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SFO - Fabled City by the Bay - a delightful vacation spot for Seattle travelers
SFO - Fabled City by the Bay - a delightful vacation spot for Seattle travelers
by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

Last month, the 25th anniversary of the Folsom Street Fair lured tens of thousands of visitors seeking a celebration of diversity. Leather men, leather women, fetish followers, kink masters, nerdy gawkers - they were all there. For one Sunday a year, Folsom Street and its surrounding area welcomes everyone. The Castro Street Fair lures similar numbers of GLBT tourists, but only at the Folsom Street Fair can one donate money to a children's charity to be flogged - or learn how to flog. Totally naked men wander through the booths and exhibits wearing only a dog collar or a cock ring, if that. Bare-breasted women are so common they attract no attention. A horribly overweight man stood naked outside a popular leather bar, wearing only thigh-high waders holding a sign that asked, "Piss On Me, I'm From Peoria." Little by little, his waders filled with liquid "donations."

As usual, The City (as it is called) welcomes and celebrates diversity. The Folsom Street Fair is only one draw. The San Francisco arts scene is a major tourist attraction, and - perhaps only in San Francisco - the two disciplines frequently meet. It is not uncommon on this weekend to see two leather men at San Francisco Opera, one wearing a dog collar, the other pulling his leash. Sunday afternoon at the opera or ACT or the Gay-friendly New Conservatory Theatre is always an eye-popping outing - fetishists take a break from the Folsom crowds to catch a Verdi opera or the new Tom Stoppard play at ACT. Bits&Bytes was there to tell you all about it. Read on:

San Francisco Opera opened its 2008-09 season, its 86th year, with three productions in rotating repertoire. Unlike Seattle Opera - and most cities - SFOpera mounts its operas three at a time, allowing visitors many opportunities to see three operas in three days or, on some weekends, three operas in just two days.

The world premiere of Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter, adapted from the best-selling novel by the popular San Francisco writer, was the "event" of the year for SFO and much of San Francisco. "We all just love her," one SFO staff member gushed. "We are so excited about the new opera."

While there is much to like about the elaborate spectacle of the world premiere production, the overall reaction was, well, "mixed" would be the polite word. Technically sold-out for the entire run, the box office had "scattered seats" just minutes before a "sold-out" performance. True, the single tickets were in secondary locations and most of them were $175 to $225 (far too high for last-minute walk-ins), but the show was an immense box office smash.

The opera, with a libretto by Tan, has music by Stewart Wallace, who wrote the music for SFO's commission of Harvey Milk, the operatic tale of the Gay martyr's life and death. That artistic and box office success was Wallace's fifth opera. With Bonesetter, the composer emulates traditional Chinese music and makes much use of classic Chinese musical instruments. The show has incredible visual moments, but the overall impact is disappointing. Despite the creative team's terrific input, the show received mixed reactions, and many in the sold-out audience left at intermission. Highest praise for effort. Chen Shi-Zheng, director and choreographer, makes his SFO debut with the production. He will, undoubtedly, be back.

SFO always includes an operatic rarity in its multi-production season. This year, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die Tote Stadt takes that spot in the season's repertory. Korngold, best known for his later Hollywood film scores for Anthony Adverse and The Adventures of Robin Hood, wrote Die Tote Stadt (roughly translated as The Dead City) in 1920. It made its U.S. premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1921 and soon faded from memory. Korngold fled Hitler's Nazi Germany in the 1930s, settled in Hollywood and became world-famous - and incredibly wealthy - for his film scores.

Like many opera rarities, The Dead City offers novelty and challenge. The story of a deranged man who descends into madness after this wife's death, the opera is a long, musically monochromatic work that tests the audience. At the end (of a very long three hours), the show pulls its punch and reveals that the entire story has been a dream - a nightmare of the loving husband whose wife is really not dead. This Dallas-like ending left a strong sense of dissatisfaction with much of the audience. SFO unwisely grouped Act One and Act Two together, giving audiences an hour and a half first act. Walkouts were incredible, alas.

One wonderful "bit" of the production, a "byte" of information that was widely reported in SF newspapers: the leading lady removed her elaborate hat mid-way through Act One on opening night. Alas, her elaborate wig came with it - someone in costuming had pinned the hat to the wig. Laughter rang out. Unfortunately, the character later removes her wig to show that she is bald and dying - a scene with little impact after the earlier wig malfunction.

The out-and-out hit of the fall season for SFO was a traditional production of Verdi's rarely performed Simon Boccanegra, an early Verdi work that had tremendous vocal requirements. Beautifully directed, elaborately staged and produced, gloriously costumed, the production was an artistic success on every level. It will surely return to SFO in an encore staging.

Complete information of SFO's season is available at (415) 864-3330. The June/July "summer season," especially popular with GLBT opera fans who plan to spend Gay Pride Weekend in San Francisco, features Tosca, Porgy & Bess and La Traviata.

England's Tom Stoppard, one of the world's most respected and successful playwrights, considers San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) his "American home." ACT's artistic director, Carey Perloff, has an amazing facility for understanding Stoppard's scripts and subtexts, and she and Stoppard have worked on many, many U.S. or West Coast premieres over the past decade.

ACT's production of his latest play, Rock 'N' Roll, makes its West Coast premiere at ACT. It was such a hot ticket before opening that ACT added a full extra week to the show's run. It is a co-production with Boston's prestigious Huntington Theatre Company and the show's core cast members travel to Boston for the play's run there. (The play will open Seattle's ACT/ A Contemporary Theatre's 2009 season next spring.)

The play is an intriguing mixture of politics in England and Czechoslovakia over a two-decade period, starting in the 1960s. The main character's fascination with emblematic popular music of the era, the Rock 'N' Roll of the play's title, is a major element of the text. The complex, challenging production delighted many, but it also found many older audience members at a Wednesday matinee fleeing at intermission. "Too much talking and too much of that awful music," the man next to me muttered as he and his wife fled.

The production is a "must-see" for fans of Stoppard and serious theater buffs. Tickets and details at ((415) 749-2228. Like most San Francisco arts groups, ACT offers a GLBT night, Out With A.C.T. Ask for details.

Playwright Itamar Moses is one of the "bright young things" in American theater. Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre hosted the Northwest Premiere of his Bach At Leipzig several seasons back. Tony Taccone, the artistic director of the Tony Award-winning Berkeley Repertory Theatre, commissioned Moses, a Berkeley native, to write a play "on any subject." Moses "knew immediately" that he wanted to write a fictionalized account of his years at Berkeley High School in the mid-1990s, his time there.

The finished play, Yellowjackets, is named after the Berkeley sports mascot and the distinctive lettermen's jackets the school's sports stars proudly wear. The show - a huge hit for the Berkeley Rep - has just been extended. It now runs through late October. While the show, with a huge cast of young actors, has much to offer, it works best for Berkeley or San Francisco theater fans who know the history of the far-sighted high school - it was the first U.S. school or voluntarily integrate itself. The script was workshopped at the Berkeley Rep last season, and - to be frank - needs more polish before it is ready to travel to other regional theaters. Much to admire. Well worth a BART trip. And, the Berkeley Rep offers Thursday matinees, allowing theatre nuts (like this scribe) to see "one more play" on a San Francisco visit. Ticket details at (510) 647-2949. The BR's current production is August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come And Gone. Wilson, of course, made Seattle his home for the last decade of his life.

Carol Channing, the 87-year old living legend who gave Broadway Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, receives a life tribute at the San Francisco Museum of Performance & Design. Channing was born in Seattle but moved to San Francisco when she was just two weeks old. She considers The City her hometown, but always mentions Seattle at the city of her birth.

Hello, Carol! A Celebration Of Carol Channing continues through March 14 at the museum on Van Ness, near downtown and just blocks from the city's Opera House, and symphony hall and the GLBT-friendly New Conservatory Theatre. A huge celebration was planned for Channing, but a fall at her home left her with major hip injuries and a broken leg. It's the first time in nearly 50 years that Channing, the definition of a The Show Must Go On trooper, had to cancel an appearance. Never fear, the superstar promises "a speedy recovery" and rescheduled appearances. The exhibit is a knockout - constant big-screen loops of rare stage, film and television performances, the famous red velvet dress from her Tony Award-winning performance in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway, incredible photographs of Channing and "everyone." The exhibit, which offers free admission, is terrific. Details and times at (415) 255-4800.

Most people agree that the world is becoming a smaller and smaller place. A Seattle theater fan is almost always sure of running into a friend or acquaintance at a Broadway show. Emerald City opera fans expect to see each other at productions in Santa Fe or San Francisco or Chicago. On Bits&Bytes fall trip to SF, Seattle was always a presence.

ITEM: Vera Wilde, a musical adapted from an obscure novel by Oscar Wilde, had its World Premiere in Seattle at the late-and-lamented Empty Space Theatre. Seattle's Chris Jeffries wrote the campy little musical which is now playing at the Shotgun Players in Berkeley, a quick BART ride from downtown San Francisco. Reviews all credited Seattle for the first production. (510) 841-6500 for details.

ITEM: Chris Jordon, a Seattle photographer, was praised for his presentation to 500 people at the Northern California chapter of the International Interior Design Association. He presented photographs from his work using "the enormity of trash produced by the American consumer culture" - he takes discards and turns them into replicas of high art. One work, a recreation of Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte (the painting that was the inspiration for Sondheim's award-winning musical, Sunday in the Park With George), is constructed of 106,000 discarded aluminum soft drink cans. In another work, Denali/Denial he duplicates a photograph of an Alaskan mountain using 24,000 logos from the GMC Yukon Denali.

ITEM: Mark Morris, the Seattle/Renton native who turned into one of the world's most important modern dance choreographers, brought his new Romeo & Juliet: On Motifs of Shakespeare to the University of California/Berkeley's Zellerback Hall for a late-September weekend visit. Like his earlier Dido and Aeneas, which uses classical ballet forms with modern dance interpretations, the work will eventually arrive in Seattle. Watch this space for details. The CalPerformances event was the West Coast premiere of the important new Morris work.

ITEM: El Vez, "The Mexican Elvis," who is based in Seattle, stars in three Saturday night shows, Cabaret Lunatique, at the San Francisco edition of Teatro ZinZanni. The late night series "of saucy burlesque, music and mischief" runs through November 8 at 11 p.m., following the ZinZanni dinner show. Tickets are just $20 - a rare low price for ZinZanni (and all of San Francisco). Information at (415) 438-2668.

ITEM: An exhibit of new glass works from Seattle's Dale Chihuly, Chihuly at the de Young, broke attendance records during its six-month stay. The exhibit, which closed last weekend (and found many Folsom Street Fair art fans rushing in), featured Mille Fiori, a 56-foot "Garden of Glass," and a highly acclaimed Saffrom Tower, a 30-foot neon sculpture. Love him or hate him, Chihuly is the most popular, most important, most successful glass artist of all time. His SF exhibit was considered "a exploration of the groundbreaking artwork" of the Seattle resident (and Tacoma native). He was praised for "challenging conventions with a feast of bold color, dramatic forms and extraordinary composition."

San Francisco Ballet, one of the highest regarded dance companies in the U.S., offers nine programs during its January to May 2009 season. Unlike Seattle, where Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet alternate performances at McCaw Hall throughout the year, SFOpera and SFBallet each have a distinct season in the SF Opera House. Many weeks or weekends, it is possible to fly to the City by the Bay and see three separate ballet programs.

One Seattle-based friend subscribes to the full SFBallet season. Active in the leather community, he flies to San Francisco and stays at a low-cost, "leather-friendly" hostel. He sees two evening programs and one matinee, hits the leather bars and baths (and "gets that out of my system for another few weeks") and returns to the Emerald City late Sunday night.

Like Pacific Northwest Ballet, SFBallet offers a majority of mixed repertoire programs. Three full-length works anchor the season - and are the most appealing to many visitors. A new production of Swan Lake, with choreography by Heigi Tomasson, SFB's artistic director, runs February 21-28. Balanchine's Jewels runs April 25-May 9. And, of course, SFB's Nutcracker, with choreography by Tomasson, runs December 11-28. Like many SF arts groups, the Ballet hosts a Nite Out series for GLBT patrons and their friends. Several Seattle friends like "the chance to mix and mingle" with SF dance fans at the GLBT receptions. Complete details on all SFBallet events is available at (415) 865-2000.

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