Thursday, March 8, 2012

Bert and I

Part I of a Year Long Series

It's time we began talking "Burt Dow, Deep Water Man" again. Tonight was our second evening of Equity auditions for the show, at 440 Studios across from the Public Theater at Astor Place in New York.

The "Bert" in the title of this post may appear as an error to those unfamiliar with Opera House Arts' original "children's opera" version of Robert McCloskey's classic 1964 tale of the same name, which we commissioned from composer Maia Aprahamian in 2007, premiered in 2010, and will re-mount August 9-19, 2012, with a Maine tour April 21-May 5, 2013.

The real-to-life Bert Dow, on whom this story is based, was a Deer Isle mariner who is buried on King Row in Deer Isle. When McCloskey turned the real "deep water man" into the protagonist of his final children's book, he changed "Bert" to "Burt"--part of the process of transforming the real into the legendary.

I've titled this series of blog posts, which will track the process of re-mounting and touring "Burt Dow, Deep Water Man," in the spirit of Marshall Dodge's iconic Maine routines, "Bert and I."

And indeed, tonight's auditions were all about "The Burt's."

But first let me tell you how incredibly fun and exciting it is to hold auditions for a musical in New York City. Beginning with our own terrific musical director, Peter Szep, director Joan Jubett, and piano accompanist Michael--who could play anything anyone brought in--we were swimming in a sea of talent: talent with big voices. The kind that knock the back wall out of the room. You can imagine yourself in "A Chorus Line." You can feel as if perhaps you've never really heard a tenor before.

With all the talented bass singers we saw this evening, we're left wrestling with a philosophical question: do we cast someone in the mode of the real life Bert Dow, or the best vocalist?! It's a constant question when casting: so many variables make for a great performance. In this instance, our audience members' emotional attachment to the myth and legend of "Burt Dow" and to the world premiere version make this an even more difficult choice than usual.

What do you think? Shall we cast a grizzled, older New Englander who has Bert Dow in his body? Or go for a younger actor who will need beard and make up to age him, but has a more spectacular voice? What would you do?

Tell us. We want to hear from you.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

What's Going On

Two weeks ago, Opera House Arts' staff and Reach Performing Arts Center director Morgan Witham traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the annual meeting of the Kennedy Center Partners in Education program, of which we are members in collaboration with the Deer Isle-Stonington Schools.

There were many amazing and inspiring aspects of this trip, not the least of which were all the great ideas we have for the coming year of arts education programming collaborations between OHA and the schools (more on these soon, direct from the keyboard of the Opera House's Education Associate Michele Levesque!). OHA was proud to have been asked to give the 300+ members of this nationwide partnership a presentation on our 2011 project, "Dear Fish," in collaboration with the partnership team from Juneau, AK. The presentation of the excellent work done by our teachers and students was enthusiastically received!

And right after our presentation, we were treated to a performance by students from Washington's Duke Ellington School for the Arts. Two girls, one a spoken word poet and one a singer, and a boy accompanying them on improvised acoustic guitar, wowed us with their passion, talent, and maturity. Speaking about their work after their performance, the singer said, "We want you to know that our generation is committed to making the world a better place." If we had not already all been in tears at the beauty of her performance of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," we were when she said this.

The students introduced us to a new project the Kennedy Center is sponsoring, "What's Going On Now," in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Gaye's Kennedy Center concert of his influential 1971 album. The project asks students to weigh in on what has changed in the 40 years since Gaye so movingly captured the spiritual and cultural chaos of our nation. Gaye sang about war, peace, pollution, personal truth. The website asks students to pick an issue, create, and share their own thoughts on what is happening today--just as the spoken word poet did at the performance we saw, with her moving poems linking the civil wars and genocide in the Congo to the realities of her African-American community in D.C.

The project is a very cool way to encourage students to express their social engagement. It will culminate in an anniversary concert and fresh look at Gaye's album at the Kennedy Center in May, at which Grammy Award-winning R&B artist John Legend will appear with the National Symphony Orchestra--and with selected students from the project.

Art inspires. Art Makes Change.

The Still Point of the Turning World

It was a privilege last week to host John Farrell, the co-founder of Figures of Speech Theatre in Freeport, Maine, dramatically reciting all 1,000 lines of T.S. Eliot's master work, "Four Quartets."

The four poems, completed in 1943 and for which it is widely believed Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, are a mesmerizing meditation on mysticism and life's mysteries. Each poem is affiliated with one of the four elements (air/fire/earth/water) and a stage in Eliot's own complicated spiritual journey.

One of my favorite passages, from the second poem, "East Coker:"

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

The houses are all gone under the sea.

The dancers are all gone under the hill.

"Humility is endless"--there is really not much to say after that!

We had the predictable misfortune, scheduling this in February, of staging it during this winter's only true snowstorm. Yet we also could not help but wonder whether the small audiences had also to do with the passing of Eliot from our "collective culture." Maybe only people 50 or older know who T.S. Eliot is? Who cares about "The Waste Land" or "The Four Quartets"? And is this cultural changing of the guard something about which we should care? Can we not layer incrementally the master works of each decade, making our culture deeper and richer as we move into the future? Or do we just forget what is behind us, and move forward? And in moving forward, do those who keep the flame of the past keep current, too?

We did have one 13 year old there who loved it, and said she was thankful for her "training in classical music" which gave her the discipline to sit for an hour while all 1,000 lines washed over her--and us.

Thatchered at the Movies

Last weekend we screened "The Iron Lady"--just before Meryl Streep won another Academy Award for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in it. It's been on my mind ever since.

The film's portrayal of Thatcher in a mildly demented old age, looking back on her life, had--as so many of Streep's performances do--the uncanny effect of making me sympathetic towards a woman for whose policies and legacy I have only previously felt profound disagreement and distaste. The best type of both acting and filmmaking.

Scenes in the film remind us of that period in history, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, all of it feeling very long ago in some ways and, in light of the current Republican primaries, not long ago enough. Reagan was just elected on this side of the pond and arm-in-arm he and Maggie began implementing what is now known as "Thatcherism" in England and "voodoo economics" in the U.S.: slashing taxes for the wealthy and using these revenue losses to eliminate social services and other job providing economic stimulus programs, while increasing defense spending and in general creating bloated national deficits and severe recessions.

The film nicely portrays this as a true philosophical divide: will services be provided by government or by private business? What it does not ask--because Thatcher herself, as slyly portrayed by Streep, did not, as we know from history, care--is who is left out in the cold and who benefits when services are left to private business. Thatcher, the dutiful daughter "of a Grantham grocer," was much the Darwinist on this note: only the fittest and meanest, like herself, survive.

The scenes of the IRA bombings are shocking today, and reminiscent of a time when we thought the Irish "troubles" would never end, could never be resolved. Yet they appear to be over. But mostly, I'm still thinking about the movie because of the questions it raised for me: would a movie like this ever be made about Reagan or any other male leader of the western world? (Answer: no. Unsettling realization, 30 years on: a woman is still a woman is still a woman--not a head of state.) And will we ever give up on economic policies that have been proven not to work?