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Thoughtful analyses of the arts and workplace issues, with some poop jokes

McKayla Maroney is not impressed with modern art or Christian showboating

Above, and below, my contributions to the “McKayla is not impressed” meme. The editor at the original McKayla is not impressed tumblr was not impressed by these.

“Eight million dollars for THAT?”

My favorite at the original tumblr? This one.

Not everyone is happy with the Curiosity landing

Unequal protection: The rise of corporate dominance and the theft of human rights — Thom Hartmann

An easy-to-read overview of how the founding fathers mistrusted corporations (the Boston Tea Party wasn’t so much about protesting taxes in general as it was about cheap tea was being taxed, forcing colonial merchants to purchase it exclusively from the East India Company; corporate charters were rarely granted at first, and they could be and were revoked by the issuing states when corporations exceeded their authority or corrupted government officials—Andrew Jackson ran on a platform of revoking the charter of the Second National Bank), and how corporations gradually achieved power in the U.S., primarily through the railroads suing for human rights under the 14th amendment, up to the present time, where corporations have created a serious inequity through global treaties which supersede federal laws, and through Supreme Court rulings granting them protections under the Bill of Rights (corporate donations to political campaigns are protected under “Freedom of speech”). I’m not convinced all of Hartmann’s facts are valid, and he often states his own theories for what transpired instead of relying exclusively on contemporary evidence.

The book concludes with the hope that rights never intended for “artifical persons” should be rescinded, and he offers sample laws and constitutional amendments which can be passed at the local and state level, with the aim of bringing a case before the Supreme Court in order to achieve rulings denying corporations human rights.

Truthout appears to have serialized the complete book on their web site.

Recommendation: While Unequal Protection provides a good summary of the rise of corporations in the U.S.,  Gangs of America by Ted Nace covers the same ground with even more history, and is also better researched. If you want to read just one book on the history of corporate power in America, skip Unequal Protection and go straight to Ted Nace’s book.

What classical CDs do you recommend to your friends who know nothing about classical music?

Over at the LA Weekly you may read my list of classical music recordings that one may give to just about any open-minded listener not familiar with the genre. Many of the usual suspects are on it, but some of the recommendations may surprise you.

Check it out here.

I’m curious to learn what recordings you’ve recommended to your friends, in the comments section at the Weekly or immediately below.

The Gospel According to The Other Mary

The new John Adams/Peter Sellars collaboration, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, had its world premiere last night in Los Angeles. I wrote a preview for the LA Weekly which you may read here.

I posted links to different reviews of the work at sequenza21. (Was I right about that cimbalom or what?) I’ll be viewing the Sunday performance and will report on it in a separate post at sequenza21.

If you saw it, let me know what you think!

Maurice Sendak’s Opera Librettos

Karen Beardsley as Max in the 1990 LA Opera production of Where the Wild Things Are

The great author and illustrator Maurice Sendak passed away this week. While most of his obituaries mentioned his design work for operas and ballets, not as much attention was focused on the librettos and designs he did for two wonderful operas by Oliver Knussen. I reviewed the American premiere of Higglety Pigglety Pop! and the West Coast premiere of Where The Wild Things Are. Both operas have been sadly neglected by opera companies; I believe that Higglety Pigglety Pop! is one of the great operas of our time. Sendak’s operatic adaptations are brilliant, remaining true to his books, yet artfully and efficiently reimagining the stories for the stage.

This review first appeared in the La Jolla Light on June 28, 1990; I was very new at journalism then, and I’ve fixed a couple sentences that made me cringe upon re-reading. The original sentiments and opinions, however, remain.

Opera brings Sendak’s characters to life

The Los Angeles Music Center Opera recently presented two one-act operas by the noted, young British composer/conductor Oliver Knussen, with libretti and designs by Maurice Sendak. While Where the Wilds Things Are (1983) had previously been performed by the Minnesota Opera in 1985, the Los Angeles Music Center’s production of Higglety Pigglety Pop! was the American premiere.

Judging by the near capacity house Sunday afternoon full of eager children and smiling parents, one would never have suspected that one was about to listen to (Shudder! Gulp!) modern music. Sendak was clearly the attraction for the audience; many of the young adults were no doubt just as keen to see Max rumpus with the Wild Things as their offspring were.

No one seemed disappointed. Sendak’s world magically appeared on stage–his costumes and sets were literal translations of his drawings, and the difficult task of adapting his “once upon a time” narrations into dialogue was splendidly realized. Director Frank Corsaro and the largely brilliant cast of singers helped bring Sendak’s beloved characters to life.

Knussen’s scores struck me as his most colorful and accessible to date. Higglety Pigglety Pop! invokes many different composers—Mussorgsky, Debussy, Berg, Britten, and Mozart—while retaining a strong sense of Knussen’s personality.

The music frequently underscored characters and their actions, sometimes via leitmotives. There was “horse-and-buggy” music replete with sleigh bells. When Jenny, the canine protagonist, fainted (or pretended to), the music appropriately swooned in a mad, downward rush. When a doorbell was rung on stage, a horrendous clanging set the mood for Jenny’s encounter with the tantrum-prone Baby.

The music heard at the onset of the nursery scene was a sweet invocation of Mozart; when the devilish Baby appeared, one or two other innocent-sounding tunes were superimposed to form perverse dissonances. The Lion’s music was appropriately “terrifying,” using low brass, tam-tam, and cymbal crashes, and two powerful male voices singing in parallel. Knussen’s orchestration was always imaginative.

Cynthia Buchan’s portrayal of Jennie, the Sealyham terrier, was all the more impressive in light of her sweet voice always clearly audible despite its emerging from a small hole in a dog suit. She conveyed her character’s dramatic inflections well, including a growling gruffness during her spoken lines. After a while, it truly seemed as if there was a dog on stage magically singing arias.

Mel Whitehead (the Pig) was a strong bass; Greg Fedderly (the Cat), a brilliant tenor. All of the singers in both operas, with the exception of Dale Wendell’s pinched and screechy coloratura, had excellent diction, making the use of supertitles superfluous (except for one clever moment of staging where the supertitles were silently “reading” a playbill.)

Karen Beardsley’s bravura portrayal of Max carried Where the Wild Things Are. She was on stage throughout the entire work, cavorting rambunctiously and spunkily intimidating Wild Things, yet always in beautiful control of her voice. Knussen’s score owes a large musical debt to Debussy and Ravel, and much of the musical material is generated from the famous alternating dominant sevenths from the Coronation scene in Boris Godunov (a borrowing made parodistically apparent during Max’s own coronation). Max’s infamous Wild Rumpus sounded like an inventively mad mixture of Mussorgsky and West Side Story.

The 10-foot-tall Wild Things stole the show with their rolling eyes, sniffing noses, and palpably beating hearts. A sonically isolated booth in the pit contained five of the Wild Things’ voices, which were then broadcast over loudspeakers. The amplification worked well, making their snorts, inarticulate mumbles, and other nonsensical monster sounds heard. At times it sounded as if the Wild Things were singing in Yiddish–or what a child might misremember as Yiddish.

Randall Behr conducted the small orchestra with accuracy, bringing out all of the music’s drama. All in all, I witnessed two remarkable. well-performed works which displayed the fantastic, inventive whole that opera is capable of achieving through its summation of music, libretto and staging.

From the Glyndebourne opera production of Where the Wild Things Are, which you can purchase on DVD here.

Pierre Boulez meets Aaron Copland

Something I created during the latter half of the 1980’s and quietly hung up around the UC San Diego Music Department. I greatly enjoyed learning that Keith Humble was incapacitated with laughter when he first saw this.

A Working Stiff’s Manifesto: a Memoir by Iain Levison

Four years at a quality college, culminating in a B.A. in English, guarantees absolutely no entry into a good job. Iain Levison knows, because it happened to him.

In A Working Stiff’s Manifesto, Levison works his way through dozens of shitty jobs. He works in a fish market without any prior experience (and is fired when his boss realizes he can hire an experienced fish-cutter for less money than he started Levison at). Desperate for work, he pretends to be his roommate when a phone call comes through for a bartending gig. The hostess insists on setting the bar up outside and without lights for a wintertime evening party. No one hangs around outside, and the cold and darkness makes it difficult to serve booze. Levison ends up cutting himself and bleeding into the wine; he then gets the hostess’s teenage neighbor, who is outside serving oysters, thoroughly drunk. Levison sneaks away from the party before anyone can discover that the neighbor’s son is shitfaced or that guests are drinking Levison’s blood. For all his trouble, after the expense of renting a tux and transportation, Levison winds up with a net profit of two dollars.

This book is hilarious yet sad. It was written before 9/11 and the resulting market panic threw the economy into a recession. Think about it—the period of underemployment that Levison describes occurred during one of the greatest economic booms in American history.

Other highlights include:

  • Levison is hired to deliver heating oil to Main Line homes, despite having no training whatsoever in oil delivery. He ends up spilling gallons of oil all over Rosemont and Devon. The most egregious instance has Levison mistaking a decorative statue for an oil receiving-and-storage unit; as he tries to fill up the statue with oil, it explodes.
  • Levison works as a cook in a restaurant, and after his intelligence is noticed by management, he is pressured to become one of them. Despite his better judgement, he agrees and soon realizes how much worse it is to be a manager rather than a cook.

    “The irony of the restaurant industry is that no restaurants ever open up in areas of high unemployment, the logic being that these areas are economically depressed and the local populace doesn’t have the disposable income to spend on luxuries like eating out. This means that anywhere there are people who really need restaurant jobs, the restaurants are fleeing like crazy, only to open in areas where nobody wants to work in them. The result is that every successful restaurant is staffed solely with employees who would rather be somewhere else.”

  • Levison works as an interstate mover. His pet peeve? Customers who don’t request packing in advance, which throws off the schedule for other moves. The worst offender he encounters is a woman who’s in a rush to leave her husband while he’s out of town, hitting the guy with a divorce (and an empty house) when he returns home. Surprise!
  • In Seattle, Levison hears stories of good money to be made in Alaska at a fish processing plant. (He gets screwed by the company when he never receives the return air fare that he was promised). Levison soon discovers that his work consists of nightmarish duties, and his co-workers are dimwitted thugs. In a surreal scene, Levison waits in an empty room only to have tons of fish dropped from overhead without any warning; the first few times, he has to dig himself out of the fish which come up to his chest, until he learns how to lift himself up to avoid getting trapped by them. He has to quickly shovel them down a chute—or another load might drop in and completely smother him. One batch has fish with nasty spines that stick out and puncture him.
  • Years before Deadliest Catch made the public aware of the risks of Alaskan crab fishing as one of the most dangerous occupations around, Levison signs up with a crew in order to make thousands of dollars for a few weeks work. Levison works his ass off, but the ship’s haul is bad, so his pay is affected–the trip is a profit-sharing venture for all of the boat workers. When Levison finally quits, after management deducts expenses like food and boat fuel, his paycheck for the entire venture is $438.

Very funny, good descriptions, and brilliantly captures the despair of bouncing from one loser job to the next after a college degree. If you’ve ever worked a crappy low-paying job, regardless of your secondary education, you’ll appreciate Levison’s vignettes and his slacker attitude towards employers


I don’t know many rich people, but I’ve met enough to know that even the ones who were handed a trust fund think of themselves as special, not lucky. They reinvent the past to include details of their own forbearance and fortitude to anyone who’ll listen, and someone always will because they’re rich. It’s always more entertaining listening to the rich, because there’s always a chance you’ll be asked along to the Bahamas or given a sports car for the weekend. The fact that they’re usually stingier than the people I hang out with takes a while to sink in.

The other great fact about rich people is that their kids are always fuck-ups. Not the kind of lovable fuck-up who works down at the gas station and tells you he can fix your car and then destroys it. No, rich kids are shady. They’re the kind that dream up a brilliant illegal plan, just to show their dad a thing or two; then when you all get caught, they beg their dad for a great lawyer and never talk to you again. They were born into money, and they know money will take care of them. This security gives them a whole different value system, one the rest of world never quite gets.

These half-empty houses, I notice, are mostly dark and quiet, like the set from Citizen Kane. Housewives putter around in the kitchens, and I see their coiffed heads through the window as I hook up my hose to their oil fills. They are usually alone. They never wave. The third great fact about rich people is that they don’t talk to the help. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was bullshit.

Hitler orders from Koch’s Deli

Maybe nobody will remember how bad this production was before

What’s that large white mass stinking up San Diego Opera’s toilet bowl–excuse me, I mean the Civic Theater?

Could it be the bloated corpse of Moby Dick by Jake Heggie?

Nope. That bleached-out piece of crap was flushed down the sewer two months ago. What will float to the surface tomorrow evening in the Civic Theater is an old petrified turd, originally shat out by director John Copley back in 1993. Although there is a new director, Herbert Kellner, SDO promises patrons that Kellner’s vision is based on Copley’s monstrous misconstrual of two great artists, Rossini and Magritte.

I reviewed that 1993 production of The Barber of Seville, and even though I enjoyed the singers and musicians, the show was undermined by the sloppy execution of a half-assed vision. I doubt anything this week’s singers and conductor and musicians bring to the work will redeem the resurrection of this colossal deuce.

Here is my original review, as it appeared in the La Jolla Light on Feb. 4, 1993:

In the old days (so I am told), one went to the opera and heard beautiful singing. There was little concern for staging or set design. The idea of making some kind of dramatic sense of an opera was unheard of. The emphasis was on musical production — if the singers and orchestra were good, their talent carried the story line.

Things have changed now. Movie and theatrical directors have demonstrated that it is possible to make convincing theater out of opera. Singers are expected to act. And designers have found that contemporary opera allows them to indulge their creative whims, unchecked by the dramaturges in theater who might otherwise spoil their fun.

Judging the San Diego Opera’s production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville on old-fashioned, solely musical terms, it could be considered a  success purely on the basis of bringing Australian baritone Jeffreý Black to San Diego. Black possesses a wonderful, full voice, which he used with bravura. He whipped through the tongue-tripping “Largo al factotum” with such verve that at times the orchestra had trouble keeping pace with him. He brought an earnest panache to his role; whenever Black sang, he projected a palpable enthusiasm that was the sonic equivalent to Figaro’s plucky resourcefulness.

Other standouts included Don Bernardini as Count Almaviva, and Kevin Langan as Don Basilio. Bernardini was a supple lyric tenor, whose upper notes were remarkable for their beautiful, soft, smooth tone. Langan was a basso profundissimo, whose lowest notes filled the hall with an enjoyable, almost string-like warmth.

Francois Loup was an enjoyable Dr. Bartolo, but next to Langan, his voice seemed diminished. Delores Ziegler was a capable Rosina, and Roberto Gomez pleasantly sang Fiorello’s opening number.

Conductor Edoardo Muller, who conducted Marriage of Figaro so tastefully last year, once again led the San Diego Opera Orchestra in a skillful, musically sensitive interpretation. The orchestra played flawlessly.

With a knockout lead, a strong supporting cast, and wonderful accompaniment from the pit, this should have been a buoyant Barber of Seville. But it was held down by John Conklin’s inexplicable stage design and John Copley ‘s pedestrian direction.

Conklin’s design is a half-baked pastiche of some of Magritte’s paintings. What is the connection between Magritte and Barber of Seville? None, so far as I can see. Not that this couldn’t have worked. But had Conklin and Copley truly wanted to invoke the spirit of Magritte, they should have explored the language of surrealism more convincingly.

Magritte’s specialty was the unexpected juxtaposition of banal objects–a train and a fireplace, a businessman and an apple. None of this is thoroughly carried out in the staging or design. For instance, the opera opens with a night-lit city landscape set against what could be a daytime sky—obviously a reference to the famous Magritte painting. But then an enormous moon pops into the sky, negating the juxtaposition. Later on in the scene, as a commotion ensues, bowler-topped silhouettes appear in the windows briefly.

These references to Magritte are not integral to the drama. Rather, they suggest nothing so much as the posturing self-indulgence of recent Hollywood films, in which directors advertise the fact that they once took a History of Cinema class with some brief, throwaway reference to a famous movie. It almost seems as if Conklin flipped through a coffee-table book of Magritte paintings, stopping at random images, and asking, “Gee, wouldn’t this be neat to put on stage?”

Admittedly, some of the images are neat, such as Figaro’s barbershop with clouds on the walls and a giant comb and shaving brush. And the restriction of the color design — primarily to sky blue, black, rose red and white— is often striking, particularly when a character peels off a costume to reveal clothes that unexpectedly clash with the color scheme, or when an enormous rose drops across a blue sky. But the failure to thoroughly exploit Magritte — the bizarre juxtapositions, and the commingling of one distinct object with another — in both the design and the staging becomes yet another dismal attempt of pointless, pseudo-intellectual quotation.

Quotation and reference can be powerful — one can imagine a stage design based on Goya’s work, or perhaps a resetting of Barber in early 20th century Spain with references to Picasso, Dali, or even Bunuel. But they can only have force if they somehow bring the text into focus.

Director John Copley revealed his penchant for cheap laughs and pratfalls at the expense of character exploration and deriving any kind of deeper understanding of Barber. This was the same light, undistinguished treatment of material he gave us in Cosi fan Tutte back in 1991.

And what were we to make of the references to Rossini in the stage design, and in the staging of the Act I finale as a sort of concert performance? The attempts to make this a meta-opera — an opera about opera — never really worked, due to the same lack of conviction in thoroughly exploring that particular dramatic idea.

Director Ian Campbell has displayed a talent for importing worthy vocal stars. Perhaps he should branch out and try to bring some of opera’s best directors to San Diego. Enough of John Copley! Give us Robert Wilson or Peter Sellars.