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Monday, January 31, 2011

Wicked: Die Hexen von Oz in Oberhausen!!

So, I have to preface this post with the disclaimer: I am not a musical theater fan (except for Rodgers and Hammerstein stuff).  Therefore, it was really quite amazing to me that I should have enjoyed the production of "Wicked: Die Hexen von Oz" as much as I did at last Wednesday's performance in Oberhausen at the Metronome Theater.  In fact, I am not ashamed to admit to my fellow Opera lovers, that it was actually the first standing ovation that I have given a performance since my attendance at NYC Opera's production of Bernstein's 'A Quiet Place', and that was back in October of 2010 and I have seen a few operas since then too!

Because of my outrageous reaction to a show that was STILL not  in my native language (emphasis on the 'still' because it puts it on par then with Operas that are also written and performed in non-native languages for me) and in a genre that normally makes me cringe, I felt that this particular experience deserved some closer examination of why it was so successful and why it was so enjoyable to me as an audience member.  So, let's look at the 'facts' of what the show was and wasn't to see if we can discern the recipe for its success.

Fact #1: It was sung all in German (and the dialogue too) so it wasn't like I could 'understand' it better-- as some people claim to be the case when explaining why they like Musical Theater more than Opera (since Opera is normally in a foreign language and Musical Theater in the native speaker's same tongue).  So, that rules that option out.

Fact # 2: The music wasn't on par with Mozart in terms of brilliancy of compositional skill and wasn't as unpredictable as its classical music colleagues, so that definitely wasn't it.

Fact # 3: The storyline wasn't fraught with tales of people dying and lost loves...or, wait a minute!  Okay, that is definitely the secret to its success.  It has a great story- and while it's not Mozart, the music is catchy (and not overly cliche or repetitious) and the set, costumes and lighting and special effects put the final touches on an already attention-grabbing story.

Therefore, I feel, we as the Opera-loving public could really learn to benefit from such a show and such a smash hit box-office-wise.  Because, here's the thing, when we look at the numbers, Musical Theater performances are infinitely more popular on the whole than Operas nowadays (except maybe at larger notable theaters) and anyway, because of that, we should certainly be looking at ways to make Opera more successful than it has been in recent years.  And, I really feel that Musical Theater ideas which were clearly displayed on Wednesday night would work in Opera too, and would not decrease its 'intellectual worth', 'artistic integrity', 'composer's/librettist's original intent' any more than say, showing Opera on movie theater screens.  So, what can we learn?  Here are a few things that I noticed that worked really well, and which could be adapted to fit the Opera stage.

First of all, the costumes were zany.  And there were tons of different ones for each scene. And there were quick changes out the wazoo.  And they were colorful and sparkly.  Okay, the last observation might decrease the seriousness of say 'Don Carlo' just a notch if the costumes looked like something Beyonce might wear, however....you get the idea.

Secondly, if there was a weak link in the entire Cast in terms of acting ability---I never knew it. And it was because at every moment that someone was on stage, they were really in that moment.  They weren't somewhere else mentally...they were concentrated on what they were doing at the present, and because of that it really gave a believability to their acting and helped carry the story along at some weaker points (like for example when the monkeys first got wings...or when the baby lion in the cage was clearly a stuffed animal....).  And honestly I think that this acting cohesion came not only from the leads doing a bang-up job of being focused, but also that from the audience you got the sense that everyone on that stage had an equal feeling of self-worth.  That the people in the monkey costumes knew that they were just as important as the woman singing Glinda and that if they did their job as if they were less so, then it would decrease the energy, and so on.  (That kind of acting decrescendo happens in Opera a lot- and it drags entire productions down because of it.)

Thirdly, those people could all really dance and move so well!  So, I hear everyone out there who would at this point say, 'Okay, but they have microphones, so their movements can be more ..... all over the place because they don't have to worry about projecting their voices as much and the muscles involved in doing so...and postures, etc.'  Well, yes that makes sense, but on the other hand, between singing there is no reason why singers in Opera can't also move around really well and just look plain wonderful while doing so, right?  So, that's something that needs to change, I think.  More dancing Opera singers who move well and who are aware of their bodies and comfortable with them in order to really have graceful motion on stage.

Fourth, there was only one intermission and the show was 2.5 hours long!  There is something to be said for how many times the audience is able to get up, pee, talk about how great the show is, get a drink, eat a cookie, etc.

If there is only one intermission it's kind of exciting for the audience to be able to stretch, reflect on the great show that they are in the middle of viewing, get feedback about the performance from their friends who came with them, and enjoy some beverages and food, however, there is certainly the possibility of having too much of a good thing in terms of intermissions.  Sure, it's okay to do all this once and enjoy it, but after two times, or even three times (as is the case with some operas which are particularly long) it can get a bit tedious.

We all have had those experiences (Opera lovers in particular) where we have attended something with more than one intermission, and by the time you are in the second and third intermissions you find yourself looking longingly at the door and wondering how much more money you have to spend on drinks while standing around with your friends or concert companion remarking "How much longer do we have to be here?"  That is when things become problematic.  It is at this point when most Opera companies should look at their production and ask themselves if there is a way to skip the first scheduled intermission and go straight through Acts 1 and 2, and then have an intermission between Acts 2 and 3, OR possibly skip the second intermission in favor of the first?  At any rate, something needs to be done. (And, I must say, kudos to the theaters who are doing this- the Met has done it already at a few performances I've attended, as well as I hope more theaters out there too that I don't know about!)

So, that is probably already a lot of information which might have been obvious to Musical Theater fans as things which would make Opera more enjoyable to a larger audience, but for those of you Opera fans whom, like myself at one time, might be shocked now to be reading that I suggest these things, I am here to offer this kernel of wisdom that we should all keep in mind: at the time of their composition, most Operas were quite popular amongst the masses.  That is perhaps something we would all do well to remember when getting on our high 'Operatic' horses!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Considering the other side of things

Action for action's sake is sometimes enough to get one out of the doldrums that life sometimes has to offer us on its daily 'specials' menu. Not always are we able to choose with heedy anticipation the prixe fixee menu's most halteningly mouthwatering dish, but often, we are left with the moldy bread of yesterday's panini bar. Did we choose this? No. Did we actively do anything to avoid it? No. I mean, who sees things like that coming ahead of time? (Except those who are psychic, and let's face it, we're not in that category.)  Therefore, it is important to remember, action for action's sake does sometimes in those most difficult of sticky-gum periods of life, bring a renewed energy and freshness to something to which you might be overexposed and jaded.

 Even if you are going at something with gusto which you have no idea of the outcome or supposed intent, at least you are generating those feelings which will, in the coming days, bring to whatever you do, a spirit that is open, a mind that is at ease, and a sense of certainty in your own adventurousness. Those qualities in a person are the most prized by others and oneself, even by those for whom every day is as much an adventure as the last. Surprisingly, the people whom we believe to lead lives of careless abandon, jetting off into the sunset and living life by hanging onto a rope with their teeth, also need to keep these principles in mind when they themselves come to a wall of homogeneity in their unpredictability. They too, will need to be reminded, that all of their new experiences gathered together in the reusable shopping bag of life, can produce some icky putrid smells at the bottom as well; once the gallivanting through Egypt begins to stink like rotten eggs after all those re-tellings to “friends” met during airport layovers, or that trip to Borneo to help orphans starts melting like jellybeans in the hot sun of others' views on world-wide stewardship by those who are slated to help for only two months. In fact, those people who, to the majority of us seem like the most privileged and lead the most diverting lives, more often than not, need some understanding of normalcy even stronger than the person who works a normal 9-5 job and lives a relatively predictable existence. 

 Consider, that when they are flying between London and L.A. for a movie premiere, they too could be visiting their Grandmother, but, it is just by the anti-luxury of their lives that taking part in these normal events becomes a background activity in terms of priority when contrasted with their public lives and responsibilities. I'm not asking you to feel sorry for these people of unimaginable wealth and privilege but I am asking you to consider that not only those of us who have relatively normal existences experience these periods of relatively sedating fogs of boredom. Something like that they can settle on anyone and most often it happens when we are caught unexpectedly and unawares. Therefore, know that the certainty of life is doled out to everyone, not exclusive of material worth or situational-differences in life circumstance.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Thinking about things.....

Decisions need to be made. Until they are, they will nag at your brain cells when they are least expecting it, creeping up on them like the chill that comes on at nightfall, suddenly cold without any warning to the contrary. Except this mental gnawing at your concentration at the fringes of your mind by a decision needing to be made is something which you actually do have control over. Luckily!

 When you are able to evaluate something in a objective way and really make a decision, whether or not that decision has negative or positive ramifications in the days/months/weeks/years to come is not of your concern in the very moment that you've decided upon some action. Instead, the sheer weight of not having an undecided decision occupying space in your mental soup of daily life is like feeling the weightlessness of space thrust upon you all at once: a rush of energy and happiness in the sheer delight of the feeling of action and having power upon your own life circumstances, even if the manner of exercising this power wasn't at first apparent to you. In fact, besides the unadulterated mirth that you gain in finally choosing one thing over another, you also have the resulting actuality of your decision's outcome yet to be experienced, which is of course, a further source of joyfulness. Not only have you freed yourself from something like an anathema of restlessness mentally speaking, but you have also created a solution and an end goal, both of which, happen to be exactly to your liking at the moment. Thereby, freeing up your current conscious thought for other equally important matters at hand.

 Naturally, most people feel some sort of anxiety during the decision making process, but there is hope simply because on the other side of choosing whatever is to be chosen, your resulting emotional high accompanied by the eventual happening of the outcome chosen, is quite a satisfactory, and even enlivening, process. So, the most important thing to keep in mind when confronting important decisions to be made, is that although the process may seem tedious and too large for your understanding at present, you are awaited by the gift of a reawakened and enlarged (Heightened) self-knowledge as well as the final result of your decision. And that, is a bargain many of us should await with rapture.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

'A Quiet Place' by Leonard Bernstein

This performance and piece of art merited coverage in my blog the very night that I saw it, however, due to my extreme lack of time, it is only getting its due at this point in time, much to my own personal dismay.  However, I must rejoice in the fact that at least I am getting out there my thoughts about a really underappreciated piece of art by one of America's most beloved native composers, and hopefully thereby spurring other people to try to listen or see this work whenever and where ever and by whomever it is performed.


I realize that in the previous paragraph there is a multitude of praise which might seem a bit 'too generous' for a work which only had its very second performance in the states, and that actually being its very first performance in New York, the city in which Bernstein actually lived and worked for most of his life.  However, there is, to me, no lack of positive adjectives through which I can describe the sheer brilliance of this piece and of its NYC premiere in the recent group of performances at New York City Opera, this past Fall 2010.

The libretto of 'A Quiet Place' is written by Stephen Wadsworth, another famous American personality in the opera world, best known for his productions recently at places like The Met, La Scala, Covent Garden, the Vienna Staatsoper, and Santa Fe.  He is also beloved as a director for straight play acting and has directed at a multitude of venues equally noteworthy in that realm.

It seems that with a composer who wasn't afraid to use 12-tone compositional techniques, and a librettist who  was also a director, this work was destined to become something supremely sublime.  And, that was definitely what my experience was when I saw it for the first time at New York City Opera on November 16th, 2010.

This production was designed by Christopher Alden and conducted by Jayce Ogren with costumes by Kaye Voyce and lighting by Aaron Black.  The main characters of Dede, Francois, Junior, Dinah and Sam were played by Sara Jakubiak, Dominic Armstrong, Joshua Hopkins,  Patricia Risley and Louis Otey, with notable smaller role performances by Christopher Feigum as 'Young Sam', William Ferguson as the 'Funeral Director' and Judith Christin as 'Susie'.

Now on to the most wonderful part: talking about what was so exciting and great about this piece and this performance and this production!

First off, the singers were wonderful.  There was not a weak link in the chain.  The Chorus was well prepared, the smaller roles were superbly cast and equally superbly sung and acted, and the leads were just out-of-this-world.  I know I am bordering on becoming dogmatic about how much I honestly enjoyed this performance, but I honestly feel that it cannot do any harm; that's how good it was.

In order to better explain I should first tell you that it was performed in three acts with two intermissions, and the part which everyone knows well (Trouble in Tahiti) was right smack in the middle of all the action- it was really perfectly balanced (as per the Golden Section and all that other good technical stuff).  The first act was a bit slower dramatically speaking than the second two, but if it weren't that way, the audience wouldn't have any foundation to further understand the actions that follow in Acts 2 and 3.  Besides, being that the entire first act took place at the funeral of Dinah, how much should possibly go on?  And Bernstein, in his generosity, even spices things up by adding the quasi-sexual-seduction of Sam by Junior when Junior sings his defiantly homosexual solo at the end of the Act 1.  So, I think Bernstein knew exactly how much he was giving the audience to mentally chew on, and when.

In Act 2 things get more exciting and more sad, all at the same time.  There is the introduction of Young Sam and Dinah when they were still married and how their life was with each other and with their children at that point in time.  It was made into a psychological introspective by the commentary provided by the older selves of Junior, Dede and Francois sitting on a sofa in the middle of the flash-back action, and making comments on what was happening and why, out of their understandings not from childhood, but from their adult selves.

Though, the most poignant moment was certainly when Dinah and Sam were singing the Duet about their own imperfections and their crumbling marriage, and also Dinah's poignant soliloquy when she sings her aria at her psychologist's office 'There Is A Garden'.

There are two really wonderful YouTube clips from New York City Opera about this piece and their new production that I would like to share with those of you who weren't able to see it in person.  We can only hope that there will be a revival production of this very soon!

So, here's those clips:

Clip 1: A Quiet Place Remembered

Clip 2: Behind the Scenes at NYC Opera

As always, thanks for reading and looking forward to sharing more with you all very soon!

Der Freisch├╝tz, The Movie!

Yesterday afternoon I saw the new movie version of Carl Maria von Weber's 'Der Freisch├╝tz' in a theater here in the city of Bochum.  It's actually titled 'Hunter's Bride' in the film company's English title choice, even though a literal translation more aptly put would be something akin to 'The Free-shooter'.

Sadly, the film is only playing in select theaters in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, and on top of that, not at every movie theater in those places (normally only at more 'art' cinemas).  Therefore, I felt extra privileged that I was even able to see it and quite happy to be able to share my experience of it with an audience that is also located outside of Europe.  Hopefully, the added bit of publicity that it receives in being read by others on the web might encourage the film's producers to release it in other locations around the world.

I was quite interested in seeing this film because this is an original idea from a director (Jens Neubert) who does not have other credits (at least on imdb.com) to his name in the movie-making industry.  Therefore, I thought it would be extra exciting to see how he handled working in a non-stage-oriented genre.  Also, it is only the second film that I know of (besides The Magic Flute, filmed by Kenneth Branagh in 2006) which was intended to marry the genres of hollywood film-making with opera, in a way unlike what the Metropolitan Opera does nowadays (by filming a stage production of an Opera and sending it to movie theaters) but instead actually allowed the opera singers to perform their singing in a set exactly like a regular actor would.  No fancy stage to help the amplification, no wings to walk off into to change costumes or wait for your next cue, and no opportunity to worry about whether or not you're 'in the light' on stage.  There was a whole new set of rules that applied to something of this undertaking, and I was quite beside myself to experience the end result.

And, I am glad to say that things came off quite well.  The singing was very good on the whole.  Though, I must confess that my favorite singers were Juliane Banse (Agathe), Rene Pape (A Hermit) and Regula Muehlemann (Aennchen).  Those three were also the strongest in their acting sensibilities.  Of course it wasn't entirely successful (with some instances of boring acting in close-up shots, simply because contorting the face while singing isn't advised...) but, on the whole, it was really a large step forward in the development of this hopefully next large phase of opera enjoyment.  I have a hunch that once the Met has hooked everyone on going to the movie theater to see operas, that this sort of thing wouldn't be really such a large leap then for those same people to attend.

Now, to the nuts and bolts of the thing.  I was pleased with Michael Koenig's (Max) acting skills on the battlefield at the beginning of the film, as well as his acting in all of the gruesome scenes in the 'Wolf's Den', as that area of the canyon/forest was called, however, I was quite disappointed by his moments with Agathe.  It wasn't apparent that he felt any tenderness towards her, and what little hints of love shone through in his character were quickly covered up by his manic attempts to keep an overwhelming dread and gloom pervading every scene that he played.  On the whole, that was possibly the most disappointing to me; he was quite one-dimensional.  And, truth be told, it is a difficult role to play: Max is a man down-on-his-luck, who has seemingly no other alternatives to the challenge posed to him by his future father-in-law, that in order to win his bride's hand, he must shoot down a bird in only one shot.  And, for someone like Max, who hasn't shot anything that accurately in years, this is quite a trying test.  However, I really think that it would have only strengthened Mr. Koenig's characterization of Max, if we the audience had seen that Agathe was something that he really did not want to lose and that she meant the world to him.  Unfortunately, all the audience received was that Max was a desperate man who would stop at nothing to pass the shooting test.

Switching now to talk about the film as a piece of art and not music, it was quite successful.  It was filmed in Saxony (near Dresden) where von Weber actually was supposed to have composed the work, and the countryside and locations of the film were not only beautiful, they also lent a certain credibility to the story; it helped the audience members believe that in a place like that, something like this could actually happen.  Not only was the 'Wolf's Den' exceedingly creepy naturally, it also was enhanced by the computer graphics to represent the voice of the Devil, or 'Samiel' as he was called in this story.  The house where Agathe and Aennchen lived was also really wonderful; the furniture, the fabrics, the dresses, the decorations...everything was appropriate to the period in which Weber was writing the story, and the outward appearance of two women depending on the honor of their male relatives and soon-to-be-relatives, was increasingly believable based on the world in which they were placed.

As a way of wrapping up without spoiling too much, it ends quite satisfactorily, and saves quite a bit of time by skipping over much of the middle part of the story.  To put it plainly, who could dislike a movie that ends with Rene Pape singing? :)

Therefore, I hope that everyone who is reading gets a chance to see this movie while it's still in a theater near you, and for those of you reading this in America, at least check out the two trailers on the website (which is hyperlinked to the title of this post!) and hope that sometime soon this will be playing at an art theater near you!

As always, Dear Reader, thank you for taking the time to share in my experiences, and I look forward to writing again soon about something else equally exciting!