Thursday, September 13, 2007

Culture or kitsch?

Mitigating factors—or excuses

The San Francisco Opera has launched its fall season with a gala performance of Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Säens. The reviews were mixed (apparently the Dalila was okay, the Samson less so), but the San Francisco Chronicle provided some reliably breathless accounts of the non-musical aspects of the evening.
Postshow, revelers indulged in a dinner of lamb served by caterer Paula LeDuc in an opulent tent designed by Robert Fountain with Indian textiles in cinnamon tones and shimmering metallic gold thread. At the entrance, bare-chested models in loincloths and leather sandals stood silent guard over the dance floor, adding a theatrical, PG-13 touch to the event.
Is this post-opera tackiness in San Francisco an aberration, or just business as usual? I'm afraid it's the latter. The high drama and art of opera in Baghdad by the Bay has often been tarted up with sensational and vulgar sideshow attractions.

I first started attending performances at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House in the seventies. It was a treat to see world-famous artists in world-class repertoire. Sometimes, however, there were distractions.

In 1976 the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed Nikolaus Lehnhoff, who giddily revealed that his production of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten would feature full frontal nudity. In the temptation scene, the Dyer's Wife would be treated to an apparition of a young man (that's actually in Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto); when unwrapped like a gift package from his cloth bindings, he would be naked (that's not in the libretto). There was plenty of giggling and simpering in the opera house on the first night of Die Frau, but many of the eager patrons must have been disappointed when the tenor portraying the young man was found to be wearing a gold lamé jockstrap. Nevertheless, Lehnhoff had undoubtedly succeeded in goosing the box office.

There was also a lot of buzz in 1977 when Prince Charles was in the director's box for a new Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of Puccini's Turandot. People were concerned that the Prince of Wales might have been offended that there were topless women in the scene where Prince Calaf was being tempted to abandon his quest for the Chinese princess. (This was before Charles was overheard telling Camilla he wished he could be her tampon, so he was still credited with some discretion and taste.) Sensationalism was the only reason for the gratuitous breasts in Turandot, though I suppose Ponnelle would have argued it was dramatically correct and artistically necessary. People turned out in droves to see Turandot, but not all of them were looking to ogle naked breasts (which could be found in ample quantities and at cheaper prices in many other SF venues). Some were wondering if Monserrat Caballé would fall down Ponnelle's amazingly steep staircase. It's art, but it can also be death-defying.

San Francisco is by no means alone in pushing the margins of taste in high art. It was my privilege to see a performance of Strauss's Salome from the second row of the Santa Fe opera house back when the building was still an open-air structure. Josephine Barstow portrayed the neurotic title character and was slender and young enough to carry off the infamous Dance of the Seven Veils. Most sopranos with the pipes to sing the role of the teenage Judean princess were hefty ladies who dared not relinquish too many veils (or had to duck into the wings while a “double” performed the dance). Barstow, however, dramatically cast aside the seventh veil and struck a pose in the bright spotlight with little more than a scintillating dusting of glitter on her breasts. It was entirely credible that Herod would be out of his mind with lust after such a performance, even to offering her half his kingdom.

As Anna Russell once said in a different context, “It's okay if you sing it!”

In addition to making a good case for Herod's obsession with his nubile stepdaughter, the Santa Fe production provided Herodias with entertainments of her own. The soprano portraying Salome's mother was the famous Astrid Varnay, extending her career into her senior years by taking roles where artistic skill and experience were essential, but sheer vocal beauty was not. Varnay invested Herod's harridan wife with sharp-edged wit and venom. She was attended by a bevy of young pages, teenage boys attired in no more than skimpy loincloths and the occasional bangle, like an armlet or necklace. The ephebes clustered about Herodias so that she could casually paw them when the mood took her. Varnay languidly gave the boys some slap and tickle at intervals, sometimes stealing a bit of the show from the other performers.

Varnay later brought her performance of Herodias to San Francisco (in a production starring Barstow again in the title role). This time, for a change, San Francisco showed relative constraint in its production values. Barstow still left little to the imagination at the end of her dance, but Varnay was shorn of her boy toys. We saw a rare triumph of comparative good taste, but I don't think that was the reason that the San Francisco Salome was less decadent than Santa Fe's. It was just a different production. The news of this year's opening night gala demonstrates that San Francisco is as ready as ever to play the kitsch card.

I won't pretend that I believe opera is exclusively about high art and refinement. Even a staple of today's repertoire like Tosca was once derided as a “shabby little shocker.” Opera is about thrills and emotion. That's why the scandalous and sensationalistic features of opera are not that surprising. I suppose we could say that skin and shock are being put in the service of fine art. After all, it's what Celine Dion does in her stage show spectacular in Vegas. That's proof enough. Right? Right?

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