February 24, 2015

When Talking Heads Are Sisters

The Dialogues of the Carmelites, with words and music by Francis Poulenc and based after a play by Georges Bernanos is a through-composed opera with accessible music that has occasional flourishes common to film music. On February 23, 2015, the Dresser saw Washington National Opera's company premiere production under the direction of WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello and the baton of Antony Walker leading the WNO orchestra.


The libretto rendered in clunky English (but approved by Poulenc as the official English translation) concerns Blanche de la Force (ably sung by Canadian soprano Layla Claire) a young aristocratic woman born in fear transferred from her mother whose carriage was attacked by an angry mob. The attack resulted in Blanche's birth and her mother's death. The historic setting of this story is the French Revolution. In an act of courage, Blanche tells the Marquis de la Force, her father, (American bass-baritone Alan Held) that she will join the order of the Sisters of Carmel.

Act I, which sets up convent life for Blanche including a budding friendship with a jovial novitiate named Constance (American soprano Ashley Emerson), is overall static but greatly enlivened by Emerson's performance in the laundry scene. Much to Blanche's horror, Constance tells Blanche that they will die together. Act I also includes Blanche's visit to the dying prioress Madame de Croissy (American mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick), who considers Blanche her late-life daughter. The prioress tells Blanche that the convent is not a refuge from life but a house of prayer. While this mother superior has dealt with death every day of her life, she dies in terror mirroring the death of Blanche's biological mother. While Zajick gives a wrenching performance, the Dresser suspects something more tactile involving Blanche might have helped to ratchet up the intensity of the prioress' death and to move act I from its scenes of talking heads.

While Act I has the beautiful a cappella Ave Maria sung by the sisters for departed Madame de Croissy, Act II has much more musical variety. The opening scene moves into an impassioned duet between Blanche and her brother, the Chevalier de la Force (American tenor Shawn Mathey). Mathey as the Chevalier is impressive in laying out his plea to his beloved sister to flee France with him before she is swept up by the revolutionaries and killed. Claire as the beleaguered overprotected little sister holds her ground and pushes back telling her brother she feels safe with the Carmelite community. The last scene where all the sister go one by one to the guillotine is colored by a lush musical composition unlike any other in the opera.Carmelites7End.jpg

For the Dresser, what stands out for this production is the overall excellent performances by the entire cast, the moving sets that seem classical in their contours, and the use of light to emphasize shadow. Carmelites4Shadow.jpg

In Belle Waring's poem "Baby Random," the reader meets a nurse who serves those who cannot serve themselves, including an AIDs-afflicted infant and doctor-in-training who is scared about causing this child more harm. Like The Dialogues of the Carmelites, Waring's poem is about fear, courage, and nightmares.


Baby Random

tries a nosedive, kamikaze, 

when the intern flings open the isolette.

The kid almost hits the floor. I can see the headline: 

DOC DUMPS AIDS TOT. Nice save, nurse,

Why thanks. Young physician: "We have to change

his tube." His voice trembles, six weeks

out of school. I tell him: "Keep it to a handshake,

you'll be OK." Our team resuscitated

this Baby Random, birth weight

one pound, eyelids still fused. Mother's

a junkie with HIV. Never named him.

Where I work we bring back terminal preemies,

No Fetus Can Beat Us. That's our motto. I have

a friend who was thrown into prison. Where do birds

go when they die? Neruda wanted to know. Crows

eat them. Bird heaven? Imagine the racket.

When Random cries, petit fish on shore, nothing

squeaks past the tube down his pipe. His ventilator's

a high-tech bellows that kicks in & out. Not

up to the nurses. Quiet: a pigeon's outside,

color of graham crackers, throat oil on a wet street, 

wings spattered white, perched out of the rain.

I have friends who were thrown into prison, Latin

American. Tortured. Exiled. Some people have

courage. Some people have heart. Corazon.

After a shift like tonight, I have the usual

bad dreams. Some days I avoid my reflection in store

windows. I just don't want anyone to look at me.

Belle Waring

First published in Off course: A Literary Journey

Copyright © 2000 Belle Waring

Photos: Scott Suchman

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December 21, 2014

The Little Prince, A Family Affair

1 - Henry Wager-Prince--Christian Bowers-Pilot.jpg

Suppose the little person in your life demanded three reasons why he or she should go with you to Washington, DC's Kennedy Center to see Washington National Opera's The Little Prince. You could say the star of the show is a little boy who comes from another planet to help an airplane pilot who crashes in the Sahara Desert (on December 19, 2014, the Dresser saw boy soprano Henry Wager perform fluidly in this demanding role), the red fox has her own trapdoors in the stage floor (Aleksandra Romano knew how to make the fox head worn on top of her head communicate), and the walking baobab trees had fingery roots and branches.

Suppose the teenager in your life demanded three reasons why he or she should go with you to see composer Rachel Portman and librettist Nicholas Wright's interpretation of that French kid's book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. You could say the words are in English, the snake looks and acts like a vampire with an absurdly long tail (tenor John Kapusta gives a standout performance), and the fox hunters look like blimps who have no idea how to use their rifles. This should please the vegans and vegetarians.

Suppose the man of the family be he husband, uncle, or grandpa says, what's in this for me? You could say The Rose (soprano Jacqueline Echols) and her sisters are fascinatingly sexy. While they all wear green tights with large thorns protruding, their silky petals open and close into a luscious ruby bud. Echols' vocal line is both challenging and engaging in the way any siren would maneuver and she delivers with appropriate passion.3 -WagerPrince--Lisa Williamson-The Rose.jpg

Suppose mother, sister, aunt--the ones who love the sophistication of music theater and opera just want a profile. You could say the baritone role of The Pilot (the Dresser heard Christian Bowers) adds a dimension of earthy warmth against the angelic voice of The Little Prince. Portman's pretty music (which is between music theater and opera) is melancholic and glimmering in a celestial way. There's quite a bit of harp and bell accents. You could also say that Washington National Opera Children's Chorus is an adorable community of talented youth who get to wear their pajamas while they parade through the audience onto the stage. Kudos to conductor Nicole Paiement for keeping all the musicians and singers nimbly together.

Director Francesca Zambello has made sure this is family opera at its best because everyone will find something to marvel at or admire. It is a two-hour performance with one twenty-minute break. While the Dresser adores Saint-Exupéry's story, she feels the opera could stand to be a good twenty-minutes shorter without losing its good energy. This is WNO's third season of presenting family opera and by far, The Little Prince is the best for music, costumes, vocal variety and performance, and direction. In 2003, Zambello premiered this work, which was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera. Therefore, the WNO sellout for the five performances in the Terrace Theater is not surprising but certainly a disappointment for those too late to get tickets.

The Little Prince is full of wise thoughts, so the Dresser will conclude with several quotes:

"Words are the source of misunderstandings."

"It is lonely when you're among people, too," said the snake.

"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.

Photos: Scott Suchman

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December 4, 2014


Painterly mise-en-scène and acting perfection are hallmarks of the Washington, DC, Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of As You Like It, directed by Michael Attenborough. The Dresser saw Rembrandt portraits in the sepia inflection of the opening set accented by character groupings that occur throughout the entire play and include costumes not easily placed in any timeframe. Particularly, memorable were the bronze and copper-colored bouffant satin gowns worn by Rosalind (played by Zoë Waites) and Celia (Adina Verson). Jonathan Fensom's color complimenting set and costume designs give the minimalist rich brown walls of court versus the silky skirt-like painted curtains of Arden Forest a unity that moves attention to the troop of fine players.


asyouit.scottsuchman.jpgHere the Dresser pauses to note that Fensom can easily justify his approach for the painted curtains versus trees--real or fake--in these lines:

Where dwell you, pretty youth?

With this shepherdess, my sister; here in the
skirts of the forest, like fringe upon a petticoat.


Running just under three hours including one fifteen-minute intermission, Shakespeare's comic story of romantic love, family discord, political strife, a cross-dressing female, kissing girl cousins too close for comfort, and high society versus country mores is the perfect landscape for contemporary audiences as "mainstream" America passes laws to support LGBT individuals, partners, and communities. Questions about acceptable male-on-male and female-on-female contact arise frequently in this production that includes a possibly to-the-death wrestling match between Orlando (Andrew Veenstra) and Orlando's brother's wrestler Charles (Ian Bedford). Brother Oliver (Gregory Wooddell) has not treated Orlando in a manner befitting a courtier and Orlando confronted his elder brother (actually put him in a choke hold) for failing to properly educate and provide for him. So Oliver tells Charles he doesn't mind if Charles breaks Orlando's neck, except Orlando vanquishes the much bigger man.

The wrestling as directed by Fight Director Robb Hunter then spectacularly sets up other same-sex contact scenes--Orlando holding a knife to the throat of a man he meets in Arden Forest when his loyal but elderly servant collapses from hunger and Orlando is forced to find food, Rosalind suggestively kneeling between the legs of her cousin Celia as they talk face to face, and most confusing is Rosalind disguised as the boy Ganymede but, having convinced Orlando he should role play his love for Rosalind by interacting with Ganymede as if Ganymede were Rosalind. The interaction flies out of control when Ganymede passionately kisses Orlando and Orlando recoils in horror, believing a man has kissed him.Ganymede-Orlando.jpg


For the record, four overlapping groups of people play against each other:
Group 1 is Orlando & his brother Oliver (plus Orlando's servant Adam (Jeff Brooks), Oliver's servant Dennis (Luis Alberto Gonzalez) and Charles, the wrestler),
Group 2 is Rosalind, Celia, Celia father Duke Frederick (Timothy D. Stickney) (plus Touchstone (Andrew Weems), a fool to Frederick's court and servant to Celia and Rosalind),
Group 3 is Rosalind's father Duke Senior (Timothy D. Stickney, playing a dual role. The two dukes are brothers) plus his band of men that includes guitar-playing Amiens (Matthew Schleigh) an unnamed First Lord (Todd Scofield) and the moody philosopher Jaques (Derek Smith), and
Group 4 is the country people--shepherd Corin (the engaging scene stealing Happy Anderson), shepherd Silvius (Stephen Pilkington), country woman Audrey (Tara Giordano, her dirty legs marry well with her backward but charming behavior), Vicar Sir Oliver Martext (Jeff Brooks, playing a dual role), shepherdess Phoebe (Valeri Mudek, a master at alternating frowns and radiant smiles), and country fellow William (Jonathan Feuer). Moving silently between the groups until the last scene of the play is the character called Hymen (Te'La Curtis Lee), Greek god of marriage. Attenborough chooses to make this character female, have her act as servant to Rosalind, and to have her be seen throughout the play. Curtis Lee presents a striking presence in her appearance, which is unlike the other characters (her costume suggests a stereotypical Greek goddess), and the way she carries herself on her bare feet.

It is a big cast and the actors in this production, even the minor ones, make their characters memorable. Just before Rosalind delivers the epilogue that ends the play, the entire company, many of the players in bare feet, is on stage for a joyful dance that seems part traditional African and part Macarena. The Dresser takes this as a dance inspired by the barefooted Hymen, who has one foot in the "real" world of this story as Rosalind's servant and the the other foot in the magical realm of the gods. Along with the costumes of no particular period, the choreography seems to reach across the centuries that would separate modern day audiences from Shakespeare's days at the Globe Theatre.


The Dresser, who reads a lot of Gertrude Stein and knows that Stein had a deep interest in As You Like It since Stein quoted an extensive passage from Act V, Scene 2 as epigraph to her blatant lesbian novel Q.E.D., was surprised at how Steinian Attenborough's production is. While Stein is known for the influence of Pablo Picasso's and George Braque's cubism on her writing, what few people know was how broad her reach over the centuries is. In academic terms, this reach, which shockingly might take the reader back to the Middle Ages, plays to her dimensionality. Similarly, Attenborough, through his choice of set-costume designer, choreographer, composer who chooses to have his strolling musician play on a modern guitar (versus a lute), mix of ethnic players, zooms the audience forward in time. The Dresser particularly finds the scenic suggestion of classical art (Rembrandt-like and useful in depicting the court versus the country) and the abstract Forest of Eden (where the rustic lines up with the magical), particularly Steinian because it breaks logical flow.

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November 23, 2014

Balance and Dislocation: WNO Premiers Three Short Operas

On November 21, 2014, American Opera Initiative, Washington National Opera's, program to develop and produced new American operas, presented three twenty-minute operas employing the considerable talents of Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists and other established young talent including Alexandra Christoforakis and Andrew McLaughlin. Advising the composer-librettist pairs were conductor Anne Manson, composer Jake Heggie, and librettist Mark Campbell.

The Dresser's favorite and the best defined in the category of opera is "The Investment" by composer John Liberatore and librettist Niloufar Talebi. The musical opening of this opera features the rich voice of a cello quickly joined by bass, violin, flute, and percussion.

The story of "The Investment" revolves around a work of art that isn't what the husband of a couple who buys the work expected. He and his wife learn about the inspiration of the oil painting from the painter who has been invited to their house for lunch. The painter, an Iranian American, reveals that the work is a memorial to her mother who was born in Shiraz, Iran, a city of "poets and wine, gardens and nightingales." What the Dresser particularly liked about hearing these lines sung was the music and vocal performance (by soprano Raquel González) seemed infused with the song of the nightingale.

AOI 4 - Daughters of the Bloody Duke.jpg"Daughters of the Bloody Duke" by composer Jake Runestad and Librettist David Johnston is an entertaining comic piece that is a cross between opera and music theatre. On a much smaller and less complicated scale, the story of "Daughters of the Bloody Duke" reminded the Dresser of the musical film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which at its roots came from the ancient Roman legend of the rape of the Sabine women. In David Johnston's libretto, the story involves revenge. A man with 40 daughters commands them to marry 40 brothers and then to kill them.

Least developed musically in the Dresser's opinion but with a compelling libretto is "An American Man" by composer Rene Orth and librettist Jason Kim. The story revolves around the death of man who was a less than perfect father to a self-made man who has become rich and is running for public office and to a daughter who stayed with their father. The Dresser found the music to be more of an accent to the libretto and vocal line than a conduit holding the work together.

The Dresser considers it exciting to witness presentation of new work and to learn about the creators as well as anticipate future work from these artists. As Judith Bowles' poem "After Hopper's The Hotel Room" concludes about Edward Hopper's painting The Hotel Room and is pertinent to the WNO American Opera Initiative productions for 2014: balance and dislocation occur simultaneously such that the elements making up the works of art create their own standards and illumination.


A woman like a swimmer
at the edge of a pool
turns her back to the glare
looks toward a book,
heavy on her knees,
loose in her hands.
Her face so in shade
that only the angle
of her chin and the angle
of the book indicate
something besides its words
are on her mind.
She is nearly naked,
her full smooth legs
another kind of glow
against the white
anchored sheet.
A creamy pink chemise
wraps her torso
like another skin.
Why does it seem
something is going to happen
or has happened here?
Her dress lysing draped
across the heavy armchair,
two pieces of luggage
standing closed and tagged,
black pumps askew
on the carpet, deep green
like the chair
and the wall to the left.
A perfect kind of balance
is at play here, the dislocation
in an order of its own.
So much has gathered
in this room where colors
have their own sense of play
and relief, next to
a wide window
noisy with light.

by Judith Bowles
from The Gatherer

Copyright © 2014 Judith Bowles

Photo: Scott Suchman

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November 13, 2014

Mini Review of Big Concert: NSO's The Rite of Spring

The concert: National Symphony Orchestra
plays "Le sacre du printemps
("The Rite of Spring")

When: November 13, 2014

Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach

The Program:

Lera Auerbach: Eterniday/ Homage to W.A. Mozart

The Dresser's reaction: rich and layered with solo instruments featured, trance-inducing, made her think of Elena Ruhr's music.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Flute concerto No. 2 in D major, K. 314
Solo performer: Flutist Aaron Goldman
Cadenzas by Lera Auerbach commissioned by NSO for all three movement

The Dresser's reaction: Uplifting with recognizable themes. The cadenzas were well integrated. Goldman was a pleasure to watch and hear.

Igor_Stravinskysm.jpgIgor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring: Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts

The Dresser's reaction: From the moment the bassoon ambushes the listener with its wistful call, attention never wanes. Stravinsky premiered this work with Diaghilev's Ballets Russe in the spring of 1913. One hundred years old and the work still sounds fresh and creates electricity. The brass and percussion sections are awesome. The size of the orchestration alone is a reason to attend this concert.

Related Concert Events

November 14-15, 2014 NSO Le sacre du printemps

January 27 - February 1, 2015 Mariinsky Ballet performs Le sacre du printemps

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November 3, 2014

Niki Tulk's Tender "Food" Buttons


The Dresser, not be trumped by the Steiny Road Poet's review of the Van Reipen Collective's theatrical interpretation of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons section 1 "Objects," offers her look and connections to Van Reipen's production of section 2 "Food" at the Theater for the New City in New York. First, Dear Reader, a little background.


What is Tender Buttons ? A book-length love poem in three sections that the Steiny Road Poet has been studying deeply inside the discussion forums of the Coursera massive open online course (MOOC) Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo) by University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis. Steiny has documented that study starting with this blogpost: Stepping on Tender Buttons: "A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass." However, Steiny has only completed study of Tender Buttons "Objects." Full disclosure, Steiny has just begun study of "Food," so if this interests you, you can sign up for ModPo until November 15, 2014, and find the Tender Buttons study group inside the discussion forums. (Once ModPo ends, course enrollment ends, but the discussion forums and study of Tender Buttons will continue until the 2015 ModPo offering in the fall.)

Therefore, the Dresser is perfectly at her ease to make what anyone can of a dramatic interpretation of Tender Buttons "Food." One other thing to know is VP treated each of the three sections of Tender Buttons as separate theater productions. This means there were different directors for each production: Gary Heidt: "Objects," Cara Scarmack and Christopher Weston: "Rooms," and Niki Tulk: "Food."


While Gary Heidt's treatment of "Objects" was musical with another text underpinning how the dozen players and musicians moved, Niki Tulk's approach to "Food" was on the surface much simpler. In "Food," original recorded music by Mark Tulk with cello by Niki Tulk was used to introduce, shade, or transition from one part of the production to the next (well, except for Cupcake Gross' chicken striptease) and only three actors spoke the entire Steinian text. During the 90-minute production, Cassandra V. Chopourian impressively delivered the majority of Stein's words. Not only did she know the words, which are not logically written, but also she infused the words with feeling, just as Stein does when she opens the "Food" section:

In the inside there is sleeping, in the outside there is reddening, in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling. In the evening there is feeling. In feeling anything is resting, in feeling anything is mounting, in feeling there is resignation, in feeling there is recognition, in feeling there is recurrence and entirely mistaken there is pinching.
Tender Buttons , section 2 "Food," first subpoem "Roastbeef."


TBF-MeatHook.jpegMemorably Chopourian, while simulating hanging from a meat hook, slowly recited the 36 stanzas (1757 words) of "Roastbeef." and then 13 stanzas (534 words) of "Mutton.". It was an uncomfortable stretch for one actor or even for an audience member, but it was a tour de force.

But wait, the Dresser emailed Niki Tulk and she said, "She [Chopourian] hung from the meathook for the first 10 mins or so of Roastbeef, and then hopped down, explored the dress, got dressed, plucked the chicken and set the table ... TBFChickPluck.jpgso most of her work was off the meathook, but the time at the beginning was very much a 'close-up' section and probably felt longer than it was, due to that intensity."

Allow the Dresser to give some examples of those lines:

Please be the beef, please beef, pleasure is not wailing. Please beef, please be carved clear, please be a case of consideration.

Search a neglect. A sale, any greatness is a stall and there is no memory, there is no clear collection.

(These two stanzas are 24 and 25 from "Roastbeef.")


Mouse and mountain and a quiver, a quaint statue and pain in an exterior and silence more silence louder shows salmon a mischief intender. A cake, a real salve made of mutton and liquor, a specially retained rinsing and an established cork and blazing, this which resignation influences and restrains, restrains more altogether. A sign is the specimen spoken.

A meal in mutton, mutton, why is lamb cheaper, it is cheaper because so little is more. Lecture, lecture and repeat instruction.

(These are the last two stanzas from "Mutton.")

Why does Chopourian carry so much of the text delivery? Well, besides being exceptionally good at memorization and delivery, one of her fellow collective members Lauren Farber has the dual challenge of muscular dystrophy and legal blindness. Nonetheless Farber's resume is substantial with fifty years experience in dance and movement theater that includes ballet, mime, and Butoh. She has worked with such experimental companies at Margolis Brown Adaptors, Joan Merwyn's Sound Image Theater, The Construction Company, and currently Van Reipen Collective. TBF-InPot.jpg

In an informal interview after the closing show on October 19, 2014, Director Niki Tulk said one of the interesting challenges for this production was how to use Farber's talents and limitations to best advantage. Two aspects of Farber's MS are she has limited capacity for memorization and she needs to rest with some frequency, meaning her lines needed to be short and during the intermissionless show, Farber needed an opportunity to lie down and rest. For example, as the text progressed to "Milk." and "Eggs." (subpoems 7 and 8), Farber climbed up on the table and got covered over by a cloth that Chopourian moved around and over her colleague.


Climb up in sight climb in the whole utter needles and a guess a whole guess is hanging. Hanging hanging.


Kind height, kind in the right stomach with a little sudden mill.

Cunning shawl, cunning shawl to be steady.

In white in white handkerchiefs with little dots in a white belt all shadows are singular they are singular and procured and relieved.

No that is not the cows shame and a precocious sound, it is a bite.

Cut up alone the paved way which is harm. Harm is old boat and a likely dash.


Tulk said that what kept the action moving forward and helped the cast remember their lines was a gaming strategy--"games (the ones that get passed on as if by osmosis from generation to generation of children) contain structures of movement and text--often nonsense text--that the smallest child can remember. They cannot always remember the words out of context, but once moving in that familiar pattern, the words come as if unbidden. There is a sense in which text and movement are both stored in muscle memory, and finding kinesthetic structures/choreographic forms that facilitate that is powerful in creating resonance with the audience on a visceral level, and also for actors learning 'nonsense' text (or any text)."

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October 24, 2014

Going toe to toe with Cubism at the Met

On October 20, 2014, Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection opened to the public in seven galleries of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Dresser tiptoed in that day with a swarm of others eager to see this donated collection of 81 Cubist works mostly spanning 1907 to 1918. WomanInArmChairSM.jpgMore importantly, this exhibition includes 34 pieces by Pablo Picasso, 17 by Georges Braque who initiated this style of artwork, and 15 works each by Juan Gris and Fernand Léger.

The show, curated by Met curator Rebecca Rabinow and art historian Emily Braun who helped Leonard Lauder assemble this collection, organizes the evolution of Cubism, showing how Braque, the Cubism innovator, was surpassed by Picasso in 1913. However, they worked together from about 1908 to the beginning of World War I in 1914, when Braque enlisted with the French army.

Paul Cézanne influenced both Braque and Picasso but Braques painted still lifes while Picasso tended toward figures in motion. Opening the show are three paintings by Braque bridging between Fauvism and Cubism, including "Trees at L'Estaque." trees-at-lestaque-1908-braquesSM.jpgThe Met Cubism show includes two studies for Picasso's proto-cubist masterpiece "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon."

Represented in the show are works of Analytic Cubism (emphasizing multiple perspectives within an amorphous framework of geometric shapes--this was developed by Braque and Picasso 1909-10 and reached its high point in 1911), Cubism collage (invented by Braque), and Synthetic Cubism (also invented by Picasso and Braque, it features overlapping planes and more subject definition and color). Another development that bridged from Analytic to Synthetic Cubism was the introduction of deconstructed words. Two favorites in this category shown in the exhibition are Picasso's 1914 "Bottle of Bass and Glass" and Braques 1911 "Still Life with Dice."StillLifeWithDiceSM.jpg

The Dresser expects she will see this show again and hopefully under less crowded conditions. While she enjoyed the more colorful and manicured works of Gris and Léger, for this review she spent most of her time on pointe with the Picassos and Braques.

With Tender Buttons, a long love poem published in 1914, Gertrude Stein took inspiration from the Cubism of her friends George Braque and Pablo Picasso. The second stanza of "Shoes.", a subpoem of section 1 "Objects" of Tender Buttons seems to point at Braque's "Still Life with Dice"--broken word rose or is that eros, which means erotic love? (Need the Dresser bring further attention to Stein's shallow hole rose on red?) And was Picasso influenced by Stein's diminishment of ale such that Picasso's ale of choice, Bass Ale, has lost an S and what with B highlighted in bright light, the AS standing on its own seemingly suggesting the French word as or ace (the card) in English. Voilà, the ace to the right side of the canvass. And look to the left of the B, there are black and white dice! Ha, baby needs new shoes!bass-GlassSM.jpg


To be a wall with a damper a stream of pounding way and nearly enough choice makes a steady midnight. It is pus.

A shallow hole rose on red, a shallow hole in and in this makes ale less. It shows shine.

by Gertrude Stein
from Tender Buttons, section 1 "Objects"

"Woman In Arm Chair" by Pablo Picasso
"Trees at L'Estaque" by George Braque
"Still Life with Dice" by George Braque
"Bottle of Bass and Glass" by Pablo Picasso

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October 12, 2014

Recorder Visitation from Three Part Fugue

RecorderTrio.jpgThe promise from Capital Early Music and Three Part Fugue's members-- Héloïse Degrugillier, Emily O'Brien, and Roy Sansom--was to show a full spectrum of what a recorder concert could deliver. Indeed the October 10, 2014, "Recorder Kaleidoscope," a program of renaissance, baroque, and contemporary compositions played on recorders varying in size and range from the six-foot contrabass to the ten-inch sopranino exceeded the Dresser's satisfaction quotient. The concert was performed in the acoustically satisfying sanctuary of St. George's Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia.

Among the compositions played that was particularly unique for a recorder concert was the jazzy "Kadanza" by the contemporary Dutch composer Willem Wander van Nieuwkerk. This energetic piece that features a percolating beat expresses what is new and old in recorder music, making it a perfect choice for the work that followed.

"Trio sonata in F (after organ trio in C)" by J. S. Bach, the second concert selection, showcased O'Brien playing the contrabass, an instrument that adds depth in the way an organ might. Because this instrument is so large, there is a delay between delivery of the musician's breath and sound production. So part of the pleasure in hearing this lyrically soothing three-movement work was watching O'Brien make the contrabass speak.

Three short Renaissance pieces--the pastoral "In mijnen zin" by Alexander Agricola, the breathy song-like "Helas mon bien" by Jacob Obrecht, and the stately air "Tander naken" by Henry VIII--followed and lead beautifully into the dance composition "Canarios" by Gaspar Sanz. Sanz wrote "Canarios" for classical guitar and Roy Sansom and Héloïse Degrugillier coordinated the composition for recorders, including additions of original divisions (rapid scale-like passages that connect notes of the melody) written by Degrugillier.

After an intermission, the selection turned to two playful compositions from the Middle Ages: "Una pantera" by Johanes Ciconia and "Par maintes foy" by Jehan Vaillant. The latter piece, which featured sopraninos to capture the birds depicted in this spritely work, was introduced by O'Brien with a engaging dramatic reading of an accompanying text.

Two ambitious and serious works--"Abendkonzert" by Modernist Paul Hindemith and "Trio" by baroque composer C. P. E. Bach--bookended four fantasias by Renaissance composers Edward Blankes ("Fantasie VI"), William Byrd ("Fantasia a 3"), Olando Gibbons ("Fantasia I and II"), and John Bull ("Fantasia") to complete a thorough exploration of musical periods.

Three Part Fugue based in Boston is an ensemble with multi-talented members who demonstrated through their program selections and performance the intelligent care and passion they each bring to the recorder as an instrument that can stand on its own for entire concert. Capital Early Music is to be commended for bringing them to the Washington, DC area and attracting a large appreciative audience.

In Ellen Steinbaum's poem "Visitation," the reader experiences an ensemble of voices, where the form using indented lines encourages two different ways of reading the poem until the last two stanzas that counter demand to unite into one voice in a call to join two people romantically. This is much like what one experiences in hearing the different players on instruments with varying tonal range in a chamber group like Three Part Fugue.


I saw the wings first.
.............We were in his kitchen cooking
.............onion soup, a recipe we had each
.............made before, alone. He was slicing
.............onions. I stirred stock, tried to remember
.............where he keeps the skimmer, and
I saw it, an enormous
folding in of wings, dark grey and brown and
startling white against the
falling snow.
.............Carmen had just sung
.............l'amour est un oiseau rebelle.
.............I called him to the window and
.............we stood together long unmoving minutes,
.............willing it to stay.
It was a red-tailed hawk, we later learned by
matching pictures--shape of head and
dangerous beak, size and color, spread of wings.
Later, too, we heard online
the call it might have made
.............though it made none, only stared
.............into us with animal knowing while
.............we held our breath. The hawk, less
impressed, had seen our kind before, watched
for moving food then tired of us,
flew away.

by Ellen Steinbaum
from Brightness Falls

Copyright © 2013 Ellen Steinbaum

Photo byJulie O'Brien shows from left to right Emily O'Brien with contrabass recorder, Roy Sansom with tenor recorder, Héloïse Degrugillier with a base recorder

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September 23, 2014

Sirens & Undertow of Florencia in the Amazon

WNO Florencia in the Amazon 4 Sm1.jpg

If you are a Puccini fan, the siren's call awaits with Washington National Opera's new co-production of Florencia in the Amazon.

On September 22, 2014, the Dresser experienced composer Daniel Catán's opera with the poetic Spanish-language libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain. The Dresser thought she would have to lash herself to her seat or risk being sucked into the lush projections showing Henri Rousseau-like jungles that surprisingly came alive with flying things--birds and butterflies--and, oh, there, in the corner, a shy monkey.

Under the baton of Carolyn Kuan, Catán's shimmering music, while lyrically accessible and sweet, maintains a fever pitch that caused the sirens-singing effect, particularly in act one of this two-act opera with a run time just over two hours including one intermission.

Inspired by the writings of Gabriel García Márquez, especially his novel Love in the Time of Cholera, the opera, narrated by magic realism character named Riolobo (river wolf) concerns the steamship El Dorado traveling down the Amazon River from Leticia to Manaus in anticipation of a performance by the renown diva Florencia Grimaldi. Florencia, who is traveling incognito on the El Dorado, plans to reopen the Manaus opera house.

Most of the characters in this opera are struggling with how to love, including Florencia (sung as a diva should sing with volume and emotion by American Soprano Christine Goerke). After a 20 year hiatus, the opera singer is drawn back to her native country by the memory of a former lover, a butterfly hunter named Christóbal.

The production, directed anew by WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello--Zambello was the creating director for the Houston Opera world premiere in 2003--is co-produced by LA Opera and San Francisco Opera. It has one set--the steamboat that is periodically revolved to show front, back, and sides. What provides scenic variety are projections (like a storm-filled or sunrise skies), deeply colorful lighting, and the river spirits, a company of accomplished artful dancers.

The Dresser offers this list of favorites from Florencia in the Amazon:

This line--"Love was made up by God on his birthday."

The performance of American tenor Patrick O'Halloran as Aracdio, the seasick nephew of The Captain. (Arcadio's dream is to pilot the boat.)
WNO Florencia in the Amazon 3 - sm2.jpg
The story detail that jettison's the young writer Rosalba's notebook into the river and which Aracdio retrieves with the cooperation of the River Spirits who tease first by tossing around the precious notebook. The notebook contains Rosalba's made-up history about the famous opera star Florencia Grimaldi. Rosalba doesn't know Florencia is on the boat but talks to the diva revealing her (Rosalba's) wish to interview this opera idol.

The sparkling rain that falls.

Least favorite element of the production is the costume for Riolobo (played by American baritone Norman Garrett) when he is lowered from the heavens as a mystical bird with spikey wings and pleads with the gods of the river "Do not destroy the world." The costume makes Riolobo look like he has come to destroy the world.

The Dresser provides Gary Stein's poem "The Undertow: Hatteras Island" as final words to this review. Stein's poetic narrator advises to "forget the ways we know" because the ocean's undertow somehow appeals to a deeper yearning for surrender. This is exactly what Zambello's fine new production requires--surrender to the poetic elements with the faith that the storms of love, body, and nature will not kill you.


And as many times as the ocean curls
itself into an arm and slams
me to shore scattering
memory like dice, I bob up, smiling
postcards and snake my body sideways
to the breakers for another throw.

Reason should prevail or the pain
of knees scraping the shore of all
its shells. But I am leaning out, letting
the undertow suck me down the beach,
laughing like pebbles in the foam.

You may say this idiot's dance,
this giddy, numb surrender to the moon
is what we face each morning--
snake eyes teasing with another chance.

It is not. We predict the ocean now.
If you gauge the tides, the wind, and chart
the bottom you can call a wave down
to the inch. But knowing doesn't ease
the ride, doesn't tell you how you'll
hit the sand or when to close your eyes.

Try to forget the ways we know. The undertow
is a kind of yearning. Pretend this poem
is a shell. It is a shell. Gather it
around your ear until you hear surf, faintly,
as far as the moon, but surf. Surf.
Each distant wave carries
further from the beach.

by Gary Stein
from Between Worlds

Copyright © 2014 Gary Stein

Photo credit: Scott Suchman

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September 19, 2014

Isango Ensemble's Magic Flute Pageantry

Pageant. The Isango Ensemble's interpretation of Mozart's The Magic Flute is an elaborate, colorful, and dramatic presentation reaching out to the public that speaks to African tradition and thereby meets the definition of pageant. The slightly less than two-hour love story with one intermission is joyful and dance focused. It is not your grandmother's opera.

A quick summation of the story is that Prince Tamino falls in love with Pamina whom her wicked mother, the Queen of the Night, says is being held hostage by Sarastro. magic fluteSarastroSM.jpgSarastro is her protector and when he learns Tamino is in love with her, he gives Tamino a series of challenges to test the young prince's leadership abilities. Sarastro is looking for someone to replace him as leader of a secret brotherhood. Papageno is enlisted to help Tamino and if Papageno does well, he too is promised a wife.

As the Dresser absorbed the September 18, 2014, performance sponsored by Washington, DC's Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Lansburgh Theatre, comparisons between Isango's creation and Gertrude Stein's and Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts surfaced. Pageant is also how the Dresser would describe Four Saints. However, Four Saints is more a parade, and a religious parade at that.

Founded in 2000, the Isango Ensemble, a nonprofit seeking to work with its "clash of cultures, races, and experiences," selects performers who are at various levels of artistic achievement from townships around its base in Cape Town, South Africa. The Ensemble members work collectively to create each production. Like the all Black cast Virgil Thomson chose for Four Saints in Three Acts, the Black performers of Isango bring something unexpected and new to the opera written by two white men, composer Amadeus Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder. In the case of Four Saints, again an opera written by two Caucasian artists, Thomson said he chose the Black cast--a first in 1934 in the United States--because they had better diction and less prejudice against Gertrude Stein's experimental writing that included such phrases as "Four saints prepare for saints it make it well well fish" and "pigeons on the grass, alas."

Ah, diction. The Isango interpretation of Flute is rendered in English--the original was in German, but the Isango English comes with a South African accent. Few of the Isango players except Zamile Gantana as Papagena and Nontsusa Louw as Papagena delivered clearly enunciated English. Surtitles would have helped but given the pageantry of the production, the Dresser did not occupy herself with the problems of word delivery as she recently had when Washington National Opera partnered with numerous other opera companies to produce multiple English-versions of Flute directed by Harry Silverstein.

In fact, the Dresser didn't focus on how the Isango voices could not fill the Lansburgh Theatre. While Siyasanga Mbuyazwe as Queen of the Night executed a pleasing "The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart," this coloratura aria, directed against the protector of the Queen of the Night's daughter, is supposed to electrify and a listener should feel the Queen's hateful vibration inside his or her body. Instead what the Dresser felt were the energizing slapping of unshod feet on the raked stage and the warm tones of the marimba orchestra that flanked both sides of the raked portion of the stage. Also exciting the airwaves were the players who danced as their mallets hit the keys. And these musicians were alternately the dancers, the actors, the singers showing an impressive display of versatility and unlimited joyful energy. Also inside the listener's body at various times were the beating of drums.

Two aspects of African culture heighten British-born South African theater director-filmmaker Mark Dornford-May's Isango production. The first is the tribal meeting of Sarastro's secret brotherhood showing ritual hand washing and handshaking in a particular order according the rank of its members. The second deals with Dornford-May's program notes detailing the possible connection of an African tale to his adaptation of The Magic Flute. The African tale relates that lightning is caused by the andlati bird, which lives in high mountains. It causes death and destruction during storms. Tamino SM.jpgTo stop this bird, someone courageous must go with a flute to tame the destructive bird. What's unusual is the sound of the flute in Dornford-May's production is actually a trumpet. The more vigorous sound of the trumpet brings attention that this flute, still representing the sound of a bird, is the fearsome andlati.

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