Thursday, April 19, 2018

An Evening With Doug Holder by Brandyn Tse

An Evening with Doug Holder
            The poet delivered one phrase which lingers with me still: “inspiration is not a process, it is something you must prepare yourself for.” He said this all the while, with his right hand cradling a small leather-bound journal; the book trembled in obeisance to the poet’s fevered, interdigitated grip, swaying to the weight of his conviction. It was his unashamed sentiments behind his words which produced an indelible effect upon me. The sheer romanticism of such a comment could not help but rouse my admiration; I could see, at the time, a sort of rebirth of the romantic, Mr. Holder not as a “worshipper of nature,” but as an oracle of the collective unconscious. There was an essence of the people, an economy of spirits, in the writing he unveiled to us that night. He resurrected the corpse of a bar long gone not by reassembling its components, but by means of reassembling its people. The presupposition here is that people are the environment, and the environment the people. In his writing about blondes, Mr. Holder had attempted to extract a core attribute of a wide breadth of people in one group. Did he manage the preservation of the “blonde” soul? Perhaps. But here in this poem another facet of his poetry was produced more palpably: longing.
            In attempting to salvage the dying utterances of places long disappeared, Mr. Holder is attempting to salvage a portion of his being; for these places, and these people contain an irretrievable investment of his own spirit, and have thus been formed by his being. This is the longing Mr. Holder has: to find what he once was in places and people who once were.

**** Brandon Tse is an undergraduate Creative Writing student at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Doug Holder Interviews Poet Susan Edwards Richmond

The Rosenbergs: The Opera: A review by Rosie Rosenzweig

The Rosenbergs: The Opera
A review by Rosie Rosenzweig
Resident Scholar, Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center

How does one write a story about a story that everyone knows? Or at least knows its ending?
This was the challenge of Greek Tragedians from the late 6th century BCE whose plays were entered into competitions in Dionysia in Athens, where the audiences already knew all the traditional stories of Greek myths. This was also the challenge presented to American born playwright Rhea Leman living in Denmark when she was asked to write an opera about the Rosenbergs. Although already well-known throughout Denmark and Europe, she had never written an opera before; yet this opera was declared Denmark’s Best Opera in 2015. In a recent talkback after the opera’s Boston premiere, Leman said that, because everyone in Denmark is well educated through its free university system, they already knew about how the Rosenbergs were executed for giving atomic secrets to the Russians during the 1950’s Cold War era.

Leman, in collaboration with Joachim Holbeck, famed Danish composer for over 50 film and theater productions, talked about using 1930s show tunes when Rosenbergs were courting to be married. Leman, who grew up as the NY child of Jewish left wing activists with frequent dinnertime discussions about the Rosenberg case, searched for some reason for the Rosenberg’s life choices, and learned about “their tremendous love and commitment to each other. Their love became the key to my writing.” Ultimately this approach, about two people in love, provided the well-known story with a unique, timeless and relevant approach to an old story. It also elevated it to the “David against Goliath” realm of individual idealism battling the political weltanschauung of the time, namely the paranoia of the McCarthy Era, dubbed a “witch hunt” after Arthur Miller’s Puritan era play The Crucible; here social hysteria used the law to unlawfully convict and execute innocent victims. So now the tale assumes a mythic quality wherein personal love and idealism are pitted against the backdrop of the larger forces of history.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

This is why Boston Playwrights’ Theatre’s “first foray into opera” chose this production: Artistic Director Kate Snodgrass says that “this story couldn’t be more relevant to today’s political climate – we must remember our past in order to preserve our future . . . [The story is] moving and alive without being overly political, and it speaks to Ethel and Julius’s relationship – which gets short-shrift when we think about this period in our nation’s history. . . Whether we think of the Rosenbergs as heroes or traitors, in the end they were people living out a tragic love story.”

Christie Lee Gibson as Ethel in the foreground; Brian Church as Julius in the background.
Ahh, the love story is so well done here with the shy courting of Julius who “sees a stranger across a crowded room” (to borrow the lyrics from the 1941 South Pacific show) and knows it’s his true love. As children of the Haskala, (the Jewish Enlightenment when secular education and political activism trumped the parochial leanings of religion), and immigrant parents, they have so much in common; she thinks he is an angel with wings. When Julius first sees Ethel singing at an event, he is smitten. Afterwards when he asks her to sing, she performs an aria. (This request is repeated when they are in jail, awaiting the verdict.) After they dance together in this scene to “Pennies from heaven,” he says he would love “to be locked up with her.” During the wedding ceremony, the words “until death do us part” hangs as a prediction of the end we all know. Such skillful foreboding to the end we all know.

Brian Church, as Julius, is a singer who can also act through the various vicissitudes of innocent first love, joyful married man with children, optimistic idealist for a cause, and the trembling moments awaiting the final verdict of his fate. Julius here is the tragic hero, whose tragic flaw paves the way for his downfall. And what is his tragic flaw? His idealism is a better future for mankind, a future that lies with his starry-eyed depiction of communism, a belief born in the depression when Russia seemed to have a better system to fight poverty; he wants a world that he says he would strive for and die for. And he did.

Christie Lee Gibson as Ethel has a range from opera to musical theatre; when she assumes the masculine lower register enacting Judge Kaufman, the inquisitor of the trail, she becomes a predator surprisingly multi-dimensional in her scope. She proves to be the stronger of the pair, more determined to prove her husband’s innocence.

The bare bones stage set with a ladder against a cement wall, some black chairs, and the dark floor of porous soil brings to mind the sands of time and the repetitive history that cycles through eternity. Director Dmitry Troyanovsky chose this for its claustrophic ambience, which fostered the paranoia of the era where “two regular people [are] crushed by the juggernaut of history.” He describes the set as a “metaphoric space . . . [which] evokes a burial ground and a chilling institutional purgatory. It is also a place of private and historical memory, framing the operatic ritual that finally releases the ghosts of Ethel and Julius to tell the story in their own words.” These words, by the way, were taken from their love letters in jail.

Troyanovsky’s decision to have the musical trio of piano, cello, and violin onstage playing in the sands of time allowed for the music to become another character in the drama. When we realize the musical cues arrive through eye contact and the repetitive drumming of percussive insistence parallels the intuitive cues of the love story, we can feel in our bones the insistent replaying of history in all its dimensions. Composer Joachim Holbek commented that there was really a “quintet on stage.” A musician in the audience appreciated this professionally and said that he loved the “juxtaposition of jazz, musical theatre, and opera” in what the director called a “chamber opera.”

The story ‘s insistence, that we must know our past to know our future, is born out dramatically in the second act when the repeated declaration of the founding father’s vision gets answered with Julius swearing that he believes in these ideals also. We hope that the telling of this story will bring some peace to the ghosts of Julius and Ethel and their children who keep petitioning for a post-humus pardoning for their mother. While Ethel kept singing that her children will “never get over this,” a recent Brandeis graduate in the audience declared that she may never get over the themes of the play from another point of view. Mea Siegel declared that “their idealism resonates with me because I just came from the March for Science and because my friends and I find them against the world scary in these times, but also so inspiring.”