Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Magnificent "Breaking The Waves" at West Edge Opera

Let me join the chorus of praise for the 2016 opera Breaking the Waves in a magnificent production by West Edge Opera, which is closing with a sold-out performance this afternoon. The musical score by Missy Mazzoli is a huge leap for the young composer, the libretto by Royce Vavrek is both colloquial and poetic while being eminently singable, the production under West Edge General Director Mark Streshinsky is restrained and brilliant, and Sara LeMesh in the central role of Bess gives a staggeringly great performance that is destined to become legendary.

Though the 2016 world premiere production in Philadelphia with director James Darrah was highly praised, I arrived at the Oakland Bridge Yard with low expectations. The source material is a 1996 film by Danish director Lars von Trier, which is one of his Female Degradation Parables like Dancer in the Dark or Nymphomaniac (Volumes 1 & 2), a genre I find mostly repellent. He's a real artist, though, and his 1990s Danish TV series The Kingdom is fabulous as is the 2011 Melancholia starring Kirsten Dunst, which is a strange mashup of a Robert Altman wedding, an Ingmar Bergman summer comedy, and an apocalyptic sci-fi flick.

My boyfriend Austin saw the movie Breaking The Waves, and thought the opera worked better, a sentiment I heard from others. This is partly because the libretto by Royce Vavrek is such a skillful distillation of the movie's plot and themes, seamlessly mixing the colloquial and the poetic. He also wrote the libretto for Mazzoli's first opera, the 2012 Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt. In 2014, I attended a cabaret style concert at New York City's Le Poisson Rouge presented by Missy Mazzoli of some of her favorite opera arias sung by friends, and the evening was decidedly amateurish. The only highlights were a couple of excerpts from her own Song of the Uproar which sounded a bit like a marriage between Meredith Monk and early John Adams.

In other words, I was not even remotely expecting the rich musical score Mazzoli wrote for Breaking The Waves. In a mostly tonal language, with detours into dissonance when theatrically appropriate, the orchestra under Music Director Jonathan Khuner was variously simple and rich, constantly colorful, and providing both accompaniment to the vocal lines while also veering off into its own musical commentary on the characters. There was even an electric guitar played by John Imholz in the otherwise traditional orchestra, and for possibly the first time in my experience that instrument was used sparingly and with theatrical brilliance. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)

Mazzoli's ability to write so gracefully for the voice is a rare gift, and each of the principal characters and the ten-man chorus all had distinct vocal lines.

Bess, the main character, even had distinct vocal worlds depending on her emotional state. She not only sang rapturous pleas to God, but she also sang God's replies in a voice that had hints of Mercedes McCambridge in The Exorcist. The local soprano Sara LeMesh handled that duality with ease, along with every other type of musical mood that Mazzoli composed. As a friend put it, LeMesh is a singing machine, and she offered one of the most impressive, virtuosic operatic performances I have ever seen, vocally and histrionically.

In a small miracle, the entire cast was up to LeMesh's quality, including baritone Robert Wesley Mason as her Norwegian oil rigger new husband, who made you believe Bess would see their balls-to-the-wall marital sex as a direct pipeline to the sacred. Mason sounded great and was sympathetic in a tricky role where he's paralyzed for most of the second half. Kindra Scharich as her mother, Dodo McNeill, was splendid and believable and Kristen Clayton stood out as her sister-in-law who is the only person in the Scottish Calvinist community offering Bess kindness. Alex Boyer as Dr. Richardson also did a wonderful job watching the physical and emotional trainwreck up close.

I have liked most of the individual productions that General Director Mark Streshinsky has directed for West Edge over the years, but this felt like a giant step up for him. Along with his son Evan Streshinsky, he designed the clean, remarkably effective set with a white scrim house that doubled as church and home with a front structure that hinted at both church steeple and oil derrick. His decision to have the 10-man chorus onstage for the entire three hour length of the opera worked brilliantly as an overwhelming physical manifestation of an oppressive, patriarchal, religious small town. The chorus, who also played a number of small roles were great and deserve mention: William Bassett, Kevin Baum, Jeff Bennett, PJ Dennis, Paul Flynn, Andrew Green, Douglas Mandell, Richard Mix, Nate Pergamit, and Chung-Wai Soong who was genuinely sinister as Sadistic Sailor, another fine piece of staging by Streshinsky.

The Bridge Yard space has been a bit too large for West Edge's other two operas this summer, but it fit this piece perfectly. Every opera house in the world should be seriously consider producing it because the opera already feels like a modern classic, and they should try to secure Sara LeMesh for the title role because she is a marvel and her performance felt definitive.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Chris Komater and Nick Dong at Mercury 20

I went with my friend Austin to the wilds of downtown Oakland for a triple opening at the artist-run gallery Mercury 20 on 25th Street.

The San Francisco photographer Chris Komater revived a project he created in 2002, Jack and Mack, a series of portraits of two large, hairy gay porn stars who were major objects of public desire in the early oughts. Komater photographed the two of them in poses taken from Renaissance painters, specifically Caravaggio and Giovanni Bellini.

The Bear movement is a gay subculture that formed in reaction to the dominant images of thin, gym-bodied, manicured, young men that were long marketed as the pinnacle of desirability.

The Bear movement is about guys who are attracted to what most middle-aged American men actually look like, and you can see the larger culture picking up on those erotic possibilities. Think James Gandolfini in The Sopranos or David Harbour in Stranger Things.

Komater has moved onto other projects, such as obsessing over pixels, and you can check out his work at this website. He's still interested in bears, though, like his lover Hugh. When Komater introduced him to his recently deceased mother, she blurted out, "He's a big fella, isn't he?"

Ruth Tabancay was also gave an artist's talk about her Geometricity 3.0 display, but we missed it while scarfing down strawberries, champagne and beer.

The reason I was there was to see Nick Dong, who I discovered last year. His work is some of the most beautiful, innovative and spiritual sculpture in the world. If you think this is an exaggeration, check out his website, do some exploring, and make sure your sound is on.

I was intrigued by his conceptual/practical Mendsmith Project, which centers on grief and jewelry. The Mercury 20 website explains: "It all started when a dear friend of Nick Dong lost her husband and all that remained was his wedding ring. Given his background as a jeweler, Dong felt that he could do more than offer heartfelt condolences; rather, he could use his skills to take both his friend and her partner’s wedding rings and forge them into something new, something she could hold onto as an eternal representation of love long after the marriage vows had broken. The ring Dong created for her – a combination of the couple’s wedding rings that set her ring inside her partner’s ring, fixing them in an eternal embrace – is just the start of a project he hopes will enable others to heal through the repurposing of these symbols of love and commitment."

The site continues: "Visitors to the exhibition who would like to participate in this project are asked to bring two jewelry pieces or other small objects of personal significance to be “mended,” one belonging to the visitor and one belonging to the visitor’s loved one. During the scheduled consultation, Dong will ask the visitor to share stories and memories of the lost loved one. Photos, letters, or other artifacts will help Dong understand their special relationship. Dong will work with the visitor to create a concept and design a new piece of jewelry for the visitor with the two objects brought in as the material. The finished piece will be given back to the participants free of charge."

I even brought a metal and turquoise bracelet of my late spouse but tucked it away after realizing I didn't have a piece to offer of my own because I have never worn jewelry.

Maybe it's time to start.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Orfeo ed Euridice at West Edge Opera

Gluck's 1762 opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, premiered last Sunday at the West Edge Opera Festival in the Bridge Yard warehouse in the Oakland harbor. I'm most familiar with Gluck from his mentions in Hector Berlioz's Memoires, where Hector and his music loving pals would sit in the cheap, front seats at the Paris Opera. When the conductor or instrumentalists deviated from the original score, which Berlioz had memorized because he worshiped Gluck, Hector would stand up and heckle, "Not two flutes, you fool, two piccolos!"

I had never heard Orfeo ed Euridice before, so listened to various versions on YouTube all week which sounded amazingly different from one version to another, sometimes accompanied by a large, thick orchestra and other times with a chamber ensemble. The male role of Orfeo had three different voice types for its European premieres: alto castrato in Vienna, soprano castrato in Parma, and haut-contre (high tenor) in Paris. These days the role is usually performed by a mezzo-soprano. In other words, the opera has gender fluidity baked into its essence, so when it was announced that this production was going to be "all-female," and then amended to "non-binary," my reaction was, "What else is new?"

The young director KJ Dahlaw, above, writes in the program bios: "KJ Dahlaw is a queer dance artist, parent, partner and teacher who moved to the Bay Area in 2017. KJ is deeply honored to direct Orfeo & Eurydice, which is a collection of individuals of a variety of genders, cultures and other intersecting identities who aspire to confront white supremacy and other hegemonic systems of oppression."

That's fine and dandy, but Dahlaw's direction was lackluster and somnolent and the choreography for seven dancers amateurishly inept. It reminded The Opera Tattler of "yoga combined with Graham technique." My ungenerous assessment was dancercise performed by a collegiate modern dance class. These may have been the least threatening Furies guarding Hades ever put onstage, which was a problem because Orfeo ed Euridice is in the French opera tradition of half vocal music and half ballet. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)



Who did move well was mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz as Orfeo. Onstage from beginning to end. Printz gave a heroic performance in a hugely demanding role, but the acoustics of the space sometimes defeated the singer.

Shawnette Sulker was a welcome delight as the goddess Amore, gaining ovations for her two arias, but the deus ex machina role didn't make much sense because the director changed the happy ending that Gluck and his librettist Ranieri de' Calzabigi inserted that has Amore taking pity on Orfeo and restoring Eurydice to life.

Eurydice doesn't sing until the final, third act but soprano Maria Valdes made the most of her laments. The essence of the myth is the pull towards the underworld of death upon a grieving survivor from a deceased beloved. That spiritual tug is a real phenomenon I witnessed repeatedly with widows of the AIDS plague and personally with the death of my own spouse last year, and there was no sense of that primal story being conveyed in this production.

The real heroes of the production were the orchestra and chorus standing in the pit under conductor Christine Brandes (above center), who conveyed the heartbreaking beauty of the musical score with sensitive skill. I look forward to hearing the soprano-turned-conductor lead another opera.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

The Threepenny Opera at West Edge

Opening night at the West Edge Opera Festival at their new Bridge Yard warehouse space featured amazing, rarely seen views of the Oakland Harbor from their wine/beer garden and elevated deck.

The Opening Night work was the 1928 Brecht/Weill musical, The Threepenny Opera, with a roster of talents that were encouraging, including director Elkhanah Pulitzer and conductor David Moschler leading a cabaret ensemble of seven.

Unfortunately, the show didn't work for me for reasons that have little to do with the performers and the creative team. The Bridge Yard warehouse space is large, long and high so the acoustics are tricky to say the least. There was amplification for this show, including floor mics, but the volume within songs and stretches of dialogue fluctuated all over the place. Thank the goddess for supertitles, especially since the production used the rough, profane translation by Robert MacDonald from the 1994 Donmar Warehouse production in London.

In the central roles, Maya Kherani as Polly Peachum and Derek Chester as Macheath felt miscast. They looked great and their voices were pretty, but neither one was convincing as charismatic sharks. The long swaths of dialogue didn't help, either, because they needed to be projected broadly for the large house, SF Mime Troupe style, so the original savage wit and ironies of Brecht's play mostly disappear. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)

The one indomitable standout in the cast was Catherine Cook as Mrs. Peachum, whose character soprano voice is still so strong it filled the entire warehouse with ease, and her acting and physical movement was funny and right. She was the only one who arched the divide between "is this a musical which requires real actors or is this an opera which requires real singers?" After seeing this production, I'm voting for the former. Jonathan Spencer, above, is from the musical/operetta realm and he also fared well, although he was upstaged by Ms. Cook in every scene just because you could not take your eyes off of her.

I also liked the costumes by Christine Crook and a lot of the ensemble's work, especially the women who sing the opening Mack the Knife in Pulitzer's most effective staging during the first act. The cabaret orchestra had started with an Overture, which is written to be somewhat out-of-tune as a rhubarb to conventional opera, but they played it so out-of-tune that one wasn't quite sure if it was a conscious choice or just terrible musicianship. The accompaniment picked up in musical quality immediately after.

I left at intermission and am sad not to have seen Sarah Coit as Jenny Diver or more of Robert Stafford as Police Chief Tiger Brown. His Cannon Song duet with Macheath was one of the other highlights of the first act, though its casual jokes about slaughtering colored people hit a little too close to home during our country's White Supremacist Massacre Weekend. The reason I left is that the free shuttle service the Festival provides from the West Oakland BART station is wonderful, but the show started at 8:30, ran 3 hours, and it was possible there would be too many people to crowd onto a shuttle in return for the last, late-night BART trains in both directions. Too scary, for me and quite a few other patrons who found alternate transportation that night.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Pocket Opera's "Barber of Seville"

I saw the final performance of Rossini's The Barber of Sevllle at the Legion of Honor last Sunday, and it was the first time I've ever enjoyed the opera. The production featured a witty, singable English translation by Donald Pippin, some judicious cuts to a long comedy, and an ensemble cast that obviously loved playing with each other. Also for the first time ever, I actually cared about the romantic fate of the young lovers Rosina and Almaviva thanks to the charming performances of soprano Maya Kherani and tenor Sergio González above.

The opera was presented by San Francisco's Pocket Opera in conjunction with Petaluma's Cinnabar Theater, and the Sunday matinee was the final installment of a 12-performance tour of Sonoma and the Bay Area.

Donald Pippin, who attended the performance, was a musical polymath who emigrated from the East Coast to San Francisco in the 1950s and started a chamber music series in North Beach that eventually branched into operas with translations by Pippin himself. Pocket Opera has been around since the 1970s after audiences put together a company for Pippin, with a mission to prosleytize for the art of opera by presenting them in English before the advent of supertitles. Pippin is now in his nineties and Nicolas A. Garcia (above right) has taken over the reins as Artistic Director with the SF Symphony's Jeffrey Jordan as the company's new Executive Director.

The principal singers varied in musical quality, but they were all expert actors who mostly underplayed the usual comic schtick which characterizes most productions of this opera, and some of their scenes were genuinely funny. Tenor Sergio González was off-pitch and off-beat from the 10-person orchestra in his first scene, but he recovered nicely. Soprano Maya Kherani played Rosina as an anachronistic 21st century girl who isn't ruffled by much and has a few cards up her sleeves. Her singing was lovely, especially the crystalline trills that were amazing in an how-can-she-do-that way. Baritone Igor Vieira was one of the sweeter Barbers I have seen and sang the English translation with wit, precision, and a nice tone. Like everyone else in the cast, he didn't oversing in the small theater, which was heavenly.

The ensemble playing street musicians and Keystone Cops were a delight, musically together and physically so differentiated that their appearance was funny without their having to do much more than walk around in circles. Above, left to right, is Dennis Carrillo, Brian Drury, Jose Hernandez, Steve Kahn and J.T. Williams.

The lecherous old characters of Don Bartolo and Don Basilio are often big bores, but Lee Strawn as Bartolo and Jason Sarten as Basilio gave interesting performances which almost made them sympathetic. Their mastery of patter singing the English translation, particularly by Strawn, was worthy of Gilbert & Sullivan. The orchestra was conducted by Mary Chun from the contemporary music group Earplay, and it was a treat hearing her conduct one of Rossini's best scores. The job was particularly tricky in this case because the orchestra was at the back of the stage and the singers couldn't see her much of the time. The orchestra itself sounded scrawny at times and like a full 50-piece ensemble at other moments. During the full-voice finales of the two acts, the sound was enormously rich. There is an alchemy to any successful theatrical production, and it was obvious this group had stumbled across some of that magic.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Brent Miller Album Release Party at C4NM

Two Fridays ago I crawled down to the Tenderloin after work, had a falafel on the sidewalk on Market Street, and then arrived late for an album release concert and party by Brent Miller (above) at the Center for New Music on Taylor Street.

Many of San Francisco's arts non-profits are ossified and administration-heavy, with the fostering of art and artists a secondary concern, so it's always refreshing to step into the Center for New Music which is the ideal opposite.

The Center opened in 2012 on a wing and a prayer as an artists' collaborative, and it's been extraordinarily successful in its aims. Instead of being a curated space where there are gatekeepers, anyone can become a member for $100 and then put on a show where the performers receive !00% of the box office. In other words, you can even learn how to make money off of your art.

The two founders of the Center for New Music were two college buddies, Brent Miller and Adam Fong (above). Adam has moved on to the Packard Foundation in Silicon Valley and they are lucky to have him, while Brent continues on as the director of the Center.

The small space has put on hundreds of concerts over its last seven years, some of which are legendary, but that's not the point of the place. Its true value has been as a social space where musicians of all generations and levels of success can meet and collaborate.

Nomad Vigil, Brent Miller's "album," that major concept which has become anachronistic in our own short lives, can be found at this link.