Monday, August 29, 2005

Single Ticket Morning at the Symphony

This morning at 8AM, single tickets went on sale at the San Francisco Symphony.

Most of the tickets are sold earlier in the year as part of subscription plans.

So this is essentially the time for the Discerning Music Lover, who really doesn't need to hear Beethoven's Nine Symphonies ever again, to do a pick-and-choose among the 30+ concerts that make up the symphony season.

The wait was long, over an hour at least, but there were some lovely compensations.

There was free coffee put out by the Symphony.

And though I'm not a big fan, there were free donuts too.

The employees were even going up and down the line offering season programs to us so we could figure out what we wanted to buy.

The time went by quickly because I had a ridiculously interesting person to jabber with named Denny Berthiaume, a 62-year-old jazz pianist/composer/playwright/former professor who was brilliant and interested and who liked talking about music. Click here to check out his website where he has samples of his music and is selling his own Jazz CDs.

Standing between us all morning was a fretful Russian woman who was waiting for an absent sister to show up. Denny offered her the use of his cell phone but she was too frightened and used the pay phone instead.

San Francisco has had an invasion of Russians in the last ten years, mostly Jewish, mostly elderly. What they all seem to have in common is hating having their pictures being taken by a stranger, a love of shiny, sparkly things (at least on the women's part), and an adoration for cheap, live classical music, particularly when there is a Russian composer or performer involved.

The only single ticket I couldn't get for myself was a $20 Center Terrace seat for Rostropovich conducting Shostakovich later in the season.

The Russians had already bought them in the two hours since the box office opened.

My ticket seller was friendly, helpful and had a huge smile.

Part of that was because HIS computer wasn't malfunctioning and neither was his printer.

That was the fate of the people next to me, who called in "Techical Support" who was doing a great "Who Me?" shrugging act. "You know how computers are," he seemed to be saying as the ticket sellers looked like they were going to have a nervous breakdown.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Norma on a Scorched Earth Stage

"Norma" is an early 19-century Italian opera by Vincenzo Bellini that is one of the masterpieces of the repertory, and easily Bellini's finest work. The simple plot takes place during the Roman occupation of England (which lasted 400 years) with Norma, the top Druid Priestess, having an affair with a Roman officer before the curtain goes up, secretly bearing two children by him. (Hey, it's a dark forest.)

When Adalgisa the Vestal Virgin comes to Norma for advice about HER love of a Roman soldier, Norma is quite sympathetic until the Roman walks in and it's Pollione, the same guy who fathered her two children. Potential Medea action ensues, until Adalgisa, in a great proto-feminist moment, tells Norma that she is giving up her love for Pollione because he's already Norma's guy, and they sing "Mira, O Norma," one of the greatest female duets ever written.

Pollione the Roman tenor, however, is a cad and insists on sticking with the younger woman, so Norma goes a bit insane and in the final scene calls all her Druids to her in the middle of the forest and announces that there is a "traitor amongst us." The expectation is that she's going to name Adalgisa, but instead she announces, "and it is me." Pollione, the Roman cad, is moved by her noble gesture and goes to Norma as they make their way to a funeral pyre where they are burned alive together as the chorus sings how sad they are.

Opera really doesn't get any better than this, which is why the initial staging for the chorus and supernumeraries earlier this week was such a disappointment. Instead of a beautiful Druid forest, the set was an ugly collection of wood that is painted black on the first ten feet to represent a "scorched earth" policy by the Romans who have been burning down the forest. I thought this was a ridiculous invention of the director, but an older Irish-American woman told me today at lunch that it was true, the Romans did burn down forests in their pursuit of the Druids who were fighting them.

I found a few sites on the internet that confirmed the information, and are interesting of their own accord. If you want to know about Druids, click here.
If you're interested in a history of the Roman Invasion of Britain, click here.
If you're interested in reading about Boudicca, a real Woman Celtic Chieftain who took on the Romans and burned down an early version of London while she was at it, click here.

However, the "concept" is so at odds with the lilting, dancelike music of Bellini that it's laughable. I've never seen a production where the chorus scenes weren't at least slightly ridiculous just because getting a huge group of singers on and off the stage never makes much sense, but this is going to be truly wrong. This became clear every time the conductor, Sara Jobin, would conduct a bit of music and sing as a cover for the bass Oroveso (Norma's dad)...

...while the rehearsal pianist played the beautiful music that seemed to have nothing to do with the "masculine, muscular" brutality that was supposedly happening onstage.

The debuting director, James Robinson, an American who runs the Colorado Opera Company in Denver, explained that early in his career he had staged a "Norma" in Europe (Sweden, actually) that was very "pretty," but that he was dissatisfied with the result because the music and the production were just all "too pretty." This production was created for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto in 1998, and was meant to be more of a dissonant approach, with pretty music and "ugly" staging.

We all agreed that we would much rather be in his "pretty" staging instead, with a pretty forest. Part of the reason is that Pamala Rosenberg, the recently ousted General Director of the San Francisco Opera, has a taste for dark, monochromatic, "Eurotrash" Productions with a Concept, complete with a Dramaturg, and though some of these have worked, most of them have not.

There was an odd moment at the beginning of the first rehearsal when Ms. Rosenberg (not pictured) came onstage and thanked the director, David Robinson, for being there and how much we were all going to enjoy working with him and how "Norma" was greatly anticipated by San Francisco audiences.

The only problem was that David Robinson, wearing a nametag, was a fellow supernumerary and JAMES Robinson, the director was sitting on a chair downstage while she was making this announcement. It was a major brain fart on her part, and I heard the male chorus behind me muttering, "she doesn't even know who she's hired."

On the second night we rehearsed a scene where 17 Celtic Warriors come onstage in loincloths with their pointed sticks and Sizzler Steakhouse salad bowls which are to be filled with mud. We were directed to sit all the way downstage in front of Oroveso and the men's chorus who sing a beautiful three minutes worth of music while the supernumeraries were directed to be "muscular, masculine, like a Greek frieze" as we mimed applying mud to each other's bodies as war paint in Celtic patterns.

My partner was none other than David Robinson and we tried our best not to get the giggles. "I want pecs painted on," he insisted.

One of my favorite fellow supers, John Janonis, a wild man at age 62, confessed that he was going to be the only Celtic Warrior with a pot belly. "Hey, I told them that I had a mature man's body."

Another one of my favorite supers, Lucas Rebston, got the plum role of a Roman soldier who is being murdered as the curtain goes up by bloodthirsty Celtic warriors, and then hung up against the wooden set. In the second scene, Pollione the tenor comes in with a half-dozen Roman soldiers, including me, and we take him down while Pollione sings to him. "Hey, I should have been dead four years ago from lymphoma," Lucas told me. "The role's not much of a stretch."

Katherine Braziliatis, who has been backstage for 26 years, is playing one of the five Druid Priestesses who flank Norma during her entrance aria, "Casta Diva," one of the most famous and difficult soprano arias in the repertory.

Unlike most of her fellow supernumeraries, including yours truly, Katherine's actually a great actress and a joy to watch onstage. Katherine and her four fellow priestesses were directed to pull out chunks of prop mistletoe from a tree stump and then mingle with the chorus, who take little bits of the plant from them while the diva continues singing "Casta Diva."

At some point, the chorus was directed to lay on the floor and sing their background music while "ritually" waving bits of mistletoe in the air.

This is either going to work or it's going to give the audience the giggles.

And you don't want the audience to be giggling during "Casta Diva." They should be holding their collective breath wondering how anything so beautiful can be sung so exquisitely. We'll see.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Blind Art

Hidden away in the bowels of the basement of City Hall, between the Department of Elections and the public bathrooms on the other side of the building, the San Francisco Art Commission puts up various shows on the walls.

The amazing thing is that some of these shows, though clumsily presented, are the best art exhibitions in San Francisco, bar none. They just put up another stunner, which is an annual show sponsored by the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired by artists who are just that.

I don't usually read the bios of the artists at exhibitions, but in this case, they added immeasurably to the interest so I'm going to quote them.

James Cadiz: Claremont, CA -- "I have been blind since birth. I feel through my hands. My hands act like my eyes. I have a vision in my mind, and I imagine what I want to create. My imagination goes wild and motivates me to creat and explore many things."

"My mental vision shows me when a particular work is finished. I like to choose mediums I can touch, feel or easily move around. My theme is about movement. I like the viewer to explore my work with thier minds, not just their eyes."

Annie Leist: Brooklyn, NY -- "I have been legally blind since birth. The most effective way to describe my extreme nearsighteness is as a very low-resolution, two-dimensional image, with shapes, movement, light and color, but without detail, depth and clarity."

John Ednoff: Belmont, CA -- "A retinal doctor declared me legally blind and told me that I have Macular Degeneration."

"I can see and distinguish forms but no detail."

"When I am lost in my creative world, it keeps me busy and I forget my vision loss."

"I work in all media depending on space, time, and the availability of materials at hand."

"I am experimental."

"My art keeps me from insanity."

Bobbie Gray: Fairfax, CA -- "I've been legally blind for almost five years due to Macular Degeneration. I have enough peripheral vision to see most objects in good light. Edges are fuzzy. Only contrasting colors are visible to me so I like to use strong, vivid colors in my work."

Ida Berkowitz: Tiburon, CA -- "I have been visually impaired for five years due to Diabetic Retinopathy and Macular Degeneration. For my paintings I need to focus on simple things. I can only do landscapes or still life - no faces or people."

Pedro Hidalgo, Oakland, CA -- "I have been legally blind all of my life from Myopia. My vision allows me to delve into space, time, dimension and light; to touch reality."

Mari S. Newman: Minneapolis, MN -- "I am totally blind in my right eye and legally blind (20/200) in my left . I was born with brain damage due to complications in the birthing process. To help me with my art, I use magnifying lenses.

Keith Rosson: Portland, OR -- "I was born with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia or "tunnel vision." Throughout my childhood, I was either drawing incessantly or running into things. By the time I was officially diagnosed as blind, my involvement in art was strong and I chose not allow this diagnosis to alter my decision to work in a visual medium."

Laura Landry: Condordia, Kansas -- I was born blind in September 1980 from the eye disease known as Peter's Anomaly, which clouds the corneas. I don't wake up every day and think about being blind - I just live my life."

Bobby Hightower: Richmond, CA -- "I have been legally blind since I was 12 years old, and I am also hearing impaired. My paintings express the feeling of a real life adventure. I love art!"

Kurt Weston: Huntington Beach, CA -- "In 1996 I became legaly blind due to AIDS-related CMV retinitis. I see the world very differently than a sighted person, very blurred with speckles of light, like an impressionist painting.

"I have found photography to be an excellent medium for expressing my artistic vision, which is influenced by my physical sight. My work incorporates graphic signs and symbols, taken out of context and juxtaposed against ambiguous textural backgrounds."

"My way of seeing has permitted me the ability to perceive in this abstract manner and transform mundane signs and symbols into contemporary works of art."

Rosemarie Fortney: Milwaukee, WI -- "I have been legally blind since the late 1970's due to Retinitis Pigmentosa. Since my visual field is small, I am to create the maximum impact on the visual perception of whoever views my artwork."

Tara Arlene Innmon: Minneapolis, MN -- "I've been legally blind since 1986 and totally blind since 1994 from congenital Glaucoma."

"I did much of my painting and drawing from 1987-1990 while losing my vision. It was like being in a fog that got thicker and thicker and now I have plastic eyes."

The 'Doctor's Waiting Room' series was done in the ophthalmologist's waiting room after each laser procedure to document the change in my vision. I also want to show what the world looks like to a person who is losing vision and how the feelings of grief and anger lead to transformation and acceptance."

This exhibit, in case my photos don't make it clear, is extraordinary. There's going to be a public reception next Wednesday, August 31, 2005 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. with many of the artists in attendance. Be there or be square.