Tuesday, March 14, 2017

WNO's Dead Man Walking

On Saturday evening I witnessed an execution by lethal injection. OK, it wasn't a real execution, but an operatic one, terrifying nonetheless. A nervous but defiant "convict" stood center stage in a pair of underpants with a clearly visible diaper stuffed inside. His fear was palpable, his desperation permeated the theater as they dressed him in a white shirt and pants and strapped him to a gurney.  A nurse injected deadly substance into his arm. The audience stopped breathing.  Then his heartbeat, ticked off by a monitoring machine, began to slow down until it became a steady sound signaling death.   

The performance was Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, offered for the first time by the Washington National Opera. I am somewhat familiar with the work through a recording of the 2000 San Francisco production, but it did not prepare me for the impact this opera can have in a staged performance. Staggering!

Contemporary operas can be quite an ordeal to sit through. Composers are pressured to offer some new and groundbreaking concept, which usually means hard-to-like music, black-and-white scenography, and absolute absence of tradition. Melody is anathema. I came to Dead Man Walking almost directly from a performance of La Ciudad de las Mentiras (City of Lies) an opera by Elena Mendoza at Teatro Real in Madrid, which bore all these characteristics.

Stage set for La Ciudad de las Mentiras, Teatro Real, Madrid
Mendoza used four stories by Juan Carlos Onetti to explore theatrical and perhaps some musical possibilities, but her sopranos, tenors and baritones never sang. They recited lines from the stories so intertwined that only those familiar with Onetti's work could hope to understand what's going on. The English language surtitles kept the uninitiated out of a complete fog, and a written introduction gave some clarification, but I had to agree with a friend who argued that a work of art that needs so much explanation is not a good work of art. If Mendoza's singers did not sing, neither did the musicians played much music. At one point a man appeared on the stage with an accordion only to tap his hand on it a couple of times. An actor portraying a bartender scratched a metal tray with a knife, a piano player hit the keyboard a couple of times and the orchestra produced some "atmospheric" sound, sort of like a distant wind howling. Overall, it was an interesting, innovative stage production, but it was not an opera.

Dead Man Walking definitely is. Heggie did not veer off the traditional operatic structure, or as some would say formula, proving that what worked for Verdi and Puccini works for today's composers as well. The build-up, the drama, the climax - it was all there and it worked. It opens with a young couple frolicking by the lake to the sound of popular music, but disaster is already in the air. And it strikes swiftly. From then on the action moves energetically forward so the first act breezes through without any longueurs. Sister Helen's entry into the death row, with a chorus of men yelling profanities at her is a most powerful scene, musically and theatrically.

The second act starts with the title character, prisoner Joseph de Rocher, exercising in his cell to pass the time or to keep his muscles from trembling.  A great opening!  After that the energy drops and there are scenes, such as Sister Helen's conversation with Sister Rose, and her encounter with the convict's mother that one could do without. Tension returns to the stage full force with re-entry into Joseph's prison cell. He knows the hour of death is approaching and his desperation rises to a fever pitch.  Still defiant, but more dependent on Sister Helen's support, he finally feels compelled to confess his guilt. 

The death scene is one of the most powerful pieces of theater I've seen in recent years. I wish the opera ended right there. The final repeat of a religious song that served as a leitmotif throughout the opera was forgettable and unnecessary. In spite of minor quibbles (occasional clichés of sorrow and sentimentality) chapeau to Heggie and his librettist Terrence McNally for impressive work.

Kate Lindsey and Michael Mayes in WNO's Daed Man Walkong, photo Scott Suchman
In terms of production, this was one of the operas in which a simple, mostly black stage for once worked very well. The black scrim was lifted often enough to break the monotony and create a sense of movement. I usually don't pay much attention to lighting, but this time I thought it played a significant role in creating the right mood at the right time, whether it was camaraderie, anger, children's lightheartedness or dark depths of a tortured soul. Francesca Zambello, riding the wave of her recent success with Wagner's Ring, proved once again that she is an operatic force to be reckoned with.

Heggie's music is unapologetically beautiful throughout this opera, something that the audience loves and music critics condemn. 
It is the only modern opera I know in which the recitatives sound as good as the "arias" and blend seamlessly together. Dead Man Walking is unmistakingly American in the theme, language, and music expression. At times it sounds more like a musical than opera. But other than that, it was a classical opera in almost every sense. 

The singing and acting on Saturday were excellent throughout. In terms of voices, I would wish a stronger mezzo for the role of Sister Helen than the otherwise brilliant Kate Lindsey. Also, I am not sure if it was a good idea to cast Susan Graham next to her in a minor role. Graham reminded those familiar with the San Francisco recording of her outstanding interpretation of Sister Helen, and she overpowered Lindsey when they appeared together. Lindsey's Sister Helen was a gentle nun, different from the real life person the character was based on.  But such people can wield a power of their own quiet kind and so Lindsey's interpretation worked well, especially juxtaposed with Joseph's belligerence.

Dead Man Walking is one of the most frequently performed American operas at home and abroad, for a good reason. It is one of those works that makes you want to see it again in the same or a different production. Unlike Ciudad de las Mentiras, for example. It's an opera that you can just listen to without seeing it on stage, like La Forza del Destino or Porgy and Bess. If it does not break any new grounds, perhaps it proves that there is no need to keep fixing something that ain't broke. It's a pity WNO offered only four performances of what is arguably its most impressive production of the season, but I feel lucky that I caught the last one.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Sex in the U.S.A.

This Washington Post headline caught my attention last week: Americans, including married people, are having sex less than they used to. It took my mind back to the 1990's when a book titled Sex in America, the first national survey of sexual practices and preferences in this country, captured the nation's attention. I was a young journalist working for a conservative organization that had never mentioned the word sex, but I persuaded my editor to allow me to produce a radio report on the book because "it was scientific work, the most comprehensive study of sexuality in America since Kinsey, and definitely not some titillating fiction." 

The radio report turned a relatively obscure new writer into someone who was regularly stopped in the couloirs to expand on the topic.  The rest is history, as they say.

My first encounter with the subject of sex in the U.S.A. was Gay Talese's 1981 bestseller Thy Neighbors Wife, which I read in translation back in Europe. It was an exploration of sexuality in America of the author's time, including the discussion of the so-called "free love," based on his lengthy visit to California's Sandstone Retreat, for swinging couples. Today, I had to google the title of Talese's book. All I remembered was that he had been so enraged by a Croatian journalist (a woman who interviewed him during the presentation of his book in Zagreb in the 1980's)  that he stomped out of the interview in a huff. But Talese's non-fiction book, following John Updike's novel Couples and reports from Woodstock, gave us in eastern Europe the impression that "free love" and wife swapping were common and widespread in America. Stanley Kubrick's 1999 movie Eyes Wide Shut later reinforced that notion.

Gay Talese

So when I moved to Washington, I was baffled with what seemed like sexless and sterile social atmosphere. I never saw a man looking at a woman with an interest, let alone approaching her with any intention other than business. Flirting was an unknown term. But children were abundant, so I figured Americans, even in Washington, must be doing something that leads to sex and marriage.

In short, the 1995 book Sex in America was of great interest to me. Unfortunately, I lost the article that brought me my 15 minutes of fame at work. But I remember the most important finding from the survey on which the book was based: married couples 
had the most and best sex - more than younger people and swinging singles as one would have expected.  Sex was a benefit of being married, along with some tax cuts, shared cost of living and camaraderie.

The new study released last week reveals a dramatic reversal. It says that American adults are having less sex than they did a quarter century ago, with married couples showing the steepest decline. The overall drop in sexual activity has been recorded in all genders, races, regions, education levels and professions. But the rate of frequency of sex between spouses and between co-habiting partners has dropped the most, significantly reducing what was once considered the advantage of being married.

The data gathered between 1989 and 2014 show that American adults today have sex seven to nine times fewer times per year than in the 1990's. And married couples have less sex than people who have never married. Incidentally, during the same period, the number of people living with a spouse or a partner also declined.

The study does not examine causes for the dive, but it cites possible reasons: increased access to entertainment and social media, a decline in happiness among people over the age of 30, higher incidence of depression, and use of antidepressants associated with sexual dysfunction. It is not clear if people are less happy and therefore have less sex or have less sex and therefore are less happy. However, the authors of the study link sexual frequency to marital satisfaction. So the decline could mean that fewer Americans are happy in their marriages and similar relationships.

An important factor in the decline of sex in the marital context is fatigue. As more and more couples rely on two incomes to survive, both sides are tired after work and their minds are on things other than physical connection. Couples now postpone having children until later, and the combination of their more mature age and child-rearing obligations contribute to the decline in sexual activity. Most working couples leave sex for the weekend. But working parents also use weekends to spend more time with their children, making up for the limited time they have for their kids on work days. 

The availability of home entertainment provides a lot of distraction, the study says. People no longer wonder, "What can we do this evening, or this weekend?" when they have a choice of movies and digital games at their fingertips.

But some sociologist say the real reason may be a growing lack of intimacy among Americans, and the emotional effect it has on couples. Sex is not only about stimulating body parts to feel good, but also about connecting with another human being. The absence of this connection makes many couples today struggle with sexual dysfunction and relationship issues.

Experts on the subject say what you need for a sex life is energy, focus, time and the right mood. If you are fatigued or depressed, if you are not emotionally close to your partner, you may want to go to bed just to sleep.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Eviva España!

A visit to a foreign country leaves different impressions on different people. Some visitors to Spain will best remember its architecture, whether it is Barcelona's Gaudi or Andalusia's Arabic heritage. Others will enthuse about the tapas or the weather. And many will fondly remember a flamenco show or a bull fight. I enjoyed most of the above, but the one thing that truly awed me and stood above all the others was a sign on an otherwise unimpressive building across the road from the famous Prado Museum - El Ministerio de Sanidad, Politica Social e Igualdad.  

When I noticed it, I quickly pulled out my iPhone to check if "igualdad" really means "equality." Over the course of my life I have come across all kinds of ministries and departments, but I do not recall any that has the word "equality" in its name. Ministry of Equality.  Wow! I take that to mean that the government actually pays attention and works on helping all citizens enjoy the same quality of life.  Sure, we have the Equal Employment Opportunity law here and the U.S. Department of Labor has two agencies which deal with EEO monitoring and enforcement, but that's not quite the same. At least not in my eyes. The U.S. government works to prevent discrimination in hiring and promotion at work. It supports equal pay for equal work. It's about money. But Spain's ministry, according to Wikipedia, also is tasked with making suggestions and carrying out "the government policy in social inclusion and cohesion."

This time around, a friend and I visited four very different Spanish cities: Madrid, Toledo, Granada and Seville. It would be difficult to make an accurate assessment of the Spanish quality of life after a two-week visit. But first impressions are not to be completely dismissed. For example, I did not see any beggars in the streets or any signs of homelessness. Instead, we were approached by an occasional flower-seller or an African immigrant hawking cheap goods while we sat in open-air cafés. In Granada, there were also women offering "free" rosemary sprigs and, we were told, insisting to tell your fortune for an exorbitant fee if you accept a sprig.

I compare this to Washington, where I have never entered or exited the Eastern Market metro station, a few blocks east of the Capitol, without being asked to "spare" a dollar or a few coins to help some poor wretch "buy a ticket to get home," "get some food" or just "help."  I have never yet lit a cigarette in the street without being approached by at least one person asking for a cigarette. 

In Spain, we ate and had coffee at a variety of places along the way and noted little or no difference in prices between modest neighborhood cafés and fancy tourist venues.  On a Sunday in Granada, I learned that it is impossible to exchange or use a 500-euro banknote. The money exchange kiosk will only exchange one currency for another, but not a big bill for smaller denominations, and shops do not accept large bills either.  I was told that not even a bank would give you change for 500 euros unless you have an account in it. Desperate to get some money to buy coffee and food, I told my friend, "the only thing to do is to find the most expensive hotel in town and have a lavish meal there."  

The dinner including a glass of champagne, cherry, top quality ibérico ham, gourmet tuna and a steak was only $68 euros and so the waiter balked at the 500-euro bill, but after consulting with two managers he was able to accept it and give us the change.  I am glad of the experience because it was an opportunity to see a place where some ordinary Spaniards come to enjoy their Sunday lunch. I cannot see ordinary Americans lunching at the Willard hotel where I was once invited to a brunch that cost more than $100 per person.

Tapas of octopus and cod in Seville

But mostly we enjoyed tapas, comparable to small dishes or starters in the US. They ranged from 2 euros to 4 euros and were most often the size of a main course. The two dishes shown above with two drinks came to no more than $12 altogether, including tax and tips. In my estimate the equivalent meal would amount to more than $40 in D.C. because the dishes would fall under the category of main course. Despite huge tips in Washington, many area waiters complain of not making enough money to live on.

Another thing that makes Spain (and other European countries) attractive is public transportation.  You absolutely never - ever - have to wait for a subway train longer than 3 minutes.  The Madrid Metro is clean, reliable and efficient.  It gets you everywhere - even to the airport.  

Museums offer times when everyone can get in for free. Seniors get huge discounts in theaters, cultural institutions and all other public venues that charge an entrance fee. 

It would take a serious analysis to figure out why a poor southern European country can offer all these benefits to its citizens. We know that Spain is almost bankrupt. But wherever I went in the country - whether it was Teatro Real, a classy bar or a simple local restaurant - I saw middle class people with no one standing out for looking particularly rich or particularly poor. Bernie's campaign cry kept coming to mind: "we are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, and millions of families are struggling day by day just to keep their heads above water."  The income gap in the United States is huge.  "Unbelievably, and grotesquely, the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent," Sanders wrote in an essay titled American Poverty.  

Surely there are wealthy people in Spain - those who own a flat in Madrid and a beach house somewhere on the Mediterranean coast, and perhaps a bank account in Switzerland. But the Royal Palace in Madrid clearly needs renovation. The white paint is peeling off the shutters and the gray facade could use a fresh coat of paint. Maybe the king wants to identify with his people, maybe he is poor himself.  Maybe....

All I know for sure is that we desperately need a Department for Equality here in the United States.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Black History: Do We Know It?

Was it last year that Hollywood was chastised for nominating mostly white actors for awards?  The media also berated Tinseltown was making too few movies about Americans of non-white races.  The U.S. movie industry hastened to prove it is not biassed...at least it would seem so by looking at the selection of the movies currently playing in the theater near you.  You can choose from Fences, I Am Not Your Negro, Moonlight, Loving and Hidden Figures and there are also Australian Lion and British A United Kingdom whose protagonists also are non-white. Movie theaters also may be doing their part to show these movies in honor of Black History Month. It is worth watching how long the trend will last.

I generally avoid Hollywood movies, but the subject of Hidden Figures had enough appeal to attract even a foreign movie junkie like me.  And it was not disappointing. Although formulaic like most Hollywood movies, it featured such charming characters that you could not but enjoy spending two hours in their company, cheering their victories. And perhaps more importantly, the movie sparked an interest in the real and fascinating history behind it.

The history of racism in the United States is much like the history of ethnic hatreds around the world.  In the civilized countries it is regulated by law and therefore less obvious, but it is always there, always present, simmering under the surface, waiting to bubble up.  Still, there have always and everywhere been people who are not racist, as we are reminded by Loving and A United Kingdom.

Filmmaker Kari Barber
Though I enjoyed Hidden Figures, the most fascinating black-themed movie I've seen this month is not one commercially made for entertainment, but a documentary that resulted from years of painstaking research, travel, interviewing and recording.  It is focused on the valiant efforts to save the remaining all-black towns in Oklahoma. I was lucky to see the film, titled Struggle and Hope thanks to my friendship with the filmmaker Kari Barber, an Oklahoma-born journalist, now a professor at the University of Nevada in Reno.

Few people know that Oklahoma once had at least 50 all-black towns and it hoped to become an all-black state. Even an Oklahoma-born journalist like Barber did not learn about it until later in life when she saw a blurb in a playbill for the Oklahoma musical, staged by Washington's Arena Theater.  "That part of history was not taught at schools," she told me. So Barber took interest and researched Oklahoma's black heritage.  She visited the remaining all-black towns and was amazed with what she learned. Only a dozen of those historic black towns remain today, some of them with no more than 25 residents who are struggling to survive.  They are building museums, organizing black rodeos and concerts, and raising funds online to pay their communities' debts and keep the towns on the map. A lot of time and effort without any guarantee of success.  Is it worth it? "I don't ever want to say that I was born and raised somewhere in the town that does not exist any more," said one woman in historic all-black town of Tallahassee in Oklahoma.  So yes, it is worth it if you are fighting to preserve your identity.

The Oklahoma land rush of 1889
Thanks to Barber's dedication, the project Struggle and Hope resulted in a series of web videos and finally a feature-length documentary summarizing the main themes. The film was launched in February in Oklahoma and will make a tour of independent film festivals in the United States and Europe where, I suspect, it will get more attention than here.  Europeans, who fell in love with the Wild West by watching Hollywood westerns and reading Zane Grey's books, will be interested in the real story behind the fiction they were fed during their youth. 

Oklahoma Rancher featured in Struggle and Hope

As the saying goes, history is written by the victors.  Most of the U.S. history books expound on the American War of Independence, the excellence of our "founding fathers", the Constitution, the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement and various steps in the fight to eliminate segregation. Only en passant do they mention that Jefferson, a principal writer of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves and that his grand thoughts on liberty probably did not include them.

In recent years, more curious scholars have come up with less than shiny details about our great ancestors. Jefferson, it appears had a relationship with a black slave after the death of his wife, and had at least one child with her.  Very likely more, but he never acknowledged any.

One of the best history books that I have read in recent years is Nancy Isenberg's White Trash. Refreshingly, American people, including the poorest, play the main role in this book while the victors, the leaders and the wealthy only have supporting roles.  I'll let you read the book and make your own judgement, but one of the remarks that really opened my eyes had to do with the poor white people's attitude toward African Americans.  Isenberg or someone she quotes in the book noted that the most disadvantaged white people, those at the bottom rung of the social hierarchy, those often called "white trash," could accept their destiny a lot easier if they had someone else to look down on. In the past, they could look down on black slaves, today many choose to look down on non-white people in general.

Oklahoma's Cowboy
Also recently, historians have pointed out that there have been all-black U.S. military battalions whose bravery in various battles has never been adequately recognized, and that there have been wealthy, accomplished and successful black businessmen in fields other than basketball, football and entertainment.  Stories about the role of other racial groups in the U.S. history also have begun emerging. But most textbooks still would have you believe that all the progress in this country has been achieved by the white race. African Americans are portrayed mostly as descendants of slaves whose whole heritage is nothing but fight against racism and discrimination.  

"There's so much that has been left out," said Barber. "There are so many stories that have not been told and, really, when we tell these stories, it makes us a richer country and it makes us appreciate and understand each other better." Barber hopes her film will inspire others to make books and movies that explore parts of the U.S. history that are missing from the textbooks.

Many of the movies shown this month do exactly that.  The question is whether there will be more of them after February ends.  I also wonder if any future remake of the classical Oklahoma musical will feature black cowboys.


Friday, January 6, 2017

Made in .... at home

Winter in Washington is really dull, especially from mid-January till mid-March. This year, the new administration will try to generate some energy into Washington's dreary winter with its inauguration spectacle, but who can get really excited about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Or any of the million-dollar balls? Except for being more glitzy, these crowded "galas" are about as stimulating as rehearsed American weddings. However, at least some goings-on stand out from the ordinary as the winter sets in.

Ford Motor Company created some sizzle this week when it announced it is scrapping the plan to build a new plant in Mexico and is expanding business at home. Although the move is carefully calculated and Ford is doing nothing to hurt its profits (its Mexico production continues as usual in an older Mexico plant ) the management gave some credit to the President-elect Donald Trump, for pressuring companies to keep jobs in the United States. Trump has since targeted more carmakers, but other U.S. companies making their goods in China, Mexico and elsewhere, are weighing the pros and cons of following Ford's suit. Even Apple is said to be looking into how much it would cost to move the production of its cell phones from China to the United States.

Attempts to promote local businesses are not new. In the past decades, the United States has seen a nationwide boom of farmers' markets selling locally grown produce. I found my first decent American tomato in one of those. And then there was American Apparel, formed in 1989, that branded its clothes as made in the U.S.A. But small farmers produce little and don't make significant profits and American Apparel went bankrupt in 2015, in part due to its relatively high labor costs. In my opinion, the bigger reason is that its garments are so unappealing there is no incentive to buy them when you can get more attractive and cheaper stuff at H&M or Zara. Whatever the reason, that company is not a role model to follow. 

Slogan "Made in the USA" could not save American Apparel
Regardless, the latest reports say Amazon now wants to buy the failing U.S. clothier. The question is why. The online retailer already is expected to surpass Macy's as the top U.S. garment seller in 2017. One reason may be to gain Trump's support (Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos has locked horns with Trump in the past) and another could be to appeal to the currently fashionable patriotic sentiment. American Apparel employs about 4,000 people and boasts of producing sweatshop free garments.  Buying an American Apparel T-shirt is akin to choosing a steak that is labeled as coming from a humanely raised cow.

But perhaps more importantly, Amazon is expanding from e-commerce into brick-and-mortar stores, with food and other goods, even books. (Ironically, the company that forced bookstores around the country to close is now opening its own). Most people like to try clothes before buying them and American Apparel already has retail stores throughout the country. If Amazon can rebuild the brand's image, it may be worth taking on its losses.

The United States is not alone in seeking ways to produce things close to home, although the trend is far from widespread. I was surprised recently by an article about Italian designer Brunello Cucinelli whose garments I remembered for their luxurious fabrics, sleek design and unaffordable prices. And they were unaffordable even in now-defunct discount stores such as Loehmann's and Filene's Basement, where I became familiar with the brand. 

Cucinelli vest on sale for $1,500, 40% off the original price
The article describes Italy's "king of cashmere" as someone who strives for quality not just in his products, but in the working lives of his employees. His business empire is based in the medieval village of Solomeo in the idyllic hills of central Italy. Cucinelli imports cashmere from China and Mongolia, but all his manufacturing is done in Italy. His factories are no sweatshops either. They are fitted with floor-to-ceiling windows so workers can enjoy the view.

“I don’t think it’s time wasted watching a bird in the sky when you are in the middle of sewing a button. On the contrary, nothing could be more beautiful,” he said in an interview. His workers get a 90-minute lunch break, go home at 5:30 PM and are not expected to check their office mail once they get home.

“Today in the world, we work too much. We are too connected and I don’t think that’s fair. I find that if I make you work too much, it’s like I’m stealing part of your soul,” said Cucinelli. Hmmm... Is something like that possible in the United States?  I am not sure any of my bosses care for the health of my soul.

Cucinelli Factory, Solomeo, Italy
Like American Apparel's employees, Cucinelli's are paid more than the industry's norm. But his business is thriving.  He has spent much of his profits in his village, helping renovate a 13th century castle and build a theatre, a library and an art school. According to the report, his brand has quadrupled in size in the past decade and his investors are not complaining either.

Cucinelli said 
it is important to return dignity to workers in western countries who feel they have been forgotten. The rise of Donald Trump and Brexit testify to the widespread dissatisfaction among Western workforces. But just giving them a job is not enough. 

"We cannot have companies that earn incredible amounts and our workers earning tiny sums to work 12 hours a day staring at a wall under an electric lamp. We have to put dignity back at the heart of our economic activity."

One of the main reasons for promoting local businesses is to improve the quality of life of local populations. As Cucinelli demonstrates, if you live where you work, you have a vested interest in making improvements in your community.  The luxury clothes designer is able to secure better living for his staff and contribute to his hometown by selling his high quality garments at extremely high prices. Not everyone can do that, but much can be learned from Cucinelli.

Trump won his way to the White House in large part by promising to keep manufacturing jobs in the United States. Companies such as Ford in Michigan and Carrier in Indiana have made small moves in that direction to see how it goes.
But small moves are better than none. Michael Gilligan, a Ford employee in Dearborn said, "at least we get 500 to 700 jobs extra and we need that in our state, terribly."

By acquiring American Apparel, Amazon could save about 4,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs. 
But Amazon is a multinational company, and notoriously a harsh place to work.  Its employees have complained of being exploited - too often to be ignored.  If it does acquire American Apparel, Amazon would do well to invest in a fashion designer who can do better than H&M or Zara so its financial losses are not recuperated by exploiting the workforce.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

L'amour de loin - et de près

If you like Pelleas et Melisande and Le roi Arthus, you will like L'Amour de loin, a turn-of-the century opera by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, which finally premiered at the Metropolitan Opera this season.  First seen at the Salzburg Festival in 2000 and two years later in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the story of a medieval troubadour in love with a woman he has never seen can easily be transported in today's era of virtual reality.

Robert Lepage's production, featuring ribbons with LED lights stretched across the stage to create a stylized version of the sea surface, was perfectly suited to contemporary music expression and overall feel of the work. Alas, they dressed Eric Owens in some sort of "princely" garb and stuck a lute in his hands to make him look more like a Latin American dictator than either a medieval prince or a modern day lover.

The production has been described as mesmerizing and dazzling, but I must admit that it was a little déjà vu for me. I also suspect that I would have enjoyed the radio broadcast more than I did the video simulcast. Except for Owens that is. If there ever was a person miscast for an operatic role both in looks and in sound, it was Owens in the role of Jaufré Rudel, a 12-th century troubadour from France.

We all remember the big hoopla about Deborah Voigt losing her signature role in a London production of Ariadne auf Naxos because of her size. The producers said they had envisioned an Ariadne in a mini skirt and our Debbie did not fit the image. The U.S. media screamed foul, but Voigt seemed to understand. Movie and theater directors audition hundreds of actors before choosing the one they deem best suited for the role. Why should opera be different? If we only needed the right voice, we could just have concert performances and do away with acting and sets.

Countess Clémence of Tripoli, the pilgrim and Prince Jaufré Rudel are the only characters in L'amour de loin, but there is also an excellent chorus à la grecque
With Owens, it's not just the size that's wrong- it's the whole persona. He was a powerful Alberich (Der Ring des Nibleungen) convincing, though not perfect Stephen Kumalo (Lost in the Stars) and an OK Orestes (Elektra). But a medieval prince he ain't, either to the eye or to the ear. On Saturday, Owens sounded more wobbly than I had ever heard him and his French was simply atrocious. There, I said it. Hence, I think he would have ruined the radio broadcast for me as well as the video simulcast. With the abundance of French baritones in today's operatic world, and Canadian Phillip Addis who sang the role recently, one wonders who decided on Owens for this production. 

Susanna Phillips, on the other hand, was well chosen and convincing as the countess d'Outremer.  Her  scaly dress made her look like a siren most of the time. Maybe it was intentional.

Saariaho’s opera has been described as “transfixing," "lushly beautiful," "groundbreaking," "haunting" and "elegiac," among other things. The libretto by Lebanese-born Amin Maalouf is simple: Prince Jaufré, a troubadour (based on a 12-th century character) in Aquitaine is tired of earthly pleasures and seeks something more transcendental. He finds it in his own imagination of a beautiful noble woman, Countess Clémence of Tripoli, described to him by a pilgrim. Clémence spent her infancy in Toulouse, and yearns to return there. From their respective shores, Jaufré and Clémence yearn for idealized images of something that may be different in reality.

Half-way across the sea on the way to meet his beloved, Jaufré gets cold feet and tells the pilgrim, "The sun shines beautifully from afar, but it burns you if you get close." The premise is reminiscent of a popular Serbian poem Strepnja by Desanka Maksimović in which she says that "joy is beautiful only while you wait for it" and that "everything shines like a star only from a distance."  She implores her lover not to come closer so she would not be disappointed. In this respect, Maalouf's story is almost identical to the Serbian poem. 

But while Maksimović wisely stops there, L'Amour de loin becomes cloyingly sentimental in its search for a conclusion and eventually veers off into religion. Jaufré becomes deathly ill during the sea voyage and dies upon meeting his dream woman. Dies happy - we are made to believe. She is brokenhearted, but says she will find consolation in loving from afar because after all, we love God from afar. Do we need that message? For me the story would have been more convincing and the opera more meaningful if the lovers had never met and continued to yearn for each other sight unseen. Or if they did meet only to realize they were idolizing a non-existing person. 

L'Amour the loin with its 21st century music and the Met's hi-tech production would be better matched with a contemporary story in which two people fall for each other (as many do these days) through the Internet. In some cases they later meet in person and really get to love each other. In others, one side has criminal intentions and the story ends tragically. But most people who "fall in love" online are simply disappointed when they meet the other party in person, and they politely tell each other good-bye. Eric Owens would fit perfectly in one such story.

Very often, real life stories are much more inspiring than the fictional ones.

Take for example American astronaut John Glenn, who died on Thursday, and his wife Annie. They knew each other since they were children. When they married (and naturally before that) she stuttered so badly that she would not go shopping except in places where she could pick up what she needed from the shelves.  Glenn was first a war hero, then after his 1962 flight into orbit became a world celebrity, and later a senator. He even ran for president in 1984. So for most of their married life he was a man of fame and power and she was low-profile. But he was a devoted husband and, as far as we know, the glory did not tempt him to stray from his wife.  

Annie underwent a successful treatment for her affliction when she was over 50 years of age. Until she was ready to step into the limelight, Glenn was fiercely protective of her.  The Washington Post on Friday quoted him as telling Annie after his return from the space, “Look, if you don’t want the vice president or the TV networks or anybody else to come into the house, then that’s it as far as I’m concerned.” 

“They are not coming in and I will back you up all the way and you tell them that! I don’t want (Lyndon) Johnson or any of the rest of them to put so much as one toe inside our house,” he said in a phone call upon landing.

They were married for 73 years. What a great love story! Forget L'Amour de loin.

A clip from the Met's production:

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Tristan und Isolde by Mariusz Treliński

Mariusz Treliński was movie-star good looking when I met him in the Kennedy Center foyer ahead of his first U.S. appearance in 2001. The acclaimed Polish film director had attracted the attention of then-Washington Opera director Placido Domingo with his innovative production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly in Poland and Domingo invited him to stage it in the U.S. That event changed Treliński's life forever. Since then he has directed operas in several major U.S. cities, and many others in various countries. His operatic journey has culminated with the production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera's new season.

Treliński's Butterfly was the first truly exciting opera production I had seen in Washington and, I thought, one with uniquely central European uncluttered esthetic. Although it is my least favorite opera, that one production of it remains memorable thanks to Treliński's genius.

In our interview that October of 2001, he told me (surprise, surprise) that the role of the opera director today is to make an old art form attractive to contemporary audiences, while retaining the original spirit of the work. He achieved that by making simple effects highly symbolic. Instead of recreating the early 20th century Nagasaki, he used lights to create images of shimmering water, boats silhouetted against the setting sun, the flow of Butterfly's blood. There were very few props. The stage was almost always bare, but never less than striking.

In a hitherto uncustomary prologue to the opening scene, three Polish mimes tiptoed over the dark and silent stage making grand theatrical movements at a slow pace as if performing some macabre dance. One of them slashed the air with a long knife. It was clear from their ominous expressions there will be no happy ending to the story.

The mimes reappeared throughout the opera in different roles - as servants, thieves, ghosts or spirits depicting Butterfly's moods - their movements and expressions reminiscent of the traditional Japanese kabuki theater. Similarly, Goro moved around the stage in bows and squats like an oversized sneaky cat with gestures and facial expressions that conveyed his shrewd and manipulative character better than words.

In the last highly symbolic scene the sky turned bright orange-red due to the eclipse of the sun. For Butterfly, the sun was gone with Pinkerton, said Treliński. "Butterfly sacrificed everything for the man she loved because she saw him as God. And that was her sin," he said. "Her excessive love for a man violated the first of the Ten Commandments."

The success of that production was such that Treli
ński got invited to return to Washington with his next creative endeavor, Andrea Chenier - also a very symbolic rendition, but in my view less focused and less memorable than his Butterfly. From the first act showing the nobility wrapped up in their cocoons (which I liked), the scene changed to something like an American country fair (which I didn't like), and the rest I forgot.

Treliński reappeared in the U.S. a few years later with productions of La Bohème and Don Giovanni that were not well received, and then I heard nothing of him, until he reappeared in New York in last season's spell-binding Met productions of Iolanta and Bluebird's Castle. The double bill performance made it crystal clear that during a decade and a half since his Butterfly in Washington, the Polish director had moved on. In his hands and Anna Netrebko's interpretation, the usually kitschy and pathetic princess Iolanta became a passionate young girl striving for independence and awareness. But it was in Bluebird's Castle, that Trelinski and his designer Boris Kudlička really outdid themselves. The double bill production was described as film noir, and seeing it
in a movie theater as I did, was probably more impressive than seeing the live performance on account of the copious use of cinematic effects. Treliński believes that fairy tales always contain deeper levels and he is a master of unveiling them. He said he wanted the fairy-tale women to become real - the characters we can identify with. Both pieces were spectacularly successful, although for me Bluebird remains especially unique and unforgettable. It created a sense for the audience of being in a nightmare together with the performers. 

No wonder, the Met snatched the talented Pole again for this season and this time with an offer he could not refuse. What can be more flattering for an opera director than the invitation to present his vision of Tristan und Isolde and no less than at one of the world's topmost opera houses.

Photo: Ken Howard for the MetropolitanOpera
This time around the reviews were not unanimously complimentary. Some critics thought the modern warship setting and various video projections were unnecessary and distracting. One reviewer particularly hated references to Tristan's early loss of parents. None of this bothered me. I found Trelinski's contemporary setting as acceptable as any, and in an opera without too much action, an occasional appearance of Tristan's father's ghost, or some image from his childhood did not take away anything from the beauty of the music or from the central theme. The military costumes were not a novelty either. In fact, I was surprised to find this production of Wagner's work a lot less revolutionary than expected from such an innovator as Trelinski.

Still, his interpretation did reveal at least one new layer of Tristan for me. While for years I watched the opera as a great love story, this Saturday at a movie theater I saw it for the first time as an opera about death. Partly, it must have been due to the dark setting which highlighted all the talk about hating daylight and embracing night, and seeking relief in the blackness of the netherworld. But I am sure the shift in my perception was a great deal due to the protagonists who in this performance were anything but lovers. I have never been Nina Stemme's fan and no amount of imagination or goodwill on my part could turn Stuart Skelton into Tristan. To make matters worse, there was zero chemistry between the two. The only interpreters worth sitting through four hours of this opera were Ekaterina Gubanova, a convincing and lovable Brangäne - the best I've ever seen - and René Pape as dignified King Marke. Gubanova also never looked better. Neil Cooper's Melot was noteworthy, although less so.

Tristan und Isolde may be about death, but it is still primarily about star-crossed lovers, and definitely not about their companions and relatives, and so despite Trelinski's efforts and overall decent singing, this production fell flat.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Georgia O'Keeffe in London

A Facebook photo by a friend from London alerted me to a major Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit in London's Tate Gallery.  Advertisements call it "a unique opportunity to discover one of the greatest American female artists, since there are currently no works by O’Keeffe in public collections in the UK." My friend, an acclaimed contemporary painter, said the photographs of O'Keeffe made by her husband Alfred Stieglitz were more interesting to him than her paintings. I was not surprised.  When I first learned about O'Keeffe, I though her gigantic paintings of flowers were like blown-up photographs suitable for posters in kitschy home decor.  On a trip to the Southwest in the 1990s, I was primarily interested in visiting Apache and Navajo reservations. O'Keeffe's home, her ranch and her museum in New Mexico, were items to see en passant. 

I was particularly intrigued by Abiquiu, an ancient Indian pueblo settled in the 18th century by the Spaniards. The original settlement, named after its church Santa Rosa de Lima de Abiquiu, was created as a buffer zone between the Spaniards under the Mexican government and hostile Indian tribes further north. The present day Abiquiu, named Santo Tomas Apostel de Abiquiu, was built 5 kilometers away on the site of the ancient Tewa pueblo to house captive and orphaned Indians from various Nomadic tribes. They were Christianized and taught Spanish, even intermarried with Spaniards, and soon forgot their origins if they had ever known them. After a wild Indian raid, the Santa Rosa settlement was deserted and the remaining residents joined their neighbors at Santo Tomas. Since then, Abiquiu has been populated by the descendants of those those Indians and Spaniards, a uniquely New Mexican ethnic strain, called Genizaros (derived from the word janissaries, the name for elite infantry units in the medieval Ottoman army). When Georgia O'Keeffe moved there in the 1940s she was the only out-of-state resident in the small adobe village.

The historic Abiquiu took some time and effort to find and when I arrived at its gates after a bumpy ride on a winding dirt road, I felt like an intruder.  There really was an entrance gate and not widely open either. The sign above the iron bars said something like "You are entering the historic Abiquiu, please be quiet" ( maybe these were not the exact words, but I felt like the message was "turn around and go back").  I was sure the gate was being locked at night. There were no directions to Georgia O'Keeffe's house and no tourists wondering around. Abiquiu was like a ghost city. I entered the first open door I saw off the main plaza, which took me into the Galería de Don Cacahuate.  At my "anybody there" shout the owner came up from the back - a local wood carver Leopold Garcia, a bearded guy with a raspy voice, looking to be in his early 40s.  As luck would have it, he was a real font of information about Abiquiu and its most famous resident. 

"My father used to be the chauffeur to Georgia O'Keeffe. My grandfather did all the construction work for Georgia O'Keeffe. I grew up around Georgia O'Keeffe. She visited our house a lot," Garcia told me.  I could believe that. Garcia's gallery and his home were right across the street from O'Keffee's home, which turned out to be closed when I was there. 

So what was she like? "A lot of people in the village liked her," said Garcia. "A lot of people didn't, because she was an outsider and she kept to herself like I do." Hmm... does this have anything to do with the unusual welcome sign at the village gate? Garcia became a little defensive.  "How would you feel if strange people came to your house and peered inside through your windows?"  OK, OK, I understand. The historic Abiquiu village is a small community of people who have lived there for generations like a family, on privately owned land. Their isolation on a hilltop off Highway 84 was somewhat disturbed by the arrival of the East Coast celebrity. According to some biographers, O'Keeffe never learned Spanish and because of her black robes, a walking stick and wild animal skulls she collected and painted, many called her "la bruja", the witch. But the Genizaros of Abiquiu have traditionally accepted and sheltered newcomers, especially those in need, like other displaced Americans (they just don't like tourists), and so they lived in peace with the late artist.

St Tomas Aposte Church in Abiquiu, NM
Despite her fame, it is not O'Keefe that comes to mind when I remember Abiquiu.  It is instead its oldest resident, the mythical Don Cacahuate, or Mr. Peanut, of the woodcarver's gallery name. According to New Mexican folk history, Don Cacahuate was born in Santa Rosa de Lima de Abiquiu on the banks of the Chama River and was among those who moved to the Indian pueblo of Santo Tomas Apostel de Abiquiu in the mid-17-hundreds. According to legend, he still lives there today. (Maybe that's why the villagers don't want you to peer through their windows).

Don Cacahuate is a typical Abiquiu Genizaro, but also a respected and influential leader in village affairs. His wife, Dona Lagrima a Causa de Cebola, Mrs. Teadrop Caused by Onion, is a model of domestic industry in the Hispano-Indian mold of northern New Mexico. The Cacahuates live and grow with their village and their times. So when New Mexico came under Anglo-American rule in 1846, the exemplary don showed no resistance to the newcomers because the village badly needed protection from nomadic raiders. Language was the only major cause of misunderstanding between the Spanish-speaking residents and the English-speaking rulers. In order to foster cooperation with the curious strangers and serve as a good role model to villagers, Don Cacahuate decided to give his newly born son an English name. He picked the one he most often heard the Anglo-Americans call each other - Sonofabitch.

Very little is known, however, as to how Don Cacahuate reacted when the famous American painter bought a home in Abiquiu. Garcia said she was good with local children even though she did not have any of her own. She also helped pay for some improvements in the village. So it is likely that she was in good graces with a community elder such as Don Cacahuate.

It is curious, that a folk tale character would warm me up to O'Keeffe and make me pay attention to her work. I have found since then that there is more to it than the oversized flowers. But it is also clear that O'Keeffe is a quintessentially American artist, one whose work does not immediately impress a European art connoisseur. It does not surprise me that there are "no works by O’Keeffe in public collections in the UK." Ironically, the Tate calls her one of the great American "female painters", a label she would surely hate. O'Keeffe wanted nothing to do with the feminist movement and always stressed that she was a painter - not a female painter. As time goes by, her star refuses to dim and her name is getting big enough to attract crowds in galleries worldwide. No doubt many institutions and art collectors  (or should I say art investors?) would like to buy a piece of her art. It is questionable though whether American owners would sell any. The Georgia O'Keefe's Museum in Santa Fe has attracted 3 million visitors since it opened in 1997, and a good chunk of northern New Mexico, where she also had a ranch, is now called Georgia O'Keeffe Country. People still travel to the southwestern U.S. for its spectacular vistas and its unique Indian pueblos, but many are attracted by just one famous name, and I am afraid it's not Don Cacahuate, much that I would like it to be.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Age of Vulgarity

A friend from Zagreb forwarded me a blog written by a famous Croatian author and blogger, known for her astute, even if somewhat one-sided social commentaries, but more famous in and out of Croatia for her extremely vulgar language and primitive style. She is popular among the ordinary as well as educated people, who praise her expression as honest, straightforward and accessible. Yet, my friend sent this writer's latest blog as an example of how low the society has sunk when such crude scribbling attracts the widest following, while decent magazines and newspapers fold up one after another.

When we were growing up, one of the must-have books in every middle-class Croatian family was the one widely known as Bonton, regardless of what its real title was. From that book we learned how to behave at dinner table or in the office, how to dress for casual or formal occasions and in general how to be polite. Proper manners were an expression of respect for people around us. The bonton (originating from the French le bon ton) instructed that under no circumstances can you yawn in public, use rude language in a conversation, boast about your success and possessions, or insult other people. It advised that you should not shout to another person across the table or across the street, or laugh in a way that makes other people wince. Arriving to a theater dressed in casual clothes was unthinkable. In other words, bonton required a degree of control over your speech and behavior, and if you slipped, you were embarrassed and apologetic. Even more finesse was required in written expression.

Slowly and imperceptibly the bonton disappeared from our lives and if anyone still has the book, it's a rare antiquity. It is hard to tell when exactly the "modern" Croatian literature began introducing some of the street language into writing. At first the crudity was sparsely used for the sake of "authenticity". But writers soon began competing in their striving for "authenticity" and the trend has ballooned to such proportions that today no piece of fiction can earn serious regard unless it contains descriptions of bodily functions in the most disgusting terms and imagery that makes you vomit unless you have a very tough stomach. Since literature is supposed to reflect real life, readers have embraced it as normal, realistic and colorful. If they haven't, they would not admit it at gunpoint for fear of being labeled as prudish, backward or (godforbid) uncultured. An egregious example of such literature in Croatia is Miljenko Jergović's award-winning novel Dvori od oraha (The Walnut House), which opens up with a scene in which a sick old woman screeches in a foul language, wallows in her own excrement and causes mayhem in her home - a description of which needs to be read in the original for the full impact. Jergović has been enthroned as Croatia's top contemporary novelist, according to some critics destined for the Nobel Prize in literature. His rival Ivan Aralica responded with a novel eloquently titled Fukara (a vulgar term for low-class, semi-criminal population segment), with much less success. I haven't read the book, but can only assume that he was not able to beat Jergović in vulgarity.

Don't get me wrong; I am not criticizing real-life imagery in literature, or the use of explicit language. I am balking at the application of the ugliest, derogatory terms, used only for their shock value.  Like cayenne pepper, vulgarity can be spicy in small doses. Too much of it kills the flavor. In daily communication dirty words and terms intended to cause disgust are used rarely and most often anonymously (like in reader comments to political articles). Peppering fiction liberally with filthy  language implies that such discourse is widespread and common, which is completely untrue in most societies.

The spread of vulgarity is not a Croatian phenomenon, I hasten to assure my friend in Zagreb, who is an arbiter of elegance and good taste. Just look at our presidential candidates, and the public response to them! The naked "statues" of Donald Trump that recently showed up in several U.S. cities are the epitome of poor taste. They were meant to humiliate Trump, but they really humiliate those who came up with the idea, those who gleefully leered at the ugliness, and those who spread the images all over the social media. Trump does not need to be humiliated more than he has already humiliated himself, multiple times, before the statues were out, by calling his rival "crooked" Hillary, liar and co-founder of a terrorist group. What man uses such foul words to degrade a woman? He could have conveyed the same thoughts in a civilized idiom. Men still have too much power over women to be permitted to dispense with manners when dealing with them. But knowing what language would have the most impact on voters he seeks to attract, Trump opted to act low-class.

The kind of communication that was once reserved for gang members, pimps and riff raff is now mainstream and acceptable. It's interesting that in the country where certain words are completely banned lest they should offend someone; in the country that's polemicizing about the correctness of a football team's name, it is perfectly OK to sling mud at political opponents and other enemies, while decent manners are expendable.

I work in a place where people yawn with their mouth wide open and so loudly that you can hear them from one end of the office to the other (about the width of a street block), they shout to one another from several cubicles apart over the heads of co-workers who are trying to focus on their task, and they can pierce your ears at any given moment with screeching or howling laughter. The dress code is so unconventional that the clothes are often just one step away from the pajamas.

None of this is considered to be rude. Rudeness is if you dare to point out that such behavior bothers you. Some time ago, I took the Metro home from a theater performance. While I was reading the playbill and contemplating various interpretations I had just seen, a group of teenage girls entered the train and dispersed around to the remaining free seats. They yelled to one another across the carriage and over the passengers' heads and (naturally) no one complained. Neither did I until one girl sitting behind me shouted right into my ear. I turned around and asked quietly: "Are you hard of hearing?" There were several seconds of "dead air" - deafening silence - while the shocked girl wondered if she heard me right. The others, noting her distress from the distance shouted: "What sheee said?" When the outraged girl explained, a pandemonium ensued that would be hard to describe. The girls, who happened to be black, took my remark to be an insult to their race. Their anger knew no bounds. Furious screams - "We ain't slaves no more" and "I hate white people" - remain indelible in my memory.  The upheaval did not stop until the screamers had to exit. Sorry girls, but it was your noise that bothered me, not the color of your skin.

The decline of decorum and absence of shame in public domain today know no bounds. I am still trying to discern why a group of Olympic medalists would want to vandalize toilets in a hosting country. And why a judo player would refuse to shake hands with his opponent. And why a married politician, caught texting pictures of his genitals to various women, would want to run for office again.

Vulgarity was understandably attractive when it was limited to certain circles and represented "forbidden fruit" to mainstream society.  In small doses it added zest to art, literature and casual conversation. But now that it has reached a point where it threatens to occupy the Oval Office, what's forbidden about it? I am keeping my fingers crossed that the day is near when elegance in word and manner becomes the new tantalizing apple that everyone wants to pluck.