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September 5, 2011

Houston, We've Got a Problem--A new War Opera

Consider this essay a scouting expedition. On August 29, 2011 at the Davis Performing Arts Center of Georgetown University in Washington, DC, the Dresser experienced a reading of a work-in-progress chamber opera libretto written by Heather Raffo. HeatherRaffo219.jpgThe event was co-partnered by Arena Stage and Georgetown University with funding from the Ammerman family.

The as-yet untitled opera comes as a result of the largest single commissioning grant to a Canadian opera company by the Annenberg Foundation in connection with the philanthropic multimedia organization Explore. This grant of $250,000 was awarded to City Opera Vancouver, which in turn commissioned Canadian composer Tobin Stokes and Iraqi-American playwright and performance artist Heather Raffo. Both Stokes and Raffo have considerable success records. Stokes_TobinSM.jpgStokes has had all kinds of commissions, writing not only for traditional music forums but also for television, film, and sporting events. Raffo is particularly known for her performance piece 9 Parts of Desire in which Raffo, both as author and performer, explores the lives of nine women who are either Iraqi or American Iraqi. The play has had multiple productions in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The untitled play--Raffo currently favors the title "Lose the Boy"--is based on the real life story of the American soldier Christian Ellis who returned from the Battle of Fallujah with a case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). singing-Marine_tx300.jpgThe play has nine characters--five are American soldiers, three are Iraqis, and one is the protagonist's adopted mother Colleen. In Raffo's poetic rendition of Ellis' story, USMC Lance Corporal Philip Houston comes to know an Iraqi mother and her son Wissam. This mother and son play counterpoint to Philip's strained relationship with his adopted mother. The playwright's dilemma aired in the Georgetown University Gonda Theatre was whether to end the play with Philip killing Wissam or Wissam's mother. As audience members pointed out in the talkback session after hearing both endings, if Philip kills the son (the more expected action) than the opportunity for the mothers to sing a lamenting duet exists. If Philips kills Wissam's mother, the opera loses its only soprano. However, the death of the mother reverberates more strongly with the difficulty Philip experiences in communicating with his adopted mother after he comes home from Fallujah.

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September 12, 2011

When Verdi's Attila Met Odabella...

On September 9, 2011, the Dresser walked away from Washington Concert Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's Attila exhilarated, and puzzled. How could a concert version of an obscure opera--no actor movement of dramatic consequence, no sets, no props, little in the way of costumes, little in the way of lighting effects--cause such positive response? One might logically question, how can you go wrong with the music of Verdi? Certainly the engaging music coupled with excellent singers and musicians is a good part of the reason for WCO's success with Attila, Verdi's ninth of twenty-six completed operas.

So as the Dresser thought more about the various elements of this performance that brought extensive cheers and clapping from the sellout crowd and how the featured and choral singers were moved interestingly and efficiently around the orchestra, which filled most of Lisner Auditorium's stage, she realized how much credit goes to Anthony Walker, who was not only the energetic conductor but also the artistic director. Antony.jpgIn other words, Walker was the lynchpin for all aspects of the production and he chose stand-out singers like bass-baritone John Relyea to play Attila and soprano Brenda Harris to play Odabella (the woman who kills Attila in this fictitious story about the notorious barbarian who sacked Rome).

Moreover, Maestro Walker is fascinating to watch. His passion is apparent as his left hand conveys a quivering shake or clenches into a fist to emphasize his direction. He also seems to care about every detail and was quite interactive with his singers, turning to them to make sure they were together with the orchestra. Of the twenty-five years that Washington Concert Opera has been presenting programs to Washington, DC audiences, Walker has been in his leadership role for ten. It shows and he attracts an audience every bit as passionate as he is.

Verdi's librettist for Attila was Temistocle Solera, who based the libretto on the play Attila, König der Hunnen by Zacharias Werner. Solera, who wrote libretti for five of Verdi's first nine operas, including Nabucco was known for his anti-Austrian resistance that manifests metaphorically in the story of Attila. The opera with a runtime of approximately two and a half hours includes a prologue and three acts totaling seven scenes. It is set in 454 A.D. in Northern Italy and opens after Attila and his Huns have conquered and plundered the town of Aquilea. In the ruins of the city, Attila meets and falls in love with the fearless Odabella. While he knows she is inhabitant of this town, he does not know she is the daughter of the Lord of Aquilea, whom Attila has slain. She, or course, is out for revenge, but she will play along with Attila's interest in her and even marry him to gain access.

BrendaHarris.pngVocally, Brenda Harris gave a breath-taking performance as Odabella. The vocal gymnastics required of this role are demanding, but Harris seemed at ease and quite able to move between opposing emotional terrains requiring power or gentler reflective contrition. Harris seems to be the old school soprano who has perfected the vocal skills necessary for projection that requires no electronic support. Beyond her voice modulations, this performance gave no indication of her acting ability.

John Relyea's performance of Attila was notable for his ability to show the audience that he was in character. The way he held his entire body with his head thrown back gave force to his deep voice and satisfying performance. Compared to the other featured male singers who wore cutaway tuxedos, Relyea's longish brushed-back hair and dark suit with black shirt made him standout as the barbarian leader. What Relyea did to project Attila made a significant difference since all the other featured singers are male and most (except Uldino, played by tenor James Flora) belong to Odabella's camp or political way of thinking.john relyeaSM.jpg

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September 15, 2011

Feeling Exposed: DC Shorts Dark Side

squeezeSM.jpgThe Dresser loves going to the movies, but she has to admit that DC Shorts Film Festival Showcase 3 created a short circuit that literally made her uncomfortable in her own skin. Starting with the six-minute Australian comedy Squeeze by Will Goodfellow, the Dresser fully expected that the convict trying to escape his prison through a tight sludge-filled sewer pipe would meet a rat but not a mate in a penguin suit. OMG, that light at the end of the tunnel was a new kind of hell that actually needed no words to go with the disgusting action. And besides, the Dresser could barely hear and understand the Aussie patter.


This particular short makes the Dresser think of a story her friend Madam Mayo tells about Paul Bowles who wanted her to understand that he got the meaning of her expletive use of the word gross! Oh, he said, would gross be like the time I was eating in some dark hut only to find I had maggots crawling off the food onto my face? The Dresser thinks there should be a new film category called grossmedy, which might warn people like the Dresser to forego this so-called comic opportunity.

Of the eight films making up the DCS Showcase 3, there were two other comedies--first-time director Heather Scobie's Twisted Proverbs: Candle and Marc Carlini's Worn. Though carefully placed in the lineup of films to neutralize the horror of two particularly heavy stories--Leonids Geshichte and Tattoo (more on these two film soon), these comic shorts are what the Dresser would call fraught. Both films are loaded against a female player, which cranks up the emotional payload of the seventh Showcase 3 film Tattoo.

Probably if the two-minute Twisted Proverbs was played by itself, the Dresser would not give much thought to this tiny film where the punch line about the face of a Chinese man's wife looking like "the south end of a north-bound donkey" had more staying power than her actual face. twistedproverbsSM.jpgOn the other hand, the sixteen-minute Worn is the last film and in it a young woman agonizes over her promiscuous encounters with men as she stands in her closet trying to find a party dress that does not remind her what a wanton she is. Although the Dresser found the conceit of Worn interesting and realistic--women often have emotional behaviors about their clothing and shoes, the end of film was confusing. Wearing every day clothes, Emma tries to redeem the one good relationship she had only to find out that the ex-BF has moved on. He tells her to do what he did after she left him and that was to get in the car and drive away from the life in L.A. As the credits roll, Emma, all dressed up, is at the party her friend urged her to come to as a way to forget her bad feelings about herself. Or at least that's what the Dresser assumes, meaning the protagonist had not changed, that if she can't hook up again with the good boy friend, she'll continue to be a bad girl.

While labeled a drama, TGIF by Australian Brian Lien borders on comedy and seems companionable with Carlini's Worn. The story is about a young woman, out with her women friends, who is made aware that her new flame is in the same bar with her, but she is reluctant to let him know that. The Dresser sees this story as a reverse stalking tale. The young woman doesn't want the new BF to think she is stalking him, but as she leaves he starts texting her until she realizes he sees her. At ten minutes, the Dresser thought this pretty effective short not quite short enough.


Leonids Geshichte (Leonid's Story) by German directors Rainer Ludwigs and Tetyana Chernyavska and Os anjos do meio da praça (The Angels in the Middle of the Square) by Brazilian directors Alé Camargo and Camila Carrossine are animations. However Leonids Geshichte mixes real people and scenery with drawings that shimmer the characters into action. Leonid's story concerns the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. While the nineteen-minute film starts like a happily-ever-after story about a man and wife who want a better life for themselves and their family, it becomes a painful account of what happens to their health as they were exposed to the radiation. The Dresser found the animation format an effective way to tell this modern-day calamity.

Os anjos do meio da praça is a colorful fairy tale that has a Harry Potter feel to it. Three angels in one, or one angel with three faces, (take your pick) fights with a fiery flying dragon and is wounded. The angel falls to earth and splits into three beings. The people of the town where the trinity angel falls build a cage over this set of creatures. On the sideline is a little boy with a conscience who watches all of this. While the angels won't eat human food, they accept boxes of the townspeople's unrealized dreams and in consuming these festering wants and desires, the angels become monsters. The boy grows up and bravely frees the trinity. Magically he becomes a boy again. This film feeds the stories of Tattoo and La Dernière Rondelle.

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About September 2011

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in September 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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