I land in San Francisco knowing only one thing about the evening ahead; The Woman without a Shadow is composed by one of my favorite opera composers, Strauss. With my sweetheart beside me, I know I’m in for a night of awesome surprises.
The first surprise widens our art school eyes – a set designed by David Hockney. I adore Hockney’s playful paintings and his retrospective was one of the first exhibits me and Chaltin attended together. For Frau he pulls from his trademark style of the 90’s to create a vivid world of heightened colors, exaggerated shapes, and dotted textures. What would otherwise be static images are brought to life with dynamic lighting that with the flick of a switch change the spatial depth and mood. The players no longer perform on a stage, they perform on the back of an ever-changing chameleon.
The sets are wonderfully suited for Frau because this opera-fairy-tale, like his art, also bridges between the real and the unreal. A shadowless goddess in Hockney’s nominal world will try to bribe a mortal to give up her earthly shadow. If she procures the shadow the goddess will be able experience the complicated earthly solution to immortality. Babies. This is an opera all about babies.
The grandeur of Frau is our next surprise. It’s big! Wagner big!!*
To hear a hundred classically trained musicians perform. Booyah! I wanna fan my face like a schul frau… The orchestra is my first love after all and where I often find the most thrill on these opera outings. Tonight it is the flutes from this Act II aria that gets my heart pounding. To my delight the falcon theme from early in this aria will reprise in different guises of tone and tempo throughout the evening.
I’ve never heard a flute make this sound before. But what is it!? Major or minor? Something in between? Its unnerving vibration provokes me to lean forward. It’s somehow both jarring and melodic. The brilliance of Strauss is not just having the gumption to include this singular sound, but how he integrates the incongruity of it back into the larger score… It’s freakin exciting to hear him get into and then out of these sound-corners and bring the movement back to an equilibrium.
The San Francisco Opera’s vast auditorium with its cocky chandelier is built for the bold and not the under-confident. Perhaps jealous of my fawning-flautist-favoritism, the divas and divos have noticed. ‘Hmmm, hmmm,’ they scold.
Having caught my attention the sopranos sound lifts from the bottoms of their bellies up to the chandelier. This is an unforgettable casting strong enough to rival those flutes! Camilla Nylund and Nina Stemme with their contrasting individualities really bring these fairy tale characters to life for me – real souls inhabiting Hockneys lush nominal world.
I squeeze Chaltin’s hand! San Francisco opera rivals our Metropolitan.
Opera: There is something so deeply human and timeless in it. No matter how esoteric or aged an opera might be the universal emotion of the characters and the heightened unbridled delivery somehow taps into the emotional fabric of the present – and often urgently.
There is something else tonight, something beneath the surface I don’t want to think about, something bigger in this production than just some of the greatest musicians on the planet performing a composer worthy of a flight across the country.
The baby-centric plot has me thinking about the pro-choice decision from Roe vs. Wade. The inherent freedom I took for granted growing up is under real threat from a conservative Supreme Court and some States are now beginning to boldly limit those freedoms. It’s a long reaching victory for the Trump administration that many, but not all, of my conservative friends celebrate.
The culture wars the last few years have been frustrating and damaging to some of my long trusted friendships. Among my peers the arguments have been a fervor of hyperbole. Who would ever have thought these old party animals would grow up to be so socially conscious!? Mostly we’re no more rigorous in our research than in High School and just throw out heightened reactions to headlines – passion from a pinhole. Funnily our drama would be good fodder for opera – wherein my friends are the cast and my cell phone the stage.
These friends are heavily on my mind not just for the pro-life sentiment of the opera, but they’ve also been citing San Francisco recently as a cautionary tale of liberal laxity on social order. Their algorithms only show them a modern Gomorra. Let them who’s algorithm is without sin cast the first stone.
I try to caution against the hype and the lopsided gaze. “Widen the pinhole a little and you’ll see that San Francisco is a gorgeous town of misty hills and caring people – It even has seals for Christ sake.” Equity, Justice, rehabilitation, and compassion are my counter-arguments to their concern; but, damn San Francisco!
Driving through the Tenderloin District this trip isn’t helping me win any arguments today!!!
The very visible homeless camps of makeshift tents highlight a quilt-work of sadness. Too many a drug addict stand in poses contorted. Their bodies locked like tortured vampiric statues frozen in the sun between anguish and ecstasy. It’s unnerving – the fentanyl – I guess.
These living statues are a visible indictment of our large and small systems unwilling to prioritize the most disenfranchised. The west coast, unlike the East Coast where government push those “others” out of site, has “squatters rights” leaving the public to confront in person the glaring systemic failures on the day to day. It’s not unusual here in the Tenderloin to witness schizophrenics shouting down their own thoughts, veterans struggling with PTSD, people shooting up, public pooping, wafts of urine, aimless energies, and outbursts of violence… I uncomfortably drive to the opera in the comfort of a cab.
I try to parse the reality in front of me with my own naive idealism. I feel pains of futility. I thought I voted for the good guy? What’s an individual to do to effect change? I say nothing out loud and look down at my phone to look at facebook or catch some Pokémon .
My phone: I’m feeling the limits of it more and more these days. I can access all the music from history, but I’m not hearing a musician with my own ears. Social media gives all my friends a voice, but I’m not having any conversations. I look out of the car window and i’m on the road with a hundred people I can’t see (just roads of heavily tinted windows). There’s evidence all around of people isolating.
The LYFT’s brakes slam! I jerk forward. The de-humanization of society I’m considering suddenly on full display.
The car ahead of us just slammed on their brakes in a rage, a woman gets out and throws a cup of coffee on the windshield of the car behind her. Humor is always my first defense and I joke with our driver. “That was a costly act of road rage” I say. “when you consider inflation.” He laughs while they scream back and forth for a minute until she gets back in and screeches away.
In tonights opera Die Frau ohne Schatten, it is the goddess who is isolated, not by her phone, but her privelage as a goddess. She begins the opera seeing the mortal woman as an other, as an obstacle, and someone to be used. I think the opera is heading for tragedy, but then the goddess surprises me. She shows empathy for the mortal. Seeing herself in the other, she parts from the selfish path, and turns to the path of compromise. It ends happily.
I don’t know Strauss’ politics. But, this is the most “pro-life” opera I’ve ever seen ending with the celestial voices of unborn babies waiting in the ether. Their chorus is the final surprise of the night.
These babes provide a furious finale’ through speakers that amplify their high voices leaving the earthly stage to an otherworldly realm of spirits swirling the audience in expectant joy. Each bodiless spirit waits for a man and woman to get together, turn on a little Rufus, pour some wine, and then sit in wait for nine months.
Afterward we wait on the steps for our ride, but retreat back into the lobby for the five minute wait (I forget how cold San Francisco can get). A man nearby with an umbrella hollers a last call to escort walkers through the troubled neighborhood to home.
The next morning I’m on the wings of Alaska Airlines again flying up north a few miles to Portland. Still thinking about the sound of a falcon my first week is serendipitously a week of birds! We see an Eagle sweep a river bank just feet away from us, waxwings nimble as x-wings hunt bugs, while a grandfatherly osprey purviews a lake. The next day a falcon with unmistakeable sienna tail feathers glides over lavender fields below a cloudless sky and I brace myself for that sound.
Time for summer, the real and the fantastic. See y’all next season.
So What’s Die Frau Ohne Schatten all about? An immortal Empress who has fallen in love with a mortal Emperor has three days to steal the shadow of a mortal woman. If she fails then the Emperor will be turned to stone and she will be unable to have a child. The mortal who she tempts with worldly treasure and lovers to give up her shadow is also married and looking to raise a family. Will the Empress steal the shadow
Notes on the Production:
Composer…………………….. Richard Strauss
Conductor…………………….. Sir Donald Runnicles
The Empress…………………. Camilla Nylund
The Emperor…………………. David Butt Philip
Barak’s Wife………………….. Nina Stemme
Barak……………………………. Johan Reuter
The Nurse……………………… Linda Watson
Spirit Messenger……………. Stefan Egerstrom
Keeper of the Gates………… Mikayla Sager
Apparition of a Youth…….. Victor Cardamone
Voice of the Falcon………… Olivia Smith
Set Design…………………….. David Hockney
San Francisco Opera
*In fact the San Francisco opera expanded the orchestra area twice in its history to accommodate Strauss operas. First in 1938 for Elektra and then again in 1976 for the first United States performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten (96 players).