Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Opera as History Lesson ?

I did an email interview with Drew Bourne, a PhD who writes the Using SF History Blog.

These are the questions he asked me and my responses.

Q1) How far back in time does the opera go in presenting Halloween in Eureka Valley / the Castro?

A) It is unspecific. In Act II, the Sister recalls previous Halloweens, and recounts the involvement of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The event grew from a neighborhood event to an event which was a fund raiser which raised money for charities and had shows and donations, then after some years became unmanageable. One year, there were more arrests than Sisters present hosting the event! This led to a vote in which the Sisters decided they could no longer host the event, because of the number of arrests and threat to public safety.

Q2) What kinds of sources were used to develop the opera's version of how Halloween changed over time in the Castro? For example, did you rely primarily on published material (books, newspaper accounts, articles for periodicals), or perhaps on oral histories / interviews with living persons? Did you use any material from any Bay Area archives (such as the San Francisco History Center, or the California Historical Society, or the GLBT Historical Society, or the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley)?

A) I lived in the Castro from 1994 to 2001. I've lived in SF on and off since 1991.

Factual research was done online sourcing legitimate news sources, including national television, mainstream press, and local gay press. Please see the attachments to this email.
You should understand that I use the story of Castro Halloween in the way a librettist uses a historical backdrop. This is very common in opera. Many operas are situated in political events or times; think of Tosca, Billy Budd, Le Grand Macabre, Doctor Atomic, Appomatox, and so on. The primary story is a human story, of love, death, tragedy, and strong human emotions. The opera uses Castro Halloween as a backdrop or locale for all that. The opera is not a documentary nor a docudrama. It's not a re-enactment. It mentions, in Act II, in the scene with the Sister, the horrors of Halloweens past, and all those horrific events are true. However, the 'present day' story of the opera is a fiction, it's drama.

I did not use the GLBT Historical Society for any research for this project, although I do have a connection to the archive. Director Todd Wilson passed away in 2005. I had scored Todd's groundbreaking TLA feature film Under One Roof, about an asian-white interracial gay relationship, and we had become close friends. When Todd passed away, he left behind boxes of art, photographs, scripts, notes, and film that the family was about to throw out. No one really came to 'claim' the material, and they had a whole house of stuff to deal with, and they were really not equipped to handle anything like that. I took all the boxes, as much as I could fit into my 1977 MG Midget (that I had at the time), and took it down to Terence at the Historical Society. They took ALL the material. It was a very emotional time and thing for me. I could not bear to see anyone's creative work thrown away like that. And I felt good that the archive took it all. I don't know if it's been catalogued yet. Some of the photographs are amazing. I thought about taking some of them, but I decided it would be best for posterity if the archive had the entire collection intact. So it's all there at the archive. One day I hope it's catalogued.

Q3) how do you see the history of Halloween in the Castro as being important? In other words, do you hope that audience members, upon gaining a richer understanding of that history, might somehow use that understanding in any particular ways?

A) The history of Castro Halloween is a microcosm for the issues facing San Francisco.

For many years, Halloween in the Castro has degenerated from a fun, quirky, San Francisco neighborhood event to a massive, uncontrollable human mass plagued by bashings and murder. While cities like New Orleans profit from gay events – Southern Decadence brings the city $100 Million or more – San Francisco has been unable to harness any similar benefit from its popular celebration. While simple solutions which would raise money for the city are plentiful – re-routing traffic, metal detectors, charging admission, a Guardian Angel type program to name a few – any solution is repeatedly ignored year after year, while politicians try to ‘cancel’ the event, leaving the Castro without street closures, toilets, or police protection, and allowing the bars to stay open and profit from mass consumption of alcohol.

The yearly Castro Halloween debate and debacle has become a microcosm for San Francisco at large. As San Francisco has grown with money and population from the technology boom, the facets which reflect a quirky, queer, hippy, idiosyncratic, beat, or neighborhood population have become rare, commodified, or disrupted. While the Castro is thought of as a ‘Gay Mecca,’ it struggles with how to manage an historic event through reoccurring violence and masses of gawkers. San Francisco as whole struggles with the loss of a creative, lower-income, hippy, queer population as it becomes swamped with a mainstream influx unconcerned with the lasting impact on what was a unique and delicate human environment.

Q4) How would you describe the challenges or opportunities inherent in using opera as a format to deliver an historical account (as opposed to using other formats, such as creating a documentary; publishing a book or article; developing a website; or staging a demonstration)?

A) Well, I'd like to emphasize that we're not delivering an historical account. We're putting on an opera. There's historical references in it, which are necessary to act as exposition for fictional events which unfold. Some bits of the opera are very Gilbert and Sullivan. The characters are archetypes, amalgamations, archetypical representations of classic San Francisco characters. The Bitter Queen. Castro Gym Queens. The City Supervisor. The Policewoman. And so on. Each of the characters is either archetypal, or an amalgamation of various San Francisco public figures. So there isn’t any direct, one-to-one correspondence with real people or historical figures. However, different political factions and popular approaches are represented. It’s fairly well known who the major interests in the Halloween situation are. Of course, some of the archetypes are mocked, in a very Gilbert and Sullivan kind of way, and there are of course references to real events and situations. The goal was to tell a story and to be real and true to the political concerns which are facing the Castro and San Francisco at large. Many of the characters are also based on personalities you commonly find here. And it’s a big cast with many important roles.

When opera tackles an historical account, contemporarily Doctor Atomic or Appomatox, for example, it's good in the sense that people know the story coming into the opera. They may not know all the details, or how it will be done, but they have an idea of what it's about. So it helps get an audience in the door and it helps get an audience interested and it helps find an audience which will relate to the subject matter.

The opera is very different from publishing a book or an article in a peer-reviewed journal, or making a website or staging a demonstration. To me that's a bit like comparing apples and oranges, and I'm not sure where to begin. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps they all fall into some kind of community activism. Because LGCSF, the commissioning arts organization, is a community organization, they are boldly making a political statement about Castro Halloween as a community. So much of the community has been subject to policy decisions (like closing muni stations, or putting up barricades not to protect pedestrian crowds from traffic, but to keep them crowded on the sidewalk). There have been "community meetings" but if you look at, for example,, there's references to meetings which were never announced. Why not blog about the meeting before it happens so people will know about it? This opera could be considered a form of community activism, like a website or a demonstration. It's the community having their own say about the matter. The opera mocks the foibles and hypocrisies of local politics. It doesn't give out any solutions. It doesn't attempt to solve any problems. Like Gilbert and Sullivan, it just points out the flaws in the system, and suggests that Castro Halloween is worth caring about, and that there is a viable solution out there.

1 comment:

Civic Center said...

I am really sick that I missed this. Hope it gets revived next year.