Sunday, April 27, 2008

Lesbians, Tomboys, and a Queen

Overt the weekend I saw/heard three different shows, one about lesbians, one about a tomboy, one about a queen. Witches and bitches also made an appearance. Read on...

On Friday I saw a student production of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour. Though in one sense, it's a 1930s melodrama with a retrograde view of lesbianism, I was amazed that much of it still felt relevant. It's funny that I wrote the other day about girl-on-girl bullying being a good subject for a play, because for me, that was the most powerful part of The Children's Hour. The words and methods used by bullies may have changed since 1934 (no little girl in 2008 is going to ask other girls to swear loyalty to her "with the solemn oath of a knight," as Mary Tilford does), but the underlying motivations have not. And even though every woman knows that 13-year-old girls can be downright vicious, it's still almost a taboo subject--seeing it represented onstage is still surprising. As is the fact that The Children's Hour has just one male character in it, and otherwise completely concerns itself with female points-of-view! Makes me wonder how far we've really come since 1934...

The other thing that surprised me about The Children's Hour was its language: several "goddamns" and one character referred to as an "old bitch." When writing The Rose of Youth, which takes place in 1934, I consciously tried not to use swear words. I had one (male) character say "goddamn," in a scene with another man, and wondered if even that was too strong. Guess I shouldn't have worried so much!

Still, it was a challenge to write a whole play without using 21st-century locutions such as "like," "y'know," and "I mean." And a challenge to keep the actors from inserting "y'know" and "I mean" into the script where it didn't belong! No playwright likes to hear actors add or change words, but it's even more jarring when the additions seem to come from a whole different decade than the rest of the script!

On Saturday afternoon I listened to the Met opera broadcast of La Fille du Régiment, starring two of my favorite singers, Juan Diego Flórez and Natalie Dessay. Really great work all around, though I was disappointed to miss most of Flórez's Act II aria "Pour me rapprocher de Marie" when the streaming audio on my computer decided to misbehave. And after studying French for nearly four years, it is a real thrill to be able to listen to an opera and understand the singers! I've known the melody of "Pour mon âme" since I was 4 years old, but the words only recently...

La Fille du Régiment, with its spoken dialogue, also made me see the kinship of comic opera and musical comedy. When Tonio, Marie, and Sulpice launched into the energetic trio "Tous les trois réunis" (The three of us reunited) in Act II, it reminded me of nothing so much as those cheery musical-comedy songs pledging friendship and happiness. "Together Wherever We Go" from Gypsy or "Old Friends" from Merrily We Roll Along...that kind of thing. And during Marie's music lesson, as her aunt instructs her to sing "plus fort!" then "plus doux!" (Louder! Sweeter!) how could I help being reminded of "Anything you can sing, I can sing louder"? Come to think of it, Marie has a lot in common with Annie Oakley...an illiterate tomboy, delighting in simple pleasures, kind and loyal to a fault.



Don't they look similar? Reba McEntire as Annie, Natalie Dessay as Marie.

My operatic day continued when I went to see the Vassar music department's production of Dido and Aeneas. This is an odd little piece, with Aeneas perhaps the most under-characterized hero of any opera ever written. The Vassar production tried to remedy that by interpolating another Purcell aria ("What shall I do to show how much I love her?") for him at the end of Act 2.

The singers performed in real Restoration-theater style, which means lots of poses and gestures to accompany the singing. A few of the singers were skilled enough to infuse emotion into these gestures; most looked merely like they were striking attitudes. But, I realized, if you are a singer who can't really act, it's better to aim for dignity and simplicity, than to try to do too much. During the final chorus after Dido's death, the girl who played Belinda (Dido's handmaiden) switched positions every five seconds, grimacing, dabbing at her eyes, burying her face in her hands, in an attempt to convince us of Belinda's sadness. But it was distracting, and seemed as if she was flailing around, unsure of what to do. Much better to find one pose and hold it.

My favorite part of Dido and Aeneas is the witches' "ho-ho-ho" chorus. It amuses me to know that the stereotype of gleefully cackling witches has been around since 1689.

4 comments:

Marc Acito said...

To see Juan Diego Florez sing the aria in the final dress rehearsal at the Met, try this link:

http://video.on.nytimes.com/?fr_story=b61ab3fded80d245e2adc807bdc6978acd32a08b

Marissa said...

Thanks Marc! Florez does an awesome job with it, doesn't he? Though I'm still annoyed at missing his Act II aria due to computer malfunctions--it may not have 9 High C's, but it is very emotional nonetheless.

rachel said...

Just discovered your blog...I love it! Typical Marissa wit and keen observation.

An interesting thing to notice about "The Children's Hour": You describe it as a play "about lesbians," but I don't think the word "lesbian" is used once in the play. One of the things I find most fascinating about this look at historical view of sexuality is that the purported acts between Martha and Karen are SO unspeakable...things really haven't changed all that much...

-Rachel

Marissa said...

Good point, Rachel. As if the word "lesbian" would've been too shocking to even say. But it's also good drama--more powerful for Mary to say "I saw my teachers doing awful things" than "My teachers are lesbians." It preys more on the audience's own imagination.