Saturday, September 29, 2007

 


The week ended up on the hillside with the second of the big trusses raised into position. The attachment on the front face of the king beam is shaped to fit the ends of the four half trusses that come in at angles from the front piers of the great room--they’ll form the gable of the cathedral ceiling.



Planning the exact shape of the kluge of these five trusses occupied the head of the framing crew all week and involved his making a full scale model of the junction out of scrap Douglas Fir (that's Doug Fir to those of us in the house building business).



Otherwise, the big progress has been in the framing of all the remaining walls on the first floor, and the virtual completion of the first floor roof on the west side of the house.

*******

Our Danish friends E and her husband F are enjoying exploring New England, with us as guides. Yesterday we introduced them to the Deerfield Fair, a sprawling combination of old-fashioned agricultural competition, craft fair, and carnival, with acres of Italian sausage, fried dough and sweet potato chip, pizza, cheese steak, and candied apple stands. Four days each year, Deerfield becomes the saturated fat and cholesterol capital of southern New Hampshire.

After the horse pulling competition we left the Fair and headed north to Canterbury, for a tour of the Shaker Village. We’ve been alternating big trip days with more leisurely days spent closer to home. Next week, probably Wednesday, we’ll go further north and see if we can show them some leaf color at or close to peak brilliance.

The last of the Shakeresses in New Hampshire died a decade or so ago in Canterbury (there are four more—the very last—still alive in Maine). The group had been in existence in this country since it's fledgling members arrived in New York City in 1774 from England. At its height in the mid-19th century, the Shakers lived in 19 communities scattered all throughout the northeast and as far west and south as Kentucky.

Noted for their industry and for their eagerness to adopt any beneficial new technology (they held numerous patents on inventions, and had indoor plumbing and flush toilets decades before the rest of the U.S.), Shakers once had a massive business providing flower, herb and vegetable seeds along with dried herbs and holistic medicines throughout the country. Their excellently cut, sewn and exquisitely simple garments sold well with the general public, their women’s hooded cape becoming popular with fashionable women dressing for theater and the opera. The group eventually died out because they lived celibate lives, 20th century young people stopped joining, and state-run orphanages meant that unwanted children were no longer given to Shaker communities.

The Canterbury Shaker Village was transferred to a private trust by the last three surviving Shakeresses, Sisters Bertha, Gertrude and Edith before their deaths, so that future generations would be able to see and appreciate Shaker accomplishments.

*******

We’ve been cooking for each other all this week. I’ve done a lamb tagine and Fritz has done his signature chicken breast in sour cream and rosemary sauce. I’ve also been baking bread frequently, most recently two loaves of Finnish sour rye, each with its own variants on the basic recipe.

I’ve written on this before, but one thing an American learns about Danish very quickly is that very few consonants in Danish are pronounced anything like they are in English. We’re doing desserts for each other, and Fritz will do his excellent version of the Danish classic, rød grød med fløde. The pronunciation is rull grull meh flul-leh with the the Rs rolled in the back of the throat as in German, the double Ls swallowed deep into the throat, and the final leh done with an open mouth and a very flat tongue. Ability to pronounce it correctly is considered a proof of Danishness. Fritz sends E into spasms of laughter each and every time he attempts it.

A couple of nights ago, E made Lagkage. A three [thin] layer cake whose layers are filled with vanilla cream custard and fruit preserves, and whose sides are covered with thick whipped cream. Sometimes melted dark chocolate is drizzled on top or more whipped cream and fruit go on top. E's layers had the taste and something of the slight crunchyness of macaroons. Lagkage, a very popular cake for birthdays and special celebrations in Denmark, is pronounced lau-kay and is absolutely delightful.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

 
Since the marketing run-up to Halloween began here at least two weeks ago, I thought these images of extreme pumpkin carving might be of some interest.



Obviously, it's a pumpkin-eat-pumpkin world these days.



This one is the vegetable world's NSFW entry

*******

We dodged a big bullet this morning at a hastily convened meeting that included the general contractor, the excavator, a supervisor from Public Service of New Hampshire, Fritz and me. We met at the pole PSNH had installed fifteen feet or so from the street to bring the power, TV cable and internet lines onto the property. The lines jump from the pole on the street to my pole, then run down the side and into underground conduits for six hundred feet or so before entering the house up through the slab.

PSNH had rejected the installation of the in-ground conduits by our excavator as not in compliance with their specifications. I'd received the call while about 45 feet in the air on a catwalk, focusing lights for the Inman opera a couple of weeks ago, with PSNH's field representative hinting that the entire installation might have to be dug up and redone. Much of the digging would have to be by hand rather than backhoe so as not to destroy a great deal of the conduit in the ground. It wasn't one of my better moments. But in accordance with the new, more-Zenlike me, I quashed my old tendency to panic and asked for further information and some sort of meeting to find a way out of the situation. However, the field rep went on vacation and the meeting finally got scheduled when his supervisor and I spoke on the phone yesterday.

I didn't know what to expect. In my experience, there's sometimes a great deal more drama in the calls I'd get from PSNH than in the actual problems they'd involve. When we gathered at the pole this morning and began to sort things out, a few interesting details emerged. For one thing, the "birthmark" on the pole, an embossed date and ID code number, was only about two and a half feet above ground level--it's supposed to be five feet. The PSNH crew had set the pole too low. When back-fill over the conduits in their trough was added, to bury them the required three feet, the birthmark was only a foot above ground level.

Once that fact had been established, a couple of others emerged, including one that if the excavator encounters ledge or some other immovable obstacle two feet down, for example, the three foot rule can be finessed. Working from there, the problem unraveled pretty quickly and it was determined that only a small amount of the back-fill, perhaps a foot or fifteen inches, will have to be regraded and neatened up for everything to be just fine.

With all that settled, I thanked everybody for coming, shook hands all around, and Fritz and I proceded up the hill to find that the remaining roof fragment on the west side of the house had its frame in place and that all the interior framing on the first floor that remained to be done was well underway and should be finished by quitting time today.

*******

We're now in the process of choosing any interior lighting fixtures that we don't already own. I brought a large number of my own antique hanging lamps and chandeliers from my house in Boston, so there are only some utility fixtures and two sets of wall sconces that we need to purchase. Given that the house is in a kind of Mission/Frank Lloyd Wright style, I wanted something for the stairwell (that will be lined on one side by book shelves and on the other side by all our CDs), with nice horizontal lines in a simple geometric shape. This one came from an internet lighting site and has gotten positive comments from all the interested parties. Choosing the finishing details is currently one of the most enjoyable parts of the entire construction process.

Monday, September 24, 2007

 
Fritz and I are in host mode for the next two weeks. A Danish couple, friends of his for many years, are visiting with us and we're taking them all around the area to see and do things. They've had us over three times in the last ten years to visit either at their home in Helsing, about an hour north of Copenhagen, or at their summer house in the far west of Denmark, on the wild and beautiful Jutland coast where Issak Dinesen's "Babette's Feast" takes place.

We're cooking for each other (I'm baking lots of bread, which they seem to enjoy very much, and doing a Moroccan lamb Tagine tomorrow night), and generally having a very good time. The still life above occurred last night as dinner was being prepared. They're now joining us on the daily trips up the hill to check out the latest on the new house's development


This shot, taken from the northeast shows the master bedroom wing (foreground, left) and the central core of the house as of today. The extent to which the first floor of the house sits into the ground at the back is highlighted by the fact that the sills of the square lower level windows are actually about five feet three inches above the level of the floor inside.


With one main truss over the great room raised into place and the second one finished and ready to go, work has shifted slightly to finishing the roof on the west (left) side of the house. Shane (aka Shane the Montain Goat for his fearless scampering over steeply pitched roof rafters and high beams with nothing of any kind to hold on to) is working on the area over the mechanical room and side entrance to the house in his preferred state of [un]dress.


Window panels are beginning to trickle in. Seen here are some of the glass brick panels that will alternate with openable clear glass windows. One side of the downstairs shower will be glass brick with a clear glass door--it faces one of the SolaTubes so the shower should be flooded with clear daylight, and at night with moonlight.

Today we all went off to the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, MA which has as its centerpiece an 18th century Chinese house that was dismantled and brought over to give an idea of what a wealthy merchant's house was like during the height of the area's trade with China.


The house is entered through the outer courtyard (above) which was a kind of outdoor work room for the household, the women primarily. You then pass into the high and narrow inner courtyard (below) from which all rooms open on two levels.



The house was sold to the Museum with the agreement that it would be reconstructed exactly as it had looked when in China, so as to placate eight generatins of ancestors who had wanted the house to shelter people in good condition into perpetuity. The final generation had fallen victim to a downward spiral in the family's fortunes that began when a great grandfather was murdered by bandits, continued when one male heir died very young, and worsened when the next head of household squandered what was left of the family's money on perfomances of Chinese Opera. With mock severity, Fritz told me that I must take his example to heart and change my ways. That's SO not going to happen!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

 

19th century painting of the Margaret Garner murders in the highly theatrical style of the period

The opera Margaret Garner turned out to be a very promising contender to enter the repertory rather than suffer the usual syndrome of new American operas--the well-publicized premiere production, mixed reviews, then possibly revision and a second try elsewhere, then nothing. In point of fact, the New York City Opera performances are already the second run for Margaret Garner and when I arrived at the theater in the late afternoon, there were long lines at the box office for the evening’s performance.

What it has is a good story based on an historical event that is close (and troubling still) to the American psyche, a well-structured plot with a good libretto, and a beautiful, sometimes strikingly gorgeous score that sits well for the voice and provides excellent roles that singers should want very much to take on.

Another and possibly decisive factor in favor of Margaret Garner is that it brought into the opera house a part of the American demographic that is generally under-represented there. While the United States has developed a long and distinguished line of black singers who have headlined regularly at the premiere opera houses of the world, opera isn’t an art form that draws a large black audience. But on Thursday that wasn’t the case, and the dynamic between the house and the stage was tangible and exciting. It wouldn’t have mattered quite so much if Margaret Garner hadn’t had the goods, but it did; audience reaction Thursday night was well beyond warmly enthusiastic.

The NY Times review had been mixed, feeling that major, eloquent passages were spread among others that address issues in the libretto inadequately, particularly in terms of tone. The reviewer singled out an aria early in the first act for the slave owner, accusing it of emotional manipulation and a blatant attempt to make the man appear a sympathetic character. His other big complaint was that a duet between Margaret and her husband, on the eve of their separation so he could be “rented out” to another plantation, was warmly and lyrically serene when it should have been agitated and filled with angst.

What he didn’t mention was something that became obvious in the first five minutes of the opera—Toni Morrison, in making the libretto from her novel "Beloved," was not writing grittily realistic dialog. Her language does not attempt to recreate the manner in which slaves might have spoken, nor the flowery and elaborately formal language of the planter class. In the program notes, she speaks of wanting to get into the heads of the characters; both she and composer Richard Danielpour state that while they respect Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, for example, neither of them wanted a work that depicted black Americans from a white viewpoint, but as they saw themselves. As a result, there are many contemplative moments in the score and Morrison brings to these a kind of poetic prose that allows Danielpour to explore a wide, unfettered range of emotions.

Moreover, in bringing the slave owner and his family on the stage, the libretto is careful not to present cardboard, old-style melodrama “villains.” Edward Gaines does thoroughly hateful things but is a whole, fully rounded character with his share of doubts and insecurities. His daughter and son-in-law are part of a new Southern generation deeply troubled by the prevailing attitude toward slavery and individual slaves—to keep the cast list of the opera under control and the plot manageable, they take the place of the large Northern Abolitionist contingent that became active at Margaret’s sensational trial, attempting to convince the Judges that human beings and not property were the subject of the proceedings (they failed--the conviction was for theft of property, not murder).

It is exactly this refusal to go with stereotypes or the easy way out dramatically that I think gives Margaret Garner the strength to last. Morrison states that she’s been asked why she didn’t take her years of research and write a detailed history of the Garner case instead of a novel. She had a great deal of difficulty tracing Margaret through her short, turbulent life (Margaret didn’t die of hanging but of typhus several years after her murder of the children; her husband Robert told the whole story to the press after Emancipation and the end of the Civil War).

Morrison found only ghostly references to the slaves on plantation lists, with no names, merely a listing like, female aged 17, not insane, not physically deformed, not weak, not troublesome—so much of what they weren't but little or none of what or who they actually were. She invented Margaret’s death by suicide on the gallows because Margaret clearly showed a desire to escape slavery by this method when the trial was over and she was being transported by riverboat to another plantation. She leapt over the side with another of her children in her grasp during a winter storm, but both were rescued and returned to servitude. It was this determination to escape by whatever means, no matter how extreme, that led Morrison to novelize the story in order to examine Margaret in psychological depth.



The production was smart, beautifully directed and performed with Tracy Luck as a luminous Margaret, Gregg Baker a tower of strength as Robert, and with a close to star performance by Lisa Daltirus as Margaret’s mother-in-law Cilla. I suspect that Margaret Garner will "have legs" and be seen in other houses around the country in years to come.

*******

Raspberries are ripening at a couple of pints a day now. Picking them is one of the pleasures of the late afternoon these days when the trees shade the berry patch and the bees work the new flowers that come constantly on the bushes. They take little notice of us, they and we each going about our own business without bothering each other.

The pictures are of one of the berry clusters and of the little stand of Christmas trees we planted next to the raspberries and blueberries. One of the larger ones may be the tree in the new house for the holidays this year.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

 

I'm on my way to New York City in half an hour, but we got lucky today and arrived on the site just in time to see the first of the big trusses for the cathedral ceiling lifted over the great room and dropped into place. The horizontal beam is 26 feet long and the height of the truss at the peak is just about seven feet. Some shots taken from another camera showing the procedure from the roof of our bedroom should be available for posting soon.

I'm seeing "Margaret Garner" at New York City opera tonight, set to an adaptation of Toni Morrison's "Beloved." The story deals with a historical pre-Civil War) slave woman who killed her child rather than see it grow up in slavery. Her trial was largely taken up with the issue of whether the crime was murder (the killing of a person) or theft (taking of a piece pf property--the child--away from the slave owner). Garner was sentenced to hang. In the opera, the owner arrives just before the hanging with orders from the governor to stay the execution and turn Margaret over to him--she then pulls the lever herself and dies a suicide by hanging rather than return to slavery.

It's not your usual operatic plot. It should be extremely interesting. Comment and maybe pictures to follow.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

 

I spent the middle of the day in Boston Monday putting the furniture and prop items from The Inman Diaries production back into MIT’s storage. I had a kind of Emily in Act 3 of “Our Town” moment, a feeling that I was in a familiar place but separated from it all at the same time, that I was an alien in what had once been my home.

Nothing that any of my friends and former colleagues did or said kept me at arm’s length in any way. I was greeted with enthusiasm and hugs. On the contrary, I was the one who felt distanced, wondering how freely and familiarly I should treat tools and computers and other objects that four month ago were ”mine.” The feeling eased as I got everything put way, but I was aware that I’d gone through a life passage and that in ways both great and subtle, everything has changed.

My time at MIT was followed by lunch with a close friend in Somerville’s Davis Square at the Rosebud Diner. I’ve got a real soft spot in my heart for diner and bar food. It’s generally good, cheap, and plentiful and frequently served by great old waitresses who serve up meatloaf and fruit pies with equal amounts of humor and attitude.

I try to locate diners wherever I go. When I first met Fritz, he introduced me to the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, NH, noted hangout for the city’s politicians. We were there again just last week for breakfast after a trip to his HMO. When we’re on the road I frequently suggest we find diners for breakfast or lunch. They’re old fashioned, comfortable and comforting, like the food they serve.

My next goal when we travel is to stay at a place that has individual cabins rather than a modern motel unit. I loved staying in cabins as a kid and want to do it again.

*******

The reviews have started coming out for The Inman Diaries. We knew the work was popular—we got audiences larger than ever before and public response was strong. So far, the Boston Globe and Edge Boston—a gay-oriented ezine—have published reviews; both praised the music enthusiastically but were rather hard on the libretto.

The singers got a lot of well-deserved praise, and the Globe felt that our young director’s “clean, unobtrusive staging keeps the drama in focus.” The Globe also acknowledged the company’s unique mission to premiere new works: “Intermezzo is an invaluable champion of new opera: "The Inman Diaries" is its sixth premiere in five seasons.
And there are some fine things in the work. [Composer Thomas Oboe] Lee coaxes some rich sounds from the seven-piece orchestra (conducted with sturdy clarity by James Busby); he has a flair for gently tipping simple, triadic folk- and hymn-like harmonies into the more melancholy opulence of classic American popular song.”

Edge Boston’s Kilian Melloy was even more enthusiastic about everything (but the libretto), and had this comment on my work:
“The lighting was moody, affecting, sometimes mysterious: the set, with gemlike islands of furniture scattered about a space defined by heavy black curtains (fitting for Inman, who prized quiet and employed heavy drapes to shut out light and muffle sound) was like a collage from memory, or a scrapbook come to fully dimensional life; thank William A. Fregosi for both the lighting and the set.”

This production was my first time designing in Boston without a base (a fully equipped shop of my own) to work from, but with proper organization and preparation I now am sure it can be done. Intermezzo and I are both interested in my designing for the company well into the future and that’s something I’m looking forward to with much happiness.

*******

From a group of relationship jokes sent by a friend:
Question: Why is it so hard for women to find men who are sensitive, caring, good-looking and great lovers? 

Answer: Because those men already have boyfriends
.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

 
There haven’t been any reviews in the print media yet, but if the strong response to The Inman Diaries on Friday night is any indication, people liked and responded enthusiastically to the new opera.

Of course, that response may not be a fair indication, since premieres habitually bring out friends and supporters of the creative team and singers, along with contributors who’ve underwritten the commission or production. Large numbers of all those people were on hand Friday, partially because our star, Ray Bauwens, and composer Thomas Oboe Lee both have large local followings, and partially because Intermezzo has attained greater visibility and audience credibility since the strong reception for our “Curlew River” production last year.

Fritz came down for the premiere with me, which meant so much—his second opera in two months—and he said he got a lot out of it.

The performance went well Friday night—very well. One or two lighting cues happened a couple of seconds too early or just a bit too fast but there were no other lighting mishaps—a big relief given the problems we’d experienced during rehearsals. In fact, the only thing that went wrong was the failure of the gun to fire at the very end, signaling Arthur Inman’s suicide. We were bailed out by music director and conductor James Busby, who signaled our percussionist to give a sharp stroke on the side drum--and the opera was over.

There were multiple curtain calls including, for the first time by this company, one for the production team. I made sure to wear the tan split cowhide vest that always seems to draw favorable comment, not that I’m a compliment whore or anything, you understand. Then the four Cs--creators, contributors, cast and crew—were treated to dark chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne, my kind of party above all others

I sat out last night’s performance because we had a Sweat Lodge gathering scheduled, and with rain having fallen several days this past week we didn’t have to cancel it for fire danger as we had to on Labor Day weekend. It was an intimate gathering, seven of us including a welcome newcomer. At dinner afterward, we were serenaded with the Courante from one of Bach’s suites for solo cello, by a handsome young violist who played naked—a sweet, magical moment.

The third and final performance of the Inman Diaries run begins today at 3pm. The size of the audience today will be a good indication of how word of mouth may or may not have been effective in generating ticket sales. I’ll be there, and as soon as the opera ends, we strike the production and pack all the furniture and props into my Cherokee and the company founder-director’s Grand Cherokee. We then load it back into MIT’s prop storage and the production is officially over.

Sometime next spring, dates to be determined, we premiere another newly commissioned piece that’s being composed now, perhaps in the music room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, whose style and furnishings are perfect for an opera set in the parlor of a Beacon Hill townhouse. My attention now turns full time to the Mozart Symposium in October. And the new house, of course.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

 

The roof joists are up over the master bedroom wing, as seen above. One thing I can tell you is that this house is BUILT. The heaviness and solidity of the framing is really impressive. The windows begin arriving tomorrow (Friday) for installation sometime late next week.

*******

Final dress rehearsal for The Inman Diaries went very well last night. Lamps in the lighting instruments are still blowing out with unusual frequency, which is frustrating the hell out of the theater’s lighting technician who can’t get to the bottom of the problem, to say nothing of me. I sat there Wednesday night as we went through the two acts watching a light go dark every now and then, including one that went with a loud, shattering crash—the quartz lamp had simply exploded inside the instrument. Unnerving, to say the least.

Personally, I think a large part of it is in the big Strand lighting control board that seems to have a roaring case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It clearly has several favorite instruments in its electronic head that it wants to be in the production whether we want them or not. We noticed the problem after the first technical rehearsal, during which we’d set all the light cues, entering which instruments, and at what light level we wanted them, into each light cue. We archived the entire cue sequence, then began to shut the board down only to get a “Warning: show not saved” message. It took almost ten minutes of alternate archiving procedures to get the cues secured before we could shut down safely and leave.

BUT, the next time we fired up the board for a rehearsal, there were extra instruments that appeared in almost all the cues. Not only that, we’d programmed our light levels according to Strand’s scale of 0 (no light) to 100 (full light), and I only ever ask for five point increments, calling for levels like 45 or 70 or 30. The cues came up with levels like 41 or 67 or one remarkable level of 4, which you almost certainly would never detect, even by holding a sheet of white paper in front of the instrument.

We got everything corrected and all the instruments equipped with viable lamps (that’s bulbs to you guys, but they’re officially lamps in the theater) and had a fine rehearsal—but it’s anybody’s guess what the light board will give us during the opening performance on Friday!

*****

We drove to Portsmouth tonight for the Edith Piaf biopic "La Vie on Rose." Marion Cotillard stars as Piaf and is simply extraordinary in a totally committed, tremendous performance. Among her many skills, her lip-synching is the finest I've ever seen from an actor--it is literally impossible to detect that she isn't actually singing the many songs used in the movie, all of which feature actual Piaf recordings.

It's a difficult movie to watch in places, not because of any faults in acting or direction but because Piaf's life was a hard one, a tale of woe from beginning to end. Moreover, Cotillard and some excellent make-up artists approached the wreckage of Piaf's body from drugs and alcohol with unrelenting honesty, with no atempt at sentimentality or prettying up the truth to allow a star to remain glamorous

After a good, inexpensive dinner at a 1950s bistro named Friendly Toast (I had a vegan wrap with the finest french fried sweet potatoes I've ever eaten) we grabbed coffee and dessert at a new coffee house along Congress Street and then headed to the Portsmouth Music Hall for the movie. The Music Hall has just reopened from the restoration of the dome over the auditorium. For years it was a shabby, whitewashed mess. Gradually throughout the spring, more and more of the original painting emerged from test areas that had been cleaned to determine if the original painting had surviverd at all; it was discovered to be pretty much intact under all that calcium overpainting.

Tonight the dome was finally revealed in all its considerable beauty, now fully retouched and restored. Unfortunately, pictures of the finished dome haven't hit the web yet; shown here is a patch of the original painting emerging from the whitewash.

There are still some areas of the building that need work but the main auditorium is now close to being completely transformed BACK into the handsome late-Victorian ornamentation and finishing detail meant for it by its original architect, ornamental plasterworkers and painters.

A large project to come will be the complete overhaul of stage machinery and lighting. The building as a whole needs more structural reinforcement, and a new layout for public spaces is also in the cards as soon as sufficient funding is in place.

As for "La Vie en Rose," it's a fine piece of work with an excellent cast and some particulrly vivid characterizations. And you get to hear lots and lots of vintage Piaf, which is a very good thing indeed.

*******

Friday afternoon update: We're getting very strong advance publicity on The Inman Diaries--here's the music article in today's Boston Globe:


Classical Notes
One man's 17 million words inspire an opera
By David Weininger, Globe Correspondent September 14, 2007
A man sits in a dark room in his Back Bay apartment and writes. He is writing a diary, one that will eventually grow to some 17 million words that cover in exhaustive detail his life, times, and individual pathologies, as well as those of several people he has invited into his gloomy domicile to talk.

This may not sound like promising material for drama, let alone opera. Yet the diary of Arthur Crew Inman, a notorious recluse and one of Boston's great eccentrics, has already been transformed into a play: "Camera Obscura" by Lorenzo DeStefano. Tonight the chamber opera company Intermezzo premieres "The Inman Diaries," an opera by Thomas Oboe Lee based on the play and on Inman's colossal diary.

Lee, a biography fan, stumbled on a two-volume edition of the diary while browsing in a Cambridge bookstore; the complete edition runs to 155 volumes. The further he read, the more Lee thought, "This thing might work," he recalls by phone from his home in Cambridge.

Born in 1895 to wealthy Southerners, Inman suffered some sort of breakdown while at Haverford College. Though he always claimed his ailments were physical rather than mental, he developed serious phobias to light and noise, and he spent virtually his entire life in a heavily curtained room on Garrison Street. (He also rented the three surrounding apartments to ensure quiet.)

His family's wealth made it unnecessary for him to work, so he could concentrate on his life's ambition, which was to become famous. Having failed to secure his immortality through writing poetry, he set out in 1919 to keep a journal of himself and his times, complete and completely candid.

There was an obvious problem: How does a recluse and self-described "semi-invalid" gather material beyond his own penchants and propensities? Inman hit on the idea of advertising in Boston papers for "readers": men and women who would come to his apartment and tell him about their lives. Their stories are mundane, exotic, tedious, and often weirdly absorbing; they also offer a fascinating portrait of a world and a city that were experiencing profound and often calamitous changes.
The readers allowed Inman pleasures both vicarious and immediate. (He seduced some of the female participants, a situation his long-suffering wife knew of and accepted.) And the readers, along with a succession of doctors and domestic servants, fill out Inman's strange world in a way that makes it suitable for dramatic treatment.

"For an opera character, here's this guy who's larger than life in terms of what he did with his diary," says Lee, who acknowledges that the diary makes for disturbing reading, as randomly chosen quotations bear out: "Last night, lying awake, I was wondering just why I do fall so thoroughly for young girls"; "My Lord, but that Hitler is an astute man."

Lee says he tried to find depth to Inman's character, driven by his mania for recording everything in his sight. "What I try to portray in the opera is not just a portrait of this creepy guy, but I also try to find the humanity in him - this complex person who in many ways was honest with himself, at least," he says.

To create "The Inman Diaries," Lee, librettist Jesse Martin, and Intermezzo artistic director John Whittlesey sat down with a one-volume edition of the diary called "From a Darkened Room," as well as DeStefano's play, and plotted the sequence of scenes. The action is largely concerned with Inman's interactions with his motley supporting crew, though Martin's text also interweaves his thoughts on current issues, such as his contempt for Roosevelt's New Deal and unease at the prospect of the new Prudential Center across the street from his apartment.

Lee composed the entire 100-minute opera in about four months. The chamber orchestra has seven instruments, and there are nine vocal roles. Lee's music is tonal and liberally spiced with elements of jazz, which lies deep in his musical background, as well as inflections of blues, tango, and bossa nova. "American composers don't appreciate the advanced harmonic language jazz has provided for this culture, and I think it's to their detriment," he says.

Inman committed suicide in 1963. The legacy he left is troubling and unwieldy, yet also strangely foresighted. In an age when people spill their entire lives into blogs and YouTube videos, Inman looks almost like a prophet. "The Inman Diaries" gives his confessions another chance to reach the public he so desperately craved.

Tonight through Sunday at Tower Auditorium Theater, Massachusetts College of Art. 617-899-4261, intermezzo-opera.org

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

 
Rain is finally falling here with enough volume to make having a Sweat gathering safe this Saturday. Our framing crew didn’t come to work yesterday because of the weather but did a lot of pre-cutting done at their shed. So this morning when Fritz and I went up the hillside in a light misty drizzle, they were finished with the horizontal rafters of the master bedroom wing and had done at least half of the plywood sheathing on the lowest pitch of the big roof, the last section of it to be fully covered.

I slipped out at about quarter to noon to get a quick haircut at a place in Raymond that advertises styling. The proprietor struck me as family as soon as I walked; when I got in the chair and he struck up a conversation about the metal in my captured ball earrings, I figured it was a slam dunk. We got along well, the cut looks better than the ones I used to get in Cambridge, and when I walked back into Fritz’s Center the first thing both he and his office manager did was comment on what a great cut he’d given me. So, along with becoming established at an excellent auto maintenance and repair shop that’s virtually within walking distance, I’ve found a barber/stylist who’s got the goods.

*******

The Inman Diaries opera opens this Friday evening, plays again on Saturday evening, and closes Sunday afternoon, after which we strike the set and load out. My colleagues at MIT told me I have lifetime rights to borrow, not rent, from the stock of props and furniture that I protected and expanded during my time there. Since none of them is willing to put in the time and effort I did to running a rental business, the stock will no longer be open to the Boston-area professional and academic theater and opera groups that had come to depend on it. I was told yesterday by one of Boston’s other scenic designers that as news of the closing spread, there’s been real concern among these companies, but I can understand my colleagues’ reluctance to take the job on. It requires a LOT of time and energy and I’m very grateful that I’ll have access for as long as I maintain my position as designer for the Intermezzo Chamber Opera Company.

The opera sounds very good. The music is melodic in a confident, late-Romantic style. And composer Thomas Oboe Lee (great name for a musician) knows how to write a scene, how to write not just good music but theatrical music. Our music director has been flogging the cast (not literally, fun though that might be with a couple of the guys) for greater clarity with their consonants and I’m getting a good 75% of the text at this point in rehearsals. It should all be even clearer by the time we open.

Tonight and tomorrow night are technical rehearsals. I spent the afternoon yesterday crawling on catwalks above the Mass College of Art theater focusing lights. The College actually doesn’t use the theater for performances of their own, just for lectures and the occasional mass meeting. As a result, they really don’t stock a lot of materials and equipment and the lighting system is just a bit ramshackle these days. We’ll see if the big Strand lighting control board actually saved the light cues that were recorded into it yesterday—difficulties were being experienced, but I was assured everything was OK. If it isn’t, it will be a far more pressured tech tonight because everyone wants to go through the entire opera without stopping if at all possible.

Tickets are apparently selling in advance at about three times the rate they normally do, and four Boston-area papers, as of last count, had told the company’s Director that they were sending critics. Some time later in the fall J, the company’s Director, the Music Director, and I will get together (hopefully over dinner and a bottle or two of good wine) and lay out the works to be performed for the next three seasons. J tells me that his desk now has a pile of scores sent unsolicited by composers who would very much like to have us premiere their works. Our little company’s getting up in the world.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

 
The return of extreme heat and humidity on Friday didn’t slow down the framing crew one bit. As you can see, all the joists and plywood sheathing are now finished on the roof, and the crane dropped the copper-topped cupola onto it late Friday morning.


This is the view from the southeast, taken at the end of the workday yesterday, In the middle of the picture is the first part of the great room's side walls to be framed.


And here's the "profile" view, taken from the east. In the foreground, the bedroom/exercise room/sauna wing has most of its rafters in place and framing for its roof should begin this coming week.


This view inside the pyramidal roof shows what will be our main—and very generous--storage space. If you look through the open stud wall on the right, you’ll see the framed rectangle in the exterior roof joists that will support the skylight once the plywood is cut out of the frame.

We’re now two weeks away from having the windows installed. Roofers are expected on Monday or Tuesday to shingle the big roof, which will make the two story central pavilion of the house essentially weatherproof, thereby providing the framers with a secure place to work even if it should rain.

Rain—something we need desperately. Soil has gone the consistency of dust here and everything’s beginning to droop (well not EVERYTHING—there’s been some very pleasant wake-up sex recently but you know what I mean). No permits are being issued for burning by the local fire stations and I think there’s very little hope for the next Sweat Lodge gathering that‘s scheduled for a week from today.


I got blindsided by this. It's the electric meter for the house and one of the most ugly things I've ever seen. Worse, it's going to be about the first thing people visiting us see as they come up the final part of the road leading up to the house. Efficiency, 10. Taste and style, -5. Something's going to have to be done, and I think it'll involve adding some trellis panels and a climbing ornamental vine--a very dense vine. I'm open to suggestions from my faithful readers.

*******

In case anyone thinks of me as a suave urban type, I got up this morning, put a shoe from one pair on my right foot and a shoe from a different pair on my left foot. I then went out happily into the world. At least they were approximately the same color.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

 
Yesterday I drove down to Boston and began my part of the job in Intermezzo’s production of “The Inman Diaries” by moving furniture and props into the Massachusetts College of Art theater. During the staging rehearsal last night I got a good sense of the director’s use of stage areas. I also climbed up high over the auditorium, walking the lighting catwalks to inventory the available equipment and map where instruments are hung.

Acoustically, the space is far better than we'd feared. While it certainly helps that we have several cast members with large and/or well focused voices that project very well, you can’t fake acoustics if a space is badly designed or made of the wrong materials—and opera is an art form in which amplification is not tolerated.

The MassArt auditorium in the school’s Tower Building became infamous even before it opened, as the theater from whose Balcony you cannot see the stage. I haven’t had a chance to get onto the Balcony yet, but I do know that audience is never seated there and its only use is as a position for a projector and a couple of lighting instruments. Apparently the Balcony’s problem is some combination of insufficient pitch to the seats and a concrete front rail that’s way too high.

I’ll spend the day in Boston again tomorrow pulling more furniture and small prop items from MIT’s stock where I’m no longer part of the Theater Section but a rental client like so many of Boston’s prop masters and designers who used to come to me to furnish their productions.

So, how do I like my new status and career? I LOVE it. Designing for Intermezzo’s productions is the only theatrical design job I’m keeping in this phase of my career, and they do only two productions a year. For the rest, I’m enjoying my research, reading, doing outdoor work on the property—and taking part in the construction of the new house.

*******

Speaking of which, yesterday morning we heard a cement truck going up the new road just after 7am, and dropped work on breakfast to go up after it. We arrived on site just as the first cement was coming down the chute for the final section of the slab—the great room and the entrance vestibule. This is the section that had to have hand-troweled expansion joints. We went up the hill a couple of times before noon just to watch the process and the result is very fine indeed. All these photos were taken yesterday morning.



Close-up of the finished joints before the final smoothing and finishing of the top surface. This morning when we went to the site, the concrete surface was beautifully polished.






The only structure missing from the roof now is the square, copper-topped ventilation cupola. With luck, it will have been dropped into place by my next post. The roof joists had been finished as of this morning and by tonight, the entire roof should be sheathed in plywood. The plan is to shingle the high roof and make the central, two-story mass weatherproof, then move forward to roof the great room (a big job--the roof trusses will be built on Fritz's parking lot) and our bedroom wing.

One of the two Shanes up on the roof, which has three pitches, progressively steeper as you go up. At the moment, everybody comments on how "Asian" the roof looks and it's not unlike some Indonesian or Japanese roofs I've seen.

*******

Luciano Pavarotti died during the night of pancreatic cancer, in Italy at age 71. All the big news shows reported his final day's decline and passing. He was a huge media phenom, a man who wasn't handsome, wasn't slender or elegant, but one who communicated very directly to his public, seemingly one fan at a time. Anne Midgett summed it up in a quote for the Today Show, saying that he was cuddly, a teddy bear and very human.

The quality of the voice was extremely high and in the early phases of his career it was both beautiful and controlled by a rock solid technique. One of his great achievements was the care and preservation of the voice even as he began to take on material way too heavy for this lyric tenor. Toward the end the tone tried out a bit and the range shortened but the central core held and held.

With time he joined the Three Tenors circus and began to bridge opera and pop. The media this morning reported this as some sort of breakthrough for an opera star, totally ignorant of the mixed careers of singers from a hundred years ago when soprano Alma Gluck became rich by selling two million copies of "Carry me back to old Virginny" on fragile shellac 78rpm discs, or when the major part of the last six years of Enrico Caruso's recorded output were popular and "salon" songs in various languages. Those singers didn't "cross over" as much as include all kinds of music in their recitals and recording activities as a matter of course.

Luciano kept on taking high-visibility opera engagements for about five years too long, leading to some embarrasing major cancellations. But when you've had that kind of career, it's hard to let go.

One thing none of the news anchors has mentioned--and it was a huge part of Pavarotti's communicative skill--was his forty year public love affair with the Italian Language. The words were important to him, not something that had to be endured in order to get The Voice some material to perform. The vowels were round, rich and caressed by the tone, the consonants crisp. well projected--but nothing was mannered or over-pronounced. He was a larger-than-life personality and talent and he gave enormous pleasure. Addio, Maestro.

Monday, September 03, 2007

 
Here are a couple of news items from the mid-west that are striking developments for the region. In Iowa, the District Court in Polk County has ruled in a suit brought before it by six gay and lesbian couples and the usual battery of lawyers, with the backing of advocacy groups. Polk County Judge Robert Hanson ruled Thursday that Iowa’s Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed marriage only between a man and a woman, violated the constitutional rights of due process and equal protection of the couples who had sued.

The accompanying photo was taken seconds after Sean Fritz and Tim McQuillan were married by Rev. Mark Stringer, standing at the right, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Opponents almost immediately said they will appeal and the next step is to bring the case before Iowa’s Supreme Court. The state’s governor and legislative leaders have said there will be action in January when the new legislative session opens. But this is Iowa, apparently a bit more liberal than I had thought; Fritz and McQuillan and one or two others were legally married before Judge Hanson’s ruling was stayed to allow the appeal process to begin. The result of the appeal will be worth watching for.

And here’s this from Missouri:


A Missouri state senator abruptly declares himself a Democrat, angrily citing the influence of social conservatives.
By Stephanie Simon, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
September 3, 2007

RAYMORE, MO. -- Talk about a nasty divorce. In an announcement last month that left Missouri politicos agape, state Sen. Chris Koster, a rising Republican star and chairman of the Senate's GOP caucus, abruptly declared himself a Democrat. Not only did Koster join the marginalized minority party in Missouri, but he did so with a thundering speech that lambasted his former colleagues as ignoring the needs of their constituents and slavishly following the dictates of "religious extremists."

The former prosecutor denounced several Republican positions he had once supported, such as steep cuts in Medicaid coverage and subsidized family-planning programs. But Koster reserved his harshest criticism for GOP efforts to overturn a voter-approved constitutional amendment that protects embryonic stem-cell research in Missouri.

"The Republican desire is to criminalize early-stage stem-cell research in our state," Koster said in a speech he repeated three times as he hopscotched across the state. "Go to Boston for your Nobel Prize; come to Missouri for your leg irons. And the Missouri Republican Party not only tolerates this lunacy, but embraces it," Koster said.

Days later, one of his staffers updated his website -- by deleting a photo of Koster shaking hands with Vice President Dick Cheney.

Koster's decision stunned Republicans here in his district just south of Kansas City and across this quintessential swing state. "There's no precedent for it in the state of Missouri," said GOP consultant Paul Zemitzsch. But the move sounded like deja vu just across the state line in Kansas.

Three prominent Kansas Republicans moved into the Democratic column in late 2005 and 2006, voicing similar concerns about the influence of social conservatives. One of those defectors was elected attorney general. Another -- who once chaired the Kansas Republican Party -- now serves as lieutenant governor.

Political analysts don't expect a cascade of party-swappers in Missouri. As political scientist David Webber put it: "I'll be darned surprised if anyone follows [Koster's] example."

But they say the move does point at how effectively social and religious conservatives dominate the Republican Party across several Midwest states -- and how frustrating that can be to self-styled moderates who would prefer to focus on economic issues. "That's been true for a decade," said Webber, a professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

Missouri elder statesman and former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth last year wrote a book on the subject. "Faith in Politics" called on the GOP to shake free of the religious right. Danforth is now trying to translate those words into action by leading a national coalition of GOP moderates called the Republican Leadership Council.

Koster knows that many in Missouri would have preferred it if he, like Danforth, had stayed with the GOP despite his differences. "It's a disappointment to lose him," said former state Sen. Betty Sims, who had her own battles with the religious right but remained Republican. But after three years of feeling out of sync with his own party, Koster, 42, said he couldn't take it any longer.

The final straw, he said, came this spring when his colleagues overturned a state law requiring public schools to give students comprehensive, medically accurate information on sexually transmitted diseases and birth control. Districts may now focus exclusively on abstinence. "I knew at that moment," Koster said. "For me, leaving was the right, the moral thing to do."


We don’t normally hear of Republican disenchantment with religious conservatism and I find it encouraging to hear that there’s a movement away from its tyranny over the opinions of voters, and the consciences of politicians

*******

The framing crew worked only a half day on Friday but did manage to almost finish this piece of work before they headed off for the holiday weekend. It's the top section of the upper roof of the house. A louvered square, copper-topped coupola fits into the top of it to hold the fans and other devices that will control the ventilation of the house. When the guys arrived for the Work and Play weekend, we took them up to the site and walked them through the house, top to bottom. To a man, each one of them told me that there has to be at least one skylight in the attic level because of the spectacular views from up there. We hadn't planned on one, but it does seem like a wonderful idea.

Several of our friends reported seeing the large family of wild turkeys that had been spotted on the property by one of the other residents. There are apparently a dozen turkeys, more or less--one male and the rest females and children. Fritz is pissed because he hasn't seen any of them, ever, and he thinks that as owner of the property they should have shown themselves off to him by now. For the record, I haven't seen them either.

We had a moderate sized list of things to get done but a couple of the items were very big. Cleaning up this big field pine along the road up to the new house requied some skillful chain saw work. Parts of it were dead, and large brancheshad come down and were caught as you see them in the "before" picture.
It would have been nice to save a bit more of its wonderfully sculptural shape, but it's best to get rid of all the dead wood to protect the rest. We also cleared the site for the new septic system of poplar, pine, oak and shagbark hickories in just under three hours on Saturday morning, aided no end by the cool, bright weather.

Another job involved taking an old shag carpet out of one of the break-out rooms on the second floor of the Center and replacing it with a rather more practical broadloom remnant that had to be cut and fitted into place.
More than anything else, cutting and splitting into firewood the big pile of tree trunks we'd felled last year to clear the new road and house site was number one priority. By the end of the weekend we'd managed to process and stack at least a cord and a half of wood in addition to what was already on hand--about 90% of what we need to get throught the winter.

We're blessed with great men in our lives. We worked hard, but also had a good deal of fun and ended the summer in fine style.

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