Geneva Anderson digs into art

Thursday is Lunchtime in the Sonoma County Museum’s New Outdoor Sculpture Garden!

Ned Kahn's Vapor Fountain (steel, aluminum, 2011) happily bubbled away at last Sunday's inauguration of the Sonoma County Museum's new outdoor sculpture garden. Kahn is an internationally recognized artist who frequently works with water and natural elements. The fountain marks the entrance to the garden which also contains the works of 6 other Northern CA Artists. Photo: Geneva Anderson

The Sonoma County Museum’s new Outdoor Sculpture Garden, its latest in a series of planned upgrades, was dedicated last Sunday at festive reception for donors and museum members.   The community is invited to embrace the new space by having lunch there on Thursdays through September when entrance to the garden will be free.  The new garden is located in a previously empty third of an acre lot at A & 7th Streets in Santa Rosa, next to the Sonoma County Museum (SCM) and features 10 works by 7 North Bay artists– Carroll Barnes, Roger Berry, Edwin Hamilton, Bruce Johnson, Ned Kahn, Pat Lenz and Hugh Livingston.  

The project cost roughly $200,000 and the garden was designed by San Rafael architect Fred Warneke.  The grounds themselves were landscaped by JLP Landscape Contracting of Santa Rosa with native trees, shrubs and grasses supplementing the magnolia and redwood trees already there and a back iron fence with a trellis gate entry surrounds the area.  The artworks are on long-term loan to the museum from the artists with the exception of the sound installation by Hugh Livingston, which was commissioned, and Cazadero sculptor Bruce Johnson’s enormous wood and copper “Sequoia” (2,000), which the museum owns.  “Sequoia,” is a split open old growth sequoia tree whose interior was milled out with a chain saw and lined in copper and is meant to be walked through.   The 16 foot tall piece required an upgrade in its retrofitting before it could be relocated from its east site on the museum to the new garden locale on the west.  (Click here to see a SCM photo album devoted to “Sequoia’s” move.)  

At 16 feet tall, Cazadero sculptor Bruce Johnson's "Sequoia" is a focal point of the Sonoma County Museum's new outdoor sculpture garden. The hollowed-out old growth sequoia was relocated from the east side of the museum to the new garden on the west side with much fanfare. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Sunday’s celebration was also a fundraiser to support the museum’s Collection Initiative, a long range program developed by Diane Evans, the museum’s executive director and Eric Stanley, its history curator, to manage the museum’s collection which encompasses some 20,000 artworks and historical pieces.  Currently, the vast majority of this collection is in storage due to lack of space.  

In April, 2011, the museum was awarded a $300, 000 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) five-year Challenge Grant, designated for its Collection Initiative.  This was quite an honor as just two of these challenge grants were awarded in all of California for 2010.   According to Evans, the grant requires SCM to raise $900,000 over the next five years in matching funds.  The grant and matching dollars together will total $1.2 million, which will be designated toward an endowment for the support of staffing to care for and manage the museum’s extensive collections, as well as funds to ensure safe long-term collections storage.  The museum must raise $60,000 by July 31, 2011 to meet the grant’s first stage.  Evans reported Sunday that the museum had raised about $20,000 so far.  All of the funding raised must be allocated to the Collections Initiative and cannot support other museum programs or campaigns.

Meanwhile, the museum’s expansion plans are on track for occupying space in the former AT&T building after its remodel is completed next year.  Contemporary artworks will be displayed in that new space and the present locale, the historic old post office building, will then be devoted to the museum’s vast collection of historical objects.  Highlights of the SCM’s collection include the Song Wong Bourbeau Collection of some 200 photographs and artifacts which represents the rich history and culture of Santa Rosa’s Chinatown, and the Tom Golden Collection of artworks by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Hugh Livingston's subtle 16 Channel Sound Installation is a work in progress at the Sonoma County Museum's new outdoor sculpture garden. Livingston placed 16 (round green) units around the garden that emit gurgling water sounds recorded at the Russian River over the past year. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Those visiting the new outdoor sculpture garden this month will have the chance to see Hugh Livingston tweaking his 16 channel sound installation which uses sound bites captured from the Russian River.   The piece has the most conceptual angle among the ten and also corners the market for humor–  it looks and sounds like city water infrastructure on steroids.   In fact, many guests at Sunday’s reception didn’t even realize it was art, which is fine with Livingston who likes making a “subtle point”.   Livingston explained that it was “too noisy” with all the landscaping and irrigation set-up going on to actually hear what he was doing, so he will be adjusting his 16 gurgling green ports over the coming weeks.

Lunchtime: Every Thursday, from June 30 through September 29, 2011, from 11:30am – 1:30pm, Ultracrepes mobile family-operated food truck will be on site selling gourmet savory and dessert crepes made with natural ingredients for $5 to $7, along with a variety of refreshments.  Visitors are encouraged to sit and eat and linger in the garden, taking in the works which have been loaned to the museum on a long-term basis by the artists. 

Upcoming activities in the garden:
June 30: Claire Gustavson Art Class
July 7: Jessica Jarvis and partner (Jazz duo/acoustic jazz guitar and singer)
July 14: Katie Godec (singer)
July 21: Claire Gustavson Art Class

Details: Admission is FREE for Lunchtime in the Garden; regular museum admission applies to visit current exhibitions.  The Sonoma County Museum is located at 425 7th Street, Santa Rosa, CA 95401.  Museum Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 11am-5pm.  Information: 707.579 .1500

Current Exhibitions:  Gertrud Parker: An Artist and Collector and Pat Lenz: Nobody’s Poodle, both through September 11, 2011.

Directions: Sonoma County Museum is just steps away from Downtown Santa Rosa and Historic Railroad Square.  From Highway 101 Heading North, take the 3rd St/Downtown Exit from Hwy 101, turn right at 3rd Street and then left at B Street. Travel 3/4 mile and turn left at 7th Street.  The museum is on your right.

June 29, 2011 Posted by | Art, Sonoma County Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Meet Kevin Rivard, the horn behind Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, at San Francisco Opera through July 3, 2011

Kevin Rivard, Co-Principal Horn of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, is responsible for the demanding long horn call in Siegfried, the third drama in Richard Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle, at San Francisco Opera through July 2, 2011. Rivard plays the two minute solo backstage on his Conn 8D French horn. Photo: Geneva Anderson

When it’s time for the hero Siegfried to slay the dragon in Richard Wagner’s third Ring of the Nibelung opera, Siegfried, it is Kevin Rivard’s hypnotic long horn call in Act II that draws Fafner out of his cave and ushers in the action.  That two-minute French horn solo, echoed in shorter motifs throughout the Ring, is one of the cycle’s musical highpoints.  It’s also the longest instrumental solo in the Ring.  At 28, Rivard, Co-Principal Horn of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Principal Horn of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, is the youngest member of both brass sections.  This is Rivard’s first Ring and he was eager to talk about this demanding solo which he plays backstage, in order to create the illusion that Siegfried himself is playing the horn.  Wagner was one of first composers to write extensively for the valved horn and the Siegfried long call, his most famous horn composition, set the bar for all future horn solos in terms of its difficulty and haunting beauty. Rivard plays this horn call for the 4th and last time, next Friday, July 1 in San Francisco Opera’s Cycle 3 of the Ring

Would you describe your instrument and tell us if you use only one horn throughout the Ring?

Kevin Rivard:  There’s only one horn that I play—it’s a factory Conn 8D horn.  It’s the instrument that is known for the American horn sound—that big, broad, full, dark, beautiful sound that you hear in all of the movies.  It’s the horn most closely matches the sound that I hear in my head for the ideal horn sound.  It fits perfectly with the type of writing that Wagner did for the horn in the Ring Cycle, which is very heroic most of the time… This horn belonged to Julie Landsman, my Juilliard teacher and longtime principal horn at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.  She always raved about how spectacular this horn is, so when she retired, I talked her into selling it to me. 

Which leitmotifs in The Ring are played by the French horn? 

Kevin Rivard:  When I think about all 17 hours of this, I am pretty sure the horn section plays all or most of the scenes and leitmotifs.  The Valhalla motif, which is heard for the first time in the first Ring opera Das Rheingold, at beginning of Scene 2, is handled by the Wagner tuba section, part of the horn section.  The spear motive, also originating in Das Rheingold, is handled by the horn section. Siegfried’s long and short calls are played a cappella [without accompaniment] by a solo French horn in Act II, Scene 2, of Siegfried.

 The big thing about the motifs we play in this Ring cycle is the variation in their complexity.  There’s such a great span of time between when Wagner composed Das Rheingold and then began Götterdämmerung that it’s completely different music and you can see and hear it.  The orchestral score of Siegfried is so dense and interesting and what I love in particular is that you could listen to this entire opera and have no clue about any of the text and know exactly what’s going on.  It’s so cleverly written with the leitmotifs and altering them slightly that you know what’s going on even before the characters themselves know.

The horn is almost always used by classical composers to signify hunting or at least a kind of hearty, masculine, rural sensibility.  What does the horn signify in the Ring?

Kevin Rivard:  In addition to its use historically for hunting calls, the horn is also the voice of the hero, Siegfried, which is what we most notice. Siegfried lives and hunts in the woods.  Also, because of the way the instrument is made and shaped, and its sound, it works very well with other instruments in blending and creating great sonorities throughout the orchestra.  Composers will write for the horn in a partnering role, using it to join the sound of different instruments together.  If they are writing for the strings and woodwinds, they will stick the horn in there to kind of blend the sounds together.  With woodwinds and brass, the horns will be the middle ground to help blend the two together.  I’ll play some concerts where we’ll be playing almost the entire concert in these supporting roles and when I finish, people will tell me that I was hardly playing at all.  I’m thinking no, I was playing the entire time but in a supporting role.

Aside from its length, what makes the long call in Siegfried special?

Kevin Rivard: This is the biggest, hardest, longest horn solo in any rep–orchestral or opera–that there is, period, because of the way it’s structured.  It’s the way Wagner wrote it–the entire orchestra cuts out and it’s just one solo for over two minutes and it keeps building and goes on and on and on and then ends on that spectacular high C.  With the French horn, there are a couple of things at issue.  The instrument requires an incredible amount of endurance in the lips.  You are requiring just the center of your lips to create all of this sound that’s coming through the instrument and the endurance of having to play a solo in that register for that long is a huge factor in its difficulty.

 In addition, the register in which this call is written is the extreme upper register of the horn and the partials for the notes are very close together, with a half step of each other.. If my lips are inaccurate by the smallest degree, it’s not a matter of being slightly out of tune; it means the note is missed, completely missed.  When a horn player misses a note, it sounds like a dying goat.  Everyone knows and no one forgets.

Kevin Rivard, Co-Principal Horn of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, backstage at the War Memorial Opera House. For his long horn call in Siegfried, he leaves the orchestra pit and performs his solo unseen and off to the side of the stage to create the impression that the Siegfried on stage is playing the horn. He plays it on his vintage Conn 8D French horn which he bought from Julie Landsman, former principal horn at the Met. Photo: Geneva Anderson

How did you approach and prepare for this great solo?  

Kevin Rivard:  Since endurance and stamina are such an issue, I looked at my schedule a year ago and I found all of the holes where I would have time to practice and I started preparing, a little here and a little there.  A lot of this was mental, knowing in my head exactly what I wanted it to sound like.  As an artist, if I have the technique down and I know how I want it to sound, then I can put those two things together.  Wagner wrote that the call was to start with moderate tempo and then accelerando [become faster] throughout.  Out of respect to that comment and to add to the drama of the scene, I begin very slowly and let the accelerando build and roll it forward and I really try to give it plenty of room.  The speed of the accelerando and that crescendo [increase in volume] is based solely on one thing –how much air I can take in and how much music I can make in one breath.  I set my tempo and I take the biggest breath that I can and based on that, I start to build.  That’s a lot of notes to get into one breath.


Were there any particular horn players’ renditions you listened to?  YouTube has lots of fabulous examples for us to hear and compare as does

Kevin Rivard:  Julie Landsman has a recording of this in which she plays principal throughout the Ring and she does the long call.   This is the best I’ve ever heard, period.  I feel pretty strongly that as an artist and individual I want to make every effort not to just try to sound like everyone else.  I want to go out there and sound the way I want to sound.  Throughout my entire preparation period, I tried not to listen to any recordings, but rather to just study the score and decide what this character means to me and what this horn solo means and how I want to present it.  I think this approach has led to something that is similar to what my teacher did but that my call does sound considerably different than any of the recordings out there as a result.  I appreciate that because I wanted to step away and see what it meant to me to be Siegfried. 

What’s going on physically for you during this solo?  Does it help that you are back stage and not actually seen, just heard?

Kevin Rivard:  I might not be seen but I have to return to the pit afterward and see all my colleagues so being out of sight doesn’t have much benefit for me.  What I think it is, and I read this from other principal horn players too, is that a lot of horn players are adrenaline junkies.  The nature of the instrument, the harmonic series, and the extreme accuracy that is required to do our job on a daily basis requires this.  Simon Rattle, the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic (BPO) once said ‘You never want to look a horn player in the eye before he plays a solo– it’s like looking a tightrope walker in the eye before he grapples with death.’  There’s this huge adrenaline rush you get when you do these big solos—the Siegfried long call and the solo in Handel’s Julius Caesar. You walk back there and you are nervous and your heart is racing and the next thing you know…you’ve jumped and landed.  I think ‘wow!’ that was the best thing in the world and I have to do it again. 

When you leave the pit, where exactly are you playing and how do you get your cues?

Kevin Rivard:  The idea is to position the horn very close to Siegfried so that it sounds like he is playing. My chair is onstage, just behind the curtain, on the rake [upward slope] of the stage. I am sitting tilted back at an angle with my horn in hand and I am facing off to the side of the stage, looking in the opposite direction of Siegfried.  Initially, I had to turn around and look at him for my cue which is when he takes this big breath.  When I did this, there was this huge spotlight on him from the opposite side of the stage that nearly blinded me.  I could barely see him and the light was so strong that I couldn’t see anything on my music stand either.  He also took his breath very quickly and I whipped my head around and tried to play very quickly.  When I finished the first phrase, I turned back around and was blinded again and then whipped my head back around again and it was an incredible experience. I was like ‘this is just too crazy,’  so I went and found an extra conductor that they have and it’s now his job to stare into that light and catch the cues from Siegfried’s breath and then cue me.

The pace of the four long performances comprising each Ring Cycle, essentially back to back, must be grueling.  How do you handle that?

Kevin Rivard:  It’s an incredibly difficult work load, without question. The way we have it structured in the horn section is that we have two co-principal horns and this is to purposefully lighten the work load on these long things.  Before we started the Ring, I got in touch with principal horn players at all the major opera companies—the Met, Munich, Berlin, and so forth– and starting asking them how they handle the Ring Cycle.  Do the same people play or what?  Unanimously, all of them have relief players. They would have different horn sections come in half way through an opera to play the last two acts of Götterdämmerung or the last two acts of Siegfried.  The horn section that did Die Walküre would not have to play Das Rheingold the night before.  They all had some relief.  But the way we’re doing it is that we have the same horn section and the same Wagner tuba section and everyone is playing everything for all three cycles.

The standard approach for the Siegfried long call is that whoever plays that solo, that’s all they have to do.  If they don’t do it that way, in consideration of the huge work load, you might play Act I and then the horn solo and that’s it.  I play Act I, the horn solo and the rest of the opera.

After working on this for a solid year, how do you get this out of your head?  What do you do?

Kevin Rivard:  Funny you would ask because the other day Bill Klingelhoffer, the other co-principal horn, and I were sitting in the locker room before our final orchestra rehearsal of the season discussing what music we were going to present at an upcoming horn seminar.  On stage, they were doing the final piano dress rehearsal for Siegfried and it was coming through on the monitors.  The piano was playing literally at about a minute right before the big horn solo.  I said to Bill, ‘Hey, they’re playing Siegfried,’ and my heart was pounding like crazy.  It stays with you and rings through your head along with the energy and emotion that you feel playing it.  It just doesn’t leave.

What is it like working with conductor Runnicles (longtime San Francisco Opera music director)?

Kevin Rivard:  It’s going very well.  The first time I played the long call was when we were out rehearsing at the Presidio.  I half jokingly asked him if he wanted to hear it, thinking he’d tell me to wait until we were at the opera house to hear the whole solo.  He, of course, said “Why don’t you play it here and show off for your colleagues.” I thought, ‘Great!’   

 This is my first Ring Cycle but in talking with Julie Landsman I became aware of the physical, emotional and mental toll this takes.  With Runnicles, it’s like this music is in his blood and it’s so natural for him and so in his bones that when he conducts it, he makes it seem easy.  The way he prepares and will give a cue for something makes it as easy as it can possibly be and that has a remarkable effect on us.  It’s also the energy he breathes into a particular piece of music that makes it come to life.

During this long rehearsal period you must have thought a lot about Wagner.  What intrigues you most?

Kevin Rivard:  I often consider the great challenges of Wagner’s horn writing and wonder what the premiere performances sounded like.  It’s interesting to note that the Principal Horn of the Munich Court Orchestra, the orchestra that premiered the Ring Operas and most of Wagner’s other works, was none other than Franz Strauss.  He was the father of the famous composer Richard Strauss, and was known as one of the finest hornists of his day.  It’s also interesting to note that Franz Strauss and Wagner did not care for each other.  Wagner is quoted as saying: ‘Strauss is an unbearable, curmudgeonly fellow, but when he plays his horn one can say nothing, for it is so beautiful.’

ARThound would like to thank opera dramaturg Cori Ellison, who worked with Francesa Zambello on the conception for this Ring cycle,  for assistance in editing this interview.  David Marsten, of Calistoga, too provided valuable background information on Wagner and Siegfried.

Details: Single tickets for next Friday’s (July 1, 2011) final performance of Siegfried are still available.  Tickets for San Francisco Opera’s Cycle 3 presentation of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (June 28, June 29, July 1, July 3) are individually priced from $95 to $360.  All tickets are available online at , or in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., or by phone at (415) 864-3330.

June 26, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Matanzas Creek Winery’s 15th Annual Days of Wine and Lavender kicks off this Saturday, June 25, 2011

Matanzas Creek Winery’s 15th Annual “Days of Wine and Lavender" is this Saturday, June 25, 2011. Photo: Matanzas Creek Winery

Ask any gardener around Sonoma County and you’ll find that lavender is an herb that is universally praised—its fragrance evokes a Zen-like calm and its deep purple hues are treasured in the garden and home.  And that luscious scent has spilled over into flavoring as well–culinary lavender has rapidly become a staple for Northern California gourmets.  This Saturday, at Matanzas Creek Winery’s 15th Annual Days of Wine and Lavender, you’ll get to stroll the winery’s breathtaking lavender garden in full fragrant bloom and sample all things lavender– from artisan breads dusted with lavender flour to lavender teas to Matanzas’ rejuvenating Estate Lavender  line.  This popular event always sells out early and draws a crowd of 400 from all over California for a leisurely and relaxing summer afternoon in the Bennett Valley hills.  Designed in 1991 by landscaper extraordinaire Robert Kourik, with 5,000 impeccably cultivated plants; this is the largest planting of lavender in northern, CA.  It’s surrounded by a border of exotic trees, shrubs and tall grasses and the overall impact is reminiscent of the enclosed secret gardens of classical Europe. 

There will be ample opportunity to taste delicacies featuring edible lavender prepared by Matanzas Creek chefs Justin Wanglerand Eric Frischkorn and their culinary team.  Justin Wangler assures me that there is a “subtle difference” between various culinary cultivars that fine palates can distinguish.  “Lavandula x Intermedia,” commonly named “Grosso,” is a strong and vigorous hybrid, grown on the Matanzas grounds that was developed in France in the early 18oo’s for its heightened oil content.  It yields a robust purple violet bloom and produces one of the highest quality culinary grade lavenders to be found and is favored by the culinary team.  

Delicacies on Saturday’s menu will be prepared with lavender salt rubs, highly concentrated lavender oil and dried lavender.   The menu (subject to change) includes: Lavender Coconut Ceviche, Lavender Poached Shrimp with Cocktail Sauce Crab Claws, Whole Roasted Lavender Chicken, Israeli Couscous with Oranges, Green Olives, Lavender and Mint, Kobe Beef Sandwiches with Lavender Red Wine Dijonaise, Sweet Potato Tots with Lavender Salt, Lavender

Chef Eric Frischkorn will be baking and serving his fabulous artisan breads this Saturday at Matanzas Creek Winery’s 15th Annual “Days of Wine and Lavender.” Photo: Geneva Anderson.

Cheesecake with Blueberries.  These dishes will also be served with complementary Matanzas Creek wines including Matanzas Creek 2010 Helena Bench Sauvignon Blanc from Knights Valley, 2010 Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc and several library wines (well-aged older vintages).

Chef Eric Frischkorn will also be serving his popular homemade artisan breads featuring lavender.  Frischkorn has created a unique wild yeast starter dough from yeast collected on the vineyard’s grapes and Saturday’s sourdough bread will come from this starter.   

 Event Highlights Include:

  • The Tim Hockenberry Blues Band: They will get you movin’ and groovin’ under the oaks.
  • Photographer Marlene Smith:  a professional photographer who will take a portrait of you against the spectacular backdrop of the lavender fields to remember your day at Matanzas Creek Winery.
  • Marin French Cheese: Enjoy hand-crafted Artisan soft-ripened cheese paired with Matanzas Creek wines.
  • Desserts:  gourmet sweets paired with Matanzas’ new release of their dessert wine, Dénouement.
  • Bocce Ball Courts: Guests can try their hand at “Lavender Ball” in the Bocce Ball Courts by the Lavender Barn.
  • Open Air Jeep Tours:  tours to the neighboring Jackson Park Vineyards featuring a spectacular view of the lower winery, vineyards and gardens.
  • Local Artists: Sonoma County Artists who specialize in photographing or painting lavender fields and vineyards in Bennett Valley will have works on display. Chalk artist Robin Burgert will create a colored chalk artwork on the parking lot blacktop.
  • short complimentary hand and shoulder massages utilizing Estate Lavender products 
  • The Lavender Barn will be open with Estate Lavender culinary items, lotions, soaps, massage oils and much more available for purchase. And this is not your ordinary lavender spa line–of course, there’s a pure lavender scent from the finest essential oil.  Several lavender products have also been blended with ingredients like tangerine, neroli and rose to create modern invigorating scents.   There’s also a men’s line that features a handmade soap with a spicy earthy lavender-infused scent that’s worth stocking up on.  

On-going Lavender Education Series:  Matanzas Creek hopes to inspire wine and garden lovers with a series of quarterly educational seminars on growing and using lavender.  All classes are held at 9 a.m. and include a wine-tasting and lunch.  Cost is $75 per person, or $55 for 55 for Custom Crush wine club members.  Upcoming seminars:

Matanzas Creek Winery's Lavender Garden features some 5,000 plants. Terraced rows of the lavender cultivars "Grosso" and "Provence" line the entrance to the winery. Photo: courtesy Matanzas Creek Winery.

July 19, 2011 “Explore the Wonders of Honeybees”:  This seminar will delve into the busy life of the honeybee. Local natural honey purveyor Marshall’s Farm will join us for an in-depth look at beekeeping and a demonstration of how to make lavender-infused honey.   This is a hands-on course.

Sept. 20, 2011 “Cooking with Culinary Lavender”:   Matanzas Creek’s culinary team will teach attendees how to incorporate culinary lavender into every-day cooking.  This is a hands-on course.

Nov. 8, 2011 “Making Lavender Gifts for the Holiday”:  This workshop will show participants how to make a lavender sachet, holiday potpourri and a lavender rock salt warmer.  This is a hands-on course.

 Details: Saturday June 25th, noon to 4 p.m. Tickets: $75 General Public and $60 Custom Crush members.  Matanzas Creek Winery is located at 6097 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa, CA  95404.  Phone: 800 590-6464

 The winery is known for its crisp sauvignon blancs, luxurious chardonnays and fruity, earthy merlots.  To learn more, visit .

June 22, 2011 Posted by | Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Listening Between the Lines, Anna Deavere Smith in conversation at the New School, Bolinas, Thursday June 23, 2011

Observation is one of the most exacting skills every artist must cultivate. For a writer, listening is critical to the process of transmuting observed reality into art. Playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith is said to have created a new form of theatre mining the riches of both spoken and unspoken language.  She will appear in conversation with painter and author Eric Karpeles at the New School at Commonweal in Bolinas this Thursday, June 23, 2011 from 2-4 p.m.  Honoring her sources, Deavere-Smith has developed an idiosyncratic theatrical form that is composed exclusively of verbatim texts hobbled together from interviews done over years with both ordinary and extraordinary people.  Her journey has led her through riot-torn streets and up academic ivory towers, encountering a dazzling cross-section of American individuals.  Her current production, “Let Me Down Easy” is centered on the drama of the human body and its rough handling in the hands of the medical-industrial complex. Performances at Berkeley Rep run through Sunday, June 26th, 2011 and the production has been extended for its second time, will return for 27 additional performances over four weeks starting August 10, 2011- September 4, 2011.  

Anna Deavere Smith is a poet, teacher, actor, and playwright. Her explosive theater works about race in America—Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992—garnered considerable acclaim. Television and film credits include Nurse Jackie, The West Wing, The American President and The Human Stain. A professor at NYU, Smith is founder of The Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue and has taught at Harvard and Stanford.  She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1996.

Details:  RSVP for Anna Deavere Smith in Conversation to the New School at  New School events are held in the main Commonweal building at 451 Mesa Road, Bolinas, CA 94924.  A sign on the front door will lead you to either the Library or the Gallery, depending on the size of the event. Download a map (PDF) with driving directions to Commonweal. Click here for driving directions from Google.

Let Me Down Easy closes June 26, 2011 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s and will resume again August 10-September 4, 2011.   The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is located at 2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA  94704.  Tickets: $49-$95.  Info: 510.647.2949 or

June 20, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Standing for Valhalla: the passion, endurance and strategy it takes to stand through the Ring at SF Opera

Lauren Knoblauch's special ergonomic shoes have trekked to Bayreuth and now they're in San Francisco standing for San Francisco Opera's Ring. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 Those attending the full Ring cycle at San Francisco Opera will spend 17 hours just watching the 4 performances but for those who choose the standing room ticket option, the hours multiply.  One hundred and fifty standing room tickets for last night’s opening performance of Das Rheingold went on sale at 10 a.m. yesterday morning at the War Memorial Opera House.  An additional 50 tickets went on sale at 5 p.m. and all 200 were sold.  Charlise Tiee, of Alameda, arrived “before 7 a.m.” and stood for 3 hours to buy the coveted #1 standing room ticket.   That allowed her to stand again–at the side of opera house– and enter 70 minutes before the performance and select her place to stand for the two hour and 40 minute performance.   Her standing-in-line to standing-in-performance ratio: roughly 2 to 1.  “It will get better with the 4 and 5 hour performances.”

This is Tiee’s 6th Ring cycle and the 34 year old, who studied viola and piano, started her ring thing when she was 26.  Tiee was a stand-out in last night’s line because she came dressed in a green satin brocade gown as Erda, the goddess of earth and mother of the three Norns.  It is Erda who warns Wotan to give up the ring after taking it from Alberich.  It is Erda who sees into the future and possesses great wisdom.  “I’ve been planning this,” she said. 

Charlise Tiee, dressed as goddess Erda, arrived before 7 .m. and bought standing room ticket #1 for $10 for yesterday's Das Rheingold at SF Opera. Photo: Geneva Anderson

At 7:30 a.m., there were 4 people in line for the $10 standing room tickets.  By 10 a.m., there were 40 people, and the line was growing.  Tiee is an SF Opera subscriber but also enjoys the thrill of nabbing the first standing room ticket and the flexibility of standing “I can move around more.”  Her strategy for the special evening was simple—she was going to stand on the orchestra level, on the right side by the pillar “to enhance the contrast with my outfit.”   Tiee is also well known for her lively blog– The Opera Tattler—that tracks her experiences attending opera performances as a standee in San Francisco and beyond.  Her writing is not limited to the performance but to what she sees and hears and “tattles” about the audience as a standee.  Tiee also presides over the Opera Standees Association, a social club for people in the Bay Area who love opera and met in standing room.  OSA meets and also financially sponsors a Merola Opera Program summer participant.  

This really isn’t about saving money, it’s about experiencing opera,” said Tiee.  “A lot of people who attend are in it for the social experience, which is fine.  It’s not easy to keep standing and the people in standing room tend to be more serious and very well-informed about the performances.  I have attended most of the dress rehearsals and will go to all three cycles.  I am interested in how it all evolves–you hear and see things at one performance that you won’t experience again because it’s live art.”  

Members of the standing group consider themselves “exceedingly lucky” because the SF Opera Company is so good and because the people in the box office are friendly and supportive of standees.  This is not the case at other opera venues where standees are valued “at about the price they pay for their tickets.”  

Having secured their numbered sanding room tickets, standees then cue outside the opera house. Many make productive use of their time studying the Wagner libretto in German. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Lauren Knoblauch drove straight from Seattle on Monday evening, leaving right after work, and took a chance on standing room tickets, “Oh, I knew I could get them—they’ve got 200.”  She decided to nap some but still managed to snag standing room ticket #119.  Knoblauch has been to Rings all over the world and likes to travel light.  Wotan has his spear and Siegfried has Nothung and she has her special ergonomic shoes—with separate toes—that make standing easy.  “I haven’t heard too much about the production itself or Zambello,” said Knoblauch.  “I know it goes from different ages—starting in one period and ending in another.  I try not to let the production bother me.  I go for the music and the singing and the acting and let the director do whatever he or she is going to do.  Afterwards, I’ll tell you what I think.”

After securing her place inside the opera house on the orchestra level, Knoblauch began texting and lo and behold, Charlise Tiee, standing next to her was the recipient.  As it turns out, the two have tweeted and texted each other about the performance for some time and met in person that evening.  When asked about Das Rheingold’s opening video projection scenes, by Jan Hartley, of billowing clouds and waves of water, Tiee responded “I do like an interesting production.  To me it looks like a video game and I’ve played a lot of video games and seen a lot of movies that feature CGI (computer generated imagery).  That stuff is competing in the opera for our attention but it’s a much better match with the music than what they used in 2008.”   

 Ring Schedule Cycle 1:  last night (June 15, 2011), Das Rheingold (2 hours, 35 minutes, no intermission); tonight, Die Walküre (4 hours, 30 minutes with two intermissions); Friday Siegfried (4 hours and 50 minutes with two intermissions); Sunday Götterdämmerung(5 hours and 15 minutes with two intermissions). The cycle repeats two more times, June 21-26 and June 28-July 3, 2011. 

After texting and tweeting, Charlise Tiee (L) and Lauren Koblauch (R) finally meet inside the opera as standees for Das Rheingold. Photo: Geneva Anderson


Standing Room for the Ring: There are 200 standing room tickets for each performance in the Ring cycle, and 150 of these go on sale at 10 a.m. the day of the performance at the War Memorial Opera House.  The remaining 50 are sold 2 hours before the performance.  Tickets are $10, cash only, and each person may buy 2 tickets.  Standees may enter on the south side of the opera house, across the street from Davies Symphony on Grove Street, 70 minutes before the curtain time.  The tickets are numbered and sold in order.  One enters the opera house by number, and there is a numbered line painted on the ground outside.  The standing room areas are on the orchestra level and the back of the balcony.  For availability, call the Opera Box Office at (415) 864-3330

June 15, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Anna Deavere Smith channels the collective in “Let Me Down Easy” at Berkeley Rep through July 10, 2011

Anna Deavere Smith in "Let Me Down Easy" at Berkeley Rep through June 26, 2011. Photo: Joan Marcus

Berkeley Rep’s 43rd season closes with Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy–20 powerful character enactments that parade of out Smith in the matter-of-fact delivery style that has become her signature. Coming from different angles, each enactment brilliantly explores the depths of human strength and how each of us faces down or accepts death.  This is Smith’s first Bay Area appearance in 15 years and the playwright has won two Obie awards, two Drama Desk Awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  What’s immediately obvious from this riveting performance is that Smith can listen between the lines like nobody else and from that, she weaves razor-sharp magic.   

Most attempts at categorizing Smith’s unique talents fall short—she is a consummate observer of the human condition, a riveting conversationalist, and a pioneer in the verbatim style of theatre that uses interviewees’ actual words to construct the performance.  Over the years, her work has looked at current events from multiple points of view and combined the journalistic technique of interviewing sources with the art of interpreting their words through performance.  Let Me Down Easy is the 18th part of a series she began in the early 1980s called On the Road: A Search for American Character.  Her goal has been to learn as much about America as she can, by interviewing individual Americans from diverse backgrounds and different perceived levels of authority.  In Let Me Down Easy, Smith branched out.  It took her nine years, but she interviewed over 320 people on three continents, though most of her subjects are American.  What she shows us is, that in matters of life and death, the ability to tell one’s story with authenticity from the innermost core of our being is what makes a story powerful and what makes listeners remember. Credentials don’t really matter much when it comes to storytelling because we all struggle with the complexity of our humanness.  In Let Me Down Easy, a grieving mother captures and holds our attention as well or better does than a multi-credentialed doctor who heads a children’s hospital.  

Smith employed her consummate listening and editing skills to craft these embodiments.  Since each embodiment explores a facet of our complicated humanness, her first task was deciding who of the 320 interviewees she would use and then deciding what, of the earfuls she was given, she would extract and embody in a roughly 5 minute segment.  We all know that often what we’re hearing on the surface is not the full story but that accompanying fluff is what makes each of us unique. To work her magic, Smith needs to unpack each individual from outside in.  Studying with a linguistics coach for years has helped her to master the fine art of inserting herself in other people’s words.

Smith uses a single identifying item–a scarf, a hat, a pair of glasses, a coat—like an artist uses a line. She suggests form and the rest is all vocal and dramatic magic.  The stage design is minimal—there’s a huge white leather couch, a white coffee table, a white dining room table with chairs and a backdrop of several large hanging mirrors which allow us to observe Smith from all angles.  It’s amazing how rapidly she moves from one character to another, tossing the coat or scarf aside and donning an entirely new identity.  Her voice doesn’t so much mimic as it does inflect the character she is embodying and her gestures follow through.  

The first third or so of the show addresses the body and the innate drive of athletes to drain their tank completely in competition.  A crotch scratching impatient Lance Armstrong talks about beating cancer and rodeo bull rider Brent Williams talks about his brush with death and hospitalization.

As playwright and activist Eve Ensler, Smith tells us what’s wrong with today’s young girls–their lack of connection to their sexuality–and then walks us through her quest to “be in her vagina” and thus in her feminine power.  Amidst uproarious laughter, every woman in the room also knows how deadly right on this sketch is.

As gap-toothed American supermodel and actress Lauren Hutton, she smokes a cigarette and then explains how Revlon founder Charles Revson, hooked her up with the best doctors in New York and how she is very intimidated by what doctors actually do. 

As Susan Youens, considered to the world’s leading scholar on Franz Schubert, she explains very eloquently what death meant to Schubert.  Especially poignant is a later enactment with a South African orphanage director who recalls a child’s death and how she counsels other AID’s inflicted children.  In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, she gives a heart-wrenching account of the shameful way that poor patients were abandoned by the system as and left for days in a hospital without any services. 

Anna Deavere Smith conceived, wrote, and performs Let Me Down Easy. Leonard Foglia directs the show. Riccardo Hernandez designed the sets, Ann Hould-Ward designed the costumes, Dan Ozminkowski did the lighting, Ryan Rumery did the sound, Zachary Borovay is the production designer, Joshua Redman created the musical elements, and Joseph Smelser is the stage manager.

Let Me Down Easy closes July 10, 2011.  The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is located at 2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA  94704.  Tickets: $49-$95.  Info: 510.647.2949 or

June 13, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sonoma Chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild readies for the Ring…Cori Ellison speaks Thursday at Kenwood Depot

Cori Ellison, dramaturg and consultant for Francesca Zambello's new production of the Ring cycle currently at San Francisco Opera, will lecture on Wagner's Ring cycle to branches of the SF Opera Guild. Photo: Carol Rosegg

 This Thursday, June 9, 2011, the Sonoma Chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild will host Cori Ellison, dramaturg, New York City Opera, who will offer an in-depth look at Wagner’s Ring cycle operas.  Ms. Ellison will speak at 10:30 a.m. at the Kenwood Depot in Kenwood, CA.  San Francisco Opera Guild preview lectures bring renowned musicologists to the greater Bay Area for an in-depth look at the season’s operas.  Cori Ellison was a consultant to Francesca Zambello in the new production of the San Francisco Opera’s Ring cycle which is beginning next Tuesday, June 14 and running through July 3, 2011.  Ellison is also speaking this week at the Marin, San Jose, Peninsula, San Francisco, and East Bay Chapters of the San Francisco Opera Guild.   She will also talk about female protagonists in the Ring in an all day Ring Symposium (“Wagner’s Ring: The Love of Power, the Power of Love—Cycle 1 Symposium.”) sponsored by the Wagner Society of Northern California on Saturday, June 18, 2011.

Ellison’s talk in Kenwood will establish why Wagner’s Ring is so popular and important.  She will situate the 4 operas contextually in Wagner’s career, in European history, and in philosophical thought, also discussing his source materials.  She will introduce Wagner’s idea of “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total work of art” that aims to make use of all or many forms of art.  She will also give signposts that the audience can grab onto throughout the production to help them get the most out of their experience, with emphasis on leitmotifs.  She will also share special details about the production based on her experience as part of Francesca Zambello’s core creative team.

“One of the wonderful things about Wagner and the Ring is that it really sparks deep thought and conversation in a way that other operas don’t,” said Ellison. “One of the biggest challenges in talking about Wagner, which I’ve done all over the country for a number of years, is that you are pretty much in a little red school house situation where some of the people are themselves experts and the others are novices.  Bridging this divide is tricky—I’ll try to find thoughts that will be of help to both groups.”

“What interests me most about Francesca’s production in San Francisco is that she has so wisely revealed the threads that speak to the American experience in particular.  Of course, every character speaks to forces within each of us, but she’s managed to make us see America too.  That’s why she’s a visionary–no one sees the big picture the way she does.”

Swedish Soprano Nine Stemme, one of the finest Wagner sopranos of our day, has received rave reviews for her Brünnhilde in the San Francisco Opera’s premiere productions of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Francesca Zambello’s new production emphasizes the role of the spiritual feminine and Brünnhilde emerges as the true hero in the four epic dramas. Photo: Cory Weaver

“And without Wagner’s even realizing it, this is so much a story about women and the way they are treated by society and how what’s unique in the feminine can save the world,” added Ellison.  “This is not superimposed by Francesca–it’s organic in the work, but it took Francesca to see that and tease it out in this remarkable way.  It’s like looking at a vast tapestry where there are millions of details and she finds one of those details that she feels is a basic.  She shines a light on it and, of course, that leads to what she’s know for–some very psychologically probing interpretations.”  

The Sonoma guild has roughly 1,500 members, 250 of whom are active participants.  “We’ll have a turn-out for this lecture because of the group’s interest in Wagner,” said Neva Turer, who’s been running the group for several years now.   The guild’s educational component is one of its most important functions.  “We host 6 annual music education lectures for our members and the community with experts selected by the San Francisco Opera,” said Turer.  “Even if people don’t make it in to the operas themselves, they will get a lot out of these wonderful talks.  We also do education programs in about 25 local schools to provide the important foundation that they can’t anymore with all the cuts they’ve had.”

It was Turer who worked with Ky Boyd to bring the very popular Met Opera: Live in HD opera broadcasts to the (former) Rialto Lakeside Cinemas.  The series, now in its 5th season, is currently held at the Jackson Theatre at Sonoma Country Day School and is a program of the Jewish Community Center of Sonoma County by arrangement with Rialto Cinemas.  “I had to plead with Ky to get them to bring this here and I promised that we’d fill the seats,” explained Turer. “Now, it’s become a phenomenon with a life of its own.”   Attendees have had their Wagner appetites whetted this season with two ambitious Robert Lepage productions in the Met’s new Ring Cycle. Das Rheingold, which opened the 2010-11 Met Opera: Live in HD season and Die Walküre, which it closed with in May.

“We have members in our group who live for Wagner and some new ones who are excited to get into it,” explained Turer.  “We are all looking forward to this SF Opera production.  Several saw Zambello’s 2008 production of Das Rheingold in San Francisco and we’re waiting to see how it all comes off.    

In San Francisco Opera’s new production of Götterdämmerung (Act 3, Scene 2), the three Rhinemaidens—Woglinde (Stacey Tappan), Wellgunde (Lauren McNeese) and Flosshilde (Renee Tatum) are dressed in filthy gowns and are surrounded by washed up plastic bottles as they mourn the lost Rhine gold and plead with Siegfried (Ian Storey) to act now and return the ring to avoid the coming crisis. Photo: Cory Weaver.

David Marsten of Calistoga is one member of Sonoma group who has seen the Ring over 20 times and has a passion and breadth of knowledge that is inspirational.   When I called him, he was just running off to St. Helena with books and recordings to share with a member who was new to the cycle.  Marsten tries to catch all the major performances and has found camaraderie in the group.  In 2009, when his granddaughter was being born, he suddenly found himself with a spare ticket to a Ring cycle in Seattle, so he persuaded another member, who he didn’t know at the time, to spontaneously travel with him to see the performance.  He also went to the Los Angeles Opera’s cycle in 2010.

“When you’ve done this for awhile, and needless to say, you have recordings of all the major performances—you find that there’s an enormous breadth of interpretation, different versions of the same opera, and that’s exciting.  It’s amazing that Götterdämmerung, for example, can be as short as 5 ½ hours and as long as 6 ½ hours and that’s without intermission, just straight musically.   You come to the realization that this breadth can encompass very slow conducting to more rapid versions—and generally it’s all valid.  And what makes it work is that concept of Gesamtkunstwerk—a unity of the arts–when it all comes together poetically.”

“Wagner was one of the few operatic conductors who really did it all,” said Marsten.  “He wrote the story and then he put the text into a very curious verse form of the archaic German ‘stabreim’ (alliteration) which had the effect of liberating him from normal rhyme patterns.  Then, he wrote the music and created all sorts of incredible effects with a huge orchestra that he could only imagine.  In fact, in the case of the brass section, he invented three completely new instruments that didn’t exist previously—the Wagner tuba, bass trumpet and bass trombone.  The most amazing thing about this was that he imagined the sound he needed to complete the tonal range and it was written on paper and lived inside of his head for 25 years until he actually heard it in the rehearsals in 1876.   He was just a remarkable visionary…. It’s not so easy, but step by step, you enter and you begin to see that beyond the genius of the music itself, it’s all a gigantic metaphor, like a Tibetan sand mandala, that operates on many levels that you can work your way around and into.”

Marsten’s recommendation: buy and read William Cord’s An Introduction to Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.  Cord is a former music professor at Sonoma State University and has written extensively and insightfully on Wagner and the Ring

Enjoying Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung with Speight Jenkins is a 2 CD set, one per opera, of the 1954 Bayreuth performance, with each playing about an hour that presents some of the major themes and leitmotifs in the Ring.

M. Owen Lee’s (University of Toronto) Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Round, an excellent introduction to the Ring cycle.

Details:  Cori Ellison will speak Thursday, June 9, 2011, at 10:30 a.m. at the Kenwood Depot, 314 Warm Springs Road, Kenwood, CA.  Admission is $10 at the door.  Refreshments will be served.  For more information, contact Pat Clothier at (707) 538-2549 or Neva Turer at (707) 539-1220.     

Visit and select “Ring Festival Event” from the “All Events” dropdown menu to explore upcoming events by month.

June 6, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the eve of twlight—SF Opera premieres Götterdämmerung with a new Siegfried, as its Ring Cycle continues this Sunday, June 5, 2011

In Götterdämmerung’s prologue, Brünnhilde (Nine Stemme) and Siegfried (Ian Storey) emerge from their cave and sing a rapturous duet and then Brünnhilde sends Siegfried off to perform more heroic deeds. He leaves her the ring as a sign of his faithfulness and she gives him her horse, Grane. Photo: Cory Weaver

I can’t wait for Sunday’s premiere of Götterdämmerung, (literally “Twilight of the Gods”), part of  San Francisco Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), which will run through July 3, 2011 and feature  three complete cycles of the four-opera cycle.  This is where it all comes together—over 5 hours with two short intermissions—in a highly anticipated finale by acclaimed stage director Francesca Zambello.  Naturally, the actual production details are a secret but based on last Sunday’s premiere of Siegfried, the third Ring opera, we know that Zambello is making a bold statement about environmentalism, global stewardship and loss of values with an American emphasis. Brünnhilde’s evolution into a true hero in her own right is also emphasized as part of a strong story arch emphasizing the power of the feminine.  Most notably the opera will feature Swedish powerhouse Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, probably the best Wagner soprano working these days.  Tenor Ian Storey as Siegfried takes over the role from tenor Jay Hunter Morris, who sung Siegfried without fanfare in last weekend’s premiere of  Siegfried.   I am hopeful that Storey will inject some energy into this final drama and that there’s passion and naughty heat between him and Stemme which is what makes this all credible.  From what I’ve heard…there’s a lot to look forward to–  

“It’s the Sistine Chapel of music.  We’ve got Runnacles, the Wagner conductor, and Nina Stemme, the Brünnhilde—it’s an extraordinary triumph,” said Kristina Flanagan, a former Petaluma resident and one of the one of the three chairpersons of the SFOpera Ring committee that raised the $24 million for the production.  Flanagan has sat in on most of the rehearsals for Siegfried and Götterdämmerung and knows all the details about the delights to come.  “This production is so to the point.  The final scene in Götterdämmerung… I will not spoil it now… but there will not be a dry eye in the house.  It will slay you.”

“You’re looking at the pursuit of power over love and straight at the power of the spiritual feminine to pull us through,” said Flanagan who will be speaking at the Commonweal Gallery in Bolinas on June 12 with Jean Shinoda Bolen and Francesca Zambello about Goddess-Archetypes in the Ring Cycle and in us.  “This production was conceived 5 or 6 years ago–before the crash, before the tsunami’s, before the tornado devastation and before the real solid evidence of the consequences of the Wotan in all of us.  I think that’s the way this must be taken—every character describes some force within us as human beings.  I think of American human beings in particular.  One could say that we have really lost our stature in the world as a result of the exact dynamic that Albrecht and Wotan are developing.  One could also say that this is a dynamic that is traditionally associated with the male.”  

With the fall of heroes, gods and the entire world, Götterdämmerung brings the cycle to the very cataclysmic end that our beloved planet Earth is fast-tracking.   And then there’s the music.  While still composing the Ring, Wagner took a twelve year break from Siegfried during which he completed Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  When he returned to complete the third act of Siegfried and to write the music of Götterdämmerung, he had undergone a tremendous change in his musical thinking and compositional style and all of Götterdämmerung is written in this advanced style which is breathtaking by comparison.

The Ring Up Until Now…

Renouncing love, the dwarf Alberich – chief of Nibeluns – stole the Rhinegold from the Rhinemaidens, and had his brother Mime fashion it into a ring which gives its owner supreme power.  Wotan, the chief god, stole the ring from Alberich to pay-off two giants, Fasolt and Fafner, for building his fortress Valhalla.  Alberich cursed the ring and Wotan yielded it over to the giants; Fafner immediately killed Fasolt, then took the form of a dragon in order to guard it.

Wotan sired human (mortal) twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who committed incest, leading Fricka (Wotan’s wife and goddess of marriage) to demand retribution. Wotan presided over Siegmund’s death. Sieglinde died in childbirth and their son Siegfried was left as an orphan and raised by Mime, who was let down by love and has his own scheme for world domination.

Siegfried reforged his father’s sword, killed Mime and then Fafner, and acquired the ring, though he was unaware of its value. Wotan had also fathered nine warrior-daughters, the Valkyries.  Brünnhilde, his favorite, disobeyed him, and as a punishment, she was put to sleep, surrounded by fire.  Siegfried broke through the fire, awoke her with a kiss, and persuaded her that their love was of more value than her being a goddess.

Götterdämmerung: 5 hours 15 minutes, includes two intermissions, German with English supertitles

Lead Roles:  Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde; Wagnerian tenor Ian Storey as Siegfried.  (In April, due to health issues, Storey slated to sing Siegfried in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, relinquished the role of Siegfried in Siegfried.) Italian bass Andrea Silvestrellli as Hagen. 

History:  Premiered at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus on 17 August 1876, as part of the first complete performance of The Ring.  The title “Twilight of the Gods” is a translation into German of the Old Norse phrase Ragnarök, which in Norse mythology refers to a prophesied war of the gods that brings about the end of the world.

Götterdämmerung is the fourth drama in the Ring but Wagner actually composed the dramatic texts with Götterdämmerung first (in 1848) and then kept embellishing the story, following with Siegfried, Die Walküre, and then Das Reingold.  The musical compositions followed much later beginning with Das Reingold in 1854, then Die Walküre, Siegfried and ending with Götterdämmerung in 1874.  

Story: Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli), Alberich’s (Gordon Hawkins) son, uses a potion and entraps Siegfried (Ian Storey), who betrays Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme) and is killed.

Important Moments:

Prologue:  Siegfried’s Rhine Journey:  At dawn, Siegfried leaves Brünnhilde and travels down from the mountain to seek adventure and heroic deeds.  This extended orchestral piece is often played separately.

Act II:  “Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn?” (Are you sleeping my son Hagen?)  Manipulative Alberich enters the subconscious of his son Hagen who is sleeping and deeply disturbed. 

Spear Oath:  Siegfried swears on a spear that he has not dishonored Brünnhilde and dedicates the spear to his death if he is lying. Brünnhilde, Hagen and Gunter also swear on the same spear that that they will get rid of Siegfried.  

Act III: Siegfried’s Funeral March: Siegfried’s final words to Brünnhilde and he is then carried off to the strains of a march.

Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene “Starke schiete” ‘Let great logs be brought to the bank and heaped in a mighty pile. Let the flames…consume the noble corpse of this first of all men.’ Brünnhilde sings in the spectacular end not only to Götterdämmerung, but the entire Ring cycle. Wagner must not only fulfill the premise of his great drama, but close off one the largest harmonic structures in the history of western music.  As Brünnhilde rides her horse into the fire, Wagner reviews some of the cycles important leitmotifs in a tone poem that depicts the burning down of Valhalla, the flooding of the Rhine, the curse motif, and as the floodwaters recede, the Rhinemaidens taking possession of the ring, combined with the melody that Sieglinde has sung when first discovered she was pregnant with Siegfried.   

Ring Educational events:  An array of cultural and educational institutions have partnered with San Francisco Opera to present lectures, symposia, exhibits, musical performances and film screenings throughout the Bay Area for audiences who want to connect with Wagner and the Ring cycle in new and compelling ways.  Visit and select “Ring Festival Event” from the “All Events” dropdown menu to explore upcoming events by month. 

Wagner and his music can be explored in from angles as diverse as the intersection of science and the environment in the Ring (California Academy of Sciences); psychological, political and spiritual parallels found in the Ring (New School Commonweal); and Buddhist influences evident in the Ring (Asian Art Museum). Upcoming musical performances range from an orchestral concert of music from the Ring (San Francisco Conservatory) and organ transcriptions of Wagner’s music (St. Mary’s Cathedral) to the lighthearted operetta The Merry Nibelungs by Oscar Straus (Opera Frontier).  The San Francisco Opera is also partnering with the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and the Contemporary Jewish Museum to explore the Wagner’s anti-Semitism and the political impact of his music throughout history.

Half-day Ring Symposiums:  San Francisco Opera offers a half-day Ring Symposium on the Tuesday of each Cycle that includes a general introduction to Wagner and the Ring’s story, characters and music, and an exploration of the unique aspects of this new production’s distinctly American setting and its approach to issues relating to feminism and environmentalism. Members of San Francisco Opera’s music staff will discuss Wagner’s music and explore this production. Members of the creative team and production staff will share images of the sets, costumes, video projections and lighting and discuss how they collaborated with director Zambello. June 14, 21 and 28, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Herbst Theatre, Veterans Building. 401 Van Ness Ave.

Ring Preview Lecture: Sonoma Chapter SF Opera Guild:  The Sonoma Opera Guild’s Ring Preview Lectures will feature Cori Ellison, dramaturg, New York City Opera, offering an in-depth look into the Ring cycle operas.  Thursday, June 9, 2011, 10:30am, Kenwood Depot, 314 Warm Springs Road, Kenwood, CA. Admission is $10 at the door.  For more information, contact Pat Clothier at (707) 538-2549 or Neva Turer at (707) 539-1220.

Details: Single tickets for Sunday’s performance of Götterdämmerung are still available. Götterdämmerung also plays: June 19, June 26, and July 3, 2011.  San Francisco Opera’s May 29 to July 3 presentation of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen are priced from $95 to $360.  Symposia tickets are $40 (plus a $9 registration fee). All tickets are available online at , or in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., or by phone at (415) 864-3330.  

Schedule:  The Ring of the Nibelung

Premiere of new productions for “Siegfried,” May 29, 2011 “Götterdämmerung,” June 5, 2011
Cycle 1: June 14, June 15, June 17, June 19
Cycle 2: June 21, June 22, June 24, June 26
Cycle 3: June 28, June 29, July 1, July 3

June 4, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Don’t miss the Magna Carta at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor–53 lines written on parchment 800 years ago that shaped the course of democracy– through Sunday, June 5, 2011

Dr. James Ganz, curator Achenberg Foundation for Graphic Arts, discusses the Magna Carta which is one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy. An original copy of the Magna Carta, just one of four in existence in on display at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco through June 5, 2011. Photo: courtesy Tom Jung Photography

An original Magna Carta (Great Charter of English Liberties), one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy, is on display at the Legion of Honor through June 5, 2011.  Magna Carta’s declaration that no free man should be imprisoned without due process underlies the development of common law in England as well as the concepts of individual liberty and constitutional government that created the United States. 

“This is an extremely rare public appearance for this particular Magna Carta.  This is its first public display on this continent in its nearly 800-year history” explained Dr. James Ganz, Curator of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, who coordinated the installation at the Legion of Honor.  “It’s something that in America has always been cited as an important precedent for certain aspects of our Bill of Rights.”   

This Magna Carta, presented with an English translation, is on loan to the Legion of Honor from the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, England.  Magna Carta was signed at Runnymede near Windsor on June 15, 1215 by King John and was reissued throughout the 13th century by England’s rulers.   The charter on display in San Francisco is one of the Bodleian’s three originals of the solemn reissue of November 1217.  No master-prototype has survived from King John’s 1215 ceremony at Runnymede but there are seventeen surviving original manuscripts of Magna Carta from the thirteenth century that are official engrossments, or exemplifications of the Latin text from the Royal Chancery bearing the ruler’s seal. 

The Magna Carta’s purpose was to literally get the King’s word out in tangible form, safeguarded and sealed, so that it could be dispatched to county seats and churches where it was read aloud and then displayed.  In 13thcentury England, this required the preparation of vellum from goat or sheepskin, the preparation of ink from oak galls and a scribe with exceptional quill-wielding penmanship.  Official copies were all made in the same fashion and then sealed and folded into small packets for secure travel and delivery.  The Magna Carta on display at the Legion was sent out by the royal record office to Gloucestershire in 1217 and most likely housed at St. Peter’s Abbey (now Gloucester Cathedral). 

Magna Carta, 1217, on display at the Legion of Honor, has been restored on the upper left and right corners and has evidence of being folded 5 times over. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

The document is displayed in Gallery 3 under the Legion’s prized Mudéjar ceiling from Toledo, dating from approximately 1500, and is surrounded by the gallery’s religious paintings from the 16th century.  Curator James Ganz admits the right atmosphere was hard to find.  “I’ll tell you, this gallery is 250 to 300 years off.  There’s not an artist here, or even his grandfather, who was alive when this was signed.  Still, this is the medieval world.”

The large Plexiglas showcase holds a special climate-controlled frame in which sits the sheet of parchment roughly sixteen inches wide and twelve inches high.  The Magna Carta contains fifty-six lines of hand-inscribed tiny medieval Latin text that is chock full of abbreviations, the being to save space so as to fit all the text on one sheet of large parchment. It still bears its original crease marks from being folded for secure delivery and the green wax seal of William Marshal the elder, a guardian of the boy King Henry III, who was then in power.

“When I was told we’d have the Magna Carta, I obviously wanted to display the translation as well,” explained Ganz.  “I had no idea that it would come out to 16 pages on double-spaced text in English.  We actually have a couple of complete translations handcuffed to a bench and if you really want to wade through the 1217 Magna Carta, we invite you to have a seat and go for it.  There’s a lot of arcane and esoteric stuff in it and it’s not easy going.  Most of it is completely irrelevant to the 21st century, even to the 18th century for that matter.”

Many clauses of the Magna Carta pertain to mundane matters specific to their place and time: fishing rights on the rivers Thames and Medway, knights’ duties on castle guard and gifts of lands to abbeys. The first clause addresses the rights of the church; subsequent language protects widows, though women are denied the right to accuse murderers except at the deaths of their own husbands.  Over nearly eight hundred years, almost all of the Magna Carta’s clauses have been abandoned or superseded, yet it has continued to serve as a model and an inspiration, embodying the highest ideals in the governance of a state: the rule of law is higher than a king; rights and liberties belong to all and forever.

Legacy:  Only three of the Magna Carta’s original phrases are still law. One defends the freedom and rights of the English church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, but the third is the most famous:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled . nor will we proceed with force against him . except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

This statement of principle, buried deep in Magna Carta, was given no particular prominence in 1215, but its intrinsic adaptability has allowed succeeding generations to reinterpret it for their own purposes and this has ensured its longevity. In the fourteenth century Parliament saw it as guaranteeing trial by jury. Sir Edward Coke interpreted it as a declaration of individual liberty in his conflict with the early Stuart kings and it echoes in the American Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Additional Resources:    On May 26, 2011, KQED Forum host Dave Iverson interviewed Richard Ovenden, associate director and keeper of special collections at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, which loaned the Magna Carta to the Legion for the exhibit.

The British Library has mounted an excellent online information hub on their copy of the 1215 Magna Carta which includes a translator that lets you translate from Latin “as you go” using an online viewer magnifier.  The site also contains  extensive background on how and why the Magna Carta was written, what it was like in 13th-century England and a fabulous section addressing how various people were affected by Magna Carta—you can click on King John, King Henry III, Pope Innocent III, William Marshal, a scribe, a villain, the free men and more.   

Details: The Legion of Honor Museum is located in Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.; closed on Monday.  Viewing Magna Carta is included in the general admission ticket $6-$10 as is the Lod Mosaic on view through July 24, 2011.  There is a $5 surcharge for Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave, on view in the lower level galleries of the Legion of Honor through June 5.  Info: (415) 750-3600 or

June 2, 2011 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment