Sunday, December 29, 2013

What The Phantom of the Opera really means for singer Jackie Evancho

Singing phenomenon Jackie Evancho saw The Phantom of the Opera (the movie of it) when she was just seven years old. Before then, according to her parents, she was a perfectly normal child with no obvious special abilities, the second of four, growing up in suburban middle-class America, in the household of a security camera franchise owner and a former nurse.

What happened after that has been recounted in countless newspaper articles written after she became a national celebrity when she took second place on America's Got Talent in 2010.

But I haven't read anything that tried to explain her continuing intense relationship to Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical melodrama. Personally I prefer Spamalot, a Monty Pythonesque parody of hyperventilating productions like Webbers', with numbers like "This is the song that goes on too long." Still, while playing a recent performance of Phantom as I edited underwater photos I'd taken on a recent trip to Indonesia, I realized why Jackie Evancho relates to Phantom thematically.

Because thematically, Phantom is about a talented young woman torn between conflicting life path choices: a normal life with an adoring, handsome young man, or sacrificing all that for the life of an artist.

For every performing artist there are probably dozens--even hundreds of people who are comparably talented, but who are unwilling to give up the quiet joys of normal life.

I know someone like that. A very talented classical pianist, easily good enough to be a recording artist. But instead of living a life of touring, performing, living out of a suitcase, he chose to marry, settle down, and have three children while pursuing an academic/business career that didn't require constant travel. He does perform locally and does a bit of musical travel, but he'll never be a world-famous concert pianist.

For a singer like Jackie Evancho to pursue her art she will have to travel around the world, performing in concerts. And even now, at age 13, she is touring and performing a lot--though nowhere near the schedule of an adult performer in her field. Even though her family works hard to balance her career with her "normal" life, there's no question that she has less "normal" life than any other kid she knew at school.

In interviews she has shown herself to be sanguine about the trade-offs required to pursue her dreams.

And in terms of her relationship with Phantom of the Opera, the fact that she's now 13 and not 23 is irrelevant. Even if she waited a decade, the choice is the same: like the Christine character of Phantom, Jackie can't achieve artistic fulfillment without giving up much of the normal life most people experience.

She could be a music teacher and have a normal life. But she seeks a place at the very top of her art, and that precludes the kind of life most Americans lead.

Phantom of the Opera couches this life choice in a hyperventilating sort of way, with the life of the artist embodied in a talented but murderous psychopath. The normal life is embodied more realistically, in the form of a nice (yawwwwn...) guy who wants her to be his beloved wifey. 

Critics of young performing artists lament the loss of a normal childhood for such people. Of course they never lament the lost of the powerful joys of performance, of high artistic achievement, for able kids whose parents keep them off the stage. And they don't seem to realize that the choice remains at every stage of life.

So while Jackie Evancho seems to have first started thinking about this choice at age 7--at least on some level--she just got a head start on the issue all elite artists must deal with.

And which, under the cheesy theatrics, Phantom of the Opera deals with.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

What do we mean when we say an artist like Jackie Evancho is "expressive" ?

Actually, "Expressive" is the wrong word for what I'm trying to talk about, because it implies that the performer/artist is expressing something inside of them, and I'm not talking about the performer's inner life--only about their ability to make the viewer/listener/reader feel thoughts/emotions strongly.

Thus while a convicted criminal may weep while apologizing to his victims or their families during a trial's sentencing phase, you can't know whether they're tears of remorse or of self-pity.

And I think I've heard that some porn stars think about playing with their pet dog, or eating candy, while they're "acting."

Ultimately, until brain science gets more advanced, I can't tell what's going on inside your head and vice-versa, whether your face and microgestures are considered expressive or impassive.

Putting that aside, though, we can distinguish between performers who make us feel admiration for their skill as performers vs. performers who make us feel, period.

Like the probably apocryphal saying that when the ancient Roman orator Cicero spoke, people would say "How well he speaks," but when Greek orator Demosthenes spoke, people would say "Let us march on Sparta."

That, for me, is the difference between Pavarotti and Domingo. It could be that Pavarotti was feeling powerfully moved when he sang, while Domingo thought of eating candy. But many listeners have felt as I have about what we experience and feel when listening to these two operatic tenors.

And there's a whole school of thought that advocates how art should not make you feel deeply, since that can often be distressing, after all (think of the grim choral ending of Threepenny opera, which points out that the hero's near-magical rescue from the gallows doesn't happen in real life). Instead it argues for aesthetic distance--art through binoculars--in which you're amused, diverted, entertained, but not gut-wrenched or even overjoyed. Just pleased. That's exactly what the ancient Greek Epicurean school of philosophy taught, saying you should avoid life's peaks because you spend most of your life in the valleys and those peak experiences ruin the valley time.

"How well she sings" vs. "I wept."

Though that varies by viewer. Jackie has the latter effect on my, but the former effect on my brother, for example. Her singing makes him feel close to nothing, even though he recognizes her skill.

Poor guy.

Can you quantify this? I can imagine coming up with some kind of quantification of what looks like emotional expressiveness, based on microgestural indices from taking readings off the 300-odd facial muscles humans have.

Or you can go at it sociologically. Say, interview 100 opera lovers after having them view opera clips of Pavarotti and Domingo singing several of the same arias, and see whether you get statistically significant results, using standard statistical methodologies.

Verisimo and bel canto schools of opera focus on emotional engagement and beautiful singing for its own sake respectively. Same thing is true for pop music, with the fun stuff vs. the heartfelt stuff. Like Christina Aguilerea's Genie in a Bottle vs. You're Beautiful (I think that's its title).

Thursday, December 5, 2013

What should teenage singers wear?

A classical music blog included an entry by a music teacher critiquing Jackie Evancho's performance on the Queen Latifah daytime talk show on December 3, 2013. Here's my response to some things she said about Jackie's outfit on the show.

re: “The outfit was rather “grown-up” for a 13 year old girl. Charlotte Church has just spoken out about this kind of thing. Jackie take care, keep hold of your innocence.”

Seriously? True, she didn’t look Amish. And someone in the Taliban would be appalled. But if you think her outfit was what Charlotte Church was talking about, that’s preposterous. Church was talking about Madonna, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna–musical celebrities who have appeared in public nearly naked. And of course Church was talking about her own previous choices, which she now blames on others.

Here’s an easy way to see this. Google “Charlotte Church,” select “images,” and scan the first hundred or so photos. Then scan “Jackie Evancho” and do likewise. There’s no comparison, even if you exclude the images of Church after she was an adult.

Without a doubt the music industry looks for beautiful singers who are also beautiful in appearance, and then seeks to “sell” that beauty. It’s the profit motive at work. But Church seems to be glossing over the fact that, as she now says, she didn’t want to be singing what she was singing, didn’t want the innocent image she first had, and did want to do whatever she felt like–as her adolescent antics soon revealed. I think you’ll find that Evancho feels more self-actualized and less rebellious than Church felt at the same age, and thus is less inclined to act out.

You warn Jackie to “keep hold of your innocence.” Did you know that she wears a Purity ring? I think at this time she’s the only professional singer not in the Christian music genre who does so. No one wants to see her married and pregnant at 16, but at the same time no one should seek to keep her a child either. She is not a child now, and never will be again. She’s an adolescent. A teenager. And I think most would agree that she dresses toward the conservative end of all American 13 year olds.
It is as bad for teenagers to be forced back into childhood as it is for them to be forced forward into adulthood. Society still hasn’t outgrown the peculiar notions of girls as fragile porcelain dolls perpetrated by Anglo-American Victorian culture. Nobody matures instantly. They have to somehow bridge the difference between innocent childhood and knowledgeable adulthood.

We should all hope that Jackie Evancho gets the support she needs to make that transition, such that when she can sign contracts herself and is legally responsible for herself, that she then has the tools and maturity she needs to do so. Gaining those tools can’t start at 17.9 years of age.

re: high heels make it hard to breathe for singing

So opera stars always wear flats when they sing at concerts? That’s not my recollection. But perhaps that’s a compromise they make. Do you have any scientific evidence for this assertion? A link perhaps? I’m not saying you’re wrong but I’d like to see more than a simple assertion of this.
[I'll add a link if and when it's forthcoming]

Why there's a Chinese space station in "Gravity"

Yes, there's a Chinese space station in gravity, complete with an escape pod that figures in the story.

Every other structure that movie has in space, orbiting around Earth, is really up there. Maybe not exactly where the movie puts them, but up there nonetheless.

Except for that Chinese space station. No such, and none will be for quite a while. They have a little cargo vessel in orbit that they call a space station, but it doesn't even have a bathroom. It's a placemark, basically, with a pressurized interior equivalent to a cube 8 ft. x 8 ft. x 8 ft.

So what's the full-fledged Chinese nonexistent space station in Gravity doing there? The story doesn't require a Chinese space station per se.

Here's why: Gravity is going to sell  a ton of theater tickets in China, which has an urban population at least as big as America has. And you don't get to show films in China unless China's nominally Communist oligarchs greenlight them, with a max for big Hollywood films of 34 a year.

But now, courtesy of that marvel of nonexistent Chinese ingenuity and tech savvy, you can be assured that Gravity will be on the Chinese gravy train.

Especially since the Chinese act of orbital vandalism--blowing up one of their satellites, creating a cloud of dangerous space junk--is attributed instead to the Russians in Gravity. Wouldn't do to mention something bad the Chinese have done in space.

You can be assured that every Hollywood blockbuster you see going forward will incorporate some paen to those wonderful, wonderful Chinese people/government/culture/technology. No more Chinese bad guys--they can now be Russian, since the Russian moviegoing public is a fraction of China's (and Russia doesn't limit the number of American films that can be shown there).

"Product placement" used to mean the hero drives a Ford or uses an Apple laptop. Now the idea has expanded to include whole countries.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Gravity--no spoilers review

Gravity's setting is in space, around space shuttles and space stations and the Hubble telescope and the like.

Gravity's arc is a fallible human struggling to survive against overwhelming odds.

The fallible human is played by Sandra Bullock, who benefits from being one of the most-liked actors in America, and from being a veteran of movies if not of space--meaning she knows how to convey inner turmoil without chewing the scenery.
I wouldn't be surprised if she won an Oscar for this role.

On the other hand, the film is a funny experience for people like me who are kind of technical--it's as full of "naw that couldn't really happen"' elements as Star Wars, yet at any given moment it LOOKS so doggone realistic...Most of the bits from which the film is constructed are pretty believable; just not how they're strung together.

Scientists have been slamming all the errors in the film--and then saying how much they loved it. It's that kind of movie. Like a dog you have that keeps chewing your shoes up but is so adorable you forgive it. And it's certainly a white-knuckle thrill ride that keeps 'em coming through the whole film.

Anyone who admires Sandra Bullock and/or George Clooney should see it; anyone who's a space/NASA fan should see it--BUT you really, really, really have to treat it as romantic fable with great-looking hardware trimmings, and give your sense of disbelief the night off before you walk into the theater. It's also a must-see for those who're interested in what the state of the art is with CGI.

For all that I found it moving. Even though what happens could never happen in reality, it is emotionally honest. I usually don't like films that are full of technical wowsers, but I forgave Gravity its debits because of its merits. And the first three or four minutes of the film, with no music in the soundtrack, just showing us Bullock's character on a spacewalk trying to fix a thorny hardware/software problem, might have been my favorite scene in the movie. But then I'm a space buff.

I saw it with a hardboiled software engineer from India who loathed it (he likes art films), a Russian art therapist with a BS in mathematics who kinda liked it, and my accounting manager wife who loves sci fi gave it a B-, calling it The Perils of Pauline in modern garb.

I notice on it got super high ratings by both critics and viewers, though most critics know less about space than I do, so in this case I have to take their fulsome praise with a grain of salt.

I bet when Sandra Bullock read the script she said YES! instantly. What a showcase for her talents. She absolutely carries the movie. It's hers.

My wife was annoyed by one scene where we see her peel off her spacesuit, winding up in her skivvies--reminding me of Barbarella's eponymous character's zero-G strip decades ago (and I'm sure the director was thinking of that).

I was less annoyed....

Very few 49 year olds look as good as she does. I realize it's part of her profession to look good--personal trainer, personal dietician etc. no doubt--but it still takes dedication to look like that. But appreciate it while you can, since she's in a space suit through most of the film.

One side note--my favorite Star Trek episodes happened entirely in space (and not on that wretched cheaty Holodeck), and this film's spacious (so to speak) setting is also lovely. It's a joy just to watch what's on the screen. And, like so few other space films, things don't whoosh! as they zip by you. The only other space films that obey this simple fact are 2001, Apollo 13, and Serenity, as best I can recall.