Friday, October 20, 2017

Turandot (an opera review post)

The 2017 opera season is underway. This is a short season, only five operas which will all be presented this year, but that's because the San Francisco Opera is presenting Wagner's Ring Cycle next summer! I can't wait. This is such a big deal that we had to purchase the tickets for it LAST YEAR. I have almost an equivalent anticipation for this as I did for The Phantom Menace or Raimi's Spider-Man. But none of that has to do with this opera, so let's get to that.

Turnadot was Puccini's last opera; in fact, he died before it was finished. That he died is just part of what makes this particular opera problematic and, often, controversial. The ending most often performed is by Franco Alfano and was written from Puccini's notes; however, that did not keep it from feeling inauthentic to me, not least of which was because the ending is happy. I'm not saying the ending wasn't good, and Puccini may have intended a happy ending for this one, but it didn't feel quite right to me. It's not really what he's known for.

That said, the opera was amazing. Turandot contains one of the most famous arias in all of opera: "Nessun dorma" or "None Shall Sleep." In the role of Calaf, Brian Jagde (seemingly becoming the SF Opera's tenor De Niro) performed it admirably.

The other big issue with this opera -- skipping over the issue of the name and the disagreement about how it should be pronounced -- is the... Well, I don't know if it's accurate to call it racism, but it certainly caricaturizes the Chinese. In fact, the opera was banned in China for a while because of it. But, then, the opera is kind of a cultural muddle, for which there are reasons of a sort, but you can look up the origins of the story on your own if you want to know about them.

At any rate, seeing that we are much more culturally sensitive these days than people were in the 1920s, and rightfully so, the San Francisco Opera staged it as a fairy tale. Of sorts. Which has a basis in the original story, so it all works out.

With that in mind, the sets were amazing! I mean, they were seriously amazing. I've commented previously about how great some of the sets have been at the SF Opera, but I think Turandot has had the best set design of any opera I've seen. By far. It was almost like watching a dream. Especially the scene during which "Nessun dorma" is performed. It was like a fairy forest with a bridge... Well, it was really great.

And the costumes were also really good, especially Turandot's. Actually, a couple of her gowns rivaled the sets.

The only possible negative I have about this presentation is that there was actually a lot of that whole standing and singing thing. However, possibly due somewhat to the richness of the sets and that, often, there were background chorus people milling around, it didn't often feel that way, and, when it did, it felt more natural.

This production of Turandot is definitely one of the best operas I've seen so far.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Power (part 4)

It was difficult to go to sleep that Monday night. Not that it was hard to fall asleep – after all, it had been a stressful day, and I hadn’t really slept the night before – but the idea of going to sleep was difficult, no matter how tired I was. What if something happened? It’s not like we could keep the radio on all night, not with it being powered by hand, and neither of us had any kind of cell service to speak of, so we weren’t sure if alerts would come through. In fact, I didn’t receive any alerts on my phone through the entire event.

We also knew we couldn’t just stay up. After all, what if something did happen and we were too tired to respond appropriately? We were just going to have to trust that we would respond if evacuation sirens went off in our neighborhood. So, with no small amount of hesitation, we went to bed, and I went pretty much straight to sleep. Fortunately, there were no sirens in the night.

Smoke was heavy in the street the next morning, Tuesday morning, worse than it had been on Monday. The wind had died down to almost nothing, fortunately for the fire fighters, but that meant the smoke was settling down to the ground and hanging out like June bugs on a screen door on a summer morning in the South.

I got the radio going first thing, hoping for some good news. There was none. None of the fires were at all contained. Evacuations were continuing, though they were moving north.

Theoretically, my wife was supposed to go to work. Theoretically, she was supposed to have been at work on Monday, too. She had almost gone on Monday, a half hour commute north, but had made the decision to work from home, something that hadn’t much happened due to the power loss and poor internet reception. It had been a good thing, though, because they had shut down the freeway north of us about half an hour after she would have arrived at work. The freeway was still shut down on Tuesday morning, so she would have been stuck there overnight with no way to communicate with us. That would have been a nightmare.

That didn’t change the fact that she needed to do something about work. She couldn’t go there. Not only was the freeway closed north of us but all of the roads that would have allowed her to get there were closed.

While we were trying to figure that out – and doing things like eating peanut butter from the jar because there was nothing else to eat – my daughter managed to get a text through to me that she wanted to come home – she would rather be at home with us and bored than at her grandparents’ – not that I was able to respond to her. So we went and picked her up, got coffee, came home, and ended up back there anyway, because there was internet at my father-in-law’s, and my wife needed internet so that she could “go” to work. And she had a meeting she needed to do later in the day so that everyone could freak out about the fire and the danger to the various vineyards. Yes, my wife works in the wine industry.

We had dinner over there again on Tuesday night, this time with actual food. Not that hot dog spaghetti wasn’t actual food, but my father-in-law and his wife stopped by the grocery store on their way home from work (because their office is also in the south part of town, and not everything could come to a standstill because of the fire no matter how weird it was to have so much completely closed down on one side of town and some areas still functioning normally) and bought stuff for dinner to go with some things I brought over from our now warm fridge.

During dinner, my wife got word from one of our neighbors that the power was back on so, after dinner and talking, we loaded back up, kids included, and went home. After all, if they had turned the power back on in our neighborhood, they must have believed that the immediate danger had passed. I have to say that it was a nice feeling to all go home together.

Not that everything was back to normal. Even though we had power back, which meant the internet, the internet itself went down the following morning. That, of course, meant more issues with work for my wife – she still couldn’t get to her office – and general boredom for the kids, but we got that back on Thursday morning. We didn’t get our gas back on – we were safe enough for electricity but not for gas – until Saturday, and it was so nice to finally have a hot shower again! Which is not to say that the lack of hot water, in comparison to the losses so many people suffered, was more than a minor inconvenience, but I did have a renewed appreciation for the miracle of hot water right from your tap.

[Note: I'll be finishing this up next week with one final post. Everything was in a slow denouement for us after Tuesday so, though there is more I could say about our experience, it's not of much consequence. After the post next week, I'll be pulling all of these prior posts down so, if you haven't read the earlier ones, now is your chance.]

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Silent Night (part 3)

That said, Monday was a waiting game, like being stuck in traffic behind a terrible accident. But a terrible accident involving a bus full of people you know. All you can do is sit and wait to hear if there are casualties, but you know that emergency services are having difficulty getting there because of all the backed-up traffic.

All of our information was coming through the radio and my wife’s phone. We have different carriers because her phone has been supplied through her employer. My phone lost service fairly early. Hers only got spotty and, if she went and stood out in the street in front of our house, she could get her email and check Facebook. For a while. Eventually, the radio was all we had left. Later, we found out that more than 2/3 of the cell towers had gone down; some to fire, some to loss of power.

Let me rephrase that: If my wife went outside and stood in the street and the smoke haze and the falling ash, ash falling like a light powdering of snow, she could get a signal on her phone. Except not all of the ash was like snow, because some of it was burned pages of books drifting silently out of the sky like pages from people’s lives. Some people found burned photos, a testament to the specific lives which had gone up in flames.

By noon, we started hearing about places that had burned. We started hearing about places being evacuated, including two of the three hospitals: the largest and the second largest. It’s hard not to panic when places in the city you generally consider completely safe are being evacuated, and what’s safer than a hospital? We started hearing about people we know and how they had lost their homes, people who had escaped from their homes in the middle of the night with only the clothes they were wearing.

Fire moves fast when they’re being powered by 60 mph winds.

Having no electricity, I had to keep the kids out of the refrigerator as much as possible. It’s amazing how difficult it is to get through to teenagers that they need to open the fridge and take out everything they need all at once. That means they have to know everything they need before they open the door. Then, open the door and put everything back all at once. I suppose that’s harder than it sounds.

And I had to keep them completely out of the freezer. Of course, there was ice cream in there that my daughter wanted, but, without knowing how long the electricity would be out, I couldn’t have them letting all the cold air out just for the purpose of stress eating.

Which meant there was nothing that my daughter wanted to eat. She wanted me to cook something, but we have an electric stove, so that was out. It was like she reverted to being seven, though, because every hour or so, she would come out of her room to ask what there was to eat. The answer never changed.

Eventually, we decided to drive across town to my father-in-law’s house. Last we’d heard, they still had electricity and, being in the south part of the town and relatively far from the massive fire, they had said to come over there if we had to evacuate. At the point we decided to go, we had no way of contacting them because cell service had deteriorated to nothing.

We had the kids bring their go bags with them, and I packed mine in the car; after all, what good would it do to have it ready to go if I wasn’t there to grab it if we had to go. I’ve lugged my notebooks around with me all week, now, actually. It was good that we had them bring them, because we left the kids there when my wife and I went home that night.

At that moment, though, standing in front of their door, the kids with their bags in their hands, they thought we were there to stay. And my daughter was looking forward to food that wasn’t cereal, which she had used up at breakfast anyway, or peanut butter, especially since we didn’t have bread. She was looking forward to food right up until we found out that they didn’t have any because they hadn’t done any grocery shopping for a couple of weeks. And there was no grocery shopping to be done that evening with the city in a state of… Well, what can you call it other than “panic.”

But it’s amazing what you can throw together when you need to do that. My father-in-law dug around and threw together a hot dog-spaghetti dinner, a real summer camp meal. It’s not fine dining, but it made my daughter happy; well, really, it made everyone happy. Not so much the meal as being all together.

So we ate and we sat and we talked, sometimes about the fire but mostly about other things and, eventually, my wife and I went home, leaving our kids behind in a place which was theoretically safer than where we were going. That’s also harder than it sounds.

The city was quiet as we drove home. Really quiet. The kind of quiet it used to be on Christmas morning when I was a kid. Still. We were almost the only car on the road. About halfway home, we crossed 3rd Street, the street which, effectively, divides the north part of the city from the south part, and everything went dark. You forget what it’s like to drive without street lights because they’re almost everywhere and, even in places where they’re not, there’s generally the lights from nearby houses or stores or whatever. But above 3rd, there was nothing. No lights. No sounds. Other than the sound of our car, and we were in the Prius, which is like a normal car in stealth mode, so it was pretty silent.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Clone Wars -- "The Big Bang" (Ep. ?.4)

-- If at first you don't succeed, destroy it.

This may be my favorite Clone Wars story arc in terms of sheer enjoyment. Many of the arcs, even the good ones, will have an episode that's a little off, but not this one. Each episode contained topnotch dialogue, and I frequently found myself LOLing. Actually, dialogue is a big thing for me. Justified is my favorite TV show in large part because of the excellent dialogue throughout the entire series (and I think it must be difficult to sustain that kind of great dialogue through five seasons of a show since so few shows manage it). This arc is like that: excellent dialogue throughout, especially the banter between Obi-Wan and Anakin.

It doesn't hurt, too, that this arc teases things to come in the movies. Most of The Clone Wars is self-contained and, other than the characters, does not relate to the movies at all. It seems the thrust of season six was to change all of that. Between the opening arc with the ties to Order 66, the Yoda arc, and, now, this one; I get the impression that the creators were working to bring the series into closer synchronicity to the movies. I like it.

And, again, it makes me sad that they pulled the plug on the series because, if season six was a taste of what was to come, The Clone Wars was only getting better.

"Cavalier! You're cavalier all the time and no one says anything about it."
"I'm just better at it; that's all."

"It's amazing what you can accomplish when you don't get captured."

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Red Glow in the Sky (part 2)

I left her to do the research on what was actually going on while I took the dog out. The dog, too, was up early and wanting to go out hours before she usually wants to do that. Agitated, I guess.

We, the dog and I, went out the door into the pre-dawn darkness and made our way to the end of the driveway and turned north to go up the sidewalk…

…and the sky glowed red against the black of night.

The wind had died down in the previous hour or so, but it had already done its job: north Santa Rosa was on fire. It’s tempting to say “all of it,” but that’s not really true, though it feels like it is. Huge parts of it.

I did my best after I got back with the dog to get coffee and breakfast made, but they turned off the power before I was finished. Fortunately, I hadn’t yet cracked the eggs. And when I say “they turned off the power,” that’s what I mean. Evidently, downed live power lines exacerbated the fires, so they shut the power off to my part of town as a precaution.

Which meant no internet. And no news.

It caused the same kind of feeling as being in a waiting room at a hospital waiting to hear about someone in surgery.

However, a few years ago, my daughter gave me a hand-crank radio – an emergency-use radio – a radio I thought I would never use. Not only do we not really use the radio anymore, just in general, but I certainly don’t use it for local news. But, on Monday, I did. Fortunately, even though I never expected to use it, I’d kept it where I knew where it was and somewhere I could get to if I needed it. It was not packed away in a box somewhere.

The news was not good. It wasn’t just north Santa Rosa that was on fire but huge areas of the county. And other counties next to us. Fires. Everywhere. The beginnings of what is now the worst natural disaster in the history of California. But, maybe, I’m getting ahead of myself. We didn’t know that yet.

Early Monday morning, we were more concerned with whether we were going to need to evacuate; after all, the area that was burning was not really very far from our house, the mandatory evacuation line less than a mile away.

We told our kids to gather some necessities, to make “go bags,” as they say. To their credits, there was no whining or complaining about leaving behind any “stuff.” No “but what about my…!” They both packed bags with some clothes and toothbrushes and that was about it, though my son did also take his laptop. It does, after all, have all of his animation and music work on it. They both also set aside all of their school stuff to take with them, if that tells you anything.

I’m just going to point out here that I own a lot of collectibles. A lot. I collected comic books through my teens and twenties, not to mention that I ran more than one comic book/gaming store, and still have most of those. I actively played Magic (and collected the cards) for more than a decade. I still have all my Star Wars toys from when I was a kid. I have a lot of “stuff.”

There have been times in my life when I have spent considerable time wondering what I would do in the event of a fire or a flood or a whatever and only had time to grab a few things or the amount of things that would fit in my car. What would I take? I’ve never been able to come up with a good answer to that question. Not in the past. When it came to it, I didn’t consider any of those things when it came time to decide what I would I was taking with me.

No, when it came to it, I packed my notebooks with my writing along with my laptop and my flash drive. I tossed in my camera because it had pictures on it I hadn’t uploaded yet. That was it. That was my “go bag.”

I had my family and my work, and that was enough. There wasn’t even any angst about the rest.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Smell of Smoke (part 1)

The smell of smoke was in the air. Strong, like sitting around a campfire, but the smoke haze in the air had no obvious source. I thought back to the plume of smoke we’d seen from the highway on the way home from the south Bay earlier in the day. Not that we’d agreed that it was smoke, but I’d thought it was smoke.

Still, as far as I could tell, there was nothing to see. I went to the backyard to take down the windchimes. The wind was picking up and, on a windy night, they would make too much noise – noise that was otherwise considered music or, at least, pleasant – for my wife to be able to sleep. I went back around to the front of the house for one last look around then went inside.

The wind that night was horrendous, what they all Diablo winds. Hurricane strength. That’s not an exaggeration. Just strong enough to be a category one, but they’re called hurricanes for a reason. The wind blew in the sounds of sirens. All night. Sirens and what sounded like explosions. They sounded like explosions because they were.

Something woke me up around 2:00 am; I didn’t know what. Maybe it was the sirens or maybe it was something nearer at hand; either way, it’s when I became aware of the sirens. The smell of smoke inside the house was as strong as it had been outside earlier. I laid in the bed for a moment, my wife asleep beside me, becoming aware of the distant sirens and the muffled popping of propane tank explosions. I got up and wandered worriedly through the house, finding nothing to warrant my concerns. Besides, despite the smell of smoke, the smoke detector was silent.

I didn’t really go back to sleep after that. The wind and the sirens kept me awake. Still, I jerked to alertness when the smoke detector went off. Just a single beep, followed a moment later by one more single beep. The smell of smoke was, if anything, stronger, so I didn’t understand why it would just beep the twice.

So I got up and checked through the house again, also checking out the windows as well as I could. Still nothing. Then I realized that the detector had gone off because the power had gone out. It’s hardwired into the house, and it beeps anytime the power goes off or comes back on. It was only for a moment, but it was long enough to de-set the stove clock: 3:17 was flashing.

Sleep still didn’t come, but it was too early to get up. I laid in the bed thinking about it, but I was tired, and I wanted to sleep, a desire that was at odds with the continued wind and sirens. My brain wondered exactly what was going on.

Eventually, the alarm went off and I rolled out of bed somewhat disgruntled about the lack of sleep I’d had. Not that that is necessarily any different from how I feel any given morning. I stumbled out to my computer and turned it on, hoping to find something out while I worked on setting up for breakfast.

Facebook is never the first thing I open on my computer. Never. Or even the second. But, for whatever reason, Monday morning, October 9, it was. The first thing I saw I was a post: “My city is on fire.” What the fuck! That’s my city!

Before I had a chance to do anything else, my phone and my wife’s phone both started ringing. The only time that happens is when it’s an important message from my daughter’s school, so I answered it. School had been cancelled for the day… because of the fires.

Fires. With an “s.”

Which explained the sirens.

I went and woke up my wife.