Sunday, May 31, 2015

Atlanta Opera Launches Series of "Discoveries" with Three Decembers

[Photo: Composer Jake Heggie (from]
With AO's new "Discoveries" series, General Director Tomer Zvulun plans to mix one unfamiliar piece each season among the two or three from the standard repertoire.  Those of us who seek out new or unfamiliar opera packed the mid-sized Alliance Theatre this weekend for the Atlanta premiere of Three Decembers.  The crowd seemed diverse and happy.    

Three Decembers was a wise choice.  The libretto by Gene Scheer, based on Terrence McNally's short script "Some Christmas Letters," gives us character types that fascinate us in any celebrity magazine or tell-all memoir, the Diva mom "Madeline Mitchell" and her long-neglected adult children.  Think Judy Garland and her kids by Sid Luft.    

The mother's connection to Broadway musicals gives opportunities for composer Jake Heggie to make affectionate use of Broadway genres.  The opening bars sound like they could be an overture from a Broadway show, ca. 1965; the Diva "Madeline Mitchell" sings an AABA ballad that rhymes.  A couple of pianos, some winds and percussion kept up waves of music that sustained sung dialogue for the ninety minutes of the show.  The music kicked up the emotions, joined characters separated in time and place, and brought thoughtful pieces to satisfying ends.  Yes, I did leave humming some motifs!

Before the show, we were treated to an on-stage conversation with composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer.   When the moderator asked about the relation of an opera about a Broadway star to Broadway musicals, the two men told how they both have background in American musicals, which they described as musical theatre of a different style, as Wagner's style is different from Mozart's.  Heggie did say that he writes specifically for the trained, unamplified voices, which affords him different possibilities for effects.

After the talk, I had a chance to ask the librettist a question that's bothered me for decades:  Given the effects that Sondheim and others achieve with rhymed lyrics, why have American opera composers avoided rhyme?  Scheer said that he employed rhyme in one project, but only sparingly since, because "composers feel that it dictates too much of the form,"  Sondheim, he said, is such a genius that he can do anything.

I also got to tell composer Heggie the truth, that I've got mild PTSD from seeing his debut opera Dead Man Walking in Cincinnati a decade ago.  Even Friday night, I broke into tears trying to describe one of its scenes.

Even a story so simple as Three Decembers is elevated by music and the technical skill of singing it, made to be more than just the story itself.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Imagine Home: Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone

The vision of a winged woman draws a rootless teenaged girl from a trailer park in Florida to her ancestral home in Lithuania. Around this single thread, author Michele Young-stone weaves the stories of a half-dozen characters inspired by that same winged woman through decades of war, oppression, and, at last, liberation.

Though Young-Stone takes the title of her novel from John Lennon's "Imagine," Above Us Only Sky refutes that insipid anthem with imagination more lively and grounded.

Lennon imagines "there's no country," but Young-Stone gives us a saga of homeland lost and found again.  As chapters ricochet between 1989, 2005, and the 1940s, Nationalism unleashed by Hitler and Stalin accounts for casual acts of horrific brutality that propel characters from their homes.  But Lithuania's national anthem, we're told, means much more than "love of country."  It's an emotional high point of the novel when the character known mostly as Old Man is joined by people on the street in singing the song. He explains,  "Our hymn means don't forget history. Mankind is our duty.  Unity.  Lithuania forever... We are Lithuanian.  We are not the Soviet Union....We never give up trying to be free" (176).

Lennon intones, "Imagine there's no heaven,/...Above us, only sky," but Young-Stone's characters often look to the sky for hope, and find it.   The American girl Prudence, looking back from adulthood on her family's story, tells of others who believed in miracles: "So do I.  I try.  I did. I do.  I used to.  I do.  I think I do" (229).  She may have doubts, but intimations of spiritual reality fill her story.  Her best friend Wheaton has second sight, seeing right away that Prudence had been born with wings (surgically removed at birth).  She herself is brought from the brink of suicide by the vision of the winged woman (77).  In her family's saga, unbelieving characters' desperate prayers find answers, as when the young refugee Stasys kneels in the wake of his wife Daina's arrest (123).  A police chief and a photographer are transformed by the sight of Daina's actual wings.  The photographer never ages from that point, devoting the rest of his life to recreating images of her wings in art (186). Daina herself finds inspiration in a vision of Lithuania's patron saint Casimir (127). Icons, angels, and churches appear more and more as the novel reaches its climax.

Birds -- elusive, rising skyward, heading home -- make a useful symbol for the unrequited longings that the novel's characters share.  Young-Stone associates wings with hope --  "I think about a girl I found in the dirt," young Stasys thinks, "a girl with wings, a future" (108).   By the novel's end,  when Young-Stone has managed to have all the characters converge in one town,  Prudence concludes that "life would be life for anyone who felt different...wings or not... perhaps more inspired, but that was up to the individual, not a pair of wings" (207).  Thinking of the scars where her wings were clipped at birth, Prudence learns that "we all have scars," or, as Stasys puts it when he's considering whether to hate the Russian woman who denounces his wife to Stalin's minions, "Everybody has a story" (149).  The longest arc of unrequited love in the novel concerns Wheaton, the "sweet kid" with second sight who befriends Prudence at age seven, but who disappears from her story when she focuses on discovering her family.  Wondering if and how he will reappear was one of the teasers that draws us through the story.

Lennon's song has only a tenuous connection to the saga, in that he was idolized by Prudence's shiftless father, whom the Old Man calls the "fool" in this story.  The title may be ironic, then.  But the epigraph for the novel's fourth part might provide a phrase that fits the story better, and all our stories, besides.  It's from Salman Rushdie:   "It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity." 

Young-Stone, Michele.  Above Us Only Sky.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Forward Day by Day: Meditations in May 2015

[Photo: Dog is My Co-Pilot: Luis & I look forward day by day]
The publication Forward Day by Day gives us meditations on scriptures assigned to the day by our good old Book of Common Prayer.  These pamphlets are expendable, but I mark bits that I want to remember.  This month's meditations got as many checks as I usually give to three months' worth!  They are all the work of Richard H. Schmidt, former editor of the publication.  Find out more at .

John 14:13,  I will do whatever you ask in my name.  Sounds like magic!  But to act in a person's name means "to do what that person would do if he or she were present."  I'd like to post a link to this one as a response to every Facebook posting that asks us to pray for such-and-such a team to win the big game or for good luck.

John 15:4 Abide in me.  Our translation "abide" is for a Greek word meno that implies long-term intentional relationship, Schmidt tells us.  "One does not 'abide' in a hotel room [or] parking space," but at home, "the backdrop of our lives -- an atmosphere we breathe in and out."  We...
...clean, cook, eat, wash, pay the bills, run errands, raise our children, brush our teeth, pick up our clothes, read the paper, entertain friends, make a living, make the bed, make amends, make love, make do.  It is neither necessary nor helpful to think or talk about Jesus all the time -- so long as we abide in him.

Colossians 3:18 Wives, be subject to your husbands... Schmidt knows what we're thinking, and calms us down: "Many readers miss the context of this verse, namely, the lordship of Jesus Christ," so, "It's not about hierarchy."  Jesus turns "upside-down" all "cultural norms."  In his own marriage, Schmidt and his wife have learned to both lead and follow. "So who's in charge, here?  Jesus...the server and the servant."

Luke 9:24 Those who want to save their life will lose it... "Don't worry about life after death.  Make sure you have life before death."  A life self-absorbed is already dead.

Luke 12:22, 25 Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  Schmidt gives us worriers good advice.  "Most things we worry about aren't as big as we think," and it's "okay" that nothing can avert disappointment and pain.  Then, "Helping someone elese deal with ...struggles can take our minds off our own." Finally recall that God "has a long history of bringing good out of evil."

Luke 9:62 No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.  Schmidt asks how a church, or any project, can be judged "a success."  It's always by looking back at last year's pledges, attendance, whatever, and it's always an incomplete picture.  "Look forward, not back."

Looking back comes up in the next meditation, too: Luke 10:3, lambs in the midst of wolves. "I've been bitten by church wolves" Schmidt says. "It does little good to go back and relive the times we've been attacked," though it's instructive to ask, "When have I been a wolf?"

Luke 10:29 And who is my neighbor?  Schmidt points out that both the Good Samaritan and the injured man represent aspects of Jesus.  Giving help, and trusting someone who offers help, both involve risk, and both can lead to good.

Luke 10:42.  There is need of only one thing.  But what is that thing?  Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs isn't it.  It's not worrying about the dinner dishes as Martha does.  But, there is no final answers, here. "What do you think it is?"  Good question, Mr. Schmidt.

Ezekiel 37:4.  O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.  "The church sometimes feels like a collection of dry bones, cherishing its brittle, lifeless relics from a bygone day while being tossed aside by a new generation."  God can make them live again, but not the same old way: "The new will incorporate the old, but it will not be identical to the old.  It will surpass the old.  It will astonish."

About the Prodigal Son story, Schmidt asks, "Where was the prodigal son's mother?"

2 Corinthians 3:18.  And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as through reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. So, heaven is not the endpoint, but "a perpetual journey, ascending ever deeper and higher into the light."

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Ask Not What Your Pledge to the Church Does for You...

I used to be afraid that my pledge wasn’t enough.   I thought I had to pay for church membership the same way I paid for Gold’s Gym and Sam’s Club, for the same reason: membership got me access to Stairmaster, wholesale prices, and Eternal Life.  But, as my pledge wasn’t a tithe, only the price of a movie for each two-hour service, would God accept it?  A tenor assured me that singing in choir got me off the hook, but I was still uneasy. 
Back then, I was afraid of a lot of things.  I’d whisper the Nicene Creed on planes during take-off to prove my faith in case we crashed.  I took communion to inoculate me against Hell.

Gradually I internalized what we pray every week, that God has “graciously accepted us as living members” of His Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.   Since we’ve already been accepted, membership doesn’t have to be about maintaining our own salvation.   “Living members” should be what Paul said, the hands, feet, eyes, and ears of Jesus.  As I felt myself a part of the church, pledging became a part of me; I’m just the kind of guy who gives time and a tenth of his income to the church.

But if we pledge only enough to maintain the church for our own use, then Christ’s body is inert, on life-support.   The body should be up and doing, continuing Christ’s ministry on earth, which was healing the broken, feeding the hungry, exposing injustice, and allaying fears.  

The good news is that St. James’ is a gracious host to many outside our walls who need attention, encouragement, and education, through healing services, Reach Out Mental Health, Wonderful Days, English for Working Mothers, Thrift Shop, Pathfinders, and Family Promise.  

The bad news is that both our pledging and these ministries involve a small proportion of our membership. 

I hope that some parishioners reading this message will now pledge more in money and time, to stretch the body of Christ beyond the corner of Church and Polk, to make a difference in our community and the world.  

This is one of a series of personal statements about pledging from members of the Vestry of St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, GA.   

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Super Powers on This American Life

Tonight, public radio replayed an episode of the program This American Life that struck me years ago, and, this time, I took notes.  It's all about super powers.

Host Ira Glass reports that the two most popular powers are invisibility and flight.  Then, his stable of writer/producer/reporter types give us stories that inspire us and creep us out:

We hope that we are more than the world sees in us, Glass says. 

There's the story of Zora, private detective, six foot five, tattooed, shapely, muscular, and possessed of a diary from age 13 where she listed all of the skills she had to master before age 23 to become an actual super hero.  But, when the CIA thought she was too weird to be an agent, she spiraled down.  Now she's learning all those skills that a middle schooler learns, like, talking to strangers, being a friend....

Another guest catalogs  failed super-heroes who lack the human element.  There's the example of a man who splits his body parts off;  another is "Bee Man." 

I recall a story, perhaps from a different episode, about a young man who filled a Superman suit convincingly, who wore the suit to bars.  Sometimes he was challenged to fight, but generally he found that he was making the day of people there.  He himself had lost his fiancee, and this was his therapy.  Lovely thought.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Phoenix meets "Firebird": Arts Premieres in Atlanta

Reflections on pieces seen at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta in the past two weeks:
[Photo: Set for "...Alabama Sky"]
  • The Alliance Theatre's production of Blues for an Alabama Sky by Pearl Cleage.  Riccardo Hernandez set design. Director Susan V. Booth. April 25.
  • Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Creation/Creator, for soloists, chorus and orchestra, by Christopher Theofanidis, April 25; Imaginary Numbers for clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and French horn, by Michael Gandolfi, May 2.
Last week at a concert of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, a packed crowd's enthusiasm for Stravinsky's Firebird suite helped me to see how the city whose symbol is a phoenix has shaped the arts that premiere here.

The mythological bird that rises from its own ashes is a symbol of Atlanta's rise from the ashes of Sherman's March to the Sea in 1865 to become model city of the New South, "the city too busy to hate," an eclectic synthesis of  Confederate Heritage, Civil Rights Era Activism, International Connections, Sunbelt Commerce, and every kind of religion you can think of.

I see Atlanta's many sides during my Saturday morning bike rides on the "Freedom Trail," a smooth bike/jogging/dogwalking path that extends from the Martin Luther King center, past Jimmy Carter's center, through gentrified Lake Claire and artsy college town Decatur, through immigrant haven Clarkston, to Robert E. Lee drive at Stone Mountain Park. Last week, the sky was wide and blue; sunshine gleamed off skyscrapers, cars, and thick greenery.

On Saturday nights these last few weeks, I've been to premieres at Woodruff Arts Center that mirror these qualities of the hometown.  Music by Michael Gandolfi and Christopher Theofanidas also felt spacious, full of brilliant colors and flashes.  There's a lot of contrast in dynamics and texture, motivic development, often pulsing ostinato.   Sometimes the orchestra was layered like Atlanta's intertwining expressways.

Because Spano always pairs work by living composers with old favorites, we heard just how much Stravinsky's Firebird suite shares these same musical traits.  

Both premieres also tied in with quasi-religious texts.  Using soloists, chorus, and dramatic speakers, Theofinidas mixed creation myths with thoughts on the creative process by artists and scientists. Gandolfi's work, though instrumental, takes its musical ideas from pure mathematics and, again, creation myths, this time from Aztec tradition.   We Atlantans can respect world traditions, but we love to get a hint of Sunday morning in our Saturday night arts.

These traits of eclecticism, early 20th century sounds mixed with some late-20th century minimalism, and a tie with religiousness are shared with others who belong to the so-called "Atlanta School" nurtured by music director Robert Spano by commissions and recordings, with encore performances at home and on tour.  Jennifer Higdon and Oswaldo Golijov are also members, with superstar John Adams a kind of avuncular presence -- I hear his Sheherezade 2.0 tonight. If, like me, you're an Atlantan who seeks programs featuring the composer ABBA ("Anybody But Beethoven Again!"), then you know these composers by sight, and you'd even recognize the sounds of their voices, as we hear them in pre-recorded interviews before each premiere. 

Just next door, at the Alliance Theatre,  Blues for an Alabama Sky by Pearl Cleage displayed the theatrical version of these same traits.  Depicted in Harlem during the Great Depression, the play's characters deal with themes that were at the top of the new "culture wars" of the play's premiere in Atlanta back in 1995: abortion, fundamentalism, gay rights, women in public life.  What must have felt daring and fresh in 1995 feels a bit dated now, though late 20th-century theatrical techniques freed the play from the old four-walled realism of the 1930s.  We could see, simultaneously, action on the street and in two separate apartments.  Time passed in full view, with a shift of light and a playing of Ellington tunes.  A backdrop of windows and an imposing segment of the elevated train track set all the action in the larger Harlem community (see the set, pre-act one, in the photograph).