Sunday, August 30, 2009

Playwrights and the Zodiac

I wouldn't say I have a deep faith in astrology, but it fascinates me. As much as I'd like to be able to pronounce it all smoke and mirrors, I find myself unable to dismiss it altogether. Perhaps it helps that I believe my zodiac sign (Cancer) fits my personality quite well, better than most other signs would--even if I do not possess every single Cancerian trait.

I've known for a while that two of my favorite playwrights, Tony Kushner and Tom Stoppard, are Cancerians, and I recently learned that Clifford Odets is one as well. Then I wondered if this was just confirmation bias, me taking special notice of writers who have birthdays near mine. Or do certain professions actually correlate with certain zodiac signs? So I did a quick study: I thought of as many important/influential playwrights as I could, looked up their birthdays, and categorized them by sign.

I tried to cover playwrights from a broad range of countries and time periods, so as not to bias the results in any way. This would have been easier if there were an authoritative list of "100 Top Playwrights" I could use; instead, I had to think of names off the top of my head, as well as look at a few lists of award-winning writers. Still, I believe I managed to include all of the really canonical playwrights--except for the ancient Greeks and Romans, as there is no way to determine their birthdays.

I did this for 65 playwrights before I gave up. Therefore, an even distribution would show 5 or 6 writers per zodiac sign. Instead, the distribution is notably imbalanced.

10 Aries: Beckett, Williams, Wilder, McDonagh, Rostand, L. Wilson, Fo, Ludlam, Ayckbourn, Synge
9 Cancer: Stoppard, Odets, Kushner, Behn, Simon, Pirandello, Anouilh, Letts, Soyinka
7 Libra: Miller, Wasserstein, Wilde, Havel, O’Neill, Pinter, Buchner
6 Capricorn: Moliere, Calderon de la Barca, Racine, Friel, Durang, Orton
6 Aquarius: Chekhov, Strindberg, Congreve, Beaumarchais, Brecht, Kane
5 Taurus: Shakespeare*, A. Wilson, P. Shaffer, Reza, Inge
5 Saggitarius: Mamet, Coward, Ionesco, Osborne, Lope de Vega
4 Gemini: Jonson**, Sartre, Corneille, Lorca
4 Scorpio: Shepard, Sheridan, McNally, Schiller
4 Pisces: Ibsen, Albee, Foote, LaBute
3 Leo: Shaw, Hwang, Wedekind
2 Virgo: Churchill, Maeterlinck

*Of course we do not know Shakespeare's actual birthday--only that he was baptized on April 26. So he was likely Taurus, though could have also been Aries.
**Ben Jonson's birthday is also not known for certain, though it is speculated to be June 11.

10 Aries and only 2 Virgo--that has to be statistically significant, right? (And one of the Virgos is Maeterlinck, who is little-noted these days--I included him because he won the Nobel Prize.) Are there any great Virgo playwrights--or, indeed, any other canonical playwrights--whom I overlooked?

Then I wondered if an imbalance in the distribution of birthdays in the general population could have contributed to these results. A little research showed that more babies are born during certain months of the year than others. However, the most common months for births are July through September, and the least common are March through May (source). Whereas my study shows 15 playwrights born from March 21 to May 20, and only 5 born from July 23 to September 22! Counterintuitive, to say the least.

Another odd thing is that Aries, Cancer, Libra and Capricorn--four of the top five results--are the four "cardinal" signs of the zodiac, supposed to be the most forceful, dynamic, and take-charge of the signs. Obviously these are useful skills for playwrights, as you need to be very self-willed to succeed in this profession!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The "Post-Racial" World and Contemporary Playwriting

I wrote that the Hilton Als and Michael Paller talk last month left me wondering about a lot of things. In fact, afterwards, as the two men chatted with the public and signed books, I went up and asked them about something that their talk had made me consider. I'm afraid my question was too complicated to get across in quick soundbite form, and I think I just confused them – but maybe I'll be able to make myself clearer in this blog entry.

OK. When Obama was elected, there was a lot of talk about whether we live in a "post-racial" society. Subsequent events, of course (e.g. the Sonia Sotomayor and Henry Louis Gates controversies) have given the lie to that idealistic notion – at least for America as a whole. You see, I don't believe that America is a post-racial country, but at the same time, elements of my day-to-day life do feel largely post-racial.

A major example of this is my office: it's fairly racially diverse, and there's never any racial tension, or even much discussion of our ethnic differences. Now, maybe I would feel differently about this if I weren't white. And maybe this is uncommon: I work at a white-collar office, in an extremely liberal city, staffed mainly by people under the age of 35 – and not a lot of workplaces fit those parameters. Nonetheless, my experiences lead me to conclude that post-racial segments of society do exist.

And I'm currently working on a short play set entirely in a similar office environment – young professionals in San Francisco. (Don't worry, it's not a roman à clef.) So I would like a racially diverse cast, but at the same time, I thought it would feel false to assign a race to each character. I am always uneasy about writing characters of different races – afraid both to reinforce old stereotypes, and to self-consciously break the stereotypes. Like, if you write a black character who uses hip-hop slang, you're reinforcing that stereotype (even though these days, everyone uses hip-hop slang); but if you write a black character who doesn't use any slang, it feels like you're trying to send a politically correct message: "Look! I realize that hip-hop slang is stereotypical, so I'm writing a black character who doesn't use it! Aren't I enlightened? Aren't I smashing stereotypes?"

So. Because trying to choose races for my characters was tying me up in knots – and because the play is set in an environment where race doesn't matter – I thought "I'll write this play so that each of the characters could be played by anyone of any race." I planned to put a note in the script saying that I would like a racially mixed cast, but did not feel the need to assign a race to each character.

But then I remembered the experience of the playwright Diana Son. Her first big success was the play Stop Kiss, in which most of the characters are young professionals in NYC, and thus they, too, live in a post-racial environment. So Son didn't specify the races of her characters, but just put a note in the script saying "The cast should reflect the ethnic diversity of New York City." But it turned out that most casting directors ignored that and cast the play entirely with white actors, something that left Son "very disheartened," she said in an interview several years later. And so for her next play, Satellites, she specified the races of all of the characters.

So my questions for Als and Paller were: in our quest for more diversity in the American theater, is it better to write roles that can be played by actors of any race, or to write roles specifically for a certain race? What if you lack confidence in your ability to write for people of specific racial backgrounds? What if you remember Diana Son's cautionary tale and realize that even if you write "this character can be played by an actor of any race," people often interpret this as "if no race is specified, then the character must be white"?

I am no closer to answering these questions, and dealing with race in my playwriting still leaves me very self-conscious at times. Nonetheless, for the project I'm currently working on, I decided to go with the option of not specifying races for my characters, and simply stating that I would prefer an ethnically diverse cast. Does this mean that I'm just passing the buck to the casting director? Or that I am keeping an open mind and providing opportunities to actors from all backgrounds?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

"The Letter": notes on an opera's world premiere

Exactly three weeks ago, I was at the world premiere of the opera The Letter, in Santa Fe. As I mentioned before, the main reason I was excited to see this is because I'm friends with Terry Teachout, the librettist. Because of this personal connection, and also because so much time has elapsed, I'm not "reviewing" it in my usual fashion. Instead, here are some notes, impressions, things that stuck with me...
  • The morning of the day the opera premiered, I attended a symposium hosted by Terry and Paul Moravec, the composer. Their collaborative process is really inspirational for anyone who hopes to work in the arts. Following Sondheim's dictum "before you start to write a show, make sure you're all writing the same show!" they spent a long time just figuring out what kind of opera they wanted to write, what its antecedents and stylistic hallmarks would be. And thus, during the writing process, they never had a single fight! They sum up The Letter with the phrase "opera noir": it is based on Somerset Maugham's tale of adultery and murder in entre-les-guerres Malaysia, and the goal was to make it as emotional as an opera and as swift and deadly as a film noir. "This is not an egghead opera!" Terry said repeatedly.

  • Even so, I know I'm not really qualified to discuss Paul's music because of my lack of experience with modern opera and modern classical music in general. (But yes, I am qualified to call Paul by his first name, since Terry introduced us after the symposium.) I would say that it's the kind of music where you can remember the general contours of the vocal lines, but not any distinct melodies. For instance, I remember that Leslie's first aria ends with her shrieking the word "Blood!" on a very high note, and the Chinese Woman's aria ends on low mezzo notes, rueful and meditative. The text-setting was generally intutitive; it wasn't hard to make out the words. At the symposium, Paul said that he used a twelve-tone scale for Leslie, the liar and murderess (thus making her a "serial killer," ha-ha) and a diatonic scale for Robert, her cuckolded husband. And it's true that when Robert began his first extended passage of music (singing to Leslie to comfort her after the murder), you could feel everyone sort of relax into it, because it was the first diatonic section of the opera. The twelve-tone or chromatic music puts you more on edge, but why shouldn't it? Murky music for an opera about murky people.

  • A vicarious thrill: I am 99% sure that Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, walked past me twice as I stood outside the opera house, waiting to take my seat! I recognized him from photographs--in a dark suit, bald, with glasses, he looked rather like an "egghead" himself! I wondered, too, if he carried an invisible aura of celebrity and power about him--something that caused me to notice him in the crowd in the first place, even though he is not a very distinctive-looking man. He ought to have that aura--he's probably the most important man in American opera!
  • My mom and I also got a vicarious thrill from seeing Tom Ford, the opera's costume designer, take his bow wearing one of his natty suits with an open-necked shirt. His work on the opera was very stylish--requiring lots of tailored white linen or tropical-weight wool suits for all of the male characters. There are only two females in the opera, but I loved the frilly pink net pegnoir that Leslie wore at the start of the opera, as well as the Chinese Woman's platform shoes and extra-long fingernails!

  • The sets and lighting also looked great--and worked in conjunction because of the ceiling fans that rotated and cast noirish shadows across the stage. Stories about despicable people are always better when they're placed in an attractive setting--I guess because we get seduced by the setting for a while, only to get a jolt when we realize the true awfulness that lies below the stylish surface...

  • In The Letter, this awfulness isn't just Leslie's adultery, lies, and murder; it's the white characters' casual and unthinking racism toward Asians. This is brought to the fore in a scene that takes place in a men's club, where the men sing a jaunty ditty saluting Leslie and insulting Geoff, who had taken an Asian mistress--"It was a daaamn good thing she shot him!" I believe this is the only section of the opera that uses rhyme and a conventional foursquare meter, so again, it lulls you into laughing and tapping your foot, until you realize what you're laughing at...

  • Yet at the same time, the opera is not about "the evils of racism" or anything like that. That would make it an intellectualized, moralizing, "egghead opera"--just what Terry and Paul didn't want to write. The Colonial Malaysia setting lends the opera a stylish atmosphere and helps provide motivations for some of the characters--for instance, they're poisoned by racism, or they're frustrated to be so far from England. But deep down, the story is a very basic one--change a few details and you could easily transfer it to a different place and time. This seems to me to be a feature of many of the most enduring operas--e.g. we don't go to see Tosca because of all that Napoleonic-era political stuff, but because of the human interactions between Tosca, Scarpia and Cavaradossi.

  • One of my favorite bits of characterization came in the last scene of the opera. Throughout the other scenes, Robert has been an endlessly trusting and supportive husband, with his emotions under control. But at the end, he starts to get suspicious of Leslie (even though she's been acquitted), and his personality changes: he becomes kind of dangerously cheerful, angry, possibly drunk. In other words, you've gotten to know Robert well enough over the course of the opera (through both the music and the acting) that you immediately recognize this shift in his personality--and this leads to a sense of foreboding. Sure enough, something really bad happens to finish out the opera...

  • As for the singers, Patricia Racette did a great job with Leslie's challenging music, as well as showing the different sides of her character: someone who knows how to behave like a poised, stiff-upper-lip planter's wife, but is actually sexually frustrated, passionate, and very self-centered. Anthony Michaels-Moore played Robert and, as I said in my paragraph above, his acting contributed a great deal to the success of the final scene. Also there was good support from James Maddalena, as Leslie's lawyer, and Roger Honeywell, as Leslie's deceased lover, a haunting voice calling from offstage in several of the scenes.
Terry and Paul have certainly succeeded in creating the exact opera that they wanted to create, and in knowing how to accurately describe what they have made--all of which is harder than it looks! And after reading so much about it on Terry's blog (see all his posts here) it was wonderful to see the artistic fulfillment of it. Bravo, gentlemen!

P.S. I don't feel like taking the time to add multiple images to this post, but if you want to see the costumes and sets, go here; and here for video excerpts of the opera. The photo at the top is of Patricia Racette.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Theater Nerd Plays Softball

I have joined my office softball team. Feel free to express your surprise and disbelief--all my friends are reacting that way when I tell them how I'm spending my Thursday nights. "I'm sorry--I just never thought of you as being on a sports team--"

"Yeah, I know, it is pretty hilarious, right? The last time I played softball was when I was 8 years old. I got Most Improved Player. Maybe that counts for something," I say.

We had our first game tonight. When I arrived at the baseball diamond, our coach announced that I would be playing right field.

I nodded eagerly, though I must have had some expression of confusion or doubt on my face, because Coach added, "Don't worry, that's good. Because when they hit it, it usually goes to the left, doesn't it?"

"You mean it's not like stage right and stage left?" I blurted.

Theater nerd that I am, I thought that the baseball diamond's left field and right field are determined from the fielder's perspective, the way that stage right and stage left are determined from the actor's perspective! But no. Of course not. (Now I'm getting an inkling of why people who are new to the theater find stage directions so confusing!)

Much to our surprise--and with no help from me--we won the game, 9 to 5. (When I got up to bat, I consistently hit foul balls.) But I had a good time, I felt like part of a team, and I was never bored, the way I got bored dawdling in the outfield as an 8-year-old. Most importantly, it reminded me of how lucky I am to live in San Francisco. I'm coming up on my one-year anniversary of moving here, and the city has not lost its power to amaze me. We play in the Presidio, so when I'm standing in the outfield, the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge loom almost directly in front of me, and to my right, a full moon rises above the downtown San Francisco skyline. I can see the Transamerica Pyramid, Coit Tower, the distant glittering chain of the Bay Bridge, and shreds of fog passing across the surface of the moon.

I know it's wrong to take my eye off the ball, but I couldn't stop looking around and marvelling at the view. I had fun tonight, but when it comes to round white objects that soar through the sky, I still prefer the moon to a baseball, any time.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Natalie Dessay in "Traviata": A More-Than-Viable Violetta

Two years ago, when I was starting this blog, and dressing up as La Dame aux Camélias for Halloween, and discovering the amazing talent of opera singer Natalie Dessay, could I have possibly imagined that I'd get to see her in her first run of performances as Violetta Valéry--my favorite soprano taking on this iconic character? No, I wouldn't have dared! But yet--un di felice!--I did just that on July 24.

The role of Violetta, Dessay has said in interviews, is at the edge of her range as a singer, normally sung by women whose voices are a little heavier and more dramatic than hers is. It also gives her an opportunity to move beyond playing the virginal ingenues that are the stock-in-trade for her voice type. She is debuting it at the Santa Fe Opera, a smaller, friendlier opera house, in a new production directed by her frequent collaborator Laurent Pelly.

What I liked best about Pelly's production is that it worked around the limitations of the Santa Fe Opera House (outdoor theater, no fly space) and proved you don't need ostentatious Second Empire décor to effectively produce Traviata. That's not to say that every moment was perfect. The emotional impact of the finale to Flora's party was completely undermined when the chorus started swaying side to side in what looked like bad community-theater choreography.

But when Dessay burst onto that stage at the top of Act I, dressed in a magenta tulle concoction and fishnet stockings, leaping between the different levels of the set, screaming in wild exhilaration, and doing her trademark "be hoisted by the male chorus" thing, nothing could dim her luster. She played the opening scene feverish and manic and very, very drunk. Her flaming orange hair wasn't particularly flattering, but it fit her portrayal of Violetta as someone trying too hard to hold onto her giddy party-girl lifestyle.

At the end of Act I comes Violetta's great soliloquy, from "Ah fors'e lui" through to "Sempre libera." I was curious to see Dessay's take on this piece because it has so much subtext, so many pitfalls for the actor. In most opera arias, the character fervently believes whatever he or she is singing about. But in "Sempre libera," Violetta is trying to convince herself that she believes what she's singing, while stifling her deeper instincts, which are telling her the opposite thing. At first the aria may sound bubbly and lighthearted; but I think that underneath it is really quite angry.

And Dessay got that. She rolled the "r" in the word "gioir" and snapped it off with vicious determination, showing us that Violetta is willing herself to "gioir" (have fun, live it up). She hit the final E-flat loudly and in tune, but it wasn't exactly a pretty sound. Yet in the context of the aria and the character, it worked. It was Violetta screaming out one final time in defiance of her fate, not Natalie Dessay trying to hit a high note.

Alfredo gets his big moment at the top of Act II, but I was not too impressed with the singer, Saimir Pirgu. Some of his high notes were flat, and Dessay upstaged him during "De miei bollenti spiriti" by swinging her feet back and forth as he sang. I thought this was a bit rude of her; then again, a tenor ought to have the presence and acting skills to draw the focus to himself during his big aria!

Fortunately, Dessay had an excellent scene partner in Laurent Naouri, who played Giorgio Germont-- and, offstage, is her husband! He had the most powerful voice of any of the singers, and a memorable stage presence: already much taller than the petite Dessay, his ramrod posture and silk top hat made him even more imposing. Knowing that Naouri and Dessay are married in real life, my greatest fear was that they'd have the wrong kind of chemistry--it would not be appropriate for Violetta and Germont to look like they want to jump in bed together! But they remained perfectly convincing and in character: Naouri the bourgeois father-figure blind to his own failings; Dessay vulnerable, childlike, clinging to his lapels. Yet Naouri was not merely stern and stentorian: he sang a beautiful, tender "Di Provenza."

The best singing in the second half of the opera--and a moment I hope never to forget--was Dessay's "Addio del passato." She hunched on the bed, no longer trying to amaze us with acrobatics or big gestures--just intensely felt, intensely focused, piano singing. She held the final note for an astoundingly long time, and the audience held its breath along with her; when it was over I could sense the whole theater exhaling and taking a brief moment to say "Wow" to ourselves before we burst into applause.

Certainly, I could see how Verdi probably intended some of his more dramatic outbursts to be sung with a fuller, juicier voice than Dessay's small-but-precise instrument. Nonetheless, she was always perfectly audible, and scoring a knockout "Sempre libera," duet with Germont, and "Addio del passato" is a triumph for any soprano--so does it matter if she couldn't declaim a few passages with the proper strength?

Most importantly, Dessay's performance made me realize something that had never occurred to me despite my familiarity with this story. La Traviata is not just about how piteously Violetta coughs or how pathetically she dies; it's about how hard she fights, every moment along the way. Fighting with herself about whether to accept love (Act I); fighting to hold onto the love she has won (Act II); fighting to keep her dignity (Act III); and finally, most nakedly, fighting for her life (Act IV). At every turn, she is defeated, but there is something heroic in the struggle. From what I've read of Natalie Dessay, I get the impression that she sees herself as a fighter--crusading for better opera productions, pushing herself to be a better actress, struggling against the limitations of her own voice. Perhaps she drew upon this quality when creating her interpretation of this musically and dramatically challenging role. And--unlike Violetta--she was not defeated.

All photos Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera.