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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.

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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.


BARDS STILL SING

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

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.

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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

About February 2016

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in February 2016. They are listed from oldest to newest.

January 2016 is the previous archive.

March 2016 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.