Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Don Giovanni

Though the picture above of the San Francisco Bay in late July looks straight out of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," in truth it was the setting at Fort Mason for rehearsals of the Merola production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" at the Cowell Theatre.

My entrance into the beauty of opera was through a production of "Don Giovanni" I saw at the San Francisco Opera in the mid-1970s with a cast I don't even remember. It wasn't the first opera I'd ever seen but it was the first one that struck me physically and spiritually as a "eureka" moment on the order of "My god, this art form is great. I had no idea."

I have long wanted to see "Don Giovanni" in a small opera house, which is what it was written for, rather than the huge barns of San Francisco or Chicago or New York, which are perfect for "grand opera" but not really ideal for most 18th century operas.

By chance, I have ended up getting to be inside a perfect, small production of "Don Giovanni" for the last three weeks as a non-singing actor instead of just watching it, which has felt like an unexpected blessing.

The San Francisco Opera has a summer training program that functions a bit like a minor league baseball team, where young athletes/singers learn their trade for little to no money and get funneled into a career path based on their god-given gifts and their teachers' estimation of their abilities.

The crew assembled for this "Don Giovanni" has obviously been cherry-picked because they are all tremendously good young singers, and watching them being directed by the legendary diva Catherine Malfitano has been a master class in itself.

Hearing a pick-up chamber orchestra tackle Mozart in a small theatre with a very good conductor and musicians is also an amazing experience...

...and to top it all off, I have been given a wig for our peasant scene that the preeminent wig master Richard Battle pronounced, "looks like your own hair, it's perfect" which of course makes one feel outrageously sexy. So does the opera, with its dark distillation of sensuality and humor and death.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Oakland Field Trip 1: Real cool!

Four of us took a field trip from San Francisco to Oakland on Saturday for a little adventure...

...and to check out the Oakland Museum's "Birth of the Cool" exhibit detailing California's affair with mid-century modern architecture, jazz, graphic design, painting, furniture, and even animation.

The museum is currently undergoing construction as part of its "transformation," which meant that the beautiful third floor galleries filled with California-based art wasn't open.

The second-floor galleries where "Birth of the Cool" was situated felt like they were under construction too, which didn't exactly make for a lovely aesthetic experience, particularly when coupled with a few snarly, elderly security guards barking orders about backpacks and cameras.

Much of the exhibit consisted of Julius Shulman photographs of modern hillside houses in Los Angeles (click here for a post about Julius from earlier this year) along with lots of Eames chairs and "rumpus room furniture" as Nancy Ewart put it (click here for her art blog).

Next door was another exhibit called "Cool Remixed" which traced the progress of "cool" through the ensuing decades after the 1950s.

One was greeted with a manifesto proclaiming that the entire concept of "cool" came from ancient African culture which manifested itself as coolness under the harsh realities of slavery.

This seemed something of a stretch, but it's as good a theory as any.

Oakland Field Trip 2: Just play it cool, boy!

We walked to Old Downtown Oakland with our East Bay host, the brilliant polymath Matt Hubbard above (click here for his politics and arts blog "Lotsa 'Splainin' To Do").

After a nice lunch outdoors at a brewery on Washington Street, Matt took us to Endgame, his favorite retail establishment in Oakland.

The store specializes in games of all sorts, including these 40 versions of Monopoly...

...and bizarre variations on "Trivial Pursuit."

What really sets the place apart, however, is the sense of community...

...which meets in person on the airy second floor.

"It's like a gay bar for nerds," Matt explained. "We can be whoever we want to be without shame."

Matt was most interested in a wave of new board games coming out of Europe, mostly Germany, that were exquisite fun and beautifully designed.

Another section of upstairs was devoted to role-playing games that included elaborate model sets. Matt used to design video games in the 1980s and now teaches math at a number of colleges in the East Bay. "I helped screw up a whole generation, so teaching feels like some kind of penance."

Endgame really is genuinely cool.

Oakland Field Trip 3: Get cool, boy!

We took BART to the Lake Merritt station, which is two blocks from the Oakland Museum, but walked a mile to Jack London Square for a ferry boat ride home.

Ron Laurence, above, moved to San Francisco's North Beach a couple of months ago after decades in Michigan, and when we found that he'd never even heard of Jack Kerouac's "On The Road," I bought a copy at the waterfront Barnes & Noble. "If you want to understand your new neighborhood, it's pretty much essential reading," I told him.

The boat ride to San Francisco's Ferry Building was exceptionally beautiful...

as we glided past rows of cool-looking cranes...

...unloading huge container ships...

...which were being led around by comparatively tiny tugboats.

Some of the ships even had crewmen...

...who played at "Titanic" for us.

The only problem with the trip was that the young woman driving the ferry was "in training" and she kept starting and stopping the boat in jerky motions that threatened to topple a few people overboard.

We were all thankful when we made it to shore safely without hitting the Bay Bridge a la the Cosco Busan.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Stairway to Theatre of the Absurd

The stairs on the Polk Street side of San Francisco's City Hall are the staging ground for every kind of political demonstration imaginable.

On Monday afternoon, it was the Bicycle Coalition people who were justifiably up in arms about foot-dragging by the MTA and the Department of Public Works in coming up with an environmental impact review two years after a judge demanded one before more bike lanes could be installed on city streets.

Tuesday morning saw supporters of the "Clean Energy Act" assemble. This is basically an attempted power grab from the ancient utility monopoly, Pacific Gas & Electric, for a municipal power system which has been the idee fixe of "Bay Guardian" publisher Bruce Brugmann (below) for decades...

The initiative has little chance of success since the rich, corrupt old power structure of San Francisco owns most of the PG&E stock, and they are not about to have their steady stream of income denied without a fight.

Plus, though Mayor Gavin Newsom goes on and on about being a "green" and "environmental" mayor, he is also very much a puppet of that same power structure, so nothing will be changing during his tenure.

Sharing sidewalk and stair space with the "Clean Energy" folks were a large group from the SEIU union...

...which tend to have entertaining protests that include bands and balloons.

The strangest sight of the week was the young man above who was screaming Monday afternoon all by himself at the mayor's balcony, telling the world he was delivering a subpoena to the mayor's office to expose all the corruption in high places. He sounded like a leftist blogger who hadn't taken their medication, and he had a voice that carried all the way across Civic Center Plaza.

Coincidentally, I was on a 47 bus South of Market the next day and the same lunatic got on the bus and immediately approached a young woman who was sitting down. "What is your name, pretty girl?" "Will you give me your email address, pretty girl?" "Can I sit next to you, pretty girl?" The foolish young woman said it was okay, and I decided to flee rather than intervene.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Don't Fence Me In

The fence around the Slow Food Nation Victory Garden in Civic Center Plaza finally came down on Monday...

...and it's a blessing for the neighborhood.

A pair of security guards have been hired to spend the night keeping the fledgling plants safe from vandalism...

...and there is an additional sentinel in the form of the Darth Vader like statue by Manolo Valdes (click here).

Monday, July 21, 2008

Pigeons on the concrete alas

The Civic Center Plaza and the accompanying main library building are the hub of a large flock of pigeons...

...whose scruffiness and grey color fit the human denizens and the buildings of the neighborhood quite perfectly.

The library people have put up netting on the top of the Grove Street side of the building because pigeons were finding its series of cubbyholes absolute perfection in which to roost.

So now that they have been banished from their old home, the pigeons are hanging out on narrow strips below the old cubbyholes and they couldn't look more sculptural if they tried.