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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.


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)

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.
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.
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."


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

About November 2015

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in November 2015. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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