There is something thrilling about the sound of an orchestra tuning. It’s a sound that announces the beginning of something magical. It draws me in, somehow simultaneously settling my mind and making my heart race.
I have yet to find anyone who agrees with me on this, but I stand by it. The ritual of dimmed lights, applause for the conductor, and then the sound of first the strings finding their A, then the other instruments joining in – it’s beautiful and intoxicating.
On Saturday, I went to the Lamplighters Musical Theatre’s performance of their reworked “Mikado,” titled “The NEW Mikado,” at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. This production makes a valiant and largely successful attempt at retaining the musical and narrative structure of the original operetta while addressing the racial and ethnic aspects of the original that are uncomfortable and distasteful to a modern audience. Their solution? Remove the entire story from the setting of the fictional and highly stylized setting of the Japanese town of Titipu, and place it instead in a fictional and highly stylized town called Tirmisu in the fifteenth-century duchy of Milan.
And you know what? It works. It really, really works. I loved it.
But as I sat in the darkened theater, listening to the orchestra tune and then play the familiar melodies of the late Victorian operetta, my mind couldn’t stop wandering to my own past.
“The Mikado” is incredibly important to me. Every time I have seen it or been involved with a production of it in any way, it leaves ripples of impact in my life.
In 1997 or 1998, my mother took me to see a production of “The Mikado” put on at Stanford University by their Gilbert and Sullivan Society, The Stanford Savoyards. I remember sitting enthralled through it, and still have snapshot memories of the two act finales. After that, we went to several of the Savoyards’ productions until in early 2002, I decided to audition to join the chorus myself. I was fifteen at the time, and the production staff made it clear that I was an exception to their usual rules about the age of participants. But that audition, and then being in the production, introduced me to a new part of myself. It was the most daring thing I had ever done, I felt, and took me to a world of magic and camaraderie that opened my eyes.
I won’t deny that I enjoyed being the petted youngest member of the company. It’s always nice to feel special. But more than that, I was treated as an equal member of the effort to bring the show to the stage. And really, I was only two or three years younger than some of the others, who were freshmen at Stanford.
It’s hard for me to explain the impact of those few months of rehearsal and performance. Desperate for approval and encouragement in my singing attempts, longing to feel like a valued member of a community engaged in a shared endeavor, I really think that joining the Savoyards in 2002 was a pivotal moment for me. The weeks I spent in rehearsal, performance, and social interaction with the Stanford students in the company proved to me that even without a 4.0 GPA, I could keep up with these students I viewed with some awe.
Being in “Mikado” in 2002 (and “The Sorcerer” that fall, and “The Gondoliers” in the spring of 2003) gave me the courage to apply to Stanford.
As I listened to the familiar music on Saturday, my mind kept going back to May of 2002, as I’d wait backstage for the entrance of the women’s chorus. We’d all bustle about, putting finishing touches to wigs, makeup, and costumes, and occasionally pausing to listen intently to the faint strains of music and dialogue coming through the backstage PA system, praying that the tenor and the trumpet were both having good nights as they approached the high notes.
I remember the movements backstage as a sort of dance, as we knew exactly when to step aside for Ed’s manic sprint offstage at one side and re-entrance on the other side for the next verse, or to make our way to the exact spots for our entrance. At times I remember some people quietly dancing in the wings, compelled to move by music and adrenaline.
In 1997, “Mikado” planted a spark of interest in trying the stage for myself. In 2002, it showed me that I could, in fact, belong at Stanford and find a community there. In 2005, it woke me up to the fact that I was no longer enjoying the theater experience.
And now, in 2016? I have only rarely gone near Gilbert & Sullivan in the past eleven years. The memory of the overwhelming and frightening rage and loss I felt as I saw my time with the Savoyards ending has to some extent tainted the memories of the magic and passionate love I had for the experience. I’ve even flinched away from the music itself.
Perhaps it’s been long enough now that I can start reclaiming that music. I feel no desire to get back onstage, and the only thing I regret about my decision to leave the Savoyards is how long it took me to accept the end of the era for me. It was a life lesson in “leave before you hate it.”
Except for those moments when I hear an orchestra tune. During those moments, as the lights dim and the familiar combination of instruments all seek harmony on their A, I find myself briefly in the velvet darkness of the wings, or the yellow light of the cramped, crowded dressing rooms in Dinkelspiel Auditorium. And for a moment, I miss it. But just for a moment. Then I let myself float away into the magic of theater.
The other day, while at work, I had a moment that still makes me feel all glowy with pleasure when I think about it.
Because I’m having so much trouble finding a more standard, formal position in a library or archive, I’m freelancing as an archivist, helping out with family papers, personal collections, etc., for private clients.
One of these jobs is at the client’s office, which is shared with another person. We’ll call my client A and the other person B.
A is rarely in the office when I am, but B comes in and out while taking care of other duties. This past week, B had a visit from a client, and after greeting him, B said “That’s A’s librarian working. Why don’t we meet out here?”
Librarian. It’s such a simple thing, really, but because I haven’t yet held a professional position in a library or archive (though I have had a few short-term positions for other institutions since graduating), I haven’t actually overheard myself described as a librarian or an archivist. B said it in passing, and after they left the room, I stood there, smiling, and just enjoying it for a few seconds.
And it’s at that point that I realized that the moment was even better. I had my headphones on, and the music on shuffle. The song that came on during all of this was a song by the Wailin’ Jennys called “Heaven When We’re Home.” It was one of those instances when the perfect song comes on. It’s about feeling like everything you’ve tried has been a dead end, and you can’t see into the future further than your own nose. It’s about feeling tired and worn down by the struggle, but continuing to struggle anyway because what else is there to do? You have to keep believing that you’ll find what you’re looking for so that you don’t get completely swallowed up by despair. And when you find it, you’ll be able to set down your burdens and rest for a while.
“Heaven When We’re Home”
and I’m too tired to sleep
I call my mother on the phone, she wasn’t home,
and now I’m wondering the street
I’ve been a fool, I’ve been cruel to myself
I’ve been hanging onto nothing
when nothing could be worse than hanging on
And something tells me there must be
something better than all this
it’s been with the wrong man
Still I’m out there living one day at a time
and doing the best I can
‘Cuz we’ve all made mistakes
that seem to lead us astray
But every time they helped to get us where we are today
And that’s a good a place as any
and it’s probably where we’re best off anyway
and we don’t know where it’s headed
But we know it’s going to get us where we’re going
And when we find what we’re looking for
we’ll drop these bags and search no more
‘Cuz it’s going to feel like heaven when we’re home
It’s going to feel like heaven when we’re home
and if there is we’ll find it when we’re good and dead
Trust me I’ve been looking
but tonight I think I’ll go and take a bath instead
And then maybe I’ll walk a while
and feel the earth beneath me
They say if you stop looking
it doesn’t matter if you find it
And who’s to say that even if I did
it’s what I’m really looking for
and we don’t know where it’s headed
But we know it’s going to get us where we’re going
And when we find what we’re looking for
we’ll drop these bags and search no more
‘Cuz it’s going to feel like heaven when we’re home
It’s going to feel like heaven when we’re home
The King’s Speech (Best Picture, 2010)
If you ask me, THE KING’S SPEECH is not just the best picture of 2010 but arguably the best film of the past ten years. It’s inspirational, moving, funny, and uncomfortable by turns. By the end of the film we are like those listening to the speech of the title, silently willing Bertie to make it through the announcement that England is at war with Germany.
One of the things I like about the film is the gentle but firm touch it has when handling the political upheaval. Even those not familiar with the problems surrounding Edward VIII and the subsequent crisis of his abdication are quickly aware that he is not really suited to the position created for him by tradition, culture, and world events. It’s not that he wouldn’t have been able to lead (at least, he was brought up to do so), but that he was fundamentally unsuitable for the time, place, and environment in which he was called upon to lead. Guy Pearce’s performance is nuanced, which is not always easy to do with a character who is unappealing in fiction and in history. On the other hand, the world should probably be grateful that Edward VIII was selfish enough to choose Wallis Simpson over his inherited duty. As a Nazi sympathizer, his kingship would have led the world in a very different direction in the 1930s and 1940s.
The film appeals in great part because of the portrayal of the three main characters. Bertie (Colin Firth) appeals to us because he is the quintessential reluctant leader, unaware of his own capability to lead and inspire, but forced by circumstance to step up. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) is a refreshing whiff of common sense. It’s appropriate that Lionel should be obsessed with Shakespeare, since Lionel speaks truth to power in much the same way that Shakespeare’s fools can. The Fool can tell the king what he needs to hear rather than what he wants to hear because of his position as a clown. And third, of course, is Elizabeth, Bertie’s wife, whose unflagging support for and protection of her husband is one of the reasons Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother was one of the most popular members of the royal family up to her death at age 101. It’s nice to see Helena Bonham-Carter in a non-crazy role to remind us that she’s a remarkably gifted actress capable of a variety of character types.
I must finally bring up the brilliant use of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92, Movement 2 in that final scene where Bertie delivers that important speech. Lionel stands silently before him as a sort of conductor. The music is sad and grand and full of determination, as is the speech, and the two perfectly fit together in their pacing. Bertie’s generation, having witnessed the horrors of WWI, were appalled at the idea that Hitler’s government would contemplate another massive conflict. Many were unwilling to believe it was possible. The broadcasted speech of George VI, announcing to the nation and the Commonwealth that they were once again at war with Germany was necessarily sad, grand, and full of determination.
The Artist (Best Picture, 2011)
It’s interesting to me that THE ARTIST is classified as a comedy, while actually THE KING’S SPEECH is funnier and yet still considered a drama. THE ARTIST has comedic moments, certainly, and it’s about actors trying to create comedic films, but I think it’s much closer to a drama.
I kind of wish this project had ended with THE ARTIST – 2011’s films included more than this one love letter to cinema. Think of HUGO, which also showed the destruction of careers that happened with the introduction of sound, and gloried in the extraordinary imagination of Georges Melies. Then there was the nod to GONE WITH THE WIND in THE HELP, and MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, about the filming of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL.
THE ARTIST and THE KING’S SPEECH may not seem to go that well together at first glance, but they have a lot more in common than one might think. Both are about a public figure tossed by the waves of circumstance into an arena of sound that he does not understand. Both are about the end of an era. Bertie’s life and world changes fundamentally with the abdication of his older brother, while THE ARTIST’s George Valentin is shoved aside by a new technology, exacerbated by his own stubborn refusal to change his approach to work. Both Bertie and Valentin have to learn to set aside their pride and admit they need someone else’s help to succeed once again.
Maybe it’s the clothing of the era in which their similarly-themed films are set, but I can’t be the only one to notice the striking resemblance between Gene Kelly and Jean Dujardin. THE ARTIST is the dramatic version of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. In some ways it is a blend of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and the flashback sections of HUGO, in which Melies’ career collapses and he burns everything associated with his film studio, negatives included.
I’m trained as a librarian, archivist, and historian. It just about breaks my heart to think of all the films produced in the silent era that were destroyed by inattention or the devastation of this new world of sound. THE ARTIST has comical moments, for sure, but it should not be classified as a comedy. At most it’s a “dramedy” but really, it’s a drama with comedic moments. Just because a film contains a lot of people smiling and dancing in shiny dresses doesn’t mean it’s a comedy. Just because a film ends with the main characters happy again doesn’t mean it’s a comedy. To be a comedy it needs to be, y’know, funny. THE ARTIST is a heartbreaker.
Next Up: Argo (Best Picture, 2012)
I can’t explain why, but today as I was hanging my laundry on the line, this song popped into my head:
I haven’t thought about this song in ages! It used to be that I could do most of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” by heart, and I still know most of the words to “On the Steps of the Palace” if I stop to think about it.
Just wanted to share a fun song performed by the lovely Kim Crosby, who originated the Cinderella role on Broadway back in the early 90s. I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about it, just that it was always one of my favorites of the show and often gets overlooked in favor of more popular songs in “Into the Woods.” There’s the title song, of course, but more frequently I notice people breaking into impromptu performances of “Agony” (either rendition) or “Children Will Listen.”
SUCH a good show. Sondheim’s a genius, but we all knew that. If you haven’t seen “Into the Woods” go to netflix, your local library, or your local musical theater geek and ask to borrow their dvd of the performance starring Kim Crosby, Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien, and Robert Westenburg. Do it because it’s awesome, and because the proposed 2014 film starring such big names as Johnny Depp, Christine Baranski, and Meryl Streep have a hell of a lot to live up to… though I will say the prospect of Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Pine as the princes already makes me giggle with glee.
I’d like to admit something that may come as a surprise, given my postings for National Poetry Month last year and this year.
I don’t read poetry. Not really. Other than a brief foray into Edmund Spenser’s “Faerie Queene” this fall and an equally short glance at Shakespeare’s sonnets a little further back, I haven’t sat down to read a poem since junior year of college when I read Seamus Heaney’s translation of “Beowulf.”
The poetry I encounter most comes with music attached. And so, for the rest of National Poetry Month, I’m going to post favorite song lyrics. Some were written to be songs from the start, while others began as traditional poems and found themselves set to music later on.
I’d like to begin with one of the latter type, a poem/song that is now often found in Jewish services and prayerbooks.
Hanna Szenes was a freedom fighter and partisan during World War II. In 1944 she and some compatriots parachuted into Yugoslavia to help rescue Hungarian Jews from being deported to Auschwitz. She was arrested at the Hungarian border, imprisoned, tortured, and eventually executed by firing squad. Her diaries and other writings have been published and some have been widely used, including the poem I’m featuring today. In fact, this poem is used to close some versions of SCHINDLER’S LIST.
- אלי, אלי, שלא יגמר לעולם
- החול והים
- רשרוש של המים
- ברק השמים
- תפילת האדם
Eli, Eli, Shelo yigamer l’olam:
Rishrush shel hamayim
- My God, My God, I pray that these things never end,
- The sand and the sea,
- The rush of the waters,
- The crash of the Heavens,
- The prayer of Man.
When I was little and people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I only ever had two responses. When I was very small, I said I wanted to be an artist. That ended when I discovered that I really don’t have any drawing talent. And yes, I know there are other kinds of artists. At age 6 that was pretty much a dealbreaker.
As I got older, I said I wanted to teach. The kind of teaching changed every few years. It’s only been in the past six years that I realized I said I wanted to teach for one reason: I’ve never been able to envision myself outside of school. Other kids said they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, athletes, writers, musicians… I simply found it impossible to imagine myself in a situation that didn’t involve education.
There have been times in the past year when I wondered if I went to library school for the same reason, that I just couldn’t imagine myself outside of school but since I don’t want to teach, the library is the logical choice. Maybe that’s true, but it’s also true that I have an aptitude for the work involved in the daily functions of an academic library or archives.
This year one thing has kept me determined to finish the MLIS degree. This project has continually reminded me that I’m good at this, and that I like it. The classes involved in a library degree may not always hold my attention, they may seem to have questionable relevance, or they may be based entirely on theoretical propositions. The practical, hands-on work, though. I’m good at that, and I like it, which is even better.
The project to which I refer started with a promotion on Twitter. Last summer, I emailed in time and won a pair of free tickets to a Chanticleer concert at Mission Santa Clara. I had to arrive early to pick them up from will call, and while waiting for the concert to begin, I was approached by someone who identified herself as Chanticleer’s new development director. In the course of the conversation, I asked jokingly if the group was looking for a librarian.
A few weeks later I got this email:
You can imagine how excited I was at the chance to work directly for a choir organization I had worshiped from afar for so long!
I ended up as a designer of the Memory Lane exhibit at the 35th Anniversary Gala for Chanticleer, which took place last night. I wasn’t the sole designer – I’d say Joe, my primary contact at Chanticleer deserves a massive amount of the credit – but my part was not insignificant.
Of course there were frustrating times. I was working on this from a thousand miles away, so I had no access to the materials and anything I sent out went off into the blue yonder. And the project went through several iterations of scope, scale, and layout before we ended up with the final result.
But yesterday, putting everything together and up on the walls at the San Francisco Music Conservatory, I felt nothing but pride in the accomplishment. An idea I’d had in the summer turned out to be the primary focus for the exhibit, and the physical layout of that part was (almost) entirely done by me.
On one wall we posted a world map with dots stuck on all the places Chanticleer has toured, surrounded by magnetic poetry-style statistics (110 men, 3 women, 1 million records sold, etc.), and tour posters from around the world and through the years.
My idea, however, covered three walls. In previous anniversaries, Chanticleer has turned to the music critics and the regular audience members for testimonials. This time, I suggested, ask the singers. Get their stories, their memories, their favorite moments of chaos or perfection. Get their insight into what it means to be part of Chanticleer.
So that’s what we did. We ended up with about a dozen stories that encompassed a wonderful variety of eras and themes, from accidentally setting stage curtains on fire, to tour bus breakdowns, to those shimmering moments of musical perfection that reduce an audience to silent tears. And scattered among the stories I posted photographs at random, not labeled or captioned. I love the power that a simple photograph can have, and adding text to them seemed like it would diminish the effect. It was like a montage, mixing up the years and the groups, mixing the serious photos of performing, teaching, and rehearsing with less formal ones that show the close bonds between these talented men. One of my favorites is a recent photograph, a little blurry, from the last concert of a Christmas season. Clearly punchy with exhaustion and euphoria, a group of men cluster around a scrawny Christmas tree decorated with green room rubbish, like soda cans and M&M wrappers.
The concert portion of the evening ended with the current group inviting all alumni to the stage to join them in what has become a signature piece: Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria.” It wasn’t anywhere close to the full 110 Chanticleer singers over the years, but the swelled ranks maybe added up to 30 or 40 men.
As they sang, the delicate harmonies made more vibrant and clear by the added voices, I found myself remembering the months of research and work. I remembered lists of names, dates, and voice parts. I thought about the fat binders bulging with carefully labeled concert programs dating back to the late 1970s. I remembered the piles of unidentified, unsorted photographs and those silent, motionless faces captured on film.
It sounds like I’m romanticizing, but I’m really not. I sat there, listening to the music swell with longing and devotion, and in my mind names and images flicked past, almost too fast to see. And I admit that at the end of the piece my eyes were watery and my throat was tight.
A lot of people thanked me effusively for my work and what I helped to create last night, but I felt as though I ought to thank them. Chanticleer helped me hold onto the love of singing since I started high school, and in the past year they also helped me hold onto the reason for my current path.
I wish they had the funding to take on a full-time archivist. I feel like I could do some good there. Whether I ever return or not, though, they gave me a wonderful gift, and I’m sad that it’s over.
Amadeus (Best Picture, 1984)
Thanks to my high school choir director, I have seen AMADEUS more than any other film in the Best Picture lineup. It’s possible I’ve seen AMADEUS more than any other film period, but I don’t care to spend the time considering all the options.
When I first saw it, I didn’t like it. But with every successive viewing, the film has grown in my estimation. I think now that perhaps my dislike came from the disjointed viewing that comes from watching a three-hour movie in forty-five minute chunks over the course of a week. It was hard to get involved in it, and all I could see was the immature obscenity of Mozart and the spiteful resentfulness of Salieri.
But this film grows on me in much the same way that Mozart’s music has grown on me. I used to be all about the great Baroque composers like Handel and Bach, and while I still love their music for its precision, organization, and florid embellishment, I find myself increasingly drawn to the soaring arcs of the Classical period.
On the back of the AMADEUS DVD case, there is a comment from a reviewer saying that AMADEUS is “as close to perfection as movies get.” I must say I have to agree, especially if one watches the director’s cut, as I have done. I’ve seen the theatrical release enough times to know which 20 minutes have been restored to the film, and they add. At one point in the film, Salieri remarks that Mozart’s music manuscripts are perfect – shift one note and it is diminished. This film is remarkably like that. The theatrical release is brilliant. Adding in scenes originally cut is risky, and could have caused the film to drag at moments, but instead it moves along with the smooth confidence of one of Mozart’s own compositions.
At heart, AMADEUS is about basic emotions of life – envy, arrogance, desperate seeking for parental approval, and the struggle to have faith in a just God. As I watched the film this time, I started to wonder about the choice of name. It’s based on a play by Peter Shaffer of the same name, which is in turn based on a play (Mozart i Salieri) from 1830 by Alexander Pushkin. The film could have been called “Mozart” or “Wolfgang” but they went with Mozart’s middle name, Amadeus.
“Amadeus” means “God’s love,” a name especially appropriate for the film. Told from the point of view of perfectly competent but not genius composer Antonio Salieri, much of the film revolves around Salieri’s childhood plea and pledge to God for the gift of music. If God will give him the gift of composition so that His glory may be expressed through music, Salieri will dedicate himself to virtuous behavior of all kinds. Then Mozart, this filthy-minded, spoiled young man appears on the Viennese music scene, and Salieri’s faith in a just God is destroyed. How can such an extraordinary gift of music, a gift Salieri sees as a clear sign of God’s love, be given to this man?
I think many of us struggle with something similar, though it is rarely so destructive as it appears in AMADEUS. There is a skill or a quality we long to have, and we work ourselves to the bone trying to achieve our goal. Then someone shows up for whom it comes as easily as breathing, gaining accolades and praise for something that is natural while all our hard works leaves us in second place.
Not all Best Pictures are created equal. Sometimes one film will appear in which every participant, from director to stars to the people who hang tracing paper on windows to diffuse the light, hit some kind of collective sweet spot and create a work of art that defies description. AMADEUS is firmly in this category.
Out of Africa (Best Picture, 1985)
Mmmmm… Robert Redford before he became made of leather….
So, imagine it’s 1914 and you’re a well-bred white woman accompanied by African servants, trekking across a hostile wilderness full of potential threats from man and wildlife. What kind of MORONS don’t post guards at night?! Yeesh.
I liked OUT OF AFRICA more than I expected to, in spite of moments that smack of the self-martyring vapidity of BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (he’s wild… untamed…. if I love him, I have to set him free… true, perhaps, but it always sounds stupid when said aloud.)
For all that Karen (Meryl Streep) is very much a privileged white woman in a British colony (or soon-to-be-colony), and displays the slightly patronizing kindness of her type towards the Kikuyu tribespeople living and working on her farm, she is remarkably sympathetic. We feel for her, taking on the challenges of this new world that might as well be on another planet from her native Denmark. She struggles with feelings for the man she married for convenience, and who routinely strays, which lead her to contract a bad case of syphilis – extremely dangerous in that time. Karen’s treatment requires her to return to Denmark and undertake a series of a medication that is apparently mostly arsenic. In other words, it’s the chemotherapy of her day.
I think the real star of this film is the cinematography. The images of Africa, both close ups and long shots, are remarkable, and the movements and foci of the camera views make the audience into a third, silent character sitting at the table with Karen and the other characters.
OUT OF AFRICA is much slower than AMADEUS, but that’s kind of the point. According to the Wikipedia article on the film, the director and producers of OUT OF AFRICA intentionally pulled that slowness from the autobiographical work on which the film is based.
This time around we’ve had love of God and love of man. Quite a good double bill, actually.
Next Up: Platoon (Best Picture, 1986) and The Last Emperor (Best Picture, 1987)