Monday, December 29, 2008
I took a picture of this family heirloom while down at my cousin's home in New Jersey a week ago. It is one of the many, many pieces carved by my grandfather Alessandro, the marble sculptor from Carrara in northwest Italy.
I had a second meeting today in Boston with the director of the next opera production I'm designing, Riders to the Sea by Ralph Vaughn Williams. It's a short one act piece based on a play by Irish author J.M.Synge that takes place on one of the Aran Islands. It's filled with fatalism, and is in one of the many styles that grew up following--and in opposition to--realism.
The "action" takes place in a peasant cottage where Maurya, who has lost her husband, her husband's father and four of her sons to the sea, finds out that her missing fifth son who has vanished has been identified by pieces of clothing floating in the sea. The body of her sixth and last is borne in near the end of the work, which she ends with a powerful incantation-like elegy over the body while declaring that it is over for her, the sea having taken all it can from her and she is now at rest.
It must sound appallingly grim in that telling but in point of fact there's something powerfully cathartic in it. The director and I discussed from the beginning of our very first meeting that there are huge, mythic aspects to the piece and that it relates closely to Greek Tragedy (a fact that has been long since recognized by critics and dramaturgs. As she puts it, most audiences who go to it expect a "little play" in one realistic set, with a small cast and one basic mood and neither of us feels that is what it's about.
I designed Riders a couple of decades ago and the set I designed in response to that director's concept used elements of realism but the general feeling is almost of Japanese Noh drama with that massive beam hanging oppressively over everyone. I'll be posting the new designs in about two weeks and they will be totally removed from anything approaching realism and will investigate pre-Christian Celtic ritual, which is what is really going on in the deceptively simple written text. Vaughn Williams's powerful score also supports such an interpretation, we feel. Watch this space.
A few of us who were particular admirers of the recently deceased Eartha Kitt have been in contact after seeing each others' blog tributes, but there is one important piece of Ms Kitt's early work that I remember vividly but have not seen mentioned in any obituary or tribute in any medium. After digging through various searches, I finally came up with the following:
Best known in 1955 as a sultry singer, Eartha Kitt returned to her dancing roots in this hour-long TV adaptation of Oscar Wilde's one-act play Salome. In one of his earliest TV appearance, Martin Landau costars as the prophet Jokanaan, better known as John the Baptist. When he denounces King Herod (Leo Genn) for marrying his brother's divorced wife Herodias (Patricia Neal), Jokanaan is thrown into prison on Herodias' orders.
By chance, Jokanaan's incarceration coincides with a visit from Salome (Eartha Kitt), Herodias' daughter from her earlier marriage. Attracted to the charismatic prophet, Salome is outraged when Jokanaan spurns her. Small wonder, then, that Salome agrees to perform the celebrated Dance of the Seven Veils for her uncle Herod if he will grant her one little request: The head of Jokanaan, served on a platter. Forsaking the familiar music from Richard Strauss' opera version of Salome, this production offers a newly orchestrated score.
A live presentation of the prestigious Sunday-afternoon NBC anthology Omnibus (where it originally shared the bill with a concert by musical satirist Anna Russell), Salome exists today in kinescope form in a handful of private collections. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide
Some of you may recognize the names of actors who were, or who were to become, very prominent among the supporting cast. Eartha, of course did her own dance of the Seven Veils and was quite sensational in the part. I was young and had never heard of Wilde before, but while watching Kitt, I realized I was experiencing something extraordinary. Omnibus was hosted by Alistair Cooke and was up for just about any subject in the arts, history, culture in general--and all broadcast live, as was a lot of other drama at the time.
One cast member Mr. Erickson doesn't mention I found in another source, and it came as quite a jolt. In a relatively small role was the very young--just sixteen--and beautiful Sal Mineo (credited then as Salvatore Mineo). This means that his performance on this major national live telecast came just six years after the New York City Police had picked him up in the Bronx in a sweep of notorious gang members.
Because he was so young, the Judge who must have been extremely prescient, read the riot act to the boy and then offered him a choice between juvenile prison or probation if he joined a very demanding theater program in acting and dance. Although only ten years old, he made the right choice.
Sal would live to appear in a number of very important movies, and would die in Hollywood way too young at the hands of a knife-wielding mugger.