Monday, September 29, 2008

Die Tote Stadt

Die Tote Stadt
Erich Korngold
San Francisco Opera
Fri Sep 26 2008 8 pm
Conductor: Donald Runnicles

Paul: Torsten Kerl
Marie/Marietta: Emily Magee
Fritz, Frank: Lucas Meachem
Brigitta: Katharine Tier
Juliette: Ji Young Yang
Lucienne: Daniela Mack
Victorin: Alek Shrader
Count Albert: Andrew Bidlack
Gaston: Bryan Ketron
Paul's Double: Ben Bongers

Original Director: Willy Decker
Revival Director: Meisje Hummel
Production Designer: Wolfgang Gussmann
Lighting Designer: Wolfgang Göbbel

Ever since a friend turned me on to this bizarre & beautiful opera a few years ago, I've been looking forward to seeing an actual production. Friday night's performance did not disappoint. It was excellent, & it makes me wonder more than ever why this work is not part of the standard repertoire.

The 1st thing to notice is the huge orchestra: I spotted 5 horns, 4 trumpets, 2 harps, 4 percussionists & even a piano. The next thing to notice is the great orchestral playing. It's an extremely colorful score, & Runnicles paid attention to orchestral details as well as the larger musical structures. There were excellent brass & woodwind solos. The flute soloist was a stand-out.

Emily Magee gave a tremendous singing & acting performance. She's a strong woman with a Wagnerian voice. She completely dominated her scenes with Paul, her voice riding over all the activity in the orchestra. I thought that she was going to kill Paul in the last act, instead of the other way around.

Torsten Kerl demonstrated terrific stamina. He is on stage the whole time, often singing extreme vocal lines, but he sounded equally strong from beginning to end. He handled soft falsetto passages very ably as well. He projected a character who is strangely passive & downright weird.

Lucas Meachen did a wonderful job with his wistful Act II aria. He makes a big, lovely sound. He's an athletic-looking guy, & the production gives him a lot of physical stunts to perform in Act II, such as riding on the roof of a moving house.

The staging really runs away with the dream aspect of the story. The action begins in a bare room, completely enclosed on all sides. Once Paul's hallucinations begin, the floor tilts, the walls fade away, the ceiling dangles at a dangerous angle. A pageant of nightmares follows. Sometimes there are 2 Pauls. Brigitta is carried to the convent on a crucifix, Fritz makes a maniacal cameo in Act III as the Pope, presenting Paul with Marie's hair as a holy relic. The tightly choreographed troupe of actors in Act II was effectively sinister.

I felt that the set & the staging made the singers seem far away. Much of the action happens upstage, & this makes for poor sight lines & poor balance between the singers & the orchestra. I was a little mad when Fritz began his famous Act II aria so far upstage.

More egregiously, Acts I & II have been combined, to shorten the over-all evening to about 2 and a half hours. This means we lose important & climactic orchestral music from the end of Act I & the prelude of Act II. I can't agree with this sacrifice of the artistic integrity of the work just so we can have a shorter evening.

Still, there were many times when I was transported to another world, such as toward the end of Marietta's visit in Act I, when Paul nearly kisses her while the orchestra makes an eerie, pitchless rumbling. Moments like this are what I come to the opera for.

Unfortunately, audiences must be staying away from this one anyway. I had a whole row to myself at the extreme side of the grand tier. There were plenty of empty seats in the dress circle as well.

P.S. I had the special treat of meeting Opera Tattler during intermission. I can attest that she has fine operatic tastes & parties at the Opera House in style.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Expo for Independent Arts

I went to Dolores Park on Saturday to check out the Expo for Independent Arts. They couldn't have asked for better weather for this outdoor event. It was a beautiful sunny day, so there were a lot of people, both for the expo & for the park. Exhibit tables were in one long continuous line that snaked through the lower area of the park near the basketball courts. There was a stage with live music. I saw part of a juggling act & heard a brass quintet.

This is the kind of thing I want to file under "too many art schools," though I did find some musical events I'd like to check out. I picked up a free sampler CD from the member-supported San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. The CD sounds pretty good, & the concerts are free. The San Francisco Civic Symphony, a community orchestra, needs string players, but their friendly representative couldn't convince me to think about picking up a violin again.

I had fun looking at sculpter William Slavis's miniature bronze men caught in a variety of crude, lewd or pleasant acts. He took the time to explain to me the process of casting them. He needs to get a Web site up for this funny work.

At another table, I got talked up about some less concrete concepts, such as the Official Business Lunch, which asks people to take a full lunch hour & use it for a personal project. SFZero seems to be about using the City as a setting for games that test creativity. It was nice to spend some time outside & pick up a few new ideas.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Alex Ross Receives MacArthur Grant

Alex Ross, the author & super-smart classical music critic of the New Yorker, is receiving a MacArthur grant. I've become a big fan of his, so congratulations, Alex! His enthusiasm & breadth of knowledge have certainly encouraged me to listen to more music. It would be great to see him get involved in some sort of educational project.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Die Tote Stadt Insight Panel

Yesterday I made it back into the City from my outrageously inconvenient work location in Burlingame in time to attend the SF Opera's panel discussion on Die Tote Stadt, which opens tonight. On stage at Herbst Theater were

  • San Francisco Opera's Music Administrator Kip Cranna
  • Revival Director Meisje Hummel
  • Baritone Lucas Meachem who sings Frank & Fritz
  • Conductor Donald Runnicles
The one hour discussion was mostly unqualified admiration for Korngold's music & all aspects of this production. If the panel's job was to raise expectations, they succeeded. Mr. Meachem praised the production for engaging both the emotions & the intellect. Maestro Runnicles continually broadened the dicussion of the work, starting with the sheer technical difficulty of the score, due in part to Korngold's over-scoring of the orchestra. To illustrate the problem, he mimed a fish opening & closing its mouth with no sound coming out. So something to listen for is whether we can even hear the singers over the busy orchestration!

We learned from Runnicles that the opera's librettist, Paul Schott, was actually Erich Korngold's father, Julius, who was a feared, ultra-conservative music critic. He compared the younger Korngold's relationship with his father to that of Mozart's with his father, whom Runnicles further identified with the Commendatore. He then went on to claim boldy that the opera can be read as a commentary on post-World War I Austria, unable to come to terms with its fallen glory.

Korngold was acknowleged as a genius by 2 of the greatest musicians of that pre-war era, Mahler & Richard Strauss, & his musical style is rooted in that era, making him appear more backward-looking than 20th century modern. Ms. Hummel noted that Korngold's career in Europe was interrupted when he "had to leave" in the 1930's. He was then completely out of fashion in Austria until the 1990's. I only just learned about this opera a couple of years ago, turned on to it by a German acquaintance. When I bought a CD & started listening, I couldn't understand how I had never heard of it before. It would have been interesting to ask the panel why this opera isn't more well-known.

Runnicles ended the panel with a wonderful compliment to the orchestra. He has already conducted this production in the venerable locales of Vienna & Salzburg, but he said that in neither case did he get the performance he is getting from the orchestra here. He described himself as impressed & humbled by the commitment of the players to the difficulties & the details of the music. I'm looking forward to being at Friday night's performance.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Devine’s Jug Band

By chance I found myself at a comfy neighborhood cafe on Divisadero & Oak called On the Corner & ended up hearing part of a set by a very amusing ensemble called Devine’s Jug Band. It was an unexpected encounter. There was something very urbane about hearing this music in that setting.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Early Filmmaking in San Francisco

The Celluloid Era: Early Filmmaking in San Francisco
Tuesday, September 9, 7:30 P.M.
Kanbar Hall
Jewish Community Center of San Francisco

This lecture was sponsored by the San Francisco Historical Society. Stephen Salmons of the Silent Film Festival started by talking about film's early history & its historical roots in the Bay Area, including the famous Muybridge photos of Hearst's galopping horse. Salmons even staked the claim that San Francisco, not Berlin or Paris, held the 1st public exhibition of movies. Muybridge projected short clips of animals in motion using his zoopraxiscope in the 1880's. Admission was a whopping 50 cents.

Next David Kiehn from the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum gave a talk about the Essanay Studios set up in Fremont to take advantage of the Niles Canyon setting for making westerns. They built a glass-enclosed studio which was state of the art for the time. The studio churned out hundreds of short movies in the few years it was in operation in Niles. The people of Fremont must be quite proud of their movie-making heritage, as they have weekly programs devoted to silent films.

Salmons came back to the podium & showed more clips of silent movies shot on recognizable locations in San Francisco. We saw Fatty Arbuckle & Mabel Normand viewing the Pan-Pacific Exhibition, Charlie Chaplin driving along the Great Highway, Valentino about to be Shanghaied at Pier 43, & Lon Chaney on the steps of the Old Mint. Salmons included a great throw-away gag from Keaton's The Navigator, shot at the top of Divisadero St. in Pacific Heights, right up the hill from where I live.

However, it looks like the great San Francisco movie of the silent era is mostly lost forever. Greed was Erich von Stroheim's meticulous adaptation of Frank Norris's McTeague. Of the original 9 hours, only 2 hours & 20 minutes survive. Salmons showed a tantalizing clip that was shot in a 2nd story building in Hayes Valley that still exists.

The presenters showed slides & about a dozen QuickTime movie clips from off a Mac laptop. Bruce Loeb accompanied the clips live from an electronic keyboard. As attendees of the Silent Film Festival already know, Salmons is an excellent speaker, with a distinctive voice & a desire to educate & amuse. His co-presenter was clearly extremely knowledgeable but unfortunately not such a successful speaker. This event really had more than enough content for 2 lectures. It started at 7:30pm & didn't end until almost 10pm, without a break & without any audience Q & A.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Moustafa Bayoumi at Stacey's

A nice perk of working in the Financial District is being able to drop in on Stacey's Bookstore events. This afternoon I heard part of Moustafa Bayoumi's presentation about his timely book How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America. In the book he explores how the lives of individual young Arab Americans have been affected by 9-11. About a dozen people showed up for the reading, & judging by the comments & questions, they were an unusually well-informed & thoughtful bunch. The reading prompted really interesting discussions of the importance of this book, of prejudice, of profiling, & of travel in the age of terrorism. A woman drew an apt parallel between the country's attitude towards Japanese during World War II & our attitude towards Arabs now. Bayoumi had good responses even for people who challenged him (Doesn't the title itself reinforce negative prejudices? Aren't you simply preaching to the choir? Isn't prejudice itself simply a constant in American society as we absorb new waves of immigrants?). Bayoumi opined that the single biggest issue for the people he profiles is their unequal treatment by the law. A serious topic, but nice to get a dose of intelligent discourse in the middle of the business week.