Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Kathan Brown: Know That You Are Lucky

Lucky.pngTHIS IS AN IMPRESSIVE book, and I don't say that merely because it has forced me to rethink a number of opinions I've held for a number of years — though that alone is something of an accomplishment.

Kathan Brown is the founder of Crown Point Press, the San Francisco press that has for fifty years now been printing and publishing etchings, engravings, aquatints, photogravure, woodcuts, and occasionally monotypes by some — perhaps most —- of the most significant artists working during that period, ranging from Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn to John Cage and Sol Le Witt.

She is also an accomplished writer. In 1976 she published her first book, Voyage to the Cities of the Dawn, a strangely moving, evocative meditation, through words and photographs, on time and perception, suggested by a trip she had taken to ancient sites in Yucatan and Central America. A number of titles followed that related more directly to various of the artists and the methods occupying her attention at the press: of those titles I know only the ones relating to John Cage.

In 2004, though, she published The North Pole, perhaps a companion to Voyage to the Cities of the Dawn: a description, with copious photographic illustration, of a voyage she took across the Arctic Ocean on an icebreaker. And now she has given us Know That You Are Lucky, her memoir of the years at Crown Point Press; of the method and mantra, you might say, of printmaking; of the exceptional men and women with whom she has worked.

In a little over three hundred pages, divided into twenty chapters, Know That You Are Lucky is a quick and compelling read: it proceeds mostly chronologically, looping occasionally when a subject warrants further consideration, then resuming the narrative. The book reads at times almost like a novel, whose characters — the artists — are sympathetic, entertaining, delightful even; and whose plot — the constant change, growth, consolidation, removals, and adjustments of the business that is Crown Point Press — is a constantly intriguing parallel to the author's speculations on art, the making of art, and the significance that surrounds it.

The book is itself a sort of metaphor of the printmaking process, which — done well — transcends distinctions of art and craft, inspiration and dedication. She quotes the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,
who talks about the "flow" of doing something "with intense concentration on the present," so much so that you are "too involved to be concerned with failure." … "getting into the flow" is satisfying because, once you are in it, you overcome obstacles gracefully. Obstacles enhance the possibility of flow, and eventually of creativity, which flows from "flow."
Know That You Are Lucky, p. 97

This is a good description of the printmaking process, of course; it also describes the effect of Brown's writing. The first two artists she considers at length are Cage, whose method always seems so fluent, and Diebenkorn, whose method always seems so procedural. Each in his way fully represents Csikszentmihalyi's point, intensely concentrating on the present — the moment, in Cage's case — and on the procedure, with uniquely graceful results.

Among the many dialectics in Know That You Are Lucky, which is often a very philosophical book, is one involving energy and tranquility. Again, the concept flows naturally out of consideration of Diebenkorn and Cage; but also out of the nature of printmaking, of contemplation of the Zen gardens in Kyoto, of meditations on the nature of Mayan pyramids. Brown often seems to be mulling over object, context, impingements, and extension, literally when discussing imagery or methodology, figuratively when discussing the significance and the value of art — which she does always with great circumspection, never dogmatically.

She rarely writes about critics or criticism; she rarely makes what you might call critical judgments. She follows a reference to the editor Minna Daniel, who worked with both Cage and Elaine de Kooning:
I must have mentioned that I wanted someday to write about the artists I had been working with, because later I got a letter from her with advice: "Don't, for heaven's sake, ramble," she wrote. "And, if possible, avoid evaluations, which you may want to make, but they are bound to get you into a peck of trouble."
ibid., p. 172
and then goes on to reveal, through a delicious anecdote revealing her personal knowledge of biographical information clarifying the matter, that Willem de Kooning's late work, painted when his mind was compromised, nonetheless "reflected the person I met at dinner in 1985: open, smiling, graceful, glowing, without the bitter, desperate edges shown in his paintings from earlier times."

On the next page she quotes Elaine de Kooning, who "felt a tremendous identification" with Paleolithic cave painters because they proved that "art was a very important part of the thought processes of the human race" before "we did go off into the left brain, codified, rationalized."

Twenty-five pages later we are in China, where Crown Point artists are working with Chinese printmakers, and we are thinking about rocks.
Rocks like the one in the hotel garden were considered enchanted in ancient China, I read later. Currents of favorable forces were thought to run through the earth and escape through places of beauty, which focused luck on those who were in contact with them. The Sung dynasty… hen the Chinese invented printing by creating the first woodblock prints, was also a time of high intellectual and aesthetic refinement that included the building of many rock gardens.
ibid., p. 201
Brown is slowly, imperceptibly building a persuasive argument that the making of art involves a process through which we connect to basic sources of energy and awareness that pre-exist ourselves, our society, our culture. The argument took a surprising turn, for me, when it turned to Robert Bechtle for its evidence. A characteristic image of his, of a suburban residential street, painted with Chinese watercolor on silk, was turned over to Chinese printers to translate into a wood-block print.
To the Chinese printers, not only was this an unfamiliar scene, but also Bechtle had used unfamiliar ways of placing forms tight together and unfamiliar flat brushes to paint the forms. The craftsmen at Rong Bao Zhai had carved forty-two blocks, and they were piled up on the printer's table when we walked into the shop. We handled the blocks as if they were toys, finding a bit of a tree here, a car taillight there. We couldn't keep our eyes off the proof, it was so lively. To see the cars sitting so securely at an angle on the street, to find the light on the tree so naturally rendered — the whole thing was a real achievement. The printers and carvers stood waiting. There was nothing to do but extend our congratulations.

"I really couldn't think of anything that could make it better," Bob told me later. "I found the whole thing rather emotional. There was such a powerful sense of place, and the character of the people was so strongly present."
ibid., p. 205
I quote this at length partly to present Brown's graceful narrative voice, but more particularly to explain the rethinking it has caused me to undertake. Until now I've been unimpressed with Robert Bechtle's work: the technique, color, lighting, and composition are unarguably masterly, but the imagery — the "subject matter" — had always seemed inert. Same objection to another Crown Point favorite, Sol Le Witt. But when Brown returns to John Cage — whose work I have always found meaningful and inspiring — she brings me up short, forces me to confront my prejudice.
He named [the print Smoke Weather Stone Weather ] for the weather, which, as he said, "remains the weather no matter what is going on." He said he "didn't want to have an image that would separate itself from the paper."
ibid., p. 241
Exactly. It's not a matter of imagery, of subject matter, of personal judgments about energy or relevance or inertness. The taillight, the banal street, have the intelligence and the energy of the Chinese rocks — or the rocks, for that matter, that Cage uses in so many of his prints. A few pages on Brown is telling us about the Danish artist Per Kirkeby, a geologist incidentally as well as painter, sculptor, printmaker, and writer, who
has said that painting is "the real reality" behind the "so-called reality" of our everyday experience. "We only see it in glimpses."

I understand the notion of seeing reality in glimpses, and I like the idea that Per Kirkeby (like John Cage and a few other artists we have published) has been successful in more than one line of work. But I am not sure that any one reality is more real than any other. I like looking at art, and the realities I absorb from art influence the life that I, myself, live.
ibid., p. 257
The life that Kathan Brown, herself, lives, has been devoted to both Art and Business, and her accounts of the articulating moments in the fifty-year history of her business are of great interest. Earthquake, renovation, staffing crises, national prosperity and recession, the foibles and fashions of the retail art business — these have an important place in her narrative, tethering speculations on perception and philosophy and aesthetics to "real-world" considerations of employment and compensation and community.

And no narrative of the second half of the twentieth century can neglect significant changes in the way we deal with art, reality, business, perception.
I told [the artist Brad Brown, born in 1964] Cage's story of an argument he once had with de Kooning in a restaurant. There were bread crumbs on the paper-covered table and, drawing a line around them, de Kooning said, "That isn't art."

"But," John explained to us, long ago at Crown Point Press, "I would say that it was." In his eyes, de Kooning had made the bread crumbs art by selecting them and framing them, but in de Kooning's eyes he had made a point, not art. I said to Brad that to me Cage and de Kooning are essentially incompatible. Brad said he hoped to adapt both of them to his own ends. This is different from how my generation learned to pursue knowledge. Ideas come now in bits and pieces, not in a continuum where one idea leads to another or is necessarily compatible with another.
ibid., pp. 290-91
Brown refers to Tom Marioni's idea of "a collective reality," and, a few pages later, to
The Diamond Sutra, the world's oldest printed book, [which] was found in a cave at Dunhuang. It was printed in 868. Here is a stanza from it:

This fleeting world is like a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
ibid., p. 301
She quotes the photographer John Chiara, who says of his long-exposure work with a huge camera he invented and built for himself, "There's a noise in the process that I think is revealing and meaningful… It's like the failure of memory."

She wonders, near the end of this haunting book,
In 2012 we are only slightly into our new century. What does each of us need to know in order to survive as long as possible, however tenuously? Is three a common denominator that artists are searching for? If so, could it be, as Laura Owens has said "an aura of acceptance of whatever has happened"? Could it be hopefulness?
ibid., p. 307
which returns us to a quote she presents near the very beginning of her book, from Montaigne: "The most manifest sign of wisdom is continual cheerfulness."

I have quoted very extensively here from Know That You Are Lucky; this is less a "review" than a "reading through," and I hope Kathan Brown won't mind. The book contains much that I haven't touched on, of course. To me it deserves a place next to Carolyn Brown's magnificent memoir Chance and Circumstance, which I touched on a year or so ago here but have yet to deal with properly. (Perhaps one day.) Memoir is by its nature retrospective and even, in these two books, a little bit valedictory — though I wish these authors long futures; they still have things to tell us.

As I've said in other contexts, one of the most impressive things about their work is its great generosity. Long careers, full lives, great dedication, methodical application, vision, insight. Wisdom beyond words.

•Kathan Brown: Know That You Are Lucky. 376 pages; index; forty-seven color plates.
San Francisco: Crown Point Press, 2012; ISBN 978-1-891300-24-0

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Sense of an Ending — and of momon, irony, and recursion

WHAT IS IT with all those online reviews of Julian Barnes's novel The Sense of an Ending, anyway? Is it simply that "irony," so much in the air these days, is so often used erroneously (hence the scare quotes), that Barnes's recursiveness escapes these quick-to-comment readers?

The book is a novel, told first-person, whose plot hinges on the narrator's attempt to understand, forty years on, the events set in motion by an early love affair as it intersected with youthful friendships. Both the point and the method of the narrative are described in a jocular definition of "history," offered by one of those friends in a history class:
"'History is that certainty produced at the point when the mperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.'"
—The Sense of an Ending, p. 18
History — from Greek ἱστορία - historia, meaning "inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation," ever-helpful Wikipedia tells us — is a particular example of "understanding": an approach to an awareness of the significance of past events as they relate to one another and thereby to the present (including, by extension, the future as it may be inflected by the present).

The Sense of an Ending is a parable of the historical process, written three years after Barnes's memoir-contemplation Nothing to be Frightened Of, which meant a great deal to me when I read it a year ago, as my blog post at the time indicates:
Barnes loops gracefully through confrontations with these four principal themes (death; dying; God; religion; remember?) and more; interweaving funny stories about his childhood and his philosopher brother (who, oddly, lives at the near geographical center of France in order to teach in Geneva); and considering similar confrontations by a number of minds of the highest ranks.
["Loops"; "memoir-contemplation." I have always enjoyed Francis Ponge's mediation on what he calls momon."Texte qui inclut sa propre critique," says Larousse;
…toute œuvre d'art comportant sa propre caricature, ou dans laquelle l'auteur ridiculiserait son moyen d'expression. La Valse de Ravel est un momon. Ce genre est particulier aux époques où la rhétorique est perdue, se cherche.
says Ponge (Le Savon (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1967), p. 42-3.)*

The momon, a concept significant enough to be incorporated into English, hence no longer to be italicized here, is the intellectual attitude of our time, which is reeling still from the discoveries of Modernism, which depended on dispersal, acceleration and dispersal; and so lapsed into the kind of apparent chaos every generation perceives in its own context. Earlier generations found refuge in such chaos in religion, in Enlightenment, in mechanics; my generation found it in the momon.

And I just notice now that "loops" is "spool," backward: it is not true, ironically, that no loops spool on.]

The method of The Sense of an Ending involves momon, and recursion; it is a literary form of what Wikipedia calls "Droste effect" and heraldry refers to as mise en abyme, where abyme means not really "abyss' but something closer to "vortex": in fact, center. I first noticed this effect when I was a little boy, seeing the label of an evaporated-milk can, whose picture reproduced itself. Later, of course, another version of mise en abyme struck me in the barber shop.

I think every observant child, and aren't they all, discovers mise en abyme, and that the event and its effect are significant in the shaping of the growing consciousness. (Interesting to speculate on the result of the delay of such awareness in societies lacking mirrors or evaporated milk.) And as the first awareness of this kind of recursion comes early in life, the particular sort of reflection on its significance often comes late in life… "when rhetoric, being lost, seeks itself," as Ponge says (or "dying, examines itself," in Dunlop's thoughtful translation).

Many of the online detractors of The Sense of an Ending fixate on the personalities of the principal characters and overlook the meditation Barnes centers on them — they don't see the label for the cow, the mirrors for the image reflected by them. Of course the danger of any rhetorical figure, whether or not perdue, is that it will distract its audience from the meaning the figure is intended to convey. I suppose it's the irony of our time that so many no longer understand the meaning of "irony," and take it to mean merely a state of being hiply flippant.

*"…any work of art including its own caricature, or one in which the author was to ridicule his means of expression. The Waltz of Ravel is a momon. The genre is peculiar to periods in which rhetoric, dying, examines itself." Ponge: Soap, tr. Lane Dunlop (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969), p. 33.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Ainadamar revisited

OSVALDO GOLIJOV'S OPERA AINADAMAR, a public rehearsal of which I wrote about here last week, turns out, on seeing it staged yesterday at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center, to be a study in temporizing; and it's tempting to temporize in discussing it further. As I wrote last week, the score is full of beauty, and hearing the composer's often striking orchestration added a huge dimension to the already often compelling sounds of the rehearsal piano.

The vocal writing is effective, idiomatic, gratifying; and I was particularly struck by Golijov's investigation of tessitura: he explores every available area of his performers' pitch ranges, for musical, expessive, and dramatic purpose, and in virtually every case these performers responded willingly and — again; sorry to turn so often to the word — beautifully.

Garcia Lorca in 1914
The dramatic premise of the opera is interesting and relevant, hinging on the 1936 execution of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca by Nationalist forces shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Lorca was a Surrealist poet, gay, and an outspoken supporter of the Popular Front, as well as the brother-in-law of the leftist mayor of Granada: any of these might have put him on the wrong side of the Nationalist firing squad. His body has never been found, and details of the execution are uncertain; the event has attained mythic proportion.

This makes it a perfect subject for opera, of course; and Golijov — and his librettist, David Henry Hwang — take myth further by framing it within two time perspectives. The first of its three "images" introduces the actress Margarita Xirgu, who premiered the title role in Lorca's early (1925) play Mariana Pineda, an early 19th-century Andalucian heroine executed for refusing to betray rebels against tyrannical forces in Granada.

In this first scene Margarita, in the last month of her long life (April 1969), reflects on her relationship with Garcia Lorca, their meeting in a Madrid bar, and the content of the play Mariana Pineda, which clearly foreshadowed the curve of Lorca's own life. Composer and librettist frame this scene further, casting it as a duet for Margarita (soprano, written for Dawn Upshaw, compellingly taken yesterday by Marnie Breckenridge) and her favored student Nuria (high soprano, well sung by Maya Kherani).

Marnie Breckenridge and Lisa Chavez by Steve DiBartolomeo.jpg
Marnie Breckenridge as Margarita Xirgu; Lisa Chavez as Lorca
photo: Steve DiBartolomeo
The second scene or "image" in this one-act opera introduces Lorca himself, cast as a trouser-role for mezzosoprano and memorably performed yesterday by Lisa Chavez — effectively costumed and made up, by the way, as comparison of the two photos here indicates*. In this scene Margarita, whose theater company is about to leave for a tour to Cuba, tries unsuccessfuly to persuade Lorca to come with her. He refuses, is arrested, arraigned with two other prisoners (a fearful teacher, a rebellious bullfighter), and led offstage for the execution.

The third scene returns to Margarita, dying, unable to go onstage in her role of Mariana Pineda, passing on her example, her charge, to her student Nuria.

Such is the dramatic structure of the opera, which is in fact more a scenic cantata. Opera Parallèle did what it could to bring visual interest to the work. Each scene was introduced with Flamenco-inflected dance performed by five women led by La Tania. Like them, the large chorus of girls and women represented The People, and were effectively directed by Brian Staufenbiel, who also found dramatic ways of negotiating the arrest and arraignment. Christine Crook's costumes were outstanding, I thought, and Jeanna Parham's wigs and makeup, as already noted, contributed to the veracity of the production.

But the libretto and the score resist the stage. Golijov's music, however beautiful and resourceful in its detail, depends too much on drones and drumming, too little on development or variation. The most successful moments are the public ones — Flamenco tenor Jesus Montoya's keening as the arresting officer Ramón Ruiz Alonso; bass John Bischoff's sympathetic portrayal of the officer-priest sent to confess the prisoners; above all, Lisa Chavez's expostulations as the fiercely patriotic Lorca.

The less successful moments were the private ones — to the cost of the excellent Marnie Breckenridge. Her character is given essentially a series of laments, at the end even recalling Purcell's Dido; and laments can only go on so long, and so often, before they begin to exhaust an audience's attentiveness.

Staufenbiehl tried to offset this problem with visual and aural imagery: prerecorded sounds of hoofbeats and dripping water refer to images in Lorca's poems, to Spanish machismo, to the "Fountain of Tears" where Lorca is said to have been shot, and whose name, curiously in Arabic translation, is the title of the opera. (Arabic influences the score, too, in its drumming patterns and the sinous near-pitch vocalization against drones.)

Matthew Antaky was the scenic and lighting designer: he provided a double stage, one above the other, to clarify the distinction of the public and the private moments I've alluded to; and to nestle within a larger frame, the entire proscenium, on which projections by the video artist Austin Forbord attempted a contextualization: film imagery from the Spanish Civil War; repeated sightings of the statue of Mariana Pineda which stands in Granada, and by which Lorca claims, in this opera, to have been obsessed and inspired in his childhood, foretelling the events of his life and times.

I'm afraid the result of all this, in spite of brilliant performances by the singers and by the conductor Nicole Paiement, is to suggest the difficulty, impossibility even, of turning a complex, detailed, extensive, essentially public subject into an effective evening in the theater. The theater has been the place for public contemplation of epochal moments since ancient Greek tragedy, of course, and the responsibility of theater to public understanding of public events has continued down through Shakespeare, the realist theater of Ibsen, and the provocative social-awareness theater of Lorca. It has been a major thread in the history of opera from Verdi (and before him Auber!) to John Adams.

But the last three operas I've seen — Einstein on the Beach, The Nose, and now Ainadamar — have revealed the very present problem of bringing intellectual complexity and scope to theatrically persuasive production. Einstein works, because the production that's been touring has had a chance to be perfected in its integration of sound, scene, lighting, music, and performance. Shostakovich's Nose foundered, in my view, for its director's shrinking from the opera's essential anger and bitterness. And this Ainadamar, while earnest, well-intentioned, and beautifully performed, didn't quite overcome the difficulties inherent in its author's approach to their subject.
I saw Ainadamar from a very nice seat on the aisle, provided by Opera Parallèle's publicity office. I'm told the Federal Trade Commission requires us bloggers to reveal this sort of "gift," in theory in order to reveal possible sources of conflict of interest.

The issue of free tickets for reviewers is an interesting one. In my years as a music and art critic for the Oakland Tribune I never paid for a ticket, and rarely did the newspaper either. While it's true that a few journals, with deep pockets, have made it a point to pay for their writers' tickets, critical discussion being considered a necessity by the organizations that put on public performances, they have traditionally provided free admission to writers.

So too do publishers send free copies of books to reviewers, and other institutions, film companies for example, offer travel and entertainment. My first trip to Europe was paid for by a consortium of an airline, a national travel office, and a foreign governmental group. Soon after that trip, in 1973, the Tribune adopted a policy of refusing such junkets.

I don't want to resume the career of critic. For one thing, no one's going to pay me to write criticism; for another, I don't like the responsibility it entails. I will therefore rarely accept free tickets to events in the future, as I have rarely until now. This presents a personal problem, of course, because these events are expensive. I bought my tickets to Einstein on the Beach, three times in the last twelve months; and to Nose, as I buy the books I occasionally write about here, and the meals I describe over at Eating Every Day.

Lewis Hyde wrote an important bookThe Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World — in which he discusses, as Google Books puts it, "the argument that a work of art is essentially a gift and not a commodity." I can't whole-heartedly recommend the book; I find its second half, a discussion of Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman, both tedious and somehow distasteful. But the first half is brilliant.

Hyde outlines three types of economy: the profit-based economy we all live within, in which some value is subtracted from any commodity and kept as profit by everyone trading it; the barter-based economy in which commodities are exchanged in a zero-sum system; and a gift-based economy in which value is actually added to any commodity as it is handed on by one person or organization to another.

Where has there ever been a gift-based economy? Well, among certain "primitive" societies, Hyde points out, like that of native Americans in the northwest, until the custom led to their exploitation by newly arrived Europeans. But also among scientists, whose journal articles grow in value as they are published, reviewed, and re-framed.

And among the artistic community, which freely takes existing work, changes it, adds to it, and selflessly hands it on. This I think is what true criticism does too, and nowhere more than on the Internet, where most of us do considerable work for no compensation whatsoever. Of course our work may not deserve compensation: but do not suspect us of corruption. My seat on the aisle, and the one next to it for my patient companion; even the home-made cookies sweetly offered with my press packet, have not corrupted me. Not yet.

*Also indicated: the influence of Wikipedia, whose article on Garcia Lorca is the source of the historical photo; and whose articles on other subjects linked in the above comments inform both this and other reviews of Ainadamar. A contemplation of the ubiquity of Wikipedia references, and their influence on journalism, would be worth exploring.

Monday, February 11, 2013


Jesus Montoya and Nicole Paiement in rehearsal
AT ITS BEST, theater is invigorating, marvelous, and meaningful for its negotiation of individuals, cooperation, and context; and rehearsal can be its most telling moment. In rehearsal you find extreme individual concentration, commonality of purpose, gradations of authority, focus on intent and the inflections of accident and spontaneity. Theater is life; rehearsal is — again, at its best — life most fully lived.

There are few experiences as gripping. Last Thursday, the day after the twenty-four hours that brought us from Rome to San Francisco, we were sitting in a big, beautiful rehearsal space a few blocks from City Hall. To my right, on the flat floor of what must have been designed a century ago as a ballroom, Keisuke Nakagoshi sat with his back to me at a closed grand piano, the condensed score of an opera on its music rack. Beyond the piano Nicole Paiement sat on a wooden stool behind a music desk, the full score in front of her. A Spanish tenor was keening, Flamenco-style; he had just arrived from Europe.

Everyone was wearing black except for a big contingent of young girls in red tee-shirt uniform standing in block formation, upstage right, patiently waiting. With them, a smaller group of older girls, young women in fact, forming another chorus; and, stage left, three female soloists stood in silent concentration. In twenty minutes or so, after more seemingly random individual rehearsing and coaching, we were joined, Lindsey and I, by other audience members; and at six-thirty a young man who had been conferring with the performers individually and in groups introduced himself and the business at hand to us.

Marnie Breckenridge and Lisa Chavez by Steve DiBartolomeo.jpg
Marnie Breckenridge as Margarita Xirgu; Lisa Chavez as Lorca
photo: Steve DiBartolomeo

This was a rehearsal for Ainadamar, an opera by the Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, which Opera Parallèle is presenting late this week at Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. I must admit to not knowing the composer or his work, a testament to my own reclusiveness in the last twenty years or so: Ainadamar has a long and respectable performing history; its recording won two Grammy awards; and Golijov has been commissioned for another opera by the Metropolitan. I found the rehearsal persuasive: this looks like an opera that has to be seen.

The young man was the stage director, Brian Staufenbiel, who quickly described the physical structure of the staging, quite absent in this rehearsal: two horizontal planes or stages, one above the other, configured side by side on a single floor this evening. He introduced the general theme of the opera, the confrontation of the poet Federico García Lorca (and his muse Margarita Xirgu) with the fascist regime during the Spanish Civil War. In performance there will be supertitles in English, but at rehearsal we heard only Spanish, and the boxy acoustics of this ballroom made it difficult to understand more than generally what was actually being said (sung).

But three things were clear. First, the music is both interesting and beautiful, even in piano reduction. (A glance at the score shows brittle, resourceful use of rather a large theater orchestra.) Second, the dramatic content is powerful, its issues of individual and society, and the political and too often violent nature of their intersection, still all too relevant. (The librettist of Ainadamar is David Henry Hwang, well known for M. Butterfly and, more recently, Chinglish; a writer well qualified to portray cultural and political collision.)

Third, this performing group is gifted, disciplined, intense, and completely dedicated to its own role, a role analogous to that emerging from the social forces at the heart of the story of Ainadamar. They negotiate between Golijov's score and the audience, equally responsible to each, clarifying the artistic issues, loyal to the composer, respectful of the audience.

I was very much impressed with the singing we heard. Mezzosoprano Lisa Chavez brings a dark beauty, vocally and physically, to the role of Lorca. The sopranos Marnie Breckenridge and Maya Kherani were similarly even in range, accurate in pitch, and compelling in tonal beauty, and the John Bischoff sounded sympathetic and solid.

Representing the Spanish people, apparently, are Flamenco elements composed into the score and the production. Here I thought Jesus Montoya a particularly expressive and artful tenor: he's sung the role in European productions, and brings authority to this production — while working with an easy and practical cooperation with Staufenbiel's direction and, especially I thought, Paiement's intelligent, sympathetic, and very practical musical authority.

(There will also be three dance interludes, performed by an ensemble led by the Flamenco performer La Tania; they were not included in this rehearsal.)

The choruses work responsively and sound effective. Nakagoshi's contribution, at the rehearsal piano, was a joy to behold, quick and resourceful, always musical, always helpful — and, as seemed to be true of everyone else involved, self-effacing, respectful, cooperative.

I hadn't originally planned on seeing the opera itself, for various personal reasons; but find two reasons to change my mind. One is the interest in thinking of this opera after having recently seen Einstein on the Beach and Shostakovich's opera Nose: like Ainadamar, they are "about" individual and society, politics and history, and are contemporary reflections on significant aspects of the century we have recently lived through.

The other, though, is the beauty of the score, and of the performance this team is bringing to it, judging by the rehearsal we saw a few days ago.*
• Osvaldo Golijov and David Henry Hwang: Ainadamar. Opera Parallèle; Nicole Paiement conducting, Brian Staufenbiel directing; with Marnie Breckenridge, Lisa Chavez, Maya Kherani, John Bischoff, Jesus Montoya, Andres Ramirez, Ryan Bradford, members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus and members of the SFCM New Music Ensemble.
At Yerba Buena Center for the Performing Arts’ Lam Research Theater, San Francisco; 8 p.m. February 15 and 16; 2 p.m. February 17.
*A third reason is a new-found interest in this controversial composer, whose (current, February 2013) Wikipedia biography raises some points worth considering for what they reveal of current musical economics, politics, and ethics.