Ahoy there, mateys!
by Roberto Friedman
They walked amongst us all week. We saw them attending the Symphony, parading on the Square, strolling the city streets. It was Fleet Week, and photographer Steven Underhill was snapping photos of seamen with abandon, the way a wildlife photographer might go for broke at a well-populated watering-hole.
How appropriate was it, then, that San Francisco Opera 's Bay Area premiere of composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer's Moby-Dick should come last week at the War Memorial Opera House while visions of sailors still danced fandangos in Out There's head? Find Philip Campbell 's opera review on this week's arts cover. Out There was in the house for opening night, and to prepare, we'd been listening to some of our favorite sea-faring music: Benjamin Britten 's Billy Budd and the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Debussy's La Mer, Laurie Anderson's Songs and Stories from Moby Dick.
We also returned to one of the favorite volumes from our personal library, the great gay American author Herman Melville 's novel Moby-Dick, or The Whale (the title is hyphenated, but not the whale). The English Department at Stanford used to have an annual tradition of reading the tome aloud (still does?), with faculty and grad students taking on a chapter each. Our copy is a trade version of the illustrated Arion Press edition, with initial caps in a specially-designed "Leviathan" font, and drawings – of whaling tools, shipware, and processes – from engravings by artist Barry Moser. This makes the book, which let's face it is rather short on plot for an adventure tale, and lo-o-ong on whaling technology, less of a chore to read. There's even an illustration of a whale's penis, which we'll leave to your imagination.
To our relief and delight, the homoerotic overtones of the relationship between shipmates Queequeg and (call him Ishmael) Greenhorn are very much present in the opera. And as Ahab , tenor Jay Hunter Morris has nailed the mania and obsessiveness of his quixotic quest for the great white whale. He's a veritable American type (see: George W. Bush and the non-existent WMDs).
After the opening-night performance and its much-deserved ovations, SFO invited Out There and plucky plus-one Pepi to the cast party in the Green Room of the Veterans Building. The invitation specified, "Nautical attire welcomed." Press-door concierge Bill Repp wore an "anchors aweigh" necktie. Gossip-page mistress Leah Garchik sported a jaunty fish-motif necklace. We tried to convince Pepi to dress up as a sailor, since he has the physique and haircut to pull it off, but no dice. So OT styled a sailor's cap on the big night, and was treated to many a Fleet Week-themed ribbing.
At the festive afterparty, SFO General Director David Gockley compared Moby-Dick to American opera masterpieces like Porgy & Bess and West Side Story. Composer Heggie, who began his career in the SFO Press Department, was heard to remark that, though the world premiere had transpired elsewhere, the San Francisco premiere felt like his true homecoming.
Keyboard cat, play us out: "How to find you, maybe by your singing, a weird trail of notes in the water. One white whale in all these oceans, one white whale.
"Slipping through the nets of silence, under polar ice-caps miles down. You leave your echoes in the water. One white whale in all these oceans, one white whale." – from Anderson's version of Moby-Dick .
Last Friday night we were in the house for the openings of Nayland Blake: FREE! LOVE! TOOL! BOX! and The Parade: Nathalie Djurberg with Music by Hans Berg, two exhibitions showing at YBCA through Jan. 27, 2013. A key figure in the San Francisco art scene when he lived here from 1984-96, Blake created the show's pieces on-site, using spontaneous processes. The installations include Ruins of a Sensibility (1972-2002), a DJ stand stocked with Blake's collection of over 3,000 LPs. Visitors are invited to sign up for a DJ stint using Blake's musical archive during the run of the show, and OT plans to do this.
One interesting note is that in the "toolbox" of the show's title, Blake is referring to the Tool Box bar that was located at 4th and Harrison Sts. from 1962-71, which became famous for being the first gay leather bar in SoMa. It also had a very cool Chuck Arnett mural on one of its walls (replicated in the exhibition) that was featured in a 1964 issue of Life magazine, which brought national attention to the bar, its clientele and Arnett. Ironically, the bar was torn down to make way for what is now part of the Yerba Buena district. But Blake's works were influenced by the emergence of that underground culture in San Francisco, and played a prominent role in moving it aboveground. The toolbox comes full circle.
A workbook supplied with the show poses questions to visitors, and encourages them to share electronic responses. The prompts include "What is the best thing about your body?," "What is your most powerful piece of clothing and why?," and "When was the last time you felt free?"
Affiliated events include Queer Punks in Conversation, a panel featuring musician/tattoo artist Leslie Mah of Tribe 8, writer and performer Brontez Purnell of Gravy Train!!!, and others, on Fri., Nov. 20, at 6:30 p.m.; and Nayland's Makeover: Drag + Bay Area Personae, a panel including performances by Blake, Cliff Hengst , D-L Alvarez, Club Uranus alum Shannon Trumble, and others. Look for arts writer Sura Wood's interview with Blake in our very next issue.
Just space to congratulate San Francisco Playhouse on their 10th anniversary and move to their new theatre on Post St. Opening-night for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was bloody festive. Find Richard Dodds ' review in this issue.