Sunday, April 25, 2021

SF Opera's Barber of Seville in Marin

The San Francisco Opera has temporarily left its home in San Francisco's Civic Center and decamped to the Marin Civic Center Fairgrounds for a pandemic-safe set of performances of Rossini's 1816 opera, The Barber of Seville.
There are two audience areas on different sides of the central lagoon where patrons park their cars. For sound, you are instructed to tune into a dedicated FM radio signal, so the better car radio you have, the better it will be. I was initially wary of the sound mixing after a few terrible experiences at the War Memorial Opera House, such as Sweeney Todd, but the audio mixing was superb.
If you have the money, I'd recommend buying tickets for the "Fairgrounds" stage where the live performance is happening with two large screens on either side of the huge stage rather than the "Lagoon" area where you are just seeing the video feed.
The audience is instructed to stay in their cars for the duration, unless they are walking with their mask on to a port-a-potty, but the surroundings were too beautiful, so I walked to the lagoon before the 8PM curtain and ran into the resident Mallard duck.
He waddled out of the water, and walked up to within three feet, and we had a delightful conversation. The extensive protocols for COVID safety in rehearsal and performance for this ambitious attempt at bringing back large-scale live opera are an extraordinary story in themselves, but the mandated restrictions for the audience struck me as a bit of overkill. We know how to wear masks and keep our distance.
The production, conceived by director Matthew Ozawa, featured a sweetly flexible concept. It begins with opera singers returning to the War Memorial Opera House and going through a series of rehearsals, alone in their dressing rooms, together in rehearsal halls, and culminating with the opera's finale in full costume onstage. The projections of the front of the Opera House were photo-real, including the fencing that has been part of the endless Van Ness Transit Improvement Project. It was a bit surreal driving across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin and seeing the building that I look at every morning from my San Francisco living room. (All production photos are by Stefan Cohen.)
The choice of the ubiquitous Barber of Seville with a familiar cast in a virtual replica of the War Memorial Opera House felt like an attempt at comfort food for SF Opera audiences. There's nothing wrong with that if the food/performance is done well, and this production offered all manner of delights.
First off, the physical production was inventive and beautiful, using the same rented stage from Gallagher Staging as the Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival, and the visuals had a rock concert excitement that enhanced rather than distracted. Alexander V. Nichols, set and projections, Jessica Jahn, costumes, and JAX Messenger, lighting designer all deserve the highest praise. Pictured above is baritone Lucas Meacham as Figaro, the title Barber, singing in his dressing room while fracturing all over the projected screens.
The Barber of Seville has never really worked for me on the huge stage of the War Memorial because it's meant for a smaller house, and the comic schtick tends to be overplayed. Pocket Opera, with a brilliantly witty translation by Donald Pippin, produced a small-house version at the Legion of Honor Museum in 2019 that was a revelation (click here). Catherine Cook, the great San Francisco character soprano pictured above, has played the comic maid Berta in five previous SFO productions dating back to 1996, and she is a genuinely funny exception to the rule. It was a joy to see and hear her again.
This production is essentially a Greatest Hits of Barber, jettisoning minor characters, the chorus, and all the comic recitative. It was a sensible choice, not just for pandemic reasons but artistically, though if you don't know the story beforehand, it isn't going to make much sense. I only wish they had kept the musical numbers in Italian, because the serviceable English translation by Marcie Stapp is difficult to sing in the many lightning-fast patter numbers, particularly with the reduced orchestra in a separate tent backstage conducted by the debuting Roderick Cox. The always welcome bass, Kenneth Kellogg, as the music teacher Don Basilio had a particularly difficult time keeping in sync during the aria La Calumnia, his famous paean to destroying reputations through slander.
The tenor Alek Shrader as Count Almaviva was an amusing, winning presence throughout, and Philip Skinner as Don Bartolo was outstanding, with the best diction and singing of the evening.
Daniela Mack played Rosina, the object of everyone's machinations who is secretly running the show, and she was in great voice, rich and warm. The singer is also noticeably pregnant, and she looked radiant.
The ensembles were gorgeous, and it was obvious that the performers were ecstatic at being able to sing with each other after months of wondering if they would ever be able to do so again. Congratulations are in order for everyone involved, including the 100+ backstage staff housed in a complex of tents that rivaled anything put up by Cirque du Soleil.
My only thumbs down are for the Marin Fairgrounds staff who wandered around throughout the performance in the most distracting way possible. Imagine being in the War Memorial House and having ushers in reflective vests walking up and down the aisles while the opera is onstage. This was opening night, so maybe they will behave better in the subsequent nine performances over the next three weeks. (Click here for tickets.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Anthony James's Cosmic 80" Great Rhombicosidodecahedron

The Palm Springs Art Museum reopened for the first time during this pandemic a couple of weeks ago, and in the lobby area there is a startlingly trippy sculpture by the British born, Los Angeles based artist Anthony James.
At his website, in the Works section (click here), the artist has written absurdly oracular descriptions of his various painting and sculpture series. Here's an example: "I’m interested in revealing and sharing truth. My intention is to bring an impossible concept like the idea of infinity, or the cosmos, into physical objective existence. I am attempting to express science, spirituality, and philosophy in an object the purest and most honest way I know how."
Visual artists, with a few major exceptions, are not good with written descriptions, which is probably why they are visual artists in the first place. Check out the Photos section (click here) and marvel at the remarkable work he's been creating over the last couple of decades, none the same as the last.
This latest series of three-dimensional kaleidescopes really does hint at a visual approximation of infinity.
The only sculptures I have seen that are remotely similar are the work of Taiwan-born, Oakland-based Nick Dong (click here). I am glad California is still attracting visionary artists from around the world.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Agnes Pelton's Desert Transcendentalism

Agnes Pelton (1881-1961), a little-known 20th century American artist and mystic, is finally being rediscovered. In 2019, an exhibition of 45 paintings was organized by Gilbert Vicario at the Phoenix Art Museum. It traveled to New Mexico in the latter part of that year, and opened triumphantly at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City on March 13th, 2020. Two days later, the museum shut down along with the rest of the world on account of a new pandemic. Over a year later, the exhibit has reopened to the public at its final destination, the Palm Springs Art Museum.
Pelton had an interesting family background, detailed by Whitney Museum curator Barbara Haskell in an informative interview with Andrew Goldstein at artnet (click here). [After a family scandal in the late 19th century], "the Tiltons sent their daughter, Florence, to Europe...where she met a wealthy expatriate from Louisiana who was something of a ne’er-do-well, and they had Agnes Pelton in Stuttgart. They moved back to Brooklyn, but Florence’s husband was unhappy and Agnes rarely saw her father. He died when she was 10 from a morphine overdose." Florence supported the two of them by opening a music school in Brooklyn where they mingled with the bohemian artistic intelligentsia of the day. Florence died in 1920 and in 1922, Agnes moved alone to an abandoned windmill on eastern Long Island. (Above is the 1928 Ecstasy.)
Pelton was deeply drawn to religious mysticism, principally through Helena Blavatsky and her Theosophist movement combining Eastern and Western traditions. A fascinating painter/archeologist/anthropologist Russian couple, Nicholas and Helena Roerich, brought Agni Yoga from Central Asia to the West, and Agnes became one of its adherents. (The above painting is the 1932 Messengers.)
The American Southwest, particularly New Mexico and Southern California, was a major Theosophist gathering spot in the first half of the 20th century, with Pelton visiting Mabel Dodge Luhan's artistic salon in Taos and spiritual gatherings in Pasadena in 1928. (The above painting is 1933's The Primal Wing.)
On one of those Pasadena visits, she stumbled onto the Coachella Valley where she immediately felt in tune with the light, the twin mountain peaks of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio, and the overall energy of the place. (The above painting is 1934's Orbits.)
In 1931, at the age of 50, she moved into a cabin in what was then the village of Cathedral City, six miles down a two-lane road from the small town of Palm Springs. (The painting above is 1942's My Cabin.)
She then set about creating her unique, abstract style of paintings with identifiable shapes and images. Gaskell at the Whitney relates: "Once she establishes her vocabulary in 1925, she does not stray from it. She didn’t paint for other people. She didn’t paint for the marketplace. In fact, to make money, she painted realistic portraits and desert paintings that she sold to tourists." (The painting above is 1938's Red and Blue.)
Gaskell continues: "The abstract work was the real work, and it was difficult for her to do. She would sometimes only be able to paint one day a week. It wasn’t as if she would go into her studio and think, okay, today I’m going to have an inspiration. She had to wait for those inspirations to come." (The painting above is 1940's Challenge.)
In conjunction with the "transcendental" paintings, the Palm Springs Art Museum has added an exhibit of some of those realist landscapes designed for the tourists, including 1950's Smoke Tree above.
My friend Grant Wilson actually prefers her landscapes to her strange, flat, mystical abstracts.
Seeing a whole collection of the transcendentals is disconcerting, partly because they look so much like New Age, hippie-dippie art of the 1960s and 1970s. (Above is 1943's Awakening (Memory of Father).)
The oddness is that her paintings predate those eras by 20 to 50 years, and have an originality and integrity that is unmistakable. (Above is 1952's Idyll.)
Haskell again: "Most of her paintings are very different, she never worked in series. Because she brought them out of her own visions, each time it was a different experience with a different set of problems." The Palm Springs Art Museum just reopened a couple of weeks ago for the first time since the pandemic began. The exhibit will be up until September, so if you're in the Coachella Valley between now and then, do check it out. Plus, admission is free every Thursday from 5 to 7PM. (The infinite circles in the painting above are 1954's Departure.)

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Palm Springs Spring Break

Austin celebrated our first two-week vacation by inventing an artisanal cocktail, the Desert Sands Cosmo, while I cooled down my core temperature in our Palm Springs pool.
We have been attempting to eat light and healthy after putting on dozens of pounds during the pandemic...
...and have played on a half a dozen golf courses, both funky and fancy.
This year I joined Stonewall Golfers, a gay and lesbian organization in the Coachella Valley who put on about 100 outings at courses around the area.
They are more upscale than my usual milieu, but seem to have the usual mixture of delightful and dreary characters that populate most volunteer groups.
The Great Geriatric Gay Migration to Palm Springs continues apace.
Every other person I have met during the last two weeks seems to have moved here within the last three years, including a huge influx fleeing Trumplandias across the country. The pandemic also seems to have given a push to people considering a change in their living situations.
Even the great Salinas painter, John Cerney, has gotten into the act. He contributed a wonderful pop-up plywood painting/sculpture, Popsicles, for a barren stretch of the Sunny Dunes neighborhood, not far from the Tool Shed leather bar. Click here for a Desert Sun article about the people's public art installation.