Opera 101—Misery Loves Company

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Mis’ry’s comin’ aroun’,
De mis’ry’s comin’ aroun’,
We knows it’s comin’ aroun’
Don’t know to who.

I knows misery’s near,
I don’t know why it is here,
Don’t know for who,
Don’t know for why,
Why dat misery’s near.

No mo’ gin, no mo’ rum,
Oh, de misery’s done come!
—“Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’,” Show Boat

 
What better day than Flag Day to write about the red, white, and blue extravaganza that was San Francisco Opera’s production of Show Boat?

SFO_Show-Boat_0

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Show Boat. It’s not a musical I knew at all beyond the classic “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” but, even though I would love for the San Francisco Opera to take on lighter fare more regularly, especially Gilbert & Sullivan, I didn’t know how I felt about actual Broadway musicals, in this case probably the original Broadway musical, written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II in 1927.

Consider me converted, because, while there was lots of talk of misery, I found it delightful.

A co-production with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, and Houston Grand Opera, the lavish production, directed by Francesca Zambello, is sure to be in the running for a few of my end-of-the-year Figaros, most notably for its costumes, which were designed by Paul Tazewell. Note: The coat porn alone makes this worth the trip.

Angela Renée Simpson as Queenie shuts it down. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Angela Renée Simpson as Queenie shuts it down. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The orchestra sounded great under John DeMain. It’s rare that I comment on the orchestra at the opera (unless, of course, there is solo clarinet action), but the music here really captured me. This may be because today’s musicals have such small orchestras that it stood out; I’m not sure, but it certainly helped me get into the spirit of the production.

That spirit is perfect for the summer season, as the look and sound of this Show Boat is so intensely American, with a palette straight out of a Fourth of July picnic and a musical journey that moves effortlessly from spirituals to vaudeville to pop ballads and jazz.

Unfortunately, the story of Show Boat is rather uneven and, frankly, falls apart in the second act, as the story leaves the Deep South for the big city (Chicago and New York) and swings from the late nineteenth century to the 1920s. While we eventually return to the South and the eponymous show boat, it is too little, too late, for an all-too-abrupt ending.

But the singing was stellar, especially from Heidi Stober as ingénue Magnolia Hawks, the daughter of Cap’n Andy (a delicious physical performance by Bill Irwin), Angela Renée Simpson as Queenie, and John Bolton as Frank, one half of the vaudeville duo of Schultz and Schultz. Even ten-year-old Carmen Steele, who played Magnolia’s young daughter Kim, sang her small part on “Why Do I Love You?” very sweetly. Michael Todd Simpson, as inveterate gambler Gaylord Ravenal, took a while to warm up, but grew on me as the night went on.

Heidi Stober as Magnolia and Michael Todd Simpson as Gaylord Ravenal. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Heidi Stober as Magnolia and Michael Todd Simpson as Gaylord Ravenal. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The ever-present Patricia Racette plays Julie La Verne (a bi-racial woman, married to a white man and “passing” for white), a smaller role than I realized, but she delivers on “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and especially “Bill.”

Patricia Racette as Julie La Verne. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Patricia Racette as Julie La Verne. Photo by Cory Weaver.

But the revelation here was Morris Robinson as Queenie’s husband Joe. When I saw him in Don Giovanni I wasn’t impressed, but here he is a highlight, delivering the solo of the evening on “Ol’ Man River.”

Morris Robinson as Joe. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Morris Robinson as Joe. Photo by Cory Weaver.

There are six more performances of Show Boat at the War Memorial Opera House on June 19, 22, 26, 28 and July 1 and 2. Catch it if you can.

The Grand Circle

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To celebrate National Parks Week, I revisited my trip around the Grand Circle in October 2008, which started and ended in Las Vegas, Nevada, taking in five national parks and Monument Valley along the way. Click on the links below to read about these parks in more detail at Worth the Detour.

First up was Zion National Park.

The Court of the Patriarchs at Zion: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

The Court of the Patriarchs at Zion: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

Then came Bryce Canyon, a personal favorite.

On the Navajo Loop Trail at Bryce Canyon National Park

On the Navajo Loop Trail at Bryce Canyon National Park

After Bryce was the biggest surprise of the trip, Capitol Reef National Park.

Heading into the Grand Wash Canyon at Capitol Reef National Park

Heading into the Grand Wash Canyon at Capitol Reef National Park

And then, of course, came the iconic Arches National Park.

The enormous Double Arch at Arches National Park

The enormous Double Arch at Arches National Park

I paid homage to my father’s love of westerns at Monument Valley.

West Mitten Butte at sunset in Monument Valley

West Mitten Butte at sunset in Monument Valley

And finally completed the Grand Circle with the mother of all canyons.

Watch out, the bighorn sheep in the Grand Canyon can be tricksy!

Watch out, the bighorn sheep in the Grand Canyon can be tricksy!

All in all, it was a fabulous road trip that I heartily recommend.

Do you have a favorite national park? If so, let me know in the comments below, I’m looking to plan my next trip!

Rites of Spring

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In honor of National Parks Week (which runs from today until April 27) and in light of this week’s many celebrations of life, death, and rebirth, it seems only appropriate to take this opportunity to jump-start this site again as well as get back to my (much longer neglected) travel blog, Worth the Detour. I’ve just updated the layout and will be posting there all week, with a different park featured each day.

Morning at Yellowstone Lake, September 2011

Morning at Yellowstone Lake, September 2011

It seems only fair to begin with the first official national park in the world, Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872. Yellowstone was the first of what is currently fifty-nine officially designated national parks in the United States and its dependent areas. The latest is Pinnacles National Park, right here in California. Pinnacles was established as a national monument by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908, but only received official park status in January 2013. With the addition of Pinnacles, California is now the state with the most national parks (nine), followed closely by Alaska (eight). Only ten national parks are located east of the Mississippi. Two are outside of the fifty states, one in American Samoa and one in the US Virgin Islands.

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.

—Wallace Stegner

I have been privileged to visit twenty-three of these national treasures to date. Although I still have a long way to go before I can cross them all off my list, I’m trying! In addition to Yellowstone, some of my favorite parks include Death Valley, Redwood National Park, and Yosemite in California; Crater Lake in Oregon; Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park in Utah; Mount Rainier in Washington; and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

Please click the links above to see my posts and photographs of each of these parks. I will be adding links as I catch up on write-ups. For parks visited since I began my blog, I will be backdating posts to the time I visited.

The Book Stops Here

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On the heels of a couple rough deadlines, I’m popping in briefly to deliver the grim news that the TBR Triple Dog Dare was a complete bust for me this year. Not only did I not finish the multitude of books in my TBR pile, but I’ve only finished four books so far in 2014! Bad reader no biscuit.

TDD

Of course, I saw far more movies than I usually do in March, but still, I am way behind on my New Year’s resolutions, which mostly had to do with reading. I think I’ve turned the corner in terms of my schedule, but one never knows. However, I am on the verge of finishing a bunch of titles and am bound and determined to complete my Goodreads reading challenge (66 books) this year. And, of course, there is War and Peace looming in the distance as well.

Here’s hoping that by the time “The (Half) Year in Books” rolls around, I’ll actually have something to say!

Holy Bechdel, Batman!

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Today you will take a test that will help you discover who you truly are. The future belongs to those who know where they belong.

I’m not a big fan of the Bechdel test, but it can be a useful tool in reminding oneself how far (or not) women have come in the world. Or at least in the world of Hollywood.

If you are not familiar with it, the rules of the Bechdel Test are simple. To “pass” the test, a movie has to have:
1) at least two women in it, who
2) talk to each other, about
3) something besides a man

Sadly, very few Hollywood films pass this basic test. According to Vocativ, of the fifty highest-grossing films in 2013, a year where the biggest box-office hit of the year was The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, only 36 percent passed the Bechdel test.

However, maybe there’s hope. In venturing out to the movies this March, I found myself inundated with kick-ass female characters. A fitting tribute to Women’s History Month I suppose. In any case, a big thank you to both the cinéphile and film critic in my life, who managed to get me out to the theaters four times already this month, which is pretty much unheard of for me outside of Oscar season.

New BFFs Zoë Kravitz and Shailene Woodley are dauntless in  Divergent.

New BFFs Zoë Kravitz and Shailene Woodley are dauntless in Divergent.

Divergent

Divergent passes Bechdel with flying colors. It was also my favorite of the films in this post. And, lest you think my love of The Hunger Games series means I’m some kind of Divergent fan girl, I actually hadn’t read these books before seeing the movie.

I was a bit worried at the start because, frankly, I found the underlying premise of this post-apocalyptic world and the five factions (Amity, Erudite, Candor, Dauntless, and Abnegation) ridiculous, but, after the initial set-up, I got really into it. The script is rather clunky, but luckily much of the film is just one long training montage, and who doesn’t love a good training montage? Crazy people, that’s who. [Side note: Is there any doubt I would be Candor? I think not.]

Overall, I liked the look of the film and thought the cast was quite strong. Shailene Woodley is not as convincing an action heroine as Jennifer Lawrence, but she sells the romance a heck of a lot better. As does Theo James. I really found Zoë Kravitz appealing as “new best friend” Christina, although maybe that’s because she was Candor. Bonus props to the filmmakers for their diverse casting. For more on the subject of race and typecasting, I suggest reading this interview with Mekhi Phifer and Maggie Q, who popped in briefly to introduce the film at the screening I attended. I’m glad I enjoyed the movie, since we waited over an hour for them to arrive.

Veronica Mars

I was really looking forward to Veronica Mars. And, while I thoroughly enjoyed it, I think it’s pretty much one for the fans. You’ll love it if you liked the show (and I highly recommend having watched it recently to get all the callbacks to the series), but it’s more of an extended episode of TV than anything else. Of course, it’s always nice to see a female lead with smarts and moxie on the big screen and this film had no problem passing the Bechdel bar: It does so during the opening scene, which shows Veronica being interviewed for a position at a prestigious New York law firm by none other than Jamie Lee Curtis.

Muppets Most Wanted

Amidst this dystopian, pseudo-noir fare, you might think that the family-friendly musical starring the beloved Muppets would stand out for its progressive values. You would be wrong. Instead, Muppets Most Wanted fails Bechdel spectacularly and is by far the least feminist film on this list. Given what comes next, that’s really saying something. While certainly enjoyable (I especially loved the Busby Berkeley-esque opening number), the one prominent female character (besides Miss Piggy) is a sad-sack officer in a Russian gulag who inexplicably moons after Kermit. And a major plot point is how Kermit can’t commit. Seriously? If that weren’t bad enough, I’d be surprised if even a quarter of the cameos were women. What the hell? Get it together, Muppets, and enter the twenty-first century.

300: Rise of an Empire

While there are so many things you are probably asking yourself upon seeing this film listed here, I will only say that I went unwillingly, but I’m awfully glad I did. It’s true that 300: Rise of an Empire doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel test (although it does have two female characters, Artemisia and Queen Gorgo, they do not speak to each other), but I would argue that it passes in spirit, like Gravity, in that the female lead makes the film. I could not take my eyes off Artemisia, played by Eva Green—both her attitude and her costumes were a glory to behold. The fact that she was based on an actual historical figure, Artemisia I of Caria, one-time commander of the Persian navy? Priceless. It’s quite gory, but any movie that makes you pull down your Herodotus upon returning home can’t be all bad, can it? [Feminist bonus: the men are dressed far more scantily than the women.]

Bow down, peasants, it's Artemisia, commander of the Persian f*cking navy.

Bow down, peasants, it’s the commander of the Persian f*cking navy.

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