Show Thoughts: Der Fliegende Höllander at Houston Grand Opera

It’s been years since I saw an opera live. I’ve listened to many recordings, and watched a few video recordings, but I haven’t seen one live.

A lot of factors coincided for me to finally get back. First, I’ve never listened to or seen this particular work. Second, I committed (with mixed success) to having a new artistic experience every week. Finally, HGO is returning to the Wortham Theatre Center for the first time since hurricane Harvey flooded the area.

So I decided to go out and see if opera holds up after immersing myself in musicals for a few years.

The experience of going to the opera has always been one of particular grandeur. Especially opening night, when the excitement of a high-end social function adds on to one of the most luxurious artistic experiences. Stereotypically, at least.

It’s a little different when you’re up in the back. The back of the balcony has always been the place for those who are more interested in seeing than in being seen. There are lots of stories of the great composers sitting up in the back watching the masterworks of the previous generation.

A quick sidebar, the opening night of an opera (Salome by Richard Strauss) is how Alex Ross chose to start his book “The Rest is Noise” which is an incredible overview of the course of 20th century western art music.

So guess where I was sitting. I was two rows in front of the back wall, all the way in the top. So far up that I joked on Instagram about renting opera glasses. It was a fun experience though. I hope to do try it again soon.

Let’s get to the opera now!

A quick summary of the plot of Der Fliegende Höllander:

Act 1 occurs on a ship in the sea. Daland, the Norwegian captain and crew despair of surviving the storm, but it finally clears up and they rest. They leave the helmsman to watch, and as he dozes off he sees a ghostly ship with red sails. The captain of this ship, the Dutchman, comes aboard and in a soliloquy to the audience explains that he is only allowed on shore for one day every seven years due to a curse.

When Daland greets him, the ghostly Dutchman asks for hospitality and offers uncounted riches in exchange for marrying his daughter. Blinded by greed, Daland heartily agrees and excitedly takes the treasure away.

In Act 2, we find the wives and female relatives of the sailors working away in a factory. To pass the time, they sing songs to themselves. The Daland’s daughter, Senta, sings about the plight of the legendary Flying Dutchman and how much she adores him from afar. When news that the ship has returned, the women run to see their men.

Senta’s lover, Erik, confronts her, begging her to be careful. He had a dream that her father came home with a mysterious stranger and she left with him. Senta listens with great interest, and when her father shows up with the Dutchman, she is even more excited as he is the man of her dreams. She eagerly agrees to marry him.

In the third act, the sailors and women are celebrating their return. They invite the Dutchman’s crew to join them, but the crew replies with a terrifying, ghostly moan that sends everyone fleeing in fear.

Erik confronts Senta, and when she pushes him away, he pulls her in and kisses her, just as the Dutchman comes to find her. He accuses her of unfaithfulness and bitterly makes to leave. To prove her faithfulness even unto death, Senta throws herself from the top of the wall and frees the Dutchman from his curse. The final moments show them reunited in paradise.

The story is pretty compelling, really. Just reading there, it sounds like a solid, interesting plot. But it also sounds like about 45 minutes worth of dialogue. The show ran about 2.5 hours, with constant music and three long scenes.

This means that things are a little slow at times. For example, the Dutchman’s first aria runs nearly ten minutes of exposition. It consisted almost entirely of the Dutchman wandering around the stage. The portion of Act 3 where the sailors invite the dutchman’s crew takes somewhat longer than expected too, though it has some amazing musical moments.

I have two other quibbles with this work. Then I’ll talk about the fantastic moments.

One is an issue with the text of the work. It does an excellent job of setting up all the elements of the story, but it doesn’t quite solve its own problems. My biggest frustration was that Senta never addressed her fascination with the Dutchman, and he never questions how eager she is to marry him. There would be some interesting conversational material, if the work took the time. Perhaps an idea for someone else to revisit?

My other complaint was the proportions of the stage. It’s an odd one, but it has annoyed me for awhile. In large theatres, the proportions of the stage usually reflect the size of the hall. That is, they are usually large and deep. It’s architecturally satisfying, but leads to odd proportions onstage. Living rooms become cavernous halls, walls are extended up into infinity, or (in this case) ship decks become a massive open space. It just seems incongruous to me.

I should point out that that last point is not just a problem with opera stagings. It happens with musicals and plays too. I started on a tangent, but that will be a different article later.

Let’s finish this thing off with a few superlatives. Melody Moore, who played Senta, was phenomenal, performing high her high notes with ease and great character. She had a few low notes that were warm and rich enough that I initially though the role was for a mezzo-soprano. Her performance of Senta’s ballad about the Dutchman was fantastic.

Andrzej Dobber, who played the Dutchman, was fine. He had a rather thankless entrance, with great presence undermined by a rather plodding aria. It felt longer than it probably was, but the staging didn’t help much. In the later acts he was much more engaging, and his presence was absolutely intimidating and arresting.

But of course, with my choral background, I was drawn to the choral writing. Performed by the Houston Grand Opera Chorus, every moment of ensemble singing was incredible. All three acts feature the chorus at times, and the balance and color throughout was awe-inspiring. It almost matched the orchestra color (every time the horns came in with the Dutchman theme, I got a shudder).

Overall, an excellent experience and I highly recommend it. From the very back of the balcony, you can’t quite see the last moments, but the rest works quite well. Hope to see a show from down front some day, but for now I’ll enjoy the music from somewhere.

Show Thoughts: Urinetown at Shenandoah Conservatory

I’m in the middle of a wonderful trip to northern Virginia to visit Shenandoah Conservatory. I’m considering applying to their degree for a Masters of Music in Musical Theatre Conducting.

During this trip, I’m going to observe classes at the conservatory, but in the meantime I had the chance to see their first musical of the season: Urinetown.

Urinetown is one of that class of shows that was a bit of a cult favorite a decade ago, then kind of dropped off. This is the first production I’ve even heard of since I saw it in high school. I’m sure that it gets produced regularly, but it’s not on the level of, say, Hairspray or Avenue Q, both of which came out at a similar time.

As usual when I discuss shows, I’m going to spend most of my time on the material, and comment briefly on the production briefly at the end.

The Story of Urinetown

I remember reading a preface to a published version of the script to this show when I was in high school. The creators stated that the show was inspired initially by a trend in Europe of pay-per-use toilets in public locations. The creators encountered this and decided to take it to its logical conclusion.

In Urinetown: The Musical (as opposed to Urinetown the place, which is “full of symbolism and things like that”), the plot is pretty straightforward.

A nasty drought has been going on for 20 years, and water is in very short supply. The Urine Good Company (UGC), under the leadership of Caldwell B. Cladwell, has contracted with the government to regulate water consumption by charging people every time they need to use the toilet.

And, before you ask, the creators address both questions that immediately arise: first, it is made illegal to eliminate waste anywhere other than in a public facility. Violation of this law leads to exile to the much mythologized “Urinetown” of the title.

Unfortunately, Cladwell is massively corrupt and uses the regulation as a cover for increasing his own personal fortune and rewards the politicians who support him with big payoffs. When he pushes through a new rate hike, the locals revolt, under the leadership of Bobby Strong, an assistant custodian at Public Amenity #9.

Bobby leads the people in kidnapping Cladwell’s daughter Hope for leverage, and demanding that people be allowed to pee for free all the time. Cladwell tries to pay off Bobby, and when rebuffed, sends him to Urinetown (which turns out to simply be tossing him off the roof of the building).

Rather than giving up, Hope (who was in love with Bobby, of course, as he’s the hero of the show) takes charge of the rebellion. She and the rebels storm the UGC headquarters, send Cladwell off to Urinetown, and open the water to everyone.

Unfortunately, Hope is ignoring the obvious issue. Corrupt as her father was, the water did need to be regulated. In a rather tidy epilogue, we are told that the water dried up, Hope was likewise disposed of, and the suffering continued.

The Script

Despite the dark subject matter, Urinetown is a comedy. It’s a hilariously self aware show that begins with “Welcome to Urinetown—not the place, of course, the musical!” and ends with a chorus of “That was our show!”

In between are

  • commentary on the fact that the concept is massively oversimplified

  • references to other musicals (mostly in the score and staging, which comes later)

  • meta commentary on how dark the show is and how it’s structured (“Nothing can ruin a show like too much exposition.”)

  • a ton of puns on Hope

  • continual conflating of the metaphorical heart with the actual biological organ

and more.

It’s the kind of script that does a lot of the work for the actors. As with a Gilbert and Sullivan script, it works best when delivered deadpan with appropriate pauses for laughter. This makes it a challenge, because good actors want to bring something to the role. With comedy, though, my taste runs toward deadpan and dry humor, which this show has in spades.

The primary thrust of the show is about economics of scarcity. The last spoken line of the show is “Hail Malthus” a reference to economist Thomas Malthus. Malthus’s primary contribution to economics is a theory of extreme scarcity, which is explored quite well on his Wikipedia page.

But there’s another layer that I find particularly interesting in light of current cultural trends.

Listen to Understand, Not to Reply

The show sets up a very weird dichotomy for the audience. On the one hand, we’re clearly supposed to root for the rebels and for Bobby Strong. They get all the good tunes, the more distinct characterizations, and we’re naturally disposed to root against authoritarian regimes.

On the other hand, Cladwell isn’t entirely in the wrong. Of course he’s massively corrupt and kind of a jerk. But, as the epilogue points out, he’s the only one who has the power or the will to regulate water consumption so what little is left can be preserved.

It sets up a tension between

  • the guys we like but are short sighted (Bobby and the rebels who have our heart)

  • the guys who are infuriating but have the right idea. (Cladwell and the company, who have our brain, if we give it more than a cursory consideration)

To get the full effect of the show, we have to be able to differentiate between style and substance. This is important in our relationships with people.

Bobby and the rebels repeat catchy soundbites like “Pee for free,” but they don’t think beyond that. Cladwell speaks reason, but it’s mixed with his own personal evil. The problem isn’t the rules. The problem is the person who can and will manipulate the rules for his own gain. Neither side has the right idea, but they’re not listening to each other.

The second message of this show is to pay attention carefully. Before you fight everything your opponent stands against, make sure you don’t agree on something. Don’t oppose a good idea simply because the other side likes it. It’s not about vindictiveness, it’s about what’s best for everyone.

The Score

Urinetown sounds like nothing else. The orchestra is a piano-driven ensemble of five or so players, featuring brass and woodwinds. There are no section strings, just a bass. The singing style is essentially standard musical theatre, with some extreme ranges and a lot of stylistic pastiche.

Most of the songs are your standard “book” songs, meaning they advance the plot. They are paired up with lyrics of varying degrees of cheesiness, from the tight rhymes of the title song to the comically forced metaphors of “Don’t be the Bunny” and “Follow Your Heart”

Act 2 is more musically interesting than Act 1. Much of this comes from the run of three songs right at the start of the act. These three are a microcosm of musical reference, but pretty cleverly disguised. (The production I saw highlighted these references with choreography references to the original shows).

The first song, “What is Urinetown?” is a klezmer-infected tune, with some overt references to the Fiddler on the Roof score. The choreography of this production referenced the wedding dances, but the music is more remniscent of the song “To Life” based on my quick glance back at the original cast recording of the latter.

The next song is “Snuff that Girl.” This one is a clear parody of “Cool” from West Side Story. Complete with the dance break explosions from individual singers and the hi hat solo. This choreographer cleverly included a number of moves from the Jerome Robbins choreography to West Side Story

The final number in this sequence is “Run, Freedom, Run” which I have been told is intended to parody “Gonna Build a Mountain” from the musical Stop the World—I Want to Get Off. A cursory listen to the latter makes a strong case, but there are enough differences between the two that I wouldn’t immediately connect them.

Outside of those three numbers, the rest of Act 2 feels a little rushed, but the music stays tonally consistent. In fact, nearly ever number is in a minor key, which lends some unity to the zany plot.

My favorite element of this show, from a director’s perspective, is that it seems quite rewarding for the ensemble. There are only a few numbers that don’t feature them, and they do get significant roles in most of the songs. It’s a crowd musical, with a small handful of leads, a few featured roles, and a lot of stage time for the ensemble.

The Production

I was excited to see what this show would look (and more importantly, sound) like. As I mentioned at the beginning, I am considering applying to Shenandoah Conservatory for a master’s degree, so it was a chance to see the kind of work they put out.

Overall, I was quite impressed with the cast. This is not an easy show to sing, or to characterize. The characters are caricatures, but need at least a little humanity. The ranges are pretty extreme, but I felt the voices were well-suited to the demands of the roles. The weak spots were few and far between, and they mostly happened in the most likely places (high belts, or low notes for high voices). The singing tone was lovely, though. In a few places words weren’t totally clear (mostly in faster songs).

The staging was effective and clever, using a simple two story set with a staircase, and some moving walls to quickly transition between locations. The curtain was only used at the end of both acts, with everything else happening in view of the audience. Even the pre-show involved the actors interacting with the audience (mostly begging for coins).

The acting was one of my biggest surprises. It was effective, but overdramatic for my taste. As I said earlier, this script is quite funny in its own right, and it doesn’t need more exaggeration for effect. Some of the bits (e.g., the way Hope reacted every single time someone said her name, or the homonym) were funny and highlighted the humor. But there were more than a few physical bits that I felt distracted from the script in the interest of a visual gag.

The other annoyance to me was the balance of microphones. On the positive side, I felt the overall level was perfect. Everything was clear without being overwhelming, and I was in the back half of the theater. However, there were a few hiccups where microphones didn’t come on at the entrance. Many times the background vocals were too loud, which made it hard to follow the lead vocals. I would have liked to see some subtle boosting of the lead, and softening the ensemble.

Overall, though, it was a wonderful performance. I am glad I got to see this thought provoking and hilarious show in a high-quality production. My congratulations to all of the actors, musicians, technicians, and the creative team.

Busy Few Days

Thanks to my faithful reader for reminding me that I’ve been lax in posting on here. It’s been a busy few days and I’m still recovering. I’m not sure I can coherently reflect on what’s going on in my life. I feel like I’m still running ahead of things, and I will finally have some recovery time this week and weekend.

In the meantime, here’s what’s going on:

  • Last weekend I saw “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” at Fourth Wall Theatre Company. There was a lot to reflect on, and I hope to do so more at length soon. My main impressions: an incredibly compelling show and an excellent cast and production. I highly recommend it.

  • My students performed a concert last night, which was well-received. I’m glad to have a first performance behind us, and a second one coming soon. We sing at the football game next weekend, and then we have been invited to Men’s Choir Festival at Sam Houston State University in a few weeks.

  • I’m preparing for a trip to visit one of my options for graduate school. That will be next weekend, after the football game performance.

  • Teaching is going well. My students are progressing as expected, and even ahead of my schedule.

  • I’m continuing to practice piano and prepare for my graduate auditions. I’m also assisting a friend with his college voice lessons. I’m generally trying to do more

I thought I would get less busy when my last show ended! But between this and a social life, I feel barely able to stay on top of things. I already feel sleepy.

Seriously, though, I intend to get back to writing somewhat regularly around here very soon.

Post-Show Thoughts

Its’ been a bit since I posted. Part of that excuse is the busy schedule of a show, plus a full time job. But now that Seven Brides for Seven Brothers has closed, I have time to reflect.

Looking Back

It’s been a fairly crazy (for me) summer. I had an ill-fated trip to the Grand Canyon, a micro-vacation to Austin, and an eventful, extensive rehearsal process for a musical.

The last one was of course the biggest part of my schedule. Rehearsals 4 days per week left little time for anything else in the evenings. The show was a massive success, selling out more than half of our 10 performances. I’ll update the show page soon with pictures and more info.

Toward the end of the summer, I made it a goal to have one new artistic experience every week. Previous sights included trips to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Island ETC in Galveston, and my first show at The MATCH.

Of course I also inaugurated this blog. Now that the show has closed, I have time to stop and think and reevaluate.

Looking Forward

For the first time in nearly three years, I don’t have a show coming up. It’s still taking a time to settle in.

I’ve been music director and/or pianist for 12 shows since fall of 2015. In that time, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge and experience on how to work with singers, directors, musicians, and the challenges of a musical theatre score.

I still have a lot of room to grow, and I’m looking forward to trying that now that I have a little time to focus myself. I want to do more score study, more piano practice, and more observing of other musicians.

I’m back in piano lessons, and after a recent exciting day as an organ substitute, I’m thinking of getting back in to organ lessons as well. I also recently came into possession of an accordion, so that may be in my future too.

I’m looking at attending graduate school if I find a program that I like and that will let me in. Doing some campus visits this fall, and applying. I will know by March or April of next year.

In the meantime, I have a choir to direct and I’m seeing another show this week. I made recordings of my playing piano so I can do some self assessment. I just bought a new score. The Woodlands Chamber Music Project is going to pick up. I’m reading more and exploring more.

So look forward to seeing new posts here!

Coming Together

Somewhere early in Act 1 of Chay Yew's play "Porcelain", the young man at the center of the plot tells his psychiatrist "We're not so different."

John is a young, gay, Chinese man. He is addressing an older, straight, white man. And his point is that he has been made to feel like an outsider because of those differences. This is especially true in early 1990s London, where the play takes place. He cries out for empathy and for understanding, but because he's human he struggles to make himself vulnerable.

I saw the production by Caduceus Theater Arts Company last night, and this scene struck me as a clear message in the show. There were several other scenes that returned to this topic. Near the end of Act 1 John complains about being either ignored or fetishized for being Asian in a world of white men. Or when a TV interviewee pushes back against the reporter's attempts to paint gay men as perverts, unacceptable in society.

It's an incredibly intense show. This intimate production was physically exhausting to watch (and I was actually shaking at times). I encourage anyone who has a chance to see it. But consider it rated R for its intense portrayal of sexuality and violence, and for a lot of swearing. 

We're All Human

One topic that is on my mind a lot these days is empathy. Empathy is the ability to not just understand, but identify with the situation another is in. It is difficult to do, but it's very important in being able to relate to others.

In this day and age, we look for categories. We look for ways to find people we are similar to, and to be away from people who are different from us. We categorize ourselves as "us" and "them". These divisions, whether they be sexual, racial, or political, allow us to feel good about ourselves and judge others.

The problem comes when we decide that not only are we better than "them", but that something about them is fundamentally wrong. It's easy to slide from "I don't like you" to "You are worthless". This slide isn't obvious. But when we use dehumanizing language, when we compare people to animals (pig, dog, or monkey are common), when we describe people in terms of their traits (impugning someone's weight, race, or sexual orientation), we minimize them. They're no longer human.

When someone is no longer human, they are no longer deserving of respect. And when respect goes, so does the ability to talk to each other. And when we can't talk, we can't agree. And when we can't agree, society collapses. It's every man for himself.

How do we develop empathy? We can only do it by observing others and seeing how they are similar to us. Theater gives us a unique insight into people in a way other media doesn't.

Art as a Teacher

Seeing shows like Porcelain, experiencing the trials and pains of someone like John Lee, helps to build empathy. Yes, he's gay, Chinese, and young. Yes, we may be none of those things. But when he describes feeling lonely, we know what loneliness feels like. We share in that. We can share his anger, his pain at being rejected by the man he loves.

And when we are stuck in a room with him, we are forced to confront those emotions along with him. We don't have a barrier to protect us. When he tries not to cry, we have to hold back tears. When he curls up in the arms of his lover, we can both understand his joy and see the visible discomfort in the other man's body language.

This is a strength of theater that's unique. Television has time constraints that prevent it from getting too deep (though it can develop character arcs over the long term of a season or series, if it's not cancelled). Movies often have to have mass appeal, and the sense of scale is a different kind of distancing mechanism.

In a live theater, you have a real, life-size human in the same room experiencing feelings in real time. A good actor or a good play confronts you in a way you can't avoid. A powerfully projected emotion cuts through the facade and the distance that we'd like to create. There's just no denying a man breaking down crying in front of you. Or a woman raging against the injustice just done to her. He is just a man. She is just a woman. No more, no less. Just like us.

In short, what I'm saying is that good theater helps build empathy. And empathy is sorely needed in this day and age. More on that in a future post.

For other empathy building media, check out Queer Eye on Netflix.