Opera with an edge

APP-2192
MUSICAL HOWL | Allen Ginsberg’s poetry spoke to ‘Hydrogen Jukebox’s’ out cast members Dan Kempson, back left, and Jonathan Blalock, center. (Photo courtesy Ellen Appel)

Ginsberg & Glass team up for ‘Hydrogen Jukebox,’ the latest in FWO’s out-of-the-box operas

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

What do you get when you combine the Mobius-strip music of Phillip Glass with the vulgar, passionate lyricism of gay poet Allen Ginsberg? Believe it or not, you get an opera. Or an opera of sorts, at least.

Ever since converting to a festival format four years ago, the Fort Worth Opera has established a rep for doing edgy, unusual versions of that most august of theatrical forms: Opera. Yes, they have done grand operas in the classic vein (Carmen, Don Giovanni, Turandot), but they’ve also introduced world premieres and unheralded new works with complex, modern (often gay) themes: gay composer Tom Pasatieri’s dark Frau Margot, Jorge Martin’s challenging, frank adaptation of gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas’ Before Night Falls; the reimagining of an opera based on Angels in America.

Up this time is perhaps the most unusually named opera in a while (Hydrogen Jukebox) composed by a master of minimalism and set to the granddaddy of the Beat Generation.

This is not your father’s — or your grandfather’s — idea of opera. Or, for that matter, the director’s.

“I never thought I’d direct a Philip Glass piece,” admits Lawrence Edelson, who is choreographing and directing Hydrogen Jukebox for his debut at the FWO. “They do not follow linear narrative arcs, and I personally tend to drift toward the more narrative type of opera as a director. As much as I’ve enjoyed his music, I never thought it was something I’d dive into. The conventional ideas about storytelling are put on hold.”

But Edelson was drawn to the piece, in part after meeting Glass.

“It was something quite unique — he’s an icon in American music,” Edelson says. “There’s usually not a tight relationship with the text [and his music], so what’s really fascinating about this work is, it’s Ginsberg’s poetry, and there’s a tremendous respect for the treatment of it.”

Setting the Howl author’s poems to music might seem like a foolish exercise, but actually, it’s a natural fit.

“Ginsberg really believed in the performative aspect of poetry, that poetry should live off the page,” Edelson says. And his poems, culled over 40 years for this opera, still speak to contemporary issues.

“Ginsberg’s poetry really spoke to me, and many of the issues he was struggling with in the ‘50s, ‘60 and ‘70s are among the same issues we still struggle with today,” says Darren Woods, general director of FWO.

“Ginsberg was a very out gay poet — his poems are about freedom from sexual repression and gay lib, and though this isn’t a gay piece per se, there are a couple of poems that” address those issues, Edelson says.  “As a gay man, to be able to work off of material that has personal relevance, but I am not the same sort of gay man Ginsberg was! My life is not so colorful,” Edelson says. “Hydrogen Jukebox could be gayed up; I think that would be wrong. Ginsberg was not writing just for gay America, but for everybody.”

Interpreting poetry for the stage posed an interesting dilemma for Edelson: As a director, he’s accustomed to creating a specific reaction in an audience; poetry, however, is subject to multiple interpretations, none of which are wrong.

“My job [this time] is not to impose a specific interpretation but rather to set up an environment where the audience is able to take in the poetry in a way that’s meaningful for them,” he says. “All these things will inform the way you receive it.”

For out cast members Jonathan Blalock and Dan Kempson, the work has personal significance.

“I find it interesting that the portion of the opera that deals with a gay love story [“Green Automobile,” an elegy to Neal Cassady, with whom Ginsberg has a long-term affair] is presented as just one story,” Kempson says. “It speaks to a universality of love, not just presented as ‘We’re gay! Notice us!’ It’s as normal and as painful and as lovely and as beautiful as any love story.”

“I think it’s wonderful Fort Worth Opera is brave enough to attack off-the-beaten path operas, both musically and topically,” says Blalock, who also appeared in Before Night Falls. “It can be scary for a number of reasons, including financial, but the FWO has brought their audience along with them to the 21st century.”

Blalock was in the closet when he first met Kempson four years ago, so doing this production together has brought him full-circle in more than one way: “In this show, I kiss someone, but it’s a girl. It’s OK, though,” he says, “I’m a good actor.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 20, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Off with her head!

You’d think Anna Bolena, Dallas Opera’s final entry in Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy, would be as juicy as the story that inspired it: Infidelity, treason, politics, religion, even a beheading! But the only head missing is the one that kept sense how to make the production work as a stage piece.

Denyce Graves’ opening aria, with her distinctive mezzo power, sets a high bar for musicality of the show, which Oren Gradus as Henry VIII, Stephen Costello as Lord Percy and Hasmit Papian as Anne meet.

But aside from a homoerotic stag fight between two shirtless brutes, it drags. The elephantine scenery — a giant set of accordian doors that teeter dangerously during scene changes — and some stodgy, presentational acting (especially the false performance by Elena Belfiore in the “trouser role” as Smeton), rob the opera of its drama. Even a doomed queen deserves more life than this generates. (On the other hand, there’s still time to catch Don Giovanni, which is very much worth a look.)

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 5, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens

Spanish harem

History’s most notorious womanizer gets his just desserts — as does the audience — in Dallas Opera’s sweetly comic ‘Don Giovanni

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

STD-LICIOUS  |  Even prim Donna Anna (Claire Rutter) can hardly resist the wooing of a Spanish noble (Paulo Szot) in Dallas Opera’s charming ‘Don Giovanni.’ (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)
STD-LICIOUS | Even prim Donna Anna (Claire Rutter) can hardly resist the wooing of a Spanish noble (Paulo Szot) in Dallas Opera’s charming ‘Don Giovanni.’ (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

DON GIOVANNI
Winspear Opera House,
2403 Flora St.
Oct. 30 and Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 7 at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets from $25.
DallasOpera.org

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A character in the musical Nine describes an Italian film director, based on Federico Fellini, as “a mixture of Catholicism, pasta and pornography.” The phrase could just as easily apply to ­­­­­the title antihero of Don Giovanni, at least in Dallas Opera’s Pulp Fiction-like interpretation. A rollicking, Dadaist take on Mozart’s dark, dreamy comedy-drama, it’s a romp.

If Giovanni (Tony Award-winner Paulo Szot, as sexy as all get-out), who romances woman with serial obsession, were alive today, he’d have an entire hour to himself on a sex-addict edition of Jerry Springer: He woos Donna Anna (Claire Rutter) while avoiding revenge from her betrothed, Don Ottavio (tenor Jonathan Boyd) and the wrath of a former conquest, Donna Elvira (Georgia Jarman, looking like Lana Turner in a shiny catsuit). If it didn’t end with Giovanni swallowed up by hell, it would be an all-out French farce or American teen sex comedy.

There’s Mozart’s music, of course, which elevates the discourse, as do director-designer John Pascoe’s gorgeous sets and playful handling of the material. This is woozy fun.

Watching Szot, already flirtatious and sexy, frolic around in a fountain is­­­ like some kind of homoerotic Renaissance wet T-shirt contest.

But it’s not all about matinee-idol looks. Szot’s acting — indeed, the acting by the entire cast — is as strong as the singing. Jarman’s performance is especially engaging, and Ailyn Perez as the peasant Zerlina deserves props for staying sensuous during an annoyingly loud set change.

Bass Mirco Palazzi as the servant Leperello milks humor easily with his physicality, and Boyd’s lovely rendition of “Dallas sua pace” is a highlight of Act 1.

The last time the Dallas Opera mounted Don Giovanni, it was a dour, stiff affair without any sparks; this version reinvents the show for them, and makes an excellent kick-off to their new season.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 29, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas

Best bets • 10.22.10

Friday 10.22

Speaking out on arts and AIDS
This month’s Queerly Speaking event brings in rapper, author, poet (and more) Tim’m West in this special Arts and AIDS edition. West uses hip-hop, spoken word and performance art in selections of “Ready Set Grow” where he takes on coming out, race and sexuality and his triumphs and travails in his battle with AIDS.

DEETS: South Dallas Cultural Center, 3400 S. Fitzhugh. 8 p.m. $5. RedDirt.biz.

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Saturday 10.23

These are the good kind of Con men
The Art Conspiracy people call what they do street-level philanthropy. We call it greatness. The annual event raises money for nonprofits with this year’s proceeds going to Today Marks the Beginning which educates children on non-violence through art. If that’s not enough, then the reasonably priced art and local live bands will make the night more worthwhile.

DEETS: Art Con Warehouse, 511 W. Commerce St. 7 p.m. $10. ArtConspiracy.org.

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Wednesday 10.27

Hump day with a major hottie
Mozart’s Don Giovanni still gets us verklempt thanks to hottie baritone Paulo Szot. He plays the legendary Don Juan in this Dallas Opera production following his Metropolitan Opera debut. And he’s a Tony award winner. He’s got major cred to go with those swoony bedroom eyes.

DEETS: Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St. 7:30 p.m. Through Nov. 7. $25–$400. ATTPAC.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 15, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Hot Szot

Swoon-worthy gay baritone Paulo Szot injects tons of sex appeal in Dallas Opera’s pulpy ‘Don Giovanni’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

DON’T YOU WISH YOUR BOYFRIEND WAS HOT LIKE HIM  |  As Mozart’s antihero sex maniac, Paulo Szot gets to woo many women onstage. But the baritone mostly just misses his dogs and partner of 10 years, who are back in Brazil. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)
DON’T YOU WISH YOUR BOYFRIEND WAS HOT LIKE HIM | As Mozart’s antihero sex maniac, Paulo Szot gets to woo many women onstage. But the baritone mostly just misses his dogs and partner of 10 years, who are back in Brazil. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

DON GIOVANNI
Winspear Opera House,
2403 Flora St. Oct. 22–Nov. 7.
Tickets from $25.
DallasOpera.org

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If you ever wanted to know how important casting is to the success of a play or an opera, consider this: If Don Giovanni, the most notorious lover in history, isn’t swoon-worthy onstage, there’s no chance an audience will lose itself in fantasy.

That is not a problem when you have Paulo Szot in the role. Szot effortlessly smolders with swagger and charm. In leather pants and pencil moustache, his chest heaving from under an iridescent cape, he looks like a superhero from the 1940s.

That’s fine with John Pascoe, the director and designer of this production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni — he wants you to think of a pulp romance novel cover when you see it.

“He’s like George Brent or Errol Flynn,” says Jonathan Pell, artistic director of the Dallas Opera, marveling at Szot’s graceful charisma. You totally understand how Don Giovanni was able to woo so many women.

In person, Szot himself is as compelling as his character, but disarmingly humble. And he’s not a womanizer at all — he and his partner have been together 10 years, sharing their home on the edge of the Brazilian rainforest with their four Weimaraners.

“I built that house three years ago — it is my dream home,” Szot says, eyes twinkling. “But I get to stay there, like 10 days. I miss my dogs, but I talk to them on Skype. They listen to me.”

It would be difficult not to listen when Szot talks — or sings. One of the most gifted baritones of his generation, Szot rocketed to international fame when he took on the role of Emile de Becque, the reclusive plantation owner who falls for an American farmgirl, in Lincoln Center’s 2008 revival of South Pacific. Szot won a Tony and the hearts of everyone who heard him sing “Some Enchanted Evening” and, even more thrillingly, “This Nearly Was Mine.”

“The main song [for Emile] is ‘Some Enchanted Evening,’ but somehow ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ became the 11 o’clock number,” Szot acknowledges. “It was magical for me; I’m very glad so many people liked it.”

Szot — already an in-demand opera star — was originally scheduled for only a six-month run in the role due to opera commitments, but extended it to more than two years (with brief departures for opera gigs), appearing only recently in a TV simulcast on PBS’ Live from

Lincoln Center. His appearance with the Dallas Opera represents his first full opera performance since leaving Broadway, although in between he pursued another dream: Singing at the Carlyle Hotel in New York.

“That was very new for me,” Szot says. “I’ve always wanted to sing songs I would sing to my friends in my house. It was so intimate, and in such a famous place. I’m coming back in February.”

From opera to musical theater to cabaret, Szot wants to do it all — and so far, he seems to be succeeding. Though the skill sets are different, he sees the line between these musical art forms blurring.

“The biggest difference [between opera and Broadway] is the number of performances. In opera, you rely on your throat and can’t sing eight shows a week. But microphones allow some control — that’s a wonderful thing. And Emile only has like 14 minutes of singing, though he’s constantly onstage, and there’s the dialogue.”

Szot agreed to do South Pacific not only for the Broadway experience, but also to tackle one of the few leading-man parts for a baritone; tenors usually get to be the hero. But ultimately, Szot’s fine with the more villainous parts. He concedes that Don Giovanni doesn’t get the best numbers in the show, but there are other benefits.

“I think those characters, not the good guys, are more interesting,” he says. “They are more colorful — particularly the Mozart ones.”

This production has captured even his attention. He’s enchanted by the costumes and the direction, and says he’s bringing many of the skills he learned in two years of South Pacific to the role.

“I’ve always wanted to do different kinds of music — I didn’t grow up choosing between one another. The techniques differ from singing before 200 in a cabaret and 4,000 in The Metropolitan. But it’s all a dream come true for me.”

Trust us, Paulo — we’re livin’ the dream with you.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 15, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Applause • That’s so gay

Queer connections infiltrate lots of the upcoming season of arts

Tony Award-winning gay baritone Paulo Szot
Tony Award-winning gay baritone Paulo Szot, above, is a coup for the Dallas Opera; Pink Martini, below, gets the Meyerson jumping as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s guest next week.

When you have a gay theater company (as Dallas does in Uptown Players) and another troupe dedicated to bringing Broadway musicals to town (as Dallas Summer Musicals does), you can be pretty confident in finding gay appeal in the lively arts.

But cast your gaze — and your gays — outside the usual focus, and there a lot more to discover across the arts in North Texas this season.

Chief among the highlights: The Dallas Opera’s coup in snagging dreamy gay baritone Paulo Szot, who won a much-deserved Tony for the revival of South Pacific, in the title role in Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Oct. 22). Director Stephen Lawless returns to helm Anna Bolena (Oct. 29). DallasOpera.org.

Of course, Uptown Players and DSM are getting into the action with their upcoming shows as well. UP’s final production of their 2010 season is the American premiere of Closer to Heaven, written to the songs of the Pet Shop Boys. The musical drama opens Oct. 1 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. The group will announce its 2011 season on Tuesday. UptownPlayers.org. And DSM’s national tour of Shrek is the State Fair Musical this year, opening Sept. 28. DallasSummerMusicals.org.

Next week, Theatre Three produces the local premiere of Songs from an Unmade Bed, a song cycle about a gay man working his way through a relationship. In previews from Sept. 3 in the Theatre Too space. Also in Theatre Too: Bruce R. Coleman’s latest play, the puppet show Tales from Mount Olympus, and spring welcomes Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them by Christopher Durang. Next up on the main stage is Laramie Project creator Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations, followed in December by the local premiere of The Drowsy Chaperone. Theatre3Dallas.com.

Contemporary Theatre of Dallas continues its presentation of Ed Graczyk’s world premiere Texas-set comedy-drama with a gay twist, Blue Moon Dancing, which runs through Sept. 12. Its 2010–11 season kicks off in October, and includes plays directed by Rene Moreno (The Trip to Bountiful) and Michael Serrecchia (Cheaters), plus a play by gay playwright Alan Ball (Five Women Wearing the Same Dress). ContemporaryTheatreofDallas.com.

The Dallas Theater Center launches its new season next month with the company’s gay artistic director Kevin Moriarty’s adaptation of Henry IV (opens Sept. 11).  The season ends with the musicals Cabaret and The Wiz. DallasTheaterCenter.org.

WaterTower Theatre begins its season with its artistic director, Terry Martin, directing and starring in Our Town (previewing on Sept. 24), and closes the season with Howard Ashman’s camptastic Little Shop of Horrors in July. WaterTowerTheatre.org.

Pink Martini
Pink Martini

Bass Hall brings in Spring Awakening on Nov. 9–10, followed by Mamma Mia, A Chorus Line, Beauty and the Beast and 9 to 5 later in the season. BassHall.org. In Dallas, the Lexus Broadway Series includes Young Frankenstein (Jan. 4) and Billy Elliot (June 8), while TITAS starts with MOMIX (Sept. 10) and the return of Complexions Contemporary Ballet (May 11). ATTPAC.org. The Dallas Black Dance Theatre stages a dance by local legend Bruce Wood in the spring as well (see story Page S6).

It’s not just opera and theater that goes gay, either: The Dallas Symphony Orchestra welcomes queer-led bank Pink Martini on Sept. 3, and The Music of Michael Jackson starts Sept. 1. DallasSymphony.org.

Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 27, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas