Zombie Flick without the Zombies: Guthrie’s New Production of The Birds

Take a contemporary, character-driven psychological thriller zombie flick where all of the characters have taken refuge in a remote farm house.  Remove all guts, gore, and zombies, add the sound of birds attacking.  Translate that to stage and you have the Guthrie’s new production of Conor McPherson’s adaptation of The Birds.

During last night’s preview the pace of the play was achingly slow at points but I’m sure they’ll tighten that up by opening night.  Over all, it was a very nice evening.

The most remarkable thing: the set is amazing, with wonderful attention to detail.  The most annoying thing: to make the sound of birds attacking windows and doors, they had a person kicking/pounding on the door.  That sound would be impossible for a bird to make (besides possibly Big Bird).  At first it left me wondering “Who’s outside? Maybe there really are zombies.” then it just became a nuisance.

We Theoroi had conversations with Sound Designer Scott Edwards and Assistant Director Amanda Friou before the show, which was a good way to prepare for seeing the first preview of a new play.  Edwards was quietly casual but got everyone riled up when he started talking about why he loves working in live theater what it’s like to work as a sound designer.  Friou did a great job of explaining all the work that had led up to the evenings performance and how many people it takes to put on a production like this.

After the show, we debriefed in the Guthrie’s Kitchak Lounge over wine and snacks.  Not surprising, it’s possible to get a lot more out of a play when you have 25 people to unpack the show with afterwords.  There were many very cool angles on the characters and the plot that I simply wouldn’t have noticed if others hadn’t pointed them out.

After the after party, a handful of us retired to Zen Box Izakaya on Washington.  I was delighted!  Finally a place to get Takoyaki in Minneapolis! And they’re open late! And the Takoyaki is really good!


Before seeing Susan Graham perform in the Schubert Club International Series

On Tuesday January 10th, Susan Graham will be performing at the Ordway as part of the  Schubert Club International Arist Series.  Among those in attendance will be our cadre of theoroi.  The International Artist Series was started in 1893 with the intention of bringing the world’s best musicians to perform in St Paul.  In its modern form the series includes five performance per year, each a recital by one of the world’s finest musical performers.  According to the Schubert Club website

Nearly 130 years later, The Schubert Club has secured a prominent place in the history of musical organizations. It is one of the oldest arts organizations in the country, predated by among a very few, the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Schubert Club has brought virtually all of the world’s great recitalists to the Saint Paul stage

If you want to get a sense of what the evening will be like, here is a small sampling of Susan Graham’s work as well as recordings of other musicians performing music that’s on the program for January 10th.

Encores from an informal recital with Susan Graham and Renee Fleming

Exactly what I expect in a recital by a great operatic performer

Harpsichord-driven Baroque chamber music

A youtube video consisting entirely of Susan Graham bowing dramatically to a wash of applause.  Doesn’t it make you curious what just happened?

Selections from the Program

The evening’s program is posted on the Schubert Club website along with information about Susan Graham.  Here are recordings of some of the music from the program.

La mort d’Ophélie by Berloiz – Cecilia Bartoli singing  

Heiss mich nicht rede by Schubert – Hayley Grace Hunt singing

Schumann: So laßt mich scheinen, bis ich werde –

Franz Liszt – Mignons Lied (Kennst du das Land)

Francis Poulenc – Fiançailles pour rire

She will also be performing a bit of “popular” music by composers like Noel Coward and Cole Porter.  Here’s a sampling of that.

Susan Graham in jeans singing Summertime from Porgie & Bess

Singing Noel Coward


Theoroi: a lighthearted exploration of social media, relevance and performing arts

When my friend Suzanne approached me about joining the board of the Schubert Club, I didn’t know much about the organization. My friends in the performing arts were quick to inform me that, though understated, the Schubert Club is a pillar of the arts which, like the Walker, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and The Museum of Russian Art, holds a position on the international map of the arts as well as an important position locally. That was enough to lead me to a meeting where Suzanne explained that the Schubert Club is one of the oldest arts organizations in the country and, to paraphrase her, “Organizations don’t last 120 years by chasing fads, but they also can’t ignore change. We know that underneath the fads of social media is an important current of huge social change. Your role would be to help us articulate an understanding of that underlying trend so that we can respond to it wisely.”

Now that’s a challenge I can sign onto — putting Facebook and twitter in context for an organization that has witnessed the advent of telephones, recorded music, radio, television and the internet.

A few weeks later, Suzanne introduced me to Kathleen van Bergen who was Director of the Schubert Club at the time. Kathleen told us “I have this idea. What if we pick of group of people in their 20s and 30s, send them on a season-long tour of the top performing arts organizations in the Twin Cities, and ask them to post online about the experience.” With that, a new project was born and I joined the board. A few months later, Bethany Kois suggested the name theoroi (Greek: θεωροὶ or θεαροὶ) — who were ambassadors of festivals in ancient Greece — which is a perfect fit.

The basic idea of our theoroi project is fairly simple — invite a group of bright young people who aren’t arts insiders to experience a season of performances presented by the Twin Cities most prestigious performing arts organizations. Ask these participants, our theoroi, to post about their experiences on blogs, Facebook, twitter, or any other online platform of their choice. Let each organization put its best foot forward and see what happens.

From an organizational perspective, the motivation for this project is modest. It’s an open-ended exploration, allowing the Schubert Club to lightheartedly dip its toes into the realm of social media and see what happens when you mix together an unseasoned audience, a season of prestigious performances, and the potent cacophony of social media?

Any time you combine young audiences with established performing arts organizations, a discussion inevitably arises around the topic of relevance. Art lovers, patrons and creators perennially ask (or are forced to answer) “Is this art form (opera, ballet, symphonic music, chamber music, etc.) relevant to modern life or is it simply rote recital of outdated beauty?” The answer is inevitably an enthusiastic and often articulate expression of all the ways that the art certainly is relevant. This leads to the obvious follow-on: “What about all those people who aren’t participating? How do we show them that this art is relevant for them in their modern lives?”

Patrons of the oldest and most prestigious performing arts organizations often use grey hair as a simple metric for how well an organization is doing at answering these questions. “I see an awful lot of grey hair in the audience” is like a murmured alarm call saying that something needs to change lest another institution suffer the same fate as vaudeville.

Unlike projects of the past, theoroi makes it relatively easy to see and measure the actual response each participant has to each performance. It also forces the participants, the theoroi, to play the role of ambassadors by expressing their opinions in a public (or semi-public) venue. Far from being an oddity of the project, this is an apt reflection of today’s media where, for better or worse, everyone is a critic and absolutely everyone with an internet connection has access to a personal publishing platform. This is very useful for exploring the questions of relevance but it also goes deeper. Anyone who has watched a Disney film, read Lord of the Rings, or pondered the US Constitution knows that with power comes responsibility. In the information age we are incessantly reminded that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. We are trained to be acutely aware of the close links between power and information. In this context, it’s both exhilirating and disappointing to witness the popularization of publishing power. Why is it disappointing? Because technology changes much faster than society. In the same way that tyrants like Napoleon sweep in to take advantage of the confusion after a revolution, companies like Facebook are poised to take advantage of the populace while society recovers from having a century worth of communication infrastructure rendered obsolete in less than a decade.

It’s in this situation, where we see an entire civilization grappling with the fundamental ideas of communication, power, culture and historical context, that we begin to see clues to answering the driving question behind Theoroi — How are established modes of performing arts relevant to modern audiences? While the possible answers are myriad, it’s inevitable that they will be tied to the millenia-long artistic exploration of the relationships between power, knowledge, society and tradition.


Worst theater experience of the year: Vox Lumiere’s Phantom at the Ordway

Vox Lumiere’s adaptation of Phantom of the Opera was spectacularly, embarrassingly bad. If I could redact it from the Theoroi schedule, I would. The only positive thing about that evening’s experience was that it forced the Theoroi participants to grapple with the challenge of speaking publicly, online about a really bad theater experience. This did give rise to a moment of bonding for the group, but I worry that it was downed out by the horror of sitting through 2 hours of amplified schlock bereft of any musical or artistic merit.

There were numerous moments throughout the night where I realized my mouth was hanging open, involuntarily, in what must have been an expression of complete disbelief. Great art can transport you out of your body and into another aesthetic plane. Vox Lumiere triggered a defensive out of body experience, leaving my eyes and ears to experience the assault while my mind hid as far away as it possibly could.

I’m deeply appreciative of the fact that all of the Theoroi stayed through both acts.  For many of them I think it took a feat of will to return to their seats after intermission.  At the end of the show, the audience responded with a shellshocked 0%/0% ovation — nobody stood up when the applause began and nobody was standing when the applause finished.

When we gathered in the lobby to debrief about the show, everyone made an earnest effort to find constructive and meaningful ways to describe the train wreck they had just witnessed.  More than a few of them were reduced to observing that “Well, the Ordway does have to fill the auditorium with something every night”. Is that what motivates the Ordway’s programming team?  Are they merely concerned with filling space, regardless of the artistic or entertainment quality of the show?  What a disappointment.


A night with the Theoroi at MN Opera’s Cosi fan Tutte

On Thursday morning I woke up in New York’s East Village with my head buzzing softly.  I had been out the night before drinking Rye whiskey in Hell’s Kitchen and dancing to 1970s Soul Train footage at a notorious East Village bar near 2nd & 2nd.  After water, caffiene, and a layover in Chicago, I was throwing on a black linen pinstripe zoot suit, spritzing myself with John Varvatos vintage and running out the door, shoes & tie in hand, to climb into a classic black mercedes that was waiting outside.  I was on my way to the first performance in the Theoroi Project‘s inaugural season: MN Opera’s production of Cosi fan Tutte.  A friend who knows opera far more intimately than me had provided memorable instructions for the night.  “I heard the cast is smokin’ hot.  Bring binoculars.”

The mezzanine of the Ordway lobby was packed for the pre-show “opera insights”, in which the Musical Director of the MN Opera gave some background about the performance we were about to see.  The crowd laughed along to bon mots like “What a surprise! The soprano falls in love with the tenor!”  Whatever that means.  I was busy trying to spot the 24 theoroi speckled throughout the crowd.  We specifically invited participants who predominantly aren’t arts insiders, so it was no surprise that they all gravitated to sitting in the back row, standing along the balcony, and availing themselves of the bar.

When the crowd started moving to their seats in the theater, our theoroi class gathered, many of them meeting for the first time.  You will all have to see for yourselves, but let me tell you – this is a very engaging and very good looking crew.

We found our seats, the curtains opened, and out came the binoculars.  Have you ever tried sharing a single pair of binoculars between 24 near-strangers sitting silently in the dark?  In the second scene, when the two beautiful female leads first arrived on stage, all the men wanted the binoculars back.  I wanted to admire the costumes.  The guys on either side of me seemed to have other motives.

There’s a moment in the first act where Fiordiligi sits in the garden, torn between her feelings and her responsibilities.  As Jacquelyn Wagner sang the aria, alone on stage, it was like the laws of gravity had been redefined.  Everything seemed to pull in towards the spot on the stage where she reclined.  As I looked around the packed theater I felt a distinct sense of place, time and beauty.  People often talk about the ineffability of real beauty.  That certainly applies here.  I can’t explain the sensation, but I expect that my left and right brain were both lit up like christmas trees at that moment.  I began to reflect on the fact that thousands of people have been experiencing moments like this for hundreds of years in opera houses like the Ordway.  That continuity is certainly a part of why I support the arts.

At that moment, someone started futzing with a very loud candy wrapper about 2 rows up and 8 seats over.  When the noise persisted, heads started to turn, someone “ssshed”, and the noise continued.  As it turns out, that beautiful aria is quite long.  Our candy wrapper enemy persisted through the entire thing.  She was too far away for us to do anything.  I fantasized about designing iPhone apps that let you report noisemakers to the ushers.  At intermission, our entire section was fuming.

After the show, the theoroi had drinks and snacks at Amsterdam, which was recently launched in downtown St Paul by the owners of the 331 club.  To our delight, Jacquelin Wagner (Fiordiligi), Jennifer Holloway (Dorabella) and Matthew Worth (Gugliermo) joined us briefly.  They were all friendly, charming, and beautiful.  I hope that they had fun meeting our inaugural class of theoroi.


Rookie Mistake: Thinking critically about Cosi fan Tutte

On a grey Sunday afternoon in Seattle, sometime in autumn 2001, I passed a nuclear family walking down University avenue.  The father figure bore a painted-on smile.  He seemed uncannily familiar. It took me  a moment to realize that he was then-governor Gary Locke.  In true Seattle fashion, he was being unanimously ignored.  I wondered why the governor & family were strolling through the U-District and remembered that the University was staging the opera Cosi fan Tutte that day.  I had never seen an opera and my student ID was good for free admission, so I decided to check it out.

I completely hated watching that opera.  I hated the characters and the plot left me fuming with the sort of righteous indignance that it seems only college students are capable of.

The title, Cosi fan Tutte, translates roughly as “They are always like that.”, but is often translated “Women are like that.”  Mozart wrote the music and a man named Lorenzo da Ponte wrote the libretto.  The story is a simple “fiancee swapping” theme.  Don Alfonso, a jaded old knave, convinces two young aristocrat-soldiers to test their lovers’ fidelity.  The two young men, Gugliermo and Ferrando, tell their lovers Dorabella and Fiordiligi that they are leaving for war.  While the women cast about in privileged agony at their loss, the two men disguise themselves as Albanians and return to seduce each other’s fiancee.  Don Alfonso orchestrates the seduction, even paying a very clever maid named Despina to help him corrupt Dorabella and Fiordiligi.  Within 48 hours, the women have given up on their fiancees and married the Albanians.

The moral underpinnings of this story are enough to incense anyone with even a hint of feminist sentiment.  When I saw the opera, I was reading Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae and Toby Marotta’s The Politics of Homosexuality for fun.  I walked out of the theater that day with the following synopsis stuck in my head:  In short, this story assumes that women are morally flawed, making them incapable of fidelity.  In contrast, men aren’t even expected to attempt fidelity.  Rather, men are encouraged to practice infidelity as a test of their lovers’ mettle.  In other words, Heads, men win.  Tails, women lose.  I wish I could say it’s an uncommon theme.  The “happy” ending of this farce leaves manipulative, faithless men unscathed while the women are painted as feckless children who are “always like that”.   Meanwhile, Despina the maid — the only speaking part who is not a member of the aristocracy — falls to the bottom of the moral pile as a quasi-biblical archetype of the clever woman who revels in eroding virtuous behavior for fun and profit.  In contrast, Don Alfonso, the instigator of the entire escapade stands as king of the mountain, gazing down at all of these fools.  The final score: Men +3, Women -3. cosi fan tutte.

Needless to say, my first encounter with the opera was not splendid.

Rookie Mistake

When my friend Meredith informed me last year that the Dead Composers Society would be staging Cosi fan Tutte, I impulsively responded “I hate that opera.”  “Why’s that?” she asked.  “I hate the point of the story and I hate all of the characters, especially Despina.  I find her disturbing.”  Meredith’s response: “Ha ha ha.  Oh Matthew, nobody watches opera for the story.  It’s about the music and the experience.”

I had made the rookie mistake of taking an opera (a comedy!) seriously.


Kronos Quartet at the Walker 04 February 2011

Kronos quartet was top notch in their performance tonight at the Walker. They opened with some strong pieces by composers from Iraq, Azerbaijan, Iran and Palestine. All of them were thoroughly engaging, though some left me wanting more of a resolution at the end. The crowning piece of the night was Aleksandra Vrebalov’s evocative and masterfully crafted “…hold me, neighbor, in this storm…”. I’m adding it to my list of favorite contemporary compositions. Also noteworthy was the encore piece, “Tusen Tankar”, by the Swedish Folk Ensemble Triakel. The pensive clarity of it reminded me of Shaker music in all the best ways.