Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Deputies Who Cried Wolf

Early Tuesday morning, May 30th, the remaining flotsam and jetsam of a three-day weekend in Civic Center...

...managed to induce yet another panic attack in City Hall Sheriff's deputies...

...and they decided that three pieces of discarded luggage strewn around outside City Hall were potential bomb threats.

The item above on the McAllister Street sidewalk was one of these terrifying apparitions.

This set off an absurd chain of events that included closing down Van Ness Avenue from Golden Gate to Grove...

...and McAllister Street from Larkin to Franklin Streets.

This happened during the morning rush hour from 8-10 AM so as to cause maximum inconvenience to the city's commuting workers...

...involving confusion such as this 5-Fulton bus that wasn't paying any attention to the traffic control officer, and which ended up blocking Franklin Street for ten minutes.

The loud and obnoxious local television news helicopters soon showed up to make sure none of the neighbors missed any of the action.

When I later went to the Sheriff's lovely, airy offices on the fourth floor of City Hall and asked how many of these phony bomb events had caused street closures in the neighborhood, the sweet but suspicious receptionist replied, "Oh, you should contact the police. They would probably have those statistics." When I pointed out that it had been deputies finding packages and closing down the neighborhood every time, she simply smiled.

I wish a few of the deputies had been more like the receptionist, and pretended to have concern for their constituents, but instead they seemed more interested in yelling at people, even when they were elderly and confused, or just plain crazy.

Also, if the city can have a policy to put videocameras in poor people's neighborhoods, why can't they just put a few up around City Hall so they can see where these infamous "suspicious packages" come from and who unintentionally leaves them.

This is either the third or the fourth time within the last year that the neighborhood has been shut down for hours at a time, and it's growing as old as the useless, stupid security measures in airports.

It's costing a lot of people a lot of time and money.

Our conservative young City Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, pictured above, should hold an enquiry. This is a serious waste of everyone's resources.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Fatal and Tragic Consequences

On an exquisitely beautiful Memorial Day, we walked from San Francisco's Civic Center to Sausalito across the Golden Gate Bridge.

While strolling along the newly reclaimed shoreline of the old Army Presidio, a 21-gun salute rang out with many puffs of smoke, celebrating and/or mourning Americans who have died in combat.

Though I don't harbor any particular animus against individuals in the United States military, having known so many of them personally over the decades, I still can't get too mournful about combat deaths on Memorial Day.

The main reason is that there hasn't been a single honorable or truly defensive military action taken by the U.S. government since my birth in 1954.

Korea was an awful conflict that still divides one of the oldest cultures in the world. The Vietnam invasion was overpoweringly evil and so is the current invasion of Iraq. How about the tiny island of Grenada and its "rescue" of medical students who didn't feel they were in any danger? Or the invasion of Panama which killed hundreds of people while trying to arrest George Bush Senior's drug-partner-in-crime Manuel Noriega?

It hasn't been a pretty picture, with our military consistently being the bad guys since the end of World War II, so going through the motions of heroic remembrance strikes me as bizarre and empty.

We continued by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on foot, which has always been a bit terrifying because of the heavy automobile traffic, the wild winds and the ghosts of the dead that hang about.

There is a move afoot to spend millions of dollars on yet another study to build a suicide barrier so people don't jump off the side of the bridge with quite such frequency.

For $100, I will solve the problem. Heck, let's give this advice for free. Most of the bridge has an underhang below the low-lying guard rail which makes it more difficult to just climb over and jump freely into the bay. However, there are about a half dozen cute little "vista" balconies that jut out over the underhang (see the picture above) and fairly beckon the unstable to end it all spectacularly.

Get rid of the "balconies" and the suicides should be cut down immediately. And for my late friend David Paige, who went over the bridge a couple of years ago, I hope you are finally at peace.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Butterfly Under The Dome

The first audience members for the free 8PM simulcast of the opening of the San Francisco Opera's "Madama Butterfly" production showed up around 5PM. They had even brought a low table on which to gracefully eat and drink an early dinner.

In a nice touch, the trees on either side of the central lawn had been decorated with paper lanterns.

It didn't take long for the crowd to swell... thousands of people who took up the entire central lawn...

...and were soon spilling over to the side lawns too.

A group of opera supernumeraries had set up a beachhead near the front of the crowd...

...not far from the giant screen resting on top of a large truck parked on Polk Street.

Even though the winds whipping through the Civic Center Plaza were bone-chilling, the atmosphere outdoors can best be described as both hopeful and festive.

At one point, the fine British director of the production, Ron Daniels (in the center), cruised by to check out the crowd soon before the curtain rose.

The colors on the video were a bit "hot," as in slightly too bright, and there was one very wobbly videographer all evening...

...but all in all the direction of the simulcast was intelligent and well-done.

My only real objection was with other photographers who kept using flashes on their cameras, which were completely unnecessary, particularly after the performance had begun.

There were also the ambient noises of sirens and airplanes to contend with, but that goes with the territory.

The huge audience in the plaza was great: quiet, attentive and thoroughly absorbed with the opera.

Patricia Racette, who had been battling a sore throat all week, sang poor, abused Butterfly with a no-holds-barred intensity and beautiful sound that made fans out of everyone.

Stephen Cole as the evil marriage pimp Goro was another standout, as was Zheng Cao as Suzuki.

Congratulations are in order to everyone involved (except for the dreadful emcee from the awful KDFC classical music station), and here is a request that this wonderful experiment be repeated for the fall opening night, which is in September, the real summertime in San Francisco.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Poulenc the Palate Cleanser

Cedric The Philistine over at the SFist blog wrote an amusing review of the current San Francisco Symphony concerts (click here) that feature the duo pianists Katia and Marielle Labeque, a pair of glamorous French sisters who Cedric compares to Cher.

The concert started off with a fairly dull rendition of the late Haydn symphony #98, continued with a beautiful Mozart piano concerto for two pianos, and really hit its stride after intermission with a concerto for two pianos and orchestra from 1932 by Poulenc that was insanely fun.

According to Cedric, the sisters were wearing alternate black and white bustiers for the Thursday matinee, but as you can see, they decided to bring a bit of color into all of our lives for their Friday evening performance. They were smashing.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Summer Opera Preview

Banners for the San Francisco Opera's three-opera summer season, which is being marketed as "The Return of The Divas," have sprouted all over the Civic Center.

The campaign implies a bit of a slap toward the previous Pamela Rosenberg regime which prided itself on its seriousness and Germanic intellectual integrity rather than on its abundance of songbirds.

Two of the first three operas of new General Manager David Gockley's regime are actually pretty tried and true productions from the earlier McEwen and Mansouri eras ("The Marriage of Figaro" and "Madama Butterfly" respectively), while the lone novelty is a rarely produced Tchaikovsky grand opera about Joan of Arc called "Maid of Orleans."

I've been listening to a scratchy old 1946 recording from St. Petersberg of the "Maid" that has caused me to fall completely in love with the music, so please don't be discouraged by the opera's rarity. The music is simply wonderful, with huge, patriotic choruses galore and a wonderfully over-the-top role for a mezzo-soprano.

Joan will be sung by Dolora Zajick, who according to all accounts out of New York and backstage at the San Francisco Opera, is in absolutely prime career voice. If you're a serious opera queen at all, it shouldn't be missed.

Also not to be missed is tomorrow (Saturday) night's opening of "Madama Butterfly" with its free simulcast on a huge video screen in the Civic Center Plaza.

Gockley started these videocasts on opening nights
as a popularizing tool while he was in charge of the Houston Opera company, and it's a great idea.

A meeting was going on Friday afternoon with the concert organizers advising various employees from the opera where the VIPs would be sitting, where the media went, what security would be like, and so on.

They are expecting about 5,000 attendees by the 8PM start, but in truth they really don't have a clue how many people will be showing up.

Though "Madama Butterfly" is not my favorite opera by a long shot, it's a good one to start with, and will be perfect for the public simulcast.

Bring blankets, sleeping bags, low-lying beach chairs (nothing higher), many layers of clothing, food, and a couple flasks of cognac, and enjoy some free opera under the stars.