Culture: April 2003 Archives

An excerpt from today's NYTimes review of the "Così fan tutte" I wrote about earlier this week:

But it's not the updating alone that makes Mr. Miller's production so comically sharp and penetrating. It's that with this staging concept Mr. Miller has inspired his winning cast, which includes four gifted young artists and two ageless veterans, to give such vibrant, natural and uninhibited characterizations. The conductor Robert Spano and 35 players from the Brooklyn Philharmonic deliver a buoyant, lithe yet unhurried account of the score, and the 900-seat auditorium provides an ideally intimate performance space. Mozart lovers should not miss the production, which has five more performances through May 4, including tonight.

Time Out New York wants to sell magazines, so it's virtually impossible to find anything on their website, but the print copy reminded me today of the remarkable history of May 1 as a world holiday (except in the U.S., of course), so I owe them a credit even if they make me type the entire story myself. The piece is amazing for its Left-radical slant, although any other would hardly be possible in talking about the history of May Day.

It's nearly May 1, and America's least popular holiday next to National Boss Day is upon us. May day originally began as a pagan celebration, marking the arrival of spring. Toward the end of the 19th century, however, the holiday took on a serious socialist flavor. Maybe that's why May Day - popular in the rest of the world - never caught on here. (Hallmark doesn't print a single card for it, and the company makes a whopping 100 different designs for an obscure October "holiday" called Sweetest Day.) Following a strike by American workers for an eight-hour working day, the 1899 International Socialist Congress officially established May Day as the holiday of the workingman. The day was always marked by large military parades in Communist countries. (The American government, paranoid entity that it is, moved to counter in 1947 by designating May 1 "Loyalty Day." Hallmark doesn't make any cards for that, either.)

And for your further edification, "Mayday" - the distress cry of pilots - has nothing to do with spring, socialism or holidays. It's simply an English bastardization of the French m'aidez, which means "help me!" - Reed Tucker

New York City didn't buy into the Cold War "Duck and Cover" mindset of the fifties, and it's no sucker for the War on Terrorism "Code Orange" threats of the aughts.

A recent poll reveals that New Yorkers are the least prepared for an emergency among residents of America's 10 biggest cities. How can we account for this? Tom Vanderbilt says, in a NYTimes OP-ED piece, "City Without Fear," it's because of a "deep-dyed, venerable spirit, an inner civil defense."

In a city where one has to fight for everything, fighting for survival is second nature. We stock our symbolic survival kits with the enduring idea of New York, which is more resilient than any of its architecture.

I was wrong, or at least wanting, in my information on the general audience dates for the "Così fan tutte" I described last night. The corrected, more extended list of performance dates now appears in the post below.

A few days ago we accepted an invitation for this evening's full dress rehearsal of the Brooklyn Philharmonic's "Così fan tutte," in a co-production with BAM, directed by Jonathan Miller.

Mozart and Da Ponte got it right over 200 years ago, but this very modern staging (public performances are scheduled for April 24, 26, 28, 30 and May 2 at 7:30 pm, and May 4 at 3pm) is absolutely magnificent, enchanting, hysterical, beautiful, sexy, humanistic, enlightened. Highly recommended on every count. Under Robert Spano's direction, the orchestra was brilliant, perhaps beyond anything even lucky New Yorkers should ordinarily expect; Miller's direction incredibly credible and inspired at the same time; the singing extraordinary, both the four younger, new, and the two older, more familiar voices you may already have in your CD library; the acting superior to most straight theatre. The contemporary costumes worked, perhaps especially those of the two "Albanian" chums, one a white, dredlocked, Carribean bopper and the other a trashy, blond, 80's heavy metalist, but the creamy modern sets suffered from an excess of silly drapery, even if the couples' celebratory champagne looked irresistably real.

The theater is the Harvey, a converted Brooklyn cinema, and one of its greatest virtues is its intimacy, at least compared to the convention halls known as the Metropolitan Opera House and the New York State Theater. You actually get to hear and see the singer-actors, and you'll still be able to pay the rent after buying a ticket.

Opera really has become the classical music form of our time. It is once again absolutely the most vital outlet for both composers and audiences, for very good reasons not all related to our increasingly sad cultural circumstances. The elimination of educational facilities, diminishing subsidies and a dramatic decline in the number of venues have all forced a cutback in the number of music models generally available, but opera survives. It even flourishes, fortunately sometimes in innovative shapes which traditionalists would not recognize as opera.

This one however should please everyone. Check out this cozy "Così." If you're just now getting into opera, this really is the time, the place and the song.

For a taste of what people will be talking about and, yes, singing, twenty years from now, not unlike the way that the music of Donizetti or Verdi was popularly enjoyed in nineteenth-century Italy, head for The Kitchen tomorrow evening (Saturday). Robert Ashley is the prophet of modern opera, even if he is still not properly honored in his own country.

We sat in the front row this evening, next to his wonderful colleague, Mikel Rouse, for a performance of Ashley's latest work, "Celestial Excursions," an extraordinarily fresh music-theater take on those we usually try to avoid calling "the old."

From The Village Voice "Choices" section:

Old people--a community so marginalized it doesn't even have a future to look forward to--are the subject of Ashley's "Celestial Excursions," which has its domestic premiere tonight. America's most inventive and ambitious opera composer seamlessly interweaves several natural-language recitatives (performed by Thomas Buckner, Sam Ashley, and Joan La Barbara, among others), pop-song nostalgia, pre-recorded electronics, and "Blue" Gene Tyranny's homey piano playing into what should be a witty, moving, and densely textured meditation on aging, memory, and the great unknown.
From the review by the almost-impossible-to-please Anne Midgette, in the NYTimes:
His five central characters (including himself), seated at card tables with microphones, speak or sing fragments or long episodes of meaningful past, out of context: pieces of story like tiles fallen from their mosaic, lovely and broken.

What he creates is a dream state that's brought into relation to the outside world only through structural conventions. The characters, for example, come together in a meeting at an assisted-living center, with Mr. Ashley as the group leader trying to impose some kind of meaningful order out of the waves of feeling welling around him.

Their monologues are also grouped into episodes that have the appearance of traditional musical forms, if not their sound: a deft, intricate quartet juxtaposing speech and song; a big ballad-aria, "Lonely Lady," which is spoken by Mr. Ashley. But there's never a resolution; the music intensifies, climaxes, ebbs, while Joan Jonas, a performance artist, enacts a sequence of dreamlike images at the back of the stage. Imposing form on feeling is every artist's task; in this piece, age is the threat to this difficult act, and attempts at structure seem like thin walls seeking to hold back shifting sands.

Ashley himself is now in his early seventies, but his music, his texts and his entire conception belongs to all the ages.

Ron English borrows billboards to advertise his politics.

Ron English puts up illegal billboards, so he has only one way of knowing if it has been a good day.

"I consider it a success if I don't go to jail," he explained. He should know. He has had two very unsuccessful days in the past.

You may have seen Mr. English, a 43-year-old father of two, wandering around the streets of Manhattan or New Jersey with a bucket of glue, a set of rollers and a crew of accomplices. He plasters his original paintings in broad daylight on billboards he does not own. This is a conscious decision, because billboarding in the dark would only look more suspicious. "If you're out at night," he said, "it's obvious that you're not supposed to be there."

. . . .

"Ron's kind of a one-man billboard hurricane," said Jack Napier, the founder of the Billboard Liberation Front, a San Francisco-based movement considered one of the first to alter such advertising. "He's done some brilliant stuff."

Two weeks ago, Mr. English pasted up three works in Jersey City, where he lives and paints. One reads: "Saddam's SUV's. Oil Dependence Day Sale." It ends with the Chevy logo and the tag "Like Iraq."

He frankly admits, in his own words, "I guess I'm a criminal. But I don't think I'm a nuisance to society."

watching the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it. So, for now, I think you should go to Bloggy for culture blogs. We dig up the stuff together, but just now I'm not able to focus enough on the art-which-keeps-me-mostly-sane in order to actually write about it, but B seems to manage.

In an interview with the brilliant and gloriously political playwright Tony Kushner, Cleveland Plain Dealer theater critic Tony Brown quotes him on the subject of our unelected one:

"We're seeing this sort of grotesque, illegitimate recrudescence of the Reagan political agenda that was solidly rejected in three straight presidential elections," Kushner said. "Bush started with no political clout after the electoral college fluke and the political theft of the elections process by the Supreme Court. He'd be in the toilet now if he had not benefited tremendously from 9/11."
And there's more:
"He wants to secure oil markets by unilateral military action and give back as much as possible to the very rich. If he didn't start this war and if Congress hadn't given up its war powers, what would we be doing but watching Wall Street swooning, unemployment going up and the economy tanking. This guy is a catastrophe. He's given away the goodwill of the world and turned America into a rogue nation."
Oh yes, we can soon expect to be hearing more from Kushner. One of his latest works-in-progress, titled "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy," is described in the Plain Dealer article as a play about Laura Bush and the nature of evil.
The first scene, excerpted in the March 24 edition of The Nation, features first lady Laura Bush reading from Dostoevsky's voluminous "The Brothers Karamazov" to a group of dead Iraqi children.

It was assembled in love and anger thirty years ago in a world most of us could hardly have imagined, safe in our enlightened beds, until now.

In 1973, at the height of the Apartheid regime, the playwright Athol Fugard collaborated with John Kani and Winson Ntsona to develop the wonderful South African play, "The Island," being staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Harvey Theater this week and the next.

Barry and I were lucky to be in the theatre last night to see the original artists bring their work back to New York, to a society very different from that which originally inspired the work, yet one suffering its own new dark age.

The Brooklyn production demonstrates that the play has lost none of its power, and amazingly Kani and Ntsona have actually enhanced its profundity, without sacrificing its art, through tweaking and expanding the original lines of the final scene, a dramatization of Sophocles' "Antigone," with its magnificent theme of civil disobedience, by two convicts in the penal colony of the play's title. The play now clearly relates to a new authoritarian regime, and it pulls no punches.

Even without the changes in the script, the production would have been a triumph. As it was, virtually the entire audience, having audibly gasped at some of the last lines delivered by the two artists, stood in an astounding ovation to their accomplishment. Kani and Ntsona were nowhere to be seen however. It was clear that they wanted it understood that the evening and the work was not about them, and that it was no longer just about South Africa.

An extraordinary bit of theater and an awesome statement for all times. Don't miss it.

A personal note: In 1974 and 1975, when the play was first produced, outside South Africa of course, I myself was living an extraordinary privileged existence in that frightening and beautiful country. My only exculpation is the fact that I was more than aware of my unnatural status and that I was there basically hoping to learn more about the extremes of both human good and evil, in which I think I succeeded somewhat. Unfortunately South Africans didn't have to travel so far for their own lessons. In reality, of course, neither did I, and today none of us do.

[For a follow-up, on the morning after I originally posted this, see Bruce Weber's review in the NYTimes.]

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