The Classical Style

Last night Dave and I went to Hertz Hall on Berkeley campus to hear The Classical Style, a very silly one-act opera based — if that’s the word for it — on Charles Rosen’s book about the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The tickets were a gift from old friends who saw it at the Ojai Music Festival last week, enjoyed it, and apparently figured that if anybody else would enjoy it, too, Dave and I would. They were right; Dave and I howled with delighted laughter through the whole thing.

It’s not an opera for everyone, that’s for sure. The piece is full of jokes and loopy references that take a certain knowledge of classical music to get. (If you like Anna Russell and P.D.Q. Bach, you’d probably enjoy this.) I don’t think you’d have to have actually read Rosen’s book, but it sure doesn’t hurt. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are themselves characters (stuck in heaven playing Scrabble for all eternity), as is Charles Rosen himself; there are also characters named Dominant, Tonic, and Subdominant (who go into a bar), as well as a mysterious, wandering stranger who wears a trench coat and eyepatch and who turns out to be The Tristan Chord. Characters from Don Giovanni wander in and out of the action as well, as does a nerdy young musicologist whose analysis of Giovanni has all too antierotic an effect on the Don himself. And many other characters as well, all played by a cast of eight who are kept busy doubling parts all over the place.

There is also a hilarious portrayal of an academic symposium on the sonata form, constructed as a great big movement in you-know-what.

The whole thing is an extended prank, but the invention and wit never let up.

To fill out the evening, the opera is preceded by a really splendid performance of Haydn’s “Rider” string quartet. Totally enjoyable evening.

One more performance tonight. There were tickets on Goldstar yesterday.

Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at SF Symphony

Dave and I just got back from hearing this. Wow! A favorite opera of mine, really wonderfully performed and sung. Just one more performance Saturday night! Go if you can!

It’s a strange one-act opera, surreal and hard to get a handle on, but one that I enjoy more and see more deeply into every time I hear it. Duke Bluebeard brings his new wife, Judith, home to his castle. The castle, she finds, is dark, damp, and windowless. There is a great hall, however, with seven large doors, all locked. Judith demands the keys so that she can open the doors and bring sunlight and air into the castle. Bluebeard refuses at first, but Judith insists, and he lets her unlock just one. And then just one more. And then another, and another. That’s it, the whole story, just the unlocking of the seven doors one at a time and discovering what lies behind each one.

The libretto is puzzling but it resonates deeply, at least for me, and the music is wonderful. I hadn’t listened to it in a long while and I’d forgotten how seriously creepy and chilling those harp arpeggios are when Judith unlocks the sixth door. Brrrr!

I’m told you can get tickets for tomorrow at close to half off if you order them on the San Francisco Symphony’s website and use the promo code OPERACASTLE50.

And Who Would Have Thought I’d Ever Have Anything in Common with the Metropolitan Opera

It looks like me and the Met are now on the same blacklist, and how cool is that?

I used to figure it was just my bad luck that Opera News would publish reviews of a number of other Berkeley Opera (now West Edge Opera) productions but always seemed to skip over mine. Over the years, though, I’ve heard from a few people that Opera News actually made a decision that no review of my work could be published in the magazine. Apparently this was decided about a decade ago, and they’ve stuck to it. I have no idea why — they review lots of Bay Area productions, and they review lots of productions of operas performed in the vernacular or in unorthodox ways. I even know that reviewers have at times asked to be assigned to write a review of one of my productions, and they’ve been refused every time.

What gives? I have no idea why this is, or who decided it, but it seems petty and unprofessional, doesn’t it? Still, I’ve taken a perverse pleasure in knowing that, no matter how unsuccessful I am, no matter how completely unknown I am outside the Bay Area (and not all that well known within it, really), I have somehow managed to acquire one enemy in a high place.

Now Opera News has declared that they will no longer publish reviews of Metropolitan Opera productions. I can only assume that the Met is quivering in its boots.

The Dream Sweeper

A few days ago, I noticed that there was less than a week left in the English National Opera’s “Mini Operas” competition, the first stage of which is a libretto writing competition.

When I first heard several months ago that the competition was coming, I thought it was a cool idea and I had wanted to write something for it. But then, when the rules were announced, I found them not only uninspiring but anti-inspiring, and I had drawn nothing but blanks.

First, the libretto had to be for an opera that was about five to seven minutes in length, which seems absurdly short to me. It seems unlikely to me that you can really accomplish the minimum that I think an opera should accomplish — tell anything resembling a real story, even a short one, and bring out through song the emotions that are stirred up by that story — in a mere seven minutes. If you manage to tell a very short story but don’t have time to use the music to enlarge on its emotional content, then why tell the story as an opera at all? It would be more effective as a short spoken play. Whereas, even if you use singing as the medium in which you show some kind of situation, if that situation is essentially static — if you’re not telling a story, however brief, in which somebody goes through some kind of experience and comes out the other end a different person in some way — then what you’ve got might be interesting and even good, but it’s a song, not an opera, and why not just call this a songwriting competition?

So I was having trouble imagining how I could create a libretto that I was at all satisfied with that could be adequately set to music and run no more than seven minutes. That was one thing. And the other is that the mini opera was supposed to be inspired by one of three short prose pieces, and none of them seemed to me to contain the seeds of an opera, either. Each of the three describes a static situation.

But last Wednesday evening, with just four days left in the competition, an idea came to me for a very short story that would involve a character from one of the prose pieces. Nothing else would be used from the piece but that character, and in fact the situation that I’d be placing that character in would be the very opposite of his situation in the prose piece. But the rules to the competition specifically say that you can be inspired by anything in the piece you choose and you can take it in any direction. So that should be cool.

And it was one of those rare moments when the Muse descends with full force: I started scribbling (in the back of my notebook for The Manga Flute, which still has a dozen or so blank pages left), and ten minutes later I had covered two pages with the outline for the whole thing, and I swear that thirty seconds before I started writing, I had no ideas at all. At least not consciously. Perhaps my unconscious had been thinking about it for weeks and chose that moment to spit the results up to me.

I looked over the outline. Four characters, which isn’t too many. Some opportunity for a composer to develop the emotional content. Not the same emotion running all the way through, either; there’s a variety of emotions along the way, which is good (though admittedly not as crucial for a seven-minute opera as it is for a full-length one). So all was looking promising.

The prose piece, which is by Neil Gaiman, describes the unfortunate consequences when its character (the Sweeper of Dreams) fails to appear, what happens when he refuses to do what is expected of him. This is intriguing but completely static, just a sketch or a vignette, really. My story, though, would be about his appearing and insisting on doing what he’s supposed to do over the objections of someone who doesn’t want him to do it. So, bingo, there’s my conflict, that’s where the force comes from to move the story forward and have the characters end up somewhere else from where they started.

And I was pleased to see that the story I’d outlined really did look like one that I could tell adequately in just ten minutes. It would be tight, but doable.

Yep, ten minutes. I hadn’t looked at the ENO website in over two months at this point, and I was misremembering the rules of the contest. I thought the maximum length was ten minutes, not seven.

The next morning, during my long commute by BART and Caltrain to work, I looked at the outline again. The words for a conversation in the middle of the story started coming to me, and I started writing. As I wrote, more ideas came up, and about an hour and 45 minutes later, I had a complete first draft.

I knew I needed to look at the website again and double-check that I was following all the requirements of the competition. But it was a busy day at work so I didn’t get around to it during the day. And then on the way home I decided what I really wanted to do first was type my handwritten draft into my laptop, where it would be easier to work on revisions. As I was doing that, I saw lots of places to make small improvements, so I got carried away and spent the whole commute on rewriting. Even after the revisions, though, the story still followed the original outline very closely, which is pretty cool. Outlines usually take all kinds of work to get right, but this one was still basically in the same form in which it first occurred to me.

So it wasn’t until after I’d gotten home Thursday evening, with my second draft completed, that I finally looked at the website and discovered that the damn thing had to come in at under seven minutes, not ten. Argh.

The rest of the process was to go through the libretto many times, singing it in my head to trite but passionate melodies of my own improvisation, seeing how long the various parts took to get through, and figuring out where I could cut things without losing anything really essential. Early Saturday evening, I submitted my entry.

The rules of the competition are that, instead of submitting your libretto directly, you post your entry to your blog and then submit the link to the webpage with your entry. So if you want to read it, it’s here. The piece by Mr. Gaiman that the libretto is inspired by (I don’t think I can really say “based on”) is titled “The Sweeper of Dreams”, and in a final burst of creative brilliance, I have titled my libretto The Dream Sweeper. It really ought to have its own distinct title, but under the gun I couldn’t think of anything more suitable than that.

Weekend Update

What a weekend! It’s Wednesday and I’m still tired.

Thursday, Dave and I went to the American Mavericks opening concert at Davies — works by Copland and Harrison and Ives, the last being the wonderful Brant orchestration of the Concord Sonata.

Friday night was the second performance of The Manga Flute. A very full house and a great performance. Dave and I watched it from the back row of the balcony, where the visuals are less effective but the sound is better. The supertitles are party obstructed from there, but I thought you hardly needed them — the sound of orchestra and singers is better blended up there and it was easy to make out the words. Of course, I can usually remember what people are singing on any given line, so I’m not necessarily the most accurate judge of that.

The performance was very polished — the whole show zipped along happily, acting was sharper, everybody’s characters seemed a notch or two more focused and intense than they were on opening, the music (both singing and orchestra) was confident and full of detail and nuance, and set changes and other cues were crisp. Lovely.

Saturday night, Dave and I headed to the Castro Theater to see a beautifully restored print of Children of Paradise. It’s a favorite of Dave’s. Me, I like parts of it enormously but other parts seem kind of silly to me, and the whole movie strikes me as being at least a half hour too long for the story it’s telling. But the story is rich and many-layered, and I’m never bored by it, even in the places where the story and characters feel a bit too dry and mechanical for my taste.

Sunday afternoon was the final performance of Manga Flute, and it was even better than Friday’s. Tempi were more energetic, transitions between scenes were tighter and smoother, the dialogue scenes were brisker and more focused, and the whole show felt like its energy level had been cranked up a notch or two.

Monday, the SF Chronicle‘s review came out — overall a rave, though with a few qualifications. The prize paragraph for my résumé is this:

Chief among the pleasures of the piece is the sleek virtuosity of Marley’s English libretto, which — like his many previous efforts for the company – turns the foreign-language original into a faithful, witty and effortlessly naturalistic translation. The rhymes all fall where they should and the sense of the text remains intact — and all without any impression of strain.

I’m a bit startled, though, that he calls the libretto “faithful”, says in the above quote that “the sense of the text remains intact”, and writes elsewhere that “the plot remains largely intact”. It seems to me that — after you get past the first musical number, at least — my plot is just about entirely different from Schikaneder’s and only gets more obviously so as it progresses, and that the few places where the English words are more or less faithful to the German original — the Queen of the Night’s second-act aria, for example, and some individual lines and couplets here and there in Papageno’s second-act solo scene (the one leading to the entrance of the Raccoons and then Papagena) — are very much the exceptions.

But I shall choose to interpret this as meaning that Mr. Kosman found that the story and the words fit the music so well that they create the illusion in the theater of being exactly right for the score, and thank him for the compliment.

The Manga Flute stuff

The website for the upcoming West Edge Opera premiere of The Manga Flute is here.

There’s a nice bit about the show in Janos Gereben’s “Music News” column in San Francisco Classical Voice for 7 February 2012.

I was interviewed yesterday by Ken Bullock at SFCV for a longer feature that will appear later this week or early next week.

I’ve started a new section on my website for stuff relating to The Manga Flute. So far I’m posted the cast list and my notes for the program.

Manga Artist Wanted

Berkeley West Edge Opera is planning a production of a new musical fantasy based on Mozart’s The Magic Flute, currently with the working title of Tamino’s Magic Flute. We are looking for an artist who is skilled in the visual style of manga and/or anime to work with us.

More information is here (PDF file, 200K). Please feel free to pass it along to any manga artists you may know!

Later: We’ve found our artist and she’s at work now on drawings that will be projected during the show. Some will be scenic backgrounds and others will actually help tell the story. I don’t think I want to say more than that for now.

The Most Happy Fella at Festival Opera

Dave and I saw the opening night Saturday night of Festival Opera’s production of The Most Happy Fella. It’s a show I’ve both loved and been frustrated by since my college days. Its good points are unique and powerful, and yet it has some serious weaknesses as well (mostly in the second act, in my opinion) that I wish Loesser had figured out how to fix. I have no time to write more about it right now, but I wanted to recommend this, a confident and polished production of a show that is not done very often and even less often done well.

Sir John in Absentia

Michael Zwiebach has a list of “Top Ten Shakespeare Operas” over at San Francisco Classical Voice, but he leaves out a favorite of mine: Vaughn Williams’s Sir John in Love. Verdi’s Falstaff is a completely wonderful opera, don’t get me wrong. But Verdi and Boito transformed it so well into a polished opera buffa in the Italian style that if you didn’t look at the program notes you might never guess that it takes place in England.

Sir John in Love is less well constructed, I think, but at the same time its music conveys a love of the English countryside and the feel of country society in Elizabethan England that I don’t hear in Falstaff. That pastoral quality is what makes The Merry Wives of Windsor special among Shakespeare’s plays — in terms of dramatic construction, it’s one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays, but Merry Wives is the only play that Shakespeare set in his own time and place, and in which he was writing openly and directly about a society and a social order that he knew at first hand. So the play has its own unique if rough-hewn quality, and the words and music in Sir John capture that atmosphere wonderfully well. You can practically smell the fresh-cut hay and the sawdust and the spilled beer in the music.

Of course, any top ten list is a very personal selection, and everyone gets to have different favorites. I just wanted to make a case for one of mine.

The Barber of Bagdad

I’ve been on a small binge lately of listening to Peter Cornelius’s opera The Barber of Bagdad (Der Barbier von Bagdad). I’m a bit surprised to find I own five recordings of it. It’s not a well-known opera, but one I like a lot. For one thing, it’s based on a series of stories out of the 1001 Nights, and I have a soft spot for anything taken from the 1001 Nights. But even apart from that, it’s funny and theatrical and it has terrific music. Plus: a first-rate libretto!

It’s sort of a huge shaggy dog story about a young man in love. He has only a narrow window of time during which he can secretly visit his beloved — her very religious father goes to the nearby mosque every day at noon to pray — and as he has some time before he can show up, he decides he will make himself more presentable with a bath and getting his head freshly shaved. His friend suggests a barber that she knows — a brilliant man, she says, master of many arts and sciences. After she leaves, he shouts out the window after her, “Don’t forget the barber!” (“Vergiss den Barbier nicht!”)

Those words are his doom. The barber arrives, but he turns out to be a foolish old man who can’t stop bragging about what an expert he is on so many subjects, going off on one tangent after another. He has cast a horoscope for the young man, which reveals that he has chosen the most fortunate time on earth to be shaved, and the barber explains the chart in detail while the young man pleads with him to get on with it. When the young man gets so exasperated that he calls the barber an outrageous windbag (unverschämter Schwätzer, to be exact), the barber is offended, and he explains at length how he was actually the quiet one in a family of seven brothers — whom he names and describes, one … by one … by one. It takes the poor young man at least half the first act just to get the barber to start shaving him, and much of the rest of it to get him to complete the job.

Worse, in the second act the barber trails the young man to his secret assignation, intending to be helpful. From the street in front of the young woman’s house, he shouts to the young man inside not to worry, he’s on the lookout in case her father returns early — which of course alerts the whole neighborhood that the young man is there. Then the barber hears the shouts of a slave being beaten, and leaps to the conclusion that the young man is being beaten to death by the father, so he shouts to the neighborhood “Help! Murder!”, raising a crowd in the street outside and making it impossible for the young man to get away without being seen. Before long the poor guy is hiding in a trunk while the father rages at the barber and the room fills up with one group of people after another, who come to try to stop the imaginary murder or side with the father or wail in grief. The caliph’s police arrive to stop the near-riot, and finally the caliph himself appears. After some more confusion, all ends satisfactorily at last and the lovers can marry. (The story in the 1001 Nights has much more of a black comedy ending: The young man not only doesn’t get the girl, he gets one leg badly broken in the chaos, entirely due to the barber, and he walks with a limp ever after.)

It’s a great opera, but it really needs a good English version. A lot of the comedy is in the words, first because they’re often very funny in their own right and second because the style is mock-heroic and if you aren’t getting the ironic juxtaposition of the increasingly serious music and the increasingly absurd situation that is developing, you miss a lot.

I know enough German, and have gotten to know the opera well enough, to follow along now as I listen, but it’s got to be a perplexing opera to listen to in a language you don’t know. It’s never been all that successful outside of Germany, and it probably won’t be if it doesn’t at some point get adapted into other languages, and well. There’s an English-language version published; I haven’t really studied it to get a feel for whether I think it’d work in the theater, but from what I’ve read of it, the language seems very stilted and forced. (It also seems possible to me, though, that what I’m seeing as stilted language is intended, at least, to convey the flavor of the Richard Burton translation of the 1001 Nights. At some point I ought to look more closely at it.)

Cornelius wrote two overtures to the opera, writing the second one at the urging of Liszt, who didn’t like the first one. Of my five recordings, only one includes the second overture, and it seems to be obligatory to say in the liner notes that the composer’s original intentions were of course much superior. Well, as a pure piece of music, I agree; if given a choice of hearing the first or second version as a concert piece by itself, I would without hesitation go with the first. It’s a deliciously sly piece of music, full of charm and atmosphere, while the second version is a much more conventional comic opera overture, not doing much more than stringing together all the best melodies and getting the show off to a lively start. Nevertheless, I think Liszt was right and the second overture is the right one to use in the theater; it’s going to put the audience in a much better frame of mind to enjoy the story that follows.

And it does end with a delicious joke, though one that you have to get to know the opera to catch: The final cadence quotes the melody of “Don’t forget the barber!”