lies like truth: July 2008 Archives

There's nothing quite like being in a show to teach an arts critic about what it's like to be on the other side of the equation.

Other than sitting in the middle of an orchestra or standing in the middle of a choir, it's been years since I last trod the boards. I think I performed in my last play (a terrible Wooster and Jeeves comedy during my undergraduate years) in 1996, and last sang on stage when I was about 14 in the role of -- hem hem -- Peter Pan.

Now I find myself having to act, dance and sing -- not to mention cope with three costume changes -- in a production of Hildegard von Bingen's Ordo Virtutum, a work which many scholars consider to be the oldest musical drama of its type in the western cannon.

Last night, I somehow made it through the dress rehearsal. Been losing sleep about opening night on Saturday. We'll see what happens.

While I don't think this experience will change the essentials of my work as an arts critic, it is certainly helping me to gain a different perspective on the creative process. The most interesting thing I've discovered is that putting on a show is, above anything else, an act of community. Ultimately, the end product, though I hope that it will be good, is kind of meaningless in comparison to the friendships I've made while working on this project and the bonds we're forging both within our group and beyond.

I'll certainly be interested to read what reviewers have to say about the show. But I can't imagine it affecting me much. This is a comforting thought: I spend way too much time as a theatre reviewer worrying about how companies will respond to negative criticism. If the performers and production team are immersed in what they're doing, they probably don't care.

Then again, it is this cozy-feely-touchy introspection that causes problems for audiences. As a critic, I often wish that performers would stop reveling in their so-called "process" so much and pay attention to the people sitting out there in the stalls. It's a delicate balance I guess.
July 31, 2008 11:24 AM | | Comments (1)
There's an idealistic belief in some parts of the media world (The New York Times, The New Yorker etc.) that critics should stay away from the people they write about. The grounds for this are simple: If a critic gets too chummy with an artist he or she can no longer maintain an "objective" stance while reviewing that person's work.

The media landscape has changed so much over the past decade or so that that only very few media outlets can pretend to keep up this charade. With most newspapers and magazines either doing away with their arts writers altogether, or merging the reviewing and feature-writing functions into one job description, the "critical distance" proposition is becoming almost entirely untenable.

Instead of fretting about the "loss of objectivity" within the arts writing realm, I propose that the arts journalism community should take a different approach to dealing with the issue. Instead of shrinking away from the problem of interfacing with artists and then writing about them, I think critics should embrace the privilege of their new-found "insider knowledge" and challenge themselves to write with clarity, wit and understanding in spite of it all.

Objectivity is a sham anyway. Even those critics that wear hats and sunglasses when they go to a theatre and rush out during the applause still come to every arts experience with their internal prejudices.

We need to accept that the landscape is changing. There's no reason why we shouldn't be able to harness the new reality to deliver smarter, deeper and more committed writing about the arts. We shouldn't be afraid of getting our hands dirty while we're at it. Writing less than positively in response to a piece of art when you've gotten to know an artist a little bit isn't much fun. But if we do it well, and with compassion at our core, then I believe we've performed a valuable service for our readers and maybe, though it seems unlikely at first, even for the artists too.
July 30, 2008 9:53 AM | | Comments (5)
Is there such a thing as an ideal arts blog post? And if so, what would this star of the spangled Internet firmament look like? Would it read like a diary entry or more like a newspaper or magazine article in terms of tone, reported content and style? Would it seek to offer an opinion or would it rather aim for impartiality? Would it be Talk of the Town-like or more along New Yorker feature lines in length?

These questions might seem idiotic, but they are worth thinking about for anyone who's in this game.

I bring the matter up because even though the general consensus seems to be one of "anything and everything goes" on the Web, not all arts blog posts are created equal. Or, rather, even though they may be created equal, they don't always receive the same reception.

I've always liked to mix things up as an arts blogger. Sometimes my pieces are 1000 words in length; sometimes they barely hit 250. On occasion the posts are reported; at other times they're opinion pieces. More often they're a combination of both. Sometimes I deal with serious matters and at other times I indulge myself in interesting trivia. On occasion I put myself in the middle of the post and write directly about my own experiences; and elsewhere I leave myself completely out of the equation.

What I love about blogging is the complete freedom I have to cover the arts in as broad a way as possible. The variety is what makes arts blogging so much more interesting, often, than what appears in the mainstream press.

But what I've noticed over the past 19 months since I started blogging is that certain kinds of blog posts -- both my own offerings and those of fellow arts bloggers on the artsjournal site -- tend to achieve a higher profile than others. It seems that "serious" blog posts that resemble traditional newspaper features and well-crafted opinion pieces seem to attract more attention from readers and are more likely to snag the front page on the artsjournal site than, say, confessional posts or posts that are lighter and perhaps more personal in style.

This is obviously a massive generalization. There are days when scant little witticisms eg the post I wrote a while back about Mike Leigh's suspenders falling down, get quite a bit of attention, while more weighty and/or well-researched pieces about such topics as memory theory go seemingly unnoticed.

But if there really is a hierarchy, I wonder if the arts blogosphere will end up resembling traditional media? I hope not. It's the never-know-what-you're-getting aspect of culture blogging that keeps this form fresh.
July 29, 2008 11:18 AM | | Comments (1)
I always thought roll-up pianos were a bit of a joke. I'd see pictures of them in those in-flight catalogues on domestic airplanes and wonder if anyone bought them, or if the people who bought them would also be likely to buy a set of foldaway, rubber golf clubs.

With its limp-looking plastic keyboard and (I supposed) tinny sound, I couldn't imagine anyone, even a child, finding any practical use for a roll-up piano, besides, perhaps, using it to wrap around a bottle of white wine to keep it cool for a picnic.

Recently, though, I changed my mind about the object. Though I'm still not willing to go as far as to call it a musical instrument, I now see that it might be a very useful gadget to have around after all -- especially for singers. My change of heart came a few weeks ago when I had the pleasure of interviewing American countertenor David Daniels for an article I was working on for the LA Times about memorizing music. I was asking Daniels about his techniques for learning singing roles and was startled to hear that Daniels works not at a polished grand piano when he's in learning mode, but with none other than a roll-up keyboard.

"I do my best work with my little keyboard -- my roll-up piano -- sitting outside on my terrace in the outdoor air with a diet coke and a pencil and my score," Daniels told me. "I look at the score, and look at the score again, and then walk around and sing the music from memory. I can't stand being in the house in front of a piano. It's too distracting. The roll-up keyboard is great for briefcases. It even plays chords."

As someone who loves being mobile (I own one of the lightest laptops there is on the market today because I like to be able to work anywhere and not feel tied-down to an office) Daniels description of his learning process appeals to me greatly. The roll-up piano allows him to do his work wherever he wants. He sticks it in his suitcase whenever he goes away.

Of course, the roll-up keyboard is really only of use to singers and maybe some composers. I don't suppose many other serious musicians, least of all pianists, would get much out of owning one.

By the end of my conversation with Daniels, I had decided to hock my clunky 40-pound Casio keyboard and buy one of these little roll-up numbers. "Where did you buy your roll-up?" I asked the countertenor before we signed off. "From Restoration Hardware," Daniels said. "In fact, I bought three of them just in case one goes kaput."
July 28, 2008 9:22 AM | | Comments (1)
It's easy to fall in love with Summer Shapiro. The 24-year-old, San Francisco-based clown not only conspired to make the entire audience fall at her feet during a solo performance of her show In the Boudoir at The Climate Theater on Saturday night. She also managed to get two random male theatergoers to fight with plastic swords, nunchucks and pistols on stage to win her affections -- without doing much more than taking their hands, whispering a few quiet words to them and looking at them intently in the eyes. And all of this while rampaging around the tiny Climate stage in a frothy white hooped tutu and sparkly heels, throwing plates of cold spaghetti around and trying desperately to make an impression on -- and be impressed by -- the opposite sex.

In the Boudoir tells a deceptively simple story about a young female clown's love life. When a date fails to show up to a candlelit dinner for two at the clown's house, she compensates for her disappointment by engaging in elaborate romantic fantasies.

In once scene, she persuades a male theatergoer to join her on stage. Once on stage, she persuades the man to eat a piece of spaghetti with her as in the famous sequence from Disney's Lady and the Tramp. In another, she asks male audience members to blow up a yellow balloon for her, having failed at the task herself. The balloon gets stuck to her fingers while she tries to tie a knot in its end. Suddenly she drops her girlish facade and becomes Terminator-like monster-machine. Stomping about the stage making hydraulic noises like a malfunctioning Stepford Wife, she attempts to destroy the balloon under her heel. The image is at once hilarious, frightening and sexually bizarre. Veering erratically and erotically between the cliches of the helpless, ditzy female and the aggressive femme fatale, Shapiro both explodes stereotypes while making us recognize the universal desires for romantic passion within us all.

One of the most amazing things about Shapiro is her ability to connect with audience members. The whole 'volunteer' selection process and ensuing audience participation sequences are amazingly seamless and organic. Guys just seem to to submit to Shapiro's will without looking embarrassed or shy; I thought they were plants, but the Climate's artistic director assures me otherwise.

I've seen Shapiro perform once before. I was entranced enough by her ten-minute sketch last November to want to come back and see more. Half an hour of this masterful, sweetly-scathing performer simply isn't enough, however. I can't wait till she's ready to give the world a full-length 90 minute show.
July 27, 2008 2:39 PM | | Comments (2)
I've been engaged in a lively email discussion over the last few days with Robert Hurwitt, theatre critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, about how actors approach Shakespeare's verse.

The debate was sparked by our very different reactions to British thespian (and 22-year Royal Shakespeare Company veteran) Roger Rees' Shakespeare-infused solo show, What You Will.

Here's an extract of what I wrote about Rees' way of delivering Shakespeare's verse in my review for SF Weekly (which won't come out till next Wednesday):

"Rees has been living with Shakespeare's language for so long, that he seems to forget that people need to decipher the words in order to keep up with him. The actor monotonously barrels his way through Hamlet's soliloquies with little care for the iambic rhythm, coming across more like dog race commentator than a tragic hero. This misplaced casualness bleeds into other parts of the actor's performance. Rees' habit of peppering his speech with "uh"s and "uhm"s, is perhaps intended to make the Bard more approachable. But this tick mainly distracts."

Hurwitt disagrees with me. He liked Rees' delivery. Here's an extract from his review, which appeared in the Chron a couple of days ago:

"The Shakespeare speeches (and one sonnet) are delivered with mastery...He more than does justice to speeches ranging from the "muse of fire" from "Henry V," Macbeth's dagger vision and Hamlet's "To be" and "rogue and peasant slave" soliloquies (Rees holds the Stratford-Upon-Avon record for playing Hamlet) to both a smitten adolescent Romeo and garrulous old Nurse from "Romeo and Juliet." But it's the way he sets up these passages that distinguishes "Will" as much as his trippingly-on-the-tongue delivery."

I guess we like our soliloquies delivered in different ways. Said Mr. H, in an email: "I thought there were wonderful subtleties and nuances and interesting interpretations in his speeches. And I rather like his way with the meter much better than the Peter Hall full-stop method."

"I don't much like Hall's way of speaking Shakespeare either," I responded. "I guess Rees and he are at opposite ends of the spectrum and to be honest I don't think either approach works. I like my soliloquies to sound like poetry, but poetry that flows so organically that it almost sounds like a 'conversation.'"

It's a good thing that us critics don't see eye to eye on everything. The world would be a dull place if we did.

In other news, a white-bearded Florida man by the name of Tom Grizzard just won an Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest, a highlight of a festival that ended Sunday honoring the late Nobel Prize-winning author. Here's a piece about the competition from USA Today.
July 24, 2008 12:22 PM | | Comments (3)
It's a bad day when, as an arts and culture commentator, you read a headline like: "Bad Day by Daniel Powter has been the most played song in the UK over the past five years. What is it about this track and others that keep popping up everywhere we go?" and realize that you've neither heard of the song nor the artist in your life.

My discomfiture was palpable this morning when I came across the aforementioned BBC headline. Not living in the UK is hardly an excuse for not knowing the song. 'Bad Day' did very well in the U.S., soaring to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts within seven weeks of being released. "Urk," I thought to myself. "It really is time to renew that subscription to Entertainment Weekly and start listening to commercial radio again."

It was only when I visited Powter's website that I realized that although his name and the title of his song were completely unfamiliar to me, I had of course heard the catchy-mood melody thousands of times before -- at the gym, in stores, on the radio...In fact, I feel like I know the song so well that I can even sing most of the lyrics off by heart. This is kind of weird and just a bit scary considering that the melody has made an impression on my neural pathways completely unconsciously.

I hope Powter's song-writing powers don't fall into enemy hands. Imagine what unscrupulous warlords could do with songs as sticky as "Bad Day." The brain-washing potential is frightening frankly.
July 23, 2008 10:16 AM | | Comments (1)
A dear old friend of mine in London, Matthew, was browsing about on my blog the other day and read my post about tuning into the terrific London Calling radio show on my way home one dark Tuesday night.

In the spirit of discovering new things, Matthew sweetly sent me information about two very different artists whose work is intersecting in an unusual way.

The first is Andrew Bird, a singer-songwriter and classically-trained violinist, whose spiraling, whimsical songs get under the listener's skin from the very first hearing. Matthew sent me two tracks -- "11.11" and "Headsoak". I was instantly hooked. I love the singer's doleful voice and spiraling string lines. His music is gentle in some ways, but there's fire in this guy's belly. I gather he'll be performing at the Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco on August 24 (Radiohead's performing the day after.) I may have to stump up $85 for a ticket.

Matthew also alerted me to comic book artist Jeffrey Brown. Brown's frank, open-hearted and down-to-earth style has the same whimsical quality as many of the Bird songs I've heard so far. Matthew also sent me a few pages from one of Brown's comics in which the author hears one of Bird's songs in a cafe one day and then endeavors to try to find the name of the song and the person who wrote it. The song gets welded in his memory and has powerful associations for his life. It's a delightful read.

The relationship between Brown's auto-biographical character in the comic strip and Bird's songs drew Daniel Levitin's great book This Is Your Brain On Music to mind. In the book, Levitin talks about how songs trigger powerful memories and what mechanisms in the brain -- which center on "multiple-trace memory models" -- help to contribute to this phenomenon. I sent Matthew a couple of pages from the book. Here's a taster:

A maxim of memory theory is that unique cues are the most effective at bringing up memories; the more items or contexts a particular cue is associated with, the less effective it will be at bringing up a particular memory. That is why, although certain songs may be associated with certain times in your life, they are not very effective cues for retrieving memories from those times if the songs have continued to play all along and you're accustomed to hearing them -- as often happens with classic rock stations or classical radio stations that rely on a somewhat limited repertoire of "popular" classical pieces. But as soon as we hear a song that we haven't heard since a particular time in our lives, the flood-gates of memory open and we're immersed in memories. The song has acted as a unique cue, a key unlocking all the experiences associated with the memory for the song, its time and place."

This makes sense. I wouldn't be surprised if whenever I hear an Andrew Bird song or come across a Jeffrey Brown comic strip, Matthew pops into my head.

P.S. Something you should know about Matthew: When he's not being a doctor, he helps out at a hip-hop karaoke night in London. For some pictures and information about the event, click here.
July 22, 2008 12:44 PM | | Comments (1)
I recently re-read Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim. The novel might be more than half a century old (my copy says that it cost "3'6" on the front, referring to the former British currency). But the book still retains its bite, as musty as it is.

I've been especially struck by the way Amis describes oboists, being one myself. He reserves a special place of hatred in his heart for this brand of woodwind player. You can almost taste the smirk on the author's face every time a reference to "Johns", the unfortunate oboe-playing character in the story, crops up, viz:

DIxon had resolved to travel to the Welches' by bus to avoid Johns' company, so he now got up, thinking he ought to impart some specific warning to Atkinson. Unable to fix on anything, however, he left the room. Behind him he heard Atkinson speaking to Johns again: "Sit down and tell me about your oboe."

I was reminded of Lucky Jim only yesterday, when I found myself sitting once again between two extremely fussy American oboists at an orchestral gig in Oakland.

I hate to make rash generalizations, but if oboists are characterized as a neurotic bunch, I'm beginning to think that the American players are to blame. In the UK, the average oboe player -- myself included -- is ready to play within about minute. We plonk ourselves down in our seats, stick a reed in our mouths to get it going, put our horns together and get on with it. End of story.

But in this country, it seems to take oboists at least a quarter of an hour to get going. The players over here are forever mucking about with their reeds, soaking them in little pots of water, fussing with the key work on their horns, etc etc etc. It's a wonder that they ever get their acts together in time to give the customary first 'A' that's needed to tune the rest of the orchestra.

Yesterday's oboists were among the most extreme I've ever had the pleasure of playing with. The one to my right spent 20 minutes just selecting a suitable reed. Meanwhile, the one to my left had the most elaborate set-up I've ever seen in all my years of playing. This included a three-pronged instrument stand on which to place his oboe and cor anglais, an artillery-sized reed case, the most intricate-looking music stand I've ever sat next to (and he set it up with the sort of form normally reserved for army privates putting together a rifle), a full-sized strip lighting system for attachment to his music stand, and an enormous electronic tuner/metronome. And let's not forget his custom-made mini "shelf" featuring a velvet cushion on which to place reeds and a special hole for a water pot -- which the player proceeded to attach to his stand with industrial precision.

This country of course boasts amazing oboists. But I wonder if Amis' negative feelings towards this segment of the musical population might stem from negative experiences he had with American players?
July 21, 2008 4:31 PM | | Comments (1)
One of the most common things for San Francisco-based actors to do if they've had a modicum of success on local stages and don't have any strong ties to The Bay Area, is to decamp for Los Angeles or New York. I've seen this happen time and time again in recent years.

Sometimes, an actor's decision to up sticks makes sense. One actor acquaintance of mine, whom I shall call D, recently left for LA. He decided to make the move after ten years of working as an actor in San Francisco. D had a string of successes to his name. This really strong track record as a theatre performer enabled him to build up over the years a devoted following among audiences as well as links to several great local theatre companies, one of which he will always be able to call his artistic home.

D left because he wanted a change and wanted to explore the world of film acting for a while. Although D's decision to launch a film career in Hollywood wasn't auspiciously timed owing to all the Union issues going on right now, D had a good foundation to start from. Not only does he have several apparently significant contacts in the movie industry down there, but he also has family in the LA area. With the promise of free accommodation and access to a car, the move to LA seemed a lot less daunting to D than it might have done to another Hollywood hopeful. In addition, D had also managed to line up a couple of roles in theatre productions in San Francisco and Berkeley for 2009. This meant that he would continue to keep his ties to the Bay Area performing arts scene.

Whether D lands his dream movie roles in Hollywood or not is neither here nor there at the end of the day. He went to LA in the spirit of adventure, and from the recent email I received from him, it sounds like he's having a good time and making contacts, even though business is slow for the time being.

I sense that the desire to move seemed to come from a deep place within D and he had taken all the right steps before he left to make the transition as smooth and stress-free as possible.

D's case is unusual though. Not everyone, after all, is lucky enough to have family and friends in the industry and free apartments and cars to avail themselves of in New York or LA. More often than not, Bay Area theatre people move to New York or LA in under altogether more precarious circumstances. Another actor actor I know, F, decamped to New York after the success of one solo show. The show had transferred from a small to mid-sized venue and had earned rave reviews.

F decided that New York would receive him with open arms and he jumped ship for the East Coast while people were still talking about him on the West. Unhappily, things didn't go the way he'd planned after the move. And beyond the one hit solo show, he didn't have any other strong ties to the Bay Area arts scene and didn't have any contacts or gigs lined up in New York. Judging by conversations I had with the actor, who returned to The Bay Area after a year of trying to make inroads in New York, his move had been motivated mostly by egotism. Riding high on the success of his solo show in The Bay Area, he thought people on the other side of the country would treat him like he was a celebrity.

There's something refreshing about F's impulsivity; I admire him for giving New York a go. But the entire experience completely embittered him. By the time F returned to the Bay Area, he was completely jaded. Since his return a few years ago, he hasn't to my knowledge produced any new work, though he did do a short reprise run of his hit solo show from the mid-1990s in a small theatre a couple of years ago.

The trend of actors moving away from San Francisco doesn't especially worry me. There are enough fantastic performers who decide not to move to relegate the issue to the minor leagues. Besides, I'm of the belief that change is a good thing if it truly comes from the gut as opposed to the head. But it strikes me that people considering a move to one of the bigger metropolises on either coast should get in touch with what they're feeling and carefully analyze their motives before making the leap.
July 20, 2008 6:21 PM | | Comments (3)
Just spent a beautiful evening at The American Bach Soloists' Summerfest. It all began at 6pm with ABS principal violone, contrabass and viola da gamba player, Steven Lehning, giving a lighthearted yet informative lecture on early string instruments. Then there was a delicious picnic supper with music provided by the early music ensemble The Whole Noyse. The evening ended with a (mostly) expertly played concert of string quartets by Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn. (I say mostly because the intonation on the opening number, Beethoven's D Major quartet Op 18 No 3, was a little dicey.) The players were Adam LaMotte and Carla Moore (violins), Elizabeth Blumenstock (viola) and Tanya Tomkins (cello.)

One of the best things about the evening for me, however, was the discussion I had after dinner with Stephen Escher, The Whole Noyse's cornett player.

The cornett is a velvety sounding hybrid between a brass and woodwind instrument that was all the rage between the 1500s and 1700s. The instrument is made out of wood (usually box wood), has open finger holes like a recorder and a small, trumpet-like mouthpiece. It's often curved in shape and fiendishly difficult to play.

I once played a cornett. I think I was about 16 at the time. I don't remember much about the experience except that I almost burst a lung trying to get a note out of the thing.

Anyway, it was wonderful to hear the instrument come to life in The Whole Noyse's program of short works by Italian composers of the 1500 and 1600s like Antonio Troilo, Giovanni Taeggio and Florentino Maschera. I also learned some fascinating facts about this weird and rarely heard instrument from Escher. Some highlights of our conversation:

The cornett's curved shape may derive from an earlier form of the instrument that was made out of an animal's horn.

Some cornetts are straight and some even have the finger holes on the other side of the curve. (I asked Escher if this was to make playing easier for southpaws. He didn't think so.)

If you want to buy a cornett today, you have to visit the few people who still make them. One master craftsman (who made Escher's instrument) lives in Utah. Other respected cornett makers reside in Montreal and Paris.

Escher doesn't really know why the cornett fell out of use. According to Escher, one explanation might be to do with a great plague which hit Italy in the 17th century. "It killed off most of the great cornett players of the era," said Escher. "And no one really kept the tradition alive in Italy after that."
July 17, 2008 10:53 PM | | Comments (0)
The 17th annual San Francisco Fringe Festival kicks off on September 3. Judging by what I've read about the lineup so far, a notable difference between this year's Festival and its previous incarnations seems to be the plethora of site-specific work.

In recent years, the festival has offered one or two site specific shows -- I caught one offering in a cramped hotel bedroom last year; another company staged a show on a traveling bus a couple of years earlier.

In addition to hosting 30 shows at the festival's headquarters, The Exit Theatreplex, the festival will present a further 18 shows at venues ranging from Grace Cathedral to doorways on Market Street (the main road that runs like a backbone through the middle of the city.)

Some of the Festival's most creatively situated shows include:

To Kill For, film and theatremaker Lucy Gray's remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo at Grace Cathedral. Probably the most famous film ever shot in San Francisco, Vertigo celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The show will be staged in the 99-seat chapel in the nave of the Cathedral.

The Doormen, a street theatre-esque tour led by performance artist Barbara Michaels of the seedy doorways of Market Street.

Theatre that Moves, another tour, this time on a 15-passenger bus, led by artist Mercedes Segesvary.

If You're Going to San Francisco, a series of 16 performances by Greedy Fish at Union Square. The series is billed as "a celebration of some of the unique characters and conflict that have shaped the city "built on vice, ambition, and sand dunes."

Peg-Ass-Us, a puppet-infused burlesque show staged at the Centre for Sex & Culture on Mission Street by New York artists John Leo and Sophie Nimmannit.

Last Exit, a show staged in a basement by San Francisco company Scrap & Salvage. The location can't be revealed, according to the Festival's organizers, because the landlord "sort of doesn't know about it."

"I was looking for more site-specific pieces and I'm happy to say I got them," Festival director Christina Auguello told me over the phone yesterday.

No Fringe Festival is complete, as far as I'm concerned, without giving audiences the chance to explore the strange and cobwebby nooks and crannies of a city. It's all part of the adventure. I'm happy to hear that SF Fringe is embracing the concept.

July 16, 2008 9:36 AM | | Comments (0)
Yesterday, I had interesting phone conversations with the dramatist David Henry Hwang and the movie director David Cronenberg. We were talking about the new opera version of The Fly, for which Hwang has created t he libretto based on David Cronenberg's cult 1986 movie (as well as the 1958 Kurt Neumann film and the original 1957 novella by George Langelaan.) The score has been written by Howard Shore, who wrote the music for the 1986 film.

From talking to Hwang and Cronenberg, it sounds like they've been aiming for a compelling fusion of film and theatrical sensibilities.

According to Hwang and Cronenberg (and some reports about the project in the media) the opera makes use of more makeup and special effects than you would normally see on the opera stage. The production involves a puppet baboon and baritone Daniel Okulitch has to scale the walls and ceiling of the set in a harness. Shore's score involves many truncated back and forth exchanges between characters, like film dialogue. The libretto also references a couple of Cronenberg's other films, including Scanners and Videodrome.

Yet the creative team, according to my sources, isn't in the least bit interested in re-creating Cronenberg's movie on stage. The production uses no video; the story takes place in flashback and is set in the 1950s; Cronenberg says he hasn't even watched his movie since it came out in 1986.

But the point in the opera where film and theatre intersect most intriguingly by the sounds of it, is where Cronenberg employs an acrobatic double to perform a daring physical act beyond the capabilities of Okulitch (who, granted, is in better physical shape than most opera singers and reportedly does most of his own stunts.) Yet, as Hwang tells me, even though Cronenberg uses this highly filmic technique on stage, Okulitch's momentary stand-in follows theatrical conventions in the sense that the opera's creators haven't tried particularly hard to find a perfect physical match for the singer. The acrobat employed to do the scene in Paris, Hwang says, didn't look anything like Okulitch. "We're not trying to fool anyone in the audience," Hwang says.

Theatre relies on audience members suspending their disbelief to a much greater degree than film. But I wonder if this film-theatre fusion will work for me when I see the production in September when it arrives in Los Angeles? Or will Cronenberg and his collaborators have created a hideous monster -- a theatrical Brundlefly.

Following the world premiere in Paris, which closed three days ago, the opera will have its U.S. opening at Los Angeles Opera on September 7.
July 15, 2008 11:10 AM | | Comments (0)
As I read over Tom Lubbock's interesting piece in today's UK Independent newspaper about society's obsession with explaining works of art, I couldn't help but be reminded of my own recent attempts to impose meaning on an approach to a theatre production which I don't fully understand.

I'm currently involved in what's being billed as a "fusion" production of Hildegard von Bingen's 12th century musical drama Ordo Virtutum. My vocal ensemble, San Francisco Renaissance Voices, is performing the work in the original Germanized Latin chant. But the director has imposed an Asian flavor on the 12th century piece by dressing us up in Indian dance outfits (long colorful skirts, matching embroidered or sequinned tops and flowing scarves) and introducing Kathak dance steps. We'll also be accompanied by a bansuri (Indian flute player) and a harpist.

;Perhaps it's the overly-analytical theatre critic in me, but as soon as I found out that we'd be mixing traditions, I felt a pressing need to know why.

;When the director wasn't able to give me a truly satisfactory explanation, my mind started spinning like car wheels stuck in a ditch. Without even doing it consciously, I started to look for all kinds of rationales for why we might be doing Hildegard this way. Suddenly, clues for the meaning haphazardly started to emerge for me. I gleaned insights from the text (eg Hildegard refers to "garments" a lot in the piece so having the performers all dress in really bright and atypical clothes is a way of drawing attention to this idea.) I found myself thinking about the basis for Hildegard's story - about the battle between the devil and the virtues for the soul - as having echoes in Indian mythology. I even went as far as to consider the link from a musical/physical perspective: chant opens up the body in the same way as saying "om" or some other mantra in yoga, which has its roots in Indian culture.

;You'll probably think that this is all a bit over the top. Maybe so. But the point I'm trying to make is this: Art need not justify itself by having to mean something. But we cannot help but search for it anyway. If my director chooses to create a fusion production of Ordo for the simple reasons that he happens to know a bansuri player, has a few sarees from a friend who recently moved to Asia lying about his office, and thinks it might be cool to explore some of the vaguely universal ideas in the work, then at some level that's OK. I, however, personally have to find more tangible to connect with the work I am about to perform. Some of these ways are intellectual and some are more visceral, physical and emotional, as the above examples suggest.

Many of us cannot avoid mining for meanings in art because we are sentient human beings and we naturally look for ways to understand the world we live in. Art provides one way of getting to grips with the essential incomprehensibility of the universe, but great art makes no claim to provide the answers.

;One of the great joys of experiencing art, in my opinion, is the playfulness it inspires in the audience. I can spend hours just mulling over alternate and contradictory meanings in a work of art, or equally, just turn my attention to how it cause vibrations to course through my body or makes me want to rush out of the room in horror.

Outside of academia, I can't see a drive to find a work of art's meaning trumping the basic experience of interacting with the work itself. And for anyone who's tired of having art explained to them, the solution is simple: Just ignore the program notes and the artist's statement on the gallery wall and walk around before and afterwards with earphones in one's ears to avoid listening to other peoples' reactions. Live in a cocoon. It's as easy as that.
July 14, 2008 1:02 PM | | Comments (0)
Following last week's post about two great music radio shows that I've been listening to lately -- London Calling and Thistle and Shamrock -- I received a variety of mail not just from fans of these shows, but also from radio buffs about other interesting musical offerings on the radio.

I am particularly grateful to Mark Urycki, Program Director at WKSU in Kent,OH for pointing me in the direction of Folk Alley. This online folk music radio station boasts some ear-grabbing content. Just now, as I've been typing, I've heard a gorgeous ballad by Sonia Marie entitled "Ashes Fall Down," Nick Drake's maudlin "Road" (one of my favorite songs by the late brilliant songwriter) and Jeff Black's "One Last Day to LIve", a song which wouldn't sound out of place played on mainstream American rock radio.

Mark tells me that most listeners access Folk Alley online, but some public stations in the US are broadcasting it on their HD channels.

Some other things to know about Folk Alley:

*Folk Alley features feature concerts and studio recordings by professional bands.

*The Open Mic section broadcasts music by anyone who feels like sharing their material. I've been shuffling songs on the Open Mike playlist and have been delighted to hear a wide variety of content from a skin-tingling version of "The Star of the County Down" by a German Celtic music group called Craic, to a rockin' bluegrass track by James Reams & The Barnstormers with guest fiddler Bill Christoph.

*According to Mark, all the Open Mike music on the site is original. "The really good songs get added to the regular mix," says Mike. "Some people from different states have met on Folk Alley and later collaborated on music."

*The channel is about to celebrate its 5th anniversary. Folk Alley is producing concerts in Cleveland, OH and Boulder, CO in August in celebration of this auspicious event.

*Folk Alley is working on developing un-hosted side streams so that people who only want to hear Celtic or Bluegrass or 1950's music or whatever, can hear those genres nonstop. Though my own musical tastes are all over the map, this development particularly excites me; it'll mean I can listen to sea shanties all day if I want to.
July 13, 2008 6:23 PM | | Comments (1)
The French soprano Natalie Dessay has the opera world in thrall. People are crazy about her for more than her singing. For one thing, she's a tremendous actress. Around 23,000 people were putty in her hands the other day during a live simulcast of Lucia di Lammermoor at San Francisco ballpark. And some people are talking about her turn in La Fille du Regiment at The Met recently as trumping Juan Diego Florez's famed nine high C's.

On top of that, she seems like a very down to earth person. At a recent CD signing event at SF Opera, staff were trying to move the long line of fans waiting to meet the star through at top speed. But Dessay wasn't in the mood to be rushed. She asked the people who came to meet her questions and appeared to want to take the time to talk to each person individually.

Some friends of mine were puzzled by the way in which Dessay signed their CDs -- a flamboyant "Natalie" squiggle followed by "DC". Then one of them, who speaks French, realized that the letters DC, when said with a French accent -- "Deh-Seh" -- sound like "Dessay".

Seems like the performer has been playing around with her name for years. According to a sweet profile by Norman Lebrecht in La Scena Musicale, Dessay started out life with a different spelling of her name. Lebrecht writes: "She was born Nathalie Dessaix and changed it because the 'h' in her forename looked phoney and she was taunted in school as 'deux-Sexe', or two sexes."

And here's another thing that I love about Dessay: Her desire to try new things. I don't think many opera stars take on non-singing roles in stage plays very often. Besides the fact that few have the acting chops, theatre productions probably don't pay nearly as well as lead roles in major opera houses. But Dessay, according to Lebrecht, has just turned down Lucia the Royal Opera House to act in a Paris stage play, her first spoken role.

I would love to see her do that.
July 10, 2008 1:34 PM | | Comments (0)
It seemed as if I had my finger on the radio dial in my car forever last night until, thankfully, I happened upon the late, great Joe Strummer's wonderful BBC radio show, London Calling, on KALW 91.7 FM. The ex-Clash frontman's radio show, which showcased music from all over the world, aired for several series before the musician died very prematurely of heart failure in 2002 at the tender age of 50. Last night, Strummer's show offered sweet relief from the barrage of Dave Matthews-like schlock and watered-down jazzmatazz that was coming at me across the radio waves.

I'm glad to have something new to tune in to regularly as I drive back across the Bay Bridge on a Tuesday evening after singing. The only other radio show I listen to with any regularity is The Thistle and Shamrock, a beautiful showcase of Celtic music hosted by the inimitable Fiona Ritchie.

Here's a great piece about Strummer from the BBC website, written in 2000 upon the launch of the third series of London Calling.
July 9, 2008 6:22 PM | | Comments (0)
It's an election year, and theatre companies are tripping over themselves to put on plays with political content.

One such play, Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, is currently receiving a revival at the California Shakespeare Theater. Wilde's potent 1895 social comedy is, at least on the surface, an ideal kind of election year play. Telling the story of a politically-ambitious woman's attempt to bring down an up-and-coming statesman by exposing a dirty secret from his past, the work satirizes the sordid deals that underpin many political careers, showing us that life in Victorian England isn't so very different from American culture today.

Yet for all of Wilde's incisive comments about the less-than-pristine realities that go hand in hand with politicians' outwardly high moral stance, the play doesn't fit into the political play mold easily. From a political perspective, it's an unsettling work at best and at worst, brilliantly confusing.

One of the tricky things about An Ideal Husband are its sexual politics. As in most of Wilde's plays, the most charismatic characters in this comedy are its women. Yet despite their power and the fact that the play was written at the height of Britain's burgeoning Suffragette Movement, Wilde takes what seems to be a reactionary view towards the political advancement of his female characters. Mrs. Cheveley's political career revolves around blackmail; and Lady Chiltern's efforts to mobilize women politically are affectionately brushed under the carpet. Then, at the end of the play, Wilde delivers what must have come across as a bit of a bombshell to enlightened female audiences of his day: He has the one character with any sense -- the gorgeously dandyish and completely politically-uninterested Lord Goring -- spoil his forward-looking sensibilities by uttering the following lines, apparently with none of the character's usual irony: "A man's life is of more value than a woman's. It has larger issues, wider scope, greater ambitions."

What does Wilde mean by ending his comedy like this? And how to pull off these lines in front of a 21st century audience without undermining the strength of the core political messages of the play?

The problem brings Kate's last speech in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew to mind. Should Kate speak those lines about being utterly subservient to her husband as if she means them? Or should she sound like she is under duress? I've seen it done both ways many times to greater or lesser effect.

Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone goes for the latter solution by having Julie Eccles, in the role of Lady Chiltern, utter the lines back to her husband between clenched teeth. The ambivalent ending is further underscored by Moscone's use of thunderous canned applause, when Michael Butler's Lord Chiltern, having had his political career saved by his wife, exits with his hands held aloft in the pose of the great statesman. It's discombobulating stuff.

Another problem with seeing the play as a vehicle for making a political statement is to do with the author's preoccupation with art. Most of the characters are compared to works of art in the stage directions. In Cal Shakes' production, they all look like works of art in Meg Neville's flamboyant period costumes too. Goring, who is in many ways the play's hero, is an archetypal aesthete. He puts art above politics and is, though affected in his way of dressing, is one of the most unpretentious of all the characters on stage.

So where does all this leave us then, experiencing the play in an election year? It leaves us thoroughly entertained and not a little bemused. There are no great and worthy truths about the democratic process to take home from the production. Only a sense of cleverly-crafted confusion about the way the world works, of which both Wilde and Lord Goring would have approved. At the end of the day, the play covertly undermines its political theme completely. An Ideal Husband may be the least ideal election year play. Why? Because, as Wilde famously put it in his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray: "All art is quite useless."
July 8, 2008 11:47 AM | | Comments (0)
MSNBC ran an intriguing article a few days ago about a new study which suggests a link between pre-historic cave paintings and singing.

"Analyzing the famous, ochre-splashed cave walls of France, scientists found that the most densely painted areas were also those with the best acoustics," wrote MSNBC LiveScience reporter Heather Whipps in her story. "Humming into some bends in the wall even produced sounds mimicking the animals painted there."

Researcher Iegor Reznikoff, a specialist in ancient music at the University of Paris X in Nanterre, suggests that cave dwellers used sound to communicate with each other as the cave systems were so dark, with light from torches only extending a few feet. "Because Paleolithic humans had a deep connection with the melodic properties that helped them navigate in a cave, they likely celebrated the unique acoustics by singing in conjunction with their painting sessions," Whipps reports. "Why would the Paleolithic tribes choose preferably resonant locations for painting," Reznikoff is reported as saying in the article, "if it were not for making sounds and singing in some kind of ritual celebrations related with the pictures?"

It's an interesting idea. It's also sort of appealing, in a Hollywood screenplay-minded way, to think of groups of ancient people gathering in a brightly-adorned nook to celebrate and perform rites accompanied by music. But I wonder if the connection between the resonance of particular parts of a wall in a cave and the presence of paintings has a simpler explanation? Perhaps it's just a case of "whistle while you work" -- of ancient artists simply enjoying the sounds of their own voices while undertaking an art project?
July 7, 2008 12:30 PM | | Comments (1)
Another July 4th. Another sunburn. Another fireworks display. Do I sound like I've been in this country for too long?

It's actually been ten years, almost to the day, since I first arrived on these shores -- a mere slip of a girl with little idea that cheese could be squeezed out of a tube, let alone that skyscrapers were capable of collapsing if hit by a couple of exploding planes.

The world has changed a great deal over the past decade, so it seems to me. And yet some things, like Independence Day fireworks, never seem to change. And yet, in a sense, they do.

I experienced my first ever July 4th display of pyromaniacal derring-do on the shores of the Charles River in Cambridge, MA. That was in 1998. I was overwhelmed by the crowds and the power of the Boston Pops Orchestra coming at me from the opposite bank.

This year, as I sat with equally humungous crowds watching the fireworks display at the Marin County Fair in San Raphael California, I couldn't help but feel a bittersweet twinge for my salad days on the east coast.

Back then, I sat on the banks of a great river, watching an amazing display of lights to the sound of a live orchestra. I was embarking upon a new adventure and there was a credible president in office. This year, I sat by a glorified pond watching the ducks run for cover in a patch of nearby reeds as the red, white and blue lights went off against a backdrop of canned rock music blasting above my head from a set of mammoth speakers.

What's the cliche about "viewing the world through rose-tinted spectacles"? Perhaps I'm a little guilty of that. Yet I love this country. In wouldn't have stayed so long if I didn't. But while I'm still on an adventure, the man in office never lit my fuse.
July 6, 2008 1:18 PM | | Comments (0)
Once upon a time, people -- at least the rich ones who lived in England -- journeyed into the Great Hereafter to the divine music of Henry Purcell and William Byrd. These days, it seems that Celine Dion and Queen are the favored choice for bidding the world adieu.

According to an interesting item in the Melbourne, Australia-based Herald Sun "The funeral industry has reported a growing movement away from traditional hymns and sombre songs towards more joyful - even humorous - music, such as 'Another One Bites The Dust', 'Highway to Hell' and even 'Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead.'"

I'm all for injecting a sense of humour into the somber business of death. But I'd personally come back to haunt, mercilessly, anyone who saw fit to play the simpering Andrea Bocelli/Sarah Brightman 'Time to Say Goodbye' or Dion's equally asinine theme song from Titanic,  'My Heart Will Go On,' at my funeral.

Having recently made a recording of 16th - 18th century dirges by some of England's great funeral music composers of the period -- Purcell, Byrd, Tallis, Parsons etc. -- with my vocal ensemble San Francisco Renaissance Voices, I think that I'd personally enjoy some of that gorgeous, heavy old stuff when I go. Those Jacobeans and Carolines: They did death with a flourish. They understood it in a way that we don't anymore.

What I like best about this largely homophonic music, besides its moss-covered tranquility and chilly stateliness, are the words. All those wonderfully creepy lines about worms devouring human flesh. I'm not a religious person, but I'm still moved by the idea of "seeing God" even after the body disintegrates.

My favorite piece from the dirge pack, however, has little to do with religion, really. It's Byrd's lament at the death of his great mentor Tallis. It's a beautiful, bitter-sweet homage with a rapturous refrain: "Tallis is Dead! Tallis is Dead! And Music Dies." I'd be very happy to have that piece sung as they fling my ashes to the four winds, because it's so damn ardent.

What songs would you want played at your funeral?
July 3, 2008 8:00 AM | | Comments (1)
A new operatic adaptation of David Cronenberg's 1986 sci-fi horror movie, The Fly, is receiving its world premiere tonight at Paris' Theatre du Chatelet before arriving at Los Angeles Opera on Sept. 7.

I'm interviewing Cronenberg about the work for a magazine profile next week, in preparation for which, among other things, I've been re-acquainting myself with the movie.

On the face of it, The Fly doesn't look like it would necessarily lend itself to operatic treatment. Telling the story of a scientist (played by Jeff Goldblum in the film) who accidentally manages to fuse himself with a housefly, Cronenberg's film is packed with gory moments, cheesy lines and steampunk-like technical contraptions.

But upon closer scrutiny, I think the subject matter might make for a very good opera. For one thing, there's the film's exploration of the universal and increasingly-pressing theme of man versus nature. This idea has been explored on the opera stage many times, from Wagner's Das Rheingold to John Adams' Dr. Atomic. For another, the film is so intense in terms of its characters and emotions, that the story plays itself out like a quintessential tragic opera plot. It starts out with a casual meeting between a handsome and mysterious scientist and a pretty, go-getterly journalist and ends up in disaster, death and tears. Finally, the movie's straightforward linear narrative, handful of characters and clear three-act structure would work easily on stage.

Add to this the opera world's obsession with attracting people in their 30s and 40s (as opposed to today's standard 50+ opera goer) and The Fly, with its cult-like status, starts to look like a very sensible proposition. And if Philip Glass, Christopher Hampton and Robert Woodruff can get away with making an opera out of the signing of the treaty of Appomattox, then I think Cronenberg and his collaborators have every reason to create arias and recitatives out of bugs.

According to an Associated Press story, the audience at a dress rehearsal in Paris on Monday apparently broke out in giggles when a mezzo-soprano belted out the film's catchphrase: "Be afraid. Be very afraid." I wonder if it will be possible to take this operatic insect seriously? Or will it end up being a buzz-generating curio -- a theatrical freak of nature like the BrundleFly?
July 2, 2008 1:43 PM | | Comments (0)
I'm generally not a great fan of audience participation sequences in theatrical productions. I'm all for theatre-makers finding inventive ways to engage audiences and get them invested and involved in productions. But most of the time, when it comes to making some poor unsuspecting schmuck get up on stage, the laughs are cheap and the audience members' parts are poorly integrated into the action.

Over the weekend, though, I caught one of the wittiest and interesting uses of audience members on stage that I've ever seen. The production was Point Break Live!, a theatrical spoof of the 1991 Kathryn Bigelow action movie starring Keanu Reeves as an under cover FBI agent who infiltrates a gang of bank-robbing surfers, led by Patrick Swayze.

The play's central conceit revolves around the fact that theatre budgets are tight, and as a result, Reeves isn't available to participate. So every night, the show casts a member of the audience in the role of FBI agent Johnny Utah.

People "audition" for the part and the cast selects the evening's Utah by asking the rest of the audience to clap for the person they most want to see play the role.

The conceit works because it plays off Reeves' unfortunate reputation as a terrible actor. The actor may have gone on to do great work as the lead character in the Matrix series and even reputedly pulled off a decent Hamlet in Winnipeg in 1995. But, with the possible exception of his po-faced rendition of John the Bastard in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado, his performance in Point Break is probably the most cardboard-like of his career to date.

As such, it makes perfect sense for an audience member with very likely no acting experience to read Utah's lines of cue-cards and play the action hero for an evening. The result is surprisingly clever and engaging. The audience member goes on a wild ride with the rest of the cast throughout the show. This includes being swung around above the audience's head in a harness in the scene where Utah and the surfers jump out of a plane (one of the most creative bits of staging in the show) and chasing a bank robber down the street outside the theatre -- we can see what's going on from inside the auditorium thanks to a live video feed.

Never before have I been so fully engaged in a show that makes such plentiful use of audience participation. It's no wonder that this scrappy spoof has garnered a devoted following since first being staged in Seattle in 2003. Since then, it's played in New York and Los Angeles and arrived in San Francisco in April.

Needless to say, Point Break Live is a lot of fun. And it breathes new life into the tired audience participation idea.
July 1, 2008 7:48 AM | | Comments (0)

Me Elsewhere


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