A Midsummer Night's Temblor


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.


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.


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.


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.


"Nebula of Angels"

Angels Flight and Ziggurat

If you had asked me six months ago when I would be making my debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall, I'd have chortled and wondered what in the name of the Muses you were on about.  But wait....

This weekend (Saturday July 19 at 8:00, Sunday July 20 at 3:00) it seems that I will be making my Disney Hall debut, as a piece for which I crafted up the text will be on offer as part of the massive 35th Anniversary Concert of the Gay Men's Chorus Los Angeles.

And you may ask myself: "Well, how did you get here?" And I may say to yourself: "Well, it was like this...."

In March, my previous collaborator/composer Garrett Shatzer dropped me a line with a potential referral to composer Dave Volpe. Dave, who is also a GMCLA member, had the opportunity to contribute a new and original piece for the 35th Anniversary and was in need of a text. A piece d'occasion was required, something evoking Los Angeles and 35 years' longevity and pride and aspiration and suchlike themes appropriate to the ensemble. The sort of assignment, in short, that lands more often on the desks of poets laureate than on the desk of a simple country lawyer in Pasadena. How could one, if one were this one, say no? One could not. Dave and I connected, chatted, more or less concurred on the scope of the thing, and I set to work.

There are two principal versions of the resulting text: the original "poem-poem" version and a version revised to be more workable, more settable and, above all, more memorizable, as the Men of the Chorus sing from memory without scores before them.

The underlying inspiration for me was visual, a sort of view that is particular to Los Angeles: a view across the basin at night, the lights below so bright that the light of the stars is subsumed and absorbed from beneath. Among others, I had in mind certain Julius Shulman photos, particularly the famous nighttime image of Case Study House #22.* Feeding in to that idea were variants on the notion of Los Angeles as the "City of Angels" and, because the idea of occluded stars was in it, memory dredged up an old slogan from the glory days of MGM.

The original version of the piece, with that studio slogan for its title, came out rather like this: 

Sky and line

More stars than there are in the heavens!

Two bowls inverted each on each

One bowl the earth
Another bowl the sky...

Amid the City’s blaze and burn,
Amid the City’s glare and hustle,
Amid the City’s noise and heat and roaring, stand!

Stand upon this earth
Stand upon this earth
All bathed in this great City’s lights

Stand and seek
And search a sky whose former lights for now are

Lift your eye to see and scan
An empty sky:
No stars above?
Standing on this earth, look up:
No stars above?

Step out,
step up,
climb up,
stand still,
look down:
Behold what’s spread before you, at your feet 

Step out,
step up,
climb up,
stand still,
look down:
From any hill behold a bowl of stars

A vast expansive basin full of stars
From mountains down the foothills to the sea 

And with each star, an angel
Light for light
And with each star, an angel
Life for life
And with each star, an angel
Love for Love 

More stars on earth              More angels
than as it were in heaven      More stars 

stars not fallen                    angels not fallen
stars and angels
to the ground and to the world 

For every eye a soul
For every soul a star
For every star an angel
in this city that’s a nebula of angels 

better angels
better natures
better living
better lives 

Rise up, step down, step out
Engage, expand, explode
and shine


There followed from this draft a quick bit of give and take in which the poem was compacted and reorganized along more verse-chorus-versical lines, and in which it gained a new name: Dave Volpe didn't much care for my loose baggy first title but expressed a liking for one of the phrases within the poem, so that phrase became the new and final title. While it is still a Los Angeles piece, it is now less explicitly so than when it started ... the sort of thing that the Chorus of Your Metropolis, Gay or Not, might perhaps embrace?

The piece is being set for orchestra and, I do believe, for both the main and youth choruses of GMCLA. I've not heard a note of it yet, as it has worked through the rehearsal process, and I am witless with anticipation. I had the chance to attend GMCLA's last major concert and I will attest these gentlemen can saaaainnggg. I'm pleased as can be to give them these words with which to work their magic, and extend to all at GMCLA my heartiest felicitations on the occasion of their 35th year.

This then, or something closely akin to it, is the version of the text that Dave has actually set and that will premiere on Saturday night (repeating Sunday). I canna' hardly wait. 

Sky and line noir

Nebula of Angels 

Step out, step up,
climb up, stand still,
look down:
Behold what’s spread before you, at your feet 

Amid the City’s blaze and burn,
Amid the City’s glare and hustle,
Amid the City’s noise and heat and roaring, stand!

Stand upon this earth
Stand upon this earth
All bathed in this great City’s lights 

Step out, step up,
climb up, stand still,
look up:
Behold what’s spread above you, in the heights 

Standing on this earth, look up:
No stars above?
These lights below so bright
Their shine outshines the skies.

From any hill behold a bowl of stars
From mountains down the foothills to the sea
A vast expansive basin full of stars
More stars on earth than once shone in the heavens 

Step out, step up,
climb up, stand still,
look round:
Behold what’s spread about you, on all sides 

And with each star, an angel
Light for light
And with each star, an angel
Life for life
And with each star, an angel
Love for Love

stars not fallen             angels not fallen
stars and angels RISING
to the ground and to the world 

For every eye a soul
For every soul a star
For every star an angel
in this city that’s a nebula of angels 

better angels
better natures
better living
better lives 

Rise up, step down, step out
Engage, expand, explode
and shine

Halle disney en bleu


* In a bit of happenstantial synchronicity, another fine example of the form appears as the cover image for Gabriel Kahane's The Ambassador. [See preceding post.] The Kahane photo was not released by his label until a week or two after my verses were essentially completed, but it is more or less exactly what I had been picturing as I wrote them.

"More Stars Than There Are in the Heavens!" and "Nebula of Angels" texts Copyright 2014 George M. Wallace.

Photos by the blogger.


High on a Hill in El Dorado
[Gabriel Kahane: The Ambassador]


With so many others here, I am in Los Angeles but not originally of Los Angeles.

We come from other places—Detroit, in my own instance, and that rather a long time ago—and we stay. Los Angeles holds us and often as not it wins us over. Los Angeles is all about winning you over: it presses and prods and wheedles and it wants to be loved and wants to be seen as glorious, but in some sense the dark is always near at hand and in some sense we are always whistling in it.

Or, in the alternative, this—

Los Angeles is the Willie Loman of cities: liked perhaps, but not well liked. In Los Angeles, it seems we are constantly passing and fading and going and gone and, as we pass and go, we are insistent that attention must be paid.

Gabriel Kahane has paid attention.

The ten songs comprising The Ambassador behave like the cast of a Robert Altman ensemble piece, each on its own trajectory, intersecting without consciously interacting. That, and every ending is a just a stop, ambiguous and unresolved.

LA vista

In what may be a backhanded tribute to the "Maps of the Stars' Homes" long sold on L.A. street corners, The Ambassador ties each of its songs to a specific street address. [There is a lovely and informative online map available for perusal.] Something of a roving ambassador himself, Gabriel Kahane arrives in the album's first track, wanders up and down upon the southern California earth, and finally departs eastward via "the hall of the lost" in L.A.'s Union Station.

In "Black Gardens", we meet Kahane much as he is portrayed on the album cover: standing in the Hollywood hills looking down over what he "once called the selfish city" (in the Joan Didion-inspired "LA" on 2011's Where Are the Arms). He promises to "pull back the curtain" and to share "the sounds/of history as it drowns" below him. The drowning becomes literal in "Union Station," which envisions the city slumping beneath the Pacific, Kahane (or a version of him) diving down to assume his seat on the last train out.

In The Ambassador's other songs characters who are patently not the songwriter also frequently look down from high places, whether from those hills ("Villains", "Slumlord Crocodile", "Griffith Park") or from atop buildings ("Bradbury"). 15-year old Latasha Harlins, shot and killed by the owner of the "Empire Liquor Mart" in the days immediately after the riots/uprising of 1991, floats "up to the corner/Just above the ice cream/And the frozen food" to look down on her own lifeless body before drifting further up to become "friendly with the clouds/That cover Southland". The high places offer some modicum of refuge: Los Angeles, at ground level, is presented as a troublesome town.

Homage to j schulman

The movies are another informing metaphor. "Empire Liquor Mart," the longest and most elaborate of these songs, is structured cinematically with enough jump cuts, flashbacks, deep focus, and montage to fill a reel of Citizen Kane. "Veda" is a waltz-lullaby from the point of view of James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce; "Bradbury" draws on Blade Runner. "Musso and Frank" evokes film noir in general and Chandler's Phillip Marlowe in particular. "Villains" takes time for a critical consideration of "action movies of the 1980s,/particularly Die Hard."

"Ambassador Hotel" explores that grand old property erected on Wilshire Boulevard in Hollywood's early days of glory, Mary Pickford frolicking on the broad lawn. The song picks up at the opposite end of the hotel's arc, however, on the night before it closed forever in 1989, the night watchman looking back on its history and on its role as the scene of Robert F. Kennedy's murder on primary election night in 1968. There is, as it happens, hardly a song here without a death in it.

The most common Los Angeles tropes appear here as if glimpsed in a distorting rearview mirror. The beach, for example, is not a home to surfers and bikini babes, but the site of a mystery man disposing of funerary ashes. Our "cardiac traffic," it seems, will survive even a nuclear blast.

Look for the union bagel

So why spend time in Kahane's sad, selfish, and potentially lethal city? For one thing, the music in this place is really good. If a song can choke you up a little, these songs will do it. If music can make you smile with its cleverness, these songs will do it. As he has demonstrated with his prior recordings and in the musical February House [which itself includes a jaunty paean to southern California for Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears], Gabriel Kahane is scarily adept in sophisticated pop songcraft. However deep the going gets, music and lyrics stay light on their feet.

It all sounds very good as well. Jointly produced by Kahane with his core band—Casey Foubert, Matt Johnson, and longtime collaborator Rob Moose—the songs are recorded and mixed with a space and clarity of detail evocative of the transparency for which the southern California light, on its best days, is justly famed.

Los Angeles is an unsettled, "make your own adventure" sort of a place. Whatever anyone says about this city, your results will assuredly vary. Gabriel Kahane's Los Angeles is not the same as mine is, or as yours would be if you were here. Perhaps the point of assuming the varied characters of The Ambassador is to suggest that Los Angeles is always playing a role, the real thing unknowable even to itself beneath its layers of artifice.

Whatever: this is a deep and memorable album, and I recommend it unreservedly.


Incidental Note: I have a sentimental attachment to the Ambassador Hotel, having begun my career practicing law a few short blocks away in the years before its closure. I later knew a man who had done quite well for himself in the 1970s operating an art gallery in the hotel's lobby; he put the money into more art and the occasional race horse.

If there is ever any call for a sequel, the Ambassador's subsequent life would easily fill another song. Today, the site is occupied by a school named after Robert Kennedy, only echoes of its silhouette and of the facade of the Coconut Grove nightclub still recalling the grand hotel. The old Brown Derby restaurant, located across the street, closed before the Ambassador did, and its distinctive hat-shaped shell was rudely transplanted to perch atop the strip mall that took its place. After the Ambassador was closed, it took an additional decade of litigation before the L.A. city school district could acquire the land. For much of the 1990s Donald Trump, of all people, was one of the owners, regularly announcing grandiose plans to erect the tallest building in the world on the spot.

The tallest building west of the Mississippi was and is the Library Tower downtown, a block from which I had my office at the turn of the current century. The tower is generally reported to have been given serious consideration as a target for the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. So much for the comfort of high places.


Additional photos (i.e., photos other than the album cover) are by the blogger. This post is based upon repeated listening to a purchased copy of The Ambassador CD.


Nothing Is As It Disappears


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.


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."


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].


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.


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.


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.]  


The Map of the Clock

Street clock
Another opening, another show....

On Sunday, May 18, as part of the Spring program by the Sacramento Children's Chorus, one of the five choirs making up the Chorus will premiere "The Map of the Clock," a piece composed by Garrett Shatzer on a text by this blogger. In July, the Chorus will be taking "Map" along for performances in Eugene, Oregon, and "on the green" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. All of which is rather satisfying, as perhaps you can imagine.

The commission from the Children's Chorus came Garrett's way as he and I were collaborating on "Beset" and he kindly offered me the opportunity to craft up the words. Not having been so young as these singers in a very long while, I found myself thinking about Time and thinking in particular about how differently things appear when one has more future than past in one's life. That notion somehow conjoined in my mind with the idea that "the map is not the territory," a title emerged and, from that, a poem and, from that, a composition which I will hear for the first time on Sunday.

Here are the music-less words:




The map of the road ahead

is not the road ahead


The clock on the wall knows

nothing at all of Time


This moment’s monument is not

the thing you said

this moment


It is not the thing you thought

or meant to say


The road alone knows where

the road is leading


And once each mile is past,

Time blocks return


Old trickster Time, you prankster,

with your secret plan


Will anyone here who hears me

hear me again

in time


The road the time

the moments that pass

the song the speech

the road the rhyme the time

And on and on and on

or on and off

an end


Copyright 2013 George M. Wallace


Photo: Streets Clock by Flickr user Individual Design, used under Creative Commons license.

Incidental: "A moment's monument" was Dante Gabriel Rossetti's description of the sonnet form. It appears here as a backhanded reference to my first, and most ambitious, collaboration with Garrett Shatzer: "The Kissed Mouth," an as-yet unrealized song cycle for tenor and soprano—more of a chamber opera, to my way of thinking—involving Rossetti and certain supernatural elements, of which I will say no more. Mayhap I will be able to announce its premiere here someday. In time, as it were.


UPDATE [August 5, 2014]: A recording of the premiere performance of "The Map of the Clock" has gone up on Garrett Shatzer's site. I could not have asked for better treatment of this text than Garrett gave it, and the youthful singers of the Sacramento Children's Chorus (the subchoir that performed here is Jr. High/High School Freshperson age) sang it gorgeously. Listen here.


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


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.


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.



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.

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.



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.]  

  • Kling-4456
  • Kling-7308
  • Kling-7289
  • Kling-4153
  • Kling-7035
  • Kling-4153
  • Kling-4200




 Master of Sir John Fastolf - Saint Francis

So then: here's a thing with which I am well pleased.

This upcoming Sunday morning, March 9, will see the premiere performances of "Beset", a choral piece composed by Garrett Shatzer at the behest of the Choir of Centerpoint Community Church in Roseville, California. The text was written by ... moi-même, this fool, me.

The piece was commissioned for performance at the Festival of Peace and Brotherhood which will take place in Rome, March 12 through 16. There was originally substantial cause to hope that the Choir would be performing the piece, with the composer at the organ, in St. Peter's itself. That prospect, sadly, has gone by the boards. Still, "Beset" will be performed several times during the Festival in historic churches roundabout Rome, so one can hardly complain. 

I was introduced to Garrett Shatzer through Dale Trumbore in connection with the New Lens Concert Series project, of which Garrett is co-creator. One idle comment led to another—I think I larkingly referred to my interest in becoming a "freelance librettist"—and here we find ourselves, Garrett and I, as collaborators. "Beset" is the first of our collaborations to see public performance, so I am as you might imagine a bit chuffed. We've another piece, for children's choir, premiering in May, of which I'll post as the day approaches. And there's a large project—the first to which we applied ourselves, a song cycle that morphed into something like a chamber opera featuring certain eminent Victorian and pre-Renaissance personages—that lies dormant for now, but of which I surely hope I will have more to report in due time. Trust me: it is the coolest thing.....

"Beset" is, I believe, the first and only overtly religous text to which I have set my hand. I cannot but confess that I suspect it is neither logically nor doctrinally sound on close reading. The opportunity to write it came up shortly after the then-new Pope had adopted Francis as his papal name. With the St. Peter's performance in mind, Garrett suggested that I consider incorporating some connection to the papal namesake, Francis of Assisi, into my text. Some puttering about led me to Francis's "Prayer to Obtain Divine Love", and that text resides sub rosa within my own. It surfaces overtly in the fourth stanza after a bout of imagery from other prayers of need and praise, such as the De Profundis and Ave Maris Stella. The spirit of John Donne, though none of his technique, is invoked. The canyon is a backhanded allusion to Messiaen. The piece is named "Beset" because "beset" is a fine old word.

At this writing, I've not yet heard a note of the finished piece. I am venturing north to hear it this Sunday and I hope, at some point, that I can supplement this post with a recording. For the nonce, here are the words without the benefit of the music that I trust will be the making of them:



Beset by fears and by uncertainty

Beset in dreams and when I wake beset


The way is hard

I cry for comfort

And comfort comes


One sparkling star still steers me onward

Across broad seas or over frowning peaks

Hail! O star of the sea,

O star of the desert and the canyon and the vail:

Guide me through the dark and recurring night.


Send me, O Lord, that sweet and fiery strength

And let your Love absorb my soul that I

May die

For love of your Love as your Love has done for me


Teach me, O Lord, to love all You have made:

All peoples, all this world, your holy Light,

That from the depths I may cry out and still be heard

And salvaged from this wreck

By holy Love

By holy Peace 



I beseech Thee, O Lord, that the fiery and sweet strength of Thy love may absorb my soul from all things that are under heaven, that I may die for love of Thy love as Thou didst deign to die for love of my love.

-- St. Francis of Assissi - Prayer to Obtain Divine Love


Illustration: Master of Sir John Fastolf, illuminator (French, active before about 1420 - about 1450), Saint Francis, about 1430 - 1440, Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment Leaf: 12.1 x 9.2 cm (4 3/4 x 3 5/8 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 5, fol. 44v

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.


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.


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.



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.


Death, Man.... Talking
[David Lang: death speaks]

  Death speaks

1 David Langdeath speaks

It may be [it is] hackneyed to say it, but there is yet a modicum of truth in the proposition that the creative act can be taken as a constant howl against human mortality. At the least, art provides a lens through which we mortals can contemplate that mortality, think about the ending of things, and perhaps enter into a truce of sorts, whether easy or uneasy, with Death.

Death has been a recurring presence in recent recordings of music by David Lang. His Pulitzer-winning the little match girl passion ends in a death—two, really, as the match girl's suffering final hours are held in parallel with the Passion and Crucifixion—and explicitly contemplates a supernatural life beyond. The collection of Lang's piano music, this was written by hand, included the eight Memory Pieces, each dedicated to preserving Lang's memory of a dead friend. All of these compositions looked at death and now, in death speaks, Death looks back. And not only looks back, but pulls up a chair and settles in for a chat.

Lang's process in crafting death speaks was to pore over the German texts of songs set by Schubert and to cull out the numerous occasions on which Death is personified and addresses the singer or the listener. He then translated those passages roughly in to English and arranged the results in new order suitable for resetting to [un-Schubert-like] music.

Death, as it turns out, is fond of humankind. Death yearns for human company, feels sadness over human suffering and loss, and offers to make it all better. Being as it is Death that makes it, the offer is vested with equal parts succour and unease. Death here requites the longing famously anatomized by Keats in the "Ode to a Nightingale":

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
    I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
    To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
    To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
        While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
            In such an ecstasy!

Originally conceived as a companion to little match girldeath speaks shares with it an essential stillness at the core. Where the sonic austerity of the largely a cappella match girl emulates the extreme cold of its tale, death speaks is, with a trio of guitar (Bryce Dessner), keyboard (Nico Muhly), and violin (Owen Pallett), a slightly warmer affair. Akin, though, to Milton's "darkness visible," the voice of Death sings here with a sort of radiant cold.

That voice is Shara Worden, and it is her extraordinary, nuanced and characterful performance that makes death speaks work so powerfully. Worden's Death has an awesome glamour, in the oldest sense of those terms; she ensorcels her hearer, enwrapping and binding total attention from her first word ("You") to her last ("stops"). Lang's arrangement of his texts is remarkable for the smoothness with which it draws everything into itself, but Shara Worden expands beyond those texts such that death speaks is ultimately, unspeakably moving. Highly, highly recommended.

Accompanying death speaks on the recording is "Depart," a wordless 18 minute piece for multitracked cello [Maya Beiser] and female vocal quartet, commissioned to be played in the Salle des Departs, a space in a French hospital in which the living can contemplate the passing of their loved ones. Vaporous and oddly gorgeous music, remniscent of the circulating, descending motifs in Brian Eno's "Sparrowfall" pieces.


Blogger's note: I began writing this post last May, when death speaks first released, but found myself unable to finish it in a presentable form. I returned to it in connection with my year end favorite music list, on which death speaks stands in first place. I still haven't finished full-ish posts on most of the other recordings on that list, but as today is the composer's birthday (b. January 8, 1957), it seems a proper occasion for putting at last it up.

Postscript: In June 2014, Long Beach Opera will be revisiting its production of Lang's The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. My enthusiasm for the original 2011 performance was vociferous. You should go, if you can.

Listening Listfully 2013 - Just the List



One of the signs that I have acted more as a straggler than as a blogger recently is the fact that my "favorite music of 2012" post did not go up until January 1, 2013. Rather than repeat that poor performance wholesale, this post will at least get The List qua List up and out in the world. I am continuing to work on more detailed commentary on each of the selections, in the hope that it too will see the light before we hear the chimes at midnight as the years move on.

This year, the list comes to a full 50 entries. I have abandoned any attempt to segregate by style or genre this time around: this is simply recorded music that was released in the past twelve months and that I particularly liked, arranged in a rough order of personal preference.

As always, fine distinctions of degree become more hazy as the list grows longer. That is, I feel more strongly about the rightness of the rankings in the upper half of the list than in the lower. As an added arbitrary touch, when one artist is represented by more than one choice, I have simply lumped them together with consecutive numbers. Since my purpose is to endorse all of this music, and to commend each and every item to your attention, the numbering hardly matters in the end. This catalogue is what this blog on the whole has become, an index of enthusiasms.

Eh bien, the List:


1 David Lang – death speaks

2 Big Farm –  Big Farm

John Grant –Pale Green Ghosts

4 Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society –  Brooklyn Babylon

5 John Hollenbeck – Songs I Like a Lot

June Tabor, Iain Ballamy, Huw Warren - Quercus

Leverage Models – Leverage Models

8 Son Lux – Lanterns

The Knells – The Knells

10 Caleb Burhans – Evensong

11 Midlake – Antiphon

12, 13 David Bowie – The Next Day and  
The Next Day Extra EP

14 Dawn of Midi – Dysnomia

15 The National –  Trouble Will Find Me

16 Nadia Sirota – Baroque

17 Sam Amidon –  Bright Sunny South

18 Claire Chase - Density

19, 20 R. Andrew Lee – Dennis Johnson: November and  
                                            Eva-Maria Houben: Piano Music

21 Timo Andres – Home Stretch

22 Elvis Costello & the Roots – Wise Up Ghost

23, 24 Mohammad Fairouz – Native Informant and 
                    Symphony No. 4, 'In the Shadow of No Towers'

25 Essie Jain – All Became Golden

26, 27 CFCF – Music for Objects and Outside

28, 29 John Vanderslice – Dagger Beach and 
                                           Vanderslice Plays Diamond Dogs

30 Ceramic Dog – Your Turn

31 Blitzen Trapper –  VII

32 Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

33 Ensemble et cetera – Even the Light Itself Falls 

34 Daníel Bjarnason – Over Light Earth

35 The Men –  New Moon

36 David T. Little – Soldier Songs

37 Daniel Wohl – Corps Exquis

38 Billband –  Towards Daybreak

39 itsnotyouitsme – This I

40 Still Corners –  Strange Pleasures

41, 42 Third Coast Percussion – Unknown Symmetry and 
                                                                Resounding Earth

43 John Foxx and the Maths –  Evidence

44 Spektral Quartet – Chambers

45 Junip –  Junip

46 Harold Budd – Jane 1-11

47 Jace Clayton – The Julius Eastman Memory Depot

48 Caravan Palace – Panic

49 Nicholas Cords – Recursions

50 Arnold Dreyblatt & Megafaun – Appalachian Excitation