Geoffrey O’Brien’s books include The Phantom Empire and Sonata for Jukebox. His Where Did Poetry Come From? will be ­published in the spring.
(February 2020)


Becoming the Nightmare

Elza van den Heever as Marie and Peter Mattei as Wozzeck in Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera


an opera by Alban Berg, in a production by William Kentridge, at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, December 27, 2019–January 22, 2020
Alban Berg’s Wozzeck has no overture. In its place, in William Kentridge’s new production at the Met, there is the set on which the curtain goes up in silence while the house lights are still on and the audience chatting in their seats or milling in the aisles. On first …

Back on Catfish Row

Eric Owens as Porgy and Angel Blue as Bess in Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera

Porgy and Bess

an opera by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, September 23, 2019–February 1, 2020

Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music

by Richard Crawford
For younger listeners, growing up as my friends and I did in a suburb largely white and predominantly liberal, Porgy and Bess’s storyline became an inherited myth taken for granted: the unspoken yearning of the disabled beggar Porgy for Bess, the lover of the brutal dockworker Crown; the murder committed by Crown during a craps game, after which Bess finds shelter with Porgy; the blossoming love between them, threatened by her inability to resist Crown’s sexual demands and by the drug addiction into which she is lured by the seductive Sportin’ Life; Porgy’s killing of Crown, his return to Catfish Row only to discover that Bess has gone to New York with Sportin’ Life, and his vow to go and find her against all odds. It was the music that gave a sense of inevitability to what might otherwise have seemed a series of random incidents. Those epic figures seemed always to have been there, existing within the circumscribed universe of Catfish Row with only the vaguest connection to any historical or social setting. Not exactly a children’s story—with its tantalizing elements of violence and sex and the mysterious “happy dust”—but children could make it one.

There’s No Place Like Home

A scene from Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja’s film Aniara

Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space

by Harry Martinson, adapted from the Swedish by Hugh MacDiarmid and Elspeth Harley Schubert


an opera by Karl-Birger Blomdahl
An immense and well-stocked spaceship sets out on what should be a routine voyage: shuttling eight thousand refugees to resettlement on Mars after Earth’s environment has been poisoned by a succession of nuclear wars. Early in the flight, the ship is bumped slightly off course after a near collision with …

A Boundless Capacity for Talk

Ben Hecht dictating dialogue for his film Specter of the Rose, circa 1946

Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures

by Adina Hoffman
In suburban homes of the late 1950s within commuting distance of Manhattan, it was not unusual to come upon a paperback copy of Ben Hecht’s A Child of the Century, a best-selling autobiography first published in 1954. As a child of the midcentury I was drawn to the title even …


A Timon for Our Time

Judging by how rarely it comes around, Timon of Athens seems destined to remain something of an anomalous outlier in the Shakespearian canon. The production mounted by Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn, starring Kathryn Hunter as Timon, is described in the program as taking place “sometime in the near future,” but its opening is very much of the present gilded age. The play was a favorite of Karl Marx’s, who saw it as an illustration of the idea that “money is the alienated ability of mankind,” and its premise is instantly familiar to audiences who may never have encountered it but can recognize swiftly that they have been living it.

Orson Welles’s ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’

Dolores Costello as Isabel Amberson Minafer and Tim Holt as her son, George Amberson Minafer, in Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942

When Orson Welles was an infant, Booth Tarkington had already memorialized the disappearance of “that old-fashioned world”—as Welles later described the bygone scene of his own childhood. The Magnificent Ambersons, Tarkington’s 1918 novel that Welles would film so stunningly in 1942, was no sentimental tour but a simmering polemic against the forces of industry and greed that had befouled that world.

O’Neill’s Dark Energy at BAM

Matthew Beard as Edmund Tyrone, Jeremy Irons as James Tyrone, Rory Keenan as Jamie Tyrone, and Lesley Manville as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2018

The rattled breathlessness of Lesley Manville’s delivery as Mary in BAM’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, as if half a second’s interruption would bring everything crashing down, established the state of things in the Tyrone household with no delay: the masks are already off. Manville’s Mary is not merely distracted but positively a junkie with screaming nerves. The play is a work that mercilessly tests each actor’s ability to inhabit roles that are not characters but beings, summoned by an authorial process that can only be conceived as an occult attempt to restore speech to the dead.

Immersed in ‘Cold Water’

Cyprien Fouquet as Gilles and Virginie Ledoyen as Christine in Olivier Assayas's Cold Water, 1994

Originally made for French television in 1994, as part of a series of hour-long films, Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water was released in France at feature length the same year. A quarter of a century later, with rights finally cleared for Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Nico, Alice Cooper, Donovan, and the others whose music provides not merely flavor but structure, Cold Water can finally be recognized as a singular masterpiece on the most familiar of themes, the sufferings and misfortunes of youthful passion.