Thursday, August 18, 2016

Three operas: Agrippina; Vixen Sharpears; Powder Her Face

•Handel: Agrippina.
•Janáček: Příhody Lišky Bystroušky
    (The Cunning Little Vixen).

•Thomas Adès: Powder Her Face.

Seen at West Edge Opera, Oakland,
   Aug. 12-13, 2016
El jardín de las Delicias de El Bosco
Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights, ca. 1500, oil on oak panels, 220 cm × 389 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid
Eastside Road, August 17, 2016—

A COUPLE OF young men meet in a London pub, strike up a conversation, and have a few drinks. They're guys: the conversation inevitably turns to sex. They agree on most points. Sex is a natural component of animal life, after all, and if its expression, in individual activity, results in social criticism or disapproval, that says more about social neuroses than individual maladjustments.

But after a few drinks the brash young Londoner is impatient with his new friend, a German who’s just arrived from a few years spent in Italy. The guy has been around, he dresses fashionably, but his ideas seem conventional, even provincial, and he's a little priggish. Born at the height of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, the Englishman points out that civilized restraints on sexual behavior only encourage hypocrisy. The only positive contribution made by this repressiveness is the entertainment value it provides to the tabloids.

The immigrant isn’t so sure. His father was a surgeon; he knows what happens to the bodies of dissolute youths. He’s spent time in the Vatican and in major and minor power-centers in Germany and Italy, and he knows a lot about intrigue and betrayal. A child of the Enlightenment, the turns to Roman history for his discussion. It was a disgusting time, first-century Rome, lacking all civilized restraint, celebrating power and cruelty. Among humans, the pursuit of pleasure too easily becomes compulsive. It leads to social decadence and personal ruin, and must be restrained. You don't want your London to turn into Imperial Rome.

A rather shabby old man listens quietly, musing about the irony of his own situation. These two youths are out of his league. His English has a strong Czech accent. He’s a small-town schoolteacher, not a social butterfly; he loves the forest, not cities. He's been contentedly married for many years — yet he's become obsessed with an idealized kind of love for a younger woman, also married — and at a time when sexual performance is no longer relevant.

The bartender's been listening to the conversation, as bartenders do, and finally makes a comment of his own: You could write a novel about all this, he says, or even an opera.

THE BARTENDER IS Mark Streshinsky, General Director of Berkeley Opera, which produced the results of this conversation this last month. West Edge has settled into an interesting formula, presenting in repertory, in a three-week season, three operas: one from an early era, performed with period instruments; one from the neglected standard-repertory period; one new or relatively new title. (Last summer these were Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, Alban Berg's Lulu, and Laura Kaminsky's As One, discussed here August 3, 2015; next year we are promised Vicente Martin y Soler's L'arbore di Diana, Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet, and Libby Larsen's Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus.)

The operas were produced in an evocative space, Oakland's "abandoned train station," a Beaux-Arts building designed by Jarvis Hunt, opened in 1912 by the Southern Pacific Railway, closed following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, bought ultimately by the developer Bridge Housing, and planned, it is to be hoped, to be retained for public use. (The symbolism – a grand public building erected a century ago for commercial purposes, abandoned and allowed to decay, then stabilized and restored as a nostalgic if somewhat sketchy place for the performing arts — invites comment: but I digress.)

A distinctly musky fragrance hovered in this architectural curiosity last weekend, when we saw the final performances of this randy triptych: Agrippina, composed in Naples by the then 24-year-old George Friedrich Handel in 1709; Vixen Sharp-Ears (a better translation than The Cunning Little Vixen ), completed in 1923 by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček, then just shy of seventy; Powder Her Face, composed by the 26-year-old Thomas Adès in 1996.

AGRIPPINA WAS STARTLING from the moment we entered the theater: the stage was fronted by an enormous enlargement of Hieronymus Bosch's own triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, so large the figures in the lower corners of the central panel — whom we came to feel we knew — were life-sized. The overture, conducted from the harpsichord by Jory Vinikour, was gripping: suggestive in its slow tempi, thrilling in the fast.

Vinikour's orchestra comprised three each of first and second violins, two violas, two cellos, one bass viol, two players doubling on oboes and recorders, one trumpeter, and, most effectively, Richard Savino playing theorbo in the basso continuo. I've read that the original orchestra included contrabassoon and timpani; I missed the latter, and wonder what the former would have done. In any case this orchestra was captivating.

Mark Streshinsky's staging was perhaps in the style of the original, staged in Venice. The plot concerns Agrippina's plots to elevate her son Nerone to the Roman throne after the reported death of the emperor Claudio. Other characters include Claudius's friend Ottone; his inammorata Poppea (desired also by Claudio), Agrippina's two feckless assistants Pallante and Narciso, and Claudio's servant Lesbo. (I reproduce the Italian names: Nero and Claudius are the more familiar English forms.)

Of this crew the only decent person is Ottone; the others range from Claudio's woolly-minded covetousness, through Nerone's impressively indiscriminate appetite, to Agrippina's truly evil manipulativeness. The entire cast was thoughtfully chosen, directed, and costumed: this production was well conceived and integrated. Until I saw Powder Her Face, the next evening, I thought Streshinsky's direction had gone over the top: the central intelligence, I guess you'd call him, was Nerone, whose unfocussed amorousness was like a totally immoral Cherubino. His mother Agrippina was infected with the same virus, and you could see that while the rest of the cast, even Claudio, had misgivings about this, they found it irresistible.

Perhaps because I'm a prig I found Ryan Belongie's portrayal of Ottone the high point of the evening. His counter-tenor voice is strong, sweet, clear, and affecting; his lament was the finest moment of the evening. This is unfair to other performers, who seemed almost equally to occupy their roles, with almost equal gifts and technique: Celine Ricci as an androgynous Nerone, Sarah Gartshore in the disgusting title role; Carl King as Claudio; Nikolas Nackley, Johanna Bronk, and Nick Volkert as Pallante, Narciso, and Lesbo.

Musically, these singers, and their orchestra, made this a marvelous evening. Visually, Sarah Phykitt's set design, Kevin Landesman's lighting, and Alice Ruiz's intriguing costumes anchored Streshinsky's thoughtful, playful, completely amoral direction. I'm not sure what Handel's father would have thought.

VIXEN SHARP-EARS is one of my very favorite operas, if I may make a personal remark. I have always loved Janáček's spiky, evocative, quite original music, whose roots lie in Central Europe's 19th century, but whose individuality reaches far into the twentieth century, toward such other total individualists as, for example, the Italian Giacinto Scelsi. Janáček's gifts for melodic rhythm, harmonic sonority, and instrumental technique are overwhelming, and like Handel he brings these essentially instrumental qualities to a very sympathetic ear for the human voice.

He composed a number of operas, but to my taste Vixen is the best, partly for its musical compression and inventiveness but especially for the great, deep humanity of its subject, expressed through the composer's own adaptation of, of all things, a graphic novella (a sort of comic strip) that appeared in a Prague newspaper for a few months in 1920. The story is simple: a young vixen cub is captured by a forester, escapes back to the forest after growing to maturity and attacking the henhouse, couples with a fox with whom she raises a number of cubs, is shot by a hunter.

There are three principal roles: Vixen, marvelously sung and acted by the soprano Amy Foote; Forester, strongly and engagingly represented by the bass Philip Skinner; Fox, particularly sympathetic in the performance of mezzo Nikola Printz. The large cast also includes a frog, several hens, a cricket, a goofy dog, and Vixen as a cub; these roles were taken by members of the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir.

I've seen three productions of Vixen that I can think of, all of them quite different solutions of the staging problem of rendering animals (and insects even!) both natural and sympathetic without resort to anthropomorphism or sentimentality. Two things are crucial to success: costuming and makeup, here ably rendered by Christine Crook, Alice Ruiz, and Sophia Smith; and physical acting, credited in this production to Pat Diamond (director) but achieved for the most part compellingly by each actor, even — perhaps especially — the children.

First, last, and center, Vixen Sharp-Ears is about Life. Life as a natural force, a force so general that it overcomes individual life and death, spans time-periods beyond individual lifetimes, addresses ethical realities beyond human desires and frustrations. The one overwhelming instinct is to be free, and you can take Janáček's meaning to include individual, political, moral, and economic freedom; freedom from the conventional restrictions of social class and position, but also freedom from the constraints most of us manage to create for ourselves every day as we substitute comfort and convention for vitality and instinct.

I have to confess that after seeing Agrippina and reading about Powder Her Face I was worried about what West Edge might do with Vixen. It would have been easy to sell the opera short, to sensationalize the sexual component, to trivialize the humanity. But Diamond's direction respected the intent, I think, of the original creators; and Foote, Printz, and Skinner beautifully conveyed the depth and reach of the moral and ethical issues. (So did Joseph Raymond Meyers as the dejected Schoolmaster and, in a more comic approach, Carl King as the drunk poacher Harašta, who shoots Vixen.)

Janáček's score was brilliantly performed, in a reduced orchestration by Jonathan Dove, by Jonathan Khuner, leading asixteen-piece orchestra. Janáček needs a lot of notes for his music, and this orchestra was kept busy: I was particularly impressed with the five string players, but the winds were equally up to the task. What a fine, far-reaching, lasting opera this is; what a fine job West Edge did with it.

POWDER HER FACE failed to interest me. Thomas Adès and his librettist Philip Hensher (also a Londoner, five years older than the composer) collaborated on it deeply under the influence of Alban Berg's opera Lulu and Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, and the result seems to me greatly over-worked, too self-indulgent about inner jokes and allusions, and too ready to excuse its own undisciplined bawdiness with the pretext of ironic social commentary.

The story is that of the Duchess of Argyll, whose compulsive fellatios with strangers were a tabloid scandal in the mid-1950s, and who apparently lived an increasingly pathetic descent into reclusive poverty over he next thirty-five years. This "rake's progress" unfolds through five scenes in the first act, four in the second. I can't comment on the second act; we left at intermission.

We left for two reasons: the action of the opera, at least in this production (but inescapably, judging from the plot summary provided), was tediously jokey and in-your-face; worse, the music was unrelievedly busy, strident, and loud. Stage routines ran the gamut, as Dorothy Parker would have written, from A to B: soft-core pornography to lewd comedy. Laura Bohn, as the Duchess, might have been sympathetic but was rarely given scope by either composer or director. Hadleigh Adams was two-dimensional, whether as Duke or Hotel Manager. Jonathan Blalock was perhaps the most successful singing actor by virtue of his role, which allowed him some individuality. Worst of all, Emma McNairy, who was such a splendid, musical Lulu last summer in Berg's opera, was made to shriek at virtually every opportunity.

Mary Chun worked hard to open the busy, opaque textures of the score, and her fifteen-piece orchestra, the contemporary music specialists Earplay, played their hearts out. But I have to believe these gifted singers and musicians, and stage director Elkhanah Pulitzer, did all this in the service of the opera, but they had little help from composer and librettist, who seemed to want to spend endless talent and intellect and awareness of precedent on a silly, one-dimensional, deliberately vulgar piece of theater.

Adès's score has a number of arresting ideas, but except when they're repeated too often — the baritone saxophone bleat, for example — they're too often lost in the crowded, overly busy orchestration. And the vocal writing doesn't work: you can rarely understand the sung English (thank heaven, I suppose, for the supertitles), and the extremes of tessitura are physically painful.

But then I'm an old man, my tastes and sympathies much closer to the Forester's than the Duke's. I'm grateful for the opportunity to have heard half of this opera, I think; and I respect the intellectual content of this three-opera season, whose effect only makes sense, I think, thanks to the triangulation provided by Vixen.

Sunday, June 12, 2016



Saturday, June 11, 2016

The saga continues, and I show my age…

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Mt. Jackson, from our ridge, Eastside Road
Fri. May 27: broken toe
Sun. May 29: Coast walk
Sat. June 4: 22 mile history walk
Mon. June 6: Walkabout at home
Tue. June 7: 8 miles, to Healdsburg
Eastside Road, June 10, 2016—
CONTINUING THE LOG : I left you a little over a week ago after a fine nine-miler out at the coast, with a fair amount of climbing and descending involved.

What I didn't mention was that I did that on a broken toe.

Until Friday, May 27, I had never broken a bone in my eighty years. But that night, in an excess of high spirits (though sober as a judge), I ran through the house, barefoot, to get someone a glass of cold water, having thoughtlessly served only myself. I failed to notice a box of files on the floor in one room — a box that's been there for years — and hit it with the fourth and fifth toes of my left foot.

I wish I'd thought to photograph it: the toes pointed off to the left instead of curling nicely toward the big toe. So I taped them back to the proper position and put an ice pack on it for twenty minutes. And, it being a holiday weekend, made a note to see the doctor on Tuesday. Memorial Day Weekend is no time to visit an emergency ward.

Next morning there was some pain, of course; the entire foot was somewhat swollen, the affected toes particularly so. I took it easy that day, doing a little work outside, because we'd planned that long hike at the Coast on Sunday. As I say, the Coast hike went okay. I took a couple of walkabouts at home the following week — I'll describe them in another post — and then gave the toe its real test last Saturday.

FOR A NUMBER of years the Sonoma County Historical Society has put on an annual walk of about 25 miles, at various locations in the county in the even-numbered years, in San Francisco in the odd-numbered ones. The hikes were the idea of the late Jeff Tobes, an enthusiast for both history and hiking who taught in Sonoma county and shared his enthusiasm with students and members of the Society.

I first met him four years ago, when I joined the hike taking in Fort Ross and environs — an area of particular interest to me since my mother lived and taught out there for a few years back in the middle 1950s. That had been a lovely walk, and Jeff was a remarkable leader, pointing out sites of special historical interest — the smallest California State Park, for example, which surrounds Beniamino Bufano's sculpture dedicated to peace.

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Toward Carneros, June 4, 8:20 am
Alas, Jeff died earlier this year, quite unexpectedly I think; this year's walk was dedicated to him as a memorial, and led quite ably by the competent, easygoing Ray Johnson. About eighty participants convened at 5:30 in the morning last Saturday, in the Sebastiani Winery parking lot. We walked a few blocks, past Sonoma Mission, to the Plaza, where we heard a little talk about the Bear Flag Revolt, and then proceeded south and a little east, out of town, toward Vineburg.

The morning was really quite beautiful. There was no traffic on the city streets at that early hour, and we were reminded to speak quietly when we stopped at a little park for breakfast: residents in the neighborhood were likely still sleeping. It was cool and pleasant, and when we got to open countryside the morning sky was low and gentle. We turned east and north again, then further east to the Gundlach Bundschu winery.

There we had a rest and listened to a winery staffer tell us the history of her company — a history going back to 1858, surviving the utter destruction of the winery in the 1906 earthquake (it was located in San Francisco; grapes were shipped their by barge from a Sonoma county landing), the disaster that was Prohibition, and the vagaries of the wine book of the late 20th century.

The winery is meticulously landscaped; even the vineyards seem gardened. I had always assumed Bundschu was Swiss; the name seems so, but we were told both he and Gundlach were German. Still, there's an impressive degree of neatness here, and I was inspired to try a bottle of their Gewurtztraminer next opportunity. (We had it the other night: very clean; very good — I prefer the Alsace versions.)

We resumed the walk, through the vineyard to a gate on Thornberry Road, finally up off the Sonoma flats and near the Napa County line. The houses here are big, on big, wooded lots, and mostly behind ornamental but effective gates. The road's nicely shaded and a fine stroll, but it is not my kind of place, I'm afraid.

We headed north, then west again, past a few historical sites Ray pointed out, and finally were back at Sebastiani where our lunch awaited us. In half an hour we were walking again, first to visit General Vallejo's grave in Sonoma's Mountain Cemetery, then into the fine oak-studded grassland hills forming the extensive back yard to his home, whose grounds we'd visit later in the day.

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Open Space Preseve on the Vallejo property
This was some of the best walking of the day: off pavement. The trail had climbed a bit, up to the huge water tanks drawing on Vallejo's springs for the Sonoma water supply; then traversed through oaks, as you see in the photo, before descending quite sharply back to city streets and sidewalkes.

We turned north again, paralleling the highway through Boyes Hot Springs, then diverging to stroll through another hilly residential area at Fetters Hot Springs — a more modest version of Thornerry's wealthy enclave. Then west, to turn south again and explore a third hotwater town, Agua Caliente.

It became clear Ray knew how to draw a historical route. He was following old railroad rights of way, for the most part long since co-opted into city streets but occasionally developed into footpaths. He wisely refrained from trying to expand on this history; there were too many of us, and many of us perhaps too inattentive, for even an impromptu lecture. (I'm sure he could have attempted: he seems to know the history well.)

Down here in the flats, in Boyes Hot Springs and El Verano, I felt more at home. The population seems much more modest: blue-collar workers for the most part. The houses are mostly old and small, many of them survivors from a long-ago time when they may have been vacation homes for San Francisco clerical class. In those days you'd have travelled from the city by boat to a landing on the Sonoma county coast, then taken either a carriage or, later, a train to a residential hotel or perhaps, if you had the money, your own vacation cottage.

We walked past parked RVs, small boats on trailers, and basketball goals on little wheeled bases. In one front yard a man was carefully trimming another man's handsome haircut; they smiled and waved to us. Two or three schoolgirls giggled as they saw us troop by, hailed us, asked where we were going, wished us a nice day.

We walked past a number of buildings that had once been inns — not only the spas profiting from the hot water ( agua caliente ) not far below ground, but also ramshackle old buildings, some boarded up, which must once have been boarding houses and, before that, country inns; one even had an attached one-storey addition that probably housed the stablehands. (Why didn't I photograph it?)

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Mother and child on the creek, Maxwell Farms Regional Park
By now it was getting on toward four o'clock and it had heated up — and we'd been walking for miles on asphalt or concrete. My toe was holding up, but my soles were beginning to fry. Fortunately we turned into a marvelous park on Sonoma Creek, Maxwell Farms Regional Park. Again we were on forgiving terrain: packed dirt paths and trails through what once had apparently been orchard or vineyard and woodlots along the creek.

It didn't last long enough: we emerged through a playground and picnic area back onto streets and sidewalks for the remaining few miles back to Sebastiani. When we reached General Vallejo's charming home, already closed to visitors for the day, I'd had enough: the last mile was on a paved footpath we'd already taken. I caught a ride.

My hiking buddy, who'd driven the forty minutes from home to Sebastiani, had thoughtfully brought a few beers in a cold box, and we were glad to have them with the quite satisfying Mexican dinner provided by the Historical Society.

IMG 7447After the hike
photo: Thérèse Shere

Monday, May 30, 2016

Alors, I resume…

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Mt. Baldy hike, April 24
Eastside Road, May 29, 2009—
IT HAS BEEN a long time since my last post here. One of the recent distractions has been my resumption of walking. Last month I began serious training, for a Long Walk I'm taking with my daughter Thérèse next Saturday, June 4 — a twenty-miler in and around the town of Sonoma, led by a local historian who will point out interesting sites en route. I look forward to this walk with mixed emotions: it will be mostly flat; much of it will be on pavement; it begins at 5:30 am (and that an hour's drive from home!); it is forecast to be hot weather.

I try to walk every other day, at least a mile, preferably more. A one-mile walk is easily done right here at home: Up past my lamentable "vineyard," then through the gate to the water tank, around the tank field, back to the other gate up to the ridge pasture, up to the ridge, down to the back fence, back to the ridge, and home. If I add a trip to the mailbox, that's another third of a mile and another couple of hundred feet of dénivèlement — total up-and-down elevation change (isn't there an English word for this?).

In addition to not blogging, I haven't been keeping a very good journal lately. I think my first training walk was April 12, as described just now, a total of 45 minutes. On April 18 I walked into Windsor, our nearest town, 4.3 miles, in an hour. That's not the pleasantest walking, as it's nearly all on our country road which has a fair amount of traffic. Still, the air is good, the views very nice, and there's a pleasant café at the end. I repeated that walk on April 21.

April 24, Sunday, Thérèse and I took a longer walk, say five hours, about eight miles with 3000 feet dénivèlement, on the flanks of Mt. Baldy, in the Sonoma valley. That was a glorious day, with quite a few wildflowers and long long vistas. Three days later I walked into Healdsburg, our local "city": eight mles, flat, on country roads; two hours.

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At Armstrong Woods (photo: Mac Marshall)
Then, on April 30, a seven-mile loop involving some serious scrambling with Mac, my buddy from the 2008 Alpwalk, on a loop around Armstrong Woods. I'd done it a month earlier, that same loop, seven miles, 2700 feet of dénivèlement, and wanted to see how my training was paying off. Not well: I slipped on loose gravel on a steep descent, fell, broke my fall with my right ringfinger, and dislocated it.

That hasn't kept me from continuing. I take two-mile walks around the pond across the road — a four-mile round trip from home. Three weeks ago Thérèse and I took a fine long ramble down to the Laguna de Santa Rosa, a fourteen-miler that took seven hours with a half hour off for lunch — a glorious day. There've been more walks in to Windsor and Healdsburg, and today a hike out at the coast: almost nine miles, 2800 feet dénivèlement, three and a half hours.

We left the car at Goat Rock Beach, walked a couple of miles along the coast on level ground, through typical beachfront vegetation and past weathered rock polished in some places, they say, Thérèse explained, by mammoths, many thousands of years ago. At Shell Beach we turned inland, climbing steeply up toward Red Hill. We didn't bother with summiting; there was enough haze in the air to leave us satisfied with the long views we had from the shoulder.

I'd taken a delicious sandwich — salami and lettuce on buttered bread — and a hardboiled egg. After a twenty-minute lunch break we hiked back. The country was mostly open, but punctuated by a couple of marvelous redwood stands and a very dark fir grove. It was a fine walk. I hope to get two more long walks in this week, before the Saturday ordeal.

All this is leading up to something…

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(photo: Thérèse Shere)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Road trip

IMG 6200
Paso Robles, March 29, 2016—
WE'RE ON A SHORT road trip with a 13-year-old grandson, introducing him to favorite California roads of ours. Until recently I've hoarded some of these roads, telling only certain and special people about them, not wanting them to become too well known. Today I discovered (once again) the folly of this kind of stinginess. They've become better known, of course, as the California population has grown from 20 million in 1970, when we first drove some of these roads, to nearly twice as many today.

Still, they are marvelous roads, two-lane roads, relatively well paved for the most part, through the ranchland and mixed woodland tracing the San Andreas fault from Hollister in the north to San Miguel in the south. The northern half of the road began this morning, for us, at one of my favorite landscapes, looking across the broad San Juan Valley northeast of the Mission San Juan Bautista, and took us first to the formerly sleepy agricultural town of Hollister — now famous as a tee shirt brand and disfigured by shopping centers — to Highway 198, which runs east-west from San Ardo to Coalinga, neither of which towns we actually saw.

The southern half — ah, that's a very special road. It's been improved since last I drove it, several years ago; more of its own northern half has been paved, and today there was no water in the creek, meaning we didn't have to put our Prius to the test of fording open water.

From the summit, at 3500 feet, the road — now gravelled, not paved — drops down into Parkfield, population 18. Today both the motel and the restaurant were closed, so we continued, turning southwesterly, to close the day at a second favorite mission, San Miguel, where the church has been beautifully restored following a long closure after the disastrous earthquake of Dec. 22, 2003.

The proximate motivation of this trip was wildflower season. This year's rains suggested there would finally be a season worth seeing, and the Highway 198, at Priest Valley, promises much for tomorrow's leg, in the Carrizo Plain. The photo at the head of this post was taken toward San Miguel; the one here at the foot, in Priest Valley, looking north. Buttercups, poppies, lupine, owl's clover so far, and others not yet indentified. We'll see what happens next. IMG 6199

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Ladies Voices


followed by


an opera in five acts to words by


music by



commissioned by the Noh Oratorio Society for

instrumentation: three sopranos
woodwind quintet:
flute (also piccolo), oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon
percussion (one player):
trap set, chime in D, antique cymbal

Eastside Road, March 18, 2016—

LADIES VOICES was first performed at the Berkeley Art Center, October 30, 1987, by Judy Ruth Hubbell and Anna Carol Dudley, sopranos; Marcia Gronewold, mezzo-soprano; Patrice Hambleton, flute; Robin May, oboe; Tom Rose, clarinet; Stuart Gronningen, horn; Robert Hughes, bassoon; William Winant, percussion. It was commissioned by Claude Duval and the Noh Oratorio Society for a concert at the Hatley Martin Gallery, San Francisco, November 16, 1987, when the role of the third lady was taken by Judith Nelson.

The Noh Oratorio Society flourished in San Francisco during the 1980s, largely (as I believe) through the benign creative energies of Claude Duvall, calligrapher, actor, stage director, litterateur. The Noh Oratorio Society had a wide range of interests, but always put a priority on the human voice and the use of language: they produced, for example, Michael McClure's ! The Feast ! in 1982; Chaucer's Parlement of Fowles in 1987; Edith Sitwell and William Walton's Façade in 1987; Robert Duncan's Faust Foutu in 1989; and many other works in various venues in the San Francisco Bay Area over a course of twelve or fifteen years.

I have no idea why he or his Society asked me to supply them with a little opera: probably through our shared enthusiasm for Gertrude Stein, some of whose poems I had already set as songs for voice with various instrumental accompaniment.

The brittle, hectoring music of the opera was composed on a Macintosh computer, as an exercise for a course I was taking in computer composition at San Francisco State University, taught by the composer Herbert Bielawa. We worked with the Apple Mac Plus computer, using software produced in those days by Mark of the Unicorn: Professional Composer for notation; another program whose name I don't now recall for a sequencer.

The classic Schoenbergian manipulations of melodic material are Transposition, which is setting the tune on a different starting pitch; Inversion, which is the tune upside-down, you might say; Retrograde, which is the tune stated backward; and of course Retrograde Inversion, which is both methods used simultaneously. These are easy techniques for the computer, which allows the composer to select a melodic passage of virtually any length, copy it, and paste it into the score elsewhere — in a different instrument, on a different pitch level, with augmented or diminished note-values (longer notes, shorter ones), or upside-down, or backward Ladies Voices takes advantage of these possibilities.

It is also a study in harmonic writing that avoids conventional tonality, following sporadic discussions I had had in the course of various visits with Virgil Thomson, and an early example of a growing obsession with counting: in the first act, for example, the snare drum sounds five notes to introduce the first soprano's first word, "Six," and 75 notes in all before the third soprano's last word, "Seventy-five."

The opera sets two plays of Stein's: A Curtain Raiser (1913) and Ladies Voices (1916). David M. Boje has written of Stein's theater with insight:

Gertrude Stein wrote 77 plays between 1913 and 1979 that fall under the general heading, Theatre of the Absolute. Absolute Theatre sacrifices developmental story (the dynamic movement to climax and receding from it) in order to invite the spectator to explore the present moment, and to stay in the present tense of theatrical experience. Stein was focused on opening a space in time, to explore the present moment. Stein wanted to free herself from the grip of developmental storytelling, the progress of time imposed upon story by the coherent narrative form that dominates traditional theatre. Stein sought to break free of the alternative reality created in developmental storytelling, and instead let the play be the reality that the spectators made sense of in the present moment of performance. …

A Curtain Raiser (1913), and Ladies' Voices (1916)… attempt to focus the spectators' attention on the present moment, on unfolding rhythms and textures(e.g. a series of non-referential numbers), with fragments of conversation, etc, all without a developing storyline. Instead of the progress of a coherent (linear) storyline with beginning middle and end, Stein uses fragments of dialogue that isolate from other fragments of dialogue.

(In the Four Seas (first) edition of Geography and Plays, in which the text was first published, an apostrophe sometimes occurs in the word “ladies,” sometimes does not. It has been suppressed throughout in my opera in the interest of consistency.)

I set the two plays in sequence to make a chamber opera in five acts exploring the psychological and musical nuances of three ladies of Gertrude Stein's milieu — the cultured, literary, leisurely set of liberated women in the first decade of the 20th century. Neither plot, setting nor scenario are supplied in Stein's text, but I see no reason to suppress them in production. I imagine a rather tense situation, with the second and third soprano pairing off apart from Genevieve, the first soprano, whose spiritualist trance in Act III contrasts with the amorous play of the other two ladies in Act IV.

I would prefer the instruments to be unseen by the audience, but would like three men and a string quartet to be upstage somewhere in the drawing room of Act II, the quartet possibly to be miming the performance of the opening of my second Stein opera, I Like It to Be a Play.

Act I (Curtain Raiser): The Theater, before the curtain (During the second performance these titles were for some reason spoken aloud at the beginning of each scene. This need not be considered a precedent.)
The three sopranos stage center right, discussing quantities among themselves. Winds and percussion in pit, if available, or in wings, or upstate right behind curtain; in any case unseen throughout the opera.
Act II: A Drawing room, late afternoon
A fashionable room in a Tuscan villa, ca. 1912. The ladies are in afternoon dress, probably at tea. The winds and percussion remain invisible, but a string quartet may be seen upstage left, alternately playing (silently) and resting, talking among themselves. The members of the quartet are never heard.
Act III: The drawing room, toward evening
The french windows at the back of the drawing room have been opened, exposing a flagstone or terrazzo terrace leading to a small formal garden beyond. Chaises-longues, side tables, a bar trolley. The string quartet no longer so evident; or perhaps its members are soundlessly among the company; or functioning as waiters, bartender, etc. The three ladies grow more expressive and animated.
Act IV: Garden terrace outside the drawing room. Later that evening
Twilight. The ladies have descended the steps into the near areda of the garden. The men are rarely visible, and that only at the extreme sides of the stage, engaged in mute conversation or business. The mood is expectant.
Act V scene 1: The Garden. Quite dark.
Act V scene 2: The same.
Duration: 9 minutes
I rehearsed and conducted the first two performances of Ladies Voices. The second performance was recorded, though not very well. (The recording reveals the interpolation of A few years later I was asked to change the orchestration for a performance at The College of Notre Dame, in Belmont, with unsatisfactory results.

The score was published, with a cover illustration, reproduced above, by the San Francisco painter Inez Storer, by Fallen Leaf Press, in 1996 (Fallen Leaf Publications in Contemporary Music (ISSN 8755-2698), No. 78.) It is available, with a set of instrumental parts, from Frog Peak.

The recording can be heard here.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Back to the blog…

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Eastside Road, March 4, 2016—

MARCH. TWO MONTHS into the new year, I resume. I was apparently temporarily frozen, the proverbial deer in the headlights, in the face of a return to this country after a pleasant and eventful European interlude, dismayed by the level of public discourse, discouraged by a number of unfinished projects left over from the old year, distracted by the stupid daily errands and repairs.

Distracted by further travels, too. A week after our return from Stockholm, January 11; we drove down to Los Angeles, returning via Reno (Nevada). Along the way we stopped at Manzanar. This is the site of one of the infamous relocation camps hastily improvised for thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry, taken from their homes on the West Coast and held for the duration of World War II.

The site is ten miles north of Lone Pine, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, the flat, windswept, arid desert at the foot of that remarkable range, near the highest peak in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney. The photo above will give you an idea: it shows the monument in the former cemetery, with a view of the Sierra — the “Range of Light” — in the background. In the foreground, desert.

I have dim memory of that relocation. In 1941 I turned six years old. I lived, with my parents, in a middle-class neighborhood in central Berkeley. A number of Japanese-American families lived in bungalows along Grove Street; I seem to recall the carp ponds in their back yards. One day these families were gone: rounded up, taken away.

The area around Manzanar had a long, complicated, troubled history. Native Americans hunted, gathered, and gardened it for centuries. They were edged out by pioneer whites in the 19th century, attracted by the climate and its agricultural potential, especially after the coming of the railroads, which facilitated marketing.

Manzana is Spanish for “apple.” It was given the name in the 20th century, when it had become an improbably prosperous fruit-raising area. Fairly rich soil, hot summers, cold winters, and abundant water, and the patient and skilful attention of a few hard-working families, produced hundreds of tons of fruit for the quickly growing Los Angeles market  until that city realized its water was even more crucial to its future, and diverted it all for its own use, quickly reducing the land to desert.

The farmers sold their water rights and were left with barren land. Fortunately for them, empty land, on a rail line but far from “sensitive” coastal areas, were exactly what was needed to house a hundred thousand “relocated” Americans — temporarily, of course, just for the duration of the war. 

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This is what Manzanar looked like during World War II. The railroad stretches north and south along the eastern edge of the “camp,” whose neat, orderly blocks of bunkhouses are hygienically set apart to minimize the threats of fire and disease. Each array of eight or so bunkhouses has its own mess hall and two common lavatory-shower facilities, one for each sex. There were minimal recreational facilities — basketball court, baseball diamond — and, of course, the remnants of broken-down orchards, and chickenyards, and a factory where women could help make parachutes and other nonstrategic items needed by the war effort.

1Improbably, the prisoners —for that is what they were —made the best of things. They even made gardens. The federal government has installed an admirable explanatory center at Manzanar, and developed a self-guided tour of the facility. We drove the tour — with a few stops for photographs, and meditating, it took almost an hour. It took us, for example, to the cemetery, on the western edge of the site.

Along the way there were a number of explanatory panels. On one of these a faded color photograph recalls one of the traditional Japanese gardens these people managed to create:

“You are standing before San-shi-en, or 3-4 Garden. Water once flowed over these silent stones, soothing troubled spirits and easing the monotony of long mealtime lines. Designed and bilt by internees, mess hall gardens served as a source of block identity and pride.

“These and other gardens in Blocks 9, 12, and 22, share symbolic roots in ancient Japanese design. In each, you will find three distinct levels aligned north to south: a hill of earth represents the mountains from which water flows south to a pond, symbolizing an ocean or lake. Here, internees planted trees from the camp nursery and hauled stones from the rugged Inyo Mountains to the east."

1  2After the camp was abandoned in 1945 these gardens were gradually buried under windblown sand and the sediment left by springtime snowmelt. Archaeologists unearthed this one in 1999, and reconstructed the fence that had protected it. They have not reconstructed the garden itself; only its rocky bones, as you see in the second photograph here.

One of the mess halls, and one of the bunkhouses, has been restored and is left open for visitors to inspect. Here too welcome, fairly detailed, and sympathetic explanatory panels help the visitor understand just what life must have been like for these people. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph these interiors — it’s just too poignant, too intimate a glimpse into what may have been the most injurious aspect of this place: its theft of the dignity of its occupants.

A number of photographs show them as they were, in this place, at that time. They are surprisingly modern, lively, optimistic. They put on a good face, whether for their own morale, or for the benefit of whatever eventual onlooker they expected these photographs to find. They are well dressed, in the plaid pleated skirts and the sweaters and wide trousers of the early 1940s. You can be sure — there’s photographic evidence — that they jitterbugged to big-band swing; they played cards; they swapped stories.

Ultimately they survived, most of them, and returned, somehow, to a normal life. The war over, they were given twenty-five dollars and a bus ticket to Los Angeles. If they were lucky, a kind neighborhood might have looked after their homes and farms. They were a stoic lot, for the most part, and patiently endured their readjustment, as they had their confinement. Ultimately, during the Reagan administration, the government recognized its error, apologized, and paid a modest compensation.

The National Park Service has done a fine job recording all this, and making it available to visitors. They’ve done this, of course, in order to ensure that such an injustice may never be repeated. It’s something to consider during this presidential campaign. 
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Looking west toward Mt. Whitney

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