Saturday, March 03, 2012

Putting Two and Two Together

I can't remember why, exactly, I found myself reading David Gockley's blog posting'about which works of musical theater he thinks can reasonably appear on opera house stages. I do remember thinking that it was a setup, that he was trying to prepare audience members for...well, you can guess.

The other day I saw that a production of Show Boat directed by Francesca Zambello was playing at Lyric Opera of Chicago, and I thought "I bet that is headed for SF," because FZ is a well-know friend, er, artistic advisor to SFO.

And today we have this in Out West Arts's review of that very Show Boat production:
A musical production for an opera company can be viewed as a way of filling houses and bringing in audiences that would never dream of buying a ticket to Aida. And whether or not this was a primary motivation for this current production, which will also travel to San Francisco, Washington, and Houston, it undoubtedly looks like it will be successful in doing so.
Is this cause for cheering or jeering? 


Civic Center said...

"Showboat" is a masterpiece and too large a work for most musical theatres, so I'd say cheering is in order. The Opera Tattler just saw it in Chicago and loved it.

Lisa Hirsch said...

So I saw!

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I'm also cheering. Showboat is a massive, ambitious work that is at least as worthy of being in an opera house as soggy operetta crap like The Merry Widow or Die Fledermaus, and no eyebrows are raised when they show up on schedules. It's inevitable that one generation's popular art, if it's good enough, becomes part of "high" art -- we see this over and over with everything from Japanese woodblock prints to Hitchcock movies.

My concern about Showboat is that the War Memorial is too large for it, and we'll get stuck with amplified voices.

Lisa Hirsch said...

They'll amplify the dialog but not the songs; that's been their strategy with singspiel and opera comique in the past.

I'll buy what you say about the work itself. However, the resources do exist outside opera houses for productions of Showboat. I'm concerned about what we might NOT see because SFO is staging Showboat.

I realize the answer might be Traviata, in which case, bring on Showboat. But maybe it's X, Y, or Z that I'd rather be seeing.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Sure, that is a concern. But it always is when you have a very limited number of operas done. I'm assuming they would figure Showboat would be popular, so it's more likely (it seems to me) to take a Traviata/Tosca sort of spot. If they are going to do something like, say, Moses und Aron or King Roger, I can't see them dumping that sort of thing for Showboat -- they're just aimed at different audiences (uh, though I would be in both audiences. . . ).

Anonymous said...

Show Boat is endlessly fascinating, both for its virtues and its defects, as well as having historical importance unlike any other musical. It also requires performing resources and voice types no longer available in the commercial theater. So I think that by default opera houses are the only places where it can be presented with any kind of integrity.

If it's going to show up in SF, you might want to do some reading and listening beforehand. There are three important sources:

(1) Miles Krueger's book "Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical", out of print but in many libraries.

(2) The 3-CD recording of the full score (including many out-takes and alternate versions) conducted by John McGlinn, with opera singers (von Stade, Stratas, Hadley) doing better than you might have expected, although somewhat out of their element.

(3) The 1936 film, directed by James Whale -- never released on DVD but not impossible to find on VHS or Laserdisc. Last time I checked, someone had put the whole thing up on YouTube in many short installments. Everyone in the cast had stage experience in the original production, either on Broadway or in London or on tour. This is a must-see, not least because of the presence of Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan.

The short version of all this is that Show Boat has textual problems like Don Carlos, especially in the second act (the first act is close to perfect). The whole conception is too large to fit onto one stage in one evening. Kern and Hammerstein kept revising it and trying to get it right, working on it on and off for about 20 years, ending only with Kern's death in 1946. For example, they wrote five different endings (of which one, for the movie, is lost -- filmed and then cut to ribbons, although Krueger's book has production stills to show what it looked like).

A full Show Boat would be about 4 hours long. This was done only once -- on the first night of the pre-Broadway run in Washington DC. I dream of seeing such a thing but don't expect to. An argument can be made that the 2 1/2 hour version that actually ran on Broadway is still the best compromise. My first question about Zambello's production in Chicago is, what text has she chosen? Is it at least all Hammerstein/Kern, or has she tried re-writing things?

Anyway, I sure hope it comes to SF. It's a magnificent, frustrating thing, and I want to see it.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Wow - that is fascinating, and yeah, I'd love to see the whole thing. Twenty years of tinkering!

Thank you for the resource list! Any idea why the film is not available on DVD?? I don't have either a VHS or Laserdisc player.

Anonymous said...

> Any idea why the film is not available on DVD?

Many people have asked this question, and occasional rumors circulate. I wish I knew. Turner Broadcasting/Time Warner owns the film now, and it occasionally shows up on the Turner movie channel. Judging from the watermark, the YouTube series of clips was captured from a Turner broadcast.

I hope that the reason is some kind of copyright dispute. I hope that the reason is not that all surviving prints are too deteriorated.

I first saw it at a screening at the Motion Picture Academy in honor of the Robeson centennial. The print was pretty good but not great.

So head off to YouTube. Start by watching Robeson sing Old Man River and Helen Morgan sing Bill. Then wipe away your tears and start at the beginning.

I should add that the survival of the original score is an adventure of its own. The original orchestrations (by Robert Russell Bennett), including dance arrangements and dialog underscoring, were lost. Then Bennett's full orchestral score for the DC opening night turned up in 1982 in the famous Secaucus New Jersey Warner Bros warehouse discovery.