Thursday, December 7, 2017

De-Whitewashing the Past, Illuminating the Present: Girls of the Golden West

Davóne Tines as Ned Peters and Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley

I went on a big Nixon in China bender awhile back. Actually, I'm still kind of on it. For a long time, Bluebeard's Castle was the recording always in my car's CD player, but currently it's Nixon in China, the 1987 opera by John Adams and Alice Goodman. So I was eagerly awaiting the world premiere of Adams's latest opera, this time with Peter Sellars as the librettist and director, at San Francisco Opera.

I originally had a ticket for last week (pro tip: if you're in the Bay Area, an opera fan, and under 40, BRAVO! CLUB is the way to go for cheaper tickets), but then my cat Eponine, the best cat in the world even though she is sometimes naughty, got sick with a flare-up of pancreatitis. With an intermission, the show's run time is over three hours. Since I'd be going directly after work, I knew there was no way I'd be able to give the opera my full attention while worrying about how my special girl was doing. Fortunately, I managed to change my ticket date, Eponine got better, and I was able to at last see Girls of the Golden West on Tuesday, 12/5.

Reviews have been mixed, and I will admit there are some glaring weaknesses. However, when I left the War Memorial Opera House, I was dazed and shaking. Despite flaws, I felt I had seen something truly important and of the zeitgeist.

The special girl in question

Those familiar with opera might be asking, "Wait. Isn't there an opera already with that same name?" Sort of, and that's part of the story. Some years ago, Peter Sellars was asked by La Scala to direct a production of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, often translated as The Girl of the Golden West. But Sellars disliked the whitewashed, corny opera about the Gold Rush. Instead, he decided to produce, with longtime creative partner John Adams, a Gold Rush opera that told the reality: that the Northern California of the Gold Rush was beautiful and diverse, but rife with racism and sexism. Girls of the Golden West, particularly the second act, focuses on the spates of white supremacist violence that broke out and the lynching of Josefa Segovia on July 5, 1851.

The cast of Girls of the Golden West is young, diverse, and mostly American. Julia Bullock stars as recent East Coast transplant Dame Shirley, and Davóne Tines is Ned Peters, a former slave she befriends and possibly has an affair with. Paul Appleby is Joe Cannon, a 49er in a violent downward spiral. Ryan McKinny is his friend, Clarence. Hye Jung Lee (who played Madame Mao in SF Opera's production of Nixon in China) is Ah Sing, an ambitious Chinese victim of human trafficking who latches onto Joe in an attempt to better her life. J'Nai Bridges is the doomed Josefa Segovia, and Elliot Madore is her lover, Ramon.

Paul Appleby as Joe Cannon and J'Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia

Like other Sellars/Adams operas, Girls of the Golden West uses various texts to tell its based-on-a-true story. The main material is the collection of letters Louise Clappe, better known as Dame Shirley, wrote while living near the mines with her doctor husband. Passages from Mark Twain, Shakespeare, journals, contemporary reporting, and folk songs are also worked in. Tines's aria based on a speech by Frederick Douglass is a high point, but this collage of sources is uneven (obviously a composition by Douglass, one of our nation's greatest speechwriters, is going to sound better than some random dude writing in his diary). Sellars isn't Goodman, who brought her own poetry to librettos.

That Sellars is working from this patchwork means that characterizations and relationships are limited by what he happened to find, relying on the performers and audience to fill in the rest. Bullock and Tines probably do the best with this. Their charisma and chemistry make you believe they are kindred spirits. They even pull off a scene where their characters start to fall for each other while pantomiming a rocky stagecoach ride - no easy feat.

The relationship between Ah Sing and Joe, on the other hand, is much harder to "get." Lee and Appleby also have chemistry, and the reason for their coupling is straightforward: Joe needs a rebound, and Ah Sing needs a meal ticket. Obviously that is going to turn into a hot mess. But when it does, something about the train wreck becomes inscrutable. Of the titular "Girls," Lee's Ah Sing is the least knowable, and we don't get a resolution for her. Joe's fixation on Josefa comes out of nowhere.

Hye Jung Lee as Ah Sing and Paul Appleby as Joe Cannon

But the faults here could be overlooked, at least for me, due to the sheer power of the second act. With a set, tight time frame (July 4th and 5th); a built-in structure (the July 4th holiday pageant and then a hasty trial); and rapidly rising racial resentment, the hour-and-a-half second act had me on the edge of my dress circle seat. It felt like an encapsulation of 2017.

Two scenes especially stand out in this regard. At one point, the angry mob of white miners come marching out with torches. At this point, I felt my stomach drop, and heard from the audience a noise mirroring that emotion - part gasp, part moan. The image, of course, immediately brought to mind the white supremacists bearing (tiki) torches as they marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in August this year. And those marchers, of course, were purposefully bringing to mind the many marches of white men bearing torches that came before them.

While media outlets have been criticized for focusing so intently on white supremacists rather than those they aim to terrify, Girls of the Golden West never lets the audience lose sight of the victims. As the white mob rants and riles each other up and commits off-stage atrocities, Josefa and Ramon remain onstage, huddled in their home, cycling through terror, anger, hope, and despair.

Another moment that feels especially relevant in 2017 happens after Josefa has fatally stabbed Joe, her attempted rapist. In the mock trial she is put through as a prelude to lynching, the men of the town rally around the idea that the sexual predator was actually a great guy and surround his victim, intimidating and threatening her, drowning out anything she might say with their chorus of platitudes.

Josefa's "trial"

Adams was well aware of the growing real-life parallels, as revealed in this New York Times profile with Michael Cooper:

It was particularly jarring, he said, to write the opera’s climax — in which a Mexican woman is lynched — against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential race. “I kept hearing ‘Lock her up!’ at those horrible rallies,” Mr. Adams said, recalling news footage of Trump supporters chanting for Hillary Clinton’s imprisonment being shown as he wrote choruses for his opera’s angry mob.

Girls of the Golden West is not a perfect opera, but it is a powerful one, and a stark reminder that there is nothing new about a diverse America and strong women, nothing new about white supremacy as a reaction to "economic anxiety," nothing new about sexism, and nothing new about imagining an America that wasn't there.

Girls of the Golden West runs through 12/10 at San Francisco Opera, and then moves to the Dallas Opera and Dutch National Opera.

Image info:
All Girls of the Golden West photos: San Francisco Opera & Cory Weaver
Special Girl Eponine: my own photo

Sunday, September 24, 2017

An Enigma in Chrome: Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson

"You'll do well in the First Order, Phasma."

"Is that a whole book about that one character?" a guy in line behind me at the bookstore asked as I handed Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson to the cashier.

One could argue whether his surprise was warranted or not. Despite the fact that Phasma was a visual standout in Star Wars: the Force Awakens - decked out in a chrome version of the iconic stormtrooper armor, played by 6'3" Gwendoline Christie - the character was a bit player. On the other hand, the choice to have an entire novel written about such a character feels like a throwback to the stories of the Star Wars Expanded Universe (now called Legends), where no character's appearance was too fleeting to merit a detailed backstory.

Still, Phasma has become a somewhat controversial character. Many fans compared her popularity with that of Boba Fett's - another character with a badass design, but with few badass feats actually accomplished on screen. Furthermore, Phasma came off as a bit of a coward - when Finn and Han order her at gunpoint to lower Starkiller Base's shields, she acquiesces rather than risk her life, leading to Starkiller's destruction. Especially considering the lack of a villainess in the Star Wars films, the character seemed like a missed opportunity.

But having read Dawson's novel, Phasma acting differently on Starkiller now seems inconceivable. Instead of ignoring that future action (Phasma is a prequel), Dawson plunges into the heart of it. While lots of stories deal with the aftermath of a moment of cowardice (the 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure, the 2011 German film The Loneliest Planet, Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series of novels, etc), Dawson looks at what lead to it. By the time the novel is finished, Phasma lowering Starkiller's shields with a blaster pointed to her head is no longer evidence of weakness, but evidence of terrifying ruthlessness.

Her life, or the glory of the First Order? No question for Phasma.

Phasma opens with peppy, adorkable-ish (if you like that sort of thing) Resistance spy Vi Moradi's capture by the First Order. Once on the Resurgent-class Star Destroyer Absolution, she's taken to an off-the-record interrogation by Cardinal: a captain with solid red stormtrooper armor. Cardinal has one goal: to learn enough about Phasma to take her down. Vi has just left Phasma's home planet, Parnassos, on a mission to learn the same thing. Vi's narration of this information to Cardinal makes up most of the novel.

Before becoming Captain Phasma of the First Order, Phasma was part of a tribe called the Scyre in a blighted, toxic area of Parnassos, a planet that has suffered an apocalyptic event. The Scyre don't know the specifics of the disaster that happened generations earlier, but they doggedly eke out a living in their harsh coastal territory. Phasma and her brother Keldo rule the clan jointly, but there are cracks in their partnership: Phasma wants to expand their territory, while Keldo is satisfied with what they have.

Phasma's brother Keldo

That simmering conflict reaches a boiling point when First Order General Brendol Hux (father of future General Armitage Hux) and a few stormtroopers crash land on Parnassos. Imperious but diplomatic Brendol wows the clan with his stories of the First Order and how its medicine and technology can benefit them...if they help him back to his crashed ship. When Keldo refuses, Phasma rounds up some of her most trusted warriors and undertakes the task herself, abandoning the Scyre.

I've seen several readers compare Phasma to Mad Max: Fury Road, and Phasma, Brendol, and co.'s mad dash across the Parnassos wasteland warrants that. That isn't to say Dawson copies - her barren dystopia is its own place with a well thought-out history. As the group contends with the unforgiving environment and unpredictable encounters, Brendol and Phasma become closer and more conspiratorial. Soon, Phasma's followers wonder if they ever knew her at all.


Back on the Absolution, Cardinal must decide what to do with the information Vi has given him. He is loyal to the First Order, and he has good reasons: he was an orphan starving on Jakku (yes, Jakku!) before being taken in by the late Brendol Hux. He trains the children the First Order, um, "finds," and truly loves his young charges. With Cardinal, Dawson has given us an empathetic, moving look at "the other side" that might not be so "other" (I thought of David Schwarz's recent great essay, Burden of Empire: The Complex Relationship Between Star Wars and Fascism a lot while reading Cardinal's parts).

This novel is a must-read for those wanting to learn more about the mysterious First Order. The parts with Brendol and Armitage Hux build upon what we learned of them in Chuck Wendig's Aftermath: Empire's End (we even get insight into their different interior decorating aesthetics!). I feel particularly vindicated in my long-held assumption that the First Order is a lot like the school car in Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer, and Dawson throws in some Brave New World as well. There's still so much more to learn, however, that I hope will be revealed in The Last Jedi.

And thanks to Dawson, Phasma is now another reason I'm excited for The Last Jedi. I can't wait to see if Phasma's co-commanders, Armitage Hux and Kylo Ren, will learn the truth of what happened on Starkiller. If so, what will this cold-blooded killer do to continue her sole mission: keeping herself alive?

They've had better days. Sort of. A lot of their days have sucked.

Image info:

Header image and Finn & Phasma:
Keldo and Cardinal: promotional posters by James Zapata
Beleaguered First Order leadership: Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Metropolitan Opera Revises its Season to Capitalize on Star Wars

Time for a night at the opera!

Vincenzo Bellini, Norma Padme

An important leader in a time of political strife has a forbidden lover, bears him two children, is betrayed by him, and dies.

Casta Diva

Richard Wagner, Siegfried Skywalker

A young man of secretly noble parentage takes up his father’s sword and sets out on a quest in order to become a hero.

Is that a call to adventure, or are you just happy to see me?

Giacomo Puccini, La Boheme La Rogue

A rag-tag group of attractive people, united by their rebellious nature, share companionship before tragedy strikes.

Who do you think sings Musetta's Waltz? My money's on Chirrut.

Giacomo Puccini, Madame Butterfly M. Anakin

After naively swearing loyalty in his youth to a cruel man, Anakin refuses to doubt his master for years. When he finally realizes the truth, he says goodbye to his son and chooses to die with honor.

"I'll promote you above grand moff when the robins make their nests."

Georges Bizet, The Pearl Fishers The Space Pirates

Han and Lando are good friends who go way back. They talk a lot about how they would never betray each other. They even have a duet about it. It’s an amazing duet. Then comes the sudden but inevitable betrayal.

Trust me.

Giuseppe Verdi, Rigoletto Jar Jar

The screw-ups of what would generally be a harmless comic relief character result in devastation.

I refuse to put a pic of Jar Jar on my blog, so here's Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto.

Gioachino Rossini, The Barber of Seville The Pilot of the Resistance

Poe Dameron, the titular pilot of the resistance, isn’t even the main character. He’s just a charismatic guy who is good at solving problems for the protagonists.

Dameron! Dameron! Daaaaaamerooon!

Gaetano Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor Kylo di Chandrila

Family pressures and a generations-long conflict between rival groups culminate in a dramatic domestic stabbing. Be prepared for lots of red!

Didn't wear white to dramatically show off blood splatter?
Then get to some snow to bleed out on, ASAP.

John Adams, Nixon in China Tarkin in Alderaan

Instead of destroying Alderaan, Tarkin visits in hopes of gaining influence. Everything goes okay until a polemical dance number horrifies Darth Vader and drives Princess Leia mad with power. 

Seriously though. Imagine Leia singing "I am the child of Organa" and then having a stare down with Mon Mothma.

Image info:
Norma: Wikimedia
Siegfried: Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera
The Pearl Fishers: Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera
Rigoletto: Cory Weaver for San Francisco Opera
Lucia di Lammermoor: Theater Byte/Metropolitan Opera

P.S. Snoke is the Queen of the Night. Pablo Hidalgo has confirmed this.