Monday, October 31, 2005

City Hall Ghost Walk

In the San Francisco Examiner there was an announcement in the "What's Happening" section that there was a free City Hall Ghost Walk from 6:30 to 8:30 on Halloween.

Since the place is so full of spirits that any halfway sensitive medium can feel them during the middle of the day, I figured it might be fun and interesting.

It started well, with the beautiful building dimly lit and people handing out disclaimer forms that were quite amusing. "By joining the walk, I swear and affirm that I either have not been diagnosed with any of the following conditions or maladies, or they are under medical control: Angina, Apoplexy, Attention Deficit Disorder, Colic, Dizziness, Epilspsy, Extra-Sensory Peception, Fibrillation, Hyperglycemia, Hypertension, Hypoglycemia, Mental Instability, Nerve Damage, Paranoia, Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, Pre/Post-Menstrual Syndrome, Schizophrenia, Vapors."

The tour guide was dressed as death and at first was interesting, but soon became boring like any Village Explainer who is dully literal. It seems to be an occupational hazard of all docents.

The group giving the walk was called San Francisco City Guides, and was founded in the late 1970s as an adjunct to the Friends of the Public Library. It's become quite the empire with dozens of free-but-begging-for-donations themed walks scheduled daily around San Francisco year round. For $100, you can enroll in their initiation curriculum, and become a Boring Guide yourself. Click here if you'd like more information.

After learning that City Hall was the fifth largest domed building in the world, we decided to leave and not continue the spooky tour. We finally remembered those "Vapors" we'd had years ago.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Tonal Centers

A new piece of public art has gone up temporarily in the Civic Center Plaza, part of five works commissioned by San Francisco State University to commemorate the opening of the new deYoung Museum. Click here to check them all out. This piece, consisting of a bell tuned to an exact frequency, is by a Berkeley installation sculptor named Wang Po Shu who does very interesting stuff. Click here to get to his website.

There was signage next to the bell, with some bizarre English (the artist is originally from Hong Kong), and here are a few excerpts:
"In quakeland Californa, all public building to be built or retrofitted, will have their dynamic behavior studied by structural engineers to avoid destructive resonant harmonics with natural forces such as earthquake, strong wind, etc. Harmonic resonance is a reality that we are all born into, live and die with..."

"San Francisco City Hall is a floating structure since 1998, when its seismic retrofit of Base isolation method was completed. Set free from the earth, the building is allowed to move up to 27 inches in all directions when the earth quakes ... The City Hall Building's fundamental resonant frequency is centered around 2.7 hertz (Coutesy of Forell/Elsesser Engineers Inc.). This is musically the building's tonal center in other words. City Hall rings in this pitch when earthquake strikes. Or when enough of us sing together in this pitch, we can induce harmonic resonance from the building."

"The bell used for this artwork is tuned to City Hall's tonal center pitch, at 172.8 hertz on its sixth octave. It is tuned from a recycled bronze cupola bell cast by Fulton Iron Work Foundry of Michigan, from an unknown date, with an unknown history, except that it carries the marks of much abuses along its way.

Please feel free to sample the Tonal Center of the City Hall by pulling on the handle. And happy ring-a-sing-a-long!"

Meanwhile, a very jolly looking group of Mexican laborers was sitting on the red carpet that they were assembling in front of City Hall for a wedding party that evening.

Across the Civic Center Plaza, Bill Graham auditorium was hosting a "Public School Enrollment Fair."

It seemed an odd time of year to be holding such a thing, but I suppose there was a good reason.

To learn more about the annual affair, click here for the San Francisco Unified School District webpage explaning the event.

Teachers and admininistrators had volunteered to come help sell the virtues of their particular schools.

They were a pleasant looking bunch.

In front of the auditorium, a woman at an ironing board was giving out great signage to remind everybody to resist the Schwarzenegger Right-Wing Agenda Above All!

I spent the afternoon in the backyard of the Lone Star Saloon, contemplating the colorful agenda represented by Miss Avis, the Tarot Reader.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Penance and Warfare

In the hallway just off of the stage door of the San Francisco Opera is a bulletin board for supernumeraries where you can sign in and also get "notes" from the directorial staff on things to modify.

Grove got a note saying "Ron [the director] said to be more subtle when you tell the chorus not to eat the soup."

"Have you been an overacting thespian again?" I asked my fellow Friar and he confessed to no more than "acting just a little bit, they told me to."

Before the opera begins and between the large crowd scenes, many people hang out in "The Basement Lounge."

It's a large, brightly-lit, rather dingy space...

...that even includes a ping pong table for fast and furious action.

The new production of "La Forza del Destino," which is gearing up for its opening next Wednesday, is both a simple and lavish production, rather like the opera itself with its long, intimate stretches for one or two characters onstage being bracketed by scenes containing over a hundred choristers and supernumeraries.

The music is middle-period Verdi which means it's one astonishing tune after another in the service of a truly insane libretto.

"La Forza del Destino" roams all over Europe during wartime (18th century) with each principal character taking on a new false identity in every scene.

It requires the four greatest singers in the world to really do it justice, and the only one I'd call great in this cast is the baritone, Zeljko Lucic, who has a voice that sends shivers down the marrow.

The diva, singing what I'll always think of as the Leontyne Price role of Leonora, is a soprano named Andrea Gruber from New York who seems to have sung in one too many "Turandot" productions. Most of her top range is just fine, but the middle and the great low notes (which Leontyne Price OWNED) induced some seriously ugly sounds.

It doesn't matter. The new production is visually quite arresting and varied, and the direction is smart. The "Rat-a-Plan" chorus in the middle of the opera, which often involves a hefty mezzo on top of a table singing nonsense syllables with choristers, is usually one of the most ridiculous scenes in all of Verdi. Ron Daniels, the director, has staged it as a march with a huge chorus of soldiers and camp whores marching from the back of the stage towards the audience and it works smashingly well.

The young Italian conductor, Nicola Luisotti, seems to be the real star of the show. His version of the famous overture last night was good enough that you wanted to stand up and applaud at the end. At today's rehearsal, he stopped the chorus and said, "you must sing the ultimate pianissimos here and then two measures later you must do the loudest fortissimos of your life, like you're screaming, [pause], but screaming beautifully, of course."

The costumes are heavy, expensive and uncomfortable, reminding me yet again that I'd rather play a peasant or a soldier than a pope or a king. The clothing is much more comfortable.

After walking in a religious penitents' procession to a spectacularly beautiful sensurround chorus (from onstage and off)...

...a few supernumeraries, including Ron Mann, become soldiers and they leave their penance behind in the excitement of war.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Norma Opens Part Two: The Blue Moon Group

For the second act of "Norma", the four Roman soldiers were transformed into Celtic Warriors (talk about going over to the enemy!) which meant going to the wig room. This is where people are tortured with sharp bobby pins, spirit glue, and tape among other skin-unfriendly items.

Most of the men's wigs for the opera looked as if they were supposed to be from the American Revolutionary era with small pony tails. This didn't make a lot of sense for Roman-occupied Druids, but there you have it. They must have run out of that style, however, because three of us were given amazingly fabulous, hideous wigs that looked like some kind of cross between Peter Frampton and Welsh Wench.

Back in the dressing room, three makeup women had stationed themselves in the showers.

They were there to pre-decorate Celtic Warrior backsides before we entered the stage for the infamous blue-paint-smearing scene as we prepared for war.

At the first "dress" rehearsal, it was decided that our white butts were a bit too big and a bit too shocking as we mooned the audience.

So the makeup women were sent in to make sure our butts were a bit darkened and decorated, which made for some giggly, surreal moments.

In truth, at that first rehearsal, we were all painfully shy in different ways...

...on how we would measure up...

...and if that beautiful trip to Italy had made us fat...

...or whether the entire scene would be completely ridiculous.

But we got over it, fast, like good Californians who had all been to a nude beach at some point or another in our lives.

It helped that the 13 Warriors were quite a varied group, ranging in age from Ralph at 62... the 18-year-old Kurt.

The group was also about half homo and half hetero with a few guys that could be either.

What was most encouraging was that in San Francisco in 2005, nobody gave a crap about any of that.

Be whatever you want, was the attitude, just don't bang into me onstage, and do help me out like a buddy if things go wrong.

And things often do go wrong on stages, particularly operatic ones where the spectacle is usually so ambitious.

The sheer exhilharation of running around on stage with major professional singers singing in your ear and a symphonic orchestra playing at your feet is for me an unparalleled thrill, especially when the music is done well.

This production of "Norma" isn't great, by any means, but it's "not bad," and doesn't get in the way of the opera, which IS great.

Steve Winn, the reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote a very kind review today saying much the same thing.

Click here to check it out.