Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Sexy Opera

I thought I would never say such a thing, but this week we saw a simulcast of a new production of Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi at the Metropolitan Opera that was sexy.

Simulcasts have become quite normal in the past few years and they allow millions to see the productions not just listen on the radio.  People around the world now see and hear New York’s famous opera productions.

Many operas around the world stick far more to the traditional productions of opera presenting what their public expects the opera to be like.  The Metropolitan, however, has pushed the envelope with the mission of introducing opera not only to an international audience but even more importantly to a younger one.

In order to appeal to broader and younger audiences directors try to find a hook and new gimmick if you will.  We were worried when we heard that the concept for this production, Michael Mayer, decided to place the opera in the Las Vegas of the 1960’s and the ”Rat Pack” which was lead by Frank Sinatra, his entourage included Dean Martin, Peter Lawford  and Sammy Davis, Jr.  The clown in the group was Joey Bishop and Michael Mayer based the character of Rigoletto on him, and here Rigoletto is clown to The Duke, the whole concept worked absolutely perfectly.


Peter Gelb, general director of the Met and the person who conceived of the simulcasts, said that Mayer could only do this if the libretto fit perfectly into his scenario and it did.

As the production began I wondered if the performers had ever thought what they were signing up for when they had decided that they wished to be opera singers.  What amazed me was the acting ability of all the principles and the chorus as well.  Penelope and I were thinking back to other performances we had seen when we were young with the likes of the fabulous Joan Sutherland, who when she sang, looked straight out at the audience and belted it out like Ethel Merman.

In this production there are sexy girls in various stages of “déshabille” and in one scene a pole that is center stage is used to full advantage to show off their assets.  The action is also well choreographed and the tension is built, though we know the story.

Have I mentioned the voices?  Those were mind blowing: not that the stars sang well, we have come to expect that at the Met, but the entire cast did.  There are always ones that stand out and Gilda sung by Diana Damrau with her excellent coloratura certainly was a treat.  As Rigoletto, Zeljko Lucic not only sang well but he was a wonderful actor  playing the bitter buffoon to The Duke sung by Piotr Beczala.  What a superb lothario Beczala made!

It helped that Zeljko Lucic and Diana Damrau have sung together often and they even started out together in the Frankfurt Opera company.  We learned this in the long intermissions during which the famous soprano, Renee Fleming, did interviews with the cast and other contributors to the production.  We also learned, what we did not need to be told, that the members of the Duke’s court were allowed to develop their roles and create characters that we could remember afterwards.

A Met spokesperson has said of the simulcasts, “It is the next best audio experience to being in the opera house itself.”  While that cannot be denied in some respects it has its advantages.  It enhances weaker voices and the video brings the characters up close and personal!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Outsider Art Fair

After Master Drawings New York, in which we participated and before we left New York for Santa Fe, I attended the Outsider Art Fair on its last day.  A fellow exhibitor of drawings had complained to me that Roberta Smith, art critic, for the New York Times, had reviewed that instead of our exhibitions.  While I sympathized, if she could only do one, I was in total agreement with Roberta Smith. 

This past year the Outsider Fair was bought by Andrew Edlin, a contemporary art dealer, from Sanford Smith, the fair organizer who founded the Outsider Art Fair some 20 years earlier.  Edlin had wanted the fair to move from mid-town to 22nd street and the Hudson River for some time and he also wanted a number of his contemporary art colleagues from Chelsea to be brought in.  When he bought the fair he could achieve these goals.  For those of us for whom it is the exception not the rule, to go to Chelsea for our art fix, I found it  far less convenient, a real schlep!  The fair used to be one bus ride away but I had enjoyed the fair in the past so I made the effort of two longer bus rides.

Edlin has not disturbed the spirit of the fair though he has changed the dynamic.  Instead of all being on one level it is now on four floors, plus one for food, with 44 booths in all.  For the last few weeks I have given a lot of thought to how we define a Surrealist or Outsider artist.  I keep coming up with artists who blur the lines.  The definitions remain vague for me and I find that intriguing and something to chew on.  In many respects, it is the “art world” and most particularly the individual art dealers who are the deciders of what Surrealist and Outsider Art is, and what is acceptable in each category. The usual definition is an “outsider artist is one who is not academically trained”, but I found there to be many exceptions.

In this vein, I first happened on the Chris Byrne Gallery showing sculpted heads the likes of which have been made since classical times.  So, of course, I went into the booth and asked what makes this Outsider Art.  The response surprised me.  “They were made for forensic purposes” to assist the police in identifying bodies that had no identification.  Wow!  As I looked I saw that the gallery had intelligently placed under the sculptures any paper work that they could find showing newspaper articles and other explanations of what and whom the images represented and their stories.  The artist, Frank Bender, was known.  He had started out as an art student and then his talent for being able to use the size and head of a skull and recreate an image was discovered.  He had been interested like Leonardo before him to learn more about anatomy and happened to have a friend who worked in a morgue.  I guess he might have become a cosmetic surgeon instead!


Gallery Laurel Gitlen showed an artist by the name of Michael Patterson-Carver. His naïve drawings and watercolors include images of individuals of various ethnicities holding protest signs.  This seems to be a big theme for the Outsider artists.  I love galleries that have given themselves amusing names and Laurel Gitlen was sharing their space with a Brussels Gallery called “Sorry We’re Closed”.

Although they were not selling, The Folk Art Museum was exhibiting, so again I went and asked why.  The response was simple, the woman there explained that half their collection was Outsider Art, in other words artists who were self taught which was especially true in the early days of settling on these shores and particularly later on if you were not situated on the east coast.

There were also a series of lectures during the fair and one of them was by Dr. Thomas Röske, director of the Prinzhorn Museum.  If you remember, this was the Missive on the works by psychiatric patients from the clinic in Heidelberg, Germany as well as psychiatric patients from around the world.  Their art was one of several genres that could easily be  defined as Outsider Art.  I was particularly sorry to have missed that one.

I found the different floors with the many galleries and the continuous bombardment of images and ideas rather exhausting but  I felt it was definitely worth it leaving the questions swirling in my mind.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Present Worth Waiting For

For Christmas my wife gave me tickets to Carnegie Hall in New York.   It has the best acoustics of any auditorium I have ever been in.  We went to hear one of the four concerts of Beethoven symphonies performed by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim.  I cannot believe that someone with that much to give does not have a title in front of his name.

The orchestra was founded by Barenboim and his friend the Palestinian-American  scholar Edward Said.  It consists of Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians.  It was thought of as an experiment believing that people who live together and play together must have a dialog.  What can be more important in the Mid-East.  I cannot comment on the politics within the group but from the way they play they will all go straight to heaven.  The first notes I heard tonight of Beethoven’s Pastoral (6th) Symphony brought tears to my eyes, it was so beautiful.

It is incredible to watch Barenboim conduct.  Sometimes, for moments,  he allows the orchestra to play with no guidance and then at just the right moment he points to the wind instruments or the strings to bring them in in a forceful or quiet manner.  At times he seems to scold with his fist and then he lets his fist and baton fly as he builds the orchestra to great new heights.

He obviously pushes his pupils and expects them to give their all as he does.  I found it quite cool in the hall and kept my coat over my knees but the Maestro and his orchestra were pouring sweat and the handkerchief to wipe the brow came out more than once.

At one point there was a thud in the orchestra and one could see a fleeting concern cross the maestro’s face, had an instrument fallen had a chair or musician collapsed but as quickly as it came it  dissolved and Barenboim plunged back into the music.

It is obvious that Barenboim knows the score intimately as does his orchestra and the Maestro does not have music in front of him. I had the feeling, that  as far as the orchestra was concerned the musicians had the score but they were too deep into the music to even look. 

It seems very much a case of teacher and pupils working together to give an exquisite performance, one that they can both be proud of.  When the symphonies were finished the shouts and standing ovation did not cease.  Barenboim came up to the front for a couple of bows but for at least three of the “curtain calls” he just stood among the musicians signaling various instruments to step forward to be recognized and he shook hands with numerous musicians individually and he even hugged one or two.  He was obviously as thrilled at the way they performed as the audience was.  After the conductor left the stage for the last time many of the musicians shook hands or hugged each other as well.

What an incredible evening and what an incredible treat this was.  I plan to buy the Barneboim/West-Eastern Divan Orchestra 5 set CD of all the Beethoven symphonies, but I doubt it will be nearly the magical experience that the live performance was.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Drawing Surrealism

I guess you could call the exhibition organized by the Los Angeles County Museum and The Morgan Library and museum will be on at the Morgan until April 21, a real eye opener.  Did I like it?  I cannot answer that yes or no.  It was a learning experience.

The exhibition, for me, analyses Surrealism and how it worked process by process.  The exhibition takes us through “Automatism”, “Collage”, “Frottage”,  “Exquisite Corpse”, “Decalcomania” and “Dream Imagery”.  Each process is explained and illustrated with representative images.  I would have expected a few paintings that we associate with Surrealism at the end,  so it was a surprise for me when there were none. The closest we come is a watercolor by André Masson, “Ville Cranniene”.

"Ville Craniene (Skull City)" by André Masson (1896-1987)

What made it particularly difficult for me to get my head around the show were 160 artists from 70 different countries using 6 processes.  That is a lot to digest, particularly when a lot of unfamiliar artists as well as countries are presented.

For me it was a bit like when we took our son, Hunter, around to universities to find the appropriate theater school; at one, I remember, he had the opportunity to meet with the founder of the program at the school.  The man took the time to talk to Hunter and describe all his obvious assets but then he took an equal amount of time tearing him down.  Later we found out that this process upset our son but from his parents point of view we saw a master teacher starting the student on his way to learning.  For me that was “Drawing Surrealism”.

"Olga" by Francis Picabia (1879-1953)

Surrealism is traditionally dated as starting in 1924 when Breton published his “Mannifesto of Surrealism and ending with the last Surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Maeght in 1947. This presentation starts a bit earlier and ends a bit later (1915-1950) because no bell rang to say that now it is time for Surrealism!  It evolved like all art movements, and much else in life, and then slowly ebbed away.

Drawing was particularly appreciated by the Surrealists because of its immediacy and spontaneity.  The exhibition begins where the artists started trying to free their minds of the rational. They wished to bypass consciousness.    This is “Automatism” Or “Automatic Drawing”.  The artist allowed his hand to wander across the page as quickly as he could so that rational thought would not intervene. These are all sketches of ideas and in this section they are all drawings except a few photographs (Rayographs) where Man Ray draws with light.

"Exquisite Corpse" by André Breton (1896—1966),
Jacqueline Lamba (1910-1993),  & Yves Tanguy (1900-1955)

Joseph Cornell’s surrealist collages were greatly influenced by Max Ernst, who played a large role in the Surrealist movement, and were first exhibited at the Julien Levy gallery in 1932.  Levy was a pioneer in photography as well, and did many a great show.  After his death much of his collection went to the Art Institute of Chicago.  Some came up for sale at the Witkin Gallery in the late 1970’s and we were lucky enough to be able to acquire a couple of the Surrealist photos.

I will mention one more process and that was of Decalcomania where ink, gouache or some other wet medium was placed on a sheet that was then pressed against another creating random designs.  It reminded me of an exercise that we were given in kindergarten or first grade.  That led me to another thought.  I would have liked to see the exhibition through the eyes of a 6 year old, a child who was not stuck with all the my years in the field and the values that they have imposed on me.  I wanted someone with fresh eyes who could tell me what they believed I was looking at.

"La Tempête (The Storm)" by René Magritte (1898-1967) 

All the images I could find on line or that the Morgan made available to the press were representational imagery where one could easily interpret the imagery so it is not possible to illustrate the results of a number of the processes.  In order to see for yourself you will either have to go to visit the exhibition, a worthwhile venture, or buy the fully illustrated catalog.