25 July 2008

Review of Lake George Opera at Saratoga’s production of La Traviata

On Sunday, July 13th, I had the great privilege of watching Verdi’s La Traviata in Saratoga Springs, NY, in a new production directed by David Lefkowich. This was my sister Nadine’s last performance of the season as a studio artist with the Lake George Opera. She spent time with LGO in the winter as a pianist, then again in the summer as a chorus member, and sang in solo or duet recitals during both seasons. Now she is off to the Berkshire Opera Company, where she will join their presentation of La Nozze de Figaro.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a live opera (I guess the last one was the Met’s Opera in the Park performance of Gounod’s Faust in the summer of 2007, and that wasn’t staged—but glorious!), and I was ravished again by the glory of the form. It truly is the Gesampkunstwerk, the total art work. Song, instrumental music, acting, dance, text, visual art in the set and costumes, all united in one heart-wrenching archetypal story of human emotion at its highest pitch.

This particular production took a staple from the classic repertoire and refreshed it in the most astonishing way. In a brilliant twist, the director set this story of a “fallen women” in Las Vegas in the 1950s! This not only made the plot and characters “accessible,” it also added an ingenious interpretive angle. The story, in brief, is the tale of Violetta, a society woman who lives for shallow “pleasures”: drinking, gambling, sleeping around. She falls in love with a young fellow, Alfredo, as morally transitory as herself, and their mutual commitment begins to redeem them and raise them out of their spiritual squalor. But then the boyfriend’s father comes and convinces here that, for the good of the family, she must give him up. She makes the ultimate sacrifice, returning to a previous lover to make her departure convincing (and also, probably, to have a way to survive physically/financially). There’s a fight between her two lovers, and a heart-brekaing final scene when Alfredo and his father come to beg forgiveness and she dies in their arms. Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that she had “consumption” all along. Which, Nadine told me, was a delicate 19th century euphemism for all kinds of things, including STDs.

So the story is the same as that of the old B&W film Camille; both are based on Dumas’ novel The Girl of the Camillas, a wandering, even-less-redemptive novel (what did you expect from Dumas?).

But just stop and ponder the effect of the modern setting on that story! Since it was set in Vegas, Violetta’s party lifestyle immediately became clear to a 21st century audience. She was a casino socialite, ruining her life among playing cards and poker chips, drowning her emptiness in cheap champagne. Alfredo was the rich young party boy, spending his father’s money at billiards and the card table. The father was a Mafioso type of Italian patriarch, endued with the 1950s sense of superficial morality. Just as the 1850s, so the 1950s were horrified at cohabitation, and rushed to cover it up so the family name would not be stained. By putting this story into the time of (what do we call them) Leave-it-to-Beaver families, the director made the family’s attitude towards Alfredo and Violetta’s lifestyle perfectly clear and understandable. And in the end, when Violetta lies dying alone, she’s in a cheap hotel room—the abandoned mistress, the homeless society woman at the end of her rope, alone in the anonymous city. It was brilliant!

This updating of the setting is a microcosm of a current trend in the opera world, so Nadine tells me. Directors and producers sudden find themselves competing with Hollywood for fame, audiences, and screen time. Live broadcasts of operas on the big screen in movie theatres is becoming popular—and I think that’s all for the best. Why not bring the greatest music ever composed to a place frequented by millions of young Americans? Why not give teenagers opera in a form they can relate to? Also, the picture and sound quality of the new digital projection surround-sound theatres means that you can see and hear even more than you could if you were sitting in the actual theatre where the opera was being performed. Thanks to the “magic” of film, you can get zoomed-in shots of the singer’s faces at just the right moment, or panned shots of the whole stage, or close-ups of the conductor and orchestra during the overture and preludes. Costumes can have their fullest effect, and sub- or super-titles can be closer than ever to the action so they’re less distracting and more integrated. Plus it’s cheaper: about $15.00 for a ticket to watch a live broadcast in the theatre, as compared to $50.00-$150.00 for seats in a typical Opera house.

But there’s one drawback, at least for rising opera stars themselves. Now they have to be young, thin, and beautiful in addition to being talented singers. They have to be stunning actors with vital stage presence and mobile, expressive faces. They have to be really good dancers. All this while still trying to master the extremely complex art of operatic singing—and the operatic voice doesn’t mature until around age 30, when lots of movie stars are retiring (or having their faces and bodies reconstructed by plastic surgeons). So opera singers have to be young and mature, beautiful and grown-up, skinny and full-voiced—a nearly impossible combination. The mountainous soprano with the voice of a goddess (whose waist the tenor couldn’t span with his two arms) is giving way to the waifish, spindly chick with the voice of a reed. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating. Personally, I don’t mind if the singers are both lovely to listen to and lovely to watch!!

And the updated setting not just a cheap trick to try to make the opera relevant to 21st century audiences. Or 20th century audiences: I was one of the youngest people in the crowd, by about 30 years, no joke. On the contrary; directors of opera and theatre alike have a long tradition of updating the settings of their stories to show the timelessness of the plot and the underlying themes. Putting Romeo and Juliet on a beach in California in the ’60s, Hamlet in a large NYC corporation in the ’90s, Henry V as the British fighting the Germans in WWII—these are all Shakespearean productions that have worked, and worked well. I see no reason not to do the same thing with Verdi. And if this LGO production was any indication, updating operas is not only workable, it’s fantastic!!


Conductor: Mark. D. Flint (whose head and arms only were visible above the set; the orchestra played from above and behind the singers!

Violetta: Elizabeth Andrews Roberts. I heard a woman say, during intermission, “This is the best Violetta I have ever seen! And I’ve seen La Traviata over 50 times. This is the best Violetta—better than the Met!”
Alfredo: Marc Schreiner. He wasn’t quite as good. I like his voice, thought it had a sweet quality, although Nadine said his singing was very strained. But he was an awful actor. Quite the pretty boy, but an artificial actor. All his gestures was stock and fake, as if someone had said, “Now, clasp your hands and shake your head.” (That’s all he did most of the time). Yet the Violetta was good enough to make up for his weaknesses. And, honestly, he did better when he was singing, especially his solo arias. When he had nothing to sing and was supposed to act, he was awful. But his Act II aria was, I thought, very well executed.
Giorgio Germont: Kelly Anderson. Very good! The classic stern father figure, with a touch of Mafioso.
Doctor Grenvil: Christopher Temporelli.
Also other small roles played and chorus lines sung by apprentice and studio artists, mostly dressed as wealthy casino patrons or—ahem—Burlesque dancers.

Nadine as a Vegas casino patron:

20 July 2008

My Two Cents’ Worth on the Worship Wars

I’m sure you know that over the past few decades (well, actually, over the past few millennia!) the Church has been torn by fierce debate about worship styles—specifically, about music. Well, the war is not over, and probably never will be. Music styles in popular culture and “high” culture change over time, and the Church has to figure out how—or whether—to change in response. I’m not old enough, nor enough of a student of church history and contemporary culture, to recount the phases through which church music has traveled in the last half-century or so. Instead, I’d just like to give my observations and advice on what I have observed in churches I’ve attended, and throw in some of the opinions of young people I have asked.

First of all, my observation is that contemporary Evangelical American churches (that’s what I’ll be talking about here primarily) have either checked out of all cultural trends and held to an outdated, outmoded, static tradition, or they have tried hard to make themselves musically relevant to the contemporary youth culture and failed miserably. That sentence sounds really judgmental, I’m sorry! But let me explain. And before I explain my perspective on these two opposite errors, let me propound my basis for what I am going to say—my musical credo, as it were.

1. I believe that any music offered to God in worship must be of the highest possible quality that the members/attendees of that church are capable of producing. I believe that offering mediocre music to God is insulting. If there are people in the pews who are capable of playing better music than those up front, enlist them!
2. I believe that the style or genre of music is totally irrelevant from a moral point of view—that is, it is no more inherently godly or holy to play Bach than to play rock—provided that the music is of the best possible quality that church can produce in that genre.
3. I believe that music ought to be performed in the manner in which it was intended: that the instrumentation, harmonization, rhythmic patterns, style, etc. should correspond to how that piece of music was designed. I know this gets hairy if you are a literary scholar who believes that intentionality is inaccessible. But, seriously, why do we play hymns (written in 4 parts for voices and/or keyboard instrument) on a badly strummed guitar? Why do we play folksy praise choruses on a huge pipe organ? Why do we shake a tambourine and clap our hands on the jazzed-up melody of an antique anthem? If your church wants contemporary music, play it on drums and electric guitars. If you church wants traditional music, play it on organs and pianos and string instruments. Don’t mix instrumentation. One major reason for this rant is:
4. I believe that each musician should play what s/he is trained and talented to play. Only use highly trained or talented musicians, and only let them play what they are good at playing. If they can only strum a few basic chords on the acoustic guitar (well, then they shouldn’t be playing in public at all, but if they’re the best your church has got…), don’t let them try to accompany hymns! Let them play only folk-style, simple chorus that were designed to have three chords and untrained singers. If you have a conservatory-trained Classical pianist, don’t make her play single-melodic-line tunes; let her play Bach and Beethoven.
5. I believe that the music ministers/worship team of every church have a peripheral duty to teach the congregation to be better musicians, collectively. Congregations who sing four-part hymns every week, who have the four parts either explained or played out to them (there are various ways of doing this that won’t interrupt the flow of worship), and who sing new, difficult hymns every month or so become a beautiful choir. Congregations in which more than 50% of the members play music during worship at least occasionally are congregations whose hearts and voices join for the most beautiful music on a regular basis. On the other hand, congregations that are allowed to drone out unison melodies with poor contours and terrible texts settings, week after week, at deathly slow tempi and with no attention to breath or dynamics, continue to be pathetic singers. This does not accord well with item #1 on my list.

OK, now with that foundation laid, back to my observation of the two equal and opposite musical problems in contemporary Evangelic American churches. Well, maybe they’re not equal. As you’ll see, the second gets my goat far more than the first. But that’s probably a matter of taste.

First, some churches have held to an old tradition as it was, or as they imagine it was, without making that tradition vibrant and dynamic. Specifically, there’s hymn-singing and organ-playing. Now, this is the church music I really love, for the most part. I adore four-part harmony, the good old chorale-tune hymns (mostly Lutheran in origin), a well-played organ, the music of Bach, 17th-19th century choral anthems, and the like. That’s the music I would choose for a church were I the music director. But I don’t think that the traditional music should be treated as if it is dead and mummified, just on display in a museum. There is a living practice of “Classical” music in the world of “high culture”: symphony orchestras, opera companies, and chamber music centers are constantly premiering new works that have developed out of centuries of European music theory and practice, but are exploring relevant new ways of expressing that. For instance, Classical music went through its Dodecaphonic (12-tone) phase in the 1940s. Church music didn’t. Now, I’m not saying I want the Sunday School children’s choir to get up and start singing 12-tone rows! Yikes! But I am saying that if the church wants to use the grand old tradition of Baroque-based counterpoint, voice-leading, and harmonic practice, it should stay current with the best scholarship, practice, and composition in the development of that practice. So here’s some advice for “traditional” churches and denominations:
- Commission new hymn-words from the top Christian poets of today. Has anyone asked Dana Gioia? How about Scott Cairns? Luci Shaw?
- Commission new hymn-tunes from the great composers of the day who were trained in the classical tradition and are cutting-edge experimenters and also capable of producing great works in the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic traditions. I don’t even know who these are, since it’s lots of years since I was actively involved in a symphony orchestra or opera house. Perhaps Eurydice will answer this one?
- Get your church organist involved in the Organists’ guild, where she can go to conferences, take workshops/classes, keep up-to-date on new developments, hone her skills, and get inspired on a regular basis.
- Find out which young people in your church are taking lessons on a instrument from a good, solid, technically virtuosic teacher or music school—especially those who are music majors in a conservatory or other college with a good music program. Encourage these students to continue those studies with an eye to using those skills and talents to serve the church. Perhaps offer them scholarships to improve their technique if they will play in church.
- Have the music director read up on and listen to all the latest developments in the classical music world. Encourage her to attend symphony concerts, operas, and chamber music performances. Suggest to her that she host musical evenings in her home to play with good “secular” performers from the community.
- Advertise concerts at church and encourage church members to attend. Have them develop an ear for great music.
- Use choir practices as educational settings. Give brief (like 30 seconds!) music history lessons. Have the choir listen to recordings of the great oratorios of the past. Always have the choir sing just a little bit beyond its current skill level. Teach music reading and music theory in little increments, subtly, so they won’t even realize they’re being educated.
- If you have a children’s choir, have them sing “real” music. There’s no reason to have kids sing stupid stuff just because they’re young. There is plenty of Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann, Mozart, old carols, and other high-quality music that a children’s choir, even a beginning one, is perfectly capable of singing.
- [This one is huge, and very difficult!] Get rid of the musical hierarchy in your church! Don’t give the solo to the awful, quavering soprano with a vibrato as big a Gibraltar every time just because she’s always had the solo and would be offended if she didn’t get it. Give it to someone who’s good! You figure out the politics of this. I’m not a bureaucrat. You shouldn’t have gotten yourself into this problem by letting that pecking order develop in the first place.

I could go on, but instead I’ll move on to the other, opposite problem: churches that think they are musically relevant to the contemporary youth culture and really have nothing to do with it. OK. So, the “praise chorus” phenomenon. I’m no church historian, so I don’t really know the details of when and why this, um, shall we call it, genre of church music developed. But I know it was in response to the exclusive and increasingly irrelevant usage of hymns-only in churches. Young people didn’t want to sing hymns, so they were leaving the church. So the church came up with a kind of music that apparently was more relevant to that generation of young people. But that was, what, my parents’ generation? It wasn’t even mine, let along my students’. [OK, so this morning the praise choruses we sang, if you could call that droning singing, were written between 1979 and 1986. So that’s my generation. But my students weren’t even born yet]. So the fact that the Church continues to use these poorly composed, bad settings of worse lyrics means that now the Church is two a generations behind. Who listens to anything else like that at all, anywhere, ever? It’s a simple, awkward melody with odd contours and strange leaps (not at all conformable to the average untrained singing voice), with a difficult range, and with only the most elementary chordal accompaniment—and with a very boring rhythm, too. Where else will you ever encounter music like that? Some sorts of American folk music might be just a simply melody with a few basic chords, but the melody will be memorable and the rhythm catchy. The only other music I can think of that is comparable to praise choruses is kids’ campfire songs.

So if we think we’re playing praise choruses to be “relevant,” to make church interesting to young people, or to “reach seekers,” I submit the proposal that we are doing just the opposite. What teenager listens to praise choruses in his free time? They listen to pop, rock, rap, hip-hop, punk, emo, screamo. They don’t listen to praise music. Well, then, what ought we to do? I asked several high school and middle school aged students (and I think I will ask a few more right now, on the wonderful world of facebook). I asked them what they thought of church music and what they would like. They gave me a really interesting variety of answers. Some said that even though they didn’t really like hymns and organ music, they still agreed with their elders that hymns & organs were really churchy; in other words, they didn’t really feel like they’d been to church and had worshiped unless they had that big, traditional music. Others said that their church music was totally disconnected from their real lives, and that they “wish we could have screamo at our church, but I know that totally wouldn’t work.” Most of them understood that their elders were doing the best they could with music, and were resigned to feeling disconnected.

But what couldn’t we have punk and emo and screamo churches? Always provided that it was the best possible quality of those genres, and that the musicians were thoroughly trained in the techniques and skills of those genres (whatever those may be!). I don’t know how that would work. But it think it’s actually a better idea than poking along playing irrelevant praise choruses that are very poorly composed, very poorly written, very poorly played and sung, and have nothing to do with contemporary or traditional musical culture.

The whole point of praise choruses, as far as I can discover, is this: it was designed to be played and sung by really, really bad musicians: so therefore, a priori, it shouldn’t be played as worship music at all! Remember the first point in my “credo”? If the music is of poor quality, I believe it ought not to be played to “glorify God” at all. I mean, think about it: He invented music. Playing bad music and dedicating it to Him is like dedicating a tin-can-and-string “telephone” to Alexander Graham Bell, or a stinky dip candle to Thomas Edison, or a Crayola scribble to Michelangelo. Only worse, because He’s GOD.

So here are my pieces of advice for “contemporary” churches and denominations:
- Figure out what music is actually relevant to your congregation. Here’s where you’ll have to make all those hard decisions about multiple services, etc. I have no idea how to help you here, since I’m neither a pastor nor a politician! But part of the decision should be, I think, based on the kinds of talented musicians you have in the church. Got a great folk singer? Why not have him write and perform some folk settings of Psalms? Got a fantastic rapper? Why not have him create Scripture-memory songs to teach to the Sunday School? Be creative! Be relevant!
- Commission new song-words, including versions of Psalms and other Scripture passages, from the top Christian poets and singer-songwriters of today.
- Commission new songs from today’s greatest Christian recording artists in whatever genre(s) your church decides to use.
- Have your church musicians attend tons of concerts and do whatever else they can (Creation?) to keep up-to-date on new developments, hone their skills, and get inspired on a regular basis.
That’s really all the advice I have, because that music is not particularly meaningful to me, but I imagine that there are contemporary musicians out there with fantastic ideas for contemporary, youth-driven, “seeker-sensitive” churches. I’d be interested to hear their ideas.

And I haven’t even dealt here with two other huge topics: first, “blended worship,” and second, the movement of the Church towards the “East.” Nor have I talked about the real worship aspects of various styles, nor about the dangers of a performance-based attitude in the church. But this was only supposed to be two cents’ worth, after all!

Postscript: What about every Communion Sunday, or during certain parts of the Church year, you put on a brand-new, occasion-commissioned, fully staged sacred opera? Now, how’s that for an idea? It would give a lot of jobs to composers and opera singers!

18 July 2008

Vancouver's Pacific Theatre: Good art with Christian motivation but no "agenda"

My article on Pacific Theatre in Vancouver, Canada, has been published by Comment magazine. Here are a couple of excerpts:

The mission of Pacific Theatre is "to serve Christ in our community by creating excellent theatre with artistic, spiritual, relational, and financial integrity."


Although it is not intentionally a ministry to theatre artists, "there are people whose faith is alive today who might not have been if Pacific Theatre hadn't existed." It is "a place where your art and your faith are accepted. That can be restorative."

You can read the full text here.

01 July 2008

July Poem of the Month

There are only five days left in which to purchase Sørina's poetry chapbook, The Significance of Swans, with free shipping. Please go to Finishing Line Press and order a copy today! My pressrun is determined by how many I sell now....

As was last month's, this poem is in a different style from my usual theological lyrics and explorations of mythology. This painful poem is dedicated to a dear student of mine (and has several others in mind). She (and they) have been enslaved to very destructive, addictive behaviours in the past, but have begun to find freedom and gradual redemption.

Again, the photography is by Darlin/Gemalee.

The Curse of Co-Inherence

Look at my hand. It is also yours: your hand,
your arm, your skin and unscarred bones. Don’t you know
how many molecules are both yours and mine?
Whatever tears you weep fall from six billion eyes:
no wonder every street is a saline vein;
no wonder when the frost comes faces freeze.

It’s more a wonder anyone escapes the freezing
force of so much sorrow, that there are hands
free from bruises, when every body knows
the blows that fall on every other flesh. My
fingers shrink in terror from transferred pain; my eyes
sting and blink away from the blue veins

showing through your cold skin, the veined
scars in wandering lines. I am frozen
in your fear, or else I would warm your little hands
at whatever flame saves mine. Do you even know
what you are cutting, crying for? Here, here, take mine!
Take it—whatever it is—turn away those empty eyes

and fill them up with anything I have. My eyelids
rivet to your agony. I blink in vain,
because you are inside myself. The chill that freezes
you has blued and blanched my hands:
I give and try to give, hoping nothing
hollow echoes your insides, mars and marks your mind.

Do you see this skin, this arm? It is mine,
unmarred, unscarred. Cut it as you do yours. I
will not flinch, unless you do: it’s only vanity
that makes you think you are alone. You are not free
for arrogance, do not have leave to think your hand
is only yours. Your wounding enters me, you know.

There are lines, lines of some unknown
intensity chalked up between each horror and mine,
each ecstasy and yours and every body’s. There is no more “I”
for isolation; there is one human heart whose veins
in systolic cycle feeds the needy on another’s hope and frees
the freezing with another’s vital intensity. From feet to hands

to head and back to hands, no
part is only mine; from toes to eyes
every vein runs in us both. Put on a sweater, lest I freeze.

~ Sørina Higgins