January 25, 2015

Salome and "niceness": carnal force meets spiritual object

Have you seen the film version of Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods yet? I loved it. Of course, that's a topic for another time and another blog, but still there's a tenuous connection between that show and Strauss's Salome.
Titian's "St. John the Baptist" (1540)

At one point, the Witch sings this line: “You're so nice. You're not good, you're not bad, You're just nice." That's a really loaded thought she' warbling there! I also Googled the phrase "good but not nice" and got a mountain of sources, including, among many others,

  • an article in Psychology Today: "Are you nice but not good?"
  • a Huffington Post piece: "Nice but not good: the art of spotting narcissists" 
  • a novel by Iris Murdoch entitled The Nice and the Good" and
  • an article from Quartz advising "How to hire good people instead of nice people.
The last item included this pithy observation: "The opposite of good is bad. The opposite of nice is unlikeable".

Tell me about it, Quartz! I'm currently spending my days trying to motivate groups of highly conservative, generally religious, mostly senior-aged residents of the Bible Belt to attend upcoming performances of an opera populated by a depraved, neurotic king who lusts after his step-daughter, climaxing in a scene in which the step-daughter makes love to a severed head.

I had lined up a speaking gig for a large group at a local Baptist church in Norfolk. They'd contacted me, asking for a talk about opera. Cool! We're doing a story about the death of John the Baptist! Several days later, a minister on the staff contacted Virginia Opera to cancel; she'd obviously looked up the opera and read the synopsis. "We were hoping for a pleasant, entertaining program", she said, "this material is not appropriate for our group."


I'm familiar with this attitude - I grew up with it.

My mother, who I lost to Alzheimer's six years ago, would have said "AMEN!" to this minister's objections. Mom liked her opera pleasant; edifying; nice. About more serious fare she was wont to say "I have enough troubles of my own in my life; why should I pay money to go see other people's troubles?" Boy, if I had a dollar for every time I heard her say that....................

But I really, REALLY wish the church group had let me come. Far one thing, the demographics of our audience base puts a cap on how graphic the staging will be in this version - we're not in Berlin, we're in Southeastern Virginia. Our Salome, the fine soprano Kelly Cae Hogan, is not going to pull a Maria Ewing and finish her dance with total, full-frontal nudity. You kidding me? The last time we had anything objectionably racy on our stage, dozens of subscribers called the next day to cancel their subscriptions.

But my real frustration is that Salome is, ironically, the most moral opera I can think of. In one sensational act, it neatly defines one of the largest issues facing mankind:

The pursuit of carnality versus the pursuit of spirituality.

Are human beings ruled by their physical appetites, or can they achieve a higher plane of existance? Herod is driving himself mad with neuroses made manifest in his semi-incestuous, pedophilic obsession with his wife's child. Herodias is an adultress, having defied cultural norms by dumping her husband to become the wife of the Tetrarch of Judea. It's little wonder that Salome herself, having been raised in this hot-house of twisted carnal desires, is vulnerable; little wonder that her curiosity about Jochanaan leads to a frenzy of sexually-charged desire. The sexuality engulfing the House of Herod is the irresistable force.

In contrast stands John/Jochanaan, an immoveable object in his total denial of carnal pursuits. This man, dressed in rags, with no matereial possessions, living the most spartan and austere lifestyle imaginable (we're told in the New Testament that he subsisted on grasshoppers and wild honey), is impervious to secular temptations of any kind.

Both in Oscar Wilde's play and the opera's adaptation of that play, this battle between carnality and spirituality is expressed and symbolized in a single word:


In Salome, the act of looking at someone represents desire. Flip through the pages of the libretto, and you'll find this word appearing on every page, uttered by every principal character.
  • Narraboth looks at Salome; the Page warns him not to look at her;
  • Other guards remark about Herod's "dark look" and wonder who he's looking at;
  • Salome complains about Herod looking at her "with his mole's eyes";
  • Salome tells Narraboth "I would have a look" at Jochanaan
  • When Narraboth replies he's under orders to keep the prisoner below, Salome promises to look at him the next day;
  • Herodias chides her husband: "You're always looking at her (Salome)";
  • When Herod sees Narraboth's corpse, he says "I will not look at him"
  • Herod tells Salome: "I would love to (look at) your shining teeth"
  • Herod to Salome: "The head of a dead man that has been cut off from his body is too vile to look at"
...and so on, with many such examples studded throughout the text.

In contrast, here are some of Jochanaan's lines:
  • (referring to Herodias) "Who is she who indulged in the lust of her eyes", etc.
  • (referring to Salome) "Who is this woman who is looking at me? I'll not have her eyes on me."
  • (to Salome) "I do not want to see you. You are cursed."
Once this confrontation between Man's dual nature is grasped; once we view the opera through the prism of carnality vs. spirituality, we understand that this is a cautionary tale. The Page is speaking to you and me in his many warnings to Narraboth, his several prophecies that "bad things will happen". This is the bottom line:

There are consequences for choosing to pursue carnal pleaures. Be like Jochanaan. DON'T LOOK. Bad things can happen if that path is followed.

Does the notorious final scene, Salome's perverted apotheosis, glorify depravity? No; in this case, Herod's horrified reaction is a proxy for our own. The sensuality and gorgeousness of Salome's ecstatic outpourings are an exercise in point of view. The disconnect between the grotesque tableau of the severed head and the sound of the music tells us that we are experiencing Salome's final moments from "inside her head", as it were. This is what opera can do, via musical craftsmanship: it allows us to adopt another person's point of view, temporarily shelving our own. Salome is in her own irrational world, driven mad by carnality, and - just for a moment or two - we experience what that world is like. 

Is it "nice"? DUH, it's not nice. I totally get it that this material is anathema for folks who want their trip to the opera house to be pure escapism; rollickiing comedy, sweet romance, the heroes and villains of fairy-tales, and (above alll) tuneful melodies.

Oh, opera audiences: let's set our sights higher than niceness. There's a lot of good going on in Strauss's Salome.

January 18, 2015

Salome: Nothing ever changes.

Olive Fremstad, Salome of
the Met's cancelled first production
Happy belated New Year, Faithful Readers! I haven't posted in a few weeks. I strongly sense that you missed me. Well, here I am, ready to blog about the remaining two productions of Virginia Opera's current season. First up: Richard Strauss's Salome.

It's a funny thing about opera; 95% of the people who attend opera performances view it as high-class escapist entertainment. (I sense that this statistic is accurate. Gee, I'm very sensitive today!) The standard repertoire is popular because it's safe and familiar. A spunky girl and hilarious capers in Barber of Seville. Champagne and frolicking in Fledermaus. Pageantry and romance in Aida. Young love and a "pretty" death in Bohéme. Heroes you can root for, villains you can boo, and all swathed in melodies sweet and melodies lively. 

Then there's Salome. 

I was disappointed a few week ago. I had lined up a speaking engagement at a large church in Norfolk, with an audience of over 100. My topic: Salome. Perfect, right? An opera with roots in the New Testament for a church crowd.

Then my supervisor at Virginia Opera toIld me that one of the ministers on staff there had called to cancel. She had looked up the story, read the part about kissing the severed head of John the Baptist, and called to say "this material is not appropriate; we wanted something lighter and more entertaining."

It's amazing that, 107 years after its world premiere, this opera still has the power to shock and repulse conservative audiences. What does that say about society? Film and television have long since prospered by going to unpleasant places for the sake of telling compelling stories, but opera gets static when it attempts to follow suit.

Rudy Giuliani: how about a nice Aida?
Here's an example of how little progress has been made in overcoming squeamishness in opera audiences: let's compare the Metropolitan Opera premieres of Salome and a more recent work, John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer.

In 1907, the New York Times reported on the imminent debut of Salome. Following the final dress rehearsal, attended by numerous Manhattan big-wigs, readers were greeted by this headline: 

TAKE OFF SALOME, SAY OPERA HOUSE DIRECTORS. PROTEST FORMALLY AGAINST A REPETITION OF THE OPERA. "The wealthy men who own the Metropolitan Opera House have put their ban on 'Salome'” (the article went on to say). "They have notified Herr Direktor Conried that they consider the opera objectionable and detrimental to the best interests of the opera house".

The Tribune's critic, in his review of the rehearsal, said that "(a critic) should be an embodied conscience stung into righteous fury by the moral stench with which "Salome" fills the nostrils of humanity..."

The Sun's reviewer pondered "the question of whether the causation of nausea should be regarded as a laudable purpose for dramatic and musical art".

And so, despite the fact that the cast and the orchestra had been rehearsing for months (Strauss's "crazy modern music" was difficult to master for artists of that generation), the production was cancelled by the Board of Directors. This, despite the triumphant reception given Salome throughout Europe. It would be several years before it returned.

By the way - none of the artists were paid for all those rehearsals, believe it or not. Orchestra and singers were paid for performances only. Yikes!

Now fast-forward all the way to 2014. The Metropolitan Opera, never much of a risk-taker through the 20th-century, plans the semi-bold step of staging Klinghoffer, a much-praised drama which has been playing for fully two dozen years in opera houses around the world. General Manager Peter Gelb has added it to the slate of Saturday radio broadcasts and HD cinema transmissions.

Of course, the how depicts unpleasantness. Palestinian terrorists commandeer a cruise ship filled with Jewish vacationers and throw a wheelchair-bound man, the titular Klinghoffer, overboard to his death. 

So, this was a smashing success, right? I mean, c'mon - it's 2014. We're all accustomed to provocative, edgy, unpleasant drama. We're living in the post-Breaking Bad world. 

Not so much.  Here's what greeted Times readers just three month ago:

Protests Greet Metropolitan Opera’s Premiere of ‘Klinghoffer’
At the Metropolitan Opera’s first performance of John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” on Monday night, men and women in evening attire walked through a maze of police barricades, while protesters shouted “Shame!” and “Terror is not art!” One demonstrator held aloft a white handkerchief splattered with red. Others, in wheelchairs set up for the occasion, lined Columbus Avenue.
Political figures, including former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, joined a rally, several hundred strong at Lincoln Center, to denounce an opera that has become the object of a charged debate about art, anti-Semitism and politics.

And while the production was not cancelled, the radio and cinema broadcasts were axed, leaving opera lovers unfamiliar with the piece to decide for themselves whether it was art or not.

In another 107 years, it'll be 2122. Assuming the planet hasn't been destroyed, that New York city still exists, and that opera is still performed by then, I wonder if the attitudes of opera-goers will have evolved to the point of allowing music drama the same freedom of expression that has become routine in other genres.

Is it me, or is it only opera, among the arts, that remains ruled by the prim and prudish, unenlightened, reactionary, conservative sector of the public? I'm sure that yesterday's HD transmission of The Merry Widow was lapped up, with no complaints, like the sweet, sweet cream it is. 

About 2122:
I'm not holding my breath. (Well, of course I'm not - you can't hold your breath for 110 years, silly!)

December 23, 2014

The Top 10 opera-related stories of 2014

To close out a year in which news stories both in the world at large and in the opera world were turbulent indeed, here's my list of the top 10 news stories involving my profession, in no particular order

San Diego, scene of a resurrection
10:  Financial woes at the Metropolitan Opera. Heavy indebtedness resulted in near-disastrous labor negotiations, a flirtation with bankruptcy and (as of this week) the lowering of the company's credit rating.

9.  The "Death of Klinghoffer" protests. John Adams' opera about Palestinian terrorists aboard an Israeli cruise ship has been staged without incident around the world for decades, but this was to be its first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera. Less-than-informed protesters caused CEO Peter Gelb to cancel plans to air the piece in movie theaters and over the radio. Much teeth-gnashing and Monday-morning-quarterbacking ensued. You are free to make your own comparisons to the Sony movie studio's cancellation of their comedy about North Korea, The Interview.

8.  The death and re-birth of the San Diego Opera. Small-market performing arts organizations have been succombing to deficits ever since 2008, but when an opera company's Board of Directors voted to shut down in a city of the size of San Diego, it caused international headlines. This was a company which had lure headline divas and stars. A flurry of hastily-raised cash donations and a Greek chorus of protesters around the country as well as the community have, temporarily, produced a trial season at a fraction of the budget. It remains to be seen if the public will pony up to see "rising young artists" instead of Voight, Netrebko, Furlanetto and their like.

7.  The return of Maestro James Levine. All careers come to an end, though orchestral conductors seem especially long-lived, with most luminaries remaining active into their 80's and beyond. Credit the cardiovascular benefits of arm-waving. But many suspected that the Met's Chief Musical Guru might have seen a premature retirement coming with his multitude of physical woes in recent seasons. Thus it's somewhat surprising to see him return to a full schedule of late, waltzing through behemoths like Die Meistersinger from his wheelchair. More power to him.

6  Joyce DiDonato retires the role of Cenerentola. The pre-eminent coloratura mezzo currently before the public, her iconic performances as Rossini's Cinderella have come to an end with the recent Met production.

5.  Anna Netrebko's triumph as Lady Macbeth. I, Your Humble Blogger, missed the Met's HD transmission, but critics fairly swooned at the diva's star-turn in Verdi's first Shakespearean opera. After a career dallying with roles like Lucia, Adina and other bel canto parts, she seems to have demonstrated that she's ready for the leap into dramatic soprano territory.

4.  The ascent of tenor Javier Camarena to stardom. Lawrence Brownlee and Juan Diego Flórez have some serious competition in the bel canto tenor arena. Mr. Camarena's performances in Rossini and Bellini at the Met have made him a rock star. Here's a gushy review from the NY Times  "It is not every singer who can steal the spotlight from the radiant Diana Damrau, who played Bellini’s gentle Amina. His high notes secure and his phrases long and arching, Mr. Camarena managed it again and again, singing Elvino’s downcast soliloquy, “Tutto è sciolto,” with perfect poise while aching with emotion."

3.  The death of Lorin Maazel. The maestro's sudden passing happened in the midst of the Castleton Opera Festival, his most recent project at his estate in Virginia. His was a storied career, with many notable achievements and posts in the opera world.

2.  Turmoil in European Houses. Riccardo Muti left Rome Opera; the Vienna State Opera had to find last-minute replacements to conduct 34 performances when its Music Director bolted, and there were other feuds, resignations and kerfuffles. Google it.

1. A soprano saves the day. File under "it pays to be prepared": When soprano Anita Hartig became too ill to sing Mimi in an HD-transmitted performance of La bohème at the Met, Kristine Opolais took her place on short notice. What makes one sit up and take notice is that Ms. Opolais had just sung the taxing role of Cio-Cio-san in Madama Butterfly THE PREVIOUS DAY, and had virtually no sleep. She gets the "Purple 5-hour Energy Award of Valor" for the year!

December 14, 2014

The sunny, jolly NIGHTMARISH (OMG!) world of fairy tales and folk tales

Virginia Opera's Education Department has asked me to write the children's operas for the 2015-2016 touring season. So it's back to the collections of traditional children's literature, mainly because I'm too darn lazy to dream up an original libretto - I'd rather adapt something pre-existing. Besides, school administrators are more likely to book a show with familiar characters.

The search for suitable material is complicated, and 99% of the stories out there won't do for one reason or another. For one thing, I have to stick to stories that can be told with a cast of three.In this case, I already know the Opera will hire a soprano, a mezzo and a baritone.

Hans Christian Andersen
So stories with titles like "The Baker With 12 Sons" are a no-go. There can be a certain amount of actors playing multiple roles, of course, but even so, casting issues eliminate most of the field.

But what I really want to vent about this week is the GROSS, VIOLENT and OBSCENE stuff goin' on in your typical folktale. Geez, Louise! Fairy tales are not all rainbows, beautiful princesses, glass slippers and chaste kisses.

Are you one of those movie-goers who despairs at the bathroom humor in modern comedies? Have you ever ranted about endless jokes involving bodily functions in Hollywood films? I've got news for you; it has been ever thus.

Take the legendary German folk character Till Eulenspiegel, immortalized in Richard Strauss's tone poem. I've been exploring ol' Till since the subject of my next opera will be Tricksters, those archetypal jokers who appear in all cultures and in all time periods of human history.

Paul Oppenheimer translated Till's adventures in 1999 from the German. Let me share with you some of the chapter headings which, in bygone literary fashion, provide a thumbnail of the action to come:

  • Chapter 10: How Eulenspiegel became a page-boy; and how his squire taught him that whenever he found the plant hemp, he should shit on it; so he shitted on mustard, thinking that hemp and mustard were the same thing.
  • Chapter 12: How Eulenspiegel became the sexton in the village of Bueddenstedt; and how the priest shitted in his church and Eulenspiegel won a barrel of beer.
And lest you think that our man Till's interests are all scatalogical in nature, there's this mental picture I could have done without:
  • How Eulenspiegel was banished from the Duchy of Lueneberg; and how he cut open his horse and stood in it. (Someone get PETA on the phone, STAT.) 
But bodily functions are a recurring motif throughout the folk tale universe. I will also be including an age-appropriate tale of the ancient Turkish Trickster known as Nesreddin Hodja. Some of his "folk tales" are plot-driven stories suitable for stage adaption, but a number of them are simply R-rated jokes. I envision them having made the rounds on the ancient Turkish Borscht Belt. Here's a "folk tale" presented in its entirety:

The Squeaky Shoe

A guest of the Hodja's broke wind, but he hid its sound by rubbing his shoe across the floor at the same time.
"You did well by covering up that sound with your squeaky shoe," said Nasreddin. "But unfortunately you did not hide the smell."

The End. Charming.

But let me finish with the alarming intense gore and sadism found in every nook and cranny of fairy-tale-land. From the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm to the works of kindly Hans Christian Andersen, fairy tales are mostly nightmares depicting a cruel world inhabited by psychopaths.

Andersen's very first effort in the field, written in 1835, is called The Tinder Box. In this somewhat lengthy saga, our "hero" is a soldier returning home from the wars. He encounters a witch who promises him access to a fortune in silver and gold if he will only return to her a tinder box which once belonged to her grandmother. After loading himself down with treasure, he decides to keep the box; when the witch protests, he cuts off her head, leaving her body in the road.

He proceeds to blow his fortune on clothes, food and entertainment. Figuring out that the tinder box has magical properties, he uses it to visit a beautiful princess he's been lusting over but whose royal parents keep her locked up. They don't approve. The soldier goes on creating trouble and is brought to justice, but just as he's about to be hanged, he magically summons monsters to attack and kill the king and queen. With them dead and out of the way, he marries the princess. The End.


And the Grimm's stories? An unending litany of birds pecking out eyeballs, people being boiled, eaten, devoured by dogs - you name it. But my favorite "fairy tale" recorded by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm is also the shortest. I end this post by presenting it to you in its entirety. NOTE: you might want to sleep with the lights on after this. Or take some Xanex. Something.

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do what her mother wished. For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purppose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground.

Alrighty then! I'm not saying that might not make a compelling opera, mind you. In fact, don't you wish Richard Strauss had taken a stab at it? 

Longtime Faithful Readers will know that I've blogged about fairy tales in the past; specifically, about "Hansel and Gretel" when Virginia Opera staged the Humperdinck opera in 2011. Drawing from Bruno Bettelheim's landmark book The Uses of Enchantment: the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, I discussed the subtext of the Grimm Bros. oeuvre and how folk-tales contribute to a child's development into a well-balanced, functioning adult. To do that, the stories must take us to places we'd rather not go, looking with unblinking eyes at ugliness and traumatic scenarios, at times with metaphorical significance.

That said, I have a theory about the origins of The Willful Child. Something tells me that, centuries ago, some beleaguered mother with a particularly bratty child made up this little tale as a sort of medieval "scared straight" tactic; the rough equivalent of saying "If you keep making that face it'll freeze that way".

Next week I'll tell you which stories I ended up choosing and why.

December 7, 2014

About NBC's "Peter Pan"

THIS Hook didn't phone it in...
(illustration by F. D. Bedford, 1911)
It's a Friday night; I've had 24 hours to mull over last evening's live telecast of Peter Pan and I have some thoughts. If only I had a blog where I could share them with...

WAIT! I DO have a blog! (Silly me - kind of forgot myself there for a second. Won't happen again.)

A survey of reactions on social media has taught me that I'm entering treacherous territory. For every individual wallowing in the Schadenfreude of gleeful criticism, there's another professing earnest admiration for the entire concept and its execution. So I'm probably doomed to annoy or anatagonize somebody no matter what. 

But hey, I probably do that on a weekly basis anyway, so here goes nothin'.

Peter Pan Live was markedly better than last year's sodden, awkward, miscast Sound of Music, but that really is as faint as praise gets without entirely "damning".

For me, the show lacked pace, sparkle, and a sense of "The Joy Of Performing". I found that the lack of a live audience resulted in a sterile, artificial, cautious ambience. The actors, (though not all of them) appeared to be trying not to screw up. There was the vibe of first-time drivers doing 45 MPH in the right lane of a high-speed highway. The lack of an actual audience providing laughs, applause and other interactions can't help but have contributed to the situation, not to mention the frequent and extended commercial breaks. I imagine the cast standing around, all dressed up, adrenaline pumping, trying to stay in character while the ads rolled.

See, the reason the entire world likes Broadway musicals is because of the irrepressible high-octane, optimistic ENERGY we Americans summon up. It's in our DNA; we're the people who had the energy and gumption to get the hell out of Europe or wherever and journey to America for (ostensibly) a better life. And this energy informs our musical theater.

NBC's Peter Pan was a couple of quarts low in this respect.

Allison Williams exemplified this issue in her opening scene in the Darling children's nursery. Her singing voice, a smallish if attractive instrument, betrayed nerves in a lack of breath support and a little clunkiness in negotiating the break between registers. She didn't "take the stage"; rather, she felt her way into the show, gradually getting her sea-legs.

I believe she was awarded the part not (entirely) because her dad is a Big Dog at the network, but because she looks EXACTLY as we all imagine Peter Pan. She actually looked a lot like the Pan of the Disney animated film. But her voice IS small, with limited range; she sang "Neverland" in A, a half-step lower than Mary Martin's classic rendition in B flat. This was clearly done to spare us strained notes at the high end, but resulted in nearly inaudible, breathy lower notes at the bottom. 

If she sang without the amplification standard in modern music theater, no one would hear her over the orchestra past, say, row 10.

Her acting was far from amateurish, and she had a likeable presence. But that's not the same thing as "charisma". Bear in mind, the limitation a telecast like this imposes on the artists is that all they get is an opening night, and few musicals are at their best on opening night. It takes a run of performances for a cast to find their rhythm, chemistry, nuances and best pacing. It takes audience reaction to know if what you're doing is working.

Williams' weakness lay in too-often singing to Wendy or some other character rather than to the "audience", which is a big deal, actually. As an example of what I mean, let's compare her reading of "Neverland" to Martin's. 

First click here to watch a video of Mary Martin's performance. Notice how, as she begins the song, Martin sings directly to her Wendy to establish the point of the song, but then changes the angle of her face to move away from the girl and simply sing. Pan is really dreaming of his beloved home as he describes it, and singing "out" to the "audience" (also non-existent here) turns you and me into the group of people to whom he's expressing himself. It frees the artist to access a greater range of freedom in acting, and makes the viewer feel included.

Now  click here to see the same number as sung by Williams. What strikes you? Do you see how her eyes remain locked on Wendy's for far too long? It makes her appear to be afraid to look away and sing to the tens of millions she knows are watching, even if she wasn't feeling that way. And it's not necessary; we KNOW to whom you're singing already - an occasional glance at Wendy is sufficient to re-establish the relationship. 

Martin was really PERFORMING. Williams was delivering the notes and words accurately.

{Brief blog digression. Why, actually, is the role of Peter always assigned to a female? Is it a rule? If I, Your Humble Blogger, were to plan a new production of the show, rather than cast an idiosyncratic 70-year-old actor as Hook (see below), I would cast Kyle Brenn as Pan. Mr. Brenn is the high-school student who was wonderful in the role of Tobias when the New York Philharmonic did their concert version of Sweeney Todd last March. And don't you wish Neil Patrick Harris had had a go at the part back in his teen-aged years? You should. End of digression}

How did you Faithful Readers feel about the flying? I'm not going to carp about visible cables; that's the deal with flying on stage. HOWEVER: it struck me, and perhaps some of you, that this "special effect" looked pretty much the same here in the Year of our Lord 2014 as it did in the '50's and 60's. Peter Pan went up and then swung back and forth like pendulum. That's it? We can't somehow figure a way for this god-like creature to have a bit more directional control in the bedroom? It just seems like they put this element on cruise control, but this is starting to sound like carping, so - never mind.

Hook.  Captain Hook  James T. Hook.


I enjoy listening to Tony Kornheiser's radio show on 980 AM radio in Washington. He's an educated, erudite, witty talk-show host who has a wide range of interests in addition to the sports-talk genre which is the program's nominal raison d'etre. So this morning Tony and his crew were re-hashing the Peter Pan telecast, and spent a lot of time reviewing Christopaher Walken's "star-turn" in the role of Hook. Tony was very dismissive, finding the actor hopelessy miscast and tired-looking. His co-host Jeanne McManus, on the other hand, positively gushed: "Oh, I LOVED him! I like him in anything he does! He's one of those actors you just can't take your eyes off of!!!"

Like that.

I imagine most viewers adopted one or the other of those extremes. For Walken geeks, the man can do no wrong, and they will dutifully bring up the actor's long history as a song-and-dance man. I myself remember his video of Puss In Boots, a movie my toddler-aged daughter watched over and over.

But he was a catastrophically awful Captain Hook. Oh my. Sluggish, laconic, no sense of character, no vocal energy - I could go on and on. He appeared to be marking in his initial scenes. I truly believe I caught him reading lyrics off cue cards in an early number. He was "staring with purpose" at a fixed point off camera while singing, slumped in his throne like a man with a hangover.

My friend, if you're going to be Captain Hook you have to SELL IT. 

Robert Bianco, TV critic for USA Today, remarked in his review that Walken gave the impression he was considering not returning after each commercial break.

But here's where his style created stylistic dissonance: the material given to Hook both implies and demands a certain style. Hook is a dandy, a supercilious fop, a bit prissy, which is a delightfully ironic note for a "bloodthirsty pirate" and prevents the character from being too threatening for younger audience members. This is how the great Cyril Ritchard played him, and it's how Dustin Hoffman played him in the Robin Williams version of the story. 

What I mean by "the material given him" is that schtick in which Smee, just as Hook is about to launch into a rant, asks "Tempo, Captain? What tempo?" And Hook answers "Tarantella" or some other dance, spurring his pirate orchestra to wax lyrical. This schtick demands a delivery of elegant silliness and a certain putting on of airs like an "artiste".

Walken didn't go for that, which rendered the whole "Tempo" thing kind of puzzling and irrelevant. In my opinion. (You are allowed to disagree, if you can live with the fact that I will think less of you.)

And finally, the decision to spare Walken from playing the father was a bad, bad, bad, bad, REALLY bad decision. It should be patently obvious that Mr. Darling, in his children's minds IS Captain Hook. If you're going to ignore that little metaphor, then for Gawd's sake DO NOT have Father turn into Mr. Smee. NO! NO! NO! MAKES NO SENSE! DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING! NO MEANING!! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?!?  *pant pant pant* (There. I feel better now.)

The fight choreography was tepid and careful, considering that the production was reportedly in rehearsal for a long period of time (I read "months" in one article). Again, I feel that the presence of a real audience might have lent more intensity, urgency and "going for it" to the fight sequences. That said, perhaps intensity wasn't the goal, mindful of the youngest viewers' capacities for rough stuff.

It was too long. The commercials made my liver itch with impatience. The added material, not in the original show, added only length, never a good reason for inserting a new song.

SO: what did Mr. Cranky-pants actually like? Anything?

I thought Wendy was okay. I thought Kelli O'Hara as the Mother was GREAT. I missed her when she wasn't on stage and was glad to welcome her back. THAT, my friends, was a total pro at work.

And the dog was great! Hit every mark! Now I want to teach my beagle to turn down the bed. Plus, how did they ever corral a major actress like Minni Driver to play the walk-on role of grownup Wendy? Geez. 

Overall grade: C+.  I know some theater-loving folk who aren't in favor of criticising the show; they want to reward NBC for taking a risk with live theater; they're aware of the huge obstacles involved in bringing off such a project, and they feel that encouragement is due. My problem: I can't pretend to like something I didn't. Ask yourself: if this had been presented on Broadway, would you be generous?

But keep trying, NBC. Keep trying until you get it as right as a single performance without an audience can ever be. I'll be back next December with high hopes (but moderate expectations) for The Music Man. 

November 30, 2014

Operatically Thankful

Thanksgiving has come and gone. My wife and I are spending the holiday weekend at a rented beach house on Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, very near Kitty Hawk, where the Wright Brothers conquered flight.

The traditional feast has become a bit more complicated since Celiac Disease has left my wife unable to tolerate gluten. No yummy rolls for her. She has to make her own pan of stuffing and her own pie. Just one of the countless adjustments one has to make in the face of getting older. In my case, my serving of pumpkin pie was the first dessert other than fresh fruit I've had in six months, ever since the results of a blood-sugar test came back with a grim warniing.

But this post is not for carping about life's limitations and adveresities (well, so far it has been, but never mind...); nope: it's for doing what everybody does this time of year.

Being thankful.

And since this an opera blog, I'll center on the blessings that have come my way since 2004, when I joined the staff of Virginia Opera.

  • I AM THANKFUL to still be employed in the face of financial stress for performing arts organizations in general and my company specifically. When the recession hit in 2008, donors went away in large numbers, ticket sales declined, and hard times arrived. Today, the staff employs fewer full-timers and budgets have been trimmed. The thing is, my position was created when I was hired; they did without a Community Outreach Musical Director for the first 30 years of their existence. That means they could do so again. When others have been laid off, I'm beyond grateful that I continue to be part of the family.
  • I AM THANKFUL that they took a chance on me in the first place. Let me tell you, friends, it's no picnic to find yourself unemployed at age 50. To those dire circumstances, I'll add that nerve damage to my left hand left me unable to function as a pianist or piano teacher -- me, with a doctorate in piano performance. I hadn't taught at the college level in 10 years; the future looked... scary. Then along came this job, in many ways the job of my dreams.
  • I AM THANKFUL for the opportunities to compose that have come my way. In January of 2000 I decided to try my hand at composing words and music for an opera. No one asked me to; I did it purely for my own pleasure, in addition to seeing if I had any aptitude for it. I chose Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing". Since 2007 I've composed five operas plus a couple of "pastiche operas" using standard operatic excerpts. All have been performed successfully. I've been asked to create at least two, and possibly three new works for the 2015-2016 touring season. If you had told me I'd have become a successful composer back in the 1990's I'd have laughed in your face.
  • I AM THANKFUL that Lori Lewis asked me to write words and music for my one-character monodrama Katie Luther: the Opera in 2012. It now appears a realistic goal that this piece, which has already been heard in Albuqurque, St. Louis, Baltimore and Newport News, will be performed in Martin Luther's home of Wittenberg as part of the 2017 festivals celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Are you kidding me? I have yet to make a penny from this opera, but it is my best work and I'm proud of it.
  • I AM THANKFUL that Katie Luther received a good review from critic John Campbell in the online journal Artsong Update. You can read the review at this link, but scroll down the page as a symphony review appears at the top of the page.
  • I AM THANKFUL that, as I look back on my musical career, quite a number of experiences that seemed like a lark at the time actually were training ground for my current position. Singing baritone roles for the Opera Theater at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond; being a guest artist for the Operafestival di Roma where, besides performing principal roles, I had a turn as chorus master and stage director for a student program of scenes; and others as well. 
  • I AM THANKFUL for the platforms my job has afforded me: regular broadcasts on two public radio stations; authoring a book (which people bought); teasching opera appreciation classes for eight colleges and universities around the region; and this blog, which has seen readers from every corner of the world.
I could go on, but let's face it: you stopped reading after the first couple of paragraphs at the top, didn't you? Didn't you?!?!?

Oh well - I'm thankful you read that much, actualy! Cheers! So long from Kitty Hawk!

The first manned flight. That's me on the right. I was so thin back then!

November 19, 2014

A free opera video and a GIF

This week's post serves to introduce you to my new children's opera The Empress and the Nightingale, adapted from the story The Nightingale by Hans Christian Andersen. It was commissioned by the Education Department of Virginia Opera and is currently on a regional tour with the company's Emerging Artist program.

The performers are soprano Sarah Gilbert as the Village Girl and the Nightingale; mezzo-soprano Alyssa Martin as the Empress; baritone Trevor Martin as the Lord Chamberlain, and pianist Cody A. Martin.

Believe it or not, none of these Martins are related! What were the odds of that?

The puppet depicting the Nightingale was created by Jennifer Noe of the Virginia Opera costume shop. I think it is adorable. (Note: for you millenials, that's "totes adorbes"...)

The opera has been very well-received. While the intended audience is elementary-school kids, adults have been enthusiastic as well.

Here's a complete performance given at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, VA on Saturday, October 4, 2014. It's just under forty minutes in length" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1kdEFr7Aiw. Give it a watch!

And for good measure, here's a GIF of my favorite "action moment" in that performance. I call it "When Mezzos Turn Violent: Empress Gettin' All Feisty".

Hope you enjoy the show, Faithful Readers!