Welcome to Maoist Orange Cake. Each week one of our Divas posts a thoughtful (but not necessarily serious) essay on whatever calls forth her Voice or strikes her Fancy. We invite you to join us wherever the discussion leads.
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"I would also like to add that ‘Maoist Orange Cake is possibly the best name for a blog ever. Just my twopence." -- The Sixth Carnival of Radical Feminists, 1 October 2007


The Twelfth Carnival of Radical Feminists is up at The Burning Times blog and mentions one of our posts, Helen 'Wheels' Keller, for recommendation. Orangeists spreading our zest!

Monday, July 9, 2007

Lesbian Separatism in the Middle Ages


Princess Ida, one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lesser known works, opens in less than a week at the Bagley-Wright Theatre here in Seattle, and everyone in the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society is going crazy. My job is a tiny one: I handle the in-house video. I sit at the back of the house running an empty video camera that’s hooked up to monitors in the pit. That means I get to see every performance. Yay!

Princess Ida isn’t a show one gets to see often. It has some of Sullivan’s most beautiful music, including a song with a tune like something out of Handel’s Messiah in which three stupid soldiers—we know they’re stupid because they tell us so themselves—take off their armor piece by piece before going into battle. In this production, one of the three men explicitly turns it into a strip-tease for the benefit of the women’s chorus. The show also features men in drag, women twirling battleaxes as if they were batons, a bondage song for the lead tenor, a power struggle between professors, a unique Gilbertian poke at Darwin, and local talk-radio star Dave Ross complaining that he has nothing to complain about.

As a fervent Gilbertian, it pains me to admit that Princess Ida is not one of Gilbert’s best libretti. That doesn’t mean it’s bad; Gilbert never wrote a bad libretto. But it’s not up there with The Mikado or Iolanthe. The main difficulty for the crew here at the MOC is the subject of Gilbert’s satire: women’s education, and by extension, feminism. As in any movement made up of human beings, there is plenty to laugh about in the feminist movement, whether First or Second Wave, but Gilbert knew nothing about feminism, so he ended up making fun of all the wrong things. Fortunately, WSG is an equal-opportunity satirist, and men get skewered too, along with a wide variety of ungendered human foibles.

I’ve long thought it would be possible to put together a good pastiche of Ida that actually would make fun of feminism, and do it using Gilbert’s own characters and jokes. For instance there is the disagreeable feminist who trashes her fellow feminists, all in the noble cause of ideological purity. This same feminist, when forced to live in a perfect non-sexist world, is miserable: “Isn’t your life extremely flat when you’ve nothing whatever to protest at!” And there are the three ignorant housewives: “Politics we bar, they are not our bent; on the whole we are not intelligent.” Later, after some consciousness-raising, they throw away all their bras, girdles, and made-up. “This brassiere, truth to tell, may look uncommon well, but in a fight it’s much too tight; it’s like a lobster shell.” Then there are the three liberal feminists who want to wage revolution “most politely,” and overthrow male-rule without offending anyone. I find it telling that these excellent feminist types are all male characters in Gilbert’s libretto. The only feminist type in female guise is the separatist princess herself.

Oh yeah, I did mention lesbian separatism, didn’t I? It’s here, even though G&S certainly didn’t plan it that way. Here’s the tale: Some time vaguely in the Middle Ages, their respective royal parents arrange for Princess Ida, aged one, to marry Prince Hilarion, aged two. As the show opens Ida is twenty-one and it’s time for her to move in with Hilarion so they can do their dynastic duty. But somewhere along the line Ida has decamped to Castle Adamant with a hundred female students, plus faculty, all of whom have vowed never to have anything to do with men for the rest of their lives. For those of us who remember the 1970s, this will sound oddly familiar. Naturally, the guys can’t leave well enough alone. Hilarion and two of his frat buddies sneak into the castle, put on women’s academic robes, and try to pass themselves off as women, just as if they were at a music festival or something. This does not work, though the boys do get a chance to dance the Macarena and discuss global warming. The more male chauvinist of Hilarion’s pals wins over one of the younger students (who has a thing for beards), while the other pal gets drunk. Hilarion sings rapturously about having Ida chain him up, and she obliges by packing him off to a dungeon. Meanwhile Hi’s father has taken Ida’s dysfunctional family hostage and is threatening war. A lot of genuinely funny stuff goes on before Ida finally exhausts all her options and is compelled give in graciously, as a princess should, politely claiming to love Hilarion. The script makes it clear, however, that Ida will soon be back at Castle Adamant with Lady Psyche and her girl students. Maybe Hilarion will be able to get something going with his drunken pal Cyril.

Eight hundred words already! And I haven’t had a chance to say anything about Tennyson, or the map I drew as one of the props, or my rehearsal sketches, or the international reputation of the Seattle G&S Society, or what the strip-tease has to do with the Iliad. Someone will just have to ask me.

Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society: http://www.pattersong.org/
G&S Archive: Princess Ida

27 comments:

shadocat said...

Wow, Jana, you're giving me quite an education on Gilbert and Sullivan. I've seen "The Mikado". "The H.M.S. Pinafore". and of course "The Pirates of Penzance", but that was long ago, in my wayward youth. Somewhere, I have a recording of a production of "Pinafore" with Linda Ronstadt as the leading lady.

An operetta with parallels to lesbian separatism? THAT should be interesting......

shadocat said...

Oh---and what DOES the striptease have to do with the Iliad?

Maggie Jochild said...

When I worked at the cancer clinic, where 50% of the patients coming in the door were statistically likely to die, we kept ourselves going (and emotionally accessible) by gallows humor. Among the staff, of course.

One of our chief outlets was a singing group, created by me, who performed songs set to pop music tunes but with new lyrics. We also kept the doctors away from g*d complexes by lampooning them in these ditties. For one performance, I worked for weeks on new lyrics to "I Am The Walrus", which has a fascinating and brilliant meter, a cadence I began noticing as very English and which came to profoundly affect my own poetry. Around that time, I saw the amazing Mike Leigh's story of G&S, "Topsy-Turvy", which made me start comparing their abilities to that of Lennon and McCartney. A comparison that continues on for me currently.

My only exposure to opera, per se, occurred during a few years in San Fran when I was friends with a man named Kenny and his lover Baby. They were both intellectual Jewish gay men from New York, living in the upper Haight, and from half a block away I could usually hear the opera pulsing from their house like gangsta rap coming from a low-rider. Their sound system had speakers in every room of their flat, and they liked their opera to jangle the cells of your body. They would shout over it to converse, unless I insisted it get turned down, at which point they'd snicker at me and move the dial a fraction. One day I arrived and didn't get an answer to the doorbell, but the door was bulging in and out with opera, so I let myself in. I found them huddled on the floor of the hall, weeping helplessly over something from "Der Rosenkavalier".

They fought often, and viciously, and this was shouted over opera as well. Kenny was always trying to teach me plots and lyrics. He was (and is) a gifted poet, and is now a very famous writer on disability issues. He maintained opera was the pop music of its day. But I didn't listen to the pop music of my own day any more. For me, it was Alix, Holly, Margie, Cris, Robin, Trish, Naomi, Nancy, and Casselberry & Dupree.

Kenny was born without some essential long leg bones, so his torso was that of a rather large, muscular male and his lower half was abbreviated. In the way of Western medicine, he had been forced into many surgeries and long painful PT as a child to force him to learn how to walk -- walk at all costs, that's their motto. So he struggled around hilly SF, a beautiful, hilarious man. Early on, he nicknamed me Megless, chiefly I think for the thrill of announcing us when we arrived at a gathering as "Here we are, Megless and Legless!" Never failed to horrify, which sent him into glee.

Likewise, Baby's real name (Alan) was early on changed by Kenny to Baby, said with such sweetness that we all began pronouncing it that way. Baby had some great stories about trying to come out as a teenager. My favorite involved his practice of masturbating with cucumbers from the garden, which he would then put in the salad drawer of the fridge unwashed as a kind of "fuck you" to his parents. I heard, years later, that Baby died of AIDS.

My strongest memory of them was the time I was persuaded to take them camping for the first time in their hothouse-urban lives. I had to haul all the equipment, do all the set-up and cooking, and yes, they took a boombox and played Madame Butterfly in the redwoods, their version of communing with nature. They were up all night, shrieking that varmints were trying to get into their tent, while I tried to sleep on the ground and reminded myself "Cross-cultural relationships are good for building character."

Jana C.H. said...

In Book 19 of the Iliad (I looked it up), Achilles’ mother, a sea goddess, brings her son a special suit of armor made by the smith god Hephaestus. Homer gives us a detailed description—not too long—of Achilles putting it on, piece by piece. This is known as “The Arming of the Hero,” and is a motif found throughout Western literature.

With the Handel number, Gilbert and Sullivan are parodying this scene by having the warriors remove their armor piece by piece, describing each bit as it comes off. The song concludes with: “These things I treat the same; / I quite forget their name. / They turn one’s legs to cribbage pegs; / Their aid I thus disclaim, their aid I thus disclaim, / Though I forget their name, though I forget their name, / Their a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-aid, their aid I thus disclaim.” Gilbert knew there would be plenty of people in the audience with classical educations who would get the joke at once. Otherwise there’s no reason for them to remove their armor, except to explain how it is that Hilarion and his two pals defeat them so quickly.

One of the difficulties with producing Princess Ida is that the Three Stooges must have workable armor with helmet, breastplate, arm pieces, and leg pieces. And it has to look reasonably good because of all the attention drawn to it in this song. Seattle G&S Society uses real metal armor that was specially made for a long ago production of Ida. It is featured on the poster for this show, which you can see at the Seattle G&S website.

The armor looks great, but keeping it from clanking too much while it’s being removed is a problem of its own. It is carried off-stage by two supernumeraries called the Daughters of the Plough, servants at Ida’s university. They are played by men in dresses and fright wigs; no attempt is made to fool the audience into thinking they’re actually women. This play is full of gender-bending. Bet you didn’t know G&S had it in them.

Jana C.H.
Seattle
Saith WSG: This helmet, I suppose, is meant to ward off blows.

shadocat said...

Jana; you're right---I HAVE seen that "Arming of the Hero" routine many times, most recently I believe in that Tom Cruise movie, "The Last Samurai." I think my most favorite version was in the movie "Cat Ballou," when Kid Shilleen is being armed for battle against the silvernosed bully (who was also his twin brother).

Maggie your story reminded me of something that happened when I worked as a unit secretary at a local hospital:

Most of the doctors had god complexes, and one of the worst offenders was a Dr. Henry. On one particularly stressful day, he was spewing commands, then turned on his heel and proceeded to storm off. A nurse who'd been trying all night to connect with him, caught sight, and started running down the hall after him shouting, "Doctor, doctor!" I looked at my coworker---I couldn't resist. I sung out "Gimme the news,", then three other nurses joined us in a song and dance rendition of "I've Got A Bad Case Of Loving You." Dr. H, actually laughed; and although his heart didn't grow 3 sizes that day, or anything like that, he was a bit more "human" when he was on our unit.

Jana C.H. said...

Last night was final dress rehearsal for Princess Ida, the first performance with anything approaching a real audience. It went well, with most of the glitches getting out of the way in the first act. Nothing serious: a couple of pieces of armor dropped, a lost toupee, a forgotten prop (my map!), and the show delayed for twenty minutes while Dave Ross, who plays Ida’s father, was stuck in traffic. In the days before cell phones, the last item would have been occasion for major panic; but knowing what was going on seemed to reduce it to minor panic, and the preview audience (made up mostly of G&S Society members) was understanding.

Anyway, what could we expect but glitches? During warm-up Bernie Kwiram, the music director, let slip the name of a certain Scottish opera based on a Shakespearian play. Say the word “MacBeth” in a theatre and you’re sure to get bad luck, or so goes the superstition. Never mind that King Gama was already stuck in traffic before the fatal word was spoken. Curses take no heed of trivial things like cause and effect. So I’m not worried about opening night being Friday the 13th; we’ve had our bad luck already.

I mentioned my map, left on the prop table last night. At the end of Act I, Hilarion and his pals, preparing to travel to Castle Adamant, consult a map. (It’s not in the script; it’s just stage business.) A piece of parchment-like paper with a few scribbles on it would do the job as far as the audience is concerned, but I couldn’t leave it at that. I got it into my head to draw a map of the North Olympic Peninsula in the style of Christopher Saxton, a 16th century English cartographer (http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/june2002.html).

I picked the Olympic Peninsula for two reasons: First, I grew up there, and so did Scott Rittenhouse, who plays Hilarion. Second, I originally considered doing Puget Sound, but Saxton indicates cities by clusters of tiny buildings, and I dreaded the thought of drawing enough buildings to show Seattle and its suburbs. The Olympic Peninsula has mountains instead, which are much easier to draw, especially since I wasn’t as careful with my cross-hatching as Saxton was. I also followed Saxton in using Latin, though I make no promises about my accuracy. I did my best with a hundred-year-old Latin dictionary and Wheelock’s Latin Grammar. I hope “Opera Sasquatchi Volatilis” is a reasonable translation of “Flying Sasquatch Productions”.

I had my map scanned at Kinko’s before I soaked it in tea and krinkled it up to make it look old, but it’s too large to post here on the MOC. Maybe one of the other Divas has a place on the net where it can be posted and we can set up a link. Sister Divas?

Newspaper preview of Princess Ida: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/theater/323465_clas13.html

Pamish said...

Triskaidekaphobia - a morbid fear of the number 13 and especially Friday the 13th. Clearly we have all risen above this. Its roots are xtian - 13 at last supper, friday the execution day, double whammy. Aren't covens meant to have 13 in? So this is an extra auspicious day for witchy women.

Maggie Jochild said...

Your story, Shado, about singing your doctor out of his self-importance, reminded me of a long-running siege I and a nurse at the cancer clinic waged on the most homophobic doctor there. This guy -- we'll call him Dr. M. -- was very uncomfortable around me because I was out, and when his nurse, Kathy, and I became close friends, he had a hard time believing she wasn't somehow succumbing to the lures of lesbianism. At first, Kathy, her husband and I were all entertained by this, but Kathy (a great ally) apparently heard more of his crap than I did and she began pushing back at him.

At one company performance, we did the song Lola (by the Kinks) but changed the lyrics so it was about Dr. M. being attracted to transvestites. Then we took it a step further and began implying, wherever we could, that Dr. M. was a transvestite himself. He was a tall, burly, ex-football player, so the joke was even funnier. We began hiding large-sized women's lingerie in his desk drawer or his exam room cupboards, which he'd run across sometimes with a patient in the room.

The entire staff eventually got in on it, and the crowning event was when Kathy became friends with a talented drag queen here named Kelly. Kelly was extremely convincing as a woman, and after Kathy told her the saga of Dr. M., she offered to help us in our prank. I created a fake medical file for Kelly, having her referred to us from a Houston clinic for breast cancer. The officer manager, in on the joke, created all the fake financial forms and intake sheets. We got her an appointment one afternoon, and Kathy coached Kelly on what to say. When she took Kelly into the exam room before Dr. M. came in to examine her, Kathy set up a tape recorder hidden on a shelf in there. We all tried to act nonchalant as Dr. M. bumbled down the hall, looked at the chart, then went into the room and shut the door. The entire clinic came to a screeching halt -- some of the other nurses had told their patients what was going on, so there was quite a crowd clustered at the nurses' station to see what transpired.

Dr. M. was not a very hands-on kind of guy, and relatively oblivious to innuendo, so the oral history in that room went on for quite a while. Kelly did a bang-up job. Eventually she came out to Dr. M. as a male who dressed as a female, and she told us later at that instant Dr. M. scooted his stool backwards across the floor, reflexively putting distance between him and Kelly. (Truly, he deserved the torment we put him through.) He never did catch on; finally Kathy had to burst into the room and tell him it was a joke. When he came out, his face was bright red and he was furious, but all the other doctors and the clinic manager were standing there laughing their asses off, and he had to try to be graceful about it. Kelly was in hysterics, and I'm sure she's telling the story to this day.

A few months later, we had our annual Christmas party on a big houseboat floating around Lake Travis (mild winters here, what can I say?) We performed a new set of songs, and everyone was waiting for the number that would reference the prank. But Kathy waited until the end, when she turned on the boat's loudspeaker system and played back for everyone the tape she'd secretly made in the exam room. I was there with a date, and oh, it was a truly hilarious moment.

shadocat said...

Jana; How have the "official" performances of "Princess Ida" been going? Your experiences remind me of my theatre geek days in my "previous life"; never did any operettas, but did do a musical or two...

After reading your entry, I too would like to see that map. My far more tech savvy daughter is coming by this afternoon---if there's anyone who knows how to do this, it would be her.

And BTW---great picture!

Maggie Jochild said...

Just to let opera/art fans know -- this week on PBS, Wednesday on my local channel, is an hour-long profile of David Hockney and his career designing opera sets.

Maggie Jochild said...

David Letterman contributed to our opera theme last night. One of his guests was Michel Lauziere,
"Master of the Unusual", who played March of the Toreadors from the opera Carmen on in-line skates on 53rd Avenue using over 300 wine bottles, 16 golf balls, 16 mousetraps, some coathangers, wooden dowels, and cake pans. You'll never see anything like this again. You can view the clip at
http://www.cbs.com/latenight/lateshow/dave_tv/comedyclips/index/php/comedyclips.phtml -- scroll down till you find the one for Michel Lauziere.

Ginjoint said...

The first time I saw an opera, at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, I realized about an hour into it that I had to make a mental adjustment. I kept expecting the pace to mirror that of contemporary entertainment, in which a lot happens in 22 minutes. Instead, in opera, in can take 20 minutes just for a character to say, "I'm sad!" or "DAMMIT, that pissed me off!" Once I accepted that and stopped getting impatient (and started enjoying the ride instead), I found I really like opera. But I've never seen anything by G&S.

little gator said...

when he wrote "love, nightmare-like, lies heavy on my chest, and weaves its way into my midnight slumbers", i doubt he knew that it would apply literally to my cat Reka Mao, who loved sleeping on human chests.

Except for that one time when I was dreaming I was in a dungeon with huge chains on my ankles, and woke to find it was only a sleepy Reka Mao.

She was a black Siamese mix. First we named her Eureka, then added the Mao because that's what she said all the time, and finally shortened to Reka Mao.

Jana C.H. said...

Forget triskaidekaphobia! Opening night of Princess Ida was one of the best opening nights I've seen. Okay, so someone's cell phone went off just before the third act finale, but the performance was tight --”blank verse and all--” with no forgotten props or missed lines, and the reviews have been hot.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer review
Seattle Times review (includes photo)

It occurred to me while working on this production is that Princess Ida is one of the few operas that fulfill all three parts of Bechdel's Rule: the story contains two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Princess Ida and her second-in-command Lady Blanche talk to each other ostensibly about abstract philosophy; in fact they're engaged in a power struggle over who will run the university. Unlike some of Gilbert's battle-ax contraltos, Blanche is not interested in men; she's interested in power. Her daughter Melissa is as straight as they come, but I think Lady Blanche is one of those women who came out in her forties. We hear nothing about her husband, but it can't be for nothing that she has taught Melissa that men are hideous, idiotic, and deformed. Yes Blanche takes over the school at the end of the show, but it probably won't last. Ida will return!

For last Saturday's matinee, I was not behind the video camera. I was a regular audience member, along with my two brothers and their families. Including a nephew's girlfriend there were eight of us, up in the balcony. Although you don't see the acting as close-up, there was a lot of action I saw from the balcony that I never saw from orchestra level. For years I've been taking my brothers and their families to see Gilbert and Sullivan every summer, but this is the first time they've both come to the same performance. Christmastime and G&S are the only times I can be sure of seeing my brothers, and sometimes not at Christmas.

It's good to start 'em young on opera, though not essential. I discovered G&S in college and expanded to other operas a few years later. I have now reached the contributor's level at Seattle Opera that one of my perks is a pair of tickets to one dress rehearsal per year. I've been taking my eldest nephew, Josh, who is now at the University of Washington. From G&S to Mozart to --who knows, this year? Puccini, Bellini, Gluck, maybe even Herr Wagner. (No comedies this year. Rats!)

Ginjoint nailed it when she said one has to get used to the form of opera, and opera comes in lots of styles. This season in Seattle The Flying Dutchman by Wagner will be quite a different piece of theatre from Iphigenia in Tauris by Gluck. G&S is closer to musicals than most opera, but it's not the same. Shado, the show you heard with Linda Ronstadt was done Broadway-style a couple of decades ago. It worked okay, but some G&S fans still cringe over that bit of casting. It's a parody of Italian opera, especially Verdi, and Mabel is supposed to be a true coloratura soprano, which Linda Ronstadt is not. Well, they needed a big name, I guess. Or at least a medium-sized one.

I bought my niece Emily a backpack emblazoned with the coat-of-arms of Adamant University (Go Diamonds!), but none for the nephews. Castle Adamant is a girls school. After the show the crowd of us went out for dessert, and my younger brother and I split a key lime tart. Not Trotskyist, I fear: it was drizzled with decadent bourgeois raspberry topping. To avoid a struggle session for this lapse, I promise to find a recipe for Leninist Lemon Bars the next time I visit my mother's cookbook library.

Tonight I'll be in the audience again, hosting two of my friends from grad school, also a regular tradition with me. If you're in the Seattle area, the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society is where it's at every July.

Jana C.H.
Seattle
Saith Bellini: Mr. Wagner has beautiful moments but bad quarters of an hour.

Maggie Jochild said...

Damn, Jana, those reviews are rockin'. If I lived in Seattle, I most definitely would be coming to the show. In fact, I'm going to have the characters in my novel, Myra and Ginny, go to Princess Ida with their formerly-sep friends. Should be a fun conversation afterward.

shadocat said...

Wow woman, great review! I swear, every time you write about the going's on in Seattle, i just want to pack up and move there.

So how do you feel about American operas, vs. their European cousins? I find myself more drawn to the home grown version, but that's probably because I understand the language, and I'm usually more familiar with the subject matter.My favorite is "The Ballad of Baby Doe"---if I had the voice, I'd love to play the first Mrs.Tabor,

Back to the foriegn operas, have you heard about the one done recently in London, based on "The Jerry Springer Show?" I have a strange desire to check that one out.

Jana C.H. said...

Another G&S weekend gone by, and one more to go. On Thursday I was off-duty again, in the audience with my friends Simone and Stanley. They were grad students in geography with me in the 1980s, and, unlike me, are both still working in their field. Simone owns Wide World Books and Maps, a travel bookstore in Seattle (www.travelbooksandmaps.com). Sometimes I think I’m supporting it single-handed, since every time I stop by to say “Hi” to Simone I end up buying something. Stanley is an actual geography professor and knows Western China like the back of his hand. (How well does he know the back of his hand? I’ve never asked.)

We went backstage after the show to check out the giant globe that was made for Princess Ida’s classroom. Papier mache over a medicine ball and held in a wooden framework, it has dragons, sailing ships, a tiny Space Needle over Seattle, a misspelling of Labrador, Greenland labeled as “Algoreland”, and a version of one of Gilbert’s own drawings over England. Betcha didn’t know Gilbert was an artist as well as a poet and a dramatist. The drawing of the Lady and the Ape at the head of the thread is one Gilbert’s later works. His earlier cartoons were wild and outrageous, but in his respectable old age he was embarrassed by them, and changed his style. Here are some examples of his early stuff:

http://www.fathom.com/feature/122041/2093_gilbert_SM.jpg
http://dolphin.upenn.edu/~psingers/alumni/HMS1.gif
http://www.pep-web.org/document.php?id=paq.45.01100.fig_1.jpg
http://web.ukonline.co.uk/ajcrowth/rival.JPG
http://math.boisestate.edu/gas/bab_ballads/images/dream/dream.gif

Maggie, if you need any G&S advice for your novel, feel free to ask. Or take a look at the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive (http://math-cs.boisestate.edu/gas/). It is loaded with info. Another good G&S opera for gay conversation is my personal favorite, Iolanthe. All but one of the female characters are fairies—the kind with wings—and the hero is half a fairy, which does him no good at all. “What’s the use of being half a fairy? My body can creep through a keyhole, but what’s the good of that when my legs are left kicking behind? I can make myself invisible down to the waist, but that’s of no use when my legs remain exposed to view! My brain is a fairy brain, but from the waist downwards I’m a gibbering idiot. My upper half is immortal, but my lower half grows older every day, and some day or other must die of old age. What’s to become of my upper half when I’ve buried my lower half I really don’t know!” It is, among other things, a parody of Wagner. P.S. to Little Gator: I love the Nightmare Song from Iolanthe. It is a true G&S masterpiece.

Shado, I like operas in English, whether American or British. It comes from starting out with G&S, and being a serious word nerd. I also have the perverted notion that an opera is a play, and there’s no point in going to see a play if you don’t know what the people are talking about. Now, of course, we have super-titles, so there’s not a problem. I saw The Ballad of Baby Doe at Seattle Opera some years ago and enjoyed it a lot though I don’t remember many details. Just a couple of years ago I saw The End of the Affair by American composer Jake Heggie, and liked it well enough to see it a second time. That’s quite a lot of liking, when you consider the price of opera tickets, even the cheap ones. The Seattle production of The End of the Affair was the only third time it had been done, and Heggie said he considered this the final version. One of the good things about the newest modern operas is that melody is finally coming back to classical music, along with (dare I say it?) harmony. It’s about time.

Many thanks to Maggie for posting my comments (and the Flying Sasquatch) while I have been on vacation and away from my work computer. I write the stuff at home, but I have to post it at work because eBlogger won’t let me log on from my Mac. I don’t know why.

Jana C.H.
Seattle
Saith WSG: I don’t want to say a thing against brains. I have a great respect for brains. I often wish I had some myself.

shadocat said...

Jana; thanks for teaching me so much about G&S! And glad you share my opinion of operas in English---if you can't understand what's going on, what's the point?

I'm telling you, Seattle is looking better and better to me...

little gator said...

Opera in English-eurgh. Not at the concept, but the memory. My mandatory 8th grade(age 14 or so for nonUSAns) "nusic appreciation" class was deadly boring and the teacher was just plain nasty.

"The Medium" was on the curriculum beacuse it was the only opera ever written in english(she said), and I found it painfully unpleasant.

Worse, she alos taught us to hate the Mikado. She told us to our boredlittle faces that we should not be allowed to know about it since we were too young and stupid to understand G&S(who were not "opera"). I know I seemed dazed and stupid but I get that way when soemeone overexplains obvious jokes.

It recall thinking it had possibilities and when I saw it on tv a year later I was pleased to see I'd been right. Of course our class recording had singers who took it as seriously as if they were a church choir. And I hate even worse when actors do that to Shakespeare's comedies.

Did you know Groucho Marx adored G&S?

shadocat said...

gator, I DID know that about Groucho! I remember as a little bitty shado, the very first production of "The Mikado" that I ever saw, was a televison production starring the Grouch. I used to wonder if those G&S rapid fire deliveries and nonsensical lyrics influenced him in his early years, and now I'm sure of it.

I know he was a perfect shit in his personal life, but I've always been a little bit in love with the public Groucho...

Jana C.H. said...

The Medium is the only opera ever written in English, is it? Maybe it was the only one available at the school library, but Gian Carlo Menotti (1911- ), who wrote The Medium, has composed a dozen or so operas in English, the best known of which is Amahl and the Night Visitors, usually seen at Christmas.

An early and famous English composer of opera is Henry Purcell (1659-1695). His only true opera is Dido and Eneas, a short work of sex and suicide that was originally performed in a girl’s school. You don’t see it performed much today (mostly because it’s so short) but it’s a gem of a piece. He also wrote opera-like masques, among them The Fairy Queen, The Indian Queen, King Arthur and Timon of Athens. I own recordings of all of them. English baroque opera is something of an acquired taste, but I somehow managed to acquire it in my early days as a G&S fan while searching for more English operas.

If you want operas with gay undertones, look no further than Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), who wrote most of the tenor parts in his operas for his life-partner, Peter Pears. The Britten operas I have seen are Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, and a film version of Death in Venice. Billy Budd is unusual in that it has an all-male cast, being set aboard a British man of war in the late 18th Century. I heard tell of one director who was so determined that his production of Billy Budd would have no gay subtext that he demanded of the chorus and principals, “Don’t look at each other!” Of course it was the gayest Billy Budd ever, since all the men were ferociously concentrating on not looking at each other.

A favorite of mine is The Beggar’s Opera, a ballad opera with libretto by John Gay (1685-1732) It is sometimes listed under the name of John Christopher Pepusch, the musical arranger, but it really has no composer. The music consists of popular songs (some by known composers, including Purcell) to which Gay wrote new words. Nowadays we call it filking. The producer of The Beggar’s Opera was one John Rich, and a saying of the day said the opera “made Gay rich and Rich gay.” It almost single-handedly killed the craze for Italian opera in England. The Three-penny Opera by Brecht and Weill is based on it; I’m sure you know one song from that show: “Mack the Knife”.

And what discussion of opera in English would be complete without George Gershwin (1898-1937)? Porgy and Bess has a libretto by his brother Ira (1896-1983), who wrote a lot of lyrics and libretti for his baby bro. Ira is a favorite of mine; he openly acknowledged his debt to Gilbert. His libretto for Strike up the Band (CD available from the Smithsonian) even has a pattersong for comic baritone about how he is a “genuine first-rate American”. One interesting kink about Porgy and Bess is that George Gershwin’s will specifies that all the black characters in the show (which is practically everyone) be played by black singers. You don’t see blackface in opera any more, but in Gershwin’s day it was quite usual.

Wow, I think I’ve lectured quite enough for one day. Last night’s Ida was a truly hot performance with a truly hot audience. Audience response does make a difference in how the cast performs. Thursday performances are Family Nights for the G&S Society, and they seem to have unusually responsive audiences. Must be the kids.

Jana C.H.
Seattle
Saith WSG: They sing choruses in public. That’s mad enough, I think!

Maggie Jochild said...

Wow, Jana, I love the lessons in opera I'm getting from this blog! As far as I'm concerned, keep the lectures coming. And all the interconnections are fascinating.

The first movie I saw with my high school history teacher, before we became lovers and I became a mother to her daughter, was Cabaret. It surely changed my life (for its time, the "outness" of the Michael York character was shocking), not the least of which was that it drove me to find the origins of the screenplay, The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. A brilliant book, far superior to the twice-adulterated screenplay, it is actually two novels in one, Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin. The latter book begins with the extremely famous lines "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed." With these words, Isherwood ushered in a completely new approach to writing fiction.

I've related strongly to Herr Issyvoo ever since -- he went to Berlin for the boys, I went to San Fran for the girls. We are/were both Kinsey 6's who insist on writing in our own voice. And, of course, Christopher and Auden were close friends with Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day-Lewis (father of Daniel Day-Lewis). All of whom, apparently, liked the boys at various times in their lives, if not continuously.

On a different note: When my family returned from Calcutta and I was shocked to find out I was, in fact, American and white to boot, I struggled with cultural dissonance for quite a while. But whenever we drove in our Chevy, the number one song on the radio gave me a feeling of welcome and community connection: Bobby Darren singing "Maggie, Maggie's back in town!" My mother never told me he was actually saying "Macky"; I didn't find out until I was a teenager. I still like my version better.

And I've always wondered if there's a connection between "Fancy gloves, though, wears old MacHeath, babe /
So there’s nevah, nevah a trace of red" and Judy Grahn's famous poem:

I'm not a girl
I'm a hatchet
I'm not a hole
I'm a whole mountain
I'm not a fool
I'm a survivor
I'm not a pearl
I'm the Atlantic Ocean
I'm not a good lay
I'm a straight razor
Look at me as if you had never seen a woman before
I have red, red hands and much bitterness

shadocat said...

Jana, i must confess; when I first read you were going to discuss this topic, I didn't think I knew very much about Gilbert & Sullivan, and I wouldn't have much to say. Since then, my eyes have been opened, and I've realized two things: #1. I actually DO know a little bit about G&S,operas and operettas, I just needed my memory jogged, and #2. I really enjoyed learning more!

And how could I forget "Porgy and Bess"? I loved the fact that Gershwin's will specified every black charachter be portrayed by a black singer! He was truly a man before his time...

Gershwin's work was some of the first "grown-up" music I ever listened to; my parents only had a few records for many years, and many of them were of Gershwin's music. They had a recording of "Porgy" made in the fifties, that I played over and over, and I memorized many of the songs. I used to love to sing them at the top of my voice, doing the best I could to imitate them. I know I did get a strange look from the lady next door once, all because I was out on the back porch one summer morning, belting out, "Bess, You is My Woman Now" (I was about 8)

Maggie Jochild said...

Shado, now that we have a photo of you, I can almost imagine an 8-year-old version of you ardently crooning "Oh my Bessie, we is one now"! If we had a Pensieve, we could call it up as a foretelling.

John Brookes said...

Hi Jana,

I enjoyed your VERY literate and funny review, and thank you again for the beautiful map (which I will keep with my "Princess Ida" keepsakes).

I'll probably see you when the DVD is unveiled, if not before.

Regards,

John Brookes

Jana C.H. said...

John, thanks for checking out the MOC! I hope you continue to look in on us once in a while. Any comments on the "gingerism" thread which follows this? After all, you qualify.

My fellow Orangists, John played the role of Cyril, one of the frat boys, in Princess Ida. He was also a gaily hilarious Grosvenor in Seattle G&S's Patience two years ago. I still owe him and Dave Ross an ink drawing of their characters from that production. It's on my drawing board, uncompleted, alas!.

I have a CD of photos from the production, and will try to figure out how to make some of them available. Any advice from the technophiliacs among us? This thread isn't closed yet!

Jana C.H.
Seattle
Saith WSG: It is my hideous destiny to be madly loved at first sight by every woman I meet.

Maggie Jochild said...

Some threads will NEVER die. (I hope.)

Jana, I'd recommend going to Flickr, registering for an account (easy and free), and uploading your photos there using their uploader tool. Then, come here and post the URL. I for one will be watching for it.