Le Poisson Rouge – The Rape of Lucretia
The 10th Anniversary of the WestViewNews was coming up and as I walked along McDougal Street the anniversary was on my mind. I thank George Capsis, founder and heart and soul of the monthly for contributing a true voice to the West Village community and giving me a place to hang my hat. His is a grand singular achievement and I wish him many more years of continued success with this terrific neighborhood paper. As I continued down the block, I passed the corner where the San Remo once reigned supreme and I couldn’t help think of my own discovery so long ago of the wonderland of Greenwich Village. I had recently arrived to attend NYU where I was studying journalism and was taken to the “Remo,” with the promise of “good talk.” It was smoky, crowded, and very lively. I knew that I was home. That was the Village of long ago.
Now, I was walking through streets of my memory to a meeting about today’s Greenwich Village. I turned towards Thompson onto Bleecker, I looked over at where Circle in the Square had thrived, now long gone and missed. I looked around nostalgically as I arrived at the destination of my sentimental journey, the spot that had once housed the historic Village Gate. Art D’Lugoff had run it with a smile and an adventurous flair. I had seen everyone there from Billie Holliday to Miles Davis and Mort Sahl. We had laughed once as I reminded him that he turned down Bob Dylan. The hole that The Village Gate left when it closed was deeply felt and not just by Villagers. Walking into the same space where now we have Le Poisson Rouge, I met tall, 30ish, angular David Handler, a violinist and composer, and thin, but smaller, about the same age, Justin Kantor, a cellist; the two young entrepreneurs responsible for Le Poisson Rouge. I asked, “Why…?” David and Justin, attractive, charming, confident young men smiled enigmatically. “It’s just a name,” said David. Justin frowned, “No scintillating back story to wet your appetite.” David shrugged and grinned like a naughty, bearded kid, “It’s what everybody asks.” Well I thought, it has a nice ring to it, Le Poisson Rouge. It is French, which is, if not exclusive, charming and imaginative. Pourquoi pas…it sounds better than, “The Red Fish.”
I learned that Le Poisson Rouge had grown out of conversations while the two young men were students at the Manhattan School of Music. They wanted a place that represented their taste in music and popular culture. David said, “We wanted to appeal to today’s diverse audience and provide a space for night-life that was as surprising as it was adventurous.” Justin chimed in, “We want everyone to have a good time and appeal to a broad variety of music and art lovers. Classical is just as valid as rock, blue grass, hip-hip, folk and all the latest species of the current rave.” David added forcefully, “Although classic music remains the springboard for everything we do.”
They both graduated in 2008 and immediately put their business plan into operation. “We went to the important cultural contributors,” David smiled impishly, “We laid out our plans and asked them for just a taste to get us started.” Justin agreed “We went after performing heavy hitters so that we would be noticed. Nora Jones, The Kronos Quartet, Lou Reed, Yoko Ono.” David chipped in with, “Florence and The Machine, The Julliard String Quartet. More guts than brains…Chuck Close for our walls.” A word they like and use often is revelry. Sounds old fashioned. They have given it a new twist.
They explained that they had taken pains in planning and offered the highest quality eclectic programming. They brought in Ronen Givony, production coordinator at Nonesuch Records to handle programming. They brought in storied engineer John Storyk/WSDG to do his magic with acoustics. The basic design would be bold. A state of the art performance space offering flexibility, utilizing multiple configurations, that seats 250. Top of the line lighting would compliment each individual performance. The adjoining gallery space would, could, serve as an Art Gallery with Chuck Close on the walls, providing a secondary bar to house appropriate smaller events. They had covered all of their bases and provided for what they felt was most important, a community of artists and audiences co-existing for mutual satisfaction and enjoyment. They opened in 2008 and have been going strong ever since. The Poisson Rouge has flavored the Village with a buzz and verve that it hasn’t had in years and yes, it feels like a community again. It does make a difference. Art D’Lugoff would be proud.
The Rape of Lucretia by Benjamin Britten
I wanted to see how Le Poisson Rouge worked in real time. The centenary of the birth of renowned English opera composer Benjamin Britten is being honored this year. Who knew? It seems Rutger’s Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Brunswick, New Jersey, had mounted his most controversial opera, considered by many to be his greatest work, The Rape of Lucretia, and Le Poisson Rouge picked it up as part of the New York City observance. It suited their eclectic brief. I thought, a difficult opera meant the full 12 piece Rutgers Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players on stage with the performers…in a nightclub? Perfect. I had to see this.
The room is packed and throbbing with excitement. People all ages, heads together in animated chatter, the clink of glasses, David leaned over to answer the question on my face, “Hey we serve art and alcohol.” The music started, the clinking and hubbub stopped, the heads turned to the stage to listen. “Surround yourself with a hand picked staff who share your vision and passion …” Justin didn’t have to finish. It was self- evident. David finished it for him, “We wanted a community. It’s all part of our commitment.”
The area lights came up in front of the raised platform stage. The Conductor and 12 Chamber players were to the side and rear of the stage leaving a small area in front of them for the singers. Jeremy Blossey sang the male chorus and Nadine Robinson, a particularly expressive voice, sang the female chorus. As the opera played on, sensitive lighting picked up the dramatic principals, Collatinus, a Roman general – Curtis Streetman, Junius, a Roman general – Shane Brown, Prince Tarquinius – son of the Etruscun tyrant – Clayton Mathews, with Lucretia – wife of Collatinus sung by Sahoko Sato, Bianca, Lucretia’s nurse- Heather Flemming, and Lucia – Lucretia’s maid – Erin Schwab. They all sang remarkably well and were, without exception, one with their characterizations. Not so easy to do being that close to the audience. The opera in two acts is a very involved ambitious work both musically and dramatically, and to boot in a tight confined space in a nightclub. The performance had the rapt attention of the audience.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating and this Lucretia at Le Poisson Rouge was a feast. The Rutger’s Chamber Players led by Conductor and Musical Director Kynan Johns, performed superbly. His musicality was sensitive and secure in this difficult score. The company used the small playing area to its utmost advantage. The production, my wife, a singer told me, was more effective than when she had seen it in a large house at the Barbican in London; the intimacy of the work in this more intimate space lending greatly to the effect on the viewer. Equipped with ambient mikes, the sound was wonderful. I couldn’t tell that it was miked and remarked on it. David Handler nodded approvingly, “Top acoustics. I told you.” He had and here it was proven to perfection.
Pamela Gilmore, listed as Producer, Director and Vocal Coach, deserves enormous credit for putting together this admirable production. Her selection, cast choices and bringing them to performance peak with her seamless and crafty direction was flawless. Her work with the ensemble and principals showed a keen understanding of opera technique as well as dramatic needs. She used the small space prudently and perceptively. I can’t say enough about her very impressive accomplishment. Most directors would have been stymied by having to move eight singers around within the area she was limited to and where she succeeded in communicating the dramatic intention of each scene so clearly. I read that she has served as Director of the Opera at Rutgers program for 12 years. I have no doubt they choose their faculty well.
Everything that David Handler and Justin Kantor had said about their hopes and aspirations for Le Poisson Rouge was all right there in that presentation and that performance. Ambitious, adventurous, innovative, they had created a community of artists joined by an inquisitive and supportive audience in the pursuit of art and …revelry. In the Village… who could ask for anything more. Coming soon to Le Poisson Rouge: Nico Muhly, composer of Two Boys, which recently premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House; Funk Box; Winter Jazz Kick-Off; Igor Butman and The Moscow Jazz Orchesra; Johnny Flynn, folk singer, all representing a wide range of musical virtuosity, and in February, David Amram will be there as always with something new and nourishing. A Happy New Year to one and all.