Monday, August 30, 2021

Vaccinated Tosca at the SF Opera

The San Francisco Opera House finally opened for live performances last week, and the reaction on both sides of the stage was joyous.
Proof of COVID vaccination or a 72-hour clean bill of health was required for entry, and the process was delightfully casual, with a small crew of friendly SF Opera employees checking ID and documents on the sidewalk outside before giving you a paper wristband that could be worn or simply proffered at the entrances.
The opera was Puccini's Tosca, which has been produced here close to 40 times since it opened the San Francisco Opera House in 1923. The music is Puccini at his best, but I've always disliked the opera itself. It was adapted from a five-act French play written for Sarah Bernhardt, and the distilled operatic version is a sentimental story about rape, torture and murder.
I saw a musically gorgeous and dramatically ridiculous production in 1978 at the SF Opera with the very large Caballe and Pavarotti in their vocal prime, and decided I never needed to see Tosca onstage again. This resolve was tested when I was cast as a supernumerary in the Te Deum procession of Act One and a firing squad member who shot the tenor in Act Three, but the experience did not change my feelings about the opera. After 18 months of a shuttered opera house, however, and a new spouse who had never seen the work, it was time to visit Tosca again. I am glad I did, and the greatest pleasure was running into an entire collection of fellow opera fanatics in lobbies and hallways who I had not seen for close to two years.
New company Music Director Eun Sun Kim was conducting her first full opera since being appointed to her position just before the pandemic, and she did a marvelous job, bringing out lots of color in the score without drowning any of the singers. Soprano Ailyn Pérez is making her role debut as Tosca in this production, and though I usually love her performances, the role doesn't seem to be a very good fit for her vocally. (Production photos are by Cory Weaver.)
The tenor Michael Fabiano has recently taken on the role of her lover Mario Cavaradossi, and it suits him perfectly, both vocally and dramatically.
Baritone Alfred Walker felt miscast as a mild-mannered Scarpia. The sadistic villain should be commandingly scary in voice and bearing, and Walker was not. The traditional production design by Robert Innes Hopkins was lovely, and the direction by Shawna Lucey was straightforward except for a clunky Te Deum finale. It didn't matter. As my friend Shawn Ying said as I ran into him in the lobby, "When the chorus started singing, I just burst into tears." My new spouse liked the opera too.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Creeds of California

Last week we drove to Santa Barbara, current home of Oprah, Harry & Meghan, and the lady above who is often spotted laying on the State Street concrete bench in front of the Santa Barbara Art Museum.
We walked to the County Courthouse which looks like it was built by Spanish missionaries in the 17th century but was actually constructed in 1929 after a major 1925 earthquake flattened the town. The beautiful building was designed by William Mooser III and according to a 2014 article by Laurie Jervis, "the influential 20th century architect Charles W. Moore called the courthouse the grandest Spanish Colonial Revival structure ever built."
The entrance inside was restricted to those who had official business with the courts, which currently seem to be filled with lurid local murder cases and people seeking marriage licenses.
The outdoor sunken garden is open for picnicking, though, and this group of amateur wedding photographers yelling out posing suggestions to their friends and family was hilarious.
I was in Santa Barbara from the age of 10 to 17, and still have two friends living there, a nonageniarian Proust scholar who was our gracious host, and Heidi (above) from high school who I reconnected with three decades ago.
We took a walk on downtown East Beach where there were beautiful young people staging social media videos...
...and solitary characters looking ripe for recruitment into a religious cult.
Santa Barbara has always been thick with them, including the Calvary Chapel movement, which includes a Christian Surfing ministry. One of their flock, Matthew Taylor Coleman, a surf instructor in his early 40s, just made national news when he drove his 2-year-old and 10-month-old children to Rosarita Beach in Baja Mexico, and stabbed them to death with his fishing spear, convinced by QAnon internet sites that they somehow possessed "demon DNA sperm." The national news mentioned QAnon as the culprit for the horrific event, but neglected to mention the Santa Barbara Evangelical Christian Surf cult which was the breeding ground. This excellent Santa Barbara Independent article (click here) by Jean Yamamura begins with “It’s heavy. It’s so heavy,” said a surfing community insider who knew Matthew..."
Then we drove 100 miles northwest to stay at one of the most beautiful spots in the world, my sister Susan's hilltop home in Arroyo Grande, midway between Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo.
On an unusually humid, overcast morning, we went for a walk on Pismo Beach where San Joaquin Valley residents drive their oversized vehicles onto the strand and tear up the Oceano sand dunes with ATVs. (For a San Luis Obispo Tribune article on a proposed ban by the California Coastal Commission, click here.)
My relatives call them Bakos, short for Bakersfield rednecks, who overrun the Central Coast every summer to escape the 110-degree heat in the Valley.
Though they have always been obnoxious, they now feel sinister, driving through small Central Coast towns with TRUMP WON and Confederate flags flying from the backs of their vehicles.
On our way back to a paved parking lot, we passed a group of young people in a circle introducing themselves by throwing a beach ball to the next speaker, which set off all my evangelical religious cult sensors.
In the nearby hamlet of Halcyon, a small Theosophist commune founded in 1903, we stopped briefly at the Temple of The People.
I have always wanted to go inside and see what the philosopher Krishnamurti, the composer Henry Cowell, and the revolutionary astrologer Dane Rudhyar once experienced.

Coincidentally, I have been reading a scholarly biography of Bruce Lee by Matthew Polly, and stumbled across this paragraph: "One of Bruce Lee's most important influences was the renegade Indian mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti. Selected at age fourteen by the occultist Theosophical Society as the predestined 'World Teacher,' Krishnamurti was groomed to become its leader and 'direct the evolution of mankind towards perfection.' In 1929 at the age of thirty-four he shocked his adoptive cult by renouncing his role as the World Teacher, arguing that religious doctrines and organizations stood in the way of real truth. 'I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any religion. A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do, it becomes dead, crystallized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others."
I lived in Halcyon and Arroyo Grande from the ages of five to nine and my church was the Fair Oaks movie theater where I attended Saturday afternoon kiddie matinees with religious devotion.
By some holy miracle, the single-screen theater still exists and shows movies with no advertisements beforehand other than a vintage advisory to visit the lobby for a treat.
This dream palace introduced me to the power of images, music, and humanistic thought, all of which I worship to this day.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

West Edge Opera Au Natural

West Edge Opera managed to produce a hearteningly successful summer festival season in the midst of the COVID pandemic over the last month, presenting three operas outdoors in the Bruns Amphitheater in the East Bay hills near Orinda. The festival started with Janacek's Katya Kabanova in a vocally splendid and dramatically problematic production, followed by Elizabeth Cree, a new opera by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell that was universally acclaimed as a great new opera in a strikingly good production. I intended to see the final performance last Saturday, but a vaccinated cast member had come down with a "breakthrough" COVID case and the final performance was canceled at the last hour. The night before, I saw the final show, Eliogabalo, a 1667 Venetian opera by Francesco Cavalli that went unproduced until 1999.
The title character is based on a licentious 3rd century Roman emperor who spends most of the opera trying to bed down every pretty young woman in the cast when he's not in the midst of a group sex orgy. Countertenor Randall Scotting (above) sang beautifully as did most of the strong cast, including Aura Veruni as Eritrea.
Like Shakespeare and most Italian Renaissance theater and opera, comic and tragic characters intermingle, with a sad aria about lost love followed by a carnal duet about the procuring of hotties for the emperor. Tenor Jonathan Smucker was the concubine Zotico conspiring with Jean Paul Jones in a travesty role as Lenia, the ruler's old wet nurse who is as big a horndog as her ruler.
The two main serious couples were countertenor Matheus Coura as Giuliano with soprano Aura Veruni as Eritea, and Derek Chester as Alessandro with Nikki Einfeld as Gemmina, all of whom are at serious risk of being murdered or raped by Eliogabalo. Soprano Shawnette Sulker as Atilia and bass-baritone Nathan Stark as Nerbulone are two minor comic characters who get caught up in the shenanigans, and all of them gave wonderful performances.
The set design by Evan Streshinsky was simple and striking, and the direction by his father Mark Streshinsky, who also translated the subtitles, was witty and engaging. Weaving in and out of most of the scenes were a sextet of dancers, choreographed by Benjamin Freedman, who were marvelous: Kacie Boblitt, Jamielyn Duggan, Molly Levy, Ian Debono, Erik Debono, and Marcos Vedoveto. In the scene above, Derek Chester is sneaking into a banquet disguised as one of the dancers, led by the harem-master Nathan Stark.
Before the banquet begins, Nathan steals a jug of wine that has been spiked with a Renaissance date rape drug meant for Gemmira, unintentionally foiling the dastardly plans of Eliogabalo and his enablers, leading to a chaotic comic climax.
The chamber orchestra, led by Adam Pearl from the harpsichord, was lovely, and the sound balance was much better than the opening night Katya Kabanova. In the final act, the women (Nikki Einfeld and Aura Veruni above, with Jean Paul Jones in gold between them) have had enough, and urge their beloveds and the palace guards to murder the emperor.
Which they do, after another orgy.
West Edge Opera's extraordinary agility overcame a whole series of obstacles this summer, from extreme weather patterns (occasionally 100+ degrees in the afternoon with freezing cold winds at night) to constantly changing pandemic health protocols. The company and its supporters deserve congratulations for pulling off a small miracle.

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Cellist Joshua Roman with the SF Symphony

Two of my favorite orchestral pieces, Manuel de Falla's 1919 The Three-Cornered Hat (Suite #1) and Zoltán Kodály's 1933 Dances of Galánta, were played by the SF Symphony last Friday at Davies Hall. Making her SFS debut, the young Colombian conductor Lina González-Granados took the ten-minute de Falla ballet suite at the fastest pace I've ever heard, and was impressed that the orchestra could keep up with her.
This was followed by Schumann's 1850 Cello Concerto, with last-minute replacement Joshua Roman filling in after the originally scheduled soloist had to cancel because of visa problems.
I had never heard of Roman but he seems to have been a phenomenon for the last 20 years, as the youngest principal instrumentalist in Seattle Symphony history at age 22 before he quit after a couple of years to be a soloist, chamber music collaborator, composer, and TED Talk star. (Click here for his website.)
His performance of the Schumann was lovely, and he seemed visibly surprised and amused by some of the tempos of conductor González-Granados, but he rolled with it beautifully. When called back for an encore, he addressed the audience with, "This last year has been very weird. So I think I'm going to go out on a limb here and this is dedicated to everyone else who wants to go out on a limb." He then proceeded to sing, without amplification, Leonard Cohen's 1984 song Hallelujah while accompanying himself on the cello. It could have been cringingly awful but was instead ethereal, as he used his pleasing, unprofessional, resonant voice in a very raw way that was breathtaking.
Kodály's Dances of Galánta is filled to the brim with Hungarian melodies which ethnomusicologist Kodály had picked up in his village wanderings, and his orchestration is a marvel, comparable to Bartok at his best. It was great fun to hear the piece live, but González-Granados conducted the work at a breakneck pace again, which worked well sometimes but didn't allow the more lyric passages to breathe. My concert mate said, "That reminded me of how people are driving on the highways these days."

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Punk Rock Oldies at Stern Grove

Who would have ever thought the day would come when Punk Rock would be featured at an Oldies Concert? Last Sunday, Stern Grove hosted their first ever punk rock concert, featuring two seminal California bands formed in the late 1970s: Avengers from San Francisco and X from Los Angeles.
We were invited to the show by my cousin Jenny (the blonde above) who lives near Sacramento, but grew up in Orange County where she attended pop/rock concerts of every stripe, and where she became a serious "X" groupie. "The punk rock bands in Orange County were really angry, while the Los Angeles bands like X were sort of smoother and more rockabilly, which I preferred."
Both bands featured a female lead singer. In the case of the Avengers above, it was Penelope Houston, who went on to a global folk-rock career, but who still occasionally joins original guitarist Greg Ingraham, with Joel Reader on bass and Luis Illades on drums.
As evidenced by the crowd, Punk Rockers lived hard, and it was fascinating watching all the grizzled looking veterans, most of them at least a decade younger than me.
There were plenty of younger people there too, most of them with colored hair and fabulous fashion.
Punk was never my style of music, partly because it was so loud, but I knew plenty of people who loved and lived it.
X, fronted by original vocalists John Doe and Exene Cervanka, are still a tight band and just before the pandemic, released their first album in 35 years, Alphabetland.
And my cousin Jenny was right. Between hard-driving punk rock songs, they would swing into rockabilly land. She was in heaven.