Sunday, June 29, 2008

OPERA: La Rondine

Some have called La Rondine a "poor man's La Traviata", but we found Los Angeles Opera's production of the underappreciated Puccini work to be one of exquisite beauty. I hadn't had a chance to read much about the opera before the performance, but still found the accessible story was romantic, delightful, wickedly funny at times, and ultimately poignant. And as with all good operas, beautiful music and strong performances lifted the story up to a higher dimension of emotion. Patricia Racette gave the lead role Magda a strong, clear, bright soprano that soared on spread wings at times and softened to delicate fragility at others. Marcus Haddock's golden-toned tenor delivered all the impetuousness and passion of youthful love, as Ruggero. The two of them were good actors as well as singers, and seeing them together only enhanced the thrill of hearing them. The rest of the cast were strong as well, with Amanda Squitieri giving a fiery, free-willed mezzo maid, Greg Fedderly as the romantic but worldly poet Prunier, and bass David Pittsinger as a stiff, old, but ultimately moved Rambaldo, all giving notable performances. The sets of this production were inspired as well, from the grandly decorated living room and dining room of Magda's house for Act I, to the night club that was the place for dancing and romancing in Belle Epoque Paris in Act II, to the romantic Italian villa overlooking the ocean in Act III. (The lovely vine-covered villa porch and the realistic rocky beach and ocean inspired spontaneous applause when the curtain rose for Act III.) Of course all of this beauty rests on the foundation of Puccini's gorgeous score, as lush and passionate as any of his works. Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson made the music shimmer and soar. Reading about the production later, I learned of how Marta Domingo not only skilfully directed this production, but contributed to the musicology of the work, staging an alternate ending (apparently Puccini had continued to revise the opera after its debut), and adding some "lost" parts (duets between Magda and Rambaldo, and a gorgeous aria for Ruggero in Act I) that give more meaning to the story. So far as I could tell from descriptions of how other productions had been, Domingo's choices were all authentic and welcome. Like its namesake "the swallow", I would return to see this beautiful opera again.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Remembering a 1993 Gay Wedding

In response to my friend Jeff Hersh's request, I have unearthed the comments I made at his wedding in 1993. Some things have changed a great deal (it's no problem today to register two grooms at Williams-Sonoma, for instance), but many fundamentals haven't changed.

Almost exactly fifteen years ago, I not only attended my first gay wedding, but I was asked to speak as part of the ceremony. The ceremony was well-attended by family on both sides, including cousins, nieces, nephews, and an 84-year old great-grandmother, about 120 people in all. The ceremony included speeches by both grooms, and by the judge who presided. It concluded with the grooms' signing of a calligraphed parchment which was a legal contract including exchange of durable powers of attorney, then duly notarized by a lesbian friend and notary public, and then signed by all guests in attendance as legal witnesses. And both grooms stomped on wine glasses simultaneously as the crowd cheered "Mazel Tov!".

In my introduction speech, I attempted to explain the full meaning of this event to this largely straight and Jewish gathering...

June 19, 1993

Most of us here, myself included, have never seen the wedding of two men before. In fact, neither have Doug and Jeff. They're making it up as they go along. In some ways, this is a traditional wedding like any other---two people who are exchanging vows of lifelong love and commitment. Obviously, in other ways, it is non-traditional. I'd like to try to explain some of the special significance that this wedding holds.

There is a movement in modern Judaism called the Reconstructionist movement. The Reconstructionists are like Reform Jews in that they do not accept tradition without questioning: they do not want rote ritual devoid of modern personal meaning. For them, "because the book says so" or "because my grandparents did it that way" are not sufficient reasons for religious practice. Yet many Reconstructionists end up looking like Conservative Jews, continuing a great many of the traditional practices by coming up with modern symbolic interpretations for the old ways. A Reconstructionist is someone who takes all of the items of their faith, and considers each one, whether it is truly meaningful or whether it should be abandoned---just as someone packing to move to a new home goes through each of their possessions and decides whether to keep it or whether to leave it behind.

To be gay is to be Reconstructionist about one's whole life. All of us---gay or straight, Jewish or not Jewish---receive from our culture ideas about how we will live our lives. We come to know the expectations of our society, as we see the examples of how our family and friends live, and as we learn the hopes and dreams they have for themselves and for us. And from this rich pool of ideas, we come to shape our own vision of how we will live our lives.

But some of us have a crisis point in our lives that calls everything into question. For the first 20 years of my life, I had always pictured myself growing up to lead a life not unlike my parents: being a career engineer like my father, falling in love with a woman, getting married, having children. Then I discovered that I was gay. Every hope, every dream, every idea I had ever had about how my life would unfold seemed shattered beyond repair. And there was nothing to replace it. Family, friends, society offered no examples, no visions of what a good life for a gay man might be like. Slowly, after months and years of coming out to friends and family, of discovering a whole gay community, and of discovering that some of my own friends were also gay (including the boy who grew up next door), I have rebuilt a positive vision of what my life could and should be like.

Thus, coming out as a gay man or woman means being a Reconstructionist in a radical way. It is more than moving to a new home and sifting through your old possessions. It is like having your home burn down to the ground. While losing your home and all your worldly possessions is obviously traumatic, it is also a unique opportunity to measure which things in your life are truly essential. When a new home is built out of the ashes, every piece is carefully considered and nothing is taken for granted. While the new home is necessarily different from the old one, old ideas which are still good are reconstructed in the new. Thus, Doug and Jeff, in constructing their vision of living as gay men, have chosen to incorporate the tradition of marriage and a wedding.

Unlike many couples, Doug and Jeff do not marry today because it was expected of them or encouraged. It was not. They will not live their lives as a married couple because it will be easy, a well-worn path of least resistance. It will not be easy. Some of you, like my mother, may have encountered some trouble trying to find their wedding gift registry at Williams-Sonoma. It seems their computers and their personnel get a bit flustered when there are two grooms and no bride. This is just a small taste of the hundreds of denials and discountenances that Doug and Jeff will face. They have given their decision to wed a great deal of reflection and consideration, and they are here today, not because it is easy or expected or encouraged, but only for the best of reasons. Despite the difficulties they may face, they freely and knowingly choose to celebrate their love and their lifelong commitment to each other in loving partnership. As friends and family, we are an important part of this ceremony. Since the state will not recognize this marriage, and society will not encourage it, we must vow to give them our encouragement, our love, and our support in their commitment.

Jewish tradition teaches us that we have a special purpose in this world called tikun olam, the completion of creation. The rabbis say that when G*d created the world, He intentionally created it unfinished, so that we would have this purpose in our lives: to complete the job of creation. The world is like a huge, brilliant, beautiful jigsaw puzzle that G*d created, but left for us to assemble. Only at the end of time will the puzzle be completed and the whole picture revealed, but through our lives, each of us will contribute a part, will put a piece in place, and another part of the picture will become clear. Doug and Jeff's marriage is a fulfillment of the Jewish mission of tikun olam. The satisfaction they have found in their union is the satisfaction of two puzzle pieces being put together. Just as two pieces assembled show more of the picture than either piece by itself, the union of these two men will contribute more to the world than could two individuals separately. And as the picture revealed by two assembled pieces increases the momentum to put more pieces together, Jeff and Doug's example will provide a light to others and contribute a new positive gay vision to our culture. Today in their marriage, we witness and we celebrate the further creation of the world.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Celebrating a Marriage and Marriages in General

Despite unseasonably sweltering heat, West Hollywood Park was humming yesterday with the celebration of marriages on the first weekend that same-sex marriages are legal here in California. A great number of gay couples who have waited years for that opportunity were joyously seizing it. The City of West Hollywood anticipated the high demand, and set up a city park to handle the ceremonies. They had a registration tent, where several people who had been deputized by the County Clerk processed the marriage license paperwork, and then a half-dozen white canopies set up under the trees for ceremonies to take place.

It was in that setting that we were delighted and honored to witness the wedding of our friends Tom and Art, who have been together for 16 years. In some sense, they have been married for many years, and I witnessed their marriage in San Francisco in 2004 (those marriages were officially annulled by the court). And in that sense, today's ceremony was really a "renewal of vows" or a "state recognition ceremony". (Tom and Art viewed it as their second, and hopefully last, civil ceremony, and intend to have a church wedding with the big reception after November.) But despite those technicalities, and the inevitable sense of making a political statement, once it got down to it, it was clear to all of us there, including the participants, that this was a wedding, with all the same solemnity and all the joy of weddings everywhere. We all got choked up at the vows, and caught up in watching two people reaffirm their commitment to each other, and to an ideal celebrated by us all -- to love, honor, and cherish, for better or for worse, so long as they both shall live. There's something about the public declaration of a high noble purpose that strengthens and ennobles the declarers, and better enables them to reach their lofty aim. I think that's part of what makes weddings so emotional, that they are positively transformative.

That ideal, of a lifetime together through better and worse, is one of the highest and most celebrated in our culture. And there's nothing gay or straight about it. It is a human ideal, a calling of the values we were raised with, gay and straight alike. One thing that has struck me about the gay weddings I have seen is how not different they are from straight weddings. The content of the ceremony -- the promises and vows exchanged, the prayers, the blessing of the rings -- is identical. The form is entirely familiar. The joy, the solemnity, and the emotion are the same. The only notable differences are the additional emotion of long-awaited justice (in every ceremony last week, there was a big whoop when they got to the "by the power vested in me by the State of California" part), and in the duration of the relationships of most of the couples getting married. With most straight weddings, the vows are entered into with hope at the outset of their lifetime together. With most gay weddings (at this point in time, though it will change in the future), the vows entered into have substantial years of proof behind them backing up the hope for the future. Couples like Tom and Art (together 16 years), or our friends Steve and Scott (together 14 years) who married earlier in the week, or the many other couples we've seen in the papers who have shared decades (like the women in San Francisco who'd been together 55 years!), those couples know a thing or two about what it takes to stay together for better or for worse. And many of those in our community know too well about "in sickness and in health". Often at the beginning of a wedding ceremony, the celebrant will say something about how marriage is a solemn estate, not to be entered into lightly or unadvisedly. We know. Some of us have been practicing marriage for quite some time. And we do not enter into it lightly.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

June! Peaches!

June means many wonderful things at the local farmers' market, but in our own backyard June means peaches. We have a wonderful Tropic Snow peach tree that has been a reliable and early producer every year since we planted it. I like to say that it blooms out on Martin Luther King Day, and we have peaches for Memorial Day, which we really did one year, though it's usually a week or two after for the fruit. The fruit is a white freestone peach, sweet and very juicy. The tree has always been a prodigious producer, though in the early years, our peaches were closer to golfballs in size. We tried thinning them early, but it didn't seem to help. This is the first year the peaches have grown to a really good size.

When the peaches are in, they're in, so for a couple of weeks, it's lots of fresh peaches, peach cobblers, peach compote, and still giving away plenty to friends and family. And of course Sundays in June mean peach waffles. My husband always makes us a wonderful hearty breakfast on Sundays, but the June Sunday breakfasts are special treats.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

STAGE: Macbeth3

LA Women's Shakespeare Company and The Dogsbody have produced an extraordinary production of Macbeth. First, the play has been pared down to its essentials, being performed by only three actors and coming at only an hour or so. But even though the production is "bounded by a nutshell" in time and space (the Ruby Theatre is about a 50-seater), director Lisa Wolpe "counts herself king of infinite space" by doing a very psychological version of the play, very subjective, set inside the increasingly undone mind of Macbeth. With a quick shift of voice, posture, and lighting, the same actors transform in an instant from Macbeth and Banquo to witches and back, effectively covering multiple characters with the spare cast, or perhaps suggesting that the witches were voices and visions inside Macbeth's head. In the banquet scene, the director has cleverly inverted the traditional staging to great effect. We expect to see discomfited dinner guests on stage watching Macbeth become frightened by thin air. In this version, the bloody Banquo is physically present on stage, while there are no guests, leaving Lady Macbeth to turn apologetically to the audience, as if we were the guests. It was an excellent way to play it from inside Macbeth's head. The three actors all performed admirably in gender-swapped roles, with Kate Roxburgh doing a powerful Macbeth, Gavin McClure as Lady Macbeth and Satan, and Lisa Wolpe doing a compelling MacDuff, Banquo (alive and ghostly), Duncan and various other parts. Wolpe gave an especially memorable turn as a demonic porter (the audience applauded at the end of the bit, as at the end of a great jazz solo riff). The production was also impressive, as much was made of a small spare set, with good lighting and sound. A cauldron in midstage provided a threatrical entrance and exit for Satan, witches, and even the porter, as well as a final exit for Lady Macbeth, whom we see plunging into hell. And great sounds, like the screech of an owl and a raven, really turned the screw. The knocking on the castle door just after the murder was never so thunderous or ominous as it was in this very intense psychological production. This was the last weekend for the show in LA, but they're taking it to London in July, and to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in September.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Justice Without Delay

In an atypically expedited action today, the California Supreme Court dismissed all motions holding up the implementation of their historical decision recognizing the fundamental right of gays to have our marriages to be accorded equal dignity by the state. They dismissed a motion to rehear the case (by the same 4-3 vote that decided it), and they unanimously declined to stay their decision pending the outcome of an initiative constitutional amendment scheduled for the November ballot. This means that licenses should start issuing as early as June 17.

Those who decried the Court "disregarding the will of the people" (a fundamental misunderstanding of how our constitutional form of government is supposed to work, which I have discussed before) are now indignant about the "arrogance" of the Court in not being able to wait until November to see the outcome of the election. These same people complain about the arrogant Court supposedly usurping the prerogative of the legislative branch, as well as the people, and "making policy decisions, not legal ones". I find that ironic. The Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution as it stands today, which is exactly what their constitutional role is. Theirs is not to speculate about how the Constitution might be amended pending the outcome of future elections. That would be a political decision, not a legal one.

I found the same irony in reading the dissenting opinions, in the notion of present political powerlessness as a criterion for identifying a "suspect class". The dissenters urged that the Court should take notice of the legislative progress in advancing gay rights, and hold this against finding sexual orientation to be a suspect class. They also seemed to suggest that the Court should not step in to a matter where there had been active legislative advances. But such judgments, about progress and political power, are political judgments, not legal ones. The legal judgment should consider the law in question against the Constitution, pure and simple. Either the law is constitutional or it isn't. That decision should be timeless, and without regard to current political circumstances. Yet these same people (including the dissenting Justices) who cry that the Court overstepped its role and made a political decision, are wanting the Court take notice of political considerations. Whether gays are "powerless" or "powerful", whether the legislature is making sufficient "progress", those are not legal considerations. The Court, in reaching its decision, properly looked only to the constitutional law.

Even more strange, if the dissenters' suggestions to consider progress and power are taken seriously, the logical conclusion is that the Court should have recognized the infringement of fundamental rights when the question was first brought in the 1970s, when gays were powerless and there was no progress. Apparently, had the dissenting Justices been on the Court thirty-five years ago, they would have ruled in favor of gay marriage then, when the injustice was even more stark. But if it was unconstitutional then, it is unconstitutional now. Assuming you're not "overstepping". Tell me again who's making political decisions?

In any event, it's nice to know that all seven Justices are in agreement that justice delayed is justice denied.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Making No Decisions Tonight

On the night of his clinching the nomination, I hope Obama does not make any hasty decisions about his running mate. It would be a mistake to cave in to Clinton's emotional blackmail to put her on the ticket. When the noise and hurt feelings calm down, Clinton supporters are not going to turn to McCain. Clinton does little to add to Obama's ticket, and brings a boatload of negatives for the general. (Not to mention what would happen after the election. Having the Clintons in Observatory Circle would be a three-ring circus.) If Obama is smart (and he is), he too, to quote Clinton, "will be making no decisions tonight", nor should he for quite some time. For one thing, an ongoing "veepstakes" will give the media something to buzz about, and the announcement of a selection will be an "event". Better to milk that for a while. Then down the road apace, from a dispassionate perspective, it will be more clear to everyone (except for the last few foaming-at-the-mouth Clintonistas hoarsely calling for a Denver floor fight) that there are much better choices. Think that America's daughters need a woman to look up to? Kathleen Sebelius would be a fine choice. Want some kick-ass southern military cred? Jim Webb would be great. Senior foreign policy experience? Joe Biden. Or experience plus a commitment to post-partisan politics? Go for Chuck Hagel. Those are the sort of choices that would positively bolster the ticket. Meanwhile, if Clinton truly wants to do the best thing for her party, she should campaign enthusiastically for Obama, and quietly lobby for a cabinet position if she wants. She could make a good Secretary of Health and Human Services. Or stay in the Senate, where she could do a lot for the causes she's been talking about, like healthcare and education. (Heck, she might even finally back up her empty talk about repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".)

I Don't Always Agree With Andrew

While I think Andrew Sullivan is brilliant, and his is the first blog I read every day, I don't always agree with him. After reading his praise of Starbucks' new petite vanilla scones (which he put as superior even to the toffee almond bar), I thought I'd give them a try. I like scones, and the idea of a petite pastry was appealing, since the delight of the blueberry oat bar, the maple oat nut scone, or the toffee almond bar are calorie splurges I reserve for a rare occasion. But these? How can they even call these scones? (You'd think Andrew, a born Brit, would know better.) Scones are firm and flaky. These are soft cakey things with a bit of icing on them. If I'd wanted a madeleine, I'd have bought a madeleine (which have been on offer for a long time). Sorry, Andrew, but this so-called scone doesn't touch the toffee almond bar.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

FILM: Sex and the City

We saw Sex and the City last night with a bunch of friends (at the Americana, natch) and it was a hoot. We loved it. In fact, a couple of our friends had seen it on Friday night and were happy to see it again with us the very next night. I think we'd see it again. It was nothing profound, mind you, and much of the plot was fairly predictable. (In the film, Carrie Bradshaw is working on her latest book, this one about Love and what it's like having found it. I don't have high expectations that she'd have much to add to the classical canon that is alluded to in the film.) None the less, it is delightful to see the girls go through all their amorous antics, and to see how their lives have unfolded three years after the TV series left us off. (I should note that it's not crucial to have seen the TV show. George and I had only seen it a few times, never having had HBO, and we still loved the movie.) It had some great laughs, and it had a few touching moments, and everything in between was as fun as a New York cocktail party. The actresses were all in top form, and the characters were as fresh, funny, and sassy as we fondly remembered them, not to mention over-the-top coutoured and accessorized.