Category Archives: Culture

The Washington Concert Opera at 30

Angela Meade, Vivica Genaux, Michele Angelini, Anthony Walker, Javier Arrey and Jonas Hacker at the Washington Concert Opera 30th Anniversary Concert. Photo by Don Lassell.

Angela Meade, Vivica Genaux, Michele Angelini, Antony Walker, Javier Arrey and Jonas Hacker at the Washington Concert Opera 30th Anniversary Concert. Photo by Don Lassell.

               The 30th anniversary concert of the Washington Concert Opera was delightful, from beginning to end. It gave substantial time in the spotlight to a vivid young bel canto tenor, Michele Angelini, and a powerful soprano with a large and enthusiastic following, Angela Meade. Also on the roster for this two-hour program of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini: mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, baritone Javier Arrey and the young tenor Jonas Hacker. The WCO’s music director, Antony Walker, now in his 15th season, conducted.

               Seasons like the current on in Washington make you appreciate the essential niche WCO fills. After a world-class Ring Cycle last year, the Washington National Opera isn’t offering much for serious opera lovers this time around. Its programming reflects the larger trend in the opera world, which increasingly throws its energies into the production of new works rather than the loving revival of rarities. New work is all to the good, but the dwindling of interesting historical repertoire is sad. The future, it seems, may consist of world premieres, plus “Carmen,” “Boheme” and “Traviata.”

               Sunday night’s selections were well chosen. The overture, from Rossini’s “La gazza ladra,” was scrappy but vigorous, and thank heavens it wasn’t the overture from “La forza del destino,” which has become seemingly obligatory at such events. Angelini’s opening aria, “Ah! Mes amis,” with its infamous high C’s was effortless, the high notes light and chirpy, but clear and on pitch and without a hint of strain. Angelini also made a strong case for hearing more of Boieldieu’s “La dame blanche.” I remember discovering it years ago on a recording with Rockwell Blake in the role of Georges, but not much liking the timbre Blake brought to the part. Angelini, however, makes Georges’ aria “Viens, gentille dame” a virtuoso showpiece of legato connections, sung with a comfortable, fluent, supported sound; and his pianissimo reprise of the melody at the end was dramatically spot on. Angelini also sang the single most impressive aria of the evening, “Intesi, ah! tutto intesi” from Rossini’s “Il turco in Italia.” He was thoroughly warmed up, entirely at ease, his coloratura fleet and flawless, and Rossini’s grand superfluity of notes were all perfectly packaged rhythmically and expressively.

               Angela Meade added vocal heft in the Act II Finale from Bellini’s “Il Pirata” and selections from Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia,” including the finale with Angelini as her hapless, horrified son. Meade’s bel canto is a different order of singing, weightier, vocally rounder, and more dependent on the later 19th century vocal thrills (floated top notes, sudden changes in dynamics, and the occasional display of oceanic force) than the coloratura bravura of Rossini. I found her strongest in the concluding scene from “Lucrezia Borgia,” perhaps because she created more of a sense of character, and tailored her singing, both musically and dramatically, to the presence of Angelini (and his performance in this scene was also one of his best moments of the evening, adding a greater sense of his full portfolio of stage skills).

               Vivica Genaux sang an impressive aria from Rossini’s “Maometto II” (“Non temer: d’un basso affetto”), with low tones that remind one of the particularly masculine, slightly nasal sound of Marilyn Horne in Rossini pants roles. Genaux was strongest in another duet from “Lucrezia Borgia,” again with Angelini.

                The discovery of the evening was the young tenor Jonas Hacker, currently studying in Philadelphia. Hacker sang the tenor line of the beloved male duet from Bizet’s “Les pecheurs de perles” with Arrey taking the baritone part. This is a chestnut, but was included on a bel canto program because it was sung at the first WCO performance of the Bizet opera in 1987. Hacker has an attractive voice, a steady technique and a flair for the simple elegant line. He began with an expository, narrative approach, and the duet unfolded as effective story telling rather than mere melodic indulgence. It was a short introduction to a young singer, but one that inspires hope of great things.


Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Music, Opera, Uncategorized

Do we need it?

800px-District_of_Columbia_War_MemorialThat is the common question behind two recent pieces I wrote for The Washington Post. Do we need a national World War One memorial, and do we need a new stadium for the offensively named NFL team, the Washington Redskins? In an age of environmental crisis and grave economic inequality, it is the most basic and fundamental question architects should consider. There will always be a valid argument for building things that are simply beautiful and inspiring, and have no other purpose than to channel emotions and bring delight. But today, the bar is much higher for building things that don’t directly serve a need, that don’t improve lives and contribute to the sustainability of the man-made environment.

As I argue here, Washington is already full of World War One memorials, as is the rest of the country. Bringing the “forgotten war” into what one supporter of the new memorial calls the “modern practice of war memorialization” simply isn’t necessary. Let’s not forget the merits of the way we “remembered” things a century ago, and above all, let’s be skeptical about the very idea of national memory:

We use such words as memory and memorial and remembrance too casually. Of course, no one “remembers” the First World War anymore, at least not in the visceral, personal sense of those who lived through it. And there is no such thing as a collective memory of anything. Rather, there is rhetoric, history and mythology, which memorials attempt to fix in some kind of permanent form, beyond emendation or contradiction. At a local level, this effort to forge a historical sense of events is to some degree constrained by actual memory, by the memory of survivors, and by children and grandchildren. At the national level, it devolves into a meaningless language of heroism, valor and sacrifice, often in service to a larger and menacing nationalism.

The commission designated to organize and build the new memorial estimates the cost to be between $21 and $25 million dollars. That is negligible compared to the cost of a new football stadium. Price-tag estimates for recent NFL stadiums run in the $1.3 to $1.6 billion range. So rebuilding stadiums every 20 years is an obscene waste of resources–especially when franchise owners squeeze much of that money from municipalities. So what does one make of a seemingly progressive architecture firm that decides to take on an NFL team as a client? I am deeply skeptical.

Architects aren’t saints. They serve power, and always have. And BIG has served some shady patrons in the past. Different firms negotiate the ethical challenges of serving the corrupt and cruel differently. Some see themselves as merely providers of a technical service and don’t claim any particular ethical high ground. Too many overestimate their own powers, and they assuage any concerns about the client with the moral fable that someone has to build the building, so better that it be built right.

People become impassioned about memorials, which offer a rare but powerful opportunity for everyone to think about the connection between design and cultural politics. But let me gauge my dislike of these two different cases of unnecessary building. I think it’s a mistake to create a new national memorial to World War One; but I think it’s an outrage that we tolerate the egregious upward wealth redistribution, moral obliviousness and environmental destruction baked into every billion-dollar NFL stadium project.

Images: The Washington D.C. memorial to World War One, By 350z33 at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Leave a comment

Filed under Architecture, Culture, Memorials, Uncategorized

BIG transforms the National Building Museum

NBM Interior_Great HallI was skeptical of some of what the Smithsonian proposes to do to its campus near the Castle on the National Mall. Over the fifteen years I’ve lived in Washington, I’ve watched gardens grow along the Mall, and watched how people flock to those gardens. The Mall is good for framing views of the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, and it is an historically and symbolically powerful place to gather and address the seat of national power. But it is an oppressively rationalized landscape, and the emergence of small gardens at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Botanical Garden and the Bartholdi Fountain has begun to humanize the Mall. That’s why I so strongly support the Frank Gehry design for the Eisenhower Memorial, the core of which is another park-like space with a human scale, yet another possible escape from the barren reaches of the Mall. And that’s why I’m skeptical of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) design unveiled by the Smithsonian last November. It would disrupt this trend toward smaller, secluded and contemplative spaces along the Mall for something more connected, “vibrant,” and open.

But the exhibition designed by BIG that opened at the National Building Museum on Saturday offers encouraging insight into the firm’s thinking. For the first time, an installation has been designed that actually engages with the monumental architecture of the Pension Building. And it also makes a strong case for the intellectual seriousness and adaptability of the firm’s design process. I recommend it highly in tomorrow’s Washington Post. And I feel a little better about how the Smithsonian project may turn out.

1 Comment

Filed under Architecture, Culture, Exhibitions, Museums, Uncategorized

Staging the Self

I don’t like the phrase, and perhaps that’s incidental to the several pleasures of a small but rewarding new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. “Staging the Self” focuses on six Latino artists who are all representing a sense of themselves, through painting or photography, often heavily dependent on a cast of characters from their past, their family or their community. Art Speak is full of well-worn cliches, and the sense that theater, or staging, or theatricality somehow makes things more complicated, more multivalent, more substantial is one of them. It’s fairly simple, isn’t it? To the extent that we have an identity, it is sum of many parts, drawn from our past, our friends (through imitation) and enemies (through repulsion), and of course heavily dependent on our many shifting loyalties to ethnic, religious, sexual and gender subgroups. That’s all.

But don’t think that sorting through all of this, or even “staging” it through art, is going to get you any closer to knowing who you are. At the end of my review I quote James Agee, who understands the frustration well:

…and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

1 Comment

Filed under Art, Culture, Uncategorized

From the Style blog

A lot more of what I write these days is shorter, and appearing on the Washington Post’s Style blog. Here’s a sampling from last week.

It was good news indeed to learn that the city of Washington will let art collector and entrepreneur Dani Levinas use the vacant Franklin School as a kunsthalle, to be known as the Institute for Contemporary Expression.

This little bit of contemporary expression, a statue of near-naked man on the campus of Wellesley College, sparked some thoughts about the gender norms we place on older men.

To accompany a review of the American Cool exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, I published a transcript of some of the conversation I had with the curators, who explained how they determined who was in, and who was not.

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman made me wonder about the might-have-beens, especially all the ways in which he might have influenced writers inspired by his talent.

And I turned to the subject of dogs twice: Considering the fate of what may be an American combat dog held hostage in Afghanistan, and all those puppies George Clooney saves in the execrable abomination of movie The Monuments Men. Which, by the way, I really hated.

I also had a nice chat with Mark Yoffe, head of the Counterculture Archives at George Washington University, about Sochi Olympics protest art. 

Finally, more good news: Natural Bridge in Virginia, beloved of Jefferson and painted by Frederic Edwin Church, will become a state park. Now let’s hope they don’t charge admission.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture

Mies Julie at the Shakespeare Theatre

                Yael Farber’s Mies Julie is a hard but worthwhile night in the theater. Based on Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Farber’s rewrite tracks the original fairly closely, diverging in two fundamental ways: It is set in South Africa nearly two decades after the end of apartheid, and the character of Jean (or “John” in Farber’s adaptation) is more of a victim than a trickster and thus more sympathetic than the manipulative servant in Strindberg’s play. The update is often brutal and difficult to watch, but it honors its inspiration by refreshing the social context in which the thwarted love affair between the privileged Julie and the socially ambitious Jean takes place. And yet at times history overwhelms the basic trajectory of the earlier play: The violence and dead-end cultural dysfunction of contemporary South Africa becomes the subject of the drama, more than the interaction of the two characters. John and Julie are reduced to puppets in a larger narrative of hopelessness and despair.

                    Translating the drama into South African terms also makes it difficult for Farber to negotiate the occasional lyrical interludes in the Strindberg text. At the end, with everything having turned horribly bloody and sad, Julie tries to jump to the lyric plane. The effect is operatic, in a bad way. Poetry can’t be woven into this world, which is too harsh and too honest accommodate a final aria.

                And yet it’s powerful drama, and it makes one take the Strindberg more seriously. Few productions of Miss Julie will hit you as hard as Mies Julie.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Theater

Vernacular Urbanism?

     Vernacular, in an academic or art-speak context, is a word worthy of healthy suspicion. It is used to designate populist styles, to suggest a common language that bubbles up from below rather than a discourse dictated from on high. It’s generally freighted with ideas about authenticity: vernacular styles are authentically of the people, while hierarchical or received styles are illegitimate impositions from cultural authorities. A vernacular urban design is way cool, kind of anarchic, funky, eclectic and free; as opposed to older ideas that are associated with disreputable forms of cultural or social authority. Here’s a classic usage in the catalog to a great new show (originally from the Getty in Los Angeles) at the National Building Museum:

 [Reyner] Banham upended this old-world notion of what defined true urbanity, arguing for Los Angeles’s inclusion within the canon of great cities by virtue of its democratic brand of urbanism, which rejected orthodox urban hierarchies in favor of a sprawling vernacular landscape that upheld the values of an affluent consumer society…”

 It’s worth stopping every time you see the word and asking yourself: Is the thing that is supposedly vernacular really functioning like a language? Is there a real give and take of communication? I tried to do that in my review of the fascinating and ambitious “Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future 1940-1990” exhibition. Thus:

 Calling the sprawl of cheap suburban cookie-cutter houses and trashy commercial signage a “new vernacular” misuses the term vernacular, suggesting that this was a language involving genuine back-and-forth communication. It wasn’t a language at all, or even an architectural style; rather, it was a jumble of commercially dictated architectural styles aimed at gaining and holding consumer attention. Mostly people adapted to it. If they now embrace it, it’s because it feels familiar and they have few other options.

That’s no reason not to see the show. But better to give L.A. it’s due as a great city despite its failures of urbanism, rather than attempt to elevate sprawl to something like an admirable, democratic vernacular. Ugly is ugly, and environmentally unsound, too.

1 Comment

Filed under Architecture, Culture, Exhibitions, Museums, Preservation, urban design