Friday, July 28, 2017

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs Media Roundup

Here speaketh the reviewers:
I promised commentary on the reviews, and I swear I will get to that this week. 

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Santa Fe Opera

iPhone announcement
Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

I was at the second performance of the new opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, music by Mason Bates, libretto by Mark Campbell. As readers of this blog and my Twitter feed are aware, I had  reservations about the subject going into the premiere, which came on top of being less of a Mason Bates fan than many. I have also seen two operas with Campbell librettos, which contributed somewhat to my skepticism; more about this below.

Edward Parks (Steve Jobs)
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

So, the good news about the opera: the production is really terrific, using a bunch of rectangular structures on wheels to divide up the stage in many ways and, with beautiful and imaginative projections, represent various outdoor locations, Apple´s offices, a garage, Jobs´s childhood home, etc.  See the photo above for the structures in a fairly pure form. Initially, they were brightly lit and resembled the outside of an Apple store.

The lighting is gorgeous. The singers are amplified, which I did not know in advance, but it was obvious from the first vocal entry. It´s done well enough, though there was one two minute period when I had some problems hearing soprano Jessica E. Jones. It was certainly necessary for making the guitar in the orchestra audible with what sounded like a pretty big orchestra in the pit. Whether it was necessary for the singers, I am doubtful, but it is not the only thing about the opera that was School of John (Coolidge) Adams.

The performers are unimpeachable, which did not surprise me at all. I believe I have never heard baritone Edward Parks before; he sings the role of Jobs and as far as I can remember, he is on stage for the entire opera. He was absolutely tireless and sang and acted very well. He's got a serviceable voice, not a remarkable voice, but that is sufficient.

Garrett Sorenson (Woz) and Edward Parks (Steve Jobs)
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

All of the other roles are subsidiary to that of Jobs, and because I have not seen the libretto (yet), I am not sure what the line division among the other roles is. I think it´s likely that the second-largest role is that of Steve Wozniak (Woz), friend of Jobs from their teen years, co-founder of Apple, and designer of large parts of early Apple hardware. This role was sung by tenor Garrett Sorenson, and he was just about perfect vocally and dramatically. He is the emotional foil of Jobs within Apple, the nice guy to Jobs´s asshole. I have seen him before, but I had to look it up: he was Narraboth in San Francisco´s last Salome.

Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and Sasha Cooke (Laurene Powell Jobs)
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

Sasha Cooke, taking the role of Laurene Powell Jobs, got very high billing in the cast, and she is as always wonderful, but oh man! The part is seriously underwritten. The same is true of the role of Chrisann Brennan, Jobs´s girlfriend and the mother of his first daughter Lisa, sung by Jessica E. Jones More, lots more, about this below.

That is not a set or a projection in the background; that is the landscape behind the opera house.
Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and Wei Wu (Kobun Chino Otogaway)
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

The bass Wu Wei was impressive as Kubun Chino Otogawa, spiritual mentor to Jobs over a long period of time. He's got a splendid voice and I'd love to see him in a standard role or two. More on this part below as well.

And some more good news: for this opera, Bates has composed a score that is consistently lively and inventive, with considerable charm as well. The publicity all says that this opera was his idea, and it has inspired him to write some terrific music, music that I liked better than just about anything I have heard from him in the past. The vocal lines are mostly well-written and by and large he sets the sometimes-awkward text very well. The orchestra burbles along with a fascinating assortment of sounds, some of them based on sound effects from the Macintosh computer line. There´s a guitar in the mix (obviously amplified); the orchestra is imaginative and often very beautiful. Was that a duet for alto flutes I heard at one point (possibly two)? I can´t say, because I haven´t located the orchestra breakdown yet. There is some beautiful pastoral music when Jobs and Chrisann take an LSD trip; it also registered on me as a loving pastiche of the genre.

Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and Jessica E. Jones (Chrisann Brennan)
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

There are some minor issues: the extremely high-energy score gets tiring to listen to after maybe 50 minutes to an hour. It could use more repose, more breaks from the relentless energy. I certainly could have done without the disturbing subsonics in one scene.

Rhythmically, it is very school-of-JCA circa the 1980s and early 90s; one of my notes says ¨somebody has been listening to Nixon in China.¨ And, you know, that is a good thing! Nixon is one of the great postwar scores, and composers ought to listen to it, especially composers who are writing an opera about a public individual, because it is the progenitor of every other such opera in the last 30 years.

I would say that the most successful and memorable stretches of music in the opera are the many purely orchestral sections and the two duets between Jobs and Woz. By duets, I mean non-conversational sections where the two men are really singing together and bouncing off one another. And right there, I am starting to get at some of the problems with the opera.

So, the libretto is a big problem, and so is the length of the opera, and of course I have no way of knowing the process by which Steve Jobs became a one-act, 90-minute opera with no fewer than 18 brief scenes. But it is too short for what it is trying to accomplish and it misses a couple of golden opportunities to properly develop the female characters in keeping with the overall plot, which is ostensibly supposed to show not only how Apple and Jobs revolutionized tech, but how Jobs evolved (and presumably improved) as a person.

I have been wondering since the performance whether Steve Jobs was originally a two-act opera that got reduced in size along the way. One reason for this is that at around the 50 minute mark, there is a section that dramatically and musically sounds exactly like the close of a typical first act. The music reaches a huge climax and the libretto sets up some kind of significant dramatic conflict. My notes unfortunately do not say where in the opera this is, so you will have to wait until the CD release (yes, there is one coming) before I can pinpoint its location, unless one of my fellow ink-stained wretches has also commented on this and has more detailed notes than I do.

In any event, the libretto does rather rocket around, geographically and temporally. It shifts from 2007, when Jobs was already sick with the cancer that eventually killed him, back to the 1970s, forward to the 1980s and 90s. Sometimes you are outdoors, sometimes in a home or office. It is very cinematic, and given its length and familiar subject, it is in some way exemplary of the sort of thing Greg Sandow was espousing a decade ago as the future of opera. (Note: I didn´t agree then and I don´t agree now. The success of productions of the Ring and Les Troyens are evidence that operagoers have a long enough attention span that 90 minute operas do not need to become the norm.) The many short scenes encourage a telegraphic survey of the events and they really short-circuit the character development we are supposed to be seeing in Jobs.

We get plenty of scenes of Jobs-the-jerk, in how he treats Chrisann when she becomes pregnant and in his treatment of Apple employees. He is truly horrible to Chrisann, blaming her for the pregnancy and ordering her to get an abortion.¨How can you do this to me?¨he sings, as though it was deliberate and he had nothing to do with it. ¨Get rid of it.¨

Here´s the first big miss in the libretto: it´s the perfect setup to give Chrisann an aria of some combination of regret, longing, shock, confusion, and rage (take your pick; I can imagine any of these). Bates and Campbell duck it, and the next we see her, it´s years later and Chrisann, broke while supporting herself and their daughter, begs Jobs for some financial assistance...which he refuses. (Yes, he is an asshole.)

Here´s the second big miss: Laurene Powell comes along; she and Jobs fall in love and marry; he turns into a better person. But all we get about how and why is that she is someone who kicks his ass when he is a jerk. She is a counterbalance to his worst self.

Well, so? This is not really anything extraordinary! It is not uncommon in long relationships for the partners to call out each other´s bad behavior and ask or demand better. And in the Jobs marriage, this is very briefly conveyed even though there is a hint, at least, that they may have once nearly broken up over his behavior. Missed opportunity: an aria for Laurene about what the relationship felt like to her and what she needed from him.

Also missed: an aria of self-reflection from Jobs himself! There just isn't anything really persuasive, merely a bunch of hints and aphorisms about how he becomes a better person. We need a window into his interior life and we do not get it. Yes, this would take something long, in an opera where the scenes average five minutes in length. I rather suspect it would take an aria the length of ¨Tu che le vanita,¨ which might be Verdi´s longest, and greatest, aria.

All of this really limits the extent to which we can be moved by Jobs´s life and transformation. We see very little about it that is intimate or convincing, and without that, we are entertained but not moved.

Oh, I see you asking, but what about the spiritual mentor? Well, we don´t get much from that direction, either. Some aphorisms, some humor, some really embarrassing moments. Like Chrisann and Laurene, he is more a prop in the story than he is a real person. You could say I am made uncomfortable by this: Woz is the best-developed secondary character, and that is a big problem given that it seems that this is a redemption story in some way, and the redeemers are Laurene and Otogawa. I do own that Woz is well-developed and truly a mensch; he is the guy who behaves well when Jobs does not.

There are some other embarrassing aspects to the libretto: some of those Jobs/Otogawa conversations take place in 2007 and 2009, and Otogawa died in 2005 trying to save his young daughter from drowning. Jobs witnesses his own memorial service and comments on it. This comes across as mawkish sentimentality.

More profoundly, we never see or hear a word about Jobs's kids, beyond Laurene lamenting that they miss him when he's working hard and is never home. We get a one-liner about how he and Laurene "adopted" Lisa, his daughter with Chrisann. She was thirteen years old when Powell and Jobs married, so you really want to know what exactly that throwaway line means. His relationship with her, and perhaps Laurene's, would have been more complex than you can convey in a couple of sentences; in this opera, he spends way more time denying paternity than he does relating to his child.

[Updates follow]

Since I wrote the bulk of this review, I've had a couple more thoughts on potential additions to the opera that could improve it dramatically and emotionally. The first is that although Fitzgerald's famous line about second acts is quoted, the opera skips entirely over Jobs's amazing second and third acts: after he was booted from Apple, for good reasons, he went on to found NeXT Computer, fund Pixar as an independent company, and return to the company to rescue Apple from the hole his successors let it fall into. These are astonishing accomplishments by any standard, but there isn't a word about it. He is just mysteriously back at Apple presenting the iPhone, with no explanation. This is a blank that needs some type of filling in.

I mentioned this to Joshua Kosman the other night before Le Coq d'Or, and he made the persuasive argument that leaving this out means the opera never presents Jobs riding in as the white knight, which would interrupt the story of his personal evolution. True, and yet it's an awfully big part of his legend and revolution.

I referred a couple of times above to Nixon in China and some musical aspects of Steve Jobs that come from that trailblazing and brilliant opera. I've never much liked JCA's reasons for using amplification; to a great extent I think it boils down to his distrust of singers and discomfort with operatic singing style. Other composers need not adopt these views: if singers can be heard over Richard Strauss's enormous orchestras, so can your singers. Trust your singers, ask them questions, work with them about what their strengths and weaknesses are.

One reason Nixon in China is so successful is its amazing libretto, by the poet Alice Goodman. For the libretto, she didn't write lines for Richard Nixon; she invented a character "Richard Nixon" and gave him an inner life and thoughts that are true to Richard Nixon while clearly being her imagined version of the man. Steve Jobs, the character in Steve Jobs the opera, remains opaque and somehow unknown because Mark Campbell takes him literally - except for the embarrassing business with Otogawa and so on - and does not succeed in expressing Jobs's inner life in a way that illuminates the life the man lived.

[End updates]

I mentioned earlier that this is the third opera I've seen with a Campbell libretto. The others also have significant dramatic weaknesses. In the case of Kevin Puts's Silent Night, I must say that I am not familiar with the source material, a film that is evidently popular and moving. I found the opera episodic and dramatically diffuse, and without seeing the film, I can't say whether it was because the libretto too closely recreates the film. (I also did not love the music.) The other opera is Laura Kaminsky's As One, which has gorgeous music and a libretto co-written by Kimberly Reed and partly based on her life. I wrote extensively about As One when West Edge Opera performed it in 2015; I won't repeat those comments here.

I want to note that some of the best parts of the libretto were the funniest, which led me to think that Campbell could write an excellent comic libretto. That led me to wonder why there aren't more operatic comedies being commissioned and composed. People need to laugh as well as cry!

In closing, I think that The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is pretty successful, with attractive, inventive, and entertaining music, an outstanding production, and admirable performances all around. Michael Christie conducted and did a fine, fine job, perhaps excepting one episode that is just too loud (but maybe Bates is to blame for this). I predict that it will sell plenty of tickets in its future runs at San Francisco Opera and Seattle Opera, and that is a good thing. I also think it's possible that it will get some revisions in the next few years, and I do think it can be significantly deepened and made more emotionally satisfying. I would want a better sense of what was going on inside Jobs himself, who remains enigmatic to the end.

Opera for All Voices

I somehow managed to file an important press release from San Francisco Opera without reporting on it. I stumbled across the same press release, more or less, on the Santa Fe Opera web site yesterday and accordingly made an update to my future seasons page.

These two companies are the lead commissioning organizations for a consortium of companies seeking to expand the range of composers represented on stage, the stories that are told, and the scope of commissioned operas. (You might think of this as the ¨fewer white men¨ initiative.) The first two commissions are already in place, plus the press release announces how future commissions will work. Those commissions are to Augusta Read Thomas and Laura Kaminsky. The Kaminsky commission will be performed at SF Opera in 2020, presumably in the fall  of 2020-21, because we know already that The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will be performed in the 2019-20 season. San Francisco won´t try to bring up two new operas in one season.

The whole press release is after the cut.

John McCain is Still a Lying Liar

Yes, he came to his senses - or really wanted to screw over Trump - and cast his vote the way I hoped, but here´s what he said about the Affordable Care Act:
“I’ve stated time and time again that one of the major failures of Obamacare was that it was rammed through Congress by Democrats on a strict party-line basis without a single Republican vote,” he said in a statement explaining his vote. “We should not make the mistakes of the past.”
That´s bullshit. A year of hearings, most of them public, preceded the passage of the ACA;  more than 180 Republican amendments were attached. As it became clear that NO Republicans would vote for it, President Obama asked what was needed to gain Republican support. He got no reply at all. Republicans would not make substantive contributions because they were determined to oppose the ACA and the Obama agenda from day one.

Apparently McCain and nearly every other Republican has managed to forget this bit of recent history.

I´m glad McCain cast this vote, but he has voted with Trump 90% of the time. His nomination of the know-nothing Sarah Palin as his VP paved the way for the even more ignorant and dangerous Donald Trump.

And you should check out his Vietnam War record. He crashed two planes and had to pull special strings to continue flying. That is how he got captured. Yes, he endured a great deal after being captured, but he was a reckless airman who should not have been flying at all.

Hawaii Friday Photo

Poipu, Kauai, March, 2017

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Style Warriors

It's a source of both frustration and amusement that there are still lots of people around determined to fight the musical style wars of forty or fifty years ago. It's not much of a surprise that you run into such people on Twitter, but it's surprising when I find music-world pros still trying to fight this fight. We saw a prominent example a couple of years ago in San Francisco, when, for reasons that are beyond me, both David Gockley and Nicola Luisotti complained very publicly about that awful dissonant music. I dunno, maybe it was cover for the attempt to persuade us that Marco Tutino's La Ciociara was a really good opera that deserved a place in the repertory. Then there was a program note at SFS; why didn't I ever mail that letter I wrote?

But when I see someone posting the following on Twitter, well, I need a more complete response than "No. Full explanation too long to tweet":

Here's a more complete explanation, which I plan to haul out at every opportunity.

First of all, the tweet assumes that there is no audience for the music of Schoenberg, his students Berg and Webern, and subsequent composers who wrote using atonal or serial techniques. This is simply false. The audience for such music is smaller than the audience for Beethoven, Tchaikowsky, and Puccini, but so? So's the audience for the music of Guillaume de Machaut.

Second, no, it wasn't a dead end. No particular compositional technique can lead to a musical dead end. There's a large repertory of extremely varied music that's atonal or uses serial techniques. There are composers, not all of them old, who are working in such styles and their descendants today.

Third, there are implicit assumptions in this tweet that all Western art music post-Schoenberg was written in an atonal style or using serial technique, and that this state continued until the present day. No, no, no, no, no. NO. Let me name a bunch of composers who were contemporaries of Schoenberg's or younger than he was who (mostly) did not write in the alleged dead-end styles. Why, I'm going to take the list down to the present, even.

Vaughan Williams, Holst, Britten, Bax, Bridge, R. Strauss, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Copland, Martinu, Kaprálová, I. Fine, Shapero, Bartok, Kodaly, Orff, Schmidt, Zemlinsky, Schreker, Messiaen, Barber, Villa-Lobos, Korngold, Ives, Puccini, Ravel, de Falla, Ruggles, Nancarrow, Cage, Sibelius, Nielsen, Bloch, Leifs, Sallinen, Grainger, Varese, Ibert, Ravel, Honegger, Milhaud, Sorabji, Moore, Ornstein, Piston, Hanson, Hindemith, Thomson, Thompson, Gershwin, Haas, Poulenc, Durufle, Walton, Hartmann, Rautavaara, Pärt, Talma, Saariaho, Salonen, Lindberg, Holmboe, Aaho, Menotti, Hovhaness, Takemitsu, Hermann, Lutoslawski, A. Panufnik, Gal, Diamond, Glass, Reich, Dutilleux, Ginastera, JL Adams, JC Adams, Harrison, Cowell, Partch, Bernstein, Weinberg, Arnold, Simpson, J. Anderson, Higdon, Adamo, Corigliano, Harbison, Feldman, Hyla, Hoiby, Kurtag, Ligeti, Thorvaldsdottir, Davies, Kancheli, Gubaidulina, Susa, Young, Riley, Silver, Lieberson, Del Tredici, Wilson, Bolcom, Rzewski, Crumb, Benjamin, Zwillich, A.R. Thomas, M.T. Thomas, Chin, Adès, Shaw, Wolf...and on and on and on. Yeah, I snuck a few older 20th c. composers in there.

And while you're at it, take a look at who gets played. I've heard almost no Schoenberg and Webern in the concert hall, rather more Berg, at least at orchestra concerts and, of course, at the opera.

So, tell me again about the dead end Schoenberg led Western art music into, because it's amazing how many good and great composers found and continue to find ways through or around this alleged dead end.

Domingo at Bayreuth?

So it's been reported that next year, Plácido Domingo will conduct Die Walküre at the Bayreuth Wagner Festival, the holy of holies for Wagner devotees.

All I can say is, why? Are they having that much trouble selling tickets to the famously (not necessarily correctly) hard-to-get-into Festival? Has anyone from the Festival heard him conduct?

He is a terrible conductor! I mean, he is minimally competent; knows how to keep time, knows how to cue an entry, knows the operas (I presume). However, if you listen to the musical line and details, well...he is a terrible judge of tempo and structure. I watched a good chunk of his Operalia contest one year, with him conducting, and it was just embarrassing. He got to be front and center and get as much attention as those young singers, while they had to deal with a celebrity conductor with, at best, mediocre skills. I felt very, very sorry for them; they deserved to be working with excellent conductors, not a tenor who picked up conducting to extend his career as far as possible.

When I was at Bayreuth two years ago, I heard a significant range of conductors, from the puzzling Kirill Petrenko to the excellent Alain Altinoglu and Axel Kober to the incandescent genius of Christian Thielemann. You would think that Bayreuth has its choice of good to great conductors, so you have to wonder WTF is going on here.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Mailing List Segmentation

Major mailing list management programs, such as Constant Contact and MailChip, offer users a list segmentation function. You use this to divide your list members into sub-lists. For example, I might want to send a particular email exclusively to women who've taken one of my self-defense classes, or to those who've taken my safe rolling & falling class.

Large organizations don't always take advantage of this to the extent possible. I get a lot of email from San Francisco Symphony, and some of it - weekly reminders about which concert will be on this week - I don't necessarily need to see. I checked with them recently, and they do have plans to segment their list more than it's currently segmented.

This morning, I've got email from San Francisco Opera encouraging me to subscribe to the summer, 2018 production of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Evidently, they're also a little behind at mailing list segmentation: I applied for Ring tickets in January, and I already have the confirmation of where I'm sitting.

It's admittedly more difficult for an organization with thousands of addresses on its mailing list to segment that list than it is for me: I have around 125 people on my list. Still, it's possible to run a script comparing existing Ring ticket purchasers with the full SFO mailing list. Tessitura might even have such a function built in, for all I know. Heck, it's possible to do this by dumping the information into a spreadsheet, and it can't even be that difficult to write a little macro to create a non-Ring mailing list to get this stuff.

I note that I'm not particularly bothered by the extra email suggesting I subscribe. Some sections, for some of the cycles, are selling out fast, I've heard from people who bought tickets this week. So anyone who is thinking of going really should get going on their tickets, before the Ringheads snap them all up.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Steve Jobs, the Man, and Steve Jobs, the Opera

There's been some discussion about The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the opera, on Twitter over the last couple of days, and about larger issues raised by the work. I was involved in the Twitter exchanges, and so were a bunch of folks I know.

I have to start this blog post with what would be disclaimers in a paid review, but they're not really that in a blog post. First, I work for one of Apple's competitors, Google. Second, I do not in any way speak for Google. Third, I've been a technical writer for 21 years, and anybody who works in high tech has opinions about both Apple and Steve. When I was looking around for a paid review of this piece, I gave some thought to whether these were disqualifying, without exactly reaching any conclusions. Let's just say, for now, that I'm semi-well-informed about Jobs and Apple. I have not seen the competing films about him that came out a while back, one of which was partially filmed at the War Memorial Opera House. I have not read Walter Isaacson's giant biography, which was written with at least some cooperation from Jobs.

I have heard several of Mason Bates's pieces live, going back to "Rusty Air in Carolina" at Cabrillo more than ten years ago. He's a good composer, although I find it odd that with all the publicity about ELECTRONICA in his music, usually you can barely hear the electronic contributions in the wash of his orchestration. I do not have quite as high an opinion of him as some critics do, and I scratched my head over the Beethoven & Bates pairing at San Francisco Symphony a few years ago.

So, about Jobs. He was not the greatest innovator of all time. Many or most of Apple's major technologies were invented elsewhere. Douglas Engelbart invented the mouse. Xerox PARC invented the graphical user interface. Sony invented the portable music player. Blackberry and Palm invented the smartphone, although I own that you could see the smartphone as an extension of the Newton, Apple's early, failed attempt at a PDA. I also note that Andy Rubin founded Android in 2003, four years before Apple released the iPhone.

Jobs was a brilliant marketer and a genius at recognizing and promoting great design, at least after a certain point. Those early Macs were pretty damn ugly, and the GUI was primitive compared to what you see now on just about any personal computer. By always charging premium prices and never licensing their operating system, Apple missed a chance in the 80s to make major inroads into corporate American, instead remaining the expensive boutique computer. But over time, Jobs began to demand, and get, extraordinary design for Apple products. Even the original iPod is rather a miracle of compact design, and the whole lineup of them got prettier and prettier. The current Mac laptops all look and feel great, and so does the iMac I'm writing this on.

One result of this is an extremely loyal fan base, people who will line up for the latest phone or computer coming out of Cupertino. I don't, personally, understand the near-cult around Apple products, but then, I am a value buyer who doesn't want to pay top dollar for products such as cars or computers. That's why I'm driving a 2000 Accord, the fanciest car I've ever wanted. Hey, it will probably run for another five years! That's why I kept my last Windows computer, a Dell, going for nine years. I did replace it with an iMac, but that was for two reasons: by then, I'd switched to a Mac at work, and OS X looked and felt more like Windows XP than then-current versions of Windows did.

Sorry, I know that this probably sounds like a huge insult to a lot of Apple users invested in telling me how the Mac is soooo much more intuitive than Windows. As someone who used both for several years, all I can says is, no, it is not. And I can ask, when did YOU last use a Windows machine? The two OSs have been functionally equivalent for a very long time. It takes a few days to learn keystroke differences, and some time to get used to working with the bells and whistles, but the fact is that I've never used all the bells and whistles on either a Windows machine or a Mac.

Let's say a bit about Steve Jobs, the man. From all reports, he was something of an asshole! The stories are legion! His treatment of his oldest daughter and her mother; his treatment of many Apple employees; the ways that Apple's extremely secretive internal culture reflected his personality and drive. There are plenty of articles about this and of course the bio.

So the thought of an opera about Steve Jobs automatically makes me a look a little side-eyed at the idea. The cast list didn't help: there are two women in it, his wife Laurene Powell Jobs and Chrisann Brennan, his daughter Lisa's mother. There's also Kobun Chino Otogawa, the Zen monk who married Laurene and Steve Jobs.

It is very hard to look at this cast list and not wonder, or worry, if we're going to get an opera about an asshole saved by the love of a good woman and the counsel of a good (Asian) religious figure. (For the Asian religious figure, let's just that my worry is that the opera might be getting into "magic Negro" territory, which would be bad.) We have seen this story before, or some version of it, in an awful lot of media: films, novels, plays, and I think a few operas too. In this case, it would be a rich, white-presenting asshole being saved by the love, etc. Contra Matthew Shilvock's statement - and yes, I know that as general director of SF Opera he has to say this stuff - this sure doesn't look like an opera for or about everybody. It looks like an opera for Apple / Jobs fans.

I have not, of course, seen the libretto. I don't know whether, or how it will address the influence of Jobs's personality on Apple or his poor treatment of many people in his life and at Apple. I am not a big fan of redemption stories, if that's what this turns out to be.

But my concerns here go way beyond "telling composers what operas to write," because Steve Jobs isn't a fictional character invented for this opera (although, I admit, Richard Nixon in you-know-what is at least partly a fictional character invented for the opera). His actions and life had real impact on the world and the people around him, from family members to employees of Apple. It's reasonable to be concerned or wonder about how the opera is going to address all this stuff.

And I think it's okay to make the general statement that it would really good, and good for opera, if composers created more operas about women who aren't either victims or saviors, more operas with people of color in general, broader concerns; if there were more operas written by women and people of color. If you need only one example of why, compare and contrast the treatment of rape in Marco Tutino's La Ciociara and in Kaija Saariaho's Adriana Mater.

See also:

Friday, July 14, 2017

Want to be on the War Memorial Stage?

SF Opera is holding supernumerary auditions. They are on a Monday night when I am already committed or I'd consider auditioning for Elektra. Guess I will have to see it from the audience side.

Here's the supernumerary rehearsal & performance schedule for the fall.


No experience required – for information or to reserve an audition slot, email:

SAN FRANCISCO (July 14, 2017) — Have you ever dreamed of being on the War Memorial Opera House stage? San Francisco Opera is looking for adult supernumeraries (extras) to appear in the Company’s upcoming Fall 2017 Season. An open audition will be held on Monday, July 31 beginning at 6 p.m. at the War Memorial Opera House. No previous experience is required and there is no fee to audition.

Supernumeraries, also known as supers, act as extras (in costume and make-up) on the stage in non-speaking, non-singing roles. Supers have the unparalleled opportunity to work alongside some of the most acclaimed artists in the world, and help bring San Francisco Opera’s dazzling, large-scale productions to life on the stage of the historic War Memorial Opera House. Supers are volunteers, however an honorarium is provided to those cast in productions. 

Supers will have the opportunity to rehearse and perform in one or more of San Francisco Opera’s fall season operas, including a visceral production of Richard Strauss’Elektra, Jules Massenet’s enchanting Manon, the highly anticipated world premiere of John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West, and two repertory favorites, Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot and Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata.

WHAT:  Open audition for adults to appear as supernumeraries (extras) in San Francisco Opera’s 2017 Fall Season. Supers can be any age (adults only), shape or size. No previous experience required. These roles are non-speaking, non-singing and volunteer/unpaid (an honorarium is provided to those cast in a production).

WHEN:  Monday, July 31, 2017 beginning at 6:00 p.m.

WHERE:  War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA, 94102

Interested parties should contact to receive more information and reserve a spot for this exciting opportunity!

La Circe, from Ars Minerva

San Francisco-based opera company Ars Minerva continues its series of 17th c. Venetian operas with a production of Ziani's La Circe in September. Here are the details:

“La Circe” is inspired by the adventures of Circe, the goddess and magician of Greek mythology made famous in Homer’s Odyssey and in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. After Ulysses escapes Circe’s clutches, the outraged enchantress remains on her island with a number of unlucky captives who fall victim to her resentment and manipulations. Dreadful potions, transformations, dancing Graces, Furies and other colorful agents of evil – alongside carnival-esque comic scenes – bring drama featuring laments, rage arias and drinking tunes.

Sung in Italian with English supertitles, the opera will be semi-staged by Céline Ricci and presented on September 8 and 9 at the ODC Theater in San Francisco. It will feature eight singers, an acrobat and an orchestra led by Derek Tam.

Circe - Céline Ricci
Andromaca - Kindra Scharich
Scilla - Aurélie Veruni
Egle - Jasmine Johnson
Glauco - Kyle Stegall
Pirro - Billy Sauerland
Gligorio - Jonathan Smucker
Custode / Tissandro / Creonte - Igor Vieira
Acrobat - Katherine Hutchinson

Conductor / Harpsichord - Derek Tam
Cello - Gretchen Claassen
Theorbo - Adam Cockerham
Violin - Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo
Violin - Nathalie Carducci
Viola - Addi Liu

Production Team
Director - Céline Ricci
Light Designer - Michael Davis
Projections Design - Patricia Nardi
English Translation – Joe McClinton

The ODC Theater
3153 17th Street, San Francisco, California
When: 7:30 p.m. September 8 and 7:30 p.m. September 9
Tickets: $86, $56 or $25 for students

Hunter at Opera Theater Unlimited

Opera Theater Unlimited is the small opera company that put on a thrilling production of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea last year. That production used street clothes, a few chairs, and maybe three additional props, with an orchestra of five. The beautiful singing, terrific playing, and alert direction gave this minimalist production huge impact in the tiny, 80-seat Exit Theater.

This year, the company is presenting a new opera, Hunter, by Joseph M. Colombo to a libretto by Caitlin Mullin. I'm not sure whether I'll be able to get there, but you might be able!

Performances are July 14, 15, 21, and 22, all at 8 p.m. at the EXIT Theater, 156 Eddy St., SF. This is pretty close to Powell St. BART, so you need not try to find parking downtown. Tickets are $15, $25, or $35.

San Francisco Friday Photo

Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco
October, 2016

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

More of the Same: SFS in 2017-18

[I obviously started this back in March and never finished it. Here goes.]

San Francisco Symphony's 2017-18 season announcement came out today, and what can one say beyond headtable?

As I predicted, there's lots of Lenny.

It's white men all the way down, most of them dead, with the exception of one (1) work by Kaija Saariaho (Lanterna Magica), which just happens to be on the one (1) program conducted by a woman, Susanna Mälkki, and one (1) work by a composer with a Chinese name, which just happens to be on the program of the China National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra.

There are some living white guys in the new music category: Penderecki, Poznanski (coming with the Israel Philharmonic/Mehta), Salonen (on PH-C's program), Meyer (with St. Martin in the Fields), Wuorinen (that's a surprise, really), Norman (on Valcuha's program), Connesson (on Dèneve's program), and Dean (on Robertson's program). The thing is, these new works are all curtain-raisers, which you can tell because they're mostly the first work on programs with two big pieces.

Also, living male film music composers including Williams and Elfman.

There are plenty of concerts I'd like to see, such as Urbanski's program with the wonderful Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra, MTT's with Bartok 2nd piano concerto (Denk) and the Symphonie fantastique, not the mention Boris Godunov in concert and the two Ives symphonies. There's some Sibelius, too, and I almost never mind hearing his music. (Although - why not Nielsen?) And some Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

When I started this post in March, the LA Phil had just announced its genuinely astounding season, and SFS seemed just plain dreary and more of the same. With a little distance, it's much better than I'd thought; I was genuinely surprised at how many concerts I checked off as must-see or nice-to-see. Still, we are in the shadow of the orchestra to the south.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Voices Are Different

Ellie Dehn
Photo: Victoria Janashvili
Courtesy of San Francisco Opera

From San Francisco Opera comes news of a cast change, for the fall's Manon:
SAN FRANCISCO, CA (July 10, 2017) — San Francisco Opera today announced a cast change for Jules Massenet’s Manon, opening November 4 and running for six performances through November 22, 2017. American soprano Ellie Dehn will essay her role debut as Manon, one of the most enticing heroines of the French repertory, replacing Nadine Sierra who has withdrawn. Sierra said her decision to leave the production was “an extremely difficult one to make, but after considerable deliberation I realized the role was simply too heavy at this point in my vocal development.”
Ellie Dehn thrilled San Francisco Opera audiences earlier this summer as Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème in what the San Francisco Chronicle called a “sumptuous, sparkling turn as the sexually irresistible Musetta—her Act 2 rendition of the showpiece ‘Quando me’n vo’ was as joyous and witty as ever.” She joins a Manon cast, which also features star tenor Michael Fabiano in his highly anticipated role debut as Chevalier des Grieux, that returns this Belle Epoque gem to the Company’s repertory after a 19-year absence in a new production directed by Vincent Boussard and conducted by Massenet specialist Patrick Fournillier. Dehn is excited to add Manon to her repertory and has already made plans to visit Paris and the Church of Saint-Sulpice as part of her preparation. She said, "It's an honor to take on Manon for the wonderful audiences in San Francisco. I look forward to bringing this iconic role to life next season."
I hadn't thought of Manon as a heavy role relative to those Sierra has already sung (Nozze Countess, Lucia, upcoming Musetta), but I also see from her schedule that her next Nozze appearance is as Susanna, which is the role I would think a natural for her. Whatever; she and her teachers know her voice best and this kind of decision is up to them.

This cast change cheers me up, too! I liked Sierra a lot as Papagena, and thought her good, not great, as Lucia. But Ellie Dehn has been the high point of two of the three productions I've seen her in: a witty and scene-stealing Musetta, twice, and a smartly sung Micaela in Carmen. So I'm happy to see her get center stage as Manon.

Scene from Manon
Photo: Martynas Aleksa/Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre
Courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Return of the King

Received from the Met; notes in square brackets by me:
James Levine will conduct the Met’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca next season, replacing Andris Nelsons, who has withdrawn. [Possibly predictable after Kristine Opalais, his wife, left the production.]
Mr. Levine, who now holds the title of Music Director Emeritus, has a long history of conducting Tosca at the Met, including his very first Met performance in June 1971, when he led a cast of Grace Bumbry as Tosca and Franco Corelli as Cavaradossi. He conducted performances of Tosca with Bumbry, Plácido Domingo, and Tito Gobbi in the Met’s 1971-72 season, and more recently, Levine conducted the premiere of Luc Bondy's staging of the opera in September 2009, which the new production will replace.
In addition to leading the new David McVicar production of Tosca, Levine will conduct performances of Die Zauberflöte, Il Trovatore, Luisa Miller, and Verdi’s Requiem during the upcoming 2017-18 Met season.
The new staging of Tosca opens on December 31, starring Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca, Vittorio Grigolo as Cavaradossi, and Bryn Terfel as Scarpia. TheJanuary 27 matinee will be transmitted live as part of the Met’s Live in HD series, which reaches more than 2,000 movie theaters in 73 countries around the world. For further information, including casting by date, please visit [Sir Bryn is the only original major-cast member left: Jonas Kaufmann was replaced because he couldn't commit to the rehearsal period and full run; Opalais...withdrew....Nelsons withdrew.]

Friday, July 07, 2017

Cahill / Harrison

Pianist Sarah Cahill is on a continuing her Lou Harrison Centennial tour. Here's concert info, and for Bay Area residents, note the wealth of local programs, starting tonight and continuing through January, 2018:

Old First Concerts
Friday, July 7, 2017 at 8pm
Old First Church | 1751 Sacramento St. | San Francisco, CA

Stenberg/Cahill/Winant Trio at Mendocino Music Festival
Tuesday, July 11, 2017 at 2:30pm
Preston Hall | 44867 Main Street | Mendocino, CA

Flower Piano at San Francisco Botanical Garden
July 22, 2017 at 2pm in the Exhibition Garden
San Francisco Botanical Garden | Golden Gate Park | Ninth Ave. at Lincoln Way

Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan at MIT Sounding
October 12, 2017
ICA Boston | 25 Harbor Shore Drive | Boston, MA

Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto at San Jose State University
October 17, 2017
San Jose State University | Music Concert Hall | San Jose, CA

Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan at Cleveland Museum of Art
October 20, 2017
Cleveland Museum of Art | 11150 East Blvd. | Cleveland, OH

Lou Harrison Centennial in Fukuoda
November 30, 2017
Fukuoka Arena Hall | 1-1-1 Tenjin, Chuo-ku | Fukuoka City

The New Music Conflagration
December 10, 2017
The St. Petersburg Main Library | 3745 9th Ave. North | St. Petersburg, FL

Ensemble New SRQ
December 11, 2017
First Congregational Church | 1031 South Euclid Avenue | Sarasota, FL

Accidental Music Festival
December 14, 2017
The Timucua Arts White House | 2000 South Summerlin | Orlando, FL

San Francisco Performances PIVOT Series
January 24, 2018
A.C.T.’s Strand Theater | 1127 Market Street | San Francisco, CA

New Music Miami
March 28, 2018
CARTA Miami Beach Urban Studios | 420 Lincoln Road | Miami Beach, FL

A Region Exhales: Mark Hanson Named ED of San Francisco Symphony

Brent Assink, longtime executive director of the San Francisco Symphony, announced last fall that he'd be leaving the post at the end of this season. And given how well he'd been doing the job, there was plenty of apprehension about who might step into the post, especially - at least on my part - after Allison Vulgamore, who did a pretty bad job at Atlanta and Philly, left her job at the latter.

So I sighed with relief when the press release announcing the new SFS ED dropped into my in-box a few minutes ago, even though I don't know much about Mark Hanson, who will succeed Assink. I will ask around about him, but here's the PR; note, especially, the section I put into boldface, which must have been a significant factor in why he was hired:

East Bay Friday Photo

View from Point Isabel Dog Park
October, 2016

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Donor Relations


In the wake of the 2017 presidential election, organizations such as the Sierra Club, Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU, and Planned Parenthood received lots and lots of donations from concerned citizens. (In my opinion, concerned for very good reasons that this year has only borne out.) For example, the ACLU got $24 million in one weekend following the announcement of the original Muslim travel ban.

I was among those who scattered some money around immediately after the election, that is, in November, 2016. I somehow thought that I was making an annual donation, and come the 2017 end-of-year donor season I'd get renewal notices from those organizations.

Imagine my surprise when I started getting renewal notices early in 2017. It turns out that at least some of the orgs I donated to don't do 12-month memberships. They do calendar year memberships. So my money counted for November X, 2016 to December 31, 2016.

I've been informing these organizations that their next donations will come on January 1, 2018 and I've suggested two things to them:

1. When you've got a giant windfall, extend everybody's memberships through December 31, 2017. 
2. If you're not going to do that, at least make it perfectly clear on your web site what period of time donations apply to.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

War Memorial Opera House Seat Replacement Project

If you sit in the Balcony or Balcony Circle for performances by SF Opera or SF Ballet, you were the first beneficiaries of the ongoing seat replacement project. It started in the summer of 2015, and....since then, no seats have been replaced.

I did some digging around in the minutes of the War Memorial board of trustees (it is wonderful what you can find with a Google search) and also asked the communications group at the War Memorial about the future. As of now, it seems that the orchestra seat replacement will take place in 2021. The dress circle and grand tier might be done in 2021, or might be done sooner.

A general groan. I had already heard from SFO that the orchestra section is hardest to do, though I can't remember exactly why, but oh the seats there - they vary in width, and they are all much too low. The dress circle seats are an unpleasant squeeze.

The new seats in the upper reaches are amazingly comfortable. Nothing can provide more leg room, but my back did not yell at me after Meistersinger in 2015, and the proof is in the pudding.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Lincoln Center White Light Festival

Lincoln Center announced its 2017 White Light Festival about ten days ago. As usual, there's some great stuff: cross-cultural music and dance, John Eliot Gardiner leading the three surviving Monteverdi operas, and many great concerts.

Over the course of a number of programs, musical settings of all of the Biblical psalms will be performed. It's a great concept, mixing old and new settings. Alas, I'm shocked at the tiny number of works composed by women that will be performed. What an opportunity missed; read the press release here.