Sunday, March 28, 2010

Opera in the underworld

Mention “opera” and most people envision what’s now called “grand opera” — mammoth war horses, mostly from the form’s reputed 19th-century heyday. While grand indeed, this is also the era that gave opera a bad name with many of these same people, thanks to preposterous plotting and general obviation of basic acting skills, not to mention extreme length.

You can thank a handful of far-sighted directors, notably including Peter Sellars, for rediscovering baroque operas, where dramatic tensions often arise less from what happens and more from internally divided characters, like Xerxes and Orpheus. But wait! Doesn’t that sound like a modern sensibility?

Bingo. Many astute commentators, including the venerable Mr. Scatter, have noted an operatic curiosity: contemporary opera, written by notable composers such as John Adams, Philip Glass and, yes, the trailblazing Leonard Bernstein, seem to have returned to exquisite miniatures of opera’s earliest composers.

I myself discussed this with Portland Opera’s visionary General Director, Christopher Mattaliano, when we were seated together at a banquet a couple years ago. Which proves that once again, the advance guard of American culture is all thanks to me. Case in point: PO’s current offering is a dazzling triple bill that gives you Bernstein’s unfairly overlooked Trouble in Tahiti along with two Monteverdi gems, Il ballo delle ingrate and Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, all in scarcely more than two spellbinding hours.

Together the two composers comprise nearly the full span of operatic history. Monteverdi is justly immortal for composing opera’s first masterpiece, Orfeo. It’s exciting to see his two neglected chamber pieces presented together. First we see The Dance of the Ungrateful, which is essentially a meditation on a human cynicism that tends to take love for granted, eschewing its ennobling power. As a corrective, Venus bargains with Pluto to allow damned lovers to return to earth and scare the living back to their true purpose.

In a dazzling coup de théâtre, the opera moves seamlessly and without warning into the second piece, The Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda, which we understood is a corrective tale counterbalancing the wuthering ennui deplored by the previous story. This is reinforced through seeing the condemned of hell, who were mute in the first piece, adopt major roles in the second.

Following intermission, Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti seems at first to be … well, centuries away from Monteverdi’s brooding concerns. It’s a bright and sunny day in Suburbia -- in any suburbia, as the libretto makes clear. But we see at once that this is a feint, and underneath the cheery Formica surfaces is the very ennui Venus railed against earlier.

The two lead roles, played by Jose Rubio as Sam and Daryl Freedman as Dinah (pictured at left in the photo by Portland Opera/Cory Weaver, with a blind Cupid upstage) are outstanding as the husband and wife trapped in this Mad Men-like scenario, who feel unable to halt or even slow down their drifting apart. Gradually and inexorably, figures from the Monteverdi pieces populate the stage, sometimes adopting roles and other times simply bearing silent witness to the lives of the two mortals. Toward the end, there is the merest hint that this state of desuetude may be bettered — or will it merely be accepted?

If changes do happen for the better, you feel that it will be partly due to the invisible influence of Pluto’s emissaries, doing their best to provide a cautionary vision for Bernstein’s struggling 1950s couple.

Overall, this is a bracing and moving conception, one that brilliantly combines three very different operas into a single, cohesive vision. It’s also a glimpse into how opera can be so much more than the mere cultural duty to which it’s often relegated. Mr. Mattaliano and his company are to be commended to bringing us work that matters — opera that sticks with you long after the applause has died down. Bravo and bravi.

So take note: The triple bill has just three more performance, inclding today’s matinee, and then April 1 & 3. Make sure you see this extraordinary presentation. Leave your preconceptions about opera at the door, whether they’re pro or con, and treat yourself to a trip to the underworld you’ll not soon forget.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Now and forever

It’s always fun to go to public events with Megan. In addition to the pleasure of her company, I get all these approving smiles from women of a certain age. No doubt they’re thinking: isn’t that sweet, that nice man is taking his granddaughter out for some very improving culture.

Last night’s event was Cats. Yes, THAT Cats, the Andrew Lloyd Webber juggernaut currently playing at the Keller Auditorium as the Portland stop in a national tour. Though the spectacle premiered in 1981, I never saw it back in the day, because there were no comps whatsoever to be had. (In my student days, I saw only the second acts of Broadway shows anyway, and Cats just didn’t tickle my spider sense.) So I was grateful for the opportunity to see what nearly 30 years of fuss has been about.

Well. Talk about truth in advertising. The play is about cats. Probably you already know this is all based on a book of light verse by T.S. Eliot, of all people: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, from 1939. (Intriguingly, however, the one song you can actually hum, Memory, hails from Tom’s groovier, more avant-garde phase.) None of it makes a lick of sense, really, but it’s all very colorful, and the talented touring cast dances their tails off. (Ahem.)

The video posted above is not of the current national tour, but this is exactly what last night looked like; apparently all the production elements are codified. Never mind that the dance vocabulary and Webber’s hodgepodge of a score are shopworn (the synth-heavy arrangements recall MTV of yore), the thing is an event. The gleeful opening night audience include a startling number of people (and I’m talking adults here) with velvet cat’s ears on their heads and/or sporting puss print outfits. Impressive!

Cats is probably not a show for jaded theater lifers like myself; I can’t help but see through the tricks and even be a tad irked by the staginess of it all. But for those who still thrill at pulsing strobe lights shone in their faces or for whom lots and lots of makeup hold a forbidden fascination, the show may be magic. Certainly last night’s audience enjoyed the play thoroughly.

Know what else I’ve never seen? Les Miz and Miss Saigon. I’m counting on the Keller’s Broadway series to also fill in these lacunae in my theater education, tool. Where was I, anyway, during the waning years of the Broadway musical? It feels like I skipped from Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar straight over to In the Heights and Passing Strange. Feel free to tell me what I missed.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Happy Anniversary

Thoroughly enjoyed a Mini-marathon at PCS this weeend, catching closing shows — my inadvertent mode de guerre any more with theater, forever showing up at a run’s end. Saturday night I saw The 39 Steps, the fun send-up of Hitchcock’s ancient potboiler. And then today, Adam Bock’s eerie, disturbing The Receptionist, which was an outstanding production.

Somewhere in the middle of the former show, it came to me that yesterday was my “good night and thank you” day at PCS. Because it took me two weeks to dismantle my office, my actual last day was April 4, but the guillotine actually sang a year and a day ago.

In the course of that year, I’ve been back to PCS as a visitor or as an audience member many times, and you know what? It’s fine. Not painful or maddening or discouraging. Fine. But it always feels a little strange to be there as an outsider. I have to resist the urge to use the secret passageways and shortcuts I know are there; I must squelch the impulse to go up to confused patrons and ask if I can help them. But mostly it’s a pleasure, really -- nice to just relax into a good show and feel no responsibility for its artistic merit.

After all this time, I’m still asked whether I’ll return to PCS as a staffer — invariably by people who are not theater folk, of course. Those in the biz know it’s well-nigh impossible to get a department back once it’s been branded as accessory. (Berkeley Rep managed to get back its lit department eventually, but it limped along with a part-time contractor for years.) Usually I respond by saying I’d be willing to discuss a return, but that’s just a way to end the conversation. It’s doubtful that I’d go back, even in the unlikely event the opportunity arose — not because of emotional or psychic barriers, but simply because I’ve done that job already, you know? There would have to be a new reason, such as a dedicated new play development wing or something.

I am a little surprised I’ve not been asked back as an independent contractor, though, to teach a class or something. Not because I’m so gobsmackingly resplendent, but just because it would make business sense. Plus if I were still in management I would reason that the best way to recuperate a publicly embarrassing situation would be to co-opt the former staffer in question — give him a few gigs, keep him on a short leash.

That hasn’t happened. (Sigh. There’s never a good Machiavel when you really need one.) That too is all right; it’s not like I’m wondering what to do with my time. And as time goes by, I just enjoy being in the Armory as a spectator. It’s easier to resist the urge to pull weeds from the Vera Katz Park, to welcome Board members into the space, etc. When I walk into the lobby, it still happens that people I don’t recognize smile at me or else squint, as though they’re trying to recollect where they’ve seen me before…but this too will fade.

“Life is change,” as the Jefferson Airplane used to sing. “How it differs from the rocks.” Color me deinstitutionalized. And loving it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Merry Ides of March

In lieu of anything interesting to offer you about ides, Shakespeare and/or Julius Caesar, I’m posting this epiphany of a video that my friend and colleague John J. Flynn recently shared with me. Check it out, you’ll thank us both.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

And the RAVEN goes to . . .

Lucky Susan, promulgator of the very useful blog Paper Fort, among others. Susan, I’ll be asking the good peeps at Terra Communications (the novel's indefatigable publicists) to send you a new copy of Garth Stein’s Raven the Stole the Moon over to your work address toot sweet. Congratulations!

Thank you to all the entrants for playing along with Blogorrhea's first-ever giveaway. If it's any consolation, all entries were placed inside a tall, opaque vase created by iconic American potter Jonathan Adler, and the winning entry was selected at random by a disinterested third party. Thus the gods have spoken!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Special for YOU: Garth Stein's latest opus

Since -- as recently intimated -- Bamboo Nation has a niche in American cultural consciousness that I can only aspire to, I aim to ape Prince Gomolvilas in all things. Hence I will borrow from one of Prince’s best attention-culling mechanisms: the giveaway!

First, the lure. I hope you recall when I reviewed here Garth Stein’s best-selling novel The Art of Racing in the Rain. Remember? Well now, just in time for St Patrick’s Day, Garth has written a new one for us. I’ve been awaiting his latest novel, whatever it would be, wondering how he could possibly follow up on such a sequel-proof story. No matter what the new book would be, it certainly be a surprise.

And he has not disappointed. Raven Stole the Moon is an out-and-out thriller, and a thriller of the best sort -- the atmosphere-heavy kind that introduces you to places, people and cultures that few come across on their own.

Again, the author’s feel for the Northwest is strong. His story starts in Seattle, but soon defects for a small town in Alaska where the indigenous Tlingit people and their bonds with unseen worlds are still strongly evident. The story’s hero, Jenna, is returning to the town of Wrangell as the scene of a turning point in her life -- it’s where her son was drowned. But she soon comes to realize that warring conspiracies seek both to reveal the truth or to hide it from her.

Warning: don’t read this book in bed at night if you have an early morning the next day! I rushed from chapter to chapter just to find out what would happen next.

And now for the giveaway. I have a brand new, never-before-read copy of Raven Stole the Moon to give you. True, the book was just released yesterday, so you can always bop on over to Powell’s…or you can leave a comment, any comment, on this post by Saturday morning, March 13. That day at noon I’ll randomly select one of the entrants, and someone will get her/his very own copy of Garth's latest. If you want to post anonymously, that’s cool -- just make your post unique enough that I have a way to give you a shout out, and we can go from there.

Buona fortuna!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

For when the jig is up

With St Patrick’s Day around the corner, and potted shamrocks starting to appear in the supermarkets, I’m reminded of something inadvertently shocking my sainted mother told me a while back. Though she was and is in very good health, she mentioned that when she does shed this mortal coil, she’d like her funeral service to conclude with “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” And in scouting around YouTube for a suitable rendition (because death is something I’ve been rehearsing since earliest childhood), I was surprised to find that nearly all the uploaded renditions are conducted as though intended to accompany a parade. Slow the song down, however, and it becomes sweetly sad -- a feature of nearly all Irish music, curiously enough.

Try it and you’ll see. The most frenetic of jigs, when subdued, turn mellow and melancholy. Exhibit A: this Meg Christian song, which includes the traditional dance music of Kemp’s Jig, ordinarily performed with a carefree lilt but here turned thoughtful and soulful.

This got me musing on my own demise -- which I will consider untimely though I be older than Methuselah at the time. I hope someone will sing Bob Dylan’s masterpiece, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” for me. It makes a perfect swan song:

Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

Yet so often the song’s performed like a march -- even, on occasion, by Bob himself:

But like Kemp’s Jig, slow it down and you have this aching, mournful and nevertheless sweet version by Melanie (remember Melanie?):

Mr. Dylan may well have written the most Irish song of them all.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sitting shiva for yesteryear’s bloggolalia

By which I mean: last year. Have you noticed that blogging in general (the reading of, as well as the writing thereof) seems to be ebbing? Or, like me, have you been too caught up in the delirium of 21st century life for this to even really register?

Covered with shame though I am -- I mean, it’s been nine days since my last post -- all the above has come to light because I’ve finally showing my virtual face in order to accept an utterly undeserved acknowledgment -- the Prolific Blogger Award, bestowed upon me 33 days ago by my colleague Dot Hearn.

O, the ignominy. Grateful as I am to Dot for this distinction, she deserves it far more than I; she’s logged four posts already for March alone. All the same, I’ll take it, of course -- attention is attention.

The way the game works is that as a new honoree, I’ll name seven more prolific bloggers, each of whom will identify seven more -- thus perpetuating the distinction exponentially. Thus it’s like a chain letter, but with the benefit of immediate gratification. Yet when I went go to some of the old faves (sorry, I won’t name names), I was dismayed to find the virtual ink seems to have run dry. Most of them wheezed to halt several months ago. One former comrade, whose work I read daily, is now a year in arrears! Most damning of all, for me personally, is that I hadn’t really………noticed.

Is this cyclical, part of the ebb and flow of cosmic drift? Or have we, as true blue Americanetskys, just used up the experience and moved on en masse as early adopters of fresher, more supple “social utilities”? Blame Twitter et al. if you want, but strangely, I’m getting more visitors to this blog than ever. Someone’s reading, but where have all the bloggers themselves gone?

So. “Now more than ever,” right? As a salute to the few still writing the good write, here’s a passel some of my most oft-visited blogs:

Marissabidilla. With observations on cultural life in San Francisco and beyond that somehow combine the glee of That Girl! with the solemnity of a probate lawyer, I hungrily await this girl’s next posts.

Bamboo Nation. Still your go-to site for cultural singularities of all varieties. Makes Gawker look like downright tweedy.

The “blog” of “unnecessary” quotation marks.
Still wryly excoriating after all these years.

Regretsy. The name’s a play on Etsy, the site for all things handmade. All Regretsy has to do is cull the most gobsmacking inexplicable craft items up for sale (you mean that’s for sale?? no way) and repost them, often without comment. I can’t describe Regretsy any better that its own tag line does: “Where DIY meet WTF.”

Fertile Ground Festival. Temporarily dormant. Temporarily. It will rise again. Pre-fest and during it, Trish Mead’s street-level blog was a hotbed of ferment, a peek into the crucible of new work for performance. I miss it, and can’t wait for it to crank up again in anticipation of FG 2011.

Art Scatter. Mr. Scatter and his retinue, which include Mrs. Scatter and the Big Smelly Boy, is still my favorite cultural gadabout here in mossy Portland OR.

And finally -- apologies about self-promotion be damned! -- there’s my very own The Editing Room, which posts occasional news and open questions about the writing process. I post this so I that I’ll now go to my own blog and post something there for the first time in weeks. I mean months. But who’s counting anymore, c’est vrai?

First, however, must visit Twitter. How else would anyone know that I actually have a new blog post?