Opera Buffo, Opera Seria

Somehow, this is both.

Guess I’ve become hopelessly political. But with voices like this, who couldn’t be?


Klingon Opera (II)

Well, opera with Klingons, anyway. Not just any opera, but Mozart with Klingons. How the hell did I miss this the first time?

Yes, that’s the whole production — a little over two hours of kick-ass singers performing Mozart’s music with English dialogue, Trek-inflected, adapted from the original libretto.

“You find where in the opera you can make ‘live long and prosper’ fit and then you find a place for ‘boldly go where no man has gone before,’” says [Pacific Opera Project artistic director] Shaw, “and you just fill in the in-between with a bunch of rhyming words.”

I’m still trying to make out some of the rhyming words, but you almost don’t have to, when your tenor has finessed the hammy body language of William Shatner and the heroine’s servant is an actual green Orion slave girl. “Captain” Belmonte’s sidekick Pedrillo has pointed ears, a nice touch especially in the drinking scene (we’ll get to that).

Abduction is not as often performed as Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte or Magic Flute, but festooned with the elements Mozart loved to play with: an exotic culture, twinned pairs of lovers, moral ambivalence. Reportedly he had a hand in the libretto, which whiffs of a Masonic  ecumenism: the young women are captured by a lustful Turk, the go-to villain of the period, along with Belmonte’s servant, and somehow they all have to conspire at escape. Slapstick and suspense ensues, and at the end — just as failure and death seem inescapable (think: “Scotty! I need engines now!” “I canna gae any faster, Captain!”) — all is forgiven, all is reprieved – in this case because the big bad Klingon Turk has decided that a show of mercy becomes him more than the exercise of vengeance, turning the tropes of the times on their head. The Masonry of the period was earnest in its assertion that all men are brothers, human, Vulcan and Klingon alike. I mean…

If you aren’t up for two hours of Singspiel right at the moment — I admit I am still skipping around in it — may I recommend 40:00 – 44:00, the drinking bout at 1:14:00 – 1:20:00, or if you have a little more time, 1:45:00 till it’s over or you need to pee or something.



U And Me

Not you. “U,” the Klingon opera I just found out about. I need three lifetimes; otherwise my head is going to explode.

Ever since the Engineer moved in — well, practically — we have been binge-watching the modern Star Trek series in slow motion. By which I mean I can only stand to spend a certain amount of time sitting in a day, so to the extent I am chilling in front of the laptop and the Netflix stream at all, it’s been the Patrick Stewart Next Generation series, then Deep Space Nine alternating with Voyager (because the Engineer is a stickler for protocol and wants to run the shows in roughly the sequence they aired, overlapping seasons). NO SPOILERS IN COMMENTS, PLEASE: We’re only half way through these last two.

But far enough for me to grapple with the concept of Klingon opera.

How can I not love Klingons? They bash each other for fun, have romantic encounters that require subsequent visits to the chiropractor, drink like German naval officers on shore leave, and sing heroic sagas of battle, death and glory. In fact they stage them.

Well. Hm. Probably someone could do better than that.

Someone had a go at it.

The libretto there was produced by Mark Okrand, the linguist who created the Klingon language that has now become a worldwide Esperanto for geeks. That’s one lifetime I’ll need; Klingon, a guttural, aspirate speech with emphases so pronounced that, as one manual says, “If the person you’re talking to doesn’t get spit on you’re doing it wrong,” feels like just the language I want to speak when I’ve just hucked up a brutal power set or have just about had it with the idiots of the world.

(Mark Okrand talks about it here, if you have twenty minutes or so worth of interest in the matter.)

The music is shouty, but it’s not a bad effort — it beats hell out of the shit I hear coming from the car speakers of dimbulb drivers next to me at lights. Whom I will now imagine myself pulling through their driver’s windows and hurling over the roofs of their own cars, declaiming in Klingon.

“Actually,” I said to the Engineer, “this whole Deep Space Nine story arc is the stuff of opera.” If it wouldn’t have to be a collection that would dwarf the Ring Cycle. We’ve got a man who’s been adopted by a whole culture as a demigod, resulting in power conspiracies between the culture’s religious, good for some plotters’ duets of the first water; we’ve got a grudge match between that culture and another one represented by a Magnificent Bastard who could give Scarpia and Iago a run for it (that’s Gul Dukat if you know the show), who’s repudiated his own half-breed daughter (“Stay and be damned!” he cries to her as he turns on his heel, after she chooses to remain with a lover who is his arch-enemy)… my god, could Verdi ask a librettist for more? We’ve got a bunch of sawed-off Ferengi running around to give the trouser mezzos and boy sopranos a workout, the unrequited love of a bowl of Jello for a beautiful princess Amazonian resistance fighter… okay, Jello is not operatic, but the plot thread is. I can already half-hear a lullaby to be sung in a light tenor to Major Kira’s sleeping ears. But I don’t know who’s equal to the dark duet that could be made of this clip — sentiment by the bucketful, a bass and a light baritone I think, sort of the vocal color of the duet in the first act of Dutchman, but a more natural, dialogue-driven setting — think Puccini.

Is my imagination running away with me? What the fuck. I’m going to let it. The Terok Nor cycle, premiering in the opera house on Q’onos, special opening night festival for all allies. No synthohol.

How Did I Miss This?

Premiering this week at the San Francisco Opera.

As anyone who glances at my bookshelf knows, I love Stephen King (even though I hate him for writing the book I wished I’d written, more or less, when he produced Carrie, but there it is, he did it, though even he admits his wife helped with the girl parts). The manic energy of his drunk and coked-up years is gone, and I don’t snatch up a new title the way I used to, but no one has his natural ear for dialogue or his brutal talent for showing that the real horrors of life are not about various monsters or plagues but about what people do to each other. It used to be fashionable to deprecate him, if you wanted to be thought sophisticated, but I think all but the most pretentious academics have figured out the man knows his craft.

Dolores Claiborne straddles the gap between the word-processor-on-crack (perhaps literally) of his late boozy period, when he did tend to get a little prolix and maudlin, and his afterlife when human drama took the foreground over crap-your-pants terror.  The rough trilogy of those years — Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne and Rose Madder — partook at times a little too much of abused-woman scripts lifted from support group meetings, but he made them work, and Claiborne was the most successful by me.

It never occurred to me someone might turn it into an opera.

I know the composer’s work only from a programmatic piece called Old and Lost Rivers:

I’ll take him.

Here is a bit of the librettist’s work.

Roman Valor

My musically literate friend Zeus (visit his page for some terrific links to lute, harpsichord and antique music channels) has been exploring opera. Opera really got going somewhat after Mr. Zeus’ favorite musical eras but was totally on a roll in the high romantic times that I live and breathe, so I spent far too much time last evening pelting the hapless man with YouTube clips.

The Baroque Era prize for exploiting opera’s possibilities goes to Monteverdi, at least judging from the one opera of his that I know well enough to sing (all four tesseturi, if not prevented). Il Coronazione di Poppaea is like “I, Claudius” set to music: the courtship and wedding of the Emperor Nero’s second wife, an episode of Hollywood-grade marital narcissism that led to the commanded suicide of the reproving philosopher Seneca (Nero’s preceptor), among other acts of Imperial petulance. In the first act, Seneca addresses his pupils and explains that this is the moment for him to act out his philosophy of stoic virtue and leave the world with grace.

I was in a car, which I was not driving, crossing Washington’s Key Bridge into Georgetown the first time I heard his aria, his students’ earnest fugal chorus pleading with him to live, and his concluding resolve to nonetheless open his veins in a warm bath, the classically Roman method. On the far side of the bridge I leapt abruptly out of the car while it was stopped on lower Wisconsin Avenue, ran into Olsson’s (one of the first bookstore/music/coffee house storefronts, now gone from us, alas) and snapped up the (in those days, vinyl) recording the radio announcer had just providentially identified, with Raymond Leppard conducting the Glyndebourne Festival and Carlo Cava singing Seneca. I can’t find any of that one anywhere on YouTube, but this serendipitous substitute is amazing: Seneca’s final lines sung by bass Tadeo Giorgio, taking it all the way home — not every bass can — to D two octaves below middle C.

Sumbitch, as they say in the country.

If you are up for the whole scene, with titles, here is a damn decent performance:

(Another performance available on YouTube is captioned “Seneca Takes A Bath.” Dear me. Some people cannot resist a witticism.)

The Romance of Science

Among the many things I have always wanted and never quite sprung for, I list a poster of the Periodic Table of the Elements. My interests have yawed from science to poetry and back, and the Periodic Table has both, if you pay attention to the symmetry of the elemental octaves and imagine the dance of electrons with nuclei — a fair correspondence to the symmetries of rhythm and scansion in a good poem if you ask me (even the irregularities of a good poem are reflected in the occasional boing of a quantum packet or an ion picking up a charge).

Tonight I was squired to a rebroadcast of John Adams’ opera about Robert Oppenheimer. You gotta love the idea of an opera about the Manhattan project, given that an opera plot is usually populated by romantic rivals whose collective IQ  compares badly with that of a tribe of prairie dogs.

The first thing you see in this production is the Periodic Table, circa 1945 with some of the modern elements not yet inserted. The libretto veers wildly between very clunky prose and terrific settings of John Donne and the Bhagavad Gita. It roughly makes up for the fact that John Adams is just too genteel to actually ever write a melody. He stops with emotionally eloquent rhythms and textures but suffers from that modern composer’s vice of sequencing intervals that have no instinctive hooks in the ear of his audience. So you recall these lush moments of sound without having any sort of motif or melody to re-run in your head.

Intellectual passion is glorious but I do think a Milanese organ-grinder should have whispered in the composer’s ear once or twice. Even the densely layered electron shells of transuranium elements have some kind of apprehendable pattern. I think.