Ring Out the Old Year

Yesterday was kind of an odd mixed bag of a day to end the year on. In the morning I finished a lyric for The Golden Slipper that I had started several years ago — the middle of that aria is where I was interrupted first to work on The Manga Flute and then on the two versions of The Bat Bites Back (first just the dialogue for the Opera San Jose production of Fledermaus and then adding lyrics to create a full English version for the Lamplighters production). I think the lyric for Golden Slipper will be a hoot — I’m definitely back in the commedia dell’arte mode of writing with this one. But it’s also a bit of a struggle to pick up the threads after so long. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to get The Golden Slipper back from “on hold” status to “work in progress” status. Fortunately, I’d made a fairly detailed outline before I was interrupted by the other projects.

(Looking for a brand new, very funny, family-friendly opera to present? This is a new libretto based on the ancient Chinese version of the fairy tale and using the score of Rossini’s Cinderella. It’d make an awesome holiday show for the right company.)

In the afternoon, I read an article about using Facebook better that suggested checking now and then for “other” messages, ones not from FB friends, because FB doesn’t alert you about them. I had not noticed this at all! When I checked, I discovered a message from a fan of my shows from back in May, and a message from a couple weeks ago from an old friend from my college days looking to reconnect after more than 30 years. Yikes! I replied to both, and chatted with the old friend for a bit.

Dave and I rang in the New Year by watching Dumbo and then going to bed about 11:30, where we read for a while longer (I’m nearly done with Karen Armstrong’s The Bible: A Biography, which is terrific and full of interesting history) till we heard fireworks going off outside somewhere.

Happy New Year, and best wishes for a 2015 that beats the tar out of 2014.

Another Review for Die Fledermaus, or The Bat Bites Back

Another good review for Die Fledermaus, or The Bat Bites Back, this one on CultureVulture:

Strauss’ tale of fin de siècle decadence and (mild) debauchery among Vienna’s upper (and not-so-upper) classes comes through loud and clear and quite amusing, thanks to a splendid new translation by David Scott Marley. Having recently suffered through (via radio broadcast) the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of the same work with its long stretches of dialogue and not-so-funny jokes, I doubly appreciated Marley’s wit, economy and way with words.

After the opening weekend in Walnut Creek, the stage director and I trimmed five or six minutes of spoken dialogue, at least half of it from the first half of the first act. It was mostly a matter of cutting a line here and a couple lines there wherever it felt like we were continuing to make a point longer than was needed. The trimmed version played in Napa last weekend, and worked wonderfully; the first act zips along with more energy, and the later acts, though trimmed much less, benefit all the same from the greater momentum. It’s a really terrific show.

We play two performances this weekend at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore. The following weekend we play two performances in Mountain View, and the weekend after that four performances in San Francisco.

Fifteenth Anniversary

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the brain surgery that saved my life.

The tumor had damaged the facial and acoustic nerves on the right side of my brain, and the surgery to remove the tumor damaged them further. (By necessity, not accident — the tumor was a sticky, semisolid mass, and had to be carefully scraped away from the good brain matter, meaning that some amount of trauma to the brain was inevitable.) All in all, I was fortunate, and I came through the experience in better shape than many others have. But the surgery nevertheless left me with no hearing in my right ear, an impaired sense of balance, and the right side of my face paralyzed.

And recurring, excruciating headaches. They came on twice a day when I first came out of the hospital, then gradually lessened to once a day, once every other day, and so on. For a long time I never went anywhere without several Vicodin in a pillbox in my pocket.

The paralysis has abated to a large extent, but I still can’t raise my right eyebrow or the right side of my mouth much. My brain has learned to compensate to a remarkable extent for the lack of equilibrium information from my right inner ear and for the loss of stereophonic hearing. The bad headaches are down to maybe every other month, and they are not as bad as they used to be, though they can come on suddenly when the air pressure is changing, and I still carry a few Excedrin with me at all times. So it’s all still a challenge sometimes. Far, far less of one than it was in the first couple of years after the surgery, but still a challenge.

The approach of this anniversary usually sends me into a depression, in which I can’t seem to stop brooding on whether the quality of my life or anything I have accomplished since my surgery has been even remotely worth the enormous trouble that I caused friends, family, and the good people at Kaiser who expended such an extraordinary amount of money and expertise on saving my life. This year I don’t detect so much of a downward spiral in my mood, though I’m not altogether sure whether it’s because I’m handling the emotions in a more sensible way this year or because 2013 has been a very rough year for Dave and me both, and my funk from last winter never really altogether lifted. Probably some of both.

And probably also due to a number of writing projects — such as suddenly needing to finish The Bat Bites Back in a mad dash when The Lamplighters expressed interest in producing it much sooner than I had been imagining it would be done — that have kept me crazy busy and not allowed me much time for brooding. Writing is, among other things, a form of spiritual work for me, and it helps keep me moderately sane, or at least saner than I am when I’m not at work on something I feel good about. There is very little about myself that seems really worthwhile to me, but I do think my writing is very good, and it’s a great lift when there’s a production going up of one of my pieces and I can see how people are taking pleasure in it. (I haven’t posted much about this yet, but there’s a small production of Beatrice and Benedick in San Francisco in the works as well, and no sooner have I finished work on Bat than I need to get to work on some minor revisions for that.)

All in all, I seem to be doing OK today. Spirits not particularly high, but not particularly low, either. And there’s work to do.

Die Fledermaus, or The Bat Bites Back Premieres January 2014

Die Fledermaus, or The Bat Bites Back, a new libretto by David Scott Marley for the operetta by Johann Strauss, Jr., will have its premiere in January and February 2014 in a production by The Lamplighters. The production will tour the Bay Area for five weekends.

Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek

925-943-7469 · lesherartscenter.org
Friday, January 24, at 8 pm

Saturday, January 25, at 2 pm & 8 pm

Sunday, January 26, at 2 pm

Napa Valley Performing Arts Center, Yountville

707-944-9900 · lincolntheater.com
Saturday, February 1, at 8 pm

Sunday, February 2, at 2 pm

Bankhead Theatre, Livermore

925-373-6800 · bankheadtheater.org
Saturday, February 8, at 8 pm

Sunday, February 9, at 2 pm

Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts

650-903-6000 · mvcpa.com
Saturday, February 15, at 8 pm

Sunday, February 16, at 2 pm

Yerba Buena Center, San Francisco

415-978-2787 · ybca.org
Friday, February 21, at 8 pm

Saturday, February 22, at 2 pm & 8 pm

Sunday, February 23, at 2 pm

Status Report

Been way too long since I’ve posted much here. I have been insanely busy for months — pretty much since March, with just a couple of short breaks from the stress, not really enough to get unwound. This whole summer seems to have whooshed past in a blur of too much work, too much stress, and not enough sleep.

Some recent and important events, which I will try to write about in greater detail later:

The Lamplighters will be performing my new English-language version of the operetta Die Fledermaus, titled Die Fledermaus, or The Bat Bites Back, in late January and early February. I have been at work on this intermittently since last year, but when The Lamplighters expressed interest in mid-August, I still had a fair amount of work to do on it, and they needed to have a finished script by mid-October. Not enough time. But I have not worked with The Lamplighters before, and I very much wanted to, so I pushed myself to crank up the speed in order to finish in just two months. I finished the last remaining pieces of third act a couple days ago, a week later than planned but not too bad. (And there were reasons for the week’s delay; see next paragraph.) There will undoubtedly be some tinkering needed in rehearsal, too, but we have a good, complete script to start from. This is a somewhat free adaptation, rather than a close translation of the original, but it isn’t an updating or reimagining as some of my opera adaptations have been; it follows the original story and characters. I’ll write more about it later.

My father died in mid-September. Dave and I rented a car and drove to Phoenix for the funeral service. We tented in Joshua Tree National Park on the way there, stayed two nights in Phoenix with my brother and sister-in-law, and tented one night in Joshua Tree on the way back as well. My childhood was an unhappy one, but stopping in Joshua Tree was a lovely way to revisit a few good things about my relationship with my father, as certainly I got my love of the desert from him, and whatever knowledge of the constellations and planets I’ve managed to retain originated with him. (One of the wonderful things about nighttime in the desert is the reminder of how full of stars the sky really is. It’s always startling to me, no matter how well I think I remember from the last time. When you live in an urban area, you just don’t see very many stars at night.)

This year’s edition (the 14th) of Thrillpeddlers’ annual Shocktoberfest is terrific, and it plays through the weekend before Thanksgiving so there’s plenty of time to go see it. This is very intimate (and low-budget) theater in the Grand Guignol style, and it won’t be for everyone, but it’s good and effective stuff. The legendary Grand Guignol Theater in Paris specialized in evenings of short one-act plays, alternating between bawdy farces and gruesome horror plays. The centerpiece of this year’s Shocktoberfest is a one-act play about Jack the Ripper that was actually written for and performed at the Grand Guignol Theater. Very creepy — this was written by the Grand Guignol’s most prolific writer of short horror plays, and he clearly knew what he was doing. There’s a certain meandering quality to the play that comes across in the early scenes as perhaps carelessness in plotting and characterization, but it gradually creates the disturbing sense that the play could twist in any direction at any moment and that any character might suddenly decide do something horrifying. This uncertainty about where everything is heading heightens the suspense enormously while we’re waiting in the fog for the Ripper to strike again. A genuinely unsettling play.

Dave was in the aisle seat in the second row, and during a gruesome murder by the Ripper, he got spattered with some of the stage blood. (Yes, the theater is that small!) He received profuse apologies during intermission, and assurances that the staging would be adjusted so that this wouldn’t happen again. But really, Dave was delighted by the accident, and I expect his stage-blood-spattered program is going to end up framed on the wall somewhere. (Still, it might be prudent to wear machine-washable clothing!)

Butterfield 8’s evening of Gothic ghost stories and poems, Gaslight and Ghosts, was also terrific, but unfortunately it only played for two nights, and Dave and I attended the second night, so if you didn’t catch it, oh well. A cast of six actors read and performed four scary stories and two poems for us. Like Thrillpeddlers, this is a good company doing inventive stuff on a shoestring. Coming up are the company’s own adaptation of A Christmas Carol and an adaptation of The Maltese Falcon.

Spellbound and The Girl of the Golden West

Dave and I watched Hitchcock’s Spellbound Friday night. I’ve been a Hitchcock buff since my childhood and I’ve seen Spellbound many times before, but evidently not in some years, because I noticed some things in it I don’t remember noticing before. Including a really startling number of structural correspondences and similarities with Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West.

Think about it: Independent, strong-willed Minnie Falconer/Dr. Constance Petersen has been wooed without success by a number of the men in her community (the mining camp/the hospital), including the local sheriff/her supervisor at the hospital, but has turned them all down — and then falls hard for the handsome newcomer Dick Johnson/Dr. Anthony Edwardes. Then she learns that the man she has fallen for is in fact an imposter and wanted for murder. But she knows in her heart that it can’t be true, and when a group of men, including the local sheriff, come to her room one evening to warn her and show her a photograph that proves the man is not who he says he is, she conceals what she knows from them, even though she could help them capture him if she wanted to. Instead, she works to save his life and make things right with the law, so they can marry and start a new life together.

Another parallel: In both cases, the couple’s first kiss is marked by a door opening (well, several doors opening in the case of Spellbound, and no snow), which in both cases is a metaphor for the heroine’s opening herself up to physical passion for the first time.

Did Hecht notice the parallels in the two stories and model some of his scenes on scenes in the Belasco play? I don’t know, but there seem to me to be just enough similarities to make that entirely plausible. And I doubt there’s any way Hecht didn’t know the Belasco play — it had been too huge a hit.

Die Fledermaus at Opera San Jose

I should probably mention what I’ve been working on. Opera San Jose is doing a production of Die Fledermaus in the near future, and they want to do all the singing in German but all the spoken dialogue in English. But the director, Marc Jacobs, dislikes all the English translations he’s been able to find. (And rightly so, in my humble opinion — I know of only two that manage to be better than godawful, and even those two, though they do capture the spirit of the original, are wordier and less sharp in the writing than they should be. And don’t get me started about the horrible, horrible version the Metropolitan Opera did in the 1940s or whenever it was.)

So Marc read my Bat out of Hell, an adaptation of Die Fledermaus set in Berkeley in 1998 at the end of the dot-com boom. He loved it, but of course he can’t use it because the company insists that the production must keep the story in late-19th-century Vienna and keep the singing in German. So Marc asked me if I’d write a new translation of the spoken dialogue.

Ordinarily I say no to this sort of thing — this stuff just doesn’t pay well enough for me to take time away from the projects that interest me more. But in this case I’ve had it in the back of my mind for some time that I might want to write a more or less traditional English-language version of Die Fledermaus. Alas, though Bat out of Hell has been produced more times than any of my other librettos, it has not been produced as many times as I’ve been told “We’d love to do it, but we’re committed to a traditional production.” And as I said, none of the existing English-language versions are first rate, so a really good one might well catch on and bring in some extra income for me.

So writing the dialogue is one step in that direction, and this production gives me a motivation to get that done.

Another thing that interested me about this production is that, though they’re keeping the story in Vienna, they’re updating it from 1870 to 1890. I gather that the reason has more to do with wanting to give the production a Belle Epoque look and feel than anything else, but Marc mentioned that he was also going to make Dr. Falke a psychoanalyst à la Sigmund Freud, and that caught my interest.

So I’m having some fun with the idea that Gabriel, Rosalinde, and Adele all have secret fantasies and desires that they’ve been repressing in various ways, and that come out at Orlofsky’s ball — sort of a tongue-in-cheek take on Freudian psychology.

I’ve finished my first draft of the whole thing, and I’ve done the final polish on the first act — with the one exception of the beginning of the third act. It’s become traditional to build up the part of Frosch — a small part in the original — into a star turn for a good non-singing comic. (This was first done by Max Reinhardt for his lavish, all-star 1929 production in Berlin, and it was so widely imitated that practically everybody now thinks it was written just that way in the original.) Marc has asked me to do the same thing here, as he’s got a good comic for the role.

The way this is usually done, though, is to give Frosch a big comic solo drunk scene. I dislike that approach, partly because drunk scenes seem facile and not all that funny to me, but more importantly because it steals the thunder from Frank’s drunk scene that immediately follows it. Two drunk scenes in a row is two too many for my taste, but Frank’s is important to the plot and embedded in the music, so it pretty much has to stay. So whatever Frosch is given to do right before it shouldn’t make it seem like a weak echo.

Hence, in Bat out of Hell I wrote an entirely different sort of comic turn for Frosch at the start of act three. I can’t use anything like that one in this production, though, because the things it satirizes are modern. So I’m trying something very different. But still, not a drunk scene. I’m hoping to finish it tonight. We’ll see how it comes out.

Welcome, Visitors!

If nothing else, writing a libretto for the ENO’s Mini Opera competition and posting it to my blog seems to be drawing some eyeballs. The libretto is now by far the most popular page on my site.

It remains to be seen whether it will have the staying power of my posts about Frida Kahlo’s parrots and Whistler’s The Gold Scab, which are a few years old and yet inexplicably continue to get a few visitors a week, week in and week out.