Monday, December 21, 2015

Mimi at Nepenthe

Mimi at Nepenthe
(For Kirsten)

They drive to Big Sur and
pull into a lot hovered by
witchcraft oaks

Says Rodolfo:
It's named for an elixir,
one that takes away all sorrows

Says Mimi:
In that case,
let's drink all that we can!

Scrubby hillsides sprayed with
copper sunset, a single
cloud in the shape of a boomerang

The Pacific far below,
a shade of forever nightsky that wraps the
continental rift like a fitted sheet

A fresh fire over
Mimi's left shoulder

Rodolfo takes a rhapsodic breath,
brings the fork to his mouth and
chews on a glazed duck that could
bring La Scala to tears

Even in Puccini,
such moments should not be possible

Thursday, December 17, 2015



Caribbean moxie on a dolly face,
the tone pours out like
pecan praline expressed as an
algebraic formula

If the hands get any
where near the hips,
pull up a chair.
You are due for an
hour of unfiltered standup

Three hours later a lil-ol-me smile,
naughty niña from Juarez,
a range bigger than Wyoming

I wish she loved her
self as much as I do

One night she drove into a
parked car and removed every
inch of interior except the
part containing her

This is what some people need.
Some seeds do not
blossom until they
pass through fire

I am eager to see what she
becomes, and till then will
enjoy the liberties of a duet:

to look someone square in the face,
to sing and smile and match words,
our voices mixing in the ether as
the lights guide us home

Notes: The last line is a quote from the Coldplay song "Fix You," one of the many tunes we do together.

Sunday, December 13, 2015



Each night, the picture comes to kill me:
you and the baby, walking to the bedroom.

You tie an American flag around his eyes,
then sit in the kitchen and study your final option,
silver and cold to the touch.

When did the math arrive at this?
How many drunks, flare-ups, divorces,
pregnancies, bad dreams?

Hold an invisible gun in your hand.
Pull the trigger.
Feel how it flexes a muscle all the
way back to the elbow.
The finger cannot do this work alone.

Each night, I stand next to you in a
field in Atlanta as you bring the
metal to your chest, and I ask,
What was your last thought?
Why didn’t you think of calling me?

Notes: about my dear friend Sharona, who committed suicide ten years ago, along with the kind of random thoughts that go through a grieving mind looking for reasons: the similarity to the final scene from Madama Butterfly, and, oddly enough, an interview with a pitching coach on how throwing a forkball causes wear and tear on the elbow.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Opera San Jose's The Marriage of Figaro

Matthew Hanscom as the Count, Karin Mushegain as Cherubino.
All photos by Pat Kirk.
Opera San Jose
Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro
November 15, 2015

Stage director Lillian Groag and her opening-night cast left no gag unturned in possibly the funniest Figaro I’ve ever seen. It was one of those nights where the diaphragm muscles in the audience got as much exercise as the ones onstage.

A mysterious walk-through mirror. A lonely hunter wandering onstage to to offer his ducks to passing nobles. A veritable offensive line of servants tumbling through an opened door. A hat magically held aloft by an excited appendage. And feathers falling from the freaking flies. The barely controlled chaos resembled nothing more than a Marx Bros. movie.

Credit the cast with squeezing some beautiful singing into this wacky choreography. It helps that they were perfectly cast; to a Figaro aficionado, it was as if OSJ scoured the world over for perfect archetypes.

The most reassuring sound was the first line of bed measurements from bass Ben Wager – solid tone, easy delivery - because if you’ve got a good Figaro, you’re halfway home. Wager had a terrific, sadistic time toying with Cherubino in “Non piu andrai” and enthusiastically ripping up the female gender in “Aprite un po quegl’occhi.”

Ben Wager as Figaro
Taking on the thankless job of playing the Count (who fails and fails and fails for three hours straight), baritone Matthew Hanscom did beautifully, thanks largely to a fit of flying arms and legs you might call the Dammit Dance. He also lent real menace to the Count’s pledge of vengeance, “Vedro, mentre io sospiro” (helped by Sean A Russell’s spooky lighting).

Mezzo Karin Mushegain comes to Cherubino with the dual advantages of height challenge (okay, she’s short) and a fantastically expressive stageface. She plays the slapstick with aplomb, at one point crawling across the room under a blanket like some kind of alien worm. My only complaint was that her “Voi che sapete” seemed to be constantly pushing upward, losing a little quality in the treble.

Isabella Ivy simply is The Countess, height advantaged (okay, tall), with a soprano that continues to grow in its richness. The only flaw came in the opening “Porgi, Amor,” where she had a couple of hiccups along her passagio, but her “Dove sono” was gorgeous, played with a defeated melancholy even sadder than the usual Countess. Her final forgiveness of the Count was elegant and heartbreaking.

Matthew Hanscom as the Count, Isabella Ivy as The Countess.
Soprano Amina Edris brings a genuine ohmagawd teenage quality to the expected Susanna sauciness, hurling cohorts here and there as she wades through the non-stop fiascos. Her voice came to the fore in the chill-inducing Letter Duet with Ivy, “Che soave zeffiretto,” and then “Deh vieni, non tardar,” sung to a faux lover for the purpose of torturing her eavesdropping husband. Her vocal lines in the latter were sensual and divinely shaped, delivered with a wonderful sense of dynamic play.

Being a good-looking dude, tenor Michael Dailey plays a lot of ingenues, but I’m beginning to think his future lies in comedy. His Don Basilio, a busybody goof, is the operatic incarnation of Jerry Lewis. Having offended his boss, the Count, he breaks into a high-speed jitter worthy of a meth-head in a Vibra-bed, and his hugely loud stamping of the Count’s official papers is a brilliant bit.

Groag’s direction brings in some noteworthy innovations. She completely halts the score for extended gags: skinflint Bartolo (Silas Elash), for instance, taking an eternity to fish a single coin from his purse. She brings in some extra-curricular characters: Arlecchino (Harlequin, played by Ryan Sammonds), inserting himself in scenes as the commedia dell’arte prototype for Figaro, and carrying on a musical argument with harpsichordist Veronika Agronov-Dafoe over the proper march for his entrance. Another theme was the constant presence of eavesdropping servants, which accentuated the idea that all behaviors in a noble house have political ramifications.

Amina Edris as Susanna, Michael Dailey as Don Basilio.
Conductor Andrew Bisantz seemed to be having an enormous amount of fun. A particularly stunning effect was the string subito pianos in Figaro’s “Se vuol ballare.” Bisantz and baritone Silas Elash had a bit of a tempo disagreement in Bartolo’s “La vendetta.” Steven Kemp’s set designs seem a little worn, but do possess some nice touches. The Spanish doors in the Countess’s apartment go well with the California Theatre ceiling, and the blooming wisteria of the garden scene tok me straight to Villa Montalvo in May. The costume prize goes to the Count’s gorgeous purple paisley coat in Act I.

Through Nov. 29, California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $51-$151., 408/437-4450.

A side note: Much as I loved Groag's direction, her program notes make a convoluted, bizarre claim that Beaumarchais' play, one of the most censored works in history, was not anti-aristocracy. Much of her argument hinges on the Count's final apology to the Countess. And if you believed that apology, I've got a bridge in San Francisco I can sell ya.

Michael J. Vaughn is an opera critic, poet and author of the opera novels Gabriella's Voice and Operaville.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

San Francisco Opera's Lucia di Lammermoor

Nadine Sierra as Lucia (photos by Cory Weaver).
A Wild and Stunning Lucia
October 16, 2015

If the Navy Seals were not enough to clue you in that Michael Cavanagh’s direction of this Lucia was going to be different, the great “reveal” of Lucia’s bloody dress was. Because it wasn’t just the dress, it was the bloody white sheets, and the bloody white canopy – the whole bedroom. And then soprano Nadine Sierra began the infamous mad scene, pulling the sheet behind her like a wedding train, revealing a nude body covered in stab marks. (That would be supernumerary Charlie Martinez, making an extremely disciplined SFO debut.)

Whatever the philosophical motives, the presence of an actual nude corpse had the effect of producing a silence even more absolute than usual. Sierra carved that silence with her sweet, mad lyric, matching the lovely cadenzas from flautist Julie McKenzie and applying her young face and ballerina figure to produce a Lucia much more frail than the usual. (Put more simply, she convinced me, at a couple of moments, that she truly had gone nuts.)

Cavanagh’s ideas are all over the place, but I’m not one to mind a little wildness, and one idea carries over the rest: the old clans of Scotland were really just corporations, with the same ability to spit out innocents who got in the way of their bottom lines. The members of Enrico Ashton’s court are dressed in severe black suit and tie. His office, an assemblage of black, silver and sharp angles, looks like a high-tech firm designed by Darth Vader. And the wedding contract is served up on a clipboard.

Piotr Beczala as Edgardo.
The corporate angle tends to strip the last layer of pretense from Lucia’s sorry situation. Brother Enrico (baritone Brian Mulligan) is using her to save his pitiful CEO butt. Even apparent friends like companion Alisa (mezzo Zanda Svede) and chaplain Raimondo (bass Nicolas Teste) are really just toeing the company line.

Mulligan’s forceful baritone serves the theme well, covering Enrico’s cowardice with a veneer of bluster (although my companion, La Diva, says he goes a little too far, with a certain “grabbiness” to his technique). Svede invests the thankless companion role with a certain two-faced flair, thanks in part to Mattie Ullrich’s fairly amazing red-and-white dress. Tenor AJ Glueckert gave Enrico’s henchman Normanno a delectable ferocity.

Piotr Beczala lent a passionate lirico spinto to Lucia’s lover, Edgardo, perhaps the only character truly on her side, and delivered in spades in the bitter final-act Larghetto, “Fra poco a me ricovero.” He and Lucia lacked that ineffable romantic chemistry, but he produced vocal chemistry aplenty, notably in the Act I duet with Lucia, “Verranno a te sull’aure,” and his and Enrico’s rather spine-tingling opening to the frozen-moment sextet, “Chi mi frena in tal momento.” The sheer architecture of the sextet continues to be a thrill to me, and the coordination between the singers, conductor Nicola Luisotti and his orchestra was scintillating.

Erhard Rom's design of Enrico's office.
Erhard Rom’s set and projection design created a few captivating images, using animated images from Scotland to convey a certain reality, and flats of faux marble that provided great mobility from one scene to another. (One provocative move was projecting images of famed female statues onto the faux marble.)

Compared with the corporate black, Ullrich’s wedding ballgowns provided a range of ravishing cool colors, topped with large, rose-like hats (La Diva is demanding one for her next recital.)  The gowns conveyed a certain decorative, submissive aspect to the women, and the wedding chorus in general was oddly passive. Lucia’s wedding gown – white satin with gold embroidery – was exquisite.

Nadine Sierra as Lucia, Brian Mulligan as Enrico.
The performance was preceded by an announcement that Sierra was suffering from some illness, with a request for understanding from the audience. I’m never quite sure if such announcements help. One could sense Sierra feeling her way through her opening Larghetto, “Regnava nel silenzio,” but once she successfully delivered the final top note, she was on her way, performing at perhaps 90 percent of her usual power.

Cavanagh also used ghosts quite effectively. Even Enrico’s plea that “my ghost will haunt you” produces a phantom double, enhancing the impression that Lucia is deeply connected to the world of spirits.

Oct. 8-28, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $26-$381, 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of seventeen novels, including Gabriella’s Voice and Operaville.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Song: Hey Lucinda

I made my official songwriting debut with Up a Notch last year, writing the words to "Hey Lucinda" to a song by Vince Wilkins formerly known as Guacamole Jam. It was great fun to match a poet's instincts to the more immediate and rhythmic needs of a singer. Check out the musical version at YouTube.

Hey Lucinda

You're a screamer
You're a rock star chaser
You're a stock car racer
You're a pencil
without an eraser
You're Athena
in a sidewalk fantasia

Hey Lucinda
You drive me crazy
But I love you

I'm a sinner
with a suit of iron
Derby winner
with a white hot fire on
with a hood and a wire on
I'm a runner
on the fourteenth pylon

Hey Lucinda
I'll drive you crazy
But I love you

Come and see me
on the seventh highway
Hot and dreamy
On a Soho skyway
Baby free me
With your slick and your sly ways
Two and three me
and make me your one

Hey Lucinda
We'll drive each other crazy
But I love you


So I'm on the phone with her and she says Well I'm all this and she's all that, and I say, Why the hell do I listen to this crap? and she says, Cause you're my love slave, and I say, Love slave? And she says, Hey, I paid good money for you, bitch. And I say, You got a receipt? And she says, I always get a receipt. And I just start laughin...

Copyright 2014 by Michael J. Vaughn
Photo by Sonia Cuellar

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Father's Day Poem: Harold in Motion

One thing I love about my poetry collection Shape is that the cover is a poem about my Mom and the end-poem is a poem about my Dad, the slick jitterbugger Harold J. Vaughn. Happy Father's Day, Dad! Shape is free today on Amazon Kindle.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Creation of "Shape"

FREE, June 2-3 on Amazon Kindle. The new collection from award-winning poet Michael J. Vaughn.

In the fall of 2007, Kara Gebhart Uhl and Maria Schneider, my editors at Writer’s Digest, asked me for a history piece on the shape poem – the idea of using a poem’s typographical layout to represent an object or image referred to in the poem. It seemed like a natural subject for me; I am a hobbyist painter, and have always enjoyed using bits of text in my artworks. My curiosity was further piqued when I discovered John Hollander’s majestic 1969 Swan and Shadow – and his book Types of Shape – and then enjoyed a brief correspondence with Hollander himself, then a professor emeritus at Yale.

In reading other shape poems, however, I came away largely disappointed. Too many had clearly been written mainly to comment upon – and fill the contours of – their chosen shapes. The poem was serving the needs of the shape, when it should be the other way around. With this in mind, I took one of my free-verse poems – Papageno’s Complaint, inspired by the birdcatcher character in Mozart’s Magic Flute – and, using a primitive but satisfying cut-and-paste technique, reshaped it into the form of a toucan. Later, after I used the positional relationships of the words on the page to transfer the image to my computer (the “r” in line 3 just over the “T” in line 4, and so on), I gazed at the Times New Roman bird perched upon my screen and felt that I had created something magical.

In the following months, I became obsessed, spending hours in the corner of a coffeehouse, running through glue sticks as I converted my favorite poems into imagery. When I handed the work to friends, I got just the reaction I wanted: a look of fascination at the idea that a poem could also be a salamander, a ’65 Mustang or Frank Sinatra, followed by the eyes focusing in on the words that might inspire such an intriguing silhouette.

Sadly, I could not find a press to deliver my work into book form (although a couple were sorely tempted), and the poems sat in my files. Then, in early 2015, I was reviewing the stats for my blog, Writerville ( and discovered that a cell-phone photo of my “bear” poem, Consolation, posted upon its publication in the journal, had drawn ten times more pageviews than the second post on the list. I realized that photos of the poems would maintain the poems’ integrity in a Kindle ebook version, and I was off on this project. I hope you enjoyed them. Thanks!

Michael J. Vaughn

Following is the Writer’s Digest article that resulted from my assignment.

Concrete Poetry
from Writer’s Digest, March 13, 2008
In a shape poem, a poet uses the lines of his text to form the silhouette of an identifiable visual image—generally, an image that represents or comments upon the subject of the poem.

The shape poem goes back to Greek Alexandria of the third century B.C., when poems were written to be presented on objects such as an ax handle, a statue’s wings, an altar—even an egg. English poet George Herbert (1593-1633) led an Elizabethan movement using shape poems strictly for the page: two examples are “Easter Wings” and “The Altar,” written in the shape of, yes, wings and an altar. Lewis Carroll toyed with the notion in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, presenting “The Mouse’s Tale” in the shape of a mouse’s tail. The form continued into the 20th century through the typographical experiments of F.T. Marinetti and his anarchistic Futurism movement, Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1918 Calligrammes collection, the playful tinkering of e.e. cummings, the Chinese ideograms used by Ezra Pound, and various works by members of the Dadaist movement.
In the 1950s, a group of Brazilian poets led by Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Augusto de Campos sought to fully integrate the dual role of words as carriers of language and visual art. Using a phrase coined by European artists Max Bill and Öyvind Fahlström, the Brazilian group declared themselves the “concrete poetry” movement. In 1958, they issued a fiery manifesto lamenting the use of “words as mere indifferent vehicles, without life, without personality, without history—taboo-tombs in which convention insists on burying the idea.”

Concrete poetry was originally aimed at using words in an abstract manner, without an allusion to identifiable shapes. But as the movement reached the height of its popularity in the 1960s, it became less abstract and was adopted by conventional poets as a specific poetic form rather than a full visual/literary fusion. Many of them returned to the shape-based forms popular in the third century B.C.

Among the best of the ’60s shape poets was John Hollander, who created his works with a typewriter. As a scholar, editor and accomplished poet—working in many different forms—Hollander also provided a thorough explication of the process in his 1969 collection Types of Shape. Hollander described his process in a 2003 interview with the St. John’s University Humanities Review:
“I would think of the representation of some object in silhouette—a silhouette which wouldn’t have any holes in it—and then draw the outlines, fill in the outlines with typewriter type … and then contemplate the resulting image for anywhere from an hour to several months. The number of characters per line of typing would then give me a metrical form for the lines of verse, not syllabic but graphematic (as a linguist might put it). These numbers, plus the number of indents from flush left, determined the form of each line of the poem.”

In Hollander’s 1969 “Swan and Shadow,” he uses the text to create the silhouette of a swan, the surface of a lake and the swan’s upside-down shadow. Hollander relates the words of the poem to their physical location within the image. (The swan’s head, for example, describes “Dusk / Above the / water … ”).

“One certainly needs no artistic talent in order to draw a good bit, and certainly not to rough out a silhouette,” Hollander says. “It’s not a lack of talent, but an absolutely dreadful educational system that prevents everyone from being able to draw a little.”

Through laborious trial-and-error experiments, I’ve devised a process for creating a shape poem, with two inherent biases. First, my process gives precedence to preserving the integrity of the original poem, applying the visual image afterward. Second, my process takes advantage of two modern advances: the image reduction/enlargement capabilities of today’s copiers, and the conveniences offered by computer word-processing programs.

1. Write a poem. Try free verse or prose forms. For this article, I used “Papageno’s Complaint,” a free-verse poem I recently wrote. It was inspired by the bird catcher in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.

2. Imagine a shape. It doesn’t have to reflect the primary subject of the poem. Sometimes it’s more effective to choose a shape that reflects a small detail or provides a subtle comment on the discourse. I chose the object of my character’s occupation: a bird. Because Papageno is a catcher of exotic birds, I settled on a toucan.

3. Find an image. In addition to the Internet, you might try magazines, photo books, children’s coloring books or craft stores. In my case, I found a photo of a toucan at a zoo’s website.

4. Get the right size. Run the lines of your poem together, inserting punctuation as needed, and print it out as a single prose paragraph. Compare the area taken up by your poem and that provided by your image. Use a copy machine to reduce or enlarge the image accordingly.

5. Cut and paste. Cut your poem into one-line strips and paste them over your image with a glue stick, beginning each line at the left margin of the image, and ending it at or slightly past the right margin. If you run out of words before you run out of image—or vice versa—return to the copier, adjust your image size and cut and paste again. This is the most arduous step, but it’ll make the final two steps much easier.

6. Head to your computer. Identify your most leftward line. Beginning at flush left, type the entire line; then work your way upward and downward, using your space bar to position each line’s first letter according to its relationship to adjoining letters. For the tip of the beak, “down,” for instance, the letter “d” is directly beneath the “n” in “and.”

7. Edit. Once you’ve typed out the poem, you may want to adjust or change words to polish the silhouette.