Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Grounded: A New Opera


In this time of war in Ukraine and in Israel comes the October 28, 2023, world premiere of Jeanine Tesori and George Brant’s opera Grounded, a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera and the Washington National Opera. Based on George Brant’s single-character play by the same name running just several minutes over one hour, the opera as produced by WNO at the Kennedy Center Opera House expands into a two-and-a-half-hour runtime with a twenty-five-minute intermission. The story concerns Jess, a female fighter pilot during the Iraq war who becomes pregnant and gets grounded. When she returns to duty eight years later, she is placed in what she calls Chair Force of the Drone. Her job is to operate a drone to kill enemy combatants on the other side of the world after her team locates them by satellite. This she does from a chair inside a trailer located in Las Vegas.


The Dresser attended the opening night and, in the first scenes of the opera before intermission, felt enthusiastically impressed by the varied and accessible music, clever libretto, the talented singers, and the impressive sets. What followed intermission was uncomfortably long, somewhat repetitious, and dramatically flat.


Funded in part by the military contractor General Dynamics, the production features a sizeable orchestra, a chorus of 27, 11 supernumeraries, a cast of eleven singers with five of the eleven either debuting or representing the Cafritz Young Artist Program in minor roles. The set, divided horizontally with a steeply raked stage on the top, initially seemed to the Dresser to be a video when, in fact, live singers were on that upper stage in swirling video imagery representing clouds and what one might see if flying in an aircraft. The stage below eerily projected that underneath experience that news junkies following the situation in Gaza with its miles of Hamas tunnels might have. As the opera unfolds, we learn that often grounding locations situated on the bottom half of the stage—Jess’s home and office headquarters—are claustrophobic places for Jess who wants to be airborne in her jet. As the story progresses and Jess spirals downward mentally, she (mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo) sings counterpoint from her home on the lower stage against her double’s dissonant response (soprano Teresa Perrotta) on the upper stage.


The Dresser highlights the resources in Grounded because many contemporary opera premieres have limited financial resources and therefore small numbers of musicians and performers and less grand staging. While a fuss was made in New York (specifically documented in The New York Times May 2, 2023) about WNO having General Dynamics as a sponsor and WNO made some attempt on its website to tell prospective ticket buyers that none of its sponsors had any creative input, WNO general director Timothy O’Leary in opening night remarks made sure to thank General Dynamics without further qualifying remarks. This background has gravitas because of a problem with how this story is presented. War manifests as a champion’s game and not so much as a life-or-death struggle affecting all humankind.


We are told that the protagonist Jess is an exceptional F-16 pilot in the United States Air Force, both as a warrior and the only female flyer in her squadron. The Dresser has no recollection of Jess’s actual heroism in her F-16 days and once she is assigned to the drone squad, her vulnerability shifts from body to mind. She becomes paranoid in a shopping mall and hyper aware that she and her child are being watched. Her job is boring and colors things gray. So gray that this woman who is now the mother of an eight-year-old daughter crashes the drone that she (Jess) is assigned to use in killing a high-profile enemy. Why? She sees a young female approaching the enemy target and thinks that female is her own daughter. For the sabotage of a $17 million machine, Jess is court marshalled and put in prison. She has failed in her job as a serial killer by killing her weapon.


Memorable are Emily D’Angelo as Jess singing “All for the Blue” about her love of flying and tenor Joseph Dennis (Eric, the rancher Jess falls in love with) singing “I Didn’t See You Coming.” The language in these songs is fresh and fun, providing a lift from the ordinary. Jess extols my ride, my tiger, my blue. Eric soars emotionally by feeling the sky in you. In between these songs we hear about fate foolers, war winners, fate cheaters. Eric also sings about the wind in a song that feels like it is going to knock open the door of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plain. After all, Jeanine Tesori earned her chops as a composer for such Broadway musicals as Caroline, or Change (2003) and more recently Kimberly Akimbo (2021).


The WNO production runs through November 13, 2023. The Metropolitan Opera production of Grounded is scheduled for 2025. The Dresser expects changes will be made for the Met production and that the Washington premier directed by Michael Mayer serves a test run.



Friday, October 13, 2023

Diving into the Rapture that is Starfall in the Temple

Starfall in the Temple
from Blue Light Press by Prartho Sereno is a masterful poetry collection offering both gravitas and levity. The Dresser sees this as a work of a generous teacher and wise elder. It could be the poetry that saves your life or sanity. It could be the poetry that makes you happy for being in this chaotic world.




The underwater tug we call ebb tide

the seaweed knows as longing


The lilac we’ve deemed common

is known to the bee as Rapture of the Deep


These clouds we’ve named cumulus

the sky praises as bread


The ones we’ve come to know as raven

appear to the moon as flickers of grief


What we call wind in the tule grass

is known to the earth as the happiness

too delicate to name


“Table of Correspondences,” the prologue poem, sets the tone for our human needs and feelings in counterbalance with what happens in nature and the cosmos. Things aren’t always as they present. Rapture of the  Deep, which can happen to divers breathing in gases under elevated pressure and may alter their judgment, offers a metaphoric warning that what (e.g., stimulants like drugs, alcohol, the beauty of nature)  may make us happy may also have other consequences.


Starfall is a collection set with 75 pages of poetry divided into three unnamed sections. Section I introduces the reader to the narrator, her spirituality (Buddhism), and the cosmos as interpreted by scientists of our time (e.g., Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawkings) and others, such as her grandson and classic film star Charlie Chaplin. The poem “Negative Capability” occurs in this section instilling the notion that artists can find beauty and deal with imperfection in the face of challenging situations. In this excerpt, Sereno discloses how one painter was coping with the devastating Paradise fire:




It’s fire season in California and I’m on the downtown.

library lawn thinking about 80-mile-an-hour winds.

I’m thinking about the traffic jam out of Paradise

and the artist who lost everything, but learned,

she said, to paint with her eyes.


Could we call this ability to paint with the eyes a Rapture of the Deep? Perhaps.


Section II emphasizes the call to movement. It begins with reference to the Sanskrit mantra Charaiveti which means keep going. Chanting this mantra is reportedly how Gautama Buddha ended his sermons. The reference to this mantra appears in “Seafarers,” the first poem of Section II. The Dresser is immensely impressed by the artfulness of this poem.




We come to love the heron

for his artful tucking-in of tribulations,

the morning cloud for her coolheaded

midwifery of the sun.


We are grateful for the way the sea

goes gray in tune with the sky.

Nothing more asked of us

neither from above nor below.


For the way the ship moves

like a sage through the narrows,

its engines grinding: Charaiveti, charaiveti…

Keep going, its only song.


We see it briefly now—we never were

the passenger. Nor are we the ship.

Only this flux and flow, a conjuring

the oscillation of sunlight on sea.


As a poem set on the sea, it embodies Rapture of the Deep. Also, the heron of this poem whose “artful tucking-in of tribulations” is a stand-in for the artist experiencing Negative Capability.


Section III features what is or was after movement stops—Bardo (the in between  state of existence—death versus rebirth) as well as grief and personal reckoning. The last poem of the collection “The Temple Master Takes His Leave,” puts the narrator in touch with her late spiritual master through a series of koan like stanzas. The last image is of her dropping pebbles into a bottomless well.
























Need the Dresser say this is another instance of Rapture of the Deep and this time it’s bound with a comic touch by ending with the onomatopoeic word plunk.


Prartho Sereno provides so much to love in this volume. She is good at painting pictures as well as singing into the ear:




Tell me it ain’t monumental; tell me it’s just accidental:

          rapture, capture

                   womb and tomb

                             ease and trees, trees and breeze

try, cry, lie, die…

          all the notes on the road to why.


If the Rapture of the Deep of Starfall in the Temple alters one’s perception of the world but also gets that person through to another state of existence and a different way to cope, let’s surrender and fall into this deep current that bodes well being.

Monday, October 9, 2023

Alceste: A Stormy Marriage of Opposites

The InSeries of Washington, DC, opened the 2023-2024 season with their updated version of the Euripides play Alceste as translated by British poet Ted Hughes, with additional texts by Sylvia Plath and Sybil Roberts, and supported by the music of George Frederic Handel. The Dresser saw the October 7, 2023, performance at the Gala Hispanic Theatre.


A tragicomedy, this InSeries embellished play with music emphasizes the voice of a woman (Alceste) who commits suicide to ensure a longer life for her husband Admetos. Admetos was offered a longer life by the god Apollo but only if someone else agrees to die in Admetos’ place. Admetos, who is known as a generous host, is paid an unexpected visit by the god Hercules, a half brother of Apollo. However, the visit by Hercules comes as Admetos is burying Alceste. Hercules, unaware of Alceste’s death, gets drunk and acts out, but soon hears from the angry servants about the queen’s death. Deeply mortified, Hercules wrests Alceste from Death and restores her to Admetos.


This production of Alceste has a cast of two real-life wife and husband actors Michelle Rogers (Alceste) and KenYatta Rogers (Admetos) and five singers: soprano Maribeth Diggle (Hercules) and chorus: soprano Dawna Rae Warren, mezzo soprano Janna Critz, English tenor Oliver Mercer, baritone Rob McGinness. The singing which includes portamento, a languorous sliding between notes, is delivered satisfyingly in keeping with the grief of this story. Rob McGinness’ baritone performance is a standout. The nine-piece orchestra (organ, harpsichord, 2-3 violin and 1 viola, 2 cellos and 2 oboes) is led by Timothy Nelson on organ.


The overall impression of this production is a stormy marriage of opposites. The centerpiece of this struggle is Hercules, who is the fulcrum for all the polarities. He manifests this as a drunken houseguest who contrasts with the grieving King. He is at the epitome of bad behavior as he literally gets under the skin of an angry servant, done as a dance where he twins himself to the male servant by standing behind the man threading his (Hercules’) arms into the other’s tunic. Maribeth Diggle does an exceptionally good job at making this character an over-the-top force. Hercules is also the only character who both speaks and sings his lines. He is the actor who turns the story from tragedy to comedy. The Dresser surmises that Artistic Director Timothy Nelson cast this role with a woman to emphasize the youth of Hercules.


The InSeries production added text to amplify Alceste’s role as a female and to change the perception that Alceste was just a pawn in this story and to elevate her station as Queen to King Admetos. Admittedly, when the Dresser heard the following lines from Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus” being spoken by Alceste, she (the Dresser) instantly was jolted out of the Euripides play Alceste into the real-life story of Plath’s suicide and the role her philandering husband Ted Hughes.


Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

 from "Lady Lazarus" by Sylvia Plath

Because the InSeries is known for bringing surprising contemporary perspectives to its productions, the insertion of poetic lines from Sylvia Plath made sense. The production runtime was two hours and that felt overly long by at least 30 minutes. The end had other text insertions by Sybil Roberts that probably could have been shortened. The beginning of the work also seemed slow and the Dresser wonders if something could have been done to jazz or blues-ify the music. Nonetheless, the Dresser was glad to have seen this production with its use of intriguing masks, accomplished singers and musicians, and compelling intertwined stories.

The next InSeries production running November 17 through December 17, 2023, is The Promised End, a theater piece conceived by Timothy Nelson that combines Verdi’s Requiem, Shakespeare’s King Lear, and texts by Marjorie Garber.


Photo credit: Bayou Elom