Wednesday, April 29, 2009

There's Only One Smoking Gun?

The Metropolitan Opera House. Twenty-seven productions, 4-6 of which are performed in rolling rep. at any given time, over a 32-week season, 6 shows a week. Nothing stops it except hijacked planes or three feet of snow. Between rehearsals and performances, they mount an average of 12 operas--most of which are fully staged--every week. Average opera length: at least four hours. Average midday switch from one opera to the next: at least three hours. Average number of outside gigs that Met stagehands do outside "the Building," during the opera season? About Zero-point-Seven. You do the math.

I walked into the Building as a 35-year-old with a fair amount of experience in the business--including touring around the world to many different theatres--but when I made it as far as the Met stage--as one of 53 (fifty-three!) electricians for the rehearsals of a new production of Die Zauberflote--my mouth hung agape, and stayed that way for about three months. The scale of activity at the Metropolitan Opera House, plainly, is unmatched.

But the first performance I worked at the Met was the 501st performance of Die Walkure (Kill the Wabbit...) September 29, 2004. As I walked down the Stage Left wing, a man swept by me enrobed in Norse Caveman drag and carrying a huge spear, who looked an awful lot like the famed tenor Placido Domingo. This would be because it was, in fact, Placido Domingo. Five hours after the curtain rose, some other guy with a spear, named Wotan, summoned a set-engulfing ring of fire and the house curtain came in for good. (Or, at least until the audience filed out and the "Night Gang" filed in. From September until May it's essentially a 24-hour-a-day enterprise.) In the interim, I had born witness to the traffic patterns of carpenter and prop guy, stage manager and assistant conductor, dresser and artist. "Artist?" I thought. What, are they painting or singing here?" I stayed for three years.

Last night, April 28, 2009, I went back to work there for the first time in 18 months. What was the opera? Die Walkure, having worked its way up to performance # 521. Security guys at the stagedoor? The same. Stage Left Carpentry crew? The same. Strike force of heavily armed sopranos at the top of Act III? Same. Maestro? James Levine (yes, opera freaks, it was Valery Gergiev back in '04) Norse Guy? Still Mr. Domingo. Triple rig of smoke machines that provide the smoke part of the smoke-and-mirror effects at the end of the opera? The saaa.. HEY! Wait a minute -- what the hell's that? Three smoke guns have been replaced by one that feeds three parts of the Stage Left set with an impressive array of hoses, plenums and stragically perforated PVC piping.

They Don't Make Five-Hour German Opera Like They Used To...

Change does not usually come swiftly to the opera house, until it does. For the stagehands, one classic manifestation is that whenever a particular production is first mounted, whatever technology they used at the time is forever bonded to that production no matter how often it's revived. In other words, one night you're struggling with an electrics prop or a chandlier that up close looks like Dr. Frankenstein got medieval with some sheet metal and a spot welder--for a 1985 Zeffirelli production of Tosca--and the next, you're programming robotic lights for a very modrene re-design of 2005's Madama Butterfly. Old shows chug along until a General Manager or a Board smites it with the Divine Hand of Upper Management and commissions a completely new design.

And yet, last night, I found an anomaly--a more efficient smoke gun rig in an old Met production. It's as if a Galapogos turtle mutated and shed a few vestigial organs as it plodded around Darwin's favorite islands. My Electrician brothers have been tweaking here and there--even at the Met, evolution cannot be denied. All will be well and good until a comet hits, and from the ashes a new "intelligent designer" rises up and says, "OK -- now you're a platypus," and Poof! A wholly new species of Die Walkure, genus Wagner will be birthed.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ice Hockey is Not Green....

Well, it's simply been too long for any self-respecting blog to remain silent. I've started a bunch of stalled essays, ranging in title from Why I Believe The New York Times to Baby Elephants: Why So Cute? but I went nowhere with them. The Old Grey Lady is more embattled as an institution than it's been since the Depression--they've stopped stocking the newspaper machines at the train station in South Orange, which is disconcerting to say the least, and I'm not so sure how to even begin an argument with someone whose opinions are formed by Rush and Bill. (However, I am working on it!) And baby elephants...well once you get past that wrinkly little trunk, what else is there, really?

So I decided to simply drop all half-baked thoughts and write the day. Today is Earth Day. Since the financial collapse, Matters Green have slipped on several banana peels, effectively lowering them from out sights. Thankfully, Mother Nature does not forget much, if anything, and she recently reminded us by snapping a 25-mile-long ice bridge in Antarctica, on Sunday, setting the stage for the addition of a Connecticut-sized tumbler of cracked ice into our global cocktail. And yet just on the other side of the pole, that most alien continent is gaining ice, but probably due to a hole in the ozone the size of Utah...

Our precious blue-green orb is mottled, pockmarked by our folly, punctured by the pellets of industry's shotguns, gutted by greed. Aeysh! It's enough to depress a fella. Let's not be depressed on Earth Day.

There are small things one can do. Nearly every time I'm in a park, or in the woods, I pick up trash. Not everything I see, but one or two items--a candy wrapper, a Popsicle stick. If I have a day pack, perhaps an abandoned bottle or crumpled can. I'm not one for organized religion, but this is one of my forms of prayer--that the good energy I put out is tangible and means something.

And larger things, too. One of my proudest achievements was putting solar panels on our garage roof. It's a small system, limited by the best southern exposure, but thanks to New Jersey's forward-thinking incentives, we paid for about 40% of the total cost, and the state paid for about 60%. Just having solar panels made us twice as energy-concious, holding out until the last moment to turn on the window AC units, and replacing some incandescent bulbs with fluorescents. The system generates about 60% of the house's yearly power needs. But best of all? Before the digital meter was installed, on a nice day in May you could see the sucker spin backwards--we made more power than we were using at the time--and with the Bush Administration waging war on three fronts (Iraq, Afghanistan, the U.S. Constitution), it restored a small, yet crucial, sense of control in day-to-day events.

I like to walk, too. This morning at Penn Station, as we were all hitting the street, I was the only person on the stairs. All the other bleary commuters were escalating. When it's later in the day, and there are a lot more people coming and going, I always look over and compare the people on the stairs and the people on the escalators, and I don't think it's hyperbole to say that the escalator passengers are chunkier. It may not seem like the same category, but taking the stairs is green.

So is green. Green is green. It was my favorite color long before I was aware of Earth Day, which wasn't really until I went to sleep-away college at Binghamton. (When you grow up in the woods, once or twice a year you had City Day--a subject for another space and time.)

Tune in next time, when I'll attempt to serve up not only why The New York Times remains the paper of record in this country, but also a more fair and balanced treatment of baby elephants.

As always, thanks again for reading, and don't forget that even if Sasha Cohen herself became my personal goal-tending fitness coach, I would still rail against professional ice hockey season extending past February.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

My dog says Wow...... Bow Wow.....

Every Saturday, my son, Benjamin, and I (and excuse this interruption, but can we please have a quick wave of appreciation for the appositive? I think later today, I'm going to nominate it for the Pro-Am Bloggers' Association MVP for the month of April--Most Valuable Phrase. It's one elegant piece of language, the appositive, and so useful. Seriously, you just try setting yourself off with commas for the rest of the day, and see if it doesn't give you enormous game.)

Where was I? Right, so my kid and I have this great Saturday ritual. it turns out that pre-PG-13 James Bond movies are manna from heaven to a red-blooded 8-year-old boy--there's a reliable supply of cool gadgetry, several flicks end in a Battle Royale in which a bunch of guys in jumpsuits and hardhats are bloodlessly mown down, and at this stage, the romance is still nauseating to the Third Grade loin. Thanks to Netflix and, much as it pains me, a national video-renting chain that will remain unnamed, we've almost worked through the canon, and it's been fun for me to rediscover secret-agent-camp at its zenith. Benjamin snuggles into my lap, and holds a pillow at the ready--he's very adept at self-editing the parts that he finds scary. Only once or twice have I felt the urge to cover his eyes. We go on the adventure together, and look forward to it all week, periodically belting out Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" just to get psyched up. Add stove top popcorn, and you've got yourself great late-afternoon father-son "bonding."

Last Saturday, it was For Your Eyes Only, with a diaphanous Sheena Easton theme ballad, a submerged detente-altering encryption machine, Q turning up in a Spanish confessional, a long haired actress whose principal contribution is handiness with a crossbow, and the inexplicable presence of an un-sexy, jailbait Bond-chasing Olympic ice skating hopeful played by a truly awful Lynn-Holly Johnson.

The real bonus, however, was the mysterious Columbo--a Chessire grinning Topol, our perennial Tevye--as a sort of Basque badass, who feasted mightily on the cellulose and provided much of the fun, particularly in a late-night wharf-side shoot-em-up in which his good-guy credentials are cemented when he and his band of Basque buddies assault a bunch of other guys in blue shirts who wind up all kinds of dead. Benjamin was thrilled when he saw Topol's name on the DVD jacket, for we had just seen him live in the 34th "Farewell" tour of Fiddler on the Roof at NJPAC. I can tell you, in his late 70s, the man still fills a theatre.

Back to FYEO...later, there's an assault on a mountain monastery, and I have to say I appreciated the detail with which they handled all the pieces --- turns out it's not that easy to scale a sheer cliff... Roger Moore, with a good bit of labor, lays in no fewer than three climbing points, and then one of the bad guys starts to knock them out, one by one, through quite a lot of effort of his own. When Bond finally makes it to the top, he winches up Topol & Co. in the slowest moving wicker basket ever to appear in an action flick, and you know what? The sucker's not big enough for the whole crew, and we actually wait for the basket to make a second trip. For a minute there, I thought we were watching Bridge over the River Kwai or a pyramid-building re-enactment on The History Channel.

Another interesting throwaway--from one of the better Bond movies you haven't thought about in ages--when the rogue Russian general shows up via whirlybird at the film's conclusion to collect his scale-tipping ATAC thingy, Bond ultimately tosses it off the mountain top and it breaks into smithereens. "Now you don't have it, and I don't have it," he tells the empty-handed general, who instead of wasting everyone in sight with superior firepower on pure principle, merely shrugs, and clumps good-naturedly back to his chopper. It was like Sam the sheepdog and Ralph the wolf punching the time clock after a typical day at the office. The cold-war message? In the end, we needed the Russians and they needed us.

Design-wise, a bit of a bummer--the football for which everyone is playing is a sad, chunky keyboard console that makes the TRS-80 look chic. The most ingenious gadgetry is perhaps the right-angle forearm cast that obliterates an unfortunate dummy in Q's lab. Oh, and there's the notable opening sequence--you actually see the girl paddling about in all those bubbles, and it's Sheena Easton... she not only sings the song, but she's the babe at the beginning, too.

At this point, Benjamin and I only have On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Man with the Golden Gun and Never Say Never Again in our ongoing Saturday Bond Film Fest, before we run up against the hard, cold reality of PG-13.... and for that, he'll have to wait a few years. For my part, I'm looking forward to a meditation on the finer points of Timothy Dalton, continued delight with Desmond Llewelyn's paternal scolding, and Benjamin's further education in secret-agenting.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Textual Analysis (or, We can make him Better, Stronger, Faster...)

Posted in response to a New York Times blog, that you can check out here --- it really hit a nerve -- some 430+ posts in three days...

Technology and entitlement….

I’ll be 40 in July. As a kid, my parents smartly required me to buy all my own video games. I got the Radio Shack knock-off of Pong and then the Sears knock-off of the Atari 2600, the first console with interchangable game cartridges. When Atari trotted out the 5200, and many of my friends’ parents marched out and bought the latest, greatest, I understood fundamentally, even at a young age, that this crap–and demand for my hard-earned money–would never end! It’s one of the primary reasons why Bill Gates is a bazillionaire.

I started rudimentary e-mailing in 1987. I spent too much time doing it, and my education suffered.

When cellphones hit the market, I found their intrusiveness nauseating, and I’m an extrovert, I can tell you. I watched my friends curse their loss of freedom–always on the leash with the job. I held out against them until 2002, when I was working freelance and started losing jobs because voicemail response time became slow enough to affect my income. That’s a good reason to upgrade, in my book. Not simply because one can.

My third grader has yet to give the full-court press on cellphones, but I know the debate is coming. So far, his mother and I have refused, also, to get him a Wii because it is up to us to decide what’s appropriate in a world in which it sometimes feels as though reason is indirectly proportional to technology. Witness the A-Bomb, the mother of all goings-too-far…

I’m not a Luddite, really. I appreciate my extended life-expectancy–know where it comes from–and I make my living operating a computer, but I have fiercely maintained that we have long since surpassed the line in this culture of so-called time efficiency and balance.

It's as if Reason has been largely kicked to the curb in American Life, by SUV-driving reality-television watching, “diet” soda-addicted, Travel-team parenting Narcissists who rationalize their own “peace of mind” by handing cellphones of mass cultural destruction to Grammar Schoolers.

Ms. Parker-Pope—I don’t know if you stopped your counter-posts, but as I was reading them, it was as if you were texting along in a “conversation” obsessively following the debate, even commenting on how bad it was for you to comment…..I submit to you that your rationalization of “balance” during the school walk-a-thon could also be seen as having one’s IT cake and eating it, too. I don’t know what the snarky commenter said, but I bet there was a grain of truth there. Your use of the thing was no doubt equally annoying, and the breakdown of boundary invites criticism.

To all the folks who wrote TPP, most of you skipped the pure pleasure of writing out Parker-Pope, which is a fabulous name, really, and I wouldn’t have known that had I not TAKEN THE TIME to scroll to the top and discovered for myself–it would have been too easy to simply parrot everyone else who used TPP.

It’s all connected. In a certain way, it’s all about low self-worth clouding decent judgment. I love being an American, and I love modernity, but I see a huge chasm in our national critical thought, and we ought to be shouting across that canyon to the people on the other side. If they’d just take those earbuds out, they could have an actual conversation about it.

Thank you for posting Ms. Geiger’s thoughts. It obviously hit a big nerve. Yes, people can be harsh–many here thought she was cluelessly unreasonable by texting her kid during school time. I’d agree. Thanks for anyone who made it the end of my long rant!