Archive for September, 2012

Cooper’s London

September 23, 2012



To the Opera: Older is Better…

To the English National Opera to see their production of the opera Caligula by composer Detlev Glanert. People have been praising the direction by Benedict Andrews and the conducting of the gifted Ryan Wigglesworth; as well as the commitment and dramatic intelligence of the cast. Wow, I thought. Also, I know and am fascinated by the Camus play (which was done in London not that long ago with the compellingly and memorably brilliant Caligula of Michael Sheen); and as for this score, on first hearing I liked a lot of the sonorities of the orchestration. I also think that the second half does lift the work. If you accept all the givens of this idiom and this approach to contemporary opera writing, then you have to admire the whole. A fascinating old Emperor in modern clothes!

However, I find that despite whipping myself about it, I just cannot accept it. My spirit balks. My mind goes numb. For me the vocal lines seem to be doing nothing much, so why not just have the play with incidental music? What I find myself wanting to know is when this kind of academically correct music writing (that used to get aspiring composing students an A+ at Princeton or Yale in the 1970s) is actually going to be perceived as a dead end with no actual dramatic heft, not much room for any individuality of voice (everything sounds like a rip-off of late Berg without the lyricism), and minimal ability to communicate with the general audience? Or to carry the emotional weight of a story? 

I modestly submit, on the other hand, that there is an infallible antidote: early opera.  And If you’re interested in early opera (how could you not be?) or curious about how it all got started, come and join me at the Cadogan Hall in London from 9 – 11 October and enjoy total immersion for three days. We’ve got lectures; we’ve got live demonstrations by the Royal Northern College of Music’s top students; and Master Classes by soprano Lynne Dawson (who sang at Princess Diana’s funeral) and Professor Stefan Janski, who heads the college in Manchester. 

You will meet the performers and the professors! You will learn not only how to stage an opera by Monteverdi or Cavalli, but how Lully cunningly took opera to France and developed the French style! You will find out everything you ever wanted to know about early opera’s ambassadors to history―the Castrati! And you will  discover how this fabulous art form took flight just over four hundred years ago and why its pleasures remain so seductive today.

Until the advent of the cinema, Opera was the the most popular art form in Western culture and a central artistic and social experience–the common denominator that united Aristocrat and Everyman. For a unique and intimate experience shared with insiders: join us

Fearless Predictions

September 11, 2012

Eye On the Arts, September 19—23
A 30th Anniversary Tribute to FIFA,
The Montreal International Festival of Films on Art

We all knew that when the Film Society of Lincoln Center added three screens, things would really heat up on 65th Street. And now, finally, for those who love the best films on the arts, there is a new partnership to give thanks for coming to the Elinor Bunin Munroe Center.

A glance at the ten films on view will whet your appetite. Be on the lookout for Revolutions of the Night: The Enigma of Henry Darger (a portrait of the ultimate outsider); The Stein Family: the Making of Modern Art (a portrait of the ultimate insiders who defined the 20th century); Produced by George Martin (the legendary mastermind who recorded Flanders and Swann; Beyond the Fringe, and put the Beatles on record and permanently on the world stage); for dance fanatics, a double bill: Jiří Kylián: Forgotten Memories, and At the Edge of the Scene. And for those who missed last month’s LatinBeat, there are two extra chances to catch the brilliant Unfinished Spaces on a big screen. And much more. Many of the filmmakers will attend, so check for updates, and get your tickets now at film societythe theatres are intimate.


Gotham Chamber Opera

This season promises to offer an outstanding—and particularly gutsy—trio of old and new works. It begins with Gotham @ LPR: Orientale, a mixture of Monteverdi, Rameau, Lully,Szymanowski, Delibes, Schumann, Bizet, Hadfield and traditional Armenian music. Hear a baroque instrumental ensemble; MAYA (flute-harp-percussion); a fluid mix of theorbo, guitar, chalumeau and recorder; the Gotham Chamber Opera; the kind of singers Gotham is famous for, and—as an extra treat—see the dancers of Company XIV. October 1 and 2 at Le Poisson Rouge. Doors open at 7pm. For tickets (again, purchase online as soon as you can):, or call (22) 505-3474.

In the spring you can look forward to Francesco Cavalli’s 1668 Eliogabalo, based on the life ofthe Roman emperor notorious for his sexual appetites, his appointment of an all-female senate, and his assassination. The cast includes Susannah Biller (so fetching as Fortuna in last season’s Il Sogno di Scipione), and will be staged by James Marvel in what has been described as an unrated production.” The opening night Gala (March 15 at 7:30) will be followed by five performances, all at The Box, 189 Chrystie Street. Tickets on sale as of October 1 at, (212) 279-4200.

Finally, you can enjoy the ravishing La Hija De Rappaccini (Rappaccini’s Daughter),by composer Daniel Catàn and librettist Octavio Paz. directed by Rebecca Taichman, whose work on Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters was a highlight of Gotham’s 2011 season. We are promised a site-specific performance “under the stars in a New York garden.” I can’t think of a better setting for Catàn’s lush and dreamy score. Information: gotham                   —AG

Cogito: John Branch

September 8, 2012


Between Two Worlds:
Alif the Unseen

G. Willow Wilson’s first novel is a fabulously complex piece of work. It tells a tale steeped in magic, in which wonders are worked as much by fanciful human technology as by a host of jinn from Islamic mythology. Its plot relies on the discovery of a presumably fictional book written in Arabic, called Alf Yeom wa Yeom (the Thousand and One Days), but that’s a book that an actual French Orientalist claimed to have read and translated in the late 17th century, and his translation—if it wasn’t his invention—still exists. The novel seems to be an adventure fantasy, but it’s so well grounded in the real that in some ways it anticipated the Egyptian revolution. (Wilson delivered the manuscript to her publisher just before protests began in Tahrir Square, in February 2011.) Though it’s hard to describe, it’s easy and just plain fun to read.

At the center of its dizzying mix is a young hacker in an unnamed, present-day Persian Gulf emirate. He doesn’t like his given name and is known to everyone by his online handle of Alif. Though the author labels him a “hacktivist” in a short introductory note, at first his aims aren’t moral or political but merely commercial. He’s a gray hat, selling online concealment and other defenses to whomever is willing to pay: “a coterie of bloggers, pornographers, Islamists, and activists from Palestine to Pakistan.” Alif is against censorship, but he’s not really for anything.

So he resembles Rick, the bar owner played by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: like Rick, the uncommitted Alif needs to find some courage. It’ll help if a woman is involved, of course, and in Alif’s case there are three. Intisar is the upper-class woman he loves at the outset, who soon breaks up with him but gives him a parting gift. Dina is an Egyptian and his childhood friend, who lives next door and has taken the veil. And then there’s a woman referred to only as “the convert,” an American student who has adopted Islam and is something of an expert in ancient books.

The bad guy is a state security figure that the gray hats have nicknamed the Hand of God. The Hand hijacks a highly capable program Alif had written, which works almost magically well without Alif’s understanding why, and traces it to our hero. Alif is soon on the run, accompanied by Dina.

The tale has already been more elaborate than I’ve let on. The first chapter, numbered zero in the manner of computer coding, is set in Persia long ago and depicts the writing of that book called the Alf Yeom. It’s dictated under duress by a jinn who has been caught in a spell, and the old man who has summoned the creature translates it into Arabic as he writes it down.

Now, Alif finds that the gift Intisar has just sent him through Dina is that same book. He doesn’t know what it is or why Intisar bestowed it on him. (Eventually he decides it encodes a kind of knowledge that he can use in a program.) He and Dina need protection while he figures things out. They seek it from someone known as Vikram the Vampire, whom they think is merely a “black-market thug.” They find he has yellow eyes and very peculiar legs; Alif is perplexed, but Dina realizes right away Vikram is a jinn. (He proves to be mercenary but good-hearted, like Signor Ferrari, Sydney Greenstreet’s character in Casablanca.)

As should be clear by now, the dimensions of Alif the Unseen are political, cultural, and technological, but also theological and fantastic. Wilson’s story abounds in oppositions, some of which end up being united. Among the oppositions: life online versus life on the streets, aliases and nicknames versus real names, the veiled versus the open, the natural or “real” world versus the supernatural, the seen versus the unseen. Much of the book is devoted to depicting a realm that’s ordinarily unseen by humans and that’s populated by jinn, marids, sila, and the like. Though these are figures in Scheherazade’s tales in the Thousand and One Nights, jinn (apparently the broad term for them all) are named in the Koran, as Dina pointedly tells Alif. Like angels, they’re imaginary unless you take the word of your holy book that they’re real. Wilson’s perspective isn’t either-or but both-and: the jinn are both figures from fable and real.

That dual perspective probably comes from Wilson’s life. Born in the West and raised by atheist parents, she converted to Islam (just as one of her characters did) and now divides her time between Egypt and America: two worlds. She has written journalism, a memoir, a graphic novel, and comics. She doesn’t mention any of this in her introduction. But she does make clear that in this novel she wished to address three audiences she has kept separate: geeks, literary-political types, and Muslims.

It’s hard to decide how to take some of the details, such as those involving computers. An ordinary desktop simply isn’t going to overheat, melt, and catch fire when it’s asked to work too hard—it’ll either plod ahead or balk. However, if it’s running a program that’s part magic, there’s no telling what it might do, and that shift into the fantastic left me uneasy.

How to take the novel as a whole is another tricky question. In my view, it ends too well, and the characters we favor fare too well, for Alif the Unseen to be taken entirely seriously. And yet the novel isn’t entirely fanciful. Much of the setting, characters, action, and themes tie the book to contemporary, observable reality.

Graham Greene originally classified some of his fictional works as “entertainments,” feeling they weren’t serious enough to be called genuine novels. He later relabeled them, deciding they were just a different kind of novel. G. Willow Wilson’s first work of fiction is akin to Greene’s entertainments: it’s a fantastic tale that’s also a serious-minded novel.

[A longer version of this review has been posted at Goodreads]
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