Monday, October 3, 2016

On Singers and Size

I recently had a conversation with a friend on the appearance of opera singers, a conversation prompted by the idiotic remark of a currently popular singer who stated today's singers must be "beautiful and thin, and very fit . . ." Sorry, but I’m calling “bullshit."

Opera is art . . . storytelling on the grandest of scales and has precious little to do with reality. Weight has nothing to do with artistry nor one's ability to relate a story. Regardless of race, weight, body size, a good storyteller must do one thing: conjure a world of intrigue and fantasy that can draw an audience into believing his or her story. Most of us (I hope) have experienced one-man-shows where, with neither set nor costume, someone has pulled us in, and engaged us in a way where what surrounds us is altered completely until the lights come back up and we realize we've been on a remarkable journey. Those uncomfortable with body size that isn't (in their estimation) perfect simply lack imagination or any ability to accept the fact that people come in all sizes, shapes and colors. Over the years I've found it interesting that it isn’t necessarily younger audiences who have a difficult accepting opera-sized opera singers. If one has a problem with fat singers, don't go. It's really that simple. Conversely, I've seen far too many "sexy" singers who are lousy storytellers and who couldn't act their way out of the proverbial paper bag.

In 2010 attending the first Met HD “Aida” our local cineplex sold out several theatres. The one I watched in was filled mostly with Bowdoin college students fulfilling a class requirement, including a large segment of the football team. Violetta Urmana, Johan Botha, Dolora Zajick, and and Jennifer Check were among the plus-sized principals that day. None of the kids, most seeing their first opera, seemed to have any problem getting right into the story and cheering and responding to the goings-on of Verdi's tale taking place near and on the Nile. I was seated next to a couple of the football players and, as the intensity of Amneris’ Judgment Scene began, the one next to me leaned into his buddy and whispered, "Ah, this is my favorite part . . . where the Pharaoh chick loses her shit!” My heart exploded.

Yes, it’s nice to have beautiful gifted singers who can also act, but what’s most important to this opera lover are smart singers, a director both aware and sympathetic to his singers' needs and abilities, and a damned good conductor; the music and my imagination do all the rest of the work. I know, Weird, huh?

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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Richard Ayoade's "The Double"

Just finished watching Richard Ayoade's The Double, based upon Dostoyevsky's novella of the same name (well, Dvoynik, actually). Yesterday, I attempted to watch while exhausted and gave up after about 20 minutes. Today, refreshed, I was captivated completely by everything from the performances, the score, the odd Asian pop songs, the sickly yellow lighting, the claustrophobic cubicle dystopian world these pathetic characters inhabit . . . all . . . every bit of it.

Most impressive of all was Jesse Eisenberg's performance in two wildly contrasting and difficult roles. Eisenberg and Ayoade wisely stick to what makes Dostoyevsky work, and establish the schlub, Simon, as the downtrodden hero, winning the audience to route for him over his extroverted, confident, loved and respected doppleganger, James. It's an actors feast and Eisenberg, up to every challenge, eats his way through, succeeding making me believe him as both of these men.

Mia Wasikowska is equally remarkable, as the romantic interest, her interactions between Simon and James leading to wrong choices and near disaster, breaking nearly every heart, mine included.

Wallace Shawn in a tailor made role lends great comic relief as Mr. Papadopoulos, everyone's boss in the oppressive factory where much of the tale takes place.

Andrew Hewitt's all-over-the-map score is easily one of my favorites of any recent film, Recalling Vivaldi, Prokofiev and Bartok its it is spiked throughout with original faux-cowboy tunes like East Virginia and the aforementioned Asian pop songs like Sukiayki.

Ayoade is early in his career as a filmmaker, but he's winning me over quickly.

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Holy Smoke: It's Carmen!

PORTopera opened its new production of Bizet's time-honored Carmen in a modest, but effective production, the emphasis appropriately placed where it should be; on music, and drama. I always cringe a a little when a company chooses the Guiraud version instead of Bizet's original, feeling it robs a good deal of the bite and spice the dialogue can add. That being said, most of the music making was strong. Maestro Stephen Lord started things off with a briskly paced overture setting the tone for all that followed. There were a few moments of loss of coordination between stage and pit, most notably the middle of the Smugglers quintet, which found its way back on track and finished with sizzle. Lord is a singers' conductor who strikes the right balance between singers and band, never overpowering, but letting the big orchestral moments pop. In this regard, he's also an audiences' conductor, and that's always a good thing.

Judy Gailen's unit set of a large, curved stucco wall served for all four acts with slight variances (dangerous steps, an enormous table for Carmen to dance and seduce Don Jose on at Lillas Pastia, etc.) for each.

Dona D. Vaughn led a generally excellent cast, starting with the leading lady, Israeli mezzo soprano, Maya Lahyani. With striking good looks, physique and a physical force Lahyani's a natural Carmen, comfortable with her body and unafraid to use it to seduce, or as a weapon. The voice is rich, with an old-fashioned lushness that projected throughout the house beautifully. Wonderful in her early arias and the first two acts' lighter moments, Lahyani truly came into her own in the card scene, reaching into the story's darker side and taking us along Carmen's grizzly ride to Doomsville.

Adam Diegel took a bit of warming up, but earned the first real ovation of the night with the Flower aria, the sweetness of his voice blooming beautifully for the finish. He was at his best in Jose's deadly showdown with his ex where things got good and ugly. He's an agile singer and moved like a dancer, though at other times stiff, which is not, I suppose, against character. One got a small sense of this character's dangerous, but not all (Carmen isn't his first kill). He and Lahyani were appropriately passionate, right up until, well, you know.

Conversely, I was not quite convinced by Edward Parks' turn as Escamillo, With a rich, beautiful mid range, upper notes widened a bit, while the lowest notes (particularly in the Toreador aria) nearly disappeared. His third act appearance reminded me more of Ross Martin's Artemus Gordon from The Wild, Wild West, than a dangerous bullfighter. In the final act he became the victim of an unfortunate costuming decision.

Amanda Woodbury took on, Micaëla, the only decent person in sordid story, and did so marvelously, nowhere more so than in her Act Three aria that, when beautifully sung (as it frequently is, since its Micaëla's only big moment) steals the show. It happened again last night.

Comprimario roles were, to a one, as good as it gets, and the choruses, both children and adult, were magnificent. Once again, When it comes to crowd scenes, Ms. Vaughn once again shows her had as one of the best in the business. Her endless, silhouetted parade of gypsies climbing the mountain pass, then down steep, dangerous steps was stage magic. Vaughn did away with the parade at the bull ring, while the choristers made me believe (vividly) they were seeing it, so much so that I occasionally looked across the balcony expecting to see an army of banderilleros, picadors and matadors. Nice touch.

Getting older, and a touch jaded, I sometimes resist attending operas I've seen countless times, but when I give in, I'm reminded why I fell in love with them in the first place, and so it was this evening. I wasn't alone, the audience, young and old, loved it, and a friend, attending his first opera, can't wait to start going to more. Carmen can do that.

(Photo Credit: John Ewing for

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