One of the most wonderful things about the arts is its diversity. We can turn to the arts for entertainment, enjoyment, inspiration, instruction, comfort or any number of similar goals. In the past week, I've attended two very different events which have done all of these things for me.
The first was entertainment and enjoyment from MusicalFare in Buffalo. The second was inspiration, instruction and some small measure of comfort at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa.
Lucille Ball, above, and Peggy Lee, at right, were both born in a town named Jamestown. They are celebrated in the production “Jamestown Gals.”
Local music lovers recently traveled to Mercyhurst College for a performance of the 2005 opera ‘‘Dr. Atomic,’’ presented Live from the Metropolitan Opera in high definition. The subject is Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, above, principal creator of the atomic bomb.
For a number of years I have shared information about the musical performances at MusicalFare. The talented and very professional company specializes in small-scale musical shows, usually specifically composed for them or having their area debut.
The company now has on stage one of its original works especially relating to us. It's called "Jamestown Gals," and it celebrates the musical careers of Lucille Ball and Peggy Lee. I hope that all of our readers know Lucy, although her fame as a comic have completely overshadowed her career as a singer and dancer. Here's a show which can refresh your memory.
Before someone reaches for the phone to tell me that Peggy Lee was not from Jamestown, I assure you that she was - Jamestown, N.D., that is. For those not lucky enough to remember Lee, she was a female singer with a deep, smoky voice who could reach right through the radio and make a man reorganize his priorities on the spot. She won a number of Grammies and was nominated for an Oscar for her appearance in the film "Pete Kelly's Blues."
"Jamestown Gals" doesn't try to teach you anything about its central figures. In fact, there is no talking in the show. What you have are six very talented performers who sing and dance to 34 songs associated with the women.
Michael Walline put the show together, directed the MusicalFare production, and choreographed it. If you're still unsure about Lucy's role as singer and dancer, 20 of the 34 songs are from her career. The printed program helpfully names all songs and identifies which of the women was identified with each.
OK, there's the theme song from "I Love Lucy." Everybody knows that, and most know that there are words to go with it, although it was usually performed by Desi Arnaz and his orchestra in instrumental form only.
Perhaps you didn't know that Lucy performed the lead in the Broadway musical "Wildcat," in which she performed the show's most popular song, "Hey, Look Me Over." If you check your memory, you probably remember that Lucy performed the title role in the film musical "Mame," the musical version of the award-winning film "Auntie Mame" by Patrick Dennis. That would bring up the title song, of course, and "Bosom Buddies," which she sang in the film with Golden Girl Bea Arthur.
By now, memories abound of comic songs which she sang while trying to break into her husband's night club act, or while putting on a big "amateur" show for one cause or another. Just as one example, didn't she and Vivian Vance, as sidekick Ethel Mertz, show up at a big event wearing the same dress and sing "If You're Ever in a Jam, Here I Am?"
As for the sultry Lee, she is best known from her many bestselling albums, which she released at a rate of two to four per year for nearly 30 years. My life was re-arranged by her performance of "Fever." Remember her cynical "Is That All There Is?" She was known for soundtracks from films such as "Pete Kelly's Blues" and the classic cartoon "Lady and the Tramp." Remember "He's a Tramp, but I Love Him?" That was Peggy.
Performing with energy and genuine talent are Arin Lee Dandes, John Fredo, Terrie George, Kelly Jakiel, Marc Sacco and Kathy Weese. Special praise for Fredo, who sings with the same Latin style and passion which Desi Arnaz had mastered, even when a familiar voice is yammering in the background.
The only negatives to a full evening of pleasure would be two. Sometimes the show is over-choreographed, having people dancing around the stage when it would be great if they just stood still and sang. The dancing is in no way bad, it's just distracting. Also, the small and attractive theater in which MusicalFare performs its productions means even audience members in the back row are fairly close to the stage, and that makes it easy to hear singers and the five-piece instrumental ensemble which backs them up. The amount of amplification used was far too much, both overwhelming the audience and making it so that no matter where the performers are on the stage, the singing remains coming from the same place - the nearest speaker. That makes it almost as impersonal as watching a film.
"Jamestown Gals" will be performed through Dec. 7. The company performs in its own theater on the campus of Daemen College, 4380 Main St. in Amherst. Tickets are $32 for all shows except Friday and Saturday evenings, when they cost $36. I strongly recommend reservations, as they usually sell out. Phone them at 839-8540 or go to www.musicalfare.com.
Last year, I wrote a column about how the Metropolitan Opera company - our nation's most respected an admired company on an international scale - was reaching out to make their productions available to millions upon millions of additional people around the world.
Modern technology now makes it possible for audiences in movie theaters all over the world to see and hear a live performance when it is broadcast in high definition, both visually and audibly. It has the qualities of a live performance, because the audience isn't seeing something which has been worked over with technology, correcting tiny mistakes or re-filming elements which don't work perfectly. You see the singers and hear their performances the instant they produce them, exactly as they produce them.
There are several sites in Erie and Buffalo where these performances are presented, but the site closest to Chautauqua County is in the beautiful Mary D'Angelo Performing Arts Center on the campus of Mercyhurst College in Erie. While a top-priced seat in the Met's magnificent facility in New York City's Lincoln Center can cost you in the neighborhood of $1,000, you may have any seat in the house, in Erie, for $15. Through the magic of technology, you can walk with the conductor through the tunnel to the orchestra pit or look directly into the eyes of the world-famous singers, as though you were, perhaps, two or three feet away.
I saw a large number of acquaintances from our area at the Nov. 8 performance of the 2005 opera "Doctor Atomic" by composer John Adams.
If you are one of the many Americans whose relationship with opera has been poisoned by the ridiculous popular fiction that the art form is old fashioned or not "cool" in some way, I offer you my sympathy. You are missing out on one of life's most thrilling experiences.
Because music is capable of opening our hearts and minds to other people's feelings - both familiar feelings and feelings we never knew before were possible - while the dramatic elements of opera help us ground ourselves in a reality other than our own, opera can take us not only to other times and places, but into completely different points of view. "Dr. Atomic," for example, makes it possible to be at the site of the world's first nuclear explosion, and to know what was going through the head and heart of the man who was most responsible for that universe-changing event.
Perhaps the best-known and most respected composers of opera in today's world is John Adams. His best-known operas are based upon news stories and actual dialog from contemporary people who have participated in historical events which have greatly shaped our world. His most successful works, in addition to "Dr. Atomic," have included "Nixon in China," which recounts the first visit by an American president to a Communist China which had previously been shut off from diplomacy and business with the rest of the world. Also, "The Death of Klinghoffer," which takes audiences to an experience when a Jewish-American tourist confronts a team of terrorists who have seized control of a cruise ship on which he was a passenger, whose argumentative and abusive interaction with the terrorists led to his murder, and his being rolled into the sea in his wheelchair.
The central figure in "Dr. Atomic" is Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer. In 1944, the world had been embroiled in World War II since 1939. The United States had been fighting a war on two fronts - against Germany in Europe and against Japan on the islands of the Pacific.
Oppenheimer was put in charge of a hugely expensive and profoundly controversial experiment, seeking to produce a nuclear weapon - a device so destructive, it was hoped that enemy nations would surrender without further fighting and loss of life.
Some people would have simply produced a weapon, if asked to do so, without a lot of thought. Oppenheimer understood that if he created this weapon, it would kill thousands upon thousands of people, they would die in a terrible way, and he would have taught the world that such a weapon was possible, perhaps resulting in the spread of the technology until the entire planet might be destroyed. On the other hand, it was well known that our country's enemies were struggling to produce such a weapon, and it was suspected that the Nazis, in particular, were very close to success.
While the Germans surrendered in spring 1945, Japan continued to fight, and military experts believed that they would continue to fight indefinitely unless their country were invaded and placed under our control. Estimations suggest that it would cost as much as 3 million lives to invade and conquer Japan, not counting the number of Japanese lives which would be lost in this enormous invasion.
The situation was made worse by the fact that while our principal allies in the war, Britain and the Soviet Union, had officially declared war on Japan as well as Germany, both allies saw Germany as the major enemy. Many feared that their participation in this suggested invasion might leave Americans to lose most of the 3 million lives.
So, the opera shows us Oppenheimer, both eager to succeed in his project, and in some parts of his heart, hoping that it would never work. Some scientists suggested that if a nuclear explosion ever took place, all of the atoms in the planet would be caught up in the resulting chain reaction, resulting in the destruction of the entire Earth.
Rival scientists sought to cast doubt on his work, hoping to replace him at the head of the project. Military staff were there to see that government money was not wasted, and to make sure that none of the scientists had second thoughts about their weapon. The general in charge threatens the project's meteorologists that they must sign their weather predictions, warning them that they will be hanged if they are wrong.
When a pool is formed to bet how powerful the new weapon will turn out to be, Oppenheimer bets that it will fizzle. He hopes that will happen, but he can't bring himself to make it happen.
The bomb itself hangs over everyone in the opera. A giant ball, perhaps eight feet in diameter, with electrical wires and connections all over it, it sometimes sits on a tall metal tower and sometimes rises like an unnatural star into the sky over the entire stage. Baritone Gerald Finley sings the title role with power and wonderfully intense acting. We listen in while the man who made the bomb turns to literature and religion and anything else he can somehow torture into a possible guideline for his feelings. The doctor's wife is with him, her role sung by mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson. The couple's two children have been combined by the libretto into one daughter of roughly age 7, to serve as the personification of future generations which will have their entire beings swayed by this big, metal ball this man is creating.
By far, the most powerful element of the opera is the solo aria which closes the first half. As the bomb rises into the sky for the first time from its tower, Oppenheimer finds his thoughts turning to the writings of poet John Donne, perhaps reciting, perhaps praying, "Batter my heart, three person'd God."
A situation like Oppenheimer's, surrounded by rivals and enemies, tortured by conscience, and deeply believing in his country and its goals, yet fully aware that any country can be diverted from a noble path if it receives a vast new power,like, say, a bomb ... are all made part of the audience by the performance and music. Such feelings aren't pretty, and the music isn't pretty. What it is, is passionate and vast and one can feel it opening doors into our own thoughts and feelings.
Why would people pay to have an experience which they will wish would stop? Think about it for a while, and if you can't think of a reason, I'm sorry.
The libretto of the opera - the words which the people sing - was created by Peter Sellars. That is, the Sellars famed for directing operas, not the actor who portrayed the Pink Panther. Fortunately for the intended effect, Adams' music is noted for rising and falling in pitch and volume in imitation of normal speech. Lines such as "A sustained neutron chain reaction resulting from nuclear fission has been demonstrated ... We do not know when the first explosion will occur, nor how effective it will be," are certainly not poetry. The creators of this artwork find nothing poetic in the situation.
How horrible to live with closed mind and closed heart, immune from the events and reasons which create and shape our world.
Readers can batter their own hearts, minds and ears with a wide variety of emotional and intellectual opportunities, coming up from the Met, at Mercyhurst including: Nov. 22, hear Hector Berlioz's opera "La Damnation de Faust;" Dec. 20, hear the remarkable Renee Fleming in the title role of Massenet's "Thais;" Jan.10, hear opera's famed husband and wife team, Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, in Puccini's "La Rondine;" Jan. 24, the unexpected talents of Gluck, Mark Morris and Isaac Mizrahi combine in a production of "Orfeo ed Euridice;" Feb. 7, famed soprano Anna Netrebko dons the bloody wedding gown of Lucia di Lammermoor, by Donizetti; March 7, the one fine day when "Madama Butterfly" will be performed; March 21, hear sexy French soprano Natalie Dessay sing as she walks in her sleep in Bellini's "La Sonnambula;" and May 9, hear the celebrated Rossini take a crack at the Cinderella legend in "La Cenerentola."