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.