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March 2011

Ga, Ga, Oo La La: Caught in a Bad Romance
[Luigi Cherubini's Medea, Long Beach Opera]


If Tolstoy had wanted proof from the ancients of his dictum that "each unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way," he need not have looked any further than the marriage of Jason and Medea.  "Seduce and abandon" was a standard operating technique for the Greek heroes, but Medea is the only object of that treatment who is known to have fought back, with famously gruesome and horrible success.  Roberto Calasso writes of the couple:

Right from the start, beautiful as she was, Jason felt a strange repulsion for Medea.  She was a woman who knew only two states: either hopeless unhappiness, desertion, lonely misery, helpless rejection; or dazzling, lightning-swift power.  It was conceivable that one might go through all kinds of adventures with such a woman (and she could be pretty useful too, more so than many a hero); but could you live with her day in day out?

Jason's answer was: no, he could not.  And that made all the difference.

Saturday evening, Long Beach Opera began its 2011 season with an adaptation of Luigi Cherubini's 1797 Medea.  The opera has been shorn of its choruses and pomp, translated into English, slimmed down from three to one 100-minute act, and peppered with textual interpolations from Euripides' version of the story.  The resulting piece is a portrait of a marital pressure vessel, building from the start to an inevitable explosion.  

Cherubini, an Italian who had a long and successful career as a composer and head of the Conservatoire in Paris, was much admired by Beethoven, and the surface similarities between the two men's music are striking: you could substitute Cherubini's Medea overture for, say, the third movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, and the listener who did not already know the symphony might never notice.  It is grossly unfair and a wild simplification, but not unhelpful in terms of how the two are currently assessed, to think of Cherubini as a sort of Electric Light Orchestra to Beethoven's Beatles, with the key difference that Beethoven actually claimed to have been influenced by Cherubini, and is known to have admired Medea in particular.

Cherubini's opera is not based directly on Euripides, but on Euripides as filtered through the French sensibilities of Corneille.  We join Medea's case in medias res, Jason having abandoned her to pursue an advantageous marriage to Dircé, daughter of Creon, King of Corinth.  Medea objects vociferously to the arrangement.  Because she is widely feared and distrusted, she is ordered into exile by Creon, on pain of death.  She negotiates one extra day to compose herself for departure, then uses it to exact her ghastly revenge: Creon and his daughter die engulfed in poisonous flames generated by Medea's "wedding gift," and Medea confronts Jason with the corpses of his young sons, freshly murdered by their own mother.  (As the Wabbit sez: "What do you expect from an opera, a happy ending?")


Long Beach Opera is mounting its version of Medea in a now-empty big-box furniture store.  The stage is above, and surrounded by, the audience.  The lighting is largely from beneath, through gratings and plexiglass.  The six singers remain on stage throughout, curling up in their corners when not needed.  The arrangement is effective overall, despite occasional sight line issues, and provides the sort of intimacy with the performers that is a Long Beach Opera hallmark.  For the tightly coiled emotion of Medea, that intimacy makes for a riveting time.

Both the costuming and the performances take a mixed modern-meets-archaic approach.  Creon struts in leather.  Jason sports half-undone formal wear and the aura of a scruffy and overmatched Brad Pitt.  Dircé, in the production's one actual misstep, is a high-strung party girl taking refuge in the bottle, a sort of Paris Hilton by way of Kim Kardashian with an unhealthy dollop of Snooki. Playing off against these contemporary types is Medea, one side bedecked with curling tatoos (snakes are implicit in all that Medea does), in the company of her slave/nurse Neris and two nameless Women, who may be real or may be merely projections of Medea herself.

At this point in its history, Long Beach Opera seems to operate as something of a repertory company, filling out its casts from a pool of recurring performers.  Every member of the Medea cast has been seen here before in recent years.  It is a strong, strong bench on which to draw.

Central to it all in this case is Suzan Hanson as Medea.  She first sang in Long Beach in 1995 (Les Illuminations), then returned as a sterling Brünnhilde in the second half of LBO's mini-Ring in 2006.  She has reappeared in most every season since, most memorably last year as Pat Nixon in Nixon in China, a character who is a more than polar opposite to Medea.  As is only right, Hanson's Medea dominates all comers, eliciting pity or fear as the need arises with a remarkable economy of gesture.  

As Cherubini wrote it—or at least as the opera has been revised and refined by conductor/director/designer/dramaturge-about-town Andreas MItisek, in collaboration with Suzan Hanson—Medea is essentially the only character who receives more than one major aria.  The other performers make the most of what they are given.  Their characters cannot but fall before the primal force that is Medea, but they fall with grace and point.   

Ani Maldjian has become LBO's first choice for high-wire soprano singing combined with a great grip on a character.  To her credit, she derived all the pathos available from the somewhat misguided direction she was asked to pursue as the unfortunate Dircé.  She delivered her character's principal aria flawlessly, but my own view of whatever she was doing at the time was entirely blocked by Medea's three recumbent companions. (The Los Angeles Times suggests that autoeroticism was involved, in which case perhaps I don't want to know.  It would just have compounded the other errant directorial choices Maldjian so adroitly overcame.)

The role of Neris is performed by mezzo Peabody Southwell.  Here, I hope I may be forgiven for confessing that I am something of a Peabody Southwell fan-boy: her performance as the Fox two years ago in The Cunning LIttle Vixen (Ani Maldjian was the memorable Vixen in question) was a pitch-perfect bit of characterization, and her turn in the trouser role of Ramiro in Vivaldi's Motezuma was central to selling the otherwise ridiculous (but it worked!) premise of that production.  She is an extremely gifted singer-actor, with a voice that commands attention whether she is singing or speaking.  While her character served largely as a one-third of the company of Women surrounding, supporting, and acting for Medea (Ariel Pisturino and Diana Tash are Woman 1 and Woman 2, respectively), Southwell stepped into her own with Neris' searingly gorgeous aria (to a moving bassoon accompaniment) pledging unending support and solidarity to her wronged mistress.  (The company has not let slip the details of its casting from the remainder of this season.  I am hopeful we will see more of Peabody Southwell, and every other member of this cast for that matter.)  


What's that?  You want to know about the men in the cast?  Do they matter in the face of such daunting women?  They do, I suppose.  The role of Jason is somewhat thankless: he may be a hero, but he has nothing to offer in the way of a defense against the provocation he has given Medea.  Ryan MacPherson suggested a Jason whose heroic days are behind him, trading on his tales of adventures gone by, genuinely puzzled as to how things have gone so horribly wrong and why Medea won't just Move On.  Roberto Gomez, as Creon, continues his run as Long Beach Opera's perpetual king: whenever there's a king needed these past few years, whether serious or silly, it has fallen to Gomez.  His Creon is trying So Very Hard to maintain control of the situation, to no avail.

Medea is not a rollicking walk in the park or a jovial feel-good anything.  It is a persuasive telling of one of the core tales of Greece, one of those stories that compels us to confront the fundamental bloody messiness of life and the terrors that likely lurk just beneath the lovely surfaces of the world.  It is another high point for Long Beach Opera and for all involved in putting it together, and you will not regret having looked it in the eye and taken it in through your ears.  Go, and see for yourselves.

Two performances of Medea remain: at this writing, tickets are definitely available for an added performance on the afternoon of Saturday, February 5; the closing performance the following afternoon may have some limited availability, but is officially "sold out".


Photos: Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera; supersecret subliminal captioning by the blogger.


The Bar Association of Abalone, Arizona

El Circo del Dr Lao

    A man of many artifical parts was Lawyer Frank Tull.  His teeth had been fashioned for him and fitted to his jaws by a doctor of dental surgery.  His eyes, weak and wretched, saw the world through bifocal lenses, so distorted that only through them could the distortion of Frank's own eyes perceive things aright.  He had a silver plate in his skull to guard a hole from which a brain tumor had been removed.  One of his legs was made of metal and fiber; it took the place of the flesh-and-blood leg his mother had given him in her womb.  Around his belly was an apparatus that fitted mouth-like over his double hernia and prevented his guts from falling out.  A suspensory kept his scrotum from dangling unduly.  In his left arm a platinum wire took the place of the humerus.  Once every alternating week he went to the clinic and was injected either with salvarsan or mercury according to the antepenultimate week's dose to prevent the Spirochæta pallida from holding too much power over his soul.  Odd times he suffered prostate massages and subjected himself to deep irrigations to rectify another chronic fault in his machinery. Now and then to keep his good one going, they falttened his rotten lung with gas.  On one ear was strapped an arrangement designed to make ordinary sounds more audible.  In the shoe of his good foot an arch supporter kept that foot from splaying out.  A wig covered the silver plate in his skull.  His tonsils had been taken from him, and so had his appendix and his adenoids.  Stones had been carved from his gall, and a cancer burnt from his nose.  His piles had been removed, and water had been drained from his knee.  Sometimes they fed him with enemas; and they punched a hole in his throat so he could breathe when his noseholes clogged.  He carried his head in a steel brace, for his neck was broken; currently also his toenails ingrew.  As a member of the finest species life had yet produced he could not wrest a living from the plants of the field, nor could he compete with the beasts thereof.  As a member of the society into which he had been born he was respected and taken care of and lived on, surviving, no doubt, because he was fit.  He was a husband but not a father, a married man but not a lover.  One hundred years after he died they opened up his coffin.  All they found were strings and wires.
    He parked his car, got out of it, and walked across the street to the circus to look at its freaks.

Charles G. Finney, The Circus of Dr. Lao (1935).


A Bend in the River, a Twist in the Tune:
Theme and Variations for Bewitched Musical Instruments

Human bone flute by cliff1066

Blood will tell and murder will out.  The unjustly dead will find a way to stand and accuse their killers.  The songs and stories tell us so.

I first encountered this theme in a darkened cinema in then-thriving downtown Detroit when I was a wee nipper, back in 1962.  My parents took me to see The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm in the superduperwidescreen, triple-projector Cinerama format.  (Now reasonably obscure, Wonderful World turns out to have won the Academy Award for best costumes in its year, and was nominated for three additional awards for art direction, cinematography and score.)

Produced by George Pal and reflecting his fondness for special effects—stop-motion animation in particular—Wonderful World was the first use of Cinerama in a story-driven (as opposed to documentary/travelogue) feature.  It offered up a romanticized version of the career of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and their gathering of the legends and tales whose written versions are now associated with their name.  Three of those tales are incorporated in the film, and one of those is "The Singing Bone."

Singing boneIn Wonderful World, "The Singing Bone" tells of a knight (Terry-Thomas) and his squire (Buddy Hackett, of all people) who are dispatched to slay a dragon. The knight is in fact a coward.  While the dragon is successfully slain, amid much slapstick hilarity, the slaying is done by the squire.  Rather than have his cowardice revealed, and in order to take credit for the deed—the hand of a princess is likely at stake—the knight kills and buries the squire.  Later, a shepherd finds the remains and whittles one of the bones in to a flute or recorder.  The instrument begins singing on its own, telling what really occurred and revealing the knight for the coward and murderer that he is. Somehow (the details escape me now) the squire is miraculously restored to life, and the knight is duly punished for his crimes.

No surprise, the movie version takes significant liberties with the original tale.  In the Grimms' telling, the protagonists are two brothers and the object of their quest is a large and dangerous boar. Younger brother kills boar, older brother kills younger, shepherd finds bones, horn fitted with bone mouthpiece sings on its own, and the murderous brother is executed. The murdered brother remains dead, albeit in a "beautiful tomb."

As with any good folk tale, there are variants.  Some of those are musical: that key element of the victim speaking against the killer through a musical instrument recurs in the ballad known by such names as "The Two Sisters" and "The Dreadful Wind and Rain."  It is a strange and disturbing song, 

In the ballad, one sister always kills the other, usually by tossing her in a stream to drown.  In some versions, there is a reason given for the murder, usually jealousy over a suitor.  In others, the killing simply happens.  In every version, one sister dies, but there seem to be no versions in which the surviving sister is punished.   Some end with the murder, but most continue on to the strange fate of the dead girl: The body is found, usually by a miller downstream, and its divers parts are incorporated in to a harp or a fiddle.  (There is a graduate thesis to be had in figuring out why the fairy tale involves a wind instrument, while the ballad consistently involves music made with strings.)

The process of construction, and which part of the girl becomes which part of the fiddle, is detailed over a series of verses.  Any Freudians in the room will readily detect an undertone of necrophilia, though nothing is ever said outright.  On completion the instrument proves, of course, to be bewitched: it will play only one song, specifically the song that we have been listening to, revealing and making us complicit in the grisly tale of how the instrument came to be.

Basted Mill Pond

Recorded versions of the ballad in its seemingly endless variants are numerous.  Here, it is taken up by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman:

The most notable recent use of the song is by Nico "the Mozart of our Age" Muhly, who adapted it as "The Only Tune," a piece included in his 2008 collection, Mothertongue.  (Mothertongue is streamable in its entirety below.  "The Only Tune" comprises tracks 8 through 10.) 

"The Only Tune" is constructed in three parts, with the ballad being sung by Sam Amidon, seen below with his trusty plastic steed and bone-supported snare drum, during the work's New York premiere. 

Samhorse3The first section, "Two Sisters," focuses on the murder.  The song begins in broken, stuttering snippets emerging out of noise and chaos, as the singer struggles to get out the facts of the case: that there were two sisters, walking down by a stream. Soon enough the song, with its repeating invocation of "the [dreadful] wind and rain," settles in over a spartan banjo figure and one of the sisters is drowned.  The second section, "The Old Mill Pond," follows the dead girl down the stream, where her corpse is ultimately fished from the pond with the miller's "long long hook."  A Reichian pulse hovers, soon joined by a clanking and thumping, as the miller settles to his gruesome taxidermic transformation of the unfortunate miss, peaking as the fiddle is played for the first time, revealing its "only tune."  The final section circles back, the entire ballad being repeated in a simpler, almost sunny style, with banjo, viola, and sparkling keyboard parts.  

Here are Sam Amidon (without his horse), Nadia Sirota (with her viola), and Nico Muhly (with a battery of keyboards and laptops) in the concluding portions of Part III in performance at the Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles in 2009: 

"The Only Tune" is a variant of the original ballad, but "The Only Tune" has also spawned additional variants of its own.  The performance above, for instance, differs in some respects from the studio-based version on Mothertongue.  

The Mothertongue version has also been subjected to a remix by Ryan Lott, aka Son Lux.  That remix, which appeared as part of the no-longer-available 2010 Christmas mix offered by the Bedroom Community label, strips things down to leave Sam Amidon's performance of the song surrounded by a soundscape resembling a music box in a cider mill.  You can hear it as the accompaniment to this dance performance, choreographed and performed by Ryan Lott's spouse and artistic collaborator, Jennifer Lott (lottdance):

Sad to think, after all these musical resurrections, that one sister is still guilty and the other is still dead.  Fortunately, we can take comfort in knowing that they were both fictional in the first place.


For further listening:  
I strongly endorse the only extant Son Lux album, At War With Walls & Mazes, which somehow blends the gestures of Outer HipHopia—percussion breaks that sound like an entire drum kit rolling down stairs, vocals that sound as though the singer has never gone through a day without a stomach ache—with a seriousness of spiritual purpose that is authentically moving.  The EP of Son Lux remixes of songs from Shara Worden/My Brightest Diamond's A Thousand Shark's Teeth is my personal favorite from the four-volume Shark Remixes series.  

To keep our web seamless, I might note that the first I ever heard of Son Lux was an enthusiastic mention in a 2008 blog post (and Guardian essay) by, yes!, Nico Muhly, doing that thing he does of making serious unclassifiable music sound seriously interesting.  I do not know whether Muhly and Lott had actually met yet when that post went up, but they have performed together since and each has remixed the other.


Illustrations [top to bottom]:
"Human Bone Flute" by Flickr user cliff1066, used under Creative Commons license.

"Singing Bone" image via, further sourcing details unknown.

Basted Mill Pond, near Claygate Cross, Kent, photo by Robin Webster, via, used under Creative Commons license.

Sam Amidon, with horse and equipage by Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, premiering "The Only Tune" at the Kitchen, New York, March, 2008; photo via Brooklyn Vegan.


Athena Ajax Odysseus


Whenever man celebrates his autonomy with preposterous claims and fatal deeds, Athena is insulted.  Her punishment is never long in coming, and it is extreme.  Today, those who do not recognize her are not insolent heroes such as Ajax but the many numerous 'nobodies' Ajax despised. It is they who advance, haughty and blind, polluting the earth they tread.  While the heirs of Odysseus continue their silent dialogue with Athena.

Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony



Good morning, Starshine!


What's that, coming up over the hills?  It's the Future, pilgrim!


Photo by the blogger, who admits he took it out of his rear window yesterday and not today.

Happy New Year, in any case.  Details to follow.