Monday, October 29, 2007

OK, it’s official—I just don’t “get” Michael Nyman or his music. I know he’s very well-regarded and that in his musicologist’s hat he coined the term “minimalism. Until yesterday I knew his work only from his movie scores for Peter Greenaway, but particularly for the movie The Piano, which I hated. The characterless, aimlessly wandering dreck he composed for Holly Hunter’s character to play was boring in itself and ludicrous as music for the Romantic Age, when Chopin, Liszt and others were revolutionizing and galvanizing keyboard music.

But I know well the difference in intent between movie music and opera. Yesterday afternoon I went to Nyman’s The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (based on the noted case study by Oliver Sacks) at Boston University School for the Arts’ Fringe Festival in hopes of being impressed and involved.

Alas. The highest profile moment in the score was a verbatim quote from Robert Schumann’s song “Ich grolle nicht” that blew away everything on both sides of it. It’s not minimalism with which I have any quarrel—John Adams and Philip Glass have provided some stimulating, deeply appreciated operas and other music in my recent listening experiences. Nyman’s music to me has no character and his characters on stage sound all the same, with no effort (or a failed effort if there was one) to distinguish one personality or situation from another. Except for one or two very brief glimmers, he didn’t make a case for the material even needing to be set to music in the first place, and particularly not HIS music.

It was a good production, based on geometrics in black, white and silver/gray in both the costumes and minimal set, principally the floor and three chairs. The tenor singing the Neurologist was outstanding, clear of voice and diction. The patient, a Russian baritone, had a good voice (although some notable pitch problems in high-lying phrases), and fine English diction through a charming accent. The wife had a large, sumptuous voice--and no discernable consonants anywhere in her mouth. I understood maybe a tenth of what she sang.

Between performances, I spent a couple of hours at the Museum of Fine Arts, mostly in the Near Eastern section. I was happy to see the MFA acknowledges that there IS a Near East. These days in the media and in White House briefings everything, including Cyprus and Israel, is considered the Middle East. I’ve been wondering for years just where the Near East had gone—Sicily, perhaps, or maybe just dropped into the Mediterranean, preparing for a National Geographic rediscovery by under-water archaeologists? Who know it had relocated to New England?

There was a terrific exhibit on the techniques of creating illuminated Korans and other Islamic manuscripts. Over in Far East, there was a very entertaining Kabuki actor and theater poster exhibit with examples going back to the 18th century.


The second Fringe Festival presentation of the day was in the early evening was Hostage, not from Brendan Behan’s famous play but an original story. Operating on two levels, librettist and director Craig Wich tells of an American Ambassador taken hostage and the tireless, frustrated efforts of his wife to get the government to have him freed, a plot that also serves as metaphor for their emotionally blocked message. Add that the Ambassador’s name is Jonathan Orfeo and the set-up is for a reverse-gendered journey to rescue a stranded spouse with both parties blindfolded due to the intensely political nature of the captivity.

In just under one hour, we saw about half the opera that is still ”under construction”—a couple of scenes from act one, all of act two, none of act three. A local composer, Headrick is on the music faculty at Boston University, but has been associated with both the St. Louis and Boston Symphony Orchestras as well as major music conservatories over the years. He writes in the neo-Romantic style that has been practiced by Giancarlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Mark Adamo and Jake Heggie, among others in their own personal styles. Big, singable tunes well up frequently and are developed well throughout the score. Headrick knows how to shape scenes and write theatrical music. There was a particularly gorgeous duet for the couple in act two growing our of their isolated thoughts of each which leads to their walking into the recreation of a romantic dinner they had early in their relationship (the libretto does not stick to linear narrative but swims through time and place as necessary to tell the story and provide variety of experience). From what I heard yesterday, I will be looking for the first performances of the completed opera because I liked very much what I heard.

There were two alternating casts for Hostage because its vocal demands are serious. Yesterday there was a splendid young tenor, Edgar Ramirez as the Ambassador, with a big, Italianate sound, brilliant top and no inclination to oversing or otherwise distort a very attractive lyric voice. Annie Griffin, tall and willowy, very beautiful and a good actress with a strong if monochromatic voice, was the wife whose travails before a House Committee’s bureaucracy inevitably recall Magda in Menotti’s The Consul. Gideon Dabi sang well as the foreign Guard who enigmatically seems to have more of a connection with the American government than a “terrorist” military man should. Satisfying stuff that whets the appetite for more.


Yet another meme:

You know I can’t resist these things when they come along—clearly I have a compulsion to confess (or at least to reveal, as those who’ve seen me at a clothing optional beach can attest)—so here’s the latest one, via Karl at Adventures in Gastronomy:

Were you named after somebody? Two somebodies. My first name is William, for my mother’s father (my English or, rather, Welsh grandfather); my middle name is Alexander after my father’s father, Alessandro, my Italian grandfather. I wish my parents hadn’t translated it and have often contemplated signing myself William Alessandro F.

When was the last time you cried? Way long ago as part of a different life that I am very happy is over and done with.

Do you like your handwriting? NO, it’s truly dreadful, a revolt against the sappy Palmer Method the nuns taught in Catholic school, I suppose. OK, at least that was legible. Now I do speed printing that I picked up from doing all my drafting and technical drawings, and just sign my name.

What is your favorite lunch meat? Sliced roasted turkey breast, except when I go to New York City, when it becomes a well-trimmed Rumanian pastrami.

Do you have kids? Yes, two daughters adopted from Korea whom I raised as a single gay father; along with Fritz, they’re the joys of my life.

If you were another person, would you be friends with you? Absolutely! I’m great company and filled with a vast store of totally arcane and useless knowledge, so that interesting conversation is NEVER a problem. As long as you can hold up your end on the resettlement of the Goths in Burgundy during the Dark Ages, the differences among all the versions of Beethoven’s Leonore/Fidelio, or the symptoms of Bubonic Plague in 1347, that is. But you’re suave enough to have all that down cold, I’m quite sure.

Do you use sarcasm a lot? No, never. Just don’t read the end of that last answer too closely.

Do you still have your tonsils? No. There’s something else I don’t have that was removed without my knowledge or consent before I was old enough to protest, but we needn’t go into that here. OK, we just did.

Would you bungee jump? Surely you jest.

What is your favorite cereal? Grape Nuts, although I’m just cheap enough to grab them off the shelf as Nutty Nuggets whenever I find that house brand offered--it’s absolutely the same thing.

Do you untie your shoes when you take them off? Yes. The real question is: can I tie them properly when I put them on? The jury’s still out on that one.

Do you think you are strong? I KNOW I’m strong, physically and emotionally.

What is your favorite ice cream? Last summer it was raspberry chocolate chip. Next year it may be . . . I’m fickle about ice cream.

What is the first thing you notice about people? Are they outgoing, and do they make eye contact. If they’re men, I readily admit to doing the ocular disrobe VERY soon into the encounter.

Red or pink? Red, particular a rich Chinese cinnabar. I’m a designer, so I talk paint chip speak.

What is the least favorite thing about yourself? My pelvis. The male standard of beauty is the inverted triangle look, but I’ve got birthing hips.

Who do you miss the most? My Aunt Olga, my father’s sister. She was a strong, courageous, bright and caring woman, and the only person in my family who told me the truth about things. I miss her very much.

What color pants and shoes are you wearing? Black and very dark brown, in that order. I’m sure I’m violating some sacred gay code of couture with that combination, but that's what you get.

What was the last thing you ate? A piece of Fritz’s home-made New England Apple Cake, washed down with Flag Hill Winery’s Maple Liqueur.

What are you listening to right now? Act two of Janacek’s Jenufa—in my head.

If you were a crayon, what color would you be? Lapis Lazuli, although I don’t think Crayola talks in paint chip speak as I do (see Red/Pink, above).

Favorite smells? Bread baking and, um, a man’s body.

Who was the last person you spoke to on the phone? My best and oldest friend, in Boston.

Do you like the person who sent this to you? He’s a great guy and I like him very much.

Favorite sport to watch? Baseball. The drama in the faces and the body attitudes is fascinating. Besides, it’s done slowly enough that I can perceive and follow that drama, unlike basketball that I experience as nothing but a blur of jumping up and down, or football that bores me silly.

Hair color? S&P.

Eye color? Brown, with a cream-colored ring around the iris.

Do you wear contacts? I’d love to, and did during two separate periods in my life. Both times I developed calcium deposits under my eye-lids that became painful and forced me to give them up.

Favorite Food? I’m the man who never met a carbohydrate he didn’t like. I have to be VERY careful with baked goods, especially. Otherwise I love virtually all fruits and vegetables and fish.

What color shirt are you wearing? Black with an embroidered Tibetan saying on the chest.

Winter or summer? But for the chance to grow things, summer is my least favorite season--therefore, Winter.

Favorite dessert? Anything chocolate as long as it’s really good and not cheap glop.

Hugs or kisses? Both—I can’t separate them, particularly not when he’s handsome and a really nice guy.

What book are you reading now? The Letters of Arturo Toscanini. RCA Victor used to put a sentence or two at the end of his bio on the recordings to the effect that he was never so happy as when spending a quiet evening at home with his wife. We always knew that was a complete crock, but these newly published letters include dazzlingly pornographic communications with his many girl friends and mistresses, well into his sixties and seventies, thank you very much. The man was a total stud as well as the most influential conductor of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

What is on your mouse pad? Possibly an actual mouse. I use a laptop now, so my mouse pad’s in a carton somewhere.

What did you watch on TV last night? The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard on PBS.

Favorite Sound? Opera; after that, mockingbirds singing. Sometimes, they’re startlingly close to the same thing.

Rolling Stones or Beatles? Same as with hugs and kisses—both. They’re like Apollo and Dionysus. In fact, I think Mick IS Dionysus reborn. I love him for the fact that he’ll probably be out there shaking it while they’re trying to nail down the lid. They’re two sides of the same coin and I think their careers and the music they wrote are actually interconnected in several ways.

What is the furthest you’ve been from home? Either Xian in China, Marimbula in Australia, or Kiev in Ukraine. I should take the measurements on a globe. But my globe’s packed up in a carton somewhere, too.

Do you have a special talent? Yeeesss. :-)

Where were you born? New York City

Sorry to be a nudge, but that's Robert Schumann's song "Ich grolle nicht!" Now, about that special talent.....
Thank you for the comment about the Koran collection in the MFA - I have always had an interest in Arabic calligraphy and had no idea we had such a collection in Boston. Your comments on Toscanini's letters cast some light on Brigitte Hamann's biography of Winifred Wagner and her relationship to him.
People born in NYC are the BEST!

Okay, I was born in NYC, so maybe I'm a teensy bit biased. ;)
so what is the special talent? tease tease tease
Cool meme, I just may steal it. Regarding your favorite sport to watch, have you been staying up late watching it this week? I very much enjoyed being able to get to bed on time last night.
I love the Dichterliebe. I sang "Ich grolle nicht" at church once, a few years back. It is, um, challenging.
Interesting meme - I learned quite a few things about you I hadn't known before.
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