Tag Archives: tabloid

‘Powder Her Face’ considers the fate of women of celebrity

Consider Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, the Kim Kardashian of yesteryear. 

In the mid-20th century, the wealthy socialite was considered one of the most prominent persons in Britain, a celebrity whose appearances and undertakings were followed by her social peers as well as lower classes. That celebrity status would backfire during her divorce proceedings in 1963, when her husband exposed evidence of affairs including Polaroid photographs of Campbell naked and performing sexual acts with men. 

After that, the reputation of Campbell — who was dubbed the “Dirty Duchess” in the press — would be forever linked with that scandal. Even an opera about her life, Powder Her Face, was tarred with the same brush. Audiences at its 1995 premiere immediately fixated on its infamous “fellatio aria,” which the soprano playing the Duchess hums while simulating oral sex. Subsequent productions have presented the work as a “shock opera,” amplifying the scandal by emphasizing its nudity and debauchery at the Duchess’ expense.

Viswa Subbaraman, artistic director of Skylight Music Theatre, took a different approach when he and late director Sandra Bernhard approached the material in 2011 while he was running Houston’s Opera Vista company. They took a new look at the Duchess and told the story from her perspective — as a way to make his audience consider what our society does to women of celebrity. He’ll get a second chance to do so in Milwaukee, with new director Robin Guarino leading the way, and is excited to realize his shared vision on a radically bigger scale.

Composed by Thomas Adés with a libretto by Philip Hensher, Powder Her Face opens in the 1990s as the Duchess (Cassandra Black, reprising the role she played in 2011) is being evicted from her hotel due to not paying her bill. Throughout, the story jumps back in time to reveal how Campbell lost her powerful social position, with a Hotel Manager (Joseph Beutel), Electrician (Ben Robinson, also returning) and Maid (Kaleigh Rae Gamaché) playing multiple roles past and present.

In many productions, these flashback elements are played as farce. But Subbaraman says it was important to him, as well as Bernhard and Guarino (two of the only female directors to ever handle the production), that the Duchess’ liaisons and heartbreaks be treated seriously, and that the production treat her as a complex person who was not merely the figure depicted by the press and mocked by society.

Subbaraman says the fellatio scene is perhaps the best example of what they’re going for. While it’s usually depicted as an outlandish moment with lots of nudity and mocking of the Duchess, he says Hensher may have had a different, more nuanced interpretation — referring to the scene as “the ultimate silencing of women through sex.” 

With that in mind, Subbaraman says, the Skylight’s production minimizes the shock value of the scene, leaving the Duchess a sympathetic figure. “That’s a sex act that people do,” he says. “It’s not as though it’s something we should run away from. … That one moment and the way that scene is treated completely changes the way we respond to her at the end of the opera, when she’s telling us about everything she’s lost.”

Subbaraman also believes their approach to Powder Her Face allows audiences to better appreciate the music of Adés, who he considers to be one of the most important composers living and working today. Adés is best known for his orchestral work, but Subbaraman thinks it’s easier for first-time listeners to engage with his complex work via stage productions because you can follow characters and plot as you listen. 

“The music is probably some of the hardest written — it doesn’t sound that way necessarily all the time,” he says. “In an effort to create an improvisatory feel, he over-notates the music, so it’s incredibly rhythmic. Rhythms are constantly changing … that makes it a very difficult thing for everyone.”

Subbaraman says this staging won’t simply be a retread of his Houston production, even though Guarino was hand-picked by Bernhard before her death of a rare cancer in 2015. He says the Opera Vista production was incredibly low-budget, designed to make a splash specifically because they were able to pull it off despite limited resources — the cast had no permanent rehearsal space, Subbaraman put together the set himself, Black sewed her own costumes and three days before opening they were still checking thrift stores for mattresses.

The resources of the Skylight have allowed Subbaraman, Guarino and their team to take Bernhard’s original vision and make it even better than before, he says, with exemplary design elements (including the work of costume director and fashion designer César Galindo, last seen designing Cinderella in 2014) and the ability for the cast to explore these characters in a deeper way. “It’s a different production in its whole,” Subbaraman says.

And it’s an important one, because the problems illuminated by the Skylight’s production of Powder Her Face haven’t mysteriously vanished in the modern age. Shortly after starting rehearsals, Subbaraman stumbled across an article about rising movie star Jennifer Lawrence. It decreed that the young actor, less than a decade into her career, had already used up her time in the spotlight.

“She’s 25! She’s a brilliant actor! And suddenly she’s ‘over’?” he says. “We as a society tend to discard women of celebrity very easily, when they no longer amuse us in the way we expect them to. … That’s part of what we’re trying to talk about in the way we look at this show.”

ON STAGE

Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Powder Her Face runs Jan. 29 to Feb. 14 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Tickets range from $25 to $75 and can be purchased at 414-291-7800 or skylightmusictheatre.org. Due to explicit language and sexual subject matter, this production is recommended for mature audiences only.

ABC keeps tight lid on Jenner interview to air April 24

The first on-air promo for the April 24 broadcast interview with Bruce Jenner didn’t even show his face, an illustration of the line ABC News is walking in trying to drum up interest for the program while saying virtually nothing about it.

The two-hour interview special with the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion and estranged patriarch of television’s Kardashian clan is expected to touch on transgenderism and reports that Jenner may be transitioning.

ABC has released only a couple of non-specific quotes by Jenner and is not expected to reveal much more in advance of the Friday program, preferring to give Jenner the opportunity to address the topic in the full context of the interview.

Diane Sawyer has not spoken to outside media about the interview, which was conducted in February — one day in Los Angeles, another in New York. She’s scheduled to promote it on ABC properties Friday: “Good Morning America,” `’Live with Kelly and Michael” and “The View.” ABC News executives also haven’t spoken about it, not even confirming publicly until April 6 that the interview had taken place, until this the airdate was set.

“In producing this special, one of our goals has been to respect Bruce’s story,” said ABC News spokesman Van Scott. “We want Bruce to speak for Bruce. We’ve had this top of mind throughout the process from the booking and interviews to the promotion and final product.”

The tight lid enables ABC to avoid the issue of potentially “outing” a public figure before the person has had a chance to publicly address the topic. Not everyone is waiting: The New York Daily News this week published a front-page picture of a person they said was Jenner wearing a dress.

“I respect the way that (ABC has) handled this,” said Brad Bessey, executive producer of “Entertainment Tonight” and “The Insider.” “You have to separate Bruce Jenner and Bruce’s story from the media circus that is the Kardashians.”

The approach has left his syndicated entertainment newsmagazines starved for news. Bessey said they’ve done stories on the three 15- or 30-second promos that ABC has released.

The first ABC promo showed two Jenner images — one from behind and the other from the side as he talked with Sawyer, his face obscured by shadows. In the other two, Jenner is heard more clearly, and with two soundbites. “My whole life has been getting ready for this,” he said. He also talks of the importance of not hurting his children.

ABC’s handling of the story so far has been respectful, said Nick Adams, program director of transgender media for GLAAD. The organization that represents gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders has spoken little about Jenner.

“Sharing one’s story is something a person should be allowed to do in their own time and in their own way,” Adams said. Media speculation about a public figure’s gender identity increases harmful scrutiny on other transgender people, he said.

The interview was conducted before Jenner was involved in an auto accident in which another motorist was killed. ABC is expected to address the topic, although the timing precludes it from being raised with Jenner.

Some of Jenner’s children, pictured in one of the promos, also are expected to be interviewed.

Bessey predicted big ratings for the special. ABC is airing it on a Friday night, when TV-watching is usually low. Two big interviews are among the top 100 most-watched telecasts of all time in the U.S.: Oprah Winfrey’s 1993 talk with Michael Jackson, seen in 36.6 million homes, and Barbara Walters’ 1999 interview with Monica Lewinsky, seen in 33.2 million homes.

Friday’s interview likely won’t approach those numbers, but should certainly exceed the Friday “20/20” average of 6.2 million viewers this season.

“I think people will be watching,” Bessey said. “I hope they’ll be listening.”

Feminists cheer as bare breasts disappear from British tabloid

Feminists are rejoicing at the disappearance of bare breasts from the British tabloid The Sun — though the newspaper is not confirming whether the decision to ditch its infamous “Page 3 girls” is permanent.

The Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid has featured topless models on its third page for almost 45 years, but none has appeared in the paper since Jan. 16.

The Sun has declined to comment on the change, but the Murdoch-owned Times of London reported this week that the feature had been dropped from the paper’s print edition. It said the Sun website would continue to feature topless models.

Labour Party lawmaker Stella Creasy said she was glad to see the end of a feature that told women “that what mattered, frankly, were our breasts, not our brains.”

British teen crime czar quits over racist, anti-gay tweets

She was hired to teach local police about British youth – but it was 17-year-old Paris Brown who said she learned a lesson after her scandalous tweets about drugs, drinking and sex hit the tabloids.

The Twitter postings sparked a media furor, questions over why a teen would be named a crime official and calls for Brown’s resignation. The latter she gave on April 9, along with an apology, a week after her appointment to the $22,800 a year role as Britain’s first youth crime commissioner.

Brown’s brief stint in the job ended after British media on over the weekend flagged tweets – mostly posted before she was named to the position – that saw the teen using gay slurs and racist terms.

“Been drinking since half 1 (sic) and riding baby walkers down the hall at work oh my god i have the best job ever haha,” read one tweet. Another referenced a desire to make “hash brownies,” while separate messages saw Brown describing herself as racist when intoxicated.

After resisting calls to quit, Brown said she was giving up the gig, which was designed as a way to build bridges between young people and police in Kent county, southern England. The teen said the recent media attention would hamper her ability to perform the job.

She also insisted that she was not racist or homophobic, but had “fallen into the trap of behaving with bravado” on social networks.

“I accept that I have made comments on social networking sites which have offended many people,” she said. “I am really sorry for any offense caused.”

Along with disgust over her tweets, the initial revelations prompted questions over why a teen was named a crime czar in the first place.

“Is this foul-mouthed, self-obsessed Twitter teen really the future of British policing?” asked the Daily Mail.

“The lesson of the Paris Brown debacle is that teenagers should not be advising the police,” the Daily Telegraph said, calling the appointment a “ridiculous stunt” that “backfired.”

Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Ann Barnes – who named Brown to the role – called the teen’s resignation a “very, very sad day.”

When news of the offending tweets, which included references to prescription drugs and getting “oh so unattractively drunk,” broke, Barnes said she did not condone the messages, but she also urged perspective given Brown’s age.

On April 9, she praised Brown’s “moral courage” in turning down “the job of a lifetime” and facing up to recent events.

Barnes insisted that the interview process for the role had been “very tough,” involving a two-day process of testing skills and ideas. Brown was one of about 164 applicants for the job. Seven were shortlisted before interviewing with Barnes and with a peer group of young people.

“We used Kent Police’s vetting procedures, which do not normally involve scrutiny of social networks for this grade of post,” Barnes explained. “Hindsight is a great gift.”

Barnes said that Brown will not receive any payment because she was not due to start work until July.

The role of youth crime commissioner for Kent will be advertised again this summer, Barnes added, saying she wanted to take time before re-starting the recruitment process and that there are “lessons to learn,” especially around social media.