Matsukaze — the Japanese opera from a Chinese director sung in German — opens on Friday, but City Paper stopped in to the dress rehearsal to get a sneak peek of what's in store. Read our preview of the show here, and check back Saturday for our full review.
It was in a darkened theater in the middle of Memorial Day when it happened, suddenly and without warning: mad deja vu. Just as quickly I realized that, no, this was not a figment of my imagination but was in fact the second time this weekend I’d seen a plus-sized, husky-voiced woman remove a red wig while singing an existential lament on stage. Was this a sign — a snippet of visual code layered into the festival by its producers? If so, what was its meaning? And had anyone else noticed it? I scanned the darkened room, eyes peeled for conspirators. Nothing. But you can be sure, I’m now on notice. If it happens again, I’d better win a prize.
The Dickensian Lady Flora’s red wig in The Medium isn’t quite as shocking as Taylor Mac’s, and there’s considerably less glitter on display. But don’t take that as a criticism. There’s a lot on offer at the Dock Street for this umpteenth revival of Menotti’s 1946 opera, a nod to the centenary of the Maestro’s birth this year.
As with Émilie at the Memminger, the set and lighting design here very nearly steal the show out from under the performers (fortunately, The Medium has the benefit of an actual story to support the ample eye candy). Multitasking as both director and set and lighting designer, John Pascoe’s production design is a jewelbox of visual delights — precisely the opposite effect Kneehigh aims for with its concurrent production of Red Shoes.
Where Kneehigh puts the onus on the actors and audience, Pascoe conjures up a visual feast of a room in a war-savaged landscape, all mirrors and rubble and twisted girders. The lighting production for The Medium is especially fine, from subtle diurnal changes to near-cinema-quality spectral visitations. Yet there's nothing real about The Medium; even the characters in it will tell you ghosts and visitations from beyond the grave don't exist, that it's all a trick of the mind. But isn't that what we're here for, after all? To be complicit, like Lady Flora's too-willing patrons, in our own beautiful deception. We're all Flora's fools, paying good money to be conned, swindled and bamboozled, and, like them, we want desperately to believe.
It seems a pity to have to mention Corella Ballet at this point. Their four-part performance at Gaillard Auditorium Sunday was worth a dozen hyperbolic superlatives. In the audience, a mother sat nearby me with her 13-year-old son, a seemingly normal 7th-grader. “I can’t believe you made me come to this,” he complained before the show began. “Ballet is for girls. This is stupid.” During the final piece, the mesmerizing DGV: Danse a Grand Vitesse, I snuck a peek at him. He sat riveted, slack-jawed, eyes wide, PS3 hanging abandoned and forgotten at his side. Lemon Anderson, the producer and solo star of County of Kings, was also in the audience and tweeting during one of the two intermissions. “Magnifique,” he pronounced it. You know you’ve got a class act when you can prompt a prison-hardened hip-hop artist to break into French.
These 28 sleek Spanish dancers made hummingbirds seem like bumbling galoots. Housecats wept openly in their presence. The Roman god Mercury was seen flagellating himself in the shrubbery behind the Gaillard afterward. Angels lit their own wings on fire and sawed off their feet. Corella Ballet came, tossed off three unforgettable performances, and then swept out of town before the weekend had even had a chance to catch its breath. For three short days, the most commonly heard phrase around town was, “I’m not really a ballet person, but...” To speak of them now seems like schadenfreude, mere spite. Best to forget I mentioned it and try to think about something else.
Last night’s world premiere of Émilie, from Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, who knows a thing or two about contemporary opera, was one of the festival’s big events. Anticipation at the Memminger Auditorium was electric, urged on by a spate of brief sneak previews last week and glimpses of the visually striking set. Indeed, the set alone fired the imaginations of audience members on entering: a sloped jumble of interlocking platforms, like the breakup of a black ice floe, over which hovered a bizarre geometry of translucent white quadrilateral scrims, which for those of us in the audience burdened by not-so-fond memories of high-school geometry were an immediate visual reminder of our inadequacy in that department, and had some commentators wondering if they were about to be subjected to an artistic rendering of the SAT.
Some of them were still wondering when it was all said and done. The artistic worth and enjoyability of what transpired for the intervening 75 minutes is open to debate. By some accounts, Émilie was transcendent - musically, lyrically, visually. By other, perhaps more common, accounts, the only drama to be seen Sunday night was in the opera’s dramatic failure to live up to the expectations it had set for itself. As often happens, opinions often broke according to the holder’s affinity for opera to begin with. “I hate opera. And math,” one friend tweeted in mid-show. Others were not so kind.
There’s little argument that it was awfully nice to look at. Director Marianne Weems and video designer Austin Switser used the floating parallelograms to wonderful effect, projecting on them video and images that gave depth and texture to the libretto (of which it could use all it could get): candles, mathematical formulas, a hand scratching out letters with a quill or circles with an ancient drafting compass, flames, splendid images of the sun roiling with coronal eruptions, even an ultrasound of a squirming fetus at one point. Saariaho’s score, deftly conducted by John Kennedy, also garnered lavish praise from most comers. And soprano Elizabeth Futral, who played the central — and only — character in the work, Émilie de Chatalet, wrung everything she could out of having the exotic stage all to herself for over an hour - any performer’s dream come true.
Most critiques seemed to be variations on the opinion that the libretto wasn’t really about anything at all, lacking conflict, character development, or poetry, being mainly a lengthy complaint about being ignored by her lover, Mssr. Saint Lambert, and the kind of stuff one would hear in a high school science class: “The sun attracts the celestial bodies toward it because of its larger mass,” Futral intoned, in a typical example.
A pair of young Festival Orchestra musicians, walking home after the performance, were asked whether they enjoyed the opera. “I’m not sure ‘enjoyed’ is the right word,” one responded tersely. “It’s weird,” said the other. “But it kind of grows on you.”
Marsha Ginsberg has worked on the design of more than 20 opera sets. An installation artist, photographer, and acclaimed visual designer, she’s traveled the world for ideas, but it was a local landmark that recently inspired her set for the Spoleto opera Proserpina. Tuesday night, Ginsberg spoke to a small group at the Aiken-Rhett House about how the 1818 home became the blueprint for the Spoleto selection.
“Proserpina is a very abstract piece,” Ginsberg explained. “It’s based on the myth of Persephone, who’s taken to the Underworld. It’s a dark piece with no possibility of escape.” In keeping with the mythical theme, Ginsberg chose to use the decrepit, albeit once great, mansion as the setting of the opera — and the Aiken-Rhett House fit the bill.
Early on in the production, Ginsberg happened to tour the Aiken-Rhett House, and she was particularly interested in the state of preservation rather than restoration within the house. “There’s a bedroom upstairs with wallpaper that had a pattern on it but white paint over it, it was like seeing the ghosts of what the pattern was before,” Ginsberg said. She loved the somewhat supernatural feel of a home falling apart, and chose to incorporate wilting wallpaper into her design.
The real serendipitous moment, however, was when Ginsberg walked into the main foyer and discovered a bust of the Persephone. Incidentally, the original owners of the property, Governor William and Harriet Aiken, purchased the bust in Florence, Italy during a tour of Europe from 1857-58. The Historic Charleston Foundation uncovered the fact that the statue was originally built in 1844 by Hiram Powers, famed artists living in Italy known lovingly as the “Americanova.” With an omen like that, Ginsberg knew the house had to become her muse.
The statue wasn’t the only means of inspiration for Ginsberg, however. Aiken-Rhett’s crumbling plaster walls, exposed ceiling beams, and gallery skylight all served as compelling pieces to the Proserpina puzzle. Along with her set design, Ginsberg is also the opera's costume mistress, and discussed her weeks of flea market and thrift shopping in preparation for the show. “Clothes are so specific, so we’ve been trying to put Heather (lead singer) in something specific yet ambiguous,” Ginsberg said.
The designer's motivation was to build a set and costume selection that evoked a feeling without stating the obvious. While some directors take a literal approach and suggest that the Proserpina set is hell, Ginsberg said director Ken Rus Schmoll preferred a different approach and Spoleto’s version exposed the Underworld as walls telling time. In this work the chorus, which is typically hidden, becomes part of the action along with the orchestra, which will be visible and seated on found chairs. The challenge for Ginsberg was placing all her Aiken-Rhett-inspired ideas in the somewhat constricting Memminger Auditorium. “I think we went through maybe 15 different set designs,” she said, “with three or four additional changes.” Right now in lighting rehearsals, Ginsberg explained that details are still being modified, and although a few changes are yet to be made, you can bet it will be quite a sight for all Spoletians come curtain.
First there was talk of sharing an opera, now there's none.
Dan Wakin, the classical music reporter for The New York Times, is in Italy covering the Festival of Two Worlds, the counterpart to Charleston's Spoleto Festival USA. He writes that the two festivals are considering sharing an orchestra next year, at a cost that was smaller than first thought. As for an opera, which was the big news during this year's American festival, that's off the table.
Mr. [Giorgio] Ferrara [director of the Festival of Two Worlds] estimated that the total cost would be roughly $300,000 to maintain the orchestra. “The numbers aren’t so stratospheric,” he said. That is something of a turnabout from the festivals’ initial announcement of plans to cooperate, in April, when he suggested that bringing the American orchestra here would be too expensive. At the time, talk was of sharing an opera production, but that is off the table for the immediate future [italics mine]. Perhaps a Charleston production from next summer could be brought here, Mr. Ferrara said, or vice versa.
In Charleston this year, news of the so-called "reunification" of the two festivals had many in a tizzy, including The Post and Courier's Dottie Ashley. Problem is, Ashley took language couched in ambiguity to be the language of certainty. When Nigel Redden, director of the American festival, discussed "exploring" options, he was hedging his bets, as he ought to when talking to the media.
If an opera is off the table, what then is the significance of "reunification" beyond the symbolic? Sharing an opera was the cornerstone of the festivals' partnership before Gian Carlo Menotti left in a huff in 1993. It was what gave the American festival a certain swagger, a glamorous sense of international cosmopolitanism. But now, with this latest news from Italy — that an opera is off the table for the time being — calls into question the whole notion of "reunification."
It also underscores the absence of a kind of journalistic skepticism when it comes to reporting about the arts. As I note in this post prior to the start of this year's festival, the press release announcing the alleged reunification does not say they will share operas.
It says that they “agreed to explore” the idea. It doesn’t say that the American festival will reunite with its Italian sister. The press release says that they “announced plans for the structure of a partnership [italics mine] between the two festivals.”
There’s a difference between a partnership and the structure of a partnership.
Nigel Redden, director of Spoleto Festival USA, was equally cagey in an interview yesterday with City Paper: “We are going to announce some kind of plan, if that’s the word, some kind of framework, for collaboration in the 2009 festival.”
So it seems a bit of caution is to be used until we know for sure what this news means. Bottomline: They will not share money, organizational structure, and many other resources. The “reunification” still appears to be largely symbolic, something, to be sure, that has value unto itself, but something that shouldn’t be over- or understated.