Just saw Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress by the San Francisco opera’s the Merola Opera Program.
Ok. Frankly, I found the whole experience a bit disorienting, and it took me awhile to figure out why. It all started making sense when I came across this thought from a DVD reviewer:
Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress occupies two worlds. The story, the ironically moralizing attitudes, and many musical and verbal details are inspired by the 18th century. But it is modern in rhythm and harmony and in its psychology--Freudianism and existentialism in a powdered wig. Each production must find its own balance between these polarities…
The story: The basis for the story is provided by William Hogarth’s series of satirical etchings, “A Rakes Progress,” which he published in 1735, and which were influenced in part by the literary work of his contemporary, Jonathan Swift. Then, as now, there was huge popular appeal in newspaper tales of the lurid, the theatrical, the violent. “A Rake's Progress” series plays into that taste, a morality tale that cautions of the outcome of a dissolute life, while portraying such a life in imaginatively graphic terms.
The libretto: The rather clever libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman is a fable, tracking the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, under the influence of the Mephistophelean Nick Shadow. When Tom comes into an unexpected inheritance (offered as a lure by Shadow, who is allegorically the devil) he strays from the path of true love (his sweetheart, Ann Trulove) and righteous work, into a life of gambling, whoring, investment shenanigans, and an exceedingly strange marriage to a bearded lady. The redemptive power of love saves Tom from hellfire, but Shadow curses him with madness and he ends up in Bedlam, the madhouse. The moral of the tale is: “For idle hearts and hands and minds, the devil finds a work to do.”
The music: Completed in 1951, The Rake’s Progress is considered the pinnacle of Stravinsky’s “neo-classic” period (incidentally, it was also the last neo-classic piece he composed.) In many ways, it is reminiscent of the operas and themes of Monteverdi and Mozart, right down to recitatives accompanied only by harpsichord. Yet there is no mistaking the neo in the “neo-classic” with Stravinsky's trademark off-rhythms, surprising dissonances, and colorful orchestration.
The performance: The performance was certainly competent (especially bearing in mind that Rake is considered among the repertoire's more difficult operas to sing), and Jeremy Galyon as Nick Shadow, stood out in particular, both vocally and dramatically (even though he at times distractingly reminded me of Kramer from Seinfeld). Still, I did not find the experience particularly enjoyable. As one Rake reviewer ever-so-diplomatically pointed out, “The poetic language of the libretto requires concentration and the music is more rewarding at the dramatic than at the melodic level a good deal of the time.”
The final thought: And as if all this psychedelic quilt of musical and thematic cross-influences weren’t enough, the fate of the main character in Rake turns on correctly guessing three cards. Queen of Spades, anyone? – well, no, this time it’s the Queen of Hearts… twice!
So I went to a German trinkets store in Stillwater, MN, as it was closing yesterday and banged on the door until the German proprietress who was cleaning up opened it up... (A note on Stillwater: this town is highly overrated, IMO – my recommendation is to go south of St. Paul down the Mississippi rather than north up the St. Croix.) She wouldn't let me in, but I asked if there was a German restaurant in town. She said no, but there was one about 15 min out of town, and directed me to... "Shoen's Gasthaus - Bavarian Hunter Restaurant" (horses welcome). To get there from the Mpls/St.Paul area, take Hwy 36, turn left onto County Rd 15, go about 3 miles, turn left on County Rt 64, and follow the signs.
This place was awesome. Situated in the rolling hills, just like it would be in Bavarian countryside. The waitresses, naturally, wear dirndls. Ed, the 76-year-old lederhosen-clad accordion dude, gives you quite an education in Germanic, Nordic, and Slavic pop (circa 1930s) by playing Swedish, Finnish, Polish, Russian, German, Norwegian tunes. At one point, we all sang “Happy Birthday to Karl” accompanied by Ed's accordion... Karl and his posse were sitting at a table next to me... he was turning 95.
I ordered a lentil/pork soup (delicious! - was a hard choice b/w this and the beef borsch), a weißwurst (finally! - have been looking for a good one ever since I returned from my last trip to München seven years ago), and pork shoulder with mashed potatoes (yum!)... That was $15. Plus great German beer, rye bread, sweet mustard, and homemade cheesecake strudel (crunchy apples in the Cheesecake "crust" - most delectable!)
Apparently, there are a few places like this in the MSP area (though most are a couple of hours away in northern MN, I think - around St. Cloud, for instance) - but this is the only one I’ve found so far. They've got their annual German beer tasting on July 15 - perhaps, I'll be back for that.
The Queens of Spades production that came to San Francisco as part of the San Francisco Opera's 2005 Summer Festival aptly dubbed “The Gamble of Love,” was originally created by Richard Jones and designed by John Macfarlane for the Welsh National Opera production. As Richard Scheinin summarized it in his San Francisco Mercury News review, “it is a creepy thriller, based on a novella by Alexander Pushkin, with themes of obsession, love, greed and madness, and music that keeps ripening and casting a scary-beautiful spell. It also has storms, a ghost and necromancy.” Wow! – great operatic material, you think?
Well. As the Act I ended, I text-messaged my friend George: “Gee! - I forgot how dark and cunning and cynical this story is... Every protagonist (there are no heroes or heroines here, just protagonists) is either obsessed or misguided or screwed up or confused or just downright pathological... or all of the above!” And it went downhill from there, as the plot meandered, via a series of often surreal twist and turns in Acts II and III, toward the inevitable demise of the main character, Gherman. (Presumably in an effort to ensure that the audience does not meet a similar fate, half of the Program Notes for this production were filled with articles on gambling addiction, tips on how to fight it, and contact information on where to get help.)
This is the most Wagnerian of Tchaikovsky’s operas, with its liberal use of leitmotivs, exalted emotions, and a good doze of symbolism. It is quite effective in showing – both musically and dramatically – the main protagonist’s deepening obsession and his inevitable slide toward madness. (The use of the leitmotivs is quite imaginative, as it helps to convey the fact that Gherman, as he gradually goes mad, starts seeing the old Countess in everything and everybody, including his lover Lisa.)
Also, this is unmistakably a Grand Opera - fulfilling this genre’s convention with a ballet interlude (The Pastoral) - although in this particular production, it is performed by puppets instead of live dancers, with an effect that is not just supremely charming but also dramatically quite effective. (Are the puppets taking over theater?? – it seems so, as they are crossing over into “live” opera from their traditional domain of “puppet opera”!) Musically, much of the Pastoral is Tchaikovsky's take on Mozart, which is rather amusing: it is neither a direct "borrowing" nor a parody, more like what I imagine a "postmodern" Mozart interpretation would've been like in the 19th century Russia.
The cast in this production was very international but not particularly convincing: Ukrainian tenor Misha Didyk as Gherman, though an effective actor (and the only native Russian speaker in the cast), lacked power; Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman as Lisa, though also a strong dramatic presence, couldn’t command the large SF Opera house either; and German mezzo-soprano Hanna Schwarz as the Countess was, perhaps, the only standout performance in this production (even though she spent much of the Act II in a tub with her back turned to the audience). I also enjoyed the Icelandic bass-baritone Tómas Tómasson as Count Tomsky, who delivered (with abandon, and in almost flawless Russian) Act I’s dramatic aria that reveals the Countess' secret of the three cards (“Tri karty! Tri karty! Tri karty!”), which becomes the opera's mad mantra.
Dramatically, the opera is also flawed. There are prolonged intervals when nothing is happening – noting at all – musically or on stage. After an expertly passed Act I, Act II is like watching the paint dry (thankfully, Act III picks up the pace again). Musically, while this is undoubtedly the most “mature” of Tchaikovsky’s operas, the often brilliant texture and complexity of its individual pieces (a multitude of arias, duets, quintets, ballads, and folk songs) doesn’t translate into a satisfying whole. The libretto is also flawed: Gherman’s love for Lisa is not explained; why she falls for him (badly!) is even more inexplicable. And, as another blogger has suggested, “I also think that instead of Lisa committing suicide when her plans for love fail, she should do like modern brides and run off to another state and claim that she was kidnapped instead.” (It should be noted that the story I had in my head coming in was Pushkin's original version of the Queen of Spades. That version is quite realistic, and the characters in it are not nearly as whacked out as they are in the opera’s libretto, which Tchaikovsky and his brother/librettist Modest quite mercilessly plucked out from the original story. In Pushkin’s version, Lisa marries a bureaucrat, Gherman doesn't commit suicide, and Yeletsky doesn't even exist. The mood of Pushkin’s story is quite dreary, but not hallucinogenic and fatalistic like in the opera.)
All these flaws are well known, which is probably why The Queen of Spades, like almost no other opera in the mainstream repertoire, is constantly being re-staged, with new productions seeking to cover up the opera’s intrinsic flaws. (On the other hand, as Andrew Clements from The Guardian noted, this does not translate into a large number of commercially available recordings, which "underlines the difficulties of getting everything right.")
This particular production is a remarkable effort, however. The Jones/Macfarlane staging and design ranged from effective to haunting to clever to brilliant. I will not soon forget the sight of Lisa looking for Gherman in the bleak charcoal-gray landscapes in Act III, with her orange overcoat being the only flash of color in the gray crowds that are passing – and as the tension of anticipating heightens to the feverish level, running – by, rapidly sweeping through the stage from left to right, in a haunting evocation of both the elements and character’s internal torment. The clever puppet Pastoral in Act I is daring and ingenious. And the “view from above” scene in Gherman’s bedroom and the final scene with the oversized round table in the casino (both in Act III) are downright brilliant. I never thought of The Queen of Spades as an absurdist or surrealist piece, but this particular production makes it plainly obvious that this is exactly what it is!
Still, despite all the efforts of the production to cover up the dramatic flaws of the opera, it failed to touch me, just like all other productions that I’ve seen. Despite its many musical charms, it's hard to feel touched by an opera based on a story about obsession that is populated by a bunch of dysfunctional miserable characters, plagued by the lack of dramatic coherence, and stitched together and presented in an exaggerated, even surrealist, way.
Ok, so perhaps this isn’t really an opera... it’s an operetta. And instead of live actors, you’ll be looking at puppets. And instead being played on a single stage, the action moves across six mini-stages, plus a large projection screen. Whatever you call it, one thing is clear: this is one of the best shows you’ll experience anywhere, regardless of the art form. It’s got all the ingredients for a deeply satisfying theatrical experience: infectious humor, overflowing imagination, exuberant pageantry, and stagecraft of mind-boggling technical complexity.
The show is called “Avanti, da Vinci! The Secret Adventures of Leonardo da Vinci” – an operetta produced by the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. This puppet show for adults is part operetta, part absurdist superhero epic and part comic homage to the many inventions of Leonardo da Vinci. Here’s how it goes:
Florence's most brutal clan, the Borgias, have captured the lovely Mona Lisa in hopes of wedding her to their over-sexed son Cesare. Enter Da Vinci - a mild-mannered artist by day who becomes a crime-crushing, butt-kicking, winged avenger by night! A series of daring maneuvers - executed with Da Vinci's artificial wings, helicopter, submarine, time-travel machine and more - soon unfold as our intrepid hero fights for his love. Will good triumph over evil? Will Da Vinci save the day? Will his spring-loaded car even run? Find out when Da Vinci dons a crusader's cape to fight for "truth, justice and the Italian way!"
The show is a take on Batman with Da Vinci as the superhero, Mona Lisa being the babe he repeatedly rescues from a variety of sticky situations, and the Pope playing the role of the villain. In fact, creators of the show were aware that Leonardo’s drawings helped inspire Batman creator Bob Kane, which is how the concept for the play was born. And just like with Batman, the endless supply of gadgetry is key to Da Vinci’s success as the “Renaissance Man,” his superhero alter ego. Except that his gadgets – bicycle, spring-driven car, helicopter, submarine, various weaponry – came straight from Da Vinci’s actual drawings, realized in intricate puppetry.
Not just that, but, as one reviewer has noted, the script itself also frequently derives from da Vinci's writings:
"I have been impressed with the urgency of doing!" da Vinci exclaims, before extolling the virtues of keeping productive. During an interlude with a telescope, he sings a love song about both Mona Lisa and the moon called "Bella Luna, Mona Lisa." The lyrics (sung in Italian, with English translation on a screen) come from the maestro's study of lunar illumination. … Da Vinci's anatomical discoveries lead to a comic interlude when lab assistant Sali succumbs to Three Stooges-style shtick with an uncooperative corpse. Even the show's fart jokes come from da Vinci's research.
A few more observations:
The bottom line is that this is, perhaps, one of the most satisfying theater productions (regardless of the genre!) you will ever see. And at $18 per ticket, what a bargain!
Other reviews to check out
Center for Puppetry Arts – what else do they do?
Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts is probably the best puppet theater in the country. It’s got two theater spaces, a museum, and a variety of workshop spaces. The museum is definitely worth a visit, as even a brief walkthrough will enhance your appreciation of how puppets are used across cultures, with examples drawn from Europe, Thailand, China, Africa, Russia, and other places.
On occasion, the Center performs full-blown puppet operas also. For instance, the Salzburg Marionette Theater will be performing Hansel and Gretel and Don Giovanni here in November. And it doesn’t shy away from heavier topics either: next January, it will present the story of Anne Frank, recreating her family’s secret hideout in Amsterdam.
There is little doubt that we are experiencing the formation of the next wave of software innovation. Blogs, wikis, community tagging, social networks, and other components of the emerging Web 2.0 are merely the ripples heralding the inevitable arrival of the Big One. So it’s the usual drill now for all of us who have ridden such waves before: catch the wave or get swept away by it. Ladies and gentlemen, get out your surfboards!
What Does This Mean? (for those of us in the enterprise software business)
Instead of retelling what many have told so well before me, let me point you to Joe Kraus’s influential blog post, “The Long Tail of Software.” Joe builds a high-level "business case" for what kind of “new enterprise software” we need to develop and why it will be disruptive to the "old enterprise software" folks like Siebel and SAP.
How Enterprise Software Works
Every enterprise software implementation stack, regardless of the application domain, has the same three basic layers:
3) Business Logic (mostly domain specific)
2) Data Bindings (implementation-specific)
1) Information Model (domain-specific)
Traditional enterprise software apps use top-down constraints – such as a pre-defined data model, roles, workflows, and categories. This works quite well for software developers (build once, sell many times), but limits configurability for the clients. That’s where the enterprise software marketing machine kicks in, aiming to convince the customer (using a variety of clever marketing devices, such as the mostly bogus promise of delivering “industry best practices”) that it is in the customer's best interest to adjust its business processes to the software, rather than the other way around. Thus the notoriously expensive, lengthy, highly disruptive, and often ultimately unsuccessful implementation cycles for enterprise software packages like ERP and CRM.
Now wouldn’t it be nice if, rather than being prescriptive (and therefore disruptive), enterprise software instead “evolved” over time to align with the client’s way of doing business? if you could install it, start using it, and the more you used it the more aligned it became?
Enter “Social” Enterprise Software Architecture
Sounds like a pipe dream? – until recently, yes. But I believe that, in the last three years, we have seen each layer of the enterprise software stack (Information Model, Data Bindings, and Business Logic) actualized in the collaborative, self-evolving, adaptive "sample app":
Putting It All Together
With every layer of the enterprise software stack (Information Model, Data Bindings, and Business Logic) having been individually demonstrated as a “social software” implementation, now is the time to start putting these pieces together into a next-generation enterprise software platform that is adaptive and “social” at every layer of the stack.
To get this concept off the ground, we need a “killer app” – and coming up with a compelling one has so far been a struggle. JotSpot’s demo application is the employee interview/hire process – something that every company does, but most do just differently enough (based on their culture and customs) to justify the “adaptive” social software approach. I am considering applying “social software” principles to the IT service delivery management domain where my company, Centrata, operates. But this is still a long way off from tackling the problems currently addressed by enterprise-class ERP and CRM packages.
At a recent Gartner Symposium in San Francisco, Tom Austin, a Gartner Fellow and their resident maverick visionary, gave a talk suggesting that an application environment that enables users to experiment and create collaboratively (as opposed to being subject to centralized control) is the way of the future. The question I posed to him was this:
Are you envisioning that traditional monolithic enterprise applications (ERP/CRM like SAP/Siebel) may eventually be replaced by collaboration architectures that are now evolving on the Internet (wikis, blogs, social networks, etc.)?
“Eventually?” he replied, “absolutely!… the only question is when.”
Perhaps more than with any other area of gastronomy, an American consumer’s attitude toward wine could be described as “confusion infused with superstition” -- though, regrettably, it is often mistaken for “profundity infused with tradition.”
At one time or another, we have all been subjected to wine-related nonsense. For instance, “Thou Shault Not Drink Red Wine With Fish,” and other preposterous wine-food pairing dicta are commonplace. Or “Wine tastes better when drunk from a glass specifically shaped according to the character of the wine” – a quaint silly notion that has been successfully promoted and exploited by Riedel and other glassware manufacturing companies. Or the ubiquitous “vacuum pump” that is supposed to prolong the life of a bottle of wine once it’s been opened (but in reality is no more useful as an oenological implement than as a tire pump for your bicycle). Or the irrational insistence that plastic corks (which never go bad) are somehow inferior to the traditional wooden corks (which go bad on a regular basis, taking the wine inside along with them). But my favorite wine gibberish is this explanation of the Magic of Swirling, which can be overheard repeated in hushed tones in many a wine tasting room in Napa Valley: Vigorous swirling, you see, “breaks up the large flavor molecules in the wine” so they can more readily “release the aroma locked inside them.” If the respectful nodding of heads in response to such drivel is not a testament to the sorry state of science education in America, I don’t know what is!
As annoying as such wine nonsense could be, it hardly needs debunking, as any intelligent individual will readily recognize it for what it is: pure absurdity. But have you ever considered the less obvious deep-seated taboos that permeate the entire American wine industry? – I am guessing not, as they are so deeply embedded into our way of thinking about wine (shaped by decades of “tradition” fueled by the wine industry’s formidable marketing budgets) that we simply take them for granted without thinking. They are the proverbial elephant in the room. The emperor with no clothes. The deep-rooted misconceptions that are just waiting to be exposed!
The three fundamental taboos of the American wine industry are:
Let the debunking begin!
Taboo Topic #1: Fetishistic obsession with vintage
It is undeniably true that many types of wine get better (more interesting, more complex, more balanced) as they age. It is also true that, through the confluence of weather and luck, some years produce outstanding grape harvests, while others yield just so-so grapes. Therefore, what the wine industry ought to be doing in order to maximize the overall wine quality on the market is to encourage the release of wine from the best years/producers as vintage wines, while blending the rest to ensure the product of consistent quality in the off years.
Unfortunately, while this strategy would maximize the overall wine quality and would thus benefit the consumers, it would not necessarily maximize the revenues for the wine industry. Winemakers would much rather release the wine made from every grape harvest – good or bad – as vintage wine, as it allows them to market their wine as a premium product. So the wine industry, using its marketing prowess to reinforce the fetishistic vintage convention, worked hard to associate “vintage” with “high-quality” – neglecting the obvious fact that this association is only true for good vintages, not for all vintages!
This PR campaign succeeded brilliantly. Consumers have been duped into paying a premium for vintage wines, expecting (mistakenly) a higher-quality product. As the consumer interest in more-expensive vintage wines started rising a decade ago (in response to the marketing efforts by the wine industry), it became the single largest contributing factor to the American wine industry’s sales growth. In 2004, premium wines in California accounted for 32% of the volume, yet 64% of the revenues, a sea change since less than a decade ago, when premium (vintage) wines were a relatively obscure sector of the wine industry.
What is to be done? – Consumer, educate thyself! Stop blindly equating “vintage” with “quality,” and use good judgment in making your wine purchases rather than obediently following the wine industry’s PR machine. Wine industry, take a cue from the Port makers, who got it right (and have had it right for centuries!) Only outstanding Port vintages are declared as Vintage Ports by the major port houses, while the rest are blended to keep a consistent taste. Here’s to Dow's 1963 Vintage Port!
Taboo Topic #2: Stubborn aversion to blends in favor of varietals
Before unraveling this taboo, I’d like to indulge your attention for a brief wine history lesson (borrowed from the 1988 edition of the Sotheby's World Wine Encyclopedia).
Historically, Old World producers stressed the importance of where the wine came from on the label, rather than what was in the bottle: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chablis, Sancerre, Rioja, Port, Sherry, etc. The one thing that never appeared on the label was the grape variety. At first, the New World competed by simply "borrowing" famous names from the Old World: "Australian Burgundy" and "Californian Chablis" became commonplace. In 1939, however, Frank Schoonmaker, a New York writer and wine importer, started a revolution when he decided to add domestic American wines to his range, but refused to sell anything bearing these so-called "semi-generic" names and insisted that the wines be labeled as varietals. It was not the first time that Californian wines had been sold under varietals labels; examples of Cabernet, Riesling and Zinfandel were known in the nineteenth century. Such wines were, however, a relatively rare commodity. Schoonmaker increased the range of varietal wines by including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grenache Rose and many, many more, but the key to his success was the superb quality of the wines he selected. He did not “order” the wines, he simply tasted everything he could until he found the very best available. These wines were gems, and very popular with knowledgeable drinkers. The mass market followed suit, equating this new-found exciting quality with the varietal name. An increasing number of wineries realized what was happening and jumped on the varietal bandwagon.
Well, there you go: the fact that the vast majority of American wines sold today are pure varietals is a mere historical accident arising from a confluence of three factors: competition with Europe (the need to differentiate New World wine products from their Old World counterparts), discriminating taste of one talented individual (Frank Schoonmaker), and market forces (wineries jumping on the Varietal Boom bandwagon). However, the unintended consequence of the Varietal Boom is the resulting consumer aversion to blends, for today’s average American wine drinker equates “varietals” with high-quality wines and “blends” with generic table wine.
This situation is unfortunate, as it means that American wine industry is stuck with producing one-dimensional single-varietal wines, which deprives consumers from experiencing the potential richness and complexity of American varietal blends. Ironically, for consumers desiring to expand their wine drinking experience into the “blend dimension” at a reasonable price, the only recourse is to go back to the Old World wines such as Bordeaux (which, of course, is a blend of a number of varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot).
To its credit the American wine industry has tried repeatedly to free itself from its self-imposed (but now clearly outdated) single-varietal “golden handcuffs.” Probably the best-known such effort is the creation of Meritage. In the late ‘80s, a group of American vintners who were frustrated with the single-varietal limitations decided to create a special name for their high-quality blends of traditional Bordeaux varietals. The term “Meritage” was coined to identify these high quality wines and distinguish them from the more generic moniker “red table wine.” But establishing a whole new wine category proved to be very difficult indeed, as the American consumers’ aversion to blends turned out to be remarkably stubborn, government red tape and regulations proved to be a formidable challenge, and many vintners impatient with slow progress abandoned the Meritage label in favor of proprietary names for their wine blends (Phelps ‘Insignia,' Justin ‘Isosceles,’ etc.). (The Meritage Association is now making an attempt to revive the Meritage dream, but with only modest success so far.)
To this day, as the vast majority of American wine drinkers are happily supping their one-dimension single-varietal wines, the American-made blends are confined to the uppermost market segment of the industry (example: Opus One, which retails for $125-$300 a bottle). To experience an affordable high-quality wine blend, you have no choice but “go Old World.” What a shame – and how ironic, as competing with the Old World wines was the genesis of the Varietal Boom in the first place!
What is to be done? – Consumer, it’s time to shake off the stubborn aversion to blends and open your palate to the extra dimensions and complexities of wine beyond the single-varietal straightjacket. Wine industry, it’s time to start producing high-quality affordable varietal blends and continue the efforts to educate American consumers in their merits.
Taboo Topic #3: Irrational loathing of flavoring additives
How often do you read wine tasting notes (“light cherry nose, notes of chocolate and raspberry, licorice/blackberry dusty/earthy flavor, berry and slight herbal/funky finish,” and so on) and wonder: where do all those complex “notes” and “flavors” come from? On the surface, the answer is simple: some come from the fruit itself, some from the barrel, and others develop from the ageing process. But fundamentally, this is all just chemistry. And if that’s the case, it should be possible to “reverse-engineer” wine with high fidelity, such that the end results are indistinguishable from those achieved in the “natural” winemaking process. The net effect would be higher-quality better-tasting wine products at lower prices – and happier wine consumers!
Of course, this opens up a Pandora’s Box of epic proportions. In spite of dramatic technological advices of late, winemaking is still regarded as more art than science, with winemakers still using oak barrel ageing (American, French, Slovenian – you could use these barrels to teach a forestry lesson!) as a kind of spice rack. How primitive! – it’s as if fragrances were still made by milling herbs and flowers, or house paint manufactured by grinding seashells and other pigment into oil.
Fortunately, the flavor industry has come a long way in the last ten years, and has made several important technological advancements toward engineering flexible flavor solutions suitable even for a highly complex flavoring job needed to support winemaking. It is now up to the task of helping the winemaker achieve the desired flavor balance, reducing the reliance on the medieval “natural flavoring” techniques such as barrel ageing. For winemakers, this is an exciting development that opens up new avenues of self-expression, allowing them to create “designer wines” just like the fragrance industry flourished with advent of “designer perfumes.” For consumers, this means getting more varied, interesting and complex wine products at a better price.
What is to be done? – Wine industry, it’s time to lift the archaic taboo against additives and to join the rest of the food industry in reaping the benefits of the flavor revolution. Consumer, don’t be intimidated by the wine snobs swirling their wines and sticking their noses into the glass, and demand that the wine industry take advantage of available flavor technology to create higher quality products at a lower price!
In the second intermission of last Saturday’s Minnesota Opera's production of "Nixon in China," I was so excited that I felt compelled to text-message my friend George: “Just finished Act II - which was nothing short of riveting riveting riveting... was nothing shortof shortof shortof shortof... riveting!”
The minimalist repetitive idiom aside, the production was remarkable at multiple levels. First, its second act is, perhaps, one of the most vivid portrayals of the propaganda phenomenon in theater. Second, I can't think of another minimalist work of art - opera or otherwise - that manages to convey so much emotional depth in a minimalist style… quite an achievement! Third, the singing was top-notch across the board, though soprano Helen Todd (in the role of Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch'ing) takes the cake for the sheer energy and drama of her many politically charged arias. Fourth, the staging… which was anything but minimalist, but thoroughly effective, with black-and-while TV monitors continuously displaying scenes from Nixon’s journey. Overall, this production struck a good balance, I thought, between being genuinely entertaining and falling into the trap of becoming a circus/parody (for which the material clearly provides ample temptation).
Fifth, the music! I am a fan of minimalism in general and John Adams in particular, but I often find it fun (if utterly pointless) to indulge in drawing parallels and looking for (faux) influences in his work. Here is what I’ve been thinking:
What are the “professionals” saying?
For proper reviews of the Minnesota Opera production of Nixon in China, check out the links below (or just search on Google!):
Looking forward to “Doctor Atomic”
This was my first time seeing any of John Adams’s operas live, and I am quite psyched (as are others in the blogosphere) that San Francisco Opera, my hometown company (which is going through some turbulent times right now) is bringing Adams’s “Doctor Atomic” (an opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer) to SFO in the 2005-2006 Season.
A closing thought
My favorite “Nixon in China” quote comes from one of Mao’s arias: "Founders Come First, Then Profiteers." Taken out of its political context and into the realm of business, this surely resonates with the startup entrepreneurs among us (with no disrespect to the corporate types who come to manage and develop the companies we start). …But did Mao really say this? – I have no idea; and even if he did, he wasn’t the first. A casual Internet search points to the following version of this quote by Charles PEguy (1873–1914) who wrote, in the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair: "Everything, everything, starts with a mystique and ends in politics. The founders come first and then come the profiteers." Well put indeed.