Archive for July, 2010

“…invisibility, while making God seen”

This has evidently made the rounds a bit, but it was recently read from the pulpit at All Saints. It is from a segment titled “Daily Devotion,” broadcast on Channel 6 in Portland, Maine on 3 May 2010:

We could take a cue from Orthodoxy, whose priests stand with their backs to their congregation, leading liturgy that is neither clever nor impassioned, but simply beautiful, like stone smoothed by centuries of rhythmic tides. It’s an austere ritual, in the sense of — there’s nothing new here; it’s sublime, in the sense of — creating a clearer view into heaven. The priest can be any priest. Who he is, what he looks like, how he speaks, and what he thinks matter little. He hasn’t written the service that he officiates, it isn’t about him or his prowess. He’s an interchangeable functionary draped in brocaded robes, obscured by inscense, and as such, never points to himself, a flawed human, pointing ever and only to the Perfection of the Mysterious Divine. That is the role of every priest or preacher — invisibility, while making God seen.

While I do hate the trope of “the priest with his back to the people” — rather, he’s facing the same way as the people, because he’s worshiping the same God — it is a wonderful quote.

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Thoughts on Inception or, Christopher Nolan and Cobb salad

I’m not going to write a conventional review of Inception; I think the movie is stunning, and I strongly encourage everybody to go see it. That’s about as much of a “review” as I want to write; what I’d rather do is discuss what thoughts were provoked by it.

I will say this once:

DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN INCEPTION, SINCE A VERY THOROUGH DISCUSSION OF SPOILERS IS TO FOLLOW. I WILL ALSO BE TALKING ABOUT THE PRISONERUSUAL SUSPECTS, SHUTTER ISLAND, THE PRESTIGE, MEMENTO, FOLLOWING, INSOMNIA, BATMAN BEGINS, AND THE DARK KNIGHT, SO READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

We clear?

I’ve seen Inception three times now; I saw it at the midnight showing last Friday morning, again Friday night, and again Tuesday morning. It’s one of those movies where you want to take people to see it and be there with them while they experience it for the first time. I think maybe The Usual Suspects was the first movie like that for me; I took different people to see that, all because I wanted to be there when they saw the falling coffee cup and realized what it meant. Christopher Nolan has become the the guy who makes that kind of movie for me these days; Memento and The Prestige were both movies I happily did repeated viewings of with different people, and two summers ago, as reported to some extent here, I did the same thing with The Dark Knight.

Now, one of these things — The Dark Knight — is not like the other, at least at first glance. Suspects, MementoThe Prestige — these are just all “twist ending” movies, right? The whole point of the movie is the ending you aren’t expecting, and there’s not really anything to them beyond that? Well, there are those who might argue that, sure. The question becomes, how do these movies stand up to repeated viewings? I have never bothered with The Blair Witch Project since the one time I saw it in theatres, because that’s the kind of movie that, for my money, really is just a magic trick that would probably show its strings upon seeing it again. The twists of Suspects, Memento, and The Prestige are such that you have a fundamentally different sense of what the story is actually about the second time around, and it’s a question of whether or not that different story is interesting. Is the story of Verbal Kint/Keyser Soze (depending on how you look at the story) conning Agent Kujan as interesting as the story of Agent Kujan trying to figure out what happened at the pier? Is the story of Leonard Shelby setting himself up to murder John Gammell, both as revenge for being used by him and as a way to give himself closure, however briefly, over the death of his wife, as interesting as the story of Leonard trying to solve a murder mystery in an incapacitated state? Is the story of three magicians essentially living out large-scale versions of their own tricks in pursuit of their craft as interesting as the story of the rivalry between two magicians leading to a mysterious death?

And for me, the answer has always been, unequivocally, yes. Verbal/Keyser becomes a fascinating character on subsequent viewings — little gestures and facial expressions take on new meaning, and while you realize that he’s taking Kujan on something of a ride, you also come to the conclusion that some of it has to be true. It’s particularly unsettling if you conclude, as I do, that he’s telling the truth about having killed his own family. The ways in which both John Gammell and Natalie manipulate Leonard to their own ends, but also in which Leonard consistently manipulates himself, suggest that what Leonard really is in his damaged state is a loaded gun, and it’s just a question of who’s going to get to pull the trigger. One of the rewards of multiple viewings of The Prestige is understanding exactly why Borden figures out the goldfish bowl trick so quickly and why Angier doesn’t get it, to say nothing of seeing just how clever Christian Bale’s performance actually is, and that he very clearly differentiates between the two twins.

Particularly given my experience with Memento and The Prestige, I did my best to stay as ignorant as possible about Inception from the time I heard it announced until when I walked into the theatre for the first time — but it didn’t escape me that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was named “Cobb,” the same name given to the antagonist in Following. What would it come to mean, if anything? Would “Cobb” be nothing more than Nolan’s “Spota”? Or was there more to it?

The opening shot of Cobb sprawled and sputtering on the beach suggested even more of a connection to Following, since a very similar image plays an important role in the opening of that film as well (and as it works out, in both movies you don’t find out what these images actually mean until much later). About an hour into seeing it the first time, I started to become convinced that where the story was leading us to was the revelation that Mal was right, that she had escaped the dreamworld by throwing herself off the building and Cobb was still stuck, and that all of her manifestations were actually her entering Cobb’s dream to try to rescue him. Perhaps she was a “forger” as well, and that was why Saito echoed her line about a “leap of faith”. I prepared myself for this ending, expecting a montage of clips at the end that would replay some of Mal’s appearances with additional “behind the scenes” information presented, showing how they meant something else than what we, the audience, thought they meant at the time. I figured that even though I had figured it out, Nolan would be able to present it in a way that would make it work and that would be up to par with the rest of his work.

Can I tell you that I was really happy to be wrong, and that I was completely unprepared for the last five minutes of the film, much less the cut to black on the spinning, but wobbling, top? The “twist,” insofar as there was one, was really about Cobb’s soul and less about plot mechanics or where amongst the various levels of reality he actually was, and the final bit of ambiguity — the top’s losing stability, so it has to fall, right? Or does it? — is just enough to leave the audience with closure on Cobb’s emotional journey (the real story in the first place) even if you can argue until the cows come home whether or not he’s in the “real” world. It’s like the origami unicorn at the end of Blade Runner, except that by the time audiences could see a cut of Blade Runner where the origami unicorn meant what Ridley Scott intended it to mean, they were already prepared for it to mean that. I’m not sure anybody was expecting the top.

An assertion that some reviews I’ve read have made is that, with DiCaprio in the leading role, there are uncomfortable similarities with Shutter Island. I don’t disagree necessarily that there are parallels, but I also think the claim is misleading. With Shutter Island, I knew from reading the reviews that Teddy Daniels would turn out to be crazy; the only question I had watching it was just how this would unfold. Dom Cobb’s issues have to do with his dead wife, much as with Teddy Daniels, and Shutter Island makes you question the “reality” of what you’re seeing, but that’s just about the extent of the similarities. Cobb isn’t crazy, and there are far more levels of reality-bending at play in Inception than in Shutter Island. Shutter Island really is a “twist ending” thriller, whereas Inception is an emotional and psychological drama playing out in the framework of a caper movie. If you go into Inception expecting it to be Shutter Island meets Dark City, you will be expecting a much different movie than what you actually get.

Something the two definitely have in common, however, is that Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a knockout performance in the lead role. I hadn’t been all that interested in him before a couple of years ago — I noticed Russell Crowe in The Quick and the Dead but really couldn’t care less about Leo; Romeo + Juliet and Titanic were neither fantastic nor offensive performances, as far as I was concerned; I remember Gabriel Byrne a lot more than I remember him in The Man in the Iron Mask, and I hated hated hated The Beach. Then I saw The Departed, Blood Diamond, Shutter Island, and Body of Lies in reasonably rapid succession, and realized he had developed into a fantastic adult dramatic actor. As a friend of mine put it, he’s no longer an ingenue. He captures Cobb’s guilt and regret and makes them compelling, while still being able to sell us a “master extractor” at the top of his game.

I might suggest that DiCaprio is somewhat unconventional for Christopher Nolan as a leading man; Hugh Jackman and Aaron Eckhart are both classically good-looking man’s men; Guy Pearce, Christian Bale, and even Jeremy Theobald (at least in spots) all have kind of a drawn, chiseled quality the way he photographs them — not necessarily meaning that they’re ripped (although certainly Pearce, Bale, and Hugh Jackman are), but rather that there’s a particular air of cultivated masculinity about each of them, especially in the face. DiCaprio doesn’t really fit into either category (although Cillian Murphy’s Fischer fits in with Pearce and Bale), and he definitely doesn’t have the rippling muscles that Nolan takes pains to show us with Pearce, Bale, and Jackman. He starts to assume an air of something like the latter category when he’s “Mr. Charles” in level 2 of the dreamworld, but it’s clear that it’s an act, or a “gambit” as the movie explains. In any event, even if DiCaprio isn’t exactly doughy, he is more of a physical Everyman than Nolan has given us before (except maybe with Al Pacino, although even then, c’mon, it’s Al Pacino).

Thematically, Inception is very much a development of what Nolan has done before; as I’ve noted in earlier musings, there are recurring motifs in his work, and they’re all here. Fischer’s need to resolve his feelings of letting his father down mirrors Bruce Wayne’s struggle in Batman Begins. Domestic tragedy, time being messed with, people leading multiple lives with multiple identities (or even multiple people sharing an identity), the overwhelming desire to simply go home to one’s family, a hidden place where one is hiding the truth from everybody, often including themselves — and, curiously enough, agonizing leg injuries have started to pop up, starting with Angier falling through the trapdoor in The Prestige, Batman dropping Maroni in The Dark Knight, and now Mal shooting Arthur in the kneecap. In fact, in a lot of ways, Inception is a reworking of some of Memento‘s story, with even a repeated visual quote (the view of the wife lying down but shot so that she’s oriented vertically, since she’d be parallel to the person whose point of view is providing the shot), except that it’s the wife with the damaged mind, and Cobb is aware of his own role in Mal’s death, making revenge a non-starter, and the Cobbs have children, whereas Leonard and his wife did not — giving Cobb something else to live for, a meaning to his life beyond Mal’s death that Leonard didn’t have. Leonard describes his condition “like waking, like you just woke up”, and goes to great lengths at one point in the movie to construct a scenario where he will wake up and think he’s still in his own home — essentially the same idea as Inception‘s “dream within a dream”. Not only that, but John Gammell’s constant insistence that Leonard doesn’t know what reality is, that he’s “wandering around, playing detective” prefigures Mal’s speech to Cobb that “you don’t believe in one reality anymore”. Of course, a key difference here is that Mal’s wrong… right?

There are also interesting similarities to Following, too, beyond the name “Cobb”. Both movies are about a long con, but one can also draw lines of connection between Inception‘s Cobb and Ariadne, at least at the outset, and Following‘s Cobb and the Young Man. In both cases, Cobb is the master taking the apprentice under his wing, and the first dreamshare training sequence with Ariadne, with Cobb explaining how people populate their dreams with their subconscious, has a curious parallel to Cobb in Following breaking into the first apartment with the Young Man, and explaining how people’s things in their apartment reflect who they are. Cobb tells Ariadne that if they design a safe, the dreamer will automatically fill it with their secrets; Cobb tells the Young Man that “everybody has a box… that’s sort of an unconscious collection… [that] tells something very intimate about the people.”

It also seems to me that the concept of a “totem”, something by which one keeps track of reality, is everywhere in Nolan’s films, even if he hasn’t named it before. In Memento Leonard has his “system,” his photos and his tattoos. In Batman Begins there are the arrowhead and his father’s stethoscope. In The Prestige it is Borden’s ball. In The Dark Knight it’s Harvey’s coin. They also appear to have varying degrees of efficacy — Leonard’s “system” doesn’t work at all, for example, but Borden, at least one of him, seems to keep it together pretty well. (By the way, on the third viewing I noticed that Ariadne is madly fiddling with her totem on the plane at the end, as the camera pans from Arthur across to her. It’s a nice touch.)

Something else that strikes me about Inception is that it is a surprisingly low-tech movie. The technological conceit of dreamsharing is pulled off through compounds fed into the bloodstream via tubes in the arms leading from a gadget in a suitcase, rather than slick-looking headpieces that jack into the brain. There is one computer in the whole film, a rather chunky looking laptop; we only see two cell phones, and they’re barely used at all. Beyond that, tech isn’t really a factor, like at all. Professor Miles writes in what look like Moleskine notebooks, for heavens’ sakes.

To be honest, I argue that Inception isn’t even science fiction, any more than The Prestige is. Philip K. Dick’s definition of science fiction is that the technology, or what he called the “conceptual dislocation” of the world in the story from the real world, must “result [in] a new society… generated in the author’s mind” (From a 1981 letter printed as the preface to “Paycheck and Other Classic Stories”, PKD). There’s not really anything of the kind in Inception; you have a particular technological conceit that facilitates the story (Cobb dealing with Mal’s death) but is not itself what the story is about. Dick’s stories are usually all about how the “conceptual dislocation” creates a new world, with that “conceptual dislocation” being what drives the story forward. PKD’s version of the story would ask the question, “What would the world be like if this were possible?” and use Cobb’s emotional journey as the way of answering that question (if we’d even get Cobb’s emotional journey — Cobb would probably be named Wheaton or something like that and be an unhappy minor bureaucratic functionary who just happened to accidentally press the button on the machine at the wrong time); Nolan, by contrast, uses Cobb’s emotional journey to drive the story forward in Inception, not the technology. We don’t really see how this technology changes the world. The same applies to the The Prestige, at least Nolan’s film of it.

A criticism I hear of Nolan that baffles me is that his work is technically brilliant but cold and emotionally uninvolving. I just don’t get that at all. I find his movies highly emotionally involving; I fail to understand how anybody could see the vertical-lying-down shot of the wife in either Memento or Inception, or Angier’s attempt to drown himself in the sink in The Prestige, or the memory of Thomas Wayne with young Bruce and the stethoscope, or Harvey Dent waking up in the hospital and finding the scarred coin, and be left cold. Perhaps those are losses that one must be able to reasonably fear sharing themselves in order to be able to relate. I suspect that the familial losses experienced in Nolan’s movies are the very ones by which he himself would be devastated; certainly there is an allusion to his own personal situation in Inception when Cobb says that he and Mal “were working together” (Nolan’s wife, Emma Thomas, is also his producer), and we see another co-worker couple destroyed by their professional association in The Dark Knight (Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes). I wonder if there will be one down the road where the protagonist loses his child (present, but handled rather indirectly, in Insomnia).

So what’s the deal with the name “Cobb,” anyway? In Following Cobb is a smartly-dressed, violent thief who is ultimately long-conning the unnamed protagonist, and who disappears at the end leaving no trace of his existence. He’s nothing like Inception‘s Cobb… well, except for the part about the smartly-dressed thief pulling a long con, and I guess Inception‘s Cobb is violent at times, although only either in the context of a dream or when his life is in danger. Maybe Nolan is pulling some pieces from his early work and reforging them based on the artist he is now. Maybe “Cobb” is just a name; maybe it’s a reference to The Prisoner, a work that strikes me as likely having had an influence on Nolan (particularly since he was supposed to do a big-screen adaptation up until about a year ago). Cobb was a character in “Arrival,” the very first episode, a colleague of Number Six’s who had been brought to the Village only to commit suicide. At the end of the episode, it is revealed that his death was faked, and he was working with the Village all along. Anyway, it’s hard to say. Maybe it’s just one more thing to talk about endlessly.

So far, Nolan seems to going onward and upward. He’s the most exciting and interesting Hollywood filmmaker working right now, as far as I’m concerned, and while I can’t wait to see what he does next with Batman, there’s part of me that is even more interested to see what his next original story is like. (Although — I’ve said it before, but while I like the work Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard have done with him, I really hope he finds a way to work with David Julyan again as the composer.) Is he the next Kubrick? You know, I really don’t care — so far I’m plenty happy with him just being Nolan.

Heads up: John Michael Boyer on Harmonia

During his January visit to Bloomington, John recorded an interview with Harmonia at the WFIU studios. It is finally being broadcast during this week’s show; I don’t know what its final form will be after editing and whatnot, but I was lucky enough to be in the studio while it was happening, and I think it should be well worth giving it a listen.

(Before I forget — it will get its own post, but go see Inception.)

St. Cornelius Orthodox Church, Amersfoort, Netherlands

When Andrew Gould was here back in January, he talked about having just gotten back from the Netherlands, where he had been hired to design a church for St. Cornelius Orthodox Church, a Moscow Patriarchate parish in Amersfoort. Hearing him talk about the experience was fascinating, and it made me very curious about what he was going to come up with for them.

Curiosity is no longer required; Andrew has posted his designs on his website, and I link to them for your perusal.

My hope is that in the very near future we are able to move forward with engaging Andrew to do the full design. The concept sketch is excellent to have and has been wonderfully useful, but we’re running out of steps we can take where it will be sufficient. If you might be interested in helping in some way, I refer you over this way.

“Musicals aren’t very realistic. If they were, there’d be an orchestra starting to play right now, with me saying, ‘Let me tell you something about musicals…'”

Given the embarrassment of riches that Glee had at the Emmy nominations today, it seems like an opportune time to post something I’ve been meaning to write for a couple of weeks now.

June was the occasion for a couple of short road trips on our part; our godchildren Matt and Erin were both Young Artists for Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and our friend Benjamin was performing as the title role in a production of Sweeney Todd in Cleveland. Time was a bit tight; Megan was teaching a Summer I course that met Monday through Friday, the final was on Thursday 17 June, and both OTSL and Sweeney closed on Sunday, 27 June. If I didn’t want to have to get a sub for Sunday services, that made our options somewhat limited, but we were determined to make it work, and we decided to head to St. Louis over Friday and Saturday the weekend of the 19th, catching the Saturday matinee of Eugene Onegin, and to Cleveland Wednesday through Friday of the next week for the Thursday evening performance of Sweeney.

We’d never been to St. Louis before, and Matt and Erin showed us a very nice time during our whirlwind visit. Under their tutelage, we experienced two very different kinds of pizza — what was explained to us as “San Francisco-style” deep dish at Pi Pizzeria (yes, as in 3.14 etc.), and then “St. Louis-style” at Imo’s, which has a very thin crust and is made with a peculiar local dairy product called provel. Very different beasts, but worth trying. I recommend getting some reasonably substantial toppings at Imo’s, otherwise the provel tends to be overwhelming; at Pi’s I strongly suggest taking advantage of their “bartender’s choice” option, where you tell the bartender what kind of drinks you usually like, they make you something of their own choosing based on that, and it’s something like two-thirds of what a cocktail would usually cost there. I was introduced to the Blood and Sand as a result, and I think I might have a new favorite bourbon drink.

We were also introduced to Ethiopian food while in St. Louis, and let me tell you, Meskerem on South Grand is absolutely fantastic. The food was delicious, the staff was knowledgable, and we were left wanting to seek out more Ethiopian food when we got home. My only lament was — Ethiopian food, where have you been all my life? (Yes, I know, Ethiopia.)

And, yes, we went up in the Gateway Arch. Won’t be bothering in the future — it’s a long wait, the lift is really cramped, and it’s not exactly like there’s much to do up there besides look out the windows. It’s a more impressive monument from the outside than the inside.

Saturday’s performance of Onegin was definitely worth the trip; Sean Panikkar as Lensky was the standout, to say the least, but the cast was great throughout. The one thing that didn’t work was, frankly, hearing it in English. I’ve been in the chorus for Onegin twice; once in Seattle back in 2002, when we sang it in Russian, and once at IU in 2004, when we sang it in English, using the same translation as OTSL. I also spent some time working on Lensky’s opera back in Seattle with a Russian coach who knew her stuff, and it’s a work that is near and dear to my heart. It’s also music that I associate with a very intensely emotional period of my life, and as a result it’s difficult to hear it and not get a bit of a lump in my throat. Thankfully, the silly English translation that everybody uses manages to clear out the lump pretty quickly; does anybody in real life actually use the word “prosaic” to describe somebody’s face? Would a group of gossiping women really say that somebody is “an odd one, a misanthrope and somewhat mad”? Does it really solve anything to call Tatiana’s name day celebration her “birthday”? I understand the various problems of translating opera librettos so that they match the music, but actually hearing the words in the house left me with the conviction that surely somebody can do better.

The real violence that the translation does is to the poor title character. Onegin is a very difficult man to understand for contemporary American audiences to begin with; he is a product of social expectations of which we have absolutely zero concept, and this particular English translation doesn’t help matters at all, transforming him into a dull bore, the least interesting character in his own story. The duel with Lensky and the underlying protocols that make the situation what it is are incomprehensible, turning Onegin into a cold-blooded monster rather than somebody who has no choice within his societal framework but to carry out the mechanics of the duel to their conclusion.

The difficult thing is that what we might broadly refer to as “sung drama” or “lyric theatre” is itself loaded with social expectations. I’ll get back to that idea, but as I was watching and hearing the performance, I realized that the expectations of the audience OTSL wants to reach are, frankly, operating at cross purposes to what actually makes Eugene Onegin work. The English translation actually obscures much of the psychological drama, it seems to me; by trying to make it “accessible” they manage to make it even more inaccessible. One hopes that a better translation would fix this problem, but then the trouble is matching the translation to what’s in the score, and that’s a totally different kettle of fish. Supertitles (which OTSL used anyway) aren’t a perfect solution by any means, but short of Russian becoming mandatory in American schools, I’m not sure that there is a perfect solution.

Watching the non-musical film of Onegin with Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler a week or so later, the problem was underscored for me even more. Often with only a facial expression, Fiennes is able to convey everything about Onegin that the English translation of the opera obscures for the poor operatic baritone — his ennui, his passive dissatisfaction with the expectations placed on him as a result of his social status, and his resigned compliance with those expectations regardless. He kills Lensky, not because he wants to, not because he’s a cold-blooded killer, but because that’s simply the expected outcome of the process Lensky’s challenge set in motion. Tatiana’s choice to remain faithful to her husband is also more extraordinary, because the film is able to make plain that she understands it would be socially acceptable for her to take a lover as long as she doesn’t embarrass anybody.

I’ll leave Onegin aside for the moment to discuss Sweeney Todd.

I first heard of Sweeney as a senior in high school; my choir director at the time brought it up as an example of how he thought Broadway musicals had largely become immoral trash. Still, when I started running in opera singer circles at Western Washington University, I found myself hearing about it in awed, hushed tones, and in anticipation of it being produced at WWU during my presumptive junior year and hearing all of this anxiety about “needing four tenors”, I finally saw the George Hearn/Angela Lansbury video. The following points were clear to me upon the first viewing:

  • I have great respect for my high school choir director and why he has the opinion he does, but I can’t disagree with him more; to dismiss it as immoral trash is to miss the point of the show.
  • Stephen Sondheim has probably the most morbid sense of humor I’ve ever encountered.
  • No wonder “legit” singers think it’s amazing.
  • There wasn’t a role in it for me.

As it worked out, as a result of various issues, political, artistic, and otherwise, neither the WWU production of Sweeney nor its numerous rumored replacement shows (like City of Angels and Into the Woods) happened until some years after I had dropped out (and then in apparently rapid succession). (Ironically, Sweeney seems to have happened my first year at IU. So, even though it didn’t happen in ’96-’97, it still happened during my junior year as originally concieved.) It nonetheless stuck with me — I watched the Hearn/Lansbury video a number of times, listened to the Cariou/Lansbury original cast recording, watched the Hearn/LuPone PBS broadcast, and with baited breath waited for tickets to go on sale for Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production with Bryn Terfel, culminating in my very first trip to Chicago in December of 2002. It goes without saying that when the Tim Burton film was greenlit (rumored since roughly the mid-1990s), I was there the first night. I’ll discuss my reaction to the film shortly.

The Chicago trip was interesting, no less so because my theatre critic buddy, editor-at-large, groomsman, and all-around dear friend Matthew Murray palled along for it, and he brought a very interesting perspective to the proceedings as somebody with a very heightened sense of the expectations of musical theatre as musical theatre, and not the expectations that opera people bring to the table. Certain artistic decisions that are acceptable in opera (like decisions to cut or not to cut certain numbers being up to the discretion of the production, regardless of what was done on opening night of the original production) were anathema to him; the restoration of the Judge’s aria and the tooth-pulling number, for example, were absolutely unacceptable as far as he was concerned. (I argue that, at least in terms of discussing the score as an organic whole, the score is incomplete both musically and dramatically without at least restoring the Judge’s aria, given certain musical quotations and references elsewhere in the show, to say nothing of making the Judge less of a one-note character. Yes, fine, it messes with the pacing, but that’s a problem for the director to solve.) In the musical theatre world, he argued, whatever the show looks like on opening night is what the show is; it doesn’t matter what was written, what was recorded, what was cut at the last second or for whatever reason. Anything other than what was done opening night is something other than the standard version of “the show.”

I’d also say that in general, the very things that made the performance appealing to me as an opera singer were exactly what made it lacking to him as a musical theatre critic. He came away convinced that opera singers should probably stay away from Sweeney Todd; I came away convinced that it’s exactly the kind of repertoire American opera houses should be doing.

Tim Burton and Sweeney Todd was a concept that struck me as a match made in… well, not heaven, exactly, but you get the idea. From the first time I heard his name attached to the project in the mid-’90s, I had an idea of what he could do with it. The show is Tim Burton-y enough on its own; surely there would be no better director.

Maybe the film that Burton would have made in the mid-’90s would have been a different beast from the one he made in 2007. I only saw the film once in theatres; I didn’t think it was horrible, but what he did was nowhere near as compelling as I felt it should have been. I watched it again at home before we headed to Cleveland for the first time since seeing it in theatres, and it seemed to me that Burton threw out a lot of what actually made the piece work, then overdid what was left, making the movie a grotesque half-adaptation. Again, it wasn’t horrible; it’s just that it’s now a Tim Burton Movie like every other Tim Burton Movie, fulfilling the expectations of the genre of the Tim Burton Movie, rather than being the special match of auteur and source material that it should have been. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are fine, I suppose, from a dramatic standpoint, but they just don’t have the range of vocal choices available to them to make the music part of the equation work. It’s as though Burton ultimately decided that he could handle the gore but not the tunes, so he over-emphasized the gore and hoped you wouldn’t notice that he’d reduced the impact of the music. In a lot of ways, the trouble does not lie with the script; there are some smart choices by the screenwriter in terms of conveying information cinematically that the stage version conveys musically, but in the final product, much of what makes the score work as an organic whole has been chopped up. Certainly the movie was not approached as a means to broaden the audience for the stage version; the stage version was approached as material by which to further the Tim Burton brand.

When we got to Cleveland, Ben talked a lot about the challenges he’d had during the rehearsal process. In a nutshell, as somebody who was first and foremost an opera singer working with primarily musical theatre people, he found that despite an intense dramatic focus during his operatic training, what he was doing just wasn’t sufficient for musical theatre purposes. His instincts regarding movement, delivery, presentation, and so on turned out to be virtually wrong in every respect for the purposes of what they were doing. I had had a similar experience ten years ago as Tony in a production of West Side Story, and the conversation that ensued about these musical theatre dabblings was very interesting. Again, it all boils down to expectations — does the drama direct the music, or does the music direct the drama? Is it enough to fit the drama in around the singing of the role, letting the music and libretto do their work, or is it necessary to fit the singing of the role in around the drama? Which has primacy, the text or the music? In musical theatre, the text is essential — in opera, as I found with the English translation of Onegin, the words almost have to be ignored.

And, to drop a hint as to how I’m going to tie this all in to where I started this essay, how do things like Glee wind up changing the audience expectations even more? I’ll get back to that.

The conversation involved playing a number of different clips of different people singing “Epiphany,” including Cariou, Hearn, Depp, Terfel, and even Christopher Lee(!). Terfel, Benjamin asserted, could not be taken seriously as Sweeney; he would get laughed off the stage on Broadway singing the role the way he does. He argued that an opera singer approaching the role needed to do their homework regarding performance tradition and convention just like they would for any other role, and take into account how people like Cariou and Hearn approached the score.

My own sense of the matter is that Terfel’s approach is a perfectly legitimate one, as long as everybody is approaching it the same way he is. In other words, everybody needs to be in the same show, whatever aesthetic the production uses. To give an example of what I mean, I recently saw the movie W., and Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice is simply not in the same movie everybody else is. She’s not awful, like a number of reviews claim; she’s actually very good. The trouble is that she is approaching the part as though the film were an SNL sketch, bringing a level of almost cruel, caricaturizing detail to her performance appropriate to that aesthetic, but she’s the only one doing that, and sticks out like a sore thumb as a result. If you’re going to do Sweeney Todd as an opera, do it as an opera, with everybody on the same page about doing it as an opera. If you’re going to do it as musical theatre, do it as musical theatre.

The other interesting thing about what Ben said is that, in effect, an opera singer performing the role of Sweeney with an eye towards musical theatre conventions and traditions is still approaching the role with operatic methodology. This is somewhat borne out it one of the reviews of Ben’s production, which said that at times he calls to mind Cariou and Hearn too much. Matthew Murray once said to me that the difference between being an opera singer and a musical theatre performer is than as an opera singer, you’re going to spend most of your time doing what other people have already done; in musical theatre, the hope is to create something new. Perhaps, then, what a real musical theatre approach would be would less take into account what Hearn and Cariou did and be more interested in what nobody has done before.

But then there’s still the trouble of musical style. The fact of the matter is, whatever happened in the rehearsal process, Ben was one of the two or three most consistent people onstage in that production with respect to faithfully presenting the score and libretto as written, musically and dramatically, and he seemed like he actually belonged in that show. A lot of the cast, to be honest, sounded like they were trying to sing Rent. Watching the Hearn/Lansbury video again, one thing that comes across is that it is very much a product of a previous generation of musical theatre, and has far more in common with Oklahoma! than Avenue Q or Mamma Mia!. To an extent, it almost seems as though you can assemble a cast that will be able to act the show but not sing it in the style for which it was written, or a cast that can sing it but might be toned down dramatically somewhat, because musical theatre people these days are simply trained with a different set of — you guessed it — expectations in mind.

So what does the success of Glee tell us about what the expectations are these days? Is sung drama only workable for today’s audiences if it is self-conscious, flamboyant and ironic, a jukebox show, limits the songs to “source” performances, or some combination thereof? Certainly the musical expressiveness of an opera like Onegin, in which time essentially stops so that the singer may emote, isn’t going to play well to most audience members’ expectations, at least not without a chuckle or two — and ironically, singing it English only seems to elicit more chuckles. We can understand far more easily Ralph Fiennes looking silently with longing at Liv Tyler than a baritone singing about it, no matter how gorgeous the music. “Because it’s actually realistic,” is often the rejoinder, except that 19th century Russian aristocracy didn’t speak or write letters in English in their homes or in the court, and if they did, it wasn’t with Fiennes’ cultured Suffolk accent. Whither “realism” in that case? “Well, that’s suspension of disbelief for a cinematic convention,” one might reply. Fine, so people will draw the line somewhere.

Even Sweeney, a product of the late 1970s, seems to overdo it for 2010 audiences — I read a review of Burton’s Sweeney that said, essentially, this would be an interesting movie if the songs didn’t keep interrupting the actors from actually telling the story. I suppose that this person’s response to analyses of how the music and songs actually do tell the story (the Beggar Woman’s melodic material being quoted in “Poor Thing,” for example — whoops, the Beggar Woman’s stuff was mostly cut, so I guess that won’t work) would likely be something like, “Well, that just doesn’t work for today’s audiences.”

I’m strongly tempted to see a correlation between this point of view and the transformation of musical experience from being communal and live to individual and canned (or at least processed). How do most people listen to music these days? Are they singing with their friends around a piano, or at least listening to CDs on a stereo with a group of people? No, they’re sitting on the bus with earbuds in, and their iPod is probably at least in part a way of shutting out any kind of communal contact. Are they listening to it live, in a room intended for that purpose? No, it’s probably at least autotuned and amplified, if not prerecorded. If the music is communal, they’re probably not paying any attention to it beyond its function as background noise anyway. If the music is live, then it is likely they’re singing along so loudly it doesn’t matter what the performers are doing, turning being an audience member into ritual self-indulgence.

Bottom line, I suppose, is that sung drama perhaps presupposes a social context in which music is experienced socially. That doesn’t really exist in the present day, beyond karaoke and concerts where everything is prerecorded and/or the audience isn’t really listening to the performance. Without that context, doubtless musicals and operas aren’t going to make much sense. The rise of the jukebox show was perhaps inevitable after Moulin Rouge!, but I have to think it’s a snake that will eat its own tail eventually. What then? Is it just not an artistic idiom that will survive in a world that can only tolerate anything less than hyper-realism if it has a gallon of self-aware irony on top?

I don’t know. But I don’t think I’m going to tune in to Glee anytime soon, Emmy nominations or no Emmy nominations.

Straw poll regarding local liturgical practice

Quick question for my Orthodox readers who regularly attend or chant Matins — what do you do for Psalm 50 (i. e., read, intone, chant, skip altogether), and what informs this practice? Are you aware of an “official” or “authoritative” rubric being one thing and your parish practice being something else? Are you aware of your parish practice being either standard or deviating from your diocesan or jurisdictional norm? If you could answer along with your parish location and jurisdiction, that would also be great to know. I am just trying to get a sense of the range of what is done out there — in other words, this is strictly a matter of data-gathering. Thank you in advance!


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