L’Art sur l’art

hour-of-the-wolfRegular readers of this blog (and Italians the world over) will recollect a long-ago post in which I avowed my dislike of Fellini’s “8 1/2”.  I remain unrepentent on that point, but the great thing is that this weekend I saw a film that has much the same style and message, but in my mind is so very much better: Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf” (“Vargtimmen”).

Here is a movie about the artist’s process, frustrations and, most importantly, insecurities.  I immediately identified with the message of this film, the idea of isolation and the fears that an artist faces on a daily basis.  “8 1/2” simply left me cold, alienated and bored.

Of course, “8 1/2” is actually about a film-maker, whereas in HotW, a painter stands in for Bergman.  No concerns there.  However, this does get me thinking about the immense amount of art that concerns the artistic process, and the particulars a given artistic medium.

My favorite, and possibly the earliest example of a film about film-making has got to be “The Cameraman’s Revenge”, a parable about infidelity among the insects, created by the Polish entomologist Ladislas Starevich:

TV about TV goes back to at least the Jack Benny Program, and up through Seinfeld, and to a new favorite of mine, Extras. Painting about painting, well isn’t that kind of what the 20th century was about?  Examples of writing about writing are too numerous to mention.  Ballet about ballet?  Well, I have no idea, but I have a sneaking suspicion that much of Tchaikovsky’s music is Music about Ballet.

And then of course, there’s music about music.  Here, I immediately think of Stravinsky, who said, and I quote:

In general, I consider that music is only able to solve musical problems; and nothing else, neither the literary nor the picturesque, can be in music of any real interest. The play of the musical elements is the thing.

Well put, Igor.  Or, even better put: https://www.willcwhite.com/audio/Octet%20trim.mp3

This is actually the main reason why I find myself so interested in Rufus Wainwright’s new opera, Prima Donna, despite all of the nasty gossip about it — it’s subject is opera about opera.  How many of those do we have, really?  Tosca, I suppose, and… I can’t really think of any others (though there must be some).  There’s opera about singers (Meistersinger, et al…) but I can’t really think of any opera about opera, though I have a sneaking suspicion it’s the only trail left for new opera.

[And Mary Zimmerman’s bogus staging of “La Sonnambula” at the Met does not count, but it does perhaps indicate that the opera world is crying out for some new repertoire that would cover these issues, but they just don’t know how to get it.]

Of course, the list of backstage musicals goes on and on and on, from Kiss Me, Kate to A Chorus Line.  Oh, speaking of which, I saw this great movie yesterday, all about the casting of the 2005 revival of A Chorus Line: Every Little Step.  There’s a film about auditioning for a musical that is about auditioning for a musical.  It’s so meta that my head is schpinning.



Let me begin by saying that Giant most definitely IS a musical.  I say this because its composer-lyricist, Michael John LaChiusa, made it very clear in a 2005 article in Opera News that most of what masquerades on Broadway as The Musical is nothing but:

I’m old-school about what makes a musical a musical.  Lyric, music, libretto, choreography — all work in equal parts to spin out the drama.  And the best of craftmanship is employed, craftsmanship that nods to the past and leans to the future: a great song is something we think we’ve heard before but haven’t.  A real musical makes perfect symmetry out of the muck of diverse and eclectic sources, and transcends those sources.  A real musical is organic in all its parts.  It’s equal parts intelligence and heart.  It can never be realistic theater, only realistic in its humanity.  But who wants that in 2005?  We’re into reality programming, after all — which is hardly real at all.  It’s post-America America: we want faux!

Wow, did he get Slavoj Žižek to write that last bit?  How terribly Lacanian.

Anyway, Giant at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, is ostensibly based on Edna Ferber’s novel of the same name, but I wouldn’t really know about that.  I never read the book myself, but I did see the movie (another Žižekian conceit, although he claims only to read the DVD covers…)  Luckily for me though, Jonathan Yardley did read the book, and wrote about reading it, and says that the movie is way better anyway, so I feel quite content.

The musical retains the film’s epic proportions (it runs a full 4 hours), but whereas the film has enough room for the material’s Big Messages, the musical is overstuffed, as though the authors were desperately trying to encapsulate all the important moments and ideas, and simply had to stop short at the end of hour number 4.

Giant seems like good enough material for a musical, and the authors mostly do right by it.  LaChiusa’s score is really good, as are Bruce Coughlin and Larry Hochman’s orchestrations, despite some pervasive sound problems resulting from the orchestra — yes a real Orchestra! — playing above the stage.  The form, however, is a bit bland — we progress from scene to scene, song to song, without any larger dramatic or thematic connections emerging from the journey.

In fact, I think this show is too much Musical, and not enough Giant.  Also, I didn’t appreciate the writers de-clawing Bick of some of his less attractive characteristics; his interaction with Leslie and the Mexicans upon his arrival at Reata takes on a markedly different tone than it does in the film.  I also didn’t really care for the re-scoring of Jett as a wacko rather than a weirdo, but I suppose it works, or rather would have, had we been allowed to see a real character arch from scene to scene, rather than just an abrupt change in demeanor an hour later.

And now my real gripe, addressed to the Signature Theater, of Alrington, VA: I know it’s a long show and all, but you’ve got to allow me at least enough time to go to the bathroom and grab a cup of coffee, AND drink it before you herd me back into the theater.  And then, when I sneak my coffee to my seat, as I simply have to if I don’t want to waste my $2, please don’t send your obnoxious, geriatric “Volunteer” patrol to advise me to “be careful” with it.  I know I’m supposed to be careful, idiot.

Anyway, it was a good show with good songs, good acting and singing, etc. but I think the authors could re-format the piece, stretching out certain scenes and ideas, and cutting others altogether.  The point of a Musical, as Mr. LaChiusa so aptly pointed out, is to transcend its source material, not follow it slavishly.  Show Boat is a four hour musical (also based on an Edna Ferber novel) but it’s not too long.  Neither is this show, but I think that with a little re-working, we could leave the theater feeling like we got even more than our 4 hour’s worth.

That had not occurred to us, Dude.

Just back from the Island Nation of Japan. Three interesting things that came up while I was out:

1) You can watch the entirety of the 2009 Malko Conducting Competition here.  It makes for fascinating viewing, round by round.

2) John von Rhein weighs in on orchestral economics (particularly those of the Chicago Symphony) and recommends that conductors as well as musicians put caps on their salaries in 2011.  The subject of top-level salaries in classical music is something that I’m sure musicians at all levels have pondered at one point or another.

The thing is, I think von Rhein may have a point, but I think it’s for all the wrong reasons.

In one sense, it seems that orchestra unions are bleeding their parent organizations dry by insisting on such high salaries for their players.  The counter argument is that these musicians are just as highly trained and specialized as their colleagues in other fields, and they often have to make huge sacrifices to afford a high quality instrument (string players in particular may have to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars for their equipment).

Musicians often point to the bloated number of administrative staff and their respective salaries in some of these organizations.  This may be worth investigation as well.  As to the question of conductors, it does seem like some of these salaries are awfully high — especially considering that most music directors of the biggies conduct only 12 weeks of the season.  Is that really worth $1.5 million (in the case of the NY Phil)?

Hard to say… I guess they’re paying it, so somebody must think that’s what it’s worth.  A high profile conductor adds caché to an orchestra, and public knowledge of his impressive salary may help add to that allure among certain sections of the audience.

To me, the question ought to come down to the market itself, but that never happens in the world of high-profile arts organizations.

What I particularly dislike about JvR’s article is that he sees fit to dole out specific advice to the management of the CSO.  The balance sheet of a multi-million dollar organization like the CSO is necessarily complex, and I doubt that Herr von Rhein is familiar with all the details.  In fact, I even overheard Deborah Card, president of the CSO, respond to JvR in the following words:

card_deborah1“Look, I’ve got certain information, certain things have come to light, and uh, has it ever occurred to you, man, that given the nature of all this new shit, that, uh, instead of running around blaming me, that this whole thing might just be, not, you know, not just such a simple, but uh, you know –”

As such, I don’t think it’s part of his job as a music critic to publicly offer financial advice to the groups that he covers.  Plus, if John Boy thinks that he’s adding something novel to this particular debate, he may want to look over Peter Dobrin’s article from two months ago.

3) This video begs to be watched:

The Tokyo Drag

or Why Opera should be more like Kabuki

Over the past two days, I continued my exploration of Tokyo by attending performances from two theatrical traditions that contrast starkly and yet offer such tantalizing comparisons: one at the Kabuki-za and the other at the Takarazuka Rêvue.


Kabuki is a sort of mélange of Japanese theatrical idioms, combining elements of the Noh and the Bunraku (puppet theater) traditions.  Like these other forms of Japanese theater, Kabuki is performed entirely by men, including the female roles.  Actors who specialize in female roles are known as onnagata. The written form of the word “kabuki” combines the characters for “sing”, “dance”, and “skill”.

I so adored the kabuki performance that we saw for so many reasons.  The sets and costumes are bold and extravagent (in the first act, the shojo, a “mythical sake-loving spirit” wore this crazy bright-red troll doll wig), the music is 100% integrated with the action on stage, and, most importantly, the audience is engaged the whole time.

This last point was apparent from looking around at the nearly packed house (on a Tuesday afternoon).  You can tell that people are engrossed in the drama and familiar with conventions of what’s happening on the stage.  However, they are not uptight about the whole thing — certain connoisseurs will call out the names of their favorite actors during the action (a practice known as kakegoe).  It was a real pleasure observe the consternation of the Western tourists in the theater, who had clearly not read their brochure and seemed quite nonplussed at the rude interruptions.

Now, it’s entirely possible that the people who shout these things from the balcony are just Kabuki Queens no better than their European and American counterparts who so assiduously inflect their Bravos (the worst of course being any soprano-alto duet inevitably followed by “Brave!” from up in the rafters) just to show off.  But I really don’t want to believe that.  I’d like to think that we could learn from our Eastern neighbors who don’t scoff at a little noise from the audience if it means that everyone can be more involved in the collective experience of going to the theater.

kabuki-2The coup de grâce of this Kabuki performance was an act titled “Tenaraiko” (The Girl Returning from School).  The plot summary is very simple: “A girl dawdles on her way home from school, plays with the butterflies in the field, and dreams of love.”  And that’s all that it was.  The amazing part was that the little girl was played by an 81-year-old man called Nakamura Shikan VII!  Honored as a Living National Treasure, Shikan’s slight, graceful movements (and the heavy white rice make-up) completely transformed him into a tiny little schoolgirl — without the program notes, it would have been impossible to identify him as an old man.

On a total side note, I think Western orchestral string players could stand to study the art of pizzicato with Japanese musicians — in the Kabuki, five shamisen players plucked in absolute unison for the entire show.  I heard nary an imprecise attack from the lot of them!!  To think how rare it is to hear even a single section of orchestral strings play a  pizz in unison makes me wonder just what secrets the Orient is hiding.

As a matter of transition, I might mention that I was primed to enjoy Kabuki by my love and affection for Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, a score that is unjustly neglected, probably because it is nearly impossible to revive.  Sondheim spent several weeks in Japan researching the musical style for the show and recruiting Japanese musicians to perform in the original Broadway production.  Listen to the opening of the whole show:

The shamisen, the chanter, hyogashi (Japanese claves) — it’s almost authentic kabuki… and then the über-Sondheim vamp comes in (and don’t we all revel in that moment!?)

So, speaking of musicals, yesterday I finally got to see a performance that I had been looking forward to for SO long — the Takarazuka Review, an all-female, all-out musical theater Extravaganza!!  These have got to be the most lavish musical theater productions in the world — I can’t imagine even the Ziegfeld Follies rivaling them.


True to their name, the show is in the form of a Revue — it starts with a big succession of songs and dances on generic Oriental themes.  The musical style is basically 1970’s/80’s musical theater-pop, big power ballads, etc.  This collection included a 35-girl kickline that totally outdid the Rockettes for precision (and certainly for unique costuming).

I think I’ll continue this post by quoting and responding to the very detailed and academically anotated Wikipedia article on the Revue:

The audience of Takarazuka is primarily women; in fact some estimates say the audience is 90 percent female.

Wow, that’s an understatement.  I saw three other men in a completely packed house.  I would estimate more like 99% female.  (Meanwhile, my friend Mandy and I were the ONLY foreigners in the whole place.)  This is the line for the women’s restroom:


The rival theory is that the girls are not drawn to the implicit sexuality of Takarazuka, but instead are fascinated by the otokoyaku (the women who play male roles) “getting away with a male performance of power and freedom.”

Well, I have no idea what draws these ladies to the performances, but there’s no doubt that the otokoyakaru, who are forced to adopt male roles in their daily lives during their training program, are the audience favorites.

Some ardent fans demonstrate their loyalty to one or another performer by wearing scarves of a particular color or even jackets colorfully embroidered with the star’s name.

Yep.  Here they are:


This is so interesting, I’ll just continue the Wikipedia:

Following performances at the Takarazuka Theater in Tokyo, as many as several hundred fans congregate in their various club groups, each club represented by several members or dozens, standing in orderly ranks on either side of the street in front of the theatre. Theatre officials set up barricades and oversee the assembly. Occasionally one group will sit and all the others follow suit (much like the “Audience wave” seen in athletic arenas) with subsequent intervals of standing and sitting. The fans wait patiently, with little conversation, for their favorites to exit the theatre.[8] (Their decorum contrasts markedly to the noisy, competitive and often pushy autograph-seekers who wait outside stage doors in the west.) An almost eerie ritualistic calm prevails. As the stars come out of the building one by one, some alone but most accompanied, orderly quiet continues to prevail. The glamorous performers, now mostly in slacks or jeans with high heels and wearing oversize visored “newsboy” caps to hide their hair (and some with sunglasses even in the night), move along to their own particular fan clubs. Rather than requesting autographs, the fans proffer cards, which are gathered efficiently by each star, who may say a very few words but then waves and move on. Once the last stars have emerged and departed, the clubs disband quietly into the night.

Admittedly, I didn’t stay for that, but, Wow, you can see why I just HAD to go see this show.  Speaking of which, my experience waiting in line for tickets was one of my more memorable Tokyo moments.  As you may guess from the above description of the audience demographics, my presence as a single, white, American male in the ticket line presented something of a conundrum for the theater patrons and organizers.  A very polite line attendant used his very best English to confirm three times that I was in fact in the right place.  He then asked,

“So, how did you hear about Takarazuka Revue?”

I told him that a friend of mine told me about it, a writer [Ted Fishman].

“Is he… Japanese?” he asked?

“No,” I responded.

“You know,” he continued, “the womens… plays… (?)”


“Yes, the womens plays the men.”

“I know — that’s why I came!”

I’ve posted a clip of the Takarazuka’s performance of “Guys and Dolls” before on this blog, but I think it bears re-contextualizing:

P.S. There’s plenty more on YouTube where that came from.

I think this clip acurately portrays an important element of the shows: just like the Kabuki, after you watch it for a while, you totally forget that these are gender-bending performances.  So, Well Done, Japan!!