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February 2009

Love, Death, and the Foxy Lady

Urban Vixen by Steve Punter

There is a strand of genuine affection running through the local print reviews of Long Beach Opera's production of Leoš Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen, and at yesterday's second, sadly final, performance, it was easy to see why.  This was just the sort of thing they do well in Long Beach: a work at least slightly off the beaten track, presented so as to make us wonder why we haven't seen it before or don't see it more often, and all on a budget that wouldn't keep the lights on for a week in the prop shop of a larger, more mainstream company.  Even when they put on something really difficult -- Vixen doesn't count on that score -- Long Beach Opera is California's, and one of the nation's, most endearing cultural institutions.


I know what you're thinking: he spent a few hours with some singing fuzzy animals and now he's gone fuzzy himself.  Not so.  Vixen Sharp Ears and her woodland compatriots are certainly lovable, but Janáček was never one for easy sentimentality and his natural world is red in tooth and claw.  Chickens are slaughtered without compunction.  A cute li'l bunny is torn in two for a lovers' picnic (the lovers being foxes, naturally).  The presence of humans doesn't help: Sharp Ears in the end is shot by a poacher, ending as a muff for his fiancee.

The humans themselves grow old and tired and disappointed and regretful.  The famously late-blooming composer, who achieved success in his sixties and after, leaves us with the aging Forester steeped in wistful memory of the vixen he adopted, lost, once tried to kill himself, and now misses, rounded off with the partial comfort that the life of the forest and the world somehow cycles on.  Here, the Forester is surely a surrogate for Janáček and Janáček a surrogate for all.

Vixen 1

While the opera ends in a bittersweet vein, it is plenty lively in getting there, and the Long Beach Opera production was happy to play up the vigor and earthy humor of the tale.  The company cannot afford the superpremium international casting that marks, say, Los Angeles Opera's recent Magic Flute.  It compensates by skewing toward younger, highly promising singing actors, with often gratifying results. 

(A digression: LBO's use of younger singers, in combination with its commitment to placing drama on an equal footing with the music in music drama, also produces another benefit: Long Beach rarely succumbs to "Fat Lady Syndrome," the condition of casting singers for their undeniably splendid voices and talents despite the singer's age and/or physique being at odds with those of the character.  FLS affects the casting of men as well as women: see, e.g., Placido Domingo's late career ventures in to Wagner, yielding a Parsifal who sounds wonderful but is clearly old enough to be the character's great grandfather.  End of digression.)  

Vixen Sharp Ears has a short, sweet life, and Ani Maldjian took her from infancy to independent young vixenhood to too-brief marital and maternal bliss with nuance and a deft comic touch.  Peabody Southwell shone in the trouser role (more of a brown overall role in this case) of the Fox who wins Sharp Ears' affections; I am pleased to see that Ms. Southwell will be returning in both of LBO's remaining productions this season.  In the animal ensemble of insects, birds, and mammals, I will single out the grasshopper and cricket of Melissa Simpson and Laura Parker, if only because it was a pleasure to banter with them when creatures began to invade the auditorium prior to the overture.  Among the humans Michael Chioldi, with rather more experience behind him than most of the cast, stood out singing splendidly as the Forester, and bringing all of the necessary acceptance and pathos to his closing revery.

Vixen 2

Small company that it is, LBO only offers two performances of each of its productions.  Thanks to the vagaries of my own schedule, I will be seeing the final performance of each, so that my recommendation after the fact can do you no practical good.  Accept, then, my recommendation before the fact.  Vixen was essentially a sellout, and it is to be hoped the remaining performances this season -- Vivaldi's rediscovered Motezuma and, somewhere deep within the hull of the Queen Mary, an Ullman/Orff double bill -- will achieve the same success.  Do not delay if you want to be in that number when the next set of favorable notices comes marching in.


A pair of those affectionate print reviews I mentioned: 

Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times:  "[L]eave it to this modest but resourceful and quick-witted company to somehow come back from what appeared near death just as its larger neighbor to south, Opera Pacific, bites the dust and its giant neighbor to the north, Los Angeles Opera, battens down the financial hatches for hard times."

Timothy Mangan in the OC Register: "[T]his is the company's hallmark: Looking into operas that others neglect, and mounting them in innovative productions."


Photo (top): "Urban Vixen" by Flickr user Steve Punter, used under Creative Commons license.

Photo (not quite top): Ani Maldjian in/as The Cunning Little Vixen.  Credit: Ken Hively.

Photo (not quite bottom): The Vixen company of creatures.  Long Beach Opera photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.

Photo (bottom): Peabody Southwell as the Fox, with Ani Maldjian.  Long Beach Opera photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.

Hope: It's What's for Lunch

Festivities, festivities, festivities!

"Hope is the thing with feathers," says Emily Dickinson, so it is only right that the 44th President of the United States should begin his term of service by sitting down to eat a brace of formerly feathered things.  Frazer would understand.

This evening, there will be Inaugural Balls on nearly every theme, but there will be no Policeman's Ball.   This is because all of the police are so busy.

So, as we wait in Hope for the Change we Need, let us all join hands in a Spirit of Optimism and Sacrifice and sing along with Mr. Alan Price:


Verse Than Expected [w/ multiple Updates]

Inaugural Poem

I have been hunting, thus far in vain, for the text of Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem, which was I think Very Terrible and which was delivered in that manner poets have -- 

of pronouncing Each.  Word.  Distinctly, but without.  Affect or.  Understanding 

-- that is calculated to drive audiences from the room and away from poetry altogether for generations.  Reverend Joseph Lowery's benediction which followed had more poetry in any random ten second passage than the official Poem mustered in its entire length.

Fortunately for us all, within moments of Ms. Alexander's conclusion, the eminent Dr. Boli posted a superior alternate version of The Inaugural Poem.


UPDATE [1159 PST]:

The New York Times has a text of the real poem.  This is only a transcription, i.e., not the text.  I strongly suspect that the line breaks in that version are all wrong. 

A commenter to this post at Entertainment Weekly attempts a transcription that likely comes closer to the actual lineation.  (See comments by "Doodle"  posted at 1:51 pm and 1:48 pm, EST.)  The EW post itself describes the poem oxymoronically as "a steady march of free verse iambic pentameter" and is all too taken with limp bromides such as "figuring it out at kitchen tables."  It presumably goes without saying that those tables are on Main Street, not Wall Street.  Urgh. 

The Times of London is not so easily fooled.


UPDATE 2 [1420 PST]:

Remarkable the number of visitors dropping by today through some variant on the search "inaugural poem terrible".

At The New Republic, Adam Kirsch critiques the inaugural poem as an example of "bureaucratic verse."  He includes excerpts from earlier Alexander poems that show her to be a poet fond of short lines, which reinforces my assumption that the available transcriptions are getting the line breaks wrong.

In fairness to the poet, and so that readers can judge the work for themselves, here is Elizabeth Alexander's own delivery of her poem earlier today:


UPDATE 3 [1631 PST]:

At last!  Newsweek offers up the true text of Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day," complete with proper line and stanza breaks, proper punctuation, a proper copyright notice, and the news that a chapbook edition Can Be Yours come February 6.

It fares somewhat better on the page and in the mind's ear than it did in performance in this morning's "sharp sparkle", but it is still not a particularly impressive poem.  I remain unaccountably but genuinely aggravated, for example, by the dangling preposition that concludes the commemoration of the hard-working dead who

brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

That lonesome "of" might be set up to rhyme with "love" two stanzas later, but I doubt it.  There are no other rhymes in the poem, after all.  And what, pray tell, is "love with no need to pre-empt grievance"?

Let the last word on this come from the Los Angeles Times' David Ulin:

There is, of course, a cognitive disconnect to reading poetry to an audience numbering in the millions, as Alexander did.  Most poets never reach that many people in a lifetime, which may have something to do with the choice to keep her focus simple, her imagery direct.  Even so, the crowd began dispersing well before she was finished, as if her words were little more than an afterthought.

Partly, that has to do with her placement on the program, after the president; she had the misfortune of following the main event.  But even more, it suggests the tangential role of poetry in our national conversation, which is unlikely to change no matter how seriously this president, or any other, takes the written word.

We now return the new administration to the prosaic business of governance in difficult times.  Good luck to them.


Illustration: Inaugural Poem for Messrs. Lincoln and Johnson, 1865, via the Library of Congress.


On Freedom's Ground


Praise to this land for our power to change it,
To confess our misdoings, to mend what we can,
To learn what we mean and to make it the law,
To become what we said we were going to be.
Praise to our peoples, who came as strangers,
Who more and more have been shaped into one
Like a great statue brought over in pieces,
Its hammered copper bolted together,
Anchored by rods in the continent's rock,
With a core of iron, and a torch atop it.
Praise to this land that its most oppressed
Have marched in peace from the dark of the past
To speak in out time, and in Washington's shadow,
Their invincible hope to be free at last --

--from Richard Wilbur, "On Freedom's Ground" (1986)

Illustration: Lincoln's Second Inaugural, by Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, 1865


UPDATE (only slightly frivolous):

"Mr. Obama, you've just become President of the United States: what will you do now?" 

"I'm going to Walt Disney World!"


It's All Zauberflöte, Baby Blue,
or, Papageno's Brand New Bag

Magic Flute - Animals 

In common with many another company, Los Angeles Opera is often taken to task for programming too many revivals of productions they have mounted before, and before that, and before that.  There has not been much of such grumbling in the air this month, however, as LAO revisits -- for the fourth time -- its 1992 production of Mozart's The Magic Flute.  The reasons were plain at Saturday evening's performance: the production design by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe remains a puckish bundle o' fun and the current production is likely the best sung, and certainly the best played, that LAO has yet presented.

The production is running with two parallel casts.  Saturday's performance featured Joseph Kaiser as the princely flautist Tamino, a role he also played in Kenneth Branagh's mysteriously unavailable film version.  The other carryover from Branagh's film is the conductor: LA Opera Music Director James Conlon.  Conlon has a longstanding connection to the Flute -- he revealed in the pre-performance conversation that he met his eventual wife when she was singing the role of Pamina -- and the LA Opera orchestra under his leadership provides a scintillant account of Mozart's score.

The pleasures of Mozart notwithstanding, Flute would not enjoy the continual popularity it does if it focused on its noble characters' noble quest for noble enlightenment.  No, the Flute is best loved for the character who wants nothing to do with ordeals and wisdom, the bird catcher -- in Scarfe's conception as much bird as man himself -- Papageno.  On the other occasion when I saw this production, in the early '90s, Papageno was performed by the then up and coming Rod Gilfry.  Gilfry is a splendid singing actor, and his Papageno is very good, but for lightness of touch and skill in getting the jokes across he is topped in this revival by Markus Werba.  Here we see Werba with his Papagena (the feisty Valerie Vinzant, making us wish her role was a larger one) happily contemplating a life of wedded bliss devoted to the production of clutch upon clutch of junior bird men: 

Magic Flute - Papageno Pagagena

The production runs through this week, with four more performances between now and Sunday.

As for me, my upcoming Sunday afternoon will be spent with Long Beach Opera's production of Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen, of which more once I have seen it.

L.A. Opera Brings on the Ring and Some Side Dishes

The Los Angeles Times' Culture Monster weblog has the rundown on today's announcement of the 2009-2010 Los Angeles Opera season. 

Not surprisingly, the season is dominated by the completion of LAO's Achim Freyer production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen: Siegfried in September, Götterdämmerung in April 2010, and three runs of the entire cycle beginning in May 2010.  The still mysterious Ring Festival events will transpire April through June of 2010, at those venues whose doors are still open by then.

Wagner being the demanding taskmaster he is, and arts budgets being what they are these days, it is disappointing but hardly surprising that the remainder of the LAO '09-'10 season consists of just four other works. 

This fool's personal tastes notwithstanding, reality dictates that you cannot run an opera company without bringing the Italian warhorses out for a trot on a regular basis, so LAO will treat Those Who Like That Sort of Thing to two of them at the front end of the season: Donizetti's L’Elisir d’Amore and Rossini's Rabbit Barber of Seville.  (No Puccini?  How unlike them.)

The other two works to be presented are much more intriguing, which is to say obscure: Handel's Tamerlano (with P. Domingo as Bajazet) and, in the next installment of Maestro James Conlon's "Recovered Voices" project highlighting works and composers disapproved of (and worse) by the Nazis, the U.S. premiere of Franz Schreker’s 1918 opera, Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized). 

By way of a "coming attractions" trailer, here is video of the orchestral prelude from the 2005 Salzburg production of Die Gezeichneten -- which is not the production we will be seeing here -- conducted by Kent Nagano.  The YouTube page containing this video also includes rapturous commentary and a précis from Alex Ross:

The plot, which Schreker initially concocted for his Romantic Impressionist colleague Alexander Zemlinsky, sets up a love triangle among three habitués of Renaissance Genoa: Alviano, a hunchbacked aesthete, who builds an island utopia called Elysium; Count Tamare, handsome and heartless, who, with fellow-squires, converts Elysium into a hotbed of sexual depravity, taking the daughters of Genoa's merchant class as victims; and Carlotta, a diffident painter, who falls in love with Alviano, or at least the idea of him, only to give in to Tamare's advances.

Oh, my: this cannot end well.  (It doesn't.  The complete Ross piece from the New Yorker, with further lurid detail and spoilers, is here.) 

Judging by this clip, it appears that the Salzburg production transported Renaissance Genoa to the far side of the moon.  Valuable make up tips are demonstrated for those whose travels may take them there.  The music, however, is undeniably potent, and has me looking forward to the spring of 2010, when we in Los Angeles can hear it in full:


UPDATE [1632 PST]: Tim Mangan helpfully posts the Complete and Official Press Release on the season at The Arts Blog.

Rigorous Morty

Alex Ross is to blame.  Between the relevant passages in The Rest Is Noise (you've read it, I hope?), his very fine New Yorker profile from 2006, and several blog posts (this one in particular), over the past few months he has spurred in me a hitherto unknown but now ongoing interest in the music of Morton Feldman (1926-1987), the brilliant and difficult New Yorker whose simple ambition was "to be the first great composer that is Jewish."  ("I'll drink to that!  And one for Mahler!")

Today, I learn through yet another Alex Ross post, would have been the late composer's eighty-third birthday.  To honor the occasion, here we have "Felled," a video by Alex Itin.  The soundtrack is "a smashee of [alas, unidentified] Morton Feldman pieces."

"Felled" by Alex Itin on Vimeo.

Feldman's music goes its own way at its own pace, often vewwy vewwy quietwy, and can be counted on to strain many listeners' patience long before it offers, if it ever offers, any obvious reward.  The closing minutes of Rothko Chapel (1971) do provide a clear and welcome "payoff" in the person of a wondrous-sad passage for the viola, originally composed when Feldman was fifteen years old.  More typical of the Feldman experience is this description from Greg Sandow's Village Voice review of the premiere of Feldman's String Quartet in 1980:

Feldman is Feldman, so the sounds are fresh and arresting, and follow each other not with logic but with a clear, intuitive purpose.  Feldman’s jumped here now, says the ear, and it's right.  But the seconds, minutes, quarters of a hour pass: the niggling sounds grow dull, then tiring,then annoying; finally by persistence alone they begin to draw blood.  At this point there are two choices.  You can surrender to the piece, at the risk of pretending to like it more than you really do in order to stop the pain (much as hostages, in a well-known pattern, tend to identify with their captors), or -- at the risk of throwing something valuable away only because of petty discomfort -- you can reject the piece, fight back, close your mind and ears, twist around in your seat, or leave.  I found myself making the first choice, and sat more quietly than I may ever have sat in my life.  My companion found herself reacting the other way, and by the end of the performance was seething with anger.

Sandow connects Feldman to Samuel Beckett.  Feldman's plotless "opera," Neither, is a setting for hard-working soprano and chamber orchestra of a duly bleak late Beckett text.  "to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow", it begins, and Feldman's atypically raucous score drags and repeats and distorts the syllables to the point of meaninglessness.  Overtly pleasant it is not, but it is as persuasive a musical distillation of the Beckettean glance in to the abyss as there is ever likely to be. 

Given that Neither requires only one singer, a small group of musicians, and potentially no scenery at all, it would be a perfect choice for cash-strapped opera companies in these rough economic times, but for the probability that most of the audience would flee the auditorium at the first opportune moment.


Largely under the influence of a mention in a year-end "best of" list by Tim Elsenburg, I have been getting familiar recently with the music of the Danish ensemble Efterklang and their Rumraket label.  The numerous videos released in conjunction with Efterklang music are more varied and more interesting than most and this one, for "Cutting Ice to Snow" from Parades, conjoins northern European art pop and South Philly American urban folk art: 

Efterklang - Cutting Ice To Snow from Rumraket on Vimeo.

The footage in this video was originally shot for, but not used in, In A Dream, a documentary by filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar about his father, Philadelphia mosaic muralist Isaiah Zagar

Also enjoyable: this video for "Polygyne," a sort of Miró-Kandinsky dance party,

Efterklang - Polygyne from Rumraket on Vimeo.

and this one for "Mirador," extending the humanoid-bird theme first touched upon here and featuring a nifty little M.C. Escher hommage near its end:

Efterklang - Mirador from Rumraket on Vimeo.

Wystan Waxes Waggish on Wagner

LAOpera Ring Poster Los Angeles Opera will launch Achim Freyer's staging of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen in May next month, and this weblog can be expected to turn sporadically and spontaneously Wagnerian as the day approaches.  Let's begin with a bit of affectionate jeering at the Meister, shall we?

When I hunted up W. H. Auden's "New Year Letter" for incorporation in my recent New Year's post, I was only able to turn up an excerpt or two online.  Wanting to take a look at the whole thing, I swung by my local bibliotheque and checked out the Collected Poems

The "Letter" is a lengthy contraption in Swiftian couplets, written in the wake of the German aggressions of 1939.  While it begins naturally enough with a focus on the pall that has fallen over Europe, later segments of the poem focus on American concerns, and particularly on the self-absorbed brand of individualism that was and is an American hallmark, and for which Auden had little patience.  Near the end of the poem, we find this Tristan-inspired jab:

The genius of the loud Steam Age,
Loud Wagner, put it on the stage:
The mental hero who has swooned
With sensual pleasure at his wound,
His intellectual life fulfilled
In knowing that his doom is willed,
Exists to suffer; borne along
Upon a timeless tide of song,
The huge doll roars for death or mother,
Synonymous with one another;
And Woman, passive as in dreams,
Redeems, redeems, redeems, redeems.

All together: "It's funny because it's true." 

At least he likes the music.

To return to the LA Opera Ring: some intriguing hints of what this production will look like in performance can be seen in this video in which Placido Domingo, who will be singing Siegmund in Walküre, expresses his enthusiasm for what Herr Freyer has in store for we unsuspecting Angelenos.

Man in the Mirror

[B]y confessing him, you thereby confess others, you brace the whole brotherhood.  For genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.

-- Herman Melville, "Hawthorne and his Mosses" (1850)


Self Portraits from Philip Scott Johnson on Vimeo


This morphing survey of half a millenium of male self-portraiture comes from Philip Scott Johnson, who was also responsible for 2007's well-regarded Women In Art

It is always easy to second guess a compilation of this kind, to ask: "Why did he pick that portrait, and why did he leave out this one that I like so much better?"  Although I won't do that, I will take this as an excuse to post this AP Photo by Eric Feferberg of French President Nicolas Sarkozy visiting one of the more notable omitted works, Gustave Courbet's self-dramatizing "Self-Portrait as Johnny Depp The Desperate Man".

Sarkozy et courbet