Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Paris Days 46 and 47 - night at the opera

[diarist's note: comments for this blog are now open to anyone - you no longer need a account]

Monday night I was treated to my second Massenet opera in five months, this after having gone 38 years without ever hearing a note of Massenet apart from the meditation from Thaïs that we are exposed to in shopping malls and advertisements for toilet tissue. In October a sponsor of the Chicago screenings of Apparition of the Eternal Church took me to the Lyric Opera's production of Manon, which was ravishing. The only trouble was that I was not ravished, I was incapable of that experience because two nights before I had heard Christopher Taylor perform the Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant Jesus at Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall and had spent the subsequent 48 hours in or on the verge of tears, having fallen completely and embarrassingly to pieces in the performance itself (at the climax of the 6th movement I gasped - everyone heard), and the route between Massenet and Messiaen is one-way going, in this case, the wrong way. All my experience and perceptions told me I was hearing an impeccable performance of a beautiful work, but after the serial cataclysms and otherworldly ecstasies of the Vingt Regards I was incapable of hearing anything but banality in the opera house. I've never had yage or peyote, but I imagine this was like having a big heavy Native American drug trip, throwing up into the wind on top of the pyramid for six hours, and then being shown into a frilly Rococo room and seated at a banquet table crammed with French pastry. I excused myself at the first intermission.

Monday night I had a much better experience at the dress rehearsal for the production of Werther at the Paris Opera. My host was the assistant conductor, David Robert Coleman, to whom I had been introduced via email by a fellow Messianiste here in Paris. David had invited me to the rehearsal and offered to introduce me to conductor Kent Nagano, a hugely important Messiaen disciple and champion who lived with the Messiaens for several years in Paris.

David had told me where to meet him by the musicians' entrance at 7:15 "exactly." At 7PM I unlocked my bicycle and rolled it to the gate of the monastery, realizing at that point that the front tire was totally flat. I sent a panicky text message, thought about running all the way to the Bastille, decided I had a better shot going underground, encountered ulcer-inducing delays there, and ran up to the musician's entrance at nearly 7:30. David had left my name with the receptionist, but the combined forces of her English and my French were unequal to the task of figuring out where I should go and how I would get there (the Bastille Opera House is a notorious labyrinth). Finally, she got an idea - I should go to Susan Graham's dressing room. She gave me directions and waved me through the gate.

For those unfamiliar with the opera world, this is a little bit like showing up late for a
White House meeting with Rahm Emanuel and being given permission to wander around the Executive Residence until you find Michelle's boudoir: absurd, but not something you really say no to. I was so disoriented by my task that I immediately forgot the directions; I found sound stages and stairwells, rehearsal rooms, dance studios, a badly needed toilet... After consulting a map and wandering a little longer, I found the great mezzo's dressing room and, feeling like a complete idiot, knocked. Nobody home, thank God, so I continued feeling my way through the warren, opening doors trepidatiously lest I find myself onstage with Ms. Graham with no clue what I was supposed to sing.

The closest I got on my own was backstage, where techies and singing actors waiting to go on and assistant directors with headsets were variously monitoring the production and killing time, and props sat in piles and the singing onstage competed with footsteps sounding the stage like a drum. Nobody seemed to care that I was lurking around, but at a certain point I thought it would be nice to take a load off my feet and see what the opera looked like from the audience and so, with a little help from a woman in a headset, I was finally at the opera and this is what I saw:

I loved everything about Werther. The music was unspeakably gorgeous - the ne plus ultra of French late-Romanticism, suffused with a huge and wildly inventive range of luxuriant colors and textures and special effects. I repeatedly heard how much Hollywood soundtrack composers, the thieving hacks, have stolen from Massenet - to hear the original, and to hear it in Paris, and to hear it played by the Paris Opera Orchestra, was revelation, transport - not otherworldly, but ecstasy still. And even as I felt like I was having one of the most Parisian possible experiences, I also - even in the Age of Obama this is embarrassing to admit - but I took some pride in my own country, because there was Berkeley native Nagano so surely commanding the great instrument of the Paris Opera Orchestra and all the forces arrayed onstage, and there was plainspoken American diva Susan Graham belting out the role of Charlotte.

Here she is approaching Werther as seen in the top panel of the mirrored strip that framed the stage (as always, click on these images for a bigger version):

And here's the pit, with its dreamy string section - which also sounds good -

People complain about the Bastille Opera House. It is awful to look at, apparently it's a nightmare to work in, and it's not improving with age. Like so much of what was built in the 80s, it probably should be torn down, and if it is, I'll be happy to have this memento of its Death Star ceiling with its Vegas-caliber carbon footprint:

After the show David introduced me to Nagano and I nervously pressed a copy of my DVD into his hands. After watching him work for four hours I was terribly star-struck. Then I left the theater, or tried to; thirty minutes later I was still trying to find my way out.

Without your tax-deductible donations, I am lost.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Paris Days 10 and 11 - eulogy, pornophony, brunch

You're actually allowed to take non-flash pictures at the Paris Opera, but I saved my camera for intermission

I started yesterday’s writing session with three hours of darkness left to the morning, and was happy in the second hour to stumble on an idea for a radical plot twist at the end of the novel. It's an outrageous cliché to compare this experience to angling, and not for no reason - there's the tug on the line, the realization, not instantaneous but very fast, that you’ve snagged a big one, then the racing heart, the leap to action, the panicky thrill in knowing that your skill in the next minutes will determine whether you end the day with glory and a feast or a broken strand of monofilament. I typed as fast as my fingers would move to get the idea down, racing to keep up with implications and variations, and I didn’t slow down until the scene – a funeral oration and burial – became so vivid that I had to divert some energy in order to observe it, to acknowledge the real orations and burials that overlay this one like transparencies but also to recognize the superiority of this one to all the others, the excellence and fearlessness with which these characters had just proved themselves capable of grieving. As the mother’s role in all this revealed itself, the pathos of the whole thing began to register with an actually frightening velocity until the pressure on my sinuses couldn’t be contained and I did something I have never done in thirty years of writing — I burst into tears.

One option after an experience like this is to pop a bottle of champagne and call it a day, but as the sun wouldn’t be up for another two hours and I have no alcohol of any kind in the studio, this was impractical. So I kept working, going over the scene, filling it out, playing with the contours of the oration, and finally coming to the conclusion that a scene this elemental must have been written already by a great and famous writer and I was destined to be laughed at for an act of naked plagiarism. The sun rose, I ate Weetabix. I fed novel notes to the recycling box under my desk, took care of some errands online, worked on La Création du Monde, put in another couple of hours on the novel. At a certain point I realized I hadn’t left the studio all day, so I took a walk around the public garden behind the monastery and snapped a few pictures, came back up here in time for a quick dinner – eggplant tajine, slightly burned - before hopping on my bike to meet friends at the Bastille Opera House for opening night of Lady Macbeth de Mzensk.

Midway to the Bastille, I heard what sounded like a rubber bullet being fired near my feet – some combination of shwing! and thpwawt! – and sure enough, that tumor that had materialized on my rear tire on the ride from Oresto was gone and I was riding on my rim. So I locked up the bike, hoofed it the rest of the way to the opera house and met up with my friends Frank Browning and his lover. That’s using the term “friends” somewhat loosely, or at least prospectively, since before reconnoitering at the box office I hadn’t met these guys except through email introduction and through my having read Frank’s book The Culture of Desire: Paradox and Perversity in Gay Lives Today when it came out 15 years ago.

Lady Macbeth, of which I’ve never seen or heard one iota despite being a Shostakovich fan, was absolutely amazing. The music veered into Wagner and occasionally Weill but always came back to snap that signature Shostakovich rat trap of trombones and squealing woodwinds around your heart – thrilling, thrilling music! The drama was squalid, and the music matched it, more than earning the opera its immortal epithet from the New York Sun - “pornophony.” Parts of it actually put Messiaen to shame in terms of music that just sounds like fucking. Lots of bare boobs bouncing around onstage on the fluorescent-lit minimalist stage. Spoiler alert for anyone who might see this production (Netherlands Opera): at the point when Katerina’s guilt starts to cost her sleep, the dead, clad in brown body stockings, start walking in slow motion up the walls on either side of the stage. As far as I’m concerned, whoever came up with that bit of stagecraft (Martin Kusej?) one-upped Shakespeare. When I realized what I was seeing (the lighting made it pretty subtle) my whole body broke out in goosebumps – my jaw literally dropped – and I would have burst into tears of aesthetic bliss if I had not already gotten that out of my system earlier in the day.

Through all four hours of four acts, several interludes, and a long intermission, I was preoccupied by the thought of how the audience – which filled every seat of the house, with hordes of Parisians turned away at the box office – was going to reward soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek for the heroic and superhuman performance she was delivering. The answer turned out to be probably the loudest, longest and most satisfying roar I have ever heard in a theater. Many hundreds of people shouted and hollered for this woman and it sounded like thousands – it was, despite fierce competition, the most exciting choral singing of the night. If Westbroek isn’t the toast of the town for the run of the opera, there is no champagne in Paris.

Today was a bit more subdued and I didn't cry once. I met my Welsh friend Lucian – he spends part of his time in San Francisco – on Rue Montorgueil, where we shopped for brunch (the whole thing is one of Paris’s best open-air markets, especially on a Sunday) and then ate back at his place. Amazing food – what do we do to our eggs in the US? Have we invented a special technology to remove their color and flavor? Lucian and I opted for the bakery with the ten-person queue, and as a result ate the second-best almond croissants I’ve ever had (the grand prize goes to the time I got them right out of the oven at Delessio’s on Market Street in San Francisco), one of the best baguettes and a very good fougasse (better: the old Phoenix Bakery which used to be in Hopland and then moved to Willits before vanishing, as Phoenixes will). I cracked up the cheesemongers when I asked the difference between mouton and brebis. Americans are so cute.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Opera review: Appomattox

Two friends from out of town invited me to the world premiere performances at the San Francisco Opera of Appomattox, the Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton work about Lee's surrender in the Civil War. I took the first opportunity, with my friend Myrlin from Short Mountain, Tennessee, thinking I would also go with Juliette, from Albion Ridge, tonight, if I liked it. Suddenly I find myself without Thursday evening plans.

Two caveats: One is that I cannot responsibly review the opera because I only got through the first half. I wrestled with my decision to desert at the intermission, weighing factors like my credibility as a critic, the $30 I'd paid Myrlin for his second senior rush ticket, and the possibility the opera would redeem itself in the second act. I finally decided that any work that had proceeded for its entire first half without a single interesting idea emanating from the stage or the orchestra pit was probably better left for dead on the battlefield.

The second caveat is that when I was a violin student Philip Glass was extremely generous to me. For my third-year recital at Juilliard, I put on "An Evening of American Music" and closed the first half with the Knee Play 4, an interlude from his first opera Einstein on the Beach in which Einstein plays violin to the accompaniment of a four-part male choir. As rehearsals started with the singers, I opened the Manhattan phone book, found the composer's number, called him up and told him what I was doing. He invited me and my singers down to his house in the East Village and we ran through the number for him. He not only gave us a coaching, but on the spot he composed for us a concluding passage that would make the interlude work as a concert piece. Later that week he sat for a telephone interview, which I printed in my program notes and which, if I can find the file, I'll post to my Web site one of these days.

I endured a fair amount of jeering snobbery from Juilliard faculty and classmates for programming Glass--one of my collaborators on the program made a point of leaving the theater before Knee Play 4 began. But I loved Einstein on the Beach. I'd discovered the music when I was twelve years old and it had an absolutely druggy impact on my imagination. At twelve, I couldn't have put words to the experience, but I was hearing something genuinely revolutionary (whether Glass touched off the revolution or just popularized it), something revolutionarily clean, vital, downtown, Eastern, technological (despite relying almost entirely on the human voice and traditional acoustic instruments), neon and new. Einstein's hallmark was the radical transparency of its harmonic language after seventy years of musical drip-painting, clarity that put into high relief not only the strangeness of the libretto and the vividness of Robert Wilson's stagecraft but the newness and singularity of Glass's instrumentation and timbre. After all the Juilliard jeering I was afraid my love affair with Einstein couldn't survive whatever sophistication I'd acquired since the age of twelve, but I went to the BAM revival in the early 90s and loved every minute of it. I stand by Einstein, I respect Glass, and I hurl mean thoughts at all the snobs I went to school with.

That's part of what made Appommatox such a dismal experience, feeling in my own response to it the dismissal and derision with which my friends left the recital hall before Knee Play 4. The first act of this new opera was stupefying. How else can we receive a ten-minute scene in which the women sing "war is sorrowful" over and over again over utterly unilluminating harmonic noodling in the orchestra? It's either sublime simplicity or numbing insipidity, and judging from the response of the audience in the dress circle, most people got numb. Einstein too was built on repetition, but with the newness of the way Glass wrote for the voice and the freshness of the ideas he and Wilson manifested, the results were always intriguing if not downright beautiful. In Appomattox, scene after scene unfolded according to a formula of idea-free reiteration.

"It's pretty glum," said Myrlin at halftime. "But it's war, and war is glum."

OK, I'll swallow the glum pill. But at least give me some hope it will be good for me! It's 1865, the women are all dressed for a Victorian funeral, the set with its blood-red moat looks like it was borrowed from a modern-dress production of Turandot, the libretto reads like the remix of a History Channel transcript, and the accent coach and the production's grim determination to be historically accurate have Mrs. Lee belting out lines like "Husband, it is not RAAAAAAAAGHT for you to do so!"

What I missed in the second half: Lee and Grant negotiate a surrender (negotiations!). Interruptions in which racial injustice from the near and distant future is portrayed (education!). A looting scene, and then a reprise: women lament the tragedy of war, the orchestra noodles.

My recommendation: take the money you would have put toward a ticket and get the original recording of Einstein, with the surpassingly pure and luminous soprano Iris Hiskey.

Labels: , , , , , ,