Thursday, September 18, 2014

Multiple Mary and Invisible Jane

Multiple Mary and Invisible Jane, a modern dance piece with aerialist dancers bouncing off a huge UC Hastings wall in the Tenderloin has been performed over the last week, and you only have two more chances to see it, on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8PM. The address is 333 Golden Gate Avenue, just off of Larkin, and it's free.

And you should, since it's a remarkable piece of theater, blessedly short at 30 minutes, spectacular, and dealing with some current, touchy subjects, in this case old women thrown out of their homes onto the streets by the headlong forces of capitalism.

The aestheticizing of poverty and homelesness, with two SFPD officers standing at the entrance to the audience area, in a neighborhood that is filled with crazy street people, is an artistic project that is filled to the brim with contradictions. At first, I was mildly repulsed. The voices of old homeless women, interviewed by KALW reporter Rose Aguilar and woven into an amplified musical score by Pamela Z, felt patronizing and ameliorative. The beautiful young female bodies flying through the air (Marystarr Hope, Becca Dean, Alayna Stroud, Laura Mills, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and Esther Wrobel) also felt like a precious evocation of real pain. Something changed near the end for me, however, when the musical score became abstract and the dancers started seriously whirling and modernism took over and allowed for complexities of thought and feeling.

The finale brought back the speakers to the score, but this time they were more articulate, and the line that resonated most was not one of victimization but a curse instead: "At age 56, Wells Fargo has thrown me out of my own home and has woken a sleeping dragon." Since Wells Fargo is the corporate sponsor of everything cultural in this city, one has to give the producers credit for courage. The choreography and direction is by Jo Kreiter, and the absolutely exquisite lighting design is by Matthew Antaky. Bring a burrito and a beer, and you will be completely enchanted.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Personal Reasons for Loving Norma

The bel canto opera by Vincenzo Bellini, Norma, about a Druid priestess who falls in love with a Roman imperialist general, and is then dumped for a younger Druid vestal virgin, opened the San Francisco Opera season a couple of Fridays ago. Opening Night of the Season audiences are famously terrible, giving no energy back to anybody onstage, because their interests tend to lie more with money than music. I went to the show at its second performance on a Wednesday evening, standing room in the balcony, with OperaVision screens left and right.

Norma is the greatest musical work of Bellini and the entire bel canto period of early 19th century Italian opera, with one extraordinary tune after another. Like Bizet and his Carmen, Bellini died young though his music has survived through every fashion of the last two centuries. However, unlike Carmen, which is fairly easy to cast well, Norma is virtually impossible to cast, as it requires the supreme singers and actors in the world and barely gives any of them a break, particularly the title character.

Carmen has a very sturdy modern story, while Norma is from another era in dramaturgy altogether, though I love its libretto. For all the many absurdities, such as Norma's secret two children by her Roman lover hiding in the forest, the proto-feminist duets where the two sopranos are supportive rather than rivals are still politically revolutionary and musically unparalleled. And even though the tenor is an utter cad, he ends up realizing what a sublime woman Norma is by the end, and eventually does the right thing in a blazing finale.

San Francisco Opera Director David Gockley announced a week before the opening that the originally cast Daveda Karanas as Adalgisa had left the cast for "personal reasons," and she was replaced by the young sensation Jamie Barton before opening night. At the Wednesday performance, I left before the finale because I couldn't stand the off-pitch Italian tenor of Marco Berti. However, Gockley must be psychic, and two days later Berti also left the cast for "personal reasons" and was replaced by the young American tenor Russell Thomas. The latter singer made his debut at the third performance on a Sunday matinee, and finally all the pieces for a perfect cast were in place.

This is probably the best sounding Norma you could hear in an opera house in the world right now, so make sure you go to one of the final four performances which are selling fast because I'm not the only one putting the word out. Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma falls more on the harshly dramatic Maria Callas spectrum than perfectly sung Joan Sutherland, but it's a very, very good performance. On Sunday, her voice cracked and disappeared altogether two or three times in the last 20 minutes of the show, but it actually made her sound more vulnerable within a very controlled performance. I've heard legendary singers as Adalgisa over the decades, from Fiorenza Cossotto to Marilyn Horne, and Jamie Barton is even better than those formidable ladies. "Sing anything," you wanted to cry, because she has a voice that sounds like a young Jessye Norman, rich and creamy and full of power. Thomas as the Roman cad was so wonderful that it was the first time I have ever sympathized with the character. The three singers were having a sensational time on Sunday weaving their voices in and out of each other's, and the audience offered a perfect mixture of awed silence and wild ovations in response.

The production directed by Kevin Newbury is mostly ridiculous, but serviceable, and compared to SF Opera's last ugly Norma set with a burnt out forest, it was a theatrical marvel. The production is set in some imaginary Druid warehouse, with stagehands carrying and wheeling on weird pieces of furniture all evening long. When this show moves on to Chicago, Toronto and Barcelona, somebody should jettison the singing of Norma's great opening aria, Casta Diva, on top of what looks to be a Druid cherrypicker, because the sound is not good and it looks totally ridiculous. Otherwise, keep the cast as is, which is soon to be legendary on its own.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Marriage of Toby & An at the SF Opera House

Walking by the San Francisco Opera House at 6PM on Saturday...

...I noticed people on the mezzanine balcony, and thought it early for an opera crowd.

It turned out the Opera House was being rented out for a wedding party for Toby Brown and An Tran...

...whose names and faces were on the outdoor marquees usually advertising San Francisco's opera or ballet seasons.

I Googled the pair this morning with San Francisco as a modifier, but found nothing.

Toby Brown on his own led to an amusing British blog called the London Egotist (click here) where the above photo of Toby Brown, Prince of Estate Agents, was featured under the headline "Is this estate agent the biggest tool in London?" There are also photos of creative acts of defacement that various people have inflicted on Toby's London bus shelter image.

Now the Toby Brown whose wedding party took place at the San Francisco Opera House may not be the same wanker who is the Prince of Real Estate Agents in London. However, what are the chances of two wealthy young narcissists with the same name and similar dimples who both have a passion for putting their mugs on public display being two different people? It could be a doppelganger, but I'm guessing not.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

SFMOMA Topping Out

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is in the midst of a huge expansion, mostly to house the collection of Donald Fisher, who bequeathed it to the museum on his deathbed in 2009.

On Wednesday afternoon, there was a public celebration of the "Topping Out" of the construction...

...with the highest beam put into place on the new building which is scheduled to open in Spring of 2016.

I was hoping the event would be taking place at the construction site itself, but instead it was half a block away in Jessie Square in front of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

There were free, SFMOMA On-The-Go branded binoculars for the crowd...

...and dull speeches from Neal Benezra, SFMOMA's director...

...along with Charles Schwab above, a major donor for the project...

...and fawning remarks by Mayor Ed Lee to the billionaire Republicans who were sitting in the front row.

Waiting for the formalities to be over so they could start playing music was the Balboa High School Band...

...and a samba reggae troupe called Batalá San Francisco.