For the first time in two years we yesterday evening entered the San Francisco Memorial Opera house for a banquet of that spectacle known as Grand Opera. I won’t say it was worth the wait because the wait seemed interminable and we are still in the midst of the surrounding danger and chaos. Nevertheless, there’s no denying OUR euphoria that we and–judging from the volume of cheers and number of standing ovations–the rest of the crowd floated in on similar emotions and sustained them throughout. It’s the first time I can recall when the chorus got a curtain call at the conclusion of Act I. Maybe it’s the way it always goes with Tosca, though I don’t remember its happening the other time I saw it,  but it was still a treat.

 Ailyn Pérez in the title role and Michael Fabiano as her ill-starred lover, Cavaradossi in our estimation tore the roof off the place. I’m sure it will be repaired forthwith.

Most notable, however, was the performance of SF Opera’s new musical director, Eun-Sun-Kim. I am no judge of such things, but it seemed to me that the energy and vibrancy she brought to her new role had every bit as much to do with the success of the production as did the voices and authenticity of the performers.

It’s a truncated season, so this is the only show we’ll see till the next round, but my lord, as they way, what a morning.

[FOOTNOTES: The main safety precaution was a requirement to show proof of vaccination. A guy patrolled the incoming lines, checked cards and i.d., then issued a sticker to be shown along with the ticket for admittance.

There were no programs. Whether that was a safety or an economic measure or both, I don’t know. I suspect the latter. There were easels here and there where you could download a program using a QR scanner on your “mobile device,” something we were ill-equipped to do. But there’s always next time.


It’s been a long drought for us moviegoers. Although the lack of big-theater experiences can’t be compared either in inconvenience or pain to the horrors of Covid-19, if I’m honest (and I occasionally am) I still admit missing walking up to the box office, settling back into a darkened house, and watching large people play out their dramas on the silver screen. Now, it’s easily as important to me as the opportunity to go maskless (almost) without fear or to rub elbows in a crowd to return to that somewhere over the rainbow world.

Lin Manuel Miranda shown sporting a jacket from my granddaughter’s (and his) alma mater

I’ve done it only twice so far. Early on, we took in IN THE HEIGHTS, set in (of course) NYC’s Washington Heights. The name that dominated the whole production was  Hamilton’s Lin Manuel Miranda, though he had much less to do with this one than he did with that historical tour de force. It’s a multicultural, multiracial production that shows fault lines between two dominant groups of the heights–those of Puerto Rican heritage and those from the Dominican Republic. The conflict, predictably, is as the line from the pop song (not from the show) says, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Same conflict as in West Side Story’s “I want To Be In America.” You’d think the theme would be played out by now, but unfortunately not so. I must say the whole thing is Broadway-derivative and a bit too heartwarming and sentimental if you examine it too closely. But if you accept it for what it is and enjoy the return of movie magic, it’s a winner.

From the urban America of IN THE HEIGHTS, we take you now to rural Italy and the adventures of a bunch of old–and I do mean old–guys and their canine companions as they scrabble through the forests in search of the rarest and most expensive fungi in the world.

THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS refers both to the humans and their doggie partners who labor mightily to bring this delicacy from their near-poverty dwellings  to the plates of the hoi polloi worldwide.

I’d always thought of truffle hunters (when I thought of them at all) as pigs, but apparently dogs are really good at it also. The film centers on the close relationships between the men (and their families) and the animals who scour the woods in search of this apparently exquisite treat. We see not only the hunt, but the ridiculous attitude economically upper class humans bring to the whole enterprise. Hunks of truffles are ensconced in wine glasses and passed from nose to nose as people make pretentious noises every bit as pompous as those which  sommeliers spout over vintners’ artistry.

As heartwarming and lovely as the truffle warriors themselves are, it is hard to ignore the sense of class oppression and exploitation that comes along with an enterprise that plunders the labor and pain of the workers and transforms it into huge profits for the fat and sassy. But that’s an old story and one certainly not limited to the world of high-class fungi, and it’s certainly not what the  The old guys feel about themselves. They and their dogs are the center of the story, and they are as genuine and honest and touching as they can be.

The film is undoubtedly too slow for some, but I found it overall endearing and a great testimony to the capacity for human happiness even in the face of what from the outside looks like adversity and disadvantage.




Calixto Bieito

Saw the notorious new production of Carmen directed by Spanish maverick Calixto Bieito. Irene Roberts and Brian Jagde sang Carmen and Don Jose the night we searchwent. Roles were double cast, so can’t speak for what things might have sounded like on other dates.

The whole thing was set in the 50’s. We’d just been to Cuba, so the old cars on stage suggested the Caribbean in a way Bieito didn’t intend and probably carmen_thumbnail1spoke that way to no one else. There were some controversial moves, undoubtedly intended to shock and alienate–a simulated BJ behind a car with an actual bared male butt visible. Some simulated, fully clothed, sex between the principals. Much of the costuming, or lack of it, and atmosphere was very attractive to San Francisco’s Castrophiles. Still and all, not really shocking or gratuitous, except maybe the BJ.  What bothered me most was Bieito’s lack of directorial fundamentals, which undercut some truly wonderful performances. Roberts and Jagade sang splendidly, and their acting traced the arc of the Carmen-Don Jose relationship with clarity and truth. The dependence, defiance, self-destruction. Heart-rending. The orchestra was out of this world. Even better than usual. However, there were a number of crucial dead spots where the drama just plain stalled. A partying group drives on stage, drunk and laughing beginning, I think, Act 2. That’s all for what seemed like two minutes. A looooong time on stage. Then some music begins and people start piling out and preparing for a picnic. At last, we are relieved, to see some action. We haven’t been in suspense, just bored. Later, the smugglers hear there are cops on the way. They pack up their stuff to conceal their activities. But with no sense of urgency. Casual, relaxed, slowly so the audience, too feels Casual, relaxed. Ho and hum and another day in the life. Those moments drain so much energy out of a production for me that no amount of wonderful music can replace. So, instead of a super production with some notorious moments, we are left with a mediocre production with some soft-porn asides. Disappointing. I’d choose anger over boredom any day. And I’m still waiting to see a Carmen who can dance. . . Maybe that’s asking too much.

Sitting up


FullSizeRender 2Hacienda San Gabriel de las Palmas–our luxury stop. We’d love to stay here forever and invite everyone. There would be plenty of room. But more of that later. There is the story of getting here.


FullSizeRenderOur first stop of the day was Cuernevaca, a charming little colonial city with a 6th Century cathedral (what else?) as a centerpiece. Famed also for its summer palace of one Senor Cortez. It’s mountainous country, semi-tropical. Not much of a drive once you got to the toll road, which was a bit of a chore. Our first wheel-to-wheel encounter with Mexico City traffic proved way slow. Old Hernando’s house, on the other hand, proved impressive and pleasant. Lots of period furniture, sculpture, weaponry. This was Saturday afternoon, and the main plaza was packed with families–music, vendors, everything you’d expect. Lots of atmosphere. The birds were in the garden of the restaurant where we lunched.

FullSizeRender 14Then onward to the Hacienda, which Scott had touted to us so highly. We missed the first turnoff (our fault), found our way back without too much trouble. Then the complications began.

When we took the exit, we found ourselves on a high road (toll) toward Taxco, tomorrow’s destination. Parallel to us was the free (libre) road. We could see the signs for the Hacienda, but had no way to get there from where we were. We turned around, thinking we might have missed a crossover. Found ourselves back on the freeway. Stopped at a gas station. Turns out we were trapped on the freeway. Had to drive a couple of kilometers to the toll plaza. Pay. Turn around. Pay going the other direction. We then found ourselves in exactly the same situation as before. Groundhog day. Presently, red lights and a loud speaker. The Spanish was way beyond us, but his anger was unmistakable. We caught “andale”. We were going too slow for the road, we thought. Pulled over thinking we’d get help. He just parked ahead of us, more rapid fire lecturing and arm waving. We started up. Finally he did pull us over and actually came to the window. Between our limited acquaintance with one another’s language, we gathered that we had to drive quite a ways farther to get to the libre road. it took some more asking directions (me? Yes.) Turned out we had to go back in the other direction on the libre road quite a ways to finally arrive at our haven. The whole operation took a couple of hours and cost us a little over $5 extra, but we came to this great place and no one threw us in the hoosegow.

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Pictures below of this, another of Cortez’s 16th century getaways. Our room is one of the top three luxury accommodations we’ve ever had. Cotez used this place as a sugar cane plantation, then it became a monastery, now a family-owned hotel. Back in Cortez’s day, they did not use the Indios as slaves. They paid them–in seeds and corn. Then charged them for their rooms, clothes, food, etc. “I owe my soul to the company store.” Now, They do weddings. Know anyone seeking a destination wedding? This would be it. And we could provide excellent driving directions.

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I was taken aback when San Francisco Opera decided to include Showboat in their current season. That old  showbiz clunker an opera? Really? san-francisco-opera-show-boatI’m still not 100% convinced it belongs on the bill with Puccini and Verdi, but we were enthralled with the production we saw last night, and I’m very glad for the opportunity to see such a seldom-produced show. (I suspect that the huge size of the cast and the difficulty of finding a bass that can sing the role of Joe contribute to that rarity.) Let’s start with the program notes.

My ignorance is vast, of course, and I didn’t know that the show was produced so early in the development of the musical–1927–and that it probably qualifies as the first full-story musical, based as it was on the Edna Ferber novel with Ferber in full partnership on the project with Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. Musicals of the day tended to be more like reviews–a collection of musical numbers sometimes strung together with an excuse of a story. There are a couple of numbers that expose that tendency here, too. Songs that do nothing either to develop character or move the action. But give the artists credit–Showboat treats very serious racial/social issues and even staged an integrated chorus–revolutionary for the time. And give Oscar H II credit as well. He tackled some heavy duty controversies in his day. Recall “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” from South Pacific. Joe of “Old Man River” is not just some poor darky dock hand lamenting his fate. He and his wife Queenie have some substance to their characters, their relationship, and their commentary on the action that surrounds them. In fact, I found that whole subplot and sub-chorus more interesting and moving than the principals.

But lest we wax too serious here. The thing audiences take away from this show are the same things they take away from any hit musical–the songs. “Only Make Believe,” “Ol’ Man River,” “After the Ball is Over,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ that Man.” And then there’s the tear-jerking ending–superbly staged I admit–of what Paul Simon called “The Mother and Child Reunion,” except in this case it’s the father.

Anyhow, fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly and I gotta keep going back to these shows, loving them and humming them, even as my annoyingly critical brain picks at their flaws. 2.0