Thursday, July 30, 2015

Voices From The Grave at Merola Opera

The way art ages is mysterious. Whether it's literature, visual, performance, or in the case of opera a mixture of all three arts, the fashions and enthusiasms of one period often look ridiculous to another generation, and many works are thrown onto the historical scrapheap. In other cases the opposite occurs, and artists' works are selected for a pantheon, with occasional additions and subtractions, which endures over time. English composer Benjamin Britten is a good example of the latter, while the reputations of American composers Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti from roughly the same period seem to be sliding precipitously.

Menotti and Barber's operas both went out of favor around the 1970s, and though there have been fitful attempts at revivals of both composers' works, the frequency of performances is decreasing with each year. The first live performance of a Menotti opera for me was last Saturday at the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason where the Merola Opera troupe of student singers performed The Medium, a 1946 wannabe shocking psychological melodrama. The performers were all excellent, but the opera struck me as dated and absurd. The music has a few lovely riffs but is basically reheated Puccini/Mascagni encased in a libretto by Menotti himself that is a distillation of 1940s Broadway trying-to-be-serious cliches.

Nicole Woodward as the brutal, alcoholic fortuneteller who has a nervous breakdown and Madison Leonard as her abused daughter Monica gave full-throttle, conviction-filled performances, and both sounded good, which somehow made the material worse because the histrionics as written were so false.

Then there is the character of Toby, the homeless Gypsy boy our phony fortuneteller has somehow picked up off the streets of Budapest and brought up as her slave. It's a mute part written for a young man. (Beautiful young men were one of Gian Carlo Menotti's passions, which possibly helped keep him alive until the age of 95. After 40 years of living together as romantic partners with Samuel Barber at a shared home in New York, he abandoned the depressed, alcoholic composer for a young thespian/ice skater who he adopted in 1974.) In this production, Toby was played by Australian tenor Alisdair Kent, with real acting ability and one of the worst wigs I've seen on an opera stage.

The second half of Saturday's double bill was Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, a frenetic comedy about a craven Florentine clan trying to rewrite the will of their just-that-moment deceased patriarch before his riches go to the clergy. The opera worked well on the tiny stage, and though the characters were directed by Peter Kazaras into cartoonish caricatures, the strategy worked well.

What helped matters immensely was Korean baritone Kihun Yoon above as the title character who swindles the clan of their most prized bequests, including the best mule in all of Florence. Yoon was genuinely hilarious in the role, obeying the comedy maxim that sometimes less is more, with a voice that was assured and beautiful.

Among the many bad relatives, a particular favorite was Tara Curtis above as Zita, even while having to puff away on a phony cigarette throughout the show.

The conducting by Mark Morash and the playing of the pickup orchestra was excellent in both operas, and it was too bad that Merola was forced to return to the Cowell Theater again after their sabbatical in the junior high school auditorium on Church Street over the last couple of years. At Cowell, there's not enough space for everyone who would like to attend, and the audience is practically sitting in the orchestra's laps. Maybe next year there will be a move to a more suitable venue. (Performance photos are by Kristen Loken.)

Saturday, July 25, 2015

West Edge Opera Preview

West Edge Opera, founded in 1979 as Berkeley Opera, is opening their three-week festival season this Saturday evening with a wildly ambitious roster of three operas in repertory at three non-traditional locations scattered around Oakland. Alban Berg's notoriously difficult unfinished opera, Lulu, is being performed in the abandoned, marble-lined Oakland train station in an arrangement for reduced orchestra by Eberhard Kloke, starring Emma McNairy below as the title siren and a host of great local singers in the many subsidiary roles.

The production even includes the specified palindromic film, created here by Jeremy Knight, for the middle of the opera which marks the end of Lulu's rise and the beginning of her fall.

WEO Music Director Jonathan Khuner is conducting with direction by Elkhanah Pulitzer, and reports from rehearsals have been glowing, though it was noted that the staging is as sexually explicit as the tale demands, so be warned.

The following Sunday afternoon sees the premiere of a new opera, As One, at the Oakland Metro rock club, which is moving from a 3rd Street to 2nd Street location in Jack London Square.

As One is East Coast composer Laura Kaminsky's first opera, an 80-minute chamber piece written for a string quartet and two singers, a baritone and mezzo-soprano playing two aspects of the same character who transitions from male to female. The libretto by Mark Campbell is co-written by filmmaker Kimberly Reed, whose transgender story it tells, and she also provides much of the graceful, accompanying video. The opera had its world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last September, starring Sasha Cooke and her husband Kelly Markgra, and the reviews were unusually laudatory.

The West Edge Opera production has populated the piece with ten actors playing a variety of roles, including myself as a junior high school teacher lecturing on sex education and poetry. I have no idea how well the production itself will work, but can testify that Dan Kempson and Brenda Patterson as Hannah Before and Hannah After have exquisitely beautiful voices, and they play off each other sensitively. The pit band is the young Friction String Quartet conducted by Bryan Nies, who are sensational musicians in their own right, bringing out every nuance in the Minimalist inflected score.

As if this were not ambitious enough, the company is also mounting one of history's first great operas, Monteverdi's 1640 Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, which recounts the finale of the The Iliad, when Ulysses finally makes it home to Penelope, his wife besieged by suitors. Early music specialist Gilbert Martinez is conducting an eight-piece historically informed ensemble, with direction by General Director Mark Streshinsky who is also directing As One.

The production will open next week at the American Steel Studios, an industrial art space started by sculptor Karen Cusolito, whose huge Burning Man sculptures have been popping up throughout San Francisco for the last five years. For tickets to the shows, click here.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Champagne White and The Temple of Poon

D'Arcy Drollinger has finally produced a sequel to Shit & Champagne, her hit cult drag queen/blaxploitation movie/kung fu stage lampoon that has been bouncing around San Francisco for the last couple of years.

The final revival of the show was earlier this year at Oasis, the new nightclub at 11th and Folsom where Drollinger is a co-director/co-owner.

Like all the Hollywood trash sequels on which it is based, Champagne White and The Temple of Poon is simply Shit and Champagne remade with the same formula.

Instead of the original show's relentless scatalogy, a different orifice's secretions (see the title) are the focus of most of the evening's raunchy humor.

The plot follows a familiar pattern, complete with lots of groovy special-effects video. It involves a new drug which turns society completely insane, and a frame job of our stripper/professional dancer heroine for murder, which in this case gets her sent away to Lady Prison.

The characters and actors are also mostly the same, with the incomparable Matthew Martin (above center) as the evil Dixie somehow surviving her demise from S&C and reinventing herself as perfume magnate Pixie Pardonnemoi on her way to world domination.

The principal joy of the production is the interaction between performers and audience, most of whom are fans of the original show. When Mandy (above right), who functions rather like a 1970s "good girl martyr" version of Kenny on South Park, dies once again, the entire audience joined in a remarkable singalong of Barry Manilow's "Mandy." And when the actor/ess playing Mandy completely lost her lines in one scene, the ensuing improvisation between Diva D'Arcy and desperate player was one of the most spontaneously funny moments of the evening.

The real reason for this kind of theatre (take note, Patrick Vaz) is to create a communal lunge at the Dionysian. On that level, it is very much succeeding.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Schwabacher Summer Concert 2015

San Francisco Opera's summer boot camp for young professionals, the Merola Opera Program, inaugurated its annual series of public performances on Thursday evening at the SF Conservatory with the Schwabacher Summer Concert. Nine singers performed long chunks from four operas in front of a full orchestra: Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, Verdi's La Traviata and Don Carlo, and Wagner's Die Walkure. Some of the student singers were overmatched in difficult roles, others showed great promise, and a few completely triumphed. (Pictured above left to right are bass Ming Zhao, soprano Toni Marie Palmertree, mezzo Raehann Bryce-Davis, conductor Valery Ryvkin, bass Scott Russell. baritone Sol Jin, tenor Michael Papincak, and soprano Meredith Mecum.)

Susannah, in a scene where the innocent young country girl is being seduced by the twisted Reverend Olin Blitch, began the evening, and Meredith Mecum had such a huge soprano voice that she virtually overpowered Scott Russell as the baddie. This was followed by Act Two of La Traviata, with another large-voiced soprano in Tonie Marie Palmertree as the Parisian courtesan and Michael Papincak having troubles with his tenor voice as her lover Alfredo. The highlight of the act was the baritone Sol Jin as old daddy Germont pleading with Violetta to break up with his son for propriety's sake. Germont is usually cast with an older baritone, and it was a delight hearing his music sung by a light, younger, handsome voice. (Pictured above left to right are Ming Zhao as the Commissario, Scott Russell as Giuseppe, Raehann Bryce-Davis as Annina, Tonie Marie Palmertree as Violetta, Michael Papincak as Alredo, and Sol Jin as Germont.)

The Die Walkure excerpt was from Act 2, Scene 4, between Michael Papincak as Siegmund and Meredith Mecium as Brunnhilde. Mecum had no problem soaring over the slowly paced orchestra, but Papincak again seemed overmatched. Much more successful was the opening thirty-plus minutes from Act 4 of Don Carlo. Bass Ming Zhao did a beautiful job as King Filippo with his opening tragic aria accompanied by Victoria Ehrlich on cello, and his fine voice will probably only get stronger and darker as the years go on. Tonie Marie Palmertree tore it up as his queen Elisabetta, and Scott Russell and Sol Jin offered fine support as The Grand Inquisitor and Rodrigo respectively.

Every year, among the two-dozen plus participants in the program, somebody gets slighted in terms of public performance time, and this year it seems to be mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis above. She sang a few lines as the maid in La Traviata, and was finally given an aria, O Don Fatale, at the end of the Don Carlo excerpt, where she essentially stole the evening. The sound ranged from a rich, deep, contralto to a creamy, hall-ringing high soprano, and everything in between. This was a voice I could happily hear sing just about anything, with its hints of Ewa Podles, Shirley Verrett and other great mezzo-sopranos. She also invested the character with real passion, sending the audience out buzzing.

Standing to her left above was the director for the evening, Roy Rallo, whose work was straightforward and not as silly as it has been in the past. There were no overturned pieces of furniture, for instance, though the three trees that seemed to wander about the stage like refugees from Macbeth's Birnham Wood were a puzzlement. There are three more chances to see and hear the Merola singers in action over the next couple of months, at Fort Mason's Cowell Theater and at the SF Opera House. Click here for the Merola website with more info.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Palm Springs Revivals

The small Southern California desert resort town of Palm Springs is one of the most bizarrely interesting places in the world right now.

Seemingly every male homosexual in the Western world over the age of 55 has decided to move to the place in the last decade, and the immigration has only become exponentially more intense over the last three years.

The last time I remember this kind of spontaneous gathering was in the 1970s when there was seemingly a beacon on top of Twin Peaks secretly broadcasting to every young male homosexual in the world, "Pack your bags and move to San Francisco." Currently the beacon seems to be on Mt. San Jacinto towering 12,000 feet over Palm Springs, except that everyone is 40 years older. Instead of the 1970s ritual litany of telling each other coming out stories, people are sharing their AIDS Plague survival sagas, which are singular and fascinating.

Unlike San Francisco, Palm Springs has not yet squeezed out the middle class completely, and the elderly immigrants range from wealthy A-Gay retired professionals to trailer park hippies, and everything in between. At a gay Christmas party at a trailer park last year, I asked a retired UC San Diego Sociology professor what he thought of this recent immigration, and he replied, "It's 1970s radical sex culture, reassembled." It will be interesting to see how this reassembly changes the wider culture – in dealing with the elderly, geriatric sex, intentional families of friends, and helping each other on the road to death.

All the photos (and the leg modeling) are by Palm Springs friend Steven Wibben in his backyard pool with homemade sunshades. Steven is reminiscent of my marvelous dead friend from the 1970s to the 1990s, Lee Brenneman, whose independent thought was oft-kilter, challenging, and beautifully funny.

Monday, July 06, 2015

David Best Temple Rises Again at Patricia's Green

Ten years ago this summer, the tiny park called Patricia's Green in the Hayes Valley opened, along with a pagoda temple created by sculptor David Best and his volunteer Temple Crew.

The temple was only supposed to stand for about three months, but it was so popular with the neighborhood that the structure stayed for six months before it started sagging in the rain.

A week ago, Best and his crew constructed a slightly larger version of that old temple and it's an instant success once again.

The structure is constructed from discarded industrial wood which is then carved into fanciful, filigreed shapes.

The first of Best's temples, Temple of the Mind, was created in 2000 at the Burning Man festival as a memorial to a friend and it quickly became a communal rather than an individual site for mourning.

Anyone was invited to leave messages and keepsakes on the structure...

...before it was burned to the ground.

The tradition continues, and within a week the new structure is almost completely covered with messages.

The temple is scheduled to stay in Patricia's Green for a year, but if history is any indication, it probably won't survive that long, especially if rain ever returns to California.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Beethoven's Fidelio at the San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony under Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas completed their June Beethoven Festival last weekend with a concert version of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, featuring one of the better casts in the world.

I went to the final Sunday performance on Gay Pride Parade Day, which at first felt a little odd but more apt as the evening went on, with Leonore and Florestan singing about the courage, constancy, and faith involved in marriage, ringing cries by the entire chorus about liberty and human rights, not to mention the main character appearing as a female-to-male impersonator through most of the opera.

Fidelio is one of those problematic operas like Verdi's La Forza del Destino or Mussorgsky's Khovanschina whose charm depends partly on their awkwardness and ungainliness matched to heavenly, genius music. It starts off sounding like a Mozart comedy, segues into very dark territory with bass-baritones scheming to kill a political prisoner, continues as an escape tale with an impossibly stirring love duet, and finishes off with what sounds like a variation on the Ninth Symphony's Ode to Joy. Oh, and there's a lot of dialogue too, because it's a musical except with insanely difficult vocal parts for everyone.

The assembled international cast was superb from top to bottom. Even the First Prisoner (Matthew Newlin, above left) and Second Prisoner (Craig Verm, above right) felt like luxury casting.

So did the cameo appearance by baritone Luca Pisaroni as Don Fernando, the ruler who arrives at the prison in the nick of time, along with bass Alan Held as the nasty Pizarro, Kevin Langan as the sweet, materialistic jailer Rocco, and Nicholas Phan and Joelle Harvey as the young lovers Jaquino and Marzelline.

What took this performance into the stratosphere were the two leads, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Leonore and Montana tenor Brandon Jovanovich. I had read rumors that Stemme's voice had been shredded from too many Isoldes and Brunnhildes since she sang so splendidly in the San Francisco Opera's 2010 Wagner Ring Cycle, but the rumors were untrue. She sounded great, her diction and acting were remarkable, and she sailed over the orchestra with her customary ease. Jovanovich gave one of the most beautifully sung accounts of Florestan's difficult music that I have heard live since Jon Vickers was slaying us in the role at the SF Opera in the 1970s. Jovanovich is also unusually gallant with his soprano counterparts in all the roles I have seen him perform, from Pinkerton with Patricia Racette to Florestan with Stemme's rescuing wife. They actually looked like a loving pair throughout the final act and injected an emotional layer that the opera requires to succeed.