Archive for the Author blog Category

Rigoletto May Not Be for Everyone

Friday, March 16th, 2018 | Permalink

What entertains opera audiences today is the same as it was in 19th century Italy or 18th century Austria. The orchestration and vocalizations in, say, Lucia di Lammermoor or Don Giovanni are as thrilling now as the evenings of their first performances.

What differs is in the plotting. Born out of the cultural mores and sensibilities of their times, the plot lines of these operas contain dramatic conventions and holes in motivation that are unacceptable and/or offensive to modern audiences. A current of this occurs in the Minnesota Opera’s new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s classic, Rigoletto (March 17, 22, 24-25, 27, 29, 31, 2018).

This disjunction in values is nowhere more pronounced than in the Duke of Mantua’s beautiful aria in the third act, the famous “La donna é mobile.” As sung by the opera’s philandering authority figure, the song is more a projection of male vanity than a pronouncement on female fickleness. And while the duets between Rigoletto and his daughter, Gilda, are tender and heart-felt, his characterization of her as an innocent angel under his (unwanted) fatherly protection confines her to a room only he can enter. Rigoletto’s attitude toward authority figures might be somewhat justified by the ruffian behavior of the duke and his courtiers, but it doesn’t soften the impact of his bitter and calculating hiring of a professional assassin to avenge his honor.

What salvages all of this boorishness, bullying, and backstabbing is the beauty of Verdi’s music. This is where the Opera’s creative team shines. Conductor Michael Christie’s orchestra, leads Olafur Sigurdarson (Rigoletto), Marie-Eve Munger (the ill-fated Gilda), and Joshua Dennis (Duke of Mantua) soar with the music to make the passions that motivate it palpable and believable. The other cast members, particularly those serving in the duke’s retinue and chorus, provide superior sonic and emotional support, as always. The lighting and costume design, especially the colorful masks in Act II, serve its dark actions well, as do the economical if sometimes confounding (doorbell on a courtier’s back?) scenic design.

Some of this disjunction may be attributed to Verdi’s source material. Musical historians claim Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse suffered the same bureaucratic censure that afflicted Verdi’s opus. But regardless of its source or the cultural circumstances surrounding it, Rigoletto’s controversial attitudes towards contractual murder and treatment of women in an age of anti-gun and Me Too movements cannot be denied. As with any work of art, however, final judgment must rest in the eyes and ears of the individual. Attend a performance and decide yourself if beauties of music and style outweigh the affronts imposed by convention and stereotype.

Serious Praise for Dead Man Walking

Saturday, January 27th, 2018 | Permalink

The casual opera-goer (like myself) tends to associate its content with light-hearted fluff, like Mozart’s The Magic Flute or Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, the opera buffa most commonly performed. Even work dealing with more serious subject matter, opera seria, such as Donizetti’s Luchia di Lammermoor or Puccini’s Madame Butterfly distance themselves in terms of space and time from their audiences.

Not so with Dead Man Walking. Right from the start the dress rehearsal of its Twin Cities premiere at the Ordway Theatre grabbed the audience by the throat with its grisly and horrifying reenactment of twin murders and never let up. But its intensity derives not from whether the murderer, John De Rocher, will have justice served upon him, but whether he and his chosen confidante, Sister Helen Prejean, will have the strength to guide one another to redemption.

Though the story grinds through the machinations of the Louisiana state criminal justice system, the appeals on his behalf serve as a backdrop for an examination of De Rocher’s sense of guilt and possible expiation. Sister Helen must bear her own cross as the woman who has promised to share the horror of the condemned man’s experience to its terrifying, lonely end on the executioner’s table.

Both leads provide gut-wrenching performances. Seth Carico as De Rocher makes the condemned man’s resolute maintenance of innocence to disguise his fear of dying almost palpable. Catherine Martin as Sister Helen has the more difficult task of assuaging De Rocher’s fears while guiding him to the peace and courage that acknowledging his culpability might bring. Both of them pull off the difficult trick of letting the tenor in their singing convince the audience of their characters’ emotional and moral transformations.

Special note must be given to Emily Pulley as De Rocher’s mother. Her performance sets the tone of unstinting love and forgiveness that we sometimes witness in televised criminal trials but seldom share. Karen Slack as Sister Rose, Benjamin Sieverding as warden George Benton, Dennis Petersen as the sanctimonious Father Grenville, and the other cast members contribute fine, individualized performances which reflect the gamut of local social consciousness and moral outrage.

Some contemporary operas might examine the themes of love and hate, fear and longing, or hope and redemption; few make you experience them. Terence McNally (lyrics) and Jake Heggie’s (music) opera accomplishes that. If you enjoy serious opera and have a chance to see it (Tickets available for January 27-28, 30, and February 1, 3), do so. You’ll never regret it.

Don Pasquale: Bumbling in Hollywood

Saturday, October 7th, 2017 | Permalink

Re-imaginings of old operas sometimes work; many times, they don’t. When the Metropolitan Opera set Richard Wagner’s Parsifal in Nazi Germany, for example, the depravity in the second act resonated with contemporary audiences but the spiritual majesty in finding the Holy Grail in the third did not.

The Minnesota Opera’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale witnessed on Social Media Preview Night (October 5, 2017) needn’t worry about upsetting anyone’s moral convictions, however. Subtitled “A Toast to Tinseltown,” this version pulls all the comedic stops in celebrating the opera buffa on which it is based.

But resetting a mid-19th century Italian opera in 1950s Hollywood creates a problem. Do the operatic conventions based upon the stylized shenanigans of commedia dell’arte fit into the mores of Hollywood’s Golden Age? The answer: surprisingly well.

Casting the eponymous main character as a fading film star a la Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn provides some amusing film clips of his failures to recapture old glory that accompany the overtures preceding each act. And re-imagining Norina in the conniving servant’s role as a sultry starlet renders the egotistic Don’s marital comeuppances funnier and more believable.

However, the plot of the Don’s cutting off his lovesick nephew’s allowance to sire a proper heir addresses the economic concerns of Risorgimento Italy instead of the Babylon of Hollywood. Anyone with a passing acquaintance of pre-nuptial agreements and equal property settlements knows the paradise of eternal sunshine and plastic surgery pays little shrift to the financial plights of impoverished lovers.

Despite the plot’s unlikelihood, the performers capitalize upon the comedic potential in their characters. Craig Colclough makes a sprightly, foppish, yet sympathetic Don Pasquale. Andrew Wilkowske plays the role the conniving Doctor Malatesta to an over-the-top T. And David Walton (the pining Ernesto) and Susannah Miller (Norina/Sofronia) combine to create an empathetic pair of lovers. All of them (particularly Miller and Walton in the love duet) and the supporting players and chorus make this perhaps the most melodic of Donizetti’s operas.

If you go expecting a satire on Hollywood, you might be disappointed. If you enjoy beautiful music, colorful sets, and a frothy romantic farce that uses the mythos of Tinseltown to spoof the foibles of advanced middle-age, you’ll experience a laugh-filled evening of entertainment. Performances take place on October 7, 10, 12, 14-15, 2017. Enjoy!

Thoughts on Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, particularly episode 7: The Veneer of Civilization

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017 | Permalink

Much has been said in the media and elsewhere about Ken Burns’ epic “The Vietnam War” during its first week. Some find it controversial, some find it revealing. Many find it informative, others find it excruciating and don’t view it at all.

One theme among all the others presented in the course of this sweeping depiction of 1960s America is the moral compromise the War inflicted upon most Americans. Burns is adept as always in condensing the impact of macro-historical events upon individual lives. The anguish and guilt people felt appears in the voices, faces, and covert gestures of individuals directly and indirectly involved with the prosecution of the war. From President Lyndon Johnson to the lowliest draftee or private citizen, the sense of moral conflict is painfully palpable.

One of the most articulate of these is native Minnesotan, Tim O’Brien. author of “The Things They Carried” and other stories and novels about the war. Throughout the episode O’Brien tries to come to terms with what he considers the “failure of courage” by participating in the war effort to please the people back home in Worthington. Even 50 years after the fact, he still feels the shame of not heeding the directives of his own inner moral voice.

While hardly unexpected for an artist of O’Brien’s stature, this sense of moral equivocality and compromise pervades the accounts of all the people who speak during the episode. One faction whose post-war reactions are not vocalized is the anti-war demonstrators. Though we’re shown contemporary interviews with Rennie Davis and others, we’re not given post-hoc reflections upon the War by anyone in the peace movement.

More to the point, what are the feelings and reactions of those who prosecuted the anti-war demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience? And what about the people who fled to Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere? Are they satisfied with what they did? Do they maintain the same sense of moral conviction that O’Brien wishes he’d have had? Do they have any regrets?

All we do have is the example of Bob Harrison who fled to Canada rather than help the military prosecute the war. And like the morally conflicted protagonists of Hollywood movies in the 1930s and 40s, it’s reported that he suffered a sad and tawdry fate like those film anti-heroes and heroines whose behavior subverted society’s strictures: death by drug overdose.

It may well be that an endeavor so sweeping as depicting the influence of war upon an entire generation hasn’t the time to study its impact upon a minor and marginalized subgroup of those who rebelled against the war. It also may be that Burns will address their perspective during the rest of his presentation and its conclusion. Aside from my first novel, Penal Fires, and several others, few people have. But it seems to me that the voices of those whose convictions were strong enough to take some action against the war whether through civil disobedience, draft-dodging, conscientious objection, or in some cases, bomb-throwing remain to be heard. And should be.

Criminal Offenders and Mental Judo

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017 | Permalink

Ever dream of thwarting an attacker in a vacant parking lot? Or of putting a bully in his place at work? Or wonder why such people act the way they do?

We all have–in books and movies. Frank Weber, the evening’s speaker for the September meeting of the Twin Cities Sisters in Crime writing group, does this for a living. A trained clinical and forensic psychologist as well as a recently-published mystery writer (Murder Book, North Star Press), Weber treats these and many other types of aberrant and anti-social behaviors as Director of CORE Professional Services, PA. A disciple of criminal psychology researcher Robert Hare, Weber’s success as a therapist takes a two-pronged approach: seeing problems correctly and utilizing mental judo in interpersonal situations.

Regarding the first one, Weber supplied a variety of statistics to show that many commonly held beliefs about America’s social problems, its criminals and its mentally ill are misconceptions. For example, though the number of minority teen pregnancies is twice or more than that of white teenagers, the ratio of teens giving birth in each group is approximately equal, roughly 25%. So the incidence of teen pregnancy, which has been declining for years, is really a function of poverty rather than of moral decline. The same can be said for homicides, sexual assault, and drug use, all of which peaked before or during the mid-1990s and have declined ever since. In Frank’s opinion, the current alarm over these behaviors stems from the fact that “nobody ever talked about [them] before.”

As for the mental judo aspect, Frank’s discussion proved more personal and anecdotal. To deal with defiantly unresponsive teenagers, Frank employs reverse psychology, responding to their sullen defiance by stating his relief that they don’t talk–which prompts them to start talking immediately. With narcissists, Frank appeals to their innate need to be better than everyone else by challenging them to make positive contributions in their personal interactions. The important thing is to have them “focus upon doing something” counter to their previous behavior.

To accomplish these behavioral changes, Frank advocates four characteristics that mark non-deviant people:

    1. Attachment to people
    2. Involvement in activities
    3. Commitment to a goal
    4. Belief (morals) in something or someone

Weber admitted that not every criminal offender is susceptible to treatment, but most of them do seek the light at the end of the tunnel. They “just need help finding the tunnel.” Often that effort requires a change in the therapist’s point of view to help that patient discover the light. Perhaps if society employed a little mental judo of its own, the change of perspective might reach beyond the realm of fiction and supply the empathy criminal offenders need to start building a new and positive lives for themselves and the people around them.

September Meet & Greet Giveaway

Friday, September 1st, 2017 | Permalink

Hey, Homies. Here’s a chance to win the ultimate reader gift basket from The No. 1 Site for #Reader #Giveaways~~The Kindle Book Review. Just click on the link to go to the giveaway page. It’s easy & fun. If you love reading, enter now; giveaway ends September 30. Click here and enter every day ~> https://wp.me/P2H01p-alH

Visionary Fiction

Saturday, May 6th, 2017 | Permalink

A week or so ago I indulged in the guilty pleasure of viewing the ranking and ratings of my new novel, Mission: Soul Rescue, on amazon.com. While the customer ratings were high and its ranking was low (More reviews needed–c’mon, guys), what surprised me most was its inclusion in the Kindle format under the categories of metaphysical and visionary fiction.

Though the story concerns rescues from the unconscious realm and its protagonist is a shamanic therapist, I never considered my book to be anything more than an adventure thriller with supernatural overtones–until I looked up the definition on Wikipedia (handy pipeline to many unusual topics regardless what its detractors say). Recognized as a new and distinct literary genre by the Book Industry Study Group in 2000, the entry states visionary fiction is “a literary form that illustrates the process of growth in human consciousness. While it contains an all-inclusive spiritual component and often makes use of paranormal modes of perception, it employs story elements like plot, character, and setting to immerse the reader in a drama of evolving awareness—rather than an exposition of specific teachings or practices.”

The source of that quote originates with the Visionary Fiction Alliance, a group of like-minded authors and readers that formed in 2012. Like most authors, I’ve engaged in a vain search for readers who understand the meaning of the word “novel” and enjoy extending their minds into new frontiers of imagination and reality. After exploring the VFA site, I realized that M:SR has found a home. Here’s the link to their web site:

Home – Visionary Fiction Alliance

Look around, check out some of the entries. You might find you’ve discovered your new source for thought, reflection, and pleasure.

My interview with David Alan Binder

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017 | Permalink

David Alan Binder is an author who has interviewed over 200 writers, fiction and non-fiction in various genres. His questions reflect the emotional eddies and cross-currents that make up a writer’s interior life. My answers are particularly revealing in light of the several narratives that occur in Mission: Soul Rescue. The link to my answers appears below:


http://sites.google.com/site/dalanbinder/blog/williamfietzerinterviewwithdavidalanbinder

What do you think?

Dinner at Eight: Only the Hearty Go On

Friday, March 10th, 2017 | Permalink

Thursday evening the Minnesota Opera hosted the social media presentation of their upcoming opera, Dinner at Eight. As the final dress rehearsal for its world premiere (March 11), the performance had its share of missteps and repeats, but overall it captivated the audience with its mordant, bitter sweet score and its spare, art deco staging of a legendary era in Broadway high society that may never have existed.

Based upon the very successful stage play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, this new opera plays against the pathos of the character types embodied in the Hollywood version in 1933. Whereas ruined lives caused by the Great Depression were very much a part of 1930s zeitgeist, here the haute couteur dinner attendees emerge as ruthless, sometimes resigned survivors of the unending Darwinian struggle to maintain social status.

As a result, composer William Bolcom’s musical score hovers primarily in the minor keys to undercut the folly of the hostess’ social aspirations and underscore the anguish of a fading silent movie idol too vain and too self-medicated to accept the loss of his former stature. Mark Campbell’s lyrics, though straining for cleverness during the opening chorus, do capture the hope, humor, and/or despair that motivates each of the characters throughout this operatic Vanity Fair.

If the performers held back to save their voices, it wasn’t evident in this dress rehearsal. Mary Dunleavy as the socialite wife Millicent Jordan, Stephen Powell as her ineffectual businessman/husband, Brenda Harris as the exuberant aging actress, Carlotta Vance, and the rest of the cast sang their parts with gusto. Their characters may appear foolish in the triviality of their aspirations, but the actors embodied them with emotional conviction.

All in all, the opera Dinner at Eight is a wise, funny, and ironic commentary on the aspirations and motivations that mark the human condition. Enjoy one of the performances on either March 11 (world premiere), March 16, or March 18 and 19. Social media followers can receive a $25/ticket discount for the Sunday March 19th performance by using Coupon Code: lobster25 for purchase at mnopera.org/dinner-at-eight or 612-333-6669.

Police and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Thursday, March 9th, 2017 | Permalink

Tuesday night (3/7/17) the guest speaker at the Twin Cities Sisters in Crime monthly meeting was Christian Dobratz, an assistant professor at Mankato State University in the department of public administration. His topic: Law enforcement survival, particularly in regards to the ravages of post traumatic stress disorder upon police department officers.

His credentials for presenting such a topic and discussion are impressive. Not only does he teach courses on the topic at Mankato State along with tactical communications and criminal investigations, he also has served as a patrol officer, deputy sheriff, and detective/drug task force assistant coordinator for Carver County. In those roles he witnessed a number of fellow officers and colleagues who suffered the ravages of PTSD on their personal lives ultimately leading to their suicides.

But it was his personal narrative as “a survivor” of accumulative, job-related PTSD events that made his presentation to the 50 or so members in attendance compelling. His account of dealing with one inhumane, neglectful, even cruel mistreatment of children by parents or guardians after another without time for decompression or analysis built an air-tight case for providing the seeds of his ultimate emotional and mental breakdown after investigating the fiery deaths of three pre-teenage boys due to child neglect.

Though the circumstances of this case were no more extraordinary than others he had investigated, the cumulative effect of those incidents eroded his professional reserve to the point that his successful investigation and ultimate prosecution of the adults responsible opened the floodgates of all his repressed emotions and rendered him unable to fulfill his professional police obligations and responsibilities. The tragedy of his story is how police administrations and its culture until recently chose to sweep PTSD-provoking occurrences under the rug and discredit or ridicule those officers who experienced them.

For a group of authors and writers from which many choose to make police procedurals and criminal investigations the central focus in their writings, Mr. Dobratz’s anecdotally-supported presentation proved revelatory and riveting. His call for more citizen understanding and support for social and psychological therapy as well as administrative change and assistance received an enthusiastic burst of applause at presentation’s end.

Professor Bobratz’ web page can be reached at: http://sbs.mnsu.edu/government/faculty/dobratz.html