'Galileo Galilei': opera 'Memento'

Saw the opening night of Portland Opera's Galileo Galilei yesterday. At 90 minutes, it was more thought exercise than cathartic. Performers were fine, artistic design was really interesting (especially the seraphim costume for the opera-in-an-opera Eos - could have admired that for half an hour) but ephiphanies and the sublime never arrived.

The story felt based on about 1-2 paragraph biography of Galileo. Not much effort went into showing personality. A film I saw in high school did a better job of explaining the concepts of Galileo's accomplishments and the sense of the person himself.

90 minutes without intermission. That was a good choice. Had it been longer, the opera might not hold onto people's attention. That is the fault of the music and the words.

The music was not memorable. It was a 90 minute libretto. The plot and concepts all felt like blocks getting passed around. I did not feel within any of the characters. I mostly waited for the next visual (and there were many interesting ones).

Galileo's life is presented in 10 chapters, in reverse chronology. To start he is feeble and expressing self-doubt about not having stuck to his earth-is-not-the-center-of-the-universe Copernican proof, or not being devout enough to the Catholic Church in renouncing science completely in his heart. Then we see him with gradually increasing vigor, the role handed off to a better vocalist (or maybe the music improved with more narrative once it moved from tiresome "the earth moves!" "no, the sun moves!" lyrics between Galileo and clerics). The final chapter is a boy Galileo taking in the spectacle of a really interesting opera about Orion. Then at the end the old Galileo is united with the boy Galileo rapt with wonder and they walk into a great brightness together.

But it's the CONCEPT of old Galileo and the CONCEPT of boy Galileo walking together. I never thought: "Oh, how nice for Galileo to get this closure". They were blocks at the end nudged into a bright white screen.

I proclaim from the second balcony "Je suis arriviste!" about opera matters. Portland Opera did an interesting job given the material, but the material was meh.

I Cio-Cio-Choose 'Madama Butterfly'

Second opera in two months. Saw the Portland Opera's production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly this afternoon. Fun to go to a classy event in daylight, and still have daylight outside when it's done. The day still felt open, heart full of amusement and music!

I don't speak Italian, and am by no means classy, but I really liked the show. There are musical discernments I am far from being sensitive to, but Opera is sure-as-heck less daunting than I once thought. Plots are simple, and take forever to develop. But rapid plots are not opera's appeal. It's empathy and sensory experience.

Listening to live music can be superior to decades-old recordings. You're welcome for this free wisdom.The score to Madama Butterfly was less familiar than Carmen which I saw in late December. But while I've listened to Butterfly several times with good speakers and headphones, I was struck by how the music that comes across as cramped on a recording opens up with live orchestration. One thing to KNOW that, as most everyone who cares about music does, but another thing to EXPERIENCE that.

Voices were strong. The male lead character, B.F. Pinkerton, is a jerk who doesn't stick around. We're not supposed to like him, but I kept hoping he would break into Nelly Furtado's "I'm Like a Bird" to at least TRY to win us over.

As it was, when it was time for curtain call, the long-suffering Cio-Cio San (nicknamed Madama Butterfly) had just taken her own life before our eyes. When the performer who played Pinkerton, the man who led to Cio-Cio San's despair, took the stage a crescendo of applause was supported by an undercurrent of playful booing. Very funny. Singer smiled. Must be part of the role.

The production was more accomplished than the Eugene Opera's Carmen (though I liked that show, too, and like Carmen more than Butterfly). At the Eugene Opera I did not see a single illuminated cell phone screen as the lights came down. In Portland, bright rectangles were all over the place. So, point to Eugene for being classier!

Music shopping, opera speakeasy, candy ploy

Largely house-bound day, about 5:30 p.m. I rustled the family up, insisting on a field trip to the record/CD store while they still exist. Music Millenium ("A place where the music and the people still matter"). I was on the hunt for a next opera CD.

I'd taken the kids there before, but it was several years ago and they had no memory of it. They found the candy section right away and started bargaining. "Can we get candy instead of music?" "NO! Go look around."

We went separate directions. Where is the opera section? Over in classical, duh. Down the stairs, then some other stairs. Gotta open a door then down OTHER stairs to get into the classical room, then opera is in a closet of THAT room. Like finding a brightly lit opium den.

Got there, browsed a bit, took some tips from the "Opera 101" book I'm reading. Side track: the author is bugging me. He loves using the phrase "the fact that", once using it in consecutive sentences (*wince*).

I've already got Maria Callas in Norma, the first opera CD I bought (bet Fanny Chicken can suss out why) and have listened to Callas' studio recording of Carmen loads of times, leading to seeing it a few weeks ago. Thanks, T! Madama Butterfly probably the next opera I'll attend, probably in a few weeks. Found a recording of ... Maria Callas performing THAT, nabbed it. Double CD (w00t!) with a bonus CD-ROM of material (wh@t?).

Back in the day (as kids like to say, I'm trying to reach their demographic - how's that coming across? Cool? Kinda molester-y?) I really like the interactive CD-ROMs put out by Peter Gabriel (still think about those), Sting 'All this Time' (Andrew & I joke about that one), and Prince's 'Interactive' (wish there were a smell-o-vision feature). Haven't tried the opera CD-ROM, but it's probably documents, not interactive games like "coax the diva to the stage after she received an underwhelming bouquet from her new paramour".

Also got a Callas opera buffet CD - more than 100 songs over 6 CDs! - that I'll use as a reference when the various operas get a mention in the Opera 101 book. Small doses. Looking at the track lists made me woozy what with all the languages that weren't American.

The Madama Butterfly did not have a price tag on it. Asked a clerk in the middle of the store for a price check. Clerk got nervous. "That's from the opera section."

"Can you look it up here?"

"Yes. But, it's from the other section."

[Non-verbal ??? on my face]

"There may be a special deal or something. They would know."

"I assumed the whole store would be connected to the same system." What is up with this opera ghetto treatment?

Clerk scanned it, $23.99. Thanked him, still baffled. But there are old-school rectangular red or white or orange price stickers on the CDs at Music Millenium, and the clerk wanted to make sure I was getting any sale they might be having that would not be reflected in the computer system. So, sorry for my faces, brother. It was $23.99 in the opera/classical register, too, this time.

Daughter got the new Muppet Movie music CD. Son picked nothing. Spouse got a few CDs including a greatest hits of Pink Martini. A new Decemberists CD sits in our home, so far unopened this last month. Tough for parents to find time to listen to new music, but why am I reluctant to seek out music by local artists? I have this threshold for only listening to artists after they hit the mainstream. Never hire me to be an A/R guy, I'd never go anywhere to seek out prospects.

Also picked up the new Patton Oswalt CD. No idea he had one. Why didn't he tell me?

2011 Carmen: Opera! Acting! Singing! Thank you!

Got this book for Christmas. Doesn't cover 'Carmen', but I'll be reading it in 2012.People who know or like opera may want to avert their eyes, I'm about to fling ignorance around like water off a wet dog.

I had only seen three operas. In the late 70s or early 80s I saw a family friend in the female lead of Pirates of Penzance. In the 90s I saw another friend in Candide. Around 1990 PBS aired all of Wagner's Ring cycle done by the New York Metropolitan Opera. I made it through the first show, and part of the second, then interest waned. A foreign language! Subtitles? German? Even as a fan of Norse myths it was too slow, too much work.

Julia Roberts about to bug the shit out of me.So, in the dark I remained. Yet, I knew enough to get PISSED at Pretty Woman during the scene where the prostitute (Julia Roberts) is told by her aristocrat Wall Street tycoon john (Richard Gere) that people either get, nay FEEL, opera or they don't. And only the first time. After that, they may LIKE opera, but they have a never-to-be-remedied manqué soul or something like that. Sure as shit, arriviste Julia Roberts weeps at the opera. Her first time. Ah! See? Heart of gold! What if it were a bad production, Richard Gere, and she were turned off by that? Eh? Even though I didn't know opera, I knew enough to think: "Stop! In the name of Art! Fuuuck YOOOUUU, Pretty Woman!"

I didn't (and still mostly don't) like musicals. And operas amplified what I didn't like about musicals. As a story conveyance device, they were terrible. Rarely showing anything. Flooding the audience with repetitive wordy words, in a foreign language, and not offering much wisdom. Do operas even try have a message? Modern operas, maybe. There's a new one about Nixon going to China. Watching Pat Nixon sing songs might be funny. Otherwise, whatever.

But during 2011, something clicked, and I got interested (though still intimidated). I finally got that operas were not meant to be didactic, they were pageants for humans to stand in defiance of nature's amoral flow. That flow will always prevail, but the demiurge to create a moment and marker was important. Melodrama was inherent. We, as humans, would never win, but identity is conflict, and maybe we would find something of ourselves in that temporary stand. And then the catharsis thing and watching people we empathize with suffer as scapegoats for the expiation of our sins ("Die before me Carmen, so that I may mourn the zesty side of me that yet dreams!") and on and on.

I also got interested in the biography, glamor, and drama of Maria Callas. To be a strong opera performer, compelled to master that moment before a crowd, demands a strong ego. The appeal of the diva will probably be a necessity for holding MY attention. I doubt male vocalists will have that hold for me.

Asking for guidance on Facebook, one friend affirmed Callas was a good start (I already had been listening to her in Norma). Another friend suggested Carmen as the opera to get to know. Snorkeling gear on loan from Parnassus, I leaned off the edge of the boat and flopped in. Read a plot synopsis, then a couple. Read that Bizet wrote "Toreador" in a contemptuous pique of needing to throw a sure-fire hit to the rabble. Problem is, that kind of apocryphal story is told about a LOT of artists, to the modern day. It creates an artificial bond between the artist, the purveyor of the bogus story, and the listener: "Only WE get [insert name of artist]. The swine out there who think [insert name of popular work by artist] is awesome don't know how low the artist regarded THEIR kind of taste."

Bought a studio recording of Callas in Carmen. It became a soundtrack for writing. Much of the score was familiar, of course. Visions of The Bad News Bears during the overture. I'm down with that, though. It's a good movie.

At the end of this year, I caught a production of Carmen on its opening night and truly enjoyed it. The theater was only half full, motivating a shift to better seats during an intermission. Pavlovian conditioning also brought me to scribble writing ideas during the show.

Voices were good, music done well. I don't have a discerning ear about opera so I can't get too analytical there. Some of the acting was dull, especially the body language. But the biomechanics of singing opera capably AND being a nimble performer may be impossible. How many divas wear gowns/muumuus so vast you end up marveling they can ambulate their massive torsos around on anything not a downward slope?

I knew the opera was in French, but was worried I wouldn't be able to follow the lyrics. Yet it was doubtful Eugene was THAT full of people fluent or conversant in French. Don't get me wrong, a college town and all, but STILL - THOUSANDS of people paying money to hear and comprehend French sung operatically? Translated lyrics were projected above the stage. Ah! Bien merçi!

José was in good voice, mostly. Body language sluggish. Carmen was lusty and unapologetic and lived large. Escamillo was funny and preening and bold. Micaëla was lovely with a great voice and the performer seems destined for ascension.

Four acts in 'Carmen'. Act one was okay. Got swept up in Act two. Laughed in Act three. Admired the countdown of 'Carmen' getting sacrificed for our benefit in Act four. Was impressed that I never caught any illuminated rectangles from cellphones or cameras in the audience the entire time. Also, there were no patronizing announcements asking people to turn off their cellphones. People just KNEW and ... no phones rang during the show. A good experience both inward and a mass commisseration. Felt entertained, moved, and optimistic about being a human being.

Yes, I realize if this page is setup right the video played automatically, causing music to come out of your speakers as soon as you got here like a webpage from 1997. Kickin' it old school. To compensate, check out this charming performance of "Habanera" by Callas below ... and YOU get to control the playback. You're welcome!

Waiting on Elizabeth's portrait

Upon my arrival, I can tell from her raspy greeting they had been singing at the studio piano then likely singing a capella instead of being at task for this interminable sitting. The walls seem to pulsate with absorbed melodies and laughter. If I put my fingers on the plaster, would they palpate vibrations?

Her mother started this project with Sargent. An expense, as he is known to be slow. But she wanted her daughter portrayed as she was when engaged. Prima del matrimonio. Who knows what I, as the mid-tier career soldier, might do to diminish her daughter? She will tell my children "Your mother was a great beauty." with a grand gesture toward the portrait.

I am not a fool. I see an aspect of Elsie coming through. Sargent's warm regard in wanting her. I lean over his shoulder and note the blush and exaggerated care given to her lips. As I loom he is silent, not from bravery but a worry a tremble in his voice may reveal too much. Famous as he is, he is still vulnerable and must fear a bad report. Yet he knows I will not pounce upon his work. His creation will outlast this room and my review. His desire imbues her portrait and becomes what she exudes for him. I have earned and sustained my higher station, but my victories on the field and maneuvers in this scene may not last as long as this portrait. His strategy is longer.

In her cool appraisal of those who evaluate her, the flush of her cheeks, this portrait is Elizabeth as a maiden. As she stands apart from me now, a laugh still in her stance, has she been girlish with him? I do not think she would be so rude as to bite her lip and act less womanly than she is. That may put him off, too. Knowing her power, and knowing it is accentuated by being not yet attained. She is not flighty here, she is strong. She knows and has lived, much by what we have shared. Her mother is not getting the portrait she wanted. That is gratifying.

And I indulge Elsie. No, too patronizing. I endure from others the whispers, asides, occasional daring remark in my presence that Elsie's avocation and accomplishments as a concert singer are déclassé.

But it fills her. To see her take savor and draw in the air, bosom rising, delay before her note, knowing she could convey so much in her lilting soprano then drop to a feral resonance. Where will she go? Follow her training? Let the spirit take the moment? She is lost and happy and delirious in the suspension of the world and those fixed on her. We are held in thrall. She is happy. Obliged to perform, but the setting is of her choosing. Let them natter on in parties. She feeds from us. I am among those feeling within her and sustaining her. Admiring her as the room does, coveting my own all the more as others covet her. Then, her decision or spirit assented to, the note selected, force sanctioned, she carries us all along again.

And, my hand will be on the upper side of her hips, John, as her hand is posed off her waist. I will hold her there as she's straddled over me to fix her in place. And her left hand will be set over mine to pin her even more. She will press on me with the assurance and lovely heft you have conveyed so well, John. And before then the palm of her right hand will tend to my need, wrapped with confidence as on the rim of your sitting chair. Yes, Sargent, those hands are daring and skilled and loving and clever and I know you have made a guess that is so, but I see you do not know from experience. You have posed her hands in speculation. I am amused.

This is a painting of allegation, admiration, want, abundance, poise. Her bosom is a marvel. I have seen our child feed there, and I still have desire and feel relief to take refuge and time there. And she lets me. Her soldier is happy there. And I am happy to make her happy.

"We are obliged to leave soon." I say glancing at the clock on the wall. Strong chance Sargent's clock is not accurate. Stronger chance any array of clocks he may have here do not corroborate one another.

Mrs. George Swinton (nee Elizabeth "'Elsie" Ebsworth) painted by John Singer Sargent

"What time is it?" Elsie says. Her voice evenly modulated. I do not think Sargent would truly do anything untoward. He tantalizes himself. I look at the nearest clock again.

"It's 22 past six." Recital at 8. Reception at 9. Would she wear this ensemble? He paints her in white and coppery pearlish taupe. She stands now in royal blue. He is using her expression and proportions. She will not need a change tonight.

After the recital: praise, and flattery, and as she is flush with regard and expression I shall take her home, and we will bid the help good night then gaze upon our infant son asleep in the cradle then adjourn to our chambers. I will pin her down by her left wrist, leaving her right hand and my left to wander as they please, and I shall take her as she is arrayed now. She will see how what she set in motion by my catching her in this scene in the studio and her later scenes this evening will culminate in the light in my eyes fueled from the swells of desire from the crowds of men and envious women channeled and churning through me and she will be well pleased and sleep soundly and it will be a good morning.

Space, and opera

Last night's dream —

I'm part of a family of four in a small space station we made ourselves. Not my real life family. My role alternates between father and sibling.

The fifth person in our group goes mad, damages the top of our space station that keeps us aloft by tearing a giant seam in the hull. I spot the tear, grip it closed enough with my hands while radioing the other people in the space station that we've been sabotaged, who did it, and that we're slowly descending back to earth.

We land in a desolate area in California. I'm with one family member and we get picked up and transported to San Francisco. The other family/crew members disappear at this point. I'm not sure which family member I'm traveling with.

We check into an elaborate, fancy hotel in San Francisco. Like all fancy hotels, it is adjoined to a fancy shopping mall via an outdoor escalator to the mezzanine level. How fancy is this shopping mall? Why, one of its anchor stores is the San Francisco Metropolitan Opera House!

We go inside the San Francisco Met and attend a massive variety show staged on three sides about a floor above where the audience sits on couches and chaise longues, looking up. Large pageantry, pastel costumes.

I find a remote underneath my seat, press a button, the lights flicker and the whole audience and the performers are all "WTF?" then I hit the button again. Lights return to normal and the performance resumes.

Intermittently I'm trying to text a friend who lives in San Francisco: "Hey, I'm in San Francisco! Let's hang!" but there's a problem with sending a text - a breach of protocol in the opera, for one, although I'm wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Unable to text, I'm trying to check in via Facebook Places to catch the friend's notice and coming to realize that there may not even BE a San Francisco Metropolitan Opera. Frustration sets in. Dream ends.

[UPDATE: San Francisco has city opera, but it is not named the Met]