Tag Archives: Martha Teichner

Black Lives Really Do Matter in Spoleto’s Stirring Counter-Crusade

Review: Opera, Chamber, and Orchestral Music @ Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Recognition of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement and the We See You White American Theatre manifesto (issued by a coalition of BIPOC artists in 2020) were certainly on Nigel Redden’s mind when he decided that the 2021 Spoleto Festival USA would be his last as general director. White and long-tenured at the Charleston arts fest, Redden saw himself personifying what needed to be changed, not merely in American theatre but across the nation’s arts.

Yet that wasn’t to say that Spoleto was backward in infusing diversity into its programming or in embracing contemporary, cutting-edge work in its presentations of music, theatre, and dance – which made Redden’s swan song, at a Festival that constricted and hamstrung by Covid-19, all the more poignant. But all Redden’s work was not truly done, even after he officially stepped down last October, for there was one grand project of his that had yet to be completed. Spoleto’s commission of Omar, the much-anticipated new opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels would at last be unveiled after being shelved for two years.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Based on the slim autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, the only known narrative by an American slave written in Arabic, Giddens’ new work was appropriately co-commissioned by the University of North Carolina, for Omar’s servitude began in Charleston before he escaped to a more benign slaveholder up in Fayetteville, NC. Rather than letting this world premiere stand as an isolated testament to Redden’s legacy – or a belated rebuke targeting the infamous Muslim ban of 2017 – incoming general director Mena Mark Hanna has emphatically made Omar the tone-setting centerpiece of his first Spoleto.

Predictably enough, Giddens and Abels sat for a public interview with Martha Teichner on the afternoon following the premiere, just a few hours before she and her husband, Francesco Turrissi, appeared in an outdoor concert at Cistern Yard. Five days after the world premiere at Sottile Theatre, the principal singers from Omar and the choir resurfaced at Charleston Gaillard Center for a “Lift Every Voice” concert, further affirming Black Lives. But that theme, as well as Ibn Said’s African origins and Islamic faith, suffused the Festival’s programming more deeply than that.2022~Spoleto-142

In the jazz sector, for example, two African artists were featured with their ensembles at the Cistern on successive night after Giddens’ concert, Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and his orchestra followed by South African pianist Nduduzo Makhatini and his quartet. More importantly, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, three years after participating in a Geri Allen tribute, paid homage to his distinguished mom, harpist/organist/composer Alice Coltrane and her 1971 Universal Consciousness album, a spiritual landmark that defined Indocentric jazz, laced with flavorings of Africa, India, Egypt, and the Holy Land.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Unholy Wars was another Spoleto commission, with tenor Karim Sulayman as its lead creator, furthering the pro-Muslim thrust of the Festival’s opera lineup. Taking up Claudio Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, the 1624 opera that extracted its tragic love story from Torquato Tasso’s epic Jerusalem Delivered, Sulayman boldly flipped the First Crusade narrative. Sulayman, a first-generation American born in Chicago to Lebanese immigrants, conceived a counter-Crusade, attempting to render vocal compositions by Monteverdi, Handel, and others through the perspective of those defamed and marginalized by the prevailing white Western narrative.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Portraying the narrator, Sulayman chiefly championed the warrior woman Clorinda – who needed to be white-skinned and convert to Christianity for 17th century Europe to see her as worthy of Tancredi, the valiant Christian knight who mistakenly slayed his beloved in combat. Soprano Raha Mirzadegan as Clorinda outshone bass baritone John Taylor Ward’s portrayal of Tancredi, while dancer Coral Dolphin, devising her moves with choreographer Ebony Williams, upstaged them both. We could conclude, in stage director Kevin Newberry’s scheme of things, that Dolphin’s dancing silently represented the Black beauty that Clorinda was never allowed to be.

Known for directing such cutting-edge operas as Doubt, Fellow Travelers, and The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Newberry had no qualms about creating huge disconnects between his actors’ actions and the Italian they sang. Costume designer David C. Woolard was similarly liberated in attiring them, evoking Lawrence of Arabia more readily than Richard the Lion-Hearted. Water, sand, heavy rope, and four simple chairs supplanted onstage scenery at Dock Stage Theater, but Michael Commendatore’s steady stream of animated projection designs, coupled with the production’s supertitles, more than compensated for the sparseness onstage, keeping us awash in sensory overload. If you tried to keep pace with the supertitles on high, sometimes barely legible, you could easily be distracted from the action below.

Consulting your program booklet to determine what was being sung by which composer would only have compounded your confusion. Best to listen, look, and enjoy. For if this sensory-rich spectacle – laden with mysterious sand and water ceremony – strayed far from fulfilling Sulayman’s intentions, the music, the voices, and the dance yielded constant pleasure, wonder, and delight.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

More touted and deliciously marketable, Giddens’ Omar proved to be more treasurable and on-task, providing tenor Jamez McCorkle with a career-making opportunity in the title role. Directing this stunning world premiere, director Kaneza Schall is laser-focused on the most pivotal event in Said’s life in America when, imprisoned in Fayetteville, he is released from jail and purchased by a benign master because of he has – miraculously, in the eyes of local yokels – written in Arabic script on the walls of his cell.

Written and printed language, from the floor upwards to the Sottile’s fly loft, is everywhere in Schall’s concept: dominant in Amy Rubin’s set, Joshua Higgason’s video, even permeating the costumes by April Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown. If you ever believed the libelous presumption that Africans were all brought to America bereft of any literacy, maintained in their pristine backwardness by their benevolent masters, Schall’s vision of Omar was here to brashly disabuse you.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

And if you were under the impression that Africans came ashore in Charleston without any coherent Abrahamic religion, their poor souls yearning to be redeemed by the beneficence of Christianity, Giddens labored lovingly to enlighten you, the beauty and spirituality of her score enhanced by Abels’ deft orchestrations. As a librettist, Giddens could have benefited from some discreet assistance – and the challenge of scoring somebody else’s text. Melodious and religious as it is, Omar could stand to be a more dramatic opera, and as a librettist, Giddens could have usefully been more detailed.

Stressing Said’s spirituality, Giddens neglects his intellect, never referencing the range of his studies or the full spectrum of his manuscripts. Nor is there a full fleshing-out of why Said was imprisoned in Fayetteville or how it could be that Major General James Owen could take him home without returning the fugitive slave to his previous master, described in The Autobiography as “a small, weak, and wicked man, called Johnson, a complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all.”Screenshot 2022-06-27 at 16-55-14 Spoleto Opera Honors An Extraordinary Slave Whose Life Mattered Classical Voice North America

The embellishments that Giddens gives us are all gorgeous. Owen’s daughter, Eliza, has a beautiful aria sung by Rebecca Jo Loeb, entreating her dignified dad to see the providence in Omar’s coming to their city. Further mentoring our hero, soprano Laquita Mitchell was Julie, a fellow slave in Fayetteville who will vividly remember her previous meeting with Omar at a Charleston slave auction. More majestically, mezzo-soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis is a recurring presence as Omar’s mother, Fatima. Long after she is slain by the marauders who enslave Omar, she comes back to her son in a dream, warning him that Johnson is fast approaching to murder him. Mitchell and Lewis subsequently team up to urge Omar to write his story, a summit meeting with McCorkle that is the clear musical – and emotional – high point of the evening.

Plum roles also go to baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, who gets to sing both of Omar’s masters, the cruel and godless Johnson before intermission and the benign, bible-toting Owen afterwards. The question of whether Said sincerely converts from Islam to Christianity is pointedly left open. Notwithstanding his utter triumph, we probably have not seen the full magnificence that McCorkle can bring to Omar, for he was hobbled in the opening performances, wearing a therapeutic boot over his left ankle that I, for one, didn’t notice until he resurfaced as the highlight of the “Lift Every Voice” concert, bringing down the house with a powerful “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Scanning the remainder of Spoleto’s classical offerings, I’m tempted to linger in the operatic realm, for Yuval Sharon’s upside-down reimagining of La bohème at Gaillard Center, despite its time-saving cuts to Act 2, completely overcame my misgivings about seeing Puccini’s four acts staged in reverse order. Yet there were more flooring innovations, debuts, and premieres elsewhere.52126095047_f231ab5e32_o

Program III of the chamber music series epitomized how the lunchtime concerts have evolved at Dock Street Theater under violinist and host Geoff Nuttall’s stewardship. Baritone saxophonist Steven Banks brought a composition of his, “As I Am,” for his debut, a winsome duet with pianist Pedja Muzijevic. Renowned composer Osvaldo Golijov, a longtime collaborator with Nuttall’s St. Lawrence Quartet, was on hand to introduce his Ever Yours octet, which neatly followed a performance of the work that inspired him, Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet, op. 76 no. 2.

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Upstaging all of these guys was the smashing debut of recorder virtuoso Tabea Debus, playing three different instruments – often two simultaneously – on German composer Moritz Eggert’s Auer Atem for three recorders and one player. Equally outré and modernistic, More or Less for pre-recorded and live violin was a new composition by Mark Applebaum, customized for Livia Sohn (Nuttall’s spouse) while she was recuperating from a hand injury that only allowed her to play with two fingers on her left hand. If it weren’t bizarre enough to see Sohn on the Dock Street stage facing a mounted bookshelf speaker, the prankish Applebaum was on hand to drape the speaker in a loud yellow wig after the performance was done.

On the orchestral front, two works at different concerts wowed me. Capping a program at Gaillard which had featured works by György Ligeti and Edmund Thornton Jenkins, John Kennedy conducted Aiōn, an extraordinary three-movement work by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Hatching a soundworld that could be massively placid, deafeningly chaotic, weirdly unearthly, or awesome with oceanic majesty, Aiōn decisively quashed my urge to slip away to The Cistern for Coltrane and his luminous harpist, Brandee Younger. We were forced to arrive a full 30 minutes after that religious rite began.2022~Spoleto-260

My final event before saying goodbye to Spoleto 2022 treated me to sights I’d never seen before. On an all-Tyshawn Sorey program, Sorey ascended to the podium at Sottile Theatre and took us all to a pioneering borderland between composition and improvisation that he titled Autoschiadisms. Instead of a baton, Sorey brandished a sharpie beating time, sheets of typing paper with written prompts, or simply his bare hands making signals. Sometimes Sorey simply allowed the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra (splendid as usual) to run on autopilot while he huddled over his score, writing new prompts with his sharpie on blank pages before holding them high.2022~Spoleto-273

And the music was as wonderful as it was exciting, clearly an advance upon the other compositions on the bill, For Roscoe Mitchell and For Marcos Balter, conducted respectively by Kennedy and Kellen Gray. In the surreal aftermath of his triumphant premiere, Sorey had reason to linger onstage during a good chunk of the intermission. Musicians from the Orchestra swarmed him, waiting patiently for Sorey to autograph the sheets of paper that the composer had just used to lead them. The ink was barely dry where the MacArthur Genius of 2017 was obliged to write some more.

“Until the Flood” Overflows With Inner City Insights

Review: Until the Flood at Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Conceived and acted by Dael Orlandersmith, UNTIL THE FLOOD is an amazing, transformative theatre experience, briefly at Spoleto Festival USA through June 6. You quickly got the feeling that it was even more transformative for the playwright while she was interviewing the people she portrays – and likely transformative for the actress inhabiting those people before you. Commissioned by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2016, Orlandersmith was tasked with crafting a response to the shooting of Michael Brown by policeman Darren Wilson in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, on the night of August 9, 2014.

In carrying out her mission, Orlandersmith’s inquiry was an examination and a diagnosis of the effects of Brown’s shooting – not an investigation of the fatal event seeking to determine culpability. Her fundamental, open-ended question to many Ferguson and St. Louis residents, Orlandersmith told us in a public conversation at Spoleto during her run, was How did this event affect you?2022~Spoleto-161

Out of the answers she received – some of them stunning, no doubt – Orlandersmith forged eight composites, each of whom delivers a monologue until we circle back to retired English teacher Louisa Hemphill in completing our 75-minute visit to Ferguson. Set designer Takeshi Kata is sharply focused on making us feel like we are truly in Ferguson, with nearly antique objects such as a lamppost, an easy chair, a floor lamp, a coat stand, and a barber’s chair strategically strewn across the Festival Hall stage. This simple layout was surrounded by the sort of grassroots memorial that always seems to sprout up at the site of heart-rending American murders, a profusion of flowers, candles, cuddly stuffed animals, scribbled cards and messages, framed photos, and liquor bottles.2022~Spoleto-176

Kaye Voyce’s costume designs, all that Orlandersmith really needed to quickly change character, echoed the inner-city decrepitude. A couple of shawls and a few jackets – including a camo hoodie and a St. Louis Cardinals warmup – partially signaled the changes, while Nicholas Hussong’s video designs darkly completed the settings for the monologues. Helpfully, they were impressionistic depictions of building exteriors rather than realistic indoor depictions, so we knew we were at a steak house for retired policemen Rusty Harden, a wine bar for high school teacher Connie, and Reuben Little’s barbershop. The scene only brightened a little when minister Edna Lewis draped herself in a clerical shawl and we saw a rather photographic representation of her church.

So all of these Orlandersmith composites are rather specific and sharply drawn, usually memorable for at least one vivid anecdote in each monologue. We get to know the backgrounds of Hassan, the fluid rapper, racist electrician Dougray Smith, and aspiring high school student Paul, for in delving into how these people became who they are, the playwright was exploring how we became who we are.2022~Spoleto-171

Orlandersmith sought to be objective in order to be revelatory. She is keenly selective in what she relays to us and artful in how she orders her materials and lifts her respondents’ words imaginatively into the hallowed realm of theatre. Resisting the urge to layer on subsequent racial and political episodes as she continues traveling with her show, she has let UNTIL THE FLOOD accrue an aura of authoritative prophecy with the passage of time. The flood has only deepened since 2016.

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Even though Orlandersmith steps out of character to offer a brief coda at the end, she never tips off her point of view. But we can detect patterns. The three women are cordial and rational while, with the exception of the soft-spoken Paul, toxic masculinity runs riot among the five men. Reuben and Rusty are the most workaday specimens while Hassan and Dougray are the most dangerous and explosive. Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting is darkest and bleakest when these menacing men are before us.

About the only time I found Orlandersmith gently manipulating her monologues, so that we saw what she saw in Ferguson, was in the sequence of confessionals from the retired cop and the rapper who followed immediately afterwards. Rusty, the retired white cop, still remembers the wild look of in the eyes of Black youths, approaching him or at close quarters, seeming to be daring him to fire his gun – sometimes wanting him to. Working himself into a fury, the cool fluid rapper Hassan loudly proclaims that he had such feelings. Yes, that exact death wish that had just astonished me when the cop spoke of it.2022~Spoleto-163

Could there really be such desperation rampaging through our cities and ghettos? Orlandersmith confirmed her viewpoint the following afternoon in her conversation Martha Teichner, casually turning to the audience during the Q&A and asking us, “Have you ever heard of suicide by cop?”

I had not – which capsulizes why it was so vital for me to hear and heed UNTIL THE FLOOD.

“Waiting for Godot” Tops Spoleto’s Edgy Theatre Lineup

Reviews: Waiting for Godot, Ramona, Murmurs, Angel, and While I Have the Floor at Spoleto Festival USA31624608012_e7866a37c7_kBy Perry Tannenbaum

Programming at Spoleto Festival USA runs in cycles as it evolves. Now in its 41st season in Charleston, SC, there is a breadth of performing arts at the 17-day event that is unparalleled this side of the annual Edinburgh Festival in the UK. Opera, dance, symphony, chamber music, jazz, and theatre flit around at nine or 10 venues daily from 11:00 AM until late in the evening. Some category-defying hybrids are also hatched during the revels.

Ever since Gian Carlo Menotti founded the American branch of his Italian festival, capitalizing on his prestige as an opera composer who briefly conquered Broadway in the early ‘50s, Spoleto has been unapologetically international in its flavor and fiercely challenging in its thrust. Last year marked a welcoming celebration of the festival’s 40th season with a long-overdue production of Porgy and Bess in its native Charleston setting – at the gloriously renovated and reopened Gaillard Center, the grandest hall in town.

Complementing the homecoming vibe signaled by the lavish Porgy and Bess, jazz programming returned homewards from its distinctively European bent to a noticeably more American groove, with René Marie, Randy Weston, Freddy Cole, Cécile McLorin Salvant, and Arturo O’Farrill topping the lineup. Three large dance troupes invaded Charleston, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and LA Dance Project the most recognizable of these. Theatre was also noticeably less edgy and foreign, with Gate Theatre’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Jonny Donahue’s off-Broadway charmer, Every Brilliant Thing, among the imports.

34427821263_6eb650f394_oFor 2017, Spoleto Festival has largely shuttled back to its edgier, more challenging, and more cryptic self. The Charles Lloyd Quartet took some jazz lovers beyond their comfort zones, singer Sofia Rei came from Argentina backed by a free jazz trio, and Dee Dee Bridgewater frankly declared that she was forsaking jazz this year for Memphis blues and soul. Only one dance troupe, the Marís Pagés Company, was large enough to command the Gaillard stage, the balance shifting to smaller groups and more outré choreography.

Led by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the 2017 theatre lineup is similarly trim, challenging, and audacious. Under the direction of Garry Hynes, this Druid Theatre production made it clearer to me that Vladimir and Estagon, awaiting the mysterious Godot and his nebulous benefits, are unsure of where they are, what day it is, and when they last met. Hynes, who won the 1998 Tony Award for directing The Beauty Queen of Leenane, also makes the friendship and mutual loyalty between our protagonists more open to question than previous productions I’ve seen. Instead of shying away from the script’s absurdism, Hynes embraces it.

30962035363_a1fd65f0fc_kMaybe other directors feel that too much absurdism might risk audience confusion and vertigo. Turns out that amping up the absurdity made the show more comical for the audience at Dock Street Theatre. Strangely enough, Aaron Monoghan as the more ignorant Estragon, isn’t as funny as his cohort. While Monoghan is a purer, less salty fool as Estragon, willowy Marty Rae turns Vladimir into a comical joy, his inquiries into his friend’s mind and his reactions to those revelation drawing equal mirth.

Although Hynes acquiesced, in a public interview at the Charleston Library Society with Martha Teichner, to the notion that Pozzo and Lucky are mere distractions in the tedium of our protagonists’ lives, her staging says otherwise. Compounding the vaudevillian exaggeration that Beckett lavishes upon Pozzo the oppressor and Lucky the oppressed, Rory Nolan as Pozzo and Garrett Lombard as Lucky upsize them, exaggerations in the flesh – and in Lombard’s case, in the hair – augmented by Doreen McKenna’s shabby and surreal costumes.

Juxtaposed with our lonely and futile heroes, Druid’s Pozzo and Lucky both seem gargantuan and powerful, though Lucky’s is a sleeping strength that Vladimir and Estragon fear to waken. At some level, they look like invaders from a real world that our lovable protagonists have skirted. Downtrodden as he is, Lucky seems to be lucky to be employed, even if humiliating subservience is the price.

So what if his boss is an overbearing boor? So is the President who won our Electoral College.31397965210_5e7f347a4a_kWhile Godot plays at Dock Street from the beginning to the end of Spoleto, there are four other presentations categorized as theatre by the festival that peep in for more limited engagements, five or six performances apiece at smaller venues. The most charming so far has been Ramona, Gabriadze Theatre’s first production at Spoleto – and at Emmett Robinson Theatre – since their doleful and stultifying Battle of Stalingrad in 2003. This time, Rezo Gabriadze’s fanciful script for marionettes and puppeteers is about a shuttling engine whose travel vistas are no more than 300 meters and the mighty love of her life, Ermon, a Trans-Siberia locomotive who spans Mother Russia in his wanderings.

As this true Penelope waits patiently for her Ulysses, a militaristic railroad official tyrannizes over her and a friend. Like any other sensible woman in these circumstances, Ramona and her pal decide to run away to the circus! Scandalous rumors reach Ermon up on tundra, but he remains steadfast in his trust. The ending is very tragic because Ramona is less adept as a tightrope walker than she was as a train. Absurd comedy doesn’t prevent the poignancy of these star-crossed lovers from shining through.

Though both had considerable strengths, Victoria Thierrée Chaplin’s Murmurs and Henry Naylor’s Angel didn’t satisfy as fully. I gradually caught up with what was happening in Avital Lvova’s portrayal of Rahana, the Angel of Kobani, but I needed my wife’s help in grasping the full details after Angel was over. Based on a true story, our narrator becomes a latter-day Joan of Arc champion of the Kurds, amassing 100 kills as a sharpshooter battling ISIS for control of her hometown.

Lvova is well-cast as an action hero, but in the rat-tat-tat battle scenes where she throws herself around on the floor, I found her to be largely unintelligible. Another woman in our row at Woolfe Theatre moved closer to the stage soon after the topsy-turvy opening, and a few minutes later, I slunk into an empty seat that was even closer to the action. I was still missing some of what Lvova was saying at close distance. Part of the excitement was how Angel broke a fundamental rule of one-person shows at the very end. I wished that I could press a rewind button to more fully enjoy it from the beginning.30928658544_4f681df730_k

A visual stunner, Murmurs had virtually no dialogue and not too much more coherence or character development. The subtitle, Aurélia and Her Ghosts, seems to have been dropped between the time that the festival brochure was printed and when the official program book – 152 pages – was codified. But it remains a useful description of the action. Aurélia Thierrée portrayed the heroine who, when we first met her, was on the verge being evicted – or rescued – from her crumbling tenement.

The crisis throws Aurélia into a strange state, for she experiences flashbacks, hallucinations, and things that go bump in the night. Instead of dialogue, Chaplin and Armando Santin provided choreography, but not enough of it to keep me consistently engaged, and Chaplin’s costume designs – with a team of three other designers – outstayed their novelty. More choreography and an infusion of music, maniacal or otherwise, would make this striking piece more impactful.

While Murmurs may be yearning to be a full-fledged dance, Ayodele Casel’s While I Have the Floor, categorized by Spoleto as dance, has an unmistakable hankering to be regarded as theatre. Like Murmurs, Casel’s world premiere morphed after the season brochures were sent out: her “virtuosic piece exploring language, communication, identity and legacy” coalesced into a tap dancer’s autobiography as the piece crystalized into a one-woman show with a title.34335386953_50bae8da23_kCasel not only explores her own artistic evolution, she connects us with heritage of tapping, tracing its development from the mid-19th century through such mainstays as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Jimmy Slyde, Gregory Hines, and Savion Glover. She doesn’t hide her childhood infatuation with Fred & Ginger and engagingly recounts her first confrontation – as a collegian – with a true proponent of the art.

As YouTube can presumably verify, Casel’s demos of tapping are intricately rhythmic and visually dazzling. But the big surprise here is Casel’s acting chops. She can turn on the tears at a moment’s notice, and as a writer, she finds a compelling reason to display that talent. Toward the end, which threatens the dump us off at today and Casel’s well-earned fame, our narrator sprouts a mission and a cause: to revive the memory of female tappers before her and to make sure their names aren’t forgotten again.

Until you’ve witnessed While I Have the Floor, you probably haven’t seen a tap-dance show that reaches an emotional peak. Now it’s here, and Spoleto can be very proud of hosting its world premiere.