Monday, September 28, 2009

"Trovatore" at the Ballpark: A Distanced Viewing

Saturday the 19th, my friend Chanelle and I went to AT&T Park, where the Giants play, to see the live broadcast of San Francisco Opera's Il Trovatore. The ballpark atmosphere was relaxed and convivial, despite the chilly San Francisco night. Chanelle and I sat in the bleachers above third base and shared chicken tenders, garlic fries, and an ice cream sundae while waiting for the opera to start.

Trovatore has a famously nonsensical plot, and I'm not even talking about the whole "throwing the wrong baby on the fire" business, because Stephanie Blythe was so good at portraying a deranged Gypsy woman that you believed she could've gone into a delusional trance and killed her own child. No, what bothers me is how the characters must behave in increasingly illogical ways in order to prolong the plot, when a simpler solution is often staring them in the face. Act I ends with Manrico and Count di Luna dueling beneath Leonora's window. In the next scene, Azucena asks Manrico, "Why didn't you kill Luna?"

"Yeah, why didn't he kill him?" I said to Chanelle. "Oh, that's right. He can't kill him because then the opera would be over."

"Maybe it's because killing him would've been too dangerous," Chanelle suggested. "Manrico is already a wanted man and if he killed a Count, he'd probably be in even more trouble."

But unfortunately, Chanelle's explanation is far too logical for an opera like Trovatore. Instead, Manrico sings, "My sword was poised above Luna's throat--and then I heard a voice from Heaven say 'Do not kill him!'" Talk about a deus ex machina!

A similar problem crops up at the end of Act II. Leonora is about to enter a convent and Luna arrives with his soldiers to kidnap her--only to discover that Manrico and his band of Gypsies have also arrived to bust Leonora out of there! There is a clash and Manrico's group wins, so as the curtain falls, we see Luna surrounded by Gypsies who point guns and knives at him. But in the next act, with no explanation given, he's free, back with his own soldiers. I wish that the staging of the Act II finale had shown how Luna escaped from the Gypsies. Otherwise, it's just another lapse of logic.

Other than that, I thought the production (directed by David McVicar, seen at the Met last season) was OK, if not dazzling. Updating the era from medieval times to the early 1800s respected the opera's Romantic/melodramatic atmosphere, while also making the costumes more flattering and less laughable than medieval doublets would be. The Anvil Chorus, despite the presence of bare-chested men with big hammers, even managed to avoid campiness.

It was a solid cast, too, especially on the female side. I already said that Stephanie Blythe made a terrific Azucena. Sondra Radvanovsky (Leonora) reminded me a bit of Marcia Gay Harden, looks-wise--a "handsome" woman, not a flighty young girl. Her voice is well-controlled and (at least as broadcast in the ballpark) loud; unfortunately, she was totally upstaged during her Act I aria by a little boy who slipped under the ropes surrounding the baseball diamond and started running around the field, quite agilely evading capture. Marco Berti's acting did not illuminate any hidden depths in the character of Manrico (he stuck to typical "Romantic Opera Hero" poses) but his voice navigated the challenges of this role. As for Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who played Count di Luna, I can't decide whether I'm glad he resisted the temptation to act like a Snidely Whiplash villain, or whether he should have taken a less subtle approach. I'm inclined to say the latter, though--the story is so melodramatic that old-fashioned stage villainy would fit right in, and besides, since Hvorostovsky is much handsomer than Berti, the audience needs a clear reason to hate him!

All the same, I'm not describing these performers with as much detail as I sometimes would--and that's because I still don't feel like I saw the opera. Overall I found Opera at the Ballpark a frustrating experience--my vision constrained by the shots and camera angles that the director of the broadcast chose; my ears uncertain whether these singers would really sound this way in the theater; and, though the screen was indeed as big as advertised, I was sitting much further from it than I would typically sit from the stage of the opera house. I've seen opera broadcasts on TV and even once in a movie theater and been cool with that, so I wasn't expecting this experience to frustrate me so much--but somehow, perhaps because of the sheer number of people in the ballpark and my extreme distance from the screen, it did. (Furthermore, with the Sonnambula broadcast last spring, my reaction was "Cool, I get to see something that is happening 3000 miles away!"--whereas Trovatore provoked the question "Why am I watching this as a broadcast? It's happening only two miles away!")

Maybe this speaks more to my own personal issues than to anything else, but I have recently been fetishizing the immediate experience--and Opera at the Ballpark, obviously, is a heavily mediated event. Sometimes I feel like I am wandering through life in a fog (ok, I live in San Francisco, so I literally wander through fog on a regular basis--but you know that's not what I meant)--I fret that I intellectualize things too much, that I see things through the prism of books, that I am too guarded and cynical, that I do not live life to the fullest or allow life to permeate and astound me. Big, idealistic words, I know! But I can't help feeling that it would be easier to be astounded if I were seeing the performance live. Our reactions in the ballpark felt muted: though we cheered after the big arias, our applause never lasted as long as it did in the opera house. We were sheepish; the people who were there in person were moved, transported, enthralled.

Chanelle said she liked being able to watch opera in a relaxed, unpretentious environment, junk food at the ready. But I have never been one of those people who is uncomfortable with formality; rubbing elbows with wealthy opera patrons doesn't intimidate me, and if anything, I like the opportunity to wear a nice dress! Then I tried to think of Opera at the Ballpark as a throwback to Rossini's or Mozart's time, where opera audiences ate and chatted throughout the performance. But then, when I did talk during the opera (engaging Chanelle in that conversation about why Manrico didn't kill Luna), our neighbors shushed us! This seemed to me like the worst of both worlds: you couldn't experience the opera as well as you could in the opera house, and yet you still had to be on your best behavior.

I don't want to make it sound like I hate Opera at the Ballpark or think it should be discontinued. I recognize its utility and would certainly recommend it for people who want to learn more about opera or introduce their kids to it, people who can't afford tickets, and/or people who are put off by opera's "high-culture" trappings. But at the same time, for someone like me--who already knows she likes opera, and can afford to buy tickets, and doesn't mind putting on nice shoes and going to the opera house--it is not so useful.

Images from San Francisco Opera. Top: Manrico and Azucena. Bottom: Leonora pleads with Count di Luna.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Onegin Stanza #1

Currently I am reading The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, a crazy and great sui generis book: the story of a bunch of San Francisco yuppies in the 1980s, told entirely in verse. And not just any verse, but Onegin stanzas, one of the hardest verse forms to employ in English--but one which, if done well, can create stunning effects.

And, just as seeing a Shakespeare play makes me want to start speaking in iambic pentameter, reading The Golden Gate has inspired me to compose my own Onegin stanzas. Of course, iambic pentameter is relatively natural and easy to compose, while Onegin stanzas are artificially and strictly patterned--a great challenge!

When the beginning of a quatrain popped into my head the other day, I decided to develop it into a complete poem. So here, after much crossing-out of lines, and much consulting of a thesaurus, is my first-ever attempt at an Onegin sonnet.
When we are faced with disappointments,
They should not come as a surprise,
For well we know that sweetest ointments
Inexorably lure the flies.
But just as sand, within an oyster's
Shell, its secret nacreous cloister,
Is transfigured from grit and grime
Into a pearl; so can the slime
And dirt and bugs that Life provided
Transfigure, too. This may sound odd,
But flowers spring from barren sod;
And with an insect trapped inside it,
An amber lump gains an allure
More precious, even though less pure.
I'm not sure I agree with the message of my poem, nor do I like its moralizing tone, but the verse scans correctly and the images work--which is all that one can really hope for on a first attempt, right?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Super-Duper Trivia Quiz!

This year, some of my co-workers and I have been participating in a daily trivia game. Someone bought a page-a-day calendar that features Trivial Pursuit questions, and every afternoon, we ask that day's question and award bragging rights to the winner. And sometimes, when this is not enough to satisfy our hunger for trivia, someone prepares a special Friday Trivia Quiz. This week, it was my turn.

The people at my office, I should note, all have different areas of expertise. Some of the guys have an awe-inspiring knowledge of sports trivia. One girl knows everything there is to know about Russia. And I am the resident theater and literature expert, so I prepared a quiz heavy on those subjects. I wondered if I was making my co-workers go too far out of their comfort zones; nevertheless, I realized that the only way to write a good quiz was to choose subjects that made sense to me. For instance, I know so little about sports that I have no way to judge whether a sports trivia question is easy or hard, obscure or common knowledge. Whereas I am able to judge the difficulty level of the questions on this quiz. The musical theater questions, for example, require a good general knowledge of who wrote some of Broadway's biggest hit songs. But if I were making a quiz for an audience of theater geeks, I could also have chosen songs and lyricists who were way more obscure.

Even so, I really stretched my co-workers' brains... they all agreed that this was a hard, hard quiz! Want to see how you stack up? Here are the questions that I e-mailed to my co-workers yesterday. I'm going to post the correct answers to the quiz in the comments section, so write down your responses on a piece of paper and click over there when you're done. Feel free to post your score, as well--and to let me know what you thought of the quiz!


Who wrote the following lines? Choose from: Samuel Beckett, Arthur Miller, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams. (Yes, there are four quotes and five potential authors. This is to make it harder!)

1. "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
2. "Attention must be paid."
3. "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness."
4."We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."


Who wrote the following lyrics? Choose from: Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Alan Jay Lerner, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter.

5. "I got rhythm / I got music / I got my man / Who could ask for anything more?"
6. "Birds do it / Bees do it / Even educated fleas do it / Let's do it / Let's fall in love"
7. "Some enchanted evening / You may see a stranger / You may see a stranger / Across a crowded room"
8. "Stick with me, baby, I'm the fellow you came in with / Luck, be a lady tonight"


9. In 1968, the Best Actress nominees were Katharine Hepburn, Patricia Neal, Vanessa Redgrave, Barbra Streisand, and Joanne Woodward. The votes ended in a tie. Hepburn was one of the winners; who was the other?
10. How many women have ever been nominated for Best Director?
11. Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick. Only one of these men ever won an Oscar for Best Director. Who?
12. What actor appeared in only five films before his early death--but all of them were nominated for Best Picture?


13. What 1883 event affected weather patterns worldwide?
14. Napoleon was born on an island, exiled to (and escaped from) a second island, and died on a third island. Name the islands.
15. What does "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight" refer to?
16. What city on the Baltic Sea was attacked by the Germans to begin World War II? Extra credit: Give both the German and Polish names of this city.


17. What poet was described as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know"?
18. What American author married his 13-year-old cousin?
19. What writer's published diary reveals that she had an affair with her own father?
20. What American writer stabbed his wife with a penknife, nearly killing her?


21. King Ludwig of Bavaria was obsessed with the music of what composer?
22. Emperor Joseph accused what composer's music of having "too many notes"?
23. What German composer wrote several pieces of music in honor of the British royal family?
24. What composer's music became associated with the movement to get Victor Emmanuel crowned king of Italy?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Awake and Sing!: It Deserves the Exclamation Point

NOTE: Some spoilers ahead for Awake and Sing!, because I discuss its plot construction.

Having read Clifford Odets' play Awake and Sing! last month, I was glad to see the Aurora Theater's production and learn how it plays onstage. Though it is definitely a "kitchen-sink drama" (not at all a "cinematic" play), it moves at a good pace, propelled by the fast-talking dialogue. The plot developments still have the power to surprise: when the janitor announced that Jacob had fallen off the roof and died, the audience literally became abuzz with whispers. These whispers, I guess, expressed sorrow at this likable character's death, and shock at the suddenness of it, shading into speculation over whether it was really an accident, or suicide--just the effect that Odets would have wanted! (And if you examine the script, you'll see that Jacob's death is very carefully set up--but when you see the play for the first time, it comes as a surprise. A really nifty trick.) I also like how the 1-year jump in time between Act I and Act II is something that Odets expects you to figure out gradually, rather than feeding it to you as exposition.

Even though the Aurora is not one of the Bay Area's largest theaters, their production had a terrifically accomplished cast. At first I thought that the actor who played Ralph looked too old for his 22-year-old character, but he grew on me. All the same, Ralph, though ostensibly the hero, is not the best-written role in the play--he's kind of a standard-issue "idealistic youth looking for his place in the world," but many of the other roles are wonderfully pungent character parts. I especially liked Charles Dean as the sweetly hapless father, Myron; and Ray Reinhardt perfectly fit Odets' description of Grandpa Jacob: "an old Jew with living eyes in his tired face." Reinhardt is nearly 80 years old and was a little boy in the Bronx at the time Odets wrote this play--so his performance had a special poignancy and authenticity to it, a link to history.

When watching old plays like this, certain lines sometimes jump out with a surprising contemporary relevance. Here's a moment that made everyone in the theater think of the current health care debate: Moe Axelrod lost a leg in World War I and says that he has three wooden legs in the closet: "Uncle Sam gives them out free." Uncle Morty, a successful bourgeois businessman, replies, "Maybe if Uncle Sam gave out less legs we could balance the budget!"

A moment that would not pass muster in a contemporary play: Moe, at his lowest ebb, says, "What I think a' women? Take 'em all, cut 'em into little pieces like a herring in a Greek salad. A guy in France had the right idea--dropped his wife in a bathtub fulla acid." The cruelty and misogyny of those lines is shocking--from a guy who is ultimately supposed to be the hero, the right man for Hennie! Though we know that Moe doesn't really plan to chop anyone up (he feels betrayed, his pride has been wounded and he's talking tough), I am glad we have reached a point where no contemporary playwright could get away with having a sympathetic character talk about women in this way.

Overheard while leaving the theater: "Yes, the grandfather was very loving... But he was a Marxist!" I have to say, though "Marxist" is a dirty word to many Americans, I didn't expect that it would be that way in the People's Republic of Berkeley! And this judgment echoes the cruel mistake that Uncle Morty makes, in the play--judging Jacob for the unrealistic ideas in his head, not for the love in his heart.

I also overheard one person call the play "dark" and another call it "depressing," which just baffles me. Odets, with his agitprop and his speech-making, is the textbook example of a playwright who believed theater could change the world for the better--which is an optimistic, progressive attitude. (Heck, look at the title: Awake and Sing!--with an exclamation point!) All right, I agree the ending no longer seems quite as cheerful as Odets intended: he seems to think that everything will be solved once Ralph becomes a Marxist and Hennie runs off with Moe, while a modern audience is more skeptical. But that certainly doesn't make the play depressing! Indeed, this ambiguity in the ending--though perhaps unintentional--saves it from being mere agitprop.

It kind of amazes me that so few people know about Awake and Sing!, when two plays that it obviously influenced--The Glass Menagerie and Death of a Salesman--are considered major American classics. (Amanda Wingfield, being an overbearing mother in a low-rent apartment, is like a Southern-belle version of Bessie Berger--and Willy Loman's death is an echo of Grandpa Jacob's.) Both these plays, incidentally, fit my idea of "depressing" much more than Odets' play does. In The Glass Menagerie, none of the characters physically die, but a girl's soul is brutally snuffed out. In Awake and Sing!, a man dies, but his soul lives on.

Image: Jacob gives his son Morty a haircut, while Ralph talks to them and Bessie sets the table. Photo by David Allen,

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sunday in the Park with Puccini, Verdi, and the Homeless

Only in San Francisco can you attend Opera in the Park and find yourself next to a homeless man who yells "Bravissimo!" after every aria and sometimes in the middle of them too, whistles and hums along with "Che gelida manina," and, when the announcer says something about "pasta e fagiole," yells back at the stage, "It's pasta fazool!" (To which I couldn't help adding, "I agree!") Local color for what has become a treasured city tradition.

This year's concert introduced Nicola Luisotti, San Francisco Opera's new music director, who is expected to raise the company's standards in the core Italian repertory. To that effect, he led an all-Italian program: lots of Rossini, Puccini and Verdi, plus one Italian-language Mozart aria. Luisotti is a slim and animated presence at the podium. At the end of the concert, he gave an impromptu speech about how "San Francisco may not be close to Europe but we can make it the center of the universe for Italian singing," then brought out the singers for a surprise rendition of "O Sole Mio."

At that point the clouds covered Golden Gate Park and a few drops of rain were falling, but it still felt very appropriate. Opera should be communal and joyous and unpretentious. There should be an Italian music director who gives a slightly rambling but very passionate speech and then conducts "O Sole Mio" complete with schmaltzy ritardandos, and the tenor and the soprano trying to outsing each other, and a tambourine banging away in the background.

Luisotti's first production as music director is Il Trovatore, so the concert featured several excerpts from that opera, sung by Sondra Radvanovsky (as Leonora), Marco Berti (Manrico), and Quinn Kelsey (Count di Luna). (In the full production, Radvanovsky and Berti play those roles, while di Luna is played by Dmitri Hvorostovsky.) I will probably have more to say about this opera and these singers after I see the "Opera at the Ballpark" simulcast screening of Trovatore next Saturday. I didn't love Berti's voice in the more lyrical music but he sang a rousing "Di Quella Pira"--which I am sure will be even better with a male chorus to back him up! Radvanovsky passed quite near me as I left the concert and she is certainly a striking-looking woman: very tall, wearing bright red lipstick to match her big red evening gown. She just got a rave in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The program contained a very amusing, but, I'm afraid, far too common typo: Puccini's famous soprano aria was listed as "O Mio Bambino Caro." The idea of the virginal, unmarried Lauretta singing "O My Dear Baby" instead of "O My Dear Daddy" just makes me laugh! However, it was nicely sung by Leah Crocetto.

The final aria (before "O Sole Mio" and the traditional "Libiamo ne'lieti calici" conclusion) was a really beautiful rendition of "E lucevan le stelle," sung by Brandon Jovanovich. I think I preferred him to the guy that starred in SFO's Tosca this summer!

Image: Maestro Luisotti is all smiles. Photo from

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Insularity and Indecision

Last week the mysterious-but-invaluable playwright and blogger 99 Seats put up a post about the insularity of the American theater, to which I was moved to reply, and 99 responded to my comment, and now there's a nice conversation going on over there... you should go check it out.

And maybe, too, you can take my comment there as a partial explanation of why I haven't been blogging as much lately. Because, as I wrote, I'm feeling a little conflicted right now, in this post-college period. There's the part of me that says "If I want to be a playwright, I should be reading tons and writing tons and seeing tons of plays and making connections and blogging about everything so that I don't forget what I have learned." And there's the other part of me who sees that desire to retreat into art, into the aesthetic life, as seductive but ultimately pernicious. That part of me says "Go out! Live! Do! Play softball, have some conversations with people who have never heard of Sondheim, absorb the American vernacular, and don't constantly be thinking about your goals and ambitions, because that will only make you unhappy!"

To have two strong but fundamentally opposed desires, like this--combined with the panicked realization that time is passing by, summer is over, you've held down a full-time job for eleven months but still haven't figured out what it is to have "work-life balance"--is rather paralyzing. So, in the meantime, my blog languishes.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Things I Am Going to Steal from Clifford Odets

A year and a half ago when I was writing my 1930s play, I bought a collection of six Clifford Odets plays titled Waiting for Lefty & Other Plays--but, to my chagrin, I didn't get around to reading it till now. As far as I can discern, Odets occupies an uncertain place in the ranks of American playwrights--for everyone who says that he's underrated, you can also find someone who will say that his plays are dated or propagandistic.

And it is easy to make fun of Odets' tendency to end his plays with a rousing speech about the Dignity of Man and the Promise of Socialism. And, living in an ironic age, it's easy to mock his earnestness. (Odets dedicated his play Paradise Lost "To My Dead Mother" and the naked emotionalism of that phrase is almost embarrassing to read.) But I believe that every playwright, no matter how fallen from favor, has some lessons to teach me, and there are very good lessons to be learned from Odets as well. Here are some:
  • It's OK to take the play in a different direction from what the audience expects. Odets' style was "lyrical realism," so it's not like he goes spinning off on really wild tangents, but all the same, he's willing to frustrate your expectations. Here's an example from Awake and Sing. At the end of Act I, the daughter, Hennie, has just told her parents that she is pregnant from a one-night stand. Her parents persuade her that she should marry an immigrant named Sam Feinschreiber ASAP, and pretend that the baby is his. Hennie doesn't love Sam, but she assents. Meanwhile, Hennie has a love-hate relationship with a guy named Moe Axelrod (he's crazy about her; she loves him but is too proud to admit it because he broke her heart once, and he's too proud to apologize) and at the end of Act I, Moe offers to marry Hennie himself. I predicted that the next scene would take place a few days later, showing Moe courting Hennie and trying to wear down her resistance. But when the curtain rises on Act II, it's a year later; Hennie is a mother and married to Sam. The story of Moe and Hennie isn't over yet, but this certainly throws an unexpected--and big--obstacle in their path!

  • Another example of confounding the audience's expectations comes in Act III of Awake and Sing. The grandfather has died and there's a lot of business about who will get the insurance money--he left it to his grandson Ralph, but other family members want it for themselves. And the audience wants to see Ralph triumph. But Ralph doesn't fight for his share of the money; instead, he makes a speech to the effect of "The money doesn't matter, let them have it--what matters is the spiritual legacy that Grandpa left us." On the one hand, this is blatant Odetsian message-mongering. On the other hand, when so many plays are about Who Will Get The Money, it's nice to have a playwright say "Who cares who gets the money?"

  • Music is a part of drama. I'm not talking about "musical theater," but the use of music to enhance a scene. "Melodrama," in the original, literal sense. At the end of Act II of Awake and Sing, Odets has Moe Axelrod sing to himself and play cards while other dialogue takes place, and this ratchets up the tension. (An old trick, but a good one.) Similarly, in Paradise Lost, the character of Pearl Gordon is mainly there to play a piano from the next room so its music can underscore the scenes. (Just like how in Uncle Vanya, the character of "Waffles" Telegin is mainly there to play a guitar and enhance the melancholy mood.) It's a pretty bum deal for the actress playing Pearl, but a good deal for the audience.

  • Related to this: classical music is not pretentious. The grandfather in Awake and Sing loves Caruso; Joe Bonaparte, in Golden Boy, is torn about whether to become a violinist or a boxer. At a time when people are always claiming that classical music is an elitist endeavor, it is nice to recall that 75 years ago, classical music was not thought of this way--and it could fit right into a populist melodrama about lower-class people, representing the universal yearning for art and beauty.

  • ?..., ????!!, and .... are all perfectly valid lines of dialogue. This is one of my favorite Odets-isms, something he started doing in Paradise Lost. Occasionally, instead of writing a line of dialogue like "What do you mean...?" or writing a stage direction like "She looks at him questioningly," he'll just convey it with symbols: "?..." I've seen this kind of thing in the work of more experimental, more modern playwrights like Suzan-Lori Parks, but I wasn't expecting it in the work of a dramatist from the 1930s. For use in those pesky moments of a script where you don't want your characters to say anything, but information needs to be conveyed, all the same.
I may be able to add some more items to this list in a couple of weeks, when I go see a staged Odets play for the first time--Awake and Sing at the Aurora Theater in Berkeley!