Tuesday, November 17, 2009

HOUSTON (after Sarah Palin and Lou Dobbs detours)

Top Photo: Christine Goerke as Otrud in Wagner's LOHENGRIN with Richard Paul Fink as Telramund in the Houston Grand Opera production premiered on October 30, 2009. Photo courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Below: Christine Goerke backstage at the Houston Grand Opera with Ginny Gehab following the final performance of HGO's run of LOHENGRIN (11/15/09)

Sarah Palin, that odious soccer mom---the woman who revels in her very ordinariness as though that were a badge of honor, is back and I’m just as sick of her now as I was when John McCain lost his mind and invited her to be his Veep during the last Presidential Election. Why are we supposed to be impressed with her “aw shucks; you betcha” persona while she looks down her nose at those she considers snobbish and out-of-touch with the common folk. Well excuse me, Miss-I-can-field-dress-a moose! The media is falling all over themselves trying to get their moment of reflected glory as this opportunistic woman butchers the language with her malapropisms, while she tries to convince us she’s the girl-next-door. I’m not buying it. She’s as opportunistic as any oily politician that has come down the pike and is considerably dumber. Tiny Brown scolded the media who are lapping up Pallin’s every utterance after “three months of health care.” I’ve got a theory about all this attention. Everyone saw how effectively (or was it just dumb luck) Katie Couric was able to show Palin as the house of cards she is, and it did her career a world of good. So not to be outdone, Oprah, Barbara Walters, The New York Times (first Mitchiko Kakutani in her review, and today Alessandra Stanley in her evaluating Palin’s appearance on Oprah) and others are lining up to see if the Couric effect can add some luster to their own sense of importance. As usual, the shallow media wants razzle-dazzle over substance, and as usual, show how desperately they will show their celebrity preferences over real issues. Worse, Ms. Palin’s pack of homilies will probably sell like hotcakes to those dumb enough to swallow her BS. I say they are welcome to her.

The best news to me last week was the news that Lou Dobbs had finally left CNN, apparently forced out over his insane obsession with immigration and his embarrassing crusade in support of the birthers who believe that Obama is not truly an American citizen, and therefore unqualified to be President. Dobbs initially showed himself to be a thoughtful supporter of the mis-represented American voter, but he overreached, alienating viewers with his extreme views on immigration (which not even George Bush supported). But I do think the Obama citizenship legitimacy issue was truly reprehensible and he continued with it long after it was obvious to everyone else that this story was a non-starter. I think he offended a lot of CNN viewers, who prefer a moderate views over those expressed on either MSNBC or over at Fox. So we now see Bill O’Reilly courting him over at Fox. The last thing they need over there is another aging blowhard with bad hair.

These distractions keep us off the real issues like health care and jobs.

I had a perfectly wonderful weekend in Houston. I flew into the city on Thursday evening and no sooner got to the hotel when Val Suan, my opera pal rang me up. Val lives in Houston. We met when a San Francisco friend suggested a week-long stay in Santa Fe, where we rented a townhouse and went on a five-performance opera binge some five years ago, and have remained friends ever since. Val had made a reservation at one of Houston’s finest restaurants—a converted Lutheran church, now named Mark’s (after its talented chef). It’s a bit too high end for me these days, but we had a thoroughly wonderful time, eating a thoroughly stylish meal, which included grilled shrimp and with crabmeat and asparagus. Val is as dramatic as the opera personalities both onstage and off, that he loves. So you’re guaranteed to be noticed whenever you are in his presence. We had a fine time getting caught up. He then dragged me to the local watering holes before dropping me off at my hotel.

I was in Houston to take in a performance of Wagner’s LOHENGRIN, an opera in which Christine Goerke was starring in. Christine and I are friends for some twelve years now, and I’ve long had a deep admiration for her enormous talent. She was singing her first big Wagner part in her career, and getting Otrud, the sorceress in this opera under her belt had been a goal. Her reviews were stunning—about the best in the cast. I was coming for her last performances (last performances of a run tend to be the best. The singers are relaxed after long weeks of rehearsals, performances, etc. The last one tends to be loosey-goosey with the singers often giving their best but having a lot of fun on-stage without letting the audience in on the joke. Experienced opera goers tend to notice these things, such as the tenor singing in Pig Latin when he should be seriously intoning recitative in German or Italian. A favorite bit is to try to break each other up. But before the final performance, I had other social obligations.

Jim and Ginny Creed have been friends since I first met Christine. They traveled to London for Christine’s Covent Garden debut, which is where I met them, and we bonded on that trip. Jim is a psychiatric physician and Ginny is a nurse. She also teaches. They count a number of world-class singers as friends, and will travel to New York or Santa Fe or elsewhere to attend their performances. They are generous and warm friends. They also live about 90 minutes from Houston and attend opera in Houston often. They made arrangements for a car to drive me to their home in Beaumont, which is what I did on Friday. Their home is beautiful and comfortable and they share this large space with three dogs, two cats and a parrot named Boomer. We had a lovely visit which included dinner at Pappadeaux’s a popular local restaurant with branches in several Texas cities that specialize in very large portions of well-made seafood. They serve an excellent, subtly spicy shrimp gumbo. I then dug into a perfectly cooked planked salmon filet with asparagus. The portions are huge, and this enormous restaurant is very busy. To have such well-cooked seafood shows why the place is so popular. It’s rare for a kitchen to stay the course when it is so busy.

The next day I got a good tour of Beaumont and it’s beautiful historic neighborhoods, and the downtown district with its Art Deco buildings. Our visit was too short indeed as the car came by after lunch to whisk me back to Houston. I had a dinner party to attend for a friend’s birthday, but first I had to find a birthday present. Val picked me up and took me to a local Barnes & Noble so I could get the birthday girl a cookbook. I got her Rose Bernanbaum’s new cake book. I had enough time to get back to the hotel to change for dinner as Val drove me around the River Oaks section of Houston where all the rich swells live. I must say it was impressive.

Dinner was to be a celebration with Christine and her husband, Jim and her close friends and sponsors, Mike and Ginny Gehab. The Gebhabs have been a strong and loving influence in Christine’s life—really like second parents to her. They are big opera lovers (Ginny was a soprano). We’ve spent lots of time together in New York, Seattle, San Francisco and now Houston when we’ve come to cheer our girl on in performance. Tonight was a dinner to honor Ginny’s 60th, and it was a lot of fun. Christine had discovered Voice—a beautiful restaurant in the Hotel Icon (a converted bank building) in downtown Houston. It was a great choice for a party. Ginny’s sister Helen was they’re along with another family friend and we shared a champagne toast. Ginny loved her book, so it was a good choice.

It wasn’t a late night, as Christine had to get a good night’s sleep in order to be in good shape for the performance tomorrow. Val was going to the performance as well and suggested brunch at a local favorite restaurant.

Val arrived at 11:30 for our brunch at Backstreet CafĂ©. I’m not a brunch person. Everything is too fussy. I’d rather eat a ham sandwich than plow my way through Eggs Benedict or French toast. Backstreet does have those dishes, but they also serve lots of other interesting entrees in their beautiful backyard dining area and so I inhaled a delicious thing called crispy lobster, which meant chunks of lobster meat are dipped in a tempura-like batter along with onion rings and fried and served on a brioche bun with baby arugula and a spicy mayonnaise sauce. This was a heavenly sandwich. A bloody mary and a cup of coffee set me up for the long Wagner opera ahead.

The Houston Grand opera has a fine stage and an auditorium that seats about 2400 people. Reviews had been uniformly excellent praising the cast and the conductor, and not being harsh on the production or its director, as the production updates the opera to the 1930s. As I would discover, the house’s acoustics are excellent and flattering to the voices. Patrick Summers the music director of the Houston Grand Opera directed a superb performance of an outstanding cast—probably the best I’ve ever seen in this work, but Chistine's volcanic singing and strong acting provided her with the means with which to steal the show. Clearly she’s meant to sing Wagner—her large sound ricocheted throughout the large hall. She was thrilling. The audience gave the cast and conductor a standing ovation and for a change, this overdone tribute was well deserved.

We got backstage to offer lots of praise to our diva, but she had a plane to catch. Her father-in-law died on Saturday and she had to get home to sing at his funeral and support her husband.

This left time for Val and I to have a final supper (four and a half hours of Wagner can work up a very large appetite. He took me to Barnaby’s a colorful diner serving really good comfort food in the Montrose section of the city. I took on a really ginormous Cobb Salad, which I’m ashamed to admit I managed to eat most of.

Heading home today. This was my third or fourth visit to Houston over the years and I must say the city made more of a positive impression on me than in previous visits. Like most big American cities, the consistency and quality of the food served in its restaurants has improved significantly. Architecture is not this city’s strong suit. They like modern and flashy—I call it Texas-style LA. But the arts are alive and well here for that the city gets my gratitude.

I missed Beau, who was staying with friends. My first trip away from Portland since I moved there in June. Had a great time, but I’m glad to be coming home.

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