Wednesday, June 21, 2006
"Angels in America" the opera, part two
I live in a 150 year old house on a massive granite foundation that nevertheless has some chinks in it that allow our little woodland friends to find their way in. So, at intervals, I have mice. Many cats have passed through my life during the years I've lived here. Cornface, the single most intelligent cat with whom I've ever shared the place, was deeply attached to me and after she made her first kill, she lovingly dropped it into one of my shoes by the bed. I had a really bad moment the next morning but quickly adapted and learned--when dressing, always invert and shake.
Sun Grumble was just the opposite. A honey-colored manx cat, she hadn't a brain in her head but was all love and fun. Somehow she'd never quite gotten the genetic predator/prey "kill" message. She'd catch a mouse and trot around with it in her mouth for hours. Every now and then she'd get tired of holding it and open her mouth to yawn. The mouse would flee and she'd look sad because her little friend was gone.
Isis, the non-neurotic Siamese who went to sleep with her chin tucked into my ear, was a snacker, one of the few cats I've had who actually ate her catches. Occasionally I'd find a neatly cleaned miniature skull, spinal cord and tail on the floor in the morning--but nothing else.
Bertie, the big, fun-loving Maine coon cat, was apparently too busy inventing chase games and other forms of diversion to bother. I don't remember him ever catching a mouse--I suspect he found it beneath his sense of cool.
So, now Starr. She's a sweetie and feels that whenever anything interesting happens she needs to share it with me. As soon as she'd secured the mouse, I heard the deep yowl she makes when she wants to know where I am in the house. I usually respond and she comes running, but in the wee smalls of Tuesday morning, I really wasn't up for the Drama of Life and Death right there in my bedroom. There, however, is where she came, the little tail wagging desperately out of the side of her mouth, looking to give me a lecture-demo on how she does it. When she'd caught a previous mouse she brought it up on top of the bed to play with and I certainly wasn't up for a repeat of that.
She began the tormenting thing: the release, pounce, repeat cycle. It was deja vue when the mouse leapt into one of my shoes, which I quickly took out into the hall and shook out. Starr followed, pounced, and I chased her down the stairs to continue what she had to do on the first floor. I then went back to bed and managed to fall asleep.
In the morning I knew just where to look. Right by the side of the bed, just below where my feet would hit the floor when I sat up, was the little cadaver. Starr was sitting next to it patiently waiting for my reaction. I'm a good daddy and told her what a great huntress she is. She looked SO proud and happy. I wrapped up the mouse in a paper towel and put it in the garbage, then we went down to breakfast together.
I got this image from Buff on Buff's Tuff Talk. He, in turn had gotten it from the originator, Kelly in Richmond, Virginia whose blog is Rambling Along in Life http://kellystern.blogspot.com. Kelly issued a "challenge" to see how many gay bloggers would put this image on their blogs to celebrate pride month. So far, Kel's logged about eighty who have. If you'd like to join in, please feel free to copy the image from here and use it yourselves.
Returning to the operatic "Angels in America," the composer Peter Eötvös is a Hungarian living in Paris for most of his creative life who sets the English language to music better than many Americans. He doesn't do safe things. An established if somewhat arcane avant-garde composer with a major career as a conductor, eight years ago he wrote his first opera based on Chekhov's "Three Sisters." The three young women were cast as male countertenors. The European musical scene sat up and took notice, giving Eötvös the kind of recognition of which he had only dreamed previously.
Opera number two was "The Balcony," based on gay author Jean Genet's drama set in a whorehouse. Eötvös, a married and presumably straight man, obviously has an affinity for gay themes and staging techniques. When commissioned by a Paris opera house for a third opera, he chose Tony Kushner's sprawling two-part play on the onset of the AIDS crisis. Kushner wrote two long plays and Eötvös wanted to write one average length opera, so what got left out?
Turns out it was what I would call the "overt" politics. Simply writing an opera about the AIDS crisis is in itself a political act, of course, but the composer chose to bypass the political corruption on which Joe Pitt and Roy Cohn's relationship is based, for example. And a number of my favorite moments in the plays are gone from the opera, notably Ethel Rosenberg's singing Kaddish over Cohn's just deceased body, chasing it with a hearty and contemptuous "you son of a bitch!" Another is the conversation between Louis and Prior Walter late in part two: Louis, who had abandoned his boyfriend when Prior developed full-blown AIDS, asks if Prior could ever take him back. Prior says he forgives Louis but that no, Louis can NEVER come back.
What's left focuses on the core issues of each character's life. Mari Mezei, Eötvös's wife, crafted a libretto that has won great praise for its skillful stitching together of all the threads in a surprisingly coherent new look at the great work. Her text is Kushner seen in the more optimistic light of a world in which there are now thousands upon thousands of gay men LIVING with AIDS. The great central recognition of the play--that God and the angels have abandoned man and that mankind has to learn to pull together and take care of itself and its loved ones, in this opera is the start of a hopeful finale set to Eötvös's radiantly colorful and expressive music.
Taking the cue from that big recognition, director Steven Maler said that he and others always think of the early AIDS years in terms of "too much time spent in hospitals." The heros, he felt, were the nurses, doctors and orderlies who worked so hard, and under such a frustrating lack of knowledge at the time, to try to save the dying. Thus, with designer Clint Ramos, Maler created a production all of which takes place within the unit set of a pure white hospital room, and whose ensemble of white-clad hospital staff are themselves the angels of the title (photo from the Boston Globe).
Twenty musicians of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and three "chorus" singers shared the stage with the set, playing and singing like angels indeed. The score, like so much modern Hungarian music, is filled with lively rhythm and exotic color. A big part of the score are synthesized effects--phones ringing, traffic, urban noise. The characters do everything from speaking over music, to a kind of sing-song with and without composed pitches and tempo, to full out operatic singing. And part of the score is that they do it with individual body microphones (Eötvös spent a month in New York absorbing its music and theater scene, particularly the Broadway musical, as he felt Kushner's play had an essential New York quality about it).
The cast was outstanding both as singers and actors. There's one performance left, this coming Saturday evening. It's at the Wimberly Theate in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts and is definitely worth seeing and hearing.