Issue:  Vol. 46 / No. 17 / 28 April 2016

Purple reign

Out There

Love & Friendship writer-director Whit Stillman with his leading lady Kate Beckinsale at the Castro Theatre for opening night of the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival. Photo: Steven Underhill
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"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life." The lyric was, of course, from the immortal musical genius Prince, the setting was the opening night of the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) at the Castro Theatre, and the speaker was San Francisco Film Society (SFFS ) executive director Noah Cowan , kicking off the fest with Princely flair by flourishing a purple handkerchief.

Opening-night film Love & Friendship writer-director Whit Stillman is known for his indie films set in preppy, Ivy League America (Metropolitan ). His new movie is his first period piece, an adaptation of a Jane Austen novella set in the 1790s. In witty stage remarks, Stillman acknowledged that his previous protagonists have been criticized as being obnoxious upper-middle-class twits, whereas L&F 's Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is an obnoxious upper-upper-class twit. Plus ca change. Light in tone and heavy in glamour, the film was perfect opening-night fare. The Latin funk band playing the afterparty at Public Works tiptoed gently into "Purple Rain."


San Francisco Opera General Director Designate Matthew Shilvock at the War Memorial Opera House. Photo: Simon Pauly

British trifle

Also last week, Out There was kindly invited to the San Francisco Opera Guild's Nod to Mod Ball, a British-inspired celebration to welcome San Francisco Opera General Director Designate Matthew Shilvock in grand style to San Francisco Society. Beefeater guards flanked the entrance to City Hall and welcomed us with stiff upper lips. Later they broke out into a musical tribute to Shilvock with a witty variation on Gilbert & Sullivan 's "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General." "He is the very model of a new director general," they sang, "he understands the music that's both modern and traditional."

Shilvock was gracious and intelligent in his remarks; his coming reign seems promising. The Guild's event was elegant and not stuffy. But kudos to Lee Gregory of McCalls Catering, as it surely couldn't have been easy to create a scrumptious menu from the staples of English cuisine, and she did. On a sweltering evening, the green-pea tarragon soup was deliciously cold.


Countertenor Brian Asawa, R.I.P.

Counter intelligence

Brian Asawa, who died at 49, was a countertenor with a beautiful voice. B.A.R. music writer Tim Pfaff says his all-time favorite moment in the press room at the Opera House was when, in the first intermission of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream (Asawa was singing Oberon), the distinguished editor of UK's Opera magazine stumbled back in declaring Asawa's "the most beautiful sound I've ever heard," as though he'd previously thought the biggest San Francisco delight was still its sourdough. All present knowingly grinned our American grins.

Asawa went on to a spectacular international career, which inevitably included roles in Baroque opera, but it's telling that on the War Memorial main stage (Asawa was one of the Merola Fellows who hit it big early) he debuted in Henze 's Das Verratene Meer, and sang Stravinsky 's Baba the Turk, and Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus, before finally singing Handel . San Francisco's Jake Heggie heads the list of composers who wrote for him.

More of a knockout than Asawa's voice was a penetrating perma-smile that made him the center of every room. A serious artist, he was also a fun-loving cut-up whom everyone remembers as the inimitable Brian first and the celebrated countertenor second. The photo is from a German production of Handel's Giulio Cesare, in which Asawa sang Tolomeo. Its perfect floridity is surely among the ways he would prefer we remember him.


Lion tracks

Using an absolute economy of means – guitars, microphones and men's wear – singer-songwriter Benjamin Scheuer tells his own true story in The Lion, now playing at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater. It's an autobiography that involves father issues, unexpected death, serious illness, romantic disappointment and artistic strife – and it's pure theatrical pleasure at just over an hour's running time. Through May 1; info & tix at

Finally, here's an anecdote to complement Tavo Amador 's review of The Swans of Fifth Avenue in this week's issue. Everyone knew that Unspoiled Monsters was Truman Capote's vicious portrait of Tennessee Williams. The story is set in the Plaza Hotel. But Williams drawled, "It couldn't be me. I have never stayed at the Plaza."


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