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Epithalamium Redux Redux (Slight Return)

Bartolomeo Cesi - Two Men Kissing in Florence, 1600



Hymen, Hymenaeus!
Gay men and lesbians
Flock to the City Hall,
Follow their bliss,

Purchase their licenses,
Swear to their permanence,
Pose for the camera crews
Sharing a kiss.


Damned, sir?  They’re damned, you say?
Possibly, possibly:
Love has led millions to
Suffer a Fall.

That’s for the next world, sir;
Here with the living — well,
What was it Chaucer said?
“Love conquers all.”


Poets, sir. Love poets.
Some of the best have been
Gay, sir.  Consider this
List I’ve compiled:

Wystan Hugh Auden and
C.P. Cavafy and
Sappho. James Merrill, Thom
Gunn, Oscar Wilde.


Legally, legally,
Should an impediment
Rise to the marriage of
Minds that are true?

Sure as there’s only one
Race, sir — the human race —
How would you feel if it
Happened to you?


Citizens, citizens,
Leave to your churches these
Questions of sanctity,
Tough and profound.

Secular governments
Ought to facilitate
Binding of lovers who
Yearn to be bound.


Hymen, Hymenaeus!
Cleave to the one who’s your
Heart’s true companion, the
Thou to your I.

Now, when the times are so
Fearsome we all must, as
Auden says, “love one a-
nother or die.”


In view of the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions this morning on issues of same-sex marriage, including the apparent restoration of that institution here in California, I am republishing—for the fourth and likely final time—my 2004 double dactyl paean to same.

The full history of the poem was summarized on its third publication, last year.


Who'll Stop the Thane?
[Ernest Bloch: Macbeth, Long Beach Opera]


The Scottish play.There is always occasion for another production of the Scottish play, and on this occasion the occasion is Long Beach Opera's season-ending staging of the U.S. professional premiere of Ernest Bloch's 1906 operatization of—let's just say it and have done—Macbeth.

Bloch's Macbeth is yet another case of Long Beach Opera championing a piece whose obscurity seems, upon actually hearing the thing, inexplicable. The composer was all of 24 when he wrote it. It is his only opera. Its premiere engagement was in Paris at the Opera Comique in 1910, and it epitomizes much of what was best in then-contemporary music two brief years before this year's Centennial Birthday Boy, Stravinsky's Sacre de Printemps, kicked in the doors of the 20th Century. Bloch's influences are Wagner and, most particularly, Debussy. Much in Macbeth is clearly Bloch's own, but he draws enthusiastically on the burly brawling Debussy of La Mer and the Nocturnes. It turns out that that Debussy, given the chance and the proper material, might have been an even better operatist than the Debussy of Pelleas. Patron of the standard repertoire who are willing to embrace the secondhand Debussismo of, say, Madama Butterfly should be equally comfortable with the more interesting sounds of Bloch and his Macbeth.

LBO has made a habit of performing in spaces that are in, on, or closely bounded by the Pacific Ocean. The company has staged operas in a swimming pool (adjacent to the ocean), in the Aquarium of the Pacific, and deep in the hull of the Queen Mary. In September, LBO will be staging Peter Lieberson's King Gesar not only in Long Beach, but on Long Beach, 'round the campfire under the stars. For Macbeth, the maritime site in question is an empty passenger terminal at Berth 92 of the Port of Los Angeles. The playing area is a long thin slot of a space, the audience on risers on either side. A heavy wooden table dominates the center, additional abandoned furniture lies at either end, draped in blood-spattered fabric. The orchestra—a full-Romantic complement of roughly 40 players, with a large, unseen and unexpected Chorus—is secreted behind a scrim at one end of the room.


Most of the action plays out around, or atop, that central table, and it is there that we meet immediately with the three Witches (Ariel Pisturino, Danielle Marcelle Bond and Nandani Sinha - stay weird, sisters!). They are a sunken-eyed, hungry, spasmodically hissing crew, and they reappear throughout the evening, unseen by the other characters, to press along the inexorable working of their prophecy/curse.

Any Macbeth must first decide how capable and decent Macbeth himself is at the start: is he a good man who goes wrong or is he simply a dupe, a catspaw to the witches, his ambitious Lady, or both? Long Beach opts for the former: As portrayed with strength and lustre by Nmon Ford, Macbeth is a leader of men, initially content with his service to and regard from his King. Suzan Hanson is Lady Macbeth who here is not some overweening shrew but, at the outset, a beloved companion and equal to her husband, lively, intelligent, sexy, cherished, respected. The Macbeths have a relationship of trust and mutual admiration, until the Thane becomes King and a celebratory canoodle turns selfishly brutal, the first symptom perhaps of his ultimately fatal overreach.

Macbeth's error grows out of his strengths: The witches have promised that he will be king, but warned that he will not father future kings. Macbeth is able first to implement the witches' prophecy by the murder of Duncan. Power achieved, he foolishly attempts to thwart the remainder of the prophecy by the slaughter of perceived rivals such as Banquo (Doug Jones, also appearing as divers servants, etc.) and the Macduff family. Naturally, it does not end well: all Scotland rises against him, his wife runs fatally mad, and the witches return in the end to savor Macbeth's own death at the hands of Macduff (Robin Buck), all as they have foretold.


LBO artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek conceived and directed this production. The orchestra and chorus were subtly and propulsively led by Benjamin Makino, overcoming a difficult placement at the far end of an acoustically challenging room. The opera's three acts were run together without intermission, and events never flagged over the near two-hour running time.

The unanswered mystery of this Macbeth is why it is so little known. Bloch ultimately revised his original French libretto into English (the version heard here) and incorporated nearly all of the best known lines and speeches from the play, yielding an admirable adaptation that lands all of the requisite Shakespearean beats. A good Macbeth is a good evening in the theater, and this is assuredly a good Macbeth.

Two performances are still to come on June 22 and 23. The bad news is that those performances are reported as being sold out. Perhaps some helpful witches could get you in. What could possibly go wrong?

  • Mac1-103
  • Mac2-126
  • Mac2-150
  • Mac2-220
  • Mac2-117
  • Mac1-301

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.]


All Mozart on the Western Front:
Kenneth Branagh's Magic Flute Receives a US Release

  Beedle dee, dee dee dee... Three ladies!

Seven years after first becoming available in the rest of the world, Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of Mozart and Schikaneder's The Magic Flute has at last received a US release, with a selection of theatrical showings over the weekend (the theatrical trailer is below) and a DVD release earlier this week. The film was originally released in Europe in 2006, to coincide with the sestercentennial [250th anniversary] of the composer's birth, but it did not receive US distribution at the time. Los Angeles Times classical music critic Mark Swed stumbled upon it in 2008 and bemoaned the absence of a legitimate Stateside version. 

As well he might, because Branagh's Flute, with an English adaptation of the libretto by Stephen Fry, is a lively smile-inducing charmer, broadly and immediately appealing. Greatest opera film ever? Hardly: that would likely be Ingmar Bergman's Flute (once you disqualify Bugs Bunny and the Marx Brothers). Does the world need another Flute? One can never have enough Flutes, really, and Branagh's offers plentiful justification for the work's enduring popularity.

Abandoning the quasi-Egypt of the original, Branagh has reset the tale in and around the trenches in the latter part of the First World War. This seems less for purposes of commentary on that war, or on War generally - beyond the message that Peace is much to be preferred - than for the purpose of having a distinctive and attractive production design. As in Branagh's Shakespeare films, everyone and everything looks great. Even when they are flooded and muddied during Tamino's and Pamina's testing by water, these are some of the prettiest trenches you have ever seen. (This must have been by choice: Branagh is no stranger to depicting the grit and misery of warfare, as in his Henry V.)

Here, the prince Tamino (Joseph Kaiser) is an army officer—seemingly British, but any one-to-one mapping of historical allies and enemies breaks down almost as quickly as the weather, which bounces from high summer to snowy Yuletide and back, seemingly in a single night. During the bravura overture—built around a marvelous long tracking shot through the trenches, up, over and out to the massed forces—Tamino leads his men across No Man's Land in a frontal assault on the opposing line. His fellows largely felled, he finds himself facing not a fearsome serpent, but a cloud of poison gas. The three Ladies of the Queen of the Night ( arrive as frontline nurses, all in white. The Queen herself (Lyubov Petrova) enters fearsomely atop a tank, backlit and wind-machined. Papageno the bird man (Benjamin Jay Davis) is a weary infantryman, his birds kept to detect gas attacks; he himself is encased in a gas mask when the Ladies seal his overeager mouth. The noble priest Sarastro (René Pape) now presides over a ruined chateau turned field hospital turned temple, gently bringing about the inevitable bonding of Tamino with the Queen and Sarastro's daughter Pamina (Amy Carson) and the more earthy union of Papageno with Papagena (Silvia Moi) while incidentally shedding a bit of Masonic enlightenment on all and sundry.

Dernière sélection Magic FLute Hight def 112
The orchestra is the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the direction of James Conlon, whose principal day job is as musical director of Los Angeles Opera. LA Opera-goers know from experience that Conlon is a dab hand at Mozart, and the playing here is uniformly fine.

Flute has been and remains perhaps the most immediately lovable piece in the standard opera repertoire, and the qualities that make it so lovable—a fairy tale love story, plucky comic relief, and the fact that Mozart's score bears pleasure on all its surfaces while revealing ever more pleasures the deeper the listener digs down into it—are all on display. Where Bergman (as one would expect of Bergman) was interested in the Flute's more sublime and philosophical corners, Branagh is out to show us a good time in the company of a masterwork. Mission accomplished.

[This post was written on the basis of a review copy of the DVD provided by the distributor, Revolver Entertainment. As my curiosity about this film had nearly driven me to piracy in the past, I was well pleased to have a legitimate copy tumble my way.]

In the Ripening-Shed
[The Industry: (First Take)]

The Industry is the new kid in town pressing the cause of innovative/new opera and music drama in Los Angeles. To date, the company has one production to its credit—Anne LeBaron's Crescent City, for the missing of which due quantities of self-kicking have been administered—with highly intriguing plans to premiere Christopher Cerrone's Invisible Cities in October in situ at Los Angeles' Union Station. And at the Hammer Museum this past Saturday, with wild Up as its house band, The Industry presented (First Take), concert versions of extended excerpts from six new operas in various (but comparatively advanced) stages of development.

The roots of (First Take) lie in New York City Opera's VOX programs, for which Industry founder/Artistic Director Yuval Sharon served as Project Director. As with VOX, (First Take) aims to spot and spotlight projects that warrant the opportunity to receive quality, professional performance to help them to move that much closer to completion and full production.

In part because I fancy myself an aspiring "freelance librettist" these days, I will confess to a personal bias in favor of music drama in which the composer has been enabled to draw on a well-turned text. By that subjective standard, the pieces I most favored were the three presented in the later parts of the day, each very different from the other but each engaged in the joinder of words and music with particular effectiveness.

Ellen Reid's Winter's Child, with a text by Amanda Jane Shank, is a ghost story, southern gothic style: a girl about to turn 15, living alone with her mother, is beset by visitations from the ghosts of her three dead sisters, each of whom died just prior to her 15th birthday. The chittering ambiguously ominous spirits of the three sisters are embodied in a six-member chorus, their warnings (threats?) emerging as from a shredding mist. Britten's Turn of the Screw is something of a gold standard for operatic ghost music; Reid's angular, shifty score never imitates it, but achieves comparably unsettling effects. The excerpts on offer comprehended much of the opera's narrative arc, leaving this listener hankering to hear the story whole. The librettist is (In September, Ellen Reid ventures to a different supernatural realm, supplying music to accompany the Getty Villa's production of a new translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound.)

Judging by applause and audience reaction, Pierrot Lunaire from composer Mohammed Fairouz was the popular favorite of the day, and it is a piece with prodigious reserves of unwholesome appeal. On the cusp between song-cycle and opera, this Pierrot has only a tenuous relation to Arnold Schoenberg's famed setting of twenty-one poems by Albert Girauds. Here, the text is a sequence of ten poems (the latter six segments were performed on Saturday) by Wayne Koestenbaum, which allude to Girauds's poems principally by imitating their rondeau form. Otherwise, the poetic material goes very much its own way, swimming and spattering about, contemporizing the creepy JungundFreudische dream visions of High Surrealism. Koestenbaum is a gleeful name checker, inserting the likes of Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag in to discomforting circumstances, like Lenin on a grand piano. Fairouz's score fully exploits the simultaneous zaniness and dread of the text, larking sharply through a kaleidoscopic range of styles and backhanded references. Tenor Timur Bekbosunov, in the role of Pierrot, was called upon to croon, burn, wheedle and shriek, or all at once, and did so commandingly. Pierrot is a literate, nightmarish treat.

(Pierrot Lunaire in full receives its premiere production in New York later this week. In that connection, the composer posted an essay about the work last week at the Huffington Post. In his fast growing catalogue of work, Pierrot contrasts neatly with Mohammed Fairouz's earlier opera, Sumeida's Song, a well tuned little clockwork tragedy of a piece of a more traditional operatic kind: a sort of verismo on the upper Nile, it is excellently crafted, dramatically and musically compelling, and well worth seeking out. An earlier collaboration with Koestenbaum, the three-song sequence "POSH," is featured on the fine new survey of Fairouz's work recently released by the Naxos label, Native Informant.)

Showing The Youth How It Is Done, the afternoon concluded with the latest work from the perpetually questing Pauline Oliveros, just turned 81. If The Nubian Word for Flowers had an epigraph, it would perhaps be T.S Eliot's "Old men ought to be explorers." With a text by the poet Ione, the opera imagines the British general Lord Kitchener, a skilled botanist in addition to being a maker of wars, plucked out of the world to a mysterious island where he meets an equally mysterious Nubian boatman/astronomer, catalyzing a communion of the past and the infinite.Three strands of music underlie the piece: prerecorded electronics incorporating found sounds and birdsong, fully notated parts for the singers, and "guided improvisation" by the orchestra with substantial infusions of traditional Nubian motifs. Saturday's performance shared just enough of the full work to make plain that it is a dream one would fain enter more fully.

Aaron Siegel's brother brother, with which Saturday's program opened, meditates on the condition of brother-hood through pairs of real and imagined brothers: Orville and Wilbur Wright and twins named Red and Blue. Combining sparely poetic arias with spoken questions and narratives that verged on non sequitur, the selections from the three-act work that were performed on Saturday did not coalesce in to a clear idea of the larger whole, but were never less than intriguing from moment to moment.

Alexander Vassos' The House is Open ruminates on family and on the relations between waking and sleeping life, hanging its narrative on Charley, a nine-year old boy who has spent six of those years asleep. Consciously modeled on the "horror of the ordinary" aesthetic of David Lynch, House is also interested in different ways of presenting sound to the audience: at one point, Charley is fitted with a "crown" of microphones and turns slowly about as family members sing in to them, their voices traveling around the hall depending on which mic each is faced with at the moment. Plenty of ideas are moving about the piece, but again the overall dramatic shape was hard to glean on Saturday.

Davið Brynjar Franzson's Longitude was the most "unoperalike" piece, and the least suited to being taken in in a concert format. It is inspired by the figure of Jørgen Jørgensen, who in 1809 "liberated" Iceland from Denmark and ruled the briefly independent nation as a Protector/dictator for forty days before the Danes returned, ousted him and turned him over to British authorities. The composer and collaborators describe it as a "site specific monodrama," and on this occasion it was wordless: an actor stands, largely motionless except when his arm is manipulated bunraku-puppet style, his profile silhouetted by projections as live musicians and realtime electronics scrape and creak and crackle. It is more interesting than that may make it sound, but it would make more sense as an immersive sight and sound installation upstairs on the Hammer's video gallery than it did on stage.

Each of the six works on this initial (First Take) program is deserving of the encouragement it received by its inclusion on the program. The largely-full house in the Hammer's Billy Wilder Theater responded with enthusiasm to them all. The greatest enthusiasm, however, was reserved for The Industry and for the (First Take) project itself. This fool, for one, hopes that the first (First Take) is far from the last, and that it will become an annual fixture in the Los Angeles new music landscape.