A Muslim couple from India pulls up stakes and moves to New York in search of opportunity for the next generation. But do they settle among compatriots in Queens? No. They land in the Bronx, where blacks and HIspanics are taking over from whites in full flight. Dropped into grade school little Qurrat Ann Kadwani, whose name no one can pronounce, tries on identities like costumes, trying to blend in, trying to be herself, braving gang violence, giving as good as she gets... Autobiographical solo shows are a dime a dozen, but jazzy gems like this are rare. "They Call Me Q!"--a whirlwind chronicle of the author's first 20-something years--ranks with the monodramas of John Leguizamo, Spalding Gray, Camryn Manheim... The script--a patchwork of intensely personal voices by turns caustic, rebellious, bewildered, jubilant--never meanders. Over a dozen characters emerge with total clarity, brought to life in performances that glow with grace and heart and hungry hope. Have I mentioned that Q is a great beauty and a great mimic, as wonderful to watch in perpetual motion as in stillness? And that her crystalline diction renders even the least familiar accents instantly intelligble?
At the Maui Fringe Theater Festival, where I caught her act in February, Q she swept the top prizes. Now it's on to Orlando (May), Montreal (June), and D.C. (July), where the competition may be a whole lot stiffer. I'd say she has nothing to fear.
So the cast of Les Misérables sang live, to the accompaniment of an off-camera piano piped into their ears? You could have fooled me. The memo arrived only after I saw the movie. As I watched, it had never crossed my mind that the actors were not lip-synching. I wasn't watching for glitches, but I did think I caught some. Slippage of this sort was the least of my complaints. (What I could not swallow was Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil's score, which makes Andrew Llyod Webber sound like Hector Berlioz.)
As the world knows, the director Tom ("The King's Speech") Hooper would have walked sooner than filming the old-fashioned way. And few of the actors can resist thumping their chests in interview after interview. But if there is anything new under the sun, singing live in the movies isn't it. On the blog Theo's Roundtable, Clive Hirschhorn cites many precedents. Let me add one more. In 1968, when Barbra Streisand went to Hollywood to reprise Funny Girl, the producers expected her to pre-record her songs and shoot to playback. So she did, mostly. But to the bean counters' horror, she insisted on performing the climactic number "My Man" live, in a continuous take. A transcendent performance vindicated Stresisand's decision, and on Oscar night, she got her reward.
But how about some perspective? Movies are make-believe. What is more, they are virtually without excpetion works of bricolage, spliced together from countless pits and pieces. The impression of an organic whole, if it exists, is a hard-won illusion. With all due respect to artistic integrity, the industry is big business. And in the end, expediency looms larger.
News flash! The high-definition broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera are sung not only live but in real time! And since the premieres of Les Miz in Paris (1980) and London (1985), ensembles on most if not all inhabited continents have been singing the show (live!) as often as eight times a week. So what if the exponentially better paid stars and starlets now on screen sang live, too? By the same token, so what if they had not? The movies aren't theater. They didn't have to. What does grate is the bragging.
And I wonder: didn't they cheat even a little? Consider a relevant parallel. Movie action and spoken dialogue are routinely filmed in the same takes. Sometimes, though, the audio quality leaves something to be desired, or a line reading could use a tweak. So in post-production the talent returns to the recording booth, where they loop and loop and loop again. Are we to believe that the Les Miz gang were spared this rite of passage on principle?
"Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending," says Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Yes, but sometimes we must do our own detracting.
Yesterday, with some misgivings, I posted my recent Opera News review of the current Tosca from the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Why the misgivings? Because when I re-read the text in my print copy of the magazine, I came across a sentence that set my teeth on edge. No, you don't have to guess. Here it is: "But what matters most [about the production] is [Jonathan] Kent's microscopic attention to verbal, musical and theatrical nuance, mirrored throughout in Antonio Pappano's skill in fusing Puccini's Technicolor atmospherics and sharp narrative close-ups into a magisterial cinematic flow."
I stand by the judgment but cringe not to have found a better way to express it. What ought I to have written instead? Perhaps this: "But what matters most [about the production] is Kent's microscopic attention to verbal, musical and theatrical nuance. To all this, the conductor Antonio Pappano applies his Midas touch, fusing Puccini's Technicolor atmospherics and sharp narrative close-ups in a seamless cinematic flow."
In the Collected Reviews of Matthew Gurewitsch, a volume this earth may never see, the offending passage will be replaced--if not by today's version by a third and (I hope) better one.
Paradise is not what it was. Much of the native flora and fauna of the Hawai'ian archipelago has disappeared under the onslaught of species from far away, from axis deer to tulip trees. (Here, anywhere else on earth is far away.) Importing uninspected fresh fruits or vegetables is strictly forbidden, likewise pets, whether quotidian or exotic, likewise livestock. Everyone here is, or ought to be, a soldier in the war against "invasives."
Nonnative bamboo, for instance, which is wreaking environmental havoc on Maui. "It just keeps growing," W.S. Merwin notes with a rare flash of temper. "The man who invented the planting of temperate bamboo in the tropics is burning in hell right now."
What, though, of Mr. Merwin's hundreds of nonnative palm species, smuggled in huggermugger over the decades? Could not at least some of them likewise have been devil's seed, just waiting to run rampant? When I put the question to Mr. Merwin for my recent Cultural Conversation with him for the Wall Street Journal, he waved it off with a seraphic smile, more than once. A less Zenlike answer came from Sir Ghillean Prance, former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and an eloquent champion of Mr. Merwin's palm forest. "As a family," Sir Ghillean said, "palms are noninvasive." Whether or not Mr. Merwin knew this from the beginning we may never discover. Either way, praised be his wisdom, luck, or fate.
For a virtual tour of Mr. Merwin's property, visit merwinconservancy.org
Had we but world enough and time, I would gladly have commented on hundreds of the 1,024 portraits on the Metropolitan Opera Wall of Fame, the subject of my latest essay for The New York Times (see "The Corner of Falstaff and Zerbinetta"). Of course that wasn't possible. But a few omissions pained me especially, for various reasons. The veteran chorister Maria Savage shows up in soft focus as the silent Widow in "Der Rosenkavalier, exuding tragic dignity. For much of her 39-season run, she had a lock on walk-ons like Manon's maid in "Manon" (the vehicle for her solo debut, in 1912) and the Forewoman of the sweatshop in "Louise" (the vehicle of her official farewell, in 1943). She was also tapped for dressy cameos like the mute Countess of Aremberg in "Don Carlos" and the comic Duchesse de Krakentorp (a speaking role) in "La Fille du Régiment." A trusty laborer in the vineyard, she receives the same pennyworth of remembrance as Charles Anthony with his record 2,923 Met performances; the promising young Chinese bass Shenyang, lately seen as the bumpkin Masetto in "Don Giovanni" as well as the doleful Parisian philosopher Colline in "La Bohème"; and Harriet Henders, who gave a single, excellently reviewed, Met performance, as Sophie in "Der Rosenkavalier." Her daughter, the philanthropist Ann Ziff (not shown), made headlines in 2010 for her gift to the Met of $30 million, the largest in the company's history.
A final note. Two old friends, James McCracken and Sandra Warfield, long gone, got more space in this story than anyone else. Opera fans interested in their story may be curious to know how the Met was casting them when they decided to strike out for Europe. Here is a partial list of the roles they sang on the same nights in the same operas in the early days: Missail and one of Marina's four companions in "Boris Godunov, a priest and the Third Lady in "The Magic Flute," (Nathanael and the Voice of the Mother in "Tales of Hoffmann" and the like. Their final appearances before heading off for Europe in 1957 with big dreams and empty pockets were in "Trovatore" (Jimmy sang the Messenger ) and "Nozze di Figaro" (Sandra sang Marcellina). I guess they felt that had nothing to lose.
There have been innumerable cases of Ring fever far more severe than mine. According to his obituary, my old pal Sherwin Sloan took in Wagner's four-part Nibelung epic 90 times between 1975 and his death in 2010. Even so, I have been thinking about the cycle for longer than the quarter century it took Richard Wagner to write it. The list of Ring productions I have witnessed in the theater ranges from Achim Freyer's to Francesca Zambello's. Adding video, my tally comes to at least a dozen (some seen more than once), plus segments of at least five more. I cannot even guess how many more interpretations of the work I know from audio recordings alone.
I have written about the Ring on many occasions, but there is always more to say, if not always a suitable context in which to say it. And so, as my early contribution to the impending bicentennial of Wagner's birth in 2013, I have decided to send out one thought a day on Twitter throughout 2012. Please join me @Ring366. (It's leap year, recall.)
Occasional entries will link to illustrative materials or catalogue references, but most will not. While I have no quarrel with those for whom the tweet merely supersedes the telegram, I like to think of it as its own art form in little, aspiring to the condition of aphorism, akin to the sonnet or haiku. The overarching intention is allusive rather than rigorous, kaleidoscopic rather than encyclopedic. We'll begin at the beginning (think E-flat major), but then we'll hop around.
Here's entry #1. "Nymphs spurn satyr, apocalypse ensues. Morph Afternoon of a Faun into Dawn of a Troll, and what do you get? Das Rheingold, Scene 1." Alas, the Twitter feed has your for you, and because of a technical glitch, the same text was posted twice. Nobody's perfect.
A likely highlight of this year's Dance on Camera bash at Lincoln Center (January 27-31) will be the screening on January 28 at 6:15 p.m., a triple bill of shorts culminating in a new documentary on the ceaselessly mutating dance-athletics collective Pilobolus, often imitated yet still sui generis on the eve of its 40th birthday. By way of setup, the docket also includes an interview from 1987, when Moses Pendleton and Jonathan Wolken, two of the troupe's cofounders, sat down after a five-year rift for a segment of the long-running talk show Eye on Dance. In an alignment of the planets that is rarer than it ought to be, Celia Ipiotis, creator and host of the series, will present the film. And in celebration of Eye on Dance in the year of its 30th anniversary, a 23-minute loop of highlights will be running continuously in the lobby of the Walter Reade Theater for the duration of the Dance on Camera festival, with Celia on hand at scheduled times to speak and take questions.
As creatures of the Information Age, we dwell in a cultural limbo between imaginary omniscience and real amnesia. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, as dinosaurs may recall, New York reigned as the uncontested dance capital of the world. Alvin Ailey, George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Arthur Mitchell, Jerome Robbins, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, and Tommy Tune all lived and worked there, producing dazzlements and inspiring performers who, in their multifarious ways, were second to none. From Harlem to Brooklyn by way of Lincoln Center, City Center, Broadway, and downtown hot spots like Dance Theater Workshop and The Kitchen, the profusion of ballet, ballroom, modern, and yet-to-be-named was unending. No season was complete without residencies by a défilé of the flagship ensembles from London, Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Sydney. The Royal Ballet, it was said, danced better at Lincoln Center than at home at Covent Garden. It was probably true. There were worlds elsewhere; there always are. Yet to be seen in New York was to be seen indeed. Overnight critics spread the buzz daily. In The New Yorker, Arlene Croce elevated the weekly dance review to an art form.
The Salzburg Festival's Young Singers Project goes into its fourth edition this summer. As usual, about ten hand-picked artists from around the world will be reporting for several weeks of boot camp in the many disciplines that make up the kit of the singing actor. They will attend rehearsals of mainstage productions, often as covers for the marquee names. For a grand finale, they will appear in concert during the final week of the festival, presumably all set to wow the assembled talent scouts, professional and amateur. But as always their true trial by fire is apt to take the form of public master classes in the cavernous auditorium of the university.
Having followed the master classes for a while, I ask myself what real purpose they serve. From the public's point of view, the entertaining ones tend to profit the students little, while those that do profit the students are apt to lack sparks.
Salzburg being Salzburg, the Young Singers Project attracts a dazzling guest faculty; unsurprisingly, the events are packed. In my experience, the young singers vary considerably in star potential but never fail to display world-class sportsmanship.
Few maps show the village in North Wales where Bryn Terfel was born thirty-two years ago. There's a church and a shop and four or five houses, and out in the countryside the sheep farm of his parents, who bear the great Welsh name of Jones. His mother and father have been singing in rival choruses all his life. In singing competitions and the national eisteddfod, recognition of their boy's gifts in the vocal line came early. Back then, he stepped up to the plate with classical songs and cerdd dant , native Welsh lyrics performed to the accompaniment of a harp. (He also did a dead-on impression of Elvis.) Later came polishing at London's Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and today no star in the classical firmament blazes brighter. His Welsh fan club follows him to the far corners of the earth. Shortly they will be packing their bags for Sydney, Australia, where Mr. Terfel has signed on for Verdi's Falstaff, whose huge doublet he will have to stuff considerably but whose zest for life writ large mirrors his own.
My essay "Zeffirelliana," originally published in the current coffee-table book Franco Zeffirelli: Complete Works (Abrams), included an aside about the master's unusual if not unique surname. The story so far: After the death of Zeffirelli's mother, a cousin is said to have claimed that the deceased had wanted to call her boy Zeffiretti--little zephyrs, or breezes--after a line from a favorite aria in Mozart's Così fan tutte. Supposedly a clerk forgot to cross the T's, and the rest is history.
If only it were true. As I have pointed out, the word zeffiretti does not occur in Così fan tutte at all, let alone in an aria. Così does feature, in a duet, the word aurette, which means exactly the same thing, but that is no help at all. The word we need is found right at the top of an aria from Mozart's early masterpiece Idomeneo ("Zeffiretti lusinghieri," meaning, freely translated, "Gentle breezes, who will tell me what I want to hear"). But that is not much help either. Though standard repertory today, in 1923, when Zeffirelli was born, Idomeneo was known only to specialists. It's not eintirely impossible that Zeffirelli's mother had come across the aria in concert, but the odds say no.
Here's another somewhat less unlikely source: Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. Not that Figaro was a great favorite of Italians at that time, either. Three decades later, when Renata Tebaldi sang the Figaro Countess (in what the irascible Arturo Toscanini described, in another context, as "truly the voice of an angel), Figaro was still a rarity. Still, the delicious duet "Sull' aria." sung by two sopranos plotting an amorous intrigue, is one that might stick in an astute lady's ear. The word we are looking for occurs here in the singular--zeffiretto--but what of that? Nothing's perfect.