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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May 23, 2016

Siegfried: An Opera Framed in Flame

The expectation upon deciding to experience the four operas of Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung is that the operagoer attends consecutive performances. Washington National Opera presented three cycles of the four operas from April 30 to May 22, 2016, running each cycle within a week or less. Given that some attendees show up wearing Viking headgear--helmets with a pair of bovine horns, the Dresser thinks that attending The Ring operas is something like a convention for Rocky Horror Picture Show fans. People love The Ring operas so much, they want to participate beyond being a lump of skin and bones sitting for endless hours in the audience. That said, the Dresser divided her time between the opening nights of The Rhinegold (April 30) and The Valkyrie (May 2) and the end performances of Siegfried (May 20) and Twilight of the Gods (May 22).

Of the four operas, Siegfried, a four-hour and fifty-five minute event (with two two intermissions totaling 75 minutes) about a teenage boy who becomes a super hero--but mind you he is mortal--is the Dresser's least favorite. The three acts, while suffused with glorious music under the baton of the much beloved Philippe Auguin, are textually tedious. Despite the Dresser's prejudice, Francesca Zambello's Siegfried was an outstanding last performance, made so by all the theater arts employed--excellent casting of singers who could act with convincing movement, stage sets, lighting, special effects, and glorious projections.

What an operagoer needs to know before understanding what happens in the three acts of this opera, is:

  Siegfried .jpg

--Siegfried (Daniel Brenna) is the offspring of the God of Gods Wotan's mortal twins Siegmund and Sieglinde. We met the twins in The Valkyrie. Sieglinde was pregnant with Siegmund's child and had to flee Wotan's wrath. Because of his marital infidelities and the righteous anger of his wife Fricka, Wotan (Alan Held) was forced to kill his only son.

--Eighteen years have gone by since The Valkyrie. Sieglinde has died in childbirth and turned over her son to the Nibelung Mime (David Cangelosi) who hopes to use Siegfried to conquer the giant Fafner (0Soloman Howard) and recover the gold that Mime's brother Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) stole from the Rhine maidens.

--Fafner has transformed himself into a dragon to guard the gold he was given by Wotan in payment for building Valhalla. (Wotan stole the gold from the dwarf Alberich who stole the gold from the Rhine maidens.)

--Meanwhile Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme), punished by her father Wotan for not following his orders to kill Siegmund, lies sleeping in a ring of fire. She awaits the mortal man who will brave the fire, wake her up, and claim her as wife. In this rescue, she will become mortal. (She is the offspring of Wotan and the goddess Erda.)

Act I establishes that Mime hopes to use Siegfried to vanquish the dragon that Fafner has become given that he owns the Tarnhelm, a magic swath of gold netting that allows the person wearing it to become something else. The catch is that Siegmund's broken sword needs to be reforged and Mime is not equal to the job. Wotan in disguise and known as The Wanderer shows up and conducts a battle of wits with Mime. The upshot of this visit is that Wotan tells Mime that only a person without fear can reforge the sword and that person will kill Mime. Mime is then conflicted because he knows that only Siegfried can do the job of both fixing the sword and killing Fafner. Mime attempts to teach Siegfried fear and doesn't succeed. Siegfried forges the sword and then leaves their trailer encampment to slay Fafner and reclaim the Rhine gold. As insurance against his own death, Mime has prepared a poisoned drink for Siegfried.


What stood out in this act were the antics of David Cangelosi as Mime (he turns cartwheels and dances on the roof of the trailer they are camped in) and Daniel Brenna as Siegfried (he is good at effecting the behavior of rowdy teenage boy who slaps at Mime and swaggers at his own prowess).

Act II opens with Mime's brother Alberich keeping watch over Fafner because he wants to reclaim the gold. Wotan appears and warns Alberich that Mime is plotting to get the all-powerful ring. Wotan awakens Fafner, who has become a mechanical dragon. Alberich attempts to cut a deal with Fafner so that Alberich will warn him that Siegfried is coming but Fafner isn't subscribing. When Siegfried arrives, Mime attempts to make Siegfried fear the dragon but the young man sends Mime away. Siegfried then learns how to communicate with birds which proves extremely useful since one particular bird then warns him about Mime's treachery. By the end of Act II Siegfried has killed the dragon; taken possession of the gold, the ring, and the Tarnhelm; and learned about where to find his soul mate Brünnhilde. This boy might be cocky but he is very lonely since he got no nurturing from Mime.

Fafner Machine.jpg

What the Dresser absolutely adored in Act II was the performance by Jacqueline Echols as the Forest Bird. Her red costume by Catherine Zuber is eye-catching. However, it is the music that Forest Bird sang so well that called so much attention to this character.

One aside about Fafner as the mechanical dragon: the Dresser, ever since she saw this mechanical dragon the 2009 production of Siegfried, has thought the dragon was clunky. In fact in 2009, it even broke down causing the dress rehearsal to be off-limits to a public audience. While the Dresser was waiting to enter the Kennedy Center opera house, a neighbor of hers struck up a conversation that produced the following gem. She too hated the mechanical dragon. Why not make the monster, cars from the Washington subway system? After all, they too have spewed fire and caused death. Given that Zambello has put an emphasis on current day artifacts like photos of real American soldiers who have fallen in battle, why not make a statement about the sorry state of affairs with the DC subway system?

Act III opens with Michael Yeargan's simple but elegant set as Wotan seeks Erda's help up on her mountain. He knows the gods are in for a disastrous end. She tells him to get guidance from their daughter Brünnhilde. However, Erda shuts down once Wotan tells her about how he has punished Brünnhilde. Before she parts company with him, Erda hears Wotan say he will give Siegfried control of the world. Then Siegfried shows up and the two men have an altercation. Siegfried accuses Wotan of killing his father (true) and Siegfried shatters Wotan's spear. The act (and opera) ends with Siegfried braving the fire to find the sleeping Brünnhilde. He awakens her and then begins the dance of courtship. While she tells him she always loved--even before he was born (a revelation that does not deter Siegfried), she says she is not worthy of such a hero as he.

The performances of Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde and Daniel Brenna as Siegfried made for a wrenching emotional experience. The psychology of these two as lovers requires perspective because the operagoer has to keep in mind that while she is a virgin (she tells us she has never been touched by the gods), her knowledge of the world from having been a god is vast compared to the super hero but mortal Siegfried who led a sheltered life with the unethical and unfatherly Mime.

Throughout Siegfried, the Jan Hartley/S. Katy Tucker projections before and between the acts and scenes continued to be every bit as interesting as those seen in the first two Ring operas. The Dresser was particularly attentive to those appearing in the third act which included landscapes spelling out the 21 century problem of environmental pollution.

In Marilyn McCabe's poem "The Dark Is Shifting Almost Imperceptibly," the title alone foreshadows what will happen in Twilight of the Gods. But of course the poem itself broadens the experience of these two doomed lovers who at this moment in The Ring cycle are hoping for the best, even as Wagner's grand music is expressing the possibility that more than flames (be they flames of Siegfried and Brünnhilde's passion or the actual flames that are protecting her from cowardly men) will light the way.


toward you. I know that much
of endings. As usual I'm mistaken,
though, about what's moving.

Not the dark onward but you
and I falling toward it, and sometimes
it is beautiful, framed in flame,

and some days, as today, obscure.
Hymn will lead you
humming. I hope.

by Marilyn McCabe
from Glass Factory

"The Dark Is Shifting Almost Imperceptibly" copyright © 2016 Marilyn McCabe

Production Photos by Scott Suchman

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May 7, 2016

The Valkyrie: A Vex Me, Hex Me Study of Strong Women

On the heels of Washington National Opera's fine production of Richard Wagner's opening Ring Cycle opera The Rhinegold conceived and directed by Francesca Zambello, the Dresser saw The Valkyrie on May 2, 2016. The role of Brünnhilde (and yes, Dear Reader, she is The Valkyrie) was sung by the incomparable Christine Goerke because the scheduled soprano Catherine Foster was injured in rehearsal some days before.

Catherine Foster as Brunnhilde Alan Held as Wotan.jpg

Perhaps because of this last minute substitution of Goerke who sets the performance bar high, the overall cast performance was several notches above the satisfying performances delivered in The Rhinegold by such singers as Alan Held (as Wotan) and Elizabeth Bishop (as Fricka).

Christine Goerke - photo by Pierre Gautreau Photography.jpg

Zambello's Valkyrie runs five hours and ten minutes with two long intermissions (40 and 35 minutes). This is not opera for sissies or for someone who dresses uncomfortably. Also the subject matter is rather racey. The Valkyrie deals with incest, adultery, a father killing his son, and a rather strange intimacy between a father and daughter.

What an operagoer needs to know before understanding what happens in the three acts of this opera, is:

--Fafner (the giant seen in The Rhinegold) has transformed himself into a dragon to guard the gold he was given by Wotan in payment for building Valhalla. (Wotan stole the gold from the dwarf Alberich who stole the gold from the Rhine maidens.)

--Committing adultery with the Earth goddess Erda, Wotan has fathered Brünnhilde.

--Wotan has also sired eight more daughters known as the Valkyries with an unnamed goddess who might also be Erda.

--To cap off his infidelity to his wife Fricka, Wotan has also fathered the twins Siegmund (Christopher Ventris) and Sieglinde (Meagan Miller) who are not immortal since their mother was a mortal being.

Act I depicts the twins meeting as young adults as Siegmund, who is wounded, is fleeing from the kinsmen of a woman whom Siegmund rescued from a forced marriage. The twins were violently separated in childhood when Sieglinde was kidnapped and later forced into an unhappy marriage with a brute name Hunding (Raymond Aceto). Immediately the twins are drawn to each other until it finally becomes clear that they are brother and sister. However, the attraction is sexual and weirdly neither of the twins find this morally unacceptable. The act is a long one and sees Hunding returning home only to discover that the man he and his friends are hunting is in his house. He chains Siegmund up and goes to bed with a nightcap that Sieglinde has laced with sleeping potion. Sieglinde then frees Siegmund and tells him about a sword thrust by an old man into an ash tree that no one has been able to remove from the tree. Siegmund knows instantly that this is the sword his father promised him. So Siegmund claims the sword from the tree and his sister from a bad man.

In Zambello's production, the staging is remarkable for the fire burning in front of Hunding's house. This fire takes on metaphoric significance not only for the kindling of the physical love between the twins but also for the wall of fire that will protect Brünnhilde from just any man trying to claim her as his bride. The Dresser also admires Michael Yeargan's set for the flyaway front of Hunding's house so that we, the audience, can enter his house.

Now backing up for a minute, the Dresser will talk about the use of projections between the acts. As the lights dimmed indicating the start of the opera, the Dresser has wondered if she would still like the concept of projections. And, yes, the variety and organic-ness of images shown--like a wolf--running through the forest--worked very well. In the case of the wolf, Siegmund says in trying to keep his identity under check, "Wolf was my father."

Act II is divided between two locations. At Valhalla, Wotan tells Brünnhilde, his confident, to ensure that her half brother Siegmund defeats Hunding, but Wotan's wife Fricka shows up and demands Siegmund's death saying incest cannot be tolerated. Wotan, then changes his orders to Brünnhilde.

In the forest where the twins flee, Brünnhilde visits Siegmund to tell him he will die but then is swayed by Siegmund's love for Sieglinde. Hunding fights with Siegmund, but Wotan appears and breaks Siegmund's sword allowing Hunding to kill Siegmund. However, Wotan then kills Hunding while Brünnhilde escapes with Sieglinde and the broken pieces of Siegmund's sword.

At the center of this lethal flurry is the wrath of Fricka. As the protector of marriage, she has demanded Siegmund's death. Siegmund has disrupted the marriage between Hunding and Sieglinde. Siegmund, who is calling his sister Sieglinde his bride, is committing incest. But through no fault of his own, Siegmund is the offspring of Wotan's illicit relationship with Erda. It is clear that Wotan loves his son, and that Fricka is both furious with and jealous of Wotan who has produced all these children who are not hers. By having Fricka stand silently on a hill observing, Zambello makes it clear that Fricka is the cause of Wotan's agonies--the death of his son Siegmund and the punitive anger against his favored daughter Brünnhilde. Costume designer Catherine Zuber punches up Fricka's anger by having her appear in two red dresses. At Valhalla, Fricka's red-accented dress stands in noticeable contrast to the muted gray-black clothes worn by Wotan and Brünnhilde. However, in the forest, Fricka's all-red dress makes her stand out as she burns with righteous anger.

Act III introduces Brünnhilde's eight sisters, the Valkyries who parachute on stage bringing news of fallen heroes. Zambello uses this scene to pay tribute to real American soldiers lost in battle. Each sister carries in a portrait of an American soldier killed in recent times. The Dresser also wants to acknowledge that among the Valkyries is mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti who is making her Washington National Opera debut as Siegrune. In 2005, Gigliotti played Gertrude Stein in Karren Alenier's and William Banfield's jazz opera Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On, which was developed and premiered by Nancy Rhodes' Encompass New Opera Theatre.


When Brünnhilde and Sieglinde arrive seeking protection of this army of Valkyries, the sisters, fearing Wotan's wrath, turn them away. Brünnhilde makes Sieglinde run to Fafner's forest where she believes Wotan will not follow. Wotan appears and condemns the daughter he loves above all others, almost as if she were his lover, saying he will divest her of her immortality, put her to sleep, and allow the first mortal man to awaken her to claim her as his bride. Brünnhilde begs her father to surround her with a ring of fire to ensure that the man who wakes her up will be worthy. The Dresser was awe struck by the fire on stage and worried that this spectacularly directed, casted, and staged opera would burn down the Kennedy Center.

Brunnhilde Fire.jpg

In Cheryl Clarke's poem "next (french film after the euro)," the reader meets an emotionally charged narrator filled with jealously of the lover's husband. Money is involved. What the poem doesn't reveal is that the narrator could be a woman and therefore the adulterous relationship could be between two women, further complicating the emotional state. The poem depicts a situation that plays resoundingly against Fricka's outrage and Brünnhilde's complicated relationship with her father. For the Dresser, the question remains about why Wotan allows Fricka to dictate his actions against his beloved children. Does he still love his wife? Or is he driven by moral edict to punish himself for his failure to prove himself stronger than the giant Fafner who has Alberich's cursed ring of power?

next (french film after the euro)

you kiss me deeply by ourselves and next
in front of me kiss your husband deep-
ly too for that stock tip. your tongue digs deep creep-

ing under on top diving swimming locking and
the acrid sweet of your spit. so deep next suction lock/auction
block ..then the long trip (voyage longue)

down onto the Tunisian runner of bright coloration leg
resting on the rung of that squat leather tufted bar stool more
comfortable in romance than in the language of trade

and need next to someone so strung out and onto the vortex em
seguida alors, alors
vex me. hex
me. proteja-me tongue me c'est à qui next

to each other (sans mari). no text like a tongue. only the text-
ure of tongues next tongues deep (avec mari).
em seguida. alors, alors. vex me. hex me.
proteja-me .. tongue me .. c'est à qui

by Cheryl Clarke
from By My Precise Haircut

"next (french film after the euro)" copyright © 2016 Cheryl Clarke

Christine Goerke--photo by Pierre Gautreau
Production Photos by Scott Suchman

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May 2, 2016

Rhinegold & the Value of a Woman

What is the value of a woman? How many bags of gold must be piled up to hide one woman so she cannot be seen? What about the man of a certain size who dons a gold head covering and then, to prove his power, he becomes a toad?

The Dresser asks in our current political climate, could we be talking about real estate mogul Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the Presidential Republican nomination? Or are these surreal scenes from Richard Wagner's opening Ring Cycle opera The Rhinegold seen by the Dresser on April 30, 2016? Washington National Opera's Artistic Director Francesca Zambello has updated the four operas of The Ring of the Nibelung to more current times. Let's say this is the turn of the 20th century at the time when the first skyscraper was built and people were buying and driving their first automobiles. Women still didn't have full voting rights in the United States and were under legal domination by their fathers or husbands. Clues of this time include the entrance by the giants lowered to earth on a steel girder and the white clothing worn by the gods that look like the dust coats worn for driving as well as the fashion of the early 1900s.

Scott Suchman -Gods in white.jpg

Now let's look at the story of The Rhinegold.

Scene1: A dwarf named Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) lustfully chases the three beautiful Rhine maidens until he renounces love in favor of stealing their gold. Why? Because they reveal to him that if their gold is made into a ring, the person owning it will be all-powerful. But the catch is that the stealer of the gold must renounce love.

Scott Suchman -Giants on Girder.jpg

Scene 2: Meanwhile, the chief god Wotan (Alan Held) has gotten himself into trouble by promising the two giants Fasolt (Julian Close) and Fafner (Soloman Howard) who have built Valhalla, his new home--his sister-in-law Freia (Melody Moore) as payment. Yes, she is the woman whose value is measured by how many bags of gold it takes to hide her. What's more she is goddess of youth so if the gods lose Freia to the giants, then they will lose their eternal youth. While Wotan's wife Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop) berates Wotan for trading away her sister, Freia's brothers Donner (Ryan McKinny) and Froh (Richard Cox) snap into action but to no avail. However, the fire god Loge (William Burden) suggests that Wotan steal Alberich's gold. Taking Freia hostage, the giants say they will come back that evening for the gold.

Scene 3: Pleased with himself, Alberich terrorizes his underground community and plays with the Tarnhelm, an invention by his brother Mime (David Cangelosi). It's a golden chain-mail helmet with magic power that allows the wearer to transform himself. You guessed it--this is the man of a certain size who puts on the gold head covering and transforms himself at the trickery of Loge. This allows Wotan to grab Alberich cum toad and drag him from his caverns of Nibelheim up to earth.

Scott Suchman -Dwarves.jpg

Scene 4: And, yes, now Wotan steals the gold, the gold ring, and the Tarnhelm from the imprisoned Alberich. However, the dwarf casts a curse on the ring which means anyone who takes possession of it will suffer trouble, envy, and death. When the giants return they demand that Freia must be entirely hidden from view by the gold and then they also demand the Tarnhelm and ring since they can still a twinkle from Freia's eyes. Wotan doesn't want to give up the ring but the earth goddess Erda (Lindsay Ammann) magically appears and severely warns Wotan to give up the cursed ring or face the consequences. The last beings on stage are the Rhine maidens now covered with mud because they have lost the radiance of their gold.

The Dresser, who is not a big Wagner fan, loved this production and had seen Zambello's earlier version done by Washington National Opera in 2006. Among the enhancements are the rich projects that fit right in with Wagner's philosophy of making his opera flow seamlessly. As the projections begin, the Dresser thought amoebas and the underwater puppetry of Basil Twist. The imagery just flowed into the mists of the Rhine where the the three Rhine maidens Woglinde (Jacqueline Echois), Wellgunde (Catherine Martin), and Flosshilde (Renée Tatum) frolicked in yellow light. It seemed like an enactment of an Antoine Watteau painting. Even the scene in the caverns of Nibelheim are rich with painterly color--this time orange--and energy. Projection makes it possible to see Alberich changing himself first into a scarily large serpent.

The Dresser's favorite player was William Burden as the fire god Loge. His antics particularly enlivened scenes 2 which the Dresser found overall too static and talky. Wagner has a way of overdoing recitative and so the burden falls to the director and the players to spice things up.

The orchestra under the baton of Philippe Auguin pleased with its sound variety, including the always surprising chorus of anvils.

The Rhinegold has a run time of just over two and half hours without intermission. The time flowed beautifully.

In "Two Chairs," Kajal Ahmad's searing commentary on the plight of women without equal rights, conjures in part 1 the image of the Rhine maidens in the last scene of The Rhinegold as well as gives a hint in part 2 of earth goddess Erda who reiterates to Wotan that the Nibelung ring is cursed. Could the speaker of "Two Chairs" be talking about love? Perhaps the love that Freia felt for the giant Fasolt?

Two Chairs
News of my dark days:
not drunk, not dim,
they won't listen
to song. My sobbing
is their music. I laugh through

tears until, cackling,
the red creek bursts. I cry
through laughter until
I am mad, confusing happiness
for misfortune.

An optimist, am I
allowed to ask, "What do you want
from me?" Look here,
a Middle Eastern man sits
on a chair of my virtue.
He crosses his legs.
Each foot says, one hundred times,
"On my honor"--ay, the rotted honor
of a Middle Eastern man.

I walk the sky. I carry
the ball of earth
in this small, heavy
head of mine.

I walk the earth
and he sits
in my head.

This chair is gold, or is it
woven strands of hair?
I don't know.

The chair's feet
penetrate my soul,
my veil--I can't sit--
it must not break--
he shatters me--
he sits--

by Kajal Ahmad as translated by
Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, Mewan Nahro Said Sofi, Darya Abdul-Karim Ali Najm, with Barbara Goldberg, Series Editor, The Word Works International Editions

from Handful of Salt

"Two Chairs" copyright © 2016 Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse

Photos by Scott Suchman

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April 17, 2016

2016 Split This Rock Poetry Festival - Day 3

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Check out their website to see details and a short film on the work by the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop:

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April 15, 2016

2016 Split This Rock Poetry Festival - Day 2

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

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

SarahBrowning-John Rosenwald.jpg


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



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

"A Small Needful Fact" copyright © 2016 Ross Gay

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


Then group number 6 went out on the streets.


This group of photos includes South African poet Mantombi Mbangata.


Here's another Poem of Love & Welcome:

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

Then he explained
how the Buddha

instructed us
to reflect on the body

our skin
our hands and feet

our body hair
our nails and teeth

our noses
our eyes

our minds
our hearts

so that we can see
ourselves clearly

in every person
no matter where

-Nahshon Cook

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

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

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April 14, 2016

2016 Split This Rock Poetry Festival - Day 1

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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March 11, 2016

Celebrating The Edith Poems

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

"Dusk" copyright © 2016 E. Louise Beach

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February 25, 2016

Classical Nightclub: KC Jukebox 2

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moira Egan
first appeared in Birmingham Poetry Review

copyright © 2015 Moira Egan

Photos by Scott Suchman

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February 13, 2016

We are Still Lost in the Stars

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

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

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

The leader.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Donna Denizé
from Broken like Job

copyright © 2005 Donna Denizé

Photos by Karli Cadel

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