Monday, July 17, 2006

Scheherezade and El Santo De Israel

At the Asian Art Museum on Thursday evening the 13th, the San Francisco Opera presented a recital with two sopranos and a pianist.

The program was designed to complement the current exhibition "A Curious Affair: The Fascination Between East and West," with pieces by Ravel, Stravinsky, Puccini, Debussy and other Westerners who were fascinated by "Asie," as the first lines of Ravel's "Scheherezade" put it.

The latter was the first piece in the program, three linked songs from early in Ravel's career that play with themes from "The 1001 Arabian Nights," which entered the Western bloodstream through the translations of a Frenchman Antoine Gallard, in the early 18th century.

The original tales are thought to be Persian, and were first compiled into Arabic in the 9th century. They are a mixture of love stories, revenge tales, burlesques, historical accounts, moral fables and just about every other genre imaginable, held together rather loosely by the device of Scheherezade the Storyteller saving her own life every night by leaving off a story in the middle so the caliph would want to hear the rest of it the next day.

There is an astonishing, unbowlderized 10-volume translation into English by the Nile explorer Sir Richard Burton from 1885 that is absolutely mindbending.

I read the first six volumes out of the Mechanics Institute Library years ago, and was surprised to find the tales extraordinarily sophisticated in all kinds of unexpected ways. The psychology of the characters was often surprisingly modern and the acceptance of same-sex love in many of the tales was revelatory.

My neighbor Elza van den Heever sang the "Scheherezade" with her customary excellence, but the big Samsung Hall fairly defeated her. It's a beautiful room, but with its high ceiling, the acoustics were simply awful for classical music.

So I left after her opening set...

...and watched Elza climb into a more comfortable pair of shoes before she ran back home and rushed to the airport for a plane to her home in South Africa, which she was required to do by arcane United States visa regulations.

Two days later, in Civic Center Plaza, there was another odd collusion of cultures when a Latin American Pentecostal Church set up a prayer meeting on the lawn.

The group was called El Santo De Israel, and was very much an apocalyptic, end-times cult.

Though they must have applied for permits months ago, the timing of the service/rally was eerily resonant, as the Promised Apocalypse seems to be happening right on schedule.

The speakers were shouting in Spanish in Pentacostal style how Israel was going to lead us all to that sacred apocalyptic moment, and that the time is now, and that there will be lots of "sangre" (blood) and "muerto" (death), but that it's all for the best and we need to support Israel so it can essentially be the front lines of the end of the world and the return of Our Saviour.

At the "Hallelujah, Amen" moments, members of the audience would put one arm straight up in the air, essentially giving a "Seig Heil" to the American and Israel flags flanking the stage, which was extremely bizarre.

The only encouraging aspect was that the attendance was fairly sparse.

Plus, the homemade food tent in the back looked beyond sabroso.

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