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February 24, 2009

A Scandal in Bohemia, Chinatown & Elsewhere

At this time, the Dresser would like to talk about scandals--as in trap, stumbling block, temptation.


Scandal7.jpgScandal #1, starting backwards in time on Saturday, February 7 at 11:15 a.m., the Dresser encountered three chicly dressed Caucasian teenage girls in a bus station in Philadelphia's Chinatown. As the Dresser entered the waiting room, one of the teens said anxiously, "Are you going to DC?" When the Dresser answered yes, the girl replied, "Good! At least there will be one other white person on this bus."


Scandal #2 on Friday, February 6, 8 p.m., the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the Dresser attended the world premiere of A Scandal in Bohemia, a new chamber opera
Scandal6.jpg by composer Thomas Whitman with a libretto by poet Nathalie Anderson loosely based on Arthur Conan Doyle's short story by the same name. More about this full-length opera shortly.


Scandal #3 concerns the connection the Dresser has to one of the co-creators of A Scandal in Bohemia. In 1998, The Word Works, a nonprofit literary organization of which the Dresser is president, awarded Nathalie Anderson its Washington Prize for her poetry manuscript Following Fred Astaire. FollowingFred.jpgThe Prize included a handsome monetary purse, book publication, and distribution of said book to all contest entrants. Why is this a scandal? By itself, it is clearly an honor and a coveted résumé builder for any poet. However, in combination with a Dressing review of A Scandal in Bohemia, many purists would cover their eyes and ears, saying this is not comme il faut.

In the world of poetry and new opera, the reality is eventually everyone becomes friends or enemies. Unlike the anxious teenager on an outing away from her white neighborhood, the Dresser belongs to the artistic community she writes about and always is in a state of mental Rorschach--opera critic, poetry publisher, or poet writing opera? Who is the Dresser? The Dresser is the perpetual student interested in process and scandal. She believes she can add value by writing about Anderson's and Whitman's Scandal, especially because she collected inside information.


First, the Dresser will provide an executive summary. Running just over two hours and presented concert style with four principle singers playing seven characters, this opera is organized in two acts with a number of orchestral interludes. The story concerns British detective Sherlock Holmes, who is outwitted by an opera singer named Irene Adler. Scandal features one soprano and numerous baritones, including a base baritone. There are surprisingly no tenors, not even in the all male chorus.

The Dresser who spoke briefly to the composer said his musical influences are (and they can be heard in Scandal) Benjamin Britten, George Crumb, Gustav Mahler, and Guiseppe Verde. Whitman.Headshot.gifAdditionally, the Dresser noticed that Whitman has a well-established investment in gamelan music, which was manifest in Scandal by the use of harp, xylophone, vibraphone, and marimba. In fact, Whitman's music for Scandal had many dramatic flourishes accented by percussion, but also by standout parts for the brass instruments and for the winds, especially the bassoon. While the opening bars of this opera are dark sounds by the strings, the prelude to Act II was bright and lively and fully engaged the ear and the body with its vibration. Celebrating its 20th anniversary season, Orchestra 2001, conducted by James Freeman, produced a satisfying concert attendant to the composer's emphasis on sometimes surprising texture created by percussion instruments. Scandal3.jpgOrchestra 2001 Executive Director Ronald Vigue

Many comic moments expressed in the music (as well as the words and story) of the opera bring the necessary lightness and counter balance to the heaviness of the male voices. Markus Beam as Holmes vocally delivered the authority necessary for the great detective, but he was also effective in giving way to his emotions as the detective falls in love with the soprano he is suppose to be investigating for his client the King of Bohemia. Playing the King, a stuttering minister, and the narrator (known as The Reader), base baritone Julian Rodescu, gave visceral punch to his fine delivery. David Kravitz as Watson (the sidekick of Sherlock Holmes) and Godfrey Norton (the man Irene Adler marries in a mock wedding ceremony, a ploy to confound her former lover--the King of Bohemia) effectively plays the two male roles each in the shadow of a dominant character.

An important musical passage found on the Internet and taken from Irene Adler's mock wedding provides an excellent example of how the composer mixes the sacred sound of bells (gamelan-like sounds) with the mostly male voices. In this passage, the baritone voice of the detective (he is in disguise spying on Irene Adler), the comic base-baritone voice of the stuttering minister, the love-struck Godfrey Norton who really wants to marry the singer, and the anxious singer who seems to have something besides marriage on her mind come together with a giddy emotional load.


Scandal5.jpgWithout question though, the star of this production was Laura Heimes as Irene Adler. Heimes has the vocal sureness necessary to be the only female voice among so many baritones. Perhaps this is unfair to note, but Ms. Heimes who was eight and a half months pregnant at the performance immediately drew the audience's attention. When she sat down on a chair in a scene where she, as the opera singer Irene Adler, was practicing the solfège syllables "ma me mo mu," the Dresser couldn't help noticing that those syllables elicited the primal maternal call and, not to mention, the gasp from a woman sitting behind the Dresser who was worried that the soprano was about to deliver more than an aria about the problems of being intimate with the Bohemian King. While the Dresser heard that Heimes held back in the dress rehearsal to protect her voice, in the premiere she demonstrated vocal control of an experienced professional at various sound levels. Most impressive was at the end of the opera when Heimes brought the level of sound down and had the audience attentively leaning in to hear her.

Continue reading "A Scandal in Bohemia, Chinatown & Elsewhere" »

February 27, 2009

Kaspar Hauser: Opera for the Full Body

Because the Dresser wears many hats, her reach is larger than the average critic in the following way. On February 13, 2009 as president of The Word Works, she was in Chicago at the Associated Writing Programs convention where she expected to hear composer Elizabeth Swados speak on the panel "Page to Stage: How Fiction, Non-Fiction, or Poetry Becomes Theater." Moderator Susan Terris commented that Ms. Swados was absent because her new opera was going into previews much sooner than expected and had remained in New York.


In 1985, the Dresser merely known in those days as an undercover poet working for the Federal Department of Justice (yes, she had those credentials that she could flip open like an F.B. I. agent) attended the New Playwrights Theater (a DC theater company now defunct) production of Swados' music theater piece The Beautiful Lady, which focused on the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Despite never opening in New York, The Beautiful Lady won Swados a Helen Hayes Award. The undercover poet loved Swados' music and the whole ambiance of the Stray Dog Café where that story unfolds. Someone the poet was close to in those days (he is now dead) made a bad bootlegged recording of the live show. The Dresser wonders whatever happened to those cassettes, but knows they should have never been made in the first place. Now the Dresser notices that Swados does not mention this work on her website. Swados has clearly had much bigger successes with other work such as her Broadway and international smash hit Runaways.

Officially opening February 28, Kaspar Hauser: A Foundling's Opera concerns a wild child found on the streets of Nuremburg, Germany in 1828. The Dresser saw this high energy and emotionally loaded show February 19 in spite of the fact that producers and directors do not usually allow journalists into a show in previews. But then, on the other hand, the Dresser is not your ordinary opinion maker and had come to New York that weekend to promote Gertrude Stein's and Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts.

In The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser, the author wrote that Americans fear poetry because it puts the reader in touch with his or her emotions and often leads to disclosure. Rukeyser also says poetry contains so much truth and encourages so much communication that people cannot handle the power of poetry. This is exactly the level at which Elizabeth Swados works.


When the Dresser entered The Flea to find an empty seat, she had to walk across the staging area and close to Preston Martin already in role as the chained up teenager Kaspar Hauser. Kaspar was rolling a toy horse on wheels back and forth. Because Kaspar had been kept alone in a dungeon, the boy had not learned to speak. KasparInChains.jpg

KasparsMom.jpgInformed up front, the audience knew that Kaspar was stolen from his mother immediately after his birth. The mother was told he died and the audience sees her grieving throughout the play. Eliza Poehlman as Kaspar's bereaved mom makes a sympathetic performance in this role, but the Dresser wanted to get out of her seat and take the beautiful longhaired woman by the hand and put her face-to-face with Kaspar after he was released from his dungeon into public view.

The focus of Swados' opera, which has a libretto co-written by playwright Erin Courtney, is on communication, particularly as it affects truth. Throughout the opera, the people of the town where Kaspar emerges into the world are swayed by inflammatory gossip about the boy even to the degree that the crowd psychology made the Dresser think of Nazi Germany. Given the town is Nuremburg, site in the twentieth century of the trials for the prosecution of Hitler's leading government and military officials, the leap seems just as likely as thinking the setting with an unfortunate foundling could be Charles Dickens' London.DickensLookSm.jpg


The power of Swados' music in Kaspar Hauser translates as a complete body experience, particularly when the cast known as The Bats belt out and move in a choral number. (The Bats make up the young resident company whose members get selected competitively and who perform in long runs of demanding classics and new plays at The Flea.) Crowd.jpgEven if the floor of The Flea were more rigidly stable, the vibration from the emotionally charged music and words would be enough to shake up everyone seated or standing in the house. In a couple of the mob scenes, the Dresser thinks Swados has created a scary rave where the crowd alternately looks like they are dancing in strobe lights or are raucously pounding the floor with their feet. Maybe like Elizabeth Swados, who had a difficult childhood, the Dresser is susceptible to stories where children are abused. Nonetheless, something more than child abuse happens in this work.

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About February 2009

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in February 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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