Friday, November 30, 2007

Return of the Ninja Geishas

The San Francisco Opera's fall season is ending with a reprise of five performances of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," featuring yours truly as a Kabuki "kugoro" scene-shifter.

Because the performances are not part of any of the subscription series, there are still plenty of tickets available, and I can't recommend the production highly enough. Patricia Racette, who sang the role here last year, is probably the best Butterfly in the world right now, both vocally and histrionically. She just sang a couple of performances at the Metropolitan in New York in their new production, and all the opera queens on the internet went slightly bonkers.

The San Francisco production of "Butterfly" last year featured a tenor and bass-baritone as Pinkerton and Sharpless respectively who were definitely sub-par, but that's not the case this time around. Stephen Powell is sounding wonderful in rehearsal as the American consul, and a pair of young American tenors are sharing the role of Pinkerton.

Not only is Brandon Jovanovich (in the two photos above) ridiculously handsome, he also possesses an outrageously beautiful voice.

He's pictured above with the legendary, recently deceased opera director Colin Graham, who ran the Opera Theatre of St. Louis for decades, and who directed the premieres of many of the seminal Benjamin Britten operas before that. In fact, I have a repertory request for San Francisco Opera's David Gockley. Please, oh please, present the San Francisco premiere of Britten's masterful opera "Gloriana" about Queen Elizabeth, and bring back Jovanovich to sing Essex which he played in St. Louis.

Sharing handsome Ugly American duties with the alternate Butterfly, Marie Plette (12/6 and 12/8), is James Valenti who also has looks and vocal beauty to spare. Click here to see about tickets.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

From Bach to Barber and Elgar to Sculthorpe

The 155-CD Brilliant Classics set of Johann Sebastian Bach's complete music has turned out to be one of the great impulsive purchases of my life, and I've only just begun with the cantatas, which take up 60 CDs on their own.

The Bach cantatas are rather like Haydn's great symphonies. As James Keller wrote in the San Francisco Symphony's program book last week in relation to a performance of Haydn's Symphony No. 67, "The problem is not that his one hundred and four symphonies lack brilliance or individuality, but rather that there are a hundred and four of them. Who can keep track?"

Leonard Slatkin was the masterful guest conductor at the San Francisco Symphony last week and his rendition of the Haydn 67 was my favorite music of the evening, conducted with the necessary wit and propulsion that Haydn's music requires.

This was followed by the Samuel Barber Piano Concerto from 1962, played by local pianist Garrick Ohlsson, and though the performance was a bang-up job by soloist and orchestra, the music left me utterly cold. Except for his "Adagio for Strings" and "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," I don't think Barber's music is aging very well.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is a fascinating historical character in terms of American classical music politics of the twentieth century, since he was so well connected in many senses of the term. Plus, he's a pivotal figure in gay history, though he lived his public life in the closet. His lover for 40 years was the recently deceased opera composer Gian-Carlo Menotti. The two of them met romantically while attending the Curtis Institute as teenagers in Philadelphia in the 1920s, and then lived together and collaborated on each other's projects for the next 40 years. That latter story, however, still hasn't been written about because Barber's biographer Barbara Heyman and other contemporary music writers are still tiptoeing around the homosexual subject matter for some reason.

The second half of the concert was a wonderful traversal of Elgar's "Enigma Variations" in front of a half-empty house because so many subscribers seemed to be out of town.

If you happen to be in town this Friday evening, November 30th, be sure to catch the Del Sol String Quartet at an Old First Church concert where they will be playing the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe's String Quartet #16 with Didjeridu along with music by Golijov and other contemporary musicians. This piece was the highlight for me at last year's Other Minds Music Festival (didjeridu player Stephen Kent and composer Sculthorpe are pictured above) and I can't recommend the concert highly enough. Plus, it's only $15. Click here for more details.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Cirque du Stravinsky

The Canadian theatrical genius Robert Lepage (click here for his website) has just directed his third opera, a new production of Stravinsky and W.H. Auden's 1950s opera about 18th century London which is sort of a mashing together of "Don Giovanni" and "Faust" with its own astringent flavor.

The new production has been cosponsored by the San Francisco Opera along with Brussels and Lyon, which have already performed it, and it's easily one of the most witty, colorful and intelligent opera productions I've seen.

As Leon Dubois (above) noted, the David Hockney production which the San Francisco Opera has used for the last twenty years was quite beautiful, but we were tired of it. Lepage's version is amazing, with magical transformations between scenes that are funny and mysterious.

The production is set in the 1950s in the modern Southwest, with a working oil derrick setting the scene from the beginning. The concept works beautifully, and without unnecessary underlining, makes clear that Oil and Hollywood are just two very modern versions of age-old vices: greed, licentiousness, avarice and stupidity.

The only scene that didn't work for me as well as the old Hockney production was the final one set in Bedlam, which needed both more stylization and more tenderness.

This was also the best cast I've ever heard in this strange, wonderful Stravinsky score. Steven Cole (above on the left) played the small part of the Auctioneer as if he was channeling both Hugues Cuenod (the originator of the role) and Little Richard.

The part of Anne Truelove seemed to be wrong for Laura Aikin (it really does require a dramatic soprano) but she has a sweet, beautiful voice which was fine, while Denyce Graves as Baba the Turk was funny, in superb voice, and with the best English diction of the evening.

The happiest surprise was James Morris as Satan aka Nick Shadow, who seems to have made his own pact with the devil. For the last decade, Morris' voice has been a bit woolly, but on Friday he was booming through the opera house like a young man.

My friend Sidney thought the orchestra could have been a little "crisper," but I thought Runnicles and his troupe were extraordinary. There are only five more performances. Be sure to check it out (click here for tickets).

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Wo ist Fisherman's Wharf?

Since we were not being hosted on a first-class Thanksgiving trip through Southeast Asia like Beth Spotswood (click here)...

...nor invited to any Thanksgiving feasts for friends and family...

...we decided to eat delicious fish and chips at the Bell Tower pub on Polk Street and then walk to Fisherman's Wharf...

...where we could pretend to be foreign tourists...

...who didn't give a damn about the holiday.

In solidarity with the local crab fishermen shut out of their fishing season by the recent oil spill...

most of Fisherman's Wharf was going crabless...

...but you could buy crabs from Washington State for $12.95 a pound if you were really determined on a Thanksgiving crustacean.

The sea lions at Pier 39 were in full bad boy mode...

...entertaining the tourists...

...who seemed to be speaking every language known to man.

The day couldn't have been more delightful, and we ended it by watching a couple of American girlie movies, "Sweet Land" and "The Horse Whisperer," which put us into a perfect Thanksgiving coma.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Homo Night at the Opera with Angela

The San Francisco Opera started a dubious marketing campaign a couple of years ago called "The Rainbow Series"...

...where "same-sexers," as Gore Vidal likes to call gays and lesbians, are invited to subscribe to a special series of evenings where there will be plenty of other same-sexers attending.

Besides lighting up the facade of the opera house with rainbow-colored gels...

...and throwing up a couple of large rainbow flags on the outdoor Grand Tier balcony...

...the same-sexers are invited at intermission to a special party for them on the same balcony complete with complimentary champagne.

I'm not sure how one would go about proving that one belonged in this group, but I wore a "Gay Mafia" T-shirt under my jacket just in case.

Wednesday evening's opera, though adamantly heterosexual, turned out to be a perfect fit for the evening. It was Puccini's late attempt (1917) at Viennese operetta, "La Rondine" ("The Swallow"), which was all about a kept woman in Paris who leaves her rich banker sugar-daddy for true love with a young, innocent provincial. When his mother writes to them at their lovely rooms on the French Riviera that she looks forward to meeting his "chaste" bride, our heroine has a moment of moral clarity and refuses to soil the mother's doorstep, returning instead to Paris to suffer in luxury with the old banker. And what wordly San Francisco gay or lesbian couldn't relate to that story?

I stood in the balcony for the first performance of the "La Rondine" run featuring OperaVision, which are two high-definition Jumbotron screens that descend from the ceiling on the far left and right, and feature closeups of the performers.

Though management was a little worried about how this would be received by balcony operagoers, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, and personally I love it, since the sound is so good at the top of the opera house and I can finally see the little singers on the stage without opera glasses.

The performers and the production were both outstanding, and my only quibble is with the ugly fake fireplace looking like a Yule Log Television Show all through the first act. (The very entertaining blog, "Opera Tattler," click here, also decries the sparkly disco ball in Act Two which kept shining in her eyes).

The opera itself is weird and it's easy to see why it hasn't been a popular success like "Madama Butterfly" or "La Boheme," where the soprano dies for her sexual sins. The four major roles are written for two sopranos and two tenors, which almost has the effect of canceling each other out, and the score is all over the place. Still, it's late Puccini, and the music is much more complexly gorgeous than anticipated.

What the opera needs above all is a Serious Diva in the title role, and Angela Gheorghiu making her San Francisco Opera debut gave a classic, over-the-top diva performance, marshaling her resources with intelligence and letting loose with unspeakably pretty lines when the moment called for it. Both Angela and the young Ukranian tenor Misha Didyk looked fabulous on the OperaVision screens, and were actually convincing as French-kissing young lovers. There are two more performances, on Sunday afternoon the 25th and next Thursday evening, November 29th. I wouldn't mind seeing the production again.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mission Greenbelt Campaign Headquarters

Saturday afternoon, between the bus shelter and the Veterans Building on the corner of McAllister and Van Ness, a group of young people were digging up a public lawn...

...and installing "native plants" along with empty squares to create a walkable garden.

It turned out to be an ecological art project called "Mission Greenbelt Campaign Headquarters" (click here for more details)...

...created by Amber Hasselbring (click here for her "art-eco" homepage), the blonde above on the left.

She was accompanied by a dozen or so volunteers putting donated plants into the ground, and they were being fed for their labors. They seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.

When I asked them if it had been a problem getting permission for digging up a sacred War Memorial Performing Arts Center lawn, they professed amazement at how smoothly the whole process had gone with the Art commissioners.

Inside the Art Commission gallery in the Veterans Building, there is an exhibition and instructions on how to create an urban garden on your own sidewalk...

...along with a few do's and don'ts (click here for the site).

The garden is unfortunately "temporary art," and is scheduled to be taken out and presumably replaced by the lawn on December 22nd. If you're in the Civic Center before then, check it out.