lies like truth: June 2008 Archives

Usually it's easy to tell when a film makes use of non-professional actors. The untrained actors are supposed to imbue a movie with a rough edginess, perhaps a greater sense of "the real" (whatever that means.) More often than not, though, the performances come across as wooden and self-conscious, as was the case with the recent movie Once, for instance.

So I was quite surprised to emerge from a screening of the Golden Bear Award-winning Mongolian movie, Tuya's Marriage, at the weekend, to discover that I had been watching a cast of mainly non-professional actors at work. All the male characters in this absorbing film, directed by Wang Quan An, are played by non-actor, I found out from reading a synopsis of the film by New York Times movie critic Stephen Holden. These characters have the same names as the people who play them. Only the female lead, Tuya, is played by a professional actress -- Yu Nan.

What's curious is that unlike most English-language films that use non-professional casts, I couldn't tell the quality of the performances apart. Every character in this film depicting the harsh lives of Mongolian sheep herders living trying to eke out a living in an inhospitable world, touched me. The character played by Yu Nan does most of the "heavy lifting" in the film -- both literally as Tuya's family depends upon her for income, as well as as figuratively as she is the emotional center of the drama and is in the most scenes. But the supporting cast members all kept up with her in terms of engrossing us in their characters' journeys.

But I wonder if I would feel the same way if I could understand Mongolian? In the past, I've been similarly taken with foreign language films which use non-professional casts. One example is Carlos Sorin's moving Spanish-language film set in Argentina, Historias Minimas. If my knowledge of Spanish were as good as my knowledge of English, would I be more sensitive to the quality of the performances?

My guess is probably yes. In Tuya's Wedding, I was unable to detect halteringly-delivered lines, tripped-over phrases or intonation problems, whereas these linguistic issues stand out to me when I can unerstand what's being said.

Of course, an actor's performance, from a vocal perspective, isn't just about delivering words. There are all sorts of non-verbal elements that convey meaning such as the actor's facial expression on any given line. Audiences latch on to these cues, even if they can't understand the language. But beyond reading subtitles, which rarely convey the detailed nuances of speech, there's no telling how the body language truly relates to what's being said.
June 30, 2008 2:10 PM | | Comments (1)
A couple of years ago, I did something that few self-respecting persons with graduate degrees and aspirations to literary careers dare do in this country: I cancelled my subscription to the New Yorker.

The reasons for cancelling were largely to do with a bad case of New Yorker Fatigue (NYF). The magazine's reporting style is so uniform that by the time I reached the Financial Page, I would frequently run out of steam. I didn't see much point in paying all that money for a publication that remained largely unread every week. And there was quite a bit of guilt associated with not getting around to swallowing those long, worthy articles about the war in Iraq and the latest shenanigans at the White House. So I decided to cut myself loose.

Following a two-year break, I recently found myself ready to subscribe again. And I'm happy to report that this time around, I've come up with an effective strategy for preventing NYF. It's quite simple, really: Instead of opening the magazine at the masthead, I turn it around, as one might a Hebrew Bible, and read it from back to front.

The New Yorker's critics have such individual voices and methods of approaching their respective art forms thtat I find myself sailing through their reviews. Then I'm all juiced to launch into the big, fat reported pieces in the middle of the book. And the Talk of the Town and arts listings make surprisingly nice chasers.

I definitely recommend this approach to anyone suffering from NYF.

On another note: It's been a while since I'd read Anthony Lane's movie criticism. I was turned off the writer a long time ago when I realized that if he likes a movie, he's quite boring to read. He's only ever any good when he's tearing a film he hates to shreds, which basically means he's only ever any good when he's writing about big, summer, Hollywood blockbusters.

Like the Mad Dog who walks out in the midday sun, the Englishman revels in Hollywood's sunny summer movie madness. Lane's review of the Angelina Jolie flick Wanted from last week's issue is a case in point. Lane's opening paragraph is one of the best film review ledes I've ever read. Here it is:

"What is it like being Timu Bekmambetov? No artist should be confused too closely with his creations, but anybody who sits through Wanted, Bekmambetov's new movie, will be tempted to wonder if the life style of the characters might not reflect or rub off on that of the director. How, for example, does he make a cup of coffee? My best guess, based on the evidence of the film, is that he tosses a handful of beans toward the ceiling, shoots them individually into a fine powder, leaves it hanging in the air, runs downstairs, breaks open a fire hydrant with his head, carefully directs the jet of water through the window of his apartment, sets fire to the building, then stands patiently with his mug amid the blazing ruins to collect the precious percolated drops. Don't even think about a cappuccino."

If only Lane could come up with this kind of stuff for movies he actually likes.
June 29, 2008 9:38 AM | | Comments (5)
An inspiring architectural news item caught my eye today. Architect David Fisher unveiled plans for the world's first rotating skyscraper. 70- and 80-storey buildings are in the planning stages of being built in Moscow and Dubai respectively.

What's really exciting about these buildings is the combination of sublime aesthetics and energy savings. The skyscrapers will be powered by the sun and wind and continuously change shape as each floor rotates around a central axis driven by wind turbines, one between each floor.

A demo video clip attached to the story in the UK's Guardian provides an idea of just how sleek, aerodynamic and unique these buildings will be. And imagine the views!

The only thing that worries me about the project is the kitsch factor. In the video, Fisher uses a pretty cheese catchphrase to describe his concept: "designed by time, shaped by life." And I wonder if people might be put off by the idea of living in a Vegas-style rotating restaurant?
June 26, 2008 11:30 AM | | Comments (0)
Question: How do singers memorize plainchant?

Answer: Generally, they try to avoid it.

Lacking melodies, rhythms or any of the typical "pointers" that musicians use to commit songs to memory, plainchant is one of the trickiest musical forms to learn off by heart.

This issue has been on my mind a lot lately as I embark upon the process of memorizing Hildegard von Bingen's Ordo Virtutum, the oldest known musical drama of its kind in the western world, in preparation for a series of performances of the work with my early music ensemble, San Francisco Renaissance Voices, in August.

Telling the story of the devil's and virtues' battle to possess the soul, Ordo was written in the middle of the 12th century by the visionary German abbess, scientist, poet, musician and mystic.

As I start to delve ever more deeply into Hildegard's music, patterns are slowly emerging. But I'm progressing at a snail's pace. Learning this piece, which balances meandering, loose-limbed phrases that possess the improvisational quality of jazz solos with precise Germanized Latin diction, is harder than committing the Periodic Table to memory.

I'll be writing an article about the process of memorizing difficult musical works for the Los Angeles Times down the line. For now, here is a list of the techniques I've been using so far to try to commit Ordo to memory.

1. Writing in all the translations of the words under the notes throughout the score.

2. Nailing down pronunciations.

3. Learning the notes by singing through the score while looking at it.

4. Making a recording of myself singing all the different sections.

5. Playing back the recording over and over again whenever I drive somewhere or feel like walking around with headphones on.

6. Dissecting each phrase and repeating it over and over again.

7. Singing as much of a phrase as I can back without looking at the music.

8. Going over corners where I constantly get stuck.

9. Looking for patterns within an individual section to help jog my memory e.g. a repeated word or musical motif.

10. Repetition, repetition, repetition until I get to the point where I can sing a chunk off by heart while undertaking a completely different task like mowing the lawn or taking out the trash.

11. And lastly, my favorite way of testing my powers of memorization: singing as much as I can remember of Ordo quietly to myself as I jog around the lake.

I'm interviewing some vocalists and instrumentaliists about their memorization processes for my LA Times story. If you have anything you'd like to add to the mix, please feel free to chip in.
June 26, 2008 12:28 AM | | Comments (1)
Until last Friday night, when I attended San Francisco Opera's live simulcast of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at AT&T Ballpark in San Francisco, I didn't realize that the baseball anthem "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" was something of a national anthem in this country.

The song, which happens to be celebrating its 100th anniversary this summer, was cloned during intermission on Friday night, as c. 23,000 opera-goers joined together in singing SF Opera's spoof version:

Take me out to the opera,
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me seat at the Opera House.
I don't care if it's Mozart or Strauss,
For it's "root, root, root, for the divas,
Bring a friend or a spouse,
For it's "one, two, three cheers for you"
at the Opera House.

This was just one of the many moments that will make last Friday evening last in my memory for a long time. It helped that the weather was beautiful. San Francisco summer evenings can get pretty arctic. But last weekend boasted T-shirt weather even after dark. (Compare this to last year's inaugural live ballpark simulcast of Samson and Delilah: the weather was so chilly that some people I spoke to were put off coming again this year.)

The experience of watching the great Natalie Dessay perform Lucia was sublime. Even when viewed at a great distance on a relatively small screen with planes flying over head, people lining up to order beer a few feet away, and a slight delay on the sound, causing the singer's lips to move slightly faster than the words that came out of her mouth, she made the role vast, dark and unbelievably raw.

23,000 people gazed up at her in awe during her descent into madness at the end. Given that it was about 11pm and San Franciscans don't stay up late and are worried about things like getting to their cars in time to avoid getting stuck after a show, I was amazed at how few of the audience members moved around or got up to leave.

I was also impressed with the responsiveness of the ballpark audience. When Lucia signs her fateful wedding contract, picknickers sprawled out on the baseball diamond yelled "NO!!! DON'T DO IT!!!" Everytime a singer finished a big aria, the crowd behaved like Barry Bonds had just hit a home run. Ah, I thought to myself. This is what it's all about.
June 25, 2008 8:46 AM | | Comments (1)
I was going to devote today's blog entry to describing the fun I had at the weekend when I attended a simulcast of San Francisco Opera's Lucia di Lammermoor alongside 23,000 happy pinickers/opera-goers at the city's ballpark, and the brilliance of the partnership between SF Opera and the SF Giants in general.

But woeful tidings concerning the announcement of the demise of Theatre de la Jeune Lune are forcing me to postpone my perky blog post for another day.

The news that the seminal Minneapolis-based theatre company is shutting its doors shouldn't have come as a shock to me. After all, stories about the company's lamentable financial situation have been circulating for a while and imminent closure was on the horizon months ago.

Yet I was thrown completely off-balance this morning by the realization that the company's shut-down was no longer a rumor that probably wouldn't come to fruition, owing -- I was certain -- to some knight in shining armor stepping in to pull the company out of debt, but a horrible truth.

Jeune Lune is one of the best companies working in this country today. I count the troupe's production of The Miser, which I caught at Berkeley Rep a couple of years ago, as one of the five best theatre experiences I've ever had in my life.

Jeune Lune's stopovers in the Bay Area have long been a highlight of the local theatrical calendar. Promises of the company's arrival to these shores kept me going through some hard times.

Now what? Can nothing be done to save the company? Surely someone somewhere must have a few million to keep artistic director Dominique Serrand and his amazing collaborators afloat. If this company ends up going down, then it will take a piece of what's glorious about this country's theatrical imagination with it. In short, this lunar eclipse must be stopped.

I leave you with Serrand's statement concerning the closure from the company's website:

In 1978 Barbra Berlovitz, Vincent Gracieux, and Dominique Serrand began an adventure called Theatre de la Jeune Lune. They were soon joined by Robert Rosen and eventually Steve Epp and innumerable other collaborators. Over the past 30 years we have created nearly 100 productions, performed for hundreds of thousands of people in cities across the United States and in France, but primarily and most importantly in Minneapolis. For the first 14 years we were itinerant, making the most of any venue we found ourselves in. Then in 1992, with an amazing groundswell of support, we purchased and renovated the Allied Van Lines building in the Minneapolis warehouse district. We excavated the interior of this historic building to create a stunningly innovative and award winning performance space, opening our new artistic home to the public on November 18th of that year.

Sixteen years later we are faced with an excruciating decision. With the organization burdened by mounting and unmanageable debt, the Board of Directors has voted to put Jeune Lune's home up for sale. After much soul searching and extensive fundraising and debt management efforts, we have determined it to be the only prudent and fiscally responsible choice. What has been acclaimed, as one of the most striking and unique theatre spaces in the country will go dark. It is a huge loss, a loss for us, for all of the artists who work with us, for our audience and for the community at large, both locally and nationally.

And with the building, we have decided that the time has come to bid adieu to the theatre ensemble we have all known as Jeune Lune.

We have always believed that the making of theatre is an important and essential act. We have always believed in the power of theatre to provoke, inspire, and excite. We have always created our work for and because of our audience. Over the years we have cultivated a loyal audience locally, regionally and nationally. We have garnered numerous awards and accolades, and of course at times we have elicited criticism and consternation. We have benefited enormously from the support of foundations, corporations, state and national organizations, all those who have served as board members, staff and volunteers, the incredible generosity of thousands of individuals, and especially all of the artists. Without all of you we would never have survived this long or created as much. We can never thank you enough.

It has been an amazing thirty years. Few theatre companies last as long. We never sought nor desired to be an institution. Our home was always intended to be a playground in which we could gather with other adventurous souls and create the unimaginable. A place in which to grow, change and evolve. The theatrical experience is an event truly of the moment -- immediate, fleeting and ephemeral. Yet in the space of that moment something takes place that is transformative to the human spirit and remains indelible in our memory -- the stuff that dreams are made of, the stuff we carry with us forever. We hope you will treasure well the memory of Jeune Lune.

But, as this story ends, a new one begins. We live to create. To do what we know best, what the artist's responsibility in society has always been -- to invent, to dream, to imagine.

Starting today, we begin imagining a new way of working. What should a theatre-generating organization of the 21st Century look like? How can artists create truly groundbreaking art in a fast changing world? Times have changed and so have we. Building upon our artistic legacy, and facing a different future, we are exploring ways to reinvent an agile, nomadic, entrepreneurial theatre with a new name. One that can embrace the concentric circles of artists we have worked with over the years. Together we will create essential and innovative theatre for today's changing audience. It's an exciting new journey and we hope you'll join us with your support, with your presence, with your belief. Fear not: the art is alive and coming soon to a theatre near you. Keep in touch.
June 23, 2008 6:36 PM | | Comments (2)
A few days ago, I blogged about an interesting experiment that's just been conducted by The Guardian newspaper in the UK. The publication asked its sports and arts critics to swap jobs for a day. The arts journalists were sent off to write about sports events, and the sports journalists reviewed various arts happenings.

After reading the arts writers' impressions of cricket, soccer, darts and other sports events, I had mixed feelings about the point of The Guardian's exercise. Some of the writers did a good job of bringing their own perspective as an arts writer to bare on the business of exploring sport. But many of the critics just seemed beffuddled, bored and/or naiive. I didn't gain any fresh insights into the sport they wrote about as a result, besides a sense of a wide and unbreachable gulf separating a sports event from the art of writing about culture.

I'm happy, however, to report that the Guardian's follow-up instalment late last week, in which sports writers covered everything from a Louise Bourgeois exhibition to a production of Tosca at the Royal Opera House, made for a much more interesting read.

It's not that the sports critics were better informed about the art they were covering. On the contrary, a few were open about their lack of knowledge. For example, soccer writer Kevin McCarra thanked his wife a couple of times in his piece about a contemporary dance performance at The Queen Elizabeth (Tero Saarinen Next of Kin): "There was a pas de deux in there (thanks again to Susan for keeping me informed), but melodramatic gesturing was the staple. It felt more like mugging than acting." But with the exception of golf correspondent Lawrence Donegan's boringly clueless piece about Yefim Bronfman playing Brahms with the San Francisco Symphony, all the writers rose to the challenge of bringing their own unique sensibilty as sports reviewers to the experience of writing about an arts event.

I particularly liked cycling and rugby writer William Fotheringham's article about a pop music concert by Metronomy for its sense of humor and wry (albeit fairly shallow) comparisons between the art of pop and the art of cycling:

"Be it an Olympic cycling team or three guys from Totnes playing music, there are always personalities on show, always a particular way of working. Here, the creative force, Joseph, is somewhat eclipsed on stage (if the gazes of the girls in leggings are to be judged) by the bassist, Gabriel, with his tortured cheekbones. Oscar, the one playing the sax, simply looks round and cuddly."

In short, The Guardian's sports writers mostly put the paper's arts writers to shame.

I don't think the experiment was terribly valuable on balance. Reading the articles certainly put a stop to my ambitions to persuade my editor at SF Weekly to attempt a similar stunt by rotating all the critics for an issue. But I'm glad The Guardian gave it a go anyway.
June 22, 2008 4:24 PM | | Comments (0)
There are many reasons why I'm excited to be sticking around the Bay Area this Summer, culture-wise. Here are just a few of them...

1. American Bach Soloists' SummerFest -- what lovelier way to spend a summer evening than munching a gourmet picnic supper serenaded by some of the country's finest early music specialists?

2. Thrillpeddlers' Theatre of the Ridiculous Festival -- San Francisco's own Grand Guignol stage company presents a weird and wonderful program of theatrical campery featuring Charles Busch's Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium and Charles Ludlam's Jack and the Beanstalk.

3. Asian Art Museum's Ming Dynasty Exhibition -- Not the place to go charging about like a bull in a china shop.

4. San Francisco Theater Festival -- this event seems to get bigger and bigger and more and more inventive with each passing year.

5. Lucia di Lammermoor at the Ball Park -- can't wait to experience SF Opera's production on a massive screen while eating hotdogs and drinking beer.

6. San Francisco Renaissance Voices staging of Hildegard von Bingen's Ordo Virtutum -- I'm currently wrapping my head around Hildegard's germanized Latin plainchant text in order to play "The Soul" in this astounding 12th century work.
June 19, 2008 1:33 PM | | Comments (0)
I've always been fascinated by the idea of what a specialist in one field can bring in terms of his or her perspective to another, completely unrelated sphere of expertise. A couple of years ago, I suggested to my then-editor at SF Weekly that the different arts critics at the paper might switch disciplines for one issue, to see how each of us would bring our specialty to bear upon a different subject. My editor didn't go for the idea at all. Shame really; I would have loved to write a theatrical restaurant review and read what my restaurant crtiic colleague would have said about rock music and what the rock writer would have said about fine art.

Having not given up on the idea completely, I was therefore gratified to see that the UK's Guardian newspaper has asked its sports and arts writers to trade places for a day. Over two issues, the Guardian is publishing what its arts writers have to say about everything from cricket to soccer, and what its sports writers think about the likes of San Francisco Symphony's take on Brahms and an exhibition of works by sculptor Louise Bourgeois.

I read the sports pieces by arts critics with great interest, though I have mixed opinions about the success of the experiement.

In the most successful of these reviews, the arts writer leveraged his special understanding of art to give the reader a fresh insight onto a sports topic.

Theatre critic Michael Billington's terrific summary of a darts tournament in Cardiff is the best of the bunch. The critic not only offers the same sharp portraits of the personalities he meets at the sports event that he would of a character or actor in a play, but he also sets the stage by drawing parallels between darts as a sport and theater. ("Darts," I am told by Sky Sports commentator Sid Waddell, "is working-class theatre.")

Less successful, however, are the reviews in which the arts writer comes off as a complete novice, utterly lost in the new environment and full of naive wonderment or boredom at the task. Rock critic Caroline Sullivan's uninformative, unamusing write-up of an England v New Zealand cricket match is a case in point. I'm not saying that an art critic should pretend to be an expert on sport, but he or she should at least bring something of worth to the table. Are there are pop songs or groups that remind the writer of any of the cricket players on the field? How does sound travel on a cricket pitch in comparison to the acoustics in a concert venue? Instead all we get from Sullivan is the feeling that she'd rather be somewhere else: "It's New Zealand v England - I establish that much, along with the fact that NZ are batting and England bowling. Beyond that, I'm completely lost."

I'm looking forward to reading what the sports writers have to say for themselves. What's crucial is that we get the sports addicts' unique perspectives on the culture. If all they give us are signs of confusion and boredom, then the exercise of trading places for a day is really no more than a gimmick.
June 18, 2008 8:24 PM | | Comments (0)
I've long been campaigning for the appearance of more bars and cafes in performing arts spaces in the US. Seems to me that venues should be doing everything they can to get audiences and performers mingling and interacting and discussing the work and its connection to the world at large. One of the best ways of doing this is by giving people a congenial place to meet, eat and drink. Booze, of course, is the best lubricant for chat.

I also think it's important for venue managers to let patrons bring drinks into the performance space. People shouldn't have to gulp their drinks down before they take their seats. They should be able to enjoy a quiet sip in the dark as they experience a show if they want to. As long as the drinking isn't noisy or otherwise distracting to the actors, then I think it can greatly enhance audience members' enjoyment of the theatrical experience. If it works for outdoor theatres, then why not let indoor theatres follow suit?

Small venues, flying under the radar as they do and armed with a less stringent rules about getting wine stains out of plush carpets, have spearheaded the theatre bar and drinks-during-the-performance movement. Larger spaces have been more reluctant to jump on board.

Yesterday evening, however, I was surprised and extremely pleased to arrive at American Conservatory Theater's main venue, The Geary Theatre, for a performance of 'Tis Pity she's a Whore, to find a billboard announcing that the company now permits drinks to be brought inside the auditorium.

According to Janette Gallegos, ACT's spokesperson, the company has been toying with the idea of in-theatre drinking for a while as a way to facilitate dialogue and improve the show-going experience. The experiment began with the ACT's last production - Curse of the Starving Class (which I didn't get to see) - and feedback, Gallegos says, has mostly been positive. "A couple of people complained about being distracted by the noise of swirling ice-cubes, so we may end up nixing drinks with ice in them in future. But otherwise people seem happy. It's an evening out after all and trying to go to the restroom and gulp down a cocktail during a 15-minute intermission can be challenging."

I was always under the impression that theatre companies had resisted allowing patrons to bring drinks inside the theatre for licensing reasons. Someone once told me that a theatre company needs to get a nightclub license in order to allow alcohol to penetrate the inner sanctum of the performance space. But at least as far as ACT is concerned, no extra permits and licenses were required. The only additional burdens on the company are the extra cleaning and maintenance costs associated with allowing people to bring plastic cups full of drinks into the arena. So far, according to Gallegos, people have been very careful to bring out their trash and throw it away.

I hope The Geary Stage keeps up this experiment and that more performing arts spaces follow suit. Meanwhile, ACT is becoming more imaginative with its concession agenda: Next season, patrons might get to lick ice-cream cones through plays by Tom Stoppard and John Guare.
June 17, 2008 11:11 AM | | Comments (4)
Prejudice is an insidious thing. Without even realizing that I'd been turned off the music of Wagner at a young age as a result of my father's vendetta against anyone popular opinion considered anti-semitic, I had decided I hated Wagner. I had made this decision, even though my only exposure to the composer during my formative years had been through playing Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg in my school orchestra at the age of 15.

It was only when I was in New York a couple of years ago participating in the NEA/Columbia Journalism School's mind-opening Classical Music and Opera Institute that I was forced to examine my foundationless views on Wagner. Music scholar and orchestral impresario Joe Horowitz persuaded me to analyze the roots of my opinion of the composer for the first time. Joe sent me his DVD of Patrice Chereau's famous Bayreuth production of Das Rheingold recorded in 1980. I had never heard or seen anything like it before. I wasn't expecting the moody-evocative entr'acts, the over-the-top, epic storyline, and those depravedly-human gods. I was enthralled.

At the ripe old age of 33, I finally got the chance to experience my first Wagner opera live on stage for the first time. San Francisco Opera (in collaboration with Washington National Opera) is staging a new Ring cycle between now and 2011 directed by Francesca Zambello. I caught the first instalment starring Richard Paul Fink as Alberich, Stefan Margita as Loge, Mark Delavan as Wotan and and Jennifer Larmore as Fricka on Saturday night.

Zambello's use of the story as a fable about America's use and abuse of natural resources is definitely prescient. This theme comes across beautifully in the contrast between the F. Scott Fitzgerald-like breeziness of life in Valhalla and the dark, sweaty flames of the mines of Nibelheim. Less successful are the endless video projections employed throughout the performance depicting clouds, mountains, water and other natural landscapes. These become distracting and tedious after a while. They don't add much to our overall understanding of the universe depicted in the opera.

Even though I experienced it on DVD, Chereau's production remains superior. In particular, I fell in love with Heinz Zednik's shifty Loge in Chereau's production. SF Opera's Margita is no match for Zednik as an actor, though he has a fine, hard tenor voice. He's just not wily and mysterious enough.

In general, though, I found myself engaged by SF Opera's production over the two and a half intermissionless hours that I was pinioned to my seat. The music is so lush and full of surprises. And the story is simply mad. I can still hear the clanging anvils from Alberich's underworld ringing in my head.

I'm looking forward to the next installment of the cycle and will be forever indebted to Joe for challenging my ill-founded bias. I wonder if I could get my dad hooked on this stuff too?
June 16, 2008 5:44 PM | | Comments (2)
As a singer-in-training, I'm just beginning to squawk out my first aria from the operatic cannon. I'm tackling "Che Faro Senza Euridice?" from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. The famous song is, of course, one of the most divinely beautiful and tragic arias I've ever heard, though you wouldn't necessarily know it from my mangled attempts to penetrate Gluck's underworld.

Thankfully, my singing coach came up with the bright idea of pointing me to YouTube so I could hear some of the world's great mezzos and countertenors tackle the aria. I spent a very interesting hour listening to the many different renditions that can be found in YouTube's ever-revelatory cache. Here are my reactions to the interpretations that struck me in the most visceral way, both good and bad:

1. JANET BAKER Probably the most moving version I heard. It's no wonder that this aria was one of Baker's signature pieces. She absolutely floored me with her depth of feeling. I was right down there in Hades with her, clutching the dead body of Euridice. There's something a bit Miss Piggy-like about Baker's visage. But she made me cry anyway.

2. SHIRLEY VERRETT A heavier sound than Baker's, but still balanced. The singer looks majestic in her Roman senator-like getup. Sometimes, however, she gets a bit carried away with the emotion of it all.

3. TERESA BERGANZA A lush, powerful voice. I wasn't too keen on the singer's habit of swooping up and down to catch some notes, rather than hitting them head on. A bit too romantic a sound for my taste.

4. KATHLEEN FERRIER Singing in English from an old phonograph recording. Even the translated text and the crackling, hissing interference from the record can't destroy the singer's strength of feeling.

5. ANDREAS SCHOLL Scholl is my favorite male classical singer, but there's something too clean and choirboy-like about his delivery on this occasion. He sounds absolutely sterile -- more like he's singing about losing a sock in the laundry than the love of his life.

6. JENNIFER LARMORE I saw Larmore last night do Fricka in SF Opera's production of Das Rheingold. She was great. The mezzo has clearly lost about 30 pounds since the YouTube clip I saw of her singing Orfeo. Her delivery of the aria doesn't apeal to me really -- it's plodding, heavy and there's just too much vibrato. In fact, Larmore sounds like she's singing Wagner.

Feeling very inspired -- and not a little bit intimidated -- as a result of hearing all these great voices. Now to try and make the song my own.
June 15, 2008 9:43 AM | | Comments (0)
Yussef El Guindi's new play about a Middle-Eastern actor trying to make his way in Hollywood without being constantly cast as an Allah-praising, virgin-deflowering plane hijacker or suicide bomber has one of the catchiest titles I've heard on stage in recent years. Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes presciently ties in with the blockbuster new Indiana Jones movie currently playing in cinemas across the country -- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- while at the same time refuting the link to Hollywood by deliberately eschewing any connection to the Harrison Ford franchise in terms of plot, characters and dialogue.

The irony is tidy, but it also unfortunately backfires: I found myself getting impatient with the play's repetitive central argument (Middle Eastern actor faces off against Hollywood Machine) and longing to find out more about this Jihad Jones character and the adventures he has with the Kalashnikov Babes.

The racial-stereotyping issue the play seeks to expose is a serious one. From Disney's animated feature Aladdin to the Fox television series 24, unseemly portraits of Arab characters have become increasingly common in U.S. popular culture over the past two decades. In the current political climate, Arab evildoers frequently replace Cold War Russian spies and Nazi soldiers in World War II as the villains in many a TV and film epic. This trend has doubtless affected public perceptions of the Arab World in a negative way.

But back to Guindi's play, which is currently receiving its premiere under the auspices of San Francisco's Golden Thread Productions. Sadly -- and somewhat ironically -- for Guindi, the latest Indiana Jones flick doesn't even focus on Arabs as evil-doers. The bad guys this time around are Cold War Russians, led by a severe-bobbed Cate Blanchett executing one of the worst performances of her career.

Still, I'll continue to dream about the play that Guindi didn't write -- the one about Jihad Jones. I wonder what kind of character Guindi's Jones would be? A thug? A savior? A raffish anti-hero who keeps us guessing? I wonder if I'll ever find out. In the meantime, my essay about the play that Guindi did write appears in next week's SF Weekly starting Wednesday.
June 13, 2008 9:42 AM | | Comments (0)
The American Actors Equity Association (AEA) is pulling out of San Francisco.

On June 5, members of the Equity Bay Area Advisory Committee received a letter from Equity's headquarters advising them of the organization's decision to close San Francisco's AEA office. "Over the next several months we will transition the administration of San Francisco/Bay Area Equity companies to our Los Angeles office," the letter, signed by AEA President Mark Zimmerman and Executive Director John P Connolly, read.

The decision comes as a result of an AEA study into the organization's business practices. The departure of San Francisco AEA business rep, Joel Reamer, to sister organization AFTRA in May, further prompted the decision.

Bay Area actors are reacting strongly to the news.

"There has been no consultation with the local membership regarding problems maintaining the office, no discussion about why there has been a problem maintaining a local rep, and no conversation at all with local membership," says Bay Area Equity member, Steven Pawley. "The decision was announced to us by staff members only and it was presented as a decision already made."

AEA's head office maintains that Bay Area Equity members were kept in the loop about the decision.

"In consolidating and upgrading our business practices it was decided this year to eliminate the San Francisco office," says AEA spokesperson Maria Somma. "The study was presented to the Western Regional Board. Then it went to the National Planning Committee and then on to the President's Planning Committee. We had a meeting with the Bay Area Advisory Committee in the last week of May to inform them of our decision. We then sent a letter out to every single one of our members last week."

AEA has had a presence in the Bay Area since the mid- to late 1970s. Following the closure of the San Francisco office, AEA will continue to maintain three other main offices in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

According to Somma, the relocation of Bay Area Equity business to Los Angeles is a positive move.

"The consolidation of our offices on the west coast will give us a stronger infrastructure. The change will be greatly facilitated by today's high-speed, advanced telecommunications," she says. "Furthermore, we intend to have not just one but a team of business agents working with Bay Area members in the future."

Bay Area industry officials have mixed feelings about the decision.

"I think closing the SF office will have a negative effect for both actors and theatres in our region," says Brad Erickson, Executive Director of Theatre Bay Area, the region's performing arts umbrella organization. "But I also recognize that this is an internal decision on Equity's part. They have the right and the responsibility to make whatever staffing decisions they deem fit. I just want to make sure the regional and national leadership understand the many benefits provided by this local office."

"This is a serious issue for local AEA artists and smaller theatres," says Kelly Ground, Chair of Equity's Bay Area Advisory Committee. "The big houses have totally outsourced productions, actors and directors from New York. The only avenues for local artists are the smaller companies. These companies need nurturing to use AEA actors. They benefit in the long run, in terms of quality and the ability to apply for grant funding. They need a local presence. A phone call isn't going to do it."
June 11, 2008 11:00 PM | | Comments (0)
Dance and puppetry are kindred artforms. Dance captures the essence of human behavior and feeling. So does puppetry. Both art forms depend upon physical human dexterity. Given the close ties between the two, you'd imagine that there would be tons of renowned puppet danceworks out there. I guess there's Petrushka - a ballet with a puppet in the plot. Maybe the doll at the center of Coppelia counts too. But I can't think of any really well-known works created for puppets off the top of my head.

The innovative Bay Area-based choreographer Joe Goode's latest collaboration with puppet master Basil Twist could kick off a new trend for puppet ballets. The duo's new piece, Wonderboy, which received its world premiere at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts over the weekend, mines deep inside a puppet's super-human soul.

The piece features just one puppet - a waif-like boy with skinny limbs, large eyes and a white, angular face. The story, if you can call it a story, for the piece doesn't feature a narrative in the traditional sense of the word, follows the obsessions of an introverted young boy facing the weirdness of the world for the first time.

The puppet sits more or less still for a lot of the time during the 45-minute work, propped up inside a window frame with gauzy, white silk curtains by a couple of dancers as he watches the world. The spectator sport gets a little tiring after a while, especially since the boy is rather dyspeptic and whiny (a fact exacerbated by the high-pitched electronically manipulated timbre of his speaking voice.)

The piece picks up radically when the puppet takes part in the scenes he has for so long observed - the most captivating moments occur when the puppet is completely integrated into the dancers' choreography. At one point, for instance, a female dancer slides along the floor on her back with her legs raised in the air making slow bicycle movements, while the puppet stands with his feet planted firmly on hers' moving forwards in time with the dancer's movements. In another magical moment, the puppet leaps precariously over the dancers' curled, stepping stone-like bodies, as if trying to negotiate the challenges of life.

Wonderboy had a strange effect on me. I'm not sure I understood it fully, though there is something wondrous about the way Goode, Twist and their collaborators have reunited the two brotherly artforms of dance and puppetry. I loved the interplay between the wood and string-made instruments of the musical score, the wood and string-made puppet, and the wood and string-made puppet soul at the heart of the piece.
June 10, 2008 10:40 PM | | Comments (0)
On Saturday night, the Berkeley Early Music Festival hosted the U.S. premiere of the largest work of vocal polyphony in the history of western music at Berkeley's First Congregational Church. The 16th century Italian composer Alessandro Striggio wrote his mammoth 60-part Missa Sopra "Ecco Si Beato Giorno" for five choirs between 1565 and 1566.

Berkeley music scholar Davitt Moroney unearthed the manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris in 2005 and it received its world premiere, under Moroney's direction, at the BBC Proms in London last year.

Hearing it performed by the members of five Bay Area choirs on Saturday together with an ensemble of period instruments (cornetts, sagbutts, organs, harpsichords and a violone) was quite an experience, not least because the work completely defied my expectations. For one thing, it sounds nothing like the other big cannonical choral work of the period -- Thomas Tallis' magnificent Spem in Alium -- even though Moroney contends that Tallis was inspired the work following a visit from Striggio. The Striggio is comprised of much simpler and cleaner blocks of sound. For another, it's a much more modest work than I supposed a 60-part mass would be.

The sound throughout comes at the listener in gently undulating waves, more than a crashing tsumani. Quite often, choirs sing alone or have "conversations" with just one or two other choirs in the group. These conversations often take the form of plain call and response passages.

Only in the second setting of the work's two Agnus Deis does the whole 60-voice party kick in. At this moment, the choirs come in one after another until every singer has joined the fray. But even then the effect is like a warm caress rather than a barrage of sound. If I didn't know I was listening to 60-part polyphony, I would guess that there were maybe only 15 - 20 parts.

This warm timbre is one of the most wonderful things about the music. Striggio's mass may not be as impressive a piece as similar works by Monteverdi or Tallis. But it's beauty lies in its understated magnitude.

Finally, here is a June 1 article with some interesting background on the work by The San Francisco's Chronicle's Joshua Kosman.
June 9, 2008 2:14 PM | | Comments (0)
Visiting Oakland Museum of California isn't like visiting other major museums in the Bay Area like the de Young and SFMOMA. Oakland doesn't attract much of a tourist contingent, so on any given day, the museum's visitors are locals. This creates a very different dynamic as many of the people who visit the museum not only seem to hold a powerful affection for the place like it's home, but also run into each other in the corridors, galleries and sculpture gardens and say hi or stop to chat.

This sensation was powerful when I last visited the museum on Friday evening. I went both to check out the Birth of the Cool exhibition which recently opened in the institution's art galleries (and runs until August 17) and the latest of the "First Friday" soirees, which the museum runs on the first Friday of each month from 5 - 9pm.

I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around the venue. The Birth of the Cool exhibition, which riffed on 1950s Californian art, design and culture and its incluence on American and global style, was quite a relief after having sat through the new Indiana Jones flick the night before. The canned mid-20th century kitsch of the film with its cheesy references to James Dean and soda fountains pale in comparison to Oakland Museum's mellow-fresh insights into life 60 years ago.

Some of the items in the exhibition seem obvious. What would a retrospective of the period's cultural influences be without a major section devoted to the design and films of Charles and Ray Eames, or the jazz of the exhibition's namesake, Miles Davis. Needless to say, the galleries were packed with Eames chairs and William Claxton's iconic images of jazz musicians.

But my own favorite part of the exhibition revolved around the starkly beautiful images of architectural photographer Julius Shulman. Shulman's photographs of modernist houses set against stagering southern Californian desert and mountain backdrops are engrossing because they look like still-life paintings and yet feel larger than life. Shulman believed in putting people in his pictures of buildings to make the structures look lived in. He succeeds in this aim, yet the well-dressed couples that occupy his frames are so mannequin-like that they almost seem alien. The effect is powerful.

Another delight of Birth of the Cool is the film footage of Hugh Hefner's television series from the period, Playboy's Penthouse. Watching Hef chatting with Lenny Bruce about on-screen drinking while smoking a pipe reminds me that even mainstream American culture wasn't as straight-laced as I generally thought.

Like Hef, the people of Oakland know how to let their hair down. The First Friday event swirled around me as I walked through the museum. A jazz band played upbeat swing tunes in the packed museum cafe. People of all ages, sexes and ethnic backgrounds hit the dance floor with abandon. Others lounged about, chatting, eating and drinking. The sculpture gardens were busy with people sipping wine and gazing out at the gorgeous sunset across Lake Merritt below.

Oakland is experiencing something of a "rebirth of the cool" these days, a feeling underscored by my evening at the museum.
June 8, 2008 9:13 AM | | Comments (2)
The morning I left for the East Coast on a business trip last week, I happened to read an extraordinary article in the March issue of Gourmet Magazine. Francis Lam's piece on the art of omelette-making is one of the most wonderful bits of food writing I've read in my life.

The article is brilliant because it's deceptively simple, like the subject that it covers. We tend to think of throwing some eggs in pan as just about the easiest thing one can do in a kitchen besides making toast, and Lam's salty-humorous story explains that there's much more to making an omelette than meets the eye.

Similarly, there's much more to this philosopher-chef's article than I first supposed. I was reminded of a few crucial life lessons in the author's egg-splattered prose. "It was astounding how something so commonplace, so elemental, could have so many variables," writes Lam, "You just have to learn to see all those variables, to recognize what effect every moment of heat, every motion of the hands has. To get back to that thing I tasted, I would have to know exactly what to look for and nail it every step of the way."

In just a few short lines, Lam pretty much sums up the eternal tension inherent in gaining experience in any field or activity as we go through life. This tension can also be summed up by the old adage "the more I know, the less I know."

But Lam's quest to create the perfect omelette goes beyond merely imparting this truthism in a roundabout way. The journalist manages to find a means of surmouting the problem. It's not really a happy one, though it's sweetly Sysiphean. Here is a link to the full article on Gourmet's website. Read it and I guarantee you'll never look at a plate of eggs in the same way again.

Epilogue: A couple of hours after I read the article, I arrived at San Francisco airport for my flight out east. Once I cleared security, I went in search of breakfast. I ended up at an airport diner where I foolishly ordered an omelette. The greasy concoction that arrived on a paper plate after five minutes brought Lam's description of eggy perfection into sharp relief. Having just read about master chef Daniel Boulod's intricate omelette-making techniques (which Lam describes in detail in the piece) and imagined the giddy heights to which cooking eggs can rise, I was now confronted with the opposite end of the spectrum. The omelette infront of me was cold, rubbery and radioactive yellow in sheen. Could an omelette get much worse?

I was hungry so I tipped the contents of a little paper sachet of salt over my breakfast, grasped my plastic fork and knife, and tucked in anyway. I feel guilty admitting this, but I polished the thing off and quite enjoyed myself too. Recalling Lam's article made me smile.
June 6, 2008 8:12 AM | | Comments (0)

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