The Well-Tempered Ear

Can American film director Ron Howard make a sensitive and accurate biopic of Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang? Or is it a cultural appropriation that deserves to be condemned?

September 27, 2020
6 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

The self-appointed PC diversity police have struck again.

This is getting silly and tiresome, insulting and embarrassing.

Some advocates of cultural diversity are crying foul over the latest project of the American and Academy Award-winning Hollywood film director Ron Howard: making a biopic of the superstar Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang (below).

The script will be drawn from the pianist’s bestselling memoir “Journey of a Thousand Miles” — which has also been recast as an inspirational children’s book — and the director and scriptwriters will consult with Lang Lang.

It seems to The Ear a natural collaboration, as well as a surefire box office hit, between two high-achieving entertainers. Check out their bios:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lang_Lang

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_Howard

But some people are criticizing the project in the belief that because Ron Howard  (below) is white and Western, he cannot do justice to someone who is Chinese or to Asian culture.

Here is an essay, found on the website of Classic FM, by one objector. She is Chinese film director Lulu Wang (below), who says she has no interest in doing the project herself: https://www.classicfm.com/artists/lang-lang/pianist-biopic-ron-howard-faces-criticism-lulu-wang/

Talk about misplaced alarm over “cultural appropriation.”

Don’t you think that Lang Lang will have a lot to say about how he is depicted?

Do you wonder if Wang thinks cultural appropriation works in reverse?

Should we dismiss Lang Lang’s interpretations of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Bartok simply because he is non-Western and Chinese rather than German, French or Russian?

Of course not. They should be taken on their own merits, just as the interpretations of any other Asian classical musician, and artists in general including Ai Weiwei, should be.

But however unfairly, cultural appropriation just doesn’t seem to work in reverse.

Mind you, The Ear thinks that cultural appropriation is a valid concept and can indeed sometimes be useful in discussing cross-cultural influences.

But it sure seems that the concept is being applied in an overly broad and even misdirected or ridiculous way, kind of the way that the idea of “micro-aggressions” can be so generously applied that it loses its ability to be truthful and useful.

Take the example of the heterosexual Taiwanese movie director Ang Lee. He certainly proved himself able to depict American culture in “The Ice Storm” and the gay world in “Brokeback Mountain.”

Let’s be clear. The Ear is a piano fan.

But if he objects to the project, it is because he doesn’t like Lang Lang’s flamboyant playing, his Liberace-like performance manners and showmanship, and his exaggerated facial expressions.

Yet there is no denying the human appeal of his story. He rose from a young and suicidal piano student (below) who was emotionally abused by his ambitious father – shades of the lives of young Mozart and Beethoven and probably many other prodigies – to become the best known, most frequently booked and highest paid classical pianist in the world. 

Yet not for nothing did some critics baptize him with the nickname Bang Bang.

Still, the Curtis Institute graduate does all he can to foster music education, especially among the young and the poor.

And there is simply no denying his virtuosity. (See Lang Lang playing Liszt’s Paganini etude “La Campanella” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So there is plenty to object to about Lang Lang the Piano Star besides the ethnicity of Ron Howard, who also did a biopic of opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti, in telling his story.

What do you think?

Is it culturally all right for Ron Howard to direct a film about Lang Lang?

Do you look forward to the movie and seeing it?

What do you think of Lang Lang as a pianist and a celebrity?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: The Madison Opera stages Bizet’s “Carmen” this Friday night and Sunday afternoon

October 31, 2017
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will perform Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” this Friday night, Nov. 3, at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, Nov. 5, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall at the Overture Center, 201 State Street. (Below is the set from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City that is being used for the production.)

Tickets are $18-$130. (See below for details.)

With some of the most famous music in opera, Bizet’s passionate work is a vivid story of love, jealousy and betrayal.

Set in 19th-century Seville, Spain, the opera follows a gypsy determined to live life on her own terms – whatever her fate may be.

On a break from her shift at the cigarette factory, Carmen tosses a flower at a corporal named Don José, who ignores her advances. Only after Carmen is arrested and placed in José’s custody does he begin to fall for her, breaking the law and abandoning his hometown sweetheart.

What follows is a torrid love affair of passion, agonizing rage, and fanatical desire that will change their lives forever.

“Carmen is the reason I run an opera company,” says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director (below, in a photo by James Gill).  “I fell in love with opera as a teenager in the children’s chorus of a ‘Carmen’ production, as its incredible score and intense story hooked me immediately – not to mention the sheer excitement of having principal artists, chorus, children’s chorus, dancers, and orchestra all come together to create this astonishing world.  I am so delighted to produce ‘Carmen’ in Madison, with this spectacular cast and production team.”

At the premiere of “Carmen” in Paris on March 3, 1875, audiences were shocked at its characters’ apparent lack of morality and virtue, and critics derided Bizet’s music. (You can hear the ever-popular Toreador Song in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Three months after the opera’s premiere, Bizet died of heart disease. He was only 36 years old and would never know that his “flop” of an opera would become a global sensation over the next two centuries.

“Carmen was the first opera I saw as a young teenager,” remembers Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). “It should be everyone’s first opera. It is the perfect blend of musical theater and grand opera, with thrilling choruses, great tunes from start to finish, and a compelling story of ill-fated love. And then there is Carmen herself, one of the most alluring characters of all time. I love conducting this great opera, which is so gorgeously orchestrated.”

Madison Opera’s cast features both returning artists and debuts. Making her debut in the title role is Aleks Romano (below), a rising young singer whom Opera News recently praised for her “attractively smoky mezzo-soprano.”

Acclaimed tenor Sean Panikkar (below) makes his role debut as Don José. He debuted with Madison Opera at Opera in the Park 2014, but this is his first mainstage appearance with the company.Also returning to Madison Opera are Cecilia Violetta López (below top) as José’s hometown sweetheart Micaëla and Corey Crider (below bottom) as the toreador Escamillo. López debuted at this past summer’s Opera in the Park; Crider sang the title role in “Sweeney Todd” with Madison Opera in 2015.

Thomas Forde (below), who most recently sang Luther/Crespel in Madison Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffman,” returns to play José’s commanding officer, Zuniga.

Studio artists Anna Polum and Megan Le Romero play Carmen’s friends Frasquita and Mercedes. Studio Artist Benjamin Liupaogo and Wisconsin native Erik Earl Larson play the smugglers, Remendado and Dancaïre. Rounding out the cast is Charles Eaton in his debut as Morales. (Many have ties to the opera program at the UW-Madison.)

Directing this traditional staging is E. Loren Meeker (below) in her first production for Madison Opera. Meeker has directed at opera companies around the United States, including Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, the Glimmerglass Festival and Wolf Trap Opera.

“A piece like Carmen captures our imagination and begs to be re-told over the centuries because the characters speak to the deepest and most honest parts of human nature,” says Meeker.  “Today we grapple with love, lust, jealousy, morality, honor, and freedom just as much as people did when this opera premiered in 1875.

“At Madison Opera we have a brilliant cast who is willing to unravel the mystery of these characters with me scene by scene – making each choice onstage new, fresh, and true to the characters and arch of the story.

“Bringing this vivid world to life set to some of the most rich and well known music in the operatic canon, plus the fun of working with dancers, a fight director, the Madison Youth Choir, and a large adult chorus challenges me and inspires me all at the same time. The energy created in the performance, the brilliant music sung by such amazing artists, makes this classic opera worth seeing again and again and again.”

Carmen is a truly grand opera and features the Madison Opera Chorus, led by chorusmaster Anthony Cao (below); members of the Madison Youth Choirs; the Madison Symphony Orchestra; and dancers from Tania Tandias Flamenco and Spanish Dance.

For more information about the cast, go to:

http://www.madisonopera.org/performances-2017-2018/carmen/cast/

For informative and entertaining Q&As with the cast members, go to the Madison Opera’s Blogspot:

http://madisonopera.blogspot.com

For tickets, call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 or go to:

http://www.overture.org/events/madison-opera


Posted in Classical music
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