Category Archives: opera

Five Years at the Opera with the Large Smelly Boy

Mixed-media collage by Laura Grimes
Mixed-media collage by Laura Grimes



It’s been only five years since I took the Small Large Smelly Boy to his first opera? It’s already been a whole five years?

During that time I’ve thought frequently about the post I wrote after I took him to Portland Opera’s double bill of Pagliacci and Carmina Burana in fall 2010, when he was 12 years old. At least a few times every year I think about writing an update: What’s he doing now? Did it take? What’s happened since then? How old is he now? Did that first opera change his life like all the ta-DUM-ing in the post?

That whole event back then seemed like just life. A night out on the town with my lad after he took out the trash. A quick documentation of a special occasion. But I had no idea how much it would resonate and grow long-long legs and, well, if not change the course of history, then at least skew its trajectory just a bit.

Continue reading Five Years at the Opera with the Large Smelly Boy

Link: A theatrical theory on theories

By Bob Hicks

Today I posted Theater: Hard Times for big theories on Oregon ArtsWatch _ a little theorizing on the failure of theories, as expressed by Voltaire in Candide (as adapted in the Leonard Bernstein musical at Portland Opera) and Charles Dickens in Hard Times (as adapted by playwright Stephen Jeffreys and performed at CoHo Theatre).

Camille Cettina in "Hard Times." Photo: Gary NormanThe grand theorizers tried by their creators and found wanting are the libertine Dr. Pangloss in Candide and the earnest schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times. You might find their viewpoints familiar.

A couple of excerpts:


“You can’t walk around the art world, let alone the culture at large, without bumping into a theory or twelve. Essential to science, where they’re part of a continuing process of discovery, they tend to harden into dogma in the cultural, political and religious realms. In art circles people sometimes forget that theories work best when they explain what’s happening in art, not when they try to drive how it’s being made. And when applied rigorously to something as unpredictable and emotional as human beings, theories can create havoc. Ask B.F. Skinner’s kids. Ask Dickens and Voltaire.”


“Gradgrind may be something of a fool, but he’s no Pangloss, adopting a handy theory as an excuse for libertinism. Gradgrind’s public-spirited and wants to be generous: he just gets it wrong. He begins with the Utilitarian tenet that society’s main goal is “the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people,“ a not unreasonable response to the industrial revolution that created a few big winners and a multitude of losers (sound familiar?) as it wrenched Europe away from its agrarian roots, and extends it to a belief that reason, and reason alone, will improve the average person’s lot.”

Inset: Camille Cettina in “Hard Times.” Photo: Gary Norman.

Link: Galileo and the theocrats

By Bob Hicks

Just posted this essay, Galileo and the theocrats, like a circle ’round the sun, on Oregon Arts Watch. It’s an odd little rumination on Philip Glass, Portland Opera’s production of his chamber opera Galileo Galilei, and the drift of American and global politics toward rigidity and theocracy. Bad cultural drift, but good opera.

An excerpt:

Galileo, drawing by Ottavio Leoni, 1624. Wikimedia Commons.Glass’s critics sometimes complain that the hypnotic repetitions of his music encourage listeners’ minds to wander. They’re right. But there’s attentive wandering and inattentive wandering, and when things work the way I suspect Glass wants them to the “checkout” stretches of an opera like Galileo Galilei are more like resonant doorways into parallel paths of contemplation. The music works on a subterranean level, freeing the receptive mind to explore fresh possibilities. That sort of openness to discovery, the kind of path that Galileo followed, is precisely what makes literalists nervous: If another idea becomes possible, what happens to what they believe? So the battle is joined: repress it, suppress it, stuff it back in the box.

“To protect itself from the fanatics, the world recants. But not really. Because facts are facts, elasticity beats rigidity, and things do circle around. You can hear it, if you listen, in the music.”

Galileo, drawing by Ottavio Leoni, 1624. Wikimedia Commons.

Bits & pieces: Glass, Le Guin, and Austin

Richard Troxell as Older Galileo. ©Portland Opera/Cory Weaver.

By Bob Hicks

Breaking the Glass ceiling. Again.

This just in from Portland Opera: the Philip Glass connection strikes again. You probably already knew the opera company will open its production of Glass’s 2002 chamber opera Galileo Galilei on Friday night in the Newmark Theatre. And you probably recall that Portland Opera’s recording of Glass’s Orphee – the company’s first-ever commercial recording – made Opera News’s 10-best-of-the-year list in 2010.

Well, recording no. 2 will be this production of Galileo Galilei. And as with Orphee, it’ll be the first CD of the opera. It’ll come out, once again, on Orange Mountain Music, which specializes in recording Glass’s work, and the conductor will again be Anne Manson. Release is expected late this year. The libretto, by the way, is by the excellent playwright Mary Zimmerman (Metamorphoses and her new play The White Snake, the hit so far of the current Oregon Shakespeare Festival season).


The book is dead. Long live the book.

Seems like everybody’s talking about the death of the book these days, and it’s true, the publishing industry is going through cataclysmic changes. But if the primary purpose of books is to feed the act of reading, maybe we’re being a little premature. Ursula K. Le Guin, Portland’s belle dame of letters, has been thinking it through and came up with some provocative conclusions on her blog post The Death of the Book. Here’s a brief taste tickler. Read the full post for much, much more:

“Is reading obsolete, is the reader dead?

“Dear reader: How are you doing? I am fairly obsolete, but by no means, at the moment, dead.

“Dear reader: Are you reading at this moment? I am, because I’m writing this, and it’s very hard to write without reading, as you know if you ever tried it in the dark.

“Dear reader: What are you reading on? I’m writing and reading on my computer, as I imagine you are. (At least, I hope you’re reading what I’m writing, and aren’t writing ‘What Tosh!’ in the margin. Though I’ve always wanted to write ‘What Tosh!’ in a margin ever since I read it years ago in the margin of a library book. It was such a good description of the book.)”


Linda Austin and the space time continuum

In case you missed it, I posted this essay, Stop making sense: Linda Austin’s ‘A Head of Time’, yesterday on Oregon Arts Watch. It’s about the Portland choreographer/dancer’s remarkable new group piece, which played over the weekend at Imago Theatre. Here’s a teaser:

“Chances are the narratives she puts on stage don’t make a lot of sense, at least in the old-fashioned linear way. … What you get in an Austin dance is a dream-story: fleeting images tied together by little, perhaps, but an empathetic feeling and the coincidence of being clustered together. Maybe it’s Freudian. Or maybe it’s only a cigar.”

Make sure to check Martha Ullman West’s comment at the end of the post. It adds some important information.


PHOTO: Richard Troxell as Older Galileo. ©Portland Opera/Cory Weaver.

Link: Opera warhorses into the fray

Kelly Kaduce as Cio-Cio-San in "Madame Butterfly," with Gustav Andreassen (left) as the Bonze and Roger Honeywell as Pinkerton. ©Portland Opera/Cory Weaver.

By Bob Hicks

Today I posted this story, Song of the warhorses: charge of the Butterfly brigade, on Oregon Arts Watch. Somehow, it seemed, a disconnect was going on. Audiences and critics alike were loving Portland Opera‘s current production of Madame Butterfly. Yet there were grumblings in the land: Why this steady diet of warhorses, also known as chestnuts, and all too rarely referred to as classics or core operas? Are we living in the past? If we are, is that a bad thing? Woe, perhaps, are we.

“The question then becomes: Is opera a museum art form? Yes, and no. If the question means, is it an art form rooted in and even dominated by strong traditions, the answer is yes. If the question means, is it a mummified art form, the answer is no. Is Shakespeare mummified theater? Are Vermeer and Rembrandt mummified artists? Not when every new generation that encounters them does so with the shock and thrill of encountering something deep and penetrating and new.”

Photo: Kelly Kaduce stars in “Madame Butterfly,” with Gustav Andreassen (left) and Roger Honeywell. ©Portland Opera/Cory Weaver.

Mochitsuki, not Pinkerton: it’s a new year

By Bob Hicks

When we talk about culture here at Art Scatter, we like to think it’s almost as wide as life. It could be historical, or political, or social, or personal, or purely aesthetic. It might be Madame Butterfly, Puccini‘s opera about a fatal clash of moral sensibilities, which returns to the Portland Opera stage beginning Friday. Or it might be Mochitsuki, the city’s annual celebration of the Japanese new year, which I took in on Sunday afternoon.

mochi-2012-banner-with-full-dragon-and-purple-textJapan has officially recognized the Gregorian-calendar dating system since 1873, which makes the official Japanese new year January 1. But traditionally the nation’s new year has followed the Chinese lunar calendar, and a sturdy tradition can outwit official proclamation for a good long time.

This year’s Mochitsuki took place, curiously but practically, at the Scottish Rite Center, a spacious building that offers lots of room to roam. As I walked in I discovered an overflowing crowd of celebrants, from the very old to the newly born, wandering through three levels of displays, performances, dining and activities. The variety was invigorating: everything from bento-making classes for kids to tea ceremonies for all comers. Calligraphy, origami, ikebana, tastes of sake, a table with contemporary Japanese art that seemed inspired by, or loosely affiliated with, manga. Lots and lots of food, from ramune soft drinks and vegetable curry to chow mein and (from a Hawaiian booth) Spam musubi. Booths with information about Japanese-American societies. Tables with books on the history of Japanese life in the United States, including the infamous internment camps for American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. The Consulate General of Japan and the Portland Japanese Garden had booths.

Continue reading Mochitsuki, not Pinkerton: it’s a new year

From our stove to yours: small bites

By Bob Hicks

What’s been cooking lately in the Scatter kitchen? Well, a lovely baked dressing made up mostly of mushrooms, celery, onions and leftover bread slices (Mrs. Scatter’s clean-out-the-fridge creation). And another batch of baklazhannia ikra, or “poor man’s caviar,” an addictive eggplant/tomato/onion/pepper relish that William Grimes discovered recently in one of those great old Time/Life Foods of the World cookbooks and kindly passed along as a recipe in the New York Times.

Photo by Keith Weller/Wikimedia CommonsThings have been cooking outside of World Headquarters, too. I’ve recently signed on as a regular contributor to Oregon Arts Watch, the ambitious online cultural newsmagazine masterminded and edited by my friend and former colleague at The Oregonian, Barry Johnson. I’ve filed a couple of pieces there already:

A few other things that’ve been keeping me hopping, each of which should be coming out in story form sometime soon:

    • An evening up a dark alley to The Publication Studio for the opening celebration for artist Melody Owen‘s new book, which has something to do with mad hatters and rabbit holes.
    • An afternoon at the Portland Opera studios, where I discovered general manager Christopher Mattaliano leaping up and down with a cutout version of a gingerbread witch as singers from Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel watched and nodded.
    • A morning at Milagro Theatre, talking with Dañel Malàn about the perils and pleasures of touring the country to perform bilingual plays in tucked-away spaces – and whether the world is really going to end with the Mayan calendar in 2012.

Hal Holbrook in 2007. Photo: Luke Ford, Commons

  • An hour’s conversation on the phone with Hal Holbrook, octogenarian actor and uncanny channeler of the late, great Mark Twain, on topics ranging from politics to history to the unhappy state of print journalism and what it means to the future of democracy: “It’s a good paper. But as I remind people, it’s called the Wall. Street. Journal. Not The Journal. And it’s owned by that guy, Murdoch, who’s in all that trouble in England.”

Lots cooking, and more coming up. Last night I had an odd dream: I’d accepted an assignment from a glossy magazine to do a spread comparing two versions of barbecued pulled pork from famous Southern restaurants. This was a touchy situation for an ordinarily vegetarian/pescetarian writer, who was sorely tempted to do some serious taste-testing. In my dream I solved the problem by contacting the chefs of each restaurant and asking them to send me a towel soaked in their secret sauces. I then breathed in the aromas deeply, and began to type. If you should happen to stumble across this story somewhere in print, don’t believe a word it says.



  • Photo by Keith Weller/Wikimedia Commons
  • Hal Holbrook in 2007. Photo: Luke Ford, Commons

Figaro, Figaro: from dread to wed

©Portland Opera/Cory Weaver. Daniel Mobbs (Figaro) and Jennifer Aylmer (Susanna)©Portland Opera/Cory Weaver

By Bob Hicks

Mr. Scatter is just getting around to letting you know that he and Mrs. Scatter joined the opening-night throng on Friday for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte‘s opera buffa The Marriage of Figaro, based on Pierre Beaumarchais‘ stage comedy of the same name, at Portland Opera. (It also happened to be opening night of PO’s 2011-12 season, which might have accounted for the slightly larger than usual sprinkling of formal dress amid the usual Oregon mackinaws and mucklucks. Mr. Scatter marked the occasion by changing out of his jeans into semi-creased khakis and slinging on a quilt-lined country walking sportjacket, much to the dazzlement of his eternal bride, whose comments on his sartorial attentiveness ordinarily run along the lines of “There’s a hole in your T-shirt.”)

Please forgive Mr. S’s sloth in filing his report. Could be he dilly-dallied because he didn’t really have much to add to the excellent summations of the mainline critics, James McQuillen in The Oregonian and James Bash at Oregon Music News. Mr. S agrees with McQuillen that this is very much a traditional production. It reminds him of the hoary theater joke: “Did you hear about the radical new Hamlet? They did it in Elizabethan dress.” He also concedes that the original satire (Beamarchais’ 1778 play was banned for several years for its biting depiction of the ruling classes, not reaching the stage until 1784, just two years before the opera) has lost a few of its teeth in the ensuing centuries. Still, if the guffaws of the twentysomethings sitting behind the Scatters are any indication, the comedy  remains fresh and ribald and (Mr. S hesitates to use this purportedly naughty word for fear of being drummed out of the League of Tough Guy Arts Observers) entertaining. While there can be and have been highly successful radical takes on The Marriage of Figaro, when what you’re dealing with happens to be a work of comic genius, traditional isn’t such a bad thing to be. This is known in some circles as If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It.

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Opera: Large smells and large screens

The view of the opera's festivities from the Scatter campout spot.

By The Scatter Family minus one plus two

The Scatter Family minus one headed downtown Saturday night to Portland Opera’s season-opening Big Night gala concert, an indoors/outdoors spectacle that also included pizza, rockabilly, giant walking heads, and an after-concert showing of the Marx Brothers’ side-splitting operatic thrashing A Night at the Opera on an oversized screen hanging above the front entrance of the Keller Auditorium.

The Scatter Family? Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Scatter (Bob Hicks and Laura Grimes) and the Small Large Smelly Boy (age 13), who loves ballet and whistles opera whenever he thinks strangers aren’t listening. We fondly call him Felix/Martha (Felix Unger/Martha Stewart), but it really should be Felix/Frasier/Niles/Martha (if you have to ask then you haven’t laughed through the Frasier TV sitcom, where Frasier and Niles are hilarious opera-loving sons of a crusty retired police officer).

Why the minus one? The Large Large Smelly Boy is not fond of opera (“Why do they always sing so high and stuff?”), but he’s a big film buff and we had hoped he would fall for a chance to see A Night at the Opera (“But I can get it at the library!”). We have no idea why he’s not amenable to being exploited for cultural and comic purposes.

Why the plus two? We ran into one of the SLSB’s longtime buddies (LSB2, also 13) and his dad, who generously sent their reflections (they’re good ‘uns; just wait). In debating about a blog name, the dad suggested SSD (Short Smelly Dad), but we’ll call him Ed.

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Caution: Blogjacking in progress

By Laura Grimes

Quick. Mr. Scatter is on the road, so let’s post while he’s not looking.

Some people call. Some people text. I believe in the more sneaky form of communication — surprise blog posts broadcast to the world. Consider them entertainment and information all scrolled into one.

Dear Mr. Scatter,

What’s news since you left this morning?

Holy hot tub, I received an email with the below attached picture of a souvenir for the upcoming royal wedding (it’s good to have friends in low places). If you can’t tell, they’re tea bags.

Royal tea bags

Continue reading Caution: Blogjacking in progress