THOMAS MAY on the arts

Hercules vs. Vampires: Opera Goes to the Movies


Los Angeles Opera truly has become a company interested in innovation. Next month brings Hercules vs. Vampires, an opera-meets-cult film mashup between Mario Bava’s 1961 film (Hercules in the Haunted World) and LA-based composer Patrick Morganelli.

Here’s my interview with Mr. Morganelli:

A century ago, the budding film industry borrowed pretty heavily from opera—which makes a lot of sense, considering how the larger-than-life gestures of operatic acting suited the new medium of silent film so effectively.

And film has been repaying the favor in recent years: Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Kevin Puts’ Silent Night, Howard Shore’s The Fly, André Previn’s Brief Encounter, even a new opera by Giorgio Battistelli inspired by the controversial Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, set to premiere in May at La Scala.

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Filed under: Los Angeles Opera, profile, programming



Welcome nightfall,
spook what’s frightful.
Shooting arrows
into shadows:
rout the spiteful.

Filed under: poem

Landschaft ohne Titel


Filed under: photography

Finnish Creation

March is going to bring a lot of Sibelius to my ears, as the Seattle Symphony marks his 150th anniversary with an ambitious Sibelius Festival to include not just all seven symphonies (conducted by principal guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard) but the Violin Concerto and Finlandia.

According to the SSO, this three-week festival will be “the most extensive festival of Sibelius’s music this year in the U.S.” Even Seattle’s Nordic Heritage Museum is joining in for the Finnish focus with an exhibit titled Finland: Designed Environments. The exhibit will examine:

the explosion of creativity in Finnish design over the last 15 years. Examples of furnishings, fashion, and craft, as well as architecture and urbanism, illustrate how nearly every aspect of Finnish life incorporates thoughtful design thinking—from city streets and summer homes to fashion and food—and is marked by sensitivity to form and material. The exhibition is the first significant U.S. museum presentation since the 1990s to examine contemporary Finnish design.

Meanwhile, next week reunites Thomas Adès (as composer and conductor) with the San Francisco Symphony for a program on creation themes: along with his new video-accompanied piece In Seven Days, Adès will conduct Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, Darius Milhaud’s La Création du monde, and the remarkable tone poem-with-soprano Luonnotar. (My contribution to the program book is here.)

Filed under: programming, San Francisco Symphony, Sibelius

Dot Matrix Mozart

Filed under: Mozart, technology

A Ravishingly Entertaining Semele Alights in Seattle

Brenda Rae (Semele) and Alek Shrader (Jupiter); (c) Elise Bakketun

Brenda Rae (Semele) and Alek Shrader (Jupiter); (c) Elise Bakketun

My review of Seattle Opera’s latest production is now live on (Happy 330th, George Frideric!)

It’s amusing to imagine the pitch Handel must have used to convince the presenters of Covent Garden’s oratorio concert series for the 1744 Lenten season to back his latest creation. Why not schedule his theatrical treatment of a myth that portrays the head of the pagan gods setting his human mistress up in a pleasure palace? After all, the moral is clearly stated at the end: “Nature to each allots his proper sphere”. Still, you can’t send your audience home on a such a grim choral note, so all the more reason to end things with a cheerful ode to the powers of Bacchus!

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Filed under: directors, Handel, review, Seattle Opera

“The Sun Kept Setting, Setting Still”


THE SUN kept setting, setting still;
No hue of afternoon
Upon the village I perceived,—
From house to house ’t was noon.

The dusk kept dropping, dropping still;
No dew upon the grass,
But only on my forehead stopped,
And wandered in my face.

My feet kept drowsing, drowsing still,
My fingers were awake;
Yet why so little sound myself
Unto my seeming make?

How well I knew the light before!
I could not see it now.
’T is dying, I am doing; but
I ’m not afraid to know

–Emily Dickinson

Filed under: photography, poetry

The Age of Auden

Thomas May:

In honor of Auden’s birthday today.

Originally posted on MEMETERIA:

"My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain." “My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain.”

Last month marked four decades since W.H. Auden died (he was only 66). How has he managed to retain that oracular hold over us, to continue to play the role of prophet? Auden himself abjured the myth that attached to his earliest work, the poems that first made him a celebrity. He later pointed out the foolishness of the fake choice – “we must love one another or die” – and steeled himself against the Siren sway of poetry’s utopian promise, even as he embraced other utopias.

How unforgettably Auden bids farewell to the image of the vatic poet in his elegy to W.B. Yeats, while recognizing the pressure of posterity to forge its own meaning from what the poet has left behind: “The words of a dead man/Are modified in the guts of the living.”

Jess Cotton

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The Place That Is Not the Place: An Evening with Richard Maxwell


He’s been the darling of the experimental theater scene in New York for well over a decade. Last year he received the Spalding Gray Award, which honors genuinely maverick work in the theater. This weekend Seattleites have a chance to experience the latest commission by playwright and director Richard Maxwell and his New York City Players ensemble.

It’s a piece called The Evening and is being presented by On the Boards — part of the consortium that conferred the Award — following its world premiere as part of the Walker Art Center’s Out There arts festival last month in Minneapolis.

Although Maxwell has been engaged by On the Boards before (Drummer Wanted 12 years ago, back when Lane Czaplinski took over as artistic director), last night’s Seattle premiere was my first encounter with his work.
And it’s a signature of Maxwell’s theater that it sends you out into the night with the feeling that you’ve just recalled an interesting dream and now have the work of trying to figure out why it interested you and whether it’s meant to “tell” you something — or just happens to be an arresting collage of images that won’t stop flickering in your mind.

The Evening involves a cast of three characters interacting in a depressing dive bar. Beatrice (Cammisa Buerhaus) tends bar and manages the sexual advances of the hedonist Cosmo (Jim Fletcher) as well as the petulant neediness of her sorta ex-boyfriend Asi (Brian Mendes), a washed-up fighter managed by Cosmo.

Framing this “slice of life” core of The Evening is a monologue delivered by Buerhaus: she reads from a diary documentation of a (Beatrice’s?) father’s dying days, a text replete with high-flown poetic cadence and rhetoric. Then comes the pseudo-“naturalist” dialogue of the bar sequence, followed by another poetic flight — this time rendered visually, after the bar stage set has been pointedly struck and deconstructed by stage hands. The Beatrice character cocoons herself in snow-expedition wear and disappears into the now heavily fogged upstage region, where we imagine isolated wintry mountains.

During the bar sequence we learn that bartender Beatrice (who also works as a stripper) yearns to get away from it all and head to Istanbul. Testosterone-addled Asi has just won a fight but knows he is unhappy, and he can’t seem to win Beatrice back, but he doesn’t want her to go. Track suit-clad, cheesy gold chain-adorned Cosmo confines his interest in life to drinking, getting high, insulting Asi, and making the moves on Beatrice.

The characters voice a Three Sisters-ish longing to go “there,” to escape. But Cosmo at least seems content with the bar — the drab-minimalist brown wall set and slightly menacing lights are Sascha van Riel’s design — and even finds it a kind of paradise. Cosmo’s also the one who first notices the live music (written by Maxwell) that becomes part of the action when a trio of musicians walk in and start that evening’s gig. He tries to incorporate the music into his exchanges with Asi and Beatrice.

Is this coda meant to be a vision of the adventure Beatrice pursues after bringing the situation at the bar to a violent denouement? Was it her father who died, as recounted in the “prologue,” thus lending a layer of motivation to her need to snap out of the hopeless humdrum patterns we see in the more Edward Hopper-esque scenes?

Ah, there’s the rub: Maxwell’s dramaturgy is neo-Brechtian in that it de-familiarizes the familiar by highlighting its theatricality. The whole business of “motivation” becomes suspect, just as the seemingly “real-life” setting deliberately draws attention to the artifice of its naturalism. The actors deliver lines that can make sense from moment to moment but that add up to a maze of non-sequiturs and repeated patterns. And Maxwell plays with the compositional cliché of the triangle, with the archetypes that get triggered from seeing the clues he gives us to each character.

The apparently “realistic” throughline in The Evening, which we’re so conditioned by TV and mainstream film to expect, to be served, is a decoy. (There’s even a TV set hoisted above the bar showing a sports channel as part of the set, but it acquires a Big Brotherish aura as the play continues.)

We become frustrated by the lack of all the rest following suit (understandable motivation, easy-to-read cause and effect etc.) — which is exactly what Maxwell seems to be aiming for. It reminds me of the effect of hyper-realist paintings: beneath the shimmering, “life-like” detail, a kind of uncanny valley opens up where we find ourselves in a twilight zone. The zone of evening.

So The Evening exaggerates realism to undermine it. And even the framing parts seem to be “placeholders” for the deeper aspects of an evening in the theater: these are the “visionary” parts that are meant to endow the proceedings with meaning, the “take-away” that tells us our time was well spent.

Yet in just 60 minutes — the duration of The Evening — the theatrical trickster Maxwell lays out a crossword puzzle of clues, teases, resemblances, and images that isn’t meant to be solved. What’s also striking is the pivotal role of audience response. Last night a fair group of spectators seemed bent on “figuring it out” by chuckling and guffawing as if Maxwell were merely endeavoring parody of theatrical clichés — turning the experience at times into a kind of meta-sitcom.

I found that adversely affected the haunting strangeness of The Evening — an attempt to re-familiarize what’s happening onstage. Sure, Cosmo might be a sloppy, self-satisfied creep — or, rather, Fletcher plays Cosmo playing that archetype — but Maxwell constructs a context for these characters that speed-bumps our knee-jerk tendency to read them as we would read a group of people when, say, we stroll into a bar for the evening. It’s the empty spaces that are left to resonate — and, as Beatrice/Buerhaus remarks in the opening section, meditating on the father’s death, “they say that atoms are made of 99.9% empty space.”

If you go: Richard Maxwell’s The Evening plays at On the Boards through this weekend, 100 West Roy Street. After the Friday performance there will be a post-show discussion with Richard Maxwell and Todd London; following Sat’s performance the musicians will continue with post-show music. Tickets here.

(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: On the Boards, playwrights, review, theater

Current Playlist: Music of George Walker

Originally posted on MEMETERIA:


An update: Here’s another (unnumbered) volume in the Albany Records series featuring George Walker‘s music. (The label also has a series focusing on Mr. Walker as pianist.

Highlights are Music for 3 (1971) and his Piano Sonatas No. 3 (1976) and No. 5 (2003), along with several songs to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Robert Burns, and others.


Albany Records has added a fourth volume to its laudable series of recordings of music by George Theophilus Walker. At 92 (going on 93), Mr. Walker remains an active composer and was recently nominated for New Jersey’s Hall of fame — he resides in Montclair — and if he wins, it would make a lovely addition to his accolades. They just happen to include a slew of honorary doctorates, AASCAP’s Aaron Copland Award, induction into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame … oh, and a…

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