Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Elixir of Love

Until last Wednesday, I had never been to the opera. My dim notions of the art form were entirely shaped by snippets from PBS broadcasts and the erotically-charged glamour of the film Pretty Woman, when Edward takes Vivian to the opera for the first time. As Richard Gere and Julia Roberts settle into their box seats, he whispers, “People’s reactions to opera, the first time they see it are very dramatic. They either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become a part of their soul.”

(See: 3:50-6:40)

I had hoped to love the opera. In lieu of that sensation, I wish I had hated it. Instead, I experienced a provoking sense of alienation. It seems I must learn to cultivate an appreciation.

I had hoped that despite not understanding Italian, I would be engrossed by L'Elisir d'Amore (The Elixir of Love), a story inspired by Tristan and Isolde. After all, I don’t speak Spanish, but I can raptly watch Spanish-language soap operas (the actors are so passionate; their faces are so contorted; the language is so rapid fire). No such luck. Sung Italian is definitely not the same as spoken Spanish. And while I had subtitles—in front of each seat is a velvet bar with an embedded screen which flashes translations—knowing what they were actually singing about wasn’t particularly engaging. Unrequited, uncommunicated love is so tiresome.

What also surprised me and discomfited me was the very obvious performance unfolding before us. The fourth wall simply doesn’t exist in opera. The audience is not voyeurs, as is often the case in theater. Case in point, the soprano finally declared her love for the tenor and her lower body melted into his, but her torso and face were twisted away from him. She sung her love of him to us. I get that a singer needs to project to the back balcony and while I appreciated that consideration, I would have rather lost volume than watch that tortured physicality.

I had written to a friend, the day before the performance, that I was excited to experience a brand new (to me) art form—that it felt exciting to have no basis for discernment. And while it’s true that I can’t detect whether the singers coloratura was intricate or plain, whether their intonation was crisp or muddled, or whether their technique was top-notch or a near fail (all concepts I’ve picked up from scanning the New York Times reviews), I do understand theatricality, imagined worlds, and set design. On these points the opera failed and abetted my sense of disenchantment.

The set looked as if Lisa Frank, the beloved artist of elementary school girls the nation over,had suddenly decided she was bored of dolphins, unicorns, and kitties and decided she should instead design 19th-century Italian villages. From the trees to the buildings, everything was rendered in pastel hues (the last time I checked wood grain didn’t come in shades of pink and green). And, when the protagonist Nemorino abandons the village to join the army, the trees that descended from the flies looked like a flock of broccoli. The lighting designer joined in on the fun, bathing the stage in warm golden and pink lights. I know its a comedy, but pastel psychedelia doesn’t actually create a fairytale type of world in which these characters can bumble, fail, and ultimately recognize their love for one another.

Despite the questionable aesthetics of the set, I will say that I loved the scale of the opera. I reveled in the very largeness of it—a grandness and giganticness that translated all the way to the last tier of the balcony. I appreciated the score of cast members, playing villagers, who filled the stage. Spying with my binoculars, I was charmed by the microcosm dramas being lived as part of the larger action—the small boys who engaged in playful roughhousing; the lovers who leaned their heads against one another; the men who chatted idly; and the women who preened to catch the soldier’s attention.

Patty, Katie, and I decided we’d give the opera one more chance. We’re also considering better seats (as the other proletariat in the Family Circle applauded and cheered, I wished I had brought an airhorn—we would have fit right in). Next up is a tragedy. I’m actually looking forward to this, as of yet unpicked performance. I’d really like to see an operatic suicide. For the amount of caterwauling that went on in The Elixir of Love, the lead soprano and tenor really should have plunged daggers into their breasts.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Nassau County Museum of Art

Every day sends me an email with press releases from museums around the country. Last week, the press release for Facing Destiny: Children in European Portraiture (1500-1900) at the Nassau County Museum of Art crossed my screen. The considered-becoming-a-child-scholar part of me perked right up. The part of me that didn't want to see the Long Island Rail Road this weekend for love or money was sold when google maps declared that the museum is all of 20 minutes from Massapequa. Who needs to go into the city for a museum fix anyway? Particuarly when the art museum in question is a former Frick mansion.

"Facing Destiny" was a mixed bag. The paintings were chosen from the collection of the FundaciĆ³n Yannick y Ben Jakober in Majorca, Spain and were of widely varying quality. Some were masterly rendered portraits, others were stiff exercises in painting clothes (and plonking heads on top of them). But those stiff exercises did make an important point, these children were their clothes. Clothing communicated power, prestige, and status. For chidren who would one day rule, it was imperative to start cloaking them in the symbols of that power as early on as possible.

It was nice to see the progression through the centuries, how as the clothing changed, the idea of childhood was changing too. Sure, these aristocratic kids were still all tarted up, but it became clear that they were children, not miniature adults. The Dutch portraits, of course, did the best job of this. The Dutch were decades, if not more, ahead of their French, Spanish, and English counterparts in their conception of childhood. While the rest of Europe, still thought of children as inherently morally depraved, the Dutch in as early as the 17th century understood children as morally malleable creatures who would thrive in a loving and supportive atmosphere.

In a corridor between galleries, there were pictures of famous Americans when they were young. The snapshots could have been of any middle class, American child in the mid-20th century. The point was that American children are often born in anonymity and become great. Whereas, European children were born into their greatness. A nice gesture, but just a smidge too didactic for my taste.

I wasn't wild about the exhibition, but the problem really wasn't the exhibition. The problem was me. I've done a lot of reading about childhood. During my thesis days, Philippe Aries and I spent some serious quality time together. So, while it was fun to look at the paintings, I didn't really learn or discover anything new. I crave a sense of novelty and discovery in my museum-going adventures.

So, it makes a lot of sense that while I went to the Museum for "Facing Destiny," I was actually way more excited by the unexpected sculpture on the grounds (although, to be fair, they wouldn't have been unexpected if I had read the website thoroughly). Some were hideously appealing, like this hydra--I really wished I could have seen it in action; it has sprinklers in its mouths:

Others were cerebrally pleasing. I was completely taken by Alberto Bertoldi's "Redbank 31-Nassau Variation." From a distance it looked like a series of rectangles plunked semi-artfully on the ground.

But when looking through the rectangles, the sculpture came to life. It was like looking into two mirrors set opposite each other and seeing into infinity.

But even better was satisfying the urge to walk to the end of infinity. If one could go through the looking glasses to the very end, this is what it must look like:

There was also a collection of surreal creatures on the Museum's grounds, "Silla Casa Para Palomas (Chair, House for Doves)" by Alejandro Colunga. I was delighted by the unexpected juxtapositions. It was like walking through a frozen dream landscape or a children's book where Dr. Seuss meets Dali meets L. Frank Baum.

Clearly, the Nassau County Museum of Art merits another visit. I didn't even get to the formal gardens (designed by Ogden Codman and later redesigned by Marian Coffin!).