Saturday, August 30, 2008

This Just In: McCain Follows Gelb Strategy

That's right, John McCain has chosen to appeal to a youthful demographic by nominating as his running mate someone with good hair and star power. McCain's choice? Andrea Zuckerman, West Beverly's own 35-year-old high school junior. It's sort of like how Andrea took her job editing the school paper way too seriously--you get the idea that if someone had asked her to join a presidential ticket, she might've felt qualified, just as one might after being mayor of a town of 9,000 in Alaska...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Slightly Moar

So the answer is: yes, opera in a small room in the basement of a bar is a really good idea. No, the atmosphere never veered toward the rowdy--the crowd, in fact, was no younger than anywhere uptown in a bigger room--but it's simply very worth doing to take in opera on the scale where theater can be achieved in an intimate, direct way.

Speaking still of Opera Omnia's Poppea, presented here in English. Opera in translation is something that usually elicits bestial shrieks of fury from yours truly, but in this case and similar ones, I'll make an exception...I'll forgive a little of the awkwardness that rides on the back of translation (all but the best translations, and even then art and artifice have something to do with each other) for a couple of reasons. Probably the main one is that this kind of theater has immediacy as a keynote. I have listened to (obvious example) Elektra eleventy million times, but it still doesn't enter my head unmediated, if you see what I mean. There's a tradeoff--if I dare use the word authenticity, some of that is lost: the original way the sound lived in the words. But for losing that, you get an experience that's closer to watching tv. (Alright, I'm being deliberately provoc by not picking theatre, spelled "re" for good measure.)

Anyway yeah it's in English.

And an interesting thing about the production that could be seen as a fault or a strength is that there's a homogeneity of approach that can be seen in the singing of English--some singers going with a fairly talk-like diction, others singing "duty" as "dyoo-tee"--and carries over into other areas of performance. Basically all the singers have a different balance of strengths, the theatrical, the linguistic, the technical, the raw materials...and overall I think this makes for interesting listening and watching.

The most satisfying of these varying balances surely was embodied by Melissa Fogarty, the evening's Ottavia, she of the tremulous tone and smartly understated tragic air. "Disprezzata Regina" or whatever it comes out as in English (one likes to play at bad translator and imagine things that work metrically but not otherwise. We'll call that scena "Sister girl's in the doghouse") was dramatically and vocally a highlight of the performance.

Cherry Duke as Nerone and Hai-Ting Chinn as That Girl had a fascinating chemistry rooted in Ms. Duke's physical take on the role, honestly about the most forget-what-you're-actually-seeing travesti turn I can think of just now. Ms. Chinn responded with a Poppea who was a creature of instinct who learned years ago what her looks would get her. Not for nothing, Ms. Chinn works a bob to make Louise Brooks ask for a scrunchy. The vocals of the pair didn't always have the same poise as Ms. Fogarty's, but were never lacking.

Steven Hrycelak sang Seneca in elegant voice, with pathos. Props as well to Avi Stein, who brought polish and depth to a score that to opera queens per se (am I fair in saying?) has some notable longeurs. I mean, even with all the above-mentioned valorous work, Act I requires eyelid muscles of steel...or in the case of this performance in this venue, some gin. (You may be disappointed to hear, as I hinted earlier, that, non-traditional surroundings notwithstanding, the assembled crowd declined to observe period practice and at no point threw things at Poppea for being such a rotter, nor even yelled and cursed.)


In news of the...what's the opposite of monumentally important?, I just made this page for the likely event that I will be taking in opening night from the plaza or other rustic, downright outdoorsy environs, and am sure as hell not taking a laptop. Perhaps I'll use it during the season for 140-character liveblog reviews in brief: Intermissions at Intermissions.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Less is moar

One idea that tends to still the bickering among opera queens (who like nothing more than a good bicker), because it's just so obviously correct, is that venues are needed in the city for operas that lose something in a 4,000 seat house. Venues and companies, really. Because the You-Know-Who can dance on its toes like a cartoon elephant and put on Mozart and Handel, but it's not what they do best, and anyway the hall has a way of ironing out the subtleties. Performances that would work at Glimmerglass would look like not much of anything in the Barn, so the singers have to embiggen everything*. Here and there we have the singer like Roschmann with the right style for Mozart or Handel, the right grain in her voice to put the heartbreak over and be heard, but it's no fun waiting around for things like that.

It's probably just a financial reality of the city and an aesthetic reality of the century that appropriate forces and spaces for, say, Monteverdi...

Did somebody say Monteverdi?! As you may have read in the Times, but it bears repeating, a company called Opera Omnia has taken it into their heads to put on an English language Poppea at a "multimedia art cabaret" called Le Poisson Rouge, whose website proclaims: Serving Art and Alcohol. And who's going to argue with that? “Eh bien! que l’atmosphère est bizarre!” as the boys are saying, but this does seem to solve the problem of un-intimate performance spaces--as I'm guessing they don't seat 4,000--and another one, besides.

Now, I have mixed feelings about the idea of stuffiness in opera venues. I'm as pro-stuffy as the next so-and-so when I'm at a de facto stuffy institution of art delivery and someone the row behind me thinks the whole unspoken "no talking" thing is a milennial relic. But it's all about go to that "Opera on Tap" thing for instance, if that's still up and running, and you know what you're getting into. Here, I assume, in a space called a cabaret, things will be on the loose side as well. And I think Monteverdi might be a good match for that kind of thing, both because--if my history is correct--this is opera from long before concert-going became so formal anyway, and because yes, Poppea has its chatty patches, let us admit, that could be smoothed over admirably by a sazerac or whatever the kids are ironically swilling, and the possibility of not sitting abso-bloomin-lutely still. (I think it is fair to expect that it will be a laid back, almost outdoorsy vibe, considering the line on Le Poisson Rouge's website that says "the venue's mission is to revive the symbiotic relationship between art and revelry" and if that doesn't clinch it, "bring open mind and drinking shoes" does. It's a little hipstery, but ok.)

The whole thing has more the feel of young musicians trying to do a little revitalizing from within, guided by their own aesthetics, than (with all apologies to Mr. Gelb et al who are doing, if you ask me, a bang-up job in most ways) battle-worn pros trying to figure out how to market kids into the concert hall, and this makes it promising.

So hey, theorbos and ethanol! I'm going--are you?

*Cromulence included

Friday, August 15, 2008

Singin' and cryin'

NHB, your wish is my command, which just goes to show you: it is sometimes best to stick with standard wishes like a pony or a filibuster-proof Democratic majority. So, for no real reason except I think they're great and you'll like them, here are two sliiiightly thematically linked clips from the films of Almodovar, the first from Tacones Lejanos (High Heels), with apologies for lack of subtitles, and the second from Volver with--I shit you not, as usual--subtitles in what I assume to be Turkish.

In this one, the magnetic Marisa Paredes syncs to Luz Casal's cover of "Piensa en mi," a wonderful little melodrama by Mexican songwriter Agustin Lara. Sample lyrics: "Piensa en mi quando sufras. Quando llores, tambien piensa en mi" = "Think of me when you're suffering. When you're crying, think of me then, too." Not for nothing is this sung by a character beloved of drag queens. (You'll even find one visual cover of the scene on youtube performed by a real live drag queen.) There's a neat trick Luz Casal does near the end, singing through the phrase "quitarme la vida" with a sobbing vibrato that permeates even the consonants. Curiously, to me anyway, the guitar accompaniment is exactly, but exactly, identical to the cover of the same song by hard-to-take songstress Chavela Vargas, which I think is also on youtube at least in audio. (I was introduced to the beyond-Dylan, beyond-even-Vysotsky gargling of Madame Vargas at this weird house party in Austin where I was also introduced to Laphroaig, perhaps Chavela's sour mash equivalent.) Ok, so my summer entries are all about lamentably autobiographical digression, yes. Cue the next musical example.

Ok, best lip-synching in the history of lips, no? You may or may not recognize the woman doing the crying in this one as Carmen Maura, tough but glamorous twenty years earlier in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Almodovar on the verge of leaving camp and epater-ing-el-bourgeousie behind in order to make a number of increasingly sincere masterpieces.) Maura looks to me to have made the bold move of aging naturally, but in her first scenes in the movie, she's consented to be made absolutely haggard, with tremendous aesthetic pay-off. Cruz talks in the commentary track about wearing, well, a prosthetic ass, and she and Almodovar have a little love-fest about how it inspired her to carry herself like a mother instead of one of today's great screen beauties. The lyrics here are softer camp, and, uh, the subtitles, as promised, appear to be in Turkish. It was the longest version of the clip and I wanted to be sure of having the last seconds of it.

It occurs to me that what makes the second clip more convincing, though the first is more of a tour-de-force, is that Luz Casal is audibly younger than Marisa Paredes, though perhaps her character is meant to be lip-synching to her own beloved recording of the song from younger years. It makes me have vague thoughts about singing voice in relation to speaking voice--and recall an interview in which Upshaw said her coach or perhaps her doctor told her to try and habitually raise her speaking voice to be more in line with the range of her singing--because I'm still not convinced--anyway, Almodovar back then was at least half about artifice.

Really I just posted these because I played both of them for regular commentatrix Grrg, and didn't even think at the time about the fact that they're both so much about singing and memory and loss, even if they show Almodovar reacting to these things first at the tail end of his enfant-terrible phase, then as...I don't know how to categorize what he's become, other than one of the very best. For more on singing and crying, please visit the Opera-L archives, as I recall there was one of those immortal (in the sense of neverending, not in the sense of great or timeless) threads about what music makes you cry! Seriously, it was one of those things where by the end every recording in history has been referenced. Somewhere out there, there's someone who gets misty over Marilyn Horne singing "Groin pull."

All for now. A month, more or less, 'til I can go back to opera blogging. Oh but meanwhile, did you notice Santa Fe made public their intentions for next seez? Highlights include a Brewer/Groves Alceste and Dessay in Traviata. One feels certain she will make interesting and unusual dramatic choices in the role, no?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I'm just sayin' is all

Someone who never forgets a detail tells me that in the Met's production of La Gioconda, La Cieca enters with Gioconda...which makes sense seeing as she can't so much see and all, and a seeing eye dog would distract everybody and risk animal applause, the banal bane of many an Aida production.

So what I'm saying is, a smart stage director might want to figure out a way around this, because there's going to be a strong presence there of Podles cultists, and some of them have been waiting 25 years for her to come back (I say them, not us...I was not inducted until 1998ish.) There is going to be a loudish reaction at her entrance, I imagine, and it seems a little unfair to Voigt to suffer the ambiguity of entering with her.

Much of the bloodsport of the ticket exchange is now happily over, with good results. It almost feels like time to start posting about opera again, only it really isn't. Over a month left! Meanwhile I may post some absurd bullshit about Almodovar. The minutes will fly by like hours....

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Pugacheva takes on the critics

Maybe you know her because of the story (apocryphal? well it's a touch recherche for an urban legend) that Schnittke envisioned her voice in the role of Satan in an opera he wanted to write, I think a Faust opera though I don't recall for certain. Or maybe you know the joking name the Russians have for her: Ustala Alla: Tired Alla. Oh or perhaps you're lucky and know her one song that doesn't sound like everything they should have told kids to fear during the cold war (tell a teen the Russians are sinister and they'll be intrigued; tell him they're unbelievably uncool and tacky and he might enlist), her one song that is an introverted gem, a spare setting for voice and guitar of Tsvetaeva's exquisite poem "Mne nravitjsa."* This is possible, because it was featured in a much beloved Russian film, Ironija Sud'by, i.e. The Irony of Fate. It's a film about hilarity ensuing, I think. Never quite made it through it, though I was graciously given a copy by an auntly Russian psychiatrist who used to diagnose kids, correctly, with the need for "a parentectomy."

What you don't know** is that La Pugacheva perpetrated a disco hit about the New Yorker's music critic. I think the first instance of her tribute occurs at about 1:04.

*what I'd really like is to provide a translation of this, but I tried, my own self, to translate the thing--preserving metre and rhyme--for a long time, and it always came out as translations of poetry so often do, accurate but broken, so eventually I abandoned the project. And I've never seen it translated except literally and without these structural elements, and that's no good either. Oh but here's the song, for all you Tsvetaeva fanbois.

And in fact, gadding about on youtube after the above, I did discover a verse-intact translation of the Tsvetaeva poem, sorta clunky, in the "about" section of an also clunky, though endearingly so, fan cover of the Pugacheva song. Would you have thought there would have been such a thing? It's like Rule 34, except not about porn: if it exists, someone has sat around with a guitar figuring out the chords, sung it with slight intonation problems, and put it on youtube. Oh anyway the point of this was:

"I like it that you`re burning not for me,
I like it that it`s not for you I`m burning
And that the heavy sphere of Planet Earth
Will underneath our feet no more be turning.
I like it that I can be unabashed
And humorous and not to play with words
And not to redden with a smothering wave
When with my sleeves i`m lightly touching yours.
I like it, that before my very eyes
You calmly hug another; it is well
That for me also kissing someone else
You will not threaten me with flames of hell.
That this my tender name, not day nor night,
You will recall again, my tender love;
That never in the silence of the church
They will sing "halleluiah" us above.
With this my heart and this my hand I thank
You that - although you don`t know it -
You love me thus; and for my peaceful nights
And for rare meetings in the hour of sunset,
That we aren`t walking underneath the moon,
The sun is not above our heads this morning,
That you - I like - are burning not for me
And that - I like - it`s not for you I`m burning.

Translator unknown--maybe the fan in question? If it's you, speak up!

**because it simply isn't true

Hat tips for exposing me to the song, and a rousing chorus of "Hachapuri to you" to B, whose oddly timed Georgian birthday dinner occasioned this shaggy dog of a post.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Grazing outside my pasture

I'm the last person you want to ask about pop music because the last time I was particularly in the know involved crouching by the stereo speaker with a cassette recorder, hoping to record a scritchy, unlistenable replica of "Don't You Want Me" by the Human League without accidentally picking up any of Kasey Kasem's patter. I was like a little gay suburban Bela Bartok. Soon after that I discovered classical music, and my inner life took flight just as my social life plummeted to the earth with a crashing thud.

Ever the euphemist, I like to think of my tastes in popular music not so much as "woefully underinformed" as "selective." I like what I like, yessirree, and that's about one thing a year. I can't name an American Idol winner for you, I'm still not 100% sure what is and is not hip hop, and even in the realm of indie pop (back in my day, young feller, we called it "alternative music") I just basically don't know shit from shinola.

However. Occasionally I toss off my Havisham frock and peer into the youthful world, and once in a while there's something good, and once in a longer while, something fantastic. Regina Spektor is at this point years off the cutting edge but in case you don't know her, I would like to be a big bore about her, complete with Youtube clips (the hipster Power Point!) Here's exhibit A. The song is Fidelity. Note the aspirated coloratura. I mean who the fuck does that?

What's so grand about this is, um, a bunch of stuff. Actually one thing that isn't clear here so much is her technical prowess, because though her album is (to my ear) a wonder of production that has a POV but doesn't get you all wet with it, it downplays Spektor the pianist at times. But she's kind of the anti-Madonna, the rare combination of a good voice, artfully deployed, with excellent instrumental chops. Let's watch the same song live, shall we? Oh hm, no. I have a better idea. Here's "Us" from an earlier album, live, because it shows more of what I'm on about.

There's something really bodily connected about her singing and playing, and beyond that, the love fest with her audience (see around 2:55 and at the end) is just enchanting.

Meanwhile, her songs go a lot of places...the tender revision of an not entirely loveable myth in "Sampson", the catalogs of doubts about love dressed up as love songs like "Better", even the sloppily lyric'ed "On the Radio" is a triumph of delivery, here and there the bluesy crag in the voice saving a too coy reference. Dramatis personae tend to be the standard "you" and "I" (my fave pop song used to be "The Boy with the Arab Strap" specifically because it has so many characters) and the verb tends to be love, but with interesting detours.

The songs are urban, multi-lingual, lightly polyphonic in the Bakhtinian sense unlses at this point I'm just bullshitting. And then, if you're still clicking around over there on youtube, songs like "Apres Moi" highlight something you hear a lot more of in the live clips, her playful sense of when to throw in an unsingerly sound.

Oh here's another, as long as I'm being insufferable. Here she's singing "That Time", and I'm including it because of the last riff in the song, a vocal ornament as delicately turned as Callas' ascending thirds near the beginning of "Al dolce guidami." No, I'm serious! Ok, yeah, now I'm totally exaggerating. But here it is anyway:

Regina Spektor is playing somewhere in Williamsburg next week but my skinny jeans are at the welder's having the rivets redone, so I'll probably skip it. We apologize for this detour into things I know absolutely nothing about. Regularly scheduled opera programming ought to begin in a month and a half.