Archive for March, 2011

Apollo’s Girl

March 31, 2011


New Victory Rules

Even at the Crossroads of the World you know the building is special the minute you see it—those imposing staircases, the 19th-century iron lamps, the ornate brick facade speaking of a time before the flashing chaos of Times Square today; before the neighborhood was all decay and neglect; even all the way back to when it was built as an icon of turn-of-the-century glamour and grandeur when Times Square was new. In fact, there is simply nothing like the New Victory Theater; unique to the theater district and demanding to be experienced to the full.

Not only does it put on a season overflowing with plays, musicals, circuses and entertainments, but the excellence and variety of its shows keeps you coming back to see what’s next. And here’s the best part: somehow, though nominally a “children’s theater” (and the kids love it), it has managed, consistently, to choose material that appeals to even the most sophisticated adults. (Trust me–I’m one of them.)

More, it has a distinctly international flavor. Consider some of this year’s prizes: Puss in Boots , a collaboration directed by Moisés Kaufman (of 33 Variations and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, on Broadway); Skellig (from the Birmingham Stage Company, based on David Almond‘s novel and his imagination); and Cymbeline (from the Fiasco Theater) whose review by Ben Brantley in the New York Times (January 17, 2011) alone is worth reading out loud.

Unlike most of the theaters in New York, the New Victory has had an ingenious full-time plan since it was saved from the wrecker’s ball by the New 42nd Street Corporation: busy stages all year, outreach to local schools, workshops for stagecraft and theater business for kids and teens, and attitude. You feel it as soon as you encounter the smart young ushers all in black, with little headsets and very big smiles. Downstairs, there’s a bar with edible edibles and a shop with stuff to read, wear, and carry. It’s all about the stage, and all about fun. For more about this season, summer workshops, and the 2011-12 schedule:

Although it’s been modernized, the New Victory has a fabled past. Built as the Republic in 1900 by Oscar Hammerstein (grandfather of the lyricist), it was the first playhouse on the block, but evolved into a burlesque house where Gypsy Rose Lee plied her trade and her tassels during the Great Depression. Renamed The Victory during World War II, it screened first-run movies, then slid into squalor as a porn palace while Times Square crumbled around it. But never underestimate the power of development: the theater’s current incarnation is the cornerstone of the New 42nd Street—born in 1990 to a partnership of the city and the state—which has turned grunge into new megaplexes and skyscrapers with the real estate alchemy of 21st-century gold.

During the pause in the before-and-after of this transformation there was Crowbar, a creation of Anne Hamburger and en garde arts, though Hamburger’s Wikipedia bio barely mentions the company she founded, nor the pioneering site-specific work she, and it, did. When the New Victory was empty, waiting like Sleeping Beauty to be revived and polished, Anne Hamburger and en garde arts put on their show—and it was magic!

With only bare bulbs for light and a vacant space for set, there were actors on the stage, in the audience, and standing in the boxes, wearing bits and pieces of period garb, reading their lines and singing as they moved around, bringing to life snapshots of the history of the derelict space – from its original incarnation as the Republic, through its brief re-creation as the Belasco by the showman himself, and on to its role as a burlesque grind house and blue movie haven. The new New Victory was yet to come, but Anne Hamburger made its past an unforgettable prologue.

Then, as the theater was being readied for its current place in the world, en garde arts disappeared forever, while Anne Hamburger surfaced as an Executive vice-President of Disney Creative Entertainment. More recently, she has set up her own production company, which lists a series of interesting entertainments-to-come on its Web site. Note to the New Victory management: you’ve got the space, and Annie’s back in town. How about a revival of Crowbar?


March 31, 2011

Elizabeth Llewellyn: A New Star to Watch

by Mel Cooper

I originally went along to the ENO’s recent revival of La Bohème because it was Jonathan Miller’s production. I came out in a state of bliss not just because it was terrific and intelligent and because of the way it had been rethought; not just because of the wonderful ensemble work from the whole cast and all the musicians in the pit; but because I had heard a voice that astonished me and spoke to me in the same way it must have been for audiences who were hearing Callas or Leontyne Price for the first time, decades ago.

The Mimi for this revival was an amazing soprano, Elizabeth Llewellyn, and it was literally her first time in a major role on a professional opera stage. The moment she walked onto that stage I was captivated by her sheer presence; when she began to sing she revealed a voice with all the richness and layers of musical interpretation and dramatic intensity that you could ever wish for, a voice of polished bronze with miraculous colours and glints, a voice that simply made me want to go on and on listening to her. Gwyn Hugh Jones was a strong partner for her, and conductor Stephen Lord shaped what was just a very fine evening in every way–the friend I was with, a tough man who had never seen La Bohème before, was actually crying at the end. But for me the deal-maker was Elizabeth Llewellyn. I just cannot get enough of her. I want to hear her do more Puccini. I want to hear her in Strauss. I want to hear her in major Verdi.

She seems to me to be a true star in the ascendant – a beautiful, totally committed and convincing actress with a strong stage presence and, of course, above all wih a unique and compelling voice of astonishing musicality and richness.

I discovered afterwards that Llewellyn has had a tough time in her life; an illness made her give up singing for several years and she had to find a career in the business world. It is now, only three years since joining an amateur music society, that she has begun to sing again. People have taken notice and encouraged her to return to professional musicianship. See our conversation: Llewellyn interview

You may have gathered by now that I was simply overwhelmed by the same kind of discovery I experienced the first time I heard Marilyn Horne or Jessye Norman or Kiri Te Kanawa or Pavarotti or Domingo live. Whatever it is that makes an outstanding actress, singer and performer, Elizabeth Llewellyn has it. And how! Llewellyn will be giving her first London recital, at 7:30 pm on April 9 at St. John’s Smith Square in London. Come, hear her in a program of operatic jewels, and discover her for yourself (scroll down for program details).Llewellyn recital

Cogito: John Branch

March 13, 2011




Opera and Technology Find a New Stage

One of my favorite words is periaktoi, a term for three-sided scene-setting devices used in the ancient Greek theater. That goes to show that the history of performance technology goes back nearly as far as the history of performance itself does. And for some of us, it’s nearly as interesting. Common expressions such as “limelight” and “stealing my thunder” originated in stage technology; Ingmar Bergman’s film of Mozart’s Magic Flute is still intriguing in part because it employs 18th-century stage machinery (painstakingly copied in a studio from devices still in use at Stockholm’s Drottningholm Palace Theater, according to DVD notes), which now looks to us both archaic and ingenious. Current experiments in performance technology, such as plays of Shakespeare rendered in the online virtual world called Second Life, raise many questions about what’s possible and what’s desirable. One can’t help wondering what kind of performance it will be in which none of the participants have the age-old sense of shared presence in a single physical space.

Meanwhile, technology’s restless march also invites us to wonder about virtual consciousness and what it means to be human. Many of us are already cyborgs in a limited sense; as someone pointed out in the 90s, anyone with a pacemaker is part machine. We may soon go way beyond that: a concept much discussed among technophiles, called The Singularity, may make possible (as proponent Ray Kurzweil has put it) “immortal software-based humans.” Artificial intelligence, artificial life, and artificial consciousness aren’t new ideas. Still, the forefront of human ability now seems closer to—or less far away from—developing them than it did in the medieval era, with its legend of the Golem, or the early industrial era, with its clockwork automata and calculating machines.

So this is a good time for the appearance of Death and the Powers, a new opera composed by Tod Machover to a libretto by Robert Pinsky, which manages to touch on some of these questions of performance and consciousness while remaining mostly grounded in the ancient, familiar, and comfortable realm in which human performers appear in front of human spectators.

The gist of the story: A wealthy businessman and technical genius named Simon Powers, grappling with mortality, finds a way to cheat death—he transfers his personality into a computerized invention that he calls simply “The System.” Simon himself must now find new ways to deal with those he left behind—his wife, for instance, whom he can no longer touch in the accustomed ways. And because he is still of the world, while no longer living in it, he also still faces the demands of the world. The production faces Its own demands, too: how to represent Simon once he has entered The System.

The answer can be found in an approach developed by Machover and his collaborators that he calls Disembodied Performance. Once Simon (played by singer James Maddalena) enters The System, Maddalena remains offstage; his presence is rendered onstage by his processed voice, as well as by patterns of light, sound, and movement in the walls of the set and in a musical chandelier. These developments, and the opera as a whole, should surprise no one who recognizes Machover’s name from his work at the MIT Media Lab and on his own. But this may be the most elaborate playground he’s been able to create in some time, since the work also includes a chorus of OperaBots—yes, it really is a chorus (they have voices), and they really are robots, though not autonomous ones, since they’re controlled by a swarm of offstage technicians.

As for how Simon Powers deals with his issues, we will have to see the work to find out. Death and the Powers was first performed at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo last September. It will open at Boston’s American Repertory Theater (ART) on March 18, and at Chicago Opera Theater (COT) on April 2. The stage director for all three productions is the estimable Diane Paulus of ART, known for directing the recent Broadway revival of Hair. In operatic terms these are all the same production—same creative team, lead performers, and settings—but there may be differences, just as there was bound to be a difference between Simon Powers in the flesh and in The System.

In the future, we may be able to witness performances by just climbing into a pod in our house, and never have to actually go anywhere. But for now, there’s nothing to replace being there, in the auditorium, as the house lights go down. Those unable to attend can glean much from the Opera of the Future blog (at Since before last year’s premiere, it’s been the home of a substantial information campaign that’s a model of its kind, including ample video excerpts, interviews and transcripts, and review summaries with links to the originals. Not what you usually find for an opera, even a new one, but this use of modern Internet technology (not possible 15 or 20 years ago) fits the piece.

While we’re on this technological theme, I must mention two upcoming programs presented by the Juilliard Music Technology Center under the collective title Beyond the Machine 2011, which are not only easier to get to for those of us in New York, but also free. There will be two performances of a “technologized… multi-dimensional” approach to Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat in Juilliard’s Willson Theater on March 24 and 25 at 8pm.

On March 26 (at 8pm) and March 27 (at 3pm), also in Willson Theater, a second programan advanced collaboration between Juilliard and the Streaming Museum—will lift the lid on the possible with We Write This to You from the Distant Future, and Sebastian Currier’s Nightmaze, a work for actor, orchestra, and video.To get a better dea of not only the two programs, but some of the cutting-edge surround (a pre-show exhibition of new media artworks and much, much more), arm yourself with the details of what’s in store at Beyond the MachineI mentioned that the performances are free, so you know that reservations are strongly recommended.                        John Branch on Facebook / John Branch on Twitter

Apollo’s Girl

March 7, 2011

NYC Ballet: Commissioning, Fingers Crossed

 Timing is everything in life, and a few years ago I got lucky on a trip to Seattle in time to tour the university’s art gallery (unlocked for the purpose) just before its Santiago Calatrava exhibition was taken down. There were big photographs of his work on the walls, and—in a truly brilliant curatorial coup for a venue with a very modest budget—large, beautifully executed models in white paper of Calatravan projects completed and to-come. In an even more brilliant coup, some of the models had been placed on top of the rough wooden packing crates in which they were shipped, putting them at eye level. There was nothing to do but fall in love, right then and there. 

Because you have to see his work for yourself, and little of it has been completed in New York (his downtown transportation hub has been postponed and painfully scaled back, and the Metropolitan Museum’s 2006 Calatrava show was too small to give a sense of what he’s accomplished elsewhere in the world), we could be thankful to the New York City Ballet for commissioning five new works, all with décor by Calatrava.  

On paper, it was an inspired idea. On stage, only two of the ballets, by Benjamin Millepied and Peter Martins, used Calatrava’s signature sculptural genius for the sets; two of the others mostly required him to paint large backdrops. Of course the architect can also paint better than most artists. But why waste his talent? Well, Peter Martins had a good idea but, as with most dance commissions, once the choreographer is engaged, (s)he will do as (s)he will.  

So let us pass over three of the five, and remember fondly the two best, and Calatrava’s contribution to them. For Millepied, he created a piece of sculpture against, and through which, the choreography was danced out. With dramatic lighting and costumes in deep, saturated shades of teal, scarlet, and purple, Millepied used the sculpture to advantage, changing its appearance, and making it almost appear to move with the dancers. Yet the set’s simplicity expressed a whiff of classicism that complemented the dancers’ moves.  

The ballet, Why am I not where you are, was a stunner, displaying Millepied’s talent for filling the stage with dancers, each of whom has a different agenda, yet all of whom combine harmoniously in a kind of choreographic counterpoint–reminiscent, in this way, of Jerome Robbins. It is as lush, and seemingly effortless, as the shifting colors and lights that keep its magic alive.  

But it was Peter Martins whose approach truly complemented Calatrava’s imagination, with a 3D, gold metallic frame containing a series of stretched cords, almost like a harp. During the ballet, the large circle broke in half, moved, and tilted towards the audience, traveling in space as the dancers moved under it—displaying Calatrava’s engineering skills as well as his artistry, while permitting Martins’ choreography to take to the air.

Martins had also co-commissed (with the Chicago Symphony and the L.A. Philharmonic) a new Violin Concerto by Esa-Pekka Salonen for his choreography; it was a musical magnet, conducted by the composer, and played by soloist Leila Josefowicz. The ballet, Mirage, proved an equal partner to set and score and remains an example for the future of high-level collaboration.  

Meantime, we can see Mirage again next season, hear Esa-Pekka Salonen at the New York Philharmonic this month, and simply wait, and hope, for Calatrava’s transit hub to soar when it’s finished.


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