Thursday, August 10, 2017

Chastity vs. Sex at West Edge Opera

I rode the ferryboat from San Francisco to Oakland's Jack London Square last Sunday afternoon and wandered through the outdoor fitness session above. It was a perfect visual introduction for the show I was attending in a West Oakland warehouse, the obscure, 1787 Italian opera by Vicente Martín y Soler, L'arbore di Diana, which was essentially a sex-drenched pastorale.

It was being presented by West Edge Opera, the troupe that has recently been presenting three operas in repertory over three weeks every summer. They have attracted a wide range of young talent, both local and international, onstage and off, including stage manager Renee Varnas above.

The company has been forced by external circumstances into Wandering Gypsy mode over the last decade, having been priced out of what they were hoping would be a permanent home in El Cerrito, and then various locations around Oakland, some more suitable for sound and stage than others. They hoped to have found a more permanent spot in the crumbling marble splendor of the abandoned Oakland Amtrak train station, used for their festival the last two years, but all events were recently banned there by the City of Oakland after the Ghost Fire tragedy. So the company scrambled again and through a series of deadline-filled negotiations with politicians and the Oakland Fire Department, they managed to secure a roomy, temporary operatic home at the huge, empty Pacific Pipe Company warehouse. And the beer and the wine, served up by volunteers and West Edge Opera board member James Parr above, is free. (Leave a big tip for the stage interns who are working 18-hour days).

L'arbore di Diana has been translated as The Chastity Tree for this production, and it was both a hoot and a real musical/literary discovery. The libretto was written by Lorenzo da Ponte, who wrote the libretto for Mozart's sex-drenched Don Giovanni in the same year. This is a happier, funnier piece than Giovanni, a satire of the musical fashion for "pastorales" which focused on the sweetness and innocence of rural shepherds and their loved ones as opposed to corrupt urban types. Except in this particular opera, the powers of sexual vice triumph over chastity, which is presented as a happy ending. (Somebody needs to write and film a miniseries about Lorenzo da Ponte, who ended up emigrating to New York City and starting the Italian Department at Columbia University, among other strange adventures.) The most charming aspect of the libretto is that women are in charge of the shenanigans, such as (from left to right) the three Nymphs Molly Mahoney as Clizie, Kathleen Moss as Chloe, Maya Kherani as Britomarte, Nikki Einfeld as the goddess Diana, and Christine Brandes as the god Cupid, posing as his sister in female form.

The plot has Cupid, God of Love, going to war with Diana, Goddess of Female Purity. Cupid's first maneuver is to kidnap and drop in a "hornier, handsomer" Papageno (in director Mark Streshinsky's words before the show) into Diana's garden, the woodsman Doristo performed by the German bass-baritone Malte Roesner in his American debut. Roesner was funny, moved well, sang beautifully, and looked like sex on a stick, so that it was no wonder that all three Nymphs, including Maya Kherani above, were ready to throw all vows of celibacy out of the garden.

To add to the arsenal, two young shepherds arrive on the scene to play pawns for Cupid: Jacob Thompson as Silvio and Kyle Stegall as Endimione. Christine Crook's costumes were completely out there, and some worked for me while others didn't, but loved Kyle's Tenore and Jacob's L'Altro Tenore Tshirts.

All three male characters are constantly being transformed intro shrubbery, put under spells, and bound by tendrils from the Chastity Tree, often ending up looking like a painfully frozen fitness class on Jack London Square.

Nikki Einfeld as Diana had an impossible role to sing, Mozart's Queen of the Night in one aria and The Countess in the next, but she managed to triumph. My favorite voice in the entire cast was tenor Kyle Stegall, the shepherd who is dropped by Cupid to conveniently sleep near Diana while she is in a bathtub. The ruse, as you can see, worked. I have heard Stegall a few times with the American Bach Soloists and his voice always stuns me with its unforced beauty and superior musicality. This was the first opera I have seen him perform and hope it's not the last. He's a special talent.

Christine Brandes as Cupid was a completely convincing deity, in both male and female guises. I was confused at first, and asked a friend whether Cupid was male or female, and his reply was, "Oh, stop being so binary, Michael." The translations in the English supertitles by director Mark Streshinsky were smart and funny. Using modern colloquialisms for 18th century comedies is a treacherous business (does anybody else remember David Gockley's ghastly English translation of The Magic Flute at the SF Opera?), but Streshinsky got it right.

The opera will be performed two more times and your chances of hearing it live in this lifetime are small, so do try to check it out.

Pictured above are choreographer Sarah Berges whose small troupe were the weirdly costumed Esther Williams Meets The Crawling Eye supernumeraries, the director Mark Streshinsky who did a fabulous job, and conductor Robert Mollicone who led a chamber ensemble from the harpsichord in a performance that made me want to hear the music again. Vicente Martín y Soler may not be as immortal as his contemporaries Mozart and Haydn, but in this opera he is a delightful composer worthy of revival.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Al Fresco 3: Inuksuit at Land's End

In an interesting departure, the SFJAZZ Center hosted the composer John Luther Adams for a week-long residency in San Francisco, including a quartet of concerts at the Center, a six-hour "sound installation" at Grace Cathedral, and a free outdoor performance of the 2009 Inuksuit, written for 9 to 99 percussionists outdoors.

I went to the Inuksuit performance a couple of Sundays ago with a quartet of friends and thousands of strangers. (Click here for a two-minute video impression by Tony Hurd.)

The concert was advertised as taking place in the ruins of the Sutro Baths near Seal Rock, but the actual performance was on cliffside trails at Land's End stretching for about a quarter of a mile.

The 90-minute piece has an arresting beginning, where all the percussionists make the softest noises imaginable on a range of odd instruments from conch shells to plastic tubing.

The delicacy forces the audience to listen carefully, and to note the ambient natural sounds around them, in this case the wind, ocean, and foghorns while picking out the manufactured sounds of the musicians. The crowd was remarkably silent for the most part, keeping conversations to hushed whispers.

After about 20 minutes, the sound of gongs and other bright percussion instruments began drifting in from their various locations while retaining a mysterious gentleness.

Finally, the musicians take to drums and other instruments in a slowly rising crescendo.

I heard Inuksuit in 2012, performed in a grassy glade near Hertz Hall at UC Berkeley led by percussionist Steven Schick for whom it was originally written.

The climactic sections were more intense in the smaller Berkeley area, while the experience at Land's End with the composer in attendance sounded more diffuse and mysterious, which was fine since no performance is intended to sound the same.

It was also much warmer in Berkeley than during a bone-chilling, foggy San Francisco summer afternoon. Unlike the iron man above in his T-shirt, we had to leave before the end because we had foolishly not brought enough layers.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Al Fresco 2: SF Symphony Selfies at Pier 27

On a sunny Sunday a couple of weeks ago, we walked along the downtown San Francisco waterfront, which was jammed with people, including survivors of that morning's San Francisco Marathon, music lovers attending a free noontime concert by the San Francisco Symphony, and hordes of tourists taking selfies.

The huge lawn in front of the new Pier 27 cruise ship terminal is just about perfect for outdoor concerts except for the lack of shade on a rare, fog-free San Francisco summer day.

Edwin Outwater was the affable conductor of what was essentially a pops program of excerpts from Bernstein, Copland, Dvorak and Holst, and he even had the entire audience shouting out "Mambo!" on cue with the orchestra during the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

We didn't stay for the second half on account of frying by the sun without a cool sun hat like the daddy above.

So we continued walking down the waterfront, dodging the video selfie tourists.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Al Fresco 1: Drinking in Hayes Valley

For a couple of decades, Tony and I used to have a breakfast or lunch at Flipper's, a greasy spoon in Hayes Valley which was presided over brilliantly by Kirby, a 300-pound drag queen who returned to Texas last year when the restaurant closed.

The place has now become Anina, a bar operated by the same people who own Brass Tacks, which took over Marlena's a couple of years ago next door, and the asphalt garden is open during the daytime as a beer garden that also features "low-proof libations."

The clientele seems to be young, beautiful, and smart, sort of Zeitgeist meets Silicon Valley.

The quartet we shared a picnic table were welcoming and charming, and a perfect representation of California right now. From left to right, we were talking to a North Carolina blond, an Israeli woman who looked like a 1960s movie star, a Pakistani, and a Texas woman living with her French husband in Redwood City. I hope Kirby would approve.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Merola Opera Triple Bill

The Merola Opera summer training program presented an ambitious triple bill of one-act operas last weekend at the SF Conservatory of Music, and the highlight was the quality of the aspiring professional singers themselves. First up was Pergolesi's 1733 comedy La Serva Padrona about a female servant's maneuvers to have her boss marry her so she can become mistress of the household. Pictured above are David Weigel as a mute servant, soprano Jana McIntyre as the scheming Serpina, and bass-baritone Daniel Noloya as the dim Uberto. Both McIntyre and Noloya have terrific voices, moved well onstage, and made you realize why the trivial La Serva Padrona has been popular for centuries, with one great tune after another.

David Weigel returned with a rich, bottomless bass-baritone as Death in the second opera, Gustav Holst's wondrously spare chamber opera, the 1908 Savitri. Taken from an episode in the Mahābhārata, the simple tale has Death taking away the woodcutter Satyavan (tenor Addison Marlor above sounding splendid) and his wife Savitri's successful plea for Death to spare his life. The director decided on a concept production that took place in England during World War One where the piece was premiered in 1916, which didn't make a lot of sense, particularly with the anachronistic flapper dress on soprano Kelsea Webb. Festival Opera presented the piece in Oakland a couple of years ago and it was deeply moving, but the staging here was static and dull.

The final opera was William Walton's 1966 adaptation of a short Chekhov play (which he referred to as a vaudeville), The Bear. The score is closer to Facade, the parody pastiche that Walton composed in the 1920s to Edith Sitwells's poems than his more "serious" works that followed, and it was a treat to see it for the first time. Mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon was delightful as a recent Russian widow whose ostentatious mourning is interrupted by bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum as a misogynist neighbor who is owed money by her late husband. There is a quarrel which leads to a thwarted duel which leads to a kiss which leads to humping on the floor in this production. Quattlebaum was wild, woolly and sounded great, and Daniel Noyola returned to play the old servant who is trying to encourage his mistress to get out of the house.

The conducting by Christopher Ocasek (above right) was lively all afternoon, and particularly good in the Walton. The direction by Peter Kazaras (above left) was not so fine, with La Serva Padrona and The Bear overstuffed with shtick when they should both be comic souffles. The performers managed to overcome much of the nonsense through sheer charm.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Multiculti Saturday 5: Ethnic Dance Festival at SF Opera

The final event in Saturday's multicultural marathon was Weekend Two of the Ethnic Dance Festival at the San Francisco Opera House, which was as interesting as the previous week's program. Highlights for me were the great live musicians for Ballet Afsaneh's World Premiere The Persepolis Project, Ballet Folklorico Mexico Danza's exuberant La Revoluccion, and the Gurus of Dance, an Aditya Patel Company who closed out the first half with a deliriously synchronized Bollywood-meets-EDM extravaganza.

At intermission I realized that after 40+ years of attending performances at the SF Opera House, this was the first time I was an ethnic minority as a white audience member, which was both refreshing and shame inducing.

The differentiator of this festival is that dance and musical traditions from all over the world are presented side by side, with the implicit message that there are no good or bad cultures, only different ones. And while the various dance troupes are true to their own specific traditions, everyone is influencing everyone else.

After a long curtain call, all the performers exited through the orchestra aisles, into the lobby, and continued dancing. Sunday was a day of rest.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Multiculti Saturday 4: Munch at SFMOMA

A major Edward Munch painting exhibit, on loan from his namesake museum in Oslo, has just opened at SFMOMA and it's well worth visiting.

Even though there doesn't seem to be a single happy person on display in any of the 47 paintings, the effect is not depressing, possibly because the colors throughout are so gorgeously vibrant, including the 1907 The Death of Marat above.

According to a well-written Wikipedia entry, "[On his first visit to Paris in 1889 as a student] Munch was enthralled by the vast display of modern European art, including the works of three artists who would prove influential: Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec." As you can see in the 1894 Ashes above, Munch's use of color is as bold as anything from those other famous artists. And like those artists, his paintings improve when seeing them in person which is not always the case. (For some reason, I've always preferred reproductions of Dali over the real thing.)

Munch was born in 1863 to a large Norwegian family plagued by illness, early deaths and insanity, subjects which wove themselves into most of his work, including the 1895 The Smell of Death above.

Directly before his eight-month, 1908 hospitalization for anxiety, binge drinking, and brawling, he painted a number of commercially successful variations on The Sick Child, dying of tuberculosis. "As part of his recovery, Dr. Jacobson advised Munch to only socialize with good friends and avoid drinking in public."

Munch followed Jacobsen's advice and though plagued with illness all his life (the painting above is the 1919 Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu), he managed to survive to age 81, dying in Nazi-occupied Norway in 1944. He also continued painting to the end and it's all great, surprisingly so because I have never seen most of these paintings even in reproduction.

None of the iconic The Scream paintings or drawings are part of the exhibit, which is refreshing, but never fear. You can still buy the tote bag in the gift shop.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Multiculti Saturday 3: Ensemble Mik Noowoj at Yerba Buena Gardens

The downtown oasis of Yerba Buena Gardens hosts a free summer performance series from May through October where the scattershot programming ranges from poetry readings to musical performances to staged plays. The audiences tend to be small but the quality of performers in my experience has been remarkably high.

Saturday afternoon's "Hip Hop Orchestra" Ensemble Mik Nawooj was a perfect example.

Started by composer/pianist JooWan Kim in 2010 after receiving a graduate degree from the SF Conservatory of Music, the musical ensemble consists of "MCs/lyricists Do D.A.T. and Sandman, a lyric soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, drums and bass," according to their website. I believe Sandman is the rapper pictured above and below.

They were performing an ambitious oratorio composed by Kim, Death Becomes Life, which featured an augmented chamber orchestra and artwork by Ernest Doty.

It was an oddly interesting mixture of hip hop and classical music styles, including the rapper Do D.A.T. and an operatic soprano above.

To top if off, there was also "interpretative" dancing by TURFinc.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Multiculti Saturday 2: Human Flower Guinness World Record

The Asian Art Museum, in conjunction with their Flower Power exhibit, organized a public flashmob to assemble in Civic Center Plaza and attempt to break the Guinness World Record for "Largest Human Flower," held by 2,197 people who gathered at the 2014 Rochester, New York Lilac Festival. There were even turnstiles which recorded every entrance/exit of the flashmob to make everything completely official.

The museum had capped the online registration that included a free admission pass to 4,000, which was probably shortsighted. Only about half the people who register online ever show up for anything, so it was touch-and-go if the record was to be broken. Tony and I showed up as late fill-ins and were hustled into a sea of pink trash bags.

Michael Empric, a Guinness World Record official, was in attendance to certify the proceedings and convey a sense of momentous occasion.

We were soon suffering from heat prostration without shade while waiting for latecomers running from the Civic Center BART station.

We were shoved together in a last push to create a flower-like shape for five minutes...

...and instead of being claustrophobic, the all-ages, all-races crowd were wonderful with each other.

And by a 108-person margin, I am now a Member of the Guinness World Record Family. Guess we can cross that one off the bucket list.