Houston Grand Opera presents Ariadne auf Naxos

On Tuesday, April 26, I took my mother to see Ariadne auf Naxos, produced by the Houston Grand Opera at the Wortham Theatre downtown. I did just a little bit of reading beforehand about the plot, and loved the concept. It’s an opera-within-an-opera, so a riff on the play-within-a-play form that I’m familiar with. And the opera that is within the opera has some ties to Greek mythology which drew my interest, too.

It’s a comedy in which a young and passionate composer expects to present his opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, to a rich Venetian’s dinner party; this is a very serious opera, he feels, an artistic masterpiece, deserving of serious contemplation. He finds out immediately before that his opera is to be followed by a comedic song-and-dance piece, which he finds offensive; and the comic star, Zerbinetta, is equally offended at having to follow a “dreary” opera. Everyone is still more upset when they hear of the Venetian’s last-minute whim to have the two pieces performed, not back to back, but simultaneously!

Zerbinetta, standing, with Ariadne

I thought this sounded like great fun and rather classic comic theatre. The first act contains the above behind-the-scenes angst; the second act is the opera-cum-comedy itself. The back story is not really present in the opera but I’ll give it to you anyway: Ariadne is sister to the dreaded Minotaur, and she helps Theseus to kill him and escape from the labyrinth, thinking that they will live happily ever after together. But Theseus tires of her and leaves her on a desert island, where we meet her first, languishing in despair over her unrequited love. Zerbinetta’s comedy involves four lovers and her eventual selection of her favorite. Meanwhile, she coaches Ariadne, who desires death, that she can love and be happy again in another man’s arms. Zerbinetta chooses her man; Bacchus presents himself to Ariadne, who mistakes him for Hermes and thinks he has come to take her away in death. He finally manages to convince her he does not hold her demise, but rather, that he loves her and wants her for himself. Happily ever after.

The plot comes out a little thin in production, but this show is not about plot, as I’ve observed before of Cats and Cirque du Soleil. The plot is not the point. In this case, the point is the outrageous tricks these performers can do with their voices. This is, as usual, something I have to accustom myself to. In the case of Cats or Cirque, I give myself up to the acrobatics, the music, the dance. In this case, it’s the operatic singing and the orchestral music. It takes a little effort or at least a little awareness for me to slow down and appreciate these things. As an amateur to the opera, I begin by watching the subtitles screen in order to follow the story; but each sentence takes 60 seconds (or more) to sing onstage, and I quickly get impatient. Move on already! This is the wrong way to watch an opera. The right way, I think, is to stay loosely or vaguely aware of the plot or the words being sung, and to lose myself in the incredible vocal acrobatics.

My experience with this full-length opera was not entirely a success, but I’ll take the blame for not being practiced at appreciating opera. It seemed well-done, but perhaps is somewhat an acquired taste, and definitely requires a leisurely pace in its enjoyment. I don’t think of myself as a terribly impatient person but it felt slow to me. I think if this almost three-hour production was presented as three one-hour serial episodes I would enjoy it very much. And also, to be fair, if it didn’t go past my bedtime.

So, I don’t give it an outstanding review, but I take most of the responsibility myself. It was certainly an interesting experiment.

Broadway presents Cats!

Cats! What fun. Courtesy, again, of my Pops. Thanks Pops.

I got to take one of my oldest, best friends, and we started off with sushi and drinks – thanks Barrett! It was an excellent evening of quality time on top of the theatre.

And, the show was one of the best I’ve seen this year, along with West Side Story. I spoke with some ladies at intermission who were concerned about following the “plot” – but I think this is a show, almost as much as Cirque du Soleil, that asks that we release the plot restrictions. It’s an exhibition of various talents and arts, mostly song and dance, but also acrobatics and displays of flexibility, again in Cirque style. As Barrett put it, Cats is a little bit a series of character studies, of a variety of different cat personalities. The fat, lazy cat; the mischievous, trouble-making cat; the lecherous cat; the old tired warrior cat; the sick and tattered cat; the magician cat. It’s a celebration of cats – what could make more sense? But mostly it’s song and dance and Theatre, people!

And oh man, the costumes! Serious stuff, and many of them spandex and very revealing – you know, this is a very popular musical to take your children to, but I must say, some of the gyrations were pretty… to the point. I’m not real squeamish – and I’m not saying I was bothered by what I saw – but it’s quite a sensual production. Certain things are not much left to the imagination! I wasn’t bothered, but I was surprised. I’m not saying your children aren’t safe, and my hypothetical policy of parenthood (which is vague since I’m not a parent) would certainly allow children to see this play; they might not “get” what I got, anyway. But I could see some parents being a little surprised, too.

I had a fabulous time; this was a dazzling show with lights and acrobatics and feats of movement and action and magic. Everything was professionally produced to perfection. Again, along with West Side Story, the best show I’ve seen this year.

Houston Grand Opera presents The Marriage of Figaro

The Marriage of Figaro is being produced by the Houston Grand Opera, and thanks to the Husband I got to attend a dress rehearsal with our neighbors on Tuesday, April 12. (The Husband begged off: he got us tickets and bowed out. Fair enough.) Now, I had not attended an opera since, what was it, high school? or middle school? And I remember not liking it much. I’m not sure what it was, in fact; I want to say it was Shakespeare but I could be crazy. Do they make opera out of Shakespeare? This is very much not my area of expertise, but it being a) free and b) a dress rehearsal, this sounded like a fine time to give it another go.

Well, it turned out to be a snafu in various ways, and I got in late and left early, both due to circumstances beyond my control. So, call it an incomplete experiment. But I have some observations to share all the same.

Please be patient with me, opera aficionados, for I am entirely new to this. So first, the music is very beautiful – the orchestral music, I mean – I’m not a symphony-goer, either, but it would have been lovely on its own. The operatic singing is unlike anything else, so being so new to it, it’s a bit hard to fit into my world, if you will; it might be a bit of an acquired taste, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. I think I did; it’s just different. And very impressive. It is of course in Italian, but even in English I’m not sure I could entirely understand them. There’s a little screen way up above the stage rolling subtitles; it’s a little rough looking down at the actors and up at the screen, but it allows me to follow the action. There’s something a bit disjointed about the fact that every 10 words on the screen take 90 syllables onstage (they repeat almost every line, for one line) but I was able to adjust to the rhythm. So I guess my theme here is, this is a unique art form and one that must be gotten accustomed to.

The plot of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (which I read online before attending – did my homework – I find that I enjoy theatre better when I’m a bit familiar ahead of time) was surprisingly Shakespearean. Lots of mistaken identity, disguises, romantic quadrangles, lovers or suspected lovers hiding under couches when the next one enters the room. A bit slapstick. Very fun! I’m not sure I realized opera could be so fun. (Please forgive my prejudice.) And I’m not sure I’d realized that really, it’s just musical theatre – except that they sing in a distinctive style, in a foreign language, and constantly – all the words are sung – unlike standard musicals which are plays in which the actors spontaneously burst into choreographed song and dance. (Very realistic. :)) Oh, and that reminds me, there was almost no dancing – at least during the parts of this production that I got to see. That’s a bit disappointing; but perhaps with such, erm, athletic (?) singing, it would be too much to dance, too.

My overall review is incomplete because I saw only part of the show, but: I like this. It deserves more of my time and attention to become better acquainted with this format, and I’m ready to give it. Luckily I get another chance: I have tickets to another dress rehearsal in a few weeks, of Ariadne auf Naxos, and I’m taking my mother, and I’m looking forward to it!

Masquerade Theatre presents Urinetown!

What a joy. Ahhh. On Saturday, April 9, I finished my database searching class, with a final paper and presentation. Now, I LOVED this course, found it fascinating, found my instructors’ passion and expertise inspiring, learned a lot, and am so glad I took it. But the semester turned out to be about a week too long for me. Returning from the effortful trip to Ouachita to write a paper (I had barely started it. I confess. am not usually a procrastinator but none of us is perfect) and plan a presentation… just about overwhelmed me. (And, I got sick for the second time in two weeks while trying to write & plan.) Whine whine, sorry, my point is… Saturday I did my presentation and it was less than perfect. I didn’t plan very well, and I ran out of time and didn’t get to make all my points. I think I still did fine but it was below my standards and that’s a shame. But mostly I was just SO glad the semester was over with. (And I’m already contemplating the condensed, advanced class this summer. I am NUTS right?)

SO, this long preamble is trying to say, the Husband and I celebrated the end of the semester that Saturday night by going out to see a Broadway musical, courtesy yet again of my Pops! Thanks Pops! Thanks Husband for being game for more Broadway! If you let a reluctant patron of musical theatre, like the Husband, pick your musical, you end up with something like Urinetown. Lol! The story is of corruption, water shortages, and pee. Water supplies are so low that toilet facilities are fee-based, and the greedy Urine Good Company (UGC) is hiking fees and partying hard on the money of the little people. Assistant toilet attendant Bobby Strong and UGC heiress Hope Cladwell fall in love before realizing each other’s position in the scheme of things, and the balance of power, money, and pee is upset.

This is another cute, funny play a la Curtains, but decidedly superior in production. There were no gaffes, aside from more microphone woes. The cast was very professional and it was a very fun event. Very silly, but very fun. Officer Lockstock is our narrator as well as a character in the play, and he breaks down that fourth wall like crazy (with some assistance from Little Sally) in ways that tickled me pink. I thought it was a great play, fun and well produced, and also rather ambitiously taking on social, political, and environmental issues with relative success; but the ending fell a bit short for me, unfortunately. The Husband doesn’t have any idea what I mean by that so I guess it’s a personal thing.

What a great time. I’m so glad I’m getting all these theatre experiences this year! Never have I spent so many evenings in this way, and I’m loving it. Coming up: CATS, straight from Broadway! And dress rehearsals of Houston Grand Opera‘s productions of The Marriage of Figaro and Ariadne auf Naxos! Am I a lucky girl, or what?

Theatre Under the Stars presents Curtains!

Well I’ve gotten a bit behind. On a Thursday night a few weeks ago, March 31, I went with some friends to see a production by Theatre Under the Stars called Curtains. It was at the Hobby Center in downtown Houston.

The show’s website bills it as “music, comedy and murder in one killer package,” and my observation is that it is heaviest on the comedy! It was a cute, funny story, and although I was beginning to feel it was predictable (thought I’d guessed whodunit), I ended up surprised, so I must take back my predictability comment. This production required a light heart and generosity for a few stumbles: several actors forgot or mumbled through some lines, and the microphones intermittently missed some of their lines, too. There were a few painful moments in this regard, and the play was overwhelmingly silly. But it was a good time. I love the Theatre Under the Stars folks for keeping theatre alive! Imperfection is life, and I’m glad to see musical theatre in all its forms.

Cirque du Soleil: Ovo!

Last Tuesday night, March 29, the Husband and I went with my parents to see a Cirque du Soleil show called Ovo. Oh my! What to say to describe this? I had never seen Cirque before, and knew it was something very impressive and unique, but I don’t think I was prepared. And I’m not sure I can paint it for you if you’ve never seen one of their productions. But I shall try.

For starters, it was really like an old-fashioned circus in some ways. I think I was picturing something more like theatre, in a fancy hall, with the audience in their finery. And they do perform in concert halls and theatres sometimes; but this was a circus tent (“big top”) set up in a very large parking lot (at a horse-racing track). It sounded like a circus when we stepped inside (circus music!) and

one of my favorites

smelled like one (popcorn!) and, well, it looked like a circus – bright colors and vendors and beer and wine in plastic glasses. The crowd was very diverse and variously dressed in more and less formal attire.

As expected, the performers were in outrageous costume. They were a troupe of various insects: grasshoppers, spiders, a ladybug, and more. And their tricks… wow. There were acrobatics and truly athletic feats of flexibility, balance, and strength – like a combination of gymnastics and dance and yoga. There was juggling, dancing, people being thrown in the air and caught and flipped… tumblers… tightrope

unicycle! on a high wire!

walking… and a truly amazing trampoline act. There were trapeze artists swinging above our heads. (The Husband and I were both reminded of the Drive-by Truckers song The Flying Wallendas. Happily no tragedies this evening!) I had not expected to be thoroughly terrified by almost every act! But I was so thrilled and exhilarated, too. There is also a story involved, of the egg (ovo), and all the insects’ interest in it; and there is a love story. But really, this show is short on plot. And that’s okay; the acrobatics and skills and various performances are the whole point.

I’m so glad I got a chance to see this amazing show. It was a very special experience, and the performers are very, very special talented people (and some of them clearly have joints that bend in extra directions, but that’s another issue). What a treat! What a magical night! And how cool and interesting to see that circus performers are still around – I think I had sort of thought that this was a dying or dead industry, but I’m glad that it’s alive and well at least in the Cirque du Soleil company. I was also glad to not see any animal acts; I’m not sure I’m really up for the animal-cruelty questions in a traditional circus, and there was plenty of thrill with these human performers!

Broadway presents Billy Elliot

Sorry, friends, I have just realized that I failed to write up my experience last Friday night seeing the Broadway show, Billy Elliot. Here we are now.

I went into this one without a clue of what the story was about. Sometimes I like to do that. But, I think it is almost always better to have an idea of what it’s about. Maybe I just got lazy.

what DO you call it?

My synopsis: Billy Elliot is the young son of a north English miner. The backdrop for Billy’s story is the miners’ strike of the 1840′s, and this sets the emotional scene for Billy’s struggle. He lives in a working-class world of economic hardship and strife, and his home life is male-dominated; his mother is dead and his grandmother is a bit batty, but his brother and father provide macho male energy to go around. In this environment, Billy is taking boxing lessons, but at heart he is a dancer. He stumbles into a ballet class full of little girls (in his boxing helmet or what do you call it? and all) and takes off.

Predictably, his love for the ballet, when discovered, does not make his family proud. But, as the story goes, the town’s miners are crushed and learn to put their pride in this gifted son of the community, and Billy ends up with his father’s support.

It was a touching story, and quite humorous at times, and a touch political – I liked the Margaret Thatcher gags, although I confess I’m not up to speed on the contemporary politics. There’s something absolutely irresistible about a little boy singing and dancing his heart out; and the young actor did some extraordinary dancing. I loved it.



But, I have to say, this play had weaknesses. Unlike RENT, and West Side Story, this was less than perfect. There were definitely moments, for me, when the action lagged; I got impatient on several occasions for them to go ahead and get on with it. I get it, Billy’s brother is mad. He’s going to run offstage and do something. Do it already. The story was good, the music was good (ahem, by Elton John), and the dancing and emotion was great. But the pace could stand an adjustment, in my opinion.

Oh and also – I enjoyed the relationship between Billy and his friend, was it Mark? This little boy likes to dress up in his mother’s dresses, and while doing so, is the one to suggest ironically that Billy might be a little “poof” for enjoying the ballet. Mark (or whatever his name is) turns out to be the “poofy” one, in fact, but they have a touching friendship and when they dance around in little-kid-drag, there are some fun comedic moments.

All in all, I had a fabulous time, as usual, and feel so lucky to get to see shows like this one. Next up, Urinetown! followed by Cats!

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