Around the State

May 2007By Comments

Jordan’s Pick

Fort Worth Opera Festival

Fort Worth

IF YOU’RE A SIXTY-YEAR-OLD opera company, how do you (a) reinvigorate your aging self, (b) draw in new (and younger) audiences, and (c) steal a moment in the international spotlight while you’re at it? Simple: You get off the old posterior and shake things up. The Fort Worth Opera is doing just that this year by scrapping its October-to-March schedule and condensing its season into a month-long festival, which makes its anxiously awaited debut on May 19.

It’s an unprecedented move, especially for the oldest continually performing opera company in the state. Though the FWO has always been a reliable stop for rising stars, it has never quite broken away from its humble beginnings (in 1946 three women met for coffee and decided to start the company) to become as well funded as the Houston Grand Opera or as highly regarded as the Dallas Opera. But now, with dynamic general director Darren K. Woods (a Luling native) leading the charge, the Cowtown company is poised to elevate itself within the industry’s collective consciousness.

The inaugural lineup features a one-night concert of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle and a trio of alternating productions: a couple of crowd-pleasers—Verdi’s Falstaff and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly—and one very eagerly awaited world premiere, Frau Margot, which, as intended, is drawing just as much buzz as the season’s new format itself. The commissioned piece is inspired by real-life events and features an irresistible cast of characters (a widowed diva, a deceased composer, a duplicitous agent, and a mistress hiding in plain sight), as well as a libretto penned by legendary theatrical director Frank Corsaro.

But it’s the composition itself, by the prolific Thomas Pasatieri, that has everyone’s ears perked. It’s been twenty long years since he presented his last opera: After great successes in the sixties and seventies—including the Houston Grand Opera world premiere of his best-known work, The Seagull, in 1974—Pasatieri became disenchanted with the industry, turning instead to Hollywood and orchestrating some of the more recognizable film scores in recent memory (The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, Finding Nemo). “Pasatieri’s style is complex and cinematic in its scope, with beautiful orchestrations and long arias and duets,” says Woods about the melodic Frau Margot. To hear soprano Lauren Flanigan, who has been dubbed the “Meryl Streep of opera divas,” in the title role will be to experience this musical language on an even higher plane.

It’s no wonder, then, that when a twenty-minute excerpt of Frau Margot was performed by the New York City Opera last May as part of its VOX Showcase, curious theatergoers packed the house, sending up thunderous applause at the end. And while the reviews have yet to be written, the FWO is already converting great risk into great reward with its groundbreaking festival. Piles of scripts and excerpts have been landing on Woods’s desk from composers eager to work with the company. And the city is gearing up for the wave of out-of-towners who will no doubt be making the trip, excited to catch two or three performances in a weekend and watch as the curtain rises on the FWO’s brave new era. May 19—Jun 10. Bass Performance Hall, 4th & Calhoun; 877-396-7372; fwopera.org JORDAN BREAL

The Filter: Events

Animal Magnetism

Houston

John Lithgow is a triple threat: An actor, a singer, and a ballet dancer—who knew? In 2003 the Tony Award winner, who has also penned seven best-selling children’s books, collaborated with world-renowned choreographer Christopher Wheeldon to create Carnival of the Animals, a ballet for the youngest among us. This month the Houston Ballet will be staging the whimsical tale with Lithgow himself narrating the first two performances and even dancing a small role. (The company’s spring repertory will also include Clear, director Stanton Welch’s artistic response to September 11, and Svadebka, a piece by Jirí Kylián that is set to a score by Igor Stravinsky.) The funnyman, who will be making his first trip to Houston—and who took ballet lessons in preparation for this star turn—gives us a candid preview.

How did you come to collaborate on this ballet? Christopher Wheeldon and I worked together on the Broadway musical Sweet Smell of Success, which he choreographed, so we were good friends—and he certainly knew all about my rhyming stories for children. Chris was scheduled to do a ballet for the New York City Ballet and knew it would be set to Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, but he wanted me to help him devise a story. We came up with this idea of a little boy, Oliver, who’s locked in the American Museum of Natural History overnight and dreams that all of his friends are animals.

Which came first, the narration or the choreography? I wrote the narration first. Chris was all over the world with different ballet companies; I would mail him a new stanza every few days, and we would invent the characters. He’s a spontaneous choreographer. He created the ballet over about a five-week period, and by that time, the narration was long since finished.

Did you always intend to be one of the performers? Once I’d completed the narration—I always intended to be the narrator—Chris invited me to play Mabel Buntz, the school nurse who is an elephant. Of course I jumped at that.

Will you be reprising that role here as well? Oh, yes. Let’s see if I can remember the stanza: “Mabel Buntz, the school nurse, lumbered into the hall,/ The scourge of each virus and germ./Though Nurse Buntz was decidedly wider than tall,/Her size didn’t hamper her movements at all/When she daintily waltzed at the Elephant Ball,/A flirtatious and pert pachyderm.” That’s me.

Any other favorite characters? I love the piano teacher, who’s the baboon. And the shy librarian, who’s the kangaroo. And the movie-star tropical fish. There’s a beautiful section where Oliver’s mother and father are desperate with worry because they can’t find him. I just love the scene.

Is it easy for you to remember the entire narration? Yes. It will only take me a few minutes to get it back into my mind. I haven’t recited it in at least a year. I think I’ve done it about twenty times in all, but this will be the first time it’s been done by another ballet company, so I’m excited about that.

When did you realize you wanted to turn the story into a book? It suggested itself as a book from the start because it has a beginning, middle, and end, and Chris wanted it to be entertaining for children. I immediately sent it off to my publisher as soon as it was done.

Are your audiences mostly children or adults? They’re mixed. It is a wonderful ballet for adults too, but I always regretted that it’s not always a matinee because Chris wanted it to be a children’s ballet.

What do you hope kids take away from it? It might be their first experience with ballet, so we want it to be delightful—it’s beautifully designed by Jon Morrell—and full of comedy.

Do you foresee another ballet in your future? Well, Chris and I have batted around different ideas over the years, but we haven’t concentrated on anything. I would love to work with him again. It was a fantastic experience. Now I number all these ballet dancers among my friends, and now I get to meet all the Houston Ballet dancers.

Your latest children’s book, Mahalia Mouse Goes to College, was just published. How did you get into writing for youngsters? The first children’s book I did, The Remarkable Farkle McBride, started as a narration for an orchestral piece. I really wrote it for that purpose and only then thought it could be a children’s book. Well, that was seven books ago. But that’s what’s happened ever since. The Carnival of the Animals ballet is a perfect example: Something comes along, and I spin it into a children’s book. Mahalia Mouse Goes to College is another perfect example. I wrote that on the occasion of my Harvard commencement speech in 2005. The whole idea of that is to get tiny little kids interested in the fun of education and give them college as an ultimate goal.

You use pretty grown-up words in your books. Children are learning words every day, so they might as well learn some whoppers. The words are often dictated by the rhyme and meter, but I think kids are eager to learn, especially words that their parents don’t know.

You’ve said you write to get kids interested and involved in the arts. Were you exposed to the arts as a child? I grew up in a theater family with loads of actors, so I had a wide variety of interests. In fact, I was interested in being a painter more than an actor. But I made a fatal misstep as soon as I heard people applaud.

When you’re performing, how do you mesmerize kids? How do you hold their attention? Oh, I have all sorts of tricks. The simplest of all is to speak very quietly, but then I also draw pictures and have them guess the animal, or put on hats—I’ll do anything. I’ve gotten pretty good at it by now. May 24—Jun 3. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave; 713-227-2787; houstonballet.org JORDAN BREAL

Where the Wild Things Are

San Antonio

Three distinct ecological regions converge near the Alamo City: the Edwards Plateau, that great arc of limestone dotted with wooded hills; the Blackland Prairies, which is marked by dark clay soil; and the gently undulating South Texas Plains. But the area’s geographic points of interest are often overlooked as visitors make a beeline to the Alamo and other high-volume spots. It’s this oversight that the brand-new WildFest aims to remedy with dozens of tours and workshops—packed into a three-day weekend—that spotlight San Antonio’s flora, fauna, and natural environments. Before giving in to the tourist traps along the River Walk, consider adding at least one or two of the following scenic field trips to your itinerary. Birds of Honey Creek Natural Area: Join a park guide for a morning hike through this limited-access area, located about thirty miles north of downtown, to look for green kingfishers, wild turkeys, and other resident birds. Friesenhahn Cave: Aside from the La Brea tar pits, in California, no North American site has yielded a greater variety of vertebrate fossils from the Pleistocene epoch than this single-room cave; test your identification and mapping skills as you explore thirty feet below ground level. San Antonio Botanical Center: Learn how to whip up several meals, and even barbecue sauce, using native plants. Bracken Bat Cave: Home to the world’s largest colony of mammals, the cave is usually closed to the general public, so sign up quickly to be a part of this fifty-person group tour. May 4—6. Various locations, 210-886-9991, wildfestsanantonio.com

Rhapsody in Blues

Dallas

The city’s live-music scene operates in fits and starts, with an erratic fan base and few nationally recognized homegrown acts as of late (we’re still waiting on the next Norah Jones). And it has felt even more unmoored recently as the exodus of concert halls in Deep Ellum—where so many up-and-comers have been nurtured—continues; the legendary Gypsy Tea Room and Club Clearview both closed their doors earlier this year. But a new venue drops anchor this month. The House of Blues Dallas may be the latest outpost of a chain with a standardized “you’ve been to one, you’ve been to ’em all” vibe, but it has snagged no less than the Queen of Neo-soul—and Dallas daughter—Erykah Badu for its opening concert. The rest of its early lineup is promisingly diverse: Joss Stone, George Clinton, Kings of Leon, Buddy Guy, Jaguares, Say Anything, Saves the Day, and Martin Sexton are just a sampling. That this 60,000-square-foot music hall and restaurant is springing up in the glossy Victory Park development might not please purists who champion a more organic experience (think a smoky space with poor sight lines and a homey feel). But folks who just want to hear good music won’t be disappointed; the club’s owner, Live Nation, is the world’s largest concert promotion company, after all, and has significant pull in attracting big acts. The House of Blues probably won’t be one of the city’s great cultural locales, but T-Bone Walker himself would have wanted to check it out. Opening May 8. 2200 N. Lamar, 214-978-2583, hob.com/dallas

A Life in Pictures

Dallas

British photographer Mary McCartney’s friendship with Filippo Tattoni-Marcozzi, the director of the Goss Gallery, in Uptown, is largely the reason she has chosen the sleek contemporary art space—which turns 2 this month—as the venue for her first U.S. exhibition. But logistics are beside the point. McCartney’s alluring portraits—of famous actors and musicians, friends, and family members (more on that shortly)—evoke a sophisticated glamour that’s perhaps best appreciated in Dallas. “Playing Dress Up” takes a collective look at the 37-year-old’s recent works, many of which provide glimpses into the rarefied realms of high fashion and celebrity. And it’s no wonder: McCartney’s younger sister, Stella, designs a very successful eponymous fashion line; her late mother, Linda, was a well-known American photographer; and her father, Paul, used to be part of a small British Invasion band (perhaps you’ve heard of him). The familial talent is further evidenced by McCartney’s images on view here, particularly the hazy series of supermodel Kate Moss perched languorously on a chair, which was shot, in fact, for a Stella McCartney ad campaign. But most striking are the black and white selections from McCartney’s 2004 series Off Pointe, which provide a behind-the-scenes look at members of the Royal Ballet: a single ballerina walking up a staircase after a demanding performance, the back of her costume already unbuttoned; a shirtless male dancer who has slipped outside between acts for a quick smoke. Though McCartney often trains her lens on star acquaintances (she was Madonna’s wedding photographer), it’s her graceful yet gritty treatment of the commonplace that proves she’s got more than just a prominent last name. May 16—Jun 13. 2500 Cedar Springs Rd, 214-696-0555, gossgallery.com

Sounds of the City

Austin

You won’t need a pricey wristband to get into the Road to Austin concert at Auditorium Shores this month to see the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Ely, Delbert McClinton, and Bob Schneider, as well as a long list of other musicians who will grace the stage. But you will need to download a free ticket from the official Web site (a tip: They’ll be turning folks away once the space is filled, so get there early). The event will open with a short movie highlighting the ups and downs and the influential figures of Austin’s music scene before the eleven-piece house band starts the live show. With a set designed to look like the old Millet Opera House, one of Austin’s earliest venues (now the Austin Club), and rarely seen pairings (Raitt and McClinton singing a duet, for example), the Austin City Limits Festival this ain’t. But perhaps that’s exactly the point. May 19. 900 W. Riverside Dr, roadtoaustinconcert.com

Monumental Figures

San Antonio

When an artist has as distinctive a style as Fernando Botero does—his exaggerated figures are politely described as “corpulent,” “rotund,” “fleshy,” and “voluminous” and can be identified instantly—it is often more illuminating to look at where he started than it is to anticipate what he’ll do next. “The Baroque World of Fernando Botero,” the first North American retrospective of the Colombian’s work since 1974, affords viewers the hindsight needed to fully appreciate his folkloric scenes and vibrant portrayals of everyday life in South America. The hundred or so paintings, pastel drawings, and monumental bronze and marble sculptures that make up this show are all from Botero’s personal collection and will be displayed in a joint exhibit at both the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Southwest School of Art and Craft. The influence of his native Medellín is ubiquitous, even though he has not lived there in decades; you can see it in the religious iconography of Our Lady of Colombia, his version of the Madonna and child, and it is painfully evident in his more recent depictions of the guerilla warfare that has devastated his homeland, which are an unexpected departure from his usual fare. But the most revealing works are the earliest ones, those in which you see Botero’s struggle to perfect his idiosyncratic approach. To look at Still Life With a Mandolin, which he created in 1957 and is one of the first instances of his enlarged dimensions, is to realize how organic Botero’s genius is. While critics knock his works for being too cheerful and largely unthreatening (read: not serious), there is often a subtle undercurrent of apprehension or even foreboding. In fact, Botero shocked the art world last fall when he exhibited a damning series of paintings and drawings illustrating the inhumane conditions at Abu Ghraib. As he explained to one interviewer, “Figurative painting has the ability to make visible what is invisible.” It is an important thought to keep in mind as you contemplate this long-overdue showcase. A side note: San Antonio will be marking the occasion with Botero: Beloved Artist of the Americas, a citywide celebration that will include a Colombian carnival (a $200-a-ticket benefit for the San Antonio Public Library Foundation) and the unveiling of a Botero sculpture at the Central Library (May 23), free admission to the exhibit during the grand-opening festival (May 26), ongoing family events at the branch libraries, and the airing of two documentaries (one about Botero himself, the other about Colombia) on public television station KLRN. May 26—Aug 19. San Antonio Museum of Art, 200 W. Jones Ave; 210-978-8100; samuseum.org. Southwest School of Art and Craft, 300 Augusta; 210-224-1848; swschool.org; boterosa.org

Mi casa es su casa

San Antonio

The Museo Alameda, the country’s largest Latino museum, finally opened its permanent home in Market Square last month. As an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the Alameda has access to a vast vault of treasures and artifacts, but its greatest strength will be the contributions it gets from local arbiters of art and culture. While some of the inaugural exhibits rehash classic subjects (conjunto music, tejano painters), others offer creative looks at less obvious themes. Artist Victoria Suescum (a University of Texas at San Antonio graduate) probes the historical Mesoamerican underpinnings of the art of fingernail decoration in “Tremendo Manicure y Salón Estética Unisex,” now showing in the Proyectos Gallery. Native son Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s permanent installation, Botánicas, is a vivid tableau of religious figurines, votive candles, milagros, and other trinkets that you see as you enter the gift shop. An homage to the intertwining of culture and commerce, it’s meant to evoke the spirit of the traditional Mexican herb shops that were part pharmacy, part religious store, and part gathering place. And many of the pieces have, in fact, been donated by the owners of Casa Mireles, a popular local botánica that closed in 2005. More than just an “array of museum objects with a decidedly Hispanic twist,” as one reviewer has categorized the Alameda’s offerings, homegrown works like these will keep the museum in the national spotlight. Through Sep 2. 101 S. Santa Rosa, 210-299-4300, thealameda.org

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