Sunday, April 28, 2019

My First Opera

Who knew I'd love the opera so much? I, for one, should have, when you consider how many movies, songs, books, and works of art I love that have been influenced by it or described as "operatic." How many figure skaters have I swooned over while they glided across the ice to excerpts from Tosca, La Bohème, or that singular right of passage for virtually every solo female athlete, Carmen? And I have been known to get quite involved at times with various soap operas, both the daytime and nighttime varieties, and they don't call them soap "operas" for nothing. I love The Phantom of the Opera! I adore The Umbrellas of Cherbourg! What was holding me back from a full blown infatuation with actual opera? 

I guess, in my mind, it always seemed a little fusty. Too dated, too dull, too highfalutin. The language barrier shouldn't have been an issue, but it probably wasn't a selling point, either. I never actively disliked opera, I just didn't seek it out. My knowledge was essentially limited to Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, because my mother owned the record album and, from the first time I heard it as a child, I've always found it enchanting. But it was commissioned by NBC for television and it's sung in English; It's contemporary, and it's very accessible. It's essentially a kiddie opera (and I mean no disrespect when I say that). It never inspired me to seek out older, more sophisticated works.

I never really thought much about my subconscious bias against opera until I had a chance to see Verdi's La Traviata at the Met last weekend. I'd been to The Met once before, to see the radiant Misty Copeland in Giselle, but those were nosebleed balcony seats. Still great, but very far away for someone with no opera glasses. We had box seats this time around, reasonably priced because of the partially obstructed view. Much closer, and much cooler. You go up to the balcony, then back down a side flight of stairs, then "behind the red curtain" to get to there. "Like a Baz Luhrmann movie," I gushed. It would be the first of many times that night that Luhrmann would cross my mind. The second came moments later when I looked towards the stage and saw a sheer screen emblazoned with a single, giant camellia. Very dramatic, and maybe a little modern?

"What's this?" I asked my husband, when I noticed a small bar affixed to a stanchion in front of my seat. The translator. Oh. Honestly, it hadn't occurred to me that there would be subtitles. I figured it'd be like when Edward takes Vivian to the opera in Pretty Woman, assuring her that she wouldn't need to understand what the performers were saying, because the music was "very powerful." Fun fact: Edward and Vivian attend a performance of La Traviata. I didn't know that beforehand, but I recognized the music almost immediately (I may not be an opera aficionado but I've seen Pretty Woman a lot). 

The translator took a little getting used to, because it's almost like watching a subtitled film, but I hated to tear my eyes away from the action even for a moment. Because once the lights dimmed and the screen lifted I didn't want to look anywhere but that stage. I adapted pretty quickly, though. And not every single line is translated. You get the gist, and you don't need much more than that. 

The story's a fairly simple one. Violetta, a celebrated Parisian courtesan, is committed to her rock 'n roll lifestyle, even though her health is suffering because of her hardcore partying. A long-time admirer, Alfredo, declares his love for her. At first she rebuffs him, swears love is not for her, but then she warms to him. They become an item, but Alfredo's father Giorgio disapproves of his son shacking up with a woman of ill repute. Fearing her notoriety will tarnish the family name, Giorgio implores Violetta to break things off with Alfredo. There are tears, a public shaming at a fancy party, and an eleventh hour reconciliation between the lovers before the big, tragic finale. 

Placido Domingo is the superstar here, the big name draw, and the crowd appropriately went wild for him when he made his entrance in Act II. Anita Hartig plays Violetta, and though all three leads have ample time on stage she's the one who does the heaviest lifting, because it's her story. I could talk about how astonishing the singing is, how technically impressive and emotionally resonant. I could talk about the work that goes into creating the sets and costumes, which are equally astonishing. It's like a Disney movie come to life. So much color, detail, and splendor. But that stuff is surely a given when you attend an opera at the Met. And while I can't speak to how this production measures up to others I can only say that, for me, it was exhilarating.

The love story in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! hits all the same beats as La Traviata. Like Pretty Woman, I have seen Moulin Rouge! many times, so I had a good idea how the plot would play out. And that familiarity with the subject matter made La Traviata more approachable and accessible than I ever could've imagined it would be. So much of popular culture derives from opera; The grandeur of the production and the performances can seem daunting, but the stories themselves are familiar. I'd always thought opera was not for me, but opera's influence has actually been a part of my life for years. How wonderful to finally realize something I'd held aloft for so long was actually there, waiting to welcome me and give me an extraordinary experience. I just had to let it in.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy was written by Anne Carson and stars Ben Whishaw and Renée Fleming. Performances at The Shed run through May 19, 2019.

How do I even write about this play? While I was watching it I was constantly saying to myself "I get this . . . I think," but I really wasn't sure. I felt emotionally engaged but intellectually out of my depth. Anne Carson, who penned it, is a Classics scholar who teaches ancient Greek for a living. She's also a poet and, more than anything, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy feels like a poem written for the stage. I made a point to find out as little as possible beforehand, but I almost wish I could see a second performance, knowing what I know now. What I knew going in was that it starred Ben Whishaw, who I am absolutely enchanted with (yes, he's the reason I bought the ticket), and renowned soprano Renée Fleming. I'm not well versed in opera but I know she's a big deal (she was, after all, on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack). I knew it was a melologue - partly spoken, partly sung - and that its intention was to draw parallels between Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe. I knew Whishaw was "sort of" playing Monroe, even though promotional photos showed him in a suit with slicked back hair, looking more door-to-door salesman than blonde bombshell. It sounded fascinating, ambitious, and a little peculiar. 

The abstract from The Shed's website states: 
It is 1964. An office manager has hired one of his stenos to come in at night and type out his translation of Euripides’s Helen, but his obsession with the recently dead Marilyn Monroe kidnaps the translation.

The scene is a drab office, after hours. It's snowing outside and the space is cold. The two characters never identify one another by name. Whishaw's character arrives first, fiddles with a cassette recorder, and begins tacking images of Marilyn Monroe onto a cork-board behind his desk. Fleming enters a few minutes later, and the two get right to the business of transcription, with Whishaw alternately dictating, or playing cassette recordings for Fleming. At the outset Fleming's character is very much the subordinate in the scenario. There are no perfunctory pleasantries to ease the audience into the action, we are just dropped into the situation. In this regard Fleming is almost our proxy, because, like us, she doesn't appear to have much intel going in - she's just there to do a job. She doesn't speak, but her thoughts are occasionally conveyed to the audience via audio track.

After about ten minutes or so, Whishaw produces a bottle of bright pink nail polish and begins casually painting his fingernails (and this was absolutely the moment where I realized I was not just interested but really interested). Fleming does not acknowledge the action, and neither of them says a word about it. A few minutes later he removes his dress shoes and puts on a pale pair of feather heel slippers. Over the length of the show's ninety minute runtime Whishaw gradually transforms "sort of" into Marilyn Monroe, applying makeup and swapping out his suit for a padded bra and girdle, Monroe's signature Seven Year Itch halter dress, and, finally, a blonde wig. The end result is far from perfect - patches of Whishaw's own dark hair are still visible beneath the wig, and he never quite manages to get the padded inserts properly situated inside his undergarments. The actor could've been made up off stage in advance, or an intermission could've been written in to allow for a costume change, but the transformation itself, and its imperfectness, seem to be the point. 

As he transforms physically, Whishaw's voice and manner also become more feminine; It's as if he's being kidnapped by Marilyn along with the translation of Helen. And as his character's voice is slowly subsumed by a facsimile version of Monroe's, Fleming's character begins to assert her own voice. At first she mostly repeats lines of transcribed dialogue back to Whishaw, but eventually she's interjecting her own insights and ideas into the narrative. Sometimes they're spoken, sometimes (and almost entirely by the end) they're sung. 

Is this some sort of symbiotic witchcraft? Is the male voice being muted so that women can finally have agency in their own narratives? The dialogue often has the cadence of a spell or incantation, with several lines repeating at various points, taking on new meaning each time they are spoken or sung, but the relationship between the characters does not come across as an adversarial one. In fact there are several tender moments that suggest a mutual sympathy, an understanding, between the pair. Like when Whishaw begins applying foundation to his face and Fleming fishes through her handbag to find a compact to lend him, or when he first offers her a drink from the flask he's been tipping into. If I had to choose a single moment from the performance that resonated with me it would be the one where Fleming helps Whishaw apply his false eyelashes. It's so gentle and intimate. As Whishaw becomes more Marilyn he becomes more vulnerable, and Fleming becomes more maternal and protective towards him, even as her character is asserting her own autonomy. And because their spoken exchanges are not structured like traditional dialogue (it's more stream of consciousness built around ideals of celebrity, womanhood, and the devastating destruction of the male gaze - and the characters talk at one another more than they speak to each other), it's their unspoken interactions that must build their relationship. 

Ben Whishaw has a reputation for playing fragile, ethereal characters and, on occasion, he's played female and gender fluid parts as well. His role here, while not quite like anything else he's done, slots in nicely amongst his impressive and intriguing body of work. I love to watch him because he plays all his roles with great empathy, but there's sometimes an elusive, ephemeral quality to his acting as well. He can be very present but also, somehow, somewhere else. He does this in Jane Campion's Bright Star as the consumptive, lovelorn John Keats, and he does it here as well. As if he's both transforming and receding before your very eyes. Watching Whishaw it's not hard to believe that Carson penned the role with him in mind. For a play that deals with the notion of celebrity as subterfuge -  it's all just smoke and mirrors, baby - he's the perfect embodiment of the tangible made intangible. 

Renée Fleming is a great foil for Whishaw - at turns subdued or commanding depending on what the role dictates - and the two play off one another beautifully. Because it's just the two of them, and because the actions they're performing are often so private, I had the sensation more than once of being a voyeur, like I was seeing something I really wasn't meant to be seeing. "How did I manage this?" I thought more than once, because at times it felt completely surreal, and a little unnerving (in a good way), to be witnessing something like this so up close and personal. I won't pretend to know what all of it means from an academic or historical standpoint, but then I'm reminded of what Whishaw's Keats says to Fanny Brawne about poetry: It's not meant to be worked out. "It is an experience beyond thought," he tells her. "Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery." Perhaps Carson's Norma Jeane is not something that's meant to be worked out. It exists to be experienced.

I can say that the performance moved me tremendously, and I appreciate the risk involved in presenting an unconventional, at times inscrutable, piece of work to an audience. I'm glad work like this exists and that performers like Whishaw and Fleming are willing to take the creative risk and bare their souls for their art. Ultimately I am left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I am so very grateful that I was able to experience this.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

McQueen

This past Sunday, March 17, 2019, would have been Alexander McQueen's fiftieth birthday. The designer committed suicide in 2010 at the age of forty.

I've never been particularly fashion savvy. On my most ambitious days I have a vague personal aesthetic, inspired largely by Tori Amos's look in the early-mid 90s, the warm-up wear and costumes of modern dancers like Martha Graham, and the cool lesbian girls I was infatuated with in high school, but my knowledge of fashion largely derives from the same source as my knowledge of most other things: film. I'm on more familiar footing talking about costume design than I am runway shows, and I'm apt to think of clothing as a narrative device; It's about more than just the garment, it's about the character wearing it, and the story they're telling. And the grander the gesture, the more dramatic and outrageous, the more I love it. When I really set myself to thinking about clothing design my mind will almost always go straight for grand, dramatic gestures (Eiko Ishioka's designs for Dracula or Kate Hawley's for Crimson Peak) or romantic period perfection (Janet Patterson's work on Bright Star or The Piano); I love looking at clothing like that and daydreaming about wearing clothing like that, but I'm not gonna make an effort to replicate those outstanding confections; When it comes to my personal wardrobe I need choices that are practical and comfortable for me as well as stylish.

So I don't know all that much about fashion and, unlike film, I've never been motivated to educate myself on the subject. I think of fashion like I think of Broadway: it's a cool thing that largely happens in bigger, more progressive, cosmopolitan areas. When I was in college pursuing a degree in art, though, I began to develop a strong aesthetic interest in female bodies and, by extension, I became interested in ways to adorn the female form. I wasn't so much interested in wearable clothing, I was more into the idea of creating sculptural pieces that were informed by the body, or art that was built around the body, transforming it into a component that works in tandem with the garment to create a tangible work of art. After college I started buying Vogue magazines on a fairly regular basis. I can't remember what prompted me to begin doing that, but I'm pretty sure it had more to do with the women who were gracing the covers than it did the designers themselves. Basically if an actress I liked turned up on the cover of the latest Vogue rather than the latest Vanity Fair I would buy the Vogue; I really just wanted to look at beautiful women I admired. But, at some point, I began to realize that I was drawn to particular pieces of clothing, and they were all made by the same designer: Alexander McQueen. With his flair for the dramatic and his gift for storytelling McQueen would be the obvious choice to truly bring me around to the idea of fashion as an art form in its own right.

My earliest memory, the thing that first caught my eye and truly captured my interest, were some fall/winter 2002 pieces that combined filmy pastel material, very fitted up top, almost like gauze bandaging, with leather harnesses. Sometimes the skirt would be an abundance of ruffles, layers and layers of them, very ephemeral and romantic and feminine, but paired with those severe, almost punishing looking harnesses. They were sexual, and maybe that didn't fully register with me on a conscious level initially, but the fetish implications - the rigid, constrictive nature of the harness dominating the delicate, yielding material of the dress - seem glaringly obvious in hindsight. McQueen wasn't just creating clothing. He was crafting a character, a mood, a statement. This was a garment that could be worn by a dominatrix, a gothic heroine, a bride of Dracula. I was in thrall.

And so I developed a fondness for McQueen, but it never really went beyond that. I have a habit of going overboard with my admiration, obsessing at times to a degree that is all-consuming, bordering on pathological. My love for McQueen was never like that, though; his work was always just kind of percolating in the back of mind, informing my artistic sensibilities in subtle ways. Though my admiration for McQueen was always kind of low key I was certainly a big enough fan to make a trip to New York in July of 2011 to see the posthumous retrospective Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to see this show, and it remains one of the most thrilling, and emotional museum experiences I've had. I remember black walls, and music, and in some rooms there would be a wind machine going to make the fabric billow. If there wasn't a headpiece of some sort the mannequin models were often headless, to minimize distraction and keep the focus entirely on the garment that was being displayed. Guests wound around the space, from one room to the next, experiencing each collection in an atmosphere that tried in subtle ways to approximate the feel of an actual McQueen runway show. Like the clothes themselves, the exhibition was transportive and a bit overwhelming. It cast a spell, for sure.

Last year a feature length documentary about McQueen was released. As a piece of cinema McQueen, directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, is pretty straightforward, chronicling the designer's humble beginnings as the son of a London taxi driver, his ascent through the echelons of the fashion industry, and the toll that both his professional and personal demons take on him, culminating in his suicide at the age of forty. Bonhôte and Ettedgui utilize an abundance of candid, behind-the-scenes recordings, footage from McQueen's remarkable runway shows, and interviews with family, creative collaborators, friends and lovers. The first time I saw the film I was underwhelmed by it from a movie-making perspective, but I loved having access to such a wealth of information about McQueen the man as well as McQueen the artist. Having seen the documentary two more times I can say that my appreciation for the directors' creative choices has increased, and their matter-of-fact approach - with the addition of a series of artfully rendered skulls specially constructed for the film to introduce each chapter of McQueen's story - feels right. They know enough to exercise restraint, allowing McQueen and those who were close to him to tell the story with minimal embellishment or artistic frivolity. If the movie comes close to tipping into sentimentality towards the end this can be forgiven, too. It's a movie that was obviously made with a considerable amount of care, respect, admiration, and affection. And every time I see it there's a new insight I pick up on, another perspective or idea that sparks my interest.

Before watching McQueen I knew next to nothing about the designer's beginnings in the the world of fashion, that he got his start working as a tailor on Savile Row and possessed an innate talent for the work. I've never even operated a sewing machine but, even though I'm not capable of fully appreciating the skill that goes into this sort of work, it really impresses me. McQueen had a grand vision, and he also had the practical skills to back it up. There's a great moment in the movie when McQueen's older sister Janet tells a story about her teenaged brother making a skirt for her, one so form-fitting she could barely walk in it . . . but she always received compliments on it when she wore it. McQueen had technical savvy, an understanding of the female form, and he was interested in making clothing that was personal, and one of a kind. So much thought and care went into both the look and the crafting of the garments, there was an intimacy to what he was doing. This intimate, personal approach extended to the concepts for McQueen's runway shows, which he said were largely autobiographical.

Drawing inspiration for his collections from literature, film, history, and current events, McQueen's work was also informed by the natural world, and non-traditional materials like flowers, shells and antlers often found their way into his creations. He was accused of misogyny but maintained that he wanted to make women look strong, formidable. Having witnessed the horrific abuse of his sister at the hands of his brother-in-law (and been the victim of abuse from the man himself) he wanted to create clothing that empowered women. What I love about his work is that it often transforms the models entirely, turning them into fantastical, otherworldly creatures. The combined sense of pageantry and storytelling in his collections could turn the women wearing his clothing into noble Scottish war widows, wild animals, woodland nymphs, or futuristic human-sea creature hybrids. His work may have been idiosyncratic and highly personal, but the more fantastical it becomes the more compelling and, indeed, accessible it is to me. His astonishing talents combined with his dark romantic sensibilities and seemingly boundless imagination make me positively giddy. What a gift his work was. What a treasure. Looking at his clothing, watching footage of his runway shows, I appreciate the time and skill that goes into it all on a practical level, but I don't have words to express what the work means to me emotionally. It just makes me feel so much.


For someone who was drawn to the macabre and melancholic, who created work he often referred to as dark, gothic, and death-obsessed, the McQueen we see in the film's earlier archival clips is surprisingly jovial. He liked to push people's buttons, wind them up, get them out of their comfort zones, and there was a playful quality to his provocations. He was a trickster. And a punk. He also comes across as someone who was down to earth, took his work very seriously, and valued the time and effort his collaborators put into helping him realize his vision. And he seems quite tender hearted, with an endearing, almost child-like affection for his pets (he dedicated one of his runway shows to his beloved dog, Minter, and set aside a generous sum in his will for the continued care of the three bull terriers who survived him). But he had a mercurial temperament, and was apt to push people away and alienate himself as often as not. One gets the sense that he felt most at home in his own skin when he was working, and one of my favorite moments in McQueen is when stylist Mira Chai-Hyde talks about how often the designer would stay up, late into the night, sewing and listening to Michael Nyman's score for The Piano. McQueen and Nyman eventually struck up a friendship (McQueen even commissioned Nyman to compose a piece for his Widows of Culloden show), so it's not only appropriate but very touching that the film uses Nyman's music as its soundtrack.

The second half of the film chronicles McQueen's steady rise in the industry, and the personal descent into paranoia, self-loathing and depression that paralleled his professional ascent. Watching this brilliant, charming, lovable man essentially waste away as he becomes more famous, while the people he was closest with recount some of their heartbreaking exchanges with the designer during this time period, is incredibly difficult to watch. It made me feel helpless, and incredibly sad for McQueen and all the people who loved him. It's during the final act of the film that I most appreciate Bonhôte and Ettedgui's straightforward storytelling style. Death was often the subject, directly or indirectly, of McQueen's work and another filmmaker might have been tempted to romanticize McQueen's self-destructive actions and his death. But the film never crosses that line. Nothing about what happens to McQueen is sensationalized or glamorized. McQueen is with us, and then he is gone. And it sucks.

But how fortunate we were to have had him for the time that we did.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Fun Fact

My favorite artist and my favorite fictional character died, six years apart, on the same date. On May 12, 2008, we lost Robert Rauschenberg. I remember my high school art teachers talking about him, specifically the combine with the chicken, Odalisk. It didn't really resonate with me at the time. It was later, when I was at Mars Hill, or I think even after I'd graduated, that I fell hard for Rauschenberg. It was Monogram, the combine with the goat (goats really intrigued me), that captured my heart. I became obsessed. I began to research him on my own. He worked incessantly and produced an enormous, tremendous body of work. For me there is more life and soul and energy in his art than in anybody else's. He gathered the detritus from the world around him and cobbled it together with paint and wood and canvas and made pieces that simultaneously felt universal and deeply personal. In interviews he seems playful, light-hearted, but in a way that masks unknown, subversive thoughts and feelings. Layers upon layers upon layers. His work is life and it makes me feel more alive than the work of any other artist.

Is it weird that I feel just as strongly about, just as connected to, Nick Fallon, a Days of Our Lives character who was pronounced dead on May 12, 2014? In Patti Smith's memoir, M Train, she talks about her affection for the moody crime drama The Killing, and, in particular, her love for its lead character, the troubled detective Sarah Linden: " . . . my subconscious mind seeks out Linden, for even as a character in a television series she is dearer to me than most people. I wait for her every week, quietly fearing the day when The Killing will come to a finish and I will never see her again." After reading this passage I felt vindicated, as if I was being granted permission to mourn Nick Fallon in earnest. Nick's story was so brief and so brutal. He was a character who could infuriate me but, more often than not, I loved him. And I related with him. And I think that's part of the reason he infuriated me, because I could identify, could empathize, with the bad that he was doing. I understood that his actions, both good and bad, came from a place of wanting to be loved, to be seen, to be acknowledged, even in some small way.

So I'm thinking of both of these men, and the impact both of them have had on my life. The way they put themselves out there, took tremendous risks, in an effort to connect with the people and the world around them. And I feel like that's what I'm trying to do. I'm always seeking those connections. So when I find fellow seekers, be they real or fictional, I recognize them. I embrace them. I am so grateful for their contributions. I am so grateful to be reminded that it's not just me out here. That I am not alone.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Dream: May 31

I dreamed I had four small spots, in a straight line, on the inside of my forearm. I picked at them, they scabbed over, I picked at them again, as I do. Then one day I noticed tiny, green leaves sprouting from each spot. I gently tugged at them and sizable green seedlings came out of my arm. There was no blood and I don't remember feeling like I was in pain but I don't know if I ever really feel physical pain in my dreams. The people I was with were horrified. They asked if whatever I had was going to come back. Then some other woman, a woman I don't believe I knew, came over and said everything would be fine, the whole process had run its course, but to give her the discarded seedlings (which had turned goopy and kind of purple-ish bloody once I removed them, like biohazard waste) to dispose of, so they wouldn't infect someone else. So I scooped them up and handed them to her. Then I woke up.

I think this can either be interpreted as some sort of allegory about the creative process and the sprouting of new ideas or a warning that I'm going to get some sort of exotic disease because I spend my weekends lying around in my backyard with a dead opossum.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Thrum


Here's a thing I made. Got noises on it. Noises that I find pleasing. You might dig it, too. Check it out.

Howl with Me Again

Long overdue update to my website. Because a) I'm finally at a point where I don't wanna spend all my spare time faffing off on my blog about Nick Fallon and b) I'm actually feeling motivated to make stuff again.