Month: March 2014
Team of Operatic Rivals — Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly,’ and Strauss’ ‘Die Frau ohne Schatten’ and ‘Der Rosenkavalier,’ at the Met
May the Best Man Win!
Yes, they were rivals. Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss — no relation to the “Waltz King” Johann Strauss, Senior or Junior — were undeniably rivals. Or so the accepted wisdom goes. But even as such, they were not openly antagonistic toward one another. They had more important matters to be concerned about.
We know, with a good deal of certainty, that both labored under the strain of being the undisputed heirs to supposedly better men: for the Italian Puccini, his illustrious predecessor Verdi, and for the German-born Strauss, the burden of Wagner’s legacy. This intolerable state of affairs could hardly have made matters worse than they already were for enterprising musicians of that era — in particular, two such creative minds as those of Puccini and Strauss.
The question of whether there was a mutual admiration society going, what nowadays our ever-present pop-culture has flippantly defined as a “bromance,” is open to debate. Though separated by language, culture and country, the two composers were more alike than either cared to admit. Both gave the appearance of satisfaction with their lot (with Puccini the more challenged of the two, due to his pathological lack of self-esteem); both appreciated the finer things in life; and both were, materially speaking, quite prosperous — not “filthy rich” by modern interpretations of the term, but comfortably well off.
As a matter of expediency, having sufficient means at his disposal gave Puccini the ability to travel both for business and for pleasure, which meant these two compositional titans would occasionally meet. They enjoyed playing cards together, at least according to William Berger, author of Puccini Without Excuses, but “pointedly avoided discussing music theory,” a wise course indeed.
Puccini even found time to attend the May 1906 Austrian opening of Strauss’ one-act shocker Salome, with its composer presiding on the podium. Although the work perplexed him, Puccini, who was continually on the lookout for the new and the unusual, was transfixed by its erotic flavor and harmonic tone color. He had less to say about Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten (“The Woman Without a Shadow”). When shown the massive opus’ score and pressed for an opinion, Puccini glanced at the pages and issued forth this modest appraisal: “It’s logarithms.”
On the other hand, Strauss was prone to remark (either positively or negatively) about anyone and everyone around him yet kept his personal views of Puccini to himself, with the exception of a few sarcastic asides. As Berger has indicated, “[Strauss] once explained to a journalist that he never said he disliked Puccini’s music. He simply needed to avoid it because” — and this is where the acerbic aspect comes in — “he couldn’t get the melodies out of his head and feared that he would write Puccinian Strauss.” How shamelessly insincere is that?
Nevertheless, we can surmise that each man learned a little something from the other — if not wholly, then in part. In Puccini’s case, one finds a curious-minded artist — by all reports, not necessarily of the highest intellectual order but exceptionally well-read — drawing upon the stimuli of some of the century’s most pioneering talents. Elements of late Verdi and the Russians Stravinsky and Mussorgsky, his pal Strauss, the Frenchman Debussy, and — oh yes — even Herr Wagner, had started to trickle into his oeuvre as early as Manon Lescaut, and as recently as La Bohème and Tosca. To these, we need only add the rudiments of Japanese folk music (Madama Butterfly), American minstrel tunes and the whole-tone scale (La Fanciulla del West), French Impressionism (Il Trittico), waltzes from Old Vienna (La Rondine), and finally Chinese-based tunes (Turandot).
In short, if Puccini, with all his self-deprecating humor, heart-on-sleeve sentimentality and unrequited love for those same unforgettable female characters he created, wasn’t the most cosmopolitan of opera composers, we are hard-pressed to find a more widely popular one. With time, previously narrow-minded views concerning his rightful place in musicology would be refreshingly replaced by the expert commentaries of noted biographers Mosco Carner, Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Julian Budden, Michele Girardi and the aforementioned Mr. Berger, all to a Puccini lover’s delight.
Because of their invaluable research into the composer’s life, music and art, it is fitting to note as well that Puccini, an all-around man of the theater and intrepid explorer ready and willing to expand his musical horizons, in spite of severe setbacks and personal misfortunes evidently got better at his craft as he aged. He died in Brussels on November 29, 1924, of heart failure after an operation for throat cancer.
In the matter of Strauss, most historians and musicologists would agree that even with the Italian’s passing, the German composer’s best days were behind him with the untimely demise, in 1929, of his primary librettist, Austrian playwright and poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Their four earlier collaborations, beginning with Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Ariadne auf Naxos (1912, revised 1916), and Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), are considered the team’s worthiest efforts. These were followed a few years later by Die ägyptische Helena (1927) and Arabella (1933, produced posthumously), neither of which (in America, at any rate) had the staying power of the previous four.
One can ponder the possibilities of what “could have been” had Puccini, who was a month short of his 66th birthday at his passing, lived to Strauss’ ripe old age of 85. One can only imagine how much better and, well, let’s be honest: more “Puccinian Strauss,” the German’s output might have sounded had his Italian card-playing colleague continued to surprise us with newer and ever-more enchanting discoveries.
Butterfly Takes Wing
With the above in mind, we may look to Madama Butterfly as one of the truly great inspirations to have emerged from the Italian operatic firmament. Originally conceived as a three-act work, Puccini changed his mind incessantly, and drove his librettists to distraction, all throughout the creative process regarding the shape, size, scope and substance of his masterwork.
It became a two-act drama after the composer insisted to one of his collaborators, Luigi Illica, that an entire act intended to take place at the American Consulate be suddenly dropped. Upon hearing this outrage, the opera’s co-librettist, Giuseppe Giacosa, dashed off a missive to Puccini stating that disaster would no doubt strike the first performance should he continue along this ruinous path. Undeterred, Puccini stuck to his guns, even making his thoughts known to their publisher, Giulio Ricordi, that in his heart of hearts he knew categorically that he was right.
As it turned out, and as posterity has since shown, the opera’s world premiere on February 17, 1904, was a total fiasco, if not one of the biggest calamities in the history of La Scala, Milan. We need not delve into the specifics, however let it suffice that Puccini had severely miscalculated his audiences’ attention span with respect to the excruciatingly long second act (long by Italian standards, that is).
Reverting to their original plan, Illica and Giacosa went about reworking the opera’s text in accordance with the now-thoroughly humbled composer’s wishes. At the same time, Puccini cut and pasted, as well as recycled, bits and pieces of his music from the rejected Consulate scene, some of which included a brief arioso for the tenor and a trio for mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone.
Three months later, on May 29 in nearby Brescia, the revised Madama Butterfly was given another shot at life — not exactly a rarity in opera — and met with a smashing success. Several more productions later, specifically a fortuitous one at the Opéra-Comique, in Paris (under the aegis of Albert Carré), the composer was convinced that his Butterfly would fly once again and take wing as one of the world’s best-loved works.
Continuing this winning trend, the Metropolitan Opera presented the late Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly on Saturday, February 1, a radio broadcast. With its novel use of Bunraku puppetry (courtesy of Blind Summit Theatre), gorgeous costume designs (Han Feng), sets (Michael Levine) of polished mirrors above and below the stage, spot-on direction and choreography (Carolyn Choa, Minghella’s widow), this was a highly stylized retelling of the story that, in the current revival, is one of the company’s most praiseworthy efforts.
The Met’s cast, including debuting South African soprano Amanda Echalaz in the demanding title role (a.k.a. Cio-Cio-San), New Orleans native Bryan Hymel, who made such a splash last season in Les Troyens, as Lt. Pinkerton, Scott Hendricks as the American Consul Sharpless, Elizabeth DeShong as maidservant Suzuki, Scott Scully as marriage broker Goro, and baritone Alexey Lavrov as Prince Yamadori, were all new to their parts.
The opera was conducted by French maestro Philippe Auguin, which is only proper since the completely sliced and diced version of the opera we know so well made its crucial mark in France. Auguin dived head first into the opening fugato section. The French certainly have a way with this work — i.e., the innate exoticism and foreignness of it all. And Auguin was constantly alive to the score’s intricacies, one of Puccini’s justifiable gems. The music flowed easily and assuredly from one climax to the other, the warmth of the violins was especially telling, and the rapid-fire banter between the two tenors at the start was under his firm control. Never too bombastic or lax in his leadership, Auguin brought out nuances that are oftentimes lost within the Met’s vast expanse. That’s the advantage of listening at home on the radio!
Tenor Bryan Hymel, who I praised to the rafters last year as Énée, portrayed a brash, frisky, lively Pinkerton. A breath of fresh air in this part, he offered excellent diction, a firm line, and easy and thrilling top notes in “Dovunque al mondo,” along with a caddish recreation of this most reprehensible of tenor leads. It’s almost a sin to say that Pinkerton has the most infectious lines of any of the male characters. Despite his betrayal of Butterfly, he’s the first voice we hear at the curtain’s rise. He’s onstage continuously and throughout the entirety of Act I. If he’s missing in action for Act II, Pinkerton all-but pops back for a brief solo (“Addio, fiorito asil”) and trio (previously noted). He even gets to deliver the opera’s last line: “Butterfly, Butterfly!”
Despite this impressive assumption, Hymel never quite approached the rascally heights that Beniamino Gigli achieved in the classic RCA Victor recording of the work with Toti dal Monte in the lead. As it was, Bryan acquitted himself admirably. I was never so glad to hear Pinkerton sung so convincingly and forthrightly, and happier still that the Met gave this honest-to-goodness primo tenore an opportunity to strut his stuff. Hymel’s worth his weight in gold, and I hope he keeps up the momentum. Now, if we could hear him in something completely different, perhaps Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (which he’s sung in Europe), Arnaud in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, or even Henri in the original French-language version of Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, or Les Vêpres Siciliennes if you want to get technical. Hint, hint…
Scott Hendricks brought sympathy and understanding to Sharpless. He accompanied Hymel well in their first act duet (a wonderful showpiece too often treated as an aside), and blended nicely with him and Elizabeth DeShong (moving and firm-voiced) as Suzuki in their last act trio. Although Sharpless has no aria of his own — the lone solo that Puccini wrote for him was cut from Act II for fear it would hold up the action — it’s still a gratifying part. What remains is satisfying and rewarding, the perfect vehicle for an up-and-coming singer of Hendricks’ gifts.
In that same Act II, Sharpless attempts to read Pinkerton’s “Dear John” letter to Butterfly, to the strains of the humming chorus which echo the so-called “night vigil” that closes the act — the spot where Puccini initially inserted an intermezzo instead of lowering the curtain. It was this interval that so riled the La Scala public into action. Incidentally, Hendricks could have voiced his entreaties to Cio-Cio-San a shade more securely and with more feeling, but this is a minor quibble.
As Goro, tenor Scott Scully’s diction and phrasing left much to be desired. Vocally, he was merely adequate without being in any way outstanding. Sorry, Scotty! The other members of the cast, among them bass Paul Corona as the Imperial Commissioner, tenor Juhwan Lee as the Registrar, mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani as Kate Pinkerton (a role substantially reduced from the original score), and the booming bass-baritone of Ryan Speedo Green as the fearsome Bonze, were all fine.
You’re Only as Good as Your Next Role
I’ve left the most difficult portion of my review for last. Whatever one might think of the character of Cio-Cio-San, the part itself is a marathon assignment of almost non-stop singing and acting. The best description one can give is of an emotional rollercoaster: the listener is taken on a ride through those three acts — vocally, psychologically, dramatically, lyrically, indeed in every way that’s possible in the theater. If this were a Wagnerian work of epic proportions, I’d say that Butterfly is Puccini’s Isolde and Brünnhilde, all rolled into one.
Puccini would have a deemed his little Japanese geisha the acid test for any soprano, lyric or otherwise. Did newcomer Amanda Echalaz pass the test? At her first appearance, Ms. Echalaz was a tentative sounding Cio-Cio-San in her entrance song, “Ancora un passo or via.” She did not take the alternate high note, which is fine since Puccini didn’t write it. Tradition has it, though, that the note is usually sung (a high D, if I’m not mistaken). Good luck with that!
More problematic for me was a realization that the steadfast nobility of the character, that unwavering quality that makes the best Butterfly interpreters stand out from the pack, was sorely lacking at this phase of the soprano’s career. The voice, while pleasant in timbre and fully-rounded in the middle, has yet to open up on top. She needs more exposure in the part to make the requisite impact.
Her “Un bel di,” one of Puccini’s loveliest and most heartbreaking melodies was strongly vocalized, but earned only polite applause. The aria comes early in the act, with more shattering revelations to come, so one can excuse Echalaz for the letdown. As most Cio-Cio-Sans are wont to do, she excelled in the latter portions of Act II, especially her dialogues with Suzuki and her exchanges with the Consul Sharpless and Prince Yamadori where she correctly distinguished between the various aspects of the judge and misbehaving bridegroom.
Oddly, at the point where she and Suzuki discover Pinkerton’s ship entering Nagasaki harbor, Ms. Echalaz chose that particular moment to introduce an annoying habit of lingering on the last word of the phrase “Ei torna e m’ama” (“He’s coming back and he loves me”), then slid down to the next note value in an inappropriate display of glissando. She should consider correcting this fault at the earliest. It was one of the few signs of sloppiness in a generally polished performance. Unfortunately, polished is the best one can say for her interpretation overall.
Another example would be the lines that come after the phrase “Che tua madre,” which should pierce the heart of audiences with its sorrow and pathos, as well as bring a tear to their eye. It did neither in Echalaz’s rendition. Now, I am certain the soprano’s bright sound can find a comfortable place in the Verdi repertoire, or as Mimì in La Bohème. But I’m not so sure it works in this environment. Her vowels all sounded alike to me: too open and undistinguished. Certainly, Echalaz has the goods and the potential. And it’s way too soon to tell if she’d make a great Butterfly in the future, but the raw material is there. It just needs to be watered and nourished.
I’m also convinced that barring the other vocal aspects, Butterfly is a part that must be as well acted as it is sung. It’s a matter of putting the character into the voice, as well as having her in your bones. To do all this lyrically, and in song, with a hundred-piece orchestra in front of you, is the supreme challenge. Yet the role demands it, and Puccini insisted on it. As one of the most draining soprano parts in the Italian repertoire, it deserves singing and acting of the utmost concentration and commitment. Renata Scotto in her day, with less of a voice to work with, played the role for all it was worth.
In summation, Echalaz gave it a good try, a noble effort when all is said and done. But going forward, she needs to step up her game, as they say in the sports world. I never once got the feeling that Echalaz was giving it her absolute all, although she was helped along by mezzo DeShong in the Flower Duet. Here, the voices formed a harmonious duo. It was also where I noticed, too, that Amanda lacks a true pianissimo, another deficit we hope she can work on.
Along with La Fanciulla del West and Il Trittico, Madama Butterfly is the composer’s most carefully constructed score, a one-of-a-kind experience, devastating in its intensity and in its portrayal of the title character who assumes the stature of a tragic heroine with her ritual suicide at the end. It’s the most sophisticated verismo score of any of its era. Butterfly was also Puccini’s favorite work, the only one of his creations he could listen to over and over again.
If we, too, are to listen to it over and over again, Madama Butterfly must be about more than just hitting the right notes. In her intermission interview, Echalaz claimed it was difficult to stay detached from the role since it is so emotionally fraught throughout. How true! But again, having a technique to fall back on — a rock-solid technique, at that — and keeping oneself focused, is the best way to survive this grueling assignment. Otherwise, what’s the point of performing it over and over again?
(End of Part One – To be continued)
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes
Brotherhood of Man
During breaks from St. Elsewhere, which was on its last legs anyway as a cutting-edge television series, Denzel Washington participated in a wide range of film projects that took him to unusual and unexplored territory — unusual for him and unexplored for his growing litany of fans.
The first of these, Cry Freedom (1987), featured the actor in the supporting role of South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko. A contemporary of the late Nelson Mandela and leading founder of the Black Consciousness Movement in that racially divided state, Biko died in a Pretoria prison on September 12, 1977, after a series of brutal police interrogations.
Most individuals may recognize the name “Biko” as the title and subject of a 1980 protest song by British rocker Peter Gabriel. The worldwide outcry that resulted from his violent death — and which Mr. Gabriel’s song openly alluded to — made Biko a martyr to the cause of black resistance against the regime’s oppressive practices. Sadly, the activist did not live to see the liberation of his country from the restrictions placed on its citizens’ lives that Mandela would later bring about with his release from long-term confinement and eventual elevation to the presidency.
Shot on location in Zimbabwe and directed by former actor Richard Attenborough, whose previous work along so-called “epic” lines included such pictures as Young Winston (1972), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Gandhi (1982) and a biopic based on the life of silent-screen star Charlie Chaplin (Chaplin, 1992), Cry Freedom garnered universal praise for its earnestness of execution and faithful recreation of the period in question.
Unfortunately, it and other Attenborough efforts drew heavy criticism, too, for their low-voltage dramatics and overly respectful treatment of their subjects. One could say that Attenborough took the phrase “stiff upper lip” a tad too literally.
Still, despite these seeming shortcomings the director received a fiercely committed performance from Denzel, who earned the first of several Academy Award nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category, while sharing a wonderful working rapport with his co-star, the Juilliard School of Drama-trained Kevin Kline as Daily Dispatch reporter Donald Woods, whose posthumous books about Biko formed the basis for the screenplay.
Coincidentally or not, Cry Freedom also shared similar story elements with another British production from three years’ prior, that of Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields (1984), a film about the Khmer Rouge massacres in the war-torn region of Cambodia. In that harrowing flick, real-life Killing Fields survivor Haing S. Ngor played journalist and interpreter Dith Pran, whose friendship with New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg (a pre-Law & Order Sam Waterston) echoed the close bond reflected in Washington and Kline’s onscreen relationship: that is, of two men of different races and backgrounds joining hands across the divide for a common and worthwhile purpose.
The final result, though, received a mixed reception from the press, most of who felt Cry Freedom concentrated too much on Woods and not enough on Biko — a fair assessment given the amount of screen time Kline received over Denzel, but one that did not take into account the narrative arc of the story. To silence the would-be “wags,” as it were, Biko does appear in flashback after his death (albeit, intermittently). Interestingly, the most moving episode occurs when Woods and Biko’s widow, Wendy (Penelope Wilton), are left to gaze upon and mourn his mangled corpse.
For Denzel Washington, his quiet, dignified take on a figure of stature from recent history would without a doubt prepare him for the role of a lifetime, that of Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s biographical picture of the same name.
Hail Britannia – Not!
That dream assignment was still a few years off, though. In compensation for the wait, Denzel would prowl the nighttime streets in two back-to-back police/action dramas — one good and one bad. Starting things off on the wrong foot, let’s take the bad one first: For Queen and Country (1989), a crime thriller filmed in England that takes place during the Margaret Thatcher-era of low expectations and high unemployment.
Washington plays Reuben, an ex-soldier born in the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia, a former British colony. “He’s a guy who fought for Britain in the Falklands,” Denzel told the Los Angeles Times, “and finds it frustrating when he tries to re-adapt to life at home.” Sounds like a winner for Mr. Washington, right? Wrong! About 60 percent of the movie was financed with American capital, or about $3.5 million. However, it made back a much lower amount than that figure would suggest: box-office numbers from that period show For Queen and Country barely reaching $200,000 in receipts, a dismal showing at best.
The reasons for the film’s failure lay strictly with the formulaic script. It starts off well, with a cool-as-a-cucumber Denzel searching for work in a drastically altered West London landscape — altered, one should add, via a government law that stripped him and other nationals of their rights as British citizens. Encountering blatant racism and an enormous lack of opportunity (the film is front-loaded with anti-Thatcher rhetoric), the out-of-work Reuben reluctantly turns to the drug trade for survival as well as to help a friend in distress.
Our “what-the…?” quotient rises exponentially from here on, as the picture flounders under the weight of a standard police-crime procedural topped by a contrived ending. A major wrong turn for our hero Denzel, in its halfhearted attempt to pump him up to action-movie status, For Queen and Country veered from a likeable character study to a pale imitation of either an unfunny Eddie Murphy cop caper (of which there are legion) or a poor man’s Lethal Weapon (without the presence of Mel Gibson for laughs).
Time to Pah-tee, Pah-tee, Pah-tee!
A livelier and far more pleasurable outing — in ways that will become apparent to audiences later on, it points the way toward many of the actor’s future endeavors — The Mighty Quinn, Denzel’s next “shot on location” extravaganza, ushered in the year 1989 in true party-hearty fashion.
Picking up on a thread first hinted at in For Queen and Country, The Mighty Quinn takes place on a fictional Caribbean Island called St. Caro (unmentioned in the film, but spelled out in the book on which it was based). The real island paradise of Jamaica, however, stood in for the dirty dealings, shady situations and suspicious goings-on that exist in sleepy St. Caro — none of which disguise the lilting tropical accents, gorgeous tropical vistas, and equally beauteous lasses that populate the town and parade by Xavier Quinn, the island’s chief of police, charmingly played by Denzel.
There are more plot twists and memorably implausible moments in this feature than your average Warner Bros. thriller from Hollywood’s Golden Age — think the convoluted elements of The Maltese Falcon crossed with To Have and Have Not, and you have a reasonably good facsimile of what Chief Quinn and you, the viewer, have to put up with.
Music does charm these savage beasts, though, with the constantly recurring sounds of Jamaican rhythms not far in the background, embodied by a guest cameo of Rita Marley, the iconic Bob Marley’s widow, adding a note of authenticity to the nightclub scenes. It’s here that Chief Quinn shows off hitherto untapped pianistic abilities (Denzel claims to have tinkled the ivories while still in high school). He’s also got a pretty decent blues voice, interrupted when a makeshift band strikes up a reggae-rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Mighty Quinn,” an affectionate yet humorous jab at their bemused police chief.
Denzel’s handsomely impressive early visage at a wedding is striking, to say the least: wearing reflective Ray-Bans to ward off the effects of the late afternoon sun, he’s dapper in his dress-white constable’s uniform with matching pith helmet. Right away, the chief exerts the force of his authority, and demonstrates FBI-trained fighting skills, with his thwarting of a potential stabbing of the bridegroom by an uninvited guest. But the big payoff occurs when he finally confronts his childhood playmate, Maubee, languidly and impishly enacted by a perpetually toothy Robert Townsend.
It seems that his buddy Maubee is the sought-after perpetrator of a horrific murder. The victim? The wealthy owner of a luxury hotel in Quinn’s district. This results in a veritable cat-and-mouse game between Quinn and Maubee, in addition to various unsavory individuals they encounter along the way. Bobbing and weaving — now you see him, now you don’t — Maubee is harder to pin down than a Jamaican bobsled team. Quinn maintains a healthy skepticism throughout, since he just can’t believe his no-account friend would involve himself in such a crime.
Denzel and Townsend bounce off one another’s quirks and star-power personalities beautifully in a deliberate, low-key manner that makes the characters’ onscreen association as witty and endearing as any in recent filmdom. And that’s saying a lot for Townsend! A lesser actor would have been chewing up the scenery long before the finale, but not him. To what do we owe this credible relationship? Mostly to Denzel’s generosity and professionalism in allowing his acting partner, Townsend, enough leeway to create a believable counterpoint to Washington’s unconvinced Chief Quinn.
Surely, both Quinn and Maubee’s Caribbean-flavored accents are more authentic in this picture than Denzel’s was in For Queen and Country. Maybe this film needed to be retitled For Quinn and Country, but that’s a choice the late Swiss-born director Carl Schenkel needed to have considered.
As far as Mr. Washington’s subsequent screen career went, here’s a quote from Roger Ebert’s review at the time of The Mighty Quinn’s release: “The film stars Denzel Washington in one of those roles that creates a movie star overnight. In an effortless way… he is able to be tough and gentle at the same time, able to play a hero and yet not take himself too seriously.”
I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’d like to add my two cents and declare the entire film to be in this vein: one can’t take it too seriously as a crime drama or too lightly as a musical dramedy either. It’s both, it’s neither. It’s here, it’s there, it’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that — much like its title character, Quinn, and its second lead, Maubee. They’re amiable and frisky, sexy and scheming individuals when they want to be, yet clever and loyal to each other when the truth eventually comes to light about the murder. Not to give anything away, but in the end when Maubee goes down, Chief Quinn winds up on top… big time. Tanks, mon!
(End of Part Two – To be continued)
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes
One to Beam Up! — That Amazing Anime Guy: An Interview with Illustrator, Industrial Designer and Lifelong Anime/Sci-Fi Fan, Mike Moon
Let’s Talk Turkey!
Mike Moon is the kind of well-informed enthusiast most of us run-of-the-mill types turn to when we want answers to the most basic of life’s conundrums involving all things anime, comic book or science-fiction/fantasy related.
A prolific writer and illustrator, you can peruse Mike’s handiwork, stories and art along with those of guest contributors at his Catgirl Island Website (http://www.catgirlisland). Do your interests lie elsewhere? Then you don’t want to miss the latest action-adventure movie reviews, interviews and other fun stuff at The Mew: The Catgirl Critics’ Media Mewsings site (http://mewsings.wordpress.com).
I met Mike a few years ago at the annual Animazement Convention in North Carolina. Consequently, I’ve been meaning to interview him ever since that first encounter (cue: John Williams’ score). After our second and third meetings at similar gatherings in and around town, I came away with the feeling that sooner or later our paths would cross again and that I simply had to get his views across in print.
Luckily, the timing was right for us to exchange a few questions and answers. And here they are:
Josmar Lopes—I’d like to extend a warm welcome to Mike Moon. Hiya, Mike! I want to introduce readers to your extensive knowledge and astute observations and opinions about the anime, science fiction, fantasy, action-adventure, you-name-it realms.
Mike Moon—This is so flattering and fun and I think you’ve greatly overrated my significance or knowledge, but I’ll be happy to answer your questions, and hopefully I won’t be too boring or rambling!
J.L.—Somehow, I doubt that’s possible. But first, let’s get a little background information and context. Where did you go to college?
M.M.—You’re far too kind! I went to the University of Southern California (USC), Alamance Community College (ACC), and North Carolina State University (NCSU – twice); and while I was in high school, I got to study art at the North Carolina Governor’s School East at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College in Laurinburg.
J.L.—What subject did you major in and why did you choose that particular field?
M.M.—I was in cinema school at USC, because I was fascinated by how movies and TV shows were made, especially the design, animation and FX [portions], but I later realized that what I really wanted to study was art or design. While I was there in Los Angeles I got to meet my favorite designer Syd Mead, who inspired me to later get my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Industrial Design (formerly known as Product Design) at NCSU. In between those two degrees, to further improve my skills I got a Certificate in Computer Graphics at ACC, although these days I still use traditional media in addition to the digital tools!
J.L.—This may be a complicated subject to tackle in one shot, but how has your knowledge of design helped you in your anime and sci-fi interests?
M.M.—What little I know of design has made me better appreciate my other hobbies and interests such as illustration, photography, cosplay, comics, animation, toys and collectibles. I pay more attention to how things are illustrated, designed, sculpted, molded, manufactured, assembled, stitched, painted, photographed, printed, or packaged! I scrutinize the intricacy of the sculpt, paint, seams and articulation of the action figures, dolls, prop and vehicle replicas, plushies; and I love to see the elaborate dioramas that are built for figures, dolls, miniatures and models.
I’m fascinated when a movie or TV show (live action or animated) has enough talent, money, time, technology and desire to achieve extremely believable, realistic technical or historical accuracy in their sets, props, hair, make-up, costumes and FX in serving a good, believable story. I love to see lavish spectacle and amazing sets, mecha, etc., on screen when no expense is spared.
One of the many reasons that Star Trek – The Motion Picture is my favorite movie (Trek or otherwise) is because of its epic sense of realism – and that extends to the instrumentation, buttons, consoles and graphics of the sets. I think it’s the best that Star Trek has ever looked. It looks so futuristic, realistic and enormous, as if they actually built and filmed the starships and space stations in outer space. It’s not just a bunch of blinking lights, with decks that look like distilleries, torpedo rooms and turbo-lift shafts that make no sense, or the unfortunate attempts at humor when people hit their head on something, as in the later Trek movies. Of course, Star Treks II-VI do have some very thrilling, fun and dramatic scenes, but they don’t feel nearly as realistic, expensive or futuristic enough.
However, ironically I’m also very forgiving of fan films or smaller budgeted professional productions, even if the budget and technology is not there yet, but if it’s clear that they have a lot of heart and care for their craft. I know what it’s like to be a designer having to work fast on a tight budget from being part of the stage crew in high school, my own amateur film-making, and as a design-school student. We would often search the recycle bins and junkyards for scraps and materials for things we might have to build!
J.L.—That’s all part of the fun, I’d gather.
M.M.—Look at Doctor Who, for example, especially its first 30 years. Some folks were negatively critical of the sets, monsters and FX. I’ll agree that some of them could have looked nicer, but as I watch the DVDs’ documentaries, listen to the commentaries, and learn more of the challenges faced with such a fast schedule and small budget week after week, it only increases my admiration for the show. I think the whole cast and crew did an amazing, clever, ingenious job to tell entertaining stories about characters we care about amidst the wonders of the universe. That’s part of the reason the show has endured for 50 years.
A lot of time, talent, ingenuity and money go into designing things for movies and TV shows, in hopes of creating believable characters and environments for the story. And yet it’s a shame when designers don’t get enough credit. The Oscars coverage spends more time on what actors are wearing to the show than the costumes or other things designed for the movies. Now I could ramble on about my favorite actors, but they get to appear on so many more magazine covers and TV shows throughout the year than, say, production designers, cinematographers or visual FX supervisors.
It seems like every other award recipient gets so little time to make their acceptance speeches, compared to the actors and singers. I could also ramble on about my favorite fashion, music and comedy, but I think the televised Oscars ceremony spends way too much time on song and dance numbers, and scripted comedy segments. There are already enough music awards shows as it is. I wish it was more about honoring the designers, engineers, scientists and technicians that make movies possible to begin with.
J.L.—Those are exactly the kinds of arguments worth spending time on! And I’m in total agreement with the faux glitz that passes for awards shows. Indeed, not enough time is given “on the air” to the technical/professional side of movie- or album-making. With that thought in mind, who have you and “The Ladies of The Mew” interviewed?
M.M.—Oh gosh, a bunch a folks, real and fictional! The first guests of The Mew were several cast members of my webmaster Jamie’s web comic Clan of the Cats, in August 2007. Jamie would also contribute the occasional reviews, too. Then in October 2007 we interviewed two toy collectors, Power Rangers expert Pacozord and Actionfigurologist ob1. Gosh, some of those early Mews were rather lean compared to later years that sometimes got up to six times longer!
February 2008 was the 1st annual Mew Awards presentation. March 2008 was the special cosplay edition of The Mew, with artist/cosplayer guests Crissy Teverini, Hezachan, Misty Hopkins and Tonomurabix. May 2008 was the 1st Anniversary of The Mew, and the theme of that giant-sized edition was music, with vocalist Lisa Kyle, Klingon Karaoke-singer Capt. Keela sutai-Septaric, the band Three Quarter Ale, Pink Lady fan Jeff Branch, radio DJ and Animazement staffer Phil Lee, and Jamie’s chat about Beatlemania. The August 2008 Mew included the first of several music reviews over the years by our guest critic-friend Kaiser.
October 2008 was another big month with several guests: author Marna Martin, Star Wars fan Tiawyn, Tari of Sharon Williams’s story “Osiris Rising,” blogger Sparky MacMillan, plush toy maker Igor 9, and Jeff Branch again. The November 2008 guests were Jennie Breeden who is the creator of the web comic The Devil’s Panties, and Niki Lemonade who is the creator of the web comic My Fake Heart! The December 2008 guests were artist Emathyst; artist, author and game designer Jamie Davenport; model and milliner Joei Reed; artist and cosplayer Sarah “Sakky” Hughes, comics writer/journalist Dan Johnson, and a special vignette about Sara “Glory” Baker.
Then I started 2009 off with more of the cast of Clan of the Cats in January’s Mew! February 2009 was the 2nd annual Mew Awards, with an update on our prior guests; the March 2009 guest was Alexandra Wright of Jeff Branch’s story Dark Skin Red Blood; the May 2009 guest was author/artist Ursula Vernon, and our June 2009 guest was ghost investigator and professional costumer/performer Cheralyn Lambeth; the September 2009 guests were artists Rebecca Brogden and Alan Welch; the October 2009 guest was web comics author/artist Clint Hollingsworth. That November’s guests were A Girl and Her Fed’s creator Otter, and Corrine of Clan of the Cats!
December’s guests were cousins Deborah and Devra Langsam, who were among the first pioneering Star Trek fans of the 1960’s. They were part of that famous campaign to save Star Trek from cancellation.
J.L.—I remember that campaign! I knew a guy who was so into Star Trek at the time, he even came to class sporting Mr. Spock’s haircut and a homemade pair of Vulcan ears.
M.M.—Oh, Star Trek is probably my most knowledgeable topic. I love to study the history of the fandom. Deborah and Devra helped to publish the very first Star Trek fanzine, Spockanalia in 1967, and were part of the committee that launched the very first Star Trek Conventions in 1972! Of course, since then they’ve been up to a lot of other things: Devra Langdam has been a librarian, a publisher, an SCA member and a bookseller at various festivals, whilst Dr. Deborah Langsam has been a botany professor, a fiber artist and a chocolatier.
J.L.—A chocolatier…? I wouldn’t let her near Tribbles if I were you!
M.M.—Well, not unless there was one of those Tribble-eatin’ Glomars patrolling nearby! Speaking of the cuisine, our guests for January 2010 included our friend Chef Ron who is quite the cook, and (Marvel Comics) Avengers expert Professor Van Plexico. That February’s Mew included the 3rd annual Mew Awards, the May guest was model/cosplayer Rainbow Fish aka Chainmail Chick; the July guest list featured comics artist/journalist Jim Amash and returning comics artist/author Andrew Pepoy! The August 2010 guests included artist/author Alexcia Reynolds and returning guest Sakky; and the September guest was journalist and book editor Eric Nolen-Weathington of TwoMorrows Publishing!
That brings us up to the October 2010 edition of The Mew, which included the Catgirls’ interviews with the members of Child-Eating Books Studio which was founded in 2007 by artists Lucy Kagan, Allison Kupatt, and sisters Natalia and Thais Lopes, who I believe you know!
J.L.—You bet I do! They’re my anime-loving daughters!
M.M.—Like so many other folks, Natalia and Thais are far more active in fandom and cons these days than I am, and I’m sure they know a lot more about cosplay and the more recent anime, manga, visual and performing arts than I do! Oh, by the way, I should mention that The Catgirl Island Mewseum of Art is graced by a lot of lovely illustrations and photos from many of our great guests and other much appreciated artists! The Catgirl Island Public Library is also honored to have a few tales of the island by some guest authors too!
There were no guests for the January 2011 Mew, but in February many past guests were in attendance for the 4th annual Mew Awards, which would be much more elaborate from then on, and take much longer to write! So would the anniversary edition of The Mew every May, with a bit more plot elements being added from 2011 on. Artist Elisa Chong was our great guest for June 2011, but 2011 and 2012 were kind of sparse years for interviews. The Mew kept getting longer, though, but it was mostly comprised of discussions and reviews.
OK, we’re up to 2012, and that February’s 5th annual Mew Awards and May’s 5th Anniversary Mew were even bigger than the previous year, with more characters, plot, and more of the past guests in attendance for both events. Performing artist and model Lady Violet Arcane was the August 2012 guest. Although he was not actually a guest of The Mew, I did enjoy a few phone conversations with AC Comics’ artist/writer/Editor in Chief Mark Heike, as part of my research for the September 2012 Mew’s Celebrity Catgirl Spotlight! That was another opportunity that I am very grateful for!
Almost done! There were a lot of past guests at the 6th annual Mew Awards in February 2013; cosplayers Rosemary Ward and Des, who I met at the G.I. Joe Collectors Convention, were the May 2013 guests; artist Lela Dowling was the June 2013, and it was so nice to see the entire Lopes family amongst the crowd gathered for the 7th annual Mew Awards in the February 2014 Mew! That’s pretty much all of the folks thus far who have been interviewed for The Mew, but that does not include all of the other wonderful guest artists and authors who have kindly contributed to the art and tales at Catgirl Island!
J.L.—That’s quite an impressive rundown, Mike! Moving right along, I understand you’ve talked to the great Syd Mead? What a thrill that must have been!
M.M.—Oh yeah, I have been so fortunate and honored to have met and chatted with him several times over the past few decades! He’s my favorite designer and has been such a huge inspiration, ever since I got his Sentinel book, not long after my favorite movie Star Trek – The Motion Picture premiered. Since then my collection of Syd Mead stuff has grown quite a bit! The first time I met him was while I was in L.A. at USC. I spoke with him briefly by phone a couple of times, and he invited me to his house! That was in February of 1983 when I visited him for a few hours, and we chatted while he worked on a painting.
That was just several months after Blade Runner and Tron were in theaters. Meeting him was part of the reasons why I didn’t stay in film school at USC, and why I was inspired to later major in Industrial Design at NCSU. I even started using an Iwata HP-C airbrush loaded with Winsor-Newton Designer Gouache like he used, although I haven’t used either in years, especially in these digital days. I spoke to him a few more times, and then met him for the 2nd time when he gave a lecture and presentation at NCSU’s School of Design. I think that was in 2001… and the 3rd time I met him was again at NCSU several years later.
J.L.—Can you elaborate for us what the gist of your conversations with Mead were about? What subjects did you discuss and which films did Mead touch base with and describe?
M.M.—When I met him the first time I think the conversation mainly pertained to his illustration tools and techniques, and his work on Star Trek, Blade Runner and Tron while I watched him work. The latter time when he was at NCSU was not long after Mission Impossible III and the publication of his Sentury 2 book. The main things I chatted with him about prior to this presentation were his anime work, such as Yamato 2520 and Turn a Gundam. It was also nice to chat with a few of my industrial design professors and the head of the department who it was great to see again.
J.L.—Not only can we tell that you’re a big sci-fi fan, but you’re a regular convention-goer as well. How did you first get involved in cons?
M.M.—As for my first interest in cons, I loved going to fairs and festivals, hobby and collector shows, car shows, organized Halloween/costume activities, but as a kid all I knew about cons were what I’d read in magazines and books. But I guess the first actual convention that I attended was one in L.A. in 1983. It picked up for me in the mid-80s as a member of the Carolina Comic Book Club, when we made the trips to Heroes Con in Charlotte. Also about that time were other Star Trek, science fiction and comic book cons popping up in the state, ranging from the student and fan club to the corporate-sponsored events.
In the 90’s, I attended more ‘n’ more cons. including some in other nearby states, cosplayed more often, and sometimes had an artist’s table. The first actual anime-specific con I attended was Katsucon, along with fellow members of the Triangle Area Anime Society. That was also the first time I helped as a volunteer at a con. Later some of us at TAAS decided to start our own anime con here in North Carolina – and thus was launched Animazement! Since then I’ve been to cons, shows and festivals of all types, either as a volunteer, staffer, artist, dealer, guest or just a regular attendee. In the past few years I’ve attended some that are further out, in Cincinnatti, New Orleans and Indianapolis.
J.L.—Along those same lines, what attracted you to anime?
M.M.—What initially attracted me to anime was the art style, and my own art style was definitely influenced by anime in the 70’s. Back then I collected the Shogun Warriors toys and watched Speed Racer, but it was Battle of the Planets in ‘78 and Star Blazers in ‘79 which totally hooked me. That was not just due to the character or mecha designs, but the storytelling, characters, serious plots and serialized stories – even when heavily edited for North American audiences.
That’s when I really started to actively search for more information about anime and stuff to collect, as If I didn’t already have enough hobbies! It was a great time for me to be a fan in that post-Star Wars era of the late 70’s, what with anime, Doctor Who, DVD, video games, the return of Star Trek, James Bond, other big SF and horror movies, plus the comics, toys and music of the time, but those would each be other big topics!
Another thing is that sadly for the longest time in the U.S. there has often been the attitude that animation (and comics) are just for kids, whereas animation in Japan is such a huge industry, like our own live-action TV and movie industry, of great diversity and genres, with shows intended for kids, teens, adults, men, women, family. Fortunately the attitudes in the U.S. have changed for the better in the past couple of decades.
J.L.—Do you have a particular favorite from among the thousands of anime out there?
M.M.—OK, as for my favorite anime… oh, gosh, that could be a very long list of movies, TV series, OVA’s and music videos! I like so much of it from the past six decades, of almost every genre from science fiction, fantasy and horror to romantic comedy, sports and slice-of-life. Of course, there’s plenty that I do not like too, but let’s not go into that! There are so many anime authors, artists, directors, composers, voice actors and characters that I like!
I’m a huge fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s works, such as Spirited Away, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds, My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke and so forth! To this day, his 1979 movie The Castle of Cagliostro (starring Lupin the 3rd) is the first title that I would ever recommend to anyone who is curious about Japanese anime.
J.L.—Miyazaki-san is the King of Japanese anime! There’s no one better!
M.M.—He’s my favorite director, of animation or otherwise! I’m a big fan of Space Battleship Yamato, which might be the most significant anime of all time. I especially like the Yamato movies such as Arrivederci Yamato, Be Forever Yamato, and Final Yamato which are such beautiful, dramatic, epic space operas. I also like Galaxy Express and other works by Leiji Matsumoto, and Mamoru Hosoda’s films, among them The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children.
I’m very fond of Rumiko Takahashi’s series such as Maison Ikkoku, and Urusei Yatsura’s Ranma 1/2. I like Kosuke Fujishima and Masamune Shirow’s works a lot, too. My favorite anime of the 80’s includes Ah! My Goddess, Akira, Area 88, Bubblegum Crisis, Dirty Pair, Gunbuster, Gundam, Kimagure Orange Road, Macross, Mysterious Cities of Gold, Patlabor, Silent Möbius, Transformers: The Movie, and Vampire Princess Miyu.
As for the 90’s, I’d say Battle Athletes, Blue Seed, Blue Submarine Number Six, Cowboy Bebop, Devil Hunter Yohko, Ghost Sweeper Mikami, Hyper Police, Idol Project, Nadia, Nuku Nuku, Tenchi, Weathering Continent… and I think Sailor Moon is probably the most important anime of the 90’s, because not only does it have such a good strong cast of heroines, but it is especially responsible for attracting many female fans in the U.S. – and nowadays anime fandom seems to be 50-50 male/female!
J.L.—I can vouch for that. My own daughters were lucky recipients of the anime boom.
M.M.—I was so glad when anime, manga, games and related items finally became pretty much mainstream by the end of the 90’s, and thus much more accessible, affordable, influential and inspirational, with more ‘n’ more cons, clubs and web sites popping up everywhere. But that was 14 years ago and fandom has changed so much since then – for example, nowadays if you go to a con such as Animazement or Libraricon [in Fayetteville], the younger fans are representing non-anime stuff such as My Little Pony, Doctor Who, Homestuck, Marvel and DC, etc.
I’m a pony fan too! It’s a great, positive, fun show for fans of all ages, ethnicities and genders. Kids today have grown up in a time where anime is as common here as anything else. But then, most anime fans have always been fans of other stuff too, such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, comics, games, rennfaires, the highland games, hockey, college basketball, fishing or whatever people are fans of. But I digress again!
Back to favorite anime, some of my favorites of the 2000’s are Azumanga Daioh, Bamboo Blade, Daphne in the Brilliant Blue, Genshiken, Kami-Chu, K-ON, Maria Watches Over Us, Millennium Actress, Princess Nine, Strike Witches, and Magical Meow Meow Taruto. I definitely have to mention the TV series Aria, which is an adaptation of the Aqua and Aria manga by Kozue Amano – it’s my favorite Japanese anime TV series of the past 15 years. As for this current decade of the 2010’s, ah, I rather like Cat Planet Cuties, Girls & Panzer, Lagrange, Sound of the Sky, Spice and Wolf, and Taisho Baseball Girls. Some of my recent favorite manga are Sunshine Sketch, Geijutsuka Art Design Class, A Centaur’s Life and Omamori Himari.
As you may have noticed from Catgirl Island (www.catgirlisland.net) and The Mew, I’m rather fond of anime, manga and other artistry that feature catgirls, kitsune, faeries and mermaids, but I guess I’ve mentioned enough for now. Things like comics, manga, art and books would be other pretty big topics! I still have too way many hobbies!
J.L.—Speaking for myself, I first got into anime and sci-fi after catching the original run of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy on our local New York TV station (Channel 5). After that, I remember seeing Gigantor, Kimba the White Lion, Super Car, Planet Patrol, Fireball XL5, 8Man, and the unavoidable Speed Racer. Do you remember the first anime you ever saw?
M.M.—Oh yeah, in the late 60’s our kindergarten went to the movie theater to see Alakazam the Great. I was very young at the time, and didn’t realize it was Japanese animation, but I did notice the style was different from most of the American animated movies and cartoons I’d seen.
J.L.—When did you first start writing your blog?
M.M.—Some friends and other artists thought I had a knack for critiques, and because I can be very thorough and fair in my opinions, my webmaster Jamie suggested that I write a review blog. I forget when I first started pondering and writing it, but it was in early 2007 when I determined the style, format, tone, schedule and policies for my blog, as an extension of Catgirl Island (which I created in 1998); and the Catgirl Critics’ Media Mewsings: The Mew “purremiered” in May 2007! It quickly evolved to be much lengthier, and to include the slice-of-life situations for more and more of my meta-fictional characters, their annual “awards,” the occasional guest contributions, and the interviews with artists, authors, performers, collectors and fans.
J.L.—Have you met many interesting folks thru convention going and/or blog writing? I know I have!
M.M.—I was already so fortunate to meet lots of nice folks at the cons as a fellow fan, artist, dealer or staffer, but writing The Mew definitely helped lead to a lot of acquaintances and friendships. That includes a bunch of folks who I’ve never actually met, but whose work I greatly admire, whether they are famous or not yet famous!
J.L.—Do you have any boxed-set editions of your favorite films and/or anime series in your eclectic library or collection?
M.M.—Oh yes, I have quite a few movie and TV boxed sets! I prefer it when the box is in the standard height case so that it will fit on the shelf with other DVDs, and I prefer it when the disks are secured in individual trays and not in a big stack. But I love it when a DVD includes special features such as audio commentaries, info texts, isolated music tracks, spoken language and subtitle options, storyboards, screenplays, image galleries, documentaries, publicity materials, different versions, any deleted scenes and outtakes, gag reels, booklets and so forth.
Some of my favorites are the Star Trek – The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, Alien, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator II, Dawn of the Dead, Die Hard, Pulp Fiction, and the extended Lord of the Rings sets. Unfortunately, it seems like standard DVDs too often these days have fewer and fewer extras, not like they used to, especially movies, compared to Blu-ray Disks. However, there are a lot of great deals on TV-show boxed sets, especially older shows, and you can get some of the no-frills sets for pretty low prices.
Doctor Who DVDs have some great special features too. Japanese anime is so much more affordable now than it used to be, compared to back in the days of VHS, laser disks, and imports! One of the semi-annual topics of The Mew is the DVD Wish List. There are a lot of old-and-new foreign and domestic movies and TV shows that I’m still hoping to be commercially released or re-released here on Region 1 NTSC standard DVD, but every year I’m pleasantly surprised!
J.L.—Thanks so much, Mike, for your time, availability and “purrfectly” candid responses.
M.M.—Oh, it was my pleasure, you’re welcome, and thank you sir! Perhaps later on down the road the Ladies of the Mew might wish to “intermew” you too!
J.L.—I look forward to it!
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes
A Continuation of My “Personal and Cultural History of Opera, Popular Music, Soccer, Musical Theater and the Cinema in the Land of Carnival and Samba”
The broadcasts would all begin around 1:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, and in the same imperious manner: “Texaco presents the Metropolitan Opera. Welcome opera lovers in the United States and Canada to the Saturday afternoon broadcast season.”
Imagine my surprise when, instead of the familiar strains of Manhattan-based radio announcer Peter Allen,* I heard the Italian-inflected speech patterns of one Walter Lourenção, who spoke these same words not in the mid-Atlantic English I had become accustomed to listening, but in perfectly produced Brazilian Portuguese.
For over 80 years the radio transmissions of opera performances, “Broadcast live, direct from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City,” have been a greatly anticipated annual event, commencing in early December and lasting until the spring, and relayed to hundreds of radio stations across the country and around the globe.
But the news in June 2003 that the following season’s broadcasts would be the last to be sponsored by Chevron Texaco — the then-current configuration for the multinational oil company and longtime supporter of the arts — was most disheartening to devotees of the form. The Met, meanwhile, was in the market for a new radio sponsor to continue the popular weekly series.
As a former resident of the megalopolis of São Paulo, I too listened with rapt attention to the regular Saturday afternoon broadcasts, heard there over the facilities of Rádio Cultura FM. But to hear the opera in this foreign format was a bit of a shock for me, as there were no “Opera News on the Air” intermission features, no “Texaco Opera Quiz” games, and no revelatory interviews with venerated Metropolitan Opera stars, conductors or stage directors. In their place were the lucid and erudite comments of maestro Lourenção, who glowingly described each week’s work in dulcet-toned reverence.
It seemed altogether fitting, I thought, to be tuned in to a radio feed of a fabulous musical event from the Big Apple in the South American equivalent of São Paulo — the very pulse of the artistic, economic, and industrial heart of Brazil; christened after the Biblical firebrand, the Apostle Paul; and, along with Rio de Janeiro, the one-time cultural capital of the Sudeste (“Southeast”), now as much of a neglected backwater for live opera as the dry and arid Northeast has been.
Over in the extreme right-hand corner of the state, another event was also beginning to take shape. Only, this was to become part of the annual music celebration called Festival de Inverno, or Winter Festival, in the resort town of Campos do Jordão, where recitals of chamber music, lieder, opera, jazz, and choral works are presented each year by a dazzling assemblage of international personalities — concerts that have attracted over half a million people during the month of July alone.
Like an army of invading ants, they climb the Serra da Mantiquiera mountain range in a mass migration to this charming but hopelessly over-crowded, Alpine-like abode, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the big city of São Paulo.
Dubbed the Suíça brasileira (“Brazilian Switzerland”) for its cool European climate and quaint Swiss-style chalets, Campos do Jordão — a direct translation of which can be given as “Fields of Jordan” — has fast become one of the few spots left in the country where classical music of a reasonably high order is performed on any kind of regular basis, and in the dead of winter.
With piped-in broadcasts of live opera from the Met, beamed direct to Brazil “for the pleasure of opera lovers everywhere,” and the yearly pilgrimage of rabid music fans ready to brave the freezing temperatures for the sake of a few short-lived moments of inspired music-making, this somewhat incongruous modulation in the travel habits of middle- and upper-class paulistanos is occurring at a most precarious time for the classical music industry — and for Brazil as a whole.
The reasons for this turbulence are both manifold and complicated, relating partially to the ups-and-downs of the roller-coaster Brazilian economy; to the revolving-door aspect of culture ministers and artistic directors; to the lack of conviction (read: funding) on the part of the federal government; and to the popular perception of opera and classical music as strictly elitist forms of entertainment, originating in Western Europe, and the intellectual province of patrons, princes, and prima donnas.
But the most confounding condition of all — i.e., the noticeable lack of domestic singing talent, ready and willing to satisfy the voracious demands of inveterate opera-goers — has become ever more pronounced with the years, until it has turned into a veritable scavenger hunt for native-born performers of international renown.
What’s Up with Opera?
But what is it about the opera in particular that attracts people so? Why has this art of “belting it out to the rafters” suddenly afflicted so many newborn enthusiasts with the same fascination and fanaticism usually reserved for rock stars and movie icons — and in Brazil, of all places?
To begin with, opera is about personalities — the beautiful soprano heroine, the dashing tenor lover, and the villainous baritone scoundrel; characters that have been fashioned from both literary and historical sources, and re-shaped into melodramatic plot points some discerning audience members might find reminiscent of the next chapter in the latest television soap opera.
It is about the extremes of human emotion and the depths of human passion. It is about love and about hate, about jealousy and rage, bedrooms and betrayals, laughter and folly, sorrow and solace, treachery and deceit. Indeed, the likely analogy to a Latin telenovela is not at all a stretch in correctly depicting it — and Brazilians do seem devoted to their nightly dosage of drivel in ever-increasing numbers.
Yet despite the stereotypical trappings surrounding both genres, opera demands equally strong human personalities to fling those raw emotions across the footlights and into the laps of modern-day audiences; it needs real flesh-and-blood figures to populate the flowery wardrobe and don the powdered wigs; and, above all, it requires the utmost dedication and sacrifice on the part of its participants, more so than most other art forms.
For the die-hard music fan, this quintessential human involvement becomes the single most important ingredient in any successful production. But it won’t ever make it to that lofty point sans funding and resources, the current bane of opera companies everywhere.
Be that as it may, the operative words here are “passion,” “emotion,” and “personality,” easily the most applicable of Brazilian traits. And the gregarious Brazilian people, made up of countless colorful characters with equally diverse natures and individual personality quirks, are nothing if not passionate and emotional about life, and that includes their sports, their movies, and, of course, their brand of music.
This personal observation about the history of opera and opera singing in Brazil, then — our own version of the ever popular Fat Lady — along with its close cultural ties and ongoing relationship to pop music, Carnival, soccer, musical theater, and the Brazilian movie industry, begins and ends with extraordinary personages. From the least exceptional theater performers to the most fervent vocal and field interpreters, in essence they are what drive classical and popular entertainment to do what they do best: to allow us to look into, and identify deeply with, our innermost selves on the world stage.
The propitious announcement in early 2003 of the appointment of popular singer and tropicalismo co-founder, Gilberto Gil, to the post of culture minister was greeted with mixed rounds of tepid approval and critical brickbats, thrown at former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration for its choice of minister.
The criticism was leveled at Gil’s perfectly innocent yet revealing remark that despite his elevated cabinet status he would continue to tour and perform as an entertainer to supplement his meager minister’s earnings. Gil did vow to campaign for more of a piece of the dwindling budgetary pie in order to provide further funding for arts projects, to be financed through a combination of tax breaks, fiscal incentives, and additional private investments.
A quick perusal of the latest headlines from the local newspapers, however, revealed that the financial resources of the federal government had been stretched to the legal limit; that the then-current combination of high unemployment, low growth rates, and economic stagnation had dealt a severe blow to the initial optimism surrounding funding for the arts, especially with regard to the opera.* It had taken a reluctant back seat to the administration’s primary objectives of providing new jobs and resolving deep-seated social problems, all worthwhile and noteworthy pursuits.
This desequilibrio (or “imbalance”) between what the government says it wants to do and what it can actually accomplish, given the harsh realities of the situation at hand, came as no surprise to avid Brazil watchers, for this has always been the case in the country.
I myself have never known an instance in the nation’s past that has not been fraught with government intervention of one kind or another: from its frequent attempts to stave off hyperinflation, to addressing the ballooning federal deficit; from reforming the bloated public pension system and thwarting bureaucratic and political corruption, to confronting constant currency devaluation.
Even in Italy, the so-called “biological parent” of opera, where this sort of administrative template has been the norm for a good number of years, the perennial parliamentary crises found there — reflected in the accompanying anarchic conditions that have traditionally pervaded such historic institutions as the Teatro alla Scala, in Milan, and the Teatro La Fenice, in Venice — serve as the rule rather than the exception.
This state of political and artistic unrest, invariably ending in last-minute cancellations, substandard performances, and dubious musical presentations — not to mention constant labor strikes and employee unrest — has never prevented Italian opera houses from attracting delirious fans to their doorsteps. The same holds true for France, Germany, and many other European nations, where funding for the arts is officially a matter for the state.
No, the causes for Brazil’s severe classical drought must be found elsewhere and remain as elusive as the long sought-after Ring of the Nibelung. But perhaps they lie more within the nature of the Brazilian national character than in the financial pages of the now defunct Gazeta Mercantil, the self-styled Wall Street Journal of the South.
The Spanish Conquest
The relative paucity in Brazil of opera performers of the highest professional caliber may indeed have had something to do with the way Brazilians have traditionally looked at themselves, what Joseph A. Page, in his instructive guide The Brazilians, once described as an inbred inferiority complex and fundamental lack of self-esteem. When it comes to the positive aspects of their own cultural distinctiveness, Page wrote, Brazilians often tended to emulate the standards first set by their European and North American counterparts — not necessarily a bad thing, when it comes to the opera.
And there has certainly been no lack of laudable talent for lovers of fine singing to look up to and imitate. A quick scrape below the surface of artists past and present will unearth an impressive lineup of the Spanish, or Latin American, breed of romantic tenor, to cite only one major example from among so many.
Going back as far as the time of Gioachino Rossini, there were the Spaniards Manuel García, who sang in the 1816 premiere of the composer’s The Barber of Seville; the legendary Julián Gayarre from the late-nineteenth century; and the laudable Miguel Fleta and Hipólito Lázaro, both of who graced the world’s lyric stages during the roaring twenties. The late thirties, forties, and fifties gave us the thrilling Otellos of Chileans Renato Zanelli and Ramón Vinay, and the powerful Samson of José Soler from Cataluña.
In the sixties, the Count Almaviva of Peruvian-born Luigi Alva warmed the cockles of our hearts, as did the Duke of Mantua of Alfredo Kraus (Canary Islands) and the Alfredo Germont of Giacomo Aragall (Spain). The seventies and eighties brought the vocal splendors of Plácido Domingo (born in Madrid, but raised in Mexico City) and his Spanish compatriot José Carreras (via Barcelona), as well as the fireworks generated by Mexican tenor Francisco Araiza and Argentine bel-canto specialist Raul Giménez.
Today, there are ever more willing pretenders to the title of operatic superstar, and from just about every Latin contingent, including Argentina (Marcelo Álvarez and José Cura), Mexico (Ramón Vargas and Rolando Villazón), Peru (Juan Diego Flórez), and Venezuela (Aquiles Machado). But where are the contributions from South America’s largest country to this United Nations of vocal ambassadors? The single representative exponent, encompassing the categories of tenore di grazia, tenore di forza, lirico spinto, and lirico robusto, from the vast Brazilian continental expanse is nowhere to be found. He is, to say the least, completely unaccounted for and made more conspicuous by his very absence.
From the sports arena to the world’s fashion runways, Brazil has always brought to the forefront no less than certifiable world-class competitors in every major field of endeavor. Indeed, the rarefied names of famous racecar drivers (Ayrton Senna, Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet, Hélio Castroneves), tennis pros (Maria Bueno, Gustavo Kuerten), top models (Gisele Bündchen, Susana Werner, Adriana Lima), movie directors (Glauber Rocha, Carlos Diegues, Bruno Barreto, Hector Babenco, Walter Salles Jr., Fernando Meirelles), stage and screen personalities (Carmen Miranda, Bidu Sayão, Fernanda Montenegro, Sônia Braga, Rodrigo Santoro), and soccer stars (Garrincha, Pelé, Ronaldo, Rivaldo), have all been acknowledged as the “best of the best” at what they did, or continue to do, as professionals in their spheres of influence.
With comparatively few exceptions, no other country can quite approach the luxury, the ebullience, and, yes, the passion, that Brazil’s God-given, natural-born talents have brought to the areas of jazz and pop (Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, Egberto Gismonti, Naná Vasconcelos, Sérgio Mendes, Ivan Lins), Música Popular Brasileira (MPB) and Tropicália (Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, Tom Zé), samba and bossa nova (João Gilberto, Luiz Bonfá, Elis Regina, Marisa Monte), literature and poetry (Machado de Assis, Monteiro Lobato, Jorge Amado, Vinicius de Moraes, Carlos Drummond de Andrade), art and architecture (Cândido Portinari, Aleijadinho, Oscar Niemeyer, Hélio Oiticica), stage and theater (Nelson Rodrigues, Augusto Bial, Gerald Thomas, Charles Möeller, Claudio Botelho), classical performance and dance (Guiomar Novaes, Magda Tagliaferro, João Carlos Martins, Márcia Haydee), and musical composition (Carlos Gomes, Ary Barroso, Dorival Caymmi, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Tom Jobim).
What the Future May Hold
So why have there been so few appearances by the proverbial Fat Lady from Fortaleza, singing of the wealth and pleasures of an invisible Valhalla in Wagner’s Die Walküre, or before the inevitable inundation in The Twilight of the Gods? Perhaps that twilight has already descended upon her, and a more appropriate death knell now needs to be tolled for opera instead.
But if lesser, more volatile Latin nations can inspire their young people to pursue a classical-music career abroad, then why can’t the more educationally advantaged and, undoubtedly, more politically, more competitively, more musically, and more culturally diverse Federative Republic of Brazil do the same?
How can a nation so steeped in musical tradition, so rich in rhythmic vitality and lyrical invention, so wrapped in melodic and harmonic subtleties, with a boundless energy and enthusiasm for public celebration, produce no recent homegrown opera talent of international repute?
What of Brazil’s abundantly rich musical past, in particular its world-famous bossa nova and pop-music heritage? And what can be said about her soccer and cinematic credentials? How have they contributed to, or detracted from, this overall perception of decline and decay? Must the country’s cultural woes always boil down to money issues (or mainly, the lack of it), or are there other, more cogent possibilities left to be explored?
These puzzling thoughts, as well as quite a few others, have remained a conundrum in my mind for more years than I care to account for. And, as far as film historians, musicologists or sports commentators having had any particular knowledge or insight into any of them, it can be safely stated that the underlying causes for these continuing concerns have never been fully examined, neither have they been satisfactorily explained or resolved — to any extent — in my lifetime.
Nevertheless, my blog postings over the past two years have endeavored (and will continue) to dissect these fascinating subjects into a multipart series of studies, some of which looked at the ups and downs of Brazilian opera; examined the dual careers of entertainer Carmen Miranda and soprano Bidu Sayão; covered the ever-changing world of Brazilian cinema; concentrated on the Brazilian World Cup Soccer phenomenon; presented a hodgepodge of individual Brazilian artists; analyzed the bossa nova craze’s effect on American jazz and popular music; and discussed topics that, in more ways than one, attempted to point the way towards a better future for opera, musical theater, sports, and the cinematic arts in the mystery that remains Brazil.
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes
*Originally, American radio personality Milton Cross, a native New Yorker, served as the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts’ first and, for an exceptionally long time, only regular program announcer, spanning the Depression and war years from Christmas Day 1931 until his death, on January 2, 1975, at the age of 77.
*According to a 1997 Culture Ministry survey, almost half of the money targeted for cultural projects, or roughly US$60 million at that year’s exchange rate, came from state-owned companies, with the largest percentage of funds going to the Brazilian film industry. We can thank the enactment of the Audio Visual and Rouanet Laws, in the early 1990s, for that fortunate state of affairs. The laws provided generous tax exemptions to firms, both inside and outside the country, for their initial infusion of cash.