Everything about “Silent Night,” which closed recently at the Long Center, revealed what is absolutely right about the reinvented Austin Opera.
As soon as the middle curtain opened on the three-tier platforms that held Scottish, French and German troops for this deeply affecting World War I drama, the viewer knew that the full power of opera as theater, not just as music, was in play.
Here’s how the impressions rolled out for me in this retelling of the Christmas 1914 truce on the Western Front.
• Bring out the bodies. Even before the main characters crystallized, the performers interacted naturally, sculpturally, kinetically under production stage director Tomer Zvulun and stage director Conor Hanratty. They continued to do so from the initial, intense, wide-angle battle scene to the most tender and intimate interactions.
• Light is power. The lighting, credited in the printed program to two designers, took off where set and projection designer Erhard Rom’s imperative scenery left off. Back-lighting, side-lighting, spackled-lighting, finely focused personal lighting — all were used for maximum power of revelation.
• Space as meaning. The three stacked tiers, which stood for bunkers as well as for the field below, guided us through the complicated relationships among the three sets of soldiers. The moments when the story left the field were deftly guided by the elegant projections.
• Culture as character. A good amount of the humor in Mark Campbell’s words grew out of cultural types: The French with their fine creature comforts, romance and linguistic precision; the Germans with their music, discipline and social fissures; the Scottish with their religion, passions and, of course, bagpipes, suspected at first to be weapons.
• Music and language meld. While Campbell nimbly employed five languages for the libretto, former Austinite Kevin Puts used a seemingly infinite variety of musical styles, some of them ravishing, to shape each scene. No wonder Mr. Pulitzer came calling.
• Ensembles shows deserve focus, too. The large cast and chorus could have disintegrated into anarchy without distinctive performances in lead roles. While I could make a long list of those who created memorable characters, I’ll settle on Joseph Dennis and Hailey Clark as the German couple — opera singers before the war — whose actions spur the truce as well as the subsequent breakthroughs of humanity in the narrative.
• Local musicianship has not faded. Making his Austin Opera debut, artistic advisor and conductor Timothy Meyers proved that the city’s instrumentalists and singers have not lost a molecule of their art or craft despite recent personnel turmoil in the company.
• Behold the return of cultural tourism. This is just a guess, but because so many in the audience at the Sunday matinee did not look or dress like typical Austinites, I’m thinking Austin Opera is once again drawing a regional or even wider audience for singular attractions such as “Silent Night.”
One last brava to General Director and CEO Annie Burridge for putting all this together.
I had a morbid thought during the long, deserved curtain call: If this was for some awful reason the last show that Austin Opera ever staged, it would have secured its legacy forever.
AIDS Services of Austin
It’s not a stretch to honor Gary Cooper and Richard Hartgrove.
The retired couple, lionized at the Building Healthy Futures luncheon for AIDS Services of Austin, have been activists, philanthropists and civic leaders for decades.
At the same time, you couldn’t meet two more humble or understated heroes than these fifth-generation Texans.
“This is going to be about Richard, right?” Cooper asked the benefit organizers in advance of the lunch at the Hotel Van Zandt.
“It will be all about Gary, I’m sure,” Richard said separately.
Co-chaired by Mary Herr Tally, the ASA affair scores a 10 out of 10 for efficiency and effectiveness among charity luncheons. The taut videos and speeches as well as the receptions before and after the hour-long lunch are models for every nonprofit in town. Extra points for AV excellence at the Van Zandt.
It’s also fun. “This is like a gala!” exclaimed Tally, who went off script a few times at the podium to the delight of the full house.
Cooper and Hartgrove, subject of a major profile in this newspaper in 2015 when they were singled out by the Human Rights Campaign, learned philanthropy almost from scratch from Austinites such as Carol Adams, Bill Dickson, Bob Dailey and Cliff Redd.
Yet Cooper had been in the forefronts of gay liberation and AIDS activism long before they settled in Austin. In a moving video, he spoke of arriving in Austin, HIV-positive and “waiting to get sick and die.” But he found ASA and its already professionalized services that grown into an array of clinics and outposts to support prevention and care.
“I didn’t die after all,” Cooper told this newspaper in 2015. “When you get that close and you’ve lost most of your friends, it changes everything. My natural response was to redouble my commitment to honor the people we lost and bear witness to who we are as gay people publicly.”
Along the way, Cooper became the No. 1 fundraiser for the annual AIDS Walk. He also made waves after he was urged to find alternative care when workers at a West Lake Hills hospital found out his HIV status.
Consistently, Cooper has directed attention to the LGBT elderly and youths as well as exploited workers, while Hartgrove has backed Zach Theatre, Austin Opera, Conspirare, University of Texas Fine Arts and other cultural groups.
“The world isn’t simply changing because we deserve it,” Cooper said in 2015. “It is responding to our efforts to create this change. We would not be winning in the courts and statehouses if we had not built the political will to make it possible. That work is far from finished, and probably never will be. Most of all, we have the opportunity to contribute every day as gay, tax-paying citizens raising families, enjoying life, and helping create a better world for everyone.”
'Who Let the Dogs Out?'
Could the familiar sports-and-song chant “Who let the dogs out? Who, who, who, who?” really have been popularized at Austin’s Reagan High School during the early 1980s?
It might seem improbable that the chant could have spread from Texas teenagers to Trinidad and Tobago Carnival to the Baha Men’s Grammy Award-winning hit dance song to a popular cheer for sports teams across the U.S.
Ben Sisto, a Brooklyn-based artist and probably the leading expert on the chant’s phenomenon, wants to know more than what he has already gleaned from a few sources on the Austin angle. He’s applying the final fact-checking to the documentary, “Who Let the Dogs Out,” which he wrote.
Sisto has interviewed several people from Austin who remember the cheer from the 1980s, which could suggest its origins. He also has a video of local sportscaster Dave Cody singing the chant at a pep rally in 1985 or ’86. One of his sources thinks the chant was heard at an Austin Little League game as early as 1983.
Sisto’s theoretical chant trail goes from the Austin Little League (maybe 1983), Reagan High (as early as 1984, but definitely by 1986), Michigan (1990), Jacksonville, Fla. (1992), Chicago (1994), Toronto (1996), Trinidad (1997), London and Virginia (1998), New York and Bahamas (2000, Baha Men).
Directed by Brent Hodge, the movie is scheduled to premiere during the 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival. Sisto also tours with a roadshow presentation of his research results.
“I’m interested to know if anyone from Austin has specific memories of the chant being used before the year 1986,” Sisto says. “Especially if they have recorded footage, photos of the phrase appearing on any posters or clothing, any audio recording from live events or radio, even reporting on use of the phrase in print or newspapers. Any kind of media.”
The improbability of an Austin origin story is not lost on Sisto, who has spent years exploring the evolution of the chant. He has also collected a good deal of “Who Let the Dogs Out?” memorabilia and artifacts.
“I’m also very open to hearing people’s personal memories and thoughts,” Sisto says, “but those are more for my own info and wider context — and couldn’t be used in the film project.”
If you have any fresh information on the chant during the Reagan High years, go to wlwltdoo.com — there’s a form at the bottom of the page. Also, let us know at email@example.com.