June 5, 2017

Independence Eve: Ears on Baseball

In the United States now, everyone--in one way or another--is concerned with civil rights and racism. June 3, 2017, the Dresser saw UrbanArias, a small opera company producing short contemporary chamber operas, premiere Independence Eve by composer Sidney Marquez Boquiren and librettist Daniel Neer. It is a demanding new opera set in three scenes, all on July 3 but in past, present, and future years--1963, 2013, and 2063.


Scene 1 between two 47-year-old men who do not know each other concerns the issue of housing integration. The black man, who is the chief porter at a four-star hotel, has just moved into the neighborhood the white man, a police officer, has just left unhappily.

Scene 2 between two 27-year-old men who do know each other concerns the issue of profiling black men. The white man expresses sympathy about the black man being mistreated by law enforcement. Just talking about the incident tests their friendship.

Scene 3 between two ten-year-old boys concerns inequality between economic classes. However, the black kid has a father "working for the Federation," which means his family has money and clout. The white kid's family is poor and not connected.

All three scenes are static and just involve the two players and a bench.

All the characters are played by baritone Jorell Williams and Tenor Brandon Snook, who each do an outstanding job of singing and acting.

IndEve-Adelphi-e1430885577471-300x206.jpgThe music is dissonant and features flute and clarinet playing strident tones particularly in the first two scenes. The emotional pitch of the music and libretto in the first two scenes is stressfully high. Scene 3 is mellow and more lyric. The Dresser was impressed by Williams and Snook in their ability to effectively portray young boys. Even their facial expressions were convincingly boyish. The Dresser's favorite aria came from Snook (the poor white kid) as he told the wealthier black kid about his deaf mother.

Conductor Robert Wood professional as always provided strong direction to both the ensemble of musicians (violin, violoncello, clarinet, flute, piano) and the two singers. The Dresser commends UrbanArias for presenting contemporary operas that speak to current day issues.

In David Eye's poem "You Said Listen," two people struggle with a difference that is expressed in a song played on the radio. In Independence Eve, baseball, either broadcast on the radio or a game just completed by the characters is the lingua franca of how two men or boys communicate. The capacity to listen and to translate the information received into understanding is at the heart of Sidney Marquez Boquiren and Daniel Neer's opera. It's that complicated love-hate tug between any two people.


It was one of those songs--
shut us up at the turnoff,
kept us in the truck
that night, our dashboard
eyes on the radio dial--
Could you see it like me....

Now I see you hated it
here in the hills
unnerved by the night
but you never let on
and that --finally--
is a kind of love.

by David Eye
from Seed

"You Said Listen" copyright © 2017 by David Eye

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April 2, 2017

The Lucy Opera--High Stakes Love

lucy baby.jpgUrbanArias, a small opera company producing short contemporary chamber operas has outdone itself with its production of Lucy, a 60-minute, one-man show dealing with human love misapplied. Kelley Rourke has written the libretto centered around a real-life family who decided in 1964 to raise a chimpanzee as their own child. For eleven years, the couple--Maurice Temerlin, a psychologist, and his wife Jane, a social worker--conducted a psychological experiment to see if nature or nurture would win out. John Glover has created a musical foundation that both supports the single player on stage as well as revealing the primal emotional payload of a human trying to love and train an animal to be human. Robert Wood as conductor provides passionate energy to an ensemble of seven that includes a toy piano.

Glover supported baritone Andrew Wilkowske by giving him necessary breaks from singing with musical interludes. For example, during one interlude, Wilkowske signs many of the words Lucy learned from her expert teacher primatologist Roger Fouts. On April 1, 2017, the Dresser saw Wilkowske, the outstanding singer who created the role for the world premiere in 2012 by Milwaukee Opera Theater, give an over-the-top performance which expressed the complex feelings that Temerlin had for Lucy. Through word repetition and syncopation, the music digs in deep to reveal something primal about Lucy's foster father. We hear that Lucy's love of unending repetitious play was exhausting to Maurice Temerlin as was her sporadic "accidents" that deposited feces throughout the Temerlin house. The loss of friends and family who would not visit and the people in their community who would shout and repeat "no pets allowed in this store" took its toll on the Temerlins.
Andrew Wilkowske.jpg
What convinced the Temerlins that Lucy could no longer live with them was a series of violent incidents. In the end, the foster father who called the adopted "daughter" precious darling sent Lucy to a rehabilitation center in Gambia. To ease the chimpanzee's transition into a wild habitat, Temerlin hired a graduate student to accompany Lucy. The Temerlins already knew that Lucy did not relate to other chimpanzees.LUCY mature.png

What gives the opera variety are video projections and oral recordings that put the wife and other figures, including Lucy, into the room. We see Lucy's tea set, her one-armed teddy bear (other arm torn off leaving a gaping hole), and her child-sized human bed on stage. Wilkowske immense emotional output carries the load for anyone else mentioned. It's easy to believe that Maurice Temerlin was thoroughly Lucy's father--that he cared for her beyond all logic as any parent would for his or her offspring.

In Bill Yarrow's poem "The Vig of Love," love is framed as a gambler's expensive bet. As a witness to the opera Lucy, the Dresser wonders what the real-life Maurice Temerlin was wagering regarding his inhumane experiment that affected not only an innocent animal but his family which included his wife and the unmentioned (in the opera) son Steve. The stakes were very high.


Love's expensive. Who can afford it?
So you borrow from the bad guys, lay
your body down for collateral,
but the vig's ridiculous. No choice
but to pay and pay. Every day it's
just a matter of interest. You'll
never even scratch the principal.
But love's a gamble, right? Sometimes it
comes up red. Other times, it comes up
black. Go ahead. Put down all you're worth.
Hope for the really really big score.

by Bill Yarrow
from The Vig of Love

"The Vig of Love" copyright © 2016 by Bill Yarrow

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March 21, 2017

The Tonal Colors of Cathedral Choral Society & New York Polyphony

CathedralConcertsmall.jpgA friend invited the Dresser to the March 19, 2017, Cathedral Choral Society concert featuring New York Polyphony. She expected to be pleased and off duty regarding a review. However, this program known as "Amid a Crowd of Stars" was a world-class performance and should not go unnoted.

According to the guest conductor Michael McCarthy, who stepped in after the death of Cathedral Choral Conductor J. Reilly Lewis, the invitation to the four-man quartet known as New York Polyphony was initiated by Lewis before his death June 9, 2016. New York Polyphony comprised of countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert, and bass Craig Phillips, are known for their uncanny ability to deliver work ranging from Gregorian chant to cutting-edge contemporary compositions. Much of this mysterious ability has to do with wondrous and steady voice of the countertenor.

Several times McCarthy mentioned how this particular program of sacred music that seamlessly flowed from old music to new was selected particularly for the acoustic challenges of the Washington National Cathedral. This chorus, very attentive to McCarthy's direction, produced a multi-layered sea of sound. Here is a list of the music performed in the order it was played. Note how the contemporary music is woven in with the old music.

Part I
Dominus custodiet te (2015) Andrew Smith (b. 1970)
Pater noster (?) Adreian Willaert (c. 1490-1562)
Whispers (2002) Steven Stucky (1949-2016)
Ave Maria (1934/1949) Igor Stravinsky (1882-1972)
Rejoice, O Virgin (1915) Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Quae est ista/Surge propera (1555) Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599)
Levavi oculos meos (2015) Andrew Smith
Amid a crowd of stars (2015) Andrew Smith
Miserere mei, Deus (-1630s/1976) Gregorio Allegri (c. 1582-1621)

Part II
Conditor alme siderum (world premiere) Plainsong, 11th Century, arr. Michael McCarthy (b. 1966)
Loquebantur variis linguis (?) Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585)
Vespers Sequence (2016) Ivan Moody (b. 1964) (selections)
The Spheres (2008) Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978)
Lux aeterna (?) Antoine Brumel (c. 1460-c.1512)
A Hymn to the Mother of God (1985) John Taverner (1944-2013)
Super flumina Babylonis (2015) Andrew Smith
Lux aeterna (1899/1996) Edward Elgar (1857-1934) arr. John Cameron (b. 1944)

Of the 17 compositions performed, ten were written in the 20th or 21st Centuries. These pieces flowed as if they were meant to be heard in a single stream of sound. Most surprising was Stravinsky's "Ave Maria," which the Dresser heard but initially didn't register that it was by the ground-breaking composer who turned classical music on its head. Featured were four compositions by Andrew Smith. Some pieces, especially those done by New York Polyphony--and what a rare treat to hear the voice of the counter tenor in contrast to base, baritone and tenor voices--were done a cappella. Other pieces had accompaniment by a nine-piece string ensemble or an organ.
NY Polyphony small.jpg
In this troubled world complicated by the recent presidential election, this concert restored inner calm to the Dresser.

In Nathalie Anderson's poem "Stain: Six Meditations on the Craft," the fourth meditation examines the process of creating stain glass with all its layers of color reminding the Dresser of the tonal colors working together in this outstanding concert. Anderson's poem fragment also points to suffering so often illuminated in sacred texts and certainly in the texts of this Cathedral Choral Society concert.


Or flash glass: a layer of hue--brilliant, pungent, thunderous--
laid down on a color less extreme, say white glass dipped in red;
or moss shadowed by yew; wine spilled over plum; wisteria
in smoke; peacocks at midnight; lapis over jade--so when scratched
away, the dark layer lightens, softens, cools, quiets, modulates,
and the pale layer--no longer coated, clouded, or benighted--dawns--
as here: flames clawing through the sooted flesh
behind the pyromaniac's back; or here:
the ligature of ligament, the tendon
torqued, the muscle clenched; or
here: the gartered fishnet tugged up, squirmed in, worn
over the bruise, the scab, the open vein; each skin
scraped and abraded, one pain
bolted over another.

by Nathalie Anderson
from Stain

"Stain: Six Meditations on the Craft" copyright © 2017 by Nathalie Anderson

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March 4, 2017

Dead Man Walking and Talking

If asked to condense to one sentence the message of composer Jake Heggie's and librettist Terrence McNally's opera Dead Man Walking, the Dresser would say "the truth will set you free." In this political climate under the Trump administration where alternate facts and television reality shows keep changing the definition of truth, this opera about death row inmate Joseph De Rocher who claims innocence of two brutal murders and a rape weighs questions about social justice and personal responsibilities. De Rocher's foil is a young nun who agrees to be his spiritual advisor.Dead Man -Nun.jpg

Washington National Opera under the baton of maestro Michael Christie and direction of WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello have mounted WNO's premiere of Dead Man Walking, which the Dresser saw March 3, 2017. While not a perfect production, it is a strong one with baritone Michael Mayes admirably singing the role of Joseph De Rocher. Although the Dresser did not attend San Francisco Opera's world premiere of this work in 2000, she did see the second production created by seven American opera companies (executed by the Baltimore Opera) that included baritone John Packard as the original singer who developed the role of Joe De Rocher under the musical direction of the original developing conductor Patrick Summers. Zambello's production includes mezzo-soprano Susan Graham who originated the role of Sister Helen Prejean. However, in this 2017 production, Graham sings the more age-appropriate role of Mrs. De Rocher, the mother of the condemned man.
Dead Man Mom.jpg
Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey is certainly an admirable singer and actor. The Dresser loved Lindsey's impression of Elvis Presley during the one scene where something wonderfully humorous occurred. However, during much of the performance, Lindsey's voice was weak against the loudness of the orchestra. By contrast, Graham's voice showed better support and volume.

Dead Man.jpgThe musical palette of Dead Man is a mix of accessible and lyric dissonance coupled with traditional hymns and pop music some of which are original to Heggie, like the tunes played on the car radio of the teens who De Rocher and his brother brutalized and then killed. And yes, on stage is a big boat of a convertible car with top down and huge fins. Having seen this opera twice, the Dresser says Heggie's music works very well with the subject matter and Michael Christie has done a good job with the WNO orchestra.

Be certain this opera is not family entertainment. It treats deeply disturbing subjects that delve into the human psyche in various ways. In Elaine's Magarrell's poem "Good Girl," we learn about contradictions built into Western culture that prohibit a girl of good manners from telling the truth. Sister Helen is probed by her friend Sister Rose (sung by soprano Jacqueline Echols) to tell the truth about whether she has the spiritual fortitude to forgive De Rocher, who is clearly blaming the murders on his dead brother. This exegesis stands in contrast to De Rocher's mother who refuses to allow her criminal son to confess to her in his last minutes before execution that he has, in fact, murdered the teenage lovers. What Sister Helen must do is find her capacity to love Joe unconditionally so that he can tell her and then the grieving families that he committed the unspeakable crimes.


I know what a good girl is.
I have been a good girl,
flattered those who scorn me, 
listened hours to a bore.
I do anything to please.
I shut my mouth, 
feel guilty on demand.
I know what a good girl is.

I am such a good girl,
I dress up in a plain brown wrapper,
at parties I don't mix with men,
I would never kiss my doctor.
I know what a good girl is.

I will be a good girl,
smile until my mouth aches.
I will not tell the truth.
I will not tell the truth.

by Elaine Magarrell
from The Madness of Chefs

"Good Girl" copyright © 2017 by Elaine Magarrell

Photo Credits: Scott Suchmann

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February 1, 2017

License to Like: As You Like It at the Folger

"O women, for the love you bear to men, to like as much of this play as please you. And I charge you, O men, for the love you bear to women-- as I perceive by your simpering, none of you hates them-- that between you and the women the play may please."
As You Like It, Epilogue

Shakespeare via Rosalind gives critics license to be honest about their feelings toward this complicated comedy that includes such relationship issues as warring brothers, runaway youths, exuberant love, malicious hate, crossdressing, gender confusion, and religious conversion. First published in 1623, As You Like It, which some scholars find flawed, is one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays. Because Rosalind delivers the last words, the play has currency with women struggling today to make their will recognized and accepted.

On January 29, 2017, the Dresser saw a performance of the Folger Theatre's co-production in association with Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival of this beloved comedy. What the Dresser particularly enjoyed was the ability of the actors to convey a modern-day sense of the old text through their body language and their well-timed vocal delivery. Especially notable were Lindsay Alexandra Carter as Rosalind, Antoinette Robinson as Celia, and Lorenzo Roberts as Orlando.
What drew the Dresser to this three-hour production, including one 15-minute intermission, was the promise of original music by a young composer named Heather Christian. (Christian received an Obie Award in 2014 for music she set to Gertrude Stein's Children's book The World Is Round.) The music in the scenes before the intermission featured Renaissance-like tunes similar to other productions heard by the Dresser while, after the intermission, more contemporary music with country/gospel/folk/funk inflection as well as one rap composition seemed out of synch with what was played initially. While it was fun to hear the kazoo played and see the modern day guitar on stage, the Dresser yearned for a more consistent musical treatment throughout the entire play.

In that vein, the Dresser found that director Gaye Taylor Upchurch's choices for mise en scène (minimalist) and costumes suggested a contemporary influence but not distinct enough to know what time period. For example, the most memorable costumes were worn by Aaron Krohn as Touchstone, the Royal Fool. His tight-fitting, large-plaid-patterned suit seem to suggest something out of the turn of the Twentieth Century but the loose-fitting clothing worn by Rosalind in the Forest of Arden when she was disguised as boy as well as a mismatched outfit worn by Lorenzo Roberts seemed more contemporary. Orlando-RosalindSmall.jpg

Would the Dresser have preferred period Shakespearean trappings of scene, costume, music and manner? Not at all, the Dresser just wanted consistent treatment that would not have diverted the attention from this rich text love and dominion.

In Fritz Ward's poem "Dear," the reader is served (with the repetition of the phrase "at the end") a concluding measure of the human condition on Earth as we know it--love, suffering, earth, day, night, death, space (could we substitute heaven?), and rebirth (as suggested by beginnings). The Dresser chooses "Dear" as final commentary on this review of Upchurch's production of As You Like It because how one chooses to communicate a great work of art is never by one method. So while the Dresser sees fit not to like everything about this production, she has learned new many new things and was glad for attending this production of a favorite Shakespearean play prodimnantly about love and communication. Now she will find a tree to hug and possibly in the tradition of Orlando expressing his love for Rosalind post a poem on it if the tree agrees.


At the end of love there is a stove.

At the end of suffering a snowman naked down to the charcoal briquettes.

At the end of earth a shower drain tangled with black hair.

At the end of day an electric fence crackling in the rain.

At the end of night a runway from which all dreams depart.

At the end of death clarified butter.

At the end of sky a space. At the end of space a wishing well.

At the end of all beginnings a door like any other, dividing inside from out.

by Fritz Ward
from Tsunami Diorama

"Dear" copyright © 2017 by Fritz Ward

Photo Credits: Teresa Wood

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November 26, 2016

Moby Dick as Physical Theater

AhabSmall.jpgArena Stage in their Kreeger Theater has opened a visceral interpretation of Herman Melville's 206,052-word novel Moby Dick. On November 25, 2016, the Dresser, sitting in the balcony--probably the best place to experience this exceptional display of stagecraft and circus, partook of Arena's collaborative production with Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company. This what is called physical theater. The acting by Christopher Donahue as the obsessed Captain Ahab and Anthony Fleming III as the primitive but philosophical Queequeg is worth the price of the ticket alone.


The Dresser would eagerly return to see another performance to savor Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi's aerial and acrobatic choreography which includes a woman on stilts lecturing about the different types of whales, a woman as whale (women in the 19th century wore whale bone corsets and hooped skirts) strung upside down and denuded of her skirt ruffles cum blubber, a woman as sea with her skirt so large it covered the entire stage and beyond (hats off to costume designer Sully Ratke) as well as the extraordinary demonstrations of strength and balance as the mates climbed Courtney O'Neill's set--the rigging of the Pequod which looked to be the ribs of a gigantic whale.

While Melville wrote his masterpiece as a male-dominated story, this interpretation includes women in nearly every scene by a clever conceit that injects a Greek-like chorus of Fates to present Melville's narrative or gives women the role of representing (while still dressed in women's clothing) things in nature like whales or the sea.

The Dresser mentioned the number of words in Melville's novel, which is less than half the size of Tolstoy's War and Peace, to hit home how difficult it is to enact every gem in the book into the stage production. So yes, Melville aficionados, scenes and characters are missing or conflated. However, the Dresser suggests that the choices made for this production are worth getting past, for example, playwright and director David Catlin's decision to call Pip the Cabin boy by another Moby Dick character's name--Cabaco. Just to review, Pip is the African American boy (the racial aspect of this character and others was entirely ignored) who was so frightened by a whale ramming the small whaling boat in which he was crewing that he jumps out and gets left for hours in the sea. As a result, the boy goes crazy and becomes Captain Ahab's wise fool. Cabaco is a sailor who tut-tuts his friend Archy's observation that there are unseen people in the hold of the ship. The unseen people are several men of mysterious origins hired by Ahab to help him kill his nemesis, the white whale Moby Dick. This production never sees Fedallah and his men and the Dresser thinks it was unfortunate to point at them by calling the cabin boy Cabaco.


In Gertrude Stein's "A Piece of Coffee." strange combinations seem to reverberate with Moby Dick where a white greenhorn named Ishmael becomes the soulmate of a black African prince named Queequeg who is extremely adept with a harpoon. They journey together until the captain of their ship is dragged by a harpoon rope into the sea by the same massive whale that had bitten off the captain's leg and until Ishmael, while the ship sinks, is saved by the funereal furniture built for Queequeg who at one point thought he was going to die from a chill he took in the hold of the ship.

A PIECE OF COFFEE. [an excerpt]

More of double.

A place in no new table.

A single image is not splendor. Dirty is yellow. A sign of more in not mentioned. A piece of coffee is not a detainer. The resemblance to yellow is dirtier and distincter. The clean mixture is whiter and not coal color, never more coal color than altogether.

The sight of a reason, the same sight slighter, the sight of a simpler negative answer, the same sore sounder, the intention to wishing, the same splendor, the same furniture.

The time to show a message is when too late and later there is no hanging in a blight.

by Gertrude Stein
from Tender Buttons

Photo Credits:
Liz Lauren--Ishmael & Queequeg
Greg Mooney--Captain Ahab & Fate; whaleboats

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October 16, 2016

The Opera of Brain Science

UrbanArias has mounted a fine production of British composer Michael Nyman's 1986 chamber opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The Dresser saw this 60-minute performance on October 16, 2016, at the Paul Sprenger Theatre of the Atlas Performing Arts Center. The libretto by Oliver Sacks, Christopher Rawlence and Michael Morris is based on the novella of the same name by Oliver Sacks.

The story deals with the medical investigation of a man who lost his ability recognize what he is seeing but he is able to continue as a singer and a visual artist.

The orchestral music under the energetic baton Robert Wood is in a throbbing minimalist style with occasional touches of folk tunes (sounding like music for an American hoedown) and with the actual quotation and use of songs by Robert Schumann, such as "Ich grolle nicht" and "Dichterliebe." Three singers--Dr. S (tenor Ian McEuen), Dr. P (Bass Baritone Jeffrey Beruan), and Mrs. P (Soprano Emily Pulley)--form the singing cast. Beruan-headshot-1.jpgBeruan's performance stood out as a haunted sound from a man struggling to operate in the world. Occasionally Pulley's words were not clear making it difficult to follow the story but her movement on stage and her keening (as Mrs. P) for her afflicted husband made her performance compelling. Projections by Grant Preisser added ambiance but did not change the fact that this is a static opera with a lot of text.Pulley_PhotoSmall.jpg

The language of Richard Lyons' excerpt from his poem "Meditations with the Music of Clifford Brown" remarkably captures the mood of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Nyman's opera doubles down on the sensation of sound since the main character is a professor of music. Mrs. P, the afflicted professor's wife, expresses her grief in a keening that begins quietly until her "red balloon of the heart" is made known more fully because she carries the memory of what her husband was capable.

(an excerpt)


a man inflates his cheeks, and the sound through the bell
swells embedded sensations not held in check so much
as allowed to prowl just there, unnamed, before going down
with an exalted dip beneath the surface I've grown used to,
a practiced grief ready to inflate the red balloon of the heart.

The skin awakens memory, numinous clouds of fog rising,
the muscles riding swollen with blood and undulating algae.
The past is par of how we step out from it and haven't yet
in each new step. That's why separate memories seem contrived,
dressed up with betrayal, and what I said I was in years gone
is just that, too gone to say, as if the instant could hold anything.

My memory is a rough stretch of sand, sand dollars embedded
above a sandy cache of eggs, but, otherwise, the field of vision
is incorruptible. The wind is high, wound-up with machinations
of blowing a path straight through instead of pockmarking the view
with stories in which someone is trying to take it easy on himself.
The wind is high and nothing flies except an engine's high whine.

by Richard Lyons
from Fleur Carnivore

"Meditations with the Music of Clifford Brown" copyright © 2006 Richard Lyons

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October 9, 2016

Revival of The Boatswain's Mate, A Comic Opera

What if I were young again, careless and gay,
What if I were young again, just for to-day?
The hot sun in glory setting,
With gold thread the vine leaves fretting...
Ah well I know, if my heart were still young,
Where my thoughts would be now!

The Boatswain's Mate, Part 1, Scene VI, Mrs. Waters


British composer Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) wrote her fourth opera The Boatswain's Mate as a comic piece that is focused on the serious subject of age versus youth. Sir Thomas Beecham premiered The Boatswain's Mate with his newly formed opera company at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London on January 28, 1916. Retrospect Opera, a group of highly accomplished musicologists and performers dedicated to recording and promoting British operas of the past that are known only in discussion but not in performance, has made available In its centenary year a carefully researched and pleasingly performed CD set (there are two CDs).

Upon hearing the lively overture to this one-act opera in two parts, the Dresser thought hoedown, even Aaron Copland's "Hoe-Down" from his 1943 ballet Rodeo. Smyth effects folk tunes in The Boatswain's Mate. Unusually for an overture of her day, it is a composition (drawn from her "The March of the Women" and "1910") that does not quote from the opera it introduces. Rather the overture is a mood piece, setting the stage for a strong woman (Mrs. Waters), a widow who is being pursued by a man (Harry Benn) in whom she has no interest.
Here the Dresser will pause to say that Smyth spent two years working with Emmeline Pankhurst in the "Votes for Women" campaign. Smyth hid Suffragette Pankhurst from British authorities and taught her how to throw stones, preceding the March 1912 window-smashing episode that landed them both in jail. The Dresser notes that Cicely Hamilton's lyrics to "The March of the Women" feature some of the same idealistic words and ideas used by Smyth in Mrs. Waters' aria "What if I were young again" such as glory, dream and varying ways of presenting natural light.

Briefly the libretto of Smyth's opera is based on work by W. W. Jacobs. The story sees Benn (tenor Edward Lee) devising a scheme with his friend Ned Travers (baritone Jeremy Huw Williams) to burglarize Mrs. Waters' residence above her inn The Beehive. The plan is for Benn to come to Mrs. Waters' rescue and thereby claim her hand in marriage. However, Mrs. Waters (soprano Nadine Benjamin) knows how to handle such situations--she has a gun and the plan backfires. She pulls Travers into her plan to teach Benn a lesson by declaring she has killed Travers. Additionally, because Benn is so upset, he complicates things further by confessing to a policeman (bass baritone Simon Wilding) that it is his fault that Travers has died. And then Mrs. Waters awakened by all this excitement seems to have taken interest in Travers as a potential mate. And by the way, Travers is the boatswain's mate. From the male point of view, the irony is that Benn who was a petty officer (boatswain) has money and Travers who was a Khaki hero (soldier) has none.

The Dresser will say upfront that this is not a feminist story and none of the characters are bad people. It's a question of chemistry and for whom the heart throbs.

There are several songs that stand out. Top of the list is the haunting and emotionally loaded "What if I were young again," which Nadine Benjamin as Mrs. Waters sings with passion that immediately transfers to the listener. The album also includes a 1916 recording of Rosina Buckman singing this song. Buckman's singing style which includes a hint of vibrato points up how operatic voices have evolved over time. Benjamin's interpretation and execution of the music for Mrs. Waters is outstanding in every way. Next is Benn's sailor aria that becomes an earworm the more you listen to it. Here are two stanzas from "When rocked on the billow":

When rocked on the billows, that roughest of pillows,
Fed up with the joys of a wandering life,
By dreams I was haunted, by visions enchanted
Of piling up dollars and choosing a wife.

As one who has paid his respects to the ladies
I thought to have carried it through with dispatch.
She knows I have money - then isn't it funny
That nothing will make her come up to the scratch?

Particularly captivating is the ensemble "It must have been the drink or love." To the Dresser's ear, this has a Renaissance playfulness with a counterpoint that supports an impressive acappella arrangement. Move over this composition is in Part 2 Scene VI which begins with a quotation from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and ends with a quote from "What if I were young again."

The entire opera relative to the theme of age and youth is well threaded including the opening scene which is between Benn and Mrs. Waters' helper Mary Ann (singing actress Rebecca Louise Dale). In this scene Mary Ann is leaving to visit her mom. Benn remarks that "the old lady'll be glad to see you." Mary Ann said her mother isn't old and is probably the same age as he is. Furthermore, she says if her mom were a man that would never come up because "men never gets old of course."

In Jacqueline Jules' poem "The Old Woman in the Grocery Store," a young woman talks about her fear of old age not because of what it does to the body but because risking to love involves the possibility of losing that loved one to death. In The Boatswain's Mate, it takes Mrs. Waters toying with death (her pretended murder of Travers) to bring her sexual sensibilities to life.


At 38 years, I fear old age
not wrinkles or white hair,
not even senility.
It's the odds I object to.
Additional years multiply chances
of standing at a grave site
shoveling dirt on a life I love.
Growing old means outlasting others,
a most unappealing idea
after the summer afternoon
pool plans were suddenly scrapped
for a meeting with the undertaker.
Do you have a picture we can run with the obit?
Should the service be indoors or out?
Life is to brittle; too much like old bones
that snap in the slightest fall.
I hold my breath
at the sight of someone
who has survived the years.
She is standing by the meat counter,
thin, white-haired, with blue-veined fingers
stubbornly grasping a grocery cart.
I can't help but stare--as if watching
a movie star choose ground beef.

by Jacqueline Jules
from Stronger Than Cleopatra

"The Old Woman in the Grocery Store" copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Jules

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July 22, 2016

Gassmann's L'Opera Seria: Finding the Prophet or Clown in the Words

On July 20, 2016, the Dresser experienced L'Opera Seria with music by the prolific Baroque composer Florian Leopold Gassmann and words by Ranieri de'Calzabigi (known for his collaborations with Christoph Willibald Gluck). Producing this colorful and chaotic United States premiere of this opera within an opera, Wolf Trap Opera offered a learning experience with its four performances. The last performance is July 23 at the Barns of Wolf Trap.

The Dresser was able to catch Kim Witman's preshow talk and felt this was an important extension of seeing the Wolf Trap Opera production. Why? Gassmann wrote 21 operas and was a precursor of Mozart and Salieri and not many operagoers know much about Gassmann. Now while the Dresser didn't find the music of L'Opera Seria particularly memorable, though it was satisfying in the way Baroque compositions can be, she thought the libretto offered an excellent learning opportunity.

L'Opera Seria mocks serious opera in a number of ways. It makes fun of the cult of the diva which includes the claques, or fan clubs, around the diva. It exaggerates the coloratura singing style that features lots of notes for one single syllable. It plays with singers who throw fits and want to substitute arias they are familiar with but are not part of the work they are suppose to singing. This phenomenon is known as aria di baule (in Italian) as well as insertion or trunk arias. It also mocks what was known in baroque opera as the simile aria where what was happening in the character's life was related to some natural phenomenon.

Director Matthew Ozawa's (he directed the successful 2014 Wolf Trap production of Poulenc's Les mamelles de Tirésias) approach for L'Opera Seria was to update the timeframe and to use such current day theater practices as planting players in the audience to invigorate the slow drag of this very busy three-act, three-hour obscure work.

'OPERA SERIA Librettis.jpg

What the Dresser loved about this production was the acting and singing of Korean baritone Kihun Yoon as Sospiro, the librettist. His ability to emote his vexation when either the composer Delirio (tenor Jonas Hacker) or the impresario (director) Fallito (bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba) attack his libretto out did what an Italian singer playing that role could have done. He was a great pleasure to hear and see. Certainly the fact is that the entire cast was good, Yoon, however, was exceptional.

Of the designers working on L'Opera Seria, Sally Dolembo's costumes, particularly in the third act which is when Sospiro and Deliro's opera is staged, burst with color and shape.


The Dresser also appreciated that conductor Eric Melear put his harpsichordist on stage to keep the audience anchored to the fact that this opera indeed drew its sound from the Baroque period.

One does not need the particulars of de'Calzabigi's libretto after one hears Witman's preshow talk. This the Dresser finds curiously interesting since her enjoyment stemmed mainly from everything that had to do with libretto and the singer playing the librettist. In Ayaz Pirani's poem "Written with the Other Hand," the reader enters a mysterious world where what is written seems to be tongue in cheek at best or completely out of control. This mirrors L'Opera Seria which clearly is not a serious but comic opera, but on the other hand with all its mocking is much more serious than we know.


I don't need to
love a good whipping
to be a prophet
among my people.

I'm not choosing my words.

My people don't
want to know all
the things I've lost.

They had to go.

If my words are
they're on their own.

by Ayaz Pirani
from Happy You Are Here

"Written with the Other Hand" copyright © 2016 Ayaz Pirani

Photos by Scott Suchman

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May 29, 2016

Twilight of the Gods and the Honest Dark

After 18 plus hours of Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung, the Dresser was thoroughly impressed with all aspects of Washington National Opera's production as conceived and directed by Francesca Zambello. Zambello's The Ring of the Nibelung was a tour de force and the Dresser was fortunate to have partaken of the opening nights of The Rhinegold (April 30) and The Valkyrie (May 2) and the closing performances of Siegfried (May 20) and Twilight of the Gods (May 22).

Twilight of the Gods (Götterdämmerung) is astonishing if not for the failed lovers Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme) and Siegfried (Daniel Brenna) but for the numerous new characters in family groups not heretofore introduced in the three earlier operas. Except for the appearance of the Nibelung dwarf Alberich (Gordon Hawkins)--maker of that cursed ring--this opera could almost stand alone. Even so, the story of the characters populating The Ring cycle is repeated through out Twilight of the Gods.

It does, however, deepen one's understanding to know ahead of seeing the last opera of the cycle:

  • how the Valkyrie Brünnhilde ended up on a rock surrounded by fire--she defied her god of gods father Wotan by not facilitating the death of Siegfried's father,
  • the circumstances of Siegfried's birth and his relationship by blood to Brünnhilde--Siegfried is Brünnhilde's nephew and/
  • that the gold Alberich used to make the powerful ring he stole from the Rhine maidens.

The prologue and the first act of three are presented together in this production and run two hours sitting time. However, there wasn't a boring minute.

The Prologue has two components. First we see the Norns, three daughters of the earth goddess Erda. Actually, they are initially camouflaged in Michael Yeargan's blue-green set and emerge out of the scenery to pleasing effect. And the Norns sound like Shakespearean characters as the first Norn asks (referring to the fire from Brünnhilde's rock), "What light shines there?"


The purpose of the Norns who are spinning the rope of destiny (though Zambello's updated production calls the rope cable) is to provide an overview of what has, is, and will happen to the main characters of The Ring cycle. New information emerges in their conversation such as Wotan lost his eye drinking at the spring (of water) that nurtured the ash tree from which Wotan made his powerful spear. According to the Norns, he traded the light of an eye for the wisdom contained in the water. Moreover, Wotan's act of cutting into the ash tree also killed the tree and it was this tree that Norns used to help them weave the rope of destiny. Now they are using a pine tree and that will prove fatal.

The Norns also know that Wotan has ordered the heroes to cut up the ash tree and bring that wood to Valhalla. At Valhalla, Wotan has killed the fire god Loge for getting him into such a mess that began when Loge advised Wotan to use Wotan's sister-in-law as a way to pay his debt to the giants Fafner & Fasolt who built Valhalla. Now Wotan awaits the return of his ravens announcing the end of the world, which means Wotan will burn down Valhalla and this will be end of the gods. The audience sees none of Wotan's actions. The Dresser advises that if, Dear Reader, you go to see a production of The Ring opera (and surely Zambello's highly successful production will be mounted again, perhaps in San Francisco), do not sleep through the Prologue of Götterdämmerung. It goes by very fast.

Now the second part of the Prologue is much simpler and picks up from last act of Siegfried. Brünnhilde and Siegfried wake up together in a lover's embrace and she tells him, despite her fears of losing him, to go into the world and do what heroes do. He gives her the cursed ring as his troth of marriage and leaves.

Act I has three scenes. The first introduces the Gibichung family who will tear apart Brünnhilde and Siegfried under the counsel of their half brother Hagen (Eric Halfvarson) who is the son of Alberich (Gordon Hawkins). Gunther Gibichung (Ryan McKinny) and his sister Gutrune (Melissa Citro) want the Nibelung ring. Hagen tells Gunther to marry Brünnhilde and Gutrune to marry Siegfried. Because Gunther is no hero and could not penetrate the ring of fire surrounding Brünnhilde, Hagen suggests a magic potion which will make Siegfried forget his commitment to Brünnhilde. In scene two, the trio will manipulate Siegfried who, in scene 3 will go in disguise as Gunther (using the shape-shifting Tarnhelm) and claim her in Gunther's name. What also happens in scene 3 is that Brünnhilde's sister Waltraute (Jamie Barton) visits her to plead that she return the cursed ring to the Rhine maidens because failure to do so will be the end of the gods. Brünnhilde says no because she is now a mortal concerned with guarding Siegfried's love.

Hagen-Gutrune.jpgWhat's interesting about meeting the Gibichungs is that their home presents like Trump Towers and Gutrune comes across with her long blond hair as a Trump bimbo.

Act II, running 60 minutes, has a prelude and five acts. Whether Alberich is a dream or a spirit is unclear, but he appears in scene 1 to his son Hagen to urge him to get the ring from Siegfried. Siegfried returns to Hagen (scene 2) from the devious quest to take Brünnhilde from her rock as the prize for Gunther. In scene 3, Hagen calls together all the Gibichung vassals to witness the dual weddings (Gunter and Brünnhilde; Siegfried and Gutrune). However (scene 4), Brünnhilde sees the Nibelung ring on Siegfried's finger. She asks Gunther if he gave it to Siegfried and Gunther says no. Then Brünnhilde claims Siegfried as her rightful husband, but he denies her accusations. Brünnhilde knows then Siegfried has betrayed her. In the concluding scene, Brünnhilde, set on revenge, tells Hagen where Siegfried's one vulnerable spot lies (his back). Enticed by what he hears about the power of the ring, Gunther decides to join in the assassination.


Act III, running 75 minutes with it three scenes, opens (scene 1) on the banks of the destroyed Rhine with the three Rhine maidens mourning their habitat. Siegfried appears and the maidens plead for the ring. He toys with them and shows his ignorance about the curse. Scene 2 is a hunting party at a break, featuring Hagen, Gunther, and Siegfried along with some of the Gibichung men. Hagen gives Siegfried a potion in his drink to counteract the first and then Hagen asks Siegfried to tell his story as a ploy to kill him. Hagen will be "insulted" by Siegfried recounting his relationship with Brünnhilde. Gunther, however, will be shocked and in grief. In the final scene, Hagen lies to Gutrune saying Siegfried was killed by a boar but she cries murder and accuses Gunther. Gunther and Hagen quarrel over the ring still on Siegfried's finger. Hagen kills Gunther and the dead Siegfried raises his hand freaking out Hagen. Brünnhilde arrives calling for a funeral pyre to be built for Siegfried. She blames everything on the gods and returns the cursed ring to the Rhine maidens. Then Brünnhilde walks into the flames to die in the suttee tradition of the Hindu widow who choses to die with her dead husband. The curse is lifted from the gold ring and the formerly parched Rhine overflows its banks making for a happy ending for the world.

Throughout this opera, the performances of Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde and Daniel Brenna as Siegfried remained at the highest level. Their singing and acting made for very credible characters.

Frannie Lindsay's "Solace for a Weeping Birch Tree in Spring" contains echoes of Twilight of the Gods--

"the birdless gray" calls attention to the absence of the Forest Bird (we meet this bird in Siegfried, the third Ring opera) who warned Siegfried that Mime was planning to kill him with a poisoned drink. The Dresser was intrigued that Hagen pressed Siegfried on his ability to understand the language of the birds and Siegfried brushed that off saying that he no longer listens to birdsong because he has the voice of a wife to listen to. Meanwhile, ravens loom over the world ready to report back to Wotan that the end of the world has come in which case he will burn down Valhalla.

The weeping birch counterbalances with the decimated ash tree.

The cathedral points to Valhalla, the home of the gods.

"Elderly parent of shadows" summons Wotan whose powerful spear coming from the mighty ash tree was smashed by Siegfried.

"Honest dark" counter balances with the eternal fire that surrounded Brünnhilde as well as plays up the evil being exacted by Hagen.

"Let me do some of the weeping" summons the genuine grief from Gutrune when she hears and then sees Siegfried is dead.

Here, the Dresser will pause to consider Brünnhilde's final act which was to chose death by walking into Siegfried's funeral pyre. Was this an act of bravery in the mode of having been a warrior maiden? An act of aching love that will never be healed? Or was this what good girls do to please daddy? After all, Wotan was planning to burn down Valhalla as soon as the ravens reported back to him. But, Brünnhilde gave back the ring and the curse was lifted, making the Rhine flow again.


A month ago, less, you were barren
as everything else: all of the birdless gray, each nest

vacant as if condemned; Brattle Street's blackened drifts;
no crocuses making the usual fools of themselves.

And no particular hope for you either.
I wouldn't go near your bombed-out cathedral.

Then April's last coy week: the concrete
beneath the snow grimly beautiful;

your hesitant, pellet-like buds. From them
have come your capable leaves reaching down

to lift up the world. Windy church I can enter
when I am the least

willing to pray; wild, impersonal mercy.
Elderly parent of shadows,

there is so little else that casts them. Do you
miss their honest dark the way I do?

This year, be once more that place
where nothing will ever be lost.

But you are still so old.
Let me do some of the weeping.

by Frannie Lindsay
from If Mercy

"Solace for Weeping Birch Tree in Spring" copyright © 2016 Frannie Lindsay

Production Photos by Scott Suchman

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