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."
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