San Francisco Chronicle

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Puppets, video are opera's new bedfellows


By  Carolyne Zinko, Chronicle Staff Writer     

 (Below is an abridge version, relevant to Bartok. For full version click on link below.)

 There are no lions and tigers and bears at the Berkeley Opera's latest offering, a double-bill program of Maurice Ravel's "L'Enfant et les Sortileges" and Bela Bartok's "Bluebeard's Castle," opening Saturday. Nonetheless, audiences are in for an "oh my" of the sort uttered by Dorothy Gale in the land of Oz when they cast their eyes on oversize frog puppets, cartoon-like singing teapots and Impressionistic paintings that are projected and meld digitally in layers on a 14-foot by 24-foot screen behind the singers, doubling as moody backdrop and stage set.     

Such theatrics - enlisting the talents of painter and computer artist Naomie Kremer for "Bluebeard" and the Berkeley artist Ariel Parkinson for the Ravel piece - are not intended as mere technological antics, but to make the stories come alive for viewers.     

"My project," said Jonathan Khuner, the company's artistic director, "is a way to bring out the psychological currents under the surface drama through parallel tracks of non-aural art."     

The works were chosen, in large part, because they concentrate less on plot than the inner and subconscious lives of the characters, lending the potential for visual experimentation, rather than the use of a traditional, bulky and expensive stage set. Bartok's opera, said Khuner, uses "spiky, often dissonant and always unpredictable music ... to underlie the tense conversation that the protagonist, Judith, has with her lover, Bluebeard, as she explores his castle, mind and life history - ultimately to her own destruction. Bluebeard is sung by Paul Murray and Judith is portrayed by Kathleen Moss.     

Kremer's art, he asserted, "with its use of kinesis, not only in her computerized animations, but also in the swirling and energetic quality of her physical canvasses, was a perfect match and a great counterpoint to the orchestra and singers."     

Fairy tale features

(skipped paragraphs)

Innovation is the name of the game in fine arts these days, as symphonies, operas and ballets turn to simulcasts on big screens in public plazas or ballparks, interactive TV shows on PBS and dancer blogs on the Internet to connect with modern audiences. "I'm not alone in hoping for progress along these lines," Khuner said. "I'd love to have the capability someday of dozens of small, independently controlled lightweight screens that could be put into stimulating and rapidly changing configurations to define different stage geography, and whose images would be kinetic art timed to the rapid flow of the music. Ideally, the scenery would actively reflect all layers of the drama, and not just be the external packaging."     

To create the images for "Bluebeard," a project that took nine months to complete, Kremer, 55, immersed herself in the piece. She listened to it over and over and read the libretto. When she hit a roadblock in trying to create a storyboard with sequential scenes, she gave up and tried something else: She found a beginning image that interested her and tried to see how it would work. She settled on doorways as her device, because Judith looks behind various doors in the castle and learns the eerie truth about her husband - behind each door is a wife he has slain.     

Kremer cocooned herself in her work, to the point where even while doing everyday things like walking down the street in the Bay Area or near her second home in Paris, or driving with her husband through the countryside on jaunts to Britain, she would stop and use a video camera to record images of anything that seemed like it could be used in the paintings. That included the doorway of an old, moss-covered church in Devon.     

"The first sequence was hard," Kremer said. " I wondered how could I get her into the castle, and how could I use something in the outside world, and get her sucked into his world. So rather than looking down into the place, I thought it would be good for the sky to close in above her, over her head, like when you're in the bottom of a deep well, so the sky looks very small up above. Gradually, she's sinking deeper and deeper into this world he's constructed, a fantasy place."     

Haunting, gloomy feel

Kremer didn't do it all from scratch - she used material from her archives, which contain some 5,000 images, and took various photos, distorting shape, color and texture so they no longer looked just like the original.     

"I was able to make things that were not scary or haunting in their original form gain this aura - gloomy, haunting, that's what I wanted," she said. "I wanted that feeling to build, as Judith sees more and more she's dragged more and more into this fantasy world constructed half by herself and half by Bluebeard."     

Khuner encouraged her to think in metaphorical, not literal, terms. "There's a web that is woven: His wish to hide and reveal himself, her wish to know more and her horror when she did know more," Kremer said. "Some of the imagery is more figurative and literal and others less so. It goes from abstraction to more figurative elements that I enjoy. The overall structure is abstract."     

(Skipped paragraphs)

THURSDAY, MAY 08, 2008  

You've all seen pictures projected on scrim at the opera house. This has been going on since Edison invented the light bulb and maybe longer. Now I have seen an opera where the entire set is a giant computer screen, like something Stephen Jobs would use for a presentation. It was beyond my wildest imagination. The opera is Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, sung in Hungarian and presented by the Berkeley Opera. Wow! There's no pit in the Julia Morgan Theater, so the orchestra sat behind the computer screen and the two singers -- Paul Murray as Bluebeard and Kathleen Moss as Judith -- worked in front. They kept contact with the invisible conductor through video monitors. ( (I'm actually getting to love this opera, sort of Bartok's own Pictures at an Exhibition. The seven doors open one by one and Bartok's music aurally portrays each scene. The drama lay primarily in the computer art playing on the screen behind the singers. From the outside the castle presents as giant ice blocks. Inside we see the damp stone walls Judith describes. Then fabulous half realistic / half abstract pictures show us what is behind each door as the music progresses from torture chamber, to armory, to treasure, to garden, to sweepingly vast and deserted kingdom, to an ocean of tears, and finally to Bluebeard's past three wives. Created by Naomie Kremer from photographs and computer manipulation of images that bleed and transform before our eyes, rather like a kaleidescope, it was a film to match Bartok's wonderful music, a visual treat. 

(What does it all mean? Does Bluebeard kill her? Are the other three wives dead? Does the presence of blood everywhere indicate death? Is Judith just there out of curiosity, or does she really love him? Or is it merely a mÈnage ‡ cinque. The ambiguity is not resolved. ( (I was less satisfied with the performance of Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilËges (The Child and the Spells: A Lyric Fantasy in Two Parts) which came after. The boy, sung by Misha Brooks, seemed to be having trouble controlling his voice. It may be starting to change.  ( (The production is very complicated and didn't always hang together. It involved ballet, puppets, and singers who stood along the side of the theater while the dancers created the visual aspect. There were frogs, a squirrel, cats, a bat, a dragonfly and a giant mama. Mama scolds the boy who then throws a tantrum and tears up everything in sight. I suppose the two parts are the scene inside the playroom where boy makes mayhem and the later scene out of doors where the animals get their revenge. ( (Behind the dancers and puppets is the same computer screen where some of the action is played out and atmospheres are created. I felt the artistic vision was less complete and less satisfying than Bluebeard.    


Posted by Dr.B  

at 8:00 PM   

San Francisco Classical Voice


Opera review

Berkeley Opera / May 3, 2008

Bluebeard's Castle / LŐenfant et les sortilčges

Scaling the Bartók-Ravel Summit

By Janos Gereben

Another huge feather  CyranoŐs famed plume, even   in Berkeley Opera s tiny cap, the double-bill of Béla Bartók s 1918 A Kékszakállú Herceg Vára (Bluebeard s Castle) and Maurice Ravel s 1925 L Enfant et les sortilčges (The child and the magic spells) opened Saturday night at the Julia Morgan Theatre with a fabulous production and some kind of prestidigitation...

       ..."Naomie Kremer's mostly abstract visuals served Bluebeard well. I was grateful that she didn't go for the super-busy approach that the artist Ariel used in L'Enfant. All that puppetry, computer animation, and what-not in the Ravel was great fun, but competing for attention with Bartók's music would have been a serious misstep. Credit for doing the right thing at the right time goes to Khuner again, the man in charge, the artistic and musical director (who at one point even sang the part of a tardy instrument).É     


Berkeley Daily Planet Arts & Entertainment:

Thursday, May 08, 2008


Berkeley Opera Presents Ravel and BartokŐs One-Act Masterpieces

By Jaime Robles, Special to the Planet

This Friday Berkeley Opera opened the second opera of its 29th season, with two one-acts from the early 20th century, BŽla BartokŐs BluebeardŐs Castle (A kŽkszak‡llś herceg v‡ra) and Maurice RavelŐs LŐenfant et les sortilŹges. Wildly different in tone and intent, the operas nonetheless provided a wonderful program that was evocative and satisfying.


BartokŐs opera, which debuted in 1918 in Budapest, is a reinterpretation of the fairy story of a man who murders his wives ostensibly for their curiosity. The composerŐs version converts this chilling tale into a vivid symbolic world with BluebeardŐs castle figuring as a representation of the man—dark and cold, sighs pouring forth from its closed recesses. The action of the opera focuses on BluebeardŐs psychological unveiling by his new bride, Judith, who insists on opening the seven locked doors of the castle.


Reluctantly, Bluebeard agrees and the pair moves through the castle rooms—a torture chamber, an armory, a treasure room—Bluebeard asking the horrified Judith if she is afraid, Judith insisting that light be brought into the castle, that she will dry its wet, cold walls with her lips, her love. A secret garden follows the visions of violence and murder, then a view of BluebeardŐs vast domain. Everywhere, when she looks closely, Judith sees blood.


Mezzo-soprano Kathleen Moss sang a superlative Judith, her rich tone smooth as honey, amber and full, slowly pouring BartokŐs dark melodic lines into the ambiguous world of the storyŐs emotions. Along with beautiful tone, her voice has real power—intense and focused without edge or sharpness. Paul Murray sang Bluebeard, and though he needed to reach for some of the lower notes, he portrayed a repressed and convincingly bizarre prince.


A video backdrop by Naomi Kremer, assisted by Mark Palmer, provided the visuals, which were both spooky and atmospheric. ItŐs a hard task to provide sets and designs for this opera—the imagery needs to remain connected to the story but not be too literal. The musicŐs strength and the power of the original poetic vision, however, override almost any presentation.


Artistic director and conductor Jonathan Kuhner used a smaller orchestra in place of the larger-than-average orchestra specified by BartokŐs score. Though hidden behind the projection screen onstage, the 34-member ensemble was nonetheless able to impel the dynamic power of the music, moving from the subtle strings of the operaŐs dissonant beginning through the panorama of the workŐs forte middle section with its enormous C-major chord and back to a quiet ending that, mirroring the opening, is filled with BluebeardŐs quiet angst.


ItŐs a truly great short opera. A must.




A Week at the Opera

Berkeley bursts into song.

By Sam Hurwitt

May 7, 2008

By Sam Hurwitt      


ÉNaomie Kremer's swirling suggestions of the hidden secrets of Bluebeard's Castle are especially appreciated in a very static opera. Undeterred by whispers of the bloody fate of his previous wives, Bluebeard's bride Judith enters his castle and sets about opening locked doors and describing their disturbing contents as Bluebeard warns her to leave well enough alone. Bluebeard was a dreary affair when I'd seen it in its native Budapest, Bart—k's music all atmosphere and that atmosphere all gloom, so the emotional resonance found in Berkeley Opera's staging is a welcome surprise. Mezzo-soprano Kathleen Moss and baritone Paul Murray give moving performances as the unhappy couple, and the orchestra led by musical director Jonathan Khuner makes Bart—k's dissonance flow like bracingly acidic wineÉ.