Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Love vs. Hate Rally in Civic Center

The rally against white supremacists at San Francisco Civic Center was unexpectedly sweet on Saturday afternoon.

The original plan for many was to go to Crissy Field in the Presidio to confront the small, Northwest-based Patriot Prayer Rally and their white supremacist supporters.

On Friday evening, the Patriot Prayer instigators canceled their Crissy Field rally, claiming it was too dangerous, even though the city of San Francisco had spent tens of thousands of dollars on fencing and extra staff to ensure that they were indeed safe.

Patriot Prayer, which disingenuously claims to have nothing to do with white supremacists even though that is who shows up at their rallies, then announced there would be a press conference in Alamo Square at 2PM on Saturday. The small city park in the Western Addition hadn't been secured by anyone, so city authorities immediately erected fencing Saturday morning so nobody could enter.

The rally organizers ended up having a press conference in Pacifica, of all places, leaving the city of San Francisco to its many peaceful protests around town.

A large contingent met at Alamo Square Park and then made their way to the Mission District neighborhood, while another large group gathered in the Castro District neighborhood in preparation for a march down Market Street to join the rally in Civic Center.

Everyone needed to blow off steam after the horror of the violent white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville the week before...

...followed by the grotesque remarks from our lunatic, fascist president.

In all the demonstrations I have attended over the decades, the most dangerous people are invariably the police who can hurt and/or kill you with impunity. Part of the charm of the Civic Center rally on Saturday was the subdued police presence, with the bulk of the work being carried out by traffic control officers from the SFMTA who were pleasant, conversational and seemingly enjoying the overtime.

Children and bubbles also helped to keep the mood cheerful and mellow, as did the first sunny, fog-free San Francisco summer day in weeks.

The rally began at noon, and around 3 PM the Castro District marchers arrived en masse and were slowly funneled into Civic Center.

Even the gay gym rats showed up, which is a rarity at this kind of event.

The young man above had just moved from Phoenix and this was the first political demonstration of his life, which had him grinning from ear to ear. "Congratulations on your escape," I told him, "and welcome to San Francisco."

Monday, August 28, 2017

Daniel Nicoletta Book Signing Party

Daniel Nicoletta, who started his photography career as a teenage assistant in the 1970s at Harvey Milk's camera shop in the Castro, has just had his first collection of photos, LGBT San Francisco, published by Real Art Press in London.

An entertaining book signing party was held last Thursday in The Green Room in the Veterans Building on Van Ness, and it attracted a wide range of survivors from the 1970s who have not yet moved to Palm Springs, along with a sprinkling of young pups.

One of the more amusing moments was watching the gentleman above leafing through the book, and exclaiming, "That's me!" eight different times.

The 304-page, oversized coffee table book has been beautifully crafted, so we congratulated the gent above who was involved in scanning the photos for reproduction.

Local artistic fixtures were everywhere, including Russell Blackwood of the late, lamented Thrillpeddlers at the Hypnodrome talking to journalist and costumer John F. Karr.

The ubiquitous drag queen Donna Sachet held court on the balcony...

...while being watched by Tony and Leandro.

Michael Lee from Minneapolis (above left, with Rex the Nob Hill Gentleman) was in an ecstatic mood because he is currently writing a biography of the late gay writer, Randy Shilts, and was surrounded by his subject's milieu.

Nicoletta moved to rural Oregon about five years ago, but his book is an instant time machine to San Francisco's Radical Sex Culture from the 1970s to the present. Pictured above is fellow photographer Rink who has been covering much the same ground for decades. Though Rink's work is more Weegee than Avedon, his treasure trove of historical photos would also make for a fascinating book.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Merola Opera Grand Finale

The Merola Opera Program summer bootcamp for aspiring professionals came to an end last Saturday with a Grand Finale concert at the San Francisco Opera House. In many respects, the annual concert is a bittersweet affair, because making a living as an opera singer may be one of the trickier career goals in the world, requiring extraordinary musical talent, a deity provided voice, a huge amount of work, connections, and luck. On the other hand, the highly competitive program is offered for free, with places to bunk at the homes of patrons, a small stipend, and colleagues who often stay supportive friends for life. (All production photos are by Kristen Loken.)

The Grand Finale concert is always a strange grab-bag of arias and scenes from operas that span centuries, styles, and languages. This year the selections were tilted towards the obscure, with a few exceptions such as a duet from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci sung with feeling and grace by baritone Dimitri Katotakis above and soprano Alexandra Razskazoff (not pictured), making one actually care about the characters.

After a lovely aria from Massenet's Cendrillon by mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, tenor Andres Acosta above sang an aria of joy at being free of his wife, from Donizetti's one-act opera Rita. Student stage director Victoria Crutchfield turned it into a production number where our hero is finally free to be gay, which was borderline offensive, but not as offensive as the original story which is a comedy about domestic abuse. Acosta sang and danced all over the David Hockney Turandot stairs which were the backdrop for the second half of the evening, and he and his buddies performed with such panache that the number was a triumph. Plus, Acosta has a beautiful voice.

Another highlight was a scene from Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, with mezo-soprano Samantha Hankey as the serious drag king composer and soprano Jana McIntyre as the frivolous and flirtatious Zerbinetta. Hankey in particular sounded gorgeous and it made me wish for a full production of my favorite Strauss opera.

The penultimate scene before the all-hands-on-stage finale involved a quartet of singers from Donizetti's La Favorite. Acosta returned as Don Gaspar, as did Ashley Dixon as Leonor, accompanying bass-baritone Szymon Wach as the king, and tenor Addison Marlor above as the young lover Fernand. They were all wonderful, especially Marlor who had already impressed everyone during the first half of the program in a scene from Ambroise Thomas' Mignon.

The conducing by Antony Walker was very Goldilocks, sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow, and sometimes just right. Overall, I thought he and the orchestra did a fine job with the many kinds of music they were performing. Crutchfield directed the scenes so they flowed smoothly from one to the next, and managed not to be completely overwhelmed by the weirdly inappropriate Turandot sets. Good luck to all the Merolini, and may some of them make it all the way upstream to a professional singing career.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Munch, Again

Visiting the Edward Munch exhibit at SFOMA for a second time was enthralling, and half the fun was watching the reactions of people seeing the paintings for the first time.

They are shocking and expressively neurotic, causing a lot of people to look away.

They are also intensely vibrant and beautiful.

Watching people pair up with certain paintings was also fascinating.

The exhibit is not for everyone. My Philistine spouse's bored reaction was, "He sure does a lot of self-portraits, doesn't he?"

My reaction was, "Why isn't Munch ranked with Gauguin and Van Gogh? I had no idea he was this great."

Munch donated all his paintings on his death to the municipality of Oslo before World War II was finished, which means they are public and well taken care of, but most people in the world have not seen them in person. So get your body down to SFMOMA or be prepared to travel to Oslo.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Last Weekend of the West Edge Opera Festival

For the second Sunday in a row last weekend, I enjoyed a ferryboat ride from the SF Ferry Building to Jack London Square, and marveled at the height of the new butt plug shaped Salesforce headquarters which is dominating the skyline.

I was in Oakland to see West Edge Opera present a stripped-down version of a 19th century French Grand Opera written by Ambroise Thomas based on Dumas' French translation of Shakespeare's Hamlet. I pretty much disliked everything about the opera except for Edward Nelson's beautiful baritone as the title character and the 10-person makeshift chorus who sounded like a crack 30-person ensemble while navigating some very clunky blocking. It also confirmed that my long-time disdain for 19th Century French Grand Opera as a genre is probably justified. Other people seemed to like it including Joshua Kosman and Stephen Smoliar (above right).

Other than that, it was a completely delightful afternoon. The abandoned Pacific Pipe Company warehouse has much better acoustics than the abandoned Oakland Train Station of the last two years. The troupe is also figuring out how to make their predominantly elderly, adventurous audience feel comfortable. The free BART shuttle service this summer from the West Oakland BART station received rave reviews from friends who used it. And near the beer garden there are a pair of the most luxurious port-a-potties I have ever experienced, lording over a row of lesser, traditional models. All three operas of the Festival will be making their last appearance this weekend, and it's very much worth checking out, especially The Chastity Tree on Saturday night.

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.