A book with a new type of poetry. The poetry of the found list.
By Peter Bates
War. Pestilence. Global warming. Layoffs. Financial ruin. Lawsuits. Bad hookups. There are random forces poised to get you, most of the time when you least expect them. Some of us organize our lives in patterns that create a sort of balance. We forge schedules, we label stuff, we categorize, all to squeeze this mad mad world back in line.
“Don’t ever assume things,” my aunt used to say. Just because What the Camera Didn’t See is a behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood filming doesn’t mean it’s tawdry or sensationalistic. It’s not in the same category as say, Behind the Candelabra, Scott Thorson’s book about his years with Liberace. For one thing, it’s not ghostwritten. Cinematographer Alec Hirschfeld also happens to be a writer. A good one.
He operated a camera at many famous movies of the past fifty years like Taxi Driver, Goodbye Columbus, Diary of a Mad Housewife, and Terminator. He reveals intriguing anecdotes about those (and other) films and his working methods. He also talks about problems that some of these films raised, like how Taxi Driver was physically challenging for the staff, and also psychologically to Hirschfeld. He felt like an outsider with his long hair and alternative lifestyle. (I well remember the time in which such differences mattered.)
As every creative knows, sometimes you take what work you can get. Hirschfeld also filmed some B movies, like The Last American Virgin. He uses his experiences on that film to tell about the changing attitudes toward on-screen nudity. In A movies, such scenes were generally treated with “sensitivity” and only the essential cast and crew members were allowed on set. In B movies, nobody cared, and people freely walked about during the nude scenes, some just to gawk.
He also uses his experiences with the black-produced film Cotton Comes to Harlem to write about the racial attitudes he grew up with, those of a middle-class educated Jewish boy. “If I had ever had a black friend . . . I might have understood how significant it was, in the face of institutional racism, that this film was being made at all.”
Hirschfeld deals candidly with his life. While building a successful career, his past was close behind. One day he discovers that he’d fathered a child in a short-term relationship from long ago. While unintended pregnancy was common in those years, I would’ve liked to have read more about his relationship with this newly-found daughter.
There are flashes of humor in this book. Unlike Tina Fey’s jokey memoir Bossypants, What the Camera Didn’t See features occasional wry observations like this one: when filming Jaws 2, the crew was beset by flocks of interfering butterflies. “Like the shark, they could not be reasoned with. I’ll bet you didn’t know that a whole bunch of butterflies is called a kaleidoscope, or a swarm if you’re not crazy about butterflies. I’m sure the production report said ‘swarm’, since, ‘shooting delayed by kaleidoscope of Monarchs’ is less ominous.”
This book is more than an excellent summer read. You may actually learn something from it.
Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, Opera del West performance of Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon. Music by Jules Massenet, Libretto by Henri Cain. Artistic Director: Eve Kochen Budnick. Stage Director: Rebecca Kratzer. Cendrillon: Jennifer Jaroslavsky; Prince Charmant: JoAnna Pope; Pandolfe: Craig Juricka; Madame de la Haltiere: Suzanna Guzman; La Fee: Sulgi Cho.
August 11, 2019
Kudos to Eve Budnick, Artistic Director for Opera del West’s Boston Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End! She performed miracles in such a small performance space, turning it into a magical version of Jules Massenet’s opera, Cendrillon (Cinderella). The production included hefty vocal work by Craig Juricka as Pandolfe and Suzanna Guzman as Cinderella’s conniving mother. Jennifer Juroslavsky was stunning as Cinderella, based on her wide ranging mezzo and emotionally nuanced performance. Her pairing with JoAnna Pope as Prince Charming was splendid, particularly in the second half, when these two marvelous mezzo-sopranos came together. There was excellent choreography in this production by a set of wide ranging young women who imparted this tiny stage with a sylvan atmosphere. Such a fairytale-like quality was a large part of Massenet’s frame of reference and it lended excellence. The use of broad-based humor when appropriate (such as the scene with drunken sisters at the ball) kept the opera light.
Cendrillon included a spectacular South Korean lyric coloratura soprano, Sulgi Cho, as the fairy wielding a goodly amount of power over the fairy tale. Her soprano voice had a high tessitura and seemed pretty effortless most of the time. Her excellent makeup and costume made her look suitably otherworldly.
On a personal note, I think it’s a real shame that superb groups like Opera del West are limited to such tiny spaces that do not fully allow the dancers to be graceful and the opera singers to really let loose when the librettos require. However, such limitations will not prevent me from going back to future productions. I expect them to contain just as much magic as this one does.
Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème started with a feud between him and fellow composer Ruggero Leoncavallo, who’d composed the immortal Pagliacci (1892).
La Bohème. Maestro: Anthony Barrese. Singers: Raquel González (Mimi), Todd Wilander (Rodolfo), Ashley Kerr (Musetta), Keith Harris (Marcello), Jean Carlos Rodriguez (Schaunard) and Lawson Anderson (Colline). Opera Tampa Orchestra and Chorus.
Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème started with a feud in the early 1890’s between him and fellow composer Ruggero Leoncavallo, who’d composed the immortal Pagliacci (1892). At that time this short opera was better than anything Puccini had written, including his earnest yet muddled Manon Lescaut (1893). So Leoncavallo was no slouch and definitely a formidable competitor. Nevertheless, Puccini’s La Bohème prevailed and quickly became one of the immortals in the repertoire while Leoncavallo’s version, although successful in its day, sunk into obscurity and is rarely performed today.
The beauty of a how-to book is not just that it teaches you what you know nothing about, but also that it nudges you back toward something you have known about but never tried.
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Had I read this book six months ago, it would’ve saved me at least six hours of labor. I was writing an article that initially involved recording a phone conversation. I then had to transcribe that conversation with my nimble fingertips. Had I known more about Dragon NaturallySpeaking software, I would have not spent so much time transcribing. Continue reading “STOP TYPING!”
Much creativity and planning went into the Sarasota Opera’s stage settings, casting, and musical conducting.
Manon Lescaut: Sandra López; the Chevalier Des Grieux: Matthew Vickers; Lescaut: Filippo Fontana; Geronte: Costas Tsourakis; Conductor: Victor DeRenzi; Stage Director: Stephanie Sundine; Scenic Designer: David P. Gordon; Costume Designer: Howard Tsvi Kaplan; Lighting Designer: Ken Yunker; Chorus Master: Roger L. Bingaman
Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (1894) had much going against it from the start. His previous operas had been lukewarm forays, not exactly successes. A previous (and successful) version, Manon, had been completed just 10 years previous by Jules Massenet. Puccini kept changing librettists and in the end nobody even wanted their name on the opening program. He pared down the plot of Abbé Prévost’s novel Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut so much that even today, audiences scratch their heads over its awkward transitions and strange omissions. For some reason, he concentrates all of the gaiety in acts one and two, and all of the gloom in acts three and four.
But in the end, very little of this matters. Nineteenth century operas are rarely strong arguments for sterling plot creation. Later in life, Puccini did improve significantly, as any opera fan can see from his last and greatest opera Turandot (that of Luciano Berio’s ending, not Franco Alfano’s). The Sarasota Opera performance dives gleefully into ML’s optimistic first act and beautifully conveys the spirit of youthful infatuation. As Des Grieux, Matthew Vickers pours out his feelings beautifully in the famous soliloquy “Donna non vidi mai,” made famous by Enrico Caruso and attempted by every other tenor since. As Manon Lescaut, Sandra López sings her brilliant and joyous aria while living with the libertine Geronte,“Lora, or Tirsi.” The audience suddenly senses it’s not going to go on forever.
Much creativity and planning went into the three stage settings. While done in period style, the opening village street scene is kinetic rather than static, buzzing with life, and the resulting intrigue is exciting from the start. In Act II, as Manon luxuriates in her mansion with Geronte, the very walls cry out “nobility.” But the final act in the Louisiana desert (don’t ask how they got there) is most stunningly well designed. A huge twisted fallen tree in the foreground underscores the twists and turns that their love affair has taken and contrasts with the gloriously ruddy sunset behind them. Dense emotional expression is reached in the final duet between Manon and Des Grieux. In “Tutta su me ti sposa,” Manon succumbs to grief and despair, realizing how her selfishness has brought tragedy upon her and her lover. As Geronte, Costas Tsourakis is the right kind of vile and cursed scoundrel. Filippo Fontana’s Lescaut is convincing as an unreliable ally, shifting his loyalties back and forth.
The orchestra – through the tidy wand of conductor Victor DeRenzi – showed its skill in the Act III instrumental “Intermezzo,” which is one of Manon Lescaut’s most unusual features. Why does it even exist? Good question. Some believe that it abstractly conveys Manon’s sentencing and her transportation to Le Havre. Seems plausible. Toward its conclusion it grows tempestuous and seems to careen toward disaster. But it avoids tragedy and lulls us with a descending motif that deceptively shimmers with hope. However, as clever as the device is, it’s a bit subtle for the uninitiated. In later years, Puccini made sparse use of such lofty intermezzi (Suor Angelica, 1918). Perhaps he realized that straight plotting conveyed emotions more efficiently?
So is Manon Lescaut “grand opera?” Not quite. But parts of it are pretty good. In focusing on the show’s highlights, like the inherent spectacle of the lovers’ plight, the Sarasota Opera made us realize that its cracks & flaws, Puccini’s youthful “experiments,” were not really that big a deal.