My first night in New York was spent at (le poisson rouge), a fantastic live arts space in the Village. As soon as I heard the lineup announced last week for a special Japan benefit show, I knew I had to be there. It was my long-awaited chance to see Patti Smith.
Month: March 2011
Watching opera in a cinema is strange. Are you supposed to clap? Would it be weird? Can you talk? Can you eat popcorn? Would it be wrong to unwrap candies?
I got a mini-schooling in the un-fine art of opera-cinema-going recently when I attended a showing of Lucia Di Lammermoor, broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as part of their popular The Met: Live In HD Series. Candy-wrapping and cellphone talking aside (both are frowned on with equal displeasure -though I wasn’t guilty of either, honest), it was a mainly positive experience, marred only by poor directorial choices within the broadcast and incredibly dull color that washed out the set and beautiful costumes, making it a less rich visual experience that it should’ve been.
The story of Donizetti’s 1835 opera is based on Scottish writer Walter Scott’s eighteenth century novel The Bride of the Lammermoor, and focuses on the warring clans of Ravenswood and Ashton. Passionate, strong-willed Lucy becomes enamored of the penniless chief of a rival clan, but is forced to marry someone who’ll be good for the waning family fortunes, and subsequently goes insane, killing her groom and dying of grief. The novel is a long, drawn-out portrait of ancient tribalism set within a nasty, dark world of family and money; Donizetti and his librettist Salvadore Cammarano found rich, ripe stuff in translating Scott’s words to the stage.
In Mary Zimmerman‘s haunting production set in the mid-to-late 19th century, we find a world where everyone harbors a secret and is guilty of something, through their own actions or those of their ancient clans. Though the title character (the Italian-ized “Lucia”) secretly loves the worn family enemy, there is still a true innocence about her, a quality that was laid especially bare in soprano Natalie Dessay‘s emotional portrayal. Her delicate, bird-like frame was used to incredible effect, especially since she was cast with the tall, broad likes of tenor Joseph Calleja, as her lover Edgardo, and imposing baritone Ludovic Tezia as her brother, Enrico.
As might be expected from a Met production, the singing, along with Patrick Summers‘ authoritative conducting, were top-notch. It was, however, difficult to fully appreciate Mara Blumenfeld’s gorgeous costuming or Daniel Ostling’s deliciously creepy set design, owing to a woeful lack of brightness and clarity in the transmission itself. Whether a signal problem or a projection technicality, the lack of clarity and brightness greatly diminished the grandeur of the spectacle; colors were, for the most part, dull and dark. “High Definition”? Not quite. The scene in which Lucia is first introduced to her family-approved groom-to-be, Arturo (Matthew Plenk) found her wearing a detailed lace/brocade red dress -the only red in the entire color scheme of the production (not counting the bloodied wedding gown later on) -and instead of blazing out from the screen, it merely yawned in a dusty fuschia. We know the Scottish moors are muddy… but not that muddy. Hopefully the folks in Egypt, Spain, and Portugal got a clearer picture.
Equally, Canadian director Barbara Willis Sweete, who helmed the live broadcast (shown across 1500 cinemas in 46 countries, no less) focused too much by… focusing too much. It’s deeply unfortunate that the grand, creepy majesty of Zimmerman’s production was lost because of an over-emphasis on close-ups, weird angles, zooms, and fast (/nausea-inducing) cross-stage pans. (And apparently, I’m not the only one who’s noticed that tendency in Sweete’s filmed-opera work.) There were a myriad of poor and even bizarre choices, indicating complete over-excitement and/or absolute unfamiliarity with the material. It’s hard to say which, but in any case, it made watching Lucia di Lammermoor in a cinema a very taxing (and occasionally confusing) endeavor.
During the dramatic second-act showdown in which the desperate brother forces his grieved sister to sign a marriage certificate, Sweete jumped between close-ups of the faces of performers Dessay and Tezier; we had to guess at their emotional states, which, especially in opera, tend to make the most sense in a wholly physical (not merely facial) sense. Were they mad? Conflicted? Same with vital details: did the ring Edgardo gave Lucia get thrown? Where? Did Enrico step on it? Body language would tellingly indicate such vital subtleties and shifts, but we weren’t given shots that would indicate either communication (unsung) or clarity (contextually), just close-ups of scrunched-up faces. Wouldn’t a wide shot to show their (clearly symbolic) distance, with the occasional close-up for emotional effect, be a better choice? It would also render their disquieting, tender-passionate physical interactions more all the more visceral.
The emotional resonance of the scene, like many, became as muddied as the color, and it was an unfortunate distillation of the problem of bridging opera and cinema: keeping the idea of staging alive. Zimmerman offered an incredible vision of the opera’s famous Sextet, by having the fancily-attired guests assembled for Lucia’s engagement party (a gathering the nearly-broke Enrico has staged to re-enter society) fan around her as she sits, surrounded entirely by men, and readying their pose for a waiting photographer. An oddly-angled wide shot used in the Live HD Broadcast completely diffused the visual power of that moment -one that (probably) worked perfectly in a live setting. The staging was excellent, thought-provoking union of sight and sound that underlined Zimmerman’s themes of family, responsibility, femininity, and notions of success. It was a pity that high-point was diminished through poor cinematographic choices.
Watching Lucia di Lammermoor on the big screen, the word “staging” never seemed more apt. It’s unwise and perhaps even foolhardy to shoot something as a movie if it’s already been laid out for the stage. It winds up looking hokey and induces some unwelcome dizziness, particularly when coupled with poor picture quality. In the famous Mad Scene in the third act, the audience was treated to a close-up of a doctor readying a sedative to give to poor, raving Lucia. Having been mesmerized by Dessay’s deliciously delirious, and awesomely beautiful handling of one of the most difficult passages in the history of vocal music, our suspension of disbelief (and lovely musical hypnosis) was cut egregiously short, as we noted, in said close-up, the lack of actual syringe, or liquid, going into the needle, breaking the magic of the scene and the audience’s trust in what was being depicted. There are so many other cinematographic choices that would’ve better served the stage presentation and further accentuated the themes of Zimmerman’s production, but they were either not taken enough, or completely ignored in favour of a more “cinematic” experience. Alas.
The plus side to those litany of close-ups (and for theater-loving me, it was a big plus) was the opportunity to see operatic acting at work. Most performers I’ve interviewed have told me it’s dangerously easy to fall into the notorious “park and bark” mode; you simply stand and …well, deliver. Sweete’s over-direction, if anything, offered a rare opportunity to view those frequently taken-for-granted acting chops. When it came to the title role, I found Dessay’s absolute love of the part and history with the opera obvious in every single scene she was in. The French soprano lived the role, sometimes to Sarah-Bernhardt-eque heights, but kept intact an innate sense of “fragility” -a word she used frequently in her intermission interviews with soprano/host Renee Flemming. Her tiny frame and expressive face gave her the look of a wounded sparrow surrounded by hungry wolves -or in tenor Calleja’s case, a gentle bear with a very bad temper.
The Malta-born singer used his considerable physicality to display an awesome, terrible violence in the scene where his character learns Lucia has married another, clearing rows of chairs in one scary *thwap* of the arm -but he also displayed incredible vulnerability and despair in his final, famous death scene. Calleja has a Valentino-like range of emotional expressions that are perfectly suited to stage work; he plays joy, grief, anger, rage, and anguish large, entering one scene with a scary scowl, another with bright eyes and a broad smile. It looked silly close-up, and it wasn’t at all suited to film, but it fit the demands of the stage beautifully. And really, it was his voice that kept my attention, for it is, quite simply, astonishing. I’ve not heard that quality of tone since I sat in the Met and watched Luciano Pavarotti perform many years ago. Calleja certainly stands on his own as an opera star on the rise, but with a voice like that, comparisons to the Pav are inevitable -and right.
In the acting sphere however, French baritone Ludovic Tezia stood in direct opposition to Calleja, and, in my humble, non-opera-expert opinion, quietly stole the show. His was a nuanced, layered performance, displaying the kind of brewing rage you might experience before a huge, violent calamity. Tezia perfectly tempered his performance to the demands of filming, and while the audience at the Met may’ve suffered (you can’t see that kind of subtlety from the Family Circle), he was absolutely magnetic, his rich, caramel voice showing a remarkable range of color and feeling, his acting displaying a man at odds with his life’s choices. With a raised eyebrow, a cock of the head, widening eyes, or a slow raise of shoulders, the honoured French singer displayed a remarkably menacing subtlety that left a deeply disturbing, if sad impression of a man who, to quote Tezia (again chatting with Flemming backstage), was forced to bear too much weight on his clearly-incapable shoulders.I didn’t perceive him as an out-and-out villain, but as a deeply layered, conflicted man whose complex personality was perfectly reflected in Zimmerman’s grey-hued world.
I’m tempted to attend the re-broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor (April 6th in the US; April 2nd in Canada), to enjoy these fine performances, and perhaps re-think my dislike of Sweete’s work. I totally loved her filmed version of the Timothy Findley play Elizabeth Rex, and I wonder if the distractions -people fumbling with candies, a man talking loudly on his cell phone, my own probably-too-close seat -added to my intense reaction to her avant-garde approach to cinematography. I also want to hear those beautiful opera voices again, and more closely observe the creepy Lucia/Enrico interactions. Mind you, I’ll be sure to take a Gravol before the Scottish tale unfolds. Maybe even two.
I listened to this track even as news of Libya, Japan, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Yemen, Bahrain, New Zealand, and so many more, ran (on mute) across my television, a whirlwind of flag-waving and fires, broken homes and watermarked family photos. As I watched those indescribable images, and guiltily bounced between them, email, status updates and moving arrangements, a series of thoughts presented themselves, especially one: I hate change. I mean, it’s good, but… it’s frightening. This thought coincided with another coughing jag, tied to a violent re-appearance of asthma, a condition I thought I was rid of long ago. My worries and resistance to change have taken on a suffocatingly physical form. I’m moving to a strange (if deeply beloved) city in a week’s time, and already I’m feeling pressed -for time, resource, air itself. The deep-seated worry has started about not having enough. But… enough for who? Within what context? Why am I worrying?
Grappling with freedom within the context of something new is exhilarating, if scary, both in a personal and political sense. Change isn’t comfortable, but it is a stepping stone. I had to consciously step away from the computer more than once today, turn off the telly and the radio, put the phone down and just remind myself to breathe, deeply, and frequently. And I slowly dissected what my lack of breathing-freedom really means. It’s true, we make mistakes. We’re guided by ego. We frequently accept the visible over the visionary. But the possibility for regeneration and renewal spring eternal, as befits this day, and, like the astrological sign it corresponds to, I keep ramming home the idea that change is possible, in our hearts, our heads, our homes, whether it’s the front door or the farthest corners of the globe. Or in our lungs.
The Greek historian Thucydides wrote, “The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.” And it takes courage to choose freedom for one’s self in both physical and figurative senses, to not look back in anger, to be the change, to use the force. Martin Luther King understood this deeply. It’s what inspired him to lead over three thousand marchers from Selma, Montgomery, on a trek that was nearly 60 miles and took five days. That courage was contagious; by the time he reached Montgomery, marchers numbered 25,0000. Staring fear in the face, making space mentally and emotionally for your enemies, staring change in its giant question-mark-shaped face because it’s far, far better than the slit-eyed, greying alternative… this is courage, fueled on a steady diet of faith.
And it’s this faith that I see celebrated in art, in the graffiti on a Libyan city wall, in the pencil line of a sketch shared round the world, in the rhythm and melody of music – the breaths, the wavering, wailing voices, the pressed keys and reverberation of strings and amps and snares, reaching for something higher, where not just a few of the well-read, well-connected, well-fed and well-meaning are free but… everyone, everywhere, spreading a hope-full, joy-full melody of liberation, a Song of Solomon in motion, a confirmation of collaboration with not just ourselves and our little clubs, but even (or especially) those we disagree with, write off, roll our eyes at, avoid, don’t call back, backstab, ignore, or, of course, feel suffocated by. I’m staring my own fears in the face right now, figuring out how much freedom is worth, what I’ll sacrifice, and how much a reset on my perceptions is possible. It’s easy -maybe even trite -to believe faith might overcome doubt in the face of fear.
But, we are -all of us, whatever our circumstances -free to choose something else, something broader, something bigger and bolder. Something that doesn’t just smell, taste, feel or look like freedom, but actually is that very idea in and of itself, embodied within the walking, breathing, spitting, bleeding masses of flesh we are. We have a deal with the universe, a deal that clearly tells us, in every shape and form: love thine enemy. Judge not lest ye be judged. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. To deny any of these an acknowledgment and indeed, a manifestation in our busy, over-stimulated lives, where we preach to the converted and sing loudly in our online choirs, builds a lonely prison of our own devising, brick by brick. It’s easy to judge others; it’s even easier to judge ourselves. None of us is free indeed.
But perhaps George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic said it best, at least for those of us who see a very thin line between the sacred and the profane. Within the confident crooning of Solomon Burke and the incredible Blind Boys Of Alabama, there thrives the encouraging spirit of survival, awareness, and even growth. “None of us are free”, it’s true, but we’re working on it. Change comes slow… but it comes -if we choose it. I am, and I’m terrified, and I’m thrilled. And I’m walking on, and taking very deep, slow breaths.
Like everyone, I’ve been transfixed by the news lately. It’s been hard to tear myself away from the updates coming out of Japan -first an earthquake, then a tsunami, then nuclear disaster. It’s been frightening, frustrating, and deeply unsettling. To quote journalist Sree Sreenivasan‘s excellent column at DNAinfo, this is the most documented event in history.
For the past few days, I’ve hesitated to look at any “before/after” photos -not because I don’t think they’re important or good at providing perspective, but because I keep putting myself in the shoes of those who’ve lost houses, friends, loved ones: would I be okay with having some stranger ooohh and aaahh (and awwww) over where I used to live, where I built a life, and where only destruction and radiation reign now? I’d like to slap that stranger, actually. Stop your aww and do something.
I was expecting saccharine. It wasn’t. I was expecting soppy. It wasn’t. I was expecting cloying. It wasn’t. Billy Elliot is creative, timely, and thought-provoking, as well as being one of the best pieces of musical theater I’ve ever seen. Yes, ever.
Based on the 2000 Oscar-nominated movie, Billy Elliot is the story of a boy in a small town who dreams of being a ballet dancer. Set in northern England against the backdrop of the year-long 1984-1985 strike that saw the decimation of the British mining industry, the film was a cheering portrait of someone beating the (considerable) odds. Musical composer Elton John, book and lyric writer Lee Hall, and director Stephen Daldry saw the rich potential for staging that lay within Hall’s original material, and in the early aughties they set about to transfer the film into the theater. Shortly after its 2005 opening, the production became a major success, spawning productions in Sydney, New York, Melbourne, Chicago, Seoul, as well as a touring show. It won ten Tony Awards in 2009, and has been seen by over six million people around the world. Brought to Toronto by Mirvish Productions, the show is currently on at the Canon Theatre in Toronto through to July 10th.
Billy Elliot opens with black and white footage of British miners from the 40s and 50s, then moves into news clips from the miners’ strike, when the picture becomes decidedly more grim. This prologue sets the stage for the struggle that takes place between miners and police and workers and government, but, in a larger sense, the battle is internal, occurring within the people in a small community whose perceptions of the world around them inevitably, irrevocably alter as a result of new harsh economic realities. It’s not accidental that Billy (Cesar Corrales) starts off in boxing class; he’s going to need to how to throw punches, as well as take them, if he’s going to survive in this harsh world Daldry has painted.
There’s something heartening about the way the English theatre powerhouse portrays this world. He stages even the most basic of scenes – blue collar workers chiding their kids or hoisting signs, or finishing breakfast -with the utmost respect and love. No twee presentation of quaint small town folk, this is a show with balls; people swear (including kids), throw punches, get drunk, and get bloody. In one telling moment, Billy’s Granny (Cynthia Darlow) muses on the abusive marriage she endured. In another, dancing bobbies sing about sending their kids to private schools as they wield batons against striking workers. Maggie Thatcher’s England has never looked less rosy (or more contemporary – I couldn’t help but think of recent scenes in Wisconsin). The story of Billy and his love for dance works as a kind of metaphor for hope and regeneration against decay and inertia. It also offers the solace of arts and culture as a means of not only escape, but more importantly, connection -between people, classes, and communities. Culture isn’t the sole domain of the upper classes, either -in fact, it’s frequently what hold communities that are in flux together. Billy Elliot makes this point again and again. It remains to be seen, however, how many from the opening night audience will be buying tickets to the National Ballet‘s next season. One can only hope.
Complementing the musical’s strong choreography is its gorgeous design, which is highlighted when Billy and friend mischievous Michael (Dillon Stevens) invade the latter’s sisters’ closet, and are soon joined by gigantic dancing dresses (& a cancan-kicking pair of trousers). It’s a fantastic contrast to the bleak town sets and riot scenes and is a wonderful expression of the power of imagination. The surreal staging blended seamlessly with the upbeat pop music and the pre-Gaga theme of being true to yourself, and was a true celebration of what “play” really means, and how important it is to engage in it. The scene ended with some fantastic tap dancing from the two young boys, with Stevens especially stealing the show with his big personality and dynamic stage presence.
Kids feature largely in Billy Elliott, and I was also impressed with the gaggle of little ballerinas who dance both within their own group as well as between riot police, miners, and parents; their delicate, diaphanous, white tutu’d presence is a lovely counterbalance to the heavy textures and drab colours costume designer Nicky Gillibrand layers the adult world in. Choreographer Peter Darling is a complete genius in blending the children’s and adults’ perspectives, seamlessly integrating the two to produce something both deeply unusual and visually sumptuous. Billy Elliott doesn’t shy away from engaging in some surreal eye-play, but it’s part of its magic appeal, and it certainly makes the return to the story -the struggle for Billy to attend the Royal Ballet School – all the more vivid and engaging. As their teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, Kate Hennig brings a ton of heart, attitude, and no-bs honesty to her role; the exchange she has with Billy’s father (Armand Schultz) on a snowy Christmas Eve doorstep is shattering, and touches at the heart of the class-based issues Billy Elliot revolves around. One isn’t left with any certain answers about who’s right and who’s wrong.
What is certain is that everyone who attended the show’s opening night was leaning over or turning around to get a clear view of Elton John.. His music is stellar, shining as only the score of a true Rocket Man can: ebbing and flowing between aggressive, loud sounds, jaunty pop numbers, and quietly emotional ballads, John shows the full range of his considerable songwriting abilities. Billy Elliot’s score references everything from classical (the choral harmonies at points brought to mind Verdi’s Nabucco and Wagner’s Tannhauser) to rock (especially Queen) to sixties favorites (I swear I could hear The Ronettes hovering around the edges of certain numbers), to other musicals (chiefly Les Miserables), each time breaking and exceeding expectations around what a contemporary musical can and should sound like.
The miners’ song “Once We Were Kings” was an especially powerful moment that showed off both the male ensemble’s strong harmonics as well as John’s profound ability to write operatic, captivating music that works beautifully within set designer Ian MacNeil’s haunting stage setting. Set intentionally after Billy’s big solo number “Electricity” three quarters of the way through the musical, the song is a hymn to the fuel that once fueled a town’s fires, a solemn if proud testament to both the intense toil of a community and the extinguishing of a generation’s “electricity”. The miners’ hats provided a starry (if occasionally blinding) cascade of light into the audience, which is made especially dramatic for the shadowy darkness lighting designer Rick Fisher employs to imitate the effects of journeying deep into the pit. The effect was an eerily powerful symbol of the theme that flashes through Billy Elliott: hope.
It’s that quality, shining as a bright as a lighthouse beam by the musical’s end, that fuels an audience’s fire. Billy’s literal “flying” may be technically impressive but it’s the heart of it that really matters: witnessing his literal soaring, we recognize our own figurative capacity to open to new things, eyes wide open, arms spread wide, ready for take-off. Billy Elliot matters because it shows us the electricity for a new way of being amidst the detritus of the past. This is a Big Musical in every sense, but it never for a moment falls into the hokey theatrics that mar so many efforts of its ilk. Funny, frank, moving, and more than a little profane, Billy Elliot is one theatrical experience that wears its heart on its spit-stained sleeve -even as it tap-dances by you, feathers, blue collar, and all. Hold me closer, tiny dancer… and don’t let go.