April 17, 2016

2016 Split This Rock Poetry Festival - Day 3

For the last report on the 2016 Split This Rock Poetry Festival, the Dresser presents highlights from the panel discussion "Unchained Voices: Giving Incarcerated Writers a Voice." Wendy Brown-Báez and Nell Morningstar Ubbelohde are two members of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop which offers writing workshops to inmates in and around the Twin Cities and these are some of their insights about teaching prison inmates.


"The purpose of writing is to have a reader." Wendy Brown-Báez

In Minnesota, here is what limits the incarcerated working alone:

• No Internet access.
• No permission to form a writer's group.
• No ability to clear your head by taking a walk or moving to another venue.
• No ability to orally present work in front of an audience.
• Censorship that prohibits using any detail associated with the crime committed.
• No permission to use the writer's real name in works published for outside readership.
• Limited use of the computer to type up one's work.

A big part of what the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop had to do was gain the trust of the prison officials who were leery about people coming in because they disrupt the regimented order, especially if they are erratic in showing up. This kind of work is emotionally difficult and the teachers need to be constantly in control of what they say and how they conduct themselves, even to facial expressions. After all as Brown- Báez said, "Writing poetry is an act of subversion."

When the Dresser asked why they are still doing going into the prisons, both agreed that they feel they are making a difference, that the inmates change. For example, when they call their families , they share poems; when they get angry, they check that anger by going back to their cells to write.

Since the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop started in 2012, here are their accomplishments:

• 75 classes
• 18 instructors working for the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop
• 500+ students
• 15 internal readings
• 35 male mentors critiquing work
• 4 public readings attended by 200+ people
• 7 men's prisons & 1 women's prison.

Public readings do not include inmates. It is only their work which must approved by a prison reviewing board. Public readings have been mandated by some of the grants the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop has received. To give the writer inmates feedback, they use postcards handed out to the audience to write comments. Then those comments, after going through prison review, are given to the inmates.

They have created chapbooks based on individual workshops and more recently a publication based on a year's work. Many organizations, like Red Bird Chapbooks, have donated services and resources. None of the books shown during the panel were for sale because these books were created for in-prison use only.


Check out their website to see details and a short film on the work by the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop: http://www.mnprisonwriting.org.

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April 15, 2016

2016 Split This Rock Poetry Festival - Day 2

This report from Split This Rock Poetry Festival features a photo montage from "Take Poetry to the Streets! A PUBLIC ACTION."

Sarah Browning and her team organized a group of 50 people more or less into 8 flash mobs whose goal it was to connect with passersby by reading or performing preferably love poetry on street corners in the fashionable /business district of Washington, DC. This was a way to counter the bad political energy now suffusing our airwaves.

SarahBrowning-John Rosenwald.jpg


Sarah asked Ross Gay to allow his poem "A Small Needful Fact" to be sent out on the streets. Otherwise, participants could bring copies of their own poems.



Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

"A Small Needful Fact" copyright © 2016 Ross Gay

At the rally point, the Dresser spotted long time and new friends from the Women in Poetry ListServ (WOMPO: Peggy Rozga and Wendy Brown-Baez. After all STR is all about making connections for the life in poetry.


Then group number 6 went out on the streets.


This group of photos includes South African poet Mantombi Mbangata.


Here's another Poem of Love & Welcome:

From a Conversation-Hour Discussion About Intolerance with Adult English Students
Pak Kret, Nonthanburi, Thailand

Then he explained
how the Buddha

instructed us
to reflect on the body

our skin
our hands and feet

our body hair
our nails and teeth

our noses
our eyes

our minds
our hearts

so that we can see
ourselves clearly

in every person
no matter where

-Nahshon Cook

What was the reaction on the street? Many people said no thank you or quietly moved away from our hands offering poems. Some people took the poems with interest and said thank you.

Our leader said, I think we look like a band of missionaries!

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April 14, 2016

2016 Split This Rock Poetry Festival - Day 1

Split This Rock (SPR), a Washington, DC, poetry festival featuring poems of provocation & witness, opened April 14 and the Dresser was able to attend two memorable events.


The first was a panel entitled "The New Black Femininity" with Elizabeth Acevedo, Tafisha Edwards, Dawn Lundy Martin, Katy Richey, and Venus Thrash. The panel played off the 2014 SPR panel "The New Black Masculinity."

Richey-Edwards.jpgThe Dresser found the discussion exceeded the topic because the Q & A's presented both by moderator Katy Richey and attendees could be applied to any groups of the marginalized. For example, the disabled, the LGBT community, and all women of any color.

This is not to say the topic of being a Black woman was not addressed. Here are some of the comments:

"At first, I only saw myself as Black." Tafisha Edwards

Edwards explained that she saw how her mother "performed" as a woman and it didn't look like fun. Therefore, Edwards wanted no part of that. As a lesbian, Edwards said that when people look at her they see hetero-normative but she is out while her little brother who is queer is not.

Dawn Lundy Martin said gender and blackness was a hard negotiation and an unsettled space for her. "You can't get away from what has been projected on the Black female, that oversexualization. How much do we internalize or reject?"

Venus Thrash said, "My mom never talked about what it was to be a female or a woman. I was on my own to find my way." Thrash decided she would not carry a purse or wear dresses. She wanted to be like her brothers. However, she was not rejecting her gender or trying to be a man as some accused. "When I think of the size of my breasts, no one could mistake me for a dude."


From the Dominican Republic, Elizabeth Acevedo said she can pass and that she was brought up to be "a lady" but women in the 80% Black population of the Dominican Republic are expected to clean, cook, and hold their tongues. She said she is still looking for one strong Black Dominican woman to look up to.

Katy Richey said she thought of herself as biracial and Black agreeing with Thrash that identity fluidity is so important.

Using Audre Lorde's book of essays, The Uses of of the Erotic, Thrash said she drew strength from Lorde's thoughts about erotic power. "The terms Butch and Femme put women in a box. I thought of these terms as a joke." She explained that she was not worried about all these identities or what the world's view of me is because Lorde's position freed her (Thrash) to just be herself. Thrash told the story of a male student of hers who asked why she dressed so masculinely. She answered that she felt the sexiest, the most beautiful and the most feminine that way. "I cannot take on other people's boxes."

One thing the Dresser found interesting was how much the word perform was used. This came out particularly on the subject of what Richey pointed to in the archetype of the strong Black woman versus vulnerability. Richey questioned if it was important to perform that. She said, "It's not not strength--being vulnerable is a form a strength."

Edwards said that vulnerability was important to her and she would allow herself to cry, complain, be loving and kind.

On the other hand, Lundy Martin asserted that she "has a hard time with vulnerability. [It's easier] to be a crazy bitch." She said entering a room was "a kind of labor." The Dresser understands this problem of entering a room being her admission of vulnerability nonetheless.LundyMartin.jpg

Acevedo said she never saw her mom cry but she (Acevedo) would cry in class to get attention. "It was a performance. I wanted to be noticed." She said it was harder to be vulnerable to let loose and cry when she was along.

Thrash countered, "I worked so hard to not be angry and go into my angry Black woman mode but sometimes I need her."

The Dresser asked the panelists to talk about how they received pity.

Acevedo said, "Pity is based on assumptions." The Dresser understood that Acevedo was not buying into someone's offer of pity.

Edwards said that she has to stop and ask, "What tragic Black woman do you see today? Interrogate that person who is offering the 'gift' of pity." The Dresser hears in this answer that the pity giver is not sincere.

Lundy Martin questioned whether the pity purveyor was really trucking in something else like envy.

The next question dealt with the vocabulary of the Black female. Thrash said we have tags applied to us and as a Black woman queer, she cannot escape that gaze. "I reject that I cannot be both masculine and feminine."

Here's an excerpt from from "After Drowning" by Dawn Lundy Martin

What is mumbled after the act? I--Uh. After the craving empties.
When viscosity permeates a life before. Magenta. And, falling there,
through sound, through tape, a voice ghostly, saying blackly, I bleed.
This is what it takes. I hear it now. Know it. There was once a time
when the bridge ended and the girl leapt. There was once a singing


The next event the Dresser attended was "from this paradise into the next: Tributes to Poets Lost Since Split This Rock 2014" led by the STR founder Sarah Browning. Browning.jpgThe attendees each provided information and poems about poets who had passed in the last two years most reading from their smart phones. Browning collected lines from these poems to make a non secretive exquisite corpse poem.

Among the lost leaders of our literary community celebrated were Belle Waring, C.D. Wright, Paul Weinman, Adrian Oktenberg, Carolyn Kizer, Galway Kinnell, Jose "Joe" Gouveia (biker poet), Justin Chin, Henry Braun, Maya Angelou, Francisco Alarcón, Mafika Gwala (South African).


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March 11, 2016

Celebrating The Edith Poems

BryanPage.pngEthelBeachSM.jpgIt took five years from inception to premiere and on March 10, 2016, composer Bryan Page and poet E. Louise Beach heard the first rate performance of The Edith Poems. Page, a Dallas-based church music director, wrote the lyrical music specifically for New York City-based performers baritone Mischa Bouvier and pianist Yegor Shevtsov. The 90-minute program with a 20-minute intermission opened the series Music in the Mansion at Strathmore Arts Center of North Bethesda, Maryland. While the intimacy of the Music Room in the Strathmore Mansion was a perfect acoustical environment for Page and Beach's meditative and emotionally moving song cycle and the room was satisfyingly filled with a rapt audience, the Dresser thinks that aficionados of new classical music missed an extraordinary event, which got minimal publicity.

The sixteen poems of The Edith Poems were presented as the first half of the Bouvier-Shevtsov program and paired aptly with a second half of art and caberet songs from Paul Bowles, Russell Platt, and William Bolcom. The evening concluded with a question-and-answer session featuring Bryan Page, E. Louise Beach, and Mischa Bouvier.BouvierSM.jpg

The first things the Dresser noticed about the music was its tonality and accessibility which meshed with an overall subject theme of love--love of the natural world, the world of a working farm, and the farmer for his deceased wife Edith. Despite the darkness of death, the music is filled with renewal like Page's notes progressing up the musical scale as if water were running. The opening poem bares full disclosure because it fully captures the broad scope of the love themes and subtly indicates death of the beloved.


The Dresser particularly loved the settings of "The train is loaded full" and "Banjo." "Train" has a musical resonance accentuated by the image of Edith running out of the house with flour on her face to see a packed train roll by as the cow Banjo grazes in a field first watching and then bending to eat grass. The music of "Banjo" features syncopation, that musical timing that inserts an unexpected pause before completing the musical expression. In the poem, what stops Banjo's life is a calf too big to be born. In the scheme of life on this farm, the oversized stud King Bull stands in his pasture "bowed and indifferent" while Banjo suffers in the failed birthing and then is buried in the swamp behind the barn. All of this just part of the cycle of life.

What made this premiere so exquisite was the precise delivery of the words and expressive body language by Mischa Bouvier as well as the showmanship of Yegor Shevtsov.ShevtsovSM.jpg

The Dresser was exceedingly pleased to hear four Tennessee Williams poems from Blue Mountain Ballads jazzily set by Paul Bowles who was a musical protégé of Aaron Copland. Bryan Page's phrasing in The Edith Poems made her think of Copland's opera The Tender Land. Page said in a one-on-one conversation that love of the land was a strong connector.

The Dresser loved Bouvier's presentation of "Cuba," a Paul Muldoon poem set by Russell Platt and the 11 short sassy pieces from cabaret songs and Minicabs by William Bolcom.

In case, Dear Reader, you think a small music room located in an arts center in the suburbs of Washington, DC, as is the case with Strathmore, is not on anyone's radar, think again. An audience member of the March 10 program wanted everyone to know that some years ago, William Bolcom had performed in this space. Music in the Mansion at Strathmore Arts Center continues this spring with 5 more programs.

"Dusk" copyright © 2016 E. Louise Beach

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February 25, 2016

Classical Nightclub: KC Jukebox 2

The question on everyone's mind in the world of classical music is how to get young adults to attend concerts. To address this issue, the Kennedy Center has established Mason Bates, winner of the 2012 Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities, as its first Composer-In-Residence. Mason Bates - KC Composer-in-Residence - photo by Scott Suchman.jpgOn February 22, 2016, Bates curated a second installment in his contemporary music series called KC Jukebox. Program 2 entitled Of Land & Sea took place in the intimate Kennedy Center Theater Lab and then spilled back out into the reception hall afterwards for a party with a drink, pulsating music with a live DJ, and projections. (The party actually started before the performance.)

The formal concert inside the Theater Lab--and the Dresser must add that this is new classical music--came off as a hipster's nightclub complete with hazer (a machine that puts water vapor into the air to emphasize beams of light), informational and environmental projections, animated musicians (who make their personalities known and do not act like robots), a tiny palm-sized "passport" program (surely less paper has to please the environmentalists while maintaining the traditional program security blanket), and a smidge of electronics (nothing too radical that might chase away audience expecting to hear acoustical instruments).

The concert started on time with a recording of John Luther Adams's electronic piece "At the Still Point." Yes, there were still people being seated and moving around, but this action is like the much-in-vogue actions of today's theater where players wander out of the audience onto stage to "play" before the lights go down in the house. Did it do harm to Adams's work since people were not giving it their full attention? That's hard to say, but there were projections providing additional information about the composer so if a listener wasn't fully immersed in the recorded number, he or she had the composer's name and title of the work in the program passport to take home and research. After all, in today's world of artistic exchange, the audience has to take some responsibility.

Excerpts from Gabriela Lena Frank's "Milagros" came next as played by The Last Stand Quartet, young performers all members of the National Symphony Orchestra. This was a huge favorite of the show for the Dresser. Frank's music, which comes out of a multi-cultural background, is lively and playful as well as environmentally evocative. Frank, an American born in Berkeley, California, is the child of a Peruvian Chinese mother and a Lithuanian Jewish Father. "Milagros" takes it inspiration from her mother's homeland of Peru. Of the eight movements, the string quartet played II. Milagrito-- Zampoñas Rotas ("Broken Panpipes"), V. Milagrito -- Sombras de Amantaní ("Shadows of Amantaní"), VI. Milagrito -- Adios a Churín ("Goodbye to Churín"), and VII. Milagrito -- Danza de los Muñecos ("Dance of the Dolls"). The Dresser was particularly engaged by the passion poured into this performance by the cellist Rachel Young but that is not to say violinists Alexandra Osborne and Joel Fuller and violist Mahoko Eguchi were placid. No, what made this concert enjoyable was seeing that these musicians were fully alive in the musical performance.


Another lively aspect of the program were two compositions by Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award winner Christopher Rouse for percussion as played by four able percussionists: John Spirtas, Greg Akagi, Doug Wallace, and Bill Richards. "Ku-Ka-llimoku" dealt with a Hawaiian god of war and had lush woodblock accents. Inspired by Haitian drumming patterns, "Ogoun Badagris," with emphasis on four conga drums that correlate to the Voodoo drums known as the be-be, seconde, maman, and asator, rocked the Theater Lab with its intensity.

Much quieter and meditative was "Seven Seascapes" by Pulitzer Prize-winner Kevin Puts. It is an 18-minute composition for a mixed ensemble of winds, strings, and piano that pays tribute to seven writers including Emily Dickinson, Carl Sandburg, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Wolf. Inspired by a poem of Emily Dickinson, the opening movement is achingly beautiful in its lyricism and was finely played by the assembled musicians again all veterans of the National Symphony Orchestra.

The last work of the program was "Red River" by Mason Bates. 2016_02_23_of_land_and_sea-009sm.jpgIt's a 17-minute composition for clarinet, violin, piano and cello but it also has an electronic component that serves more as a percussive timekeeper. Parts of "Red River" are joyfully reminiscent of Aaron Copland. Because she felt a bit impatient with the slow pace, the Dresser thinks she would have enjoyed hearing "Red River" more if it had been performed after "At the Still Point" and ahead of the excerpts of "Milagros." With that re-ordering than the last composition heard would have been the rhythmic "Ogoun Badagris," putting the Dresser in the mood to party.2016_02_23_of_land_and_sea_afterparty-001SM.jpg

In "Love's Baby Soft," Moira Egan addresses territory and how to protect a presumably innocent girl from a way too cool young man. So enter the girl's dad into this equation. Crossing the generational divide but trying to pull the whole community together is what Mason Bates is tasked to do. Bates has a history of creating innovative programs that cross between various forms of contemporary music--jazz and its offshoots, classical music, and textual experimentation and electronics. During his residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he married new music to new spaces. His instincts are good and, for the most part, he knows how to create a scene where people of all ages want to be, to experience his colors, and to stay with that sensation. Mark your calendar for April 18 when Bates concludes his KC Jukebox with "New Voices, Old Muses," a program focused on evoking new responses from classic works of poetry and ancient instruments.

Love's Baby Soft
(because innocence is sexier than you think)

He's tall and cute, and gestures me to follow
him out the door, spring full-on, lavender
and rose, geraniums exuding pheromones,
a luscious word I'm pleased to have just learned

in 9th grade Bio. "You mind if I smoke?"
He lights up. "Who's that old guy at the bar?"
"My father, who'd'ya think?" "You must be joking."
I shake my head, I am that poet's daughter.

And rules are what? He offers me a drag;
I don't. And so he leans in for a kiss,
grown-up and musky, smoky - and then Dad
is there. First time I've ever seen his fists.

Dad sneers at him, "You know she's still a virgin"
and glares at me. I see. It was a question.

Moira Egan
first appeared in Birmingham Poetry Review

copyright © 2015 Moira Egan

Photos by Scott Suchman

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February 13, 2016

We are Still Lost in the Stars

In Washington, DC, a town where its major newspaper--The Washington Post--headlined "It's still apartheid", a story about continuing racial strife in South Africa, Washington National Opera, the night before--February 12, 2016--opened the profoundly moving production from Cape Town Opera of Lost in the Stars, a musical based on Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country. Paton's novel was published in 1948. Kurt Weill, a Jew who fled Nazi Germany, in collaboration with Maxwell Anderson, who wrote the book and lyrics, premiered Lost in the Stars on Broadway in 1949.

In 2011, WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello helped co-produce the Cape Town Opera production directed by Tazewell Thompson. It was the first time, Lost in the Stars had ever been produced in South Africa. In 2012, the production debuted at The Glimmerglass Festival.

To the Dresser's way of thinking, Lost in the Stars, typical of work by Kurt Weill, is music theater and plays somewhere in between Broadway musical and opera. The Dresser, extremely taken by the talent engaged for this production, preferred the musical numbers that played to the operatic side. Outstanding performances included those by bass-baritone Eric Owens as Stephen Kumalo, soprano Lauren Michelle as Irina, tenor Sean Panikkar as The Leader, and boy soprano Caleb McLaughlin as Alex, the son of Kumalo's sister. Overall the choral numbers are substantial and advance the action of the storyline.

The leader.jpg

Acts 1 opens with The Leader vocally painting the details of Stephen Kumalo's home town. Tenor Sean Panikkar sings passionately and operatically: "There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass covered and rolling and they're lovely beyond any singing of it."

The next number sets up who Stephen Kumalo--a man of optimism and love. Owens performance lends gravitas to these lines:

How many miles to the heart of a child?
Thousands of mile, thousands of miles.
When he lay on your breast, he looked up and smiled
across tens of thousands, thousands of miles.

Each lives alone in a world of dark,
Crossing the skies in a lonely arc,
Save when love leaps out like a leaping spark
over thousands, thousands of miles. ...

The Leader also opens Act 2 with these haunting, poetic lines of "The Wild Justice." Again Panikkar stands out with his performance.

Have you fished for a fixed star with the lines of its light?
Have you dipped the moon from the sea with the cup of night?
Have you caught the rain's bow in a pool and shut it in?
Go, hunt the wild justice down to walk with men.

The story of Lost in the Stars centers on the black African father Stephen Kumalo, a minister working for better race relations between blacks and whites, who travels from his hometown Ndotsheni to Johannesburg to find both his sister and his son Absalom. The son hoping to better the life possible in a small town has gotten into trouble more than once, but this time he has crossed the line of no return--he has killed a white man and one who had championed black lives. The father is devastated and, like King David mourning his third son Absalom, Kumalo wishes he could die in his son's place. Kumalo's brother John urges Absalom to lie, but he refuses, wishing to follow what his father has taught him. The distraught father visits James Jarvis, the father of the man killed to ask him to petition the court for mercy. Jarvis, who had an argument with his son about championing black people, cannot understand how Kumalo would have the audacity to ask such a thing. The only good that Kumalo can do is to marry his son to the son's lover Irina who is pregnant with their child and take Irina home to Absalom's mother. Wedding-Absolom-Irina.jpgOnce Kumalo is home, he tells his congregants he can no longer lead them because he has lost his faith and so he is lost in the stars:

But I've been walking through the night, and the day
Till my eyes get weary and my head turns grey
And sometimes it seems maybe God's gone away
Forgetting the promise that we've heard him say
And we're lost out here in the stars.
Little stars, big stars
Blowing through the night
And we're lost out here in the stars.
Little stars, big stars
Blowing through the night.
And we're lost out here in the stars..

True to the formula of the musical, redemption ends the story--James Jarvis visits Kumalo in his rundown church saying the minister must not abandon his people and that he (Jarvis) will provide the funds to fix the church. Jarvis also says he will attend Kumalo's church and devote the rest of his life to the race relations work his son Edward embraced.TwoFather.jpg

The Dresser had a wide range of reactions to Lost in the Stars, a show that runs two hours and forty minutes, including a twenty minute intermission. She found parts of Act 1 boring but was thoroughly engaged in Act 2 even though she finds the song "Lost in the Stars" old school and sentimental (and, yes, she knows this song has been recorded but such stars as Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, and Lotta Lenya). However, part of her fascination with Act 2 involves the lost in the stars theme of which director Tazewell Thompson seemed to echo Thornton Wilder's play Our Town by putting Kumalo's congregants back to the audience, seated in chairs under a night sky filled with stars. By the end of the show tears rolled down the Dresser's face, convincing her of the importance of this work.

Thompson also staged the dance and movement numbers with flair. Among the many memorable scenes are the shooting of Edward Jarvis done in realistic light and then replayed in strobe light, the newspaper scene where the white side of town reads about the murder, Irina's laundry scene done behind a gauzy scrim, and the front of the curtains "preaching" by Alex, Kumalo's nephew (he sings about "Big Mole").

Conductor John DeMain keeps the various musical numbers moving along seamlessly without allowing the exotic instruments like harp and accordion to dominate. Set and costumes by Michael Mitchell are understated.

Donna Denizé's poem "Bards Still Sing" offers a moment of affirmative reflection that plays against the racial and financial tension of Lost in the Stars. Still, it is sad to realize that poverty and prejudice continues in our world, both in South Africa and here in the United States. Therefore, Lost in the Stars continues to be relevant to American audiences.


Beneath tattered rags a bard still plays
to sing morning's rising in tenderly lays,
but if only for beauty the gods did sing,
then what of this age and its terrible ring?
When flutes are grown silent, the harp out of tune,
and the weak or the violent fill the house--every room.

Donna Denizé
from Broken like Job

copyright © 2005 Donna Denizé

Photos by Karli Cadel

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January 12, 2016

Better Gods: Who Was Queen Lili'uokalani?

On January 8, 2016, the Washington National Opera in its American Opera Initiative program premiered the 60-minute opera Better Gods with music by Luna Pearl Woolf and libretto by Caitlin Vincent. While the Dresser liked the music and performances by the cast of Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, she thought the libretto needed work and that Ethan McSweeney's stage direction was problematic.

Better Gods 1-QueenSmall.jpgThe story concerns how the United States annexed Hawaii, stealing governing rights from Queen Lili'uokalani (sung by the impressive mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman) just as she announced that she would issue a new constitution returning voting rights to Hawaiian citizens. A business man named Lorrin Thurston (tenor Rexford Tester) asks her to reconsider her plan, which would limit foreign influence and possibly business opportunities. Thurston stages a coup d' état (January 17, 1893), enlisting U.S. marines by saying the Queen has put American lives in danger. Meanwhile, the Queen surrenders, thinking U.S. President Grover Cleveland will step in, punish Thurston, and restore her rightful power. A young Associated Press journalist--James Miller (baritone Hunter Enoch)--comes from San Francisco to report on the overthrow and is initially influenced by Thurston. Then Miller finds out the truth only to be mocked by Thurston. Supporters of the Queen rebel but everyone including Lili'uokalani are arrested, put on trial, and sentenced.

The first half of this intermissionless work was a snooze. Dramatically nothing happened. Exhibiting how he was creating sound texture with such items as a bowl full of shells through which that he raked his fingers, the onstage percussionist Greg Akagi was a sensorial treat. However, his performance was not enough to make up for the lack of physical interaction by the singers on stage. The libretto needed to get to the point sooner and the poetic elements of Hawaiian myth needed to be enhanced, possibly as a dumb show to create movement on stage.

Woolf's music, while pleasingly lyric and accessible, tended to be an overall soundscape without distinct moments. Woolf might have done the music this way to allow for two Hawaiian compositions--the traditional "Kumulipo" ("Creation Chant") and "Aloha 'Oe"--to be featured. Queen Lili'uokalani was the English translator of "Kumulipo" and the composer of "Aloha 'Oe." The Dresser was impressed with how seamlessly and beautifully Woolf blended "Aloha 'Oe" into the music of Better Gods, making this old chestnut new to the ear. The duet between Queen Lili'uokalani and her attendant Kahua (soprano Ariana Wehr) was pleasing both aurally and visually as the two enlivened the well-known song with traditional Hawaiian hand gestures. To the composer's credit, the Dresser did not hear Woolf's music with Hawaiian influence although it used percussion associated with traditional Hawaiian compositions.

Daryl Freedman's performance was a standout but the Dresser wasn't sure why she elongated the words and slowed down what she sang. Lyly A. Saunders" costumes for Queen Lili'uokalani, fancy Western gowns, were eye catching. The Dresser wonders how many audience members were curious why Lili'uokalani wore Western dress instead of native Hawaiian dress. The Dresser thinks that had the libretto paid more attention to who the Hawaiian queen was in terms of racial and gender issues vis-à-vis the political power struggle that the story would have been more compelling. The Dresser liked Caitlin Vincent's libretto for WNO 2013 American Opera Initiative's premiere of Uncle Alex (a twenty-minute opera) so expectation was set for a more compelling Better Gods.Better Gods 2-CourtSmall.jpg

In Margo Berdeshevsky's poem "When Are You Not," the question is asked about the essence of not only the poet who is a woman but also of men including the woman's lover and Christ--what makes people stand out as individuals? This is the question that Better Gods needs to explore more.


When are you not a poet and just a woman
the lover asks, manna on his false tongue,
jackhammer to a swollen earth of your breasts
Never, you want to scream never
not a linguist of the soul daring word
to prayer, and rage, and please, peace. Never
not a maker of the small, to serve.
(But not your kind of mother.)
Never not a chisel to the morning leaf
or the sorrow of the storm. Never not
a gatherer of cries in these hands
that have lost thumbs, but have prayers.
When are you a normal person gathering overripe
fruit for juice, not for the mystery of the tree?
Never not watching the larvae, the hungry
white fly, Its kiss. Never the thigh not jiggling
at tedium--so eager to leap stones at a stream--
imagine the gazelle.
Never when the sperm is pulsed at the womb, no music.
no colored cry, no muted sax playing an Almighty's baritone.
Ask the lover, when was Christ not a carpenter? When
He hung on wood to die? Or building chairs for thieves,
to His future right, and to His future left? Ask the lover,
when are you not a man, and just a woman, love, there
in line at the new Eagle Brand Hardware store, waiting
for its morning doors to open so you two may buy nails,
a ladder, gladioli.....newly born.

Margo Berdeshevsky
from Between Soul and Stone published by Sheep Meadow Press

copyright © 2011 Margo Berdeshevsky

Photos by Scott Suchman

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December 3, 2015

WNO American Opera Initiative #4--A Deluge of New Chamber Operas

On December 2, 2015, the 7 P.M. house at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater was full for the fourth annual Washington National Opera American Opera Initiative. WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello in introducing the program of three new twenty-minute chamber operas said there is no other program in the United States quite like this one, which gets backing from a major opera company including seasoned mentors (2015 mentors are conductor John DeMain, composer Ricky Ian Gordon, and librettist Mark Campbell) and outstanding singers from WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. The Dresser finds this program and its popularity (given the Terrace Theater is an intimate space seating 474) quite exciting and the way contemporary should be attended.

The short operas addressed in this order--pizza delivery time (Twenty Minutes or Less), a stolen library book (Alexandra), and the disruption that cell phones can exact on human relations (Service Provider)--aim at behavior familiar to everyday Americans. Each opera interested the Dresser. However, given the limitation of runtime set by the WNO program, no masterpiece was produced.

WNO AOI 20 - 1 - Twenty Minutes or Less - photo Scott Suchman for WNO.jpg
The Dresser's favorite of the three was Twenty Minutes or Less by composer Sarah Hutchings and librettist Mark Sonnenblick. And yes, the title seems ironic given that the WNO American Opera Initiative only allows 20 minutes each for the three operas this program will help deliver, produce and premier. The music features engaging harmonies and a libretto that interjects la condition humaine into the exigency of delivering a delicious pizza within 20 minutes of the order time. There are quite a few quotable passages but the Dresser will limit herself to two:

Is the key
Think how messy life can be
There's no time
For a mess
When you get twenty minutes
or less.

My friend Alicia says I get
dressed in people.
I wake up put on my mother,
breathe with her lips
And see with her eyes
My father...
My father I never knew.
But my older sister...
I slip her on for a summer and
dance with her feet.
[Note: the arpeggios in this section about the sister were notably lovely.]
My friend Alicia says I get
dressed in people.
Now I'll get dressed in a
uniform. My own uniform!
I want to want to wake up
every day and cook a pizza!
I want direction. I want desire.
I could be fire, Baby!

Favorite singers for their passionate performances in this opera were mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman (Osha) and soprano Raquel Gonzalez (Candice).

Service Provider by composer Christopher Weiss and librettist John de los Santos addressed that all too familiar scene of cell phone users abusing the living people with whom they should be engaging. The story takes place in an upscale restaurant where Autumn (Daryl Freedman) and Beau (baritone Hunter Enoch) are celebrating three years of marriage. The problem is that Autumn won't stop texting her friend and then little by little we learn that Beau has been cheating on Autumn with a woman named Charlene (soprano Mandy Brown) whom he no longer wants to see, but she makes sure to impose herself on him first by texting so Autumn can see these messages and then in person.
WNO AOI 20 - 3- Service Provider - photo Scott Suchman for WNO.JPG
Dallas, the waiter (sung by tenor Rexford Tester), gets the best music in this opera. His recitation of the menu and his exhortation to the married couple to wake up and see the beauty in their relationship is lushly lyric in a style that pleasingly echoes the best of classic operas of the 19th century. The Dresser thinks composer Weiss, with his stylistic choices for the tenor's arias, is invoking an ironic contrast against the 21st century demons represented by the cell phones and the bad behavior of their users.

WNO AOI 20 - 2 - Alexandra - photo Scott Suchman for WNO.jpg
In Alexandra, composer David Clay Mettens and librettist Joshua McGuire are overly ambitious for their twenty minutes. The story about a present day young widow (mezzo-soprano Leah Hawkins) who debates whether to return a library book stolen by her now dead soldier husband is complicated by marginalia in the book dating from 1942 when two male students expressed their love for each other and how this love could not be realized. So Ray (bass baritone Wei Wu) writes in the book to Alex (tenor Michael Brandenburg) that he has enlisted. While Leah Hawkins as Alexandra gives a tour de force performance, the opera is dramatically static and the Dresser could not get interested in the exchange between Ray and Alex, though the story, once it is understood, has great potential.

In Kim Roberts's unrhymed sonnet "Stormy Seas," we hear the voice of Robert Falcon Scott, an explorer intent on reaching the South Pole, something no one else had done. Scott absorbs the magnitude of challenge in his exploration and in particular the problem of getting to Antarctic--could he survive "the heavy plunge" of the stormy seas encounters? Venturing into uncharted waters parallels what the Washington National Opera--its artistic director, mentors, musicians, and singers--takes on when inviting in teams of creating composers and librettists. Will the audience walk away thinking that was a valuable experience and therefore come back next year or, for that matter, will they buy tickets for full-length operas scheduled in the coming months? The Dresser sweeps off her beret in salute to Francesca Zambello for her willingness to present American teams of new opera creators and for risking such stormy seas.


The seas continuously rise, continuously break
on weather bulwarks. And they scatter clouds
of heavy spray upon the backs of all
who venture into the waist of the ship.
From four o'clock last night the southwest wind
freshened with great rapidity, and soon
we sailed just under topsails, jib, and stay
alone. The sea stood up and soon we found
ourselves in heavy plunge. We hove to,
still taking water over the lee rail.
The sea rose up like mountains. It rushed forth
across the lee rail and the poop, a press
of green; the ship wallowed in green; a great
piece of the bulwark carried clean away.

Kim Roberts
excerpt from Fortune's Favor: Scott in Antarctica

copyright © 2015 Kim Roberts

Photos: Scott Suchman

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November 23, 2015

Kentridge's Lulu-- Bursting All Frames of Reference

How to talk about the corpus of Alban Berg's three-act opera Lulu rises to the top of the Dresser's concerns after seeing this four-hour extravaganza as a live simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera on November 21, 2015. Directed by the South African visual artist William Kentridge who is making his second dazzling production at the Met (Shostakovich's The Nose was his first) and sung by the masterful German coloratura soprano Marlis Petersen who vows that this being her eleventh production of Lulu she will not do the Lulu role again, the Dresser is convinced that she has seen the penultimate production of an opera about a woman with an insatiable sex drive.
A student of the Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, Austrian-born Berg was persecuted by the Nazis for his association with a Jew and for the modernity of his work. Berg, who died suddenly in late December 1935, worked on Lulu from 1929 to 1935 but did not complete act III. He adapted the libretto from two plays by Frank Wedekind--Erdgeist (Earth Spirit, 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box, 1904). Together these plays were known at the Lulu plays. After Berg's death, the Zurich Opera premiered the incomplete opera in 1937. Berg's wife Helene asked Schoenberg to complete the orchestration, which initially he said he would do, but later recanted, saying it would be more time-consuming than he had envisioned. After Helene Berg died in 1976, Friedrich Cerha began work to complete Lulu. The completed 12-tone opera premiered in February 1979 at the Opera Garnier conducted by Pierre Boulez and in 1980 at the Met.

Putting aside the body of works from which the Lulu opera sprung and evolved to completion, the Dresser notes that the story is about the human body, not so much the arms or legs but the central part containing especially the heart and sexual organs. Kentridge, using animations of his black ink drawings, shows the body, Lulu's body, in various perspectives. Lulu, who goes by a different name for every man she has relations with, is a reclining odalisque or an upright mannequin sometimes wearing a whole-head cylindrical mask and throughout the opera wearing a piece of paper on her breast with lines suggesting the breast. For Kentridge, Lulu is a work of art. Despite a man at the end of the opera telling her she doesn't have enough body for any man because she has too much brain for a woman, the corporal pull is what makes her a tragic figure suitable for opera.
Lulu's backstory, which the audience doesn't learn right away, is at age twelve she is rescued from selling flowers in the street by Dr. Schön (Danish baritone Johan Reuter). Or was she rescued, since Schön took her as his lover. Her street partner was Schigolch (German baritone Franz Grundheber) who initially says he is her father but that remains to be seen and certainly it seems he had a sexual relationship with her at an early age.

As the play opens, Lulu is married to Doctor Göll, but is fooling around with Doctor Schön, who is secretly observing her as a man painting her portrait tries to seduce her. Unexpectedly, the elderly Doctor Göll arrives home, sees Lulu entangled with the painter (American tenor Paul Groves), and drops dead of a heart attack. Lulu marries the painter, but he commits suicide when he learns about Lulu's past from Dr. Schön. Unfazed by the painter's death, Lulu forces her hand with Schön during her participation weeks later in a ballet composed by Schön's son Alwa (American tenor Daniel Brenna). In what feels like scene of the Dominatrix (Lulu) over the submissive (Schön), she gets Schön to write a letter to his fiancé cancelling their engagement so he can marry Lulu. Kentridge's set of props lacked only a whip.

Act II shows Lulu surrounded by vocally love-struck admirers including the lesbian Countess Geschwitz (American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham), a schoolboy (American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong) and his father, an acrobat (Austrian Bass-baritone Martin Winkler) and Alwa. Alwa tells her how much he loves her--they grew up together and Lulu matter-of-factly tells him she poisoned his mother. Schön, hiding but observing then reveals himself. The visitors hide and Schön goes crazy insisting that Lulu should shoot and kill herself. Reasonably, Lulu asks why not divorce? Schön says he doesn't want anyone else enjoying her. The schoolboy tries to escape and distracts Schön. Lulu takes this opportunity to shoot Schön in the back.

During a musical interlude, the projected artwork tells the story of her arrest, trial, imprisonment, and her hospitalization for cholera. The Countess helps her escape. Lulu is wasted by the disease and ends up leaving for Paris with Alwa. In Act III, she has recovered living off Alwa's wealth in railway stock, but several men try to blackmail her regarding Dr. Schön's murder. The stock market takes a dive, and Lulu undaunted ends up as a prostitute in London with Alwa and Schigolch living off her profits. The Countess, still in love with Lulu, finds them bringing with her Lulu's portrait. One of Lulu's John's kills Alwa as Alwa tries to protect her. Lulu's last John turns out to be Jack the Ripper (played by the same singer who played Dr. Schön). Jack cuts Lulu's throat and stabs the Countess. So the story of the body ends.

The music of Lulu is built on the 12-tone scale but it is lyrical though imperative. Marlis Petersen as Lulu is on stage much of the opera and made the singing and acting seamless. Two soundless characters added by Kentridge make curious viewing. One is a butler who does things like push around set screens or hand Dr. Schön a gun in the scene where the doctor gets killed. The other is a pianist who acts as Lulu's alter ego and is often dressed similarly. The pianist with body language punctuates emotional scenes by appearing to have fallen off her bench, for example, during the scene when the artist is learning about Lulu's past and just prior to his suicide. He says happiness terrifies him and the pianist appears contorted with her feet on the bench while her body is on the floor. luluPianist.jpgThe large supporting cast recedes in Lulu's shadow but make the opera flow. What competes with the singers on stage and musicians in the pit under the able direction of Lothar Koenigs is the projected artwork that has layers like onionskin always peeling back into new perspectives.

In Maria Terrone's poem "The Sum of Her" from her book The Bodies We Were Loaned, the reader meets a character who unlike Lulu has gotten beyond the frailty of the body but who sets us wondering why this woman with her slashed face isn't out for vengeance or hasn't fallen apart emotionally. In this regard, Lulu and the woman in this poem are alike and rise above the tragic circumstances of their lives. Even when Lulu kills Dr. Schön, we know it is not vengeful but just a matter of survival. It seems that of all the men in Lulu's life Schön was the one she loved, the one she had to court. She says to him in Act II, "I married you but you didn't marry me."


She strides in, a striking figure all eyes add up:
taller than most men on the train, curves

slick in shiny stretch pants. A long knife scar
rides her left cheek like a skid mark

on a dangerous road she once took, and yet
she stands erect, proud and self-possessed

as a statue of Venus. So hard to solve this problem
of division, to see how one bisecting line

white as fear, sharp and clean as a shard
of ice can brand her as more or less

than a woman. I'd expect her downcast,
hunched in a corner: or out for vengeance, slashing

men to nothing with a swift razor-blade
glance. Shouldn't one with that face fall to pieces?

Instead serenity flows from bottomless eyes
focused on infinity--she's a Hindu goddess,

pure form honed by Picasso, bursting all frames
of reference. Nothing of this woman coheres,

nothing about her is easy--like someone we know
but can't name or puzzle that's just too complex,

she's studied from all angles, then subtracted
as every pair of eyes turns away.

Maria Terrone
from The Bodies We Were Loaned

copyright © 2002 Maria Terrone
from The Bodies We Were Loaned

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November 17, 2015

From the Ruins of Appomattox, a Second Opera

The Dresser has been a fan of the operas by Philip Glass having seen Einstein on the Beach, Hydrogen Jukebox, Satyagraha, and chamber operas like The Photographer and 1000 Airplanes on the Roof. On November 14, 2015, she went to Washington National Opera's ponderous premiere production of the remake of Appomattox with music by Glass and libretto by the Portuguese British playwright Christopher Hampton. The production runs for six performances ending with a matinee November 22.

The Dresser walked away from the three-and-half-hour opera with one 25-minute intermission wondering what audience who had not heard Glass and Hampton speak before the curtain lifted took away as the message of this work. According to Hampton, whom Glass chose for his creative partner because he brought no Civil War baggage to the project, suffrage and rage seemed the most potent elements that arose from the end of the American Civil War as represented by the battle of Appomattox Court House, which ultimately resulted in the surrender of Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee. To be clear, the issue of suffrage concerned giving the vote to Black men, especially those Black men who had fought for the Union. In the opera, Frederick Douglas was the advocate for Black men's voting rights.

Lee-Grant.jpgAct I, the first 90 minutes of the opera, is devoted to the Civil War in 1865 and for the most part was true to the original 2007 San Francisco Opera premier of Appomattox. Act II, the remainder of the opera and a replacement for the original Act II, is set 100 years later in 1965 during the administration of Lyndon Johnson and the strife over voting rights. Act I features generals Lee (bass-baritone David Pittsinger) and Ulysses S. Grant (baritone Richard Paul Fink) who exchange courteous battle ground messages over Lee's surrender and President Abraham Lincoln (baritone Tom Fox) as the sacred hero of freed slaves. Douglas (bass Soloman Howard) is a minor character who just barely manages to get into Lincoln's White House to celebrate the end of the Civil War. Other minor characters include the wives of Lee, Grant, and Lincoln.

Relative to the librettist's emphasis on voting rights, the Dresser believes that had Act I focused on Frederick Douglas and his work on universal suffrage, which included women's right to vote (a point questioned briefly in the opera by Mary Todd Lincoln), the two acts would have made a strong cohesive and timely statement for today's political environment. This is not to say that act II works well. Hampton's libretto misses the opportunity to show the complex psychology that motivated the good ole boy southerner LBJ to push the Voting Rights Act through Congress and how his quirky behavior like inviting his attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach into the bathroom when he was "taking a dump" was not a scatological joke on a juvenile level but a power play meant to dominate and humiliate.

MLK-LBJ-suchman.jpgFeatured in Act II besides LBJ is Martin Luther King, Jr. with more minor appearances by Coretta Scott King, F.B.I director J. Edgar Hover, Alabama Governor George Wallace, Lady Bird Johnson, Edgar Ray Killen (Ku Klux Klan organizer who in 1964 planned and directed the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner), and James Fowler (the Alabama policeman who in 1965 shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, an unarmed black man who was trying to shield his mother from being beaten by police during a civil rights protest). Fifteen singers play 29 characters with fourteen singing two different characters, one appearing in Act I and the other in Act II. Interesting double roles include Tom Fox as Lincoln and LBJ, David Pittsinger as Robert E. Lee and Edgar Ray Killen, Soloman Howard as Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Paul Fink as Grant and Nicholas Katzenbach, soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird as Mary Todd Lincoln and Lady Bird Johnson, mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams as Elizabeth Keckley (dressmaker-confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln) and Coretta King, and tenor Frederick Ballentine as Black journalist T. Morris Chester (the only Black Civil War correspondent for a major daily newspaper) and John Lewis (voting rights advocate who organized sit-ins in Tennessee, participated in Freedom Rides, helped develop the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was a keynote speaker, along with MLK at the August 1963 March on Washington).

What is best about the opera are the choral numbers. Act I opens with "Tenting Tonight," an invigorating version of a popular song favored by the Union armies during the American Civil War. What is surprising about this Glass opera are these kind of discrete numbers (several are based on American folk tunes) and the occasional aria like the impressive one delivered by Solomon Howard as Martin Luther King early in Act II. Uncomfortably annoying is how boring Glass' signature minimalist repetitions become. Unlike his opera Satyagraha where the pulsing minimalist line injects forward movement and life flow, the background repetitions enervate especially in combination with the recitative delivered by the players in LBJ's oval office. The last minute conductor substitution--Dante Santiago Anzolini replaced an injured Dennis Russell Davies--probably contributed to some of these problems. A number of times, voices were covered by the orchestra as the conductor struggled with balance issues.

The dance that erupts when Lincoln greets freed slaves--here Lincoln looks cartoonish--points out the lack of variety in the scenes. Donald Eastman's stage-filling White House serves as the only set but it works handsomely especially in the scene where ceiling to floor gauzy flags--one Confederate, the other Union-- serve to split Lee's camp from Grant's as they exchange letters about the terms and possibility of Lee's surrender. Merrily Murray-Walsh's costumes added period color to the acts as relief to the static nature of director Tazewell Thompson's mise-en-scene.

In Adam Tavel's poem "William Tecumseh Sherman Speaks on the Burning of Old Sheldon Church, South Carolina, 1865," Union general Sherman complains that the journalist missed the real story, which the general said concerned the effort his soldiers getting control of the South. In the opera Appomattox, Black journalist Thomas Morris Chester offers an interesting account about slaves whose prison doors were opened but they refused to leave their cells. In terms of the message the creators of the opera wanted to impart, how did Chester's anecdote advance the story of Black voting rights? In case anyone cares, the Old Sheldon Church originally known as Prince William's Paris Church was burned by the British in 1779 during the Revolutionary War. Today what remains of Old Sheldon Church are the ruins of Sherman's attack.


Not my goddamn hand lit that bourbon rag
though I'm sure the Tribune splattered
"Tecumseh Burns House of God to Ground"
to make some pennies clang. These dandified
reporters are all the same--days after cannon fire

they whittle pencil tips and scribble
every wisp of rumor in their registers.
Never met one who could load a Colt. One
Boston baron filed his nails like a whore
when I offered my canteen. He missed

the story. The story was my men inching
through chicken-shit gray-coat orchards
to Savannah's coastal breeze. Some mornings
I didn't know my own face shaving, ghost
of father's legal scowl more maculed

than a saddle left in dew and damp
at dawn--lines on top of lines
like a battle map concocted
by schoolhouse generals chortling
as they stub cigars half-smoked.

After Appomattox I heard Sheldon's townsfolk
laid white roses in the cinder
while rebels spat chaw on the stars and stripes
cursing me thief and vandal. Well,
what good is faith if it don't turn the world

against you--ain't that what the Savior said?
Not peace but a sword? You quote the Lord
to show another man his sin. You torch
his mama's ribboned hymnal
when your own house roars to ash.

Adam Tavel
from Plash & Levitation

copyright © 2015 Adam Tavel

Photos: Scott Suchman (MLK and LBJ), Washington Post (Generals Lee and Grant)

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