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And now, a happy lapse in to Low (but delicious!) Culture.  Andy Denhart at reality blurred has given America its marching orders:

It is now your mission to vote every Monday night (and tonight) for Cloris Leachman, because she absolutely must remain on Dancing With The Stars 7 until the very last episode.  She was potty mouthed, rule-breaking, host-insulting highlight in the most outrageous episode yet.

Performing with her professional dance partner, Corky Balas --
"'Cloris and Corky,'" I said.  "Sounds like the names of a pair of hamsters."
-- Ms. Leachman is pure Life Force in all its coarse, unstoppable messiness.  Live TV at its most wickedly spontaneous:

At 82, she is much much older than the part is written, but wouldn't Cloris Leachman even now be a tremendous Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  "You're all flops.  I am the Earth Mother, and you are all flops."

I heard on the radio this morning that today is the birthday of Mickey Rooney.  Mickey is 88, which makes him only six years older than Cloris.  They were giants in those days.  Even the short ones were giants.

Flit, Floppin' Fly


The wren goes to ’t, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive . . . .

-- King Lear, Act IV, Scene vi.

In the early '90s I had a hand in some of the marketing and management aspects of the mid-sized law firm where I was a junior partner, and thus the opportunity to meet and work with a number of marketing and management consultants.  From that experience I learned an important lesson:

There are some decisions so misguided that only really clever and expensive professionals can talk you in to them.

This business principle also has a place in the creative arts, as all too vividly demonstrated by Los Angeles Opera's presentation of The Fly.

Fly4380_2Howard Shore is a talented and well-regarded composer of film music.  David Cronenberg is a talented and well-regarded film director.  David Henry Hwang is a talented and well-regarded playwright and librettist.  And yet, for all their collective talent and regard, these really clever and expensive professionals have labored and brought forth a thoroughgoing misbegotten mess of an opera.

To recap the plot: striving science journalist Veronica Quaife meets brilliant scientist Seth Brundle.  Brundle introduces Veronica to his fabulous invention: telepods through which matter can be transmitted from place to place.  Initially, living things are  grotesquely and fatally distorted in the process, but Brundle seems at last to overcome that obstacle.  When Veronica stays out trying to sever a former relationship (with her erstwhile professor turned lover turned editor) on the night of celebrating this success, Brundle in a drunken fit of pique disregards all the warnings about alcohol and heavy machinery and transmits himself from Pod 1 to Pod 2.  Unfortunately, he does not transmit himself alone: a common housefly slips in and Brundle's genetic makeup is fused with that of the fly.  You just know it will end in tears.

At first, Brundle displays a fly's vigor, strength and appetite -- among other things, he becomes sexually insatiable and libidinally unstoppable -- but in short order he begins to deteriorate, mutate and transform to be more fly and less man.  Convinced that he can save himself, or create some suprahuman ultrabeing, Brundle tries to transmit himself, Veronica and their unborn child simultaneously.  Veronica is retrieved from the Pod by her editor/former lover.  Brundle (now BrundleFly) is retransmitted rather less than successfully.  Veronica shoots and kills the resulting horror, then resolves to bring their child in to the world.  Curtain. 

These sorts of things happen all the time.

Fly4290 I have been debating with myself which is more deserving of critique and more worthy of blame, the score or the libretto.  "Both" may be the most accurate answer, because the two pieces never seem to gel.  On those rare occasions when the libretto hits its stride, the music plods or loiters about wondering when it will all be over.  The score manages to produce maybe three memorable minutes of music out of a total of 150, and none of the memorable bits have dialogue to accompany them.

Howard Shore's score suffers from being entirely capable and at the same time utterly forgettable.  There are no melodies or recurring themes to orient the listener, but there is also no active attempt to be "difficult" for difficulty's sake, nor any attempts to be willfully ugly.  When all's said, it is a slurry of well wrought rumbling sludge.  The sounds the orchestra makes are all within the spectrum of accepted contemporary practice, and none of them reach either the mind or the heart in a way that lasts beyond the moment.

  • On the challenge of contemporary opera generally and on the difficulty composers seem to have in fitting music to text to emotion, see Anne Midgette's smart recent piece in the Washington Post, here.  [Via Sounds & Fury.]

Most damningly, as others have already remarked, the score does nothing to actually tell the story that Shore has chosen to tell.  Sequences of horror sound exactly like sequences of lust, which sound exactly like sequences of playful banter, which are indistinguishable from sequences of triumph and discovery.  If one is going to compose an opera, a drama based in music, then one really must provide music that actually supports the drama and provides it with a motive force.  The score of The Fly falls flat on almost every occasion.

  • What does it say that in an operatic adaptation of The Fly the fly itself has no musical representation?  Obviously, the fly that slips in to Brundle's telepod is too small for us to see in the cavernous spaces of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but shouldn't it be given some acknowledgment in the orchestra?  A kazoo cadenza, perhaps?  Not here.  The fly is simply a buzzy prerecorded noise.  Not unlike the opera in which it appears. . . .

The musical problems may be traceable to David Henry Hwang's libretto which -- all right, now I know who I am going to savage most fiercely here -- is deeply awful.  Shore's sludge and drudge music is a major obstacle to a successful opera, but I doubt that any composer could bring real life to the text that Hwang has provided.

An opera, as drama, must operate as any other drama does: it needs to be moved along, it needs to present us with characters whose behavior and motivations make sense, it needs to retain some internal consistency with the world in which the story is set, and it needs to avoid when possible making the audience laugh at its obvious lapses.  The Fly libretto fails on each of these counts, and then some.

  • Set in the 1950s -- when the original story and first movie were set -- The Fly is filled with anachronisms: characters talk about "carbs," worry about smoking when pregnant, discuss "gene-splicing" as if Watson and Crick had figured out the structural workings of DNA less recently than 1953.  The story is full of female scientists and female police officers, as if such things were common in that period.  A hand held video camera is used to document experiments: even if it's meant to be a film camera, it is much too small to be credible.  And a central conceit of the entire text is that the unfortunate scientist Seth Brundle has invented not only a teleportation device -- on which he could have gotten rich even if it only transmitted inanimate matter, so why is he so obsessed with teleporting living creatures as well? -- but a sophisticated voice interface with his computer.
  • The old saw that one should "show, not tell" is violated again and again.  The entire story is told in flashback, with multiple narrators, and the characters are only occasionally seen actually interacting with one another.  Since none of those interactions is particularly credible, this is just as well.  The entire second act is structured with brief scenes from the actual plot interspersed with long narrations of other events that are ultimately justified only because they kill time so that the lead baritone can apply the next layer of his increasingly elaborate fly-man makeup.
  • The tone and language of the text veers wildly about.  When writing for an opera, the language should have some reason to be sung rather than spoken.  Operatic speech is heightened speech, through its own phrasing and expression or through its bond to the score -- and optimally both.  In The Fly, the text is predominately as bland and stupid as the most mundane contemporary movie dialogue.  In operas with any aspirations to seriousness, characters do not ask one another to "pinky swear."  In The Fly, they do.  At random intervals, and for no apparent reason, lines actually are spoken rather than sung.  It is as if the text fell so far below expectations that the composer just moved on to something else.
  • When Hwang does seek to heighten the rhetorical tone, it comes out badly.  He slips in some actual verse early on, in a sorry chorus of dreary scientists at a reception that rhymes "parties" with "smarties" and passes it off as clever.  That, unfortunately, sets the tone for the few scenes with large groups of characters: they are consistently viewed with contempt.  A scene in a bar in Act II is the worst offender: the chorus wails and moans about the shattering of their high school dreams, as if the complete works of Bruce Springsteen had been rewritten by Eugene O'Neill at his most purply self-pitying: The Iceman Cometh meets Grease out on Thunder Road.  In a very few passages, Hwang's rhetoric rises above the ordinary and workmanlike, but you can be certain that the accompanying music lets him down every time.


  • Flesh.  Sex.  Good grief.  Throughout the opera we are treated to recurring invocations of "The New Flesh," which anyone can tell you is the same as The Old Flesh only more self-important.  Brundle and Victoria paw breathily at one another on the floor in Act I; by Act II, all that heavy breathing focuses inexplicably around the rolling desk chair near Brundle's computer console.  Veronica complains that she and Brundle have been At It for fourteen hours [the house erupts in guffaws] and the jokes begin to write themselves:
  • "Viva Fly-agra!"  [Caution: Do not confuse with fly agaric.]
  • "Oh, I suppose it was one of those Spanish flies that slipped in to the telepod."

It moves beyond embarrassing when Brundle brings poor Tawny from the local dive bar  -- "Do I look like a hooker?'  Well, if you have to ask, my dear . . . -- back to the lab and goes at her from every direction while Veronica stands at the front the stage narrating Something Else.  Please: if you haven't understood by this point that virtually every possible commentary on Sex and on The Body has been old news for between two and twelve centuries, there's no hope for you as an artist.  Move along, there's nothing but sniggering to add here.

  • No really, I can't go on.  The additional effort is more than the subject deserves.

Those reviewers who have Tried to Say Something Nice have focused on the skills of the performers, and that is only fair.  The principals, the orchestra, and the long-suffering chorus -- which is mostly relegated to serving as the voice of Brundle's computer, and thus limited to a range of no more than two or three monotonal notes -- do acquit themselves very well, especially given the little that they have to work with.  I am assuming that last night's enthusiastic applause was for them, and not for the work in which they were entrapped -- as if in Fly paper.

"Quick, Henry!  The Flit!"


Alberich in Wonderland

These CDs cost far less than downloads from the internet, and unlike downloads they are things, which I prefer.  When you drop a Wagner opera on CD on your foot, it hurts. That's what I call real value.

-- Brian Micklethwaite

I am off this evening to see Howard Shore's and David Cronenberg's much maligned The Fly at Los Angeles Opera; my own opinions of the thing should appear here tomorrow.

For many, including myself, the major attraction of this LA Opera season is the launching of the company's first production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, under the direction of Achim Freyer.

When the Opera's website was first updated for the current season, these graphics gave a vague hint of what the LA Ring will look like:



Recently, the Opera has begun to release additional photos, although it is unclear whether they represent work in progress or final production decisions.  Here are the three that are currently up (albeit well hidden) on the Opera's website.

From Das Rheingold:

Strange women lying in ponds may be no basis for a system of government, but similarly unusual dames basking about in a river make a perfectly acceptable jumping off point for a vast music drama. Welcome if you will Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde, the Rhinemaidens:


Meanwhile, toiling beneath the earth in an entry-level position in the mineral trade, this must certainly be if not the Nibelung at least a Nibelung:


From Die Walküre:

I am thinking this final photo represents the climactic confrontation between Wotan (note the single eye, best seen in the full size version on the Opera site) and recumbent Brünnhilde, who may already be undergoing a course of magical sleep therapy, witnessed by the horses that she and her sisters rode in on:


From these photos, it appears that all of the expected hallmarks of a Freyer production -- expressionist flamboyance, enormous papier-mâché heads -- are in place.  Also apparent is that Freyer is setting his production in a recognizable version of the world that Wagner actually wrote, not in some politico-feverdream "commentary" on that world.  No hydroelectric dams, no skinned rabbits, no steamboats, no explosives belts, just gods, dwarfs, and flying horses -- with sewing machine bobbins on their heads, but let that pass. 

Achim Freyer is a genuinely interesting theatrical figure and the purely musical components of this production are in good hands, so I remain essentially optimistic and continue to look forward to the premiere run beginning in February.


Photos by Monika Rittershaus, via Los Angeles Opera.

Additional credit where due: Out West Arts shared small versions of these photos back on Sept. 9, along with several others whose source I haven't yet traced.  I am particularly intrigued by the shifty gent in the red-checked trousers -- who can only be Loge, right?

Drive-In Saturday:
"And what is the use of a blog," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"

Pogo is the nom du mix of Australian Nick Bertke, who creates trip-hop electronic reimaginings of snippeted bits from film musicals, with a particular specialty in film musicals whose female protagonists' names begin with the letter "A". 

To wit, "Anna"

and "Alice"

The Pogo Promise in each case is that 90% of the sounds you hear in these mixes are taken directly from the respective films' soundtracks, and who are we to doubt it?

MP3s of "Anna," of "Alice," of several other Alice-derived tracks -- two of which have a bad case of the slithy toves -- and of other Pogo music are available for free download at Last.FM, here.

["Alice" discovered via My Old Kentucky Blog.]

So This Scientist Walks Into a Teleportation Device...


Los Angeles Opera's new season is upon us, starting off with the one-two punch of Puccini's triple-bill of one-acts, Il Trittico -- the third portion of which (Gianni Schicchi) marks Woody Allen's operatic directorial debut -- and the North American premiere of Howard Shore's The Fly, directed by David Cronenberg.

Mark Swed's review of Trittico, which opened on Saturday, ran in this morning's Los Angeles Times: he liked it overall, but falls out of his chair quite completely over Woody Allen's contribution to the proceedings.  The Fly opened on Sunday and will, presumably, receive its Times review tomorrow.  I'll not be seeing Trittico (ack! Puccini!), and I am not scheduled to catch Fly until the penultimate performance on September 20, after which you'll have my report.

This, it must be said, does not bode well.  Beating the Times to print (at least online), the OC Register's Timothy Mangan is capital-B Blunt in his opinion:

Let's not mince words. That's always the best way.  Just rip the bandage off quickly.  Howard Shore's 'The Fly,' which was given its U.S. premiere Sunday afternoon courtesy of Los Angeles Opera, is the worst opera I've ever seen.  Wait, let me mince.  I'll say 'possibly the worst' since my memory's not what it used to be.  Be afraid, be very afraid, if you've already got tickets to 'The Fly.'  It's three hours that you'll never get back, not counting the drive.

'The Fly' isn't even an interesting failure.  It's just amateurish.  It isn't even good enough to be offensive. . . .

And so on.  And on.  And on. 

One of my measuring sticks for the degree of negativity in negative reviews is a Martin Bernheimer piece for the LATimes from the late '70s, in which he dismissed a visiting Viennese ballet company's performance as an evening of "hippity hop, gallumph, gallumph."  Mangan's review of The Fly has plenty of gallumph in it:

In the second act the audience was laughing at 'The Fly,' and there weren't any jokes, just a lot of simulated sex (I guess flies are insatiable) and bad dialogue.  [Protagonist Seth] Brundle has an extended rant about 'insect politics' and you just have to give up.  None other than Plácido Domingo was conducting, we'd like to say 'valiantly,' but we can't be sure.

If this is a sign of reviews to come, The Fly bids fair to supplant 2003's much disdained Nicholas and Alexandra in the annals of Unfortunate Los Angeles Opera Commissions.


I will update this post with additional eyewitness testimony as I collect it, with my own contribution in a fresh post after the 20th.  Now if I can just think of a good response to my wife's inevitable question --  "You're going to see this why, exactly?" -- I will have a real sense of accomplishment.

Let's move along to those updates shall we?

  • Alan Rich (whose weblog, soiveheard, I have been unduly slow in adding to the links on your left) reviews The Fly for Daily Variety, succinctly declaring it "a turkey":

What's wrong? You name it. . . .

* * *

On the podium, Placido Domingo is entrusted with trying to impart the spark of life to this lifeless lump.

  • In the Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed finds all of the positive elements he can but still concludes that, when it comes to commissioning new work at Los Angeles Opera, "music has ranked in importance somewhere below makeup."

I am at a loss to understand why 'The Fly' has turned out so dreary, despite the inclusion of sex, nudity, puppetry and athleticism.

Many ask the same question after a typical evening of premium cable programming. 

  • For the Associated Press, Ronald Blum tries even harder to say something nice, but cannot ignore problems with the score:

The 1950s-style set of the mad scientist's laboratory, with plenty of twinkling lights and screens, is compelling. The libretto is witty and interesting. The performances of the three primary singers are heartfelt. The debate over abortion is attention-grabbing, as is the male nudity.

Ultimately, though, an opera thrives on the composer's creation, and Howard Shore's score is background music with few highlights.

  • NPR has a pre-premiere story on the project, with video.  The video segment, provided to NPR by LA Opera, involves the teleportation of a monkey.  It gives an idea of the score and features the labors of the long-suffering offstage chorus and some nifty primate puppetry.  Oddly, although the two principals are on stage throughout the sequence, neither of them sings.  Also unexplained is where exactly, in the late 1950s, they obtained the convenient handheld video camera with which heroine Veronica Quaife is documenting the seeming success of the experiment.

[W]hile The Fly is not a total disaster, it’s about as close to one as you can get without actually arriving there.

There are echoes here of one of Timothy Mangan's key observations: that material clearly meant by the production team to be taken seriously is, in practice, taken rather otherwise:

Most worrisome were the increasing number of unintentionally funny moments that seemed to increase as the show went on.  The animal and Brundle monster puppets produced more than a few chuckles.  A stand-in gymnast who did multiple back flips to represent Brundle’s increased mutant strength at the start of Act II received a big round of applause as well.  And in perhaps the biggest irony, Quaife’s frequent repetition of the catch phrase 'Be afraid. Be very afraid' seemed to produce more and more tittering over the course of Act II.  Given that Cronenberg’s film is the original source of this now overused cliché, it may have been appropriately used here, but this has been lost on the audience who seemed to mostly see it as a puzzling weakness in the libretto.


Tuesday 9/9/08 - the review rundown continues . . . .

  • Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times joins those supportive of the cast and production design, but actively underwhelmed by the score:

But despite the inventive staging and all-out efforts of an admirable cast — especially the courageous performance of the Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch as Seth Brundle, the obsessed scientist who morphs into the hideous creature he calls Brundlefly — 'The Fly' is a ponderous and enervating opera, and the problem is Mr. Shore’s music.

* * *

The most exasperating stretches of the score come when Mr. Shore is most somber.  Wandering vocal lines intertwine with every-which-way instrumental lines that skirt tonality, while sustained orchestral harmonies provide a static support. With hints of 12-tone rows and Bergian richness, the music shows signs of Mr. Shore’s craft in almost every measure.  But it never adds up.  It’s as if Mr. Shore had abandoned his cinematic imagination to write a dutifully contemporary opera.

A 58-second sample from the score accompanies the article.

  • The production team's fellow Canadian, Robert Everett-Green of the Toronto Globe and Mail, advises "Shoo, Fly, Shoo":

At the end of the 1958 film version of The Fly, a housefly with the head of a man struggles in the web of a hungry spider, shrieking 'Help me! Help me!'  Only opera-house etiquette kept me from doing the same during the interminable second hour of the opera version of The Fly, which settled on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles for its North American premiere on Sunday.

* * *

[A] muddled concept (put into words by librettist David Henry Hwang) and a balked score by Howard Shore have left this Fly buzzing pointlessly against the pane.

Turkeys are again invoked.

Operas can make great movies (Ingmar Bergman's 'The Magic Flute,'' for one); the reverse doesn't work. Howard Shore's 'The Fly'' is a fizzle of epic proportions. . . .

* * *

What goes wrong?  Most of all, Shore's stillborn score, a continual orchestral gurgle over which David Henry Hwang's text rides uneasily, even obtrusively, like an alien voice.

Rich has nothing against film directors in the opera house: in the same piece he joins those praising the work of William Friedkin and, particularly, Woody Allen in directing the Trittico.

  • Finally, Jim Farber of the Daily Breeze gives Timothy Mangan some competition most scathing review:

Well, the operatic results of 'The Fly' are disastrous, beginning with the doggedly dour score by Shore that projects itself as 'serious' music (as opposed to 'movie music') by rejecting tonality and melody in favor of relentless minor key sonorities and dank, dreary dissonance.

It's an unrelenting formula that ultimately paints Shore into a corner he does not have the compositional imagination to break out of.  By the beginning of Act 2 (in this 21/2-hour opus) he has exhausted his musical palette and the audience along with it.

* * *

There's a point in the opera when Veronica says there's a part of her life she needs to scrape off the bottom of her shoe.  You may feel the same way after you've seen 'The Fly.'


Mooseburger on the Hoof, with a Shake
(and a Shimmy)

Since her introduction as the prospective Republican candidate for Vice President, we have been told that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is a woman who enjoys a good mooseburger.  This fool's fondness for all things mooseful is well known.  I have an entire category devoted to those noble if befuddled creatures.  The prospect of hunting and eating them is less appealing than the splendid idea of mooseness.  Mooseburgers do sound more tempting, however, than Jellied Moose Nose, a recipe for which (perhaps even the very recipe to be found at that link) I encountered several long decades ago in a Canadian Government bookstore in Ottawa.

I do not know if Gov. Palin's speech to the Convention this evening will include any reference to the Majestic Moose, but those who are craving amoosement tonight need look no further than the season premiere of America's Next Top Model, which features host/judge Tyra Banks' jazz-handed impression of a rampaging Alaskan moose:

[Moose modeling link via reality blurred.]