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Posts Tagged 'matthew murray'

Addenda to Kapitel Vier: The post-high school, struggling through junior year of college, and giving up to enter the workforce blues

Exactly what would happen to me following high school graduation was a point of no small controversy. My parents wanted me in Alaska with them as soon as possible and to stay up there as long as possible. The stated reason was so I could work as long as possible; there were at least two other reasons, however, that are probably best summed up by saying that me going to college “in state” (that is, in Washington), while it had seemed like a great idea up until summer of 1993, now didn’t seem like such a hot deal from a familial perspective. At best I’d now be a three hour flight away instead of an hour and a half’s drive (not that I had a car anyway), and while I still had incentives to go back to the Seattle area on the weekends, they weren’t part of it. My parents were going to have to deal with an empty nest in a place that had never actually been our nest, and they would have to do so with me relatively inaccessible. This is, I am certain, difficult under the best of circumstances, and the family difficulties we had been struggling with for the past several years meant that these were not the best of circumstances.

The bottom line was that, for that last summer before college, I really didn’t want to go to Alaska and they really didn’t want me to stay in Seattle. I had no desire to go someplace that I had no real memory of to be around two people who were likely to re-negotiate the manner of their life together after a year apart in a way that was going to be extremely unpleasant for any additional parties. If the point was for me to work, I could do that in Seattle without paying for a plane ticket; from where I sat, that made a heck of a lot more sense than forcing me to be a continuing participant in their drama. I had people I wanted to be around, but that was also part of the issue for my parents; they weren’t people they wanted me to be around. There’s not much more I can say about that without getting into specifics that aren’t appropriate for me to get into, so I’ll leave this by noting that I had a conversation with one parent where I expressed all of my concerns quite openly; this parent replied, well, yes, that’s all probably true. It isn’t going to be fun, and you’re probably going to have to deal with us fighting a lot. But that’s the way it goes, we’re a family, messed up though we may be, this is the way we want it for you right now, and we’re still in charge.

This was a growing source of tension as high school graduation neared; ultimately, however, there were two things that threw a wrench into the plan for me to be in Alaska for the entire summer — one was early orientation for Western Washington University, and the other was the aforementioned opportunity to work as an extra on the movie Mad Love. Again, don’t bother looking for me; everything I was in was cut. I could have worked more, but the three days I did work meant a two week delay in my departure for Alaska, and my parents weren’t willing to delay it any more. Still, as it worked out, I had to be back a month later anyway for early orientation and registration. The schedule became a month up, three weeks back, and a month up.

Yes, the time in Anchorage was rough, for all of the reasons I expected it to be. However, I will be the first person to say that there are parts of it I’m glad for; I had the chance to reconnect with some family members I hadn’t seen in years, and I was able to continue some of my vocal momentum with a voice teacher named Bettyrae Easley, who did the very practical thing of getting me ready to audition for Western’s music major, something in the post-graduation whirlwind that there just hadn’t been time to discuss with Dennis once my voice had finally opened up. Among other things, Bettyrae taught me my first French mélodie, Fauré’s “Lydia”, which served as my introduction to an entirely new song paradigm (to say nothing of the beginning of a, shall we say, complex relationship with French diction).

I did wind up working a bit in Anchorage; not overly much due to the time constraints, but there were a couple of odd jobs here and there that I did for friends of my dad. Among other things, I helped a future protest candidate for the United States Senate and right-wing filmmaker move out of a landmark Lloyd Wright home, and I also spent a couple of weeks assembling and finishing ulus.

One of the things that was difficult for me conceptually about preparing to go to college was that nobody seemed to actually have a clear idea in their head why I was going, or how to relate it to anything I was interested in doing, or how to relate any of those things to how I might actually earn a living on the other end. I was supposed to have been a smart kid, but none of the various things I was good at really lent themselves to careers, per se, at least as my parents or the people in their circles understood them. I was a voracious reader, I retained information, I read about all kinds of things as a kid from astronomy to cryptography to computer science to paleontology to mythology and everything in between, but what did that mean in terms of what I could do to feed myself? Coming into high school, math and science bored me silly, I hated sports, I was more interested in what computers could be used for than what they did under the hood, I enjoyed creative writing, I seemed to have some aptitudes for drawing and painting up to a point, and I enjoyed music but puberty had freaked me out with my voice change and I convinced myself I couldn’t sing anymore. There really wasn’t anything obvious in there in terms of “normal” career paths; not business, not medicine, none of that. Neither of my parents finished college and academia wasn’t anything I had ever heard of as a career.

Once I got into high school and discovered that I seemed to have an aptitude for theatre and music, that was a relief in some respects and it gave me some idea of a path. The thing was, nobody took it seriously. I remember my senior year of high school telling people, I’m going to major in music and theatre. Typically, that would generate a condescending smile and a sentence that sounded something like, “Oh, well, it really doesn’t matter what you start with, because you’ll probably change ten times before you’re done.” That, frankly, pissed me off; it was clear that I was being patronized and not listened to. At the same time, I had to acknowledge that having it in my head that I would finish a major wasn’t the same thing as knowing exactly how to get to the “pay your bills” part of the deal.

My parents didn’t know what to tell me. They didn’t really understand my interests, and they didn’t have any advice regarding college except get good grades and finish as soon as possible. Neither was there was ever any clear idea of what the trajectory of life post-high school was going to be for us, even before they moved back to Alaska. Was there an expectation that I was going to live with them until I got married? Was there an expectation about when it would be “okay” for me to think about getting married? None of this was discussed. At least when they were still going to be in Seattle, some small level of continuity could be assumed, but the mechanics and specifics still weren’t really talked about. After the move, all bets were off.

Thus it was that I found myself in Bellingham in September of 1994, living in a dorm room in Ridgeway Sigma with one Will Bass, and most of my worldly possessions were under my then-girlfriend’s house (many of which never to be seen again, alas, as will be explained in a future installment). I auditioned for the voice major, got in, then walked over to the other side of the Performing Arts Center and declared myself a theatre major. My very first class on the first day of my freshman year was Music Theory I, taught by Prof. Jeffrey Gilliam (to this day perhaps the single most naturally musical person I have ever met, to say nothing of the very best music theory instructor I have ever had). It was off to the races.

There were a number of highlights to that year: I was in my very first opera, singing Marco, one of i parenti in Gianni Schicchi (with the previously-mentioned future Metropolitan Opera baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson in the title role). I also got to sing the high baritone drunken abbot solo in Carmina Burana (“Ego sum abbas Cucaniensis… WAAAAAAAAAAAAFNA!”). My friend Gavin Shearer sat me down at some point in the fall to show me this awesome thing that was happening in computers called “the World Wide Web” that used this amazing program called Mosaic to do what Prodigy and AOL had utterly failed to do up to that point. Two portentous occurrences: a master class with a voice teacher named Roy Samuelsen from Indiana University, a school I had never heard of before but that apparently had quite a reputation for opera, and dating very briefly this lovely brunette named Megan McKamey, who was absolutely wonderful in every way, but everything going on around me made it difficult to feel capable of committing at the level I felt she deserved.

The trouble was, my parents and I didn’t even get through the first quarter without some massive meltdowns. The situation was complex; Seattle was still home for me, and I would go back on the weekends, because I felt very much alone at Western. My parents didn’t want Seattle to continue to feel like home for me, since from their perspective I needed to start thinking of Anchorage as home, but from where I sat they had moved, not me; I was just following the plan we had always had, and… yeah. The whole situation had nowhere to go but down. At some point it was suggested that maybe the whole idea of me going to college at Western was no longer tenable, and that marked the point where the irreconcilable differences in how we saw what was happening meant that there was basically no reasonable conversation to be had about anything. There was a brief period of rapprochement over spring break; my paternal grandmother passed away, and my dad and I spent the week together while he cleaned out her condo. Still, once summer came and I made it clear I wasn’t going back to Alaska, whatever brief peace had been achieved was broken. “In ten years you’re going to remember this moment as the day you pissed your life away,” I recall being told on the phone. What drove me absolutely batty about all of this was how inevitable it had all seemed from the time my dad had announced that he was going back to Anchorage, and everything was happening exactly as I had feared it would. Nobody had listened to me, and somehow I was being blamed for it. The stress made me a charmer to deal with, I’m sure; certainly it impacted a number of relationships I valued, but there just wasn’t anything I could do. I wasn’t equipped to deal with any of it, and I had no particular support system to fall back onto.

That summer I worked at Computer City, sold the first copy of Windows 95 at midnight of 24 August 1995 (there used to be a photo online of me ringing it up, not sure where it might be found these days), and took voice lessons from Dennis Kruse. We were working on preparing me for opera auditions at Western in the fall — the opera was Marriage of Figaro, not exactly a huge tenor show, but Basilio would be worth it for a kid like me. “O wie ängstlich” from Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio was the audition piece we worked up, and Dennis put me as the last singer on his summer studio recital, even over some of his students who were ostensibly his stars and who had made it clear much of the time I had worked with Dennis that they thought I was a waste of his time.

Sophomore year wasn’t exactly an amazing improvement over freshman year. A high school friend and his mother — J. P. had been the Danny Zuko in Grease! and Tony in West Side Story, and was also a student of Dennis Kruse — were killed in a car crash in the fall, which led to a reunion nobody particularly wanted. Fallout from that, plus still trying to figure out how to resolve the family situation, meant that I was even more of a wreck that year than I had been my freshman year. I agreed to spend the holidays and the following summer in Alaska, hoping that it would ease off some of the tension, but if anything, it ratcheted it up.

Marriage of Figaro was fun, but it was a bizarre reconstruction/translation that basically turned it into musical theatre — the recitatives were replaced with spoken dialogue from the Beaumarchais play. There were a number of practical reasons to do this, I suppose; hiring a harpsichordist and having the time to coach the recits properly being two of the major concerns, as I understand it. They had piddled away the fall quarter with a lot of political nonsense over sets and casting professionals for Figaro and the Count in one of the casts, and didn’t even post the cast list until sometime towards the end of the quarter, even though auditions had been in September and the performances were set for March. It was a strange experience all around.

I wound up in Alaska three weeks before the end of the quarter. I was supposed to work for my mother’s company over the summer, and they had revised their policies sometime in the spring so that everybody for the summer needed to be in place by 1 May. “So, you’ll just have to come up here early,” I was told. Um, the school year isn’t over? Not even close? “The opportunity cost of you finishing the quarter isn’t worth it. Anybody with half a brain should be able to see that.” Did I mention that I was a first generation college graduate?

I negotiated what I could with my professors (which in some cases, meant taking Fs). I can’t say I exactly made myself popular with anybody during this time, and not for no reason. I was a basketcase through and through, and nothing I was trying to do seemed to work out in a straightforward fashion. Going to college right out of high school had turned into a disaster; I was unprepared for it, my parents were unprepared for it, additional circumstances meant that there was additional burden for all of us to bear, and my friends were unprepared for how unpleasant of a person the whole experience was making me.

Summer of 1996 I cannot describe in much detail without going into things that I’d rather not discuss publicly. Suffice it to say that I got a front row seat for much of why my parents were freaked out over me being 2,500 miles away; a lot of the unpleasantness that had been plaguing our family life since the mid-1980s had come home to roost with their move, we were all now having to confront it head on, and none of us were doing a particularly good job. I returned to Bellingham in September unsure of what kind of a relationship would be possible with my parents after certain events, conversations, and revelations. I focused on what I could, namely, trying to rebuild my relationships at Western.

In short, however, that ship had sailed, and now I had to sleep in the bed of frustrations I had made the previous two years. Whatever had been the cause of all my erratic behavior, certain relationships were damaged beyond repair, and I continued to make unhealthy decisions with respect to other relationships. I couldn’t find a way to focus on being at school, partially because the muddied reasons I had for being there continued to get muddier, partially because all of my personal issues made it impossible to ever feel sufficiently centered and stable. I also made some poor choices vocally — Dennis had gone to a lot of trouble to figure out how to work much of the tension I usually carried with me out of my voice, a wonderful teacher named Virginia Hunter had done a very nice job teaching me to sing with the instrument Dennis had shown me I’d had, but that year, for reasons that seemed great at the time, I switched to a teacher who went out of their way to work all of that tension back in. Within three months my top was completely gone and my voice had regained a strangled quality that I thought had been left behind after graduating high school.

There was one more factor in this equation. In fall of ’96, I became aware of some behavior on a faculty member’s part that I believed (and believe) to be unethical, and at the very least political maneuvering at the expense of students. I attempted to seek advice on how to deal with these things in a way which I thought to be private which instead publicly blew up in my face. Later, I understood that whatever my concerns were, the way I sought to deal with it was totally unprofessional on my part and embarrassing to the faculty member in question. This culminated in a letter from the chair of the department telling me that all three of us — he, the faculty member, and I — would likely be happier if I went someplace else. So, midway through winter quarter, so many threads having come unraveled, I decided that college had become a gigantic, expensive exercise in beating my head against a brick wall, and it was time to acknowledge that it just wasn’t the right thing for me to be doing at that moment. I subsequently dropped out in disgrace, with the straw that broke the camel’s back being something which really was entirely my own fault. Today I would deal with a similar situation very differently because I would understand better what was happening; the bottom line is that when someone’s on a tenure track, you either play along or get out of the way, particularly under circumstances where resources are scarce and only so many people can get what they want. Anyway, after flailing about for a few months and still making really bad decisions (almost reflexively, at this point), I started selling classified advertising for the Bellingham Herald and trying to figure out how I might be able to move back to the Seattle area.

1994-1997 was a difficult, unpleasant time. It is difficult to even know where to begin explaining that the poor, confused, unhappy person who arrived at WWU in the fall of 1994 was not me at my best, not by a long shot. I started college not having any idea which way was up and having nobody, really, to whom I could turn. I was trying to do everything right which I possibly could, but there was just very little good that anybody could do for me, and trying to do everything right when one doesn’t even know what all one needs to do means one is bound to get quite a bit wrong. There continue to be ramifications to this day — people who don’t talk to me because some of my choices, people who, even if they’re still friends with me, can get easily upset when discussing some of what happened, and other consequences. A few years later, I did my best to apologize to everybody I hurt in those years, with somewhat mixed results. Whenever I think about that period, it is with a lot of pain and regret, but also a lot of confusion. In broad strokes, under the circumstances, I have a hard time imagining what I could have done differently that would have been any better beyond, quite simply, dropping out earlier. The kind of wrench my parents’ move threw into the works was comprehensive, I had no idea how to deal with it, my parents had no ideal how to deal with it, and they had no ideal how to help me deal with it. In retrospect, maybe it would have been better for me to find a way to work full-time while doing an Associate’s degree at a community college and continuing to study with Dennis. The trouble with that, however, was that I didn’t really have a place to live available to me full-time. Moving to Anchorage would have cut me off from much of what I was trying to do post-high school, and would likely have only hastened the inevitable. Maybe I could have just taken a year off out of high school to figure things out — I was starting college at 17, after all, thanks to my skipped grade — but that wasn’t really presented as an option. The expectation had always been that I would go to a four year college right out of high school; it was exactly what I would do while I was there and what would happen after that were all quite vague.

I should note that there are a number of people from this time for whom I remain grateful: an incomplete list includes Brian Ward, Holly Zehnder, Mike Cook (memory eternal), Peter and Arwyn Smalley (née Moilanen), Suzann Miller (née Welch), Jon Haupt, JOHHHHHHHHHHHHN Davies, David Harsh, Jon Lutyens, Matthew Murray, Kai Morrison, Dennis Kruse, Tom and Jordin Baugh (née Peters), Matt Carter, Sue Fletcher, Sarah O’Brien (née Wright), Liz Holmes, Eric Rachner, and, of course, Flesh of My Flesh herself, Megan Barrett (née McKamey).

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“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.

Star Trek

Gotta admit it — never been much of a Trekker. I’ve seen most of the movies multiple times (save Nemesis, which I never saw at all) and most of the them in the theatre at least once, I’ve seen some number of episodes of the original series at one point or another, and same for The Next Generation. I could never quite get into Deep Space Nine or Voyager, and I didn’t even bother trying with Enterprise. In terms of Star Trek being any kind of an influence on me, First Contact inspired me to give a go at coming up with a story that would wrap up the Star Trek universe once and for all. This wound up becoming an original story called The Ascension, a sort of Fugitive story set in a space opera universe, for which I actually went through the process of writing a full screenplay, 120 pages, three act structure and all, and subsequently tried to pitch as a spec script. I was able to fast-talk my way into getting a few agents to read it (including one who is now a producer of some note), but of course it didn’t go anywhere. Still, it was a great writing exercise, it taught me a lot about story structure as used in movies (which in and of itself was a bestowal of charity for me when it comes to judging movie adaptations against their source material), and it prompted my good friend and sometime editor Matthew Murray to tell me, “Hey, there’s this TV series that I think is similar in tone to what you’re going for that I think you’d really enjoy — it’s called Babylon 5.” And, sure enough, he was quite right — so perhaps we could say that Star Trek‘s biggest influence on me was to eventually get me, via a rather circuitous means, interested in Babylon 5 and the work of J. Michael Straczynski in general.

But I digress (what a surprise — can you tell I read Ain’t It Cool News a lot in my late teens and early twenties?).

Anyway, point is, while my life doesn’t depend on Star Trek movies by any means, I was certainly intrigued enough by the trailers and the reported premise, to say nothing of the cast, to want to see it opening weekend.

I enjoyed it a heck of a lot; in particular, I admired a lot the ability of the new cast to inhabit the spirits of their various characters without ever devolving into impersonations (and in the case of Bruce Greenwood, the ability to create a great onscreen character out of somebody who has mostly existed as offscreen backstory), and appreciated the film figuring out a way to have an in-story reason for a reboot without going to Crisis on Infinite Earths proportions of ridiculousness. I’m looking forward to future adventures with this particular crew, and I’m looking forward to Chris Pine growing into the captain’s chair. I also loved that the movie was able to do something that the original series could never do — have an official handoff of the Enterprise from Christopher Pike to James T. Kirk.

Most of all, however, I loved that the movie was more than just a Star Trek story — it acknowledged, and referenced, much of what has happened that is important in science fiction TV and movies since the original series. The design of Nero’s ship sure looked to me like an homage to the Shadow vessels in Babylon 5, the planetary drills also seemed to be a reference to the Vorlon planet-killers, and then the fate of George Kirk (and even to some extent how they reworked the story of Christopher Pike) had overtones of Jeffrey Sinclair. Much of the camera work seemed to reference Battlestar Galactica (the new one). Certain shots (one in particular, but to say which one would be a bit of a spoiler) were definitely nods of the head to Blade Runner. Nero’s tattoos were Darth Maul-esque, and then the space battles to begin with were the first I’ve seen in a Star Trek movie which seemed aware that there’s a space opera series out there called Star Wars which sets the bar for space battles. On that level, the movie is a love letter to fans of science fiction film and TV of all stripes, and I think it succeeds marvelously.

Anyway — looking very much forward to seeing how this version of the five-year mission plays out.


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