Wednesday, October 10, 2007

I have never consciously avoided opera

but somehow it took until 2007 for me to attend my first performance, at least a final dress rehearsal. Even then, incentives were required: a free ticket, and a storyline involving one of my favorite subjects: e.g., grilled meats, the poetry of Stephen Dunn, the Civil War.

Finally, with that third item, the right combination clicked into place.
By contrast, I do consciously and aggressively avoid musicals of all types (though I may make an exception for Spamalot). I should say, though, at times in my life I have been enamored of certain so-called "rock operas," such as Tommy, and Quadrophenia. When I was about 11-years-old, most of what I knew of the Christian gospels came from hours playing Jesus Christ Superstar LPs on the old Hi-Fi. Of course, I'm referring to the original, with Deep Purple lead singer Ian Gillan as Jesus Christ, not the later, subpar movie soundtrack.

But Appomattox was my first experience with an honest-to-goodness opera. By now you've probably gauged my qualifications for critiquing such a performance. This blog entry offers no expertisejust honest impressions. And maybe it's best that way. It was my expectation, based on snippets of exposure to televised opera, that the singing would be interesting, but unintelligible, and eventually tedious (mercifully, this was sung in English, with superscripts). I'm impressed that people can produce those voices, but I like a little action, too. And if I can't have a blind pinball prodigy, I'll take the burning of Richmond, punctuated by the low thunder of distant artillery.

I did not even have any pre-established opinions on Philip Glass's body of work. When Ranger Manny posted a Glass joke as a comment on this blog, I didn't get itthough plainly it had something to do with monotonous repetition. The show opened last Friday, and many of the paid critics have had their say. Dimitri, over at Civil War Bookshelf, has conveniently linked to a handful of those reviews here. As you might expect, the reviews were all over the board, though at a glance it looks like more negative commentary than positive.

For my part, I was pleasantly surprised. I was impressed. I was genuinely movedthe scene with Lincoln walking in Richmond, the combination of the music, the set, and the moment where he asks someone not to kneel to him, actually raised the hair on my arms and brought water to my eyes. All told, I only looked at my watch a couple times, tapping it to make sure the second hand was moving. Two and a half hours would have been easier to take had the bar been opena little pick-me-up at intermission goes a long way in wartime.

As mentioned in my last blog entry, the night started with a personal backstage tour, and that alone would have been worth braving rush hour traffic. The War Memorial Opera House is a spectacular building, and backstage is a wonderland of high-tech and classically traditional tools, equipment, shops, costumes and props. Here, I got my first view of Lincoln's coffin, along with uniforms, swords, the Lee and Grant tables, and even the "silent witness." The original Silent Witness is pictured at the top of this post (click on that photo, or read the story of rag doll herethe next photo below, with desk, shows the SF Opera witnessclick on image for a larger view). It's fascinating to me to see how much care goes into the details that many people in the audience will never notice.


I thought the musical score was powerful, but never distracting. It set just the right tone in some very dramatic scenes, and only on occasion did I find myself concentrating on the orchestra at the expense of the stage, so subtly did the music meld into and foster the emotional fluency of the scene. Emotional fluency? Well, I hope you know what I mean. I took notice of when the music seemed to be outside the scene, rather than a part of it.

The level of historical accuracy was remarkably high, and this surprised me the most. I had expected wanton artistic license, even to an absurd degreewas even braced for some over-the-top mythology. Instead, the libretto (a word I looked up a couple weeks ago) was pleasingly true to history. Details about Lee's decision to vacate the lines at Petersburg, the abandonment and destruction of Richmond, Lincoln walking the streets of the Confederate capital with a guard of sailors, Grant's pounding headache during the suspenseful exchange of correspondence with Leethe headache that went away as soon as Lee agreed to meet. All of this was faithful.

The back-and-forth baritone exchange between Lee and Grant, prior to the meeting at Appomattox, was sung virtually verbatim. I didn't expect that, since the messages themselves are hardly poetic. Initially I found this awkward, but after a time it struck me as increasingly powerful that documentary history served as the script. It was more than a little odd, I suppose, to go to my first opera not as an opera buff, but as a student of the Civil War who, coincidentally, had also made my first visit to Appomattox Court House earlier this year.

There are certain exchanges of correspondence in the O.R. that I have read and re-read because of the combination of historic import and language employed, like the Hood–Sherman correspondence when Sherman demands Atlanta be evacuated. And there is the Grant–Lee correspondence during Lee's retreat to Appomattox. One cannot write fictional correspondence that contains more momentous weight. I posted part of that exchange as a blog entry in April 2006, here. In the opera, this exchange is sung in heavy-hearted baritones by Grant and Lee in their headquarters tents, occupying opposite ends of the stage, while staffers study maps and couriers race back and forth. It was a clean and imaginative way to portray that brilliantly dramatic discourse.

Artistic license was relegated mainly to the female roles, Mrs. Lee, Mrs. Grant, Mrs. Lincoln, but their parts added another dimension to the war's denouement, and, in fact, reflected historic attitudes and tensions. Last March, during the Civil War Forum's Appomattox conference, Ed Bearss devoted an evening talk to the tensions between Julia Grant and Mary Lincoln in the waning days of the war, when they met on the James River. I will say that I found the angry wailings of Mrs. Lee to be jarring and unsettlingseemingly out of bounds with her all-but-invisible presence in Civil War narratives dealing with the events of April 1865. It piqued my curiosity, though, enough to look into it and see what, if anything, might have inspired that portrayal.

As someone who has long had an interest in Native American participation in the war, and having read all I could on Ely ParkerGrant's 3/4 Iroquois (Seneca) military secretaryI wondered if Glass's opera would include one of the most famous of all anecdotal stories from the McLean parlor. Sure enough, there it wasand what dramatist could resist? After Parker transcribed the surrender terms, Lee remarked, according to Parker himself, "I am glad to see one real American here," to which Parker allegedly replied, as he shook Lee's hand, "We are all Americans." As far as I know, Parker is the only source for this too-perfect exchange (recounted here at the Appomattox NHP website), and I don't fault Glass or Christopher Hampton (author of the libretto)it really is a good story, and I know of no one else in the room who may have discounted it. So good, I used it myself in the first magazine article I ever had published, a now-embarrassing piece on Ely Parker in the defunct Civil War magazine (incidentally, apparently all of the performance's literature misspells his name as "Eli").

One thing about the Ely Parker moment that I found odd is that there is no indication to audience members who haven't read a lot about the Civil War that Parker was part Indian, and decidedly so in appearance. So Lee's comment to him about a real or true American would hold little meaning to anyone who hadn't read that far. For the most part, the story line didn't rely on audience members to be particularly well versed in the subject.

Something that I had read about beforehand, and anticipated with some reservations, was the introduction of scenes jumping into the future to incorporate modern day civil rights struggles. I was afraid it might try to fit too many monumentally emotional dramas into one (McLean) parlor. And it was uncomfortable. Near the end, when a lone white man in a wheel chairEdgar Ray Killencame out to spew a white supremacist diatribe, I wondered if things might spiral out of control. But it held together, and in retrospect, the uncomfortable feeling of that scene effectively served to punctuate one of the legacies of the Civil War—the fact that emancipation and equality were two very different thingsin a way that would have been hard to deliver with something safer, or trite. To many people, I'm sure, those are the parts that will make this Civil War story relevant.

I should not end this without a few comments on the sets, etc. As mentioned, the costumes and props were spectacular, and had I had some of those fancy opera binoculars, it would have been impressive to note that the amputated limbs looked even more real in magnification. The setwork (is that an opera term? Should be) was stark, but effective, though the burning of Richmonda small line of flames on one end of the stagelooked more like someone was stoking coals for a tailgate party than it did the conflagration of cotton warehouses.

And those horses. Full-sized, bloody horses, ropes tied to their hind legs, hanging from the sky. I know they were meant to convey something about the carnage and horror of the Civil War, and there is something deeply disturbing about the slaughter of such huge beastsbeasts that were so emblematic of Civil War armies. But it just looked weird to me.

Go to this page and click on "Video Clips of Appomattox" for a taste. The more I remember this production, the more I'd like to see it again.


Kevin said...

Thanks for the review David. Very interesting.

Dixie Dawn said...

WOW!! Wish I could have seen this!! Your review was great, I find it most interesting as I am a musician and dance major, yes that whole musical it takes on a whole new twist for me with the subject matter.
I hope I get the chance to experience this myself...

dw said...

Thanks for the note, Dawn. This show ran until October 24th, I think. Hopefully, this isn't the last we'll hear of it.