Tag: PBS

“You Can Feel Every Word”

Tito Gobbi as Scarpia and Maria Callas as Tosca, from a 1965 production of Tosca (via)

In the early days of video recording technology, my mother would tape any and every opera production broadcast on PBS. By the end of the 1980s, we had a huge collection of VHS tapes, all carefully labelled in my mother’s tidy handwriting. Some we’d never watch again; some lived in the VCR. One that I kept going back to, from the time I was a child, was Puccini’s Tosca; I think it was the first opera I watched repeatedly (at least until we got hold of a copy of Francesco Rosi’s raunchy Carmen), and one I never got bored of, either musically or dramatically. Many a rainy summer’s day was spent in front of the TV, my friends and I with our root beer floats in hand, watching Hildegard Behrens, Placido Domingo, and Cornell MacNeil swirl, roar, sweat, and sigh through Franco Zeffirelli’s opulent production. My youthful passion for the production was what inspired my mother to return to the Met after well over a decade of absence; this time she brought an excited little girl who sat pie-eyed throughout the whole thing, wearing shiny shoes, a smart little red jacket, and a giant smile.

We owned a few classic recordings of Puccini’s famous 1899 work, and even now, putting those vinyl recordings on (the Callas/Gobbi version especially), I’m struck by just how dramatically expressive the score is. Tosca a great introduction for young newcomers to the world of opera; the music clearly tells you everything you need to know. A passionate lady lead! A persecuted lover! A rip-roaring bad guy! It’s the stuff of great novels, old Hollywood, dreamy (if doomed) romances. As well as entertainment value, so many personal memories are connected to this work, including the premiere Met visit. I was simultaneously scared of and thrilled by Scarpia, and for years, I couldn’t see (much less hear) MacNeil as anything but the dastardly villain of the piece. Hearing the opening notes of his introduction still sends a shiver down my spine. Years later, my father would play the famous “E lucevan le stelle” (“And the stars were shining”) for me on his violin, unbidden. It was the last thing I heard him play.

It was a thrill to learn Argentinian tenor Marcelo Puente would be performing as Mario Cavaradossi (who sings that famous aria in the opera’s last act) for the Canadian Opera Company’s spring production of Toscaand opposite the great soprano Adrienne Pieczonka, whose work I so enjoyed last month at the Met, in Fidelio. I’ve followed Puente’s work for years, and have admired his passionate, head-first approach to dramatic material, as well as his golden, honey-toned tenor voice. He recently made his Covent Garden debut in another Puccini role, as Pinkerton in the Royal Opera’s Madame Butterfly, to rave reviews. Next season, he’ll be the dramatic role of Don Alvaro in Verdi’s La forza del destino at the Semperoper in Dresden, and will also be making his debut at Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg, in a new production of Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, as another doomed romantic hero. What’s up with that? I spoke with Marcelo about singing romantic leads, why he dropped out of medical school (true story), and just why audiences should care about a character like Cavaradossi.

(Photo of Marcelo Puente by Helen Bianco)

Listed, Schmisted

(L-R) Groucho Marx, Sig Ruman, Margaret Dumont, from ‘A Night At The Opera” (via)
If you are active on social media, you may have seen the recent “musical” lists going around and being shared by contacts on Facebook, in which favorites (non-faovorites as well) are revealed. An opera version was quick to follow, and I’ve been reading the lists shared by various friends (including those working both inside and outside the industry) with much interest. 
Tempted to join the trend, I found (shock) my own version was a bit too long, and it just became easier (and more logical) to post here, for everyone, including my many lovely European readers. 
Hopefully some of these choices inspire, amuse, illuminate; some may really raise eyebrows, others may inspire smirks. Either way, I’d love to know if any of these might prod you, good reader, into either listening or watching a work in a new way, or even experiencing an opera for the first time. I hope so! Either way, enjoy, and feel free to share your thoughts. 


Opera I hate: 

I find this to be such a reductive question; I don’t hate any of them. Sometimes a certain production can lead to intense dislike, even hate, and that’s a pity; sometimes, the opposite is just as true, with a smart production elevating mediocre material, illuminating and inspiring audiences (which is, of course, lovely and delightful). There are definitely a lot of mediocre works, and directors, and it’s so often a question of finding the right pairing. I don’t envy programmers at all these days, especially with the current challenges facing the art form.

Opera I think is overrated: 
There are no overrated operas; only undercooked (or over-heated) ideas in presenting them.

A scene from L’enfant et les sortileges. (Photo: Komische Oper / 1927, via)
Opera I think is underrated: 
Two, off the top of my head (though there are many):
Stitch, by Anna Chatterton (who I interviewed last summer) and Juliet Palmer; this is a very moving work about sweatshop workers, deceptively simple, but more timely than ever;
L’enfant et les sortileges, by Maurice Ravel, which I saw for the first time this past winter in Berlin, in a very beautiful production at Komische Oper. It’s a whimsical work, with a very impressionistic score, and its libretto is ripe for directorial creativity. I also think it would make a great introduction for kids, though it’s rightly been pointed out that the work is more of “a musical grotesqueness for adults rather than a children’s opera.” True, but still vastly underrated. 

Opera I love: 
There are truly too many things I love to mention. Even with works I take issue with, I almost always tend to find something I like, or even love, and sometimes, it’s a great performer who will elevate the material (or my experience of it) from meh to marvellous. 
For instance, seeing (and interviewing) Patricia Racette in the title role in Madame Butterfly at the Canadian Opera Company in 2014 really made me re-think, and thus, re-experience this work in some important ways. I still find large swaths of it troublesome, but Racette’s interpretation and understanding of the role is so great, and she so very much made it her own (and from what I’d call a refreshngly feminist place), it was like seeing the famous Puccini work for the first time. Great artists have this power. 
(L-R) Sesto Bruscantini and Luciano Pavarotti in a scene from L’elisir D’Amore (via video)
Opera I cherish: 
This feels like a personal question; the act of cherishing something implies a kind of intimacy and comfort coupled with deep gratitude. I’m grateful for every work, but things that speak to me on a personal level include Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (its tuneful score is so warm, so bright, so full of humanity), Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (such a gorgeous study of fidelity, authenticity, and the corners of the human heart), and Berlioz’s Le damnation de Faust — not strictly an opera in the traditional sense, but when it done right, can be very powerful, as my experience of it in Europe this past winter so wonderfully highlighted. 

Guilty pleasure: 
There is no such thing as guilty opera love, is there? That implies there’s a kind of snobbery within the art form about things opera fans are “supposed” to like or dislike – to hell with those rules, and that way of thinking. Pleasure is pleasure; music is music; love is love. Go listen to something you enjoy, and don’t feel ever feel guilty that it somehow isn’t cool enough for the supposed “in” crowd.

Opera I want to see revived: 
In North America, it would be nice to see more Meyerbeer put onstage; his stuff is musically dense, but has intense passages of musical wonder rich with fascinating characterizations as well as great theatrical possibilities. I’d also like to see Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, Puccini’s La Rondine, and the work of Hungarian operetta composer Emmerich Kálmán staged far more often on these shores. 

Opera that I first saw on DVD: 
Forget DVDs! I have fond memories of regularly watching (and taping) Met broadcasts on the PBS program, “Great Performances.”

Opera that I first saw live
Bizet’s Carmen (at age three!).

Opera that I first performed in: 
I’ve never performed in opera, but I did act in the theater many years ago, and I particularly enjoyed Shaw’s Saint Joan, Sophocles’ Antigone, and Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I walked away from the stage years ago, and thankfully, found just as much value, power, and profundity in comic works as I used to see solely in tragedy. Ah, the wonderful things maturity brings.  

Opera I most recently saw: 
Live, La traviata recently at the Met in New York City (rundown here); on PVR, Wagner’s epic Lohengrin with Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros. The latter is a very good example of the right production hitting the right emotional and intellectual notes in order to produce a whole new experience and understanding of the score. The production, from 2009 and done at the Bayerische Staatsoper, was a very modern, unusual staging (which provoked some strong reactions in the opera world); I’ve enjoyed it for a while now (this wasn’t my first PVR viewing), and I thought Richard Jones’ directorial ideas truly suited the work; his sometimes-risky concept was helped immeasurably by the utterly committed performances of its leads, who were heartbreaking and fantastic and… sigh

Greatest opening
A few thoughts here: 
I think Verdi had some bombastically good openings musically; you can’t beat the boom-boom-bang wonder of Rigoletto or Il trovatore or La Traviata. I remember my mother always seemed as if she was on the verge of jumping out of her chair, either at the opera house or at home, whenever the opening bars of any (/all) of these was played (and that’s after the overtures). I remember her shoulders hunching up, her eyes squeezing shut, her fingers curling into fists, as the music played, and her saying, quietly, after a few moments, ohhhhhh, Verdi….” You have to admit, he is great with the attention-getting openings. 
For myself, I think one of the most intriguing and misunderstood of openings is Don Giovanni; it’s really not at all as clear-cut as many believe it to be; I’m really not sure Donna Anna is as pure as many have made her out to be; I know how risky that is to say, but pffffft… the music whispers, at least to my ears, that we should be questioning, completely, the scene, in and of itself, and not taking its events — or characters — at face value. I deeply like (and heartily agree with) how director Sven-Eric Bechtolf staged this, along with the entire opera, last summer in Salzburg. Read on… 
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and Carmelo Remigio in Don Giovanni (© Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz)
Greatest ending: 
I dislike the “greatest” label – I find it insultingly reductive, and taste is such a personal thing anyway — but I will say, I enjoy the ending of Don Giovanni, because, like Austen’s great novels, it ends with people who are facing a new and uncertain kind of beginning; once the title character gets dragged off (to wherever — hell is non-existence to some), everyone has to figure out how and why to live now that he – that viral, vibrant tornado of chaos — is gone. 
To those who know me well, it’s not a grand secret that I really, really loved Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s staging of this opera in Salzburg last summer (a re-mount of his 2014 production); it struck chords with me in ways I still can’t quite explain – though the fact he treated the women as actual human beings with real needs went a long, long way (for me) in further appreciating and understanding this troubling work, and it all started with a very sexy opening, and closed with… more suggestion of sex, a kind of continuation of that restless, rule-breaking chaos that is both so dangerous and attractive. Mozart and Da Ponte wrote a great ending full of question marks; Bechtolf took that and ran with it. Bravo!

Worst middle of an otherwise great opera
I really don’t like this question, because it doesn’t take into account how damn hard the writing process actually is. 
Many times librettists and composers (to say nothing of writers, editors, producers, and other assorted creative types) struggle against the dreaded middle-section-sag, sometimes to no avail. This is where good directors, conductors, and performers become extra-special important (more than they already are, of course); it’s up to the creative teams (sound as well as visual) to create something special with material that develops such unfortunate (if occasionally unavoidable) sag. Find something to elevate and illuminate, for audiences, and for yourselves; I think this is the aim of many good artists past and present, to be honest, and it is worth keeping in mind when you find yourself nodding off in the middle of anything. 
Some do this at the opera. (via)
Greatest opera of all time: 
The next one I’m going to see, of course — or that you’ll suggest to me. 

Clutching the Spawn

After news of a violent dictator’s violent demise, the disunity of the European Union, the leaving of one troubled country (and trust issues with another), Jobs, more jobs, a GOP horse race, moaning millionaires, occupiers everywhere, and some very awful flooding, my writer’s block feels less important than ever – but it’s burning more keenly. My creative panic is running rampant, worried it’s losing its sacred pride of place in my life.
WRITE SOMETHING!, it shrieks, late at night.
“I’m tired,” I yawn.
WRITE NOW!, it shrieks upon waking.
“I have to go to work,” I say, making a sympathetic face.
WHAT ABOUT NOW?!, it shouts in the evenings.
“Walk the dog/do the laundry/email A through M about N through Z.”
Oh, and watch the news.
It’s a wonder the creative panic -I think it was once called a Muse -sticks around at all.
I often feel like my journalistic self is pushing my creative self out of the way, the big-shouldered bully pushing down the black-caped wimp in the schoolyard. But every once in a while, that caped figure gets back up again and waves a magic wand.
Lasntight, Seamus Heaney was on PBS NewsHour, a program I watch with fervent devotion and intense admiration. It was excellent, if jarring, to see Jeffrey Brown interviewing one of my favorite poets after the newscast’s featuring reports on Libya, Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, and much more. NewsHour’s website features Heaney reading his poem, ‘Death Of A Naturalist’, which is ridiculously beautiful and worth a watch.

Watch Seamus Heaney Reads ‘Death of a Naturalist’ on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

All the year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampots full of the jellied
Specks to range on the window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.

Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like snails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

What a treat to see this celebrated writer speak so candidly about his innate fear over suffering a stroke in 2006, and what a strange blessing to hear him share his initial feelings of doubt when embarking on a new piece work:

…when you’re beginning, you’re not sure. I mean, is this a poem? Or is it just a shot at a poem? Or is it kind of a dead thing? But when it comes alive in a way to feel that’s your own utterance, then I think you’re in business.

More often than not, it’s been poetry that’s brought me back to that uniquely personal “utterance” of late. Daily news does make a glorious, chaotic clang that is its own sexy siren song, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the more quiet meditations of poetry. That shrieking creative panic who troubles me morning, noon, and night seems like little more than an ignored muse who toes I keep inadvertently stepping on.

Perhaps I’ll let the chorus of Heaney’s marshy choir envelope the newsy noise that’s been covering up the gigantic, five-borough-shaped hole in my heart. Creation is messy business indeed, but one has to be clutched by the wordy spawn sooner or later, or, more accurately, take a ride on the back of the Leviathan that sloshes its tail through the swampy waters of my daily life. To quote another poet, the readiness is all. Hang on. Eyes wide open. Pen ready.

Paintings:

Top – “The Muses Melpomene, Erato and Polymnia” by Eustache Le Sueur
Bottom – “Urania and Erato” by Sebastiano Conca.

Pondering Pakistan

For a long time now I’ve wanted to write about my interview with Duane Baughman and Mark Siegel. The two men were in Toronto this time last year for the screening of their film, Bhutto, at the annual Hot Docs Film Festival, following their world premiere months earlier at the Sundance Film Festival. The Toronto screening came and went, life moved on, and I never seemed to properly make time to sit down and write – until now.

I visited Ground Zero last week, less than 12 hours after President Obama’s historic announcement about Osama bin Laden’s death. With news reports filled with pertinent details and reports that paint a damning portrait of Pakistan and its possible role in harboring terrorists (or not), the screening of Bhutto tonight feels like a slow, patient untying of a complex Gordian knot. That’s not to say the movie is slow -it isn’t – but it is layered, the way any documentary worth its salt should be.
I discussed this in my chat with Duane and Mark last year on the radio:

Independent Lens is broadcasting the timely documentary tonight on local PBS stations (check yours here). Baughman, its Director, and Siegel, Co-Producer, present a complex, if deeply vital portrait of both a woman and a country that we, here in the West, have a lot of preconceptions around -especially since the news of Osama bin Laden being killed May 1st.
With numerous interviews (including fascinating input from The New York Times’ John Burns and vitriolic assertions from Fatima Bhutto, Benazir’s niece), fly-on-the-wall footage, and a thorough, if compelling history lesson (not to mention a pulsating soundtrack by The Police’s Stewart Copeland), Bhutto is a riveting look at a country that’s been painted in far too broad strokes by a Western media eager for villains. Truth be told, there are no clear villains in Bhutto, but (hint hint) General Pervez Musharraf doesn’t come off very well; he visibly squirms, as the camera casually lingers on him, providing glib answers and a ton of silence. The effect is awkward, as it’s meant to be, though his inclusion in the documentary might seem questionable. In fact, when Siegel was on The Daily Show just months after Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West came out (a book he co-authored with Benazhir Bhutto), he took host Jon Stewart to task for having the former Pakistani leader as a featured guest. Siegel had just finished working with long-time friend Bhutto on Reconciliation when she was assassinated. “She prayed for the best and planned for the worst”…
Even if you still have questions around Benazir Bhutto and her approach to Islam, her handling of government policy, and those troubling corruption charges, you will most certainly come away with a more thorough, nuanced undertanding of the machinations of politics and terrorism, and the place where the two meet, in one tragic explosive moment. Watch it. You’ll be glad you did.

Good Enough For Me

I love news. I’m that woman who watches the BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera, CNBC et al for fun. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love a bit of the absurd. In fact, I find, as I get older, my appetite for it is increasing.

All forms of absurdity work – old-school, new-school, tragically chic, mainstream-esque -but sometimes, it’s the simple stuff I like most. I’m especially entranced by children’s programming; it feels like producers working in that realm are given free reign with their imaginations, drawing in elements from the real world and transforming them into things little minds will enjoy without questioning or rationale… or the need for sensationalist press.

And so, outside of violent revolutions, political manoeuvrings, cuts to public broadcasting, and an earthquake, I present… Cookie Monster.

Recommended to be viewed on a day off, in early evening, sipping a glass of shiraz. With the news on mute.

It’s Up To You…


The Guggenheim celebrated its 50th anniversary yesterday by offering free admission to all visitors.

The online world got in the spirit, with “#Gugg50” hashtags popping up on related tweets; the physical world celebrated too, with the Empire State being bathed in red to celebrate this most beautiful of cultural anniversaries. For fifty years, the Guggenheim has contributed to the international dialogue on art, culture, life, and the connections therein. It’s inspired millions, and confused just about as many too. Over on my Facebook wall, there’s a comment beneath the link of the Guggenheim news story reminding those who weren’t aware (me) that Saturday evenings are pay-what-you-can at the Gugg; the poster has also added that he didn’t think the museum was “worth” the $18 admission price. No, I wanted to respond, because what’s in there is priceless.

Just like religion, we want a revelation from culture -a lightning bolt of genius, a flash of pizazz, something to wake us up and give us a knock in the knickers. At the same time, however, there’s a push-pull between the known and the known; we’re hungering after a purely transcendental experience, but in so doing, we don’t want to be confronted with things we don’t understand -things that might be bigger, wider, stronger and more formless than we’re comfortable with. We want culture to conform to our very individualized, and very personal, notions around art. But this isn’t what culture is about -sometimes it takes patience, persistence, and a change in perception to really see the value of something -and to recognize what’s priceless to us may be worthless to another, or, more frequently, vice-versa.

HERB & DOROTHY Trailer from Herb & Dorothy on Vimeo.

I was reminded of this watching Herb and Dorothy on PBS recently. The documentary, done via Independent Lens, is a fascinating look at Herb and Dorothy Vogel, two unassuming New Yorkers who wound up amassing one of the most important collections of modern art in history. Some of the pieces they collected were indeed, quite unusual. The documentary includes a hilarious old clip from 60 Minutes, featuring a befuddled Mike Wallace staring at one work (by Richard Tuttle), and exclaiming, in exaggeratedly serious-journo tones, “But it’s a piece of rope…” Dorothy and Herb patiently, excitedly, explain their love of the work -they’re not patronizing, but equally they’re unapologetic in their passion. They don’t justify why they love the work, or why they amassed so much of what many might consider to be idiotic, meaningless canvases filled with blobs, streaks, scribbles, or indeed, nothing at all. They love what they love, and for them, art doesn’t have a worth past their own personal experience; it, and their passion, requires no justification to anyone. That, to me, mirrors the spiritual experience versus the religious one; it’s what Karen Armstrong is on about in her new work, and it’s something many thinkers (and artists) through the ages have sought to grasp, even as it slips away: a vast, bigger-than-us unknowability that requires neither justification nor classification, only acceptance. The intersection between the profound and the profane is fine; the one between art and religion even finer. We hate accepting what we can’t understand, and we hate ascribing value to something we deem has none.


It was through their massive, near-obsessive collecting that the Vogels not only experienced and participated in a truly gargantuate cultural moment (however accidentally), they also formed meaningful relationships with the artists they bought from. This connectivity enlivens the collection, and indeed, changes our perception of it. The canvases, installations, and all else becomes a living body of relating and sharing; just as “the word is God,” so is, it would appear, whole collections that express cultural moments and impulses. Their value is past our reckoning. It’s perhaps for this reason that The Vogels eventually gave much of their work away. Yes, gave. They didn’t (don’t) believe in profiting from what they love, and wouldn’t take money for their own personal experiences with both the art and the person who made it. Worthless? Priceless? Go to the National Gallery and find out for yourself. And while you’re at it, start engaging -with dancers, singers, poets, painters, writers, performers -the ones whose work you don’t understand or may not even like. Start thinking. Start asking. And, to quote a past post of mine, start embracing the questions. The next time you’re at the Gugg (Saturday night or otherwise) remember those questions, and thank God you -and they -are there.

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