Saturday, November 28, 2009

Making Honey While the World Burns

28 November 2009

After the immense disappointment of NOT being seated for the Los Angeles Opera production of Handel’s Tamerlano with Placido Domingo – ever seeking new operatic challenges – taking the role of the defeated Turkish sultan Bajazet, and the reportedly (at least from the buzz we’ve heard to date) amazing counter-tenor Bejun Mehta (as well as the very talented soprano Sarah Coburn as Asteria), Opera Buddy and I trekked out to console ourselves over sweet potato fries, spinach, tapas and a velvety Malbec at Kate Mantillini’s – accompanied by college football highlights on ESPN (one of our new favorite things) – then walked across the street to the Laemmle Music Hall to see Frederick Wiseman’s documentary film on the Paris Opera Ballet, La Danse – which is also a valentine to the lush monument to French opera, dance, spectacle and sheer grandeur that is the Palais Garnier itself. Wiseman takes us literally from its deepest foundations where carp and minnows swim in shallow canals, to the cupola with its lyre-screened windows that light the company’s rehearsal studios and audition rooms. La Danse is above all a portrait of the company – a kaleidoscope of its many seemingly randomly arrayed facets which, taken as a whole, assume an organic unity – the cultural institution as a living organism, and its symbiotic habitation in the Palais Garnier. I never knew that there was a fully operational apiary atop the Palais – a fascinating detail – but maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Wiseman shows us the Palais as an intense hive of activity – choreographers (including Mats Ek and Wayne McGregor) constructing their ballets by all means necessary, intently shaping, pacing, and articulating their supremely capable principals; soloists rehearsing difficult step sequences, dramatic pantomime; dance masters rigorously, passionately training their budding stars and whipping their corps de ballet into shape – as well as the many workshops – art, costumes, hair and make-up – that support the theatrical production; and the kitchens that fuel this army. The viewer could almost be forgiven for assuming that Brigitte Lefèvre, the company’s formidable Director and Administrator, is the queen of this hive – her receptive but willful and sure-footed guiding spirit seems omnipresent – but the real queen here is always, as the title plainly states, the dance, the finished work, as well as the institution itself. Opera Buddy ducked out early – the unrelenting French (which of course I can’t get enough of) was getting to her; and it has to be said, in spite of the drama and polish of some of the finished production scenes (including a graphically bloody Medea), the last 45 minutes of the film flag somewhat. Still, I found it almost inexhaustibly absorbing and – jettisoning half that last 45 minutes – would have gladly sat down for a second helping. L.A. may not be the cultural desert it was 30 years ago; but we still starve for dance in this town; and, even the slender smorgasbord of Ek, McGregor, Nureyev, Balanchine and Pina Bausch on view in Wiseman’s film can be richly satisfying after a long fast.

For a fan of Handel opera (and, really, all Baroque opera) like me, it really hurts to miss something like the L.A. Opera Tamerlano. I take some consolation in the fact that the production (by Chas Rader-Shieber, with art direction by David Zinn) sounds absolutely dreadful – blackshirts, black suits, and a proto-Nazi scheme (with the exception of Bazajet and Asteria, who are inexplicably done up in period costume) against a stark staging. What could be more clichéd, more tedious? Ugh. Obviously, the singing is all that redeems it.

As usual, I’m going on – this isn’t even what I sat down to blog about – or not the only thing anyway – and now I have to jump. [While I've been writing this, I’ve been listening to the NPR news – the week-end program hosted by – speaking of tedious – Scott Simon; and wanted to throw in a few comments on that endless blather while he and a couple of interview subjects were chattering on – not unrelated to a couple of my other items; but it will have to wait. (Thank goddess for Daniel Shorr.)] It’s a bit off-topic, anyway, and – just to forewarn the itinerant blog-reader – political. Well. Hey – and while everyone’s going nuts over the State dinner gate-crashers at this past week, let’s just be happy that the Obamas have restored a bit of luster to the after-hours White House. (How glamourous Michelle looked – that’s something I think everyone, regardless of partisanship, can agree on.)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Michael Govan's Baby and other Thanksgiving Follies

24- 26 November 2009

Okay – I really didn’t think it was going to be quite this long – but I’ve been having problems both trivial (relatively) and serious – and all of them disabling – with both my desktop AND my laptop; and things have been just crazy enough in my office to sideline whatever impulse I might have had to post from there. (It’s not always like that – but sometimes more so than others – like, uh, recently.)

Anyway, much as I would like to, I’m not even going to begin to retrace my steps (which are many) and just jump in with what’s in my scope at the moment, what’s on the table right in front of me, and generally what’s on my mind.

What’s in front of me right now is an item from Bloomberg by way of the Los Angeles TimesCulture Monster blog regarding the status of that Jeff Koons boondoggle folly, “Train” – the full-scale 70-foot, mechanically functional 1943-vintage Baldwin 2900-series steam locomotive intended to be hoisted by an enormous crane and suspended above Wilshire Boulevard (or at least over the sidewalk, threatening only pedestrians foolish enough to attempt entering the museum through its main entryway). The status is, in a word, stalled; and maybe, to judge from the slightly resigned, pessimistic tone of the posting, a bit stale. Well, no kidding. Its sheer grandiosity made it stale before LACMA’s Wallis Annenberg Director, Michael Govan, managed to put into words just how stale it was – that is to say, stillborn – though Govan apparently doesn’t know this yet. Sometimes I get the impression that Govan is playing a museum director version of the Ira Levin/Roman Polanski character, Rosemary – as in Rosemary’s Baby – running here, flitting there, picking at this or that, all over town, unaware that the vision he’s gestating is something of an art world Antichrist – a monument to post-industrial and post-financial melt-down that may in fact be its singular (and single) artistic merit. Oh sure – go ahead and bankrupt the museum, squander millions that might actually be committed to real art with serious street-cred in and out of the critical dialogue, on and off the auction block – all for a $35 million folly (you read that right – yeah, I know the published estimates are in the $25 million neighborhood; but if you believe that, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you; oh and did anyone say anything yet about MAINTENANCE?)

As everyone knows, the same Wallis Annenberg who subsidizes Govan’s paycheck funded the feasibility studies on this project, but over the last year or so has reportedly lost much of her interest in it (a tribute to Govan’s persuasive skills that she mustered any interest in it in the first place) and wisely shifted her focus towards acquisitions of actual art and other LACMA programs. (By the way, if this posting should ever find its way to Ms. Annenberg’s transom, I am completely open to re-naming it Wallis Annenberg awol [On the other hand, I’ll have to check with my editor to see if she’d be willing to re-name my position Wallis Annenberg Staff Writer of Artillery Magazine.] I can assure her Foundation straight off that it would be a MUCH smaller investment than Govan’s subsidy. Frankly, the sooner the better – for starters, I could use some help getting to Miami Beach next week – no kidding.)

Setting aside the hazards – really an engineering nightmare, especially in a seismically active zone – of erecting such a thing in proximity to one of the most heavily trafficked blocks in Los Angeles – the thing at best reads as a monument to decline – and, in a way, a slap at the museum itself (which might not be entirely a bad thing); and I’m not even sure how apt such a notion really is – right now or 30 years from now or 130 years from now. (If Warren Buffett is suddenly bull-ish on trains and rail transportation – and we better be bull-ish on some alternative to the hopeless carbon monster our mass transportation is for the most part in this country – perhaps the train is not as much of an Industrial Age relic as the Koons project seems to imply.) Speaking specifically of follies – I mean in the classic sense – Govan is actually not stupid, and you have to wonder why he can’t seem to shake himself out of his monument-building lock-step and take the radical step of thinking small – or at least within the museum’s means, which so far, he’s pushed WAY beyond. I mean – why not an actual folly – something small enough to disappear in the rush of Wilshire Boulevard traffic – yet exquisite enough to conjure a rapture within the right perspective. He should make a research tour of some English stately homes and German shlosses to see how it’s done.

Of course, folly or whatever, then he has to find the right artist for the project; and I have to say I can't think of such an artist off the top of my head. But I'm pretty sure it's not Jeff Koons or Chris Burden. There’s more to say about all this – and a few other things – but enough for now.

Happy Thanksgiving, possums -- as Dame Edna would say.