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WNO’s holiday opera a breath of fresh air despite uneven writing

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Soloman Howard, The Lion, the Unicorn and Me, opera, gay news, Washington Blade
Soloman Howard, The Lion, the Unicorn and Me, opera, gay news, Washington Blade

Bass Soloman Howard plays a blustering king of the jungle in WNO’s new holiday opera, ‘The Lion, the Unicorn and Me.’ (Photo by Scott Suchman)

‘The Lion, The Unicorn and Me’

Through Dec. 22

Kennedy Center

2700 F St., NW

$44-$64

kennedy-center.org/wno

With the glut of saccharine holiday entertainment going around, it’s refreshing to catch a more genuine offering, and Washington National Opera’s newly commissioned holiday work, “The Lion, The Unicorn and Me,” gives us a delightful break from all the tinsel. While composer Jeanine Tesori’s opera doesn’t always rise to its promised heights, the story of a self-effacing donkey charged with carrying the Virgin Mary to Bethlehem is a go-to for anyone looking for holiday magic.

As director Francesca Zambello, a lesbian, announced on opening night, this was the first time in WNO’s 58 seasons that the company is premiering a new work composed by a woman. Tesori, a four-time Tony nominee for composition, often brought a light ironical touch to her score, yet the music also broke out into moments of stunning lyricism.

The Unicorn’s first act aria (ravishingly sung by Jacqueline Echols), as well as the Donkey’s introductory piece (in a great singing and acting performance by John Orduña), brought out the deeper tones of Tesori’s evocative skill. Too bad, then, that a lack of consistency nagged the work as a whole. The first act, featuring a child angel played by the sparkling Henry Wager, was almost perfect, but the one problem spot became a touchstone for the work’s greater inconsistencies.

In a troublesome sequence, the blustering Lion, brashly played by bass Soloman Howard, strides onto the stage in a jungle-motif militaristic costume accompanied by photographers and begins his appropriately arrogant aria. Suddenly, the piece takes flight with drums, a backup chorus (including the audience) and a melody that causes the heart to jump.

And then it dies on the vine.

 

Sadly, the same thing happened with act two. What started off with such promise in the first half lost its steam in the second. The opera seemed to suffer from a lack of focus in music and plot, becoming slightly redundant, before rallying for an inspiring end.

However the beauty of the story prevails overall, helped along by a moving libretto from gay poet J.D. “Sandy” McClatchy and an exciting production from Zambello. As told here and in Jeanette Winterson’s original book on which the opera is based, an angel needs to find the right animal for the holy job of getting Mary to that legendary stable, and all the creatures in the world apply. Costume designer Erik Teague smartly avoids the obvious, opting instead to mix animal characteristics with modern sartorial symbols — the glamorous Unicorn hoofs it in Lady Gaga’s famous heel-less boot and a ponderously slouchy hippo wears a hoodie and baseball hat.

The children’s chorus, beautifully on pitch and absolutely charming whether playing sheep or a menacing snake, rounded out a solid cast of adult ringers. Ian McEuen’s lyric tenor and Wei Wu’s incisive bass complemented their engaging performances in supporting roles, while mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin sang luxuriously as Mary (although her rough handling of the baby Jesus was enough to make one wince).

So if Tesori’s first crack at her opera needs some tweaking (as have countless premiered works before it), there’s still plenty of enchantment to engage audiences of all ages. The children present on opening night laughed loudly and clapped excitedly as various animals pranced across the stage or Mary gave birth to that oh-so-special child, but it wasn’t just the kids who were swept up in the story. In a season that often feels overblown and out of touch, the tale of a simple person discovering the gifts that lie within him feels like the best holiday present of all.

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PHOTOS: Victory Fund National Champagne Brunch

Sen. Butler delivers keynote address

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Sen. Laphonza Butler speaks at the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund National Champagne Brunch on Sunday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The LGBTQ+ Victory Fund held its annual National Champagne Brunch at the Grand Hyatt on Sunday, April 7. Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.) delivered the keynote address.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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a&e features

Juliet Hawkins’s music defies conventional categorization

‘Keep an open mind, an open heart, and a willingness to evolve’

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Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

LONG BEACH, Calif. – Emerging from the dynamic music scene of Los Angeles, Juliet Hawkins seamlessly integrates deeply soulful vocals with contemporary production techniques, crafting a distinctive sound that defies conventional categorization.

Drawing inspiration from the emotive depth of Amy Winehouse and weaving together elements of country, blues, and pop, Hawkins’ music can best be described as a fusion–perhaps best termed as soulful electronica. Yet, even this characterization falls short, as Hawkins defines herself as “a blend of a million different inspirations.”

Hawkins’s musical palette mirrors her personae: versatile and eclectic. Any conversation with Hawkins makes this point abundantly clear. She exhibits the archetype of a wild, musical genius while remaining true to her nature-loving, creative spirit. Whether recording in the studio for an album release, performing live in a studio setting, or playing in front of a live audience, Hawkins delivers her music with natural grace. 

Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

However, Hawkins’s musical journey is far from effortless. Amid personal challenges and adversity, she weaves her personal odyssey of pain and pleasure, transforming these experiences into empowering anthems.

In a candid interview with the Blade, Hawkins spoke with profound openness and vulnerability about her past struggles with opiate and heroin addiction: “That was 10 years ago that I struggled with opiates,” she shared. Yet, instead of letting her previous addiction define her, Hawkins expressed to the Blade that she harbors no shame about her past. “My newer music is much more about empowerment than recovery,” she explained, emphasizing that “writing was the best way to process trauma.”

Despite her struggles with addiction, Hawkins managed to recover. However, she emphasizes that this recovery is deeply intertwined with her spiritual connection to nature. An illustrative instance of Hawkins’ engagement with nature occurred during the COVID pandemic.

Following an impulse that many of us have entertained, she bought a van and chose to live amidst the trees. It was during this period that Hawkins composed the music for her second EP, titled “Lead with Love.”

In many ways, Hawkins deep spiritual connection to nature has been profoundly shaped by her extensive travels. Born in San Diego, spending her formative years in Massachusetts, and later moving to Tennessee before returning to Southern California, she has broadened her interests and exposed herself to the diverse musical landscapes across America.

“Music is the only thing I have left,” Hawkins confides to the Blade, highlighting the integral role that music has in her life. This intimate relationship with music is evident in her sultry and dynamic compositions. Rather than imitating or copying other artists, Hawkins effortlessly integrates sounds from some of her favorite musical influences to create something new. Some of these influences include LP, Lucinda Williams, Lana Del Rey, and, of course, Amy Winehouse, among others.

Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

Hawkins has always been passionate about music—-she began with piano at a young age, progressed to guitar, and then to bass, eagerly exploring any instrument she could get her hands on. However, instead of following a traditional path of formalized lessons and structured music theory, Hawkins told the Blade that she “has a hard time following directions and being told what to do.”

This independent approach has led her to experiment with various genres and even join unexpected groups, such as a tribute band for Eric Clapton and Cream. While she acknowledges that her eclectic musical interests might be attributed to ADHD, she holds a different belief: “Creative minds like to move around.”

When discussing her latest musical release — “Stay True (the live album)” which was recorded in a live studio setting — Hawkins describes the experience as a form of improvisation with both herself and the band:

“[The experience] was this divine honey that was flowing through all of us.” She explains that this live album was uncertain in the music’s direction. “For a couple of songs,” Hawkins recalls, “we intuitively closed them out.” By embracing creative spontaneity and refusing to be constrained by fear of mistakes, the live album authentically captures raw sound, complete with background chatter, extended outros, and an extremely somber cover of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” coupled with a slow piano and accompanied strings.

While “Stay True” was a rewarding experience for Hawkins, her favorite live performance took place in an unexpected location—an unattended piano in the middle of an airport. As she began playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, Hawkins shared with the Blade a universal connection we all share with music: “This little girl was dancing as I was playing.”

After the performance, tears welled in Hawkins’ eyes as she was touched by the young girl’s appreciation of her musicianship. Hawkins tells the Blade, “It’s not about playing to an audience—it’s about finding your people.”

Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

What sets Hawkins apart as an artist is her ability to connect with her audience in diverse settings. She highlights EDC, an electronic dance music festival, as a place where she unabashedly lets her “freak flag” fly and a place to connect with her people. Her affinity for electronic music not only fuels her original pop music creations, but also inspires her to reinterpret songs with an electronic twist. A prime example of this is with her electronic-style cover of Tal Bachman’s 90’s hit, “She’s So High.”

As an openly queer woman in the music industry, Hawkins is on a mission to safeguard artistic integrity. In songs like “My Father’s Men,” she bares her vulnerability and highlights the industry’s misogyny, which often marginalizes gender minorities in their pursuit of artistic expression.

She confides to the Blade, “The industry can be so sexist, misogynist, and oppressive,” and points out that “there are predators in the industry.” Yet, rather than succumbing to apathy, Hawkins is committed to advocating for gender minorities within the music industry.

“Luckily, people are rising up against misogyny, but it’s still there. ‘My Father’s Men’ is a message: It’s time for more people who aren’t just white straight men to have a say.”

Hawkins is also an activist for other causes, with a fervent belief in the preservation of bodily autonomy. Her self-directed music video “I’ll play Daddy,” showcases the joy of embracing one’s body with Hawkins being sensually touched by a plethora of hands. While the song, according to Hawkins, “fell upon deaf ears in the south,” it hasn’t stopped Hawkins from continuing to fight for the causes she believes in. In her interview, Hawkins encapsulated her political stance by quoting an artist she admires:

“To quote Pink, ‘I don’t care about your politics, I care about your kids.’”

When Hawkins isn’t writing music or being a champion for various causes, you might catch her doing the following: camping, rollerblading, painting, teaching music lessons, relaxing with Bernie (her beloved dog), stripping down for artsy photoshoots, or embarking on a quest to find the world’s best hollandaise sauce.

But at the end of the day, Hawkins sums up her main purpose: “To come together with like-minded people and create.”

Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

Part of this ever-evolving, coming-of-age-like journey includes an important element: plant-based medicine. Hawkins tells the Blade that she acknowledges her previous experience with addiction and finds certain plants to be useful in her recovery:

“The recovery thing is tricky,” Hawkins explains, “I don’t use opiates—-no powders and no pills—but I am a fan of weed, and I think psilocybin can be helpful when used at the right time.” She emphasizes the role of psychedelics in guiding her towards her purpose. “Thanks for psychedelics, I have a reignited sense of purpose … Music came naturally to me as an outlet to heal.” 

While she views the occasional dabbling of psychedelics as a spiritual practice, Hawkins also embraces other rituals, particularly those she performs before and during live shows. “I always carry two rocks with me: a labradorite and a tiger’s eye marble,” she explains.

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Sports

Applause and criticism for Staley’s trans-inclusive stance

South Carolina Gamecocks women’s coach made comments on Sunday

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South Carolina Gamecocks women's basketball head coach Dawn Staley. (NBC News Today YouTube screenshot)

If not for a conservative transphobic blogger, this moment should be a celebration of NCAA women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley and the women of the South Carolina Gamecocks.

On Sunday, they concluded their undefeated season with a decisive win and a championship title. But when Staley faced reporters before that big game, Outkick’s Dan Zakheske asked her an irrelevant, clickbait question about transgender women in sports, referring to them as “biological males.” 

Staley could have ignored the question, or stated she had no opinion, but instead the legendary coach offered a crystal clear endorsement of trans women competing in women’s sports, something outlawed in her home state of South Carolina for girls in kindergarten through college. 

“I’m of the opinion,” said Staley, “If you’re a woman, you should play. If you consider yourself a woman and you want to play sports or vice versa, you should be able to play. That’s my opinion.”

Zakheske clearly wasn’t satisfied with that declaration of allyship and Staley swiftly cut him off. 

“You want me to go deeper?” she asked. 

“Do you think transgender women should be able to participate,” he started to say, when the coach stole the ball and took it downtown on a fastbreak. “That’s the question you want to ask? I’ll give you that. Yes. Yes. So, now the barnstormer people are going to flood my timeline and be a distraction to me on one of the biggest days of our game, and I’m okay with that. I really am.” 

Staley is herself a Hall of Fame player a leading voice for diversity. 

Reaction to her comments were swift, from LGBTQ rights organizations, athletes and inclusion opponents. 

“Coach Staley simply spoke the truth that trans women are women and should play if they want,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, in a post on Instagram. “All of us can take a page from Coach Staley’s playbook as a sports leader and as a person of high integrity guided by faith, compassion and common sense.” 

A White House pool reporter revealed President Joe Biden called Staley Sunday evening to congratulate her and the Gamecocks on their championship win. But it’s not clear if she and the president, an outspoken supporter of trans rights, discussed her remarks on trans athletes. 

A number of Black leaders in the LGBTQ movement applauded Staley for taking a stand. 

“Coach Staley has always been a trailblazer, but she’s also shown that true leadership is about advancing justice and equality for everyone,” said Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson. “By expressing her full-throated support for transgender athletes’ inclusion in sports, she’s sending an important message — our shared humanity matters. 

“Coach Staley showed courage and vulnerability, in choosing to answer the question and make a powerful statement of support for trans people on one of the biggest days and biggest stages in sports history,” said Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, in a statement. “Not only does that make her a leader we can all aspire to like, it makes her a class act. She has etched her legacy in the history books with her play, her coaching, her heart and her smarts.”

In congratulating Staley on her championship title victory, Dr. David J. Johns, the CEO and executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, also commended her for “her unwavering advocacy and support for transgender people in sports.” 

“In a time when transgender athetes face unjust scrutiny, discrimination and exclusion from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, her courage to speak truth to power and in support of inclusion and fairness sets a powerful example for us all, and is a testament to her integrity and compassion.”

The NBJC leader was referring to Monday’s announcement by the NAIA, the governing body of athletic programs at small colleges nationwide, voting 20-0 to essentially ban trans women from competing with other women beginning Aug. 1, as ESPN reported.

“It is a shocking and devastating development that the NAIA, an organization that has done so much to open doors, is now slamming those doors shut on transgender athletes,” said Sasha Buchert, Lambda Legal’s senior attorney and director of the organization’s nonbinary and trans rights project. 

“Instead of standing up in support of transgender young people, the NAIA has simply turned its back on them — permanently depriving them of the benefits of competition. Would that they had the courage of victorious University of South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley, who didn’t miss a beat in clarifying that transgender women should be able to play.” 

However, praise for Staley’s stance was not universal. 

Riley Gaines, failed former college swimmer and paid shill for the anti-inclusion organization, Independent Women’s Forum, called Staley “entirely incompetent or a sell-out” on Fox News. “Personally, I don’t think she believes what she said.” 

Gaines has turned her fifth-place tie with out trans NCAA champion Lia Thomas into a career as a crusader against inclusion and a former advisor to the presidential campaign of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Val Whiting, a former Stanford University and professional women’s basketball player, tweeted her strong disagreement with Staley. “A lot of my basketball sisters feel differently but trans women do not belong in women’s sports. It’s not fair nor safe for biological women. There has to be another solution for trans women to be able to compete athletically besides having them compete against biological women.” 

Zaksheske’s Outkick colleague, anti-trans pundit David Hookstead, also went all-in with a transphobic post. 

“Dawn Staley says she supports men who identify as women competing against real women in sports. Her view could literally destroy women’s basketball forever. Why won’t more people stand up for women?”

Hookstead then boasted that Staley blocked his account. 

Republican South Carolina Congresswoman Nancy Mace retweeted Zaksheske’s account of his interaction with Staley, calling her support of trans athletes “absolute lunacy.” That in turn won praise from Caitlyn Jenner, who retweeted Whiting and posted her thanks to Mace, along with this comment: “There is nothing complicated about this issue!” 

What is complicated is that Jenner has never explained why she has competed with cisgender women in golf ever since her transition almost a decade ago. 

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