Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Turn of The Screw

My favorite opera composer of the twentieth century is Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), and I'd rank him up there with Mozart and Verdi, who happened to be his favorite composers.

This view is not shared by all that many other people (yet), which might explain why his music has been performed continuously since he wrote it, but not all that often in comparison to Puccini and Richard Strauss. For instance, his great 1953 opera about Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex, "Gloriana," has never been performed at the San Francisco Opera while Puccini's "Tosca" will be performed next year for what seems the 543rd time since the opera house's opening in 1923.

So I was extremely excited when I noticed an announcement for performances this weekend and the next of Britten's 1954 opera "The Turn of The Screw," taken from Henry James' dense, creepy, psychosexual ghost novella, which I had never heard live before. It was being performed by a small group called The San Francisco Lyric Opera in the 400-seat Cowell Theatre at Fort Mason, which is a perfect venue for an opera that calls for only 13 orchestral musicians and six singers, including two children.

Britten wrote a major part for his tenor lover, Peter Pears, in every one of his operas, starting with the title role in "Peter Grimes" and concluding with old Aschenbach who falls in love with a boy in "Death and Venice." Their collaboration is one of the most extraordinary in musical history, and what's truly amazing is that there are recordings with Britten conducting and Pears singing that are definitive to this day. In "Screw," Pears played the ghost Peter Quint, who has "corrupted" the previous governess Miss Jessel and also the two children at a country estate empty of everyone but other servants.

The major relationship in the tale is between Quint and the boy Miles, with its hints of pedophilia and the corruption of innocence, a subject close to Britten who was a (non-sexual) pedophile and who was probably sexually abused as a pubescent boy himself. The first singer of the role of Miles was the young David Hemmings, who went on to become a movie star (in "Blow-Up," among others), and who then went on to a strange career as a television director ("Magnum, P.I." among other oddities) before his recent death.

In Humphrey Carpenter's pedestrian biography of Britten, there is a fascinating quote from the adult David Hemmings after the author asked him about what kind of hanky-panky went on between the young Hemmings and the besotted composer while they created "The Turn of The Screw," which premiered in Venice. This is part of Hemming's response:
"He [Britten] was incredibly warm to me, yes. Was he infatuated with me? Yes, he was. He was a gentleman; there was no sort of overt sexuality about it whatsoever. It was a very kind and very loving and very gentle relationship.

Did he kiss me? Yes, he did. But that was more my need as a young boy alone in his house than it was any threat. I slept in his bed, when I was frightened, and I still felt no sexual threat whatsoever. And I think it would have embarrassed him a damn sight more than it would have embarrassed me at the time.

Of all the people I have worked with, I count my relationship with Ben to have been one of the finest. And also my relationship with Peter too. And it was never, under any circumstances, threatening. Was I aware of his homosexuality? Yes, I was. Was I aware that he had a proclivity for young boys? Yes, I was. Did I feel that he was desperately fond of me? I suppose I did, but I must say I thought far more in a sort of fatherly fashion; and I had a very bad father-son relationship...There is no man in my entire life that has been more influential on my attitudes than Ben."

The opera turned out to be even more extraordinary live than I had imagined, after listening to the Britten recording for the last 20 years. The 13 musicians in the pit, conducted by Barnaby Palmer, were so good that they deserve to be named individually: Rita Lee, Joyce Lee, Stephanie Ng, Kelley Maulbetsch, Andy Butler (strings), Michelle Caimotto (flute), Ann Lavin (clarinet), Max Hollander (oboe), Karla Ekholm (bassoon, above), David Sprung (horn), Wendy Tamis (harp), Cesar Cancino (piano)...

...and above all the percussionist Michael Passaris (above) who played an entire gamelan orchestra's worth of instruments.

The singers were all good, too, and in the cases of Trey Costerisan as Peter Quint and the young Kathleen Moss as the old housekeeper Mrs. Grose, they were genuinely outstanding.

There was only one problem, however, and it was a major one. The young director, Heather Carolo (above), did a terrible job of simply staging the story. I'd seen a production she directed for the Conservatory of Music's production of Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and a "Carmen" last year for Festival Opera in Walnut Creek, and the story was the same both times. Good singers, great musicians, and awful staging seems to be her personal hallmark.

In other words, I will not be rushing to see her destruction of "Aida" later in the season for the company. Still, I would recommend this production if only to hear this music live. You can always just close your eyes for the dumber directorial decisions.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Art and Nature

A friend visiting from New York wanted to check out the copper-plated architecture of the new de Young Museum, so we jumped on a bus to Golden Gate Park while I gave him a small warning.

"There are a few wonderful paintings by local painters Jess and Thiebaud and Diebenkorn, along with a great African tapestry made out of the foil from bottle caps (above)..."

"...and the Turrell earthen dome in the sculpture garden is beyond cool..."

"...but compared to the museum collections in New York, the place really is a junkpile and can barely be called second class."

The largest challenge to the de Young museum is the amazing mixture of nature and artifice that is Golden Gate Park itself, where sand dunes have been transformed into primordial ponds...

...where you can watch mallard ducks and turtles sunning themselves on logs next to a great blue heron.

How can the de Young's objets d'art even begin to compete?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Young Strings at the de Young

The de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park stays open in the evenings on Friday until 8:45 PM, usually featuring some special theme for a "party night."

Last Friday the 23rd the theme was "Young@Art" featuring children and teenagers' art work on the ground floor of the museum, including the well-done faux Louise Nevelson above.

We didn't stay for the entire festivities, but were there for the beginning of a concert by a string orchestra from Lowell High School, the legendary public high school for brainiacs.

Though there were a few token gringos...

...the overwhelming majority of the ensemble was Asian-American.

They were introduced by some gasbag who told us about how he had been in Sacramento and seen all kinds of other groups and that this was one of the best, and so on and so forth, until he was finally drowned out by museum workers noisily dragging supplies to temporary cocktail stations, which was pretty funny.

The orchestra was simply wonderful, though the Dede and Al Wilsey court has truly terrible acoustics for music, since the sound bounces up to the high ceiling and then disperses into all kinds of nooks and crannies.

The teacher/conductor also might want to take her tempos a little quicker next time because the music demanded it, and her musicians can obviously handle them.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Taiwan's Mother Teresa, Master Cheng Yen

Framed by the Darth Vader style sculpture of Manolo Valdes in Civic Center Plaza...

...a small crowd was holding a Tzu Chi Festival last Saturday honoring three important dates: Mother's Day, Buddha's Birthday, and Global Tzu Chi Day.

Tzu Chi is a movement started by the Taiwanese Buddhist nun Master Cheng Yen in 1966, focused on performing good works and disaster relief (click here for a fairly extensive Wikipedia entry).

A friend who had passed by earlier in the day reported hearing someone singing Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" from the stage, which he found exceedingly odd.

By the end of the afternoon, the crowd was assembled around a table invoking a prayer, presumably for all the people needing relief in China and Burma.

It was rather sweet and strange at the same time. If you're interested in reading more about the group, click here for their website.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Public Prowler

A wild new sculpture has suddenly appeared on the Hayes Valley Green.

The mosaic-like steel structure looks as if it's going to eat an occasional passerby for lunch.

There doesn't seem to be any placard telling who the artist might be.

Though I'd assume the sculpture is sponsored by the Black Rock Arts Organization and/or the San Francisco Art Commission, that is also a mystery, which is part of the fun. The prowler just magically appeared.

Update: The sponsor is the local Hayes Valley Art Coalition, and the sculptor is Michael Christian who also created "Flock" (above) which was displayed in Civic Center Plaza in the winter of 2005-06. The new sculpture is called "Koilos," and first appeared at 2007's edition of Burning Man.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Death of An Angel

On the way to getting a haircut at "Male Image" Saturday morning...

...we were nearly run over by a huge funeral procession...

...that included quite a few members of the infamous Hells Angels motorcycle gang.

There were traffic spotters planting their cars in the middle of intersections and staring people down with their prison tattoos which led to an unintentionally funny scene.

A pair of young women with rolled-up mats from their yoga session in one arm and cell phones in their other were crossing the street while frustrated cars just about mowed them down. They didn't seem to care as they continued blithely chatting away on their phones, "Wow, there's a Hells Angels funeral on Market Street. You should see it."

The crowd didn't appear to be in a very good mood, and according to an article on SF Gate, things got genuinely ugly later in Marin County (click here) with a dead Hells Angels member being deposited at a California Highway Patrol parking lot Saturday evening.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Pobre Vallejo

I took the ferryboat from San Francisco to Vallejo on my birthday just to do something new.

The 12:40 boat was nearly empty and this gold-toothed young man looked at our unattended belongings on the back deck and said, "Man, you've got to keep this close to you. This is Vallejo. Somebody will steal it. Man, I would steal it."

Vallejo is a northeast bay city whose economy and lifeblood was the U.S. Navy, which pulled out in 1996, leaving what looks like a score of toxic waste dumps and rotting infrastructure along the shoreline and Mare Island across the waterway.

To add to the small city's woes, a long-simmering civil war between its greedy public safety unions (fire, police) and its mismanaged city government has come to an insane boil, and the day after we visited, the city declared bankruptcy, which as my Long Island municipal government friend Jay puts it, "is NOT good."

We walked through the waterfront downtown where every large building seemed to be "For Lease," and where there was virtually no traffic, either vehicular or pedestrian. It felt a bit like that scene in "On The Beach" where all the people are gone from the streets of San Francisco.

In luck, we stumbled across the Georgia Street Grill...

...and had a delicious lunch on the sidewalk where we were regaled with stories from our hostess...

...who had opened the place three years earlier with her Guamanian chef husband.

The restaurant is in an old Victorian two blocks from the ferry terminal on Georgia Street, and just serves breakfast and lunch. The place was also almost full, which was amazing, since we didn't see another creature stirring anywhere else.

The hour-long boat ride is a hefty $23 round-trip, but it's a fascinating ride and quite beautiful. And may poor Vallejo bloom again someday soon.