Saturday, November 29, 2008

Nabokov in Oregon


To the many obvious reasons there are to love the writing of Vladimir Nabokov, I add a smaller and more personal reason: as far as I can tell, he is the most important literary figure ever to have spent time in my beautiful home state of Oregon, and to have produced significant work there.

Nabokov and his wife Vera spent the summer of 1953 in a rented house in Ashland, Oregon (the small town near the California border that is world-famous for its Shakespeare festival). It is a picturesque and peaceful town that also afforded Nabokov great opportunities for butterfly-collecting in the surrounding hills. In Ashland, he passed an "extraordinarily productive writing summer": he finished Lolita, wrote the first chapter of Pnin as a short story for The New Yorker, and composed two poems, "The Ballad of Longwood Glen" and "Lines Written in Oregon" (citation). Pretty amazing, huh?

Though Nabokov never wrote extensively about Oregon, there are some brief references to the state scattered throughout his allusion-happy oeuvre. In Pnin, a character is described as "bursting into happy tears--for all the world like little Miss Michigan or the Oregon Rose Queen." Technically, this figure is called the Portland Rose Festival Queen--but her coronation is a big deal during the month of June, and I'm guessing that Nabokov read about it in the newspaper.

And in Lolita, in the section where Humbert provides a running commentary on all the corners of America that he and Lo visit, they make a couple of stops in Oregon. One of them is "Blue, blue Crater Lake." It amuses me that even the great Nabokov could find no better word to describe Crater Lake than "blue"; his genius is deep, but Crater Lake is deeper!

Here is Nabokov's "Lines Written in Oregon"--kind of a bizarre poem, but very evocative for those of us who grew up hiking in the Oregon woods, searching for trilliums, counting how many shades of green we could see, half-convinced that this was the land where fairy tales could come true.
Esmeralda! now we rest
Here, in the bewitched and blest
Mountain forests of the West.
Here the very air is stranger.
Damzel, anchoret, and ranger
Share the woodland’s dream and danger.
And to think I deemed you dead!
(In a dungeon, it was said;
Tortured, strangled); but instead –
Blue birds from the bluest fable,
Bear and hare in coats of sable,
Peacock moth on picnic table.
Huddled roadsigns softly speak
Of Lake Merlin, Castle Creek,
And (obliterated) Peak.
Do you recognize that clover?
Dandelions, l’or du pauvre?
(Europe, nonetheless, is over).
Up the turk, along the burn
Latin lilies climb and turn
Into Gothic fir and fern.
Cornfields have befouled the prairies
But these canyons laugh! And there is
Still the forest with its fairies.
And I rest where I awoke
In the sea shade – l’ombre glauque
Of a legendary oak;
Where the woods get ever dimmer,
Where the Phantom Orchids glimmer –
Esmeralda, immer, immer.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Blow Out Your Candles, Laura

Because I often gravitate toward intellectual-type writers (I'm looking at you, Tom Stoppard) who flamboyantly display their wit, their craftsmanship, their insider knowledge of theatrical tricks, I can underestimate writers who aren't so overtly clever. Not always--I mean, I am in perpetual awe of how Chekhov creates such moving effects by such subtle means--but, for instance, I had tended to underestimate Tennessee Williams' skills as a craftsman. His plays seemed governed by lyricism, poetry, and emotion that sometimes slops into melodrama--not by any kind of formal rigor.

But Williams' works have endured for a reason, and when I saw a production of The Glass Menagerie last year, I finally realized that wow, he really knew what he was doing.

First, I have to applaud Williams' instinct that the final scene of the play needs to take place in candlelight--that the emotional spell it casts is too fragile and tender to withstand the harsh light of electricity. (Ha, and in Streetcar Named Desire there's the scene where Mitch rips down the paper lampshade and subjects Blanche to the bare glaring bulb... Tennessee are you repeating yourself?) This is a subtle, atmospheric kind of thing, and many playwrights wouldn't be aware of it. They'd say "This scene isn't working, I don't know why," and never figure out that it's because it's lit the wrong way.

Then the decision to include candlelight ripples out in multiple directions. By the end of the play, the candles become metaphoric instead of just physical, leading up to that unforgettable penultimate line, "Blow out your candles, Laura--for today the world is lit by lightning!" Candlelight as flickering and fragile and old-fashioned, dreamlike, easily snuffed out.

But in order to include the candles in the first place, there needs to be some kind of justification that the audience will accept. It would be too blatant a contrivance to say "Oops, there's been an inexplicable power outage on the night that Laura will receive her Gentleman Caller! Break out the candles!"

So, just as the scene is beginning, Tom tells Jim, casually, that he's been neglecting to pay his family's bills, in order to stash some money away for himself and eventually use it to leave home. To a large extent, this is a set-up to justify the family's electricity being cut off that night. But when Tom first says this line, it doesn't register as a set-up, because it also works so well to reveal his character. Perhaps for the first time, we understand just how deep Tom's frustration goes, and how thoughtlessly he can behave toward his mother and sister in order to achieve his own ends. He becomes less likable but more complex. And so this also sets up the feeling of guilt that hangs over the older Tom, the narrator--because now we've seen him do something that he really should feel guilty about.

So the whole thing functions on multiple levels. And when the power does go out...and the candles are lit...and everything clicks into place, you just have to admit that Tennessee Williams is a master craftsman, always a couple steps ahead of the audience, lighting the way.

Photo is from a production of The Glass Menagerie at the Guthrie Theater.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

More Stories from the Theater World

You might have noticed that I haven't written much about theater lately--well, that's because I'm not really going to a lot of it. I habitually forget to read San Francisco theater listings + the workweek grind's got me down + I tend to see shows on closing weekend, rendering blogging superfluous = a substantially less theater-oriented marissabidilla.

I've been relying on friends to invite me to the theater--usually it's the other way around--and in that way I've seen (embarrassingly) just four plays in three months. Two crazy little plays in Berkeley--one the inaugural production of a college friend's new theater company, the other an irreverent and very enjoyable play about Asian American identity called Ching Chong Chinaman--and two others in San Francisco.

My favorite play of these past months was Word for Word Theater's More Stories by Tobias Wolff. This theater company's modus operandi is to "stage short stories, performing every word the author has written," and I'd been curious to see a show done in this style ever since I heard of Seattle's Book-It Repertory Theater, which does something similar.

Now, in a conventionally written play, it tends to annoy me when the author makes the characters narrate their actions or speak in the third person (don't give me narration! give me dialogue! and conflict!) but that didn't happen when I went to More Stories by Tobias Wolff. The stories were adapted with great care--every decision to assign a word or a sentence to an actor/character was well thought out. Sometimes these choices were made for humor, sometimes for poignancy. There were also some fun theatrical elements like having a young woman in a red minidress portray a sleek sports car. Care was also taken to have the costumes, sets, and other visual elements match whatever Tobias Wolff's descriptions specified.

In seeing these three Wolff stories enacted before me (all from his most recent book, Our Story Begins) I noticed their kinship to classic works of drama--the interconnections between different art forms. The final story of the evening was narrated by a man looking back on an incident from his childhood; and so when transformed into a theater piece, it became a really solid example of a "memory play." In reductive terms, it was like a softer, less devastating Glass Menagerie--indeed, the title of the Wolff story/play was "Firelight," and "Candlelight" would be a good alternate title for the last part of The Glass Menagerie, wouldn't it?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

But That's All Over Now, I'm Twenty-One

Being young, and creative, and prone to putting undue pressure on myself, I am perennially fascinated by those artists who became famous while still very young--who took cities by storm at the age of nineteen or twenty, who created art with a wisdom that belied their tender years! And if the young people in question didn't only make transcendent art, but also happened to lead wildly exciting and passionate lives, have famous paramours, etc., my envy only increases. (Secretly I yearn to have the kind of life that a biographer would find fascinating 100 years from now.) I come up with increasingly unlikely plans both to improve the quantity/quality of my writing, and to bring myself to the attention of cultural gatekeepers.

And lately, I feel like I've seen/read a spate of works that set me off thinking this way. Both operas I saw this fall--Die Tote Stadt and Idomeneo--were composed by men in their early 20s. Idomeneo wasn't even Mozart's first opera (though it was his first great success, and the earliest of his operas to be performed with any frequency nowadays)--he wrote it at the age of 24, after already having written about seven other operas! No wonder it is such a self-assured piece of work. Though hampered by a mediocre libretto, Mozart still did his best with what he had.

If anything, Die Tote Stadt, by 23-year-old Erich Wolfgang Korngold, is even more incredible. Korngold was writing for a much larger and more richly colored orchestra than Mozart used; his 20th-century harmonic language is obviously much more complex; and he wasn't writing a Classical score of recitative followed by da capo aria followed by ensemble number, but a dreamlike opera where every sequence flows into the next. Furthermore, Korngold treats his subject with great depth and maturity--how could a 23-year-old have such insight into the psychology of a middle-aged man driven crazy by the death of his wife?

While waiting for the bus after Die Tote Stadt, I talked to a lady who told me that Erich Korngold had a very controlling father who wouldn't allow his son to get married till he was 27. "But, seeing that opera," said the woman, "I feel sure that he must have sneaked out of his house at night."

Then, around Halloween, I decided that I should read a classic scary novel: Frankenstein. Since this book was published, people have been amazed that a 19-year-old girl could write such a haunting horror story. Indeed Mary Shelley had already led quite an eventful life before writing Frankenstein: a famous father, an elopement with Percy Shelley, the birth and death of a child, a lot of touring Europe in the company of other Romantic writers. "How is it possible that she did all this before turning 20?" I asked myself, old and dried-up at the age of 21.

After finishing Frankenstein I wasn't sure what to read next, and browsed the sale table at Green Apple Books. I rejected many books out of hand...but ah, okay, here was something I really ought to read, especially since I was a French major and should be more familiar with this author... and he certainly was a fascinating personality...

Only when I walked out of the store did the full truth hit me.

I'd bought The Complete Poems of Arthur Rimbaud. AKA The Complete Poems of a Visionary Boy-Genius Who Stopped Writing at Age 21.

"Damn it, Marissa," I said to myself, "you've done it again."

Fortunately I found some solace in a recent New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, explicating why some artists peak early and others peak late. No use envying the precocious geniuses if your mind is simply formed another way--preferring trial-and-error to flashes of infallible insight. Not that it's easy for artists who are late bloomers--they can experience self-doubt, despair, lack of motivation in a way that early-bloomers don't. (And they don't seem to have the wildly exciting lives, either.) But at least that's preferable to the thought that an artist must be precocious in order to be worthwhile at all.

Title of this post comes from my favorite obscure Cole Porter song, "What a Joy To Be Young."

Overheard: The "Hitchcock May Not Have Said This, But I Bet He'd Agree With It" Edition


"Filmmakers love San Francisco because it's like a beautiful woman: It has no bad angles."
--Middle-aged man waiting for a table outside the House of Nanking restaurant, a few weekends ago
Image: Kim Novak (and San Francisco) in Vertigo. Photo from the very cool 1000 Frames of Hitchcock Project.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Nicole Kidman as Halloween Inspiration

Is Nicole Kidman my favorite actress? I don't know; she's had a bit of a strange career path lately, though "come what may, I will love her until my dying day" for Moulin Rouge. But judging by the number of times her roles have inspired my Halloween costumes over the last several years, you'd be forgiven for thinking that.

Freshman year of college, I dressed up as "Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf." Basically I wanted an excuse to buy nose putty and make myself a monstrously huge fake nose. I also thought that this was the kind of clever, intellectual costume that would appeal at Vassar. Little did I know that Halloween at Vassar is the night when everyone puts away the intellectual pretentions that weigh heavily upon them for the other 364 nights of the year and just lets loose. I felt embarrassed to have chosen such a deliberately frumpy costume.

Kidman as Virginia Woolf
me as Virginia Woolf

Oddly enough, the "frumpy" dress I bought at Goodwill, when divorced from the fake nose, ugly hat and clumpy shoes, actually turned out to fit me really well, and has since become one of my favorite wardrobe pieces. I wore it when portraying a 1930s character in my play last spring.

I already wrote a lengthy blog post about my last year's Halloween costume: Marguerite Gauthier from La Dame aux Camélias. This character, as you may know, inspired the character of Satine the tubercular courtesan in Moulin Rouge. And Kidman/Satine's astoundingly gorgeous red gown in that movie set me off on a years-long quest for my own perfect red dress. I found one in Paris a year and a half ago, and wore it for my Dame aux Camélias costume.

Kidman in Moulin Rouge

me as La Dame aux Camélias

And this year? The choice was simple: Mrs. Coulter from The Golden Compass. I have loved the book since I was 9 years old, and when the movie came out last winter, it made the story better-known and gave Mrs. Coulter a distinctive "look." In the movie, Kidman makes her first entrance in a gown that is all-over gold sequins, and as luck would have it, I had purchased just that kind of gown for $2 at a rummage sale several years ago. I then bought a stuffed-animal golden lion tamarin (to represent the golden-monkey daemon), consulted this tongue-in-cheek guide for "How to Be Like Mrs. Coulter," and I was set to hit the town!


Kidman as Mrs. Coulter (with Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra)

me as Mrs. Coulter, with the golden monkey (I'm keeping it and have decided to name it "Philip" in honor of Philip Pullman. Oh, and it's a complete coincidence that my pose in this photo mimicks that of Kidman in the picture above. I am not that obsessed!)

Of course it's too early to tell what I'll be for Halloween next year, though as I've mentioned before, I've often wanted to work up a Margot Tenenbaum costume. Still, if that doesn't pan out, I'm dying to see Nicole Kidman/Baz Luhrmann's new movie Australia, and the images and costume sketches of Kidman's character reveal that she again has a very tempting wardrobe--slinky '30s dresses mixed with safari gear!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

You mean I can stop being cynical now?

Before I get back to my regularly-scheduled blogging (even if I don't know how regular it is anymore) I want to congratulate President-Elect Barack Obama and talk a little about Tuesday's historic election--the first Presidential race in which I was ever able to vote.

For about six weeks before the election (especially before I began working full-time) I volunteered at the Obama campaign headquarters in downtown San Francisco. Much of the time, the staffers put me in the front of the office, selling T-shirts, bumper stickers, and pins to people who wandered in off the street. (And considering that we were located on Market Street, the job also involved telling homeless people they couldn't use our bathroom or hang out on our couches.) Lots of foreigners arrived wanting Obama souvenirs, and while it was fun to use my French or muddle along in Italian talking to them, I didn't really feel like I was helping Obama win. Among my friends, I tended to downplay what I did at campaign headquarters. It's not like Obama window signs were going to make much of a difference in San Francisco, after all.

Still, I also did some phone-banking; in my first days there, the office was entirely focused on making calls to Nevada. At the time the Nevada polls showed about 47% McCain, 45% Obama, and we were all nervous. But over time, Obama's numbers in Nevada crept up, we expanded our efforts to other states like New Mexico, and on the final weekend before the election, I was phoning people in Florida and North Carolina to remind them to vote on Tuesday.

And the final tally in Nevada? 55% Obama, 43% McCain.

I voted in Oregon, because I thought it would be inconvenient to switch my registration to California and Oregon's vote-by-mail makes things so easy. I am a little disappointed not to have been able to vote No on Prop 8, but Oregon had an important race too--the Senate race between Gordon Smith and Jeff Merkley. I watched the results of that with impatience and was thrilled, two days later, when Merkley was announced the winner.

Sure, Merkley didn't run the most exciting campaign--and Smith was one of the less infuriating Republicans in the Senate. (For instance, he scored big points with Oregonians when he said "I don't personally agree with assisted suicide, but the voters in my state approved it, so I will defend it in the face of John Ashcroft's campaign against it.") In fact, maybe I ought to be grateful to Smith, because five years ago, he personally interceded to obtain travel visas to Cuba for me and a group from my school--the only time that a legislator has done something for me specifically. All the same, I don't regret my vote.

Four years ago, I was devastated by the results of the Presidential election, especially because I was 17 years old and hadn't gotten to cast a vote against George Bush. I felt like I hadn't done enough to help the Democrats, and resolved to do better in the future. I remember telling my mom, "In four years, I'll have just graduated college, and before I get a real job, I want to spend those first months working on a political campaign. Maybe I'll come back to Oregon and help defeat Gordon Smith!"

"I don't know," said my mother, "he'll be pretty hard to kick out, people seem to like him."

Eat your words, Mom!

Unlike many liberals, I haven't shed any tears of joy over Obama's election, but every few hours a new thought will pop into my head concerning just how much of a good thing this is. Thoughts like, "And now I won't have to worry about who'll get nominated to the Supreme Court!" or "Maybe he'll sign the Kyoto Protocols!" Mostly, however, I'm just getting used to the idea that my President will be someone whom I admire as a human being. After eight years of Bush, that seems nearly inconceivable. Even Bill Clinton, though his politics are much more to my liking, doesn't quite pass the "admire as a person" test.

I wrote about this in an e-mail to one of my friends, saying "Why does it seem so weird to admire my President? Dear God, how cynical we all became over the last eight years!" Indeed, my downplaying of what I did at Obama headquarters is just another example of the reflexive cynicism that, I'm afraid, became my default mode.

My friend responded: "I think we could have become cynical and jaded as a generation, but I look at the numbers of young people who mobilized this election, and I am stunned and honored to be a (small) part of it. I think I never let myself really think past the election, and so it was only during the speeches that it really hit me-- I want to be involved, I want to be proud of my country and finally, FINALLY will be able to be. It's an awesome feeling."

Amen. Like someone who has gotten burned in a bad relationship (eight years long!) it hasn't been easy to open my heart again--but now at least I know that my faith is not always misguided.

Monday, November 3, 2008

"Idomeneo" in Golden Handcuffs

Last Tuesday I went to the San Francisco Opera to see Idomeneo, my first time ever attending a live production of a Mozart opera. And while I often think that Mozart makes everything better, this Idomeneo proved to me that even Mozart's genius is not enough to compensate for a relatively dull libretto and staging. Not that the production was embarassingly bad--it was just over-decorous and polite. Nor do I mean to suggest that only transgressive Regietheater productions are relevant in this day and age. But an opera production has to have some freshness to it, and some serious thought about "how can this old work speak to us?", rather than relying on stock ideas of beauty and tradition.

I knew I was in for a pretty but lifeless production from the first scene, which features Ilia, a captive princess, lamenting her fate. But she's wearing one of the most exquisitely rich and lovely gowns I have ever seen, and around her wrists are a pair of dainty golden handcuffs. This is supposed to be a poor orphaned prisoner? To me, this is a betrayal of the libretto, not as shocking but just as wrong-headed as that infamous German production of Idomeneo that depicted the severed heads of Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad onstage.

Not that the libretto of Idomeneo is the greatest thing, in any case. The witty opera blog The Reverberate Hills cites the "lack of onstage sea-monster action" as a reason to dislike Idomeneo, and while that's kind of facetious, there's also some truth to it. When a sea monster is supposedly terrorizing and eating the citizens of Crete, Ilia comes onstage singing "Gentle breezes, tell my beloved that I adore him!" It's prettified rather than dramatic.

Idomeneo does have some powerful scenes based around its central conflict: King Idomeneo promises to sacrifice to Neptune the first living thing he encounters after he survives a shipwreck, but that turns out to be his own son, Idamante. Too much of the story, however, is told via monologue and soliloquy, instead of dialogue and ensemble. In the subplot, Princess Ilia and Princess Elettra both sing arias about their love for Idamante and their jealousy toward their rival--but if it was up to me, the women would confront each other in a catfight!

Only two of the four major singers in the San Francisco production really impressed me. Tenor Kurt Streit gave a thrilling rendition of Idomeneo's tour-de-force aria "Fuor dal mar." Sometimes his voice sounded almost as though he was belting, which maybe isn't "proper" operatic technique, but was very exciting. He also was a strong actor: at the end of Act One, as the citizens sang a chorus of thanksgiving that their king had returned to him, you could see Idomeneo's struggling to perform his kingly duties while knowing that he had to sacrifice his son.

Meanwhile, Genia Kühmeier, who sang Ilia, was simply a lovely and graceful performer in every respect, with a clear and warm soprano voice and the ability to play a sweet ingenue role without coming across as fakey. The beginning of Act II, with Kühmeier's aria "Se il padre perdei" leading into Streit's "Fuor dal mar," was one of my favorite stretches of the opera.

On Tuesday night, I saw an understudy in the role of Idamante: Daniela Mack, one of the SF Opera's Adler Fellows. (Alice Coote, the scheduled singer, had injured her back.) When I heard Mack sing at the Opera in the Park concert, I thought "She seems nervous. She needs to warm up more. Her vibrato is all over the place." And I had the same impression seeing her as Idamante. Granted, she was probably nervous, but in her first aria, her vibrato was very prominent and made her singing sound approximate rather than spot-on. She did get better as she went on, but still, it bothers me that both times I've heard her, she didn't sound ready when she stepped onstage.

Iano Tamar, as Elettra, looked the part of the haughty and vengeful princess, but vocally, she wasn't a good fit. Her voice got weak just when it should have swelled with urgency at the climaxes of her arias. Also, her last aria is basically a hissy fit about how everybody else got a happy ending while she is left to suffer, and the director decided to have her tear her clothes in rage. Unfortunately, like everything else about this production of Idomeneo, the gesture was overly polite and muted. Elettra ripped at a panel on her overskirt that had been designed to come away--but it was only a single gesture, choreographed rather than deeply felt. I realize I was probably spoiled by seeing Natalie Dessay act and sing up a storm as Lucia di Lammermoor, and not everyone can do that--but still!

In the end, I think that those golden handcuffs Ilia wore in the first scene provide a perfect metaphor for this production of Idomeneo. They're nice to look at, and they're not painful, but they're still shackles, restricting freedom of movement and putting a damper on the proceedings.

All photos by Terrence McCarthy, San Francisco Opera. Top: Kühmeier as Ilia. Middle: Streit as Idomeneo. Bottom: Tamar as Elettra.