Charlie Lichtman is a fellow supernumerary at the San Francisco Opera, and together we decided to venture to the wilds of West Oakland for a "Fire Opera" version of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's last collaboration together, an odd, beautiful opera/ballet called "The Seven Deadly Sins" from 1933.
The event was being presented by "The Crucible," (click here to get to their website) an art school/collective housed in a 56,000 square foot warehouse two blocks from the West Oakland BART station. They specialize in building and burning things, hence the classes in glass blowing, welding, blacksmithing, jewelery fabrication, neon art, etc.
They may possibly be a wonderful, egalitarian, creative group, but at least for this production, they were truly terrible hosts and event managers. Along with the tickets in the mail, there was a page of printed instructions which included the following: "Please don't be late. Doors open at 7pm and seating begins at 8pm. Latecomers will not be seated. In fact, come early! Leave yourself plenty of time for having a pre-show drink and settling in. We will be serving beer and wine. Thre will be Crucible demonstrations, and fire sculptures to enjoy. There will also be a Registration desk where you can sign up for classes!"
What they didn't mention is that there were two tiers of tickets: "General" and "Reserved" seating, with the former going for $25 and on the VIP Saturday Night the reserved going for $100 a pop. What this amounted to was a huge group of "swells" eating and drinking and chatting while the $25 plebes stood in a line on a concrete ramp for an hour and a half watching their more expensive betters cavort. Brecht couldn't have staged it any better if he had tried, down to the truly terrible pop music they were playing over the loudspeakers for the two hours before the show.
The most grotesque moment was after finally trying to find a seat in the crammed bleachers which were already filled to the brim with the swells, the "Producer & Designer" of the show, Michael Sturtz, who was also The Crucible's "Founder & Executive Director," gave an inspirational speech. He told us the three meanings of the word "crucible" and somehow ended up lecturing the crowd, which had just been divided by his stupid staff between the rich and not-so-rich, that there was too much commercialism and moneygrubbing in America. We needed to follow our "heart" and our "art." This was one of those moments when I had three simultaneous wishes: a ripe tomato, a strong arm, and accurate aim.
The performance of the opera itself was a mixed bag. The conductor, director, and the singers were all from the San Francisco Opera and there wasn't a weak performance in the bunch. The pick-up orchestra from the Oakland East Bay Symphony sounded smashing, and the acoustics in the big warehouse were surprisingly good.
The direction had its moments of theatrical wonder, and it used the long runway stage between the two sets of bleachers quite intelligently. However, there was too much padding of a perfectly constructed 50-minute piece, including an endless succession of 1950's videos at the beginning showing ironic American materialism, and long slapstick sequences between "sins" that tended to stop the piece cold.
According to a review of the Lotte Lenya version at Good-Music-Guide (click here to get to the entire, interesting article), the plot goes something like this:
"A young woman, represented by the practical Anna I (originally sung by Lotte Lenya) and the impulsive, flighty Anna II (danced by Tilly Losch and choreographed by Georges Balanchine) leaves her two brothers and parents and sets out on a journey through American cities to earn money for the family to build a house.
In each city Anna II succumbs to one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and has to be reined in by the sensible Anna I, so that their ultimate goal can be achieved. The massive irony is that this goal is by no means virtuous. To make their fortune, men are seduced, robbed, blackmailed and driven to suicide by the two Anna's.
Brecht's message is clear. Capitalist ambition is the greatest Deadly Sin, and ultimately, in a capitalist world, the wages of such sins is success."
In this version, Catherine Cook sang the Practical Anna wonderfully, but unfortunately she was more glamorous than the Plain Jane Crucible glassblowing instructor, Lee Kobus, who played the Dancing Anna. Thus the libretto didn't come across too well.
Special mention should be made of the four male singers who were Anna's "family," sung by Jere Torkelsen, Eugene Brancoveanu, Joe Meyers, and Kevin Courtemanche in a triumphant rendering of the as-written drag part of Mom.
Instead of dancing each scenario, there were "fire opera" tableaux instead. Easily stealing the show were the three large black women making up the "Harlem Shake Burlesque" troupe who appeared during the "Pride" section. Click here for their website which is quite entertaining. Also notable were the "Xeno" troup (click here) during the "Gluttony" section doing a quasi-Cirque trapeze routine that was gorgeously conceived and executed.
Sitting right in front of us was the new General Manager of the San Francisco Opera, David Glockley. Hey, David, how about a production of this or any other Kurt Weill opera while you're at it? This music is great and deserves better treatment.