Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Apple 911

It appears that my trusty MacBook has been stricken with an unidentifiable affliction. In the last few days, he's just given up and shut down, at random times and on multiple occasions. Lord knows I can identify - I've had the same inclination pretty frequently of late. Luckily for Mr. MacBook, though, the "geniuses" at Apple have invited him for some R&R in Geniusland, where he will, with luck, shed his narcoleptic tendencies - and while he's at it, he'll have a little cosmetic procedure done! In 7 to 10 business days, he'll be back, as good as new (and, I'm hoping, with all the data and programs with which he left intact). Or if not that, then at least the unsightly spots that have developed where the heels of my hands sit (sub-par plastic, they say) will be gone.

Anyway, this is my official signoff for the duration. Be sure to check back in a week or so for thoughts on the Great New York State Fair (this afternoon's activity, including a free concert by Joan Jett), my trip to Pittsburgh, and much, much more!

Over and out.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

I-90 E: Boston & Back

As it happens, my first week of fall semester classes (to begin on Monday) is bookended by loooong drives from Syracuse on the scenic NY Thruway, aka I-90. The first leg of my interstate exploits took me to Boston on Thursday, returning today.

As luck would have it, some of the friendly folks of Beantown were quite taken with the stereo I just purchased for my car (bought so I would have a clock display that works while driving) and saw fit to rip it from poor Dimples's dashboard Thursday night - welcome to Boston!

Blessedly, the clever crooks knew what they were doing and merely punctured the passenger-side door and pulled out the lock rather than busting in a window, and for that I am truly appreciative.

Anyway, my real point is that I had a lotttt of time to ponder during the 5-hour drive home today, so I wanted to share some of my incredibly deep thoughts - this wisdom is free, folks. First, the mental playlist of song snippets that cycled through my head as I drove, sans radio - what exactly this says about me I'm not sure - then a critical look at the I-90 experience...

Radio Kathleen (in order of appearance)
- Selections from Under the Iron Sea, Keane (not entirely sure which ones)
- Roly Poly, The Little Willies
- Prototype, OutKast
- Bend and Break, Keane
- Runaway Train, Soul Asylum
- Song for Athene, John Tavener (as performed by the ASO Chamber Chorus)
- She's so High, Tal Bachman (don't ask)
- Brotherhood of Man, from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
- There were Three Jolly Fishermen,
traditional (camp song)
- Life Wasted, Pearl Jam
- Put a Lid on it, Squirrel Nut Zippers
- Jesusland, Ben Folds
- Rockin Chair, Oasis (tragically, the last song I heard on my stereo. But not such a loss as it was a burned cd and not one I purchased...)

As you can see, my mind is a strange place when left to its own devices. I will say, though, that time passes surprisingly quickly on the road without CD's or clock radios to mark the time. I was a little worried I'd be a) bored out of my skull or b) falling asleep with no soundtrack, but it's possible the drive seemed to go even faster in solitary silence. Isn't that weird? You should try it sometime.


Without any further ado, I give you my brief assessment of...

Mass Pike & NYS Thruway, East
I hate the thruway. HATE. For many, many reasons. First, the exit numbers don't correspond to mile markers (though, to the state's credit, the miles are quite meticulously marked, which I do appreciate). Second, it's EXPENSIVE. $7 just to leave the state! Third, there is noooothing fun to do on the way - and, more important, even if there were roadside diversions, you couldn't get to them because the exits are few and far between. I'm the sort of roadtripper who likes to pull over at cheesy truck stops or whatever kitschy tourist attraction happens to pop up, but on a restricted toll road like I-90, you don't even get the chance. Boo!

As you can see, the odds are pretty well stacked against I-90 in my book. But it's not all bad, especially when you cross into Massachusetts. Both times I traveled this road, I was struck by how much nicer things seems in Massachusetts. Maybe it's the Appalachian Trail footbridge you cross under at mile 14.7 that makes me like that side of things more (generally anything involving the word "Appalachian" or any variant thereof will go over well with me).

Somehow the landscape of Western Mass. is more appealing and familiar than that of eastern and Central NY. In Massachusetts, the roads seemed busier - but not in a trafficky way, in a stuff-happens-here kind of way - trees seemed greener, the hills hillier. Or maybe the light was just better there today. At any rate, looking at the road stretched out before me, gentle, hazy ridges marking the distant horizon, I was reminded of the rolling Appalachain foothills of western North Carolina or East Tennessee, only on a smaller scale.

But once you cross back into New York, things seem to flatten out. Now, if you've ever talked to me about my time in Chicago, you know that my biggest issue with the Midwest was not the weather, or even the funny accents, but the bleak and boring landscape. FLAT. So dull. The NY portion of I-90 doesn't come close to Illinois in terms of utter lack of geographic features, but it is a bit uneventful for my taste.

I remember talking to a Midwestern woman once who had moved from Illinois to Kingsport, TN, where my folks are from. When I admitted that the cold didn't bother me as much as the lack of landscape, she told me that the lay of the land in Tennessee got to her as well - she felt claustrophobic because of all the trees and hills. So, I must be the opposite...not necessarily afraid of open spaces, I just have a particular distaste for flat boringness.

[Sidenote: Passing through Becket, MA, motorists see a sign marking the highest point on the Massachusetts Turnpike, at an elevation of 1,724 ft. It also indicates that the next point on I-90 (heading west, naturally) with a higher elevation is in Oacoma, South Dakota, at 1,729 ft. above sea level. So it's pretty much all downhill from Massachusetts on I-90...literally!]

But that's not all Massachusetts has going for it, oh no! Not only is there less of I-90 in Massachusetts than from Syracuse to the state line, there are also more frequent exits and, most important, WAY better rest stops. And a lot more of them. They're cleaner, they have better and more fast food options, Bank of America ATMs (for whatever reason I trust bank-name ATMs more than I do the generic Plus/Star card ones), and gas stations with cheaper gas and real convenience stores attached, carrying a plethora of caffeinated beverage choices and such roadtrip delights as circus peanuts and Combos (neither of which, for the record, I indulged in this go-round). New York's rest stops are darker and not as modern, with fewer, less appealing options for sustenance and information - overall not as friendly or as inviting as their counterparts across the border.

However, the New York Thruway will have another opportunity to win my affections this coming weekend, as I journey to Pittsburgh, PA, for a reunion of my Freiburg friends. Perhaps the westside has more to offer, but from the thruway travel plaza brochure I picked up today it looks, unfortunately, to be more of the same. With luck I should have a replacement radio in my car by then, so at least I'll have that going for me...

Tune in next week for more adventures from the open road: I-90 Westbound into won't want to miss it!

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Home, sweet home

Greetings, faithful readers! (All three of you.) Sorry to have been away so long - I'm on break back home in Atlanta, where I've been catching up with friends and enjoying driving my little crappy stick-shift car around town.

So, just a quick post to let you in on exciting developments in HOTlanta. The front page of today's AJC was devoted to the proliferation of new arts venues in and around the Atlanta suburbs and the implications of such for cultural life and arts organizations here in town. The Wall Street Journal ran an article a few weeks ago discussing the Atlanta Opera's move up I-75 to the "suburbs" next season, to the Cobb Energy Centre - a venue that will surely be better suited to the Atlanta Opera's needs than the cavernous Civic Center in midtown - and what effect that will have on ticket sales, revenues, etc.

It's heartening to see this getting so much press (which is not to say that Atlanta is full of brutish cultural midgets) - now if we could only get the government to kick in $100 mil for the new Symphony Hall!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Field trip to Glimmerglass

Yesterday the AJ cohort traveled to Glimmerglass Opera near Cooperstown, NY (best known as home to the baseball hall of fame) for a tour of the house and a performance of Janacek's opera "Jenufa." Aside from the house being frigid (um, hello New York, it's still AUGUST why are you giving me 60 DEGREE WEATHER?), it was a truly excellent experience.

I wanted to be sure to get down my thoughts on this while it is still reasonably fresh in my mind - though 7 hours of travel-with-cat has somewhat scattered my thoughts a bit. I accidentally left my notebook with a few thoughts I jotted down on my table in Syracuse, but I'll give it a go all the same.

I'll start by saying that I loved the production. Though I was not previously acquainted with Jenufa, the general story is a familiar one in opera, and it was refreshing to see it play out in a less conventional setting. Isabella Bywater designed the costumes and sets to place this in the American Midwest in the middle of the 20th century (the story as written plays out in a Czech village in the late 19th century). The Glyndebourne production we watched on DVD was set as written, and I found that Glimmerglass's updating made the story much more immediate and accessible, overall more powerful. The palette was full of dusty, muted tones and faded florals, but the characters generally would add a shock of color - a pink cardigan here, a vibrant blue-and-red fabric there - so it didn't all melt into bleak monochrome.

This production was superbly cast - at least on the female side of things. Not only were each of the three leads ideally suited to their roles vocally, but they also looked their parts, with seeming little effort from costumes and makeup. Somehow the casting director got the perfect body and voice type for Jenufa, Kostelnicka and Grandmother Buryja, which must be a rarity.

Take the grandmother, for instance. Ideally you'll have an older singer in the role, but that often brings with it the peril of hiring someone who should have been put out to pasture long ago. Not the case with mezzo Judith Christin - though she's on the older side of the opera singer spectrum, she still has full control over a rich voice and a nice stage presence. She was physically and vocally old in her role, but never veered into the harrowing world of warbliness that so often accompanies these parts.

The two strongest cast members were Maria Kanyova as Jenufa and Elizabeth Byrne as Kostelnicka. Both sopranos demonstrated a mastery of vocal control and a range of entirely believable emotion. Most striking to me was, again, how each of them perfectly matched the physicality of their roles - especially Byrne. A sturdy woman, she cut an imposing figure that was just intimidating enough to give her authority and a bi of a scary edge, but she wasn't so hard that you didn't empathize with her.

For me, and I imagine for most of the audience, the high point of the opera was the second act. This is the point of highest dramatic tension. It also happens to be the act in which we hear the least from the male leads - and not to the detriment of the opera. Here it was advantageous having just seen the DVD version - I was so riveted by Jenufa and Kostelnicka that I hardly craned my head back to read the supertitles at all. In their solo scenes, they each commanded the stage with such energy and dramatic and vocal presence that you couldn't take your eyes off of them.

The second act was also the one in which the jury finally weighed in on the gentlemen leads, Scott Piper as insensitive rich boy Steva and Roger Honeywell as Laca, his Judd Fry-esque, lurky, neglected half-brother. In the first act, Steva is drunk, and as such is entitled to reel about the stage or teeter back and forth while attempting to stand still. Subsequent acts call for Sober Steva, who, unfortunately, came across much the same as Drunk Steva minus the tinge of silliness. Piper has a perfectly lovely tenor voice - but the problem was that he seemed content to coast on his voice alone, and the result was a closed-off, uninspired performance that left me thinking he had no clue what his character was saying. His emotional range was pretty much nonexistent, and once that revealed itself, his vocals seemed flat as well. His utter lack of understanding of the physicality of his character was thrown into sharp relief by his outstanding female costars. It just seemed to me that a character so inclined to flirtation and flaunting his wealth and status, so arrogant, wouldn't stand around with his hands in his pockets, restlessly shifting his weight but never committing to action. But maybe that's me.

Laca made much more of an effort, dramatically and physically, and at times he succeeded. His strongest act was the first - admittedly, the act in which Laca sees the most action. Subsequent acts saw Laca shrink into a weak, weepy man-boy. By the third act as he sat in a smallish wooden chair against the set wall wearing a suit with a too-short tie (perhaps meant to be a socio-economic indicator?), his face frozen in an operatic "I'm-crying-now" twist, he bore more resemblance to a troubled Buddy Elf (a la Will Ferrell) than to the lumbering embodiment of pent-up aggression we'd seen in the first act. Singing-wise, it was obvious Honeywell was struggling through something, clearing his throat frequently when he wasn't singing. He did have a back pocket full of money notes, which he occasionally pulled out with great verve, and I was duly impressed. However, that was about five notes out of how many? Perhaps we can chalk up the inconsistency to whatever was plaguing his throat last night, but I have the feeling there's a little more voice hiding somewhere.

Let's see, does that cover it all? I might go back week after next when I return from Atlanta to see the Barber of Seville. I'd love to sit somewhere else in the house - and with a maximum capacity of 985, there probably aren't any really bad seats, as they say. We were on the third row on the left side last night, where the orchestra could overpower and the supertitles were difficult to see without completely ignoring the stage below.

Overall, Glimmerglass seems to be all it's cracked up to be. But next time, I'm bringing a blanket!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Opera + Beer = Brilliant!

In keeping with this week's theme of opera, I wanted to post this in case y'all missed it in Sunday's times. It's a short piece about "Opera on Tap," which is basically an open mic night for young opera singers at a bar in NYC once a month. I love this idea! Bring opera to the people in a relaxed environment, and have a drink while you're at it.

Now, this is clearly not for the stick-in-the-mud paranoid diva types - they probably sit at home every Thursday night steaming their vocal cords before turning in around 10 p.m. And there's nothing wrong with that - frankly I admire their drive and dedication, I just could never do it. But programs like this can help enliven opera for a lot of people, not the least of whom is the performer - because, let's face it, the church/crappy auditorium circuit can get a bit tired, and it's hard to connect with the walls of a practice room. I imagine this is more about having fun and getting in front of an audience - an opportunity that can be hard to come by for aspiring singers in New York - than being hypercritical of each other.

Oh yeah! And I also know one of the singers quoted in the article. How cool am I?

Anyway, with luck, I'll get to drop in on Opera on Tap when I'm in the city sometime this year...I'll let y'all know how it is!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Extreme close-up... WAAAAAH!

So today we finished up newswriting boot camp...holy hell! I can't believe it's done already - yet another one of those things in life that is totally intimidating as you approach it, and then before you know it you've gotten through all the deadlines and papers you thought would be so difficult. Not that it wasn't hard, but my point is that now it's nearly mid-August and I'm going home on Saturday and I've already completed 1/6 of the credits required for my master's! Awesome.

To commemorate this occasion, I took a picture of the AJ Lunch Club outside Newhouse i will miss it (not!)

Aaaanyhoo. Now to the "real" blog material.

Today in arts journalism class, after all the stories had finally been turned in, we had a lecture to prepare us for our field trip to the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown this Friday, where we'll see Janacek's opera, "Jenufa." Frank Macomber, emeritus professor of fine arts here at SU, gave a general overview of opera in terms of characters and subject matter and briefed us on the opera's background and plot.

After about an hour of that, we popped in a DVD of a Glyndebourne production and watched the first two acts. Having done this will enhance everyone's experience, I think, because with opera I find it's often advantageous to know at least somewhat what you're getting into. Friday's pre-performance lecture (which I'm looking forward to because I've never done that before) should prove even more enlightening.

However. Though the DVD format creates a convenient and cheap way to see and get acquainted with an opera, I HATE it. Opera is quite simply meant to be experienced a) live, b) from a certain distance, and c) Live! Voice and Opera programs around the world spend countless hours teaching students to project to the back of the house (to the peanut gallery, as the infamous Rae-Gae called it), not only with their voices but with their bodies. That's actually the hardest part for a lot of people, because it's easy enough to sing loud without feeling stupid, but when you're trying to convey facial expressions and emotions that might otherwise be subtle to the hypothetical last row of a 3,000-seat house, well, sometimes you just feel like an asshole.

And here's the main problem with opera-as-film: opera-scaled subtely usually equates to a cinematic slap in the face. To see these larger-than-life emotions from the distance of an onstage camera can be really jarring - particularly if acting is not the singer's strongest suit. And that's when opera on film starts to be unintentionally humorous, even more so when coupled with the often awkwardly worded and punctuated subtitles.

On top of that, when an opera is shot with multiple cameras, or from any perspective aside from that of a static audience member, as most operas are, a lot of the fun is taken out of it. The viewers see what the director wants them to see instead of getting to create their own experience by taking in the entire stage and making their own observations.

But enough of my soapbox rant. I thought it was unfortunate that today was a bunch of my classmates' first exposure to opera - but it's really not so bad, because there's nowhere to go but up, in terms of the overall experience. Plus, it doesn't hurt that this production has been getting rave reviews in all the big papers - apparently this is the Glimmerglass hit of the summer. Friday promises to be a well-deserved treat and an amazing conclusion to boot camp!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

(since brevity is the soul of wit)

Yeah, I'm gonna be working on that. Bear with me in the meantime.

In other news, apparently I have lost my ability to sleep past, oh, 7:30 a.m. :(

I'm about to get crackin' on these very important assignments, but before I do I wanted to share two pictures from our field trips this week.

The first is from the office of the Syracuse New Times - I think this is the publisher's office. Brilliant! If you don't have a window, why not make your own and put Neuschwanstein in it?

Next is from the Syracuse Post-Standard. This room is where the old printing press was, now it's basically storage I guess. These are big rolls of newspapers waiting to be sent off for the weekend (not sure which day's) - kinda looks like those hay bales you see driving through the country. Anyway, I thought these were totally excellent...

More later!

I know it's the off-season, but...

Tonight the Syracuse Opera presented “Arias at the Armory: a Mozart Anniversary Celebration” outside in downtown Syracuse. The program, commemorating the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birthyear, comprised arias and ensembles drawn from the composer’s concert and operatic repertory, presumably to entice new patrons to the opera’s regular season, which kicks off in late October with Bizet’s Carmen.

the crowd in Armory Square

To that end, I’ll admit I found the whole affair a bit befuddling - not only in terms of what the performers brought to the table, but what the director, or whomever designed this program, gave the performers to work with. (But then again I was already planning to check out the opera here, so I probably wasn’t among the targeted.) However, they did reach a reasonably large audience, many of whom probably had little prior experience with opera. To the first-time listener, tonight’s program probably registered as an impressive showing of loud voices (inexplicably amplified – what’s Armory Square compared to the Arena di Verona?) and fast notes, and may have piqued interest enough to result in a couple dozen more ticket sales. Mission accomplished, right?

But to me, the whole production just came across as lazy. Some of the crowd-pleasers were there, but the hits were either conspicuously missing or, even worse, sung in awkward English translation. Richard McKee, artistic director, explained before the operatic selections that some would be sung in English to facilitate comprehension – but I’m sure the first-time listener would have benefited more from an English performance of the Zauberfloete trio “Soll ich dich Teurer, nicht mehr sehn” rather than the clumsy sung translation of Papageno’s charming, folksy introductory aria, “Der Vogelfaenger bin ich ja.” The other five selections performed in English suffered similarly laughable fates at the hands of the translation gods.

Programming and original language issues aside, it seemed that the Syracuse Opera ensemble left their A game at home for tonight’s performances. The only cast member who consistently fared well was bass-baritone Daniel Gross, who commanded the audience’s attention in each vignette with his assured presence and strong, steady tone. Though he occasionally toed the line between singing and barking, he usually did so in the forgivable name of character.

The young mezzo Ivy Gaibel had a rocky start with “Laudate Dominum,” from Vesperae Solennes de Confessor, but recovered nicely throughout the program, giving her best performances when portraying a character. Her “Voi che sapete” was competent and endearing, by far her best showing of the night. Despite some intonation issues, she held her own amid the din of competing voices in the final ensemble from Cosi fan tutte.

Soprano Lauren Skuce was, for me, a bit too precious in her phrasing. She seemed indulgent and somewhat disengaged – bored, even – in her performance, and at times unwittingly revealed to the audience just how hard she was working to get through a phrase. That said, she possesses a nice tone and some lovely notes on the top end of her range, though she shouldn’t rely on those attributes alone to carry her performances.

Tenor Robert Allen and bemulleted baritone Jimi James were neither particularly remarkable nor offensive. James had the unfortunate lot of singing most of his selections in English, which, frankly, stacked the odds against him. His one chance at redemption, the duet “La ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni, came across without a clear picture of his character or sensitivity to phrasing. When I first looked over the program, I immediately wondered at the absence of the tenor staple, “Dies Bildnis” from Die Zauberfloete, but, given Allen’s rather anemic performance throughout the program, it’s probably better that he let it be. His best work came in the evening’s ensemble numbers.

McKee, in addition to his role as emcee for the program, contributed a few low rumblers as Sarastro in the Zauberfloete trio and performed an aria from Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail. I’m hoping this was because the regularly engaged bass is off on a fabulous Mediterranean holiday with his trophy girlfriend and couldn’t take time from his packed summer touring and traveling schedule to drop in on Syracuse…but somehow I don’t think that’s the case. However, it’s probably also true that an artistic director probably doesn’t put in much time onstage during the regular season – often for good reason.

I’m not going to write off any of these singers just yet. The real test will come in October when these singers take to the stage in an actual production. Yes, tonight was a performance - but it can be difficult to perform all-out when you’re just doing excerpts and arias, especially when that performance takes place on a foldout truck-stage in a noisy downtown square. Overall, I wasn’t blown away, but I wasn’t hugely disappointed either. I’m actually really looking forward to the Syracuse Opera’s first production in a few months. I’m hoping the company will decide to bring Syracuse the very best it has to offer.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Y'all come back now, y'hear?

Greetings, all, and welcome to my blog! Inspired by a visit from Michael Barnes of the Austin American-Statesman (and somewhat compelled by Johanna Keller, the brilliant director of the Goldring Arts Journalism program), I've finally created an Internet home for my musings on all things cultural - music, art, movies, food, fashion, journalism and pop culture, to name a few - that might catch my fancy, in Syracuse and beyond. And you, adoring public, can write right back!

In short, I hope you find this blog entertaining, whimsical yet relevant, with an underlying revisionist conceit that belies its emotional attachments to the subject matter...

Really, I just hope you don't think it sucks.