Thursday, October 04, 2007

A Chat with Glass

In anticipation of the world premiere of Appomattox at the San Francisco Opera tomorrow, I had the great pleasure to talking to Philip Glass a few weeks ago. For a great iconic figure of the late 20th century, Mr. Glass is remarkably down to earth and easy to talk to. Our chat was a little scattered, but I can attest that it was a very enjoyable experience chatting with him, in advance of the premiere of his new opera.

Here's the Q&A:

- Mr. Glass, thank you very much for taking my call.

Philip Glass: Yes, you're welcome. I’m sorry I was late when you called earlier.

- That’s quite all right. So you are getting ready to come out here in the Bay Area and camp out for the whole month, then?

PG: I’ll be in and out. I’ll be in for final week of rehearsals and the final week of performances.

- Reading the production materials for Appomattox, it feels that your treatment of this opera will be a lot more traditional, compared to, say Einstein on the Beach, or Satyagraha. I mean, the narrative seems to be more linear, leading to a well defined climax. So are you getting "soft" on us, and going to show us your first 19th century-style grand opera?

PG: Oh boy! [laughs] I didn’t think you would ask that question!

- I’ll withdraw the question if you’d prefer!

PG: No, but really, it is going to be a very confrontational piece. I think that you’ll find some elements of it will be quite difficult for some people. I don’t want to talk a lot about it, because I think people should come and see the piece. As I got involved in it, the piece began growing up into the present. The idea was – what was happening to the country at the time of the surrender? We have to remember that the Civil War was a momentous, huge event in the history of our country. The issues that were raised by the Civil War, by the people that participated at that time, are issues that are very much alive today. Issues that were never resolved. On the good side, we are still engaged in resolving these issues. That is one of the great things about our country, that we haven’t shied away from the issues. We embraced the difficulties as we tried to find solutions. We had some measures of success and some not.

- Of course, the country is currently at war. Why this opera now in particular?

PG: That is an interesting question. Myself, I started out by being interested in the two men, Grant and Lee. The popular idea is that Lee was a great man and Grant was less so, which is absolutely not true. One of the great autobiographies of all time was written by Grant. He was a man of tremendous moral character and vision. And so was Lee. Here were two men, leading the armies of the north and the south, the likes of which do not exist in the world today. There are no people in public life today, leading countries or states or cities on the level of Lee ad Grant. So I got interested on the character of these men. For example, at the end of the war, some of Lee’s generals wanted him to start a guerilla war, saying they could run into the hills and hold out for another ten years there. And Lee said, “ no, the war is over.” He told them to go home now and start a new life. The same way, Grant went back north and people told him, “let’s bring that guy Lee here and try him for treason,” and he also said “no, the war is over.” So those men were able to start and stop a war, something that no one in our present days seems to know how to do. We have our countries run by politicians, not by statesmen. This is a study of character, of people who have the moral stamina and vision to lead a country. That’s one thing. The second thing are the issues of the Civil War. These are the issues that are very much at the heart of social change in our country today: states rights, racism. Whatever you want to call it, the things that were discussed in the 1860s were happening again in the 1960s, and never stopped being relevant, because they were never resolved.

- I know that you don’t want to give too much of the opera away, but can you give us a bit of a preview of the music.

PG: Would be happy to. I did something a little unusual this time. There was a lot of music going on during the Civil War, that had colloquial roots. There was a song by the Arkansas First Brigade, which was a black division that fought for the north. There was a ballad by Jamie Lee Johnson, who was a civil right activist in the 1960s. There is a song from the Old Testament, that was sung during Lincoln’s visit to Richmond, when he was welcomed by the Negro population. I wanted to include in the musical language, the feeling and the musical culture of that time, and of the present time. Of course, this still was written for voices skilled in operatic singing, but there are other kinds of music in the opera as well. This was for me one of the most interesting things, to try to bring together different music that would normally be heard at the same time.

- All of these themes carry much weight and gravity. Will there be moments of lightness and humor as well? Judging from your later work, it might seem as if you have lost some of the carefree comic vein present in, for instance, Einstein on the Beach.

PG: Well, I guess there has been humor in some of my operas. There’s nothing funny either about my last opera, Waiting for the Barbarians. It’s true, if that is the criticism, I guess I will have to accept it. However, I am not the only composer who has fallen into that kind of writing, there are certain themes that just don’t welcome humor. In terms of topics and subject matter, there are plenty of operas that are quiet serious. Another opera of mine, Orphée, which was just done at Glimmerglass, has some very funny things in it. It was composed maybe 13 years ago. But in Appomattox… there’s really not a lot it. This was a tremendously important event in our life as a country.

Not funny: Appomattox set model for world premiere production at SF Opera

- You just turned 70 this year. Do you think in terms of your legacy?

PG: I have been too busy trying to make a living. I haven’t thought about that. I’m surprised myself that operas that I’ve written 10 or 15 years ago are being performed today. Satyagraha is coming to the MET and I wrote it 1979. It will be at the MET in the Spring.

- Yes, I’m planning to come to NY and see it.

PG: I saw the production already [at the English National Opera] in London, it was a beautiful production. I think next year there will be half a dozen of my operas, maybe more, being done at different places. To tell you the truth, I never thought of myself as someone who would write operas that would become part of the repertoire of the operatic world. That never occurred to me, I was interested in addressing musical and thematic issues that I found absorbing of my attention.

- You have been know for your interest in Eastern philosophy. Does your musical and creative journey reflect or parallel your spiritual journey.

PG: That’s an interesting question. Music is always by composers, and composers have always asserted their musical life with a spiritual life of some kind. Whether it was Bach, Haydn, Verdi… you name it, this is not less true of contemporary composers. In that regard, I would say that Western composers are not in any way second to the music of non-Western cultures. There is always a strong feeling of spiritual identity and spiritual growth in music. I didn’t need to go to India to find that out; I could find that out right at home.

- And how do you see your music evolving over the years?

PG: That’s a difficult question because I am still in the middle of it, so it is hard for me to tell. However when I go back and listen to “Music in 12 parts” I wrote 1970s, or Einstein on the Beach in 1976; I must say, I’m not unhappy about them. I look back at the young guy who wrote that, and I say “ gee, what an energetic guy that was.” I am proud that early work.

- As you well should be! But your earlier work sounded much edgier, while there is a certain lyrical lushness in your mature work. What do you think brought about this transformation?

PG: I think that happens to everybody. If you start at point A you go to point B. If you start writing dissonant music you end up writing consonant music, and if you start with consonant, you end up writing different music. I think it happens to everybody, the idea that composers don’t change is absurd. We always talk about artists being autobiographical, but autobiographies don’t stop. Our lives don’t stop. I think we are wired that way.

- What is your opinion of the music being created by the current generation?

PG: I am very interested in it. There is a new generation of people, whether they are working with technology, or non-western music, or pop music, or bringing together all these experimental traditions into the theater, this young generation is absolutely on fire. I think we are going to see these young people in their 20s or 30s are going to do some beautiful and amazing pieces. I think they already started to.

- Let me ask you a question of personal interest. I was wondering how did you become familiar with Itaipú?

PG: I went down there. For about ten years I went down to Brazil, partly because it’s so cold here in the winter and I wanted to go somewhere else warm. I went down there to write music, and I traveled throughout the country. I went a lot of places, to Belém, and down to Foz do Iguaçu. I didn’t do it all at once, but every time I’d go somewhere different, so one year I went to Itaipu, the dam that was being built there. It wasn’t finished yet, there was no water but I saw the huge edifice that was being built. And I thought of the power of the water and the power of the river. And the power of the human mind, and the imagination to take natural forces and harness it in that scale, and I was inspired by that.

- And what attracted you to go to Brazil in the first place?

PG: I think it was the music, the culture, the friends I had from Brazil. And I also went down to play there, at a free jazz festival, I think in 1991 or 92. I was in Rio, and said, “my god, I love this place. I’m coming back here!” And I went back the next year. Now I have a son who is living there in Brazil. I have strong connection to the place, it’s a country you can fall in love with.

- Well, thank you for your time. I look forward to thank you in person when you are here in San Francisco.

PG: My pleasure. I hope you’ll enjoy the opera.

© 2007 C. Chang

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Temptations at the Opera

SFO's Tannhäuser

The British director Graham Vick made his belated SFO debut last night in a new staging of Wagner's Tannhäuser, the first new production undertaken under Gockley's regime. While there was much to recommend about the performance, the overall feeling about this production is one of disappointment.

In case you weren't aware, a common trend in Graham Vick's stagework is that he tends to favor more-or-less conventional-looking sets, costuming, etc., while pairing it up with staging that is heavily laden with the sort of edgy symbolism and psychobabble that is so fertile in European productions. This approach has been successful for the British director in the past, who has signed-off on some of the most commented productions in Britain and the rest of Europe. I can attest first-hand that I had the privilege of seeing his memorable Meistersinger staging at the Royal Opera House back in 2002, and it remains to this day one of my favorite operatic experiences.

At the SF Opera Tuesday night, we could be thankful to Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer for some fine singing, as well as other strong performances from the supporting cast. But what we saw on stage was a production running desperately short of really strong and unified ideas, serving up instead a string of scattered gimmicks, executed with varying degrees of success.

The Venusberg cave and the great Wartburg Hall become one, in a uni-set that reminded me of a bath house at a German spa I once visited. Were it not so plain and uninteresting to stare at for four hours, the idea is conceptually interesting, and in anycase does away with the bothersome spectacular theatrics required by the scene change that should occur at Tannhäuser's invocation of the Virgin Mary. And perhaps to make up for the lack of spectacle, a large ring of fire -- real fire -- encircling Venus and Tannhäuser stays tediously lit for an eternity and the better part of act I, making the carbon footprint of this production simply unacceptable for the artistic value it delivers.

The production's costumes were equally uninspiring: not exactly medieval period but non-descript enough as to not offend those who would complain about an outright contemporary updating. Most pilgrims wore ragged clothing, which is worked well, but he also had some "super-pilgrims," clad in all black, making enigmatic assorted appearances at Venusberg. The women during the song contest looked like an entire choir of Our Ladies of Fatimas.

Our Lady of Fatima

And an amateurish calligraphic mistake was made in the drop curtain with the word "Tannhäuser" printed as in a archaic storybook title page: the lower-case letter "s" lacked the distinctive mid-stroke displacement found in the Germanic Fraktur style type.

lowercase "s" has no mid-stroke displacement: looks like a curve on the freeway

"s" with proper mid-stroke displacement

Of course, these minor displacements violations are dwarfed by Vick's shamelessly provocative disregard of Wagner's several specific instructions (written into the score), when Vick has Wolfram choke Elisabeth to death on stage, after she finishes the gorgeous "Almacht'ge Jungfrau." Wagner specifically asks for Elisabeth to exit, because he knew that by ommitting the act of her death onstage, he would afford the listener contemplative space, and allow the heightened lyricism of that moment to shine. Vick's stunt is merely designed to provoke public commentary, coming at the expense of disrupting the splendid flow of the work during the opera's superb Act III.

So whether it is perceived as radical, foolish, or both, this Tannhäuser is perfectly suited to the stealth undertones of the SF Opera's current administration: bring in a few established singers, don't make any outlandish updatings, and David Gockley can have his cake and eat it too. One can only imagine what sort of abuse and ridicule Pam Rosenberg would have had to endure, if she had presented this very same production with minstrels dressed up in trenchcoats and fedoras.

© 2007 C. Chang

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tannhäuser and Senator Larry Craig

Stets soll nur dir mein Lied ertönen

One only needs to look at the tale of Larry Craig to be reminded of how very current are the themes examined in Tannhäuser.

Venusberg at MSP

The men's room at MSP might as well stand-in for Senator Craig's Venusberg, while the Wartburg great hall of song, of course, takes place on the floor U.S. Congress. This is not so farfetched, after all Craig was an original member of the Singing Senators, along with John Ashcroft and Trent Lott.

First he is guilty, and then he is not. He is going to resign and then he doesn't want to. He sings of virtue on the great halls of congress, but on the way back to Idaho, he is constantly tempted to stop by his own private Venusberg.

The only thing missing in Craig's tale is a self-sacrificing Elisabeth (his current wife doesn't count -- by now, she is part of the problem), which is why he painted himself into a corner with no way out.

"Man goes constantly in fear of himself. His erotic urges terrify him", wrote Georges Bataille, an early 20th Century French priest and sociologist, who renounced his faith so that he could partake more freely of the offerings at Parisian whorehouses, without feeling like a hypocrite. Perhaps Larry should be reading more Bataille now, as the senator's salvation is more likely to come from Bataille than the Bible.

© 2007 C. Chang

Back to home

Friday, June 08, 2007

I'm on the paper

So The Berkeley Daily Planet has picked up my previous blog entry, and I'm mentioned in yesterday's editorial. Cool, I'm famous now!

© 2007 C. Chang

Monday, June 04, 2007

She is African, too

A friend wonders: "Why did they have to cancel the African American opera patrons dinner? After all, isn't Elza van den Heever African too?"

In any case, there is mounting evidence from different sources suggesting that Hope Briggs dismissal from SFO's Don Giovanni was not about race, but rather a carefully orchestrated deal to promote van den Heever, a new client of Matthew Epstein at CAMI.

A selected portion of an e-mail received from a credible anonymous source:

"... So, this supposedly "sudden" event has been planned for a long time, as I'm sure you suspected as well. Rhoslyn Jones was the official cover, and [her colleagues] had been hearing from her "why am I even here, sitting in rehearsals, spending all this time," because she knew that Elza was in the wings and was being rehearsed, and kept informed of the production -- very quietly. The only person who didn't know was Hope.

[...] Matthew Epstein works very sneakily. While Gockley is not known to be a fan of Elza's around the Opera Center, he was supposedly convinced long ago by Epstein to make a big press splash like this, not only for SFO and the summer season, but for his new client Elza, as well as dumping a singer chosen by Pamela. Of course it would've looked even worse if they cancelled Hope earlier, to only replace her with an Adler (either Roz or Elza)."

Elza Van den Heever is an Adler Fellow, which is essentially a glorified intern undergoing advanced training. So, if SFO had replaced Hope Briggs earlier, they would have felt obliged to find an artist of stature to replace her, thus derailing a calculated plan to offer Matt's client Elza her big break. This version of events seems at least more plausible than asking us to passively believe that Rosenberg's choice of Briggs could be so unfit as to merit an unceremonious dump at the last minute.

© 2007 C. Chang

Sunday, June 03, 2007

"Hopeless" Giovanni at SFO

There was a palpable tension and a fair amount of nail-bitting last night, at the opening night of W.A. Mozart's
Don Giovanni at the SF Opera.

Questo è il fin di chi fa mal ...

On one side, there were the boisterous supporters of Elza van den Heever, the young diva who earned her exciting assignment under controversial circumstances; and on the other, the embittered Briggs fans and predisposed skeptics awaiting to see the failings of this Don Giovanni as a confirmation of David Gockley heavy-handed managing style.

Soprano Hope Briggs, originally contracted by Pamela Rosenberg to sing Donna Anna, has performed throughout the Bay Area for nearly a decade now, and built up a modest yet solid following. Indeed, it is hard to find anyone who has seen Briggs give a poor performance, leading many observers to conclude that Gockley's last-minute dismissal of the singer from the production was driven by intramural politics.

Elza: stole the role, stole the show

The good news from the War Memorial last night is that the SF Opera has a thrilling Don Giovanni on stage this summer, and that Elza van den Heever had a great personal triumph in her company mainstage debut in the difficult role of Donna Anna. Even under the unusual circumstances, this stunning production (originally created at Brussels'
Theatre de la Monnaie) is a testament to the kind of opera Pamela Rosenberg wanted to show us in San Francisco. And politically motivated or not, the audience learned that we can trust Gockley to have enough survival instincts to never attempt a stunt like this without a strong back-up plan.

Brilliantly directed by David McVicar, the production has an unmistakably modern European sensibility: austere, architectural sets in shades of charcoal gray; the dark costuming with lots of knee-lenght coats; and a welcome dose of a little nonsense now and then. No trap doors for Giovanni in this production; his after-dinner hell is presented above ground, to great theatrical effect.

And I particularly liked how McVicar solved the theatrically problematic and usually ambiguous staging of Anna's
Non mi dir. In most productions, Ottavio usually just stands there like an idiot, and listens to Anna launch into her freakish coloratura outbursts. For once, Anna delivers the aria (with its widely contrasting sections) as a reaction to Ottavio's pain, who (portrayed by Charles Castronovo) at times collapses on the floor with anguish during the aria. McVicar's one possible staging misstep is at the final tableau, when he has Elvira paradoxically kneel next to the fallen Giovanni, and hold his hand as if in mourning.

The vocal show was uniformily strong. Donald Runnicles at the pit offered the reliable package of crisp Mozartian tempos, keeping things fresh and exciting. And who needs marquee stars, really. All of the men were strong and very satisfying singing actors. Mariusz Kwiecien found a perfect balance between evil and mellifluous seduction for his depiction of Giovanni, delivered with superb skill. Oren Gradus' characterization of Leoporello was a bit predictable, but still fun to watch. Kristinn Sigmundsson was an imposing Comendatore, though his ghost-self was a bit too amplified for my taste. And bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni: what a handsome Masetto.

Che bel Masetto! (Luca Pisaroni)

Elza's Donna Anna sounded very impressive, much better than I expected. She was obviously trying very hard, and brought a good measure of verismo energy into the role, just enough to make it exciting. I was a bit less impressed by Twyla Robinson's Elvira, but it was perfectly adequate performance. The superb Claudia Mahnke was almost too good for Zerlina, with a lustrous, polished aristocratic tone -- reminded one of some of the best qualities in Anna Caterina Antonacci and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

© 2007 C. Chang

Friday, June 01, 2007

Something to talk about

So the announcement of Hope Briggs dismissal from the SF Opera's Don Giovanni (opening night tomorrow) was picked up even by the NY Times.

Hopeless in San Francisco

Frankly, there is something fishy about this whole affair. What I don't understand is how they can possibly have decided to replace Hope Briggs with a younger (albeit quite talented) and less proven singer to fill the shoes of the prima donna on opening night. Ms. Briggs is an exciting singer, a memorable voice with beautiful Leontyne-like colors. Her replacement, Adler Fellow Elsa van den Heever is a pretty songbird-type singer. While Ms. Briggs has sung the role of Donna Anna many times before (internationally even), Ms. Van der Heever has sung it at, um... Napa Valley.

So yes, maybe Anna is not the best role for Briggs, but it is implausile that she would be entirely incompetent in its delivery. Unless Gockley just wanted to give us something to talk about, the outcome of this decision seems a lot riskier than allowing Briggs to fulfill her contract.

Otherwise, Donna Anna is ill-suited to 99% of the sopranos who choose to sing it. Save for Mozart's spectacular bravura writing, it is a difficult and ungrateful role. Once her purpose is served as the victim which triggers the plot, she really doesn't do much else for the rest of the opera. Anna is a doormat just like Ottavio -- prone to exaggerated outbursts of coloratura, entirely disproportionate with the situation at hand. Do you really need to sing several octaves worth of scales and high tessitura ostinatos, because your boyfriend has called you "cruel"?

© 2007 C. Chang

Thursday, May 31, 2007

New Donna Anna for SFO

The San Francisco Opera just put out the advisory below a few minutes ago. Can you believe they waited until AFTER the final dress rehearsal to make this decision? Opening night of Don G in SF is day after tomorrow! Poor Ms. Briggs (a fine singer whom I've heard on many occasions); this must be a terrible situation.


SAN FRANCISCO, May 31, 2007 – After the final dress rehearsal for Don Giovanni, San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, in consultation with Music Director Donald Runnicles and members of the artistic staff, made the decision that soprano Hope Briggs was not ultimately suited for the role of Donna Anna in this production.  Soprano Elza van den Heever, a member of San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellow Program, will replace Ms. Briggs in the role for all performances of Don Giovanni, which opens June 2 at the War Memorial Opera House.  Ms. van den Heever has performed the role of Donna Anna at the Lincoln Theater in Napa Valley and is contracted to sing the role with a major American opera company in a future season.

© 2007 C. Chang