January 12, 2016

Better Gods: Who Was Queen Lili'uokalani?

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

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

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

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

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















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

WHEN ARE YOU NOT

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

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

copyright © 2011 Margo Berdeshevsky


Photos by Scott Suchman

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December 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


STORMY SEAS


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

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


copyright © 2015 Kim Roberts

Photos: Scott Suchman

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November 23, 2015

Kentridge's Lulu-- Bursting All Frames of Reference

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

Putting aside the body of works from which the Lulu opera sprung and evolved to completion, the Dresser notes that the story is about the human body, not so much the arms or legs but the central part containing especially the heart and sexual organs. Kentridge, using animations of his black ink drawings, shows the body, Lulu's body, in various perspectives. Lulu, who goes by a different name for every man she has relations with, is a reclining odalisque or an upright mannequin sometimes wearing a whole-head cylindrical mask and throughout the opera wearing a piece of paper on her breast with lines suggesting the breast. For Kentridge, Lulu is a work of art. Despite a man at the end of the opera telling her she doesn't have enough body for any man because she has too much brain for a woman, the corporal pull is what makes her a tragic figure suitable for opera.
LoveObjectLulu2hdl915,jpg.jpg
Lulu's backstory, which the audience doesn't learn right away, is at age twelve she is rescued from selling flowers in the street by Dr. Schön (Danish baritone Johan Reuter). Or was she rescued, since Schön took her as his lover. Her street partner was Schigolch (German baritone Franz Grundheber) who initially says he is her father but that remains to be seen and certainly it seems he had a sexual relationship with her at an early age.

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

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

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

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

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


THE SUM OF HER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria Terrone
from The Bodies We Were Loaned


copyright © 2002 Maria Terrone
from The Bodies We Were Loaned

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November 17, 2015

From the Ruins of Appomattox, a Second Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN SPEAKS ON THE BURNING OF OLD SHELDON CHURCH, SOUTH CAROLINA, 1865

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

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

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

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

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

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


Adam Tavel
from Plash & Levitation


copyright © 2015 Adam Tavel


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

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October 24, 2015

Finding Family Stories in the DC Immigration FilmFest

The Greater Washington Immigration Filmfest runs this year from October 22 to 25, 2015, in often non-traditional venues in and around the Nation's capital. In the first two days, Dresser saw two outstanding films Buen Día (Guten Tag), Ramón and On the Bride's Side (Io Sto Con La Sposa).

With the current situation of mass migration of refugees, particularly from Syria, into Europe, both films provide timely insight into what today's immigrants are facing.

Ramon.jpgBuen Día (Guten Tag), Ramón by Jorge Ramírez-Suárez is a fictitious saga of a young Mexican man who tries unsuccessfully five times to cross into the United States. A friend suggests that he should go to Germany where this friend has an aunt living there with a German boyfriend. He surmounts the travails of traveling abroad based on a hard-earned windfall only to get the door slammed in his face in winter weather. When he tries to return home, he can't afford the surcharge for returning earlier than planned and so he panhandles in front of a small grocery store where he becomes friends with a lonely old woman named Ruth who gives him shelter and access to the other pensioners in her building. Eventually his luck runs out (he is denounced by a crotchety neighbor) and he is deported back to Mexico.

While Ramón never learns many German words during his short stay in his protector's care, his ability to communicate through dance and willingness to work is so infectious that he earns a lifetime of financial benefit from the ailing woman. One scene particularly stands out where they are both speaking animatedly of their lives and backgrounds without the other being able to understand the words. Ruth details how her father protected a Jewish family during WWII at great peril to himself. Ramón who is not particularly religious sees her as his guardian angel.

A talkback session at the Goethe Institute after the film with Julián Escutia (Mexican Embassy) and Victoria Rietig (Migration Policy Institute) provided invaluable insight about the reality of this film, including the number of Mexicans immigrating to Germany and how successful they are in staying there. While the numbers are not large, at the time this film was made (2013 and released August 2014), not very many deportations were taking place. Now, however, immigration and deportation policies are changing rapidly in Germany and other parts of Europe.

On the Bride's Side (Io Sto Con La Sposa) by Antonio Augugliaro, Gabriele del Grande, and Khaled Soliman al Nassiry is a documentary that was released in November 2014. The premise of the film is a group of Italians escort five illegal immigrants (Palestinians and Syrians) from Milan to Sweden. Using a cover story that they are a wedding party, they travel three thousand kilometers while unfolding the harrowing stories of these refugees. One of the Italians is a newly naturalized Palestinian poet who lets tears fall as he explains that he has never had a country to call home before. The drama of this documentary resides with these unrehearsed immigrants: an old married couple who had never traveled before, a father and his teenage rapper son who barely made it alive from Syria to the Italian coast, a young man who played the bridegroom, and a young woman who played the bride.Bride-Side.jpg

Gabriele del Grande, both co-director and player in the film, provided in-person answers to a large audience at the Washington Ethical Society viewing the film. He said part of the magic of making this film happen was the young woman from Palestine masquerading as the bride wearing a long flowing bridal gown on the entire trip. He said there was only one instance where police approached them and that was as they rode a train from Copenhagen, Denmark, to Sweden. Given the open borders of the European Union, they all knew the most difficult part of the trip would be through Denmark where they would encounter a more conservative approach. However, the Danish police interaction was merely to say congratulations to the bride and bridal party. This was an un-filmed episode that del Grande said they could hardly ask the Danish police to re-enact given they could all be arrested.

Kudos to the organizers of the DC Immigration Filmfest as led by Patricia Absher. The two films seen by the Dresser were greatly enhanced by the talkback sessions following each film.

In "What I Am Taking Home," Joseph Zealberg speaks to the stories of family life across generations and events like war. Both Buen Día (Guten Tag), Ramón and On the Bride's Side (Io Sto Con La Sposa) are rooted in family life, the actual biological lineage and the new bonds under difficult circumstances that become familial as immigrants-refugees enter territories as unfamiliar as the outer space mentioned by Joe Zealberg.

WHAT I AM TAKING HOME

The teal color, the black collar of my father's jacket.
The air around the aluminum cane he leans on
now that he can wield it like an M-1 with fixed bayonet.
Mother waving from the condo's second floor window
as if my son and I were embarking on a spaceship journey.
No buttered warm cornbread or a cherry cheesecake slice,
no purple borscht heavy with sour cream.
Maybe something from the cosmos, the blessing of their eyes.
An old Yiddish tune she sang before the Holocaust.
Dad as a child, hiding in Dirty Eddy's Bar--
watching Tuffy Craig pull a miniature Chihuahua
from the pocket of his old miner's coat.
How "Dog" wobbled the bar, licking a whiskey trail.
And the story of my grandfather, Joseph,
who wanted my father to learn the construction trade.
Too young, Dad looked up at the wooden scaffolding and cried,
I don't want to climb up there, Pop, I'm afraid!
Joseph pranced on the tallest angle of the roof,
laughing, kicking his feet, outlined in clouds.
Yes, my parents--like that. Dance steps on a beam.


Joseph Zealberg
from Covalence


copyright © 2015 Joseph Zealberg

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October 6, 2015

Finding They in As One, An Opera on Transgender

The world of a transgender is confusing for everyone.

o-AS-ONE-CREATIVE-570.jpgIn As One, a new chamber opera by composer Laura Kaminsky with libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, two players are scripted to represent one character that is evolving as a woman named Hannah. At the Atlas Performing Arts Center for four performances in October 2015, As One presented by UrbanArias and developed by American Opera Projects features baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco as Hanna Before and mezzo-soprano Ashley Cutright as Hannah After.

This 75-minute opera unfolds in three parts and is accompanied by an active string quartet conducted by Robert Wood, the general director of UrbanArias. The Dresser says active because the first person on stage is the lead violinist Sarah D'Angelo and at the end of the opera, D'Angelo comes back on stage. The Dresser wouldn't call her playing solos. It was more like a gesture to acknowledge the importance of the music, which is tonal, lyrical, and persistently forward flowing in the way the Dresser hears the music of Philip Glass. During the opera, the musicians are called upon to vocalize and during Part II, they sing a few phrases of "Silent Night." Wood also leads the audience in a recitation of John Donne's poem "No Man Is an Island."

The fact that Orozco and Cutright are aspects of the same character was made visually clear when the two players stand opposite each other in an opening mirror scene. A stand out scene was the luminous projection baritone Orozco effects as he delivers newspapers. His ability to mime riding a bicycle while tossing newspapers and emoting the joy of his feminine qualities is remarkable. His command of his vocal line was equally impressive. The accomplished singing and acting of Ashley Cutright also enhanced his performance.

The Dresser was impressed that the story was not sentimental or overly dramatized. Some of the themes dealt with include family issues (how to tell Mom and Dad), limited sex education, isolation, loneliness, hate-based violence, and moving away (the character takes refuge in Norway). One particularly interesting conceit applied to the story is the act of writing. Part I includes a number entitled "Cursive" and deals with Hannah's teacher who criticizes--the Dresser is going to use the plural pronoun as many transgenders prefer--their writing. In Part II, Hannah writes a letter home (instead of calling) to say they won't be going home for the Christmas holidays. Essentially Hannah is not yet able to explain the gender change. Hannah loves their parents but the parents don't understand what is going on with their child. Part III, Hannah writes a dozen postcards to the outside world and signs with her new name. She feels she has gotten beyond her teacher's criticism of her handwriting.

Behind the singers ran mostly landscape video projections by Kimberly Reed, an independent filmmaker from New York City as well as the co-librettist who contributed some of her personal story to this opera.

The production is first rate. All the parts work together. It is a moving tribute to people who go through gender transformation.

In Sue Ellen Thompson's poem "Home" from her collection They, the reader hears the voice of a mother who is parent to a transgender person. The mother is talking about herself but the edges reach out to her child in confusing ways with words like straight, endless years of grade-school, retreat, circumstances force you, they have to, and the word begins to rise from deep inside. What the straight loved ones of the transgender learn is that language and grammar have a new gravitas. This gravitas about the written word comes across clearly in As One.


HOME

The place your parents brought you straight
from the hospital, where you spent
those endless years of grade-
school. Or maybe it's the place
where you raised your own
children, where you were never alone.
The place you retreat to after the divorce,
or when circumstances force
you to go there. According to Frost,
they have to--but you know the rest.

Who can say for how many weeks
after moving you will lie awake,
staring at the clock-radio, before
you stop listening for the pre-dawn roar
of traffic down your former street--
before the word begins to rise from deep
inside somewhere as you approach
the yellow blinker at Main and Oak,
which, like the porch light your mother
flicked off and on when you and your first lover
were parked at the darkest edge of the lawn,
reminds you where you belong.


Sue Ellen Thompson
from They


copyright © 2014 Sue Ellen Thompson

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October 3, 2015

Karen Zacarías' Destiny of Desire in 3D

As part of the Women's Voices Theater Festival, the Arena Stage at the Kreeger Theater is premiering Karen Zacarías' Destiny of Desire, a comic melodrama with edge. Zacarías' laugh out loud comedy is based on the telenovela, but specific to the Mexican approach, which in the 1970s and 1980s pioneered using this limited run version of the TV soap opera to shape social behavior, such as influencing people on the ideas of family planning. The Dresser, who saw this two-hour (plus 15-minute intermission) performance on October 2, 2015, says edge because Zacarías embraces a Brechtian and Shakespearean frame.

Typically the story of the telenovela involves a convoluted set of relationships. In Destiny of Desire two couples--one rich, one poor--show up in the ill-equipped hospital of Bellarica, Mexico, to give birth to what will be for each their only child. Fabiola Castillo (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey), the rich mother who nearly dies in childbirth, rejects her sickly underweight daughter and demands custody of the healthy baby girl born to the farmer Ernesto del Rio (Carlos Gómez) and his wife. Destiny-of-Desire-Birth.jpgShe bribes Doctor Jorge Ramiro Mendoza (Oscar Ceville) so he can buy equipment for the hospital but Sister Sonia (Marian Licha) is morally outraged and wants to stop this from happening. However, the nun gives in because the doctor says the healthy baby will get a better life with the Castillos who own the local casino while the sick baby who will die from a weak heart will be replaced by the farmer and his wife with another baby. To sweeten the deal, Fabiola promises to hire the poor mother to help care for the stolen daughter. Most of the action of the play takes place 18 years later when both daughters have reached maturity and are ripe for falling in love.destiny-2Girls.jpg

While the melodrama unfolds with the return of Armando Castillo's banished son Sebastian (Nicholas Rodriguez) and the revelation that Dr. Mendoza is in love with Hortensia del Rio (the farmer's wife as played by Rayanne Gonzales), running commentary voices over with such facts as how much money it costs to raise a child in the United States of America and how many Americans are waiting for heart transplants. Yes, Victoria Maria del Rio (Elia Saldaña) needs a heart transplant.

The Brechtian influences can be seen even before the play officially begins as the actors congregate on stage changing into their costumes and interacting emotionally with each other, sometimes showing what a particular actor doesn't want to do as a particular character. Bertolt Brecht's philosophy of epic theater was to shake up the practice of theater arts and one way he promoted this was to have the actor simultaneous be him- or herself as well as the character. The running social commentary throughout Destiny of Desire plays to Brecht's predilection to find ways to keep the audience awake and motivated to think through what is happening on stage so that when the audience leaves the theater, they will act on the ideas and issues presented. Brecht's brand of staging comes through in Destiny of Desire in a barebones set that shows actors and musicians waiting in the wings along with the disorienting use of filmy curtains that move rapidly across the stage. There is nothing static about Zacarías' play.

While Shakespeare was known for convoluted relationships, he was also playing to the audience of his day by feeding them often amusingly presented details involving current events. Zacarías drops in such details and one especially memorable dig against a current Republican frontrunner for president of the United States was packaged as "not the same Donald Trump beauty pageant." The Dresser tips her hat to the playwright for just flashing the annoying reality TV would-be-president mogul without taking attention away from her play, which is both comic and dead serious. The end scene of Destiny of Desire has a decided echo of Shakespeare's As You Like It that ranges from kissing cousins, group weddings, and a woman getting the final say.

The acting is sublime in a way only Latino actors can get the delivery of words, song, and body language right for this particular play without over- or underdoing what is necessary. Kudos to José Luis Valenzuela for outstanding direction. The Dresser was also pleased with the original music by Rosino Serrano and the choreography by Robert Barry Fleming. Costume Designer Julie Weis absolutely got the Dresser's attention in the first dance number where almost everyone. including the men wore attention-getting shoes. The red suede loafers worn by Armando Castillo (Cástulo Guerra) trumped the scene where Victoria del Rio wearing Pilar Castillo's ("daughter" of Armando as played by Esperanza America) evening clothes loses a high-heel shoe in a Cinderella sequence.

So much went on in this play, the Dresser would like to go back and see it again. In fact, that Brechtian stop-action-and-restart technique used in Destiny of Desire was something the Dresser would have loved to impose herself to see exactly how certain scenes flowed so ably.

In "Watching Godzilla in 3D," Miles David Moore talks about the interaction immediacy between audience and monster movie made in three dimensions. What Karen Zacarias does with Destiny of Desire is move audience consciousness into dimensional space that transforms the often trancelike effect of theater to an immediacy that is visceral, such that people around the Dresser were clapping or cheering whenever a moment on stage arose to illicit such reactions. The Dresser thinks Zacarias achieved the 3D effect for her audience.

WATCHING GODZILLA IN 3D

This is your painless dose of shock and awe:
A mile of scaled and sinewed CGI
Arising from a pixel sea. Each claw
And fang engulfs the conflagrating sky.
Tokyo, Las Vegas, San Francisco crumble
In tune to Dolby's all-surrounding roar
As you applaud the glass and stone that tumble
Down from the screen and vanish toward the floor.

You're CGI yourself. On cue you smile
With all the film's insipid hireling crowd
At this tyrannosaurus-crocodile
Whose gaze you're primed to say is brave and proud.
That stomps back to its ocean, having killed
A world you didn't make, and can't rebuild.


by Miles David Moore
published in Poetry Alive, The Iota Poetry Series, 20th Anniversary Reading


"Watching Godzilla in 3D" copyright © 2015 Miles David Moore

Photos: C.-Stanley-Photography

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September 1, 2015

A Midsummer's Night Rave

The Dresser is going on the record to say that Washington, DC's Shakespeare Theatre Company's 25th Anniversary Free For All production A Midsummer Night's Dream that runs from September 1 through September 13, 2015, belongs in the rave category. Shh, she saw the current dress rehearsal of this 2012-2013 revival!

MIDSUMMERS.jpgAdam Green as Puck is outstanding in how he stands. His body language is cause enough for raving. However, Director Ethan McSweeny has conceived the fight in the forest between the fairy-dusted lovers Hermia (Chasten Harmon), Lysander (Stephen Stocking), Helena (Julia Ogilvie), and Demetrius (Ralph Adriel Johnson) in what the Dresser sees as mad mosh pit rave scene where ecstasy is messing with youthful heads. In addition his circus like portrayal of Titania's (Sara Topham) fairies who pop out of many trapdoors in the stage and swing like acrobats from ceiling chandeliers, along with Titania sleeping in an elevated grand piano, reminds the Dresser of what Jean Cocteau did in his film La Belle et La Bete. And certainly Bottom (Tom Alan Robbins), when Puck crowns the pompous weaver with an ass's head, becomes Tatania's beloved monster!

It's an enchanting evening running two hours and 45 minutes and if you are lucky you will snag a ticket.

Salvation is what Theseus, Duke of Athens, grants the madcap lovers of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In a way it's all about appearance and what is acceptable in the milieu in which one live. W. T. Pfefferie 's poem "Salvation" speaks to Shakespeare's Dream from the 21st century.

SALVATION

This place is cool.
This is my coolest shirt.

Let me see what I can salvage
from past scattered moments.

I once believed I was a dream.
A felt hat worn by a rakish angel.

But what I thought was salvation
was really only car wrecks.

Lucky for me, I believe in redemption,
in sins forgiven.

A balloon rising over sandy mountains,
a paper heart cut with crooked scissors.

Something that keeps me warm,
on this, the coolest day of the year.

by W. T. Pfefferie
from My Coolest Shirt

My Coolest Shirt Copyright © 2015 W. T. Pfefferie

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August 9, 2015

The Righteous Girls & Their Composers

If you were a current-day working composer of classical music and the young but technically accomplished piano-flute duo known as the Righteous Girls approached you for a commission--that you would write a composition for them, the Dresser would say leap at the opportunity.

On August 8, 2015, at Washington, DC's Atlas Performing Arts Center, the Dresser heard flautist Gina Izzo and pianist Erika Dohi play ten pieces, all by different composers, from their award-winning debut album Gathering Blue.GatherBlue.jpg

The Girls, dressed in lacy black tights with black camisole-like tops, began modestly with David Molk's "Edge," a work with electronics that features a staccato flute sounding like bird Morse Code with bass accents from the piano. With a more pronounced electronic soundscape, "Anzu" by Ambrose Akinmusire (the only California-based composer in an otherwise all New York constituency) floats momentarily into a passage reminiscent of George Gershwin's "Summertime" from the jazz opera Porgy and Bess. Christian Carey's "For Milton" is a tribute to the late contemporary classical composer Milton Babbitt and it offers a furtive romp of serialism with accents of jazz. The Dresser admits that only one hearing of this piece is not enough to appreciate its complexity.

Even with key mashing (several keys depressed into a noisy crash), Randy Woolf's "Nobody Move" was a favorite composition. Dohi was fully engaged with the scale runs, syncopation, boogie woogie intensities, and the changing tempos. At the end of this piece, Izzo makes her flute sound like we have entered a pinball arcade. The Righteous Girls know how to dramatize as well as rise to the challenge of such experimental music.

For Jonathan Ragonese's "non-poem 1" Izzo plays an alto flute. The sound is rich and sultry with slow piano accents. Andy Akiho's "KARakurENAI" has a shimmering and haunting sound partially created by the pianist manipulating the piano harp. It's a piece with a plucking sound that comes across sounding like restorative rain.

Mike Perdue's "Entr'acte" relies heavily on dubbing because it is for two flutes and two prepared pianos and all the parts are executed by Izzo and Dohi. The Dresser thought this piece would make good accompaniment for a sci-fi film.

"Accumulated Gestures" by Vijay Iyer is a complex soundscape that was apparently so emotionally intense for the pianist that Dohi wrapped her left leg around her pedal-playing right as if to anchor herself to the piano bench. The flautist meanwhile provided percussive sounds with heavily bursts of breath. Lots of drama in this piece.

The final piece of this just-over-one-hour concert was Pascal Le Boeuf's "Girls." This is another prepared piano piece but also where the pianist throws her whole body into the keys using a fist, elbow, or forearm to create sound. It's jazzed and full of thunder.

Like the sleek agile big cat of Vladimir Levchev's poem "Leopard," the Righteous Girls are a rare sighting in a sea of standard chamber music concerts. They deserve bigger audiences than the 20 or so attending their Atlas performance. So the Dresser who knows that Izzo and Dohi have a breakneck concert schedule advises that they network vigorously with the power brokers of new music so that they won't be consumed by an unknowing vacuum.

LEOPARD

This poem is
a leopard skin.

It could be
decoration
of an aristocratic house,
cloak
of a medicine-man,
sustenance
of the moths in a museum.

This poem is the memory
of a rare jungle specimen.

Burned by hungry farmers,
the jungle disappears
day after day.


Vladimir Levchev
from Black Book of the Endangered Species


Black Book of the Endangered Species copyright © 1999 Vladimir Levchev

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July 20, 2015

Ghosts of Versailles: Bigger or Smaller, Comic or Tragic?

The only thing more expensive than opera is war as the old kernel of wisdom reflects and therein lies the most compelling reason for scaling back composer John Corigliano's and librettist William M. Hoffman's opera spectacle The Ghosts of Versailles. Having premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1991, the original full-scale opera, which, by the way, was produced in February 2015 by L.A. Opera with the American opera star Patricia Racette and Broadway powerhouse Patti Lupone, has an enormous orchestra (L.A. Opera had an onstage orchestra and a pit orchestra) and massive chorus.

For four performances in July 2015, Wolf Trap Opera at the Barns of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia, presented a scaled-back version of Ghosts. Director Louisa Muller uses Opera Theatre of St. Louis' compact score that put only 44 musicians on stage.

GhostsCast-400X192.jpg

The Dresser is still processing this wildly extravagant libretto parsed in two acts and running just over three hours with one intermission. This is a case of operas within an opera directed on stage by the dead opera playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (author of the Figaro stories The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro). Beaumarchais is obsessively trying to change history so that the tribunal of the French Revolution does not behead Marie Antoinette. So what emerges is Figaro and Suzanna getting mixed up with Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette who are all in Beaumarchais's play but also in Hoffman's libretto as anchoring characters watching all the multiple stage performances.

Act I is opera buffa and includes a scene where Turkish government official Suleyman Pasha entertains the English Ambassador at a party where fake belly dancing occurs. The lead singer-dancer is over-the-top outrageous so who, except the Dresser, would notice the silly choreography? Need I say that Patti Lupone riding a hot pink elephant got this role in the recent L.A. Opera production? But what boggles the mind is that some how Figaro infiltrates this party dressed as a harem girl so he can gather intelligence related to his former boss Count Almaviva who is being plotted against by the French Revolution villain Bégearss. And who is Bégearss? He is a character that appears in Beaumarchais' third Figaro play called The Guilty Mother which Hoffman uses to compare Marie Antoinette and Countess Almaviva.

Act II tackles the serious problem of Bégearss imprisoning Count Almaviva and everyone associated with him including his wife, her illegitimate son Léon, his illegitimate daughter Florestine as well as Figaro's Suzanna. So the playwright Beaumarchais must get Figaro to rescue them and also rescue Marie Antoinette. The Dresser hasn't mentioned that Léon and Florestine are in love but the Count, enraged with his countess over her affair with Cherubino and their child (Léon), has promised Florestine to Bégearss. If that doesn't make your head spin, then consider the music which embraces neoclassical, Romantic, aleatoric (improvisatory) and atmospheric sounds.

The verdict isn't in for the Dresser on this opera but she will say the only boring moment was a short interlude done with a closed curtain (the orchestra was then out of sight) and not a player on the static stage. The Wolf Trap singers performed well but not in the Dresser's mind remarkably. In the end, the scaled-down version of The Ghosts of Versailles makes complete sense because it allows for more productions.

Ghosts 400X250.jpg

Grace Cavalieri's poem "The Day They Gave Husbands Away" from her new collection The Man Who Got Away brings resonance to the scenic complexity of The Ghosts of Versailles. Cavalieri has the ability to meld the serious and comic together such that the emotional load is both heavy and light. This is what Ghosts attempts to achieve with its buffa first act and its bloody and wrenching second act which ends with Marie Antoinette telling Beaumarchais she cannot be saved and he cannot alter the course of history.



THE DAY THEY GAVE HUSBANDS AWAY


The curtains are blowing the trees through
...........................................the roof
The chill comes through the room
.........pushing the curtains aside
People are hugging outside laughing
.........asking for a ride
The don't know someone is dying
The curtains are red, the color of blood
......... blood lost from the
body's thirst
From the wind comes a note from the sound of his throat
F minor blowing the curtains
................................the color of blood
There are pills on the floor
The door knob breaks off
The fan blows the curtains sharply between them
She twists her hair
......................She rushes to find him
But the curtain has dropped sharply between them
................................Perhaps she will see him
on a Monday across the street in the rain
........or riding by in a cab
...............................or on a Tuesday.

Grace Cavalieri
from The Man Who Got Away


The Man Who Got Away copyright © 2015 Grace Cavalieri

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