The one thing the blogosphere does not need is another article about trendy, hip, ironic, facially-haired Brooklyn. In fact some recent articles now toll the death knell of the borough, saying that Brooklyn is passé; it seems that Queens is the new Brooklyn. That fact notwithstanding, I've always been rather late to the party, and although I'd had my share of evenings at BAM and the wonderful concerts at Bargemusic, it wasn't until recently that I discovered the depth of serious music, opera and theater happening throughout the borough.
I never felt comfortable embracing Brooklyn. Flatbush, decidedly un-hip (at least in the '70's) was my ancestral homeland, the place I had to escape, although the escape wasn't all that physically dangerous as I simply took the D-train to the bright lights of Manhattan. So every time this prodigal son returns, I always feel certain trepidation: will memories I've successfully repressed all these years rear their ugly heads as I walk down Atlantic Avenue?
Recently, I was invited to a recording of Yotam Haber's new work; Haber is a composer who's work I deeply admire, so I enlisted a friend with a car and we made the trek across the bridge to Roulette.
Despite the world-class contemporary classical musicians who regularly perform there, I was completely unaware of this venue. I learned that the original Roulette, a bastion of avant-garde music, was in Jim Stanely's TriBeCa loft. (Stanley, a renowned trombonist, was a force in the hip, downtown loft music scene in the 1980's, another party I'd have been happy to come late to, had I known it existed!) Roulette has moved often over the decades, but in 2011 it settled into what now seems a permanent home: Memorial Hall in Boerum Hill.
Entering through a completely non-descript set of iron doors, you are welcomed into a small but friendly lobby, artfully renovated. The real treat of Roulette is the performance space itself: an intimate gem of an old ballroom/theater, a tiny balcony spanning the perimeter, anchored to the ceiling by skinny, frail looking pipes. Despite extensive on-line research I couldn't find the original purpose of the hall/theater, although it was obviously built as a performance space so I imagine it could have been an Elks Lodge or a Kiwanis Meeting Hall. It rather reminded me of Wilton's Music Hall, the oldest Music Hall in London, also now meticulously renovated.
On stage, an entire orchestra fit very comfortably, which is unusual for a venue that only holds about 250 seats on the orchestra level.
Furthermore, this wasn't just any orchestra. It was Contemporaneous, the premier orchestra dedicated to promoting and performing new music. As I arrived they were finishing rehearsing a piece by Thomas Adès and Haber's piece was ready to be recorded.
Haber, in addition to numerous awards and commissions, was for some years the Artistic Director of MATA, the organization founded by Philip Glass and others to commission and present new works. His music, based loosely on a minimalist style, is hauntingly beautiful and seductively hypnotic. The piece I heard, "We Were All," had all the Haber trademarks I love: the melodic loops of phrases, the sensual tonalities and the completely original harmonic language. Based on "Cherries," a poem by Andrea Cohen, the piece started with three singers singing separate, staccato syllables in a quasi-baroque style; these syllabic organisms then cautiously migrated into the orchestra, instrument by instrument, until a great crescendo heralded the climax, the entire orchestra elaborating on the tiny phrases, timpani's banging, trumpets blaring, followed by a gradual decrescendo as the syllabic phrases dissipated to their original state. It was a gorgeous, explosive piece: the creation of the universe, if you will, in less than fifteen minutes.
One incredibly important feature of Haber's music, to me anyway, is his sensitivity to the audience. His music always sounds fresh and cutting edge, but the audience is inevitably seduced as opposed to being bewildered or worse, indifferent.
After the recording at Roulette, my next point of call was LoftOpera's production of The Barber of Seville. Happily, LoftOpera is only two years old, so I was only 700 days late to this particular party.
Their Barber was performed in another incredible environment, The Green Building, a gorgeous multi-use space in Carroll Gardens, complete with exposed brick walls and soaring wooden beam ceilings lit by elegant chandeliers. It was set up rather like the Parish House next to St John the Divine's where I recently saw Britten's Curlew River.
How can you not have an enormous smile on your face when you walk into a venue like this offering Barber, and find positioned near the entrance an actual barber chair complete with hairdresser offering free trims to anyone who signs up on the chalkboard? Those who didn't didn't need a haircut, could go outside to the enormous beer-garden and get a bit sloshed for Rossini.
Of course, an opera has to be judged on its musical merits, not its beauticians, and this production was sensational. I had already seen the Met's production with superstars Laurence Brownlee, Christopher Maltmen and the enchanting Isabel Leonard who is the greatest Rosina alive today. There is probably no better cast available in the world, so I was surprised and delighted to hear the youthful OperaLoft cast completely hold their own in spite of a forbidding comparison.
Although I wasn't familiar with José Adán Pérez, his Figaro was a delight. Even without checking his bio, it was clear he had performed this role many times; he knew it inside and out. His singing was robust and athletic, easily navigating the treacheries of the famous "Largo al factotum," (that's the Bugs Bunny "Figaro, Figaro, Figaro," that every non-opera aficianado sings when asked if he knows opera.)
The true star of the evening was a super-nova on the classical scene, Jonathan Blalock as Almaviva. Anyone who reads music reviews is aware of Blalock's ascent, as he can't seem to help but get raves from everyone from Alex Ross to the Anthony Tommasini. This is the first time I'd seen him in a role and this guy can sing! And act! And is strikingly handsome as well, a singer who has it all. He negotiated the extremely challenging bel canto sections with great dexterity and a technique that belies his young age; the audience burst into well-deserved applause halfway through his first aria.
The production itself was sublime, a real treat. The audience sat in two sections facing each other across stage platform that looked like a large dining table and ran the length of the hall. That's where most of the opera was performed, except when the action shifted to the upper reaches of the hall's fire escapes, where Rosina was held captive by Bartolo or when the ensemble ran through the audience.
The second most important thing about any Barber after the singing is that the opera be funny. Although the cast at the Met was wonderful, the heavy handed-production, complete with unfunny cartoon anvils falling on people and outsized pumpkins (oranges?) being tossed about, was anything but. This production (despite the staged Overture with some sort of chamber maid chasing a butterfly -- will directors please stop staging the Overture!) was hysterical. Every joke that Rossini wrote landed, and the director Laine Rettmer directed the comedy with the lightest of touches despite the inherent slapstick of the libretto. Of course, it's infinitely easier to make a joke work in a tiny venue than in the vast enormity of the Met, but still, this is a company to be reckoned with; I can't wait to see what they have in store for next year.
The last leg of my Brooklyn odyssey was a return trip to the Theater for a New Audience. I was again completely late to the original party of this company having never seen them in Manhattan. Happily I saw a magnificent Lear there last season, vastly superior to the ponderous and self-indulgent Frank Langella production at BAM, and this season I recently saw Tambourlaine, Parts I and II, staring the magnificent John Douglas Thompson.
One of the most wonderful things about a night with this company is simply walking into the spanking new Polonsky Shakespeare Center. The program notes say that the theater was inspired by the Cottleslow Theatre of Britain's National Theater, but having been to the Cottleslow hundreds of times, I can say that this open, airy, audience friendly environment is 100% more inviting than any of the brutal-esque monstrosities that comprise the National Theater, Cotteslow included. It's a wonderful feeling knowing that prior to seeing a performance you are going into a clean, well-lit, elegantly designed environment with a formidable canteen and comfortable seats.
Despite 30 years of theater going, I'd never seen Tambourlain, and I honestly can't recall any opportunities to do so. Knowing it was such a seminal play in its own right, not to mention a huge influence on the young Shakespeare, I eagerly bought a ticket. I was disappointed to see the audience not nearly full, despite the raves. (Will Manhattan-ites still not make the trek? Or are they already in Queens?) The performance was directed by the great Shakespearean Michael Boyd, who achieved an amazing task: directing a troupe of American actors in an Elizabethan drama and creating a completely naturalistic style that had its own "American" rhythm without pandering to the text or history of the play. Tambourlain was gory, poetic, riveting, exhilarating, all the things their Lear had been a year ago.
Ah, Brooklyn. What else have I been missing? No matter, I'm back now and am on the mailing lists of Roulette, LoftOpera and Theater for the New City. You can go home again.