Monday, February 12, 2018

Tackling the Dutchman

Mason Gates (Helmsman) and Captain Daland's crew. All photos by Pat Kirk.
Opera San Jose
Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman
February 10, 2018

Poor Der Fliegende Hollander can seem a little mired in its mid-19th century drydock, what with its overblown Romanticism and captained by a composer who’s caught between feeling his oats and transforming the entire genre. Opera San Jose battled back these waves with a combination of perfect casting and stunning visual effects, the latter a suitable strategy for a Silicon Valley enterprise.

Set designer Steven C. Kemp evoked the sailing life with walls of sea-gray timbers. These served equally well as ship’s flanks and projection screens.

The action began with the actual physical arrival of the Norwegian captain Daland with his boat and crew. Frustrated at the storm delaying a reunion with his daughter Senta, a mere seven miles away, Daland sets the helmsman on watch and retires to his cabin. Tenor Mason Gates, who projects a Mickey Rooney get ‘er done insouciance as the helmsman (complete with handstands!), sings a beautifully haunting ode to the southern winds, “Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer,” and falls asleep.

And what a sleep! Soon a cloud forms over the bay and, thanks to Ian Wallace’s stunning projection work, turns into the phantom ship of the Flying Dutchman, with its blood-red sails. The morose presence of the Dutchman (from baritone Noel Bouley) falls upon the shore and sings of his curse, condemned by Satan to wander the seas until, every seven years, he seeks a true woman to save him (don’t we all?). When he gets to his wish for apocalypse, Wallace’s projections turn to flames. It’s an astounding effect, reminiscent of the visuals applied by San Francisco Opera to its acclaimed American Ring Cycle. Credit also to lighting designer David Lee Cuthbert for the overall effect on the stage.

Playing Captain Daland, bright-eyed baritone Gustav Andreassen makes the most of his comic opportunities, such as finding his helmsman fast asleep through the arrival of an entire ghost ship, and then discovering that the wealthy captain will give him all his treasure to marry his daughter. Andreassen has a likeable upward swoop to his voice, and it serves him well when he responds, “I have always wanted such a son-in-law.”

Mary (Nicole Birkland) and the spinning ladies.
Act II moves to a spinning room, where the village women produce clothing for their absent men. Senta has an intense interior life (much like the Dutchman) and dotes on his portrait, deeply involved in her own compassion for him (parents with teenage daughters know this phenomenon well). She sings Senta’s Ballad, telling of the ghost sailor’s plight. New York soprano Kerriann Otaño has a bit of weight to her tone, and uses it well, painting the haunting tale in alternating darks and lights. She also has a suitably regal bearing, augmented by Senta’s royal blue dress and black shawl (costume designer Johann Stegmeir). She also, inconveniently enough, has a boyfriend, Erik, a hunter who is appalled at hearing her sing of another man with such passion. At first I thought that Derek Taylor’s tenor lacked life, but no, it’s a lovely instrument. Wagner purposely saddled Erik with a conventional aria, “Mein Herz voll Treue bis zum Sterben,” in an opera of unconventional arias, as a way of portraying him as yesterday’s news (talk about taking one for the team!) while pitting him against the ghost of Lord Byron, for God’s sake. It’s like finding out your wife is getting calls from George Clooney.

Kerriann Otano (Senta) and Noel Bouley (The Dutchman).
Because there he is, the actual Flying Dutchman, and he’s entering the house next to Senta’s father! The chemistry is immediate, evoked by the quiet beginning of their duet. Stage director Brad Dalton responds to this quietude with physical stillness, at times simply placing the two in close proximity as the music overwhelms them. The long duet, which presages the historic duet of Tristan und Isolde, grows organically, advancing in dynamic and tempo levels until it shifts from E major to E minor and threatens to subsume the theater. It’s a very Wagnerian moment.

The static quality of the rest of the act is a challenge – compare this to the frenetic staging of a Mozart, Rossini or Verdi – so a shift back to the waterfront is a welcome reprieve, back to the rowdiness of the excellent Norwegian crew/chorus (director Andrew Whitfield), who are drinking and yo-ho-ho-ing with Jack Sparrow-like delight. Toasting the impending wedding, they stomp and challenge the Dutch crew to appear, then watch aghast as they do, looking like the road crew of a two-year Slayer tour.

From there, the technicalities of the deal-with-the-devil plot get a little irksome. The Dutchman finds that Senta had a boyfriend before him (gasp!) and heads back to his ship, resolved that his exit clause is disqualified. Senta hurls herself into the bay to save him. In these days of retro misogyny, Wagner’s whole weird view of the female gender is tiresome. I still haven’t forgiven him for offing Brunnhilde (the most unnecessary immolation ever), and it seems that the place of women in his universe is to save the sorry butts of their men and all they have to do to accomplish this is to die terrible deaths (Am I right, sisters?).

That said, OSJ made the absolute best of the moment, blinding the audience with stadium lights as Senta walked into them, a la Close Encounters, and transformed herself into an angel, followed by an actual angel representing the Dutchman’s redemption. It was a glorious moment of theater, inspiring one patron to comment, “When did this turn into Angels in America?”

Joseph Marcheso conducted masterfully, and the horns in the overture were Wagner-perfect. The company’s founder, Irene Dalis, performed a lot of Wagner in her Met days, and modeled the California Theater’s pit after the one at Bayreuth. It’s fantastic to hear that OSJ will be following this up with Jake Heggie’s epic Moby Dick next season. I regret that Nicole Birkland had that role that doesn’t get mentioned much (Mary), but her head shot belongs on the cover of Vogue. I love the artificial sea foam in the opening, and the projected waves had me running for the exit. Taylor’s Erik finds vocal redemption in his Dream Aria, much more advanced and Wagnerian. Thanks to the girl in the flame dress (someone should write a novel by that name) and to Veronika Agronov-Dafoe, my secret Russian colluder. Robert Mueller, you know where to find me.

Through February 25 at the California Theater, 345 South First Street, San Jose.
$56-$176. 408/437-4450,

Michael J. Vaughn is a thirty-year opera critic and author of twenty novels, plus the recent non-fiction book, Atheist Evolution. The atheist take on Wagner is, well, Satan doesn’t exist, angels don’t exist, and Christians have a weird way of worshipping and simultaneously oppressing their women. So there. He is due to marry Renee Fleming as soon as the restraining order expires, and congratulates his sister-in-arms, Kirsten Kunkle, for winning the role of Giorgietta in Puccini’s Il Tabarro in Philadelphia.

Monday, November 20, 2017

A Thanksgiving Wish

I just want to stop and THANK you baby – THANKS for the memory – THANK you for being a friend – I want to THANK you falettin be mice elf agin – THANKS for the time that you’ve given me – You didn’t have to love me like you did but you did but you did, and I THANK you – THANK you girl for teaching me brand new ways to be cruel – No THANKS Omaha THANKS a lot – THANK God I’m a country boy – THANK you India – Wham bam THANK you ma’am! – THANK heaven for little girls – I THANK the Lord for the nighttime – Just be THANKFUL for what you’ve got – THANK you for the love you brought my way – I’m bound to THANK you for it – DANKE Schoen – THANK you for the music


Happy Thanksgiving! Michael J. Vaughn

Monday, November 13, 2017

Old Guys Writing Edgy Operas

Prunier (Mason Gates), Lisette (Elena Galvan) Magda (Amanda Kingston) and
Ruggero (Jason Slaydon). All photos by Pat Kirk.
Opera San Jose
Puccini’s La Rondine
November 11, 2017

The latter years of Puccini would serve as an excellent blueprint for maintaining an active mental life in one’s senior citizenry. Much like Verdi before him, the great composer seemed determined to try everything under the sun and continually expand his musical skills. In the long run, his ambitions may actually have damaged his legacy. His California opera, La fanciulla del West, is so difficult to stage that it’s not often produced. The great Chinese spectacle of Turandot appears more frequently, but suffers from an ending that Puccini was unable to complete and no one else was able to resolve.

Lisette (Elena Galvan) and Prunier (Mason Gates).
Directly after Fanciulla, Puccini embarked on La Rondine, which was seen by the composer and his Viennese sponsors as a way to imbue the highly commercial form of operetta with a sense of gravitas. The resulting libretto is so blatantly derivative that it’s sort of amusing to pick out the inspirations. We’ve got a tenor poet, a rousing café scene and an artist who argues endlessly with his girlfriend (La Boheme); a housemaid who dresses as a lady while her mistress dresses as a commoner (Die Fledermaus), and, most prominently, a courtesan who falls in love with a younger man, leaves her sugar daddy, moves with her new lover to the country but breaks it of when she realizes his family will never accept her (Traviata, Traviata, Pretty Woman, Traviata).

The fact that La Rondine is still worth performing is a testament to its creator’s nimble mind and fantastical skills. The score is an elegant gem filled with Puccini’s continuing explorations. It’s through-composed, , an evolving 20th Century trend that sought greater dramatic reality through the elimination of set pieces. He uses dance rhythms as a tribute to the Viennese tradition (a few waltzes and even a tango), simultaneously using them as leitmotifs for the characters. One can also detect the Oriental tonalities that play a part in all of Puccini’s post-Butterfly works, notably in the palm-reading scene (Eastern mysticism?). There’s even a bit of Donizettian contrapuntalism in the café scene.

Amanda Kingston as Magda.
Opera San Jose polishes these gems to a glittering finish, beginning with Doretta’s Song, the lush, legendary aria that foretells the coming story (the poet Prunier tells of a young lady who literally forsakes a king’s ransom for the love of a young commoner). The aria appears almost immediately, and is known for its climactic top notes, long sustenatos that give a wise soprano the opportunity to shine. As Magda, Amanda Kingston performs the piece with incredible control, working the dynamic line with shimmering, glassine tones. Kingston also has the capacity for some great power, especially when paired with tenor Jason Slayden, playing her lover Ruggero. Puccini invested many of the love scenes with glorious, robust sound, and the two singers take full advantage.

Playing Prunier, tenor Mason Gates exhibits vivid lyricism and (for lack of a more technical term) a distinct sense of swagger. His portrayal is comically perfect, Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter minus 70 percent madness. Playing the housemaid Lisette, soprano Elena Galvan displays an agile tone and excellent comic skills (notably a pantomime of being pelted by tomatoes at her singing debut). Together, these two have a bickering repartee much like the lighter moments of Boheme’s Marcello and Musetta.

Magda (Amanda Kingston) and Rambaldo (Trevor Neal).
The side dishes are lovely. We get a trio of lesser courtesans, a bit like the female trio in Massenet’s Manon (Katherine Gunnink, Maya Kherani and Teressa Foss), some fine ballet and can-can (choreographed by Michelle Klaers D’Alo), and excellent work in the kinetic café scene from Andrew Whitfield’s chorus. Larry Hancock’s café set gives an open, festive air, thanks to a back screen of wrought-iron frameworks. The French Riviera projection (Kent Dorsey, lighting designer) provides Act III with a slowly oranging sunset to go with the end of the affair. That final farewell featured lush passages in the strings from conductor Christoper Larkin and his orchestra. The ladies' dresses in Act I are amazing, especially Magda's all-white ensemble, which glitters like a snowbank (Elizabeth Poindexter, costume designer).

Through November 26, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, 408/437-4450,

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of twenty novels, including Gabriella’s Voice and Operaville. He regrets that he was unable to mention Veronika Agronov-Dafoe’s onstage accompaniment of Doretta’s Song, but apparently she was disguised as a cigar-smoking man.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Verdi's Power-Play Valentine

Aurelia Florian as Violetta. All photos by Cory Weaver.
San Francisco Opera
La Traviata
October 1, 2017
A lavishly appointed, vocally rich production brought out the finer points in Verdi’s romantic classic, elucidating perhaps the biggest misconception about the story. It’s not about love; it’s about power.
Traviata is considered one of Verdi’s “lighter” works, an understandable conclusion when viewed against the political intensity of works like Il Trovatore, Rigoletto and Macbeth. Traviata’s first act seems especially frothy, a Parisian soiree at which Alfredo Germont woos the beautiful courtesan Violetta Valery.
But power and how it is wielded has always been Verdi’s focus, and it doesn’t take long to arrive. In Act II, after Alfredo and Violetta have settled into their countryside house, Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, arrives to do battle with the woman he claims is “leading my son to his ruin.” As it turns out, Violetta has taken the proto-feminist move of financing their country retreat herself, by selling off her possessions. Germont responds to this news by decrying the shame of having his son supported by Violetta’s illicit career. (Clearly the man is an a-hole.)

Artur Rucinski as Germont.
Duly motivated, Germont brings out the big guns. He attacks their love affair: “One day, your charms will fade. He will grow bored.” Then he brings in religion: “God has sent me to you with this message… Someday He will reward you.” Then he appeals to her sympathy, claiming that the dishonor she has brought to his family is endangering his daughter’s impending wedding. This is what convinces her, but one has to wonder if she simply knows the sad truth: even though she is wildly successful at her chosen occupation, and even though that occupation is widely accepted in Paris society, there is no winning a fight with a nobleman.

He instructs her to “Tell him you don’t love him.” When he sees her pain, he has the gall to say, “I feel your suffering.” (Seriously, what a douche.) Verdi does his best to redeem Germont later in the opera, but I still consider him one of the more evil villains in the canon.
Artur Rucinski plays Germont as a cold-blooded assassin, civil and calm as he very nicely destroys his target. Rucinski’s baritone is rich and assured, a particular pleasure in “Di Provenza il mar,” a tribute to Germont’s family home.

Aurelia Florian as Violetta, Atalla Ayan as Alfredo.
Performing Violetta, Aurelia Florian’s soprano is a gift that keeps giving. The iconic wordless flights of “Sempre libera” seem to burst from her mouth as organic blossoms of sound, speech gone wild, and she delivers Violetta’s more ominous pronouncements in haunting piano phrases (to Germont: “We may not meet again”). She also maintains that tightrope balance of the death scene, giving beautiful melodies their due (“Addio, del passato”) while still managing to appear desperately ill, sometimes using harsh inhales to project the seriousness of her affliction.
Atalla Ayan performs Alfredo with a delicious tenor tone, quite lyrical but endowed with force at the necessary moments. His “Di quell’amor” is just the heartwarming serenade it’s intended to be, and he brings out the engaging musicality in the perhaps underappreciated passages at the opening of Act II.

Spanish dancers Lorena Feijoo, Bryon Ketron and Blanche Hampton.
Nicola Luisotti and his orchestra played even beyond their usual high standards, bringing out a notable delicacy in the overture and endowing other moments (e.g., the tremendous crescendo leading to Violetta’s plea, “Love me, Alfredo!”) with grand power. John Copley’s lavish 1987 production makes a return here, including the gorgeous paneled paintings of Violetta’s house in Act I (John Conklin, set designer) and the rich reds, purples and blacks of the ladies’ dresses (David Walker, costume designer).

John Conklin's set, from the 1987 John Copley production.
Bryon Ketron cut a dashing figure as the dancing matador at the Act II gaming party. Spanking the Marquis (the name of my next band) offered a surprising bit of slapstick. Florian performed a convincing dead faint as Alfredo threw money at her, but I prefer it when Violetta’s already on the ground, shielding herself from the cash as if she were being assaulted by hailstones. Regardless, it’s a deliciously humiliating scenario.
Through Oct. 17, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue. $26-$398., 415/864-3330.

Michael J. Vaughn is a thirty-year opera critic, and author of twenty novels, including the recently released Figment, available at Operaville was recently rated the eighth-best opera blog in the world by

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

You Essay

You Essay

Freedom for the patriots,
soap for the clean
pokers and prodders,
wanters and yellers we
are not an orderly bunch.
It would be easier to
funnel your genomes through a
collander than to cal-
culate just what sort of
thing is a country
A fiction, a haystack of
gathered wishes, a false fish
The self-proclaimed spend their
days singing to a festive rag
worshipping a god that
no one can agree upon
collecting bumper stickers
proclaiming what they hate
I know you want to kill me;
the time will come soon enough

Michael J. Vaughn's twentieth novel, Figment, is now available in both digital and paperback forms at

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Figment: Novel Excerpt

Michael J. Vaughn, the featured critic of Operaville, recently published his 20th novel, Figment, at The story follows Channy Adams, an Olympia, Washington radio journalist, whose everyday life begins to unravel little surreal bits at a time.
She gives Shawn a long wraparound kiss and watches him amble to his car. He leaves a track in the dew of her driveway and disappears into the fog.

          She takes a long shower to clean out the déjà vu, sits down for a bowl of cereal and fills a Thermos with coffee. Across the lawn, the gardeners have cut a long hallway through the undergrowth. Tendrils of salmonberry reach out to catch at her sweatshirt. She emerges at a waterside trail, packed mud that slaloms a series of willows before opening to a rocky beach.

          Channy takes a swallow from the Thermos and almost drops it at a piercing noise behind her. She spins to find a bald eagle perched on an overturned rowboat. The bird is post-office perfect, golden eyes, a cowl of white. He gives her an offended stare, unravels an impossibly broad pair of wings and launches, straight over Channy’s head. He continues north along the water, pausing to make a talon-strike on the surface but coming up empty.

          Once she rediscovers her breath, Channy inspects the rowboat and finds upside-down lettering: HMS Bessie. She recalls this vessel from the summer, a long and lovely drift as she tried to work husband number two out of her system. As with all things Bessie, the setup is immaculate. The boat is tied to a metal post to prevent high-tide driftaways. Flipping it over, she finds the oars and a lifejacket velcro’d to the center bench.

          After a bit of tugging and dragging, she manages a launch and drifts into the Budd Inlet, sliding the oars into their locks and searching for the old rhythm. Looking south, she can see the masts at the Swantown Marina. Her limbs begin to loosen, and she marvels at the speed she’s attaining. She stops for a rest and realizes that the boat is going on without her.

          Channy leans forward to inspect, and almost has her face taken off by a wall of black rubber, exploding from the water and crashing back down. It resurfaces, revealing a patch of white shaped like Africa. It’s an Orca.

          “Shit!” Channy feels the grip of panic, but fights it back by giving herself assignments. The oars are dancing in their locks, their blades skipping on the water, so she slides them out and stows them on the bottom of the boat. She peeks over the bow and finds the problem: the lead rope is taut, and somehow attached to the Orca. She takes a couple stabs at untying the knot, but it’s drawn tight by the force of the pulling.

          They’re gaining speed. The boat feels like it’s hydroplaning, ridges and banks rushing by to the east. If she wasn’t completely terrified, it might even be a fun ride. She considers hurling herself overboard, but the Puget is a hypothermia trap, and also she might become Orca food. She grips the gunwales and tries her best to stay balanced. The mental pause allows Channy to entertain another horrifying thought: Orcas like to dive.

          She needs to cut the rope, but she has nothing sharp, not even her housekeys. Then she thinks of Bessie, paragon of preparedness, and considers the interior of the rowboat. The only unobservable space at this point is the underside of the bench. She reaches a hand and feels a plastic edge, then rolls to the floor, landing her shoulder in a puddle. One good yank brings the delicious rip of velcro.

          It’s a first aid kit. She opens the latch and finds bandages, antiseptic wipes, medical tape – and a Swiss Army knife. With visions of a tragic fumble, she carefully sorts the blades – screwdriver, knife, scissors, can opener – and finds a serrated knife. She saws at the rope, entertaining a vision of the Orca taking her under when she’s this close (and thereby making her death that much more pathetic). After a single seriously long minute, she’s two-thirds through when the Orca snaps the rope with a mighty tug.

          Channy collapses on the forward thwart. The boat slows to a stop. The Orca dives, then takes a victory breach, revealing the rope looped around her tail, and continues north. Channy spends a few minutes letting the adrenaline seep from her muscles, then grunts her way back to the center bench. She finds the Thermos and is thrilled to discover that the coffee is still hot. She’d like to figure out where she is, but the weather conspires against her. She is surrounded by fog, turning everything – the ceiling, the horizons, the surface – to a slate gray. But then she sees a spot of yellow and realizes it’s a man in a kayak.

          “Hey! Help me! Hey! Over here!”

          It takes a long, long time, but eventually he arrives, puts a gloved hand on her gunwale and takes off his sunglasses.


          “Channy! Hey, nice surprise. What the hell are you doing out here?”

          “I’m not sure I should tell you. You would think I was nuts.”

          “Lasso an Orca?”

          “Well yes! How did you know?”

          “I caught the tail end of it.”

          “So did I.”

          Her joke sneaks up on them. Their laughter shakes their boats, sending out ripples. Channy reaches for Kai’s hand, which sends an odd buzz through her body.

          “Kai? Why did you kill yourself?”

          Kai blinks, embarrassed, and gazes into the gray distance.

          “The bullets they gave us were armor-piercing bullets. Do you know what those can do to the human skull?”

          “I… can guess.”

          “I didn’t just kill your husband, Channy. I obliterated him.”

          Channy shivers. “But… you had to.”

          “Look. I’ve run the ethical formulas a gazillion times. I get it.”

          “He was slaughtering civilians.”

          Kai stares at her. “It doesn’t erase the image. The image never goes away.”

          “I’m sorry.” A low birdcall echoes in the distance. Channy takes away her hand. “So that’s why you took the sleeping pills?”

          “Well, they helped a little.”

          “No, I mean… the overdose.”

          “It would be pretty stupid if I left you with the same image.”

          “You’re a good man, Kai.”


          She wipes her eyes, remembering him on the bed, looking so peaceful and still.

          “So how the hell do I get out of here?”

          Against his brown Sherpa skin, Kai’s smile is as dazzling as ever. “The tide.”

          The water rumbles beneath them. Channy drifts away.

          “Why aren’t you coming with me?” she calls.

          Kai shrugs. “Got no gravity!”

          The tide is not so bad as the Orca, but still she feels powerless, out of control. She passes an enormous tower, anchored in the water by a concrete base, and looks up to see two long strips in the sky. It’s the Tacoma Narrows bridges, old and new. She feels herself giving in to a drilling exhaustion. Fearing hypothermia, she tries to stay awake, but it’s no use. She gives in, and drifts away.




Channy feels a bump, and opens her eyes. She is draped across an aluminum bench, with a tremendous crick in her neck.

          “Hey lady! You okay?”

          The voice comes from a bright spot in the water. She sees white teeth and brown skin.


          The face produces a rapid stream of Spanish. She shakes her head.

          “I’m sorry?”

          He laughs. “I thought you said ‘Que.’ I should have known. You’re much too white for a muchacha. Although right now you’re looking a little red. Are you okay?”

          She marvels at how deftly he switches languages.

          “Where am I?”

          “Port Townsend.”

          She squints and can see the waterfront buildings behind him, lined up like dominoes.

          “Can I tie up somewhere?”

          “Sure. Follow me.”

          He turns his kayak and paddles away. Channy finds her oars and slides them into their locks. On her first few pulls, her arms feel like putty, but he’s nice enough to wait for her. They pull up to a new-looking pier with green composite planks and shiny metal fittings. He finds a stray length of rope and ties up her boat, then helps her onto the dock. She stumbles like a drunk, so he wraps a hand around her waist and deposits her on a bench.

          “Man! You’re in rough shape. Hey, stay here, I’ll be right back.”

          He returns with half a sandwich and a water bottle. She guzzles it down, till he puts a hand on hers.

          “Hey, take it slow. You’re pretty dehydrated.”

          She smiles. “Okay.”

          “I’m Federico.”

          “Hi. I’m Channy.”

          “Channy. Cool name. So where did you begin this little adventure?”

          She is not about to tell him the truth, so she gestures southward. “Down that way.”

          “The Boat Haven? Geez, good thing a ferry didn’t run you down.”

          She smiles stupidly. Federico taps her on the knee. “Well look, I gotta get to work. But let me give you my digits. You got your phone?”

          She shakes her head.

          “Damn, girlfriend! Okay, give me your hand.”

          He pulls out a pen and writes his number on her palm.

          “You give me a call if you have any more trouble. But if you feel light-headed or nauseous you call 911, okay?”

          She nods. Federico pulls his kayak from the water and carries it up the dock. Channy finishes the sandwich, drops her lifejacket in the rowboat and heads for the waterfront, trying her best not to look like a homeless person.

          The main drag is lined with sturdy buildings made from brick, rough-hewn stone and thick timbers. Their offerings are the usual touristy suspects: imports, artworks, boutique clothing, books, ice cream, seafood. The afternoon sun – the one that saved her from hypothermia – peekaboos the high ridge. Channy shivers, her jeans and sweatshirt a weak defense against a Northwest evening. She begins to realize the seriousness of her predicament. She is without money, without cards, I.D., a phone, anything that might vouch for her standing as a member of civilization. Or just get her home.

          She has managed to think herself into a depression. Her legs feel weak. She finds a bench in front of a brick wall, folds her legs up to her body and cries. It feels good to let herself hit bottom. Perhaps when she gets there she can think herself out. She studies the lights lining a building across the street, rubs her eyes and wipes her hands on her jeans. At the distance of memory she hears a song. It’s a female voice, perfect vibrato, five percent sob, the lines blossoming like time exposure roses.

          She knows better than to ignore a lifeline. Channy straightens her legs, shakes out the stiffness and wanders past a sign reading Cellar Door. Inside is a classic bar, brick walls painted white, high-varnished tables, a stout L-shaped bar with windowed pantries. Toward the back, a quartet of musicians surrounds a Persian rug: an athletic-looking man on standup bass, a red-haired rascal working brushes over a drum kit, and an extremely tall man hunching over a baby grand. A stool at center front holds a woman with straight black bangs, a short yellow dress with white spangles, and penetrating green eyes. She’s singing Little Girl Blue, and she’s Ruby.

          Channy covers her mouth, turning her sob into “mmph,” but still a couple of patrons look her way. After the song, Ruby gives Channy a hug, holds a finger to her lips and takes her outside, right back to the bench.

          “Channy! How the hell did you know I’d be here?”

          Channy doesn’t know where to start. Her realities are insanities. But perhaps a partial insanity is okay.

          “I didn’t. I was just… in town.”

          Ruby gives her a look of stage surprise. “You got some kinda crazy GPS, girlfriend. I had a gig with Billy last night in Seattle, and he invited me to this little thing. I didn’t even bother to send out a tweet. No offense, honey, but you look like shit.”

          Channy laughs. “I had a little kayaking incident.” A gear turns in her head. “I also managed to lose my billfold in the water. I have not a cent or a way home.”

          “Holy shit! It’s a good thing you found me.” She peers through a window into the bar. “Look, I have to do a few more songs, but here’s a couple drink chips, and I promise we’ll figure out a way to get you home.”

          “Thanks, Ruby.”

          Channy watches the rest of the show from a chair in the back, letting an Irish coffee siphon the stress from her limbs. A card on the table reports that the drummer is Billy Saddle, a near-mythic figure who once cost the Memphis Blues a pennant by interfering with a fair ball. He’s also a hell of a singer. He joins Ruby for a playful rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” throwing in little jokes that threaten (but fail) to throw Ruby off her game. A half hour later, Billy sings a version of That’s All that threatens to send the whole bar into tears, and they wrap up the gig. Ruby brings him to Channy’s table.

          “Darling Channy. We have a plan for you. Tomorrow I am weighing anchor for Alaska, but it seems that a certain Mr. Saddle is driving home to Ocean Shores, which takes him right through Olympia.”

          “That’s fantastic,” says Channy. “Thank you so much.”

          “My pleasure,” says Billy. “It’ll be great to have someone to talk to – and keep me awake.”

          A gear turns in Channy’s head. “Billy, do you happen to have a digital recorder?”

          “What singer doesn’t?”




I am a preposterous woman, thinks Channy. Conducting an interview after a day like today. But then, perhaps the first step back from insanity is doing what one is used to doing. And certainly, the man has stories. The Blues shortstop, Pasco Fernandez, whose pennant-winning hit was turned into a ground-rule double by Billy’s grab, tracked him down fifteen years later and shot him during a softball game.

          “Is he still in prison?”

          “Yeah. Might be up for parole in five years. I did him a huge favor by not dying.”

          They descend to the Hood Canal Bridge, mere feet above the dark water.

          “So this epic baseball life of yours. Does that distract people from your musical talent?”

          “Sure. But it also brought me a huge audience. I get a lot of lookie-loos, but then it’s my job to turn them into jazz fans. It’s a bit of a Faustian bargain.”

          An hour later, they board the high passage of the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Channy stares into the darkness below, trying to imagine herself down there, dodging towers, just a few hours ago. She realizes, much to her consternation, that she has left Bessie’s rowboat tied to the dock in Port Townsend.

          “Have I given you enough?” asks Billy.

          “Oh, plenty.” She hits the stop button. She studies Billy’s face as he drives and sees something that she has been suspecting. He is barely concealing a heavy sadness.


          They achieve the end of the bridge and roll into Tacoma, the low hills like muffins frosted with housing.


          “That last song…”

          “That’s All?” He cocks an eye in her direction. “Off the record?”

          “Of course.”

          “That’s our song. My wife, Joyce. She’s dying. Pancreatic cancer.”

          “I’m sorry.”

          “Movies would have you believe that once you hit that happy ending, everything freezes. I’m finding it hard to have a positive thought these days.”

          “Been there,” says Channy.

          “Have you?”

          It’s a challenge. She can meet it, but it’s a game she’s tired of winning.

          “Not really.”

          “Sorry. I’m kind of a dick these days.”

          “That’s all right.”

          “No. It isn’t. Go ahead and mention the song if you like. She’ll enjoy that. But don’t say she’s dying. Say she’s ‘having health problems.’”

          “You got it. Thanks.”

          They stop at her cottage, sometime after midnight, to load the audio files onto her computer. She starts the coffee, but finds that Billy has fallen asleep on the couch. She covers him with a blanket, pulls out an air mattress for herself, and falls quickly to sleep. Her dreams have no chance of being as strange as her life.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Cosi by the Book

Malcolm MacKenzie (Don Alfonso), Colin Ramsey (Guglielmo), Cassandra Zoe
Velasco (Dorabella), Amanda Kingston (Fiordiligi) and David Blalock
(Ferrando). All photos by Bob Shomler.
Opera San Jose
Cosi fan tutte
September 9, 2017

Opera San Jose’s Cosi fan tutte is an exceedingly enjoyable production, not spectacular in matters vocal or conceptual, but delivered with a saucy comic energy and some solid acting from singers who seem to know something about developing their characters.

On the male side, the cast is exceptionally solid. Baritone Malcolm MacKenzie is funny and genial as Don Alfonso. This is so important to the audience experience, because Alfonso is our host, and we can relax knowing we’re in such capable hands.

Colin Ramsey (Guglielmo) and David Blalock (Ferrando).
Former OSJ resident Colin Ramsey brings his smoky bass-baritone and a bit of Giovanni dash to Guglielmo. This is patricularly true in “Donne mie la fate a tanti,” in which he scolds womankind for its perpetual infidelities, while simultaneously enjoying the fact that he’s so good at leading them into those exact infidelities. Yeah, he’s a schmuck, but a schmuck with style.

The vocal dessert comes from our Ferrando, David Blalock. His voice was puzzling at first, but I realized this was due to the polarized state of operatic tenors, who seemingly must declare themselves spinto or lyric, Domingo or Pavarotti. Blalock is firmly neither, offering a well-tempered tone with a beautifully even vibrato. The value of this sound came to the fore in the haunting “Un aura amarosa,” highlighted by a particularly divine decrescendo.

The distaff side brought an additional puzzlement. Amanda Kingston and Cassandra Zoe Velasco seemed to have the same voice. It turns out that Kingston’s soprano has a bit of weight to it, whereas Velasco’s mezzo is of the nimble, Rossinian variety, so they sort of meet in the middle. This created some lovely blending in the sisters’ many unison parts.

Amanda Kingston (Fiordiligi) and David Blalock (Ferrando).
Sadly, Kingston’s extra power, though ringing powerfully in the top notes, didn’t quite project the bottom notes of Fiordiligi’s infamous “Come scoglio.” I feel bad even remarking on it, since the piece ranges over two octaves, with ridiculous leaps, but there it is.

Both women do a wonderful job of occupying their characters. Kingston’s fairness and height lend themselves to Fiordiligi’s haughtiness, while Velasco’s darker features and cuteness serve well for Dorabella’s agreeable nature and weaker principles. Velasco’s eyes are madly expressive, able to convey many small shifts in emotion with the tiniest of movements.

Malcolm MacKenzie (Don Alfonso) and Maria Valdes (Despina).
Maria Valdes plays the soubrette Despina with a fine air of mischief and sauciness (her R-rated CPR on the fake-dying boys is priceless). She could, however, use a little more power for the back rows.

Brad Dalton’s stage direction is pretty traditional, but he does well in tweaking cast energies and crafting gags. One shtick features the chorus watching a back-and-forth argument like spectators at a tennis match. Ferrando and Guglielmo perform their Albanian alter egos with a variety of hilarious poses and hand gestures (at one point they even huddle like football players to decide which pose they should try next).

Steven C. Kemp’s set is elegant and firmly classical, featuring faux columns and high windows tinted cerulean. The set stays the same as furnishings and rolling topiary lemon trees change the atmospherics. (At one point, Don Alfonso uses one of the trees as a mobile camouflage unit.) Elizabeth Poindexter’s costumes are lovely, notably the Don’s gorgeous burgundy suit with gold embroidered fringes.

Peter Grunberg conducts with a sublime sense of touch, particularly the rolling waves of strings in the trio “Soave sia il vento,” as the soldier boys depart across the sea. Veronika Agranov-Dafoe’s fortepiano continuo always seems like an extra person in the conversation, another reason I remain such a devotee of recitative. (Its economies in delivering story information are such that I always wonder why no modern composer makes use of it.)

Cassandra Zoe Velasco (Dorabella) and Colin Ramsey (Guglielmo)
The older I get, the more I love Cosi fan tutte. It raises such disconcerting questions about our troubling human behaviors and contradictions, which is such a rare quality for a comedy (but not, thankfully, for a Mozart comedy). I would also like to propose two pop-song titles for a modern film adaptation of the story: “Love the One You’re With” and “My Best Friend’s Girl.”

Through 9/24, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose., 408/437-4450.


Michael J. Vaughn is a thirty-year opera critic, and author of twenty novels, including the recently released Figment, available at Operaville was recently rated the eighth-best opera blog in the world by