Music Review – “Vamp” (Jake Perrine, 2001)

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I was introduced to this Gothic rock-opera by a friend several years ago, rediscovered it recently, and was amazed how much influence from it had seeped into my own work: in particular, its villain-protagonist Alexandra has more than a little in common with the antagonist of “Wolves of Dacia.” That being so, and since I never paid a penny for it (having been gifted the CD, back in the days of its limited CD run – it is download-only now), it seems only fair to give it a bit of a boost …

Originally an off-Broadway production by actor and musician Jake Perrine of Warp Academy, “Vamp” is a three-act synth-rock opera (the script almost entirely sung) with diverse influences, from traditional opera and classic musicals (the author specifically cites Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”, and it certainly has a similar blood content, at any rate …) to Peter Gabriel and Nine Inch Nails. Conscious influences aside, however, the word “Goth” will be on the tip of your tongue for most of the show, and given the subject matter (“Vamp” does what it says on the tin …) the composer could hardly complain.

The main character, Alexandra, is a vampire: this is no spoiler, as unlike Dracula she has the consideration to clue the audience in right from the word go (as opposed to her victims, who enter stage right in all innocence and ignorance). She is of indeterminate (though implied great) age, highly cultured, an exquisite pianist, deeply depressed, nihilistic, murderous, and evil. She is very much the vampire as addict / junkie, disgusted by her condition and dependency, yet finding it her only way of regaining some sense of purpose and pleasure in her “life”, and unable to find the will to break the cycle.

Her modus operandi, apparently, is setting herself up as a private arts tutor, insinuating her way into families, and thus grooming potential victims from a young age (It seems that the memories of her victims have some bearing on the quality of the “blood vintage”, so to speak, so she aims to encourage her marks to lead interesting and fulfilling lives before she deems them ripe enough for the preying). Three such victims, now adults, have now come to “spend the weekend” with her, unaware it is doomed to be their last. In order of least to most sympathetic, there is the ironically-named* Simon – a narcissistic actor overly-fond of reminding everyone that he used to play “Dracula” in the West End; Rosemary – a fiction writer, and the much put-upon girlfriend of Simon; and Carmine – a devout, weak-willed artist who is undergoing a crisis of faith, not helped by his “friends” using him to get revenge on each other. Their friendship, as one quickly gathers, is tenuous at best, but all three are bonded in their Stockholm Syndrome-like devotion to and admiration of Alexandra: her easy charisma, gracefulness, profound knowledge, and artistic mastery seeming to show up their own inadequacies, and all three of them craving her acceptance … which from the audience’s POV is clearly a bad thing. For Alexandra has decided she might be able to improve her miserable immortal lot if she “spares” one of the three meals-in-waiting to become her eternal companion. Will she make the right choice? Is there, indeed, a right choice?

Enough said on the plot, suffice to say it is very twisty, and I would recommend buying the full soundtrack with the PDF libretto, as it will prove most enlightening: not only on the complex philosophical lyrics but also on the staging (One would otherwise have no way of knowing that Alexandra is so pitifully dependent upon her grand piano for solace, it also doubles as her coffin / bed. Nor indeed that she is constantly haunted by the shadowy spectres of her former victims, and that she can stop time at will when she feels like a “snack’). As in any opera, however, the music is where it is at, and “Vamp” – in spite of its modest resources – has it where it counts, from its grandly melancholy overture, to its darkly humorous “patter” sections in act 2, to its more catchy “poppy” numbers (“Sometimes at Night” and “Fallen” are especially hummable, if hardly upbeat), to the “turning” scene in act 3 – a tour de force of both menacing and haunting melodies and surreal, nihilistic lyrics that really does capture as well as pure audio ever could the sense of humanity slipping away in favour of something dark, seductive, and destructive. As for the vocal performances, they are all commendable, although the stand-out is Beverly Butrie as the tortured Alexandra. She creates a character who, like any well-realised vampire, manages to charm the audience / listener in spite of her incredible moral awfulness, meaning we are rather pleased when the escalating conflicts force her to examine what she has become … but to say more on that would be telling.

I would love to see this performed live one day, but I think it very unlikely (While a new version was staged recently, it was only in Hungary). As such, the 2001 New York cast recording remains – to my knowledge – the only way to enjoy it, as I dare hope I may now have persuaded a few other vampire-junkies to do …


* If one happens to be a “Castlevania” fan, that is.

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Convalescent Critic #3: “The Phantom of the Opera” (Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion production)

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(Flyer from school website)


The sad aspect of this review is that even if it convinces you, there is no way you will be able to see this production, as we caught its last night (unless someone else caught it on their phone and puts it on YouTube, of course). However, I felt it deserved a shout-out, regardless, and that may hopefully draw attention to the general excellent of Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion’s performing arts department (who stage a new production every year).

Since all the signs of my recovery have been positive, my lovely hubby invited me to a school production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom” at Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion (near Bridgend). He had heard about it through his job (he works as a library assistant in Bridgend, where he manages a junior reading group), he had heard that the school had a strong reputation for performing arts, and he was also very aware that “Phantom” is a musical I am just a little obsessed about, as I may have mentioned once or twice

As I have seen it twice on Broadway, I knew it was a big-budget production full of large-scale set pieces (including giant statues, lakes of smoke and candles, and of course falling chandeliers), elaborate stage magic, lavish costumes, and complex choreography. With all due scepticism over how a comprehensive school budget was going to even approximate this, I decided to give it its due … and was blown away.

There were, inevitably, limitations. The stage magic was necessarily simplified to accommodate the lack of trapdoors (although there were still some impressive pyrotechnic and lighting effects), and some effects such as the lake of candles and the giant statue were understandably omitted. Otherwise, the staging was much more impressive than I had dared to expect, with some striking backdrops and props (including a large pipe organ, as every good Phantom ought to have), fantastic costumes all round (which were, one gathers, worked on entirely by the students themselves), some astounding choreography including beautiful and skilful ballet scenes which made me very wistful for my sadly wasted non-girlhood in which I never got to do ballet (*sighs*), and most astoundingly of all, the two most memorable effects from the stage show were brilliantly replicated: the Phantom’s boat crossing the lake (albeit without candles, but with plenty of smoke), and the falling chandelier: another beautiful prop devised by the students.

What really made it a triumph, however, were the performances, and the fact that the two romantic leads – Christine Daae and Raoul de Chagny – were played by teen actors suited the coming-of-age nature of the story immensely. Raoul in particular has an unfortunate tendency in adaptations to be played by dashing matinée idol types, whereas in Gaston Leroux’s original novel he is clearly an angry, impulsive, near-adolescent, generally well-meaning but utterly out of his depth (and not destined to be the big damn hero, as he supposes, but the ironic damsel in distress). The actress who played Christine (Sadly, I do not know their names – I wish now that I had bought a programme – but they all deserve to go on to bigger things) brilliantly captured that character’s journey through her initial brainwashed, childish state of naive enthralment, through to growing realisation, trauma, conflict, and finally maturing into a capable and defiant person who can both resist and forgive her abuser, breaking his spirit in the process.

As for the Phantom himself – another role that has occasionally suffered from having its “romantic” aspects played up at the costs of its dark and sordid elements (particularly in the 2004 film version) – he came across exactly as he ought to: an incredible, ingenious, larger-than-life showman … but with the terrible social skills and general sociopathy one would expect of a man who would spend years living in a basement, posing as a ghost, and surviving by blackmail. Operatically intense and melodramatically confident while in his element (or behind his masks, so to speak), yet miserably inept and awkward when faced with actual human contact, he is certainly an archetype that this particular nerd (who has faced her own body dysphoria issues) can readily relate to … although I have tried to deal with my own issues in a less murderous and manipulative way, of course.

Also, I should add to the acting plaudits, that all three of the leads were superb singers, and did total justice to the intensity of the music, both in the skill and the emotion they brought to it.

Not to forget kudos for the supporting roles, and especially for the actors playing the opera house managers, Carlotta, Piangi, Madame Giry, and Meg Giry: characters on whom the comic relief burden often falls (especially during the Gilbert and Sullivan-esque “Prima Donna” sequence of Act One) but who can easily be overplayed as too grotesque to be sympathetic. This production wisely steered clear of that, let the characters have their nuances, and even worked in some clever physical comedy I had not seen in the show before (so which was presumably devised in rehearsal). Although certainly faithful to its source, this staging was clearly not afraid to interpret the material to suit its own players, and it did so very successfully.

I cannot really praise this enough. Especially considering the slender resources available, this was an amazing achievement, and a grander spectacle than I had dared to imagine possible. It was also a glorious showcase for performers whom we can but hope will be up-and-coming names in their fields. I only wish it were possible to go back again and see it tonight, but one can hardly expect Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion to permanently let its gym serve as Wales’ equivalent of Broadway and keep the show running non-stop for thirty-plus years, if only … Still, the hubby and I certainly look forward to seeing what they will stage next year.


[Edit – 21/7/2018] Now, in addition to the above, we also have some slightly wobbly camera footage of the edited highlights to appreciate. Only twenty-five minutes of it, alas, and sadly the hardware doesn’t do the live acoustics justice, but it gives a good idea of the incredible work that went into this.

Masquerade

Erika (Art Trade) by CrejaPastaUbe - a character in her Phantom of the Opera doujin 'Make Your Choice!'
Erika (Art Trade) by CrejaPastaUbe – a character in her Phantom of the Opera doujin ‘Make Your Choice!’

Curious how old obsessions can suddenly resurface… I was recently scouring my thoroughly disorganised CD collection to find something I had not listened to in a while to help me through my shift. Work, alas, continues to be demoralising, that warehouse environment being typically loud, laddish, sweary, and mansplainy, so I tend to rely on music that takes me out of it as a psychological prop. The one I rediscovered on this occasion was the soundtrack to “The Phantom of the Opera” (Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart, Richard Stilgoe, 1986).

Incidentally, bearing in mind this play has now been showing more or less solidly for thirty years, I will assume general familiarity, but nevertheless, DEFINITE SPOILER ALERTS.

My first encounter with the show was, as seems all too bizarre and rather sad to me, a whole adult lifetime away: late 2000, during an abortive study venture in New Jersey. A friend of mine at the same university with theatre connections was able to get me good seats, and I was determined to take in Broadway before my inevitable going back home in failure (America being an expensive option for ill-prepared ex-pats without work visas). I doubt I opted for seeing “Phantom” on any stronger justification than the fact that I was even more of a soppy Goth back then then I am now, though this was violating my general rule of never seeing the adaptation before reading the original book.

Still, as I left the Majestic Theatre in tears of purest Hellenic catharsis, I felt it was a rule well broken…

Sarah Pfisterer and Howard McGillin were at the time performing the roles of Christine Daae and the Phantom, and I sometimes wish I had had the temerity or the technical know-how to have pirated their performances, as I have never seen that bizarre relationship more effectively realised. McGillin’s edgy, psychotic portrayal was unnerving to a fault, notwithstanding all of the thickly-applied romance and pathos… not that there is anything wrong with that, although I was glad of the refusal to “pretty up” a character who is, in essence, extremely abusive. Pfisterer, by contrast, portrayed Christine as the sanest character in the show, taken in neither by the elaborate manipulations and relentless gaslighting of her “teacher,” nor by the petty dramas of her co-stars and managers, yet responding to every situation with intelligence, dignity, and compassion. This comes to a head in the final scene in which her would-be heroic rescuer Raoul de Chagny (Gary Mauer) totally botches his rescue attempt and ends up in the “damsel in distress” role himself, as the Phantom attempts to use his life as a bargaining chip for Christine’s “love” (the Phantom having very unfortunate ideas about what constitutes meaningful consent). At which point, Christine completely wrong-foots him by showing compassion. What emerges is a far more haunting if less “dramatic” resolution than than obtained by the 1925 reworking, in which the Phantom is beaten up by a mob and hurled into the Seine, and Christine’s active agency and intelligence is pared down to preferred Hollywood standards, thus making her less of a protagonist and more of a damsel in distress herself… though not even this manages to conceal the fact that Raoul is a pretty useless hero.

Christine lingered on my mind, and when I eventually got around to reading the original novel (Leroux, Gaston; 1911) I was pleased to see that she was much as the play had depicted her: intelligent, independent, worldly-wise (she is not above using deception to resist her abuser), principled, and compassionate, and in every sense outclassing her vapid love interest – Raoul, in the book, being little better than the Phantom, albeit whiny rather than psychotic. It was disappointing the author felt she had to end up with either of them, mind.

Of course, there was another, very visceral reason why this play affected me so much: for its depiction of a character who feels their body to be a hideous prison / “loathsome gargoyle” / “repulsive carcass” etc, and who consequently spends their whole adult life hiding away, wearing a mask, trying to make their art a vehicle for the beauty they felt their life itself could never express. I was very glad the play finally gave the Phantom his moment of redemption, as walking out of that theatre feeling such painful empathy for a totally unredeemed character of moral equivalence to Hannibal Lecter would have been disturbing to say the least.

Soppy little Goth that I was, I cried. Soppy old Goth that I remain, I cried again on hearing it nearly sixteen years later, but not quite in such a melancholy vein. Back then it was a painful dramatisation of where I was, and felt that I was trapped for good. Today, it is a reminder of the fact that I have, albeit after a very long time, finally taken off my mask and climbed out of my basement. At times I still feel like a freak, but it has dawned on me finally that I what I see is a lot worse than what the world actually sees (Indeed, in typical performances of “Phantom” the antagonist is played by a fairly attractive actor with some nasty gashes on one side of his face, or in the case of Gerard Butler in the 2004 filming, a downright handsome actor with a bad sunburn. Either way, as Christine points out, “It’s in [his] soul that the true distortion lies”).

Still, weeping over sad musicals in the middle of a mail depot full of sweary blokes is probably not the best survival strategy for the long term, so wish me luck with the job-hunt…

Porcelain Doll

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(Image from Gusten’s Restoration Studio Portfolio… would that it were that straightforward)

I have, as I may have mentioned, made a few trans friends online who do not fit within anyone’s stereotypes, whether those of obvious “men in dresses”, nor those of glamorously uber-feminine Caitlyn Jenner types. Jaqueline Andrews and Dr. Aoife Hart are fairly often described as “truscum,”(1) though this label may be quickly exposed as unjust, since they routinely – to use a vernacular I am not even sure they would approve of – misgender themselves. They have, since I have known them, called themselves “males”, “men”, “gender non-conforming / transsexual males”, “trannies”… and so forth, and have often accepted the definition of gender dysphoria as a mental rather than as a medical illness.

This could be easily dismissed as self-hatred, but it is a strategy. Concerned that the identity politics that are arguably inherent in trans activism could (and do) cause some women to fear for the erosion of their own sex-based rights, and for feminists to turn their back on transpeople altogether, they have attempted to create a new rhetorical space in which transpeople uncomfortable with the potential of mainstream trans activism to alienate the masses can instead reach out to the concerned parties, albeit often at the cost of having to accept such definitions as those above.

Dr. Hart, in particular, sees this as a positive thing. She feels that transwomen are often too eager to fall into stereotypes of feminine fragility, or too ready to play the victim card at all times and rely on passive aggression to get their way in society. Concerned that cultivating an air of “fragile porcelain dolls” is likely to win us more contempt than sympathy, she intentionally piles what most transpeople would construe as grave insults upon her own head.

Aoife Hart is not, in her own estimation, a woman. No more am I, although she insists that there is nothing wrong with what we are: namely male transsexuals. We can call ourselves “transwomen” if we prefer, though the “women” in that word is thus an empty signifier. For we are still, essentially, men, albeit socially maladjusted ones within a maladjusted society, and thus broken but blameless creatures. There is, she states, nothing wrong with being this way. As long as we accept this with dignified resignation, it points up the flaws in our gender-defined society and gives us some common cause with radical feminism. Our inescapable maleness, she insists, is a morally and empirically neutral fact.

I see her point, I often feel its weight, and I admire her principles… but I would be a truly miserable liar if I claimed that reminders of my masculinity did not always leave me picking up the chips of my own wounded porcelain. But at all events it raises a valid question: at what price my comfort?

This will become an issue every time I move within society, which I fully intend to do more and more of. I have not began transition with the intention of living in hiding, nor of trying to secretly mutate away from the public eye, only to one day magically emerge as a fully passable transwoman, a la our Caitlyn. Most of us who are not rich, in any case, are expected to undergo this thing called the “Real Life Experience”(2) if we intend to go the distance… Therefore I certainly feel that I should grow stronger. I may, after all, never pass well enough to receive my preferred pronouns by instinct rather than by compassion and effort (though I shall certainly to work on that). Though I could never accuse Aoife’s perspective of being uplifting for such an “autoandrophobe”(3) as I seem to be, there is logic in it that I dare not fault: for whatever reason that people call me “she,” “her,” or by my chosen name, I will derive no sense of joy or personal authenticity from it if I know it is merely out of fear of violating equality laws, or out of shame of stigma.

Last week I was invited by the wonderful Lucy Goodridge, who organises our LGBT coffee mornings, to a showing of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” at the Sherman Theatre. Since the play has a strong pro-feminist theme(4) there was a pre-play workshop that I was also invited to attend… thus making me the sole transwoman at an unequivocally feminist event. The sense that I was probably enacting the nightmares of many trans-critical radfems gave it all a rather surreal air, but I must say I was given nothing but hospitable treatment. Artist Hannah Saunders talked us through her powerful exhibition “A Hyena in a Petticoat;” themes of the play were discussed within the historical context of the feminist struggle; and for additional insight into the trials of Victorian-age women, I was invited to try on a very heavy riding suit complete with corset. That was doubly surreal, as I could just picture the sort of reaction this scene might get from the most dubious of “forced feminisation” fetishists and the aforementioned radfems who like to conflate all transwomen with said fetishists. For the record, though, there is nothing much erotic (nor convenient) in a skirt with so much weight and inertia that it tries to keep on walking after the wearer has stopped…

I seem to recall it was during this good-humoured episode that one of the team dropped a masculine pronoun into the conversation, and I quickly stifled my reaction. I do not know if I was right to do so. Cal thinks not: that people will never learn unless we make a point of telling them. Extremely wary though I am of ever seeming to patronise people, he may be right. My only thought at the time was that the evening was going so well I did not want to suddenly make it all about myself and my “condition.” Trans and LGBT events themselves can be triggering, as people will (obviously) discuss their own negative experiences. This evening was an opportunity to just be treated and included as any woman going to the theatre, and not have to think about transition, transpolitics, etc. Except that most women going to the theatre don’t get referred to as “him,” of course… The word was certainly not malicious, probably not intentional, and definitely not meant to make me feel like an outsider. I even felt guilty that my internal reaction was so strong. If I could master that, I am sure it would be psychologically healthier for me. Then again, if I was capable of that, would I even be transitioning at all?

The week wore on, and another story erupted in the turbulent world of transpolitics: Professor Germaine Greer, second-wave feminist and author of The Female Eunuch and The Whole Woman, was invited to speak at Cardiff University, and the students’ union there responded with a petition to no-platform her, as has become a fairly standard response when speakers deemed to be transphobic(5) are invited to campuses. Much as these type of gestures are meant to be supportive and protective of trans students, I am not in favour of no-platforming, as I believe it is always apt to be read as a gesture of fear and unwillingness to engage one’s opponent in debate. Bearing in mind that the event had already sold out – one can imagine many feminist students were eager to see a true icon of their cause in the flesh – I could not help but think that a campaign against her could not possibly sway any opinions in our favour. Even if she was intending to speak actual hatecrime, I thought it better that she be given the opportunity, then perhaps doubts would be raised in her audience.

I was in a minority, though, with trans and LGBT friends sharing the petition for her silencing. Cal understood my reservations on this, but somewhat doubtfully, pointing out that there would be no such discussion if a speaker with known racist views, for example, had been forbidden from giving a lecture. I do feel, though, in most people’s eyes, being trans is not the same kind of issue as racism, feminism, or even gay rights as they are now (mostly) perceived, and trans issues still strike the general public as mainly the concern of a few maladjusted individuals, and what accommodations (if any) society ought to make for them.

Perhaps I am too cynical, or perhaps I truly fear myself that I am indeed maladjusted, and am afraid of inflicting my own inner turmoil on people. I crave that sense of total normality which I only felt at this year’s Pride Cymru event, and I know that I shall never give up trying to pass, however slim the odds. I definitely do my trans pride pretty poorly…

However, my opinions continue to evolve, and I have certainly never wished to return to who I was before transition. I know that I have matured more in the space of this still-unfinished year than I had done for the whole of the preceding decade. I am, at all events, growing in strength and wisdom, though I know I have much of both still to learn.

On a lighter note, last night I gave some change to a homeless person, and steeled myself for the typical “sir” or “mate” which is my lot. In the event, I received “darling” and “babe.” I daresay that, as a supposed feminist ally, I should not have been as pleased by this (especially the “babe”) as I was, but perhaps he was just very trans-literate. In any case, it put a spring in my step, guilty or not.

Also, with reference to the aforementioned no-platforming attempt on Professor Greer, I was reminded this morning on Facebook that I have the most wonderful mother in the entire world…

“Just to clarify for all. I have trans people in my family. I do not mind civil discussion of trans politics – I’m sure there must BE some civil discussion on this topic, though I have seldom seen it. But anyone else who’s planning to link to, or repeat, the kind of hate-filled, vulgar personal abuse peddled by the obnoxious Brendan O’Neill in his Spectator article, or Burchill, or Greer, or anyone else on this topic, please unfriend me first because it’ll save me some trouble.”

All politics aside, I hope I may be forgiven for being one happy daughter…


(1) Roughly defined, “truscum” are transpeople who have gender dysphoria, and who believe that this or the fact of their transition grants them a valid right to identify as their reassigned sex / gender. They believe this right should not apply to non-binary, non-transitioned, or non-dysphoric transgender / genderqueer people. I certainly do not find this a tenable definition for transpeople who do not even claim any validity for their own reassigned gender, but continue to accept (and even to encourage) use of their birth sex signifiers.

(2) “The Real-Life Experience (RLE), sometimes called the Real-Life Test (RLT), is a period of time in which transgender individuals live full-time in their preferred gender role. The purpose of the RLE is to confirm that a given transgender person can function successfully as a member of said gender in society, as well as to confirm that they are sure they want to live as said gender for the rest of their life. A documented RLE is a requirement of some physicians before prescribing hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and a requirement of most surgeons before performing genital reassignment surgery (GRS).” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Real-life_experience_%28transgender%29)

(3) As opposed to an “autogynephile.”

(4) Without wishing to give too many spoilers, the play follows “perfect” housewife Nora Helmer as she gradually comes to the realisation that her fine, upstanding husband is an abusive, gaslighting, cowardly little hypocrite… a fact which any modern audience should pick up on relatively quickly.

(5) It would be fair to state that Greer’s published views are unabashedly contemptuous of MtF transpeople (though there is no indication that she intended to speak on this subject at the Cardiff event):

“There is a witness to the transsexual’s script, a witness who is never consulted. She is the person who built the transsexual’s body of her own flesh and brought it up as her son or daughter, the transsexual’s worst enemy, his/her mother. Whatever else it is gender reassignment is an exorcism of the mother. When a man decides to spend his life impersonating his mother (like Norman Bates in Psycho) it is as if he murders her and gets away with it, proving at a stroke that there was nothing to her. His intentions are no more honourable than any female impersonator’s; his achievement is to gag all those who would call his bluff. When he forces his way into the few private spaces women may enjoy and shouts down their objections, and bombards the women who will not accept him with threats and hate mail, he does as rapists have always done.”

Greer, Germaine. The Whole Woman (Great Britain: Doubleday, 1999), p.93.

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