Tuesday, May 14, 2024

The Warrior's Return—Ulysses Versus American Vietnam Vets






The Return of Ulysses—Song of My Father, a Drama through Music by Claudio Monteverdi combines the mythological story of Ulysses coming home from the Trojan War to his faithful wife Penelope with the contemporary and nonspecific tale of damaged American men coming home from Vietnam to unappreciative civilians. Running May 11 through 27, 2024 this creatively updated opera is produced by InSeries under the artistic direction of  Timothy Nelson. On May 12, 2024, the Dresser experienced this  two-and-half-hour production at Washington, DC’s Source Theater.


To achieve the contemporary ambiance of the Vietnam War, song elements (mostly recognized as text) from such songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs were woven through Monteverdi’s Baroque music. Dancers sometimes appearing as four-legged scrabbling “sculptures” (a term used by choreographer Jitti Chompee) with balloon heads provided an abstract and nightmarish landscape to the main character who was both Ulysses and a homeless vet sleeping in the street. Poetry of the contemporary writer Ocean Vuong (offspring of a Vietnamese mother and American soldier), is featured in this production, including  his poem “Telemachus” in the voice of the grownup son of  Ulysses who meets his father for the first time:


Telemachus [excerpt]

   By Ocean Vuong


Like any good son, I pull my father out

of the water, drag him by his hair


through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail

the waves rush in to erase. Because the city

beyond the shore is no longer

where we left it. Because the bombed


cathedral is now a cathedral

of trees. I kneel beside him to see how far

I might sink. Do you know who I am,

Ba? But the answer never comes. The answer

is the bullet hole in his back, brimming

with seawater. He is so still I think


he could be anyone’s father, found

the way a green bottle might appear at

a boy's feet containing a year

he has never touched…



While the Dresser greatly admires the writings of Ocean Vuong and sees the relevance of including his work, the question remains as to whether his work could be heard and appreciated in the context of this production.



What the Dresser liked best about this production was Monteverdi’s music played by INnovãtiõ Baroque Orchestra (they use period instruments like harpsichord, viola da gamba, and theorbo) under the baton of Timothy Nelson, the performances of the singers especially the bass baritone Kevin Short, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Mondragon (as Penelope), tenor Oliver Mercer, male soprano Elijah McCormack (as Telemaco), tenor Derek Chester (as Ulysses), and the oddly costumed ballooned headed dancers and their antics. Singers,  except the named characters, play multiple roles from Penelope’s suitors to the off-stage voices of the colorfully costumed gods portrayed by the dancers. Sometimes the singers sang off-stage behind the crowded orchestra pit, causing a level of unnecessary confusion.


The program was divided into two parts. Part I was too long and hard to follow. Part II was shorter and stayed focused on the mythological story of Ulysses’ return. The video projections on multiple screens added nothing to the Dresser’s understanding of the storyline. Staging was minimal and included what looked like a vintage dinette set of table and chairs from the 1950’s.


May 31 through June 2, 2024, this production moves to Baltimore Theatre Project.



Photos by Bayou Elom



Saturday, May 4, 2024

Opera Lafayette’s Merriment of the Comedic Muse

Some opera productions, like the total eclipse of the sun seen recently in the United States, happen so quickly that the operagoer must be primed in advance and have the absolute foresight to buy tickets. Les Fêtes de Thalie by composer Jean-Joseph Mouret and librettist Joseph de La Font in a spectacular modern premier by Opera Lafayette as conducted by Christophe Rousset and directed by Catherine Turocy thoroughly captivated the Dresser when she experienced the opening night performance May 3, 2024, at Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The production continues in DC on May 4th and then moves to New York’s El Museo del Barrio for a final performance May 7.



Everything about this opera ballet pleased the Dresser. The Baroque music was at times vigorous, saucy, and sweet to the ear. The singers are extraordinary talents both for their abilities to perform the demands of Mouret’s compositions, to create characters that enchant the audience, and to play multiple roles. The eight dancers were remarkable for their muscular strength, grace, and often surprising flourishes that included foot stamping. Kudos to the creative team that balanced these remarkable talents to achieve a satisfying whole.


The costumes by Marie Anne Chiment flowered into bloom like an exotic garden, particularly eye-catching were those worn by the foot stamping Kalanidhi dancers. The punkish attire, including a rainbow of hair color and black, laced-up storm trooper boots, worn by Thalie, Muse of Comedy, provided loud counterpoint to the flowing purple gown worn regally by Melpomène, the Muse of Tragedy.











The story opens and closes on an argument between sassy Thalie (soprano Paulina Francisco) and melodramatic diva Melpomène (dramatic soprano Angel Azzara) concerning what an audience will like better: tragedy or comedy. Apollo (bass-baritone Jonathan Woody) is asked to settle the dispute and resolves that the two Graces take turns starting with a comedy.


The first offering entitled “La Fille” (The Girl) involves a sea captain (baritone Jean Bernard Cerin) who wants to marry the young woman Léonore (Paulina Francisco). But Léonore wants to be free to sing and dance. The sea captain hopes her mother (tenor Patrick Kilbride) will help him win the daughter’s hand. The catch is for ten years, the mother has not seen her husband and so, when Léonore refuses, the mother offers herself. This is made funnier by the mother being acted by a  man with a rotund belly and, yes, Kilbride did a great job in this female role.
















“La Veuve Coquette” (The Coquettish Widow) involves Isabel, a woman (soprano Pascale Beaudin) who is pursued by two seemingly desirable men—the wealthy financier Chrisogon (John Taylor Ward and the military man Léandre (Scott Brunscheen). Isabel, dressed in riding gear which possibly suggests she is a Dominatrix, sloughs off the advice of her friend Doris (Angel Azzara) who encourages picking one or other. The rich man woos her with an elaborate dance which she is eager to see but, in the end, she tells both suitors no. The centerpiece of this tragedy is the dance.




“La Femme” (The Wife) is a comedy about Dorante (Scott Brunscheen), a man  who woos a masked woman though he has a beautiful and sexually appealing wife (Pascale Beaudin). Unmasked, the woman turns out to be Dorante’s wife Caliste which is taken cheerfully in stride by the married couple. At this time, Thalie, the muse of comedy, breaks into the scene as the audience claps and declares herself the winner—that comedy wins over tragedy according to the audience’s appreciation.


The final scene entitled “La Critique” (The Criticism) pits Thalie as librettist against Polyhymnia, the muse of Music and therefore the composer, and Terpsichore, the Muse of Dance and therefore the choreographer. She calls for mediation by Apollo, who sends a substitute. While Thalie may have won over the audience to comedy (versus tragedy), she must contend with the judgement of Momus, God of Mockery and otherwise known as the critic. With an extra kick of comedic irony Patrick Kilbride gleefully takes that role and knocks down her pride by saying he was glad he didn’t write the libretti for her comedies. However, this scene is not a tragedy, Momus assures all the muses that everyone deserves appreciation and that all should “laugh, sing, and dance” which is exactly how the Dresser felt leaving this well-orchestrated and fun-filled performance.



Photos: Jennifer Packard

Friday, April 19, 2024

Diana Tokaji’s Flight out of Mad Gravel


To a full house in the Bethesda, Maryland Writer’s Center Reading Room on April 17, 2024, Diana Tokaji explored through dance, poetry, and music how to fly despite obstacles. The  Dresser noted that the obstacles included a tremor in her hands, vocal issues, and the loss of a dance partner through A.I.D.S. What shone through was an indomitable  spirit with the ability to literally move her audience in a very well thought out  and engaging program.


Twelve pieces divided in three sections comprised Mad Gravel & Other Life Stories, an hour-long program. “Limping Dance with Ripe Persimmon”  provided an upfront confession of onset disabilities though not all, like limping and stuttering were personal disabilities. Using a colorful flowing scarf, the dancer demonstrated her ability to flow and move gracefully though there are moments like limping and shaking that interrupt.


Her introduction to “In the Hut” revealed to the audience that the repetitious poetry of this piece was detrimental to her voice, so she was going to cut it from the program. However, people around her raised a clamor, so she enlisted her Artistic Assistant Margaret Riddle to recite the poetry  while sitting on a stool as she, the dancer, stood behind and used her arms to sculpt the dance.


The next several pieces brought birds and trees into view. She asked the audience to picture themselves as a tree and to tell a nearby seatmate what tree. Then she asked everyone who was able to stand up, to cross their limbs with their seatmates, to sway and to feel the sun shining on them. She said (and maybe this was part of a poem) “these woods are improv.” Whether this was a particularly sympathetic audience or her ability to engage is just that powerful, most people in the room readily complied, including the Dresser who has a deep-seated love of trees.


The second section dealt with the importance of “small moments,” a “Loss of Words,” and what activities were still negotiable—“Are You Still XYZ?” The XYZ potently refers to dance (among other things)—Are you still dancing? The answer comes in a video within a video. Tokaji is shown dancing with both her dance partners: Linda Ellis Rawlings who is in the main video with Tokaji and Daryl Lloyd who is in a projected video behind them. Lloyd is the partner who died of A.I.D.S.


The last section gets the audience involved again as she asks everyone to consider what they would bring in a small boat as part of her presentation of “Poem of Trust. Poem of Fearless.”  Then she presented a taste of her dance opera Mad Gravel and her poem “Post-Assault Prescription When I Fear My Spirit Dying.”  This is the poem which was published by Washington, DC’s Split This Rock poetry festival and which was dedicated to Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, the poem profoundly looks at what the dancer is capable of  as she strives for justice that may never be achieved:



Post-Assault Prescription When I Fear My Spirit Dying [excerpt]

Here in the mud
of my history
beneath the rage
is counsel.

Where grace
expands like the air
under a bird’s wings
all day it seems,


to take the air
and ride it
is grace.

being lifted
by air
is grace.

I seek grace now
as my rage deepens
to hate.

As I see my own dreams –
the day ones
the night –

and witness my capacity
to do to another
real harm.

I return to silence
I am not saying
it is easy.

I return to silence
I am not saying
I will be quiet.

I return to silence
I am not saying
I won’t shout my grief
from the rooftops.

Diana Tokaji’s program had many helping hands including Jess Harris, audio Visual Technician, Denaise Seals of Slingshot Video, camera operator Yegide Calhoun, photographer Angelique Raptakis, costume designer Rachel Knudson, and Artistic Assistant Margaret Riddle. Proceeds from this show were donated to Ella’s Gift: Yoga Therapy Scholarship Fund for Women. There will be a video forthcoming from this performance.


Photos by Angelique Raptakis


Friday, March 29, 2024

The Breakables of The Glass Studio


 The heart is the fragile part

            that allows things to break

   from “The Flaw”



                                                     L e t  t h e s e  l I n e s  b e  s t r o n g e r

t h a n  t h o s e  b r o k e n  a t  e v e r y  s u p e r m a r k e t ,

b r o k e n  w i t h  p e o p l e  h o a r d I n g

   from “Cognitive Overload Virtually Invites Disaster — 19”



he broke my mother’s body

                to create something sacred

   from “The Glass Studio: I must go back”



                                                             …as if it were


my body, it broke. But I forgive you for the miracle

of everything you shatter.

   from “Oracle”



                                         not comprehending

                                   what glass stood for: breakable,

                       unbroken, seamless, flat.

   from “Properties of Glass”


The Dresser notes that broken and fragile things are featured in Sandra Yannone’s The Glass Studio, a collection of poetry published in 2024  from the Irish press salmonpoetry. Some of the broken things are massive—New York’s Twin Towers and the people who perished there during the terrorist attack of 9/11, the Titanic ship that hit an iceberg sending its passengers into icy waters, the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where 49 people died and 53 others were injured. While all the poems employ the word glass, over half of the poems in this collection use some version of the word break, including the last poem “The Glass Studio — Glass eyes, glass flowers, glass attics and floors”, which ends “Now go home to your glass house and unpack every glass mirror you forever hoped to break.”


This work is about the fragile proposition of living and finding connection through love. The opening poem “Cut Glass” makes this clear as the “I” narrator, presumably the poet, gives her lover a jar of tap water and sea glass “worn down/by years/of turbulent waves/and rocks.” In a way, this odd gift is like a snow globe meant to be shaken. But unlike the scene of snow falling over an idyllic landscape, this jar when disturbed  floats glass that cuts, has cut the poet marring her once perfect skin.


What is perfectly intact is this intelligent and sensitively arranged work of 36 well-sculpted poems presented in four sections, most prefaced by a quote on glassmaking and each ending with a poem entitled “The Glass Studio.” Variety prevails in terms of poetic forms used but also includes a sestina in every section. Other forms include sonnets, prose poems, quatrains, couplets, tercets, a variety of indented and interleaved poems where alternating lines hug the left and then the right margin.


A less familiar form occurs in “Cognitive Overload Virtually Invites Disaster — 19”, a pandemic lockdown poem where even the letters of the words observe “social distancing.” Toward the end of “Cognitive Overload…”, comes this line: “W I l l  t h I s  p o e m  b e  m y  f I n a l  l o v e r ?” Here this meta poetic question elevates the plight of the poet by superimposing a capital I (to emphasize the first-person point of view) in the words wIll, thIs, and fInal. It is part of the poet’s cognitive overload. Cognitive overload occurs when the brain gets too much information and stops working. Not all the i’s in the poem are capitalized and the Dresser guesses that not every reader will notice the emphasis the poet is placing on the letter I.


Poetry of merit deserves rereading, and, in that rereading, one hopes to discover something new. The Glass Studio is a book to slowdown for, to let its letters, words, forms, and meanings have time to coalesce as the making of a stain glass window might. In other words, Sandra Yannone practices careful craftsmanship in her glass studio.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Of Love and Monsters




The desire to be held looms large in T. De Los Reyes book of poetry And Yet Held. The fruition of that desire comes despite obstacles.


                                     …you looked at me from

across the room in a way that made me feel held.

Oh, how I am but skin fragmented by touch, from

which a little flower blooms amidst all the wreckage.

And, having been found, waits to be kissed.

[excerpt, “Debris”]



                                  …Can you hold me when I am

unbearable and especially then. What I mean when


I say thirst is your eyes drinking me in, telling me

you’ll dig through bones and cinders just to be here,


wherever here is.

[excerpt, “Forest Fire”]



                          …Wasn’t I scared of dying

collision, accidental fires, earthquakes…

I am terror struck by the monster living under

my skin…

And hadn’t you draped your shadow around

my shoulders saying, I will hold you, I will hold

you now and always…

[excerpt, “Umbra”]


And Yet Held is a love story with monsters and some of those monsters like the one named in “Umbra” reside in the narrator. In her seven-part poem “Monsters”, the poet deals with an all devouring and wild love which she compares to possibly a one-night stand that made the narrator feel the shame of racism and not being seen. The wild lover makes the narrator feel equally monstrous in a good way: “I am your/ leviathan among the woods” and unafraid of being seen: “No one can stop me/ from holding your hand,/ not even the demons that/ corrupt their heart.”


In this time where many poets, writers, and ordinary people speak of loneliness and heartbreak, this beautifully produced book with a hand touching flowers on its predominantly blue cover  (Durham, NC: Bull City Press, 2024) explodes with the galactic light of love:


                  …What I love about a ship going

to deep space is the proximity near light

and darkness and the reluctant decay of

days and years. When you kiss me I forget

my name. I forget myself. I recognize only

the skin and bones that house this body.

Permission to disturb the gods in slumber.

Permission to scatter, as if hundreds of fish

in the warm sea, as if an exploding star.
[excerpt, “Near Light”]



T. De Los Reyes, a Filipino poet and designer, is author of Woeman, a poetry chapbook. She has been published in such journals as Crazyhorse, Hobart After Dark, and Pleiades.



Friday, February 9, 2024

Esther: A Double Feature in Justice for Jews


Why does the story of the annihilation of Jews with a happy ending survive over centuries? In this time of rising Antisemitism, the Dresser raises this question after partaking of Opera Lafayette’s 90-minute concert production of Esther on February 8, 2024, at the John F. Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.


What particularly highlights this question is that Opera Lafayette is presenting in this production the work of two baroque composers—Jean-Baptiste Moreau and George Friderick Handel. Handel (1685 –1759), best known for his monumental oratorio The Messiah, was a Christian of German birth. The French born Jean Baptiste Moreau (1656 –1733) was also a Christian who started his life in music as a choirboy, worked in the court of Louis XIV, and contributed original music to the last plays of Jean-Baptiste Racine including Esther.


What the Dresser gleaned from the pre-show talk was that Racine’s play was written for the daughters of impoverished nobility in King Louis XIV’s court. These young girls were being educated by Madame Maintenon, who wished to instill a  level of moral receptivity.


The dual-composers production pleased the Dresser—the baroque music is wonderful. The singers, especially soprano Paulina Francisco as Esther and bass-baritone Jonathan Woody as Haman sang with notable authority. Francisco provided a smooth ease to the ornamentation required by the music for Esther. The musicians playing mostly contemporary instruments (e.g., violins, cello, double bass, oboe, bassoon, trumpet) and some period instruments (e.g., harpsichord and violone) played with noticeable gusto.


May 3 and 4, 2024, Opera Lafayette continues “The Era of Madame de Maintenon” with its fully staged production of Jean-Joseph Mouret’s Les Fêtes de Thalie. Kudos to Opera Lafayette for reviving an obscure opera like Esther which has relevance to contemporary concerns. 



 Portrait by Pierre Mignard, 1694



Monday, February 5, 2024

Sanctuary Road

 On February 4th, 2024, the Dresser attended Virginia Opera’s production of Sanctuary Road by composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell. The Center for the Arts, a George Mason Arts Venue, hosted this production. The story of Sanctuary Road is based on historical texts by William Still, a conductor of the Underground Railroad who aided close to 800 people in escaping slavery. In Still’s memoir The Underground Railroad Records (published 1872) are the stories of the people he helped. Some escape stories like the one of Box Brown, a man who nailed himself into a crate and got the crate mailed to Philadelphia where Blacks were free, were already familiar to the Dresser from other contemporary theater works. Nonetheless, these stories are important for the American public to hear since the racial fallout from the American Civil War, a war to end slavery, continues into the 21st Century.

The original Sanctuary Road was presented at Carnegie Hall in 2018 as an oratorio. This production had the underpinning of oratorio with a large chorus sitting in chairs on stage. The musical harmonies are rich and satisfying—something one would expect from an oratorio. The players, all excellent vocally,  performed in front of the chorus or around them. One through-line story was about a man running from his place of enslavement and thus he is seen running behind and through the chorus at several times during the production. 


The production was well done. The large orchestra conducted by Everett McCorvey never covered the singers’ voices. There were surtitles but the words were enunciated well and were understandable.


Moravec’s pleasing music is tonal and accessible. Surprisingly for the subject matter, Sanctuary Road seems to derive its inspiration from European classical music. No suggestion of spirituals. No gospel. No jazz. And no hint of African rhythms. Moravec, who is white, is a Pulitzer prize-winning composer for his work Tempest Fantasy which was inspired by William Shakespeare.


Sanctuary Road moves to Dominion Energy Center, Richmond, Virginia for two more performances on February 9 & 11, 2024.


Photo by Dave Pearson Photography