MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Holy Cabooses! Wilder’s The Matchmaker at Taproot

Matchmaker-Pam Nolte2

(Pam Nolte as Dolly Gallagher Levi in Taproot Theatre’s production of The Matchmaker; photo by Erik Stuhaug)

It’s surprisingly easy to mistakenly associate Thornton Wilder’s theater — or at least his most-famous plays — with feel-good, homespun, Norman Rockwell Americana. (Whether that represents a mistaken idea of Norman Rockwell is another question.) A similarly false impression clings to the widespread image of Aaron Copland, who even composed a score for the 1940 film of Our Town and later considered basing on opera on it — though the playwright declined, countering: “I write amusical plays.”

Of course The Matchmaker, a Broadway and West End hit in 1955 after it bombed in its earlier 1938 incarnation as The Merchant of Yonkers, did morph into the musical Hello, Dolly! in the following decade. But the brassy success of the latter — which, admittedly, I’ve never been able to fathom — only reinforced the notion that Wilder’s play is just another charming twist on the happy alliance between romance and the American Dream.

The new production of The Matchmaker currently on the boards at Seattle’s Taproot Theatre is certainly entertaining. But in director Scott Nolte’s version, it also welcomely embraces Wilder’s deft homage to a vanished, rawer era of American theater-making. For the most part, there’s no embarrassed smoothing-over of the popular farce — complete with its own character types — that was already a fossil when Wilder devised this valentine to it.

Matchmaker-hat store

(Asha Stichter and Natalie Moe as Minnie Fay and Irene; photo by Erik Stuhaug)

Apart from an opening scene that drags, this Matchmaker is delightfully paced and benefits from a consistently focused ensemble energy. The renegade store clerk Cornelius Hackl (given an especially winning turn by Robert Hinds) and the scheming, ambitious milliner Irene Molloy (Natalie Anne Moe, channeling the moxie of Gretchen Mol’s Gillian on Boardwalk Empire) make their wide-eyed anticipation plausible when they remark: “The world is full of wonderful things!”

However “amusical” he may have thought his plays, Wilder’s build-up of the confrontations between the tyrannical merchant Horace Vandergelder and his underlings feels genuinely scherzo-like. Nolte makes room for the other concerns Wilder voices through the pleasure-seeking vehicle of his farcical plot.


(Robert Hinds and Brad Walker as Cornelius and Barnaby; photo by Erik Stuhaug)

As these characters become entangled in mixed-up or feigned identities and search for mates and fortunes, they muse about the things that really matter to them. Against the backdrop of the Gilded Age and its class differences — effectively telegraphed by Sarah Burch Gordon’s delightful palette of costumes — Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi, the matchmaker in question (among other dubious pursuits), realizes it’s time to let go of memories of her late husband and “live among human beings” again: to be “a fool among fools” once more rather than “a fool alone.” Pam Nolte (Scott Nolte’s wife) animates her portrayal of the ever-confident Dolly with a well-calibrated hint of her disappointments.

Along with his humanist touches, Wilder works in a trenchant commentary on the greedy excess to which the drive for material success can lead. “The difference between a little money and an enormous amount of money is very slight, and that, also, can shatter the world,” observes Dolly, who espouses her own economic theory of “spread-it-around” capitalism. “Everybody thinks when he gets rich he’ll be a different kind of rich person from the rich people he sees around him,” Cornelius says. “Later on he finds out there’s only one kind of rich person. And he’s it.”

The point gets rather blunted in Robert Gallaher’s approach to Horace Vandergelder. Instead of the authoritarian, hard-as-nails “monster” who intimidates everyone, secure in his “half million,” Gallaher comes through as too domesticated, even mildly bemused by his sense of superiority.


(Robert Gallaher as Horace Vandergelder; photo by Erik Stuhaug)

Brad Walker, on the other hand, makes a memorable impression by playing up his character type as Barnaby Tucker, the naive sidekick to Cornelius in search of “an adventure” on their self-declared day off. So does Kim Morris in her hilarious depiction of the eccentric Miss Flora, the friend of Dolly and Horace’s late wife. During the denouement in her New York house (a surprise for anyone who knows only Hello, Dolly!), Wilder uses Miss Flora to parody treacly sentiments about “true love.”

Mark Lund’s simple sets (including a painted urban backdrop) and sound design transform the small stage area into 1880s New York with a bare minimum of suggestion. The real time change is conveyed through Wilder’s earthy language — spiced at times with clever, Oscar Wilde-like turns of phrase — and the actors’ demeanor, though, and it all plays out as less dated than you might expect.

The Matchmaker, which closes Taproot’s current season, plays through Oct 19 at 204 N. 85th St., Seattle; tickets at 206 781-9707 or online.

–Thomas May (C) 2013 All rights reserved.

Filed under: review, theater

All Eternity To Rest: Mark Mitchell’s Burial

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The hot exhibit in Seattle right now is Burial by Mark Mitchell at the Frye Museum — and it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before. Mitchell is a local legend who moved from the theater world and costuming to fashion design, specializing in wedding gowns and outrageously imaginative costumes worn by burlesque performers — and, most recently, burial clothing and accessories.

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“Burial” presents a collection of these garments for the Other Side: stunningly beautiful ensembles of hand-stitched ornaments, radiant silk organza, ruffles, keepsake pockets, burial shoes and mitts lovingly adorned with knitted ribbons — all cocooning their subjects in their solemn, dignified poses. The closer you look, the more of these details become apparent, and, at the same time, mysterious and opaque. We are told that the vestments have been individualized on the inside, private messages kept secret by the deceased.

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For opening night at the Frye, live models displayed the collection as they lay supine on mirrored glass panels, playing the role of corpses lovingly prepared for burial: “Buried in the earth, incinerated, or at the bottom of the sea, these vestments are intended to degrade readily, leaving nothing behind,” as Mitchell describes his creations. Each of the individual costumes was “inspired by, and created for, the nine muse/models” who presented them. This was the only chance to see them in this “living dead” context: after opening night, until the exhibit closes at the end of October, mannequins were installed to display the “Burial” ensembles.

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Talk about aura: as the continually flowing crowd of spectators milled about, the models, also outfitted in waxy, corpse-like make-up, couldn’t help registering their awareness of these interlopers, no matter how hard they tried to keep eyelids from trembling. The tension was part of the experience — as was the setting, the restaged, busy salon-style display of paintings from the collection of the museum’s founders, Charles and Emma Frye. Cellist Lori Goldston, wearing another gown specially designed by Mitchell, improvised (?) a mournful meditation.

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Mitchell has been keeping a blog on the ongoing evolution of this project. Why devote so much attention to dressing those about to be buried? “People plan for months or years to devise the ideal wedding costume but rarely think of what they’ll wear for life’s ultimate appointment. I use traditional fine-sewing techniques to create garments that honor the deceased with a thoughtful integrity of artistry, design, materials, and workmanship that offer an alternative to the tradition of ‘Sunday Best’ or the uninspired offerings available at this time in the funeral industry.”


Filed under: art exhibition, fashion, Frye Museum, visual art

The Ark Nova Project

Ark Nova

Ark Nova

This is brilliant — and this humanitarian, socially committed project makes me very proud to be associated with the Lucerne Festival (I serve as the English program editor). It’s the brainchild of Intendant Michael Haefliger, the Japanese architect Arata Isosaki, and the Indian-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor: a concert hall that is indeed mobile, designed in a way that makes it quick to assemble and then take apart to move to another location.

It all resulted from the urgent desire to do something to help the victims of the massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 that wrought such incredible devastation in northeastern Japan. Most of the world has forgotten that two and a half years on, the local population in the most heavily affected areas is still living in makeshift housing.

In the case of Ark Nova, the idea was to somehow deploy artistic expertise to improve conditions for these people. “With our humanitarian cultural project we want to contribute to the ongoing reconstruction,” says Haefliger. The Ark Nova — “ark” being the German version of the Greek arche for “beginning,” though I also like the verbal resemblance to Noah’s Ark — is meant to provide a venue for desperately needed cultural inspiration, where the local populace can get together as a community.

“We want to bring artists from around the world to Tohoku to restore strength and bring back confidence for the people in the region affected by the disaster in 2011,” explains Isozaki. (The project’s name, I’m told, also refers to an old Japanese proverb, but I don’t know the details.)

Ark Nova interior

Ark Nova interior

Here’s one of the official descriptions of this amazing design:

The shell consists of a PVC-coated polyester tarpaulin of over 2000 square meters. It is 0.63 mm thick and weighs 1700 kg. When inflated, the hall has a volume of over 9000 cubic meters. In the final stage, the maximum expansion is 29 meters wide, 36 meters long, and 18 meters high. Therefore this unique construction offers a space of 680 square meters for a large stage and around 500 seats, allowing for the concept of flexible use for various events appealing to different large audiences. The audience benches are made of wood from cedar trees in the region of the Zuiganji Temple of Matsushima which had been uprooted by the disaster of March 2011. Thus a link will be forged between LUCERNE FESTIVAL ARK NOVA and this place of historical and spiritual significance.

Ark Nova overview

Tomorrow Gustavo Dudamel will be on hand to get the Ark Nova started. He’s going to lead a workshop of local kids, who are forming an ad hoc orchestra. Periodic updates on the project will appear here.

Filed under: architecture, cultural news

Recovering Genius: Pope Francis and Wagner


(Pope Francis in March 2013)

By now, the extraordinary interview Pope Francis gave to fellow Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, which was recently published in America Magazine, has generated incredible interest on many fronts, from the Pope’s comments on moral priorities and his memorable metaphor of the Church as a “field hospital” to his discussion of art and creativity.

When discussing human understanding, Pope Francis revealed a fascinating perception of Wagner:

When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself. The deceived thought can be depicted as Ulysses encountering the song of the Siren, or as Tannhäuser in an orgy surrounded by satyrs and bacchantes, or as Parsifal, in the second act of Wagner’s opera, in the palace of Klingsor. The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.

Maybe I’m on the totally wrong track here, but I almost notice an echo here of Wagner’s own formulation of the relation between art and religion from the time of Parsifal:

When religion becomes artificial, art has a duty to rescue it. Art can show that the symbols which religions would have us believe literally true are actually figurative. Art can idealize those symbols, and so reveal the profound truths they contain.

The entire interview with Pope Francis, “A Big Heart Open to God,” is in English translation here.

Filed under: aesthetics, religion, spirituality, Wagner

Truth and Beauty

Met opening night 23 Sep  2013

(Met Instagram image of opening night: chandeliers and the crowd on plaza)

Tonight kicks off the new season at the Metropolitan Opera. Here’s my feature for the opening production — one of my favorite operas — Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin:

Scenarios of unrequited love are the stock-in-trade of opera composers, but with Eugene Onegin Tchaikovsky achieved something far beyond another varia-
tion on an all-too-familiar theme. For Deborah Warner, the opera offers “a complete portrait of the human condition, viewed through the frame of the young approaching
life and love for the first time.”

(Letter Scene, Act I: Anna Netrebko in rehearsal for opening)

continue reading

Filed under: Metropolitan Opera, opera

Ludo Starts His Third Season

Morlot-Thibaudet-Sep 2013
(Ludovic Morlot and Jean-Yves Thibaudet rehearsing Ravel with the Seattle Symphony)

I know I’m not the only one who can’t believe Ludovic Morlot is now in his third season helming the Seattle Symphony. Last night was an impressive all-Ravel program, with the fine pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet on hand for both concertos. What a feast! My review here:

Wrapping up last night’s all-Ravel program with “Boléro,” Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony demonstrated complete mutual trust – an ingredient essential to giving this ultra-famous piece its spark. However familiar it is, Ravel’s sequential spotlighting of soloists makes it a dangerous enterprise. The music itself seems to dramatize the issue, with its slinky, head-worming tune twisting about but straitjacketed into a monomaniacal lockstep rhythm. How to find the right but unpredictable balances, to weigh the individual voice against the ensemble?

Continue reading

Filed under: review, Seattle Symphony, Uncategorized

How Useless Is Poetry?


(Percy Byssshe Shelley, portrait by Alfred Clint, 1819)

Nowadays the received wisdom seems to follow the Oscar Wilde line — literally, that is, without his archness — that “all art is quite useless.” Especially when the art in question is poetry and, even more, music. This alleged uselessness is then either trumpeted as a glorious thing — a refuge from the brutal world of commerce — or turned into a weapon to arm Philistines (“uselessness” abused).

A recent example of the former strategy is the poet and scholar Meena Alexander’s musing, in an address to the Yale Political Union last April, that poetry stands apart from the everyday world of historical reality: “The poem is an invention that exists in spite of history. Most of the forces in our ordinary lives as we live them now conspire against the making of a poem.”

Noah Berlatsky challenges Alexander by arguing that the whole issue of worrying about whether poetry in the abstract is “useless” is a detour: it arises from the “myth of an essential poetry, poetry that is important because of what it is, rather than because of what it says.”

When poets or writers have been persecuted, it’s generally not because of some abstract contradiction between tyranny and poetry. It’s because the persecuted poets said specific things the tyrants didn’t want to hear….

It’s long past time, therefore, that we stopped asking “What Use Is Poetry?” and started asking, “What Use Is This Poem?” In some cases, maybe, we’ll find uses we didn’t know existed. And in many cases, we’ll can respond, “none; this poem—not poetry as a whole, but this poem—is useless. Away with it, and let it bother us no more.”

Filed under: aesthetics, poetry

Suit the Accent to the Word


The British Library Board has released some online samples illustrating recent theories about the kind of pronunciation that would have been current in Shakespeare’s time. And it’s a far cry from the Very Serious Accent that sounds so at home among the aristos at Downton Abbey.

David Crystal, a British linguist who has also written about the social impact of texting, is a prominent expert in the field known as “original pronunciation.” OP is about putting the theory of how Shakespeare and his colleagues would have pronounced the Bard’s words into practice. You might think of it as a sort of linguistic equivalent to the historically informed performance practice movement familiar from early music. OP has been going strong for about a decade, starting with landmark productions of Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida at the Globe Theatre in London.

(David Crystal)

On his website devoted to information about the latest findings in OP, Crystal offers a handy summary of why it matters:

OP performance brings us as close as possible to how old texts would have sounded. It enables us to hear effects lost when old texts are read in a modern way. It avoids the modern social connotations that arise when we hear old texts read in a present-day accent.

For Shakespeare’s actual words:

–Rhymes that don’t work in modern English suddenly work.
–Puns missed in modern English become clear.
–New assonances and rhythms give lines a fresh impact.
–OP illustrates what is meant by speaking ‘trippingly upon the tongue’ (Hamlet).
–OP suggests new contrasts in speech style, such as between young and old, court and commoners, literate and illiterate.
–OP motivates fresh possibilities of character interpretation.

Crystal and his son, the actor Ben Crystal, give an introduction to the premises of OP:

Filed under: linguistics, performance, Shakespeare

Keeping Time

If only György Ligeti were still around to see this. Robert Gonzalez reports on an amazing experiment in induced metronome synchrony:

If you place 32 metronomes on a static object and set them rocking out of phase with one another, they will remain that way indefinitely. Place them on a moveable surface, however, and something very interesting (and very mesmerizing) happens.

The metronomes in this video fall into the latter camp. Energy from the motion of one ticking metronome can affect the motion of every metronome around it, while the motion of every other metronome affects the motion of our original metronome right back. All this inter-metranome “communication” is facilitated by the board, which serves as an energetic intermediary between all the metronomes that rest upon its surface. The metronomes in this video (which are really just pendulums, or, if you want to get really technical, oscillators) are said to be “coupled.”

(Hat tip: Steve Silberman)

Ligeti’s famous “anti-ideological” Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes from 1962 works in the opposite direction. The metronomes are wound up to start more or less simultaneously, and the work then takes shape as a sublimely absurd/absurdly sublime music of entropy: individual “voices”/rhythmic patterns emerge from the cloud of sound until…silence overtakes the last one:

Filed under: modernist composers, science,

Tales of King

Patricia Racette as Dolores Claiborne; photo by Scott Wall

Dolores Claiborne the new opera by composer Tobias Picker and librettist-poet J.D. McClatchy, opens in just a week at San Francisco Opera. I recently interviewed Picker and McClatchy about their collaboration for my latest SF Opera feature:

The story really matters. That premise may seem self-evident, but there’s a long-standing cliché, at least as far as opera is concerned, that the story is what you have to put up with to get to the music—never mind that Verdi and Puccini obsessed over their choice of subject matter and tormented their librettists whenever it was time to consider a new project for the stage. One of the happy side effects triggered by the American Renaissance in opera that’s been unfolding for the past two to three decades has been to puncture the silly notion that the story is, at best, incidental to the experience.

“For me,” asserts Tobias Picker, “opera is about telling stories in music.”

Read the whole thing here

Filed under: composers, literature, new music, opera

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