Monday, November 16, 2015

Diva Detour and Watson Intelligence

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard

Divas and Intelligence
Diva on Detour

In a 2008 interview, when she was in San Diego to sing the title role in Madama Butterfly, soprano Patricia Racette said of adding new repertoire, “I like a piece to feel like second nature to me, rather than just servicing it.”

The diva did that – going far beyond servicing the songs – Saturday  evening (November 14) at the Balboa Theatre, when she presented an entire evening of second nature songs in her outrageously enjoyable program titled Diva on Detour. There was not an operatic aria in the room. No one complained. It was like returning to her roots. Racette was a cabaret singer in her youth and actually enrolled in college to study jazz prior to turning to grand opera. She could could certainly be a cabaret singer again if she chose.

During the summer Racette announced that she is retiring Cio-Cio San from her repertoire. (She sang the role very early, when still a student in San Francisco Opera's Merola Program and then not again until 2002 as a professional.) 

This season she debuts three roles: Katerina in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (September-October 2015) at English National Opera, Ellie in La Voix Humaine (February 2016) at Chicago Opera Theater, and Minnie in La Fanciulla del West (July-August 2016) at Santa Fe Opera.
The Diva on Detour
Patricia Racette
Photo courtesy San Diego Opera

Diva on Detour is Racette at her perfectionist best. She intersperses songs by Gershwin, Hart, Mercer, Porter, Sondheim (and more!) with personal anecdotes (thank God a microphone is used throughout), and devotes some time to songs made famous by Edith Piaf, performed in excellent French. During “La Vie en Rose” she created severe electronic spine tineless by dropping the microphone to her waist and singing the remainder of the song in her own beautiful unamplified voice, which seemed to come from ten thousand miles away. It was a moment not soon to be forgotten. Amen and amen.

Racette sang Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” to an accompaniment comprising Bach’s B Minor Prelude (a la “Ave Maria”) devised by her extraordinary collaborator, Craig Terry, who not only enjoyed the heck out of the entire program but provided immaculate and sensitive support. Ah, what a blessing it is for a singer to be accompanied by one who so obviously adores her.

One of my personal favorites was “Guess Who I Saw Today,” in which a woman engaged in a perfunctory long-term relationship spies her significant other in the darkened corner of a restaurant, kissing a new lover. Racette admitted she loves singing about heartbreak, and of course she does it very well.

Her ability to extend a final note, adding crescendo and dimenuendo, far exceeds that of most cabaret singers. The tone, the enunciation and the interpretaton are perfect, and the effect, simply splendid. If in a few instances a song feels over studied, so be it. Forgiveable. My companion and I were delighted over the sumptuous evening performed without interval in around 90 minutes.

The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence 
at Moxie Theatre

Madeleine George wrote both Precious Little – currently seen through Saturday at Diversionary’s new Black Box – and The (cuious case of the ) Watson Intelligence, which just opened this past weekend at Moxie and continues through December 6. Seeing both in so short a time is edifying to say the least and is a lesson in the scope of just one woman’s inquiry.

In Watson, directed by Moxie Executive Artistic Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, three actors leapfrog through five eras in an exploration of human need, interdependence, attraction, arousal, love and lust, and how these affect creativity and success.

Eddie Yaroch as Merrick
Justin Lang as Josh Watson of the
Dweeb Team
Photo by Daren Scott

The cast comprises Jo Anne Glover as Eliza and Eddie Yaroch as Merrick, her estranged husband, who has never understood nor recovered from her leaving him seven years before. She is an inventor, and he, a cold, unfeeling industrialist. The plot, in all eras, involves Eliza and Merrick and a mutable character named Watson (played by Justin Lang), who is either a human being or a created sentient in each era. Identifying which Watson one is watching is both the fun and the key that unlocks George’s meaningful work, so full of language subtleties.

One cannot conceive better casting and direction. Jerry Sonnenberg’s scenic design makes flowing from one era to another as swiftly understood as the set of of Lang’s face or the cast of his expressive eyes. Human or sentient creation, he is scrumptious.

Watson’s various guises are as follows: sidekick to Sherlock Holmes; the engineer/assistant who built and tested Bell’s first telephone and received Bell’s first, plaintive and ambitious message;  an unstoppable super-computer that became reigning Jeopardy! champion; and an amiable Dweeb Team technician who fixes Merrick’s frozen computer and is hired as gumshoe to tail Eliza, a task that takes him as far as Victorian England.

Justin Lang as the flesh and blood Josh Watson
and Jo Anne Glover as Eliza
Photo by Daren Scott

In addition to Delicia Turner Sonnenberg’s sparkling direction, one of the keen listener’s greatest delights is George’s repeated dialogue, phrases gleaned early in the play that weave themselves throughout, sometimes emanating from other mouths. Among the other delights are Desiree Hatfield Buckley’s era spanning costumes and shoes, Christopher Renda’s lighting, and David Scott’s sound, all of which turn and tick like a well sprung clock.

Glover embodies the super-intelligent yet vulnerable Eliza, who is certain she controls her fate, and then, not. Eddie Yaroch’s Merrick, despite his manipulative, even ruthless determination to “keep” Eliza in no matter what time frame, comes off as vulnerable, too.

By far deeper and more insightful than any description of its tricks, the play is an absolute delight.

See it at 7pm Thursdays, 8pm Fridays and Saturdays and 2pm Sundays through December 6 at Moxie, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, $30, or (858) 598-7620.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Personal Essay: Meditation and the Shingles Vaccine

Ken Howard Photo
Meditation and the Shingles Vaccine
(Found in the New York Times)

In a communiqué titled Well, a New York Times writer discussed the various causes of obesity, then suggested a few things to read regarding the improvement of general health, among them meditation and the shingles vaccine. The juxtaposition of the two words above tickled me, and I thought, “What a neat title.” The thing is, however, that I can’t think of anything to put under the title.

Not too long ago, I read an essay on joining the ranks of the über old written by Donald Hall, one of my favorite poets and former Poet Laureate of the United States, now completely retired from writing. He was for many years married to poet Jane Kenyon and as they contemplated her impending death from cancer, they wrote about their anticipated separation and their love. After Kenyon died, Hall continued to write, but all his poems were about Jane and her loss.

He admitted in the essay that this inability to write about anything else bothered him for a while – after all they shared their writing in a most intimate way. He also said that he had come to terms with writing nothing else.

I was buoyed up by Hall’s confession. Since my daughter, poet Laura Morefield, died of cancer in 2011 I’ve written few poems about anything or anyone else. As a consequence, nothing pleased me. If only I could make a breakthrough. It seemed like composing the same song over and over again.

Not too long ago the deadline for submission to an anthology loomed and I had to send them something because I’ve been included for several years running. The poems they’ve used, one of them (“Carrying the Flute”) nominated for a Pushcart Prize, have mostly been about music, but Laura lurks within the meaning of each like a meditation on the shingles vaccine. Oh, no! “Blech,” as she would say.

Submitting three recent poems to the 2015 San Diego Poetry Annual was a good exercise. I realized I had written about something other than my loss during the past year. But the one they chose? It’s about Laura. I can’t show you that one, titled “What Glaciers Say When They Sing,” but here’s another, even more recent.  

Forward Momentum

By Charlene Baldridge

Your presence in my handbag
prevents catastrophe,
provides footing,
when in truth I should have fallen –
oh, there’s another stair here –
instead of landing on my feet.

I heard your muttered exclamation –
you’re expert at producing such
emanations, moth –ur!

I know, slow down, be
more careful, or better
yet, stay home and behave.

But all this travel
is your fault,
the result of your surprising
audacity those last three years.

I’m just along for the ride, sometimes mid-air.

Laura’s surprising audacity was sending her ten favorite poems to American opera composer Jake Heggie just before she died. I’m going to San Francisco December 16 to hear mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton sing the West Coast premiere of The Work at Hand, Laura’s long poem of farewell, at San Francisco Performances. Written by Heggie, the piece was premiered at Carnegie Hall and Pittsburgh Symphony this year. The near fall recounted in the above poem happened at the after party following the world premiere of Jake’s most recent opera, Great Scott, attended October 30 in Dallas. Laura was my companion at the June 2010 world premiere of Moby-Dick in Dallas. It was our last mother/daughter trip. Such a rich, precious, priceless life.