March 25 – I’m exactly the audience for Peter Gelb’s conception of the Metropolitan Opera. Not that I’m so young, but for the 30 years I’ve lived in New York I’ve very rarely attended performances at the Met. I’m a theater guy, and most of the productions there have been stodgy to an extreme. I’m not well-versed in classical music and I don’t follow singers or conductors, so I could care less about comparing this diva to that diva in the umpteenth iteration of the war horses. Most of what I know about opera comes from following the career of Peter Sellars, who favors highly theatrical, high-concept (sometimes gimmicky) stagings of Mozart and Handel operas or brand-new pieces. Since Gelb took over as general manager, I’ve bought tickets to four or five productions, mainly to see the work of directors I admire (Patrice Chereau, Robert Lepage). I wasn’t exactly dying to see Shostakovich’s The Nose – I don’t think anyone is, really – but I got intrigued by the New Yorker profile of William Kentridge, the South African artist whom the Met engaged to design and direct the show, and my friend Stanley made a pilgrimage from San Francisco just to see the Kentridge show at MOMA (which he saw on the last day of its run at SF MOMA) and the opera. So we all went together, Stanley and I and his friends Arunima and Deane.
My first and strongest impression was: wow, at last New York is getting European-style opera productions on a grand scale. Visually, The Nose is a knockout from the moment you walk in the door. Kentridge’s pre-show curtain is a crazy constructivist collage that already makes the room alive with energy, expectation, and historical content (both artistic and political). And the visual invention never stops – now that I think about it, it’s a little like Bill T. Jones’ production of Fela!, a flood of projections, videos, titles, and animations that keeps the visual field alive and interacting with the music and the story at all times (the exact opposite of the traditional park-and-bark style of opera staging). The score is very quirky, dissonant, angular – admirably unconventional but hard for me to love, although it’s exactly what you might imagine a 22-year-old super-talented composer in the thrall of Berg’s Wozzeck. The absurdist story – man has nose, man loses nose, man gets nose back – had all kinds of political and social meanings in Shostakovich’s (and Gogol’s) Russia. A piece of it that resonated with contemporary American life is the public’s mindless fascination with idiotic tabloid news stories (remember the balloon boy?). Paolo Szot’s performance in the central role was certainly a sharp contrast from what his did across the plaza in South Pacific – again, hard to love but admirable. Andrei Popov’s piercing tenor as the Police Inspector was also impressive. But mostly I was dazzled and thrilled by Kentridge’s energetic design, which realizes the artistic ambitions and experiments of Russian constructivist art and theater that Stalin shut down. I especially loved the films of the disembodied nose superimposed on old footage (of Shostakovich at the piano, of ballet dancer Anna Pavlova). Stanley and Nima and Deane had spent a couple of afternoons at MOMA and were excited to talk about the parallels between the opera design and Kentridge’s artwork, among other things, over a delicious dinner at Whym afterwards.
March 26 – Friends and family of Linda Mironti packed out the upstairs room at the Duplex for her show, “La Dolce Vita” (above). Linda and I have been friends for almost ten years – she and Michael Mele run Il Chiostro, whose week-long retreats in Italy include the gay men’s program I co-facilitate, “Come to Your Senses.” Linda’s a wonderful singer, and in this show she tells stories about her Italian grandfather and her years of toiling in Italian recording studios only to find her albums showing up years later on the charts in Korea. She sang a raunchy song about the physical indignities plaguing middle-aged women, which had the audience roaring with laughter. For me, the highlight of the show was the finale, John Lennon’s “Imagine” reconceived as a blues – though when I complimented Linda on it afterwards, she confessed that she stole the idea from Ray Charles. Well, if you’re gonna steal, you might as well steal from the best, eh?
March 27 – I’ve never seen the work of Les Freres Corbusiers before and now, after seeing their new musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Public Theater, I’m kicking myself. I wish I’d seen them all, if they were anywhere near as good as BBAJ. Their program bio describes LFC as “a NY-based company devoted to aggressively visceral theatre combining historical revisionism, sophomoric humor and rigorous academic research. The company is committed to the notion of a Populist Theatre that draws on prevailing tastes and comedic sensibilities to speak directly to the mainstream audience routinely ignored by the American Theatre. Les Freres rejects the shy music, seamless dramaturgy and muted performance style of the 20th century in favor of the anarchic, the rude, the juvenile, the spectacle.” How’s that for a manifesto? It’s 100% accurate. The visceral begins when you walk in the door. I’ve been seeing shows at the Newman for 30 years, and I’ve never seen that space so transformed from wall to wall into an intimate nightclub ambience, a la Blue Man Group, with cool enough pre-show music that Andy and I were constantly checking Shazam to see what was playing (Spoon, Tegan and Sara, A.C. Newman). The show is indeed a historical pageant about the former POTUS (a renowned yahoo populist who rode into the White House on a flood of anti-government resentment) delivered in a totally burlesque, history-for-dummies style: hyped-up, anachronistic, slangy, no-joke-too-dumb, ADD to the max, stuffed full of music played by an onstage rock band, some songs lasting 30 seconds, Saturday Night Live meets Spring Awakening on speed. It’s the kind of thing I might usually abhor…and yet it captivated me, entertained me, enlightened me, and made me think. Although it seems to be recycling LCD humor, that’s a kind of pose – its aggressively relentless barrage of cultural references (from Michel Foucault to Valtrex) and edgy joking reminded me less of bad improv comedy than of smart rock bands like Of Montreal. (For example, there are very few characters who aren’t portrayed as big fags at one point or another, from Martin Van Buren and John Quincy Adams to AJ himself. This kind of gay-as-automatic-laugh-line could very easily grate on my nerves but is taken to such extremes here that it’s hilarious.) And I learned a lot about the crazy chaos of early American history. If I ever learned it, I hadn’t remembered that Jackson created the Democratic Party, outraged by the elitism of Republicans (!!). I’d been associating Jackson with George W. Bush but in this president-as-rockstar retelling he uncannily conjures Obama at times. But the piece doesn’t take one point of view or settle for easy parallels. The “serious” content of the piece is in constant contrast to the “silly” style, which I love. I’m totally impressed by Alex Timbers, the writer-director. Michael Friedman’s music rocks, and the performers – from Benjamin Walker as Andrew Jackson on down – give it their all.