Saturday, August 01, 2015

Oakland Ferry to Opera

One of the incidental pleasures of appearing as a non-singing actor in the West Edge Opera production of As One in Oakland's Jack London Square is riding the boat from San Francisco's Ferry Building to rehearsals and performances. Depending on the time and day, you can be surrounded by cute international tourists sporting amusing signage for their selfies...

...or East Bay commuters after a day of work in downtown San Francisco.

The trip is especially charming on summer days when you can escape San Francisco's shroud of fog for a sunny afternoon on the Oakland/Alameda waterfront.

The final performance of As One is next Saturday the 8th at 2PM. The boat trip from the SF Ferry Building to Jack London Square is 35 minutes long, and on the weekends you can catch one at 10:45 AM, 11:45 AM, 12:30 PM and 1:00 PM. The Oakland Metro rock club where the opera is being staged is a five minute walk away from the Jack London ferry landing, and there are plentiful return ferries in the late afternoon running about every thirty minutes. At the San Francisco Classical Voice site, there's a discount offer for $20 tickets to the opera. Click here, and check out the last paragraph of the review. If you're on a budget, check out the Buttercup Grill on Broadway and 3rd for a time travel breakfast experience and the Overland country-western bar at 1st and Broadway for a burger and a beer.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Voices From The Grave at Merola Opera

The way art ages is mysterious. Whether it's literature, visual, performance, or in the case of opera a mixture of all three arts, the fashions and enthusiasms of one period often look ridiculous to another generation, and many works are thrown onto the historical scrapheap. In other cases the opposite occurs, and artists' works are selected for a pantheon, with occasional additions and subtractions, which endures over time. English composer Benjamin Britten is a good example of the latter, while the reputations of American composers Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti from roughly the same period seem to be sliding precipitously.

Menotti and Barber's operas both went out of favor around the 1970s, and though there have been fitful attempts at revivals of both composers' works, the frequency of performances is decreasing with each year. The first live performance of a Menotti opera for me was last Saturday at the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason where the Merola Opera troupe of student singers performed The Medium, a 1946 wannabe shocking psychological melodrama. The performers were all excellent, but the opera struck me as dated and absurd. The music has a few lovely riffs but is basically reheated Puccini/Mascagni encased in a libretto by Menotti himself that is a distillation of 1940s Broadway trying-to-be-serious cliches.

Nicole Woodward as the brutal, alcoholic fortuneteller who has a nervous breakdown and Madison Leonard as her abused daughter Monica gave full-throttle, conviction-filled performances, and both sounded good, which somehow made the material worse because the histrionics as written were so false.

Then there is the character of Toby, the homeless Gypsy boy our phony fortuneteller has somehow picked up off the streets of Budapest and brought up as her slave. It's a mute part written for a young man. (Beautiful young men were one of Gian Carlo Menotti's passions, which possibly helped keep him alive until the age of 95. After 40 years of living together as romantic partners with Samuel Barber at a shared home in New York, he abandoned the depressed, alcoholic composer for a young thespian/ice skater who he adopted in 1974.) In this production, Toby was played by Australian tenor Alisdair Kent, with real acting ability and one of the worst wigs I've seen on an opera stage.

The second half of Saturday's double bill was Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, a frenetic comedy about a craven Florentine clan trying to rewrite the will of their just-that-moment deceased patriarch before his riches go to the clergy. The opera worked well on the tiny stage, and though the characters were directed by Peter Kazaras into cartoonish caricatures, the strategy worked well.

What helped matters immensely was Korean baritone Kihun Yoon above as the title character who swindles the clan of their most prized bequests, including the best mule in all of Florence. Yoon was genuinely hilarious in the role, obeying the comedy maxim that sometimes less is more, with a voice that was assured and beautiful.

Among the many bad relatives, a particular favorite was Tara Curtis above as Zita, even while having to puff away on a phony cigarette throughout the show.

The conducting by Mark Morash and the playing of the pickup orchestra was excellent in both operas, and it was too bad that Merola was forced to return to the Cowell Theater again after their sabbatical in the junior high school auditorium on Church Street over the last couple of years. At Cowell, there's not enough space for everyone who would like to attend, and the audience is practically sitting in the orchestra's laps. Maybe next year there will be a move to a more suitable venue. (Performance photos are by Kristen Loken.)

Saturday, July 25, 2015

West Edge Opera Preview

West Edge Opera, founded in 1979 as Berkeley Opera, is opening their three-week festival season this Saturday evening with a wildly ambitious roster of three operas in repertory at three non-traditional locations scattered around Oakland. Alban Berg's notoriously difficult unfinished opera, Lulu, is being performed in the abandoned, marble-lined Oakland train station in an arrangement for reduced orchestra by Eberhard Kloke, starring Emma McNairy below as the title siren and a host of great local singers in the many subsidiary roles.

The production even includes the specified palindromic film, created here by Jeremy Knight, for the middle of the opera which marks the end of Lulu's rise and the beginning of her fall.

WEO Music Director Jonathan Khuner is conducting with direction by Elkhanah Pulitzer, and reports from rehearsals have been glowing, though it was noted that the staging is as sexually explicit as the tale demands, so be warned.

The following Sunday afternoon sees the premiere of a new opera, As One, at the Oakland Metro rock club, which is moving from a 3rd Street to 2nd Street location in Jack London Square.

As One is East Coast composer Laura Kaminsky's first opera, an 80-minute chamber piece written for a string quartet and two singers, a baritone and mezzo-soprano playing two aspects of the same character who transitions from male to female. The libretto by Mark Campbell is co-written by filmmaker Kimberly Reed, whose transgender story it tells, and she also provides much of the graceful, accompanying video. The opera had its world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last September, starring Sasha Cooke and her husband Kelly Markgra, and the reviews were unusually laudatory.

The West Edge Opera production has populated the piece with ten actors playing a variety of roles, including myself as a junior high school teacher lecturing on sex education and poetry. I have no idea how well the production itself will work, but can testify that Dan Kempson and Brenda Patterson as Hannah Before and Hannah After have exquisitely beautiful voices, and they play off each other sensitively. The pit band is the young Friction String Quartet conducted by Bryan Nies, who are sensational musicians in their own right, bringing out every nuance in the Minimalist inflected score.

As if this were not ambitious enough, the company is also mounting one of history's first great operas, Monteverdi's 1640 Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, which recounts the finale of the The Iliad, when Ulysses finally makes it home to Penelope, his wife besieged by suitors. Early music specialist Gilbert Martinez is conducting an eight-piece historically informed ensemble, with direction by General Director Mark Streshinsky who is also directing As One.

The production will open next week at the American Steel Studios, an industrial art space started by sculptor Karen Cusolito, whose huge Burning Man sculptures have been popping up throughout San Francisco for the last five years. For tickets to the shows, click here.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Champagne White and The Temple of Poon

D'Arcy Drollinger has finally produced a sequel to Shit & Champagne, her hit cult drag queen/blaxploitation movie/kung fu stage lampoon that has been bouncing around San Francisco for the last couple of years.

The final revival of the show was earlier this year at Oasis, the new nightclub at 11th and Folsom where Drollinger is a co-director/co-owner.

Like all the Hollywood trash sequels on which it is based, Champagne White and The Temple of Poon is simply Shit and Champagne remade with the same formula.

Instead of the original show's relentless scatalogy, a different orifice's secretions (see the title) are the focus of most of the evening's raunchy humor.

The plot follows a familiar pattern, complete with lots of groovy special-effects video. It involves a new drug which turns society completely insane, and a frame job of our stripper/professional dancer heroine for murder, which in this case gets her sent away to Lady Prison.

The characters and actors are also mostly the same, with the incomparable Matthew Martin (above center) as the evil Dixie somehow surviving her demise from S&C and reinventing herself as perfume magnate Pixie Pardonnemoi on her way to world domination.

The principal joy of the production is the interaction between performers and audience, most of whom are fans of the original show. When Mandy (above right), who functions rather like a 1970s "good girl martyr" version of Kenny on South Park, dies once again, the entire audience joined in a remarkable singalong of Barry Manilow's "Mandy." And when the actor/ess playing Mandy completely lost her lines in one scene, the ensuing improvisation between Diva D'Arcy and desperate player was one of the most spontaneously funny moments of the evening.

The real reason for this kind of theatre (take note, Patrick Vaz) is to create a communal lunge at the Dionysian. On that level, it is very much succeeding.