Bag & Baggage Danny and the Deep Blue Sea The Vault Theatre Hillsboro Oregon

Dramatic? It’s like an opera out there

ArtsWatch Weekly: Where's Frida; how to (maybe) reopen; farewell to Ross McKeen; puppets, comics, and more.


AS WE ZOOM PAST THE ONE-YEAR MARK IN ENFORCED ISOLATION, shutdowns have caused havoc everywhere, sometimes straining well-run organizations and sometimes exposing structural weaknesses that pre-existed the pandemic. Being big can be a problem in itself: You might begin with a bigger bankroll, but the larger a group’s budget, the harder it is to shift direction, and the more a shutdown stands to imperil the entire operation. Being small can mean you’re nimble, but it can also make it tough to scrape up the wherewithall to hunker in and just survive for a while.

Portland Opera’s “Frida”: heading to the great outdoors? Photo: Keith Blakoff/Long Beach Opera

How’s that playing out in the world of opera? Herein ArtsWatch presents a new three-act contemporary work, which we’ll refrain from calling Stayin’ Alive:

ACT ONE: New York’s Metropolitan Opera is undergoing monumental convulsions, as Julia Jacobs reports in The New York Times, with 40 percent of its laid-off musicians leaving the expensive New York area, and abrasive battles being waged between management and unions. Massive debt is being piled up, veteran musicians are choosing to retire, and shop work is being farmed out to non-union companies as management pushes for big salary cuts. (Subtheme: Conductor and music director James Levine, the leading artistic force at the Met for almost a half-century until being fired in 2018 over multiple allegations of sex abuse and harassment, died at age 77 on March 9, it was reported Wednesday.)

ACT TWO: The much smaller-scale Portland Opera faces a different, and perhaps more manageable, level of crisis. While maintaining a digital channel that includes recitals by its resident artists, and preparing for the mid-April opening of its Journey to Justice online concert of songs about Black American life, it’s also scrambling to come up with the best way to present its much-anticipated but Covid-delayed production of Frida, composer Robert Xavier Rodrîguez’ opera about the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. The company is now hoping to produce it in an outdoor setting sometime this summer, joining what looks to be a national trend in the performance world.

ACT THREE: Meanwhile, Christopher Mattaliano, the Portland company’s former artistic leader, has found himself riding the new wave of virtual opera production. “Last fall I was engaged by Princeton University to direct an opera production, Cavalli’s La Calisto,” he says. “Of course, the pandemic changed all that and the production was cancelled.” The university then asked if he could create an online production, rehearsing via Zoom, shooting video on phone cameras, and editing in the studio. “This was something entirely new for me,” Mattaliano says, but he and the cast and crew jumped in: “It has been a uniquely joyful experience – working with students who are literally all over the world, with no production elements, and nothing but our cell phones, laptops, and imaginations to create a virtual La Calisto.” The production’s well-sung and very good, making a virtue of its scaled-back necessity. See and hear for yourself: The first two acts are now available, free, on the Princeton Music Department’s YouTube channel, and Act Three will be added March 20. “As you know, there are so many productions and projects throughout one’s career of every scale, size, dimension,” Mattaliano adds. “This project has been a gift. One singer described it as a ‘lifeline’ during such a difficult time.” 


Taking a tour of the Museum of the Streets

Art for one, art for all: Wall mural by Gary Hirsch at Southeast 11th Avenue and Birch Street, Portland. Photo: K.B. Dixon

AN OPEN-AIR MUSEUM, PART 2. Art galleries have gone virtual or opened their doors for sharply limited numbers of visitors in limited hours. Museums are only now beginning to reopen, cautiously. But throughout the Year of Coronavirus, Portland’s unofficial Museum of the Streets has been wide open and available to anyone who looks around at the city’s walls, which street artists have been busily decorating in paintings that range from political statements to iconic images to just plain exuberant fun. K.B. Dixon and his camera continue their amble through the artistic streets with fifteen new images, these ones all from east of the Willamette River. For another fifteen of Dixon’s images of wall art, see the first part of this series, from April 2020.

Ross McKeen: Goodbye, and thanks

Ross McKeen, who died Tuesday of cancer. Photo: Rebekah Johnson, via Facebook

ROSS McKEEN, BELOVED ARTS LEADER, DIES. The Portland arts scene lost a major contributor and a great friend on Tuesday when McKeen, the longtime managing director of Oregon Children’s Theatre and, before that, the first manager of the Oregon Cultural Trust, died of pancreatic cancer. Known in Oregon arts circles as a smart and capable administrator, an excellent and generous mentor, and a man of keen humor, he had helped build the children’s theater company to national prominence. 

Untriggering life and the memories of trauma

Keith Mascoll onstage at Portland Playhouse in “Triggered Life.” Photo: Jesse Rowell, Jr.

 UNTRIGGERING LIFE AND THE MEMORIES OF TRAUMA. Actor Keith Mascoll talks with me about his show Triggered Life: A Requiem of Healing, being livestreamed from the stage of Portland Playhouse. It’s a two-character, one-actor show about coming to terms with the lasting effects of childhood sexual abuse. “We’re opening up a conversation for everybody to have,” he says. “We need to keep our girls safe. We need to keep our boys safe.”

Art: Telling tales; living among the animals

Jen Brown, “An Allegory of Facebook,” oil on canvas, 36 by 54 inches, 2017; created after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Included in the exhibition “Understanding Ourselves: Narrative Paintings Curated by Jen Brown,” at Chehalem Cultural Center, Newberg.

PICTURES WORTH MORE THAN A THOUSAND WORDS. “The poet Muriel Rukeyser famously said, ‘The universe is made of stories, not of atoms’,” David Bates begins his review of the new attraction at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. “If that’s true, then artists are every bit as essential as scientists to unraveling who we are. Narrative painting comes as close as any medium to being the quintessence of visual storytelling.  After all, the earliest art — cave paintings dating back tens of thousands of years — tells the story of the hunt.” Narrative art – art that tells stories – is the name of the game in Understanding Ourselves: Narrative Paintings Curated by Jen Brown.

LATE PANDEMIC MEDITATIONS: PREDATOR, PREY, OR FAMILY. March’s exhibits at Antler Gallery, Shannon M. Lieberman writes, “brim with wildlife: buzzing bees, fighting foxes, coiling serpents, and watchful deer. Together, April Coppini’s gestural drawings, Chase Mullen’s meticulous naturalism, and Chris Austin’s surreal paintings remind us that our experiences of nature are never just one thing. They are shaped not only by exploring the outdoors, but also by science, popular culture, and our daydreams. Being in the ‘family of things’ is at once beautiful and complex, a sentiment which Coppini, Austin, and Mullen all capture in their work in different ways.”

April Coppini. “Yellow-faced Bumblebee: in Lupines,” 23 x 31 inches, charcoal and pastel on paper. Image courtesy of Antler Gallery.

Where the kids are: puppets and the pity party

Nicole Buetti & Nirks: Puppets in the orchestra, note by note.

ART STARTS YOUNG, AND IN MANY WAYS is felt most deeply and instinctively there, when curiosity and a sense of wonder are at their peak. In our continuing series The Art of Learning, two ArtsWatch writers look at fascinating aspects of the building blocks of culture.

  • A YOUNG PUPPET’S GUIDE TO THE ORCHESTRA. All of those instruments in an orchestra: What are they, and how do they sound? Brett Campbell writes about the fascinating collaboration among a composer/bassoonist, her movie-business partner, a collection of musically savvy puppets, and the musicians of the Portland Columbia Symphony to create a new kid-friendly guide to the instruments of the orchestra. 
  • ‘PITY PARTY’: THIS ONE’S FOR YOU. Carmen Burrbridge talks with Portland writer Kathleen Lane, author of the new middle-grade novel Pity Party, about kids, writing, worries and fears, and the art of transforming anxieties into creativity.
“Pity Party” author Kathleen Lane at her book launch. Photo courtesy the author.

Dance, music fests, horror comics, totemic dispute

Momentum Workshops’ new virtual model called for the workshops to be pre-recorded and moved to an online format. This amounted to 100+ hours of filming, video editing and uploading by the Momentum team, who all donated their time. Pictured, left to right: Candice Agahan, Lisa Zaragoza, and Izzy Holmes.

FOR HOUSELESS WOMEN, A FRESH MOMENTUM. “Portland’s dancers are finding new ways to celebrate the city’s female and nonbinary movers while simultaneously serving the most vulnerable women, children and nonbinary members of our community,” Elizabeth Whelan writes about Momentum Workshops, which offer accessible online dance and movement classes as well as health/wellness seminars to people who don’t otherwise have access.

YACHATS CELTIC FEST PLANS FOR FALL. In a story first published by, Cheryl Romano writes that the popular coastal music festival, which had to cancel its twentieth season last year because of coronavirus restrictions, is making tentative plans to return with live performances in November.

“Green Inferno” cover by Kristofor Harris

MATT BLAIRSTONE: OH, THE HORROR! Bobby Bermea touches bases with Blairstone, the Portland comics creator, and discovers him “in the midst of building his craziest endeavor yet – a 200-page comic book anthology called Green Inferno: The World Celebrates Your Demise,” a “collection of comics and short stories from eighteen artists creating in six countries, thematically united by what Blairstone has coined ‘terrestrial horror’.” 

Cascadia Composers Music Concert Portland State University Lincoln Hall Portland Oregon

TIME TO HEAVE-HO A ‘CARTOONISH’ TOTEM POLE? Tacoma News-Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll digs into the issues of what to do with a 75-foot-tall, almost 120-year-old totem pole that stands prominently in a public park. The pole has nothing to do with local Puyallup tribal traditions and was commissioned by white businessmen as a tourist attraction (and to one-up a smaller pole in Seattle). “Take it down, at long last, and let the annals of history reflect what it has always been: a mistake,” Driscoll writes.

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Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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