Sunday, November 14, 2021

Opera San Jose: Purcell's Dido and Aeneas

November 13, 2021

Nikola Printz as Dido, Efrain Solis as Aeneas.
Photos by David Allen.

Opera San Jose could not have picked a more perfect way to welcome back live audiences than Purcell's brief and lovely Baroque masterwork. Taken from the most famed section of Virgil's
Aeneid, the opera offers a remarkably captivating account of the doomed affair between the Carthaginian queen and her Trojan suitor.

Purcell's spare orchestration, played here without any exotic early-music instruments, gives a rare amount of space to some magnificent voices. Chief among these is mezzo Nikola Printz's performance as Dido. In their opening aria, "Ah Belinda!, I are pressed," Printz expresses the queen's fear of her feelings for Aeneas with an elegant sense of legato and phrasing. Their attention to dynamics is revealed time and again through lovingly crafted lines, and dramatically they carry the core of the opera's emotional arc.

Nathan Stark as the Sorcerer.

Playing Aeneas, baritone Efrain Solis displays an impressive range of coloration, from the charcoal-edged intensity of his lower range to a free and light eloquence in his higher, more tender entreaties. The absolute showstopper is bass-baritone Nathan Stark as the villainous Sorcerer. With the help of makeup designer Heather Sterling fierce touches (black veins!), Stark deploys his powerful instrument to scare the hell out of us.

Through all of this is a talented and active chorus, providing a running commentary in the Greek fashion and, under stage director Elkhanah Pulitzer and choreographer Michael Pappalardo, a tremendous amount of motion and dance. The most entertaining of these scenes is a crew of drunken sailors, trying their best to return to their boats ("Come away, fellow sailors").

The production design is lovely and imaginative, especially Ulises Alcala's Indian-influenced costumes. Dido's first-act dress is bridal white with black floral designs at the hem. In the third act, the designs are red, providing between them symbolic omens of ill fortune and death. Aeneas appears in a festive pink suit and leather vest. The dancer playing Venus in a skit wears a huntress outfit with dazzling golden boots and armor.

To modern ears, the score offers elements that seem oddly ahead of their time. Purcell left certain passages open to improvisation; cellist Isaac Pastor-Chermak and guitarists Robert O'Connor Miller and Timothy Sherren composed these parts before the performance.  At the conclusion of the opera, as Printz sings Dido's well-known lament, "When I am laid in earth," before going off to die, quite literally, of a broken heart, rose petals fall from the heavens (delivered, according to the libretto, by mourning cupids), creating the kind of exquisite image that we have all so terribly missed.

Through Nov. 28, California Theatre, San Jose. Proof of vaccination and photo ID required, and masks must be worn inside the theater. $55-$195,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 35-year opera critic and author of the opera novels Operaville and Gabriella's Voice, available at

Friday, December 18, 2020

Review: East of the Cookie Tree


Review of East of the Cookie Tree

by Michael J. Vaughn

Michael J. Vaughn’s EAST OF THE COOKIE TREE, written with jauntiness and immediacy, presents us with a dizzying array of responses. What at first glance appears a carefree road trip in which Daniel Maryland, a professional actor, wending his way from San Francisco down to two weddings, one in Gilroy, California and another in Malibu where he is tasked to serve as the officiant for longtime friends, unfolds to become a multi-faceted odyssey deftly calibrated to ignite and captivate the interest of every reader. We are treated to a beguiling cast of characters, most notably the adorable and intermittently manic 19 year-old runaway/stoway, Gina Candiotti, who harbors a horrifying familial secret, Willie Craig, the charismatic older idol of the silver screen, the saucy young Cherry who demonstrates an uncanny capacity for executing and expeditiously rendering an erogenous maneuver with our lead character, Daniel, Shelby, the gorgeous and accomplished wedding planner with whom the officiant, also nicknamed, the Rev. and Umpqua Man, enjoys an exhausting tryst, and finally, the Larroquette House which in many ways is a character in its own right. In actuality, all of Vaughn’s characters, whether they be the countless members of the hospitality industry who populate the book or those who dominate greater stretches of the novel’s trajectory, prove memorable because of their authentic dialogue or distinctive eccentricities. 

There is outright intoxication felt at the opening festivities of joyous reunions among two separate groups of close friends gathered for intended nuptials all emceed by the main character, Daniel Maryland,  Shakespearean actor, commercial spokesperson for a nationally renowned insurance corporation, musician, burgeoning fine artist, neophyte wedding officiant for friends, and beloved “Uncle Danny” to numerous unofficial nieces. Daniel possesses an irrepressible charm and luxuriating in the witty, erudite exchanges between the main character and his retinue of animated and engaging friends makes for a lengthy montage of heartfelt interconnectedness we all long for during this somber pandemic, despite the fact EAST OF THE COOKIE TREE transpires during pre-COVID 19 days. Daniel Maryland is a pied piper of sorts who acts as a magnet of positivity and Merlin for sparking the innate creativity of all fortunate enough to be drawn into his orbit. Perhaps it is precisely because he casts this transformative spell on his readers that the psychological bombshell that erupts upon young Gina’s arrival at her home in Eugene, Oregon carries with it the unsettling and explosive impact it does.  That said, in retrospect, as readers we can acknowledge the author has consistently introduced a multiplicity of hints, hints seeded at select intervals, that adeptly foreshadow the darker undertones of the narrative. Against the backdrop of the surreal, carefree ambience of the lifestyles of the rich and famous runs the ominous undercurrent of existence in the everyday world plagued by post-apocalyptic West Coast wildfires replete with hellish orange skylines, and inescapable and volatile contemporary social issues, most expressly, systemic racism.

EAST OF THE COOKIE TREE also provides provocative exposure not only to some of the finest Shakespearean dialogue, but compelling references to outstanding musical and cinematic interludes that help enliven the romantic, upbeat and non-formulaic wedding ceremonies and receptions featured in this spirited novel. The author also shares insights into the main character’s newest vocation as a fine artist whose talent is quickly appreciated by the discerning eye of an upscale gallery owner. We can traverse the pages of EAST OF THE COOKIE TREE, part archetypal road-trip, part magical musical mystery tour, and through-the-looking-glass “classic” cinematic romp into the landscape of what esthetic and philosophical perspectives occupy the inner recesses of a 21st century Renaissance Man’s kaleidoscopic mind. 

While Daniel Maryland’s character may have entertained periods of self-deprecation during his lengthy career as a Shakespearean actor, one can only aspire to capture a single ray of the light Vaughn’s memorable character imparts in his incomparable gift for embracing, inhabiting, and surfing the waves of an inspirational and always indomitable life force.

— Calder Lowe, award-winning editor and widely-published author

EAST OF THE COOKIE TREE is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Applauding My Critics, Part 2: Bill Burman

A shot from one of Bill Burman's many plays.
In the movies, they have an expression called "meet-cute," generally the initiating event of all romantic comedies. Bill Burman and I had the artistic equivalent. I met him because his wife and my girlfriend worked together. Halfway through our first double date, Bill asked, "Are you the Michael Vaughn?"

It wasn't as flattering a question as it sounded. As it turned out, fourteen years previous, Bill assembled his first evening of satirical skits, titled A Prayer and A Fart. Bill was betting his future career - playwriting or perhaps something more reasonable - on the outcome of this first production. It was a success, owing largely to a review from a critic at Good Times magazine named Michael Vaughn. I had just condemned him to years of starving artistry. (It wasn't my fault - his skits are hilarious.)

My reward for this act was years of friendship and some of the most insightful reviews my books have ever received. Bill well knows the ins and outs of storytelling, and always delves into the technical challenges faced by writers. He is a particular fan of my dialogues, and coming from a playwright that's an especially flattering observation.

One could point out some definite conflict-of-interest here, but I don't think Bill would have expended so much care and energy if he secretly thought I sucked. I also get the feeling if I ever really went off the rails, Bill would be the first to say, WTF are you doing, Vaughn? That said, please enjoy these takes on my novels.

(See my author page at Amazon for all titles.)

Climies (four stars)

Reviewed in the United States on May 10, 2020
Verified Purchase
A novel in which self-proclaimed "patriots" react badly to a disaster is hardly comfort reading at this juncture in time, and I confess I had to stop reading this book several times because of certain recent events and go watch an old episode of Columbo to take myself out of the present and the dark future Vaughn portrays in "Climies" As the title implies, it is a politicized future where those of the pejorative nickname are sparring with "patriots" over the reality and consequences of climate change AFTER the disaster has already happened. Vaughn invites us to tour the likely results of our current equal time for science and deranged conspiracy theories free-for-all.

But of course Vaughn's writing is too refined to be a political screed. As usual, his latest novel is populated by complex characters such as Boss, the grizzled leader of the anti-climate science motor cycle gang menacing the Skyline community of "climies" struggling to survive in a world where the Pacific has swallowed up most of the Bay Area. And Vaughn doesn't allow a mere man-made catastrophe to dampen his joy in describing natural beauty in a transformed environment, luscious meals, futuristic technologies and the intriguing vagaries of human relationships. The plot is as imaginative as you'd hope from a science fiction novel, and though it is dark overall, it has a sort of pick-up-the-pieces hopefulness that takes the edge off a bit. My only complaint is that it seemed to end too soon for me.

A Painting Called Sylvia (five stars)

Reviewed in the United States on October 25, 2019

Reviewed in the United States on December 9, 2017
"Figment" is Michael J. Vaughn's 20th novel, but in a way it's his "8 1/2." Like Fellini in his classic, Vaughn's fictional self parties with a menagerie of his own characters, and takes on society's attitudes about struggling artists, his critics, and a world where only the vapid thrive. Certainly he could be accused of self-indulgence, but as Michelangelo argues in the famous Monty Python sketch where he is confronted by the Pope over his interpretation of the Last Supper, which features 28 apostles, a kangaroo, and three Jesuses, "It works, Mate!" Vaughn explores the tenuous line between creator and creation/reality and fiction with a wild, sexy, road trip up and down his beloved Pacific Coast, through dive bars and funky cafes, and the crazy heart of Left Coast bohemia. As always, the dialogue and descriptive writing are a joy to read, although occasionally, the hipster banter becomes tiresome. And Vaughn's ability to write strong, well drawn female characters has never been more apparent. His protagonist, Channy Adams, while apparently suffering a mental breakdown, refuses to stop pulling the thread that may unravel her whole existence or reveal its ultimate source. Vaughn took some huge risks in "Figment," and for me, they paid off.

Double Blind (four stars)

Reviewed in the United States on October 25, 2007
Verified Purchase

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Applauding My Critics, Part 1: Tess Ailshire

It's a shame that the word "critic" is so identified with the word "criticize." It's more accurate to relate it to "critique," an art form in which the writer uses observations both positive and negative to report what they witnessed. As a veteran of thirty-plus years of critiquing in the world of theater, opera and literature, I am more equipped than most to handle whatever reviews come my way.

Still, many of today's reader reviews can be childish and lame, as if the author has failed if they didn't anticipate the exact thing the reader wanted to read. One particular assassin gave me one star out of five and reported, "I didn't read it." For some reason, a lot of this came from the Goodreads site, so I have made a habit of avoiding it. Recently, I went back there for a different reason and stumbled upon a lovely, insightful review for my best-seller, The Popcorn Girl. I then discovered that the reviewer had decided to read several of my books and had given each the same kind of beautifully observed, well-written critiques.

I have been fortunate to enjoy a handful of reviewers, some of them writers themselves, who have followed my career in this fashion, leaving beautifully crafted critiques in their wake. And so, I thought it was time that I expressed my gratitude. That recently discovered reviewer is a Virginia resident named Tess Ailshire, and these are her reviews You can find my books on my Amazon author page.

The Popcorn Girl (five stars)

A joy of a story, but a story that is not joyous. The characters are flawed, complex, multi-faceted, and unexpected. One feels there is so much more to these people and their lives, which makes them very real.

I'm not generally a fan of books where one has to know which character is narrating a chapter, but this works.

It made me want to read other Vaughn books.

Gabriella's Voice (four stars)

I've become a fan of Vaughn since I read Popcorn Girl without knowing the first thing of his writing style, his peccadilloes, or his themes. Vaughn has a knack for description that reflects a love of words and an awareness of the universe -- perfect similes that leave cliches choking on dust and gasping. He then goes on to wrap a silken scarf around most of the most hideous of human traits, revealing it only slowly, making the reader realize life is not all apple pie and ice cream, but not thwocking him over the head with truth either.

That said, Gabriella's Voice was not my favorite.

In this story, I felt I was being hit over the head with the similes. It seemed descriptions were overdone. Do I really need half a page to describe a foggy ferry crossing? What I normally like about Vaughn seemed too much in this novel.

Perhaps I understand enough Italian that I don't need *every* lyric to hold a parenthetic translation; it seemed to interrupt the flow of the paragraph, as if the narrator were stuttering. The sense of the paragraphs could easily have remained using only the English or only the Italian.

The Monkey Tribe (five stars)

This is the fourth Michael J. Vaughn book I've read in the last four to six months (The Popcorn Girl; a Painting Called Sylvia; Gabriella's Voice). Vaughn again shows his mastery of mindfulness - of describing both scenery and emotion vividly and without cliche. He again tackles the character who is different, and slowly reveals to the reader that character's passions and failings.

This novel, like Gabriella's Voice, shows a deep understanding of music as a natural part of the human experience, and explores the theme of giving as a way of receiving. Like A Painting Called Sylvia, it explores chaos in human experience, but in a controlled manner. Like The Popcorn Girl, it shows a character who is so much more than a surface.

Vaughn can keep writing. I'll keep reading as long as he does.

A Painting Called Sylvia (five stars)

I think I'm about to become a huge fan of Michael J. Vaughn. I read "The Popcorn Girl" because "the owner of an atheist bookstore" in the description intrigued me, and found I truly loved the work.

So I picked up this volume when it was available for free on Amazon. This one was even better, I think. I was more able to relate to these people - a couple with a teenage daughter, an artist, a few others - than in "The Popcorn Girl".

Both works I've read seem to me to be paintings of emotions, rather than words on a page. Not too much on the logic or concrete details, but a complex image of the character's thoughts and feelings. I found myself marveling at how complete a seemingly minor observation seemed to render the character.

The Girl in the Flaming Dress (five stars)

Like so many of the Vaughn novels I've read, the style is lighthearted and action-filled, with descriptions so far from cliche that I often stop, consider, and even read them aloud. That is a mark, I believe, of a good writer.

I like the fact that it's often a complete surprise to find out where his novels end up. The characters reveal themselves more and more as the novel goes on, and the endings may or may not be what you expect. I was amused to see the popcorn girl included.

This one hasn't the depth of Gabriella's Voice, nor the complexity of The Popcorn Girl, but is no less an enjoyable read.

Mascot (five stars)

I'm a big fan of Vaughn's writing style. The present-tense prose evokes an importance that might not work in past tense, and Vaughn has a knack for describing scenery and ambiance in a decidedly original and evocative manner. Vaughn's characters are decidedly human and absolutely unique. I find difficulty in predicting the ending of a story, much less the plot line that gets us to that ending.

Mascot does it again. Complex characters whose timelines show them different from what we originally see, with enough left unsaid that the reader has no choice but to be involved and to look beyond the words on the page.

Mascot is another that does not end at all as I expected, nor as I would have wished it to. That makes it no less a picture of life.