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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.

True to her poetic pallet, Nathalie Anderson layered into Scandal her spare lines that repeat at appropriate intervals. Periodically, Holmes sings, "I observe, I deduce, I know." Even without Whitman's lyrical music, Anderson's words sing. Scandal2.jpgAt the end of the opera when Ms. Adler steals the detective's words, "I observe, I deduce, I know," the Dresser was reminded of the eloquent economies and carefully turned repetitions Nat Anderson employs in all her poetry. A Scandal in Bohemia is the second opera (the first was The Black Swan) from this well matched team of Anderson and Whitman (and no, Dear Reader, Thomas is not related to Walt--that was the first question the Dresser asked the composer).

Given that Sherlock Holmes uses masks and disguises while he is investigating Irene Adler, "The Dream of Eros," a poem from Nathalie Anderson's book Following Fred Astaire, could easily be text lifted from A Scandal in Bohemia.


You have a friend who travels incognito,
who comes and goes under cover of dark,
who wears a mask to bed. Out of the shadows,
lilies on the wind, rose petals drifting
into your hands, your sleeping arms: "Expect me

when you see me." (You may as well enjoy
a joke so sweetly double-edged.) In between,
you're left with busy-work--the grains of rice,
the automatic writing, the black river
to swim again and again. You're ready

for the test, for the pool to swallow you,
ready for the night to twist in your hand,
ready to be seared awake, but beauty
keeps itself dark. A ring of braided hair,
breath stirring through your lips: "You'll know me

when you see me." (Another joke, when
every face seems likely, but turns out wrong.)
You've got sentries at the borders, you've got
spies in the alley-ways, but love slips in
and out before your eyes can open.

Always some spoiler handy with a box
for empty dreams, with mirrors to reflect on--
so many faces, so infinitely
superimposed. The trace of a caress
inscribed on your inner thigh: "You'll see me

when you least expect me." Oh sisters, sisters,
congratulate me, be happy for me.
In my alchemical marriage, the dark
beats heavy wings, the arrows are flying,
I lift my face, and love, love strikes its light again.

by Nathalie Anderson
from Following Fred Astaire

Copyright © 1998 Nathalie Anderson


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 24, 2009 3:44 PM.

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