Monday, October 31, 2011

Xerxes in San Francisco - Thunder in the Pleasure Garden

This is the programme note I wrote for the production of Xerxes at San Francisco Opera.

Xerxes was one of the last operas Handel wrote for the London opera scene, of which he had been a central figure for some twenty-seven years. Not surprisingly, the music reflects the city at the time – poised and elegant; at times astonishing in its emotional depth and purity; often urbane, ironic, even jazzy; occasionally exotic and a little strange. Our production frames the machinations and passions of the characters within a world that seems most clearly to capture that characteristic complexity of tone: the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

In 1738, under the management of Jonathan Tyers “Undertaker of the Entertainment there”, the Gardens were the centre of fashionable London. They also expressed the city’s reaching out to a wider world. This was the age of early imperialism, of the Grand Tour, and of the first museum collections. Tyers gathered exotic artifacts from warmer climes, showing a particular obsession with the Middle East – a region considered at once fascinating and dangerous, from whence came such innovative fashions as coffee drinking and umbrellas. He also commissioned the French sculptor Louis François Roubiliac to create a statue of Handel himself, which was unveiled in the Pleasure Gardens just as Xerxes was performing at the Haymarket Theatre.

An anonymous Irish gentlemen visiting Vauxhall wrote: “The garden strikes the eye prodigiously; it is set with many rows of tall trees, kept in excellent order, among which are placed an incredible number of globe lamps, by which it is illuminated, and when they are lighted the sound of the music ravishing the ear, added to the great resort of company so well dressed and walking about, would almost make one believe he was in the Elysian fields. In the middle of the garden are two semicircles which appear like an amphitheatre, in which are placed a great number of small booths which may contain about six or eight people apiece, where they commonly refresh themselves with sweetmeats, wine, tea, coffee, or suchlike. The backs of these boxes or booths are adorned with curious paintings, all which are enlightened to the front with globes. They are all numbered, and very just attendance is given by a vast number of warders kept for that purpose. Near to this is a grand orchestra, where the music plays in fine weather; but this night the concert was held in a magnificent hall neatly furnished. At one side of the orchestra is a noble statue of Handel. The music no sooner began than we entered the hall, where fifty-four musicians performed. Mr. Lowe soon sang, whose character I need not here mention, and after him the inimitable Miss Burchell.”

With Handel’s music running through my head this morning, I went for a walk in Golden Gate Park. And here, in the city where we are recreating the opera, was another Vauxhall. Here were the neo-classical pavilions and follies; here were the shrines of art, with busts of writers and composers appearing through the trees; here were the museums and galleries, the coffee houses and the concerts. Here were botanical specimens from overseas put on display for education and delight; here was the fascination with an exoticized and economically colonized Asia. Perhaps contemporary San Francisco is closer to Handel’s London than it may at first appear.

Handel, I am sure, would have recognized the city’s famous queer culture. Although there is no conclusive evidence that he was gay, it was very unusual for an 18th century man to remain unmarried, and even more unusual for all his close friends to be other unmarried men. Certainly he took great delight in the gender-bending possibilities presented by the form of baroque opera. The role of Xerxes was originally sung by the famous castrato Caffarelli, and Arsamenes by a female soprano, “The Luchesina”. I suspect our reversal of the genders of the singers playing these royal brothers would not have perturbed him. Some of the most expressive music is reserved for the cross-dressed Amastris, whose tessitura is so low that in the final ensemble it is she who takes the tenor line. The conventions of gender are blurred. Identity, certainty, becomes brittle and impermanent. Like performance – it delights and then disappears.

The replica of Roubiliac’s statue on the stage tonight does not say “Handel” on its base, but “Timotheus”. Timotheus was the court musician to Alexander the Great; and in 1735 Handel had set John Dryden’s poem Alexander’s Feast, which describes Timotheus playing through the night in Xerxes’ palace at Persepolis, to celebrate Alexander’s victory over the Persian Empire. Alexander then razed the palace of Xerxes to the ground.

Any Pleasure Garden holds within it the seeds of its own destruction.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

California Culture

Opera rehearsals thin out towards the opening (which is tomorrow), so I've had a bit of time over the last few days to check out some of the cultural offerings in the Bay Area. It's a very rich place culturally - tons going on - though it helps to have a few dollars to spare if you want to catch a lot of it! Nice to get a few invitations.....

I was at the Closing Night of the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival, which was Andres Veiel's If Not Us, Who - about the Red Army Faction, and in particular Gudrun Ensslin. I remember being very struck by her centrality when I watched The Baader-Meinhoff Complex a while ago. That film was very strong as a chronological account - it simply stated what happened, and left you to deal with it. Veiel, by way of contrast, begins to undertake the difficult task of exploring why it happened. To begin with, I was a bit concerned that we might be in for the pat Freudian explanation: Veiel's degree is in psychology, and the film begins with Bernward Vesper's father shooting his son's pet cat. It looks like another "if only the parents had loved them" film. But then, Veiel brilliantly shifts the ground, as the father tells Bernward that cats are "the Jews of the animal world". The issue is not pat psychology: it's living with the legacy of Nazism. In a stunning moment later in the film, the adult Bernward is told by his mother that his pro-Nazi father only agreed to have children because Hitler was urging Germans to breed. His very existence is the result of the Nazi era. Gudrun's father, perhaps even more strikingly, was a pastor who knew that the regime was evil, but still served in its army. Much of the film is about the disappointment younger people feel with older generations who they feel to be compromised. Powerful stuff in the time of the "Occupy" movement.

David Mamet's latest play, Race, is at the ACT in San Francisco. I had hoped to see the sophisticated and gritty kind of work expected from Mamet - and I confidently predict that when Race gets its UK premiere it will be hailed as doing for race what Oleanna did for gender politics (whatever that was). In fact, Mark Lawson has already done as much when he reviewed the New York production. Well - to my mind, it was a truly repulsive play - and I do not use such terms lightly of an art-form I love. Yes - it was certainly topical - more so since the Strauss-Kahn case, which it echoes, or even foretells, in a number of striking ways. But the underlying point Mamet seems to be making is that questions around historical and current inequalities are being allowed to get in the way of "business success" - and that, apparently, would never do. Mamet, the programme note proudly explains, has announced his "conversion" (note the religious wording) to the Republican right, and published "The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, his 200-page pledge of allegiance to conservatism." The law firm where the play is set is "sold out" by a clerk, who is young, female, and black. And a cipher of a character. She manipulates the firm into defending a white man accused of raping a black woman, and then engineers the case so that he is sure to be convicted, against the best efforts of the tough-talking Mamet-style lawyers. Frankly, it smacks of White Supremacism to me.

The contrast with the piece I saw last night in Berkeley could not be greater. Desdemona is directed by our Patron, Peter Sellars, so I will confess to a certain bias born of long friendship - but it is a very deep and necessary antidote to the poison which Race embodies. Scripted by Toni Morrison, with music by the Malian Rokia Traoré, the piece is a response to Othello, following the central female character into an after-life, and allowing her to probe her actions, and Othello's too, and to search for solutions beyond literal or emotional violence between races, or between sexes. Rokia's music is incredibly beautiful - you can get an idea of it here - and Peter's production provides a contemplative space in which you can listen to every nuance of that sound, and to every weighted word of the slim, poetic text. Rokia embodies the figure of Barbary - Desdemona's mother's maid, who died singing the Willow Song. In Renaissance England, "Barbary" meant "Africa" - so the conceit of this piece is that Desdemona was brought up by a black woman, who died - and that this makes sense of her attraction to Othello. In the play, Desdemona and Barbary meet in the world of the dead, and begin a process of negotiation, of working through histories and difficulties, of searching for common language. The end hints at some kind of reconciliation, without stating it in naive or evangelical terms.

There's a sentence in the text that really struck me very powerfully. I'm writing it down from memory, so it may not be totally accurate - but it's close enough for you to see how clearly this tells us where we are:

"If we have not achieved
the passionate peace
that we desire,
it is because we have not
imagined it."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Red, Black and GREEN: a Blues

This is not an easy piece of theatre to write about: but the best theatre rarely is. When theatre is most powerful, effective and meaningful, it's because it is doing something that could not be done in any other way. It is communicating something very pure through the presence of the live performance.

Red, Black and GREEN: a Blues
, which I saw last night at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Arts Centre, is a performance which fuses narrative and poetry, character, dance, video, music, hip-hop, blues, and a sculptural set in many ways more akin to museum than theatre. For the first half hour, the audience walks around the set, which starts off looking like a contained house (or shack), and slowly splits into four separate spaces. There are also four performers (the creative artist himself, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the set designer who also sings the blues, a musician and a wonderful actress-dancer-singer called Traci Tolmaire), four seasons around which the piece is structured, and four locations, of which more anon. The performers are very active during this first section, including a speech by the sculptor-singer Theaster Gates (some of which is in the video here), which amounts to an artistic manifesto for the whole project. The next hour has the audience seated, and uses the range of art-forms to tell a series of related stories which have arisen from the lengthy process of the piece's development - in Oakland, Houston, Chicago and New York.

In each case, the company has gone into the community, and especially the black community. Marc has engaged with these communities through his eco-arts festivals (remind you of anything?), and has asked questions around what sustainability actually means in these poorer neighbourhoods. The relationship between the green movement and black politics is explored and problematised - especially in relation to the construction of Africa as an unspoilt green space. Marc talks about meeting a Sudanese woman who lost her son in the war there. He also talks about his own visit to the Sudan. In the week of Gaddafi's death and the accompanying awareness of a new colonialism on the African continent, this was salutary stuff.

I could go on and on about this piece, and about its significance beyond the moment of performance itself. It reminds me of Ngapartji Ngapartji in the way it brings the community engagement very directly into performance, and allows the performance to operate in a very direct dialogue with community. It practices what it preaches (the set is made of re-cycled materials, and much of the power is from solar batteries). It is art which envisions a better future. Which is what art is for.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Chez Panisse

One of the great things about being in San Francisco is the wealth of good food - and last night David Fielding and I sampled the best of the lot - the famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Alice Waters (pictured) set this place up back in the 70s, and now it's so famous that you have to reserve your table a month ahead. I first heard about Alice and the restaurant from Peter Sellars, who brought her over to Vienna as part of his New Crowned Hope Festival there. Our waiter last night turned out to know Peter very well - he eats at Chez Panisse whenever he's in the Bay Area (which I guess will include next week). Some of the ideas which Alice brought to that Festival have been very influential on the way we've integrated food and ideas about food into the Origins Festival, particularly with Joy Fenikowski's fantastic Māori food at our opening event.

One of the most crucial aspects of Chez Panisse is the politics of its food. Everything is locally sourced, everything is sustainably grown, everything is organic, everything is fresh. In fact, I could not believe just how fresh my zucchini salad starter tasted. Or how tender the roast lamb was: the menu pointed out the nearby ranch where it was farmed. This approach to food has always been the way with indigenous peoples, and so has the time taken to eat the meal and its central role in social exchange. You feel that in the restaurant too. Chez Panisse is right at the centre of the worldwide Slow Food Movement, and I would like Border Crossings to be there too.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ten Years On

I've been in the US for the last ten days, directing Xerxes for San Francisco Opera. It's very striking how, ten years after the event, the country is still so dominated by the events of 9/11. At the recent talk I did for Central with Geoff Colman and Maya Zbib, we talked about how the arts take time to absorb and respond to major historical events - Geoff said it was about a decade before the German theatre engaged with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Maybe it's the same here - 2011 is the moment when America takes stock of its moment of trauma.

The responses are very varied, though. I've encountered two since I've been here. The first was the opera company's production Heart of a Soldier (pictured). This is a huge new opera, which is clearly attempting to construct itself as the great piece of the moment, and is also trying to engage directly with politics. It's the life story of Rick Rescorla, a soldier in the US army (though originally English), who became a security manager at the World Trade Centre, and died in the attacks. The piece is very much about the "ordinary hero" and his sacrifice - the problem with it is that there's no sense of the context in which his heroics take place. He serves in Zimbabwe and Vietnam, but there are no African or Asian characters on the stage, and the wars all seem to blend into one. There is a Muslim character (Rick's best friend Dan Hill became a Muslim, and there is a strong moment when Islamic music portrays the religion as a real calling for him) - but even so Islam features only as an ideology of the Other (and seems to have very little effect on Dan, who you would think might have been very disturbed by his best friend being killed by his co-religionists). There is no sense of why anybody, Muslim or otherwise, might wish to attack America; and so the audience is invited to unite in mourning, rather than look for solutions. Perhaps the very public and emotive form of American opera is incapable of a more nuanced response, at least at this distance - we're still waiting for an American company to be brave enough to stage The Death of Klinghoffer in the 21st century. As the performance began, the audience stood to sing the Stars and Stripes, as a vast projected flag fluttered on the front-cloth.

By way of contrast, I've just finished reading Amy Waldman's remarkable novel The Submission. Unlike the opera, the novel does not focus on a victim, and so avoids sentimentality. Rather, it looks at the complex question of how the survivors should best deal with the events, and with the process of mourning. It asks how America can best re-define itself in the light of the attacks and their aftermath. It also manages to do this without launching any diatribes against Bush's foreign policy. The basic premise, that the architect of the winning entry in a competition to design a memorial for the victims turns out to be a Muslim, is of course counter-factual (the real architect is a London born Israeli-American, which leads to intriguing speculation in itself - why did this not lead to any controversy of the kind unleashed in the novel?). Waldman's premise allows her to take in a wide cross-section of American society, including the crucial figure of a Muslim widow, an illegal immigrant, whose husband was a cleaner in the Towers. It's a subtle, sophisticated piece of work, which challenges America to make sense of its own multiculturalism, and to redefine its global role in the light of the need for intercultural dialogue.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Zeynep's internship

This is the team in the office, including Aike and Zeynep, our two interns. Zeynep, from Turkey, finished her internship this week, and here's what she had to say about it:

"I arrived in London for my internship in the middle of the Origins Festival. So I took my part in it. I have seen how things work in such a big event. I had a chance to meet a lot of indigenous artists and see their work, and they were amazing. But the most important thing I learned during the festival is that it is actually possible to help indigenous cultures to present themselves to other cultures without being 'authentic' or 'nostalgic'. I have seen how indigenous cultures live and how they are affected by other cultures; which made me realise that cultures which are not 'modernised' or 'globalised' are the ones closest to human spirit. It was so intimate that I felt like I will be able to see the ropes connecting us with the nature if it kept going. Fortunately, Border Crossings is not doing this like a hobby; there will be Origins Festivals every two years.

Although Michael Walling is the heart of the company, he is aware of the vital importance of collaborative work and will make you realise it. So I found my internship period quite productive because I was in an environment where my opinions and thoughts were valued and respected.

During my time in the office, I have learned about publicity, fundraising and mechanics of a non-profit theatre company. I get the chance to have many conversations with a wise and committed artistic director, Michael Walling, about his work and theatre making. I learned many things about playwright dramaturgy, play development and dramaturgical researching from an inspiring associate director Carissa Hope Lynch.

I had many opportunities to see different artistic venues and communities in London. I attended many talks, openings and workshops with Michael Walling’s guidance. I watched more than thirty plays in three months, thanks to recommendations and help for finding affordable tickets.

One of my primary aims was to see devising process of a play. But my internship period ended before Border Crossings started devising. Nevertheless, I have been given the chance to work with other companies like MeWe and I observed several rehearsals.

All in all, I spent three months in London full of art and inspiration thanks to Border Crossings. I am going back to my country with my hands full of knowledge and new ideas."