Monday, June 18, 2018

Moon the Loon

Keith Moon: The Real Me
monodrama by Mick Berry
3Below Theaters

Frankly, the whole “insane genius” thing pisses me off. History holds far too many great sane artists to support this idea that lunacy somehow opens the gates to creativity. That said, I can see how mentally ill artists make better stories, and therefore get better “press” when it comes to furthering their legacies.

Keith Moon, the addiction-crippled, mentally unbalanced drummer for The Who, certainly fits the bill, especially in the late-‘60s/early-‘70s Golden Age of rock, when destructive energy matched up with an unstable world to create nihilistic music.

Mick Berry’s wildly energetic one-man biodrama wrestles with this myth in a couple of ways. One, our host, Moon the Loon himself, pulls no punches, blaming himself for courting insanity, at the cost of his family and (in one truly horrific chapter) the life of his driver. Two, Berry’s performance actually addresses the music, the true reason for Moon’s genius, and the manic art of playing drums.

I’ll admit a certain bias. As a semi-pro drummer and singer, I demand a certain level of technical know-how when it comes to my musical novels, and find it infuriating that most music-based stories (Ann Patchett’s supposed opera novel Bel Canto, and just about every article ever published in The Rolling Stone) are about image and nothing else.

The way Berry addresses this problem is to play an impressively large drum kit to several Who songs during his performance. This is difficult enough (a recording has none of the give-and-take of a live band), but he also continues to talk during the songs, which, considering Moon’s highly involved style of play,  is a horribly difficult thing to do.

What we learn about Moon’s approach is deliciously, geekily satisfying. Founded in lessons from rock drummer Carlo Little (who once turned down a gig from an unknown band called The Rolling Stones), Moon learned to depend on a heavy bass beat, freeing himself from the standard 2-and-4 snare backbeat and allowing the production of cascading fills on toms and cymbals, riffing back and forth with Pete Townshend in an almost jazz sensibility. After seeing this show, you’ll better understand how Moon’s thundering, ever-talking presence led to the sense that The Who was simply bigger and louder than all the other bands.

The most impressive passage comes near the end of the evening, as Berry narrates what goes through a drummer’s mind during a song, in this case “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Having been on that throne, I can tell you it really rings true. By performance time, a drummer has worked out all the technical stuff and  goes about “feeling” the song in a much more visceral fashion. Berry leads us through the sections with phrases like “lay out,” “build the tension,” “lead into the second verse,” “Oh God, I’m playing the same damn beat over and over, I’ve run out of ideas. No! How about this?”

The speaking side of Berry’s show provides quite a few entertaining tidbits about the band: the guitar smashing, groupies, booze, pills – how they made Tommy all about pinball mostly to make sure it got a good review from London’s most powerful rock critic, who was really into pinball. And some of the elaborate jokes Moon plays on strangers are worthy of Candid Camera’s best. But it’s this incredibly demanding combination of simultaneous acting and drumming that makes The Real Me such a treat, especially if you’re a fan of The Who.

Through June 25, 3Below Theaters, 288 S. Second Street, San Jose, 408/404-7711,

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of twenty novels, including the rock novel Slow Children, and the drummer for San Francisco’s Exit Wonderland.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Meeting with the Diva

An excerpt from the novel Operaville, available at

Author's Note: Thanks to my work as an opera critic and journalist, I've had the chance to meet several bona fide divas - Deborah Voigt, Frederica von Stade, Irene Dalis, Licia Albanese - and, for the most part, have found them to be extremely down-to-earth, far from the spoiled prima donna stereotype. I determined to make my fictional diva, Maddalena Hart, similarly earthy, which is what makes this first meeting with a catatonically star-struck opera blogger, Mickey Siskel, so much fun. My apologies to Samuel Ramey for the fart joke.

For once, my opera-day schedule is devoid of adventure. A half-day pressure wash above the Lexington Reservoir, top of a freakin’ mountain, it’s hard to believe that places like this exist. Much as I hate driving that dirt road to my cabin, I cannot resist the chance to get myself clean. So I take my clawfoot bath, sunlight ticking in through the madrones, doll myself up in the usual black suit, then pick out a striped burgundy tie that Katie gave me.
            So I’m all moussed up and back on Interstate 280. It’s pretty hot outside, so I’ve got the AC blasting away like a Wagnerian tenor. I slip in a Foo Fighters cassette to give myself some audio contrast, and I’m feeling good.
The luxury of time allows me to scout the curbside parking spaces, and I nab one just outside the Civic Center garage, with a meter that stops nicely at 7 p.m. I arrive at the press room a half hour before curtain, and I relish the chance to sit on a couch with a coffee as I scour the program. This one’s got a vastly entertaining piece on the life of Alexander Pushkin, although the language drifts into that neo-Dickens that opera writers feel obligated to adopt.
Just across from me is a television monitor showing the stage. They’ve given the production a full-size title screen, a Russian village in the style of Chagall, Yevgeny and Tatyana drifting overhead, accompanied by a flying cow and a violin. I’ve always wondered if they use this monitor just to track the show, or if they force late-arriving critics to sit here and watch the first act on TV. Fortunately, I have yet to test the system.
I finish my coffee and article and head for the refreshment table, where Delores has arrayed a fine selection of crackers and spreadable cheeses. It’s good to be a critic. Delores is occupied with her twenty-some guests, so I finish my munchies and slither into the hall.
Tchaikovsky is such a mixed blessing he’s almost a frappé. The orchestrations are lush, the vocal lines soaring and graceful, but he’s certainly in no hurry to tell a story, and not overly fond of quick tempos or jaunty rhythms. I saw Joan of Arc last year, and it literally put me to sleep. “How could you possibly make Joan of Arc boring?” you ask. Mostly by following that brilliant Russian tradition of keeping all the action strictly offstage. That way, all the characters can gather to discuss it after-the-fact. It’s like skipping the football game so you can get to the exciting post-game wrapup.
Pushkin was hardly innocent of this himself ; his works are more dependent on social commentary and descriptive details than plot. But somehow his verse novel inspired Tchaikovsky’s most entertaining opera. Perhaps because the composer and his co-librettist, Shilovsky, preserved much of Pushkin’s language and were happy just to skim the cream from his story. They didn’t even call it an opera, opting for the phrase “lyric scenes” and trusting that their audience had already memorized the original novel.
The cast is certainly promising. The title singer is Jesus Cortez, a Venezuelan baritone who came up through SFO’s residency programs and is threatening to become the company’s biggest find since Anna Netrebko. Playing Lensky, Yevgeny’s best pal, is Ramon Vargas, a tenor who utterly knocked me out in last year’s Elixir of Love. That pure, lyric – dast I say Pavarottian – tone, delivered with such ease, and a remarkable level of comfort on stage. With the two of them, the papers are calling it “the world’s first Latino Tchaikovsky,” but of course at the opera it’s just another night.
The most preposterous role is Tatyana, a teenager who is rarely played by anyone under 30. It takes at least that long just to develop the required vocal skills. But for once it’s not Maddalena’s singing that’s impressing me so much as her acting. I’ll save the details for later, but her handling of the Letter Scene is a revelation.
It’s a traditional production, sometime in early 19th-century Russia. They’ve outfitted her in a white country dress with floral patterns in blue. Her honey-blonde hair hangs long down her back. She’s gorgeous, as usual.
At the end of the act, I’m entirely wired on the performance. I’m loitering between the lobby and the south hall when I find a woman in a beaded silver-blue dress advancing my way. It’s Delores.
“Mickey! I’m so glad I found you.” She hands me a blue envelope. “Sorry, have to run. Ta!”
She heads off to the lobby, leaving me feeling like the straight man in a Neil Simon play. I open the envelope to find a photographic note card portraying a collection of pineapples, mangos and bananas in Mozartean gowns and waistcoats. The caption reads Cosi fan tutti-frutti. Inside is a handwritten note in a smooth cursive.

Would love to talk with you about your writing. Please meet me at Jardiniere one hour after curtain.
Grazie – Maddie

I scan the walls, looking for hidden cameras.

The rest of my evening is its own rather enjoyable brand of hell. I need to take in enough to support a reasonably intelligent review, but how is one bit of it going to penetrate my brain when I know that I will soon be talking to Tatyana herself? (She turns down Onegin, standing in her regal scarlet ball gown, nicely married to royalty, every woman’s dream revenge for a first love scorned. And yet, she is heartbroken.)
The worst part is that post-performance hour. I understand all the cleanup, undressing, meetings with friends and fans, but it leaves me with sixty absolutely unkillable minutes. The ushers are eager to clear everybody out, so all I’m allowed is my visit with Miss Tebaldi and the adjacent men’s room. Five minutes. After that, I figure it’s a good idea to fetch my car and re-park it nearer to my final destination. Ten minutes. Then I take a stroll around City Hall, but it’s getting cold. I am downright euphoric to find a copy of the Bay Guardian, sitting alone in its box, and I make my way to the bar to sit and read.
Jardiniere is like the most elegant retro-‘60s Eichler living room you’ve ever seen. Entering the double glass doors, you encounter a wide curve of staircase to your left. Straight ahead is a horseshoe bar with cut-glass ornaments, and along a brick wall to your far left you’ll find a series of long, straight couches with square leather cushions, the seating enclaves marked off with armchairs and glass-topped coffee tables.
The hostess, a young brunette dressed in black pants and shirt, leads me to one of these couches, nicely sheltered by the bottom of the staircase. Looking up, you can see dining-room tables next to the upstairs railing, patrons peering over as if there’s some kind of a show down here. A nice-looking redhead in the same black uniform perches on an ottoman and takes my order, a lemon-drop martini. But no appetizer. I’m hungry as hell, but I don’t think my stomach would be able to handle it.
The place is pretty full, but not packed. It’s hard to figure the demographics – locals? business types? tourists? – but the clothing and hairstyles project a general air of wealth. I open my paper and pretend to read, but the final fifteen minutes are horrible. Every voice that jumps out of a conversation, every opening of a door yanks on my strings. I feel like an actor doing his first Hamlet. I can’t pull this off! They’ll never buy it. What’s my first line? Oh shit. Why couldn’t Maddalena Hart remain in the comfortable realm of mythic figure? What the hell does she think she’s doing, fraternizing with commoners?
She’s wearing blue jeans. Black pumps, a gray suit jacket over a black blouse. And a gray fedora with a silver band. She stands in the open area, looking around, and her gaze settles on me. She smiles. Why the hell would Maddalena Hart know my face? Perhaps I’m mistaken, perhaps I’ve got myself thinking that every woman who comes through that door is a diva. But here she comes, and those enormous green eyes cannot possibly belong to anyone else. I rise from the couch and I manage not to fall on my ass. She smiles and takes my hand. I hope I’m not sweating. I hope my breath doesn’t stink.
“Hi.” One word, two letters. That’s all I’m going to venture.
“Excuse the film-noir hat. I don’t exactly have a Britney Spears paparazzi problem, but we are near the opera house, and for some reason the hat seems to throw them off.”
“Oh. Yes. I…” Three words. I’m useless.
She nods toward the armchair. “May I?”
Silly question. She can sit wherever she wants. She can set fire to my hair. What am I, the armchair police?
“Yes,” I say. “Please.” Okay. That was pretty good.
She sits down and crosses her legs. Her face is very large. That sounds odd, but I have heard that it’s advantageous for performers to have large heads. I’m sitting across from an album cover. Cripes. The waitress arrives and asks about a drink. Maddalena is wearing pink fingernail polish. She dangles a hand over her knee. Her hand is very white.
“Whatever he’s having.”
“Lemon-drop martini?”
“Ooh! Yes.”
The waitress leaves. Maddalena studies me, as if I’m supposed to say something. She has heavy eyelids, a sleepy look. Bedroom eyes. Lauren Bacall.
“Lemon-drop, Mickey? Isn’t that a little gay?”
“Well, I’m… I guess… Sweet tooth.” I’m pathetic.
She runs her left ring finger along her lips, done up in a subtle pink, almost mauve. Her lips are almost as pillowy as on the album covers, with those little crinkles at the edges. Her speaking voice is husky, tired from the night’s work, though clearly soprano, her accent that enunciated American that verges on European. No trace of her native New York.
God, Mickey. How do we get you past this celebrity thing? I know there’s a real person in there, and I want to talk to him. But you’re all decoupaged into place, like I’m talking to a Rodin. Would it help if I farted?”
“I’m… sorry?”
She leans forward and lowers her voice. “Opera singers have tremendous control. It’s all in the diaphragm. Backstage at the Met, we have competitions. Watch out for that Samuel Ramey. If he’s had cabbage or Brussels sprouts, he has been known to fart the overture to Giovanni.”
It’s that last image that gets me. I chuckle.
“That’s it?” she says. “A little snort? This is some pretty top-notch material, buddy.”
I attempt to sip from the lemon-drop, and I realize what a precarious vessel is a martini glass. But the sweet and the cold of it does me well.
“I’m sorry. It’s just… you’re stupendous. You’re everything I…”
Maddalena places two fingers to my lips. “No! Don’t even start. I know exactly what you think of me, so… just… No!”
Maddalena Hart’s fingers on my lips. I’m going to pass out. She sits back and gives me a sly smile, a little wider on the right. She flicks her tongue along her front teeth. I’ve heard that singers do this, always adjusting the equipment.
“I get more flattery than a person should. There’s a certain pressure, having to answer to all that admiration. As for tonight’s performance, I’d rather read about it on your blog.”
The waitress arrives. Maddie gives her lemon-drop an appraising sip.
“Mmm. The citrus feels good on the throat. And, where was I? The blog! The level of understanding, so much more important than flattery. It’s like this: I’ve been reworking Fiordiligi with my voice coach, Luigi Corazonne. I do this every few years; it keeps my performances fresh. So I asked the staff at SFO to gather all the reviews for me. I wanted to see what kind of impression I was making.
“Most of them? Garbage. Either critical for all the wrong reasons or favorable for all the wrong reasons. Drives me insane. But way down at the bottom I find a printout of your blog, and I am mesmerized. This historical/critical hybrid, I’ve never seen anything like it. And all these connections between Adriana and the role. We all know the basic story, especially the loony tessitura, but I have never seen all the threads drawn together like that. The affair with da Ponte. The custom-composing by Mozart, Adriana’s lesser-known shortcomings.
“I felt like I had never fully understood why the part was written that way. And your description of the drops – the hang-glider, the toe-dipping. That was so affirming, because that’s the flaw in almost every Fiordiligi I’ve ever seen. I was so determined not to stomp those notes. Visualization is drastically important to me, and now I have this lovely image to help me whenever I sing the part.
“I’ll tell you, Mickey, most of the critics out there are so damn sure that they know everything about opera, and never do they land on something like that. It’s all bluster. When did they all give up on learning? I didn’t. You didn’t. And no offense, but I get the feeling that your operatic knowledge is anything but encyclopedic. But maybe it’s the humility, the not knowing, that opens the way to discovery. Where did you come from, Mickey, and how do you come up with this stuff?”
Maddie Hart the opera star is tapping her finger into my chest. I cannot force a word past my mouth. I’m an imposter. She immediately makes matters worse by taking off the fedora and unpinning her hair. She shakes it out with a hand and lets it settle along her shoulders, revealing subtle gradations of platinum, straw and sand. An elderly woman in a black sequin gown creeps up from behind, program in hand.
“Ms. Hart? I hate to interrupt, but you were fabulous tonight! Could I trouble you…?”
She hands Maddie the program and a pen and waits as she signs the cover.
“Thank you so much!”
“Thank you for coming to the show.” The woman walks away, and Maddie turns to me with a smile.
“You see what I mean about the hat? It’s like an invisibility cloak. But opera singers have the most well-behaved fans in the world. I would hate to put up with those obnoxious movie fans. I asked you a question, young man!”
She slaps me on the knee, another injury to my sense of reality. In doing so she leans forward, allowing me a generous view of her cleavage.
“I’m sorry. What was the question?”
She gives me a broad stage laugh. I can see the little wrinkles at the corners of her eyes.
“Let me rephrase it. How did you arrive at this unique approach to critiquing opera?”
“Oh. Well… I…” Hell. I was just going to have to tell her the whole mediocre truth. It has to be some sort of felony to perjure yourself to a diva. I take a deep breath.
“Absolute ignorance. I came to opera late in life, with little musical knowledge. So I listened to everything I could get my hands on, and I read everything I could. But still, it wasn’t enough. I had to see it firsthand, but I couldn’t afford the tickets. I have this friend who works at a community newspaper, and she said the local performing groups were always offering her free tickets, whether she wrote about them or not. With print media dying off, and arts coverage being hacked to pieces, they’re desperate for any recognition they can dig up.
“So she told me I should start a blog about opera, and request comps from the regional companies: Opera San Jose, West Bay Opera, Mission Opera. If they gave me any trouble, she could vouch for me. But they gave me no trouble at all. Fortysomething guy, corporate demeanor, no problem.
“After that, however, came the real puzzle: how was I supposed to write about these operas? I didn’t have enough expertise to offer much of an opinion about the singers. Or the production values, or the directing. So I covered my tracks with research, and I discovered that almost every opera ever created has some fascinating backstage story. So I connected that to my reviews, and I came up with something that was, at the least, entertaining.
“The rest is in the details. I had my newspaper friend hack up my stories until I became a decent writer. I learned to upload photos, and made sure I got the credits right. I double-checked the calendar and ticket info. Then I sent an email to the opera to make sure they read it.
“A year later, I began to find my reviews being quoted on singers’ websites, and on the season brochure for West Bay Opera. I sent a query off to San Francisco Opera and was absolutely shocked when they gave me tickets for the entire fall season. The second production was Figaro, with Maddalena Hart as the Countess. But that’s the story. I’m an imposter. I snuck in through the back door. And now I’m sitting here talking to my favorite singer.”
“Favorite singer?” she says. “Or most famous singer?”
“Absolute favorite.” I’m about to tell her the car story, but I decide that it would be too much. “How far back in my blog did you read?”
She gives me an embarrassed smile that takes off twenty years. (Perhaps embarrassment is a youthful endeavor.)
“Okay. You got me. I searched your blog for every reference to me, and I didn’t read about any other singer. But I was pressed for time! Honestly!”
I raise an accusing finger. “Aha! So you are a soprano.”
Now that our flaws are on the table, the conversation rambles freely, and it’s easier to forget the golden identity of the person with whom I am speaking. And I have always found this to be true: find two people with a passion for opera, and the time melts away. In this way, Maddalena Hart is everything I have wished for: an intensely focused performer with a need to constantly poke and prod at the secret meanings and nuances of her craft, to do anything to increase her understanding and sharpen her skill. I try my best not to sound like I’m interviewing her, but I do pick up some tidbits that are bound to pop up in my review.
Maddie and I close down the bar, and we find that my car is parked directly behind hers. She opens her door, tosses her bag and fedora inside, and turns to receive whatever farewell I might offer. The lights of City Hall strike the low overcast and fall over her in a soft mist, spelling out the brighter tresses of her hair, glimmering in the corners of her eyes. Even if she were not Maddalena Hart, I would be in love with her. I take her hand and bring it to my lips. Being a diva, she knows how to accept this, with a smile and the subtlest dip of her knees.
“I can’t even tell you,” I say. “So I won’t. Thank you for appreciating my appreciations.”
“Thank you, Mickey. I can’t wait to read your…”
Maddie stops and looks down, rubbing her eye as if a piece of dust has landed there. She looks up with tears on her cheeks.
“Don’t ever stop writing, Mickey. You do lovely work.”
She kisses me on the lips. Then she gets in her car, gives me a wave and drives off. I wave back. Maybe five minutes later, I remember to get in my car and start it up. I doubt very much if I will have a problem staying awake.
On the lips. I wait until I can see the Stanford dish, and then I play “Song to the Moon.”

Photo: Isabella Ivy.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Holocaust Musical!

The People in the Picture
Guggenheim Entertainment
April 26, 2018

You don't really go to a Holocaust musical expecting a fun time, but with The People in the Picture, you get it: laughs, hutzpah, lively music and dance. If it weren't for the damn Nazis it would be a merry evening all around. Guggenheim Entertainment's production of Iris Rainer Dart's 2011 Broadway musical (she of Beaches fame), is tightly performed, strong-voiced, raucous, and touching in all the right ways.

The setup is everything, and here Dart wisely sets her focus narrowly: on Raisel, a Warsaw vaudevillean who survived the Nazis and lives in 1970s New York with her daughter and granddaughters, Red and Jenny Martin. Musically speaking, Raisel's old troupe, the Warsaw Gang, provides an excellent excuse for some lively jazz/klezmer numbers, like the opening "Bread and Theatre." This by legendary hit-writer Mike Stoller, who co-wrote the music with Artie Butler. Another fun device is the time gap. Nothing like a klezmer band performing Stevie Wonder funk vamps to signal a return to the '70s.

Not that bittersweetness is out of the question - it is, in fact, the lingua franca of the story - but humor is a constant companion. The true meat of the story comes not in the familiar fascist dangers, but in an intriguing question: what happens after you do whatever's needed to survive? Where other narratives focus on the horrors of WWII, this one centers on the disruption of families and culture. The second act brings a situation that is astounding in its sheer dilemmic tension. Everybody's right, and there is absolutely no good solution.

Natalie Schroeder, Susan Gundunas, Stephen Guggenheim,
Iris Rainer Dart, Emma Berman and Julia Wade.
A unique aspect of this production is the presence of many former and current opera singers. There's something very reassuring about this, knowing that the performers have all the notes they need, and a high level of understanding about crafting a song. Stephen Guggenheim, who sang tenor roles with the San Jose and San Francisco operas, plays the nice guys: Moishe, a gay performer who marries Raisel to save her the stigma of an illegitimate pregnancy, and fellow '70s TV writer Marvin, Red's colleague and boyfriend. Guggenheim projects a palpable mensch quality, and uses that ringing tenor to accentuate moments both dramatic and comedic. (He's also the musical director.)

Playing Red is Julia Wade, a former Opera San Jose soprano who went on to New York and a recording career in inspirational music. With a mere thirty-year gap between reviews of her singing (!), I can say that her instrument has developed a divine richness, from wine to sherry. In Stoller's "Now and Then," her phrasing is thoughtful and heart-rending, in a way that perhaps only a classically trained singer can execute. I also enjoyed her '70s wardrobe, which costume designer Julie Engelbrecht apparently stole from the Mary Tyler Moore show.

The straight line-punch line duo of Krinsky and Pinsker (Jim Ambler and Brian Watson) is priceless, as are their harmonies on Butler's "Remember Who You Are." And Natalie Schroeder plays Jenny with a swagger and energy equal to her adult cohorts.

This all leads to Susan Gundunas, who as Raisel is just brilliant. Gundunas was with Opera San Jose in the '90s, and I distinctly remember a heartbreaking performance of Tosca's "Vissi d'arte" that left me thinking, This woman can act! Perhaps the most amazing moments in the show are when she ages herself, from the '40s to the '70s, merely by changing the set of her face, the stiffness of her movements, and adding a Polish accent. It's downright Houdinian. She also demonstrates a unique ability to ditch the opera voice completely when it comes to the vaudeville numbers. Her performance of the Dybbuk number, in which she is possessed by a Jewish demon, is a glorious bit of physical/vocal humor. Later, she interrupts Butler's "Ich, Uch, Feh," a tribute to guttural communication, with screams of anguish, creating a moment that epitomizes the stark contrast of humor and horror everpresent in the show.

The six-piece klezmer band is awesome (and if you're going to get the klezmer groupies, clearly you need to play clarinet, Asaf Ophir). The choreography, created by Shannon Guggenheim, is delivered by the cast with great energy (I love the offbeat stomps of "Bread and Theater"), but also with the impression that they've all been dancing together for years. The new 3Below space - formerly the Camera 3 Cinemas - is warm and intimate, with a couple of unique advantages. You can park upstairs in the garage and never even leave the building, and you can eat popcorn during the show!

Through May 13 at 3Below Theaters, 288 S. Second Street, San Jose. $45-$58., 408/404-7711.

Michael J. Vaughn is a thirty-year opera critic, author and painter. His books Operaville and Gabriella's Voice are available at He sang in the San Jose State Concert Choir with Julia Wade and Stephen Guggenheim.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Power Voices at San Jose's Traviata

Pene Pati as Alfredo, Amanda Kingston as Violetta.
Opera San Jose
Verdi’s La Traviata
April 14, 2018

There were some resounding voices coming from the California Theatre Saturday as Opera San Jose gave The Lady of the Camellias the royal treatment. The most startling of these belonged to Pene Pati, the New Zealand tenor who has already become an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera and performed for that company in Rigoletto as the Duke of Mantua.

Pati announced his presence right away, in the opening scene’s “Di quell’amor,” delivering a tone that was (dare we say it?) Lucianoan, gorgeously clear and fluid, with careful attention to phrasing and rolled r’s (an art form in itself).The countryside monologues of the second act were a delight, as Alfredo exulted in his new love. In the Act 2 party scene, he showed that lyric can still be fierce, adding searing top notes to an already tense situation.

Amanda Kingston is no surprise at all – we’ve been enjoying her voice for a while now – but what really comes out here is her emotive abilities.The vocal work of the “Sempre libera” scene, in which she ping-pongs between love and freedom, is challenging enough, but she really makes us feel her dilemma. Over the course of the opera, the quality of her acting makes one really understand the particular tortures that Violetta goes through. After the death scene, I felt completely wrung out.

Flora (Christina Pezzarossi), Violetta (Amanda Kingston) and
Dr. Grenvil (Colin Ramsey)
A distinctive magic emanated from the duets. Pati and Kingston showed a rare ability to take intimate moments and project them to the balconies. The a capella sections of “Di quell’amor” were particularly sexy. Alfredo held on to the folds of Violetta’s dress as the two of them sang with their faces inches apart, their voices seeming to mix there before flying beyond the stage. This moment seemed to repeat itself in the final-act duet, ”Parigi, o cara,” the last time that Alfredo and Violetta believe they might have a future together.

After the listener has already been wowed by these two, in walks Malcolm McKenzie, whose baritone is stunningly powerful.His character, Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, is problematic in that he performs terrible misdeeds but is later supposed to elicit a certain forgiveness from the audience. Given the raw materials at hand, McKenzie and stage director Shawna Lucey wisely play Giorgio big and authoritarian. They signal his bad attitude by having him abuse a servant on the way in. It could be that same power that lends a certain weight to his deathbed mea culpas. (I’m still not buying it, but that’s the story’s fault, not the performers.)

The OSJ cast demonstrates impressive strength in the supporting roles. Soprano Erin O’Meally is lovely as Violetta’s maid, Annina, lending authentic feeling to her concerns over her beleaguered mistress. Colin Ramsey displays his fathoms-deep bass in the rather brief role of Dr. Grenvil. Babatunde Akinboboye has entirely too much fun with Marchese D’Obigny, who spends Flora’s party delving into domination, foot fetishes and cross-dressing. Philip Skinner gives the Baron Douphol a delicious sense of entitlement (Skinner has the perfect face for an opera aristocrat). And I was disappointed that Mason Gates didn’t have more singing to do as Gastone.

Lucey’s direction inspired a lot of energy in the party scenes. The Act I fest is a barely controlled chaos, and I appreciate the attention given to chorus members, who are not just milling about but having their own little dramas (games of musical chairs, beating each other over the head). At one point, a wayward couple walks right between Violetta and Germont during their sung conversation, which is such a party thing. Flora’s Act 2 Spanish party is even wilder, and the chorus women’s gypsy dances are amateur in the best sense of the word.

This sense of attentiveness came out, also, in the pivotal moments. The Cash Throw, in which the spurned Alfredo tosses a wad of bills at Violetta, is one of the more deliciously rude moments in opera. Pati delivers this with a bit of a backswing, like a bowler in a cricket match (and yes, I had to look that up). Kingston reacted by dropping to her knees with a crazy smile (as if to say, “How much worse can this get?”) and collapsing into the arms of her friends. The whole scene is incredibly tense. From there, the women reject their men one by one; my companion, Lady Platinum, disliked the sameness of the motion, as it negates the snowflake variation of relationships. The men line up in a tuxedoed squadron against the interloper (not knowing that he’s not really at fault, either).

Violetta (Amanda Kingston) and Giorgio Germont (Malcolm McKenzie)
Then there’s the Sudden Death, Violetta’s surge of energy just before she passes. In this case, she embraces Alfredo and then suddenly goes limp in his arms. This is another case of Lucey directing to the traits of her singers. Pati is a large, powerful man, so lifting Kingston as the curtain falls is a doable feat, and a striking image.

I am still trying to figure out how conductor Joseph Marcheso began the overture without the standard conductor’s applause. Very sneaky! I always enjoy his direction, but there were a couple of nits to pick. Kingston’s “Sempre libera” cadenzas felt a little rushed, and a bit later he cut off an applause. A particular highlight came in the haunting strings of the Act 3 prelude. Veronika Agranov-Dafoe’s rehearsal work was, as always, impeccable. The unexpected standout among Elizabeth Poindexter’s costumes was Annina’s brown traveling outfit, quite the smart number. Eric Flatmo’s set design was particularly nimble, like a mannequin wearing different clothing for each act. The country scene featured an especially attractive stone hearth.

The dance of the Gypsy ladies.
I was telling my date about the $75 million renovation to the California Theatre when there was a mixup with my tickets. An oddly friendly older patron immediately adopted my case and took me to the box office to straighten things out. I was just thinking, Who the hell is this guy? when he introduced himself as David Packard, the man who renovated the theater! (Also, yes, heir to the Hewlett-Packard techno-dynasty.) I was thrilled to offer him a very tardy thank you for the California and Palo Alto’s Stanford Theater, and eventually, to get my tickets. Perhaps next season I’ll run into Wozniak.

Through April 29 at California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. 408/437-4450, Alternating performers: Dane Suarez as Alfredo and Trevor Neal as Giorgio Germont (4/15, 4/27). OSJ's 2018-19 season will feature Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio (Sept. 15-30), Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (Nov. 18-Dec. 2), Heggie's Moby Dick (Feb. 9-24) and Puccini's Madama Butterfly (April 13-28).
Michael J. Vaughn is a thirty-year opera critic, novelist and painter. Look for his titles Operaville and Gabriella's Voice at


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.