Notes from the Front Row

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haven theater seminarThere was a brief tease earlier this week that this winter of 2014, the harshest one I’ve experienced in my 16 years of living in Chicago, would finally leave us alone. As I write this blog post though, snow blankets my condo building’s courtyard, and that glorious 60 degree Monday seemed to be nothing but a cruel trick from the cosmos.  But Chicagoans are a hearty theatergoing lot and we’ve been giving the big middle finger to the cosmos throughout this winter- all of the shows I’ve been to in the past several weeks have been packed, ice, snow, tundra temperatures, potholes, and swimming-pool like puddles of melting ice notwithstanding.   Here are some impressions on a couple of shows I’ve recently seen:

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Cosmic Forces

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I know it sounds so cliché, but this year, time did fly by, like Dreamliner-speed fly by.  After a blur of a difficult summer, I’ve suddenly found myself in early September and right smack at the beginning of Chicago’s fall arts and culture season, the fifth one I’ll be writing about since From the Ledge’s inception in 2007.  Yes, five years writing this blog – I can’t believe it myself.  And it’s so fitting that my fall arts season officially begins with Chicago Opera Theater (COT)’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the first new Chicago production of the well-worn but well-loved opera in 17 years, in an English translation by Jeremy Sams. The Magic Flute was the first opera I ever saw way back when during the medieval times (actually Manila in the 1970s which, in some aspects, was similar), and was one of the first cultural experiences I distinctly remember; it obviously played a role in shaping the smart, curious, discerning, not to mention fabulous, cultural cognoscenti I’ve become (ahem).  I’ve actually always found The Magic Flute to be a fun romp, a shimmying, dazzling, light-hearted ball of operatic silliness and grandiosity, sometimes incoherent, mostly engaging, a great introduction to opera for children and those unfamiliar with the art form.  COT’s production, despite some questionable design and directorial choices, doesn’t disappoint – it’s an accessible, fast-paced, gloriously-sung production which should win operatic converts all around.

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Bringing The Sexy

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I’m a classical music dabbler.  I don’t profess to have the ability to be conversant about Mahler’s “Symphony No.5” or Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” in the same way I am about August: Osage County or Macbeth or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but I like my classical music fix here and there, either in the hallowed halls of Symphony Center or under the bucolic greenery of Millennium Park or Ravinia during the summer.  I mean, come on, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been ranked as one of the top five orchestras in the world, and it is acclaimed everywhere it goes during its extensive world tours. But I do think classical music performances among my demographic and younger continue to have that air (some would call stigma) of inaccessibility, more so than the rest of the performing arts – unlike theater or film, there aren’t clear-cut narratives and dialogue to follow; unlike pop or rock music concerts, there isn’t as much of a visceral impact.  But Chicago is packed with young, talented, boundary-pushing classical musicians and ensembles, and if you keep yourself in the loop, great opportunities to hear them in places other than Symphony Center, Ravinia, Millennium Park, or the myriad of concert halls that dot the city.  A couple of weekends ago, I managed to have a double dose of classical music performance in between the non-stop theatergoing I do- one night I was at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNow event called Mercury Soul at, of all places, The Metro, in the last-remaining tiny patch of grunge in the outer edges of frat-jock central Wrigleyville.  The next night I attended the End-of-Season concert (and party) of the fantastic, fast-emerging Spektral Quartet in a clandestine performance arts space on the outer edges of nowheresville Chicago (actually an industrial stretch of Elston that is literally a dump – there was a garbage truck parking lot on it). Both were essential experiences for any Chicago cultural adventurer, and both proved that classical music was indeed sexy and relevant. On both evenings, I kinda had to pinch myself on how lucky I was to live in this vibrant arts city.

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Star Gazing

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I should be pretty jaded already having seen many, many major performing artists live onstage in my lifetime.  However, there are still those increasingly rare instances when ineffable, magnetic star power just sweeps me, breathlessly, dizzyingly, off my tiny Asian feet.  There were the nights, for example, of seeing Mikhail Baryshnikov at the Minneapolis Orpheum Theater in the mid-1990s, or Dame Judi Dench in Amy’s View on Broadway, or, more recently, Cate Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Kennedy Center.  Last Wednesday night, at the Harris Theater, seeing the celebrated American opera superstar Frederica von Stade, in one of her last staged opera performances in Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, the last production for the season of the essential Chicago Opera Theater, was one of those times.  Von Stade is luminous, riveting, wonderfully graceful, radiating never-ending concentric circles of charisma as Madeline Mitchell, a celebrated Broadway actress with fractured relationships with her two children, Charlie, whose partner is dying of AIDS, and Bea, who has turned to alcohol to escape her troubled marriage.  Von Stade, both through her impeccable musicality and her terrific acting chops, is able to make Maddy, seemingly monstrous on paper, both maddening and sympathetic, a truly multi-layered characterization, closer to the best of musical theater performance, in my opinion, than operatic performance (which tends to be more about the singing than the acting).  She is also very generous in her scenes with the star-in-the-making Matthew Worth (seen last season at COT in Britten’s Owen Wingrave, which I’m now kicking myself for missing), who gives Charlie a serious dose of sexy heartwrench, and Sara Jakubiak, who infuses Bea with steely, quiet rage. 

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Here Lies Ambivalence

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I never thought a photo of Imelda Marcos would ever grace (sully?)  the pages of this blog.  I grew up in Manila during the height of the Marcos authoritarian rule in the late 1970s and 1980s, so, like many Filipinos who were subjected to their unique brand of dictatorial, mercurial, and outrageously self-indulgent rule, I’m not a fan, to say the least.  But I have always had, again like many Filipinos of my generation, a slight tinge of ambivalence towards Imelda Marcos.  With the infamous pairs of shoes, the co-ruler and co-indictee status, the foolishness and delusion, she was infuriating.  But one also had to admire her chutzpah and her fervor in flirtatiously but decisively arm-wrestling the world to take the Philippines, a small archipelago in Southeast Asia, seriously, on a level footing, on it’s own terms, and for the most part, to be successful in doing so during her heyday.  She was, and continues to be, while now living in Manila, seemingly forgiven by a country that threw her out into exile, larger-than-describable-life, and that’s alluring and fascinating.  And for some reason, maybe because of this larger-than-lifeness, not to mention the campiness and the unrepentant divaness, she has definitive gay icon status.  So when I heard that David Byrne (he of Talking Heads fame) and Fatboy Slim were releasing a “concept album” of a possible theatrical piece called “Here Lies Love:  A song cycle about Imelda Marcos & Estrella Cumpas” containing twenty-two songs devoted to the life of Madame and her erstwhile housekeeper/governess, Estrella, I was so curious I had to run out to my favorite Boystown music store stat! (of course, I knew those gays would have a stash of this CD!).  I’m still listening to the music, but  I’m already blown away by the caliber of the mostly female artists Byrne has asked to be on the album, such as Tori Amos, Natalie Merchant, Cyndi Lauper, Martha Wainwright (Rufus’s sister).  I’ll be writing a more detailed blog post, containing not only my impressions of the album, but also my point of view on Imeldific as a theater subject, in the next week or so.  In the meantime, why don’t you guys take a look at this extremely well-written piece on the creation and evolution (five years in the making!) of “Here Lies Love” from the Times of London, which also contains some interesting points about Imelda’s current “weirdly iconic” status in the arts world. Oh, and I guess New York’s Public Theater is supposedly playing a part in developing this theatrical piece.  Can someone help me get some jaw reconstruction surgery, please?

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Short Cut

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la-tragedie-de-carmen.jpgFor those of us who are truly passionate aficionados of all things theatrically innovative, Peter Brook is a god (I worshipped at his sacred altar, for one, last year, when he brought his Beckett masterpiece, Fragments, to the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre).  So I was as giddy and inchoate as Kara DioGuardi (ok, enough American Idol references already, since Kris Allen made it to the final two, yay!) on my way to see Chicago Opera Theater‘s production of Brook’s stripped-down, minimalist, polarizing-for-its-time (the early 1980s) version of Bizet’s glorious Carmen, called La Tragedie de Carmen.  Sitting at my seat at the Harris Theatre, waiting for the famous “Prelude” to begin, my heart was palpitating, my brow was breaking out in sweat beads, my endorphins were having a rock and roll jam session, and then…oh, there was no “Prelude”.  OK, now (although the “Prelude” came later on in the show as, gasp, recorded music). COT had, as expected, produced a polished, technically proficient, stunningly sung show.  I thought the barely-there set of a huge brick wall and a sand pit, as well as the expressionistic lighting design, were effective in heightening the point that this was not going to be your grandmother’s grand, outsized Carmen.  I thought the chamber orchestra, now only comprised of 15 musicians, still brought vivid, lush life to Bizet’s enveloping melodies.  As I have come to expect with COT, the singing was just this side of spectacular, with Sandra Piques Eddy as Carmen and, especially, Noah Stewart as Don Jose giving nuanced musical performances.  But I had a problem with Brook’s reconceptualization. To be honest, I really didn’t buy into it.  If the point of La Tragedie de Carmen was ultimately to strip away the grandiose baggage of centuries of operatic over-the-top-ness and focus on the relationships in the story, then I didn’t really think it succeeded.  The 80 minute running time and the choppy scene sequences never gave me a chance to fully understand and invest in the characters’ motivations, attractions, and decisions.  One minute Carmen was a smoldering object of lust chained to a chair or suggestively touching a microphone, the next she was a broken down, emotionally battered woman, widowed twice over (first by the death of her husband, Garcia, and then by that of her true love, Escamillo, which, by the way, I didn’t understand how that came to be).  Where were the transitions?  the clearly-depicted character arcs?  the humanity that was supposed to shine through with the operatic trappings being removed? Unfortunately, as heretical as it may sounds, Brook’s minimalist, auterist, re-ordered version may have been radical and unheard of, scandalous even, to the most rabid cultural purists, in the early 1980s but today, in 2009, it just feels….it kills me to say this, dated.  For a theatergoer like me who’s seen a Richard III reconceptualized as a modern day Arab political treatise, or seen A Doll’s House performed with 3 feet tall men and 6 feet tall women and a mystifying coda with bald puppets, or a Misanthrope with a radically altered structure set in modern day New York, reinventions of classics are not new, in fact, they’re almost to be expected.  So seeing a different interpretation of Carmen isn’t foreign to me, what’s strange, and ultimately disappointing, is that the revision, by a legendary theater director at that, wasn’t engaging, memorable, or timeless.  The last performance of La Tragedie de Carmen is on Friday, May 15, 7:30 pm at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205. E. Randolph St.

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