Hey Now Baby, Get Into My Big Black Car
[The Industry: Hopscotch]

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Do children still play hopscotch? When I was a child in the suburbs of Detroit the game was still a common one, but I never learned the rules, either formally or by observation, and its workings remain a mystery to me to this day.

The workings of Hopscotch: A Mobile Opera for 24 Cars are only slightly less enigmatic. Hopscotch is the newest offering from Los Angeles' exploratory opera company The Industry, now in performance in daylight on weekends only through November 22. The run is essentially sold out, though viewing via the Central Hub (see the explanation of the mechanics of things below) is available to all for free at all remaining performances. I experienced one portion of Hopscotch—the Red Route—at the first performance of the day on Saturday, November 7, as a paying customer.

The first rule of Hopscotch is that I must attempt to explain how Hopscotch works:

Hopscotch is an opera, devised by The Industry's Artistic Director Yuval Sharon with six composers (Veronika Krausas, Marc Lowenstein, Andrew McIntosh, Andrew Norman, Ellen Reid, and David Rosenboom) combinatorially collaborating with as many librettists (Tom Jacobson, Mandy Kahn, Sarah LaBrie, Jane Stephens Rosenthal, Janine Salinas Schoenberg, and Erin Young). The story is constructed in 34 Chapters. Of the 34 Chapters, 10 exist as animations online, with scores improvised by the ensemble gnarwhallaby. The remaining 24 Chapters have been shuffled and dealt out for performance across three Routes: Red, Yellow and Green, eight Chapters per route. Each Route includes one or more Chapters from each of the six composers, and each Route includes Chapters from all parts of the longer narrative. Routes may cross one another, but they do not share any Chapters. At each of the three daily performances, all three Routes are running simultaneously. On each Route, eight vehicles (limousines for the most part) transport four audience members apiece from Chapter to Chapter, with some Chapters taking place wholly or partially inside the car, some witnessed through the windows, and others involving getting out, entering, following, exploring whatever action may be playing out. On each Route, there are four starting points; from each starting point, two vehicles depart simultaneously, each headed to a different initial Chapter, one traveling the Route clockwise, the other otherwise. In the course of each Chapter, the audience exits the vehicle in which it came, and eventually enters another for the next Chapter.

Simplicity itself, really.

The story of Hopscotch, no more ridiculous than that of most any other opera, centers on the life of Lucha, and the two men most central to it, Jameson and Orlando. Lucha and Jameson "meet cute" when her auto meets with his motorcycle in a collision. At the time, Lucha is working with Orlando and his wife Sarita on an avant-garde, puppet-based theatre piece. Lucha and Jameson fall in love. When Sarita dies, Orlando professes his own love for Lucha and, upon being rejected, leaves for Paris. Jameson pursues mysterious research into the mind and/or parallel realities and, midway through the opera, vanishes inexplicably, never to return. Lucha receives phone calls that prove, eventually, to have been from her future self. There is a descent into Hades. Orlando eventually returns from Paris, and is this time accepted by Lucha. From a rooftop, Lucha looks back and marvels at it all.

Hopscotch - a bridge between Luchas young and old

The characters are recognizable by their color schemes: Jameson is always in black; Lucha's bright yellow dresses are a constant; Sarita, in life and death, is in red; Orlando sports a brown jacket with a distinctive hat. In any given Chapter there may be multiple versions of a character, from any point in their lives. Some are singers, some actors, some instrumentalists. the audience gets none of it in order, and each vehicle-group gets what it gets in a different sequence from the other vehicles rolling the route at that moment. To see it all requires taking all three separately ticketed Routes, which can be done but cannot be done in a day.

There is also The Central Hub. The Hub is a construction in the downtown Arts District, open for free to all comers. During the performances, live video and sound feeds are received in the Central Hub from all three of the ongoing Routes. (Some of the Chapters and their vehicles have fixed smartphone cameras inside or outside the vehicle; in others, an audience member is handed a phone in order to shoot whatever they wish of the proceedings.) At the conclusion of the final performance of each day, all 24 Hopscotch vehicles converge on the Central Hub for a once-daily finale composed by Andrew Norman.

Simplicity itself, really.

Through its gestation and rollout, I was something of a Hopscotch skeptic. While I knew firsthand that The Industry has a genuine flair for site-specific and immersive productions—demonstrated by the nigh-miraculous 2013 premiere of Christopher Cerrone's Invisible Cities in and around Union Station—Hopscotch in its hyperambitious proliferation of moving parts had about it the aura of a stunt, a novelty for novelty's sake. I thought that I might be obliged to echo Dr. Johnson (albeit without his leaven of misogyny) in response to being told of a woman preaching: that it would be "like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." In the end, I gave in, purchasing what may have been the last available November 7 ticket.

Hopscotch - Lucha Libros

The Red Route, which I traveled, for the most part keeps to the east of downtown, in and around Boyle Heights, apart from one dramatic venture to Lucha's parting rooftop above the Arts District. (The Yellow Route centers on Downtown proper, while the Green Route fares more to the north toward Elysian Park.)

At the assigned starting point beside the Casa Del Mexicano, my fellow travelers and I entered our first vehicle to find an Orlando in place at the front; we were joined as the door closed by a violinist and violist and by Sarita in red, already dead, her face painted as a Dia de los Muertos skull. It was Chapter 17, Orlando's departure for Paris. The car pulled out, the music began, Orlando sang his thoughts and Sarita provided wordless counterpoint. In short order, we eased into the gates of the historic Evergreen Cemetery, driving past multilingual early 20th century headstones and groups of real people visiting with the real dead. The car stopped briefly, Sarita exited. We drove on, circling into another part of the cemetery where, through the window, Sarita reappeared, pacing and muttering, her voice broadcast to us inside.

Out of the cemetery then and, a few blocks further on, out of the first car and into the next. Here we found already in place Phillip King, a harpist with a concurrent talent for beatboxing. (Photography inside Hopscotch vehicles is discouraged so as not to interfere with the performers in the tight space; Mr. King has inspired a number of violations of this policy.) We had leapt back to the beginning of the story, with the immediate aftermath of Lucha's collision with Jamison playing out at the center of a large vacant lot. As the live score was harped and vocopercussed inside, the limousine circled and circled the two singers, a long tracking shot in our vehicular pelicula. The singers, wired and mic'd, performed the scene in the open air, their voices transmitted to us through the car's sound system.

And on: in the next car, to a recorded accompaniment, Lucha at mid-story received the first mysterious phone call (which will prove to be from herself, as witnessed by travelers on a Route other than ours). And out of the car. And into the sky: it's an ascent by elevator and stairs in the company of two Luchas (old Lucha sings, young Lucha violings) and two French horn-wielding Orlandos to the roof of an Arts District loft building where the Views Go On For Days and two distant brass players—can it be/of course it is Jameson, perhaps from beyond—carom fanfares off the cityscape in Chapter 33.

And down. And into the dark. Literally: Chapter 24, involving hellish visions derived from Lucha's encounter with a red notebook containing notes from the vanished Jameson, occurs in sound and motion only, the limousine equipped with blackout curtains depriving the traveler of any knowledge of where or how the route is continuing.

Hopscotch - Lucha Jameson and Accordionist

And into the light: We have come some miles, back to Boyle Heights and back into the past, to Hollenbeck Park, where accordion and some convenient players in a lakeside gazebo contribute to the magic moment of Lucha and Jameson's first kiss. When the next vehicle arrives, it contains the most vast and encompassing of all those yellow Lucha dresses, which in turn contains the youngest of Luchas: an emanation of the mid-life Lucha recalling her quinceanara. This Lucha is accompanied by three gentlemen with a menagerie of Mexican guitar variants. When this Chapter ends, we find ourselves glancing in and out the windows, between the musicians of the opera and the real-life itinerant music makers waiting to be hired at Mariachi Plaza.

And aay into the final stretch: a stroll across the Plaza—past the statue of Lucha Reyes, whose namesake the fictional Lucha is, and past a hopscotch layout chalked on the concrete—to witness a recalled encounter in a bookstore between Lucha and the young Orlando, devoted to art and poetry. The young man wanders out, and we follow to enter the final limousine. While his reads aloud, his opera-ending older self comments, through an in-vehicle cellist and a recorded voiceover, on how well it has all worked out for this young fellow.

And we are done. Deposited back to the original parking lot at Casa del Mexicano, beneath the sky of piercing and extravagant blue that is a particular Los Angeles speciality at this time of the year.

Hopscotch - the story goes on as the audience leaves

Was it a stunt? Surely. Does Hopscotch rise above mere stunthood? Yes, I would have to say it does. But how and in what sense? That's a harder question.

Hopscotch is a thing I am very pleased to have done. It was a marvelous time, in the most literal sense: I marveled again and again at what was attempted and what was achieved. As an experience, and as a series of striking and unexpected effects, it is without question a success. The performers are uniformly fine. It is a consuming force while it is happening. It makes me happy that it was made, and particularly that it was made under conditions that allowed me exposure to a piece of it.

What is less clear to me is what Hopscotch means, or where it leads, in the larger world.

The number of people who will be able to take even one Route during the run is relatively small: capacity is roughly 300 per day. The number who will run through two, or all three, is far smaller. Some unknown number, very possibly a larger one, will be able to access a version of Hopscotch via the Central Hub. The most generous total, though, still would not exhaust the nosebleed seats at Staples Center [capacity ca. 18000]. Once it is gone, it is reasonable to expect that Hopscotch is gone forever. Remounting it here, while hardly impossible, is simply not likely. Adapting it to some other city, or to a more conventional theatrical setting, fundamentally undermines its reason for being in the first place. 

Will Hopscotch prove to be an inspiration or catalyst to other, perhaps stranger and more ambitious, new opera or theater ventures? Will it be an exotic sport of nature, viewed in retrospect with stark amaze, but not a path to anything else? I find that I am not prepared to venture even an uninformed prediction on those lines. Certainly, I suspect that The Industry will take its essential success as a sign that the company should fare further forward, toward whatever still-unimagined thing comes next. That should be fun.

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Photos by the blogger.

Cross-posted to ♬ Genre, I'm Only Dancing ♬.

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Dog Days in Los Angeles

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David T. Little's opera, Dog Days, which premiered at Peak Performances in New Jersey in 2012 to significant acclaim, made its west coast premiere last night under the auspices of Los Angeles Opera in its new collaborative initiative with New York's Beth Morrison Projects. I attended the performance, and I have written about it in the fool musical annex:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the End Times

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Starlets and Bible Black
[Gavin Bryars: Marilyn Forever, Long Beach Opera]

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Marilyn Forever, composed by Gavin Bryars on a libretto by Marilyn Bowering, received its U.S. premiere last Saturday evening via Long Beach Opera. Whether the world in fact needed another artful meditation on the life and death of Marilyn Monroe is open to debate. It has in any case been given one. Marilyn Forever must be judged a success on its own terms, and the production that has been devised by LBO artistic director Andreas Mitisek shows it to greatest advantage, with richness and detail to burn. 

Bowering has based her libretto on her 1987 poetry collection, Anyone Can See I Love You, so its methods are those of a free-form song cycle more so than of dramatic narrative. The poems frame a multiplane view of the figure of Marilyn Monroe as she contemplates or re-dreams her life at the time of her death. The well-known beats are revisited: her lonesome childhood as Norma Jean Mortenson, stardom and sex appeal, the marriages to Joe DiMaggio and (particularly) Arthur Miller, singing "Happy Birthday" to the President, her fatal embrace of drugs and alcohol, and so on. Through those reflections, Bowering searches for the woman within the archetype, and reintroduces us to her as one (to paraphrase The Smiths) who was human and who needed to be loved, just as anybody else does.

Bryars' score is for two small groups: an onstage trio of piano, saxophone and bass, and an eight-piece pit ensemble of low strings, winds and percussion. The composer himself played the bass part at Saturday's performance. The primary musical line slips with agility between the two groups of players, the trio deploying a 1950s-styled mix of jazz (saxophone solo included) and popular song styles and the pit orchestra swimming in broad and darksome minor harmonies, riverine and unresolved, melodic by allusion rather than by declaration. It is not difficult to imagine that only modest retooling would be needed to remove the singers—although Bryars has established himself as a gifted writer for human voices—and to reveal an evocative and intriguing instrumental piece.

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Marilyn Forever premiered in Victoria, British Columbia, in 2013, and has since been performed in Australia as part of a recent Bryars survey/tribute at the Adelaide Festival. The Long Beach production for this U.S. premiere is entirely new.

As written the opera calls for a cast of four: Marilyn Monroe herself and the "Rehearsal Director," who also serves to represent some of the men (and the role of men generally) in her life, plus a two-man chorus referred to as The Tritones. Director Mitisek's innovation is to divide the role of Marilyn between two singers, one for the brightly hued public star and one for the vexed and troubled private woman. 

Mitisek splits the stage as well. A lighted makeup table serves as divider, the public life playing out largely stage right (in front of the jazz trio) while stage left alludes to the guest house bedroom in which Monroe's body was found. Public Marilyn begins the opera in her bedroom, before quickly passing over into the world. Private Marilyn emerges, rather unexpectedly, from beneath the rumpled bedclothes, and never leaves her room with its scattering of old photos and the company of a motley assortment of  flasks and bottles. At the opera's end, the two personae rejoin, seated on the bed, still alone but alone together.

Set walls and scrims serve as well as projection screens, bearing posed and candid photos of incidents from Monroe's life as well as live video from the stage. The video originates with several fixed positions, plus handheld cameras operated by the two Tritones. The video overlay is immersive and potent, especially when capturing small details from the stage and juxtaposing them to add point to a larger line or gesture.

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Jamie Chamberlin and Danielle Marcelle Bond are, between them, Marilyn Monroe. The division of the part between two singers works so well in this production that it came as a surprise to many in the audience that the role is not in fact written that way. Both performers initially learned the entire role, working out the final apportionment of lines and sequences through exploration in rehearsal. Chamberlin's public star sings in a high register, evoking an enriched and variegated version of Monroe's own singing voice. Portions, at least, of the vocal line assigned to Bond's private Marilyn seem to have been transposed slightly downward toward a darker mezzo range. Each of the singers fully commits to her assigned facets of the character, and each can be said to be First Marilyn Among Equals.

[Update: I have it on excellent authority - Facebook comments from the singers - that in fact nothing was transposed or altered in the score. The role of Marilyn is written such as to encompass both soprano and mezzo: the way in which the part was divided for dramatic purposes served, by happy coincidence, to play to the strengths of the two performers.]

Lee Gregory (the Captain in last season's Death of Klinghoffer) brings admirable clarity to distinguish among the half-dozen (or more) men he is called upon to symbolize, including the gruff but supportive Rehearsal Director, bespectacled and beloved Arthur Miller, and the occasional unsavory Hollywood casting couch type. The Tritones (Robert Norman, Adrian Rosales) ably provide such choral support as the score requires, and they are indispensable to the seamless workings of the video schema. 

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Opera often concerns itself with retelling old stories and Marilyn Forever—an unfortunate title, really, that makes a serious minded and affecting chamber opera sound like a feel-good jukebox musical—does not hold itself out as offering any new and shattering insight into its subject. That may be for the best: even before her death, and certainly in the fifty-three years since, Marilyn Monroe has been appropriated, claimed, and retooled by so many hands with so many agendas of their own that offering her up as no more than a human woman alone with herself is less a reduction than it is a show of respect. 

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Marilyn Forever receives a final performance at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro (albeit without the composer as a player) on Sunday, March 29, 2015, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets available here.

Photos above by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]  

Cross-posted at Genre, I'm Only Dancing.

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A bonus photo: the actual Marilyn, in a smoky nightclub situation in the company of Donald O'Connor and Cole Porter, at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel, January 1953.

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Antoinette of the Spirits, or, The Beaumarchais Strategem
[The Ghosts of Versailles, Los Angeles Opera]

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A magpie's trove in a hall of mirrors, its shiny borrowings gleaned across space and time and worlds natural and supernatural: John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles is now on offer as part of Los Angeles Opera's sprawling "Figaro Unbound" initiative, with two performances remaining. It is a rewarding thing to commune with these spirits.

New York's Metropolitan Opera commissioned Ghosts to be premiered in 1983, for the company's 100th Anniversary. In light of the occasion, it was to serve not only as an opera in its own right, but also as a gala opportunity to showcase a number of the Met's then-reigning and rising stars. The enormity of the resulting piece was such that the Met itself has yet to revisit it—a planned 2010 revival was scrapped when the U.S. economy went reeling downward—and such other productions as have been attempted (in Chicago and St. Louis) have been of reduced or chamber versions. The current production in Los Angeles is the first to take on the complete version since its premiere.

The institutional neglect of these Ghosts is unfortunate because Corigliano, with a meticulous tightrope-walk of a libretto by William M. Hoffman, devised a piece that can stand solidly as an opera, as a love letter to all opera, as a spectacle, and as emotionally resonant theater. Ghost story, opera buffa, love story, melodrama, pageant and more: Ghosts is a bumblebee, a creature that should not fly but does, an edifice that should collapse of its own weight and yet floats off to the Empyrean when all's said, as lightly as a Montgolfier balloon (the concluding image in this production).

The plot? It's complicated, even by 18th century opera standards:

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The audience in the material world is made privy to events in the spirit world, possibly going on at this moment. The ghosts of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and others of the French court, executed by the Revolution, languish and are bored. With them is the ghost of the equally dead, but not beheaded, Beaumarchais, the author of the Figaro plays, the two most popular of which—The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro—served Rossini and Mozart as fodder for equally popular operas, which will themselves be returning to the L.A. Opera stage in short order.

For the love of the mournful Marie Antoinette, Beaumarchais grandly proposes an entertainment, a new recounting of further adventures of the beloved Figaro and company.  By this means, the poet announces, he will do more than merely amuse. He proposes in fact to Change the Course of History and to permit the Queen, whom he loves, to escape her rendezvous with the guillotine. The living audience watches the dead audience watching fictional characters tampering with actual history in an opera within the opera. 

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On the inner stage, it is some twenty years after Figaro's Marriage. Figaro, it seems, continues to serve Count Almaviva. The Count is engaged in a Pimpernel-like scheme in which a fabulous diamond necklace of the Queen's will be sold in secret to the English ambassador to Paris, during a reception at the Turkish embassy. The proceeds of the transaction will fund the Queen's rescue from imprisonment and her escape to the New World, specifically to Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Almaviva's trusted friend Begearss—in fact an unrepentant villain in the tradition of Iago—awaits his chance to betray the Count into the lethal hands of the Revolution. And, of course, there are marriages to be arranged or thwarted.

All goes as planned until Figaro, having snapped up the necklace during the  hubbub of the Turkish revels, rebels against his creator and refuses to use the jewels as intended to save the Queen. He will keep them for his own, to deal with his innumerable creditors. He has achieved Pirandellian self-awareness. He knows he is a beloved character—"Your Figaro!"—and that this is what his audience would expect of him and what he himself desires.

Outraged, Beaumarchais is obliged to invade his own fiction in an effort to reassert his authorial will. Ultimately, in an effort to persuade Figaro to return to course, Beaumarchais restages the trial of the Queen. Figaro relents, the dreadful Begearss receives his comeuppance, and all of the fictional characters are saved. The real/ghost Queen, however, elects not to change her own past. She finds that she is reconciled to history, and in the company of the loving Beaumarchais she achieves a sort of apotheosis.

Beaumarchais's proposition proves to be the same as Shakespeare's in the sonnets: that the love of a poet or artist may grant to the beloved, through art, a sort of immortality when life itself cannot. It is, perhaps, the only immortality there can be for such fleeting creatures as humans are.

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This new Los Angeles production is directed by Darko Tresnjak, whose previous work with Los Angeles Opera has been as part of the "Recovered Voices" project, including Alexander Zemlinsky's marvelous, heartbreaking The Dwarf.   To the larger world, he may be better known as the recent Tony Award winner for directing The Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Tresnjak's management of stage traffic alone is an impressive thing, given the multiple stages, nesting plots and large-scale set pieces Ghosts requires. The sets are looming and luxuriant, the costumes sumptuous, the spectacle fully spectacular. Ghosts is a madly overstuffed thing, scintillant of surface but secreting resonant emotional depths. Its every corner packed with detail, it resembles in many ways Terry Gilliam's Baron Munchhausen, not least in its pitting of love and the spinning of upwardly yearning yarns against political calculation and callous destructiveness. (That, and they both feature heads floating about independent of their bodies. But I digress.)

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On a good night, the orchestra of the Los Angeles Opera is every bit the equal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, across the street. The Opera orchestra and conductor James Conlon are having very good nights with Ghosts, navigating a kaleidoscope of styles and moods effortlessly.

Among the singers, Robert Brubaker as the reprehensible Begearss is a highlight, earning a round of affectionate booing in his curtain call. In his company debut, Christopher Maltman brings dignity and scope to bear on behalf of Beaumarchais. Patricia Racette as Marie Antoinette, is noble and sad. The show-stopping cameo role of the Turkish singer Samira, written for Marilyn Horne, is taken up with infectious glee by Patti Lupone, her Broadway chops in full effect, ululating and schticking it up uproariously in the mad comic finale of Act I. 

The Ghosts of Versailles is not what Wagner had in mind when he imagined the "total work of art" [gesamtkunstwerk], but in this production it arguably qualifies: music, poetry, theatrical wizardry, all brought to bear in a consuming whole. Its satisfactions are many, and they linger—hauntingly—long after the curtain falls and the auditorium is emptied of the living.

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Incidental Twitter notes:

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The Ghosts of Versailles continues at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with performances February 26 and March 1.

Photos used by kind permission of Los Angeles Opera.

The blogger attended this performance as a Los Angeles Opera subscriber.

Cross-posted to Genre, I'm Only Dancing.

~~~


Oui, elle regrette tout
[Thérèse Raquin, Long Beach Opera]

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Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin (1867) is lurid, unrepentantly tawdry, and a potboiler at its core, with all the lust, loathing, murder, desperation, and squalor that implies. It's trappings even include the visitations of an aggrieved and vengeful ghost. It would seem the sort of story destined from birth to find a place in the opera repertoire, and in 2001 composer Tobias Picker gave it one. Originally commissioned by Dallas Opera, and staged by San Diego Opera in 2008, on Saturday evening Picker's Thérèse Raquin opened the 2015 Long Beach Opera season. 

Zola offered his story as a realistic chronicle of squalid conditions and miserable lives in the Paris of his own moment. Director Ken Cazan maintains the Parisian locale, but moves the action forward some eighty years, to 1945-46 as the city, with the rest of Europe, struggles back to life from war and occupation. As conceit go it is a good conceit, and the mid-century look of the production also quietly evokes an American literary parallel: the novels of James M. Cain in which, as in Zola, characters are ground down by their own mistakes or, as commonly, by societal and family conditions they did not make, cannot control, and seem barely to understand.

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Zola's tale is pitiless: Thérèse was left at the age of three to be raised by her aunt, the widowed Madame Raquin, whose life is otherwise devoted to ruling over her sickly son, Thérèse's cousin, Camille. It is foreordained that the cousins should marry. They do, and continue to live in the Raquin flat, where Thursday dominoes with the neighbors are the only unvarying variance in a dismal routine. Thérèse falls in with Camille's raffish office mate, the aspiring "painter" Laurent. Camille, inevitably, is murdered by the lovers: drowned in a boating excursion on the Seine. Laurent and Thérèse, still living off of Madame Raquin's widow's pension, marry and fall swiftly into debilitating mutual loathing and regret. Camille's ghost—given here an unforeseen Act II entrance worthy of Freddie Krueger—perturbs them mightily. At length, just as they are inclining to kill one another, they instead kill themselves. Tres jolienon?

Gene Scheer is the librettist, and he has provided a clean, efficient tour through the necessary events of the tale. The libretto is structurally sound as can be, but Scheer has chosen, inexplicably and with surprising frequency, to set much of the dialogue as loose-limbed rhymed couplets. While Picker typically avoids lapsing into sing-song to accommodate the rhymes (except when some of the supporting characters are actually supposed to be singing wedding-night doggerel), the too-obvious rhyme frequently threatens to undercut the seriousness of the characters' situation.

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Picker's score is also a clean and efficient thing, amply allusive without lowering itself to pastiche. Act 1, in particular, revels in evocations of Debussy and Ravel—Laurent's seductive anecdote of being "persuaded" to include a comely young woman in one of his pictures is a veritable  après-midi d'un  flâneur. The second act, post-murder, grows more angular, highlighted by Camille's "ghost aria," which borrows effectively from the bottomless melancholy of Peter Quint in Britten's The Turn of the Screw. If it is not pioneering, the music is rarely less than an effective carrier of the drama.

The cast in this production, the majority in their first appearance with Long Beach Opera, are solid as can be. As a character, Thérèse poses the challenge of being far more acted upon than active; Mary Ann Stewart is amply sympathetic against the odds, grasping for a personal freedom she can barely imagine. As Camille, Matthew DiBattista effectively contrasts an ineffectual lumpishness against a bitter last fight against death and, finally, an urgent and physical grotesquerie from beyond the grave in the showpiece ghost aria. Ed Parks's Laurent is less clever than he imagines himself, casually unfeeling when he imagines he is being most sincere; not a bad man, but a man who makes very poor choices.

Suzan Hanson captures the misguided strictness of Madame Raquin, who never acknowledges her smothering effect on those around her. When her character falls silent, victim of a stroke induced by the discovery of Laurent and Thérèse's guilt (and a brutal confrontation with Laurent), she serves as silent foil to the guilty and to the oblivious as the drama snakes to its end.

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To their credit, Picker and Sheer have taken the supporting parts of the neighbors seriously, giving a fair portion of humanity to parts that could have been caricatures. Zeffin Quinn Hollis is the good natured gendarme Olivier, unable even to suspect the guilt of the killers, with Ani Maldjian as his touchingly rootless spouse. John Matthew Myers is the much-married, jovially clueless Monsieur Grivet.

All told Thérèse Raquin works well as an opera. If it's path through desperation and folly to death and confusion is not new, it is certainly well retold. As Bugs Bunny famously observed, "Whaddaya expect from an opera? A happy ending?" To which one can only reply in this case: Non, je ne regrette rien.

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Thérèse Raquin repeats at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro on Sunday, February 1, 2015, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets available here.

Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]

Cross-posted to Genre, I'm Dancing.

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A Midsummer Night's Temblor

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Timing is everything. On Saturday evening, Long Beach Opera staged the long-delayed Los Angeles premiere of John Adams' I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, and the concatenation of that piece's concerns with contemporaneous events lent to it a weight and complexity that, frankly, it likely does not warrant on its own merits.

Ceiling/Sky, as it is often known, was created by Adams in collaboration with poet-activist June Jordan under the auspices of director Peter Sellars, which whom the composer had worked closely in the creation and staging of his earlier operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer (both of which Long Beach Opera has performed in recent years). As with the operas, the piece takes a current event as its starting point. Premiering in Berkeley in 1995, Ceiling/Sky turns on the Northridge earthquake that thundered beneath the Los Angeles area the previous year.

Ceiling/Sky is not actually about the earthquake, which does not even occur until nearly two thirds of the way through the piece. When the seismic shift finally puts in its appearance, it serves as little more than a random opportunity for personal growth on the part of the story's seven characters, who by that point are as intertwined as they are ill defined.

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The dramatic frame of Ceiling/Sky is one that is by now familiar from a certain type of very serious and earnest film and television drama: a group of characters, each defined principally by ethnicity or gender or political affiliation and otherwise bearing little in the way of individual personality, are brought together through the altogether random intersection of their life paths. Here, a "young black man" named Dewain, with a history of run-ins with law enforcement, shoplifts two bottles of beer while enroute to see Consuelo, the undocumented Salvadoran refugee with whom he has fathered a seven-month old child. Dewain is arrested by Mike, an LAPD officer on patrol in the company of Tiffany, a television journalist who takes more than professional interest in his person. Facing a "third strike" that will send him to prison for most of his life, Dewain is represented by public defender Rick, the U.S.-born son of Vietnamese refugees. Consuelo has been receiving birth control advice from community activist Leila, who in turn is romantically enmeshed with David, a charismatic, if philandering, inner city preacher. There is then an earthquake. Lives are changed, deep realizations are realized—Mike the cop acknowledges and embraces his gay identity, for example, and Consuelo elects to return to political engagement in El Salvador. The story ends with the characters' life paths re-forking in their separate new found directions.

Twenty years on, the details have changed but the political and societal concerns at play in Ceiling/Sky remain sadly unresolved. The fraught potential of encounters between white law enforcement and young black men has been driven home again by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Young Central Americans continue to cross the U.S. border fleeing criminal or government violence in their homelands. Even the earthquake itself became suddenly topical again when the town of Napa and surounding wine country were struck with a 6.0 shock within hours after Saturday's performance.

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Relevance and progressive politics, however, do not in themselves create credible theater. Ceiling/Sky ultimately fails as persuasive drama because its characters are barely more than stick figures bearing their identities as placards. Politically informed drama is hard to pull off, the weight of symbolism and rhetorical point tending to pull away from the compelling portrayal of actual humans. June Jordan did not navigate those hazards with nearly the success that was achieved by Alice Goodman in her (imperfect, but nevertheless more successful) libretti for Nixon and Klinghoffer

John Adams' score, on the other hand, is peculiarly compelling. Adams calls the piece a "song play," which could be taken as a literal translation of the German singspiel, i.e., the mix of high and low music theater traditions that yielded up Magic Flute. The magic and spectacle of Mozart are not on display in Ceiling/Sky, but the coupling of music hall, dance hall, and concert hall traditions certainly is. The 20 songs that tell the story swing and shuffle, groove and grind, with neominimalist pulse and drone as their dates for the evening, a pleasingly heady and singspielische mix of street and nonstreet strains. The reliance on electronic keyboards is occasionally too period-specific, verging on the cheesy, but not to such an extent as to undercut the entirety of the score.

Long Beach Opera artistic director Andreas Mitisek conducted the ensemble with exemplary skill, and the ensemble responded with what seemed to be as compelling an account of the score as could be wished. The performances of musicians and singing actors were across the board entirely compelling: better, really, than the piece itself. In a world full of mediocre accounts of great works, it was refreshing to encounter a strong and committed account of a less-than-great one.

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I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky was a one-off performance, under the auspices of Los Angeles County's Ford Theatres. Which is to say, if you weren't there you won't be given another opportunity.

Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

~~~


Nothing Is As It Disappears

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Long Beach Opera is not a company that regularly revives past productions, but it is currently making an exception with a return of David Lang's The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, which it originally staged in 2011. At that time, I foamed and raved more than somewhat in my enthusiasm for the piece and the performance. Revisiting it again this past weekend, I found it to be if anything even more impressive than it had been three years ago.

Below is a revised edition of what I wrote in 2011, with deletions, elisions, corrections, and additions as seem appropriate. There are only two more performances, for which tickets are (as it were) Difficult to obtain, but well worth the attempt.

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For those few who will have the opportunity to see it, Long Beach Opera’s southern California premiere staging of The Difficulty of Crossing a Field should stand, easily, as one of the most singularly compelling musical or dramatic productions to be offered in these parts this year. Or perhaps I should say that it will stand uneasily, because unease and uncertainty, the unresolvable conjoined with the unmentionable, lie at its heart.

Difficulty hangs on the slimmest of narrative threads, a 750-word story by Ambrose Bierce in which Mr. Williamson, a plantation owner in 1854 near Selma, Alabama, one day sets out to walk across one of his fields to deliver an instruction and, in plain view of witnesses, disappears. The witnesses are astonished; Williamson’s wife loses her wits, either on the spot or shortly after. There is an inquiry by the law.  Bierce gives the oddly redacted testimony of Williamson’s neighbor, Mr. Wren, and attorney readers in particular will appreciate Bierce’s way with the shaky reliability of eyewitnesses.  Bierce reports flatly in his final sentence that Williamson was declared dead, his property distributed according to law. What has happened is never explained: “It is not the purpose of this narrative,” Bierce writes midway, “to answer that question.”

The stage version originated as a commission from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, and premiered in a small alternative space in San Francisco in 2002. The music is by David Lang, one third of New York's Bang on a Can and recent Pulitzer Prize winner for The Little Match Girl Passion.  The text is by playwright Mac Wellman. Between them, Lang and Wellman collect the cryptic fragments of Mr. Williamson’s disappearance and spin them into something even more cryptic. In a pre-performance talk [in 2011], David Lang noted that Wellman’s libretto includes at least once every word in Bierce’s original.  Wellman’s most critical contribution is to give voice to those whose testimony is pointedly not sought out or considered to be of interest in Bierce’s story: Williamson’s young daughter (a babe in arms in the tale, a soprano here), the now-disturbed Mrs. Williamson and, above all, Mr. Wren’s house slave Boy Sam and Mr. Williamson’s own field slaves. Bierce, again:

Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. . . .  None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions [sic], originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day . . . .

(Emphasis added.)

David Lang scored the piece for string quartet, specifically the Kronos Quartet in the original production. (In Long Beach, the score receives a highly capable and sympathetic treatment at the hands of the Lyris Quartet, conducted [in 2011] by Benjamin Makino [and in this revival by Kristof Van Grysperre].) The music is rooted in contemporary minimalism, with discrete melodic shards repeating in shifting relation to one another. Like that of Philip Glass, Lang's minimalist method is remarkably fluid, and able to shift instantly from jittery nervousness to chanting mysticism to lyrical melanchol. It melds well with the parallel technique of Wellman's text, in which key phrases recur and recur, their seeming significance altered by the other phrases that move around them. "We are constructing a nation," the field slaves sing early on; moments later, the phrase has become more ominous: "We are constructing an erasure."

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For once not wielding the conductor's baton, Long Beach Opera Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek has designed and directed a production that brings out all the ineffable mystery Difficulty carries about its person. * * * [T]he audience is seated on the stage [of Long Beach's Terrace Theater] and the performance takes place on the segmented elevator in the orchestra pit, and within the dim and cavernous space beyond.  A long ramp, illuminated from below, runs out into the house, and it is along that ramp that Mr. Williamson disappears. The investigating magistrate, bat-like shadows behind him, presides over his inquiry from the upper balcony. The rows of theater seats echo the rows of crops that are tended by the field slaves, who approach through mist out of the darkness to share their piece of the mystery. Mitisek has made a habit of staging opera in unusual spaces, or of using the available space in unexpected ways; this [was and remains perhaps] his neatest scenic conceit [ever].

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The cast is uniformly impressive. Suzan Hanson * * * is mad again as Mrs. Williamson. She is perched high atop a stool or ladder, rising and descending in the pit, her enormous skirts spreading out over the ground around her as she tries to grasp what has happened to all she once took for granted. Mrs. Williamson's music is the most "operatic" in the piece, and Hanson's rich and subtle soprano (and her rich and subtle dramatic chops) entrance as they disturb. As the young Williamson girl, Valerie Vinzant spends her time on the floor drawing and recalling the last thing her father said to her—"What is the point of talking crap like that?"—in response to her Cassandra-like suggestion that the horses know something important and must be understood. Lang has given the character music as lovely as anything in the piece, and Vinzant sings it rivetingly.

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The field slaves are central to Difficulty and the [mostly new nine]-member ensemble gathered in Long Beach is a powerful one[, particularly Karole Foreman as the woman known as Virginia Creeper, the slaves' ritual centerpoint, and Michael Paul Smith as the unnamed field hand obliged to recite his masters' rules and regulations.] As [the house slave] Boy Sam, Eric B. Anthony impresses with an eery high tenor, unsure what he has seen and whether he should share it (as if the whites would even listen if he did). 

Robin Buck * * * returns in the mostly-speaking roles of Mr. Wren and of Williamson's brother/overseer, through whom we learn that Williamson favored the unyieldingly harsh philosophies of John C. Calhoun in the "management" of his slave population. In separate scenes, each of Buck's characters provides testimony contradictory of the other, neither getting any grip on what may have occurred.

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Mr. Williamson himself, and the investigating magistrate, both non-singing roles, are played by Long Beach stalwart Mark Bringelson. Stern, humorless and puritanical as the magistrate, grotesque in the manner of little men with undeserved power as Williamson, Bringelson is a compelling pivot round whom the other characters' plans and reactions turn. Moreover, he brings a surprising grace to his character's actual disappearance, giving away nothing while becoming nothing.

So what, we ask, has actually happened? Did Mr. Williamson light out for the territory? Was he swallowed by a particularly subtle and efficient sinkhole? Beamed up by aliens? Is he the Don Giovanni of Selma, Alabama, hauled away in a trice to pay for his sins? None can say. These are [among] the Mysteries of Selma, Alabama.

To return:  * * * Difficulty * * *[is] shudderingly fine, as a work and as a production [and left me yet again] in a condition of awe-struck wonder. * * * 

~~~

Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, from the 2014 production; used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.  

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]  

~~~


A View to Achille
[The Death of Klinghoffer, Long Beach Opera]

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Controversy is a distorting lens. To the degree that a creative work becomes known as "controversial," it is that much more difficult to see and assess the actual work. That there was a riot (they say) at the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps tells us little or nothing about the Sacre, or how we should value it. That a given artist's work was caught up in the U.S. "culture wars" of the 1980s reflects neither well nor poorly on the quality of the art: the controversy swept up art both good (Mapplethorpe) and less good (Serrano, in the view of this blogger), without distinguishing between or caring to address those qualities.

Given this,

  • Step #1 in approaching John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer—now receiving its first-ever southern California production, via Long Beach Opera, many long years after Los Angeles Opera co-commissioned but ultimately decided not to stage it—should be to forget for a time that the opera has been marked as Controversial since its premiere in 1991.

  • Step #2 is, if you have the opportunity, to go, see and hear it for yourself, because it is a complex, imperfect, but worthy artistic creation deserving of your attention and assessment, because it has taken twenty years to get a full staging in this part of the world, and particularly because we are unlikely to have it on offer here again any time soon.

There is one more performance, this coming Saturday.

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Part opera, part oratorio, The Death of Klinghoffer meditates upon the events of October, 1985, when four members of the Palestine Liberation Front hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean, holding crew and passengers hostage for several days while attempting to negotiate for the release of Paletinian prisoners held by Israel. On the second day, the hijackers shot and killed 69-year old Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish American retiree on a late-life vacation with his wife. His body and wheelchair were both thrown overboard. Those are pearls that were his eyes.

Alice Goodman's libretto touches on these events—with an added overlay focusing on the ship's Captain and his efforts by calm and by focus to resolve the situation without loss to crew or crowd—and wraps them in a series of grand choruses, the massed singers voicing the hopes and angers and faiths and rages of Israel and Palestine. Indeed almost twenty minutes are consumed, before the plot per se begins, with the paired "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians" and "Chorus of Exiled Jews." The choruses are underlain with some of the most elaborately fine and varied music of Adams's extensive career; the "Night Chorus" that ends Act One shares a clear lineage with the great John Donne setting "Batter My Heart" that is the highlight of the later Doctor Atomic. 

It is Goodman's libretto that has been the flash point for "controversy" surrounding Klinghoffer, criticized as unbalanced in favor of the Palestinians and insufficiently critical of the hijackers' actions. The opera premiered a mere five years after the events it portrays, so that the wounds specific to the Achille Lauro incident were more raw than they are today. That the hijackers of 1985 utilized menace and violence as quid pro quo in pursuit of concrete demands (the release of prisoners) feels almost quaint or old-fashioned now, in an era in which death—whether by suicide bomb or transit station attack or the large-scale horror of September 11—seems more commonly wielded for its own sake.  In any case, Klinghoffer avoids taking particular sides on the political issues, electing instead to simply present them: reportage prevails over advocacy. The opera certainly does not endorse the hijacking itself or attempt to justify the murder of Leon Klinghoffer: even if the hijackers' cause is accepted as just, it is plain that their self-perceived righteousness and zeal has made monsters of them. There is an implicit pacifism lying beneath the entire drama, a rejection of violence as an acceptable method in support of any cause, noble or ignoble. The figure of the Captain, in fact, in his unsatisfying effort to extricate his ship from danger by logic and moral suasion, echoes a figure in an earlier pacifist work, another well-meaning commander who cannot stop death and injustice: Britten's Captain Vere in Billy Budd.

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In an atypical move for a company that generally goes its own way, LBO has imported the production of Klinghoffer helmed by James Robinson in 2011 for Opera Theatre of St. Louis. This was the first new fully staged production in this country in nearly twenty years, since the last performance of the original Peter Sellars version of the piece. A group of imposing panels echoing the hull of the ship slide and turn as the principal elements of the set. A screen rises and falls bearing projections of sea, sand and, most memorably, the empty wheelchair of Leon Klinghoffer sinking into the depths, spinning slowly slowly as it goes. The wheelchair figures as well in a startling, too-brief effect in the seconds before the opera begins.

Klinghoffer has been preceded in Long Beach in earlier seasons by two other notable post-Minimal operas: Adams's Nixon in China and Philip Glass's Akhnaten.In all three, substantial musical and dramatic weight must be borne the Chorus. As in those prior productions, the Chorus in Klinghoffer Impresses out of proportion to its size, negotiating a complex musical rhetoric with variety and point.

As the earnest but ultimately ineffectual Captain, Lee Gregory exhibits dignity, fine posture, and gravitas, especially when obliged to convey to Marilyn Klinghoffer after the hijackers' departure the admission that her husband has been murdered. Three subsidiary passengers—a Swiss grandmother, a haughty Austrian surviving on the fruit basket in her cabin and dismissing the "idiots" around her, and a dancing girl who thinks one of the attackers was really a bit of a gentleman about it—are all sung by Danielle Marcelle Bond. These characters seem an odd stab at comic relief in a piece that is otherwise relentlessly dour and serious. Ms. Bond individualizes each of them, making the most of the awkward material she has been dealt.

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Of the four hijackers, two stand out. The leader of the group, Mamoud, is sung by Jason Switzer. Although the actual hijackers were men in their 20s, Mr Switzer's Mamoud is older, more thoughtful perhaps, committed to his cause but troubled and flustered when the plan is not so easily carried off as it might be. The role of Omar, written for mezzo soprano, falls to Peabody Southwell. Omar has one furious monologue, a slow burning declaration of ruthlessness that here evolves into the videotaping of a propaganda piece—modeled at least partly on contemporary "martyrdom videos"—Omar smoldering on the verge of explosion, wrapped in a Palestinian flag. 

Robin Buck and Suzan Hanson bring to their interactions as the Klinghoffers the same sincere regard and fathomless affection that marked their performances as another longtime married couple in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Each of the Klinghoffers is granted two arias: Leon Klinghoffer pivots from a praise of their comfortable normalcy to a stern confrontation with his captors before being wheeled below where he will be killed, and is granted an apotheosis of sorts in the "Aria of the Falling Body"; Marilyn Klinghoffer sings of her closeness with Leon, their lives together, and the pains and fear with which she is afflicted, and is given the opera's final word, lashing out at the Captain for "welcoming" the men who killed her husband and at the world at large for having done too little to save him, ending in the wish that she should have been the one to have died. In Mr. Buck's hands, Leon Klinghoffer is a humane and decent man, and his offstage death all the more pointless and moving for it. Ms. Hanson's Marilyn is heartbreakingly exposed, her roar of grief and rage never to be answered and ultimately unanswerable.

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~~~ 

Tickets are available for the remaining performance, on Saturday, March 22, at 2:00 p.m., in the Terrace Theater, Long Beach.

Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]  

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 ~~~


Grim Grinning Ghosts Come Out to Vocalize
[Pacific Opera Project: The Turn of the Screw]

  Be not hysterical about that staring man beneath the stairs.

Down an industrial side street south of downtown Los Angeles, a few blocks from the heart of Skid Row, there is opera being made, and made well, this past weekend and next. The location is the theater inside the unexpectedly situated Inner-City Arts, and the occasion is Pacific Opera Project [POP] staging Benjamin Britten's adaptation of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw.

POP is that grand quixotic thing, the plucky/spunky opera company. Founded little more than two years ago, POP's first production was a supremely intimate version of Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti with props and sets more or less literally crafted from cardboard cutouts. I saw it, and I liked it, as much because of its "poor theatre" qualities as despite them, but I did not know then that the company would hang in and grow as, it seems, it has. With Turn of the Screw, POP now has nine productions to its name, including all three Mozart-Da Ponte operas—and only one Puccini, which is all to the good.

Turn of the Screw is a change of pace for the company, which since Tahiti has stuck to the generally-hummable repertoire (and will continue to do so with a Carmen in March). The company's Artistic Director/prodction director Josh Shaw and Musical Director/conductor Stephen Karr have taken Turn of the Screw head on and done all that is needed to put up a production that, while it forges no new ground in its conceptual approach, is compelling from beginning to end and shows off to full advantage a piece that is certainly. between Britten's music and the near-perfect construction of Myfanwy Piper's libretto, one of the very finest music dramas of the 20th Century.

Straitened resources notwithstanding, POP's production is in no sense "backwater opera." Rather, it does credit to everyone involved in its creation.

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We have been fortunate in Los Angeles in recent decades to have two very good productions of Turn of the Screw via Los Angeles Opera. (Here are my thoughts on the better and most recent of them, in 2011.) Even those, however, had to fight not to lose impact in a house as large as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. One of the virtues of POP's production is to restore the opera to its proper "chamber" size, and to a scale where its effects and subtleties are more readily received by the audience. The results are consistently gripping.

The stage area is shallow, but also wide and tall, with a balcony that wraps around to the audience's right. Resourceful use of screens, scrims, shadows and windows adds depth and variety to the playing space. (Josh Shaw serves as designer as well as director, with lighting by Ryan Shull.) The forestage is occupied by blue fabric that, with the aid of fans and light, transforms as needed into the grim lake where the spirit of the late Miss Jessel first makes herself known.

The orchestra—Britten's full complement of thirteen—hidden in almost plain sight on the upper level, won through convincingly against a tricksy score at Saturday's opening performance. The percussion was occasionally out of balance and a touch clangy, and one or to string passages went foggy, but the reeds and harp particularly carried the evening.

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After their fashion, the tenor roles Britten wrote for companion Peter Pears make demands on the singer as idiosyncratic as the Wagnerian heldentenor parts, and not every tenor adapts to them creditably. In the Pearsian dual role of the Prologue and Peter Quint, Clay Hilley was more than creditable, wittily spooky and poignantly heartsick by turns as the ghostly valet, more misunderstood perhaps than actually wicked. As young Miles, the object of Quint's attention in the living world, soprano Ariel Downs strikes the right balance of charm, boyishness, and ambiguously implied decadence, particularly in the "Malo" song and the spine-tingle conclusion of Act I. (Ms. Downing is making a small specialty of playing young boys, having also done so in The Industry's "(First Take)" program last summer.)

Rebecca Sjöwall portrays the beset and possibly unhinging Governess with the necessary blend of earnestness, resolve and stark panic, particularly in the pinpoint shift from triumph to utter despair in the opera's final crisis. Mrs. Grose (Jennifer Wallace), the housekeeper whose opinions of the departed Quint set the Governess's concerns racing, is more fully characterized and less of a cipher here than is often the case, each turn of her well meaning confusion projected with clarity. Marina Harris is the appropriately moody Miss Jessel, no happier in death than she seems to have been in life, and Katy Tang completes the ensemble as the alternatively sparkly and sullen Flora. 

With The Turn of the Screw, POP seals its place as a welcome addition to Los Angeles-area music community, reaffirming that "size isn't everything" and that it deserves to be judged as a peer alongside larger and longer established groups. The committed effort and inventiveness invested by all concerned in this production returns ample and lingering musical and dramatic satisfaction. Wider attention should be paid to POP and these performers in future.

The remaining performances of The Turn of the Screw are scheduled for the evenings of January 17 and 18, with a matinee to close out the run on January 19. Tickets [if they have not yet sold out] can be sought out here.

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~~~

Photos by Martha Benedict, procured via Pacific Opera Project on Facebook.

Disclosures: Jennifer Wallace (Mrs. Grose) is, as the reader may have guessed, the blogger's sister. Every effort has been bent to maintaining objectivity notwithstanding the compelling fact of consanguinity. The blogger attended this performance as a paying customer, at his own expense. The first person singular and the active voice will be reassumed by the blogger in due time.

~~~


The Geography of Melancholy
Christopher Cerrone: Invisible Cities
The Industry, Los Angeles Union Station

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Music, drama, art and technology conjoin and entwine in the world premiere production of Christopher Cerrone's opera, Invisible Cities, which opened at and in Los Angeles Union Station on Saturday evening, presented by operatic innovators The Industry. The production's successes are many, and such weaknesses as it has are intriguing in themselves. Whether or not it shows the way to a new mode of opera presentation, Invisible Cities is a richly fascinating expression of a multifold and rewarding new work. The original announced performances, through November 8, are reported to be sold out, but there is some possibility of additional dates being added.

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The work itself is a rich and marvelous thing, an opera of quick intelligence, resonant emotional depth, and lingering ambiguity. The libretto adapted by the composer from the novel by Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities emulates its source in having no conventional plot to speak of: it turns on a series of conversations between the emperor Kublai Khan and his Venetian merchant visitor and emissary, Marco Polo. The Khan's empire has grown so great that it is impossible for him to know it completely, beyond the certainty that it must fade. That the emperor might know more, Polo tells him of the many cities that Polo claims he has seen in his travels. The cities themselves are beyond knowing and, indeed, beyond belief: cities built on stilts and aerial walkways, cities in which every room is filled to its ceiling with sand, cities unheard of by the people who live there, abandoned cities, cities of the dead or the dying or the unremembered. Calvino spins out dozens of these cities; Cerrone's libretto focuses on three—Isidora, city of spirals and many women; Armilla, a lost city of water pipes inhabited by nymphs; and Adelma, whose citizens resemble those the traveler knows to be already dead—plus the equally unbelievable Venice, which Polo fears he may lose by speaking of it.

Polo and the emperor are themselves fictional inventions of Calvino and the librettist in this context, of course, and they cast doubt on whether they are really who they claim themselves to be even under those qualified conditions. Polo departs to return to Venice in the end, urging his host to continue to search for what is worth remembering and to hold to it. (In a move reminiscent of Britten's use of Yeats, Cerrone interpolates the famous lines from Eliot's "Little Gidding," that the end of exploration "will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

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Kublai Khan (Cedric Berry) and Marco Polo (Ashley Faatoalia) are the only named characters. Two women, Woman 1 and Woman 2, sing as representatives of the cities, and a four-member mixed chorus enwraps and fills vocal space as required. In addition to the singers, the cast encompasses eight dancers from LA Dance Project, the company recently founded here by Benjamin Millepied (choreographed here by Danielle Agami).

The musical forces deployed consist of an 11-piece orchestra centered on prepared and unprepared pianos, harp and assorted percussion, supported by a small complement of strings and wind instruments. The music wends and spills over it banks in a wash of sad enchantment and chastened reflection. A sampling from the opera's seven scenes can be heard here. It is, to leap ahead and oversimplify, a beautiful and resonant piece that merits a continuing life after this premiere.

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The musical satisfactions in its score should make Invisible Cities a recurring pleasure simply to listen to*, but how does one translate that into engaging live theater? The central challenge in staging Invisible Cities is that the absence of "plot-plot"—action and incident—might make it appear static and uneventful in a traditional proscenium setting. Director Yuval Sharon and The Industry have finessed that challenge in an inspired move: using wireless sound technology, they have untethered the singers from the players and from one another, and similarly untethered the audience from the performers, and set them all free (within bounds) to roam an open ended space, performing and experiencing the opera together without a need for actual physical proximity.

The space in question is Los Angeles Union Station, formerly the southwestern terminus for the Union Pacific, Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads, and still a busy regional rail and transit hub. Each audience member was provided a high-end wireless Sennheiser headset, and each heard the same opera at the same time. The orchestra and singers were fully mic'd and equipped with discreet earpieces of their own. Their performances were fed into a sophisticated mixing console to be transmitted back out to them and to the audience. The lot of us (other than the stay-at-home orchestra in the terminal's historic Fred Harvey restaurant space) wandered about, looking to find one another and to see what might be seen while the musical end of the performance played out in our heads. Throughout, the station continued its regular evening operations: passengers arriving, passengers departing, travelers and the displaced alike sitting, waiting, sleeping, watching as bits and pieces of an opera broke out around them.

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The audience was first convened in the restaurant to be greeted and to hear the overture—during a period when he had little hope of the opera being produced, Christopher Cerrone spun off the overture as an independent piece, which the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed as part of its "Brooklyn Festival" earlier this year—at the end of which we were set loose about the premises.

Three principal terminal spaces were used in the performance: the main concourse and waiting area, a pair of outdoor courtyards on either side, and the enormous original ticketing lobby of the station, which is typically used today only as a site for film shoots. Polo and Kublai Khan began in separate parts of the complex, eventually meeting face to face in the concluding scene. Each began in contemporary dress, the great Khan a seemingly humble figure in a wheelchair. How long he had sat there pre-performance, unnoticed, who can say. Unless you spotted his earpieces and mic, he would have looked like any other injured or disabled passer-through. Polo began, and remained, in baseball cap, flannel shirt and red ski vest, occasionally checking his phone or settling at a table to sip a glass of water. 

The two Women were in motion through the evening, in an array of more costume-like robes and dresses. Masks were donned for singing of Venice. The chorus and dancers, variously bedecked as travelers from various points in the past century, appeared and disappeared, rising from the crowd or discovered mopping a floor or repacking a suitcase. The action played out in multiple locations simultaneously, so no attendee could see everything that was happening at any given moment. The emperor eventually rose and walked, disappearing for a time at the far end of the now befogged ticketing cavern. with the dancers and Women as subtle guides, the entire audience found its way to that room by independent routes, to find Kublai Khan emerging in full imperial regalia for his farewell to Polo.

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Farewell to the merchant of venice

Although the technical end of the evening's project was carried off with impressive elan, it was not perfect: it may have been only my own headset, but I was beset by occasional random interference that, when it occurred, distracted from the immersive feel of the performance. The headset itself grew slightly tiresome in extended use, but removing it to let air into the porches of sweaty ears meant no longer hearing any singer not in the immediate vicinity nor the orchestra secreted in another building. Since the piece is definitely worth hearing in its entirety—and required extra attention on this first occasion simply by virtue of being new and previously unheard—even brief interruption was a minor irritant. All that said, the headset generally functioned exactly as promised, and the sound mix as transmitted was particularly well done, with the life and presence one would hope for from a particularly authentic live concert recording. (The singers' microphones even picked up a shading of sound from their immediate surroundings, lending an extra air of ambient verisimilitude to the sound in the headsets.)

I chose to stay on my feet through the 70-minute performance. Others elected to sit down from time to time on their way. The potential aggravation at "not seeing everything that is happening" passed quickly, overcome by the enveloping presence of the music and singing and by the sense of shared adventure or pilgrimage with my fellow travelers. Given that the performance was in such an open and public place, no one was discouraged from photography, and thousands of cell phone photos (such as those in this post) must have been taken, by audience and bystanders both. 

Things not seen

The verdict? On its own terms, this production has to be deemed a solid success. It is a fine piece of operatic writing, performed with grace and vigor by musicians and dancers alike, and the experience of landing in the middle of it was exhilarating. The technology is not perfect, but what is? Even with my quibbles, it delivered very nearly all that was asked of it. Did I mention that the opera itself is really really good? Yes, I suppose I did.

This is not—and, to be fair, was not being sold as— The Future of Opera. The bulk of the repertoire, including work already receiving workshop support from The Industry, would not adapt well to the headset approach. But in this singular case, a fatefully successful meeting of art and technology has indeed paid off. Well played, all.

L'arc d'or

As of opening night, all future performances were reported sold out. There is talk of additional performances, and I would recommend interested readers keep track of the Invisible Cities website linked above for updates.

Photos and rudimentary processing by the blogger.

* The blogger attended this performance as a ticket holder, at his own expense. Additionally, Invisible Cities was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign, to which the blogger was a contributor, at a level that promises a complete audio recording of the production. The blogger believes he chose wisely in this regard.

Petals on a wet black bough
Nom de spectacle
~~~