Thursday, January 30, 2014

 

We began putting the set into the theater on Friday the 17th.  I packed the Hyundai Tucson with everything that needed to be assembled and as much else as possible (props, tools, the conductor's stand that I had made years ago for the company, extension cords for the music stand lights, touch-up paint and sundries (I've learned to bring too much in terms of tools and supplies to the put-in as other departments (lighting, costume) often find themselves needing things they didn't bring).

We're a small company and the emphasis is on the work (in this instance the company's tenth newly  commissioned opera) rather than on lots of scenic spectacle, although we've put on some impressive sets when necessary.  I'm a "triple dip" member of Intermezzo -- Board member, scenic designer, and co-librettist for two of those commissions.  The work was completed by mid-afternoon and I returned home for three days, since it was the M.L. King Holiday weekend and Suffolk University, which owns and operates the Modern Theater, was closed for the duration.  

On Tuesday I drove down with all the furniture items that would fit in the car and did a lot of finishing details.  I wasn't needed in the evening as it was a strictly musical rehearsal.  On Wednesday I arrived with the last of the furniture and stayed through the evening technical rehearsal with singers in costume.  There were very few stops to correct things or to re-run lighting cues and it became obvious that the cast was deeply into their roles and that the score was going to sound great in the Modern's slightly dry, but gorgeous acoustics.

Thursday and Friday were dress rehearsals.  Fritz came down with me on Friday night and we sat there for this, the second opera for which we'd written the text, again with a bit of an "OMG, they're singing our words!" feeling.  And they most certainly were singing our words fantastically well, with virtually perfect enunciation -- clear as a bell -- and some of the finest voices from the very rich Boston music scene.  There was a small audience on Friday, the final dress rehearsal, of friends and relatives of the cast and the eight super musicians (2 violins, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn) in the pit.  Reaction was very good.  The Saturday night opening was already sold out with a waiting list and Sunday had a bare handful of tickets remaining; we drove home very happy.

The opening night went perfectly.  45 minutes before curtain we did a half hour talk with the audience about the origins of the opera (Fritz's idea that Anne Hutchinson would make a great operatic character and that the noted contralto Marion Dry would be the ideal Anne, as she proved to be).  I talked about the construction of the libretto, director Kirsten Cairns about her conception of the chorus as interlocutor with the audience, and composer Dan Shore spoke about the unique challenges of writing for the contralto voice versus the standard soprano in an opera's leading role.  The premiere was very well received with big applause throughout the calls, but especially for David Kravitz's powerful Governor Winthrop and Marion Dry's magisterial, multi-faceted Anne.  The performance was recorded on Saturday night and a DVD will be ready in about 2 weeks.

There's a scene we invented to end the opera when Anne, after receiving her guilty verdict for heresy and being banished from Boston -- essentially, for being an uppity, activist woman in a society that wanted docile, submissive ones -- fears that what she stood for, that what she preached, might not survive.  Gradually, figures from equality, civil rights and religious freedom struggles from the 17th century into the modern age come to her to say what an inspiration she was to them, how her struggle for equality gave them the courage to endure their own persecutions and force social change.    

The great final ensemble then turns to the audience and and bids them keep Anne's message alive in today's world.  When the curtain fell on the Sunday matinee, the audience stood and roared.  It was a real thrill.  And then, in the great theatrical tradition, the designers and stage crew struck the sets, lights and costumes, packed everything up and cleared the theater for the next group who will be using the stage.

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Anne Hutchinson: Synopsis of the opera, from an original scenario by William Fregosi and Fritz Bell

The setting of the opera is Anne’s trial in Newtowne (now Cambridge, MA) for heresy and for teaching religion in 1637. Flashbacks occur throughout the opera, providing insight into Anne's path from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

The opera opens as Anne stands before Governor John Winthrop and the Ministers, demanding to know why she is summoned to court. She is given vague generalities and refutes every one.  She is not above the use of sarcasm to score her points, to the delight of her supporters in the room.  The first flashback takes place in London, 1610, between Anne and her father, Francis Marbury., who is deeply devoted to Anne and her education. Marbury is wary of Anne’s interest in teaching others, given the persecution he has endured, but Anne is resolved. Returning to the court room, Anne points to Scripture supporting an older woman's right to teach younger women, again challenging the Ministers to explain why she has been called to court.  Winthrop condemns her teaching and her refusal to comply with a desist order.  He further criticizes her for usurping the male role of superiority and control.  Rev. John Cotton calls for calm, defending Anne's teaching and the loving relationship between Anne and her husband. The second flashback  shows  Anne and Will in Alford, England in 1613.  They playfully discuss their pending marriage as a true partnership.  Anne embraces the work of women, but also establishes her need to have her books, pen, and use of the house to teach others, led by her mentor, Rev. Cotton. Will promises love and support.  The assault on Anne continues back in the courtroom.  Rev. Cotton continues to defend Anne but Winthrop threatens him with the loss of his church and banishment if he will not stand with the prosecution.  As the court adjourns, Rev. Hugh Peter hands Anne a transcript of the proceedings for her to review and correct if she so desires (something unheard of for the time, as women's words were not considered worthy of transcription).  She is stunned that her words will survive in the public record. 

Act 2. The next morning, Rev. Cotton agonizes as to which position he will take -- to defend Anne and sacrifice his ministry, forcing his family into exile in the wilderness, or to violate his principles and allow the Ministers to convict her.  Flashback to 1633 in England, where Cotton tells Anne that his safety is in jeopardy for his teachings and that he is leaving the next morning for a new colony that has been founded by John Winthrop, the "city on the hill.”  He cautions that it will soon be unsafe for her as well and urges her to join him as soon as possible.  Back in the courtroom, Anne states that she has answered all their questions, challenging them to show her a law that she has transgressed.  Winthrop, seeing Anne as a direct challenge to his vision of the new colony and his power, brandishes the Bible as the only law needed to convict her.  When Anne states that God speaks directly to her (which is only supposed to happen to Ministers), Winthrop sees his opportunity.  He corners Cotton and forces him to betray her.  Anne forgives him, while Cotton retreats in his personal shame.  But Anne refuses to back down, and thus seals her fate.  She instructs the Scribe to write down her words for future generations to understand; she recounts her vision of being persecuted in a distant land, and hearing the voice of God say he will deliver her.  She no longer needs the help of the Ministers to teach the word of God, which she says comes directly to all, women as well as men, a gross heresy.  Elated, Winthrop pronounces her sentence -- banishment from the colony.    As the courtroom fades away, Anne wonders if her words will live on.  One by one, future advocates of civil rights--Mary Dyer, Abigail Adams, Frederick Douglas, Rosa Parks, and Harvey Milk--step forward to assure Anne that she will be remembered, and that her struggle served as a beacon to those who came after her; that her words became their words: to speak courageously what they knew to be true, no matter the consequences.  They then bid the audience do the same. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

 
We're in the technical and dress rehearsal week ("production week") for the opera on Anne Hutchinson that opens on Saturday night.   Things are going very well.  We have a wonderful cast, beginning with the noted contralto Marion Dry for whom we wrote the libretto as Fritz felt (quite rightly) that she would be perfect for Anne.  As her nemesis, Governor John Winthrop, the powerful baritone David Kravitz is stupendous in his tirades against a woman who dared speak her mind.

The story of Anne's 1637 banishment from Boston in the Massachusetts  Bay Colony is intensely dramatic and a well-known fixture of local history to this day (her statue on Beacon Hill on the State House grounds specifically calls out her importance as a leader in advocating for religious freedom.  Her biographers also hail her a s the first feminist in the English American colonies and the unorthodox nature of her marriage -- she and her husband worked out an equal, cooperative arrangement that flew in the face of the dominant husband, purely domestic wife model that was universal at the time -- has been called the model for marriage in the U.S. in the post-Puritan era.

Anne Hutchinson is the second opera for which Fritz and I have suggested the subject and written the text.  The first, which premiered in May of 2011, was on Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Boston social rebel and arts patron, and gay-friendly supporter of quite a few painters and composers.  A totally free spirit, she flew in the face of old Boston Society.  In her later years she fulfilled a long-held dream of her's and her late husband's to build a museum for the massive and very important art collection they had amassed over the years. 

With operas based on these two important female leaders to our credit, We seem to be in the midst of our "uppity women of Boston cycle.  We'll see whether or not there will be any interest in our adding a third work in the future.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

 

Happy Thanksgiving

A very Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!  This year has been filled with many new opportunities, fun events, good travel, and just the joy of living.  Wishing you every happiness today and throughout the holiday season.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

 

A perfectly lovely story

I have shamelessly lifted this story from the New York Times.  I know it will come as a great shock that there's a gay love story from the world of theater/opera/classical music  :-)  but this one has a surprise tag at the end that's just wonderful. 

Curtain Up on a New Production


Allen Klein, Bliss Hebert

By ROSALIE R. RADOMSKY

Published: October 20, 2013

Allen Charles Klein and Bliss Hebert were married Tuesday morning by James Mitchell, a marriage officiant at the Manhattan Marriage Bureau in New York. 

Since 1962, Mr. Klein, an opera scenery and costume designer, and Mr. Hebert, an opera stage director, have worked together in more than 100 productions. Their credits include Verdi’s “Aida,” at the Cincinnati Opera in July; Puccini’s “Turandot,” at the Dallas Opera in March; and Verdi’s “La Traviata,” at the Miami Opera in April and at the Dallas Opera in 2012.

They also worked on Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann,” starring Plácido Domingo and Joan Sutherland, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1973; Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” featuring the United States debut of Kiri Te Kanawa, at the Santa Fe Opera in 1972; and “Pelléas and Mélisande,” at the Santa Fe Opera, with Frederica von Stade’s debut as Mélisande in 1972.
Mr. Klein (left), 73, created productions for the Vienna State Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, La Fenice in Venice, the Scottish Opera, the Edinburgh Festival and the Glyndebourne Festival. He graduated from Boston University.

He is a son of the late Edna Klein and the late Charles Klein, who lived in Brooklyn.
Mr. Hebert, 82, who has been the stage director of 320 productions of 120 operas, was the general manager of the Washington, D.C., Opera Company from 1960 to 1964, and a founding member of the Santa Fe Opera Company, where he worked until 1986. From 1957 to 1963 he worked with Igor Stravinsky on three operas, including five productions of “The Rake’s Progress.” Mr. Hebert was the prompter for Maria Callas in “La Traviata” at the Dallas Opera in 1958, and again in Bellini’s “La Pirata” at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1960. He graduated from Syracuse, from which he also received a master’s in music focusing on piano performance.  Mr. Hebert is the son of the late Merle Hebert and the late Wilfrid Hebert, who lived in Glens Falls, N.Y. 

Though Mr. Klein and Mr. Hebert met in 1962 while working at the Washington opera and quickly became a couple, it wasn’t until one evening in 1964 that anyone else brought up their relationship.
Mr. Klein recalled that he and Mr. Hebert had just seen the movie “Fantasia,” with its classically derived soundtrack, including an excerpt from Mr. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” On the way home, crossing 57th Street in front of Carnegie Hall, they ran into Mr. Stravinsky; his wife, Vera, and the conductor Robert Craft. 

“They all greeted Bliss with great happiness and many kisses,” Mr. Klein said, adding, “Stravinsky was tiny and glowing with electricity.” Mr. Hebert immediately introduced Mr. Klein to Mr. Stravinsky. 

“I had to speak business with Robert Craft,” Mr. Hebert said, “and Allen was with Stravinsky alone.” At one point, Mr. Stravinsky took Mr. Klein by the arm, separating him from the group.
That was when Mr. Stravinsky, in his Russian accent, asked Mr. Klein, “Tell me, my dear, do you love our Bliss very much?” 

“I recall being rather shocked by such a question,” he said. “Remember, this was 1964. I stuttered out, ‘Yes, I do,’ to which the composer responded, ‘Well, then, my dear, you must take very good care of our Bliss.’ ” 

Mr. Klein added, “ I’ve tried to do that ever since.”

**********

Personal Note:  Allen Klein had graduated from the Boston University School of Theater a couple of years before I arrived there to study scenic design.  He did some work in the local theater/opera scene before leaving for the wider world.  Great things were predicted for him that obviously came true.   

Sunday, October 13, 2013

 

Contemporary Opera rules in Boston

Boston this year is in something of a Contemporary Opera Festival mode.  I have no intelligence that any of the companies collaborated or consulted with any of the others, but the result is a real feast of modern music for the operatic stage.

My season began with the Fringe Festival that Boston University's Music and Theater Arts Departments (the latter where I studied Stage Design in the 1960s) put on each year.  Two chamber operas (we are currently in a BIG flowering of chamber in the U.S. because they are modest in scale, easy to produce, and cost vastly less than big opera house operas) began the series:

Jonathan Dove's 1994 Siren Song is a 5 character piece telling the story of a Royal Navy sailor who falls in love with a young and beautiful model via their pen-pal relationship.  Every possible meeting with her is frustrated by word from her brother that she is ill or has been called to London for an unexpected photo shoot, etc. etc.  The model is a character in the opera, appearing and singing her letters to the sailor, seen only by the audience, in the form that he imagines her.   All the while, the brother is collecting money to set up the apartment the sailor and his sister will eventually share.

It's all a scam, of course; there is no sister, the brother is feathering his nest, and the sailor is called up for investigation because of his frequent ship-to-shore calls to a man.  It was a bit of a shock to hear that the Royal Navy would take action against a gay man because the rules have recently been so relaxed that they had a campaign to attract gay couples into the Service.  But this was 1994, and things were different.  The opera ends in sorrow and disillusion as the brother is arrested for fraud and theft while the sailor watches the image of his beloved fade from his eyes.

The music is both lyrical and quite expressive, particularly for the young woman.  With minimal props and excellent lighting, the production was totally satisfying.

The second BU Fringe offering was Nico Muhly's very recent (2011) Dark Sisters that was premiered in Philadelphia and then played New York City to strong reviews.  I was doubly anxious to see it as I have a ticket to Muhly's Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera in November--it premiered to good notices in London two years ago.  I gave a two day symposium on American Opera a year and a half ago and ended it with a profile of Muhly with an eye to the question, "Is he the future of American Opera?"  He's a most interesting young (29) composer whose range spans film music, collaboration with rock bands, a large output of choral and instrumental music, and connections to many other important composers (Philip Glass, currently), music ensembles, and musicians.

Dark Sisters is based on two prominent raids by Federal authorities on polygamous Mormon compounds in which large numbers of children (over 400 in one raid) were seized and placed into protective custody, with charges of sex with under-aged young women brought against the men involved.  The 7 character opera opens in the aftermath of a raid, with five women mourning the loss of their children.  The head of the compound, the "Prophet," urges them to "keep sweet," an actual directive used on wives and daughters in the Mormon Church; he then leaves, supposedly to confront authorities but actually on a jaunt to Las Vegas.  The act closes with an almost 20 minute ensemble by the five women as they process their loss and the openly rebellious stance of one of them.

Act two takes place in a very different culture and musical atmosphere.  The women (now including one's 15 year-old daughter) are on a talk show trying to get the message out to the world that their children should be returned to them, while the host in interested mostly in the more sensational side of polygamy.  The opera ends with The Prophet returning and getting the women back under his thrall, except for the rebellious one who has escaped the compound.  In the final moments, it becomes obvious that the 15 year old is on her way to becoming one of his wives, like her mother before her.

Muhly's music is attractive, dramatic and expressive.  I did think the first act could have been 5 to 10 minutes shorter but basic interest never flagged and the ensemble of women featured some excellent music.  Both Siren Song and Dark Sisters were received enthusiastically by their audiences.

In the coming months, the following operas are scheduled for production in Boston:

Boston Lyric Opera will present the premiere of a new chamber opera version by Jack Beeson of his opera Lizzie Borden, based in Lizzie's famous ax murder of her father and step mother.

Opera Brittenica, a brand new company, will present Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia and The Burning Fiery Furnace.

Intermezzo, The New England Chamber Opera Series will present the premiere of Anne Hutchinson with music by Dan Shore and libretto by Fritz Bell and William Fregosi -- Fritz and me -- our second libretto to be set to music.  I'm also designing the set.

Boston University will present Daniel Catan's magic realism opera Florencia en el Amazonas, based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera.

Boston Opera Collaborative will present Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and the premiere of Mohammed Fairouz's Sumeida's Song.

Odyssey Opera, the reincarnation of Opera Boston will present chamber operas in the spring.  No titles have yet been announced but it is understood that some modern American chamber operas will be involved.

All in all, a varied and extremely encouraging advocacy of new work by a city that is very musically sophisticated.  

Saturday, September 28, 2013

 
Fritz and I have just gotten permission from the Editor/Publisher to adapt a book of letters from and to a young Raymond, NH man, a highly decorated sharpshooter in the Civil War, into a play for voices.   

Unlike the vast majority of soldiers whose hitches were for one or two years, Willy Greene's superior skills were such that he was kept in for all five, seeing action in some of the most important and devastating battles of the war.  His survival was extraordinary because the Confederate armies had big bounties on sharpshooters, and tried to take as many out as possible at each engagement.  But Willy came out alive and eventually moved out west to become a farmer in Oklahoma.

The letters were discovered two decades ago in a concealed drawer in a desk that was being repaired and refinished.  Fritz had the book when we first got together over sixteen years ago and always thought that a performance piece could be made of it.  The fact that we're working with letters makes it easy to produce -- nobody has to memorize anything.  The letters to and from Willy and his Mother, Uncle, Friends, et al. would all be read as in A. R. Gurney's very successful two character play Love Letters.  A narrator will fill in the blanks and provide various facts as necessary.  Only a few rehearsals will be required to set the tone, get people familiar with the material, and comfortable with their characters. 


The idea is to have the play ready for the 250th anniversary of the Town of Raymond next summer, under the auspices of the Raymond Historical Society of which we are members.  A church on the Town Green, where a very handsome version of the typical New England Civil War Memorial stands, will probably be the performance venue.  It would also be offered to other New Hampshire towns for July 4th or Old Home Day celebrations, etc.  The play will not be performed for a fee; the idea is that all performances be community efforts offered without charge (the Editor/Publisher loved the idea and is not asking for any fee or royalties, either).  If audience members want to leave a contribution to their town's Historical Society, fine, but we want Willy Greene's story to be available to everyone who wants to see it, gratis.


  

Monday, September 09, 2013

 

We are given just so many days . . .

There is a sadness about the house these days as the results of Starr's annual physical last week indicate that her life is drawing to a close. 

Fritz and I got her at the Animal Rescue League shelter in Boston's South End in 1997,  just a couple of months after we had met.  We had no idea then that we'd be able to legally marry in seven years in Massachusetts, of course, or that it would be an additional three before we could actually live together.  But Starr was with us all the way.  The tag on her little cage at the shelter read, "Reason for being at ARL: owner incarcerated."   There was no information on how old she might be; she was not a kitten but a young adult cat, lively and curious, with a loud, raucous voice that she used constantly.

We quickly became very close.  I adore cats, which I think they pick up on quickly.  I play with them on the floor and do chase games with them and talk to them and tickle their tummies and just plain love them.  When I took an early retirement from MIT and moved up to New Hampshire, I lived with Fritz in a wing of his house that dates to 1792 while our own new house was being built.  Starr liked it, a new place to explore mark as her territory.  She was a little stand-offish with Fritz at times as she wasn't used to having to share me with him full time, but she eventually softened.




The day we moved into the new house, I opened her carrier in the laundry/deep freezer room where her supplies, litter pan and food dish would be.  She stepped out, looked around and immediately ran behind the washing machine.  This seemed like pretty normal behavior to me and I figured we'd see her in a couple of hours.  But no, in less than a minute, she came striding out, walked confidently through the house, checking everything out, and took firm control.  She took particular control of the kitchen dining area.  I had made new seat pads for the six chairs around the table.  For the first six nights in the house she slept on each of the chairs, in order, all around the table so that they were properly marked.  She was home, as were we.

At the Vet last Friday, they found that for a second year in a row, her weight was down another pound.  The doctor felt her abdomen and said one of her kidneys was smaller than the other and that there was a mass in her bladder.   When they took blood for the lab, she peed on the table -- there was blood in her urine.  The results of the blood test showed that Starr has pancreatitis, which can be the master problem that causes weight loss, the slow shutting down of kidney function and several other problems.  But the mass in the bladder is undoubtedly a cancer.  Saturday she was not herself; she hid in dark corners or under chairs she had formerly stood, sat or slept on whenever she liked.  She didn't eat.  I said to Fritz, "She knows something's up."

The Vet said she was probably reacting to being poked and prodded during the exam and to the blood taking-needle that looked and probably was very uncomfortable.  She began to be more herself Sunday and today is back pretty much to normal, which is comforting to both of us.  But her illnesses remain.  Operating to remove the cancer would probably remove too much of the bladder to leave her a functioning urinary system.  And the kidneys will continue to fail slowly.  I think we will all live together as we have, loving her and taking care of her until such times as I see any sign that she's suffering, or in pain.  Then I will do as I have done with all my cats --  take her to the Vet and go with her into the examining room. hold her and talk to her as they give her the shot, then lay her down gently, and say good-bye with so much gratitude for the joy of having had her in my life.
       

        

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