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It seems to be all Rufus, all the time leading up to the première of Prima Donna on Friday Night (I’ve already taken note of things I anticipate will annoy me in press coverage of the event here.)

Last night BBC1 aired a documentary about Wainwright and his new composition, combining a quite thorough profile of his life and career thus far with some great footage of early Opera North rehearsals for the upcoming show.

A highlight was an interview with Renée Fleming, who was very complimentary towards Wainwright’s music and spoke out against the way opera is increasingly becoming a museum art form.

Wainwright spoke passionately about opera “his religion and saving grace”, and shared some hilarious videos of himself as a teenager acting out his favourite operas with his cousins.  In Tosca he played Scarpia and swept about narrating in an impeccable pantomime villain voice.

If you want to see an example of Rufus’ love of opera, google his video “April fools” (It’s not on youtube at the moment for some copyright reason or another).  It’s just one of his pop songs, but in the clip he gallivants around with several doomed opera herones, including Tosca, Cio-Cio San from Madama Butterfly and Mimi from La Boheme.

The program suffered from some of the usual hyperbole  “…we follow Rufus as he takes on his biggest challenge yet.  Creating from scratch a new opera” (as opposed to all those old operas he’s composed by running together advertising jingles), and excessive focus on his personal life and struggles with drug addiction.

As I’ll be reviewing Prima Donna on the weekend I might as explain how I came to be a fan of Rufus (the story of why I’m a fan of opera is a longer story that will have to wait for another day).

It starts with Bowie.  All good stories begin with David Bowie.  I was at a music shop and picked up a copy of Wainwright’s fourth album, Want Two, thinking it was David Bowie’s  The Man Who Sold the World. They do look pretty similar:

Bowie in a dress.

Bowie in a dress.

Rufus in a dress

Rufus in a dress

I eventually realised that it wasn’t some new release of Bowie, but bought the CD anyway and was very impressed by Rufus’ melodic, instrumental style.  I saw him play in Sydney early last year and was blown away by his performance on stage.

Now I’m not claiming that Rufus is going to win the prize for young-ish-musician-sort-of-like-Bowie (because I’ve already handed that prize out to someone who shares his interest in electronic music) but I think Rufus and Bowie have a similarly theatrical performance persona.

I’m not jumping to any conclusions about what sort of composer Wainwright will be.  I realise Prima Donna might not be any good.  At very least he seems to be passionate enough about the form to give it a really good shot – non-traditional composers have done opera really well before.

But I love new music, and can’t wait to get to Manchester and have a look.

OR: The Prima Donna drinking game.  Take a shot each time…

1) Wainwright himself  is described as a ‘diva’ or ‘prima donna’, and/or the plot of the opera is described as autobiographical.

2) The word ‘popera’ is used.

3) Confusion over why the libretto is in French/why Wainwright is not performing.

But I am very much looking forward to seeing it.

Prima Donna at the Manchester International Festival.

UPDATE: read my review here.

DSC03548.JPG

Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes tells the story of a misunderstood fisherman who just doesn’t seem to be able to keep hold of a decent apprentice.  The boys keep dying on him.  But Grimes is not really about fishermen or child abuse – it’s a story about the persecuted outsider, and music for the sea.

I saw the last show of the opera’s run, and so unfortunately missed out on seeing Stuart Skelton’s reportedly brilliant take on the title roll.  I’ve been lucky enough to spot Skelton in real life (backstage at a rehearsal of Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire in Sydney) and he is a very amiable man.  It’s great to see an Australian performer achieving such success overseas.  I doubt John Daszak was as strong as Skelton in the role – but I didn’t find that this interfered much with my enjoyment of the piece.  The role after all was originally written for Britten’s partner Peter Pears, who didn’t have great Wagnerian range like Skelton. The Act I aria ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’, apparently written on Pears’ only good note (E-natural a third above middle C) – was very beautifully performed by Daszak.

I have slight reservations about the ENO production.  Captain Balstrode (sung by the fantastic Gerald Finley of Doctor Atomic) was inexplicitly missing an arm.  Auntie (Rebecca de Pont Davies) cross-dresses in a vaudevillian tux.  Her two ‘nieces’ are dressed as identical school girls, who alternately pound the heads of their dolls into the ground and stroke each other’s thighs.  These drag and sideshow elements are intended to draw attention to the dance hall-esque parts of the score and evoke Kurt Weill.

This works to some extent, but it also interferes somewhat with the subtle way that more restrained productions of Grimes can make a very ordinary seaside village seethe with menace.  By making all the townspeople a little odd, the idea that  regular people are just as likely to be evil as those who stand out (like Grimes) is lost.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better minimal staging of an opera.  The main set pieces where three large benches, used to best effect piled up on each other to suggest Grimes’ cliff top hut.  The boy’s accidental death was brilliantly staged. A very strong production overall.


Peter Grimes
By Benjamin Britten

30/05/09
ENO at the London Coliseum

View

I’m a bit late in writing this up, but couldn’t let it go without a post (Yes, I actually like Yoko Ono).

About a week ago I took the train down to Newcastle to see the city and visit the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art to see the Yoko Ono retrospective.

I should start by saying that the Baltic is a fantastic gallery. Converted from a flour mill, there are lots of wide gallery spaces and a fantastic high ceilinged atrium on the top floor.

Before I get to talking about the exhibition, two caveats:

1)  People who think Ono broke up the Beatles generally don’t like her art.  If you are one of these people, I recommend you read my posts on more popular topics.  Like nude opera or Alan Rickman.

2)  Yoko Ono’s aesthetic is a bit twee and occasionally painfully earnest.  I like it.  Some of the artworks seem politically naive in 60s, long haired hippy sense.  But they are from the 60s, so you can take it in the spirit of the decade.

That is why my favourite works were the earlier ones.  The early 60s short poetry pieces like ‘Paintings’, ‘Play it by Trust’ the giant chess set with only white pieces (1966) “Chess set for playing as long as you can remember where all your pieces are”, ‘Cut Piece’ (1965) and  ‘Amaze’ (1971).

‘Cut Piece’ is a performance work filmed originally in 1965 and then again more recently where Ono sits on a stage and invites the audience to cut at her clothes with scissors.  ‘Amaze’ is a clear perspex maze.

The more recent work was generally less interesting, but had some highlights.  ‘Wish Tree’ is a fairly literal interpretation of the Shinto ritual where people tie strips of paper to branches to send prayers and wishes to the Kami within trees.
Here are some I saw visiting Japan a few years ago – in Tokyo:
Outside Tokyo

And in Kyoto:
Fushimi Inari-taisha

I took a sneaky picture of the wish tree in the Baltic exhibition (I’m all for artwork copyright protection, but I think the participation element justifies stealing a picture here):
Wish tree

I took note of some of the more interesting wishes:

“GANSTA [sic] 4 LIFE”

“I want a pony and a stable please”

“I wish I can get a 2nd upper in my law degree”

This one was funny:
Brian's favourite
The text reads: “I wish Patrick-wolf-boy would fall in love with me please x.”

Like Ono’s contribution to the LOVE exhibition I saw last year, the strength of these participatory works is in finding a concept engaging enough to actually get people writing heartfelt, sarcastic and occasionally absurd comments on little tags for the general public to read.  There were two other similar set ups: ‘My Mommy is Beautiful’ (blank canvases for messages of love to mothers) and ‘We are all Water’.  ‘We are all Water’ is a series of glass jars filled with water and  labelled with the names of historical figures (Gertrude Stein sits beside Groucho Marx and 50 cents [sic]) with a final blank jar with cards for visitors to write a name on.

A more interesting recent piece was ‘Helmet’, a development of one of her short poem works ‘A piece of sky’:

Take a piece of sky.
Know that we are
all part of each other.

‘Helmet’ is a small room full of upturned German World War II era helmets suspended from the ceiling, each full of jigsaw puzzle pieces like this:

Sky

Visitors are invited to take a piece of sky.  I like ‘Helmet’ because it was visually striking, and representing war accountability with hundreds of puzzle pieces that individual people hold is neat (I did warn you all it was going to be twee* at the start).

Baltic

*Apologies for the recent overuse of the word ‘twee’ – Unfortunately both a indie pop genre and an appropriate adjective here.

He kneels, grasps; and with strain slowly raises the chair higher and higher, getting to his feet now. RODOLPHO and CATHERINE have stopped dancing as MARCO raises the chair over his head.
MARCO is face to face with EDDIE, a strained tension gripping his eyes and jaw, his neck stiff, the chair raised like a weapon over EDDIE’s head – and he transforms what might appear like a glare of warning to a smile of triumph, and EDDIE’s grin vanishes as he absorbs his look.

A view from the Bridge

A View from the Bridge has a very interesting production history.  Miller based the play on the real-life story of a longshoreman who reported the refugees he was sheltering in his own home to the immigration authority when one of them proposed to his niece.

Miller had also spent time around the Mediterranean and wanted to create an American epic drama, avoiding conventions of realist theatre. The first draft of the play was written in verse, but was revised to prose on the advice of Peter Brook.  Surviving elements of Miller’s original epic structure can be seen in the use of the lawyer Alfieri as a semi-omniscient narrator.

I would love to get my hands on the original verse version.  I’ve only seen Bolcom’s opera adaptation before, and his musical production preserves the tone of the play very well.  But it would be great to compare the Bolcom’s libretto to the first version of the play.

The play in its current form was performed for the first time in London on the 11th of October 1956, at a Comedy theatre masquerading as a nightclub.  Due to the kiss between Eddie and Rodolpho in the second act public performance of the play in England had been banned.

This was a very good production.  I particularly enjoyed seeing Hayley Atwell play Catherine after seeing her in last year’s Brideshead Revisited film and the BBC’s ‘modern costume’ adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

A View from the Bridge is playing at Duke of York’s Theatre until the 16th of May.

A View from the Bridge
Arthur Miller.

Duke of York’s Theatre, London.
27/02/09

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