Wednesday, August 31, 2022

San Francisco Opera 2022 Preview

The San Francisco War Memorial Opera House has been my clubhouse, college, church, and dream palace for over 50 years, and the San Francisco Opera is having its 100th anniversary this year. In other words, over half the life of this cultural institution has been entwined with mine, from standing room in my teens to subscriber to onstage supernumerary to a writer about the company.
I still love standing room in the top balcony where the sound from the huge stage blends as it rises, hits the top back wall, and reverberates through more parts of your body than just your ears. After being shut down by the pandemic, standing room is back, and it's still a miraculous $10. You can buy a ticket from the box office on the day of a performance and join the Children of Paradise. Also, if you're new to the San Francisco Opera and haven't been to the War Memorial in three years, the Dolby Corporation is subsidizing two good, expensive seats for $10 as a centennial promotion. Click here to sign up for Dolby's Opera on the Bay. So what should you see?
The opening opera is Antony and Cleopatra, a world premiere commission from Berkeley composer John Adams, based on the Shakespeare tragedy. It's a big frigging deal, and whether or not it's successful or a disaster or both, it will be an event that will be talked about for as long as we're alive, so you should go if you have any sense of adventure.
This will be the first opera Adams (pictured above at the SF Symphony) has written without the director/librettist Peter Sellars as collaborator, and it will be his first attempt at setting Shakespearean verse. I recently read the play for the first time and it's long (40+ scenes in 5 acts), weird, discursive, with oddly unlikable characters, but it has moments of true grandeur, and I can hardly wait to see what they do with the play and the English poetry.
Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is up next, and it's almost a perfect opera. As a young musical snob, I looked down on Tchaikovsky's music until discovering the two operas he wrote on Pushkin works, The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin, and had to reassess a few ignorant prejudices. San Francisco is restaging the Robert Carsen production that was created for The Met in 1997. It was controversially stark at its premiere, but by all accounts has aged well.
Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites is a Catholic martryrdom opera about 16 Carmelite nuns who were executed during the Terror of the French Revolution. Premiered at La Scala in 1957 and the San Francisco Opera later the same year, most of the opera takes place in a convent and includes a great deathbed scene for an old soprano who has lost her faith at the worst possible time and an outrageous finale where the sisters sing Salve Regina while getting their heads lopped off one by one. The music is one of my favorite 20th century opera scores, strange and seductive and, yes, spiritual.
The final two operas this fall are a brand new production of Verdi's perennial favorite, La Traviata, and the rarely performed 1762 Orfeo ed Euridice by Christof von Gluck. They are being promoted as important debuts of two young stars, soprano Pretty Yende in La Traviata and countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński as Orfeo. Neither of them excite me on paper as much as the previous three, but one of the joys of any opera season are the happy surprises. Hope to see you this fall at the War Memorial.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Henry Moore and Liz Cheney at Davies Hall

The Henry Moore sculpture which has graced the corner of Grove and Van Ness since 1980 disappeared this summer, causing some neighborhood consternation, but it has reappeared, looking alarmingly golden.
It is a joy to have Four Piece Reclining Figure 1972–73 back in front of Davies Hall. It's always looked a bit out of place and the wrong scale for the large building, but after forty-plus years it feels like a beloved cultural friend.
Speaking of beloved cultural friends, the San Francisco Symphony is having one of its few periods of rest before opening their year-long 2022-2023 season. I like their new marketing campaign, focusing on individual orchestral musicians, who are the core of what makes the organization great.
The September 23rd opening night gala, involving pre-parties, a show based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream with actors and Mendelssohn, and a great after-party may be the best fancy event value in San Francisco. Check out the 2nd tier tickets which gets you into everything (click here).
Continuing to walk around the building yesterday, I ran into the signage above which was attached to the fence on Franklin Street in front of the Symphony parking lot. The blue type spells out "Stands up for Right". Who might have put up such a message is a mystery, but I'm betting on a NeverTrumper from the right-wing San Francisco Association of Realtors across the street.

Saturday, August 20, 2022


A huge exhibition of Mexican artist Diego Rivera's work from the 1920s to the 1940s has opened at SFMOMA, and it is drawing large crowds.
Though I love Mexican art and its 20th century muralists, Rivera's work has not been aging well for me, and this exhibition managed to confirm all those prejudices.
His socialist realism style depicting los indios of Mexico now often looks like dated, earnest kitsch. Interestingly, the art of his fellow Mexican communist and muralist José Clemente Orozco is aging brilliantly, and so are the surrealist self-portraits of Rivera's wife Frida Kahlo whose work was virtually unknown outside of a small cult until the 1980s.
On the top floor of the museum is a highly conceptual exhibit called Shifting the Silence, featuring 32 contemporary women artists. The curators write: "[These 32 artists] use the radical language of abstraction to enhance our understanding of the world we inhabit. Named after artist Etel Adnan’s 2020 book about history and existence, Shifting the Silence embraces experimentation, impermanence, and subjectivity — bold yet poetic characteristics that mark the art of our time...The exhibition harnesses their defiant, yet enlightened energy to explore visual culture, the motivations of its practitioners, and its varied influences." Though the artspeak is ridiculous, some of the art is delightful, such as the 2004 painting Stadia I by Julie Mehretu.
In a dark, scary room of its own, a series of mirrors and metal grids hang from the ceiling in Haegue Yuang's 2008 yearning melancholy red. The cool part of the piece is a drum set hidden in a dark corner, complete with cymbals, that any patron is welcome to play, and when they do so, a series of lights throughout the room respond to the sounds. Don't be shy and be sure to get a few licks in yourself because it's tremendous fun.
When I told the smart, amusing ticket woman that the Rivera was a disappointment, she said, "Be sure to go to the Sightlines photo exhibit on the third floor." She was right.
In this exhibit, the curators have done a marvelous job of offering an eclectic sampler of photography from the museum's permanent collection, and it's filled with treasures without being bogged down by art theory.
These include Nina Katchadourian's 2011 Lavatory Self-Portrait in the Flemish Style #3 and #4 from her series Seat Assignment, where she created self-portraits in airplane bathrooms using the materials at hand, including carefully crafted toilet paper.
There's a nice selection of Southern California artist Laura Aguilar, who created nude self-portraits in nature, posing her large body as a sculptural object. The 2006 photos above are Grounded #107 and #111.
One whole section of the exhibit is devoted to photos that are not quite photos, such as the wall-size 2015 cyanotype by Meghann Rieppenhoff, Littoral Drift Nearshore #209.
The artists are international, including the Chinese Tseng Kwong Chiwho who created a series called East Meets West in the 1970s and 1980s, where he posed in a Mao jacket in front of iconic United States sites. Above is the 1979 Hollywood Hills, California.
One of the chief delights of the museum is people watching, and my favorite sight of the afternoon was an elegant gay man dressed in white who glided around the galleries in his snakeskin boots looking like a perfect work of art himself.

Sunday, August 07, 2022

SF Heaven and Hell

Across Franklin Street from my apartment, in Redwood Alley behind a senior housing complex, there have been a series of tent encampments over the last four years. They are periodically swept away by an army of Department of Public Works employees, only to have the residents trickle back later the same day. The San Francisco Police Department essentially does nothing, even though the encampments usually consist of a stolen bicycle chop shop operating in full view of the neighbors.
Before the last sweep earlier this week, there was an angry, insane young woman haunting the area, usually with a metal bar in hand which she would bang against fences and light poles while threatening poor, underpaid security guards at the SF Opera employee parking lot.
Walking down Market Street yesterday afternoon, we saw her being subdued by a ridiculous number of police officers while they waited for an ambulance to take her away to a mental health facility.
One block further we were confronted by about 200 young people on mini motorcycles speeding down Market Street as a mob while doing wheelies.
As far we could see, the police just ignored them, and since the department can no longer blame the recently recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin, they have gone back to their old standby, "we're understaffed."
There seemed to be something in the ether on Saturday because on our stroll to Yerba Buena Gardens there were more schizophrenics than usual, in full screaming mode, angrily talking back to the voices in their head while scaring the hordes of European tourists walking downtown.
The jazz singer Paula West was performing a free concert at the Yerba Buena Festival.
The expert music and the mellow crowd felt like an oasis.

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Handel's Belshazzar

Every year in late July and early August, the American Bach Soloists holds an early music festival that joins young professional students from around the world for classes and concerts with ABS musicians for a fortnight, which usually involves a performance of J.S. Bach's Mass in B Minor. The Academy was canceled this summer on account of the continuing pandemic, and the above apology was on their website, "This has been a long road of logistical disappointments, all of which have been out of our own control."
ABS still offered a week's worth of concerts at Herbst Theater, highlighted by the major work of the festival, Belshazzar, an obscure 1744 Handel oratorio. In my experience, live performances of Handel operas and oratorios are either like the longest, dullest church service imaginable or they are emotionally, artistically sublime. It's delightful to report that Belshazzar was unexpectedly glorious, both the performance and the work itself. Mischa Bouvier as Gorybas, an Assyrian King looking for revenge, started the tale with a flexible, handsome baritone, and Jeffrey Thomas, ABS Artistic Director, conducted the two-and-a-half hour score with verve and refinement.
Countertenor Eric Jurenas as Cyrus, Prince of Persia, didn't act so much as he embodied a wise Buddha and his singing was pure, varied, and enchanting.
The gushing superlatives don't stop there, however. The main female character in the oratorio is Queen Nitocris, mother of the title character who sympathetically observes what a disastrous fool her son is as the King of Babylon. Her opening aria, The Leafy Honours Of The Field, is one of the longest, most fiendishly difficult opening arias in Handel's repertory, and soprano Maya Kherani absolutely nailed it.
Tenor Matthew Hill as Belshazzar wasn't quite at the elevated musical plane as the rest of the cast, but he was very good, and his characterization invoked an amusing echo of Silicon Valley billionaires like Elon Musk.
Mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit added to the vocal richness as the Jewish prophet Daniel who translates the Writing on the Wall for the drunken revelers at Belshazzar's Feast.
The pandemic Academy cancellation actually had a silver lining in that there was a pickup chorus of local professionals from the SF Symphony, the SF Opera and other performing organizations. They were awe-inspiring and even though there were a few potential train wrecks in the third act, everyone recovered and it made the performance that much more exciting. They reminded me why I prefer Handel's English oratorios to his Italian operas. The oratorios have arias generously interspersed with choral music while the operas do not.
The evening felt like a small miracle, because you could see the performers give each other energy that kept building ("you sang that so beautifully, well, listen to this") and the small audience, which started off dutiful and reverent, was clapping wildly after each aria by midway. The oratorio, which was a disaster on its debut at London's Haymarket Theater in 1745, has essentially disappeared, but it's a genuine discovery. The last three minutes of the finale, with soloists and chorus intertwining is one of the most beautiful pieces of music Handel ever wrote. If you don't believe me, click here for a YouTube recording and start at the end at 2:42:24.