Thursday, May 21, 2015

MasterChef Episode 1: An Aborted Review

I had such fun blogging about Top Chef's last season that I considered doing the same for the new season MasterChef, one of Gordon Ramsay's staples in his, as he himself says in the show's voiced-over introduction, "billion dollar empire." (Modesty... not so much.)

The current season kicked off last night with a two-hour premiere consisting of two episodes. In the first, twenty contestants initially believed they had made it onto the show, when Gordon dropped the bomb on them that nope, there was another bunch of contestants with whom they'd each be competing in head-to-head challenges to win the right to wear an apron and really-truly-this-time-we-promise get on the show.

Seriously, is that kind of thing really necessary? I didn't mind the head-to-head challenges, especially because they matched chefs by similar types of signature dishes: seafood against seafood, dessert against dessert, etc. But to me, the only thing the show added to the mix by springing it on people who really thought they'd already achieved something (assuming the whole element of surprise wasn't faked) was meanness.

I made it through the first head-to-head challenge before turning off the show. A woman named Claudia made a Mexican shrimp dish to compete against a man in a bowtie who presented shrimp and grits. Speaking of bowties, several of the potential contestants seemed to have carefully cultivated "looks" to make themselves stand out, including a woman who dressed like a Mad Men-style housewife. I prefer chefs' coats.

Naturally, the first two judges to give their opinions were split: Christina Tosi, who replaces Joe Bastianich as judge this season, chose the shrimp and grits, while Gordon preferred the Mexican dish, leaving the decision up to Graham Elliot. As is their wont, the show cut to commercial just as Graham was about to announce which of the two would get the apron. This is annoying enough when they do it for big decisions later in the seasons, so it was really irritating here, especially because it means they repeat footage and dialogue when they come back from the commercial break. Got it the first time around, thanks!

And then the thing that I dislike the most about competition shows happened. Graham told the man (sorry, I didn't catch his name) that his dish was good, then said to Claudia "I'm sorry...." And just as she was about to start crying because she thought she'd been kicked off, he continued, "... but you're going to have to stick around a little while longer."

I hate this crap. All reality shows are fake drama, but this is contrived, manipulative, unkind, invented drama. Reasonably intelligent audiences (not that that's what reality TV is aiming for) don't need that stuff to enjoy a competition show. And this was just for the first head-to-head challenge between contestants who technically aren't even on the show yet!

It does not bode well for the rest of the season. I was also put off by the ridiculous amount of time devoted to the aftermath of this "momentous" outcome -- it looked like the show was practically throwing the woman her own parade. And there were still 21 more head-to-head challenges to go!

So no, I won't be watching MasterChef. I did watch an entire prior season of MasterChef (Season 4, when Luca Manfè won), and I enjoyed it for the most part. But not enough to put up with another whole season of contrived dramatic moments. I'm going to stick to the (in my opinion) much classier Top Chef. In all fairness, I have to admit that Top Chef sometimes sinks to that level of deliberately misleading the contestants and audiences when announcing winners and losers. But they don't do it nearly as often as other shows. I also have to concede that MasterChef's style obviously works for a huge number of people, as evidence by the many offshoots under the MasterChef brand all over the world. It really is a billion-dollar empire. It's just not for me.
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Monday, May 11, 2015

Houston Grand Opera - Sweeney Todd

Last Monday, we attended the Houston Grand Opera Patrons Recital and saw Nathan Gunn, accompanied by Julie Jordan-Gunn, singing a wide variety of pieces, from operatic staples such as the Toreador song from Carmen and Papageno's suicide aria from The Magic Flute (spoiler alert: it has a happy ending) to western ballads and folk music, including "Home on the Range" and "Shenandoah". It was especially fun for us to see Nathan Gunn in such a small venue, because we were about to see him in the title role of HGO's Sweeney Todd later in the same week.

I'm happy to say that this was another case when I was unsure whether I would like a production but then was blown away; it happened earlier this season with Otello and it happened again on Friday with Sweeney Todd. I haven't been overly enthusiastic about HGO's recent trend of adding one or two shows each season that seem to be musical theater rather than opera; I rarely go to TUTS (Houston's Theatre Under the Stars, i.e. traveling Broadway shows) and that's by choice. I didn't care for HGO's Show Boat last season, in part because it took what I think of as a formula musical and added the operatic style, which seemed unnatural in that context. But regardless of my personal taste, I understand why HGO chooses some of these shows, and I think it's smart on their part. These productions have the potential to bring in folks who don't normally attend the opera, and I'm sure it's also fun for long-time opera buffs who are also nostalgic for classic musical theater.

Unlike with Show Boat, I had at least seen the movie Sweeney Todd and so I knew it wasn't precisely a formula musical. The movie wasn't brilliant, in part because much of the casting had little to do with musical ability, but at least the story was interesting. So I thought this production would probably be okay as long as it didn't try to shoehorn too much "opera" where it didn't belong. It turns out I needn't have worried. Not only did it have what felt like the right amount of opera (Johanna's solos were the most formally operatic), the story was even less formula than I remembered from the movie, and far more engaging when seen live.

(I tried to find information, by the way, on whether Sweeney Todd is considered a musical or an opera, and was amused to find this piece by Michael Dale addressing that very question rather humorously.)

For anyone not familiar with this story, it first (according to Wikipedia) appeared as a serial penny dreadful in the 1840s, and has evolved over the last 170 years into various forms, many of them performance-oriented. Sweeney Todd is a former barber, bitter after years of wrongful incarceration in Australia. He has returned to London intent on revenge against the corrupt judge who sent him there to get him out of the way, because the judge coveted Todd's young and beautiful wife. Back in Fleet Street, Todd joins forces with Mrs. Lovett, a woman who runs a failing meat pie establishment and who has a brainstorm about how to deal with a body that Sweeney Todd has need to dispose of....

In spite of the subject manner, HGO's production refrains from going over-the-top, whereas the movie version, created by Tim Burton, takes place in Burton's signature Over-the-Top Land. I don't mind visiting Burton's imagination sometimes, but in this case, the only aspect I liked better in the movie version was that Toby was cast as a quite young boy instead of a young man. I felt that made Mrs. Lovett's maternal attitude towards him more believable and more poignant. I also preferred having a "young boy voice" advertising first Pirelli's haircuts and later Mrs. Lovett's amazing meat pies, although that is not the fault of tenor Nicholas Phan, who played Toby in this live version.

As for HGO's production, I particularly loved several individual performances. Nathan Gunn is not only the perfect baritone for the part, he's the perfect showman: voice, expression, body language.... The entire time I watched him, I marveled at his precision and control. Susan Bullock played Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney Todd's somewhat bloodthirsty accomplice. And hey, here's another clue to that opera versus musical question: her bio in the program says that "Her HGO performance as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd represents her first foray into musical theater." At least she, then, considers this musical theater rather than opera. In any case, she certainly was a comedic natural in the role, and the audience ate up her (possibly ad-libbed?) humming of The Ride of the Valkyries as she wearily ascended the steps up to Sweeney Todd's barber shop above her own establishment.

Another notable performance for me was Megan Samarin as Johanna, the innocent ward of the lascivious Judge Turpin. (We're going to see Ms. Samarin as Lady Columbia in HGOco's September 2015 world premiere of O Columbia, and I for one cannot wait. We've observed several workshop sessions throughout the creation of this opera, and it's going to be stunning.) Bass-baritone Jake Gardner was well cast as the aforementioned Judge Turpin, and I was thrilled with tenor Scott Quinn as Pirelli. His diction was unbelievable, and his control was equal to Mr. Gunn's.

I should also mention the set and costume design, by Tanya McCallin. Although small parts moved around now and again, this was essentially one set piece, used extremely efficiently. I'd wondered if they would use some kind of sliding chute to transport Mr. Todd's victims to Mrs. Lovett's ovens, and indeed they did. I also thought the "blood" effects were just at the right level -- clearly visible from the furthest seat in the house, but none of the excessive spurting that Tim Burton loves any excuse to use.

On a side note, while I love our particular ticket series for the opera (called "mostly Fridays"), it does come near the end of each run, and I regret that by the time I get to see a production and post a review, it's usually too late to urge other people to go see it. I wish I could tell everyone to go see HGO's Sweeney Todd. If you ever get the chance in the future, don't miss it.

Click here for a detailed review and some background about this production by Opera Warhorses.

[Top photo: Susan Bullock as Mrs. Lovett and Nathan Gunn as Sweeney Todd. Photo property of Houston Grand Opera. Bottom photo: Megan Samarin as Johanna and Morgan Pearse as Anthony. Photo from Megan Samarin's Twitter feed].

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Monday, May 4, 2015

Houston Grand Opera: Die Walküre

This past Thursday we saw Die Walküre, the second part of Wagner's Ring Cycle. This time last year, when I saw Das Rheingold for the first time, I didn't know what to expect, but this year I had the advantage going in of knowing that I love the look and direction of this production. And I was initially intimidated by Wagner, but I'm finding the music far more accessible than I expected. (I also note that the audience made its appreciation of the orchestra's performance very apparent.)

Not having seen the Ring Cycle before, I can't compare this with other productions, but I find it difficult to imagine that I would find another interpretation more exciting than this one, which is modern and sophisticated. An article in the Opera Cues program written by conductor and Artistic/Music Director Patrick Summers notes that "all of the imagery of the Fura Ring production comes from ancient literature ... if the production resembles science fiction it is only because science fiction shares some of the same sources as the Ring mythology." He continues: "The technological conveyances are modern, like video or Lege's Segway, but their symbolism is not: Wagner's visual imagination was generations ahead of what was physically possible in his era...."

I'm glad to have read that, because it gives me context, yet I still feel free to experience this Ring Cycle as science fiction. I'm new enough to opera that I'm not confident about my opinions, but I can and do talk about science fiction all day long, and I'm becoming more interested in and comfortable with fantasy literature as well. For me, then, this is the best of many worlds.

At some point I really should talk about the opera itself, though! In Das Rheingold, the dwarf Alberich steals gold from the Rhinemaidens (I will never forget the singers in those water tanks!) and forges it into a ring to make himself invincible, which works ... for a while. Wotan, chief of the gods, steals the ring from Alberich but then has to use it to pay the giants Fafner and Fasolt for building Valhalla, the fortress of the gods. In Die Walküre, Wotan has since fathered nine daughters, the Valkyries, with the earth goddess, Erda. With a she-wolf, he has also fathered the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, but separates them because he hopes that will enable them to one day recover the gold ring for him.

The opera begins when Siegmund and Sieglinde, now adults, meet and fall in love, not knowing at first that they are siblings. Sieglinde's husband, Hunding, demands that Siegmund fight him the following day, and Sieglinde shows him a sword embedded in a tree that no man has been able to pull out. In retrieving the sword, Siegmund realizes Sieglinde is his sister, but still claims her as his bride.

In Act II, Wotan tells his daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, to protect Siegmund in the coming fight. Wotan's wife Fricka, however, demands that Wotan champion Hunding instead, so Wotan tells Brünnhilde he has changed his mind. She plans to obey, but when Siegmund tells Brünnhilde he will not follow her to Valhalla if Sieglinde cannot go with him, Brünnhilde sides with the lovers. Wotan appears and intervenes by shattering Siegmund's sword, allowing Hunding to kill his opponent. Wotan then kills Hunding and gives chase to Brünnhilde.

The third act opens with the Valkyries gathering slain heroes, represented by a swinging "wrecking ball" draped with live but motionless acrobats (pictured at top of post). The audience literally gasped when the curtain went up on this impressive scene. The Valkyries are afraid to help their sister, and Sieglinde herself wishes she had died with Siegmund, but Brünnhilde tells Sieglinde that she is now carrying Siegmund's child and must survive. Sieglinde escapes, and Brünnhilde stays behind to face Wotan, who punishes her by making her mortal and placing her in a sleep that will last until a man awakens and claims her. At her request, he has her surrounded by fire so that only a brave man will attempt to rescue her.

I know that described like this, the story sounds silly; it's hard to convey how majestic and moving it is when combined with the music, words, and sets. The music and words are probably among the most studied works in opera history, and I don't have the knowledge to analyze them properly, but I will say once again that this opera really was more accessible and moving that I would have expected. I can't wait to see Siegfried next year and Götterdämmerung the year after that, and have I mentioned that I love the way Houston Grand Opera is performing one of these pieces each year? We've been going to HGO for about five years, but this makes it seem more like an ongoing relationship rather than just something we do six or seven times a year. Some of the artists are reprising their roles in more than one of the productions, so we get to know them better, and these performances, at the end of the season, somehow each seem like the event of the year.

As with Das Rheingold, Die Walküre makes extensive use of video screens, showing such things as stylized wolves running through a forest (think of those motion-capture rides, just further away on the stage). The screens also showed the massive tree in which the sword was embedded; at one point the letters of Siegmund's name are drawn up repeatedly through the roots to the ends of even the smallest branches. In this particular story, there is also a fair bit of lightning on screen.

And I don't know what to call them, but another effect repeated from last time was the use of conveyances for the gods and Valkyries to move them around the stage as though they were swooping at will. Even though each of these had two visible stagehands openly manipulating them, I had no trouble getting lost in the effect. (And when we see one of the giants from Dad Rheingold return next year, I hope to see his Aliens power-loader again -- it was awesome!) All of this comes courtesy of La Fura dels Baus, the Barcelona-based theater group that created this production. I note that the set designer, Roland Olbeter, is working on a "full-scale automatic puppet opera with music by Russian composer Elena Kats Chernin to be played by instruments he created" -- that sounds like something I would love.

There was only one effect that wasn't quite all I would have hoped for, and that was the slow speed at which the fire-bearers surrounding the sleeping Brünnhilde lit their torches from one another. I had expected the circle of fire to swoosh up into full flames all at once, but perhaps the passing of torch to torch is meant to go with a particular length of music. Once lit, however, the circle was an impressive visual with which to end the opera, and it will certainly stay in my memory.

[Images are property of Houston Grand Opera.]
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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Short Fiction - April 2015

Although I'm still reading genre stories the vast majority of the time, a few mainstream stories are finding their way into the mix, such as "The Old Beauty" by Willa Cather and "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I also "read" a podcast story this month, which isn't something I do often but would like to do more in the future.

In any case, here are my favorite stories from April.

Favorite Short Stories read in April 2015

(alphabetical by author)

"Gray Wings" by Karl Bunker

In this story, a woman named Amy is taking part in a human flight race, powered by nanotechnology that has not only given her wings, but also allows her to live off whatever plants she finds and regenerate via sunlight. When she crash lands into a barn in a remote part of the (still) developing world, she's reminded in a very personal way of the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

That description might lead you to believe the story is too simplistic, but it really isn't. It has lovely writing, a solid and original science fiction premise, and characters I cared about. In addition, I think the story spoke to me because that gap is something I think about a lot and incorporate into my own fiction.

"Gray Wings" originally appeared in the April/May 2013 issue of Asimov's, but I read it in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois.

"Lures, Hooks and Tails" by Alan Colston

Did you know that Daily Science Fiction has a button that says "Take me to a random story"? And if you want to stack the deck a little bit, you can check the box that says "top-rated stories only." That's how I came across this story, which was published in 2011.

For me, "Lures, Hooks and Tails" turned out to be a tidy, mild horror story -- well, mild for the reader, but maybe not so much for the main character. A teenage boy encounters an attractive woman on a train, and is intrigued when she tells him that she see things in glass windows. I don't want to give anything else away; why not go read it since it will only take a few minutes? It's well worth it. Just don't get lured (yes, that was on purpose) into repeatedly clicking that random story button, or you could be there for a while!

"Taste the Whip" by Andy Dudak

This story was the first to be published in Diabolical Plots, the webzine created by David Steffen, who also provides the invaluable writing resource called the Submission Grinder.

(SPOILERS AHEAD) In this story, vast sentient spaceships roam the universe, and come to pod gatherings every few millennia. They allow human "systems" to grow inside them, populations that do not know they are living inside spaceships. One such ship, Parvati, has a "revelator" among her human population, or a person who has discovered the nature of its "universe." Parvati is therefore supposed to destroy the population, or at least abandon the humans on a planet somewhere, but instead she longs to submit to their will. This tendency is part of her very identity, and as such I found this to be a unique examination of that inclination, encompassed in an interesting, original premise. Read here.

"Loud as a Murder" by Sarah L. Johnson

Crossed Genres Magazine has taken the art of themed issues to a new level. Each month, they publish three stories based on a theme announced months before, so that writers have time to come up with new and unique ways to interpret the theme.

For the April 2015 issue, that theme was "Silent Communications", and author Sarah L. Johnson blew me away with her creative, moving interpretation of that idea. A gay, high-functioning autistic man who works as a proofreader at home lives for each Tuesday, when Dev, the UPS driver to whom he's strongly attracted, delivers and picks up manuscripts. I don't want to say more and risk ruining the story, which you can read here.

"Listening to It Rain" by Sandra Odell

(SPOILERS AHEAD) This was the free story on QuarterReads this week and I thought it was just lovely. A boy named Ben waits at his favorite fishing spot for his more-than-a-friend Alan to join him, but not all is as it first seems. It turns out that Ben has once again left his grave, discontent to stay buried in the ground while Alan lives on.

This isn't a ghost story, since Ben is moving his physical corpse. It's not a zombie story either. It's a sad love story, and quite powerful for one that's just over 1,000 words. I also like that the title takes on significance as you reach the end of the story. Available here (although after this week you'll have to drop a quarter in the "slot" to read it).

"The Serial Killer's Astronaut Daughter" by Damien Angelica Walters

I really enjoyed this story about a female astronaut on a commercial space station, who is unwillingly thrust into the spotlight when her birth father, whom she has never met, turns out to be a notorious serial killer. The astronaut just wants to do her job, but suddenly her next contract is in jeopardy because of this negative attention -- in a way that would not happen if she were male.

The ending of this story felt just right to me, and that's often the hardest part for an author to get right. I also smiled at the many pop cultural references to the movie Aliens. This story can be found in Strange Horizons here.

Other stories read in April 2015:

(alphabetical by author)

- "Exit Strategies" by Amy Blakemore
- "Before Breakfast" by Willa Cather
- "The Best Years" by Willa Cather
- "The Old Beauty" by Willa Cather
- "She Just Looks That Way" by Eric Choi
- "Options" by Jack Cooper
- "Things that Matter" by Amanda C. Davis
- "Robo-rotica" by Sarina Dorie
- "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- "The Man Who Murdered Himself" by Nancy Fulda
- "Don't Answer" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
- "Out Shopping in Hyperspace" by Michelle Ann King
- "Veil of Ignorance" by David Barr Kirtley
- "A Midnight Carnival at Sunset" by Terra LeMay
- "The Last Summer" by Ken Liu
- "The Plague" by Ken Liu
- "Grinpa" by Brian K. Lowe
- "Earl Billings and the Angels of the Lord" by James Maxey
- "Fleet" by Sandra McDonald
- "A Heap of Broken Images" by Sunny Moraine
- "Clean Space" by Stephen Myers
- "Cat Got Your Tongue?" by Jason J. Nugent
- "Report on the Testing of PK563217M" by Martin Owton
- "N is for Nevermore Nevermore Land" by Tim Pratt, Jenn Reese, Heather Shaw, and Greg van Eekhout
- "Just Behind the Ear" by Owen Rapine
- "Boneshadow" by Jessica Reisman (podcast)
- "Far" by Dean E.S. Richard
- "Nine Thousand Hours" by Iona Sharma
- "The Velveteen Golem" by David Sklar
- "The Best We Can" by Carrie Vaughn
- "Blue Sand" by Caroline M. Yoachim
- "Bread Babies" by Caroline M. Yoachim
- "Wolfchild" by Steve Zipp
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