Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Archive for November 2010

Art & artifice

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…the smirks that come out, when someone speaks of opera, are often automatic and based on the image of the ample soprano, mouthing mulch in excessively broad mastication, showing decorative strain of the eyebrow, and a quaking bit of flesh at the back of the throat.

Hands are either clasped in an aching clutch of penance, or make serious and abrupt movements detailing ‘anger’, ‘hope’, ‘despair’, ‘love’, in such stylistic synch, moment to movement, that the heyday of silent films is evoked, regardless of how modern the music or production.

..and then there are the tenors.. –Well, actually, nowadays the image of a tenor has been ‘rehabilitated’; they’re lithe, or viral; shaggy dark, or Daniel Craig blonde. More often than not, they aspire to prove some moments of having been in a method acting class, or, at least offer some familiarity with ‘moodiness’ and Brando. The histrionics still tinge the high C’s, the step towards the lip of the stage, or the lachrymose gesticulation; but by and large [though, these days, not so very large], tenors are coming as a crop of film idols.

It’s still fairly easy to generalize the condition of “opera singer”; unfortunate, but a by-product of the larger-than-life aspect of performance..

..overlooked, if not ignored, in the dismissive mass of musing, is the intimate and articulate communication of the recitalist; singers who perform in small halls, annexes or living rooms; salon specialists, who move their audience through the widest range of emotion and connection, song to song, seduction to abduction, sorrow to ecstasy, death to light.

Singers who perform opera, might also perform in the realm of the ‘art song’; singers, who are devout in intimate communication and specialize in lieder, or salon pieces, whether Bellini or Rorem, do not always aspire to march across the Met stage, able as they are to simply reach out and embrace the near crowd who attends their performances, listening, rapt.

Art songs are not just the domain of the lieder singer; consider such talents as Mabel Mercer, Eartha Kitt, Bobby Short; remember their shows at the Carlyle, or Joe’s Pub.

The intimacy of the show is part of the art; the volume of singing has nothing to do with the accuracy of connection –it’s all in the words; it’s in the tight space between singer, accompanist, and audience. It is being able to see the very glint of revenge, in the eye of someone singing about stolen love, over having to strain ears and eyes to discern what some spec is specifying so far down, away onstage…

Intimacy; chamber works; a piano and singer: expression, by the delicacy of communication.

Lets be honest: the cavern of a great stage forces on any singer some desperation of gesticulation, as grand passions of music wash characters left and right, back and forth –in and out of arms, loves, homes, lives and families!

…however, some opera composers contended with the circumstances of depicting great grand drama, and the intimate dynamic of emotion; Verdi comes to my mind first.

In Aida, great moments are built on the foundation of intimate details; Radames isolated first expression of desire for Aida (Celeste Aida) stands out all the more for being followed by an assembling crowd of Priests, People and King, demanding war on an invading force; thereby facilitating the warrior’s ambition, knowing that to lead the army to victory will give him his heart’s desire, and the gratitude of his King.

These two scenes move from one into the next –intimacy of the ambitious heart, channeled through opportunity of war and destruction.

In this example, “grand” can hold beside the tiny details of the human condition; opera, at its best –in spite of artifice and the aspic of time- can communicate one soul’s trials, and present it, in painful highlight, against a canvas of inestimable power, genocide, and betrayal.

…and yet, despite a singer’s great talent, should the gestures be too forced and the attitude too comic, it all comes undone.. -The genius of a composer is subsumed by this.

Really; do you think Verdi thought of mannerisms- or the plight?

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Written by tomminteroffthestoop

November 28, 2010 at 11:00 AM

Stories to sing

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I was first contracted to put stories into lyrics for song when the Washington National Opera collaborated with the Ward 7 Arts Collaborative, in November 2009, participating in a project for the program Community In Bloom.

For this, the recollections of citizens of Ward 7 were recorded; these reminiscences turned out to span more than a few generations of families, who had been in this particular area of the District, and spoke to a wealth of history slowly being eroded by feelings of disenfranchisement, political avoidance, gentrification, and a shift in community values.

The stories were powerful, and I was able to thread several strands into a “scene”, to be set to music, where four characters approached a street corner, each absorbed in their individual thoughts, reflecting their concerns and determinations; they come together, ultimately, and combine to sing of the vision of hope and regeneration they have for the future of their community. The piece was titled Threading Time.

 

When approached to work on collected stories of Veterans, resident at the Armed Forces Retirement Home, and create lyrics to be set to music for presentation, I thought I was prepared for the energies I would find contained in tales of military service. -Far from it!

The AFRH is a unique repository of history, and in my journey to find the most direct connections of lyric to sentiment, and keep intact the visceral content of the veteran’s stories, I am constantly stunned by the ability of these service personnel to speak of the largest canvas of conflict [WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam], with the most individual nuances of understanding, describing the instant of watching life taken, or highlighting the permanent unease with digesting the smell and texture of unaccustomed foods!

The stories I’m working with contain the “wonderment” in surviving beyond the ordinary, and often look at the individuals left at home, who will never comprehend what has passed, but will continue in their lives, safe and whole.

I went to the AFRH this past Saturday, and was able to meet some of the Vets whose stories are in the collection I was working from; they are enthusiastic at having their tales put to song, and are grateful that years of silence have found connection to the present, offering opportunity of Witness.

This will occur on the 9th December 2010, in the presentation called Songs for the Unsung, which will be held at the AFRH, in DC.

One example, of the stories involved in this program, is by a soldier who was in an engagement on the Roer River, in Germany, where he watched so many men he knew, drown. That was in 1946. In 1958 he returned, with his wife, to the exact spot. In the story he relates his thoughts, which went back to that day in 1946; attached to the story, his wife has written her own brief paragraph of that moment in 1958, and comments on the gentle German gentleman, on a bicycle, who tipped his hat, and gave a warm “Guten tag” to them as he passed.

She had no idea that her husband was not in the same paradigm; no idea that, at that exact instant, he saw the faces of comrades, gone.

Being able to present this, as lyric, is incredible opportunity, knowing how music can present both sides, simultaneously, and let the audience feel the shiver, and the tear of the moment.

Double Nickels Theatre Company have created the “reminiscence” opportunities for the Vets, and the collaboration with WNO now enriches a narrative of community, enlarging the arena in which the story of song is celebrated and performed.

Eying the red carpet

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I have to admit, the first star struck thought that came to mind was –‘..it really is red..’ –And there really was a scrum of photographers, crammed on step ladders, huddled shoulder to shoulder, shoved along a “red carpet walk-way”, down the center of a very white tent, affixed to the entrance of the Ziegfeld theater.

Arriving early –an irritating habit I have- I got to watch the smooth pre-celebrity activity in precision; a corps of ‘special security’ had been hired, each of them imposing, well mannered, tall, and definitely able to take any pushy souls off at the knees!

Simon had been terrific; my tickets were for seats in the Orchestra, row P, center. He had also given me two of them. I’d not been able to use the second one, and so gave it back to him. Needless to say the seats were like gold dust; he was able to use it for another creative soul he’s working with: Patrice Regnier.

..sometimes, the greatest fun is in the complete unexpectedness of connection; as Patrice had my second ticket, I, effectively, became her date for the evening. And I suddenly found myself not the only one with a ticklish, overwhelming urge to giggle, at sight of the red carpet; at sight of the gaggle, and swag; we shared a reverence for film, and were in awe of being at a premiere –in a space that had Colin Firth in it –no more than mere yards away from where we sat!

And as the crowd hushed, after Harvey Weinstein had initiated an address to us by the film’s director, Tom Hooper, the lights dimmed, and silence, pure, religious, uninterrupted by cell phones, or other adult toys, swallowed up the theater; the screen’s gold curtains parted, and, without previews, without annoying reminders not to annoy those around you, the Weinstein Company logo melted up out of darkness, and the film proceeded.

The buzz about Oscar nominations, and BAFTA awards, is, by the strength of the two central performances [Colin Firth & Geoffrey Rush], utterly apt; their ability to bring us into the claustrophobic world of “Bertie”, as “Lionel” assists in creating a way to grapple with moving beyond his stutter, and encouraging the connection with a larger world, full of duty and leadership, as King George VI, is a marvel of nuance and characterization, and commits us, from the very first, to holding our hearts open to the story.

The visual narrative, constructed by Tom Hooper, is both powerful and unrelenting; it keeps us focused on the nerve at the center of this tale, and the strength of relationships; whether fully nurturing, or calculatingly helpful.

The roster of British talent in front of, and behind the camera, is a complete lesson in both theatre, and film. This is storytelling at its best, and most lush.

The audience was involved with every frame; cultural differences were no impediment to empathizing with the very human dynamics of struggle that Bertie, and those who supported him, endured.

The “after party” was a true celebration; didn’t get to shake hands with Colin Firth, or Helena Bonham Carter, but was part of the cheer that went round at their entrance.

…by 1:30AM though, it was time to head uptown for a quick drop on the bed, to be up at 4:30AM, and make the 6:05 train!

I would like to say that I continue to savor the images of celebrity and synergy of my adventure.. but school and welcome projects here at home, have pulled me forward to other business –the most incredible of which is working with Toni Ford, and the Double Nickels Theatre group, to create a narrative program of celebration, that will be presented on the 9th December, at the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

At the center of this program is fruit of the work that Double Nickels is doing with the veterans there –taking “oral history” to a whole new level by engaging the vets to participate in a project more interactive, and cross generational, called “reminiscence theatre”.

For this program, in collaboration with the Washington National Opera, stories of the vets are fashioned into lyrics and presented as songs.

Surrounding this will be a pageantry of service and honor that will include reminiscences by personnel, as well as ranking officials from every branch of the armed forces, relating connections of friendship and courage around the world.

The program is being called Songs For The Unsung.

…a few years ago, up stream..

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…in January 2006 my uncle gave me the play of a friend of his to read, comment on and, hopefully, assist in finding a conduit for…

I read the piece, and enjoyed it. But the work had a British theme; it was a story around the ascension of George VI to the British throne, his stammer, and the help he received from an unorthodox Aussie speech therapist.

I knew that a very good theatre producer friend of mine in London, Joan Lane, who is very well networked, would find the piece of interest. I sent it on to her.

Four years later, and further down stream, the play is realized as a film, and the film is called The Kings Speech, featuring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter and Michael Gambon; Tom Hooper directs; the film was done by Bedlam Film Productions, and is being distributed by the Weinstein Company.

Heady stuff.

..as it turns out, the world evolves its own serendipity; Bedlam Film Productions is the group interested in my screenplay, In The Shadow of the Phoenix.

I’d met Simon Egan, of Bedlam, this past August, and we spoke of my script; the conversation continues –but he heard of my initial facilitation of The Kings Speech, and has invited me to the NY premiere of the film, next Monday, the 8th November, at the Ziegfeld, and the after party.

…in the confluence of things, it is quite an honor; on the other hand, I’m kinda stunned. But I look forward to being in the audience witnessing how the Universe works… and how open handed gestures, really do find reward..

Fingers crossed for In The Shadow Of The Phoenix, please.. and I promise to share the details of the NY premiere..

…down the stream of things

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…the school year has begun well; this is my third year in the Washington National Opera/DC PS, Guest Artist Teaching program. I am working in 3 schools this term.

The Look-In presentation, at the Kennedy Center, was terrific; it flowed with an engaging narrative that was delivered by ‘archetypal’ characters, created by students from the Duke Ellington School for the Arts. Engaging, informing, entertaining, illuminating –and fun!

When I arrived at the Ross Elementary School, for my first session after the event, I found my class excited to engage in some ‘out-of-the-box’ conversation; the most intriguing concept they were considering was whether or not opera was opera because “people” sang it.

I asked them to consider that question; was opera “opera” because it had people, or could opera be something with no ‘people’ at all..?

My 5th graders, already seasoned by a previous year’s class on opera, really grappled amongst themselves with this question –but finally determined that ‘people’ were not needed for opera to be ‘opera’; opera could be something where inanimate objects were given “voice” to sing.

My next session with this particular class is next week –and I found something to reinforce the direction of their thinking; it is the Gatto duetto –the “Cat Duet”- attributed to Rossini. As it happens, as I was scrounging through You Tube for an example of this, I found a clip that had been done by the Washington National Opera, in 1996, at the Kennedy Center!

Hopefully this will spark all kinds of conversation!

What do you think..? -We might even move onto Ravel, and his fantastical work of l’Enfant et les Sortileges!

…in these sessions, all things are possible!