Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A.S. Byatt's Meticulous Process

Last night I went to see a conversation between Robert Hass, the former poet laureate, and A.S. Byatt. If you have been reading my blog for a while you may remember that Byatt is one of my very favorite novelists (all my Byatt posts are here) so I was excited to see her in person. She is currently promoting a long novel called The Children's Book, which takes place from 1895 to 1919 and sounds tremendously up my alley--about artists and parents and children and fairy tales and coming of age in the Edwardian era, "that magical, golden time to be a child" as Byatt put it.

Byatt is a stout lady with a refined English accent of the sort that people don't seem to have anymore (she is 73 years old, so I suppose that makes sense). The conversation last night was about 75 minutes long, including questions from the audience. Here are some of the moments that stuck with me.
  • Byatt has a reputation as a very cerebral writer, so I found it fascinating to learn that when she writes, she imagines how it would feel in her own body to experience what the characters are feeling or doing. (She said that this can make writing sex scenes a very weird experience--needing to imagine herself in the bodies of both partners!)
  • Even though she is an acclaimed and prolific novelist, Byatt says that she still has a hard time thinking of herself, or describing herself, as "a writer." Instead, she says, she thinks of her career in terms of "there's work to be done, something that needs to be said, a new chapter that needs to be written." I am beginning to think that Byatt might have the right idea--that it might be healthier to say "I write plays" instead of "I am a playwright." Putting the emphasis on the work, not on your own ego and identity. (And an active verb like "I write" is always stronger than the verb "to be.")
  • Byatt thoroughly outlines every novel, then sits down and writes it straight through--not jumping around from point to point in the structure. She talked about how the novels of the Frederica Potter Quartet were hard to write because their plotting was motivated solely by the characters' psychology; so it was a relief for her to take a break from the Quartet to write Possession, which is a detective story, much more rigorously plotted. I can't remember whether she considers the plot of The Children's Book more like Possession or more like the Quartet, however.
  • Byatt tries hard to find something that she likes in every character that she writes--considering them from every angle and trying to see how their flaws could also be construed as virtues, as she put it. I think this is one of the reasons I love the Frederica Potter quartet so much--because she centered four novels around a character that some writers might consider too unlikable to be a heroine.
  • Byatt next wants to write a novel about the Surrealists--she has some images or ideas in mind, but no characters yet. She notes that the major Surrealists "seem to have all been quite disagreeable people" so that will pose a challenge, since she doesn't want to write a satire about pretentious artists, but a real humane novel.
  • Anyone who has read some Byatt knows that she loves metaphor--and that's why she loves fairy tales, too, because of their archetypal qualities. Fairy tales ("the Germanic, Grimm kind") play a role in The Children's Book as they do in some of her other novels. And like Possession, The Children's Book also contains poems written by Byatt in the voice of some of her characters; she was not originally going to do this until a young man who was writing a thesis on Possession ("a ferocious Pole," she described him) challenged her to incorporate World War One poetry into the new novel. When she realized that the metaphors of the First World War poets fit into the scheme of metaphors that she had already built up, she had no choice but to write some poems in that style and include them in the novel.
  • Byatt also loves imagery and seems to have a very visual imagination. She described how she vividly pictures scenes as she writes them, e.g., getting a very clear image of a man sunbathing among brussels sprouts in a garden, wearing nothing but a wristwatch.
  • But then, because she is a perfectionist, she has to make sure that these images are "accurate." That is, she realized that the man couldn't be surrounded by brussels sprouts, because they grow when the weather is too cold for sunbathing; and she also realized that she needed to Google "wristwatch" to find out whether a man in the Edwardian period would wear one. As it turns out, he wouldn't, so that had to go, too.
  • Another tool that Byatt used while writing The Children's Book was an Excel spreadsheet that kept track of how old every one of her characters was supposed to be in every year from 1895 to 1919. "Because I had to make sure that all the characters aged at the same pace as everyone else, you see," she explained. However, she also admitted that she made a calculation error on the spreadsheet and didn't realize it until after the novel went to press--meaning that one of the characters in The Children's Book doesn't age the way he or she is supposed to. Byatt refused to say anything more about the matter, so I'll have to look out for this mistake when I read the novel!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Moreau moment

The other day, when I envisioned a Chanel biopic made in the 1950s or '60s with Jeanne Moreau in the lead, I was mainly thinking of how Moreau and Chanel share a certain uncompromising, implacable quality (which is not a quality one associates with Audrey Tautou)...

Little did I know that Chanel was one of Moreau's favorite designers, that there are photos of them together in Chanel's famous apartment...

...and that even today, Moreau maintains her association with the couture house, narrating an audio guide for a Chanel exhibition and appearing in a video on the Chanel website where she gives a tour of this apartment (go here and click on #2).

I am actually in a Jeanne Moreau phase at the moment--it started when I watched Viva Maria on Comcast last week. No offense meant to Brigitte Bardot, Moreau's Viva Maria costar, who is of course beautiful and delightful. But in general, I am never as fascinated by bubbly and exuberant Bardot types as I am by women like Moreau--whose eyes held an infinite sadness and wisdom and seen-it-all quality even when she was only in her thirties.

When I grow up I want to be an intense French woman. Chic and opinionated, passionate but unsentimental. Like Moreau. Like Chanel. Like Natalie Dessay. Like my host mothers in Paris and Bordeaux. Not altogether like Edith Piaf, whose life was too painful for anyone to covet; but like her, like all these women, in taking Je ne regrette rien as a motto!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"A Diamond Guitar" and "The Gold Violin"

My copy of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's contains three short stories in addition to the novella: the classic and beautiful "A Christmas Memory," the adapted-into-an-obscure-Broadway-musical "House of Flowers," and the wholly forgotten "A Diamond Guitar." When I read the title of that story, though, it immediately made me think of a Mad Men episode from Season 2 called "The Gold Violin." Stringed instrument + precious metal or gemstone... they're the only works I can think of whose titles follow this pattern. (Perhaps they're even the only works in existence with this kind of title. I doubt that anyone has written "The Platinum Cello" or "The Sapphire Ukulele.")

"The Gold Violin" is the Mad Men episode where Salvatore, the closeted gay art director (who never fails to engage my sympathy), invites his colleague Ken to dinner at his apartment, and we realize that Sal has an unrequited crush on Ken. The episode's title comes from the fact that Ken, an aspiring author, has just completed a short story called "The Gold Violin" and asks Sal to read it.

So is there any connection between this episode and "A Diamond Guitar," apart from their similar titles? Well, "A Diamond Guitar" is an extremely homoerotic story by 1950s standards. The plot: in a prison farm in the South, an intense friendship springs up between Mr. Schaeffer, a middle-aged inmate, and Tico Feo, a handsome young Cuban boy who has just arrived, a rhinestone-studded guitar in tow. "Except that they did not combine their bodies or think to do so, though such things were not unknown at the farm, they were as lovers," Capote writes. How appropriate, then, that the Mad Men episode whose title recalls this story should also be an episode that focuses on Salvatore! Like Mr. Schaeffer, Sal is defeated and imprisoned (at least metaphorically); like Tico Feo, Ken is a cheerful golden boy with an artistic talent.

The Mad Men writers definitely make a habit of paying homage to (or, if you are feeling less charitable, stealing ideas from) the American literature of the period. For instance, Don Draper lives on Bullet Park Road, and John Cheever wrote a novel called Bullet Park. In another episode, someone reminisces about the sweltering weather they had "the summer they executed the Rosenbergs," which is an obvious lift from the first line of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar: "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs." And speaking of Capote, it just occurred to me that the Mad Men scene where Duck Phillips abandons his dog on the streets of New York might be inspired by the scene where Holly Golightly abandons her cat there. So it's not hard to imagine that the Mad Men writers read "A Diamond Guitar" in the course of researching the early '60s, and, realizing that its themes related to the story they were trying to tell about Salvatore, paid homage to Capote by titling their own episode (and Ken's story-within-the-story) something similar!

Image: From "The Gold Violin": Sal, his wife Kitty, and Ken.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Remake "Breakfast at Tiffany's"!

What? I, an Audrey Hepburn fan since the age of four, am calling for one of her most iconic movies to be remade? Well, yes--but only if the new version strips away the romantic veneer and sticks to Capote's novella, which I just read for the first time.

It's a good thought-experiment, at any rate. And I'm not even talking about figuring out who would star in a new film version--I haven't gotten that far! (If you have any brilliant ideas, feel free to post them in the comments.) Rather, it's interesting just to ponder whether two Breakfast at Tiffany's films could coexist. I usually consider it sacrilegious to contemplate remaking a Hollywood classic--I'd throw a fit if anyone remade Casablanca or Bringing Up Baby or Vertigo. But at the same time, I am a lot more forgiving of remakes if the movie happens to be adapted from a work of literature. No one really minds that there are multiple versions of Little Women or Pride and Prejudice, do they?

And also, while the film of Breakfast at Tiffany's is immensely popular, it's not a perfect movie; a remake could improve on it, I think, much more than a remake of something like Casablanca could. The movie's most obvious flaw is its depiction of Mr. Yunioshi, the Japanese photographer--played by Mickey Rooney with buckteeth and an offensive accent. Reading the novella, I was pleased to discover that it does not treat Mr. Yunioshi as a buffoon or a stereotype. But the film also contains other, less obvious flaws that result from its hybrid nature. The screenwriter made it into a romantic comedy, but it's a lot more episodic than a typical rom-com, because it's adapted from a novella that is an episodic character-study. The scene where Holly's estranged husband, Doc Golightly, pays her a visit makes much less sense in the movie than it does in the novella.

Of course, it would be hard to eradicate memories of Audrey Hepburn. Some of the movie's dialogue was taken verbatim from the novella, so, when reading it, I couldn't help but hear Hepburn's vocal cadences. This, despite the fact that Capote thought Hepburn was miscast and wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the role! (More about this, and the contrast between the novella and the movie, in this excellent article from The Guardian.)

The novella takes place during World War II, not during the '60s--so, fortunately, the costume designer of this hypothetical remake wouldn't directly compete with Audrey Hepburn's classic Givenchy wardrobe. The '40s setting also means that Holly is a child of the Great Depression, which seems essential to explaining why she is the way she is. And there's one scene in the novella that I'm surprised wasn't included in the movie: Holly and the narrator go horseback riding in Central Park and the narrator’s horse gets spooked and runs away down Fifth Avenue. Wouldn't this be thrilling to see onscreen?

Most importantly, though, the novella was meant to be honest, even shocking; and after reading it, I feel sad that the wild and unscrupulous sides of Holly's character have been lost, dissolved in Hepburn's winsomeness (and the restrictions of the Production Code). The novella's Holly tells her cat to “fuck off” when she’s trying to abandon it; she bitchily implies that Mag Wildwood has the clap; she alludes to a history of childhood sexual abuse, made all the more poignant by the blasé Hollyish way in which she does it: “I toted up the other night, and I’ve only had eleven lovers—not counting anything that happened before I was thirteen because, after all, that just doesn’t count.” It's impossible to imagine Audrey Hepburn saying any of those things, but they are essential parts of Holly's character.

I guess Capote was unhappy with the Breakfast at Tiffany's film, but a passage of the novella seems to foreshadow what happened to his story once Hollywood adapted it. Holly Golightly reads one of the narrator's short stories and complains that it has too much description and "doesn't mean anything." The narrator, infuriated, asks Holly for an example of a story that she thinks does mean something.

"Wuthering Heights," says Holly. "My wild sweet Cathy. God, I cried buckets. I saw it ten times."

"Oh, the movie," the narrator says condescendingly.

Holly loves the film version of Wuthering Heights because it is thrillingly romantic, but if you've read Emily Brontë's novel, you know that it is a dark, sordid, disturbing book. And, just as it annoys me when people sigh over Heathcliff and say that Wuthering Heights is a vision of ideal love, it now annoys me that people think that the movie version of Breakfast at Tiffany's is the one that really "means something."

Monday, October 19, 2009

"The Abduction from the Seraglio": A not-so-great escape

In the modern world, where etiquette handbooks are passé, and there is always a surfeit of choices of entertainment or food or clothing, a girl has to have a few principles to live by, or else she'll go crazy. Some of my guiding principles: "When in doubt, order a gin gimlet." And, "Life's too short to wear underwear you hate." And, "Don't ever miss a Mozart opera."

The thing about having principles, though, is that they can conflict with the facts of reality. For instance, some bartenders make a really terrible gimlet. Or, you may hate wearing a strapless bra, but maybe that's the only undergarment that works with your new favorite dress. Or, because of the vicissitudes of the opera-house schedule in the city where you live, the first two Mozart operas you see may be lesser works of his, staged and cast in such a way that they feel even more like afterthoughts--pretty little things to fill out the season, rather than highlights of it.

At least, that's what happened to me regarding Mozart at the San Francisco Opera--Idomeneo last season, and The Abduction from the Seraglio this season. No, these aren't Mozart's most profound works (I realized, while talking to my roommate, that the plot of Seraglio would make an excellent Bollywood movie--that's the level of complexity we're talking about), but they contain great music, and I'm sure that in both cases, the productions I saw were not the best possible stagings of these operas.

The Seraglio production took place, for no discernible reason, on a set that resembled an eighteenth-century theater, complete with box seats and painted backdrops (very similar to the Seraglio backdrops seen in the film of Amadeus). I really don't know what this was supposed to represent, though. Nothing else in the staging pointed up the idea of a "play-within-the-play", so why make this choice?

Seraglio is a Singspiel: a proto-musical-comedy that alternates musical numbers with passages of spoken dialogue. The SF production chose to leave the singing in German but translate the dialogue to English--and while I understand the reasoning behind this, the translation was really poor. It alternated contemporary slang ("What's up?" "Whoa there!") with pseudo-classical thee-thou-thy stuff, for an awkward and hard-to-perform hybrid. I also wanted it to be funnier. The author of this translation is one Philip Kuttner, who a Google search reveals is primarily a conductor*; I wish it had been entrusted instead to a professional writer with an ear for dialogue. There are a lot of underemployed playwrights in this town, and I bet some of them even know German!

Because of the English dialogue, a cast of American and British singers performed the opera. No superstars, but a few good voices, most notably tenor Matthew Polenzani as Belmonte. It's just a pity that he had to play the least interesting character in the opera!--Belmonte has lots to sing, but it gets dramatically inert. Mary Dunleavy, as the heroine Constanze, had really unpleasant high notes in her first aria, so instead of looking forward to her performance of the magnificent Act II aria "Martern aller Arten," I dreaded it. Though it turned out not to be as badly sung as I feared (and I liked her acting, which showed Constanze starting out unsure of herself but gaining in power as the aria progressed), I still don't think that this is an ideal role for her. In the role of Blonde, the soprano Anna Christy fared better: her voice is small but pleasant, and her sassy soubrette characterization charmed the audience.

The Pasha, a non-singing role, was performed by local actor Charles Shaw Robinson, who also failed to impress me. His speaking voice sounded gruff and hoarse, and he was saddled with most of the awkward thee-thou-thy dialogue. To my surprise, the audience spontaneously applauded the Pasha when he announced, at the end, that he would forgive the four lovers and not perpetuate the cycle of hatred. But then the final moment of the production tried to make us feel sorry for the Pasha, proposing that he genuinely loved Constanze but nobly renounced her--the wrong way to conclude an opera about silly antics in a Turkish harem, methinks.

*OK, my search revealed that Kuttner also writes supertitles for the SF Opera--but I'd argue that there's a big difference between writing supertitles (which need to convey the general meaning of an opera's libretto, but never need to be spoken aloud) and writing dialogue that will be performed.

Images from SF Opera. Top: Anna Christy, with "eunuchs." Bottom: Matthew Polenzani.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Brief Encounter" at ACT: Extraordinary How Potent

A woman, pretty but careworn, in a plain 1930s tweed suit and sensible shoes, swings from a chandelier. I saw a photograph of this moment from Kneehigh Theater's adaptation of Brief Encounter accompanying a review of its London production, and was instantly intrigued. Fortunately for us on the other side of the pond, Brief Encounter was a hit in England and is touring to several venues in the United States. Its first American stop was ACT, here in San Francisco; it will also play New York and Minneapolis.

I still have not seen the classic 1940s film of Brief Encounter, though it's been on my "to-view" list ever since I saw The History Boys, in which some of the characters reenact a scene from the movie. I was at the SF production with a native Londoner, a friend-of-a-friend, and was somewhat relieved when he told me that he hadn't seen the movie, either--even though it is a much bigger cultural thing in England than it is here. (cf. Anthony Lane: "The film has been a favorite, almost a fetish, among British audiences ever since. This year, on Valentine’s Day, it was screened outside the National Theatre, in London, so that young lovers could sit in the cold, huddle together, and learn just how incredibly miserable the business of love can be. What other country would subscribe to this?")

Perhaps the film is "incredibly miserable," but this stage adaptation is not. While it still follows Noel Coward's classic story of the hopeless, and hopelessly repressed, love that arises between housewife Laura and married doctor Alec, it employs a lively repertoire of theatrical tricks that expand the emotional palette. There's puppetry, projections and film clips that the performers interact with, surreal images like the moment with the chandelier, and frequent musical interludes where the cast performs Coward songs that comment on the action. The show not only presents the basic love story, but also investigates why these kinds of love stories appeal to us. But don't go thinking that this is some kind of ironic, deconstructed, coldly Brechtian piece. It manages to comment on itself while still telling the story with absolute sincerity, and creating a cozy, warm-hearted atmosphere.

Here's one of my favorite examples of these tricks in action. As Alec realizes that he will have to end things with Laura, he stands in a spotlight and sings "A Room With A View," accompanying himself on ukulele. When originally composed, this song was one of those peppy-cutesy 1920s numbers, à la "I've Got a Crush On You" or "Tea For Two." But when performed in such a stripped-down arrangement at a pivotal moment of the drama (in fact, it's the first time Alec sings), it reveals the wistful yearning behind the lyrics; it's nostalgic and fresh all at once. Extraordinary how potent cheap music is!

This is really Laura's story, though (at the end, she gets a musical moment of her own, which is so fitting that I will not spoil it). We see scenes of Laura's life at home with her husband, Fred, and two children, but we never meet Alec's family. And I did wonder about the fairness of this--if this made us more willing to condone Laura and Alec's attempted adultery. From what we see of Fred, we don't really mind that Laura plans to cheat on him--he's dull and oblivious, while Alec is younger, handsomer, and far more passionate and idealistic. But what is Alec's wife, the unseen Madeleine, like? Why does he think it's all right to betray her?

Is it that Madeleine, like Fred, is boring? But if that were the case, surely Alec would choose a more exciting woman than Laura for his secret lover? Laura is a perfectly nice lady, of course, and we eventually learn of her sadness and her deferred dreams. But she is also repressed, hesitant, confused and conflicted. So, if Alec wants to have an affair, there must be women with whom it would be easier, and more fun. What made him choose Laura, and see the parts of her soul no one else can see?

I wonder, then, if Brief Encounter is partly a wish-fulfillment fantasy: that of being a quiet, unassuming person who nevertheless is seen, and chosen, and loved by a smart, good-looking guy who's in touch with his emotions. Is Laura just a stand-in for the straight females and gay males in the audience, who can dream of projecting themselves into her situation--of swinging from that chandelier, giddy with love?

Brief Encounter might be more complex if it showed scenes of Alec's life at home, but as I suggested, that's also tricky to finesse. If Alec's wife were all sympathetic, we'd no longer yearn for Alec and Laura to get together; but if Alec's wife were unlikable, we'd wonder why he married her in the first place. So, instead of confronting this problem, the stage play fills out its running time with two other love stories that take place in the train station café where Laura and Alec meet weekly. The friendly stationmaster is courting the haughty café proprietress, and a fresh-faced candy vendor is flirting with the giggly waitress. These characters do most of the singing in the show, providing comic relief that also comments on the Laura/Alec story. But sometimes these subplots feel like filler, as in an irrelevant interlude where two soldiers come into the café and demand whiskey, even though the café's liquor license won't permit it.

All the members of the cast are multi-talented, but I was especially impressed by Joseph Alessi, who switches effortlessly between the roles of the buttoned-up bourgeois Fred and the cheerful working-class stationmaster, looks like Stanley Tucci, performs a song-and-dance routine on the lobby staircase at intermission, and plays the spoons!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Coco and Catherine

Last week I went to see Coco Before Chanel. It didn't get fantastic reviews, but I was having one of those days where I just needed to hear French spoken and see pretty dresses, and on those counts, it satisfied. While a less ambitious movie than La Vie En Rose (the last biopic I saw about a Great French Woman) it was also less frustrating--I think biographical movies work better when they focus on a short period of the person's life, rather than going birth-to-death.

And there is one moment that is truly great cinema. You almost don't need the rest of the movie; this one shot says it all. Coco goes dancing at a seaside casino, where all of the other women are dressed in Edwardian finery: white and ivory fabrics, S-bend corsets, lots of lace and ruffles and delicate little details. Coco has been complaining about this style of dress for the whole movie, even though, to our modern eyes, it has its charm: the dresses are luxurious and beautifully made, and it pleases the eye to see a whole roomful of women dressed in similar fashions, waltzing with tuxedoed swains. But as the camera zooms in on Coco, the problem with all the other women's clothes suddenly becomes clear. It's not that they are ugly, it's that they are hopelessly old-fashioned. For Coco is wearing the simplest little black evening gown, sleeveless and slender, and she puts the others to shame. And you could wear this dress to a party in 2009 and still be the chicest woman in the room--long after the other women's dresses have been relegated to Halloween and masquerades.

The movie shows that Chanel's main innovation was to take inspiration from men's clothing: tweed trousers and fisherman jerseys and a flat black straw hat (the item that brings her her first success, but I thought it looked shabby and awkward). Thinking about this afterward, I was reminded of another French movie heroine: Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) in Jules and Jim. The two movies take place in the same time period, and they share the theme of a young woman frustrated with the limitations her society places on her, and torn between two men. Coco, of course, manages to become self-actualized; Catherine only self-destructs.

But it was the similar fashions that made me connect these two characters, and wonder if the costume designer of Jules and Jim had taken inspiration from early Chanel designs when creating Catherine's wardrobe.

Both Coco and Catherine favor loose, non-constricting clothing to match their free-spirited personalities (Catherine may be a femme fatale, but she doesn't dress like one). They are both fond of a classic striped jersey...

...or a nice plaid...

...and of course, they both dress up in men's clothes, enjoying the freedom they are otherwise denied.

I wonder how the young Jeanne Moreau would have been in the role of Coco Chanel? My French friend, Sophie, said she's avoiding Coco Before Chanel because she thinks Audrey Tautou is absolutely the wrong actress for the role. She says I should look out for another Chanel movie that is being released soon, called Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, starring Anna Mouglalis. I am not familiar with Mouglalis' work, but Sophie assures me that she's virtually a Chanel look-alike and will do an excellent job.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Could Tony Kushner Win a Nobel Prize?

Yesterday I was reading about the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Herta Müller, and figuring out when to go see the Tony Kushner one-acts that will be opening soon at Berkeley Rep, when a thought occurred to me:

When people list American writers who might possibly win or deserve the Nobel Prize, why do they never mention Kushner?

I'm a Kushner fan, but I'm not just saying this out of blind admiration. I think you can objectively argue that he's the type of writer who'd appeal to the Nobel Committee, and should be included in the annual speculation.
  • He's YOUNG(ish)! Even though people think of the Nobel as an end-of-career prize for elderly geniuses, the committee has shown, in recent years, that they are willing to award writers from Kushner's generation. Orhan Pamuk was born in 1952 and Herta Müller was born a year later. (Kushner was born in 1956.) It's not too soon to add him to the list of candidates, in other words.
  • He's GAY! Evidently, winning the Nobel has become, in part, a question of a writer's subject matter and political correctness. Many laureates write from the perspective of an outsider or one who has experienced oppression: African-Americans (Toni Morrison), feminists (Doris Lessing), citizens of totalitarian states (Solzhenitsyn, Müller), etc. Conspicuously un-awarded, thus far, are authors who write from a gay or lesbian perspective. (At least one gay man, André Gide, has won the prize--but that was in 1947, long before the gay rights movement existed!)
  • He's a LEFTIST! In addition to my feeling that the Nobel committee is going to want to pick a gay author sometime soon, they definitely prefer the politically liberal. I think that this will be specially important for American authors--they won't have a prayer of winning if they didn't oppose George W. Bush and the Iraq War, if they are uncritically Zionist, etc. Kushner passes these tests, of course.
  • He's INTERNATIONAL(ish)! Probably the biggest knock against Kushner is that he's American and our country has not fared well with the Literature Nobel recently, culminating in the chairman's comment, last year, that "American literature is too insular." But Kushner has, at least, shown a consistent interest in other countries and literatures: adapting Corneille and Brecht, writing a play about Afghanistan.
  • He tackles the BIG THEMES! Death, religion, American identity and the melting-pot, gay identity, AIDS and other crises... The subtitle to Angels in America says that it is a play on "national themes" but I should hope that readers in other countries would also find it worthwhile literature. And he has a knack for tackling these themes at the opportune moment: his drag name is Eara Lee Prescient, after all.
  • He can WRITE, TOO! Though the political themes of his work will endear him to the Nobel committee, his subject matter is not his only notable quality. His language is vivid, energetic, sometimes lyrical, eminently quotable. He has a wild imagination and a recognizable voice. He knows how to use the tools of theatricality and stagecraft.
  • He's FUNNY! Though humorous novelists don't get much respect with the Nobel, humorous playwrights are another story--cf. Shaw, Pirandello, Fo, even Beckett. Comedy in the service of a larger message.
  • He's INFLUENTIAL! Certainly among American playwrights, at least--I don't know about his influence abroad. Joyce Carol Oates often gets mentioned as a Nobel candidate, but I rarely read of younger novelists saying "I want to write like Joyce Carol Oates." (Well, okay, everyone would like to be as prolific as JCO, but when it comes to being influenced by her style, or her subject matter?) Whereas, all the time, young playwrights say "I want to write like Tony Kushner."
Of course, discussions of who'll win awards are always really just idle speculation, and particularly so with the Nobel Prize for Literature. This year, you can make a case for Kushner, but a lot could happen to change things. If Philip Roth ever does win the Prize like people are always suggesting, that'd diminish Kushner's chances, because it's unlikely to go to two American Jewish authors in close succession. Or if the committee gave it to another important gay writer.

All the same, it's pretty clear that Kushner is the only American playwright who has a chance of winning this thing. (Albee? Not after Pinter's recent win, I think. Kushner's a better bet because he's from a different generation and has a very different writing style than Albee or Pinter.) And you can make at least as good a case for Kushner as you can for several American novelists who always get mentioned as potential winners. So--even though America seems to be in a prolonged slump with the Nobel Prize for Literature committee--let's add him to the list of people who just might be the one to break the losing streak!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Patricia Racette in "Il Trittico": Me Piace, È Bella, Bella

As of 7:30 PM last Wednesday, I had seen Patricia Racette in just one operatic role: Leslie Crosbie in the world premiere of The Letter. As of 11 PM Wednesday, I had seen her in a total of four roles. How is that possible? Answer: because she played all three leading soprano roles in a production of Il Trittico at San Francisco Opera!

After this, I'm convinced that Racette can do anything. I don't think her voice has an instantly recognizable timbre, but her musicianship, the effects she creates with her singing, and her emotional commitment to her characters are what make her such a valuable artist. She even looked completely different in every role!

As Giorgetta, the adulteress of Il Tabarro, she was a hot mama in a skintight dress. And I might add, her portrayal of Giorgetta was very different from her portrayal of Leslie Crosbie this summer, even though the two characters have some things in common--their sexual frustration and willingness to cheat on their unloved husbands. But Giorgetta seemed younger and more hopeful than the ice-cold Leslie.

In the title role of Suor Angelica, she epitomized the modest nun with the overburdened heart. Vocally and dramatically, this is probably the most intense role of the three; Angelica is alone onstage for the last part of the opera and going through some extreme emotional states. The final notes of her aria "Senza mamma" sounded off to me, as if Racette didn't have the breath to sustain them--though considering the wrenching pain that Angelica is feeling, at least this flub fit the emotional palette of the role.

And in as Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi--really a cameo role with one unforgettable aria--she was an extremely cute '50s ingenue, cutting loose and playing up the comedy. She sang "O mio babbino caro" as a petulantly pleading Daddy's-girl; at the end, she burst into hilariously fake sobs.

But, though Racette was the star, she had a very strong production and cast surounding her. I am now convinced that Il Tabarro is an underrated opera: it has great atmospheric music, a beautiful Puccini love duet, a crude but effective plot, and excellent pacing. The box-like set of the SF production was kind of weird, but inside of it, the singers were well directed to embody the love triangle. There was some dirty dancing between Giorgetta and her lover Luigi (the brooding tenor Brandon Jovanovich--I loved his voice at Opera at the Park, but there I sat too far away to realize that he's also a good-looking fellow!), and a complex rapport between Giorgetta and her cuckolded husband Michele (baritone Paolo Galvanelli). Galvanelli made Michele's wounded rage palpable, and shared Racette's talent for transformation: later, he was funny and jovial as the title character of Gianni Schicchi.

Unlike my dear sainted grandmother, I do not have a high tolerance for nuns, so the scenes of convent life in Suor Angelica just bored me. But beginning with the scene with the Princess (sung here by powerful contralto Ewa Podles), when the opera shifts its focus to Angelica's personal crisis, it does have some good moments of drama.

Recently, since the new Tosca at the Met was such a failure, there has been a lot of hoopla in the press asking whether that production violated Puccini's intentions by eliminating some traditional stage business, debating how much of an update is too much, etc. What's interesting is that the SF Suor Angelica production undoubtedly violated Puccini's intentions, but no one booed, and, in fact, the director's choice probably made this sentimental work more palatable to a modern-day audience. At the end of the opera, a distraught Angelica takes poison, hoping to join her dead son in Heaven--then realizes that suicide is a mortal sin and she will be damned to Hell. Then, the Virgin Mary provides a miracle: traditionally, the final image of the opera has Angelica's little boy appearing and welcoming his mother to Heaven.

For Italians of a certain age, this works like a charm; for many other people, it's just glurge. So the SF production found a different solution. First, instead of setting the opera in a traditional convent, it updated the time period to the mid-20th-century and had the nuns running a children's hospital. (During one of the early scenes, several little kids in hospital gowns came onstage and the nuns fed them.) Therefore, when Sister Angelica, in her final moments, dimly sees a little boy out in the corridor, and reaches toward him... is it really her dead son, or just a hospital patient who happens to be passing by? Rather than being left with the thought that God is merciful and took pity on Sister Angelica, we are left with the thought that miracles and/or God do not exist; and while Angelica might have been comforted, as she died, by thinking that this boy was the phantom of her son, he was really nothing of the sort.

So, some people might call this sacrilege against God and Puccini both, but it didn't feel that way to me. It wasn't gleefully shocking; it was thought-provoking and, in its own way, moving. While it didn't elicit the sentimental tears that Puccini wanted, neither did it elicit a reaction of "Give me a break! That's so cheesy!" Instead, it left you feeling pity for Angelica's lonely death.

As for Gianni Schicchi, it must be hard to write a good short comic opera (or there'd be a lot more of them in the repertoire) but Puccini makes it look easy. The production was appropriately cartoonish, with several funny gags; my favorite was when the enormous, buzzy-voiced bass Andrea Silvestrelli lit the funeral candles by holding them up to the cigarette that dangled from his mouth!

Photos from SF Opera. Tenor David Lomelí is the guy accompanying Racette in the Gianni Schicchi picture.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

If "Tales of the City" Were Written in Verse...

...it would be The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth.

I know I posted a little about this book last week--how it is a novel written entirely in Onegin stanzas. Not an "epic poem," because its concerns are far more down-to-earth. Set in the Bay Area in the 1980s (Napa Valley, the Peninsula, and S.F. proper), it mostly follows the love lives of a group of yuppies. As with Tales of the City, parts of it are dated--some of the "yuppie lifestyle" satire, as well as the Cold War fear of nuclear annihilation that forms a major subplot.

All the same, it hooked me from the first stanza, in which a man has an existential crisis while walking through Golden Gate Park. And some of the San Francisco atmosphere that the book captures is truly timeless--first dates at the Cafe Trieste, the Golden Gate Bridge and the skyline itself... Here is a sample stanza (perfect for this time of year!):
They park the car by the Marina.
The surface of the cobalt bay
Is flecked with white. The moister, keener
October air has rinsed away
The whispering mists with crisp intensity
And over the opaque immensity
A deliquescent wash of blue
Reveals the bridge, long lost to view
In summer's quilt of fog: the towers,
High-built, red-gold, with their long span--
The most majestic spun by man--
Whose threads of steel through mists and showers
Wind, spray, and the momentous roar
Of ocean storms, link shore to shore.
The characters of the novel are more types than individuals, but all the same, by the end I was curious to learn how their tangled relationships got sorted out, and moved by the final chapters, when darker matters intrude on the blithe innocent California world. Another charming aspect of the novel is that the characters' pets play a role in the story and are made just as vivid as their human owners. (I can't easily think of another novel that has such good writing about animals.) One of the pets is an iguana named Arnold Schwarzenegger, which is, of course, all the funnier in light of recent California history!

The narrator is not nearly as funny and garrulous as the narrator of Eugene Onegin, but he has a few good digressions, including the beginning of Chapter 5, where he defends his decision to write a novel in verse. He ably rises to the challenge of rhyming--OK, "Oregon" doesn't rhyme with "gone," and "merely" doesn't rhyme with "really," and some of the rhymes only work when spoken in a British accent, though presumably Seth, who grew up in India, has that kind of accent. But those are just a few mishandled rhymes in a sea of thousands of perfect ones--300 pages, 13 chapters! Not to mention that the acknowledgments, chapter list, and author bio are written as Onegin stanzas too. (Seth made his task slightly easier by naming the main characters things like "John," "Liz," and "Phil"--one-syllable names that rhyme with some of the most frequently used words in our language.)

Highly recommended for anyone who is fascinated by rhyme and structure and "constrained writing"; people who want to be exposed to a different sort of contemporary poetry than that which we usually encounter (this book flatters your intelligence, rather than making you feel stupid for "not getting it," as some of the more oblique poetry these days does); and of course any proud citizens of the Bay Area!

"So-Called Post-Racial"

"It's fairly easy to get beyond [Thomas] Bradshaw's purposefully thin surfaces--unless, of course, you're unwilling to look at what contorts all America: racism, and the bullshit notion that it doesn't affect our view of sex and love in a so-called post-racial country."

--Hilton Als, "Critic's Notebook," The New Yorker, Sept. 28 2009
Given this vehemently expressed attitude, I am surprised that Hilton Als was as polite to me as he was last summer, when I met him and asked him my confused question about what playwrights should do if they wanted to write a post-racial play!

But at the same time, I can't help but wonder if my use of the term with Mr. Als – and my kinda-naive, bourgeois-white-girl-from-San-Francisco-by-way-of-Vassar attitude--is one of the things that provoked him to write this in the first place? The New Yorker isn't often this profane nor this angry, you know.

Previously: Theater à la Als
The "Post-Racial" World and Contemporary Playwriting

P.S. Sometime I must write about the playwriting workshop I had with Thomas Bradshaw as one of the perks for winning the Young Playwright's Contest (and if you know Bradshaw's work you know that he is a rather dubious choice to give a writing workshop to 15-to-19-year-olds)... but later, later.