that they dwarfed the live performers.

Childs' choreography Mickey Mouses Glass's music. (Translation: it's repetitive.) 20 minutes kinda crawls. The problem wasn't that the dance was boring. In fact, the video projected dance was riveting. If the MCA had shown an hour of the video only (by Sol LeWitt) I would have left, a happily paying customer. The problem was the discrepancy between the live and the video-projected dancers. On the video (which included a breathtaking solo dance by Lucinda for Lucinda), Childs' choreography worked. It was repetitive, but in a good way, because the ingenuity of the movements bear repeating. The dancers are poised on a giant grid, 12X12 squares. They skip along the grid at breakneck speed as though it were propelling them along. LeWitt's camera follows the dancers, making it seem as if they're actually hopping up and down in place on a moving sidewalk. The effect is a bit like Irish dancing, to use a terrible comparison -- the torso stays totally upright; the feet do all the work. Childs' facial expression in her own dancing is also unusual--rather than looking out at an imagined audience, she looks inward. She's doing this dance for herself and we're incredibly lucky to catch her in the act. I almost felt voyeuristic watching the video. But the live dancers on Friday dispensed with everything that made the original dancers so unearthly. Theses were rule-bound, balletic, posed. Less skittish, more robust, more effortful. They looked like they were trying very, very hard.

In case you'd rather hear it from someone who actually knows something about dance, read the Laura Molzahn review in the Trib.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Chicago Humanities Festival

I'm directing a show at the Chicago Humanities Festival here on the University of Chicago campus this afternoon: come!

The show, which is improvised, is based on an incomplete fragment of a commedia dell'arte pantomime Mozart sketched out for himself and his pals to play in Vienna during carnival. Mozart reserved the role of Harlequin for himself and had his dad Fed-Ex his Harlequin outfit for the occasion. Unfortunately for us, only Mozart's violin line survived the centuries, along with an extremely spare, and often confusing scenario (including, for instance, that Harlequin goes from being alive in one scene to stone dead in the next for reasons that are not apparent, or the instruction that the "Doctor" is to exit and then that the Doctor then ... exits, again [from offstage?!])

Fortunately, the violin part alone is worthy of an Animaniacs appearance -- it does half the work of inventing action for us. Roger Moseley, who found the pantomime & engineered its musical reconstruction is jaw-droppingly good at revivifying 18th-century musical topics. He directs the ensemble from the piano bench.

I also decided to insert a couple other extraneous Mozarty bits into the score this time around: 1. Mozart's Turkish March for piano solo (which accompanies the otherwise totally unmotivated entrance of a "Turk" in Mozart's scenario, hence the appropriately out-of-place music) and 2. an aria for Columbine -- at Martha Feldman's request, Barbarina's aria from Figaro. The aria (accompanied by Pierrot) is a total red herring (no one has uttered a word thus far, let alone belted out opera), recalling, I hope, Christina Ricci's completely bizarre and wonderful tap dance in the middle of Buffalo 66, which has a similar effect.

As an additional layer, thinking the commedia relationships bear a striking resemblance to day-to-day academia (lecherous old professor, scheming post-doc, emo undergrad, innocent English major from Minnesota) the characters are dressed in U of C nerd wear.

There is a typo on the Chicago Humanities official webpage, which, alas, lists Roger Moseley as the sole director. Anyway, come, and while you're at it, try to pass yourself off as an "Educator" at the door so you can get in for free (think pocket protector, bedhead, fanny pack).


Harlequin: Jon Eliot
Pantalone: Greg Anderson
Pierrot: Peter Schultz
Columbine: Majel Connery
Doctor: Jonathan DeSouza
Violin: Emily Norton
Clarinet: Danny Gough
Piano: Roger Moseley
Cello: Emily M.

Mandel Hall
1131 E. 57th St.
Chicago, IL 60637

Adults: $10.00
Educators & Students: FREE

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Monday, Oct 12 Workshop on Peter Maxwell Davies

Oh, shameless plug!

My work on Peter Maxwell Davies (dissertation in embryo) is finally taking form. I'll be presenting next Monday, October 12 at a newly-constituted workshop in Theater & Performance Studies at the University of Chicago, run by David J. Levin & Christopher Wild. The paper is slated to appear later this winter (don't be deceived: it isn't actually winter outside, though it feels to be) in the Oxford University Press journal, The Opera Quarterly.

Come see me embarrass myself:

Monday, Oct 12
Germanic Studies Department
Wieboldt Hall, Rm #206
there will be wine


The French are So Unimaginative

This was passed along to me by a friend of mine but it belongs in a museum. It's the graphic on the vomit bags for Polish Airlines. I haven't flown to Poland lately, but really: could there be a better way to say VOMIT HERE NOW than Torba Chorobowa? ... but then, what about Spuckbeutel? A close second. Oh, my.


Or is it MCoP? Or MoCoP? Here's what I don't understand: Mo = Museum, right? Yes, I know, MoMA started it, and little 'o' stands for 'of.' Fine. It still looks bizarre. I think MuCPhot works much better.

ICE never does anything half-assed. David Bowlin was the only ICE'er on the program last night, but there were more in attendance. Claire Chase had an outfit that would have made David Bowie jealous if only he could fit into it. The exhibit at MoCP (MusoCoP) was spectacular and went well with the spectacular program. The image they have on the museum website really doesn't do justice to it. Behind David was what appeared (from my position 40 feet back) to be either a shattered adult toilet seat (the kind you put over top of the regular seat, presumably to make it ... more accessible to the adult butt?) or a life raft exploded into about 7 pieces. Each of the pieces had wild colors all over it & it was positioned at times more or less directly above David's head when he moved toward it, making him appear to have a psychedelic halo radiating from his brain. On the opposite end, equally thrilling, was a bird's eye view of a small city coming directly out from the wall in 3-D. The image I want is the expensive holiday cards with complicated embedded origami that shoots out at you when you open the thing. Except 10 times larger.

David played the first piece, Sciarrino's first two capricci from 6 Capricci far fresher than I've ever heard Sciarrino played. It was so fresh I kept thinking someone with a crush on Sciarrino had cribbed his style. Like the Borges story where someone other than Cervantes writes Don Quixote exactly over again, word for word. But it's somehow different, because it comes from a different person in a different time & place. 6 Capricci written by Barry Manilow wouldn't be 6 Capricci written by Prince, even if they'd written the exact same piece, because their authors are such different people. Is anyone following me? It was fresh. Fresh, I tell you! And Berio's Sequenza VIII was stunning.

The people who actually had seats experienced Nono's La lontananza nostaligica utopica futura (and, forgive me because my Italian is awful but I'm guessing the piece is something about a faraway nostalgic, utopic future) in surround sound. The piece is for 8-channel tape and solo violin, so there were four speakers placed around the audience & David's playing was seconded by violin, vocal and other unidentifiable sounds that flitted between the speakers. I'm not qualified to judge the piece because I couldn't really hear it. Nick and I got stuck in the back of the room due to the unfortunate route Nick chose to get to the museum. But I might go ahead and judge the staging of it -- yes: the staging!

The piece itself is ages long and so the sheet music that corresponds is likewise long. 6 stands long, to be exact. Rather than having David play from stand 1 through to stand 6 all in a row, which one would expect, the stands were instead distributed around the playing arena at odd angles so that when he finished with one stand, he would then be forced to head off to the next. But someone had had the bright idea that he should not simply move to the next, he should be gripped by the need, the desire to find the next stand! He should be compelled by a strange interior voice: where, where is your stand, David? Thus, one ream of music finished, David would stop playing and pull a sudden, odd "what's that smell?!" face, and then would appear to be following the sounds of the music coming out of the speakers as though they sang a sweet, sweet tune only he could hear, as though the music, not he, was leading him blindly on. Then suddenly (what, ho!) he would land smack in front of the correct stand in the sequence and then begin playing again.

I'm making it sound funnier than it was. It was actually just a little hokey, so my thought, I suppose, is that actors should act, and musicians should play music.

Anyway, the concert was fabulous, and I'm sorry it was only one night.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Officially the Funniest Thing I've Seen in Weeks

Fortunately for me, Movementpants is choreographing Opera Cabal's brand new Vesalii Icones (by Peter Maxwell Davies, 1969) this summer. Get ready, Chicago.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Cliff Notes Carmen at COT

It's no use pretending. Peter Brook is a genius, but there's no Peter Brook in the recent La tragédie de Carmen at Chicago Opera Theater. In fact, last night's production proved a long unsubstantiated theory of mine that Peter Brook's younger brother, also somewhat unimaginatively named Peter Brook, wrote La tragédie and passed it off as the work of his older brother, hoping to ruin the poor man's career. How else to explain a canned version of Carmen that seems programmed to put people to sleep? If you sit back and close your eyes, which I'd advise you to do if you go to the final performance tomorrow, you might even hallucinate that you never left home ... drifting off in ye old armchair listening to "Renee Fleming: Great Opera Scenes," the iPod shuffle randomly selects "Carmen: Hottest Hits" and away you go ....

There were two moments of potential greatness in the production, when I thought or maybe just hallucinated I was dealing with the real Mr. Brook.

Hallucination no. 1: About 20 minutes into the opera, Carmen has already sung three arias back to back, and it starts to seem like something might be wrong. She finishes one and then, whoa, it's another aria from Carmen! And another! But then I thought, ah, yes, how clever (here's where the hallucination begins) ... the insinuation is that Carmen is literally a singing fool. She has to keep looping the same arias endlessly because the forward motion of the opera depends upon the enchantment her voice produces. The minute she stops, everything spirals out of control and her hot-headed lovers start killing each other. This theory of mine also (brilliantly!) explains why Carmen would fall for the slightly metro Escamillo instead of Marlboro Man José. Why? Because Escamillo is also a singing machine. Obviously! The girl who belts out the Habanera has to go home with the guy who sings "Tor-e-a-dor en ga-ha-ha-harde!" They're made for each other (until they run through their entire playlist and then discover they don't actually know one another ... no, wait, that would be the Sondheim Carmen). José's problem, like Eminem in 8 Mile, is that he can never get up the guts to sing in public and then when he does, it's just not very catchy. His only good aria comes too little too late, and Carmen's offstage anyway so she misses most of it. Oh, no ... I'm coming out of my reverie and ... it's a terribly choreographed fight scene! Aack!

Hallucination no. 2: I thought I detected a little prank, directed at the ultimate 19th-century tragic opera cliché -- the way the audience always knows what's going to happen, but the characters never catch on until it's too late. The same conceit drives scary movies. (We think: don't open the door, for chrissake! Don't answer the phone! Stop! He's got a knife! But of course the door is opened, the phone is answered, everybody dies.) It works the same way with opera. Except that the last scene of Carmen violates the rule. In the final duet, José plays the hapless lover who still believes he can make things work. Carmen is the dejected ex-lover who thinks it'll never work.... but then, suddenly, Carmen looks out at the audience ... she seems to know how the opera will end ... she's stepping outside the operatic frame! Carmen is half audience, half Carmen! She knows how it's going to end, but she still has to play out the scene. But José, poor boy, he's still trapped inside the tragic spiral. Their dialogue becomes strangely disordered. He says he isn't going to kill her. She says just do it! He says he loves her, they should go. She says, hey man, will you just drop it? José gets angry and kills her but not because he wants to. He kills her because she threatened suspension of belief, because Carmen was about to kill the very premise of opera itself! Oh, no ... the man behind me just snorted at Garcia's totally hilarious fake death.

I know, I know. The ravings of a madwoman. None of these things happened. But really, now, I'm trying to be funny, because I'm sad. I tried, I really tried, watching this production, to find a reason to like it. Actually, there's one reason: no intermission.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Office Space Opera

I witnessed an understudy performance of Clemenza di Tito yesterday afternoon, behind the Harris Theater mainstage. It was produced by the various assistants (to the conductor, the director, even the rehearsal pianist) who get together with the understudies to the main roles, and in the space of one week develop their own reading of the opera. But there are caveats. The performance lasts one hour, instead of two and a half. And there's no stage, no backstage, and no lighting. The performance happened in a kind of dance/conference room with space enough for about twenty people, two upright pianos, a handful of chairs, classroom track lighting, a trashcan, a clock, bad ventilation, and a couple exit signs. In other words, a lot like the last place on earth you'd wanna sing an opera. Unless you're Peter Sellars. (His infamous Marriage of Figaro, set in New York City's Trump Towers, substituted an uncomfortable opera-in-your-dorm-room kind of thing for the stop-everything-and-just-sing decor typical of a [say, 1998] Met production of the opera.)

R.B. Schlather, who assisted Christopher Alden on the set for Tito, did a good job of using what he had, i.e. next to nothing, rather than fighting it. Characters who were supposed to be offstage either sat lifeless at the long conference table planted in the center of the room, or huddled in the weird, dark exit corridor at the back. Rabihah Davis sang Vitellia's last aria (which maybe ought to have been sung from inside the corridor) slouched against the long dance mirror stage left, playing with her reflection. It was a nice effect, since Vitellia at this point literally retreats into a world of her own. Other characters, with no recourse to escape heady dramatic confrontations, occasionally turned face-first into the wall and remained there in an abrupt gesture of total helplessness.

The scenes that worked against the anti-operatic qualities of the room were less successful. In the finale, Sesto is about to be condemned to death and he/she simply walked up to the table and laid down on it. It would have made more sense, given the space, if he had been condemned to a paper shredder and a Kafka-esque never-ending stack of bills. No one, to my dismay, pointed a gun at the microwave, threatened to tear down the clock (which ticked and shuddered noisily throughout the entire "production"), or shouted at the pianist, who was four feet away, to play play more like an orchestra. There wasn't actually a microwave, but you see my point.

Ultimately, the condensed aspect of the performance was its most bizarre feature. How do you slim down a Mozart opera to one-third its original size? The production team solved this dilemma by eliminating everything except the recitative until halfway through Act II. At that point the characters suddenly began singing arias, precipitating a swift return to operaland. The problem with recitative-only opera is that Tito, Mozart's late return to buffa style, depends for its effectiveness on moments of pause -- the arias, which give space to thoughts and feelings. With nobody pausing for reflection, with nobody pausing, period, the characters ran around for the first forty minutes speaking very quickly to one another like they were acting out some weird Italian theatrical form that died out centuries ago because it didn't make any sense. 

Especial pplause is due to Julia Hardin, who played Sextus like a champ, especially given the circumstances. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Baby Bro Goes for Broke, Takes Bank

Drew Connery, a.k.a. my brother, is a performing fool. After hunkering down in relative isolation for years -- years during which our family quietly wondered what the hell he was up to and I was forming an avant-garde opera ensemble -- Drew emerged from his cocoon this past weekend with a couple single tracks that are so good I almost cried. The studio execs over at 89.4 in Omaha ("The River") must have wept, because Drew's hit single, "Omaha," went straight into regular radio play yesterday, skipping the usual months-long vetting process.

In spite of their name, there's nothing avant about Drew's group ("Random"), unless you count the fact that in addition to singing like a lark, he can also rip out high-pitched melismatic vocal lines as good as the best Hindustani classical singer. And he can rap. Drew specializes in what an old teacher of mine, Daron Hagen, calls doing cliché well. Hagen used to say that the problem with 99.9% of composing artists is that in trying to be wildly creative and different, they lean too far in that direction and end up composing stuff most people wouldn't give 5 seconds of their time to. The creative genius is the person who creates art within the boundaries of the known. Drew's talent is to absorb the essence of a musical genre, its unmistakable imprint (in this case, Third Eye Blind, with hints of Led Zeppelin and Eddie Vedder [Drew, by the way, can I have my CDs back?]) and then churn out perfect facsimiles of the songs these guys ought to have written. Maybe he's spent the last several years creeping into the bedrooms of famous rockstars and writing down the stuff they say in their sleep.

In any case, I'm proud as hell, Drew. Listen to RANDOM on MySpace.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mozart's Carnival

A few photos from a recently concluded project involving the improvised reconstruction of a pantomime for Mardi Gras never finished by Mozart. Roger Moseley, a younger version of Robert Levin, and resident 18th-century improvisation fanatic at the University of Chicago, unearthed what remains of the score: 1. the first violin part and 2. an extremely sketchy scenario, written by Mozart in German. In other words, not much.

Roger headed up the music side of things, and recruited me to be the project's stage director. Maybe it's my bad German, but the scenario I inherited contained a few leaps in logic. It wasn't immediately obvious how to effect, for instance, an unprepared transition from "Dottore sieht auch zärtlich" to "Pantalon, Piero und Dottore liegen auf der Erde." (The Doctor "looks tenderly" at an undetermined object, and then the next minute everybody's lying kicking and screaming on the floor). Or what about when "Pantalon and Doctor go off" and suddenly "Piero comes onstage loaded with weapons." What?! Well, on one level, this is Commedia dell'arte, not Shakespeare. The scenario isn't supposed to make sense -- or rather, the fact that the characters do things that don't make sense is what makes it funny. But the best non sequitur in the scenario is also an embarrassing reminder of Commedia's historical trajectory, and the social hierarchies it pokes fun of. After depositing his cache of weapons, Piero is instructed (presumably to our great amusement) to "spot the Turks." For Mozart, as anyone who's seen the Orientalist classic, Die Entführung auf dem Serail, knows, Turkish folks step up as the dead-ringer bad/stupid foreigner stereotype in a lot of Mozart's operas. Sadly, the stereotype exists in Germany today more or less unchanged, maybe with slightly more sublimation. (For productions of this opera that attempt to render transparent or completely ditch its colonialist fantasy aspect see Entführung on a yacht, Calixto Bieto's infamous staging or [my personal favorite] Neuenfels' production for the Staatsoper Stuttgart, available on DVD -- yipee!) If I were as bold as Sasha Baron Cohen, I might have used the Turks moment to make a political point about how far (or not) we've come since Mozart, but I tried to bail Mozart out by simply giving everyone mustaches, à la Groucho Marx.

Here, the cast (Shawn Keener as Pantalone, Jonathan DeSouza as Doctor, Alyssa Mathias as Columbine and Peter Schultz as Piero), armed with kitchen utensils, sneaks up on an unsuspecting Harlequin.

Columbine, a kind of urban-dwelling hipster, is being sneaky.

Pantalone, à la Billy Crystal's "You look marvelous" lounge lizard, is also very sneaky.

Pierrot (here, Lenny from Of Mice and Men?) is never sneaky, even when he tries to be.

The show is ended (Harlequin-cum-Afghani aerobics instructor [me], far right).

Sunday, April 19, 2009

La clemenza di Christopher Alden

Go see this opera. Now. Go see it now. Please. Don't do it for my sake. Just trust me.

When I first heard Christopher was coming to town to direct La clemenza di Tito, my first thought was, "Yeah ... hmm, Italian ... Mozart ... sounds familiar ... sort of ... wait, what's it called again?" I went to the library to get a recording and discovered there are actually a couple a-v recordings floating around. A VHS exists of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's Tito, which, apparently having been hit by the stupid bat, I somehow decided not to watch in favor of a DVD made-for-TV version by the BBC. I grew up on "I, Claudius" (which, confusingly for a first grader, they spell the fancy Roman way: "Clavdivs"), "Upstairs, Downstairs," and "Brideshead Revisited," and came away mightily persuaded of the superiority of British acting. (According to the rule by which things denied us as children become addictions in adulthood, I am now incapable of skipping an episode of Law and Order.) So when I watched this particular Tito and decided it was one of the worst operas ever written, it didn't dawn on me that it was the fault of the production. I assumed, as it has been common to assume since Mozart's death, that it's a completely lame opera. In fact, British television actors just can't sing.

Christopher Alden arrived in Chicago last month announcing that in this new production there would be none of the usual flouting of all historical referents. As he put it, "I'm over that." His Aida at the Deutsche Oper last year is a good example of what he's apparently over. Aida was an exotic-looking maid who worked for an unhealthy little cult of Evangelical power mongers hunkered down in what looked like a Radisson convention center in the heart of gun country, U.S.A. Christopher's particular brand of flouting has over the years attracted a lot of critical attention, and while the majority of people seem to hate what he does with his operas (Berlin booed Aida till they were hoarse, so I think it's safe to say that they're also "over that"), enough people with intelligence and political nerve think he's the greatest thing since sliced bread that he's gotten himself quite a reputation, if a mixed one. Whatever. Press, as we all know, is press. During the intermission of the Tito dress last Thursday, a man on my right mumbled, "Well, there's just absolutely nothing right about this opera," while a woman on my left shrieked, "Whoever this director is, I wanna marry him!"

Part of the problem is that Christopher's reputation precedes him, which means that a cast generally has a pretty good idea of what they're in for before the thing ever gets off the ground. Christopher's instructions to his singers usually ask for a recreation of something like the group therapy sessions in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: a bunch of crazy people on the verge. You know, one person's trying to figure out how to throw himself out of the window, someone else is losing it in the corner. Which, let's face it, is what operas are written about. But singers, especially accomplished ones in the European circuit, offer up a fair bit of resistance to this. You can't teach an old dog new tricks (like, how to act). But because Christopher's overall conceptions already demand a lot imaginatively of the audience, without everyone's participation on stage it can't get off the ground. In Berlin, there were a bunch of old-school singers rattling around like ghosts in a production where they simply didn't belong. I've always wondered what a Christopher Alden production would look like if his singers dared to act like he wanted them to...

The brilliance of the Chicago Opera Theater model is that, like Rome under Titus, absolute monarchy works when the ruler is a pretty awesome guy. Brian Dickie effortlessly commands devotion and loyalty from the people who work for him, and he's talented at assembling knock-out young singers into cutting-edge casts. COT is the MacBook Pro to the Lyric's PC. It's lighter, it's cooler-looking, and it frigging works. It was a little startling to walk into the first run-through and realize that these singers were literally in their twenties. But far more astonishing is that by opening night (last Saturday) they were all doing a pretty good job of embodying Christopher's wild-eyed schizophrenic thing. The scenic conception is a little lose. If you squint, it looks a little like sixties neo-Greco architecture: Lincoln Center, is how Christopher put it. And the costumes are, I dunno, I guess they're a little confusing. There are togas, but then Servilia has dreds, Titus is in his jammies, and Sextus has a kind of Kenneth Cole/runway thing going on. But the personal dynamic between singers, especially Sextus/Titus, is riveting. It just doesn't get better than this. There's opera, and then there's Christopher's Tito.

Three more performances. No excuses. Go.

Note: For a review of the opera (what you've just read, as Brian Dickie helpfully pointed out, is in fact a "review") see Andrew Patner's take.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Eight Songs for a Mad Queen

Last Thursday I stepped out for a little late-night Maxwell Davies. Back in 2005, the International Contemporary Ensemble developed a reading of Eight Songs for a Mad King with director Lydia Steier. Last week's resurrection of the same production took place at the hip new Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village (what is it about venues with color-coded animal names? Remember the White Dog Café?) Fortunately for me, Eight Songs, which was wild and incendiary when it was written in 1969, is still weird enough in 2009 that hip young groups like I.C.E. are willing to take it on. I have yet to be underwhelmed by these folks, who pulled off Xenakis's bizarre Oresteia last year at the Miller Theater with what I can only call style. For the Davies, they actually went to the trouble of memorizing the score. So it was somewhat disappointing that in spite of such a colossal feat, the instrumentalists were deliberately sidelined in the production by the King's antics.

Davies' idea for the original production had the King (modeled on King George III, the sole singer in the score) interacting on stage with each of the instrumentalists, who are all in cages, representing the bullfinches that crazy George III allegedly played with during his 60 odd years of royal insanity and seclusion. There are no cages in Steier's production. And the question of whether the King is performing at all (is he performing nuts, or is he just nuts?) is updated into the psycho-scape of the ultimate vanity press: YouTube. The instrumentalists crouch on either side of a giant stage-size screen onto which the King's singing face is projected. The King himself sits behind the screen (we cannot see him, but we hear his voice), but the liveness of his performance is belied by the intervention of a camcorder. What we see is much less like a performance, and more like a blown-up home video of a guy screwing around in his bedroom.

Steier's conceit is that the singer gradually makes himself up as King George. Over the course of roughly 45 minutes, he applies a generous white base, pencils in eyebrows and beauty marks, does up his lips, and finishes off the costume with a powdered wig (which he powders, hilariously). Partly because of the making-up bit, and partly because much of the vocal part lies in a falsetto range, the effect is a bit like Dame Edna after five tequila jello shots. Peter Tsantis is a creditable singer and his rendition is not coincidentally very singerly. He has exceptional technique and despite all the noisy racket he's required to make didn't appear to be straining. The problem is that without the sense of geniune strain, the sense of genuine madness flies out the window. Other interpreters of the role (Roy Hart or Julius Eastman), have voices that seem literally to come apart as the King's reality comes apart. With Tsantis, I wasn't on the edge of my seat. (Although that may also have been due to the unwelcome narration from the man behind me who felt obliged to fill in long and goofy explanations for the benefit of his young girlfriend: "Now, you know which one's the cello, right? ... Oh, this bit's from the Messiah! Do you know the Messiah?" I turned around at one point to ask him if he'd like to step outside to fight, but came face to face with a waitress presenting him and his girl-teen with an enormous Lobster Crostini plate. Don't go to the Poisson Rouge if you like your voyeurism without the annoying chatter.)

If you're familiar with the piece, you know that the King has to emerge from under the screen at some point because there's the bit about him breaking the violinist's violin. He does eventually come out, appearing onstage in the flesh for the first time. This ought to be a big moment and it is. The screen is simply a backdrop now, and we're in the familiar world of theater. The King dutifully smashes the violin. But then, oddly, Steier has him return behind the screen, and finish the rest of the piece from there. In retrospect, the entrance onstage appears not to have been an interesting staging choice (shattering the YouTube illusion and replacing it with real-time theater), but merely the shortest way to get the King and the violin close enough for the one to beat the other into submission. The problem is that having once tossed out the YouTube conceit, it makes no sense to have the singer step behind the screen again. Once we know that the Wizard of Oz is the guy behind the curtain, he has to stop doing the schtick behind the curtain and come out and face his audience like a man. Or a queen.

There was also very little ... no, I'm gonna go with no attempt made to integrate what was happening on stage with Randolph Stow's lyrics, which are thoughtful, bizarre and strong, and which will contradict what you're doing if you're not careful. (Why would this particular King, dressing up as a woman, suddenly start raving about Esther, his queen? Whoops!) I'm all about artistic license, but if there's no attempt to align what's going on action-wise with what the King is saying, it becomes Eight Mumbles for Some Sick Sonofagun, which isn't half as interesting as what's printed in the score.

I'd still tell you to go see it, but that was the only performance. Next time.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cav & Pag at the Lyric

My understanding of the philosophical method consists of a line of inquiry introduced to me by Mark Johnston, a Princeton professor, in 2001. To avoid the trap of making assumptions that anything in this world is simply the way it is, we imagine ourselves instead as outside observers coming fresh to the world and finding it strange. Beaming into the upper balconies at the Lyric what, Lord have mercy, would aliens have made of Cav and Pag?

Having off-beat or at least against-the-grain tastes regarding opera (what is avant-garde opera anyway?) I spent the entire concert thinking about aliens instead of opera. What could save Cavelleria rusticana? I imagined each of the singers doubled by massive, larger-than-life helium puppets who wobbled and bobbled behind them, sporting similar hair-dos and mimicking their ground-level melodramas from 20 ft up in the air. The problem is that Italian verismo is inherently funny, or ought to be -- what is realistic opera? -- and when you suppress that fact it's bound to gum up the wheels of production. The Road Runner is irresistible when he races around to Rossini because cartoons resist seriousness by design; refusing to take opera seriously, cartoonishness starts to get at the essence of operaness. Which is another way of saying cartoons are a lot like opera.

Carlo Ventre (Turridu) has all kinds of quintessentially tenorish moments in Cav, flinging his torso around like Darth Vader taking an acting class, and Dolora Zajick weaving in small circles around him like a tugboat... There was one particularly bad/awesome bit of acting in the first act. Dolora is instructed to grab hold of Carlo's jacket (lying on the back of a chair) to prevent his departure, but Carlo/Turridu violently intercepts her hand, precipitating dramatic tension. Instead, what happened was that Dolora made for the jacket, but Carlo missed his cue. Operatic singers aren't hired for their improv skills, and Dolora, unsure what to do, simply froze in an awkward "I'm gonna grab that jacket" position for about 10 seconds till Carlo caught on.

The libretto doesn't help the situation. It's high-stakes from the moment go with everyone hollering about "Traitor!" and "Vendetta!" so there's really nowhere to go.

Mascagni's music is a great example of the fact that opera is the mother of film. Cav is basically a soundtrack. Is it a coincidence that the opening scene of the opera, an extensively choreographed people-bustling-about the town square sort of thing (I love watching singers try to act the "silent" conversation onstage), so resembles the opening sequence of Walt Disney's Beauty and the Beast? This particular scene is also a lot like the complicated goofing off that precedes the entrance of the magician/uncle guy who presents Clara with her Nutcracker doll in the Tchaikovsky ballet. But at least in Beauty and the Beast and The Nutcracker the protagonists are attempting to escape the trauma of the everyday (in Beauty's case, into an less provincial, more individualistic habitus, and for Clara into a genuinely strange and hallucinogenic dreamscape). Saturday night at the Lyric the audience was trying to escape into the play.

Look: I'm a minority. If everyone felt the way I do about operatic staging the Lyric would be dead and gone and the people who donate to the Lyric, if not dead and gone themselves, would have to give their money to, oh, UNICEF. Which, of course, would make the world a better place, but who's paying attention. The huge surprise of the evening was that, made to stay against my will for the second half of the program by David Bashwiner (fellow U-of-C'er and film komponist), Pagliacci was absolutely brilliant, the best bit of comic acting I've ever seen in an operatic production. And, unless I traveled on an alien spaceship Saturday night, it apparently happened at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Where and when it was meant to be set was lost on me (and on the singers I interviewed afterward). I'm guessing some kind of fairground/playground on the outskirts of interwar Italy... And I had one flashback to a recent Three Tenors broadcast during Pagliacci's big aria. Otherwise, the Commedia players (the Lyric hired first-rate professional clowns, but the opera people absolutely held their own next to them) in the second act erect a flimsy carnival stage and proceed to entertain the hell out of the townspeople. Frumpy Nedda looks very hot in her Colombina outfit (which includes an enormous blue wig), and I audibly BAAH-HAH'ed when Canio, the creepy old man who woos her, opens his mouth and ends up hemming like a donkey.

If you can get in at intermission, do it.