SHOW PUPPETS
San Francisco Examiner Extra
Publication date: 05/02/2002

 


Show Puppets

By Adam Sandel
Special to the
San Francisco Examiner
 


Randall Wong's Di Nostra Vita is:
a) an opera;
b) a puppet show;
c) Dante's Divine Comedy;
d) all of the above;
e) none of the above.

 

 
The correct answer is d) all of the above and e) none of the above. How can a performance be all of these things and none of these things? And more importantly, what on earth would someone wear to such an event?Before you reach for your ascot and opera glasses, you should know that like Wong's "household opera," which premiered at Z Space last year, "Di Nostra Vita" is a puppet opera performed on miniature toy theaters.

 
Composed, arranged and designed by Wong, and performed by Wong and Theo Bleckmann, "Di Nostra Vita"opens tonight at

Z Space. But you'll find neither bellowing divas nor Punch and Judy-like puppets in this retelling of Dante's spiritual journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. While the characters in "household opera" were portrayed by household implements, the puppets in "Di Nostra Vita" are geometric objects, evolving from lumpy Play Doh shapes (each of which meets a nasty end in Hell) into spherical perfection in Paradise.
 
"I don't know why I chose geometric shapes, but it seems to make sense," says Wong of this visual journey towards geometric perfection. "Children project personalities onto their toy cars and teddy bears; who is to say that inanimate objects can't have their own hidden personalities?"
 
Wong's international performance background is as vast as his toy stages are small. "I've had a checkered past," says the Bay Area native who holds a doctor of musical arts degree in historic performance fromStanford and a master's and bachelor's degree in composition from San Francisco State. A male soprano with a three- and-a-half octave range, Wong has sung with the San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera and has toured major venues in Europe in a decade of international baroque revivals. But despite his experience with grand scale performance, Wong was always fascinated with the miniature world of puppet theatre. "There's a long tradition of puppet opera including Indonesian shadow puppet plays," he says.
 
The puppet stages Wong designed and built for his shows are inspired by the toy theaters that were "must have" home entertainment for children in Victorian England. High-end versions featured elaborate effects, including smoke powders, flash powders and elaborate miniature lights. Wong's own special effects experiments occasionally have backfired, filling his kitchen with sparks and smoke.
 
Yet classical performance for inanimate objects is not an entirely new concept. Maurice Ravel found souls for armchairs, teacups, and trees in his fantasy opera, "L'Enfant et les Sortilèges" and Edward Gorey created a story of love and death in his Inanimate Tragedy with its cast of buttons,marbles, and pins. Wong and Theo Bleckmann sing the original music in "Di Nostra Vita" (in Italian, English, German and Spanish) as puppeteers manipulate the characters. He has assembled the text from Dante and many other sources.
 
"It's more Lewis Carroll than Dante," says Wong. "It's not meant to be profoundly serious. I like the conflict of the serious and the absurd. This grand, cosmic, spiritual journey told on three little miniature stages."The 80-minute opera is told on a small, quiet scale and even though it uses puppets, Wong advises that t's not really a kid's show: "It's not Punch and Judy hitting each other with sticks."
 
Wong admits that there are challenges in presenting such a contemplative piece. "Most audiences are so dulled to anything moving slowly," he says. "With 'Star Wars' and 'Moulin Rouge' as theart of the day, it's scary to trust an audience to watch something that doesn't move fast." Those with a taste for larger scale whimsy can look forward to Wong's upcoming collaboration with Z Space, the Yerba Buena Center and the San Francisco Arts Education Project: a site-specific musical adaptation 
of Alice In Wonderland performed in the Children's Gardens.
 
Di Nostra Vita is at 8 p.m. today through Saturday and May 9-11 at The Z Space Studio, 1360 Mission St.
 (between 9th and 10th streets), Third Floor, San Francisco. Tickets cost $15 with a $2 senior-student discount. 
Visit www.zspace.org or call (415) 437-6775 or (877) 779-7469.
 

 

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OTHER MINDS 24                

NEW MUSIC BUFF

Allan J Cronin

March 28, 2008

 

 

 

"...Randall Wong, currently administrative director at Other Minds is an accomplished singer.  He is in fact a male soprano who specializes in baroque vocal scores including opera.  No stranger to new music, Wong has also demonstrated his formidable vocal skills singing with the Meredith Monk Ensemble among others.  It was those extended vocal skills that were called upon this night.

One could hardly have found a more appropriate casting to perform this next item on the program, Stripsody (1966) by the deservedly celebrated new music soprano Cathy Berberian.  Similarly to Wong, Berberian’s career took her from baroque opera to a plethora of modern music (Berberian was married for a time to Italian modernist composer Luciano Berio who wrote many a score for her).  What is lesser known is that Berberian wrote some music designed and inspired by her own vocal skills.

 

Stripsody is difficult to describe.

 

It is, in fact, a combination of sounds, specialized vocal utterances, and visual theater and is a sort of homage to comic strips (hence the title).  Utilizing onomatopoetic sounds, imitations of real world sounds and the sheer range of Berberian’s vocal instrument the performer becomes a sort of live comic character.  This piece is demanding but highly entertaining and contains humor and a variety of references.  Never did the audience lose track of the virtuosity involved or the intensity of the performer’s stage presence.  Wong’s performance was at once accurate, virtuosic, and a touching evocation of the memory of Ms. Berberian.

 

It was an immersive experience for both performer and audience witnessing the sounds, the gestures, the facial expressions, the sheer concentration required to convey both the humor and joy of this work.  Wong demonstrated serious stamina and seemed to have enjoyed himself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"...Randall Wong, currently administrative director at Other Minds is an accomplished singer.  He is in fact a male soprano who specializes in baroque vocal scores including opera.  No stranger to new music, Wong has also demonstrated his formidable vocal skills singing with the Meredith Monk Ensemble among others.  It was those extended vocal skills that were called upon this night.

One could hardly have found a more appropriate casting to perform this next item on the program, Stripsody (1966) by the deservedly celebrated new music soprano Cathy Berberian.  Similarly to Wong, Berberian’s career took her from baroque opera to a plethora of modern music (Berberian was married for a time to Italian modernist composer Luciano Berio who wrote many a score for her).  What is lesser known is that Berberian wrote some music designed and inspired by her own vocal skills.

 

Stripsody is difficult to describe.

 

It is, in fact, a combination of sounds, specialized vocal utterances, and visual theater and is a sort of homage to comic strips (hence the title).  Utilizing onomatopoetic sounds, imitations of real world sounds and the sheer range of Berberian’s vocal instrument the performer becomes a sort of live comic character.  This piece is demanding but highly entertaining and contains humor and a variety of references.  Never did the audience lose track of the virtuosity involved or the intensity of the performer’s stage presence.  Wong’s performance was at once accurate, virtuosic, and a touching evocation of the memory of Ms. Berberian.

 

It was an immersive experience for both performer and audience witnessing the sounds, the gestures, the facial expressions, the sheer concentration required to convey both the humor and joy of this work.  Wong demonstrated serious stamina and seemed to have enjoyed himself.

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