North we go a-roaming from Wyoming to Montana
All upon a tankful of George Custer's diesel gas
Jesus Christ is savior on the local reservation
But still we eat our snowpeas on the Powder River Pass
Eastward in the gloaming from Wyoming to Mt. Rushmore
All to see the faces in the South Dakota night
Ripping down through Deadwood in the name of Rapid City
to see Abe Lincoln glowing in the cold arena light
to see Abe Lincoln glowing the cold arena light
And Roy Rogers sang the Torah
And Gene Autrey said shalom
We have wandered in the desert
Old man highway take me home
Gave us such a chilling there in Billings, South Montana
fictive flames of Zion just beneath the bookstore glass
Driving back down 90 just as fast as wheels would take us
to see them burning bridges in the deep Wyoming grass
Sunday, June 26, 2011
The Olsen house lies near the southern tip of Skyline Boulevard, at the far reaches of a well-organized mountain community. After a confusing series of forks, I pull onto a hilltop hosting three large homes under a canopy of live oak. The center house, rather Frank-Lloyd-Wrightish with all its natural touches, is one that we did last summer. I recall a terrifically hardy species of lichen that took forever to pressure-wash, as well as impractical white carpeting that we had to cover with adhesive plastic runners. But we must have done a good job, since we’re now putting in stakes with their next-door neighbors.
The Olsen estate is an assemblage of blue-gray boxes – pretty jarring next to the chaparral, but they’ve done their best to soften it with modern sculptures and fountains. My favorite is a jumble of steel rods at the entryway that seems to represent a pair of figures in erotic embrace. I find Colin piling equipment along the front steps, his early-Dylan hair bobbing and weaving as he moves.
“Ay! San Franciskel. Right on time as usual. You are a marvel of punctuality, my friend. Ready to spend the day on your hands and knees?”
“It’s my natural position.”
He joketh not. Our clients, a geeky software exec and his intermittently sexy wife, are inordinately fond of their deck. They insist on preserving it with an organic mineral-based stain so benign that it must be reapplied once a year. It feels more like we’re sautéing the deck in teriyaki sauce. But I’ll give them this: at twenty years of age, their deck is in immaculate condition.
The process is one royal pain in the tuckus. A glacial drying time means that we must wait three days between coats. It also means that, after laying the stuff down, we have to crawl around wiping up the excess with rags. The rags must then be deposited in buckets of water, lest they inspire spontaneous combustion. You don’t even want to whisper the word “fire” in these parts. This very mountain range has hosted three major blazes this year, and it’s only June.
Our starting point is the back deck, which offers one of the best views I’ve ever seen: a steep grassy downhill that disappears into mile after mile of evergreen mountains, followed by the faint low buildings of Santa Cruz (the white-steepled Holy Cross Church) and the Pacific Ocean. I take a mental note to take occasional viewing breaks; in the throes of labor, it’s easy to forget.
I position my trolley – a flat wooden board with wheels – set down my paint tray and fill it up with stain. Then I screw my thousand-bristle brush onto my broomstick, dip it in and start laying it down. Colin takes up shop at a walkway, three feet down, that rings the edge of the deck. We’re separated by a long limestone bench, but still in easy conversing distance. Colin is a painfully social creature, and not about to pass up the opportunity for a chat.
“Have a good weekend?”
“Yes. I saw Maddalena.”
“Ah! Is this a new one?”
“This is a soprano.”
“Ah yes – the one you’re so keen on.”
“That’s the one.”
“Did she fulfill your every desire?”
“All that I could ask for and not be arrested.”
“Well! Much as I appreciate a fine voice, I hope you’re having occasional meetings with actual women.”
“Oh, I did. Katie popped in on me.”
“Ah! The blonde midget. Guerrilla booty call?”
“Dressed in a dog suit.”
Colin replies in the long-voweled manner of the titillated Brit: “No-o-oh!”
I answer in the falsetto voice adopted by every American boy who grew up watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus. “She’s a saucy little bitch, she is!”
“Well I wish she would have a word with my number three. Fantastic woman – absolutely passive in the sack. May as well be inflatable.”
I stop, mid-dip. “You actually call her ‘number three’?”
“Not to her face. But she knows she’s number three.”
“How’s a girl going to improve unless she knows her ranking?”
“I wish I had your cojones.”
“Is that some sort of Spanish dish?”
Colin is a committed follower of Burning Man, a group that assembles a small city in the Nevada desert each summer for the purpose of burning a giant man. One of the offshoots of the group’s libertarian leanings is a population that practices poly-amory – committed couples who give each other permission to screw around. Colin refers to these types as “polys,” and I cannot help but picture horny men and women dressed as parrots. It’s clear that he means this expression dismissively, which is pretty funny coming from a man who numbers his girlfriends. On the other hand, my dismissal of Colin’s approach has less to do with principles than laziness. I have a hard enough time managing a single booty call; I wouldn’t know what to do with a harem.
“So this Katie sounds like great fun, actually. Why don’t you get involved with her?”
“She’s too busy going through a terrible divorce.”
“Ah, yes. Nuclear fallout.”
He works his way around the corner, but returns to work on some side panels. It’s been a half hour, but he takes up the conversation as if we haven’t missed a beat.
“Anyone else in the picture?”
“I have this online pal, DevilDiva, who claims that I’m in love with Maddalena Hart.”
“Ah, yes. You do wax poetic. But that’s sheer fantasy, correct?”
“Yes. I do not believe in the celebrity fuck.”
“I know who’s in love with you, mate.”
“Classic female stratagem. She accuses you of being in love with Maddalena Hart, because she wants you to say, ‘Why of course not, DevilDiva – I’m in love with you.’”
He delivers this with a swooning passion that truly cuts me up. I gotta say, it’s good to have a boss with a sense of humor. But I’ve got no answer for his hypothesis.
“Well!” says Colin, happy to have planted a seed. “I’d best fetch the rag-box. Hellish job, this, but we do need the work, eh?”
I repeat his favorite mantra. “It’s a slog.”
Colin abandons me at lunchtime to go wrangle up some new clients. I have no complaints, because him dealing with the clients means I don’t have to deal with them. All I want to do is work. Besides, as much as I enjoy our gossip sessions, Colin has a bad habit of micromanaging.
It’s a warm day, and with no one around I can take off my shirt and collect some rays. I slip into the rhythm of the work, and am pleased when I reach that state where I can think without thinking.
A few hours later, I have reached the shaded steps near the garage, and am about to slip my T-shirt back on when I hear a door. Misty Olsen stands on the top step in an elegant ensemble: chocolate-brown dress, gold earrings, a copper-colored scarf. Misty is the epitome of the mousy brunette, but like I said she can be unexpectedly sexy. Something about my midway-dressed state puts a weird charge in the air. She gives me an embarrassed smile.
“Hi. I’m meeting Mac for a fundraiser in Los Gatos.”
“You look good,” I don’t say.
“Oh,” I do say. “Have a good time.”
“I hope you finish soon! It’s got to be hot on that deck.”
“That’s all right – I’m in the shade now.”
“Well. I brought you a Coke from the garage. I’ll just leave it on the ledge here.”
Truth be told, I’m pretty well-stocked. Colin once had a scary brush with heat stroke, so he’s pretty insistent on throwing Gatorades at me. But still, as soon as Misty drives off, I go for that Coke. Soda isn’t even all that good for hydration, but when you’ve got one fresh from the fridge, little beads of sweat on the can – oh, there’s nothing like it.
Clients of contractors should understand this. I know you’re paying good money, and honestly there’s no time that Colin and I aren’t shooting for the highest quality, regardless. But with this single 50-cent Coke, Misty has purchased gratitude and loyalty, and a good feeling that will enable me to work that much harder on her deck.
As it turns out, I need every edge I can get, because the finishing slog is brutal. In the shade, the deck drinks up very little of the stain, which means more wiping. But I’ve got no choice; I’ve got to finish this first coat or our schedule will be all screwed up.
Finally, as the sun lowers over the ocean, I finish the last few planks. I take care to get all the rags into the water-buckets, and I take a look down to discover that I am a complete mess. So here I am stripping off again, a little spooked at Misty’s previous entrance. I use the few remaining rags for an all-over wipedown, then I take my softball gear out of my cleverly concealed duffel and get all suited up. I may be utterly destroyed at all available joints and tendons, but it’s time to play.
I cruise the familiar downhills of Highway 9, locked in on a Giants game, the delicious roll of Jon Miller’s baritone, Tim Lincecum casting his usual spell on opposing batters. I arrive in time to get in a few warmup tosses and then we’re playing. Truth be told, I have my best games when I am utterly exhausted. I think it’s because I truly couldn’t give a shit, and there’s something about apathy that makes for good softball. I am retired to second base these days, and the position suits me. During twenty years at shortstop, my fondness for diving brought fair-to-middling results – the throw to first is just too long. But at second I’ve got all the time in the world, time to gather myself, get to my feet (or at least my knees) and make that throw.
Tonight, however, I am merely the sidekick. Doug, the Japanese fireplug with the surprisingly wide range, is nabbing everything. He feeds me two perfect double-play balls in the first three innings, and in the fifth we are offered the chance to achieve the unthinkable. With men on first and second, the batter strokes a hard grounder that brings Doug into the baseline. He tags the lead runner and flips it to me at second. In the slow-mo nature of moments like this, I know immediately what’s up: we’re going for a triple play. In his rush, however, Doug has tossed the ball too far from the bag. Instead of stretching for it, I try to pull it back toward me for the throw to first, and it drops to the dirt.
At the end of the inning, I join Doug on his trot to the bench.
“Sorry, man. I could have stretched for the double play, but I could see that look in your eyes.”
“Oh, you read me right. Triple play or nothin’. You don’t get too many chances at greatness. And I totally choked on that flip.”
“A little excitement is a dangerous thing.”
We call our team the Bums, and we too often play like it. At 47, I am a master strategist (at 47 I have to be), and it drives me crazy, the stupid things we do on a regular basis. Like Marcus, our blowhard left fielder. Good with the glove, impressive arm, no more brains than a sack of caramels. Gets up with the bases loaded, one out, and rolls one down the line for an easy third-to-first double play. Hit that ball anywhere else on the diamond and you’ve got at least a run.
We lose by the usual brutally small margin, and I walk with Doug to the parking lot.
“Kids still small? No one in college yet?”
Doug chuckles. “The oldest is four. The youngest is still in diapers.”
“Good. I’m tired of finding out my friends’s kids are graduating Princeton.”
We walk a few feet in silence. I take note of Doug’s new-style softball backpack, two bats pointing skyward in their holsters. He looks like Clint Eastwood, riding into town with a pair of shotguns. Doug is my only teammate anywhere near my age – maybe 38. Thank God, because all these youngsters make me feel like an alien.
“How’re things with you?” he says.
“Oh, same ol’. Lotsa work, which is good. Couple of operas. Occasional bouts of sex.”
“Ha! You make it sound like boxing. You oughta be a writer.”
“I’ve thought about it.”
I haven’t told Doug about the blog. Hell, he’s the only one who knows about the opera thing at all. The field lights blink off. I have to slow down while my eyes adjust.
“I have the feeling that something extraordinary is about to happen. I have absolutely no basis for this. But you get these… signals.”
“I get those. Until I choke on the throw to second.”
“Ah, but what I’m envisioning is even bigger than a triple play.”
“Nothing’s bigger than a triple play.”
“Welp. Here’s my car. See ya next week.”
“See ya. And for God’s sake, clean off that nasty arm of yours.”
Sixth inning. Grounder to my right. I take a full-on dive. The ball ticks off the edge of my glove and heads for center field. My throwing arm lands on a gravelly patch of dirt. In the dim light of the parking lot, I touch my arm to my softball pants, leaving a Rorschach blotch of red. I laugh. It’s good to be a guy. It’s good to bleed.
“Voice is breath transformed.”
-- Maestro Salvatore d’Aura
I am on the Flanagan deck, where Colin and I are conducting a war with Mother Nature. With mid-June temps edging into the 80s, Colin has decreed that not one ounce of stain strike that deck in direct sunlight. This means a day-long dance in which I hopscotch from one surface to the next, following the squares of shade meted out by house and tree.
I am utterly behind schedule. The clock edges past six and I am still on the upper deck, applying a second coat that simply has to be finished today. And Maddalena Hart calls to me. I foxtrot our thousand-bristle brush across the final foot of plank, unscrew it from the broomstick and drop it into a bucket of water. Then I race downstairs to my car, grab my evening clothes and retreat to the back of the house, where the hillside offers some visual shelter.
That’s the thing about working in the mountains: you can get away with stuff you wouldn’t dream of doing in the city. I remove every stitch, grab a hose, brace for the shock, and crank the spigot. I give myself a thorough soaking, then I use my work shirt as a towel, drying off as much as possible before I start in on the evening wear.
I am trousered, shirted and ready to go when I pass by a large black pipe and hear the sound of descending liquid. Uh-oh. This is the sound of a toilet flush. Looking up, I see a small window with a light on.
I run up the steps to the driveway, toss my work clothes in the back seat, and am just pulling out when I see Mrs. Flanagan’s silver LeMans in the garage. I discover our 82-year-old client at the kitchen window, and give her a friendly wave. She waves back, wearing a smile that is equal parts flustered and amused.
A half hour later I am NASCARring along the sweet swath of Interstate 280, the fog drifting over Crystal Springs Reservoir like an army of cotton balls. My refrigerator-level AC has finally deactivated my pores, so I drop in at the Burlingame rest stop to assemble my dress shoes and tie. I pull into the Civic Center garage with minutes to spare, sprint up the urine-smelling exit and circumnavigate City Hall, the frigid municipal wind blow-drying my deck-hair. I arrive at the side entrance of the War Memorial Opera House and give a wave to the spry, ginger-haired gentleman who serves as my gatekeeper.
“Mister Siskel. Go on through. Delores is hosting tonight.”
Four of my favorite words. With her cutesy black-Irish features, youthful figure and actual personality, Delores forces me to keep an eye on my dirty-old-man alarm system. I cross the south hallway to find her in the press room, talking to the usual vaguely European assholes.
“Oh! I went to the Los Angeles premiere last autumn. They have a new artistic director. Dennis McClintock. Used to be with Glimmerglass?”
I have never heard one of these industry whores actually talk about an opera. They chatter like a squad of thirteen-year-old girls in a cafeteria. Delores has spotted me and is giving me one of her profoundly genuine-seeming smiles.
“Mickey! Let me find your ticket.” She shuffles her envelopes, poker-style, and hands one to me. “Oh, and the info sheets are tucked into the programs.”
I head for the coffee and add a ridiculous amount of cream to bring down the temperature. I know it’s Mozart, and staying awake is not a problem, but I want Maddalena’s voice to stream along my synapses on wide-open channels.
Delores leans over my shoulder. “By the way, Mickey, you know you could have a second ticket, right? It’s been five years – you’ve definitely passed the test!”
“To be honest, Delores, I am surrounded by people all week. If I can go on pretending that those tightwads at San Francisco Opera just won’t give me a second ticket, I may continue to use this as my personal retreat.”
She swats me with her envelopes. “No, Mister Siskel! You may not have a second ticket, and please stop asking!”
“Thank you. I mean, curse you, you miserly press relations… person!”
Her eyes light up, then she looks closer and develops a concerned expression.
“Oh, um… You might want to check your forehead.”
I head for the mirror over the refreshment table and discover a slash of golden stain over my left temple. I dip a napkin into my coffee and manage to scrub it away. The chimes go off in the hallway, so I head out, whispering a thanks to Delores.
There is not a square inch of the War Memorial that I do not adore. The gilded florets that look down on the cavernous lobby. The red-carpeted steps that lead to the auditorium; the scroungy standing-room-onlys shuffling for position behind the back row. The Olympic-sized gold bricks that cover the north and south walls. The spiky gardenia of chandelier that shuts off in a dazzling spiral.
My ticket says row L, fantastically close. I wait next to my aisle seat until my row fills up, then sit down and applaud the conductor, Patrick Summers, he of the silver mane and ruddy complexion, who should probably be astride a horse in an Eastwood movie. The burgundy curtain rises to the heavens.
Cosi fan tutte is the ultimate romantic farce. Rascally bachelor Don Alfonso scoffs at his youngers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, as they brag on the beauty and fidelity of their fiancées. He then concocts the juiciest of wagers: the two will pretend to leave the country, then return in disguise to test the faithfulness of the other guy’s chick. Make this a mid-century American film, and the women are tempted but not won; the assembled cast laughs and smiles for the final scene as someone plays Cole Porter. In the hands of Mozart and his librettist, da Ponte, things are never that comfortable.
The folks at SFO have gone for a modernized production. The purists hate these kind of things, but then I hate the purists. The sneaky fiancés traditionally come back as Albanians, all facial hair and Middle Eastern robes, but here they’re long-haired ‘70s-era rockers. The baritone wears skin-tight leather pants, a copper-colored duster and no shirt, revealing an impressive set of abs and an eagle tattooed across his chest. The supertitle translator is in on the joke, as well. When one of the sopranos catches sight of their weird-looking suitors, she asks, “Where are these guys from? Haight-Ashbury?”
Speaking of sopranos, I have found myself in a kind of sonic heaven. They have paired Maddalena with a Dorabella whose mezzo is forceful and vibrant, a perfect match. Equipped with Mozart’s harmonic magic – long passages of girl-on-girl singing – the two are sending out chill after chill to give my spine the beat-down.
And then there’s Maddalena, and since I do go on about her, perhaps I should give you a summary of her talents. Her voice is huge, and powerful, but never forced. She manages to maintain the buoyancy of the category known as lyric, showing a gymnastic agility that should be impossible for someone with such a broad, buttery tone. Her delivery comes with impossible ease, her tone spinning into the audience like a million tiny Frisbees. And her top notes are absolutely secure, the dynamics of her phrasing always thoughtfully dramatic. She also has that rare ability to appear as if she’s simply talking – as if we should all go around singing our conversations – when in fact she is launching pyrotechnic displays of sound that mere mortals may only dream of.
What’s serving to intensify my obsession is the present-day clothing. They have dressed her all in white – befitting Fiordiligi’s chaste attitude – a flowing pantsuit with a long jacket that flits here and there with her movements, revealing contours that one might not expect from an opera singer. The generous knockers, yes, the stout ribcage (an occupational hazard) – but the ass on this girl! Medium to generous, as befits a diva, but possessed of a round shape and firmness that would give your average construction worker hours of material. Throw in those oversized emerald eyes, a head full of blonde Monroe ringlets, and those inflatable, flexible lips that they emphasize for every album cover. By the time she arrives at the big second-act aria, I’m already a mess, my heart on a platter, waiting to be frappéd by her performance. But more on that later.
At the end of three hours, I head downstairs for my pre-drive restroom stop, stopping at a portrait of Renata Tebaldi from 1968 (in Andrea Chenier) to run my thumb across her name plate. Maddalena has been compared with her, and don’t go thinking that I disagree.
On the drive home, I pop Maddalena’s rendering of Dvorak’s “Song to the Moon” into the cassette player (it’s an old car), and then I cleanse my palate with some AC/DC. I picture the modernized Ferrando and Guglielmo onstage with Angus and Malcolm Young, as young opera fans flash their tits at the stage.
The drive is long but not difficult. Mozart to me is like crystal meth, and also I have my nightscapes. My favorite arrives at Stanford, between the satellite dish and the linear accelerator. The surrounding land is a green vale, dotted here and there by live oaks and cows, painted silver by three quarters of a moon.
Twenty miles later, I’m approaching the evergreen mountains behind Saratoga, speckled with the lights of houses belonging to the rich – who spend most of their daylight hours denying that they’re rich at all. But this is a previous lifetime, and I’m just passing through, into the long ascending stretches of Highway 9. The deer population keeps me alert, chewing on the roadside grasses perilously close to the asphalt.
The final directions are a little complicated. Half mile past the fire station, first Ped Xing sign to your right, through the gate with the combination lock. After that it’s a full mile of downhill dirt and gravel, the rain channels beating up the suspension, and finally the much-anticipated left-hand sweep that signals home base, ancient orchards to the right, cabin of Trey the Fish to the left. I park between two redwood trees, take a moment to breathe the mountain air, check out the moonlight sliding through the trees in dull metallic streaks, then reach back in for my program and make my way to the steps.
It’s Katie. She’s on all fours in the entryway, and, yes, as my eyes adjust to the dark I see that she is wearing a dog suit: floppy black ears, big round nose-cap, and a furry white beagle onesie with built-in paws and a springy spike of tail.
“Pretty cute, Katie. Could you maybe call next time so I don’t have a freakin’ heart attack?”
“Hawroof!” She shuffles forward and leaps on me. I pat her on the head and she pants her approval, then adopts a cartoony growl-voice. “Mrrickey bring bone? Katie want bone!”
“No Katie, I didn’t bring you a bone. Now let’s get inside and…”
She snarls (as menacingly as a four-foot-ten blonde can) then pads her way down to my crotch and snuffles around like she’s hunting for kibble.
“Oh! Okay. I getcha.” I drop my program on a filing cabinet, undo my belt and drop trou to reveal that yes, the dog has given the man a bone. She gives my dick a few exploratory licks and then engulfs it with a messy, dog-like blow job. I grab her floppy ears and endeavor to get into the spirit of things.
“Katie, you sexy bitch!”
After a minute she pulls away, circles around and raises her tail into the air. “Rrowf!” she says, what sounds like a canine command.
Ah, thinks I. I believe she wants to do it doggie-style. Access is a bit of a puzzle, until my initial butt-squeeze reveals a pair of large buttons. I quickly undo them and pull up the panel, revealing Katie’s round, plump cheeks. I dip a hand between them to find that she is well-lubricated, then I insert a finger, enjoying the vision of her bare pussy in the moonlight. My cock is about ready to launch itself right off my pelvis, so I take it in hand and guide myself home. It’s a grand feeling, but her tail keeps whacking me in the face.
An hour later, we’re back to human form, entwined beneath a couch blanket as we enjoy a small summer fire. I cannot usually tolerate such lengthy stretches of personal-space invasion, but Katie fits into the curve of my frame as if she were designed for the purpose. She also has this natural taste and smell that I never tire of, augmented by spearmint gum, vanilla shampoo, milk-white skin, bubble-gum nipples and labia – she is my candy girl. Too bad she’s so fucked up, but it’s really not her fault.
“How was the drop-off?” I ask.
“Oh God. Same old shit. I thought I was getting away clean, but then he calls me and says that Sara needs her Hannah Montana sweatshirt. ‘Just pull up,’ he says. ‘I’ll come to the car and get it.’ Always trying to get us alone together, like I find him so fucking irresistible I will me mesmerized by his manly presence and decide not to divorce him. For seven years I told that asshole we needed to work on our marriage, for seven years he didn’t do a goddamn thing, but now, now that I’ve left his sorry ass – now he desperately wants me back. Oh God, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be so pissy. But you shouldn’ta got me going.”
I stroke her hair, the way she likes me to.
“Y’gotta dump on somebody. It may as well be me.”
She gives me a kiss. “Thanks, honey.”
“As long as you’re bitching about other men, I could listen for hours! It’s just the price of admission. And what a show you put on tonight.”
“I’m a creative little slut.”
“What do you say to popcorn and a movie? They’re playing an old Hitchcock.”
She gives me that priceless, impish smile, eyes the color of a spring sky. “Sounds fab, honey. You’re a great fuck, ya know?”
“Thanks.” I give her lips a proper chewing and head off to the microwave.
I have a life-long habit of dating brunettes, so it’s still a surprise to find this golden-haired creature sitting on the edge of my bed, doing her best to work out the morning tangles. She is a small sun over my nightstand.
The hour is another thing. Ungodly. Fifteen minutes later I am re-awakened by a toothpaste kiss, and wet hair that smells like peaches. I do my best to smile, and then I assemble enough clothing to ward off hypothermia and walk her out to her car. The morning is sharp and beautiful, lemon slices of sun cutting through the trees. A pair of Steller’s jays wing in front of us to carry their squabbling to a small madrone. I lean Katie against her car and do some more work on those lips.
“So I was wondering… where did you get that outfit?”
“Our church did a production of ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.’”
“I was fucking Snoopy? Good grief!”
“This is Charles Schulz, spinning in his grave.”
She bites her lip. “I better go. Air kiss?”
I wrap my arms around her back, lift her into the air and apply lips liberally, then I spin her a couple of times so we can look like a scene from a screwball romantic comedy. Or Cosi fan tutte. Then she’s gone, up the road, down the mountain, off to pick up the kids for church. I must be a good fuck, for all the trouble she goes to. And I am profoundly impressed at her ability to compartmentalize between Saturday night and Sunday morning.
I indulge in a couple more hours of snoozing, but it’s not going to be more - I’ve got too many ideas circling my bloodstream. My agenda begins with a long sit on the pot as I read every shred of SFO’s program, including a seriously well-written piece on the friendship between Mozart and his librettist, da Ponte.
Second is a long soak in my most excellent clawfoot bathtub. I am a connoisseur of luxury soaps, and this morning I am breaking in a French-milled Shea butter bar with the deeply sweet aroma of linden blossoms. Over the next two weeks, this scent will suffuse the entire cabin. I lather it between my hands, hold the suds to my nose and then begin with my left foot before the water gets too high.
After that I’m raring to go, so I keep the breakfast simple: two pieces of toast with butter and strawberry preserves, followed by fresh-ground Ethopian coffee. I head to my writing table, positioned before a window view of my twin redwoods, to the right a deep hollow covered in madrone. To the left is the cabin of Trey the Fish, with yet another topless woman flouncing on the deck. I make a mental note to thank him. I position myself before a circle of books – a Mozart biography, Grove’s Book of Operas and the SFO program (the cast page covered with written-in-the-dark scrawls) – set down a spiral-bound notebook and pick up a cheap powder-blue stick pen. I don’t play any music, because already I can hear Maddalena singing.
If you were a singer in Mozart’s company, you really couldn’t lose. He would write the role to accentuate your strengths, and dance artfully around your flaws. Thus was created one of the scariest roles in the canon: Fiordiligi of Cosi fan tutte, her stunning rollercoaster vocal lines inspired by the awesome high and low registers of Adriana Ferrarese.
It’s quite possible, however, that that’s all she had. Other than Fiordiligi and a few productions as Susannah in Le Nozze di Figaro, Adriana had a pretty lackluster career. This came from two important shortcomings: she couldn’t act, and she couldn’t do comedy.
Aha! you say. (Go ahead – I’ll wait.) So why was Adriana so successful in the decidedly farcical Cosi? Excellent question, and here’s your answer: because Fiordiligi is the square peg, holding firmly to her church-girl principles even as all around her are screwin’ around. This custom-crafted role came about either through good fortune or because Adriana was sleeping with the librettist, da Ponte. The torridness of the affair (owing largely to the married status of both participants) doubtlessly contributed to the libretto’s conflicted views on love and fidelity.
Regardless, given the way that Mozart treats Fiordiligi as his own personal yo-yo, any normal soprano should be forgiven for not being entirely up to the part. Fortunately, we’re not talking about normal sopranos – we’re talking about Maddalena Hart. Hart’s easy top notes are the stuff of legend, and her bottom end is not to be disregarded. For recorded evidence, note the low sobbings at the denouements of Boito’s “L’altra notte” (Mefistofele) and Dvorak’s “Song to the Moon” (Rusalka) from Hart’s Favorite Arias album. The depth of these passages has won the singer much-deserved comparisons to Tebaldi.
Naturally, it’s not just having the notes, it’s how the notes are deployed. Many a singer has come to these clifftop drops and landed on the low notes with all the tender sensitivity of a professional wrestler. Hart manages to make the descent more deftly, like a hang glider, dipping her toes to the precise mid-point of the pitch before catching the next updraft. Not once does this seem like work, and not once does she lose her supremely intelligent sense of dynamic flow. Hart often creates the impression that none of this is so unusual, that these are just everyday conversations that decided to take wing.
Since my rough beginnings, I have made major strides. I am now able to complete a review in a matter of one longhand draft, one computer draft and a final read-through. Considering the fact that I’m not getting paid a cent, this is good. I head for my blog, Operaville, paste in the article, and then I go to the SFO site to shop for a photo. The images there are sharp, and beautiful, and provocative. I always feel like I’m cheating, like I’m applying Chanel No. 5 to a pig. This time I settle on something comic: rocker-dude Ferrando hauling Fiordiligi over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, her mouth open in a gasp of surprise. Maddalena is so freakin’ gorgeous all the time that it’s hard to catch her being cute. I download the image to my desktop, upload it to the blogsite, add the IDs and photo credit, and press the magic Publish button, committing my words to public consumption.
I celebrate by preparing my slow-cook goulash, an olio of red peppers, onions, cabbage and potatoes over a bacon stock, and spice it with oregano, cayenne pepper and some pomegranate molasses that I discovered in a high cabinet. While that’s brewing, I sit on my porch in the twilight treeshade and light up a cigar – a low-priced maduro from Honduras. I have set my computer to let out a chirp when anyone responds to my blog, and am pleased, halfway through my smoke, when DD rings in with her first comment. She’s like clockwork, that girl. I finish the cigar, consume a bowl of the goulash with a dollop of sour cream, and respond to a text from Katie that reads, simply, Arf! (I respond with U r 1 fine piece of tail.) Then I mix up some mango nectar with yogurt (a trick I picked up from an Indian friend) and park it next to the computer.
DevilDiva: You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a modernized opera these days. I take it from your review that this doesn’t bother you?
Mickey: I always wanted to start a jazz band called Swing a Dead Cat. But yes! As long as a modernization makes sense, I’m all for it. Whenever possible, opera should be fun.
DD: But infidelity, illicit sex, the fickle ways of love -–how can a modern audience possibility relate to these things?
DD: Thank you for not responding “LOL.” I hate that shit.
DD: Smartass. But I’m afraid these progressive ideas of yours will never do. Opera is nothing but an excuse for fusty 70-year-olds to impress their friends and obtain valuable tax writeoffs. Fun is utterly out of the question.
M: Sorry. I had fun, and I make no apologies. And the thing with the rockers? Hilarious.
DD: Yes, the Haight-Ashbury joke. Audiences love that stuff. It is a bit unsettling, though, how often they laugh at the supertitle before you actually get to the line. I once had a director who brought in students for dress rehearsal and instructed them to laugh at the funny supertitles right when they appeared on the screen, just so we could get used to it.
M: Good idea!
DD: But darling! Let’s talk about this segue from the historical to the musical, from Ferrarese to the way Maddie handles those intervals. You are a magician, my dear. You are a singer’s dream. If I ever get a chance to sing Fiordiligi, I’m definitely using that hang-glider visual. Why are you not writing for Opera News?
M: A late start. I am the Satchel Paige of opera criticism. And alas! I turned down that scholarship to Julliard.
DD: Okay, I’ll go along with the mythmaking process. “Siskel left a promising career in professional tennis to write a blog about opera.”
M: Hey! I’ve got a pretty decent serve.
DD: Okay. But tell me, honestly. Is Signorina Hart really that good? Or are you just buying into the hype?
M: Sometimes I read the stuff I have written about her, and I think, Come on! You’re going too far. And then I see her again, I hear her again, and I realize that I am not exaggerating at all. It’s this combination of intelligence and vocal power. Intoxicating! I find myself holding my breath when she’s singing. And you’ve read my other reviews – I’m really not a gusher.
DD: No. You’re amazingly even-keeled. And fair. So, did you discover anything new about her?
M: You’re really digging today.
DD: Hey, if you want to be the best, you study the best.
M: Okay. You know how most opera costumes entirely obscure the body? Décolletage excepted?
DD: God yes! When I’m doing Mozart, I feel like a freakin’ parade float.
M: Modern dress, of course, is much more revealing, much tighter to the silhouette. And this first-act pantsuit… It turns out that Maddalena Hart, in addition to killer top notes, a beautiful passagio, and a divine sense of phrasing, has an incredibly fine ass.
I sit there for a couple of minutes, and I’m getting nothing. This is not unusual. Out here in the boonies, I am a prisoner of ancient dial-up technology. Perhaps a squirrel is sitting on the wire. I have half a thought that I got a little too saucy, but DD and I have “gone there” before, so I can’t imagine she would take offense. I take a break to clean my dishes. When I return, sure enough, she’s back.
DD: Sorry. Life intercedes. So why no mention of derrieres in the review?
M: Do you not recall the phrase, “…her bottom end is not to be disregarded”?
DD: That is so bad, on so many levels.
M: I save the R-rated stuff just for you, honey.
DD: You do recall that this is a public forum we’re chatting upon?
M: You kiddin’ me? I’m counting on this stuff to get me some page-views. In fact, I think I’ll plug in a search tag for “Maddalena Hart’s ass.”
DD: Yeah, operatic porn is big these days. And what kind of sleazy readership will that get you?
Cordell: Somebody call?
M: Cord! Good to hear from you.
DD: Time for Diva to Di-part, hon. But one last thought: I think you’re in love with Maddalena Hart.
M: Well who isn’t?
C: I’m in love with her, and I’m as queer as a three-headed monkey.
M: Cordell! Nice bon mot.
C: Thank you. I saw an Oscar Wilde play last night.
DD: Ciao, belli.
M: Buona notte, signorina divina.
C: Not break up this little love-huddle, but rocker duds? They really did that?
M: You woulda loved the shirtless baritone.
C: Please! I’m strictly about the art. Can I get a photo?
M: Ha! I’ll smuggle you one from the website.
C: God bless you, young hetero.
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
June 19, 2011
The industrial imagery that underlies Francesca Zambello’s American Ring Cycle comes to a head in Gotterdammerung, as the mortals take over for the gods in the process of screwing with nature. The interlude projections of pollution and refineries threatens, in fact, to become overbearing, except when one realizes how overt this theme is in the text. Wagner and his source mythologies were nothing if not sadly prescient.
The thread begins with cables – in fact, piles of them, a high-tech substitute for the rope of fate. With Wotan bringing the gods to their end, the Norns – dressed in the surgeon-style scrubs of Silicon Valley clean rooms – are unable to save the universal connections from a system crash. Former SFO Adler Fellow Daveda Karanas stands out as the Second Norn, and also, later, as Brunnhilde’s Valkyrie sister Waltraute.
Tenor Ian Storey makes an apt successor to Siegfried’s Siegfried, Jay Hunter Morris – physically, they almost look related. Unfortunately, Storey also carried on with Morris’s vocal struggles. Such was his plight in Act II that general director David Gockley appeared to ask for the audience’s understanding. Freed up by a physician’s clearance and license to go ahead and clear his throat, Story made a heroic comeback, performing Siegfried’s final monologue with a touching pathos.
The new ring-pirates, the Gibichungs, plan their attack from set designer Michael Yeargan’s steel-and-glass industrial headquarters. Their demeanor and clothing, however, smack more of tabloid Hollywood, Gutrune and her dazzling gowns like a cousin to Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.
Although the plot devices at this point begin to spiral out of control (notably the love potion that sends Siegfried into the arms of Gutrune), the production is carried through by some remarkable performances. Nina Stemme continues her role as a force of nature, bringing such vigor to Brunnhilde that one worries for her health. Bass Andrea Silvestrelli milks the prime conspirator, Hagen (or, as we call him, Karl Rove), for every ounce of nastiness. The men’s chorus gives a stirring (and somewhat frightening) performance as Hagen’s fascists-in-waiting in “Gross Gluck und Heil”. The Rhinemaidens – Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Renee Tatum – return to pull the plastic bottles out of the River not-so-Gold and offer three-part laments that make you wish Wagner had done more of such work. What really shines through in the totality of this Ring, however, is the playing of Donald Runnicles and his orchestra. Played so beautifully, Wagner’s motifs have a way of rewiring one’s circuitry and returning over the following weeks for haunting internal replays.
The company’s rendition of the finale is spectacular, Brunnhilde’s immolation causing an image-burst of the soldier-photos that populated the Valhalla of Die Walkure. I still won’t forgive Wagner for this act and others (notably the lame attempt at reforming Gutrune), which show signs of a man who has painted his narrative into a corner and is desperately tieing up his ends. But the powerful imagery of Zambello’s conception certainly makes up for a lot.
Through July 3 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. 415/864-3330, www.sfopera.com.
Image: Stacey Tappan (Woglinde), Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde) and Renee Tatum (Flosshilde). Photo by Cory Weaver.
Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and the author of the novel/CD Operaville, available at amazon.com.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
June 17, 2011
The third installment of San Francisco’s lively American Ring Cycle is a knockout, a “Siegfried” of unparalleled physicality and imagination. Director Francesca Zambello and her forces have created a five-hour opera that plays like a two-hour action flick.
The sense of theatricality is evident from the rise of the curtain, in the incredible level of detail in Mime’s trailer-trash abode: burned-out camper (check), propane tanks (check), stacked cases of Rheingold beer (check), engine block that serves as an anvil (check?). The oddly hateful relationship between Siegfried and his foster father is amped up by the hyperactivity of its players. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris comes across as a big-boy football player, rambling around the acreage and sitting with his legs out to either side as he threatens his “daddy.” (I’ll leave this place forever, happy to be rid of you!”)
Tenor David Cangelosi, meanwhile, turns Mime’s nervous energy into a kinetic sideshow, dancing on the trailer roof, performing cartwheels and generally being a goofy evil gnome. He also delivers vocally, with a deliciously acerbic tone that suits his character. The scene is also helped by an ingenious bear suit, allowing super Christopher R.T. Smith to look so authentic it’s a little unsettling.
Wotan makes his appearance as The Wanderer dressed as The Big Lebowski meets Jack Sparrow. Mark Delavan continues a remarkable evolution in the role, singing the part as roughly as Wotan is looking.
Act II rises on an industrial garage, Alberich (baritone Gordon Hawkins) watching over the place as he prepares Molotov cocktails for an attack on the ring-holder, the giant-turned-monster Fafner (bass Daniel Sumegi). Two remarkable innovations mark the scene. The Forest Bird that provides Siegfriend with all his covert information appears in the form of a brightly clad young woman (delightful soprano Stacey Tappan). Fafner appears as a scary 5,000-pound military tank, letting out fearful blasts of steam. The final encounter between Siegfried and Mime – in which the latter’s every lie is uncovered by the Tarnhelm – is as funny and slapstick as an old Lewis and Martin routine.
The first half of Act III brings Wotan back with Erda, played by contralto Ronnita Miller with the same earth-mother presence she brought to “Die Walkure.”
The final scene was another chance to see the unofficial queen of the city, Nina Stemme, as Brunnhilde. Her emotions upon waking from her years-long slumber follow a rollercoaster that feels quite genuine: the joy of seeing her her rescuing hero, the anguish of remembering her powerless state, a dip into hopelessness (the heartbreaking monologue, “Ewig war ich”). Morris plays off of this beautifully: Siegfried’s first taste of fear, a touch of shyness, followed by a recovery into his basic courage and his desire to win Brunnhilde. Morris was also conducting a battle with his voice, and eventually won out. Michael Yeargan’s set was a convincingly eroded ruin of the hilltop bunker that finished “Die Walkure.”
A joke that few people would get: Guy runs into Brunnhilde and Siegfried at a bar, isn’t sure what to say. “So, umm… How’d you two meet?”
Mime’s forge is equipped with a sanding drum that generates sparks when struck with a hammer. Very cool.
Through July 3 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. 415/864-3330, www.sfopera.com
Image: David Cangelosi (Mime). Photo by Cory Weaver.
Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novel/CD “Operaville,” available at amazon.com.
Friday, June 17, 2011
June 15, 2011
Despite the flying Viking ladies, Die Walkure can be a ponderous creature, its four-and-a-half hours filled with restatement, redundancy and repetition. It is, dramatically speaking, a monster, but one that has largely been tamed thanks to the vivid imagination of Francesca Zambello's American reconception.
Things begin in a deceptively frenetic fashion. After Jan Hartley's eerie projections of a chase through one of California's own redwood forests, the tenor who shall be Siegmund arrives at a backwoods cabin seeking sanctuary. The wife is nice enough - in fact, she looks alarmingly familiar - but hubby is a creepy survivalist wife-beater. The interior of the cabin is a hunting-lodge treasure trove: wood paneling, trophies of both the brass and stuffed-animal variety, and enough weaponry to start a militia. Australian bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi is captivating, playing hubby Hunding like a volcano that could blow at any second, while German soprano Anja Kampe conducts the tightrope walk of the abused wife, alternately comforting and fearing her psycho-spouse. Brandon Jovanovich is perfect as Siegmund, bringing to the role an athletic physicality and an absolutely gorgeous voice - particularly in the Spring Song, "Wintersturme wichen dem Wonnemond," that initiates the love affair with Sieglinde, his rediscovered twin sister. (Yes, kind of creepy.)
The Act I tension manages to rise even further in Act 2, thanks to a magnificently dysfunctional family of gods, stationed in the boardroom of their New York Valhalla skyscraper before a god-sized black-and-white photo of the skyline. Baritone Mark Delevan delivers a much more robust Wotan than in Das Rheingold, perhaps freed up by the god's increased power (while performing the two on consecutive nights, no less). The same is true of mezzo Elizabeth Bishop, who makes the most of much juicier material. Given the possibility of a justified righteousness given Wotan's infidelities, her Fricka opts instead for extortion, demanding her hubby preserve the sicko Hunding's marriage instead of the twisted twin-tryst of his beloved Siegmund. "I cannot restrain true passion," says Wotan. Retorts Fricka, "Beings like us do not trouble ourselves with such riff-raff." They are both truly hateful, and one fears for Brunnhilde, the ping-pong ball in the middle.
Swedish soprano Nina Stemme has put her stamp on Brunnhilde. She performs with a kinetic tomboyish energy while still leaving herself open to vulnerability. Her voice follows a similar pattern: richly thunderous in her calls to the battlefield, but also, in quiet moments, exceedingly captivating - as in the beginning of her defense to Wotan, "War es so schmalich." She also has a fantastic collection of coats , a style I call "Matrix Aviatrix." During her covert defense of Siegmund under the astonishing frame of Michael Yeagen's freeway-underpass battleground, it's interesting to compare Jovanovich's supremely natural movements with Stemme's - wholly unnatural and yet irresistible. She is forever on her toes, like a basketball point guard, leaning forward, ready for the next sudden burst of energy.
Brunnhilde fails in her defense, makes off with the widowed Sieglinde, now pregnant with the future hero Siegfried, and flies away to another stunning vista, the home bunker of the Valkyries, who drop in from the flies as World War II paratroopers. The conceit and the lively performance of the eight sisters fashions a whole new package for the Ride of the Valkyries. Their Valhallan squadron is represented by large photos of actual American casualities, from the Civil War to Iraq.
Once the angry Wotan enters the picture, the scene drags on (as did the love scene between the twins) as he hesitates and ponders and hesitates some more regarding the punishment he must bring down on Brunnhilde. This could be the price of an updated setting. Dress a god as a human and we just don't let him get away with as much. Painting himself into a corner to preserve his precious power and screw as many women as possible, Wotan has now decided to take it out on his daughter on a technicality. Under these terms, even the song to Brunnhilde's "bright eyes" rings hollow. After a long, long wait, however, the audience is rewarded by a ring of fire that is simultaneously dazzling and scary.
Donald Runnicles and his orchestra play so gorgeously - particularly the much-heralded brass - that I feel like I take them for granted. That said, I send them a "Bravi!" and look forward to more.
The Ring Cycle, through July 3, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, California. 415/864-3330, wwwsfopera.com.
Image: Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde). Photo by Cory Weaver.
Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novel/CD "Operaville," available at amazon.com.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
June 14, 2011
This idea of an American Ring Cycle is pretty preposterous. Ill-conceived real estate deals? High-powered executives fomenting resentment toward blue-collar workers? Come on! That would never happen in America.
Sarcasm aside, the idea of a Ring festooned in American iconography - a longtime dream of stage director Francesca Zambello - is fitting not only from square one, but at square one, as the Rhinemaidens protect their River of Gold. Rivers of gold? That's the very reason that San Francisco was founded.
Let's begin by giving you a quick rundown of said Americanisms. The maidens are dressed as Gold Rush saloon girls. Alberich appears in overalls and a miner's cap. In Scene 2, the gods are dressed in light-colored 1920s picnicwear - a la the Kennedys, or perhaps the Gatsby clan. Wotan wears a blazer and jodhpurs, and Donner's hammer is a croquet mallet. He and Froh wear the hard-hats of general contractors as they review blueprints for Valhalla. The blue-collar giants Fasolt and Fafner are dropped in on a steel beam, taken from those iconic photos of New York skyscraper workers. They are dressed in denim overalls and work caps, and their extremities have been extended by metallic fingers and black stilt-boots. The gods enter Valhalla courtesy of a cruise ship gangway.
Zambello's touches (and those of costume designer Catherine Zuber and set designer Michael Yeargan) enliven the action without intruding on it. This invigoration is furthered by the intriguing projections of Jan Hartley (a primordial soup for the famed E-flat prelude, Arizona caves for the trip to Alberich's underworld) and the ceaselessly inventive lighting by Mark McCullough.
Given such a fresh new look, it's easy to find new thoughts on Wagner's epic. Such as, how early and blatantly he proclaims his theme. Alberich is able to steal the Rheingold only by forswearing love, and there you have it: love versus power, for the rest of the Cycle. ("So the gold is safe," declares a maiden. "Who would give up love?")
The second epiphany comes in the trap of rooting for the declared protagonist, no matter what. This is a human habit, one that has led many readers to find themselves, in Nabokov's "Lolita," empathizing with a pedophile. In the case of Das Rheingold, it is important to realize that Wotan is a complete ass. He offers his sister-in-law as payment for Valhalla, intends all along to screw the giants out of any payment at all, and eventually covers his rear-end by stealing from Alberich. Sadly, Wall Street is currently occupied by thousands of Wotans.
Wotan's henchman/lawyer Loge is even slimier, but he's also the first guy you would invite to a cocktail party. Czech tenor Stefan Margita makes use of stabbing marcatos and lively enunciation to fork Loge's tongue even further, giving the production a welcome serving of cynical wit. Bass-baritone Gordon Hawkins brings an animal presence to Alberich, and everything about Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli's Fasolt is gigantic: the voice, the size, the presence. The Rhinemaidens - Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Renee Tatum - are comely both physically and musically, giving the sunrise hymn to the gold a delicate three-part rapture. Contralto Ronnita Miller performs the Earth spirit Erda with a sense of calm power.
- Not very nice to begin a two-and-a-half-hour intermissionless production with all those images of water.
- Nice final-act brotherly beat-down by Daniel Sumegi as Fafner. Watch out for those quiet ones.
- The supertitles are fresh, as well. Alberich leaves the maidens with "Flirt in darkness, you slimy sluts!"
- Provocative choice: On the brink of her release, Freia seems to have fallen prey to Stockholm Syndrome, clinging to Fasolt like a smitten teenager. Perhaps it's that old saying about large feet...
- After Erda clearly warns Wotan to give up the ring, and then repeats the warning, he answers with, "Your words are mysterious." What an ass.
- The Nibelungs are awesomely creepy, courtesy of raggy outfits and the ghastly orange lighting of Alberich's mine.
The Ring Cycle, through July 3, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, California. 415/864-3330, www.sfopera.com.
Image: Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt) and Daniel Sumegi (Fafner). Photo by Cory Weaver
Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and the author of the novel/CD "Operaville," available at amazon.com.