Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Sins Previous and Perceived

...from San Francisco
Opera Parallele's Champion

This week is a heavier than usual post, as I'm still thinking about sins--continuing with Dante from last week's post--in this case, operatic as well as literary ones...past sins, perceived sins, and their effects on those who commit them.

Sins operatic: Opera Parallele, the wonderfully adventurous SF modern opera company, opened its 2-week run of Terence Blanchard's Champion: an Opera in Jazz, last week at the SF Jazz Center.  A deeply moving work with a multiple-Kleenex ending, Champion is based on the true story of bisexual championship boxer, Emile Griffith, who at the height of his career inadvertently killed his opponent in the ring and died of boxer's dementia in 2013.

How does one inadvertently kill a human being without committing manslaughter? In a 1960s welterweight bout, Griffith fought boxer Benny Paret, who taunted him about his sexuality until Griffith knocked him out. Paret died from the resultant coma, and Griffith is said to have been haunted for the rest of his life by his role in Paret's death and by not having been allowed to see Paret in the hospital. The libretto mentions that Paret probably should not have been in the ring, as he'd still been suffering from a previous bout.

Champion starts in the present, with the old Emile a figure of pathos--obviously no longer mentally clear--and proceeds in a series of flashbacks that tell his story via a structure that's easy to follow. The work's strengths are the story itself, the excellent production and performances by an absolutely stellar cast of singers, actors, dancers, and musicians, and the transparent, spare music with multiple influences. The weak link in the work is the overly repetitive libretto, which takes most of the first act to set up the story. But in the second act, beginning with the inspired boxer's dance, the work's center of gravity takes a turn into the realm of the serious, catching hold with the Mother's show-stopping aria with solo bass accompaniment; on Friday, the aria was a tour de force in soprano Karen Slack's hands (or rather, voice). The opera then moves deeper and deeper into heart-wenching territory as the younger Emile unravels, beginning to catch up with his damaged older self who, though not fully aware of where he is anymore, is still haunted by his societally condoned killing.

That moral dilemma is at the core of the opera. What is a sin? Is it a sin to kill someone if you're doing your job? Can you forgive yourself if society forgives you? It doesn't take much to extend that moral dilemma to other situations where killing may result or even when killing is ordered, from policing to soldiering. And if work-condoned killing is not a sin, as the lead character sings, then why is it a sin for a man to love another man?  Continuing in this vein... So is sin a matter of perception and thus is everything that society considers a sin actually one? If so, which society's norms are to be followed? And then why that society and not another? Yet, is the concept of what constitutes sin or evil merely a culturally relativized norm?

As an aside, it was a wondrous thing to see such a diverse cast onstage--a rarity outside of Porgy and Bess--and to be part of the equally diverse audience. Jazz lovers, opera lovers, new music lovers...we were all there. NB: The usual disclaimer applies, as I have a decent number of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances involved in this excellent show.

Sins literary: I continue reading through Deborah Crombie's marvelous Duncan Kincaid and Emma James mystery series, having finished #12 last week, entitled, appropriately enough, Where Memories Lie. Here Crombie also takes looks at sins of the past, in the guise of a mystery novel about past sins committed by Nazis and thieves, and about the restitution of stolen memorabilia and artwork. Without spoiling any of the book's reveals, for I'd rather let you follow the story's progress as the discoveries unfold, Crombie makes one think about the nature of evil, of the past brought to the present, and about what those who have no conscience do.

Operas and books, like all art, are often at their best when they clothe their moral themes in the flesh of personal, human drama, as do Blanchard's and Combrie's works. 

A thought-filled week for me!

What I'm reading: More Deborah Crombie ;), Dante's Inferno.

What I'm listening to: Lots of well-prepared singers from the NATS Auditions yesterday at CSU East Bay--congratulations to all for a job well done, and for choosing such interesting repertory!

What I'm working on: Mein blaues Klavier by David Garner, songs by Hans Winterberg, Barber's "Do not utter a Word."

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

In praise of Dante

Dante Alighieri statue in Verona
...from Berkeley
For the past week I've been working on a project involving Dante's Inferno.

Botticelli: Dante and Virgil
  I'd dipped into it a bit in grad school (I wrote my dissertation on Renaissance music) and had always meant to read the Inferno in its entirety....actually I'd wanted to read the whole Divine Comedy. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, no? In this case, literally. (Facilis decensus Averno, to quote Virgil, as he is crucial to the Inferno  and thus today's blog post.

Dorothy Sayers

Such a monumental work as the Inferno has received any number of very fine translations, including Hell by Dorothy Sayers, known best today for her excellent Lord Peter Wimsey whodunits. (Who'd a thunk?). Which just goes to show that all good translators must also be good writers--no surprise there...

In any case, while my current project neither involves nor necessitates my reading all of the Inferno--when, oh, when, will that early aspiration ever come to fruition?--I've been dipping into it as a reference.
Dore, Inferno

I've been stunned by the acuity and strength of Dante's vision, and his understanding of human folly. Human nature hasn't seemed to improve over time...(NB: While I wouldn't say that I share in all the sins he chronicles in all the cantos--although I certainly partake of more than I should!--the descriptions of the sinners whose faults I share cut close enough to the bone to have made me vow to do better with my own personal demons going forward.) And while one might think that with the explicit, graphic violence readily viewable today, not to mention 20th and 21st century horrors, Dante would feel tame, he does not.

Dante's verses address the world he lived in--the Guelphs and Gibellines and others of his time--as well as Greek mythology and Biblical symbolism.   Yet Dante's artistic vision transcends time, easily applying to us today.

Isn't that precisely what good art does?

Have you read any of the Inferno,  in any language?  If so, what do you think? Don't you agree??

What I'm reading: Dante!

What I'm listening to: scads and scads of new music--much of it fabulous!--from E4TT's Call for Scores, which just closed.

What I'm working on: Samuel Barber's "Do not utter a word, Anatol," a gorgeous aria from his ever-lyrical pen.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Tosca: betrayal, murder and ...mattresses?

Examine this picture carefully to guess where in San Diego this photo was taken*! 
...from San Diego

This coming weekend is the start of San Diego Opera's 2016 mainstage season, which I would have loved to see, both to see what they are doing and also to support the company.  After the brouhaha of 2014, all in the operatic community want very much to see the company succeed.

Alas, the calendar didn't work for me.  But for those in San Diego or Southern California and able to attend (Feb. 13, 16, 19, 21), SDO will perform Puccini's Tosca--a verismo opera par excellence that Joseph Kerman with great although unjust rhetorical flourish once dismissed as a "shabby little shocker."*  (A shocker, yes, but shabby?  One could certainly debate that point.)

San Diego Opera presents Tosca in Feb. 2016

Shabby or not, it's a cinematic opera in the best melodrama tradition, with betrayal, murder, torture, intrigue, and more, as well as a good many mishaps. Some may be apocryphal; others undoubtedly are real.  For example, did one unlucky Tosca really jump off a stage parapet onto the protective mattress (normally placed backstage below said parapet), only to bounce back into view of the audience again and again, geboing geboing geboing? One writer says not, but relates other mishaps, including misplaced mattresses and guns that fired more than blanks.  Read about other, mostly less dangerous mishaps here.

SDO moves on to another Puccini favorite--an opera about a different kind of betrayal--with Madama Butterfly in April (13, 16, 21, 24), followed by the West Coast premiere of Great Scott (May 7,10, 13, 15) by California's own Jake Heggie, with beloved mezzo-soprano Frederica Von Stade.

Fingers crossed for a mishap-free Tosca run and the best of luck to SDO for their February Tosca and a successful 2016 spring season! (And the perpetually delayed blog about the story of La Traviata?  Not forgotten, but still delayed.)

What I'm reading: More Deborah Crombie, Megan Chance's The Veil (finale of 3)
What I'm listening to: La Boheme, Carmen and Handel
What I'm working on: Handel, Caldara, and Winterberg for April-May concerts

*Comment or email me if you have a guess as to where in the San Diego area this picture was taken! **from Kerman's Opera as Drama.  

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Musings on Deadlines, Rules, and Early Birds

...from Berkeley

I haven't forgotten that I promised to write about the source of La Traviata--and I will get to that very, very soon.... But for today, I have instead a somewhat timely, short post musing about deadlines, early birds and eleventh hour applications.

It's so tempting to wait until the last minute for a competition or deadline. I've been known to do that myself on many the occasion.  However, having sat on both sides I can tell you that it does NOT serve anyone well to come in just under the wire with an entry or submission.

Certainly, if you find out about a competition at the last minute, it's better to apply than not, as if you don't apply you have no chances of winning at all. Just so, applying too early and half-baked, i.e., before your submission is fully ready, serves no one, of course. In many cases, it really doesn't matter if you're early or middle-ish, in terms of timing--and sometimes coming in at the beginning of a submission window means being drowned by the initial flood of applications. And there are even times when as long as you make it by 1 minute before a deadline, you're cool as the proverbial cucumber.

But there are times when that's not going to be the case.

Sometimes the judges' capacity to lavish attention on your entry may wane as they get to later and later entries.  And sometimes, with online applications, the server may jam up or get overwhelmed and you'll miss the cutoff point entirely.You never know when one of these might happen.

So is it worth the risk? You make the call...

A case in point: this season, Ensemble for These Times started our first annual call for scores, as we want to be able to showcase more and more varied compositional voices than simply the composers we already know.  We set up a 2-month window for submissions, figuring that we were a small West Coast group and that it would take awhile for word to spread.

Not so....

There is an immense pool of compositional talent all over the world!  We were amazed and humbled at the sheer volume of scores that flooded in to us. After 5-6 weeks we had received 200 scores (yes, Virginia, you read that correctly), and were literally drowning in music.  We did not have the capacity to sort through any more scores between now and when we had promised to announce the winners, in June--and, indeed, barely had the capacity to sort through what we'd received..

So we very apologetically had to close the submission window 2 weeks early, asking those composers who had still wanted to submit a score but had not yet done so to come back for our 2nd annual call for scores... And you can bet that the window for submissions will be tighter next time around, as we have learned from this year.

We had already started to sort through some of the earliest scores to come in, and those got our longest attention.

As we continue to sort through the submissions, we have noticed two things:
1) The incredible amount of talent that's around!
2) Many folks don't follow/ pay attention to the rules. Sometimes there's a good reason (they don't have what we need, but think we might still be interested in what they're doing. In those cases, a little note telling us what's going on for the extenuating circumstances is appreciated and keeps us from rejecting something out of hand.But not everyone is like us; some competitions are looking for a reason, any reason, to reject you and narrow the field.).

We are very excited about what we've seen thus far, and can't wait to finish sorting through all the marvelous works that have come our way.  We'll announce the winners in June...so stay posted.

The moral of the story: if in doubt, sometimes the early bird does have a better chance at the worm. With competition being so stiff in today's world, wouldn't you rather be that person with the better chance?

What I'm reading: Grayling by Karen Cushman; Alistair Grim's Odd Antiquaticum, more wonderful Deborah Crombie mysteries

What I'm listening to: Handel and Caldara cantatas, for a concert in April

What I'm studying: "Do not utter a word, Anatol" (a new-for-me aria from Barber's Vanessa); songs by Hans Winterberg for May and June.