Uptown Adventures at the 1997 Lincoln Center Festival


This is the second year of Lincoln Center’s adventurous summer festival, and organizers expected 100,000 attendees this year, up 25% from last summer. Whether that estimate was wishfully optimistic is still uncertain. The vast majority of the events fell outside--far outside--Lincoln Center’s usual market. The hallowed institution is used to attracting a certain upscale, uptown, upmarket audience, and the events in this summer’s festival were to a large extent under-attended.

Attempts to reach out to Hispanic and African-American audiences were clumsy and ineffective. For instance, local Latin radio stations hardly mentioned the Expresiones Series, despite an all-star cast of seven highly popular and first-rate South American/Cuban acts. These events were lackluster and woefully out of place in Avery Fisher Hall, a venue where “Audience members are please requested NOT to dance in the aisles...” The pricing was also out of proportion to the quality of the events.

The South African plays, which would have been far more successful in a smaller and hipper downtown venue, were instead relegated to the entirely inappropriate and grungy LaGuardia High School, behind Lincoln Center. This is an excellent school, but international theater should not be presented in a high-school auditorium. And many who might have been drawn to seeing a fledgling republic’s best theater were turned off by the $45 price tag.

Obviously, these are serious criticisms, and among the press and arts promotion community there has been a certain amount of astonishment 1) that Lincoln Center would dare to present non-canonic material, and 2) that they would do it so naively. And yet, does the Center not deserve great praise? Are they not responding (belatedly) to the rise of “world music” as a genre, to New York’s changing audiences, and to declining interest in classical music? Is this not perhaps a brilliant attempt to jump-start the complex as a viable art center again, instead of a tomb in which tuxedo-clad investment bankers pay their nightly respects to Verdi and Wagner? Is Lincoln Center, like the IRCAM and Cité de la Musique in Paris, realigning to reflect the changing times?

Probably not: The festival is the brainchild of former New York Times Music Critic John Rockwell, whose bold and unusual programming is the hallmark of the series. Although last year’s lineup was more appropriate to our magazine (massive Beckett and Feldman series), this year’s was more eye-opening.

Generally, I was delighted at the variety and excitement of the festival: South African plays, ranging from the mediocre (On my Birthday) to the brilliant (Once a Pirate; White Men with Weapons), obscure opera (Palestrina), Performance Art (le Cercle Invisible), Latin-American pop heroes (Gal Costa and Daniela Mercury), and dancing on the plaza every night (Tangos, Salsa, Square Dancing). The image that stays with me is the wild sight of hip-to-hip salsa dancers thronging the plaza and the balconies of Lincoln Center at midnight, in an exuberant spectacle finally worthy of the Chagall paintings that overlook the plaza.

Lincoln Center, like venerable institutions in other world cities, is struggling to reflect a changing society. Elitism is out of fashion, whether in Europe or in America. The IRCAM, in Paris, has completely overhauled its image, at a huge cost to French taxpayers, in the name of multiculturalism and “openness” --with no discernible results whatsoever. May Lincoln Center be more successful.


Palestrina, by Hans Pfitzner; at the Metropolitan Opera, July 24th.


Let’s face it: the Council of Trent does not make for scintillating plot material.

Paul Griffiths of the New York Times referred to composer Pfitzner as “gifted but obtuse” in an article last week. After that, there’s not too much to say, except that this overblown and mostly mythical story of Palestrina as artistic hero is a slow way to spend an evening. Even the fascination of the seat-back translation device at the Metropolitan Opera House (...personal subtitles are projected on a tiny screen for each concertgoer...) fades after a while, leaving one to marvel at an opera about bureaucracy and cardinal seating priorities.

Intimate Immensity

Opera by Morton Subotnick at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for Music and Art, July 18th.


Says composer Morton Subotnick, “With the burgeoning use of telephonic media, a new perception of space-time is coming into being. I am calling this space an intimate immensity.” Subotnick has embraced the technological in music for thirty years, and shows no signs of letting go, even at frustrating moments. Intimate Immensity is a frustrating hour-and-a-half. Yet a few brilliant aspects of the work are memorable enough that we keenly anticipate Subotnick’s next production.

Vocalists Joan La Barbara and Thomas Buckner had poorly scripted parts and were considerably upstaged by the technology. A large video screen played images from a laser disc, the same computer-generated science-fiction material you can see on any techno video late night on MTV. Lest non-savvy audience members are too impressed by this, you should know that high-end video production equipment uses this type of “infinite sci-fi tunnel” as screen savers. Much less high-tech, and infinitely more compelling, were the two MIDI-controlled upright pianos, spot-lit and with their guts exposed to the audience, that played spooky duets with one another on cues from the dancers’ hands. Lasers, rather clumsily placed in front of the dancer, triggered the MIDI sequences each time the beam was cut by I Nyoman Wenton, a Balinese dancer of talent and poise, who carried his role gracefully. But he was pretentiously referred to as the “cyber-angel” in the program, and illustrated a vapid story of vast and empty words.

Although the issues are solitude, immensity, vastness, and immediacy, none of these are addressed in the mostly predictable video, music, or dance.

However, the video shines at two points. The introduction features only hands: first the dancer’s hands, and then, on two flanking screens, disembodied pianist’s hands projected in synchrony with the MIDI pianos. Later, the brilliant illusion of the singers’ shadows in the fog is the only image to suggest a journey of the mind or soul. But why all this tonal music? Having heard Nancarrow’s dueling player pianos live in Holland recently, I was disappointed by Subotnick’s’ composition.

[Intimate Immensity will be in Los Angeles October 4th and at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on October 10th and 12th.]

Scene from the Zulu MacBeth: Like the Shostakovitch opera, it is crass and wild.

Woza Africa:

New South African Plays

LaGuardia High School, July 23rd.

Like a Black South-African Marcovaldo, Sepulta Sebogodi plays a soccer fanatic in Once a Pirate, a brilliant, quasi-improvised tale of mixed-up sports mania and witch doctor magic, first-world advertising, and third-world chaos. Everything goes against him in the most absurd ways, and yet he keeps his sense of humor and his devotion to his father, his team, and his Nike shoes. The funny and versatile acting of Sepulta Sebogodi is complemented by Paul Slabolepszy’s faced-paced and terrific script.

Another monologue, White Men with Weapons, is a high-impact and shocking portrait of the brutal South African army from the inside, as written and performed by Greig Coetzee. Two years of humiliating basic training were designed to teach white male South Africans to “kill the kaffirs.” The punchline finally came when Mandela took over the presidency: the army was stranded high-and-dry. Coetzee paints a brilliantly funny portrait of the comic conformity and subsequent disintegration of the country’s iron fist, through his hard-hitting sketches.

le Cercle Invisible


Replace the characters in Fellini’s La Strada with a petite acrobat and her tragic silver-haired jester. This is le Cercle Invisible, a marvelous two-person, six-duck performance art circus. Victoria Chaplin and Jean-Baptiste Thierrée have taken the small circus to the contemporary theater: the only place it can still survive. Ms. Chaplin is the grand-daughter of Charlie, and was raised in Switzerland. Mr. Thierrée was born to a working class Parisian family and has worked with many theater greats. The two are a dynamic combination.

They have been working together since 1979 creating a mini-circus duo. Chaplin performs on tightrope, trapeze, plays the saw (well in tune--thank god) and a glass harmonica of her own creation, and inhabits costumes that mutate her from person to animal to object and back. Her magic is her ability to transform objects and shapes into characters and create a palette of possibilities before your very eyes.

Thierrée’s magic is that he embraces all that is mundane about the mediocre side-show performer. He really has no punch line, no big show stopper. He’s the guy you see on the way in, and on the way out: he may not be drawing the crowd, but giving them something to look at while they stand in line. Her role is grace; his tragedy. They both have chosen to emulate forgotten traditions. There is a thread of all humanity found at this circus--not the Big Apple, or Ringling Brothers, but the little guys; the mom-and-pop shops who with their simplicity can transform space and time. This is a rare jewel.