Tag Archives: Opera

Fallujah the Opera

Vancouver has staged an opera about Fallujah. Not about the massacre of its people as the US invaded Iraq, where civilian refugees were forbidden to flee from the incoming assault, where entire families were shot from helicopters as they tried to escape across the river, but the human tragedy of what the genocidal US soldiers had to endure. PTSD. That’s apparently what’s commemorable about the war crime of Fallujah. That “Fallujah”.

For people who hate opera

I LOVE LUCY featuring THE MOST HAPPY FELLA
The trouble with introductory collections like “Opera for People Who Hate Opera” is of course that it’s still OPERA. I’m inclined to believe the gateway acquired-taste for American pop music ears is –why not– American Musical Theater. But before I get to the particular show I have in mind THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, for a teaser, get thee to Tevye’s dream of Fiddler On The Roof. Find the original Broadway stage recording (These girls found it: The Dream) where Zero Mostel pretends to be visited by two ghosts, blending three melodies –with dances– to a whirlwind intensity. Discordant, shrill, phenomenal, pure opera.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF: THE DREAM
Really, you cannot but love the energy and drama of that piece. And it meets the lower brow halfway: it’s in English, mostly, it’s sung in the registers to which we are more accustomed today, and the cacophony is corralled at a driving dervish pace, also most contemporary.

A Broadway convention of the golden age of musicals was the Dream Ballet scene. In Fiddler it was an opera and a ballet, but instead of a dream or a character’s hallucination, this was Tevye’s pretense of a nightmare, conjured to convince his wife to assent to let their oldest daughter marry the boy she loved, instead of the old man to whom she was promised.

The Dream features three motifs: Grandma Tzeitel represented by the Mazel Tov refrain, with the rejoinder of Tevye and his wife Golde, overtaken by the crescendo of the butcher’s deceased wife Fruma-Sarah, clearly borrowing the menace of the Wicked Witch of Oz.

That’s it — you can like opera! Don’t think yourself less sophisticated because lyrics in a foreign language bore you, or because sopranos or tenors strain your ears. You probably wouldn’t favor centuries-ago gruel either.

THE MOST HAPPY FELLA
Just as maturing musical taste builds inevitably toward Jazz, I have a theory that Broadway fans eventually seek for melodies a little less pat. After not so long, the tunes you can easily whistle up the aisle begin to sound the same. Fresh ones don’t solve anything. Trust me, the unsung Broadway shows which didn’t recoup their production costs don’t sound any better now. Great as were all the Rogers & Hammerstein hits, you have heard only half their shows and yet you’ve heard them all. Ironically, R&H tried their hand at an opera-like show, called ALLEGRO, I don’t favor it, and neither did anyone else.

What I do know is that I love THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, a comparatively obscure musical which had the misfortune of opening in the shadow of MY FAIR LADY, you remember that one in your sleep. TMHF is the acknowledged masterpiece of Frank Loesser, who had no need to prove himself after composing GUYS AND DOLLS. Great as it is, how many times can you listen to Luck Be a Lady?

Being labeled an opera has meant ruin for Broadway musicals which stray from the basic musical review format. Musical Theater traditionally meant catchy tunes strung together with comedy. Wartime brought OKLAHOMA and CAROUSEL which introduced more complicated drama, but librettos entirely sung, weaving the collected songs together, didn’t catch on until the pop operas of the seventies, commercial formulas like PHANTOM OF THE– that were neither operatic, nor terribly musical either.

Out-and-out American operas such as PORGY AND BESS have always lost money in production. Like the argument I make here, to entice American audiences, you have to pretend opera is not opera. Even liner notes written today about 1956’s THE MOST HAPPY FELLA have to avoid coming down one way or another on whether it’s an opera. Yes much of the dialog is sung, but critics reassure us that parts are spoken too. There are numbers too popular to be highbrow, you know one of them, Standing on the Corner [Watching All the Girls Go By].

A 1957 episode of I LOVE LUCY featured a visit to a Broadway performance, in probably an early example of the entertainment industry giving itself a lift. Lucy and company are shown watching from a box seat, but we hear only the more palatable popular ballads Don’t Cry and the Texas dance number Big “D”.

To settle the opera matter, I look at a couple obvious giveaways. One, the leading character Tony was sung by the opera star Robert Weebe, a colleague of Maria Callas. And two, the matinee show traditional of Broadway, was sung by Weebe’s understudy, because two shows a day is neither traditional nor possible for opera.

There’s also the comfortable coincidence that the plot centers around an Italian immigrant, thus much of the dialog is Italian-accented. And he runs a farm in Napa Valley manned by other Italians, who sing in outright Italian, the lingua franca of opera. So the Happy Fella Broadway disguise was never very earnest.

What marks Happy Fella most distinctly are the depth and height of emotional expression. Plenty of musicals have plumbed despair, but in contrast I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a happier fella than Tony Esposito. Witness tenors trumpet Abbondanza! (Abundance), then Benvenuta! (Welcome), and then Spozalizio! (Wedding), which are actually in English, punctuated with self-translatable Italian. Another high-spirited refrain is about “Coming Home” with the proceeds of the strawberry harvest, titled Fresno Beauties.

And then where honestly have you heard a love song more overwhelmed with feeling than My Heart is So Full of You? It begins with exclamation, answers as duet, then envelopes the inner reflections of two peripheral characters.

There’s also the deliriously contented duet which begins “Lunedi, Martedi” (How Beautiful the Days).

The peerless Soliloquy from Carousel gets a run for its money in Mamma, Mamma [Up in Heav’n, How you lika my sweet girl?], as near an operatic aria as you can get.

And while I’m inventorying the happy overload, I don’t want to leave out the beautiful Somebody, Somewhere and Warm all over. The charmer Happy to Make Your Acquaintance is also a standard Broadway showstopper with reprise.

While I’m digressing, I’d like to credit the Big “D” number, where two Texans supposedly recognize each other by their drawl, while neither in actuality has a drawl. The drawl is sung, the notes slurred to create a most beguiling familiarity. It’s a duet to prick your ears at just the phrasing, my own introduction to the incomparable Susan Johnson.

If I’ve touched on any clarity here, it’s what you already know: The amplified modulation of opera is not about librettos all sung, or voices in full shriek. Singing out expresses emotional intensity, and in Happy Fella you’ll never meet happier.

Coppelia and the Viennese Hesitation

If you are hardwired with a cultural affliction like mine, if you find yourself with a compulsive affinity for the waltz, I’ll wager you will also be a sucker for what’s called the Viennese Hesitation. It was just such a hook that led me to a Slav melody that immersed me into a ballet called Coppélia, two days ago, and I still haven’t surfaced.
 
Any fan of ballet, or parent whose child has studied dance, will know about this beguiling comic classic. To the rest of us unwashed, Coppélia or The Girl with Enamel Eyes, draws a blank, likewise even of its composer, Leo Delibes. Most of us outside the world of dance think ballet is all nutcrackers and swans, or the usual literary themes transposed to choreography. What are ballets but silent films to opera’s talkies? In today’s terms, ballet scores were the first soundtracks, and if you find new film scores overwrought, you might be delighted to alight on Delibes and his clever heroine, yes, Swanilda.

The title character Coppélia is actually a doll, the creation of aging Dr. Coppelius in his efforts to fashion his idealized bride. Seated in a window above the square, the mechanical beauty entrances the village boys, in particular Swanilda’s suitor Franz, so it falls to the assertive girl to break the spell. Hilarity ensues. Or, beyond the traditional lighthearted reading…

You may not recognize the name Delibes, but you know his Mazurka. And I’ll bet you can hum his Pizzicato (a divertissement from Silvia) in its entirety. Tchaikovsky said if he’d fully appreciated Delibes’ mastery of composing for the ballet, he would not have dared write Swan Lake.

If you’d like to share my Coppélia experience, I’d love to curate it for you. Start with the Royal Ballet production available on Youtube, mostly because the entire performance is there, and its intertitles explain the plot. There are more lauded productions, but Youtube has enough of their highlights to satiate without testing your patience with Netflix. That said, you’ll want to put the 1994 Lyon Ballet adaptation to the top of your queue now, because we want to save that for last.

The 2000 Royal Ballet production provides an ideal example of a classic interpretation of COPPÉLIA on a Disney budget. The comedy is writ large enough for opera glasses in the nosebleed seats. The choreography is traditional with a Sorcerers Apprentice perfection to it. The costumes are precisely Galician, where this adaptation of a Hoffman tale is set, an agrarian village in a region now part of the Ukraine, but in 1870 belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The red boots go to the Hungarian wine makers who dance the Csardas, and the black boots to the Mazurka dancers returning from the wheat harvest.

Unfortunately the Royal Ballet appeared satisfied to play to the popular misconception that the story of Coppélia is a trifle. I’ll suggest as a rebuttal the 2001 production staged by the National Ballet School of Paris, where the students were clearly able to imbue the lovers with emotion and spirit. This Swanilda is danced by a 16-year-old ballerina, by coincidence the same age as the Italian-Parisian who originated the part before she succumbed to disease after the 18th performance, during the Prussian siege of Paris.

The student production dispenses with Act III, which was all divertissements as you’ll have noted, beautiful musical scenes, but extraneous to the plot, although the love story looses the enchanting La Paix (Peace) variation and the Dance de Fete pas de deux. But they manage to sneak in Act III’s La Fileuse into a dance.

By the way, in my opinion this production makes the very best of the aforementioned hesitation, basically a hanging pause. There’s a suspended hesitation inherent in every waltz, Viennese or otherwise, but Delibes renders this one monumental. In the Theme Slav in question, the fickle Franz punctuates each break with an entreaty, and each time Swanilda resumes her dance. Other choreographies of the Them Slav don’t even slow for those moments, some notably expunge the hesitations from the score altogether.

(Note: If you are curious about the solo for Franz interposed into this variation, it’s a short Scena taken from Act II of Delibes’ 1866 ballet The Source.)

You can compare and contrast or not, but I will suggest checking on other Swanildas to flesh out the flirtations, coy games and lovers quarrels of Act I. For example, ?do not miss Lucia Lacarra of the Munich production, in particular this less coy prelude to the Ballade de L’epi.

For a heartier rendition of the first folk dance, check out the 1993 Kirov Ballet Mazurka.

You will want to see Lisa Parvane of the 1990 Melborne Ballet, in the denouement of Act II, made to dance for Coppelius’ amusement, the Boléro Spanish dancer, and Gigue referred to as the Scottish reel, (actually “Gigue” pronounced in French is Jig), but mostly for the cathartic finale, where the mad Coppelius does not merely mourn the broken mechanical doll, as Delibes’ score makes clear, his heart breaks.

Where the students of Paris may have glossed over the old man’s loss, they did grasp the sociological theme of this tale, natural versus unnatural love, nature versus industrial modernity. The violin Ballade de L’Epi, where a spear of wheat is shaken to reveal if you’ve found true love. We know it as plucking the daisy. But where we’ve come to leave the outcome to chance, in a farming community the answer is sought from nature. Green grains will remain silent until they’re ripe and ready for harvest. This concept is faithfully conveyed by the students, as was the sequence which preceded it, where the tinkerer’s labors to animate his lone world are derided while the villagers anticipate the next day’s social festivities.

If you’re still looking for what makes COPPÉLIA more than a silly tale, you’re ready for the absolutely mesmerizing modernized interpretation filmed by the Opera Ballet de Lyon.

Lyon is not coincidentally France’s industrial center, and here the Coppelius malaise is contemporary. Ballet purists appeared to be aghast, and isn’t that the surest sign of a heretical message? Extracts one and two are online and make obvious this production pulls COPPÉLIA right back from the purgatory of children’s repertory. And here it helps I think to know the tale they’re supposed to be telling, to see what they really have to say. The peasants of Lyon are today much the wiser to the false reality foisted upon them by industrial culture. Their Mazurka is a silent glare. Swanilda’s waltz is a childish mocking of the inanimate Deneuve clone.

While some have describe the Lyon staging as a new twist on the tale, I’d say it’s a brilliant reexamination that gets to the core of why Coppélia became an immediate classic in the first place.

An aside about the Theme Slav. Like Offenbach and other contemporaries composing for the ballet, Delibes borrowed from folk melodies to inform his dances. His partner Saint-Leon returned from travels in Eastern Europe praising this popular melody he had overheard. The Slavic theme turned out not to have folk origins at all, but was a piece by composer Stanislaw Moniuszko, actually Poland’s national composer, author of numerous ballets and operas. Delibes gave credit where it was due, and the Slav melody stands out from among the indigenous varieties. At seven minutes it is Coppélia’s longest sequence. But it was Delibes who lent it the memorable hesitation motif which permeates the score.

In the Lyon production the musical hesitation comes in an early variation, a dramatic leap that already feels like it will haunt me forever.

COPPÉLIA celebrates the strength and wisdom of women, and nature, to overcome a young man’s hesitation, where that of the old man may be doomed, and his technology damned.

If you have to ask for whom the fat lady sings, it is not for Tahrir Square.

–And to really mix my malaprops, she sings for them that bought her. If there was one variable which got away from the underdogs of Egypt’s Jan25 Revolution, it was who would referee the endgame. While Hosni Mubarak’s stunning defiance Thursday night looked like a Hail Mary pass hoping to provoke the protesters to mayhem, as a defensive strategy he was moving the goalposts. Anticipating a capitulation, the Tahrir Square demonstrators made clear it was the entire regime which needed ousting, no Suleiman, no Emergency Law, an inviolate list of demands. Mubarak’s insulting buffoonery focused the great beast’s wrath like a rodeo clown. When the announcement came he was stepping down, who could not help but raise a cheer, drowning out the earlier precautions. Mubarak played Egypt like a fiddle, as he burned it, while the fat lady of state media called the game over.

It’s not over until the fat lady sings
So opera advises American football, in reality a game governed strictly by elapsed time. The expression describes the mutual sense that every competition has a natural denouement. Actually another false notion, as this feeling is not often shared by the side fallen behind at the final score.

I’ve convoluted ask not for whom the bell tolls– and if you have to ask how much it costs–, Hemingway and Bugatti I believe, to stress the obvious, that Wagnerian sopranos are kept in furs by the wealthiest of patrons. As epic as might be your struggle, unless you transcend the stage to torch the theater, the status quo raises and lowers the curtain. Without seizing the state media, if even that had been possible, and without staging a narrative to compete with Mubarak’s Greekest of tragic high dives, the Tahrir Square revolutionaries became mere players to please the king.

How could we have missed the grand theatricality of Mubarak’s televised last stands, lighting and makeup dialed to Bela Lugosi? Anyone who knows to dramatize a campfire tale by holding a flashlight under his chin also knows they don’t do that for their profile pic.

In all three of his televised responses to the Jan25 reformers, Mubarak could be paraphrased to have said “over my dead body.” It was a road map his adversaries probably should have heeded. Where is Mubarak now? He’s not gone, he hasn’t even left Egypt. We are informed Mubarak has stepped down by the same henchmen who told protesters “all your demands will be met,” then meeting none.

We learn now that Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Military is trying to clear Tahrir Square. It’s outlawing those who would cause chaos and disorder, and forbidding labor unions to assemble or strike. It’s refusing to end Egypt’s emergency law, or to release the unknown thousand detained during the protests. What of Suleiman and the regime’s other cronies? We have only Mubarak’s doppelganger in an army cap. Field Marshall “Happy” Tantawi, takes to the microphone with no other agenda it appears than to restore Egypt its accustomed sonorous normalcy. If Tibetan throat-singing has an antecedent we can wager now it was Pharaoh throat-talking.

Dance with the one who brought you
A mantra worth cursing out, when Americans wonder why their elected representatives answer only to their biggest campaign donors. So why would Egypt’s Jan25 upstarts have banked on winning the cooperation of the army? I almost said “their” army, but it’s bought and paid for by Mubarak, actually by the same interests who buy US politicians. Deciding not to challenge the army spared lives, but it’s left the military regime in place. Regime unchanged.

There’s a problem when you harness the protection of the military without knowing the intentions of its leaders. You can win a nonviolent revolution against the schoolyard bully if you’ve got the deterrence of “My Bodyguard,” but when the army does that on a national scale it’s called a “bloodless coup.” I’d be curious to know if nonviolence cultists rank bloodless coups among behaviors they condone.

Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement, chief instigators of the Jan25 uprising, attribute much of their organizing skill to training with OTPOR, the famously successful Serbian youth rebellion which ousted a Balkan despot. OTPOR is now a “pro-Democracy” consultant group that tours the world to awaken nascent freedom-seeking insurgents aspiring to popular uprisings. OTPOR refutes insinuations rising from the disclosure that it has accepted CIA funding, but curiously OTPOR is more often by happenstance advising malcontents in Venezuela, Bolivia, Equador, Iran, the usual outspoken rivals to US hegemony. What are they doing in Egypt? Had Hosni Mubarak gone rogue and we didn’t know it?

When pan-Arabists think of events in Tunisia and Egypt igniting popular uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, there’s a line to draw between the common dictators and those more hostile to the West, whose rule is autocratic by necessity of having to defend against CIA and Mossad activities designed to foment instability.

Whether against anti-US foes or pro, it might be safe to say that OTPOR talks a good game, without having yet had a victory. They too deposed a dictator, but not his regime. The problem with OTPOR’s advice has to do with the end game.

I sat in on an OTPOR seminar once. They make a yearly visit to Colorado College to lecture for the nonviolence program. At the conclusion of one lecture I witnessed a tremendously telling aside, which emerged during the Q&A, and definitely wasn’t in the nonviolence syllabus. I wonder if the A6YM got the memo.

This presenter, a veteran of the student uprising that deposed Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, contended that after this victory for Democracy, etc, etc, after the attention span of the media had moved on, the same Milosevic cronies who’d been driven to the shadows, assassinated the opposition leaders and crept right back to power. His lesson, a mere thesis, which I paraphrase to reflect his muted emphasis: we should maybe have taken it one step further and made sure to kill the fuckers.

A6YM is still gambling they can separate the lower ranks of the army from the brass. If Robert Fisk’s report that Egyptian tank commanders refused January 30 orders to make a Tiananmen Square out of Tahrir, there may still be hope in such a strategy. But it certainly won’t work if no one will announce that it has worked. If a tyrant falls in the forest and no one hears, his rule doesn’t fall. The funeral cortege of Genghis Khan killed everyone in its path to keep word of his death from spreading across the empire until his successor could consolidate power. If you’re not going to push him off the cliff literally, perhaps Slavoj Zizek is right to say you’ve got to create a Tom and Jerry moment where despots like Mubarak see that there is no longer any foundation beneath him, where visualizing his own demise brings it upon himself. But can that be done without having director’s cut over the narrative?

What kind of farce are we perpetuating to pretend that Hosni Mubarak must be granted a dignified exit? What dignity commanded firing on unarmed protesters? Are we to pretend men who torture to retain their power can be cajoled to release it?

Instead, the Egyptian rebels find themselves with no ground beneath their feet, their “victorious revolution” now a meme being used to rally dissenters against America’s chief adversary Iran.

Muddy wellies across white canvas

Oslo Opera Hus, i Norge
Norway prides itself on its ubiquitous and egalitarian middle class, making of its opera house a celebration of folkstheatre –and it’s no empty boast– Oslo newspapers address eight pages to culture versus one to sport. But I think the architects behind the glacier-slopped Oslo Opera House have struck with typical condescending Nordic sarcasm. Here is an in-edifice to high art on which the people can trod, on every last angle. Even if Scandinavian farmers are not inclined to attend opera performances, they can sight-see from the pretentious exterior. Idealists can assert this art reaches the Hoi Poloi, as it compels visitors to put it all underfoot. It’s form over substance, literally. The result presents aimless booted peasants looking like they wouldn’t know art if they stepped on it.

I can see the pretension to flatten the Sidney Opera House, crossed with Hong Kong harbor’s wreck of the Queen Mary II. The straight lines may have impressed on paper, but crawling over with masses, I see more a sinking white elephant.