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At the Met Opera, a Note So High, It’s Never Been Sung Before

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Zachary Woolfe reports in the NY Times:

It lasts just a split second, almost imperceptible in a two-hour score. It’s over too quickly to summon the dogs of the Upper West Side or to break any nearby windows.

But brief as it is, the A above high C that the soprano Audrey Luna reaches in Thomas Adès’s new opera, “The Exterminating Angel,” is so high, it has never been sung in the 137-year history of the Metropolitan Opera.

High C has been hit by the thousands. D’s and E’s, too, are rousing but not uncommon. F’s have been rarer, and G’s and A flats rarer still.

But a high A — a combination of genetic gifts, rigorous training and psychological discipline over two fragile vocal cords — is monumental, and unprecedented at the Met, according to its archivists.

“There’s a particular thrill about that high coloratura range,” Mr. Adès said in a phone interview. “When I hear the conventional high C of a soprano, I want to say, ‘Show us what else you’ve got.’”

“I’ve practiced up to a C above high C in the past,” she said in an interview in her dressing room. “So I know it’s in me. But it’s just nothing I’ve performed on any stage before.”

“When I saw Ariel the first time, it was like a dare,” she added, referring to the “Tempest” score. “And this is a double-dog dare.”

In “The Exterminating Angel,” based on the 1962 Luis Buñuel film, Ms. Luna plays Leticia, an opera diva who is part of a blue-bloods dinner party, the guests of which find themselves mysteriously unable to leave at the end of the evening. The vocal demands are a workout for almost every performer onstage. . .

Continue reading.

Video clips at the link allows you to hear her sing. The whole article is interesting and worth reading. Later in the article:

Adding to the excitement of the high A is its placement in the score. Unlike in other high-flying parts — the imperious Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute,” the spunky Zerbinetta in “Ariadne auf Naxos,” the long-suffering title role in “Lucia di Lammermoor” — there’s little time for Ms. Luna to warm up: The A is her very first note, sung before she’s even visible onstage. (She sings it again a short time later, as the party guests, in a surreal portent, leave the stage and re-enter.)

Written by LeisureGuy

7 November 2017 at 10:31 am

Posted in Art, Music

The Healing Power of Greek Tragedy

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Jeff MacGregor writes in Smithsonian:

Make them wish they’d never come, the director says, almost absently. He means the audience. The actress nods. She makes a mark in her script next to the stage direction:

[An inhuman cry]

And they go on rehearsing. The room is quiet. Late afternoon light angles across the floor.

An hour later from the stage her terrible howl rises over the audience to the ceiling, ringing against the walls and out the doors and down the stairs; rises from somewhere inside her to fill the building and the streets and the sky with her pain and her anger and her sadness. It is a terrifying sound, not because it is inhuman, but because it is too human. It is the sound not only of shock and of loss but of every shock and of every loss, of a grief beyond language understood everywhere by everyone.

The audience shifts uncomfortably in their seats. Then silence covers them all. This is the moment the director wanted, the moment of maximum discomfort. This is where the healing starts.

Later, the audience starts talking. They won’t stop.

“I don’t know what happened,” the actress will say in a few days. “That reading, that particular night, broke open a lot of people. And in a great way.”

This is Theater of War.

The creation of director and co-founder Bryan Doerries, Brooklyn-based Theater of War Productions bills itself as “an innovative public health project that presents readings of ancient Greek plays, including Sophocles’ Ajax, as a catalyst for town hall discussions about the challenges faced by service men and women, veterans, their families, caregivers and communities.”

And tonight in the Milbank Chapel of Teachers College at Columbia University, they’ve done just that, performing Ajax for a roomful of veterans and mental health professionals. Actor Chris Henry Coffey reads Ajax. The scream came from Gloria Reuben, the actress playing Tecmessa, Ajax’s wife.

Sophocles wrote the play 2,500 years ago, during a century of war and plague in Greece. It was part of the spring City Dionysia, the dramatic festival of Athens at which the great tragedies and comedies of the age were performed for every citizen. It is the wrenching story of the famed Greek warrior Ajax, betrayed and humiliated by his own generals, exhausted by war, undone by violence and pride and fate and hopelessness until at last, seeing no way forward, he takes his own life.


Doerries, 41, slim and earnest, energetic, explains all this to the audience that night. As he sometimes does, he will read the role of the chorus, too. He promises that the important work of discovery and empathy will begin during the discussion following the reading. The play is just the vehicle they’ll use to get there.

A self-described classics nerd, Doer­ries was born and raised in Newport News, Virginia. His parents were both psychologists. A smart kid in a smart household, he appeared in his first Greek play at the age of 8, as one of the children in Euripides’ Medea. He’ll tell you it was a seminal experience. “I was one of the children who were killed by their pathologically jealous mother—and I still remember my lines and the experience of screaming them, belting them backstage while a couple of college students pretended to bludgeon me and my friend. And I remember the sort of wonderment, the sense of awe, of limitless possibilities that the theater presented and associating that with Greek tragedy at a very early age.”

He was an indifferent high school student who bloomed in college. “My first week as a freshman at Kenyon, I met with my adviser—who just happened to be a classics professor assigned to me—and decided to take ancient Greek.

“I learned to commit to something hard and that it would result in incredible dividends. And so that’s when I started adding other ancient languages and doing Hebrew and Latin and a little Aramaic and a tiny bit of German and having this classical education that was about a deep dive into language, and the sense of early Greek thinking.” For his senior thesis he translated and staged Euripides’ The Bacchae.

He might have gone on to a fine and forgettable career as an academic; a philologist. But his origin story is more complicated than that, as most origin stories are, and has at its heart a tragedy.

In 2003, following a long illness, Doerries’ girlfriend, Laura, died. In the weeks and months of grief that followed he found comfort where he expected none: in the tragedies of ancient Greece. He was 26. All of which he explains in his remarkable 2015 book The Theater of War.

“Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, witnessing Laura’s graceful death opened my eyes to what the Greek tragedies I had studied in school were trying to convey. Through tragedy, the great Athenian poets were not articulating a pessimistic or fatalistic view of human experience; nor were they bent on filling audiences with despair. Instead, they were giving voice to timeless human experiences—of suffering and grief—that, when viewed by a large audience that had shared those experiences, fostered compassion, understanding and a deeply felt interconnection. Through tragedy, the Greeks faced the darkness of human existence as a community.”

But that’s the book version. Tidy. Well-considered. The truth of it was messier.

Coming out of graduate school in California, . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more, and it’s good.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 November 2017 at 9:37 am

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life, Education

The Mechanics of History (Dance)

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Written by LeisureGuy

30 October 2017 at 2:55 pm

Posted in Art, Video

A different way of viewing ballet

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Via this article in Aeon:

Written by LeisureGuy

17 October 2017 at 9:42 am

Posted in Art, Software, Technology, Video

Fascism for liberals: “RoboCop” at 30 and the problem with prescience

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Very interesting column by John Semley in Salon:

We have become obsessed with prescience. Or rather, a kind of reverse-prescience that sees old books (from Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and Radiohead’s “OK Computer”) invested with a new vitality. These works, and their authors, are hailed for their farsightedness and acute judiciousness, for their ability to “speak to our troubled times.” But more often than not, it’s a case of too little, way too late.

Reading the Stalinist parable “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to make sense of Trumpism feels about as useful as scanning the instructions on a bottle of bear spray while your torso’s already half-digested by a savage Kodiak. Still, we laud the old works and the old masters for their seeming ability to forecast the present, even if they do so in hazy, generalizing terms. The esteemed quality of prescience thus reveals itself as conservative, keeping us fixed on the past, lost in our fantasies of foregone foresight. Damn, if only we could have seen it coming back then.

Few pop-cultural objects carry this burden of prescience like “RoboCop,” Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi satire/Detroit dystopia/Christian allegory, which turns 30 this summer. Set in a near-future Motor City beset by corporate greed, with slums being rebuilt as privatized skyscraper communities and public services seized by profiteering private contractors, much of “RoboCop’s” critical legacy hinges on its seemingly spooky ability to predict the future: from the militarization of American police forces, to the collapse (and rebirth) of Detroit, to the way in which politics has become increasingly beholden to private money.

Never mind that all these things were already happening when “RoboCop” was released theatrically at the ass-end of the Reagan administration. What matters is how the film is regarded as effectively anticipating what’s happening now. Problem is: claims of the film’s prescience aren’t just overstated. They’re fundamentally incorrect. And if we’re to believe — as many seem to — that “RoboCop’s” near future is meant to be our present, then we must reckon with one of its greatest oversights: its depiction of business-suited capitalists as crass, corporatist, unfeeling heels. What “RoboCop” got wrong was its depiction of the bad guys — of those greedy corporate profiteers looking to razz Detroit’s crumbling ghettos, quarterback private police militias and trap the hearts and minds of good, honest, working men inside hulking robotic exoskeletons.


On the commentary track bundled with Criterion’s now out-of-print 1998 home video release of “RoboCop,” producer Jon Davison summed up the movie’s message. He called it “fascism for liberals.” As Davison puts it: “The picture is extremely violent, but it has a nice, tongue-in-cheek, we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” Indeed, “RoboCop,” like many of Dutch expat Paul Verhoeven’s other films (“The Fourth Man,” “Starship Troopers,” “Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls,” even the recent “Elle”) function through this sort of deeply embedded irony; this “we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” The sex, the violence, the way they flirt with ideological reprehensibility — Verhoeven’s films are calibrated to invite reaction, even disgust. And yet that’s never the end in itself.

When a heavy artillery “urban pacification” tank shoots up a boardroom meeting early in “RoboCop,” in one of the film’s most legendarily over-the-top sequences, the joke isn’t the display of gore itself, but rather the reaction. When the scowling CEO of Omni Consumer Products (referred to with mock-affection as “The Old Man,” and played by Dan O’Herlihy) witnesses the wanton display of machine-on-man violence and mutters to sniveling underling Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), “I’m very disappointed in you,” that’s the joke — a critique of the corporate world’s utter disdain for human life, packaged in a parody of Reagan-era paternalist condescension. This, presumably, is what Davison is talking about. “RoboCop” offers visions of violence, of top-down, totalitarian corporate control, and the crumbling of the American Dream itself that proves fundamentally comforting in its cheekiness and ironic distance. Yes, the world it depicts is bad. But we know it’s bad. And that’s good.

Yet this idea — fascism for liberals — runs even deeper into the movie’s DNA. What its capitalist parody doesn’t anticipate is the current entanglements of corporatism and politics. While the ascent of celebrity capitalist Donald Trump may play like something out of a direct-to-video “RoboCop” sequel, the film fails to address the more pressing threat of smiling, do-gooder philanthrocapitalists: guys like Michael Bloomberg or Mark Zuckerberg who increasingly set the agendas of American (and global) politics, while retaining the image of selfless saviors. These are the people who, increasingly, represent the corporatization of everyday life, albeit in a way that “RoboCop”-style corporate villainy can’t account for.

When Donald Trump announced that America would be backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement, ex-NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg promised to pick up the tab with his private money. Likewise, before Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced he was buying the Whole Foods supermarket chain last week — a move that boosted Bezos’s stock while sapping that of competitors like Wal-Mart and Target — he canvassed Twitter for ideas on charities to which he could donate money. This is the face of modern consumerist capitalism: lead with a benign-seeming charitable gesture, follow through with a massive, bottom line-boosting buyout.

The fundamental weakness of ’’80s-era, “RoboCop”-ian businessman bad guys is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2017 at 4:17 pm

The beautiful architecture of libraries

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Here are many. One example:

Written by LeisureGuy

23 June 2017 at 1:07 pm

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life

U.S. Veterans Use Greek Tragedy to Tell Us About War

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Bruce Headlam has a good column in the NY Times, with video (at the link):

The ancient Greeks didn’t go to the theater just to be entertained. Aristotle believed that audiences saw themselves reflected in tragic characters and that the very act of watching a character’s downfall helped purge them of emotions like pity and fear, a process he called catharsis or, roughly, “purification.”

More than 2,500 years later, a young classics major named Bryan Doerries wondered whether he could help a growing and vulnerable population in need of catharsis: veterans of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom come home from combat with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.

His idea became a project he calls Theater of War, which has now staged more than 400 performances for veterans across the country. He asked high-profile actors, including Adam Driver, Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, to read from the war plays of Sophocles. After the reading, the veterans in the audience talk about their own trauma and their trouble readjusting to civilian life.

The project has attracted thousands of veterans and their families as they try to readjust to life away from the battlefield. It isn’t an easy process.

“You create a permissive enough environment where people can speak truth,” Mr. Doerries said. “The Greeks have a word which means ‘balanced-mindedness,’ which was the ideal of the fifth century. So how do you rebalance the mind of an Athenian? Part of the answer is to give them the opportunity to vent and purge these emotions that can’t be bottled up.”

Inspired by the example of Theater of War, we have created our own version of Sophocles’ poetry. We asked a dozen or so veterans to read passages from two of his war plays and to talk about what the passages meant to them. We turned their readings and their comments into two videos — one about a soldier’s suicide and the other about living with injury.

One, called “A Warrior’s Last Words,” is adapted from the play “Ajax” and shows Ajax and his wife, Tecmessa, as he contemplates suicide. The other video, “If Men Don’t Know My Story,” is a speech from the play “Philoctetes” (pronounced fill-ock-TEE-tees), in which a badly wounded soldier describes how the generals abandoned him on an island for nine years.

So instead of getting insights into themselves by listening to Greek poetry, these veterans are using the poetry to give us insight into their own experience.

“The first time I heard Ajax’s speech, it knocked me back in my chair,” said Jeff Hall, a retired Army commander from Oklahoma who struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts after returning from Iraq. “It was me. I could see how he was betrayed in the text.”

Mr. Hall’s wife, Sheri, is the voice of Tecmessa in the video — the long-suffering spouse of Ajax, who lives in fear of her husband’s dark thoughts.

“She was walking around on eggshells and so were we during our time of Jeff’s PTSD onset, and the things going on with his anger and his depression,” she said. “It really spoke to me, especially with what she was dealing with. I was going through the same things.”

While Sophocles is better remembered for writing “Antigone” and “Oedipus Rex,” he was also a general in the Athenian Army and lived during the decades-long Peloponnesian War. He wrote “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” for audiences that most likely included his army’s own soldiers.

“The theme that’s most prevalent in both plays is . . .

Continue reading.

See also the excellent book Achilles in Vietnam, by Jonathan Shay.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 May 2017 at 9:32 am

Posted in Art, Books, Military

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