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Fringe Day Five: The artists sound off, and a pause for a little cabaret music

Sep 19, 2020

Clockwise from top left, Norma Holland, Thomas Warfield, Jason Nious, and Karen Brown participate in the Sept. 16 FringeTalk "Black Lives Matter & the Performing Arts."
Credit Screenshot from KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival

The words of Black Lives Matter has shared the stage with many of the shows at the ninth annual KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival. People should be allowed to live freely, rather than be players in a larger game, dancer Jason Nious said in the first edition of FringeTalk. “We should be allowed to just exist. And still matter.” 

Twenty-four hours later, in a similar FringeTalk forum for comics, former “Saturday Night Live” cast member and writer Tim Meadows said, “This country is in a weird place, people don’t trust each other, people are afraid of each other.”

We are fortunate that Rochester Fringe also puts us in the position to unwind -- with the music of Satie, Puccini and Bolcom -- from the divisive politics of the moment. So check out Daniel Kushner’s review of "A Night at the Cabaret" here, too.

FringeTalk: Race, the arts, pets, and is this a better country the past four years?

Thomas Warfield was recalling the time in the late ’80s when he was one of three men auditioning for a role in a Broadway production.

“And the director said to me, ‘Can you act Blacker?’ ”

“I picked up my bag,” Warfield said, “I went to the door and I said, ‘I am Black,’ and I went out.”

That was probably the story of the night from the debut of FringeTalk, an hourlong panel interview program at this year’s KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival. The 

Wednesday evening topic was “Black Lives Matter & the Performing Arts,” with moderator Norma Holland; Warfield, the director of dance at Rochester Institute of Technology; Karen Brown, formerly of Garth Fagan Dance; and Jason Nious, who’s worked with high-energy theater shows such as “Cirque du Soleil” and “Stomp.”

Holland opened the “Black Lives Matter & the Performing Arts” discussion by noting that the marriage of arts and social struggle is nothing new to 2020. And despite the weighty subject, and the racial reckoning that the country is going through this summer, the panel was surprisingly optimistic on where the summer’s unrest will lead.

“Being Black is a protest itself,” Warfield said, pointing out that navigating through life as a Black person in America has required a high degree of creativity.

Indeed, Black Lives Matter is not a new concept, Brown said, but “it feels like, with this movement, people are beginning to hear us.” Technology has only boosted social activism; now that everyone seems to have a phone camera in their back pocket, “it’s hard to dispute or refute some of the evidence that is there,” she said. The images go viral, “there is a wakening, an awareness, in the global community.”

Nious asked why Black people are expected to meet high, ill-defined community standards not asked of others. “We should just be able to just be alive, and just be ourselves,” he said, “without having to be the best in the room, the smartest, the most, you know, accomplished, or the highly skilled.

“We should be allowed to just exist. And still matter.”

The panel lauded the young people who are organizing nationwide protests. Such as the Rochester soul singer and public defender, Danielle Ponder. “Danielle’s voice is the voice of these protests in Rochester,” Warfield said. Just as the music of people such as James Brown was a part of civil rights protests in the 1960s.

And the panelists expressed their hopes for the future.

Warfield spoke of “a new understanding with one another” and “a new way to do art. I want us to be doing not what we did last year.”

Nious suggested that, whether it lasts or not, some cable television networks are now “putting Black stories at the forefront.” And he described how a friend pointed out to him that “the people who are learning your style of dance are trying on your life, they’re trying on your life through your art.”

And Brown expressed her hope that “artists will come out of the pandemic being more highly regarded. That the world will remember what got you through the pandemic was the work of artists.” 

Clockwise from top left, Heidi and Matt Morgan, Maria Bamford, Tim Meadows, and Joe Liss share a laugh during the Sept. 17 FringeTalk, "...Too soon? Comedy in 2020."
Credit Screenshot from KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival

The next night was a panel discussion on “…Too soon? Comedy in 2020,” with Matt and Heidi Morgan of Rochester Fringe shows “Cirque du Fringe: Quarantini” and “Shotspeare,” and the comedians Tim Meadows, Maria Bamford and moderator Joe Liss. 

It was an easygoing conversation, thoughts meandering like cats as the comedians talked about their pets and dealing with Zoom technology. It was nearly three-quarters of the way through the show that the discussion sort of, briefly, touched on “…Too soon? Comedy in 2020.”

“This country is in a weird place, people don’t trust each other, people are afraid of each other,” Meadows said. “It wasn’t like that, four years ago.”

“It’s fomented from the top,” Liss said.

“People really do have to ask themselves, ‘Are you better off?’ ” Meadows said as his fellow comedians all nodded in agreement. “‘Is this a better country in the past four years?’ ”

Two more FringeTalks are coming up next week. “Using Storytelling to Communicate Science” is 8 p.m. Sept. 23, and “Predicting the Future? Performing Arts in 2021” is 8 p.m. Sept. 24. Both, as well as archived versions of the first two live talks, can be accessed for free through rochesterfringe.com.

-- Jeff Spevak

Soprano Sophia Mostafa.
Credit Provided by KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival

“A Night at the Cabaret”

It’s been a while since I’ve heard a genuine solo voice recital in person, and hearing soprano Sophia Mostafa (accompanied by Dr. Kevin Nitsch) perform the program “A Night at the Cabaret” as part of the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival, reminded me of what I’ve been missing.

The concert medium of a single voice, accompanied by piano, has an emotionally direct quality that differentiates itself from almost any other kind of concert. Even when the singing is more formalized, as in art song and opera, it feels like a conversation. And in order for it to be a great conversation, the singer has to be honest.

Mostafa sings with conviction, with a dramatic timbre that projects a gravitas that demands the listener’s attention. It makes certain sense then, that the intensity of the famous aria “Habanera” (also known as “L’amour est un oiseaux rebelle”) from the Georges Bizet opera “Carmen,” would be a good fit.

And although the opera’s title character was written for mezzo-soprano rather than soprano, Mostafa does an admirable job of communicating the dangerous allure of Carmen through the melody.

I was especially interested in how Mostafa would interpret another iconic aria -- Musetta’s “Quando m’en vo’, ” from the beloved opera “La bohème” by Giacomo Puccini. Also known as “Musetta’s Waltz,” the song is one of the most beguiling in the operatic canon. The strength and quality of Mostafa’s tone is undeniable, and it goes a long way toward making the performance work. Exploring nuances in Pucini’s phrases more deeply, by using more varied dynamics, would take the aria to the next level.

The presence of Erik Satie’s music on the program, in a trio of songs, was a delight to hear. Satie is somewhat of a curiosity in the classical music world, a turn-of-the-century composer whose tendency toward the avant-garde and oddly beautiful writing helped to cement his place as an influential artist (his series of piano miniatures, “Gymnopédies,” is popular and instantly recognizable to this day).

Satie was in many ways the quintessential “cabaret composer” of his day, and Mostafa’s decision to sing his songs in this recital was an inspired one. The song “La Diva de l'Empire” is especially charming, with its clever melodic arc, and Mostafa shines in her rendition of it.

Contemporary American composer William Bolcom’s appropriately titled “Cabaret Songs” constitute the only English-language material of the recital. Of the three Bolcom songs, “Toothbrush Time” is particularly humorous, as it details the awkward interaction of a couple, the morning after.

Unfortunately, the recital was filmed in the conventional fashion, with a single video camera, likely placed on a stand at the back of the hall. “Set it and forget it,” if you will. The audience’s resulting perspective is a wide-angle shot, in which the singer is on the far right; the piano itself takes up the majority of the frame, and the pianist is entirely absent from view. 

As a recording for a graduate recital in an academic setting (presumably the original context of Mostafa’s performance), this is a more than acceptable, if somewhat unremarkable, way to document a concert. In the context of the virtual Rochester Fringe Festival, however, the performance loses much of the magic and immediacy that would have made witnessing the recital in person a special experience. Generally speaking, a simple fix to such a dilemma might be to frame the singer more tightly in the shot, or ideally, to use multiple cameras — with footage edited to demonstrate more vividly the dynamic between vocalist and pianist.

“A Night at the Cabaret” is available on demand via YouTube, through rochesterfringe.com, until Sept. 26. Run time is approximately 50 minutes. 

-- Daniel J. Kushner