Month: June 2014

‘Werther’ and ‘Wozzeck’ — The Poet and the Peasant: Two Big W’s at the Met

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Love and Marriage (Not Necessarily in That Order)

Jonas Kaufmann as Werther (Photo: Ken Howard)
Jonas Kaufmann as Werther (Photo: Ken Howard)

You could not have picked two more dissimilar subjects for operatic treatment than Jules Massenet’s Werther and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. A mere thirty-three years separate the premieres of both works, with Werther (based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther) being heard in Vienna, in a German translation of all things, on February 16, 1892, and Wozzeck (taken from Georg Büchner’s unfinished play, Woyzeck) seeing the light of day at the Berlin State Opera on December 14, 1925.

Stylistically, the two pieces are many worlds apart. Though composed by a Frenchman, Massenet’s opera adheres closely to the aesthetic of German High Romanticism in most respects, in particular its idealized portrayal of the suicidal poet Werther and his unrequited love for the respectable Charlotte. Goethe conceived the story as a series of letters (shades of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin) written at the start by Werther himself to a friend, and later by the author, who picks up the thread from the tormented protagonist until his tragic demise by his own hands.

Indeed, the parallels to Pushkin, and to Tchaikovsky’s opus (discussed in a previous post: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/die-fledermaus-eugene-onegin-and-lelisir-damore-tragedy-tomorrow-comedy-tonight-a-triple-threat-at-the-met/), abound throughout and can be summed up in the dire circumstances that dog the dramatis personae.

In Eugene Onegin, the title character spurns the youthful Tatiana, who professes her love for him in a lengthy letter. Rejected, Tatiana elects to marry a much older man instead. Prior to that, Onegin shoots and kills his closest friend, the poet Lensky, in a quarrel of his own making. When Onegin at last acknowledges his love for Tatiana, she refuses to give in to his entreaties out of loyalty to her husband and to her own moral code.

In a bit of poetic license, one can surmise that, in the Massenet work, the poet Werther (substituting for the lovesick Lensky) has returned from an extended stay abroad, only to discover that he has fallen hopelessly in love with the now-married Charlotte (read: Tatiana). Suspecting that she may be having an affair with Werther, Charlotte’s husband Albert (the Prince Gremin character from Onegin), in response to a request from Werther, sends him a pair of dueling pistols, the upshot of which results in the poet’s protracted death throes that conclude the opera.

It’s all a bit confusing, I admit, but the premise makes perfect sense if one tracks Werther’s story line to its ultimate conclusion: that love will find a way, even if it ends in the loss of the one you most love.

The Bleakness of a Tortured Life

No such romantic inclinations inhabit the claustrophobic environment of Berg’s Wozzeck. On the contrary, this haunting ninety-minute work (in three acts, but most often performed without intermission, as presented at the Met) wallows pathetically in its very depravity and emotional want.

Composer Alban Berg
Composer Alban Berg

There is no love lost between any of the characters, including the titular “poor soldier” Wozzeck. He and his live-in girlfriend, Marie (a lustful, Bible-reading harlot), are subjected to all manner of cruelty by a variety of callous individuals: from the condescending Captain, the pedantic Doctor, and the brutish Drum Major in Wozzeck’s case; to the desperate and mentally challenged Wozzeck himself, who torments Marie with varying degrees of indifference and bewilderment, leading to his jealous rage and to her eventual murder by lakeside.

The music that Berg used to capture these appalling events is of the starkest means possible, with the jaggedness of the orchestration reflecting the broken shards of the characters’ lives. Hardly a hint of melody appears to be present, yet this masterful score essentially overflows with post-romantic elements, many of which came from the pen of Richard Strauss (his one-act opera Salome, for instance), as well as that of his contemporary Gustav Mahler (a Ländler waltz here, a Mahlerian D-Minor Sonata there).

Given the above assessment, how could Werther and Wozzeck hope to compare to one another, if at all? Remarkably, both operas end with the simplest of touches: in the Massenet work, children’s voices are heard in the distance, chanting a Christmas carol as Werther dies peacefully in the arms of his true love, Charlotte; in Berg’s more derisive interpretation, after Marie’s murder and Wozzeck’s self-inflicted death by drowning, their little son is seen riding a hobbyhorse, while the other children run off to where the body of his deceased mother lies. “Hop, hop,” the ignorant tot cries as he hobbles about. “Hop, hop” — stark, harrowing, and heartrendingly bleak.

The utter finality of death and the futility of a tortured life linger in the air of both works, but with the negative “edge” going to Alban Berg for his insightful reading of the times in which he lived. In reality, Berg started work on Wozzeck during and towards the end of World War I, one of the cruelest and most disgraceful chapters of European history up to that period. Fortunately for his part, Massenet did not live to see the horrors inflicted upon his fellow citizens. He passed away on August 13, 1912 at the age of 70. Two years later, on August 3, Germany declared war on France.

In the fall of 1915, upon completion of his training at an Austro-Hungarian boot camp Berg suffered a complete physical breakdown, which led to his imposed hospitalization. According to Alex Ross in his book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, the frail composer was “confined to a desk job” for the duration of the conflict. There, “a beastly superior made his life miserable.” Berg took his penance in stride, however, later making full use of this bitter episode as a model for his depiction of Wozzeck’s privations.

A New Production

The Metropolitan Opera presented both works in successive Saturday afternoon broadcasts. First up was Werther, heard on March 15 and transmitted as part of their Live in HD series. This was a new Richard Eyre production, whose previous work included an updating of Bizet’s Carmen to Franco-era Spain. His Werther replaced the previous version designed by Paul-Émile Deiber, which did double-duty for well on four decades.

Left to right: David Bizic, Lisette Oropesa & Jonas Kaufmann (Ken Howard)
Left to right: David Bizic, Lisette Oropesa & Jonas Kaufmann (Ken Howard)

The cast featured tenor of the hour Jonas Kaufmann as Werther and debuting French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch as Charlotte. Others in the lineup included bass-baritone David Bižić as Albert, soprano Lisette Oropesa as Sophie, baritone Jonathan Summers as the Bailiff, and bass Philip Cokorinos and tenor Tony Stevenson as Johann and Schmidt, respectively. The work was conducted by returning French-Armenian maestro Alain Altinoglu, who acquitted himself well, despite some slackness in the pit.

Not having seen Eyre’s production in the flesh, nor in its HD debut, I must rely on photographs and reviews of the abstract sets along with the mise-en-scène to provide relevant commentary. The biggest change from the Met’s earlier (and, scenically, quite splendid) incarnation of Werther was in its delineation of the title character’s suicide, complete with blood-splattered walls and copious amounts of stage gore. Not usually shown but merely hinted at, this kind of ultra-realistic, gutwrenching drama is what substitutes nowadays for character development. If, however, by its use a director of taste can add to our understanding of the opera’s plot, then by all means go for it.

Vocally, the opera profited from Kaufmann’s drop-dead good looks and handsomely svelte physique. That he can also sing and act up a storm is a tremendous advantage in this role. Indeed, his illustrious string of predecessors, among them such past exponents as Tito Schipa, Ferruccio Tagliavini, Georges Thill, Charles Richard, and Albert Lance, along with Alfredo Kraus, Nicolai Gedda, José Carreras, Neil Shicoff, and especially Franco Corelli, whom Kaufmann clearly favors as a role model in the part, would pose a challenge to any newcomer.

However, Kaufmann is far from a newcomer. Heard last season in a glorious performance of Wagner’s Parsifal, I’ve been following this incredibly gifted artist for several seasons now. His Florestan in Fidelio and Cavaradossi in Tosca are marvels of high-voltage exuberance, replete with blazing high notes and luxurious legato phrasing throughout the top and bottom of his range. His fluency in languages other than his native German are plus factors in excelsis.

Sophie Koch & Jonas Kaufmann in Act III (Ken Howard)
Sophie Koch & Jonas Kaufmann in Act III (Ken Howard)

Artistically, Kaufmann’s Werther was beyond reproach. His third-act duet with his leading lady, and of course his well-received “Pourquoi me réveiller?” were thrilling in their full-voiced passion. Still, there was something about this dark-edged poet that missed that final spark of inspiration. Maybe it was my mood that day, or perhaps the coloration of his voice (his enunciation of the text was more than acceptable, so it couldn’t have been that). But my thought was that Kaufmann did not sound particularly French. Well, then, neither did Corelli, for that matter, but there was always a hint of animal magnetism in that great tenor’s assumption. If that was the only thing I could find fault with in Kaufmann’s performance, then we should be so lucky! This was golden-age singing to die for, so why quibble over non-essential details?

On the other hand, I found Sophie Koch’s Charlotte to be a placid bird. A model of French restraint, she was all-but a cipher as far as the character was concerned. Koch sounded, on the radio at least, slightly inhibited vocally, her great Letter Scene (so similar to Tatiana’s in Eugene Onegin, but with more melancholy aspects thrown in) going by the boards in a purely perfunctory manner. Whatever nuance or tone color she put into the role — one of Massenet’s finest depictions of feminine fragility and nobility — did not come through as one would have hoped. Being hampered by the lack of visuals, I made these judgments based solely on what I heard, and what I heard failed to move this listener.

No such problems afflicted the perky and luscious toned Sophie of New Orleans native Lisette Oropesa, who showed a sympathetic side to Charlotte’s younger sister that had eluded Koch. Bass-baritone Bižić was stuck in the mud, so to speak, in trying to portray a vivid character from Albert’s meager lines. Physically, I’m told he did a wonderful job. It’s not entirely his fault, though, that the fellow, as Massenet conceived him, has more to do offstage than on. The other singers came off well enough, although none of them even approached the bon vivant buoyancy offered by the late, great comic basso Fernando Corena as the Bailiff, Charlotte and Sophie’s widowed father.

Incidentally, this production interpolated a pre-curtain “dumb-show” into the opening prelude, representing the death and burial of the Bailiff’s wife. I am not one for such extravagances in the name of clarifying the plot for audience members too lazy to read up on the work at hand, but if that’s what the director chose to do, then so be it.

In my younger days as an active opera-goer, I made certain I knew ahead of time what it was I was going to be watching. I didn’t always have the time, nor did I have access to readily available material so plentiful in our digital age. With that said, I did the best I could to devour the program guide in order to keep abreast of what was transpiring on stage. Now, with super-titles and simultaneous translations being delivered in real-time, most of the work is done for you by automation: one small step for man, one giant leap for opera-kind.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

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‘Mad, Mad, the World’s Gone Mad’ – Wagner’s ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’ as ‘American Idol’ Song Contest (Part Three)

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Act Two: “The Street Riot”

The Sunset Strip
The Sunset Strip in Los Angeles

The setting for the second act takes place on the Sunset Strip. On one side of the street is Randy Jackson’s Imported Shoe Emporium, run by failed contestant William Hung and his team of illegal aliens (“apprentices” in disguise), among them assorted Koreans, Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants.

The shoe shop doubles as a makeshift bachelor pad for Randy; on the opposite side of the street is a high-rise apartment complex, where Paula Abdul lives with Kelly Clarkson. They are both under the watchful eyes of their guardian, Clive Davis.

After a brief prelude, the curtain rises to show the various establishments closing up shop for the night. Tomorrow is St. John’s Day, a major holiday on the Strip, to which all are looking forward to time off. Hung is humming about Kelly when she happens to pass by with a bag of Taco Bell treats. She asks how Clay did in the song contest. “He blew it,” Hung answers sharply. Kelly snatches the goody bag from William’s hands and dashes off into the complex. “Hey, what gives?” wonders the jealous Hung, who suspects that Kelly Clarkson may be having strong feelings for Mr. Aiken.

As the apprentice shoemakers make fun of Hung’s situation, Randy now appears, ordering them to pipe down and “Go to bed!” On the other side of the street, Clive Davis is seen leading Paula Abdul by the hand through the swarm of apprentices and passersby. Clive is deep in thought, debating to himself whether he should have a chat with Randy about the day’s disastrous song trial. “Better not,” Paula advises. “He’s in no mood for talking, at least not tonight.”

Admiring the beautiful evening, Clive inquires whether Paula is looking forward to the upcoming song contest. “Do I have to go? And do I have to choose an American Idol winner for a husband?” “Is there any other kind that I’m not aware of?” cries the old man, before he retires to his apartment.

In the meantime, Kelly resurfaces and informs Paula that a persistent Simon Cowell has sent her a text message, wanting to know if he can come around later that evening. “Oh, the hell with that creep,” mutters Paula to herself. They depart, just as Randy comes down to the shop to make sure that William has opened the display window so the other apprentices can get in a little practice session. With that in mind, Randy decides to have a go at shoe-making again, something he hasn’t done in quite a while, “Just to take my mind off my troubles.”

Randy Jackson (Hans Sachs)
Randy Jackson (Hans Sachs)

The fragrance of the night air and the allure of the summer flowers force Randy to wax nostalgic about his former days as a young jazz player on the go. “I miss the gigs we used to have,” he sighs loudly, “and the cool music we used to play.” He remembers Clay’s song as unique and reflects upon its loveliness, how the melody attracted him, how it played over and over again in his head. “If it made those old farts squirm,” he reckons, “then let’s hear more of it!”

Paula slowly but assuredly leaves her apartment and comes over to flirt with Randy, where he has assembled his workbench. Their long and cautious conversation covers a multitude of topics: from Paula’s stylish shoes to the forthcoming American Idol contest the next afternoon. After much back and forth dialogue and thinly-veiled verbal exchanges — including a fairly blatant pass by Paula at Randy’s ego, in addition to her not-so-subtle insinuation that he’d make a decent catch himself — Randy blurts out that he’s had nothing but headaches from marriage (three at last count) and is still paying a boat-load of back alimony. This is why he’s forced to take up shoe-making again.

She remains unconvinced by his arguments, and continues to press him about Clay’s chances. “He’s too full of himself,” complains Randy. “Besides, he needs to loosen up.” But Randy is his friend, is he not? “Friend?” questions Randy. “That dude needs to get himself a new band of brothers in some faraway suburb, such as Ensenada.” Incensed at his poor excuse for advice, Paula storms off in protest, cursing a blue streak, and swearing up and down that Mr. Jackson needs to soak his big bald head in a vat of ice water to cool his hot temper. Randy smiles broadly at the girl. “Gotcha, you little schemer!” he snaps back at her. “You’re the one who’s got the ‘hots’ for Mr. Aiken!”

Turning her back to Randy, Paula runs smack dab into Kelly Clarkson, who tells her that Simon Cowell is undoubtedly on his way to serenade her on his terribly expensive Fender Stratocaster. “That’s all I need to hear!” The girls hatch a plot to switch clothes, thereby fooling Simon into thinking that Paula is listening to his aimless guitar playing, while in reality she’s planning to meet up with Clay, who is at that moment coming up the block. The two lovers throw their arms around each other in a passionate embrace. What will they do now that he, Clay, has flunked the song trial? “We’ll elope!” Clay shouts in exultation.

Clay Aiken (Walther) & Paula Abdul (Eva)
Clay Aiken (Walther) & Paula Abdul (Eva)

A loud bullhorn sounds in the distance, thus interrupting the lovers’ reverie. “Chill out,” Paula admonishes. “We have the rest of our lives to live out our dream.” Withdrawing for the time being, Clay and Paula retreat into the shadows. At that, the figure of a Night Watchman emerges. A neighborhood vigilante type, who wears a red Guardian Angels beret and is armed with a huge Billy club, he sings an “all’s well” type of number. “Be cool, y’all” he voices. “Ain’t no time for messin’ aroun’, ya hear?” He toots his bullhorn again, and finally goes off in another direction, away from the action.

It’s at this point that trouble and mayhem follow, as Simon Cowell — dressed to kill in his custom-grade T-shirt and skintight dress jeans — enters the picture to serenade the unsuspecting Paula (in reality, Kelly Clarkson in disguise). All hell breaks loose as Randy Jackson clears his throat and starts up with a boisterous and thoroughly ear-shattering song, all the while pummeling away on his workbench with a heavy mallet and a pair of unfinished shoes.

“What’s up?” demands Simon. “What’s with the ruckus?” Randy boldly answers that he just plain forgot to fix Cowell’s shoes; that they’ve been sitting in his shop untouched for weeks. Therefore, he needs to get his act together right this minute, or they’ll be hell to pay tomorrow morning. “What in the name of all that’s sacred are you talking about?” cries Simon. Doesn’t he know that it’s nighttime, and that the noise will wake up the neighbors? Not at all, Randy reassures him. He’s done this kind of work before, and no one has yet to file a complaint. “Well, I’m filing a complaint!” Simon says. “I’m calling the cops.” Nothing of the kind!

After much give and take, wherein Randy sings another of his churlish tunes (to the point of even using Paula’s name in his questionable lyrics), he strikes a bargain with the by-now totally flustered Mr. Cowell. “Tell you what: you come over here and play me that love song of yours, and I’ll tell you when you make a mistake. Is that a deal?” Not wanting to attract a crowd, but desiring at all costs to let Paula know how he feels about her, Simon agrees to Randy’s terms — albeit reluctantly.

With Paula and Clay trying to make each other as inconspicuous as possible (highly improbable given the circumstances above), and Kelly nearing the end of her rope with Simon’s beastly singing, the two men haggle and quarrel over tone, meter, rhyme, and stress for God knows how many minutes. At last, Randy Jackson holds up the finished pair of shoes and declares the task done. “But I haven’t finished my song yet!” Simon insists. “Then do it over breakfast, ‘cause I’m calling it a night!”

William Hung (David)
William Hung (David)

That did it! Having been awakened by the commotion and the constant pounding of Randy’s mallet, William Hung peers out of the window display to catch sight of Simon still attempting to win over what to him looks like the figure of his pretty little girlfriend, Kelly. In an uncontrollable rage, Hung flies out of the shop and attacks the unsuspecting Simon. He beats the living daylights out of Mr. Cowell, who tries to avoid the blows by putting his Fender Stratocaster between them.

In that same instant, neighbors open their windows to see what all the fuss is about. Others congregate near the apartment building’s entrance, while still others rush over to the doorman who goes out into the street to fetch the Night Watchman. Just as abruptly, the apprentices are aroused from their slumber and begin to pour out of Randy’s Imported Shoe Emporium. Armed with shoes, mallets, soles, and anything else they can get their hands on, they stage a veritable free-for-all. Joining them are the Mastersingers, all dressed in their night clothes and florid pajamas!

At the height of the riot, the doorman reappears, this time accompanied by the entire L.A.P.D. crime force, who try to put down the escalating mess: police cars, police sirens, ambulances, SWAT teams in full regalia, guns and rifles drawn, etc., come out of nowhere in a hopeless attempt to bring order to the crowd. The press and paparazzi are out in force as well, snapping photographs of people getting beat up — including one of an African American victim, who looks suspiciously like Rodney King getting kicked and clubbed.

The bullhorn’s sound slices through the night air again, as the Night Watchman finally shows up to patrol his beat, along with his partner. The partner also carries a bullhorn, from which the Night Watchman makes his “all’s well” pronouncement. Only this time, he’s wearing a bulletproof vest and anti-riot gear, just in case of trouble.

Amidst the mounting hubbub, Randy grabs Clay in the nick of time and thrusts him bodily into his shoe shop. Clive Davis reaches out and pulls “Paula” into the apartment, followed by Randy pushing the real Paula into Clive’s arms. At the same time, Randy rescues the battered and beaten Simon Cowell by kicking Hung’s backside into his shop. With not a second to lose, he slams the door shut, leaving Simon to lick his wounds and scuttle off to one side. The tumult eventually dies down to a low rumble.

OJ Simpson mug shot
O.J. Simpson’s mug shot

After the riot is over, one of the policemen on the scene finds a black glove on the ground and immediately pockets it. All of a sudden, a photo of O.J. Simpson’s mug shot is displayed in front of the scrim. The City of Angels never sleeps — nor does its citizens, many of who continue to commit crimes, even with the entire police force present.

Blackout.

(End of Act Two)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Brazil’s World Cup Runneth Over with Song — The Best of the Best by the Best

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Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66
Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66

Ever have one of those days when you’re forced to use your head in making a last-minute decision while the pressure of a deadline looms stealthily in the distance?

No, I don’t mean on the soccer field. Certainly, Team USA’s dramatic, make-or-break victory over Ghana on Monday came down to the wire, with the U.S. coming up the winner off John Brooks’ incredible “head” shot in the 86th minute of play. Nothing I inscribe could ever be as heart-stopping as that moment, but I do digress.

To this point, I received an e-mail from musician Ken Avis, whose band Veronneau recently appeared at Strathmore’s Jazz Samba Project Festival in North Bethesda, Maryland — about which I will be devoting extensive coverage during the weeks to come.

“I’ve just had an unexpected request from the Washington Post,” Ken wrote the other night, “with an urgent deadline.” And here we go: “Very lightly defined, but they would like a playlist of eight to ten songs to add to an article about the Brazil World Cup… a kind of reader’s primer on what to listen to in order to get into the mood.”

Okay, I thought, that sounds like something I could tackle. To continue the soccer analogy, I know for a fact the Brazilian National Team has often mixed samba into their joyous style of play. And this felt like a fun project all-around, something to relieve the stress from intensive World Cup viewing (now how can THAT be stressful…?).

“Just off the top of your head,” he continued, “what would you consider to be three or four Brazilian songs to hear and why? Your desert Island discs!”

As Heath Ledger’s Joker would say, “Now you’re talkin’!” It’s just the thing to wipe the summer heat away. My initial strategy was to suggest songs that would span the length and breadth of the country’s eclecticism.

Brazil is a musically diverse nation with a wide array of regional styles, genres, forms, and trends: from choro and maxixe, to samba, samba-canção, bossa nova, MPB, Tropicália, axé, frevo, forró, funk, and pagode, to name a few.

But if it’s desert island airs you want, naturally I’d have to start with the best of the best, the top of the heap, the A-Number 1 of them all:

1. “The Girl from Ipanema” – Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Ole Blue Eyes never sounded better when paired with Carioca maestro Tom Jobim, in what I dubbed a dry run for Sinatra’s later Duets album. Here, the Chairman of the Board soothes the ears in his quietest, most laid-back mode. “I haven’t sung this soft since the last time I had laryngitis,” he famously quipped afterwards. Sure, Frankie. Anything you say…

2. “Tarde em Itapoã” (“Afternoon on the Beach at Itapoã”) – Vinicius de Moraes and Toquinho. The first song the Little Poet Vinicius wrote with his new-found partner, Toquinho. Their voices are beautifully blended in this, their most whimsical combination. It’s a lovely tune, one that’s been covered by a variety of artists, including Brazilian singer Jane Duboc who partnered with baritone sax specialist Gerry Mulligan on their 1994 album Paraíso on Telarc.

3. “Mas que nada” (“Oh, That’s Nothing”) – Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. A bossa nova classic by any measure of the term, most people would be surprised to learn that bandleader Mendes (still going strong at 73) did not compose this rollicking number. That honor goes to Rio-born musician Jorge Duilio Lima Menezes, whose stage moniker is currently Jorge Ben Jor. The song was revived by Sergio in 2006 as a joint venture with the Black Eyed Peas for a commercial aired during the 2006 World Cup, leading to reconfirmation of its status as an international cross-cultural hit.

The flamboyant Ney Matogrosso
Ney Matogrosso

4. “Aquarela do Brasil” (“Brazil”) – Ney Matogrosso. Known as Brazil’s theme song, it was written by the prolific Ary Barroso, who lived for a time in Hollywood and was courted by none other than Walt Disney himself, although little to nothing came of the encounter. Barroso was even rumored to have had an affair with Carmen Miranda (discounted by author Ruy Castro in his biography of the famed Brazilian Bombshell). Ney Matogrosso’s priceless, flamboyant rendition of the tune is my preferred version, which finds him in singularly spectacular voice.

5. “Adeus, batucada” (“Bye-Bye, My Samba”) – Carmen Miranda. More than any other record, this melancholy samba fit Carmen’s profile as her country’s premier ambassador of Brazilian song. Its composer, a poor black youth named Synval Silva, also served as the entertainer’s chauffeur in Rio. He even wrote the refined lyrics, which reflect Carmen’s clear-eyed philosophy of life: “Vou-me embora chorando / com o meu coração sorrindo / E vou deixar todo mundo valorizando a batucada” – “With tears in my eyes / I’ll leave behind a glad heart / So that everyone I meet can enjoy the beat of samba.”

6. “Only a Dream in Rio” – James Taylor and Milton Nascimento. Written by the ethereal voiced Milton with his favorite lyricist, Fernando Brant, the English text was supplied by Mr. Taylor. Nasally twang aside, it’s one of arena favorite Sweet Baby James’ few forays in a foreign language. Despite the linguistic difficulties of Brazilian Portuguese, he manages to win listeners over by his complete sincerity in putting the song across. Milton joins him for one of the verses as well as the main chorus.

Milton Nascimento "Live"
Milton Nascimento “Live”

7. “Nos Bailes da Vida” (“In the Dances of Life”) – Milton Nascimento and Fernando Brant. Recorded live in November 1983 at the Teatro Municipal in São Paulo (my wife just happened to be present for the session), this extremely catchy tune is so infectious that Milton has the audience sing right along with him in one of those magical moments. His red-hot band mates include such stalwarts as keyboardist Wagner Tiso, guitarist Hélio Delmiro, and Robertinho Silva on drums and percussion. Hit it, Miltie!

8. “Meu nome é Gal” (“My Name is Gal”) – Gal Costa. Maria da Graça Costa Penna Burgos, known professionally as Gal Costa, has been at the forefront of not only the tropicalismo movement, but of Brazilian popular music in general. Born in Bahia, Gal Costa’s eponymously titled song was released in 1969, with words and music by Roberto and Erasmo Carlos, two artists whose work bears listening to. It’s another of those personal statements that Gal, a consummate singer of impeccable taste, has reshaped throughout the years to suit her various moods. The older she gets, the more fascinating (and jazzier) she becomes.

9. “Aquele abraço” (“That embrace”) – Gilberto Gil. Also written and recorded in 1969 was this musical salute to Rio de Janeiro from fellow Bahian and former minister of culture, Gilberto Gil. Filled with topical and cultural references from the era, among them the Flamengo Soccer Club and colorful TV personality Chacrinha, Gil penned this number shortly after his release from prison and just before his being exiled to Europe. Accompanying him was tropicalismo co-founder Caetano Veloso, who helped bring Brazil’s music and rhythms to Britain.

Caetano Veloso singing "Sampa"
Caetano Veloso singing “Sampa”

10. “Sampa” – Caetano Veloso. And finally, we have Mr. Veloso himself. Acknowledged at one time as Brazil’s answer to our own Bob Dylan, the intellectually stimulated Caetano passed through a phase where he and various other musical artists channeled concrete poetry and symbolism in their works. In this song, he pays homage to São Paulo, where upon his crossing of Ipiranga Street with São João Avenue, something always happens inside his heart. It’s both a critical commentary as well as a love letter to South America’s largest and most crowded urban center (and the city of my birth).

How’s that for a play list? I had to ask my wife Regina to dig into her memory banks for some help with the above compilation, but it was worth it. As a side bonus, I’d like to give an honorable mention to an old sixties Carnival standard, “Mascara Negra” (“Black Mask”), by that great sambista Zé Keti, sung by powerhouse chanteuse Dalva de Oliveira, one of dozens of female performers who made their mark during the glory days of Música Popular Brasileira.

Ken’s response to the list was definitive: “Not easy is it to narrow it down, is it? I love the broadness of your tastes, including Frank Sinatra and James Taylor. I agree that sometimes the best interpretations are done simply by the most musical folks irrespective of geography.” To which, he added: “I’d love to hear someone like Cameroonian bass player/vocalist Richard Bona do some of these great tracks.”

Wow! So would I. “You’re right about narrowing things down,” I replied. “It’s practically impossible. The list is notable for who was excluded (Chico Buarque, Maria Bethania, Zeca Pagodinho, Marisa Monte, etc.). Where’s [Senegalese singer-songwriter] Youssou N’Dour when you need him? Why, he’s singing ‘In Your Eyes’ with Peter Gabriel, that’s where!”

One gets used to doing these sorts of on-the-spot requests after a while. Last summer, I remember providing the English lyrics to the Andrew Sisters’ version of “I Want My Mamma” (“Mamãe eu quero”), for a one-man show that my friend Claudio Botelho was doing in Rio that week. Claudio sent me an MP3 clip of the song, which I must have listened to a gazillion times before I could get the gist of what that fabulously harmonious trio was singing.  It was well worth the effort, though — and I had a blast listening to it, too.

Ken shared my enthusiasm for this assignment: “I enjoyed listening to lots of musical options to get to the songs which gave me goose bumps. Of course, with these [types of] lists there are always the questions of ‘what… you didn’t include (fill in the blank)’ and ‘how could you have added that one.’ I reckon that’s largely why magazines and papers do lists.”

I reckon so, too, Ken, which is fine by me. The final group of ten, like any selection — and I include the selection of players for those national teams participating in this year’s World Cup — was based primarily on personal choice. It incorporated some of the above suggestions, in most cases executed by other artists, along with several items that, as a rule, were fairly representative of the country’s multiplicity of talents.

Still, it’s nice to be needed — and to use one’s head for reasons other than game-winning goals. Hmm, on second thought… uh, maybe not…

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Brazil 2014 World Cup Soccer Preview — Score One for the Other Side

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Remember: It’s Only a Game

Marcelo scores own goal against Brazil
Oops! Marcelo scores own goal against Brazil

Well, we’re off to the races! This has turned out to be a season of disappointments and unmet expectations. Last weekend, we witnessed the demise of a possible Triple Crown winner — the first since 1978 — as heavily favored California Chrome turned out to have lead weight in his hooves in a losing bid to capture the Belmont Stakes in New York.

And last Thursday, Brazil finally kicked off its month-long celebration of World Cup Soccer fever. Unfortunately, viewers overseas and at home were treated to an appallingly run-of-the-mill opening ceremony. Allegedly put together by Belgian artistic director Daphne Cornez, it boasted the participation of various samba contingents, with questionable contributions by non-Brazilians Jennifer Lopez (born in the Bronx of Puerto Rican ancestry) and Cuban-American rapper Pitbull, as well as pop singer Claudia Leitte, the only Brazilian within earshot.

It’s my understanding that the ceremony’s organizers wanted to attract an international crowd to the worldwide event, which is all well and good. Still, if Brazil wanted to show off its musical and artistic attributes, why not make use of local talent? Don’t tell me that the land of Carnival and Samba couldn’t get its act together in time for the show. They’ve had adequate time to prepare (it’s been seven years since Brazil was awarded the Cup — seven lean years, no less). To imagine otherwise strains credibility!

Controversy was indeed a critical part of the games. Since last year’s disastrous Confederations Cup clashes, protests have been the norm throughout the country — and for good reason. A disgruntled citizenry has demanded that attention be paid to their concerns for once: for more federal money, and state and local funding for schools; for more hospitals and medical facilities, and dependable infrastructure; for more affordable housing for those unfortunates left out on a limb by a seemingly indifferent Brazilian government.

World Cup protesters (www.forbes.com)
World Cup protesters (www.forbes.com)

I have no trouble with protests per se. In my view, it is a citizen’s right to petition their representatives for better services; to be heard and listened to; to be taken seriously, and treated with fairness and equanimity. When the politicians look on with deaf ears, it’s time to take to the streets. To do all these things while the world is watching and waiting can serve to draw attention to the people’s plight, which is normally a good thing. But there are times when too much of a good thing can lead to an undesired outcome.

Strikes are another means of getting the populace to focus on a common goal. The trouble with that is, once one sector gets their way — in the form of pay raises and increased benefits — another sector holds out its hand to ask for similar concessions. Meanwhile, essential services (e.g., subway, bus, banking, and consulates around the world) are interrupted and everyone suffers for the sake of the few; a few, that is, in relative terms.

I understand about adverse criticism, too. To have the press constantly pick at the World Cup organizers for their lack of preparation, to stress the cost overruns of over $11 billion spent to date, as mediocre soccer stadiums and other unfinished projects linger in shameful neglect and disrepair, can leave fellow Brazilians with a bitter taste in their mouths. People start to wonder whether the “professionals” employed are only just self-promoting amateurs in disguise, boasting of their so-called abilities, when in fact they lack the very thing required to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

What most folks are really hoping for is for the host country to show their mettle on the playing field. Now there’s a place where Brazilians can seek retribution for the blunders of their elected officials. That’s where Brazil’s best can make a difference and shine in the eyes of the soccer world.

So what were World Cup fans given in return for their loyalty? Why, only pedestrian (I’m being kind here) displays of paltry soccer skills by a lackluster squad of young wannabes who never were. Sure, there’s talent aplenty in Brazil’s lineup: Fred, Hulk, Julio Cesar, Oscar, and the stylish Neymar (with a halfway decent haircut for a change).

Their showboating coach Luis Felipe Scolari, or Felipão (Big Phil), is the foremost football blusterer in the business. While he shouts out commands and gesticulates wildly from the sidelines — more to distract the opposition than to relay coherent instructions to his team — the players go about their business in routine, time-is-on-our-side manner.

I’ve written about this attitude before, how it frustrates the hell out of followers and coveys to viewers the artificiality of the much-abused term “team work.” I won’t waste valuable space on this blog to go over every wrong turn or wasted opportunity. However, I will point out the obvious: it’s ironic that the first goal to be scored in this year’s tournament was an own goal by Brazilian defender Marcelo — the first own goal of its kind in Brazil’s long history of World Cup participation. Although Brazil won the opening game by a score of 3-1, it was not a good start, and a bad omen overall.

The other breaking news of the day was the catastrophic defeat on Friday by the Netherlands of defending World Cup champion Spain. Did I say defeat? Heck, the Spaniards were categorically and undeniably demolished in a 5-1 shellacking of Brobdingnagian proportions.

True, it was only the first encounter for either side, and there’s plenty of time for Spain to make up the deficit. But, oh how sweet it is that the Dutchmen sought, and achieved, redemption for their poor performance against the Spanish four years ago in South Africa. While we’re on the subject, Brazil and the other soccer greats, among them France, Argentina and Italy, all floundered in 2010 thanks to little to no offense to speak of, or barely adequate defense.

Robben & Van Persie: Dutch Masters Destroy Spain
Robben & Van Persie: Dutch Masters Destroy Spain

I see, too, that the officiating has shown no improvement from previous years. Questionable foul calls, non-existent infractions, and spurious penalty shots have begun to dominate the editorials and sports pages. It’s too soon to tell if this aspect of World Cup Soccer will have the undesired effect of unfairly favoring one side over another. The way I see it, the more that soccer becomes dependent on advanced technology, the more the necessity for instant replays becomes a major issue in resolving such intractable problems as those cited above.

All we need now is another “Hand of God” moment (I’m referring, of course, to Argentine player Diego Maradona’s phantom goal in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against England) to lend illegitimacy to an already dubious reputation that the Federation Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, has no doubt fostered.

Yes, we’re off to the races! Anyone for a replay of the Triple Crown? I didn’t think so…

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Waste Land – The Musical’: ‘We Suffer, We Die, and We’re Buried’

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A proposed Musical Theater piece is based on the documentary Waste Land (Lixo Extraordinário)

"Death of Marat" - Waste Land
“Death of Marat” – Waste Land

Back in April of 2011, I became struck with the idea of turning the Academy Award-nominated documentary Waste Land (2010) into a musical. Don’t ask me why, it was one of those mad obsessions I get from time to time.

I had been trying for weeks to get in touch with Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz, who was one of several driving forces behind the documentary, but without success. It was his penchant for taking discarded trash and turning them into extraordinary works of art that first captured my attention. Vik’s peculiar habit of photographing the end result led to unique objets d’arts involving, for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper or a snapshot of Jackson Pollack outlined in chocolate syrup.

Other objects were comprised of such everyday household items as a strip of wire, a used light bulb, a roll of toilet paper, a spiral notebook, and similar materials. Muniz would arrange the objects in as artful a manner as possible and simply photograph them. For his series “Pictures of Garbage,” he photographed the residents of the Jardim Gramacho (Garden of Garbage) slum, in Rio de Janeiro, in poses reminiscent of famous paintings, i.e., Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat, Gustave Courbet’s The Gleaners, a Renaissance Madonna with children, and various others.

To my mind, a Waste Land – The Musical project would be an extension of Vik’s creative vision. In a 2010 Art in America article, he explained to interviewer Michael Slenske that one is “always dealing with preconceived ideas… of the value of materials, so the point of departure is familiarity.” In the case of the film, Vik “departed from the [preconceived] image” of garbage as foul-smelling and useless rubbish, transforming what others had discarded into images of poignancy and dignity, as well as beauty.

I was so impressed and moved by Vik’s efforts, and by the documentary itself, that I simply had to approach him about my idea. Although I never got to speak with Vik, I did have a lengthy conversation with the film’s producer, Angus Aynsley, who is also the main copyright holder along with O2 Filmes in São Paulo, Brazil.

My thought was to create a musical presentation in the spirit of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, where the personal back stories of the inhabitants of Jardim Gramacho are spotlighted and emphasized. It would be a marvelous way to pay tribute to the wonderful work of Tião, Zumbi, Isis, Irmã, Magna, Suelem and the late and much-lamented Valter.

With Brazil being the focus in 2014, in which ACAMJG (Association of Garbage Pickers of Jardim Gramacho) are the official World Cup recyclers, and especially the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, this would be a great opportunity to bring the story of the catadores of Jardim Gramacho to the world stage.

As well, it would help to focus on their struggles by bringing aid and comfort to those less fortunate than ourselves. What better way to do this than through a musical adaptation that everyone could enjoy and participate in?

I began with a listing of the dramatis personae:

Tião (Sibby) – The leader of the garbage pickers

Isis

Irmã (Big Sister)

Valter (Walter)

Magna

Zumbi (Zombie)

Carlão (Big Carl)

His wife

Suelem (Sue Ellen)

Vik Muniz

The Auctioneer

Jô Soares – Brazilian TV personality

 

Act I: Conflict

The setting is Rio de Janeiro, behind Guanabara Bay. In the background we see the mountains, with Corcovado looming in the distance, far to the right. One can make out the statue of Christ the Redeemer silhouetted from behind.

It is still dark; the time is just before daybreak. As the sun slowly rises, we begin to distinguish the outlines of ramshackle homes and makeshift shantytowns, their lights flickering in the dawn. With the sun’s appearance, the lights in the theater go up as well — slowly, methodically, in time to the music.

What the audience doesn’t realize, but eventually begins to notice, is that the mountains in the foreground are, in reality, huge garbage heaps piled high with refuse, reaching almost to the top of the proscenium. There is ample illumination, with the only shade provided by the massive piles, mounds of trash in the midst of filth and decay. The scene is reminiscent of Peter Brueghel the Elder’s 1563 painting of “The Tower of Babel,” with openings, archways, windows, etc. It is a unit set that serves a multipurpose function.

"The Tower of Babel" - Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)
“The Tower of Babel” – Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

It becomes clear in the morning mist that Rio (read: Brazil) has turned its back on the impoverished, those downtrodden souls who labor for a living while providing “clean-up duty” to those residing in the lap of luxury, just beyond their reach. These poor folk are spurned, rejected, ostracized by society. Why, even Christ himself has turned away from the garbage pickers (symbolized by our view of His backside).

This is the horrid, sorry realm of people who live on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder. “Garbage” equates to the type of persons picking it: that is, they are of no value, worthless, suitable only for tossing aside, once they are used up — a metaphor for the pickers themselves.

Number 1: “The Waste Land Song” – The catadores, or “garbage pickers,” who come out from behind the huge mounds, now appear, individually and collectively, in the opening number. They sing of their lot, each one in his or her fashion. This is “The Waste Land Song,” the first few lines of which are:

Seven thousand tons of trash

Work all day for little cash

Robbing Peter, paying Paul

Look, here comes another haul

It’s a Waste Land

We meet them, one by one, as they introduce themselves to us: there is Tião (Sibby), the president of ACAMJG, an acronym for the Association of Garbage Pickers Union; Zumbi (Zombie), Suelem (Sue Ellen), Isis, Irmã (Big Sister), Valter (Walter), the group’s philosopher-poet; Carlão (Big Carl) and his wife, and Magna — the main characters of our story and residents of the Jardim Gramacho (“Garden of Garbage”) neighborhood. They are denizens of this “Waste Land,” one of the world’s largest landfills.

Landfills, by necessity, are dead and lifeless places, akin to a cemetery or graveyard, in that there are dead and rotting things in them. All around, buzzards are seen circling overhead or swooping down onto the piles of refuse, constantly on the lookout in a never-ending search for sustenance.

The analogy of a graveyard is a crucial one, for it will determine the staging in many respects, as well as become instrumental in shaping the personalities of the play’s characters who, in many cases, have spent their entire lives there as pickers. Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead is a good comparison, in particular the late Patrice Chéreau’s staging at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2009.

Although, like the characters in the Janáček opera, their lives are bleak and the work is constant drudgery in the extreme, the catadores somehow manage to keep their sense of humor about it all. Most are a happy, contented lot — unlike the put-upon individuals of Les Misérables who are incapable of masking a lifetime of hurt and suffering. So the landfill is not entirely lifeless; in fact, it’s teeming with vitality.

Number 2: “Valter’s Verse” – Valter, the landfill’s elder statesman and resident philosopher-poet, is the first to come out. He sings a number about his credo in life:

It goes like this:

Here’s wisdom aplenty

Ninety-nine is not a hundred

And nineteen is not twenty

Meaning that if even one object is rescued from the garbage heap and recycled, that’s one less of the total mess. It’s his life’s mission to rescue “that single one” that “will make all the difference.” He might be referring to the garbage pickers, which is, rescuing even one of them from a life of drugs, crime and prostitution, is a life that is itself worth preserving and/or “recycling.” Valter knows what he is talking about, having spent 26 years as a garbage picker, as well as vice president of ACAMJG and representative to over 2,500 pickers. He wears his responsibility with seriousness of purpose along with dignity and pride.

Number 3: “Isis’ Lack of Luck” – She talks about her “boyfriend,” a truck driver, who happens to be married to someone else. They recently broke up, after she had already tattooed his name on her leg. “It’s over,” she blurts out sadly. Five years she’s been working in the landfill. “It’s disgusting,” she muses. “I make $20-25 dollars a day. This isn’t a future. Not for me, it isn’t.”

Number 4: “Tião’s Tale” – He is the president of the association of rag pickers, a natural-born leader, and a person that all the pickers look up to for counsel and advice. He has a different take on his role at the landfill. “I have nothing to complain about in my life,” he declares, “nothing, nothing at all.” Not yet, he doesn’t. Dead bodies are sometimes dumped there, he claims, especially during the drug wars. But for now, things are relatively quiet. He sings about finding a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince and, after reading it, comparing the story in the book to the reality of slum life in Rio: “l learned a lot from it.”

Number 5: Ballet Dream Sequence: “Delivery Truck” – A truck comes along and unloads more garbage onto the heap. The pickers climb all over it, like ants on an enormous mound. This begins a ballet dream sequence, as if the workers are wrapped in a trance, methodically going about their monotonous routine. The pickers find some unused hotel and restaurant food, as they toss it to Irmã (“Big Sister”) for her to work her magic on, which segues into the next number.

Jardim Gramacho - Waste Land (zagrebdox.net)
Jardim Gramacho – Waste Land (zagrebdox.net)

Number 6: “Irmã’s Ode” – Irmã, strong, steadfast, full of spunk and good humor, is the camp’s only cook. She recycles the food she finds in the heap, “beef stew,” “rib steak,” whatever she can get her hands on. She turns the unused portions into a gourmet meal for the pickers. “We feel good in here. I don’t let anyone go hungry. I feel very good.”

Number 7: “Magna’s Yarn: The Bus Ride” – Magna talks about being on the bus — again, illustrated, in parallel, almost as if the scene were taking place before our eyes. She is on the bus going home, smelling of garbage as usual, saying to the other passengers, “It’s because I work in the dump. Hey, it’s better than turning tricks on Copacabana Beach. I find it more interesting and more honest. More dignified, but it’s disgusting. Still, we have to pay the bills. And no one ever stops to think: where does all that garbage go? It goes here, my friend. Right here…”

Number 8: “Zumbie’s Story” – Responding to Magna’s complaint, Zumbie finally has his say. He has a stutter: “I don’t want my son to be no garbage pi-pi-picker,” he cries. “A la-la-lawyer, yes… but a pi-pi-picker…? No, no w-w-way!” Suddenly, he shouts to the other pickers. “Watch out for the tra-tra-tractor!” Books are his thing, as he is the landfill’s resident “librarian,” always finding new and used volumes in the heaps to recycle for his expanding collection. His father died, “when I was nine years old. Mom died too.” He tells a sad story of his life, up to that point.

Number 9: “Suelem’s Lot” – Suelem adds her own two cents: “I started at seven, now I’m eighteen. A baby was thrown away — we see some unpleasant things here, you know.” It’s even more unpleasant for her when she tells everyone she’s pregnant with another child. “If the rent is late, it goes up. I have to pay it on time.” She already has a little boy and a girl. Their father is a drug dealer; the rats run along their roof. Suelem dreams of opening a daycare center one day: “I love children.” She takes us on a tour of her house, which is located in the next slum where she and her extended family live — so many people in one tiny place.

Number 10: “Name That Trash” – Next, there is a comic scene wherein the garbage pickers discuss whose trash they find: “This is middle-class trash. Poor is the trash of the poor. It comes in little plastic bags.” They find some discarded Playboy magazines and marvel at its eye-popping contents. “Are there really such women in the world?” They begin to wonder aloud.

Number 11: “Finale” – The finale to Act One is a crisis of immense proportions. A robbery is in progress. A gang of thieves or drug addicts (nobody knows for sure) enters and holds up the office. The gang takes off with whatever money the pickers’ daily toil has gotten them. Left without any means to support and feed their families for the month, the catadores moan their loss. What can they do now? An ensemble closes the act, with the principal themes and melodies of the characters’ songs building, reappearing and intertwining, with each of their individual thoughts, hopes and dreams (as well as failures) restated, in essence converging in one massed chorus.

“Hey, watch out!” somebody screams. All of a sudden, one of the catadores is hurt as a garbage truck empties its contents on top of him, while the others come quickly to his rescue. One of the members announces, “It’s Zumbi.” He has broken his arm and leg, and cracked several ribs. What will happen to them, to their families, their friends, their livelihood?

Indeed, their very existence is threatened by these unforeseen incidents. Who will help them in their hour of need? Who will take them out of their misery? Tião is seen weeping: “I just feel like giving up on all of this. I don’t want to stay here anymore.” He buries his face in his hands and shakes his head from side to side.

Blackout

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes